As I was driving about in my car this lunchtime, the radio station was sending out all kinds of dire weather warnings to motorists to stay indoors unless the journey was absolutely necessary. The weather has been all odd and bizarre lately, and today we are experiencing tremendously strong winds, which bowl across the empty plains of the fen country round about, gathering in ferocity as they travel. Added to this have been some vicious rainstorms. I sat in my car at traffic lights earlier, and could barely see the road ahead for the sheets of water that buffeted the windscreen. The only thing I could see was the line of cars rocking in unison as each squall of rain lashed at our vehicles. Stay at home, the radio told me, or risk ending up like the fifty-five other idiots who had required help from the rescue services already this morning. I thought that was a bit unfair at first; it’s sheer chance, surely, if a tree blocks your path or electricity lines come down on you. But it turned out that the majority of rescues had been of motorists who had insisted on travelling down roads that had been closed because of flooding. So ok, that is pretty stupid really, or at least a Pyrrhic victory of pig-headedness over common sense. But it got me thinking about the whole concept of rescue, and how very rare it is in reality, and how extraordinarily prevalent it is in fiction.
It’s really quite rare to get from one end of a narrative to the other without there being at least one instance of rescue. Not so surprising, when you consider that stories by their very nature either pose a problem to be solved, or record a quest for something that is missing. In both instances the central protagonist will inevitably require help from other people, or just from external circumstances, to reach their final goal, and there is often no end to the altruistic good will of the world when the conclusion of a novel is approached. Lovers spring out of the woodwork to smooth the beloved’s path, intellectual solutions abound and are freely offered, businesses turn around, new adventures beckon, somehow, something comes good, and our hero or heroine experiences the exhilaration of being rescued from the situation that held them a miserable captive at the novel’s start. There are whole fictional genres devoted to the fantasy of rescue: romance novels rescue their female characters from anonymity and boredom, and often from more pending issues of homelessness, debt or depression. The detective story works to rescue the innocent from marauding evil. Even the science fiction novel rescues us from the limitations of reality as we know it. On both the personal and the general level, stories positively bulge with successful rescues. Which is probably why reading a novel like Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth is so very difficult; we’ve come to expect narrative to do its job of delivering salvation, and as Lily’s potential for being rescued dwindles, and the inexorable hands of tragic fate reach out for her, we feel somehow cheated. There’s a point of no return, where we know she’s going down, but we can’t quite believe it.
And yet, this is by far and away the most realistic of scenarios. Rescue is not very forthcoming in daily life, and if we are stupid enough to put ourselves in a situation where rescue by professionals is necessary, we are made fully aware of the economic cost of such an act, and exchange our freedom or safety for an equal amount of guilt. It’s a funny thing, but the cult of the individual that has dominated cultural life since the mid-nineteenth century, never ceases to encourage its people towards ever more regressive and childish pleasures, whilst steadily eroding the bonds of altruism and community that might be able to bear the consequences of indulging in them. That’s to say, we’re not taught to be responsible for ourselves, until something goes wrong. Banks are a classic example of this, with their endless attempts to lure people into debt, and their punitive, draconian manoeuvres with those who have taken them up on the offer. There are ever more dire straits we can get into, but ever fewer ways of extricating ourselves from them.
Sadly I have no jurisdiction with the greedy world of banking, but I can consider the laws of fiction, and wonder why, when it usually gets life so right on its pages, it should, in the instance of rescue, so readily embrace a fantasy. One possibility is that fiction has failed in its Darwinian directive to adapt; novels are challenged in evolutionary terms, lagging behind cultural change and appealing to practises and possibilities that are now out of date. That’s to suggest that in the old days rescue happened, and its absence in the modern world is simply a recent development that authors haven’t quite digested. Well, maybe, but generally fiction outdistances us, ever ready to hold up an unpleasant image in its mirror of the society we’ve created. The other possibility, and one that is harder to think about (requiring more mindbending to see it) is that rescue is simply what narrative does. What is a story but a way of making sense of life, which is intrinsically chaotic and absurd? Stories are theoretical blueprints, to which life is the messy, malfunctioning practice. They show us how things could be, if those things were disposed to be meaningful and significant. So stories rescue us in all kinds of ways – they show rescue in their plot convolutions, so that we may be optimistic about it, and they rescue the reader in that very act from the hopelessness of a world that doesn’t respond and correspond to our needs.
But there’s also a third possibility, which is that the fantasy of rescue has tremendous power over us, and its predominance in narrative is simply a recognition of its sway over our imaginations. It stands to reason, then, that the more vulnerable an individual feels, the more divorced from responsibility and control over his or her life, or from hope and comfort emanating from the external world, then the more powerful the effect of a fantasy of rescue. If our stories are so interested in telling us about rescues, then perhaps it’s fair to say that our culture really needs to look at the opportunities for control, responsibility or help that it provides for its citizens. A fascination with rescue may well be the sign of a culture that feels itself dragged every more steadily towards the brink of disaster.