CHENNAI: In the 4th century BCE, the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle made one of the first known attempts at literary criticism. He defined concepts such as plot and also provided a framework to categorise plots. Aristotelian plot, as readers may recall from an earlier column, was a chain of events in which, except the very beginning, each event was necessary or probable. There was a chain of causation linking each event, right up to the resolution.
This doesn’t leave any room for irrationality or falsehoods driving the actions of characters or driving the events themselves. It follows that causation could not be arbitrary in Aristotle’s schema — for him, no event in a Greek play should happen just like that, out of the blue. This explains why Aristotle had a particular dislike for plays in which the resolution was provided through divine intervention.
Aristotle’s rule against irrationality or falsehoods is one that modern writers should find particularly satisfying to break. Modern life is not understood completely if it is not understood as (1) a kind of truce with the simple fact that the self is always lying to itself, and (2) the world is too big to be comprehended.
We know that we don’t know even a percentage of what goes on in our minds; we know that we delude ourselves all the time; we know that our memories, the closest approximations we have of ourselves, constitute a forever-changing entity; we know that we are always participating in virtual lives, propagating a fiction, while being unsure of its sanctity — so are we ever sure of our selves? And if we are so unsure of who we are, what can be said of our motivations. In terms of literature, if consistency in character isn’t possible, how can causation even exist? What is this thing called plot, then?
It is perhaps prudent to retrace our steps and only say that modernity complicates the issue of causation, and modern plots need to embrace (as they have) the category of irrational motivation in them. Consider Dostoyevski’s seminal work, Notes from the Underground, in which the narrator goes to lengths to prove that men sometimes do things just like that, without any reason or rhyme, just to feel free.
Now to the second point: the world operates in farcical ways, the logic behind its machinations remaining obscure to us at times. For the modern writer crafting a plot, this farce has to be molded in a specific way. Consider Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. For Humbert Humbert’s illicit relationship with his stepdaughter Dolores to begin, Dolores’ mother has to be eradicated. One fine day, right in front of her residence, she is mowed down by a car. The event happens without any presentiment, as a bolt from the blue, yet it sort of gels with the story’s momentum. That is Nabokov’s dexterity. Modern plots, like in Lolita, have some space for farces that do the sole task of propagating the story.
(The writer will publish his first novel Neon Noon in July 2016)