Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Chance, Choice, Consequence

Chance has a limited role in fiction; too much of it suggests a heavy authorial hand, manipulating outcomes that seem increasingly unlikely. If closure is achieved through too many coincidences, the role of the protagonist has been undercut. After all, a protagonist is the protagonist in the first place because the burden rests or falls on his or her shoulders, and he or she is supposed to be the architect and engine of the outcome. An amicus curiae brief comes from fantasy and fantastic adventures in which magic plays such a large part. Even in these, the protagonist is supposed to figure how to use the magic to outwit the antagonistic forces. The best you can say for chance as a tool is that it can cause some remarkable complications, those pesky, mischievous events and missed connections that get the protagonist in deeper troubles, somewhat of a piece with afflicting Sisyphus with athlete's foot by way of making his eternal task not only boring but itchy.


In real life, chance has a greater opportunity to upstage events because while there may be a temporary throughline such as a drought or a famine or a misguided election in, say, Massachusetts, there are also cycles, changes, and the monotonous locked step of mere presence in which things happen each as an independent contractor. Thus trees and flowers volunteer because seeds were blown or caught in a dog's fur, or perhaps momentarily trapped in some unsuspecting trouser cuff. Equally, in real life, a slab of a hillside may dissolve in a rain storm to reveal artifacts enough to make an archaeologist's career.

Oliver La Farge, the anthropologist, once wrote a short story about a rather scuzzy academic who was always seeming to stumble upon magnificent finds from the distant past. But we knew better; this academic was guided to these finds by supernatural agencies. Thus was fun made of scientific method and by implication the lifting to respect of the ways and beliefs of our elders.

Choice is another matter. This is so because of the recognition of the number of choices we make every waking moment and, often enough, during the dreaming parts of sleep. Choice ultimately yields consequence, a circumstance well known to us because of the number of consequences we face every waking moment and, yes, during the dreaming parts of sleep. We chose to do something or opt out or dither. Each produces a litany of consequences, some of which may be totally unanticipated and indeed not justified. This leads us to confront another Cosmic Truth: Consequences do not have to be justified. They simply are. Much in the manner of Chance, in which a given segment of time is merely a window through which we can see the passing parade of events.

And here, the two come together; chance meets choice. We gaze out the window and see a procession of events, or perhaps no event at all, merely a tree, some shrubs, even a flower or two. Now a bird lands on a branch of the tree and begins looking about. We become curious and in a way invest in the bird. Now comes into the picture a cat, whereupon we, who have nothing against cats, nevertheless have some understanding of the nature of cats. Some among us may already visualize a mere pile of feathers instead of the bird. And of course the more we learn of the bird, its mockingbird-edness or its blue jay essence, the more vivid that pile of feathers becomes. As we switch our attention to the cat, depending on our individual preferences, its very coloration, say tiger-stripe or marmalade, add to its potential for bringing about that pile of feathers. We are caught up in choice and consequence. Do we rap sharply on the window, thus to frighten the bird away? Do we dither? After having frightened the bird off, do we, from a consequential guilt, invite the cat in for a snack?

Story is in some part the experience the viewer brings to the artifice of the writer; it always has some consequence associated with it, somewhat like the tin cans we used to tie to the fenders of automobiles when we were mischievous kids. As we grew older, we eschewed the tin can for a handful of gravel or perhaps two or three loose bolts or nuts, just enough to fit inside the hub cap we'd have carefully pried off with the bottle-opener blade of our pocket knife. The unsuspecting driver, after moving a scant few feet, would hear this inner serenade, stop, get out, look, shake head, return to car, ad infinitum, a monument to the practical joke nature young boys have to evolve through in order to have even a shot at the consequences of being grown up.

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