In Medias Res
12 April 2017
In medias res is Latin for in the middle of things or in the middle of the story. It is a device from classical literature, going back to Homer, that allows the narrator to start the tale half way through, to return to the beginning to show what has happened leading up to the current situation, then to end the tale in suitable fashion with all the necessary details now in place.
In some ways it’s a bit like the arrival of a pizza from a new pizza home delivery service. You are hungry, you make the phone call, you order the pizza, and then you sit and you wait. The doorbell rings and the dog comes rushing out of nowhere and barks at the delivery man who stands there with his delivery bag in which the pizza nestles comforting and warm. You tell the dog to sit, you hand over the money, with a tip, of course, and the delivery man takes the pizza from the bag and pops it into your hands.
You close the door, walk back into the kitchen, and everyone is there, salivating waiting to see what you’ve bought. You know what kind of pizza it is, because you ordered it. But this is the secret of in medias res: the pizza is there but it’s still a mystery. You don’t really know what the pizza’s like. It may smell nice, it may look great when you open the box, but what’s in it, or rather on it; and how does it taste? These things are as yet unknowable. They are the mysteries that give in medias res its bite.
“Seek and you will find.” But what are you looking for?
You recognize the onions,; then there’s a meatball; ooh, look, some slices of salami and bacon; then there’s red peppers and green peppers; no anchovies (are you old enough to remember that song? RIP J Geils: I remember and still like your music); it’s a high rise pastry and there’s a cream cheese filling in the crust: delicious; oh yes, that subtle sweetness will come from the pieces of pineapple that decorate the pizza. Cheese: there’s plenty of that, three different types by the look of it and the tomato sauce is spicy and delicious.
When you take that first bite, the whole blend explodes in your mouth and the full delights of pizza burst upon you.
And that’s how I think of in medias res: no planning, washing and cutting the ingredients, no cooking, no placing in the oven, no wait as the house fills up with the smell of cooking pizza.
There’s just the pizza itself and the journey backwards to discover how it was made and what conjures up the magic of that first bite.
Beneath the surface of many people’s writing, lie lots mysterious ingredients. Sometimes, you can draw a few of them out and examine them as they flourish in the daylight. Often, they remain as mysteries, unconscious moments that float like lilies upon the surface of the story.
As I write, the sun is shining and the storm that visited us last week has all cleared away. There are deer prints by the bird feeder where the deer came last night and nuzzled for bird food.
The red spark of a squirrel sits by the feeders and four mourning doves crowd together on the balcony. I do not know where they came from and, like the deer, I do not know where they are going, although the deer tracks point to a probable destination.
In medias res: we all live there; we understand it, even if we don’t call t by its classy Latin name; we are intrigued by it; and it often lies at the center of our fascinating world.