Meaninglessness in a Heart Shaped Box
In 1948 Tennessee Williams published a collection of short stories entitled ‘One Arm’. The collection takes its title from one of the stories within it about a one armed hustler (or male prostitute). I think the fact he chose this story to provide the title for his collection is kind of instructive on how Williams saw himself – a fundamentally flawed and incomplete man in popular demand out of people’s perverse curiosity with the imperfect.
The collection has been reprinted a number of times and like much of TW’s work is a staple of undergraduate study in American literature. A few of the stories are repeatedly singled out for their literary worth but the story that most affected me doesn’t seem to get much consideration beyond “the experimentation of a young writer”.
As a piece of entertainment Chronicle of a Demise is not an especially engaging story. It developes into a bit of an anticlimax in fact, but that’s actually the point. Those stories that get particular critical mention are the ones that overtly step outside the social mores of the time, the ones with the perceived capacity to shock or offend the establishment, and on the surface this story doesn’t. For me though Chronicle of a Demise is a poignant commentary on the human need to latch onto an icon on whom to project our ideals, unwilling or incapable as that person might be. In the story it’s manifested in cultism but the idea broadly encompasses the phenomena of fame and celebrity.
The story describes the dieing days of an old woman and the interactions of the people who surround her death-bed – people who consider themselves her followers in a religious sect and who consider her a Saint.
The bedridden old woman hardly seems coherent to you and I the reader but her followers interpret significant meaning in anything she babbles. Under her bed she keeps a heart-shaped box containing what might be considered keepsakes and mementos of a life, only they were (to you and I the reader) insignificant things like gum wrappers and scraps of coloured tin-foil collected off the street, originally by the “Saint” and then later in emulation by her followers. The heart-shaped box is a major preoccupation of the sect’s followers for whom the refuse that makes up its contents are the articles of their faith.
This week I was reminded that it is 20 years since Nirvana released their seminal second album, Nevermind. I was a 22 year old university student back then. My sister gave me the CD as a gift. I liked it very much. I recall the ABC’s youth radio station Triple J (I still qualified back then) broadcasting something like what would become their “hottest 100”, but back then it was more like an “of all time” than a “for this year”. Youth that I was I followed it with some anticipation, though I missed the final countdown. When friends Ivo and Barbara told me ‘Smells like Teen Spirit’ was judged number 1 song of all time I was up in arms. “What a joke,” I decried. “But surely that’s just because it’s current,” I complained in earnest. Such things are of supreme importance when you’re 22. I liked the music but I would not be taken in by the hysteria that surrounded Nirvana.
A couple of years later Nirvana released their third record, In Utero, and the single ‘Heart-shaped Box’. Kurt Cobain is reported to have said the song was inspired by a documentary about children with cancer. He is also quoted as saying the line “hey, wait, I’ve got a real complaint…” was about his treatment by the media. The song is also said to be about his wife, Courtney Love. There is no reason why all of those things should not be true.
In 1994 Kurt Cobain put a shot-gun in his mouth and vapourised his own head.
I think part of the reason he did it is because people talked about him too much. He had become the very thing he was lambasting. Idiots were saying rubbish like “the voice of a generation” so he’d go and record utterly meaningless babble, …but it would only get them lathering at the mouth even more. In more than one song he made oblique references to this dilemma. I think he experienced what Bob Dylan did – an intense loathing for his own celebrity and disdain for the mentality and the society that creates such hysteria. So when I see people today displaying their worship by wearing those “Kurt Cobain 1967-1994” t-shirts I think it’s a sad irony, because Cobain himself probably would have thrown up at the sight of them. Add to the mix depressive tendencies that many people know from experience are an outcome of recreational drug use, including alcohol… and crazy things can happen that with another moment’s reflection may not have.
The old woman in Chronicle of a Demise disintegrated and disappeared into the ether. Her heart-shaped box was tossed away and forgotten, everything in it that seemed so significant… it was nothing after all. The cult that had followed her simply disbanded and ceased to exist. As should the hysteria that surrounded Nirvana and Kurt Cobain, because it more than anything is probably responsible for the tragedy of the loss of a young life. For only a handful of people, his family and loved ones, is that tragedy something real.