Sunday, August 3, 2008

Made Up Stories

Speaking with a pastor friend the other day who has been reading this blog, and he said he liked the entry on the Harley Davidson shirt. Debated whether or not it was real. Others telling him, no, it can’t be real. Finally he came out on the side that it was indeed real.

And so I had to disabuse him. “Pretend,” I said.


“We are all a congress,” I said.

“A congress?”

“One version of me,” I said. “One version of who I am. Of what happens or might happen or might have happened. My children gave me a Harley Davidson shirt for Christmas, and so that got me thinking.”

We’re all characters in an exemplum. Or exempla, I should say. We’re all wandering around in the story of our lives, capable of thoroughgoing evil or something better. We’re all making up the story of our lives. And at any point our lives can go in many directions, depending on the story we want to make. Or depending on what the story wants to make us.

I remember a conversation with the same pastor friend some years ago. We were having breakfast at the Ahwahnee hotel in Yosemite valley, because that’s the only meal we could afford there. The ceiling was tall. The setting was. Well, it made me feel like people could say important things in a place like this. The place seemed to draw forth a feeling of momentousness.

I chose to speak about a former poetry teacher, a fellow by the name of W.D. Snodgrass, who wrote a book of poems later in his career called The Fuehrer Bunker. It was a group of dramatic monologues in the voices of Hitler and his colleagues.

I had recently heard Snodgrass being interviewed on public radio, and in that interview he said that the book, The Fuehrer Bunker, had destroyed his career. When asked how that could be so, he said that all his friends and acquaintances and possible employers shunned him after he published the book. Shunned him because he presented these Nazi monsters as mostly ordinary, pathetic, and bathetic human beings.

The attitude of his friends was that the Nazis were monsters; they could not be ordinary human beings. And picturing them as ordinary human beings was morally reprehensible. Morally vile. And they concluded that Snodgrass was therefore morally vile and didn’t want to have anything more to do with him.

And then I said that the moral of that particular little story is that people don’t like to think of themselves as monsters. As possible monsters. They don’t like to think that placed in circumstances like late 1930s and early 1940s Germany, they might have actually become Nazis or at least looked the other way as the Jews were exterminated and Europe was devastated. People will in fact become quite vicious if asked to recognize the monstrous in themselves.

I don’t know about you. I think a little fiction thrown into one’s actual life from time to time helps to keep one on one’s toes. A little fiction about what might be or might have been or could actually happen helps. Helps us to get over the idea that we ordinary good people can’t possibly be monsters.

Or at least it does seem to help me.


Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for your thoughtful comments about my husband's cycle of poems, The Fuehrer Bunker. I wanted to correct one impression of the NPR interview, in which De actually said that his career suffered because of some critics' responses. In fact, he did not lose a friend or employment over the poems. Quite the contrary: many poet friends, notably Donald Hall, had high praise for the book. Don went so far as to say that it was one of the greatest cycle of poems of the 20th century.
Kathy Snodgrass

Bill Elkington said...

Oh, my! Thank you for correcting this. And I must say that I also think a great deal of the book. It is powerful beyond this reader's usual experience of poetry. It does what poetry should do but most of the time does not.