Friday, April 20, 2012

An Occurrence at the Bridge - Bierce & Kees

There is an eerie similarity to the careers of two notable Bay Area writers--Ambrose Bierce [1842-], and Weldon Kees [1914-]. Both were accomplished craftsmen in their respective genres--Bierce the journalist, satirist and fabulist--Kees the poet, musician/composer, and painter--and each died under mysterious circumstances--Bierce [1913] apparently executed while in Mexico by hostile partisans--Kees [1955] an apparent suicide off the Golden Gate Bridge. Because their respective disappearances were never clarified, and remain conjectural to this day, they capture the imagination as unresolved touchstones in the history of the West. Other than the fact that both these men are identified as Bay Area figures--as each was born and grew up elsewhere, and didn't come West until after they were adults--there may seem little reason perhaps to link their fates, though there is an underlying cynicism and perhaps even of depressive fatalism in their respective world-views.

What is it that drives men of insight and curiosity to react to danger or disappointment by pushing further into the breach--beyond the limits of personal safety, or into personal despair? Part of our fascination is the uncertainty--that we may never know the ultimate meaning of their fates; they will spin in the outer orbit of our knowledge forever, never quite assigned a fixed position in the constellation of literary fact and reputation. It makes their work somehow more intriguing, in our age of the personalization of the Author--that we should not get to confirm the significance of what they left behind by pinning them down to a certain fate or a literal physical presence. They're like ghosts who don't come back to clarify the record. It's the sense of thwarted curiosity and the nosiness of our relentless demand for the fully fleshed out account, tying loose ends together and packaging history into neat bundles.

In a pre-modern context, readers and society were content to let authorship be an obscure condition,--and not knowing about the origin of a text, actually contributed to the elaboration and pleasure of the reading and the nimbus of implication and mystery that gathered about the printed (or spoken) word. We don't like those obscurities anymore--we want the facts, ma'am, and none of this smoke and mirrors.

Bierce's most famous work--aside from The Devil's Dictionary (or The Cynic's Workbook, 1906/1911)--is the short story "The Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" [1891]. Bierce was a master of the short story, during a time when periodical fiction was just coming into its popularity. Among his contemporaries, Twain, Crane, London, Robert Louis Stevenson, Conrad, Henry James all wrote popular short fiction, and their work imagined a frontier of possibility, but at the same time it meditated a gloomy anti-progressive vision.

"The Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" is little more than a metaphysical snapshot of about five pages length. Briefly, it's the story of a Confederate sympathizer who has been caught, convicted and sentenced to hang from a bridge. In the tense moments before the hanging, he imagines a possible escape. When he is dropped from the bridge, the rope miraculously breaks, and he swims to safety on the bank downstream. Wandering through an interminable forest, he finally arrives at his home where his family awaits him. But at this moment the reality of his death suddenly cuts short his meditation, and his mind seizes up in its death-throes. Everything he has seen happen before his consciousness has taken place in a rush in the few moments before his death.

The notion that people experience collapsed or expanded time under moments of great stress is by now a fairly common theme. Many people have had this experience. When I was driving the family car at age 18, a woman in another car plowed through a stop-sign and broadsided me on the driver's side. During the accident, I was miraculously aware of every taut detail of the interaction. I saw her car approach me, I read the surprise and panic and relinquishment to fate in her face, I saw the hood of her car move towards me and lunge into the driver's door, saw the door give way in a wedged crumple, and my vehicle slide sideways, heard the sickening crunch of metal on metal, and the squeal of the tires. When our vehicles came to a stop, I looked out the window at the woman, and spoke indignantly "what do you think you were doing, lady!?"

All this happened in perhaps a second and a half, yet in my mental time it seemed that everything had been retarded. The part of my brain that wasn't focused on the events unfolding in front of me, was racing wildly in all directions, figuring alternate versions of the event, and even considering escape options. The compression--or expansion--of time is a common experience that we have under stress. It allows us to function at maximum capacity, as adrenaline and other stimulators (endorphins) are rapidly released into the bloodstream, bringing about peak performance and heightened mental/nervous capacity. They are often referred to as "primitive" physiological responses, but their efficiency and value to individual life forms is phenomenal. Some people clearly have a greater capacity for response to emergency, while others have much less. This may constitute a form of what we call courage or bravery under fire; rather than a mark of superior character or daring, it may simply be a genetic variation among individuals. Coolness under fire is the ability to function effectively under conditions of stress. But decisive energetic function may be an entirely different capability, in which the mind is able to "ignore" distractions--sometimes drastic, even life-threatening injuries or threats--to carry out difficult tasks quickly and/or accurately.

But Bierce's metaphysical nihilism, implied in the pathetic delusion of a victim who fantasizes his liberation--like Houdini--from an overwhelming dilemma--is a powerful counter-weight to this otherwise optimistic view of life. The Confederacy we now can easily see was militarily doomed at the beginning of the Civil War. The indomitable and gallant will of the Confederate cause is metaphorized as pathetic and fatalistic in Bierce's parable. The Confederacy will go down to ultimate defeat, even as its adherents and loyal followers imagine an impossible, favorable outcome. The South's dream of victory turns out to have been a nightmare, and the sleeper is only "awakened" from his dream to the reality of his death. The imagination scurries about trying out alternatives, but all possible escapes are blocked.

In 1891, when the story first appeared, the events of the Civil War were still uppermost in the minds and memories of most Americans, especially those in the eastern half of the nation. Hundreds of thousands of veterans, many wounded for life, knew they had participated in one of the great cataclysmic events in history. Bierce's story is like a re-living of the terror and fear that soldiers on both sides experienced, before, during and long after battles or encounters. How such events are felt by individuals is the key to why this story is so powerful.

There's an eerie connection between Bierce's powerful parable about the intense foreboding or terror of imminent death, and the mystery of his own disappearance, in the imagination of readers, in the century since it occurred, almost exactly 100 years ago. But like the "surprise ending" (or gimmicky stories of O.Henry) it seems like a trick. Fate steps in to rearrange circumstance to suit an improbable outcome. Truth is often stranger than fiction, but fiction is an artful way of representing this truth. We have little trouble imagining the racing thoughts of a condemned man on the scaffold, but the true illusion is to experience it as a true lapse of awareness. Fiction allows us to get inside the head of the condemned to share the hope and despair and surprise we feel in the unfolding of events in real life. Our brains are specifically suited to experience these stories; our capacity to dream made-up events as analogues of our life in the real world is one of the hallmarks of our human intelligence, and we appear to crave and to require this outlet to balance the challenges we face in the waking state. It's how the brain heals itself, or "puts things right." Dreaming, too, may be problematic, in allowing us to create or amplify dangerous delusional feelings. Among the insane, dreaming may be an expression of abnormal tendencies, or may lead not to stability but to imbalance. Horror or suspense or Gothic romance--for its own sake--as a fertile ground for the exploration of the vicissitudes of the human soul.

The American poet, painter and composer Weldon Kees remains an enigmatic figure. Marvelously talented, he excelled in several artistic media. A precocious child in a well-to-do household, Kees grew up in Nebraska. His early career as a writer included stints of novel- and poetry-writing, Abstract Expressionist painting, play-writing, journalism--but he was most successful as a poet. Later, he delved into popular song-writing, psychology research (the semiotics of non-verbal communication), and radio work. Kees was that rare bird, a polymath genius, whose abilities span the boundaries of expression. During the 1930's, he had been seduced by the Left, and during the early 1950's the McCarthy Hearings caused his wife to have a serious nervous breakdown leading to institutionalization. The end of the marriage may well have begun the downward depressive spiral which led eventually to his presumed suicide. Kees had been taking barbiturates, and had had a series of failed relationships with women. His car was found along the edge of the road on the Marin County side leading to the Golden Gate Bridge on July 19, 1955. Kees was reported to have been talking about going to live in Mexico, inspired by Lowry's novel Under the Volcano [1947]. One might speculate about the eerie similarity this has to Bierce's presumed fate.

Mexico has often been thought of as a kind of artist's purgatory, a country steeped in a sort of mystical New World blend of ancient myth and Renaissance religious iconography--part escape-hatch and part no-man's land--the perfect exile for the clinically alienated artist-type.

There's been much public comment devoted to the issue of whether the Golden Gate Bridge has actually inspired many people to commit suicide by jumping off it, and what steps might be taken to prevent this either by restricting pedestrian and bike access, or by building barriers too difficult to circumvent. For anyone wishing to commit the act of self-obliteration, there are certainly other, equally accessible and convenient venues. But it may well be that there's a sense of glorious anti-heroism that attracts potential victims to the bridge, which has acquired a mythic grandeur as a monument to those who have chosen it as their launching-point to oblivion.

The West, in the popular imagination, has served both as an inspiration, a destination for those seeking ultimate opportunities, liberation, or escape. But having "arrived" at the western edge, there is also a sense of finality, and even of a dead-end. No matter how far we travel into the wilderness, or into the unknown outlands of our imagination, in the end it is always us we find. In Conrad's Heart of Darkness [1899], what Kurtz discovers are the deeper aspects of his own personality. At times, it seemed that Weldon Kees could turn his talents in any direction, and that he was only limited by his own cynical, sardonic turn of mind. The power to create good or great art, however, does not insure that one's personal world view be either providential or fatalistic. Bierce's view of mankind was skeptical and scornful, just as Kees's was. Both men came west seeking new opportunities and possibilities, and each found a degree of success and recognition. If we think of their careers and lives as being tragic, or confounding, it may be because we see in their vision a troubling message for us.


Conrad DiDiodato said...


I like this interesting reflection on art's tendency to kill its own: viz. that to those about to seek artistic truth anywhere in the world the vision in the end may be more than they can bear. Lowry's novel (one of my favourites!)is perhaps the most terrifying look into the horrors of illusion because there's no respite from it, just the sort of thing to drive the very sensitive to drink or over the edge.

On a visit to San Francisco I recall looking over the bridge, and eerily feeling the cold grip of despair. I never wanted more badly to finish walking to the other side. But to me it was only the brief thrill of the sublime.

What Kees and I saw could not have been more different though, of course, it was the same view of 'oblivion'.

six-toed voodoo kitty said...

Great article. Thanks!
You know about the Twilight Zone episode of the Bierce short story?
Great! Actually a French short debuted at Cannes and aired on American TV as a Twilight Zone episode. From Wikipedia: "Two years after its production, the film was screened on American TV as part of the fantasy/science fiction show The Twilight Zone. Producer William Froug saw the film and decided to buy the rights to syndicate it on American television. The transaction cost The Twilight Zone $25,000 – significantly less than the average of $65,000 they expended on producing their own episodes. However, Froug’s purchase allowed for the film to be aired only twice (the first airing was on February 28, 1964). Consequently, it is not included on The Twilight Zone’s syndication package (although it is included on Image Entertainment's DVD box set of the original series and on the DVD Treasures of the Twilight Zone). The episode's introduction is notable for Rod Serling breaking the fourth wall even more than usual, as he explains how the film was shot overseas and later picked up to air as part of The Twilight Zone."
I saw it with my cousins and we were shocked to death that night.