damaged people provide great fodder

As part of the Galways Arts Festival, I attended a talk by Francis Wheen on Friday evening, and one by John Lahr on the Saturday afternoon.

Wheen has a book out at the moment called How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World: A Short History of Modern Delusions, which criticises what he sees as the rise of an anti-science and anti-enlightenment bias in the past twenty-five years.

Wheen made a lot of interesting points, many of which I agreed with. It was marred, unfortunately, by my dislike for his method of seizing the most outrageous examples of anti-science attitudes to bolster his case. Also, after an hour of listening to a man complain (he rubbished postmodernism, creationism, much of American politics, Clinton, Tony Blair, the New Age movement, to name a few), you get a bit fed-up. I’m all for criticism, but I want it tempered with alternatives. Yeah, Clinton wasn’t the best politician to ever grace the White House–but what was the alternative? George Bush Snr.! I’ll take Clinton over Bush any day… People have been bitching about politicians since the time of Socrates and Plato (and probably before that, if we had their writings), and their complaints are eerily similar to Wheen’s problems with today’s bombastic leaders: evasion of issues, falling back on clichés and illogic to get them out of a problem, supporting dubious causes to avoid alienating voters, and not having any moral centre. It seems as if people don’t change that much over the centuries… Even Wheen quoted people from the seventeenth century to support his thesis.

I’m unconvinced by Wheen’s argument that an anti-science bias has increased in the past twenty-five years. I think it’s a general trend by people who want to make their case without resorting to logic or reason. That’s a tactic used by flim-flam artists since the first argument over how fire is created.

Lahr’s discussion of comedy, how it works, and some of its better practitioners, was much more entertaining. I’d picked up Lahr’s collection of celebrity profiles for the New Yorker, Show and Tell, a week before the event, so I was able to read two of the essays before I saw him in person. Lahr is an insightful writer, who is adept at examining the characters traits of those he interviews.

Lahr’s father, Bert Lahr (best known as the cowardly lion in The Wizard of Oz), was a famous comedian so Lahr grew up with celebrities around him, and with a personal experience of the mercurial temperament of the funnyman.

What was interesting to me was Lahr’s exposition about the nature of comedy, and those who are compelled to make it their vocation. At it’s core, Lahr sees comedy as a phallic, thrusting, barrier-busting, and often cruel, art–when not in the hands of the TV pundits. According to Lahr, once comedy is on the TV (public TV I presume) then it is by necessity diluted, edited, censored and pandering to the advertisers. I think that comedy in the UK gets away with far more than the in the USA, but I’d agree in essence with Lahr.

For instance, if you’ve ever seen any stand-up routines by Bill Hicks then you know it could never be broadcast unedited on the national airways. Hicks was the type of comedian who had to cross every line he saw–I doubt he was capable of toeing it. That is the kind of comedian Lahr endorses.

The best comedians often seem to be hunted and haunted people. Comedy is their vehicle to rage at a target, to be heard, and for people to take notice. Lahr put it that TV sitcoms want to tickle us to sleep, while real stand-up is about waking us up.

It triggered some ideas I’ve been mulling over in regards to characters in stories. The one I’ve just completed, which is darker than my usual fare, features a person who is badly broken. Personally, I think that every person is damaged in some fashion. None of us survive childhood intact. There are holes we’ve patched over, and issues we’ve grappled with. This is what makes us distinctly human, and it’s what we identify with when we’re reading fiction.

The good qualities don’t always endear us to fictional characters, but their flaws are what we understand. I’ve found this on my mind particularly after reading Starfish, by Peter Watts, in which he specialises in damaged people who cannot fit into normal society. Yet, the characters draw you into the story.

Perhaps this is why the anti-hero, or the dark hero, is always attractive to readers. Milton’s Lucifer: proud, loyal, scorned, and scorning is more human than the humourless, perfect archangels. Batman, haunted by his demons, prone to mistakes and yet striving for a crazy justice, is more identifiable than the icily impervious Superman.

Our flaws are what make us interesting. It’s through characters’ flaws that you can explore meaty issues in fiction. If the fictional people in our stories are too perfect, then they are uninteresting. Unless that perfection is a flaw in itself, of course! 😉