Saturday, October 3, 2009

TRANSCENDING MEDIOCRITY




“The second-handedness of the learned world is the
secret of its mediocrity.”
- Alfred North Whitehead





The spirit of creativity conveys a sense that anything worth doing is worth doing well, and that the achievement of excellence requires something more than a passing interest. Superficial observation wedded to a passive acceptance of conventional jargon and the uncriticised assumptions and prejudices that accompany reductive thought and its crystallisation into simplistic information systems may be enough to earn you a PhD from Oxford or Harvard, but they will not guarantee either the agility or connectedness that produces works of remarkable insight and originality.

“Happiness resides in swiftness of thought and feeling.”(1) A swift sureness inspires joy - the deft touch that is eternally fresh. Far from being bestowed by the Academy, these qualities are distrusted and feared by those who would exploit the scarcity of talent for their own reward.

If audience is the stubborn, creative adversary of the selective blindness that bedevils every assumption, prejudice, and choice made by a besieged screenwriter, then mediocrity is the besieged writer's most welcome companion, the secure and comforting reminder that one’s feet have never left the ground.

Where audience and tribe cajole great efforts in the face of eternal hopelessness, mediocrity is that sense of decorum and chauvinistic control that elevates mere effort above wonder, and makes a virtue of the obvious and insignificant at the expense of substance, passion, and inspiration.

Mediocrity is symptomatic of that pervasive human tendency to manipulate and subdue whatever forces or exigencies one imagines might threaten one’s security and comfort, the drive to serve one’s self at the expense of everything that is admirable. It manifests as a knee-jerk reflex founded upon the assumption that the writer is in control, that the screenwriter alone decides – the masterful puppeteer whose inveterate string-pulling invariably hangs him in the end. In seeking the apparent safety that such control seems to offer, the writer runs the risk of robbing the dramatic experience of its authenticity by employing strategies that rely almost exclusively on avoidance and denial.

Mediocrity is not a cause; it’s an effect - a virulent psychic cancer that opportunistically thrives whenever the dialogical relationships that vitalise and invigorate the creative odyssey are not present or have been abandoned or left to atrophy. In short, mediocrity is a manifestation of the writer/character’s inability or unwillingness to manage fear.

Fear accompanies every creative act; it is an essential ingredient of the dramatic experience. It is never a question of “how do I rid myself of it?” – for fear can never finally be banished from the creative quest – but rather, what is its proper function within the context of finding the story?

Interestingly, the word, ”mediocre”, has its origins in the world of mountains, and – one assumes – mountain climbing, as the Latin, mediocris, is derived from medius “middle” + ocris “jagged mountain”, thus suggesting someone or something that is halfway up or halfway down. The word, “mediocrity” first appears in 1531 in the Middle French, mediocrite, from the Latin (nom. Mediocritas), meaning “a middling condition” (e.g.: neither here nor there).

Growing up in the American public school system of the 1950s and 1960s, I was continually taught the value and importance of dedication, hard work, and good sportsmanship – qualities that proclaimed and defined the American way of life and those underlying ideals that had shaped and would continue to make the country great. Part of me always wondered what people in other places thought and felt, and whether they, too, had the same or similar beliefs. My parents rarely spoke about them, or if they did, it was done in a vague, unfocused kind of way. that made me imagine that As a kid growing up in the States after World War II, it was difficult imagining that America wasn’t the centre of the universe – and that those “others” couldn’t possibly be as “real” or as favoured as we were – or, at least, no more real than those naked tribal people marginalised in the pages of National Geographic, whose presence in the reading rack next to the toilet mutely validated the manifest destiny and pre-eminence of that “sweet land of Liberty”. Paul Goodman characterised the inculcation of such notions as “growing up absurd”. And it was so easy to do! At a very early age, without being aware of it, I had been informally enrolled in the school of mediocrity.

When considered in relation to mediumistic, dramatic screen storytelling, mediocrity is symptomatic of the writer’s inability or unwillingness to form intimate, workable relationships with the characters that are necessary for finding the story, including the writer’s relationship with him/herself. The usual cause of this inability or failure of will is the uncriticised belief – on the part of the screenwriter/character – that he/she is in charge of the drama. In this way, mediocrity masks a pervasive chauvinism that makes it impossible for the characters to operate freely and openly and to forge authentic relationships with one another.

The underlying wisdom of all dramatic action is founded in the characters and their relationship to one another, as expressed through what they do and say, both inside and “outside” the script. The problem with mediocrity is: it doesn’t take anything seriously except itself, certainly not the characters who, when they are in its thrall, little more than markers whose actions serve only to express the obvious.

Mediocre writing, as Faulkner rightly characterised it, is writing “not of the heart but of the glands”.(2) It involves the seduction of the writer into the delusion of discovery accompanied by the unpaid-for satisfaction one commonly derives from believing one has engaged with the characters when all one has really done is encountered one’s own inertia fuelled by laziness, boredom, fear or whatever need is peculiar to one’s temperament. There is security in inertia and its steady predictability, as well as a semblance of control - an irony to be sure, seeing as how its source is the avoidance and denial of authentic emotion.

What one must finally understand is that we are not the masters of drama or dramatic screen storytelling – we are its characters: dramatis personae, audience, tribe and screenwriter. If character-driven drama is to mean anything at all it must take all these “players” into account, and find the means to liberate them, to allow them to do the work (read: action) that is their story, that is their meaning.

The quest to free drama from the grip of ignorance and unacted fear and desire is the quest for the heart of one’s own true story – “the dreaming” that is one’s own true character and the forging of one’s truest and most authentic relationship with every other character that in concert wit oneself enacts the story of one’s becoming.


(1) Rainer Maria Rilke. The Duino Elegies, Faber. (Stephen Spender translation)

(2) From William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize speech, December, 1950.

4 comments:

Vajra Krishna said...

A passage from Autobiography of a Yogi:

Master, you are wonderful!" A student, taking his leave, gazed ardently at the patriarchal sage. "You have renounced riches and comforts to seek God and teach us wisdom!" It was well-known that Bhaduri Mahasaya had forsaken great family wealth in his early childhood, when single-mindedly he entered the yogic path.
"You are reversing the case!" The saint's face held a mild rebuke. "I have left a few paltry rupees, a few petty pleasures, for a cosmic empire of endless bliss. How then have I denied myself anything? I know the joy of sharing the treasure. Is that a sacrifice? The shortsighted worldly folk are verily the real renunciates! They relinquish an unparalleled divine possession for a poor handful of earthly toys!"
I chuckled over this paradoxical view of renunciation-one which puts the cap of Croesus on any saintly beggar, whilst transforming all proud millionaires into unconscious martyrs.

Vajra Krishna said...

I would have given up long ago if all I wanted to do was give people an "escape" for 2 hours. That doesn't seem like an act worth dying for. That isn't a goal worth sacrificing for.

And realising this, I was pushed to dig deeper, and see if there is anything valuable - which is why discovering the essence of why stories have been told since the ancient times was re-affirming. It is only because of the immense amount of commercialisation that we have forgotten this under the farce of mediocrity.

Perhaps it's different for everyone, but me being me, I can't base my life around money (money is a side plot, and so is fame). So, I was forced to ask these questions of myself. Which is also why I was drawn to the teachers who insightfully understood that storytelling involves the writer facing their own dilemmas and fears - and mostly, that the most courageous acts of storytelling is where the writer isn't CERTAIN of how it will end.... that is very much the same "unknown" as throwing yourself into strange life experiences. Only when the writer is willing to be transformed in the writing, will the audience be capable of transformation. That makes absolute sense. And it is by no means superficial - because this is an exploration of the ABYSS that is the human psyche! It is frightening, and extremely rewarding.

Because in the end, we all die - and we all face the moment of truth in our deathbeds - where it ceases to be opinion, where it ceases to be whatever lies we told ourselves.

I often meditate on that - on that moment I take my last breath - and what I will realise then about the way I have lived. Did I achieve anything?

And you know what, I bet at that point it's not going to matter how much money I have, or how much fame, or even if I have placed myself in the history books... at that point all that's going to matter is if I used each and every day to realise more and more about WHO I AM. WHAT I AM. WHY DO I EXIST.

All of that will culminate at that point. So, I ask these questions now, so that I don't totally waste my existence by imagining that being a part of society and ignoring the basic questions will end well. Introspection is a very important thing, as is action.

Of course, I understand that this is not the popular path. That everyone has their own time and pace and reincarnations before they realise they need to start thinking about who they are - beyond the name and psychology. Some come to the point where the questions feel powerful and passionate, and cannot be ignored. For others, the questions are like small whispers, and can easily be ignored. I suppose the difference is time.

But basically, maybe this makes clear where I am coming from. I am unable to ignore these fundemental questions of what I am doing here, because they have taken over my soul! In answering them, a revolution takes place on how I should live. I am allergic to plasticity.

The wisened old teachers, through their life experience, have understood this - and so, when I am often lost, their wisdom helps to bring some clarity on what I had almost forgotten. That every moment exists as a challenge to be courageous, not as an escape. The clarity speaks for itself. So why would we give our audience any less?

adeternal said...

I agree. The hard questions are worth asking now.
The audience will get a percentage of the 'truth' we explore. The more fully we dig into it, or 'release' ourselves into it, the more they will be able to experience and see.

Billy Marshall Stoneking said...

A character becomes dramatic to the extent that s/he steps into a living (active) relationship with another character. In short, when two characters HAPPEN to each other. Dramatic happenings are the active exression of anxiety states - in dramatic storytelling there are four: the anxiety of guilt, the anxiety of doubt, the anxiety of death and the anxiety of meaninglessness. When dramatic characters meet their struggle is grounded in one or more of these anxieties, which form the emotional meaning of the relationship. In drama, guilt is neither merely subjective nor objective, it is dialogical. A dramatic character is tormented by the anxiety of guilt when s/he acknowledges personal responsibility for another and fails to respond, or when s/he responds inadequately, or too late. The torment stimulated by such guilt requires an answer - i.e.: an active response, an action - which, when performed, makes the nature of the character and the world in which s/he is operating, PRESENT to an audience. Dramatic guilt, borrowing an idea from Martin Buber, "occurs when (a character) injures an order of the human (or human-like) world whose foundations he knows and recognises as those of his own existence and of all existence."