Apr 182010

Scott Russell Sanders

I would like to add the following as a general rule: a work of art is perceived against a background of and by association with other works of art. The form of a work of art is determined by its relationship with other pre-existing forms. The content of a work of art is invariably manipulated, it is isolated, “silenced.” All works of art, and not only parodies, are created either as a parallel or an antithesis to some model. The new form makes its appearance not in order to express new content, but rather, to replace an old form that has already outlived its artistic usefulness. (Theory of Prose p20)

I start with this quote from Shklovsky not because it necessarily says anything specifically craft-related that I hadn’t already heard this semester, but because it reinforced a couple of truths I think I’ve been subconsciously evading for the last couple of months: 1) that the strength of a non-fiction story doesn’t come only from the events and people themselves but from the formal choices I choose in telling (writing) them, and 2) I can see these formal choices in just about everything I read, if I read pieces for form rather than content. In other words, both my writing and my reading have been focusing on finding the “aboutness” of a piece or an experience, attaching myself to writing and events that have some verisimilitude for me, at the expense of focusing, as an artist, on the formal patterns other artists employ. Doug’s been telling me this from the start, but it’s taken awhile to sink in (and of course still is).

I chose to write critically about Scott Russell Sanders‘s “Under the Influence” because I found it so similar in structure and content to what I was attempting with the creative work I submitted last month. Some of these similarities include the central conflict of understanding the father, the thematic framing of addiction (though I think we differ in our final verdict), and perhaps most importantly the way he juxtaposes the past he remembers so vividly with his present self, a self that seems so removed from that past but still finds bits of it in him. One way he frames the past and present that resonates with me is the juxtaposition of addiction with biblical imagery.

The essay, as implied by the title, is a meditation on alcoholism, primarily his father’s. But it also delves into the nature of addiction, indicting his own obsession with work that prompts his daughter to label him a workaholic, and delving into the influence Sanders’s father had on his siblings’ and his own habits, hence the first two interpretations of the title I found. A third possible interpretation is the influence of the Bible, as a source of mythology, an instruction book for living, and, because of this perhaps most importantly, as a source of shame for Sanders at his father’s miserable failure at living up to these instructions.

As it turns out I had to rethink and revise my work to get to what Sanders was doing formally. I initially chose to write critically about it because I found the people, themes, and events in the essay immediately recognizable, and similar to some of the people and themes I’m writing about in my own work. Because of this, in my first critical essay, I focused primarily on those elements that I connected most to my work thematically and explained how they connected. The next time out, though, I focused on just one section of “Under the Influence” (on pp737-739 of The Art of the Personal Essay) only in terms of its structural patterns, specifically the parallelism of biblical passages and parables with events in Sanders’ family, and tried to discern how these patterns work. This is what I came up with.

Sanders’s intent in this section is to juxtapose his adult understanding of his father as an alcoholic with his childhood understanding of his father as a sinner, which he sets up in the first paragraph of the section:

While growing up on the back roads and in the country schools and cramped Methodist churches of Ohio and Tennessee, I never heard the world alcoholism, never happened across it in books or magazines. In the nearby towns, there were no addiction treatment programs, no community mental health centers, no Alcoholics Anonymous chapters, no therapists. Left alone with our grievous secret, we has no way of understanding Father’s drinking except as an act of will, a deliberate folly or cruelty, a moral weakness, a sin.

This juxtaposition is important because it contrasts Sanders’ adult authorial voice, for whom the phrase “under the influence” in relation to his father’s alcoholism has the commonly accepted connotation of addiction, with his child-presence, for whom the “influence” in the same phrase is far more sinister, mysterious and frightening. One of the most commonly voiced concerns I’ve heard (and voiced myself) is the difficulty, in writing of childhood, of balancing the child-awareness with the adult authorial presence. This mingling of the biblical with the clinical is how Sanders balances the two.

The following three paragraphs give a sweeping panorama of biblical allusions he remembers being used by his church to scare the bejesus out of him, of a different ilk for each paragraph, giving his adult-voice recollection of the connections he made between them and his father. The first one has three proclamations by the prophets Isaiah, Hosea, and an anonymous seer of the Book of Proverbs:

  • “The priest and the prophet reel with strong drink, they are confused with wine, they err in vision, they stumble in giving judgment. For all the table are full of vomit, no place is without filthiness” – he remembers “fouled tables at the truckstop where the notorious boozers hung out, our father occasionally among them.”
  • “Wine and new wine take away the understanding” – his father, fairly astute at math, was unable to even help with fourth grade math when he was drinking.
  • “Do not look at wine when it is red, when it sparkles in the cup and goes down smoothly. At the last it bites like a serpent, and stings like an adder. Your eyes will see strange things, and your mind will utter perverse things” – Here his adult voice is in full command, with an authoritatively ironic “Woe, Woe” dismissively concluding the prophets’ passages.

Sanders then in the next short paragraph, his authorial presence subtly lurking,  summarizes the Old Testament cautionary tales of Noah and Lot, in which both violated their parental boundaries when drinking, and Sanders concludes in his adult voice, “The sins of the fathers set their children’s teeth on edge.” And in the last of these three paragraphs Sanders takes his church’s ministers themselves to task, noting their prudish assurance of the children that they were drinking grape juice, not wine, at the Last Supper, and finally noting the implication of the “Eleventh Commandment: Thou shalt not drink.”

The final three paragraphs of the section go even deeper into the dichotomy of addiction as possession, with “the scariest and most illuminating Bible story apropos of drunkards,” the New Testament parable of the drunkard and the swine. He spends most of the first paragraph summarizing the story of Jesus finding the lifetime drunk of a village, seeing immediately that the man is simply possessed, and sending the demons into a group of swine “conveniently rooting nearby.” The poor hogs go crazy and jump off a cliff, and the now-former drunk “bathed himself and put on clothes and calmly sat at the feet of Jesus, restored – so the Bible said – to his ‘right mind.’”

Sanders begins the next paragraph with, “When drunk, our father was clearly in his wrong mind.” Then, he sets out, in his adult voice, at explaining the connections he made as a child to the story. He says he saw his father as this lunatic, both “quick tempered, explosive” and “maudlin and weepy,” and notes the support he received for his theory from the local church, which referred to liquor as “spirits” and “demon drink,” and local newspapers with their reports of driving “under the influence” (interestingly, the paper probably meant it in the clinical sense, but as a child he took the influence as demonic). And finally, in the last paragraph, he asks four questions in succession in the confused, pleading voice of the child he was:

If my father was indeed possessed, who could exorcise him? If he was a sinner, who could save him? If he was ill, who could cure him? If he suffered, who could ease his pain?

And then he answers them in the sad, regretful voice of the adult who sees beyond the time and place:

Not ministers and doctors, for we could not bring ourselves to confide in them; not the neighbors, for we pretended they had never seen him drunk; not Mother, who fussed and pleaded but could not budge him; not my brother and sister, who were only kids. That left me. It did not matter that I, too, was only a child, and a bewildered one at that. I could not excuse myself.

Interestingly, even as an adult, the answers he gives are not really answers, but ironic justifications of the answers he gave as a child. The effect is chilling, but also endears him to the reader – he still is questioning, and even the answers just bring in more questions. This seems central to the voice of the personal essayist – not the desire the answer the questions, but to raise them, bringing the reader into the story, with his or her own questions, and his or her own answers.

–John Proctor

For a further discussion of aboutness, verisimilitude, and patterns, see dg’s essay “The Novel is a Poem” in Notes Home from a Prodigal Son.

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