Foreword | September 01, 2008

The physical world is full of danger, conflict, and the potential for disaster, a fact that I was reminded of recently when I had dinner with a dozen old friends in Fort Smith, Arkansas, where we all grew up. Some of us have known each other since kindergarten. Jim Pryor, who won’t mind my using his name, leaned behind whoever was sitting next to me to say, “You know, we just may be getting old. At this table sit four survivors of cancer, three heart attacks, an inch-from-death case of septic shock, epilepsy, and too many other major illnesses to name. For the moment, though, Speero, we live.”

I told him that given the way we’d behaved growing up, we were lucky to have gotten old enough to have a heart attack.

Every generation has its own brands of foolishness and danger. That group of friends and I-the generation of the early boomers-lived in what might be called the Pre-safety Age. Parents didn’t worry much, at least not in ways that any of us noticed. We had BB-gun and pellet-rifle wars with six or eight to a side, freely pelting each other and only through luck not putting out each other’s eyes. We stole our parents’ cars and drove across the river to Oklahoma to get beer when we were thirteen. At fifteen or sixteen we occasionally hung out in-what euphemism can I use?-questionably hygienic places of paid assignation. Two blocks from where we were eating dinner that night was a very charming and familiar little nineteenth-century hotel that had a historical marker for, youguessed- it. Almost all of us smoked back then and did heavy weekend drinking and driving, had careless infatuations with guns and motorcycles, and so on. I was not unusual in the group for having survived three serious car accidents- two rollovers and one collision with a police car that had just been hit head-on by another car going eighty miles an hour. Two policemen and five soldiers from Fort Chaffee weren’t so lucky.

More interesting and complex than our physically dangerous behavior were our personal flaws because in most cases our flaws were intimately and obviously tied to positive qualities. One of my best old friends had, for a period of his youth, a more serious problem than the rest of us with recklessness. He would fight anybody, get as drunk as he felt like getting and flamboyantly chase girls. At the same time, he was strangely stable, trustworthy, and-an extension of his recklessness-existentially free and open to the moment. During our dinner-table conversation, I mentioned to him that I wanted to go fishing with him sometime, and in his old, free way, he didn’t hesitate: “Let’s go tomorrow.”

And there was the melancholic among us, the one who considered suicide while still in grade school, partly because a very good friend of ours talked about it frequently from childhood on (and eventually did it). In later life, my melancholy friend suffered a marriage that went bad, casting him into a tenyear vortex of confusion and uncertainty. After that delightful decade, he went through about six years in which he claimed that he was seriously considering going gay, since the girls obviously didn’t like him. Yet this same guy is the one who put the party together, who often serves as the unpretentious impresario and who is generous with himself beyond the norm. It’s all part of one package.

Why are flaw and conflict so basic to literature? Literature, like sport, starts by meaningfully enacting conflict and somehow dealing with it. Conflict is basic to literature because it is basic to life. Without it, the airplane usually won’t fly. We are meaning-making creatures with little tolerance for chaos. It’s a platitude but also true that literature, like religion, gives shape and meaning to the struggle of living.

That’s why literature quickly becomes tedious when it holds nothing of the mess, danger and perplexity of human experience. Aristotle believed that the key to dramatic tragedy was a character’s “hamartia,” or flaw. The meaning he placed on this term has been debated, but he may have been referring to a simple mistaken judgment resulting in catastrophic error, implying that the cause of a person’s fall may be as much the confusion and mistakes of existence as deep flaws of personal character. One thing leads to another, and another- which slipping in an unfortunate direction can end in ruin.

This issue of The Missouri Review, like my table of friends, is full of hamartia. “Pick your poison.” Whether it’s gambling or sex addiction or anger or the confinement and weirdness of celebrity noted by Chuck Klosterman in his interview, it’s all as necessary to art as it is undesirable to those who experience it.

In Peter Levine’s story “How Does Your Garden Grow?” the one thing leading to another, the engine of the story, is sex between a passionate couple, with the man falling into a mesmerizing love of a sort that he has never before experienced- while from the woman’s perspective, something else entirely is going on. Nat Akin’s story describes a father who wants to leave his farm to the last of his sons still at home, an admirable but myopic intention that ends in tragedy. The narrator of Andy Mozina’s “Dogs I Have Known” is a brilliant lawyer whose anger and litigiousness initially further his career but are eventually self destructive.

Todd Pierce’s essay on online gambling is another account of how something seemingly productive and useful can become an obsession. Alison B. Hart’s essay “The Canada Story” portrays a flawed relationship between a father and daughter, which the daughter tries to transcend by better understanding her father’s past. Brandon Schrand’s “Works Cited” is a memoir about being captivated by literature, but the same fascination and engagement with his own life experience that draws the author to certain books also leads him to rebellious juvenile behavior.

The poetry in this issue addresses several kinds of danger and reminds us that the flaws in experience, like the flaws in ourselves, produce pain and unhappiness but also positive outcomes. Jennifer Richter’s poems confirm that extreme pain-in this case from life-threatening illness-can produce mental clarity and strength that aren’t forged any other way. And read Jillian Weise’s introductory statements about composing “Once I Thought I Was Going to Die in the Desert Without Knowing Who I Was” for an account of how paralyzing fear can challenge the poet to transform real physical danger into energized poetry.

If you are a student, faculty member, or staff member at an institution whose library subscribes to Project Muse, you can read this piece and the full archives of the Missouri Review for free. Check this list to see if your library is a Project Muse subscriber.

SEE THE ISSUE

SUGGESTED CONTENT