25 June 2011

Blurred: Journey versus Destination

Everyone knows the saying. The philosophy plays out in many forms—so many permutations, that one could almost call it cliché.
Is it, though? After all, the quality of the journey is why one picks up a book. That’s entertainment, though. Not reality.

 In reality, most would say that they don’t care how the Republicans came to the decision to support a formal recognition and legalization of same sex marriage in New York on Friday night. Or why they chose to support it. However the individual politicians rationalized it, the ethical path they each travelled, all that matters is that they did.

As one friend put it, “I don’t care if they supported it because they think married homosexuals will eat fewer babies than single ones. It passed.”

Right. I agree. Politics, thankfully, isn’t a subject matter I write about. It lacks that riveting edge of fascination that the audience would look for, demand even. When the destination you ultimately reach impacts the lives of so many, the journey one takes to arrive at the optimal ethical decision suddenly doesn’t matter anymore. Not to anyone save the individual making the journey. For all others, all that matters is that you reach that destination.
I’m so glad I’m not a politician. Talk about a thankless job.

The discussion got me to thinking, though, about antagonists and protagonists, and the rational logic of a given character’s motivations as presented to the reader. A different approach, so to speak—if one comes to the ‘right’ decision via the wrong rational or motives or ethics, does that make them antagonist or protagonist? And by the same coin, if a character comes to the ‘wrong’ decision but does so with the best of intentions, which should they be classified as? Oh wait. Those damned labels. I tend to toss them out the window more often than not. Wave goodbye to them, quickly now!

Storytellers have been muddying the waters of ‘good’ guys and ‘bad’ guys for a while. It isn’t a new concept by any stretch of the imagination. Doing the right thing for all the wrong reasons is, in fact, the very definition of an anti-hero. And just as we as citizens are permitted to judge (harshly, even) the driving ethos of those we elect to public office, a book’s audience will judge (very harshly) the ethos of any given character. For the sake of discussion, a highly obvious selection: Hannibal Lector of Silence of the Lambs comes to mind. A highly intelligent man, an intellectual on a par of few others, his character was designed to strike fear and loathing in the hearts of both Clarice and the audience. And yet, while simultaneously repulsed and frightened, the audience finds themselves fascinated by Hannibal’s intellect. By the paths his logic takes. So seemingly sane and rational, each step along the way, and yet when one arrives at Hannibal’s destination, one discovers a truly horrifying environment. He helps Clarice in her investigation, but does so for all the wrong reasons. Desperation, then, leads even those of strong ethos to relax their standards, to make exceptions, to journey into the blurred land.

I have been struggling with how to show that descent into Hell, by baby steps of good intentions, from the standpoint of one observing the character in an ethical environment so decisively not a shade of gray. Not even slightly. It is a tricky thing to do, and like most complex pieces of art it will require a few studies and sketches before the final form is decided on, and is set in oil on canvas.

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