Wednesday, July 2, 2008

A Team of Rivals

Quick. Which are the two loudest arguers in the Talmudic landscape of your psyche?

By this question I mean Which are the strongest two forces raging within you over what shall be your course, your work, the thing you do, the way you comport yourself.

The Talmud, of course, is a transcript of argument relating to law, ethics, customs, and by extension, arguments about history and its nature.

In a more focused sense, Talmud refers to Jewish law, ethics, custom and ritual, and by extension history, but I am here to use the Talmud more as a cultural template, allowing persons, places, and things not Jewish into the calculus. Talmud in this sense is like legal case books, with various issues, situations, arguments, and logic used as precedent-setting behavior and wisdom it is the stare decisis, the bridge of precedent that links law, behavior, expectations, and conduct.

You have also to understand that in this culture, discussion and argument are synonymous. Thus when relating a story of how, as an elementary school scholar, I would come home from school for lunch, I could easily render the exchange between my mother ad me as, "So what do you think you'd like for lunch?" she insisted. And at dinner, my father would be likely to venture, "So how was school today?" he inferred. Have a nice day translates to have a good argument.

In my culture of birth, the first big dichotomy had to do with diet, so that the primary question became milk or meat? You could not mix the two, on plate or in tummy. Separate utensils, separate approaches, a distraction to someone who likes sour cream on the baked potato he enjoys with his prime rib.

You might venture that the next dichotomy from there, the next choice to be made was medical school versus law school. Somewhat like a teen-ager feeling uncomfortable at being seen out in public with his parents, many of us in this culture war found neither medicine or the law as attractive as the arts, and so our particular bifurcation was the one of jumping off the road entirely and not opting for a back-up provided the arts did not pay the rent.

Onward to the secular Talmud, the more generalized, basic laws of self, the secular arguments we are always
engaged with, the inner Pairs of Opposites that are with us at any given moment. What do we want as opposed to what constraints or restraints do we feel? Enter subtext. Look at the subtext in Ernest Hemingway's overly praised story, The Killers. They all come here to eat the Blue Plate Special. Why does this single observation reveal the menace of these two men? Subtext.
There is always somewhere to go with characters as we pursue subtext. Somewhere surprising. Somewhere leading to a discovery.

Accordingly, assembling a character is of a piece with those cheap shelving or desk sets we buy at Office Max or Staples or Costco, where we open the box, check to see we've not been short-changed on any of the parts, then try to interpret the damned instructions. We begin with character by looking for the polar opposites in residence within him or her. They become the drama that informs this individual 24/7, alone of in company. Go ahead, pick two. Any two, so long as they are opposites. Then add a note of perceived obligation to another person. A little guilt couldn't hurt. Or perhaps a sense of having insulated oneself from the pain of obligation or guilt. We're on our way.

NB: one of the many reasons we have become what we have is to understand our particular cultural pulls so that we may interpret them--notice the weasel word there, interpret rather than understand--to the point where we can take them on, internalize them so that we feel as though we are walking in their footsteps, not judgmental, rather empathetic, for after all they are like us, driven by these polar Horsepersons of the Internal Apocalypse, seeking love, comfort, understanding.

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