Type of Document Thesis Author McDonough, Meredith E. Author's Email Address firstname.lastname@example.org URN etd-04042010-225928 Title Compassion for the Absurd Degree Master of Fine Arts Department English, Department of Advisory Committee
Advisor Name Title James Kimbrell Committee Co-Chair Joann Gardner Committee Co-Chair Erin Belieu Committee Member Ralph Berry Committee Member Keywords
Date of Defense 2010-03-31 Availability unrestricted AbstractIn Compassion for the Absurd, I hope to find transcendent moments in the ridiculous and mundane scenarios of various lives, some real, some imagined. In focusing on the ordinary, the poems pull the background of life into the foreground and ask the reader to find art in the real rather than the ideal. By focusing on the often ignored marginalia of daily life, the poems bring the reader to a closer identification with the characters, an intimacy anchored by the revelation of the closeness between the reader’s experience and the characters’ stories. This experience may cause discomfort if not defamiliarization. Drawing on the work of Lefebvre, Gertrude Stein, Edgar Lee Masters and David Foster Wallace, I hope to find drama and meaning in the ‘ordinary.’ When writing about daily activities, the brick-a-brack of one’s surroundings, I notice that each incident and object loses its mundanity as soon as it is written about. Mentioning the miniature slot machine in an uncle’s house in a poem brings attention to both the slightly unusual quality of the object and the card counting abilities of the uncle. The object serves as a moment of augury and stands out from its surroundings. Similarly, in the poem The Observer, I find the sheer quantity of fish poured out of a net makes a harrowing death sound and that the man who measures the fish in the Alaskan cold performs a sort of memento mori every four hours. In short, the daily experience of each person consists mainly of repetition, but the repetition never lacks meaning.
In fact, the greater the repetition of an activity over the longer span of time, the more consequence the activity contains. In the poem Clamming the main character’s regular task of eating peanut butter, spoonful by spoonful, makes her body the object of portent and she is sinking long before her feet touch mud. Repetition though, does not necessarily lead to negative consequences. Our daily lives both chip away at our life energies and cultivate our particularities. In the space of one’s home and comfortable movements, obsessions take root. Obsessions are quotidian in that we all have them and we often share them culturally and sub culturally. Within the characters of Compassion for the Absurd, the reader encounters a dollar collector and an uncle who grows multiple different kinds of potatoes and orders llama hair to make yarn. These habitual obsessions, some greater in scope than others, some shared by many people, are both bizarre and quotidian. I feel that these repeated actions and thoughts build the unique home cosmologies of people. Everyday life then functions as a tug of war between political/social/historical demands and the internal resistance of people who develop strange or restricted desires. Lefebvre explains this phenomenon saying “Even at its most degraded…the everyday harbors the possibility of its own transformation, it gives rise, in other words, to desires which cannot be satisfied within a weekly cycle of production/consumption (p.3 Lefebvre).” Every worker feels the expense of his/her life’s time in the life of work, whether they work at a job or child rearing etc. The quotidian must then harbor the release of different desire. In Compassion for the Absurd, the idea of “portent” preoccupies the poems. The aforementioned tug-of-war between power and resistance ends, for all characters, in death. The objects that surround a person in life, pennies, guns, hair, and even dirt, carry portent as they remain after a person’s death. The pennies of the poem “My Inheritance” transform after the death of a character. The profusion of these small objects of little worth, collected over countless transactions, stand in for the dead character's body. They act perhaps as an offering, like a toll to cross from life to death. At the very least, they offer mass to replace a great absence. The familiar looked upon so closely becomes strange and often menacing. Everyday life functions both on a macro and micro level. On the micro level, we can tease out ideas, indications of emotion, maybe even the coming fate of a particular character. But the larger forces upon even the smallest object open the functions of commerce, of politics, of creeds, and so on. There are several different methods that writers use to bring attention to this macro/micro quality. Some, like Gertrude Stein, use word repetition to cause this effect. In these poems, I use lists of objects, as in “My Inheritance” and “Favorite Uncle” to achieve this same effect. In using lists, I hope to break the sameness of routine and draw the reading into the specificity of a moment or an obsession. In Art as Technique, Viktor Shklovsky explains how this process is important “Habituatlization devours works, clothes, furniture, one’s wife, and the fear of war…And art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony” (Viktor Shklovsky, Art as Technique 1917). This examination leading to discovering newness in familiar areas should hopefully cause some discomfort and exhilaration.
In addition to breaking down habitualization, Compassion for the Absurd hopes to capture some of the empathy for the strangeness of normalcy that the work of David Foster Wallace and Edgar Lee Masters expresses. Both writers focus on the small scale and show how a group of individuals bind together in strange philosophy. This process of focusing on individuals encourages the reader to approach the writing as if it is a mirror. The reader encounters other minds (especially if they are written well) at the level of thought. In being pulled into another mind, the reader immediately begins comparing their own mind to the written mind. In finding similarities and differences, the reader sees things about themselves they may or may not wish to see. I think that the “discomfort” stems from rejecting passive reception and comforting sameness. Wallace’s writing, especially in the essay form, seeks to examine normal behaviors and events (fairs, cruises, playing tennis, watching TV) to explore the bizarre qualities and keen suffering of the human experience. Masters achieves a similar goal by writing the story of each person in a crowd to bring their unique story to bear on the town’s collective character. Wallace, Stein, and Master’s each bring the reader to discomfort through dismantling language, revealing the bizarre, and focusing on the individuals. In Compassion for the Absurd, I hope to achieve the discomfort of Stein, the empathy of Wallace, and the collective voice of Masters. By focusing on the flow of unexamined lives, and the activities that make up the personal life, I seek to find the strangeness or the inconsistency between ideal and real.
The thesis will have three parts: Chickens and Dirt, The Ginger Process, and Pennies and the Dead: In Chickens and Dirt, each poem deals with the earth bound experience and people’s relationships with animals. The relationship of the flow of home life seems inextricably connected to the symbolic image of the eggs and earth. In Egg Bound a women projects her frustrations with her absent husband on a preening parrot. While in Clamming, a woman sinks into the clay as the weight of her own person becomes too much to bear. The Ginger Process focuses about work life, necessity, and drudgery. The poems ponder the expense of hours in the lab, decoding the mangled text of students learning English, and the collector’s obsessive plight. In the poem The Ginger Process a lab worker tries to find the human elements in the lab monkeys. And in Neepers, a dollar collector struggles to find the mistakes of dollar printings. The purpose of their work unclear, the characters hope to make meaningful discoveries. The final portion, Pennies and Dead, focuses on the remainders of life; what fills the apartments and houses of the dead and the work of clearing detritus. The dirt and disarray in “My Inheritance” test the characters’ limits of patience and remaining love as they clean blackened fingerprints off walls. In looking at the standard process of cleaning up a life finished, the poems hope to find comfort and meaning in the last years of life.
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