Nothing on “the scene” is currently interesting me–or perhaps I should say, more honestly, that everything in public life and contemporary culture so disgusts me at the moment that I’m trying very hard to direct my attention away from it. So the idea came to me that I would again share a little of what I’ve been writing for a book. This opus, to be titled Literary Decline and the Death of the Spirit, gathers together a lot of what I’ve wanted to say about the literary art for almost forty years. In fact, some of it was composed several years ago… but the bit I’ve decided to post today was put together last week. It’s intended as an example following a rather more abstract discussion. So…
b) how a story profits artistically from depth of character
Examples are always welcome in abstract discussions. I learned much from the previous chapter’s examples simply in composing them. I offer the following extended illustration, then, by way of clarifying the importance in a story of deep characterization—of a palpable presence of free will—to generating an artistic sense of mystery.
Say that we have a feminist yarn about a society which eradicates males. Readers will have inferred long before now that I attribute to academic feminism, perhaps more than to any other single source, a rash of careless readings that has beaten the finesse out of literary studies. Every one of Chapter Four’s examples features an insistently feminist interpretation that has created a challenge to literary appreciation. As the imperative to observe an orthodoxy—a party line—grows more and more strident, interest in or tolerance of individual characters who do more than project the Woman’s Perspective (i.e., are three-dimensional human beings) begins to wane… and we end up with narratives that harangue rather than provoke thought.
So in designing my hypothetical, I will not only not deny, but will stress that I am handling subject matter in whose typical message or “moral” I place no confidence. Yet I still fancy that I can visualize this narrative growing in artistic strength to the degree that it pays more attention to character.
Let us dub our protagonist Nadya Ventura—again. (If anyone in the wide world bears this name, I wish a) to apologize for appropriating your handle, and b) to congratulate you upon having the perfect moniker for an adventure/romance novel.) Nadya leads the charge against the male sex. She appears in all major battle scenes. We can locate our story in the future so that blood spatter doesn’t render our pages obscene: perhaps all annihilation is accomplished with ray-guns. However the cause is carried forward, Nadya is always in the vanguard. Lots of action fills our book, and lots of courage, skill, resourcefulness, and intelligence flows from Nadya. She is a genuine super-hero.
So far, our narrative is a mere cartoon. One would like to think that even in today’s academy, it would find little support for being placed on the syllabus of a Contemporary Novels course.
Now let’s tweak the text. Let us say that Nadya enters into conflict (verbal conflict) with her entourage of triumphant Amazons concerning the fate of the vanquished males. Some wish the prisoners to be carted off to a kind of gender-Auschwitz for instant vaporization. Others (emulating what Herodotus tells us of the Scythians) advocate blinding the captives and enslaving them. Perhaps others pronounce themselves content merely to have all surviving males transformed through hormone therapy and a little elementary surgery. Nadya considers all of these options inhumane and somewhat disgusting. As debate proceeds, it is evident that she occupies a small minority of opinion. Eventually she stands alone, refusing to concede… and a powerful bureaucracy has her posted to the highly undesirable Planet Ogygia, sidetracking her career and jeopardizing her life.
The narrative is growing more interesting, is it not? The word “inhumane” crept into my condensation of events above: it was no mere slip of the pen. Nadya has become something more than a two-dimensional poster for militant, sophomoric feminism. She appears to recognize (or to begin to recognize) that the essential problem in human relations is abuse of power, and that relations between men and women have traditionally modeled just a few possible forms of such abuse. An inner universe is opening up as we follow her reflections, its boundaries at least as veiled in shadow as those ringing Planet Ogygia.
We could do yet more—much more. What’s a romance without some romance? So how do women address this side of existence in an all-female society? We could have them put the enslaved males to bedroom service prior to being executed, rather in the fashion of Ariosto’s expatriate Amazons from Crete; we could picture them as opting for a “lesbian only” habit of life; or, if the story indeed has a futuristic turn, we could give them robotic lovers, engineered and programmed to precise specifications. Nadya could enter into conflict with her peers or superiors in any one of these scenarios. She might become too attached to her lover-slave to surrender him for “nullification” at the mandated moment. She might find that her female companion, upon receiving a promotion, begins to demand favors rather than to pursue an equal relationship. She might tire of her cyber-amant for some reason that she can’t quite define, stalked by the uneasy, creeping conviction that the arrangement is reducing her, as well, to a machine. In the novel’s long version, she might work through all three options and register major dissatisfaction with each.
I find that Nadya is beginning to grow very interesting—and ever more “literary”. Again, I have deliberately (and somewhat archly, with more smug irony along the way than I could hope to deny) chosen a subject whose moral assumptions are repugnant to me. I am not remotely receptive to the prospect of feminist world domination. Yet I would still find something to enjoy artistically in this hypothetical narrative as Nadya progressed from a crude stereotype to a vibrant human being who wrestles with issues involving freedom, fairness, generosity, and self-respect.
An adversary might protest loudly, “Well, of course you take increasing delight in the narrative arrangements just described! With each one, you are undermining the theme that a women-only utopia would be a better place.” In response, I would offer to make Nadya’s supervisor, Sister Carrie, the main character; and Carrie, as indicated in all of my previous suggestions, would resist Nadya’s reactionary tendencies at every step. It is Carrie who would want the prisoners enslaved and emasculated prior to eventual execution, and who would become Nadya’s lover prior to innovating a culture-wide shift to gigolo-robots. All of the story’s action could filter through Carrie’s mind: she could indeed be its narrator. “The pleading of the prisoners before they were administered the ‘exit pill’,” she might say, “was disturbing to me. But I recognized my duty, and I imagined the chorus of silent pleading from generations of women who had feared to lift up their voices. Their volume drowned out the prisoners’ cries completely.” And later, this: “I had grown very fond of Nadya, and banishing her to Ogygia pained me deeply. But I knew that I might lack the strength needed to accomplish our mission if my darling Nadya continued to undermine it from the pillow. No sacrifice I made for the cause ever cost me more dearly.”
My adversary will fire back that I have now delivered the story into the hands of an “unreliable narrator” whom readers will perceive as a fanatic—and that I am hence, once again, undermining the work’s theme to suit my own taste. This manner of response would signify to me that I could do nothing to placate my critic; every move I might make in the direction of radical feminist liberation would be viewed as secret sabotage… and so it would be, in a way. Because every move I have in mind would simply pry open the monomaniacal plot and slip in touches of characterization—of weighing options, of venting frustrations, of regretting missed opportunities, of grieving the loss of present joys in the future (each element of which list, by the way, may be observed in the words assigned to Medea by Euripides). The insurmountable wall separating me from my adversary isn’t really politics or ideology at all, or not in this artistic context: it is the issue of allowing evidence of individual inner life—of free will—into the text versus banning it rigorously. If I have my way and one or more characters, no matter who they are, reflect in detectible fashion upon events, then my opponent’s desired effect is already compromised; for in his our her fictional vision of utopia, nobody has an independent thought. The world is so “perfect” that all of its surviving inhabitants merely live their waking hours in undifferentiated unity, never being driven into that moment of intimate personal questioning which indicts at least a tiny bit of dissonance between inside and outside.
No room for mystery here; and without the mysterious space created by affirmations of character, there is also no reality other than the purely objective world of sensory impressions. There is no soul here, and no beauty. It is a landscape, for that matter, where robots would feel entirely comfortable, and where one could no longer distinguish between the despiritualized human and the clever machine.