Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Theory of It All

Last blog post I threatened to explain to you the system of literary theory which I learned in college.  It’s the thread that runs through most of my writing, secretly, and it even gives me a framework for thinking about daily life.  Since it’s that big a part of me, I hope I’ll be excused for rambling about it for a while. 

I guess you might call the method I was taught ‘genre theory.’

Basically, it postulates that all literature (fiction and poetry) divides roughly into four master genres.  These aren’t the usual mystery, romance, fantasy, etc., that we tend to think of when we say the word genre.  Instead, the four terms derive from Greek literature (yay for the Greeks, who thought about everything and then gave it extravagant names) and are words we bandy about commonly. 

In general, words bandied about commonly turn out to be the most important.

‘Let’s watch a romantic comedy’; ‘oh, it was tragic’; ‘that bike ride was epic’; ‘I love the lyrics to that song’ – four terms so common that one of them has even entered the world of slang.  Comedy, Tragedy, Epic, Lyric.  Each of them encapsulate a vital part of human experience.  Comedy is about redemption and life.  Tragedy faces sorrow and death.  Epic fights battles and achieves goals.  Lyric celebrates beauty and love.  If you think about it, most of what humanity undergoes can be fit somewhere in those patterns. 
Even the things which each of us experience every day fit into the genres. 

Of course, this is all very interesting, but even more fascinating to me is how the pattern fits together.  The genres flow into each other to make a total movement, you see.  People tend to start off in a lyric world: children have a natural appreciation of beauty; teenagers fall desperately in love.  But then tragedy comes, because romance doesn’t always last.  Pain and suffering enter one’s experience and maybe prompt one to make mistakes.  Those mistakes lead to punishment; if they’re big enough they might even lead to physical death, but in any case, something of childish innocence dies in the course of tragedy. 

We aren’t stuck in a dark and painful world though.  There’s hope of rising up from the bottom.  Comedy acknowledges this: it shows us people who started out at the bottom and then slowly work their way to the top, helped and guided by friends and families and maybe a love interest for them to marry at the end.  And then, once a person has that much, he has something to fight for.  If a challenge arises and tries to take his hard-won place away from him, the spirit of Epic will make him fight to preserve it, even if he has to travel far to wage his battles and then journey long to return and reclaim his home. 

Genre theory illustrated - with helpful stick-figures
 Anyway, the point of all this is that I’ve always been intrigued by the transition from tragedy to comedy.

The transitions between the other genres seem clear to me.  When it comes to tragedy, though, the hero of the story often dies – think of Macbeth, of Othello, of Hamlet...All dead in the end.  The abandoned lover of lyric might turn to the criminal of tragedy, or the happy husband of comedy might become the epic warrior in defense of his home, the tragic man usually dies before he can become the plucky survivor of comedy.  So what’s the link?  There has to be one.

That’s where Doctor Who returns to the scene. 

You see, I noticed back in college that there is usually someone who survives a tragedy.  In Hamlet, Horatio is left alive and given the task of telling his friend’s story.  In King Lear, Edgar makes it through all the madness and is promised a place of influence in the kingdom.  Someone always survives the tragedy.  Survival is one of the signs of a comedic character.  Perhaps there was some connection. 

One of the signs of a good comedy  is a guardian angel character – someone whose role is to teach and protect and guide the bumbling protagonist on his climb to a higher place in life.  Often older men or thoughtful women assume these duties; imagine Prospero in the Tempest for a perfect example.  If you look into these characters, they often have sad or unfortunate backgrounds.  My theory that the secondary survivors of tragedies take the lessons they’ve learned to teach the characters of comedies seemed to gain some strength.

Then I watched Doctor Who and (as usual) busily applied my training in literary criticism to the show.  One of the side effects of genre theory is a tendency to analyze everything in terms of the four master genres.  Anyway, I realized as I watched further and further into the seasons that the show was confirming my theory. 

The Doctor is a survivor of a tragedy – the end of two races.  Moreover, he himself had a hand in the disaster and bears the guilt, from which he has learned how to be merciful.  Therefore, he has become a perfect protector for the endearing but sometimes clueless humans whom he has adopted as his new family.  The story is now a comedy, but it is built around someone who survived a tragedy. 

Of course, that realization led to the desire to write about such a character of my own.  The story is stirring in the back of my mind, but so far down that I can’t quite catch it yet.  I’m very excited for it to emerge.  The feeling of a new story coming to life in one’s mind is one of the best in the world, after all.  

1 comment:

  1. And a wonderful winter wonderland day to you! We've been a tad busy shoveling ourselves out. Two storms in one day on top of what was already there... with another 3-5 inches due tonight.

    Spring? Seems so distant. And yet I can see it already with the trees that have started to bud. I think it will be awhile before we see any bulbs popping through the almost foot of snow blanketing the yard.

    Inspiration comes from odd places. I've joined in a pilgrimage on my blogspot site. Since I wasn't using it for much else. Mostly haiku and the like about my travels with a frog. Not sure yet what I'm looking for or what I'll find. But it is nice to travel in one's imagination. Good luck with your newest quests. Cheers, ~Jules

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