Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Joseph Meeker

The comedy of survival

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Laurence Olivier as Hamlet

Yesterday, I was browsing at a local used bookstore when I stumbled across a copy of The Comedy of Survival by Joseph W. Meeker. I’ve wanted to read it for a long time, ever since encountering an extended treatment it in the ecological classic Muddling Toward Frugality, and I’ve even shared an excerpt from it here before. This is the quote that I posted more than four years ago:

Comedy demonstrates that man is durable even though he may be weak, stupid, and undignified. As the tragic hero suffers or dies for his ideals, the comic hero survives without them. At the end of the tale he manages to marry his girl, evade his enemies, slip by the oppressive authorities, avoid drastic punishment, and to stay alive. His victories are all small, but he lives in a world where only small victories are possible…Comedy is careless of morality, goodness, truth, beauty, heroism, and all such abstract values men say they live by. Its only concern is to affirm man’s capacity for survival and to celebrate the continuity of life itself, despite all moralities. Comedy is a celebration, a ritual renewal of biological welfare as it persists in spite of the reasons there may be for metaphysical despair…Comedy muddles through, but seems to care little for such weighty matters as progress and perfection.

And although I wasn’t deliberately looking for Meeker’s book, it seemed like a sign that it happened to fall into my hands when it did. As I read the chapter “The Comic Mode” in its entirety for the first time, it struck me that its message is one that both liberals and conservatives ought to take to heart. Meeker points out that tragedy, as a literary genre, is based on a grandiose view of mankind: it assumes that humanity occupies an exalted place in the scheme of nature, that life comes down to a choice between moral absolutes, and that the perfect hero would destroy himself, his loved ones, and plenty of innocent bystanders rather than stoop to a compromise. Comedy, by contrast, is more concerned with keeping as many people alive as possible, even if we often look ridiculous in the process. The comic hero’s willingness to accommodate himself to the world has affinities to natural selection, which will try anything that works. Yet despite the fact that the tragic mode invariably ends badly for all concerned, there’s something weirdly attractive about heroes like Hamlet or Oedipus, who drag everyone around them down to a universal catastrophe. As Meeker shrewdly observes:

If there were moral philosophers among the lungfishes and peppered moths, [their] innovations would very likely have been condemned as threats to the continuity of tradition, or perhaps as shameful immorality. All admiration would no doubt have been reserved for the heroic fish who would rather die than give up his gills and for the moth who faced his end wearing customary gray.

Jeanne Moreau and Orson Welles in Chimes at Midnight

And this sheds a surprising amount of light on the dynamics of the presidential race. Donald Trump, to put it mildly, is no Hamlet, despite his recent attempt at his own version of the Yorick scene. But he obviously sees himself and his campaign in tragic terms, even as he endlessly predicts his own victory. He claims that he alone can save us, that our salvation lies in the destruction of the old order, and that America needs to be made great again—in a return to the idealized past. And if the result has often been more grotesque than inspiring, Meeker helpfully explains why:

If people generally see themselves in the tragic mode, it is perhaps because it satisfies their vanity and makes their actions seem important. It is gratifying to see oneself as a hero, a great sufferer, a martyr, or an oppressed idealist…But unfortunately, the tragic heroes preserved in literature are the products of metaphysical presuppositions which most people can no longer honestly share…Moderns can only pretend to tragic heroism, and that pretense is painfully hollow and melodramatic in the absence of the beliefs that tragedy depends upon.

This is a perfect description of Trump, a moral pygmy whose attempt to model himself after the great leaders of the past is both farcical and profoundly frightening. He’s laughable, but he isn’t a comic figure. If we know anything about Trump, it’s that he’s a spectacularly humorless man when he’s the butt of the joke. And as his story nears its end, he seems more than willing to invite the kind of catastrophe that accompanies the fall of a hero.

Which doesn’t mean that he’ll get it. If we’re going to find a way forward, regardless of the outcome of this election, we need to take a page from Meeker, who rejects the tragic or apocalyptic in favor of the comic:

Evolution is…a shameful, unscrupulous, opportunistic comedy, the object of which appears to be the proliferation and preservation of as many life forms as possible without regard for anyone’s moral ideas. Successful participants in it are those who remain alive when circumstances change, not those who are best able to destroy competitors and enemies. Its ground rules for participants (including man) are those which also govern literary comedy: organisms must adapt themselves to their circumstances in every possible way, must studiously avoid all-or-nothing choices, must prefer any alternative to death, must accept and encourage maximum diversity, must accommodate themselves to the accidental limitations of birth and environment, and must always prefer love to war—though if warfare is inevitable, it should be prosecuted so as to humble the enemy without destroying him. The events depicted in tragic literature cannot occur if these principles are observed. Comic action follows naturally from them.

Frankly, this sounds a lot like politics—which implies that it requires an actual politician. Luckily, there’s a good one available. And even if her opponent is a tragic hero only in his own imagination, we can still give him the ending that he so richly deserves.

Written by nevalalee

November 8, 2016 at 8:44 am

The Achilles heel

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Jon Hamm on Mad Men

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s topic: “What fictional character embodies your masculine ideal?

AMC used to stand for American Movie Classics, but over the last few years, it’s felt more like an acronym for “antiheroic male character.” You’ve met this man before. He’s a direct descendent of Tony Soprano, who owed a great deal in turn to Michael Corleone: a deeply flawed white male who screws up the lives of just about everyone around him, whether out of uncontrollable compulsion, like Don Draper, or icy calculation, like Walter White. Yet he’s also enormously attractive. He’s great at his job, he knows what he wants and how to get it, and he doesn’t play by the rules. It’s a reliable formula for an interesting protagonist, except that his underlying motivations are selfish, and everyone else in his life is a means to an end. And the more ruthless he is, the more we respond to him. I’m only four episodes into the current season of House of Cards, but I’ve already found myself flitting with boredom, because Frank Underwood has lost so much of his evil spark. As much as I enjoy Kevin Spacey’s performance, I’ve never found Frank to be an especially compelling or even coherent character, and without that core of hate and ambition, I’m no longer sure why I’m supposed to be watching him at all.

Ever since Mad Men and Breaking Bad brought the figure of the male antihero to its current heights, we’ve seen a lot of shows, from Low Winter Sun to Ray Donovan, attempting to replicate that recipe without the same critical success. In itself, this isn’t surprising: television has always been about trying to take apart the shows that worked and put the pieces together in a new way. But by fixating on the obvious traits of their antiheroic leads, rather than on deeper qualities of storytelling, the latest round of imitators runs the risk of embodying all the genre’s shortcomings and few of its strengths. There’s the fact, for instance, that even the best of these shows have problems with their female characters. Mad Men foundered with Betty Draper for much of its middle stretch, to the point where it seemed tempted to write her out entirely, and I never much cared for Skylar on Breaking Bad—not, as some would have it, because I resented her for getting in Walt’s way, but because she was shrill and uninteresting. Even True Detective, a minor masterpiece of the form with two unforgettable male leads, couldn’t figure out what to do with its women. (The great exception here is Fargo, which offered us a fantastic heroine, even if she felt a little sidelined toward the end.)

Achilles and Ajax

Of course, the figure of the antihero is as old as literature itself. It’s only a small step from Hamlet to Edmund or Iago, and the Iliad, which inaugurates nothing less than the entire western tradition, opens by invoking the wrath of Achilles. In many ways, Achilles is the prototype for all protagonists of this kind: he’s a figure of superhuman ability on the battlefield, with a single mythic vulnerability, and he’s willing to let others die as he sulks in his tent out of wounded pride, over a woman who is treated as a spoil in a conflict between men. Achilles stands alone, and he’s defined more by his own fate than by any of his human relationships. (To the extent that other characters are important in our understanding of him, it’s as a series of counterexamples: Achilles is opposed at one point or another to Hector, Odysseus, and Agamemnon, and the fact that he’s contrasted against three such different men only points to how complicated he is.) It’s no wonder that readers tend to feel more sympathy for Hector, who is allowed moments of recognizable tenderness: when he tries to embrace his son Astyanax, who bursts into tears at the sight of his father’s armor and plumed helmet, the result is my favorite passage in all of classical poetry, because it feels so much like an instant captured out of real life and transmitted across the centuries.

Yet Achilles is the hero of the Iliad for a reason; Hector, for all his appeal, isn’t cut out for sustaining an entire poem. An antihero, properly written, can be the engine that drives the whole machine, and in epic poetry, or television, you need one heck of a motor. But a motor isn’t a man, or at least it’s a highly incomplete version of what a man can be. And there’s a very real risk that the choices writers make for the sake of the narrative can shape the way the rest of us think and behave. As Joseph Meeker points out, we tend to glamorize the tragic hero, who causes nothing but suffering to those around him, over the comic hero, who simply muddles through. Fortunately, we have a model both for vivid storytelling and meaningful connection in Achilles’ opposite number. Odysseus isn’t perfect: he engages in dalliances of his own while his wife remains faithful, and his bright ideas lead to the deaths of most of his shipmates. But he’s much closer to a comic than a tragic hero, relying on wit and good timing as much as strength to get home, and his story is like a guided tour of all the things a man can be: king, beggar, father, son, husband, lover, and nobody. We’d live in a happier world if our fictional heroes were more like Odysseus. Or, failing that, I’ll settle for Achilles, as long as he’s more than just a heel.

Written by nevalalee

March 6, 2015 at 9:12 am

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