Remembering “The Book of the Grotesque”

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I returned to the office Saturday from a reporting trip to read a week’s-worth of the four English-language newspapers I follow. The fat was back in the fire, what with the so-far anonymous whistle-blower and President Trump’s July 25 telephone conversation with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky,

Having watched a couple of hotly-contended soccer games on television while in Europe I had been thinking about referees and what we expect of them.

What caught my attention in those couple of hundred pages of newsprint I read yesterday were the lofty claims in which the various stories were situated. I always wince at the Post’s portentous new flag: “Democracy dies in darkness.” The FT’s “without fear and without favour” is suitably restrained. The WSJ’s presentation is the least heavily inflected; the NYT’s the most strident these days.

It was a two-page house ad in the Saturday NYT, under the headline “The Truth Has a Voice,” that brought me up short. “Capturing the full story on every story we report takes diligence, persistence and an unwavering commitment to the truth,” the advert copy began.

In this case was the truth was that of gender equality. The ad stated, “New York Times journalists have long reported on the specific challenges and inequalities women face – and the strides women have taken towards change. We are committed to covering gender inequality, whether elevating women’s voices, debunking misconceptions or producing deeply-reported stories on pressing issues.”

It concluded, “Your support of today’s independent press is and investment in tomorrow. Thank you.”

On the page opposite, NYT gender editor Jessica Bennett put it this way: “We want gender coverage to exist across sections, platforms and subject matter. It is a lens through which we cover the world.  It’s all part of our larger mission to pursue the truth, shine a light on overlooked stories and hold power to account.”

What struck me was the tension between competing views in the ad behind its definite and indefinite articles: “the” truth. vs. “a” lens. The NYT’s “Truth” campaign has bothered me from the beginning, because of the immodesty of its claims. The boast of “truth” goes far beyond what most journalists know themselves to be pursuing: a provisional, partial kind of truth, the best that can be said quickly.

The NYT ad yesterday reminded me of the prologue to Winesburg, Ohio (1919), by Sherwood Anderson, a book of twenty-one short stories I read as a copy-boy at the City New Bureau of Chicago, in 1964. I looked at the hundred-year-old book again this morning.  It seemed as germane as ever. Winesburg is in the public domain; the prologue is twelve hundred words long. I am appending it here.

.                                                           The Book of the Grotesque

The writer, an old man with a white mustache, had some difficulty in getting into bed. The windows of the house in which he lived were high and he wanted to look at the trees when he awoke in the morning. A carpenter came to fix the bed so that it would be on a level with the window.

Quite a fuss was made about the matter. The carpenter, who had been a soldier in the Civil War, came into the writer’s room and sat down to talk of building a platform for the purpose of raising the bed. The writer had cigars lying about and the carpenter smoked.

For a time the two men talked of the raising of the bed and then they talked of other things. The soldier got on the subject of the war. The writer, in fact, led him to that subject. The carpenter had once been a prisoner in Andersonville prison and had lost a brother. The brother had died of starvation, and whenever the carpenter got upon that subject he cried. He, like the old writer, had a white mustache, and when he cried he puckered up his lips and the mustache bobbed up and down. The weeping old man with the cigar in his mouth was ludicrous. The plan the writer had for the raising of his bed was forgotten and later the carpenter did it in his own way and the writer, who was past sixty, had to help himself with a chair when he went to bed at night.

In his bed the writer rolled over on his side and lay quite still. For years he had been beset with notions concerning his heart. He was a hard smoker and his heart fluttered. The idea had got into his mind that he would some time die unexpectedly and always when he got into bed he thought of that. It did not alarm him. The effect in fact was quite a special thing and not easily explained. It made him more alive, there in bed, than at any other time. Perfectly still he lay and his body was old and not of much use any more, but something inside him was altogether young. He was like a pregnant woman, only that the thing inside him was not a baby but a youth. No, it wasn’t a youth, it was a woman, young, and wearing a coat of mail like a knight. It is absurd, you see, to try to tell what was inside the old writer as he lay on his high bed and listened to the fluttering of his heart. The thing to get at is what the writer, or the young thing within the writer, was thinking about.

The old writer, like all of the people in the world, had got, during his long life, a great many notions in his head. He had once been quite handsome and a number of women had been in love with him. And then, of course, he had known people, many people, known them in a peculiarly intimate way that was different from the way in which you and I know people. At least that is what the writer thought and the thought pleased him. Why quarrel with an old man concerning his thoughts?

In the bed the writer had a dream that was not a dream. As he grew somewhat sleepy but was still conscious, figures began to appear before his eyes. He imagined the young indescribable thing within himself was driving a long procession of figures before his eyes.

You see the interest in all this lies in the figures that went before the eyes of the writer. They were all grotesques. All of the men and women the writer had ever known had become grotesques.

The grotesques were not all horrible. Some were amusing, some almost beautiful, and one, a woman all drawn out of shape, hurt the old man by her grotesqueness. When she passed he made a noise like a small dog whimpering. Had you come into the room you might have supposed the old man had unpleasant dreams or perhaps indigestion.

For an hour the procession of grotesques passed before the eyes of the old man, and then, although it was a painful thing to do, he crept out of bed and began to write. Some one of the grotesques had made a deep impression on his mind and he wanted to describe it.

At his desk the writer worked for an hour. In the end he wrote a book which he called “The Book of the Grotesque.” It was never published, but I saw it once and it made an indelible impression on my mind. The book had one central thought that is very strange and has always remained with me. By remembering it I have been able to understand many people and things that I was never able to understand before. The thought was involved but a simple statement of it would be something like this:

That in the beginning when the world was young there were a great many thoughts but no such thing as a truth. Man made the truths himself and each truth was a composite of a great many vague thoughts. All about in the world were the truths and they were all beautiful.

The old man had listed hundreds of the truths in his book. I will not try to tell you of all of them. There was the truth of virginity and the truth of passion, the truth of wealth and of poverty, of thrift and of profligacy, of carelessness and abandon. Hundreds and hundreds were the truths and they were all beautiful.

And then the people came along. Each as he appeared snatched up one of the truths and some who were quite strong snatched up a dozen of them.

It was the truths that made the people grotesques. The old man had quite an elaborate theory concerning the matter. It was his notion that the moment one of the people took one of the truths to himself, called it his truth, and tried to live his life by it, he became a grotesque and the truth he embraced became a falsehood.

You can see for yourself how the old man, who had spent all of his life writing and was filled with words, would write hundreds of pages concerning this matter. The subject would become so big in his mind that he himself would be in danger of becoming a grotesque. He didn’t, I suppose, for the same reason that he never published the book. It was the young thing inside him that saved the old man.

Concerning the old carpenter who fixed the bed for the writer, I only mentioned him because he, like many of what are called very common people, became the nearest thing to what is understandable and lovable of all the grotesques in the writer’s book.