Sunday, April 13, 2008

Wile E. Coyote, Capt. Ahab, and Hillary: A Lesson in Irony

Of the many things a writer may infict on characters, one of the least discussed and understood is conspiracy. Time after time, the writer conspires with readers and, indeed, with other characters, the target being one or more individuals in the dramatis personae.

That's right--a writer taking into confidence readers and other characters by sharing information and attitudes about the target character, saying in effect that we are all superior because we know something the target character does not know, a somethng that will ultimately cause that target character a comeuppance, as in George Minafur, a central force in Booth Trakington's magisterial The Magnificent Ambersons. Or perhaps the readers and characters are left with the impression that the target will never get it.

On such conspiracy is based a long, enduring pathway of dramatic narrative; it is called irony.

Irony is about the disconnect between the known and the unknown, the seen and unseen, the understood and misunderstood; it revolves about who is doing the seeing and, appropriately, what position the seer then takes, as in moral high ground.

We know Wile E. Coyote cannot win, a knowledge born of our understanding of literary convention and of the common-sense awareness that if Wile E. Coyote were to succeed once, that is to say realize his goal of dining on The Roadrunner, there would be no further episodes in a remarkable series. And so, empathetic and altruistic sorts that we are, we continue to watch Wile E. Coyote's attempts with the secure knowledge that he will be once again imaginatively humiliated.

There is one other attraction inherent in the adventures of Mr. Coyote and The Roadrunner, the single-minded preoccupation of the coyote, in many ways unrivaled in literature, certainly of a piece with Brer Fox's preoccupation with Brer Rabbit, and Krazy Kat's relationship with Ignatz Mouse, all of which transport a quantity of that illusive cargo we refer to as humor.

It is decidedly unfunny when we shift the venue to the sea and the world of whaling, as exemplified by Capt. Ahab, now aboard The Pequod, ever on the alert for GWW, the Great White Whale. To the degree that Ahab is as perfervid as Brer Fox and Wile E. Coyote ad Krazy Kat, he may be linked to these characters, but because he is so tangibly human and not a tangible and whimsical figure of imagination, Ahab has one foot--er, sorry for the pun there--firmly planted in the landscape of tragedy. Yes, you may properly deduce that tragedy and humor are close kin and that, indeed, you may secure humor from tragedy merely by speeding it's pace; yes, you may secure humor from tragedy by inserting moments i which a target character takes him/herself with exaggerated gravitas.

Comes before us now the junior Senator from the Empire State, intent on conspiring with us to cast aside a mounting sentiment of support for a nominee from her own political party to represent that party's bid for the Presidency of the United States. The junior Senator, emphatic of her experience, her ability, her eagerness to serve from 3 in the morning of Day One, is asking us to cast aside the outcome of Reality in order to cast herself in the starring role of a drama that has already been cast.


To compound the irony, the junior Senator from the Empire State is stealing lines from the actual nominee of the opposing party, which she is directing against the individual she has lost out to in the casting call.


A greater irony comes on stage when much of the media, still bearing the tar and feathers administered by conservative and libertarian points of view as being perfervid in their left-leaning and progressive agendas, are pouncing on the irony of the junior Senator from the Empire State, reporting it as fact and news. Much of the American public, whom H.L. Mencken once accused of negative acuity, are in similar fashion, seeing the Great White Whale when there is in fact no White Whale at all.

Another irony yet is what happens if a writer were to fictionalize such a scenario, then pass it forth as drama, only to be told such things could only happen in cartoons and fables.

And so we beat on, as Nick Carraway observes at the end of The Great Gatsby, boats against the current, borne ceaselessly back into the past, the irony here being that to the very end, Nick has regarded Gatsby as a romantic instead of an Ahab.


z said...

Truth is always more absurd than fiction. I don't know why anyone it voting for Hilary at all at this point. It's a mystery to me. Or is it an irony?

R.L. Bourges said...

your reference to the conspiracy with the reader put me to mind of theater when one of the characters addresses the crowd "unbeknownst" to the other characters on stage - Goldoni specifically came to mind.