Thursday, October 11, 2012
Mortality, Fear & the Poignancy of Action
Humans, as well as our fictional counterparts, benefit, I believe, from this self-reflective search for meaning when set against our shuffled mortal coil. One of the most poignant contrasts that comes to mind is that between Homer's portrayal of the immortal gods and the warriors struggling in bloody battle below. The Olympian gods depicted in the Iliad are quarrelsome and furiously self-absorbed; Zeus is an all-powerful, philandering father with a watchful, jealous wife; their sons and daughters vying for parental attention and favor as they pursue individual aims. They are subject to neither time nor change, and being unable to age they are unable to grow. The gods never question or examine the nature of their own existence, they move ferociously onwards in blind self-affirmation. It is only the mortals that are endowed with a truly great courage: Hector who does his duty and fights for his people even though he knows they are doomed; the Trojan warriors exulting at the beauty of the plains before launching into battle at dawn: "And so their spirits soared..stars in the night sky glittering round the moon's brilliant blaze in all their glory..." There is a crisp yearning beauty that the gods can never comprehend: as all who have waited to go into battle know, how clear and memorable and lovely is every detail of the landscape that the soldier fears he may be seeing for the last time. Once in battle, the frivolous antics of the gods highlight the dignity of man, the former are exempt from the consequences of the action - they cannot die; while the latter risk and suffer not only pain and mutilation but the prospect, if the war goes on long enough, of death, of the total extinction of the individual personality.
While the human characters of the Iliad are literally engaged in gruesome bloody battle, these qualities of endurance, suffering and heroic sacrifice can be extrapolated to a smaller, less monumental stage. Small acts of courage are evident throughout literature - when Tess of the d'Urbervilles refuses to marry Alec despite the social advantage and economic ease the match would provide: her integrity and defiance make her heroic; To Kill a Mockingbird : "I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It's when you know you're licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what." Reminiscent of Hector? Courage, as Mark Twain defines it, is "resistance to fear, mastery of fear - not absence of fear."
Perhaps it is more precisely the fear then that lends dramatic poignancy to action and ultimately to characters themselves. For what are they, and we, afraid of? The loss of what matters most. This, of course differs from one character to another - for Ethan Hawley in Steinbeck's Winter of our Discontent, it is his commitment to honesty and integrity amidst corruption, a world famously articulated by Gordon Gecko in the 1987 film Wall Street where "greed is good"; external pressures, as well as his own inner turmoil, set Ethan on a dangerous path to reclaim the trappings of success. Even if the character is not engaged in gladiatorial combat, they are still drawing upon courage reserves, struggling to overcome fear, to move forward in a meaningful way. So it behooves the writer to ask, when formulating a character: What are they afraid of?
The loss of honor galvanized Homeric warriors into battle, the lack of love (or her own idealized version of it) prompted Anna Karenina to throw herself beneath a train - because we always have that option: Ernest Hemingway addressed suicide in his novels, Shakespeare ended many of his characters' lives that way. For, after all, isn't the ultimate loss one of life itself? The mortality of man is a necessary precondition of courage, for the gods of the Iliad can never really be brave - not in the way it really matters.
Sooner or later, in suffering, in disaster, in loss, fictional characters come to realize their limits, accept mortality and establish or reestablish a human relationship with their fellow men. It is this dynamic struggle to overcome fear, to gather courage, and to persevere with an individualized quest for meaning within a brief flicker of a lifetime that defines the human condition; for the writer it also offers unlimited potential to animate fictional characters with a true breath of life, instilled, paradoxically, within a fear of death.