1. Resolved: There are no holidays.
Our text this evening is “Holiday,” a short story by Katherine Anne Porter (she began writing it in the 1920’s but put it aside for decades until finally publishing it in 1960). We will follow this story closely as we gather into this uncharacteristically lengthy post the wisdom of the ages.
Yes. UD now shares with you, on this long drunken night, the truths of being, all of which are handily packed into this obscure little tale. “Holiday” is a meandering narrative, the sort of thing hyper-connected millennials have trouble reading, because in order to read “Holiday,” you have to settle into a very very slow cud-chewing state of mind, or mindfulness, or mindlessness, as if you were seated on a thin cushion in a room in which someone is taking their sweet time with a dharma talk. Porter’s stories “read as if they were composed at one sitting, and they have the spontaneity of a running stream,” writes an admirer, and indeed “Holiday” flows real and true, but you have to stay afloat, you have to keep faith with it and nothing else, or you’ll drift over to familiar dry banks.
So relax and work with me here as we start with the title. In this story, an unnamed young woman, tense and exhausted by unspecified personal problems, takes a one-month holiday to the Texas countryside, where she rents a room in the house of a large hard-working prosperous German-American farming family. She thinks it will be therapeutic to get away from herself, but – as the saying goes – wherever you go, there you are. And this is the first great truth with which the narrator begins: “[W]e do not run from the troubles and dangers which are truly ours, and it is better to learn what they are earlier than later…” Porter had a very settled sense of our entrapment, each of us, in our particular nature – the form of being which is truly ours – and she regarded a meaningful life as one in which you come to know, to face, to accept, the contours as well as the inescapability of your particular being. In an interview, she recalls a friend of hers who “was not able to take care of herself, because she was not able to face her own nature and was afraid of everything.”
So although this may sound like a counsel of despair – sink into the hopeless business of being who you hopelessly are – it’s not that at all. Once you’ve assumed the intellectual and emotional burden of your radically limited identity, once you’ve “walked the length of your mind,” as Philip Larkin put it, you are free to embark on the courageous project of – in Porter’s words – taking care of yourself.
2. Resolved: “Human life itself is almost pure chaos.”
The narrative begins and ends with a farcical wagon ride. The family member who picks the woman up at the train station to take her to the farm has brought an old rickety vehicle for the journey:
The wheels themselves spun not dully around and around in the way of common wheels, but elliptically, being loosened at the hubs, so that we proceeded with a drunken, hilarious swagger, like the rolling motion of a small boat on a choppy sea.
At the end of the story she herself ineptly drives a similarly ridiculous wagon:
We careened down the road at a grudging trot, the pony jolting like a churn, the wheels spinning elliptically in a truly broad comedy swagger.
Where are you getting in this narrative? You started on a set of vaudevillian wheels and you’re ending on the same. If you insist on the payoff of satisfyingly rounded events – resolutions, if you like – instead of the ridiculously elliptical stuff real life throws at you, you’re not going to get anywhere actual. You’ll stay on the evasive holiday everyone tries to stay on.
And Porter really pours on the chaos. The main family member with whom her unnamed heroine interacts, Ottilie, seems to suffer from severe cerebral palsy.
Her face was so bowed over it was almost hidden, and her whole body was maimed in some painful, mysterious way, probably congenital, I supposed, though she seemed wiry and tough. Her knotted hands shook continually, her wagging head kept pace with her restless elbows.
The wheels are really falling off the world of “Holiday.” Even the seemingly well-ordered routines of the family’s all-consuming maintenance of the farm – “the repose, the almost mystical inertia of their minds in the midst of [their] muscular life” – is a facade about to be torn apart by a violently destructive storm, and by the sudden death of their beloved mother.
3. Resolved: And yet, and yet.
We struggle, strangers to ourselves amid a world in turmoil. Yet (see Resolution #2) it’s only “almost” pure chaos. The wheels don’t actually fall off, and, grudgingly, they get us there. Ottilie’s physical chaos seems complete, yet she turns out to be perhaps the most ordered and essential mainstay of the family, since she is capable of cooking and serving excellent meals. She sustains them all.
Her muteness seemed nearly absolute; she had no coherent language of signs. Yet three times a day she spread that enormous table with solid food, freshly baked bread, huge platters of vegetables, immoderate roasts of meat, extravagant tarts, strudels, pies — enough for twenty people. If neighbors came in for an afternoon on some holiday, Ottilie would stumble into the big north room, the parlor, with its golden oak melodeon, a harsh-green Brussels carpet, Nottingham lace curtains, crocheted lace antimacassars on the chair backs, to serve them coffee with cream and sugar and thick slices of yellow cake.
… Her face was a brown smudge of anxiety, her eyes were wide and dazed. Her uncertain hands rattled among the pans, but nothing could make her seem real, or in any way connected with the life around her. Yet when I set my pitcher on the stove, she lifted the heavy kettle and poured the scalding water into it without spilling a drop.
Strangers to ourselves, we perceive others as equally strange. Untouchable, unreachable. Nothing can make them seem real. Yet in time the chaos that seems to reign in ourselves and others begins to hint of an underlying order. The wheels get us there; the heavy kettle gets held and the scalding water poured.
4. Resolved: Greet the world’s overtures, especially the ones that scare you, because they may reveal the truth.
Ottilie shows our heroine a photograph of herself, taken before she became misshapen.
The bit of cardboard connected her at once somehow to the world of human beings I knew; for an instant some filament lighter than cobweb spun itself out between that living center in her and in me, a filament from some center that held us all bound to our unescapable common source, so that her life and mine were kin, even a part of each other, and the painfulness and strangeness of her vanished. She knew well that she had been Ottilie, with those steady legs and watching eyes, and she was Ottilie still within herself. For a moment, being alive, she knew she suffered…
There’s a strikingly similar scene in Don DeLillo’s early novel, Great Jones Street, when a handsome, charismatic rock star who is undergoing some sort of nervous breakdown encounters a physically misshapen boy:
I must have seemed a shadow to him, thin liquid, incidental to the block of light he lived in. For the first time I began to note his embryonic beauty. The blank eyes ticked. The mouth opened slightly, closing on loomed mucus. I’d thought the fear of being peeled to this limp circumstance had caused my panic, the astonishment of blood pausing in the body. But maybe it was something else as well, the possibility that such a circumstance concludes in beauty. There was a lure to the boy, an unsettling lunar pull, and I moved my hand over the moist surface of his face. Beauty is dangerous in narrow times, a knife in the slender neck of the rational man, and only those who live between the layers of these strange days can know its name and shape. When I took my hand from his face, the head resumed its metronomic roll. I was still afraid of him, more than ever in fact, but willing now to breathe his air, to smell the bland gases coming off him, to work myself into his consciousness, whatever there was of that. It would have been better (and even cheering) to think of him as some kind of super-crustacean or diabolic boiled vegetable. But he was too human for that, adhering to me as though by suction or sticky filaments.
The truth is human, all too human, and UD figures it’s pretty clear in these sorts of encounters that what’s being met with is one’s sense of one’s own impossible twistedness, one’s own frightening unworkability. This is reality; this ain’t no holiday. Both characters are in fact drawn to these badly damaged, seemingly alien creatures, even as they’re frightened by them. They sense that here lies the felt truth of human suffering, and they won’t get anywhere with themselves until they get up close and personal with it. For this is precisely the graphic entrapment in one’s own peculiar nature Porter was talking about, and until one perceives both its reality and the possibility of somewhat transcending that reality, one’s self won’t be very workable. Recall that both the DeLillo and the Porter plots are propelled by the close-to-nervous breakdown of the main character.
5. Resolved: Anyway, most of life will remain incomprehension – of oneself and others… But! If you are willing to keep risking being ridiculous and uncomprehending (if the fool would persist in his folly…), you will experience certain incredibly important rewards. Certain meanings will begin to glimmer; other people’s humanity may cease to feel so alien and frightening to you; and out of the felt, shared, burden/joke of everyone’s suffering may come – curiously – a nourishing sense of the delight of existence itself.
The family has gone off to the mother’s funeral, leaving Ottilie, who after all is a member of the family, behind. Our heroine hears her crying and assumes she’s in despair at having been left at home.
[S]he howled with a great wrench of her body, an upward reach of the neck, without tears. At sight of me she got up and came over to me and laid her head on my breast, and her hands dangled forward a moment. Shuddering, she babbled and howled and waved her arms in a frenzy through the open window over the stripped branches of the orchard toward the lane where the [funeral] procession had straightened out into formal order.
And so our heroine decides to take the creaky old wagon that’s left in the barn, place (with great difficulty) Ottilie in it, and take her to the funeral. And this is what happens.
Ottilie, now silent, was doubled upon herself, slipping loosely on the edge of the seat. I caught hold of her stout belt with my free hand, and my fingers slipped between her clothes and bare flesh, ribbed and gaunt and dry against my knuckles. My sense of her realness, her humanity, this shattered being that was a woman, was so shocking to me that a howl as doglike and despairing as her own rose in me unuttered and died again, to be a perpetual ghost. Ottilie slanted her eyes and peered at me, and I gazed back. The knotted wrinkles of her face were grotesquely changed, she gave a choked little whimper, and suddenly she laughed out, a kind of yelp but unmistakably laughter, and clapped her hands for joy, the grinning mouth and suffering eyes turned to the sky. Her head nodded and wagged with the clownish humor of our trundling lurching progress. The feel of the hot sun on her back, the bright air, the jolly senseless staggering of the wheels, the peacock green of the heavens: something of these had reached her. She was happy and gay, and she gurgled and rocked in her seat, leaning upon me and waving loosely around her as if to show me what wonders she saw.
Drawing the pony to a standstill, I studied her face for a while and pondered my ironical mistake. There was nothing I could do for Ottilie, selfishly as I wished to ease my heart of her; she was beyond my reach as well as any other human reach, and yet, had I not come nearer to her than I had to anyone else in my attempt to deny and bridge the distance between us, or rather, her distance from me? Well, we were both equally the fools of life, equally fellow fugitives from death. We had escaped for one day more at least. We would celebrate our good luck, we would have a little stolen holiday, a breath of spring air and freedom on this lovely, festive afternoon.