Sunday, March 16, 2008

The Way(s) of All Flesh

The distance from where I live to my favorite coffee shop is 8.2 miles, a distance the remains constant whether I get on the freeway just beyond Olive Mill road, scoot up Old Coast Village Road to Alameda Padre Serra and either stay until forced to make a tricky left turn against traffic, then proceed on Garden to Constance, past the Presbyterian Church to State, then along State to La Cumbre, or--or shear off Alameda Padre Serra at Arrellaga, thence to the Garden-Constance-State route.

Eight point two miles nevertheless. My own favorite route is far and away the latter, largely because I have an aversion to the difficult left turn and because I enjoy the slalom course down Arrellaga to Garden, where I get a hoot out of the statue of some long deceased dog, erected by its owner on the lawn of an estate. Two individuals I on occasion drive with to my favored coffee venue have different takes. opting variously for the freeway and the left turn. Eight point two miles.

Truth to tell, there are times when I'd prefer to go alone, not because I don't want the contradictory information or indeed the company, rather because that is yet another way of bridging those eight point two miles--alone or with a splendid dog in hand.

I often wonder how many times such differences of opinion about a route of the same distance and, traffic density being removed from issue, the same driving time can led to acrimony, possible violence, possible cultural conflict.

This sort of issue is the democratizing type, the kind that topples the hero from the plinth of heroism and leaves the world, in a metaphoric sense, just as it was when the statues of Saddam Hussein were toppled in Baghdad. This is the sort of democratization that turns us away from the hero and toward the anti-hero, which for the sake of this argument I shall call us, because there is in us what there is not in the heroic--there is the other way, the other opinion, the conflicting morality and the conflicting opinion.

The anti-hero often does things because she has to: raises a family as a single mother, takes entry-level jobs, saves discount coupons, sticks through a boring night school lecture to get her degree. She does that and progresses, survives if you will, because she can see no other way. She is too intent on surviving in order to pursue her dreams than to take the time to mope or brood.

What Faulkner called the anguish of moral choice rings up on the calculator every day. The hero is selected from the Darwinian ranks, anointed with nobility. The anti-hero has no time for nobility; the anti-hero is too busy with survival.

As writers, we come along, see and perhaps even admire the hero and the heroic deed but know such persons don't really exist in their unwavering heroism. The hero is bound by a cultural duty. Hector is involved in a dumb war, orchestrated by his dumb brother over a dumb issue. Lest you think I'm kidding, the story is right there: Paris was awarded Helen because he made the right choice in a beauty contest. He was promised by the winner of the beauty contest the most beautiful woman in the world. He didn't have the smarts to ask if that woman were already married. When Hector goes back to war, his wife begs him to run away with her and their boy because surely he will be killed, right? And Hector says yeah, right, but I still have to go; it is my duty to get killed in battle at which point they will kill our kid and sell you off into slavery. Sorry, kid, but duty calls. Anyway, we'll always have Chuck E Cheese.

Nah, I want the anti-hero who says pack your bags, we're outta here to live and laugh another day and if the boys in the regiment think poorly of me because of the dumb war my dumb brother got us into, well tough triscuts, we're gone from here.

The way this all ties in is that writers cant rely on plot, they have to rely on their understanding that there are ways to travel the eight point two miles that will still get the characters to the coffee shop. Writers have to understand that the anti-heroes are in it for survival, that there are indeed other ways to survive, but this is how the anti-hero has chosen to survive. The writer is not a paid lobbyist for a cause, the writer is an historian of humanity, not a busy-body member of a school board that wants to interdict inflammatory texts.

Persons are afflicted with warring armies, doing battles within them every day. The story is in the internal battles and their external effects. As we all know, war times are times for atrocities. The anti-hero lives with the consequences of these atrocities, trying to find somewhere a trace or two of beauty, however brief, as a reminder that the atrocities are put away for the night.

The writer is more tired and cynical at the end of the day that you might imagine. Many of the better actors tell us they find it easier to assume roles, to become persons who differ widely from them; the real problem is portraying someone closer to their own type because it becomes easier to slip into the cliche of self. The writer has to transcend the temptation of resting on the cliche of self, plumbing and portraying the humanity of every being who sets foot on his or her pages. Without such transcendence there car be no story, only homily or greeting card sentimentality, or TV Guide outline. A brooding Danish prince undertakes to avenge the murder of his father at the behest of his father's ghost.

The writer sees the irony of the hero assuming the moral high ground as though it were an entitlement, sees the pathos of the anti-hero working two, maybe three jobs while trying to slip in a little art or literature or love, sees the landlord raising the rent. The anti-hero is the green Jell-o of literature, the writer does not look down his nose at that.

1 comment:

R.L. Bourges said...

very moving. Personally, I'll forego the green Jell-o, thank you. But for the rest, I trudge on with the rest of the shadowy figures aka anti-heroes. Telle est la "loy du sort humain". (but nobody says we have to like it.)