Russell Edson’s “The Adventures of a Turtle”: a Cute Spin on Meaninglessness

I went to a state school, Auburn University, and when I first arrived, I hated it. I had hoped to go away to some tiny, pricey school replete with drum circles and dudes who dressed like beat poets (unironic berets and all). Grimeses are congenitally frugal, though, so I couldn’t bring myself to do it.

But way leads on to way. And soon I found myself making the best of it—joining the literary magazine staff, taking English Department classes from hilarious professors, and spending hours in the giant library. It wasn’t long before I loved the school (cow college status notwithstanding).

I found Russell Edson at the university library while scouring the poetry shelves. In the sea of tiny, staggered lines on cream-colored paper, I found some collections that inspired me, some that made me deliciously melancholy, and many that bored me to tears. When I pulled Russell Edson’s The Reason Why the Closet-Man is Never Sad from the shelves, I was shocked to learn how entertaining poetry could be.

Take, for example, “The Adventures of a Turtle,” a cute and harrowing fable about the secret inner life of turtles. More specifically, this (prose) poem imagines that inside the turtle shell is a tiny room where the real turtle lives, operating the arms and legs and head with levers as needed. In its spare time, the inner turtle whiles away the time reading catalogs in its pajamas. Weird, sad, funny–that’s Russell Edson.

If someone animated this short prose poem, it might remind you of a Bugs Bunny cartoon with its wild imagination, slapstick humor, and anthropomorphic protagonist. Yet this cute turtle poem can also be read as a cautionary parable; a meditation on the meaninglessness of modern life; a celebration of small comforts. These are my favorite poems—ones where the poet contains the most multitudes, where the poem supports contradictory interpretations.

The first time I read the poem, I loved its fearless whimsy. I was more whimsical back then, and I was better at pretending to be fearless. Since then, I’ve read a lot of self-help books. I kept wanting to add “embarrassingly read” to the previous sentence, but that would violate the principles of said self-help books. I’m not embarrassed! (No really, I am embarrassed.) You see? The tiny person inside me reads the self-help books by candlelight, and I outwardly scurry around judging myself and trying to avoid others’ judgments.

The idea of finding the “you” behind your anxious, incessant inner voice is a major point in the self-help book The Untethered Soul by Michael Singer. He posits that you aren’t the one telling yourself you hate jazz or that everyone at the party is going to hate you. You’re the one observing yourself thinking these things. There is a man behind the curtain, and it’s you. Or, as the book says, “you are not the voice of the mind—you are the one who hears it.” Why all this effort? Because “you re-create the world outside yourself, and then you live in your mind.” In this way, we feel like we assert more control over our lives and the universe.

Without control, we feel scared. Paradoxically, our attempts to control the universe leave us harried since, you know, it’s impossible for us to actually control the universe. Thus, it is calming during a guided meditation when you’re told to pay attention to the sounds around you, to the smells…not to name them, but to observe. Be in the moment. It gives you a break from your annoying, toddler-like inner voice that won’t stop bugging you about everything. It gives you a chance to breathe.

But maybe people really are picking up your house and shaking it around. Life presents real dangers. You have to protect yourself from certain dangers in order to survive. But can you build a meaningful life around constantly protecting yourself from danger? If life is just whiling away the time between crises, it would almost make you long for the next crisis. If you have the choice between putting out a kitchen fire and reading a Bed, Bath, and Beyond catalog, you’d probably choose the catalog. But what if you have too much peace, and too much time to read catalogs? It might make you long for a fire to put out.

That’s where many of us are today. Comfortable but bored. It’s why we jump out of airplanes, fight about TV shows on Twitter, climb the corporate ladder, anticipate nuclear disaster. We want an adrenaline rush. Like Sisyphus, we long for the stone we’ve rolled up the mountain to come crashing down. To make some noise. To do something!

Camus (seeing the human condition in Sisyphus’ meaningless toil) believed that by accepting the meaninglessness of the situation, by continuing in defiance rather than denial, we make our own meaning. Or something. I don’t know entirely what he was saying. But here’s the famous quote: “Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself, forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

I don’t know. Maybe some people are happy with embracing pain, embracing absurdity. Perhaps most of us are more like Edson’s cute turtle, browsing Facebook in line at the grocery store, distracting ourselves. We put out fires at work, at home, and then we rest. We wait, we hate jazz, we fear what people think of us. We invent our next drama. Until we find another way.

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