Wednesday, July 18, 2007

"Blankness": On unselfconsciousness in narrative

"Acting naturally" is an odd phrase, no?

"Unselfconsciousness" in any sort of art, even that which purports to allow for chance, is an impossibility: at some point in the making, someone makes a choice that results in the eventual preservation of the whatever-it-is. It's that choice-making, I would argue, that is at the core of the making of Art. (Note: "choice-making" doesn't make something "good" art; it's simply the least common denominator for those objects which someone asks an audience to consider as Art.) That said, an artist can certainly seek to create the illusion of unselfconsciousness, via spontaneity, candidness, shaky camera shots, etc.

Or, in the case of Show Boat (the Edna Ferber novel, not the musicals or its film versions), what, in this post, I referred to as "blankness."

Randall and dd both mentioned this word in their comments on that post, for which I thank them:it caused me to think some more about that word and what it might mean within the larger context of ideas about the work of narratives. What follows is in part a response to them and in part a talking-things-out to myself.

Though most of Show Boat is set in the southern basin of the Mississippi River and is thus steeped not even in Southern culture so much as the more-ephemeral Southern atmosphere, I would argue that Show Boat is not directly concerned with "saying something" about the South. "The South" is scenery, a backdrop for the novel's real preoccupation, the telling of the story of Magnolia Ravenal née Hawks. Or, rather, it's intended (I think) that "The South" remain in the background, as background. Part of what I hope is at least implicit in my last post on the novel is that the Mississippi and, by extension, certain historical and cultural realities (not all of which are "Southern," by the way), intrude upon and are awkwardly ignored by the narrator. His/her ignoring those realities and, in the case of all the material about Magnolia's relationship with Julie, not reflecting on an event that gets an entire chapter to itself in the novel--that ignoring and absence of reflection seem especially odd to me in this novel--which does, after all pose as a biography.

It's that absence of reflection on the part of the main characters and the narrator that I meant when I used the word "blankness." Southern--and, by extension, U.S.--culture and history is, of course, not at all a blank, but you almost wouldn't know that from reading Show Boat--and that, of course, is Lauren Berlant's argument with regard to the stage and film versions that I referred to in that post.

It's that "almost" that I'm picking at here. The fantasy-world combination of the river and the show boat cannot forever keep out the Real World, as evidenced by the expulsion of Julie and Steve from the Cotton Blossom. Here, surely, the South is something much more than a setting--you'd think. But once that chapter ends, the narrative says nothing more about the incident; the narrator reports no one, not even Magnolia, musing on it. There is, of course, such a thing as characters being able to keep things from narrators--that's certainly true in this novel, in any event. But here, aside from the fleeting glimpse of Julie that Magnolia will have years later in Chicago, the novel is done with that. It's as though, in the world of this novel, even human suffering and injustice are also performances that, once they're done, can be packed away, with no further need to ponder them.

What I want to do, then, is tease out what it is that the narrative and its characters seek to ignore--to make it seem a bit less blank, in other words. You lucky people, on down the road, will be treated to another post in which I'll claim that this blankness is in large measure intentional but that, like lots of psychologically-repressed stuff, we can find more than a little projection of certain anxieties in Show Boat.


R. Sherman said...


I had three paragraphs written and they disappeared.

I'm so ticked off, I'm going to have another beer.

Cheers, dammit.

P.S. I grew up about a quarter mile from the Mississippi and used to walk along the shore and shot bottles and stuff in the river.

It's interesting to me that that river in a sense "bleeds" our country. A map of the drainage basin looks like veins. I wonder if there's something in that analogy.

But because I lost my earlier comment, I'm too ticked to continue.

Cheers, again.


John B. said...

Well, shoot, Randall.

As for the Mississippi, I begin my introductory lectures on Huckleberry Finn by saying that if there's a geographical feature that can be said to be held in common by this nation, it's the Mississippi: it and its tributaries drain 21 of the 48 contiguous states. It's a powerful feature of our collective imagination.

Enjoy your beer(s).