Lyceum speaker tells of tragedy with comedy
Victoria College is pleased to bring to our city a giant of the contemporary American and world literary scenes. The third speaker in the 2012-13 Lyceum lecture series is Sherman Alexie, award-winning poet, fiction writer, humorist and incisive commentator on the human condition. The program is scheduled for noon Thursday in the VISD Fine Arts Center.
Alexie, who is a Spokane/Coeur d' Alene Indian (he prefers the term Indian to Native American), has been widely recognized and his literary output has been widely anthologized, since a breakout book "The Business of Fancydancing" appeared in 1992. As a young 20-something, he expressed the pain of his youth living on a reservation where poverty, violence, drug use, alcoholism and despair were pervasive. Much of his work is semi-autobiographical, perhaps in an effort to expiate the sins of his childhood, and is rendered with dark humor and irony.
Many years ago, as a young graduate student in English literature, I encountered a catchy little phrase that has since stuck in my mind. During a course on literary theory, where we studied the archetypal stories that form the basis for various types and forms of literature, I read a critical essay in which the author opined that the essence of comedy is tragedy. We laugh, perhaps, at the person slipping on a banana peel, but for the injured victim of the fall, the incident is not quite so humorous. We can all identify what it might feel like - physically and emotionally - to have a fall, especially when ignominiously in front of others who find humor in the incident.
As sentient beings, humans have an innate desire to understand the reason for it all - for life and all it entails, good and bad. The artist, through stories about people like us to whom we can relate, aids us in understanding what it means to be human and to experience all that we do in the course of an ordinary life. When we see two brothers, fueled by rage and alcohol, violently attack one another, it brings to mind, perhaps, a scene we may have witnessed or even experienced in our own lives. The artist, in his or her commentary on the incident, can provide an understanding of why it happened and maybe a prescription for how to cope with such experiences on personal, familial and societal levels.
In his story "Every Little Hurricane," Alexie depicts the two brothers in a violent fist fight, which he describes with the extended metaphor of a hurricane. "'They're going to kill each other,' somebody yelled." The narrator, speaking through the brothers' 9-year-old nephew, Victor, characterized them as in the "midst of a misdemeanor that would remain a misdemeanor even if somebody was to die. One Indian killing another did not create a special kind of storm. This little kind of hurricane was generic. It didn't even deserve a name." The disconnect between the description of an "epic struggle" and its diminishment by the narrator/author helps create the darkly comic tone with which Alexie treats his subject. It also provides a stark commentary on what it means to be Indian in an Anglo-dominated society.
In the same story, Victor has memories of when he was 5 during the holiday season and the family had a Christmas tree, absent of presents. His father, without money to buy gifts, cried "huge gasping tears. Indian tears." Alexie describes these memories of privation as "tiny storms," again extending the metaphor and injecting a comic tone into what most of us would agree is a situation deserving of our empathy.
The alcoholism of almost every adult and near adult Alexie knew on the reservation is also given a comic turn. When he was drinking his usual copious amounts of vodka, "Victor's father wasn't shaped like a question mark. He looked more like an exclamation point." Victor finds himself dreaming about alcohol. "Even at 5, Victor understood what that meant, how it defined nearly everything. Fronts. Highs and lows. Thermals and undercurrents. Tragedy."
Images of crushing poverty, the devastating effects of alcoholism on his people and the indignities heaped upon them by a white-dominated society fill the pages of Alexie's writings. Through the points-of-view of his narrators and alter egos such as Victor, Alexie understands the sadness of his people's existence but chooses to describe it with an emphasis on the essential humor in this experience we call life. Laughing through tears is the author's way of handling his pain and the pain of life on the reservation. Laughter is medicine and through humor we heal is the message. Plan to attend Sherman Alexie's lecture Thursday and hear a visionary artist deliver the unique blend of poignancy and hilarity that characterize his presentations. The event is free of charge.
Dave Ticen is the chair and a longtime member of VC's Lyceum Committee. Ticen works as a librarian in charge of user education at the VC/UHV Library.