31 Days of Stories 2012, Day 17: “We So Seldom Look on Love” by Barbara Gowdy

May 17, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

From We So Seldom Look on Love

In his Preface to the New York Edition of The American, Henry James writes of the principle by which artistic genius may produce, unconsciously in the making but evident in retrospect, a work that tugs in two directions at once – romance and realism in the case of James’s own novel (it being typical of the author to impute the condition of artistic genius upon himself). Art, James supposes, is greatest when the artist commits himself to “the law of some rich passion in him for extremes.” James continues:

Of the men of largest responding imagination before the human scene, of Scott, of Balzac, even of the coarse, comprehensive, prodigious Zola, we feel, I think, that the deflexion toward either quarter has never taken place; that neither the nature of the man’s faculty nor the nature of his experience has ever quite determined it. His current remains therefore extraordinarily rich and mixed, washing us successively with the warm wave of the near and familiar and the tonic shock, as may be, of the far and strange.

While in one sense it seems utterly foolish to compare Barbara Gowdy to Scott, Balzac, and Zola, her fiction nevertheless embodies the kind of “rich passion … for extremes” that James admired, and it is possible to locate in her work, as with few other late 20th or early 21st century authors, “the warm wave of the near and familiar and the tonic shock … of the far and strange.” Unlike the authors James mentions, however, these conditions are not successive – that is, discrete – in Gowdy’s fiction: they are inextricably mingled.

If Gowdy’s preferred mode is one of mimetic realism, her subject matter is often limned from the margins or the extremities of polite society. She finds sympathy and solace in outcasts and freaks, people (or, in the case of The White Bone, creatures) who are the focus of derision, hatred, or fear: the child abductor in Helpless, the brain-damaged (possibly reincarnated) albino daughter in Mister Sandman, and, not least of all, the necrophile protagonist in the title story of Gowdy’s 1992 collection, We So Seldom Look on Love.

Told in the first person, and employing a light, almost conversational cadence, the story traces the unnamed narrator’s experience with corpses, from her childhood fascination with dead birds and chipmunks, to her eventual obsession – beginning at age sixteen – with making love to human cadavers. Neither an apologia nor a justification, the narration is an exploration of the narrator’s attempt to harness the “energy emission” that occurs in “the act of life alchemizing into death,” and the concomitant transformation that can be effected at such a moment. “I’ve seen cadavers shining like stars,” she says.

At the story’s opening, the narrator explains this energy transference in terms that echo James: “There is always energy given off when a thing turns into its opposite, when love, for instance, turns into hate. There are always sparks at those extreme points. But life turning into death is the most extreme of extreme points.” The equation of sex and death is axiomatic (the French metaphor for orgasm, la petite mort, invoked particularly by literary critic Roland Barthes, literally means “little death”), and certainly has no short history in literature. Arguably the most famous novel to equate the sex act with the condition of being (un)dead is Dracula, but the correlation has also appeared in the work of writers as diverse as Charles Baudelaire, William Shakespeare, and Christina Rossetti. Woody Allen has said that “all great literature is about sex and death.” Gowdy simultaneously reflects and extends this tradition by emphasizing the moment of transition between life and death and the way death (in her story, quite literally) bleeds into life.

Indeed, blood is the signal bodily fluid for Gowdy’s narrator. As a child experimenting with death, the narrator develops numerous rituals to help pay respect to the bodies of the animals she buries; one such ritual involves dancing around with the carcass in her hands (this she calls “Anonitment”). On one occasion she appalls her best friend (and future sister-in-law) by stripping naked and rubbing the corpse of a chipmunk over her skin: “Carol stopped dancing. I looked at her, and the expression on her face stopped me dancing too. I looked down at the chipmunk in my hand. It was bloody. There were streaks of blood all over my body. I was horrified. I thought I’d squeezed the chipmunk too hard . But what had happened was, I’d begun my period. I figured this out a few minutes after Carol ran off. I wrapped the chipmunk in a shroud and buried it.” Carol reacts to the sight of her friend’s blood with horror and disgust. Whether she has also assumed the blood belongs to the chipmunk is unclear; what is abundantly clear is that the narrator’s menstrual blood is a symbol both of her transition into womanhood – her ability to carry and birth a child – as well as her loss of an unfertilized egg: literally, life and death are commingled here.

When she begins making love to corpses, the narrator uses blood from the dead bodies as a lubricant, something that her lover, Matt, is the only person to comprehend: “He was a medical student, so he knew that if you apply pressure to the chest of certain fresh corpses, they purge blood out of their mouths.” Rather than reacting to the narrator’s admission in the way Carol does – that is, with revulsion – Matt is fascinated, and seems to understand the essential connection between blood and sex, life and death: “Sperm propagates life,” he says. “But blood sustains it. Blood is primary.”

In Carol and Matt, Gowdy has provided another set of extremes: the former is disgusted and horrified by the narrator’s obsession, the latter is sympathetic and non-judgmental. These are, of course, the two poles that the reader is offered. One of the essential aspects of Gowdy’s fiction in general, and “We So Seldom Look on Love” in particular, is its refusal to provide any pat moral or to imply any “correct” reading. Because she also traffics in the extremes of human behaviour, it is hardly possible for a reader to adopt an ambivalent position. In this case, she has confronted us with a narrator who acts outside the confines of what society considers normative or acceptable, but she has done so without casting moral judgment. Any moral outrage brought to the story is the reader’s, not the author’s. As readers, we are given a choice: we can side with Carol or we can side with Matt.

The latter choice is fraught, since Matt’s unrequited love for the narrator can only be returned if he dies. True love, the story posits, is dangerous, sacrificial, and potentially fatal. Matt’s desire for the narrator can only find its reflection in her through his death: “He was playing with fire,” she says, “playing with me.” Matt finally commits suicide, albeit with help from the narrator (exactly how much help is another matter that is left indeterminate in the text), whereby he hopes to effect the transformation that will allow the narrator finally to love him.

The end of the story returns us full circle to the beginning, to “the most extreme of extreme points,” when life transforms itself into death. “I think that all desire is desire for transformation,” the narrator says, “and that all transformation – all movement, all process – happens because life turns into death.” This insistence on process belies the idea of polarities – between life and death, love and hate – that have been identified previously, but the final line of the story finds a return to a juxtaposition of extremes in the “torrid serenity” the narrator discovers making love to cadavers. If Carol and Matt represent the poles of conventional society, the narrator is in some ways the synthesis of these poles, these extremes. She represents otherness, which may either be embraced by society or shunned, but cannot be ignored. James would have approved.

(This piece first appeared in Canadian Notes & Queries)

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