Hints of Camus and LaPlante in Katha Pollitt’s “Learning to Drive”

by Hans Ragas

I cannot say I am very proud of this, struggling with finding sensible common ground between the three of them. Not matter the result, the exercise was a fun one, and it made reading the story all the better.

Whether it is non-fiction or fiction, an article or story must keep our interest until the very last word. We read because we will be the better for it, be it knowledge, insight, ideas or simply having spent some relaxed minutes with words that entertained our mind pleasantly.

In fiction, development of well rounded characters and plot performs this job. In non-fiction, while the facts might be set in stone (as far as one can tell) the writer still has a duty to capture the mind of the reader with phrasing, description and detail. LaPlante, in chapter fourteen “Getting beyond Facts to Truth”, states that the creative elements in creative nonfiction “[…] infuse a subject with the opinions, emotions, attitudes, and beliefs of the writer.” Such descriptions and symbols help us not only to like the story better (an important enough reason by itself, for otherwise it stays unread) but also to better understand the motivations, the struggles and emotions that the writer wants to convey. But here he treats upon treacherous ground twofold. For one, he must consider and decide how much intentional creativity is allowed, while at the same time he should not forget how the mind – unintentionally from our conscious point of view – already embellished, blew up and intensified these memories he tries to put down to paper.

These are difficult enough issues by themselves, but as the writer after careful consideration adds those creative elements, he immediately stumbles upon another pitfall. As Camus states in “Hope and the Absurd in the work of Franz Kafka”: “a symbol always transcends the one who makes use of it and makes him say in reality more than he is aware of expressing.” While the description of a given fact might – meaningwise, factually – already deviate in the reader’s mind from the “real” thing the writer was trying to describe, the intentions of the creative elements, meant to evoke an even deeper interest and understanding, might completely misfire for anybody but himself.

When Katha Pollit, in “Learning to Drive” says “In a scenario that we have repeated dozens of times, and that has kinky overtones I don’t even want to think about, he is pretending to be the test examiner,”, those “kinky overtones” become a symbol whose impact is hard to control. Kinky for a teenager reading her story in high school will have a very different meaning from people reading her story in a magazine sitting in front of a home for elderly people. But Pollit, aware of her craft, aware she might have pitched our curiosity with that very word, then makes a bold move. She never mentions those kinky overtones again, never repeats either word in the rest of the story. And thus, while you and I will never share an exact same impression of that line, it created a deeper emotional response without derailing. I remembered the car as light red, while for you it might have been more of a deep orange. It doesn’t matter. The embellishment was gone as soon as it had finished its job: giving a bit of color to a story without taking the main stage.

She performs this trick multiple times, subtle enough never to sound repetitive. On the contrary, the story consists of a repetition of various things. Her failure in driving, her bad choice in partners, the often negative emotions and responses from relatives and friends about her attitude or her failures. Never once does it become boring. Instead, every repetition, how logical and tiresome it would sound if she had just listed them, becomes another chance for her to deepen the reader’s understand and emotional involvement.

As Camus put it: “the more extraordinary the character’s adventures are, the more noticeable will be the naturalness of the story”. He goes on (talking about Kafka’s work,) “these perpetual oscillations between the natural and the extraordinary, the individual and the universal, the tragic and the everyday, the absurd and the logical […] give [his work] its resonance and its meaning,” This is true for any story though, and particularly non fiction should take notice here, as Pollitt did so well. The failures she describes (hers, thus individual) are all to familiar to every reader above a certain age, whether they ever took driving lessons or not (the universal). She acknowledges the absurd in her failure to drive while describing its causes in such a way that you completely understand how and why she failed time and again and almost find it logical, or perhaps unavoidable.

One is never so naked as in a personal essay. […] you have no […] distancing techniques,” LaPlante wrote. Pollitt knew that, pivoted it around and came out stronger, giving us Camus’ “human condition [..] a basic absurdity as well as an implacable nobility.

One thought on “Hints of Camus and LaPlante in Katha Pollitt’s “Learning to Drive”

  1. Very nice work here Hans. You did a nice job of bringing these pieces together in a focused and compassionate way. The tone of your writing is critical in its observations and connections, yet tender and empathetic in its approach. I certainly admire that.

    It almost seems irrelevant to respond to your preface note, given that you did in fact find a common ground between all pieces, but I don’t know that finding a common ground should be a rule when synthesizing texts like this. I think that building a common ground can also lead to a wealth of understanding, as can explicating the differences. Just a thought.

    In your first paragraph, I get the sense that you are positing reading as something that offers knowledge, insight, and ideas. But many times I feel that I learn the most from work, critical or narrative, that challenges me. Just something I jotted down while reading. I’m sure you would agree, but the tone of that paragraph just felt like it was alluding to this transformation of knowledge as a passive act.

    On the paragraph re: LaPlante’s recipe for creative nonfiction I find it interesting that she notes that nonfiction “[infuses] a subject with the opinions, emotions, attitudes, and beliefs of the writer.” Camus on the other hand seems to ask for the exact opposite from the fiction writer, emphasizing a lucid indifference in observation and description, the conscious attempt to not write towards an objective or lesson, to not use ready-made symbols, rather to let the symbol emerge from the writing. Maybe this is the difference between Absurd art and other art, but it calls into question for me the role of art. Is the role of art to express the artist’s opinion, or to get the reader to think about their own relationship to the world?

    I love the term “intentional creativity.” It is very provoking concept to ponder. Is not all creativity intentional? Can creativity be unintentional? Does the act of creating require intention? I think that when you write “he should not forget how the mind already embellished, blew up and intensified these memories…” you are touching on Camus’s idea of remaining lucid and, even though objectivity might be a pipe dream, striving for that lucid indifference that LaPlante calls “journalistic integrity” ( that seems to somewhat imply that such keen observation and awareness is reserved for nonfiction…).

    Your paragraph on the symbol always transcending the the one who makes use of it led me to reread the beginning of Camus’s essay. It’s a little hard to determine whether Camus is referring to the reader or the writer in his call for not provoking the symbol. Perhaps because I have read other work of Camus’s where he praises the type of writing (Melville) where the symbol emerges over work that uses ready-made symbols to attempt to guide the reader (Kafka) that I interpreted the sentence as being an aesthetic principle for the creation of art, rather than an approach to reading a symbolic work. Now, after rereading, I think that Camus is offering the reader the advice of not trying to hard to interpret the symbols. This definitely pulls the legs out from under my essay…

    I do think it’s worth considering though, that this transcendence of the symbol in the reader’s mind might not always be a misfire. Rather such transcendence in a work might be something desirable, at least in terms of absurd art. Such transcendence evades the didactic.

    Overall, I enjoyed reading this. It encouraged me to reevaluate my own interpretations of every work we read. In the end, I think we had different reactions to Pollitt’s piece. Primarily because you note that she “deepens the reader’s understand[ing] and emotional involvement,” which is really where Pollitt’s piece fell short for me. I felt distanced, as if I was listening to her tell a story about herself. And a sentimental story at that, one where I feel obligated to sigh sympathetically at just the right moments so as not to look like an asshole. Thankfully those moments were easily predictable thanks to her rather blasé storytelling rhythm. Maybe I am an asshole.

Leave a Reply