Printer Friendly

Icons, plots and identity.

IN THIS article I should like to address certain points that arise from Peter Lamarque's title-question: 'How can we Fear and Pity Fictions?'. My argument will propose a possible solution to the nature of these 'fiction' he cites, and suggest how these come to their identity through the action system or plot they inhabit. He posits a number of interesting questions about the nature of 'fictions' as he sees them. 'What', he asks, 'are we responding to when we fear Othello and pity Desdemona?'[1] Lamarque notes Kendall Walton's observation that though such character affect us, we cannot affect them; that is, make them feel fear, pity, delight, embarrassment, as we do for them.[2] Lamarque proposes that the letter figures 'enter our world' and it is here we interact with them. Characters obtain access to our minds in the guise of descriptions, whereafter they become the objects of our emotional responses as mental representations or fictions that form constellations of ideas that invite association not only with reality, but our imagination. This is a 'filling in process' which is reminiscent of 'coming to know another human being'. The one-way traffic of their effect on us is because of this transformation of them into mental representations. Lamarque goes on to argue why our responses to such characters are bound up in the whole work we see them in:

The answer lies partly in the shift from reference to sens in frictional names. It is not just that someone killed by a jealous husband that gives the emotive power to Othello but that the description of the killing is connected in a quite particular way with a great number of other descriptions in the play, including those of Desdemona. The cluster of descriptions that give sense to the name 'Desdemona' will tend to issue in ... those ... clusters of thoughts which ... can increase our involvement with a thought and thus the intensity of our response to it.[3]

It is the reference to the 'connections' of the 'descriptions' concerning Desdemona that my initial arguments will focus on, and I shall suggest that Sausasure's notion of a juxtapositional system creating identities will help clarify Lamarque's point of enquiry.

Saussure's concept of signs is summed up by his proclamation that 'Language is form and not substance'.[4] For Saussure a sign does not have a particular significance by reason of what is composed of; but rather because of its position in the whole system of signs to which it belongs, that is, its relation with other signs. Saussure's famous example of the manner in which the Simplon Express train gains its identity will elucidate. Thus the '8.25 Geneva to Paris Express's' identity is fixed, not because each morning it is the same material train, but because of the hour of its departure, its route, and its general circumstances. In this sense we see the train's identity is dependent on it belonging to an action system or plot, and the latter bestows the 'form'.

The notion of timing as an adjunct to an object's identity within a system is echoed by the timing of Desdemona's death, and end which contributes to her tragic stature as character. For, coming at the finish of the play, her death reminds us of the adage that a detective story is rarely a tragedy because the corpse comes usually at the beginning. In other words, as the formalist would maintain, verbs of action will be finally ordered according to an active process of sjuzet, that is, the order of events as they are presented to the reader or spectator. This ordering will then manipulated by the brain to compute the true chronological sequence of events of the fabula. This dynamic of the sjuzet will not only broadly ensnare our pity or fear for Desdemona, but create the desired intensity of these. Desdemona killed at the beginning of Othello would be a vastly different propositon for our feelings than is her death at the end of the tragedy as we know it.

This question of identity is closely connected with the concept of role. Goldman, for example, remarks the fact that every role is a 'disguise for the actor'. It has also 'a rigid, inanimate mask-like quality', and 'iconic' quality which is quickly recognizable as 'the old, old king; the faded belle'. These icons remain proof against 'details and surprises'.[5] This mask-like quality of roles may be seen as a vestige from the use of masks in ritual with their mythological plots. They were the means by which divine and semi-divine personae could take over and imprint their identity on the shaman or actor depicting them; ruling out with their donning the personal and inessential and rendering the performer up to the ritual. The mask was an aid, a possessor which drew the shaman relievedly beyond himself into the absolute realm of the illud tempus.[6]

The details and surprises are present even in the scenario of the 8.25 express, which despite the change of engine, or even the addition of one, will retain its identity. However, if the train is late--very late, it will lose something of its identity for its would-be passengers before it arrives at the station. It will probably be greeted by mild signs of contempt or derision by them. After all the train has inconvenienced us; disappointed us by not living up to its name, one of its differences from other trains, by arriving, say, at 9.25. The train, in fact, constitutes one of the icons that Lamarque describes as 'entering our world', and which we interact with. As 'icon' it has attained access to our minds in the guise of descriptions that now reveal discrepancies. Its character is, after all, supposed to be that of a crack express--a fast, dependable train which to travel on is to enhance one's status. Lamarque's 'filling in process' with regard to the train is similar to our coming to know another human being. Why else should passengers feel anger, contempt at the train's late arrival? Whatever cluster of ideas besets us at this time will concern the action-system of which the train is a part: the advertising, the extra supplement paid over and above the normal fare--these have to do with realities. Our imagination will be fed by our sense of superiority at the thought our train has priority over other trains in the matter of movement.

Similarly with Othello caught up in a plot in which his recognizable mask at the beginning of the play appears to be that of invincible warrior-chief. In departing from this image as we see the ease with which Iago tricks him--like our express train--he earns a degree of contempt and finally hatred from the audience as he reveals his true iconic-set as gullible, dangerous and doomed warrior chief--Macbeth is of the same ilk. In the plot of Othello, as usually the case, there is little deflection in the role of good, faithful, suffering wife that Desdemona encompasses. Lear, as another case in point, is caught up in the plot at the beginning, as a seemingly wise old king. In departing from this image he again gains the contempt of the audience, although this changes to sympathy as through intense suffering he comes back to his original icon: that of a wise, old dying king. Obviously it is only as examples in the present argument that one would so simplistically tag these characters.

Both these dramatic plots and the Simplon Express's timetable or action system work to bring their respective 'ikons' onto what might be termed their correct course. Both systems pressurize their respective images until they have returned to their original and proper identities as they have been created by the system or plot.[7]

It is not difficult to sense that, even as the express careers ever more furiously to catch up on its timetable in order to reinforce its identity, there will be something like an ethical decision on its parts to return to the order of the system which created it, and under which it needs operate. And whether or not the actions towards the wisdom of correct identity is voluntary, or as with Othello and Lear, involuntary, it needs operate. And whether or not the action toward the wisdom of correct identity is voluntary or, as with Othello and Lear, involuntary, it may finally be seen as springing from a quasi-cosmic motivation reminiscent of Spinoza's conatus, which escaping from solely human limits can be seen as a striving for proper form, for proper identity, by any subject within any system which has created it. This striving of figures such as Othello, Desdemona, Lear or the Simplon Express to keep within their respective action-systems, Artistole would surely dub and ethical one. And this term 'ethical' needs extending in order to include those characters who show no remorse for the role that plot has destined them to. Note Iago's final and defiant silence; Din Juan's consistency of choice in Hellfire.

Aristotle's notion that the dramatic plot must have a beginning, middle and end ensures that the figure in it are enhanced by their 'details and surprises', that is, by their deviations from their true iconic identity. The same factors do not work for the express whose departure from its proper identity is governed by no aesthetic imperative which will ensure that it makes amends for it lateness. In fact the action on the train is unframed, is constantly under threat--like the action fo the masked shaman--of being absorbed into what Heidegger refers to as the 'referential totality' of the world.

Aristotle's dismissal of 'character' and the motivation it will bring as so much rhetorical colouring is worth quoting here: 'character is included for the sake of action ... a tragedy is impossible without an action, but there may be one without characters' (50a23-4). In other words, Aristotle is insisting that character, be it that of Desdemona or of Lear, as it emanates from the tragic imitation of an action, is reliant for its existence on this action. That there may be tragedy without character through quasi-cosmi motivation can be borne out by the following drama: a simple, sequential number of appearances of a garden seat on stage. Each appearance will show a graduated stage of age and decrepitude until the final curtain scene shows a shapeless heap of rotting wood. Here the human motivation is expunged so as to reveal the simple, off-stage process of ageing--the action, and the full force of Aristotle's assertion that character is not an essential part of drama, even though it is agreed the seat will have various human connotations by reason of its manufacture and supposed use. It is suggested that the sequence of these seat-scenes creates naive tragedy in that it reflects the dissolute effect of time. Naive tragic emotions on the part of the auidence are called for by the appearance of decrepitude which is allegorized to coincide with their own ageing condition. A like scenario could be created from Hans Christian Andersen's story 'The Little Fir Tree'.[8]

The system or plot governing the chair's demise is its design. It is the last which allows the role of a disintegrating chair. It matters not at all that the mood of such drama is naive. What is more important is that it indicates that character--and the intrinsic motivation many assume this gives to the action cannot be relegated solely to the domain of the human. In a Schopenhauerian sense, indeed, motivation can begin with the will, an act of defecation being one of its cruder mainfestations; a force such as gravity being another more subtle form of its workings. It is this latter force that our garden seat will finally succumb to. A collapse which is foreshadowed by its timbers' reaction to the destructive elements of damp and sunlight. This resistance will be intensified by the symbolic nature of the dramatic enactment. Moreover, up to the time of its collapse the seat will have clung to its remnants of identity. All along, as though hound to the system (its design) which has created it, the chair has been motivated to sustain its 'form', to stay with the plot.

In similar fashion the architecture of a building holds its identity by dissipating the threatening forces of gravity down its system of walls, columns and arches, and by this means allows itself to escape the 'inorganic quiescence' which will otherwise be its lot. Hence, what we see in a Gothic cathedralk sustained by its quasi-cosmic motivation is frozen action taking place within its system, plot or design. It is an action which--whether or not it is finally motivated by a non-human force such as gravity--is still capable of stimulating the identification of the observer. This process works, as Schopenhauer argues, by making the conflict between gravity and rigidity distinct. This is done 'by depriving these indestructible forces of the shortest way to their satisfaction, and conducting them to it by a circuitous route [via columns, arches, etc.], so that the conflict is lengthened and the inexhaustible efforts of both forces become visible in many different ways'.[9] The manner in which this suspension of forces stimulates the identification of the observer is well caught in L. P. Hartley's Eustace and Hilda which depicts the hero's fantasy at work on the gravitational play of buildings in Venice: 'That huge square palace opposite, with its deep windows like eye sockets in a skull was on you in a moment with its frontal attack. The building next to it, red, shabby ... was withholding its fire, but the onslaught would come--Eustace could see it collecting its charm'.[10]

Peter Brooks would at once label Eustace's fears amid the personified facades of the buildings as a form of desire to survive amid the variegated nature of the threats offered him. Brooks would appear to see narrative in much the same way as Schopenhauer does architecture, except for him verbs take the place of columns and arches; gravity and rigidity, desire: 'verbs articulate the pressure and drive of desire. Desire is a wish for the end, for fulfilment, but fulfilment must be delayed so that we can understand it in relation to origin and desire itself'.[11] Likewise, in the tales in Shahrazad, narration is seen to be life giving. It both arouses and sustains the desire of the Sultan to listen, while offering 'what we might call a lucid repose, desire both come to rest and set in perspective'.[12] This is also the eventual end of gravity after it has been prevented from 'short-circuit' by the columns and arches conducting it to its rest.

In similar fashion do dancers play with gravity, delaying its repose by their lightness, leaps and turns. These are made possible by living muscle which like stone can be made rigid in order to form columns and arches in the body of the dancer according to an action-system, a choreographed plot.

From these examples it is possible to argue that a certain action is always present in anything that has been given form, because form and its accompanying identity presupposes that it belongs to a system from which it takes that identity, be it dramatic plot, an architectural design or the timetable of a train. In a word the notion of action is far more subtle than we normally think of it, and of itself is capable of imparting character of the type we may find in a cathedral, a train or a garden seat going to rack and ruin. In fact there is no need for human character in a drama at all--just as long as there is the human audience to project its universal expectations on the action it contains.

From where does the action-system or plot derive its power to both bestow and authorize identity on the forms or images moving within it? The answer is that they derive from the same archetypal--often mytic--plot as the set iconic images; from where the primitive mask emerges into ritual. By its enaction ritual creates an illud tempus, the place where the original events are always happening. The latter, Mircea Eliade has dubbed the 'paradigmatic acts', and these are nothing less than the acts of the gods as they moved about their work during the creation or cosmogony. These labyrinthine cosmogonic connections with drama I would hope to return to in a subsequent paper, when a closer look at Lamarque's significant query about the 'internal reference' of a character within a story would be due.[13]


[1] Peter Lamarque, 'How Can We Fear and Pity Fictions?', The Brigish Journal of Aesthetics, Vol. 21 (1981).

[2] Kendall L. Walton, 'Fearing Fictions', The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 75 (1978), quoted by Lamarque, op. cit., p. 292. Walton's notion of a 'fictional world' which we must enter if we wish to interact with a character, has much to do with the notion of the illud tempus, the realm of cosmogony where the original events are always happening. A playscript allows similar happenings.

[3] Lamarque, op. ct., p. 302.

[4] F. D. Saussure, Course in General Linguistics (Glasgow, 1979), pp. 108-9, 122.

[5] Michael Goldman, The Actor's Freedom (New York, 1975), p. 50. The term 'iconic' is a term of Muriel Bradbrook's (English Dramatic Form, London, 1965) which Goldman duly acknowledges.

[6] As David Cole reports in The Theatrical Event (Middletown, Connecticut, 1975) 'in societies where possession is a religion merely personal manifestations on the part of the possessed (shaman or actor) are not considered acceptable.... the man who is ritually possessed must correspond to the traditional concept of some mythical personage'. Each deity has a distinct personality and mode of behaviour--like repeated single acts or a course of action of a myth. In such cults anything may become a possession god: an animal, motor boat, etc. (Cole, 35-6.) This account should be compared to Peter Lamarque's comments in 'Expression and the Mask: the Dissolution of Personality in Noh', Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 47, no. 2 (1989), pp. 157-68, where he argues that character can exist (e.g., in Noh plays) without personality.

[7] There is a hankering here for the notion that

in some way--whether for good or evil--the 'forms' or 'images' owe some allegiance to the systems which spawn them.

[8] A typical case of such drama was the cult of ruins during the Romantic period when melancholia and obsessions with death encouraged people to identify with icons which were about to elude their identity or, as in the case of a 'skull', had already done so.

[9] Arthur Schopenhauer, The World is Will and Idea, Vol. 1 (London, 1883), p. 277.

[10] L. P. Hartley, Eustace and Hilda (London, 1952), p. 25. Obviously this is extremely overt identification through personification of the architecture. Identification can also manifest itself in the mood of the beholder.

[11] Peter Brooks, Reading for the Plot (Oxford, 1984), p. 111.

[12] Brooks, op. cit., p. 61.

[13] The implications of the cosmogony or creation on plots and action-systems are dealt with at length in Mircea Eliade's The Sacred and the Profane (New York, 1959) and in Cole, op. cit.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Oxford University Press
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Dooley, J.A.
Publication:The British Journal of Aesthetics
Date:Oct 1, 1993
Previous Article:Film, ideology and Bourdieu's critique of public taste.
Next Article:Art historically defined: reply to Oppy.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters