You say you want a revolution . . .
Callie Russell Porter was born 1890 in Indian Creek, Texas, the great-great-great granddaughter of Daniel Boone. She adopted the name of her grandmother, Katherine Anne, for her writing. When she died at age 90 in September, 1980, she left behind a life filled with four marriages, a spectacular collection of world travel adventures, interesting and unusual friends and a legacy of prize-winning literature. Her only novel, Ship of Fools, the long-awaited, best selling novel of 1962, was sold to Hollywood for half a million dollars, big money at the time, but she’ll be best remembered as one of the most celebrated short story writers of the Twentieth Century.
Her ‘Collected Stories’ won a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award. Some of her best short stories were produced as half hour radio dramas for NBC’s University Theatre. By any standard, KAP lived a long, interesting life. She was married at 16 to an older man (Mr. Koontz) who saw to her conversion to Catholicism but abused her to the point where she had to run away. She ended up in Chicago where she began a career as a singer-entertainer. Later in life, she was married twice to men who were sixteen and twenty years younger than she, respectively.
Suffering in a TB hospital, she decided to become a writer and never wavered from that determination. With little education beyond grammar school but a decided knack for the craft, she set about establishing a career in writing, beginning as a reporter for the Rocky Mountain News, later moving to New York to undertake a career that involved among other assignments, ghost writing children’s stories. In New York, she took a job that eventually involved transfer to Mexico City, where she continued her writing. Living in Mexico City, she became involved in leftist politics and befriended a number of well-known people including the great Mexican mural artist, Diego Riviera.
Her most famous story, the oft-anthologized Flowering Judas, is said to have come out of her experiences in Mexico City, so it seems logical that another of her well-regarded stories, one of domestic tension, Rope, came out of her having been married four times. What begins as an innocent trip to the store by the husband (a four mile walk, one way), turns into a violent confrontation between husband and wife. The lead-up is a classical study of marital discord, where irritation with some little issue between spouses builds into a serious problem.
“Had he brought the coffee? She had been waiting all day long for coffee.”
Because he doesn’t drink coffee, he forgot her coffee. To make matters worse, he bought back a coil of rope, twenty four yards, which they had no real use for, and he set the rope on top of the eggs and broke all the shells. `(N)o eggs for breakfast. . . too damn bad. . .’ Then he was ‘bringing up something she had said a year ago simply to justify himself for forgetting the coffee and breaking the eggs and buying a wretched piece of rope they couldn’t afford.’ Ah, domestic bliss. “She wrenched away, crying for him to take his rope and go to hell. . .” / “(T)ake it back. Why should he? He wanted it. What was it anyhow? A piece of rope. Imagine anybody’s caring more about a piece of rope than a man’s feelings.”
With Flowering Judas, KAP creates a more subtle and complex set of conflicts, most of them internal to Laura. If there are abstracts about to be believed in, like the rigorous demands of true acceptance of her Roman Catholic faith, or the idea that revolution is the answer to the social, economic and political ills she can observe all around her, Laura still seeks out something more abstract still, an elusive idea about belief itself, a look inside the human condition that forbids all of us from believing the very things we want to believe most, like the possibility of redemption of the soul or the body politic.
‘If the Judas tree is a symbol of the betrayer of Christ, then the sacrament in which Laura participated, —the eating of the buds of the Flowering Judas, —is a sacrament not of remembrance but of betrayal. . .She is, like Judas, the betrayer, and her betrayal, like his, consisted in an inability to believe.” (Symbol and Theme in Flowering Judas / Ray B. West, Jr.)
In Mexico City, Laura hangs out with agitators and revolutionists. She “smuggles letters from headquarters to men hiding from firing squads in back street homes in mildewed houses.” These are men who “sit in tumbled bed and talk bitterly as if all Mexico were at their heels when Laura knows positively that they might appear at the band concert in the Alameda on Sunday morning.” She cynically plays off the Roumanian agitator against the Polish agitator when both seek her attentions. Her relations with men in general mirror her inability to commit to anything.
The men in the story, from Braggioni, the great revolutionary leader, who `loves himself with such tenderness and amplitude . . that his followers.. .warm themselves in the reflected glow’, to the foreign agitators, to the young suitor at whom Laura thoughtlessly tosses a flower, all seek to court and seduce Laura, but Laura lives inside a shell she’s created for herself.
“Nobody touches her.”
“Her knees cling together under sound blue serge, and her round white collar is not purposely nun-like. She wears the uniform of an idea, and has renounced vanities. She was born Roman Catholic, and in spite of her fear of being seen by someone who might make a scandal of it, she slips now and again into some crumbling little church, kneels on the chilly stone, and says a Hail Mary on the gold rosary she bought in Tehuantepec. It is no good, and she ends up by examining the alter with its tinsel flowers and ragged brocades. . .”
A scandal to be seen slipping into a little church?
Sounds odd until you consider that Laura’s friends are as cynical as her, being hardboiled atheistic revolutionists who scoff at religion and consider the religious weak. (Didn’t Friedrich Engels tell Karl Marx that religion is ‘the opiate of the people’?) As with her hidden religion, Laura hides her full breasts and her long, lovely legs under baggy clothes. Taunted by Braggioni, who says, “You think you are so cold, gringita! Wait and see. You will surprise yourself some day! May I be there to advise you!” Braggioni is ‘a leader of men, a skilled revolutionist and his skin has been punctured in honorable warfare.’ Braggioni enjoys the good life and has contempt for the foul men who want to talk to him as their leader; who ‘blow the foul breath from their empty stomachs in his face,’
Laura’s terrible nightmare at the end is captured in the heavily symbolic language style approaching gothic, as a way of emphasizing the enormity of her betrayal (of both Eugenio and herself). ‘Then eat these flowers, poor prisoner,” the late Eugenio tells her in the nightmare, ‘in a voice of pity; take and eat’, and from the Judas tree he stripped the warm bleeding flowers and held them to her lips.’ His hand was ‘fleshless’. His eye sockets were ‘without light’, and Laura ‘ate the flowers greedily for they satisfied both hunger and thirst’.
‘‘Murderer!’ said Eugenio,’ and Cannibal! This is my body and my blood.
Laura cries out her favorite word, a word she repeats throughout the story. No. No. No. No. No. She wakes ‘at the sound of her own voice, trembling, afraid to sleep again,’
crying out that word.