Featured in Colorado Review
Undoings: An Essay in Three Parts (Excerpt)Featured, Nonfiction
Published Spring 2012
Let’s face it. We’re undone by each other.
And if we’re not, we’re missing something.
—Judith Butler, Undoing Gender
When I was in my twenties, I had a friend who was overweight. He wasn’t, as we say now, morbidly obese, and he didn’t look like those people wearing Bermuda shorts and flip-flops you sometimes see waddling toward you, sideways, down the center aisle of the airplane before collapsing into the seat next to you. To employ a very old word that no one uses much anymore, my friend could have been described as plump. He had been a lonely, studious kid from a small town, and he was the first graduate of his high school ever to go on to the University of Michigan and earn a degree. He had majored in classics, and in his office he had a small picture of a statue, that of Aeneas carrying his father, Anchises, on his back, out of the burning city of Troy.
My friend loved to talk about the Aeneid and the Odyssey; he loved to talk about music and about politics—he was an old-time progressive who was alarmed by the rise of Ronald Reagan, whose last name he always pronounced “Ray Gun,” as if the former actor were a weapon sent from outer space to help out the rich. My friend ran for a seat on the school board in our city and won; he fought to improve classroom conditions and to lower the teacher-to-student ratio. When my wife and I were married, he and his wife gave us a set of sturdy china plates and salad bowls as wedding presents. We used those plates every day.
In those days he and I were both teaching under conditions that could be described as difficult. We labored under a load of nine courses per year, many of them composition classes, and those of us who needed more money sometimes taught extra courses in the university’s adult education night school. This was in Detroit. We both typically had some very smart and some very poor students sitting in the same classrooms. In one class, I had a student who turned in an essay that she had written using a Magic Marker. It had not been an ironic gesture on her part. When I asked her about it, she said, “You didn’t tell us that we had to use pens.”
One spring afternoon, my friend and I were about to enter a faculty meeting in an auditorium. He told me he was going to the men’s room first, and, out in the hallway, in front of several of our colleagues, I called out to him, “Okay, I’ll save you two seats.” He looked at me, and I have never forgotten that look. To this day I don’t know why I said such a thing to him. I suppose I thought I was being funny at his expense, but at that moment I was really no better than a grade-school child mocking a fat boy in his class. This incident happened about thirty-five years ago, but every time I think about it, I still wince. When I wince, I think: That’s very odd, the staying power of shame. That was not the worst thing I’ve ever done in my life, not by a long shot, but it reminds me that the kind and generous citizen I imagine myself to be in my vainer moments is everywhere surrounded in my character by other impulses that have to be carefully monitored.
My friend, who actually was kind and generous, probably forgave me, but our friendship cooled anyway. From that day on, he found excuses not to ride to work with me in a carpool we shared. He went off to his life, and I went off to mine. What I said to him was in its small way unforgivable, given the circumstances of our friendship. You might say that it wasn’t a big deal, but I think it was, and it was the undoing of our friendship.
I want to stop for a minute at that word, undoing. The word is one of those curious English usages that comprises a negative with a lost positive. You can say, “That relationship proved to be my undoing,” but you can’t say, “That relationship proved to be my doing.” The word’s negation has more power than its root meaning. The noun undoing in this context usually means unraveling or dissolution or ruination. After something has been made, or done, some other climactic action undoes it.
I have in mind three exemplary cases that constitute a kind of literary coincidence, beginning with the next-to-last line uttered by Lady Macbeth in act 5, scene 1 of the Scottish play. After saying that Banquo is dead and cannot come out of his grave, Lady Macbeth observes that “there’s knocking at the gate,” and then she says, “What’s done cannot be undone.” Then she leaves the stage, as it happens, for good.
What’s done cannot be undone. It’s a commonplace phrase, almost a catchphrase, and was possibly already a cliché in Shakespeare’s time. We hardly think about that phrase anymore when we say it, if indeed we ever do say it (a point I will come back to). For writers who construct stories, however, that phrase points to a central feature of our enterprise. The stubborn and unfixable nature of an action that’s been done but cannot be undone constitutes the core of how certain riveting plots work. What I’m describing here in plot construction is sometimes called “a one-way gate.” A one-way gate consists of an irrevocable action that a character simply cannot go back on; or it may be a wound that cannot be healed or mended. When characters perform one-way-gate actions, they cannot get back to the place where they started from because the actions have changed the fundamental situation. Furthermore, a one-way gate is often a definitive action: having performed it, you are the person who did that thing. You are now defined by that action. One feature of one-way-gate actions is that they are often unforgivable, and they are always undoable. The extreme case of something like this is to say that a person who commits a murder is, forever after that, a murderer, and obviously a murder cannot ever be undone.
Which takes us back to Macbeth, the play. First presented around 1606, it is one of Shakespeare’s darkest and creepiest plays. In it, night has replaced day; weyard sisters cast spells and utter bizarre prophecies; ghosts sit down at the dinner table but refuse to engage in polite conversation; entire forests begin to move laterally; the air has a bad, foul smell; and darkness seems to be eating the sun. Tame horses go wild and, in act 2, start eating each other. The whole uncanny enterprise has many of the features of what would later be called “the Gothic,” except for doubles, doppelgängers, and it could be argued that Macbeth, the play, has those, too—Macduff as a character stands as a kind of positive for which Macbeth is the negative. Sickness permeates the play. The text contains many references to ineradicable illness, and at one point Lady Macbeth tells her husband that his ambition does not yet have “the illness [that] should attend it”—that is, so far, in act 1, he lacks the wickedness that will make his ambitions succeed.
The word undone keeps coming up in the play, often next to the references to illness, as if conscience and regret and shame have to be erased if Macbeth’s plot against Duncan is to thrive. What the play’s events force Macbeth and Lady Macbeth to recognize, however, is that terrible actions such as murder entail consequences both subjective and objective that then require further action; i.e., once you have murdered somebody, you may have to murder someone else to cover up your first murder, and then you may have to murder more people, including children, to cover your other atrocities as well. An error becomes retroactive: everything that follows one particular error becomes another error. In this way, you lose control of events, and you lose your ethical self in the bargain. The events become larger and more powerful than you are. By a trick of fate, the more actions you take, the more helpless you become. The plot, in other words, understood both as a conspiracy and as a feature of story construction, has overtaken the characters, and when that happens, the velocity of events begins to speed up and to spiral out of control.
Colloquially, we call this “a snowball effect,” but to my knowledge we have no good phrase for it in our common critical vocabulary to denote those moments in literature, or in life, when an initial action, very often a crime, creates a series of accelerating irrevocable consequences. We often refer to these consequences as snowball plotting, and the stories in which they occur as having snowball plots. Characters caught up in such plots often vacillate between defiance and futility. In act 3, scene 4, Macbeth says, “I am bent to know / By the worst means, the worst”; that is, he must go on becoming worse and worse because he cannot go back and become the person he once was—the good and honorable man we saw at the beginning of act 1. Why? Because “I am in blood / Stepp’d in so far that, should I wade no more, / Returning were as tedious as go o’er.” In other words, if you’re up to your elbows in blood, you might as well move forward; having made yourself a monster, you cannot unmake yourself. This statement reflects an unhappy judgment on human character. Once you have committed a single brutality, you have gone through a one-way-gate and, given the corruption of character, you now might as well commit multiple brutalities. You must double-down on your own awfulness. Where is redemption? God may grant it to you, but human beings will not.
A parenthesis: during World War II, in Saratov, the Polish poet Aleksander Wat encountered the historian I. M. Steklov, an old Bolshevik, and asked him why the heroes of the Revolution had confessed to made-up crimes during the Moscow show trials. As reported in Wat’s My Century, Steklov replied, “We were all up to our elbows in shit and blood. Each one of us . . . knew that we could be presented with such a bill of immorality and degradation and villainy . . . that nothing really mattered to us anymore. To confess or not to confess, that was no issue.” This sounds like Macbeth, on a modern historical scale.
The great Swedish poet and novelist Lars Gustafsson has put this problem of the snowball effect very well in “The Fugitives Discover That They Know Nothing.” “We act,” he says, “in order to justify the acts which we have already committed. We take steps whose only function is to give meaning to the steps we have already taken. Obstinately, we stay on at the bad hotel in order to give meaning to the fact that we were once stupid enough to check in there.”
What interests me most, however, is why snowball plots such as the one found in Macbeth are so often associated with stories about ungoverned ambition, and, furthermore, why stories about ambition keep calling up the hellish Gothic imagery we find in Shakespeare’s play. As George Orwell and others have observed, some of Shakespeare’s plays written after 1600 “revolve round a central subject which in some cases can be reduced to a single word.” For example, King Lear is about renunciation, Othello is about jealousy, Timon of Athens is about money, and Macbeth is about ambition. Why does unbridled ambition summon these particular forces of darkness? (In all fairness, these forces are present in lesser degrees in the other major tragedies.) A simple and very tentative answer might be that ambition of a particular kind, defined as the wish to increase power and social status, requires that the social climber create schemes, that is, create plots; any scheme, if it is to work, must be concealed, must go underground. There is something undercover in the way that ambition works, in league with concealment. “Bear welcome in your eye,” Lady Macbeth says, “but be the serpent under’t.” Secondly, ambition creates a chain of cause and effect. The schemer says, “I will lie to everyone, and therefore succeed. If I do not succeed, if people don’t believe me, I will tell more lies until I do succeed. I will then tell lies to cover up my previous lies. If violence is necessary, I will use it.” The schemer, the social climber, is therefore in league with the writer; both are creating plots. Lying, like art, begins when a fabrication replaces action.
But what Shakespeare and other writers as different from each other as Dostoyevsky and Patricia Highsmith have also noticed about ungoverned ambition is that the private self—that is, the person we are to ourselves—is gradually overwhelmed by the social climbing and will-to-power of the public self. We lose the sense of who we are to ourselves when we incessantly put forth a public self based on ambitious lies. The public persona, however, is artificially constructed under these circumstances, as Shakespeare knew and demonstrates in Macbeth. Filled with expedient untruths, the compartments of the self begin to leak. All these compromises with conscience result in a form of make-believe identity that has the capacity to rot our character from the inside out, so that neither the public nor the private realms have any solidity. We see this in Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, who is a radically unstable character; in Highsmith’s Tom Ripley; in Dostoyevsky’s Golyadkin (in The Double); and in both Hamlet and Macbeth. No sooner has Macbeth gained the throne than the mad scenes begin in act 2, scene 2. Macbeth is not really king, and he’s not really an ordinary man, either; he’s a composite pasteboard human divided down the middle, as many criminals are. Now he’s hearing voices that say, “Sleep no more; / Macbeth does murder sleep.” Later, in act 5, scene 3, he admits that his ambition has forced him to forsake “honour, love, obedience, troops of friends.” As he himself recognizes, he has become simultaneously a king and an outcast, a very strange combination, though not unknown in our time, as the example of Richard Nixon proves.
What’s done cannot be undone. Go through that gate, and you can’t get back.
In Shakespeare, ambition tends to be far more powerful, and more durable, and more dangerous, than lust or its cousin, heartsick longing. Generally speaking, or at least until about 1603, Shakespeare’s plays present lust as a semi-comic physical craving that has a more-or-less easy remedy. You get laid; you feel better. There is no easy remedy for ambition. Like greed, it’s insatiable. It just goes on and on. As the Buddhists say, as soon as you have managed to get the thing you wanted, you are dissatisfied, because the possession of a wished-for thing cannot satisfy the ego’s unappeasable craving for more. Those who are lovesick in Shakespeare’s early comedies are full of exaggeration, poetry, posturing, and stupidity, whereas those who are ambitious are, like writers, subtle and full of plots, and they’re usually not stopped until they’re dead. Lust makes you stupid, but ambition makes you really crafty and sly. I am tempted to say that in our own time, under our current form of capitalism, we regard ambition as perfectly wonderful, and lust as dangerous and sinister and creepy. This is the opposite of Shakespeare’s thinking.
So: how is Macbeth’s ambition ended? Macduff kills him.
To read the entire essay, please purchase the Spring 2012 issue of Colorado Review.
Charles Baxter is the author of twelve books of fiction and nonfiction. His new and selected stories, Gryphon, appeared in 2011. He teaches at the University of Minnesota.