Thursday, March 29, 2007

168. The Examined Life, or "Little Did He Know"

Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) in Stranger Than Fiction (2006) is an IRS auditor who realizes he is a character in an unfinished novel. He hears a voice, and it frightens him, and then infuriates. He tries to talk back, and gets only silence. He bargains with the voice, or argues or cajoles; he demands and implores. Nothing. Then he seeks it out, encountering the dead ends of self-help and pharmacology before making his way to literature, to someone who understands words. Close, but the more he explores his situation, the fewer his choices, as the lit prof, Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman), eliminates all the kinds of stories Crick is not in. Only by accident does Crick discover his creator, Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson); this is the normal, haphazard, dismaying, flabbergasting process of realizing that one is a creation.

From kindergarten to baccalaureate I attended Catholic schools, and have thus received more or less systematic instruction on how to build a Rube Goldberg consciousness machine. Looking back, I am grateful I was given a language to attempt to describe it to myself--but nothing prepared me for the moment when the Voice started talking, at first scaring the crap out of me, as if It were a ghost, right at my shoulder, spooky as it started telling me, in a startlingly matter-of-fact tone, that I was not simply a Subject, only myself, but an Object, "belonging" in some way to Another. At first I thought it was my mother or father--and they sufficed for a while, if not as the literal Makers they were, but as doers, building the house in secret every night as I slept, having the world ready when I woke up.

But the more I moved around, the more complicated the world got. There were all kinds of new streets and buildings, trees and fireplugs, birds and billboards to put together as I moved away from the house, all of it rising up just around each corner, busy as I approached, and done just as I kept arriving--until one day I began to feel the tremor that marks the world's making, a slight tremble as I stepped on each new square foot of it.

So maybe I was not the only Thing being created--no; no "maybes" about it. And I consoled myself with the necessary adolescent idea that I was the One, that "life is what you make of it." An error, but again, a necessary one, for without pride, one is left in dismay, since freedom without pride demands accountability; and, like Milton's Satan,* I wanted to assert, "The mind is its own place, and in itself / Can make a Heav'n of Hell, a Hell of Heav'n." I wanted to be free to reign as I wished--but also to nurse wounds and lay blame.

In other words, free not to be a creation. But try as I might, nothing helped, not even literature--no, I have to take that back. Prof. Hilbert reminds us that by reading stories, stories can be told (and I direct you to the note at the end of this for a glimpse into the saving power of lit-trit-chore); besides, it's in the professor's office that Crick sees his author on TV. Still, when Hilbert reads Eiffel's book, he is willing to sacrifice Crick for the beautiful death his author has planned for him. And so even art lets one down; after all, it too is a creation that wants to be itself.

All I had, then, was me and what I knew. But--and I hesitate here, because it may be Pride speaking. Oh, what the--hmm; I'll leave that to Milton. Anyway, I have a thought: In knowing that he is a creation, Crick gains the right to have a conversation with the Creator. I will not say more about what happens to Crick; but Stranger Than Fiction keeps building in my head, like the ever-made world itself, and offers the possibility that addressing the idea of being created is the beginning of life, of freedom that allows one to be more than a monumental, defeated general enduring "the burning Marl," approaching with "uneasy steps" others like me, the mere waking guards of Self.

No, the more I know I am created, the more I can create. Will Ferrell, with his fittingly blank look and completely understandable near-constant flinch, fills me with all the pity and hope I need. You see, I too have been making hash-marks on my own Domesday Book, counting which steps lead to tragedy ("death," as Prof. Hilbert observes) and which to comedy ("getting hitched"--and there for Harold waits Maggie Gyllenhaal's Ana Pascal, a baker of delicious cookies), as I try to keep up a conversation with my Author, not (when I am minding myself) to make any deals, just to keep open the lines of communication. Like Harold, I may know little, but two things are of particular solace: once you start talking, the Author considers the merits of not only justice but mercy, and thus options remain open; and (if I may indulge in an in-joke for those of us who have seen the movie) I am not a Golem.

*A professor at the college where I work, her intellect keen and heart generous--thank you, Gina--has just started a weekly Paradise Lost discussion group. It's students and faculty and staff waxing theological, philosophical, and aesthetical--is that last one possible? We've met once, and it was good, and I think it's going to get better, as we continue trying to justify the ways of Milton to each other.

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