Pushcart XLIII: Robert Coover, “The Wall” from Conjunctions #68

1879 etching of Pyramus and Thisbe by Max Klinger

1879 etching of Pyramus and Thisbe by Max Klinger

Once, there were two lovers, separated by a wall that divided their city, a wall they had helped to build, recruited by the warring city fathers, who declared that only a wall would ensure their freedom. It was across the wall, trowels in their hands, that they first saw each other, lovestruck as soon as seeing. Such amorous gazes between separated wall builders were not rare, but soon were outlawed, stolen glances being treated like common theft and punished with solitary confinement or, when those found guilty were deemed incorrigible, blinding. Looking away became a way of looking, a trowel’s clicks a code, the placing of a brick a form of erotic suggestion.

Complete story available online at Conjunctions

The issue of Conjunctions whence this story comes is themed: “Inside Out: Architectures of Experience investigates the vast range of architectures crucial to our being: stories, poems, and essays that center around a pivotal architectural structure or space.” It’s not surprising the subject of a wall cropped up. But the story goes well beyond the current discussion of wall building, using as its starting point a familiar situation: two lovers separated by a wall between their communities. I’m very grateful to Jake Weber for his post naming Pyramus and Thisbe as the seminal legend using this trope; I couldn’t come up with it, kept getting stuck on Heloise and Abelard (no, no, no).

Coover abandons the ancient myth early on, however, and moves in a very different direction: the interplay of freedom and constraints. This happens to interest me very much, since it’s a popular theme in philosophy. We can start with Hobbes’ social contract theory (unless you want to go back to Confucius and Mozi, who also used elements of sacrificing freedom for social harmony and security, resulting in more freedom) who saw life in the state of nature as being absolutely free, but also, “nasty, brutish, and short”, requiring a sovereign to impose constraints that improved communal living, which led to Locke’s ideas of consent to governance. Or we can look to Kant’s categorical imperative, which constrains absolute freedom based on rational considerations, and leads to the idea that freedom is only attained within constraints. I recently took a mooc that examined free will, and outlined how constraints – such as the discipline to learn to play a musical instrument or a sport at a high level – then creates freedom within that arena, as constraints become automatic and allow expression and innovation rather than adherence. Applied to writing: once syntax, vocabulary, and enough experience to provide content are acquired, writing is not about remembering rules but about creating something new, something unique

I’m not sure if Coover had these, or anything like these ideas, in mind when he wrote the story, but it follows an interesting course: when the wall is finally defeated, there’s a honeymoon period of joy, but that soon turns to discontent.

Then, as time passed, the two lovers, along with many others who had lived through the construction and fall of the wall, found that they missed it. They studied old maps, took walks along its buried contours. Sections of the wall were said to exist still; they searched for them, getting lost from one another as they did. They accepted that, discovering that the wall had been a barrier to their desires, and a stimulus to them, but freedom had deprived them of their intensity, provided other options.

Another idea at play here, a bit more subtle but still present, is that of the human need to struggle, to work, to overcome obstacles. Once the wall is down – or the journey is complete, or the question is answered, or the skill is acquired – we don’t typically sit around and enjoy the achievement for very long. A new goal presents itself, a new question, a new exploration, a new war. This is an evolutionary advantage, by the way; without this drive, we’d still be sitting around various fires in isolated clans, saying “Hey, look what we did.” So I wonder: is it that the people miss the wall, or that they miss the struggle to dismantle it?

In any event, the wall is recreated, though not literally, but in the form of personal boundaries:

And meanwhile, slowly, though none knew how, the myth of the “city fathers” having crumbled with the wall, the wall itself, as if seeded by the chips of bricks that had been left behind, did indeed return, or seemed to, seen by some, if not by all. A kind of personal choice as with all perceptions of reality, though it did not feel like choice. Perhaps its reappearance, to those who witnessed and acknowledged it, was provoked by that longing for a significant life the estranged lovers felt, for there they were, gazing at each other across the wall, real or imaginary. They nodded curtly to each other, looked away. They could have stepped over this young wall, but did not, for their separation had seemed permanent and desirable.

Psychology is full of the need for personal boundaries, for every individual to have a clear understanding of where “you” end and “I” begin, an understanding that begins in infancy and continues throughout a lifetime. The story’s metaphor gets a bit stretched here, but it’s very true that removing physical boundaries can intensify anxiety about psychological boundaries; ask any newlywed. But personal boundaries are not in themselves destructive; in fact, it’s the lack of boundaries that leads to dysfunction. Just ask anyone who’s ever lived with someone with borderline personality disorder.

The final line has such a peculiar syntax, I wonder if ambiguity is intended:

They turned away, aware that the loneliness they felt was in effect that freedom they’d been promised when citizen bricklayers still, and sadly they wished it so.

Here’s where C. S. Lewis comes in: “One doesn’t realise in early life that the price of freedom is loneliness. To be happy one must be tied.” But he was talking about personal ties, and by extension, ties to the deity, the separation from which is a kind of loneliness so extreme as to be alienation from all that exists.

With such a wealth of ideas playing, it seems ridiculous to throw in another one, but it’s something I’ve been pondering for a while: freedom and constraints in creativity, in arts. Recently I’ve been emailing Patrick Gillespie, a Vermont poet whose blog I discovered last year, about poetic forms and how they contribute to meaning, and how some poems seem to resist formal analysis; I even threw in the Frost thing about free verse being like playing tennis without a net. As poetry, and other arts, have moved towards greater freedom – throwing off constraints of meter, rhyme, length, subject, adherence to reality itself – it’s true there’s a much wider spread of art, but it’s also true that other constraints have been substituted. To deny rhyme and meter is itself a constraint, particularly to someone who has an ear for such things. Oulipo exists as a way to allow writers to create their own restraints as creative exercises. Technology and business recognize the creative spark only constraints can give, typified by the motto “think inside the box”. In the 60s, the nonconformist impulse was summed up by the ironic statement, “I want to be different, like all my friends.”

If we are denied external constraints, do we automatically create internal constraints? Is this a bad thing? And to get back to Kant and Hobbes, can we exist as a social community if we all have our own individual constraints, rather than common constraints imposed by consensus and consent?

I’m a big fan of Coover, but one of the anxieties I always face is, am I getting it right? And this is the constraint I force upon myself, even here, where there are no external requirements – no professor imposing a particular length or academic style or stamping this post with a grade – I create my own constraint, to figure out what the writer meant. Maybe it’s enough to use these pieces as a way to explore what is possible, rather than looking for what is right.

5 responses to “Pushcart XLIII: Robert Coover, “The Wall” from Conjunctions #68

  1. The more a story’s characters seem to have a life of their own, the more it’s a story. The more they’re there just to make a point about something outside the story, the more it’s a parable. This is pretty close to pure parable, although the stream-of-consciousness parts at the end sort of give the characters some independent existence.

    For a parable, it doesn’t have much new to say. I think you hit all the possibilities, the most likely candidate being that it’s saying something about the human need to keep overcoming new hurdles. The “price of freedom is loneliness” idea is in there, too. But there’s really nothing new being said about these ideas. It’s not picking up the rock from where earlier generations brought it and moving it forward. It’s just kind of…there. I don’t think an unknown writer would have gotten this published, and I think it was a waste of space in a career-enhancing vehicle like Pushcart to put it in.

    • This year especially has the sense of both memoriam, and of tribute. But I like Coover anyway – though I notice I savaged his “Frog Prince” when it ran in TNY. Maybe it’s something about rewritten fairy tails…

  2. Unfortunately, when first reading the story, all I could think of was Shakespeare’s comedic lampooning of Pyramus and Thisbe in Midsummer Night’s Dream:

    O kiss me through the hole of this vile wall!
    I kiss the wall’s hole, not your lips at all.
    Wilt thou at Ninny’s tomb meet me straightway?
    ‘Tide life, ‘tide death, I come without delay.

    Exeunt Pyramus and Thisbe

    Thus have I, Wall, my part discharged so;
    And, being done, thus Wall away doth go.

    Of course, let us not mention, in other stories and well known to Shakespeare, what other than lips might have gone through that hole in the wall (for Thisbe to kiss). The joke went far and wide and made it into an opera by John Frederick Lampe (inspired by Shakespeare’s satire).

    Back back to Coover’s effort. I agree with Jacob Weber. Coover doesn’t really add anything to the story (already so done to death even by the 16th century that the only next step was a comic opera). From the craftsman’s perspective, I’d say that Coover’s problems go deeper. The piece is neither fish nor foul and certainly isn’t anything I’d consider a poem. It’s not a fable. It begins a little bit like one, but too fussily footnotes its own meaning at every possible turn, the way many contemporary “poems” do (as though, lacking faith in their chosen analogy or metaphor, they feel compelled to spell it all out should the reader miss the brilliance of their analogy). The fable-like narrative quickly gives way to a self-conscious narration that could have taken place in a Starbuck’s Café.

    Not even a Victorian, during the height of his moralistic plurisy, would have spent the final paragraph retrospectively moralizing the way Coover does. This is a prime example of what I mean when I say that contemporary poetry is every bit as stultified as Victorian poetry before the moderns.

    • You know, I thought of your comments about Victorian moralizing as I read this – yes, it would have been nice had he cut out all the supposition and posing questions, left it for the reader. But it was a fun trip through philosophy for me!

      By the way, I apologize for having messed up the html resulting in describing you as “a Vermont who…” I would not refer to you as a Vermont (though there are far worse designations). I fixed the problem, and the word “poet” along with the link to your blog now appears. My proofreading skills leave a lot to be desired.

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