Pushcart 2020 XLIV: Joy Williams, “Flour” from Paris Review #224

The driver and I got a late start. I usually decide on these excursions the night before, but it was late in the morning when I informed the friend who was coming to visit me for the weekend that I had to cancel, it was absolutely necessary for me to cancel. I had got it in my head that in her presence some calamity or another would arise and she would have to assist me in some way, rush me to a physician or something. She would be grateful she was there for me perhaps, but I would find it a terrific annoyance and embarrassment. I gave some other excuse for the disinvitation of course. Pipes. I think it was broken pipes. I should have written it down so I don’t use it again.…
By departing so late, we could not make our customary first stop. The driver and I usually spend two nights in lodgings on our route. This time three nights would be necessary. We take separate rooms, of course. If by chance we should come across one another in the restaurant or the hallways, we offer no acknowledgment.

And again, I must do something with a story I find enigmatic and impenetrable. I understand the words, the turn of events, but I don’t have a clue what the story is about. It does intrigue me, however, which is a hopeful sign. As I have said many times, I love nothing more than a story that teaches me something, and I did learn some things from this, though they may or may not have much to do with understanding the story. Still, it’s a foothold. And it was fun. I love research.

I have also looked at what some other more erudite people have said about Williams’ other work, and that, too, provides at least an approach. An approach to what is uncertain at this time, but I do have a hypothesis. Because I am somewhat at a loss, this is going to be one of my more muddled posts. It may not go anywhere interesting or significant; it will be horrible to read, particularly if you haven’t read the story. But it will go somewhere, and that may have to suffice. Someday I may come back to it with better ideas.

Let’s start with what Williams has said about herself, and what others have said about her work.

In a 2016 Vice interview with Lincoln Michel (another writer who often leaves me stumped), Williams provided a list of “8 Essential Attributes of the Short Story (and one way it differs from a novel).”

1) There should be a clean clear surface with much disturbance below
2) An anagogical level
3) Sentences that can stand strikingly alone
4) An animal within to give its blessing
5) Interior voices which are or become wildly erratically exterior
6) Control throughout is absolutely necessary
7) The story’s effect should transcend the naturalness and accessibility of its situation and language
8) A certain coldness is required in execution. It is not a form that gives itself to consolation but if consolation is offered it should come from an unexpected quarter.

I can see a few of these clearly in the story at hand. There is a clear surface with underlying disturbance, which I have rendered as “I know all the words and the plot but I don’t know what it’s about.” There are many sentences that stand strikingly alone, such as when a description of a bright yellow truck with smoke billowing from its tailpipe is interrupted by the paragraph “When a little baby dies you think, If they can do it with such wonderment, so can I.” That’s striking, all right. There is an animal, the narrator’s dog, who is only mentioned and seems to have no role; perhaps the role is to give its blessing. I can’t really say if the story is controlled; it seems to be, but my perception of it is so weak, I might not notice if it weren’t. The effect definitely transcends the naturalness of the plot, and again, I know all the words blah blah.

The others are more elusive. “An anagogical level”: Medieval Christian scriptural analysis divided texts into four levels, one of which was anagogical, or relating to eschatology; the end times, judgment day. In a more modern, general sense, anagoge refers to a spiritual interpretation of text.

“Interior voices… wildly erratically exterior”. Again, there was a medieval sense of this, described by Augustine relating to visions, but I’m going to assume we’re looking at the more modern version, of what we say in our heads and what we say with our mouths. I see it as somewhat the reverse: the narrator says very little out loud, but in her head she’s mean and cranky. She’s dismissive of the driver’s efforts at translating Coptic, though out loud she only clarifies one point about the flour. At the end, she does argue with him a bit, about the translation, in fact, and whether his rendering is correct. This may be significant when I put it together. As for the driver, we have no idea what’s going on in his head; we only have his words, and limited actions.

Consolation may or may not be there. I don’t see it, but since it isn’t necessary, it’s not an issue. The point of the story is not consolation, that’s for sure.

Numerous other writers have pointed out various enigmatic qualities to Williams’ work. At Lit Hub, Vincent Scarpa analyzes a single paragraph of one of her stories that deals with grief, beginning with an acknowledgment of the impossibility of the task:

How haughty, how criminal the endeavor to break down what it is about the work of Joy Williams that’s remarkable and astounding and utterly singular when the what it is—I know, as anyone who reads Joy knows—is fundamentally and immaculately irreducible. To write about her work in an academic mode could be seen as an effort toward taming its innate wildness; its masterful ungovernability.

“Dangerous” never rests on the laurels of the perfect metaphor that serves as the story’s conceit.

She is playing with the story’s rate of revelation…. And what I’ve just described there—this coexistence of knowledge and confusion and incomprehension, the lag time between a given moment and our understanding of it—does it not have a certain resonance with the way grief so often operates?

And here I am, attempting this haughty, criminal endeavor to analyze this story, to tame its wildness. I won’t flatter myself by calling my notes here academic, but I do use academic materials, and my approach is more cognitive than emotional. It may be that I need the cognitive approach to get to the emotional core.

In any case, something to consider is how the story makes the reader experience the effects of the story’s center (such as grief, in Scarpa’s case). Don’t show, don’t tell, create an experience that illuminates.

A New York Times article declared her “one of the greatest chroniclers of humanity’s insignificance” and credits her with “misanthropic genius.” And in the contributor note to her story, “Honored Guest” in the 1995 edition of BASS, she wrote:

All art is about nothingness: our apprehension of it, our fear of it, its approach. We’re on the same trail here, we hurry along, soon we’ll meet. There are details along the way, of course. Even here there are tattoos and hairdressers and ice cream and dogs with slippers. But these are just details, which protect us as long they can from nothingness, the dear things.

Not all of these attributes need to apply to this particular story at hand, of course. But in reading them, in combination with some of the elements of the story that required some research, I came up with a hypothesis – which I will get to, I promise, but first, the story elements.

The driver is translating Coptic, an ancient Egyptian language. I happen to have read Youssef Ziedan’s novel Azazeel, last year, about a fifth-century Coptic monk’s journey from southern Egypt to Alexandria to Jerusalem to Antioch, and this detail made me smile and recall Hypa and his struggle to figure out Christianity in that era.

When the driver and I first met – when I was interviewing him, you might say – he told me that he was studying Coptic.
Naturally, I did not believe this for one moment.
Without any encouragement from me he said, “The verb forms and tenses of Coptic are interesting. For example, some tenses that we English speakers do not have are the circumstantial, the habitual, the third future, the fourth future, the optative, and tenses of unfulfilled action signifying until and not yet. I am working now on translating and interpreting the story about the woman carrying flour to her home in a jar that is broken.”
“The flour all pours out?” I said.
“Why, yes.” He seemed pleased.
Everyone knows the story of the woman and the flour. Who did he think he was kidding? Still, you are never drawn to a person for the reasons you think.

This is where I had the most fun. I first wanted to know if we were dealing with real things here – real tenses, a real story – or if this was something the driver was making up, or we were in fantasy land. Both the tenses and the story are real. Coptic has a wide variety of interesting tenses, so I’m going to think it might be significant that Williams chose these particular ones for the driver to name, rather than others. I’m not concerned with the actual form or translation of these tenses – that would be too much – but with what the word “optative” suggests (choice) to the English speaker. So many futures! One dictionary definition of circumstantial declares it “incidental, not essential”. Anyone who’s watched a courtroom drama knows circumstantial evidence isn’t enough to convict without a witness or motive. Unfulfilled action, again we’re so concerned with time and the future. We don’t seem to care about past tenses at all, although there are quite a few.

The story is also real. It’s from the Gospel of Thomas, a gnostic gospel considered non-canonical. It was discovered in modern times, and presumed hidden because early Christians objected to its teachings. I’m not comfortable going into more detail – it’s complicated – but it involves truths revealed by God.

I found a wonderful site that offers various translations of the story, plus scholarly (and lay) interpretations (I have no standing to determine the scholastic quality of the site, so I am going by faith; if someone knows of a more academic resource, please let me know). I find two different interpretations, and have to admit to being a bit confused. The story:

All three refer to the woman as analogous to the Kingdom of the Father. At first, I thought, that makes Heaven sound pretty careless. Then I came across a wonderful article – a book, really, in manuscript form online – dealing with the Gospel of Thomas in depth, and discovered several interesting things.

First, the Kingdom of the Father is not Heaven, it’s not a place at all in Gnostic thought:

The Kingdom is thus not something absolute that exists in some localized place and that we need only to see. It is a state of mind and consciousness that slowly begins to manifest as we do spiritual work. As we are caught in the everyday “flour” of life, we need to remember that there is a powerful life energy that brought us into being, the colostrum, and we need to stay in touch with that energy in order to shape ourselves into “large loaves”, like the large branch of Saying 20, i.e. a person who stands out and is noticeable for their inner radiance, peace of mind and tranquility.
….[T]he message is: do not get caught in the material world, the world of growth, decay and death, the “built” world that then becomes “unbuilt.” Fix your sights on the stable, permanent, self-generated Higher Realm of the Father’s Kingdom.

This links to an element of the story, the division of the three tiers of the car, which, by the way, seem like a very strange car, but maybe it’s like a station wagon with an extra row, or some kind of minivan. I don’t understand minivans, they came along after my period of car ownership. In any case, the arrangement of the car, interesting just on the face of it, becomes loaded with subtlety in light of the passage above:

The car is a big one, encompassing three rows, three tiers behind the driver. It amuses me to think of them as the celestial, the terrestrial, and the ­chthonic. In fact, I quite believe that all things—every moment, every ­vision, ­every ­departure and arrival—possess the celestial, the terrestrial, and the chthonic.
The dogs had pretty much stayed in the terrestrial section where their beds were, as well as a few empty plastic bottles. They liked to play with them, make them crackle and clatter. Sometimes I ride in the chthonic with the luggage, the boots and coats, the boxes of fruit and gin and books. It smells strangely good back there, coolly hopeful and warmly worn at once. But usually I stretch out in the seat behind the driver and watch the landscape change as we rise from the desert floor.

This three-part division of existence was predominant in Greco-Roman theology (and has indications in various Eastern religions as well) but, as we’ve seen before, it’s changed over time. While today we might think of it as heaven, earth, and hell, to the ancients it was more about the realm of the gods, the surface of the living earth, and the underworld or realm of the dead. A place of divinity, a place of life, and a place of death. Note that the driver is on the other side of the celestial realm. Could this make him a divinity? Or place him outside the three realms, in the Kingdom of the Father? Also note that, throughout the story, the narrator restlessly moves from one compartment to the other, even sitting with the driver for a while, “but find I can gain no perspective.” I again want to think of her as searching for the Kingdom of Heaven, but being unable to find it since it isn’t a place but a state of mind she is not, at least yet, capable of.

As for the parable the driver is translating, there are at least two interpretations. Again, the Koepke document is very helpful:

Read one way, the empty jar describes the spiritual emptiness of being too caught up in the outside world and of not cultivating one’s inner self. The woman lost her essence of life by letting it flow out of the jar; she
was too unaware even to notice and not until she got home did she even discover that the jar, her inner self, was empty.
But the problem with this reading is that the whole story is a parable of the Kingdom and that is only used for higher spiritual states. In addition,the unrealistic nature of the handle of the jar breaking, which would not cause the flour to pour out, is a deliberate clue to alert us that the surface meaning of the story doesn’t add up.
So there is also a higher state of emptiness of letting go of mental concepts, categories and endless inner chatter to attain true consciousness. When the woman comes to the end of her road (her life), she attains serenity (being beyond toil), she reaches into her house (her inner self) and finds emptiness (readiness for a higher spiritual state).

So we have one case in which it’s bad the flour – the essence of life, awareness of higher things – is leaking due to preoccupation with the trappings of the world, and the emptiness of the self that results is terrible; and another case in which it’s good that the flour – preoccupation with the unimportant – is being discarded and the resultant emptiness is preparation for a higher spirituality.

And what of the brokenness of the jar? Is it the brokenness of our souls that lets the life force out – or the blessing of enlightenment that lets us let go of the trivial? “There is a crack, a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in,” per Leonard Cohen. The light can’t get in if it’s all full of flour.

Now, here’s the hypothesis for the story, the hypothesis I promised many words ago: It’s a story about spirituality, enlightenment, a higher consciousness. The narrator’s journey echoes the journey of the woman with the jar. The driver is a kind of guide: the Dao, as Lao Tse or Zhuang Zi might put it. As the narrator says, “Still, you’re never drawn to a person for the reasons you think. Besides, he was the only one who had applied for the position…” Koepke sees the Gnostic Jesus in a similar vein as the Daoists, as a philosopher (Saying 28), hoping to get people to view themselves more clearly so that they can achieve spiritual growth.

The narrator chooses to take her journey, as she has chosen to take it before. Yet she resists it every step of the way, dismissing the comments of the driver. At one point they stop for a picnic, bread and water. It evokes many ideas: prison, “thou preparest a table for me in the presence of mine enemies,” and the Eucharist (would wine be too on-the-nose?). On one former journey she made the bread, but it was terrible, so the driver now provides it, underlining the Eucharist. She’s uncomfortable no matter what car row she sits in.

The ending provides a crucial moment, as the driver tells her:

“What is important is the quality of the emptiness she eventually discovers,” he agrees. “And that is what is so difficult to suggest.”

The ending paragraph has them arriving at their destination, a destination that was never defined for us. She sees it as “utterly foreign.” He sees it as “much the same as always.” Is this the emptiness she has discovered? Has she, in fact, reached a more advanced state of emptiness than ever before, so things look different? Whether the difference is good or bad, we don’t know. This is in keeping with the two interpretations of the parable. Has she been drained of worldliness and is now open to spiritual growth, or has she been drained of spirituality and is now bereft? I would tend towards the first.

I have an alternative hypothesis: it’s a parable about death, evoked by the line about the baby dying with wonderment. But the repetitive nature of the journey makes me think that isn’t quite right. Maybe the wonderment attaches to every experience in which the spiritual consciousness is engaged, not just dying. But it is something to keep in mind.

Many comments in the story seem important, for that matter, and I’ve skipped over them. The yellow trucks. The bedraggled blanket used for the roadside picnic. The journey rising from the desert. The art in the second hotel. The bathrobes in the last hotel. In a five-page story, every line is important, every image, every thought, but I’m having enough trouble with the major moments.

I go back to something Vincent Scarpa said about the story creating for the reader the experience it was intending to describe. Spirituality is a difficult path. With religion, you can learn a creed and some prayers and follow some rules and participate in some rituals and call yourself a Catholic or Jew or Buddhist or whatever. But the path to enlightenment, to spiritual growth, is less defined. You can look up a bunch of references on the internet and quote philosophy professors and literary icons, but how do you know when you’ve got it right?

In one of the many philosophy moocs I’ve taken, the professor indicated that Kierkegaard felt Christianity should be confusing, that the existence of God should not be something that can be proven. This is the leap to faith he advocated: you don’t believe in salvation because you find evidence, you just believe. I don’t really understand that. I don’t understand this story. But the journey was a lot of fun, even if I’m not sure the empty vessel at the end is a good thing, or a bad thing.

4 responses to “Pushcart 2020 XLIV: Joy Williams, “Flour” from Paris Review #224

  1. Well, Karen, I am glad for you the journey was fun. I read the story twice and decided I will go on with my life without understanding it. I am happy to read about your journey. I admire you for it, once again. I can’t really even comment about it; I am just not there. It is probably a brilliant story and you probably did wonders with it. I move on.

  2. In spite of claiming above that I will move on and go on with my life elsewhere, I have now read the interview with Lincoln Michel. I am reminded that I thoroughly enjoyed the 99 Stories of God, although I did very little analyzing of them. May I suggest, and this perhaps is a totally unlearned, ignorant suggestion, that some of the time Williams is putting us on? Some of the 99 Stories are jokes, and I wonder if some of the Eight Attributes of the Short Story are jokes. She is pushing our buttons, seeing how far she can take us, ready to burst out in laughter. I know, I know, that could not be. Or could it? My interior voice is becoming most erratically exterior.

    • I keep changing my mind about whether I want to read more Williams or not. Maybe I’ll try 99 Stories on your recommendation.

      Could she pull one over on me? Absolutely. But she seems to be pulling one over on the entire literary community, and I think that’s less likely. It’s an interesting idea, though; sounds like a great idea for a story.

  3. Pingback: Joy Williams, The Visiting Privilege: New and Collected Stories (Vintage, 2015) | A Just Recompense

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