It’s an old story. Boy meets girl. Boy marries girl. Kids. One of them dies, is imprisoned, is atomized in a steel box, gets deported, is spontaneously liquefied while buying a hot dog, is eaten by bears, runs off with a radio preacher, or goes out for a pack of smokes for 30 years. Everyone is sad. Remaining parent remarries. Kids remain sad. What about mom / dad? they ask. Was all that love stuff just an act? To which the universal response is always: suck it up, junior. It’s my life. Someday you’ll understand.
Meanwhile, the new replacement spouse initiates a scorched earth campaign to eradicate any lingering trace of the dearly departed, which includes the kids. They’re packed off to boarding school, to their pedophiliac uncle, or to social services. And, you know, fuck them for being so inconvenient. Suddenly, all is quiet. But Replacement Spouse is bitter: this isn’t what I wanted. You want me to be HER and quit asking me to wear her dresses! The surviving parent is bitter: this isn’t want I wanted. You’re obsessed with yourself and your meatloaf tastes like warm manure! Everyone is sad again.
Alcohol is purchased in significant amounts. Books speculating on the possibility of finding happiness in second and third marriages are read while the aforesaid alcohol is consumed. She criticizes his sexual inadequacies to her friends. He blogs about her obsession with Elizabeth Gilbert novels. Misery. Radioactive fallout (It was manure, you imbecile). The kids grow up swearing not to be like their parents. They fail.
There are many variations on this theme, but such is the through line. The idea of “through line” comes from Stanislavski and is closely associated with his concept of the “superobjective”:
When objectives were strung together in a logical and coherent form, a through line of action was mapped out for the character. This was important in order to create a sense of the whole. Stanislavski developed the concept of the superobjective that would carry this “through line of action.” The superobjective could then be looked at as the “spine” with the objectives as “vertebrae” . . . . These objectives, when strung together, revealed the superobjective, the logical, coherent through line of action. Stanislavski called this superobjective the “final goal of every performance.” (Sawoski 6)
With this in mind, our superobjective, the final goal of our performance, is not the happiness of the boy, the girl, the Replacement Spouse, or the kids. It can’t be. The vertebrae are all wrong. They’re fractured. Our characters are in psychological traction. They’re emotional quadriplegics. And instead of a functioning spine, the “logical, coherent through line” points to an abundance of potential suffering, right to it, like the Devil’s lodestone.
And like the lodestone—an ancient magical item “held in high regard as a Powerful Amulet and all-around Good Luck Charm because its Magnetic Influences are supposed to attract Power, Favors, Love, Money, and Gifts” (Yronwode)—the through line of our story functions as a Bad Luck Charm, attracting Injuries, Hate, Penury, and Loss, a cursed item of power. Or maybe it’s like Tolkien’s One Ring, leading our poor love hobbits straight to Mount Doom instead of a cozy faux-Ireland with ergonomic sunken houses and lots of comfort food.
Old stories are the most powerful. And this is one of the oldest, older than Macbeth, older than the short stories about crocodiles and honey jars found in the pyramids, perhaps older than writing itself: look for a Replacement Spouse and you never, ever get the Shire. You get displacement, disrecognition, self-alienation. But the saddest thing about this story, maybe the reason it has always been classifiable as a tragedy, is that it proceeds from a faulty assumption: people can be optimized like things.
My significant other got liquefied and all I got is this lousy T-shirt. And the bit of her I was able to pour into this jar. I think it might be her elbow. And it’s depressing to have to look at that on mantelpiece every day. The brilliant short story writer, Sam Lipsyte goes so far as to have his protagonist in “Cremains” take down his mother’s ashes and mainline them like heroin. So if you’ve read his Venus Drive, maybe that appeals to you as an option. But think about it. If you line up three or four shots of Old Elbow tonight, what’s left for tomorrow? That’s real loss—not just losing dearest but getting faded on her liquefied remains and having to live with the knowledge that you could have just picked up some Midori on the way home.
People are not things. Replacements cannot be found. Loved ones will go the way of all flesh. And we must then either make amends to our memory of them or ask hell to let us in. In The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, Freud writes that “By abandoning a part of our psychic capacity as unexplainable through purposive ideas, we ignore the realms of determinism in our mental life. Here, as in still other spheres, determinism reaches farther than we suppose” (278). How far it reaches on our through line, how far it determines our final cause, depends on the extent to which we are willing to cower like mindless puling beasts that know neither reason nor truth. To what extent are we willing to sacrifice what we have, which is to say, what we remember, in our attempts to avoid pain—our best and only teacher?
“We are only what we remember of ourselves.” – Trevor Goodchild in Aeon Flux