Wednesday, October 24, 2007


One of the few interesting things said by my professor for Law and Literature (a class that I anyway had planned on dropping due to scheduling conflicts, which gave me a somewhat inexplicable smug sense of satisfaction) was a quote from some lawyer attacking circumstantial evidence. He claimed that we have learned to see life as a Chekhov play, where every detail must have some significance, while in fact life is chaotic and random and never ties together nicely at the end.

While his claim re: evidence was weak (he made some ridiculous statistical mistakes: "Sure, he beat his wife, but what percentage of husbands who beat their wives end up killing them?" when the proper question is "what percentage of dead wives whose husbands had beaten them were killed by those husbands?" But I digress), the idea itself intrigues. Do we distort our perception of reality to fit into literary conventions?

I know that I tend to describe and perceive reality in terms of short stories or scenes from TV shows. A lot. In the past few days, I have said that the word Focaccia would make a good name for a menacing, black-mustachioed villain, and invented lines for that villain ("Beware the wrath of Focaccia!"). I declared a shabbat guest's description of a rich kids' camp where the director drives around in a souped-up golf cart and throws dollar bills- and one hundred dollar bill- for the children to fight over, usually violently, so ludicrously exaggerated that it was exactly a bad short story that I would read and get annoyed over its clumsy plot devices. I said that I wanted to write a short story about an heir to a chasidic dynasty who is convinced that he is not holy enough to be a rebbe. I listened to my Bioethics prof get annoyed at people trying to find solutions to avoid the moral dilemmas he posed and thought that one could write a short story for each one, trying to eliminate every possible outside factor that would avoid the dilemma itself and that perhaps this was the secret of science fiction. I constantly say "if this were a sitcom, x would happen now," or "if I were writing this short story, it would turn out that y." Not even to mention the degree to which my 'natural' personality, speech, and writing style are consciously and literarily affected.

But I think that maybe- except for the affected thing- it's not entirely a bad thing. Literary works may be unnatural, but thinking in terms of them provides a structure by which we can notice themes, congruities, and incongruities, a sufficiently impersonal perspective that we can see ourselves as others see us, a way of analyzing our lives as we live them. Which, of course, is a very me thing and may not be suited to others.

But the question still remains- does doing this distort our perception of reality or merely channel it? Do we force the story into the events or read it out? Or maybe neither and whatever his face lawyer was simply wrong?


Larry Lennhoff said...

My sister by choice and I both look on our lives as a work of art, but we mean very different things by this. She will make life decision based on what would make her life story more interesting - she is the artist in control of her work - planning the work, choosing the materials, and then making art with them.

I on the other hand, view myself as part of the school of found art. As I'm rowing gently down the stream, I choose how or whether to incorporate into my life the objects/events I encounter. At the end, the viewer should see how the apparently chance encounters all added up to a harmonious whole.

Izgad said...

I like imagine sometimes that some mad professor out of Mystery Science Theater 3000 has dumped me into a tragic play in the hope that would eventually be overcome by such great pathos (for myself) that I would go insane. I fight back with my sense of humor. So I devote myself to turning my life into a dark comedy.
To me all true comedy has to be dark. Comedy is about looking to the abyss and laughing.

Miri said...

How is what you described your sister of choice doing and what you're doing any different, really?

I thought humor was about the unexpectedness of the thing; the opposite happens of what we expect to happen... I could be wrong.

I think most people throughout history have interpreted their lives as determined by pop culture. just think of Marianne in sense and sensibility. she clearly viewed her self as a heroine in a romantic novel. girls are kind of like that. actually, people are kind of like that.

Tobie said...

Larry: the question is not only how we choose to structure our lives artistically speaking, but how we choose to view the world. Does your sister by choice read events, other people's lives, situations as works of constructed art? Do you read them as found art? Do you insert (or discover) a harmonious whole?

Izgad- I'm not sure I agree with you about comedy, but it's an interesting way to look at your life. I guess, like any other structure we may read into it, it gives the whole thing a sense of purpose.

Miri-True. But I was trying to focus less on how we read our own lives- which we can more or less construct- and more about how we read things that we see and hear that don't really affect us that much. Do we force a story onto them or let them be? When we see the world, how do we interpret it?
Did I succeed in conveying any distinction there whatsoever?

David H said...

Kurt Vonnegut noted that stories always have main characters and secondary characters, whose sole purpose is to modulate the events occurring to the main character. He claimed that people tend to take this attitude from stories into real life, which leads to wars --- people view the casualties and disasters of war as "secondary events" in the grand story of their own lives.

Vonnegut tried to change this attitude by writing a novel without secondary characters --- each of the characters, even a dog, had his own perspective.

Miri said...

how we interpret the world directly affects how we interpret what happens to us as well. don't pretend you're not actually nararating all this in your own head right now - I know you are!

Tobie said...

David- I guess that's kind of what I mean- reading the world like a story. Also, the idea of a story without secondary characters is really cool...I should read some Vonnegut

Miri- of course I am, but the question is, am I distorting the rest of the world by doing that, forget what it does to my own life? Am I forcing the world into the sort of thing which can be narrated, which automatically leaves things out and interprets things and fits things into my 'story'?

Miri said...

maybe. I just think that it's something most people - or a lot o people - do. hence, not that big a deal. but I do understand your concern. the greater question should be then, how are you supposed to be interpreting it anyway?