Hildegarde

Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Okay! A Little Backtracking…

with one comment

So, I got home yesterday to find my e-mail full of messages all pretty much on the same topic:  how can you say all detective stories are messiah narratives?  Think of all those “crime novels!”  And what about  Gregor Demarkian?  That’s a Messiah figure?  Sometimes he seems like he’s barely paying attention.

So, okay, let’s go back a bit.

First, narratives do NOT require mythic archetypes.  In fact, plenty of narratives have main characters who are not really characters at all.   Go back to Adam and Eve.   The Faust narrative is there, clear as day, but  Adam and  Eve are not.  The only reason I even think I know anything about them is that I’ve read Mark  Twain’s little humorous piece meant to give us  Adam’s diary.

In the narrative itself, in any version or edition of Genesis that you want to consult, Adam and Eve are mere place markers to indicate “human beings of both sexes.”  We do not know what they look like.  We do not know  the particulars of any of their emotions.  Adam may be hesitant and afraid when Eve offers him the apple, but we don’t know what any of that means.  We feel none of that emotion.  And–to clinch the fact that neither he nor Eve is actually a character–we cannot predict any of his future behavior from what we know. 

A lot of early literature is like this.   Pandora is just as much a blank as a character as Adam and  Eve, and she appears in a Faust narrative, too.   Greek myth, Babylonian myth, Norse myth, even Hindu myth are all more interested in what than in who.  The individual person is not of primary concern, the nature of the story is.  For many cultures for long periods of time, the individual person doesn’t even exist.  To the extent that “characters” appear in stories at all, they’re either place markers (like Adam and Eve) or stereotypes.  

The entire idea of individuality, of the uniqueness of the single person and the  importance of understanding who he really is, is not only a late development in civilizaitons, it’s almost entirely a Western one, and it never appears full blown–to the point where we expect the characters in our stories to be “fleshed out” like real people–except in cultures that are either Western or influenced by the West.

What’s more, the practice of creating such characters preceeded the public demand for it, and the philosophical command for it, by centuries.   It’s what makes all of Sophocles so peculiarly modern.   Go to the library some time and take out a great big stack of Greek plays from the classical period, tragic and comic both.  You’ll find a few plays that resonate in a see of stuff that seems flat and sort of stupid, on about the level of bad television.   Look again and you’ll see that the difference is in character. 

It was still possible in the classical period in Athens for Greek playwrights to produce stories with stock characters and still win prizes.   Character was not an imperative.  But Oedipus in Oedipus Tyrannus is not a stock character.  Most of the other characters aroung him are, but he is not, and we glide right over the chanting stale pieties of the Chorus–the Chorus is always the means of delivering stale pieties, that’s why it’s there–in order to focus our attention on the one real person on the stage.

Not only was character not particularly important for most of our cultural history, after the fall of Rome it receded for another several centuries.  Early Christian culture was as heavy on narrative and as flat on character as any Greek myth, and sometimes even flatter.  While you’re looking at the Greek plays, you might want to check out a few Medieval morality plays.   The most famous one is Everyman, but there are dozens of others, even dozens of others originally written in English.

These plays were written to be performed in churches and town squares by traveling troupes of actors, and every single one of them was meant to deliver a message about morality or religion.  In the most religious versions, what you had was stories from the Bible.  In an age when most people were illiterate, plays and paintings were the way they learned the narratives of their religion.  Characters had what names and aspects they were given in the Bible, and giving them more, making them more fully human, would have only gummed up the works and confused the audience.

The plays that concentrated on teaching moral lessons often didn’t bother to give actual names to their character at all.  Instead, actors would appear as “Lust” or “Profilgacy” or “Prudence,”  literally mere place-holders for moral ideas.   Think of Everyman himself, wandering through his play as a cipher standing in for all the rest of us.  If he was too much of an individual character, the audience would have been much too prone to decide that they were nothing like him and could therefore do all the things that messed  him up with impunity.

So narratives do not have to employ mythic archetypes.  They certainly don’t have to further develop those archetypes in order to remain the narratives they are.

A Messiah narrative goes like this:  your town/world/planet/village/household/whatever is threatened.  It could be threatened by something outside it (invading aliens, say) or by something inside it (a murderer, political corruption).  The hero comes in from the outside and fixes the problem, whatever it might be.   He then leaves you and your fellow citizens/family/whatever to your own devices.

That’s it.  And, as I said yesterday, almost every detective story ever written follows this narrative.   I didn’t say crime novels, mind you.  I’m more than aware that there are novels out there dealing with murders or crimes of other kinds that are not Messiah narratives.  I specifically said detective novels for a reason.

But the first thing I want to stress is that it is unnecessary for the hero to fix the entire world forever in order for a narrative to be a Messiah narrative.  Of course, the actual Messiah from whom the term here is taken is supposed to have done just that, and early  Messiah narratives do indeed often give us the redemption of the entire world, or something close to it.  Star Wars is a Messiah narrative, and Lucas was so anxious to make sure we didn’t miss it that he gave us a virgin birth and then redeemed the devil.

But a Messiah narrative does not have to be this all-encompassing to be a Messiah narrative.   Of course, it’s a bonus if it is.   The world may have moved on a lot in the last six thousand years, but we still like our conflicts apocalyptic and our victories unambiguous.  The Lord of the Rings is a Messiah narrative.  So is the Harry Potter series.  But so is Roald Dahl’s Matilda, and all Matilda saves is a single elementary school.

When the world moves on, things get complicated, as they should.  Judging by the box office receipts, lots of us are still happy to take our Messiah narratives plain,   A lot of us like them better plain than we do developed, and a lot of us would rather see a straightforward Messiah narrative with characters hardly more “real” than the ones in Everyman than sit through two hours or two hundred pages of something more complicated.   That explains the enduring popularity of all things Die Hard

So a Messiah narrative does not depend on the character of the hero who takes the part of the Messiah.  But the character of that hero, and the fate of mythic archetypes in a complicated and complicating world, comes nest.

I’ll even defend the character and record of Gregor Demarkian.

Written by janeh

October 5th, 2008 at 9:39 am

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response to 'Okay! A Little Backtracking…'

Subscribe to comments with RSS or TrackBack to 'Okay! A Little Backtracking…'.

  1. OK, but you DID write “crime novel” yesterday. See yesterday’s post. And you used Marlowe as an example. The body count will be higher when Marlowe is done, but the situation is not likely to be improved. This distinguishes him from his contemporary, the Continental Op. I’ll save the general slipperiness of “outside” for later.

    robert_piepenbrink

    5 Oct 08 at 1:48 pm

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Bad Behavior has blocked 614 access attempts in the last 7 days.