Saturday, October 4, 2008

We Are What We Repeatedly Do

It rained for the first time in six months last night.

This is normal for the Bay Area. All summer long the fog rolls in nightly, but not a drop will fall. By October everything is dusty. There's a collective crick in everyone's throat. Worries about drought fill the airwaves. You (and everyone around you) physically crave rain falling from the sky. By law, meteorologists must predict rain four times before it actually falls. It's torturous. And when it finally arrives no one wastes time to find their raincoat to run outside and breathe in the astounding smells of wet pavement. The trees seem to take a collective deep breath. The earth opens up. Dogs dance around frantically.

Last night was the meteorologists' first prediction of rain. You see clouds, but you know the rain won't come. I went to an outdoor Sigur Ros concert. The band is much like the weather -- it takes it's time getting there, but you're glad when it finally happens. They open up a great, gorgeous sound. The lead singer is a counter tenor. It's all quite ethereal and quirky. Toy pianos and weird meters eventually give way to guitars and drums. But like I said, you have to wait for it. I sat in a great Greek amphitheater as gigantic eucalyptus trees bowed in the wind. It wasn't until the encore that it all made sense. They played a crowd favorite: Track 8. The song repeats some Icelandic phrase over and over. Droplets started to fall. And as the song built to its incredible climax, the rain started to pour down. I'm a very modern person, but I couldn't help but feel they'd called it down, demanded it from the gods, made it come down and quench California's thirst with the proper offering.

There was rock concert ecstasy. There was crazy Norse raindance ecstasy. It all fed together like some well thought out movie plot. They called the rain down. It made me think about Aristotle.

Aristotle had a surprisingly simple view of human nature: We are what we repeatedly do. He applied this to every field of endeavor he touched. He believed that the ethical basis for a human being was repeated good action, that habits would bring out the best in people. He was an optimist in this. He believed we were basically good, and that it just took some work for us to realize it and make the best of ourselves.

Aristotle also laid the foundation for our understanding of drama. He is the first to sketch out the three-act structure. He is the first to dig into the relation between character and plot. Almost all western drama goes back to Aristotle.

And, in a way, it's all about uncovering what is best in humans through repeated action. When you start a movie, what do you see? The main character's world is defined by his repeated action. There's something healthy and good there, or there's something not so good there. Then he reacts with the same basic reflex at the inciting event. His world is thrown out of balance. He hews to his basic reflexes even more -- and gets stuck in the plot. He continues down this path, repeating the same basic reflex action over and over again. It keeps him from getting the girl. It gets him punched in the face. It makes him rich and miserable. It drives him to hate himself. It doesn't matter. It's the same action, over and over. Only the context really changes. Until the climax.

And in the climax he wakes up. He overcomes that action. He sees he past his little world. He opens up. And the reward comes down upon him. (Or, in Greek drama, he doesn't -- and pays with his life).

The protagonist wins a battle by overcoming the self. He connects to something bigger. It's the repeated act that drives him to a better understanding.

Back when Aristotle was bopping around the acropolis, drama was part and parcel with magic and religion. He saw this repeated action as a call for intervention from above. We'd laugh and say that you can't call rain down from the sky with a song that repeats the same phrase over and over. But we seem to agree with everything else he had to say, so maybe it's worth at least wondering if he was on to something here.

No comments: