April 4, 2007

Desire, The Secret, and Literary Fictions

BodhidharmaBuddha gathered his disciples at a lake on Gridhakuta for instruction. His adherents sat in a circle about him eagerly awaiting his teachings. Wordlessly Buddha reached into the muck and pulled up a single lotus flower. He then held it high for all to see.

Practically everyone was bewildered. But then the disciple Mahakashyapa began to laugh.

Finally, Buddha handed the lotus flower to Mahakashyapa and said, “What can be said I have said to you, and what cannot be said, I have given to Mahakashyapa.” (Via Copyblogger)

What makes an action significant? Is an action inherently significant or does it depend on the actors or the perception of the observers? The interchange between the Buddha and Mahakashyapa could have been perceived as one person giving another person a flower, but when the contextual clues of teacher and student are added, we understand why this simple action led to Mahakashyapa's realization of Zen. Does the difference between significance and insignificance rest on the intentionality of the actors and the ability to perceive the meaning of the action within the framework of the contextual clues?

In the story above, the disciples of the Buddha were expecting a lecture on being and the Buddha pulled up a lotus-- a flower that had profound cultural significance. Yet only Mahakashyapa realized the profundity of the action. The significance resulted from the Buddha's intentionality (a sign on a focused consciousness) and the meaning was expanded by metaphor. The significance of the action was created by the Buddha's focused consciousness and not from the perception of the observers. In an alternative story I would have written, the Buddha in another incarnation had tried the same lesson, but it didn't work, so he was left with a dead flower in his hand. And even though he knew he was enlightened, he was still sad as he walked down the hill because he knew that he would have to go through another lifetime before one disciple got it, but he was still focused.

In literature, as in life, it is this focused concentration on the significant actions within a community's memory that distinguishes literary from non-literary fictions. The result of this concentration is manifested in sentences, characters, plot, and narrative, and the entire work is marked by an awareness of the complexity of choice within the cultural/historical tradition of a community. In a work of fiction, the desire of the protagonist propels the drama and necessarily invites the presence of an antagonist. This antagonist can be external, internal or external representations of the protagonist's internal conflicts. Is it me, them, or there is no "them," Spoon Boy? Either way, if there is no desire, there is no drama.

Writers and prophets tread the same hallowed ground of desire and often ask the same questions: what is the nature of desire? What is the relationship between ethics and desire? At what cost should the desired object be achieved? Are some actions inherently "wrong" or "right" or should those questions be considered only within the context of the gaining the desired object and the ability/willingness of the protagonist to live with the consequences of his/her actions? The difference between a writer and a prophet is that the prophet usually wants to change the listeners' views about desire and the writer is fascinated by the effects.

Quite often, the writer begins from the proposition, I wonder what would happen if the hero of my novel, I'll call him Bobby, who wants______ were to_____. But then, _____ happens. The drama begins with desire, and as the Buddha teaches desire, even if fulfilled, is the cause of suffering. The writer may know this, but it's Bobby we're worried about. Bobby really wants X. This begs the question, why does Bobby want X?

This leads us to questions of identity:
Who am I?
Where have I been?
Where am I going?

Methods of gaining the desired object:
How will I get X?
How did people in the past get X?
Did it work?
Is R, the way of my people, the only may of getting X?
How about using Y?

The context of the community's identity and memory;
This is who we are.
This is where we have been.
This is where we are going

The community's methods of gaining X:
R is how we have gained X in the past and R is how we will gain X in the future.
Only ___________ should gain or have X

Non-literary fiction or popular fiction doesn't concern itself with these questions. Commercial fiction is only prepared to ask two questions, will Bobby get X? What happens next? And we read along just to find out if Bobby will get X because Bobby is a fine fellow who has ___ hair, ___ eyes, brushes his teeth, combs his hair, lives in ______, doesn't smoke, works out regularly, and has a sense of humor, so he's named his dog, Woof!

Bobby never asks complex questions--he's too busy worrying about his hair. And if Bobby does think about these questions, his partner usually says, "Why are you worrying about that? I just want to dance. C'mon, dance with me Bobby! Dance with me! You're still not thinking about Y, are you?"

For the minute Bobby thinks about Y, then the creator has a choice: either to continue with the same old script (which may not be working) or use what s/he knows to write a new script. If the creator decides to follow Bobby on his quest of discovering how using Y will get X, then we have the possibility of a literary novel. For if Bobby tries a new way, he must now confront his past, the community's memory of the past, and the upholders of Y-NOT! Allusion is one method that writers often use to demonstrate the protagonist's plight within the literary tradition. The strength of literary fictions often depends upon the writer's ability to make the connection between the past and contemporary events and to create complex metacognitive patterns that are reflected in the choice of words, sensory details, and figurative language. And it's not complexity for complexity's sake, but a thorough examination of metaphor--a signature beauty that is often not present in commercial fiction.

For example, a popular novel could be about a man who went to fight in Iraq because he thought that this would make his parents and the girl whom he loves proud of him. Bobby goes to the war and sees many bad things. On his journey home, he meets some interesting people and then comes home. His parents are proud of him and he marries the girl at the dance.

A literary novel on the other hand could show the connection between Bobby's journey and the mother of all war veteran's journey, the Odyssey, and if the characters are emotionally appealing, the plot is believable, and the sentences are rich with sensory and emotional details that engage the reader, then the writer may have written a book that a school teacher will force on her students. This is why we have Cliffs Notes.

But what if the creator is obsessed about desire, the nature of desire, and its relationship to ethics? In other words, what is the price that Bobby must pay to achieve X? What must Bobby do to achieve X? What if the community of which Bobby is a part deems that his methods of achieving X are "unethical"? What if his community has said that people like Bobby shouldn't get X and will defend their right to deny Bobby X? What if Bobby hasn't been trained or mentored to achieve X and isn't prepared for the consequences of using R? What if after Bobby has achieved X, the cost and unintended consequences of achieving X are more than Bobby can bear? As a sidenote, this is the part that the creators of The Secret (which verges on a kind of solipsism) have left out, but these questions have been a part of our literary tradition in the plays of Shakespeare and in Orson Well's classic, Citizen Kane.

In Hamlet, the protagonist, who has been studying in another country, wants to discover who killed his father, but he has not been trained by his society in the methods of achieving this goal. The only surviving mentor available is an old fool who prattles traditional platitudes. Hamlet's knowledge of the murderer's culpability was not arrived at by his community's usual methods of judging guilt or innocence. Yet he trusts that intuitive knowledge which leads him to the truth, but his method gives the murderer enough time to plot against him. In the midst of this, although he is committed to bringing his father's killer to justice (not merely vengeance), he questions his community's ethics and values. Hamlet is focused on his goal, but he gives his antagonist enough time to react, which leads to his demise. Hamlet is in new territory, but when he doubts his methods and actions, he shows that he doesn't have a sense of entitlement that a young prince should have. Was he doomed from the start to deal with situations like this? Shouldn't he have been trained from childhood to become the king and to deal with similar situations? Shakespeare gives us an answer in Prince Harry who knows exactly what he wants, but when he leaves Falstaff, his beloved mentor, we realize the terrible price he has paid in order to become the king. Similarly, Orson Well's, Citizen Kane (the hero's final word is "Rosebud"--a reference to his childhood), also demonstrates the unintended consequences of achieving a goal for which the protagonist is emotionally unprepared. The weight of history crushes the hero.

The burden of history takes many forms. In Caribbean literary fictions, as the books from the Top Ten Caribbean Novels demonstrate, the protagonist's struggle against history in the forms of slavery, colonialism, and patriarchy, and the ethical dimensions seems to haunt the narratives. The ethical questions of the actions are usually judged within the context of the Judaeo Christian morality. (In the oral tradition, many of Bob Marley's lyrics derive their appeal from his allusions to Judaeo-Christian morality and its connection to the events in his life.) But many of the novels the Top Ten Caribbean Novels are over thirty years old and some of the questions that they raised are now historical curiosities.

If a writer's task is to demonstrate the emotional consequences of action within a cultural and historical context, where are the literary fictions in the Caribbean that highlight our current preoccupations (desires) within the literary tradition of Naipaul, Kincaid, Danticat, Mais, Lamming, Hopkinson, CLR James, Schwarz-Bart, Patterson, Lovelace and Rhys? If they are not present, do we really want this? Why? Why not?

The question of desire is as old as Gautama and all the Buddhas before him, and a healthy literary tradition asks questions about the means of achieving goals. The tentative answers provided within literary fictions are always conditioned by time and place because if it was "right" for Hamlet to kill the king to achieve his goal, then why is it "wrong" for Macbeth to kill the king to achieve his goal? Are authenticity and intentionality the only means of judging actions? Should we be judging at all? Do ethics matter at all? Are all ethical questions conditioned by time and place? What is ethical in a postcolonial setting? Is a focused, driven life the only way to achieve success or is there such a thing as serendipity? What if someone either by natural or cultural disposition, like the Caribbean Hamlet, Ralph Singh in Naipaul's Mimic Men, is hesitant, will this always lead to failure? Are there cultures that are predisposed to failure in the twenty-first century? What if someone who was born into one of these cultures tried to change the cultural dispositions, would she achieve success? Who should achieve success? These are some of the questions we could be asking or finding ways to ask new questions. Are we listening or do we just want to dance?
I'll be taking a break for Easter. See you on Monday.



Richard said...

This is a great post. Very well said. Happy Easter!

Mad Bull said...

This is an excellent post. Indeed, I almost feel like you plucked a lotus out of the mud and handed it to me. :)

Have a good Easter, Geoffrey.

Geoffrey Philp said...

Give thanks, MadBull and Richard. I paid a bill online and gave into the temptation to look at the blog and saw your kind comments.

Peace and see you on Monday!

Rethabile said...

Yes, your blog makes me think. I hope you're having a wonderful Easter.

Professor Zero said...

Gosh - I may make this post required reading in Introduction to Literature ... !!!

Geoffrey Philp said...

Rethabile, give thanks. I had a great Easter which was topped off by a great family gathering.


Geoffrey Philp said...

Thank you, Professor Zero.The post was prompted by several discussions by critics who are not fiction writers. I wanted to show a working writer viewed literary fiction.


Anonymous said...

Come in, G Blogg! yr welcome engage w/MM juss in. Soooo rare in our lit crit, we haf at lass a rencontre w/the basics - the WORDS demself (you've found a way a
grafficin dem up!), ff by this fascinating 'For beneath his urbane intelligence [which evvabody sehs & agrees hon] IS A RADICAL DISTRUST OF THE TOOLS such as
LANGUAGE & METAPHOR that are used to explore our existential and epistemo dilemmas.' This is a big-wud unXplore BOMBSHELL or rather CRATER which i hope you'll get into in yr continuing magnifique (esp as i click on some of the other portals or trap-dooers you have there like inta Buddha an ting). i mean we need
a maJor on this subterreen MM, opening up a whole nother side of Caribb lit