When the cartoonist Charles M. Schulz announced that he was going to stop drawing the “Peanuts” comic strip, he allegedly received a flood of reader requests, all asking for the same thing: “please, just once before you stop, let Charlie Brown kick the football.” But Schulz set his face against his readers' wishes, and followed the logic of his characters instead. If Lucy van Pelt allowed Charlie Brown to kick the football, if she didn't whip it away at the last moment from his eternally trusting, eternally betrayed feet, then she would cease to be Lucy. If Charlie Brown kicked the football, he would no longer be Charlie Brown.
For Charlie Brown and Lucy, their ethos, as Heraclitus said two and a half thousand years ago, their way of being in the world, is their “daimon”, the guiding principle that shapes their lives. And their author, having created them, is no longer omnipotent, but bound by his creation. Pinocchio is no longer a marionette; he once had strings, but now he's free. He's a real, live boy.
Heraclitus himself was lost and never found, and all that remains are quotations from him in the works of other writers, some in the original Greek, some paraphrased or translated into Latin, just a few broken potsherds numbered from 1 to 130 like fragments in a drawer in a museum. In these remains he comes across as something of a mixed bag, part wise man, part fortune cookie:
An ass prefers a bed of litter
to a golden throne.
The way up is the way back.
The beginning is the end.
Goat cheese melted
in warm wine congeals
if not well stirred.
The ape apes find
It's hard to take some of this stuff seriously, although there are manywise people who take it very seriously indeed, and to these wisepeople one is tempted to say:
Stupidity is better
kept a secret
And yet Heraclitus was a remarkable fellow by all accounts, a genuine seeker after truth. Like the Buddha, he was born a prince, in his case in and of Ephesus, and like the Buddha, he renounced power in order to seek what he would have called wisdom (“Sophos”), which the Buddha called enlightenment. And some of the fragments have plenty to say to me. For example:
People dull their wits with gibberish,
and cannot use their ears and eyes.
The eye, the ear,
the mind in action,
these I value.
Although obviously I'm disappointed to hear him say:
Now that we can travel anywhere,
we need no longer take the poets
and myth-makers for sure witnesses
about disputed facts.
Then there's fragment 121, which has attained the status of one of the grand self-evident truths about life and tells us, as it told Charlie Brown, that a man's “ethos” is his “daimon”, or, as Saul Bellow puts it in the opening paragraph of “The Adventures of Augie March”: 'A man's character is his fate.' Character is destiny. The key to the art of the novel in seven syllables, or so people have long believed. Captain Ahab's character, driven, obsessive, fixated on the whale to the point of selling his soul for the right to kill it-'from hell's heart I stab at thee' -makes his death inevitable. There he is at last, lashed to his prey by harpoon-ropes and drowned, the two of them bound together, man and whale, inseparable in life and death. The survivor of the wreck of the Pequod, the one who lives to tell the tale, is the disengaged figure of Ishmael, or at least we think that's his name. 'Call me Ishmael,' he tells us, not 'I am Ishmael' or 'Ishmael is my name.' Ishmael may be an alias, like the name 'Alias' adopted by the character played by Bob Dylan in Sam Peckinpah's great western “Pat Garrett” and “Billy the Kid.” 'Call me Alias,' Dylan says, playing Ishmael to Pat Garrett's Ahab (Billy the Kid being, I suppose, the hunted whale), and when Garrett asks if that's his name, he replies, with an opaque little Bob Dylan smile, 'You can call me that.' So, call-me-Ishmael-the outsider, the one who doesn't buy into the passion and fervor, the grand obsession, of the quest for Moby-Dick-Ishmael survives, because survival is the game he's in, it's his character, so it's his fate. Ahab, because it's his fate, because it's what he wants, goes knocking on heaven's door.
Then there's character as refusal, the refusal, for example, of Bartleby the scrivener, who prefers not to, without ever giving a reason or even a hint of an explanation. But can Bartleby be called a character, or is he simply that refusal, enigmatic, infuriating, important for its effect on others and not for itself? I think he can, because the refusals are not random, they cohere. Bartleby has needs-he is homeless and close to penniless and is living secretly in the scriveners' office, and when he is surprised there “en déshabillé”, he prefers not to let his employer enter until he has tidied himself. He has, too, a strong sense of himself as a worker, working assiduously at his copying, but preferring not to go over his work with anyone else. His professional pride may be misplaced, but it reveals that this is a man who sets boundaries in his life. He will do this, he will not do that, and he will politely adhere to his private rules, whatever the consequences for himself. Is he, then, some sort of passive-aggressive zealot? I don't think so, because he has no ideas to impose on anyone else. In the face of poverty and even death he has chosen the path of dignity, preferring not to deviate from it, and accepts his fate. So if character is destiny, then the characteristic of acceptance is as potent as that of refusal. Bartleby both refuses and accepts. He prefers not to, but he also, silently, prefers.
I'm thinking, too, about another refusal, the refusal of Michael Kohlhaas the horse-trader, in the great story by Heinrich von Kleist that bears his name, to accept that justice will not be done. He insists on only what the law has decreed, that the two beautiful, glossy, well-nourished horses unjustly seized from him by Junker Wenzel von Tronka and allowed to decline into 'a pair of scrawny, worn-out nags' should be returned to him in the same condition they were in when they were taken, along with his other lost possessions, a neckcloth, some imperial florins and a bundle of washing; and when his small grievance is not addressed he embarks on a course so violent that it half destroys his world, and himself as well. His character becomes his entire community's destiny as well as his own. But when, at the story's end, and after deeds of terrible violence have been done, he gains full restitution for his losses, he accepts that justice must also be done upon him, for his own deeds. Having received satisfaction, Kohlhaas is prepared to give satisfaction to the state, and submits without argument to the executioner's axe. Once again, refusal goes hand in hand with acceptance.
A century and a half after it was written, “Michael Kohlhaas” inspired the American novelist E. L. Doctorow, who based the character of Coalhouse Walker in “Ragtime” on Kohlhaas. Coalhouse Walker, the dandyish African-American with the fancy car that gets wrecked by racists, insists, like Michael Kohlhaas, on restitution, insists peacefully and civilly for as long as he can, beyond the limits of most men's patience, and only turns to extreme measures when modest ones have failed. A sense of injustice will drive a man to extremes-many of the world's present discontents can be attributed to such a sense- but what makes these men special, Kohlhaas, Coalhouse, Bartleby, is their belief in civility, their refusal to step towards incivility or violence until all other avenues have been exhausted, their preference for non-violence, even though, in two of these three examples, there is violence aplenty lurking below the surface.
The almost karmic willingness to accept what life sends is also at the heart of the nature of Mr Leopold Bloom, Odysseus recast as modern picaro, as the wandering, but also Irish, also Quixotic Jew. Mr Leopold Bloom, who eats with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls, who loves his wife in spite of her wandering eye for Blazes Boylan and who, after his sojourn in Nighttown, brings Stephen home in the 'Ithaca' chapter of Ulysses, the lost son Bloom never had who's in search of a lost mother, “O, it's only Dedalus whose mother is beastly dead”, and afterwards, in bed with Molly, speaks to her of him, presents him to her for her pleasure, allowing her to intuit what he doesn't know himself, “hes an author and going to be a university professor of Italian”, Molly ruminates about Stephen, “and Im to take lessons what is he driving at now showing him my photo”, meaning Bloom, what is Bloom driving at, “I wonder he didnt make him a present of it altogether and me too ... I suppose hes 20 or more lm not too old for him if hes 23 or 24.”
How poignant it is, at the end of Bloom's long day's journey into long night, near the end of the chapter's long catechism, and just before Molly's overwhelming voice is unleashed upon us, to discover that there's a refusal in Bloom, too, a refusal beneath his acceptance: he accepts her infidelity because he refuses to lose her, he enters the marital bed and finds there 'the imprint of a human form, male, not his,' and lying beside his sleeping wife lists to himself the names of his wife's lovers, that list of which he is not even the last term, and experiences, sequentially, 'envy, jealousy, abnegation, equanimity', and yet is aroused by her and loves her in spite of what he knows. Then, in that beautiful gesture in which the cuckold's humility joins with the husband's lust, he kisses 'the plump mellow yellow smellow melons of her rump, on each plump melonous hemisphere, in their mellow yellow furrow, with obscure prolonged provocative elonsmellonous osculation'. And as for Molly Bloom, Molly the Yes, she's nothing but character-as-destiny, is soliloquizing Molly, nothing but Fate, lying on her bed, sleeping, waking, doing and remembering. No character was ever Destiny more than she, everyone's destiny as well as her guiltless, sensual own.
So: game, set and match to Heraclitus, you may think. Character, destiny, the one leads to the other, and there you have it, nothing more to be said. Ah, but there is, because Heraclitus's dictum doesn't take into account the things about people and stories and language and perception and, yes, moral values that don't stay put, that aren't dependable foundations. James Joyce, that creator of potently destined characters, “agenbitten by inwit”, knew the limitations of the flesh as he knew everything else, was a master of the shifting, the mutable, and near the beginning of Ulysses invoked the metamorphic Old Father Ocean, Proteus: 'beware,' as the book warns us, 'of imitations.'
There is, for example, the matter of chance. In the “Mahabharata”, King Yudhisthira, an addictive gambler, loses his wealth, his kingdom, the freedom of his brothers, and even his wife in a series of throws of the dice. So, of course, his character creates his destiny; but the thought remains, what if the dice had fallen differently? Yudhisthira's character didn't account for their random fall, and the suggestion in the “Mahabharata” that his opponent, Shakuni, was a master of the game while Yudhisthira was a novice is unconvincing; there's really no way to be a master of the dice. An explanation of human affairs that omits the influence of the unpredictable, the chaotic, the thing for which there is no reason, will never be a full explanation. For the want of a nail, a battle can be lost. A child falls from a third-floor window and gets up, miraculously unhurt; the same child falling from the same window on another occasion would be killed. We turn right through the crowd at a certain party on a certain night and meet the man or woman who becomes our spouse. If we had turned left we might never have met them. A house is carried away by a whirlwind with a girl inside it and, when it lands, by chance squashes a witch whose magic ruby slippers will eventually take the girl home again. But what if the witch had not been squashed?
The religious writer sees, in chance, the workings of a divine hand. In “The Bridge of San Luis Rey”, Thornton Wilder sets himself the task of understanding the meaning of the deaths of five unconnected individuals who just happened to be crossing the bridge when it collapsed. Why these particular people and not other people? The book rather heroically refuses to accept the answer that there was no reason, that it was just bad luck, and tries to understand the purposes of God. To an extent we all do this, we don't like the idea that our lives can be changed by the vagaries of fortune, by good or bad luck, by things beyond anyone's power to control. Yet chance exists. Paul Auster and Jerzy Kosinski, in their very different ways, are writers who pay a lot of attention to its workings. Auster, like Vyasa, the Homer-figure to whom the “Mahabharata” is ascribed, uses with relish the trope of gambling-the catastrophic poker game played by the central characters, Nashe and Pozzi, against the Pennsylvania recluses Flower and Stone in “The Music of Chance” actually recalls Yudhisthira's disaster-to change his characters' lives, while Kosinski, in his best book, “Being There”, allows his sweet idiot, 'Chauncey Gardiner', whose very name is not his name but given to him by chance, to rise from a rich man's simple-minded menial to become the consort of the grand and the adviser of the mighty. (In the movie of “Being There”, Peter Sellers, in his finest role as Chauncey Gardiner, bears an uncanny resemblance to US Vice-President Dick Cheney, so maybe Kosinski's novel was more prophetic than he knew.)
The Hollywood cinema, of course, would almost cease to exist if film-makers were forbidden to base their work on chance-the accidental spider-bite that turns Peter Parker into Spider-Man, the chance discovery by the hob bit Bilbo Baggins of a mysterious ring of power (to be fair, J. R. R. Tolkien, a member of the Thornton Wilder 'hidden hand' school, would have argued that the ring wanted to be found, and chose Bilbo to find it: its character was its destiny), not to mention the whole movie business of men and women 'meeting cute', to use the technical term. Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks running into one another on the internet, Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal colliding accidentally half a dozen times in the same movie: seems like people in movies are never properly introduced, they prefer to dress up as women to escape a bunch of gangsters and bump into Marilyn Monroe on a train, or to bump into one another on a sinking ship, or to meet by being involved in car accidents or train accidents or aeroplane disasters or by being marooned on islands or forced to marry under the terms of somebody's will so that they can inherit a fortune or forced to marry on account of some fairy-tale law or else give up being Santa Claus.
The significance in human affairs of the unpredictable-the revolution, the avalanche, the sudden illness, the stock market collapse, the accident-obliges us to accept that character isn't the only determinant of our lives. What's more, character isn't what it was two and a half thousand years ago. When Heraclitus made his statement about man's ethos being his “daimon”, both those words, “ethos” and “daimon”, expressed concepts that were seen, in his time, as stable. Character was not mutable, but fixed. The spirit that guided one's life did not change. As Popeye the Sailor Man so succinctly put it, 'I yam what I yam and tha's all I yam.' These days, however, we have a slipperier, more fragmented understanding of what character actually is. We argue a good deal about how much of our behaviour is externally determined and how much comes from within. We are by no means certain of the existence of a soul, and we know that we are very different people in different circumstances: we are one way with our families and another way in the workplace. We are more fluid and metamorphic than our forefathers believed they were; we know that within the 'I' there's a bustling crowd of different 'I's jostling for space, coming to the fore, being pushed back again, growing, shrinking, even disappearing entirely, while new 'I's grow. We can change, in the course of a life, so profoundly that we no longer recognize our younger selves. The last Emperor of China, Pu Yi, began life believing himself to be a god and ended it, under Communism, as a gardener, claiming to be happy. Can a man change that much and be content? Was this brainwashing or transformation? It's an open question. But the nature of the self, and the extent to which it determines our actions, are more problematic subjects than they used to be. Character may be destiny, but what is character?
A third answer to Heraclitus is to be found in the political sphere, or at least in the increasing penetration of our private lives by public affairs. The gap between what is private and what is public has diminished to the point at which one can almost say that it has ceased to exist.
In much of the world childhood itself has been abolished, childhood defined as a safe, protected period during which a human being can grow, learn, develop, play and become-in which a human being can be childlike, childish, and be spared the rigours of adulthood. These days global poverty forces children to work in factories and in fields. It turns children into street urchins, criminals and whores. Meanwhile, political instability not only claims children's lives in large numbers-in Sudan, in Rwanda, in India, in Iraq-but turns them into killers, too. See on TV the child soldiers of Africa toting their automatic weapons and speaking with terrifying ease about death. At a time when the external pressures upon us are so great, in Palestine, in Israel, in Afghanistan, in Iran, many artists have felt obliged to take into account the terrible truth that for a great majority of the world's population, their characters, strong or weak, have very little chance of determining their fates. Poverty is destiny, war is destiny, ancient ethnic, tribal and religious hatreds are destiny, a bomb on a bus or in a market square is destiny, and character just has to take its place on the list. A billionaire financial speculator attacks your country's currency, and it collapses, and you lose your job; it doesn't matter who you are or how good a worker you were, you're on the street. Nor is this simply a Third World problem. On September 11, 2001, thousands of people died for reasons unconnected with their characters. On that sad day, their “ethos” was not their “daimon.”
Until the age of fourteen, when I was sent from Bombay to boarding school in faraway England, I was a much more homogeneous self than I am now. I had lived in the same house in the same city all my life, in the bosom of my family, among people whose customs I knew without having to do anything as conscious as 'know' them, speaking the languages that people spoke in that city, in that country, in that time. These are the four roots of the self: language, place, community, custom. But in our age, the great age of migration, many of us have at least one of these roots pulled up. We move away from the place we know, away from the community that knows us, to a place where the customs are different and, perhaps, the most commonly spoken language is one we do not know, or if we speak it, we speak it badly, and cannot express in it the subtleties of what we think and who we are. In my case, I had been brought up multilingually, so my English was fine, it was the one root still planted in the earth, but the others had all gone. In Norse mythology, the world tree, the great ash Yggdrasil, has three roots. One falls into the Pool of Knowledge near Valhalla, the pool from which Odin drinks, but the others are slowly being destroyed, one gnawed by a monster called the Nidhogg, the other being gradually burned away by the flames of the fire-region, Muspelheim. When these two roots are destroyed, the tree falls and the Gotterdammerung begins. The migrant, too, is at first a tree standing without roots, trying not to fall. Migration is an existential act, stripping us of our defences, mercilessly exposing us to a world that understands us badly, if at all: as if the earth were stripped of its atmosphere and the sun were to bear down upon it in all its pitiless force. It's an age of migrant writers, voluntary migrants and involuntary exiles and refugees. For such writers instability is a given, instability of abode, of the future, of the family, of the self. For such writers the lack of an automatic subject is a given, too. Some, like the long- time Somali exile Nuruddin Farah, carry Somalia within them just as Joyce carried Dublin within him, and never turn to other places or other themes. Others, like the diaspora Indian writer Bharati Mukherjee, redefine themselves according to their changed circumstances, thinking and writing, in her case, as an American. Others, like myself, fall somewhere in between, sometimes looking east, sometimes west, but always with a sense of the provisionality of all truths, the mutability of all character, the uncertainty of all times and places, no matter how settled things may seem. I can only envy deeply rooted writers like William Faulkner or Eudora Welty, who can take their patch of the earth as a given and mine it for a lifetime. The migrant has no ground to stand on until he invents it.
This, too, increases his sense of the precariousness of all things, and leads him towards a literature of precariousness, in which neither destiny nor character can be taken for granted, and nor can their relationship. Borges knew that history is a garden of forking paths, and that although things did go one way they might have gone another and who would we be then, how differently might we have thought or acted? Might not our destinies have shaped our characters rather than the other way around?
American literature, as befits the literature of a land built by migration, knows a good deal about the protean, shape-shifting processes by which migrant selves, and migrant communities, remake themselves and are remade, and it's no accident that so many of its pre-eminent masterpieces, “The Great Gatsby”, for example, deal with the comedy and tragedy of the reinvented self. American literature is entrenched now, it's not arriving across the ocean on boats in quite the way that it used to (although there are always new American stories being added to the crowd-we've already started hearing, for example, from Afghan-Americans: have a look at Khaled Hosseini's novel “The Kite Runner”), but it's good to see that so many of the younger writers, such as those selected as “Granta”'s Best of Young American Novelists in 2007, are embracing America's protean traditions.
At the heart of the novel is and will always be the human figure, and the nature of the novel is to show the human figure in motion through time, space and event. If we don't care about the character, we rarely care about the novel, it's as simple as that; but human beings aren't the whole story, in fact often they aren't even the heroes of the stories they're in, they're bit-part players in their own lives. Even the most potent of fictional characters has to face up at some point to the sheer strangeness of the world.
Character can shape destiny very powerfully, and must be allowed to do so in the novel whenever it can, but the surreal, too, is a part of the real. The surreal is the strangeness of the world made visible: it's a court case that appears to have no end, like Charles Dickens's “Jarndyce and Jarndyce”, it's Dickens's Circumlocution Office that exists in order to do nothing, it's the dust heaps in Our Mutual Friend, the refuse piles growing into garbage Alps, garbage Pyrenees, garbage Himalayas, and standing over the city that created them like a metaphor or a judgment. Heraclitus, who taught us that a man's ethos is his “daimon”, also wrote:
Pythagoras may well have been
the deepest in his learning of all men
And still he claimed to recollect
details of former lives,
being in one a cucumber
and one time a sardine.
I'm with Pythagoras on this. I want the story of the whole Pythagoras, the square on his hypotenuse as well as the sum of the squares on his other two sides, and I wouldn't feel I knew Pythagoras properly if I didn't also know about those secret, earlier lives spent far away from mathematics as a cucumber and a sardine. +