“G” is for Genre: Maxine Chernoff’s Todorov

Cover image: Susan Bee


the poem, then a brief essay

Todorov at Ellis Island
 
The secret of narrative
in the sight of the lovely
original fixtures,
the false accusations,
the “K” for insanity.
An indigent writer,
specifying the predicate,
fear of fire in ramshackle
buildings, the ghost
of the fantastic looking
across frozen water.
He felt swallowed up
by the 200 stairs,
by a procedure based on
external criteria,
plot and genre likely
to become a public charge.
While from the mountains
of Northern Italy, refused
admittance, a girl acting
mad, alluding to hermits
and saints. For to destroy
does not mean to ignore,
does not meant to build
the story-machine nor to feel
the grass under foot, but
to turn, as if spoken to,
into what we represent.

Maxine Chernoff, from World
 
      Maxine Chernoff’s “Todorov at Ellis Island” implicitly critiques Tzvetan Todorov’s structuralist theories of genre and narrative. In essence, Todorov posits a literary taxonomy according to a universal grammar of types: he is the Noam Chomsky of narratology and genre studies. The guiding principle in Todorov’s schemas is differentiation: defining boundaries and deciding what to include within those boundaries and what to exclude. And it is the idea of exclusion that Chernoff satirizes in her poem.
      Chernoff anachronistically situates Todorov on Ellis Island during its heyday as a screening station for new immigrants. There, he awaits the judgement that will, he hopes, allow him to enter the United States. This fictional circumstance places Todorov, famous for his preoccupation with classification, in a setting that is also famous for its preoccupation with classification.
      It also suggests a fantastical circumstance in which Todorov, born in 1939 and characterized in the poem as an adult writer, could not have been an immigrant at Ellis Island, which closed in 1954. Chernoff here is toying with Todorov’s focus on defining the genre of fantastic literature: she has effectively created a narrative of fantastic history: what if Todorov were on Ellis Island as a hopeful immigrant? Ironically, in his writings about genre Todorov denies fantastic history entry into the category of fantastic literature as he defines it, and in a parallel act of exclusion, Chernoff’s plot denies her character Todorov entry into his chosen country.
      To appreciate the rich historical allusions of the poem, it is helpful to understand specific stages in the immigration process at Ellis Island. The preliminary task of the immigration officials was to identify immigrants with a weakness or illness in order to facilitate the decision-making at a later stage. An official would mingle with the immigrants and, noting a problematic condition, chalk the back of the outer garment with a letter code (as in Chernoff’s “K” signifying insanity). Another criterion was financial resources: an immigrant without any means of support was judged “liable to become a public charge” and turned away.
      In addition, the stairs at Ellis Island played a practical role in the classification process. The immigrants were instructed to walk up a flight of stairs to the Great Hall, during which officials observed their physical capabilities. Once in the Great Hall, they were ushered into a room where they were given a perfunctory medical examination in which the doctor determined whether there were any defect that merited deportation. At the end of the process, each immigrant would be directed to walk down one of three flights of stairs. One flight led to transportation to New York, another to transportation elsewhere in the United States, and the third to the ship waiting to deport immigrants deemed unacceptable.
      Chernoff also alludes to specific aspects of Todorov’s narrative and genre theory. For instance, in The Poetics of Prose, Todorov lists various types of transformation that characters undergo in narratives, such as progressing from “false accusation to rectification.” Moreover, Chernoff’s mention of the “ghost / of the fantastic looking / over frozen water” points to Todorov’s interest in defining and classifying the fantastic in literature.
      Chernoff begins her poem with a series of three items: original fixtures, false accusations, and “K” for insanity. The link between the latter two is most apparent: She draws a parallel between Todorov’s project of classification (exemplified by the type of plot involving “false accusations”) and the use of letters to classify (as in “K” for insanity). The third item comes from the process of purchasing a home: a buyer might be wowed by “the lovely / original fixtures” of an old house.
      The common ground in these three items is the concept of “external criteria.” Chernoff implies that such criteria are not necessarily the best yardstick for classification: the immigrant who seems insane might be a brilliant poet (or literary theorist, for that matter). The house with “lovely / original fixtures” might hide behind its walls decrepit plumbing from the same era. And the interpretation of a story according to a narrative arc of “false accusations to rectification” remains at the surface level of a story’s cultural and historical signification; such an approach to narrative creates an artificial rubric, not the structuralist’s holy grail of the transcendental category.
      Interestingly, linking Chernoff’s list of three items involves distilling them into their conceptual common denominator: external criteria. Perhaps Chernoff is pointing to the absurdity of a system that would link three radically different sets according to the “external criterion” of their common denominator and use that linkage as a hermeneutical basis.
      The second sentence offers another series, this one identifying specific character traits of the protagonist Todorov (or, rather, imagined traits, since “Todorov on Ellis Island suggests a narrative of fantastic history). He is an “indigent writer” who, not incidentally, might be denied entry into the United States because of the probability of his becoming a public charge. He “specif[ies] the predicate,” a term referring to an element in Todorov’s universal grammar of narrative. This, too, would be denied membership into the club that Chernoff’s protagonist wishes to enter.
      The second item in the series, “fear of fire in ramshackle / buildings,” alludes to firetraps in tenement neighbourhoods, an image that pointedly refers to an urban issue of great social concern during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, considering the sometimes spectacular and deadly fires in “ramshackle” tenement buildings. Chernoff implies that such real political issues echoed in literature lie beyond the scope of external criteria and thus would not play a significant role in structuralist analysis. Todorov’s fear of tenement fires will be deported, along with Todorov, and disappear into irrelevance.
      Third in this series is the “ghost / of the fantastic looking / over the frozen water,” presumably, in this case, the Hudson River. Tongue-in-cheek, Chernoff suggests that Todorov himself is the ghost of a character who is denied entry into the genre of fantastic literature that he himself created. As noted above, Todorov excludes fantastic history from that genre. Thus it is apropos that a phantom of the fantastic would be a character in Chernoff’s fantastic history. It is a ghost twice denied: once by Todorov’s classification machine and once by the screening process at Ellis Island.
      Not surprisingly, given that in the poem Todorov is hoisted with the petard of his own theory, he feels “swallowed up” by the stairs that functioned as a means of differentiation at Ellis Island. The identity of Chernoff’s mock-tragic protagonist is threatened with effacement by the process that classifies according to “external criteria,” the very process that Todorov champions. As a result of the effacement of his individuality, he comes to represent the unfit: regardless of his contributions to the theory of narrative and the prestige that he might lend the new country, Todorov must be denied entry as an impoverished writer. Not only Todorov but also “plot and genre” are likely to be deemed impoverished and thus liable to become a public charge. Again, ironically, by the very “external criteria” of his own taxonomical system, Todorov and his theory would be placed outside the circle in the Venn diagram of immigration policy.
      Also “refused admittance” is “a girl” from “the mountains / of Northern Italy,” acting / mad, alluding to hermits / and saints.” Chernoff places a line break at “acting,” emphasizing the word’s possible meaning of “pretending.” Predictably, the girl’s performance of insanity is judged by immigration officials as though this visible criterion defined her. Thus, sadly, her brilliant career as a thespian on the stages of America is nipped in the bud because immigration officials cannot see beyond the external artifice, and back she goes to her Italian village.
      To destroy is “to turn, as if spoken to, / into what we represent.” Addressing a person is an acknowledgment of identity, but if the person addressed “turns” toward the speaker and (with a nod to Chernoff’s pun) simultaneously “turns” into a representation, identity (and thus historical contingency) is relegated to the margins of structure, embellishment on a stick figure. Signification, thus impoverished, must be deported.
      Finally, in a poem that is infused with irony, one instance of it deserves special attention, as it relates to Chernoff’s satirical playing with genre. The internal grammar of Chernoff’s narrative about Todorov might be structuralistically described as a quest narrative featuring a protagonist, Todorov, who faces an obstacle during his journey to a new land. However, plopping Todorov down on the historical setting of Ellis Island encourages an interpretation that lies outside such a narrative skeleton. Instead, Chernoff’s metapoem encourages an historically and culturally situated interpretation, in which structural categorization is of limited value.
      Chernoff’s authorial stance, too, could be classified, perhaps as an archetypal revenge plot in which the poet offers the theorist a taste of his own taxonomical medicine so that the individual character of Todorov recedes into the background as the structure of his dramatic situation dominates. However, Chernoff’s narrative resists being destroyed by structuralist representation. It demands a more complex and subtle treatment.
 
Camille Martin
http://www.camillemartin.ca
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3 responses to ““G” is for Genre: Maxine Chernoff’s Todorov

  1. An excellent critique. It would have taken me much longer to reach Chernoff without your help.

    Like

  2. Thanks, Anny. The more I delved into her poem, the more brilliant it seemed to me.

    Camille

    Like

  3. Pingback: Roundup: Poetry Close Readings and Appreciations « Rogue Embryo

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