More Homework: The Inactive “We” in Steven Millhauser’s “The Knife Thrower”
In my ongoing research on the “we” narrator, I just ran across Steven Millhauser’s THE KNIFE THROWER AND OTHER STORIES, a collection in which not one but several pieces are narrated by the classic “town” collective.
Are narrated by. There I go again with the passive voice. I’ll slap myself with a ruler later. But I notice that the effect of Millhauser’s “we” is similar to the effect of passive voice in a sentence:
(a) it hides the identities of the culpable
(b) it simultaneously implies “no fault”
(c) it softens the characters’ intentionality
(d) it creates confusion about whether subject (actor) or object (actee) deserve more emphasis and attention.
I mean none of this as a value judgment. In the title story, Millhauser’s collective narrator is literally an audience, with a generic spokesperson. They are watching the performance of an itinerant knife-thrower, whose tricks escalate from mundane and disappointing to morbid and thrilling.
The knife-thrower, through his spokesperson assistant, finally coaxes members of the audience to come up and receive his “mark.” The non-volunteers are passive to the extreme, and wonder whether it’s really bloodlust or politeness that keeps them from halting the proceedings.
Reminds me of the performances of Chris Burden back in the day—the shot in the arm, the Volkswagen crucifixion. And especially the one where he remained prone on a gallery floor until someone stopped him: Burden’s audience simply trusted him and his right to torture himself, feared breaching the contract between artist (driver) and audience (passenger). A guard, fed up, finally handed Burden a glass of water, ending the performance.
Mentors often caution beginning writers—myself included—against using passive narrators. Whether they are at the center of the action, victims to their externally-generated fate, or on the periphery, tiny observers with no impact on the world, the result in inexperienced hands is often the stifling of any opportunity for emotional resonance. What brings life to stories is the choices their characters make, and if the characters make none, the narrative falls flat.
But inaction is a choice in Millhauser’s piece, which gently poses the question: does our passivity define us? Does it make us smaller or bigger? If we are not part of the solution, what are we? The spokesperson admits, “we had been entertained by our knife thrower, had we not, we had been carried a long way, so that even as we questioned his cruel art we were ready to offer our applause.” Someone finally volunteers to receive the ultimate “mark,” and on leaving the theater, the spokesperson relates (using the passive voice quite effectively):
…when the pros and cons were weighed, and every issue carefully considered, we couldn’t help feeling that the knife thrower had really gone too far. After all, if such performances were encouraged, if they were even tolerated, what might we expect in the future? Would any of us be safe?
The invisible audience, protected in the darkness of the auditorium, becomes a metaphor for more serious forms of collective passivity. Puts me in the mind of Pastor Martin Niemoller’s famous words: “First they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew.” The town’s passivity itself is the subject of the piece, and even—maybe I’m reaching here—throws a spotlight on another “we,” his passive readers, who are probably quite practiced in being led.