Often enough, I read the epigraphs to books and then pretty quickly forget them or fail to tie them super meaningfully back to the main text. As a device, they seem like heavy things, clues to the meaning of the novel maybe, but I still leave them behind or write them off as puzzles pretty regularly. Sometimes they seem to me almost like inside jokes, meaningful to the author while writing the book or to put a nice little bow on things, but more puzzling than useful to me. Bubblegum has three epigraphs, two of which it’s easy to connect to specific things in the book pretty early.
The quote from King Lear about killing things for sport calls to mind overloading on cures. Cures don’t seem to be that hard to come by, and people consume them like drugs, for entertainment or diversion — you know, for sport.
The quote from Skinner also mentions a fly, so it sort of connects to the Shakespeare epigraph. But the great behaviorist Skinner generally haunts the part of the book in which Belt describes conditioning Blank to perform his gags (though I’ll confess that I wondered if it wasn’t Blank who was conditioning Belt, especially when I thought about my reading of “The Hat Act” and the idea that artist and audience influence the behavior of one another reciprocally). (Have I taught my dog to go to the door when she wants to go outside or has she taught me to take her outside when she goes to the door?)
But what about the quote from Kafka?
The panther was all right.
That doesn’t seem to connect to anything right away. It seems kind of random. I hadn’t read “The Hunger Artist” in many years. It’s short, so I took a little side trip through the story. In brief, it’s about a man whose job — whose art — is to be put publicly on display starving himself for 40-day periods. He’d like to starve himself for longer than that, but his handler won’t generally allow it. It’s very important to the hunger artist that his audience see that he’s not cheating by sneaking food. He has a sort of integrity as an artist. In the end, he dies, forgotten in his cage, and is replaced by a panther that roars and carries on as if it has a joy for life.
There are several common interpretations of the story. One, which Belt refers to at the end of this week’s reading on page 176, is that the artist was pure and suffered, alone, for his art. Another puts a more religious spin on things, the suffering akin to that of Christ. Yet another, which I lean toward, is that Kafka is poking a little fun at the self-indulgence of artists. The hunger artist takes such care to maintain his artistic integrity, even being sort of ostentatious about it, but nobody’s really interested in that integrity. It doesn’t make his art any better. And toward the end, he reveals that his real reason for starving was that he couldn’t find any food that he liked. That is, his integrity was a sort of self-indulgence disguised as integrity. And he died, and no one cared, and he was replaced by a popular exhibit of a creature with an authentic zeal for life. The panther was all right. Of course, it’s also possible that Kafka, who edited the story from his deathbed while unable to eat thanks to laryngeal tuberculosis, was just very hungry. Kafka was not, by this time, all right.
On page 97, Belt is spending some time in a playground feeling “lonesome and lonely and unimportant,” when the slide strikes up a conversation with him and asks him to try to communicate without speaking aloud, by merely thinking. This is not something Belt has ever been able to do, but he tries. The slide ridicules his effort, describing the communication it received like so:
First there was this field of, like, screechy, pulsing, kind of blindingly fluorescent gray thats hue cooled down until the whole thing resolved into this scene from a traveling circus or carnival. A shiny black panther inside a small cage was pacing and roaring, and people were crowding at the front of the cage, lots and lots of people, a hundred maybe, standing nine- and ten-deep, watching it move, listening to it roar, whistling and cheering and clapping and so on. They couldn’t look away. Then the panther, it reared up on its hind legs and roared so loudly that the image started shaking, and the crowd got even more enthusiastic, and the roar got even louder and that blinding gray field closed in from the edges, blotting everything out, muting the roar, and when the gray cooled down again and resolved, there was no more panther, no more cage, no more crowd…
“You didn’t catch a single word?”
||There was one wordy moment, right at the beginning, during the panther part. Some voice in the crowd said, |Ma, what’s it mean?| and then another voice responded, |It’s saying, ||I’m freeeeee! I’m freeee! I’m free-ee-ee!|| Isn’t that beautiful?|…||
I noted this passage and its probable connection to the epigraph when I first read it, but only when getting to page 176 with the explicit reference to Kafka’s story (which I then reread) did what seemed like a sort of non sequitur on the part of the slide about a panther (for this is essentially a retelling of the end of Kafka’s story) seem a little less random.
Belt makes his reference to the story on page 176 in passing, as he describes looking back at his own novel and Triple-J’s misinterpretation of it. But if we take epigraphs to signify important things about the work, then we should not take the reference in passing. We’re early yet in the book, so it’s early to come to any big conclusions. I do have some questions, though, and rather than writing a full-on interpretive essay here, I think I’ll end on some questions this whole little side quest brings to mind. Maybe one will catch your eye and you’ll have thoughts, or more questions, and we can take them up together in the comments.
If you’ve read “A Hunger Artist,” what’s your interpretation of it? Do you make anything of the epigraph based on what we’ve read so far of Bubblegum?
I’m really stuck on this idea of artist/audience reciprocity that Levin seems to me to be pointing to in the reference to “The Hat Act” and now “A Hunger Artist” (both about performances). There are echoes of this reciprocity and escalation in Belt’s account of his destruction of the Feather swingset, as the kids go into a frenzy, hand him an ax and rally him onward, influencing his performance and its escalation. Is this a theme? Am I reaching here?
The slide seems maybe to have access to Belt’s memory stream. It seems to be tapping into his recollection of the panther in Kafka’s story and possibly also into something — though something a little fractured — about the glass of water Belt writes about on page 174, which in turn maybe connects to the weird episode with Clyde and the glass of water on the table on page 86. Is this a curiosity or is it significant? Maybe I’m seeing something that’s not really there?
Levin is doing a lot with interpretation and the influence of lived experience on authorship in the late part of this week’s reading. Is this just some sort of metafictional authorial navel-gazing or might it be significant with respect to the stuff in the book about empathy (with cures and inans at least)?
Are the epigraphs Belt’s (as this document we’re reading is purportedly his memoir) or Levin’s? Does that change what and how they mean?