Foreword | July 15, 2014
In his book Escape from Freedom, Erich Fromm points out that autonomy can be hollow when it is without a meaningful goal. Even when one does exercise free choice with a purpose in mind, there can be no guarantee of accomplishment. The barrenness of independence without intention is at least as apparent now as it was when Fromm’s book came out in 1941 in a world riven by the most destructive war in history.
The uncertainty of freedom runs through our literature from the late nineteenth century to the present. When Huck Finn decides to tear up his letter to Miss Watson that would deliver Jim back into slavery, he makes his famous pained decision, “‘All right, then, I’ll GO to hell.’” The irony of this moment is less that Huck accepts damnation for not sending his friend into slavery than that it has become one of the most cheerfully definitive moments in American fiction. True freedom of choice is not easy in a topsy-turvy moral environment, yet just maybe—somehow—we are better for it.
American realists like Frank Norris and Theodore Dreiser took a hard look at morality in the excess and madness of materialism that dominated our nation at the beginning of the twentieth century. Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby shows greed gone to an extreme in the 1920s, as his fast-living characters follow meaningless desires that are all lost in the end. The classics of American fiction include several Gatsbyesque characters, extreme antiheroes living in worlds tinged by dreams and delusions yet also questing for meaning. They include existential seekers like Captain Ahab of Moby Dick, Yossarian of Catch 22, Tyrone Slothrop of Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, or the female seekers in the fantasy Western landscape of Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping. Even novelist Annie Proulx’s gritty, hyper-real characters shade into mythical seekers as they pick through the confusion of change, immured in place and past.
This issue contains its share of the delusions of fast living and the pursuit of meaning or purpose. In his essay “Too Late for the Summer of Love,” John Hales writes about his attempt, after graduating from high school, to become a rebel by hitchhiking from his home in Utah to San Francisco. “Who I wanted to be was the person who would have said, three years earlier, ‘Fuck it, it’s 1967, the Summer of Love,’” Hales writes; yet the young man discovers that he’s too uptight—or sensible—to embrace the bohemian idyll. In her essay “A Shapeless Thief,” Marin Sardy depicts her mother’s undiagnosed schizophrenia, which impels her to move from place to place, seeking peace of mind. The mother’s volatility and delusions might make her appear on the surface to be open and liberated, while in fact paranoia holds her in the grip of obsessions. “Our conversations are riddled with these inexplicable refusals—obstinate positions she won’t relinquish and won’t, or can’t, explain. They emerge from nowhere and stick like cement,” writes Sardy. The essay takes a deeply empathetic view while also showing how limiting and inhibiting mental illness can be.
Sharon Pomerantz’s “The New Louise” is a fable concerning a pear-shaped, overweight, middle-aged woman who wakes up one morning to discover that she has become a young, creamy-skinned slender blonde of fashion-model height. The transformation allows her to indulge in behavior that she never could in the past: expensive clothes, flirting and manipulation, along with an extramarital affair. When Louise finds out that there are others like her, transformed into flawless “new” versions, she also begins to learn that this new, easy, illusory perfection is replete with pitfalls.
Ben Hoffman’s “The Only Place the Blood Goes” is another story about the ironies of freedom, yet looked at from the other end of the spectrum. It is told by the older sister of a twenty-something-year-old man with a fatal degenerative disease that makes him wheelchair bound. His sister is congenitally promiscuous—addicted to her freedom but at this juncture trying to put a lid on the wild living. What she learns when she takes her brother to his college class followed by a party is that perhaps there are more important things in her immediate life than the newfound urge to reign in her behavior. Amanda Harris’s story “Isle Au Haut” is told by Ashley, who has come back to her mother’s home on an island off the coast of Maine after her husband was killed in 9/11. Of late, Ashley has been having affairs with two local men, a recklessness that she eventually realizes must be stopped. In “The Cure for What Ails You,” Carol Ghiglieri’s character Yvette attempts to cure her melancholy after a boyfriend dumps her by taking on a friend with benefits, as well as trying some mysterious Chinese “happy pills”—with mixed but oddly enlightening results.
The poems in this issue all concern the simple enigmas and difficulties of freedom—of finding it and making it meaningful. Andrew Grace’s poems, set on the American prairie, speak in the voice of Said Gun, an elderly Midwesterner with a criminal past. Thoroughly unrestrained by manners or conventional morality, he shares his visions and contemplation of the Midwest’s landscape in all of its ugliness, beauty and sublimity. Diane Seuss’ ekphrastic poems take us beyond the visual surface of the still life paintings they’re based upon, giving her characters—“the hungry, the unclothed, the wounded, the raped, the runaway, the rural,” as Seuss describes them, desires and hopes unfettered by reality. Valerie Nieman’s lyrics are from her novel-in-verse, The Leopard Lady Speaks. It tells the story of a biracial orphan born in Depression-era Appalachia and raised in servitude until she finds a life on the road with a carnival. The two speakers in the poems, the Leopard Lady and the Professor, ponder the autonomy—or lack of it—of disabled figures such as themselves, and how much control one has over life when one “was already stole.”
This issue’s Curio Cabinet offers up Ulysses illustrations from the founding father of British Pop Art, Richard Hamilton. In 1947, while doing National Service with the Royal Engineers, Hamilton became a Joyce fan after reading the Irishman’s iconic Modernist novel. He made preliminary sketches of key scenes and characters, ranging from two flirty barmaids to Bloom lying in the bathtub. Hamilton struggled on and off with this project for six decades. An exhibit finally opened in 2002 at the British Museum in celebration of the eightieth birthday of both the artist and the novel.
Kristine Somerville’s visual feature, “Enemy of Men: The Vamps, Ice Princesses and Flappers of the Silent Screen,” presents rare photographs from the George Eastman House and the Library of Congress of actresses Asta Nielsen, Theda Bara, Pola Negri, Brigitte Helm and Colleen Moore. Somerville looks at their careers for ways in which on-screen performances helped redefine social roles for women. While film was developing as an art, the New Woman was carving out intellectual attainments and economic independence as well as sexual equality with men. This disruption in gender roles found expression in cinema in the form of the vamp, ice princess and flapper—fast-living personae that these actresses perfected and then rejected in pursuit of more diverse, challenging characters. Still, these images of dangerous femininity offered up enduring cinematic archetypes of the uninhibited femme fatale.
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