Current Genres of Fate: Fate’s Epic Side

—because despite being enlightened, civilized, advanced, and free, we are trapped—

by Paul North

Magnolia poster

In the 1930s a Hungarian psychiatrist, Leopold Szondi, began to think that families predetermine the lives of their members, before he was deported to Bergen-Belsen because his family was Jewish. Through a special negotiation he and other intellectuals were released and sent into exile. Szondi settled in Switzerland, where he worked the rest of his long life on tests and treatments for Genotropism, the name he gave to this curse on families. Members of a family share, he thought, a narrow set of psychological tendencies that are transmitted across generations. Who you choose as a life partner, what kind of career you end up practicing, even how much money you make are all determined up to a point by a ‘familial unconscious.'

The familial unconscious contains drives and needs specific to the family and gives them their desires, their limits, their fate. Now, although Szondi wanted to release individuals from the family's unconscious predeterminations, and he invented a therapy to do so, the principle that underpinned his therapy was itself a fateful idea. Instead of staying limited by family traits, he wanted you to learn that: “Wahl macht Schicksal” — “Choice makes fate.” With this principle, Szondi hoped to break through the walls of his patients' familial unconscious. What if he succeeded? Well, through this principle he also locked patients into a new idea of destiny. Fate may not pre-determine you, but it does determine you. The way it determines you now is not necessarily better, only different. Now your fate happens to you choice by choice.

Let us imagine that there is a history for the idea of fate. It is a fiction or a semi-fiction, but that doesn't matter. It will help us to see a pattern. The first stage of the history is ancient, even archaic. We see Greek and Roman worry about fate all over epic poetry and stoic philosophy. In monotheisms, however, and especially in Christianity, fate takes a back seat to a different kind of story, where what happens at the end of time cannot be pre-judged by humans. At the end of all things, whether it comes as a last judgment or a gift of grace, a human-looking God will be there, making all the final decisions.

The philosophical essayist Odo Marquard, who first sketched out this historical tale about fate—the fate of fate, he called it—was right: the weightiest things in life, which used to be completely out of our hands (threads were held by “the fates,” judgments were made by God) at some point were put directly into our hands. After the great monotheisms (this is fiction too: we know they have not ended), everything, Marquard wrote in 1981, comes to be seen as made by human beings, including the highest things, like God, history, and truth. He notes that the expansive new human power of making did not actually put an end to the fate idea. Just because we began to think of ourselves as in charge, as making all things, including our own history, our ideas and ideals, this did not mean that we were free—on the contrary.

As Szondi had already recognized in the 1930s, fate was put into our hands too. In the great making era, making makes—not freedom—but destiny. It may take some time to come about, it may shift, its force may accumulate slowly, but it comes to be, in the end, as ineluctable as ever. We make our fate through our choices. Absolutely: fate has changed. There may no longer be a preexisting plan, but there is still a single way things will turn out, and this way is coded into all our individual actions.

Let us call this genre of fate “epic,” although we will have to paint the term with some new colors, to see how it has changed over the millennia. It is not uncommon, in Europe and its satellites, especially in the U.S., to feel that we live in a world without an overall plan, in a human life that is long and full of forking paths, overflowing with experiences, encounters with friends, allies, enemies, plagued by journeys, personal and public battles, upturns and downturns, not to mention day to day banalities. What's more, we are confounded by conflicting accounts of our agency—we make democracy work/ we can do nothing to change the system. For us, fate has to take a different shape. A split-second decision, a blink of an eye, a wrong turn is an index of the whole, each small event a single shard of the large urn of destiny. The urn must be being—so we presume—reconstructed out of these shards. Fate lies then in the way each piece fits together with another, and then another.

A great friend of this, the epic side of fate, is the movies. The sense that the staccato scenes will eventually merge together, that the cuts will add up to something great and continuous, the feeling of loose threads gradually being woven up into a tight fabric—this is the stuff of film art. Film borrows this procedure from novels, which carried the epic side of fate through the 19th century. A novel implies, before it is even picked up and read, that the story has already been completed and thus each event, each page, is a symbol of the whole. A reader enters the novel ignorant about everything except for one fact: that the story will take its pre-written course. Likewise, no matter how wild the story, the course of a movie can be felt in each frame, each episode. It doesn't really matter if the story is complete. The smallest details carry an extra glow, shinning indications of the invisible unity.

A minor genre of movies has been taking shape since the late 1970s, a new and improved epic genre with an updated, modernized, though perhaps not all that modern, pattern of total determination. These movies have taken epic fate to an extreme. They do not even have a “story.” The more random, the more improbable the characters, dialogue, and happenings, the more the power of the fateful movement is at work. You have no idea, at the beginning of Robert Altman's 1975 Nashville (or Short Cuts, produced almost 20 years later), you have no idea that the disparate characters and situations will turn out to be intricately interrelated. In the end you do. Through a series of coincidences, a musician carrying a fiddle case finds the perfect opportunity to open it and take out a gun. And you recognize retrospectively that fate had been accomplishing its handiwork all along. That feeling of order, unity, and careful construction that accompanies a movement from lack to satisfaction—the feeling we long to get from art works—is denied you in these films. The unknown is immensely pleasurable of course, as are incongruity, indefiniteness, and surprise. But nothing can be more pleasurable, I think, than the moment when these unstable things that cannot possibly be subsumed under any higher order are in fact subsumed under a higher order, a rule, a set of connections, a pattern to which they all belong.

Given the nature of the 20th century, it is not surprising the way in which the pattern finally emerges. The various details that seemed so unassimilable are shown to be fundamentally connected in a violent scene. In Nashville there is an assassination. Short Cuts ends in suicide and an earthquake. Even nature expresses the network of human fate. Magnolia, Paul Thomas Anderson's film from 1999, is obviously indebted to Altman's style of filmmaking. This is the most allegorical of these films. It is a full return to Szondi's theory. You might say that its motto is “everyone is related.” Magnolia closes with a whole series of violent events—a suicide attempt, an ambulance crash, teeth smashed in, a character dies—but none of these is the final coup de destin. That happens when frogs fall from the sky, in a sort of backward biblical plague. It is as if to announce out loud: the improbable is the new fate. We might think the ‘butterfly effect' is a chance beginning to an enchained series of events. In this finale we learn that the butterfly's wing is the tip of a great iceberg, a hidden system where every little thing is dependent on everything else. Improbabilities are not isolated events. They reveal their enmeshment in a secret system. And every seeming accident throws another stick onto the bonfire of the final, violent eruption of the hidden matrix.

In the Homeric poem the Iliad, the Trojan hero Hector tells his wife:

“And fate? No one alive has ever escaped it,

neither brave man nor coward, I tell you—

it's born with us the day that we are born.”

(from Robert Fagles' translation)

What is born with all human beings in this archaic ethos is death, personal death. Fate means to Hector only the when, where, and how of his own end. And that means that, in the period before his death, he is more or less free. The difference between this fate idea and Szondi's “Wahl ist Schicksal” is huge. Fate in the Homeric poem (moira) is quite different from progressive entrapment by the limitations placed on us by our choices and by the accidents that befall us. In the Homeric poem, a human being is substantially free until the final appointment with death. My friend Francesco Casetti calls these end-of-20th-century films “informal epics.” In them, characters are progressively trapped by their own freedom, so to speak. Their choices and chances add to their ultimate immobilization.

We can't say that this latter day epic idea rules our lives, or even that we believe it to be in force most of the time. But we can appeal to this idea whenever we like. And we appeal to it, I would imagine, when we most need to tell ourselves that, despite appearances, frighteningly unconnected things actually belong together.

Leopold Szondi should be given a posthumous prize. He should get it for describing the new form of fate—”Wahl ist Schicksal.” We see this form taking hold in many places—not just in Hollywood's imagination. We see it in conspiracy theories (here the matrix that explains random events is the government, or aliens), and in their converse, in governmental theories of terrorism (unseen underground networks, distributions of cells issuing in apparently random events, and random events that point back to the hidden network). We see it in the “environment,” a condition made by our inattentions that totally surrounds and encompasses us, which soon will return our neglect with violent interest. Experimental natural science shares the idea too to some extent. Experiments become data points, and statistics derives from them an underlying pattern, which we call nature.