Friday, November 7, 2014

Connective Tissue Put in Place

This past week in this present year is a time pretty late in your career to have made a connection you'd like to have noticed some years, say twenty of them, ago.  But now you have the connection tucked into the safety of your awareness, and of course, better now than some time in the future, or not at all.

The connection came to you when you were speaking to your class on satire, describing the forward arc of narrative in its procession from factual and dramatic information given to the audience in advance--Look out for this, gentle viewers, for it is of great import--by the author, who wishes to have this information in the mind of the viewer.

You were riffing away on one of your favorite Prologue/Chorus announcements, the one from Shakespeare's Henry V:

O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention,
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!
Then should the warlike Harry, like himself,
Assume the port of Mars; and at his heels,
Leash'd in like hounds, should famine, sword and fire
Crouch for employment. But pardon, and gentles all,
The flat unraised spirits that have dared
On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth
So great an object: can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?
O, pardon! since a crooked figure may
Attest in little place a million;
And let us, ciphers to this great accompt,
On your imaginary forces work.
Suppose within the girdle of these walls
Are now confined two mighty monarchies,
Whose high upreared and abutting fronts
The perilous narrow ocean parts asunder:
Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts;
Into a thousand parts divide on man,
And make imaginary puissance;
Think when we talk of horses, that you see them
Printing their proud hoofs i' the receiving earth;
For 'tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,
Carry them here and there; jumping o'er times,
Turning the accomplishment of many years
Into an hour-glass: for the which supply,
Admit me Chorus to this history;
Who prologue-like your humble patience pray,

Gently to hear, kindly to judge, our play.

Your favorite version of it has been rendered by the fine actor, Derek Jacobi, in the filmed version featuring Kenneth Brannaugh as Henry.  His rendering allows you to hear the author, Shakespeare, telling us to use out imaginations to bring ourselves outside "this wooden O" that is the Globe Theater, and into the French and English courts and, later into the fields of Agincourt, where "the warlike Harry" urges his troops on against the French.

Before your eyes, this scholastic quarter, two of the assigned authors, Nikolai Gogol and Joseph Conrad, were in effect doing the same thing.  Indeed, Joseph Fielding did the same thing in his picaresque romp, Tom Jones, and such modern authors as Aldous Huxley would bring their dramatic narratives to a screeching halt in order to slip in a paragraph or two of opinion of their own, before venturing back to the interior monologue and narrative focus of the main character.

The primary argument you make here has authorial presence as a filter through which dramatic information is passed along to the reader.  Little, the author has said, ever so many times, did she--whoever she might have been--know.  The author may have even tossed in a bit of philosophy to make sure the reader got it.  Little did she know. (but we know, don't we?)  All men, given the opportunity to be a cad, will snatch it up, then go forth to be a cad and a bounder.

Ah, how easy to slip into such language, such thinking, and such conventions, for these aspects of story had grown from choruses and gods and goddesses being lowered onto the stage to inform the audience, hey, characters may have motives, but we gods and goddesses are the ones who control the outcomes of human affairs.  Look how we messed up Odysseus and his men on their way back home from a war we had no small hand in starting in the first place.

For the longest time, choruses and authors were telling us things about the characters, what they were like inside, and what they were mulling over as potential Plan B if Plan A didn't work.  Authors still slip in a hint of a device you associate with Reader Feeder, which is to say stuff the writer wants the reader to know about the characters and the stakes in this game.  He gave her a hard look, hoping to badger her into agreement.  Er, shouldn't the reader be able to see that without such an egregious tell?  His grey-green eyes narrowed in pure hatred.  Well, for starters, he, whoever he is, is not apt to think of the color of his eyes when he's fixing someone with The Border Collie Glance.  As for hatred, how many times is it ever pure, rather than some kind of amalgam.

Yes, contemporary authors often become so excited with what they're writing that they forget the conventions, which, by the way, do not come from any single source but rather from the continuing ways in which language, story, and the narrative filters evolve.  True enough, there were many writers who were out of their time, not only in terms of story and theme, such as Kate Chopin, or removing traces of the author from the narrative stream as Jane Austen had done, helping us maintain the fiction that these characters were real.

Samuel Richardson, a printer and small publisher, some years back, at first outraged readers when they learned there was no such person as Pamela.  Her letters home to her mother were written by Richardson, who was likely to be beside himself with glee when he saw how well his narrative technique worked.

Same holds for Daniel DeFoe.  Because newspaper readers had heard the story of a stranded sailor named Selkirk, he was able to suggest his account of Robinson Crusoe was real.

For hundreds of years, even into thousands, writers have been looking for ways to filter inventions through a narrative prism that gave the impression of reality nevertheless.

Now, the conventions are edging the author off the stage, seeking ways to let the characters convey the implications of the story.  Some authors of the not-too-distant past, such as Ford Maddox Ford, got away with turning the narrator of The Good Soldier into a chorus of sorts, starting with that compelling first line, "This is the saddest story I have ever heard."

Let's not forget Nick Caraway, the narrator of The Great Gatsby.  Stretching a point, you say?  Perhaps so, but consider this:  He was there to romanticize Gatsby and be acted upon by him.  If he hadn't told us the story, Fitzgerald would have had to.

Same thing for Augie Marsh, Saul Bellow's coming-of-age adventurer, laying the stage out before us, so we could settle back to use one of our most precious senses, our imagination.

There is little wonder these characters have held your attention, some with the simplest invitation to let our imaginary forces work, therein to be a partner within a play.

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