Tuesday, May 24, 2011
The Falseness of Happy Endings
"People often die. We all do. I am warning you. This fact surfaced in literature."
You're sitting alone on a park bench on a perfect day thinking that the world is extraordinarily simple. There's the sky, the grass, and you. But you lay your head down to look at the sky and notice a plane passing overhead. Why is that plane there? Where is it going? How many passengers are on board and where are they each, separately, headed? You avert your gaze but notice a tree between you and the airplane. How old is the tree? Is it younger or older than the park? How long will it continue to live? There's a bug on your arm. Does it know it's on your arm? Is it happy there? There's a bag stuck in the tree. Who lost that bag? What did the bag hold? You put these questions--all of them--aside but are immediately confronted by the sound of a dog barking and the happy screams of children who are playing in the park nearby. Does the dog have a story? Do the children? You can't answer those questions; you haven't got the time. For two flaneurs meander past you, discussing something extraordinarily complex and meaningful. One of them is corpulent. Why can't he get his weight under control? Perhaps he's got a medical condition; perhaps he's greedy. To whom or what should you address yourself? The park is alive with colors, smells, sounds, signs, words, objects, movements, and meanings.
Even in its simplest form, the world is complex. It's plot, and only plot, that pins it down and holds it together. We therefore owe a lot to our storytellers and myth-makers, the writers and novelists who help us to make sense of the chaotic world. We owe almost as much to the literary theorists who help us to make sense of the plot-makers. Thank Viktor Shklovsky, the Soviet novelist and literary theorist who penned The Energy of Delusion: A Book on Plot in his final years. Shlovsky's treatise on the relationship between plot and creative genius isn't always easy to follow. But it does point the way toward a clearer understanding of the genius of Tolstoy, Chekhov, Cervantes, Pushkin, Boccaccio and others in the Russian and Western Canon.
What, specifically, does Shklovsky have to say about plot? I'm not sure I'm equipped to say. What fascinates me is the way in which Shklovsky sets out to describe creative genius by demonstrating it, exemplifying it. It's as if he wants to tell us that authors such as Tolstoy, the greatest "commander-in-chief of plot," pick up the old but strangely invisible threads of plot and begin to improvise, jazz-like, on the old themes. Tolstoy understands his literary inheritance on a very deep level, but this understanding somehow allows him to transcend it. The result is new avenues to truth, new doors of perception.
Shklovsky explains all this by showing rather than telling his readers that art, even literary criticism, is open-ended, unexpected, lively, and recursive. Shlovsky's writing, like the writing he describes, is brilliant, complex, contradictory, highly original, and intent on the search for meaning rather than its polished presentation.
Here are just a few of his epigrams:
Crossing the sea that is Lev Tolstoy is not an experience that can be explained in brief.
He said that everybody is guilty and then it turned out that nobody was at fault.
Heaven, as Mark Twain guessed, was a boring place. It was overcrowded.
She lived in the land of the happy.
In Hadji Murad, in the Caucacus, the Chechen says: The rope should be long, the speech--short.
He wrote Hadji Murad all his life. He wrote it better each time. More poetically.
Theirs was a compassionate generation. They felt the falseness of happy endings.
But it helped them as much as a funeral service helps a dead man.
Humankind in the multiplicity of its fate is typecast in contradictory ways, that's the chief method of developing a character. The blacksmith in Pushkin (in Dubrovsky) locks the door of a burning house; then the same blacksmith risks his life to save a cat on the roof.
Sancho Panzo used to say how he preferred to hear the answer first and then the riddle.
Russian literature, great literature, doesn't have endings.
According to rumors, even geniuses, more than others, depend on the very traditions they're violating, they depend on the choice of words, the choice of denouements.
There are as many morals as there are stars in the sky.
The infant has no memory. The infant, Tolstoy said, "is used to the eternity."
The history of literature is the history of the search for heroes.
[Tolstoy] points out that the death of one hero transfers are interest to other heroes.
Tolstoy teaches us that events exist before they are discovered.