"A Late Encounter with the Enemy"

by

Remeber the scene in that movie with Denzel Washington and Gene Hackmen and the submarine when Hackmen is all set to fire off the nuclear bombs on an incomplete order and Denzel gets up in his face and says you can’t just fire off a bomb without a completed order and seeing as I’m your next in command, let’s just why not wait for another wire to complete the order. Hackmen has a great line: “We’re here to preserve democracy, not practice it.” For those of you who know Al Sturgeon, you know he talks a good talk about democracy, but in practice, at least when he’s the “editor in chief” of a certain blog, he puts no pretense on the practice of democracy. The cliched image of an Iron Fist should give you a good idea of what really goes on behind the scenes here at Desperate Houseflies. When I merely mentioned whale penises in the very first edition of the blog, I got a strongly worded email from him. A reprimand, if you will, although it read more like a threat. When last week he left a comment in the comment section of blog asking for an explanation of Flannery O’Connor’s short story, “A Late Encounter with the Enemy,” I just want all of you to know he wasn’t in any way asking for anything. He was demanding. So I have no choice this week but to focus on the story of his choosing.

But I’m a rebel. I’ve now mentioned whale penises in two different articles and will continue to do so until the paychecks quit coming. And when he demands an explanation, I stand up for the forces of democratic freedom everywhere and ask (quite nicely, I might add) for him to help me out, to let me know what he took from the story and what questions he has. Al, in a moment of charity, complied with my request, and so this week, I will use his responses and questions as a way to look at this particular short story.

A quick-ish summary of the story:

Sally Poker Sash is a 62 year old woman about to graduate from a teaching school. She has been a teacher for years, but when she began teaching, teaching certificates weren’t required and now she is being forced to get her certificate. She has one dream: for her 104 year old grandfather to attend her graduation. Not just attend, but to sit on the stage dressed in his Civil War uniform, the uniform of a General, no less. Sally: “there would be a long procession of teachers and students in their robes but…there wouldn’t be anything to equal him in his uniform.” Sally hasn’t been the eagerest of students. She resents the things she is taught in her classes. In fact, as an act of rebellion, she often returns to her students and teaches “the exact way she was taught not to teach.” She resents the new ideas of teaching. She resents the way the new changes seem to make her life’s work seem meaningless. So she wants her grandfather on stage when she graduates–kind of a way of showing how her history is important and lends her more credibility than any certificate.

Sally’s grandfather, General Tennessee Flintrock Sash of the Confederacy, is an ornery man. His real name isn’t Tennessee or Flintrock and he wasn’t a General at any point in his military career (he’d worked up to a Major at some point, but during the Civil War, he’d been in the infantry). He received his General’s uniform 12 years earlier from a Hollywood movie studio. A new movie was coming out, and it was premiering in Atlanta (I kind of assume it was Gone with the Wind, but O’Connor doesn’t say). The Hollywood execs wanted someone who’d fought in the Civil War for the Confederacy at the premiere, and somehow they found Sash. He was presented on stage before the movie to loud cheers and he becomes addicted to being a celebrity. He wants attention from pretty young “guls” and he loves parades. If young girls and parades aren’t involved, he isn’t. He doesn’t want to live in the past–refuses to even think about or try to remember his dead wife and dead son. He only wants to live the life of parades: “He didn’t have any use for history because he never expected to meet it again.”

Sally’s nephew, John Wesley, helps General Sash onto the stage for Sally’s graduation. The General is received with applause, and Sally is thrilled. And then history catches up with the General. While the speaker is speaking, he develops a “hole in his head” and his history comes flooding into his mind (reason #34 why O’Connor is the love of my life is the following line: “He was considerably irked by the hole in his head.”). What we know that Sally and John and no one else in the story knows is that the General is dying in front of our eyes. The hole allows what the General thinks is a black procession to invade his mind, and he dies while his mind is scrambled with images of his history. John simply wheels the General off stage and gets in line for the soda machine. Sally is so caught up in her moment of glory that she doesn’t notice anything different in her grandfather’s now dead eyes.

Al’s comments:

I asked Al to list three words that kind of summarize the story for him, to quote three lines and, if he wanted, to add why he liked or disliked them, and finally, to ask three questions. Here are his responses.

Three words: (1) Vanity (2) Needy (3) Shallow

Three quotations: (1) [The opening line] “General Sash was a hundred andfour years old. He lived with his granddaughter, SallyPoker Sash, who was sixty-two years old and prayed every night on her knees that he would live until her graduation from college.” (I liked the opening from a sheer comedic standpoint. That cracked me up from the start, but I guess that’s part of her point – it is w/o a doubt story of absurdity.)

(2) “She wanted the general at her graduation because she wanted to show what she stood for, or, as she said, ‘what all was behind her,’ and was not behind them.” (I liked this simply because the General seemed such a moron, and it made Sally seem so comical to want to show him as what made her better than everyone else.)

(3) “He didn’t know what procession this was but there was something familiar about it. It must be familiar to him since it had come to meet him, but he didn’t like a black procession. Any procession that came to meet him, he thought irritably, ought to have floats with beautiful guls on them like the floats before the preemy.” (I’m assuming this refers to death, but I simply liked it because of it’s exposing the “General’s” refusal to encounter real life, or anything negative.)

Three questions: (1) What’s up with the “little hole” in his head? (2) Does John Wesley represent anything – specifically regarding his famous name? (3) What does Sally represent?

I asked myself the same questions I asked Al and here are my responses:

Three words: (1) History (2) Willful ignorance (3) Selfishness (4) Paradox (I can’t count)

Three quotes: (1) “The graduates in thier heavy robes looked as if the last beads of ignorance were being sweated out of them.” (I like this line because the whole story is about how the characters choose to be ignorant–of their past, of their present, of anything that might upset their delicate sense of being.)

(2) “‘If we forget our past,’ the speaker was saying, ‘we won’t remember our future and it will be as well for we won’t have one.’ The General heard some of these words gradually. He had forgotten history and he didn’t intend to remember it again.” (This kind of sums up the story for me, really. We tell ourselves these grand things about history and how it affects our present and future, but in reality we kind of just choose what we want to acknowledge about our past or not.)

(3) “John Wesley had bumped him out the back way and rolled him at high speed down the flagstone path and was waiting now, with the corpse, in the long line at the Coca-Cola machine.”

Three questions: (1) What is O’Connor trying to say about the relationship between people and history? (2) Why does she avoid any mention of race in the story since that is such an integral part of the history she’s drawing on? (3) What would be different if these characters weren’t so vain, shallow, selfish?

Some sort of Synthesis:

Reading is often such a lonely activity. That’s why I was glad Al agreed to do this little exercise with me. Reading things with others helps see things about stories that you can’t see on your own. I think Al’s three words are spot on for a good summary. Each character is vain, needy, and shallow. Sally needs her grandfather to make her special day look better for her, but she doesn’t actually care about her grandfather–doesn’t even notice when he dies. General Sash only wants to be seen in his uniform, only feels like he’s living when he wears it and gets attention for it, even though he didn’t earn the uniform. John Wesley likes being seen with the General, but is more interested in the new-fangled Coke machines than helping anyone else out. Those are things that I didn’t pay much attention to the first time I read the story, but it helped me enjoy it much more the second time around.

I focused on history because it plays such a complicated role in the story, but I think it is actually peas and carrots with Al’s three words. Each character has a weird relationship with history. The General, who is the embodiment of history in the story (even if he embodies an incorrect history) wants nothing to do with history–he runs from it. Sally seems to rely on history (her grandfather) for some sort of validation, even though she is technically helping change the way children will be educated in the future. John Wesley is the future and he pays no attention to the past whatsoever–letting it die while he gets a Coke.

I’m not really sure how to answer Al’s questions (actually, I’m glad I can’t. Stories that leave me with more questions than answers are my favorites, which my students always HATE, but I hope Al doesn’t mind). I think the hole in the General’s head is the crack in the dam he has spent his life building. He’s spent so much time trying to avoid the past (while, paradoxically, loving the present only when he is loved for his past). The speaker’s talk about the past and future seems to create a tension that causes the dam to crack, and then, as the black procession starts to trickle in, the dam breaks, and the General’s life comes flooding in. He dies thinking about the things he’s lived trying to forget. I have no idea about John Wesley, Al. I read it through the lens of history–a protestant wanting to change the past of the church. I’m not sure how that ends up at a Coke machine, though. Maybe, and I’m assuming here, but O’Connor may be saying something about how although protestants wanted to change the way things were done in the church, they ended up just ignoring the past and recreating some doctrines not necessarily as justifiably different from the ones they were protesting against. Although I’m reading tons into that. And Sally. I think Sally represents the South at that time. Things are changing–people are being forced to do things differently–and she doesn’t like it. She thinks she is immune to those changes because she has some sort of link to some sort of wonderful history. In fact, she’s blinded by this history.

A Final Word (Yes, I finally will finish this post, promise):

“A Late Encounter with the Enemy” is a very funny story. It’s short (maybe 10 pages–probably shorter than this post), yet it has a lot in it. The characters are great, but they are incomplete (which is something O’Connor does a lot of–creates characters that you only get to know bits about–you see them kind of like you see someone far off in the desert with all the little heat waves distorting what you see–the head looks big, maybe, but the body seems to be a few feet to the side and so you can’t quite tell for sure who or what it is). There are great lines in the story that made me laugh out loud. And it’s a story that, if you want, can make you ask a lot of questions. For my money, that’s as good as it gets. Although I know I’m blinded by my unconditional love for O’Connor.

I’m currently reading: Our Ecstatic Days, by Steve Erickson. Sabriel, by Garth Nix. The Last American Man, by Elizabeth Gilbert. Le Morte D’Arthur, by Sir Thomas Malory.

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3 Responses to “"A Late Encounter with the Enemy"”

  1. juvenal_urbino Says:

    A great idea for a post, and interesting comments. Makes me want to read the story.

  2. Steve Says:

    now that you wrote that, i’m exempted from actually picking up the short story (at least something, my comment, was short)

    jk–loved your in-depthed-ness and your ability to fearlessly talk about large aquatic mammal anatomy.

  3. Kim -Alabama Says:

    This post was very interesting. I have read the story, and to hear others thoughts and comments really helps me put the story together. Great job!

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