“Notes will help him who is in need”

This post is about Thomas Stearns Eliot, one of my all-time favorite poets. Too many English classes that cover Eliot begin with The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock and end with The Waste Land—two modernist poems that operate in the ironic mode and present pretty despairing visions of the world.  The problem with this is that Eliot’s life and work don’t end there. (Did you know Eliot won a Tony award for his lyrical contributions to the musical Cats? Or that he was a great admirer of Groucho Marx and exchanged letters with that heavy-browed comic genius?) If you only make it to The Waste Land, you might think that Eliot only ever despaired about the fate of humanity. But he didn’t. He escaped the ironic mode. Or rather, like Dante, he made it through the ironic mode. He too journeyed into the depths and beheld the ultimate vision of despair, and then he kept going and came out on the other side and started toiling up Mount Purgatory. And that’s why I think he’s a good person for us to get to know today.

In 1977, author and critic (and Inkling) Owen Barfield wrote that

. . . perhaps the one [menacing sign] which fills people with the greatest foreboding is the growing general sense of meaninglessness . . . How is it that the more able man becomes to manipulate the world to his advantage, the less he can perceive any meaning in it?

More than fifty years before Barfield wrote, Eliot wrestled with this question in The Waste Land, a long poem which looks especially at the loss of meaning through the breakdown of language.

I have to confess that I first read The Waste Land in junior high because I had a vague idea that Eliot was an important writer and that The Waste Land was some sort of famous work. Somehow, I also had the mistaken notion that the mere act of reading The Waste Land would suddenly endow me with all the powers of literary insight that I desired.

So I bought the poem (at the best little used bookstore in town!) and got home and read these opening lines (the poem’s epigraph):

Nam Sibyllam quidem Cumis ego ipse oculis meis vidi
in ampulla pendere, et cum illi pueri dicerent: Σιβυλλα
τι θελεις; respondebat illa: αποθανειν θελω.

In the words of Wayne Campbell, “Exsqueeze me? Baking powder?” I had no clue what the lines meant. With the help of some good teachers, I’ve since learned their meaning. But on the first read, I could make no sense of them at all. And that’s sort of the point.

Throughout The Waste Land, Eliot makes all sorts of obscure references and uses lots of non-English phrases. I don’t think he expects readers to understand every allusion, and I don’t think we’re supposed to to stop and look up every explanation or translation either. I think Eliot writes this way partly to give the reader a sense of the loss and separation that he encountered in the modern world. The Waste Land was published in the wake of World War I, a war that shocked and shattered western culture. When we read Eliot’s poem, we encounter words which we know must have some meaning, but the meaning is mostly lost to us because we lack the knowledge to translate. Written words devolve before us into mere marks on a page. Suddenly, as readers, we find ourselves, like Eliot, searching for meaning in a confused and reeling world.

The translation of The Waste Land’s epigraph reinforces this idea. Taken from a 1st century A.D. work called the Satyricon, the lines describe the Cumaean Sibyl, an ancient Greek priestess/prophetess. According to legend, she asked the god Apollo for everlasting life, which she got, but she forgot to ask for everlasting youth. Translated, the lines read:

I have seen with my own eyes the Sibyl hanging in a jar, and when the boys asked her ‘What do you want?’ She answered, ‘I want to die.’

The image of the sibyl fits into what Northrop Frye describes as the ironic mode of the imagination. The sibyl is a weak and pitiful character, cut off from and persecuted by society. But in this case, it is Apollo, not society, who ultimately causes the sibyl’s suffering. This pushes the ironic mode’s despair to the extreme: divinity itself conspires against humanity. Given her long life, the sibyl speaks as something of the voice of human history. However, her experience has profited her little and she desires to escape her sufferings through death, but even that action is denied to her. The sibyl, and, by extension, humanity, appears doomed to go on shrinking and withering, with the increase of years only bringing an increase of sorrows and offering no way out.

Eliot ends the first part of The Waste Land by applying an image from Dante’s Inferno to his vision of contemporary humanity:

Unreal City,
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.
Flowed up the hill and down King William Street . . .

On their own, these lines sound despairing enough, and considering the reference to Dante compounds the despair. When Dante first enters hell and sees the souls crossing the river Acheron, he says: “I had not thought death had undone so many.” Eliot takes Dante’s words about souls in hell and applies them to souls still living in London. Not a very cheery thought.

Given this despairing view of the modern world and human society, it seems impossible for Eliot to move beyond his vision of humanity trapped in the ironic mode. Yet he does. And he articulates the whole process in another long poem called The Four Quartets (first printed as a single work in 1943). As the title suggests, music is central to The Four Quartets. Eliot wrote about being inspired by Beethoven’s String Quartet in A Minor, Opus 132, and the similarities in theme and structure between the two works are pretty astonishing! The next post will look at some of the shared qualities and how Beethoven’s music can shed light on the path that Eliot took to move from despair to true hope.


Hipsters and Hamlet: Escaping the Ironic Mode

[Last of Wedding Crashers series] This post is about the ironic mode, one of the four modes of story-telling identified by Northrop Frye and one which you’ve probably never heard of.

Ok, so Frye didn’t exactly mean that kind of “ironic” when he named this mode. But actually, the stereotype of the modern day “hipster” isn’t a bad place to start.

In case you aren’t familiar with the term “hipster,” this meme sums it up pretty well. (It’s a screenshot of Kenneth Branagh playing Hamlet, with a hipster twist on Shakespeare’s original line.)

Consider the characteristics we associate with the hipster stereotype: “so over” everything mainstream; misunderstood; independent; reluctant to show real emotion but ready to be sarcastic; often scornful of traditional values, culture, etc.

In many ways, the characteristics of the hipster stereotype also fit what Frye calls the ironic mode. While the comic mode celebrates the integration of the individual into society, the ironic mode shows the individual as ultimately isolated from society, and usually it’s a society that’s decaying or devoid of meaning. Integration in the comic mode requires humility, love for neighbor, and personal sacrifice; in the ironic mode, these values are scorned or lost or simply absent. The central characters turn their gaze inwards, away from their fellow men, away from objective reality, and so tend towards madness. As G.K. Chesterton writes in Orthodoxy, “Thinking in isolation and with pride ends in being an idiot. Every man who will not have a softening of the heart must at last have a softening of the brain.”

The absence of true communion gives stories told in the ironic mode a sense of loss, but it differs from the loss felt in the tragic mode. Everything in the ironic mode is reduced to a sort of “meh”—a pitiful little monosyllable—so without the drama of good and evil and right and wrong, events in the ironic move don’t move our hearts in the way that tragedies do. Like winter, the season associated with the ironic mode, a sense of numbness pervades.

The most dominant feature of the ironic mode is ineffective action. In a world without value and virtue, life becomes pointless and individuals powerless. Characters spin their wheels in the muck and get nowhere. Infertility and impotence appear often in this mode because we tend to associate the inability to conceive with the inability to fully participate in the ongoing life of society—infertility suggests something broken or missing or not quite right in the natural order. Stories in the ironic mode also often involve suicide, as that is the ultimate instance of an individual cutting themselves off from society.

A perfect example of the ironic mode and its consequences occurs in the movie Wedding Crashers, when John Beckwith (Owen Wilson) is exposed for lying about his identity and cut off from the woman he loves (Claire/Rachel McAdams). The sad sequence of events that follows has all the hallmarks of the ironic mode: the loss of meaning, the breaking of significant social bonds, the trap of ineffective action, and the temptation to just call it quits:

John, Jeremy, and Claire are isolated. Jeremy calls John and knocks on his door, but John ignores these attempts. John appears increasingly unkempt. Surrounded by empty alcohol bottles, he slumps in front of the television and listens while his voicemail plays: “This is John. Uhhhhhh. Whatever.” We see John try to crash weddings like the old days, but he crashes and burns instead. His table cloth trick doesn’t work. He trips over the band’s drum set. He toasts one couple by asking “Anyone ever feel like they’re just disappearing? I feel so much like giving up.” He tells a group of little children that “love doesn’t exist. That’s what I’m trying to tell you guys. And I’m not picking on love because I don’t think friendship exists either.” Later, John tells us he’s been reading “don’t kill myself books.” He’s sunk pretty near rock bottom. And then he visits Chaz Reinhold.

Here’s John’s first encounter with Chaz, who epitomizes the ironic mode’s anti-hero:

Chaz Reinhold is crass, irreverent, sarcastic, self-absorbed, self-serving, without honor, without scruples of any kind. His life is one big cycle of ineffective action. He lives at his mother’s.  In a house-robe. Watching cartoons. Yelling for meatloaf. Picking up vulnerable women at funerals. Joking about the deaths he takes advantage of. He’s not going to marry any of these women. He’s not going to father children. He’s not going to contribute to society in any way. And he doesn’t seem to care. John shows initial hesitancy and even disgust when he first meets Chaz; Chaz’s flippancy and degeneracy are shocking. But then John stifles this reaction. He forces himself to laugh with Chaz. It’s uncomfortable to watch—like someone gulping down a nasty drug they don’t really want. But that’s what happens in the ironic mode. You try to deaden your natural sense of right and wrong and good and evil. You try not to empathize with anyone. You numb yourself. You try not to care—maybe because it’s too painful to care. As C.S. Lewis has pointed out, we tend to become what we pretend to be, for good or for ill. Chaz has lost his sense of decency and shame, he has become someone who doesn’t care, who doesn’t suffer, but who also does not know joy. His is a mean and empty existence.

Yet Chaz’s life tempts John as a way to escape the pain of losing Claire—and it tempts us all. If you look around, you will find that many works in our modern culture operate in the ironic mode. Think about Jersey Shore: the cast lives in a house they didn’t work for, they fool around at a job of sorts, drink themselves into oblivion almost every night, and engage in lots of meaningless, selfish hook-ups. Think of all the “House Wives” shows: the women don’t appear to do much, they start silly fights because dysfunction is good for ratings, they complain endlessly, and they waste a lot of their time and talents and money. Or think of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia. Now, Charlie’s antics can make me laugh as much as the next person, but can you think of a single show where the gang does something worthwhile? They’re always scheming to get something for nothing; in one episode Frank leaves a stripper dead in his apartment (and we’re supposed to laugh at this?); they’re always in their dim dive of a bar, and nothing meaningful ever happens. And the list goes on. And we’re expected to laugh and not take any of this too seriously. In fact, we’re not supposed to take anything too seriously.

This is why I think the theory of the four modes is so helpful; it helps us to recognize different approaches to life and recognize where they lead. One professor suggested that each mode is like one quarter of the truth of our existence, and a person needs a balanced awareness of all four to get at the full truth. If we’re surrounded by too many works in the ironic mode, our imaginations tend to become skewed and our lives unbalanced. When we go to solve problems or deal with suffering or perhaps even find ourselves attracted to someone, if we only have stories told in the ironic mode to draw on for inspiration or advice about how to act, then we’re in a pretty bad way.

How do we escape the ironic mode’s cycle of ineffective action? Wedding Crashers shows us a way out, and I think this is what makes the movie more worth watching than the typical throw-away rom-com.

The first major step is to recover and honor significant bonds. For John, it’s his friendship with Jeremy.  Jeremy goes out of his way to draw John out of his depression, and he keeps trying even though John initially rejects him. Jeremy risks a visit to John and asks him to be his best man. It appears to go badly, but Jeremy’s appeal to the bond of friendship doesn’t quite fall on deaf ears. His request weighs on John’s mind, it weighs on his heart, and it later prompts John to take action.

To escape the ironic mode, characters must also escape the numbness they’ve fallen in to. Often, it requires deep suffering to recover a sense of value and meaning. When this suffering to restore meaning involves a significant shedding of blood, it’s called sparagmos (an ancient Greek term that has to do with ritual sacrifices to placate the gods and the demands of justice). Christ’s crucifixion is an example of sparagmos, and there are many others throughout history and literature. Wedding Crashers doesn’t have an instance of sparagmos per se, but John’s experience at the funeral with Chaz comes close.

John goes with the intent to “crash” the funeral as he has crashed weddings in the past. But as he later recounts:

. . . and I see this widow and she’s a wreck. She’s just lost the person she loves most in this world. And I realize we’re all going to lose the people we love. But not me. Not right now.

The widow’s suffering awakens compassion in John. He goes from telling little kids that “love doesn’t exist” to admitting that love is at the core of our existence. John doesn’t escape the ironic mode by putting on rose-colored glasses and pretending that everything is peachy. He recognizes that we will lose the people we love and that the separation of death is real. Yet he recovers the conviction that life and love have meaning in spite of this. Crashing funerals with Chaz and “cleaning up” with empty hook-ups isn’t what he wants. He wants to be his best friend’s best man. And he wants to love Claire.

This brings John to the final break from the ironic mode. Through intense suffering, he realizes what he truly values in life. He honors the bond of friendship with Jeremy and makes it to the wedding just in time. And then, in front of the crowd, he speaks truthfully in his own voice. This is something he has not been able to do throughout the entire movie. He’s always hidden his true self behind one pretense or another. Now he humbles himself and puts his true self out there (for all the shocked wedding guests to see). Taking effective action requires speaking the truth—anything else is like building a house on sand. (As a side note, I think this is why the reunion with Claire can’t happen earlier at the engagement party, which John tries to sneak into as a server. He isn’t being his true self. He isn’t yet courageous or convicted enough to do that. And so his action remains ineffective.)

There is an element of sacrifice in John’s speech to Claire. He tells her “I’m not standing here asking you to marry me. I’m just asking you not to marry him.” The “him” referred to is Claire’s fiancé Zach (played by Bradley Cooper) and, at this point, we know Zach is the wrong person for Claire. We get to see that he’s impatient with her, disrespectful, and unfaithful. John’s plea is probably supposed to be funny, but it also shows that he values what is best for Claire above all, which means that he truly loves her.

As Wedding Crashers and other works will show you, the way to escape the ironic mode and the cycle of ineffective action and despair is to honor significant bonds and speak the truth. We live in a fallen world, and so this often requires great suffering. But if we look to the stories that surround us, past and present, we find a recurring conviction that something good lies beyond the suffering, something that makes it worth enduring. And if you don’t know many stories that suggest this, then you haven’t been feeding your imagination a balanced diet. Lay off the irony! Go watch Wedding Crashers. Read The Little Prince. Listen to Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 15 in A Minor (which is about thanksgiving and recovering from illness).

We might not know for sure what awaits us if we endure the suffering that is an inevitable part of this life. But we do know that living in the ironic mode and giving into despair tends to lead towards Chaz Reinhold’s ma’s house, and I don’t think any of us want to end up there, as tempting as that meatloaf may be.

On the Solemnity of St. Peter and St. Paul: Contemplating Caravaggio

As the Church celebrates the Solemnity of Saint Peter and Saint Paul today, I thought I’d write a post about the time I saw the two apostles together.

Last year, I saved up and visited Rome with a friend. I had asked my old art professor (who was raised Catholic in Lebanon) for recommendations about which works to see and was most excited by what he said about the Cerasi Chapel in the church of Santa Maria del Popolo.

The chapel contains two works by Caravaggio called “The Conversion [of St. Paul] on the Way to Damascus” and “The Crucifixion of St. Peter.” Caravaggio (1571-1610) was a master and innovator of chiaroscuro painting. Chiaroscuro is an Italian term that means “bright dark” (chiaro = bright; oscuro = dark) and chiaroscuro paintings use high contrast, deep shadows, and significant highlights to create emotion and drama.

Take Caravaggio’s “Taking of Christ” (1598) as an example:

See how the dark background and armor of the Roman guard surround and threaten Christ? Caravaggio uses light sparingly, as if it is something too precious to waste, and this makes the places where light falls all the more significant. It highlights differences in facial expressions and spiritual states: dismay in St. John (on the left); tension and anger in Judas the betrayer; cruel anonymity in the soldiers whose eyes are hid by helmet and shadow; concern in the onlooker on the right (a self-portrait of Caravaggio). Christ’s face, though pained, possesses a unique composure. Caravaggio also uses light to draw attention to the hands. St. John stretches his out in supplication; Judas grips; the soldiers push and shove. Christ’s remain folded in prayer.

Caravaggio’s work is full of drama, and so too his personal life. Andrew Graham-Dixon, author of Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane, gives this summary:

He had this terribly, terribly difficult life. He was a troubled man. He was a violent man. He had a sense of abandonment that I think went with him wherever he went. I think he has problems in his relationship with God . . . he paints on the edge of doubt . . . And he has terrible trouble with authority in the secular political sense . . . the pope and the cardinals, they want him to be part of their world but he just somehow can’t be that kind of artist. He can’t be the artist who doths his cap, the courtier artists . . . [He] has to run off away from authority into the street. He has to go fight with swords, he has to go and be with prostitutes.

I had learned some of this in art classes and had come to love Caravaggio the man and the painter, and so I looked forward to my visit to the Cerasi chapel as a sort of pilgrimage. My art professor told me to spend a long time with each work, and that I must pay attention to Saint Peter’s eyes.


We visited the church of Santa Maria del Popolo in the early evening. I’m not sure if it was the time of day or if it’s that the works are less known, but whatever the reason, we found the church quiet and just a few visitors praying in the pews.

The Cerasi chapel stands in an alcove to the left of the high altar. As you approach, you cannot see the Caravaggio works from a distance because they hang on each side of the alcove, facing each other rather than the viewer. You must kneel at the front of the chapel to get the best view. How different from most museum displays, where works are front and center on a white wall and usually accompanied by a bench for more comfortable contemplation.

Here’s a picture of the chapel, with “The Conversion on the Way to Damascus” on the right and
“The Crucifixion of St. Peter” on the left:

And here are the paintings straight on:

“The Crucifixion of Saint Peter” shows three figures with obscured faces struggling to prop up St. Peter’s cross. St. Peter—who was once too cowardly to admit his acquaintance with Christ—was ultimately crucified upside-down for his faith. Caravaggio uses the three figures to create a circular movement in the painting, which St. Peter’s body position then opposes. Caravaggio depicts St. Peter as literally and figuratively existing on a different plane from his accusers, and his face alone is bathed in light. It suggests this passage from St. John’s Gospel:

And this is the judgment: Because the light is come into the world and men loved darkness rather than the light: for their works were evil. For every one that doth evil hateth the light and cometh not to the light, that his works may not be reproved. But he that doth truth cometh to the light, that his works may be made manifest: because they are done in God.

For Caravaggio’s painting of the conversion of St. Paul, I think there is no better description than Sister Wendy’s:

. . .it is that reputation of the wild violent disreputable Caravaggio that makes this picture so moving. He is showing us St. Paul, who was also a kind of ‘bad boy’ at the beginning: a narrow intolerant man who angrily persecuted the Christians. He was riding on a mission to intensify the persecutions when suddenly, terrifyingly, he had a vision. Christ appeared to him. He was blinded and thrown off his horse. There is a significance here because a man on horseback is a proud man, in control above the others. But once thrown off his horse, all the trappings of power and dignity and self-certainty are roughly removed.

Look at Paul: absolutely vulnerable, legs out-stretched, arms raised to heaven as he falls [with] eyes shut since he has been blinded. Now he cannot even see what is in front of him let alone have vision superior to anybody else. Caravaggio paints him with compassionate truthfulness so that we see what it means to be thrown off a horse: not just coming down to the level of others but laid flat. And Paul becomes even less important because with a stroke of utter brilliance Caravaggio shows the whole event not in terms of Paul but of the horse. It is the horse who is spotlighted as central, careful not to tread on the poor creature that has so unexpectedly slid beneath his belly. Paul has become lower than the beasts—the man who thought himself able to judge and condemn others . . . his useless sword and armour flat on the ground, exposed to the light of truth.

Each painting itself is incredibly powerful. But then I remembered my professor’s instructions and looked at Saint Peter’s eyes. He looks out of the painting, across the space of the chapel, and straight at Saint Paul in the middle of his conversion.

Caravaggio painted this intentionally. For me, this is what makes the two works such a singular wonder.

Through the grace of Christ, Simon the fisherman becomes Peter the oft-mistaken Apostle who finally becomes Peter the Saint—rock of the Church who lays down his life for Christ. This Peter looks back across his shoulder, across space and time, to Saul. Saul, who persecuted the Christians and stoned Saint Stephen, at that moment on the Damascus road takes his first breath as Paul the penitent convert who would become Paul the tireless evangelist and finally Paul the Saint, who poured his life out “like a libation” for Christ and his flock.

By design, Caravaggio’s “Crucifixion of St. Peter” leads the eye back to the conversion of St. Paul, just as the life of faith is a continual return to conversion in Christ. Caravaggio shows Saint Peter, in his martyrdom, looking back on the most humble moment of conversion, and the body positions of the two saints reinforce this: St. Paul’s figure almost perfectly reflects St. Peter’s. The saints do not seek to become martyrs and they do not seek personal glory. They only seek to follow Christ.

The similar composition of the two paintings also sets off this difference: St. Paul’s figure extends out toward the viewer, while St. Peter’s draws back. Conversion stretches out to change the soul in the here-and-now; martyrdom, and death in general, draw the soul away from temporal experience. Truly, St. Paul encountered conversion on the Damascus road—he was thrown from his horse and blinded.  In his crucifixion, St. Peter was drawn back, removed from our physical reality, and drawn up into the beatific vision.


So, if you can, say a little prayer for the soul of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. He died an exile at the age of 38. He may have been on the way to Rome to receive a pardon, but he never made it. Yet I think that someone who could paint so powerfully the drama of conversion, the struggles of the life of faith, and the fruits of following Christ, must be somewhere on the road up Mount Purgatory toward the heavenly gates.

Illustrating the Imagination

[Part 3 in the Wedding Crashers series] The four modes of human story-telling identified by Northrop Frye tend to follow the pattern of the four seasons. Though we feel it less directly in more urban areas, our existence depends upon harmonizing our life cycle to the cycle of crops and so the cycle of the seasons. I think this is why the seasons occupy so frequent and fundamental a place in all our creative works: each season plays an important and a unique role in our very existence.

Consider Frye’s pairings of season and story-mode below. Do you see similarities between each season and mode? (The one difficulty is that Frye’s names for the modes have slightly different meanings than we’re used to 2012; if we clarify these names, I think you can see the connections more easily.)

Romance for Frye means the quest (not Romance novels). The Romance or quest mode echoes summer: hard work and toil under the sun, yet with eyes fixed on the distant harvest; characters undertake a great journey for a greater reward; heroes seek the golden apples of the Hesperides, the treasure of Smaug, the Holy Grail.

Tragedy fits with the melancholy of fall. Summer fades, the year grows old. Death approaches, withers the trees, withers the characters, strips away temporary garments, and leaves all shivering in the wind.

Winter embodies the ironic mode. Frye isn’t talking about hipsters when he talks about irony—the ironic mode is a progression beyond tragedy, just as winter follows fall. Like fall/tragedy, the ironic mode carries a sense of loss, but it’s less poignant and more bitter like a winter wind. The land is barren; characters in the ironic mode are barren (literally, figuratively, or both). There is no growth.

And, ah, the comic mode. The comic mode is the springtime—the year is young, the world green and bright, the birds and the bees go about their business, and human characters follow suit. Clouds may pass over the sun, but in the comic mode, the point is that they’re just clouds and they’re passing. In the comic mode, The Merry Wives of Windsor pull their ridiculous pranks, bumpkins and fairies make mischief in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Earnest isn’t earnest in The Importance of Being Earnest, and John Beckwith and Jeremy Grey enjoy wedding season.

The montage that occurs near the beginning of Wedding Crashers epitomizes the comic mode: food and families abound, champagne flows, jokes are told, and we see John and Jeremy repeatedly at the center of a grand party:

One of my favorite professors at GMU pointed out that, on the silver screen, comedies primarily use mid-range shots because comedies take place at mid-range. Characters in the comic mode have depth, but not the deep exploration of psyche that you have with someone like Iago or Hamlet in the tragedies. Stories in the comic mode center more on the relationships between characters and how those relationships fit into and form the larger society.

Notice how those scenes above all show John and Jeremy as part of a crowd, part of society. Because comedies deal with the integration of the individual into society, it follows that the visuals reflect this. Not that the producers of Wedding Crashers sat down and said “you know, this segment of our film really illustrates what Northrop Frye called the comic mode, so we should probably rely on midrange shots that place our guys in a social context with lots of flowers and young folk to connote the spring of life”—I’d eat my hat if they said that. Rather, it’s natural for images like you see in the clip above to accompany stories told in the comic mode. Frye’s theory of modes is descriptive—it describes patterns he found in literature, not patterns he wanted to impose—and so it can help us to better see and perceive what already surrounds us.

After all the frolicking and rolicking in the comic mode, Wedding Crashers shifts briefly into the opposite mode: tragedy. In the tragic mode, the hero is driven from society and may suffer death at its hands.

Wedding Crashers doesn’t quite have true tragedy—you’ll have to go to Russian literature or To Kill a Mockingbird for that—but for the sake of illustration there is a moment that can serve.

I don’t have a clip, but imagine the scene with Claire Cleary (Rachel McAdams) and John (Owen Wilson) talking outside, right after Bradley Cooper’s character proposes to Claire. John hasn’t yet told Claire the truth of his identity, but she clearly has feelings for John, and we hope maybe something can work out. Then bam! Gunshot goes off, Claire’s family and crazed fiancé storm out, and the jig is up.  They’ve learned that John and Jeremy aren’t related to this powerful, upper class family, they don’t orbit in the same circles, they don’t know how to sail, they aren’t venture capitalists, and so they can have nothing to do with the Cleary daughters. In a way, the rigid social structure drives the would-be heroes away from the idyllic property and away from love. After John and Jeremy admit the truth about themselves, they’re sent trudging down a dusty road like exiles from Eden.

In the tragic mode, although the hero suffers, society usually recognizes and regrets the loss in the end. Othello finally realizes his dead wife’s innocence. Lear rediscovers the dead Cordelia’s goodness. The Montagues and Capulets repent of the fighting that destroyed their children. In spite of loss, meaning remains intact. But sometimes, the tragic mode can slip into the ironic mode. And in the ironic mode, meaning falls apart, and even the sensitivity to loss becomes numbed. After he’s driven from Claire, John Beckwith’s story spirals into the ironic mode.

I think it’s especially important for us in the 21st century to be able to recognize the ironic mode and where it leads, so in the next post, we’ll follow John Beckwith on his downward spiral. Yes, all the way down to Chazz Reinhold’s ma’s house.

Wedding Crashers & the Comic Mode

The term comedy doesn’t necessarily mean “ha ha” funny—it also describes a basic plot structure. Comedy as a structure deals with “the integration of society, which usually takes the form of incorporating a central character into it” (Frye).  Man is a social creature, but tension always exists between individual wills and social demands. Comedies revolve around the fact that at some point, to some extent, we all have to get along to get along. Something like teenage rebellion is natural, even healthy, but the resolution of most comic works comes when the angsty young adult finds a way to fit back into society—a society which is strengthened and changed for the better through the young person’s rebellion and return.

Comedies often end with weddings because marriage may be the ultimate example of figuring out how to get along. Weddings signify a bond between man and woman, honor the bond between parents and children (parents giving their blessing to marry, family names passed on, dowries or inheritances acquired, the father walking his daughter down the aisle), they involve family and friends, and they suggest the bringing-forth of new life and so the continuation of society.

But comedies begin with rebellion: a rejection of social norms, a challenging of parental authority, a breaking of some social standard. Aristophanes’ Lysistrata and the women of Greece refuse to sleep with their husbands. Shakespeare’s Hermia disobeys her father’s order to marry Demetrius. And in the opening scene of Wedding Crashers, John Beckwith and Jeremy Gray tell a couple going through a nasty divorce that:

Guys, the real enemy here is the institution of marriage. It’s not realistic, it’s crazy! Hey, don’t do this for the other person. It’s about saying yes to yourself, and saying yes to your future. And have some opportunities for yourself . . .

I’d like to focus on this opening scene for a bit, so here it is if you need a quick refresher:

First we hear the bickering couple—a shrill and petty cacophony. Next we see the two main characters (John and Jeremy), both bachelors, literally in the middle of the marriage fight. John and Jeremy don’t have to say anything in these first few seconds—their silent expressions suggest to the audience that the two bachelors are the only sane ones in the bunch. The divorcing couple hurls insults back and forth while their impotent attorneys (literal representatives of society’s laws) sit by, unable to take any meaningful action. Finally Jeremy steps in with the first authoritative words of the movie, and John and Jeremy succeed in calming the couple down by shifting blame away from the individuals and onto the social institution of marriage. Classic comic rebellion! And we’re only three minutes in.

John and Jeremy appeal to individual will and desire over all else. Don’t do this for the other person. Say yes to yourself. The problem is the institution of marriage. Look at us bachelors—we’re the calm ones, we’ve got everything under control, we’ve successfully avoided the unrealistic demand of marriage that society forces on young adults and which ends inevitably in a battle of the sexes. It’s not too far a cry from the poo-pooing of marriage done by Beatrice and Benedick in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing (watch Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh act out some of those lines here).

Through this short opening scene, we get to know two main characters who have (so far) successfully escaped the institution and responsibilities of marriage. And they’ve done more than escape—they actively mock marriage and make their money in the divorce business. However, to a degree, their rejection of the social institution of marriage puts John and Jeremy on the fringes of society. As bachelors, they cannot fully participate in the family life and child rearing that actually perpetuates society. This parallels their fringe participation in the weddings they crash; though they appear to be the life of the party, John and Jeremy never participate as their true selves. They never participate as true guests—they only ever play pretend. It’s all rather funny and rather impressive, but we get the feeling that John and Jeremy won’t get to ride this wave forever. When Owen Wilson’s character hints that maybe this wave isn’t one he wants to ride forever anyway, I’d bet that most of the audience sympathizes more with Owen Wilson than Vince Vaughan at this moment:

A shift is occuring, but we’re not out of the comic mode just yet. The next post will review the imagery that Frye found associated with the comic mode, and look at how a shift in imagery in Wedding Crashers accompanies a shift in the story’s mode.

Wedding Crashers with Northrop Frye

If I could take just one lesson from my English classes over the years, I’d choose Northrop Frye’s theory of modes.

Northrop Frye was a literary critic who lived from 1912 to 1991 and is probably best known for his Anatomy of Criticism (published in 1957). In the introduction to that book, Frye argues that

The first thing the literary critic has to do is to read literature, to make an inductive survey of his own field and let his critical principles shape themselves solely out of his knowledge of that field. Critical principles cannot be taken over ready-made from theology, philosophy, politics, science, or any combination of these.

In Anatomy of Criticism, Frye follows his own advice and presents his findings. He goes out and studies literature of all kinds from a variety of times and places. And he finds that literature does not appear “as a huge aggregate or miscellaneous pile of discrete ‘works.’” Rather, “total literary history gives us a glimpse of the possibility of seeing literature as a complication of a relatively restricted and simple group of formulas that can be studied in primitive culture” and that “there seems to be a general tendency on the part of great classics to revert” to these primitive formulas.

In other words, there are several basic story forms that persist from the earliest myths to, say, The Hunger Games. Frye considers these recurring forms and finds that four basic types or modes of storytelling emerge which can be identified by their basic plot structure, the relationship of the central character to human society and the natural environment, and associated imagery and settings.

If you aren’t about to take a quiz on the basic ideas of Northrop Frye, why should any of this matter? Well, consider the importance of stories. In the words of C.S. Lewis, “human intellect is incurably abstract [. . .] yet the only realities we experience are concrete,” and stories often form a bridge between. When we struggle to explain ourselves, we turn to stories. When we try to teach kids abstract mathematical concepts, we turn to stories. When we wish to honor a loved one at a funeral, we don’t just recite a list of adjectives—we turn to stories. Stories have the potential to carry emotion, wisdom, mystery, abstract ideas, concrete realities—all the paradoxes and contradictions of our human experience.  That stories from all times and places generally fall into one of four modes suggests a sort of fundamental, shared, imaginative experience and sheds light (theory comes from Greek roots meaning “to see” and “to consider”) on how we process and comprehend the world and ourselves.

So what are the four basic modes? According to Frye, they are:

1. Comedy (or “low mimetic”)

2. Tragedy (or “high mimetic”)

3. Irony

4. Romance

These terms require some clarification, though, since Frye doesn’t use them in the way most of us do in everyday conversation. I think the best way to explain these terms is with—surprise!—a story. And I realized while watching it with my roommates the other night that the movie Wedding Crashers provides some great examples of all four modes. So ask your ma to make you some meatloaf and check back for part two of this post!

What this blog is for

I love to write, but my current job (which I thoroughly enjoy!) doesn’t require me to do much of my own writing — mostly I post the publications of other more experienced writers on various websites. So, in part, this blog is just an exercise for me so my own writing muscles don’t atrophy any further. But I’ve also had the good fortune to have great English teachers over the years and have always wanted to share more of what they taught me. So most of these posts will take something from one of my old classes as a starting point — hopefully you can glean something of interest!

Why bother with things learned in English lit. classes? A maxim I learned from a professor at GMU sums it up best:

History tells you what happened; Poetry tells you what always happens.

Poetry, and literature more generally, have the ability to speak to the things that are lasting in human nature; to the things we in 21st century America with our blogs and iPhones and reality T.V. and human genome sequencing and nuclear weapons share with the likes of Saladin the Great, the house of Atreus, and the authors of the Psalms.

It’s tempting to look at the marvels of technology in our age and consider ourselves superior to men and women of the past, but the differences between us and them are not nearly as significant as the things we have in common. As G.K. Chesterton put it, these

things common to all men are more important than the things peculiar to any men. Ordinary things are more valuable than extraordinary things; nay, they are more extraordinary. […] The sense of the miracle of humanity itself should be always more vivid to us than any marvels of power, intellect, art, or civilization. The mere man on two legs, as such, should be felt as something more heartbreaking than any music and more startling than any caricature.

Literature from all ages and all places helps us to better recognize the things we hold in common, and so helps us to a better understanding of what “the miracle of humanity itself” is. It requires humility to see what we can learn from an old king who wouldn’t have known the first thing about Facebook, but, as T.S. Eliot writes in his Four Quartets:

The only wisdom we can hope to acquire

Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.

I try to post something once a week — hopefully it’s worth your while, at least every once in awhile!