In a world that disdains you the only reasonable response is stubborn disregard of contempt.
A friend of mine Arran James asked me a question about who the Southern Writers I most enjoy beyond the usual suspects of Edgar Allan Poe, Mark Twain, Zora Neale Hurston, William Faulkner, Katherine Anne Porter, Thomas Wolfe, Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, Cormac McCarthy, Tennessee Williams (Playwright & Short Stories), Robert Penn Warren, A.R. Williams (Poet/Essayist), and Truman Capote. Good Reads has a good list to start with along with the specifics of Country noir, but it’s a toss up for the best – and, there are some missing on Good Reads I’d add. But that’s just it, matters of time, memory, and habit all seem to coalesce in this world; shift us to those writers that speak to us, that give us something we need, a dark gift of wisdom. The one’s I keep on reading and rereading, the one’s that give me pleasure or disturb and perturb me to change and wake up and help me get through the bleak days of my life and our century of idiocy are the one’s who spoke to me, lifted me out of my self-pity and gave me the power to find my own voice, my own way, my own truth in this world.
There’s always something about certain writer’s that kicks your ass, pulls you up by the seat of your britches and speaks not at you, but with you; gives you that which sustains you and helps you get out of bed every day; feeds the soul-stuff that keeps you afloat in the midst of dark days and nights. It’s as if their works keep changing as you change, keep moving the ball and target to another place than before; and the readings and rereading’s suddenly get updated with something strange and new, some new insight you’d not seen or felt before: one of those gotcha’s or Eureka moments that awaken in you a sense of that uncanny, that something old and familiar (Freud) that has suddenly jutted its head out of the well of time and brought you a new discomfort of the soul-substance you’d lost along the way in the guttersnipe worlds of life due to those open wounds of pain or suffering, fear and terror.
When Faulkner said that an “artist is driven by demons” it is even more so for a reader: a reader is driven to find the daemonic other, that undiscovered soul-stuff hidden in the sparks of those white pages, the messages between the lines in the crevices and hollows of that black ink gathered from those other writer’s who bring one back to that dark place of an uncanny mind, where an abiding presence sits there like a slug worm waiting. It’s just here in the pits of one’s agonies and struggles to attain a real sense of life and self that one discovers the power of the daemonic; those drives that force us out of ourselves and into either creativity or violence. For the self is not a given, it does not come pre-made like some dark essence that unfolds or blossoms from a seed into the light of the sun, but rather it is constructed out of the broken ruins of our lives, out of the decay and corruption of our fragmented soul pieces we’ve lost among those wounded hollers of our foolish lives; and, sometimes even against our own will and judgment. It’s this daemonic force from within that speaks out from those others, those voices both from within and in those characters that seem more alive than we are in those books that speak to us. It’s those voices that will not go away, that hold the keys to our redemption or damnation; voices that will not leave us alone, but continually drive us to our sense of glory or utter oblivion. If we learn to listen well to these dark powers we might just become if not whole and complete, then at least human; else our lives are a nothingness and a waste, a crime against ourselves and humanity.
Who to read is for me to know what works and what doesn’t, that is to know how to read those works that speak to me and not waste time boring myself and working through books or writer’s that will never profit me whatsoever. If a book or writer doesn’t speak to one in the first few pages might as well just throw it on the fire, because it’ll bore you to death and you’ll get nothing out of it. Books that speak to one at various times and places in your life, and that give you sustenance are far and few between. I’m not talking of fact-laden books: science, school, etc. I’m talking about one’s leisure time in reading fiction: short stories, novels, poetry texts, software manuals and the like; that’s just plain knowledge: pure and simple… No I’m talking about those books and writer’s that come to you out of the blue and under scruffy, brutish skies full of storm tossed days and tornado emotions, and that make one think about who and what One is; about where one comes from, where one’s going, and what one might or could become once one gets to that dark place of decisions. Most of all I’m talking about those works that help one come to know the uncanny parts of one’s self — all those fragments and daemonic voices that get lost along the way in life’s struggles: those fragmented and tormented threads of one’s old soul-stuff rising up to greet you out of the voices of those works from other writer’s words that suddenly, reappearing with the force of uncanny power reverberate in your mind as your own thoughts brought back from the deep well of time. Those voices that under the guise of those wounded men and women flitting through the pages of a novel, short story, or poem like sparks on a anvil cracking steel, gleaming white and springing from the world of sheer death… death’s plumage flakes of light that reveal one’s old soul coming back from the dark places of silence and the unacknowledged bottom worlds of being; out from that cold and impersonal longing sphere to find a home again in one’s heart and mind, and making one once again a little more human, a little more whole, a little more real…
Maybe in the end that’s it, what we’re all doing is constructing ourselves out of bits and pieces of pain and suffering, wounds and blood festivals of the heart and mind. That to become human is not something we escape from, but rather something we actually face head on and meet in the dark places of our lives: our open wounds full of all those scars of life that can remember and know as it is known, feel as it is felt. Down there in that dark hollow of the empty self that loses itself only to slowly reconstruct a new house out of the shambles of death and decay, we find a new sense of life that enforces its own inner laws and destiny, an uncharted and unmapped future without boundaries, telos (purpose or goal), or markers. Maybe the only thing that is ever redeemed out of this life is our darkness, that which cannot be seen in the light, the power of our pain and hurt that makes us one and unique. For in the end it is one’s pain that is memorable and that is one’s testament… it is not our reasons that we give and take, but our pain and our suffering, our wounded heart’s and mind’s, our emotions and feelings of love and anguish, loss and betrayal; these, these alone have the staying power against corruption and decay, because they live on in our bones, in our lives, in our art and our writings… it’s not the light, but the darkness that hollows the sounding clangs of being that survive us, channel us, keep those who come after seeking us out and knowing as we know the path of becoming human.
For not everyone born of woman attains humanity, some fall away into the bestial: the sub-human psychopaths and sociopaths that spawn death and destruction, mayhem and chaos. Becoming human is not a right, but an attainment —and one that comes with a price and a debt not easily paid; no, its paid with the full temper of one’s unholy life, one’s lived life, forged in the dark declivities of agon, struggle and war; not a war against others, but with one’s own inner demons — all those dark forces within that seek to dissuade one from the path of becoming human, alive, real; a being whose emotions are no longer under the command and control of the daemonic, but have been turned to substantive accomplishment as the quiet reserve of one who is fully alive to the Dionysian energy of one’s potential for good or ill. And, this is not religion; for the way to the human is not by way of some outside force, God or gods —no Laws or Ethics of the Other, or the Outside or Absolute — but rather through the dark and lonely path of daemonic resistance, that path in which one learns as Dorothy Allison states in the epigraph to this post, that “In a world that disdains you the only reasonable response is stubborn disregard of contempt.” This ability to hold one’s head high, to resist that contempt that others show one’s self due to race, class, or gender; to rise above their sneers and gazes and be in the being of one’s central being: — an attained dignity and integrity of spirit, and of being that need answer no man, but forces others to acknowledge in fear and respect just who and what one is: a fully awakened human. This sense of real presence, not that false outer encompassment of titles and privilege; but that deep sense of judgment that comes from within out of that daemonic force of being that is attained only in becoming fully human as human.
This is not that humanism of the scholars or the philosophers. This is another path that is age old, and was here long before religion or humanists ever thought about what being human is. There is a dark humanism that goes without name or book, a deep registry of the spirit that one can only surmise from the glance and the gaze. One is or is not human, and no one need tell you or not. There is a deep seated fire in the pit of our being that awakens us to that sense of the human, but it is only a beginning, an awakening to the task of becoming human not its final work. Some ask me why I’m a pessimist thinking I hate life and the world. They’d be wrong, it’s not life and the world I hate as much as those who would bind us all in a hell hole of dominion and death, keep us blinded in a cesspool of misery and groping’s, twisted in our thoughts and deeds, bound to a cycle of endless mistrust and decay, entropy and chaos thinking there is no way out of it. It’s the bullshit artists of the world I hate: the liberal elite, the media, the power mongers, politicians, Wall-Street, Corporate baggers, Illusionists of this world of things and products that bind us to work and lip service to unfounded credos of religion, war, and that mythical Utopia of Eden named America, a place of the past or future of hope that they carpet weave over our lives making us dream a dream that was never ours, making us believe in a world that never was nor could be; those utopianisms of capitalism that keep the treadmill of soul grinding and filling the inhuman grist mill full of twisted and depleted heart-torn good people; churning up their lives and spitting them out destitute and poverty stricken into the jaws of death and worse, till there is nothing left to grind, forcing a proud people onto drugs, alcohol, rage, abuse, and violence… and, most of all, to apathy in the face of overwhelming forces they cannot understand nor combat.
The writer’s below, and I mean “writer’s” not those author’s and false moon-binders who strut the pages of one’s favorite literary magazine or pundit, not the NY Review of Books and nonesuch liberal press achievements as LA Review’s etc., but those few among us who have discovered another way, another voice, a power within themselves to know and be known by those forces within and without that are not registered on any philosopher’s index or scientist’s scribble sheet or mathematician’s theorem, forces that can bind the world to some pincushion reality. No. What I’m speaking about are those writer’s that give you the real thing, the reality as they lived it, breathed it, bled it, and knew it with the flesh and blood of the sweat of their brows: —their loves and hates, pain and joys, all their contradictions and unfounded ways and modes of being of who and what they are brought to bare on those dark pages of pain and suffering that bring us to ourselves. These are my kind of people…
Before I get going I have a tale to tell… I remember my Step Dad used to tell us story after story about his past life, each story relating some event that demarked a triumph in his life to show forth its glory, etc. He’d talk and talk and talk into the wee hours, sipping his whiskey till he was drunk – which he was most of the time. He’d repeat stories he’d forgotten in the telling, repeat them as if they were just machine recordings and recites that had been worn so smooth in the telling that he could do it in his sleep. It was as if these tales were about some mythical creature of legend and he was in the place of those heroes of old; yet, each of the stories in which he was the central hero seemed more unreal than realm with each retelling… When pressed years later on my step brothers and sister they told me the truth of it, that all those stories never happened, that he’d made them up, even told them the same tales over and over and over again, embellishing here and there, fabricating new events, imaginary situations that never happened as if they were something he’d lived just yesterday, or the day before that… Illusions of a mind of failure.
But the strange and disquieting thing is that over the years of listening to others in my past, my kin and other southerners tell tales of their lives it became apparent that they, too, were not real lived events… not real in the sense of fact and factuality; but instead they were real in another way, the way that keeps a person going even in the midst of failure and poverty, when bad luck and the turn of life’s events cast one down into the gutter; and life is nothing but sheer waste and death. These were stories that helped these men to believe in the impossible, to believe in themselves even in the face of adversity and hard times; stories that helped them get out of bed everyday and earn what little they earned, face themselves in the mirror and acknowledge even if to no one else the self-hatred and darkness in their own lost souls for having not lived up to the dream…
Yet, too many of these men would turn to nostalgia and imaginal worlds, turn away from their lives and live in that mythical glorious past that never was rather than forge something out of the ruins of their lives. They’d turn to drink, to violence, to self-pity and hatred; they’d beat up their wives and children, their neighbors and those they worked with till they found themselves friendless and alone, unloved by man or beast. They’d end wondering why, why they’d become the thing they were; or, most would just forget they’d ever even counted and would turn to drink and skidrow, to drugs and self-inflicted abuse till they were buried paupers without anyone to stand them in their final passage into the night. This is the bitter truth of men who lied till they believe their lies…
Maybe in the end that’s the key to continuing… telling stories that are untrue to make them true in one’s life, to get one’s self going, keeping on keepin’ on. Of course there’s a fine line between the art of survival and nostalgia – which as we all know, leads us down that blind alley into hell and oblivion. We’re all crippled one way or the other, broken souls, creatures bent over and twisted by this culture of death and decay in which we live, breath and die. The stench pervades every aspect of our lives, the zombie fest of the media world of glitz and glamour, models that wander by like stick cartoons, the dazzling worlds of the rich and famous who can jaunt across the globe, live in oasis cities in the desert, jungle, or foreign isles seem like the Olympian gods of some alternate world. While we who stay behind, who work our bones to the quick, who labor for the dominion, the empire of the high and mighty live on crumbs and leftover beans and greens if that, live in dirt and filth of the edge of things, even less that the middle-class who flaunt there own stupidity and little worlds of cars and homes in the suburbs while the mass stricken poverty of the rest live from paycheck to paycheck, or government food stamps, or without anything at all, and even less that all, have their money taken from them by Aunts, Uncles, Cousins, are parents for drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, porn, or just plain bullshit… this is the world of all those Southern Writer’s who matter to me, who have given us the raw unadulterated truth of their blood, sweat, and tears… shown us the insides of their depleted souls, laid bare the worlds below the mark, hidden, out of site from the good people, the beautiful people…. a world those from the heights look down and despise and malign as the just deserving’s of a lowly species that could never rise above its station… Yes, this is the tribe of degradation, downcast, and lost among us… Yet, they are no completely lost, for there are those among us who have climbed out of that dank pit and have blown a hole wide open onto what the world of the Dominion has done to us…
The Art of Survival for the Southern Writer is painting life to one’s self if to no one else not with those rose tinted glasses, but without them – stripped down bare and mean, but with a key difference – that these glosses are of the dark kind; usually tales of violence and despair that keep the monsters of that past at bay, that seek to assuage the pain not in some sinkhole of derision but to spell out its hate in plain language and stripped of its mythical traps, sound out its broken hollows and find in those bleak worlds the remains of our lost souls. The Southern Writer is an altogether different creature, one that has seen through the lies of the folk ways of romantic heroism and self-made lives built of hopes and dreams and a tissue of lies of neverwhen’s and knowhow’s…
Instead the Southern Gothic brings to light the monstrous world of the grotesqueries that inhabit our actual and real lives deep down in the dark places of our soul that we usually repress and keep locked away from even ourselves: all that pain and suffering at the hands of the dominion… in a world without God or gods the dominion is that appetitive will that cannibalizes everything for its own aggrandizement, a force that is neither moral nor immoral but rather amoral, impersonal, and abstract beyond our wildest imaginings. It inhabits our world, our minds, our bodies like a particle of hate and desperation, it drives us, enforces us to do its bidding, to hunger and continue to replicate ourselves on and on and on… the is the force within the universe at large, a cosmic force neither vital (not vitalism) nor exactly a Will-to-Life, and assuredly not Nietzsche’s Will-to-Power either, but the nameless and unnamed that is not absolute nor reducible to our human anthropomorphisms. Just the churning of things, like our earth as it chomps down, grinds down, eats the bones of soil, rock, countries back into the lava bins of its inner core and spits it out again in hot splotches of volcanic pitch and sulfur, the systole and diastole of impossible creation and destruction, the cycles within cycles of a universal pattern that has no rhyme or reason, no purpose, no telos, no beginning or end point… for there is no whole, no completed thing called the Universe. That, too, is a fiction constructed by the dominion to keep us tied to its entropic dreams…
The Southern Writer’s are those few souls that have looked down into the pit of that lack, that empty holler of their own existence with a pitiless gaze and seen the force of nihil face to face, surmounted the abyss and come back to tell other tales, tales no less real and true than their forbears, but tales that have that pungent kick that sparks the soul to action, that sustains and feeds their need for freedom, love, kindness; and that lifts one out of the guttersnipe pits and cesspools of hate and subterfuge and bespeaks of the past, present, and future in terms that meant something worth doing and being; and means to show us the darkness of all that is below those rosy tinted campers of the tale teller’s verbal ploys and stories of good ole days; to show us the sordid world of ours and their own lives without the magical glasses and illusions of glory; show us the power and the glory of corruption, degradation, and ruin that the past stains of life, country, and existence have cast down upon us making of us all fools, clowns, and failures. And, yet, these indefatigable writer’s of the Southern Gothic and Grotesque show us as well the power of the ugly, disgusting, and abject to rise up out of misery, decay, and ruin and forge a life worth living even in the midst of hell, a life of inner solitude and integrity that knows and is known by all that is best and alive on this planet, shows us the power to communicate and commune with those others around us who suffer at the hands of bigotry, racism, misogyny, class war, religious and political intolerance, and every aspect of being one who is not from the other side of the tracks, the uppity’s and privileged castes who rule this planet as if it were their own private menagerie. Listen to Dorthy Allison and know the voice of the South and Woman…
Dorthy Allison: The Dominion of Poverty and the Outcast
Each day till I’m finished I’m going to choose a writer from the Southern world of pain and gothic and grotesque that has impacted me. Today it’s Dorothy Allison whose novels about South Carolina and her struggles against poverty, manipulation, and control gave her a raging spirit to be free and herself that breaks that light of the mind against those dark places of the world:
“I’ve been called Bone all my life, but my name’s Ruth Anne.”
…..– Bastard out of Carolina
In that first line one hears the voice of a woman coming into her own, a fierce and raging voice that says that here, just here I take a stand, and will not bow to the world of the past: to the dark ways of my people — to men, to custom, to law or religion; to all that would bind me in darkness and keep me prisoner of the mind and heart. As Dorothy says in the introduction to Trash her short stories of place and sadness and rage and desperation:
The central fact of my life is that I was born in 1949 in Greenville, South Carolina, the bastard daughter of a white woman from a desperately poor family, a girl who had left the seventh grade the year before, worked as a waitress, and was just a month past fifteen when she birthed me. That fact, the inescapable impact of being born in a condition of poverty that this society finds shameful, contemptible, and somehow oddly deserved, has had dominion over me to such an extent that I have spent my life trying to overcome or deny it. My family’s lives were not on television, not in books, not even comic books. There was a myth of the poor in this country, but it did not include us, no matter how I tried to squeeze us in. There was this concept of the “good” poor, and that fantasy had little to do with the everyday lives my family had survived. The good poor were hardworking, ragged but clean, and intrinsically honorable. We were the bad poor. We were men who drank and couldn’t keep a job; women, invariably pregnant before marriage, who quickly became worn, fat, and old from working too many hours and bearing too many children; and children with runny noses, watery eyes, and the wrong attitudes. My cousins quit school, stole cars, used drugs, and took dead-end jobs pumping gas or waiting tables. I worked after school in a job provided by Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, stole books I could not afford. We were not noble, not grateful, not even hopeful. We knew ourselves despised. What was there to work for, to save money for, to fight for or struggle against? We had generations before us to teach us that nothing ever changed, and that those who did try to escape failed.
Speaking of the character Bone or Ruth Anne in that first novel she’ll portray the mother who gave birth to her, and who has lived under the dark eye of others as a person with the labeled “trash” – She talks about how the child was born. That the Mama hadn’t been able as a fourteen year old girl to sleep an ounce, neither on her back or side or belly, but on the very day they are going out to pick up an uncle coming back from the war, a soldier, they are in a wreck. The young girl, pregnant and sleeping in the backseat for the first time in months, a good deep sleep, is thrown through the windshield and up and over the other car that her drunk Uncle has hit. No one is hurt too bad, and the Mama lives, but she is left unconscious for three days in the hospital, and as a precaution they short term the baby and bring her into the world. At the behest of her Aunt Ruth and her Granny, who it seems detest the boy who was the father of the child, refuse to give his name to the clerk for birthing purposes, so that the child is declared a Bastard. When the Mama wakes up and finds out what happened, which seems to be no big deal to her Granny or Aunt we find out it is a big deal to her, because of her own past, her own birth as a bastard and one of trash culture of kith and kin – this is the daughter, Ruth or Bone reminiscing about that event long ago of her birth:
If Granny didn’t care, Mama did. Mama hated to be called trash, hated the memory of every day she’d ever spent bent over other people’s peanuts and strawberry plants while they stood tall and looked at her like she was a rock on the ground. The stamp on that birth certificate burned her like the stamp she knew they’d tried to put on her. (Bastard out of Carolina)
Having grown up on the wrong side of the tracks myself —another of those pejorative clichés, both decisive and full of that ridicule that divides our country to this day, — Dorothy Allison speaks to those of us who’ve been there, lived it, done that world of trash and crawled out of it alive or at least mostly not dead, but rather surface dwellers of the pauper’s dream, pit dwellers of the other world below the privileged spheres who have found their way out of the blackness and bleakness of false hope and dreams, and forged a new world without forgetting their roots in that hell-hole of the past. Writer’s that have not only come out alive in death, but keep on kicking to find a way out for others, a way that is our own way in this dark world past the hoofprint of hell, country, and all those diseased notions that bigots, castigators, maligners, and ill-founded bastards harbor in which we were born too over throw the dominion that binds them, keep them, entrain them to a life of poverty and dilapidation of man made hell of desperation and the dark world of the bitter ways of the merciless and cold and viscious…
Allison recounts that a professor once approached her and asked why “The stuff you write—such mean stories.” Dorothy was taken aback for a second, not knowing anything about the woman before her, not knowing what she meant by “mean” – whether her meaning and the woman’s were even in the same ballpark or not. Dorothy would find out years later that the woman’s sister had committed suicide and that this might have led to the woman also saying: “My sister,” she said suddenly. “You remind me of my sister. She always wanted to write.” As Dorothy relates later in that Tanner lecture that people want these meaningless acts of violence and despair in her stories to coincide with a world of meaning, a world that says we count for something rather than nothing. Allison then says:
I keep boxes of clippings. I don’t know many writers who don’t— newspaper articles, magazine scraps, copies of letters, and even Associated Press stories I download off the net. They are my compost, my research bins. I have whole drawers devoted to men who kill their entire families. I have them sorted by the number of children. I have other drawers for women who kill. I have sorted those by whether they tried to kill their children, with subsets of those who did or did not kill themselves.
She’ll go on to say that all “those clippings strike me as deeply familiar. I measure my fiction against them, always wondering if my stories are as mean as the world that shaped them” (The Tanner Lectures on Human Values: p. 6). The last piece of that fierce wisdom she gives from the bone: ”
In a world that disdains you the only reasonable response is stubborn disregard of contempt.
In a recent story The Jackal’s Curse I ended with much that same note of disregarding the contempt of life and others:
I will not let you stain me with your privilege, your money, your power, your religion, your disdain… You who would hold dominion over me are invisible to me, the chains you put around me are but the links to freedom and my own mind. This is the bottom of the barrel philosophy of being pushed to the core of one’s being and finding in one’s self a reason to go on, and not only to go on but to hold one’s head high, to believe in one’s self without the protection of all those precious lies the world offers to clothe you in; instead, you stand there naked in the sun of life without anything on but your own persistence, your belief in being and doing, and knowing who and what and when and how you are in this world of darkness. Against that the Master’s have no rule… nor dominion its power or kingdom. It is our freedom, positive and assured against which the brokers of pain can have no dominion, ever.
Dorothy Allison’s Novels and Essays:
- Bastard Out of Carolina
- Two or Three Things I Know for Sure
- Cavedweller: A Novel
- Skin: Talking about Sex, Class, and Literature
- Walking the Edge: A Southern Gothic Anthology
- The Writer’s Notebook: Craft Essays from Tin House
- The Women Who Hate Me: Poetry 1980-1990
- Conversations with Dorothy Allison
A Biography on Fembio: Dorothy Allison