Joseph McElroy: fathoming the field
Joseph McElroy: fathoming the field
Toward a definition of a postmodern genre: the field-novel.
“And the field was him,” a sentence in Plus, a novel by Joseph McElroy, warrants an inquiry into field and the novel. The novelty of McElroy’s fiction grows from the attempt to use the structure of a novel as itself a field, presenting actions which occur within fields. He displays field as aesthetic structure, and field as content of aesthetic structure. So within the novel, events which occur within a field can also be seen as themselves constituting a field. In both field as structure and as content, the hero is intelligible as a region of a field, not as a sphere or core of individuality which passes through a field in fulfillment of a destiny.
In an ordinary story, choices among possibilities reduce the number of possibilities to probabilities, and choices among probabilities reduce the probabilities to necessity. In a field-novel, instead of an order of succession from beginning possibilities, middle probabilities, and concluding necessities, possibility can be preserved as such, because it is a quality of the field. A field provides a different and all-over distribution of energy and attention from a structure with a hero or heroine at the center.
When field is a structure as well as thematic content, field-fiction can draw the reader into its field through diction and sentence structure which evoke experiences in reading which are self-evidently different from reading a linear plot. Any detail in a conventional novel is significant as it bears or does not bear upon the life or destiny of the hero. But any detail in a field-novel can have, as part of its meaning, its position in a spatio-temporal field. Without the hierarchy of importance to the hero, details cannot easily be arranged in hierarchies, and any hierarchies which survive fluctuate wildly. Even triviality can become important when the triviality of any detail becomes part of the theme.
The effect of the attention to details which are not fixed in a hierarchy by their bearing on the success of a hero is part of the impersonal feeling of field, in which parts are as they bear upon their field, not upon the happiness of one character. McElroy requires his readers to look at events alertly, and to question the theory or system of values which justify elevating one detail over another detail because of relevance to a single center of personal interest.
The concept trivial suggests unimportance or insignificance, but can also suggest coordination of three directions–the three ways of tri-vium. Stephen W. Hawking speculates that “one may describe the whole universe in terms of a collection of overlapping patches.” “In each patch, one can use a different set of three coordinates to specify the position of a point” (23). McElroy sometimes seems to require three coordinates to specify the position of a speck of dust, but he has an explicit thematic interest in trivialities. When he provides coordinates for trivial details, which are after all within the field, he is correcting the distortions which can be caused by a hierarchy arranged around a central figure on a path in front of a background. In The Letter Left to Me, the father has written in his posthumous letter, “I gradually got diverted by trivial things” (121). The son, who has been told by friends of the family to emulate the very father who has written the letter to tell him not to be like him, thinks to himself at college, “I don’t visibly see myself as not surviving here, there are so many interesting and trivial things to do” (137).
McElroy’s trivialities are not trivial, because trifles which cause one to lose sight of one’s objective can open one’s sight to one’s position within the field. The Letter Left to Me (23), three apparently unrelated statements can be seen to bear upon each other because each mentions gaining or losing a vista. Thus three views are triangulated within these three sentences about visual fields. A four-year-old boy is looking up his grandmother’s skirt:
…so she said, He likes the ladies. “In retrospect,” the letter says, “I am appalled by my neglect of the vistas which life has opened to me.”
My father, I knew without hearing it said, was pleased with this living room of this fairly “new” apartment of ours.
The pleasure of this living room is that it has a vista of Manhattan. The child, arising among vistas, can be expected not to neglect the vistas which life opens to him, although his vistas will be field-like more than figure-ground. McElroy’s vision attempts sight without the piercing looks which seek to penetrate distance in a patriarchal perspective which has a single center of focus. The theme of this novel emerges from relations between distant vistas and close-up blindspots.
In the image of vista, one can see in the distance a goal one might move toward, like Manhattan seen from Brooklyn Heights. Focus on a goal makes the present circumstances subsidiary to the goal. But a blindspot, as a gap in or frustration of one’s vista, can bring attention back from a distant focal point, so that what might have been subsidiary is looked at for itself. Then, when looked at focally, the background, now integrated with the foreground, may yield clues to a different forward movement than has been available so far. In Plus, “You could go upon what you were yet to know” (121).
A blindspot, if one can see it, may mark precisely the point at which one’s sight must grow. In McElroy’s fictions, one grows into the blindspots. In Hind’s Kidnap, a man grows as a character by searching for a kidnapped child who is missing from view. Although he does not find the child, he finds himself within a field which he has been unaware of. Appropriately most of the other people in this field are named for plants or trees, as clues to a vegetable love which is complemented by a love of vegetables.
The task in fiction, as in constructing any unified work of art, is to achieve continuities, or communications among parts, in order to show the connections which the writer believes to be true or powerful, perhaps even good. When a novel could be structured on the analogy of an organism, then contradictions, inconsistencies, and discontinuities could be apparent as faults in characterization or in plotting. Subsequently the structure of novels has been propped up from outside by an external scaffolding–a philosophic system, a cyclicity like the four seasons, an analogy with a musical form such as symphony or sonata, or parallels with a literary structure such as the Odyssey. When a novel is on its own as a structure, without external support, then continuity is on its own. Many of the apparent discontinuities of postmodernist fiction emerge in contrast with the false continuities of earlier fictions which demonstrated a different world-design. The search is for reliable and self-validating continuities which can be demonstrated in a narrative. The trustworthiness of continuities in the action in a novel has an ethical and political dimension, because continuities in a plot are models for the continuities to be looked for in existence.
The myths of a culture are stories of the continuities which it offers as continuities with higher powers and forces – sometimes the will of God, the flow of Nature, the outcome of Chance. These continuities, because they can be consolations, must be tested in order to uncover falsifications. An artist’s tasks include working out the conditions of, perhaps the foundations of, trustworthy continuities. If the most realistic picture of existence is that we dwell within a field, or fields, and are not on a path shaped either by Destiny or Chance, then the continuities of a field must be proved by the narrative, which must show how a complexly interwoven field differs from contrived or devised continuities. For fiction the process can entail eliminating linear narrative, or weaving several linear narratives into a field without a single center of interest to distort the field in a figure/ground composition.
When a novel was likely to follow the career of a character from beginning through the middle toward the end, then the end of the novel could mark the beginning of a well-rounded life within a settled state of moral character. Then the hero has been seen to have achieved the integration of separate parts of self into complex interdependencies. In such a well-rounded story of a character who is being rounded out, actions sprawl and curve away from each other, but then the lines of action are seen to bear upon each other in a reconciliation or resolution of apparent discontinuities and differences. The end of such an action is likely to return one to the beginning of the action, as the conclusion is seen to have been potentially or embryonically there from the start.
In such an organic structure, the life of an individual can enjoy a feeling of benignly fateful growth, as the acorn is destined to grow into an oak. That is fine for seeds which providentially fall into fertile soil, but “Some seeds fell by the way side, and the fowls came and devoured them up” (Matthew 13:4). That chance prevents many seeds from growing through no fault of their own suggests that the successful growth of the hero is not owing to a special virtue or a special providence. The story of the hero has too often shown him, or her, as one of the elect, with suffering redeemed by contributing to a spiritual education which is presided over by benign powers which are somehow initiating the hero into the sphere of the elect. This idea of the hero as chosen and destined continues to work away truthlessly in entertaining stories and popular entertainments. But popular entertainment does not include the goal of liberating the reader from the oppression of false consolations and false continuities. Today, few are likely to write convincingly of a life as the object of a providence which interprets random pain and suffering as contributing to fulfillment of a goal, or even a mission in life, as a calling which could have been prophesied. If our lives are unsponsored and foundationless, then only our commitments to our own choices, made among people who think somewhat like ourselves, will shape a foundation on which to construct such structures as we can.
The foundation which is available to postmodernisms, following the influence of Kurt Gödel, is not a foundation which is built with certainty before a structure is built. Among the difficulties with thinking about structures is the obsolete image in which a foundation precedes the structure which is built upon it. Rather, if the structure does not collapse, then the structure secures and validates its foundation retrospectively or retroactively. That is, if the enlarging structure stands, then as that structure has enlarged, it has constructed and strengthened its foundation under itself, in a proof of principles and values and methods. Such structure is not the imposition of timeless form on undesignated matter; rather it is an arrangement of parts in a whole which we are already dwelling in, any foundation for which always remains yet to be further validated. The foundation is incompletable because its truth will never quite coincide with its proof. Yet a structure can be valid as a field which has proved trustworthy, in spite of immediate undecidabilities and long-range futilities.
The organicism of an organic whole was thought of as having its parts working in functioning reciprocities, as heart and head might integrate their rhythms. An organic story might show a manly young hero getting his heart and brain to cooperate as he achieves integration and perhaps integrity (Tom Jones). But, with aptness and precision, the novel called Women and Men shows two sensitive young men, each of whom might once have expected a novel to himself, talking about methods of inserting themselves in a larger field where thought and feeling are not either/or, but and/or: “feelings, whether heart-rooted or not, must never be dismissed, especially your own, and happened to be the basis of most thought (not all) and might be more (than brain) why thought went on and on, though sometimes it was hardly, you know, thought” (1066).
These two young men, sharing attention, don’t each get a whole novel to work out the relations of feelings to thoughts. In their novellessness they are the objects of a different distribution of attention. They do not have a privileged life-history in which an embryonic potentiality is fulfilled. They are learning how parts communicate with parts, and how thought is not linear, but is emotional and bodily, and, if only because bodily, fully within a field of physical motion and conscious emotion. Accordingly, these young men must and do accommodate themselves to the action of a novel as field-action. They cannot expect to be, and as male feminists must not want to be, the center of attention. Such a desire would be futile anyway, because a field does not have a center. They dwell in a structure which is a more adequate image of the human condition than a story of an isolated, self-identical, and autonomous hero.
In a field-fiction, each character is not an organism on a linear path, but is a region of field within a field. When I use the word is, usually I mean “sets in motion.” Here the idea is that a person as a region of field sets in motion the larger field which includes other people as other regions of the field. The relations among people then are much more complex, and indirect, than the interdependencies of organic relations. Organic form usually implies an interdependence of the parts as seen in cross-section of a self-activating structure. But interdependence in a field differs from interdependence in an organism. In The Letter Left to Me, a young man asks his father to define “interdependence”: “and he dictates out of his head an airtight definition of that large (gray? blue?) ‘term’ ” (101). That novel doesn’t offer the father’s definition to the reader, perhaps because the scene renders an example of interdependence when the son asks his father for help. The limits of a field are the limits of animating interdependencies.
Independence, individualism, and autonomy are likely to be misunderstandings or misrepresentations of the way one dwells in the world. As McElroy’s themes develop, a person is not an essence inserted into a ready-made world, but is a region of field within the field the person emerges in the midst of, constructing the field which constructs the person. Thus claims of separateness falsify our actual relations among others. Autonomy is a theory which suggests discontinuities with some of the very forces which a physical and emotional individual is continuous with. Sometimes a theory of individualism disclaims connections with the ordinary world, but claims continuities with spiritual forces. Autonomy and discontinuity can seem to entitle and to empower the hero, who is exempted from the usual human responsibilities, and whose adventures are rendered as myths, or at least mythic archetypes.
Myths in this context are stories about continuities and discontinuities, and are supported by hierarchies which subordinate rather than coordinate. But myth, as a story about participation in or communication with a continuum, can be transposed to a field-story in which anything apparently independent is narratively proved to be dependent upon a region of interdependencies and reciprocities. The governing myth of our times, as I read events, is not the quest, but rebirth, as starting to breathe and to communicate again is like returning from the dead. A person dies to some communications, but then resumes transmission among continuities on a different plane. When mythic archetypes are renounced as distortions of the naturalistic circumstances, then actions can be conveyed as occurrences within a field which is complexly interdependent with other fields. McElroy works with these ideas in images of rebirth, as feelings which have been deadened are brought back to life in a graveyard.
A field can be a literal meadow or a plowed field, a feld, a velt, with many implications to be drawn from the image. The word field was borrowed from meadow or pasture to suggest a region or totality or continuum of rather uniform and interanimating parts through which forces are transmitted, with some individual peculiarities or anomalies in the field, but absorbed in an overall resolution or harmony. Early theories of field – as in the work of Leonhardt Euler–suggest an image of a continuous physical medium that is like a fluid through which mechanical forces and pressures are transmitted. The limits of action-at-a-distance are the limits of the field.
The fluidity of the medium is so much like water that a swimming pool becomes a possible image of a field. The immediate suggestion is that the swimming pool, or other body of water, is a field which would fully absorb us within it, finally to be integrated in a whole, except that we cannot breathe under water. The tension and the validity of McElroy’s fiction derive from the discovery of an image of a fluid field which would enclose us in its totality, and the parallel discovery that we cannot live and breathe in the place which is the most apt image of a field of immanent forces. The pool is like the womb as a fluid-field from which we have emerged, and to which we cannot return. Although we have begun life as something like a fish in a fluid medium, in adulthood we are like fish out of water who discover that, even if again immersed in water, we are no longer fish. But regardless of the frustrations and the angers, the desire survives to become fully assimilated to a field of mutual implications and reciprocal modifications of parts. Integration within such a field blurs the outlines of individuality, yet compensates with the feeling and thought that one belongs to the field which is set in motion by one who is set in motion by the field. At culminating moments one might see oneself as an elaboration of the cosmic physical field into self-consciousness–as “Nature, spied back through one of its own eyes” (Women and Men 1146).
When the forward linear path through a field, as background, is frustrated or interrupted, then a tapestried field becomes more visible. Because of the delay in launching Apollo 17, which McElroy experienced at Cape Kennedy, the dramatic linear path of launching a spacecraft becomes visible as part of a field: “when the curtain didn’t go up and didn’t go up, the attenuation and burden of waiting brought into my mind’s main view not some dramatic necessity according to whose time-line one might have counted on being overwhelmed at 9:53 P.M., but rather a non-narrative field of collaborative functions much closer, I think, to what was really happening.” “My time had been changed by some contemplative shock into a three-dimensional grid of dark starry moonless sky in which velocities became timeless fulfillments of position” (“Holding with Apollo 17”).
The field of collaborative functions allows the individual to exist less as an autonomous destiny than as a region of intense pulses which can move through a larger field with some stability and reliability and continuity. Being not on a path but within a field produces different potential connections with other people, because those other people are themselves regions of field, not particles of single selfhood. The dimensions of a field derive from the distances at which a person can act at a distance on other people. In Ancient History the father of Gail and Al influences an event he is miles away from: “Even at a gap of three or four or five miles that day of the dive he was making his force felt in the buoyant water even if, accelerating up some secondary blacktop in his pickup, he was unaware that he was with us and unaware of the kiss and unaware of Al in his jeans exploding into the water to come to somebody’s aid” (269).
If the “hero” is the pulsing region of a pulsing field, then the hero is more the ever-changing flux of relations than the self-identical person with an essence. The vibrations of that individual can reverberate at a distance from another individual, as repercussions pass as through a fluid medium. If an individual is thought of as a region of pulses, then two such regions can merge, or perhaps flow pulsatingly together, thereby becoming part of the larger and more comprehensive field, which they are within, but which they also are constructing. That field is like the Great Lattice of Plus: “a lattice with glittering nodes for each angle of intersection: a lattice that data went back and forth through” (160). “For here in this lattice whose three-dimensional field was exactly as regular as Imp Plus now saw (like more dimension) that it also lacked boundary–here in this lattice that seemed impure only in motion visited upon it – the motion was no longer the life of animal or vegetative or some wendo-zoan grip moving: but was instead the lights whose pieces were broken conversely back into streams of flow and bent and conducted into spirals of spirals by this lattice of himself” (182).
A field has odd relations to the observer of the field. The field-worker can aspire to be within the field in order to understand it. Yet belonging to the field even as one represents it is difficult. Henry Adams provides a classic statement of this anguish for American literature: “The universe that had formed him took shape in his mind as a reflection of his own unity, containing all forces except himself” (475).
The interest of this sentence is that the writer or artist has attempted to represent the universe as a whole, but the act of representation places him outside the whole which is represented. The problem is that our representations of physical forces, as with statements which can be true or false, don’t seem to be containable within the physical forces. A representation of a field is not integrated with the field which it represents – even as the theory of the physicist might not include the workings of the brain or mind which conceives and commits itself to that theory and holds it to be true.
The truth of the representation or judgment of the Universe is something additional to it, so that the One, and the representation of the One, add up to two. The point here is that acts of representation and of judgments are alienations. McElroy thinks about both the Earth, and Skylab, as “those self-renewing life-support systems,” and then suggests that self-renewing life-support will come “not through wresting secrets from what lies around us – whether that be conscious or not. Rather it will be through some reciprocal economy by which we come more deeply to belong to the universe.”
How can we belong? Yet how can we not belong? Any belonging, a variant of the themes of continuities, is rarely taken for granted in McElroy’s fiction. His characters can doubt that they belong even in rather ordinary social fields: “We sat in his room, Paul and I, in his dorm, and enjoyed a conversation–and the freedom to do so, in a society where we presumably belonged” (The Letter Left to Me 97). Sometimes one can seem to belong in a room, but as smoke pools into a field, the familiar problem of difficulty in breathing in a place one seemingly belongs in returns. The problems can be transposed into each other: non-belonging, breathlessness, pathlessness, and fieldlessness.
Judgments put the judge outside the field. McElroy, interpreting and representing the structure of experience as a field, and finding himself excluded from the field insofar as he judges it, devises a strategy to enable him to belong within a field and to remain there: he will not judge events in ways which put him, as judge, out of the action. He will construct representations which can be used to point with at something in experience, but those same representations cannot be used to point to him making moral judgments.
If judgment deems that a character commits an act which is wrong, the judgment isolates the judge; but the judgment also is superfluous, because a wrong act puts the character outside the sensitive emotional human field, hence is its own punishment. The philosophy is to leave justice to the workings of the field. Women and Men shows a man whose errors exclude him from the human field in which he would have thrived: unfielding oneself is the offense for which fieldlessness is the punishment. Thus, while the judgment and the punishment remain implicit, as the man improves in conduct, he is as though born again within the beneficent field he aspires to belong to. At their most emancipated, McElroy’s characters can see that an offense against others is an offense against themselves, and that not only the ones who do wrong, but also the ones who judge, can injure themselves by separating themselves from the field. In 1988, the novel Women and Men asks: “So must we resist the temptation to be judgmental?,” and answers itself from within the field, “Yes” (421).
Some activities are to be judged, but by self-set standards, not imposed standards. The judgments of diving and of swimming arise within the activities, as intrinsic or immanent, as success within or under water. Transcendental moral and religious judgments have been conveyed by images of water in which being under water is a judgment or a punishment. The Fallen World, under Divine Judgment of its sins, is represented by the Flood, which is the human condition after disobedience of the will of God. The Flood, which represents the condition of preferring one’s will to the will of God, thus represents the godlessness, lawlessness and earthly futurelessness of humans who have fallen from grace. Of a woman Women and Men comments, “She was a fallen woman, but she did not care now” (1141). Where Christian literature has taught how to transcend the Fall, and the Flood–as in Jonah in the whale, or Jesus walking on wate–McElroy attempts to show how to learn to breathe, or at least get oxygen, within water or other apparently alien fields.
To prefer one’s will to the will of God is already to imply the death of God, which, while no more than the death of scholastic theology, has seemed to take ethics with it. The questions of foundations for ethical judgments arise: is everything and anything permitted? What are the grounds of restraint, and what are the legitimations of laws and governments? With the imagery of field, the questions of the grounds of restraint return to be thought through with the image of field. One can shrug and ask the great vernacular question which shows up in Women and Men: “–well, why not?” (636). “Why not?” is the question as writers look for legal or moral constraints stronger than the reckless human will, and find little but foundationlessness and uncertainty.
The abstract questions of how we know and justify the right actions are the same as the question asked in the waterfield imagery: How are we to stay afloat? What are the conditions of spiritual buoyancy? McElroy puts characters under water, where they cannot breathe, and he shows what they do, or are willing to do, to survive. Buoyancy, as recovery from falling or sinking in water, includes the vital feeling of entering swimmingly the field which one might otherwise have drowned in. Surviving under water becomes an image of autonomy as obedience of laws which one sets for oneself in the spirit in which one accepts practical rules when learning to swim or snorkel. Such rules or laws are not deduced from a priori principles like Natural Law, or from prophetic revelation; they emerge self-constructingly from experience and experiment, and begin not with the imposition of transcendentals, but with the affirmation of immanences.
Diving and wrestling are different experiences of discontinuities, and are different images of being in the world. In Hind’s Kidnap, the young man, Hind, is shepherded in his schooldays by his guardian: “What you really wanted was…basketball, but the guardian urged gymnastics and/or wrestling so hopefully that you went out for and in for diving, and he was sympathetic” (510). Here is the claim to desire cooperative and compatible relations with other people–to belong within a team, as in basketball, where teamwork can be a critique of one’s illusions about oneself. But the desire for teamwork is adapted to being on a diving team, where one belongs to the team, yet more even than in wrestling, one is isolated from other people.
To choose diving over basketball and wrestling is to choose an interpretation of one’s world. A diver is isolated, yet competes within a field of divers, so is not alone and unbelonging. In this image, because one is going to be thrown willy-nilly into existence anyway, the wisdom of diving is to seize some control over being thrown into the field by choosing to throw oneself into a dive. Some dives are compulsory, but others are dives of one’s choice. Such freely chosen dives convert being thrown into a self-motivated activity, following self-set rules and standards.
In diving, one wrestles with the forces of the gravitational field, using one’s magnitude to move oneself in a certain direction in order to enter the water without making a splash: “dive after dive I took off the worn, coldly raw cocoa matting of a too-stiff, one-meter springboard weekday afternoons to slip into the water as straight or secretly as I could–slide slow as a ship or great being into a wintry pool thronged with the belly-slap and chugging din of my teammates, and, somewhere in my split-apart concentration, that overwhelming man-made ocean-factory noise of death” (The Letter Left to Me 67).
When diving and swimming are pursued with a commitment which carries one through increasing difficulties, with difficult relations with other people, who conceal so much, anger can add to the difficulties. One can be angry that so much is concealed, and then one can conceal one’s own anger. A diver is exposed where people can see him, but where no one can take care of him. The implication for the diver is that no one cares enough to make a difference to his feelings of indifference. The loneliness of the diver justifies the suggestion that the water into which one dives is dry and indifferent. The diver, among such indifference, and angry about death and indifference, might as well do what he does, which is to choose with commitments how he dives into the indifferent water. Within the water he can open his eyes, and then speculate how he can help himself climb out of the water and survive in air.
The diver, diving into uncertainties, attempts mastery of movement which cannot be illusory or illusionistic. The dive and the diver must satisfy the unforgiving criteria of trustworthiness and validity which inhere in the field of diving. A dive is implicitly opposed to magic and entertainment, or to any event wherein effects are produced which falsify their dependence on material causes and on the working lives of other people. A diver, fortunately for truth, performs a feat with an inherent ethic of honesty; a diver is not in a position to deceive or to cheat, and must necessarily present an image of trustworthy effects produced by freely chosen disciplines. Even clowning around on a diving board differs from clowning in wrestling or in basketball. A diver knows that he can be invalided for life, and that the less one sets oneself in motion, the less one becomes a region of that field.
A dive can so show a person, and relations with other people, that it can be a self-portrait: a woman “with the composure of one who has already been swimming,” asks Hind to dive. “Hind did not risk a statuesque compulsory like a front or a half twist but took a severe high hop on his third stride, took the board straight up with his approach, motion to carry him outward, and in an echoing wash of silence so vast he would hear above the board’s quivering recoil the guardian’s heartbeat, he tucked into a one-and-a-half so snappily he could have made two and so he sloshed his calves over and ruined his entry axis. But then swam twenty-odd yards under water, to tickle Laura’s leg self-depreciatingly as he came up” (216). The dive always asks the question of the degree of its difficulty, as a degree of commitment to one’s freely chosen self-disciplines, and the degree of its success.
A question arises within the choice of diving, which is difficult, of the meaning of self-imposed degrees of difficulty. Why can’t we be lax, and breathe easy? A character who “didn’t believe in making difficulties for himself” becomes a psychoanalyst “dealing with folk who make difficulties for themselves,” and whom he advises to take “A Breather” (Women and Men 663). Many scenes in McElroy’s novels bear on difficulties in breathing: a sick father in “the cellophane-like oxygen tent,” “my father’s preoccupation with breath” (The Letter Left to Me 51); a wife in labor as her husband times her contractions: “(breathing quick and regular, hhh–hhh–hhh–hhh, as she and Shay had been shown at the natural childbirth sessions)” (Women and Men 5); and sections of a novel which offers, according to the titles, “BETWEEN US: A BREATHER AT THE BEGINNING,” “BETWEEN US; A BREATHER STILL AT THE BEGINNING,” “BETWEEN US: BREATHING BEGINNING TO BE HEARD,” “BETWEEN HISTORIES: BREATHERS THICK AND FAST,” and “BETWEEN US: A BREATHER TOWARD THE END.” So breathing is associated with diving and swimming, but also with birth and rebirth–rather difficult tasks each with their peculiar pleasures and joys. Just as some athletes select diving, and within diving select degrees of difficulty, so the readers of these fictions are self-selecting by their freely chosen discipline to learn to fathom a field-fiction.
Breathing as an image of movement–in and out–has connections in these novels not only to the length of sentences, and to swimming under water, but to rhythms of loosening and tightening, as in Plus: “contraction and release, contraction and release” (209). Several actions are similar to breathing, like a hand gripping and letting go, or a vagina alternately gripping and ungripping, or like a stressful pattern of aggression–not knowing when to let go–alternating with surrender–not being able to hold on. The grip, in McElroy’s world, is most dangerous if it cannot open up and let go. His central characters have the problem of not gripping tight enough to hold on, and conversely of gripping too tight to be able to let go when they should: “for what did he get from this will to grip? or what did it touch or do up among the tangled backward-tending tendrils?” (Plus 86).
Such a character, self-sufficient yet seeking to combine with something beyond the self, might have to learn how to grip on to others, or how to let others get a hold on him, so that energy can be transmitted from one to the other–tying one to others. A goal is “taking power in process, other people’s ongoing energies and tying into them, that’s the way I express it but I got the idea from someone else and that’s appropriate too” (Lookout Cartridge 419). The correct relations with others are like positions in a field of knotted energies. In The Letter Left to Me the grandmother has a hold on her son, which sounds unhealthy, but can be part of belonging within the field of a family (61). The hold can be a strangle-hold, but it can also be love.
The rhythms within a field are frequently stress and unstress, like “serious men smoking in a room talking hushed or angry” (Women and Men 612). Or like the alteration of the air, which “expands and contracts” (Women and Men), constructing the weather. This stress pulsating with unstress is the sucking movement which McElroy recognizes as the pattern of life. From the infantile gripping and letting go of the breast to the contractions and expansions of the atmosphere, life is imagined as a field with pulsations: “our semi-amorphous, multicellular shrug-forth that draws along from behind our lengthening, contracting proposition” (Women and Men 615). The logic of this postmodernism seems an elaboration of the rhythms of organs like the lungs, which imply affable fields of breathable air.
The opposites or alternatives to the movements in a pulsating field are anything that is inert or incompatible. The prose sometimes seems to mount to anger when combining with a field is impossible because of incompatibilities. But McElroy’s field, at its most intense and magnanimous, is a field of incompatibilities. The incompatible parts at first work against unity and coherence, but they eventually are to be integrated in a field which is the larger for the rendering of incompatibles into a higher compatibility. Then the differences which seem irreconcilable contribute to the complexity of the whole when reconciliation is achieved without denying the differences. Often a part or a detail stands out separately for an instant before it subsides into the larger articulated whole–the well-earned wholeness of incompatibilities achieving compatibility.
In an action that occurs in a sea of incompatibilities, in which ordinary breathing becomes difficult, the field is enlarged, and pulsating movement is enhanced, by a shift from the impasse of either/or confrontations to the compatibilities of and/or or both/and: “from the either/or system-switch…to the twain egal individualized screens seen both/and” (Women and Men Women and Men “and/or” or “both/and” open passages to intellectual and emotional movements.
One of the irreversible movements of thought which prompt some postmodernisms are the separation of proof from truth. Sometimes a statement which is proved to be true is thereby rendered false. As proof and truth separate, we are launched from puzzles to mysteries, from riddle to enigma, and from belief (in facts) to faith (which is without foundations). Belief becomes faith when it sees that its truths cannot be proved to be true: “faith’s threatening argument relied on such jumps as dreams are laid on” (Women and Men 1113). The leaps of faith, like dives into the uncertainties and indifferences of water, are not toward a transcendental God outside the world, but toward a field which is the world. McElroy extrapolates the image of field to cosmic proportions, evoking the Tao in terms close to those of Joseph Needham: “The whole idea of the Tao was the idea of a field of force. All things oriented themselves according to it, without having to be instructed to do so, and without the application of mechanical compulsion” (293). In Women and Men, McElroy can be discovered thinking with the Tao: “which should mean ‘the way’ but in practice embraces like the whole show/flo as if Nature, spied back through one of its own eyes, was stratified ocean or at least successfully liquified” (Women and Men 1146).
At the end of The Letter Left to Me, McElroy offers a moment of impasse: “Will I know more about my state? I am wild, in my haste, and I will live a new life. The letter is everywhere and I can’t answer for it. I’ll answer the letter. I can’t. But I will” (151). With these final sentences of the novel, McElroy accepts the undecidable relations between proof, with facts which are to be believed, and truth, which is upheld by faith. He makes a statement–“I can’t”–which he must believe to be true, but which he must hope will not be proved to be true. So the young man says, “I can’t,” and then he modifies that with the bootstrapping troubleshooter’s resolve: “But I will.” The “I will” is a promise to prove his own prior statement to be false. In a model of how we think now, the perplexity is that the narrator states two propositions which he believes, both of which cannot be true at the same moment. Thus the narrator is propelled forward in the action by moving toward that which is always yet to be proved to be true, and which will enlarge the field as it enlarges himself.
In the novels of Joseph McElroy, fully to be, as fully to set oneself in motion, is to take lunges or leaps of faith which plunge our lives into alien fields which we long to belong in, and can somewhat adapt to our desires. Here, to live is to move in and out of fieldlessness, with the moral challenge of submerging one’s anger at the indifference of events to one’s desires for friendly enfieldments. But that one can survive immersions in fields, and thrive, is demonstrated in Lookout Cartridge when a man who must have gone under, because he is named Sub, speaks words which any diver might speak upon returning to the surface from uncaring depths: “and I hope at some point in the future to be able to look back and say that I have come through.” Sub seems to find the power to continue through the blindspots and obstacles to attention, even demolishing a television set as an impasse of vision. So McElroy, trying to pool his powers with the Cosmos by writing field-fiction, moves himself forward by means of an impasse which, paradoxically and subversively, sets him in motion: “I can’t. But I will.”
Adams, Henry. The Education of Henry Adams (1918) Houghton Mifflin, 1961
Hawking, Steven. A Brief history of Time.
McElroy, Joseph. Ancient History: A Paraphase New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972.
__________. Holding With Apollo 17
New York Times Book Review. January 28, 1973: 27-29.
__________. Hind’s Kidnap: A Pastoral on Familiar Airs New York: Knopf, Harper and Row, 1969.
__________. The Letter Left to Me New York: Knopf, 1988 New York: Carrol and Graf, 1990.
__________. Lookout Cartridge New York: Knopf, 1974, New York: Carroll and Graf, 1985.
__________. Plus. New York: Knopf, 1977.
__________. “The Skylab Cluster” Poly Prep Alumni Review (Spring 1974): 2-6.
__________. Women and Men New York: Knopf, 1987, Normal, Il: Dalkey Archive Press.
Needham, Joseph. Science and Civilization in China II. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.