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Let’s Try for a Title Here…

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So, let’s start with Robert’s comment here:

>>>As for the interior life, we are all alone in our own skulls, and I’ve read
enough Approved Literature to suspect that many who write in excellent prose
understand their fellow creatures no better than I do. To judge from their
personal lives, many of them may be worse than average, falling for con men,
criminals with sob stories and crooked publishers and agents. Real understanding
should be evident in behavior.>>>

I looked at that a couple of times, and I realized finally what was wrong–I never said that writers, high art or otherwise, understood their fellow human beings better than anybody else.

What I said was something I’ve brought up here before–when writing is going well, the writer isn’t writing.  Instead, he (or she) is allowing the characters to act on their own, with their own thought processes running in their own grooves.

And the reader, reading that kind of thing done well, is able to participate in–note, participate, not “understand”–a way of thinking, a set of mental habits and processes, that he is unable to participate in on his own.

Each of us is alone inside our own skulls, and one of the things we need–that we desperately need–is to step inside other skulls and experience how they work.

But this is not the same thing as “understanding” other people in an analytical or instrumental way. 

And even if it was, I don’t think it would necessarily be “evident in behavior.”  In fact, most of the examples I can think of are ones where very intelligent people who obviously know better act wrongly anyway–and Bernie Madoff’s victims are only the most recent example.

But let’s take for a moment a very good example–Norman Mailer and a nonfiction true crime book called The Executioner’s Song

For those of you who haven’t read it, I recommend it–it’s one of the three or four best true crime books ever written.  And it is–at least in those sections written from Gary Gilmore’s point of view–quintessentially a “get inside his head and think the way he does” book.

I read this book for the first time when I was in graduate school,  and far from it confirming me in what I already thought was the way people like Gilmore think, it brought me up short.

It wasn’t that Gilmore was different than I expected him to be.  It was that it had never crossed my mind that anybody, anywhere could think like that.

I’m not talking about content here, but about process.   I am, for better or worse, a very linear thinker.  I start at A and go to B and follow to C in a straight line.  I also have, for good or ill, a phenomenal memory.  So if I go to the store on Sunday and buy four cans of tuna fish, when I wake up on Monday and want tuna salad, I remember the tuna fish and get it out of the cabinet.

This is not the way Gary Gilmore thinks in Mailer’s book.  I read the thing through once and then read it through again and then I tried to explain it to somebody who was, like me, a linear thinker and who had not read it.

I have no idea if I’m going to have any better luck explaining it to those of you here who haven’t read it, but here it goes:

It’s as if Gilmore thought in dotted lines.  Thought A would occur to him, but it wouldn’t necessarily connect to any other thought.  He’d wander off to thought B, and then to thought C, and half the time there weren’t any connections. 

This isn’t stream of consciousness I’m talking about.  In fact, stream of consciousness is the direct opposite of what Mailer was presenting as Gilmore’s thinking–there was no stream, because a stream assumes some kind of continuity.

If you remember the case–Gilmore was the guy who was sentenced to death in Utah after having murdered two people in a convenience story robbery and who gained national attention by insisting on getting the execution over and done with as quickly as possible.

Mailer’s presentation of Gilmore’s thinking as a process does not explain Gilmore’s actions, before or during or after the robbery.  It really doesn’t excuse them.  In fact, if anything, it makes Gilmore seem more worthy of execution than not, at least for me, because it’s obvious that he did what he did–well, because he did it.  He’s  not depraved on account of he’s deprived, although he was deprived in many ways.  He isn’t acting out for some political reason.  He just does what he does because he does it, because sort of, it occurred to him, but that was yesterday, and he isn’t thinking about it any more.

Like I said–this is not the way I expected someone like Gilmore to think, and not the way I have murderers in my own books think  I am not as good a writer as Mailer, and this seems to be an area of experience I am not capable of reproducing on my own.  But for a moment, I was able to live inside it and feel the way it felt.  And it was unpleasant rather than otherwise.  And I came out of it thinking that somebody whose thought processes are like that is not a candidate for rehabiliation, because “rehabilitation” is not a category that applies to him.  Asking if somebody whose mind works like Mailer’s portrayal of Gilmore can be “rehabilitated” is like asking if Communism tastes like chocolate.

Many years later, when Bill was first sick, I volunteered to teach literacy classes in a women’s prison not too far from here–well, okay, it was something of a drive.  But by then it had been years since I’d thought of The Executioner’s Song, and in all that time nothing had come along to remind me of it, except periodic references to the Gilmore case in discussions of capital punishment.

But the longer I taught in that prison, the more I saw people who thought the way Gilmore thought–not who had the same ideas, but who used the same process. 

They were not the majority, and later I would meet more people with the same process who were not at all criminal, because they would show up in the remedial classes I taught later.   If anything, criminality or lack of it is accidental in respect to thinking like that–such people will be criminal if the idea hits them on Tuesday, or won’t, because the idea never hits them, or when it does they can’t carry it out immediately, and then it just sort of disappears in the mist.

I have no idea if I’m making any sense here.  As I’ve said, I’ve never written a character whose thought processes are like Mailer’s picture of Gilmore, partially becasue I’m not that good a writer and don’t have that broad a range, but also because such people would be useless in a murder mystery.  Hell, the idiot who gets drunk on his ass and beats his girlfriend’s baby’s skull to a pulp because the stupid kid won’t stop crying has more mental coherence than this.  For one thing, he actually has a train of thought.

The purpose of art–all art, high and popular and low and all the rest of it–is to make it possible for us to experience the full range of the human condition.  Not just to learn about it from the outside, but to experience it.   We’re all born and die inside our own skulls, but we are less than we could be if we settle for that.

But no matter how much we do experience, we will not necessarily see a change in our behavior because of it–St. Paul and St. Augustine and Trace Adkins know it is possible to know right and yet not do right, to know better and to do worse.

So, thanks to Norman Mailer, I know what it feels like to think like that, at least for a while.  And thanks to a reasonably good brain, I know that people who do think like that are not going to manage to pass the course, keep the job, whatever, for very long.

But I still fall for student pleas and excuses all the time, just as Mailer fell for Jack Abbott.

I think Capote is the only person I can think of who was on to himself in this regard.

Written by janeh

December 3rd, 2009 at 10:56 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to 'Let’s Try for a Title Here…'

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  1. I tend to be a very linear, rational thinker too, and the kind of thinking you describe tends to drive me crazy. It’s so long since I read the Executioner’s Song I can’t really comment on it, but it’s interesting that you think Capote was on to himself (in In Cold Blood, I suppose?) I wondered whether he was or not.

    Someone – I’m tempted to think ‘Tey’, but that may just be because you asked about her – said almost exactly the same thing as you did, except they called the process out-and-out ‘criminal’. The normal person realizes that they have to go through B to get from A to C, but the criminal mind can contemplate going directly from A to C with satisfaction, never understanding that it’s impossible.

    Mental shortcuts and an inability to make connections between events or cause and effect, maybe.


    3 Dec 09 at 12:00 pm

  2. The Tey book was The Daughter of Time, which I would rate as a very good read but not a classic detective novel. Grant’s observation that criminals can reason from A to B but can’t make it from B to C, and taht this applies to some non-criminals too may or may not be the same point Mailer was making, but it at lesat has a strong family resemblance.
    (Incidentally Tey’s quotes from “Sir Cuthbert Oliphant” are word for word from Sir Charles William Chadwick Oman, a very distinguished historian of the period. I’ll have to check, but he may still have been alive when Tey published.)
    As for the broader issue, I don’t think Augustine is on point. I’m not talking about yielding to temptation, but of being unable to recognize in reality the condition–call it thinking process or call it behavior–which the author has described in his writings. If I wrote about business practices or stock fraud and kept losing my shirt on investments, people would start to wonder just how much of an expert I really was. If the great expert on the human psyche keeps getting taken in three-card monte, I think the same thing applies.
    Yes, I know: “participate in the thought processes.” OK, but all this means in English–since we CAN’T get inside the skull–is that the author has told a story, fiction or otherwise, which accounts for the behavior of his characters to the satisfaction of his readers–or at least those readers who are satisfied.

    A lot of writers do that, and I’m not sure it connects to prose style or standing in critical circles at all.


    3 Dec 09 at 5:36 pm

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