Thursday, September 29, 2016

Following a Script?

In an article in our Tuesday morning newspaper about local citizens' reactions to the first presidential debate, one person charges the opposition candidate with a habit of giving "a scripted answer." I'm not going to tackle the pros and cons of the candidates; rather, I'm struck by the implications of that person's apparently unquestioning belief that "scripted" equals "bad." I suspect many people might agree with that assumption, because our contemporary culture values spontaneity. The general attitude seems to be that a spontaneous reaction is more "authentic," more "honest," than a pre-prepared one. The more I think about it, the odder it seems to me that an off-the-cuff emotional answer would be valued higher than a product of careful thought and planning.

In my opinion, spontaneity is overrated. How many people actually enjoy surprise birthday parties? If you had a meal ready to put on the table, would you really be thrilled to be whisked out to an expensive restaurant on the spur of the moment? Erma Bombeck wrote a column about her husband's impulsive suggestion that they instantly drop everything and go on a spontaneous family trip. An hour of frantic arrangements for dog-sitting, car pools, etc., later.... In general, I think most pleasures are enhanced by preliminary expectation. (If my experience of fifty years of marriage is typical, "spontaneous" sex can't hold a candle to anticipation of a planned romantic evening.)

The difference between "scripted" and "unscripted" reactions speaks to the purpose of literature as well as the patterns of real life. In the major rites of passage in our lives, a script gives us a framework for expressing the emotions of the occasion in a way most of us would find hard to articulate on our own. A funeral service bestows a shape on the messy process of grieving; a wedding gives shape and weight to the couple's commitment. (How many "write one's own vows" ceremonies scale the poetic heights of the traditional marriage service? And even when a couple writes their own ceremony, they're still following a script thought out beforehand.) As for literature, good fiction portrays the joys and sufferings of individual characters in a way that all readers can immerse themselves in and identify with. In A PREFACE TO PARADISE LOST, C. S. Lewis devotes a chapter to defending poetry that embodies what some of his contemporaries disparaged as "stock responses." Lewis values "a deliberately organized attitude" over what one of his fellow-critics praised as "the free play of experience." To Lewis, this imposition of shape on "the free play of experience" is precisely what we want from ritual and literature.

As he puts it, "In my opinion such deliberate organization is one of the first necessities of human life, and one of the main functions of art is to assist it. All that we describe as constancy in love or friendship, as loyalty in political life, or, in general, as perseverance—all solid virtue and stable pleasure—depends on organizing chosen attitudes and maintaining them against the eternal flux (or 'direct free play') of mere immediate experience."

Lewis recognizes that the differences between his view of spontaneity versus "deliberate organization" run so deep that he's not likely to convert his opponents to his opinion. People who "think that to organize elementary passions into sentiments is simply to tell lies about them" aren't likely to change their minds when the contemporary zeitgeist mainly endorses their belief. Imagine what Lewis would think if he paid a quick visit to today's world and found how far the attitude he criticized has spread since he wrote A PREFACE TO PARADISE LOST in 1942.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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