Wednesday, November 07, 2007

The stories we tell

Norm, Mick, and Freemania are talking fiction these days. They puzzle over why we, as readers, are so enthralled to the stories we hear or read, why we like literary characters even though we know they are fictional.

I relate to that in a very personal way. I have now been enthralled to the character of Shylock for almost a decade. My analysis of him has been viewed as somewhat eccentric. Because I treat him as if he were a "real" figure, not a figment of Shakespeare's imagination. I try to place him in time, puzzle about what he knows and why, what the language he uses may tell us about his origins, etc etc.

There is an essay by Derrida about Shylock which I like very much. I like it because he starts off speaking about a fictional character and half-way through the piece, the reality of the character and the nature of the circumstances in which he is embroiled take over the disinterested tone of the philosopher. As Derrida gets further into the intricacies of the situation, the reader can feel his emotions begin to surface, anger, anguish, sarcasm, appeal to understanding, frustration.

Perhaps we relate to fictional characters because they represent for us the road not taken, the myriad possibilities that our own life could have been but were discarded, knowingly or unknowingly.

"We are our stories, we are the lives we tell." An anonymous poet once said.

But... isn't it rather the other way around?

My life tells me. I'm born into a set of circumstances from which several stories may issue forth. Each choice takes me into a different story. If I am lucky, it is the story, which I created for myself. Often it is the story that others created for me.

Why do we care about characters in a book? Because we see in them possibilities denied to us, or lived realities we share with them. They tell us about ourselves, as well as about what we are not. What we are and what we could have been. Either for good or bad, we learn something from them. Maybe they are not the direct teachers. It's the gap between myself as reader and their existence as possibilities. In Anne Carson parlance, it is an erotic void, somewhat traversable but never bridgeable, filled with angst, desire, hunger, anger, love, affection, every sentiment that makes us experience ourselves and thereby, to grow.

The Chinese sign for crisis combines two symbols: danger and opportunity. Or, if you wish to intensify, or universalize, the contrasts, terror and beauty.

Terror surrounds us, beauty beckons. Terror defines us. Beauty revives us. The story we tell of our life is that of terror, crisis, suffering, punctuated by rare moments of beauty. Terror is the life we live. A story happens when terror is turned into beauty. Why does this transformation occur? Because the story gives meaning to our travails. Beauty is the meaning we attach to our life in the hope of defeating terror.

How can we possibly remain indifferent to characters, stories, that flow with meaning, open up this vista for us?


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