Saturday, July 11, 2009

Counterpoint

counterpoint--the dramatic play of two differing, possibly even opposing themes within the same story; the overall relationship between two voices or agendas in contour and pace; a blending of two seemingly disparate points of view resulting in some added dramatic effect such as irony, satire, humor, or pathos.

Two of the three most obvious examples of thematic counterpoint in literature were composed by Jane Austen (1775--1817); these are Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility. The themes are not only sounded in the titles, they are given full orchestration in the thematic use of the characters. 

 Who can forget Elizabeth Bennett as she responds to the chemistry of Fitzwilliam Darcy, each in turn battling against the inner conflict of romantic interest and social position? Another English writer, Aldous Huxley (1894--1963) has a title right on the mark, Point Counterpoint, its opposing themes being reason and passion. 

 Notable among the array of characters in what could be thought of as a run-up to the talky and pretentious 1981 film from Louis Malle, My Dinner with Andre, Huxley presents himself in Point Counterpoint as a novelist who is not very good at getting characters down on paper.

Yet another, wickedly inspired example of counterpoint is found in the Canadian writer, Robertson Davies (1913--95), whose The Rebel Angels appeared in 1981. Long interested in myth and mythology, Davies interests gravitated toward the psychology of Jung. 

 His contrapuntal Rebel Angels appeared to be playing the themes of pure academic research and the effects of mysticism and magic against one another. A significant character in this novel is Maria Theotoky, a graduate student researching Rabelais, which sets the theme of academicism in motion against the likely prospect of her stern discipline being overrun by the overt sexuality and emotional gormandizing of her subject matter. Davies does not stop there. Maria, through her Gypsy heritage, leads the reader into the murky areas of concert-level violinists having their prized instruments temporarily buried in horse dung to impart the true clarity of their voice.

Any seemingly disparate subjects can be employed, provided the characters have sufficient dimension to support the investigation. Of the four examples given, the Davies far outshines even the iconic Pride and Prejudice, suggesting that novels of ideas must have more weight to them than the sense of talking heads in serious discourse. Indeed, the Davies has humor and satire bordering on the blasphemous.

Academic-college-based novels have an open-door policy to thematic counterpoint, the novels of David Lodge and Lucky Jim, the one venture into the medium by Kingsley Amis, added examples of how effective the medium can be. Saved for last is a strong candidate for the most sublime example yet of the effects of counterpoint in story.

D.H. Lawrence's Sons and Lovers engages the theme of a woman of breeding, education, and sensitivity, who meets a rough-and-tumble coal miner at a Christmas dance, falls into a sensual relationship with him almost immediately, then marries him. Together, they produce two sons, each of whom contributes in his way to the counterpoint. 

 The character of Paul Morel has become synonymous with D. H. Lawrence, who was a living example of the unharmonic conflicts visited on him by his mother and father. Watch Paul Morel's relationship with each parent, and then watch his urgent need to leave the atmosphere of the coal mining village and its stiffling effect on him. Now you will have seen and understood counterpoint, the better to use it as a tool in short story, novel, and intermediate lengths, seeing characters for what they represent through articulation of their needs and the circumstances they have built for themselves.

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