Thursday, June 10, 2010

The language of story

How do we recognize individuality when we see it?

What causes the zebra to stand out from the herd? Are there some standardized forms--tin cans in a supermarket display--that take on individuality only after we have removed one from a collection? Is there some trait or combination of behavior pattern that speak to us in a rhetoric of awareness that operates beyond our conventional senses? Is there, in fact, a distinct language of recognition by which we communicate through the calculus of apartness?

These inquiries underscore the need we had ab ovo to pursue the rhetoric of story, for only story reveals to us the dialectic between the individual and the multitude from which the individual emerges, trying simultaneously to become camouflaged against the background of others while trying to establish voice, ambition, expertise, and understanding.

Each front rank character in each memorable story is by default larger than life, striving to achieve expertise of a sort in a human pursuit. Ishmael, signing aboard The Pequod to escape the depression that has threatened to overcome him, seeks solace and soothing effects. Had he remained on land, he would merely have trespassed more deeply into depression and despair. In his wish to escape, he entered the region of the unthinkable, where strange men and a beast so large as to take on mystical dimensions become his quotidian. If we accept one of the arguments raged about by Ahab, Ishmael has entered a landscape of causal malevolence and brutality. Indeed, he will be spared only that he may be able to relate the details of the malevolence; he will have entered the literary equivalent of a black hole.

When you think of Melville and his whale and his Ahab and his Starbuck, you are looking at not only a story but a metaphor for all story, the living, breathing synecdoche where the whole is one of the parts and one of the parts stands for the whole. The white whale as metaphor for opposition and confrontation, Nature incarnate, a simple lash of its tail enough to send a boatload of individuals careening into eternity. Melville attracts and repels because he dares place such cosmic forces before us with the exquisite inevitability of the dramatic meeting. Ishmael has signed into the Unthinkable just as his brother being, Achilles, signed into it when he railed and raged against the pettiness of Agamemnon and, later, was drawn into battle with a force every bit as formidable as the whale, Hector. The only difference was that Hector, too, fought within the inevitability of the war into which he was drawn, the war of rival forces and the war of custom and convention for a man of his rank.

In story, a character is articulated by the battle he or she encounters, however innocently. The forces that keep the character in the story serve to remind us who read how each time has its own forces to keep the character in confrontation with contemporary Fates. The circumstances that doomed Antigone would not, today, doom a bright, vibrant young woman and so we must look at ways to engage our modern character with the whale, the war, the desire to secure a burial for her brother that confronted these historical characters. Tess, Hester, and to a significant degree Jane Eyre faced the beasts of their time and station.

You look for those social, moral, and existential conventions that define your characters so that they may try to wriggle free long enough to tell the story of how they were caught up in the first place.

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