The Eternal Complainers

It’s one thing to be self-reflective – what a fine and therapeutic thing that is! – but entirely another to brood and whine so exhaustively that no one is willing to suffer your lamentations nor even bear your presence. That said, it is a great vehicle for a story. Truly, many of our most oft-quoted heroes are little more than bitter complainers who just need to be heard. (Note that they are all men.)

5. Ivanov (Anton Chekov, Ivanov) An overly dramatic fellow who really is a jerk to everyone around him, but he doesn’t know why and he really does seem to care, so much so that he takes it out on himself in the end.      ivanovIf an intelligent, educated, and healthy man begins to complain of his lot and go down-hill, there is nothing for him to do but to go on down until he reaches the bottom–there is no hope for him.

4. Josef K (Franz Kafka, The Trial) There is no doubt that Josef K has reason to complain – horribly treated by everyone around him, resulting in his inevitable abandonment and death – but what a depressing collection of thoughts! josef kYes, that’s the conspiracy: to persuade us all that the whole world is crazy, formless, meaningless, absurd. That’s the dirty game. So I’ve lost my case. What of it? You, you’re losing too. It’s all lost, lost. So what? Does that sentence the entire universe to lunacy?

3. Alvy SInger (Woody Allen, Annie Hall) A very funny neurotic to be sure, but it’s not hard to understand why Annie finally moved across the country to get away from him. alvyI’m obsessed with uh, with death, I think. Big – big subject with me, yeah. I have a very pessimistic view of life. You should know this about me if we’re gonna go out. You know, I – I feel that life is – is divided up into the horrible and the miserable.

2. Holden Caulfield (J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye) A spoiled, selfish know-it-all who somehow holds the key to decent society. Kill all of the phonies. Indeed. holdenIt was that kind of a crazy afternoon, terrifically cold, and no sun out or anything, and you felt like you were disappearing every time you crossed a road.

1. Hamlet (Willy Shakespeare, Hamlet) A most moody fellow, profound in thought and discourse, not so great on doing anything – except for royally fucking everything up. hamletWhat a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals—and yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?

A Moral Center to the Universe

I had dinner last night with an old friend; she made a most spicy and delicious tilapia and recommended the mini-series Battlestar Galactica. She said that it was a thoughtfully constructed show and maintained a moral center to the universe. “I know you like that kind of thing.” I was not only intrigued by this idea but more so that it was apparently obvious that this is what I liked. I had never put it in terms like that to myself. I had never really thought about it so specifically. However I realized that she was right. I do like stories with this idea at its core, that develop a clear sense of right and wrong, not in the Walt Disney sense – although I must admit to doing my Undergraduate thesis on this institution – but in a manner that exposes injustices and even might help us work towards some version of harmony and understanding in our lives.

“Life isn’t fair.” My mother proclaimed this all the time – mostly when I was denied the TV or a trip to an exotic land. I knew she was right not just because she used it as her default motherly excuse but because that’s how everything seemed to work. Mean kids always got their way, and grownups didn’t seem to care. They said they did, but I knew there was more to it, that they always had good intentions and rarely if ever followed through. I read Orwell in Grade 10 and Kafka in college, and it all made too much sense. People cheated, lied and stole…and nothing happened to them. The rich got richer, the good died young, and the bureaucrats always remained atop looking down. Life wasn’t fair, nor was it just or moral.

Painting by Tetsuya Ishida

My favorite authors expose this world of injustice with precision and misery. J.M. Coetzee offers a stark view of humanity throughout his fiction. In Waiting for the Barbarians, he states “The crime that is latent in us we must inflict on ourselves…Not on others.’” Raymond Carver writes of our inherent flawed nature in his short story, So Much Water Close to Home:

They saw the girl before they set up camp. Mel Dorn found her. No clothes on her at all. She was wedged into some branches that stuck out over the water. He called the others and they came to look. They talked about what to do. One of the men – my Stuart didn’t say which – said they should start back at once. The others stirred the sand with their shoes, said they didn’t feel inclined that way. They pleaded fatigue, the late hour, the fact that the girl wasn’t going anywhere. In the end they went ahead and set up camp. They built a fire and drank their whiskey.

Cormac McCarthy is scathing in his thoughts of humanity, most notably The Road:

The world soon to be largely populated by men who would eat your children in front of your eyes and the cities themselves held by cores of blackened looters who tunneled among the ruins and crawled from the rubble white of tooth and eye carrying charred and anonymous tins of food in nylon nets like shoppers in the commissaries of hell,

And yet each author does offer some kind of hope, bleak as it might be. Even if the man dies, the boy lives; even is the husband is a drunk, the wife cares; even if the magistrate is a shell of himself, he survives. There is something to live for. As empty and awful as the world might appear, there is something to believe in.

In my own novel, My Bad Side, Dee with her older sister Crystal, have suffered the tragic loss of their mother. Their lives seem to be defined by it:

I remember the door closing, a gate snapping with a click. I was eleven months and Crystal was almost three. People stayed at the house, my mother’s sister Molly, and Nani, and they looked after us. They bought the groceries and helped change me; they told my mother about what to do. But they left – Nani said it had been four months – and called to check in. It wasn’t enough. My mother drank after our father was killed. It was how she slept. She was taking pills too. And so that night, the way everyone says it, she probably lost count of how many green ones she had had and she’d forgotten about having too much gin and how much she meant to us. Nani thought Aunt Molly was calling and Aunt Molly thought it was Nani, and by the time they realized that it was no one, we had been locked in the house with our mother’s body for four days. My sister tried to get out, but she couldn’t turn the lock and then took what she could off the counter and sat beside my mother, waiting for her to get up and gave me something too, bananas and cookies and flour, and finally opened the fridge and found the milk. She says I cried all the time. That’s because I wasn’t changed. But she saved my life. That’s how she always told it, and that’s how I think of it.

Dee and Crystal survive the tragedy at the beginning of their lives…and so the question becomes: ‘What are they are going to do now?’

I am going to watch Episode One of Battlestar Galactica tomorrow. Not only does the idea of a moral center to the universe intrigue me, but apparently there’s a lot of sexy robots too. I’ll get back to you on that.