On Flashbacks and Flashforwards

I don’t know about you, but as tv series addicted,  I have grown annoyed with the massive unnecessary use of flashbacks and flashforwards in storytelling. “ How to get away with Murder” drove me absolutely crazy because of the exaggerate use of this technique, thus making the narration somewhat predictable and BO-RING. Let alone “How I met your mother”.  After yet another flashforward in season six I had to wait till season eight to finally know who married who. Two entire seasons! Even a couple of days ago, while watching “Harlem”, the black, LGBT version of “Sex and the City”, the most unnecessary flash back –  an entire episode which meant to give light to some absolutely superfluous truths – was placed in the midst of the story. I understand that they want us to be glued  to the screen, but if these interruptions to a chronological narration are not skilfully planned, the outcome is just boredom rather than revived interest.

Flashbacks, in fact, help  find  the sense of a particular situation of the present, revealing  details  or  secrets from the past. While flashforwards provide anticipations. Their function  is  to enhance curiosity, as you are allowed to see a small fragment of the future, but as it is only a small part of a whole and being devoid of its context, it  is meaningless, but intriguing enough to make us want for more. Yet, their use should be dosed, pondered, otherwise flashbacks and flashforwards cannot but be downgraded to useless special effects.

The point is  that if you mean to write a story breaking here and there the chronological order of narration, there must be a good  reason to do it and you should figure the impact on the watcher.  On this purpose, I would humbly suggest to these screenwriters  the reading of a masterpiece of literature where there is an excellent use of flashbacks and flashforwards: “Wuthering Heights” by Emily Bronte  .

When the novel begins 95% of the story has already taken place. The first narrator, Mr Lockwood,  is “hired” only on the purpose of arousing our curiosity, but  as he is a total stranger to the events, how can he perform his duty? Just telling what he sees. In the first three chapters of Wuthering Heights, in fact,  Lockwood only describes people and tells us his impressions about his neighbours: the atmosphere of Wuthering Heights, his meeting with his rude, hot landlord named Heathcliff, the bunch of sullen, mysterious people who live there, whom  he can’t detect  how they are connected one to another, the night visit of a ghost and more. It is the detailed report of  his experience there, that triggers a great quantity of questions in the reader, but this narrator won’t be allowed to give the answers. This is the reason why Emily Bronte calls him Mr Lockwood, as to remark  that “unlocking” mysteries is not  his function here, but quite the contrary.

As Lockwood cannot tell us more than his impressions, a second narrator is needed. Somebody  who knows everything and can unravel the thread of the story, and Emily Bronte’s choice falls on Nelly Dean, a witness of the events. Being the governess of Thrushcross Grange , where Lockwood resides, Nelly is able to satisfy all his curiosities, therefore, she tells him the entire story starting from the beginning. From this moment a long flashback  begins, which stretches from the arrival of Heathcliff when he was a little boy to the present events.

I have to say  that the first three chapters of Wuthering Heights are so rich and extremely powerful  in narrative tension that after the initial fireworks the chronological  narration proceeds in a sort of slow “diminuendo” rather than “crescendo” in emotion, despite the many twists in the story.  It is very likely that the necessity to enliven the end of  the novel  could be the reason why Emily Bronte employs the flashback stratagem in her the last three chapters too. Lockwood, in fact, comes back after six month absence and he is told the latest, shocking  news by Nelly, which includes: Heathcliff’s death, his reunion with his beloved Catherine after death – as their ghosts have been seen wandering in the moors – but also happier outcomes. Hence, Emily Bronte not only manages to engage once again her –exhausted – reader, but also balances the structure of the novel providing it with and effective “finale”.  

Read the classics, dear screenwriters, read the classics!

How Do I Love Thee?

What are soul mates? In his Symposium Plato gave a very fascinating answer: a soul originally was a perfect sphere, which was cut in two halves. One half of the soul went to your body, while the other found abode in your soulmate’s body. Since then, we keep searching that missing part for our entire life and if we are lucky enough to find it: BANG! It is like two magnets ‘attraction: strong, irreversible.  For Plato any other relationship different from the bond which arouse from that natural attraction could not work, just because it was not meant to be. In fact, if you reverse the polarity of one magnet,  they repel. Despite your efforts there is no way to keep together those repelling  magnets for long : it is not in the laws of nature. At that point  you may choose whether to live hopefully  a satisfactory but empty life with the wrong partner or to keep searching for that special kind of connection, which you can experience only with your soul mate.

Of course the paths of love are the most unexpected.  Elizabeth Barret Browning’s path was poetry. Dominated by her possessive father, Elizabeth spent most of her time alone. She found consolation writing poems. This how her missing half, poet Robert Browning, found her. He had come across her writings and felt that power, that connection of the souls and wrote asking to meet her. They eventually fell in love and the intensity of their feelings can be felt in any line of the letters they exchanged before eloping to Italy, like in the following excerpt:

“For I have none in the world who will hold me to make me live in it, except only you – I have come back for you alone…at your voice…and because you have use for me! I have come back to live a little for you. I love you – I bless God for you – you are too good for me, always I knew.

In her famous sonnet “How do I love thee?” she means to define her intense feelings and the ways in which the love for her husband can be expressed. But how can love be explained when it stretches over the limits of reason?

“I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.”

In fact, Elizabeth Browning  finds insufficient to measure it by means of a rational language – “depth”, “breadth”,” height”-  and chooses to express the immensity of their soul connection through words  such as  “soul”, “being” and “grace”. A spiritual, but passionate love at the same time which goes beyond the limits of death itself.

Also young Juliet knew well how the connection of two souls worked. Once she meets her  half in Romeo she finds herself in a whirl of emotions which transcends space and time:

“My bounty is as boundless as the sea,
My love as deep; the more I give to thee,
The more I have, for both are infinite.”

(Romeo and Juliet. Act II, Scene II)

The meeting of the two magnets lights up the sparkle of love , which darts Romeo and Juliet in a new overwhelming dimension , where they are no longer bodies , where time and the disputes of their families can’t affect them, where there is no fear; there they become infinite in Plato’s unique perfect wholeness again.

But, what happens  if  the two soul mates cannot enjoy their love despite the force of  their magnetic attraction, for any reason? In Wuthering Heights , Catherine finds her soul mate in Heathcliff. She is well aware of that, in fact, she refers to him saying :“I am Heathcliff” or even more: “He is more myself than I am”. Rules of society forbids a connection to somebody so below to her station, hence, she yields to those rules, marrying the best catch the marriage market offered, Edgar Linton, who is even a good sort of man, but he is not her half. The comparison between the two men is merciless: Catherine compares the intensity of  her feelings for Edgar to images like “moonbeam” and “frost” while her love for Heathcliff takes the form of “lightening” and “fire”. Marrying Edgar, the tension between the two halves Catherine and Heathcliff, who remain close but cannot complete each other, becomes toxic and will inevitably lead to a tragic outcome.

A soul marriage doesn’t provoke any such tragedies. It cannot fear anything according to Donne, even a long separation. It is steadfast love. In his poem “Valediction : Forbidding Mourning”, which was written for his wife Anne before he left on a trip to Europe, Donne tells his wife that theirs is not a real separation , because their love is spiritual and transcendent, they are soul mates, and soul mates are always connected: a connection of minds rather than bodies. So there is no need to cry. Those who believe that love corresponds to physical attraction, those “dull sublunary lovers” cannot admit absence, because they love the body. Hence, if the body has to leave they cannot any longer have love, so let them cry.

Dull sublunary lovers’ love
   (Whose soul is sense) cannot admit
Absence, because it doth remove
   Those things which elemented it.

But we, by a love so much refined
   That our selves know not what it is,
Inter-assured of the mind,
   Care less, eyes, lips, and hands to miss.

But his leaving cannot alter their love, because as she loves his mind, his mind cannot go away. It is ever present. Then he introduces one of the most convincing metaphor to describe how beautifully connected they are:  a compass. One leg of the compass  must be grounded to allow the other one to spread and go out to make a circle. So, the poet  says to his wife that to make a perfect circle he has to leave  and that the only way he can make that trip and come back is that she stays where she is. Because she grounds him.

And though it in the center sit,
   Yet when the other far doth roam,
It leans, and hearkens after it,
   And grows erect, as that comes home
.

Such wilt thou be to me, who must,
   Like the other foot, obliquely run;
Thy firmness makes my circle just,
   And makes me end where I begun.

“He is more myself than I am”

He is more myself than I am“, what a romantic expression, such a pity Heathcliff didn’t hear a single word of the final part of the conversation his Catherine was having with Neally Dean:

«So he shall never know how I love him: and that, not because he’s handsome, but because he’s more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made out of, his and mine are the same». (Wuthering Heights)

No, in fact, he will never know it, as having being deeply wounded by Catherine’s previous statement: “I will degrade myself by marrying Heathcliff”, that hot-headed man rushes away without thinking twice and disappears in the night. Had he been a little less hasty, had he let his reason control his overflowing emotions, he would have given his love a chance and spared us a lot of drama; but he did not. However, would those words have had the power to cool down his spirits? Actually, they require a little pondering to be fully understood, and as we know that pondering is not exactly in Heathcliff’s nature, we will analyse them for him.

So, what does Catherine mean, when she says that Heathcliff is more herself that she is. These are striking words about the intensity of her love for him, that, somehow, surpass the universally acknowledged metaphor of those ” halves” Plato refers in his Symposium:

“According to Greek mythology, humans were originally created with four arms, four legs and a head with two faces. Fearing their power, Zeus split them into two separate parts, condemning them to spend their lives in search of their other halves…….and when one of them meets the other half, the actual half of himself, whether he be a lover of youth or a lover of another sort, the pair are lost in an amazement of love and friendship and intimacy and one will not be out of the other’s sight, as I may say, even for a moment…Love is born into every human being; it calls back the halves of our original nature together; it tries to make one out of two and heal the wound of human nature.” (The Symposium)

Love, hence, is the name for our pursuit of wholeness, for our desire to be complete. However, for Catherine, Heathcliff is not simply her natural other half, he is more:

“Nelly, I am Heathcliff! He’s always, always in my mind: not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself, but as my own being. So don’t talk of our separation again: it is impracticable;…” (Wuthering Heights)

So Heathcliff is not part of her, it is her, hence, she feels there cannot be a separation between the two. He is always there, in her mind and in her soul as a haunting presence, therefore, Plato’s interpretation of the nature of love cannot do for this case.

Maybe the archetypes of animus, anima and persona could help us understand. For Jung the persona is the outer or social self that faces the world. The animus is the archetype that completes women, which contains the male qualities which the female persona lacks, while the anima represents the female traits that a man’s persona lacks. The individual is rarely aware of his anima/her animus, which Jung defines “demon-familiar” , therefore, obscure, hidden, threatening.

The point is that the animus of a woman and the anima of a man take the form of a “soul-image” in the personal unconscious and when this soul-image is transferred to a real person, the latter naturally becomes the object of intense feelings, which may be passionate love or passionate hate. Wait a minute, so, what we call love and we have narrated, analized, dissected using millions of words for years and years in any part of the world is only a question of the projected soul-image of our animus/anima? I’m disappointed. Hence, Heathcliff cannot be but Catherine’s animus, as she is his anima. They are the projections of their soul-images and this explains their profound sense of connection or identity with each other. They are far more than two matching halves.

If it is so, this would also explains why there are recurrent patterns in our relationships and why we invariably keep on being attracted by the same sort of man or woman: it’s because we fall in love with the projection of our anima/animus. Consequently, if we are so unlucky to feel the charm of the womanizer type, no matter how disappointed we could be, we’ll keep on being seduced by that sort man. How can we avoid Catherine’s fate, therefore? Letting our survival instinct help us, or better, let’s call it experience. So next time an Edgar Linton’s type shows up, we’ll be clever enough to put to bed “our demon lover”, lock the door, and give the man a real chance.

To Flavia,”one of those girls who venture living of mad pulses, fill their failings with carbs and fall in love with idiots.”

 

The Darkness behind the Locked Door

One of the most fascinating take on Wuthering Heights, in my opinion, is the Jungian interpretation,  which sees  Heathcliff as Catherine‘s dark side, her shadow. In the personal unconscious, the shadow consists of those desires, feelings, which are unacceptable, for both emotional or moral reasons : it is the dark side of human nature. Heathcliff represents her repressed sexuality, her unconfessed desire which, however, is arduous to control, as the shadow is impulsive, powerful, wild, and hence can become obsessive or possessive. When Catherine marries Edgar, she tries to reject that secret part of her,  that’s why Heathcliff mysteriously disappears. But Heathcliff, as the shadow, refuses to be suppressed permanently, in fact, he surfaces after two years to claim his place next to Catherine, who, despite her desperate efforts to integrate him, is eventually defeated and dies.

This paradigm can also be applied to Jane Eyre as well. In this novel the role of the shadow belongs to Bertha Mason, Mr Rochester‘s first wife. Both Bertha Mason‘s and Heathcliff‘s descriptions conform to the archetype of the shadow. Heathcliff is always portrayed as dark as a gypsy , while Bertha is a Creole, the daughter of a white European settler in the West Indies with “dark hair” and “discoloured black face“. At those time the Creoles were more associated with the native Caribbean populations than the white, civilized Europeans. Creole women were often described as obstinate, dissolute and untrustworthy, which is exactly what Rochester will tell about Bertha.

Rochester had been entrapped  in this marriage. He had been beguiled by her uncommon beauty, wealth and that Creole sensuality, but only when it is too late, he open his eyes to face the real truth: his wife is mad. Once back to England and to the strict conventions of the Victorian society he cannot but hide and lock Bertha in a remote chamber of Thornfield, thus caging his own sexuality.  Thornfield will represent for him from that moment on, what the very name foreshadows, a field, as his soul, tormented by the thorns or guilt, sexual frustration and disappointment. That’s why he is often away. Till Jane Eyre crosses his way.

The growing attachment he feels forJane will make him spend more time at Thornfield, thus it will be impossible for him to ignore his surfacing powerful shadow. As I mentioned before, the shadow cannot be repressed forever, in fact, Bertha walks the night undisturbed, her screams and hideous laughter can be heard by everybody and she even attempts at punishing Mr Rochester setting his room on fire for having been thus neglected and confined, but above all for having brought in the household the “other” woman, Jane Eyre.

 Bertha is, of course, Jane’s polar opposite but she is also her truest and darkest double. Her confinement in the attic mirrors Jane’s imprisonment in the Red Room at Gateshead, a punishment for her anger and lack of conformity. This doubling  makes Bertha’s role within the novel much more complex, and  that means that any analysis of her character must take account of her relationship with Jane. For example one night, when Jane sees Bertha  at the foot of her bed, dressed in white with a bridal veil, while she is looking in the mirror, Jane continuously repeats that she has never seen such a face. Only a few pages later, the morning of her marriage, Jane looks at herself in the mirror and says:” I saw a robed and veiled figure, so unlike my usual self that it seemed almost the image of a stranger. It is impossible not to notice that the two scenes are almost identical.

Mr Rochester‘s attempt to marry Jane is but his extreme effort to reject that contemptible part of himself and be free to live his life. But in vain. The disclosure of the truth will have as consequence the disappearance of the “good ” self, Jane, who will come back only when Bertha Mason dies, committing suicide. It is interesting to notice that Mr Rochester will be permanently injured in the endeavour of saving Bertha from the fire she had herself set. After all, as his shadow, she was part of him, therefore, letting Bertha die was just like dying himself.

 

 

 

 

 

The “I will save you” syndrome

nurse_02

In the mid-nineteenth century, the only way a woman could achieve a dignified and safe place in society was still through marriage. Girls were carefully brought up to that purpose and if they wanted to marry well, they needed to have many cards in their sleeves in order to reach the goal: beauty, social status, connections, fortune and many “accomplishments” as Caroline Bingley elucidated to Elizabeth Bennet :

quotation-marksA(n accomplished) woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages, to deserve the word; and besides all this, she must possess a certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions, or the word will be but half deserved “.

(Pride and Prejudice  Chapter VIII)

Mr Darcy  will also add to the list :

quotation-marks All this she must possess, and to all this she must yet add something more substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading.”

(Pride and Prejudice  Chapter VIII)

No wonder Charlotte Bronte‘s best known character, Jane Eyre, has often been considered as a feminist forerunner, because she defies all those cultural standards. Plain, reserved, she has neither connections, nor fortune to offer but her determination and dignity. She has been brought up to rely on herself only and not on a male figure. In fact, she refuses matrimony twice (Mr Rochester’s first attempt and John Reeves) or she feels mortified when Mr Rochester wants to lavish her with expensive gifts in occasion of the imminent wedding:

quotation-marks the more he bought me, the more my cheek burned with a sense of annoyance and degradation.”

(Jane Eyre  Chapter XXIV)

But what kind of man in Mr Rochester? If Jane cannot be considered a Cinderella type, certainly Edward Rochester is no Prince Charming . He is rude, arrogant, twice her age, sometimes violent and not even particularly handsome as Jane will notice the first time they meet:

quotation-marksmiddle height and considerable breadth of chest. He had a dark face, with stern features and a heavy brow; his eyes and gathered eyebrows looked ireful and thwarted just now; he was past youth, but had not reached middle-age; perhaps he might be thirty-five. I felt no fear of him, and but little shyness. Had he been a handsome, heroic-looking young , I should not have dared to stand thus questioning him against his will, and offering my services unasked..”
 
(Jane Eyre Chapter XII)
 
Once he is back at Thornfield, he starts toying with Jane’s feeling, he tests and teases her encouraging our heroine to believe he is going to marry a woman of his rank more deserving than her: beautiful Blanche Ingram. He is a liar: he deliberately omits his married status. He is selfish: because he considers bigamy the only reasonable option to ensure HIS happiness. He is definitely unreliable but at the same time he is warm, seductive, passionate,  well….. the kind of man women like, even if we profess the opposite. Women never fall head over heels for the John Reeves of the Edgar lintons that people the real world. We like the fire and inevitably we get burnt. But this suicidal attraction for dangerous men is generated by an impulse or better by a syndrome – the “I will save you syndrome” – which affects each of us with no exception, Charlotte Bronte included. What does it mean? We deliberately fall in the trap of this kind of men, because we are convinced we are good enough to change them and turn them into “better” persons, weakening their strongest and most dangerous drives. That is: we are seduced by the Heathcliff type only to turn him into a more controllable Edgar Linton type, a living oxymoron. We already know, it is impossible, in fact, Catherine Earnshaw, the heroine of Wuthering Heights,  who had already tried to make this experiment, dies tragically before both of them. Charlotte Bronte’s malice is, therefore, clear: she had created a super macho man, one of the strongest male characters of the literature of the age, only to humiliate and destroy him both physically and psychically, without even hiding a certain sadism. So, while he tragically sinks among the ruins of Thornfield, Charlotte  Bronte endows her heroine with a fortune, a family and connections so when she finally makes her homecoming as an independent woman, Mr Rochester and Jane are even. And now that he has become weak and needy because of his blindness (even a little bit too pathetic), she will save him, marrying him and nursing him for the rest of her life. Every woman’s desire…….bah! Only at the end of the novel Charlotte Bronte seems to have mercy upon Mr Rochester (or maybe Jane), making him partially regain his sight:
 quotation-marksHe had the advice of an eminent oculist; and he eventually recovered the sight of that one eye.  He cannot now see very distinctly: he cannot read or write much; but he can find his way without being led by the hand: the sky is no longer a blank to him—the earth no longer a void.  When his first-born was put into his arms, he could see that the boy had inherited his own eyes, as they once were—large, brilliant, and black.  On that occasion, he again, with a full heart, acknowledged that God had tempered judgment with mercy.
(Jane Eyre   Chapter  XXXVIII)
Can this be considered a feminist victory? I really don’t think so.