Momaday: shadows on the grass

“It was a simple story in the telling, but there were many implications, many shadows on the grass” (The Names, 50).

This line could well have been written by Nick Flynn, or at least, written about his memoir, The Ticking is the Bomb. With The Names, for all its differences–its location in different places, different culture, different approach to family and identity–we have yet another nonfiction text that could be described as lyrical autobiography. We could even return to one of our earliest discussions in this course: Momaday, like Wolff after him, and not unlike Franklin and Douglass before them, engages in the imaginative truth of autobiographical writing.

As I suggested in class, Momaday locates the cultivation of this creative idea of autobiographical identity–I think, I write, therefore I am–not just in his mind (as Descartes does), but in his family. And, as we see, his conception of family, in his tradition, extends far back in time and space; one’s identity is shaped not just genetically, but historically. And history includes: names, stories, places, parents, myths.

Is that really so strange? ¬†What if we think of The Names as Momaday’s Genesis, his story of his beginnings, interwoven with everything else? Isn’t this familiar to us: where do I come from? If we take that question a bit more deliberately than we might usually do–and I would suggest a good nonfiction writer is nothing if not deliberate–then an honest answer to the question would fill a book. It is certainly familiar to American autobiography. Franklin begins with the story of his name, his ancestry enfolded in that; Douglass begins with the absence of his name. Momaday is also telling the story of his name. And what he does–albeit with different locations and names, as we should expect, since we come from different places–that is, to my mind, very similar to both Franklin and Douglass and Flynn and all the authors of this course, is approach the narrative of one’s beginnings as a narrative, in fact and in effect, of one’s becoming. If one of Flynn’s keywords for his “becoming” is “bewilderment,” the wandering that marks the experimental quality of his text, one of Momaday’s keywords is “evolving.”

We see a rich example of that in the case of his mother. He demonstrates in those pages around her images not just the evolving of her identity, but the idea of imaginative identity that he evolves from her. As we keep reading, and particularly as we give more thought to the creative and poetic (or again, lyrical) elements of his narrative in chapter three, we should keep the implications of evolution in mind.

And as we finish out this narrative at the end of next week, and give more thought to the environmental focus in the text–identity in place–this sense of creative evolution will also provide some grounding. However, as he forewarns us, the simple and recognizable image has many shadows on the grass.

Flynn: Allegory of the Cave

What can we make of Flynn’s use of Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave”? Its use in this book–how it resonates with other images and ideas? Its relevance to our study of creative nonfiction and autobiography: does it resonate with other authors and texts we have read?

It is imagery worth some close reading and thinking. I have suggested that autobiography in different ways is a text about how the author came to be an author, and in that sense, how this text came into being. In other words, autobiography, as an act in creative reflection, could be viewed as an allegory of writing. I think Plato’s allegory for Flynn plays into that reflectiveness. It also suggests to me something of Flynn’s rhetorical purpose–to the extent that he is forwarding or borrowing from Plato–who has a rhetorical purpose, a philosophical argument for education and against ignorance. One critic I know refers to Plato’s allegory as a “provocative”: a verbal image about the power (and danger) of images. I think Flynn’s text has something of this provocation in its purpose.

As to resonance with other texts we have read, Douglass and his discussion of the slave songs comes to mind: the ways the songs are necessarily misunderstood, the complicated layers of irony–the implication of ignorance that extends to the readers/audience, but also to the writer–strikes me as Douglass’s version of an allegory of the cave. Remember how Douglass extends this implication of ignorance quite deliberately at the end of the narrative, when he suggests that you, reader, must be in his position, in the place of the fugitive, in order to understand him. Here we were, reading the narrative of a prisoner, escaped alone to tell us, and it turns out that we are the prisoners. Douglass has left slavery in the south, but he has returned to the cave.

I see this play out in Flynn’s title chapter, “the ticking is the bomb” (132). Notice Flynn’s deliberate use of the second person: “Let’s say you’re a soldier in Iraq… Or let’s say you’ve been trained as an interrogator.” He then follows this up, extending the second person in the imperative. “Imagine this: You don’t even have a child, not yet, but as a ‘thought experiment’ you are asked what you will do when she is kidnapped….”

Like Douglass, and like Rankine, and perhaps like Wolff, Flynn is engaged in a thought experiment. The writer implicates the reader, you, the one hold this book in hand, in that thinking; he implicates himself. “So here I am, my fingers tight around Proteus’s neck, asking my same question, over and over, as if the answer exists, inside the maniac, inside the prisoner, inside the beloved, inside my mother, inside my father, inside me, as if the answer is there and just needs to be released.”

What’s the answer?

For background on Plato’s Allegory of the Cave: an overview from Wikipedia; a video adaptation of the passage from Plato’s Republic where the allegory is presented; transcript from Book VII with the passage.