By Rhea Harmsen
The romantic protagonist of the 21st century is struggling with isolation, social anxiety and moral angst. He or she swings between manic optimism and hope on the one hand, and the chronic, debilitating questioning of meaning and purpose, on the other.
Oddly, he or is also characterized by unawareness of self. Amid the mundane consumerism and multitude of virtual choices accelerating at a vertiginous pace, he is overwhelmed. These choices are mostly cybernetic, from the expansion of the communication industry and the social media revolution. That is to say, in the confluence of the internet and the innovations it has brought, the child of man is trapped, yet also empowered and released.
For example, a constant stream of blogs and media reports flood the young protagonist with the certainty of his failure to be fully employed, to be able to pay his massive student debt, to build financial equity, or to find an undamaged love partner. Meanwhile, it also informs him of marvels, magic, ingenuity, and innovation he is heir to, longs to contribute to, and to which he has a sense of entitlement. On the one hand is promise, almost unlimited promise – on the other is disillusionment, the crushing “failute to launch.”
Can modern man (and woman) be more self-loathing? More severe in his expectations and perfectionism?
From where, then, will come the answer to the protagonist’s ever-evolving dilemma? And why does it matter, in a world spinning out of control? The logical outcome of a society gone so mad would seem to be simply this: annihilation, a complete breakup of moral moorings, amid the meltdown of ethical boundaries. Everything pushes him toward an apocalyptic end of times. It’s got to end soon. In this moral free-fall, we must hit bottom.
What binds the human being to a moral core, an ethical center in such a society? Furthermore, where are the origins of will? What motivates the self, in a milieu where the self has become virtually invisible and supremely unimportant? (Despite the magnification of the exterior self through social media).
“To be, or not to be,” is still the question. But if we chose “to be,” then for what purpose do we chose it? The, “I am,” which results from the act of thinking, provides no answer but a void.
Oddly, it is a void, but not of choices. It is actually filled with choices, but so many that the human being is overwhelmed to the point of paralysis.
The questioning of self, the doubts as to the worth of the self, the construct of an ideal self, the inability to realize that ideal, the self-dwelling, all these contribute to the fundamental malaise of the modern protagonist, the tension within, the raison d’être of the romantic character. He is not only faced with a fork in the road, one path of which he must chose, to arrive at a successful conclusion of his story. No, he is faced with a meteoric explosion of alternate realities, and the cognizance that success, ultimate, perfect, satisfying success is a chimera.
What, then, is happiness? What is freedom?
In modern culture happiness could be defined as a reasonable amount of material comfort and a reasonable amount of emotional stability. Freedom could be seen as a lack of physical or intellectual oppression. Survival (of the fittest) has been realized.
If one already enjoys these blessings, then for what more does one live? What is there to strive for beyond this? Supposing one has avoided the pitfall of thinking it is the amassing of “more,” what provides the strength with which to aspire further? Supposing he has come to realize the answer lies in spreading these blessings to all (Ubuntu). Then, can he find it within himself to pursue this path? It is a long moral trek from isolationism to a philosophy of “one for all and all for one,” of “it takes a village,” of “I am because we are.” If the protagonist doesn’t have “it” (meaning “mojo”, maxi, moral courage) within himself, where does he get it from? If success is not possible, for what must he strive? If society as a whole, for example, cannot be saved, them why should he try to fix any part of it? If self isolation is not the answer to being overwhelmed and disenchanted, then what is?
If, by some miracle, he finds the strength to engage with the world, such as it is, this is the beginning of the journey of the romantic protagonist of the 21st century. But on the plot arc, this is the point where he gets to the happy ending. This is what is meant by “and they lived happily ever after.”
Why you ask? Why is this the happy ending when he has only begun to fight? Because we are not in the time of Bronte’s Jane Eyre. The iron willed, stoic heroine capable of braving hunger, the lash, carnal temptation and religious zealotry at the age of twenty? Forget it. We have fallen, we have regressed to a state not only of societal depravity but of absolute confusion of what is right.
So, that is now the question. Where survival is already a given, where does he find his survival instinct? And this is the supreme quest, to make him care. At the end of the story the reader must say, “Look at all the shit he’s already had to go through to get here.” But the writer must know, this, is just to give him a chance to compete. Beyond this is searching, finding, merging with, becoming astounded by, transcending, losing oneself in, and becoming one with, the journey. The levels of consciousness required for this further journey of the soul are impossible to number. We are in the stages of infancy now, so, forget those. Let’s focus on what it takes to get to stage one. How to get the romantic protagonist on the path, so that he can begin his search.
Some novelists no longer feel it is their obligation to get the protagonist over the lumps and to that happy ending. I don’t agree with this. We at least owe the readers to get the character to this point. If this were easy, it wouldn’t take three hundred and fifty pages to achieve.
The Writer has said it much more succinctly: “Release yourselves…from the thorns and brambles of wretchedness and misery, and wing your flight to the rose-garden of unfading splendor.”[i]
All our work, as writers, is to shepherd the protagonist through the process of releasing him or herself from “the thorns and brambles of wretchedness and misery” where he currently lives, to the point of becoming a true seeker.
[i] Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh, CLI(no. 151) p.322-323.