Literature and fate

Jorge Luis Borges notes (in his Norton Lectures) that in literature we respond not so much to plot and setting as character, specifically to the well-crafted and resonant moment when the character perceives the workings of fate and affirms destiny.

Thus, says Borges, at the moment of kissing Jesus, Judas Iscariot suddenly realized his destiny in betrayal. One may add, as a complementary point, that the historical Jesus recognizes his destiny in that moment on the cross when he cries out that God has forsaken him.

Fate is that lot which falls upon oneself, while destiny weaves the path or sequence toward that end, visible in retrospect. Fate in Greek mythology is cut out and assigned to each of us, as in a cloth pattern. Destiny provides amplitude for action, like the hero’s journey of Joseph Campbell, wherein the outcome is understood while the given steps along the way may vary.

In literature and mythology, established parameters and conventions guide the characters to express the writer’s or the culture’s point of view. The individual is struck by events as cumulative destiny, not isolated and random but as shaped by the individual himself or herself: the decisions, the ethical interpretations, the responses of environment, the dreams and meaning crafted by the deepest self. Borges notes that the character of classic literature is esteemed over the centuries not for deeds or accomplishments or adventures, all matters of luck, circumstance and contrivance, but by the insight, recognition, and wisdom that the character comes to realize. We eventually may suspend belief in the events and adventures — be it in Homer, Shakespeare, or Cervantes’ Don Quixote — to remember only the character.

Writing of his time in the death camps of Nazi Germany, witnessing the suffering of his fellow prisoners, the psychotherapist Viktor Frankl noted that a person’s realization of fate challenged the very depths of psychological and spiritual resources. “The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails … gives him ample opportunity to add a deeper meaning to his life. He may remain brave, dignified, and unselfish, or … he may become no more than an animal. … This decides whether he is worthy of his sufferings or not.”

While we may speak of bravery and heroic virtue in the modern death camps, high expectations parallel to our expectations of figures in literature are perilous and close to unrealistic. As much as may wish to see heroism, as depicted in a Hollywood film, we would fail to understand the depths of suffering and its implication for civilization if we look too closely for heroes and not more broadly for the propelling cause or motive for the universalizing lessons about human nature.

As a psychologist himself, Frankl noted that one factor that perpetuated the torment of imprisonment is its indefinite status. Such a tool is employed by modern authoritarian powers in numerous situations east and west, where indefinite confinement, augmented by torture, underscores the meaninglessness of the prisoner’s life. It was not the confinement of a Prometheus but the vicariousness of suffering and the interminable nature of it that would lead to despair. Despair was the chief characteristic that Frankl observed in the prisoners around him.

Can anyone truly master their fate once it is revealed? In classical drama, the character’s coping is the true attraction of the literature, the reader or audience engaged in seeing not so much how the story unravels as to witness how the character resolves life’s dilemmas. The satisfactory resolution is called comedy, while the inability to overcome fate or the products of destiny is called tragedy. In each case, the stature of the character accentuates the resolution: a poor, simple person is best for comedy, the heroic character of great potential is best for tragedy.

The modern world has reversed the sociology of classic literature: the simple and downtrodden slip deeper into tragic circumstances, while the superficial and wealthy enjoy comedic outcomes within their frivolous concerns. Modern literature often takes classic plot models but fails to produce adequate characterization. Social and psychological circumstances have more import to our discerning criticism of literature and art today, so that we have now have tools for breaking down the pretenses of modern arts as mere epiphenomena of culture rather than as genuine understanding of wisdom and spiritual depth.

Ultimately, wisdom and spiritual depth cannot be portrayed in a fictional or even artistic or creative effort. Lurking about the artistic creation is still the subjective and contrived sense that the character is being made to go in a certain direction. As much as one appreciates the sage character of Gibran’s prophet or Hesse’s Siddhartha, we know that we are looking at cardboard cut-outs that substitute for whatever the real experience is behind the presentation.

Art has a necessary and inevitable function of substitution, of universalizing presentation, and in this virtue one may delight. But we must accept the invitation to the next step, to the step that takes us closer to a path, to a destiny, to self-realization. Our creative impulses can weave fictions, images, and music, but only in stillness and emptiness, even of these creative impulses, do we discover the depths of self, meaning, and destiny.