On Not Knowing: Story About That

by Emily Ogden

Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.

When Donald Trump was elected, I was pregnant with twins. My sons were born after the 2017 inauguration, under what I cannot help but feel is an ill star—though in themselves they are privileged and want for nothing. Nothing, that is, except a planet whose future is secure and a nation that does not “reign without a rival” for “revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy”—words of Frederick Douglass’s whose restless sound wave has kept propagating itself. My sons were learning to crawl when white supremacists marched in downtown Charlottesville, a mile from our house. They started walking at about the time that NPR played recordings of children wailing in detention centers. No crisis that has come, has passed. Another election is approaching; talk of impeachment grows serious. And my sons, oblivious to all of this, are asking for stories.

“Story bout that,” they say, when some event, or more commonly some non-event, captures their attention. In the dark, Beckettian world of their fictions, little happens except for a persistent breaching of bodily integrity. Here are some of the stories; judge for yourself (L. and N. are my sons, and Zeke is one of our dogs):

When L. got stung by a bee

When N. got stung by an ant

When N. got a splinter in his foot

When a wheel fell off the neighbor’s pickup truck

When Zeke broke [killed] the snake

When Zeke broke the lizard

When the weather broke

When a bowl broke

When L. had broken skin

When the red balloon went up to the ceiling and we couldn’t reach

When Zeke got out the front door

When N. was coughing so hard he gagged

When the red baby cried

Things break and people break and we, the tellers of stories, survive. That is the common burden of these monotonous, unstructured downers, each of which I have been ordered to tell at least fifty times. My sons listen, calm as sucklings. Why such an appetite for damage? It reflects their reality, I suppose. Toddlers fall and they destroy things. I understand the appeal of Humpty Dumpty without the need to search for royalist intimations. An egg, who is at once a fragile person and a fragile object, shatters beyond repair. Welcome to my household. My sons have had several great falls each, and they have broken literally dozens of literal eggs.

It is pleasant to think about the drama of shattered glass and consoling to remember that when you split your lip, you get a popsicle. But there is a lower layer, having to do with how we find out what the right edges are to ourselves and other people. It seems to me my sons have had to figure out empirically which are the inalienable parts of their bodies. They asked me to take their ears off for them once. They had tried to remove them but couldn’t. It did not necessarily follow that the ears were permanently attached, since daily experience proves that many things physically impossible to them are possible to me—unscrewing jars, taking their shirts off. “Cats have paws,” N. explained to me the other day. “Can’t take them off.” I was startled, at first, to hear the tacit made explicit. Then I remembered that I used to have a recurring nightmare. I grew up with a declawed cat, and I used to dream that my family had amputated his feet.

Sigmund Freud’s theories around castration anxiety no longer seem far-fetched to me; in fact, they seem if anything too narrowly applied. One of Freud’s ideas on this subject, from the 1927 essay “Fetishism,” is that a boy interprets his mother’s lack of a penis as the result of castration. Then the boy worries that he will be subject to the same fate. It is hard to know whether the story Freud tells is precisely the right one. But as to the idea that penises may be removable: yes. At my house, we are preoccupied. We have thoroughly ventilated the questions of whether penises are attached and of who does and does not have one. And it’s not only penises. It’s anything that protrudes from the body as though threatening to become an independent object. The boundaries of bodies, one’s own and other people’s, have to be discovered in the most fundamental ways—to a degree you can hardly believe—and there is no reason to exclude the possibility that this process is traumatic. What is it like, when you know cats’ paws don’t come off without cruel violence, to remember that you once conceived the plan to remove them? How do you feel about the crime you contemplated, before you knew it was a crime?

As to what, then, my sons are using stories for—as to why stories of breakage rivet them so completely—I think that riveting is more than the affective result. It is also the theme, the purpose, the cognitive work. They are using their stories of breakage precisely to rivet things together. Each break is a testament to one particular wholeness, and not another. What disintegrates acquires, after the fact, an aura of former integration. And it matters, too, that we the tellers are still speaking, evidence that we withstood the shattering force. In this world where everything that is stitched together got that way by strong conceptual effort, and where, at the same time, things seem so very ready to explode again, it is good to know that the thread of speech floats over all the calamity.

Stories suture up our parts against a primordial perception that we are in pieces. They knit our bodies, our communities, our worlds into shapes we can use and that make sense to us; shapes that can break and be repaired in sufficiently predictable ways to allow us to live. I do not mean that there was an original wholeness; the opposite, in fact. Stories make these shapes out of a prior, if not original, perception of fragments. They precede the birth of any one of us, accompanying any possible language or nourishment that we could acquire.

How then did literary study come to make the colossal and mistaken concession that literature is a kind of decoration that overlays, even if it critically comments upon, more fundamental elements of human cultures? I have been starting to wonder. Literature is of course not the same thing as stories; stories easily exist without the support of the set of special practices we call the literary. And yet it is hard to see how literature, on the other hand, could be wholly unrelated to the fundamental role that narrative plays in making us. So why do we who study literature assert so little claim to these foundations? Why do we treat stories as a want and not a need? Perhaps our mistake was in imagining that the right way to ascertain need is to take an individual adult human being, mentally deprive him or her of one thing after another, and then see what causes loss of life and limb. On these grounds, stories would not qualify, I suppose. But this way of assessing need strikes me as both culpably limited, and strangely consonant with the most odious legal arguments of our time. You only have to look around, at federal lawyers defending as adequate the deplorable conditions in which ICE detains children, to see the ultimate result of conceiving of the human in this way.

What then is a need? That which developing human beings and the communities that nourish them demand of each other. “Story bout that,” my sons say. “Story BOUT THAT,” they say more loudly. If still nothing, they poke their fingers into my mouth, as if to say, take the stories out of there and give them to us. Detach them from your body and attach them to ours. They want “stories from the mouth,” as Pamela Klassen calls the stories we tell as opposed to the ones we write down. Would it threaten life and limb if I refused? Yes, in a way, it would. I know that the lack of stories would not kill them. They do not yet know what killing is. They are still knitting life and limb together into a wholeness they can recognize as theirs to preserve. They need stories about that.