Ellen McWhorter: On "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner"

In his essays on the "uncanny," Freud offers two particularly vivid moments of heimlich/unheimlich (uncanny recognition) around which he defines the concept itself. First, one experiences the uncanny when one perceives her/his "double"; second, when one is unsure about whether or not something is alive or dead. The central principle in both instances is a simultaneity of familiarity and unfamiliarity, that is, of ordinariness and extraordinariness all at once. According to Freud, a sense of the uncanny is built into our collective human psychology in the same way that the Oedipal (or Electra) drive is, and has similar roots in the initial separation from the mother.

My reason for the above exegesis started with the observation that Randall Jarrell's war poetry--especially "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner"--packs quite a sickening punch in its concision. While the first four lines of this poem are admittedly descriptive, they also possess an abstract, almost cryptic quality that detracts from their more straightforward factuality. At bottom, a reader must at least puzzle through the connections between "mother's sleep," "the State," and the "dream of life." The poem's final line, however, leaves no questions to be asked. "When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose." The line is breathtakingly concise and, given the aforementioned cryptic quality of the preceding lines, comes out of nowhere to be quite shocking. In "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner," "Losses," and "Protocols," Jarrell's speaker writes from the grave, and this seriously complicates some theoretical analyses (specifically psychoanalytic analyses) of his poems. Without an identifiable relationship between poet and a first person speaker worked out, it becomes difficult to interpret using words like "Symbolic," and "mirror stage." Placing a third variable-death-into a pre/post Symbolic model is tough enough, let alone placing a dead, speaking subject, and then trying to determine how exactly one is to conceptualize the poet ventriloquizing this subject. Freud's uncanny, it strikes me, is a place to start an attempt to talk about dead-speaker/subject/reader relations in Jarrell's poetry, and in particular the relations in "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner."

On the most superficial level, one senses the uncanny of a dead speaking "I" describing the moment of being "washed out of the turret." Before arriving at the final line, a reader can assume that the speaker is alive, because, as I suggested above, the poem's previous references to death are couched in somewhat cryptic language. And so, alongside experiencing the shock of a gruesome image, the reader of the final lines experiences the shock of conversing with a ghost. According to Freud's model of the uncanny, this shock is doubly powerful because it blurs the distinction between the states of being alive and dead and, at least tangentially, confuses our conception of "whole" identities; the latter confusion, while not precisely conforming to Freud's idea of the "double," does touch upon the horror of perceiving a literally fragmented or dual identity (i.e., the speaker and the speaker's body that is washed from the turret). Formally speaking, the positioning of (what I'm calling) the poem's uncanny in the final line ensures that any overall shock proves lasting.

Finally, on a more personal note, part of my own trouble with analyzing Jarrell's poetry stemmed from the fact that I had no idea what to do with the relationship between a dead speaker and the poet per se. Normally, I'm not at all inclined to draw the "writer" into the interpretation, but in order to talk about the mother figure and its relation to consciousness in Jarrell's poetry (my initial topic of analysis), I realized that I would have to talk about psychoanalysis. But psychoanalytic models don't provide for a dead speaking subject, which led me to wonder what model Jarrell himself was constructing between a live speaker/poet behind the dead (whose words could be psychoanalyzed) and his dead speaker (whose words really cannot). Somehow along the way, I determined that this whole line of thinking rather missed the mark. To the best of my knowledge, only Freud's concept of the uncanny offers truly helpful psychoanalytic fodder for talking about the relationship between poet and speaker. In a poem that lends itself so easily to the interpretation provided in the previous paragraph, perhaps Jarrell means to reinforce the alive/dead confusion and, further, to signal his own deceased poetic double.

 

Copyright © 2001 by Ellen McWhorter

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Criticism Overview
Title Ellen McWhorter: On "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Ellen McWhorter Criticism Target Randall Jarrell
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 10 Jun 2020
Publication Status Original Criticism Publication No Data
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