I was thinking of blustering Bounderby today, the industrialist character from Dickens’ Hard Times, always lecturing, always talking loudly, always right. I was also thinking of two other people, George Eliot’s Dorothea Brooke in Middlemarch, the innocent idealist and her fraught relationship with Casaubon, the collator of facts, the inhabitant of dark libraries, the person obsessed with not just doing things but doing things right. Rather quieter than Bounderby, Casaubon is not just obsessed with facts but is always driven by a desire to control them– to collate, to classify, to categorize. His obsession with control translates in real life to squishing Dorothea’s world, the idealist who has not armed or protected herself against the facts and aggressive logic of Casaubon’s ordered universe.
Fictional characters are just that–fictional. Yet, if you’ve been around them, that is to say, read and thought about fictional people for a while, whether to create some or to analyze them, you suddenly get an insight into real people in a very personal way. If you’ve studied literature, it helps to understand real people and your own reactions to them. It helps to create distance if you encounter such people in your immediate vicinity, analyze people better and to place them in a larger pattern of personalities and understand where they’re coming from and perhaps how to handle them.
That kind of knowledge is power. Besides, you can have exploratory conversations with imaginary people when real people are too sure of their facts and logic.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about this issue of form vs. content a lot as it relates to human personality. Not morality, not intelligence, not intent of action as it relates to a person but simply the way a person comes across to other people while engaging in argumentation and the effect aggressive logic has on people surrounding them.
What would you do, for example, if you encountered an honest Bounderby or a less self-centered Casaubon in real life but still equally aggressive? In fiction, unpleasant characters often turn out fake or dishonest or its opposite, extremely good people (so only seemingly unpleasant, not really so) and thereby the issue of form vs. content is resolved by a simple inversion or undermining of appearance.
Sadly, real life has more grey characters. In real life, an unpleasant person might be somewhat genuine, or partly honest, or have a little good intention. But when content is privileged over form, and only the intent is assessed and not the way it is presented, the doers neglect to nurture the nicer, non-aggressive sides of their personalities as qualities of value and create themselves to suit aggressive ideals which focus on end goals and not on the process of argumentation, an aspect which becomes part of their character.
Take the issue of aggression in intellectual argumentation for example.
All arguments attempt to make a point. But there are those who make a point aggressively well, following a certain thread of logic with an end goal in view, keeping an eye on the end at all times, crushing other points of view around like a bulldozer. It appears that they argue to win although they claim they are willing to accept feedback given hard evidence. But the evidence has to be of the nature that can stop the bulldozer. Nothing finer or more nebulous will do.
Yet, imagine the same point delivered in a nicer, more exploratory way allowing for gaps for the listener to provide input. To leave points open ended. To include threads that can be completed by the listener while helping the listener see the larger point of view. In this case one develops a more open ended form of exploratory argumentation where giving space is not seen as a weakness, niceness is not seen as an avenue of attack, and politeness and soft spokenness is considered a virtue.
In other words, a pleasing personality arguing a point is a far better and less frustrating experience for the listener and often better at achieving results.
Form is as important as content.
Yet, in some cultures (not necessarily ethnic but professional or personal or group), content is given precedence over form. If you are genuine or make a point well or know a lot, it does not matter how loud you are or how aggressive. In fact, you’re encouraged not to finesse your personality. Perhaps it works in such cultures to be aggressive.
After all, bulldozers are mostly good at conversing with other bulldozers. Everyone else needs to develop form.
We think of art as something simply confined to the ivory tower but it isn’t. The art of fiction talks about the formation of characters because characters can be created and developed even amongst real people. Personalities can be finessed and made pleasing.
Form is equally, in some cases, more important than substance. Sometimes a lack of form of delivery can cause more unhappiness around than mediocre content but fortunately form is also something that can be worked on.
In Middlemarch, Casaubon is eliminated and the free spirited artist Ladislaw, the opposite of the controlling Casaubon moves into the plot and into Dorothea’s life. In real life, the plot cannot be as easily tampered with. So it helps to work on personality, not just character.