by: Kerry Riley
When asked, in an interview with Rob Mclennan, whether she addresses larger concerns in her writing, Miriam Toews indicated, in her self-deprecating, Toewsian way, that she was always interested in a meta-discussion about:
…you know, just the meaning of life and all that jazz. Seriously, I want to know how to survive in this dark place, and maybe not just survive but to somehow achieve a type of grace, moments of joy, clarity, connection with others…how to love, how to think, how to be happy…that fine line between staring, clear-eyed, into the abyss and acknowledging that the world is a cruel and absurd place and stepping back, walking away and embracing it anyway.
Toews’ latest work, Irma Voth is, on one level, the highly entertaining first-person account of one soul’s launch into the world, a fish-out-of water, innocent abroad, bildungsroman, chronicling the protagonist’s struggle to comprehend her world, to survive, and her account of her moments of grace, clarity and connection that might just justify the effort. Consideration of key points in the text however, indicates that, on another level, the novel presents a larger discussion of “the meaning of life and all that jazz.” The above quote, which clearly establishes Toews as a writer concerned with existential dilemmas which have challenged humankind for the last several centuries, can be viewed as a thumbnail sketch of this larger discussion.
Ever since humanistic philosophy alerted us to the possibility that we, alone, may be responsible for our lives here on earth, and, in an increasingly secular world, we have begun to consider the implications of a non-existent or indifferent divinity, society has been presented with a number of troubling questions. First (and this is a big one) if there is no divine plan, and any individual existence is only one in an endless cycle, ruled by chance and/or uncaring physical laws and with no apparent purpose, rendered insignificant to the point of invisibility by the scale of the universe, where happiness, if it occurs at all, is ephemeral whereas pain and death are certainties, what’s the point? Secondly, assuming one stubbornly clings to the idea that there might be a point, even if one can’t quite articulate it at the moment, without reference to a higher power and a set of divinely inspired rules, the possibility exists that there may be no eternal consequences for bad behaviour, assuming “bad” even has meaning any more. How, then, should one behave? These questions comprise what we have come to call the great existential dilemma, namely: is life, here and now, worth living at all, and if it is, how should one go about it?
An early passage in the book clearly identifies Irma’s dilemma as an existential one. Irma has been reflecting on her troubled relationship with her father, one which, it seems, began in care and affection, but has evolved into something dark and dangerous. The end, as Irma identifies it, came one day when a newspaper, which had whimsically, or randomly, blown onto their isolated Mexican farm, ignited a conversation between them. As Irma remembers it, “the last real thing we talked about was the absurdity of life on earth.”
It is worthwhile examining this passage in detail because it sets out the options available to Irma as she prepares to take life on, and her decision defines the conflict between her and her father.
“We were in the truck on our way to Cuauhtémoc,” Irma recounts, “and he asked me how I thought it was possible that a crowd of people could stand on the street in front of a tall office building and cheer a suicidal man on to his death by encouraging him to jump. I was surprised by the question and said I didn’t know. What does that say about us? said my dad. That we’re cruel, I said. Then my dad said no, he didn’t think so, he thought it meant that we feel mocked, that we feel and appear stupid and cowardly in the presence of this suicidal man who has wisely concluded that life on earth is ridiculous, and we want him to die immediately so that the pain of being confronted with our own fear and ignorance will also, mercifully, end. Would you agree with that? my dad asked. What? I said. I didn’t know what he was asking me. It’s a sin to commit suicide, I thought. I said no, I still think it means we’re cruel. My dad said, no, it doesn’t mean we’re cruel. He got a little mad at me and stopped talking to me for a while and then as time passed never got back into the habit.
Here, Toews has set out the situation plainly. Both Irma and her father have stared into the abyss, but their reactions are quite different. While her father has (somewhat incongruously for a professed Mennonite) decided that the only rational, intelligent response to life is suicide, Irma acknowledges the world’s inherent cruelty, but rejects his conclusion. (To be fair, Irma’s father’s back-story, while not excusing the man he has become, at least provides some rationale.)
So, in an endlessly repeated ritual of youthful rebellion (somewhat heightened by her unique personal circumstances) Irma rejects the wisdom of her elder and must find her own way in the world. Having chosen life, Irma must figure out how to live it. In her own dark night of personal reckoning, confronting the universe in solitary blackness, Irma decides that the question of how to be in the world (of which she knows very little) breaks down into two related sub-questions. First, she wonders, “How do I preserve my dignity when no one else is watching?” It’s a question with which young adults, having recently slipped the bonds of parental authority, often grapple with varying degrees of success, and, on a larger scale, the world has been forced to consider as the concept of a watchful divinity has grown increasingly wobbly, particularly in light of twentieth century world history. Irma’s answer to herself, is wise, but not easy. She must, she says, believe in the possibility of a happy ending — happy endings make the interim struggle worthwhile.
Her second question states the problem even more explicitly: “How,” she wonders, “do I behave in this world without following the directions of my father, my husband or God?” In other words, with no external authority to guide us, how do we decide how to live our lives? Her wide-eyed exploration of the world, and growing sense of her own internal authority, propel the rest of the story.
A survey of life as it is here on earth, we might feel, makes it clear what a Herculean leap of faith will be required to believe in a happy ending, causing the more jaded of us to wince at Irma’s ingenuous decision and feel it does not serve her dignity well. But we make that judgement from a world-weary perspective of assumed knowledge — informed by a media driven diet of scandal, catastrophe, and tragedy. Cynicism, however, can be both a refuge and an excuse, and not necessarily the best tool with which to assess reality fairly. Irma, on the other hand, has been recently ejected from a culture which specialized in ignoring the world, and having rejected the Mennonite perspective (or been rejected by it) she approaches life with little experience and thus very few preconceptions. It’s hard to imagine how Toews could have conjured a purer sensibility with which to take inventory of our modern world, and remained at all believable. One of Irma’s most endearing and refreshing qualities is her willingness to admit complete ignorance on any number of subjects. In one candid confession she admits “I knew more about the social significance of birdsong, I realized, than I did about human interaction.” A scene in Acapulco, between Irma and a new friend, Gustavo, the taxi driver, illustrates Irma’s loveable combination of ignorance and honesty. “Do you know something?” Gustavo asks, conversationally. “No,” Irma answers, in complete seriousness, failing to comprehend the rhetorical nature of the question.
Irma says, “I don’t know,” a lot, and is content, accepting uncertainty as a fact of life, but, in the end, not an insurmountable obstacle to meaning. In doing so, she confronts an issue which shook the foundations of empiricism, and launched us into our modern world of relativism from which we have not yet extricated ourselves — the unnerving fact that our senses are not necessarily reliable witnesses to reality. Never mind the accuracy of communication between people, how on earth, one has to wonder, can one be expected to develop one’s own way of being, when even one’s own senses can’t be trusted? This idea is reinforced throughout the novel by images that transform from one thing to another with only a slight shift in perspective. For example, in what appears to be an incidental detail in an anecdote Irma is recounting, she describes two men talking to each other against a backdrop of a field of corn:
Elias was waving his arms around and Sebastian was perfectly still. Corn was behind them. Endless corn. Then Elias crouched down to the ground and picked up some stones and threw them at the corn and there was a dark explosion of crows.
This Escher-esque transformation from corn to crows exposes the ambiguity inherent in a world interpreted through the senses. Is the world golden or black? Corn or crows? One can never be certain.
In another incident, Irma describes seeing her mother in a dream:
In my dream I looked at the road and there was my mother walking slowly, proud and majestic, or maybe just exhausted…
Our ability to divine intention, is, as well, equally uncertain as the following passage indicates:
A bird flying over us had two long twigs in its mouth and he dropped one so that it landed directly at our feet like it was a gift. Here you go, Mennonite girls, prepare a nest. Or maybe it was an attack.
One of the most profound transformations that occurs over the course of the story is that of the reader’s relationship with Irma. She is initially comically and entertainingly naive, and her unwillingness to assume anything about her new existence often makes her appear simple-minded. We can enjoy her adventures without, necessarily, being challenged by them. Like a hiker in a fog, unaware of the cliff’s edge, we can believe Irma is blinded to her danger by her naivete, and random luck has allowed her to make her way thus far. She’d be a little less intrepid, of course (it’s easy to rationalize) if she, like our wise selves, could see the cliff. However, as we gradually come to realize, Irma has her own dark secrets, and if innocent of the wider world, she is not so about the risks inherent in optimism. Irma, it turns out, had an older sister, Katie, who also tried to rebel. As she explains,
I wanted to describe to [Aggie] the way Katie rebelled, with jokes and smiles and affection and with some kind of tragically naive understanding that it would all be fine and even fun and definitely, ultimately forgivable.
Katie, Irma knows, was wrong, and a newly humbled reader now understands that Irma’s knowledge of the cliff exceeds their own.
In one particularly nihilistic passage, everything comes into question:
…in the morning when she [Irma’s younger sister Aggie] woke up I told her that she wasn’t going home again, that home had changed, that home, like thoughts, according to Marijke, were random patterns of atoms flying around and forever on the move, and I considered telling her that if thoughts and home were random patterns then actions were too, all actions, tender, desperate, lucid, treacherous ones and the promises we make and break, the secrets we share with dying Venezuelans, and the bruises and bleeding cuts on her back. All of them random patterns. And that they didn’t mean a thing.
For those with any lingering doubts about the existential nature of this story, Toews includes direct references to Antoine de Saint-Exupery, Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, noted existentialists all.
With her persistent thoughtfulness, Irma comes to understand that subjectivity and our senses being what they are, it is a mistake to look for meaning in the external world. One must, like Descartes, build one’s certainties from the inside, create one’s own movie in the light available. One thinks, therefore one is, and one takes one’s meaning to the world, not from it.
More discussion along these lines: Is That All There Is? Secularism and its discontents. James Wood, The New Yorker
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