Peripeteia

Good word, isn't it? It means "a sudden reversal of fortune or change in circumstances, esp. in reference to fictional narrative" (New Oxford American Dictionary). It's what I've been hoping for with my fencing and, truth to tell, with my writing. My husband diagnosed the problem for me after reading yesterday's post. "It's the difference," he said, "between drama and real life. What you're hoping for is drama, but what you get is real life." Sudden reversals of fortune--say, going from being a D-rated to an A-rated fencer in one season--are the stuff of drama; it depends on them. In real life, such changes can happen, often do, but they rarely take place as suddenly as we'd like. Instead, we labor for years and years for something to change and then, "overnight" it does: one's book is published, one wins that critical bout. The problem is, by the time we have spent all those years working at something--from the very first words that we wrote to the final proof-reading of the indices--the last thing that the transformation feels is "sudden". Like the lobster in the pot, we're cooked, but we never even realized it.*

Cue the montage: dramatically, the only way to represent this kind of process is through a series of short images, cut together to suggest the passage of time but in fact taking only a few minutes, typically with rousing soundtrack in the background. And don't we all live for the montage? Rocky, Hercules, Po the Panda, Mulan: they all get a montage and bam! they're fighting like someone who has been training for a decade or more. And yet, they haven't aged a minute. (Okay, so three of those are cartoon characters who couldn't age if they wanted to, but they're the montages I have in my head at the moment. Think of others; there's one pretty much every movie by now.) Which is the lie? That such changes can happen? Certainly, occasionally, they do. Vide Susan Boyle. (Oh, look, her video has over 40 million hits as of today.) But not for most of us, realistically not even for the Susan Boyles of the world (she is 47, after all). "Instant" success is a dramatic fiction as much as peripeteia. Or, perhaps more accurately, a mass media fiction: it's when lots of people suddenly become aware of something that you've been working on for years.

But, oh how seductive those montages are! Don't you wish you could have one? Or even better, vanish into Bill and Ted's time-traveling phone booth and come back in an instant with a year's practice under your belt? The problem is, it wouldn't be just a year; more like ten (remember those 10,000 hours?). And with real life, you actually get older. This, to me, is the biggest lie that montages have perpetrated for us: they are filmed in a few days (not sure how long it actually takes the actors; clearly the set people are busy changing all those scenes) so the actors can't possibly show any real change, not even if the director remembers to throw in a few changes of season. The impression they give is of never more than a few weeks and then, big difference! Suddenly, the panda can do kung fu; Hercules can run the obstacle course; Mulan doesn't drop the bucket off her head any more; and Rocky can stand up for fifteen rounds in the ring. All in the space of a single song.

For my birthday this year, I asked for an iPod shuffle so that I could listen to music that makes me happy while I'm warming up to fence. What if I could listen to "Pizza on the Ground" with clips of myself training--doing footwork, taking a lesson, bouting against all the kids--and then magically get on the strip at the tournament and win? Wouldn't that be great? Wouldn't that be what, dramatically-speaking, is supposed to happen? Of course, every fictional narrative we've ever watched or read depends on such a reversal of fortune, otherwise it isn't dramatic enough to count as a plot. But is there such a thing as peripeteia in real life, other than of the misfortunate kind? I'm not so sure. Yes, good things do sometimes seem to come out of the blue, but not in fact if you've been working for them for years. And so, because we cannot see the clips that make up our own montages, we cannot experience them as actual change.

I know that I am a much better fencer than I was even two years ago when I earned my D. But I can't remember what I actually used to fence like then; I just know that I don't fence as well as I'd like to now. Nor, truth to tell, would I believe in my own montage if I were able to watch it. I'd just say, "Of course I'm better now; look at how hard I've been practicing." Ditto with my first book. I take it for granted even when I remember how hard it was for me to write. Paradoxically, when you've lived the montage, the change doesn't seem as real. Which is presumably why we love drama so much: at least then we get to experience the change, if only vicariously.

*Maybe. Lobsters don't like being boiled any more than people and they do try to escape the pot. But notice how even people who cook lobster regularly still use the metaphor for describing a gradual change. At least, I'm guessing they do; I don't live in a lobster-cooking household.

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