Thursday, March 04, 2010

Borrowed Fire: Depression and plot

Another week has gone by, and I have read all of one page in The Brothers Karamazov. But it is a good page. Partly because we're now in the point of view of Ivan, a more tormented character than Alyosha, but not so histrionic as Dmitri or Fyodor. So he's a good guy to hang around with, narratively speaking--emotional, but able to reflect on his emotions in an intelligent and even entertaining way. Not coincidentally, this combination turns out to be helpful for the plot. My friend Kate and I were discussing how to motivate characters, i.e. how to get them (and therefore your plot) moving from where they are to where you want them to go. I think we can learn something from Dostoevsky here about precisely rendered emotion as a driver of plot.

Having delivered himself of his great poem "The Grand Inquisitor," Ivan heads back to his father's house. His internal monologue is dryly funny:

And Ivan, on parting from Alyosha, went home to Fyodor Pavlovitch's house. But, strange to say, he was overcome by insufferable depression, which grew greater at every step he took towards the house. There was nothing strange in his being depressed; what was strange was that Ivan could not have said what was the cause of it.

A recent article in the NYT Magazine on depression tells us that in a study, eighty percent of the writers in the Iowa Writers Workshop met the diagnostic criteria for depression. There are so many ways to enjoy this information that I cannot begin to detail them all here. However, the article reasserts the well-established link between depression and creativity. It's safe to say that depression is the life-blood of literature in general, and certainly of BK. The article, called "Depression's Upside," also suggests there is an evolutionary point to depression, in that it gets us to slow down and really examine our problems, which leads ultimately to solutions. In my experience this is generally true, except for the "solutions" part. One ruminates, one even thinks of plausible solutions; however, one does not act, but simply goes on ruminating until the end of time. Rather like being stuck on a plot point.

But if you're an author, presumably you at least recognize that circular rumination is no good for your book; you want your characters to actually do stuff. So it may be particularly compelling for a depressed author to create a depressed character--who's also an author--who figures out exactly what's wrong, and then does something about it. This character moves your plot forward, which allows you to finish your book, which then lifts your depression, maybe, somewhat, for awhile. So, I dunno: maybe there is an upside to depression, but only if you're able to deploy it through your art.

Anyway, like a good depressive, Ivan ruminates on all the possible reasons he has for feeling like crap.

Yet at that moment, though the apprehension of the new and unknown certainly found place in his heart, what was worrying him was something quite different. “Is it loathing for my father's house?” he wondered. “Quite likely; I am so sick of it; and though it's the last time I shall cross its hateful threshold, still I loathe it.... No, it's not that either. Is it the parting with Alyosha and the conversation I had with him? For so many years I've been silent with the whole world and not deigned to speak, and all of a sudden I reel off a rigmarole like that.” It certainly might have been the youthful vexation of youthful inexperience and vanity—vexation at having failed to express himself, especially with such a being as Alyosha, on whom his heart had certainly been reckoning. No doubt that came in, that vexation, it must have done indeed; but yet that was not it, that was not it either. “I feel sick with depression and yet I can't tell what I want. Better not think, perhaps.”

Ivan tried “not to think,” but that, too, was no use. What made his depression so vexatious and irritating was that it had a kind of casual, external character—he felt that. Some person or thing seemed to be standing out somewhere, just as something will sometimes obtrude itself upon the eye, and though one may be so busy with work or conversation that for a long time one does not notice it, yet it irritates and almost torments one till at last one realizes, and removes the offending object, often quite a trifling and ridiculous one—some article left about in the wrong place, a handkerchief on the floor, a book not replaced on the shelf, and so on.

Ivan is so attuned to the nuances of his depression (again, as the best depressives are) that he realizes that this particular flavor of it is unusual. For once it has an "external character," and he surmises (wrongly, as we will see) that if he can only identify it, he can move it out of his way. Having suffered from depression most of his life, Ivan is highly motivated to deal with this rare, concrete form.

At last, feeling very cross and ill-humored, Ivan arrived home, and suddenly, about fifteen paces from the garden gate, he guessed what was fretting and worrying him.

On a bench in the gateway the valet Smerdyakov was sitting enjoying the coolness of the evening, and at the first glance at him Ivan knew that the valet Smerdyakov was on his mind, and that it was this man that his soul loathed. It all dawned upon him suddenly and became clear.

Unfortunately for Ivan, Smerdyakov is no mere book that he can simply replace on its shelf.

Ivan shook. “Get away, miserable idiot. What have I to do with you?” was on the tip of his tongue, but to his profound astonishment he heard himself say, “Is my father still asleep, or has he waked?”

He asked the question softly and meekly, to his own surprise, and at once, again to his own surprise, sat down on the bench. For an instant he felt almost frightened; he remembered it afterwards. Smerdyakov stood facing him, his hands behind his back, looking at him with assurance and almost severity.

“His honor is still asleep,” he articulated deliberately (“You were the first to speak, not I,” he seemed to say). “I am surprised at you, sir,” he added, after a pause, dropping his eyes affectedly, setting his right foot forward, and playing with the tip of his polished boot.

“Why are you surprised at me?” Ivan asked abruptly and sullenly, doing his utmost to restrain himself, and suddenly realizing, with disgust, that he was feeling intense curiosity and would not, on any account, have gone away without satisfying it.

Ivan's loathing for Smerdyakov is intertwined with (even motivated by) curiosity. The valet is a distorted reflection of Ivan: intellectual, but soulless and conniving. Smerdyakov is also a figure for Ivan's depression--that mixture of curiosity and loathing Ivan feels is like depressive rumination itself. One cannot bear it, but one also cannot turn away. So Ivan cannot simply pass by Smerdyakov or put him, so to speak, back in his place. Smerdyakov is a servant, and as his "better" Ivan can and should put him there. (Radical in some ways, Dostoevsky is no egalitarian. The fact that Smerdyakov blatantly flouts his social standing is a sign of his villainy.) Well aware of Ivan's nature, Smerdyakov easily lures him into a conversation which will turn out to be a major plot point for the book.

Sometimes writers have their characters stumble into circumstances which they don't anticipate or understand. That could be fine, or it could be a sign that your plot, rather than your characters, is driving your story. If so, I don't necessarily think that's a bad thing, unless that process doesn't feel right. Maybe your people seem to be resisting you when you push. Or maybe when you push, they fall right over, because there's not enough to them in the first place. I've had both problems in writing my novel, and I think I "emptied out" one character because I needed him to do stuff without question. I had my plot in mind and he was going to follow it, dammit. But in the process I made him a shell, and as a result, the plot itself became implausible.

Here, Ivan is stumbling into a set-up, but it feels entirely like his own doing. He's not stupid or hapless, but highly intelligent, as well as plausibly and vividly depressed. He's drawn to the villain because he wants to understand himself, so he can stop suffering. It's telling that Smerdyakov is waiting for Ivan here. He doesn't have to go out looking for him; Ivan comes right to him.

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