Guest post deux from Jeffrey Ford:
When I was a kid, my mother had a policy about school. You didn’t have to go if you didn’t want to. One year, either 4th or 5th grade, I was absent 45 days. The principal of the school wasn’t going to pass me, but that was all before my mother went to see him. After her visit, there wasn’t a problem. The principal knew better than to say no to my mother. During those days off, I did a lot of reading, I remember that. But the real attraction was at lunch time, she’d make a big pot of spaghetti with butter and salt and pepper and we’d watch whatever Mystery movie they were showing on the television that day. This was back in the late fifties, early sixties, when all of television was in black and white, perhaps the best way to fully appreciate the shadows of those dark tales of revenge and crime and treachery. The ones that come readily to mind are the Mr. Moto films with Peter Lore as a sauerkraut eating Japanese detective. Not exactly PC by today’s standards, but still cool as hell back then. There was also The Whistler, Sherlock Holmes, The Thin Man, as well as the great gangster flicks like I Was a Prisoner On A Chain Gang with Paul Muni (I see him still, falling back into the shadows, hissing, “I steal.”) or anything with Edward G. Robinson. All of these existed as Mysteries to us although I’m aware today that there are different sub-genres. Of one thing I am absolutely certain, as cracked as this might seem to some, I know for sure that my mother thought that a diet of these Mysteries, in educational value, far exceeded anything they’d have been teaching me in school. Whatever concept they would have been grinding out in Mr. Karp’s Math Class, could it have even approached the existential wonder of watching that certain film, the title escapes me, that was shot entirely from the main character’s point of view? You only saw the character when the camera came across a mirror, otherwise that camera was eyeing gams and duking it out with the bad guys. Or how was Social Studies ever going to give me as clear a view into the depths of human depravity as when Richard Widmark pushes that old lady down a long flight of stairs in her wheelchair and then laughs his ass off? If I wanted to learn critical thinking, who could have been a better teacher than Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes? And always Muni, falling back into the shadows.
Perhaps when I’d grown up I’d have come to think about my mother’s attendance policies as daft, but I learned in college that she was absolutely correct. When I attended the State University of Binghamton for my Masters degree, I had a teacher by the name of William Spanos. He was a deconstructionist or de-constructionist, a post modernist, literary critic, and a good guy in spite of it. Yeah, he had the Derrida and Foucault, etc. but he was also a well respected writer of essays in his own right. He’d written this essay “The Detective and the Boundary” which had some interesting things to say about Mysteries. He wrote about the fact that pretty much all of Western Literature (novel-wise) borrows the form of the Detective Story in that the reader begins not knowing what will come and then embarks on a journey of enlightenment, discovering clues, so to speak, as he/she travels toward a point at the end that is a moment of revelation for both character and reader. The reason why these works are like Mysteries is because the writer knows what is going to happen but does not reveal it all at once at the beginning to the reader. The importance of the story is the process of detection, the process of revelation, and the final solution or denouement is not nearly as important. The fact that there is a beginning and end to the mystery story makes certain objects or events seem fraught with significance, though they may or may not be. But think how this is very much like life. We can not really know the importance of some things until our lives are finished, and it is only readers of our lives, those who live past our days and knew us who will be able to interpret the significance of events we lived through. We have a feeling certain people and places and events have significance as clues to the meaning of our lives, they seem imbued with an intensity of significance, but we can never be sure they are at all important until the end. They could be red herrings. So at the very axis mundi of existence is the Mystery. Of course, Spanos’s whole point was that the sense that we are living a mystery is all false, a prison in many ways. Yeah, OK, but it doesn’t make the experience feel any less true or dissuade us from envisioning our days as the chapters of a book.
All of this my mother knew, although she held no PhD. Instead of Dick and Jane and geometry my grade school education was car chases and shoot outs, snappy banter, shadows, great legs, a shiv in the kidneys, the long odds, the low down, and a bowl of spaghetti. It prepared me well for high school, at which I failed miserably both academically and socially, setting me up for success later in life. I knew how to read the clues, and I knew who to avoid, looking for that Richard Widmark gleam in stranger’s eyes. And then eventually my mother got old and got cancer as old people are wont to do. I’d say that was a significant clue. But in her last days of cognizance I saw in her expression a look that told me that after having lived an entire life, she still had not solved the Mystery of her own existence. Like Muni, she fell back into the shadows, and I realized that it was up to the living, the readers of her life to apply significance and meaning to her days. After all, we had the entire story – beginning, middle and end. Those days in front of the black and white television, during my grade school years, I have decided are an important clue to my mother’s life and perhaps my own. They are fraught with significance, especially now that I have written this.