Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Spoiler Alert: We're All Going to Die

Not now, not even soon. But some day. I hate to give away the ending but Shakespeare did in the first ten lines of Romeo and Juliette.
     From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
     A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life.

Again in two of my favorite novels (The Transit of Venus and The Hand That First Held Mine) around page 57 we learn that the protagonist will die young and one in a plane crash yet. Now I know what she doesn’t know. For the next 200 pages I find myself anxious for her. What seems like a spoiler actually creates more tension. It may be counter-intuitive but it is a clever device.

By telling us, maybe the author is also declaring that she subordinates plot to either the larger issues raised or her language itself. Plot may be nothing more than the piece of red meat the burglar tosses to the watchdog while he raids the house.

In the real world, of course, we also know the last page but spend our lives convinced it doesn’t apply to us. We start dying the day we’re born and start living. Fortunately I’m now too old to die young. If it said so on page 57 it must have slipped my mind. If I forget to die there are always enough momento mori around to remind me.

The Greeks struggled with the notion of mortality. They invented the gods to account for fate, happenstance and bad hair days. Any behavior bordering on hubris (chutzpah) or otherwise offensive to the imagined gods received a ruler to the back of the hand…or worse.

Oedipus ended up a husband and son to the same woman, committed patricide and then got a poke in the eyes, self-inflicted. It was enough to ruin his whole week-end.

The audience knew well the story of the myth but ate up the telling of it. No spoiler-alerts necessary. Humankind is admonished to know its place and not stray into the precincts of the gods. Unanswered questions were to be addressed to Zeus and his accomplices. Messages are answered in the order received…even if Mt. Olympus is experiencing a high-call volume.

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