Dancing Amidst Despair: From Cosmology to Counterpointed Characterization
We begin adrift, as an idea hovering above a blank page, as two cells floating in the miasma of fallopian tubes. Our stories and our lives begin as little-things, as truly, almost nothing. And from the void emerges a word, a unified cell; and thus begins the story, begins the life. How much does an idea weigh? Certainly even less than a single cell, if such weights were quantifiable, yet all things are built upon these foundations of lightness. A creation begins with the merest thing. The idea, like the cell, must gain by accretion. It lives only with connections to other ideas—without those connections, it vanishes. And with variability, with diversity, with contrast, the stories and characters become rich and layered.
Pattiann Rogers opens her essay, Twentieth-Century Cosmology and the Soul’s Habitation, with this thought: “I’m very curious about the grid upon which we mentally place ourselves in time and space. There must be a grid of some kind there for each of us, a visual scaffolding, for balance, for orientation.” I think of that grid as a story, as the details which define the particular world of imagined lives captured on a page. I think of that grid as the small, Pennsylvania college town where Lorrie Moore’s unnamed narrator has gone for an evening to meet up with her old friend, Cal, in the short story “Dance In America.” I’d like to dwell on that grid awhile, to see if it can provide some clue what it’s all about.
Moore opens with an evocative, almost lyrical passage about dance. Yet absent in this opening is character. The unnamed narrator speaks in abstractions to an undefined audience, albeit with carefully crafted words.
I tell them dance begins when a moment of hurt combines with a moment of boredom. I tell them it’s the body’s reaching, bringing air into itself. I tell them it’s the heart’s triumph, the victory speech of the feet, the refinement of animal lunge and flight, the purest metaphor of tribe and self. It is life flipping death the bird.
I make this stuff up.
Despite the power of the language, the story suffers because we don’t have a grid yet, we don’t have a context for what’s happening, until the second paragraph, that is. Until the narrator bursts in and says, “I make this stuff up.” That short sentence brings life in. It opens up the story so that a character speaks honestly about herself. It reveals instantly a penetrating and close narrative voice. The rest is slight by comparison—beautiful phrases destined for posters hanging in a dance studio. Without the dancer, the words mean almost nothing. Character must be present to contextualize the abstraction.
Later, the narrator and Cal are out walking his dog, and talking about the past. “He’d been exaggerating his interest in dance. ‘I didn’t get it,’ he admitted. ‘I kept trying to figure out the story.’” Dance continues to remain abstract here, a concept not yet alive. Cal as much as tells us this. There is also a distinct coolness between these two old friends so far. “I’m determined to be agreeable,” the narrator says at one point; “I must be nice,” she says just a paragraph later. They talk about paint colors and trade witticisms about Snickerdoodles, but all of this is surface clutter. There is not enough contrast or conflict between the narrator and Cal. At one point on the walk, they even think the same thoughts. “Up in the sky, Venus and the thinnest pairing of sickle moon, like a cup and saucer, like a nose and mouth, have made the Turkish flag in the sky,” thinks the narrator. “‘Wow,’ Cal says. ‘The Turkish flag.’” Were this to continue, I would argue that these two characters would not generate much dramatic spark. Such energy-providing contrast comes from what Charles Baxter calls counterpointed characterization. This will come in a minute, but first, back to the cosmos.
Rogers quotes Bertrand Russell when she says, “The point of departure must be ‘unyielding despair.’ We start from the recognition of that point to build the soul’s habitation.” This despair emerges from a modern cosmology, a historically recent understanding of the universe and our almost imperceptible presence in it. Rogers says:
The Sun is tiny compared to the size of the solar system, the solar system to the size of the Milky Way galaxy, the Milky Way to the size of the Andromeda galaxy, which is twice as big, containing 400 billion stars. And yet the Andromeda galaxy is tiny compared to the universe, which contains billions of other galaxies. All of that, up there, going on at this moment.
The point of departure Rogers refers to is the act of creation within the vast coldness of an indifferent cosmos. In the past, such creation had a single source and a single destination: the divine and it’s manifestation of a destiny—a revealed plan for man. For a long time in the West, art, history, politics and society served and glorified God, with a capital G. Modern thinking, however, must contend with a much different perception of reality. Rogers says: “As a result of this cosmology all of us, I would venture to say, have seen ourselves at some moment or other as ‘mankind aimlessly adrift in a meaningless universe.’” We begin adrift. This awareness of our diminished role in the cosmos leads directly to a sense of unyielding despair. What can we do, specks of dust on a piece of rock floating in an unfathomable, endless universe? How can we create something of value in a universe devoid of meaning? Rogers turns not to science’s reductive approach of cutting and measuring (which she also defends and respects) but by seeking an artistic interconnectedness in things. “The creative person, whether scientist or artist,…is that person who imagines new, different connections, broadening our conception of the universe and its interconnectedness as a whole.” Charles Baxter echoes this too, although more narrowly, when he talks of the “incompatibility of passion and gentility” in James Joyce’s short story “The Dead.” The artist seeks to illuminate the human condition in the darkness of an unfathomable universe. Creation, in its highest forms, begins as an act of passion. “Passion knocks decency right off the stage,” Baxter says. The soul’s habitation is constructed on this grid, against this backdrop of cold, endless despair, filled with quotidian formality, gentility, struggles and structures, but in the hearth, a fire surely burns.
In order to render such passion in fiction, characters must be brought into contrast. Baxter says, “Plot often develops out of the tension between characters, and in order to get that tension, a writer sometimes has to be something of a matchmaker, creating characters who counterpoint one another.” Baxter says that characters are designed to rub up against each other, to create friction of sort, or even warmth, but that it is the connections between the characters that make the story. “Certain kinds of people are pushed together, people who bring out a crucial response in each other. A latent energy rises to the surface.” It can’t be done with beautiful prose alone, at least not in a sustainable way. Without the characters, the prose energy cools quickly. With counterpointed characters, the energy levels rise even more quickly. In “Dance In America,” Lorrie Moore works to heat up her story with the introduction of a seven year-old boy named Eugene.
Eugene, the son of Cal and his wife, Simone, has cystic fibrosis and his “whole life is a race with medical research.” Moore never says so directly, but we gather that the boy is dying. “Already, Cal says, Eugene has degenerated, grown worse, too much liquid in his lungs. ‘Stickiness,’ he calls it. ‘If he were three instead of seven, there’d be more hope.’” Enter the backdrop of despair. Yet in spite of his condition, a condition which makes him labor for breath, Eugene steals this story, crashing into it with life and verve. Notice the verbs Moore uses with respect to Eugene: shouts, slides, chases, races, grabs, and smiles. Eugene roars with life, overcoming his parents, the narrator and even our own despair. Before he even enters the story directly, his presence pulsates with energy. Talking to the narrator, Cal says:
‘It’s not that I’m not for the arts’, says Cal. ‘You’re here; money for the arts brought you here. That’s wonderful. It’s wonderful to see you after all these years. It’s wonderful to fund the arts. The arts are so nice and wonderful. But really: I say, let’s give all the money, every last fucking dime, to science.’
Notice the contrast here. The repetitive use of wonderful and the clichéd language in relationship to abstract things, and in relation to the narrator’s visit, builds to an almost ecstatic outpouring for Eugene, who has yet to appear but whose illness has been introduced. Moore uses the word fuck two times in this story, and both times (I will examine the second use below) the energy and force of that most un-genteel word strike exactly the right tone. There is no vulgarity here, only passion. The last sentence of this paragraph works like a prayer, like a devotion to the modern god, Science, driven by the most desperate yearning of the human spirit.
Eugene works as the counterpointed character to the adults in the story. With only Cal, Simone and the narrator, the story would fall flat. Eugene reminds the other characters what life is supposed to be about. In talking about counterpointed characters, Baxter says:
A third element is born when these characters meet. This element is not just drama, the force of conflicting desires. It is a kind of invisible presence whose identity is generated by the proximity of these…characters, and this presence in not moral or simple.
Eugene shakes up this story when he arrives. The adult lives are turned completely around. The story becomes exciting during Eugene’s time on stage. Notice the changes in the voice of the narrator especially—gone is the cynicism and ironic detachment from her voice. “He huddles close, cold in the drafty house, and I extend my long sweater around him like a shawl.” “He watches, rapt. His brown hair hangs in strings in his face, and he chews it.” With Eugene present, the narrator is dancing for the first time. Through his suffering, Eugene teaches the narrator (and presumably, hopefully, the reader) to celebrate life. After dinner, they actually go and dance in Cal’s living room. The narrator takes the hand of the “amazing Eugene” and loses herself to the music of Kenny Loggins. “We make a phalanx and march, strut, slide to the music. We crouch, move backward, then burst forward again. We’re aiming to create the mildew, resinous sweat smell of dance.”
This story works with no real direct conflict in it, other than the unyielding despair of an indifferent universe that would besiege a seven year-old boy with cystic fibrosis. What drives this story is the contrast between the adult word of sophistication and social codes and the free, more open world of Eugene. It’s Baxter’s passion knocking decency off the stage again. “Counterpointing substitutes for conflict, or displaces it,” Baxter says. Were Eugene not present, some other motive force would have to drive this story forward. Instead, Eugene’s vibrancy works to shake the characters loose of their doldrums. It’s managed carefully, however. Moore is hardly preaching and hardly providing a caricature of morality. In one telling scene, Eugene practically begs the narrator to visit his classroom the next day, when she stops by his school to conduct a dance workshop for older kids. “‘Sure,’ I say, not knowing that, in a rush, I will forget, and that I’ll be on a plane home already, leafing through some inane airline magazine before I remember that I forgot to do it.” Moore uses prolepsis here to underscore this scene’s importance, and she shows us how easy it is to forget the sublime in place of the mundane. The use of the airline magazine works to underscore this point. Just because Eugene’s presence shines like a beacon in this story, Moore is a careful enough artist to render reality’s often cold indifference to the light.
Yet, in spite of the pain and suffering, we press forward. Rogers puts it this way: “And here’s a miracle that must be constantly celebrated: In spite of the moments of the soul’s desperation, we do proceed.” Moore paints this picture vividly in the story, again using the sharp contrasts between Eugene and the adults. After he is called to dinner, Eugene must take a regimen of pills for his illness. Notice the verbs and how they contrast between the characters.
‘Coming!’ shouts Eugene, and he leaps off the couch and slides into the dining room, falling sideways into her chair. ‘Whoo,’ he says, out of breath. ‘I almost didn’t make it.’
‘Here,’ says Cal. He places a goblet of pills at Eugene’s place setting.
Eugene makes a face, but in the chair, he gets up on his knees, leans forward, glass of water in one hand, and begins the arduous activity of taking all the pills.
I sit in the chair opposite him and place my napkin in my lap.
In this short example, we have despair and miraculous procession. The illness hovers always over Eugene. Like the universe, it is a dark, relentless presence that cannot be escaped. Yet Eugene perseveres, undaunted by the magnitude of it. Notice also the counterpointing to create this effect: Cal, placing the pills, the narrator placing the napkin, while Eugene shouts, leaps, slides and falls into his chair. And though out of breath, he finds the strength to speak while the adults watch in near silence. As readers, we feel the emotional weight of Eugene through the adult consciousness of the story, but it is Eugene, not the adults, who instructs us how to live under the cold universe. Rogers says that “we continue to build the soul’s habitation” by “expressing the awe and thrill and gratitude we feel at the mystery and beauty of the universe.”
The final scene in “Dance in America” seems to capture this feeling of awe perfectly. The characters are dancing in the living room but Eugene tires due to his illness. He is “determined not to cough until the end,” and the narrator then goes to him. Notice the change in language from the opening.
I am thinking of the dancing body’s magnificent and ostentatious scorn. This is how we offer ourselves, enter heaven, enter speaking: we say with motion, in space, This is what life’s done so far down here; this is all and what and everything it’s managed—this body, these bodies, that body—so what do you think, Heaven? What do you fucking think?
This passage is the narrator’s direct answer to the cosmos; it’s her defiant answer to the question, What’s it all about, down here? In spite of the flaws and terrible fates awaiting them, these characters are dancing. They are staring into the unfathomable emptiness of infinity and “flipping death the bird.” Moore’s narrator has reclaimed the language of her opening, by rubbing up against Eugene, and has taken the “latent energy ris(ing) to the surface” and burst it over the top. By achieving a harmonious balance between very different characters, Moore has crafted both a simple story and a profoundly moving one, one that seeks to find a grid, a location to construct the human soul’s rightful habitation in the universe.
Baxter, Charles. Burning Down the House. (Saint Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 1997)
Moore, Lorrie. “Dance in America.” In Birds of America. (London: Faber and Faber, 1998)
Rogers, Pattiann. “Twentieth-Century Cosmology and the Soul’s Habitation.” In Writing it Down for James, edited by Kurt Brown. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1995)