“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is a “parable” in the same sense as Hawthorne’s short story, “The Minister’s Black Veil.” It is not a simple story from which a moral lesson can be drawn, but rather a verbal construct that presents basic Enigma, essential Mystery. The minister puts on the black veil that shuts him off from the rest of the world as a symbolic objectification of what he has realized to be implicitly true. It is the townspeople’s intuitive awareness of that reality that strikes fear into their hearts when they see the veil. At only one point of the story does the minister almost forget the significance of the veil. While attending a wedding, he raises his glass as a toast to the happiness of the bride and groom, but seeing himself in the mirror, he is reminded of the basic separation of all human beings and spills the wine untasted. Because of this realization, the minister cannot drink the toast, nor can the Wedding-Guest celebrate the ceremony.
The Cain and Abel story, as echoed in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” has been invoked in many twentieth-century short stories. Chekhov’s “Gooseberries,” which I discuss in another chapter in this book, is one of the most famous examples. Another highly regarded “love and separateness” story is Carson McCullers' “A Tree. A Rock. A Cloud.” Paul Engles, in the Introduction to the 1942 O'Henry Award Prize Stories, said he considered it "the most perfect short story in American Literature." Although this may sound extreme for such a seemingly slight narrative, there is something classic about the basic character configuration and theme of the story. The enclosed situation of the cafe in the early morning, the confrontation between the young initiate and the experienced older man; the cynical and ironic observer, the silent chorus of men in the background--all this suggest an archetypal short story situation. The story's focus on loneliness and the difficulty of loving corresponds to Frank O'Connor's famous definition of the short story in The Lonely Voice.
The narrative situation of the story is simple; what needs to be understood is the notion of love that it presents. McCullers provides a suggestion about what she means by love in her essay, "The Flowering Dream: Notes on Writing”: "How, without love and the intuition that comes from love, can a human being place himself in the situation of another human being? He must imagine, and imagination takes humility, love, and great courage” (163).
If we ask why it is easier to love a tree, a rock, a cloud than it is to love a person, the answer must be that love is indeed synonymous with identification with the other. The aim of love is to dissolve that which separates us by swallowing up, or being swallowed up by, the other. It requires what philosopher Ernst Cassirer calls primitive man’s “deep conviction of a fundamental and indelible solidarity of life that bridges over the multiplicity and variety of its single forms” (Essay on Man 82).
Mircea Eliade uses the term “hierophany,” meaning “something sacred shows itself,” the most elementary being a manifestation of the sacred in a stone or a tree and highest being of God in Jesus Christ (Sacred and Profane 10). Loving another person is difficult because the other is a subjective consciousness who wishes to maintain self-identity. However, as the transient tells the puzzled boy, one can gradually learn to identify with the other if one begins simply with the less threatening. McCullers’ story is about that primitive sense of the sacred that constitutes true reality, the basic religious yearning of human consciousness to lose the self in the other. The cynical observer Leo knows the transient is right, but he also knows that such a demand is impossible for the ordinary human; the boy, of course, has yet to learn this hard fact of human reality.
If the “I-Thou” is inborn, as Buber says, it exists in that realm of the individual and the race that predates consciousness of the self, and therefore can exist for human beings only as an ideal, for which we yearn. Humans are continuously possessed by this desire for unity, which our very reason makes impossible, which is why the Romantics, of course, decried the deification of reason in the eighteenth century and wished to reinstate imagination in its place, imagination that transcended reason and made strange that which was so seemingly familiar. And since imagination is the leading aesthetic idea of the Romantics, love or sympathy became its leading moral idea—a basic yearning for the underlying unity of all things that springs forth in moments of what Abraham Maslow called “peak experience,” or what Wordsworth in the Prelude called "spots of time."
If the boundary between inner experience and external reality is established at the same time that consciousness of the self and thus the world of objects outside the self is established, then as far as the adult civilized human being is concerned, this primal state of at-oneness can neither be experienced nor understood except by means of an imaginative “as if” or fiction which he or she can either seek or be seized by.
"In the beginning was the Word," says John, "and the Word was with God, and the Word was God . . .And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us….” The Incarnation, prefigured in the Creation and Fall, offers human beings the opportunity to be reunited with all that from which the Fall separated them, to regain that primal oneness of being and perception they experienced before the knowledge of object permanence. The ideal that will enable human beings to reenter paradise lies in the central message of Christ: "Thou shall love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, mind, and soul, and thy neighbor as thyself.” For to love the Lord is to love all other selves and to love the neighbor as the self is, in the supreme imaginative fiction, to perceive the neighbor as indistinct from the self.
William James says in The Varieties of Religious Experience that there is a common nucleus of all religions—an uneasiness that “there is something wrong about us as we naturally stand” (221). The solution is a sense that “we are saved from the wrongness by making proper connection with the higher powers.” And German theologian Rudolph Bultmann says “There is no obedience to God which does not have to prove itself in the concrete situation of meeting one’s neighbor… The demand for love surpasses every legal demand; it knows no boundary or limit (18).
The human dilemma is that we are always caught between the demands of our deepest wish for unity and the demands of our social being for self-assertion--which is the battle between the sacred and the profane, between union and separation. The unconscious is where "reality" resides, says Eliade. The human search to know it is equivalent to the desire of the religious man to live in the sacred, which is, "equivalent to his desire to take up his abode in objective reality… to live in a real and effective world, and not in an illusion” (Sacred and Profane 28).
This tension constitutes fiction's chief resemblance to life, says C. S. Lewis: "In real life, as in a story, something must happen. That is just the trouble. We grasp at a state and find only a succession of events in which the state is never quite embodied" (91). For Lewis, life and art reflect each other, for both embody the tension between our desire for a state and our despair of ever catching that state in our everyday net of time and event. This characterization of a tension-filled life and art is of course a religious one, regardless of whether we use William James's basic definition of the religious impulse as stemming from a feeling that "there is something wrong about us as we naturally stand" or Mircea Eliade's definition of homo religiosus as one whose desire to live in the sacred is equivalent to the desire to live in objective reality.
Following the publication of Dancing After Hours, the great American short-story writer Andre Dubus's first collection of stories after his accident in which he lost the use of his legs--also, sadly, his final collection--he told an interviewer that his disability seemed to have increased his empathy. Asked if he had become a better writer after the accident, he said, "I hope so. That would be a blessing." Richard Bausch has said that Dubus demonstrates clearly why the short story is such a persistent form: "For the fact is that there are matters of the spirit the short story addresses better than any other literary art" (13). Joining such exemplars of the form as Chekhov's "Gooseberries," Joyce's "The Dead," and Carver's "Errand," the title story of Dubus’s final collection epitomizes the "matters of the spirit" that the short story makes its own.
"Dancing After Hours" is one of Dubus's finest "shared rituals," a communion in which the characters--reflections of us all in our lonely and fragile flesh--transcend mere externalities through spiritual union. This is one of the great romantic themes of the short story since its beginning, a religious theme that originated in the early nineteenth century and which has been illuminated brilliantly by the form up to the present day.
Emily Moore, the central character in "Dancing After Hours," a forty-year old bartender in a town in Massachusetts, has always wanted a pretty face, but has lacked "the mysterious proportion" of such; her belief that she was homely as a girl and a young woman has "deeply wounded her." This is not a trivial injury. Typical of the musical way the short story communicates matters of the spirit, all the characters in the story echo this theme. Like the old waiter in Hemingway's "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place," another waitress, Rita, hates to go home alone. Emily knows that the waitress Kay is falling in love with Rita; she imagines her walking into her apartment, listening to her answering machine with both hope and dread.
Indeed, it is Emily's ability to imagine the secret lives of the other characters--which reflects Dubus's own ability to empathize with his characters--that makes the story such a communal triumph. At night when she cannot sleep, Emily reads and, like all readers, is opened to the world by the women, men, and children on the pages. In a wonderful echo of Joyce's "The Dead," Dubus says that though Emily's sorrow remains, she is consoled as she "became one with the earth and its creatures: its dead, its living, its living after her own death; one with the sky and water, and with a single leaf falling from a tree."
The theme of the external that separates and spirit that unites is echoed in Emily's memory of the blind musician Roland Kirk, who in a small club twenty years before, told the crowd that it was nice coming to work blind: "Not seeing who's fat or skinny. Ugly. Or pretty." When he comes off the stage and puts his arm around Emily to dance, she understands what it is "to love without the limits of seeing; so to love without the limits of the flesh." When he hugs her, she does not feel like a woman in the embrace of a man; "she melded; she was music."
This is, of course, the brilliant central metaphor of the story--the dance, which, even as it is intensely physical, strives to transcend the physical, the dancer mysteriously dissolving into the dance itself. The sky dive Drew tells about likewise embodies an effort to escape the deadly effect of gravity and transcend the body. And though all this communal sharing and memory there is the music: the singing of Frank Sinatra, the saxophone of Paul Desmond.
Short stories revolve around their central theme as in a piece of music, repeating with variations. Jess, the manager of the bar, still somewhat dazed after his wife of twenty-three years left him, tells Emily about a friend made a quadriplegic in Viet Nam; Jeff says the man knew that his body was his enemy and that when he fought it he lost. "What he had to do was ignore it. That was the will. That was how he was happy." Emily watches her "pretty friends" dance in a magical moment that is truly "after hours," as if time has stood still and no one wants it to start again. Kay says, "Let’s go to my house, and dance all night." In the wee small hours of the morning, the group reluctantly separate, but not completely. Drew promises to return. Emily watches Rita drive away with Kay and feels tender and hopeful for them. Jeff and Emily make plans to go fishing and share a meal. In the end, which is a beginning, Emily reaches through the window and squeezes Jeff's hand. "Then she drove east, smelling the ocean on the wind moving her hair."
What we ask of the story, says American poet Randall Jarrell, is that it satisfy our wish, and the wish is the first truth about us, "since it represents not that learned principle of reality which half-governs our workaday hours, but the primary principle that governs infancy, sleep, daydreams--and, certainly, many stories.” As Freud well knew, says Jarrell, the root of all stories is "in Grimm, not in La Rouchefoucauld; in dreams, not in cameras and tape recorders" (35). As many artists have noted and short stories will testify, the source of story lies indeed in myth, folk tale, fairy tale, and thus in dreams--not in the concept of external reality that most often constitutes the novel.
The important distinction that must be made is between narratives that strive to make the realm of value seem temporal, and thus graspable by experience and reason, and narratives that strive to transform the temporal into the transcendent. What I wish to suggest in this book is that the novel is a form dominated primarily by the first impulse, whereas the short story, at its most successful, is dominated by the second. Depiction of the first process requires temporal development, a slow process of "as if" lived experience in a world of objects, social relationships, and conceptual frameworks. It must have the bigness of a comprehensive theory of the whole human being facing the whole world. Depiction of the second process, on the other hand, focuses on the moment, an instantaneous single experience that in its immediacy challenges social and conceptual frameworks.
There are therefore two basic modes of experience in prose fiction: the one, that involves the development and acceptance of the everyday world of phenomenal, sensate, and logical relation--a realm that the novel has always taken for its own--and the other, that involves single experiences that challenge reality as simply sensate and reasonable--a realm that has dominated the short story since its beginnings. The novel involves an active search for identity that is actually a reconciliation of the self with the social and experiential world—a reconciliation that is ultimately conceptually accepted, based on the experiences one has undergone. The short story takes a character who has reached, or is in the process of reaching, for such a conceptual identity through reason, experience, or a combination of both, and confronts him or her with the world of yearning or anxiety, which then challenges that sense of identity achieved by reason and everyday experience.
Many thinkers have noted this primal spiritual impulse of storytelling. Short fiction is a fundamental form because the earliest stories focused on the human transformative encounter with the sacred. Narrative in its primal origins is of "an experience" concretely felt, not "experience" generally conceived; the short story still retains that primal aspect.