Thursday, August 23, 2007

The Right Brothers

What do Captain Ahab and Iago have in common? (Besides not telling us their first name.)

Although each has been an instrument of great havoc and destruction, each thought he was right, which is to say justified in his behavior and attendant attitudes. ( Sort of reminds you of G.W. Bush and Paul Wolfowitz, doesn't it? But that is another matter.)

Pick any narrative which falls within the parameters of story and you will find an ensemble cast of which the same observation may be made--each thinks he is right. As a consequence, each thinks the others are by degree misguided, naive, ignorant, wrong, wrong-headed, intransigent, hopeless, wonderful, shrewd.

It does not follow in a neat procession of logic--the ergo-phrase in a syllogism--that accord or agreement are the bane of a story, but it ought to. If you consider every character who appears on your pages as a separate, thinking-of-him/herself-as-right entity, you have no further need of plot. Indeed, you will already have enough plot to get you through this entanglement of agendas. (Hint, hint: story is a clash of agenda.) Seen dramatically, characters are embodiments of a particular agenda. Even the delivery person bringing a pizza to the door wants something, if not to be the best pizza delivery person then perhaps to become an actor or a writer or an architect; perhaps even to have the work shift over, the better to get home, where X awaits, the X being a person, activity, or need.

Even at the height of civility, as in a Jane Austen crowd scene, there is the steady buzz of agenda under the mask of agreement and civility.

Nora Helmer and Torvald Helmer each had a sense of being right. Fat lot of good being right meant to Torvald at the end of A Doll's House, but without this self-justification, Henrik Ibsen would not have had a play.

The Bottom Line: Even though we love our families dearly, why, oh why do we regard family gatherings with such suspicion?

Go ask Tolstoy.


Anonymous said...

Not the Wright Bros:
I'm taking off tomorrow for a significant family gathering in the bay area and thank you for this perspective, Shelly, which certain family members would no doubt also thank you for giving me.
Even though, as all my brothers implicitly know, I AM right. No one is ever as right as a big sister of brothers, and to quote Mrs. Slocum, I'm unanimous in that.

John Eaton said...

Fine notes, Shelly.

McCullers would certainly agree, as would Bobby Long.


Anonymous said...

Isn't personal agenda much like subtext? :D