Monday, May 18, 2015

Classicism, Modernism, Christopher Booker & ‘L’Eclisse’

Michelangelo Antonioni’s ‘L’Eclisse’ (1962):
Monica Vitti (partially obscured, left) and Alain Delon

One of the most illuminating books I’ve read in the past few years is The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories (2004) by Christopher Booker, the conservative British journalist.  But that’s not a recommendation.  I consider the book “illuminating” because of what it told me about the conservative worldview.  Booker’s 700-plus-page tome attempts to distill world storytelling (or at least the storytelling of the Western part) into seven fundamental paradigms.  However, I’m not writing to review the soundness of Booker’s take on the number of plots, nor do I want to detail the characteristics of each, which would take a rather long time.  The Internet is already crowded with reviews of this particular book that look at it from this perspective.  Instead, I’m writing about The Seven Basic Plots because of what it told me — sometimes inadvertently — about the major differences between classicism and modernism, and also about the preference for classicism among conservatives.

By “classicism,” I mean those works (especially in storytelling media) that convey, via generally accepted conventions, an idea or subject in a clear, straightforward way, giving a sense of completion to the narrative and giving a sense of wholeness to the work.  And by “modernism,” I mean works that call those conventions into question so that the idea or subject isn’t so straightforward, thus challenging the audience’s sense of “completion” and “wholeness” and the world around them.  These aren’t the only ways to use the words “classicism” and “modernism,” but they’ll do for now.

One primary concern for The Seven Basic Plots is how the lead character(s) of a story is (are) portrayed.  To Booker, the fundamental kind of protagonist, the “hero” (largely assumed to be male), begins the story in an immature state of incompletion.  As the story progresses, the “light” protagonist encounters one or more “dark forces” (usually the malevolent antagonist[s]), which challenge the hero’s sense of himself, becoming part of their conflict.  If male, the protagonist, while struggling through his conflict, will also encounter a representative of his anima, his gentler female side, which usually requires completion through spiritual union with a woman; the anima is most commonly represented by a female love interest for the hero.  Exactly what shape the hero’s struggle takes depends on what kind of plot the work has — to use Booker’s titles for these plots: “Overcoming the Monster,” “Rags to Riches,” “Voyage and Return,” “The Quest,” among others.  Ideally, the hero overcomes the “dark force(s)” by realizing what Booker calls the protagonist’s “Self”: his mature, unselfish identity that is at peace with the world.

In fact, to Booker, it’s this coming into Self-hood that, in large part, enables the hero to overcome his adversarial forces.  The hero ends the story by defeating his antagonist, which also (ideally) marks his ascension into society as an adult.  And by the hero uniting in the end with his anima (e.g., “getting the girl”), the story promises, if only by implication, that this exact society — at least the way that it exists by the “happy” end of the narrative — will be perpetuated via procreation.  There are other forms that a story like this can take, but the hero’s realizing his unselfish Self and his helping to perpetuate a fruitful, benevolent society are crucial elements.

Booker refers to the most obvious antagonist archetype as the “monster”:

[P]hysically, morally and psychologically, the monster in storytelling … represents everything in human nature that is somehow twisted and less than perfect.  Above all, and it is the supreme characteristic of every monster who has ever been portrayed in a story, he or she is egocentric.  The monster is heartless; totally unable to feel for others, although this may sometimes be disguised beneath a deceptively charming, kindly or solicitous exterior; its only real concern is to look after its own interests, at the expense of everyone else in the world.  (p. 33, emphasis in original)

To a conservative like Booker, that is the ideal kind of plot, the kind with a “complete, fully formed happy ending.”  A different kind of plot is a story told from the perspective of the “monster,” told from the perspective of an anti-hero, and Booker calls this kind of plot "Tragedy.”  In other words, Booker’s “Tragedy” is a plot where the lead character would be the antagonist in a more ideal story.  But the ending is the same: the “dark force” protagonist is overcome, allowing a harmonious society to be perpetuated.  For example, Macbeth is told from the perspective of the murderous Scottish usurper, but once he is defeated, Caledonia can unite under a more beneficent ruler. 
Christopher Booker in 2011
Another kind of “Tragedy” is one with one or more ideal protagonists whose ascension to Self-hood in society is incomplete by the story’s end, often because of death.  But — and this is crucial to Booker in this kind of tragedy — this frustration of the hero’s objective must lead to a greater good.  For example, Romeo and Juliet’s deaths bring their feuding families together by the play’s end.  Even in A Midsummer Night’s Dream’s farcical play-within-the-play of Pyramus and Thisbe, Bottom takes the time to mention that the wall that once divided the two lovers’ families has been torn down because of the couple’s suicides.  So, the death of the tragic hero (as distinct from the tragic anti-hero) has not been in vain, and the good society endures once again. 

In this way, Booker sees stories as allegories of each audience member’s life.  The struggle for the ideal hero to reach some important goal and ascend into a benevolent society as a fully formed adult correlates to the listeners’ own individual struggles to meet their own important goals.  And the hero “getting the girl” at the end of the story analogizes the audience members finding their own soulmates and ascending into society themselves as fully formed, procreating adults: 

What we see symbolically represented [in archetypal stories] … is the idealised pattern of how any human being can [like the stories’ heroes] travel on the long, tortuous journey of inner growth, finally emerging to a state of complete self-realisation.  (p. 222)

This parallel between the story-hero’s fictional struggles and the spectator’s own non-fictional struggles is sometimes compactly expressed by the aphorism, “If you want to win the princess, you have to fight the dragon.”  Booker explores other kinds of ideal or “light” stories (as opposed to “dark” ones), but the one of a male hero coming into his full and harmonious adult sense of Self by overcoming the egotistical “monster” (broadly defined) and winning the love of the female lead (as the author puts it, “uniting with his anima”) is, to him, “the most basic.” 

However, Booker identifies a kind of plot outside the ideal, one that he claims has come to mark narratives for the past couple of centuries.  In archetypal “light” stories, the monster is the egotistical force, but Booker inveighs against a kind of storytelling where he locates the egotism within the lead character:

[I]n countless modern stories, a fundamental shift has taken place in the psychological ‘centre of gravity’ from which they have been told.  They have become detached from their underlying archetypal purpose.  Instead of being fully integrated with the objective [!] values embodied in the archetypal structure, such stories have taken on a fragmented, subjective character, becoming more like personal dreams or fantasies.  (p. 348)

Some seemingly archetypal narratives Booker takes to task for not transforming their lead characters’ inner lives meaningfully, not bringing them to a complete and integrated sense of Self.  One such tale is Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush (1925), where, in Booker’s view, the Little Tramp is too passive and doesn’t do enough to earn the riches or the woman’s love that he gets by the end of the film.  Another is George Lucas’s Star Wars (1977) because hero Luke Skywalker liberates anima Princess Leia before defeating “monster” Darth Vader: “This misses the very essence of what the archetypal symbolism is about.  The anima can only properly be liberated at the moment when the monster is finally overcome” (p. 382).  Booker terms such insufficiently archetypal tales as “romantic” stories. 

While the writer sternly chides works that are “romantic,” his tone of voice grows more agitated over narratives that call the archetypes into question.  One of the earliest that Booker mentions is Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein (1818).  By making the novel’s monster (at least at first) sympathetic, Booker charges, Shelley broke a covenant with the reader.  Instead of being the unambiguous figure of dark forces that the hero (presumably Dr. Frankenstein) must overcome to realize his own “light” forces, the monster becomes the object of pity, thereby turning the archetypes on their heads and initiating a story that can only lead to the doctor’s miserable destruction.  Or as Booker puts it, the story “ends with the hero being overcome by the monster, rather than the other way around” (pp. 356-57).  After Booker denounces the archetypal inversions of the novel Frankenstein, he then subjects Mary Shelley to a kind of retrotemporal psychoanalysis to figure out why she would have written such an unorthodox book and concludes that it was the product of a troubled mind.  Booker puts on the couch other authors whose works go against his archetypal paradigm, with similar results.  This is the most condescending aspect of The Seven Basic Plots: if there are stories that deviate from the book’s ideal, it can’t be because of Booker’s paradigm; something must be wrong with the authors that he criticizes. 

Booker sees such stories as being deleterious to the audience because the writers’ egos — which ought to have been overcome to achieve a more mature sense of Self — have taken over the narration of the stories, creating stunted “heroes” who likewise give into their egotism and thereby populate stories with pessimistic or cynical endings.  In discussing such stories, Booker’s tone is stern, but he saves his most caustic venom for the modernist narrative. 

To Booker, the questioning of classical or “archetypal” forms — which is the hallmark of modernism — has been the result of a series of psychological traumas throughout the last 200 years of history (basically since beginning of the industrial revolution).  From the Napoleonic Wars to the automation of the early 20th century to the promiscuity of Bill Clinton, each new change chipped away at Western civilization’s mature sense of Self, giving birth to stories with egotistical and malformed heroes, which, in turn, fed the degenerative cycle of destructive, non-archetypal narratives.  And these egotistical stories, be they “romantic” (merely insufficiently archetypal) or more sinister dark inversions of the paradigm (for all intents and purposes, modernist narratives), have created a fragmented, chaotic world — in other words, a conservative’s dystopian nightmare:

Up to the late 1950s Western society had still managed to preserve an idealised image of its own totality, corresponding to the Self.   Vital to this had been those ruling masculine principles of order, discipline and hierarchy which archetypally constituted the ‘values of Father’.  The institutions and conventions traditionally regarded as essential to holding society together had generally remained intact.  Importance was still attached to such concepts as ‘duty’, ‘responsibility’ and ‘good manners’.  The social order still rested on the respect accorded to ‘authority figures’: from parents to political leaders, from teachers to policemen.  A framework of sanctions still existed to uphold sexual discipline and the central importance of marriage, from laws prohibiting homosexuality to social taboos on promiscuity and adultery.  
One of the more obvious features of the change which came over society after the late 1950s had been the extent to which all this was rejected.  All that complex of ‘masculine’ principles associated with duty, discipline, hierarchy, tradition and authority came to be perceived as oppressive and life-denying.  The new ruling consciousness was one which promoted ‘below the line’ [i.e., plebian] values at the expense of those ‘above the line’; the attributes of youth over those of maturity; liberation over constraint; ‘lower class’ over ‘upper’; the future over the past.  A dominant archetype of the age — personified in such hero-figures as Elvis Presley or the Beatles — became that of the rebellious puer aeternus, ‘the boy hero’ frozen in immaturity.  No longer was it generally taken for granted that the ultimate goal of life was to work towards the wisdom of age.  What mattered in an age of incessant change was to remain in touch with the new: to aspire to a state of perpetual youth.  (pp. 680-81)

Passages such as these gave me a profound insight into the differences between classicism (Booker’s preferred form of storytelling) and its opposite, modernism.  I don’t mean to suggest a hard-and-fast binarism between classicism and modernism: even Booker himself sees something like the “romantic” (insufficiently archetypal) narrative as something in-between.  I also don’t intend to make an absolute binarism out of liberalism and conservatism: most political views are more complex than party-line moieties.  But to provisionally use “classicism” and “modernism,” “liberalism” and “conservatism,” as antipodes of each other, The Seven Basic Plots indirectly told me how the two camps see the world. 

The classical narrative basically views the world as — all things considered — a benevolent place, with civilized societies worth preserving.  If a particular society is unjust, the cause is a tyrannical “ruler” (authority figure) whose individual defeat or change of heart can restore/bring about a more ideal environment that deserves perpetuating.  And in those stories where a malignant, oppressive society still exists after the climax (such as Casablanca [1943] or Mad Max 2 [1981]), the hero’s smaller-scale victory against one of the tyrant’s surrogates suggests that a better world is just over the horizon.  This is the environment of the classical narrative: the hero’s ultimate fitting into, upholding, and propagating this kindhearted society serves as an allegory of the audience member fitting into, upholding, and propagating his or her own society — more or less as that society presently exists — as well.  Due to this somewhat (however indirectly) proselytizing mission of this kind of story, it should be told in as clear and as easy-to-follow a manner as possible, thus the classical narrative’s usual reliance on established conventions. 

By contrast, modernist works see some deeply ingrained flaw in the societies that their characters inhabit.  In a setting that a classical-oriented audience might view as (on the whole) unproblematic, the modernist narrative views as problematic, more problematic than anything that could be reversed by the mere “overthrow” of an individual tyrant figure.  Indeed, there might even be something inherent about this milieu that is inconspicuously malignant.  For this reason, the characters in a modernist work have nothing to gain by upholding and propagating their societies. 

So, the modernist creator’s job is to make such a society’s problematics/malignancies more discernible.  And because accepted artistic conventions do much to hold perceptions of this society in place, the modernist’s most direct tactic is to interrogate those conventions, and by troubling them, the creator exposes, in a very indirect fashion, at least a portion of what is virulent in this setting.  Characters in a modernist work often come to ends that are unhappy or worse.  Such a work allegorizes the destructive forces in the world around them, as it also implies that their deleterious society isn’t worth conforming to or propagating.  This is the basis, I believe, why pessimistic endings (as opposed to the bittersweet endings of works that are more classical) are so prevalent in stories of a modernist bent. 

The modernist text that best illustrates this divide between the classical story and the modernist one is Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Eclisse (a.k.a. The Eclipse, 1962).  This film even makes a brief appearance in The Seven Basic Plots.  Booker disapprovingly writes:  “One of the most acclaimed ‘art films’ of 1962 was the Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni’s Eclipse, a drifting nightmare which ended in a cloud covering the sun, throwing the world into a silent twilight” (p. 676).  (More accurately, the film ends with various shots of the big city as night falls.)  

L’Eclisse tells the very loose narrative of Vittoria (Monica Vitti) and Piero (Alain Delon), who meet in contemporary cosmopolitan Rome, date each other, and eventually become lovers.  Piero’s occupation is a stockbroker on the Rome exchange, and we see scenes of him shouting along with the other brokers on the exchange’s chaotic floor.  The setting of the exchange is a very depersonalizing space where brokers scramble and shout among themselves in a frantic chase for phantom fortunes.  They are so riotous that they can barely contain themselves to honor the recent death of a colleague, after which the exchange goes back to its usual pandemonium.  When the market crashes one day, Vittoria asks Piero where all the money went, and he answers, “Nowhere,” leading us to wonder if the cash that the brokers are frantically chasing is, in fact, real. 

Vittoria, Piero, and the citizens of modern Rome inhabit a fragmented environment sometimes marked by inorganic geometrical shapes and structures.  This is the space shaped by the depersonalizing form of capitalism that the anarchic stock market represents, a space equally depersonalizing to its inhabitants.  In other words, Rome is an alienating environment where the citizens are unable to live truly meaningful lives.  Vittoria’s encounter with a white colonial Kenyan arouses the issue of imperialism’s role in shaping their environment.  And hints of nuclear anxiety appear throughout the film — from the mushroom-cloud shape of the hovering E.U.R. tower, to a man carrying a newspaper with the headline “Peace Is Fragile,” to the blinding white light of a streetlamp bulb that fills the final shot. 

Because of its creation and sustenance by a depersonalizing capitalism, hierarchical imperialism, and dread-inducing nuclear weapons, the Rome of L’Eclisse is as pitiless as any tyrannical realm, but it’s pitiless in a more subtle way — and Antonioni’s camera tries to shed light on these subtleties.  Due to their cold, unfeeling environment, any romance between Vittoria and Piero seems doomed from the start.  Vittoria seems uncertain to commit to a relationship, and we wonder if Piero’s intentions are all that honorable.  But even in those moments when Vittoria and Piero come together in an embrace, both have a faraway look of dissatisfaction in their eyes, as though both think that their relationship is really a substitute for something better that they haven’t found.  Of course, L’Eclisse is most well known for its final seven minutes, where Vittoria and Piero agree to meet later but then never appear again.  And the camera wanders the streets of Rome, as if in search of them, driving home the alienating aspects of the city, which are more visible and tangible when there isn’t a romantic, photogenic, story-shaping couple to distract our attention. 

To reference Booker’s paradigm, Vittoria and Piero don’t come together in the closing moments of L’Eclisse because the society of contemporary Rome is sterile and doesn’t deserve to be propagated.  Any coming-together by the couple in the closing moments of the film would have implied the opposite.  Our “heroes” don’t ascend to their mature, fully formed societal roles because their society — with its deep roots in an impersonal capitalism, colonialism, and unease over the nuclear bomb — is not worth ascending to.  And the mere “overthrow” of some “tyrant” isn’t going change their environment in any meaningful way: L’Eclisse has no individual tyrant figure; the “tyrant” is the society itself. 

Although Antonioni implicitly criticizes the world of 1962 Italy, he also intimates the possibility of escape.  In the alienating atmosphere of Rome, Vittoria is at home neither in her own new-fashioned apartment nor in Piero’s ancestral house, neither in the modern nor the traditional.  Her ideal environment is yet to be found, although inklings that it exists are implied by such things as Vittoria's revivifying visit to the airport in Verona (and its indications of a world beyond Italy) and her appreciation of the artwork that decorates her apartment.  Even the wind, as it rustles the trees or rattles a line of metal flagpoles, hints at a more organic, life-giving state of existence elsewhere or elsewise.  (The last shot we see of Vittoria is a close-up of her head against a cluster of tree branches.)  As awkward as Vittoria’s “blackface” dance (she imitates an African woman in the white Kenyan’s flat) may look today, it’s yet another enactment of Vittoria’s desire to escape her confining, discomforting world — as her African make-up implies that the world to which she must escape should be one of her own making and not necessarily a geographical destination.  And the idea that she eventually will succeed in finding such a space is reflected in her triumphant name: Vittoria — victory.

This is what I gleaned from The Seven Basic Plots: To a conservative like Booker, the (more or less) exemplary society — as allegorized in fiction — does indeed already exist (however marred it my be at the moment), so a story’s unformed hero (like each citizen) must become worthy of this society through personal transformation into a mature, conformist adult.  But to a progressive like Antonioni, the current society must be dramatically transformed to be worthy of its people, so the characters in his films (surrounded by destructive environments) always come to unsatisfactory or unhappy ends.  To the conservative, transformation must be personal.  To the liberal, transformation must be societal. 

I have depicted this idea in relatively broad strokes, of course, and this issue may be examined in other ways don’t depend on dichotomies.  But by and large, I think that my observation after reading The Seven Basic Plots marks one important distinction between classical works, modernist works, and their often divergent audiences. 

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