The Tragedy of Arthur (book review)

The Tragedy of Arthur is a book by Arthur Phillips.

Arthur Phillips, incidentally, is a writer who has hovered at the periphery of my awareness for a while, mostly for his novel Angelica (which I have yet to read but now certainly plan to), and here he demonstrates a level of playfulness, imagination, and earnest workmanship that is pretty refreshing, and redeems what could have easily been a heartless postmodern endeavor.

The plot of the novel is something like this: Arthur Phillips (the writer/narrator) is the son of Arthur Phillips (a many-times convicted forger), who upon his death bequeaths Arthur the younger a lost Shakespeare quarto, The Tragedy of Arthur — this third Arthur being the king.  Arthur the writer/narrator believes the quarto to be fake (eventually) but due to a legal fuckarow is contractually obligated to write the introduction to the play (which everyone else thinks is real) when it is published by Random House.  The first two-thirds of the novel are this introduction, in which Phillips delves into semifantastical memoir describing his childhood, his relationship with his twin sister Dana, his con man father, and the whole family’s complicated relationship to Shakespeare.  The last third of the novel is the play itself.

(Now, despite Angelica — a ghost story — being what brought AP to my attention, you may see why I went for Tragedy as soon as it hit shelves, right?)

This novel’s been well reviewed, to understate it a little.  I mean, this isn’t early Jonathan Safran Foer effusive praise, of course, but everyone is pretty set on this being a good novel, especially people who “count” like Michiko Kakutani and Shakespeareans Greenblatt and Shapiro.  And they are right, it is a good novel!  So if you need to hear it from someone more than “a dude on the internet” then there you go.  Now, we can delve into the gritty of what I think about this thing.

I’ll be up front about my big gripe here, which is that the actual play The Tragedy of Arthur is kind of a slog.  My precise feelings about this are complicated, for reasons I’ll get to in a second, but I’ll stage it first in terms of technicality.  You have a 360 page book, the last 100 pages of which are a (fake[?]) Shakespeare play written as such, while the preceding bulk of the tome was a flighty author enormously screwing up his life.  It should not take a rocket scientist to see why an abrupt transition in styles, tone, and language can potentially shut down a reader, or throw off the groove, or whatever.  My point is that it’s difficult to make the transition from one part of the narrative to the next.

This makes me wonder what it would be like if the book were just the introduction.  That would be too much of a tease, wouldn’t it?  To go on and on about this play, and then not print it?  It occurred to me at one point that the traditional (really?) postmodern thing to do in this regard would be to have the manuscript of the play be destroyed, thus making the introduction the only thing left to print, and the name of the rose is all that remains and so on.  A plot point of the introduction would be Phillips, say, destroying the quarto or allowing it to be destroyed, which makes life seem nice and inoffensive and hollow and saves him the trouble of actually faking some Shakespeare.  So in one way the warmth of the novel is attributable to the fact that, despite all his games, Arthur Phillips sat the fuck down and wrote a play in blank verse, complete with act and scene breaks, vocabulary glosses, and contextual notes.

Except it’s kind of intentionally a bad play.  Kakuktani’s remarks regarding it (“lumpy”) and Greenblatt’s thought that it is a gifted imitator lacking the genius pretty much hit the mark.  This makes me wonder.

Is the effort enough?  That Phillips actually sat down and wrote this damn thing, and there’s some value in that?  Hell, if I’m completely honest it even has a few good bits of dialogue I wish Shakespeare had written.

The best parts of the play itself by far are the Nabokovian footnotes, where Arthur Phillips argues with Random House’s hired Bardolator over the play’s authenticity, but after the genuinely intriguing and moving introduction it all seems a little rushed, truncated, tacked on.  Suffice it to say I’m intensely ambivalent about that, then, but the novel is still definitely worth a read.   Shapiro, I think, says it best when he calls this a work of literary criticism disguised as fiction: it does this neat thing where all of the themes of seeming, of authenticity and art and the stage and life, in Shakespeare’s plays get flipped around and turned on the man himself (if he ever existed).

The novel raises the possibility — one I’m partial to — that our idea of Shakespeare is more important than the mundane reality of him, and I don’t mean that in an exactly rapturous Bloomian sense.  It recalls the authorship debate, and at least some parts of Phillips’s novel suggest that it’s unimportant whether a man from Stratford wrote these plays, or if Bacon or Oxford or Arthur Phillips or his dad did, because if there is some nebulous, numinous cloud that envelops all these people which we in aggregate recognize as Shakespeare, then that might be all that matters.

Here is a bonus review of DFW’s The Pale King, which I read just before I read Tragedy:

The Pale King is unfinished.  This does not stop it from being better than Infinite Jest.  I will not be one of those reviews who says “Maybe it was intentionally unfinished, huh” because though I am something of a formalist I am not that committed to deifying DFW.  What we have is observably unfinished, assembled by an editor, and we have notes to hint at what might have been more.  Still, in its broken state, The Pale King is better than IJ.  IJ had me and lost me several times, but TPK kept me for the whole way through, could have kept me for more, had there been more.  It is a number of adjectives.  It is beautiful, it is funny, it is sad, it is infuriating, it is perhaps the most terrifying (literally frightening, scary) thing I have read in the past five years.  I do not know if something can be so unfinished and still count as a masterpiece but in my head it most definitely can.

King of Texas (2002)

Howdy friends and neighbors!  I’ve spent the last week in Seattle, with today being when I am in transit home.  I missed last week, I know, but to make up for it try this on for size: a review of a nine-year-old made-for-cable movie!  It’s King of Texas, starring the one and only Patrick Stewart.  The review itself is not entirely concerned with how good or bad the film is (it’s not very good) but investigating a strange intersection of Shakespeare, the genre history of the Western, and critiques of American expansion.  Hooray!

The opening shots of the 2002 made-for-TV film King of Texas are in a sense misleading.  A wide (as wide as you can get with full frame, anyway) view of the arid desert; a focus on the harsh, almost phantasmagoric inhospitality of the landscape, complete with corpses hanging from a gothic skeleton tree; suddenly, there emerges an actual human being — a close-up on the sweating, scowling face of a nameless man.  You might think you’re watching a film in the style of Sergio Leone, who made shots like this his trademark, or you may at least think Texas is going to be simply a Leone imitation: a faux-Spaghetti Western, a tale set in a  strange world where the American frontier is recast as an amoral comic book, with larger-than-life characters doing larger-than-life deeds.

But as I have said, these opening shots are misleading.  King of Texas is not a Spaghetti Western, imitation or otherwise, but in fact falls in line with the Spaghetti Western’s antecedent, the Revisionist Western.  Added to this is the fact that Texas is not just some made-for-TV Western conforming to a particular subgenre; it’s all of that and it’s a reimagining of Shakespeare’s King Lear.  Keeping these things in mind can unlock a lot of the film’s more interesting aspects.

In a wholly personal judgment, I think Lear as Shakespeare wrote it is more suited (if anything) to a Spaghetti Western; it’s really a jumbled kaleidoscope of increasingly fractured and bizarre occurrences.  There’s a staggering amount of major and minor characters, a winding and at times surprising plot, a quasi-supernatural storm, faked (and real) madness, the recitation of the names of a few dozen demons, a set of villains who, in the Spaghetti Western tradition, are wholly evil bastards seemingly just because they can be, and they are opposed by a group of good (really, less morally bankrupt but still highly flawed) people, all inhabiting a world that seems to have no particular moral plan or order.  Lear could be adapted rather faithfully into this context.

The fact that King of Texas is not a Spaghetti Western, then, means that some work on the part of the writers and director has gone toward tailoring the original play until it fits rather snugly into the Revisionist Western mold.  This, I think, is the cleverest aspect of the film’s production: it takes a story that can be (and often is) interpreted as amoral or nihilistic and, with what seems to be a minimum of jiggering given the re-setting, fashions from it a social and political point.  Not that Revisionist Westerns are all about social activism, but they’re more closely attuned to what we think of as social activism.  In the original Western, bad guys wear black hats and good guys wear white hats; Native Americans are savages and Mexicans are crooks; good always triumphs over evil; the sheriff marries the schoolteacher and they ride off together into the sunset as the United States of America brings order and civilization to lawless wilderness.

The Revisionist Western, as the name implies, casts a more critical eye toward the starkly black-and-white issues presented by its predecessor: ‘good guy’ and ‘bad guy’ aren’t really helpful terms, but ‘antihero’ is; sex, if present, is blunt and unromantic, swapping out the schoolteacher for the prostitute; the Indian and Mexican are victims of systematic oppression, theft, and violence; good and evil don’t really seem to exist, much less have an opportunity to go head-to-head, and if the protagonist (usually an outlaw of some stripe) doesn’t die at the end, then he probably only survives to see the end credits by selling someone else out.

King of Texas falls into the realm of the Revisionist Western, then, for multiple reasons, one of them being its decisions in regard to the actual Lear character.  There are, broadly speaking, two ways to read Lear: a comically capricious blowhard, a mad king who spends a significant amount of the play naked, or a once-great man who is losing his dignity and sanity as he ages.  In the former reading Lear is merely an object of spectacle; in the latter his actions and selfish desires provoke dislike, but his situation inspires sympathy — he is an antihero.  Texas chooses this latter route, and Patrick Stewart plays the analogue John Lear with stuffy dignity and moments of grandfatherly warmth in between bouts of childish, impetuous shouting.

But impetuousness is not, in fact, John Lear’s greatest failing, and though it is an important character flaw, it is not the one the film brings to our immediate attention.  I’ve already described the opening scenes and its corpses hanging from trees; this is our introduction into the film’s world, but Lear is nowhere to be seen.  Instead we meet a silent but obviously angry man who shows up a few scenes later at a party Lear is throwing — the man, it turns out, is a Mexican landowner named Menchaca and the hanged men from earlier are in fact his men.  He berates Lear for having them killed, but Lear insists the men were trespassing on his land and he had the right, a claim with which Menchaca takes issue.  It’s made abundantly clear that the majority of Lear’s land was seized from Menchaca’s father and other members of the Mexican gentry prior to the Alamo, and though Menchaca still owns a hacienda to the south of Lear’s ranch the property lines are more than a bit muddy.  The only thing keeping true conflict at bay is a treaty Lear and Menchaca’s father agreed to following their altercations, and the fragility of the bond demonstrated here does not bode well for Lear’s choice to cede responsibility of his holdings to his daughters.

But he does, and in predictable King Lear fashion things spin out of control pretty quickly.  His oldest daughter Susannah and her brother-in-law Highsmith (the ciphers for Goneril and Cornwall) make it known early on that they desire more than the land Lear has bequeathed them — Menchaca’s remaining property is sitting idle to the south, ripe for the taking.  This is where Texas most clearly diverges from the Lear formula (other than, of course, being set in post-Alamo Texas) and, I think, where as an adaptation or re-staging it is at its most intriguing.  In Shakespeare’s play, after Lear divides the throne between Regan and Goneril, the strife is mostly isolated — Britain bears the brunt of the old king’s mistake as the new rulers squabble and vie for power.  To set things right, help must come from outside: the exiled daughter Cordelia and her husband the King of France must invade.

In King of Texas, this is situation reversed: Lear’s successors are still squabbling and scheming, but they are the ones who stage an invasion, in this case of the land owned by Menchaca, the France analogue.  In other words, military action is not a solution to the chaos but rather an effect of it — a very powerful shift, because John Lear has made himself an important figure through wars with Mexican landowners and finally, as the movie hints, during a harrowing but victorious stand at the Alamo.  Violence — specifically warfare and violence for personal gain — is John Lear’s great sin.

Comparatively, Shakespeare gives his own Lear little to work with.  He is certainly not opposed to violence — he kills Cordelia’s executioners before his own death and rather offhandedly claims, “I have seen the day, with my good biting falchion, / I would have made them skip” (V.iii.333-334).  The point here isn’t that violence is bad, but rather that Lear used to be badass.  The discovery of Poor Tom in the storm does more to underline how he has failed morally: “I have ta’en / Too little care of this.  Take physic, pomp. / Expose thyself to feel what wretched feel, / That thou may shake the superflux to them / And show the heavens more just” (III.v.37-41).

So Lear realizes that while he’s been living the good life as a king, he’s let a lot of people go on suffering.  That’s interesting, but it’s not the overarching interest of the play; what we get from this exchange is not “Lear should have taken care of the poor” but “Lear has realized that without his status he isn’t much different than a beggar.”  There may be another past mistake — Goneril and Regan hate Lear, and maybe they have a reason, but given their personalities and actions it doesn’t seem likely they resent him for not combating poverty.  Nevertheless, other than pride, being an uncaring ruler is the only concrete fault attributed to Lear in the text.

In King of Texas, Susannah’s land-grab acts as a parallel for John Lear’s own faults — he’s reared a child who is willing to treat others (including Lear himself) as ruthlessly as he has.  Likewise, Lear’s epiphany comes not during the storm — he spends most of that time simply being crazy — but during the actual siege of Mechaca’s hacienda, when Claudia/Cordelia is killed by a stray bullet.  He finally sees warfare — the thing that has made him great — as something horrible and pointless; the grotesquerie of fighting over land hits home.  This is why King of Texas is a Revisionist Western: it  exposes the traditional ideas of the Old West and early Western films, revealing that expansion and Manifest Destiny are ultimately a brutal, immoral, and absurd business.


Tables of Memory: Fathers, Sons, and Ghosts in Ellis, King, and Shakespeare

REMINDER: you can buy Arcane #1 in print or for your ereader of choice right now, and it has a story by me!

But today I’ve gone through my archives and found this essay on Shakespeare, Stephen King, and Bret Easton Ellis, because certainly those things all belong in an essay together!  Anyway, if you’ve ever wondered how I can reconcile my love of Shakespeare with being a huge horror geek and pop culture nerd, this is probably the best example.  Please note that this essay will discuss the plots of all three texts in depth, so if for some reason you are wary of “spoilers” for old books, beware!

Read, enjoy, comment if you like, and so on.

Tables of Memory:

Fathers, Sons, and Ghosts in Ellis, King, and Shakespeare

–What is a ghost? Stephen said with tingling energy.  One who has faded into impalpability through death, through absence, through change of manners.  …  Who is the ghost from limbo patrum, returning to the world that has forgotten him?  Who is King Hamlet?

– Joyce, Ulysses


Bret Easton Ellis’s Lunar Park is unquestionably connected to Hamlet — one of the novel’s epigraphs is Hamlet’s vow after the ghost of his father tells him to seek revenge in I.v: “From the table of my memory / I’ll wipe away all trivial fond records, / All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past / That youth and observation copied there.”  The bulk of its action also takes place on Elsinore Lane, near Ophelia Boulevard and within spitting distance of Fortinbras Mall and Horatio Park.  Thematically, Ellis seems to concern himself with the relationships between fathers and sons — and how the son remembers the father who has passed on, as with Hamlet’s vow after meeting with Old Hamlet’s ghost.  And yet in addition to Shakespeare, another writer looms large over Ellis’s novel.  Following an incident where Bret-the-Narrator storms into his family’s house, drunk and high, wielding a handgun in order to fend off the serial killer he thinks is hiding out on the second floor, his wife Jayne refuses to let him sleep in her bed.  Bret brings up an earlier conversation they had about starting over, about “new beginnings,” to which Jayne replies, “You screwed that up sometime last night …. You screwed that up with your big Jack Torrance routine” (219).

Jack Torrance is the protagonist of The Shining, a 1977 horror novel by Stephen King, dealing with substance abuse, familial disintegration, and — a concern it shares with Hamlet and by extension Lunar Park — the relationships between fathers and sons.  I suggest, however, that Jayne’s seemingly offhand comment is a single explicit reference to the text from which Ellis draws most of King’s themes, giving them center-stage in a book that simultaneously rewrites Hamlet and The Shining, bringing to light elements of the former that are more obscure in the latter and raising the possibility that The Shining is itself another rewriting of Hamlet.  What this means is that Ellis’s novel, being the most recent text, does not simply include conscious references to Shakespeare and King, but embarks on what might be termed a renovation of both works, a very direct campaign to dismantle, remodel, and improve Shakespeare’s play and King’s novel so that the end result (to carry the house metaphor) has different molding, flashier wallpaper, new windows, more rooms, but still rests on what is essentially the same foundation.

This foundation, the key element that unites all three of these texts, is the way they dramatize the relationships between fathers and sons, and the mechanism of this dramatization is the supernatural — specifically the concepts of haunting and ghosts.  A ghost in fiction, speaking in very broad terms, is simply an indicator of trauma, of the past exerting some sort of malign or at least upsetting influence on the present.  In other words, the ghost in fiction can be a very powerful tool for presenting the way in which a character’s memory influences his actions — the past has an effect on the present because the living are constantly beset by their memories of the dead.  This is most concisely encapsulated in Hamlet’s meeting with Old Hamlet’s ghost: Hamlet’s dead father, or some demon taking that form, is speaking to him, calling him to action.

But Hamlet, no matter what he vows, is placed in a situation where he is uncertain of his father figures; Old Hamlet, a headstrong and commanding warrior, has been replaced on the throne by the physically weak but wordy and cunning Claudius, and while Hamlet admires his namesake more he wonders why his mother should marry his “father’s brother, but no more like my father / Than I to Hercules” (I.ii.157-158).  Hamlet’s concern here is primarily why his mother should have remarried so quickly – “within a month.”  Yet as Hamlet contemplates the situation, he remarks: “O, most wicked speed, to post / With such dexterity to incestuous sheets! / It is not, nor it cannot come to good. / But break, my heart, for I must hold my tongue” (161-164).

To hold one’s tongue means to stop speaking, which of course makes sense as other characters have just entered the room, but it also suggest Hamlet must not say something in particular.  What could he possible feel so strongly about?  Voicing his dismay the marriage?  Everyone seems to know he’s upset.  Rather, I believe has made a realization, and the reason for his mother’s quick marriage has become very clear: if Gertrude did not in fact love Old Hamlet as she seemed, she may have been having an affair with Claudius for years, thus explaining the speedy marriage; and if this is the case, then there is a strong chance that Claudius is Hamlet’s biological father.  After all, Old Hamlet was a fearsome warrior, like Hercules, and Claudius is a talky intellectual; Hamlet knows he is nothing like Hercules, but in this scene he suddenly understands that he is a young man who likes to read books and hear himself speak — he’s more like Claudius than the man he’s believed to be his father.

Hamlet, perhaps unaware of what he is doing, even acts like Claudius for most of the play: we know that when Old Hamlet wanted something done (eg annexing part of Norway) he simply challenged the rival king to single combat; when Claudius wants something done (eg, the king dead and the throne and queen all to himself) he sets up an elaborate plot involving ear poison and a lie about a serpent in an orchard.  Hamlet seems to take after Claudius, in that when he wants to exact his revenge on his uncle he must first feign madness and put on a play in order to determine Claudius’s guilt.  If Hamlet is Claudius’s son, the implication might be that he naturally acts as his father does.

Yet Hamlet also has a moment of self-realization: while being escorted to England, he is struck by the similarity between Fortinbras’s self-motivation and Old Hamlet’s escapades, and wonders: “Why yet I live to say ‘This thing’s to do,’ / Sith I have cause, and strength, and means, and will / To do ’t” (IV.iv.47-49).  Hamlet’s epiphany here is that — regardless of who his biological father is — he still has the power to act and to choose how he acts; if Fortinbras can be so forceful despite his own father falling to Old Hamlet, then so can young Hamlet, even if he might be Claudius’s son.  And from this point on in the play Hamlet does away with scheming, boldly doing battle with pirates, escaping back to Denmark, and calmly and confidently accepting the invitation to duel to Laertes.

Old Hamlet is distanced from his son by death; Claudius (if the usurper is indeed his father) has been absent for most of Hamlet’s life, and is furthermore estranged from Hamlet by his crime.  One possible point of Hamlet is that the young prince must make the choice of whether to heed the call of not one father, but two possible fathers; to choose not only to heed the call but to also choose which call to heed: will Hamlet do as the ghost of the old king or the nature of the new king bids him?  To choose one father over the other means to choose one way of acting over another; for Hamlet, for the son, it means choosing what sort of life he wants to live.  This is not only the crux of Shakespeare’s play, but the crux of the two rewritings of it I will discuss, and while Hamlet contains only one ghost in a minor role, the supernatural is unleashed with a vengeance in the other texts.

Of the three texts, King’s The Shining comes the closest to embodying the typical modern conception of a ghost or haunted house tale.  It is the story of the Torrance family (Jack, Wendy, and six-year-old son Danny) who are hired as the winter caretakers of the haunted Overlook Hotel, an establishment with a sordid history of illegal gambling, mob connections, suicide, and murder.  When the snow piles high, trapping the family inside the hotel, the Overlook’s past begins to seep out of the woodwork; it becomes apparent that the hotel itself has been bestowed with some sort of sentience by the aggregate emotional trauma experienced within it, and it desires to add Danny, who is a powerful psychic and telepath, to its menagerie of specters.  This is all suitably pulpy, the kind of supernatural melodrama that King is most well known for, and if the hotel simply used its collection of ghostly mobsters and turn-of-the-century business moguls to accomplish its goals the novel wouldn’t be much more than that.  However, it takes on a deceptive complexity in the way the Overlook chooses to attack the Torrance family: from the inside out, using Jack as its agent in the attempted murder of Danny.

The Overlook’s ghosts are unconnected to the Torrances, but when the hotel goes to work on Jack its methods become deeply personal.  He is a recovering alcoholic when the story begins, a point made clear in the early chapters.  As the novel develops, we learn two important details: first, that Jack has trouble controlling his temper (he broke Danny’s arm a few years before and was recently fired from his teaching job for assaulting a student) and Jack’s father was similarly violent and alcoholic, implying that his present behavior is tied to his father’s abuse.  During one of Jack’s more lengthy flashback sequences, we learn that he idolized his father, completely innocent as to the nature of his dad’s alcoholism.  However,“[l]ove began to curdle at nine, when his father put his mother into the hospital with his cane” during an irrational, drunken dispute at the dinner table:

[Jack’s father was] up out of his chair and around to where she lay dazed on the carpet, … [his] jowls quivering as he spoke to her just as he had always spoken to his children during such outbursts.  “Now.  Now by Christ.  I guess you’ll take your medicine now.  Goddam puppy.  Whelp.  Come and take your medicine.”  The cane had gone up and down on her seven more times before [Jack’s brothers] got hold of him, dragged him away, wrestled the cane out of his hand.  Jack … knew exactly how many blows it had been because each soft whump against his mother’s body had been engraved on his memory like the irrational swipe of a chisel on stone. (224-225)

The hotel, which appears to be psychic in its own right, uses Jack’s memories of his father to manipulate him; it conjures alcohol for him to drink, it speaks in his father’s voice through the Overlook’s emergency radio; his father’s bludgeoning of his mother is reminiscent of Jack’s eventual assault on his wife and son with a roque mallet, and the hotel (speaking to Jack through the person of Delbert Grady, the last caretaker to murder his family in the Overlook) casts the necessity of murder in terms of patriarchal punishment and discipline: “[Your son] needs to be corrected, if you don’t mind me saying so.  He needs a good talking-to, and perhaps a bit more” (352).

Jack has a choice to do as the spirit(s) of the Overlook command him or to protect his family; his wife Wendy understanding the crossroads her husband stands at, and casts it in very telling terms: “[Jack] looked to her like an absurd twentieth-century Hamlet, an indecisive figure so mesmerized by onrushing tragedy that he was helpless to divert its course or alter it in any way” (297).  The hotel, like the demon Hamlet initially supposes the apparition of the old king to be, is a monster in the form of Jack’s father, calling him to terrible action, and Jack, unfortunately, answers.  This culminates in him echoing his dad’s drunken cries while he stalks Wendy and Danny through the hotel corridors:  “You’ll take your goddam medicine for this, I promise you!” (383).  In a way, by making this decision, by siding with the Overlook, Jack becomes his father.[1]

This raises an interesting problem for King: if the nature of trauma is somehow recursive, if the sort of abusive father-son relationships The Shining explores are actually a self-replicating phenomenon, then what does the future hold for Danny?  This is remedied by Danny’s own unique nature; the manifestation of his psychic abilities is a ghostly young man he calls Tony, a figure the adults around him believe to be some sort of imaginary friend.  But Tony shows Danny the future, gives him hints as to what will come, and before Danny’s final confrontation with Jack at the end of the novel he sees Tony more closely than ever before:

And now Tony stood directly in front of him, and looking at Tony was like looking into a magic mirror and seeing himself in ten years ….  The hair was light blond like his mother’s, and yet the stamp on his features was that of his father, as if Tony — as if the Daniel Anthony Torrance that would someday be — was a halfling caught between father and son, a ghost of both, a fusion.  (420-421)

Danny is saved by this vision, by the implicit realization that while he may resemble his father he is not and does not have to be a copy of him; Danny cannot fully shed Jack’s influence and legacy of abuse, perhaps, but he still is (and will be) his own person, and is not doomed to imitate his father’s (or his father’s father’s) mistakes.  This sort of generational tension, the eventual self-realization of the son, and the personal nature of haunting are all Hamlet-esque elements of The Shining that Bret Ellis draws to the fore of Lunar Park, which he admitted in a Today Show interview to be his “homage to Stephen King.”

In the first chapter of Lunar Park Bret-the-Narrator gives an extensive overview of his early home life and his rise to fame as a young novelist in the 80s, with special attention paid to his troubled relationship with his father: “[M]y father had always been a problem — careless, abusive, alcoholic, vain, angry, paranoid — and even after my parents divorced … his power and control continued to loom over my family” (6).  He repeatedly mentions that leaving California for college in New England was a type of “escape,” and his unexpected success as a writer granted him a financial independence from his father that allowed the man to be cut from his life almost entirely.  When Bret’s father died, Bret explains, he stored the ashes in a California bank vault rather than scatter them in the ocean, and he let himself forget about them.

Yet despite his attempts to distance himself from his father, Bret falls into many of his dad’s bad habits; though he’s not physically abusive, he’s careless, alcoholic, and vain: “And soon I became very adept at giving the impression I was listening to you when in fact I was dreaming about myself: my career, all the money I had made, the way my life had blossomed and definde me, how recklessly the world allowed me to behave” (12).  The real meat of the novel lies outside the first chapter; Bret settles down with movie star Jayne Dennis and her two children: Sarah, from one of Jayne’s previous relationships, and most importantly Robby, who is actually Bret’s biological son, born after a tryst between Bret and Jayne a dozen years before their marriage (and, notably, conceived in the aftermath of Bret’s father’s death — Robby is named after the deceased).  Bret is “thrust into the role of husband and father” (38) and takes up teaching at a New England college.  However, the situation is fragile; Bret wants to continue the self-centered drug-abusing lifestyle he’s used to, while his new position as part of a family demands some measure of responsibility.

The tension between Bret’s old life and the requirements of his new one would make satisfactory fodder for a normal dramatic novel or perhaps a second-chance romantic comedy but, like The Shining, Lunar Park uses the supernatural as a vocabulary for (self)destructive behavior, the resulting disintegration of the family unit, and the ability of the past to encroach on the present.  Bret-the-Narrator (who is to some degree based on Bret Ellis the writer) wrote a novel called American Psycho about the serial killer Patrick Bateman who was, he confesses, inspired by his father: a rich, successful, vain man with a propensity toward staggering and horrific violence.  Bret is a little ashamed and afraid of the novel; he likens the experience of writing it to having been possessed.  And when Patrick Bateman (who for all intents and purposes is the conglomeration of all of Bret’s negative feelings about his father) shows up at a Halloween party, driving the vintage car Bret’s father drove, he becomes understandably upset.

The idyllic existence Bret has managed to construct for himself becomes more and more uncanny: he receives apparently blank emails from the bank where his father’s ashes are, a series of murders mimicking those perpetrated by Bateman in American Psycho occur in the surrounding area, Sarah’s toy bird takes on a life of its own and begins eviscerating stray animals, and boys Robby’s age are disappearing all over the county.  Throughout the ordeal Bret is the only character who suspects that something supernatural is at the root of what is happening — only he seems to see Bateman, or a college student named Clay who resembles both the narrator of Ellis’s first novel and Bret himself and perhaps even a younger version of his father.  Bret grows intensely paranoid and afraid, confused about what is happening around him but unwilling to explain it to anyone.  This stress only makes his drinking and drug use worse, and when he acts rashly (such as the episode recounted at the beginning of this essay, where Jayne compares him to Jack Torrance) the people around him assume drug use is finally taking its toll.  Much as in The Shining then, the supernatural is a mechanism by which 1) substance abuse is worsened, and 2) the family is forced apart.  Though Bret doesn’t attempt to murder anyone, the supernatural forces at work intensify the weaknesses already present in his relationships with his family, and they are particularly harsh for him because they are in some way related to his dad.

This is especially troubling for Bret because he finds that Robby treats him with much the same distaste that he treated his own father: after ignoring his son for twelve years Robby is a resentful stranger, and Bret’s inability to understand his son leads him to believe that the disappearing boys are actually running away from home, working together in some sort of conspiracy to escape their parents, and that Robby will soon join them.  Bret’s distrust of his son is also one of the key facets of the way in which Ellis works with Hamlet, in this case actually restaging an aspect of Shakespeare’s play while maintaining the notion of recursive or generational trauma found in The Shining.  Bret takes on the role of Claudius, the scheming usurper of the throne who is doing his best to guess the mind and motives of his petulant stepson, Hamlet/Robby.  But Bret hasn’t always been Claudius — he was once, in his own way, Hamlet His father, he tells us, “had no faith in my talent as a writer … [and] demanded that I attend business school at USC,” and despite this, Bret chooses to go to college in New Hampshire: “My father, typically enraged, refused to pay tuition.  However my grandfather — who at the time was being sued by his son over a money matter so circuitous and complicated that I’m still not sure how or why it began — footed the bill” (8).

The relationship between Brett and his father here mirrors — though not exactly — that between Hamlet and Claudius in I.ii, when Claudius orders his stepson not to leave Elsinore to return to school at Wittenberg.  Ellis switches things up by doing the opposite of what would happen in a Hamlet adaptation with closer analogues: he lets Bret, the Hamlet character in this scenario, go off to college against the wishes of the father.  However, Bret escapes to college only because of his grandfather, who in turn has a soured relationship with his own son.  Bret’s grandfather sends Bret to school just to spite Bret’s father, who in the meanwhile is carrying out a bitter legal battle against him.  This is an important move on Ellis’s part because it shows us that this Hamlet-like estrangement between fathers and sons is not some one-off event, but like King’s conception: a generational phenomenon, something that happens over and over again.  There is not just one scheming Claudius and one avenging Hamlet, but an interlocking history of them, and they move in and out of their roles when appropriate, as they age and father their own children.

Ellis is notable in his handling of the self-realization or self-determination of the son, the attempt to break out of the shadow of the father — because unlike Shakespeare and King, he shows that it may go wrong.  Bret ran away to college and essentially disowned his father, demonizing him in American Psycho, all in an attempt to free himself.  However, as Bret admits early on: “As much as I wanted to escape his influence, I couldn’t.  It had soaked into me, shaped me into the man I was becoming” (7).  So the escape was not entirely successful; we know this because we’ve seen Bret become a sort of lo-fi version of his vain, alcoholic father, though it doesn’t become obvious to Bret himself until he sees that Patrick Bateman (along with all the other monsters he created out of fear of his father) has come back.

“…[S]pirits who show themselves between night and dawn want something,” a paranormal investigator explains to Bret, bringing to mind Old Hamlet’s ghost walking at night and returning to the fires of purgatory at dawn.  He goes on: “It means they want to frighten you …. It means they want you to realize something” (340).  Like the Overlook Hotel masquerading as Jack Torrance’s father, or Old Hamlet appearing before his son, the appearance of Patrick Bateman, the mysterious emails, and every other supernatural facet of the novel is also, in a way, Bret’s father calling him to action — in this case, though, not murder or revenge per se, but to right old wrongs.

What the wrong seems to be, in the end, is that fact that Bret did his best to wipe his father from his memory, to forget him entirely, to leave his ashes locked in a bank vault in California, and only call upon him should he need fodder for a despicable character in a novel.  And Bret’s father probably was vindictive and abusive — though Bret is unreliable we have no real reason to doubt that, he probably doesn’t hate his father without reason.  But it seems that at some point, without Bret realizing it, his father changed.  When he finds an email video attachment showing his father’s death, Bret sees his father as he truly was at the end of his life: the product of a selfish, abusive existence, a weak old man who died alone and unloved and knew that was how he was dying.  And because he has copied the worst traits of his father despite himself, Bret is in danger of meeting the same end, of losing his son and everyone close to him and dying alone, pathetic, and reviled.

At the end of the novel, we discover that Bret had one opportunity to change this course of events.  The last time he met with his father in person was for dinner in LA; the older man was “fat and drunk” and Bret wonders to himself, “What if I had done something that day?” (394).  He elaborates:

The decision was: should you disarm him?  That was the word I remember: disarm.  Should you tell him something that might not be the truth but would get the desired reaction?  And what was I going to convince him of, even though it was a lie?  Did it matter?  Whatever it was, it would constitute a new beginning.  The immediate line: You’re my father and I love you.  I remember staring at the white tablecloth and contemplating this.  Could I actually do it?  I didn’t believe it, and it wasn’t true, but I wanted it to be. … I realized it could actually happen, and that by saying this I would save him.  I suddenly saw a future with my father.  But the check came … and I simply stood up and walked away …[,] thinking I could just let go of the damage that a father can do to a son.  (394-395)

Bret’s attempts to escape, to determine his own life, result only in tragedy.  His father is fractured, both in Bret’s memory and in his manifestations in the outside world: the human part of his father, the part that deserved pity and forgiveness, has been overtaken by Bret’s fear and hate for the man.  Added to that, Bret becomes a copy of his father, a repetition, and when he confirms that Robby is indeed part of a conspiracy of sons attempting to escape their parents, he finds himself in a situation analogous to that of his dad years before, when a young Bret insisted on going to college in New England and, once he achieved independent success, attempted to sever all ties.

Also like his father, Bret is unsuccessful in maintaining a connection with his son; by the end of the novel Robby has left him, just as Bret left his father, heading off “to the land where every boy forced into bravery and quickness retreats: a new life” (397).  Their final meeting in person, many years after the main events of the novel, mirrors that of Bret and his father: they have lunch together, and Bret is depressed and high on heroin.  But Robby doesn’t sit passively by, waiting for the check; he speaks, he tells his father that everything is okay, that he is “not lost anymore,” and when Bret tells his son he is sorry, Robby says he understands (396).  As Bret, after much denial and hardship, heeds the call of his father and forgives him for his wrongs, so does Robby forgive Bret, preemptively ending the father-son cycle of trauma and haunting – should we choose to believe Bret is writing the truth, and not a wish.

Hamlet puts forth that a son has a choice about which of his fathers (or father-figures) to listen to, whether they are estranged from the son by the son’s hate or by the father’s death.  The Shining holds that a son must not be his father, must contain the part of him that resembles his forebear, for not doing so means repeating his father’s mistakes and destroying himself.  Lunar Park also shows that a son must make a decision, must determine what sort of person he will be, and choose his own life; yet in fleeing his father’s influence, in containing that aspect of his being, he runs the risk of not actually escaping, but only continuing a cycle of resentment and fear with his own sons.

Every Hamlet, fearful and suspicious of his father, may grow up to be a Claudius, fearful and suspicious of his sons; every guilty Claudius may end up a wronged Old Hamlet, tortured in the fires of a purgatory real or imagined and begging to be set free.  To really make peace with his father and the past, a son must be forgiving; he must recognize that his father probably faced many of the same decisions he faces (or will face) and perhaps did not choose wisely; every father was a son once.  This is how the cycle is broken; this is how to make peace with the past and one’s memory of it.  This, Ellis seems to say, this is how ghosts are finally laid to rest.


Works Cited

Ellis, Bret Easton.  Lunar Park. 2005.  New York: Vintage, 2006.

“Easton Ellis on Lunar Park book.”  The Today Show.  Prod. NBC Studios, 8/15/2005.


Accessed 11/26/2009.

King, Stephen.  “Before the Play.”  Whispers Magazine, 1982.

King, Stephen.  The Shining.  New York: Doubleday, 1977.

Shakespeare, William and Barbara A. Mowat, Paul Werstine (eds).  Folger Shakespeare Library: Hamlet.  1992.  New York: Washington Square Press, 2002.

[1] This bit is hammered home quite soundly in an earlier draft of the manuscript, in a prologue King excised.  Eventually released as a standalone story called “Before the Play” and now extremely difficult to find, the prologue gives a lengthy history of the Overlook and includes a short vignette from Jack’s childhood:  “In that long hot summer of 1953, the summer Jacky Torrance turned six, his father came home drunk one night from the hospital and broke Jacky’s arm. He almost killed the boy. He was drunk.”  Not only does this parallel Jack’s breaking of Danny’s arm, the vignette ends with young Jack passing out from the pain, thinking feverishly to himself, “What you see is what you’ll be.


A Serious Game Part 6: The Only Way to Lose Is Not to Play

It’s been a long, crazy journey through A Serious Game, but with this entry the series draws to a close.  Just think back on what we’ve learned about the way fiction and reality mingle and and what this means for us. After that I did my best to make Harlan Ellison into the biggest bogeyman of 20th century speculative fiction.  I allowed myself a digression into ethical action and postmodern disillusionment, and then more or less took back almost everything I said before about Harlan Ellison.  Today the essay draws to a close, and I offer a few reflections and some tentative suggestions about how we can be better — more ethical — readers in the future, and affirm what I think is my purpose in the study of literature.

MacIntyre points out that the good we receive from ethical practice “can only be achieved by subordinating ourselves within the practice in our relationship to other practitioners” (191).  This is why I study literature: to become more aware of myself as one person in the context of many others, and more conscientious in my ethical evaluations.  This comes about through my reading of diverse texts, but also through my relationships with other practitioners: reading a wide selection of criticism on those texts, and my individual interactions with professors and fellow students.  I have played a game throughout this essay, at varying levels, with texts that I enjoy for myriad reasons, and in writing about it I have invited you to play the game with me.

Wayne Booth offers the metaphor of a book-as-friend, with some books being more worthy of our company than others, but with all of them, generally, deserving of at least minimal attention to determine that.  I think this is workable, but for my part I would like to combine it with a notion implied by my Borges epigraph, the idea of the author-as-chessmaster.  In ethical reading we are playing a friendly game of chess — but we must remain alert whenever we are in danger of being drawn into check, or sometimes cheated.  In a game of chess between friends, or potential friends, victory is not important.  Getting to know one another is: spotting your opponents’ gambits and strategies, their strengths and weaknesses, and learning how they think.  Above all, we must recognize that any bad turn is not indicative of some inherent, all-consuming malevolence on our opponents’ part, but rather due to the fact that texts are the products — us in our act of reading, and the author in his or her act of writing, and the cultures that gives rise to our expectations in either case — and therefore capable of every prejudice and imperfection we are heir to.  Just as chessmasters are not angels, they are by no means demons.

Interacting with stories is a game insofar as doing so is quite selfish: I read the texts because I enjoy them, though my reasons are slightly different in each case.  My approach to stories is not that reading them is at the forefront practical, in the same way washing the car or buying groceries is practical.  But I am also aware of the serious ethical dimension of this game; texts may invite me to think some things that I know to be wrong, or in subtler instances, not think about something that I would recognize as wrong.  I can anticipate and block these moves because my life, both everyday and scholastic, has trained me otherwise.  MacIntyre claims that inherent to the future of virtue is “the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained” (263).

The reliance on a community is what makes ethics problematic; differences between communities will engender different ethical approaches.  But while the hope of an ideal ethical communal space is probably just as much of a pipedream as true ethical universality, some grasp at that community is why I believe the study of literature is important.  Academic study initiates the student into a practice of thinking and acting where both aesthetic and practical considerations of texts matter, a community where concerns about a text’s stance on class, gender, race, or economic policy can be discussed alongside a text’s language, form or genre.  These modes of reading are not exclusive, and this is where the possibility of ethical reading flourishes.  A morally bankrupt work, like The Jew of Malta, may be immensely entertaining, while a formally clumsy and sometimes boring work such as Edward P. Jones’s The Known World may have a vibrant ethical core.  An ethical reader, active in a civil, intellectual and moral community, should have the power to appraise both of these works, enjoy them for the reasons they are enjoyable, and allow that enjoyment to be tempered by the ways in which they falter.

Ethical reading is a serious game, and it is through a wide-ranging and conscientious study of literature and criticism that we learn how to play it.  I did not always read ethically; it was a gradual process, lasting many years and only becoming a conscious issue as my college courses exposed me to the many natures and schools of criticism and interpretation available.  I had to learn understand that literature did something.  I had to learn, first, how stories could shape my world and the life I lived in it.  If literature is a force that contributes to making us who we are, it follows that our assent to stories can make us better or worse people.  In the case of my childhood encounters with Old Hickory, it seemed incredibly easy to assent to a story entirely, to just believe.  As this dawned on me, I began to wonder: how likely was it that I unthinkingly accepted or applied patently untrue or unhealthy narratives?  How many of them, instead of teaching me to tread very softly on hardwood floors, were teaching me to demonize, discount, or oppress?  How many of them were convincing me to harm myself or others?  And how would I deal with stories that did this,  but were still beautiful or elegant or clever in some other way?  Booth makes a poignant analogy of this dilemma: “…[Stories] offer every opportunity to miseducate ourselves, and therein lies the task of ethical criticism: to help us avoid that miseducation.  The trick is always to find ways of doing that without tearing the butterfly apart in our hands” (477).

I think this is the key: the butterfly is in our hands.  We are not powerless, but in fact are given a very important task as readers.  Barthes’s idea of a mediator applies just as well to readers as authors, for as Eco suggests, the reader is a “fundamental ingredient not only of the process of storytelling but also of the tale itself. …[A text] cannot say everything about the world.  It hints at and then asks the reader to fill in a whole series of gaps” (Walks 1, 3).  The text has the power to shape us, yes, but it is not an autocrat; we can resist and to some degree shape the text.  To believe, though, that people and literature should be good — or should be made good — for all times and places is fallacious.  In understanding how narratives do make us who we are, we must also be aware of the ways in which narratives could shape us but do not or should not, because they probably have shaped others in those ways, and we could just as easily have been shaped.

We must play our games cautiously and wisely, we must maintain intellectual and moral civility, for the things at our disposal — our literature, our narratives, the building blocks of ourselves and those around us, the butterflies and the chess-pieces — are fragile.

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland.  “The Death of the Author.”  Image — Music — Text.  Trans. Stephen Heath. NY: Hill and Wang, 1977. 142-148.

Booth, Wayne C.  The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.

Borges, Jorge Luis. “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.”  Labyrinths.  1962. Trans. James E. Irby.  New York: Modern Library, 1983.

Dickens, Charles.  Great Expectations. 1860-61.  Ed. Charlotte Mitchell.  London: Penguin, 2003.

Eco, Umberto.  Five Moral Pieces.  1997.  Trans. Alastair McEwen.  New York: Harcourt, 2001.

—.  Six Walks in the Fictional Woods.  1994.  Boston: Harvard University Press, 2004.

Ellison, Harlan. “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ said the Ticktockman.”  The Essential Ellison.  Ed. Terry Dowling, et al.  1987.  New York: Morpheus International, 2001. 877-886.

Gardner, John. On Moral Fiction. 1978.  New York: Basic Books, 2000.

Gregory, Marshall.  Shaped by Stories: The Ethical Power of Narratives.  Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2009.

Johnson, Samuel.  “Rambler No. 4”.  1750.

MacIntyre, Alasdair.  After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory.  1981.  Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe.  “A Defense of Poetry.” 1821

Wilde, Oscar.  “The Decay of Lying.”  1891.

Wallace, David Foster.  “Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky.”  Consider the Lobster.  2005.  New York: Black Bay Books, 2007.

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.

A Serious Game Part 4: Ethics, chiptunes, and DFW

Now we pass the midway point in A Serious Game, my senior essay on the study of literature.  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. Today, I’m going to talk out of my ass about ethics!  To make up for it listen to the following song for a while.

Let me take this opportunity to extend the tiniest olive branch to Gardner; I think he is wrong, but I also think he means well.  The greatest schism in his argument is one I don’t think we can heal, but we can work with it.  Ethical reading should take into account the question of imitation versus understanding, especially the fact that people can and will do both, and above all, that these are actions that lie with the reader.  Gardner’s folly is that he places too much emphasis on the individual writer of fiction — for him, it is the writer’s responsibility to pick the correct morals, the correct sympathies, and the appropriate understandings.  To a degree that’s hopefully true; we’d like to believe that every writer is at heart David Foster Wallace’s Dostoevsky, who

wrote fiction about stuff that’s really important.  He wrote fiction about identity, moral value, death, will, sexual vs. spiritual love, greed, freedom, reason, faith, suicide.  And he did it without ever reducing his characters to mouthpieces or his books to tracts.  His concern was always what it is to be a human being — that is, how to be an actual person, someone whose life is informed by values and principles, instead of just an especially shrewd kind of self-preserving animal. (265)

Unfortunately not every writer is Dostoevsky, who may have indeed been a great and rare intellect,[1] but what we have here is Wallace’s reading of Dostoevsky.  It is in the reader, I suggest, that the true responsibility for an ethical literature may reside; this does not immediately solve my problems, though.  For every reader who responds as enthusiastically as Wallace, there is probably another reader who finds Dostoevsky absolutely depraved, or worse, so boring as to not even merit reading.  I can give Dostoevsky a benefit of a doubt, though: surely he wrestled with ethics and the meaning of being a person when writing, and I can commend him for it.  But what do I say about Dostoevsky’s readers, who could have such disparate views?

This confusion mirrors the trouble we may have with moral criticism in and of itself.  As Alasdair MacIntyre says, in our current culture, the problem with ethical debates is that our “rival premises are such that we possess no rational way of weighting the claims of one as against another” (8).  We believe all moral outlooks are matters of individual choice or persuasion, essentially incomparable, and simultaneously we assert that the only ‘valid’ sort of moral outlook would be one that is demonstrably universal.  The confusion holds true for ethical appraisal of literature; if John Gardner looks at “Harlequin” he wants to see an indication that Harlan Ellison is in some way an individual moral human being, and at the same time confirmation that these personal morals are in fact aspects of a universally applicable ethos.  MacIntyre’s assertion is that our ethical maps have been scrambled because we think of morals in terms of individual judgment; the individualist stance assumes that “the self is detachable from its social and historical roles and stauses” (MacIntyre 221).

Morality, MacIntyre argues, is only intelligible in a context.  Human beings are only moral agents when they are embedded in social and historical networks and traditions, which can and do vary, and so any grasp at a flawless moral universality is a snipe hunt.  MacIntyre ties this notion of tradition with that of narrative:

…man is in his actions and practice, as well as in his fictions, essentially a story-telling animal.  He is not essentially, but becomes through his history, a teller of stories that aspire to truth.  But the key question for men is not about their own authorship; I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’  We enter human society, that is, with one or more imputed characters — roles into which we have been drafted — and we have to learn what they are in order to be able to understand how others respond to us and how our responses to them are apt to be construed.  (216)

In focusing on moral actions as matters of only individual agency, we are denying ourselves the scripts that tell us how we should act within context as one human being among many, and at the same time we deny ourselves the very mechanism by which — like Pip, finding himself drafted into many roles by others — we even come to understand ourselves as individuals.  Ethics in this sense is always relational or situational, and cannot be extracted from its contexts.  It takes a different kind of courage to stand up to an unjust friend than it does to stand up to an unjust family member, teacher, or political leader.

To phrase it succinctly: ethical action is cooperative, so how I treat you is dependent on how you treat me, and vice-versa.  If I am grouchy and irritable with you, I have no good reason to expect you to be kind and open with me, but if you are, then I may be inclined to not be so grouchy anymore.  (If I remain grouchy, however, I shouldn’t be surprised when you stop talking to me.)  Eco, who we have also seen speak of the narrative networks we use to constitute identity, takes a similar approach to ethics:  “The ethical dimension begins when the other appears on the scene.  Every law, moral or juridical as it may be, regulates interpersonal relationships, including those with an other who imposes the law” (MP 22).  The other is necessary for any thought of ethics, but also for any thought of ourselves: “[I]t is the other, it is his look, that defines and forms us.  Just as we cannot live without eating or sleeping, we cannot understand who we are without the look and the response of the other” (MP 22).

The author — or if you like, the text, or the implied author, what Eco calls the “[narrative] voice that speaks to us affectionately … that wants us beside it” (Walks 15) — serves the function of the other in any act of reading.  In reading, we are not only asked to listen to the fiction, but to listen openly and politely, to give ourselves over; recall Booth’s comments about all narrative being rhetoric.  Readers are invited to change in some way how they think and by that token, to some extent who they are.  This change occurs in relation to the implied author, who “foresees as a collaborator” (Walks 9) a certain type of reader willing to notice the text’s cues and clues, pick up the story’s hints, and follow along with the narrative until the end.  It is human instinct, perhaps, to assent to this narrative voice, as Gregory Marshall supposes:

Our impulse for stories is, in fact, the desire to give up mastery and to let the story direct and shape our attention, feelings, judgments, and ideas, at least for the time that we and the story are interacting.  For the most part we go to story because we desire to assent. (68-69, italics in original)

So it might seem that to some degree we are all like me at age five, and every implied author is my grandfather.  We want to believe what stories tell us is true; we are quite willing to give assent, and when we do, we may end up seeing a leering face in every whorl and knot of a hardwood floor.

In a few ways my governing metaphor is, of course, imperfect; I don’t mean to accuse my grandfather of being an immoral storyteller, and I don’t mean to accuse all readers of being equivalent to five-year-old children.  The sort of ethical reading practice I will describe is something generally beyond the capabilities of children.  To return to the schism I noted in Gardner’s argument, ethical reading consists of both imitation and understanding — but while a child’s reading habit tends toward the former, a mature ethical reading practice must tend toward the latter.  This does not happen naturally, though; we grow older and more aware, we are only more inclined not to believe everything we are told (most of us, anyway), but it is very rare that we come to understand what we are told but reject.

The communitarian view I’ve so far described, particularly in relation to MacIntyre, does indeed have its dangers.  Our reliance on preexisting discourses and narratives to come into our senses of both self and ethical practice have not necessarily been laid out in our interest.  This is when imitation does us harm; if I am a member of a particular ethnicity and the narratives of my culture lead me to believe that it is true and good for me to enslave, murder, or even simply cheat members of another ethnicity, this is not for the best.  In this scenario the “self” offered me is that of a member of a particular group, defined in opposition to another group.  I am allowed to find my sense of identity only in my group; the second group is understood insofar as they are not and cannot be me — with the implication that they are not people like me, for they are not drawn from the same traditions and narratives and webs of meaning that constitute me and those around me.  In this case, it is best not to assent to the narrative handed me — for while I must always come to understand myself through the existence of the other, that process has here gone awry.  In assenting to one narrative of self, I have unequivocally turned down another, and not only that, refused to comprehend that the other is even truly a self at all.

It almost goes without saying that a culture’s literature can serve the racist purpose I’ve just described — I will hearken back to The Jew of Malta, which portrays Jews as outlandish and inhuman.  But if ethical reading and criticism were as simple as seeing this, then it probably wouldn’t be worth writing a paper on it.  And if, for instance, we simply decide we should never read Marlowe’s play again, because it is racist (or sexist, or anti-Catholic), then we’ve again made a mistake.  We do not assent to the text’s invitation to take its worldview as our own, but we’ve also rejected anyone who is constituted in part by that worldview.  We’ve again cast aside the other.[2] Knowing who we can be does not by necessity directly effect who we are.  Though I don’t like to think of myself as an anti-Semite, the play invites me into that position, and even if I do not like it, it reminds me that I, as a human being, am to some degree capable.

When I read the play I do not personally think to myself, “Barabas is selfish and evil because he is a Jew,” but I know that is, in fact, the play’s internal logic, and would have been the logic of most of the play’s audience at the time of its writing.  I know that it would be very easy for me to read the play and deduce from it the moral that all Jews are selfish and evil; what has prevented this is my existence within a historical, cultural, and personal context where anti-Semitism is clearly ethically wrong.  Do I run some sort of risk in exposing myself to texts where this is not a self-evident conclusion?  Perhaps, but as Gregory points out, we risk things all the time just by living, and “if we try to protect ourselves from life’s dangers by withdrawing from life, we give up more than we gain” (70) — we have denied ourselves the recognition of others that ultimately figures into our self-recognition.  The moment of contact between me and the other — the text, the implied author, that strange and mysterious and possibly dangerous voice asking me to think and feel something — is the core of ethical reading.  Ethical reading allows us to see “our real selves in relation to other selves,” not in the sense that we are defined simply by who we are not and should not be, but with the understanding that each other we encounter is one of many “alternate selves” (Gregory 69).  As in interactions with real people, I am not required to follow every suggestion a textual other gives me, but before I know whether or not to follow that suggestion I first must listen to it, do my best to understand it, and if necessary, decline it.

Understanding and declining has the added benefit of allowing us to recognize what parts of a narrative are, though marred by their context or content, still worth thinking about.  In reading Malta we can understand, though we do not assent to, the way its contemporary readers saw the world, notice the unhealthy myths it perpetuated, and perhaps caution ourselves when those thoughts processes recur.  If we are secure in our moral standing in relation to the text, we can also afford to study Marlowe’s work within the genre of revenge tragedy, the qualities of the blank verse, or its narrative structure.  In Great Expectations, we can recognize that Pip’s narrative construction of himself may simplify or oppress the others who have helped make him who he is, but in recognizing that, we can consider how we might do the same thing in the narratives of our own lives.

[1] And as the biographers have it, a hopeless gambling addict and constant source of frustration to his wife.  It may do well to paraphrase Samuel Johnson and keep in mind that most people write better than they live.

[2] And depending who we are, an unsavory part of our cultural past we’d best not forget, I think.

A Serious Game Part 3: “Repent, Harlan Ellison!” said the Hackwork Man

Here we are, in Part 3 of the series A Serious Game.  So far we’ve discussed how stories influence our lives and seen the reality of fiction in action.  Today, I’m going to say a lot of inflammatory things about Harlan Ellison!

The question now becomes: how is anyone qualified to make a moral or ethical judgment, especially in regards to literature?  One of the most public attempts to tackle such a question was that of author John Gardner, in his book On Moral Fiction.  Taking a look at Gardner’s effort may underscore some of the difficulties of ethical criticism.  His basic stance is that anything that is art is necessarily moral; to call something that is immoral “art” would be an ontological mistake, and a symptom of either a sick artistic or critical culture.  Wilde, for his part, claimed morality to be only a possible subject of art, but Gardner alleges his view is the longstanding one: “The traditional view is that true art is moral.  It seeks to improve life, not debase it, it seeks to hold off, at least for a while, the twilight of the gods and us” (5).

By gods Gardner does not mean divine entities literally, rather that gods and religious figures historically are abstractions or personifications of human values.  Gods are values, which are life-affirming ideals; the majority of these ideals, Gardner claims, are unchanging.  We need these values in order to stand against a basically unfavorable existence: “Art is essentially serious and beneficial, a game played against chaos and death, against entropy.  It is a tragic game, for those who have wit to take it seriously, because our side must lose” (6).  Gardner’s bleak existentialist humanism is actually quite romantic, despite this emphasis on inevitable tragedy; he says it is the job of the writer to idealize an imperfect world and present works of art that are either “a vision of how things ought to be or what has gone wrong” (16).  In the past, the author presented this vision by way of the protagonist or hero: “Every hero’s function is to provide a noble image for men to be inspired and guided by in their own actions” (Gardner 29).

Talk of heroism seems clear enough given the logic so far.  I have established that people are given to imitating stories, or applying stories to their lives; therefore, the writer should only present positive, moral ideals to be imitated or applied.  This line of thought goes back at least to Samuel Johnson, who commented that art, in its great ability to imitate nature, “should also distinguish those parts of nature … most proper for imitation” (2874).  But who, exactly, decides the morals in a piece of literature?  The author, presumably, but how should we expect moral perfection from an author?  Well, maybe it is the true artist who “can distinguish between conventional morality and the morality that tends to work for all people throughout the ages” (Gardner 50).  But regardless of that, wouldn’t art thus directed inevitably fall into didacticism?  Yet Gardner similarly argues against didacticism, saying “morality is infinitely complex, too complex to be knowable, and far too complex to be reduced to any code,” and this “is why [morality] is suitable matter for fiction, which deals in understanding, not knowledge” (135).

So maybe literature allows the reader to imagine an intimate relationship with the consciousness of someone else, inspiring sympathy, what Shelley claimed to be “the faculty which is the organ of the moral nature of man” (844).  Gardner argues that “the effect of great fiction is to temper real experience, modify prejudice, humanize” (114), asserting that literature is “a conceptual abstraction of our actual experiences of moments of good in human life” (136).  In other words, the issue is not whether a reader can and should imitate what happens in a story, but how well a reader can understand the human motivations implicit in the narrative.  When I read a story I do so not because there is a hero for me to emulate successfully, but because the story presents me with another personality — regardless of the status of the character — whose life I am invited to consider, evaluate, and most importantly, understand.  But that thought seems to conflict in some profound ways with what Gardner said earlier, and it raises the question of which moral function — imitation or understanding — is correct, or at least the more operant mode for any ethical reading.

To clarify some of these questions, both for myself and for rhetorical effect, I will attempt to put Gardner’s ideas into practice.  To start: what sort of story is immoral, by Gardner’s terms?  What sort of fiction “tends toward destruction … [and] is not properly art at all” (6)?  So as not to make the conversation too grim, I can choose something light for my study — Harlan Ellison’s short story, “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ said the Ticktockman.”  This is quite an immoral story, though superficially it may seem moral; “Harlequin” appears to be concerned with a sickness of a culture and a desire to rehabilitate it.  But it is superficial; reading the story as a moral critic indicates its message to be cynical posturing.  Ellison begins the story by telling us the “point,” breaking the narrative structure to provide us with an excerpt from Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience to satisfy “those who ask, what is it all about?” (877).  So even before we can get to the end of the story, before we can even begin to have a question, we are given an answer.  “That is the heart of it,” Ellison says, initiating what will be one of the story’s recurring themes — and problems: “Now begin in the middle, and later learn the beginning; the end will take care of itself” (877).

“Harlequin” takes place in a future world where a totalitarian government lethally enforces a rigid time schedule, led by the Master Timekeeper or Ticktockman.  Being chronically late results in execution; the Harlequin is a freedom fighter who sets out to thwart the Ticktockman’s regime.  There is nothing too reprehensible here on first glance.  Such an authoritarian society would hardly be considered moral, and overturning it would indeed be a moral act.  And the story itself is quite amusing; it’s absurd and knows it (a major plot point involves a rain of one hundred-fifty thousand dollars’ worth of jelly beans).  Like the Harlequin of the title, the story is a motley assortment of vignettes from various chronologies, stitched together and presented with a knowing smirk by a manic third-person narrator.  But investigating Ellison’s presentation of this world unmasks the Harlequin, showing the story to be juvenile and nihilistic.  Behind that knowing smirk there is only an abyss.

The world the story takes place in is “the very world it was, the very world they had allowed it to become” (877-878).  The middle part of the story, which is chronologically the beginning, dramatizes the absurd way in which the story’s society becomes increasingly dependent on punctuality, from train schedules to voting times, eventually resulting in the creation of the Ticktockman and his power over life and death: “And so by this simple scientific expedient … the System was maintained.  It was the only expedient thing to do.  It was, after all, patriotic.  The schedules had to be met.  After all, there was a war on!” (882).  Society becomes the System only bit by bit, gradually; authoritarianism works on a ratchet, gaining power while being rationalized into the current situation and ideology.  The story alleges that “they” (the people) allowed this to happen through their own inaction and conformity.

The Harlequin is the ultimate individual nonconformist, the man who is habitually late in a society where punctuality means life or death.  His crusade to bring down the Ticktockman ends ultimately in his capture and brainwashing.  However, the implication at the end of the story is that the Harlequin is truly triumphant over the Ticktockman — because the Ticktockman shows up late to work.  The narrator tells us “that’s the way it happens, and if you make only a little change, then it seems to be worthwhile” (886).  The story is obsessed with these tiny changes — the Harlequin’s tiny changes to the System’s schedule end up causing monstrous tangles as each instance of lateness causes more problems.  “He had tapped the first domino in the line,” the narrator says of the jellybean incident, “and one after another, like chik chik chik, the others had fallen” (880).

Too often the story presents us with this attitude: that small actions matter, which is not untrue in and of itself, but there is an implication that these small actions often end up being all that matter.  It doesn’t matter if the Harlequin is captured because he’s already won; so what if the System is still in place, for the Harlequin has already cracked the Ticktockman himself, apparently by just existing.  Sidestepping of the real matter of societal change to give the reader its result recalls the story’s structure, which tells us its “point” before it even begins.  Nothing has to truly be “done” and accomplished.  As revolutionary agitprop that thought may be comforting, but it’s troubling in that it is also the way in which the authoritarian System comes to be: through the stacking of tiny actions, or rather, widespread inactions and acceptances.  Oppression rises amid human apathy, so does revolution, and it does not matter.  The end, as Ellison tells us, will take care of itself; both defeat and victory are so easily obtainable as to be meaningless.  This is to say nothing of the didactic simplicity with which Ellison draws his world.  Conformity is bad and nonconformity is good; conformists are boring and pitiable, noncomformists daring and noble.  We like the Harlequin and want to imitate him, so we should be noncomformists; we noncomformists should also pity the conformists for not being so enlightened, for it’s not their fault they’re boring.

If everything is starting to sound a bit ridiculous, I think that’s because it is.  Gardner’s terms, in application, do not become any less troublesome.  Wayne C. Booth called Gardner’s book “courageous but careless” (7n.2), and that is probably the best way to describe it.  Gardner’s framework fails to address its basis in two opposing views — do we imitate art, or do we merely understand it?  “Harlequin” obviously invites me to imitate the titular clown — he is the hero, by Gardner’s framework, and also the most colorful figure in a drab and authoritarian future.  But exactly how should I imitate him?  What values does he represent?  Nonconformity and habitual lateness, I suppose; but his nonconformity is extreme and implausible, and since when has being untimely been any sort of virtue?  If anything, imitating the Harlequin would make me a rather unpleasant person to associate with.  If the story is attempting to humanize — to garner sympathy and understanding — who is it humanizing?  Not the Ticktockman or his lackies, since they remain one-dimensional; the Harlequin, perhaps, but he is similarly never a very “human” character.  This is not a story that is interested in probing the depths of human emotional capacity, it seems, and in that regard it leaves Gardner treading water.

Also unhelpful is that Gardner often makes judgments or statements without clarifying what he means.  For instance, he leaves the door open to an author to be ironic and affirm values indirectly (106), but he fails to describe how any of this would work.  I think the largest caveat to the reading of “Harlequin” I’ve set forth lies in this possibility of irony; the story is self-consciously silly, so how far can I take the silliness?  How much of Ellison’s tale is irony?  If we accept the story as a half-joke, then it suddenly makes sense why the characters are so flat, why their actions are so implausible.  But Gardner gives no guidance here.  Just as the true artist will know the true morals, I suppose the true reader will recognize the true artist?

A Serious Game, Part 2: Moral as the Dickens

Welcome back to A Serious Game, my final senior essay on why I study literature.  Last time we talked about Borges.  Now we’re going to talk about a book that everyone I know hates!  Hooray!

The ways we interact with fiction and reality are more similar than we may be instinctually inclined to believe.  We may in fact “read” the real world as if it were a piece of fiction.  As Umberto Eco describes it, “the reader maps the fictional model onto reality — in other words, … the reader comes to believe in the actual existence of characters and events” (Walks 125).  This can be as silly as five-year-old me believing that Old Hickory is real, as my grandfather’s stories suggested: he told me a monster was trying to pull me into the walls of the house, and the walls of the house had a strange habit of knocking me on the skull whenever I was overexcited and let my guard down, so it seemed safe enough to assume the monster was the reason.  Or perhaps it’s as innocuous as someone reading a fudged historical fact in a Dan Brown thriller and, with no reason to question it, spending the rest of his or her days having an inaccurate but generally non-threatening misconception about the nature and content of the Gnostic Gospels.  Yet it could also be graver: reading Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta may teach me that Catholics are greedy, lascivious, and hypocritical; that women are emotional and unreliable; that Muslims are treacherous but simple-minded butchers; and that Jews are inhuman, murderous masterminds.  The narrator of “Tlön” feels a deep unease about the sudden a full assent of the human race to the new, fictional world it has discovered, and reading presents a similar problem: by forgetting the chessmaster nature of the authors of a fiction, readers run the risk of creating a way of life that may not be beneficial to them personally or for us as a species.

This where the necessity of an ethical reading practice becomes apparent, for despite the possible dangers of fictional mapping we still return to fiction and narrative.  The fact is, we need them.  Eco says it is in fiction that “we seek a formula to give meaning to our existence.  Throughout our lives, after all, we look for a story of our origins, to tell us why we were born and why we have lived” (Walks 139).  A striking example of such a practice in a fictional work itself can be found in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations, the Victorian bildungsroman of Pip, written as an autobiography chronicling his life, mishaps, and adventures.  In writing his story, Pip gives a formula to his life, as Eco postulates, but what is also remarkable is how Pip’s narrative is, in the end, also a noticeable (re)construction of various other narratives that he has encountered.

For instance, Pip’s narrative takes on various veils or tones of multiple generic modes at different points; his visits to Miss Havisham, for instance, are usually Gothic:

…we came to Miss Havisham’s house, which was of old brick, and dismal, and had a great many iron bars on it. … The cold wind seemed to blow colder there, than outside the gate; and it made a shrill noise in howling in and out of the open sides of the brewery, like the noise of wind in the rigging of a ship at sea.  (Dickens 55-56)

In a similar matter later on, when Mrs. Joe is assaulted by an unknown culprit, Pip’s narration becomes reminiscent to that of a mystery or detective novel, with a full account of the situation prior to and after the incident, gathered from statements of a few witnesses, and the presentation of scattered pieces of specific evidence, such as the “convict’s leg-iron” (120) used to do the deed — though the ‘mystery’ is not solved immediately.

Yet the way in which Pip’s narrative is given to sliding from a psychological account into shades of other literary modes seems to lend credence to Oscar Wilde’s claim — in anticipation of Eco’s thoughts — that “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life” (1991).  In a more direct sense, Pip’s tendency to change genres supports the Wildean idea that “Things are because we see them, and what we see, and how we see it, depends on the Arts that have influenced us” (1992, my italics).  Pip’s story is most easily related to the reader not as some wholly original tale but as part of several preexisting artistic discourses and traditions, from which Dickens and the reader both draw to complement the narrative.  To put it another way, Wilde suggests that the true purpose of nature is to “illustrate quotations from the poets” (1997) — that is, to reflect the qualities of art we enjoy.  In Great Expectations, we see a more practical application of this theory in Pip who, as a sort of pseudo-Wildean aesthete, translates his life into the borrowed, communally comprehensible discourses that underscore his story, or rather the telling of it.

For Pip, the telling of his own story is the primary motivator of the autobiography project.  He presents himself to us as an author, as the writer of his own narrative, and in addition to the aesthetic discourses in which he operates Pip must contend not only with the actual fictional discourses he uses to color his tale, but with several competing author figures (or perceived author figures) who make their own narrative designs on his life.  Most of the principal characters have great expectations (as the phrase goes) for Pip, and in particular the way their plans for his life augment their own lives.

Pip, for his part, has a romantic arc plotted out in which he becomes a gentleman, marries Estella, and claims Miss Havisham’s estate; Joe plans for Pip to be his apprentice blacksmith; Miss Havisham sees Pip as a pawn in her plans for revenge; Estella sees Pip as a means to an end, a heart to break and a way to fulfill her purpose; Magwitch wants to raise Pip as a gentleman to overcome his own unfortunate history as a peasant and criminal.  Pumblechook is, in a way, a parody of all of these characters, in that he constantly, falsely, and successfully claims to be one of “them which brought [Pip] up by hand” (Dickens 26), intrinsic to Pip’s success, and thereby passes himself off as a great and powerful authority in Pip’s native village.  If, as Wilde and Eco suggest, Pip’s and our understanding of art and fiction is the framework through which Pip’s narrative becomes intelligible, then these great expectations are the raw material from which that narrative is fashioned.

It is profitable now to turn to Barthes, who claims that “writing is the destruction of every voice, of every point of origin.  Writing is that neutral, composite, oblique space where our subject slips away, the negative where all identity is lost” (142).  Pip tells us his story, relating it to the reader through selective representation and preexisting generic discourses, for as Barthes says, “the responsibility for a narrative is never assumed by a person but by a mediator, shaman or relater” (142).  Pip’s identity arises from Barthes’s oblique space of writing.  The novel also shows ways in which Pip’s own arc for his life intertwines and clashes with the plans of other characters; Pip is articulated as an individual through his mediating and recombining of a web of social narratives pressed onto him.

Pip cannot win Estella and Satis House and achieve his personal heroic dream of doing “all the deeds of the young Knight of romance” (Dickens 231), but crucially neither can he fully separate himself from the various plots others lay.  Estella herself shows acquiescence to Havisham’s plans: “We have no choice, you and I, but to obey our instructions” (265).  Pip does not give in, instead creating a personal narrative to reconfigure these various influences on his own terms.  To return to Barthes, Pip’s narrative is “a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash,” so Pip’s story, forged from the great expectations of myriad sources and seen through the lenses of Pip’s digested fictions, is “a tissue of quotations drawn from innumerable centers of culture” (146).  Pip mediates the conflicting narratives of himself and the characters surrounding him in order to make a sensible arc of his life, a plotted autobiography.  Late in the novel he describes the horror that overcomes him when he is nearly murdered by Orlick and realizes his story might remain forever ‘unfinished’ and, importantly, untold:

none would ever know what I had suffered, how true I had meant to be, what an agony I had passed through.  The death before me was terrible, but far more terrible than death was the dread of being misremembered after death. (425)

Fortunately, Pip survives to tell us his tale: his history, a combination of his expectations, the expectations and histories of those around him, and a healthy sprinkling of generic juggling.  Each of us is in a sense like Pip, a Barthesian mediator of the various narratives passed onto us by our family, friends, culture, and literature; it is through the processing of these narratives and their conventions that we shape our own identities, give form to our existences.  We reside in what Eco describes as a “tangle of individual and collective memory” that “prolongs our life … by extending it back through time, and appears to us as a promise of immortality” (Walks 131).

So fiction maps onto my life and helps make me who I am.  But I cannot accept this premise without facing the fact that there must be an ethical consciousness in how I should process and appropriate narratives.  For instance, it might be observed that the reading of Great Expectations I’ve offered poses some problems.  To an extent, it privileges characters’ ability to read and write and even their ability to interpret over other concerns — such as how class or gender seems to implicitly affect how well a person can do any of these things.  Magwitch is similar to Pip in that he is an orphan who only knows his name — not because he reads it on a tombstone, as Pip does, but because it is in a manner self-evident for him, he knows it “[m]uch as [he] know’d the birds’ names” (346).  His identity is not constructed, as we see Pip’s being constructed, but simply a statement of fact.  Joe, likewise, is illiterate for most of the novel, and portrayed in a similarly tautological way: a blacksmith who knows how to be a blacksmith and is happy to be a blacksmith.  Estella and Miss Havisham do not face the problem of being illiterate, but still fall into strange spaces within the narrative.  Unlike Magwitch, who gets the majority of a whole chapter in his own voice, a similar chapter devoted to Estella is told in Pip’s voice, from Pip’s point of view.  Pip himself, though in one way the master mediator of all the novel’s narratives, is also ensconced economically by his debts to Pocket.  One may speculate that the writing of Pip’s autobiography is some attempt to provide an illusion of a wider agency in his own life, but in doing so he privileges his own narrative over those of others.  It may make him less than ethical as both a reader and a writer, and since the text itself doesn’t seem to take issue with Pip’s practices in this regard, some readers may be inclined to say that Great Expectations itself is unethical.  Do we want to follow in Pip’s example?  I certainly don’t want to think that in the telling of my own story (should I ever bother) I subjugate or simplify the many people I’ve known.  But on the other hand, I really don’t have a choice in my imitation of Pip, for we are all  to some degree like him: we must constitute an identity from the narratives and contexts our surroundings provide us.  The best we can do is be conscientious about it; our processing of narratives, including literature, must include an ethical critical concern.

A Serious Game: The Ethical Dimension of Literature, Part 1: A Personal Reflection

Howdy, friends and neighbors!  This is the first post in a series of six that will encapsulate A Serious Game, my final senior essay on the power and nature of literature.  It’ll be a long read but I hope it will be worth it.  Tune in every Friday for the next section — if there have ever been posts I’ve made that deserve the “i hope you like text” and “limitless literary pretension” tags it’s these.  I hope you enjoy them!

“Enchanted by its rigor, humanity forgets over and again that it is a rigor of chessmasters, not of angels.”

– Borges, Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius

When I was a child there was a monster called Old Hickory that lived in the woodwork of my grandparents’ house.  It was not uncommon for this creature on occasion to reach out and attempt to grab me, my siblings, or my cousins.  Though Old Hickory never succeeded — each failed attempt to abscond with me or one of the other children simply ended with a solid thump of wood on a head, knee, or elbow, with the related sobbing one might expect — I spent a significant portion of my childhood absolutely and absurdly terrified of my grandparents’ furniture.  Old Hickory was described to us many times, though always with the same grotesque humor, by my grandfather, who had imagined the creature as a sort of joke to explain the normal rough-and-tumble bumps and scrapes children acquire when they are playing in a home filled with a few decades’ worth of accumulated furniture.  Whenever one of us blundered face-first into the corner of the couch or the wood paneling of the living room during a game of Red Rover, we would fall down bawling, and my grandfather would chuckle to himself and say, “Old Hickory almost got you.”

I offer this story because it serves well as an introductory metaphor for my concerns in this paper.  It is appropriate not because it speaks specifically of literature but it at least sheds personal light on why I concern myself with literature’s study; in broader terms, my anecdote about Old Hickory speaks of narrative and storytelling, of which literature is a primary form.  Wayne C. Booth argued that all narrative is a form of rhetoric; narratives ask the reader or listener to understand a certain situation in a certain way.  They require us to give assent, and by listening to them, we do.  We come to narratives expecting an “efferent transaction” — that is, we are motivated by “a search for some practical guidance, or for some special wisdom, or for some useful ‘carry-over’ into non-fictional life” (Booth 13).  We approach even acknowledged fiction as if there is some grain of truth to it, some way it speaks — no matter how elliptically — of the world in which we live.

These truths, when we find them or think we find them, can have serious ramifications on the ways we view and interact with the world.  Old Hickory certainly wasn’t real, but my thinking about it was; I responded as if it did exist, I believed in it, and so in that sense, Old Hickory was quite real to my five-year-old self.  Not until I grew older did the idea of a terrible creature living in the woodwork of a house become obviously impossible; in retrospect it was clear that my grandfather was simply telling a joke.  He’d exaggerated reality, personified the furniture I was constantly slamming my elbows and forehead into, to amuse himself.[1] But my reaction — because I was a child, and prone to magical thinking, and because he was my grandfather, and therefore a direct authority on all aspects of life — was not one of amusement, but fear.  What was a game for my grandfather was something dreadfully serious to me.

But I think it is this sort of tension that has drawn me to literature.  My earliest memories of stories all involve people close to me — my grandfather, my mother, and my older sister — telling me stories about strange or bizarre entities and events.[2] As I grew older it became obvious that a great number of these stories were improbable if not impossible, and yet I still enjoyed them.  Learning to read (and of the obsession with reading that soon followed) seem to intensify the feelings I had while listening to people tell me stories — except now I was in control of what stories were told and when.  Even though the things that happened in most of the stories I consumed never factually occurred, or in some cases could never occur, there was an innate pleasure in contemplating the possibility of these worlds and how they were or were not like the one I knew.  Reading, and by extension literature, was a game, something I did for fun and personal amusement.

My classes at college stressed the capacities in which literature is a social force — the ways it gives or takes voice, the way it implicitly approves or disapproves of social currents, and so on.  This critical atmosphere presented a problem for me.  On one hand, I wanted to be able to look at a text and merely play my game with it, interrogate its plausibility, its structure and consistency; on the other hand, I was intrigued by the way in which various people found methods to appropriate something wholly imaginary as a tool to speak about the real world in ways much more direct and diverse than I’d ever envisioned.  For instance, was Paradise Lost an epic, a religious apology, a liberal political manifesto, a reactionary conservative apologia, a valuable tract in the fight for women’s rights, a tool of patriarchic oppression, or a dramatization of imperialist economics?  Somehow my classes managed to present me with theorists and critics who argued all of these points — and all of them seemed, in their own ways, to make sense.  How could I reconcile all of these compelling readings of a poem that I, on my own terms, had read as a simple adventure story?  More pressingly, how could something so obviously fictional be of so much evident real-world importance?  To understand this, I had to comprehend on a more conscious level the efferent nature of reading, and the way stories influence our lives.

This paper’s epigraph comes from Jorge Luis Borges’s story “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” in which a cadre of intellectual luminaries conspires throughout the course of human history to imagine and disseminate a fictional world by way of false encyclopedia entries and misprinted history books.  I read it at 17 and thought it was a neat piece of speculative fiction; when I read it again at 20, after two years of a serious study of literature, the tale’s actual significance broke through to me.  It helped put into perspective the issues I’d been facing, but could not articulate.  In the story, the fabrication of the world of Tlön is so extensive and intricate that by the time the conspiracy is discovered, the human race becomes enamored with the uniqueness and complexity of the fiction their brightest minds have imagined.  As the story ends antiques from Tlön — clever forgeries, of course, but no one cares — are starting to appear in markets, and the languages of Tlön are being taught in schools.  The narrator intimates that, in time, our world will for all practical purposes become Tlön.  The game of imagination has enchanted humanity so that they forget they are even playing a game; the creators of Tlön are thought of not as the planners and chessmasters they are, but divine angels.

Before intensive literary study led me to see things otherwise, I had focused chiefly on the ways in which fiction presented worlds that were not the one I inhabited.  In so doing I overlooked the fact that even this was a way in which fiction defined my inhabited reality.  The multiplicity of readings my literature courses exposed me to were methods of refining and focusing that definitional power, attempting to draw my attention to a single aspect of the world and the way in which a text invited me to understand or think about that aspect.  Though fantastic to the extreme, Borges’s story put this into perspective on my second reading.  In the tale, fiction is used to effectively draft a new world.  It is a disturbing development, as the narrator seems convinced that nothing good will come of unquestioningly embracing this new reality — or rather this new way of looking at and interpreting the old reality.  That was the key for me: fiction is, partially, a device for the interpretation of the real world.

[1] And maybe he meant to amuse me, too.  I am amused now, anyway.

[2] Highlights include: a nameless monster that kidnapped little boys who caused a fuss when they had to get haircuts, a race of extraterrestrials who traveled through to space via mirrors rather than starships, and a seven-foot-tall Kentucky dentist who used whiskey as anesthetic.

Hagrid Shrugged: On Class and Economics in Harry Potter

Hello, anyone visiting from the EC Word.  If you want more of an introduction to this blog, go here.  If you like to live dangerously, continue reading.

It has long been obvious to me that the Harry Potter series may be profitably read as an extended meditation on economic class and class mobility.  What is intriguing about this reading of the texts is that doing so provides not a single clear answer as to the nature of class dynamics and economics, likely because the themes are inadvertent on Rowling’s part.  But, by my way of thinking, that only makes them more honest.  So if you like, come along with me, and we shall together explore the myriad ways in which Harry Potter describes both the dream and the nightmare of the disintegration of economic class.

Michael What Are You Talking About This Is a Story of Magic and Wonder How Does Class Come into It

Well it’s quite simple, really.  A cursory glance at the Potter books should be enough to make the theme of class obvious.  The first antagonists of the series are the Dursleys, who are characterized almost entirely by their bourgeois excess.  The family’s insistence on propriety and material wealth is a characteristic of the materialistic upper-middle class; they are concerned only with doing what is right or what is expected, in the interest of appearing normal.  The final result of such an life, Rowling’s texts suggest, is Dudley, who is spoiled and cruel.

But the Dursleys are only comic-grotesque versions of the true villains of the series, Voldemort and his Death Eaters.  The Death Eaters are, by and large, degenerate aristocrats; this is also mostly true of the Slytherins, who remain quite malevolent even as exceptions like Snape and Malfoy garner our sympathy.  The Death Eaters are concerned with maintaining an oligarchic blood-purity over the wizarding world, a grim mirror of the Dursley’s own insistence on keeping up appearances.  But while the Dursleys only yield oafish Dudley, Voldemort’s designs yield death and destruction.

Stop Being Stupid, Michael

Let us take a moment to consider Voldemort himself.  His anxieties as a villain are fueled in large part by his own feelings of inadequacy brought about by his class history; he is a descendant of the once-powerful Gaunt wizarding family, whose insistence on purity brought about their total decadence and degeneration.  The desire of Voldemort’s mother Merope for the muggle Tom Riddle, Sr — an aristocrat, with all the material and economic comfort and security therewith associated — brought her to charm Riddle by way of a love potion.  The false union engendered Tom Riddle, Jr — that is, Voldemort — and the death of Merope in childbirth.

With the loss of the love potion, Riddle the Elder abandoned his son to an orphanage, leaving young Tom with only the barest notions of what he could have been.  As Voldemort-to-be grew older, his entrance into the wizarding world allowed him to search into his family history and discover what had been denied him: not only the Gaunt legacy, lost before his time, but the muggle Riddle legacy as well.  The rage resulting from his comfortless and loveless life led to a strongly classist/racist stance.  (And here we see the close ties historical notions of class such as aristocracy have with bloodline in the UK, as opposed to the more fluid conception in the US.)  If Riddle could not have the legacies lost, he would take them by force, by murder and by magic.  Thus the creation of the pure-blooded, aristocratic Death Eaters and the implicit delusion that Voldemort himself is not only one of them, but their lord.

In this way Harry is in fact the best possible foil to Voldemort.  Born into a historically affluent wizarding family — but, notably, not pure-blooded, as Lily Potter was muggle-born — Harry is robbed of his own legacy by Voldemort’s murder of James and Lily.  Like Voldemort, Harry is raised in relative squalor and misery, pressed below his class by the gross Dursleys.  This is, I suspect, what saves Harry; though the Dursleys’ treatment could just as easily breed in Harry a desire to perpetuate their cruelty, Harry instead learns to live a stoic and simple life in the cupboard under the stairs.  In the first book, upon discovering the hoard left for him by his parents in Gringotts, Harry does not rush to claim his inheritance and lord it over everyone, as Voldemort would, for his exposure to the excesses of the Dursleys — and especially his bully Dudley — has already made him conscious of material comfort’s negative influence.

Harry struggles throughout the series with his own ties to Voldemort, for his own capacity for evil; the Sorting Hat even wants to place him in Slytherin.  Given his pedigree, he could easily fit in — but instead he opts for Gryffindor, the more inclusive House, after his instinctively negative reaction to the mode of snobbery exhibited by Malfoy & Co.  Harry instead makes friends with Hermione — middle class, indeed, but from a muggle family — and with the Ron — whose family, though pure-blooded, is not degenerate, quite poor, and portrayed fondly by the novels.  In fact, the most negative portrayal of a Weasley is Percy, who aspires toward a bureaucratic role that requires him to act somewhat above his station; by contrast (to both Percy and the Slytherin families) the Weasleys are generally respectful of if not outright interested in muggles.

Michael You Are Dumb and This Is Dumb I Am Only Reading the Bold Headings

This brings me to the point that the wizards themselves are a separate class from muggles, though the difference is not established in normal economic terms but through a cipher: magic.  Magic is its own economic signifier, in that it allows even a family as poor as the Weasleys to live in relative comfort; it is a resource to which muggles have no access.  Until we are told in book seven that we cannot summon food, gold, or resurrect the dead, it might seem that magic is key to some sort of post-scarcity utopia.  This, however, is not the case; magic does have limits, and these limits cause some people to desire to surpass or control them, just as Voldemort desires to rewrite his own class history.

Consider the origin of the Deathly Hallows, in book 7.  The tale concerns three brothers who, in their quest for unlimited magical power, murder each other in bizarre and tragic ways.  Rowling knows her English lit; this story is very obviously lifted from Chaucer’s Pardoner’s Tale, in which three drunkards set off to conquer death but instead find a pile of gold beneath a tree by the side of the road.  Each, in his haste to claim the gold for himself, kills the other two.  The moral of the story is Radix malorum est cupiditas — the root of evil is the love of money, to give a clumsy translation that sidesteps the truism.  Rowling simply replaces money with magic, and we’re off to the races.

So magic is another economic and class signifier.  For Voldemort, et al, a lack of a magical bloodline is an abomination, a cause for purgation.  For the Dursleys (and historically, other muggles), the opposite is true: magic is an abomination, and the solution is an old-fashioned burning at the stake, or at least ostracism.  This is when the progressivism of Harry Potter as a series really shines, as the most positive characters are always those inclined to learn more about the muggle world and be more accepting of muggle-born wizards and witches.

This desire to break down class distinctions is most readily exemplified by the marital statuses of the main characters by the end of the series.  Ginny, a pureblood, marries Harry, who has a pedigree but is not pure-blooded; Ron marries Hermione, a muggle-born.  Contrast that with Malfoy, who remains aloof and aristocratic; likewise, the main trio of the books is still recognizably middle class, but not nearly as bourgeois as the Dursleys.  The intensity of the classism of the prior books — and of the prior generations of wizards — has been scaled back.

Oh My God Will You Just SHUT UP

But it may serve our purposes just to take a look at those prior


take a look at those prior gener



wait what ayn rand


Seriously, are you taking this there.


Well I Am Still Unhappy But Now Sort of Grossly Fascinated, Continue

As I was saying, the arc of the Harry Potter series throws class divisions into a distinctly negative light, and the plot is broadly about how the pursuit of either becoming a member of a different (higher) class or the sequestering of those of a perceived lower class leads to ruin.  The slow degeneration of these class distinctions is an overall positive development.

But it has consequences.

Hagrid Shrugged?

Think for a moment about the Hogwarts Harry’s parents — and Lupin, and Sirius, and Peter Pettigrew, and so on — would have known.  A time of magic and adventure, as you might expect, but what sort of adventure?  Well, for one thing, pretty goddamn awesome adventure.  Consider the things the earlier generation did:

  1. Illegally taught themselves to be animagi
  2. Created the fucking Marauder’s Map, if you can believe it
  3. Snape wrote his own completely badass dismemberment and mutilation spells IN THE MARGINS OF HIS TEXTBOOK
  4. Fought a long, brutal and bloody war only matched in the past by Wizard World War II (in which Dumbledore single-handedly defeated Wizard-Hitler)

Now think about what Harry and his friends do:

  1. Fight a war that basically lasted for a year and had one major battle
  2. Rely on systems put in place by their parents, Dumbledore, and a house elf to win said war
  3. Sneak out of their dorms a lot
  4. Brew polyjuice potion about 75,000 times

The point to be taken from this is that there is indeed a definite decline in the way the generations of the wizarding world played out, from Dumbledore to the parent generation to the generation of our protagonists.  The closest any of the ‘modern’ characters come to the old ingenuity are Fred and George, whose tricks and gags echo the Marauder’s Map in tone and Snape’s mutilation spells in technical accomplishment.  But alas, the duo are forever crippled when Fred dies in the Battle of Hogwarts.

Ayn Rand would say this is a terrible thing.  The movers and shakers of the past — the ingenius giants — have given away to relatively insignificant moochers who rely on the accomplishments of those who came before to get anything done.  Consider how much Harry does is orchestrated by Dumbledore; consider how his final triumph against Voldemort comes from his mother’s overpowering love.  What does Harry actually do?

Nothing.  He’s quite boring, actually, and not a very good student.  It’s a miracle he manages to become an Auror at all.  He’s very middle-of-the-road, honestly, and even the things that make him exceptional — his wealth, the privilege he has to just do whatever the fuck he wants so long as he saves the world — are things that at times sit uneasily with him.

This is not a bad thing, though, for what makes Harry important is not who he is per se, but rather the relationships he cultivates with others.  Without Hermione and Ron, or even Neville and Luna or Lupin and Tonks and Mad-Eye or whoever, we’d be hard pressed to give a doxy’s ass about Harry.  His relationships, the communities the characters form, the ways in which they live and act in concert, are the true lifeblood of the series.  The community of Hogwarts lives and breathes; it is what we’re interested in, and Harry is simply our gateway.

That amazing individual talent, that startling innovation, that egoistic single-mindedness that characterized the earlier wizarding generations didn’t only give us Dumbledore and the Marauder’s Map — it gave us Voldemort, and the sick philosophy he peddled.

In Harry Potter’s universe, it is better to be unexceptional but loved and loving than it is to be exceptional and terrifying.  This is achieved through equity — material, economic, and social.  At the end of the series, though the wizarding world is still separated from the muggle world, though there is an air of snobbishness still clinging to Malfoy, we seem to be heading toward a new, more just, classless society.

This Was Such a Goddamn Waste of Time

well that’s what four years at a liberal arts college gets you