Thursday, May 14, 2015

Poetics of I am Nothing

Like you and me, everyone lives center stage in their own play. Like the doctor who has to confront the Leader during an expansionist war. He had been asked to diagnose a strangely shy little girl living under the Dictator’s roof, a refugee from the fighting. He enters the Ruler’s office to make his report, using anger at the war to mask his fear of the CEO. He carries no pages of charts and graphs, no laboratory tests, nothing but a single sheet of paper.

The doctor explains to the Fuhrer that sometimes we ask patients to make a drawing, or a poem. Here is the complete report—a poem. The doctor puts on his hat. Good day, Sir. Exit stage left.

The Leader, in the center of his world of respectful doctors, lives with a narrow one-eyed blindness. To him war is a Good Thing for the strong; his wife is weak, and why the heck has she taken in a little refugee?

As for the girl, she doesn’t dare think she deserves to “own the stage.” She is nothing.

I won’t tell you any more of the plot of the short story I Am Nothing by Eric Frank Russell.  I like his writing as he shares a quality of Neville Shute’s novels and George Orwell’s essays: Like them, he has a fundamental decency.

You’ve probably never heard of Russell. (1905-1978) Here in Calgary Will Ferguson, the winner of the Scotia Bank Giller Prize-winning novel, 419, said in an interview that he learned to write by studying Russell’s novel Wasp. I’m pleased to have my own oft-read copy. The title is a metaphor for how in wartime great damage can be caused by isolated secret agents. But Russell’s wasp is not a glamorous unscathed James Bond. No. During his war many scattered wasps fall out of contact, and many naval starships fail to return. Russell knew: War is not glorious. If you don’t mind science fiction, then you might like Russell’s work.

As for me, not an orphan, I had to push my relatives off my mental stage, stop them from being my “committee in my head.” And stop being guilty that I had managed to “get a life.” My best friend couldn’t handle the guilt and drove back east to live there and help her siblings, victims of abuse in childhood.

As with war, life is not a game, but it follows the rules of probability. Take a hundred quaking boys and girls, refugees from parents screaming over the “goddam bills!” Tell them they live on the “wrong side of the tracks.” Deep down, some will feel, “I am nothing.” Statistically then, at least one of them is fated to try to medicate her frustration by being a bully or a criminal or having an addiction. You and I, of course, will always rise above our circumstances and control our base nature. I’m just talking about others.

If the innocent girl in Russell’s story avoids the Fates then it’s because she is so nice. Sometimes, consideration for others can be a lifesaver.

Here is the shy girl’s poem:

I am nothing and nobody.
My house went bang.
My cat stuck to a wall.
I wanted to pull it off.
They wouldn’t let me.
They threw it away.

Sean Crawford
~It’s queer how some memorable stories are about motherless girls. In print, my favorite three are Friday, a grownup in the book by Robert Heinlein, and two girls, Pollyanna and Sarah Crew. The latter is what Wesley reads aloud to Fred (Winifred) when she is deathly ill in Angel. I have yet to read about Ann.

~I feature Fred as one of Two Imaginary People in an essay archived December 2012.

~I would guess that Indians who leave the reservation would, like me and my best friend, feel “survivor guilt” as one more force arrow against their assimilation. By this guess, a liberal who disagrees with folks who want to keep the “two” races separate, a liberal who favors assimilation, would not have to move mountains trying to abolish reservations, but merely work to make reservations into decent places.

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