SPEAKER 1: This is a production of Cornell University.
SPEAKER 2: Good evening, and welcome to the last of the summer series. This is a special bonus, and I'm glad to have all of you here. Please silence all of your electronic devices. And I also want to thank Katherine Brewer, the Dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, for the use of this hall. She's been very generous this year.
In the United States, one possible way to find out if you've made it is to check with The Simpsons. 11 years ago, Lisa Simpson dreamed she was in prison. And when a guard came around with a book cart, she asked, "Got any Joyce Carol Oates?" The guard replied, "Nope. It's all Danielle Steele." Does anyone how Lisa responded? Do you remember that? OK, go look it up.
But it gets even better. In 2017, in an episode, "Pork and Burns," Joyce actually appears as herself and even voices her own character. But we're at Cornell. And for us, The Simpsons doesn't count as a particularly reliable and reputable source of anything. So let's look at a far better one.
In the essay, "Reflecting on Joyce Carol Oates," Joanne Creighton, an English professor, former president of Mount Holyoke College, and the author of two books, and many reviews, and articles about the work of Joyce Carol Oates, reflected, "While Joyce Carol Oates was early called the Dark Lady of American letters, that label is not right. She has a tremendous respect for the dark side of human experience, for the mysterious depth of the conscious, and for the primitive brutality at the core of physical existence.
Yet Joyce's vision is not dark. She's, in fact, optimistic about the possibilities of human resilience and transcendence of a distinctly American variety. Despite the violence and duress that her characters typically endure, Joyce respects their tenacious attempt to, as she wrote in the preface to Marya, 'forge their own souls by way of the choices they make, large and small, conscious and half conscious.'"
Professor Creighton continues, "But she sprints far ahead of those who would attempt to assess her body of work. I agree with Anne Tyler who is quoted in a Washington Post article as saying, '100 years from now, people will laugh at us for sort of taking her for granted.' Professor Creighton then finishes, "This we know she is one of the most accomplished and significant American writers of our time." The dictionary definitions of the words productive and prolific surely must have after them these words, as exemplified by Joyce Carol Oates.
By my likely incomplete count, she has published at least 60 novels, 11 novellas, 42 collections of short stories, 10 children's and young adult novels, eight plays, and six one-act plays, and 11 collections of poetry. She has also written hundreds of essays and book reviews, in addition to longer non-fiction works on literary subjects ranging from Emily Dickinson's poetry and the fiction of Dostoyevsky and James Joyce, to studies of the Gothic and horror genres, and on such non-literary subjects as the painter George Bellows and boxer Mike Tyson.
How does she do this? I've read-- and she'll correct me if I'm wrong-- but that she writes daily in longhand from 8:00 AM to noon, and then she resumes her writing in the evening.
Joyce is a native New Yorker, who attended the same one room school her mother did. While a student at Syracuse University, where she majored in English and was valedictorian of her class, she won the college short story contest, sponsored by Mademoiselle Magazine. Some years ago, one of her SU professors, Donald A. Dyke, commented that about once a term, she'd drop a 400 page novel on my desk. He added, "She was the most brilliant student we've ever had here."
Joyce earned a Master of Arts in English from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. She has won many, many awards. She still runs, and she is an active hiker and bicyclist. And she is the Roger S. Berlin 52 professor of the humanities emeritus and professor of creative writing emeritus at Princeton University. Joyce Carol Oates was last here nine years and 361 days ago. And it is a genuine pleasure to have her with us again tonight. Joyce.
JOYCE CAROL OATES: Oh, thank you for that gracious introduction. I sat there sort of holding my breath, wondering what he would say next. I don't remember writing 400,000 books or whatever that was. It makes a person feel somewhat posthumous. And sometimes I sort of look around and think this is actually the other world, and I've sort of crossed over. But no, it's Ithaca. It's upstate New York. It's not the other world.
Well, I'm very excited tonight because I'm going to read some new work that I've never read before. So I have no idea how this is going to go over. The title of my talk-- lecture, which is the most soporific word there is in our vocabulary-- I had to give a title for my lecture tonight. So I call that The (Other) View. I have a collection of short stories, which is the next one that will be published, which is like the 4,000th collection of my short stories ever done on it. And that's called The (Other) View, with parentheses around the word other.
I think as we live our lives, we constantly take turns and make decisions. And we go this direction. We might have gone this way. And there are all these alternative selves that sort of lie behind us. We might not have gone to a certain place at a certain time. Therefore we might not have met the person we fell in love with, and gotten married, and maybe had children with. So there's all that life that actually happened.
But then the latent lives, the lives that we didn't live, I think are sort of almost equally palpable in some imaginative way. And some people probably did not choose the right life. And so their real life, the deepest self, is back in some other direction.
So I've been writing this sequence of stories that have to do with alternative selves. So tonight, I will read some poetry, a prose poem and a short, short story. But I won't ask you to try to distinguish between them. I'll tell you which is which. And they all sort of turn upon the idea of there being an alternative self, that, like, for you, but maybe a more pure self. It may not be a more pure self, but is a different you. And it may express yourself in some ways that are startling and original, but somehow to or to you.
So I think many of us start to live lives that are compromised, and they're not really the true lives. If you meet someone and you fall in love, or you think you fall in love, you get married. Before it's too late, it's actually too late, and you embark upon a different life.
So the first poem I'm going to read is six lines long. And you can't see it of course, but poets put a lot of importance upon white spaces. So there are two stanzas of three lines, and they're sort of balanced that way. I wrote this poem in a kind of trance after the 2016 election. It's called "Ex-sanguination," meaning bleeding out.
"Ex-Sanguination." Life as it unspools ever more eludes examination. We wonder what is best-- ex-sanguination in a rush or in 1,000 small slashes.
And like many poets, I'm sort of in love with strange rhymes. This next poem is called "Hometown Waiting For You." And here the you person is somebody who seems to have left his or her hometown, has gone away to some other place, and has made a kind of, quote, "success."
But the hometown people, like the people you went to high school with and middle school, they're still back there waiting for you. They're waiting for you to die. They're waiting for you to come back to them. Like, there's this huge graveyard. "Hometown Waiting For You." And for those of us from upstate New York who have not been back in a while, it's particularly terrifying to think of the hometown waiting for you.
So this is the voice of the hometown. "Hometown Waiting For You." All these decades we've been waiting here for you, welcome. You do look lonely. No one knows you the way we know you. And you know us. Did you actually once tell yourself, I am better than this? One day actually tell yourself, I deserve better than this. Fact is, you couldn't escape us. And we have been waiting for you. Welcome home.
Boasting how a scholarship bore you away like a chariot of the gods, except where you were born, your soul remains. We all die young here. Not one of us outlived young here. Check out obituaries and the like for it [INAUDIBLE] journal. Car crash, overdose, gunshot, fire, cancers of breast, ovaries, lung, colon, heart attack, cirrhosis of liver, assault, battery, stroke. And did I say overdose? Car crash?
Filling up the cemeteries here. Plastic trash here. Styrofoam here. 3/4 of your seventh grade class now in urns, ash. Those flashy cars you would have given your soul to ride in just once now eyeless, rusting hulks in tall grass. Those eyes you'd wished might crawl upon you like ants in graveyards of broken glass Atwater Park, where you'd wept in obscure shame. And now whatever his name who trampled your heart, he's ash. Proud as hell of you, though, we admit. We never read a goddamn word you've written.
We never forgave you. We hate winners. Still, it's not too late. Did I say overdose? Why, otherwise, are you here?"
Kind of a nasty person.
I'm glad I'm not back in Lockport.
Oh, did I say, Lockport?
The last time I went back to Lockport, it was kind of terrifying, all bleached of all its color, and it was like a sepia photograph of like 1951. Some people are nodding. I guess you know of Lockport. Some people actually know Lockport in New York? Wow. Anyway, it's a terrifying place.
Now the next piece I'm going to read is a little more serious. And here the other self is an experimental subject in the very famous psychology experiment of 1920. So those of you have taken introduction to psychology, you have seen this film. It's a shameful example of what we would call today scientific malpractice. But in 1920, there were no ethical guidelines for scientific research.
This is called Little Albert-- perhaps that name is meaning something to you-- Little Albert, 1920. This is very famous, one of the very first behavioral psychological experiments that became really like the foundation of a certain kind of experimental psychology. John Watson, the father of behaviorism, is the experimenter in this poem. BF Skinner was one of his proteges, who was at Harvard in subsequent years. My late husband, Charlie Gross, who had a degree from Harvard, actually studied with BF Skinner. So it's a kind of like handshake going back here to the great, the infamous John Watson.
So Little Albert was an infant at the time of this experiment. And many of you have already seen the videos, or the little films of Little Albert. And you can Google Little Albert if you wish to. This is Little Albert speaking, and he speaks in stanzas delineating this experiment, which is a classic.
Little Albert, 1920. I was Little Albert, nine months old in the famous film, in the white cotton nightie on a lab table, sitting upright facing a camera. Remember me? Sure, you do. First you saw that I was a curious baby. You saw that I blinked and stared with all the intensity of an infant brain eager to suck into its galaxy of neurons all of the world. You saw that I was you.
You saw that I was a fearless baby. You saw I was not frightened of a burning newspaper held before me at alarmingly close range, though indeed, my rapt infant face expressed the classic wariness of our race. Next you saw that I was not frightened of a frisky monkey darting close about me on a leash. You saw I was not frightened by a large dog brought close to me, nor by a quivering rabbit, nor a small white rat, nor even a Santa Claus mask worn by a menacing male figure clad in white, shoved close to my infant face.
You saw that I was attracted to the small white rat. You saw I reached out to pet the small white rat. And as I reached for the small white rat, behind my head came an explosion of noise. The shock of it sent me sprawling, cringing, face contorted in terror, mouth a perfect O of anguish, howling.
As the experimenter, John Watson, struck a metal pipe with a hammer, what a shock! How terror rushed through me! How desperately I crawled to escape, almost toppling off the table, except adult hands restrained me."
Then this is in italics.
"Children naturally fear loud noises. Children naturally fear surprises. Children naturally fear the unknown. Children can be taught to fear the unknown.
The second experiment was one month later. No escape for me, for I was Little Albert. There was a little gargoyle in a white cotton nightie, able to sit upright, though now wary and distrustful. No joy in my little body, as again, a small white rat was introduced to me. You saw how this time, I shrank away, how this time, there was terror in my face, now this time, I did not reach with infant eagerness for the small white rat. For I had learned to hate and fear the small white rat.
And again, you saw how the very presence of the small white rat precipitated a deafening clamor, as John Watson another time struck a metal pipe with a hammer again and again and again behind my head. For who was there to stop him? In this way, establishing on film how baseless fear can be instilled in a subject where fear had not previously existed, and how memory of this baseless fear will endure, contained in the unfathomable brain.
How I cried and cried, as if I known that my mother had received but $1 for the use of me in John Watson's psych lab, in the experiment that would destroy me and make John Watson famous. For in the alchemy of my brain, my fear of a small white rat had become generalized. And now, as Watson demonstrated, I feared the monkey, the dog, the rabbit equally, though each was not accompanied by a clanging hammer.
Now I feared the menacing figure in the Santa Claus mask, as if understanding that Santa Claus was my tormentor. Cried and cried, and could not be consoled. Even a woman's fur coat terrified me, for how could I trust softness? Sudden movements, sounds behind, my head the unexpected."
This is italics.
"Classic Pavlovian conditioning, bedrock of behavioral psychology. Brilliant pioneer, John Watson.
You all wonder, did John Watson de-condition me? No, he did not. Did another experimental psychologist de-condition me? No, he did not. As for what was the remainder of my life, ask me, did I adjust to life after the infamous experiment? Ask me, did I overcome my terror of animals? The answer is not known, for I died at age six.
All this was long ago. Things are different now. John Watson would not be allowed to terrorize Little Albert in his famous experiment now. Ours is an ethical age. Or was it all a bad dream? Were you deceived?
Oh, you were Little Albert. You were conditioned to fear and hate? You were conditioned to thrust from you what you were meant to love? You were the victim? You were the experimental subject? You were Little Albert, who died young?"
I'll say a few words about John Watson and BF Skinner. They really became so important to American culture. Because the whole idea feeds right into advertising, consumer manipulation, and to political manipulation, making people terrified of subjects that in themselves, would not warrant terror, making people hate and fear that which they were meant to love or whatever. And so it fits right in with a certain kind of deranged democracy and political manipulation, behavioral psychology.
Now the story I'm going to read-- I should give you trigger warnings. I'm not sure whether you have trigger warnings at Cornell.
I was just someplace where there was an issue of freedom of speech or freedom of expression that collided with other people's feelings, that they were upset or made uncomfortable. So this story might make some people uncomfortable. I don't know what to do about that.
So I'll just give you a trigger warning that if you are a good, decent, civilized person, you probably won't like this story.
You'll probably be upset by this story. So if you're a really good person, and sort of decent and civilized and so forth, and sane and all that, it's maybe going to be upsetting. But on the other hand, maybe not. This story is called Assassin. And the person who's telling it, again, is not me, really. The other you means that I don't have to take any responsibility for all these different things.
This person is definitely not me. We know because this is set in some country not the United States. I wrote this in a great trance of inspiration when I was in Dublin about a year ago. I attended-- I guess I might have given one of the main presentations at the Dublin Ghost Story festival.
So there were a lot of ghosts and weird things there, and I was there. And there weren't very-- I think maybe just one other American, and everybody else was English or Scottish or Irish. Irish and English are sort of the main ghost story writers. There are reasons why Britain is sort of friendly toward ghosts and weird things.
And I have to say, I wrote this a year ago. Because there's a character in here who is called the PM. And now--
He just seems like the new prime minister of-- I don't know how this happened.
But when I wrote this, Theresa May was totally antithetical to this, so it was purely fiction. But now it almost looks as if I'd written this story about this Boris Johnson.
And I hope he doesn't know about it.
And I hope he doesn't want to do something awful. But what I'm telling you right here-- and maybe it'll get back to him-- that I actually wrote it a long time ago. I wrote it like, 20 years ago.
"Assassin, assassin, hissing sound like snakes. First came to me through the steam radiator, waking open-mouthed, the inside of my mouth raw and festering from what had been done to it while I'd been made to sleep a drugged sleep in this terrible place. Then the whisper of hope, (WHISPERING) assassin.
The room I was assigned at St. Clement House, this was the first insult. This was unforgivable. The room, the bed, the bed with a lumpy smelly mattress on a high floor of the house. Had to climb stairs with my swollen ankles, weight, panting like a dog. Had to make my way along the winding corridor like a rat in a maze.
Insult at my age. Pre-diabetic was the diagnosis, hypertension. To be assigned such sleeping quarters in a bloody attic, low ceiling, no privacy. I would have to share a dreary, dripping lavatory with strangers. It was not fair or just.
St. Clement House, where residents are the staff, and the staff are residents. You will look out for one another, they told us. Smug bastards, all of them. There are paid nurses, nurse's aides, attendants, but not many of these, and so we are obliged to assist one another unpaid when [INAUDIBLE].
Dr. Schumacher is a resident psychologist, but Dr. S does not reside in the house. He does not linger in the house any longer than is necessary, for the bastard is clear of us by 5:00 PM and on his way. I was meant to be an equal doctor, as for I am educated, but was cheated of my destiny by reason of my sex, female. Also unacknowledged enemies in the government.
After my discharge from that hospital, where I was kept against my volition for six months, deemed not ready to return to a normal life and so was sentenced to a halfway house, as it is laughably called. And now the worst insult, to be assigned to one of the fifth floor dorm rooms, where at 53, I am old enough to be the grandmother of most of the residents.
And I am not a junkie, or a souse. I am not gaga like some. I am not a filthy slut, hardly, but forced to cohabit with such crippled specimens of humanity for the sake of a bed and food to eat until I am well enough again to live by myself and tend to my own needs.
My only friend does not live here. My dear friend, like a sister, I've known since St. Agatha's Trade School, is [? Pris Reince ?] who is my age and stout, like me, and with a plain, honest face like raw bread dough. When I am well enough again, [? Pris Reince ?] says that I might live with her in a room in her house if I could pay just a few dollars a week. It's very surprising. [? Pris Reince ?] is a cleaning woman for the PM himself. Would you believe it?
Yet so, 30 years [? Pris Reince ?] has worked for the same cleaning service that is assigned to the PM's residence at Queen's Square. But if you ask the woman what the PM is like, she will blink and stare and seem not to know. Guess I don't see much of him, or any of them. A dull female, not like me.
Well, I had know that [? Pris Reince ?] cleaned the PM's residence, and had done so for many years. But it never struck me much until the other day, waking like I did stunned and swallowing, not knowing at first where the hell I was-- hissing in the radiator, (WHISPERING) assassin. I love the sound of that word, assassin. Not killer, not murderer, those are common words, not even executioner. There is something about this word I'm beginning to admire. Assassin, executioner in the service of fairness and justice.
The insult of my room on the fifth floor and how we were fed there in this half-arsed halfway house. Cold gluey oatmeal one morning, and when I spat out a mouthful on my spoon, disgusted to see what resembled a small wizened piece of meat. Your own heart, the whisper came to me, laughing.
Yet the idea of assassination did not occur to me for some time. I lost track of the days since that time, but it might have been a month, at least. What began in the hissing in a dream has spread out of the dream like a potato spreading roots in damp soil. Assassin. Somehow it came to me that I would saw off the head of the arrogant bastard PM.
This would be my destiny, not the other, not to be Dr. S. and lord it over the mentally enfeebled addicts and sluts, for I'd been cheated of that career. But this, I would not be cheated of, and will go down in history like the [INAUDIBLE] in her triumph of the [INAUDIBLE].
Assassin, assassin. I was slow to realize and to accept [INAUDIBLE] it would be if you won a lottery and did not dare to believe. Have I won? The winner is me? Almost, I could hear the class applauding on the TV.
Hateful, arrogant son-of-a-bitch the PM was, you saw clearly on TV. A bachelor, he was never married. No worse than any of them in any of the political parties, but the PM is a top dog deserving of his bloody head sawed off. And fitting the very person who scrubbed his filthy toilet should be the one to saw it off. You see, no one notices us. That will be our revenge.
Squat, short, middle-aged like [? Pris Reince/me, ?] moves through the world invisible. She/I, have bunions, varicose veins, swollen ankles. She/I are short of breath making our way upstairs. Hell, we are short of breath making our way downstairs.
Not five foot three, 175 pounds. No one has glanced at us in decades, not a man or a boy in memory. We are deserving of respect as any of you, yet we do not receive your bloody respect, so bloody hell with you.
In fact, this is our strength. An assassin in the figure of a middle-aged cleaning woman, flesh-faced and panting on the stairs, breasts like balloons collapsed to her waist, fattish thighs and buttocks in the nylon uniform. Who'd suspect? What, are you daft, man? That cow? That's the cleaning woman, for Christ's sake! Man, let her through.
Something like this it was that transpired that morning. Very cleverly, I brought up a half dose of sleeping pills to dissolve in [? Reince's ?] coffee, which the woman so dilutes with cream and sugar it's not even coffee any longer. And they're trying to say to me that I'm the one who's pre-diabetic!
And so there was no difficulty for me to put on [? Pris Reince's ?] uniform when was fast asleep and snoring with her vast mouth agape. And indeed, the stretch waist nylon trousers fitted me like a fist in a glove. No difficulty for me to impersonate [? Pris Reince, ?] who was near enough to me to be a twin sister, so that even if a security guard had thought to actually look at me, he'd have seen [? Pris Reince ?] and not me, for it was [? Pris Reince's ?] photo ID pinned to my bosom [INAUDIBLE] to my waist.
And he would not have given that ID photo a second glance, [INAUDIBLE] repugnance for that sort of female bosom. Also, [? Pris Reince ?] wore an insipid knitted cap which suited me too. OK, ma'am, go on through. If a man does glance at you, if you are [? Pris Reince ?] or me, his eyes are glazed with boredom. Not for an instant does he see.
Waved through security without a hitch, exactly as planned, dragging a vacuum cleaner on wheels, mop and bucket, canvas bag in which was stuffed sundry cloths, brushes, and cleaning materials. From innocent queries posed to [? Pris Reince, ?] I had ascertained which corridor to take into the PM's private rooms. And there swiftly, I left behind the cleaning items and sought out the bloody bastard in the swanky interior, for whom I was feeling a fierce hatred, as if in a dream of the night before the PM had insulted me to my face, as so many others have done.
You would be surprised, as I was, how swiftly I moved on my swollen ankles, which will make me realize, in reflecting back over the episode, how the assassination was a foregone conclusion, like a final move in a chess game. Except until just recently, assassin had not been named. I would wonder if they had sought out others as the assassin in this case. These others have proved inferior. And so that settled upon me, the knowledge that I would not disappoint. For they must have known of me, my previous life, my education that had come to nothing, the sharpness of my intelligence blunted by the myriad disappointments, which not a single one was my fault.
In a man's bedroom in his black silk stocking feet, there the PM stood before a three-way mirror, frowning as he buttoned a crisp ironed white cotton shirt with his back to the door, unsuspecting. For [? Pris Reince ?] would never dare enter any room in the residence without knocking meekly beforehand. And if there was no knock, there could be no intrusion.
If no intrusion by a stranger, there could be no sudden blow to the head from behind, no swift rushing into the penumbra of the mirror. There was no chance for the targeted one to draw a breath to escape the hard blow of a pewter urn selected from the mantel. Fairly cracking the eggshell skull in that moment.
You will know what to do as you do it, the hissing voice had instructed out of the radiator, and so it was. In an adjoining kitchen, there were fancy sharp knives on a magnet board. And of these, I selected a knife with a double serrated blade. And for the next half hour or more, I was engaged in sawing off the head of the bloody PM as he lay helpless on the floor on a fancy thick pile carpet.
This career politician, as he was known, with so many enemies in our country, any number of them would rejoice in my actions and thank me for my patriotism. To sever a living head from a living body is no easy task, and it is very bloody and tiring, as you might imagine. But the PM was deeply unconscious from the blow to his skull, and put up little resistance.
The head-- that's capital H now-- the Head, as I would call it, was mine as soon as the Head was cleanly severed from the body. It was larger than you would think it was, heavier and very bloody, with veins and sinews and twitchy nerves dripping non-stop from the ragged neck. And the skin of the face was coarse and darkening, as with chagrin. And the eyes were half shut, droopy little like a drunkard's.
And the hair, which was thin and grizzled gray, and not a handsome whitish silver such as you are accustomed to see on the PM in his public appearances. A hairpiece, which evidently the PM would fix upon his head when he left his quarters. Missing your hairpiece, are you, love? The wisecrack issued from my lips. I wondered if this would be a new trait of mine, a coquettish sort of wit. For it was very unlike my usual self in the presence of men, I can testify, almost the kind of sharp wit you encounter on TV.
The Head was too [INAUDIBLE] Of the eyes, the left had all but disappeared inside its socket, while the right was trying very hard to fix me in focus, to determine what was what. For the PM had not gotten to his position in the government without being sharp-witted. Out of kindness as much as mischief, I sought out the hairpiece in an adjoining bathroom, and this I placed upon the near-bald scalp, and adjusted as best I could. For even in his decapitated state, the PM was something of a ladies' man.
Almost you have to smile to register a man's vanity at such a time. Soon then, I would exit the PM's chambers trailing vacuum cleaner, mop and bucket, and canvas bag, and in the bag, wrapped in plastic to prevent the blood from soaking through, the Head and a dollop of disinfectant to make the nostrils pinch. Leaving the PM's residence, we are not scrutinized.
There is only precaution against bringing a deadly instrument into the residence. And when you exit, it's by a different door. Not a one of them so much as glanced in my frumpy direction. Not even [? Pris Reince's ?] glamor hat drew any attention.
Still, it was early, not yet 8:00 AM. If they had their wits about them, they might have wondered why the cleaning woman was leaving so early. But indeed, they took no more notice of her than of a fly buzzing to be let out. From [? Pris Reince, ?] I knew that the shiny black limousine to bear the PM across town to the capitol building would not appear until 8:30 AM, and so no one would miss the deceased until then.
The headless body I left covered with a quilt from the disheveled bed. Being headless, a body is of not much interest, and interchangeable with others of the sex, it seemed to me.
In [? Pris Reince's ?] rubber-soled shoes with [? Pris Reince's ?] ID photo removed from my bosom, and of course, in that nylon cardigan of an unusual shade of lavender that resembled nothing of hers and nothing of mine and the insipid cap removed, I took the Land's End trolley to the end of the line. There is a place here I know that I have not visited in years, but I had once known well, down behind a boardwalk by the beach in an area of the beach that is no longer much frequented. And here the Head would not be easily discovered.
My plan was to bury it in a coarse, damp sand with care, for this part of the assassination seemed to be left to me to devise. As it often happens, a know-it-all will instruct you what to do, but neglect to include the complete instructions, so you must supply them yourself. Women are familiar with this, so not surprising to me.
The Head comprehended my plan, for the right eye was [INAUDIBLE] upon me with alarm. Though luridly bloodshot, that eye was sharp focused. Don't abandon me, it begged. Such nonsense! I wasn't going to listen to such nonsense.
In life, the PM had a wheedling way about him that was often remarked upon. A right proper bastard, the PM. One quarter of Scot's blood, it was said of him, one of those sly ones who would get his bloody way if you were not careful. So I hid the Head in a safekeeping place behind a shuttered stall, still in the canvas bag it was, but so grimy a bag, in the most desperate eyes not worth stealing.
By this time, I was very hungry, and so went out to have a snack on the boardwalk. Pork scratchings, Cornish pastry, a jammy, and a Greggs sausage roll, tea cake, fish and chips. Then I returned, and there inside the bag was the Head, flush-faced and chagrined, and the left eye adrift, but the right eye blinking in the harsh oceanside light, and accusing.
Don't abandon me! Please, your secret is safe with me. I will not tell them what you have done. And most piteous, don't bury me like garbage, I beg you. The Head most feared being buried alive. I took pity on the Head, for I could understand how it felt in such circumstances.
In a few days, I would come to a decision, I thought. In the meantime, the Head is doing no harm. We are in a sheltered place where there is no one here, and it cannot escape, of course. I have set it on a platter with some moisture beneath to keep it moist, as you would keep a succulent plant moist. Now, the bleeding had stopped-- almost had stopped. Atop the scalp, I have affixed a silvery hairpiece, as the Head is anxious not to be seen without it.
Soon the Head has become a familiar presence, like a husband of many years. Once I had had a husband, I think I remember this, but not this actual man, and not myself as a wife, I don't remember. Please have pity on me. Please love me, don't bury me, the Head dares to whisper, and kiss my lips, I love you, please.
Oh, but at this [INAUDIBLE] I just laugh. I will not kiss your lips or anyone's bloody lips. I'm calculating where to bury you, in fact. Farther out the pebbly shore, but deep enough so the gulls don't smell you and dig you up and cause a ruckus. No, I am too smart for that. Fact is, I'm just sitting here having a rest, and I'm thinking. And when I finished thinking, I will know more clearly what to do. And I'm not taking bloody orders from you, my man, or from any man ever again."
I'm not really sure why you're clapping for that.
But that's very nice. Anyway, I wrote a year ago, before Boris Johnson was--
I'm going to conclude with a funny poem, since I've been reading tragic material. And this sets off to be actually funny, so people will just sit there very stern and silent, and know you'll sit like this if I tell you that it's meant to be funny.
Several years ago, the New Yorker had the New Yorker festival. And they had a special panel that was dogs versus cats.
We cat people sort of knew the fix was in and that the dogs would win, because I think David Remnick favored dogs. It was just really, really, really unfair.
The cat people-- each team had about four people. The cat people were extremely superior to the dog people.
And I was on the cat team, of course. And I read this poem. And on the cat team was this wonderful person who breeds Bengal cats. I wonder if any you even saw the presentation in New York City several years ago. Anyway, the cat breeder brought two Bengal kittens. And just showing a Bengal kitten to the audience, immediately, the cat team should have won with that.
These Bengal cats were enormously beautiful, and they were very tame, and they're kind of looking around, and just really, really beautiful. Anyway, so he was on my team. And there was Jerry Coyne, the biologist who has a very popular Twitter account and also has a blog. Jerry Coyne, a biologist-- who would know more than a biologist that cats are superior to dogs?
So my poem is based upon a very famous 18th century poem by Christopher Smart For I Will Consider My Cat, Geoffrey, Jubilate. They said that Christopher Smart was a lunatic, and they put him in a lunatic asylum. I don't think it has anything necessarily to do with cats. I'm not sure why he was in a lunatic asylum. I think it was unfair. I feel like this woman in my story, the assassin, like, everything is unfair, and she's mistreated and it's not her fault.
So anyway, this poem is quite long. But at the same time, it maybe seems longer than it actually is, because some lines are only one word. Jubilate, an Homage in Catterel Verse. Catterel is a word that I made up. It's an elevated variant of doggerel.
Doggerel is a lesser kind of catterel.
An homage in catterel verse. "For I will consider my Cat Cherie, for she is the very apotheosis of Cat-Beauty, which is to say, nothing extraordinary, for the Cat, beauty is ordinary, like the bliss conferred upon us in the hypnosis of purring.
She has been known to knead her claws upon a sleeve, and on a knee, and on bare skin, sharp claws sinking in-- just a warning. For she is of the Tribe of Tyger-- and eyes burning _bright, though cuddling at night until you wake to discover-- where is she? Cher-ie? _Don't inquire.
For in considering my Cat Cherie, I am considering Catitude-- each Cat the (essential) equivalent of all others, not varying freakishly in size (like crude d*gs.)"
There's some words that we don't print out.
On my Twitter account, I have never fully printed out the name of-- anyway.
Anyway, the point is that the cats are more or less all the same size, and they don't vary freakishly, "(like crude d*gs) but pleasingly Platonic. Cat-chutzpah is the sheathed claw--" no heart borne upon a foreleg, but your challenge to decode, like poetry of a subtlety that _does not bark __ its meaning __ but forces us to be just a little smarter than we are. Unlike D*gs, whose uncritical adulation makes us dumber."
Now you've noticed that dogs just adulate and admire you, and sort of drool all over you. And no matter how ignorant you are and silly things that you say, and how poorly you've done, and what a complete failure you are, the dog just comes slobbering all over you, and kisses you, and you it's just-- it's not good.
Whereas the cat-- a cat, you come home with a great award, you made a whole lot of money, the cat just glances at you and walks away. Because it's really not enough.
I think it puts us in our place, and makes our egos shrink.
"Of Twitter, it is estimated that somewhere beyond thirty-one percent who tweet are feline, in nocturnal prowl, slyly retweeting their kind, reproducing, replicating, the dark rapacious ever-fecund _feral-soul _that is the sea upon which "civilization" floats, uneasily.
For since such eloquent kitty Twitter, only the most elegant kitty litter. But if you ask Cherie, what it is this, the reply is blank blinking innocence. Mew? [INAUDIBLE]
--"Live free or die" --is the Cat's very soul, that makes of us, by contrast, fawning and obsequious beings (not unlike D*gs).
Such beauty instructs us in its own perfection, for it is beyond mere "use" --no __work cats, watch-cats, __ plebian beings __ but each descendant of gods as ancient Egypt honored; and how like a deity, to sink teeth into a rat, a creature that squeamish mankind abhors, while maintaining purest Cat-innocence.
Sandpaper tongue, utter longing. Cat-love the nudge of furry-hard head. But oh, where has she gone? Kitty-kitty-kitty! She may come when called (like the D*g) but mostly she will not for (unlike the D*g) she has got an interior life, inscrutable, inaccessible, un-possessable. She does not aim to please, or aim at all. Her blessing is a fluke, as readily withdrawn as given.
Never will she do your bidding. Never will she falsely flatter, nor deceive you that you much matter beyond the reach of the hand that pets and feeds. Also she has much busyness out-of-doors by moonlight. Don't inquire.
But there she has gone head-first through the Plexiglass cat-door to return with, dropped on the floor at my feet, a small carcass very still. Oh Cherie, what have you done?"
I also say parenthetically that my kitty brought me a garden snake yesterday.
And it was really terrifying. The snake was not dead. It was still alive. Anyway, that's the end of the parenthesis.
"Only the Cat's gift is freely given. The D*g in subservience as in chains has no free will, and so-- Oh Cherie-- is this for me?
For I will consider my Cat Cherie, for whose tail twitches irritably across these keys when confronted with prose found wanting. For it is irrefutable, the Cat is the harshest critic of prose, cattedly rejecting what has been doggedly written.
_This will not do, at all. __This is not it. At all. _where the D*g drools delight with very mediocrity, in complicity."
Sometimes the furry cat sprawl obliterates the [INAUDIBLE] altogether. For you dare not move a limb, a tail, even gingerly from the laptop. You know, you've all had this experience. Your cat's tail is on the keyboard, you can't lift it. You just have to sort of wait for it to move by itself.
"At risk of [INAUDIBLE] a hiss-- Mew! Whom are you touching, you? If I dare rise from this desk prematurely-- if I dare plead (human) exhaustion-- vehemently Cherie will dig in her claws, securing my knees with the cry _Mew! __Where do you think you're going, you! __Thus hours, days & ages accumulate in pages, and pages into books, and books into oeuvre. Purrlific the literary judgement."
That's how I've written so many books. Because I actually cannot get up from my desk. The cat--
I'm ready to get up after eight hours of work, but the cat will not let me get up. And so I just keep writing till it's another novel.
"The very best books (it is said) are not ghost-- but cat written. Simenon, Colette, John le Carré, not least Hemingway-- Auden, Eliot, Philip K. Dick-- Borges and Burroughs and Patricia Highsmith-- Jean Cocteau and Henry David Thoreau-- JP Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe-- "I wish I could write this mysterious as a cat!"-- Poe said-- "Twain, Bradbury, Raymond Chandler, Sartre, Sylvia Plath, and-- Daniel Handler?-- Not least Samuel Johnson-- quote, "but Hodge shan't be shot; no, no Hodge shall not be shot"-- rapidly retreating into the mists of Time where Muse is suffused with Mouse until the two are merged in mystery-- Cat and collaborator." I thank you.
Thank you very much. Unless you would like me to take questions? Oh, [INAUDIBLE] My handler is telling me that I can't leave yet.
So I'll be happy to try to answer the questions that you have. And thank you for not walking out. [INAUDIBLE] trigger warnings, and you were very stoic [INAUDIBLE]
AUDIENCE: This summer, we had a class in Jane Austen, [INAUDIBLE] and one of our members, Emily, was asking if we could find out whether you know or what you think of Jane Austen?
JOYCE CAROL OATES: Well, that's kind of a profound question to ask. First of all, Jane Austen is just an extraordinary genius, who not only wrote those fantastic novels, but as she was writing the novel, she was sort of creating a genre that didn't exist before, you know? Now when people write novels, we have great novels, we have Finnegan's Wake, we have Ulysses, we have everything that Faulkner told us about. We have thousands of novels as models.
But when Jane Austen was writing her particular novels, there was virtually nothing there. She was sort of creating a form. And of course, her sentences are like little whiplashes. I think that she's just remarkable.
Now having said that, and wanting you to know that I think she's just a great genius-- I think it's very interesting to deconstruct Jane Austen. Because in the parameter of her society, in the shadows or backstage, women would be impregnated. Many, many times, they were having babies in very unsanitary situations. They would probably die in agony in childbirth. All sorts of awful things were happening to servant girls. Darcy, for instance--
I mean, I don't want to go on about-- one could sort of write sort of the dark side of Jane Austen would be all the things she doesn't talk about, the privilege that her people exert. Emma in this book, she's 18 years old, she's so spoiled. She winds up being married to this person who's like old enough to be her grandfather. She's so nasty to that young woman-- I'm forgetting the name--
JOYCE CAROL OATES: [INAUDIBLE]?
JOYCE CAROL OATES: No, this is the young woman who is somebody--
JOYCE CAROL OATES: Harriet! Harriet! She had the temerity to have been born with-- her father wasn't married to her mother or something like that. So just, when you deconstruct Jane Austen and see what she took for granted, the social injustice, and really, the outrage that was going on all around her, not to mention the slave trade, and this, that, and the other of the British empire-- all that's just not there. On the other hand, what is there is what we should look at, I suppose, and it's just brilliant. There's a double-edged answer.
AUDIENCE: How old were you when you first started writing?
JOYCE CAROL OATES: How old was I first started writing? Well, thank you for not asking me how old I am now, or how much I weigh or whatnot.
Well, before I started writing, when I was really quite little, I think I was just so excited about the idea of being a writer that I took my Crayola crayons-- I couldn't write yet-- and I was just drawing and scribbling on tablets with a Crayola, and it was scribbles and scribbles. I'd have a tablet, it looked like a manic, sort of a more rounded kind of War and Peace where whoever is writing it couldn't actually write, but just sort of scribbled these pages. So my first novels were completely unintelligible. They were just scribbles.
So at about four years, I started to write. But since it can't be read-- I mean, I can't read it myself-- who knows what it was? Now I'm not claiming that it was really like War and Peace, so don't misquote me. I didn't actually say that.
But it was sort of like the War and Peace of a four-year-old scribbling on a tablet. Then a little later, I actually learned how to write and read, and that was kind of a revelation, so that was very exciting. So then I was actually writing real sentences. I also did drawings of cats and chickens, because we lived on a small farm. I wasn't up to people for quite a while. I had some Henry Jamesian talent novels about chickens and cats.
So that's pretty young. Somebody should have stopped me, I guess.
This is very sort of-- somebody writes on the wall, stop me before I I kill more people or whatever. Nobody saw that sign, and so they didn't stop me. Yes?
AUDIENCE: Yes, thank you for, first of all, being such an inspiration. I'd like to ask about your creative process, and much you know about the theme and why you're writing when you set out, and how much happens during the writing?
JOYCE CAROL OATES: This is a question a lot of writing process, how much do I know ahead of time? Well, since I spend most of my time writing novels, and the novel is a form that you really have to have a sense of where you're going-- I mean, you don't just get in the car and just start driving into the night or into a swamp or a barn without any steering wheel. I mean, basically, you have to have a real sense of where you're going.
So in a novel, I will have an outline. I'll have a sense of the principal scenes, and I'll have the ending. You need the first strong paragraph, the title, and a strong ending as sort of a triangular structure. And that will help you write a novel.
But you must never start writing a novel blindly and wait for inspiration. Because you'll likely wind up in a swamp. Like two miles outside of town, they'll find you sunken in the quicksand. And they thought that you had gone off for years and years, you've been going somewhere, but actually, you sank almost right away.
AUDIENCE: Do you have a book or a writing that you consider the most important, or that you enjoyed doing the most and why?
JOYCE CAROL OATES: Well, I think the novel that gave me the most difficulty was a novel called Blonde, which is about sort of the private life of Norma Jean Baker, who was Marilyn Monroe. That novel was 1,400 pages of manuscript. And I remember that was very difficult to write. It was like a nightmare experience. And I would wake up in the morning just paralyzed with terror of what I would have to face that day.
And I was anxious all the time. And it was like more than a year that I was in that state of really intense anxiety. I remember that. And then when I finished it, suddenly, [INAUDIBLE] after I really missed it. I missed that feeling of intensity, and a kind of existential misery.
But I felt that what I was doing at the time was important. And when you're writing something or creating anything that seems important to you, you have a great fear that you're going to die. You feel that you're going to just somehow not finish it. And so when you're finished with that, there's a sort of anticlimactic feeling. It's like retiring. Some people don't like to retire.
And I've written a lot about boxing. It's very hard for a champion boxer who's had eyes riveted upon him, he's been very, very successful, and this adrenaline rush is fantastic. Very hard for people to retire and continue with what we would call an ordinary life.
So when you're not writing at that pitch of excitement, life is very difficult. I don't have that pitch of excitement that I had with writing Blonde for other things. Because the subject matter, everything about it was just sort of very exciting to me, sort of like a lightning storm.
And then other kinds of writing can have inspiration of a different kind, like a quieter inspiration. So it's more like looking at something and executing it. Whereas the novel Blonde was more like very powerful flashes of adrenaline and inspiration.
So I look upon that with a sort of nostalgia. I wouldn't say maybe that was the-- I don't really know if it's most important book that I've ever written. I certainly felt that it was part of American history, and sort of tracing the epic of Marilyn Monroe, who I call sort of half seriously my Moby Dick, taking an enigmatic figure larger than life, and just focusing a good deal of meaning upon it. Maybe one more question?
AUDIENCE: When you did your first piece about Albert-- before or after, you mentioned Charlie Gross, your late husband. But you didn't point out that he was a very prominent neuroscientist, and the influence of that, I assume, was in the piece about Albert. And this is an intellectual question, not a personal question. But more broadly, how did that association influence how you think?
JOYCE CAROL OATES: Well, your question so stunning to me, I would probably have to really think about that for a while. I'd only been married to Charlie for 10 years. So in my whole lifetime, that's probably not that long. But I really confronted a different consciousness. Are you a scientist?
AUDIENCE: These days, I call myself a neurohistorian.
JOYCE CAROL OATES: Oh well, that's what Charlie was too. Did you know Charlie?
AUDIENCE: No. Not personally, no.
JOYCE CAROL OATES: OK.
AUDIENCE: We corresponded.
JOYCE CAROL OATES: Well, you said you were a scientist. There's a difference between the humanistic poetic imagination and the typical mind of a scientist, where things are materialist, and there's a causality and things. Nothing is really absolute, but it should be provisional. You should be able to replicate it. So I learned a lot about looking at the world from a different perspective from talking with Charlie and living with Charlie and reading Charlie's books. He has a lot of history of science books.
So I wrote a novel called The Man Without a Shadow, which is based upon HM, the famous amnesiac. And I would not have written that novel without my association with Charlie Gross. He was friends with Suzanne Corkin, who wrote the book-- and you know of all these people those that are so well known here. But HM is the most famous amnesiac in the history of neuroscience. And Suzanne Corkin, who was at MIT, was the person who worked with him. She experimented. She used him as an experimental subject.
And I wrote this novella called The Experimental Subject. So I'm sort of interested in the idea of the research scientist who's experimenting maybe on another person, and then maybe becomes involved with that person, and what are the elements of scientific misconduct? And is there clear cut kind of ethics? As with the Little Albert, at the time, that wasn't unethical what John Watson did. I mean, they did much worse things than that, as you probably know.
The father of American gynecology was a person-- I'm blanking out on his name-- it might have been Sims? So this person experimented on enslaved women in the South. He experimented on them, and then he took his findings and he became a gynecologist for wealthy women. And he used anesthetics on the wealthy women.
And then there's the infamous Tuskegee experimentation, and the Stanford Prison Experiment. So I think to just look upon science as a very rich field of the imagination with a perspective somewhat different from the humanities, but maybe overlapping a bit has been such a personal inspiration to me that I hope it will continue. Thank you very much.
SPEAKER 4: This has been a production of Cornell University on the web at cornell.edu.
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Joyce Carol Oates read and discussed her newest fiction at Cornell University on August 1, 2019. Her latest work deals with issues of identity, alternate lives, and the evolution of personality.