Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Ordinary Instants & Everyday Accidents

My conference paper proposal was accepted, so I'll be presenting at Brown in the spring. (Yay!)

I thought I'd blog about my (still very rough) ideas a bit, since my proposal basically builds on and merges ideas from previous posts.

In The Year of Magical Thinking (2006), Joan Didion begins her memoir of a difficult and devastating year of her life by recording the cryptic comments that she typed in the days after her husband's sudden death from a heart attack:
Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends. The question of self-pity. (3, italics in original)
In composing this sentence, Didion acknowledges that she decided to leave out the phrase "the ordinary instant" to describe this life-changing moment, opting instead for "the instant," plain and simple.

There would be no forgetting it, she realizes, since
[i]t was in fact the ordinary nature of everything preceding the event that prevented me from truly believing it had happened, absorbing it, incorporating it, getting past it... confronted with sudden disaster we all focus on how unremarkable the circumstances were in which the unthinkable occurred. (4)
Similarly, in his memoir, Moving Violations (1995), as he reflects on the car accident that, at age 19, left him paralyzed from the chest down, journalist John Hockenberry notes that
[u]ntil the car accident that day in 1976 I understood the world only as an evolving landscape of clockwork challenges and gradual change... The upheavals of radical change and quantum unpredictability were taught to me as aberrations, deviations from the essential orderliness of the system, failures. (24)
"Sudden disaster," "the unthinkable" and "radical change" are supposed to be "aberrations," events out of the ordinary. In effect, the events of their lives leave both Didion and Hockenberry to wonder, how could the accidental be so unexpected? How could something so life-changing not herald its own arrival?

Why weren't they warned, somehow?

For his part, Hockenberry will assert that ultimately, "[i]t is a gift to learn the fabric of unpredictability" (24). In the years following his accident, Hockenberry comes to adopt what he identifies as a "quantum view of disability":
The quantum theory of disability allows you to dare to think that you can have lived two lives, two bodies occupying two places at once. Suddenly, in an instant, radical change: I was different, yet I was still the same person. I knew that was possible then. It would take a lifetime to be sure (25)
For Hockenberry, this quantum perspective assumes that "[t]he capacity to wonder is the gift itself," and that it is out of this gift of wonder that meaning can be both imagined and lived (25).

In fact, Hockenberry will assert, "[i]t is all we really had, even during all of those moments of human history when we thought we knew everything" (25).

What I want to do is examine Hockenberry's notion of the quantum view of disability as a way of making sense of the relationship between the accidental ("the upheavals of radical change," "sudden disaster" and unpredictability) and human identity.

What is the relationship between the "ordinary instants" that radically and unpredictably change our lives and our sense of ourselves as meaningfully embodied individuals?

In particular, I want to tease out this question by contrasting Hockenberry and Didion's perspectives on the ordinariness of the accidental with its representation in a very different text of narrative trauma, Shalamov's Kolyma Tales.

Written in the 1950's, Shalamov's short stories and sketches detail the more than 15 years that he spent in various Soviet labor camps in and around Kolyma and Magadan. Not exclusively autobiographical, the Kolyma tales blend fiction and non-fiction in order to bear witness to one man's experience of gruesome historical facts.

In so doing, Shalamov's narratives question the role that the accidental plays in the making of meaning--both human and narrative.

In many of the Kolyma stories, otherwise neutral accounts of seemingly trivial details of prison life (many of which are themselves inherently shocking), are typically related with an offhanded indifference and nonchalance, only to be suddenly and brutally interrupted by an incident of senseless violence--or unforeseen luck.

And then the indifference, the nonchalance and the neutrality resume, as if nothing has happened. Or else the story simply ends.

In the world of the camps, there is no predicting how or whether one will survive from one day (or hour) to the next. Plans for survival can be constructed and, in an instant--an "ordinary" instant of camp life--they can be just as abruptly destroyed.

Sometimes, this is a good thing. In Kolyma, the accidental can lead to life-threatening injury and death, or it can guarantee another day's survival.

I'm interested in what happens to "the gift of wonder" and the "quantum theory of disability" that Hockenberry posits as a component of human identity.

Does it survive in the "ordinary instants" of Shalamov's Kolyma? Does it mean something very different in the unpredictability that his sketches detail?

What are the implications of "the ordinary" and "the accidental" for narrative representation? How do we tell the story of what such accidents "mean" in the construction of human identity?

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."