Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Deus Ex Machina*

*a.k.a. G_d from the machine


There’s a literary plot device known in Latin as deus ex machina. Originally from the Greek apò mēkhanês theós, and used in Greek plays, we have many examples from Judeo-Christian stories. I’m thinking of the biblical story of Job, where the philosophical discussion and events are resolved by the appearance of G_d from the whirlwind, and all is resolved and restored. It is not resolved by the main character, nor by any of the other characters’ actions. In fact, that is the very point the book of Job is making.
In literary analysis this has come to stand not so much for divine intervention as for the addition of an unexpected event or character not organically coming out of the story. Such things do, in fact, happen in real life. But in modern storytelling, where the heroism depends on humans conquering life’s obstacles, it often feels contrived and unsatisfying.


In the how-to circles  it's a no-no. If I read or heard it once, I have heard it many times. We don’t do it anymore.

Oh, really?

I suggest we do use it, and use it everywhere. This is where fantasy comes in. A whole genre devoted to coming up with world building rules that zig-zag between life as we know it and fantastic elements popping in conveniently to work their magic
You need the main character to get in somewhere where they can’t possibly? — Introduce, and then give ‘em, an invisibility cloak. Voila! Harry Potter, anyone? Why didn't we know about this magical invisibility thingy all along? Because we just needed it now, silly.

The same for magical realism, a genre I am partial to as a reader and a writer. Think of the uses of time-travel, not in the form of scholarly research, but a device where the main character actually gets to hop in a few centuries back and even retrieve a long-lost object.


Deus ex machina hasn’t gone away. If anything, it is used more than ever. We just have other names for it.



10 comments:

  1. If I recall correctly, Athena shows up in The Odyssey to put an end to the problem with the suitors when Odysseus gets home and starts killing them. It's been a long time since I read The Odyssey, so I might not recall correctly. Oh, that Odysseus.

    Love,
    Janie

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  2. This came up a lot in our jury discussions for the Governor General's lit awards last year - arguing about whether or not a finalist author had used non-organic devices to wrap up a novel tidily. I don't often read fantasy, but recently did read a MG fantasy novel, and I was really struck by how great that must be as a writer - if you have a problem that needs to be solved, just have some fantastical being appear out of thin air. I sort of wish I had the type of creativity to allow me to write fantasy, but alas, I'm too logical.

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    1. I'd love to know how your awards committee decided on this matter. Magic is the Deus Ex Machina of today's storytellers, and where would we be without it?
      P.S. I've experienced some "magic" in real life that no one would likely believe, so I'm on that side, obviously.

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  3. Interesting discussion. I believe in miracles, so I guess those fall in the same category.

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  4. Ha! I overheard some theatrical people talking at a restaurant last night, and one of them humorously used the phrase "deus ex machina" when talking about a special effect that went awry. :-)

    I think DEM is frowned upon in today's novels when coincidence saves the day instead of the protagonist's efforts and skills. Is Harry Potter's Invisibility Cloak (or the Portkey) really DEM? Or is Rowling just a means of quickly getting the character from one spot to another, much like Star Trek's transporter? Harry still has to use his skill to vanquish Voldemort, and the crew of the Enterprise still have to deal with the bad guys once they arrive on the planet.

    You may be right about some uses of magic, though.

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    1. In the story of Job, his very goodness and perfect righteousness is what brings G-d out of the whirlwind in the end. It really isn't as different as modern magic tales.

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  5. I love books and movies with magical elements because I do believe magic exists in different forms if you are willing to see it.

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  6. Hm, well put. I hadn't thought of that. In the 13 1/2 lives of Bluebear, Deux ex Machina is a character's name. Very funny book.

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    1. "In the 13 1/2 lives of Bluebear, Deux ex Machina is a character's name."

      This was my son's favorite book for years :)

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  7. I remember a literature lecturer teaching us this back in junior college. Haven't thought about this for a long while!

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