The (Dark) power of Anti-Stories

The Wormwood Parable

(Now in absinthe form! Wreck the state of Denmark while you wreck yourself!)

Wormwood, wormwood

“Hamlet” Act 3, Scene 2 by William Shakespeare

Those are the words murmured by the tragic prince himself, on Shakespeare’s play, that reach all the way back to the Book of Revelation. But they also appear in both the title and the mouth of Netflix’s great documentary on the death of Frank Olson, a bacteriologist working for the U.S. Army. I do not want to give away the plot, for those who don’t know about it, or the ending. Suffice to say, for me it is a must-see visual feat of storytelling.

There are several reasons for it. One is the editing and composition, which is great. Another is the mix of re-enactments and interviews, which helps to keep the pace brisk. But the main one is that it goes against an Anti-Story.

There are several variants of what an Anti-Story is. Callahan defines it as something that works on a different level than a presented story. For example, the leaders of a company talk about restructuring and the employees start talking among themselves about their fear of layoffs. You need to address it, says Callahan. But that’s not what’s going on in Wormwood.

For another definition, Stevick sees it as a story that ignores plot or structure. That’s closer to what I saw, but let’s try to analyze what happens closer.

Wormwood is essentially the search for the Story of What Happened, one fateful day when Frank Olson died. Now, without giving any plot details away, Eric the son of Frank Olson looks for the story, and does not give up. Given that the first story is not being trusted, that Frank Olson was depressed and committed suicide, different stories are spun. These range from having been dosed with LSD, or having been induced to a psychotic break to just plain murder.

The introduction of this disjointed, contradictory Stories dissolves meaning. We are accustomed to be presented with one Story at a time, from which we can derive meaning. Anansi is ofttimes greedy, greed is bad. Hera is jealous, which is not the best characteristic to have if you’re the wife of womanizing Zeus, and so on. But here, the Story itself goes against a virus: Anti-Stories. They are all somewhat plausible, so they can’t be rejected out of hand, but neither can they be confirmed.

What the Anti-Stories do is cast shadows and drain the vitality of the main Story: the Story of Eric’s search for what happened when his father died. And you can see this arc, towards the end. One interviewee, talking about the various Anti-Stories, tells “this is a victory for them”.

Anti-Stories are real: they are systematic way of zapping life and vitality from someone, from a culture, from a community. They often are not outright ridiculous, but rather somewhat plausible. But you can usually recognize them for their effect: they destroy meaning and create rift. As a friend of mine says, they’re like a bad movie: everything is possible, because nothing makes sense and everything feels cheap and gratuitous. In a way, they’re the Anti-Surrealism: dis-enchanting the world.

And if you fall into their trap, you’ll know because, like Hamlet, like Eric Olson, you’ll get a specific taste in your mouth. As the Anti-Stories unfold, Eric Olson paraphrases Hamlet and says:
“Wormwood. It’s all bitter”

Beware the Anti-Stories. In your life, in your organization, they will create only bitterness.

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