What if someone provided you with a detailed road map leading you from the place upon which you stand to unimaginable sorrow?
Doomed Oedipus had such a map, thanks to the Oracle at Delphi; still Oedipus rushes headlong and heedless into his own darkness.
Gifted Hamlet knows that the odds are heavy against his survival. His own mother dissembles, his stepfather commands traitors disguised as childhood friends, and assassins await opportunities to eliminate him. Nevertheless, he engages, telling his dear friend, Horatio, “If it be now, / 't is not to come; if it be not to come, it will be / now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the / readiness is all” (5.2). Thus prepared for what Fate will deliver, Hamlet enters the arena where he will die.
Clever Tom Stoppard re-imagines the play, Hamlet, from the point of view of Hamlet’s so-called childhood friends for a play-within-a-play known as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. In Stoppard’s account of Hamlet’s trials, the Players rehearse a play to prick the conscience of the King and tease truth into the light. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern watch the rehearsal, seeing two figures dressed exactly as they are, hang by their necks until dead, but Rosencrantz and Guildenstern fail to see their current course as one leading to the same sorrowful end. They sail on to England, and they die at the end of a rope.
Dystopia 1. Photo by Al Griffin
Cormac McCarthy explores the same dystopic path in the human experience through his original screenplay The Counselor. In another epic tale of Innocence dragged through the Desert of Depravity, an ambitious attorney sets a course for utter annihilation by conspiring to import drugs provided by a cartel. Two experienced importers warn him to walk away and describe horrific methods employed by the cartel to insure their own survival and power. One involves a high-tech, inescapable garrote that delivers terror as well as death for the victim knows there is no escape possible for him. The other describes a snuff film in which the pleasure derives from having a victim genuinely innocent and truly afraid for her life. Each horror story moves the Counselor, but he fails to believe that his own end might involve such brutality. He still signs his name in blood at the bottom of the Devil’s contract, protesting that he’s only interested in one shipment, one opportunity to become wealthy beyond any one person’s needs.
Dystopia 2. Photo by Al Griffin
Of course, his fate, as all fates really, turns upon a single random moment when he agrees to help an imprisoned client’s son get out of jail. The boy works for the cartel and is a target for opportunists. In fact, soon after the boy's release from jail, he's executed so that a poacher can seize the money he carries. The Counselor has nothing to do with the theft, but in a purely business decision, the cartel decides the Counselor must die. Someone ordered that boy's death, and circumstantial evidence, especially guilt by association, condemns the Counselor.
Others guilty by association will also die: the two who warned the Counselor to walk away. One will fall after a bullet passes through his brain; the other will suffer the final, breathtaking moments inside a garrote.
But another, the Counselor's beloved, not guilty of association with anyone other than the Counselor will also die as a consequence. She will star as the innocent and terrified victim in a snuff film. The Counselor appeals, hoping to save her and rewrite the past, to create a different ending, but of course, that’s impossible. His exit was written the moment he embarked upon a dystopic path. He lived as if mercy and beauty could be partitioned off, as if illegality and greed were shadowy figures never to be brought into the light where justice and truth prevail. He was wrong.
Oedipus learns that the gods may have ginned up a trap for him, but his deeds tightened the ropes that bind him in the end. Hamlet learns that he is in fact cursed to have been charged with setting things right in Denmark, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern observe that there must have been a moment when they could have said “no,” but they missed it. Well, the Counselor had several moments when he could have said “no,” but he cried “yes” instead and rushed heedless into his own hell.
So too is this a motif stitched into the human experience. In spite of warnings from older, more experienced people, in spite of literature’s revelations, and in spite of our own guts warning us against tempting the unknown, we step into it today and tomorrow, every moment that we live. Some of us will escape dystopia; a few will not.
Dystopia 3. Photo by Al Griffin
“Read” The Counselor, now playing in theaters. Observe its ties to classic archetypal themes. Note its existential warning: we shape our realities and pay the consequences for our choices.
Respond to these words from Hamlet, Act 5, scene 2: “There's a divinity that shapes our ends, / Rough-hew them how we will.”