Monday, August 30, 2010

The Sound of Inevitability

Before I discuss what I want to write about tonight, I need to do some basic setting up. One of the reasons I have had so much trouble with my novel in the last few months is because I devoted an insufficient amount of time at the beginning to explaining the beliefs and assumptions which had shaped my worldview at the time of the events I’m describing—strange, otherworldly assumptions, for the most part, but essential to understanding the insanity with which high school ended, and my subsequent mental and emotional collapse. Half of all storytelling, I’ve discovered, is the way you set things up. Yet I had gotten so focused on building the arches, I forgot to lay the stones.

But you know, I love complexity and complication. Couldn’t live without ‘em. One of the aspects of Shakespeare’s plays that I especially appreciate is the ease with which his characters find themselves in difficult, almost impossible circumstances. Hamlet hates his uncle. The ghost of his father appears and reveals that he was killed by Claudius. Hamlet now has a motive for revenge—but is utterly unable to act. Why? For about a dozen different reasons, and those critics who have tried to render a simplistic explanation for his motivations are mistaken. Hamlet is not, pace Laurence Olivier, “the story of a man who could not make up his mind,” it is far, far more than this. It is the story of a man who was prevented from killing his uncle because he feared for his sanity; because he suspected that the apparition he had seen might be the devil; because, as next in line for the throne, he couldn’t afford to present an appearance of instability and chaos to the people of his kingdom and their enemies across the way; because Claudius was cunning, yea, almost as cunning as the prince himself, and Hamlet knew that in this most direful of all acts, the execution of a head of state, and his own kin, canniness and caution were needed. Yet he couldn’t continue delaying this doom, not forever, because the nets were circling round him, there were several other people, some with armies, seeking to avenge the deaths of their own fathers either on the unfortified iron of the state, or on Hamlet’s neck; Claudius was growing more murderously conscious of his purpose with each day that passed, his school mates had proven unsympathetic and treacherous, and his mother—and his love—were in the most calamitous distress.

The more I consider the matter, the more it seems that literature was made to analyze this very thing. Looking at just one example from my own life, we can see the role that my misunderstanding of fate played in shaping the Quixotic adventures of my final year of high school and my subsequent collapse. There’s a section in the newly-revised edition of my second chapter where I describe my belief that certain calamities are so horrific, they can send shockwaves “backwards, into generations past.” Thus I became convinced that my One, True Love would be killed in a gruesome and violent manner early in her life, an idea which was reinforced by the very passion with which I held it—surely I would never have clung to such a horrible presentiment with such unwonted ardor if I wasn’t imbibing the fumes of some future event. Right? The fact that I believed this so steadfastly was the clearest indication of its truth. The inevitable conclusion, of course, was that the event had been predestined and (like Trinity’s death in The Matrix) was therefore inescapable.

It was this pall of inevitability lingering over the events of my life which leant it much of its tragic, dark-hued coloring. When I learned that a certain person would be tempted into doing something not at all in her best interests (or in anyone else’s), my immediate conclusion was that God had given me this prophecy so that I could have the dubious pleasure of watching it come to pass and being powerless to stop it. Mortimer and Petunia largely shared in this deterministic understanding. After I had finished explaining that I felt my relationship with this girl was predestined to end badly, because all my relationships with women were predestined to end badly, because all of them were fractal precursors of a fearful-to-think-upon future catastrophe (see how convoluted it all got?), Mortiner was deeply sympathetic. “Don’t you see,” he advised, “you have to remember the Greek tragedies—they saw the future, and they did everything they could to prevent it, and their preventing it is what caused it. You cannot outsmart the future. That’s like Satan trying to prevent God winning in the end. You cannot outsmart the future.” (This warning is all the more eerie and prescient given that the thing we were trying to prevent did, indeed, happen, in a way that we had never imagined). “It’s like in the play X, there are two choices, and you can take either one of them, but there’s still only one future, because the future already knows which choice you’re going to make.” (Oddly, Petunia repeatedly expressed similar sentiments in her correspondence from that time, where she fretted over how she was inescapably predestined to kill the Antichrist, who of course turned out to be Mortimer, and why I was taking advice on inevitability from a man damned to hell from before the foundation of the world is anybody’s guess).

Yet not only is this bad philosophy, it’s bad theology. And not only is it bad theology, it’s bad Calvinist theology. I’m only beginning to learn that the world frame of fatalism on which I’ve been hanging my faith for the last ten years bears almost no resemblance to the actual Calvinism that actual Calvinists actually teach. However, in this essay I’m less interested in what actual Calvinists actually teach than in what I believed at a particular time, and the reasons why to this day I find it still so, well, inescapable, and why it’s affected my thinking and circumstances in the ways it has.

Unfortunately, though, just because something is bad theology doesn’t mean it’s wrong. The fact remains: That thing did happen. Every semester ended in the most dramatic manner, normally without my own connivance. Prophecies were continually fulfilled. If I was so wrong all along, why could I never escape it? This was one of the conundrums at the heart of my emotional collapse on Christmas morning of 2004. I had been hiding since Graduation in the belly of the whale; I wept, I fled in terror, the iron entered into my soul, etc., etc.; I had breezily concluded that my life was nothing more than a romantic quest that I could never solve, and that somehow in my unfathomable brilliance I had concocted all the prophecies (and their fulfillments!) to sustain my mind in mystery and awe. And yet… and yet, Galileo would say, it was true… which suggested at the very least that I would never be able to escape my prophetic calling—obviously, since here it was again. Inescapability—it’s everywhere!

Now it would be erroneous to argue that my current acquiescence with respect to the calling is another validation of the verity of my previous conception of fate. I was given the choice to flee, and flee I did for several years, but I returned with willingness. In the end, it is that single fact which I expect will break the hitherto-unassailable, because unexamined, chokehold of malevolent misunderstandings. That, and perhaps also my eventual (you might even say inevitable) realization that a wholehearted belief in a vengeful and arbitrary determinism is the ultimate, determining factor in deciding what we fight, and what accept; and, by extension, what occurs, and what does not.

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