Friday, January 22, 2010

Sifting "Owl Creek Bridge"

It's a bromide that teachers learn from their students. If the translation of the bromide comes to "Students impart information to their teachers of which the teachers were ignorant"
-->--I am not sure I agree. Or, if I have gleaned new information from those I teach, it doesn't tend to be the sort I was itching to know. (I really did not need to know that Ben Franklin's sells cap bombs. Really. Although I must admit it is in keeping with their patron's interests.) I will not deny, however, that I have learned from my students in this sense: that in looking for questions to ask them, I have had to dig deeper into certain questions than I would be likely to, left on my own.

Left to myself, I would certainly never have read Ambrose Bierce's short story "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge." I knew enough from secondary sources to realize that I would probably not enjoy reading Beirce's work. Short a personal recommendation from a trusted friend, Beirce had been permanently assigned to my mental Life is To Short to Read These Authors list. But, Bierce's story appeared in the high school literature book I was using to tutor so, not being one to skip an assignment, I went ahead and read it. Even then after swallowing the story, I didn't feel I had too many questions to ask the student. I won't go so far as to say I found the story pointless, but I did come up with a blank after having wracked my brains for a point. Even after asking the student a few brief questions about the main character, and making sure he understood the main event (essentially an escape hallucination on the part of a man about to be hanged), the light failed to dawn. Neither of us had been able to make head or tail of the story. So, I thought I'd close with some parting wisdom about Beirce in general.

Me: You know, I wouldn't read any more Beirce if I were you.

Student: Why not?

Me: He's got problems. Think Edgar Allen Poe, but where Poe was just morbid, Beirce was actually evil.

[Student makes appreciative noises and is impressed.]

It was at this point that the lightbulb went off. I had been operating all along on the assumption that Beirce was portraying things the way they were, seeing some sort of truth about human nature that I had missed. But what if . . .

Me: Hey, I wonder if this is something. You’ve never read The Screwtape Letters, but there’s a part in there where Lewis talks about how the devil is always trying to get people to live in the past or the future, or to live in the present in the wrong way. He’ll tempt, say, a historian to be absorbed in some fascinating historical period, or he’ll tempt someone whose friend or relative has died to live in remembering them. On the other hand, he’ll tempt some people to always think about the future. “What if this happens? Then I’ll do that. But of course, if that where to follow, then one of these possibilities is open. In which case I’d really better . . .” You see what I mean? OK, that’s half of it. Then there’s this. You’ve heard how when people have a near death experience their life sometimes flashes before their eyes? They see and remember everything they’ve done? Honestly, I think that when that happens that’s God’s way of making sure they’re prepared to meet Him. If they have the chance to remember all the things they’ve done, and maybe regret and repent them, they’re much better off than if they just show up at the gates. So, taking those two things together, what happens with Bierce’s officer? He does the exact opposite of what would be normal under his circumstances. Instead of having his past life flash before him, he fantasizes
about what he could be doing in the future—he could escape by diving into the water, and then they’d shoot at him, and then . . . but he never tries any of it; he only imagines it. The imagining is totally useless. He’s the perfect example of Screwtape’s living in the future, and he loses the opportunity for self-reflection and self-examination that he might have had under those circumstances—that many people do have, apparently. Scary, actually. Of course, I don’t know what Bierce was intending—whether he thought this was the sort of thing that might happen to a man before he died; or whether he wanted it to be the sort of thing that would happen; or whether he was even thinking that way at all, or just trying to write a good story. But I think it’s telling that Bierce’s character did what, by all accounts, was the opposite of often happens under those circumstances, and what we would consider to be the opposite of helpful or healthy. Like I said, Bierce was kind of an evil guy.

And my student, who had been yessing all the way through like a good Meno, agreed. I was and am quite sincere. I think “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” is scary. If ever a literary character looked like being damned, Peyton Farquhar does. As for Ambrose Bierce, whose 1913 disappearance is one of the unsolved mysteries of literary history—God rest his soul.


  1. Creepy dude. Doesn't sound like anyone I'll be reading soon.

  2. You can say that again. BTW, you must have a lot of free time, if you're reading blogs! (Kidding, kidding . . .)