Sanity was a central preoccupation of Patricia Highsmith, who, in certain solid ways, knew herself very well indeed. She worked hard at sanity and was mostly successful at it. Her icy, invigilator’s eye scanned her own behavior and monitored her own thoughts regularly and often, the way a searchlight sweeps a prison yard for escaping convicts. “I think I have some schizoid tendencies, which must Be Watched,” she wrote grimly. And then again, “I fear the madness in me, quite near the surface.”
– Joan Schenkar, The Talented Miss Highsmith: The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith
Patricia Highsmith could hardly be called an autobiographical writer, although a casual awareness of her life story – the misanthropy, the serial love affairs, the recurring bouts of depression, the alcoholism – testifies to the prevalence of a persistent dark side that almost inevitably worked itself into her fiction. It is no accident that Highsmith chose murder, mayhem, and manipulation as her subjects.
The late-period story “The Terrors of Basket-Weaving” is in fact something of an anomaly in the Highsmith canon (along with the author’s second novel, The Price of Salt, a lesbian love story originally published pseudonymously), having nothing to do with crime or criminals. Which should not be taken to mean that it is not a dark story, or that it represents an abandonment of the author’s fascination with fractured or abnormal psychology. Highsmith’s use of the word “schizoid” in the letter Joan Schenkar quotes in the excerpt above is telling: the same word appears in a similar context in “The Terrors of Basket-Weaving,” although there it appears to refer more to multiple personality disorder than to schizophrenia.
The story focuses on a successful and settled middle-class woman named Diane Clarke. Diane, an ad copywriter, and her lawyer husband, Reg, live in Manhattan but have a cottage in Massachusetts. While walking along the beach one day, Diane discovers a basket shaped like a cradle, with a hole in its bottom. She takes the basket home and, using twigs she has on hand, mends the hole with a skill and efficiency she had no idea she possessed. Rather than being pleased with the outcome of her handiwork, however, she grows increasingly ill-at-ease as to the provenance of her ability, and the basket becomes a kind of menacing talisman, a primitive object that seems to implicate her in the whole history of humanity. This prospect elicits in her a stark terror.
Throughout Highsmith’s story, the idea of modernity is opposed by images and recollections of a more primeval ontological state. Diane’s current work assignment involves writing copy for a mechanical device that sucks the air out of refrigerator bags, allowing food to be stored longer and to take up less room. The device is modern and expensive, but Diane finds it difficult to pen copy because her mind keeps drifting back to the basket she has rescued from the beach:
It was odd to be sitting in a cottage built in a simple style more than a hundred years ago, to have just repaired a basket in the manner that people would have made or repaired a basket thousands of years ago, and to be trying to compose a sentence about a gadget whose existence depended upon modern plumbing, sealed packaging, transport by machinery of fruit or vegetables grown hundreds of miles (possibly thousands) from the places where they would be consumed. If this weren’t so, people could simply carry fruit and vegetables home in a sack from the fields, or in baskets such as the one she had just mended.
Diane recognizes that the technology involved in creating and repairing the basket – a technology that is so common and easily replicable that she is capable of participating in it – is better and more useful than the technology that created the vacuum sealing device she is charged with promoting (a device that is, her ruminations imply, finally pretty inessential). Diane understands the vacuum gadget, having seen a demonstration of it at her office, but is not able to comprehend how it is put together, nor the specific mechanics that make it work, a recognition that leaves her feeling “odd and disoriented.”
She is equally disoriented during a dinner party the following week, when she considers the highest achievements of humanity – achievements she feels fundamentally estranged from – in light of her almost preternatural ability to repair a wooden basket:
While they were drinking coffee, Diane lit three candles and the oil lamp, and they listened to a record of Mozart divertimenti. They didn’t listen, but it served as background music for their conversation. Diane listened to the music. It sounded skillful, even modern, and extremely civilized. Diane enjoyed her brandy. The brandy too seemed the epitome of human skill, care, knowledge. Not like a basket any child could put together. Perhaps a child in years couldn’t, but a child as to progress in the evolution of the human race could weave a basket.
This is the central passage in Highsmith’s story, the one that most explicitly identifies the nature of Diane’s terror: the notion that all the skills and technologies in the modern world are unnecessary on an evolutionary level. The ability to weave a basket is more useful to the survival of the human race than the ability to appreciate a fine brandy or a Mozart composition. Diane considers various explanations for her unease, including the aforementioned mental illness, most of which she dismisses out of hand (“Diane did not believe in a soul, and found the idea of a collective unconscious too vague to be of importance”). What really seems to be bothering her, however, is the notion that civilization itself may be a chimera; that all the things she prizes in her sophisticated middle-class life are simply illusions; that all the wonders of human ingenuity ultimately pale in comparison to the ability to repair a simple woven basket.