Fiction and Mastering the Thing We call Life

Stories always play with opposites. If there is a hero, for example, there must be a villain. We can take this a step further. The hero traditionally is handsome or beautiful. So the villain must be ugly. Heroes are kind. Villains are nasty. Heroes are chivalrous. Villains are …. errr … not chivalrous.  Heroes are morally correct. Villains are devilish. You get the idea. Opposites are emphasized in order to add tension to the story.

It didn’t matter if reality was very different. It didn’t matter, for example, that Richard III might have been in reality, a decent chap and competent king. In Shakespeare’s story, he is the monster. who must be defeated. The value of the story does not depend on its faithful tracking what was real. It matters much more that the villain can be recognized as such, is threatening, and with extraordinary effort, is finally defeated by the hero, by the hero’s pals or the heirs to his or her estate (the unfinished business story).

The menace of the villain is important for creating the tension that we need to maintain interest. The more menace, the better, and so villains are often vastly more powerful than the hero (contrast Sauron and Frodo, or Smaug and Bilbo). We would not care, for example, about a power-hungry and an extremely ugly and nasty flea unless we were other fleas or the  dog upon whom the flea wreaks havoc. This is what makes Hamlet so interesting. There is great menace, and foul deeds abound. So there must be a villain. But all die in the end. Were they all villains of different sorts who were unable to break out of their villainy? Some argue that this comes close to Shakespeare’s original intention.

Things became a bit more complicated in the last century when writers sought to break away from the old conventions about morality and heroism. They wanted their stories to be more “lifelike”. Joyce’s heroes, for example. do not fit into the hero/villain conflict mold. Who are the villains in “Ulysses”?  Hmmm ….  And of course, in the last century, we see heroes who are no longer young and handsome or even brave or nice. We even started talking about “anti-heroes”. Do anti-heroes fight anti-villains?

But I would argue that even here, stories do not work well unless they play with severe opposites to create tension. And the opposition in these stories is found elsewhere from simple embodiments of good or evil in given characters. In Joyce you find it in the characters’ desire to see or not see reality around them. Seeing frees the character (a common modernist theme of those days). Not seeing imprisons him or her.  That gives Joyce his unique platform for his tragic and comic view of life. Everyone is running around trying to see whether they see what they see. We are all heores anbd villains in different ways. Errr … do you see that?

Hemingway’s heroes seem to fit this mold as well. They value the courage to see things as they are. Others do not.  Errr … that’s why in life, Hemingway kept escaping from life by running off to war, then Paris, then Africa, then Cuba, and ended up in Idaho.  Each step along the way, he justified his escapes by writing about how he was trying to see things as they really were – to transcend what he had already seen. Did he ever get there?

In this story setting, perhaps life itself may play the role of the villain. Life presents temporary challenges that prevent the hero from seeing what life really is all about. The characters are all trapped in a world that they need to figure out! We are modern Hamlets realizing that we are just characters in a play. Or perhaps trapped in the Matrix.

If this is the case, one tends to fall back on process rather than result. Heroes are mastering or have mastered a certain esstential process. Like Neo becoming the “One”. Others have not and do not want to strive for mastery. It is too hard or too weird. Maugham’s “The Razor’s Edge” is an example of this  type of story. Larry Durrell is the hero because he is committed to mastering Buddhism. No one else can figure him out and they are lesser sorts of people as a result. In “The Sun Also Rises”, Jake Barnes may not have a penis anymore, but he seeks to master how to take pleasure in life despite his own … issues. Robert Cohen cannot fathom this because of his severe ego problem – that he does not even see! Poor devil! So cohen strays into silly land and ruins everyone’s good times in Spain.  No problem! Jake the hero can still pick up th e pieces!

Achieving mastery, of course, is one of the great motivators in real life too. It matters not whether what you master is important (even mastering the crossword puzzle for example, can be motivating).  And I think that in a world that grows ever more interconnected and sophisticated, the idea of achieving mastery resonates ever more loudly. So you might expect that the mastery storyline would be popular.  Surprise! Surprise! We have a seemingly bottomless fascination for kung fu, Rambo, superheroes, fantasy creatures, and the rest. I rest my case.

Where is this all headed? My own guess is that 21st century stories will not give up on the idea of opposition born out of desire for mastery and the barriers to achieving it. There will be those who are devoted to mastry and those who are not. The caring and the uncaring.

Come to think of it, that may define US politics now.  Those who care about an issue do not and will not be able to fathom why the others do not. Are they just barbarians? And those who do not care about that issue, will not be able to fathom why the devoted are so worked up. Why don’t they just sit back and enjoy themselves?

In this type of story, we find the potential for something new. Something that takes us beyond 20th century quests for vision. The thing that makes you perhaps “cool”. That something new is what one does with vision. In this story, being content with seeing is a problem.  That is old fasioned. Perhaps even the germ of villainy!

I am curious to see how this plays out! Errr …  are you?

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