May 1, 2008KR BlogWriting

On Not Being Oneself

photo by Katy Haas

When I was seven years old, I was in a production of Alice in Wonderland. I was a centipede. I was also the understudy for the small Alice. I prayed for misfortune to befall the small Alice, but my wish was not granted, and I did not yet know about hit men.

This weekend and last I am/have been in a production of a play by Madeline ffitch, of whom Sean Casey is a big fan. Me too. You can read more about her, and her theatre company, the Missoula Oblongata here, here and here. The play, Go to the Chateau, takes place in and around a moving car, for an audience of two people at a time. I had forgotten, in rehearsing, how completely awesome an idea that is. Now I have remembered and telling you. It is an awesome idea.

In chapter 5 of Alice in Wonderland, Alice meets the Caterpillar. It goes like this:

The Caterpillar and Alice looked at each other for some time in silence: at last the Caterpillar took the hookah out of its mouth, and addressed her in a languid, sleepy voice.

‘Who are you?’ said the Caterpillar.

This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation. Alice replied, rather shyly, ‘I — I hardly know, Sir, just at present — at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.’

‘What do you mean by that?’ said the Caterpillar sternly. ‘Explain yourself!’

‘I ca’n’t explain myself, I’m afraid, Sir,’ said Alice, ‘because I’m not myself, you see.’

‘I don’t see,’ said the Caterpillar.

‘I’m afraid I can’t put it any more clearly,’ Alice replied very politely, ‘for I ca’n’t understand it myself to begin with; and being so many different sizes in a day is very confusing.’

Poor Alice is made to suffer so, but I think many people (I am one of those people) enjoy not being themselves. Certainly part of the pleasure I am experiencing in performing comes from the permission to behave other than I would normally. I don’t mean that I am “becoming my character,” but rather that because of the nature of the performance, with its occasional improvisations and “real life” locations, my brain has to shift operations. My self is not creating thoughtless action; it is noticing the world and responding to it with heightened consciousness.

And I am noticing and appreciating the desire to not be myself in writing as well. Again, it’s not that I am creating a voice or persona and inhabiting it (though that is often a side effect). Instead, by shifting operations, by screwing syntax, asking nouns to be verbs, and direct objects to stay off-stage, it becomes possible to create a new process of understanding language and meaning, and thereby to make a (temporary, incomplete) new self. It may begin as intentional play, but when it succeeds, intention seems to slip away, leaving me with that wonderful feeling of I am not writing this.

The Kenyon Review was founded in 1939. The resources for the new literary journal were provided by Gordon Keith Chalmers, President of Kenyon College, while the inspiration to establish the journal and raise the national stature of the institution had come from his wife Roberta Teale Swartz, herself a poet and a friend and protege of Robert Frost. Frost encouraged the idea and visited Kenyon more than once. The poet and critic John Crowe Ransom was recruited to Kenyon by Chalmers with the express purpose in mind of his launching a distinguished magazine. During his 21-year tenure, Ransom published such internationally known writers as Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren, William Empson, Mark Van Doren, Kenneth Burke, and Delmore Schwartz, as well as younger writers: Flannery O'Connor, Robert Lowell, and Peter Taylor, to name a few. It was perhaps the best known and most influential literary magazine in the English-speaking world during the 1940s and '50s. In 1969, discouraged by the quarterly's financial burdens and sagging reputation, Kenyon College ceased publication of The Kenyon Review. The journal was revived in 1979, and in June 1990, internationally acclaimed poet and editor Marilyn Hacker was hired as the Review's first full-time (and first female) editor. She quickly broadened the quarterly's scope to include more minority and marginalized viewpoints. In April 1994, the trustees directed that The Kenyon Review be continued, but with significant cost-reducing and revenue-enhancing initiatives. Hacker left and David Lynn (acting editor in 1989-90), Kenyon English professor, was named editor on a two-thirds time basis. The magazine's financial picture has since stabilized and improved dramatically. The creation of a Kenyon Review Board of Trustees and a renewed commitment by Kenyon College combined to guarantee the financial health of the Review and to free its editors to pursue increased excellence. Such is the status of The Kenyon Review today.