Everyone is familiar with the writer Leo Tolstoy, and it would be a waste of time to attempt to summarize his achievements in world literature (although there are some who regard him as turgid, a bit of bore). I bring him up now only because a quote attributed to him is relevant to these late night musings, a subject I’ve been turning over in my mind.
The quote goes something like this: “Good versus evil is interesting, but good versus good is more interesting.” That’s a paraphrase (Russian no doubt loses something when tortured to produce English).
Great literature (and movies and wrestling matches) can be made on the storyline of good versus evil. Fairytales don’t require moral ambivalence, or a villain with an origin story to explain what they do. Some queen is evil and therefore decides to put a curse upon the land, and someone who is innately good takes it upon themselves to thwart said-queen.
What about tales of good versus good, though? These may be more interesting than tales of good versus evil because they force the reader (or viewer) to not just cheer someone on, but to decide whom to support in battle. Making things even more complicated is that one’s loyalties can change based on how the two combatants conduct themselves in their war.
Parallel to what Leo Tolstoy said are some words by character actor Joe Don Baker. For those not familiar with him, Joe Don played the lawman in the original Walking Tall, a film about a sheriff (an ex-wrestler, incidentally) who stood up against a townful of bad guys. Joe Don has also played his share of baddies, though, including a sadistic hitman in the fast-paced, underrated crime gem Charley Varrick.
Joe Don’s range as an actor is as wide as the moral spectrum (or his waistline, for that matter). He can scowl and smolder. He can squint and grimace with his flouncy jowls until he resembles the unholy offspring of Winston Churchill and a largemouth bass. He can convincingly play a hayseed sheriff who leers, spits baccy and asks a city boy, You ain’t from around here, are ya? And he can be just as convincing as a wide-eyed everyman who’d be overwhelmed by the wickedness of the world except that he needs his composure, wits, and toughness to put a dent in said-evil.
Someone once asked Joe Don in an interview if he liked playing bad guys more than good guys. His response (perhaps worthy to stand alongside Tolstoy’s) went something like this: “Does any bad guy ever see himself as bad?”
The bad guy is driven by a knack for rationalization. And who knows, maybe their reasoning is in fact solid.
Let’s perform a thought experiment to see if sometimes it’s impossible to tell good from evil.
Say there is a billionaire who owns warehouses across the planet where goods are packaged, sold, shipped, and transshipped for global markets. He is the richest man on Earth. Let us call him Joffrey Tidewater (it’ll work, as it sounds slightly exotic but also slightly villainous). Joffrey treats his workers like crap. He is a megalomaniac perfectionist, obsessed with Taylorism and all of the other pet theories of early twentieth century efficiency crafted by the great robber barons who preceded him. Only unlike those forebears, Joffrey Tidewater has no social conscience. Rather than endow museum galleries with edifying art or university libraries with tomes, he sinks his money into space exploration efforts that smack more of vanity than a pioneering spirit.
In this telling, Joffrey Tidewater will strike the viewer or reader as a real asshole. If the teller of our tale takes us back to Joffrey’s childhood, to reveal Joffrey lived in a tarpaper shack, malnourished and shivering from the cold, then maybe we’ll factor that into our overall assessment of him. Sure, he’s an asshole, we’ll reason, but now he’s an asshole whose assholery has been contextualized.
But let’s make things more difficult, more interesting for the reader (or less elemental, if you prefer the fairytale version of things where evil is evil and good is good and that is that).
Let’s say Joffrey started out as an idealistic, if somewhat nutty and libertarian-leaning businessman, beginning his mail-order business from a basement. By day he worked as a custodian in a building and at night he returned to his cot in that building’s basement where he lighted incense in a sandalwood holder lain before a red resin bust of Ayn Rand. In his free time, he sought escape in musty Golden Age science fiction paperbacks. He’d curl up with these dusty pulps, thumbing their yellow pages while leaning against a warm boiler flush against an exposed brick wall. He’d listen to the hum of the boiler and pretend it was a fusion engine on an interstellar ark traveling between galaxies. He’d read guileless fantasies of a future that never was, where men with fishbowl helmets and zap guns defended utopian colonies (and damsels corseted in bullet bras) from evil green lizardmen.
One day Tidewater’s business takes off, and he begins to reinvest in it, and to expand, and to dream big. He moves out of the basement and now owns his own cedar lodge perched atop a snowy escarpment overlooking some ski slopes. His business has grown large enough now that it’s time to go public. He decides to go the Trader Joe’s route and be a compassionate employer. He’ll offer his workers flexible hours, adequate medical and dental care. He’ll throw in other perks like scholarships and childcare meant to guarantee loyalty and professionalism from the lowest stock boy (a job Tidewater once held as a kid) on up to the public relations staff.
He’s drafting up a moving speech he intends to make about the responsibilities of the rulers to the ruled. He has Carnegie in mind, reasoning that even the robber barons built monumental libraries and public works. While drafting the memo, however, a whirlpool-like tunnel appears before him, a yawning green oculus of light in which radiant funnels circle each other, like coiled strands in a radioactive Fibonacci spiral.
A green man steps out of the incandescent portal. He’s bulb-headed and holds a laser pistol gripped tight to the suctioned radular cups lining the insides of his spatulate fingers. The green man makes it sweet and simple. “You, Tidewater, have an obligation to your species which is greater than your obligation to your employees. We have used our Tachyon Time Jumper to discover that it is imperative you forego this seemingly compassionate plan, and that instead you save as much money as you can. You will then use this capital to build a fleet of spacecraft, ostensibly to be used by the vainer and richer homo sapiens among you keen to travel to Low Earth Orbit as tourists. However, your private space exploration firm, if begun in earnest now, will eventually be responsible for creating a star armada that will one day defend not just homo saps, but all of the sentient beings in the universe. True compassion requires sacrifice. This is yours. Your gift to the universe in the long term must come at the expense of the comfort of your race in the short term. That is all.”
The green man disappears back through his portal. Tidewater sits at his desk, stunned into silence, trying to rearrange the papers that scattered to the four winds when the alien emerged via his Tachyon Time Jumper (wasn’t that what he called it?).
Joffrey Tidewater wants to dismiss what happened as a dream, an apparition, a bit of undigested soy left over from a hearty vegan lunch consumed earlier this afternoon. But there’s that smell, a cloacal musk that’s hard to escape. It emanates from the stream of slime the green man left lingering on the floor. The mucilaginous drip ends at the far wall where he first saw the portal, and the space still faintly glows as if someone had smashed a photophore-rich fish against the plaster.
It was real. It happened.
Then the phone rings, startling Tidewater so that he jumps in his ribbed leather office chair. He reaches for the phone, picks it up off the cradle. “Hello?”
“You said you had a big announcement?”
Tidewater is on the edge of being a billionaire, and the reporter on the other end of the line wants to hear what he has to say.
“Yes.” Tidewater spins in his thronelike seat (which feels even more kingly, now that he understands the power and burden that lie with him). “I previously stated that we were considering modeling our employee benefits’ package on the popular Trader Joe’s grocery chain. Unfortunately, that announcement was based on previous, and ultimately inaccurate calculations. Associates at Tidewater will be paid minimum wage, and are entreated to perform calisthenic exercises before and after work to limit risk of injury while on-shift. Dental hygiene is also not a matter for the company to involve itself in. Although I should add that employees will receive discounts on any Colgate-brand products purchased through the company’s store, or shipped online via Tidewater Unlimited. That is all.”
He hangs up the phone, a chill working its way through his body, followed by a bout of nausea that sends him heading for the toilet to test out the bowl’s motion sensor-activated Smart FlushTM feature. He pukes, discovering the smart toilet works (available $69.99 from Tidewater Unlimited Online).
That’s the good news.
The bad news is that he’s evil.
Or is he?
Hell, I don’t know.
Ask Tolstoy. Or Joe Don.
Awhile back a writer buddy of mine mentioned he had a book in his to-read pile with the title of Nobody wants to read your Shit. He never got around to reading it, telling me, “I’ve had enough tough love,” or words to that effect.
I personally never tire of finding new ways to remind myself that I suck, and so I decided to give the book a whirl.
The book is as direct as the title suggests. The author is a successful writer who started out working on Madison Avenue and later had success writing The Legend of Bagger Vance, a story about a numinous negro who helps white protagonists work on their golf handicaps.
One of the author’s insights is that the mechanics of storytelling may have some universal features across all times and cultures, but there are certain idiomatic quirks from country to country it still helps to be aware of.
For instance: in American stories, the main character must be the ultimate agent of their destiny.
People in other cultures (he cites the Russians) are more comfortable viewing the protagonist as the plaything of forces stronger than himself, whose self-realization (or progress over the character arc) comes when they realize they have no control over anything. But your American character, whether he or she fails or succeeds, should do so by his or her own hand, if you hope to have a readership larger than six embittered, beard-stroking baristas.
One could speculate on the reasons that this is so, assuming one accepts the premise (and I guess I more or less do).
America is a relatively young country that has never lost a war on its own soil. Or, in the delightful phrasing of poet Charles Bukowski, “The problem with these people is that their cities have never been bombed and no one has ever told their mothers to shut up.” It’s easier to believe in the ability of one person to challenge the world and win when it’s so deeply engrained in our collective cultural DNA. Whether it’s true or not is beside the point; we respond to films like Rocky, giving our cynicism a little caesura for a couple hours no matter how deeply rooted we think it is.
The quintessential American is Horatio Alger, writing about young, impoverished boys pulling themselves up by their bootstraps to rise to positions of wealth and prominence. The quintessential Russian tale is Nikolai Gogol’s lowly clerk in The Overcoat, who scrapes and saves for a new garment and still ends up freezing to death. I think Dostoevsky or Tolstoy even said words to the effect that We all came out from beneath Gogol’s overcoat.
Are there exceptions to this rule, though? Distinctly American tales in which the main character is someone to whom things happen rather than one who does things? Men and women, who, in grammatical terms, are indirect objects rather than subjects?
I think so. For the sake of argument, take Goodfellas, starring Ray Liotta as Henry Hill, the mafia associate made famous for his betrayal of various Luchese Family bigwigs.
I won’t recap the movie’s plot, nor its brilliance, nor its cultural permanence in cinema. It would be as absurd as me trying to describe the music of the Beatles to someone. Either you’re familiar with the work or you’ve been living feral and in the woods, too busy foraging for food and evading predators to bother with pop culture.
Goodfellas’ relevance to my ramblings is that the central character of the film is a man seemingly without qualities. He is adrift in a sea of larger-than-life personalities, men willing to use violence over the slightest perceived insult, men who are basically supernovas of unbridled passion exploding in every direction. They have massive appetites for sex, money, and literally food in the cases of some of the more rotund and fleshy gindaloons. And because they have the muscle to break anyone who might thwart them and the resources to keep the party going, there are basically no checks on their behavior.
Watching the waspish establishment types trying to corral hotblooded Irishmen and Italians like Tommy and Jimmy as they go on their crime sprees is like watching an overworked superego trying to reason with an irrepressible id.
But Henry is mostly a cipher, a dud. Despite being the main character, and being a naturally motormouthed raconteur (most of the film consists of his voiceover narration), he does very little. Even the violence done by the mob on a daily basis is something he mostly watches, usually with a mixture of dread and horror in his eyes. He’s most a spectator in the film’s key scene, in which his crew murder made man Billy Batts. It’s this act that divides the mafia (and America) into two separate eras, one where rules and tradition are mostly adhered to, and another in which they are jettisoned and disillusionment sets in. His involvement in the infamous killing consists mostly of cleaning the “skunk” smell of the man’s corpse from the back of his car’s trunk. Later, when the body needs to be dug up and moved to another location, he spends most of his time puking his lungs out while Tommy and Jimmy do the digging.
His one major act in the film is to rat on his friends. And because this act essentially strips him of whatever identity he had, it only compounds his cipherhood rather than giving him agency. Henry ratting immediately unpersons him in the eyes of his friends and even to some extent in his own eyes. He notes as much in the film’s final scene after getting resettled by Witness Protection, as the camera pans over drab suburban tract houses plotted to the featureless flat horizon. I get to live the rest of my life as a schnook, a nobody. The blandishments that came to Henry as criminal- the closetful of Italian suits, the wingtip shoes, the sugar bowl full of cocaine- were the only things that gave him any sense of self. And now they’re gone.
Interviews I’ve seen about the real Henry Hill only confirm the impression of a man who wasn’t there. His own sister in one interview expressed her lack of shock that her brother would rat people out. “Henry was always a rat.”
And yet it’s because he’s not much of a “doer” that Henry Hill makes such a good observer. Even in the grips of a cocaine-induced nervous breakdown, he remains a reliable narrator.
That, I suppose, begs the question: is the man/woman of action not the best person to relate events? Is doing in and of itself something that precludes one from seeing, or at least relating?
I’d be tempted to say “Yes,” or at least entertain the idea, if there weren’t so many ready examples to the contrary staring us plainly in the face.
Take the droog Alex in A Clockwork Orange. Like Scorsese’s Henry Hill, Kubrick’s Little Alex loves to talk. His voiceover is delivered in the Nadsat argot invented by author Anthony Burgess, rather than the Queens’-Brooklynese of Henry Hill (who related his exploits to crime scribe Anthony Pileggi).
But Alex, unlike Henry, is the agent of his own demise and (ostensible) redemption, despite being the plaything of institutional sadists first in prison and then in the medical profession. He finds the time to do everything from raping women to bludgeoning his friends for disobedience, all while keeping his running commentary going.
All this is beside the point, though, as Alex is British, not American.
That said, it’s worth considering that the person who doesn’t do but merely sees does have roots as an American archetype. Take Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby. He mostly lives at a remove from the wealthy and beautiful people around whom he orbits, attracted and repulsed by them so that he inhabits a kind of moral Lagrange point ideal for seeing without acting.
Nick cannot join the club because he is not rich, anymore than Henry Hill can join the Mafia due to his Irish ancestry on his father’s side.
Maybe that’s the key insight to take away from these only tenuously connected musings. Some central characters are observers rather than actors because they frankly have no choice. It isn’t that this type is not as American as apple pie; it’s that the recoiling at this state of affairs is the outgrowth of a specifically American disposition. The Russian would likely just accept it as the natural state of things whereas the American sensibility lashes out against it.
Deductive logic would tell us that as America collapses on itself, our films should become more mature and self-reflective, or at least nihilistic. That hasn’t happened, though, as the Dream Factory seems to churn out more and more movies about superheroes saving the world. This attitude certainly made sense in the postwar years of heady optimism, where America was flush with pride after defeating the Axis powers in the Second World War and standards of living were rising across the board. What it portends now, aside from a deep sense of denial, is anyone’s guess.
Perhaps I should just leave you with the bardic sagacity of comedian Dave Attell: “When you’re a kid, you think your father is Superman. As you get older, you finally realize that he’s just an alcoholic who walks around the house in a cape.”
“It becomes its own Thing”: Lisa Simpson on Aesthetics
Occasionally I’ll get bored enough to watch a DVD commentary. Either that or I’m just too lazy to take one DVD out, march upstairs to my library (shelf, really) and find another one. People talking over a movie isn’t all that appealing to me (aside from the Mystery Science Theater riffs). That said, I did hear something that stuck with me awhile back when listening to a commentary track for a Simpsons DVD.
It was said by Yeardley Smith, the woman who plays Lisa Simpson. Like most professional voice actors, she also has a distinctive speaking voice. Adenoidal might be the best way to describe it, high-pitched but more adorable than grating, well this side of Minnie Mouse. Betty Boop might be a more apt comparison, although there isn’t that weird neotenous sexpot thing happening with Yeardley that bombshell Betty had going.
In the commentary in question, Yeardley and some other Simpsons staff were watching an episode, maybe The Old Man and the Lisa (a bona fide classic). Someone asked her, “So when you watch an episode, do you see Lisa and think of her as you?”
“No,” Ms. Smith replied. “Because it becomes its own thing.”
I think what she meant was that her own voice, her contribution, was subsumed in the overall effort, interweaved with the craftsmanship of the animators, other voice actors, and the musical cues and stings provided by the underrated film and TV composer Alf Clausen.
The work of art itself, when properly done, provides relief from the burden of ego and self-consciousness, and all the other petty vagaries that come with being a human being. Art is something made by people, but when done well, sincerely and with great effort and care, we find ourselves seeing the work alone and not the creator behind it. That is ultimately the beauty of art, relief from the burden of being in the struggle that comes with being a person “flattened by trivialities,” as Charles Bukowski once put it. When we interact with each other our guards are up, as if we are in a competition, and at the most basic level we are. For resources, for praise, for jobs, and, at the most primal level, for mates.
Art allows us to filter out the extraneous and ugly things about human need and desire that mar communication (even when the work of art in question is focused on human ugliness). It allows us to establish a link with another human that is unburdened by the weight of all this normally heavy baggage. Inferior works of art remind us of all the things we can’t stand about other people and ourselves. How many bad movies have you seen in which you could sense the mercenary nature of everyone involved, the shallowness of the actors and vapidity of the director and screenwriter, buffered by and beholden to nothing greater than momentary trends?
Hell may be other people, as Sartre said, but I think Bradbury was right when he suggested we could stay perma-drunk (without the hangover) on the words (and the songs and the films) of others.
I think we all struggle with some fears of inferiority, fears that we’re talentless (no matter our level of success or the praise heaped on us or our works that are supposed to serve as concrete benchmarks of our accomplishments). And when we encounter something good created by someone else, the admiration carries a slight undercurrent of jealousy, the threat that our fear of being frauds is going to be exposed in the presence of the real thing. It’s best to just be honest about this. “It was good and I was jealous,” is how Bukowski put it in Ham on Rye when he wrote about his first time reading a story written by his best friend, a fellow aspiring scribe. It’s a sentence not many would be honest enough to write, and a feeling not everyone would even be eager to cop to. To be fair, maybe some of us are actually above such pettiness. Not me, at any rate.
Here’s the thing, though: while encountering something good might bring these residual and myriad petty feelings to the surface, when I encounter something great I forget that it was created by a person. My disbelief is suspended and my ego goes with it. Greatness is so rare that when I encounter it, I’m relieved to find that it still exists, no matter the source (well, maybe if my younger brother wrote a great book, I might have to kick his ass).
But here’s the other thing: that same egoless spirit in which I received the work was probably the one in which it was conceived. This is the reason, I think, that someone like Norman Mailer could never really craft a great novel (no matter what prize committees or critics say): he was too consciously trying to aspire to greatness to subordinate him and his talent to let something shine through him rather than trying to shine in and of himself.
In his book How to write Science Fiction and Fantasy, Orson Scott Card points out that the main difference between poetry and fiction is that fiction impresses at the subconscious level, while poetry has its most striking effect in a much more manifest manner.
You read a great poem and think That’s great. You read a great book and think, I believed that. Or, I was transported by that. Your admiration for the author only begins once the book is closed. The experience and not the creator is the focus. Felt everywhere and seen nowhere, as I think Zola or Flaubert said.
And if you write a great book or a great poem, what do you feel then?
Hell, don’t ask me. I have no idea. When I read something I wrote, and I don’t wince and feel a sense of shame, that’s victory enough for me.
Maybe one day I can get to the place where Tolstoy was on his deathbed when his daughter (I think) pulled a book down from the shelves in his paneled library and proceeded to read a passage to him.
“That’s beautiful,” Tolstoy supposedly said after she finished. “Who wrote that?”
“You did,” his daughter replied. But he had written it so long ago that only now, on his deathbed, could see his work with fresh eyes, a Christian death absolving him not only of his sins in this world but the usual and pesky interposition of his (overly)critical faculty.
Half the battle is won or lost in getting to that point where your characters, previously puppets, start to caper around like voodoo dolls, animated by something besides your fingers on the keyboard or the ego lodged in some secret chamber of your mind.
Some writers claim it’s an artistic defect in control to let the characters dance too far free of the leash, while others claim that when the creation slips its tether, that’s where the fun starts.
Maybe that’s the key. Forget about creating something great. Have fun, instead, amuse yourself first and then go from there.
It’s the little things that break your heart.
I remember this one time as a kid going downstairs to the kitchen to get something to eat. I poured myself a bowl of cereal, opened the fridge, and found no milk inside. Being lazy, I didn’t bother to pour the cereal back in the box, or even to dump it in the trashcan (you know you’re lazy when you can’t even be bothered to waste something).
A couple hours later I went back downstairs and saw my mom getting ready to go to the grocery store. She turned and said, “I saw where you poured yourself some cereal but couldn’t find any milk. It broke my heart.” She was exaggerating, of course, but there was still enough feeling in her words for them to contain a bit of genuine pain.
Mothers are like that, cursed to feel too much, especially toward their most unfeeling children.
But apparently sons can be like that, too.
I had one of these moments of minor heartbreak the other night, that low threnody that plays through one’s bones and soul, and which once can’t seem to shake despite how silly it all seems. You’re overreacting, you tell yourself. But yourself tells you to go fuck yourself and to let it feel what it wants.
It was Halloween and I was driving to the drugstore to pick up some candy for the trick-or-treaters. I always put it off til the last moment, mostly because I don’t get many kids knocking on my door. I joked with my neighbors that there must be a rumor out there that I’m the guy in the neighborhood hiding razor blades inside apples. Except I don’t ever hand out apples, and for the young and processed sugar-obsessed kids, an apple is a horrific enough prospect sans razorblade. Might as well be the one curmudgeonly puritan who passes out tubes of toothpaste.
In order to get to the drugstore I have to drive through my old neighborhood. The section where I live now is solidly lower-middle and middle-class, two story brick and vinyl-sided houses inhabited by people who drive exterminator vans and cop cars to work, have their kids in little league and soccer. I could leave a bike in the driveway and not worry too much about it being stolen in the night.
My old neighborhood is what people in real estate and those given to a euphemism call “transitional.” There are laundromats and gas stations with a desperate air, as if they’ve just been hit by armed robbers or will be getting stuck up soon. Fumes from the city bus mingle with the scent of fried food, rap music from tricked-out hoopties rattles the window panes in the apartments where kids try to do their homework. It’s a neighborhood where the humble and law-abiding live quietly in the shadow of their louder and more violent neighbors.
En route to the store I hit a red light and was forced to stop. To my right was a cemetery that locks its gates early to deter vandalism. To the left was a liquor store, which apparently also sells candy. I saw a group of kids walking into the store dressed in their costumes, boys in their superhero silks and girls in their black witch finery. They were trudging inside to buy themselves some pregame sweets before the big door-to-door push to fill their pillowcases.
My heart dropped in my stomach at the bravery of these kids. Despite the cynicism (and frankly danger) all around them were still trying to be kids. They’re not naïve enough to overlook how wrong everything is in the world, and how that wrongness is magnified where they live, but they are still innocent.
Their braveness broke my heart. My cowardice, and the cowardice of all of us who are leaving them this world, disgusted me. But then the light turned green, and I drove on and didn’t think about it anymore. At least not consciously.
Not until now.
The Right to be Forgotten: Some Musings on Immortality,