My brother drew a flip-book cartoon in the margin of Edith Hamilton’s paperback Mythology. The rocket suddenly appeared in the lower right-hand corner about page 40, rose quickly above three trailing lines of thrust, divided into stages, then—near the top of the page—spit a tiny triangular capsule that began to tumble, quickly. A paddle appeared, which was really a parachute it turns out, and the capsule drifted left and right to a gentle landing.
A stick man much bigger than his spacecraft emerged and waved just before being run down by an ambulance. “Ouch” flashed and dissipated over his flat form.
I’m sure my ninth grade English teacher, Mr. Lockwood, wondered why I rifled through that book so incessantly as he talked. He couldn’t have thought I was reading and must have questioned if I was even listening. I heard the stories, sort of, but every book we studied was another version of that rocket journey: some tale of soaring promise that ended in muted misery or death.
If my thinking were more nimble, I might have thought my brother Zeus or one of his cronies, toying with the little astronaut, knowing just when to squash him—when he was closest to success. As far as I could tell, just like my brother’s spaceman, no character ever emerged unscathed from a book; few ambitions went unpunished.
In my ninth grade class, they are just finishing their study of Macbeth, and some of them probably feel the way I did then. I am always answering the question, “Why is everything we read so depressing?”
Sometimes I say the last thing on happy people’s mind is writing—which may be true but isn’t the real answer. The real answer is that we don’t take happy people seriously. They are too damn giddy to be believed. A happy person is liable to say anything and has very little motive to speak the truth. They have too much invested in everything staying right with the world, and they smile much too much.
A depressed person, a person like Macbeth who is screwed well past the sticking point, is a person you can trust. What, is he going to lie once they have him “tied to the stake” where he can only “bearlike…fight the course”? That sort of extremity extracts the truth from characters. Up until then, they speak in hope of future advantage or out of desperation to make sense of chaos.
Earlier in the play, Lady Macbeth tells her husband to “Look like th’ innocent flower, / But be the serpent under ‘t.” She doubts he can do so, and Macbeth can’t do it well, but it is not until the end of the play he decides to give up the attempt and be himself, whatever it is. Before then, I sometimes wonder which is the act, the flower or the serpent. Up until the concluding page, each role seems equally forced. He’s a terrible flower, and the order he tries to impose on the world by making “the very firstlings of my heart…the firstlings of my hand”—his attempt to “crown his thoughts with acts”—isn’t any more natural. Besides being cruel and barbaric, Macbeth’s behavior is experimental, an attempt to do something to combat the agony he’s created for himself by killing Duncan.
I’d never say it to my class, but I think I like the Macbeth at the end of the play better than the one at the beginning. He was a brute at the start and a brute at the end, but in his resignation to try the last prophecy and fight Macduff, he gives up on attempting to control everything and just be. And he knows what he’s doing. He is no longer ignorant.
In his version of Antigone, Jean Anouilh has the Chorus say,
In a tragedy, nothing is in doubt and everyone’s destiny is known. That makes for tranquility…There isn’t any hope. You’re trapped. The whole sky has fallen on you, and all you can do about it is to shout. Don’t mistake me: I said “shout”: I did not say groan, whimper, complain. That you cannot do. But you can shout aloud; you can get all things said that you never thought you’d be able to say—or even knew you had it in you to say. And you don’t say these things because it will do any good to say them: you know better than that. You say them for their own sake.
Anouihl’s vision doesn’t go over so well with freshmen, and it shouldn’t. I love their hope and their happiness. In Mr. Lockwood’s ninth grade English class, however, I hadn’t discovered the sort of wisdom that transcends feeling. When Macbeth stops being a king and becomes a human—when my brother’s spaceman becomes a human—they are ready to speak. Then it is no longer a matter of being happy or depressing, just telling the truths they know.