Prof. Brian Bedard
Who gets to decide what’s best? : Discussing Taboos to
Reexamine Worldview Definitions
Certain novels resonate with us, making us reflect on our behaviors, emotions, and thinking processes. Some novels even make us reexamine our worldviews. Carson McCullers’s Reflections in a Golden Eye and Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods are such novels. Different from many other novels, they address controversial subjects but do not make readers subject to a definite lesson or tidy moral. Neither has phony triumph. Neither permits a surface-based reading. Both novels have endings that deny real closure; they demand more thoughtfulness long after the book is shut and “done.” Sure, Reflections in a Golden Eye ends literally with a bang, but now what? And this gunshot and murder do not have a clinching effect. Instead, they reverberate with the reader long past the next day or week. We think about the (mis)treatments and the symptoms and the intolerable behavior of humankind. Sure, In the Lake of the Woods ends with John Wade taking a boat to the vastness of the Boundary Waters, but then what? The reader is haunted forever, stuck in the wake and the image of Wade trolling out to anywhere/nowhere, anything/nothing.
A major function of fiction is to discuss the undiscussable, to examine taboos in meaningful, (non)judgmental ways. McCullers and O’Brien are masters of this function. Their novels grip us without being didactic sermons. Their novels teach us lessons without, of course, being lectures with powerpoints, charts, and graphs. Readers learn lessons through stories, which, when constructed well, influence people lastingly and significantly. To teach a high school student the potential perils of drinking and driving, bring in an ex-college volleyball star who is gorgeous, yet now armless because of her bad decision and subsequent car accident. She will engage them more, assuredly, than a bowtie stuffy with a podium and percentages. The students will become unfailing witnesses to what harm people can do to themselves—and to others. Essentially, the students will begin to redefine what they have been conditioned to think and believe. Popular films will show them how much happier a drinking existence is in high school. Parents will even buy alcohol for their underage children, then host parties that celebrate only a brainwashed zombie state of being and thinking. How is it, after all, that European adolescents handle alcohol—and, related, peer pressure—so much better than do American adolescents? The answer lies deeply in differing definitions of what is considered “cultural,” “natural,” and “supernatural.”
Perhaps a helpful, working definition of “natural” is that which is best for the most of us; “natural order” would be the state that is best for the most of us. Of course, there are many aspects to our “natures” that are not best for the most of us, but one could persistently argue that many, if not all, of those harmful aspects of our “natures” are “cultural,” or come as a result of human-made constructions. It is undoubtedly human-made constructions that have caused so much of the unrest, intolerance, and hostilities in our culture.
Prominent Republican conservative Mike Huckabee, when speaking on Fox News about the Iowa Supreme Court April 3 ruling to recognize/allow same-sex marriage, recently said, “We’ve messed up heterosexual marriage so much that we shouldn’t try another type of marriage.” But if we have not succeeded at allowing only heterosexuals to be married and for traditional families to thrive, then other options should be considered. Ethnocentricity has gotten directly in the way of open-mindedness. And when so much cultural/ethical strictness or rigidity is claimed, blatant hypocrisy is often a byproduct. Huckabee also said on this program that he loves the Beatles because of their ideas and their musical genius. Good for him for being able to love at all, but he is loving people who would decidedly be at least unopposed to same-sex marriage. This social conservatism is what McCullers thwarts without being polemical or passing judgment. Ahead of the atom bombs and ahead of what poet Robert Lowell called the “tranquilized 1950s,” Carson McCullers’s novel Reflections in a Golden Eye forces readers to rethink their ideas of what is best for the most of us.
McCullers did what contemporary daytime talk shows attempt: expose and examine taboos. However, while today’s Maury Povich and Montel Williams examine topics like infidelity, obsession, homosexuality, their shows are designed to make the audience glad they are not like the people on the screen, or glad that their own problems are not as heinous (or at least as public). Maury and Montel aim to simply see the surface of scandalous topics—to expose, but not to examine. These shows have interesting narrative setups and obviously provocative content, but lack the weight and staying power of important fiction. In 1939, McCullers did not overtly comment on troublesome topics like those that these daytime hosts—and their raucous studio audiences—comment on. McCullers said simply and plainly, beautifully and horribly, “this is life.”
Ellgee Williams is a fascinating character, one who makes readers reconsider everything they think they believe. Following him as a sort of anti-protagonist, readers are also not allowed to believe everything they think. McCullers keeps him mute for much of the plot. And when Private Williams sun bathes nude, having ridden the stunning steed to his paradise in the wilderness, readers realize he is rejecting society’s rigidity and cultural codes. He is attempting to strip himself of all cultural influences. He is also mimicking what he has seen Leonora Pendleton do: display her naked body proudly. In the wilderness, Pvt. Williams is rejecting what has rejected him, the power establishment in place; treating the horse well, even symbiotically; isolating himself to meditate or just to avoid; and then is sneaking around at night to look at Leonora. He lurks because he understands—on some subconscious level—the consequences of his presence at the Penderton home. Pvt. Williams has been severely, strictly conditioned by his pastor father, who said that women “carried in them a deadly and catching disease which made men blind, crippled, and doomed to hell” (320). Supposedly supernatural influences force him to reject women to the point of having never “willingly touched, or looked at, or spoken to a female since he was eight years old” (320). Yet, he cannot resist his programmed desire to look at Leonora because he is inevitably a part of a culture that worships false, physical, unreal, surface beauty. A deeply natural force compels him to watch the Penderton home from the darkness, then to enter the home once their parties are over. His rudimentary understanding of cultural codes prevents him from entering the home in the broad daylight. Readers should not be able to resist a close examination of Pvt. Williams. He is a product of a harmful culture, one that has denied the natural and distorted the supernatural. McCullers has expertly crafted her anti-protagonist to accomplish this prompting to redefinition.
In stark contrast to the rejected, ignored Pvt. Williams is the objectified, desired Leonora Penderton, whose marriage is phony and only harmful to everyone associated. Leonora is stupid, unable to do simple arithmetic and unable to write a simple note without intense strain. Indeed, Leonora plays social games exceedingly well, throwing parties and enticing every man around her, because she looks like she should, according to the adoring culture. She has never known anything supernatural—“God she had never known” (318); she rides horses only to demonstrate her grace and dominance over both the beast and the male riders who lust for her (her name/signifier connotes she is queen of beasts); and she demonstrates next to no scruples or morals, blatantly cavorting with neighbor Major Morris Langdon, known as “The Buffalo” for how he rides with his bulky shoulders pushed upward and forward. Author Gary Richards puts it best, showing how McCullers advocates for a tolerant view of people who are different through her “demonization of the novel’s heterosexuals as stupid, animalistic, nymphomaniacal [they lust for sex like they lust for food], and/or sadistic” (165). The majority is “right” only by having more members. The homosexuals in the novel are shown as suppressed and “better” in many ways, showing grace, strength, and endurance in a tyrannical system. Leonora’s husband, Captain Weldon Penderton, is forced to “play the game” according to social rules and against his will. He is likely homosexual and is definitely a sadist (a certain result of having been rejected for what he is and for having his natural being suffocated out of him). Houseboy Anacleto is selfless and hard-working. If tolerated as a natural contributor in this setting, he would be productively and lastingly happy.
McCullers’s setting is an unnatural one, to be sure. The army base, which “presupposes a particular society and special forms of conduct” (Kohler 6), is unnaturally regimented and supports the system of unnatural, culturally-conflicted death. The atom bombs are about to be dropped. In 1939 with Reflections in a Golden Eye, McCullers seems to be predicting The Second World War. The army base of the narrative is a microcosm of what was about to take place globally: human beings who are unable to coexist harmoniously, perhaps because of what they have been conditioned to believe and understand. Perhaps it is natural to have conflict and war, but it is undoubtedly unnatural—and against any supernatural hopes from above—to be so effective at killing with the push of button. Throughout, McCullers shows us the consequences of rigid regimentation and ridicule, both of which are perpetuated by those in power.
Columbia professor Rachel Adams calls McCullers a “creator of freaks” who had “uncommon insight” into the lives of “unnatural” people (551). Adams details a scene in which McCullers helps a real-life hermaphrodite come to terms with what can be controlled and what cannot. After McCullers’s affirmation of her humanity and dignity, Dawn Pepita Hall subsequently marries and mothers, living decently and courageously, having been empowered by McCullers (551). Adams asserts that few authors are as adept at examining the loneliness and marginality for many people in the world. McCullers could do just that, in real life and in fiction. She gave voice and humanity to those among us who have not won the genetic and environmental lotteries. McCullers also was unable or unwilling to follow rigid social rules. She had “triangular” affairs with her husband and other men and women (556); her very life makes us question whether Huckabee’s sacred institution of one man-one woman is “best” for the most of us. With her life and fiction, she leaves us no choice but to do some heavy consideration. Of Reflections in a Golden Eye, Adams explains her “Captain Penderton and Anacleto…combine qualities of masculine and feminine to suggest a model of sexuality based on a continuum rather than binary oppositions” (559). For Adams, nothing in McCullers’s fiction is homogenous, because reality is not homogenous, either. McCullers, during a turbulent century and at an unyielding time, posed questions. What is a freak? Does difference not make us better? Is it not difference that is the thing we all have in common? Adams sees these questions as the real value in McCullers’s fiction: “Rereading McCullers’s work from this perspective does not provide a coherent plan of action but rather a place to begin thinking about what it would be like to inhabit a community rooted in heterogeneity rather than sameness, desire rather than prescription, where each member can find herself in a ‘mixture of delicious and freak’” (576). If we are to determine how then we shall live, we need narratives like Reflections in a Goldeneye; we need characters like these ones. Lorena (Bobbitt) Gallo may have behaved freakishly by cutting her husband’s penis off, but her story and what she did was either mocked or dismissed as madness. Gallo actually suffered much like a McCullers character—abused in almost every way, forced to have an abortion, raped. Thanks to McCullers’s expertly-crafted narrative and depiction, readers see more in Alison Langdon, who also maims a physical, sexual part, cutting her own nipples off. While Gallo’s feminist feat is still alluded to constantly, it is Alison Langdon’s response to her procreative failure that haunts readers forever: “she mutilates those parts of her body simultaneously associated with erotic stimulation and the nurture of children” (Richards 166). The childless Alison then attempts to adopt her houseboy Anacleto, as a sort of surrogate for the dead daughter. Fiction resonates more than fact, because of the imaginative investment made by the reader—and because of the “special sensibility” of the author.
Writing during McCullers’s waning years, Oliver Evans of Illinois University called her “quite possibly the most controversial living American writer” with a “special sensibility” and a skill of “observation…that is compassionate [and] penetrating to the point of clairvoyance” (301). Reflections in a Golden Eye has essential themes, but it is specially crafted too. Without its form, the themes are not as poignant. Dayton Kohler agrees about the excellence of her short novel: “The pressure of the narrowed field makes for speed and concentration, and the reader has a feeling of powerlessness before this swift unfolding of physical violence and psychological horrors” (6). McCullers “announces her setting, her plot and her characters in her first paragraph,” (6) making careful (re)consideration of “cultural,” “natural,” and “supernatural” possible. (Having students too caught up in what happens will get you and them only a surface level analysis. Once students easily know what happens, they can delve into evaluation and application of topics.) McCullers absolutely excels in making her novel readable. Also brilliant is the choice to make this novel short; lengthy tomes can repel readers. If points about tolerance and redefining definitions are to be made, a short book will appeal to a lot more people. It is what the reader must do with Reflections in a Golden Eye that McCullers seems to be interested in most. The plot engages and does not release: “Everything that happens—domestic infidelity, brutality, the frozen hate of impotence, sexual frenzy—flows as if under inner compulsion from that opening statement” (Kohler 6). Kohler shows McCullers’s exactness of method, that of both “much modern poetry and fiction” and “the first myths and fables” (7). Much of the novel is matter-of-fact, blunt and brilliantly understated. But Pvt. Williams’s obsessive adoration for the sleeping Leonora—which is, Kohler agrees, “innocent, but terrifying” (7)—leaves readers not just spooked, but stimulated. Kohler is right about the adoration being “innocent,” but only because a corrupt culture and a twisted use of the supernatural have been used to make sure Pvt. Williams does not, cannot know better. Pvt. Williams has neither friend nor enemy on the base, which means he also neither has anyone far away nor close enough to him to show him anything that can be considered culturally correct. He has been immersed in this culture for his whole life, so by osmosis, he has learned to stop his adoration at staring at Leonora (plus, he has been taught that women are evil and infectious, as aforementioned).