Friday, March 27, 2009

Monday-morning quarterbacking, instant replay, and perspective

retrospect--looking back at a moment or era in time; a point of view containing information or knowledge of the consequences of past action; a narrative or personal attitude arrived at after the fact; Monday-morning quarterbacking.

A significant use of retrospect comes when the details of a novel or story are filtered through one or more characters giving historical versions of a story, allowing them to reflect attitudes or subtexts of regret, pleasure, or moral superiority over past events. This use of retrospect becomes one of the writer's first major decisions, coming right after who or whom the narrator(s) will be. The issue now becomes at what rate of awareness to set the story; is it meant to seem as though it is taking place in the immediate present or at some remove, after all the issues and permutations have been sorted out. Thus the necessary decision, was the narrator naive, reliable, or unreliable then? And,indeed, is the point of view is retrospective, has the narrator remained naive, reliable, or unreliable?

Huckleberry Finn was told from the narrative eye of a young boy. One of the few anomalies is the likelihood of his being literate enough to have composed any narrative in the first place. His honesty and pragmatism quickly override any tendency to suspend belief. His approach to all matters seems appropriate for a street- and country-wise person of his age, a pragmatism that makes him all the more likable and seemingly truthful. Certainly he is in touch with his emotions. Would Huck have been more convincing in his depiction if events if he'd picked up the Conklin fountain pen ( the one with which Mr. Twain began the first draft) in his forties or fifties to reflect back on the events? Most likely not--even more likely, the story would not have been so resonant. It needed, in fact, to be told as it was, as though it were happening to a twelve-year-old boy in the immediate now. As readers, we "forgive" him his literary abilities as we jump directly into his explanation of the device by which he came into being in the first place, "You don't know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer..."

Twain uses in the opening sentences a stunning device that actually paved the way for Primo Levi and his frequent trespasses into postmodernism. "...but that aint no matter," Huck assures us, and indeed it isn't, thanks directly to that street-smarts honesty. In the second sentence, Huck tells us, "That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth. That is nothing. I never seen anybody but lied one time or another, without it was Aunt Polly-- Tom's Aunt Polly, she is -- and Mary, and the Widow Douglas is all told about in that book, which is mostly a true book, with some stretchers, as I said before." By the first paragraph, we're in, willing at that early point to trust Huck's retrospective account of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Shortly after the retrospective account begins, Huck tells of Aunt Polly's sister, Miss Watson, "took a set at me now with a spelling-book." Thus between Miss Watson and the soon-to-appear Tom Sawyer is Huck put on a collision course with literature. Mostly Huck's street smarts win out and mostly we are left with the precious relic of him at the age where he lit out for the territory ahead because Aunt Polly and Miss Watson wanted to civilize him, and he couldn't stand it.

The focus from immediate present to retrospective shifts one hundred eighty degrees as the unnamed narrator of Daphne DuMaurier's unforgettable Rebecca addresses us as directly as Huck did: "Last I dreamt I went to Manderly again. It seemed to me I stood by the iron gatge leading to the drive, and for a while I could not enter, for the way was barred to me." We now know exactly where we stand in regard to the framework of time, and we have as yet no reason (nor will we have any) to doubt the reliability of the narrator. True enough, she is in at the payoff, telling us, "...it was my lack of poise that made such a bad impression on people like Mrs. Danvers. What must I have seemed like [to Mrs. Danvers] after Rebecca...?" This retrospective assessment makes her all the more believable a narrator. Unlike Huck, who wants to light out for the territory ahead, this individual is sitting on the veranda with her loved one. "I fix my dark glasses, reach for my bag of knitting. And before us, long as the skein of wool I wind, stretches the vista of our afternoon."

In law and in writing, the perspective of timing and intent are everything. Scenario One: Bill goes to the neighborhood pub to collect a bet from Fred, who denies having made the bet in the first place. The two get into a scuffle in which Fred, alas, does not emerge alive. Scenario Two: Bill takes his gun with him as he goes to the neighborhood pub, intending to teach Fred a lesson if Fred decides once again to renege on a bet.

Worst case in Scenario One would be justifiable homicide. In Scenario Two, worst case is murder.

The differences between retrospective and present time perspectives are significant, just as significant, as Mark Twain reminds us, as "The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter--it's the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning."

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