Friday, December 7, 2007

The Struggle for Self

Many of us are drawn to fiction by the unspoken promise of a layer of tension residing within, just below the surface. In a matter of moments, we are introduced to at least one relatively interesting individual who is faced with a problem involving discovery, moral choice, escape from an intolerable fate, or learning to cope with the consequences of social pressure.

As the work of fiction expands from short form to long form, the complexity of the problem expands in at least a mathematical proportion, with possibilities of extending to exponential.

Readers approach these dramatic existential options according to their idiosyncratic preferences, thus producing the concept of genre promise, the literary equivalent of The Social Contract, in which the reader who prefers a mystery is quickly presented with a puzzle needing to be solved, the reader who prefers romances is engaged in the plight of an interesting protagonist who is forced by her own goals and endocrine system to make a romantic choice among suitors or to chose between a suitor and a profession, and a young reader is presented with a young protagonist who has encountered an existential problem even more intense and complex than a similar problem the reader is now experiencing.

The unspoken part of the tension has to do with the number of filters through which the story is rendered, the point of view of narration, the I or he or she or perhaps even they of narrative voice.

As we trudge forth into this twenty-first century, at some distance now from the Renaissance, we have already unknowingly replaced the standard, bulbous incandescent lighting system of our communal awareness with the florescent lights of me-as-individual focus, taking us from such strictly oral presentations as The Iliad, The Odyssey, and Beowulf, into a similarly open-ended written narrative such as War and Peace.

In a huge leap forward, landing at a place dictated by my own idiosyncratic senses of memory and association, we come to one of the early switches from multiple to highly personalized and appropriately focused I/me awareness of Franz Kafka, who gave his readers the sense that although he spoke for himself, he spoke for many of us as well. Nor only had he turned into an insect or had been tried, convicted, and sentenced relative to a crime of which he had no knowledge nor was any concrete evidence presented against him, we as well had the focus and vulnerability of these dire consequences impinging on ourselves.

Designed politically as a federation, we are still plagued by the tug of states' rights. Designed politically as an entity in which we were free to pursue such spiritual notions and beliefs as we chose or particularly did not chose, we are still plagued by those who clutch to their bosom a book which they purport to take as the literal paradigm of truth. Nor are they content that those who do not consider this book such a paradigm shall be allowed a voice.

A current novel, The Air We Breathe, by the estimable Andrea Barrett, has set me off thinking about the self and its implications in reading and writing, about the implications of our species' past before we developed written language and our evolution into a society with written language, about the implications of entitlement, such novels of confession as Robinson Crusoe, and about the splendid short story by Beckett in which a character regards with some serious introspection the fate of a lobster dropped into a pot of boiling water. Adios, Lobster. While I who will remain alive, will eat you.

Fail again, Beckett says, but fail better. We are doomed, he says, to failure but we can strive to better our understanding,our performance, our selves, reconciling purpose with who we are and how we function.

Barrett's novel, which I have not finished, and for which I shall soon have to do a review of, begins with a narrative voice and point of view approach that reminds me significantly of Madam Bovary, which is so skillfully set forth that we do not realize how many points of view there are in it. A man who did realize, and who wrote a splendid study of Flaubert, called The Perpetual Orgy, has himself produced a remarkable tour d' force on point of view, Aunt Julia and the Script Writer.

Did Mario Vargas Llosa intend this stunning novel as an anti-modernist trope, swimming beneath the surface of an hilarious set of personal circumstances in which Vargas Llosa was, at one time, married to his own aunt?

These are the asteroids and comets of questions flying about me after having devoted some time late last month to an examination of point of view and of the questions and associations coming from The Air We Breathe and from Andrea Barrett's considerable intelligence and imagination. We read fiction to lose self in the story and then, in the process, discover the failed better self, discovered after the exposure. We write fiction to fail better in our imagination after having failed existentially in the reality of life. We are optimists who want to live for ever because we fear the consequences of death, which is to say we fear, among other things, the consequences of learning the relative meaning and importance of I. Some of us wish to attach our sled to Soren Kierkergaard, others in our midst to The King James Bible. Some of us chose The Critique of Pure Reason, while others yet chose the atav, that lovely combination of the alef and the tav, which, the literal translation tells us, was there in the beginning. In the beginning was the atav. The word.

For some of us, there is The Gematria, a system in which the words have numerical values which help us decipher the deeper meanings of received narrative.

And for others of us, there is the sound and intent and cadence of the words as we attempt to translate the feelings we receive as we observe the worlds about us. Such feelings are like the dust on a butterfly's wings, the thrum of a hummingbird, the flash of a salmony pink on the underside of a morning cloud. We fail in our attempts to get those feelings down in convincing form, then have another go at failing better.

1 comment:

Lori Witzel said...

In the beginning was Bereshit, and I had an idea you'll have some fun with while pondering why "beit" and not "aleph" as the originating letter.

"Aleph" is the potential, the breath, the exhale.
"Beit" is the closing of the lips that constrains the breath, makes it a phoneme, echoes the divine en-forming itself from breath to shape.

And (one of the alleys I stumbled into while writing my project paper)...seems Kabbalistic at'bash has surprising parallels to the variations on a theme of process played at by Sol Lewitt.