Out of Nowhere Into Nothing


A Lethal Toothpick—Bad CGI—War Stories—“Moving But Formless”—

What Is An Emotion?—February Arrests—Jim & Pam


In March of 1941, Sherwood Anderson, 64 at the time, could be found aboard a cruise ship to South America with his fourth wife, Eleanor Gladys Copenhaver, when he knocked back a martini whose olive’s toothpick would, over the course of the night, make its way almost completely through the internal piping of his throat, stomach, and intestines before—in the so-called home-stretch—puncturing his colon and sending him into a fevered shock of infection and inflammation (later diagnosed as peritonitis) that would—two days later in a military hospital located in the aptly named Colón, Panama—kill him, or so I think I remember correctly from a poorly made reenactment of the event on late night cable in the basement of my friend D.’s parents’ house in West Des Moines one summer almost a decade ago. The program was called something like “The Dramatic Deaths of Celebrities” or “How Famous People Pass,” and when I search for it now I find very little evidence of its existence, though I could never forget the CGI graphic of a slim slow-motion stick—a poky cocktail prop—sailing through the poorly drawn canals of what was supposed to represent the inside of—everyone’s? anyone’s?—intestines as it slid awkwardly around the body’s bends like a panicked child down a waterslide. At the time I had only ever read the most popular of Anderson’s works—Winesburg, Ohio—and had yet to become familiar with his more obscure stories or underrated and remarkable poetry (to Eleanor he once wrote “I really want only to write poetry but do not want to be called a poet. To be known as a poet is rather too much like being known as a lover.”); I had yet to reside in the city he was from (Cleveland), value liquor with accessories, or discover Anderson’s ongoing correspondence with Gertrude Stein, although I did know of Ms. Stein’s connection to William James (she had been a student of his in the Harvard Psychology Department), adding to the ongoing series of odd associations among writers that at first might appear coincidental but upon reflection is inevitable and perhaps even obvious. I recognized Anderson as a B-list early 20th century writer (he was in fact a major inspiration to Hemingway and Faulkner, both of whom he initially helped publish), but when one summer in the stacks of a used bookstore in Chicago I stumbled across the story “War,” from his 1921 collection The Triumph of the Egg, something in the way the tale was told wholly stunned me. The four-page piece of fiction begins with our narrator on a midnight train rushing through the bleak Midwestern prairieland, one among a crowded train of nameless strangers waiting in a drowsy daze to arrive at their undisclosed location. Our narrator makes quite clear that the story he is telling simply occurred—the story that would stick with him in such a way that he was compelled to forever share it just arrived—it arrived unasked for from a woman on a train and, as if in a trance, was delivered to him, a fortunate stranger, for no particular reason other than his arbitrary presence. The woman started her story (we were midway through ours) by telling the stranger that she had been to war. She is described as having come from war-ridden Poland and is perhaps, though not clearly, traveling with a man dressed in a dark brown cloak who is throughout the occasion of the exchange hovering—pacing the hall of the train, trying to reclaim his seat—witnessed by the narrator but not recognized as the woman’s lover until the events of the evening are reflected upon for the purpose of retelling them. The woman explained how on one dark and windy winter evening a group of Polish refugees were directed by a German officer across their border. They were tired and hungry and worn, alarmed and furious, and the officer kept them marching at a brisk pace along the side of the rural road toward what was inevitably more violence. At a certain point, so Anderson’s narrator’s acquaintance’s story goes, an exhausted elderly woman and the officer began to fight, physically though weakly, and the train mate describes the strangeness of this struggle for quite some time before concluding her tale with the succinct scene of an actual battle of the souls in which the essence of the old woman transcends her physical body and enters the body of the German and the essence of the German in turn enters the old woman and the body of the woman then re-commands the crowd of captives and commences marching them in the direction of their doom again. “[T]heir two souls began to struggle,” says the narrator, “[t]he woman in the train made me understand that quite clearly, although it may be difficult to get the sense of it over to you. I had the night and the mystery of the moving train to help me…” It is of course impossible in this moment for one not to deeply feel within their rotting reader’s body the rushing mystical bewildering mystery of that fated evening (can’t you just smell the smoky train car now? can’t you feel the freeze of the window on your cheek as the bleak Nebraska cornfields shoot by, unseen but still perceived by you?), a feeling which is in part provoked by Anderson’s narrator’s nonchalant but insisted distance—for who among us doesn’t fight more fiercely to grasp what they’re told is impossible to comprehend? In a simple denial of his listener’s imaginative potential—in a seemingly offhanded comment—Anderson’s narrator increases our attention to the existence of the blazing train, to the woman’s report, and to the possibility of our own old souls someday switching places with their enemy. It is perhaps because of his pointed point-of-view maneuverings and multi-layered frames (like Dickinson’s endlessly breaking Plank in Reason, “War” splits open each new beginning to reveal another tier in the tale) that Anderson is considered a “psychological” writer; he becomes, mid-career, preoccupied with telling you, the reader, why the narrator is telling you what the narrator is telling you—of making an argument for the import of a story well-conveyed, honorably illustrated; crowded with faults, errors, hearsay, and gossip; of fictional versions of fiction—and yet critics have described the stories as “moving but formless,” the action hypothesized as haphazard and disorienting even to Anderson while inventing it. It’s true: repeatedly in Anderson’s work a speaker will confess his utter confusion, his bewilderment not only with the predicament at hand but, upon reflection, the very meaning of the situation he is bound to divulge, much as one might process or “work through” a traumatic memory in therapy. Anderson’s narrators document the “facts” (of the fiction) objectively while almost reluctantly including an editorial view that is purely subjective; for example the young narrator in “Death in the Woods” insists that while the story at hand—about a death in the woods—was communicated accurately to the town, it was not expressed properly, and not only that, he explains, but in his opinion no one who was present at the time really understood the significance of the events as they had unfolded; “The fragments,” he says, “had to be picked up slowly, long afterwards.” What surfaces is the emotional tension of disclosure rather than the consequences of the action as it happens. It is this tension that recalls me to something my friend L. once read about how emotions only exist in the body for a minute-and-a-half and it’s our own impulse to account for them that permits sentiment any sustaining power, so that ultimately feelings are stories. I look this up and find whole theories born of the “90 second” rule, each claiming that mere seconds pass from the moment an emotion is triggered to the moment it exits the blood stream (if, for example, you are furious, you might try counting to 90, one website suggests, and chances are your rage will fade), although one cannot help but fret about the equal brevity of love or joy or delight, as those feelings too must slip oh-so-swiftly through the body. William James, I recall, posited the now-outdated theory that our emotions are actually caused by physiological activity in a specific context and what we commonly refer to as “emotion” is the brain recognizing and responding to corporeal information. If we were to take, for example, the case of a woman who found herself late one February night being driven toward the downtown area of the small college town she was then visiting by her now-ex-boyfriend G. and, hypothetically, when pulling up to the stop sign he threw open the driver’s side door, leapt out of the vehicle, and hit the ground running toward a group of frightened sophomore-looking bros—one of whom she could see through the window was passed out on his back and slowly slipping from the back seat of an open SUV, overdosing on heroin (she would later learn), dripping like putty, his skull about to slam into the frozen concrete—and within minutes, say, the cops arrived and instructed the woman not to leave the car, not to go anywhere, to stay right there, and in the resulting confusion of alarms and screams (from the paramedics: “He’s not breathing! He’s not breathing!”) everyone else on the scene, including G., was arrested and rushed away, leaving the woman abandoned on a street corner knowing even then that everything was awfully, awfully wrong, but not yet perhaps the extent to which her life was soon to exist in almost-perpetual proximity to danger, then in that moment, we might imagine, the woman would find her heart racing, her palms growing hot, and her eyes blurring because—according to James’ theory—the brain’s reaction to that physical state (which was caused by it’s environment) is what we call “fear,” and furthermore might only exist in 90 second increments even if the story was to remain the sudden shooting ominous vision of her whole life. “Can one fancy the state of rage and picture no ebullition of it in the chest,” James asks in “What Is an Emotion?”, “no flushing of the face, no dilatation of the nostrils, no clenching of the teeth, no impulse to vigorous action, but in their stead limp muscles, calm breathing, and a placid face?” And are we then required to feel these passions via the alchemy of art? In an essay by Lee Ann Roripaugh, first sent to me by E., I learned about the ways mirror neurons—involved in empathy, pain, and language—supposedly make it possible not only to physically feel the experience of another while witnessing their action, but to also feel an echo of what they feel when we read about it. Roripaugh quotes one of the discoverers of the mirror neuron, Dr. Giacoma Rizzolatti, who explains that “Mirror neurons allow us to grasp the minds of others not through conceptual reasoning but through direct simulation. By feeling not by thinking,” so that as Catherine dies I know the grief of Heathcliff, or when James Wright has claimed to have wasted his life, so too have I, and when Anderson explains the mystery of the rushing train my mirror neurons fire, and when I describe the rushing train my readers now know it too. The implications of contemporary neurological discoveries concerning the science of story-telling are electrifying and also, of course, problematic for anyone engaged in making; one cannot help but wonder whether emotion in art is desirable—either to have or to cause—and if there is a choice. The idea is complicated further when art and life grow indistinguishable. It was just last week that my class and I were discussing the various ambiguities of so-called “reality” in art and I told them about the scene in The Office where Jim leans around the doorframe into the room where his long-time crush Pam is talking to the “documentary” filmmaker in order to ask her out. A moment after he does so the actress who plays Pam, Jenna Fischer, turns her head back to the camera and smiles, blushes, grins, looks down, then up, and her eyes water in absolute happiness. It is a poignant nonverbal (if sentimental) instant that conveys the cyclone of emotions love provokes. And yet, according to an interview—was it with Teri Gross?—Fischer was not merely acting: in the split second after she turned her head back to the camera she looked into the eyes of the true and fictional (unseen) cameraman who, in real life and in real time, responded to the touching power of the storyline—the drama of this long awaited relationship—by tearing up—and although his involuntary reaction to the story occurred off camera, Fischer (still being filmed as Pam) saw the cameraman cry and, as a result, did so too. And so did I, I tell them, and so would you. Do we turn to art for catharsis? What is an emotion’s rate of decay? I will say only that I haven’t stopped feeling for a fictional old woman and have written about little else since.