Posted by: Harold Knight | 05/15/2011

Alienation was once a diagnosis – O’Connor






In her essay, “The Catholic Novelist in the Protestant South,” Flannery O’Connor says,

Alienation was once a diagnosis, but… it has become an ideal. The modern hero is the outsider. His experience is rootless. He can go anywhere. He belongs nowhere. … The borders of his country are the sides of his skull (1).

She meant, of course, the hero of a ‘60s novel. I’m not the hero of anything except my own private myth about myself. But I (like nearly everyone I associate with) generally speaking feel “rootless,” as if I can “go anywhere.” I “belong nowhere,” and the “borders of [my] country are the sides of [my] skull.”

Of my immediate biological family, only two of us were born in one state (Wyoming), the other three in Missouri, Kansas, and Nebraska. The only surviving spouse of one of us was born in Nebraska. We now live in Texas, Louisiana, and California.

While those of us who have no “roots” are probably (who knows?) in the minority, rootless people are the types I tend to hang with (when I hang with anyone). It’s interesting (read: odd) that most of my “chosen” family at my little church-that-closed. For example, are native Texans, as are my square dance acquaintances. Most of the people in the various community action groups I associate with are not native Texans. That must have some sociological significance.

With all of these friends, Texans or not, one ought to feel at home—one ought not to feel “alienation.” But I have rooted deep inside me a story about myself that includes a process of very real alienation. This is not some post-postmodern philosophical understanding, born of “globalism” or “pacifism,” or “existentialism,” and “poststructuralism” or all those other “isms” and ways world-views my friends and I share, consciously or not—separated from our “roots” and a long way from “home.” This is “alienation” at the center of my existence.

It will be interesting to see how this writing and how my preparation for this day turn out because the “story” of my life includes taking medication to (supposedly) make me feel the way everyone else feels, medication for the Temporal Lobe Epilepsy that gives me a special way of looking at the world—from afar and with a kind of unreality—part of my alienation. I have taken today’s dose too soon after last night’s (not quite an overdose, but close), and the result is a dizziness that makes standing up, much less the detailed work of writing, at best difficult and at worst impossible.

It will be interesting both because of the way I feel, and because of the task I have before me—to finish getting get ready to travel to spend time with my sister, one of the most important inhabitants of my story of myself.

Cather country

Cather country

Two weeks ago my sister had a mastectomy, surely one of the most wrenching experiences, one of the most extraordinary chapters one could have in one’s story of herself, surely an alienation. And her story of herself in this extraordinary time has become part of my story because

[t]he neural processes by which we constitute what “I meant” or “what I intended” are the processes that provide the material support for the constitution of any meaning at all. The narrative selves of our conscious experience may be better understood as. . . [t]he structuring of our life into meaningful experience, its ordering in time, and its connection to other people’s stories and to culturally available narratives. . .  [Meaning] is likely to be learned and internalized from other human beings with whom we have physical and emotional interdependency, whose lives have in turn been structured and ordered by particular historical and cultural practices and institutions (2).

I wonder if I have “physical and emotional interdependency” with members of the MLA who codified the “rules” for footnoting—a bizarre thought when I’m writing about my sister whose life and mine have “been structured and ordered by particular” association with the people closest to us—for us, many of the same people—and for each of us, the other. If my professional interdependency with the MLA is so strong that I remember how to footnote properly even when I have too much Tegretol in my system, that with my sister must be incalculable. My interdependency with my sister is so strong it seems at times our stories are the same story. My flying to be with her as she learns a whole new “ordering in time” and “connection to other people’s stories” is part of my structuring of my life into meaningful experience.

[Note: I am now, the next day, at my sister’s home.] John Teske’s thinking has recently become part of the meaning I’ve “internalized from other human beings” although I’ve never met him. He says our internal focus provides “the raw materials from which narrative is fashioned,” and narratives “are representations of one’s own experience” even when they seem like “accounts of external events.”  What happens to us, he says, isn’t clearly differentiated from what happens in our inner self, “but stories of external events tend to be far less interesting without some reference to the interior landscape” (3).

A few days ago I wrote about Willa Cather. Within the narrative my sister and I share is the assigned school reading of My Ántonia.  I quoted John Burden’s words from the beginning of the novel.

I’m in my sister’s living room looking at the buffet, dining table, and chairs our parents bought before we were born. It’s oak, of some ornate 1940’s style, too big for her house. It’s part of the story of our lives separately and together. Willa Cather explains the “physical and emotional interdependency” of those “whose lives have in turn been structured and ordered by” the same experiences. John Burden says of his friendship with Ántonia,

This was the road over which Antonia and I came on that night when we got off the train . . . wondering children, being taken we knew not whither. . .  The feelings of that night were so near that I could reach out and touch them with my hand. I had the sense of coming home to myself, and of having found out what a little circle man’s experience is. . .  Whatever we had missed, we possessed together the precious, the incommunicable past (4).

Red Cloud

Red Cloud

John Burden discovers he may not be a hero, but he is not an outsider.

My sister and I disagree on many details of our remembered past. We each tell the story in our own way.  Our “representations of [our] own experience” differ even if they are “accounts of external events” we experienced together. It doesn’t matter. Our own “reference to [our] interior landscape” gives meaning to the “precious, the incommunicable past.” It’s where my alienation finds its rest. No longer a diagnosis.
(1) O’Connor, Flannery. Mystery and Manners. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (1967). 199-200.
(2) Teske, John A.” Neuromythology: Brains and Stories.” Zygon 41.1 (March 2006): 169-196.
(3) Teske op. cit.
(4) Cather, Willa. My Ántonia.  New York: Dover, 1994.


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