Negotiated Truths

Chapter 1 Blog

Chapter 1. “The Negotiated Truth”

In 2006, I read an essay by the novelist JG Ballard in the Guardian newspaper (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2006/mar/04/fiction.film)

In it, Ballard describes the process of writing Empire of the Sun, a work of fiction that draws heavily on his harrowing childhood experiences as a prisoner in the Lunghua Japanese war camp. He begins the essay by reflecting on the “huge staying power” of memories, noting that “like dreams, they thrive in the dark” and survive “for decades in the deep waters of our minds like shipwrecks on the sea bed.” If those memories are painful, he observes, bringing them into the light “can be risky”. Indeed, in Ballard’s case, that risk was so great that he avoided writing about his childhood for forty years:  “[t]wenty years to forget, and then 20 years to remember”. He was, he confesses, entirely unable to bear witness to that time in his life until “it occurred to me to drop my parents from the story” just as “they had moved out of my life in Lunghua even though we were sharing the same room” .

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By removing his parents from the story, in other words, Ballard was free to recount what he felt to be the truth of his “real existence,” his sense of surviving the war on his own. “Once I separated Jim from his parents,” he reveals, “the novel unrolled itself at my feet like a bullet-ridden carpet” .

 

So, despite the significant change he made in representing the circumstances of his past (ie by portraying young Jim as in essence an orphan in the camp) Ballard believed that  “enough of it was based on fact to convince me that what had seemed a dream-like pageant was a negotiated truth”.  The art of Ballard’s novel, in other words, its narrative negotiation with the “risky,” “dark” and “shipwrecked” memories of its author’s traumatic past, and it is precisely this strategy of negotiation with the truth, rather than its documentation, that I find in all the posttraumatic autobiographical projects I examine in The Art and Science of Trauma and the Autobiographical: Negotiated Truths.

From legal and rights testimony to traditional and graphic memoirs, from prison poetry to autobiographical fiction, from virtual to material monuments to traumatic histories, I see Ballard’s “negotiated truth” as the key rhetorical figure of the posttraumatic autobiographical. Indeed, as I shall explain in a future blog, it is an approach to recounting traumatic past experiences that I have used myself.

Poem for the Weekend: Happily Ever After

 Image

Happily Ever After

 When Cinderella met her prince it was all so

easy.

Family troubles? The text is not

explicit:

how king and queen felt

when golden boy brought home

a cleaner.

Perhaps the mice resented

Being put in her service,

the dog disgruntled playing

footman.

 

Her tiara—paste

Her footwear—unreliable.

 

Still, against

the fairy godmother,

fat sisters, incantations and court champagne,

pumpkin coach, white dress so

becoming, the allure 

of her disappearance:

He never stood a chance.

 

Last night I came home, past midnight.

Unclear what spell

I’d broken:

my magic has never been strong. 

 

I awoke in dusty rags

arms stretched

across my pillow, shoeless

without you.

Charming.

           

 

 

Emily Dickinson: Telling it Slant

The 19th Century American literary man Samuel Bowles, who first published a few of Emily Dickinson’s poems, (anonymously and highly edited to remove her dashes, unusual capitalization of words and spelling errors) had this to say about women writers in his magazine THE REPUBLICAN in 1860:

 “There is another kind of writing only too common, appealing to the sympathies of the reader without recommending itself to his judgment. It may be called the literature of misery.  Its writers are chiefly women, gifted women, maybe, full of thought and feeling and fancy, but poor, lonely and unhappy. It may be a valuable discipline in the end but for the time being it too often clouds, withers, distorts.  It is so difficult to see objects distinctly through a mist of tears.”

Contemporary critic Harold Bloom repeats this idea that Dickinson’s poetry makes “the visible a little hard to see,” and indeed, her poetry does tend to approach themes of home, love, sexuality, death and melancholy from “a slant” as Dickinson herself called it.

POEM 258 

There’s a certain Slant of light,

Winter Afternoons –

That oppresses, like the Heft

Of Cathedral Tunes –

 

Heavenly Hurt, it gives us –

We can find no scar,

But internal difference,

Where the Meanings, are-

 

None may teach it – Any –

‘Tis the Seal Despair –

An imperial affliction

Sent us of the Air –

 

When it comes, the Landscape listens –

Shadows – hold their breath –

When it goes, ‘tis like the Distance

On the look of Death –

 Throughout poems such as this one, Dickinson offers challenges to traditional forms of reading and meaning – awkward and highly original comparisons ( (IMPERIAL AFFLICTIONS/ THE HEFT OF CATHEDRAL TUNES /THE LANDSCAPE LISTENS/THE DISTANCE ON THE LOOK OF DEATH)  that appear to take the personal outwards, making the particular and specific universal and significant by looking at it sideways.  And Dickinson’s subversive slant strategy allowed her to infuse poetry that appeared to her contemporaries be full of homespun observations, and, as Bowles suggests

“ thought and feeling and fancy” with her complex contrarian philosophy. Dickinson’s business, as she told us, was not to relate “feelings” or “tears” as Bowles believed, but the revelation of a whole new way of thinking through “Circumference” and telling the truth, but telling it “slant” in order to offer the highest gift any writer can deliver:    

internal difference,

Where the Meanings, are-

 

Poem for the Weekend: Tale of Two

Tale of Two

’I hope you care to be recalled to life?’ And the old answer:

‘I can’t say.’  C. Dickens, Tale of Two Cities

Monsieur Manette chained to your bench and tinkering.

I hoped I could recall you to life.

 

Lost love is a malingerer: blows cold air

into your garret.

Numb to all but the pattern you work

the days, the years of your confinement.

I am right outside your door.

 

In the best of times I conceived a plan of rescue.

Bribes to gain entry.

Axe to release you.

Fireman’s carry, over my shoulder

out to the city our carriage

awaits.

 

But revenge freezes keys in locks

my feet immobile, blocks of ice: I too am framed

in longing.

 

In the worst times, we keep busy.

You with your shoemaking,

me with my knitting.

A coded tale in purls.

 

Raise your white head, and read

what I have wrought:

No fire to warm you.

No papers for passage.

No guarantee of escape.

 

Stay Monsieur Doctor, in your cell:

A far, far better thing.

We are alike only in our sentence,

the tyrant of the past.

 

Poem: Port Enyon

Port Enyon

 Low tide surrenders the everyday,

the face we show the world recedes

into the sea.

In its place are boulders, fissures, wormcasts,

pools of green so deep they defy the clean

sweep:  the pull of sun and moon

cannot diminish them.

Beautiful/ugly world;

algaed barnacles, the dead husks of

black mussels, slug-like anemones, sea flowers

yellow brown and alien.

And this is life.

 

When the tide turns all is flattened, homogenous.

But you and I know:

Beneath this placidity is darkness,

is decay so slow, wise and stubborn

no power on earth

can wash it away.

 

 

 

 

Bank Holiday Poem

 The Heron

On the rough river that runs behind

the house I live in now

a  blue heron stalks.

He works without movement, one-legged, listening

master of balance, quick on the draw.

Don’t look him in the eye  my daughter

says, freckles across her nose.  He’ll swoop!

I wonder how she judged his gender.

She is already leaving me.

The bird attacks

drilling down in the muck piercing

the head of a small silver fish,

muddying the water with red blood.

Herons like things that glitter, she says.

Which of them does not?

I hold her hand tightly.

It’s time for bed.

That evening the heron has gone.

Water now fills the place where he stood.

All that is left of the battle is this:

Bloodied scales beneath the current

the silence that surrounds me

things our child is too young to know.

You loved me once like that: stoic, ruthless.

Eyes on the glittering prize.

A poem for the weekend

Further avoidance of writing fiction has helped me to write this poem (working on a theme in the novel so I feel entirely justified….)

Note Pinned to the Saddle of a Wandering Mare

Partner, I admit

I left you to the graft

wrangling, branding, counting heads:

I forgot to shut the gate.

Things on the ranch haven’t changed.

So empty the echo

deafened you. So dark you gave up

on matches. So quiet at night

I roped you to my ear.

I liked your prairie

eyes, the way we rode like friends

along the trail: my singing, your red kerchief,

the lariat round your neck. I’m sorry

for the handcuffs and the lock

across your door.

I was so hungry

I ate you alive.