Scene4 Magazine: Michael Bettencourt |
Michael Bettencourt
So Far, So Good

April 2013

In a play of mine, Light. Fantastic., Clu Martin, a writer, in speaking with another character about why he, Clu, tried to commit suicide, talks about how the phrase "What is the point?" hounded him on the day he decided to do the deed.  Clu, a recovering alcoholic with a redemptive ache periodically derailed by his appetite, had no idea how to answer the question.  But "answerless" was not why he tried to check out.

As he examines why he tried to suicide himself, he finds that "answer" or "no answer" to the question is irrelevant, or at least secondary.  What is primary?  Each human every day is required by the conditions of his or her material life to choose whether to finish out that day.  Humans do many things to counter/avoid/paper over this bruising necessity.  But every day life poses the question and requires a response.

This requirement imposes a terrifying freedom.  We are free to weave any answer we want to fill the void opened up by the question while at the same time knowing that any answer we generate is, at best, a temporary fiction, thin as air.  No wonder so many choose religion or philosophy or shopping to fill the void — anything to keep from having to face the daily certification of our vanishing.

Clu doesn't succeed in his self-slaughter, and by the end of the play he manages to cobble together contentment and place himself back onto the human carousel.

Clu, of course, stands in for me, and I had reservations about the positive-ish ending because I believe answering the question is a more tangled effort than (with apology to Descartes) "I decide to live each day, therefore I am."

Here is how the Clu in me views the tangle.  If I choose "life," what I am really choosing is a narrative template called "life" that I use to mold my day-to-day.  I certainly don't believe — can't believe — that "life" is a "gift" from "out there" (the universe, God, Dharma, Nature).  This life-template is just improv fictionalizing, and I can never not be aware of the fact that I am making it up as I go along, and that it doesn't take much to make it all go to smash.

This pressurizes life for me, always being aware of what an improvised, and improvising, creature I am.  I wish I could make peace with being Lear's "unaccommodated man," the "poor, bare, forked animal," and just go with the improvisatory flow — be a human animal instead of a human being (a human version of my cats, who are primarily present-tense and unimpressed by goals or duties).

Here is the game I play with the asking — really, an actor's game.  If things are in tune — good morning coffee, crisp, affectionate cats — then the primary emphasis falls on the first word, with a secondary up-lilt emphasis on the last, all said with curious inquiry: "What is the point?", with the follow-up, "Well, today, let us...."  I take that template off the shelf and pour myself into that.

If things are untuned — troubled sleep, poor digestion, pressed for time — then the question comes out differently, with a primary emphasis on the last word and a secondary emphasis on the verb — "What is the point?" — all said in an exhale of exasperation as the self pours itself into that template.

I can switch templates during a day, of course, which provokes its own vexation and dismay.  One of the mysteries Clu tries to plumb in the play is the witchy neurochemistry of the brain and its connection to what humans like to think are their core selves — as he questions, just how sacred and fundamental should we hold the notion of a "self" if it can be shape-shifted in seconds by the pleasure molecules of cocaine or flashes of errant electricity among neurons? It is more the case, he concludes, that we live in a state of being continually at the mercy — with our greatest creative challenge possibly being answering "at the mercy of what?" and figuring out how to get out its way before it gets in ours.

The day may come when it's just too hard or too boring to take any template off the shelf and keep on pretending because "What is the point?" has no solid-bottomed answer, like "What does one plus one equal in base 8?"  Instead, it's just a prod to make me decide to live for the day — and I'll oblige myself to make that choice until I choose not to feel the obligation — and then we'll have to see what happens. 

I often wish I could do this business of living differently, but I'm not sure I'm built to do it any other way.  But it is also true that each day I've been able to say "so far, so good" no matter how pointless or uplifting a day has been. With this observation as an ironic gloss, since irony, like quarks, is a constituent part of the quantum universe: A man jumps off a building.  As he reaches the fifth floor, a man leaning out the window yells, "How's it going?" and the falling man replies, "So far, so good." Of course, it's the sudden sharp stop at the end that turns the delight of flight into destruction — but, then, that will happen to all of us anyway, so why worry about it?  Why try to inoculate, ward off, or divinize it?  Instead, enjoy the flight, even if it seems (or is) pointless, because the real task at hand is for me (for you, for all of us) not to seem pointless to ourselves.  Perhaps that is the only usable answer to Clu's question, the only real counterbalance to the sudden sharp stop at the end.

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©2013 Michael Bettencourt
©2013 Publication Scene4 Magazine

Michael Bettencourt is a produced and published playwright and a Senior Writer and Columnist for Scene4.
Continued thanks to his "prime mate" and wife, Maria-Beatriz

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