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Monday, August 13, 2007

 

Stories of conscience

Here's a point of comparison that occurred to me watching TV the other night: Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Secret History by Donna Tartt, and the film version of The Talented Mr Ripley, directed by Anthony Minghella. Particularly the latter two.

Fiction can do many things to reality. The pathetic fallacy is a concept familiar to English BAs: the device of describing a landscape or object as if it were possessed of human emotions, particularly used to describe a hero's outer environment in such a way as to reflect his inner state. The sky weeps as he drives home feeling sad, for example. (And in fact, it's a device that can be used with varying degrees of subtlety in films, as well. The thunderclap as the spooky old servant says the word 'Dracula' is a crude example, but it can be done with considerable grace. There's a shot used in the film adaptation of In Cold Blood, where near the end, the actor Robert Blake sits near a window telling a sad story; outside, it's raining and the water is dripping down the window. According to a documentary I saw years ago about cinematography, the effect was an accidental discovery: they put a fan on to blow the water onto the window to make sure it went in the right direction - but once they'd filmed it, they realised they had an extraordinary effect. While the actor relates a tragic story dry-eyed, the light on his face shows dripping raindrops, as if the light were weeping for him. The same effect is used in the movie adaptation of That Was Then, This Is Now, if I recall correctly; it crops up occasionally because it's a beautiful and effective way of conveying both stoicism and pain.)

And one strange effect that the pathetic fallacy can have is to convey, through incident and hint, paranoia. In such cases, it's not the landscape that becomes a conveyor of emotion, but other people who become, unknowingly, conveyors of the character's thoughts.

Take, for example, Raskolnikov's murder of the pawnbroker in Crime and Punishment. Raskolnikov spends the first book arguing with himself as to whether he should kill the hateful old woman, supplying himself with money he needs while removing a bad person from the world. The curious thing is that, while he finds it hard to come to a definite decision, as he walks around, he overhears conversations about whether it would, in theory, be justified to kill a bad person to help a great person, conversations that bizarrely externalise the idea he's secretly grappling with. Trapped in such a world, there's almost the sense that he eventually commits the murder because he has a bad idea stuck in his head and the only way to get rid of it is to act on it. But having killed her, he becomes more paranoid still - and the world continues to terrify him by surrounding him with people who insist on discussing the crime. While in many ways it's a naturalistic piece of writing, there's also something surreal and hallucinatory about Crime and Punishment: Raskolnikov's experience is at the centre of a spinning world in which the voice of his conscience keeps sounding out of the mouths of other people, his darkest thoughts keep being said aloud by people he hasn't told them to. It's a weird sort of hell where his own conscience is almost a sadistic deity, possessing and speaking through the people around him so there's no escape.

The Secret History and the film adaptation of The Talented Mr Ripley are more alike than Crime and Punishment, but both of them show a similar kind of gathering hell. Tom Ripley in Patricia Highsmith's novels is a calculating psychopath, but the film version shows something strange and pitiable, a character in many ways similar to Tartt's narrator Richard in The Secret History. Both are young men trapped in impoverished, depressing, rather lonely lives, who manage to get themselves transported to a new environment where everything is different and beautiful. Falling in with a crowd of friends who seem to embody all the glamour and charm that their lives were missing before, Tom and Richard struggle to keep up, but disaster creeps in, ending in murder - which in both cases takes place only halfway through the story. The world gradually takes on a nightmarish quality, by a very simple device: both young men are reaching towards a bright world, trying to leave their old selves behind and become someone newer, better - only the more they grasp after the future they so desperately want, the more they find themselves entangled in a past that they desperately don't want, a past that becomes worse and worse the more they do to escape it.

Both are plausibly structured and elegantly told stories, less hallucinatory in quality than Crime and Punishment, but all of them are, in their way, nightmares of being unable to escape your own mind. Just as Raskolnikov can't get away from his own thoughts, until they eventually drive him into an action that dominates his world, so Tom and Richard can't get away from their own insecurity, their self-hatred and distate for their origins and fear that they never will make it into the sunlit world. There's a certain similarity between their victims, although those victims serve different functions in the story (Tom killing Dickie primarily because he can't bear to hear that Dickie is tired of him, Richard collaborating in killing Bunny because Bunny threatens to have his new friends incarcerated by his knowledge of an earlier crime they've committed, which would leave Richard alone). Both victims are charming enthusiasts, intially friendly, inclusive and full of bonhomie, but distractible, unstable in their attachments to people, untrustworthy and capable of turning devastatingly vicious if provoked. To an insecure person who's trying frantically to reinvent himself, such a person can be terrifying: if there's a hated side of yourself that you're struggling to conceal and discard, anyone who threatens to drag it out into public view (Bunny) or cast you back into it (Dickie) has tremendous power over you - and a callous, emotionally shallow person is very likely to do it.

In such stories, other people take on a kind of pathetic fallacy: the protagonist's fear that he can never escape his rise up from his dreary life and faulty self start to warp the narrative. The bad events that surround each young man are the consequences of his own behaviour, but they also horribly act as portents of doom, signs that his worst fears are right: he never can and never will escape.

These tragedies are unusual; fatal-flaw tales in which the downfall is not death or destruction - Raskolnikov is redeemed, but Tom Ripley and Richard Papen surivive undetected - but the inescapable presence of the fatal flaw itself. The flaw is, for both of the latter, nothing as simple as a dreadful prophecy or a violent temper: ironically and awfully, the flaw is nothing less than a sense of being flawed. And being possessed of that flaw dooms both protagonists to a fate that is simple and elegantly painful: that sense cannot and will not ever go away. It's not unlike the angst of the 'justification by faith' conundrum: if God will save you because your faith is strong, then are you sure your faith is strong enough to save you? And by the act of wondering if it's strong enough, doesn't that prove that it's not strong enough? In both cases, self-doubt brings its own kind of damnation. The fatal flaw is its own cause, its own punishment, a chimeric emotion that is elegantly horrible: by its very existence, it endlessly feeds upon itself.

It's interesting to note that both murder victims, Dickie and Bunny, in addition to being enthusiastic but unpredictable, share the fatal flaw of obliviousness: insensitivity or unconcern about other people's judgements upon them, casual lack of interest in their own personalities - the shadow opposite of the painful self-consciousness of their flawed killers. In a way, it's that obliviousness that makes them so dangerous: never having experienced that anguishing flawedness themselves, they can't be expected to have any mercy upon it - and in each case, there is a strong sense that the victim is killed fundamentally to shut him up. Tom kills Dickie to stop the insults Dickie is firing at him, which touch upon his sorest points; Richard, at the moment of Bunny's death, confesses that he doesn't think of the danger to his friends' freedom Bunny has posed, but rather to the round of insults, mockery and petty humiliations about his humble background Bunny has been subjecting him to recently (following his discovery that his friends are murderers, Bunny's behaviour has grown increasingly erratic and his natural propensity to tease people has metastasized into emotional bullying). Neither victim has the fatal flawedness of his killer, and in exacerbating his killer's sense of flaw, in infuriratingly not having it himself, he becomes so tormenting a figure that killing him seems like the only possible way of dealing with him.

Both protagonists are in the wrong, of course: being preoccupied with their own sense of flawedness has actually made them insensitive to reality. The argument that precedes Tom Ripley's murder of Dickie is an argument, not the wanton attack from Dickie that Tom seems to experience it as, and Tom is giving as good as he gets, pointing out all Dickie's most vulnerable points until Dickie too is ready to lash out - but Tom's own hurt feelings appear to overwhelm his judgement to the point where he's unable to see that he's hurting Dickie's feelings as well. Richard blindly follows his friends into murdering Bunny, alienated by Bunny's taunts and hostility, and it's only some time after the murder, when he comes upon a letter Bunny wrote to their tutor begging for help, that he realises what would have been obvious to a more mature personality: that Bunny's behaviour, however bad it is, is motivated not by spite but by terror, a fear for his own life that turns out to be entirely appropriate.

To this extent, the sense of flaw is a self-fulfilling prophecy: preoccupation with our own personalities can mislead our judgement until we create the situations we fear, at least in part because we were too busy worrying about the wrong things to do the right ones. Julian, Richard's charismatic tutor, remarks that the Furies drove people insane thus: 'They turned up the volume of the inner monologue, magnified qualities already present to great excess, made people so much themselves that they couldn't stand it.' - but our immature tragic heroes don't need Furies to do this for them; they're having enough trouble standing how much themselves they already are. But their attempts to escape this self trap them precisely because they aren't only themselves, but members of society, and their reinventions, and the lengths they go to in order to sustain them, impact upon other people.

But then, it's easy to see that if you are not the person labouring under the flaw of flawedness. The tragedy of being trapped in your own mind is precisely that you are trapped in it: if you could escape then it wouldn't be a trap. It's easy to say the justification-by-faith dilemma is a circular argument if you don't think that you're going to burn for all eternity if you get the answer wrong, and it's easier to say self-hatred is self-fulfilling if you aren't the self getting hated on. If it was as easy as saying, 'That's self-fulfilling,' then it wouldn't be a problem. A fatal flaw is always fatal to the person who possesses it, and to their casualties; it's always personal.

So I hope you're all feeling happy today about what marvellous people y'all undoubtedly are. In the meantime, anyone who can think of other interesting fatal flaws is welcome to weigh in, but I'm going to stop the cycle of doubts here, because I want to get off.

Comments:
The idea of the fatal flaw is a common one in Ancient Greek theatre, Oedipus and Electra maybe being the most obvious examples. Oedipus was told he was destined to kill his father and marry his mother. Appalled, he fled his kingdom, never knowing he'd been adopted as a baby. And of course, he wound up in the kingdom of his biological parents where he killed his father and married his mother.

Electra was consumed with hatred for her mother, Clytemnestra, because she took another lover whilst her husband, Agamemnon was in Troy. After Clytemnestra murdered Agamemnon and his lover, Cassandra, Electra manipulated her brother (whose name escapes me) into murdering Clytemnestra.

Electra's fatal flaw was her passionate love for her mother. She disregarded the fact that Agamemnon had already sacrificed his other daughter to the gods and only saw Clytemnestra's faults.

Oedipus' flaw, in my opinion, was his refusal to take control of his destiny. It happens again and again in the Greek tragedies - Jason is murdered by Medea after he abandons her for being a foreigner and therefore not good enough to be his wife. Achilles' pride ultimately leads to the death of his best friend... And this has turned out to be a lot longer than I expected, so I'll finish by adding that Edgar Allen Poe does something similar to Dostoyevsky in The Black Cat and The Tell-Tale Heart.
 
Wow, what a great post! I'm unfamiliar with The Secret History, but I totally get you re: Crime and Punishment and The Talented Mr. Ripley.

Much food for thought!
 
The Secret History is much recommended.

Interesting, Naomi - it hadn't occured to me to consider Poe's narrators tragic heroes, but I think you're right.

Oedipus is the only one I'd wonder about on that list. He tries to escape his destiny, but, alas, the gods are taking the mickey; I'd say he comes under the heading of 'cursed'. He's in a kind of existential black joke; kind of the reverse of the characters I was talking about - he tries to escape his future rather than his past, but again, the more he tries, the worse it gets. Life really bites sometimes if you're a tragic figure...

Here's a few lines I like from Oedipus Tyrannos:

King, you yourself
have seen our city reeling like a wreck
already; it can scarcely lift its prow
out of the depths, out of the bloody surf.
 
That's true, Kit - the Ancient Greeks did lay heavy emphasis on destiny and prophecy and hubris and so forth.

This is completely off topic, but have you come across the play "Greek?" I forget who wrote it, but it's a modern retelling of Oedipus wherein the Oedipus character decides to stay with his mother even after he learns their true relationship.
 
Hm, no I haven't. I'll bear it in mind if I see a poster. I was thinking that I should google for it, but then I realised why that wouldn't be very useful...
 
Fascinating post, Kit.
 
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