Monday, August 10, 2015

Out of Character

Your growing list of favored characters serves as a reminder of the single trait you most associate with a metaphorical shove over the edge of some moral precipice and into an abyss from which there may or may not be a hope of recovery.  The trait is commitment to some goal or philosophy.

One of your more recent additions to your list of favorites was Beth Harmon, the protagonist of Walter Tevis' engaging novel, The Queen's Gambit, wherein Beth is seen on page one being informed both her parents have perished in an automobile accident, placed in a Louisville, KY, orphanage because she has no other family, and, still on that opening page, is being given a pill by the head of the orphanage, a not unkind person, acting in a bureaucratic equivalent of concern.

As the title suggests and later events quickly demonstrate, Beth's commitment is to chess, a game  in which she finds the identity most of us who read struggle to identify, then spend a lifetime articulating.  

You know the moves of the various pieces, even some of the more arcane rules such as capturing an opponent's pawn en passant.  You even know one or two of the more classic openings.  The game is of mild interest to you, in spite of the fact that over the years you've known of the game, you have yet to win one time.  The best you've been able to accomplish is an occasional draw, but never a win.  

Your history would suggest you would not think so highly of The Queen's Gambit and Beth Harmon as you do.  You've even asked yourself if Beth's growing reliance on pills is the primary cause for your appreciation.  Again, no; it is her commitment to chess, her ability to visualize, to see each game as a tangible thing, a place where she in effect is able to enter through the portal of her ability, finding therein a world of polar opposition to the world Alice finds after her entry through the rabbit hole.

The entire concept of noticing and collecting favored characters, writing about them, trying  to see aspects of them in yourself and, of course, you in them, began with your focus on that now iconic cartoon figure, Wile E. Coyote.  He is nothing if not committed, even to the point where there is an absolute certainty he will never catch his intended target, The Roadrunner.  

Before the coyote, as it is with another favored character, Sisyphus, is an eternity of chase, reversal, failure, and the growing humiliation of defeat. He remains your absolute favorite because, although a cartoon and of narrow dimension, he

Sisyphus has so captured your imagination as a character that he has caused you to see things about story you may have known in bits and pieces but had not put together into a complete picture.  Thanks to him, you see story beyond a design, more of an orbital path the story takes as it carries characters toward a destiny of outcome.

Another of your favorites, whom you are now able to see in that orbital rather than linear trajectory is the master of the whaling ship Pequod, Captain Ahab, who taught you the vital message of dialectic.  Without the white whale, there can be no story as we now know it.  Of equal truth, without the interaction of Ahab for the whale, the story as we know it suffers for lack of a clear-cut fulcrum on which man and beast balance, each playing out his hard-wired nature as only a Transcendentalist mariner and a whale can orbit toward the destiny of outcome.

Yet another character, dear to you, has played out his essence in film rather than drama, a novel, or short tale.  He is Captain Geoffrey Spaulding, the alter ego of the vaudevillian Julius "Groucho" Marx.  For you, Captain Spaulding, his greasepaint mustache and eyebrows in place, has become the Trickster incarnate, a fraud, a sham, a confidence man with a cheap cigar as a magic wand and an unlimited repertoire of puns and sardonic observations as his weapons against politeness, civility, and the excesses of social entitlement.

You have accepted an assignment to write your vision of him, which will mean beginning with the observations of the him still resident in you these long years after your first exposure to him in a series of antic motion pictures which themselves were more picaresque and notional than plot-driven.  

How will you bring this near mythic being to any kind of sense when the thing you most cherish about his film presence is the embodiment of those parts of you wanting to join him in his crusade against common sense and pretense, much in the way Tom Sawyer came to life for you in those moments when you saw him so irrevocably drawn to the presence that was Huckleberry Finn?

No list of this sort would be complete for you without the haunting presence of a character who was the creation of a noted Greek general turned playwright.  This character was Antigone, the daughter of Oedipus and Jocasta, the niece of the new king, Creon, who had, in fact recently put down an uprising in which two of Antigone's brothers fought on opposing sides for control of the state.

Both brothers died in the uprising, one supportive of King Creon, the other not.  Creon had with great specificity decreed that one of the brothers should not be buried, his corpse left on the battlefield for dogs, vultures, and worms.  To be left without burial and burial ritual in effect prevented the rebellious brother's entry into the Underworld, an important religious and social outcome.

Antigone, in spite of warnings to the contrary, attempted to bury her brother.  Her uncle grew steadily more exasperated by her insistence, which ultimately drew Antigone's sister and Creon's own son, now betrothed to Antigone, into the conflict.

The hallways and caverns of history are alive with the evoked anguish of all parties involved in this conflict as Antigone's commitment to the burial of her brother lead with growing inevitable momentum toward Antigone's own death.

The implications of the family into which Antigone was born remind you on occasion of your own culture, to the point where there are times when you think of the encounters between the conflicted individuals being delivered with a Yiddish accent.  This is so you, a you immersed in Yiddish theater and the ardent recognition that the cusp between comedy and tragedy is one all great comics and tragedians walk when they act or when they write.



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