Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Thursday, May 27, 2010

I can't improve on these statements

Chadwick Matlin:

The purgatory scenes are a symptom of what, in retrospect, was Lost's greatest flaw. It refused to follow its own advice and let dead be dead. In the early seasons, Lost prided itself on its willingness to kill off any character it wanted. This, we were told, was proof that on the island the stakes were high. But then Lost's writers fell in love with their characters, and people started wearing bulletproof vests, recovering from harpoons to the heart, and returning as Demon Spawn. By granting the characters' souls eternal life, in purgatory or elsewhere, the writers diminished our interest in their actual lives — the ones audiences spent six years watching. Lost's writers should have taken a lesson from their characters and learned to let go.

Will Wilkinson:

It is the sloppy promiscuity of our undiscerning sentimentality that allows us to project our feelings from one character across worlds to his or her non-identical counterpart. . . . Now, I don’t know about you, but I’d like to think I’m not such a pushover. I don’t want to marry a bundle of repeatable attributes. I say I’m in love with an individual, a solid substance and its singular quiddity. I could give f•••-all if her counterpart in some untouchable precinct of the multiverse wears an eyepatch, wins the Pulitzer Prize, or is torn limb from limb by cannibal dwarves. None are my beloved. The finale of Lost pretended to be about the ultimacy and redemptive power of love, or something like that, but it exemplified instead the incoherent ruinous mess of our needy scattershot attachments, our whorish readiness to be doped by the dull, warm, indeterminate golden light. Speak not to me of love, Lost, if you know not love.

I’m not a fan of large sweeping apocalyptic statements, but here’s one for you: the current fascination with possible worlds, an infinite number of alternative universes, is death to narrative. Death to narrative because our stories draw their power chiefly from the limits of our lives. If death is the mother of beauty, limit is the mother of story. I’m not sure why or how the makers of Lost got caught up in this — in the recent reboot of Star Trek it seems that J. J. Abrams glommed on to it because it offers infinite expansion of the franchise: one world in which Kirk and Spock are enemies, another in which they are best friends, several in which they die young, a few in which they live to a ripe old age. . . .

But whatever one’s reasons for embracing this model, it renders every particular story vacuous. Why weep when Lear enters, bearing the dead Cordelia in his arms, or when Juliet awakens from her drug-induced sleep to find Romeo dead? Much easier to turn our eyes to those alternate worlds in which Lear and Cordelia crush their enemies, and Romeo and Juliet unite the houses of Montague and Capulet, world without end, amen. Or, rather, world that goes on until we get bored again and decide we want a bloodier cosmos, just for a change.

18 comments:

  • I agree, but think there's a bit of a chicken-and-egg conversation to be had here.

    The key word in your post is probably "franchise." In corporate entertainment, it's very hard to "let dead be dead." It's not profitable to kill off beloved characters. In most cases, if you have an empire built on iconic characters, the narrative is already dead. The characters can't significantly change or die, which means every episode/installment has to largely end where you began. It's why the only interesting Superman stories these days take place in alternate universes (and why DC didn't have the guts to make "Kingdom Come" canonical).

    The alternate universes offer writers the opportunity to actually put limits (and deaths and significant change) into their franchised characters.

    But I take your point on "limit is the mother of story." To continue with the Superman example, it's why DC had to pull way back from the omnipotence of the 70s and Christopher Reeve films.

    If Shakespeare knew he how profitable sequels could be, surely the endings you mention above would have been happier--and we would be suffering through Henry VI, Part 17, as well...

    (Though, I suppose, the argument could be made that many Shakespeare plays WERE 'alternate timeline/history' of known characters and stories, eh? You'd know more on that than I.)

  • "Death to narrative because our stories draw their power chiefly from the limits of our lives."

    This line reminds me of one of the final speeches by a cyclon toward the end of Battlestar Galactica, lamenting the infinite loop of their lives vs. the limit that death places on a single, unrepeatable, and hence meaningful human life.

    But then, I was disappointed with the end of that show as well ...

  • Very interesting analyses and comments.

    Narrative/story is the substrate upon which consciousness acts. Consequently, narrative is pressed into service for many diverse things well beyond art and commerce. Even the old Star Trek series flirted from time to time with alternate realities and timelines. In modern storytelling, especially cinema, an over-reliance on technics (or just plain experimentation) results in narrative that often suffers. So tricks and crutches are employed and later justified as virtues. Discerning readers/viewers needn't be too easily convinced by such pedestrian fare.

  • I very much agree with you, Alan, about the consequences of infinite alt-universes. But that wasn't what was up in Lost. I won't defend the show's conclusion too vehemently, at least not at this point — but while the sideways timeline of season 6 was meant to explore other possibilities for the characters, on a literal level it was not an alternate version of the same universe, but a sort of purgatory.

    The best and most charitable interpretation I've heard of this is from a friend who argues it's a mix between Catholic purgatory and a sort of version of karmic return. What happened on the island, in the "real" timeline, very much mattered to the alt-timeline. What we see over the course of the show is the main characters going from lost and broken to something more whole. The alt-timeline shows us how their lives would have been if they got a chance to start over after having grown in that way (hence the karmic return). The characters who didn't make it into the church were the ones who failed to be redeemed (Michael, Ana Lucia).

    You can argue with the wisdom of showing us this, and with how well they executed it, and I would (a story can be subtle without requiring decryption to understand) — but I now doubt my initial reaction that the alt-timeline was entirely a throwaway as you're describing.

  • Michael Straight said...

    Kirk and Spock are in a whole different category from Romeo and Juliet. Kirk and Spock are like Superman or James Bond. Romeo and Juliet are characters in a specific story. Kirk and Spock are engines for generating an endless series of stories.

    If you say "The story of Romeo and Juliet" you are thinking of a tale with a beginning, middle, and end. You probably wouldn't refer to "The story of Kirk and Spock," but if you did, you would probably be referring to a premise, a beginning and maybe a middle. "The story of Superman," is his origin story.

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  • Ari, I am fully willing to suspend or forego judgment, on the grounds you suggest. Especially since I've missed too much Lost to catch up, EVAR.

    Michael, I would agree with your first paragraph except for the word "endless." Mythopoeic characters have limits too, just as firm as the limits on realistic characters or characters in a single story; the constraints are just different.

  • It's never too late, Alan! At least watch through the end of season 3.

  • (Which is the greatest season finale EVAR.)

  • Sean McGinty said...

    I think Ari's initial interpretation is on the right track (although, honestly, I'm not a devoted enough fan to say for certain). I view the Sideways storyline as a type of crazy postmodern remix of "The Great Divorce", in which the characters reflect various aspects of themselves that were developed throughout the course of series. Again, I could be quite wrong on that point, but at the very least it dovetails with the finale's crazy postmodern ripoff of the Narnia ending:)

  • Michael Straight said...

    People have been writing Superman stories for 70 years. They're still making Bond movies 60 years after Flemming invented the character. If you include novels, people have been writing Kirk & Spock stories for more than 40 years.

    And you will find people pointing to recent stories about each of those characters and arguing that they are some of the best, most true-to-the-character stories yet. Looks pretty endless to me.

  • Michael, but it's not! For instance: you may be able to make a story in which Spock is temporarily a hothead and Kirk temporarily a logic machine, but eventually you have to bring them back to their archetypal selves or they're not Kirk and Spock anymore. There are similar constraints on the characters of Sherlock Holmes and Watson. Superman can be temporarily weakened by Kryptonite or a return to Krypton or whatever, but in the end he has to go back to being Super. The characters themselves, and the backstories that form them, set limits, and while you can make up a great many stories about them, those stories are finite, and that's what we want them to be. So you can have a storyline in which we see that Spock's cool logical self is made, not given, but you can't really have one in which he never gets that cool logical self at all and spends his life breaking heads in cheap dives. That's what I mean by constraints.

  • This all reminds me of certain math problems that get really difficult when posed in some fixed dimension, but are much simpler for higher dimensional cases (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poincare_conjecture#Dimensions). Despite the name complex numbers often simplify the finding of solutions as there is "more room" to work with and "more paths" to get to the solution. Good science fiction always seems to be about limits though (often it is that the limits we try to impose have a limited effect).

  • Michael Straight said...

    By endless, I didn't mean you could write any story and make it a Kirk and Spock story just by having their names in it.

    What I meant is that these characters are not mythopoeic in the C.S. Lewis sense of the word myth. Their essence is not a particular plot "Psyche peeks at Cupid and is cast out." Romeo and Juliet are mythopoeic in that sense, and to write an alternate story in which they get married and live happily ever after would be vacuous.

    But characters like Kirk, Spock, Superman, etc. are different. The movie Superman 2 presents the tragic story that he must choose between marrying Lois and being Superman, and for the good of the world, must be Superman. In the comics, Superman has been married to Lois for 20-30 years (while remaining eternally ~30 years old). I've never heard anyone claim either of these stories undercuts the other.

    There are endless contradictory Superman stories - Superman and Batman can be buddies or enemies, Superman can end tragically or triumphantly, with or without Lois. The variants are usually judged by how true they are to the character of Superman (and generally how well executed), not over whether one plot makes the other contradictory ones meaningless.

    Kirk and Spock are endless in that way. Readers will accept all sorts of contradictory plots -- heroic deaths, happy retirements, variant backstories -- so long as the characters remain recognizably Kirk and Spock.

    So I agree that possible worlds and alternate universes can be death to narrative, for some sorts of stories and characters, but there are other sorts of characters where those things have been driving narrative just fine for 50+ years.

  • du Garbandier said...

    Alan wrote: "The characters themselves, and the backstories that form them, set limits, and while you can make up a great many stories about them, those stories are finite, and that's what we want them to be."

    One of the most controversial episodes of The Simpsons involved the brazen flouting of these very sorts of constraints. In "The Prince and the Pauper" Principal Skinner, one of the show's most beloved and well-established characters, was revealed to be Springfield's version of Martin Guerre--that is, a complete imposter named Armin Tamzarian. In the end, the community ran the real Skinner out of town and swore never to mention the whole affair again. There was no dream revelation or anything like that--it was all presented as narrative truth. So suddenly with a single episode, not only has the character turned out to be fraudulent but the community becomes complicit in what amounts to a sin against memory.

    In response to the subsequent storm of outrage among fans, the writer of the episode struck a very condescending and obtuse note in his defense: "This [episode] is about a community of people who like things just the way they are. Skinner's not really close to these people—you know, he's a minor character—but they get upset when someone comes in and says, "This is not really the way things are," and they run the messenger out of town on the rail. When the episode aired, lo and behold, a community of people who like things just the way they are got mad. It never seems to have occurred to anyone that this episode is about the people who hate it."

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Principal_and_the_Pauper

  • Michael, I think at this point you may be arguing against points I didn't make.

    I should explain that when I talk about mythopoeic characters I am following a usage pioneered by W. H. Auden and then employed by a number of other critics since. (It has no relation to CSL's use of the words mythopoeic or mythopoesis.) The term means something like the opposite of what you're taking it to mean here: a mythopoeic character in Auden' sense is one not tied to any single storyline, but capable of being placed in story after story. Sherlock Holmes is a good example: he doesn't ever need to die or get old or change in any significant way, and indeed he really can't without becoming something other than Sherlock Holmes. Ditto with Superman, Batman, Kirk, Spock, etc. So the characters are very but not infinitely flexible, that's all I'm saying. There's a core to who they are that must be respected, which I think you acknowledge.

    As du Garbandier's wonderful example illustrates, there are no clear markers of the limits and writers will often try to find out what those limits are, often generating as a result the wrath of readers and viewers. For instance, you think it would be legitimate to have a story in which Kirk and Spock are happily retired from military service, but I don't. I think if that happens they have ceased to be mythopoeic characters (in Auden's sense) and have become realistic characters instead. And who would want that?

  • Michael Straight said...

    when I talk about mythopoeic characters I am following a usage pioneered by W. H. Auden...not tied to any single storyline, but capable of being placed in story after story.

    OK, now that's more interesting than any of this other stuff. Why did he use "mythopoeic" that way? It's not just CSL who looked at myths the opposite way. Joseph Campbell's monomyth idea is about a single narrative with a definite beginning and end, certainly not a character type who has continuing adventures.

    I'm having trouble thinking of any characters in classical mythology that fit that description. What I would call "mythical" heroes like Thor, Heracles, Arthur, Robin Hood all fit Lewis's idea of myth better Auden's (if I'm understanding you right). The only example I can think of are Trickster characters like Anansi or Coyote. Maybe Paul Bunyan. All the rest are in more modern fiction that hardly ever gets called mythological - detectives (Poirot, Miss Maple, Nancy Drew), superheroes, adventurers (Flash Gordon, Zorro, Conan), etc.

  • Michael, I think Auden and Lewis are just talking about different things: Lewis about a kind of story, Auden about a kind of character. Auden would say that just as the gods in most mythological systems have a limited set of fixed traits, are fully-formed, and never change in major ways — Ares can never become peaceful, Athena will always be clever and resourceful, Loki can never repent and grow honest — there is also a distinctive kind of literary character with the same features. Thus my earlier comments about Sherlock Holmes. Auden, who thinks characters of this kind often come in pairs, also mentions Jeeves and Wooster, Mr Pickwick and Sam Weller, Prospero and Caliban, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza (when Don Quixote recover his sanity everyone feels betrayed and the only thing left for him to do is to die). I was just arguing that Kirk and Spock fit this definition.

    By the way, Auden would definitely think that Poirot and Mis Marple belong to the tribe as well. Also Robin Hood, who can't, in any traditional version of the story, sell out to King John or decide to retire to the suburbs. Modern retellings of such tales almost always revise them int he direction of realistic characterization, a move that came into comics with Spiderman.

    Anyway, that's Auden's distinction, and I think it's helpful. Lewis is really discussing totally different matters.

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