When asked to explain what the narrator has taught the child at the end of Louise Erdrich’s “I’m a Mad Dog Biting Myself for Sympathy” this is what I said:
“Who I am is just the habit of what I always was, and who I’ll be is the result” (Erdrich 148). So begins the story of a man whose coldness of heart drove him to run away from truth, on multiple levels. The nameless man telling his own story posits that in a universal sense, one doesn’t really know who he is until a point of no return, at which, realizing flaws in his character, he has already acted on those foibles and is to some extent ruled by them.
In this particular case, the narrator possesses an inherent distrust of his fellow man, a certain antisocial quality which makes running natural for him. A certain coldness allowed him at the beginning of the narrative to stiff-arm convention, law, and integrity for the sake of an experiment – to find out if something bad will happen (Erdrich 149). As Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov, driven to insanity by isolation and constant contemplation on his one inexcusable crime, this character acts according to his one object of thought. His purpose no longer involves delivering the toucan to Dawn, or indeed even maintaining possession of the toucan; in fact, he troubles merely over each momentary inhibition to his escape from the law.
So, when the crowd shouts “Baby!” as he speeds away in the stolen car his emotionless, selfish, pragmatic response meets expectations. He says his first reaction is disbelief (Erdrich 151), which quickly dissolves into a discussion with himself about exactly how to eradicate the problem. His solution is to pull over, leave the crying child in the car, and run on foot. Dissuaded for a short time, he drives on through the impossible storm, stubbornly attempting to prove to himself that he can beat the storm. Again, the cold-hearted response prevails – in his interminable pride, he continues his flight from the pursuant law behind and puts from his mind the predicament of the baby separated from his parents.
Eventually, finding himself off the road and stuck in a muddy track, this parochial fellow does leave the vehicle and the baby. His excuse in court for doing so is that no harm befell the baby, and that he therefore did nothing wrong (Erdrich 154). Throughout his entire escapade, this man takes care only to act in his own best interest, abandoning a helpless, wordless infant to the powers that be in the wilderness of snow. He posits at the very end of his tale that “people will leave you” (Erdrich 154).
The child, a type, symbolizes the man’s image of himself, alone in the world, in charge of himself, with no trust or sympathy for fellow man. When the baby grows older, conscious of such things, he will, the narrator says, “touch against [something].” Wondering what it is, the boy will find that in his heart, as in this man’s is a thin layer of ice which not only shields him from the betrayal and hurt sure to come, but withholds from his heart feeling and character. So, the man has taught this child to harden his heart against people, just like himself.
It might be duly observed that a three-month old child is unlikely to have any memory of these events. While this is true, his parents are also very likely to relate the events to him at some point. His interpretation of the events will be different as a listener than if he had first-hand memory of the experience, but he will interpret the facts with the knowledge that he is the infant in the story.
Adults do the same. Unaware that someone has injured us, we sometimes fail to respond naturally, but upon observing the offense, we might become angry or insulted. We do not interpret the situation based on our feelings at the time of the offense, because we experienced it through a different perspective than the information with which we analyze in hindsight. Objectivity lends greater perspective, so even in the young child’s case, a lack of memory arguably has little or insignificant influence upon one’s being as the result of a given experience.
It is also a fact that the narrator overrates his own worth in the boy’s life. His position that abandonment wasn’t wrong given that nothing bad happened to the child draws on the belief that the end justifies the means. This is highly debatable, and probably situational to some extent, but regardless, the man still ignores his indisputably criminal behavior and posits that he is more than a father to that child. To any sane person, this seems ridiculous, and it probably is absurd; however, the idea that he has taught the child something remains supportable.
By way of example, consider a hypothetical situation. A professor, who is having an unusually exhausting, frustrating day, takes leave of his senses temporarily and grades a paper rather harshly. The student wrote the paper in question consistently writes thoughtful, well edited essays, and is shocked to have received such a low grade on the assignment. The student doesn’t realize this professor was exceptionally harsh, because he hasn’t taken any classes with the professor before now, but became aware of the lack of equity reflected in his grade because a fellow classmate pointed out discrepancies in the class grades. Did the professor teach the student something? If so, what?
The same approach can be employed here which I employed with Erdrich’s story above. The professor obviously shouldn’t have taken up the red pen while experiencing unpleasant emotions that might drive the pen. Aside from that fact, the student might have taken up the matter with the professor. Say the student chose not to take up the matter with the professor, because the class policy said grades are final – remembering, of course, that this situation is entirely hypothetical, note that such a policy is rare. A lack of communication between professor and student might cause one to assume the professor is incapable of teaching the student, especially when their only interaction involves an unfair grade.
This would be a false assumption, because … the student will likely remember the incident for years to come, mulling over it from time to time, gleaning insights that inform other experiences. The professor hasn’t done anything explicitly or even intentionally to teach the student in this situation, but imagine the possibilities! The student might have learned further applications of integrity in writing; or, perhaps he corrected some minor writing quirks, improving his writing; or, the student struggled through humility necessary to submit to authority. The student was unaware of the professor’s lapse in fairness, but still must struggle through the emotions that result not from experiencing the offense at the time, but from the knowledge that he has been offended.
So, I agree. And I disagree. A three-month old won’t remember first-hand what he experienced, but boiling down the issues: Does memory matter?