Sunday, December 7, 2008

Food for Thought

pathetic fallacy, the--a literary device or tendency of written or spoken exaggeration by which inanimate forces and objects have life-like qualities attributed to them. A term yanked into the literary sphere by the Victorian-era critic, John Ruskin, a staunch advocate of realism in writing and the visual arts, the pathetic fallacy has spread like kudzu grass, reminding Julie Andrews that the hills are alive with the sound of music, that fires dance merrily before our eyes, that brooks, babble merrily in their courses, ad of course mountains which appear moody and somber in the sunset.

Pathetic fallacy is an addition to the laundry list of commandments and injunctions addressed to writers: Thou shall not split the infinitive. Thou shall show rather than tell. Thou shall not begin sentences with "and or "but." Thou shall not use one-word paragraphs. These commandments and injunctions appear in the works of critics whose work is alive with the sound of textbooks.

What arbiters and critics fail to note is that successful writers have been getting away with pathetic fallacies and other crimes against boring writing by giving the language at hand a fresh way of looking at the human condition or of our remarkable universe. Go for it; it is like getting a last shave out of a shaving cream bomb or a last brushing from a flattened tube of toothpaste. The best approach to take with an inventive use of language is the Do No Harm Rule, which unequivocally supports tropes that clarify a condition, person, place, or thing to the point of causing the reader to say "Yes! I have felt that way myself, but was afraid of saying so for fear of being thought out of the main stream."

John Ruskin did not like the idea of liberties being taken with art, nor was he a fan of sentimentality. But there are times when a wind comes up at sundown and the aspens seem to be sighing or laughing as the wind courses through them, and if you listen closely enough, the result does have a music to it. The risk of relying overly on the pathetic fallacy is the projected sense that you or your characters are talking up the case of the human effect on Nature, saying in effect that Nature owes everything to us and that we, in turn, owe nothing to Nature. The careful storyteller will investigate the intent of the story, its setting, its characters, and the way the story is rendered to make sure that the methods of telling do not reveal more than the actual content.

Wile E. Coyote--a scruffy,scheming cartoon character who, on appearances and behavior, would go unnoticed in a Dostoevsky novel, but instead lives in the butte- and mesa-littered American Southwest. The Coyote has one essential goal: to capture and devour Roadrunner, another denizen of the hardscrabble landscape. He of course will never succeed, domed to a series of near misses, frustrations, and even humiliation. A literary descendant of Joel Chandler Harris' iconic B'rer Fox, the Coyote is a candidate for beatification and ultimate sainthood as the patron saint of characters. He has a singular, ongoing goal that occupies him every moment he is on stage. His devices and stratagems have the complexity born of mounting desperation. He is so intent on bringing The Roadrunner to ground that he frequently finds himself in mid-air, his paws cycling in wild attempts to gain some footing--but it is too late; he has only the downward fall to disaster. He is, as Mark Twain wrote of the generic coyote, "a living, breathing allegory of want. He is always hungry." The Coyote frequently obtains ludicrous materials and devices from The Acme Company, a mail-order distributor. These items plus his own hunger-driven ingenuity, comprise his tool kit.

The dramatic center of The Coyote is in his single-minded pursuit of his agenda, making him worth concentrating on while creating any front-rank character. Note, for instance, comparison points between The Coyote and Captain Ahab or, for that matter, the Jay Gatz, better known to us as The Great Gatsby, and of course, Don Quixote.


Querulous Squirrel said...

John Ruskin: What is art if not taking liberties? Pathetic fallacy rules are those meant to be broken, especially ironically. And, finally, aren't all fallacies pathetic? I think you committed a forbidden redundancy dear Ruskin.

Matt said...

I like the words of writer/sometime-TV-host Simon Shama: "Great art has dreadful manners".