Tuesday, December 29, 2009

melodrama and its opposite

I participated in an online discussion about Tiger Woods, an athlete who recently got caught with his pants down -- literally. He's been exposed as a serial adulterer, which is too bad, because before his "sins" came out, he was a role model to many people.

Fans are angry. But each fan, being a unique human being, deals with this anger in his own way. Some see Tiger as a sick man in need of help; others see him as a monster.

The following is part of a discussion about Mike Wise, a sports writer who writes for "The Washington Post." In an article entitled "I Am Tiger Woods," Wise admits to his own past affairs and implies that men who cheat are sex addicts, suffering from voids in their lives. His stance angered many, who saw it as excusing bad behavior.

Wise's essay: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/12/25/AR2009122501440.html

Here's my response:

There are two great, ongoing human projects which help us deal with "sin." One of them is called melodrama and the other, unfortunately, doesn't have a name (to the best of my knowledge). For the sake of shorthand, I'll call it psychological drama. (Though I'm unhappy with that name. It implies that melodrama doesn't deal with psychology, and I don't think that's true. It just presents a simplified, cartoon-like psychology, which is much less nuanced than the psychology in what I'm calling "psychological drama.")

When someone hurts us (e.g. cheats on us or assaults us), we can either see the "bad guy" as a force of nature or a fully-endowed human. Psychological drama, which delves deeply into background and motivation, encourages the former; Melodrama, in which bad guys are simply evil assholes, encourages the latter.

To me, it's silly to consider one of these forms superior to the other. Their longevity and co-existence implies that they are both necessary. Both exist in all cultures that tell stories (e.g. all cultures), and there are amazing literary examples of both.

What's interesting to me is that they are, in a sense, mutually exclusive. When someone needs melodrama, he (usually) must bar psychological drama; when someone needs psychological drama, he (generally) finds melodrama childishly simplistic and worthless.

In discussions like this, whenever anyone brings up the psychology, others (ones in a melodramatic frame of mind) get offended. "Why did Hitler murder all those people?" they ask. "Because he was an evil bastard. That's why!" They don't want to hear any psychological explanation, because, to one who needs melodrama, motivational thinking and humanizing are forms of EXCUSING.

Quite a few people here have accused Wise of EXCUSING Woods, even though Wise claims to not be doing this. If you need melodrama, you are probably going to read excusing into ANY attempt to psychologically probe a bad guy. (My use of the word "read," above, is not meant to imply that psychological writers aren't excusing. They might or might not be. But if you're in a melodramatic frame of mind, it doesn't matter whether they are or not. You'll necessarily interpret their prose as an excuse.)

I love both forms, but I'm more of a Chekovian than a Dickensian. I think of everyone as having reasons for what they're doing -- reasons rooted in genetics or post-natal history/biography. To me, learning about those reasons has nothing (necessarily) to do with excusing, though I am more apt to sympathize with the bad guy if I know what makes him tick than if I don't.

(For reasons I can't explain, humanizing bad guys is cathartic to me even when I'm the victim of their crimes. This will baffle anyone more attuned to melodrama, and I admit that I can't explain it myself. I even find it comforting to humanize the Nazis who killed many members of my family. Maybe it's because I'm scared of living in a world filled with monsters, and humanizing allows me to live, instead, in a world filled with -- well -- humans. In any case, I have no interest in excusing -- just in explaining.)

Reading the article, I sympathize with Wise. However, I don't excuse what he did.

I'm fond of navel gazing, and so I have theories about almost all of my own motivations. I've done plenty of bad things in my life. And I think I understand why I did them. However, I don't excuse myself for doing them. Does understanding my own psychology make me less of a shit? No. It just makes me know why I am a shit.

To me -- a guy who likes psychological drama -- Wise's essay doesn't seem like he's excusing himself. It seems like he's saying "I'm a shit and here's why." To someone who prefers (or needs) melodrama, the very act of saying "why" is necessarily making an excuse. It's claiming that the bad guy is not fully responsible for his actions. How could he help being a shit when his mother was so cold to him as a child?

A fascinating example of the tug between melodrama and psychological drama is "A Clockwork Orange." The genesis of that book is a real-life incident. Anthony Burgess and his wife were assaulted in their home by thugs. He set out to write a melodrama about it, one told from the point of view of the victims in which the assailants were evil forces. But his novelist instincts lead him to explore the psychology of the bad guys, and at some point he flipped his thinking and wrote the whole book from the villain's perspective. (I suspect, but can't prove, that something similar happened to Shakespeare when he wrote "The Merchant of Venice.")

I am afraid that we're stuck in a world in which there will always be both melodrama and psychological drama -- and I hope it's clear that I'm not just talking about fiction; I'm also talking about the way we talk and think about criminals and sinners. And we're also stuck in a world in which those two forms, or at least the mental states of the people who are consuming them, are incompatible.

If you insist that Hitler was a person (which you may need to do), know that you'll anger a large number of people who NEED to seem him as a monster; if you insist that he's monster (which you may need to do), be sure that you'll frustrate those of us who don't believe in monsters.


After I wrote this, someone suggested that the opposite of melodrama is tragedy.

I responded as follows:

I can't possibly prove this, but I believe that the "atomic units" of narrative are melodrama and X -- X being what I've (unfortunately) called "psychological drama."

By "atomic units" I mean three things:

1. The forms don't mix well. They are not totally atomic in this sense. I have seen a few interesting hybrids (e.g. "Merchant of Venice"), but it's pretty hard to make up a story in which the bad guy is both a pure evil force-of-nature and a nuanced, psychologically deep character at the same time.

2. They are both well-honed forms. Both have existed at least since the time of the ancient Greeks.

3. They contain all other genres, e.g. a Mystery or a Sci-fi novel is in a sub-genre of melodrama or psychological drama (or an experimental attempt to straddle in both camps).

I would also claim (without proof, alas), as I did above, that the two forms give us the two things we most need from narrative: belonging and independence: "we are all in this together" vs. "it's me against the world."

I would call tragedy a sub-category (though definitely a sub-category of psychological drama). "Midsummer Night's Dream" is, to my mind, a psychological drama (it's definitely not a melodrama), even though it's a comedy.


More from me on the subject (I never seem to tire of it):

The majority of people (at least the majority of people I meet) cling to melodrama when they think about folks opposite them on the political spectrum.

Conservatives tend to think of Liberals as forces of evil; Liberals tend to think of Conservatives the same way. (Or they think of each other as stupid, which is just another way of not allowing a person full person-hood.) Basically, Liberals are "baby killers" and Conservatives "want poor people to starve."

I've written on before about how I stay away from politics (and how I wrestle with the ethics of keeping my head in the sand). I've realized lately that the main reason I'm apolitical is because I don't view politics as melodrama. Worse, I can't tolerate the melodramatic view (which I'll admit is a prejudice, but I don't know how to overcome it.) I turn off as soon as I hear one side making a villain of the other. And the fact that I refuse to participate in the melodrama of either side makes me a friend of no one.

I learned the hard way that it's pointless (or worse) to try to explain (excuse!) the Conservative view point to Liberal. And the same is true the other way around. Almost no one wants to hear it. Melodrama IS the official story.

I don't mean to wax on about myself, but it's an illustration of how one way of seeing the world (melodramatically or the opposite) blocks the other way. I'm as blocked as my political friends. We're just on opposite sides of the block.

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