Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Things "They" Carry

tool kit--an assembly of abilities, skills, and talents a character carries; an actual collection of tools, implements, and/or weapons a specific character may use in furtherance of his/her agenda (as in the character Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men.)

Many characters have few tangible tools or implements, relying instead on such interior qualities as persistence, dignity, honor, which they use as tools to effect their coping with the problems they encounter. Such antihero characters as Sam Spade (The Maltese Falcon) use a healthy cynicism or pragmatism to define their activities.

Similarly, the more or less independent contractor, the samurai warrior, an interesting comparison to the legendary knights of Arthur's Round Table, and American gunfighter of the legendary Old West, emerges with a different toolkit than twenty-first century century of fortune. The "toolkit" of the samurai, taken from a thirteenth-century text:

I make the heavens and earth my parents
I have no home.
I make awareness my home
I have no life and death.
I make the tides of breathing my life and death
I have no divine power.
I make honesty my divine power
I have no means.

I make adaptability to all circumstances my principles
I have no tactics
I make my mind my friend
I have no enemy
I make carelessness my enemy
I have no armor
I make benevolence and righteousness my armour
I have no castle
I make immovable mind my castle
I have no sword
I make absence of self-interest my sword.


Captain Ahab--the fictional captain of the fictional whaling ship Pequod in Herman Melville's epic Moby-Dick; by implication, owner of a monomaniacal focus on a particular target or goal; the embodiment of a character with an ends-justifies-the-means agenda.

Ahab was not the first sea-going tyrant nor will he be the last, but of all the William Blighs and Philip Francis Queegs, Ahab calls out to the writer as an example of character-driven purpose precisely because his quest pushed him past the tipping point, from which he had no hope of recovery. Born into the Quaker faith (which is notable for its ethical pacifism), Ahab seeks revenge against the whale that destroyed an earlier ship and bit off his leg. With virtually his last breath, he curses the whale "...to the last I grapple with thee; from hell's heart I stab at thee; for hate's sake I spit my last breath at thee." Ahab thereupon throws a harpoon at the whale, which act becomes Ahab's undoing. Despite the majesty of Ahab's language, lofty and booming with the cadences of unrhymed iambic pentameter, Ahab brings us moderns to a comparison with his cartoon doppelganger, Wile E. Coyote, as the exemplar of how we must invest our protagonists and antagonists with desire, purpose, steadfastness.

Nor is it fanciful to see Kenneth Starr, the former judge, lawyer, and solicitor general who saw in Bill Clinton the apotheosis of the great whale in Bill Clinton and perhaps again in California's notorious 2008 ballot measure, Proposition 8, which weighed in its outcome the right of gays to marry.

Somewhere in the middle, between Ahab and Coyote, stands Florentino, from Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Love in the Time of Cholera, so convinced that his youthful love for Fermina is "the real thing" that he is willing to wait fifty years to prove his point. In spite of his having counted some six hundred sexual partners in the interim, Florentino tells Fermina he has remained a virgin for her.

All three of these characters are patently larger than life, which is no small clue but rather a nudge to the writer in considering which men and women to cast for the stories to come.


Ken Starr

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