A Serious Game Part 5: Harlequinagain

A Serious Game continues!  If you’re just tuning in, then you should know that we’ve already discussed how stories influence our lives and seen the reality of fiction in action, then I said a lot of really melodramatic things about Harlan Ellison.  After a brief sojourn into the problem of postmodern ethics, today I return to Mr. Ellison to make amends for the many wrongs I have perpetrated against his text.

Ethical criticism is difficult because, in addition to the far easier task of dissenting from those narratives which prove faulty, we must also, as Booth said, “open ourselves to ‘others’ who seem initially dangerous or worthless, and yet prepare ourselves to cast them off whenever … we must conclude they are potentially harmful” (488) while still coming to understand those others on their own terms.  It is highly idealistic to even think we might stumble across a narrative completely devoid of some objectionable implications, but ethical reading as I’ve described it allows us to take the good with the bad.  John Gardner, despite his intentions, makes the mistake of every censor and party-line aesthete in history: supposing there is a universally applicable syllogism to ethical criticism that can be used to declare whether or not, in all instances and for all readers, a given work will be harmful.  The irony, of course, is that to determine this to be the case, the censor must review the work firsthand.  This idea makes about as much sense as me saying to you, as you lift a glass of a mysterious beverage to your lips, “Don’t drink that, it’s poison!”  After I slap the glass to the floor you turn to me, bewildered, and say, “Thank you, I suppose, but how did you know it was poison?”  I reply with a healthy grin: “Simple enough!  I drank some before you.”

For a moment, then, let’s try to pick up the glass I so rudely knocked down, rinse it off, and have another drink.  We can return to a story I have done a disservice.  “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ said the Ticktockman” is not a perfect tale; it is not ethically flawless.  But it also does not deserve the thrashing that I, in my John Gardner persona, gave it.  I’ve already mentioned that the ironic humor of “Harlequin” might be its saving grace, and it is the also the largest aspect of the text Gardner does not give us tools to deal with.  So taken for what it is, “Harlequin” is a comedic story.  The very premise — a society so overcome by punctuality that timeliness becomes a matter of public execution — is ridiculous enough to indicate that we are not meant to take everything in this dystopia so seriously.

But I went to great lengths to establish early on that, silly or not, the reader will come to a story with a desire to transfer something from reading onto his or her own life.  My Gardner reading was caught up in the plausibility of the Harlequin’s revolution — since the story doesn’t allow deep delving into matters of sympathy, I was instead concerned with the example it sets and its lack of seriousness, realism, and gravity.  But now that I’m willing to laugh a bit, I can instead think about other things.  I can rest easily with believing the Harlequin has done something good, first of all.  If the authoritarianism of his society is so absurd, then I can also forgive the method of its eventual overthrow for being absurd as well — and this ironic distance also allows me to think of the more elliptical ways the story speaks of our own lives.

Like the people of the story, we may find ourselves enmeshed in worlds not entirely of our own devising, at the mercy of systems and institutions we cannot control and which can, in instances, be heinously unjust.  But simply because the world is the way it is, and simply because we’ve allowed it to become that way, doesn’t mean things have to stay that way.  Revolutions, as the story suggests, aren’t always large-scale actions, but tiny acts of disobedience that, though they may not seem significant or may even appear to be failures, can have profound consequences within larger contexts.  Ellison’s choice to quote Thoreau in this regard does not appear to be ironic at all.  Another benefit of the new approach is that I am also now free to appreciate the way the story itself is written, without fear that it will necessarily lead to my inevitable, tragic doom.  For instance, the disordered chronology is a clever mirror to the story’s themes of timeliness, and the conversational, almost breathless narrative voice seems very handy for making the story both exciting and amusing, and its linguistic playfulness actually results in a few memorable lines.[1]

But for all these goods intentions, to paraphrase Thoreau, people are as likely to serve the Devil as they are to serve God, even when they don’t mean it.  So of course “Harlequin” has its flaws, but they are largely not the ones my Gardner reading focused on.  The more point of concern is the repeated demonstration of negative female characters.  In one interlude “the wife” of a man named Marshall Delahanty receives a notice that someone in the family is to be ‘switched off’ by the Ticktockman; an inner monologue relates her desperate wish for it to be her husband instead of her, and her relief when this turns out to be the case (883-884).  The Harlequin himself has an exasperated lady-friend of ambiguous intimacy named (of all things) Pretty Alice, who eventually turns him in because “she wants to conform” (886).

Female characters are repeatedly shown as secondary to male characters, and their roles are insidiously negative.  They are portrayed as weak and selfish, unable to shore themselves against the forces men like the Harlequin and the Ticktockman represent.  On the story’s own terms, this misogyny is probably its biggest issue.  But the ethical reader can recognize the appealing and repelling parts of the story, and is willing to listen to the text for the duration of the former, while still objecting to the latter.  The instinctual move is to attribute this misogyny to Ellison, and while a cursory glance at his oeuvre and biography shows it is unfortunately a recurring element,[2] I am in this essay dealing only with this story itself.  Even if Ellison were a first-rate feminist save for this one slip-up, the ethical reader is obligated to call “Harlequin” on its misogyny.  I will admit that my esteem for the story is devalued by the tale’s ethical flaws.  But I find it worthwhile enough in that it is funny and well written that I can bring myself to read it even in spite of that, just as the generally misogynistic and juvenile nature of Ellison’s output does not stop me from liking this particular story.

David Foster Wallace made the claim that “some art is worth the extra work of getting past all the impediments to its appreciation” (263), like the complex and bewildering social context needed to make total sense of Dostoevsky’s Russia.  I venture that this applies equally well to our ethical evaluations of literature.  Ellison’s story, for instance, is worth appreciating for some reasons, but we must also come to terms with what is not worth appreciating about it.  It may now seem like I’m saying everything should be read, and everything should be taught.  I would qualify my enthusiasm for an open literature with the idea that things should be free to be taught, but not compulsory.  I certainly do not think everyone should be forced to read The Jew of Malta, and I’d object to someone telling me it was in my best interest to read de Sade or Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight.

To make such a claim would require a perfect universality contrary to the situational nature of ethics as conceived in this paper; a text really cannot be right for all people at all times.  Criticism is a good way of addressing this.  Recall the multitude of readings of Paradise Lost I was subjected to; each geared the text toward and made it accessible to holders of that worldview, or members of that critical community.  Ethical reading, like situational ethics, is a cooperative act, and if you (or, I suppose, the text) don’t feel like going along with things for the sake of it, or even with a critical angle in mind, then there’s probably no good reason to.[3] Perhaps someday I will be in a situation where reading de Sade is, in fact, necessary for my continued growth as a person — but for now I’ve attempted it, and I didn’t like what I read, and felt no reason to finish.

What should be read is situational.  Middle school children may benefit from reading Huckleberry Finn, and at the same time learn to deal with the ethical paradox of how currents of racist thought still underlie what is intentionally and quite overtly, I think, a story about the absurdity of racism.  But this is not the only way this lesson could be learned, and a teacher or administration uncomfortable with assigning the text should not have any obligation to teaching it.  Ethical reading is difficult, and we need to practice it; we will be assailed numberless times throughout our lives to read or understand a narrative; in these situations we are implicitly being asked to play along with the text.  In many cases we will have no choice but to do so, and ethical reading allows us to maintain greater degrees of control.  Hopefully, like athletes, we become better practitioners with time.


[1] One particular phrase which currently floats around in the mental pool of favorite sentences I’ve read is “Timewise, it was jangle” (879).  Almost Joycean!

[2] Though I echoed Dr. Johnson’s adage about writing and living back when discussing Dostoevsky, Ellison certainly pushes the limits sometimes.  He is notoriously officious, and in his heyday often openly groped women during social functions.  One anecdote passed around the speculative fiction community describes his encounter at a party with a particularly tall woman, whom he boldly propositioned: “What would you say to a little fuck?”  The woman, a smile on her lips, leaned down to him and said: “Hello, little fuck.”

[3] Unless you’re a student with assigned reading.  Telling your professor you just aren’t getting along with a book might gain you a look of consternation or an appointment with a therapist, depending on how genuinely you seem to think the book is being stubborn.

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