Monday, May 7, 2007

The Plot Goes on the Atkins Diet

It is a truth universally acknowledged that for all but a few holdouts living in remote farming communities or fishing villages, life has grown quite complex and continues to proliferate in ways that vex, frustrate, and disorient us.

Another truth universally acknowledged is that there are precious few defining moments; life seems to unravel like a Bayeux Tapestry, the edges crammed with events, and no serious pattern. To be a bit crude about it, life rolls forth as though it were an endless supply of paper toweling.

Thus comes story, neat, predictable, with such decadent luxuries as beginnings,middles, endings. Story is life reduced to determinism; story is the triggering effect where there is some sense of logic or at least some visible momentum. Story is what we were looking for in Viet Nam; story is what the neocons invented to send us scurrying into Iraq. Story, alas, is part formula, part archetype; it helps us through the uncertainties and surprises and sudden turns of real life. Story leads us to expect resolution. The amusing and simultaneously terrifying thing about this is that there are just enough congruent elements in life and story to allow us to think that just this one more time, maybe life will work out to be a story.

And so, to paraphrase Nick Carraway, the narrator of The Great Gatsby, we beat on, oars against the current, borne ceaselessly back into story, which is to say a hope for an ending that is convincing and shows us what to do. The convincing part is fine--we don't mind being convinced that the story is over--but when stories begin telling us what to do in some specificity, we begin recalling all the Sunday schools we bailed out on, all the too-pat endings we scoffed at.

Depending on where we are on the spectrum of rootedness within a culture and time, we chose our art in direct ratio to our feelings about time--our time--and place--our place--in the universe. We are walking happy endings or we are as firm and resolute in our aloneness as the character Anna, portrayed by Alida Valli in the Graham Green screenplay, The Third Man.

Green, by no means an optimist, wanted that story to end happily with Anna ultimately opting to find a new life with the character Holly Martens, a writer of Westerns. Yes, I suppose I have spoiled some of the story, but there are, I argue, enough other surprises, including the famed cuckoo clock speech from Orson Welles, to make up for my disclosure.

One of Rembrandt's final self-portraits was a warts-and-all close-up, stark, stately even, surely something to aspire to, but not a happy ending, certainly not the happy ending type that sentimentalizes old age.

A letter to the editor in today's New York Times complained bitterly because an educator was forced to cut part of her school outreach plan and said, in a public forum, "It sucks that I have to do that." The complainer wanted the educator to use nice language to express her disappointment. (Latin, perhaps?) Entitles as she is to object, the letter writer illustrates her point that a show of emotion, even an emotion wrapped up in disappointment, should be dignified. I can imagine how the splendid Philadelphia photographer, Zoe Strauss would respond to that. Or to put it another way, dignity is all well and good when all is well and good. There are those who simply have to fuck dignity to appropriately portray their sense of disappointment or outrage.

Happy endings, any endings at all, are products of a mentality that needs to tidy up the museum in which the artists perform or display their work. Beckett didn't seem to care much for tidied up stages or for neatness or for happy endings. Shakespeare, in his serious plays, didn't have a group marriage scene, in fact, if you look at Hamlet.

We carry with us in addition to our biological DNA our artistic, dramatic DNA; it forms the sounds we hear, the visions we see, the emotions we feel, its clock might just as well be rated in MHz the way our computers' clock is because it is our time, our sense of it coming and going. We work for some considerable time to find our voice, our vision, our articulated sense of the way things are. From time to time, we encounter men and women who have a skewed picture of their vision and how best to render it. They are, in effect, trying to say fuck dignity, while clinging to the parental cloak of good taste. Hearing one's artistic and dramatic DNA takes us beyond all thoughts of taste and into a world that is real, a world that is of its time and the times to come for some time to come.

I have for some many years now had readers react to my work; as a teacher I have heard untold hundreds of responses to the work of others, as an editor I have had to call some one's attention to places where the work doesn't work. I know the signs. When the first comment is, What lovely, beautiful writing, I know we are at some kind of beheading, some Marie Antoinette is about to be rendered in two distinct pieces, the beautiful head rolling around, detached from the misstated body.

There are only two standards we can go on, the standard of what works for me as individual, and the standard of what I need to do to get it there. All else is phony dignity, and you know what Zoe would say about that.

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