blackbirdonline journalSpring 2010  Vol. 9  No. 1
print icon

In Defense of Straight-Chuters
     My parents did everything they could to make a child happy . . .
     although I had little talent for happiness.

          —Samuel Beckett

I missed a television movie about Temple Grandin, the autistic scientist whose autobiography Thinking in Pictures was a bestseller a few years ago. We’ve never had HBO on our cable package. The film, starring Claire Danes as Grandin, was well reviewed by TV critics, starved as always for something to praise. From their reviews, those of us who haven’t read her book discovered that Temple Grandin’s most important contributions were in the field of slaughterhouse design—design described in The New York Times as “humane.” Some irony is inevitable. While justly praising Grandin as an advocate for meat animals, one whose work was intended to reduce their suffering, these journalists fail to acknowledge anything questionable about slaughterhouses, anything morally unsteady about a supposedly reflective animal who fiercely defends his right to kill and eat all the other animals. The case against the smug lords of the food chain is made very forcefully by Jonathan Safran Foer in Eating Animals, a recent book that gravely troubled my carnivore’s conscience, though parts of it are too unsettling for me to read.

But I’m not addressing animal rights here. Reading about Grandin, I came across an image that froze me in mid–sentence, an image as arresting as a plaintive cry from the killing floor. The particular slaughterhouse innovation that made Grandin’s reputation was a curved cattle chute—a chute to the slaughter–point designed to prevent cattle from seeing what was happening to the animals ahead of them. I had found, at last, what must be the perfect metaphor for human lives. In order to persevere—to keep moving forward—we fashion curved chutes so we can’t see the truth of what’s ahead, or what became of those who went before.

“How can human beings stand all that comes to them? How can they?” asks playwright Horton Foote in The Orphans’ Home Cycle. The only obvious answer is the curved chute. Religion curves the chute. Drugs, alcohol, and ideology curve it, too—and everything else Ernest Hemingway lists as an “opium” in “The Gambler, the Nun, and the Radio.” Power and money, of course. But also finer things like literature, music, painting—love.  Whatever curves your chute. Though we all come to the same end, each of us manages the journey in a different way. With compelling new evidence that prescription antidepressants like Prozac and Paxil barely outperform sugar–pill placebos, chute construction assumes an even more critical role in the psychic survival of the species.

It’s a metaphor that works immaculately for me. Dark, maybe—but there’s a darker corollary. A constant irritant to the herd, as it labors to ignore what lies ahead, is the handicapped minority of individuals whose chutes cannot be curved, whose denial mechanisms are hopelessly inadequate. I think of them as the straight–chuters, those whose path to the awful exit point lies as straight as a West Texas highway, and as clear of obstructions or distractions. The straight–chuter is unrelated to his homonym, the straight shooter, except that both are associated with unusual honesty.

I can’t deny that I have a personal weakness in this direction. It’s no boast, God help me, even if the miserable roster of the uncurveable includes many writers and artists I revere. No one wishes this on himself. I’ve often repeated, ruefully, one critic’s assessment of a book I published: “Mr. Crowther not only sees the glass half empty, he thinks the water smells funny.” A college roommate called me MOCS—short for “Man of Constant Sorrow”—because I couldn’t stop moaning that ancient folk song I heard on a Peter, Paul and Mary album. (When I was in graduate school, The Critters climbed the charts with another favorite of mine, “Mr. Dyingly Sad.”) I took no special pride in this mournful profile, though it always amused me to hear the masters of denial dismiss despair and Weltschmerz as mere poses of the pretentious and immature. At nineteen it might be a pose—at thirty–five it’s a life sentence. It’s cruel and unusual punishment.

Black humor functions like oxygen for straight–chuters, and irony is their principal air supply. The curve–builders often mistake this humor for optimism. Recently I heard a psychoanalyst, of all people, argue that Samuel Beckett never really walked the straight chute, that he was socially and sexually successful and lived a relatively merry life in private. I’ve read nearly every word he wrote, including his very last ones; if you can imagine Samuel Beckett on the sunny side of the street, there’s no feat of denial you couldn’t achieve.

Another Sad Sam, a major playwright of my own generation, is enjoying (a word I use cautiously) a season of rejuvenation. With his new play Ages of the Moon and a revival of A Lie of the Mind both running in New York, and a book of short fiction, Day Out of Days just published by Knopf, Sam Shepard is back in the public eye and granting interviews. But it was only a year ago that his drinking landed him in a dry–out program and in serious trouble with the law. Sober since, Shepard makes no claim to late–life redemption, like the idiot celebrities who celebrate their rehabilitation and deliverance on the covers of Sunday supplements. That’s not the way his chute is shaped.

Shepard, who also survived a heroin habit, once said that “tremendous morning despair” had been his lot since childhood—a childhood that felt like living “on Mars.” “I feel like I never had a home,” he recalled. “Sometimes I just stand outside and watch my family moving around inside the house.” For men like Shepard and the father who terrified him, “the medicine was booze.” These bleak origins, this arrested development nurtured a unique American voice that’s relentless in its pessimism.

“Shepard’s dramatic world is peopled with derelict, disappointed somnambulists,” John Lahr wrote in The New Yorker. “These unmoored souls form a kind of tribe of the living dead, deracinated men trying to escape a sense of shame that they only vaguely understand. They recede from family, from society, and through drink, from themselves.” Lahr calls Shepard’s plays “allegories of mutilated love” and his characters “not so much warped as unborn; clueless and rudderless, they can’t find their way in.”

“For Sam Shepard,” wrote Walter Kirn, reviewing Day Out of Days in the Times, “the American landscape is a sprawling cemetery, a field of bad dreams spread out between two oceans.”

I think that says it all, from the straight–chuter’s side of the ledger. Neither fame nor fortune, however hard–earned, makes much of an impression on the damned souls who turn their pain into art. (James Knowlson’s biography of Samuel Beckett is titled Damned to Fame.) Where suicide is never considered a remote or extreme option, egotism is uncommon. Not all artists of this temperament navigate the shoals of disillusionment and despair as successfully as Sam Shepard. Not all survive. One gifted writer who claimed the laurels early and found them worthless was David Foster Wallace, who hanged himself in 2008 at the age of forty–six. Wallace, whose fiction is full of successful and attempted suicides, telegraphed his last punch in a commencement speech at Kenyon College three years earlier. (Incidentally topping the late Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., another notorious melancholiac, who once advised a graduating class of young women at Bennington College that the first adult thing they should do was to “get their tubes tied.”)

“The capital–T Truth of life is about making it to thirty, or maybe even fifty, without wanting to shoot yourself in the head,” Wallace told the crowd of hopeful baccalaureates. And he elaborated: “It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in the head. They shoot the terrible master.”

Call that mental illness if you like, but anyone who can’t sense the unbearable pain in Wallace’s last sentence has no doubt fashioned himself a beautifully curved chute. They may be working the muffin counter at Starbucks now, those hapless college presidents who invited famous writers of the straight–chute school to address their graduates. In a foundering economy, whatever hope these schools sell is too fragile to expose to eloquent hopelessness. Does Sam Shepard do commencements? I’ll bet Mark Twain did, and faked it. Yet there’s nothing funny about the condition of a man of letters who honestly intends to reach out and offer something valuable to college students, and comes up with nothing sweeter than suicide or hysterectomy. Try to empathize. Writing, which engages the whole aching brain for long stretches of time, can be an effective anesthetic and opiate. But when certain individuals look up from their labors, all they see is the door of the abattoir yawning, and some poor doomed creature stumbling on its threshold. It’s no wonder so many of them long to “shoot the terrible master.”

Nihilists, atheists, existentialists, dipsomaniacs, depressives: categories of human beings more comfortable pilgrims find alien and distasteful, yet categories that have always attracted a lot of talent. Aristotle stated unequivocally that “all men who have attained excellence in philosophy, in poetry, in art and in politics, even Socrates and Plato, had a melancholic habitus.” Kay Redfield Jamison’s study of successful British writers and artists found that these individuals—compared with the general population—were eight times as likely to suffer from major depressive illness. If there’s a website devoted to brilliant and famous people who killed themselves—and there’s a website now for everything—you’ll be astonished, or appalled, by the names and the numbers.

But pessimism and insight are by no means synonymous, and not all the writers I venerate are straight–chuters. I’m in mourning for my friend Lucille Clifton, who died in February. She was a fine poet and a remarkable woman. Lucille was sexually abused as a child; she lost a son, a daughter, and her husband long before her own death. She developed cancer in her fifties and suffered from progressive renal failure for the last decade of her life, yet her work and her temperament were tenaciously life–affirming. The last time I had dinner with Lucille she was approaching seventy, a tired veteran of radiation, chemotherapy and dialysis, and she asked us to help her find a good man.

Lucille, as earthy and open as I am squeamish and shy, was as comfortable in her humanness as the straight–chuters are not. She fought for life as hard as some of them fight against it. But she was too intelligent to sneer at their affliction, which was so different from her own. Her gifts included a great generosity. It’s not one of the traits widely associated with J.D. Salinger, the reluctantly legendary recluse whose death just preceded Lucille’s. Salinger, an enormous talent, was of course a denizen of the dark side. The characters in his fiction, characterized by Michiko Kakutani in the Times as “outsiders—spiritual voyagers shipwrecked in a vulgar and materialistic world, misfits who never really outgrew adolescent feelings of estrangement,” sound like close cousins to the “unmoored souls” in Sam Shepard’s “tribe of the living dead” as depicted by John Lahr. Among consciously alienated writers, Salinger is certainly the one who walked the walk. His resignation from the human race was no less dramatic than the one staged by Shepard’s woeful lost father, who spent his last years alone in the desert because he didn’t “fit with people.”

The main difference between Shepard and Salinger is that Shepard’s misfits kind of stare up at the world, in bewilderment, while Salinger’s precocious, middle–class Glass family stares down at it, with what might pass for disdain. This is an important distinction. Kakutani points to the Glass children’s “adolescent either/or view of the world” and deplores “a tendency to condescend to the vulgar masses.”

For the alienated, condescension is a constant temptation, a dangerous form of compensation for those who fail to fit in. From condescension—of which Salinger may not be entirely guilty as charged—it’s a short slide to easy contempt, the unattractive last resort of the depressed intellectual. But contempt is so easy. What’s the sane response to a species that drenches the planet with the blood of innocents, human and animal, all the while proclaiming social progress, spiritual rebirth and the kingdom of God just ahead, on earth and in heaven?

If your worldview rejects such suffocating ironies, count your blessings. There’s no reason to accept condescension from straight–chuters, nor to condescend to them in return. There’s no call for conflict between these two sets of human beings who are simply wired differently, cut from different cloth. On the optimists’ side, the bad blood comes mainly from fear of contamination. Pessimists may be pathetic but they tend to be articulate. Never argue with a straight–chuter. You will lose.

 The arguments are all on his side; the luck is all on yours. When pessimists sound condescending and surly, it’s mainly envy. For the most tortured among them, a slightly curved chute would be an escape as ecstatic as a return to the womb (in fact Temple Grandin worked with another kind of cattle chute, the squeeze chute that calms the animals down by pressing them tight, and she designed a human–holding version for her personal therapy). Some denial mechanism, some capacity for rationalization is the key safety feature of a mammal brain that had, by the time it reached the foreknowledge of death—a million years ago?—already grown way too big for its britches. A brain without  a neuro–link for denial is like a huge car with no brakes.

No one with a healthy mind wants to see too far ahead. If George Washington could have seen George W. Bush—or Sarah Palin, good lord—would he have bothered at all? Would he have crossed the Delaware? More seriously, imagine that Voltaire could have foreseen the Reign of Terror, or Goethe Auschwitz, or Tolstoy Stalin’s gulags? Or Jesus Christ . . . well, that’s enough. Would any of them have bothered? In my own lifetime and my parents’, Europe, cradle of “The Enlightenment,” became a vast human slaughterhouse that fed only the crows and vultures. Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Idi Amin—we knew them well. Africa of the African Genesis, where “man” evolved, is now the theater of African genocides, one after another. In Ciudad Juárez, narcos carrying American firearms, Croesus–rich from selling drugs to Americans, kill a Mexican every three hours, not counting missing corpses they dissolve in acid. Baghdad—beheaded families, suicide bombers. “Saint” Thomas More, history’s Man for All Seasons of stage and screen, burned heretics alive. What human beings do, and have done, and will do to each other you don’t want to contemplate for 30 seconds, if you hope to enjoy the Game of the Week.

That’s just a partial view from the straight chute. It’s not that we “take a dim view”—it’s that there is a dim view, dim as the floodplains of hell, until natural defenses and the chute designers go to work on it. It’s not a view that anyone would wish on his children. Why must a tormented few be deprived of the blinkered happiness that doctors insist is crucial for cardiovascular health? No doubt genetics are involved, and abuse or a grim lack of decent nurturing will further isolate a morbid child. Sam Shepard, forever haunted by the crazy father, offers himself as a case study.

But the brightest of these misfits exchange happiness for clarity, and the society that excludes them would be immeasurably cheapened without the clarity they provide. Without straight–chuters, poetry and fiction and theater would barely pierce the surface, far less the heart. History would be porous and treacherous, philosophy meaningless. Even the fine arts (think of Vincent van Gogh and Edward Munch) would be greatly diminished. Writing J.D. Salinger’s obituary for the Times, Charles McGrath resurrected Janet Malcolm’s defense of the Glass children against critics who found them precious and hermetic. Their alien, unassimilated condition (and perhaps their creator’s) was the entire point of these stories, she argued, and—in McGrath’s paraphrase—“it said as much about the world as about the kind of people who failed to get along there.”  end

return to top