Saturday, February 13, 2016

stern, mournful, and fine - Stephen Crane's fatalism

Stephen Crane’s fatalism is well earned.  The arbitrariness of death was with him from an early age, when he likely contracted tuberculosis.  Shipwreck and battlefields could only reinforce the idea.  Why me and not him?  Why him and not me?

The correspondent in “The Open Boat,” rowing for his life, suddenly remembers a forgotten poem, about a dying soldier:

He had never considered it his affair that a soldier of the Legion lay dying in Algiers, nor had it appeared to him as a matter for sorrow.  It was less to him than the breaking of a pencil’s point.

Now, however, it quaintly came to him as a human, living thing.  It was no longer merely a picture of a few throes in the breast of a poet, meanwhile drinking tea and warming his feet at the grate; it was an actuality – stern, mournful, and fine.  (903)

He then envisions the soldier’s death.  “He was sorry for the soldier of the Legion who lay dying in Algiers.”  The series of ironies are outstanding, especially the first vision, of the poet and his tea – again, the character doing the envisioning is in a small boat on a stormy ocean, in danger of imminent death, although the next sentence tells me that the shark following the boat has “grown bored at the delay” had given up.  But the main irony is that the endangered man’s sudden outburst of sympathy is directed at a fictional character.

I thought the funniest declaration of fatalism was in “Twelve O’Clock,” the story about a cowboy who had never seen a cuckoo clock, and the terrible consequences thereof.  His other drunk pals refuse to believe him.  Some maybe do a bit worse:

A cowboy whose mother had a cuckoo-clock in her house in Philadelphia spoke with solemnity.  “Jake’s a liar.  There’s no such clock in the world.  What? a bird inside a clock to tell the time?  Change your drink, Jake.”  (832)

But what smart aleck could possibly resist pursuing the joke?  I sympathize.  Shame about the later murders.

“The Blue Hotel” is the most direct statement of Crane’s sense of the workings of fate.  I mean most direct in that unlike in  “The Open Boat” characters discuss the subject:

“We five of us, have collaborated in the murder of this Swede.  Usually there are from a dozen to forty women really involved in every murder, but in this case it seems to be only five men…” (827)

the last of whom, the actual killer, “isn’t even a noun.  He is a kind of adverb.”

This is another good example of what I was saying yesterday.  Odd ways of saying things.  Crane would have been a good mystery writer, not of the kind where a reader might be able to solve the crime, but the kind where I clutch my head in shock at the absurdity of it all, like in Chester Himes’s great Blind Man with a Pistol (1969).  If Crane had lived longer, he might well have written a story with that title.

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