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

A Vicious Spiral: Enchanted Commodities and Cultural Narcissism in Junji Ito’s Uzumaki

I missed last week’s blog because I was out of town for a graduation, and I might miss this week’s because I’ll be working on my current Shakespeare paper (it’s gonna be really cool, I promise).  However, I’ve been trawling through my archives and I’ve found a paper I wrote three whole years ago on the horror manga of one Junji Ito.  I’ve mentioned this before, back when I was singing the praises of Daniel Lau, renegade translator of many an Ito story otherwise unreadable by my paynim eyes.  Incidentally, Lau is currently translating the long overdue Hellstar Remina, Ito’s saga of a Lovecraftian sci-fi apocalypse, and it’s silly as all get-out but very fun to read.  It also makes very, very blatant some of the themes I teased out of Ito’s Uzumaki, which I still hold to be the current purest expression of his style and concerns.

So in case you haven’t read Uzumaki and you really want to, turn away now — go buy the books or borrow them or something.  Read it, it’s worth it.  If you have read it, then I’ve reproduced for you below my paper on the manga, which I think holds up surprisingly well.  There are a few things I want to point out, though.  One is that I read Uzumaki back in the day when our manga (if it was officially imported and translated at all) was flipped to read left to right, so all of my references to the comic are to these older editions — as I understand it, non-mirrored editions have since been released.  The second point I’d like to make is that if this paper seems a bit weird and childish and very, very quotey, well, I was a college freshman when I wrote it.  I’ve learned a thing or two since then.

So without further ado I give you…

A Vicious Spiral:

Enchanted Commodities and Cultural Narcissism in Junji Ito’s Uzumaki

Early in the first volume of Junji Ito’s horror manga Uzumaki, its protagonist Kirie Goshima, a high school girl, remarks, “I don’t think it’s that weird to be into spirals. I mean, there are people who collect much stranger things” (21). She is referring to Mr. Sato, the father of her boyfriend Shuichi. By this point the reader is well aware that Mr. Sato has recently become obsessed with collecting anything evoking a spiral pattern — sometimes spending hours staring at snail shells lying on the ground — and Shuichi is very unsettled. Both Kirie and the Sato family live in Kurozu-cho, a typical seaside community in Japan — a nation where “having a hobby or two is a big deal” (Kelts 158).

Fan culture in Japan is a unique beast; for example, until the term was appropriated by American fans of Japanese culture, Japan was the only nation that had otaku, or “people who live for their hobbies or interests” (Kelts 160). The closest equivalents were the American Star Trek fans, or Trekkies, but in Japan the idea was expanded: to be an otaku you do not have to be a fan of a particular television series, you simply have to be a fan. Certainly it may seem strange that Mr. Sato has become a spiral otaku, but in a country where people may develop intense fascinations with anthropomorphic personifications of computer operating systems, is liking a particular pattern or shape really that odd?  Yet Kirie soon learns that Shuichi has every right to be upset. Not only is Mr. Sato’s spiral obsession dangerous, it’s contagious.

The choice of the Japanese word uzumaki is important. Despite being translated as “spiral” for the English release of the film based on the manga (and the manga’s English tagline, “Spiral into Horror”) a closer translation of uzumaki is ‘whirlpool’ (“Uzumaki”). Though whirlpools are often associated with the spiral shape, they have the unique property of actively drawing someone in; they are forces that pull people or things inexorably toward their center to sink or drown. This is integral to what may be seen as Ito’s critique of (to borrow a term from Anne Allison) “enchanted commodities,” a system where “play creatures … are packaged to feed a consumer fetishism that … penetrates the texture of ordinary life in ever more polymorphous ways” (Allison 16). This could easily describe the spiral obsession of Mr. Sato. Allison explains in Millennial Monsters that the polymorphous perverse pleasure “extends over multiple territories” and “can be triggered by any number of stimuli” (10).

This is plainly displayed in the manga’s first volume: when Shuichi explains the extent of his father’s hobby, we see a panel showing Mr. Sato sitting in a room filled with spiral-shaped objects and objects adorned with spiral patterns (22). Mr. Sato’s consumer fetishism is focused on the shape (the spiral), while its actual form (incense coil, kimono fabric pattern, etc.) is irrelevant. The spiral could stand in for any possible quality that makes a commodity “enchanted” in the eyes of the consumer, be it a brand name or association with a particular character or mascot. Reading the manga this way, we see that these enchanted qualities can (drawing on the spiral’s iconographic connotations) disorient, confuse, and enthrall, inexorably drawing the consumer deeper into a frenzy of collection.

In Roland Kelts’ book Japanamerica, he claims that one of the reasons Japanese pop culture is so successful both in its native country and abroad is that “fandom is participatory, and communal” — what Kelts calls “the do-it-yourself (DIY) factor” (147). Fans of a particular anime or manga, for example, will fashion their own costumes after the outfits of their favorite characters (‘costume play’ or cosplay), while other fans may write and draw their own doujinshi — fan-made manga using characters from the amateur artist’s own favorite series.

The fans that make the most accurate costumes or most entertaining doujinshi gain a favorable reputation among other fans and garner interest in the original anime or manga, expanding the consumer base and at the same time producing more fans, who will create their own content and continue the cycle. Uzumaki has its own sardonic take on this DIY factor in the first volume: when Shuichi’s mother, concerned because her husband has stopped going to work, throws away the entire spiral collection, Mr. Sato is at first furious, then smug. “I don’t care,” he utters, before screaming: “I don’t need to collect spirals anymore! I finally realized that you can make spirals yourself! You’ll see! You can express the spiral through your own body!” (29, my italics in both cases).

Almost immediately after this outburst Mr. Sato removes his glasses and begins to roll his eyes — each moving in opposite directions. The body horror escalates: in a second encounter, Mr. Sato shows Kirie that he can now extend his tongue inhumanly far and curl it into a spiral shape and, following the man’s death, Shuichi reveals that his father committed suicide by crawling into a round barrel and contorting himself into a spiral, breaking every bone in his body. In a darkly humorous fashion, Mr. Sato’s death might be considered the ultimate form of cosplay: he truly becomes his obsession, rather than simply dressing up as it. Even when his body is cremated, the smoke of Mr. Sato’s ashes forms a spiral cloud in the sky.

But, as Kelts says, Japanese fandom is communal — and so is Ito’s analogue for it, the spiral obsession. Shuichi’s mother, following her husband’s death, develops an intense fear of spirals; every time she sees one, she only sees her husband’s grotesque body and hears his voice begging her to “join [him] in the spiral” (Ito, Volume One 53). She removes all spirals from her body by shaving off her hair, cutting off the tips of her fingers to remove the prints, and finally stabbing herself to remove the spiral-shaped cochlea of her inner ear. She dies soon thereafter, having destroyed her sense of balance and, for the short remainder of her life, experiencing a permanent sense of spinning vertigo — “I don’t want to become a spiral!” she protests (Volume One 74). Following cremation, her body’s ashes also form a spiral cloud. With her death it seems the floodgates are thrown open and the spiral obsession is loosed upon Kurozu-cho in full force. Soon, Kirie and Shuichi are forced to deal with multiple bizarre situations where people “become” spirals or “express” the spiral through their bodies.

The strange way in which the spirals themselves seem to be alive and in which people seem to become spirals is informed by two particular facets of the Japanese mindset. The first, drawing on a history of Shintoist animism, is “a tendency to see the world as animated by a variety of beings, both worldly and otherworldly, that are complex, (inter)changeable, and not graspable by so-called rational (or visible) means alone” (Allison 12). In Ito’s world, the spirals are an ancient, incomprehensible force; roughly halfway through the third volume, Kirie finds an ancient map in an equally old Japanese-style row house. Drawn in the place of Kurozu-cho is an immense spiral, implying that the spiral obsession has its roots in the distant past and is, in fact, part of the city’s very foundation or the environment itself.

Similarly, the act of “becoming” a spiral reflects a Japanese predilection for morphing and transformation in media, fostered in the wake of the country’s defeat in World War II and the appearance of “unstable and shifting worlds where characters, monstrously wounded by violence and collapse of authority, reemerge with reconstituted selves” (Allison 12). In recent times this morphing has become a positive attribute with such franchises as the Super Sentai series, but in Uzumaki Ito utilizes transformation in a much more negative way, reminiscent of the post-war Gojira: the people of Kurozu-cho appear to mutate into destructive, mindless beasts. These concepts of animism and mutability come together in Uzumaki’s gloomy finale.

Kurozu-cho has been decimated, leaving the old row houses as the only shelters, and in visuals the landscape mimics a war zone.  In the wake of this pseudo-atomic bomb blast, the people of the city begin rebuilding their lives, just as the Japanese attempted to rebuild following WWII.  However, the survivors have begun a process of expansion, linking the old buildings as one superstructure in — of course — the form of a giant spiral, beginning at the edge of town and stopping at a pond in Kurozu-cho’s center. As Kirie and Shuichi soon discover, the people living in these row houses are no longer human in the strictest sense of the word: they still speak like human beings, yes, but a combination of living in close quarters and malign supernatural influences have transformed them into slimy, genderless, boneless creatures whose limbs have twined and looped together in a seemingly infinite mass.

When Kurozu-cho’s pond drains (in a clear echo of the uzumaki or whirlpool of the title), it reveals a strange spiral staircase leading down into the earth, and the massive interconnected swirl of former humans gleefully slides out of their row house en masse. Kirie and Shuichi follow and discover, miles beneath Kurozu-cho, an eldritch city of stone spiral towers. Shuichi remarks that it feels as if the ruins are alive and watching him: “It’s like it’s cursing us for being underground, hidden from all the eyes up there” (Volume Three 214).

The countless people from Kurozu-cho who litter the ground stare blankly into the spiral city, and Kirie notes that they seem to be turning to stone. Shuichi continues: “I don’t know who… or what built it here, or why… but every so often, every few hundreds, or thousands, or tens of thousand years, it can reach the people above ground. And even though its builders are gone… maybe it’s still building itself” (Volume Three 214). The petrified half-humans with their distended, looping, spiraling bodies appear to be the living city’s latest additions, new building blocks to fuel its infinite growth. Shuichi, who has been injured in a fall, orders Kirie to leave him and escape to the surface. She refuses, choosing instead to embrace Shuichi, and as they lay together on the stones that used to be their neighbors, the couple’s arms and legs begin to twist together. The animate stone city draws people to it and morphs them into an extension of itself: every citizen of Kurozu-cho has had his or her obsession satisfied and has finally become part of the spiral.

But in Japan, where it is not at all uncommon to see in fiction “a universe where the borders between thing and life continually cross and intermesh” (Allison 13), why is Uzumaki horrifying? Why is its morphing scary and unsettling, while the morphing of the Super Sentai series is one of the largest parts of the program’s appeal? I believe the answer may lie in the horrific themes of narcissism. The old horror story is generally a tale of punishment for unexpiated sin, but as American critic John G. Parks observed in 1978, “Nearly all characters [of the modern horror story] are narcissistic.” In 1979, cultural historian Christopher Lasch published The Culture of Narcissism, in which he argued that late-capitalist society had bred a generation of Americans suffering from pathological narcissism.

Contrary to egotistical narcissists, pathological narcissists have a weak sense of self and attempt to establish it in any way possible (thus appearing, in many ways, akin to typical narcissists); Lasch insists that this type of narcissism “has more in common with self-hatred than with self-admiration” (31). He also lists the signs indicating a pathologically narcissistic personality; of particular importance for this paper is his tenth: “fascination with celebrity.” Though both Parks and Lasch are Americans writing about American issues, their observations may ring true for Japanese society, as well.

Currently the Japanese people are becoming increasingly individualistic, increasingly atomized; as Allison says, when describing what she calls “solitarism” and its relation to enchanted commodities, “people seek out companionship, but ironically (or not), the form this often takes is …. a machine or toy purchased with money that is wired into the (individual) self” (14). By the end of Uzumaki, the people of Kurozu-cho are glad to become part of the spiral, something larger than themselves, even though the thing they have become a part of is monstrous. Lasch draws links between pathological narcissism and extremist cult activity in the US (98); one may compare this with the 1995 Sarin gas subway attacks carried out by the sizeable Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo.

Japan is also a culture of celebrities, with music idols and seiyuu becoming objects of fixation for thousands of fans. A criticism of this culture is palpable in almost all of Ito’s work, and we find it reflected slyly in Uzumaki: in the first volume, a girl’s hair becomes animate and demands attention from those around her, hypnotizing them and displaying its curls for hours, but it also drains her strength and kills her, becoming more or less an independent entity. In the second volume, a black lighthouse with a strange spiraling beacon entrances all those who look see it; in the third volume, the reason Shuichi hypothesizes for the spiral city’s evil is its anger at being hidden away from all those who would see it. The spirals (that is, the enchanted commodities) are living creatures that demand attention; the pathologically narcissistic people of Kurozu-cho can provide this attention, but also crave it for themselves. Collecting is no longer enough, so they sacrifice themselves to the spirals — they become the spirals — in the maximum display of devotion and in hopes of receiving attention from others.

Even though Parks and Lasch are Americans, they both managed to describe certain cultural facets that fit almost perfectly into Uzumaki, leading me to believe that, in the era of globalization, our horror stories are also becoming globalized. A lot can be deduced about a culture from its monsters, and the fact that American and Japanese monsters are becoming more similar (the influence of Japanese horror cinema is notable in today’s American film market) implies a greater closeness of culture than ever before, perhaps brought about by both countries’ late-stage capitalism and aided, as Kelts fancies, by a similar sense of tragedy felt by the Japanese over the atomic bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima and by Americans over the September 11 attacks (37).

However, despite its growing numbers of “otaku,” despite its own enchanted commodities, despite its acceptance of morphing characters, the US apparently lacks the animist context of Japanese culture that helps completely decipher Ito’s bizarre plot. Americans are also, perhaps, still too insistent on happy endings and solid resolution; the mono no aware of Ito’s ending is definitely not suited to American tastes. Uzumaki isdefinitely a Japanese work, made from a Japanese viewpoint and with Japanese readers in mind; nevertheless, its warning against the possible dangers of asserting one’s own weak personality by consuming supposed enchanted commodities, or by becoming the center of attention, or by becoming something bigger than oneself, rings true in a way that may speak to both Japanese and American readers.

In our current climates of aging capitalism, both nations travel on increasingly similar paths: paths of consumerism and narcissism that, as Ito might have it, curve inexorably inward toward a center, toward a single point — a dead end.

List of Works Cited

Allison, Anne. Millennial Monsters. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2006.

Ito, Junji. Uzumaki, Volume One. Trans. Yuji Oniki. 2001. San Francisco: Viz Communications, Inc, 2003.

—. Uzumaki, Volume Two. Trans. Yuji Onki. San Francisco: Viz Communications, Inc, 2002.

—. Uzumaki, Volume Three. Trans. Yuji Onki. San Francisco: Viz Communications, Inc, 2002.

Kelts, Roland. Japanamerica: How Japanese Culture Has Invaded the US. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.

Lasch, Christopher. The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Experience. 1979. New York: Norton, 1991.

Parks, John G. “Waiting for the End: Shirley Jackson’s The Sundial.” Critique, Vol. XIX, No. 3, 1978.

“Uzumaki.” Random House Japanese-English English-Japanese Dictionary. 1995. New York: Random House. 1997.

The Proscenium and the Percipient

As Stephen King once wrote:

Let’s talk about fear, you and I.  Let’s talk about fear.

But not just any fear.  King already beat me to talking about fear in written fiction (though that doesn’t stop me from going at it every so often, of course) and King already beat me to talking about fear on film (again, something I occasionally have made a foray into).  But I want to talk about a type of fear — a variety of what Noel Carroll calls “art-horror” — that King doesn’t take into account in his Danse Macabre, and which Caroll (as I recollect) does not even mention in his own treatment of the genre.

I want to talk about theatric horror.


There are two ways you might respond to the idea of theatric horror.  The first is that it is ridiculous: a man wearing a bedsheet onstage is an actor playing the ghost of Old Hamlet, and nothing more; it is (this line of thinking implies) silly to be scared by anything onstage because, quite paradoxically, all of it is illusory, so anything that appears unnatural (like a ghost) is, in fact, naturally explicable (a man in a bedsheet).  The other way to think about it is that theatric horror should be about the same as cinematic horror, that if you can be scared of Jason Voorhees on a screen then you damn sure can be frightened by a man wearing a bedsheet.

The key thing to take from both of these examples is that both make the assumption that horror is participatory.  This is no big revelation; all fiction is participatory in varying capacities.  This mostly takes the form of making the viewer/reader/audience’s desires the same as one or some of the characters’ desires.  It’s about interest, and it’s about sympathy.  You want to know why Old Hamlet’s ghost is stalking the battlements, if it’s telling the truth or not; you want Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy to get together; you want to figure out what the fuck is going on with that island and the polar bear and the time-travel and you hope to god it all makes sense in the end.

But horror is special.

You don’t want the zombie apocalypse to happen — and listen, I know it’s fashionable to be excited about zombies and the end of the world, but trust me, almost everyone who insists on proclaiming they’ll have a good time when the shit hits the fan will be among the first to either die or become a quivering, sobbing mess.  This is what Noel Carroll calls the paradox of horror: it is a genre set up specifically to show us things we hate or despise, things designed to make us unhappy, and we flock to it.  So yes, horror is participatory, but it is participatory in a way that is distinct from the way other genres are.  The closest thing to it is tragedy, which generally focuses on a handful of repulsive things, but by definition there is a catharsis, a final release of tension; horror, on the other hand, has no such obligation.  At the end of, say, The Blair Witch Project, the story doesn’t actually end.  It just stops; the monster is still on the loose, there is no return to order.

The idea is that horrific things do not end, terror does not end, and above all, you are subject to the same fears and forces that govern the lives of the characters.  The toys and props of horror aren’t put neatly back into the box and hidden away at the end of the game; they continue to litter floor, and you step on them in the middle of the night when you least expect it.

So horror, despite its paradoxes, is quite a participatory thing indeed.  And it should be noted that of the modes of storytelling I’ve brought up — fiction, film, television, theater — it is the latter that is the most participatory.  After all, it’s not words on a page and it’s not an interplay of light from a projector — things are happening there in front of you, and it’s the closest you can get to it actually happening.  Given the participatory nature of horror and the participatory nature of theater, the two ought to be a match made in heaven.

So how do you make a play scary?

I’ve recently seen two horror plays, and the remainder of this blog entry will be me outlining the way each production attempts to develop an atmosphere and, above all, a feeling of terror in the audience — the percipients.  A percipient being, of course, one who perceives; it’s also a pseudotechnical term tossed around by some parapsychologists to describe those who ‘perceive’ themselves as having had supernatural experiences.  Added to that, it sounds fortuitously similar to participant, and in case you couldn’t tell, that’s going to be a cornerstone of my discourse.

Now: Play number one.  The Woman in Black, currently running at the Fortune Theatre in Covent Garden, a few blocks from where I work.  This thing has been on forever — for me, almost literally, since it’s been going nonstop since 1989, when I was barely a year old.  It’s been through its share of actors, too — the cast in that trailer the website is running is a completely different cast from the one I saw.  That’s a notable, if tertiary, facet of the play: it has a cast of two.  Three, maybe, but then things get a little complicated.  I’ll explain that in a bit.

WiB is obviously a pretty successful venture, having run for 21 years, and I personally think it mostly succeeds as a play and as a piece of horror fiction.  I’m not going to say it frightened me — it didn’t, I don’t frighten easily — but the people in the audience who kept screaming seemed pretty scared.  Of course, the people who were screaming were mostly teenaged schoolgirls — the curse of the matinee showing, from what I hear — and they were screaming at the ‘jump-scare’ bits, things like doors slamming and so on.  I’m not going to fault the play for that.  I tend to look down on jump scares in film only when they are predictable and when they are the only mechanism used (or overused); suffice it to say that WiB‘s jump scares are very often unpredictable and they only become grating if, like me, you have to listen to a few dozen sixteen year old girls shouting every time.

Where the play succeeds most admirably, I think, is the more insidious horror it attempts to instill through use of atmosphere and two or three wonderfully executed images.  My favorite was the titular woman in black, lying corpse-still in a madly careening rocking chair which then threw her forward with such force that she seemed to fly and, without any misstep, landed on her feet (assuming she has feet, below her tattered skirts) to glide soundlessly across the stage.

The plot is often billed as being an MR Jamesian ghost story, which is half a truth and half a lie.  James’s ghost stories have a very particular pattern and a particular way of presenting the supernatural that is wholly absent in the play; where the two more happily coincidence, however, is in the manner of narration.  I have a love-hate relationship with Jamesian narration; it seems like sometimes he just decided to be as fucking roundabout as he could in getting to the story he had to tell.

In order to create what he called a “pretense of truth” he often sets up webs of narrators to tell a single story.

A typical James story will be narrated by the first-person-I, a scholar or antiquarian who is presumably James himself; this narrative voice will do such wonderful things as tell us, rather blatantly, that he is not telling us everything he can so that he may explain details more chillingly later, or he may off-handedly dismiss a secondary character as nameless because he’s just not important to the story.  Below the James-narrator there is often a second voice belonging, supposedly, to one of his friends or acquaintances, to whom the events of the story occurred; though James will talk about the character in third person, his narrative voice occasionally gives way to the other character’s first person narration of the events in question.  The secondary narrator, for his (and it’s almost always his) part will often find an old manuscript — a court transcription, a diary, whatever — that also relates events in the first-person voice of someone who is long dead, often providing a clue as to the nature of the hauntings.  The text-within-the-narration, with its archaic syntax and occasional rambling passages in Latin, will often consume a large portion of the narrative structure.

If this all sounds a bit complicated, trust me when I say that it is.  Sometimes James gets so caught up with himself it’s impossible to tell who is narrating what and when and how.  If you’re also thinking this all sounds awfully postmodern, keep in mind that James was writing in the 1900s, and had no real reason to be this damn complicated.  His narrators are like nightmarish Russian nesting dolls, each one trapped inside the other and more removed from the reader than the last.

Now, The Woman in Black very admirably follows up on this tradition of being obfuscating as fuck by having the same narrative confusion, but on stage.

It works something like this: an older man, sort of bumbling, wants to tell a story to lay his conscience to rest.  He consults an actor, the other main character, to help him work on his public speaking skills for this purpose.  The older guy, Arthur Kipps, is a terrible speaker, though, and so the actor (who finds the story interesting and has designs on making it a play) takes over Arthur’s role for the purposes of flashback.  So right there on stage, one character literally becomes the other, a lighting change telling you that you’ve entered a flashback.  The real Arthur, for his part, becomes every other character in the play, changing his outfit or glasses slightly and affecting multiple accents to fill various roles.  So then suddenly you’re not watching these two guys put on a play about Arthur’s experience, you’re actually watching the memory — until, for one reason or another, we jump back and Arthur turns into the actor and the other actor turns back into Arthur.

It all gets very confusing, as you might imagine; you never know if the people on stage are people “on stage” practicing their play in an empty theater or people in a haunted house, and the fact that they can go from one to the other at any time doesn’t help.  When the ghost, the woman in black, finally shows up, is she actually there?  Is she on the stage with Arthur and the actor, or is she part of a flashback, a memory?  The implication, quite horrible indeed, is that if she is in fact on the stage in the play’s “present” then she is also there on stage in front of you.  And since she operates sort of like Kiyoko from the Ju-On films — she passes on from person to person, seeking vengeance for the wrongs done to her in life — there’s the equally unsettling implication that the woman in black, if she is there, is now after you.

This is underscored by the play’s curtain call.  As the audience applauds, the two actors you know quite well by now come out and bow, try to run back stage, come back to the continued applause, bow, and leave.  Just them.  Only those two.

And, after they have gone, the woman in black appears at the very back of the stage, just visible, staring out at you.  She does not smile, she does not bow; she only stares.  For her, it seems, the play is not over.

Then she disappears, and you’re free to go.  Or so you think, anyway, but the play has already taught you that the woman in black can show up where you least expect her, be it an ancient house in the marshlands or a London park on a sunny afternoon.

We should also take time to consider the other play I saw, Ghost Stories at the Lyric Hammersmith.  There are a few things to note about this play, the first being that it is new and has a modern day setting, unlike The Woman in Black, which was written in the 80s but takes place in the early 20th century. The second is that it is co-written and directed by Jeremy Dyson, one of the writers for a black comedy television program that is very near and dear to me, The League of Gentlemen.  What this means is that the story is very consciously influenced by horror films and at certain points it becomes as bizarre as all get-out.

Ghost Stories is also the better of the two plays.  I’m wary to talk much about it for fear of spoiling it — not that I expect anyone reading this to see it, really, but I am loath to give away the play’s secrets.  In structure the plot works something like this: you are part of an audience watching a Dr. Goodman present a short seminar on ghost stories, which he collects from various people.  As he replays recordings of these experiences to you, the audience, the action on the stage takes over and we “see” what is happening in flashback.  There are in total three vignettes of this type, linked by Goodman’s lectures on them, giving the entire thing a sort of classic anthology movie feel — think Creepshow or something of that variety.

The play’s resolution held no surprises for me, but it was well executed; I will not discuss it further, except to say that if The Woman in Black is an MR James story, then Ghost Stories follows, appropriately enough given Dyson’s own apparent interest, in the footsteps of Robert Aickman.  Aickman is woefully under-read, I think, and this is not helped by the fact that his work is almost entirely out of print and very hard to find in any other way — in my travels through used bookstores here I found a shop that had two of his early collections (first editions, about £95 each) and both volumes of his collected ghost stories (£400).  At any rate, there’s a quote from Neil Gaiman on that Wikipedia page that I feel gives a very accurate description of what it is like to read an Aickman story: as a reader, you are slowly overcome with a sense that something is horribly, terrifyingly wrong, and by the end you know it is, and yet afterward you can never figure out exactly what went wrong, where it went wrong, and how.

Ghost Stories is less coy about the why and how parts of the equation, but it does indeed do an admirable job of slowly breaking down the audience’s complacency.  In other words, while watching Ghost Stories, you think you’re seeing one thing, but you slowly begin to understand that you’re really witnessing something else entirely.

I’m sure that’s vague to the point of being useless, but it’s the way the play goes, and I really don’t want to say any more about it.  They even ask you kindly after the show not to tell anyone!  And, anyway, I hear John Landis was in the audience a few nights ago, which (if his career weren’t dead) might bode favorably for a film adaptation.


This isn’t a post about horror films.  It’s a post about horror theater, and I sincerely believe that Ghost Stories could not work as a film.  Neither could, I think, The Woman in Black, though the BBC apparently tried.

I have come to understand that the way theatric horror works — and the reason it is unique — is that the audience participates in a way completely unlike their participation with other genres and other forms.  The common trend in both plays I’ve described is that the barrier between the audience, the percipient/participant, and the action on stage is broken down — the proscenium, the fourth-wall, is presented as permeable.  You leave the Woman in Black thinking you might be her next victim, but you don’t leave a production of Oedipus Rex thinking you’re going to murder your dad and bone your mom.  (At least I hope not.)

Likewise Ghost Stories, with its wraparound frame of a parapsychologist’s lecture, makes you personally a part of what is happening.  It’s simpler than WiB‘s layering of narration, and while I actually think WiB is very clever and successful in that regard, it’s also a bit cold.  Ghost Stories‘s technique is simpler, perhaps cruder, but far more effective in bringing the audience into the world of the play.  In other words, while the former is a technical success, I believe the latter is a general success.

To go back to MR James, when writing on his ghost stories, he claimed his multiple narrators and pretense of truth were required to make the reader think, “If I’m not careful, this could happen to me!”  This is the point of theatric horror, I think — even more so than a horror story or a horror film.

I also think this is why horror theater is not a widely considered part of the spectrum: it’s really easy to do it badly, so there’s not much of it.  The percipients have to be participants in the fullest sense; they have to feel what is going on, they have to be sympathetic, because you (the writer/actor/director/whatever) are essentially asking them to make themselves feel intensely uncomfortable.  It’s not a request many people are inclined to comply with, and if this sort of thing were to fail, it would do so spectacularly.

This may be a lot to base on only two plays, but it’s all I have to go on, so it’s the best I’ve got.  It’s an allegation supported, I think, by the rather famous and experimental Punchdrunk company, who stage their plays in actual buildings, having the actors go about their business while the audience wanders around, observing and ignored.  In other words, they do away with the proscenium entirely.  From what I hear, Punchdrunk’s Faust was absolutely fucking terrifying.

Punchdrunk’s approach also underscores another observation I’ve made about theatric horror, and perhaps theater in general.  You’ll recall that in The Woman in Black, part of the action takes place in an empty theater — the characters refer to the theater multiple times, talking about how empty it is.  Of course this garners a few laughs, because the theater is not empty at all.

But it’s a rather uncanny notion, nonetheless — to be outright ignored by another human being, for him to pretend you don’t exist.  There’s a similar sort of dynamic in Ghost Stories and — hell — I feel like the same sort of thing goes on in almost any play.

When theater works well, there’s always that uncanny feeling that you are in a place you shouldn’t be, that you have somehow become unseen or insubstantial.  Horror plays tend to involve the audience more directly perhaps because the actors need your consent to make the monsters real, and so you’re invited, in a sense, to become part of the play.

In other words, in good theater, the audience should feel that they are real ghosts.

American Psycho Part 4: THERE IS, IN FACT, AN EXIT

Hello to anyone who’s stumbled this way from Professor Brainworm’s blog!  I hope you’ll bear with me, since I can be pretty longwinded.  Anyway.

Our journey through the wonderful world of Bret Ellis’s novel American Psycho thus far could be summed up in the following way if it were a game of Clue:  Shakespeare’s Macbeth in Dante’s Inferno with Reagan’s Manhattan.  Today on the ominously dubbed Black Friday, I’ll finish up my little ramble.  I plan to for a rebuttal to the issue that, after the explicit pornography and violence, is the most challenged aspect of the novel: its nihilism.


I encountered something like this when I first read the book when I was 14.  You’ll recall I took it as a straight satire, and so in the end I didn’t feel like it had accomplished the actual goal of satire: I didn’t know what better lifestyle was possible, because in the novel if you are not Patrick Bateman then you are one of his shallow friends or a homeless person, and none of these options are very good.  But as I’ve said, Psycho is not a satire.  It has satiric elements, certainly, in a similar way the recent film version of New Moon inexplicably has a scene that satirizes modern Hollywood action films.  Bret Ellis’s satire is much more deft, of course, and much more regularly implemented; it’s not a one-off scene, but a large part of the text.  Yet it is not, as we may be tempted to think, the heart of the text.

The heart is salvation.

Rewritings of Dante are always about salvation in the same way sonnets are always about love.  A traditional if boring sonnet is one that lists, without irony, the traditional values that make a loved one, well, loved.  An exciting sonnet is one that talks about how love is impossible, a lie, fake, a delusion — but even when it tries to negate those things, it is still a poem about love.  Similarly, a traditional rewriting of Dante is going to be about a dude going through some hardship, suffering, and becoming a better person in the end.  An exciting rewriting of Dante, like American Psycho, is going to pull the same trick as the not-about-love sonnet: it will try say that salvation does not exist, is impossible.  But the idea of salvation is still there, lurking behind every venomous negation, and sometimes — sometimes — it manages to glitter through.

The pattern is pretty straightforward in Dante.  Dante and Virgil travel through Hell in Inferno, where they see the consequences of sin, and then move onward to the Mountain of Purgatory in Purgatorio.  Purgatory, of course, being the place where sins are purged from the soul prior to entering Heaven.  To enter Purgatory, however, they have to pass by a robed angel who guards the gate; Virgil urges Dante to beg the angel to let him enter, and the following transactions occur:

Devoutly prostrate at his holy feet,
I begged in mercy’s name to be let in,
but first three times upon my breast I beat.

Seven P‘s, the scars of sin,
his sword point cut into my brow.  He said:
“Scrub off these wounds when you have passed within.”

Canto IX, 109-114

Each of the seven P‘s on Dante’s forehead represents one of the seven cardinal sins that Purgatory is supposed to rid him of; after passing through each circle one disappears and Dante feels lighter.

miquel-barcelo-purgatorioIf you’re in any way religious — particularly if you are Catholic — this may have echos of Ash Wednesday.  If you’re a godless heathen, then the short of it is that Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent, the period of penitence and fasting leading up to Easter.  On Ash Wednesday, the penitents are marked by the priest with a cross of ashes on the forehead, a reminder that human beings come from dust and, but for the grace of God, they’ll someday be to the dust returned.  In other words, it’s a humbling process, just as the journey through Dante’s Purgatory is meant to humble those souls that were sinful in life but not beyond hope.

Now that’s all well and good, you’re saying, but what in the hell does Ash Wednesday have to do with American Psycho?

Since there’s nothing I like more than tossing away conclusions I’ve already made, think back on our initial reading of the Inferno influence on Psycho in Part 2.  We mapped out a set of relationships between the characters to mirror that of the Comedy’s Dante-Virgil-Beatrice triad, and our best Virgil candidate was a sort-of-friend of Patrick Bateman’s named Timothy Price.  He’s like Virgil, I said, because he’s the most interesting person Bateman knows, someone he seems to admire in a really odd but genuine way, the closest thing Bateman has to a friend, and he leaves Patrick before the end of the novel.

But Tim Price is unlike Virgil in one very important way: he comes back.

….[F]or the sake of form, Tim Price resurfaces, or at least, I’m pretty sure he does.  While I’m at my desk simultaneously crossing out the days in my calendar that have already passed and reading a new best seller about office management called Why It Works to Be a Jerk, Jean buzzes in, announcing that Tim Price wants to talk, and I fearfully say, “Send him… in.”  Price strolls into the office wearing a wool suit by Canali Milano, a cotton shirt by Ike Behar, a silk tie by Bill Blass, cap-toed leather lace-ups from Brooks Brothers.  I’m pretending to be on the phone.  He sits down, across from me, on the other side of the Palazetti glass-top desk.  There’s a smudge on his forehead or at least that’s what I think I see.

“You’ve been gone, like, forever, Tim.  What’s the story?” I ask, again noticing the smudge on his forehead, though I get the feeling that if I asked someone else if it was truly there he (or she) would just say no.  (p.383-384)

Price disappears within the first 60 pages of the novel and returns in the last 20.  After he ran off into the fake train tunnel in the club, he has not been mentioned at all — but suddenly here he is, with a peculiar smudge on his forehead.  The chapter he reappears in is called Valentine’s Day, which is on February 14th, and it so happens that this part of the novel takes place in 1989, when Ash Wednesday fell on February 8th.

I’m sure you see what I’m driving at.ash

So Price, when he returns, comes in the form of someone penitent — or at least that’s how Bateman feels.  We know he’s prone to hallucinating, and here he openly questions whether or not he actually sees the smudge.  Nevertheless, we know that Price is someone Bateman admires — “I’m wondering and not wondering what happens in the world of Tim Price, which is really the world of most of us: big ideas, guy stuff, boy meets world, boy gets it” (384).  There is something about Price, some spirit or personality or agency, that Patrick sees as lacking in himself; suddenly it makes a whole lot of sense why the opening paragraph I quoted in Part 2 almost makes it seem like the novel is going to be a third-person narration about Tim Price, but is actually just Patrick thinking about Tim Price.

So what is it Price has that Bateman doesn’t?  In Part 3 I said Bateman’s chief sin is that of despair — he does not think the world can be made better, and his only attempts to even try are simply gross, violent parodies of the shallowness and greed he sees all around him.  Price, it would seem, is not a victim of this despair.  He’s just as rich and shallow as Patrick, just as obnoxious, but in the scene at Tunnel when he becomes fed up with the empty life he leads he doesn’t just lapse into a murderous frenzy (or fantasy) like Patrick seems to have done.  Instead, he actually tries to get out, something Patrick has never attempted — something that he is, in fact, probably afraid to do.

Is Price actually on his way to salvation?  After all, he left, but he came back.  His first conversation with Bateman may — just possibly may — imply that he is looking for girls to hook up with, since he asks Patrick for the number of a woman they both know who is in a relationship with a mutual acquaintance.  Like Patrick, we can’t be sure if Price is really penitent, and we don’t see much of him at all until the very last chapter, the one that ends with Patrick reading the NO EXIT sign.

Bateman and some of his friends, including Price, go out to a club.

On the [TV] screen now are scenes from President Bush’s inauguration early this year, then a speech from former President Reagan, while Patty [the talk show host] delivers commentary.  Soon a tiresome debate forms over whether he is lying or not, even though we don’t, can’t, hear the words.  The first and really only one to complain is Price, who, though I think he’s bothered by something else, uses the opportunity to vent his frustration, looks inappropriately stunned, and asks, “How can he lie like that?  How can he pull that shit?”

“Oh Christ,” I moan.  “What shit?  Now where do we have reservations at?  I mean I’m not really hungry but I’d like to have reservations somewhere.” (p. 396)

nancy-ronAnd from that, the conversation devolves into everyone arguing about where to eat, Price’s concerns left unaddressed.  Even if something else seems to be bothering Price, he does seem to have a bone to pick with Reagan — what was he lying about?  What sort of shit is he getting away with?  I wasn’t watching much TV back then, but one possibility is that Reagan is speaking about the 1989 IRS investigation of him and his wife Nancy for unpaid taxes on various gifts they received while in the White House.  It was eventually determined that the Reagans owed three million dollars on “fashion items” (to quote Wikipedia) that had been given to Nancy.

Reagan here represents the freewheeling economic attitude and casual greed that characterize Ellis’s portrait of the decade, the broad symbol of the lives that all of the horrible characters in the novel lead, and it is only Price who questions him.  And it’s Patrick, bored and uninterested, who changes the subject.

Price looks away from the television screen, then at Craig, and he tries to hide his displeasure by asking me, waving at the TV, “I don’t believe it.  He looks so… normal.  He seems so… out of it.  So… undangerous.”

“Bimbo, bimbo,” someone says.  “Bypass, bypass.”

“He is totally harmless, you geek.  Was totally harmless.  Just like you are totally harmless.  But he did do all that shit and you have failed to get us into 150, so, you know, what can I say?”  McDermott shrugs.

“I just don’t get how someone, anyone, can appear that way and yet be involved in such total shit,” Price says, ignoring Craig, averting his eyes from Farrell.  He takes out a cigar and studies it sadly.  To me it still looks like there’s a smudge on Price’s forehead.

“Because Nancy was right behind him?” Farrell guesses, looking up from the Quotrek.  “Because Nancy did it?”

“How can you be, I don’t know, so fucking cool about it?”  Price, to whom something really eerie has obviously happened, sounds genuinely perplexed.  Rumor has it he was in rehab.

“Oh brother.”  Price won’t let it die.  “Look,” he starts, trying for a rational appraisal of the situation.  “He presents himself as a harmless old codger.  But inside…” He stops.  My interest picks up, flickers briefly.  “But inside…”  Price can’t finish the sentence, can’t add the last two words he needs: doesn’t matter.  I’m both disappointed and relieved for him.  (p. 397)

Here we see that the sort of will Bateman perceives in Price is not a delusion — it’s real.  Price has the ability to change, he has the desire; only he is offended that a person in power lies, cheats, and steals.  Only he’s been to rehab, only he wears the phantasmagorical smudge of the penitent.  His description of Reagan as a harmless-looking man never seems to finish, perhaps because it frightens him: Reagan can look like an old movie star, an aw shucks nice guy, but within him dwells the capacity for cruel and casual evil.  Bateman is the same way: he looks normal, but there is something terrible inside of him, something he has decided to stop fighting, and that is why he finishes the sentence in a way Price probably wouldn’t agree with: he claims that what’s inside doesn’t matter.  Price’s gradual realization seems to be moving in the opposite direction, the idea that the inside does matter.  Success has a greater dimension than economics, than wealth and power and being physically attractive; it is a moral and spiritual matter.

Remember that the beginning of the story makes it seem like Price will be the main character — we are told what he is doing, who he is, we are told that he notices the words ABANDON ALL HOPE YE WHO ENTER HERE.  And now here we see him beginning to understand how life should be lived — with honesty and compassion.  Timothy Price is the Dante figure here, and he’s traveled through Hell and seen the results of a sinful life; now he’s penitent, the ash is on his brow, and it is his responsibility to cleanse himself, to work toward a more honest and compassionate life.

We don’t know for sure if he does — he’s a little afraid, as Patrick notes — but the fact that he can do this makes all the difference.  There is an exit, but it’s not easy to get to and even more difficult to pass through.  It’s a path Bateman doesn’t want to acknowledge, and thus he is damned.  He’s not Dante, and he’s not Virgil; he’s one of the screaming shades, tortured for eternity in Hell, punished in accordance to the decisions he’s made in life.


In a purely aesthetic sense, this is why I think American Psycho is a great novel: it is well written — extremely well written, in fact, and though Patrick Bateman’s endless recitation of brands and clothing lines may get grating, it’s also an inextricable part of his character, a fundamental element of his voice and his psychology.  The novel is also, I think, in meaningful dialogue with other works of literature that have come before it — it shows us how Macbeth may play out in the modern day, the unassuming madman, and it turns Dante on his head by showing us how one can so easily despair into Hell, or Hell on Earth.

In a more personal and moral sense, this is why I think American Psycho is a great novel:  It tells us something very profound and very important about human existence — not how to live in an obvious, satirical way, but more in the sense of what it is like to live.  We are surrounded on all sides by greed, cruelty, injustice, and horror; in such an environment it may seem like there’s nothing to do but give up, to become greedy and cruel and unjust and horrific in our own turn, and while that is always a possibility it is never the only choice.  There is a moral way to live, a good way to live, a better way to live; the trick is to remember that it exists, even when so many people around you don’t believe it.saturn

And this is why I think that American Psycho is a great horror novel:  Obviously the reasons above apply, horror should not be above the requirements for something to be a piece of literature, it should be well written and canonically articulate.  But it actually adds another criterion: a horror novel has to be scary.

There are two types of scary, as far as I am concerned.  One is the splatterpunk approach, graphic violence for violence’s sake, gallons of gore that gross you out, make you feel like barfing.  The thing about this type of horror is that it doesn’t last, it’s too physical, too visceral; it’s also, unfortunately, the more popularized part of American Psycho.  Yes, splatterpunk is here — loads of it, in fact, and yeah, it’s gross as hell and effective for what it is.  But there’s something more clever than that at work, too: the second type of horror, what you might call metaphysical horror or philosophical horror, the sense of fear and unease resulting from the sudden realization that the world does not function according to whatever rules you take for granted and the universe might be, in fact, a much more dangerous and inhospitable place than you believed.

Bret Ellis combines both splatterpunk and philosophical horror by making Patrick Bateman so unreliable.  Whether or not he commits the murders is unimportant in the splatterpunk sense, because the descriptions of them are just as graphic and gut-churning.  But the fact that these may all be fantasies — that Patrick is just some hopeless, repressed guy living out psychotic daydreams behind an ordinary exterior — takes it to another level.  Suddenly everything is thrown into question.  I’m thinking of a part near the end of the novel, where Patrick mentions his housekeeper coming into his apartment and cleaning bloodsplatter off the walls and floor — as if it didn’t matter, as if it weren’t a problem for her at all.  If the blood is really there, is the maid keeping her mouth shut just to save herself, or does she simply not care enough to report Bateman?  If Bateman is making it all up, how many people do you meet every day are just like him?  How many repressed psychotics walk among us?  If Patrick isn’t lying, if he does some or all of the things he claims to, then how believable is it?  Do we live in a society so disconnected, so unfeeling, that we would just allow this stuff to happen so long as we didn’t have to deal with it?

The cannibalism and rape make you queasy, and the implications make you uneasy.  You can forget about all of the murders in time, but can you get rid of the nagging question:  How does the world work?

To answer that is to overcome or make peace with the philosophical horror the novel instigates.  The easiest way to read the book is to say that yes, the world is cruel and senseless and evil and no one cares, the world is terrible and we are all trapped in it and THIS IS NOT AN EXIT.  But I hope that over the past few weeks I’ve shown that there is another answer.  Sure, it’s small and difficult to find, requiring a careful and thoughtful reading of the text, but it’s there.

There is hope; there is possibility; there is salvation; there is, in fact, an exit.