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Tuesday 14 May 2013
Mary K. Brown was one of the small group of renowned visual artists regularly contributing to National Lampoon back in the day (which also included cartoonists Roz Chast, Mark Alan Stamaty and Gahan Wilson, as well as illustrators like Bruce McCall, comic book artists like Neal Adams, Bill Sienkiewicz and Walt Simonson and fantasy painters like Boris Vallejo). She was married to the late fellow cartoonist (and frequent National Lampoon contributor) Bernard Kliban, whose 1975 bestseller Cat is still in print.
From 1979-1984, Brown had a regular strip called “Aunt Mary’s Kitchen.” Aunt Mary gives recipe advice and shows how to cook different dishes — but, over time, the strip goes strangely astray into various surreal subplots and eventually becomes a story of aliens landing on the earth.
Brown is a very unusual and extremely talented artist and writer, and while I was going through the back-issues (on the complete DVD edition) I began to finally realize just how brilliant “Aunt Mary’s Kitchen” was, so I collected all the strips together chronologically and put them on a web page (hopefully this counts as “fair use”):
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Saturday 11 May 2013
Rush Limbaugh is easy to dismiss (or rather, to not “take seriously,” since his statements are so exuberant and grandiose — so obviously geared to foment certain primitive emotions in his listeners), but I think he’s very interesting. Limbaugh is absolutely crucial to those entrenched, institutional forces of injustice, malfeasance, and the corruption and exploitation of the public trust that are dependent on mass support; he’s an essential component in every one of the mechanisms by which the powerful extend their dominion over the powerless and the countervailing forces of progressivism, Enlightenment (in the strict 18th Century sense; the egalitarian principles which our nation was ostensibly founded upon) and political, cultural and social advancement are kept at bay.
What few people understand about Limbaugh is the degree to which his entire operation serves as a “loss leader,” in the strict business-school sense — Clear Channel Communications struggles with debt in order to maintain Limbaugh’s $400 million paycheck, and then forces radio stations to accept his syndicated programming as part of their content packages (Limbaugh is also distributed to the Armed Forces). In many American markets it’s impossible to avoid hearing him, even though nobody else is making money from his broadcasts (especially in light of the chronic loss of advertisers his programming inspires). But he’s clearly worth every cent, since his ability to disseminate a message to all those enforced listeners is unparalleled. Joseph Goebbels pioneered the Volksempfänger-based technique of using radio to control public opinion, and the effects have not become any less corrosive and devastating since the 1930s.
Limbaugh’s rhetorical talents — not his incendiary polemics, his blatant racial and gender-based slurs, his overwhelming dependence on falsehoods and hyperbole, his willingness to say anything and everything necessary to advance those viewpoints and positions that best serve to galvanize the widespread elements that retard the progress of our society, but, rather, the potency of his framing devices and presentational slight-of hand — cannot be overestimated. My hardline-conservative step-grandmother (who passed away a year ago at the age of 98) used to ask me if I enjoyed listening to Limbaugh, and, when I told her that I did not, since I support and respect everyone whom he is against, she hastened to point out that he “isn’t against anyone” but is, instead, “accepting of all views” and “just wants to get past the politics and find the common sense answers we can all agree on.” Limbaugh has a gift for the creation of inverted logic — for finding ways to express indefensible positions backwards and upside down, so that they sound reasonable. In his extraordinarily cynical, sophisticated handling of current LGBT rights controversies, he beautifully exhibits the singular force and effectiveness of these skills.
As everyone knows, NBA player Jason Collins just announced (in the April 29 Sports Illustrated) that he is gay. Limbaugh did not attack Collins for being gay. He did not attack homosexuals or homosexuality. He did not talk about morality, children, religion, or mention any of the other lynchpins of conservative anti-gay sentiment. He was much shrewder than that. First, he lamented:
Folks, I grew up in a family where people’s sexual orientation preferences, whatever, weren’t even discussed. Why – why can’t – why can’t everybody just put your sexual preferences on Facebook and call it a day? What do we need to stop everything and have a national day of celebration – or mourning, depending on your view – recognition, or whatever, about this. [...] If you’re like everybody else, they’re sick of hearing this. They’ve got gay-news fatigue. Alright, we got it. Just put it up on Facebook and forget it. Why does it have to be rammed down our throats, figuratively speaking? Why does this have to be thrust at us?*
How many listeners found themselves nodding in agreement with this, since it’s possible to find some recognizable sentiment in his outburst (even die-hard liberals and progressives, emerging from provincial upbringings, occasionally admit to some buried squeamishness about social conventions that they’re unaccustomed to) without ever admitting to being anti-gay, or even thinking about “homophobia”? Limbaugh continued:
And this tolerance, you know, it only goes one way. So, Person X of some national stature announces his sexual orientation is gay. And, applause. ‘Great day for America. We’re really taking giant leaps ahead.’ If anybody says, ‘You know, I’m not big on that.’ ‘You bigot! You – You – You racist! You – you extremist! You – you – you homophobe!’ There is no tolerance at all here. Not only do these people have to publicly announce, everybody else has to applaud and accept it. My point the other day about how it’s only us conservatives who are divisive. You know, I’m one of the most loving, unifying, want everybody to do well, like everybody, hope everybody has a great life-kind of guy you’ll ever run into. But because I’m not a liberal, I’m called divisive. Liberals are never divisive. You know why that is? ‘Cause to them, liberalism is just status quo. Anything that’s not liberal is divisive. So, liberals believe this country has been racist, sexist, bigoted, homophobic, and now we’re making great strides.
This stunning logical conjuring act is mirrored in yesterday’s tearful remarks by Minnesota State Representative Peggy Scott (R), on the occasion of a definitive same-sex-marriage bill passing that state’s House. Scott said:
My heart breaks for Minnesota. It’s a divisive issue that divides our state. It’s not what we needed to be doing at this time. We want to come together for the state of Minnesota, we don’t want to divide it.
Nicolaus Copernicus established the heliocentric model of the universe (i.e. the earth goes around the sun, and not vice versa) in 1543, which always seems late to me; the ancient Greeks knew the Earth was round (although that understanding was lost for centuries after the birth of Christianity — no comment), but the fact that hundreds of years’ worth of people lived and died observing the sun’s changing orientation through the seasons and just assuming it followed a corkscrew path (rather than extrapolating a tilted earth) is unnerving to me. It took yet another 200 years for the “Copernican Revolution” to take hold; like Darwin’s ideas, the heliocentric model fought an uphill battle against brute intuition.
The two crucial features of the Copernican model (and of all subsequent paradigmatic insights that are called “Copernican Revolutions”) fit together: first, the observer is removed from the center of the figure — in this case, literally, the center of the universe. Overcoming the tyranny of one’s sensory impressions, and, more important, thinking beyond the subjective primacy of self that those impressions under-gird and uphold, is the most essential breakthrough of the Enlightenment (again, in the strictest sense; the interlocking philosophical, moral, and scientific doctrines upon which the American identity is overtly modeled). And, second, the Copernican model (wherein the observer is no longer the fixed point of reference for the entire observable universe) is simpler, and more reasonable, containing far fewer arbitrary and/or inexplicable elements. Look at the animated diagrams above, showing the orbits of the earth (blue) and Mars (red) around the sun (yellow): the pre-Copernican model (on the right) has Mars performing a mysterious loop (“apparent retrograde motion”), which is the only way to explain its passage across the night sky while maintaining one’s insistence that the earth (and the observer) is the center of all things. Put the sun in the center (left) and suddenly it’s all clear, and it’s all much simpler.
The dark brilliance of Limbaugh’s (and Scott’s) diatribes is that they represent pre-Copernican thinking in all its pervasive, persuasive, retrograde glory: all you have to do is coronate your own blinkered perceptions as the armature of American reality, and the entire observable society ties itself in loops and knots around you, assuming a complex shape whereby you are right and those that trouble you are wrong. It’s not gay Americans who are oppressed and struggling for equality, dignity and those freedoms promised in our founding documents: it’s the straight people who are being punished; who are being asked to sacrifice. Limbaugh fondly remembers a time when he did not even have to think about homosexuality, and all its unsettling implications: can’t we just go back to that? Why is he being punished — even discriminated against — for his intolerance? From his vantage point, everything was fine until the gays and their supporters and allies came out of the woodwork and started causing all this conflict. (Similarly, in 1974 Ronald Reagan told the attendees of First Conservative Political Action Conference — in his famous “City Upon a Hill” speech — that “When I was your age, believe it or not, none of us knew that we even had a racial problem.”) Pre-Enlightenment thinking like this — appealing to the hindbrain rather than the intellect, and so going resolutely backward against the tide of intellectual history — is, in so many words, un-American.
— the source of my quotations — provides, as usual, an excellent report
on these statements. Their comprehensive coverage of Limbaugh is probably the best that can be found on the web.
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Saturday 4 May 2013
Books + Writing
In 1893, Arthur Conan Doyle was done with Sherlock Holmes, the literary “consulting detective” he had created in 1886, whose appearances in two novels and 23 short stories had made Doyle wealthy and famous (and who is currently considered the most popular fictional character in history). “I think of slaying Holmes in the last [of the stories he was contracted to write] and winding him up for good,” Doyle wrote to his mother — “I must save my mind for better things, even if it means I must bury my pocketbook with him.” Doyle did kill Holmes — or, rather, he tried to kill him, and ultimately failed — and the circumstances of this attempted “protagicide” comprise one of the most convoluted recursive knots in fiction.
Having determined to get rid of Holmes, Doyle followed a series of logical steps that may be extrapolated from what he eventually wrote (since his literary methodology remains obscured from view). First, Holmes had to die, rather than merely departing like Peter Pan. That conclusion had, clearly, already been reached when he make that speculative remark to his mother: ending the story of Holmes and Watson for good would require the detective to sacrifice himself both to guarantee the finality of his departure and to avoid the risk of anticlimax.
This question of “climax” (or its absence) is crucial because Doyle had innovated, not just in the creation of the character of Holmes, who was intended as an improvement upon (and rebuttal of) Edgar Allan Poe’s invention of Auguste Dupin,* but, perhaps more important, in the stringing together of a series of short stories focusing around a single character, forming a continuous narrative with its own formal structure, which had never been done before. Doyle’s arrangement with The Strand Magazine suited this template, allowing monthly anecdotal “installments” in Holmes’ saga to build each upon the last, sketching out an accumulation of depth and detail. Because The Final Problem (1893) would follow from this existing series of episodic (but self-contained) stories, it needed scale and gravitas fitting to its role as the conclusion to an overarching über-story that readers had been following for six years.
So Holmes had to be killed while doing something important — more important than anything he had already been shown to have done — facing an adversary greater than any he had previously faced. This was clearly problematic for Doyle because no such adversary existed. Hubris always faces Nemesis — Beowulf has Grendel; Valjean has Javert; Frodo has Sauron; Dorothy has the Wicked Witch; Luke Skywalker has Darth Vader — and all these diametric confrontations are laid out in the first act, allowing both for mounting suspense and for dramatic closure. But there was nothing like that in Sherlock Holmes’ world. So Doyle had to create Holmes’ “long-standing” Nemesis (in modern terms, “retcon” him) and, somehow, work around the obvious fact that this towering, ultimate impending conflict came out of nowhere:
“You have probably never heard of Professor Moriarty?” said he.
“Ay, there’s the genius and the wonder of the thing!” he cried. “The man pervades London, and no one has heard of him. That’s what puts him on a pinnacle in the records of crime. I tell you Watson, in all seriousness, that if I could beat that man, if I could free society of him, I should feel that my own career had reached its summit, and I should be prepared to turn to some more placid line in life. […] I could not rest, Watson, I could not sit quiet in my chair, if I thought that such a man as Professor Moriarty were walking the streets of London unchallenged.”
Watson’s ignorance excuses our own: Moriarty’s conspicuous non-existence (and his sudden, last-act arrival into the story) are evidence, not of Doyle’s revisionism, but of Moriarty’s ultimate significance. He’s so important that you’ve never heard of him.
Dr. John H. Watson, Holmes’ “friend and chronicler,” who narrates the stories while participating in them, is another of Doyle’s structural innovations. Beyond his crucial emotional role (both as a balancing anchor to Holmes and as a foil for his idiosyncrasies and wit), and beyond the suspenseful purposes Watson serves (ensuring that the reader is fed the clues and other information in a sufficiently exciting manner and sequence) and the explication Watson provides (since his bafflement at Holmes’ deductive conclusions prompts lengthy explanations for the reader), Watson is a groundbreaking metafictional device. In a way that presages far more modern and radical 20th century fiction, Watson’s “accounts” exist in their own fictional universe: the characters whom Holmes and Watson encounter have read the stories themselves — the same texts that we are reading. (“I hear of Sherlock everywhere since you became his chronicler,” Holmes’ brother Mycroft tells Watson upon meeting him.) The importance of this Pirandello-esque trickery, which Doyle deploys almost immediately — in The Sign of the Four (1890), the second Holmes adventure, Holmes tells Watson that he has himself read the first, A Study in Scarlet (1886), and disliked its overly dramatic presentation — can’t be overestimated in its effect of bringing a faux-journalistic immediacy and force to the Holmes “canon.” And Watson’s (and Doyle’s) framing device is crucial to the presentation and success of Holmes’ (intended) denouement.
Watson begins “The Final Problem” by insisting that he did not want to write it. Running through a synopsis of his published “accounts” of Holmes’ cases, from A Study in Scarlet (a homicide investigation that’s Holmes’ first experience working with Scotland Yard) to “The Naval Treaty” (1893) (in which Holmes’ actions essentially prevent a European war), Watson explains:
It was my intention to have stopped there, and to have said nothing of that event which has created a void in my life which the lapse of two years has done little to fill. My hand has been forced, however, by the recent letters in which Colonel James Moriarty defends the memory of his brother, and I have no choice but to lay the facts before the public exactly as they occurred. I alone know the absolute truth of the matter, and I am satisfied that the time has come when no good purpose is to be served by its suppression.
So this recounting of Holmes’ Götterdämmerung arrives at a fitting time, but abruptly — and the abruptness is meant to result from Watson’s reluctance to tell the story. He goes on to admit that the only reason he’s compelled to overcome this reluctance is the existence of conflicting, erroneous reports of the events: “As far as I know, there have been only three accounts in the public press [...] Of these the first and second were extremely condensed, while the last is, as I shall now show, an absolute perversion of the facts. It lies with me to tell for the first time what really took place between Professor Moriarty and Mr. Sherlock Holmes.”
Doyle had used this trick before — in his role as metafictional filter, Watson is frequently “setting straight” what happened, flattering the illusion of reality (and of the “journalistic” nature of his “accounts”). But “The Final Problem” has two other features that are unique: First, there is no case. No crime is investigated, no clues are amassed, no deduction is performed. Moriarty stands apart from all previous Holmes antagonists in that everything bad he has done is irrelevant to the present action. To be sure, Holmes hits florid rhetorical notes describing him as “the Napoleon of crime,” and hinting darkly at his role as “the organizer of half that is evil and of nearly all that is undetected in this great city,” but no details are provided; no explanation is given (and no crimes are solved). Alone among Holmes villains, Moriarty gets by on pure atmosphere; pure bombast.
The second unique element in the story is how little of it is actually seen. The lens through which Watson perceives the main action is unusually opaque. There had been other Holmes stories taking place entirely offstage, such as “The Five Orange Pips” (1891),† but their concluding scenes (wherein Holmes works his deductive magic) were always front-and-center. Aside from a great deal of (admittedly exciting) racing around by train, “The Final Problem” contains just two actual scenes: both are direct, isolated confrontations between Holmes and Moriarty, and both are presented solely through Holmes’ account. In the first, Moriarty shows up at Holmes’ Baker Street rooms with an ultimatum, demanding that he forestall his pursuit, since “The situation is becoming an impossible one”:
“ ‘All that I have to say has already crossed your mind,’ said he.
“ ‘Then possibly my answer has crossed yours,’ I replied.
“ ‘You stand fast?’
The total lack of substance in this exchange would be conspicuous even if an author less in love with detail than Doyle had written it. Moriarty recites the dates on which Holmes has “incommoded,” “inconvenienced” and “hampered” his criminal activities, but exactly what those activities are remains unspecified. In fact, throughout the entire story there isn’t a single clear description of a single criminal act Moriarty has performed.
The second Holmes/Moriarty encounter is their famous fight to the (mutual) death atop the Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland, which, again, we do not witness: Watson sees and describes the fittingly Gothic location but is cleverly waylaid and returns after the fact, reconstructing the fatal events (“I began to think of Holmes’s own methods and to try to practise them in reading this tragedy,” he explains—“It was, alas, only too easy to do”). His deductive efforts are helped along by the verbose note Holmes has left pinned under a rock for him, which, Holmes explains, Moriarty has magnanimously agreed to let him write (the implausibility of which somehow never occurs to the grief-stricken reader). The adversaries engage in a hand-to-hand struggle that propel them off the cliff together and into the falls (as the Swiss police help to determine after an examination of the scene) and so concludes Watson’s hagiography of “him whom I shall ever regard as the best and the wisest man whom I have ever known.” Doyle had apparently succeeded in ridding himself of his problem, by means of a Nemesis as elemental and titanic as he is fortuitous and utterly free of substance or detail.
I I I
The Return of Sherlock Holmes (as heralded with enormous boldface type in The Strand Magazine) after ten years (or, three years of fictional time) was very much an unwilling concession to popular demand. Once “The Final Problem” was published (according to the uncredited Introduction to the 1976 Complete Sherlock Holmes Treasury),‡ “Doyle was looked upon as an assassin; people wept; men wore mourning bands to their offices, and Doyle was called a brute by at least one outraged reader.” But the author was resolute: “I couldn’t revive him if I would, at least not for years,” he wrote to a friend, “for I have had such an overdose of him that I feel towards him as I do towards pâté-de-foie-gras, of which I once ate too much.” By 1901 Doyle’s palate was presumably cleansed (and the financial stakes had grown ridiculously high), prompting him to write and publish the carefully-backdated, novel-length The Hound of the Baskervilles, for which Londoners stood in line at the printer’s — and which remains the best known of Holmes’ adventures. (It takes place before Reichenbach Falls, and contains no references to Holmes’ “upcoming” demise.) The circulation of The Strand increased by 30,000 copies with the first installment and remained high throughout, obviously indicating which way the wind was blowing, and finally, Doyle (interviewed by Harper’s Weekly that same year), seemed to be softening in his resolve:
I know that my friend Dr. Watson is a most trustworthy man, and I gave the utmost credit to his story of the dreadful affair in Switzerland. He may have been mistaken, of course. It may not have been Mr. Holmes who fell from the ledge at all, or the whole affair might be the result of hallucination.
Compared to “The Final Problem,” “The Adventure of the Empty House” (1903) is a straightforward crimefighting adventure, requiring none of the backing and filling of its predecessor — Doyle has a much easier time knocking over his house of cards than he did building it.** There are no tiresome conflicting “accounts” to rebut; instead, Watson hits the ground running in the opening paragraph, setting the stage — springtime, 1894, when “all London was interested, and the fashionable world dismayed” by a recent sensational murder — leading swiftly to his impulsive trip to the scene of the crime (old habits die hard) and his run-in with a decrepit bookseller, who follows him home, only to be unmasked as Holmes in disguise. This brilliant sequence (one of Doyle’s best) is so gratifying, so unabashedly indulgent and enjoyable, that the reader may be forgiven for not looking too closely at the explanation that follows, in which Holmes essentially takes “The Final Problem” apart.
Of course, Holmes did not fall off the cliff — he bested Moriarty in combat (“I have some knowledge, however, of baritsu,†† or the Japanese system of wrestling, which has more than once been very useful to me”) and watched him plunge, alone, to his death. It wasn’t Doyle who got everything wrong; it was Watson, whose entire analysis of the crime scene (which Holmes has read, and characteristically disdains) may be summarily set aside. The “Napoleon of crime,” however, is gone for good, his purpose served, and all of his lieutenants and his entire criminal organization have been brought to justice, thanks to the information Holmes provided to the police before his and Watson’s departure for Switzerland. (Scotland Yard got their hands on this material thanks to instructions Holmes included in his final note to Watson, which, again, Moriarty quite preposterously allowed to be written.) So the entire Moriarty criminal edifice — the “web” with “a thousand radiations” — is now gone as quickly as it was conjured into place, except for Colonel Sebastian Moran, Moriarty’s second-in-command (now “the most cunning and dangerous criminal in London”), whom Holmes is, of course, poised to capture. “I have a piece of work for us both to-night which, if we can bring it to a successful conclusion, will in itself justify a man’s life on this planet,” he finishes, and, a mere 2,000 words later, Moran is in custody and the entire grandiose saga is over, without a single criminal detail ever having been provided: Moran is guilty of the “unusual and inexplicable” murder that opened the story, but Doyle doesn’t even bother to provide a motive — “There we come into the realms of conjecture,” Holmes tells Watson, “where even the most logical mind may be at fault.”
And that’s it for James Moriarty, the Napoleon of crime, Sherlock Holmes’ vaunted arch enemy. He is referred to in four other stories, always in passing, and always merely as a point of comparison, an abstracted absolute invoked as one would refer to Everest or Einstein; and he appears briefly in The Valley of Fear (1915), the last of the four Sherlock Holmes novels (the plot of which is backdated so as to precede the events in Switzerland), but he and Holmes never meet in that book, and Moriarty plays an indistinct, ancillary role. Doyle seemed to understand that he had created, not a character, not an antagonist, but a symbol — one that persists beyond its immediate utility (which, as we have seen, resulted directly from the mechanics of an author attempting to escape his self-imposed obligations to his characters), and, ultimately, is as enduring as Holmes himself.
More than a century has passed, but Sherlock Holmes is still very much with us — perhaps, now more than ever (given his current tripartite revival on British and American television and in Hollywood) — and, with him, Professor James Moriarty. What’s especially interesting is how subsequent authors have struggled to fill in the gaps in Doyle’s spare outline: The BBC/Granada Television Sherlock Holmes series (1984-1994), starring Jeremy Brett, while unusually faithful to the original texts, took great pains to thread Moriarty into the fabric of many of the earlier adventures, making good on Holmes’ insistence (in “The Final Problem”) on his adversary’s ubiquity and the reach of his criminal influence — essentially, providing the narrative substance that Doyle only hinted at. Both Benedict Cumberbatch and Robert Downey, Jr. have faced incarnations of Moriarty far more complex, devious and accomplished than anything found in Doyle’s work.
Probably the most intriguing (and devilishly sophisticated) extrapolation of Doyle’s techniques, however, was Nicholas Meyer’s excellent pastiche novel The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1974), which works aggressively in the opposite direction. After a clever, Nabokovian “preface,” in which he pretends to have come by a previously-undiscovered Watson manuscript, Meyer then creates a flawless simulacrum of Doyle’s style and format, in which “the truth” is “finally” revealed: James Moriarty was merely Holmes’ math tutor at university, and it’s only the detective’s cocaine-fueled delusions that have elevated him, in Holmes’ paranoid imagination, to the status of terrifying, over-arching crime-lord. As Meyer’s (perfectly Doyle-like) narrative goes on, Watson brings Holmes to Vienna to meet Sigmund Freud, who cures his addiction; when Watson asks how to broach this delicate subject to his readership, the now-lucid Holmes recommends that he disingenuously present the “Moriarty fantasy” as the truth (for which reason, “Watson” admits, “his” Moriarty characterization and recount of the confrontation were so implausibly sparse). Meyer “amends” Doyle by writing a “Watson” who corrects the “real” Watson — and so, in this superb flight of literary fancy, Moriarty recedes even further into the complex shadows of metafiction.
Does Sherlock Holmes find his meaning in opposition? Is Moriarty his bête noire or just a transparent device to free his creator from a cul-de-sac? Were it not for the extraordinary sophistication of Doyle’s presentational techniques and advanced meta-fictional apparatus, no such entity, so fleeting and impressionistic that he may barely be called a “character,” could achieve literary immortality. It’s especially interesting that all this sublime trickery arose from the circumstances of Doyle’s artistic fatigue: It was the author’s need to exile his greatest creation from his own thinking that Moriarty really represents — he is Holmes’ “adversary” in an internal struggle for the author’s fidelity. Holmes’ account of how he spent that exile, touring the perimeter of Doyle’s imagination, must be read simply for purposes of savoring the author’s pure joy in the invention of suggestive, intriguing, paper-thin illusion:
I travelled for two years in Tibet, therefore, and amused myself by visiting Lhassa, and spending some days with the head lama. You may have read of the remarkable explorations of a Norwegian named Sigerson, but I am sure that it never occurred to you that you were receiving news of your friend. I then passed through Persia, looked in at Mecca, and paid a short but interesting visit to the Khalifa at Khartoum, the results of which I have communicated to the Foreign Office. Returning to France, I spent some months in a research into the coal-tar derivatives, which I conducted in a laboratory at Montpellier, in the south of France.
It sounds like fun.
*During one of their first conversations in A Study in Scarlet
, Holmes disparages Dupin to Watson, not as a rival detective, but as a fictional character in Poe’s novels. Doyle (speaking through Holmes) isn’t attacking Dupin so much as he’s attacking Poe
—the other detective isn’t plausible enough to be “real” in Holmes’ world (or, more charitably, the idea of suggesting that two different fictional worlds could be contiguous with each other — today’s “crossover” — simply didn’t occur to Doyle).
†”The Gloria Scott” and “The Musgrave Ritual” (both 1893) are also post facto
tales told by Holmes to Watson, but their main action took place years in the past, rather than concurrently with Watson’s involvement as in “The Final Problem.”
‡This wonderful folio-sized omnibus from Crown Publishers, Ltd., containing facsimiles of the original Strand Magazine
pages (include all the Sidney Paget illustrations) was my first, beloved introduction to the world of Sherlock Holmes.
**Doyle’s challenge in plotting “The Adventure of the Empty House” is comparable to what Paul Sheldon, the writer protagonist of Stephen King’s Misery
(1987), must go through in his (more literally fan-enforced) efforts to revive his own popular, reviled protagonist from a similar authorial murder. But, unlike Sheldon, Doyle has the benefit of his own contrivances: untying the knot of Holmes’ death simply reveals how weakly tied that knot was to begin with.
††There is no such thing. Doyle probably meant Bartitsu
, an obscure method of combat that, ironically, is best known today in relation to Sherlock Holmes.
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Friday 3 May 2013
Politics + Writing
There’s a scene in Stephen King’s 1978 apocalyptic epic The Stand (in the 1990 extended edition, with the wonderful Berni Wrightson drawings and the lamentable Cyndi Lauper references) in which we are able to read several of the final top-secret reports by one of the United States government scientists who are desperately trying to contain the rapidly spreading plague (with its 99.4% communicability) that will soon kill nearly all of the human race, and which was created in a California military laboratory, presumably as part of a germ warfare program. We read the scientist’s rote recitation of his team’s most recent test results—they have been working tirelessly both to try to stop the geometric infection rate in the American Southwest and to understand why certain people are immune to “Project Blue,” their lethal superflu virus (which immunity King never explains) — and the facts and figures and sputum slide results and blood test antigen reactions are punctuated, as the memos continue, with more and more frequent interjections, breakdowns in formality, and other terrifying signs of the author’s increasingly wild panic, and his intimations of both his own mortality and the incipient end of the human race.
It’s a particularly memorable passage in a pop horror novel that’s unusually dependent (in its earlier chapters describing the plague days, before the world is swept clean of most of its population in preparation for the Biblical showdown to come) on “official” material like this memo: King deploys his unparalleled structural mastery to ensure that the glimpses we’re afforded of the “inside story” — the actions of the men who cause the end of the world — are both suggestively fleeting and painstakingly, totally believable. There aren’t monsters in these scenes (although the whole book more than lives up to King’s epigrammatic description as “this dark chest of wonders”), nor are there Strangelovian caricatures, grappling with “megadeaths” by means of insane polemics; these are reasonable people doing reasonable jobs, and the way that the mundane, circumspect, benign, officious military and scientific personnel gamely destroy the human race is probably the most realistic of all the elements in what turns out to be an elaborately fantastical story. The scientist concludes, “Those sons of bitches out in California did this job a little too well for my taste.”
That’s how I felt yesterday, seeing three news stories. Two of them were poll results: according to Fairleigh Dickinson University’s PublicMind, a “staggering” 29% of Americans feel that “an armed revolution might be necessary” (in “the next few years”), “in order to protect our liberties.” (It breaks down along party lines: 44% of self-identified Republicans agree, and 61% of self-identified Democrats disagree.) And, according to a new study reported in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, self-identified Conservatives are less likely to buy light bulbs (and other consumer products) that are identified as cutting carbon emissions, reducing “carbon footprint” or in any other way upholding “green” values — even if they are saving money in doing so — “because they so strongly object to the thought of climate change.”
The third story — about a Northern Virgina cabdriver and Iraq war veteran, who also served in the U.S. military at Guantanamo Bay, and who is Muslim, being physically attacked by a passenger who called him a “jihadist” and compared him to the Boston marathon bombers — can be dismissed as a statistically irrelevant “one-time” event, as can, I suppose, the fourth of the day’s stories that caught my eye, the North Carolina arrest of rapper Christopher “Xstrav” Beatty for refusing to hand over his can of AriZona iced tea to a police officer when asked to do so; the can of iced tea, of course, recalling the Trayvon Martin shooting, which was itself an unusual incident of little statistical significance despite its ongoing incendiary effects. But the polls I’m citing are real, and scientific, and scare me more than even the most egregious “isolated” instance of American stupidity, intolerance, cruelty and paranoia.
The men and women who will not buy light bulbs because they have been re-designed to protect our environment against the threats of global warming, as well as the men and women who believe that they must own guns to protect themselves against the government (when it has already been clearly demonstrated that the second amendment was ratified to preserve slavery — in other words, the diametric opposite of the power vector imagined by today’s pro-gun-violence advocates) are part of a new breed of Americans whose resistance to reason and truth is profoundly frightening because it is not experientially inspired and cannot be understood to represent the regional persistence of intractable, retrograde pockets of backward thinking. They don’t think this way because they’re cut off; they think this way because they’re tuned in: the polled ideas about global warming and guns have been put there by means of systematic propaganda, astroturfing (the effects of which I became depressingly familiar with during my two-year stint at the nonprofit media forum Center for Communication) and programmatically distorted “reporting” dating back at least to the Reagan-era deregulation of the FCC that relaxed ownership rules, allowing five “Fortune 500″ companies to determine, today, 80% of what Americans watch on television.
So the National Rifle Association, which, after their May 21, 1977 leadership coup, shed its obligations to its membership and ceded control to a new board of directors comprised entirely of representatives of armaments companies, and the much broader industrial lobby who stand to lose billions of profits should their activities be constrained within even the most modest climate-aware regulations (and who, along with the NRA and the food lobby and the “Club for Growth” and other well-funded top-down advocacy groups, have established an unbreakable stranglehold on even the most urgent topical debates), have created a situation where majorities of polled Americans support their initiatives without even understanding why they are taking the positions they’re taking. Every time a “person in the street” with a microphone in his or her face talks about the dangers of “the deficit” or a state representative won’t support Islamic prayers before legislative functions because she doesn’t “condone terrorism,” the broad, lasting corrosive effects of these institutionalized dogmatic agendae become more and more deeply and irrevocably entrenched.
The Stand is, of course, a novel about Armageddon, in so many words (with the biblical overtones and undertones very much front and center), although King never quite maps out the connections between the human-created apocalyptic disaster (the concept of which clearly has its roots in the post-Watergate institutional mistrust of the time) and the broader, more overtly supernatural (and spiritual) elements of his story. But I like the way he left it vague, because it makes his allegory all the more applicable to the present day, when an alarming number of people are not deterred by the concept of global disaster, since they are looking forward to the “End Times” (“foretold” as prompted by Middle East violence) and the cosmic moral reckoning it will provide them. Forty-two years after Nixon consultant Roger Ailes sat in the Town Hall of California with his team of political operatives and laid out the armature for controlling the public discourse, more and more Americans believe that they have their own, good reasons for not buying the new reduced-carbon light bulbs and not giving up their guns (no matter how much slaughter occurs) and not providing Muslim Americans with basic civil rights and not doing anything to arrest the ongoing upward transfer of wealth or the loss of our manufacturing base or the failure of our public schools. Those sons of bitches out in California did this job a little too well for my taste.
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Wednesday 6 March 2013
Since the Oscars there have been dozens of articles I’ve noticed links to, and some I’ve skimmed or read, in different kinds of publications, about how “everyone” (or “EVERY WOMAN ON THE INTERNET”) can’t stand Anne Hathaway, and I haven’t been able to make heads or tails of it. (See The New York Times, Huffington Post, Slate, The Daily Beast, Express, CNN, and Salon for just a few of the elaborate theories.) Usually, offscreen shortcomings of movie stars don’t really affect my judgment of their work (or, more important, of their onscreen personae, which is a far more ephemeral, elusive, valuable, indefinable quality); I didn’t stop liking Woody Allen 15 years ago when we all learned that the real man wasn’t the moral paragon he played (and wrote) onscreen, and I don’t have any problem enjoying Tom Cruise or Arnold Schwarzenegger or Mel Gibson or Bruce Willis movies. (It’s true that Willis isn’t as egregious an example as those other three but he just seems like he’s generally kind of a jerk and the Kevin Smith anecdotes about directing him seem to bear this out.) I have no problem enjoying Clint Eastwood’s onscreen presence even though he supported Ross Perot and talks to furniture on TV.
But this is different. I’m in the same boat: she drives me nuts. And I haven’t seen most of her movies, which usually makes me suspend judgment, and I thought she was totally fantastic in The Dark Knight Rises (after her very first scene, I whispered to my friend, “I rescind all criticism.”) And the clip of her singing that big song seemed very good to me (and I generally don’t go in for staggeringly consequential Broadway numbers); I was fascinated by the “live singing” gimmick and actually came very close to going ahead and seeing the movie, before I came to my senses. Even Joan Rivers let me down: I thought she, if anyone, could nail it, however crassly; could put her finger on what nobody seems able to define, and I listend with bated breath when she was asked what she thought of Hathaway. But Rivers whiffed it, and just made gagging noises; even the queen of horrible putdowns (who, I remember, called Mondale and Ferraro “Fritz and tits” 29 years ago) came up empty.
But last night, I finally figured out what’s wrong with Hathaway: it comes down to one word. I gave in and followed a link to another think piece about Hathaway’s Oscar night behavior, wherein she’s quoted as responding to a question about getting married and then winning the Academy Award. And she said it was “the cherry on top of a wonderful, wonderful dish of vegan ice cream.”
And that’s it — that one word explains the whole thing. Not “a dish of ice cream,” which is a fairly straightforward conclusion to the frequently-used “cherry” metaphor: the cherry is something extra, the better thing after the (more important) good thing. (Olympic athletes talk this way; everybody understands.) And not just a “wonderful, wonderful” dish of ice cream, denoting excitement, breathlessness, winsomeness, and other good things that we like to see when people win things and are charmingly flustered. Vegan ice cream.
Because Anne Hathaway is a vegan, and she’s going to make sure that, while she’s on television, she’ll use the opportunity to proselytize for her cause. (Which I have nothing against, either in terms of form or content: I had no trouble with Marlon Brando’s stunt with Sacheen Littlefeather or, especially, Michael Moore’s challenge to George W. Bush. I like it when the Oscars are “politicized.”) But look what she did: she stuck that carefully-considered word — totally unnecessary for her simile: it’s ice cream; it tastes good and you put cherries on it no matter what kind it is — into the middle of a sentence that was supposed to be so natural and off-the-cuff that she said “wonderful” twice. She’s “gushing,” but she’s also making a point.
And that’s the whole ball game; that’s what’s wrong with her. Not only is she condescending to me and everyone listening (because she figures that this is an appropriate opportunity to advertise and to advocate her dietary preferences); she’s insulting us (mildly insulting us, admittedly) because, like somebody who “accidentally” name-drops their school or their job title or salary, she thinks we won’t notice what she’s doing; she genuinely believes that it will come across as an inadvertent nuance in her excited word-flow, and not as a carefully placed node of self-aggrandizement or advocacy.
I don’t know about you but I hate people who do that: brag or lecture in a way that I’m not supposed to notice. So that’s what’s wrong with Anne Hathaway; the subject is now closed.
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