7C Freeing the Inner Pinocchio

December 2, 2007

As a former English major who dropped out of graduate school, I occasionally drop into talking about literature. As a child who was raised non-religiously in an unhappy family, much of my ideas and values about ethics and human relations have been strongly influenced by books I have read. Vladimir Nabakov famously wrote about avoiding interpreting and judging literature as a morality tale. Even though I think old Vlady had some good points, I often tend to react to some books as many people do to moving sermons in their favorite church.

I speak today of a kind of literature I will call “ironic unintended self-revelation.” Perhaps the classic brief example is Robert Browning’s poem, “My Last Duchess.” In this poem a Renaissance Duke shows a visitor a portrait of his former wife, a beautiful young woman. The emissary has come to negotiate a marriage to a new young wife. In the course of the Duke’s monologue he unintentionally reveals that he destroyed his first wife by his selfish, narcisstic behavior and attitude.

A more complex example of this literature is the British novel The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford. Again, the story is told by an “unreliable narrator” who reveals much about himself that he does not grasp. Not only does he fail to understand his own character but he is essentially clueless about the other characters in the novel.

I read this novel as an undergraduate in college. It struck me as a novel written for college professors to assign to their classes. It has been called “the most stylistically perfect novel” in the English language, and it is laden with enough irony and symbolism to generate sophmoric sophmore English term papers by the bucket.

My main point is that both of these literary works reveal their points about character and theme dramatically through action and dialogue in ironic contrast to their narrator’s intent and beliefs about himself and to how things appear at first glance. Typically, this type of literary revelation is unflattering to the narrator, who turns out to be worse, or at least not as good as he thinks.

Over the past few years I’ve had a blog interaction with David Rochester. When I first started writing my blog, he greeted me and wrote encouraging words. He’s had similar interactions with many other bloggers, helping to create a blogging community.

I think I’ve read every blog post he’s written with considerable interest and enjoyment, though also some pain. Not pain caused by anything unpleasant he’s addressed to me, but empathic pain because of turmoil and distress he’s experienced in his life.

As the time passed, I began to discover many common points in our lives. For example, he lives in Portland, Oregon. My family and I lived in Portland for many years. He went to Oberlin College to study music. My daughter went to Oberlin and met her partner there (who was studying violin).

Some of these overlapping points involved more than juxtapositions in time and place. For example, I had a very unhappy relationship with my father (who died fairly young). David’s had an unhappy relationship with his father, with whom he has had to work with in a painful business arrangement.

David’s personality and sensitivity to the aesthetics of his surroundings, on the other hand, reveals him to be much closer to my wife’s personality in some ways.

The overall effect of reading David’s blog has been something like reading a complex, highly crafted novel like The Good Soldier, in that my understanding of his life (as he presents it) has grown in sophistication and comprehension.

I think.

I worry a bit about offending David by jumping to some facile erroneous conclusion about him. If I do offend by an error, I will be glad to delete or remove the message entirely.

Besides my understanding of his life (as he presents it) growing in understanding, I havd a feeling that his presentation has changed. At first, he presented a persona that was rather humorous in ironic little tales. Over time, I think, his writing as become better, his presentation of his self more honest and deeper, and there are signs of a growing maturity.

While one would be tempted to say, “Hurrah!” he does not present these as victories or successes. Instead he presents himself as deeply lonely and unhappy. So what I say here is intended to be encouraging, but I fear it will have the opposite effect.

Darn.

Both David and myself come from unhappy families. Neither of us got the childhood any child should have. Obviously, there are many children who suffer much worse conditions and influences than we did, but still I think we both had plenty of reasons to turn into monsters. That’s melodramatic–but there are, in fact, plenty of human monsters out there, and probably, more often than not, their parents “helped out” in the monster creating business.

In the kind of ironic, narrator reveals himself more than he means to literature I describe, usually the revelations are for the worse.

David often describes himself as difficult, as unloveable, as someone no one could live with or have a relationship with, except maybe three cats, at least one of whom is at least as difficult as he is.

I believe him. I suspect that if he and I were to meet in person, we would probably not get along very well.

The paradox here is that the persona that David creates for himself on line attracts many people who perceive him as a pleasant, kind, helpful person with pretty good values.

What does this mean? How to interpret this?

At the very least, he has done something in literary terms is akin to what in basketball is termed a triple-double.

He has written something like an ironically revealing memoir in which the narrator is revealed as better than he presents himself. (If you can pull that off in a novel, I think you will have a winner, at least in terms of creating a book that will be assigned to generations of long-suffering college sophmores.)

At least two additional possibilites present themselves.

One is that he is in reality a much nicer and more wholesome person in real life than he allows us to know about.

The second, is that he is the difficult person he describes, but somewhere inside is a really nice guy struggling to get out.

My neighbor is a pretty good chain saw carver, David. Perhaps I can talk him into taking a trip to Portland to see if he can free your inner Pinocchio.

14 Responses to “7C Freeing the Inner Pinocchio”

  1. janie Says:

    I suspect that David is a nicer person than he thinks. People who are not nice tend to blame their failures on other people. They don’t think anything is wrong with themselves. (For this same reason, Random, I also supect you are a nice person.)

    I have always really enjoy the kind of literature you are describing. I think there is much to be learned from it.

  2. pandemonic Says:

    VP, formerly RN!

    This is a great piece of work, and I’m inclined to do a similar piece about my internet boyfriend. However, I’d like to do a little more exploration with our parallel lives before I undertake such a task.

  3. Average Jane Says:

    Oh, bravo. I think you have said very succintly everything that needed to be said about David.


  4. You haven’t offended me at all, unintentionally or otherwise.

    You have, however, made me wish that the remarkable narrative trick I’ve apparently pulled off was in any way intentional. If it were, I could settle back comfortably in my chair with my weasel, and contemplate my own genius.

    As it is, I must instead compliment your unusual attention and generosity as a reader and as a human being. I have said many times to my writers’ collective that every writer, and every piece, has at least one Ideal Reader, and it is the (usually unrealized) dream of every writer to put his writing before that reader.

    You’ve always been the Ideal Reader of my blog, a fact of which I have been cognizant for nearly two years now. Your commentary and empathy have been great gifts to me; more perhaps than you know.

    Thank you, Mr. Random.


  5. I also notice that you posted this in a larger font, possibly remembering my whining about it somewhere earlier on your site. πŸ™‚ Your courtesy knows no bounds.

  6. modestypress Says:

    I am glad that my comments about you did not trespass. In fact, it occurs to me that perhaps I can develop a profitable sideline as a freelance “Ideal Reader,” charging various blog writers a modest fee for becoming their Ideal Reader.

    You would be grandfathered in, of course, so I would not charge you for this service. Of course, it does occur to me that as a blog poster you are unique. You may be the only blog poster for whom I am qualified to be an Ideal Reader.

    In fact, for other blog posters, I may qualify as the Reader from Hell, in fact. Perhaps I can get them to pay me “Protection Money” to agree not to comment on their blogs.

    This needs a lot of work, as do we both.

    Perhaps that’s the role our female readers serve. Generally, women are always working to improve their men. Perhaps some day some man will actually improve under these ministrations, thus becoming boring and tedious beyond belief.


  7. I think it’s possible to be an Ideal Reader for more than one writer, but it requires a curious chameleon-like quality of mind. My own bizarre capacity to do that very thing is what makes me unusually effective as a critiquer/coach; however, observation has suggested to me that it is by no means a common talent.

    So now I’m wondering whether I should be charging more for my services. I may be offering a unique benefit with untapped profit potential.

    On the other hand, I can also think, just offhand, of several people who would happily pay me to shut up about their writing … so perhaps we should go into the protection racket together. No improving girls allowed.


  8. Sometimes I like to be of use when I write comments. I think I’ll get that out of the way right now.

    David: In Firefox, one can press ctrl + to make the font bigger and more readable and one can press it several times if one desires with each time increasing the size of the text. One can then press ctrl – to shrink the text back to ‘normal size’ so that one’s comments don’t overrun the right edge of the comment box.

    I have pondered what a meeting with David would be like over the past nearly two years that I’ve been reading his works. I have not been anywhere near as diligent of a reader. So, my opinion is based on my own whimsy more than on anything rational. I think we’d like each other and I’d drive him completely bonkers. He’d want out of the room but politely enjoy being in the room with me at the same time.

    While I’m at it, I’ll offer a few more opinions. I bet that we (you Mr. Random and me CiB) would enjoy being silly together and our sweeties would be the ones who were driven crazy. And, Pan, … well, I think I’d want to have some beer and then we’d laugh until our heads fell off and rolled down the street and the world would be all confused by it — the general yuckiness of heads rolling down the street but the laughter emanating from the heads bringing joyous rapture to all.


  9. Hmm. It looks like the last two paragraphs are written to David when they aren’t exactly. Oh well.

  10. janie Says:

    Please don’t kick the girls out. I really enjoy eavesdropping here, and I promise I won’t try to improve anyone in any way.


  11. I believe my sweetie just threw out my shoes. I can’t find them. I think she thinks she was doing me a favour. I bet she’s going to by better looking shoes for me. Sometimes I wonder if it crosses her mind that when I’m well dressed, other women pay more attention to me. As it happens, I don’t really care for attention when I’m dressed and when I’m not, attention from one is perfect. Oh well. Things will remain mysterious to me.

  12. Moongirl Says:

    I just read and posted on David’s post today; so impressed with it and with your comment, Mr. Random, that I longed to visit you here. How coincidental your words were to my thoughts. I think I’ve been somewhat snapped out of my funk. You are so right; it’s been nearly two years since I first “met” David. The kind words of encouragement, the insight, and his humor are magnetic (and then there are the cats). But, I was always a bit frightened, or on edge, that I might unwittingly draw a sharp word regarding some of the stupid attempts I’ve made at humor or whatever. But they never came, and after two years, I feel that David is like an Old Son. A thought I had the other day after reading one of your posts, David (I hate talking about you like your not here), was that now that some of us old timers and especially your editorial acquaintences, know this side of you (from your posts) and we still love you, would we welcome you in person? Yes! Would you welcome us? I sadly doubt it… that is the pain of it all. FtL, jen

  13. Average Jane Says:

    Your last sentences, Jen, I feel are so true and so beautifully written.

  14. cheles Says:

    I too, softly echo the sentiments reflected by Random, Jen, and A.J. Hugs. πŸ™‚


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