Friday, September 4, 2015

Whose Details? Yours or Mine?

 For all the reasons a reader is given for staying with a story from its opening line to the part where it pays off in a burst of pure emotion, the one most often cited is the moments when a character acts on some belief.

This reason is preordained; characters who appear on stage are called actors, men and women who present differing states of being.  They pretend to be plausible exemplars of the writer's fantasy life.  Actors are also called players, he or she who plays or pretends to be the real incarnation of the imaginary individual who is rendered on the manuscript page either in narrative form or script form.

When you pick up a book, attend a theater, watch a TV drama, or stream some motion picture on the screen of your TV set, you want to see characters driven to the outskirts of their emotional territory. Perhaps they will return, perhaps not, perhaps they'll die on the spot in some ironic matter as the one of Omar Little,a favorite character of yours from the TV drama The Wire. 

 "A man,"  Omar said, "has to have a code."  His own code is to be a dedicated populist, earning his living by robbing neighborhood drug dealers, showing sympathy and tolerance to most other aspects of society except those he feels are driven to venial acts by greed, hypocrisy, and extended self interest.

Omar's code and attitude are so palpable that he became by a kind of moral default one of the most admired and respected characters in the tightly braided dramatic narrative that The Wire is.  His importance to the story is enhanced by the things he does when he is not robbing the network of Baltimore drug dealers.  These things, his intelligence, his gayness, his respect for elders, for education, and for the young are examples of the aspects of the character not directly related to his profession as a robber.

Those stories that work best, whether they revolve about waiting for an individual who never appears or wrap about the armature of the actions leading to consequence, are stories that allow us a more lateral view of the men and women who cause such explosive consequences, sometimes even off the stage or page.  

Witness Nora Helmer, who slams the door not only on her husband and marriage in Ibsen's A Doll's House, and keep your eyes on the eponymous heroine of Antigone.  Nora leaves a household of chaos when she leaves her husband and her children.  Antigone leaves a wretched uncle and fiance, her own death an about to be fait accompli because of her refusal to put the rules of the state over the call of her family and her religious beliefs.

At this historical remove from each of the dramatic narratives, there is a potential for ignoring the exact details that bring such wrenching pathos in both cases.  What happens on stage is painful enough, but each of us who reads these dramas has little choice in the matter.  

Each of us, depending on the signals we pick up from the aside moments, casts something of herself/himself into the equation, to be felt when walking out of the theater, to the horse-drawn carriage at Nora Helmer's time, or to the Uber chariot awaiting us after some of the early performances of the Sophocles drama.

In both cases, a good chunk of the cultural imperatives resident in them are away from our immediate gut-level response.  Yes, true enough, we understand Antigone's wish to bury her brother, if only for the sake of dignity if not to complete our understanding that his spirit cannot move to the underworld until he is buried.  But something in the way Antigone responds to her uncle, who is giving the orders, and her fianc√©, who is urging her to lighten up, tugs at us.  

In a contemporary drama going on in Rowan County, Kentucky, a similar type of drama is playing out.  Never mind United States Supreme court rulings, subsequent District Court rulings, and, as of yesterday, a contempt of court ruling, the county clerk is steadfast in her refusal to issue marriage licenses to gay couples wishing to be married.  

The clerk is now in jail, held in contempt of a U.S. District Court.  The clerk's refusal to issue any marriage licenses to gay couples is based on her religious beliefs, which she is placing above the laws of the state in which she holds office and above the federal laws of the country of which she is a citizen.

When you think about the clerk and Antigone in the same thought, you cannot be as harsh on the clerk as you would like.  In this case, you appreciate the due process of the law of the state and the federal governments.  In this case, the details about the clerk cause you to see her as even less sympathetic than you might have been.  

It is no mere pun to say here that the devil is in the details; the clerk has set herself into a place where martyrs dwell, where, throughout history, men and women of either great principal or great stubbornness, depending on the side of their arguments you find yourself, say whatever it is they say or do whatever it is they do.

We have also at this time two individuals who, for the common weal, have caused so-called classified information to be made public, raising the issue or their patriotism or treason.  Of all these issues, you see the clerk as the weakest position, leaving too many flaws in the presentation of her logic, too many potentials to cause anarchy to flare up in civil law.  But that could be the clerk's ultimate goal, whereby we all of us see God as the ultimate judge.  Even here, details matter.  Which God are we talking about?

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