The Oedipal Dilemma

Today’s post is a little about hypnosis, a little about fiction. Sometimes you’ve just got to cross the streams.

The hypnotic portion of the program comes from Discord, where this morning folks were discussing some of their favorite paradoxes. One of the premises most hypnotists build on (which is not altogether true, but we’ll just roll with it for the moment) is that a hypnotist can’t make a hypnotee do anything they don’t want to do. There are some asterisks involved, as you might imagine, but the focus of today’s discussion centered on the layer cake that is human experience: sometimes we really do wish we could be to be made to do certain things, and there’s a real anxiety about the possibility that a hypnotist could actually slip their way past those superficial inhibitions, reveal something we’d rather deny about ourselves, and oblige us to commit to the intentions we work so hard to suppress. That’s in many ways a more alarming prospect than some of the stuff we see in stage hypnosis, when a hypnotist gets hypnotees to do absurd things but those things, because they are so distant from the reality of who we are, don’t hit in the same way.

I’ve been thinking about that mechanism in terms of fiction lately, if only because the dynamic we so often lean upon is one of escalation and conditional catharsis. I think the latest season of Stranger Things makes for a pretty vivid example, especially since we can see some of the worst available outcomes on the horizon so plainly. Each step and each complication in the plot leads to more tension, more fear that the outcomes we don’t want to see will come to pass. The olde skool idea, however, is that the ending will get us to something like catharsis: that we’ll get relief by the end of the last episode, and that the denouement–given our readiness to deal with our apprehensions all season–will reward us with some outcomes we actually want to counteract all that felt pressure. Because this season essentially dovetails with the next, we don’t quite get there. We’re left with a system even more completely disordered, with new threats and tensions on the horizon.

The grandpappy of this approach to storytelling is Oedipus Rex, which can make for an excruciating reading and/or viewing experience. Early on we figure out that Oedipus is hunting Oedipus, that he is heading inexorably toward his own self-destruction, but his essential qualities of character (a bit of stubbornness, a bit of pride, a bit of unstinting intellectual curiosity) prevent him from turning back even when he’s on the cusp of horrific discoveries. Our relief, such as it, comes when there’s nothing left to discover, when all the horrors have been exposed. The tension that comes with anticipation is gone, and we’re left with the sense that the spell of the play has been broken, that a new order can now replace the old.

While it’s a time-honored sort of story structure, however, I feel like the journey it sets the reader on might be a bit too much for this particular moment in time. These days we’re beset with uncertainties at just about every level of experience, and I find that reliable, relentless escalation makes me more inclined to tune out than press on. Moving from crisis to crisis to crisis–especially if the best available outcome is to have the next crisis deferred or temporarily averted–is exhausting, especially if there’s no prospect of restoration or redemption on the horizon. That’s doubly true (at least for me) when the prospects for agency, for acting meaningfully on the world, reveal something less than appealing about ourselves, excavate those impulses we struggle to deal with on a daily basis.

These days I’m attracted to more optimistic modes of telling, even if the endings they arrive at feel contrived. As someone who writes dark fantasy and horror more often than not, it still feels significant to arrive at destinations where good things seem possible, however qualified or limited those goods might be.

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