Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Lighthouse Keeper or Light House Keeper?

Wish you were here.

You had to be there.

Wasn't the same without you.

Wasn't about to go if you weren't going.

How many times have you heard such sentiments expressed or had occasion to express them yourself?

This is often the way real life spins out, even if one's personality tends toward introversion.  Friends who are introverts have told you there were in fact times when they had not attended an event because of the presentiment of being not present in sufficient depth to attend.

Presence is an aura of self most of us project in varying degrees at differing times, ranging from being relatively invisible--"I had no idea you were there."--to an emphatic awareness of us.  

At one publishing house where you worked, the senior editor in a real sense paid you to maintain eye contact with him during editorial meetings, allowing you up to ten choices per week of chores you would not have to perform.  This was based on his belief that others in the meeting watched you for clues of interest and respect.

You met your friend, Ernest, a professor in the French-Italian Department, in a coffee shop where, one afternoon, he asked if he could sit at your table after asking you a simple question.  Even though there were ample free tables, he approached you.  "Are you an academic?"

When you replied, "Why on earth would you ask such a question?" he said,  "I've seen you in here before.  You always look so interested in things."  To which you said, "And that makes me a fucking academic?" To which he said, "See, I was right, wasn't I?"

The chef at an Italian restaurant where you'd only dined once before approached you as you were finishing your dinner to ask if you would like a fish to take home.  True enough, you were enjoying your meal and he could have seen you doing so.  Your point is that there were several diners in the restaurant.  Why did the chef give you the fish (which turned out to be a red snapper)?  An answer:  you were a presence of the sort the chef was motivated to give the fish.  Indeed, we are all presences, exuding some kind of vibration.  To pile more bricks upon the analogy, we are all of us in some way or another variations of the lenses used in lighthouses to illuminate the coast and surrounding sea.

When you were an undergraduate, drinking coffee one morning in the Student Union, an individual approached you, introduced himself to you, told you he was going to make great filmed dramas, and hoped you would join him.  You told him that such encounters often took place in bildungsromans, but not in real life.  "Make them real, Lowenkopf,"  he told you.

You said you'd do your best, not suspecting how, some years later, you would, for a time, be working for him, or the ironies associated with him led you to.  Thinking about him and those times, you wonder how he knew you to say that to, what things about you led him to those thoughts.

The best you have been able to come up with is that your father had similar qualities and perhaps he had passed them along to you with his Waltham pocket watch and fondness for Hungarian dishes such as cabbage soup, sauerbraten, and stuffed cabbage rolls, all of these of course sour rather than the Viennese sweet and sour.

We read story to be "there," at the place where the story takes place, in the particular moral and emotional crucible as the characters, forced by the circumstances engulfing them to deal with those effects on us as we read.

Being "there" can mean being bored as well as concerned.  There were, for instance, portions of Cormac McCarthy's latest work, a screenplay called The Counsellor, where you were bored.  As you watched, you realized the boredom came as a result of the characters often speaking lines that no one, not even accomplished actors, would say, imparting a kind of talking heads aspect to the story.  There were other times when a voice--which turned out to be your own, inner voice--told you McCarthy was back to his old basic story of an illicit or immoral deal gone wrong.  Then you told yourself, So what's so special about that?  And then one or more of the actors did something that brought you back inside the story again, to the "there" of it.  At this point, you realized there were no persons in the entire story you had any reason to root for.  Perhaps one.  

Most of the individuals were individuals for whom you could feel no empathy.  And one device was introduced in sufficient detail for you to wonder which of two characters it would be used upon.  Thus most of your enjoyment was philosophical, intellectualized validation of your understanding of the dynamics of story.

Big deal.  You can get that and an emotional payoff in a number of stories with more dimension. 

The goal of story, regardless of when it was written, is to take us somewhere, then place us among presences, among men, women,children, and animals with agendas, fears of being messed up, and actual disabilities that could cause them difficulties in coping with the problems before them.

For older stories, stories involving social and political implications beyond our immediate ken, there has to be some sense of clue, some hand hold by which we can be there, as well, experiencing the communal fears as well as the individual ones the characters need to face, then cope with in some way.

Story can project a goal of happiness, as in that of Lennie Small in John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men,  but because of the way he is after George to describe it, to tell of it and make it so tangible that other members of the work crew wish to buy in, we know that Lennie will never achieve it.  The closest he can come is wishing for it, living for it as much as he is able.  For Lennie, the goal is achieved only in death.  Were he to have achieved it in story, we would sense the wrongful presence because it has long since taken up residence in Lennie to the point where it is an inevitability.

Story must take us to places and presences where inevitability is spread out on the table before us, a meal to be digested.  We require characters with the presence of inevitability just as you struggle to understand and accept the inevitability of a chef giving you a fish.

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