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IF JOYCE CAROL OATES is any indication, modern literature has entered a stage of terminal morbidity. Oates' picture of reality is so bleak that it could only be appreciated by a civilization dying slowly of self-disgust. Oates' characters are devoid of any sympathetic traits--not only are they lost and lonely, they are faceless and neurotic and filled with hate. Oates strips existential crisis of all its nobility, turning it into a form of mental illness. She transforms spiritual torment into a loathsome disease, a kind of leprosy of the soul.
The characters in Night-Side, Oates' latest collection of stories, lie on the boundary between existential despair and actual insanity. They are too sick to be tragic, but they are normal enough for us to recognize ourselves in them. The heroine of "The Snowstorm," for example, is a young woman named Claire who despises all personal attachments. When her car gets stuck in a blizzard, she chooses to walk home through the storm rather than appeal to anyone for help. Such isolation is intrinsically neither sick nor ugly. If Claire were a real person, we might guess that she had been hurt in love and was afraid of getting hurt again. If she were a character in a Swedish movie, we would assume that she was courageously accepting the metaphysical lonliness of modern man. But Claire is a character in an Oates story, and so the reason for her self-imposed solitude turns out to be that, she, like most Oates characters, hates people. Claire thinks personal contact is degrading and disgusting; the men in her life appear to her as "one mass, one squirming swirling undifferentiated mass of human beings, without names, without value." Claire's misanthropy is not philosophical; it is pathological.
Oates' point seems to be that when grand existential problems are embodied in real people, they take the form of mental disease. Philosophical dilemmas are noble in the abstract, but in reality they twist people into hideous shapes. Night-Side seems to be an indictment of philosophers on behalf of ordinary people. But in that case, why doesn't Oates show any sympathy for all these ordinary, tortured people? Although she describes her characters with inhuman intelligence. Oates never shows the slightest hint of compassion for them. Her identification of existential despair and mental illness is not so much a psychological observation as a justification for her own misanthropy.
Oates uses madness as a symbol for a peculiar kind of corruption in the soul. Her characters are not hateful because of anything that they do; they are not even guilty of the usual existentialist sins of cowardice and self-deception. On the contrary, they bravely confront problems which most of us prefer not to think about. Their only fault is the morbid quality of their fascination with these problems. Their ugliness is not a failure of character, but a rottenness of essence that can only be observed by an omniscient narrator.
The protagonist of "Lover," for example, is a young doctor who becomes obsessed with a mad girl who was brought to his hospital one night battered and raped. The girl seems to symbolize for him the void that underlies his cozy bourgeois life. If it were not for one small detail that Oates adds to the story, the doctor's obsession would be noble, or at any rate much better than middle class complacency. But at the end of the story we learn that the doctor had become sexually excited while examining the girl for evidence of rape. This detail, combined with the doctor's obsession with death throughout the story, gives a pathological, necrophiliac quality to the doctor's fascination with madness. Now while it certainly takes a morbid imiagination to conceive of a character like the doctor, it is not impossible that a doctor in such a situation might have the feelings that Oates describes. But the question we must ask is whether such feelings can ever be the essence of anyone's personality, or whether they are always a corruption of a basically decent nature. Because Oates symbolizes the doctor's whole personality by his necrophiliac impulses, she implies that necrophilia represents an essential quality in the human soul. No amount of observation could have led her to that conclusion--she must have chosen to believe it, and that choice makes the difference between a harsh view of reality and a morbid one.
Oates' pathological characters are not much more than projection of her own misanthropic personality; she creates the world she describes. Interestingly, one of the stories in Night-Side concerns exactly this problem of subjectivity. In "The Translation," a middle-aged American visiting a Balkan country is assigned a young man as a translator. Through the translator, the American meets a young woman with whom he instantly falls in love. Although they speak different languages, he and the woman are able to communicate perfectly through the translator, who seems to bring out the best in both of them. Suddenly, for no reason, the old translator is replaced by a repulsive, fat man who speaks in broken English. At their next meeting, the American finds the woman completely changed She is vulgar and materialistic--"How many car do you have?," she asks, "How many houses?"
SINCE OATES CONSISTENLY tells us that the ugly side of life is the true one, her point in "The Translation" must be that the first translator made the woman seem nobler than she really was. But in some deeper sense, the fat man was incapable of telling the truth. The point of the story should really be that if only we had the right translator to strip away the petty ugliness that encrusts us, everyone would see the nobility that is really inside us. And this magical translator, of course, is he writer of fiction. Why, then, doesn't Oates translate for her characters? Why does she play the role of the second translator instead of the first? If only she felt compassion for her characters, sickness and mediocrity would be transformed into existential tragey. "The Translation" shows that Oates realizes how she is responsible for the ugliness of her characters, and so the cause of her morbidness cannot be a failure of understanding, it can only be a failure of heart.
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