Saturday, January 4, 2014

The Objective Correlative: You Think You Have a Problem

A recent photograph of a small donkey, fallen in an uncovered, abandoned well, crying piteously to be rescued, only to be subject to additional travail by its insensitive owner, troubled you beyond measure, then caused you to think of the objective correlative.

The OC is a term coined by the poet/critic T.S. Eliot to describe a thing or situation that evokes an immediate emotion.

Beyond the immediate sense of near unbearable discomfort you experienced in identification with the donkey, your acute unease caused you to look at the way such thematic materials appear in life and story, sometimes triggering things when you are least aware, whether you are a reader of the works of others or with out deliberation, setting down events and symbols within your own story.

What would we make of a story in which a newspaper or TV news reporter was sent with a camera crew to photograph an animal or perhaps an animal and small child, trapped in some ancient excavation?  Because of the nature of her work, she is edgy and seemingly street-wise.  She's seen it all.  This assignment at first throws her off stride/ She is touched beyond the ordinary professional quality of her work.  Her dispatches or on-camera descriptions go viral, capturing the plight of the trapped child and animal for a national audience.

Her stories grow more excruciating in the way she finds a voice and audience, causing those close to her and herself to wonder if she's "getting soft."

Then we discover--but perhaps she does not--that she is in a relationship where she has formed a complete identification with the trapped animal and child.

Ah, the objective correlative at work.

At one point in your short story career, without conscious thoughts of the objective correlative, you wrote a story about a relationship under tension, from the point of view of one of the principals, who becomes aware that he has missed an opportunity that would have brought him a chance at great happiness.  

The story ends with the character on a train, in the act of beginning to depart a station, and a younger man, rushing to catch the train, hopeful of being able to hoist himself aboard before the train develops exit velocity.

Some of the rushing young man's classmates are already aboard the train, cheering and encouraging the running young man.  Soon, the protagonist begins to join them.  The story ends with him, rooting aloud for the running man.

The first place you sent the story was The North American Review.  At the time, you were on a cordial, first-name basis with Robley Wilson, the editor, who happened to have been the same editor who took Tom Boyle's first story.

Within a week of sending the story, you heard from Wilson.  "Some things," he wrote, "can be carried too far.  This time, your victim was the objective correlative, which you carried way too far."

You'd previously and subsequently learned a good number of things from Wilson, who is not only a gifted editor but as well an outstanding writer and teacher.  Not the least of these things is restraint.

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