Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Not living up to our own expectations

Do we play the role which is our fate? Or do we make the role we wish to play?

Legend has it that Your Show of Shows, one of the best comedy/variety shows on TV in the early 1950s, featuring Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca, really worked so well because of the powers behind the throne, the wonderful writing staff, which included Neil Simon and Mel Brooks. Simon understood his forte was as a writer and he went on to write many very well known stage plays. But Brooks' comedic style is so over the top (which is why Zero Mostel was perfect to play the lead role in the Producers, since he was of the same ilk as Brooks) and one suspects Brooks was essentially the same when among friends as with a public audience, that he was fated to end up in front of the camera, as the 2000 Year Old Man and later in films like Blazing Saddles. Woody Allen, while also a writer for Sid Cesar for some specials on his later show, apparently was a reluctant entrant into doing stand-up comedy; Allen's agents convinced him because other performers weren't doing justice to the written material. The same sort of thought explains Allen's subsequent appearance in films he has directed, the mixture of comedy and irony from the perspective of a nebish very hard to replicate.

Why is it that one wants to perform in public, to promote one's ideas or to promote oneself? Robert Wright has a very interesting essay drawing a parallel between Malamud' protagonist in The Natural, published in 1952, and the Tiger Woods situation today. The book is darker than the movie, which has a happy ending and portrays Roy Hobbs as innocent and the victim of an unlikely shooting. In the book Hobbs is the perpetrator, lacking discipline and displaying venality, the best there ever was is not meant to show charm and naivete. It's hubris for which penance must be done. In the book, Hobbs does not find redemption. Wright suggests it should be so for Woods as well. At the least, he should really atone, note simply go through some made for TV token at humility.

In a loosely formed group originally slated to do its work in February, this is the last day in March for which I write my concluding post in Motley Read. Alan writes that it has been like running an endurance contest and wanting to reach the finish line in the marathon. Perhaps sticking with the same subject matter for quite a while in the posts that our group has written is old fashioned and not in accord with current rhythms. I can also report that in this reading of Dubliners I rarely had the old joy from reading where the story would completely take over and I'd lose myself in it. Instead I remained conscious of the the writer Joyce as he produced these stories, taking note of his craft, his choice of language, how he set up the situation. I also thought while amid the stories I was reading about whether Joyce was a product of his time and where he grew up or if what I read could have been any bright young mind drawn to written expression and whether the stories would have been largely unchanged if Joyce had written when Malamud did (the Natural was published in 1952) or even at present.

Joyce was a contemporary of Kafka, another writer I've struggled to understand. Until reading The Dead I had thought they were quite different in perspective, with Joyce essentially the critic looking from the outside in and Kafka the self-critic, our lot in life is literally to be on trial, in our own minds. Kafka is more abstract, no doubt. I thought The Dead was Kafka with a twist; it is written on human terms. Joyce renders his characters not as symbols, but as friends and family or people we know well even if they are not related and we don't really like them.

Alan's post focuses on the fall of Gabriel, when he is alone with Gretta, his wife. Alan doesn't take up the earlier part of the story, where Gabriel is identified as a writer of some accomplishment, the favorite nephew of his Aunts who host the dance, and an accomplished public speaker who is felicitous in the stories he tells about his hosts. Indeed, Gabriel displays many of the features that we'd ascribe to a leader today - an ability to listen in a way that he shows others he is really hearing. That, however, is not enough for Gabriel, not nearly enough.

Gabriel wants to inspire and arouse, in that respect like Roy Hobbs, though he doesn't care about doing so for a public audience. He wants this reaction only from Gretta, his wife. He wants to appeal to her primal passions, for his passions have been awakened by her. Yet it is not to be so. Unlike Hobbs, Gabriel appears to have committed no indiscretion, no utterance to display his hubris. His sin was of the mind only, enough however to deliver his fall from grace.

I conjectured in a comment to Alan and Jared that Joyce wrote The Dead while a young father, with the mother showing more attention to her offspring than to Joyce himself. Not fully understanding the maternal instinct, he might then very well blame himself for her apparently letting the flame die down, if not losing interest in him altogether. So he consigns himself to play a supporting role rather than the lead he thought was his part. This is the realization that Gabriel comes to. Living the good natured part of his public persona then becomes his personal purgatory for having aspired to be the leading man.

If this analysis is in the ballpark I wonder for how long these sort of thoughts remained with Joyce. The works for which he is most well known were written after Dubliners. Could it be that all of his subsequent creativity really was the consequence of writing as an act of contrition?

No comments: