Friday, February 27, 2015

Getting off on the Wrong Foot with Capt. Ahab

The pages of literature you read as a younger, intermediate, and now full-fledged reader are filled with narratives of men, women, and young persons who have in one way or another been wronged. 

Everywhere you turned, whether it was Montressor, the narrator of Poe's "A Cask of Amontillado," Edmund Dantes, wrongfully imprisoned for a crime he did not commit, in Alexandre Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo, or Jim, the runaway slave who by his presence lends spine and stature to Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn.

Among the wrongs visited upon these individuals, the impugning of family name, being used as a foil for a crime, and having his identity taken from him and sold along with him.  Throughout the history of story, individuals were wrongly punished or punished in severe degree for crimes of a minor nature.  Characters have been exiled, tortured, manipulated.  In one case, Tony Last, a major player in Evelyn Waugh's A Handful of Dust, is purposefully detained in a dense Brazilian jungle, doomed to read the works of Charles Dickens aloud to his captor.

Women have fared even worse in literature, forced into arranged or political marriages, such individuality as they may have had stripped from them in gradual chapters as their circumstances grew worse by the chapter.  Carol Milford, protagonist of Sinclair Lewis' Main Street,  a free-spirited, liberal-thinking woman, marries her childhood sweetheart, Will Kennicott, a doctor. No problem there; they are happy.  But then, Will is posted in a small, fictional prairie town, where both, but Carol in particular, are wronged by small-town small-mindedness and bigotry.

In a famous story out of trapper and mountain man legend, the noted trapper, Hugh Glass, experiences a severe mauling from a bear.  He is left to recover with a few of his trapper chums, but they, thinking Glass will soon die of his wounds, abandon him.  This becomes the reality-based act one of a classic story of revenge; Glass recovers.  Like Edmond Dantes, Glass seeks revenge.

Looking backward over your life, you do not see any instances where you might have claim to being wronged.  True enough, a number of things at a number of levels did not go as you'd hoped, and you find yourself from time to time wondering how things might have gone had you taken the offered job to run a massmarket publisher in New York.  But you cannot say you were wronged, nor do you nourish revenge scenarios to wrest back what was taken from you.

That said, the formula of the revenge story has a powerful, resonant appeal for you, helping you identify with characters from other times and cultures you've been made to like to the point where you want them to regain what was lost.  You want Sir Wilfrid of Ivanhoe,  to vanquish one of his arch enemies, Sir Reginald Front De Boeuf.  You want women who were abused by thoughtless husbands or fathers to not merely get away but find opportunities to exercise their inherent abilities, then come back  home to retake in symbol the dignity taken from them in actuality.

You want Ishmael to survive because his survival makes a moral statement with which you can identify.  He is a man who nearly had his life wrongfully taken from him by a megalomaniac. His revenge is to have understood the forces between which he'd almost been crushed.  Indeed, he was the only survivor.

Truth to tell, there have been two or three situations in which you'd comforted yourself by concocting revenge fantasies, imagining you'd worked your way into a situation where you could restore the justice of a situation you'd thought had got out of hand.  Further truth to tell, you had the actual opportunity to use your editorial position and skills for a close equivalent of revenge.  As you began the project, you felt a high tingle of satisfaction, until you realized that tingles of satisfaction at this level were not the reasons you'd put time, energy, and considerable concern into acquiring editorial skills.

Your own career path involved similar time, energy, and concern into becoming a teacher.  Both these paths had as goals the acquisition of skills to enhance and ratify your desire to be a writer.  There are some writing parts of you that have aspects of revenge in mind, the I'll-show-you kinds of revenge, but not the I'll-get-even type.

Revenge of that sort slows the growth of the process you wish to encourage.  Recent years and, of course, rereading and rethinking have brought you closer to thinking of Ishmael as a homie who got away from the revenge of Ahab with little more than the clothing on his back, wet, torn, and dripping, but able to get on with telling a tale of remarkable understanding.

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