Monday, April 14, 2008

The Writers' Toolkit

There is a defining moment in many conversations, a moment when the pinot noir reaches the halfway mark in the bottle and one of the conversants speculates that it is time to order another bottle, only to be greeted by remonstrations and protestations that there is an entire half bottle left.

The bottle here is purely for illustration, although I did in all truth chose my overall favorite red--just in case. The focus is on the way a noun--a person, place, or thing--helps define the viewer by allowing the viewer to reveal trances of personality DNA in the very act of viewing.

The act of viewing is one of the more jealously guarded things our characters have, often to the point of nourishing their view in brooding reverie or revenge fantasy should the circumstances warrant. Books are written and lectures presented wherein the specific focus is the way an event or a work of literature or art not only is seen but should be seen, as though the writer's or speaker's perception is the accurate one, under which all further argument is pointless.

Until recently I had considered point of view in a story of significant importance and were you to catch me at the proper moment, could see me warming to the rhetorical questions I attach to that importance, following the lead of the English essayist, William Hazlitt, I have come to admire. Who is telling the story? I bray across the meadows of the classroom. Why is the story more effective when told by this person? Would another person be able to tell it better? At about this point, I dredge up poor Nick Carraway, the default narrator of The Great Gatsby, and defend him as though he were my doctoral thesis and that I truly cared about such things as doctorates or theses. All of this questioning who tells the story makes sense, but it makes more sense to consider from the onset how important it is to recognize that unless there are individuals who see the wine bottle differently, there is going to be less story if any story at all.

Mine vs yours is the fast track to story. My rights versus yours, my privilege versus your rights, my understanding against yours, my taste in such matters as opposed to those unfortunate individuals you sometimes hook-up with. Ah, but wait, I'm just clearing the security check: what about the manner in which a particular person, place, or thing was seen in an historical context.

James Buchanan, for example, looks pretty good now as an American President because we have had seven years of George Bush, against whom any president would look good. For the longest time, he could be paired with his immediate successor to the presidency as the alpha and the omega, the absolute worst and the unquestioned best. In a collective sense or looking on the tenure of the fifteenth president as an historical event, we now have a new standard by which to assess.

Individuals do things in twenty-first century fiction that are often accepted as merely an event as opposed to being seen as social outcasts. The young brother of the protagonist in the Jhumpa Lahiri short story, Only Goodness, has a lady friend who has a child by an ex-lover, pointedly not an ex-husband. Nothing judgemental is said. Were this twenty years earlier, an eyebrow or two would have been raised. And what would happen if today a male character brought a date wearing a dress with a large embroidered A across the bosom, introducing her around the assembled host as Hester. Way cool emblem there, Hester. And in the ladies' room, Hey, is that dress from the new Ralph Lauren line?

Point of view means so much more than who the focus of the narrative is; it is at its essence context writ large; it is the sense that inheres in all characters of their correctness, the sanctity of their vision. Dare I raise the issue of those with problematic ego supplement? Yes, I believe I do. Individuals who doubt themselves, dislike themselves, distrust their vision are members of a segmented and separate part of humanity who must be seen to and understood as vulnerable in ways that become more appropriate for us to consider as the years--the world's and our own--progress. If they are victims, who were their oppressors? If they are deluded, who supplied them the drug of opiate or religion or social caste or tradition or...

One of the reasons we homo sapiens stand out from our brothers and sisters of other genus and species is because we are afflicted with a point of view, a sense of self that fits in the toolkit Nature has provided us. As a golfer looks to his bag for the proper implement in a fairway situation, the non-golfer looks to this toolkit of Nature for implements to use in solving problems. We judge species for a number of qualities, including their ability to make and use tools which, we argue, allows us to rank them on some scale of comparison to us, however patronizing the outcome may be.

We have at our disposal glorious opportunities to learn how to use the tools that are our point of view. These opportunities are lumped under the heading of education. The salient question here is where we get the education.

1 comment:

R.L. Bourges said...

"problematic ego supplements" - or making sense out of what appears senseless. You are right: the senseless is only so because it is not part of our own education - whatever thay may be. There's always a reason, an explanation, a justification - at least, for the doer.
(Pinot noir, yes, lovely wine.)