Introduction to the Elements (of Story)

I’m in terrible need of going back to re-read Gogol’s “The Overcoat” and “The Nose”; walking along this morning in sub-zero wind chills and sensing that I might unwittingly have entered into a fistfight with occasional gales, I was very aware of and grateful for the miracle of modern science otherwise known as my L.L. Bean super-deluxe, cold-defying coat. I’ve lived before in areas with real winters– but the heavy hand of Canadian-borne blasts native to my new region has made me feel an affection for good outerwear I’ve never before experienced– and has also made me think that revisiting these stories from a point of greater climate-based understanding might lend an even deeper appreciation to tales I enjoyed the first time around. (Note: I’ve selected “The Nose” for further consideration, not necessarily because it’s really topical, but because, in my parka hood that makes me look like an ambulant periscope, that was the only part of my body of which I was particularly aware.)

Over the course of a few years in my twenties, I focused my travel around places that were important to Jack Kerouac’s life and, hence, to his literature: the San Francisco area; Lowell, Massachusetts; New York; a planned, but ultimately canceled, grant opportunity in Mexico. The first two were especially evocative: seeing the waves and wind crash along the highway to Big Sur, I was retroactively creeped out by a scene in his novel of the same name, in which the author wakes up to find himself surrounded by massive rocks and sea force. Witnessing the Merrimac River smashing its near-spring way beneath a bridge made Dr. Sax that much deliciously darker; walking through lower- and middle-class neighborhoods in the one-time mill town brought isolated scenes to new life. (And although it’s off the beaten path of my theme, I was truly entranced when, after going in search of Kerouackian relics in one of the city’s museums, empty of visitors on a bleak day, a guide was so happy to see my enthusiasm that he took me into a non-obvious corner to show me the writer’s backpack and camping accoutrements, letting me snap a giddy picture or two. The actual things he’d used on the road! It was like a collection of new-world icons.)

For all the exquisite power of words, I, at least, can’t avoid the fact that the Original– a structure, a person, a tree, a force of nature– maintains a bit of elusive something that may not be able to find its way into even the best of narrative set-ups. Touching a desk at which novels were dreamed up, feeling the heft and scratch of a jacket that shaped the experience of its owner: little gateways to some otherwise-incommunicable form of being or state of mind, or even, maybe, a distant soul. That wind in my face this morning? Words can have me imagining that first moment of breathlessness, but I’ll have to admit, there’s nothing like the real, unmediated thing to knock you off your feet.

Of course, if we take that path all the way down to its extremities, there are considerations such as the gulag, the concentration camp, non-geographical locations such as addiction and utter desolation that one would think could (should) never be fetishized as a chunk of desired truth or a sort of tourist opportunity to Experience the Real Thing. We could go off now into a discussion of how/when memorials blend into profanation (on what part of the spectrum does Lithuania’s Soviet Bunker theme park fall, for example, both in terms of “authenticity” and of respect for those who had to live it out the first time?), but that’s an entirely different discussion I’m probably not qualified to undertake at this point in the day.

So anyway, I’ll end this by going right back where I began: with the wind, which seems petulant about not being let in through my windows, and makes the stalwart things creak. With my appreciation for a variety of protective mechanisms that place a barrier between me and the elements. With a chance to know a formerly unfamiliar situation more in depth. I guess that final item is the first part of a path down which a good book can set you– so I’ll go jump under the covers, and see where the next story I’ve got lined up will lead.

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4 comments

  1. birds fly

    This idea has been on my mind after a recent visit to the Gettysburg battlefields. Never having been much of a Civil War buff, I was nonetheless moved by the experience of undertaking an audio driving tour with plenty of time to walk around and contemplate. Actually walking the battlefields and standing at various vantage points left a deeper impression than reading historical accounts had made.

    Regarding concentration camps, when I visited Auschwitz II-Birkenau many years ago, I remember being struck by how much more powerful its presence as a memorial felt, having essentially been left as-is, than that of Auschwitz I, which instead offers a more formalized museum setting.

    • Special K

      Yeah: I visited Sachsenhausen when I was sixteen; who knows if that was the right age to do that, if there is such a thing. Re: the museum-like aspect, I always wonder whether there exists some balance between featuring the right amount of information-as-necessary-context-provision and questionable attempts to have the visitor “interact” with the space.

      I’ve never been to Gettysburg; my fear is that I’d become too involved with ghost-hunting– an entirely different sort of fetishization that some might say is a form of keeping alive history and memories that would otherwise unjustly be forgotten. I don’t know, though; the sheer prospect of a ghost would probably overwhelm all other thoughts in my head…

      • birds fly

        Yes, very hard to say if there is a “right” age. I was 22 when I visited and while I’d read pretty extensively about the Shoah, that’s still a young age to fully grasp the context.

        I think there probably is a balance, but it’s definitely a delicate one. I would think it’s also specific to the individual who is visiting the space, and therein lies the difficulty. Some people like/need to be led to an understanding, while others can perceive it with little in the way of outside interpretation. It’s inevitable that some will feel alienated by the experience no matter how it’s presented.

        There were lots of signs for ghost tours in Gettysburg! I have no doubt the town is crawling with ghosts. That said, I didn’t see or hear one during the 24 hours I was there.

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