July 16, 2008

Easy affirmations are silly and cheap

The author Richard Yates, talking about his book, Revolutionary Road, said in an interview in Ploughshares magazine in 1972:
I think I meant it more as an indictment of American life in the nineteen-fifties. Because during the Fifties there was a general lust for conformity all over this country, by no means only in the suburbs - a kind of blind, desperate clinging to safety and security at any price, as exemplified politically in the Eisenhower administration and the Joe McCarthy witch-hunts. Anyway, a great many Americans were deeply disturbed by all that - felt it to be an outright betrayal of our best and bravest revolutionary spirit - and that was the spirit I tried to embody in the character of April Wheeler. I meant the title to suggest that the revolutionary road of 1776 had come to something very much like a dead end in the Fifties.
If you replace 1950s by 2000s and Eisenhower by Bush, there are many parallels. It is perhaps not a dead end though -- history just repeats itself in phases and nuances. One only hopes that one gets out of these phases with "a kind of qualified hope" that things do get better again; if only to get back to the tired old ways yet again sometime in the future.

Changing topics, I loved the answers later in the interview.

Q. Another thing I've noticed, in what I've read so far, is that you haven't yet tried to show anyone who could really be considered an evil character - anyone who is human in being malicious, anyone who consciously plots to harm others.

Y. No, I haven't, and I hope I never will.

Q. But surely such people exist: witness Hitler or Manson.

Y. The question is not whether they exist in real life, but whether they work as characters in fiction. And I don't think they do - characters who succeed wholly out of malice of perversity, like Iago, which is the main reason why Othello is not my favorite Shakespeare play. I mean, if you can blame everything on one of the characters in the story, then where's the weight of the story? Nothing falls into your own lap. In the case of the Sharon Tate murders, if someone were to write a novel about them, the problem is that everything could be blamed on Manson, which would provide too great a relief and too easy an escape for the reader, allowing him to dismiss the whole horrible business the minute he'd closed the last page. I much prefer the kind of story where the reader is left wondering who's to blame until it begins to dawn on him (the reader) that he himself must bear some of the responsibility because he's human and therefore infinitely fallible.

Q. Well, but if you allow no evil characters in fiction, then what brings on the tragedy - or the calamity, or the downfall, or whatever? Where is the evil? Doesn't it exist?

Y. I like to think it exists as a subtle, all-pervasive force that permeates everything inThat's what brings on the calamity at the end. the story. It's in the very air the characters breathe as they all rush around trying to do their best - trying to live well, within their known or unknown limitations, doing what they can't help doing, ultimately and inevitably failing because they can't help being the people they are.


Easy affirmations are silly and cheap, of course; but when a tough, honest writer can look squarely at all the horrors of the world, face all the facts, and still come up with a hard-won, joyous celebration of life at the end, in spite of everything, that can be wonderful.

Well said! A lesson for everyone who thinks in black and white, good and evil, us and them.

No comments:

Not one more refugee death, by Emmy Pérez

And just like that, my #NPM2018 celebrations end with  a poem  today by Emmy Pérez. Not one more refugee death by Emmy Pérez A r...