Thursday, August 18, 2011

Now, What?

Q:  Why do things always have to get worse?

A:  Two reasons.  The nature of life is for things get worse or to remain the same but at the same time to seem worse.  Most people, even conservative and/or cranky ones change, causing them to look back at an idiosyncratic time in the past where things were better, people more polite, children more respectful of their elders.  It also meant social inferiors knew their place or at least were not as vocal and demonstrative in their visions of justice.  As well,it meant there was a clearer scale of social stratification, a circumstance regarded by some as family values, by others as moral values.  As the individual encounters more experiences, where hairlines begin receding here and sprouting in unaccustomed places there, the individual may begin to see things getting worse by degree, then requiring an entire shopping cart to transport them in their downward spiral.

The nature of story has always been for things to get worse.  This is so because story, in the hands of the better craftspersons, reflects aspects of the human condition.  By degrees more nuanced than fable, parable, or Hallmark greeting cards, story attempts to evoke salient features of human nature in general, the human condition in yet greater specificity, and behavior (motivation) in exquisite specificity.
One notable quality of story is its tidal nature.  When the tide of awful things begins to ebb, the story is serving notice that it, too, is on the way out.  Of course things will get worse again, in particular if the story to hand happens to be a novel,  Even so, things becoming worse may signal book two of a series.

By its very nature, story is a more condensed version of the fraught quality of life; story is life on steroids.  Steroidal behavior often drives us beyond our perceived boundaries.  This is fitting and proper.  Generations of readers have had their expectations tuned to expect this.

An apt metaphor here is the concept of and beyond J.S. Bach's "Well-Tempered Clavier."  Tempering or tuning an instrument is based on the Western system of music based on intervals within the number five.  In the interests of time, space, and, yes, interest, a step of logic (and explanation) that could fit here is being omitted.  Suffice it to say that the same instrument used to play Bach's "Well-Tempered Clavier," back in the day when he would have performed it, would be tuned differently if it were to be played today, before a modern audience.  Subsequent generations of listeners since the days of Bach have grown accustomed to a different tuning system.

Generations of readers have brought to the iPad a differing sense of what story is, how it is transmitted, how bad things can get within it, and what kind of ending is now of interest.

Regardless of what point along the arc of time we're considering, things have to seem increasingly beyond hope if they are to be taken seriously, which is to say collect reader empathy.  Thus the unthinkable, come to pass.  Generations of writers have been causing "things" that were considered unthinkable to come out of hiding to the point of involving one or more of the characters.  Writing becomes modernized by successive generations of writers becoming inured to yesterday's unthinkable, hauling out today's (whatever it might be) , and setting it into motion.

A large portion of today's dramatic audiences might think nothing except mild amusement at the outcome of Joe Orton's gem of a play, Entertaining Mr. Sloan, but it is still not a likely candidate for a high school senior class play, nor would you expect to see it at summer stock in most Nebraska or Oklahoma venues any more that you would expect a literal interpretation of Nebraska and Oklahoma favorites to find wide audience in mid-town Manhattan or Los Angeles.

You, in effect, are your own index of the unthinkable.  This is, by the way, the same index in metaphor that applies when measuring the individual perception of how good the past was and how much more refined it was in those days.

Some of us grow uneasy at the inexorable shift of balance between the racial demographics as well as the cultural and religious ones.  Some of us are fearful we have demeaned the sanctity of life by allowing any consideration at all of abortion, much less the egregious hurt put on the tradition of marriage by allowing members of the same sex to partake.  Raising the matter of the various products and substitutions for the Eucharist rituals--grape juice, for Christ's sake--is yet another unthinkable, come tumbling down to pass.

If story is to have any sense of grip or grit, its unthinkable must stretch outward.  Story either grabs us or it does not.  Used books stores are filled with stories individuals did not feel they had to keep, little more than candy wrappers littering the fields after the circus has packed up and departed.  Of course there is the other aspect of the tide:  libraries still refusing to shelve various titles because they contain one or more affronts to the good old days, when such trash had no hope of being published.

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