Fear and Loathing in Lyn Hejinian’s 13th Entry
The number thirteen carries with it symbolic connotations unique to no other digits. Widely recognized as unlucky, to the point of constructing whole buildings that omit the number altogether, it stands as a superstitious unit of fear. Thirteen likewise represents the coming of age, as seen in the Jewish Bar Mitzvah and within the syntax of the word itself, transcending childhood to become “teen” (eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen, etc.). Such idiosyncrasies of the number thirteen play themselves out in Lyn Hejinian’s thirteenth section outlining the thirteenth year of her life in the poetic autobiography My Life. In it, Hejinian explores metonymic associations regarding the simplicity of childhood, expressly through images of animals and children at play, and effectively contrasts such connections to the suddenly self-conscious fear and confusion of adolescence, illustrating her own unique account of pubescent awkwardness.Hejinian’s utilizations of animals in this excerpt all serve some metonymic role that effectually illuminates the disparity between childhood and adolescence. Seemingly youthful, innocent symbols of childhood become strongly juxtaposed with more adult themes, almost as if narrated from the perspective of an acerbic, self-conscious teenager, as in: “The swan is a bitch. She was so at ease that her bad manners were graceful…Poor ducks in this cold” (54). Here Hejinian alludes to the popular children’s story, ‘The Ugly Duckling,’ yet spins the moral of the tale in a coarse, more pessimistic perspective, casting the ducks out into the cold to feel pity for and referring to the swan by the very adult word “bitch.” Hejinian rarely lapses into profanity throughout much of the autobiography, making “bitch” function in an ironic way, as cynicism from her thirteen year old perspective rather than personally. It calls to mind the character’s own insecurities, inasmuch that she notices the swan “was so eat ease that her bad manners were graceful.” Paralyzing self-consciousness becomes a clear issue with the narrator of the work, admitting that “I felt self-sufficient except with regard to my feelings, to which I was always vulnerable, always in relation to someone else” (52-53). ‘The Ugly Duckling’ is also a story that primarily revolves around development; all start off as ducklings, the lucky end up becoming beautiful swans, others just end up “plump birds” (52). This exact notion of starting equally and developing differently echoes earlier in the excerpt, when the narrator notes “As for we who “love to be astonished,” a moth has more flesh than a butterfly could lift” (53).Again the animal development proves pertinent to understanding the passage’s connection to human maturation, as the narrator hints in saying “I may have started inexactly, I thought, nearsighted to a buttercup” (53). Moths and butterflies have clearly defined development stages; both begin as caterpillars, form cocoons, and grow into one or the other, drawing a parallel to the maturation of children to teenagers. Moths invariably get considered pests, while butterflies are generally considered beautiful, often chased by children in play, making butterflies symbolic of attractiveness and moths seem unwanted and ugly. Besides being clearly less desirable, the moth even “has more flesh than a butterfly could lift,” presumably constructing a corollary to self-conscious anxiety over issues with weight, as was also the case with the aforementioned “plump birds.” A clear pattern of using animals for their metonymic value of childhood emerges in the above examples, as Hejinian primarily draws out the maturation process to effectively contrast aspects of early youth to adolescence.A similar sort of distinction is drawn even from the first few lines, where Hejinian writes, “Can one take captive the roar of the city. Simon says sounds from the schoolyard” (52). A demonstrable difference in sound becomes set up between “the city,” a metonym for adulthood, and “the schoolyard,” appropriately metonymic of childhood, instantly creating a dynamic comparison between the two sentences. The animal aspect of the “roar” serves to ferociously juxtapose the more innocent “Simon says sounds,” which obviously stems from the childhood game of ‘Simon Says,’ portraying adulthood in a more wild manner over the playfulness of childhood. Children become further subjected to adult themes later on when Hejinian writes “One can discover the name of one’s true love by plucking daisy petals, jumping rope, or counting the tiny white spots of imperfection on one’s fingernail” (52). Hejinian lists metonymic associations with childhood through children’s traditional attempts to understand the very adult subject of love. This charming depiction of children further substantiates dissimilarity between the simplicity of childhood, gaining romantic insight from arbitrary sources, with the fear and confusion of adolescence, in which the idea of love becomes an “obsession with thought,” (54) seeming to focus more on physical attractiveness as hinted in the previous paragraphs than other such trivial methods. Even the superstitious, illogical aspect of the children’s act of counting functions to illustrate the weak grasp of the concept of love in childhood, drawing meaning from ostensibly nothing, as is in fact one definition of superstition. Hejinian successfully distinguishes evident differences between the innocence of childhood and the convolution of adolescence through such metonymic connections of such children at play.Works CitedHejinian, Lyn. My Life. Kobenhavn/Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2002.