Herzog and Ravelstein
Whatever happened, has already happened. Now we’re looking back at the past, trying to make sense. This is what Saul Bellow’s novels, Herzog and Ravelstein set out to do. We can only make sense of the past if we understand the thoughts that people experienced. We have to go into the mind of a character, the ideas that motivated them. Saul Bellow was fascinated by these thoughts and ideas. How people live in worlds of ideas and conceptualisation. Mindscapes. Or, as he put it: ‘We live among ideas much more than we live in nature.’ The characters, Herzog and Ravelstein, live within these interwoven layers: blame, excuses, goals, expectations, rationalisations, history… They are the servants of ideas. Ideas take hold of them. They are not in control. Both stories are about the ideated ‘I’ – Herzog (his world view) and ‘Chick’ (writing his memoir about his friend Ravelstein). They are about thinking back – accessing memories. We’re revisiting places, and times from their lives. We too are trying to make sense. The past has happened. It’s a place Herzog and Ravelstein (and ‘Chick’) can never return to – this is the rumination story.
Ravelstein is magnificent. A towering intellect, and a flawed man. A man of culture; a connoisseur. Ravelstein is always thinking (wrapped up in the grandeur of the classical world), always buying the best clothes – the consumer accessories necessary for a great man. He’s a Romantic figure travelling through the cultural wilderness of 20th Century America. Making sense of post-World War II USA. He’s a metaphor for America itself. Herzog is mentally preoccupied, troubled, tormented. Preoccupied with his girlfriends. Dumping them or being dumped by them. A latent mesh of ideas always blocking Herzog from himself. His relationships are dysfunctional. Women are won and then lost. Life is a big gambling casino: you never know what happens next. Loss is the only certainty. The loss of money. Of looks. Of Youth. Of feeling good about yourself – of lightness. To him, women are abundantly mercurial. Perplexing. A mysterious riddle. Always alluring. He sees through their snobbery, hypocrisy and arrogance while locked within his own faults. A meaningful connection is not possible. The dissatisfaction this creates preoccupies him. Ravelstein, on the other hand, is a man without the need for women. He’s a man’s man. A gay man. In his view, women distract great men from their great thoughts. His chosen ones, his student favourites, are like Greek statues in his own museum of favourites. The beautiful and the charming. They’re destined for great things – always beautiful, always charming.
At times ‘Chick’ and Ravelstein are like The Odd Couple. The comic surface interplay hides their deep emotional relationship. Love even. Herzog and Ravelstein (and ‘Chick, who is writing Ravelstein’s memoir) are searching for themselves. Searching for America. Never finding it. Because, no such thing exists. With all their grand posturing these ‘giants’, like the central character in Citizen Kane, are being carried along by life as much as anyone else. Hankering after simple, small things. Connections. Meanings. Ravelstein is contradictory. An intellectual who sees through the false gods, and yet he is a slavish consumer. He buys the latest 7 Series BMW, specially imported from Germany. He has a taste for the French fashion houses, and expensive Parisian hotels. During a Paris trip he stays at the same hotel as Michael Jackson. Ravelstein delights in his own excess – amused by the ridiculousness. The message of these rumination stories is that you can’t escape your past.
Ravelstein returns to his Jewish identity, forsaking the classical Greek world (another layer of bullshit ideas) for ‘Jerusalem’. We witness his declining health, and the near-death experience of ‘Chick’. We witness the circle of life coming to a close. Everything that begins – ends.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is Philip K Dick’s 1968 post-apocalyptic novel. It’s a world where people synthetically ‘dial up’ their mood, aspire to keep a real animal as a pet, and organic androids (built as a slave class) are escaping from Mars to the earth.
The novel is a series of extraordinary and fascinating ideas that don’t quite cohere into a satisfying story. There’s a post-apocalyptic San Francisco, a world ravaged by nuclear radiation, the abandoned suburbs, mass emigration to Mars, Mercerism (the religion of the day), which values empathy for all living things, keeping animals as a status symbol, human-like organic robots (the enemy within), the Voight-Kampff Test (a way of identifying non-human behaviour through an involuntary physiological response to a repugnant suggestion), and even sex with robots (which, in the novel, is against the law).
Unlike Blade Runner, in the novel Deckard and his colleague both believe that they might be androids. Neither of them are. Deckard begins to feel empathy for androids, but after having sex with Rachael changes his mind when she tells him that she’s slept with other bounty hunters. Rachael is at the centre of this reversal. He almost kills her, but changes his mind. What is real? What is a simulation? Dick seems to say: if we believe something is ‘real’, then to us it is real.
- The television series Lost aired from 2004 to 2010. It helped change the way TV series are conceptualised, switching from an episodic story arc, to a longer-form journey stretching across an entire series. We are on ‘The Island’. It’s a fictional, fantastic, surreal world – a magical realist, storytelling universe. Jack the good guy, the protagonist, the hero, always thinks about helping other people. He’s a Mr Nice. He is a calm man. Always able to keep his cool in a crisis. But, we learn from his backstory that he’s not always been so controlled. There’s a glimmer of romance between him and Kate. But, we also learn about her hidden side through her own flashbacks – a backstory that Jack has no idea about. There are other characters. Charlie is a has-been rock star with a chaotic past. Sawyer is a self-serving badass, Jack’s antagonist. But is Sawyer all bad? Michael is a father, struggling to communicate with his son, Walt. Hugo is the comic character, who humanises situations. Locke is a troubled character. Sayid has a dark past. And there’s a Korean couple with relationship issues. Right from the get-go there are enough variables for dramatic conflict. Lost famously answered questions with more questions in an attempt to retain audience attention. The ordinariness of air crash survivors on a tropical island beginning their day-to-day survival could have turned into a soap opera on a jungle island. Instead, it became a surreal mashup of science fiction and fantasy. Lost continually throws the audience, confusing, and confounding their expectations. The disconnect is part of its delight. The power of Lost, its disconnect comes from good old fashioned mystery. The audience has to work out how and why different plot elements connect. Flashbacks become flash-forwards. The non-linear narrative creates further confusion, further mystery. the viewers put up with increasing confusion and incoherence because they were invested in the characters. The audience put up with an increasingly nonsensical plot in order to learn what happened to their favourite characters.
- When things and places are ‘alive’ in fiction it creates another character within the story. In The Lord of The Rings series, the forests are actually alive. The trees are living beings with all the traits of a human character. In other stories like The Perfect Storm, nature might not technically be ‘alive’, but it feels like a living, breathing antagonist, one that needs to be battled with and outsmarted. This is the man versus nature story, the battle of wills. When buildings are portrayed as living it often means that they have been possessed by a paranormal force (magic, spells, satanic forces). The Shining, The Amityville Horror, Barton Fink, Poltergeist, and The Haunting are all examples of the haunted house, the building possessed by dark forces. The haunted house scenario forces rational characters into conflict with irrational and horrific powers. It tells us that some things in life don’t make sense. There are forces out there beyond our control. In 2001: A Space Odyssey Hal, a robot, takes over the spaceship and murders the crew. Although this is a science fiction story, Hal is essentially a ghost in a haunted house. Hal is a benevolent force that turns malicious; a machine, programmed to be rational, but, once possessed – a demon. In Solaris the rational crew of a spaceship come into proximity to a natural phenomenon that alters their consciousness. The rational, scientific world meets the extraordinary, the inexplicable. In The Demon Seed another robot with advanced AI takes over a physical space (a domestic house), giving itself and the building the qualities of a conscious entity with its own ‘body’ and ‘limbs’. Buildings can have a strange influence on the characters who live in them, without explicitly being alive. The tower block in High Rise sends its inhabitants insane. The mountaintop building in Black Narcissus is never portrayed as alive, but it has an unnatural psychological presence that forces the nuns in it to flee. The living environment, from fantasy, natural catastrophe, and horror, to science fiction, creates added interest for the storyteller. The protagonist must operate within this space, fight against it, or use it to his or her own advantage. It is an enemy, or a helper. The living environment turns an ordinary world into an extraordinary one.
- The ages of life reflect different levels of experience. The pre-adult lacks a sense of perspective. The adult has perspective, and the older adult has greater perspective. These ‘storyteller ages’ are viewpoints based in a linear timeline, a journey. They reflect the author’s perception of the world based on their ability to understand their own experiences. They reflect the writer’s own relationship with time. The storyteller is not necessarily stuck within their own age-related phase. J D Salinger is famous for his coming of age novel The Catcher in the Rye, which he wrote as an adult. It’s a story about the experience of an adolescent. Holden Caulfield’s personality and inexperience means that he is unable to understand the adult world. The adult hero does things out of necessity. He or she must make sacrifices for others, for the wider good. They may have to take care of ‘children’, or ‘older adults’. They must look beyond their generation. They are resilient and resourceful. They must face up to the challenges of reality, and have the power to change the story of life that goes on around them. The older age of storyteller ruminates on the past. They are armed with greater knowledge and hindsight: their experience transcends generations. They know that time is running out. Their story is one of sharing wisdom, sharing the nuanced perspective that time has given them. Like the youth, they are not able to make an impact on the world. They are non-participatory observers. They are no longer in the story of life, but at the very edge of it, recollecting events that have happened, conscious of their own mortality. Stories can, and often do, incorporate all three viewpoints within a single story. The hero undergoes a transformative journey: from childish innocence, through real-world experience, into the reflective wisdom of old age. Society has its deep rooted expectations and prejudices. An adult is rarely respected if they shirk adult responsibilities and live like a teenager. Even less if they act like a child. Children desire to make an impact in the world, so that they can earn their self-respect, and the respect of others. Old people tell stories to celebrate the fact that they were once young and foolish, handsome and brave. Once upon a time they were important and had power. Adults remind children and old people that they are in charge, they are the ones making things happen.
- In storytelling the ‘I’, ‘me’ (plus the reader, or audience) usually empathises with ‘we’ and ‘us’ against ‘them’. Who are ‘they’? They are the ‘other’. The ‘other’ can take many forms in storytelling. Usually we know a lot more about ‘us’ and ‘we’, and a lot less about ‘them’. Also, the other is likely to be a bad actor (manipulative, cheating, treacherous, a spy, a criminal, a pervert, a murderer, etc). Therefore ‘we’ struggle to empathise with ‘them’. We identify with the integrity, decency and vulnerability of ‘us’ and we’. We fear the perceived threat that ‘they’ possess. Whoever they are: they are dangerous. In The Thing the alien entity can mimic the human form; it’s almost impossible to know who is human and who is a monster. Count Orlok in Noferatu is the monstrous other, a lusting, blood-sucking vampire, followed around by a plague of rats. Horror is all about ‘us’ (human) and ‘it’ (inhuman): the thing, the beast, the machine. In Aliens the ‘other’ is a violent, monster from another world.
- Images à la Sauvette (Images on the Run) was published in France in 1952. Later English language editions were titled The Decisive Moment. The preface to the publication, a collection of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s photographs, describes the ‘decisive moment’ as a moment when the elements of photography (film speed, exposure, focus, etc) combine with a favourable event occurring in front of the lens – the result is a photograph that ‘works’ in every sense. By luck, and the skill the photographer, a point in time is captured: one that defines the fullest artistic expression of its potential. Instead of being a mere image, the elements work together to tell a photographic story. The photograph Derrière la Gare Saint-Lazare, Paris, France, 1932, for example, personifies anticipation. An unexciting image comes to life as a man leaps across a puddle. Frozen in time, forever in mid-air, the viewer imagines his foot landing in the water with a splash, but it never happens. Instead, because this is a still image, he is permanently stuck there, stuck in space, always about to land, but never landing. In that ‘decisive moment’ everything comes together to tell the story of that moment. A truly photographic moment. In storytelling the writer chooses when the story begins and ends. He or she chooses the decisive moment. Why is it decisive? Because it is the moment when everything combines to express the story at its fullest significance. This usually means the moment that changes how the characters view the world.