Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Potholes on the Via Negativa

Communicating a theme is no small thing for the narrative writer. The way in which you do it shapes your entire story. Whether it's an epigram uttered in the heat of the moment or repeated symbolic shifts or the example of some sympathetic character, you have to organize the proceedings so that everything falls together to drive your primary principles home. And one of the techniques that most influences a narrative's action also happens to be one of my favorites -- the via negativa.

A preferred mode of classical horror and default for tragedy, the negative way guides us unto truth by marching us in exactly the opposite direction. It lauds contentment by plunging us neck deep in avarice, emphasizes meekness by abandoning us to suicidal ambition, advocates peace by having us hone the knives to razor sharpness. It's Macbeth failing to see how his own lust for power has destroyed him and muttering that life is "a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing.” It's the
liver-loving Hannibal Lecter saying, "You've given up good and evil for behaviorism, Officer Starling. You've got everybody in moral dignity pants -- nothing is ever anybody's fault. Look at me, Officer Starling. Can you stand to say I'm evil?”

There is one big pothole in the via negativa, though, namely that it supposes a reader will understand an author is intentionally presenting something unsavory, nasty, negative. But it doesn't always work. You see it most often at the movies when teenagers cheer at all the wrong parts, whooping as Allied forces fall during Saving Private Ryan's attack on Omaha Beach or chortling while Heath Ledger's Joker tortures a poor soul on videotape in The Dark Knight. That's the technique's dark side: It can school audiences in exactly the thing it should be teaching them to hate. The chances of that happening are slim if they're paying attention to the author's intent, but frighteningly high if they disassociate the work from its creator. And once they've gone that far afield, the ride is rough indeed.

(Picture: CC 2005 by


B. Nagel said...

When I finished Faulkner's Sanctuary, I wondered about his authorial intent. The book contains so much racial and gendered hate that I can't be sure. I would hope that he was showing the worst side of things as a warning and not an invitation. The title seems to support the warning theory with "sanctuary" not to be found anywhere in the whole story and the story ending the way it does... Or maybe Faulkner was a misogynistic racist. He was a white male from Mississippi.

Loren Eaton said...

Yeah, white males are always causing trouble aren't they?

Some of the problem (I hestitate to use that term) with literary fiction is that the author doesn't always make it easy for the reader to determine his intent. I remember a Lit prof saying, "If the author worked hard, why should the reader, too?" Which is true, to an extent. But if you aren't careful, you can end up communicating things you never intended. I don't know if Faulkner's doing that, though, because I haven't read Sanctuary.