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« Enduring Insanity | Main | Love and Morality »

Two Enduring Plots

It's been said that there are only two plots: love and death.

The first is more properly called "comedy." Although we might think of the love plot as nothing but modern romance, the heavy breathing of passion at first sight, the comic plot is in fact a tad more complicated. Here's the most important thing about it: comedy ends at a place where some sort of new social order is created or an upright, old form of the social order is restored.

Since the Middle Ages, that order is most often symbolized by marriage. Take the movie "Pretty Woman." (Please.) Yes, the two characters fall in love; yes, there are some laughs along the way; but more importantly, the two leads end up bound together, a new social order formed for them both at the end of the movie. For her, she's recovering from her personal hurts (and her career choices, I suppose). For him, he's learned to enjoy life rather than just make money. New social orders. And they're in love--breaking old social taboos. Thus, we see him at the end off to meet her with a rose in his teeth, ready to woo her in the old-fashioned way. Marriage presumably follows.

Put another way, in comedy everything works out. In Shakespeare's comedies, people end up married, despite cross-dressing. In Victorian novels, the couples end up both married and rich. In American sit coms, people learn something duly trite about "getting along with each other" or "parents' knowing best." In American movies, it all boils down to knowing yourself (a k a, loving yourself) more than you did before. Voilà, a new social order.

By contrast, I had a professor in grad school who called tragedy "truncated comedy." (The term comes from the title of a play by the Chilean playwright Alejandro Flores). It's not that tragedy is sad by nature (HAMLET has many ridiculously funny parts, as do most of Henry James' snarky novels). Rather, tragedy is comedy that doesn't work out to its "natural" end, usually because of an intervening death (or something that looks like death, such as Catherine Sloper's willed entombment in WASHINGTON SQUARE).

In classical formulations, that moment of tragedy is brought about because the hero or heroine--the lead, the main character, what have you--has some distinct character flaw, whether real or percieved. Lear is brought down by a vain desire for obvious affection; Oedipus, by impetuous anger; Hamlet, by infuriating passivity; and Emma Bovary, by her questioning mind. (We could debate a long time whether Flaubert believes Emma's flaw is real or percieved as such by social convention.)

All that said, we've lately lost this notion of tragedy. The plots of the modern ones--that is, those written after the nineteenth century--usually don't pivot on a character flaw. Instead, they work themselves out by various distortions of the basic "love plot" in comedy. A character wants to love--but can't, won't, didn't, wouldn't, shouldn't, etc. Many trace this disappearance of traditional tragedy to an important shift in religion. The gods don't smite as much anymore. Thus, one could argue that there is only one plot left in literature: love (a k a, comedy).

In the twentieth century in the West, half the population saw the death of the gods and the other became more fervently religious in a gin-up-the-emotions sort of way. Yes, there are small exceptions here and there. But in the end, with some people's becoming less religious and others' becoming more emotional in their religion (God is not hurling thunderbolts to back up thou-shalt-nots but softly lisping thou-shalts if the believer will but listen), we lost tragedy and ended up with endless versions of comedy--or perhaps more accurately, with a form of tragedy that's no longer grand, having to do with absolutes and eternals, but is instead "merely" a corruption of domesticated comedy. Ironic, no?

Tragedy is no longer truncated comedy. It's a distortion of comedy. These distortions can be external to the characters--consider "Schindler's List" or "Sophie's Choice." In both cases, the Holocaust, of course, is the external factor--Schindler wanted to love his fellow humans but could only do so much; Sophie was forced to make a horrid choice that disrupted the basic bonds of love.

Or those distortions may be internal. Consider the lack of basic humanity in movies like "American Beauty" or "The Ice Storm." In these cases, there's no deep and abiding flaw that wrecks society (or as in the case of Oedipus and Hamlet, wrecks an illegitimate social order). Instead, the distortions are all about the characters' loving too little or loving the wrong things too much--both corruptions of the basic comic plot.

Which is where ENDURING LOVE comes into play. The distortions come fast and thick, even in the first few sentences.

As you read the book, occasionally go back and read the first two or three paragraphs. Look carefully at how certain distortions are already in play. We'll want to talk more about these when we meet next.

But until then, here's Billy Collins' irreverant and wonderful take on how to write about the two basic plots of literature in the modern age:


from "Questions About Angels" (Quill/William Morrow, 1991)

My favorite time to write is in the late afternoon,
weekdays, particularly Wednesdays.
This is how I go about it:
I take a fresh pot of tea into my study and close the door.
Then I remove my clothes and leave them in a pile
as if I had melted to death and my legacy consisted of only
a white shirt, a pair of pants, and a pot of cold tea.

Then I remove my flesh and hang it over a chair.
I slide it off my bones like a silken garment.
I do this so that what I write will be pure,
completely rinsed of the carnal,
uncontaminated by the preoccupations of the body.

Finally I remove each of my organs and arrange them
on a small table near the window.
I do not want to hear their ancient rhythms
when I am trying to tap out my own drumbeat.

Now I sit down at the desk, ready to begin.
I am entirely pure: nothing but a skeleton at a typewriter.

I should mention that sometimes I leave my penis on.
I find it difficult to ignore the temptation.
Then I am a skeleton with a penis at a typewriter.

In this condition I write extraordinary love poems,
most of them exploiting the connection between sex and death.

I am concentration itself: I exist in a universe
where there is nothing but sex, death, and typewriting.

After a spell of this I remove my penis too.
Then I am all skull and bones typing into the afternoon.
Just the absolute essentials, no flounces.
Now I write only about death, most classical of themes
in language light as the air between my ribs.

Afterward, I reward myself by going for a drive at sunset.
I replace my organs and slip back into my flesh
and clothes. Then I back the car out of the garage
and speed through woods on winding country roads,
passing stone walls, farmhouses, and frozen ponds,
all perfectly arranged like words in a famous sonnet.

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