Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Intermittent Quietude: Ahab, Hector, Winterborne and the Coalescence of Character

Sometimes one encounters, within the course of a literary work, moments of quietude. They exist for a brief flicker, as if distinct from the time-stream of the novel; all else: plot machinations, the adversarial heft and hump of the narrative world, the angst and the strife - it all drops away. And the world coalesces to the tight singularity of these two characters (or perhaps one coming to some revelatory self-insight). There is a narrative stillness, where the literary world that surrounds the two slows to sluggishness, eclipsed by the acute emotional focus of a moment stolen from time. And these are the moments that linger in memory.

As Ahab meets his own desperate end, the broader narrative expanse coalesces to encompass two - the Captain of the Pequod and his mammalian tormenter: "Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee. Sink all coffins and all hearses to one common pool! and since neither can be mine, let me then tow to pieces, while still chasing thee, though tied to thee, thou damned whale! Thus, I give up the spear!"  The emotional intensity, after traversing the salty brine aboard the Pequod in close company with Ahab and his crew for innumerable chapters, is indeed profound. One can vividly envision the physical contortion of effort, the visceral rancor which drives Ahab, and the shuddering finality of that last spear thrust. All of it disappearing beneath the placid blue, leaving a ripple or two in its wake.

Or that passage in The Iliad, one of the few that do not dwell on brutal axe-blow or dark bloodspill, but one in which Hector embraces his baby son for the last time, knowing full well of Troy's dark fate. In the midst of carnage and fear, as the corpses accumulate and the gods do bloody battle, there is a moment of stillness, of tender affection, and the narrative slows to dwell upon a warrior's love for his family. "Hector looked on his son in silence, with a smile." While his wife, Andromache,  pleads with him, weeping copious tears: "don't orphan your child, and make me a widow," the city depends upon him, and honor calls him back to defend the battlements. Then, this section, already fraught with emotional intensity, elevates sentiment still further; when his son drew back in fear, daunted by the horse-hair plume that nodded "fearfully from his helmet top", "scared at the sight of bronze," this peerless warrior of Troy lay his mighty helmet on the ground with a laugh, "kissed his dear son and held him in his arms." And all the devotion of a parental heart is hard-wrought with the understanding of what is to come. This tender interlude between father and son is framed (before and after) by grim slaughter inflicted by glittering spears, by sharp bronze penetrating to bone and brain, and by darkness falling over many a pair of eyes. In this moment of love, so vibrantly heightened by the ruthless brutality of death, the work becomes something greater than the sum of its requisite parts. Born in oral tradition, the Iliad continues to sing to us thousands of years later.

Perhaps a similar narrative narrowing facilitates the heartrending battle scene in Shakespeare's Henry VI Part 1, where Talbot entreats his son with desperate intensity to flee the field: "Wilt thou yet leave the  battle, boy, and fly..." and his son indignantly replies: "Is my name Talbot? And am I your son/And shall I fly? O, if you love my mother/Dishonor not her honorable name/To make a bastard and a slave of me./The world will say he is not Talbot's blood,/That basely fled when noble Talbot stood." This scene, this exchange of a moment amidst the frisson and fear of battle, presents a powerful rendering of Talbot's attempts at emotional restraint (and the curiously agonized joy with which he accepts his son's stalwart profession of nobility and fatality) and a son's determination to die well in violent proximity to the father he loves. This scene could be dramatized in a variety of ways: with words flung hither and yon among sword clash and conflict cry, or perhaps this exchange is conducted with hard-won breath in a moment's respite. In either rendition, the surrounding tumult heightens the drama, isolates father and son, and presents a dramatic juxtaposition to the poignant dialogue in which each so valiantly offers their own life to save the other.

Or (less of grisly carnage, but death nonetheless) in Hardy's Woodlanders, as Giles Winterborne lay dying in a wind-thrashed hut; the tempestuous storm without highlights the quietude within. The darkness surrounds and envelopes Giles and his yearned-for Grace, and by the light of a candle, she is of-a-sudden struck by his "purity of nature, his freedom from the grosser passions, his scrupulous delicacy." It is only within the confines of this isolated abode, prompted by Giles' self-sacrifice, that Grace at last understands him. And it is these perceptions that elevate her affections to "something little short of reverence." A reverence all the more tragic for being so lately realized.

These moments of stillness within a novel (oft preceded or surrounded by a flurry) can, I think, be utilized by a writer to powerful effect. For the characters involved, these particular circumstances are often eloquently suggestive, signifying the depth of a hitherto unacknowledged emotional bond, the futility of a life consumed by an unquenchable thirst for vengeance, the poignant leave-taking of a baby son by a father destined to die, or the desperate attempt to preserve one's offspring at whatever required cost. Whether it be Shakespeare or Melville, Hardy or Homer, these writers have composed exquisite moments of emotional intensity that imbue us, like the characters therein described, with a still attentiveness; breath caught and held - seized as we are by the emotive force of these moments: defined by the surety of death, the despair of love, and the irretrievably agonizing loss of a child that is, almost, more than can be borne by the human heart.