Friday, January 03, 2014

Edward Gorey and the Holy Innocents.

For many Christians, the days after the Feast of the Nativity include a commemoration of the Holy Innocents, the children of Bethlehem whom King Herod massacred in an attempt to kill the newborn Christ Child. The Feast of the Holy Innocents is celebrated on the Roman Catholic calendar on December 28th, following St. Stephen (December 26th) and St. John the Evangelist (December 27th). The Byzantine churches commemorate the Holy Innocents on December 29th and traditionally give the number of the children killed by Herod as fourteen thousand, though we have no way of knowing how many there actually were. St. Stephen enjoys the title of "Protomartyr," but in a real sense the Holy Innocents were the first Christian martyrs, having lost their lives on account of the odium fidei or 'hatred of the faith' of Herod, who so feared the advent of the Messiah that he was willing to murder many innocent children in the hope of killing one who threatened his rule. As the Roman Catholic collect for this feast puts it, the Holy Innocents gave praise to God "not by speaking, but by dying," offering a source of inspiration whereby the "faith which our tongue professes may be proclaimed also by our life."

In 2013, for the second year in a row, I spent part of the Feast of the Holy Innocents visiting the Edward Gorey House in Yarmouth on Cape Cod. Edward Gorey (1925-2000) is perhaps most widely known in the United States as the artist who created the animated title sequence of the PBS series Mystery!, with its evocation of a dark and stormy night featuring shadowy caped figures, intrepid investigators, and damsels in distress. As an author and illustrator, Gorey produced a number of books which I and many other people I know read when we were children – books like The Doubtful Guest and The Gashlycrumb Tinies. A Chicago native who first gained notoriety while working as an illustrator for Doubleday in the 1950s, Gorey spent the better part of his career living and working in relative quiet on Cape Cod. After Gorey died in April of 2000, the small and unassuming house in Yarmouth which he had occupied for the last twenty-one years of his life was turned into a museum devoted to his work.

The books of Edward Gorey do not lend themselves to easy or precise classification. Though often given to children to read, Gorey's work does not exactly qualify as "children’s literature." The docent who guided me through Gorey's house on my first visit to the place confidently insisted that Gorey's books are not for children but rather for sophisticated adults, but that isn't quite true either: it's hard to imagine the name of Edward Gorey on an "adult fiction" bestsellers' list, but the condescension implicit in claiming that Gorey's work is "not for children" also belies the fact that children often appreciate his books very much. Many of Gorey's books fit into the category of works that can be enjoyed by both children and adults but for different reasons: children can readily appreciate the quality of Gorey's illustrations and the cleverness of his prose; adults may likewise enjoy Gorey's images and words but can also have a lot of fun seeking to decode various allusions and even psychoanalyzing the author on the basis of his work. For example, in an illustration from the book Donald and the . . . Gorey presents the title character kneeling on his bed in a nightshirt, face-to-face with a giant, scaly (and smiling?) lizard, with the caption, "Donald imagined things." Children may enjoy the artful image and perhaps relate with Donald on some level, while adult readers may wonder what these particular imaginings say about Donald's (and Gorey's) deeper subconscious.

What makes a visit to the home of Edward Gorey an appropriate pilgrimage for the Feast of the Holy Innocents? Edward Gorey may be considered a sort of innocent, if not a notably holy one. The son of a Roman Catholic father and an Episcopalian mother, Gorey once noted in passing to an interviewer that his parents "tried to raise me as a Catholic" but that the religion never really took, not on account of any outward act of rebellion but due to a broader sense of youthful ennui. ("Looking back on my childhood," Gorey said, "I seem to have had no motivations whatever.") As an adult, Gorey was a creature of habit with an inflexible and sometimes idiosyncratic sense of routine: while living in Manhattan he would attend nearly every performance of the New York City Ballet, and during his years on the Cape he would dine every day at the same Yarmouth restaurant, Jack's Outback (in token of this last association, the Edward Gorey House includes a month's worth of Gorey's receipts from the Outback framed on the wall as a sort of calendar). Though he had many friends, Gorey claimed to have "very little social life" and seems not to have had any romantic relationships; when asked about his sexual orientation he described himself as "asexual" or "undersexed." For all of his quirks, Gorey also firmly denied that he was an eccentric, once insisting that "I don't think I’m quite as odd as others say I am."

Edward Gorey also proclaimed a certain kind of innocence regarding his own work. When biographer Alexander Theroux asked Gorey to explain what his books were about, Gorey replied, "I don't even know." On another occasion, as reported in one of his obituaries, Gorey said that "I know that the books are about something, not what they seem to be about . . . but I don't know what the other thing is." Gorey's reticence about the interpretation of his own work contrasted with his apparent volubility on other topics; as Theroux observed of Gorey, "There wasn't a subject that didn't interest him. . . . He went to the movies almost every night. He could segue from reading a book on Wittgenstein to watching The Golden Girls.” At the same time, where his own work was concerned, Gorey adamantly insisted that he didn't know what all the fuss was about: "I really think I write about everyday life. . . . Life is intrinsically, well, boring and dangerous at the same time. At any given moment the floor may open up. Of course, it almost never does; that's what makes it so boring."

Whether or not Gorey intended it to be so, innocence plays a significant if strikingly ambiguous role in much of his work. Many of Gorey's books depict children and adults dressed in early twentieth-century formalwear, interacting in vaguely old-fashioned settings far from the Cape Cod residence in which he did a lot of his work. The imagined past in which Gorey set his stories may seem at first glance to be an age of innocence, yet it is a place where very sinister events take place. The Gashlycrumb Tinies may perhaps be taken as emblematic of the darker aspect of Gorey's work, as an A-to-Z class of young pupils ("After the Outing," in Gorey's subtitle, perhaps suggesting a school fieldtrip chaperoned by Death) meet their demise in twenty-six unique tragedies presented in rhyming couplets (e.g., "M is for Maud who was swept out to sea / N is for Neville who died of ennui"). As a group the Gashlycrumb Tinies might be regarded as Gorey's representative Holy Innocents, but they are far from the only such unfortunates whom Gorey would write about: in The Insect God, for instance, young Millicent Frastley ("not yet five") is captured by bugs, "sewed . . . into a kind of pod," and offered as a sacrifice to the deity who gives the work its title.

Edward Gorey's work is full of children – and adults – facing misfortune or, like Donald in his bedroom, confronting the unknown. Gorey's characters and readers move from innocence to a sort of wary knowledge that is, at best, frustratingly incomplete: we may note well the experience of the prim and proper family in Gorey's early book The Doubtful Guest, who have to contend with a strange, birdlike creature that abruptly takes up residence in their household and, after seventeen years, "has shown no intention of going away." In the "boring and dangerous" world of Edward Gorey, the loss of innocence seems to lead ultimately not to maturity and a new sense of self but rather to instability and ambiguity. As grim as Gorey's imagined worlds could be, his work still retains a particular verve that can't help but set many readers chuckling and smiling even as they read about doubtful guests, rhyming freak accidents, and even insects who engage in kidnapping and human sacrifice. Absent this strange joie de vivre, one wonders whether Gorey would have become such a cult figure, still selling books years after his death and drawing a steady trickle of fans (including the present writer) to visit a cramped house on Cape Cod, even in the middle of winter.

Though he grew up in Chicago and began his career in New York, Gorey's choice to spend the last several decades of his life on Cape Cod means that Massachusetts can claim him as one of her own. In spite of his eccentric persona, Gorey lived at the heart of his community: the Edward Gorey House sits on a typical Massachusetts town common – flagpole, old white church, shingled houses, and so on. To my mind, there is a quintessential New England quality to the story of Gorey’s life in Yarmouth - the famous author living quietly but openly in the middle of town, proudly embraced by the locals in spite of his quirks yet also left alone and permitted to enjoy a measure of solitude. If you find yourself passing through at a time when the place is open, you might think of making a visit to the Edward Gorey House - and when you do, perhaps you will spare a thought for the Holy Innocents, both those residing in Bethlehem in the days of Herod and those residing in the mind of Edward Gorey. AMDG.


At 1/21/2014 5:22 PM, Anonymous Charles Coombs said...

"In the "boring and dangerous" world of Edward Gorey, the loss of innocence seems to lead ultimately not to maturity and a new sense of self but rather to instability and ambiguity."

A very useful observation by our visitor. C.R. Coombs, Docent at E. Gorey House


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