Bad Ass Lit

Notional Bodies, Angels' Wings, and Poet's Truths: The Exquisite Discomfort of "Bring up the Bodies" by Hilary Mantel


(5547 words. Link to printable version.)

            The choice of death over compromise is the surest proof against any charge of hypocrisy. Whatever your feelings about the underlying creed, anyone willing to die for a principle is going to make an indelible impression on you, especially if you happen to be the executioner. In addition to the role he played in England’s break with the Catholic church and King Henry VIII’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon, Thomas Cromwell is known historically for two dubious accomplishments: securing the conviction of Thomas More for treason after he refused to swear an oath endorsing the king’s supremacy over the pope, and confiscating the lands and holdings of England’s monasteries to fill the country’s royal coffers. As imagined by Hilary Mantel in her ingeniously textured and darkly captivating novel Wolf Hall, Cromwell despises monastics, “that parasitic class of men” (41), as he refers to them in the sequel, along with ascetic theologians like More—whose habit of wearing a horse hair undershirt to irritate his flesh does as much to irritate Cromwell—for their unworldliness and cruelty, but most of all for their corruption and hypocrisy. It’s no wonder then that, in Mantel’s telling, it’s having to condemn More to martyrdom that ultimately undoes Cromwell, or rather further propels him along a path toward undoing himself.

            In Bring up the Bodies, the second of three projected novels about Cromwell, Mantel lets us listen in on the thoughts of this man who can’t escape what he’s done, who in a sense was made by the crimes he’s committed, lifted from the lowliest origins to serve as the king’s chief secretary, and thus unable to extricate himself from the position that will make it necessary for him to commit still more and still more horrific crimes. Tellingly, we find that what preoccupies him most in his rare moments of solitude is the nature of the relationship between words and the reality they’re meant to represent. Early on, we see him at his daily tasks.

He returns to his dispatches. Plague in town and city … the king is always fearful of infection … Letters from foreign rulers, wishing to know if it is true that Henry is planning to cut off the heads of all his bishops. Certainly not, he notes, we have excellent bishops now, all of them comfortable to the king’s wishes, all of them recognizing him as head of the church in England; besides, what an uncivil question! How dare they imply that the King of England should account for himself to any foreign power? How dare they impugn his sovereign judgment? Bishop Fisher, it is true, is dead, and Thomas More, but Henry’s treatment of them, before they drove him to an extremity, was mild to a fault; if they had not evinced a traitorous stubbornness, they would be alive now, alive like you and me.
He has written a lot of these letters, since July. He doesn’t sound wholly convincing, even to himself; he finds himself repeating the same points, rather than advancing the argument into new territory. He needs new phrases. (28)

Cromwell is not one to persecute himself for past deeds—“Once you have chosen a course, you should not apologize for it” (401), he later admonishes one of his protégés—but he’s also a decent enough man to be disturbed—“alive like you and me”—by his complicity in the horrors he’s being made to answer for so unconvincingly.

Thomas Cromwell in BBC's "Wolf Hall"
            The most basic way to approach reading a work of fiction is to concentrate on actions and events. This is reading simply to see what happens. You get a sense of what kind of characters you’re dealing with early on and henceforth take them for granted, like so many chess pieces the author moves about the board that is the plot. Accounting for diverging perspectives and processing the nuances of what each plot development means for individual characters is a more demanding exercise than simply reading for what happens, but such shifting among various points of view is often necessary if we’re to keep up with more complex works. To fully appreciate the Cromwell novels, however, we have to go still further in exerting our imaginative faculties, drawing on even greater stores of working memory. Nearly everyone who writes about these books points to how successfully Mantel makes the historical events seem unsettled and immediate. A lot goes into producing this effect, to be sure, but the sense of pulsing vitality arises primarily because we don’t just see what happens as Cromwell would see it; we get telling glimpses along the way of how what’s happening—what he witness and what he actually does—is affecting him.

Beleaguered by the demands of his position, anxious over the affairs of state, harried by the king’s hangers on, and, only months after More’s beheading, beginning to feel his age—“That’s the bleat of the man of fifty,” he chastises himself at one point, “I used to. I can’t now” (68)—Cromwell in the opening chapters of Bring up the Bodies struggles with a weary fatalism that would have been foreign to the man he was just a season prior: “It will always be like this, he thinks. It will go on being like this. Advent, Lent, Whitsuntide” (134). On an early fall morning at Wolf Hall, the home of the Seymours, he reflects on how,

The months run away from you like a flurry of autumn leaves bowling and skittering towards the winter; the summer has gone, Thomas More’s daughter has got his head back off London Bridge and is keeping it, God knows, in a dish or a bowl, and saying her prayers to it. He is not the same man he was last year, and he doesn’t acknowledge that man’s feelings; he is starting afresh, always new thoughts, new feelings. (29-30)

Those new thoughts often hinge on how he might remove certain men from the king’s privy chamber, the ones who frequently impede to his access and thwart his agendas. For reasons that remain obscure for some time, Cromwell also confides in Edward Seymour (the older brother of the future queen Jane) that he fears he’s losing favor with the present queen, Anne Boleyn. “I feel my head wobble on my shoulders when she stares at me hard,” he says (21). Before long, however, the king will be giving him a directive that affords him an opportunity to address both of these issues. But pursuing that opportunity will exact a heavy toll.

            With ever more to lose as his wealth accumulates and his status increases, Cromwell is keenly aware of his dependence on the king, not just for his continuing ascent, but for his survival. As he says to his nephew Richard, “How many men can say, as I must, ‘I am a man whose only friend is the King of England’? I have everything, you would think. And yet take Henry away and I have nothing” (176). “You fear he will turn on you?” his friend Chapuy, the ambassador from Spain, puts to him some time later. Cromwell responds, “He will, I suppose. One day.”

Sometimes he wakes in the night and thinks of it. There are courtiers who have honourably retired. He can think of instances. Of course, it is the other kind that loom larger, if you are wakeful around midnight. (223)

The stakes thus set, we watch as this man who’s far from squeamish reveals himself capable of going through with deeds that make even him queasy—and we can’t help being sickened both with him and alongside him. Henry, we learn, has already grown tired of Anne, who seems as incapable as Catherine of producing a male heir, and it will fall to Cromwell to find some way to once more get an official sanction for a divorce.

As he continues to serve as accountant, lawyer, diplomat, enforcer, and sometimes friend to the king, while at the same time investigating rumors of the queen’s adultery in the hope of using it as grounds for pushing her aside, he keeps being reminded of a scene described in Wolf Hall, one that features what will become a haunting symbol, a touchstone marking the distance from his former self. Sometime after his daughter Grace followed her mother Lizzie and her older sister Anne in succumbing to the sweating sickness that was ravaging England at the time, Cromwell remembers a Christmas pageant she performed in.

The year that Grace was an angel, she had wings made of peacock feathers. He himself had contrived it. The other little girls were dowdy goose creatures, and their wings fell off if they caught them on the corners of the stable. But Grace stood glittering, her hair entwined with silver threads; her shoulders were trussed with a spreading, shivering glory, and the rustling air was perfumed as she breathed. Lizzie said, Thomas, there’s no end to you, is there? She has the best wings the city has ever seen. (161)

Those angel wings, which he keeps in a closet along with all the Christmas decorations, including a silver star one of his adopted boys once mistook for a torture device, appear again in Bring up the Bodies, only this time it’s a different little girl donning them. Having gathered all his loved ones to celebrate at his home,

he turns his eyes to the child dressed as an angel: it is Rafe’s step-daughter, the elder child of his wife Helen. She is wearing the peacock wings he made long ago for Grace.
Long ago? It is not ten years, not nearly ten. The feathers’ eyes gleam; the day is dark, but banks of candles pick out threads of gold, the scarlet splash of holly berries bound on the wall, the points of the silver star. (118)

Just as when his daughter was wearing the wings, we see that Cromwell can’t look at them without being dazzled by some play of light. Rafe, whom Cromwell took on as a ward at age seven and mentored into adulthood, is one of many beneficiaries of his big-heartedness. When he married Helen in secret, for love, dashing any hope of a more financially advantageous match, Cromwell was initially exasperated with him, but he eventually came around, showing that he cared for his surrogate son’s happiness above all else. Now, though he’s allowing Rafe’s own adopted child to play the role of granddaughter, the wings still speak to him of the family he’s lost.

He takes the child to a looking glass so she can see her wings. Her steps are tentative, she is in awe at herself. Mirrored, the peacock eyes speak to him. Do not forget us. As the year turns, we are here: a whisper, a touch, a feather’s breath from you. (119)

And you can hear the whisper of those wings beating throughout the novel, as again and again Cromwell lights on feathers and wings as the apt metaphor to convey his thoughts.

Peacock Feather Angel Wings in BBC's "Wolf Hall"
In Wolf Hall, we saw Cromwell first threatened with ruin alongside his own mentor Cardinal Wolsey, only to be thrust into a position of still greater power as a councilor to the king. To secure that position and further avoid ruin, he had no choice but to act against his own sense of what was just and decent by arranging Thomas More’s execution, a deed to which there was also an element of betrayal, since he and More for years had carried on a reciprocally exasperating intellectual back-and-forth that was its own breed of friendship. But before More is arrested and charged, we see that Cromwell has a signature way of dealing with questions of conscience. Bedridden and delirious with fever, he is encouraged to confess and offer up his sins.

But my sins are my strength, he thinks; the sins I have done, that others have not even found the opportunity of committing. I hug them close; they’re mine. Besides, when I come to judgment I mean to come with a memorandum in my hand: I shall say to my Maker, I have fifty items here, possibly more. (568)

Once he’s found an opportunity to sin, Cromwell’s modus operandi is to seal his advantage by acting quickly. In the midst of the proceedings in Bring up the Bodies to end the king’s second marriage, he reminisces about an earlier time in his life: “In those days he did things suddenly: not without calculation, not without care, but once his mind was made up he was swift to move. And he is still the same man. As his opponents will find” (367). And so he forges ahead with what he’s determined is necessary based on his inveterately pragmatic and worldly principles. “You pick your prince,” as he once explained to his son Gregory. You pursue your interests. Whatever you can justify through argument or accounting you should be able to live with.

The king having declared his desire to be rid of Anne, Cromwell moves forward with his plans, going back to settle the books, as it were, only after each successive stage has been accomplished. Along the way, he’s shocked to find that those books are getting harder and harder to balance. “I did not know what I would find, when I began,” he says to his friend Thomas Cranmer. “That is the only reason I could do it, because I was surprised at every turn” (385). The opening to free the king from his marriage comes when Mark, a pompous young courtier, boasts too publicly of his special relationship with the queen. Cromwell interrogates him, setting in motion a scandal that results in the conviction for adultery and treason of not only Mark but four other men as well, including the two members of the privy chamber most troublesome to Cromwell, along with the queen’s own brother. All these men's lives, along with Anne’s reign as queen, end on the executioner’s block.

At no point during the interrogations that ensue after Mark’s do any of the men either confess their own guilt or name any other guilty parties. In the wake of the trials, Cromwell’s household is understandably shaken; there were already rumors among the populace about how Cromwell tampered with the jury that convicted More. When his son voices his doubts about whether justice was actually served, he thinks:

When Gregory says, “Are they guilty?” he means, “Did they do it?” But when he says, “Are they guilty?” he means, “Did the court find them so?” The lawyer’s world is entire unto itself, the human pared away. It was a triumph, in a small way, to unknot the entanglement of thighs and tongues, to take that mass of heaving flesh and smooth it on to white paper: as the body, after the climax, lies back on white linen. He has seen beautiful indictments, not a word wasted. This was not one: the phrases jostled and frotted, nudged and spilled, ugly in content and ugly in form. The design against Anne is unhallowed in its gestation, untimely in its delivery, a mass of tissue born shapeless; it waited to be licked into shape as a bear cub is licked by its mother. You nourished it, but you did not know what you fed: who would have thought of Mark confessing, or of Anne acting in every respect like an oppressed and guilty woman with a weight of sin upon her? (369)

So Cromwell is left with another argument in need of better phrases. There is an intense, complicated compulsion that overtakes you about midway through Bring up the Bodies, sweeping you vertiginously along with the action, until finally leaving you with the same sense it does Cromwell, that all the important developments are faits accompli long before you know quite what to make of them. It is a mark of Mantel’s mastery that the tide of interrogations, washed over truths, and blotted out lives, as abruptly as it forms, as devastatingly as it crashes, never outpaces the sense of felt reality, never strains the structure of the plot to the point of forming faults in the nightmarish edifice of her fictional world.

            If we weren’t privy to Cromwell’s private thoughts, if we weren’t gestured toward feelings he himself refuses to acknowledge, or even if his story simply picked up closer to the interrogations he permeates with threats of torture and a more drawn out execution, closer to the trial that turns on the quickness of men to imagine into reality their darkest fears about women—if we’d never, for instance, learned about the angel wings—our view of him would be much closer to the one handed down through history: Henry VIII’s mercenary pit bull. Standing in judgement of him would be a much simpler, much more comfortable matter. So what are we to make of this narrative that so closely tracks the compromising of a decent but morally complicated man, whose philosophy we approve, but only up to a point, a brilliant strategist and savvy fixer whose rise from obscurity we cheer, a conniving opportunist but also a generous and fiercely loyal patron—how are we to respond to witnessing him ruining men’s lives, bringing down the queen, consigning them all to death, all in the service of a capriciously cruel and demoniacally narcissistic king? Is it a mere cautionary tale about the subtle and stepwise descent into the darkness all men—all humans—feel drawn to as they struggle to balance morality against necessity, truth against self-preservation?

Hilary Mantel
            Mantel is peerlessly astute when it comes to the ratchet of backward reasoning, the justifications after the fact that travel back in time to erase from memory the scruples we talk ourselves into believing we never should have felt, an adjustment which ensures we feel those scruples with less force when next we face a similar dilemma in a process that pulls us a dubious deed at a time toward ever greater inhumanity. (The theme has resonances with the events at the prison in Abu Ghraib, though the novel’s interrogation scenes featuring promises of leniency in exchange for the naming of other guilty parties recalls more directly Arthur Miller’s vision of the witch panic in Salem.) When Cromwell does eventually have time to reflect on what he’s done, the object of his thoughts is telling.

He finds he cannot think of the dying men at all. Into his mind instead strays the picture of More on the scaffold, seen through the veil of rain: his body, already dead, folding back neatly from the impact of the axe. The cardinal when he fell had no persecutor more relentless than Thomas More. Yet, he thinks, I did not hate him. I exercised my skills to the utmost to persuade him to reconcile with the king. And I thought I would win him, I really thought I would, for he was tenacious of the world, tenacious of his person, and had a good deal to live for. In the end, he was his own murderer. He wrote and wrote and he talked and talked, then suddenly at a stroke he cancelled himself. If ever a man came close to beheading himself, Thomas More was that man. (371)

In other words, More may have deserved to die for what he did to Wolsey, but Cromwell tried to save him anyway, a feat he thought he might be able to accomplish because More was full of himself, but in the end he decided he wanted to die; the responsibility lies not with Cromwell but with More himself. He needs new phrases indeed.

            In the days leading up to More’s conviction, though, we saw that Cromwell, far from being content to lay responsibility at the feet of his favorite foil, agonized over what he ultimately decided had to be done. He even tried to tell Henry that prosecuting More might not be a good idea because the case would not be easy to win. “Do I retain you for what is easy?” the king responds in a fury (585). Henry retains Cromwell because he’s adept at formulating strategies, and just as adept at implementing them. Cromwell comes up with words and plans, and then he turns them into reality. There’s an amazing passage that comes before More’s trial in Wolf Hall, when Cromwell is laid up with fever, listening to the priests and doctors milling about his house, and it lays bare what his mind can’t help but busy itself doing:

They talk about his heart; he overhears them. He feels they should not: the book of my heart is a private book, it is not an order book left on the counter for any passing clerk to scrawl in. They give him a draft to swallow. Shortly afterward he returns to his ledgers. The lines keep slipping and the figures intermingling and as soon as he has totaled up one column the total unmakes itself and all sense is subtracted. But he keeps trying and trying and adding and adding, until the poison or the healing draft loosens its grip on him and he wakes. The pages of the ledgers are still before his eyes. Butts thinks he is resting as ordered, but in the privacy of his mind little stick figures with arms and legs of ink climb out of the ledgers and walk about. They are carrying firewood in for the kitchen range, but the venison that is trussed to butcher turns back into deer, who rub themselves in innocence on the bark of trees. The songbirds for the fricassee refeather themselves, hopping back onto the branches not yet cut for firewood, and the honey for basting has gone back to the bee, and the bee has gone back to the hive. (568-9)

In his delirium, he goes on balancing the books, breathing life into words, and guarding the book of his own heart. Near the end of Bring up the Bodies, Cromwell contemplates how rumors and innuendos about the queen’s myriad and incestuous infidelities brought her down, and concludes, “Anne, it appears, was a book left open on a desk for anyone to write on the pages, where only her husband should inscribe” (383).
Cromwell in BBC version of "Wolf Hall"

            The magic taking place in Cromwell’s fever dream undergoes an ominous reversal in one of the interrogation scenes in Bring up the Bodies. Francis Weston already knows he will be found guilty of adultery with the queen, and he laments to Cromwell that he’ll never have the chance to go through with his plan to change his ways and make amends for his sins when he is older. Then, just when he seems on the verge of saying something that would irrevocably seal his conviction, Cromwell abruptly stands up and leaves the room, suffering from what we assume is an attack of conscience.

He does not know what caused him to break off from Weston and walk out. Perhaps it was when the boy said “forty-five or fifty.” As if, past mid-life, there is a second childhood, a new phase of innocence. It touched him, perhaps, the simplicity of it. Or perhaps he just needed air. Let us say you are in a chamber, the windows sealed, you are conscious of the proximity of other bodies, of the declining light. In the room you put cases, you play games, you move your personnel around each other: notional bodies, hard as ivory, black as ebony, pushed on their paths across the squares. Then you say, I can’t endure this any more, I must breathe: you burst out of the room and into a wild garden where the guilty are hanging from trees, no longer ivory, no longer ebony, but flesh; and their wild lamenting tongues proclaim their guilt as they die. In this matter, cause has been preceded by effect. What you dreamed has enacted itself. You reach for a blade but the blood is already shed. The lambs have butchered and eaten themselves. They have brought knives to the table, carved themselves, and picked their own bones clean. (341)

Cromwell is himself fifty when the action of the plot takes place, and far from entering a new phase of innocence he’s seeing how the magic of his words, which once brought dead things to life, is being used again and again to snuff living things bloodily out of existence.

            There is one character accused of carrying on an affair with the queen whom Cromwell manages to save. Thomas Wyatt’s father Henry, a man Cromwell held in high regard, gave him a special charge to watch over his son, to serve as a second father to him. But Cromwell has a profound admiration for Wyatt that goes well beyond any promise made to his father. In particular, Cromwell is in awe of Wyatt’s facility with what he calls “poet’s truth,” whereby what he writes is neither true, in the sense of corresponding to actual events, or false, because it gestures toward some greater principle. As Cromwell thinks to himself,

When Wyatt writes, his lines fledge feathers, and unfolding this plumage they dive below their meaning and skim above it. They tell us that the rules of power and the rules of war are the same, the art is to deceive; and you will deceive, and be deceived in your turn, whether you are an ambassador or a suitor. Now, if a man’s subject is deception, you are deceived if you think you grasp his meaning. You close your hand as it flies away. A statute is written to entrap meaning, a poem to escape it. A quill, sharpened, can stir and rustle like the pinions of angels. Angels are messengers. They are creatures with a mind and a will. (348)

This passage, an intensely revealing if also enigmatic stream of thought, shows Cromwell momentarily incapable of understanding what poet’s truth could mean. He can’t avoid thinking of it as a species of deception, a trick like the ones used in political or romantic competition. But he begins with feathers and ends with the metaphor of an angel. The scene ends with him ruminating about supposedly true stories of angels visiting men; he never rounds back to finish the idea.

            It’s when he undertakes his perfunctory interrogation of Wyatt in the Tower that we get the least evasive accounting of what Cromwell currently thinks of himself—including a chapter in the book of his heart that will go unwritten (at least not until Mantel comes around). After Wyatt jokingly responds to his question about whether he’s comfortable by asking if he means in body or soul, Cromwell, not missing a beat, says “I only answer for bodies.”

“Nothing makes you falter,” Wyatt says. He says it with a reluctant admiration that is close to dread. But he, Cromwell, thinks, I did falter but no one knows it, reports have not gone abroad. Wyatt did not see me walk away from Weston’s interrogation. Wyatt did not see me when Anne asked me what I believed in my heart.
He rests his eyes on the prisoner, he takes his seat. He says softly, “I think I have been training all my years for this. I have served an apprenticeship to myself.” His whole career has been an education in hypocrisy. Eyes that once skewered him now kindle with simulated regard. Hands that would like to knock his hat off now reach out to shake his hand, sometimes in a crushing grip. He has spun his enemies to face him, to join him: as in a dance. He means to spin them away again, so they look down the long cold vista of their years: so they feel the wind, the wind of exposed places, that cuts to the bone: so they bed down in ruins, and wake up cold. (352)

This passage gives us an interesting twist on Cromwell’s habit of saying something and then thinking the opposite. Perhaps uncomfortable himself in the presence of a more sincere if equally clever man, he embraces the very sin he so loathes in the monastics he’s been such a great scourge to—but is it his sin or only his enemy’s?—before going on to steel himself so he can persevere in spite of his misgivings. It’s noteworthy too that, while many of Cromwell’s closest aides recognize the four men under investigation as the same ones who performed in a play mocking his mentor Cardinal Wolsey soon after his death, only two of them have really been causing him any problems. And Mark certainly isn’t a threat. You can’t help wondering whenever Cromwell dwells on these men’s past insults if he’s really being driven by vengeance or if he’s just trying to quiet his conscience.

            In the book’s final passages, we see that exacting his revenge hasn’t brought him any closer to his old master. Going through his papers, he recalls how when he first came across a piece of writing from the cardinal after his death “his heart had clenched small and he had to put down his pen till the spasm of grief passed.” After that initial shock, though, he seems to have gotten some solace from coming across these vestiges.

He has grown used to these encounters, but tonight, as he flicks over the leaf and sees the cardinal’s writing, it is strange to him, as if some trick, perhaps a trick of the light, has altered the letter forms. The hand could be that of a stranger, of a creditor or a debtor you have dealt with just this quarter and don’t know well; it could be that of some humble clerk, taking dictation from his master. (406)

Of course, it’s not the letters that have altered.

The most viciously ironic development in the plot is that Mark only begins to name names after being locked in the closet where all Cromwell’s Christmas decorations are stored. Terrified at first by the sight of the silver star, he later mistakes the brush of the peacock feathers as the touch of a ghost. He screams, and when he’s released he can’t get the names out quickly enough, fearing he may be locked in with the ghost again. “I shall have to burn the peacock wings,” Cromwell thinks after he’s heard what happened (289). But, in the wake of the trials and executions, his view of them is altered.

When the wings are shaken out of their linen bag he stretches the fabric, holds it up to the light and sees that the bag is slit. He understands how the feathers crept out and stroked the dead man’s face. He sees that the wings are shabby, as if nibbled, and the glowing eyes dulled. They are tawdry things after all, not worth setting store by.

Having forced himself to believe the worst of the accusations against Anne, and having acted on his belief, the way he views his own past undergoes a tragic transformation as well. Now he fears that Grace, given the plainness of his wife and his own rough features, was suspiciously pretty.

He says to Johane, his wife’s sister, “Do you think Lizzie ever had to do with another man? I mean, while we were married?”
Johane is shocked. “Whatever put that into your head? Put it right out again.”
He tries to do that. Be he cannot escape the feeling that Grace has slipped further from him. She was dead before she could be painted or drawn. She lived and left no trace. Her clothes and her cloth ball and her wooden baby in a smock are long ago passed to other children. (405)

His wife had said “there’s no end to you, is there?” But Cromwell has in fact written in his own hand the ending for the story of the man he was then.

            This theme of compromised morality woven together with the mystery of language’s transformative ties to the world may suggest to some that the power of Bring up the Bodies comes from some embedded lesson about our imperiled integrity or lost humanity. But it’s a mistake to treat a narrative solely, or even predominantly, as a matter of meaning. “A statute is written to entrap meaning,” as Cromwell reasons, “a poem to escape it.” And so it is with stories, or else why would we ever want to read them again after first arriving at the point. It’s not the lesson of a story that pulls us in, but the texture of lived experience, the compelling illusions of a life’s myriad moral dilemmas, and the expert evocations of a human presence that provokes us toward some feeling, be it sympathy and admiration, or disappointment and disgust—or some fiendish farrago of all four. At the points where Cromwell’s story is most disturbing, the hardest to bear reading, we continue on, not to mark out the mistakes we should ourselves avoid, but out of loyalty, a fierce partisanship, the sense that of all these competing persons he’s the one we want to see through to the end, if only because we know him best, if only because we remain ever hopeful that somehow he will be redeemed, taken back in hand by his better angels, delivered back into grace.  

Also read: What Makes "Wolf Hall" so Great?

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What Makes "Wolf Hall" so Great?

(4,897 words. Link to printable version.) 

The most natural way to interpret fictional narration is as a direct communication from the author. We understand full well that the characters and events being described are fabricated, more or less whole-cloth, for the purpose of entertaining us. Yet we trust the author to relate all the details of the story, as she’s conceived of it, in a straightforward and accurate manner. If the rhythm and diction of the prose achieve a pleasing balance of artful evocation and easy comprehension, we ascribe the gracefulness to the author herself, and often feel a sense of gratitude that predisposes us to look favorably upon the prospect of reading other works in her oeuvre. This inclination to hear the author’s voice in fictional narration serves us well enough when we’re reading commercial fiction. As we move closer to the literary end of the spectrum, though, we must assimilate a more sophisticated linguistic convention. Only by grasping this technique can we fully experience the fruits of the author’s imaginative efforts and fully appreciate the depth of her psychological insights into the dynamic workings of her characters’ minds.

Everything a work of literary fiction is supposed to do, Hilary Mantel does masterfully in her historical novel Wolf Hall, including the creation of scenes so vividly immersive and the construction of plots so arresting that you all but forget you’re reading a work of fiction at all. Critics unanimously celebrate the way Mantel makes settled history feel ominously immediate. But the effect goes well beyond the abundance of intricately imagined details in her scenes. What distinguishes most historical writing from most narrative writing—and most nonfiction from most fiction more generally—is the move from summary to simulation. As if to illustrate this distinction, Mantel at a critical juncture in the plot makes use of a style closer to factual history, writing, 
  
On November 1, 1530, a commission for the cardinal’s arrest is given to Harry Percy, the young Earl of Northumberland. The earl arrives at Cawood to arrest him, forty-eight hours before his planned arrival in York for his investiture. He is taken to Pontefract Castle under guard, from there to Doncaster, and from there to Sheffield Park, the home of the Earl of Shrewsbury. Here at Talbot’s house he falls ill. On November 26 the constable of the Tower arrives, with twenty-four men at arms, to escort him south. From there he travels to Leicester Abbey. Three days later he dies.
What was England, before Wolsey? A little offshore island, poor and cold. (240)

This passage refers to the death of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, whose official crime was to assert a foreign ruler’s dominion in England, even though we know his real offense was his failure to procure for King Henry VIII the pope’s blessing for the annulment of his first marriage. The facts provide a clear enough record. But the final sentiment may seem out of place in its context. Who is it, we may wonder, giving the cardinal all this credit for the glory of Albion?

            After a section break, Mantel returns to her scene-making mode to show us how Thomas Cromwell, the cardinal’s erstwhile protégé and “man of business,” takes the news from George Cavendish, the gentleman usher who has been attending Wolsey since his fall from the king’s favor. The shift between the sections, of course, isn’t intended to highlight the differences in writing styles, but it does offer an opportunity to explore the author’s general approach to the story. She writes,

George Cavendish comes to Austin Friars. He cries as he talks. Sometimes he dries his tears and moralizes. But mostly he cries. “We had not even finished our dinner,” he says. “My lord was taking his dessert when young Harry Percy walked in. He was spattered with mud from the road, and he had the keys in his hands, he had taken them from the porter already, and set sentries on the stairs. My lord rose to his feet, he said, Harry, if I’d known, I’d have waited dinner for you. I fear we’ve almost finished the fish. Shall I pray for a miracle?
“I whispered to him, my lord, do not blaspheme. Then Harry Percy came forward: my lord, I arrest you for high treason.”
Cavendish waits. He waits for him to erupt in fury? But he puts his fingers together, joined as if he were praying. He thinks, Anne arranged this, and it must have given her an intense and secret pleasure; vengeance deferred, for herself, for her old lover, once berated by the cardinal and sent packing from the court. (240)

The narration slows the pace of storytelling to encourage us to imagine the events and the dialogue occurring in close to real time—we get a taste of this effect even within Cavendish’s own report. In place of dates and locations, we see mud-spattered coats and hear the jangle of keys. This effect is the most basic element of narrative prose. But Mantel is doing something far more subtle here than merely relaying details to portray scenes. Who, for instance, is posing that question in the last paragraph about what Cavendish is waiting for? Shouldn’t Mantel already know the answer?
Hilary Mantel

             This passage shows in microcosm the narrational game underlying the entire novel. Mantel is not simply displaying her characters and their surroundings as if from an outside observer’s perspective, the way an attendee of a theatrical performance would describe them. Rather, she’s imagining her way into Cromwell’s own mind, making his perceptions and his thoughts the focal point of not only the individual scenes but the story as a whole. Wolf Hall isn’t a novel about Henry VIII’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon and subsequent remarriage to Anne Boleyn; it’s a novel about Thomas Cromwell, the role he plays behind the scenes of these historical events, and, most compellingly, the materially exalting but psychologically devastating impact the playing of such a role has on him. This is the key to understanding those questions about what England was before the cardinal and what Cavendish is waiting for. We are not to attribute these thoughts to Mantel but to her protagonist, the man whose consciousness her narration is inviting us to share. And this sharing of the character’s experiences, the blending of our thoughts with his, is one of the pleasures unique to written stories, one that can make reading more exquisitely engrossing than any other way of experiencing a narrative. 

            Authors customarily use this narrational technique, known as free indirect style—as opposed to simple first person narration—because in addition to allowing them to occupy the mind of the main character it also affords them the freedom to draw back and describe that same character in a way he wouldn’t have cause to describe himself. So we can learn about things like facial expressions, vocal tonalities, or unconscious gestures. Or we may simply learn about habits or aspects of the character’s appearance he takes for granted and hence would be unlikely to contemplate. Early in Wolf Hall, we learn about the man at the heart of the story from a more straightforward third person perspective.

Thomas Cromwell is now a little over forty years old. He is a man of strong build, not tall. Various expressions are available to his face, and one is readable: an expression of stifled amusement. His hair is dark, heavy and waving, and his small eyes, which are of very strong sight, light up in conversation: so the Spanish ambassador will tell us, quite soon. It is said he knows by heart the entire New Testament in Latin, and so as a servant of the cardinal is apt—ready with a text if abbots flounder. His speech is low and rapid, his manner assured; he can draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury. He will quote you a nice point in the old authors, from Plato to Plautus and back again. He knows new poetry, and can say it in Italian. He works all hours, first up and last to bed. He makes money and spends it. He will take a bet on anything. (29)

The line about how Cromwell can fix a jury, treated as an almost innocuous afterthought here but foreshadowing an important event later in the novel, is typical of Mantel’s coyness, a subtle tactic to unsettle the settled, as if she were saying, “Think you know the story?—well, here it hasn’t happened yet.” (The title, referring to the home of the queen who succeeds Anne, is another of these coy gestures toward yet to occur future history.) But the passage as a whole is actually anomalous, as Mantel hews quite closely to Cromwell’s thoughts throughout the novel, representing unedited and unburnished the mental meanderings of a mind disciplined in the art of diplomatic withholding. Her use of free indirect style is in fact exceptional in how reliably it issues from her character’s perspective, and, though many readers got tripped up by seemingly ambiguous pronouns, this intense engagement with Cromwell is one of the reasons Wolf Hall is so thoroughly absorbing, and so profoundly moving. 

Cromwell and Wolsey from the RSC production
            The effect of Mantel’s uncannily close indirect narration is to make us feel like we’re moving behind the scenes of a mind belonging to a man who himself is privy to all the goings on behind the scenes of some of the most powerful people in the world at an important turning point in history. Wolf Hall succeeds on many levels, but it is most of all a masterwork of characterization. It is Mantel’s vivid and thoroughly wrought characters, Cromwell foremost among them, who bring the scenes to life. It is their competing ambitions and commingling prejudices—as perceived by Cromwell’s witheringly attentive eye—that ratchet up the stakes of even seemingly trivial encounters, creating both the novel’s pervasive air of menace and the volatile tension fueling its dark humor. In the scene where Cavendish recounts the cardinal’s final days, we get a glimpse of how Mantel integrates characterization into the unfolding of the plot. By this point in the novel, we know Wolsey would make just such a joke about the fish, we know Cavendish would object to it in just the way he does, and we know he’s aware of Cromwell’s predilection for dialogue quoted verbatim—all of this works to make us feel the full brunt of the scene’s plausibility, to experience it, unquestioningly, as real.

            Cromwell silently scoffs at the idea that he may erupt into fury, and if we were in Cavendish’s shoes we my come away with a view of Cromwell in keeping with the image of him passed down in hagiographic accounts of the life of Thomas More: a cold, calculating, and opportunistic yes-man about court—though Cavendish himself has good reason to be suspicious of Cromwell’s cold exterior, having once come across him crying over his dead wife’s prayer book. By the time Cavendish arrives with the news about Wolsey’s death, we too have had plenty of chances to see what’s really going on beneath the surface. We get another chance later in the scene, as Cavendish continues his account of the cardinal’s arrest:

“When they took him from the house, the townspeople were assembled outside. They knelt in the road and wept. They asked God to send vengeance on Harry Percy.”
God need not trouble, he thinks: I shall take it in hand. (241)

Some critics see Wolf Hall as an attempt to rehabilitate the reputation of the historical Cromwell. What’s more likely is that Mantel simply recognized the opportunity he represented for her to develop a provocative character, a figure she could flesh out as a man whose reputation and disciplined comportment are at odds with an inner life far richer, and far more decent, than even most of his closest associates ever fully realize. But, before she could adequately convey this pulsing tension between Cromwell’s public image and his hidden soul, Mantel first had to invent the unique version of close narration we’re introduced to in the earliest pages.

            Wolf Hall garnered critical accolades galore for the liveliness of the characters and the verisimilitude of the scenes. But I’ve yet to come across any mention even of what seems to me the novel’s most soaring achievement. Though plenty of the reviews give a sense of Cromwell as a canny observer whose background and talents make him interesting in his own right, a man whose perspective lends new texture and a hint of color to the worn and faded events he hovers around the margins of, none of them ever touches on the moral and emotional stakes of the dilemmas he faces. But Cromwell is no passive observer, no static presence. That ingeniously represented tension at the core of Cromwell’s character never reaches any sort of stable equilibrium. From the opening pages when we see him as a young boy being ruthlessly beaten by his drunk and low-born father, to his first days in the service of the cardinal, right up until the coronation of Anne Boleyn and the execution of Thomas More for refusing to sanction it, we see a man driven by ambition, loyalty, revenge, and love, one who rises from lowly origins to the highest eminence, only to find himself forced to subvert his human decency to satisfy his murderously capricious king’s all-consuming passion. All these changes in his circumstances, and all these changes in the fates of those around him, many of which he has a hand in bringing about, work to change him in return, so it’s never sufficient to ask, who is Cromwell?—we’re always wondering too, what is he becoming? In other words, Cromwell’s is a soul in peril.

            His response early in the novel to hearing that his wife Liz has died makes for one of the most devastating lines in all of literature. “I suppose, he says, she will want to be buried with her first husband… Because I came more lately” (95). Thanks in large part to the nuanced revelations made possible through Mantel’s innovative narration, we already understand him well enough by this point to know that this is exactly how he would respond: pragmatic, self-effacing, doggedly restrained. And knowing all this about him transforms the line from an off-hand, seemingly heartless comment into something expressive of the bottomless heartbreak he’s standing on the brink of. And we’re standing right there with him. Mantel’s trick is to imply depths to her character’s feelings that he himself doesn’t acknowledge, and this at times throughout the novel only makes us experience them more intensely on his behalf—a sort of amplification through muting.

            With Mantel’s narration, we at times have to tolerate some slight disorientation, reading over pronouns whose antecedents won’t announce themselves until we’ve read the next few lines. Balancing this minor exertion, however, is the invariably short distance our eyes must travel to reach one or another form of punctuation signaling the end of a phrase. In another writer’s hands, this could make the pace feel clipped or stilted. But Mantel’s intimate involvement with her characters and her scenes allows her to make each clause emerge naturally from its predecessors, even while anticipating its successors, to create an effect that mimics simultaneity. Each line flows along like a flotilla of tiny treasure-laden ships, delivering images and meanings at the pace of precisely measured thought. This effect, too, is inseparably intertwined with the characterization. In the scene when Cromwell is sworn in as a member of the king’s council, Thomas More arrives in tears because his father has died the night before. Cromwell attempts to comfort him:  

“You know, after Elizabeth died, my wife…” And then, he wants to say, my daughters, my sister, my household decimated, my people never out of black, and now my cardinal lost… But he will not admit, for even a moment, that sorrow has sapped his will. You cannot get another father, but he would hardly want to; as for wives, they are two-a-penny with Thomas More. “You do not believe it now, but feeling will come back. For the world and all you must do in it.” (259)

We see here a hint of how complicated Cromwell’s feelings are about More, a man he grudgingly admires, one whose scholarship and literally self-flagellating devoutness, along with his casual misogyny and murderous conviction, inspires in him a mixture of wariness, disgust, and strenuously disavowed awe. We also see evidence of the layered meanings occupying the medium of Cromwell’s mind. He’s not only a man whose words are often at odds with his thoughts, but one whose thoughts are frequently at odds with his feelings (“I have got over Liz, he says to himself. Surely?” [463]), as though he’s trying—with a modicum of success—to manage his emotions by directing his thoughts. 

And this is the key to deciphering that initial passage about Cardinal Wolsey’s demise, because we know Cromwell would seek to reduce this overwhelmingly tragic news to its stark factuality. We know, too, that one of the most painful things about what’s happened is that he wasn’t there when his friend died—even though Wolsey had expressed his desire that he be there with him at the end. When Cavendish happened upon Cromwell in tears early in the novel, he doesn’t know it’s Liz’s prayer book in his hands. “I am going to lose everything,” is how Cromwell explains his tears, “everything I have worked for, all my life, because I will go down with the cardinal” (144). But, as he goes to court more frequently to plead Wolsey’s case, something unexpected happens: the king and his would-be queen recognize his talents and gradually end up recruiting him to their cause. In one of the scenes leading up to the cardinal’s death, Cromwell uncharacteristically lets his guard down and confides in a scholar and cleric named Thomas Cranmer—after discovering he too is a widower—about his concerns regarding Wolsey:

He has a wish to speak, to express the bottled rage and pain he feels. He says, “People have worked to make misunderstandings between us. To persuade the cardinal that I am no longer working for his interests, only for my own, that I have been bought out, that I see Anne every day—”
                   “Of course, you do see her…”
         “How else can I know how to move next? My lord cannot know, he cannot understand, what it’s like to be here now.”
         Cranmer says gently, “Should you not go to him? Your presence would dispel any doubt.”
                 “There is no time. The snare is set for him and I dare not move.” (232)

Indeed, Cromwell has overheard his own protégé Rafe Sadler saying to his nephew, “Look, there was no profit for him, ever, in deserting the old man—what would he get but the name of deserter? Perhaps something is to be got by sticking fast. For all of us” (198). The nephew, Richard, doesn’t believe his uncle’s loyalty to the cardinal is a mere ploy, but there’s no denying by this point that Cromwell’s fate is no longer tied to Wolsey’s.
Cromwell and Henry from the BBC series

            Mantel’s image of Cromwell as both intimidatingly savvy and startlingly versatile in his competences seems to have conspired with the traditional view of him as a coldblooded opportunist to make it difficult for some readers to see him as anything other than a Machiavellian mastermind. But, while he’s certainly no victim of circumstance, Mantel shows clearly throughout Wolf Hall that he’s as driven by necessity as he is by his own prescient and strategic calculations. As cool as he plays his myriad roles, Cromwell often has no idea what he’s getting himself into. From one of his earliest encounters with the cardinal—when he reflexively, and quite conspicuously, draws away from an imaginary blow (“I really would like the London gossip,” Wolsey says. “But I wasn’t planning to beat it out of you” [66])—to his first days at court, he’s frequently far from certain where he stands with the powerful men he’s surrounded by. After an attempt to convince Queen Katherine to relocate to Hertfordshire by suggesting that if she doesn’t go quietly she may be separated from her daughter, Princess Mary, Cromwell explains his position to his protégés. (First, he pretends he already knew Katherine and Mary were to be separated anyway when informed of it by one of his men.)

Rafe says, “It is harsh. To use the little girl against her mother.”
“Harsh, yes…but the question is, have you picked your prince? Because that is what you do, you choose him, and you know what he is. And then, when you have chosen, you say yes to him—yes, that is possible, yes, that can be done.”

Cromwell feels he’s chosen a prince—though in fact a prince has chosen him—far less ruthless than others he knows of. When his son Gregory, wondering just how far he would go with his yeses, asks, “You would not work her death, would you?” (270), Cromwell tries to reassure him:

“I said, you give way to the king’s requests. You open the way to his desires. That is what a courtier does. Now, understand this: it is impossible that Henry should require me or any other person to harm the queen. What is he, a monster?” (271)

Here again Mantel is playing her devious game with future history, since we know Anne will be only the second of Henry’s six wives—and the first of two who are beheaded. But, once Cromwell has chosen his prince, there’s no turning back for him.

Cromwell and Anne Boleyn from BBC series
            Unsurprisingly, Cromwell’s campaign to give the king what he wants meets with success, but that leads to a further complication. Thomas More, until recently a high church official, refuses to swear an oath in support of an act declaring Henry head of the church in England and free to marry Anne Boleyn. And so Thomas Cromwell has no choice but to say yes to his king’s command to either persuade More to reconsider or, failing that, find grounds to convict him of treason, so that he can be executed. More, as we knew he would, prefers martyrdom to the prospect of undermining his life’s work on behalf of the Catholic faith. The closing chapters of Wolf Hall have Cromwell struggling against both his conscience and More’s refusal to make any damning statements that would secure his conviction. The final scenes between the two men expose each of them down to the last raw nerve of their souls as they wade through the moral complexity of their predicament, weighed down by the undeniable futility of their efforts. “Will you think me sentimental, if I say I do not want to see you butchered?” (588) Cromwell asks at one point. Later he says, “I would have left you, you know. To live out your life. To repent your butcheries. If I were king” (590). As for the actual king, Cromwell has already tried to get him to allow More to live on in silence, since getting a jury—even the one he’s fixed—to convict him of treason won’t be easy. The king is incensed.

Henry stirs to life. “Do I retain you for what is easy? Jesus pity my simplicity, I have promoted you to a place in this kingdom that no one, no one of your breeding has ever held in the whole of the history of this realm.” He drops his voice. “Do you think it is for your personal beauty? The charm of your presence? I keep you, Master Cromwell, because you are as cunning as a bag of serpents. But do not be a viper in my bosom. You know my decision. Execute it.” (585)

In other words, find a way to execute Thomas More. Now there can no longer be any question in Cromwell’s mind of where he stands with the king, or of what kind of prince he has chosen.

            You can read Wolf Hall as an allegory about the transfer of power from the church to the state, taking Cromwell as a representative of a more modern, less spiritual, more skeptical way of thinking, with More, for all his courage, as a bloodthirsty hypocrite, even a type of terrorist. “When you interrogated men you called heretics,” Cromwell points out to More, “you did not allow evasion. You compelled them to speak and racked them if they would not” (582). But such a reading results in a gross failure to honor Mantel’s accomplishment in infusing real life-blood into her characters. Making them serve as mere symbols for anything is like scorching an entire forest of complexity to make way for some more orderly construction. Indeed, one of the recurring themes in the novel is the poor fit between required roles and the real humans made to play them—the constant need to “arrange your face” before entering a scene. This is best captured in another of the rare moments when Cromwell lets his guard down to speak openly and sincerely, this time to his nemesis and friend Thomas More as he sits in a cell: “I am glad I am not like you,” he says.

“Undoubtedly. Or you would be sitting here.”
“I mean, my mind fixed on the next world. I realize you see no prospect of improving this one.”
“And do you?”
…“I once had every hope,” he says. “The world corrupts me, I think. Or perhaps it’s just the weather. It pulls me down and makes me think like you, that one should shrink inside, down and down to a little point of light, preserving one’s solitary soul like a flame under a glass. The spectacles of pain and disgrace I see around me, the ignorance, the unthinking vice, the poverty and the lack of hope, and oh, the rain—the rain that falls on England and rots the grain, puts out the light in a man’s eye and the light of learning too, for who can reason if Oxford is a giant puddle and Cambridge is washing downstream, and who will enforce the laws if judges are swimming for their lives? Last week the people were rioting in York. Why would they not, with wheat so scarce, and twice the price of last year? I must stir up the justices to make examples, I suppose, otherwise the whole of the north will be out with billhooks and pikes, and who will they slaughter but each other? I truly believe I should be a better man if the weather were better. I should be a better man if I lived in a commonwealth where the sun shone and the citizens were rich and free. If only that were true, Master More, you wouldn’t have to pray for me nearly as hard as you do.” (588-9)

And so we learn that our symbol for the emergence of modern statecraft and realpolitik fears for his own soul, just as we do. “I do, of course, pray for you,” More assures him. “When we meet in Heaven, as I hope we will, all our differences will be forgot.”

            The title Wolf Hall doesn’t merely refer to the home of Jane Seymour, the young girl Henry will turn to when Anne fails to give him a male heir. In a scene late in the novel, when Christophe, one of Cromwell’s servants, hears what sounds like howling, he asks “Is there loups? In this kingdom?” Cromwell answers, “I think the wolves all died when the great forests were cut down. That howling you hear is only the Londoners” (463). In a later scene, when his head cook Thurston explains that he wants to stay in the kitchen instead of delegating from afar because things may “take a downturn”—as they did for the cardinal—Cromwell recalls a threat the Duke of Norfolk, Anne’s uncle, made to Wolsey: “Tell him to go north, or I will come where he is and tear him with my teeth.” At the time, Cromwell had joked dismissively, “May I substitute the word ‘bite’?” But years later, when the cardinal is long dead, the duke’s words still resonate: “The saying comes to him, homo homini lupus, man is wolf to man” (531).

Now, Cromwell must realize, part of his role is to answer to this same man who had a hand in his friend’s downfall, just as he must cater to Anne’s every whim despite her being the main force behind Wolsey’s ruin, just as he must invariably say yes to the king who stood by allowing it to happen. He does what he must in this world. Yet, for all his brilliance and competence and wit and cunning, despite his intimidating demeanor and his discipline in keeping his eye at all times fixed on his interests, Cromwell is a man with real heart. His soul, as revealed to us through Mantel’s singular virtuosity and ever so complicatedly human voice, is a flame that could never be captured under any glass, one that she alone could set alight on the page. And all the heart that she gives to her character is the reason why every page of Wolf Hall pulses with its heat. 



An Analysis of Junk: Guest Post by Meghann Bassett

           In a recent entry on the well-known blog, Reading Subtly, author Dennis J. Junk laments the seemingly inevitable comparison between him and the protagonists of his short stories. He describes an unfortunate incident in which a former classmate read one of his early stories and mistook Junk for a character in the plot. Junk writes, “The next day I opened my inbox to find a two-page response to the story which treated everything described in it as purely factual and attempted to account for the emotional emptiness I’d demonstrated …” Though Junk does concede that “the events in the story … were almost all true,” he rails against the injustice of readers who have “drawn conclusions about me based on it.”

Critic Jane Doe contends that Junk needs “to get over it” (3) She points to the numerous places in his stories in which Junk ostensibly leads the reader to confuse the author with one of his characters. “The similarities are more than evident; they are obvious to even the most obtuse reader” she writes in her dissertation “Junksonian Fiction” (4). According to Doe, “one may sluggishly sit in bed, skim Junk’s ‘fiction,’ and still be able to see the correlations” (4). Doe argues that Jim Conway of “Encounters, Inc” resembles Junk in that he is a recent graduate of Indiana University, Purdue University-Fort Wayne, works as a copywriter at a software company while aspiring to publish novels and short stories, and “has an ear for noticing things like residue being a poor choice of word” to describe a coffee house (16). Doe also compares Tom of this same story to Junk, citing the nearly identical childhoods of “both men who grew up on Union Chapel Road and routinely ran the previously undeveloped roads north of Fort Wayne” (29). She gives special attention to the character of Russell Arden in “The Fire Hoarder” who, Doe asserts, is “a carbon-copy of the author” (58). “Both men have brothers, run the Bicentennial Trails, and read without ceasing. And Russell like Junk is magnetic, elusive, and determined” (59). Though some readers may deny any semblance of similarity between Junk, Jim, Tom or Russell, Doe insists that Zack of “Smoking Buddha” bears “irrefutable likeness to Junk” (59). “For pity’s sake,” she writes, “it is as if the author has written a memoir, not a work of short fiction. The very apartment in which Zack lives is identical to Junk’s current home. One can envision the fireplace and claw-foot tub in Junk’s bathroom when reading how Zack cloisters himself in this space following the mysterious disappearance of the satyr statue” (62).

While Doe’s arguments are not without merit, it is easy to fully disagree with her explorations of Junk’s fiction, which, to a large degree, rely upon dichotomized concepts of author and character, whereby narrow constructions of one often replace the other. In Doe’s mind, the author who does not wish to be judged according to the strengths and weakness of his or her characters should remain wholly separate, lending no real trait or quality to the fictive individuals. Sadly, Doe’s analysis overlooks the host of canonical authors, including the Father of English Poetry, who have recreated themselves into quasi-fictional characters. Though, in life, Chaucer was a shrewd man with a cunning eye for human drama, he presents himself in The Canterbury Tales as a humble pilgrim and a doughy, mediocre poet. One might argue, therefore, that Junk’s characters are but shadows of the author—perhaps nobler or darker, more cynical manifestations of the real man.

Olivia Roberts holds to this opinion, arguing that critics like Doe, who vainly undertake needle-in-the-haystack quests to discern fact from fiction, too often explore correlations between author and character identities in reductive and deterministic ways (3). She suggests that the brilliance of “Encounters, Inc” or “The Fire Hoarder” is that they do not treat pure fiction as superior to fact; rather, the enduring brilliance of Junk’s work is that it elicits questions of reality but offers no answers. “The characters are provocative in that they may be real; more importantly, however, his stories simply provide complex depictions of male characters without judgment” (89). Like any creature that can never be wholly understood through an examination of its mere parts, Junk presents his characters as unknowable, mysterious entities that cannot be defined via any single analysis. The same may be said of Junk himself who defies definitive identification with any isolated character.

The beauty of Junk’s work is that he offers enough of himself to his characters to give them life, but rather than constrain those characters to conform to him, he lets them evolve into non-Junksonian individuals. Russell of ‘The Fire Hoarder’ may be Junk, the guy next door, or Heathcliff; the important thing is that he is a credible character—one for whom the reader, true to life, simultaneously feels sympathy and revulsion (Roberts 36).

As Roberts has noted, Junk’s stories frequently have an inscrutable quality that defies easy classification. Many have argued that Junk’s stories are too long to be categorized as short fiction. In fact, because of the seemingly tangential digressions in the form of dialogues dealing with evil and freedom and capitalism that pervade Junk’s fiction, his stories have been described as less fiction than a handbook or treatise (Queequeg 106). These long philosophical sections have rendered Junk’s stories unpopular among certain audiences. One anonymous blogger writes, “I’d rather suffer through War and Peace for the third time than read one of Junk’s lengthy ‘West Central Stories.’” Discerning readers, however, have recognized such digressions as central to understanding Junk’s art. In his assessment of “The Fire Hoarder,” Michael Franklin contends that these “digressions” reveal Junk’s technical skill as an author and his determination to expose audiences to more than mere entertainment. More significantly, they illuminate Junk’s attempts to understand that which is spiritual via analysis of the physical world (Franklin 204). Eliza Ghann, however, more insightfully argues that Junk’s characters question all things in order that the reader, not the author, may be the one to undergo self-exploration (39). In her second of three essays analyzing the works of Junk, Ghann writes:

Junk’s stories are quite thought-provoking. Many of Junk’s characters appear to go mad: they abandon themselves to endless, overpowering sex, fits of horrific violence, and Thoreauvian reclusiveness in the woods. Initially, the reader is disinclined to like these defectors of society. Slowly, however, Junk induces his readers to begrudgingly sympathize with each protagonist as he undergoes transformation from a conforming adult to a mad, but free, man. In so doing, the reader begins to question cultural concepts of conformity and reality (40).

Ghann points to a particular passage in “The Fire Hoarder” in which Russell, dissatisfied with the dull contentment of those around him as well as their narrow misconceptions of who he is, ponders what it would mean to have the freedom to “live [his] days on [his] own terms,” to throw off the imposed role others have given him (41). Because Russell has a tendency to speak his mind, loudly and without reservation, he is labeled insensitive. Yet he imagines a life in which he does not have to prove or disprove such judgments, a life in which he could with comfort and acceptance “do anything—even die—and people would barely notice.” Following his conversation with Ray, Russell appears to grow more calloused and self-absorbed. Though “madness” has been slowly creeping upon him, the turning point occurs in the old junkyard. Once he commits murder, Russell entirely cuts himself off from family and friends without a word of explanation. But as he exits one world, he slips into another—a hazy place of effigies and hallucinations where he imagines his ex-girlfriend loves him still. According to Ghann, Russell’s story is a tragedy of love, yet she acknowledges that “tragedy isn’t quite the right word” (42). “His story appears a tragedy only to those left behind. To Russell, his death is a triumph. As the decrepit house is engulfed in flames, Russell is reunited with his heart’s desire: Vicki. It matters not whether that union is real or imagined” (45). It is certainly a curiosity that many have futilely sought to distinguish the real Junk from the fictional Junk in a story in which the author urges his readers to recognize that reality is often a mere construction, that past and present can strangely fuse, that no one fully knows Russell, not even Russell himself.  

It may be argued that Zack, unlike Russell, may not be appropriately called free, at least not free in the traditional sense of the word. By the end of the story, he has been shackled by a new burden—be it an oppressive ghost or the natural consequences of unkind thoughts and actions; nevertheless, he has also been liberated. Like the woman who lived in the carriage house before him, he is no longer bound to perform according to the man-made schedule of an eight-to-five job. Furthermore, he has been set free from his body; as Zack succumbs to the curse of hypothyroidism, the maintenance of his body ceases to be of primary concern. Roberts notes a common theme in Junk’s fiction: the ‘villains’ are often overweight (42).  The woman who annoyingly coughs “ehuh-ehuhm” in “The Smoking Buddha” is described as “terribly obese” and pillowed by her own fat. Tom is hounded by a “walking barrel,” and Russell is attacked by a man who is “massive in a way that less intimidating than pitiable.” Though some scholars have argued that Junk is arrogantly insensitive in his criticisms of the misfortunates of others, Roberts claims that Junk’s fiction reveals the opposite: that Junk is highly sensitive and attune to the fact that no man is perfect. “The beautiful and the ugly are seen to plummet in the same vortex of uncertainty” (43). According to Roberts, Junk’s fiction does not pit villain against hero; rather “all of the characters are stunningly vile” (43). Roberts likens Junk’s characters to Sherwood Anderson’s “Book of the Grotesque” wherein some figures are “amusing, some almost beautiful” (Anderson qtd. by Roberts 44).  Like these grotesques, Roberts argues that readers “cannot help but like Junk’s characters, even ‘the barrel’” (45). While Roberts’ claims concerning ‘the barrel’ are questionable, her assessment of Zack, Tom, or Russell is accurate; one does, indeed, feel a degree of compassion for each.

Libby Tessab takes Roberts’ analysis one step further. She equates Russell Arden to Philip Roth’s Mickey Sabbath, noting how both men have known love, yet have chosen to cope with the loss through a seemingly endless cycle of booze and sex. “There’s something pathetically horrifying about Sabbath who expresses his grief through masturbation and the fondling of women’s undergarments. It lacks dignity” (Tessab 99). One might argue that Russell is equally undignified when he shouts “Expecto Patronus” and then crudely comes in the face of a random partner. In fact, of all the characters in Junk’s short fiction, Russell is arguably the most intriguing. Long have critics puzzled over Russell and his undefined madness. Some see a despicable, callous hermit whose miserable death is well deserved; others an “innocent imbecile” who unwittingly murders his own heart. In Tessab’s estimation, Arden is an intellectual junkie, and his quest for the next hit leads him to over the ‘cliffs of insanity’ (nod to The Princess Bride). It may be argued, however, that this seemingly unsavory character has been deftly crafted by Junk to illuminate Roth’s elusive Sabbath.

            At the onset, Russell appears chauvinistic and concerned solely with maintaining his youthful vigor. He expresses his disappointment in close friends and family who have slipped into the mundane and resolves to resist such complacency through intellectual and physical pursuits like learning to identify the trees in the woods where he runs each Saturday morning. As the story progresses, Russell appears to selfishly value such self-advancement over time spent with others. Like Sabbath whose circle of friends increasingly shrinks as a result of his offensive behavior, Russell, who supposedly “has book smarts but … doesn’t have people smarts,” ultimately determines to cut himself off from others. “I piss a lot of people off because I don’t think like them, and because I speak my mind,” he reflects and so he disconnects from the world, letting the angry text messages of girlfriends and his friend, Jason, go unanswered. Slowly the reader begins to understand that sorrow as well as disappointment in himself and others has caused Russell check out long before he willfully (or unwillfully) determines to go off the grid. As he gradually slips into a grief-induced madness, he begins to leave bundles of sticks in the trees at Bicentennial Woods and becomes more obsessed with ritualistically lapping the forest trails in a perfect figure-eight loop, hallucinating on his beloved Vicki as he does so. His efforts to bring back what he himself threw away eerily reflect Sabbath’s ceremonial ejaculations over Drenka’s grave. Like a shaman calling forth spirits, Russell’s and Sabbath’s seemingly undignified actions may be interpreted as the vain incantations of lonely men who seek to conjure up the pleasure of former days. As Roth and Junk teach us, grief knows no limits; it can reduce the strongest and cleverest of men to shriveled masses crying in the mud. And often those who appear most soulless are those who have the greatest capacity to feel. Herein lies the brilliance of Junk’s work and his careful development of the Russell’s dubious character.

            Beyond his talent for creating riveting characters, Junk also excels at weaving together intricate yet thrilling plots. In fact, the story of “The Fire Hoarder” is ultimately revealed to exist within the larger story of “Encounters, Inc.” As Jason explains, Russell’s story has been made available to readers through Jim Conway. In a superb twist of plot, the reader is suddenly transformed from a mere spectator of events to one of Tom’s and Monster-Face’s customers, reading what is exposed to be the fear-building prelude to an excursion to some haunted site, presumably the charred foundations where Russell died. Not only does Junk effectively layer the plots of “Encounters, Inc” and “The Fire Hoarder,” he embellishes the ghost legends of rural Indiana. Whereas such stories tend to be one-dimensional histories of madmen and witches burned alone in their houses by terrified townsfolk, Junk gives flesh to such lore, recasting mythic madmen into compelling protagonists.

While analyses of Junk’s characters abound, less has been written about his prose and style. Thomas Hood writes that "Bedtime Ghost Story for Adults" and "The Smoking Buddha" have several lovely lines, but the conversational style in which the tales are narrated necessitates a more clipped and colloquial syntax. “They are designed to sound like stories told around a camp fire, which Junk effectively achieves. However, in ‘Encounter, Inc’ Junk begins to branch out, and in ‘The Fire Hoarder’ he comes into his own as an unparalleled wordsmith” (Hood 65-66). Hood is not entirely correct in his analysis of Junk’s development. Prior to “Encounters, Inc,” Junk wrote “The Tree Climber,” a story inspired by W.S. Merwin. The poetic impetus behind the story is apparent, for Junk gracefully straddles the boundary between poetry and prose with evocative lines such as “As she rested at last, the breeze blew against her light wash of sweat, setting her skin aglow with the dissipating pulsing heat, like soundless music emanating from her blood into the air, even as she felt her strained limbs shimmer with life, discovered anew through the dancing ache.”

The gorgeous elegance that flows so naturally throughout “The Tree Climber” and “The Fire Hoarder” is slightly more stilted in “Encounters, Inc.” The following sentence, for example, sounds strained:

Here he learned from a diminutive blue-collar, country-music American with an amateur kickboxing record of 40-2 who’d learned karate from a grand master while stationed with the air force in Japan and Wing Chun from a Chinese man he’d partnered with in the states so they could open their own school.

A reader of Junk’s blog pointed out the awkwardness of the sentence and the difficulty for the reader in comprehending its meaning. To this reader, Junk replied that in “narratives the goal is to simulate an experience in real-time ... You want people to read really consequential details more slowly, so you put commas in to get them to pause. With the country-music karate teacher, I wanted to provide a textured background for the main character, but I also wanted that background to be read quickly, because the karate teacher plays a very small role in the story.” What Junk’s defense fails to take into account is how a discordant sentence such as this one is distracting in the otherwise crystalline prose. In other words, his sentences are so well written that a weak sentence stands out like a sore thumb. Junk’s goal of conveying information without lingering over unimportant details backfires. The sentence forces the reader to pause to reread it, thereby exiting the story entirely. Critics have also noted the periodic use of unnecessary adjectives or adverbs that cause some sentences to sound contrived. For example, in “Encounters, Inc” Junk writes, “Finding himself in the middle of the room, his hands held out to check the advance of any attacker, he glared down at the bed with its twisted sheets and undecipherable chaos of mounded folds…” Later in this same paragraph Junk writes, “He stood there long enough to calm his breathing before stepping forward and smoothing the comically disheveled sheets with his palms” Undecipherable is repetitive of chaos, and comically contradicts the tense emotions and events of the scene.

Such cumbersome interruptions are not found in “The Fire Hoarder.”  In this respect, Thomas Hood is right; the true genius of Junk is revealed in his most recent story. The syntactical dexterity with which Junk has written this tale provides the reader with an experience akin to reading a book of poems. The reader is led through vivid scenery that is “at once hectic and peaceful,” to forests where the holocaust of trees stand in an “infinite twilit intricacy of living greens and browns” and the “bereaved relatives still aloft in the branches perform their trembling dirge” for leaves that have fallen. In this regard, Junk’s tales, in particular “The Fire Hoarder,” resemble “All Hallows” by Walter de la Mere. “One can almost hear the stones moving in Junk’s stories” (Roberts 45). His tales are not frightening—although the pitter-patter of little satyr feet is unnerving—rather, the reader is often too captivated by the prose to register fear. This story, more than any other, makes this reader crave the next story from Junk.

It is likely that Junk will continue to perplex audiences with characters patterned after himself, and that scholars, like Jane Doe, will continue their mission to understand this mysterious author through his works. Regardless of the analyses of opposing critics, Junk is an author of extraordinary talent. There is something profoundly lyrical in the cadence of Junk’s prose. His characters, his plots, his brilliant depictions, and his command of language leave him well poised to become the next beloved American author of short stories. 

How Violent Fiction Works: Rohan Wilson’s “The Roving Party” and James Wood’s Sanguinary Sublime from Conrad to McCarthy

            Any acclaimed novel of violence must be cause for alarm to anyone who believes stories encourage the behaviors depicted in them or contaminate the minds of readers with the attitudes of the characters. “I always read the book as an allegory, as a disguised philosophical argument,” writes David Shields in his widely celebrated manifesto Reality Hunger. Suspicious of any such disguised effort at persuasion, Shields bemoans the continuing popularity of traditional novels and agitates on behalf of a revolutionary new form of writing, a type of collage that is neither marked as fiction nor claimed as truth but functions rather as a happy hybrid—or, depending on your tastes, a careless mess—and is in any case completely lacking in narrative structure. This is because to him giving narrative structure to a piece of writing is itself a rhetorical move. “I always try to read form as content, style as meaning,” Shields writes. “The book is always, in some sense, stutteringly, about its own language” (197).

As arcane as Shields’s approach to reading may sound, his attempt to find some underlying message in every novel resonates with the preoccupations popular among academic literary critics. But what would it mean if novels really were primarily concerned with their own language, as so many students in college literature courses are taught? What if there really were some higher-order meaning we absorbed unconsciously through reading, even as we went about distracting ourselves with the details of description, character, and plot? Might a novel like Heart of Darkness, instead of being about Marlowe’s growing awareness of Kurtz’s descent into inhuman barbarity, really be about something that at first seems merely contextual and incidental, like the darkness—the evil—of sub-Saharan Africa and its inhabitants? Might there be a subtle prompt to regard Kurtz’s transformation as some breed of enlightenment, a fatal lesson encapsulated and propagated by Conrad’s fussy and beautifully tantalizing prose, as if the author were wielding the English language like the fastenings of a yoke over the entire continent?
David Shields

Novels like Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and, more recently, Rohan Wilson’s The Roving Party, take place amid a transition from tribal societies to industrial civilization similar to the one occurring in Conrad’s Congo. Is it in this seeming backdrop that we should seek the true meaning of these tales of violence? Both McCarthy’s and Wilson’s novels, it must be noted, represent conspicuous efforts at undermining the sanitized and Manichean myths that arose to justify the displacement and mass killing of indigenous peoples by Europeans as they spread over the far-flung regions of the globe. The white men hunting “Indians” for the bounties on their scalps in Blood Meridian are as beastly and bloodthirsty as the savages peopling the most lurid colonial propaganda, just as the Europeans making up Wilson’s roving party are only distinguishable by the relative degrees of their moral degradation, all of them, including the protagonist, moving in the shadow of their chief quarry, a native Tasmanian chief.

If these novels are about their own language, their form comprising their true content, all in the service of some allegory or argument, then what pleasure would anyone get from them, suggesting as they do that to partake of the fruit of civilization is to become complicit in the original sin of the massacre that made way for it? “There is no document of civilization,” Walter Benjamin wrote, “that is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” It could be that to read these novels is to undergo a sort of rite of expiation, similar to the ritual reenactment of the crucifixion performed by Christians in the lead up to Easter. Alternatively, the real argument hidden in these stories may be still more insidious; what if they’re making the case that violence is both eternal and unavoidable, that it is in our nature to relish it, so there’s no more point in resisting the urge personally than in trying to bring about reform politically?

            Shields intimates that the reason we enjoy stories is that they warrant our complacency when he writes, “To ‘tell a story well’ is to make what one writes resemble the schemes people are used to—in other words, their ready-made idea of reality” (200). Just as we take pleasure in arguments for what we already believe, Shields maintains (explicitly) that we delight in stories that depict familiar scenes and resolve in ways compatible with our convictions. And this equating of the pleasure we take in reading with the pleasure we take in having our beliefs reaffirmed is another practice nearly universal among literary critics. Sophisticated readers know better than to conflate the ideas professed by villainous characters like the judge in Blood Meridian with those of the author, but, as one prominent critic complains,

there is often the disquieting sense that McCarthy’s fiction puts certain fond American myths under pressure merely to replace them with one vaster myth—eternal violence, or [Harold] Bloom’s “universal tragedy of blood.” McCarthy’s fiction seems to say, repeatedly, that this is how it has been and how it always will be.

What’s interesting about this interpretation is that it doesn’t come from anyone normally associated with Shields’s school of thought on literature. Indeed, its author, James Wood, is something of a scourge to postmodern scholars of Shields’s ilk.

Wood takes McCarthy to task for his alleged narrative dissemination of the myth of eternal violence in a 2005 New Yorker piece, Red Planet: The Sanguinary Sublime of Cormac McCarthy, a review of his then latest novel No Country for Old Men. Wood too, it turns out, hungers for reality in his novels, and he faults McCarthy’s book for substituting psychological profundity with the pabulum of standard plot devices. He insists that

the book gestures not toward any recognizable reality but merely toward the narrative codes already established by pulp thrillers and action films. The story is itself cinematically familiar. It is 1980, and a young man, Llewelyn Moss, is out antelope hunting in the Texas desert. He stumbles upon several bodies, three trucks, and a case full of money. He takes the money. We know that he is now a marked man; indeed, a killer named Anton Chigurh—it is he who opens the book by strangling the deputy—is on his trail.

Because McCarthy relies on the tropes of a familiar genre to convey his meaning, Wood suggests, that meaning can only apply to the hermetic universe imagined by that genre. In other words, any meaning conveyed in No Country for Old Men is rendered null in transit to the real world.

When Chigurh tells the blameless Carla Jean that “the shape of your path was visible from the beginning,” most readers, tutored in the rhetoric of pulp, will write it off as so much genre guff. But there is a way in which Chigurh is right: the thriller form knew all along that this was her end.

The acuity of Wood’s perception when it comes to the intricacies of literary language is often staggering, and his grasp of how diction and vocabulary provide clues to the narrator’s character and state of mind is equally prodigious. But, in this dismissal of Chigurh as a mere plot contrivance, as in his estimation of No Country for Old Men in general as a “morally empty book,” Wood is quite simply, quite startlingly, mistaken. And we might even say that the critical form knew all along that he would make this mistake.

 
James Wood
           When Chigurh tells Carla Jean her path was visible, he’s not voicing any hardboiled fatalism, as Wood assumes; he’s pointing out that her predicament came about as a result of a decision her husband Llewelyn Moss made with full knowledge of the promised consequences. And we have to ask, could Wood really have known, before Chigurh showed up at the Moss residence, that Carla Jean would be made to pay for her husband’s defiance? It’s easy enough to point out superficial similarities to genre conventions in the novel (many of which it turns inside-out), but it doesn’t follow that anyone who notices them will be able to foretell how the book will end. Wood, despite his reservations, admits that No Country for Old Men is “very gripping.” But how could it be if the end were so predictable? And, if it were truly so morally empty, why would Wood care how it was going to end enough to be gripped? Indeed, it is in the realm of the characters’ moral natures that Wood is the most blinded by his reliance on critical convention. He argues,

Lewelyn Moss, the hunted, ought not to resemble Anton Chigurh, the hunter, but the flattening effect of the plot makes them essentially indistinguishable. The reader, of course, sides with the hunted. But both have been made unfree by the fake determinism of the thriller.

How could the two men’s fates be determined by the genre if in a good many thrillers the good guy, the hunted, prevails?

Fixin to do somethin dumbern hell
One glaring omission in Wood’s analysis is that Moss initially escapes undetected with the drug money he discovers at the scene of the shootout he happens upon while hunting, but he is then tormented by his conscience until he decides to return to the trucks with a jug of water for a dying man who begged him for a drink. “I’m fixin to go do somethin dumbern hell but I’m goin anyways,” he says to Carla Jean when she asks what he’s doing. “If I don’t come back tell Mother I love her” (24). Llewelyn, throughout the ensuing chase, is thus being punished for doing the right thing, an injustice that unsettles readers to the point where we can’t look away—we’re gripped—until we’re assured that he ultimately defeats the agents of that injustice. While Moss risks his life to give a man a drink, Chigurh, as Wood points out, is first seen killing a cop. Moreover, it’s hard to imagine Moss showing up to murder an innocent woman to make good on an ultimatum he’d presented to a man who had already been killed in the interim—as Chigurh does in the scene when he explains to Carla Jean that she’s to be killed because Llewelyn made the wrong choice.

Chigurh is in fact strangely principled, in a morally inverted sort of way, but the claim that he’s indistinguishable from Moss bespeaks a failure of attention completely at odds with the uncannily keen-eyed reading we’ve come to expect from Wood. When he revisits McCarthy’s writing in a review of the 2006 post-apocalyptic novel The Road, collected in the book The Fun Stuff, Wood is once again impressed by McCarthy’s “remarkable effects” but thoroughly baffled by “the matter of his meanings” (61). The novel takes us on a journey south to the sea with a father and his son as they scrounge desperately for food in abandoned houses along the way. Wood credits McCarthy for not substituting allegory for the answer to “a simpler question, more taxing to the imagination and far closer to the primary business of fiction making: what would this world without people look like, feel like?” But then he unaccountably struggles to sift out the novel’s hidden philosophical message. He writes,

A post-apocalyptic vision cannot but provoke dilemmas of theodicy, of the justice of fate; and a lament for the Deus absconditus is both implicit in McCarthy’s imagery—the fine simile of the sun that circles the earth “like a grieving mother with a lamp”—and explicit in his dialogue. Early in the book, the father looks at his son and thinks: “If he is not the word of God God never spoke.” There are thieves and murderers and even cannibals on the loose, and the father and son encounter these fearsome envoys of evil every so often. The son needs to think of himself as “one of the good guys,” and his father assures him that this is the side they are indeed on. (62)

We’re left wondering, is there any way to answer the question of what a post-apocalypse would be like in a story that features starving people reduced to cannibalism without providing fodder for genre-leery critics on the lookout for characters they can reduce to mere “envoys of evil”?

As trenchant as Wood is regarding literary narration, and as erudite—or pedantic, depending on your tastes—as he is regarding theology, the author of the excellent book How Fiction Works can’t help but fall afoul of his own, and his discipline’s, thoroughgoing ignorance when it comes to how plots work, what keeps the moral heart of a story beating. The way Wood fails to account for the forest comprised of the trees he takes such thorough inventory of calls to mind a line of his own from a chapter in The Fun Stuff about Edmund Wilson, describing an uncharacteristic failure on part of this other preeminent critic:

Yet the lack of attention to detail, in a writer whose greatness rests supremely on his use of detail, the unwillingness to talk of fiction as if narrative were a special kind of aesthetic experience and not a reducible proposition… is rather scandalous. (72)

To his credit, though, Wood never writes about novels as if they were completely reducible to their propositions; he doesn’t share David Shields’s conviction that stories are nothing but allegories or disguised philosophical arguments. Indeed, few critics are as eloquent as Wood on the capacity of good narration to communicate the texture of experience in a way all literate people can recognize from their own lived existences.

            But Wood isn’t interested in plot. He just doesn’t seem to like them. (There’s no mention of plot in either the table of contents or the index to How Fiction Works.) Worse, he shares Shields’s and other postmodern critics’ impulse to decode plots and their resolutions—though he also searches for ways to reconcile whatever moral he manages to pry from the story with its other elements. This is in fact one of the habits that tends to derail his reviews. Even after lauding The Road’s eschewal of easy allegory in place of the hard work of ground-up realism, Wood can’t help trying to decipher the end of the novel in the context of the religious struggle he sees taking place in it. He writes of the son’s survival,

The boy is indeed a kind of last God, who is “carrying the fire” of belief (the father and son used to speak of themselves, in a kind of familial shorthand, as people who were carrying the fire: it seems to be a version of being “the good guys”.) Since the breath of God passes from man to man, and God cannot die, this boy represents what will survive of humanity, and also points to how life will be rebuilt. (64)

This interpretation underlies Wood’s contemptuous attitude toward other reviewers who found the story uplifting, including Oprah, who used The Road as one of her book club selections. To Wood, the message rings false. He complains that

a paragraph of religious consolation at the end of such a novel is striking, and it throws the book off balance a little, precisely because theology has not seemed exactly central to the book’s inquiry. One has a persistent, uneasy sense that theodicy and the absent God have been merely exploited by the book, engaged with only lightly, without much pressure of interrogation. (64)

Inquiry? Interrogation? Whatever happened to “special kind of aesthetic experience”? Wood first places seemingly inconsequential aspects of the novel at the center of his efforts to read meaning into it, and then he faults the novel for not exploring these aspects at greater length. The more likely conclusion we might draw here is that Wood is simply and woefully mistaken in his interpretation of the book’s meaning. Indeed, Wood’s jump to theology, despite his insistence on its inescapability, is really quite arbitrary, one of countless themes a reader might possibly point to as indicative of the novel’s one true meaning.

Cormac McCarthy
Perhaps the problem here is the assumption that a story must have a meaning, some point that can be summed up in a single statement, for it to grip us. Getting beyond the issue of what statement the story is trying to make, we can ask what it is about the aesthetic experience of reading a novel that we find so compelling. For Wood, it’s clear the enjoyment comes from a sort of communion with the narrator, a felt connection forged by language, which effects an estrangement from his own mundane experiences by passing them through the lens of the character’s idiosyncratic vocabulary, phrasings, and metaphors. The sun dimly burning through an overcast sky looks much different after you’ve heard it compared to “a grieving mother with a lamp.” This pleasure in authorial communion and narrative immersion is commonly felt by the more sophisticated of literary readers. But what about less sophisticated readers? Many people who have a hard enough time simply understanding complex sentences, never mind discovering in them clues to the speaker’s personality, nevertheless become absorbed in narratives.

Developmental psychologists Karen Wynn and Paul Bloom, along with then graduate student Kiley Hamlin, serendipitously discovered a major clue to the mystery of why fictional stories engage humans’ intellectual and emotional faculties so powerfully while trying to determine at what age children begin to develop a moral sense. In a series of experiments conducted at the Yale Infant Cognition Center, Wynn and her team found that babies under a year old, even as young as three months, are easily induced to attribute agency to inanimate objects with nothing but a pair of crude eyes to suggest personhood. And, astonishingly, once agency is presumed, these infants begin attending to the behavior of the agents for evidence of their propensities toward being either helpfully social or selfishly aggressive—even when they themselves aren’t the ones to whom the behaviors are directed. 

            In one of the team’s most dramatic demonstrations, the infants watch puppet shows featuring what Bloom, in his book about the research program Just Babies, refers to as “morality plays” (30). Two rabbits respond to a tiger’s overture of rolling a ball toward them in different ways, one by rolling it back playfully, the other by snatching it up and running away with it. When the babies are offered a choice between the two rabbits after the play, they nearly always reach for the “good guy.” However, other versions of the experiment show that babies do favor aggressive rabbits over nice ones—provided that the victim is itself guilty of some previously witnessed act of selfishness or aggression. So the infants prefer cooperation over selfishness and punishment over complacency.

            Wynn and Hamlin didn’t intend to explore the nature of our fascination with fiction, but even the most casual assessment of our most popular stories suggests their appeal to audiences depends on a distinction similar to the one made by the infants in these studies. Indeed, the most basic formula for storytelling could be stated: good guy struggles against bad guy. Our interest is automatically piqued once such a struggle is convincingly presented, and it doesn’t depend on any proposition that can be gleaned from the outcome. We favor the good guy because his (or her) altruism triggers an emotional response—we like him. And our interest in the ongoing developments of the story—the plot—are both emotional and dynamic. This is what the aesthetic experience of narrative consists of. 

            The beauty in stories comes from the elevation we get from the experience of witnessing altruism, and the higher the cost to the altruist the more elevating the story. The symmetry of plots is the balance of justice. Stories meant to disturb readers disrupt that balance.The crudest stories pit good guys against bad guys. The more sophisticated stories feature what we hope are good characters struggling against temptations or circumstances that make being good difficult, or downright dangerous. In other words, at the heart of any story is a moral dilemma, a situation in which characters must decide who deserves what fate and what they’re willing to pay to ensure they get it. The specific details of that dilemma are what we recognize as the plot.

The most basic moral, lesson, proposition, or philosophical argument inherent in the experience of attending to a story derives then not from some arbitrary decision on the part of the storyteller but from an injunction encoded in our genome. At some point in human evolution, our ancestor’s survival began to depend on mutual cooperation among all the members of the tribe, and so to this day, and from a startlingly young age, we’re on the lookout for anyone who might be given to exploiting the cooperative norms of our group. Literary critics could charge that the appeal of the altruist is merely another theme we might at this particular moment in history want to elevate to the status of most fundamental aspect of narrative. But I would challenge anyone who believes some other theme, message, or dynamic is more crucial to our engagement with stories to subject their theory to the kind of tests the interplay of selfish and altruistic impulses routinely passes in the Yale studies. Do babies care about theodicy? Are Wynn et al.’s morality plays about their own language?

This isn’t to say that other themes or allegories never play a role in our appreciation of novels. But whatever role they do play is in every case ancillary to the emotional involvement we have with the moral dilemmas of the plot. 1984 and Animal Farm are clear examples of allegories—but their greatness as stories is attributable to the appeal of their characters and the convincing difficulty of their dilemmas. Without a good plot, no one would stick around for the lesson. If we didn’t first believe Winston Smith deserved to escape Room 101 and that Boxer deserved a better fate than the knackery, we’d never subsequently be moved to contemplate the evils of totalitarianism. What makes these such powerful allegories is that, if you subtracted the political message, they’d still be great stories because they engage our moral emotions.

            What makes violence so compelling in fiction then is probably not that it sublimates our own violent urges, or that it justifies any civilization’s past crimes; violence simply ups the stakes for the moral dilemmas faced by the characters. The moment by moment drama in The Road, for instance, has nothing to do with whether anyone continues to believe in God. The drama comes from the father and son’s struggles to resist having to succumb to theft and cannibalism to survive. That’s the most obvious theme recurring throughout the novel. And you get the sense that were it not for the boy’s constant pleas for reassurance that they would never kill and eat anyone—the ultimate act of selfish aggression—and that they would never resort to bullying and stealing, the father quite likely would have made use of such expedients. The fire that they’re carrying is not the light of God; it’s the spark of humanity, the refusal to forfeit their human decency. (Wood doesn't catch that the fire was handed off from Sheriff Bell's father at the end of No Country.) The boy may very well be a redeemer, in that he helps his father make it to the end of his life with a clear conscience, but unless you believe morality is exclusively the bailiwick of religion God’s role in the story is marginal at best.

            What the critics given to dismissing plots as pointless fabrications fail to consider is that just as idiosyncratic language and simile estranges readers from their mundane existence so too the high-stakes dilemmas that make up plots can make us see our own choices in a different light, effecting their own breed of estrangement with regard to our moral perceptions and habits. In The Roving Party, set in the early nineteenth century, Black Bill, a native Tasmanian raised by a white family, joins a group of men led by a farmer named John Batman to hunt and kill other native Tasmanians and secure the territory for the colonials. The dilemmas Bill faces are like nothing most readers will ever encounter. But their difficulty is nonetheless universally understandable. In the following scene, Bill, who is also called the Vandemonian, along with a young boy and two native scouts, watches as Batman steps up to a wounded clansman in the aftermath of a raid on his people.

Batman considered the silent man secreted there in the hollow and thumbed back the hammers. He put one foot either side of the clansman’s outstretched legs and showed him the long void of those bores, standing thus prepared through a few creakings of the trees. The warrior was wide-eyed, looking to Bill and to the Dharugs.
The eruption raised the birds squealing from the branches. As the gunsmoke cleared the fellow slumped forward and spilled upon the soil a stream of arterial blood. The hollow behind was peppered with pieces of skull and other matter. John Batman snapped open the locks, cleaned out the pans with his cloth and mopped the blood off the barrels. He looked around at the rovers.
The boy was openmouthed, pale, and he stared at the ruination laid out there at his feet and stepped back as the blood ran near his rags. The Dharugs had by now turned away and did not look back. They began retracing their track through the rainforest, picking among the fallen trunks. But Black Bill alone among that party met Batman’s eye. He resettled his fowling piece across his back and spat on the ferns, watching Batman. Batman pulled out his rum, popped loose the cork, and drank. He held out the vessel to Bill. The Vandemonian looked at him. Then he turned to follow the Parramatta men out among the lemon myrtles and antique pines. (92)

If Rohan Wilson had wanted to expound on the evils of colonialism in Tasmania, he might have written about how Batman, a real figure from history, murdered several men he could easily have taken prisoner. But Wilson wanted to tell a story, and he knew that dilemmas like this one would grip our emotions. He likewise knew he didn’t have to explain that Bill, however much he disapproves of the murder, can’t afford to challenge his white benefactor in any less subtle manner than meeting his eyes and refusing his rum.

Rohan Wilson
            Unfortunately, Batman registers the subtle rebuke all too readily. Instead of killing a native lawman wounded in a later raid himself, Batman leaves the task to Bill, who this time isn’t allowed the option of silently disapproving. But the way Wilson describes Bill’s actions leaves no doubt in the reader’s mind about his feelings, and those feelings have important consequences for how we feel about the character.

Black Bill removed his hat. He worked back the heavy cocks of both barrels and they settled with a dull clunk. Taralta clutched at his swaddled chest and looked Bill in the eyes, as wordless as ground stone. Bill brought up the massive gun and steadied the barrels across his forearm as his broken fingers could not take the weight. The sight of those octagonal bores levelled on him caused the lawman to huddle down behind his hands and cry out, and Bill steadied the gun but there was no clear shot he might take. He waited.
                        See now, he said. Move your hands.
            The lawman crabbed away over the dirt, still with his arms upraised, and Bill followed him and kicked him in the bandaged ribs and kicked at his arms.
                        menenger, Bill said, menenger.
The lawman curled up more tightly. Bill brought the heel of his boot to bear on the wounded man but he kicked in vain while Taralta folded his arms ever tighter around his head.
Black Bill lowered the gun. Wattlebirds made their yac-a-yac coughs in the bush behind and he gazed at the blue hills to the south and the snow clouds forming above them. When Bill looked again at the lawman he was watching through his hands, dirt and ash stuck in the cords of his ochred hair. Bill brought the gun up, balanced it across his arm again and tucked the butt into his shoulder. Then he fired into the lawman’s head.
The almighty concussion rattled the wind in his chest and the gun bucked from his grip and fell. He turned away, holding his shoulder. Blood had spattered his face, his arms, the front of his shirt. For a time he would not look at the body of the lawman where it lay near the fire. He rubbed at the bruising on his shoulder; watched storms amass around the southern peaks. After a while he turned to survey the slaughter he had wrought.
One of the lawman’s arms was gone at the elbow and the teeth seated in the jawbone could be seen through the cheek. There was flesh blown every place. He picked up the Manton gun. The locks were soiled and he fingered out the grime, and then with the corner of his coat cleaned the pan and blew into the latchworks. He brought the weapon up to eye level and peered along its sights for barrel warps or any misalignment then, content, slung the leather on his shoulder. Without a rearward glance he stalked off, his hat replaced, his boots slipping in the blood. Smoke from the fire blew around him in a snarl raised on the wind and dispersed again on the same. (102-4)

Depending on their particular ideological bent, critics may charge that a scene like this simply promotes the type of violence it depicts, or that it encourages a negative view of native Tasmanians—or indigenous peoples generally—as of such weak moral fiber that they can be made to turn against their own countrymen. And pointing out that the aspect of the scene that captures our attention is the process, the experience, of witnessing Bill’s struggle to resolve his dilemma would do little to ease their worries; after all, even if the message is ancillary, its influence could still be pernicious.

            The reason that critics applying their favored political theories to their analyses of fiction so often stray into the realm of the absurd is that the only readers who experience stories the same way as they do will be the ones who share the same ideological preoccupations. You can turn any novel into a Rorschach, pulling out disparate shapes and elements to blur into some devious message. But any reader approaching the writing without your political theories or your critical approach will likely come away with a much more basic and obvious lesson. Black Bill’s dilemma is that he has to kill many of his fellow Tasmanians if he wants to continue living as part of a community of whites. If readers take on his attitude toward killing as it’s demonstrated in the scene when he kills Taralta, they’ll be more reluctant to do it, not less. Bill clearly loathes what he’s forced to do. And if any race comes out looking bad it’s the whites, since they’re the ones whose culture forces Bill to choose between his family’s well-being and the dictates of his conscience.

Readers likely have little awareness of being influenced by the overarching themes in their favorite stories, but upon reflection the meaning of those themes is usually pretty obvious. Recent research into how reading the Harry Potter books has impacted young people’s political views, for instance, shows that fans of the series are more accepting of out-groups, more tolerant, less predisposed to authoritarianism, more supporting of equality, and more opposed to violence and torture. Anthony Gierzynsky, the author of the study, points out, “As Harry Potter fans will have noted, these are major themes repeated throughout the series.” The messages that reach readers are the conspicuous ones, not the supposedly hidden ones critics pride themselves on being able to suss out. 

            It’s an interesting question just how wicked stories could persuade us to be, relying as they do on our instinctual moral sense. Fans could perhaps be biased toward evil by themes about the threat posed by some out-group, or the debased nature of the lower orders, or nonbelievers in the accepted deities—since the salience of these concepts likewise seems to be inborn. But stories told from the perspective of someone belonging to the persecuted group could provide an antidote. At any rate, there’s a solid case to be made that novels have helped the moral of arc of history bend toward greater justice and compassion.

            Even a novel with violence as pervasive and chaotic as it is in Blood Meridian sets up a moral gradient for the characters to occupy—though finding where the judge fits is a quite complicated endeavor—and the one with the most qualms about killing happens to be the protagonist, referred to simply as the kid. “You alone were mutinous,” the judge says to him. “You alone reserved in your soul some corner of clemency for the heathen” (299). The kid’s character is revealed much the way Black Bill’s is in The Roving Party, as readers witness him working through high-stakes dilemmas. After drawing arrows to determine who in the band of scalp hunters will stay behind to kill some of their wounded (to prevent a worse fate at the hands of the men pursuing them), the kid finds himself tasked with euthanizing a man who would otherwise survive.

                        You wont thank me if I let you off, he said.
                        Do it then you son of a bitch.
            The kid sat. A light wind was blowing out of the north and some doves had begun to call in the thicket of greasewood behind them.
                        If you want me just to leave you I will.
                        Shelby didnt answer
                        He pushed a furrow in the sand with the heel of his boot. You’ll             have to say.
                        Will you leave me a gun?
                        You know I can’t leave you no gun.
                        You’re no better than him. Are you?
                        The kid didn’t answer. (208)

That “him” is ambiguous; it could either be Glanton, the leader of the gang whose orders the kid is ignoring, or the judge, who engages him throughout the later parts of the novel in a debate about the necessity of violence in history. We know by now that the kid really is better than the judge—at least in the sense that Shelby means. And the kid handles the dilemma, as best he can, by hiding Shelby in some bushes and leaving him with a canteen of water.

These three passages from The Roving Party and Blood Meridian reveal as well something about the language commonly used by authors of violent novels going back to Conrad (perhaps as far back as Tolstoy). Faced with the choice of killing a man—or of standing idly by and allowing him to be killed—the characters hesitate, and the space of their hesitation is filled with details like the type of birdsong that can be heard. This style of “dirty realism,” a turning away from abstraction, away even from thought, to focus intensely on physical objects and the natural world, frustrates critics like James Wood because they prefer their prose to register the characters’ meanderings of mind in the way that only written language can. Writing about No Country for Old Men, Wood complains about all the labeling and descriptions of weapons and vehicles to the exclusion of thought and emotion.

Here is Hemingway’s influence, so popular in male American fiction, of both the pulpy and the highbrow kind. It recalls the language of “A Farewell to Arms”: “He looked very dead. It was raining. I had liked him as well as anyone I ever knew.” What appears to be thought is in fact suppressed thought, the mere ratification of male taciturnity. The attempt to stifle sentimentality—“He looked very dead”—itself comes to seem a sentimental mannerism. McCarthy has never been much interested in consciousness and once declared that as far as he was concerned Henry James wasn’t literature. Alas, his new book, with its gleaming equipment of death, its mindless men and absent (but appropriately sentimentalized) women, its rigid, impacted prose, and its meaningless story, is perhaps the logical result of a literary hostility to Mind.

Here again Wood is relaxing his otherwise razor-keen capacity for gleaning insights from language and relying instead on the anemic conventions of literary criticism—a discipline obsessed with the enactment of gender roles. (I’m sure Suzanne Collins would be amused by this idea of masculine taciturnity.) But Wood is right to recognize the natural tension between a literature of action and a literature of mind. Imagine how much the impact of Black Bill’s struggle with the necessity of killing Taralta would be blunted if we were privy to his thoughts, all of which are implicit in the scene as Wilson has rendered it anyway.

            Fascinatingly, though, it seems that Wood eventually realized the actual purpose of this kind of evasive prose—and it was Cormac McCarthy he learned it from. As much as Wood lusts after some leap into theological lucubration as characters reflect on the lessons of the post-apocalypse or the meanings of violence, the psychological reality is that it is often in the midst of violence or when confronted with imminent death that people are least given to introspection. As Wood explains in writing about the prose style of The Road,

McCarthy writes at one point that the father could not tell the son about life before the apocalypse: “He could not construct for the child’s pleasure the world he’d lost without constructing the loss as well and thought perhaps the child had known this better than he.” It is the same for the book’s prose style: just as the father cannot construct a story for the boy without also constructing the loss, so the novelist cannot construct the loss without the ghost of the departed fullness, the world as it once was. (55)

The rituals of weapon reloading, car repair, and wound wrapping that Wood finds so offputtingly affected in No Country for Old Men are precisely the kind of practicalities people would try to engage their minds with in the aftermath of violence to avoid facing the reality. But this linguistic and attentional coping strategy is not without moral implications of its own.

            In the opening of The Roving Party, Black Bill receives a visit from some of the very clansmen he’s been asked by John Batman to hunt. The headman of the group is a formidable warrior named Manalargena (another real historical figure), who is said to have magical powers. He has come to recruit Bill to help in fighting against the whites, unaware of Bill’s already settled loyalties. When Bill refuses to come fight with Manalargena, the headman’s response is to tell a story about two brothers who live near a river where they catch plenty of crayfish, make fires, and sing songs. Then someone new arrives on the scene:

Hunter come to the river. He is hungry hunter you see. He want crayfish. He see them brother eating crayfish, singing song. He want crayfish too. He bring up spear. Here the headman made as if to raise something. He bring up that spear and he call out: I hungry, you give me that crayfish. He hold that spear and he call out. But them brother they scared you see. They scared and they run. They run and they change. They change to wallaby and they jump. Now they jump and jump and the hunter he follow them.
So hunter he change too. He run and he change to that wallaby and he jump. Now three wallaby jump near river. They eat grass. They forget crayfish. They eat grass and they drink water and they forget crayfish. Three wallaby near the river. Very big river. (7-8)

Bill initially dismisses the story, saying it makes no sense. Indeed, as a story, it’s terrible. The characters have no substance and the transformation seems morally irrelevant. The story is pure allegory. Interestingly, though, by the end of the novel, its meaning is perfectly clear to Bill. Taking on the roles of hunter and hunted leaves no room for songs, no place for what began the hunt in the first place, creating a life closer to that of animals than of humans. There are no more fires.

            Wood counts three registers authors like Conrad and McCarthy—and we can add Wilson—use in their writing. The first is the dirty realism that conveys the characters’ unwillingness to reflect on their circumstances or on the state of their souls. The third is the lofty but oblique discourse on God’s presence or absence in a world of tragedy and carnage Wood finds so ineffectual. For most readers, though, it’s the second register that stands out. Here’s how Wood describes it:

Hard detail and a fine eye is combined with exquisite, gnarled, slightly antique (and even slightly clumsy or heavy) lyricism. It ought not to work, and sometimes it does not. But many of its effects are beautiful—and not only beautiful, but powerfully efficient as poetry. (59)

This description captures what’s both great and frustrating about the best and worst lines in these authors’ novels. But Wood takes the tradition for granted without asking why this haltingly graceful and heavy-handedly subtle language is so well-suited to these violent stories. The writers are compelled to use this kind of language by the very effects of the plot and setting that critics today so often fail to appreciate—though Wood does gesture toward it in the title of his essay on No Country for Old Men. The dream logic of song and simile that goes into the aesthetic experience of bearing witness to the characters sparsely peopling the starkly barren and darkly ominous landscapes of these novels carries within it the breath of the sublime.

            In coming to care about characters whose fates unfold in the aftermath of civilization, or in regions where civilization has yet to take hold, places where bloody aggression and violent death are daily concerns and witnessed realities, we’re forced to adjust emotionally to the worlds they inhabit. Experiencing a single death brings a sense of tragedy, but coming to grips with a thousand deaths has a more curious effect. And it is this effect that the strange tangles of metaphorical prose both gesture toward and help to induce. The sheer immensity of the loss, the casual brushing away of so many bodies and the blotting out of so much unique consciousness, overstresses the capacity of any individual to comprehend it. The result is paradoxical, a fixation on the material objects still remaining, and a sliding off of one’s mind onto a plane of mental existence where the material has scarcely any reality at all because it has scarcely any significance at all. The move toward the sublime is a lifting up toward infinite abstraction, the most distant perspective ever possible on the universe, where every image is a symbol for some essence, where every embrace is a symbol for human connectedness, where every individual human is a symbol for humanity. This isn’t the abstraction of logic, the working out of implications about God or cosmic origins. It’s the abstraction of the dream or the religious experience, an encounter with the sacred and the eternal, a falling and fading away of the world of the material and the particular and the mundane.

            The prevailing assumption among critics and readers alike is that fiction, especially literary fiction, attempts to represent some facet of life, so the nature of a given representation can be interpreted as a comment on whatever is being represented. But what if the representations, the correspondences between the fictional world and the nonfictional one, merely serve to make the story more convincing, more worthy of our precious attention? What if fiction isn’t meant to represent reality so much as to alter our perceptions of it? Critics can fault plots like the one in No Country for Old Men, and characters like Anton Chigurh, for having no counterparts outside the world of the story, mooting any comment about the real world the book may be trying to make. But what if the purpose of drawing readers into fictional worlds is to help them see their own worlds anew by giving them a taste of what it would be like to live a much different existence? Even the novels that hew more closely to the mundane, the unremarkable passage of time, are condensed versions of the characters’ lives, encouraging readers to take a broader perspective on their own. The criteria we should apply to our assessments of novels then would not be how well they represent reality and how accurate or laudable their commentaries are. We should instead judge novels by how effectively they pull us into the worlds they create for themselves and how differently we look at our own world in the wake of the experience. And since high-stakes moral dilemmas are the heart of stories we might wonder what effect the experience of witnessing them will have on our own lower-stakes lives.  

Also read:

Hunger Game Theory: Post-Apocalyptic Fiction and the Rebirth of Humanity

Life's White Machine: James Wood and What Doesn't Happen in Fiction

Let's Play Kill Your Brother: Fiction as a Moral Dilemma Game

Gone Girl and the Relationship Game: The Charms of Gillian Flynn's Amazingly Seductive Anti-Heroine


The simple phrase “that guy,” as in the delightfully manipulative call for a man to check himself “You don’t want to be that guy,” underscores something remarkable about what’s billed as our modern age of self-invention. No matter how hard we try, we’re nearly always on the verge of falling into some recognizable category of people—always in peril of becoming a cliché. Even in a mature society characterized by competitive originality, the corralling of what could be biographical chaos into a finite assemblage of themes, if not entire stories, seems as inescapable as ever. Which isn’t to say that true originality is nowhere to be found—outside of fiction anyway—but that resisting the pull of convention, or even (God forbid) tradition, demands sustained effort. And like any other endeavor requiring disciplined exertion, you need a ready store of motivation to draw on if you’re determined not to be that guy, or that couple, or one of those women.

            When Nick Dunne, a former writer of pop culture reviews for a men’s magazine in Gillian Flynn’s slickly conceived, subtly character-driven, and cleverly satirical novel Gone Girl, looks over the bar he’s been reduced to tending at the young beauty who’s taken a shine to him in his capacity as part-time journalism professor, the familiarity of his dilemma—the familiarity even of the jokes about his dilemma—makes for a type of bitingly bittersweet comedy that runs throughout the first half of the story. “Now surprise me with a drink,” Andie, his enamored student, enjoins him.

She leaned forward so her cleavage was leveraged against the bar, her breasts pushed upward. She wore a pendant on a thin gold chain; the pendant slid between her breasts down under her sweater. Don’t be that guy, I thought. The guy who pants over where the pendant ends. (261)

Nick, every reader knows, is not thinking about Andie’s heart. For many a man in this situation, all the condemnation infused into those two words abruptly transforms into an awareness of his own cheap sanctimony as he realizes about the only thing separating any given guy from becoming that guy is the wrong set of circumstances. As Nick recounts,

You ask yourself, Why? I’d been faithful to Amy always. I was the guy who left the bar early if a woman was getting too flirty, if her touch was feeling too nice. I was not a cheater. I don’t (didn’t?) like cheaters: dishonest, disrespectful, petty, spoiled. I had never succumbed. But that was back when I was happy. I hate to think the answer is that easy, but I had been happy all my life, and now I was not, and Andie was there, lingering after class, asking me questions about myself that Amy never had, not lately. Making me feel like a worthwhile man, not the idiot who lost his job, the dope who forgot to put the toilet seat down, the blunderer who just could never quite get it right, whatever it was. (257)

More than most of us are comfortable acknowledging, the roles we play, or rather the ones we fall into, in our relationships are decided on collaboratively—if there’s ever any real deciding involved at all. Nick turns into that guy because the role, the identity, imposed on him by his wife Amy makes him miserable, while the one he gets to assume with Andie is a more complimentary fit with what he feels is his true nature. As he muses while relishing the way Andie makes him feel, “Love makes you want to be a better man—right, right. But maybe love, real love, also gives you permission to just be the man you are” (264).
Gillian Flynn

            Underlying and eventually overtaking the mystery plot set in motion by Amy’s disappearance in the opening pages of Gone Girl is an entertainingly overblown dramatization of the struggle nearly all modern couples go through as they negotiate the contours of their respective roles in the relationship. The questions of what we’ll allow and what we’ll demand of our partners seem ever-so-easy to answer while we’re still unattached; what we altogether fail to anticipate are the questions about who our partners will become and how much of ourselves they’ll allow us the space to actuate. Nick fell in love with Amy because of how much he enjoyed being around her, but, in keeping with so many clichés about married life, that would soon change. Early in the novel, it’s difficult to discern just how hyperbolic Nick is being when he describes the metamorphosis. “The Amy of today,” he tells us, “was abrasive enough to want to hurt, sometimes.” He goes on to explain,

I speak specifically of the Amy of today, who was only remotely like the woman I fell in love with. It had been an awful fairytale reverse transformation. Over just a few years, the old Amy, the girl of the big laugh and the easy ways, literally shed herself, a pile of skin and soul on the floor, and out stepped this brittle, bitter Amy. My wife was no longer my wife but a razor-wire knot daring me to unloop her, and I was not up to the job with my thick, numb, nervous fingers. Country fingers. Flyover fingers untrained in the intricate, dangerous work of solving Amy. When I’d hold up the bloody stumps, she’d sigh and turn to her secret mental notebook on which she tallied all my deficiencies, forever noting disappointments, frailties, shortcomings. My old Amy, damn, she was fun. She was funny. She made me laugh. I’d forgotten that. And she laughed. From the bottom of her throat, from right behind that small finger-shaped hollow, which is the best place to laugh from. She released her grievances like handfuls of birdseed: They are there, and they are gone. (89)

In this telling, Amy has gone from being lighthearted and fun to suffocatingly critical and humorless in the span of a few years. This sounds suspiciously like something that guy, the one who cheats on his wife, would say, rationalizing his betrayal by implying she was the one who unilaterally revised the terms of their arrangement. Still, many married men, whether they’ve personally strayed or not, probably find Nick’s description of his plight uncomfortably familiar.

            Amy’s own first-person account of their time together serves as a counterpoint to Nick’s narrative about her disappearance throughout the first half of the novel, and even as you’re on the lookout for clues as to whose descriptions of the other are the more reliable you get the sense that, alongside whatever explicit lies or omissions are indicated by the contradictions and gaps in their respective versions, a pitched battle is taking place between them for the privilege of defining not just each other but themselves as well. At one point, Nick admits that Amy hadn’t always been as easy to be with as he suggested earlier; in fact, he’d fallen in love with her precisely because in trying to keep up with her exacting and boundlessly energetic mind he felt that he became “the ultimate Nick.” He says,

Amy made me believe I was exceptional, that I was up to her level of play. That was both our making and our undoing. Because I couldn’t handle the demands of greatness. I began craving ease and averageness, and I hated myself for it. I turned her into the brittle, prickly thing she became. I had pretended to be one kind of man and revealed myself to be quite another. Worse, I convinced myself our tragedy was entirely her making. I spent years working myself into the very thing I swore she was: a righteous ball of hate. (371-2)

At this point in the novel, Amy’s version of their story seems the more plausible by far. Nick is confessing to mischaracterizing her change, taking some responsibility for it. Now, he seems to accept that he was the one who didn’t live up to the terms of their original agreement.

            But Nick’s understanding of the narrative at this point isn’t as settled as his mea culpa implies. What becomes clear from all the mulling and vacillating is that arriving at a definitive account of who provoked whom, who changed first, or who is ultimately to blame is all but impossible. Was Amy increasingly difficult to please? Or did Nick run out of steam? Just a few pages prior to admitting he’d been the first to undergo a deal-breaking transformation, Nick was expressing his disgust at what his futile efforts to make Amy happy had reduced him to:

For two years I tried as my old wife slipped away, and I tried so hard—no anger, no arguments, the constant kowtowing, the capitulation, the sitcom-husband version of me: Yes, dear. Of course, sweetheart. The fucking energy leached from my body as my frantic-rabbit thoughts tried to figure out how to make her happy, and each action, each attempt, was met with a rolled eye or a sad little sigh. A you just don’t get it sigh.
            By the time we left for Missouri, I was just pissed. I was ashamed of the memory of me—the scuttling, scraping, hunchbacked toadie of a man I’d turned into. So I wasn’t romantic; I wasn’t even nice. (366)

The couple’s move from New York to Nick’s hometown in Missouri to help his sister care for their ailing mother is another point of contention between them. Nick had been laid off from the magazine he’d worked for. Amy had lost her job writing personality quizzes for a women’s magazine, and she’d also lost most of the trust fund her parents had set up for her when those same parents came asking for a loan to help bail them out after some of their investments went bad. So the conditions of the job market and the economy toward the end of the aughts were cranking up the pressure on both Nick and Amy as they strived to maintain some sense of themselves as exceptional human beings. But this added burden fell on each of them equally, so it doesn’t give us much help figuring out who was the first to succumb to bitterness.

Nonetheless, throughout the first half of Gone Girl Flynn works to gradually intensify our suspicion of Nick, making us wonder if he could possibly have flown into a blind rage and killed his wife before somehow dissociating himself from the memory of the crime. He gives the impression, for instance, that he’s trying to keep his affair with Andie secret from us, his readers and confessors, until he’s forced to come clean. Amy at one point reveals she was frightened enough of him to attempt to buy a gun. Nick also appears to have made a bunch of high-cost purchases with credit cards he denies ever having signed up for. Amy even bought extra life insurance a month or so before her disappearance—perhaps in response to some mysterious prompting from her husband. And there’s something weird about Nick’s relationship with his misogynist father, whose death from Alzheimer’s he’s eagerly awaiting. The second half of Gone Girl could have gone on to explore Nick’s psychosis and chronicle his efforts at escaping detection and capture. In that case, Flynn herself would have been surrendering to the pull of convention. But where she ends up going with her novel makes for a story that’s much more original—and, perhaps paradoxically, much more reflective of our modern societal values.

In one sense, the verdict about which character is truly to blame for the breakdown of the marriage is arbitrary. Marriages come apart at the seams because one or both partners no longer feel like they can be themselves all the time —affixing blame is little more than a postmortem exercise in recriminatory self-exculpation. If Gone Girl had been written as a literary instead of a genre work, it probably would have focused on the difficulty and ultimate pointlessness of figuring out whose subjective experiences were closest to reality, since our subjectivity is all we have to go on and our messy lives simply don’t lend themselves to clean narratives. But Flynn instead furnishes her thriller with an unmistakable and fantastically impressive villain, one whose aims and impulses so perfectly caricature the nastiest of our own that we can’t help elevating her to the ranks of our most beloved anti-heroes like Walter White and Frank Underwood (making me a little disappointed that David Fincher is making a movie out of the book instead of a cable or Netflix series).

Amy, we learn early in the novel, is not simply Amy but rather Amazing Amy, the inspiration for a series of wildly popular children’s books written by her parents, both of whom are child psychologists. The books are in fact the source of the money in the trust fund they had set up for her, and it is the lackluster sales of recent editions in the series, along with the spendthrift lifestyle they’d grown accustomed to, that drives them to ask for most of that money back. In the early chapters, Amy writes about how Amazing Amy often serves as a subtle rebuke from her parents, making good decisions in place of her bad ones, doing perfectly what she does ineptly. But later on we find out that the real Amy has nothing but contempt for her parents’ notions of what might constitute the ideal daughter. Far from worrying that she may not be living up to the standard set by her fictional counterpart, Amy feels the title of Amazing is part of her natural due. Indeed, when she first discovers Nick is cheating with Andie—a discovery she makes even before they sleep together the first time—what makes her the angriest about it is how mediocre it makes her seem. “I had a new persona,” she says, “not of my choosing. I was Average Dumb Woman Married to Average Shitty Man. He had single-handedly de-amazed Amazing Amy” (401).  

Normally, Amy does choose which persona she wants to take on; that is in fact the crucial power that makes her worthy of her superhero sobriquet. Most of us no longer want to read stories about women who become the tragic victims of their complicatedly sympathetic but monstrously damaged husbands. With Amy, Flynn turns that convention inside-out. While real life seldom offers even remotely satisfying resolutions to the rival PR campaigns at the heart of so many dissolving marriages, Amy confesses—or rather boasts—to us, her readers and fans, that she was the one who had been acting like someone else at the beginning of the relationship.

Nick loved me. A six-O kind of love: He looooooved me. But he didn’t love me, me. Nick loved a girl who doesn’t exist. I was pretending, the way I often did, pretending to have a personality. I can’t help it, it’s what I’ve always done: The way some women change fashion regularly, I change personalities. What persona feels good, what’s coveted, what’s au courant? I think most people do this, they just don’t admit it, or else they settle on one persona because they’re too lazy or stupid to pull off a switch. (382)

This ability of Amy’s to take on whatever role she deems suitable for her at the moment is complemented by her adeptness at using people’s—her victims’—stereotype-based expectations of women against them. Taken together with her capacity for harboring long-term grudges in response to even the most seemingly insignificant of slights, these powers make Amazing Amy a heroic paragon of postmodern feminism. The catch is that to pull off her grand deception of Nick, the police, and the nattering public, she has to be a complete psychopath.

Amy assumes the first of the personas we encounter, Diary Amy, through writing, and the story she tells, equal parts fiction and lying, takes us in so effectively because it reprises some of our culture’s most common themes. Beyond the diary, the overarching story of Gone Girl so perfectly subverts the conventional abuse narrative that it’s hard not to admire Amy for refusing to be a character in it. Even after she’s confessed to framing Nick for her murder, the culmination of a plan so deviously vindictive her insanity is beyond question, it’s hard not to root for her when she pits herself against Desi, a former classmate she dated while attending a posh prep school called Wickshire Academy. Desi serves as the ideal anti-villain for our amazing anti-heroine. Amy writes,

It’s good to have at least one man you can use for anything. Desi is a white-knight type. He loves troubled women. Over the years, after Wickshire, when we’d talk, I’d ask after his latest girlfriend, and no matter the girl, he would always say: “Oh, she’s not doing very well, unfortunately.” But I know it is fortunate for Desi—the eating disorders, the painkiller addictions, the crippling depressions. He’s never happier than when he’s at a bedside. Not in bed, just perched nearby with broth and juice and a gently starched voice. Poor darling. (551-2)

Though an eagerness to save troubled women may not seem so damning at first blush, we soon learn that Desi’s ministrations are motived more by the expectation of gratitude and the relinquishing of control than by any genuine proclivity toward altruism. After Amy shows up claiming she’s hiding from Nick, she quickly becomes a prisoner in Desi’s house. And the way he treats her, so solicitous, so patronizing, so creepy—you almost can’t wait for Amy to decide he’s outlived his usefulness.

From the Upcoming Movie
The struggle between Nick and Amy takes place against the backdrop of a society obsessed with celebrity and scandal. One of the things Nick is forced to learn, not to compete with Amy—which he’d never be able to do—but to merely survive, is to make himself sympathetic to people whose only contact with him is through the media. What Flynn conveys in depicting his efforts is the absurdity of trial by media. A daytime talk show host named Ellen Abbott—an obvious sendup of Nancy Grace—stirs her audience into a rage against Nick because he makes the mistake of forcing a smile in front of a camera. One of the effects of our media obsession is that we ceaselessly compare ourselves with characters in movies and TV. Nick finds himself at multiple points enacting scenes from cop shows, trying to act the familiar role of the innocent suspect. But he knows all the while that the story everyone is most familiar with, whether from fictional shows or those billed as nonfiction, is of the husband who tries to get away with murdering his wife.

 Being awash in stories featuring celebrities and, increasingly, real people who are supposed to be just like us wouldn’t have such a virulent impact if we weren’t driven to compete with all of them. But, whenever someone says you don’t want to be that guy, what they’re really saying is that you should be better than that guy. Most of the toggling between identities Amy does is for the purpose of outshining any would-be rivals. In one oddly revealing passage, she even claims that focusing on outcompeting other couples made her happier than trying to win her individual struggle against Nick:

I thought we would be the most perfect union: the happiest couple around. Not that love is a competition. But I don’t understand the point of being together if you’re not the happiest.
            I was probably happier for those few years—pretending to be someone else—than I ever have been before or after. I can’t decide what that means. (386-7)

The problem was that neither could maintain this focus on being the happiest couple because each found themselves competing against the other. It’s all well and good to look at how well your relationship works—how happy you both are in it—until some women you know start suggesting their husbands are more obedient than yours.

            The challenge that was unique to Amy—that wasn’t really at all unique to Amy—entailed transitioning from the persona she donned to attract Nick and persuade him to marry her to a persona that would allow her to be comfortably dominant in the marriage. The persona women use to first land their man Amy refers to as the Cool Girl.

Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow still maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding. Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want. Go ahead, shit on me, I don’t mind, I’m the Cool Girl. (383)

Amy is convinced Andie too is only pretending to be Cool Girl—because the Cool Girl can’t possibly exist. And the ire she directs at Nick arises out of her disappointment that he could believe the role she’d taken on was genuine.

I hated Nick for being surprised when I became me. I hated him for not knowing it had to end, for truly believing he had married this creature, this figment of the imagination of a million masturbatory men, semen-fingered and self-satisfied. (387)

Her reason for being contemptuous of women who keep trying to be the Cool Girl, the same reason she can’t bring herself to continue playing the role, is even more revealing. “If you let a man cancel plans or decline to do things for you,” she insists, “you lose.” She goes on to explain,

You don’t get what you want. It’s pretty clear. Sure, he may be happy, he may say you’re the coolest girl ever, but he’s saying it because he got his way. He’s calling you a Cool Girl to fool you! That’s what men do: They try to make it sound like you are the Cool Girl so you will bow to their wishes. Like a car salesman saying, How much do you want to pay for this beauty? when you didn’t agree to buy it yet. That awful phrase men use: “I mean, I know you wouldn’t mind if I…” Yes, I do mind. Just say it. Don’t lose, you dumb little twat. (387-8)

So Amy doesn’t want to be the one who loses any more than Nick wants to be that “sitcom-husband version” of himself, the toadie, the blunderer. And all either of them manages to accomplish by resisting is to make the other miserable.

            Gen-Xers like Nick and Amy were taught to dream big, to grow up and change the world, to put their minds to it and become whatever they most want to be. Then they grew up and realized they had to find a way to live with each other and make some sort of living—even though whatever spouse, whatever job, whatever life they settled for inevitably became a symbol of the great cosmic joke that had been played on them. From thinking you’d be a hero and change the world to being cheated on by the husband who should have known he wasn’t good enough for you in first place—it’s quite a distance to fall. And it’s easy to imagine how much more you could accomplish without the dead weight of a broken heart or the burden of a guilty conscience. All you have driving you on is your rage, even the worst of which flares up only for a few days or weeks at most before exhausting itself. Then you return to being the sad, wounded, abandoned, betrayed little critter you are. Not Amy, though. Amy was the butt of the same joke as the rest of us, though in her case it was even more sadistic. She was made to settle for a lesser life than she’d been encouraged to dream of just like the rest of us. She was betrayed just like the rest of us. But she suffers no pangs of guilt, no aching of a broken heart. And Amy’s rage is inexhaustible. She really can be whoever she wants—and she’s already busy becoming more than an amazing idea. 

Lab Flies: Joshua Greene’s Moral Tribes and the Contamination of Walter White

Walter White’s Moral Math

In an episode near the end of Breaking Bad’s fourth season, the drug kingpin Gus Fring gives his meth cook Walter White an ultimatum. Walt’s brother-in-law Hank is a DEA agent who has been getting close to discovering the high-tech lab Gus has created for Walt and his partner Jesse, and Walt, despite his best efforts, hasn’t managed to put him off the trail. Gus decides that Walt himself has likewise become too big a liability, and he has found that Jesse can cook almost as well as his mentor. The only problem for Gus is that Jesse, even though he too is fed up with Walt, will refuse to cook if anything happens to his old partner. So Gus has Walt taken at gunpoint to the desert where he tells him to stay away from both the lab and Jesse. Walt, infuriated, goads Gus with the fact that he’s failed to turn Jesse against him completely, to which Gus responds, “For now,” before going on to say,

In the meantime, there’s the matter of your brother-in-law. He is a problem you promised to resolve. You have failed. Now it’s left to me to deal with him. If you try to interfere, this becomes a much simpler matter. I will kill your wife. I will kill your son. I will kill your infant daughter.

In other words, Gus tells Walt to stand by and let Hank be killed or else he will kill his wife and kids. Once he’s released, Walt immediately has his lawyer Saul Goodman place an anonymous call to the DEA to warn them that Hank is in danger. Afterward, Walt plans to pay a man to help his family escape to a new location with new, untraceable identities—but he soon discovers the money he was going to use to pay the man has already been spent (by his wife Skyler). Now it seems all five of them are doomed. This is when things get really interesting.

            Walt devises an elaborate plan to convince Jesse to help him kill Gus. Jesse knows that Gus would prefer for Walt to be dead, and both Walt and Gus know that Jesse would go berserk if anyone ever tried to hurt his girlfriend’s nine-year-old son Brock. Walt’s plan is to make it look like Gus is trying to frame him for poisoning Brock with risin. The idea is that Jesse would suspect Walt of trying to kill Brock as punishment for Jesse betraying him and going to work with Gus. But Walt will convince Jesse that this is really just Gus’s ploy to trick Jesse into doing what he has forbidden Gus to do up till now—and kill Walt himself. Once Jesse concludes that it was Gus who poisoned Brock, he will understand that his new boss has to go, and he will accept Walt’s offer to help him perform the deed. Walt will then be able to get Jesse to give him the crucial information he needs about Gus to figure out a way to kill him.

It’s a brilliant plan. The one problem is that it involves poisoning a nine-year-old child. Walt comes up with an ingenious trick which allows him to use a less deadly poison while still making it look like Brock has ingested the ricin, but for the plan to work the boy has to be made deathly ill. So Walt is faced with a dilemma: if he goes through with his plan, he can save Hank, his wife, and his two kids, but to do so he has to deceive his old partner Jesse in just about the most underhanded way imaginable—and he has to make a young boy very sick by poisoning him, with the attendant risk that something will go wrong and the boy, or someone else, or everyone else, will die anyway. The math seems easy: either four people die, or one person gets sick. The option recommended by the math is greatly complicated, however, by the fact that it involves an act of violence against an innocent child.

In the end, Walt chooses to go through with his plan, and it works perfectly. In another ingenious move, though, this time on the part of the show’s writers, Walt’s deception isn’t revealed until after his plan has been successfully implemented, which makes for an unforgettable shock at the end of the season. Unfortunately, this revelation after the fact, at a time when Walt and his family are finally safe, makes it all too easy to forget what made the dilemma so difficult in the first place—and thus makes it all too easy to condemn Walt for resorting to such monstrous means to see his way through.

Joshua Greene
            Fans of Breaking Bad who read about the famous thought-experiment called the footbridge dilemma in Harvard psychologist Joshua Greene’s multidisciplinary and momentously important book Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap between Us and Them will immediately recognize the conflicting feelings underlying our responses to questions about serving some greater good by committing an act of violence. Here is how Greene describes the dilemma:

A runaway trolley is headed for five railway workmen who will be killed if it proceeds on its present course. You are standing on a footbridge spanning the tracks, in between the oncoming trolley and the five people. Next to you is a railway workman wearing a large backpack. The only way to save the five people is to push this man off the footbridge and onto the tracks below. The man will die as a result, but his body and backpack will stop the trolley from reaching the others. (You can’t jump yourself because you, without a backpack, are not big enough to stop the trolley, and there’s no time to put one on.) Is it morally acceptable to save the five people by pushing this stranger to his death? (113-4)

As was the case for Walter White when he faced his child-poisoning dilemma, the math is easy: you can save five people—strangers in this case—through a single act of violence. One of the fascinating things about common responses to the footbridge dilemma, though, is that the math is all but irrelevant to most of us; no matter how many people we might save, it’s hard for us to see past the murderous deed of pushing the man off the bridge. The answer for a large majority of people faced with this dilemma, even in the case of variations which put the number of people who would be saved much higher than five, is no, pushing the stranger to his death is not morally acceptable.

Another fascinating aspect of our responses is that they change drastically with the modification of a single detail in the hypothetical scenario. In the switch dilemma, a trolley is heading for five people again, but this time you can hit a switch to shift it onto another track where there happens to be a single person who would be killed. Though the math and the underlying logic are the same—you save five people by killing one—something about pushing a person off a bridge strikes us as far worse than pulling a switch. A large majority of people say killing the one person in the switch dilemma is acceptable. To figure out which specific factors account for the different responses, Greene and his colleagues tweak various minor details of the trolley scenario before posing the dilemma to test participants. By now, so many experiments have relied on these scenarios that Greene calls trolley dilemmas the fruit flies of the emerging field known as moral psychology.

The Automatic and Manual Modes of Moral Thinking

One hypothesis for why the footbridge case strikes us as unacceptable is that it involves using a human being as an instrument, a means to an end. So Greene and his fellow trolleyologists devised a variation called the loop dilemma, which still has participants pulling a hypothetical switch, but this time the lone victim on the alternate track must stop the trolley from looping back around onto the original track. In other words, you’re still hitting the switch to save the five people, but you’re also using a human being as a trolley stop. People nonetheless tend to respond to the loop dilemma in much the same way they do the switch dilemma. So there must be some factor other than the prospect of using a person as an instrument that makes the footbridge version so objectionable to us.

Greene’s own theory for why our intuitive responses to these dilemmas are so different begins with what Daniel Kahneman, one of the founders of behavioral economics, labeled the two-system model of the mind. The first system, a sort of autopilot, is the one we operate in most of the time. We only use the second system when doing things that require conscious effort, like multiplying 26 by 47. While system one is quick and intuitive, system two is slow and demanding. Greene proposes as an analogy the automatic and manual settings on a camera. System one is point-and-click; system two, though more flexible, requires several calibrations and adjustments. We usually only engage our manual systems when faced with circumstances that are either completely new or particularly challenging.

Tomkow.com
According to Greene’s model, our automatic settings have functions that go beyond the rapid processing of information to encompass our basic set of moral emotions, from indignation to gratitude, from guilt to outrage, which motivates us to behave in ways that over evolutionary history have helped our ancestors transcend their selfish impulses to live in cooperative societies. Greene writes,

According to the dual-process theory, there is an automatic setting that sounds the emotional alarm in response to certain kinds of harmful actions, such as the action in the footbridge case. Then there’s manual mode, which by its nature tends to think in terms of costs and benefits. Manual mode looks at all of these cases—switch, footbridge, and loop—and says “Five for one? Sounds like a good deal.” Because manual mode always reaches the same conclusion in these five-for-one cases (“Good deal!”), the trend in judgment for each of these cases is ultimately determined by the automatic setting—that is, by whether the myopic module sounds the alarm. (233)

What makes the dilemmas difficult then is that we experience them in two conflicting ways. Most of us, most of the time, follow the dictates of the automatic setting, which Greene describes as myopic because its speed and efficiency come at the cost of inflexibility and limited scope for extenuating considerations.

The reason our intuitive settings sound an alarm at the thought of pushing a man off a bridge but remain silent about hitting a switch, Greene suggests, is that our ancestors evolved to live in cooperative groups where some means of preventing violence between members had to be in place to avoid dissolution—or outright implosion. One of the dangers of living with a bunch of upright-walking apes who possess the gift of foresight is that any one of them could at any time be plotting revenge for some seemingly minor slight, or conspiring to get you killed so he can move in on your spouse or inherit your belongings. For a group composed of individuals with the capacity to hold grudges and calculate future gains to function cohesively, the members must have in place some mechanism that affords a modicum of assurance that no one will murder them in their sleep. Greene writes,

To keep one’s violent behavior in check, it would help to have some kind of internal monitor, an alarm system that says “Don’t do that!” when one is contemplating an act of violence. Such an action-plan inspector would not necessarily object to all forms of violence. It might shut down, for example, when it’s time to defend oneself or attack one’s enemies. But it would, in general, make individuals very reluctant to physically harm one another, thus protecting individuals from retaliation and, perhaps, supporting cooperation at the group level. My hypothesis is that the myopic module is precisely this action-plan inspecting system, a device for keeping us from being casually violent. (226)

Hitting a switch to transfer a train from one track to another seems acceptable, even though a person ends up being killed, because nothing our ancestors would have recognized as violence is involved.

Many philosophers cite our different responses to the various trolley dilemmas as support for deontological systems of morality—those based on the inherent rightness or wrongness of certain actions—since we intuitively know the choices suggested by a consequentialist approach are immoral. But Greene points out that this argument begs the question of how reliable our intuitions really are. He writes,

I’ve called the footbridge dilemma a moral fruit fly, and that analogy is doubly appropriate because, if I’m right, this dilemma is also a moral pest. It’s a highly contrived situation in which a prototypically violent action is guaranteed (by stipulation) to promote the greater good. The lesson that philosophers have, for the most part, drawn from this dilemma is that it’s sometimes deeply wrong to promote the greater good. However, our understanding of the dual-process moral brain suggests a different lesson: Our moral intuitions are generally sensible, but not infallible. As a result, it’s all but guaranteed that we can dream up examples that exploit the cognitive inflexibility of our moral intuitions. It’s all but guaranteed that we can dream up a hypothetical action that is actually good but that seems terribly, horribly wrong because it pushes our moral buttons. I know of no better candidate for this honor than the footbridge dilemma. (251)

The obverse is that many of the things that seem morally acceptable to us actually do cause harm to people. Greene cites the example of a man who lets a child drown because he doesn’t want to ruin his expensive shoes, which most people agree is monstrous, even though we think nothing of spending money on things we don’t really need when we could be sending that money to save sick or starving children in some distant country. Then there are crimes against the environment, which always seem to rank low on our list of priorities even though their future impact on real human lives could be devastating. We have our justifications for such actions or omissions, to be sure, but how valid are they really? Is distance really a morally relevant factor when we let children die? Does the diffusion of responsibility among so many millions change the fact that we personally could have a measurable impact?

These black marks notwithstanding, cooperation, and even a certain degree of altruism, come natural to us. To demonstrate this, Greene and his colleagues have devised some clever methods for separating test subjects’ intuitive responses from their more deliberate and effortful decisions. The experiments begin with a multi-participant exchange scenario developed by economic game theorists called the Public Goods Game, which has a number of anonymous players contribute to a common bank whose sum is then doubled and distributed evenly among them. Like the more famous game theory exchange known as the Prisoner’s Dilemma, the outcomes of the Public Goods Game reward cooperation, but only when a threshold number of fellow cooperators is reached. The flip side, however, is that any individual who decides to be stingy can get a free ride from everyone else’s contributions and make an even greater profit. What tends to happen is, over multiple rounds, the number of players opting for stinginess increases until the game is ruined for everyone, a process analogical to a phenomenon in economics known as the Tragedy of the Commons. Everyone wants to graze a few more sheep on the commons than can be sustained fairly, so eventually the grounds are left barren.

The Biological and Cultural Evolution of Morality

            Greene believes that humans evolved emotional mechanisms to prevent the various analogs of the Tragedy of the Commons from occurring so that we can live together harmoniously in tight-knit groups. The outcomes of multiple rounds of the Public Goods Game, for instance, tend to be far less dismal when players are given the opportunity to devote a portion of their own profits to punishing free riders. Most humans, it turns out, will be motivated by the emotion of anger to expend their own resources for the sake of enforcing fairness. Over several rounds, cooperation becomes the norm. Such an outcome has been replicated again and again, but researchers are always interested in factors that influence players’ strategies in the early rounds. Greene describes a series of experiments he conducted with David Rand and Martin Nowak, which were reported in an article in Nature in 2012. He writes,

…we conducted our own Public Goods Games, in which we forced some people to decide quickly (less than ten seconds) and forced others to decide slowly (more than ten seconds). As predicted, forcing people to decide faster made them more cooperative and forcing people to slow down made them less cooperative (more likely to free ride). In other experiments, we asked people, before playing the Public Goods Game, to write about a time in which their intuitions served them well, or about a time in which careful reasoning led them astray. Reflecting on the advantages of intuitive thinking (or the disadvantages of careful reflection) made people more cooperative. Likewise, reflecting on the advantages of careful reasoning (or the disadvantages of intuitive thinking) made people less cooperative. (62)

These results offer strong support for Greene’s dual-process theory of morality, and they even hint at the possibility that the manual mode is fundamentally selfish or amoral—in other words, that the philosophers have been right all along in deferring to human intuitions about right and wrong.

            As good as our intuitive moral sense is for preventing the Tragedy of the Commons, however, when given free rein in a society comprised of large groups of people who are strangers to one another, each with its own culture and priorities, our natural moral settings bring about an altogether different tragedy. Greene labels it the Tragedy of Commonsense Morality. He explains,

Morality evolved to enable cooperation, but this conclusion comes with an important caveat. Biologically speaking, humans were designed for cooperation, but only with some people. Our moral brains evolved for cooperation within groups, and perhaps only within the context of personal relationships. Our moral brains did not evolve for cooperation between groups (at least not all groups). (23)

Expanding on the story behind the Tragedy of the Commons, Greene describes what would happen if several groups, each having developed its own unique solution for making sure the commons were protected from overgrazing, were suddenly to come into contact with one another on a transformed landscape called the New Pastures. Each group would likely harbor suspicions against the others, and when it came time to negotiate a new set of rules to govern everybody the groups would all show a significant, though largely unconscious, bias in favor of their own members and their own ways.

            The origins of moral psychology as a field can be traced to both developmental and evolutionary psychology. Seminal research conducted at Yale’s Infant Cognition Center, led by Karen Wynn, Kiley Hamlin, and Paul Bloom (and which Bloom describes in a charming and highly accessible book called Just Babies), has demonstrated that children as young as six months possess what we can easily recognize as a rudimentary moral sense. These findings suggest that much of the behavior we might have previously ascribed to lessons learned from adults is actually innate. Experiments based on game theory scenarios and thought-experiments like the trolley dilemmas are likewise thought to tap into evolved patterns of human behavior. Yet when University of British Columbia psychologist Joseph Henrich teamed up with several anthropologists to see how people living in various small-scale societies responded to game theory scenarios like the Prisoner’s Dilemma and the Public Goods Game they discovered a great deal of variation. On the one hand, then, human moral intuitions seem to be rooted in emotional responses present at, or at least close to, birth, but on the other hand cultures vary widely in their conventional responses to classic dilemmas. These differences between cultural conceptions of right and wrong are in large part responsible for the conflict Greene envisions in his Parable of the New Pastures.
Joseph Henrich

But how can a moral sense be both innate and culturally variable?  “As you might expect,” Greene explains, “the way people play these games reflects the way they live.” People in some cultures rely much more heavily on cooperation to procure their sustenance, as is the case with the Lamelara of Indonesia, who live off the meat of whales they hunt in groups. Cultures also vary in how much they rely on market economies as opposed to less abstract and less formal modes of exchange. Just as people adjust the way they play economic games in response to other players’ moves, people acquire habits of cooperation based on the circumstances they face in their particular societies. Regarding the differences between small-scale societies in common game theory strategies, Greene writes,

Henrich and colleagues found that payoffs to cooperation and market integration explain more than two thirds of the variation across these cultures. A more recent study shows that, across societies, market integration is an excellent predictor of altruism in the Dictator Game. At the same time, many factors that you might expect to be important predictors of cooperative behavior—things like an individual’s sex, age, and relative wealth, or the amount of money at stake—have little predictive power. (72)

In much the same way humans are programmed to learn a language and acquire a set of religious beliefs, they also come into the world with a suite of emotional mechanisms that make up the raw material for what will become a culturally calibrated set of moral intuitions. The specific language and religion we end up with is of course dependent on the social context of our upbringing, just as our specific moral settings will reflect those of other people in the societies we grow up in.

Jonathan Haidt and Tribal Righteousness

Jonathan Haidt
In our modern industrial society, we actually have some degree of choice when it comes to our cultural affiliations, and this freedom opens the way for heritable differences between individuals to play a larger role in our moral development. Such differences are nowhere as apparent as in the realm of politics, where nearly all citizens occupy some point on a continuum between conservative and liberal. According to Greene’s fellow moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt, we have precious little control over our moral responses because, in his view, reason only comes into play to justify actions and judgments we’ve already made. In his fascinating 2012 book The Righteous Mind, Haidt insists,

Moral reasoning is part of our lifelong struggle to win friends and influence people. That’s why I say that “intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second.” You’ll misunderstand moral reasoning if you think about it as something people do by themselves in order to figure out the truth. (50)

To explain the moral divide between right and left, Haidt points to the findings of his own research on what he calls Moral Foundations, six dimensions underlying our intuitions about moral and immoral actions. Conservatives tend to endorse judgments based on all six of the foundations, valuing loyalty, authority, and sanctity much more than liberals, who focus more exclusively on care for the disadvantaged, fairness, and freedom from oppression. Since our politics emerge from our moral intuitions and reason merely serves as a sort of PR agent to rationalize judgments after the fact, Haidt enjoins us to be more accepting of rival political groups— after all, you can’t reason with them. 

            Greene objects both to Haidt’s Moral Foundations theory and to his prescription for a politics of complementarity. The responses to questions representing all the moral dimensions in Haidt’s studies form two clusters on a graph, Greene points out, not six, suggesting that the differences between conservatives and liberals are attributable to some single overarching variable as opposed to several individual tendencies. Furthermore, the specific content of the questions Haidt uses to flesh out the values of his respondents have a critical limitation. Greene writes,

According to Haidt, American social conservatives place greater value on respect for authority, and that’s true in a sense. Social conservatives feel less comfortable slapping their fathers, even as a joke, and so on. But social conservatives do not respect authority in a general way. Rather, they have great respect for authorities recognized by their tribe (from the Christian God to various religious and political leaders to parents). American social conservatives are not especially respectful of Barack Hussein Obama, whose status as a native-born American, and thus a legitimate president, they have persistently challenged. (339)

The same limitation applies to the loyalty and sanctity foundations. Conservatives feel little loyalty toward the atheists and Muslims among their fellow Americans. Nor do they recognize the sanctity of Mosques or Hindu holy texts. Greene goes on,

American social conservatives are not best described as people who place special value on authority, sanctity, and loyalty, but rather as tribal loyalists—loyal to their own authorities, their own religion, and themselves. This doesn’t make them evil, but it does make them parochial, tribal. In this they’re akin to the world’s other socially conservative tribes, from the Taliban in Afghanistan to European nationalists. According to Haidt, liberals should be more open to compromise with social conservatives. I disagree. In the short term, compromise may be necessary, but in the long term, our strategy should not be to compromise with tribal moralists, but rather to persuade them to be less tribalistic. (340)

Greene believes such persuasion is possible, even with regard to emotionally and morally charged controversies, because he sees our manual-mode thinking as playing a potentially much greater role than Haidt sees it playing.

Metamorality on the New Pastures

            Throughout The Righteous Mind, Haidt argues that the moral philosophers who laid the foundations of modern liberal and academic conceptions of right and wrong gave short shrift to emotions and intuitions—that they gave far too much credit to our capacity for reason. To be fair, Haidt does honor the distinction between descriptive and prescriptive theories of morality, but he nonetheless gives the impression that he considers liberal morality to be somewhat impoverished. Greene sees this attitude as thoroughly wrongheaded. Responding to Haidt’s metaphor comparing his Moral Foundations to taste buds—with the implication that the liberal palate is more limited in the range of flavors it can appreciate—Greene writes,

The great philosophers of the Enlightenment wrote at a time when the world was rapidly shrinking, forcing them to wonder whether their own laws, their own traditions, and their own God(s) were any better than anyone else’s. They wrote at a time when technology (e.g., ships) and consequent economic productivity (e.g., global trade) put wealth and power into the hands of a rising educated class, with incentives to question the traditional authorities of king and church. Finally, at this time, natural science was making the world comprehensible in secular terms, revealing universal natural laws and overturning ancient religious doctrines. Philosophers wondered whether there might also be universal moral laws, ones that, like Newton’s law of gravitation, applied to members of all tribes, whether or not they knew it. Thus, the Enlightenment philosophers were not arbitrarily shedding moral taste buds. They were looking for deeper, universal moral truths, and for good reason. They were looking for moral truths beyond the teachings of any particular religion and beyond the will of any earthly king. They were looking for what I’ve called a metamorality: a pan-tribal, or post-tribal, philosophy to govern life on the new pastures. (338-9)

While Haidt insists we must recognize the centrality of intuitions even in this civilization nominally ruled by reason, Greene points out that it was skepticism of old, seemingly unassailable and intuitive truths that opened up the world and made modern industrial civilization possible in the first place.  

            As Haidt explains, though, conservative morality serves people well in certain regards. Christian churches, for instance, encourage charity and foster a sense of community few secular institutions can match. But these advantages at the level of parochial groups have to be weighed against the problems tribalism inevitably leads to at higher levels. This is, in fact, precisely the point Greene created his Parable of the New Pastures to make. He writes,

The Tragedy of the Commons is averted by a suite of automatic settings—moral emotions that motivate and stabilize cooperation within limited groups. But the Tragedy of Commonsense Morality arises because of automatic settings, because different tribes have different automatic settings, causing them to see the world through different moral lenses. The Tragedy of the Commons is a tragedy of selfishness, but the Tragedy of Commonsense Morality is a tragedy of moral inflexibility. There is strife on the new pastures not because herders are hopelessly selfish, immoral, or amoral, but because they cannot step outside their respective moral perspectives. How should they think? The answer is now obvious: They should shift into manual mode. (172)

Greene argues that whenever we, as a society, are faced with a moral controversy—as with issues like abortion, capital punishment, and tax policy—our intuitions will not suffice because our intuitions are the very basis of our disagreement.

Emily Nussbaum
            Watching the conclusion to season four of Breaking Bad, most viewers probably responded to finding out that Walt had poisoned Brock by thinking that he’d become a monster—at least at first. Indeed, the currently dominant academic approach to art criticism involves taking a stance, both moral and political, with regard to a work’s models and messages. Writing for The New Yorker, Emily Nussbaum, for instance, disparages viewers of Breaking Bad for failing to condemn Walt, writing,

When Brock was near death in the I.C.U., I spent hours arguing with friends about who was responsible. To my surprise, some of the most hard-nosed cynics thought it inconceivable that it could be Walt—that might make the show impossible to take, they said. But, of course, it did nothing of the sort. Once the truth came out, and Brock recovered, I read posts insisting that Walt was so discerning, so careful with the dosage, that Brock could never have died. The audience has been trained by cable television to react this way: to hate the nagging wives, the dumb civilians, who might sour the fun of masculine adventure. “Breaking Bad” increases that cognitive dissonance, turning some viewers into not merely fans but enablers. (83)

To arrive at such an assessment, Nussbaum must reduce the show to the impact she assumes it will have on less sophisticated fans’ attitudes and judgments. But the really troubling aspect of this type of criticism is that it encourages scholars and critics to indulge their impulse toward self-righteousness when faced with challenging moral dilemmas; in other words, it encourages them to give voice to their automatic modes precisely when they should be shifting to manual mode. Thus, Nussbaum neglects outright the very details that make Walt’s scenario compelling, completely forgetting that by making Brock sick—and, yes, risking his life—he was able to save Hank, Skyler, and his own two children.

But how should we go about arriving at a resolution to moral dilemmas and political controversies if we agree we can’t always trust our intuitions? Greene believes that, while our automatic modes recognize certain acts as wrong and certain others as a matter of duty to perform, in keeping with deontological ethics, whenever we switch to manual mode, the focus shifts to weighing the relative desirability of each option's outcomes. In other words, manual mode thinking is consequentialist. And, since we tend to assess outcomes according their impact on other people, favoring those that improve the quality of their experiences the most, or detract from it the least, Greene argues that whenever we slow down and think through moral dilemmas deliberately we become utilitarians. He writes,

If I’m right, this convergence between what seems like the right moral philosophy (from a certain perspective) and what seems like the right moral psychology (from a certain perspective) is no accident. If I’m right, Bentham and Mill did something fundamentally different from all of their predecessors, both philosophically and psychologically. They transcended the limitations of commonsense morality by turning the problem of morality (almost) entirely over to manual mode. They put aside their inflexible automatic settings and instead asked two very abstract questions. First: What really matters? Second: What is the essence of morality? They concluded that experience is what ultimately matters, and that impartiality is the essence of morality. Combing these two ideas, we get utilitarianism: We should maximize the quality of our experience, giving equal weight to the experience of each person. (173)

If you cite an authority recognized only by your own tribe—say, the Bible—in support of a moral argument, then members of other tribes will either simply discount your position or counter it with pronouncements by their own authorities. If, on the other hand, you argue for a law or a policy by citing evidence that implementing it would mean longer, healthier, happier lives for the citizens it affects, then only those seeking to establish the dominion of their own tribe can discount your position (which of course isn’t to say they can’t offer rival interpretations of your evidence).

            If we turn commonsense morality on its head and evaluate the consequences of giving our intuitions priority over utilitarian accounting, we can find countless circumstances in which being overly moral is to everyone’s detriment. Ideas of justice and fairness allow far too much space for selfish and tribal biases, whereas the math behind mutually optimal outcomes based on compromise tends to be harder to fudge. Greene reports, for instance, the findings of a series of experiments conducted by Fieke Harinick and colleagues at the University of Amsterdam in 2000. Negotiations by lawyers representing either the prosecution or the defense were told to either focus on serving justice or on getting the best outcome for their clients. The negotiations in the first condition almost always came to loggerheads. Greene explains,

Thus, two selfish and rational negotiators who see that their positions are symmetrical will be willing to enlarge the pie, and then split the pie evenly. However, if negotiators are seeking justice, rather than merely looking out for their bottom lines, then other, more ambiguous, considerations come into play, and with them the opportunity for biased fairness. Maybe your clients really deserve lighter penalties. Or maybe the defendants you’re prosecuting really deserve stiffer penalties. There is a range of plausible views about what’s truly fair in these cases, and you can choose among them to suit your interests. By contrast, if it’s just a matter of getting the best deal you can from someone who’s just trying to get the best deal for himself, there’s a lot less wiggle room, and a lot less opportunity for biased fairness to create an impasse. (88)

Framing an argument as an effort to establish who was right and who was wrong is like drawing a line in the sand—it activates tribal attitudes pitting us against them, while treating negotiations more like an economic exchange circumvents these tribal biases.

Challenges to Utilitarianism

But do we really want to suppress our automatic moral reactions in favor of deliberative accountings of the greatest good for the greatest number? Deontologists have posed some effective challenges to utilitarianism in the form of thought-experiments that seem to show efforts to improve the quality of experiences would lead to atrocities. For instance, Greene recounts how in a high school debate, he was confronted by a hypothetical surgeon who could save five sick people by killing one healthy one. Then there’s the so-called Utility Monster, who experiences such happiness when eating humans that it quantitatively outweighs the suffering of those being eaten. More down-to-earth examples feature a scapegoat convicted of a crime to prevent rioting by people who are angry about police ineptitude, and the use of torture to extract information from a prisoner that could prevent a terrorist attack. The most influential challenge to utilitarianism, however, was leveled by the political philosopher John Rawls when he pointed out that it could be used to justify the enslavement of a minority by a majority.

Greene’s responses to these criticisms make up one of the most surprising, important, and fascinating parts of Moral Tribes. First, highly contrived thought-experiments about Utility Monsters and circumstances in which pushing a guy off a bridge is guaranteed to stop a trolley may indeed prove that utilitarianism is not true in any absolute sense. But whether or not such moral absolutes even exist is a contentious issue in its own right. Greene explains,

I am not claiming that utilitarianism is the absolute moral truth. Instead I’m claiming that it’s a good metamorality, a good standard for resolving moral disagreements in the real world. As long as utilitarianism doesn’t endorse things like slavery in the real world, that’s good enough. (275-6)

One source of confusion regarding the slavery issue is the equation of happiness with money; slave owners probably could make profits in excess of the losses sustained by the slaves. But money is often a poor index of happiness. Greene underscores this point by asking us to consider how much someone would have to pay us to sell ourselves into slavery. “In the real world,” he writes, “oppression offers only modest gains in happiness to the oppressors while heaping misery upon the oppressed” (284-5).

            Another failing of the thought-experiments thought to undermine utilitarianism is the shortsightedness of the supposedly obvious responses. The crimes of the murderous doctor and the scapegoating law officers may indeed produce short-term increases in happiness, but if the secret gets out healthy and innocent people will live in fear, knowing they can’t trust doctors and law officers. The same logic applies to the objection that utilitarianism would force us to become infinitely charitable, since we can almost always afford to be more generous than we currently are. But how long could we serve as so-called happiness pumps before burning out, becoming miserable, and thus lose the capacity for making anyone else happier? Greene writes,

If what utilitarianism asks of you seems absurd, then it’s not what utilitarianism actually asks of you. Utilitarianism is, once again, an inherently practical philosophy, and there’s nothing more impractical than commanding free people to do things that strike them as absurd and that run counter to their most basic motivations. Thus, in the real world, utilitarianism is demanding, but not overly demanding. It can accommodate our basic human needs and motivations, but it nonetheless calls for substantial reform of our selfish habits. (258)

Greene seems to be endorsing what philosophers call "rule utilitarianism." We can approach every choice by calculating the likely outcomes, but as a society we would be better served deciding on some rules for everyone to adhere to. It just may be possible for a doctor to increase happiness through murder in a particular set of circumstances—but most people would vociferously object to a rule legitimizing the practice.

            The concept of human rights may present another challenge to Greene in his championing of consequentialism over deontology. It is our duty, after all, to recognize the rights of every human, and we ourselves have no right to disregard someone else’s rights no matter what benefit we believe might result from doing so. In his book The Better Angels of our Nature, Steven Pinker, Greene’s colleague at Harvard, attributes much of the steep decline in rates of violent death over the past three centuries to a series of what he calls Rights Revolutions, the first of which began during the Enlightenment. But the problem with arguments that refer to rights, Greene explains, is that controversies arise for the very reason that people don’t agree which rights we should recognize. He writes,

Thus, appeals to “rights” function as an intellectual free pass, a trump card that renders evidence irrelevant. Whatever you and your fellow tribespeople feel, you can always posit the existence of a right that corresponds to your feelings. If you feel that abortion is wrong, you can talk about a “right to life.” If you feel that outlawing abortion is wrong, you can talk about a “right to choose.” If you’re Iran, you can talk about your “nuclear rights,” and if you’re Israel you can talk about your “right to self-defense.” “Rights” are nothing short of brilliant. They allow us to rationalize our gut feelings without doing any additional work. (302)

The only way to resolve controversies over which rights we should actually recognize and which rights we should prioritize over others, Greene argues, is to apply utilitarian reasoning.

Ideology and Epistemology

            In his discussion of the proper use of the language of rights, Greene comes closer than in other section of Moral Tribes to explicitly articulating what strikes me as the most revolutionary idea that he and his fellow moral psychologists are suggesting—albeit as of yet only implicitly. In his advocacy for what he calls “deep pragmatism,” Greene isn’t merely applying evolutionary theories to an old philosophical debate; he’s actually posing a subtly different question. The numerous thought-experiments philosophers use to poke holes in utilitarianism may not have much relevance in the real world—but they do undermine any claim utilitarianism may have on absolute moral truth. Greene’s approach is therefore to eschew any effort to arrive at absolute truths, including truths pertaining to rights. Instead, in much the same way scientists accept that our knowledge of the natural world is mediated by theories, which only approach the truth asymptotically, never capturing it with any finality, Greene intimates that the important task in the realm of moral philosophy isn’t to arrive at a full accounting of moral truths but rather to establish a process for resolving moral and political dilemmas.

What’s needed, in other words, isn’t a rock solid moral ideology but a workable moral epistemology. And, just as empiricism serves as the foundation of the epistemology of science, Greene makes a convincing case that we could use utilitarianism as the basis of an epistemology of morality. Pursuing the analogy between scientific and moral epistemologies even farther, we can compare theories, which stand or fall according to their empirical support, to individual human rights, which we afford and affirm according to their impact on the collective happiness of every individual in the society. Greene writes,

If we are truly interested in persuading our opponents with reason, then we should eschew the language of rights. This is, once again, because we have no non-question-begging (and utilitarian) way of figuring out which rights really exist and which rights take precedence over others. But when it’s not worth arguing—either because the question has been settled or because our opponents can’t be reasoned with—then it’s time to start rallying the troops. It’s time to affirm our moral commitments, not with wonky estimates of probabilities but with words that stir our souls. (308-9)

Rights may be the closest thing we have to moral truths, just as theories serve as our stand-ins for truths about the natural world, but even more important than rights or theories are the processes we rely on to establish and revise them.

A New Theory of Narrative

            As if a philosophical revolution weren’t enough, moral psychology is also putting in place what could be the foundation of a new understanding of the role of narratives in human lives. At the heart of every story is a conflict between competing moral ideals. In commercial fiction, there tends to be a character representing each side of the conflict, and audiences can be counted on to favor one side over the other—the good, altruistic guys over the bad, selfish guys. In more literary fiction, on the other hand, individual characters are faced with dilemmas pitting various modes of moral thinking against each other. In season one of Breaking Bad, for instance, Walter White famously writes a list on a notepad of the pros and cons of murdering the drug dealer restrained in Jesse’s basement. Everyone, including Walt, feels that killing the man is wrong, but if they let him go Walt and his family will at risk of retaliation. This dilemma is in fact quite similar to ones he faces in each of the following seasons, right up until he has to decide whether or not to poison Brock. Trying to work out what Walt should do, and anxiously anticipating what he will do, are mental exercises few can help engaging in as they watch the show.

            The current reigning conception of narrative in academia explains the appeal of stories by suggesting it derives from their tendency to fulfill conscious and unconscious desires, most troublesomely our desires to have our prejudices reinforced. We like to see men behaving in ways stereotypically male, women stereotypically female, minorities stereotypically black or Hispanic, and so on. Cultural products like works of art, and even scientific findings, are embraced, the reasoning goes, because they cement the hegemony of various dominant categories of people within the society. This tradition in arts scholarship and criticism can in large part be traced back to psychoanalysis, but it has developed over the last century to incorporate both the predominant view of language in the humanities and the cultural determinism espoused by many scholars in the service of various forms of identity politics. 

            The postmodern ideology that emerged from the convergence of these schools is marked by a suspicion that science is often little more than a veiled effort at buttressing the political status quo, and its preeminent thinkers deliberately set themselves apart from the humanist and Enlightenment traditions that held sway in academia until the middle of the last century by writing in byzantine, incoherent prose. Even though there could be no rational way either to support or challenge postmodern ideas, scholars still take them as cause for leveling accusations against both scientists and storytellers of using their work to further reactionary agendas.

            For anyone who recognizes the unparalleled power of science both to advance our understanding of the natural world and to improve the conditions of human lives, postmodernism stands out as a catastrophic wrong turn, not just in academic history but in the moral evolution of our civilization. The equation of narrative with fantasy is a bizarre fantasy in its own right. Attempting to explain the appeal of a show like Breaking Bad by suggesting that viewers have an unconscious urge to be diagnosed with cancer and to subsequently become drug manufacturers is symptomatic of intractable institutional delusion. And, as Pinker recounts in Better Angels, literature, and novels in particular, were likely instrumental in bringing about the shift in consciousness toward greater compassion for greater numbers of people that resulted in the unprecedented decline in violence beginning in the second half of the nineteenth century.

Yet, when it comes to arts scholarship, postmodernism is just about the only game in town. Granted, the writing in this tradition has progressed a great deal toward greater clarity, but the focus on identity politics has intensified to the point of hysteria: you’d be hard-pressed to find a major literary figure who hasn’t been accused of misogyny at one point or another, and any scientist who dares study something like gender differences can count on having her motives questioned and her work lampooned by well intentioned, well indoctrinated squads of well-poisoning liberal wags.

            When Emily Nussbaum complains about viewers of Breaking Bad being lulled by the “masculine adventure” and the digs against “nagging wives” into becoming enablers of Walt’s bad behavior, she’s doing exactly what so many of us were taught to do in academic courses on literary and film criticism, applying a postmodern feminist ideology to the show—and completely missing the point. As the series opens, Walt is deliberately portrayed as downtrodden and frustrated, and Skyler’s bullying is an important part of that dynamic. But the pleasure of watching the show doesn’t come so much from seeing Walt get out from under Skyler’s thumb—he never really does—as it does from anticipating and fretting over how far Walt will go in his criminality, goaded on by all that pent-up frustration. Walt shows a similar concern for himself, worrying over what effect his exploits will have on who he is and how he will be remembered. We see this in season three when he becomes obsessed by the “contamination” of his lab—which turns out to be no more than a house fly—and at several other points as well. Viewers are not concerned with Walt because he serves as an avatar acting out their fantasies (or else the show would have a lot more nude scenes with the principal of the school he teaches in). They’re concerned because, at least at the beginning of the show, he seems to be a good person and they can sympathize with his tribulations.

The much more solidly grounded view of narrative inspired by moral psychology suggests that common themes in fiction are not reflections or reinforcements of some dominant culture, but rather emerge from aspects of our universal human psychology. Our feelings about characters, according to this view, aren’t determined by how well they coincide with our abstract prejudices; on the contrary, we favor the types of people in fiction we would favor in real life. Indeed, if the story is any good, we will have to remind ourselves that the people whose lives we’re tracking really are fictional. Greene doesn’t explore the intersection between moral psychology and narrative in Moral Tribes, but he does give a nod to what we can only hope will be a burgeoning field when he writes, 

Nowhere is our concern for how others treat others more apparent than in our intense engagement with fiction. Were we purely selfish, we wouldn’t pay good money to hear a made-up story about a ragtag group of orphans who use their street smarts and quirky talents to outfox a criminal gang. We find stories about imaginary heroes and villains engrossing because they engage our social emotions, the ones that guide our reactions to real-life cooperators and rogues. We are not disinterested parties. (59)

Many people ask why we care so much about people who aren’t even real, but we only ever reflect on the fact that what we’re reading or viewing is a simulation when we’re not sufficiently engrossed by it.

            Was Nussbaum completely wrong to insist that Walt went beyond the pale when he poisoned Brock? She certainly showed the type of myopia Greene attributes to the automatic mode by forgetting Walt saved at least four lives by endangering the one. But most viewers probably had a similar reaction. The trouble wasn’t that she was appalled; it was that her postmodernism encouraged her to unquestioningly embrace and give voice to her initial feelings. Greene writes, 

It’s good that we’re alarmed by acts of violence. But the automatic emotional gizmos in our brains are not infinitely wise. Our moral alarm systems think that the difference between pushing and hitting a switch is of great moral significance. More important, our moral alarm systems see no difference between self-serving murder and saving a million lives at the cost of one. It’s a mistake to grant these gizmos veto power in our search for a universal moral philosophy. (253)

Greene doesn’t reveal whether he’s a Breaking Bad fan or not, but his discussion of the footbridge dilemma gives readers a good indication of how he’d respond to Walt’s actions.

If you don’t feel that it’s wrong to push the man off the footbridge, there’s something wrong with you. I, too, feel that it’s wrong, and I doubt that I could actually bring myself to push, and I’m glad that I’m like this. What’s more, in the real world, not pushing would almost certainly be the right decision. But if someone with the best of intentions were to muster the will to push the man off the footbridge, knowing for sure that it would save five lives, and knowing for sure that there was no better alternative, I would approve of this action, although I might be suspicious of the person who chose to perform it. (251)

The overarching theme of Breaking Bad, which Nussbaum fails utterly to comprehend, is the transformation of a good man into a bad one. When he poisons Brock, we’re glad he succeeded in saving his family, some of us are even okay with methods, but we’re worried—suspicious even—about what his ability to go through with it says about him. Over the course of the series, we’ve found ourselves rooting for Walt, and we’ve come to really like him. We don’t want to see him break too bad. And however bad he does break we can’t help hoping for his redemption. Since he’s a valuable member of our tribe, we’re loath to even consider it might be time to start thinking he has to go.




Nice Guys with Nothing to Say: Brett Martin’s Difficulty with “Difficult Men” and the Failure of Arts Scholarship

With his book Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From “The Sopranos” and “The Wire” to “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad”, Brett Martin shows that you can apply the whole repertoire of analytic tools furnished by contemporary scholarship in the arts to a cultural phenomenon without arriving at anything even remotely approaching an insight. Which isn’t to say the book isn’t worth reading: if you’re interested in the backstories of how cable TV series underwent their transformation to higher production quality, film-grade acting and directing, greater realism, and multiple, intricately interlocking plotlines, along with all the gossip surrounding the creators and stars, then you’ll be delighted to discover how good Martin is at delivering the dish. 

He had excellent access to some of the showrunners, seems to know everything about the ones he didn’t have access to anyway, and has a keen sense for the watershed moments in shows—as when Tony Soprano snuck away from scouting out a college with his daughter Meadow to murder a man, unceremoniously, with a smile on his face, despite the fears of HBO executives that audiences would turn against the lead character for doing so. And Difficult Men is in no way a difficult read. Martin’s prose is clever without calling too much attention to itself. His knowledge of history and pop culture rivals that of anyone in the current cohort of hipster sophisticates. And his enthusiasm for the topic radiates off the pages while not marring his objectivity with fanboyism. But if you’re more interested in the broader phenomenon of unforgivable male characters audiences can’t help loving you’ll have to look elsewhere for any substantive discussion of it.

Brett Martin
Difficult Men would have benefited from Martin being a more difficult man himself. Instead, he seems at several points to be apologizing on behalf of the show creators and their creations, simultaneously ecstatic at the unfettering of artistic freedom and skittish whenever bumping up against questions about what the resulting shows are reflecting about artists and audiences alike. He celebrates the shows’ shucking off of political correctness even as he goes out of his way to brandish his own PC bona fides. With regard to his book’s focus on men, for instance, he writes,

Though a handful of women play hugely influential roles in this narrative—as writers, actors, producers, and executives—there aren’t enough of them. Not only were the most important shows of the era run by men, they were also largely about manhood—in particular the contours of male power and the infinite varieties of male combat.
Why that was had something to do with a cultural landscape still awash in postfeminist dislocation and confusion about exactly what being a man meant. (13)

Martin throws multiple explanations at the centrality of “male combat” in high-end series, but the basic fact that he suggests accounts for the prevalence of this theme across so many shows in TV’s Third Golden Age is that most of the artists working on the shows are afflicted with the same preoccupations.

In other words, middle-aged men predominated because middle-aged men had the power to create them. And certainly the autocratic power of the showrunner-auteur scratches a peculiarly masculine itch. (13)

Never mind that women make up a substantial portion of the viewership. If it ever occurred to Martin that this alleged “masculine itch” may have something to do with why men outnumber women in high-stakes competitive fields like TV scriptwriting, he knew better than to put the suspicion in writing.

            The centrality of dominant and volatile male characters in America’s latest creative efflorescence is in many ways a repudiation of the premises underlying the scholarship of the decades leading up to it. With women moving into the workplace after the Second World War, and with the rise of feminism in the 1970s, the stage was set for an experiment in how malleable human culture really was with regard to gender roles. How much change did society’s tastes undergo in the latter half of the twentieth century? Despite his emphasis on “postfeminist dislocation” as a factor in the appeal of TV’s latest crop of bad boys, Martin is savvy enough to appreciate these characters’ long pedigree, up to a point. He writes of Tony Soprano, for instance,

In his self-absorption, his horniness, his alternating cruelty and regret, his gnawing unease, Tony was, give or take Prozac and one or two murders, a direct descendant of Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom. In other words, the American Everyman. (84)

According to the rules of modern criticism, it’s okay to trace creative influences along their historical lineages. And Martin is quite good at situating the Third Golden Age in its historical and technological context:

The ambition and achievement of these shows went beyond the simple notion of “television getting good.” The open-ended, twelve- or thirteen-episode serialized drama was maturing into its own, distinct art form. What’s more, it had become the signature American art form of the first decade of the twenty-first century, the equivalent of what the films of Scorsese, Altman, Coppola, and others had been to the 1970s or the novels of Updike, Roth, and Mailer had been to the 1960s. (11)

What you’re not allowed to do, however—and what Martin knows better than to try to get away with—is notice that all those male filmmakers and novelists of the 60s and 70s were dealing with the same themes as the male showrunners Martin is covering. Is this pre-feminist dislocation? Mad Men could’ve featured Don Draper reading Rabbit, Run right after it was published in 1960. In fact, Don bears nearly as much resemblance to the main character of what was arguably the first novel ever written, The Tale of Genji, by the eleventh-century Japanese noblewoman, Murasaki Shikibu, as Tony Soprano bears to Rabbit Angstrom.

            Missed connections, tautologies, and non sequiturs abound whenever Martin attempts to account for the resonance of a particular theme or show, and at points his groping after insight is downright embarrassing. Difficult Men, as good as it is on history and the politicking of TV executives, can serve as a case study in the utter banality and logical bankruptcy of scholarly approaches to discussing the arts. These politically and academically sanctioned approaches can be summed up concisely, without scanting any important nuances, in the space of paragraph. While any proposed theory about average gender differences with biological bases must be strenuously and vociferously criticized and dismissed (and its proponents demonized without concern for fairness), any posited connection between a popular theme and contemporary social or political issues is seen not just as acceptable but as automatically plausible, to the point where after drawing the connection the writer need provide no further evidence whatsoever.

One of several explanations Martin throws out for the appeal of characters like Tony Soprano and Don Draper, for instance, is that they helped liberal HBO and AMC subscribers cope with having a president like George W. Bush in office. “This was the ascendant Right being presented to the disempowered Left—as if to reassure it that those in charge were still recognizably human” (87). But most of Mad Men’s run, and Breaking Bad’s too, has been under a President Obama. This doesn’t present a problem for Martin’s analysis, though, because there’s always something going on in the world that can be said to resonate with a show’s central themes. Of Breaking Bad, he writes,

Like The Sopranos, too, it uncannily anticipated a national mood soon to be intensified by current events—in this case the great economic unsettlement of the late aughts, which would leave many previously secure middle-class Americans suddenly feeling like desperate outlaws in their own suburbs. (272)

If this strikes you as comically facile, I can assure you that were the discussion taking place in the context of an explanation proposed by a social scientist, writers like Martin would be falling all over themselves trying to be the first to explain the danger of conflating correlation with causation, whether the scientist actually made that mistake or not.

            But arts scholarship isn’t limited to this type of socio-historical loose association because at some point you simply can’t avoid bringing individual artists, characters, and behind-the-scenes players into the discussion. Even when it comes to a specific person or character’s motivation, though, it’s important to focus on upbringing in a given family and sociopolitical climate as opposed to any general trend in human psychology. This willful blindness becomes most problematic when Martin tries to identify commonalities shared by all the leading men in the shows he’s discussing. He writes, for example,

All of them strove, awkwardly at times, for connection, occasionally finding it in glimpses and fragments, but as often getting blocked by their own vanities, their fears, and their accumulated past crimes. (189-90)

This is the closest Martin comes to a valid insight into difficult men in the entire book. The problem is that the rule against recognizing trends in human nature has made him blind to the applicability of this observation to pretty much everyone in the world. You could use this passage as a cold read and convince people you’re a psychic.

            So far, our summation of contemporary arts scholarship includes a rule against referring to human nature and an injunction to focus instead on sociopolitical factors, no matter how implausible their putative influence. But the allowance for social forces playing a role in upbringing provides something of a backdoor for a certain understanding of human nature to enter the discussion. Although the academic versions of this minimalist psychology are byzantine to the point of incomprehensibility, most of the main precepts will be familiar to you from movie and book reviews and criticism: parents, whom we both love and hate, affect nearly every aspect of our adult personalities; every category of desire, interest, or relationship is a manifestation of the sex drive; and we all have subconscious desires—all sexual in one way or another—based largely on forgotten family dramas that we enjoy seeing played out and given expression in art. That’s it. 

            So, if we’re discussing Breaking Bad for instance, a critic might refer to Walt and Jesse’s relationship as either oedipal, meaning they’re playing the roles of father and son who love but want to kill each other, or homoerotic, meaning their partnership substitutes for the homosexual relationship they’d both really prefer. The special attention the show gives to the blue meth and all the machines and gadgets used to make it constitutes a fetish. And the appeal of the show is that all of us in the audience wish we could do everything Walt does. Since we must repress those desires, we come to the show because watching it effects a type of release.

            Not a single element of this theory has any scientific validity. If we were such horny devils, we could just as easily watch internet pornography as tune into Mad Men. Psychoanalysis is to modern scientific psychology what alchemy is to chemistry and what astrology is to astronomy. But the biggest weakness of Freud’s pseudo-theories from a scientific perspective is probably what has made them so attractive to scholars in the humanities over the past century: they don’t lend themselves to testable predictions, so they can easily be applied to a variety of outcomes. As explanations, they can never fail or be definitively refuted—but that’s because they don’t really explain anything. Quoting Craig Wright, a writer for Six Feet Under, Martin writes that

…the left always articulates a critique through the arts.  “But the funny part is that masked by, or nested within, that critique is a kind of helpless eroticization of the power of the Right. They’re still in love with Big Daddy, even though they hate him.”
That was certainly true for the women who made Tony Soprano an unlikely sex symbol—and for the men who found him no less seductive. Wish fulfillment has always been at the queasy heart of the mobster genre, the longing for a life outside the bounds of convention, mingled with the conflicted desire to see the perpetrator punished for the same transgression… Likewise for viewers, for whom a life of taking, killing, and sleeping with whomever and whatever one wants had an undeniable, if conflict-laden, appeal. (88)

So Tony reminds us of W. because they’re both powerful figures, and we’re interested in powerful figures because they remind us of our dads and because we eroticize power. Even if this were true, would it contribute anything to our understanding or enjoyment of the show? Are any of these characters really that much like your own dad? Tony smashes some poor guy’s head because he got in his way, and sometimes we wish we could do that. Don Draper sleeps with lots of attractive women, and all the men watching the show would like to do that too. Startling revelations, those.

What a scholar in search of substantive insights might focus on instead is the universality of the struggle to reconcile selfish desires—sex, status, money, comfort—with the needs and well-being of the groups to which we belong. Don Draper wants to sleep around, but he also genuinely wants Betty and their children to be happy. Tony Soprano wants to be feared and respected, but he doesn’t want his daughter to think he’s a murderous thug. Walter White wants to prove he can provide for his family, but he also wants Skyler and Walter Junior to be safe. These tradeoffs and dilemmas—not the difficult men themselves—are what most distinguish these shows from conventional TV dramas. In most movies and shows, the protagonist may have some selfish desires that compete with his or her more altruistic or communal instincts, but which side ultimately wins out is a foregone conclusion. “Heroes are much better suited for the movies,” Martin quotes Alan Ball saying. “I’m more interested in real people. And real people are fucked up” (106).

Ball is the showrunner behind the HBO series Six Feet Under and True Blood, and though Martin gives him quite a bit of space in Difficult Men he doesn’t seem to notice that Ball’s “feminine style” (102) of showrunning undermines his theory about domineering characters being direct reflections of their domineering creators. The handful of interesting observations about what makes for a good series in Martin’s book is pretty evenly divvied up between Ball and David Simon, the creator of The Wire. Recalling his response to the episode of The Sopranos in which Tony strangles a rat while visiting a college campus with Meadow, Ball says,

I felt like was watching a movie from the seventies. Where it was like, “You know those cartoon ideas of good and evil? Well, forget them. We’re going to address something that’s really real.” The performances were electric. The writing was spectacular. But it was the moral complexity, the complexity of the characters and their dilemmas, that made it incredibly exciting. (94-5)

Alan Ball with the actors playing his bad boy creations
The connection between us and the characters isn’t just that we have some of the same impulses and desires; it’s that we have to do similar balancing acts as we face similar dilemmas. No, we don’t have to figure out how to whack a guy without our daughters finding out, but a lot of us probably do want to shield our kids from some of the ugliness of our jobs. And most of us have to prioritize career advancement against family obligations in one way or another. What makes for compelling drama isn’t our rooting for a character who knows what’s right and does it—that’s not drama at all. What pulls us into these shows is the process the characters go through of deciding which of their competing desires or obligations they should act on. If we see them do the wrong thing once in a while, well, that just ups the ante for the scenes when doing the right thing really counts.

            On the one hand, parents and sponsors want a show that has a good message, a guy with the right ideas and virtuous motives confronted with people with bad ideas and villainous motives. The good guy wins and the lesson is conveyed to the comfortable audiences. On the other hand, writers, for the most part, want to dispense with this idea of lessons and focus on characters with murderous, adulterous, or self-aggrandizing impulses, allowing for the possibility that they’ll sometimes succumb to them. But sometimes writers face the dilemma of having something they really want to say with their stories. Martin describes David Simon’s struggle to square this circle.

 As late as 2012, he would complain in a New York Times interview that fans were still talking about their favorite characters rather than concentrating on the show’s political message… The real miracle of The Wire is that, with only a few late exceptions, it overcame the proud pedantry of its creators to become one of the greatest literary accomplishments of the early twenty-first century. (135)

But then it’s Simon himself who Martin quotes to explain how having a message to convey can get in the way of a good story.

Everybody, if they’re trying to say something, if they have a point to make, they can be a little dangerous if they’re left alone. Somebody has to be standing behind them saying, dramatically, “Can we do it this way?” When the guy is making the argument about what he’s trying to say, you need somebody else saying, “Yeah, but…” (207)

The exploration of this tension makes up the most substantive and compelling section of Difficult Men.

            Unfortunately, Martin fails to contribute anything to this discussion of drama and dilemmas beyond these short passages and quotes. And at several points he forgets his own observation about drama not being reducible to any underlying message. The most disappointing part of Difficult Men is the chapter devoted to Vince Gilligan and his show Breaking Bad. Gilligan is another counterexample to the theory that domineering and volatile men in the writer’s seat account for domineering and volatile characters in the shows; the writing room he runs gives the chapter its name, “The Happiest Room in Hollywood.” Martin writes that Breaking Bad is “arguably the best show on TV, in many ways the culmination of everything the Third Golden Age had made possible” (264). In trying to explain why the show is so good, he claims that
…whereas the antiheroes of those earlier series were at least arguably the victims of their circumstances—family, society, addiction, and so on—Walter White was insistently, unambiguously, an agent with free will. His journey became a grotesque magnification of the American ethos of self-actualization, Oprah Winfrey’s exhortation that all must find and “live your best life.” What if, Breaking Bad asked, one’s best life happened to be as a ruthless drug lord? (268)

This is Martin making the very mistake he warns against earlier in the book by finding some fundamental message at the core of the show. (Though he could simply believe that even though it’s a bad idea for writers to try to convey messages it’s okay for critics to read them into the shows.) But he’s doing the best he can with the tools of scholarship he’s allowed to marshal. This assessment is an extension of his point about post-feminist dislocation, turning the entire series into a slap in the face to Oprah, that great fount of male angst.

            To point out that Martin is perfectly wrong about Walter White isn’t merely to offer a rival interpretation. Until the end of season four, as any reasonable viewer who’s paid a modicum of attention to the development of his character will attest, Walter is far more at the mercy of circumstances than any of the other antiheroes in the Third Golden Age lineup. Here’s Walter explaining why he doesn’t want to undergo an expensive experimental cancer treatment in season one:

What I want—what I need—is a choice. Sometimes I feel like I never actually make any of my own. Choices, I mean. My entire life, it just seems I never, you know, had a real say about any of it. With this last one—cancer—all I have left is how I choose to approach this.

He’s secretly cooking meth to make money for his family already at this point, but that’s a lot more him making the most of a bad situation than being the captain of his own fate. Can you imagine Tony or Don saying anything like this? Even when Walt delivers his famous “I am the danger” speech in season four—which gets my vote for the best moment in TV history (or film history too for that matter)—the statement is purely aspirational; he’s still in all kinds of danger at that point. Did Martin neglect the first four seasons and pick up watching only after Walt finally killed Gus? Either way, it’s a big, embarrassing mistake.

           The dilemmas Walt faces are what make his story so compelling. He’s far more powerless than other bad boy characters at the start of the series, and he’s also far more altruistic in his motives. That’s precisely why it’s so disturbing—and riveting—to see those motives corrupted by his gradually accumulating power. It’s hard not to think of the cartel drug lords we always hear about in Mexico according to those “cartoon ideas of good and evil” Alan Ball was so delighted to see smashed by Tony Soprano. But Breaking Bad goes a long way toward bridging the divide between such villains and a type of life we have no trouble imagining. The show isn’t about free will or self-actualization at all; it’s about how even the nicest guy can be turned into one of the scariest villains by being placed in a not all that far-fetched set of circumstances. In much the same way, Martin, clearly a smart guy and a talented writer, can be made to look like a bit of an idiot by being forced to rely on a bunch of really bad ideas as he explores the inner workings some really great shows.

            If men’s selfish desires—sex, status, money, freedom—aren’t any more powerful than women’s, their approaches to satisfying them still tend to be more direct, less subtle. But what makes it harder for a woman’s struggles with her own desires to take on the same urgency as a man’s is probably not that far removed from the reasons women are seldom as physically imposing as men. Volatility in a large man can be really frightening. Men are more likely to have high-status careers like Don’s still today, but they’re also far more likely to end up in prison. These are pretty high stakes. And Don’s actions have ramifications for not just his own family’s well-being, but that of everyone at Sterling Cooper and their families, which is a consequence of that high-status. So status works as a proxy for size. Carmela Soprano’s volatility could be frightening too, but she isn’t the time-bomb Tony is. Speaking of bombs, Skyler White is an expert at bullying men, but going head-to-head with Walter she’s way overmatched. Men will always be scarier than women on average, so their struggles to rein in their scarier impulses will seem more urgent. Still, the Third Golden Age is a teenager now, and as anxious as I am to see what happens to Walter White and all his friends and family, I think the bad boy thing is getting a little stale. Anyone seen Damages




Oh yeah--can't forget: The Adaptive Appeal of Bad Boys

Sabbath Says: Philip Roth and the Dilemmas of Ideological Castration

            Sabbath’s Theater is the type of book you lose friends over. Mickey Sabbath, the adulterous title character who follows in the long literary line of defiantly self-destructive, excruciatingly vulnerable, and offputtingly but eloquently lustful leading males like Holden Caulfield and Humbert Humbert, strains the moral bounds of fiction and compels us to contemplate the nature of our own voyeuristic impulse to see him through to the end of the story—and not only contemplate it but defend it, as if in admitting we enjoy the book, find its irreverences amusing, and think that in spite of how repulsive he often is there still might be something to be said for poor old Sabbath we’re confessing to no minor offense of our own. Fans and admiring critics alike can’t resist rushing to qualify their acclaim by insisting they don’t condone his cheating on both of his wives, the seduction of a handful of his students, his habit of casually violating others’ privacy, his theft, his betrayal of his lone friend, his manipulations, his racism, his caustic, often cruelly precise provocations—but by the time they get to the end of Sabbath’s debt column it’s a near certainty any list of mitigating considerations will fall short of getting him out of the red. Sabbath, once a puppeteer who now suffers crippling arthritis, doesn’t seem like a very sympathetic character, and yet we sympathize with him nonetheless. In his wanton disregard for his own reputation and his embrace, principled in a way, of his own appetites, intuitions, and human nastiness, he inspires a fascination none of the literary nice guys can compete with. So much for the argument that the novel is a morally edifying art form.

            Thus, in Sabbath, Philip Roth has created a character both convincing and compelling who challenges a fundamental—we may even say natural—assumption about readers’ (or viewers’) role in relation to fictional protagonists, one made by everyone from the snarky authors of even the least sophisticated Amazon.com reviews to the theoreticians behind the most highfalutin academic criticism—the assumption that characters in fiction serve as vehicles for some message the author created them to convey, or which some chimerical mechanism within the “dominant culture” created to serve as agents of its own proliferation. The corollary is that the task of audience members is to try to decipher what the author is trying to say with the work, or what element of the culture is striving to perpetuate itself through it. If you happen to like the message the story conveys, or agree with it at some level, then you recommend the book and thus endorse the statement. Only rarely does a reviewer realize or acknowledge that the purpose of fiction is not simply to encourage readers to behave as the protagonists behave or, if the tale is a cautionary one, to expect the same undesirable consequences should they choose to behave similarly. Sabbath does in fact suffer quite a bit over the course of the novel, and much of that suffering comes as a result of his multifarious offenses, so a case can be made on behalf of Roth’s morality. Still, we must wonder if he really needed to write a story in which the cheating husband is abandoned by both of his wives to make the message sink in that adultery is wrong—especially since Sabbath doesn’t come anywhere near to learning that lesson himself. “All the great thoughts he had not reached,” Sabbath muses in the final pages, “were beyond enumeration; there was no bottom to what he did not have to say about the meaning of his life” (779).

           Part of the reason we can’t help falling back on the notions that fiction serves a straightforward didactic purpose and that characters should be taken as models, positive or negative, for moral behavior is that our moral emotions are invariably and automatically engaged by stories; indeed, what we usually mean when we say we got into a story is that we were in suspense as we anticipated whether the characters ultimately met with the fates we felt they deserved. We reflexively size up any character the author introduces the same way we assess the character of a person we’re meeting for the first time in real life. For many readers, the question of whether a novel is any good is interchangeable with the question of whether they liked the main characters, assuming they fare reasonably well in the culmination of the plot. If an author like Roth evinces an attitude drastically different from ours toward a character of his own creation like Sabbath, then we feel that in failing to condemn him, in holding him up as a model, the author is just as culpable as his character. In a recent edition of PBS’s American Masters devoted to Roth, for example, Jonathan Franzen, a novelist himself, describes how even he couldn’t resist responding to his great forebear’s work in just this way. “As a young writer,” Franzen recalls, “I had this kind of moralistic response of ‘Oh, you bad person, Philip Roth’” (54:56).

Jonathan Franzen
            That fiction’s charge is to strengthen our preset convictions through a process of narrative tempering, thus catering to our desire for an orderly calculus of just deserts, serves as the basis for a contract between storytellers and audiences, a kind of promise on which most commercial fiction delivers with a bang. And how many of us have wanted to throw a book out of the window when we felt that promise had been broken? The goal of professional and academic critics, we may imagine, might be to ease their charges into an appreciation of more complex narrative scenarios enacted by characters who escape easy categorization. But since scholarship in the humanities, and in literary criticism especially, has been in a century-long sulk over the greater success of science and the greater renown of scientists, professors of literature have scarcely even begun to ponder what anything resembling a valid answer to the questions of how fiction works and what the best strategies for experiencing it might look like. Those who aren’t pouting in a corner about the ascendancy of science—but the Holocaust!—are stuck in the muck of the century-old pseudoscience of psychoanalysis. But the real travesty is that the most popular, politically inspired schools of literary criticism—feminism, Marxism, postcolonialism—actively preach the need to ignore, neglect, and deny the very existence of moral complexity in literature, violently displacing any appreciation of difficult dilemmas with crudely tribal formulations of good and evil.

            For those inculcated with a need to take a political stance with regard to fiction, the only important dynamics in stories involve the interplay of society’s privileged oppressors and their marginalized victims. In 1976, nearly twenty years before the publication of Sabbath’s Theater, the feminist critic Vivian Gornick lumped Roth together with Saul Bellow and Norman Mailer in an essay asking “Why Do These Men Hate Women?” because she took issue with the way women are portrayed in their novels. Gornick, following the methods standard to academic criticism, doesn’t bother devoting any space in her essay to inconvenient questions about how much we can glean about these authors from their fictional works or what it means that the case for her prosecution rests by necessity on a highly selective approach to quoting from those works. And this slapdash approach to scholarship is supposedly justified because she and her fellow feminist critics believe women are in desperate need of protection from the incalculable harm they assume must follow from such allegedly negative portrayals. In this concern for how women, or minorities, or some other victims are portrayed and how they’re treated by their notional oppressors—rich white guys—Gornick and other critics who make of literature a battleground for their political activism are making the same assumption about fiction’s straightforward didacticism as the most unschooled consumers of commercial pulp. The only difference is that the academics believe the message received by audiences is all that’s important, not the message intended by the author. The basis of this belief probably boils down to its obvious convenience.

Gornick
            In Sabbath’s Theater, the idea that literature, or art of any kind, is reducible to so many simple messages, and that these messages must be measured against political agendas, is dashed in the most spectacularly gratifying fashion. Unfortunately, the idea is so seldom scrutinized, and the political agendas are insisted on so inclemently, clung to and broadcast with such indignant and prosecutorial zeal, that it seems not one of the critics, nor any of the authors, who were seduced by Sabbath were able to fully reckon with the implications of that seduction. Franzen, for instance, in a New Yorker article about fictional anti-heroes, dodges the issue as he puzzles over the phenomenon that “Mickey Sabbath may be a disgustingly self-involved old goat,” but he’s somehow still sympathetic. The explanation Franzen lights on is that

the alchemical agent by which fiction transmutes my secret envy or my ordinary dislike of “bad” people into sympathy is desire. Apparently, all a novelist has to do is give a character a powerful desire (to rise socially, to get away with murder) and I, as a reader, become helpless not to make that desire my own. (63)

If Franzen is right—and this chestnut is a staple of fiction workshops—then the political activists are justified in their urgency. For if we’re powerless to resist adopting the protagonist’s desires as our own, however fleetingly, then any impulse to victimize women or minorities must invade readers’ psyches at some level, conscious or otherwise. The simple fact, however, is that Sabbath has not one powerful desire but many competing desires, ones that shift as the novel progresses, and it’s seldom clear even to Sabbath himself what those desires are. (And is he really as self-involved as Franzen suggests? It seems to me rather that he compulsively tries to get into other people’s heads, reflexively imagining elaborate stories for them.)

            While we undeniably respond to virtuous characters in fiction by feeling anxiety on their behalf as we read about or watch them undergo the ordeals of the plot, and we just as undeniably enjoy seeing virtue rewarded alongside cruelty being punished—the goodies prevailing over the baddies—these natural responses do not necessarily imply that stories compel our interest and engage our emotions by providing us with models and messages of virtue. Stories aren’t sermons. In his interview for American Masters, Roth explained what a writer’s role is vis-à-vis social issues.

My job isn’t to be enraged. My job is what Chekhov said the job of an artist was, which is the proper presentation of the problem. The obligation of the writer is not to provide the solution to a problem. That’s the obligation of a legislator, a leader, a crusader, a revolutionary, a warrior, and so on. That’s not the goal or aim of a writer. You’re not selling it, and you’re not inviting condemnation. You’re inviting understanding. (59:41)

Chekhov
The crucial but overlooked distinction that characters like Sabbath—but none so well as Sabbath—bring into stark relief is the one between declarative knowledge on the one hand and moment-by-moment experience on the other. Consider for a moment how many books and movies we’ve all been thoroughly engrossed in for however long it took to read or watch them, only to discover a month or so later that we can’t remember even the broadest strokes of how their plots resolved themselves—much less what their morals might have been.

            The answer to the question of what the author is trying to say is that he or she is trying to give readers a sense of what it would be like to go through what the characters are going through—or what it would be like to go through it with them. In other words, authors are not trying to say anything; they’re offering us an experience, once-removed and simulated though it may be. This isn’t to say that these simulated experiences don’t engage our moral emotions; indeed, we’re usually only as engaged in a story as our moral emotions are engaged by it. The problem is that in real-time, in real life, political ideologies, psychoanalytic theories, and rigid ethical principles are too often the farthest thing from helpful. “Fuck the laudable ideologies,” Sabbath helpfully insists: “Shallow, shallow, shallow!” Living in a complicated society with other living, breathing, sick, cruel, saintly, conniving, venal, altruistic, deceitful, noble, horny humans demands not so much a knowledge of the rules as a finely honed body of skills—and our need to develop and hone these skills is precisely why we evolved to find the simulated experiences of fictional narratives both irresistibly fascinating and endlessly pleasurable. Franzen was right that desires are important, the desire to be a good person, the desire to do things others may condemn, the desire to get along with our families and friends and coworkers, the desire to tell them all to fuck off so we can be free, even if just for an hour, to breathe… or to fuck an intern, as the case may be. Grand principles offer little guidance when it comes to balancing these competing desires. This is because, as Sabbath explains, “The law of living: fluctuation. For every thought a counterthought, for every urge a counterurge” (518).

            Fiction then is not a conveyance for coded messages—how tedious that would be (how tedious it really is when writers make this mistake); it is rather a simulated experience of moral dilemmas arising from scenarios which pit desire against desire, conviction against reality, desire against conviction, reality against desire, in any and all permutations. Because these experiences are once-removed and, after all, merely fictional, and because they require our sustained attention, the dilemmas tend to play out in the vicinity of life’s extremes. Here’s how Sabbath’s Theater opens:

                        Either forswear fucking others or the affair is over.
            This was the ultimatum, the maddeningly improbable, wholly unforeseen ultimatum, that the mistress of fifty-two delivered in tears to her lover of sixty-four on the anniversary of an attachment that had persisted with an amazing licentiousness—and that, no less amazingly, had stayed their secret—for thirteen years. But now with hormonal infusions ebbing, with the prostate enlarging, with probably no more than another few years of semi-dependable potency still his—with perhaps not that much more life remaining—here at the approach of the end of everything, he was being charged, on pain of losing her, to turn himself inside out. (373)

The ethical proposition that normally applies in situations like this is that adultery is wrong, so don’t commit adultery. But these two have been committing adultery with each other for thirteen years already—do we just stop reading? And if we keep reading, maybe nodding once in a while as we proceed, cracking a few wicked grins along the way, does that mean we too must be guilty?
                               *****
Updike
            Much of the fiction written by male literary figures of the past generation, guys like Roth, Mailer, Bellow, and Updike, focuses on the morally charged dilemmas instanced by infidelity, while their gen-x and millennial successors, led by guys like Franzen and David Foster Wallace, have responded to shifting mores—and a greater exposure to academic literary theorizing—by completely overhauling how these dilemmas are framed. Whereas the older generation framed the question as how can we balance the intense physical and spiritual—even existential—gratification of sexual adventure on the one hand with our family obligations on the other, for their successors the question has become how can we males curb our disgusting, immoral, intrinsically oppressive lusting after young women inequitably blessed with time-stamped and overwhelmingly alluring physical attributes. “The younger writers are so self-conscious,” Katie Roiphe writes in a 2009 New York Times essay, “so steeped in a certain kind of liberal education, that their characters can’t condone even their own sexual impulses; they are, in short, too cool for sex.” Roiphe’s essay, “The Naked and the Confused,” stands alongside a 2012 essay in The New York Review of Books by Elaine Blair, “Great American Losers,” as the best descriptions of the new literary trend toward sexually repressed and pathetically timid male leads. The typical character in this vein, Blair writes, “is the opposite of entitled: he approaches women cringingly, bracing for a slap.”

Katie Roiphe
            The writers in the new hipster cohort create characters who bury their longings layers-deep in irony because they’ve been assured the failure on the part of men of previous generations to properly check these same impulses played some unspecified role in the abysmal standing of women in society. College students can’t make it past their first semester without hearing about the evils of so-called objectification, but it’s nearly impossible to get a straight answer from anyone, anywhere, to the question of how objectification can be distinguished from normal, non-oppressive male attraction and arousal. Even Roiphe, in her essay lamenting the demise of male sexual virility in literature, relies on a definition of male oppression so broad that it encompasses even the most innocuous space-filling lines in the books of even the most pathetically diffident authors, writing that “the sexism in the work of the heirs apparent” of writers like Roth and Updike,

is simply wilier and shrewder and harder to smoke out. What comes to mind is Franzen’s description of one of his female characters in “The Corrections”: “Denise at 32 was still beautiful.” To the esteemed ladies of the movement I would suggest this is not how our great male novelists would write in the feminist utopia.

How, we may ask, did it get to the point where acknowledging that age influences how attractive a woman is qualifies a man for designation as a sexist? Blair, in her otherwise remarkably trenchant essay, lays the blame for our oversensitivity—though paranoia is probably a better word—at the feet of none other than those great male novelists themselves, or, as David Foster Wallace calls them, the Great Male Narcissists. She writes,

Because of the GMNs, these two tendencies—heroic virility and sexist condescension—have lingered in our minds as somehow yoked together, and the succeeding generations of American male novelists have to some degree accepted the dyad as truth. Behind their skittishness is a fearful suspicion that if a man gets what he wants, sexually speaking, he is probably exploiting someone.

That Roth et al were sexist, condescending, disgusting, narcissistic—these are articles of faith for feminist critics. Yet when we consider how expansive the definition of terms like sexism and misogyny have become—in practical terms, they both translate to: not as radically feminist as me—and the laughably low standard of evidence required to convince scholars of the accusations, female empowerment starts to look like little more than a reserved right to stand in self-righteous judgment of men for giving voice to and acting on desires anyone but the most hardened ideologue will agree are only natural.

             The effect on writers of this ever-looming threat of condemnation is that they either allow themselves to be silenced or they opt to participate in the most undignified of spectacles, peevishly sniping their colleagues, falling all over themselves to be granted recognition as champions for the cause. Franzen, at least early in his career, was more the silenced type. Discussing Roth, he wistfully endeavors to give the appearance of having moved beyond his initial moralistic responses. “Eventually,” he says, “I came to feel as if that was coming out of an envy: like, wow, I wish I could be as liberated of worry about other’s people’s opinion of me as Roth is” (55:18). We have to wonder if his espousal of the reductive theory that sympathy for fictional characters is based solely on the strength of their desires derives from this same longing for freedom to express his own. David Foster Wallace, on the other hand, wasn’t quite as enlightened or forgiving when it came to his predecessors. Here’s how he explains his distaste for a character in one of Updike’s novels, openly intimating the author’s complicity:

D.F. Wallace
It’s that he persists in the bizarre adolescent idea that getting to have sex with whomever one wants whenever one wants is a cure for ontological despair. And so, it appears, does Mr. Updike—he makes it plain that he views the narrator’s impotence as catastrophic, as the ultimate symbol of death itself, and he clearly wants us to mourn it as much as Turnbull does. I’m not especially offended by this attitude; I mostly just don’t get it. Erect or flaccid, Ben Turnbull’s unhappiness is obvious right from the book’s first page. But it never once occurs to him that the reason he’s so unhappy is that he’s an asshole.

So the character is an asshole because he wants to have sex outside of marriage, and he’s unhappy because he’s an asshole, and it all traces back to the idea that having sex with whomever one wants is a source of happiness? Sounds like quite the dilemma—and one that pronouncing the main player an asshole does nothing to solve. This passage is the conclusion to a review in which Wallace tries to square his admiration for Updike’s writing with his desire to please a cohort of women readers infuriated by the way Updike writes about—portrays—women (which begs the question of why they’d read so many of his books). The troubling implication of his compromise is that if Wallace were himself to freely express his sexual feelings, he’d be open to the charge of sexism too—he’d be an asshole. Better to insist he simply doesn’t “get” why indulging his sexual desires might alleviate his “ontological despair.” What would Mickey Sabbath make of the fact that Wallace hanged himself when he was only forty-six, eleven years after publishing that review? (This isn’t just a nasty rhetorical point; Sabbath has a fascination with artists who commit suicide.)

The inadequacy of moral codes and dehumanizing ideologies when it comes to guiding real humans through life’s dilemmas, along with their corrosive effects on art, is the abiding theme of Sabbath’s Theater. One of the pivotal moments in Sabbath’s life is when a twenty-year-old student he’s in the process of seducing leaves a tape recorder out to be discovered in a lady’s room at the university. The student, Kathy Goolsbee, has recorded a phone sex session between her and Sabbath, and when the tape finds its way into the hands of the dean, it becomes grounds for the formation of a committee of activists against the abuse of women. At first, Kathy doesn’t realize how bad things are about to get for Sabbath. She even offers to give him a blow job as he berates her for her carelessness. Trying to impress on her the situation’s seriousness, he says,

Your people have on tape my voice giving reality to all the worst things they want the world to know about men. They have a hundred times more proof of my criminality than could be required by even the most lenient of deans to drive me out of every decent antiphallic educational institution in America. (586)

The committee against Sabbath proceeds to make the full recorded conversation available through a call-in line (the nineties equivalent of posting the podcast online). But the conversation itself isn’t enough; one of the activists gives a long introduction, which concludes,

The listener will quickly recognize how by this point in his psychological assault on an inexperienced young woman, Professor Sabbath has been able to manipulate her into thinking that she is a willing participant. (567-8)

Sabbath knows full well that even consensual phone sex can be construed as a crime if doing so furthers the agenda of those “esteemed ladies of the movement” Roiphe addresses. 

Reading through the lens of a tribal ideology ineluctably leads to the refraction of reality beyond recognizability, and any aspiring male writer quickly learns in all his courses in literary theory that the criteria for designation as an enemy to the cause of women are pretty much whatever the feminist critics fucking say they are. Wallace wasn’t alone in acquiescing to feminist rage by denying his own boorish instincts. Roiphe describes the havoc this opportunistic antipathy toward male sexuality wreaks in the minds of male writers and their literary creations:

Rather than an interest in conquest or consummation, there is an obsessive fascination with trepidation, and with a convoluted, postfeminist second-guessing. Compare [Benjamin] Kunkel’s tentative and guilt-ridden masturbation scene in “Indecision” with Roth’s famous onanistic exuberance with apple cores, liver and candy wrappers in “Portnoy’s Complaint.” Kunkel: “Feeling extremely uncouth, I put my penis away. I might have thrown it away if I could.” Roth also writes about guilt, of course, but a guilt overridden and swept away, joyously subsumed in the sheer energy of taboo smashing: “How insane whipping out my joint like that! Imagine what would have been had I been caught red-handed! Imagine if I had gone ahead.” In other words, one rarely gets the sense in Roth that he would throw away his penis if he could.

And what good comes of an ideology that encourages the psychological torture of bookish young men? It’s hard to distinguish the effects of these so-called literary theories from the hellfire scoldings delivered from the pulpits of the most draconian and anti-humanist religious patriarchs. Do we really need to ideologically castrate all our male scholars to protect women from abuse and further the cause of equality?
*****
The experience of sexual relations between older teacher and younger student in Sabbath’s Theater is described much differently when the gender activists have yet to get involved—and not just by Sabbath but by Kathy as well. “I’m of age!” she protests as he chastises her for endangering his job and opening him up to public scorn; “I do what I want” (586). Absent the committee against him, Sabbath’s impression of how his affairs with his students impact them reflects the nuance of feeling inspired by these experimental entanglements, the kind of nuance that the “laudable ideologies” can’t even begin to capture.

There was a kind of art in his providing an illicit adventure not with a boy of their own age but with someone three times their age—the very repugnance that his aging body inspired in them had to make their adventure with him feel a little like a crime and thereby give free play to their budding perversity and to the confused exhilaration that comes of flirting with disgrace. Yes, despite everything, he had the artistry still to open up to them the lurid interstices of life, often for the first time since they’d given their debut “b.j.” in junior high. As Kathy told him in that language which they all used and which made him want to cut their heads off, through coming to know him she felt “empowered.” (566)

Opening up “the lurid interstices of life” is precisely what Roth and the other great male writers—all great writers—are about. If there are easy answers to the questions of what characters should do, or if the plot entails no more than a simple conflict between a blandly good character and a blandly bad one, then the story, however virtuous its message, will go unattended.

            But might there be too much at stake for us impressionable readers to be allowed free reign to play around in imaginary spheres peopled by morally dubious specters? After all, if denouncing the dreamworlds of privileged white men, however unfairly, redounds to the benefit of women and children and minorities, then perhaps it’s to the greater good. In fact, though, right alongside the trends of increasing availability for increasingly graphic media portrayals of sex and violence have occurred marked decreases in actual violence and the abuse of women. And does anyone really believe it’s the least literate, least media-saturated societies that are the kindest to women? The simple fact is that the theory of literature subtly encouraging oppression can’t be valid. But the problem is once ideologies are institutionalized, once a threshold number of people depend on their perpetuation for their livelihoods, people whose scholarly work and reputations are staked on them, then victims of oppression will be found, their existence insisted on, regardless of whether they truly exist or not.

In another scandal Sabbath was embroiled in long before his flirtation with Kathy Goolsbee, he was brought up on charges of indecency because in the course of a street performance he’d exposed a woman’s nipple. The woman herself, Helen Trumbull, maintains from the outset of the imbroglio that whatever Sabbath had done, he’d done it with her consent—just as will be the case with his “psychological assault” on Kathy. But even as Sabbath sits assured that the case against him will collapse once the jury hears the supposed victim testify on his behalf, the prosecution takes a bizarre twist:
  
In fact, the victim, if there even is one, is coming this way, but the prosecutor says no, the victim is the public. The poor public, getting the shaft from this fucking drifter, this artist. If this guy can walk along a street, he says, and do this, then little kids think it’s permissible to do this, and if little kids think it’s permissible to do this, then they think it’s permissible to blah blah banks, rape women, use knives. If seven-year-old kids—the seven nonexistent kids are now seven seven-year-old kids—are going to see that this is fun and permissible with strange women… (663-4)

Here we have Roth’s dramatization of the fundamental conflict between artists and moralists. Even if no one is directly hurt by playful scenarios, that they carry a message, one that threatens to corrupt susceptible minds, is so seemingly obvious it’s all but impossible to refute. Since the audience for art is “the public,” the acts of depravity and degradation it depicts are, if anything, even more fraught with moral and political peril than any offense against an individual victim, real or imagined.  

            This theme of the oppressive nature of ideologies devised to combat oppression, the victimizing proclivity of movements originally fomented to protect and empower victims, is most directly articulated by a young man named Donald, dressed in all black and sitting atop a file cabinet in a nurse’s station when Sabbath happens across him at a rehab clinic. Donald “vaguely resembled the Sabbath of some thirty years ago,” and Sabbath will go on to apologize for interrupting him, referring to him as “a man whose aversions I wholeheartedly endorse.” What he was saying before the interruption:

“Ideological idiots!” proclaimed the young man in black. “The third great ideological failure of the twentieth century. The same stuff. Fascism. Communism. Feminism. All designed to turn one group of people against another group of people. The good Aryans against the bad others who oppress them. The good poor against the bad rich who oppress them. The good women against the bad men who oppress them. The holder of ideology is pure and good and clean and the other wicked. But do you know who is wicked? Whoever imagines himself to be pure is wicked! I am pure, you are wicked… There is no human purity! It does not exist! It cannot exist!” he said, kicking the file cabinet for emphasis. “It must not and should not exist! Because it’s a lie. … Ideological tyranny. It’s the disease of the century. The ideology institutionalizes the pathology. In twenty years there will be a new ideology. People against dogs. The dogs are to blame for our lives as people. Then after dogs there will be what? Who will be to blame for corrupting our purity?” (620-1)

It’s noteworthy that this rant is made by a character other than Sabbath. By this point in the novel, we know Sabbath wouldn’t speak so artlessly—unless he was really frightened or angry. As effective and entertaining an indictment of “Ideological tyranny” as Sabbath’s Theater is, we shouldn’t expect to encounter anywhere in a novel by a storyteller as masterful as Roth a character operating as a mere mouthpiece for some argument. Even Donald himself, Sabbath quickly gleans, isn’t simply spouting off; he’s trying to impress one of the nurses.

            And it’s not just the political ideologies that conscript complicated human beings into simple roles as oppressors and victims. The pseudoscientific psychological theories that both inform literary scholarship and guide many non-scholars through life crises and relationship difficulties function according to the same fundamental dynamic of tribalism; they simply substitute abusive family members for more generalized societal oppression and distorted or fabricated crimes committed in the victim’s childhood for broader social injustices. Sabbath is forced to contend with this particular brand of depersonalizing ideology because his second wife, Roseanna, picks it up through her AA meetings, and then becomes further enmeshed in it through individual treatment with a therapist named Barbara. Sabbath, who considers himself a failure, and who is carrying on an affair with the woman we meet in the opening lines of the novel, is baffled as to why Roseanna would stay with him. Her therapist provides an answer of sorts.

But then her problem with Sabbath, the “enslavement,” stemmed, according to Barbara, from her disastrous history with an emotionally irresponsible mother and a violent alcoholic father for both of whom Sabbath was the sadistic doppelganger. (454)

Roseanna’s father was a geology professor who hanged himself when she was a young teenager. Sabbath is a former puppeteer with crippling arthritis. Naturally, he’s confused by the purported identity of roles.

These connections—between the mother, the father, and him—were far clearer to Barbara than they were to Sabbath; if there was, as she liked to put it, a “pattern” in it all, the pattern eluded him.

In the midst of a shouting match, Sabbath tells his wife, “As for the ‘pattern’ governing a life, tell Barbara it’s commonly called chaos” (455). When she protests, “You are shouting at me like my father,” Sabbath asserts his individuality: “The fuck that’s who I’m shouting at you like! I’m shouting at you like myself!” (459). Whether you see his resistance as heroic or not probably depends on how much credence you give to those psychological theories.

            From the opening lines of Sabbath’s Theater when we’re presented with the dilemma of the teary-eyed mistress demanding monogamy in their adulterous relationship, the simple response would be to stand in easy judgment of Sabbath, and like Wallace did to Updike’s character, declare him an asshole. It’s clear that he loves this woman, a Croatian immigrant named Drenka, a character who at points steals the show even from the larger-than-life protagonist. And it’s clear his fidelity would mean a lot to her. Is his freedom to fuck other women really so important? Isn’t he just being selfish? But only a few pages later our easy judgment suddenly gets more complicated:

As it happened, since picking up Christa several years back Sabbath had not really been the adventurous libertine Drenka claimed she could no longer endure, and consequently she already had the monogamous man she wanted, even if she didn’t know it. To women other than her, Sabbath was by now quite unalluring, not just because he was absurdly bearded and obstinately peculiar and overweight and aging in every obvious way but because, in the aftermath of the scandal four years earlier with Kathy Goolsbee, he’s become more dedicated than ever to marshaling the antipathy of just about everyone as though he were, in fact, battling for his rights. (394)

Christa was a young woman who participated in a threesome with Sabbath and Drenka, an encounter to which Sabbath’s only tangible contribution was to hand the younger woman a dildo.

            One of the central dilemmas for a character who loves the thrill of sex, who seeks in it a rekindling of youthful vigor—“the word’s rejuvenation,” Sabbath muses at one point (517)—the adrenaline boost borne of being in the wrong and the threat of getting caught, what Roiphe calls “the sheer energy of taboo smashing,” becomes ever more indispensable as libido wanes with age. Even before Sabbath ever had to contend with the ravages of aging, he reveled in this added exhilaration that attends any expedition into forbidden realms. What makes Drenka so perfect for him is that she has not just a similarly voracious appetite but a similar fondness for outrageous sex and the smashing of taboo. And it’s this mutual celebration of the verboten that Sabbath is so reluctant to relinquish. Of Drenka, he thinks,

The secret realm of thrills and concealment, this was the poetry of her existence. Her crudeness was the most distinguishing force in her life, lent her life its distinction. What was she otherwise? What was he otherwise? She was his last link with another world, she and her great taste for the impermissible. As a teacher of estrangement from the ordinary, he had never trained a more gifted pupil; instead of being joined by the contractual they were interconnected by the instinctual and together could eroticize anything (except their spouses). Each of their marriages cried out for a countermarriage in which the adulterers attack their feelings of captivity. (395)

Those feelings of captivity, the yearnings to experience the flow of the old juices, are anything but adolescent, as Wallace suggests of them; adolescents have a few decades before they have to worry about dwindling arousal. Most of them have the opposite problem.

            The question of how readers are supposed to feel about a character like Sabbath doesn’t have any simple answers. He’s an asshole at several points in the novel, but at several points he’s not. One of the reasons he’s so compelling is that working out what our response to him should be poses a moral dilemma of its own. Whether or not we ultimately decide that adultery is always and everywhere wrong, the experience of being privy to Sabbath’s perspective can help us prepare ourselves for our own feelings of captivity, lusting nostalgia, and sexual temptation. Most of us will never find ourselves in a dilemma like Sabbath gets himself tangled in with his friend Norman’s wife, for instance, but it would be to our detriment to automatically discount the old hornball’s insights.

He could discern in her, whenever her husband spoke, the desire to be just a little cruel to Norman, saw her sneering at the best of him, at the very best things in him. If you don’t go crazy because of your husband’s vices, you go crazy because of his virtues. He’s on Prozac because he can’t win. Everything is leaving her except for her behind, which her wardrobe informs her is broadening by the season—and except for this steadfast prince of a man marked by reasonableness and ethical obligation the way others are marked by insanity or illness. Sabbath understood her state of mind, her state of life, her state of suffering: dusk is descending, and sex, our greatest luxury, is racing away at a tremendous speed, everything is racing off at a tremendous speed and you wonder at your folly in having ever turned down a single squalid fuck. You’d give your right arm for one if you are a babe like this. It’s not unlike the Great Depression, not unlike going broke overnight after years of raking it in. “Nothing unforeseen that happens,” the hot flashes inform her, “is likely ever again going to be good.” Hot flashes mockingly mimicking the sexual ecstasies. Dipped, she is, in the very fire of fleeting time. (651)

Welcome to messy, chaotic, complicated life.

            Sabbath’s Theater is, in part, Philip Roth’s raised middle finger to the academic moralists whose idiotic and dehumanizing ideologies have spread like a cancer into all the venues where literature is discussed and all the avenues through which it’s produced. Unfortunately, the unrecognized need for culture-wide chemotherapy hasn’t gotten any less dire in the nearly two decades since the novel was published. With literature now drowning in the devouring tide of new media, the tragic course set by the academic custodians of art toward bloodless prudery and impotent sterility in the name of misguided political activism promises to do nothing but ensure the ever greater obsolescence of epistemologically doomed and resoundingly pointless theorizing, making of college courses the places where you go to become, at best, profoundly confused about where you should stand with relation to fiction and fictional characters, and, at worst, a self-righteous demagogue denouncing the chimerical evils allegedly encoded into every text or cultural artifact. All the conspiracy theorizing about the latent evil urgings of literature has amounted to little more than another reason not to read, another reason to tune in to Breaking Bad or Mad Men instead. But the only reason Roth’s novel makes such a successful case is that it at no point allows itself to be reducible to a mere case, just as Sabbath at no point allows himself to be conscripted as a mere argument. We don’t love or hate him; we love and hate him. But we sort of just love him because he leaves us free to do both as we experience his antics, once removed and simulated, but still just as complicatedly eloquent in their message of “Fuck the laudable ideologies”—or not, as the case may be. 


Also read Let's Play Kill Your Brother: Fiction as a Moral Dilemma Game.

And Stories, Social Proof, and Our Two Selves.

And Can't Win for Losing: Why There Are So Many Losers in Literature and Why It Has to Change.

Let's Play Kill Your Brother: Fiction as a Moral Dilemma Game

The cousins Salamanca by Martin Woutisseth
            Season 3 of Breaking Bad opens with two expressionless Mexican men in expensive suits stepping out of a Mercedes, taking a look around the peasant village they’ve just arrived in, and then dropping to the ground to crawl on their knees and elbows to a candlelit shrine where they leave an offering to Santa Muerte, along with a crude drawing of the meth cook known as Heisenberg, marking him for execution. We later learn that the two men, Leonel and Marco, who look almost identical, are in fact twins (played by Daniel and Luis Moncada), and that they are the cousins of Tuco Salamanca, a meth dealer and cartel affiliate they believe Heisenberg betrayed and killed. We also learn that they kill people themselves as a matter of course, without registering the slightest emotion and without uttering a word to each other to mark the occasion. An episode later in the season, after we’ve been made amply aware of how coldblooded these men are, begins with a flashback to a time when they were just boys fighting over an action figure as their uncle talks cartel business on the phone nearby. After Marco gets tired of playing keep-away, he tries to provoke Leonel further by pulling off the doll’s head, at which point Leonel runs to his Uncle Hector, crying, “He broke my toy!”
“He’s just having fun,” Hector says, trying to calm him. “You’ll get over it.”

“No! I hate him!” Leonel replies. “I wish he was dead!”

Hector’s expression turns grave. After a moment, he calls Marco over and tells him to reach into the tub of melting ice beside his chair to get him a beer. When the boy leans over the tub, Hector shoves his head into the water and holds it there. “This is what you wanted,” he says to Leonel. “Your brother dead, right?” As the boy frantically pulls on his uncle’s arm trying to free his brother, Hector taunts him: “How much longer do you think he has down there? One minute? Maybe more? Maybe less? You’re going to have to try harder than that if you want to save him.” Leonel starts punching his uncle’s arm but to no avail. Finally, he rears back and punches Hector in the face, prompting him to release Marco and rise from his chair to stand over the two boys, who are now kneeling beside each other. Looking down at them, he says, “Family is all.”

The scene serves several dramatic functions. By showing the ruthless and violent nature of the boys’ upbringing, it intensifies our fear on behalf of Heisenberg, who we know is actually Walter White, a former chemistry teacher and family man from a New Mexico suburb who only turned to crime to make some money for his family before his lung cancer kills him. It also goes some distance toward humanizing the brothers by giving us insight into how they became the mute, mechanical murderers they are when we’re first introduced to them. The bond between the two men and their uncle will be important in upcoming episodes as well. But the most interesting thing about the scene is that it represents in microcosm the single most important moral dilemma of the whole series.

Marco and Leonel are taught to do violence if need be to protect their family. Walter, the show’s central character, gets involved in the meth business for the sake of his own family, and as he continues getting more deeply enmeshed in the world of crime he justifies his decisions at each juncture by saying he’s providing for his wife and kids. But how much violence can really be justified, we’re forced to wonder, with the claim that you’re simply protecting or providing for your family? The entire show we know as Breaking Bad can actually be conceived of as a type of moral exercise like the one Hector puts his nephews through, designed to impart or reinforce a lesson, though the lesson of the show is much more complicated. It may even be the case that our fondness for fictional narratives more generally, like the ones we encounter in novels and movies and TV shows, originated in our need as a species to develop and hone complex social skills involving powerful emotions and difficult cognitive calculations.

Jean Briggs
            Most of us watching Breaking Bad probably feel Hector went way too far with his little lesson, and indeed I’d like to think not too many parents or aunts and uncles would be willing to risk drowning a kid to reinforce the bond between him and his brother. But presenting children with frightening and stressful moral dilemmas to guide them through major lifecycle transitions—weaning, the birth of siblings, adoptions—which tend to arouse severe ambivalence can be an effective way to encourage moral development and instill traditional values. The ethnographer Jean Briggs has found that among the Inuit peoples whose cultures she studies adults frequently engage children in what she calls “playful dramas” (173), which entail hypothetical moral dilemmas that put the children on the hot seat as they struggle to come up with a solution. She writes about these lessons, which strike many outsiders as a cruel form of teasing by the adults, in “‘Why Don’t You Kill Your Baby Brother?’ The Dynamics of Peace in Canadian Inuit Camps,” a chapter she contributed to a 1994 anthology of anthropological essays on peace and conflict. In one example Briggs recounts,
A mother put a strange baby to her breast and said to her own nursling: “Shall I nurse him instead of you?” The mother of the other baby offered her breast to the rejected child and said: “Do you want to nurse from me? Shall I be your mother?” The child shrieked a protest shriek. Both mothers laughed. (176)
This may seem like sadism on the part of the mothers, but it probably functioned to soothe the bitterness arising from the child’s jealousy of a younger nursling. It would also help to settle some of the ambivalence toward the child’s mother, which comes about inevitably as a response to disciplining and other unavoidable frustrations. 
Another example Briggs describes seems even more pointlessly sadistic at first glance. A little girl’s aunt takes her hand and puts it on a little boy’s head, saying, “Pull his hair.” The girl doesn’t respond, so her aunt yanks on the boy’s hair herself, making him think the girl had done it. They quickly become embroiled in a “battle royal,” urged on by several adults who find it uproarious. These adults do, however, end up stopping the fight before any serious harm can be done. As horrible as this trick may seem, Briggs believes it serves to instill in the children a strong distaste for fighting because the experience is so unpleasant for them. They also learn “that it is better not to be noticed than to be playfully made the center of attention and laughed at” (177). What became clear to Briggs over time was that the teasing she kept witnessing wasn’t just designed to teach specific lessons but that it was also tailored to the child’s specific stage of development. She writes,
Indeed, since the games were consciously conceived of partly as tests of a child’s ability to cope with his or her situation, the tendency was to focus on a child’s known or expected difficulties. If a child had just acquired a sibling, the game might revolve around the question: “Do you love your new baby sibling? Why don’t you kill him or her?” If it was a new piece of clothing that the child had acquired, the question might be: “Why don’t you die so I can have it?” And if the child had been recently adopted, the question might be: “Who’s your daddy?” (172)
As unpleasant as these tests can be for the children, they never entail any actual danger—Inuit adults would probably agree Hector Salamanca went a bit too far—and they always take place in circumstances and settings where the only threats and anxieties come from the hypothetical, playful dilemmas and conflicts. Briggs explains,
A central idea of Inuit socialization is to “cause thought”: isumaqsayuq. According to [Arlene] Stairs, isumaqsayuq, in North Baffin, characterizes Inuit-style education as opposed to the Western variety. Warm and tender interactions with children help create an atmosphere in which thought can be safely caused, and the questions and dramas are well designed to elicit it. More than that, and as an integral part of thought, the dramas stimulate emotion. (173)
Part of the exercise then seems to be to introduce the children to their own feelings. Prior to having their sibling’s life threatened, the children may not have any idea how they’d feel in the event of that sibling’s death. After the test, however, it becomes much more difficult for them to entertain thoughts of harming their brother or sister—the thought alone will probably be unpleasant.
            Briggs also points out that the games send the implicit message to the children that they can be trusted to arrive at the moral solution. Hector knows Leonel won’t let his brother drown—and Leonel learns that his uncle knows this about him. The Inuit adults who tease and tempt children are letting them know they have faith in the children’s ability to resist their selfish or aggressive impulses. Discussing Briggs’s work in his book Moral Origins: The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism, and Shame, anthropologist Christopher Boehm suggests that evolution has endowed children with the social and moral emotions we refer to collectively as consciences, but these inborn moral sentiments need to be activated and shaped through socialization. He writes,
On the one side there will always be our usefully egoistic selfish tendencies, and on the other there will be our altruistic or generous impulses, which also can advance our fitness because altruism and sympathy are valued by our peers. The conscience helps us to resolve such dilemmas in ways that are socially acceptable, and these Inuit parents seem to be deliberately “exercising” the consciences of their children to make morally socialized adults out of them. (226)
The Inuit-style moral dilemma games seem strange, even shocking, to people from industrialized societies, and so it’s clear they’re not a normal part of children’s upbringing in every culture. They don’t even seem to be all that common among hunter-gatherers outside the region of the Arctic. Boehm writes, however,
Deliberately and stressfully subjecting children to nasty hypothetical dilemmas is not universal among foraging nomads, but as we’ll see with Nisa, everyday life also creates real moral dilemmas that can involve Kalahari children similarly. (226)
Boehm goes on to recount an episode from anthropologist Marjorie Shostak’s famous biography Nisa: The Life and Words of a !Kung Woman to show that parents all the way on the opposite side of the world from where Briggs did her fieldwork sometimes light on similar methods for stimulating their children’s moral development.
Nisa seems to have been a greedy and impulsive child. When her pregnant mother tried to wean her, she would have none of it. At one point, she even went so far as to sneak into the hut while her mother was asleep and try to suckle without waking her up. Throughout the pregnancy, Nisa continually expressed ambivalence toward the upcoming birth of her sibling, so much so that her parents anticipated there might be some problems. The !Kung resort to infanticide in certain dire circumstances, and Nisa’s parents probably reasoned she was at least somewhat familiar with the coping mechanism many other parents used when killing a newborn was necessary. What they’d do is treat the baby as an object, not naming it or in any other way recognizing its identity as a family member. Nisa explained to Shostak how her parents used this knowledge to impart a lesson about her baby brother.
After he was born, he lay there, crying. I greeted him, “Ho, ho, my baby brother! Ho, ho, I have a little brother! Some day we’ll play together.” But my mother said, “What do you think this thing is? Why are you talking to it like that? Now, get up and go back to the village and bring me my digging stick.” I said, “What are you going to dig?” She said, “A hole. I’m going to dig a hole so I can bury the baby. Then you, Nisa, will be able to nurse again.” I refused. “My baby brother? My little brother? Mommy, he’s my brother! Pick him up and carry him back to the village. I don’t want to nurse!” Then I said, “I’ll tell Daddy when he comes home!” She said, “You won’t tell him. Now, run back and bring me my digging stick. I’ll bury him so you can nurse again. You’re much too thin.” I didn’t want to go and started to cry. I sat there, my tears falling, crying and crying. But she told me to go, saying she wanted my bones to be strong. So, I left and went back to the village, crying as I walked. (The weaning episode occurs on pgs. 46-57)
Again, this may strike us as cruel, but by threatening her brother’s life, Nisa’s mother succeeded in triggering her natural affection for him, thus tipping the scales of her ambivalence to ensure the protective and loving feelings won out over the bitter and jealous ones. This example was extreme enough that Nisa remembered it well into adulthood, but Boehm sees it as evidence that real life reliably offers up dilemmas parents all over the world can use to instill morals in their children. He writes, 
I believe that all hunter-gatherer societies offer such learning experiences, not only in the real-life situations children are involved with, but also in those they merely observe. What the Inuit whom Briggs studied in Cumberland Sound have done is to not leave this up to chance. And the practice would appear to be widespread in the Arctic. Children are systematically exposed to life’s typical stressful moral dilemmas, and often hypothetically, as a training ground that helps to turn them into adults who have internalized the values of their groups. (234)
One of the reasons such dilemmas, whether real or hypothetical or merely observed, are effective as teaching tools is that they bypass the threat to personal autonomy that tends to accompany direct instruction. Imagine Tío Salamanca simply scolding Leonel for wishing his brother dead—it would have only aggravated his resentment and sparked defiance. Leonel would probably also harbor some bitterness toward his uncle for unjustly defending Marco. In any case, he would have been stubbornly resistant to the lesson. Winston Churchill nailed the sentiment when he said, “Personally, I am always ready to learn, although I don’t always like being taught.” The Inuit-style moral dilemmas force the children to come up with the right answer on their own, a task that requires the integration and balancing of short and long term desires, individual and group interests, and powerful albeit contradictory emotions. The skills that go into solving such dilemmas are indistinguishable from the qualities we recognize as maturity, self-knowledge, generosity, poise, and wisdom. 
For the children Briggs witnessed being subjected to these moral tests, the understanding that the dilemmas were in fact only hypothetical developed gradually as they matured. For the youngest ones, the stakes were real and the solutions were never clear at the onset. Briggs explains that
while the interaction between small children and adults was consistently good-humored, benign, and playful on the part of the adults, it taxed the children to—or beyond—the limits of their ability to understand, pushing them to expand their horizons, and testing them to see how much they had grown since the last encounter. (173)
What this suggests is that there isn’t always a simple declarative lesson—a moral to the story, as it were—imparted in these games. Instead, the solutions to the dilemmas can often be open-ended, and the skills the children practice can thus be more general and abstract than some basic law or principle. Briggs goes on,
Adult players did not make it easy for children to thread their way through the labyrinth of tricky proposals, questions, and actions, and they did not give answers to the children or directly confirm the conclusions the children came to. On the contrary, questioning a child’s first facile answers, they turned situations round and round, presenting first one aspect then another, to view. They made children realize their emotional investment in all possible outcomes, and then allowed them to find their own way out of the dilemmas that had been created—or perhaps, to find ways of living with unresolved dilemmas. Since children were unaware that the adults were “only playing,” they could believe that their own decisions would determine their fate. And since the emotions aroused in them might be highly conflicted and contradictory—love as well as jealousy, attraction as well as fear—they did not always know what they wanted to decide. (174-5)
As the children mature, they become more adept at distinguishing between real and hypothetical problems. Indeed, Briggs suggests one of the ways adults recognize children’s budding maturity is that they begin to treat the dilemmas as a game, ceasing to take them seriously, and ceasing to take themselves as seriously as they did when they were younger.
Brian Boyd
            In his book On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction, literary scholar Brian Boyd theorizes that the fictional narratives that humans engage one another with in every culture all over the world, be they in the form of religious myths, folklore, or plays and novels, can be thought of as a type of cognitive play—similar to the hypothetical moral dilemmas of the Inuit. He sees storytelling as an adaption that encourages us to train the mental faculties we need to function in complex societies. The idea is that evolution ensures that adaptive behaviors tend to be pleasurable, and thus many animals playfully and joyously engage in activities in low-stakes, relatively safe circumstances that will prepare them to engage in similar activities that have much higher stakes and are much more dangerous. Boyd explains,
The more pleasure that creatures have in play in safe contexts, the more they will happily expend energy in mastering skills needed in urgent or volatile situations, in attack, defense, and social competition and cooperation. This explains why in the human case we particularly enjoy play that develops skills needed in flight (chase, tag, running) and fight (rough-and-tumble, throwing as a form of attack at a distance), in recovery of balance (skiing, surfing, skateboarding), and individual and team games. (92)
The skills most necessary to survive and thrive in human societies are the same ones Inuit adults help children develop with the hypothetical dilemma’s Briggs describes. We should expect fiction then to feature similar types of moral dilemmas. Some stories may be designed to convey simple messages—“Don’t hurt your brother,” “Don’t stray from the path”—but others might be much more complicated; they may not even have any viable solutions at all. “Art prepares minds for open-ended learning and creativity,” Boyd writes; “fiction specifically improves our social cognition and our thinking beyond the here and now” (209). 
One of the ways the cognitive play we call novels or TV shows differs from Inuit dilemma games is that the fictional characters take over center stage from the individual audience members. Instead of being forced to decide on a course of action ourselves, we watch characters we’ve become emotionally invested in try to come up with solutions to the dilemmas. When these characters are first introduced to us, our feelings toward them will be based on the same criteria we’d apply to real people who could potentially become a part of our social circles. Boyd explains,
Even more than other social species, we depend on information about others’ capacities, dispositions, intentions, actions, and reactions. Such “strategic information” catches our attention so forcefully that fiction can hold our interest, unlike almost anything else, for hours at a stretch. (130)
We favor characters who are good team players—who communicate honestly, who show concern for others, and who direct aggression toward enemies and cheats—for obvious reasons, but we also assess them in terms of what they might contribute to the group. Characters with exceptional strength, beauty, intelligence, or artistic ability are always especially attention-worthy. Of course, characters with qualities that make them sometimes an asset and sometimes a liability represent a moral dilemma all on their own—it’s no wonder such characters tend to be so compelling.
            The most common fictional dilemma pits a character we like against one or more characters we hate—the good team player versus the power- or money-hungry egoist. We can think of the most straightforward plot as an encroachment of chaos on the providential moral order we might otherwise take for granted. When the bad guy is finally defeated, it’s like a toy that was snatched away from us has just been returned. We embrace the moral order all the more vigorously. But of course our stories aren’t limited to this one basic formula. Around the turn of the last century, the French writer Georges Polti, following up on the work of Italian playwright Carlo Gozzi, tried to write a comprehensive list of all the basic plots in plays and novels, and flipping through his book The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations, you find that with few exceptions (“Daring Enterprise,” “The Enigma,” “Recovery of a Lost One”) the situations aren’t simply encounters between characters with conflicting goals, or characters who run into obstacles in chasing after their desires. The conflicts are nearly all moral, either between a virtuous character and a less virtuous one or between selfish or greedy impulses and more altruistic ones. Polti’s book could be called The Thirty-Odd Moral Dilemmas in Fiction. Hector Salamanca would be happy (not really) to see the thirteenth situation: “Enmity of Kinsmen,” the first example of which is “Hatred of Brothers” (49).
Sherlock Holmes - from "The Sign of Four"
One type of fictional dilemma that seems to be particularly salient in American society today pits our impulse to punish wrongdoers against our admiration for people with exceptional abilities. Characters like Walter White in Breaking Bad win us over with qualities like altruism, resourcefulness, and ingenuity—but then they go on to behave in strikingly, though somehow not obviously, immoral ways. Variations on Conan-Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes abound; he’s the supergenius who’s also a dick (get the double-entendre?): the BBC’s Sherlock (by far the best), the movies starring Robert Downey Jr., the upcoming series featuring an Asian female Watson (Lucy Liu)—plus all the minor variations like The Mentalist and House 
Though the idea that fiction is a type of low-stakes training simulation to prepare people cognitively and emotionally to take on difficult social problems in real life may not seem all that earthshattering, conceiving of stories as analogous to Inuit moral dilemmas designed to exercise children’s moral reasoning faculties can nonetheless help us understand why worries about the examples set by fictional characters are so often misguided. Many parents and teachers noisily complain about sex or violence or drug use in media. Academic literary critics condemn the way this or that author portrays women or minorities. Underlying these concerns is the crude assumption that stories simply encourage audiences to imitate the characters, that those audiences are passive receptacles for the messages—implicit or explicit—conveyed through the narrative. To be fair, these worries may be well placed when it comes to children so young they lack the cognitive sophistication necessary for separating their thoughts and feelings about protagonists from those they have about themselves, and are thus prone to take the hero for a simple model of emulation-worthy behavior. But, while Inuit adults communicate to children that they can be trusted to arrive at a right or moral solution, the moralizers in our culture betray their utter lack of faith in the intelligence and conscience of the people they try to protect from the corrupting influence of stories with imperfect or unsavory characters. 

           This type of self-righteous and overbearing attitude toward readers and viewers strikes me as more likely by orders of magnitude to provoke defiant resistance to moral lessons than the North Baffin’s isumaqsayuq approach. In other words, a good story is worth a thousand sermons. But if the moral dilemma at the core of the plot has an easy solution—if you can say precisely what the moral of the story is—it’s probably not a very good story.

The Criminal Sublime: Walter White's Brutally Plausible Journey to the Heart of Darkness in Breaking Bad

Art by Buffalo Bonker

Even non-literary folk think they know what Nabokov’s Lolita is about, but if you’ve never read it you really have no idea. If ever a work of literature transcended its topic and confounded any attempt at neat summary, this is it. Over the past half century, many have wondered why a novelist with linguistic talents as prodigious as Nabokov’s would choose to detail the exploits of such an unsavory character—that is, unless he shared his narrator’s unpardonable predilection (he didn’t). But Nabokov knew exactly what he was doing when he created Humbert Humbert, a character uniquely capable of taking readers beyond the edge of the map of normal human existence to where the monsters be. The violation of taboo—of decency—is integral to the peculiar and profound impact of the story. Humbert, in the final scene of the novel, attempts to convey the feeling as he commits one last criminal act: 

The road now stretched across open country, and it occurred to me—not by way of protest, not as a symbol, or anything like that, but merely as a novel experience—that since I had disregarded all laws of humanity, I might as well disregard the rules of traffic. So I crossed to the left side of the highway and checked the feeling, and the feeling was good. It was a pleasant diaphragmal melting, with elements of diffused tactility, all this enhanced by the thought that nothing could be nearer to the elimination of basic physical laws than driving on the wrong side of the road. In a way, it was a very spiritual itch. Gently, dreamily, not exceeding twenty miles an hour, I drove on that queer mirror side. Traffic was light. Cars that now and then passed me on the side I had abandoned to them, honked at me brutally. Cars coming towards me wobbled, swerved, and cried out in fear. Presently I found myself approaching populated places. Passing through a red light was like a forbidden sip of Burgundy when I was a child. (306)

Thus begins a passage no brief quotation can begin to do justice to. Nor can you get the effect by flipping directly to the pages. You have to earn it by following Humbert for the duration of his appalling, tragic journey. Along the way, you’ll come to discover that the bizarre fascination the novel inspires relies almost exclusively on the contemptibly unpleasant, sickeningly vulnerable and sympathetic narrator, who Martin Amis (himself a novelist specializing in unsavory protagonists) aptly describes as “irresistible and unforgiveable.” The effect builds over the three hundred odd pages as you are taken deeper and deeper into this warped world of compulsively embraced dissolution, until that final scene whose sublimity is rare even in the annals of great literature. Reading it, experiencing it, you don’t so much hold your breath as you simply forget to breathe.  

            When Walter White, the chemistry teacher turned meth cook in AMC’s excruciatingly addictive series Breaking Bad, closes his eyes and lets his now iconic Pontiac Aztek, the dull green of dollar bill backdrops, veer into the lane of oncoming traffic in the show’s third season, we are treated to a similar sense of peeking through the veil that normally occludes our view of the abyss, glimpsing the face of a man who has slipped through a secret partition, a man who may never find his way back. Walt, played by Brian Cranston, originally broke bad after receiving a diagnosis of inoperable lung cancer and being told his remaining time on earth would be measurable in months rather than years. After seeing a news report of a drug bust and hearing from his DEA agent brother-in-law Hank how much money is routinely confiscated in such operations, Walt goes on a ride-along to get a closer look. Waiting in the backseat as Hank and his fellow agents raid a house an informant tipped them off to, Walt sees a former underachieving student of his named Jesse (Aaron Paul) sneaking out of the upstairs window of the house next door, where he’d absconded to have sex with his neighbor. Walt keeps his mouth shut, letting Jesse escape, and then searches him out later that night to propose they work together to cook and sell meth. From the outset, Walt’s overriding purpose is to make a wad of cash before his cancer kills him, so his family won’t be left with nothing.

Jesse Pinkman. Art by Martin Woutisseth

            That’s the first plotline and the most immediate source of suspense. The fun of watching the show comes from seeing develop the unlikely and fractious but unbreakably profound friendship between Walt and Jesse—and from seeing how again and again the normally nebbishy Walt manages to MacGyver them both out of ever more impossible situations. The brilliant plotting by show creator Vince Gilligan and his writers is consistently worthy of the seamless and moving performances of the show’s actors. I can’t think of a single episode, or even a single scene, that falls flat. But what makes Breaking Bad more than another in the growing list of shows in the bucket list or middleclass crime genres, what makes it so immanently important, is the aspect of the show dealing with the consequences to Walt’s moral character of  his increasing entanglement in the underworld. The imminent danger to his soul reveals itself most tellingly in the first season when he returns to his car after negotiating a deal with Tuco, a murderously amped meth dealer with connections to a Mexican cartel. Jesse had already tried to set up an arrangement, with he and Walt serving as producers and Tuco as distributor, but Tuco, after snorting a sample off the blade of a bowie knife, beat Jesse to a pulp, stealing the pound of meth he’d brought to open the deal.

Walt returns to the same office after seeing Jesse in the hospital and hearing about what happened. After going through the same meticulous screening process and finding himself face to face with Tuco, Walt starts dictating terms, insisting that the crazy cartel guy with all the armed henchmen standing around pay extra for his partner’s pain and suffering. Walt has even brought along what looks like another pound of meth. When Tuco breaks into incredulous laugher, saying, “Let me get this straight: I steal your dope, I beat the piss out of your mule boy, and then you walk in here and bring me more meth?” Walt tells him he’s got one thing wrong. Holding up a large crystal from the bag Tuco has opened on his desk, he says, “This is not meth,” and then throws it against the outside wall of the office. The resultant explosion knocks everyone senseless and sends debris raining down on the street below. As the dust clears, Walter takes up the rest of the bag of fulminated mercury, threatening to kill them all unless Tuco agrees to the deal. He does.

This is not meth
            After impassively marching back downstairs, crossing the street to the Aztek, and sidling in, Walt sits alone, digging handfuls of cash out of the bag Tuco handed him. Dropping the money back in the bag, he lifts his clenched fists and growls out a long, triumphant “Yeah!” sounding his barbaric yawp over the steering wheel. And we in the audience can’t help sharing his triumph. He’s not only secured a distributor—albeit a dangerously unstable one—opening the way for him to make that pile of money he wants to leave for his family; he’s also put a big scary bully in his place, making him pay, literally, for what he did to Jesse. At a deeper level, though, we also understand that Walt’s yawp is coming after a long period of him being a “hounded slave”—even though the connection with that other Walt, Walt Whitman, won’t be highlighted until season 3.

The final showdown with Tuco happens in season 2 when he tries to abscond with Walter and Jesse to Mexico after the cops raid his office and arrest all his guys. Once the two hapless amateurs have escaped from the border house where Tuco held them prisoner, Walt has to come up with an explanation for why he’s been missing for so long. He decides to pretend to having gone into a fugue state, which had him mindlessly wandering around for days, leaving him with no memory of where he’d gone. To sell the lie, he walks into a convenience store, strips naked, and stands with a dazed expression in front of the frozen foods. The problem with faking a fugue state, though, is that the doctors they bring you to will be worried that you might go into another one, and so Walt escapes his captor in the border town only to find himself imprisoned again, this time in the hospital. In order to be released, he has to convince a psychiatrist that there’s no danger of recurrence. After confirming with the therapist that he can count on complete confidentiality, Walt confesses that there was no fugue state, explaining that he didn’t really go anywhere but “just ran.” When asked why, he responds,


Doctor, my wife is seven months pregnant with a baby we didn't intend. My fifteen-year old son has cerebral palsy. I am an extremely overqualified high school chemistry teacher. When I can work, I make $43,700 per year. I have watched all of my colleagues and friends surpass me in every way imaginable. And within eighteen months, I will be dead. And you ask why I ran?

Thus he covers his omission of one truth with the revelation of another truth. In the show’s first episode, we see Walt working a side job at a car wash, where his boss makes him leave his regular post at the register to go outside and scrub the tires of a car—which turns out to belong to one of his most disrespectful students. At home, his wife Skyler (played by Anna Gun) insists he tell his boss at the carwash he can’t keep working late. She also nags him for using the wrong credit card to buy printer ink. When Walt’s old friends and former colleagues, Elliott and Gretchen Schwartz, who it seems have gone on to make a mighty fortune thanks in large part to Walt’s contribution to their company, offer to pay for his chemotherapy, Skyler can’t fathom why he would refuse the “charity.” We find out later that Walt and Gretchen were once in a relationship and that he’d left the company indignant with her and Elliott for some reason.

            What gradually becomes clear is that, in addition to the indignities he suffers at school and at the car wash, Skyler is subjecting him to the slow boil of her domestic despotism. At one point, after overhearing a mysterious phone call, she star-sixty-nines Jesse, and then confronts Walt with his name. Walt covers the big lie with a small one, telling her that Jesse has been selling him pot. When Skyler proceeds to nag him, Walt, with his growing sense of empowerment, asks her to “climb down out of my ass.” Not willing to cede her authority, she later goes directly to Jesse’s house and demands that he stop selling her husband weed. “Good job wearing the pants in the family,” Jesse jeers at him later. But it’s not just Walt she pushes around; over the first four seasons, Skyler never meets a man she doesn’t end up bullying, and she has the maddening habit of insisting on her own reasonableness and moral superiority as she does it.

In a scene from season 1 that’s downright painful to watch, Skyler stages an intervention, complete with a “talking pillow” (kind of like the conch in Lord of the Flies), which she claims is to let all the family members express their feelings about Walt’s decision not to get treatment. Of course, when her sister Marie goes off-message, suggesting chemo might be a horrible idea if Walt’s going to die anyway, Skyler is outraged. The point of the intervention, it becomes obvious, is to convince Walt to swallow his pride and take Elliott and Gretchen’s charity. As Skyler and Marie are busy shouting at each other, Walt finally stands up and snatches the pillow. Just as Marie suggested, he reveals that he doesn’t want to spend his final days in balding, nauseated misery, digging his family into a financial hole only to increase his dismal chances of surviving by a couple percentage points. He goes on,

What I want—what I need—is a choice. Sometimes I feel like I never actually make any of my own. Choices, I mean. My entire life, it just seems I never, you know, had a real say about any of it. With this last one—cancer—all I have left is how I choose to approach this.

This sense of powerlessness is what ends up making Walt dangerous, what makes him feel that all-consuming exultation and triumph every time he outsmarts some intimidating criminal, every time he beats a drug kingpin at his own game. He eventually relents and gets the expensive treatment, but he pays for it his own way, on his own terms. Of course, he can't tell Skyler where the money is really coming from. One of the odd things about watching the show is that you realize during the scenes when Walt is fumblingly trying to get his wife to back off you can’t help hoping he escapes her inquisition so he can go take on one of those scary gun-toting drug dealers again.

One of the ironies that emerge in the two latest seasons is that when Skyler finds out Walt’s been cooking meth her decision not to turn him in is anything but reasonable and moral. She even goes so far as to insist that she be allowed to take part in his illegal activities in the role of a bookkeeper, so she can make sure the laundering of Walt’s money doesn’t leave a trail leading back to the family. Walt already has a lawyer, Saul Goodman (one of the best characters), who takes care of the money, but she can’t stand being left out—so she ends up bullying Saul too. When Walt points out that she doesn’t really need to be involved, that he can continue keeping her in the dark so she can maintain plausible deniability, she scoffs, “I’d rather have them think I’m Bonnie What’s-her-name than some complete idiot.” In spite of her initial reluctance, Skyler reveals she’s just like Walt in her susceptibility to the allure of crime, a weakness borne of disappointment, indignity, and powerlessness. And, her guilt-tripping jabs at Walt for his mendacity notwithstanding, she turns out to be a far better liar than he is—because, as a fiction writer manqué, she actually delights in weaving and enacting convincing tales.    

            In fact, and not surprising considering the title of the series is Breaking Bad, every one of the main characters—except Walter Jr.—eventually turns to crime. Hank, frustrated at his ongoing failure to track down the source of the mysterious blue meth that keeps turning up on the streets, discovers that Jesse is somehow involved, and then, after Walt and Jesse successfully manage to destroy the telltale evidence, he loses his tempter and beats Jesse so badly he ends up in the hospital again. Marie, Skyler’s sister and Hank’s wife, is a shoplifter, and, after Hank gets shot and sinks into a bitter funk as he recovers, she starts posing as someone looking for a new home, telling elaborate lies about her life story to real estate agents as she pokes around with her sticky fingers in all the houses she visits. Skyler, even before signing on to help with Walt’s money laundering, helps Ted Beneke, the boss she has an affair with, cook his own books so he can avoid paying taxes. Some of the crimes are understandable in terms of harried or slighted people lashing out or acting up. Some of them are disturbing for how reasonably the decision to commit them is arrived at. The most interesting crimes on the show, however, are the ones that are part response to wounded pride and part perfectly reasonable—both motives clear but impossible to disentangle.

Art by Beerpaintings
            The scene that has Walt veering onto the wrong side of the road a la Humbert Humbert occurs in season 3. Walt was delighted when Saul helped him set up an arrangement with Gustavo Fring similar to the one he and Jesse had with Tuco. Gus is a far cooler customer, and far more professional, disguising his meth distribution with his fast-food chicken chain Los Pollos Hermanos. He even hooks Walt up with a fancy underground lab, cleverly hidden beneath an industrial laundry. Walt had learned some time ago that his cancer treatment was working, and he’d already made over a million dollars. But what he comes to realize is that he’s already too deep in the drug producing business, that the only thing keeping him alive is his usefulness to Gus. After a meeting in which he expresses his gratitude, Walt asks Gus if he can continue cooking meth for him. No longer in it just long enough to make money for his family before he dies, Walt drives away, with no idea how long he will live, with an indefinite commitment to keeping up his criminal activities. All his circumstances have changed. The question becomes how Walt will change to adapt to them. He closes his eyes and doesn’t open them until he hears the honk of a semi.

            The most moving and compelling scenes in the series are the ones featuring Walt and Jesse’s struggles with their consciences as they’re forced to do increasingly horrible things. Jesse wonders how life can have any meaning at all if someone can do something as wrong as killing another human being and then just go on living like nothing happened. Both Walt and Jesse at times give up caring whether they live or die. Walt is actually so furious after hearing from his doctor that his cancer is in remission that he goes into the men’s room and punches the paper towel dispenser until the dents he’s making become smudged with blood from his knuckles. In season 3, he becomes obsessed with the “contamination” of the meth lab, which turns out to be nothing but a fly. Walt refuses to cook until they catch it, so Jesse sneaks him some sleeping pills to make sure they can finish cooking the day’s batch. In a narcotic haze, Walt reveals how lost and helpless he’s feeling. “I missed it,” he says.

There was some perfect moment that passed me right by. I had to have enough to leave them—that was the whole point. None of this makes any sense if I didn’t have enough. But it had to be before she found out—Skyler. It had to be before that.

“Perfect moment for what?” Jesse asks. “Are you saying you want to die?” Walt responds, “I’m saying I’ve lived too long. –You want them to actually miss you. You want their memories of you to be… But she just won’t understand.”

The theme of every type of human being having the potential to become almost any other type of human being runs throughout the series. Heisenberg, the nom de guerre Walt chooses for himself in the first season, refers to Werner Heisenberg, whose uncertainty principle in quantum mechanics holds that subatomic particles can exist in multiple states simultaneously. Song of Myself,” a poem in Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, the one in which he says he is a “hounded slave” and describes how he “sounded my barbaric yawp,” is about how the imagination makes it possible for us to empathize with, and even become, almost anyone. Whitman writes, “In all people I see myself, none more and not one a barleycorn less/ and the good or bad I say of myself I say of them” (section 20). Another line, perhaps the most famous, reads, “I am large, I contain multitudes” (section 51).

Walter White ends up reading Leaves of Grass in season 3 of Breaking Bad after a lab assistant hired by Gus introduces him to the poem, “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” to explain his love for the “magic” of chemistry. And in the next season Walt, in one of the only instances where he actually stands up to and silences Skyler, sings a rather surprising song of his own self. When she begins to suspect he’s in imminent danger, she tries to convince him he’s in over his head and that he should go to the police. Having turned away from her, he turns back, almost a different man entirely, and delivers a speech that has already become a standout moment in television history.

Who are you talking to right now? Who is it you think you see? Do you know how much I make a year? I mean, even if I told you, you wouldn’t believe it. Do you know what would happen if I suddenly decided to stop going into work? A business big enough that it could be listed on the Nasdaq goes belly up, disappears—it ceases to exist without me. No, you clearly don’t know who you’re talking to, so let me clue you in. I am not in danger, Skyler—I am the danger. A guy opens his door and gets shot and you think that of me? No, I am the one who knocks.

Just like the mysterious pink teddy bear floating in the White’s pool at the beginning of season 2, half its face scorched, one of its eyes dislodged, Walt turns out to have a very dark side. Though he manages to escape Gus at the end of season 4, the latest season (none of which I’ve seen yet) opens with him deciding to start up his own meth operation. Still, what makes this scene as indelibly poignant as it is shocking (and rousing) is that Walt really is in danger when he makes his pronouncement. He’s expecting to be killed at any moment.

Much of the commentary about the show to date has focused on the questions of just how bad Walt will end up breaking and at what point we will, or at least should, lose sympathy for him. Many viewers, like Emily Nussbaum, jumped ship at the end of season 4 when it was revealed that Walt had poisoned the five-year-old son of Jesse’s girlfriend as part of his intricate ruse to beat Gus. Jesse had been cozying up to Gus, so Walt made it look like he poisoned the kid because he knew his partner went berserk whenever anyone endangered a child. Nussbaum writes,

When Brock was near death in the I.C.U., I spent hours arguing with friends about who was responsible. To my surprise, some of the most hard-nosed cynics thought it inconceivable that it could be Walt—that might make the show impossible to take, they said. But, of course, it did nothing of the sort. Once the truth came out, and Brock recovered, I read posts insisting that Walt was so discerning, so careful with the dosage, that Brock could never have died. The audience has been trained by cable television to react this way: to hate the nagging wives, the dumb civilians, who might sour the fun of masculine adventure. “Breaking Bad” increases that cognitive dissonance, turning some viewers into not merely fans but enablers. (83)
Rolling Stone


Nussbaum’s judgy feminist blinders preclude any recognition of Skyler’s complicity and overweening hypocrisy. And she leaves out some pretty glaring details to bolster her case against Walt—most notably, that before we learn that it was Walt who poisoned Brock, we find out that the poison used was not the invariably lethal ricin Jesse thought it was, but the far less deadly Lily of the Valley.

Nussbaum strains to account for the show’s continuing appeal—its fascination—now that, by her accounting, Walt is beyond redemption. She suggests the diminishing screen time he gets as the show focuses on other characters is what saves it, even though the show has followed multiple plotlines from the beginning. (In an earlier blog post, she posits a “craving in every ‘good’ man for a secret life” as part of the basis for the show’s appeal—reading that, I experienced a pang of sympathy for her significant other.) What she doesn’t understand or can’t admit, placing herself contemptuously above the big bad male lead and his trashy, cable-addled fans, trying to watch the show after the same snobbish fashion as many superciliously insecure people watch Jerry Springer or Cops, is that the cognitive dissonance she refers to is precisely what makes the show the best among all the other great shows in the current golden age lineup. 

No one watching the show would argue that poisoning a child is the right thing to do—but in the circumstances Walt finds himself in, where making a child dangerously sick is the only way he can think of to save himself, his brother-in-law, Jesse, and the rest of his family, well, Nussbaum’s condemnation starts to look pretty glib. Gus even gave Walt the option of saving his family by simply not interfering with the hit he put on Hank—but Walt never even considered it. This isn’t to say that Walt isn’t now or won’t ever become a true bad guy, as the justifications and cognitive dissonance—along with his aggravated pride—keep ratcheting him toward greater horrors, but then so might we all.

Pillars of Creation
The show’s irresistible appeal comes from how seamlessly it weaves a dream spell over us that has us following right alongside Walt as he makes all these impossible decisions, stepping with him right off the map of the known world. The feeling can only be described as sublime, as if individual human concerns, even the most immensely important of them like human morality, are far too meager as ordering principles to offer any guidance or provide anything like an adequate understanding of the enormity of existence. When we return from this state of sublimity, if we have the luxury of returning, we experience the paradoxical realization that all our human concerns—morality, the sacrosanct innocence of children, the love of family—are all the more precious for being so pathetically meager.


I suspect no matter how bad Walter’s arrogance gets, how high his hubris soars, or how horribly he behaves, most viewers—even those like Nussbaum who can’t admit it—will still long for his redemption. Some of the most intensely gratifying scenes in the series (I’d be embarrassed if anyone saw how overjoyed I got at certain points watching this TV show) are the ones that have Walt suddenly realizing what the right thing to do is and overcoming his own cautious egotism to do it. But a much more interesting question than when, if ever, it will be time to turn against Walt is whether he can rightly be said to be the show’s moral center—or whether and when he ceded that role to Jesse. 

If Walt really is ultimately to be lost to the heart of darkness, Jesse will be the one who plays Marlow to his Kurtz. Though the only explicit allusion is Hank’s brief mention of Apocalypse Now, there is at least one interesting and specific parallel between the two stories. Kurtz, it is suggested, was corrupted not just by the wealth he accumulated by raiding native villages and stealing ivory; it was also the ease with which he got his native acolytes to worship him. He succumbed to the temptation of “getting himself adored,” as Marlow sneers. Kurtz had written a report for the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs, and Marlow explains,

The opening paragraph, however, in the light of later information, strikes me now as ominous. He began with the argument that whites, from the point of development we had arrived at, “must necessarily appear to them [savages] in the nature of supernatural beings—we approach them with the might as of a deity.”

What Marlowe discovers is that Kurtz did in fact take on the mantle of a deity after being abandoned to the jungle for too long, until his

nerves went wrong, and caused him to preside at certain midnight dances ending with unspeakable rites, which—as far as I reluctantly gathered from what I heard at various times—were offered up to him—do you understand?—to Mr. Kurtz himself.

The source of Walter White’s power is not his origins in a more advanced civilization but his superior knowledge of chemistry. No one else can make meth as pure as Walt’s. He even uses chemistry to build the weapons he uses to prevail over all the drug dealers he encounters as he moves up the ranks over the seasons.

Jesse has his moments of triumph too, but so far he’s always been much more grounded than Walt. It’s easy to imagine a plotline that has Jesse being the one who finally realizes that Walt “has to go,” the verdict he renders for anyone who imperils children. Allowing for some (major) dialectal adjustments, it’s even possible to imagine Jesse confronting his former partner after he’s made it to the top of a criminal empire, and his thinking along lines similar to Marlow’s when he finally catches up to Kurtz:

I had to deal with a being to whom I could not appeal in the name of anything high or low. I had, even like the niggers, to invoke him—himself—his own exalted and incredible degradation. There was nothing either above or below him, and I knew it. He had kicked himself loose of the earth. Confound the man! he had kicked the very earth to pieces. He was alone, and I before him did not know whether I stood on the ground or floated in the air… But his soul was mad. Being alone in the wilderness, it had looked within itself, and, by heavens! I tell you, it had gone mad.

Kurtz dies whispering, “The horror, the horror,” as if reflecting in his final moments on all the violence and bloodshed he’d caused—or as if making his final pronouncement about the nature of the world he’s departing. Living amid such horrors, though, our only recourse, these glimpses into sublime enormities help us realize, is to more fully embrace our humanity. We can never comfortably dismiss these stories of men who become monsters as mere cautionary tales. That would be too simple. They gesture toward something much more frightening and much more important than that. Humbert Humbert hints as much in the closing of Lolita.

This then is my story. I have reread it. It has bits of marrow sticking to it, and blood, and beautiful bright-green flies. At this or that twist of it I feel my slippery self eluding me, gliding into deeper and darker waters than I care to probe. (308)

But he did probe those forbidden waters. And we’re all better for it. Both Kurtz and Humbert are doomed from the first page of their respective stories. But I seriously doubt I’m alone in holding out hope that when Walter White finds himself edging up to the abyss, Jesse, or Walter Jr., or someone else is there to pull him back—and Skyler isn’t there to push him over. Though I may forget to breathe I won’t hold my breath.




And Bad Men (on that other great AMC show)

Sympathizing with Psychos: Why We Want to See Alex Escape His Fate as A Clockwork Orange

            Phil Connors, the narcissistic weatherman played by Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, is, in the words of Larry, the cameraman played by Chris Elliott, a “prima donna,” at least at the beginning of the movie. He’s selfish, uncharitable, and condescending. As the plot progresses, however, Phil undergoes what is probably the most plausible transformation in all of cinema—having witnessed what he’s gone through over the course of the movie, we’re more than willing to grant the possibility that even the most narcissistic of people might be redeemed through such an ordeal. The odd thing, though, is that when you watch Groundhog Day you don’t exactly hate Phil at the beginning of the movie. Somehow, even as we take note of his most off-putting characteristics, we’re never completely put off. As horrible as he is, he’s not really even unpleasant. The pleasure of watching the movie must to some degree stem from our desire to see Phil redeemed. We want him to learn his lesson so we don’t have to condemn him or write him off. 

            In a recent article for the New Yorker, Jonathan Franzen explores what he calls “the problem of sympathy” by considering his own responses to the novels of Edith Wharton, who herself strikes him as difficult to sympathize with. Lily Bart, the protagonist of The House of Mirth, is similar to Wharton in many respects, the main difference being that Lily is beautiful (and of course Franzen was immediately accused of misogyny for pointing this out). Of Lily, Franzen writes,
She is, basically, the worst sort of party girl, and Wharton, in much the same way that she didn’t even try to be soft or charming in her personal life, eschews the standard novelistic tricks for warming or softening Lily’s image—the book is devoid of pet-the-dog moments. So why is it so hard to stop reading Lily’s story? (63)
Franzen weighs several hypotheses: her beauty, her freedom to act on impulses we would never act on, her financial woes, her aging. But ultimately he settles on the conclusion that all of these factors are incidental.
What determines whether we sympathize with a fictional character, according to Franzen, is the strength and immediacy of his or her desire. What propels us through the story then is our curiosity about whether or not the character will succeed in satisfying that desire. He explains,
One of the great perplexities of fiction—and the quality that makes the novel the quintessentially liberal art form—is that we experience sympathy so readily for characters we wouldn’t like in real life. Becky Sharp may be a soulless social climber, Tom Ripley may be a sociopath, the Jackal may want to assassinate the French President, Mickey Sabbath may be a disgustingly self-involved old goat, and Raskolnikov may want to get away with murder, but I find myself rooting for each of them. This is sometimes, no doubt, a function of the lure of the forbidden, the guilty pleasure of imagining what it would be like to be unburdened by scruples. In every case, though, the alchemical agent by which fiction transmutes my secret envy or my ordinary dislike of “bad” people into sympathy is desire. Apparently, all a novelist has to do is give a character a powerful desire (to rise socially, to get away with murder) and I, as a reader, become helpless not to make that desire my own. (63)
While I think Franzen here highlights a crucial point about the intersection between character and plot, namely that it is easier to assess how well characters fare at the story’s end if we know precisely what they want—and also what they dread—it’s clear nonetheless that he’s being flip in his dismissal of possible redeeming qualities. Emily Gould, writing for The Awl, expostulates in a parenthetical to her statement that her response to Lily was quite different from Franzen’s that “she was so trapped! There were no right choices! How could anyone find watching that ‘delicious!’ I cry every time!”
            Focusing on any single character in a story the way Franzen does leaves out important contextual cues about personality. In a story peopled with horrible characters, protagonists need only send out the most modest of cues signaling their altruism or redeemability for readers to begin to want to see them prevail. For Milton’s Satan to be sympathetic, readers have to see God as significantly less so. In Groundhog Day, you have creepy and annoying characters like Larry and Ned Ryerson to make Phil look slightly better. And here is Franzen on the denouement of House of Mirth, describing his response to Lily reflecting on the timestamp placed on her youthful beauty:
But only at the book’s very end, when Lily finds herself holding another woman’s baby and experiencing a host of unfamiliar emotions, does a more powerful sort of urgency crash into view. The financial potential of her looks is revealed to have been an artificial value, in contrast to their authentic value in the natural scheme of human reproduction. What has been simply a series of private misfortunes for Lily suddenly becomes something larger: the tragedy of a New York City social world whose priorities are so divorced from nature that they kill the emblematically attractive female who ought, by natural right, to thrive. The reader is driven to search for an explanation of the tragedy in Lily’s appallingly deforming social upbringing—the kind of upbringing that Wharton herself felt deformed by—and to pity her for it, as, per Aristotle, a tragic protagonist must be pitied. (63)
As Gould points out, though, Franzen is really late in coming to an appreciation of the tragedy, even though his absorption with Lily’s predicament suggests he feels sympathy for her all along. Launching into a list of all the qualities that supposedly make the character unsympathetic, he writes, “The social height that she’s bent on securing is one that she herself acknowledges is dull and sterile” (62), a signal of ambivalence that readers like Gould take as a hopeful sign that she might eventually be redeemed. In any case, few of the other characters seem willing to acknowledge anything of the sort.
            Perhaps the most extreme instance in which a bad character wins the sympathy of readers and viewers by being cast with a character or two who are even worse is that of Alex in Anthony Burgess’s novella A Clockwork Orange and the Stanley Kubrick film based on it. (Patricia Highsmith’s Mr. Ripley is another clear contender.) How could we possibly like Alex? He’s a true sadist who matter-of-factly describes the joyous thrill he gets from committing acts of “ultraviolence” against his victims, and he’s a definite candidate for a clinical diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder. He’s also probably the best evidence for Franzen’s theory that sympathy is reducible to desire. It should be noted, however, that, in keeping with William Flesch’s theory of narrative interest, A Clockwork Orange is nothing if not a story of punishment. In his book Comeuppance, Flesch suggests that when we become emotionally enmeshed with stories we’re monitoring the characters for evidence of either altruism or selfishness and henceforth attending to the plot, anxious to see the altruists rewarded and the selfish get their comeuppance. Alex seems to strain the theory, though, because all he seems to want to do is hurt people, and yet audiences tend to be more disturbed than gratified by his drawn-out, torturous punishment. For many, there’s even some relief at the end of the movie and the original American version of the book when Alex makes it through all of his ordeals with his taste for ultraviolence restored.  
Anthony Burgess

            Many obvious factors mitigate the case against Alex, perhaps foremost among them the whimsical tone of his narration, along with the fictional dialect which lends to the story a dream-like quality, which is also brilliantly conveyed in the film. There’s something cartoonish about all the characters who suffer at the hands of Alex and his droogs, and almost all of them return to the story later to exact their revenge. You might even say there’s a Groundhogesque element of repetition in the plot. The audience quickly learns too that all the characters who should be looking out for Alex—he’s only fifteen, we find out after almost eighty pages—are either feckless zombies like his parents, who have been sapped of all vitality by their clockwork occupations, or only see him as a means to furthering their own ambitions. “If you have no consideration for your own horrible self you at least might have some for me, who have sweated over you,” his Post-Corrective Advisor P.R. Deltoid says to him. “A big black mark, I tell you in confidence, for every one we don’t reclaim, a confession of failure for every one of you that ends up in the stripy hole” (42). Even the prison charlie (he’s a chaplain, get it?) who serves as a mouthpiece to deliver Burgess’s message treats him as a means to an end. Alex explains,
The idea was, I knew, that this charlie was after becoming a very great holy chelloveck in the world of Prison Religion, and he wanted a real horrorshow testimonial from the Governor, so he would go and govoreet quietly to the Governor now and then about what dark plots were brewing among the plennies, and he would get a lot of this cal from me. (91)
Alex ends up receiving his worst punishment at the hands of the man against whom he’s committed his worst crime. F. Alexander is the author of the metafictionally titled A Clockwork Orange, a treatise against the repressive government, and in the first part of the story Alex and his droogs, wearing masks, beat him mercilessly before forcing him to watch them gang rape his wife, who ends up dying from wounds she sustains in the attack. Later, when Alex gets beaten up himself and inadvertently stumbles back to the house that was the scene of the crime, F. Alexander recognizes him only as the guinea pig for a government experiment in brainwashing criminals he’s read about in newspapers. He takes Alex in and helps him, saying, “I think you can be used, poor boy. I think you can help dislodge this overbearing Government” (175). After he recognizes Alex from his nadsat dialect as the ringleader of the gang who killed his wife, he decides the boy will serve as a better propaganda tool if he commits suicide. Locking him in a room and blasting the Beethoven music he once loved but was conditioned in prison to find nauseating to the point of wishing for death, F. Alexander leaves Alex no escape but to jump out of a high window.
The desire for revenge is understandable, but before realizing who it is he’s dealing with F. Alexander reveals himself to be conniving and manipulative, like almost every other adult Alex knows. When he wakes up in the hospital after his suicide attempt, he discovers that the Minister of the Inferior, as he calls him, has had the conditioning procedure he originally ordered be carried out on Alex reversed and is now eager for Alex to tell everyone how F. Alexander and his fellow conspirators tried to kill him. Alex is nothing but a pawn to any of them. That’s why it’s possible to be relieved when his capacity for violent behavior has been restored.
Of course, the real villain of A Clockwork Orange is the Ludovico Technique, the treatment used to cure Alex of his violent impulses. Strapped into a chair with his head locked in place and his glazzies braced open, Alex is forced to watch recorded scenes of torture, murder, violence, and rape, the types of things he used to enjoy. Only now he’s been given a shot that makes him feel so horrible he wants to snuff it (kill himself), and over the course of the treatment sessions he becomes conditioned to associate his precious ultraviolence with this dreadful feeling. Next to the desecration of a man’s soul—the mechanistic control obviating his free will—the antisocial depredations of a young delinquent are somewhat less horrifying. As the charlie says to Alex, addressing him by his prison ID number,
It may not be nice to be good, little 6655321. It may be horrible to be good. And when I say that to you I realize how self-contradictory that sounds. I know I shall have many sleepless nights about this. What does God want? Does God want goodness or the choice of goodness? Is a man who chooses the bad perhaps in some way better than a man who has the good imposed upon him? Deep and hard questions, little 6655321. (107)
Shirt Woot!
At the same time, though, one of the consequences of the treatment is that Alex becomes not just incapable of preying on others but also of defending himself. Immediately upon his release from prison, he finds himself at the mercy of everyone he’s wronged and everyone who feels justified in abusing or exploiting him owing to his past crimes. Before realizing who Alex is, F. Alexander says to him,
You’ve sinned, I suppose, but your punishment has been out of all proportion. They have turned you into something other than a human being. You have no power of choice any longer. You’re committed to socially acceptable acts, a little machine capable only of good. (175)
            To tally the mitigating factors: Alex is young (though the actor in the movie was twenty-eight), he’s surrounded by other bizarre and unlikable characters, and he undergoes dehumanizing torture. But does this really make up for his participating in gang rape and murder? Personally, as strange and unsavory as F. Alexander seems, I have to say I can’t fault him in the least for taking revenge on Alex. As someone who believes all behaviors are ultimately determined by countless factors outside the  individual’s control, from genes to education to social norms, I don’t have that much of a problem with the Ludovico Technique either. Psychopathy is a primarily genetic condition that makes people incapable of experiencing moral emotions such as would prevent them from harming others. If aversion therapy worked to endow psychopaths with negative emotions similar to those the rest of us feel in response to Alex’s brand of ultraviolence, then it doesn’t seem like any more of a desecration than, say, a brain operation to remove a tumor with deleterious effects on moral reasoning. True, the prospect of a corrupt government administering the treatment is unsettling, but this kid was going around beating, raping, and killing people.

            And yet, I also have to admit (confess?), my own response to Alex, even at the height of his delinquency, before his capture and punishment, was to like him and root for him—this despite the fact that, contra Franzen, I couldn’t really point to any one thing he desires more than anything else.
            For those of us who sympathize with Alex, every instance in which he does something unconscionable induces real discomfort, like when he takes two young ptitsas back to his room after revealing they “couldn’t have been more than ten” (47) (but he earlier says the girl Billyboy's gang is "getting ready to perform on" is "not more than ten" [18] - is he serious?). We don’t like him, in other words, because he does bad things but in spite of it. At some point near the beginning of the story, Alex must give some convincing indications that by the end he will have learned the error of his ways. He must provide readers with some evidence that he is at least capable of learning to empathize with other people’s suffering and willing to behave in such a way as to avoid it, so when we see him doing something horrible we view it as an anxiety-inducing setback rather than a deal-breaking harbinger of his true life trajectory. But what is it exactly that makes us believe this psychopath is redeemable?
            Phil Connors in Groundhog Day has one obvious saving grace. When viewers are first introduced to him, he’s doing his weather report—and he has a uniquely funny way of doing it. “Uh-oh, look out. It’s one of these big blue things!” he jokes when the graphic of a storm front appears on the screen. “Out in California they're going to have some warm weather tomorrow, gang wars, and some very overpriced real estate,” he says drolly. You could argue he’s only being funny in an attempt to further his career, but he continues trying to make people laugh, usually at the expense of weird or annoying characters, even when the cameras are off (not those cameras). Successful humor requires some degree of social acuity, and the effort that goes into it suggests at least a modicum of generosity. You could say, in effect, Phil goes out of his way to give the other characters, and us, a few laughs. Alex, likewise, offers us a laugh before the end of the first page, as he describes how the Korova Milkbar, where he and his droogs hang out, doesn’t have a liquor license but can sell moloko with drugs added to it “which would give you a nice quiet horrorshow fifteen minutes admiring Bog And All His Holy Angels And Saints in your left shoe with lights bursting all over your mozg” (3-4). Even as he’s assaulting people, Alex keeps up his witty banter and dazzling repartee. He’s being cruel, but he’s having fun. Moreover, he seems to be inviting us to have fun with him.
Henri Tajfel
            Probably the single most important factor behind our desire (and I understand “our” here doesn’t include everyone in the audience) to see Alex redeemed is the fact that he’s being kind enough to tell us his story, to invite us into his life, as it were. This is the magic of first person narration. And like most magic it’s based on a psychological principle describing a mental process most of us go about our lives completely oblivious to. The Jewish psychologist Henri Tajfel was living in France at the beginning of World War II, and he was in a German prisoner-of-war camp for most of its duration. Afterward, he went to college in England, where in the 1960s and 70s he would conduct a series of experiments that are today considered classics in social psychology. Many other scientists at the time were trying to understand how an atrocity like the Holocaust could have happened. One theory was that the worst barbarism was committed by a certain type of individual who had what was called an authoritarian personality. Others, like Muzafer Sherif, pointed to a universal human tendency to form groups and discriminate on their behalf.
            Tajfel knew about Sherif’s Robber’s Cave Experiment in which groups of young boys were made to compete with each other in sports and over territory. Under those conditions, the groups of boys quickly became antagonistic toward one another, so much so that the experiment had to be moved into its reconciliation phase earlier than planned to prevent violence. But Tajfel suspected that group rivalries could be sparked even without such an elaborate setup. To test his theory, he developed what is known as the minimal group paradigm, in which test subjects engage in some task or test of their preferences and are subsequently arranged into groups based on the outcome. In the original experiments, none of the participants knew anything about their groupmates aside from the fact that they’d been assigned to the same group. And yet, even when the group assignments were based on nothing but a coin toss, subjects asked how much money other people in the experiment deserved as a reward for their participation suggested much lower dollar amounts for people in rival groups. “Apparently,” Tajfel writes in a 1970 Scientific American article about his experiments, “the mere fact of division into groups is enough to trigger discriminatory behavior” (96).
            Once divisions into us and them have been established, considerations of fairness are reserved for members of the ingroup. While the subjects in Tajfel’s tests aren’t displaying fully developed tribal animosity, they do demonstrate that the seeds of tribalism are disturbingly easily to sow. As he explains,
Unfortunately it is only too easy to think of examples in real life where fairness would go out the window, since groupness is often based on criteria much more weighty than either preferring a painter one has never heard of before or resembling someone else in one's way of counting dots. (102)
I’m unaware of any studies on the effects of various styles of narration on perceptions of group membership, but I hypothesize that we can extrapolate the minimal group paradigm into the realm of first-person narrative accounts of violence. The reason some of us like Alex despite his horrendous behavior is that he somehow manages to make us think of him as a member of our tribe—or rather as ourselves as a member of his—while everyone he wrongs belongs to a rival group. Even as he’s telling us about all the horrible things he’s done to other people, he takes time out to to introduce us to his friends, describe places like the Korova Milkbar and the Duke of York, even the flat at Municipal Flatblock 18A where he and his parents live. He tells us jokes. He shares with us his enthusiasm for classical music. Oh yeah, he also addresses us, “Oh my brothers,” beginning seven lines down on the first page and again at intervals throughout the book, making us what anthropologists call his fictive kin.
            There’s something altruistic, or at least generous, about telling jokes or stories. Alex really is our humble narrator, as he frequently refers to himself. Beyond that, though, most stories turn on some moral point, so when we encounter a narrator who immediately begins recounting his crimes we can’t help but anticipate the juncture in the story at which he experiences some moral enlightenment. In the twenty-first and last chapter of A Clockwork Orange, Alex does indeed undergo just this sort of transformation. But American publishers, along with Stanley Kubrick, cut this part of the book because it struck them as a somewhat cowardly turning away from the reality of human evil. Burgess defends the original version in an introduction to the 1986 edition,
The twenty-first chapter gives the novel the quality of genuine fiction, an art founded on the principle that human beings change. There is, in fact, not much point in writing a novel unless you can show the possibility of moral transformation, or an increase in wisdom, operating in your chief character or characters. Even trashy bestsellers show people changing. When a fictional work fails to show change, when it merely indicates that human character is set, stony, unregenerable, then you are out of the field of the novel and into that of the fable or the allegory. (xii)
Indeed, it’s probably this sense of the story being somehow unfinished or cut off in the middle that makes the film so disturbing and so nightmarishly memorable. With regard to the novel, readers could be forgiven for wondering what the hell Alex’s motivation was in telling his story in the first place if there was no lesson or no intuitive understanding he thought he could convey with it.
            But is the twenty-first chapter believable? Would it have been possible for Alex to transform into a good man? The Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman, in his book Thinking, Fast and Slowshares with his own readers an important lesson from his student days that bears on Alex’s case:
As a graduate student I attended some courses on the art and science of psychotherapy. During one of these lectures our teacher imparted a morsel of clinical wisdom. This is what he told us: “You will from time to time meet a patient who shares a disturbing tale of multiple mistakes in his previous treatment. He has been seen by several clinicians, and all failed him. The patient can lucidly describe how his therapists misunderstood him, but he has quickly perceived that you are different. You share the same feeling, are convinced that you understand him, and will be able to help.” At this point my teacher raised his voice as he said, “Do not even think of taking on this patient! Throw him out of the office! He is most likely a psychopath and you will not be able to help him.” (27-28)


Also read The Adaptive Appeal of Bad Boys

And Let's Play Kill Your Brother: Fiction as a Moral Dilemma Game

The Adaptive Appeal of Bad Boys

Image Courtesy of Why We Reason


Excerpt from Hierarchies in Hell and Leaderless Fight ClubsAltruism, Narrative Interest, and the Adaptive Appeal of Bad Boys

            In a New York Times article published in the spring of 2010, psychologist Paul Bloom tells the story of a one-year-old boy’s remarkable response to a puppet show. The drama the puppets enacted began with a central character’s demonstration of a desire to play with a ball. After revealing that intention, the character roles the ball to a second character who likewise wants to play and so rolls the ball back to the first. When the first character rolls the ball to a third, however, this puppet snatches it up and quickly absconds. The second, nice puppet and the third, mean one are then placed before the boy, who’s been keenly attentive to their doings, and they both have placed before them a few treats. The boy is now instructed by one of the adults in the room to take a treat away from one of the puppets. Most children respond to the instructions by taking the treat away from the mean puppet, and this particular boy is no different. He’s not content with such a meager punishment, though, and after removing the treat he proceeds to reach out and smack the mean puppet on the head.

            Brief stage shows like the one featuring the nice and naughty puppets are part of an ongoing research program lead by Karen Wynn, Bloom’s wife and colleague, and graduate student Kiley Hamlin at Yale University’s Infant Cognition Center. An earlier permutation of the study was featured on PBS’s Nova series The Human Spark (jump to chapter 5), which shows host Alan Alda looking on as an infant named Jessica attends to a puppet show with the same script as the one that riled the boy Bloom describes. Jessica is so tiny that her ability to track and interpret the puppets’ behavior on any level is impressive, but when she demonstrates a rudimentary capacity for moral judgment by reaching with unchecked joy for the nice puppet while barely glancing at the mean one, Alda—and Nova viewers along with him—can’t help but demonstrate his own delight. Jessica shows unmistakable signs of positive emotion in response to the nice puppet’s behaviors, and Alda in turn feels positive emotions toward Jessica. Bloom attests that “if you watch the older babies during the experiments, they don’t act like impassive judges—they tend to smile and clap during good events and frown, shake their heads and look sad during the naughty events” (6). Any adult witnessing the children’s reactions can be counted on to mirror these expressions and to feel delight at the babies’ incredible precocity.

            The setup for these experiments with children is very similar to experiments with adult participants that assess responses to anonymously witnessed exchanges. In their research report, “Third-Party Punishment and Social Norms,” Ernst Fehr and Urs Fischbacher describe a scenario inspired by economic game theory called the Dictator Game. It begins with an experimenter giving a first participant, or player, a sum of money. The experimenter then explains to the first player that he or she is to propose a cut of the money to the second player. In the Dictator Game—as opposed to other similar game theory scenarios—the second player has no choice but to accept the cut from the first player, the dictator. The catch is that the exchange is being witnessed by a third party, the analogue of little Jessica or the head-slapping avenger in the Yale experiments.  This third player is then given the opportunity to reward or punish the dictator. As Fehr and Fischbacher explain, “Punishment is, however, costly for the third party so a selfish third party will never punish” (3).

It turns out, though, that adults, just like the infants in the Yale studies, are not selfish—at least not entirely. Instead, they readily engage in indirect, or strong, reciprocity. Evolutionary literary theorist William Flesch explains that “the strong reciprocator punishes and rewards others for their behavior toward any member of the social group, and not just or primarily for their interactions with the reciprocator” (21-2). According to Flesch, strong reciprocity is the key to solving what he calls “the puzzle of narrative interest,” the mystery of why humans so readily and eagerly feel “anxiety on behalf of and about the motives, actions, and experiences of fictional characters” (7). The human tendency toward strong reciprocity reaches beyond any third party witnessing an exchange between two others; as Alda, viewers of Nova, and even readers of Bloom’s article in the Times watch or read about Wynn and Hamlin’s experiments, they have no choice but to become participants in the experiments themselves, because their own tendency to reward good behavior with positive emotion and to punish bad behavior with negative emotion is automatically engaged. Audiences’ concern, however, is much less with the puppets’ behavior than with the infants’ responses to it.

The studies of social and moral development conducted at the Infant Cognition Center pull at people’s heartstrings because they demonstrate babies’ capacity to behave in a way that is expected of adults. If Jessica had failed to discern between the nice and the mean puppets, viewers probably would have readily forgiven her. When older people fail to make moral distinctions, however, those in a position to witness and appreciate that failure can be counted on to withdraw their favor—and may even engage in some type of sanctioning, beginning with unflattering gossip and becoming more severe if the immorality or moral complacency persists. Strong reciprocity opens the way for endlessly branching nth –order reciprocation, so not only will individuals be considered culpable for offenses they commit but also for offenses they passively witness. Flesch explains,

Among the kinds of behavior that we monitor through tracking or through report, and that we have a tendency to punish or reward, is the way others monitor behavior through tracking or through report, and the way they manifest a tendency to punish and reward. (50)

Failing to signal disapproval makes witnesses complicit. On the other hand, signaling favor toward individuals who behave altruistically simultaneously signals to others the altruism of the signaler. What’s important to note about this sort of indirect signaling is that it does not necessarily require the original offense or benevolent act to have actually occurred. People take a proclivity to favor the altruistic as evidence of altruism—even if the altruistic character is fictional. 

        That infants less than a year old respond to unfair or selfish behavior with negative emotions—and a readiness to punish—suggests that strong reciprocity has deep evolutionary roots in the human lineage. Humans’ profound emotional engagement with fictional characters and fictional exchanges probably derives from a long history of adapting to challenges whose Darwinian ramifications were far more serious than any attempt to while away some idle afternoons. Game theorists and evolutionary anthropologists have a good idea what those challenges might have been: for cooperativeness or altruism to be established and maintained as a norm within a group of conspecifics, some mechanism must be in place to prevent the exploitation of cooperative or altruistic individuals by selfish and devious ones. Flesch explains,

Darwin himself had proposed a way for altruism to evolve through the mechanism of group selection. Groups with altruists do better as a group than groups without. But it was shown in the 1960s that, in fact, such groups would be too easily infiltrated or invaded by nonaltruists—that is, that group boundaries are too porous—to make group selection strong enough to overcome competition at the level of the individual or the gene. (5)

If, however, individuals given to trying to take advantage of cooperative norms were reliably met with slaps on the head—or with ostracism in the wake of spreading gossip—any benefits they (or their genes) might otherwise count on to redound from their selfish behavior would be much diminished. Flesch’s theory is “that we have explicitly evolved the ability and desire to track others and to learn their stories precisely in order to punish the guilty (and somewhat secondarily to reward the virtuous)” (21). Before strong reciprocity was driving humans to bookstores, amphitheaters, and cinemas, then, it was serving the life-and-death cause of ensuring group cohesion and sealing group boundaries against neighboring exploiters. 

Game theory experiments that have been conducted since the early 1980s have consistently shown that people are willing, even eager to punish others whose behavior strikes them as unfair or exploitative, even when administering that punishment involves incurring some cost for the punisher. Like the Dictator Game, the Ultimatum Game involves two people, one of whom is given a sum of money and told to offer the other participant a cut. The catch in this scenario is that the second player must accept the cut or neither player gets to keep any money. “It is irrational for the responder not to accept any proposed split from the proposer,” Flesch writes. “The responder will always come out better by accepting than vetoing” (31). What the researchers discovered, though, was that a line exists beneath which responders will almost always refuse the cut. “This means they are paying to punish,” Flesch explains. “They are giving up a sure gain in order to punish the selfishness of the proposer” (31). Game theorists call this behavior altruistic punishment because “the punisher’s willingness to pay this cost may be an important part in enforcing norms of fairness” (31). In other words, the punisher is incurring a cost to him or herself in order to ensure that selfish actors don’t have a chance to get a foothold in the larger, cooperative group. 

The economic logic notwithstanding, it seems natural to most people that second players in Ultimatum Game experiments should signal their disapproval—or stand up for themselves, as it were—by refusing to accept insultingly meager proposed cuts. The cost of the punishment, moreover, can be seen as a symbol of various other types of considerations that might prevent a participant or a witness from stepping up or stepping in to protest. Discussing the Three-Player Dictator Game experiments conducted by Fehr and Fischbacher, Flesch points out that strong reciprocity is even more starkly contrary to any selfish accounting:

Note that the third player gets nothing out of paying to reward or punish except the power or agency to do just that. It is highly irrational for this player to pay to reward or punish, but again considerations of fairness trump rational self-interest. People do pay, and pay a substantial amount, when they think that someone has been treated notably unfairly, or when they think someone has evinced marked generosity, to affect what they have observed. (33)

Neuroscientists have even zeroed in on the brain regions that correspond to our suppression of immediate self-interest in the service of altruistic punishment, as well as those responsible for the pleasure we take in anticipating—though not in actually witnessing—free riders meeting with their just deserts (Knoch et al. 829Quevain et al. 1254). Outside of laboratories, though, the cost punishers incur can range from the risks associated with a physical confrontation to time and energy spent convincing skeptical peers a crime has indeed been committed.

Flesch lays out his theory of narrative interest in a book aptly titled Comeuppance:Costly Signaling, Altruistic Punishment, and Other Biological Components of Fiction. A cursory survey of mainstream fiction, in both blockbuster movies and best-selling novels, reveals the good guys versus bad guys dynamic as preeminent in nearly every plot, and much of the pleasure people get from the most popular narratives can quite plausibly be said to derive from the goodie prevailing—after a long, harrowing series of close calls and setbacks—while the baddie simultaneously gets his or her comeuppance. Audiences love to see characters get their just deserts. When the plot fails to deliver on this score, they walk away severely disturbed. That disturbance can, however, serve the author’s purposes, particularly when the goal is to bring some danger or injustice to readers’ or viewers’ attention, as in the case of novels like Orwell’s 1984. Plots, of course, seldom feature simple exchanges with meager stakes on the scale of game theory experiments, and heroes can by no means count on making it to the final scene both vindicated and rewarded—even in stories designed to give audiences exactly what they want. The ultimate act of altruistic punishment, and hence the most emotionally poignant behavior a character can engage in, is martyrdom. It’s no coincidence that the hero dies in the act of vanquishing the villain in so many of the most memorable books and movies.
Tom Sawyer
            If narrative interest really does emerge out of a propensity to monitor each other’s behaviors for signs of a capacity for cooperation and to volunteer affect on behalf of altruistic individuals and against selfish ones they want to see get their comeuppance, the strong appeal of certain seemingly bad characters emerges as a mystery calling for explanation.  From England’s tradition of Byronic heroes like Rochester to America’s fascination with bad boys like Tom Sawyer, these characters win over audiences and stand out as perennial favorites even though at first blush they seem anything but eager to establish their nice guy bone fides. On the other hand, Rochester was eventually redeemed in Jane Eyre, and Tom Sawyer, though naughty to be sure, shows no sign whatsoever of being malicious. Tellingly, though, these characters, and a long list of others like them, also demonstrate a remarkable degree of cleverness: Rochester passing for a gypsy woman, for instance, or Tom Sawyer making fence painting out to be a privilege. One hypothesis that could account for the appeal of bad boys is that their badness demonstrates undeniably their ability to escape the negative consequences most people expect to result from their own bad behavior.

This type of demonstration likely functions in a way similar to another mechanism that many evolutionary biologists theorize must have been operating for cooperation to have become established in human societies, a process referred to as the handicap principle, or costly signaling. A lone altruist in any group is unlikely to fare well in terms of survival and reproduction. So the question arises as to how the minimum threshold of cooperators in a population was first surmounted. Flesch’s fellow evolutionary critic, Brian Boyd, in his book On the Origin of Stories, traces the process along a path from mutualism, or coincidental mutual benefits, to inclusive fitness, whereby organisms help others who are likely to share their genes—primarily family members—to reciprocal altruism, a quid pro quo arrangement in which one organism will aid another in anticipation of some future repayment (54-57). However, a few individuals in our human ancestry must have benefited from altruism that went beyond familial favoritism and tit-for-tat bartering.

Rochester disguised as a gypsy
In their classic book The Handicap Principal, Amotz and Avishag Zahavi suggest that altruism serves a function in cooperative species similar to the one served by a peacock’s feathers. The principle could also help account for the appeal of human individuals who routinely risk suffering consequences which deter most others. The idea is that conspecifics have much to gain from accurate assessments of each other’s fitness when choosing mates or allies. Many species have thus evolved methods for honestly signaling their fitness, and as the Zahavis explain, “in order to be effective, signals have to be reliable; in order to be reliable, signals have to be costly” (xiv). Peacocks, the iconic examples of the principle in action, signal their fitness with cumbersome plumage because their ability to survive in spite of the handicap serves as a guarantee of their strength and resourcefulness. Flesch and Boyd, inspired by evolutionary anthropologists, find in this theory of costly signaling the solution the mystery of how altruism first became established; human altruism is, if anything, even more elaborate than the peacock’s display. 

Humans display their fitness in many ways. Not everyone can be expected to have the wherewithal to punish free-riders, especially when doing so involves physical conflict. The paradoxical result is that humans compete for the status of best cooperator. Altruism is a costly signal of fitness. Flesch explains how this competition could have emerged in human populations:

If there is a lot of between-group competition, then those groups whose modes of costly signaling take the form of strong reciprocity, especially altruistic punishment, will outcompete those whose modes yield less secondary gain, especially less secondary gain for the group as a whole. (57)

Taken together, the evidence Flesch presents suggests the audiences of narratives volunteer affect on behalf of fictional characters who show themselves to be altruists and against those who show themselves to be selfish actors or exploiters, experiencing both frustration and delight in the unfolding of the plot as they hope to see the altruists prevail and the free-riders get their comeuppance. This capacity for emotional engagement with fiction likely evolved because it serves as a signal to anyone monitoring individuals as they read or view the story, or as they discuss it later, that they are disposed either toward altruistic punishment or toward third-order free-riding themselves—and altruism is a costly signal of fitness.

The hypothesis emerging from this theory of social monitoring and volunteered affect to explain the appeal of bad boy characters is that their bad behavior will tend to redound to the detriment of still worse characters. Bloom describes the results of another series of experiments with eight-month-old participants:

When the target of the action was itself a good guy, babies preferred the puppet who was nice to it. This alone wasn’t very surprising, given that the other studies found an overall preference among babies for those who act nicely. What was more interesting was what happened when they watched the bad guy being rewarded or punished. Here they chose the punisher. Despite their overall preference for good actors over bad, then, babies are drawn to bad actors when those actors are punishing bad behavior. (5)

These characters’ bad behavior will also likely serve an obvious function as costly signaling; they’re bad because they’re good at getting away with it. Evidence that the bad boy characters are somehow truly malicious—for instance, clear signals of a wish harm to innocent characters—or that they’re irredeemable would severely undermine the theory. As the first step toward a preliminary survey, the following sections examine two infamous instances in which literary characters whose creators intended audiences to recognize as bad nonetheless managed to steal the show from the supposed good guys.
(Watch Hamlin discussing the research in an interview from earlier today.)
And check out this video of the experiments.

Campaigning Deities: Justifying the ways of Satan


Milton believed Christianity more than worthy of a poetic canon in the tradition of the classical poets, and Paradise Lost represents his effort at establishing one. What his Christian epic has offered for many readers over the centuries, however, is an invitation to weigh the actions and motivations of immortals in mortal terms. In the story, God becomes a human king, albeit one with superhuman powers, while Satan becomes an upstart subject. As Milton attempts to “justify the ways of God to Man,” he is taking it upon himself simultaneously, and inadvertently, to justify the absolute dominion of a human dictator. One of the consequences of this shift in perspective is the transformation of a philosophical tradition devoted to parsing the logic of biblical teachings into something akin to a political campaign between two rival leaders, each laying out his respective platform alongside a case against his rival. What was hitherto recondite and academic becomes in Milton’s work immediate and visceral.

Keats famously penned the wonderfully self-proving postulate, “Axioms in philosophy are not axioms until they are proved upon our pulses,” which leaves open the question of how an axiom might be so proved. Milton’s God responds to Satan’s approach to Earth, and his foreknowledge of Satan’s success in tempting the original pair, with a preemptive defense of his preordained punishment of Man:

…Whose fault?
Whose but his own? Ingrate! He had of Me
All he could have. I made him just and right,
Sufficient to have stood though free to fall.
Such I created all th’ ethereal pow’rs
And spirits, both them who stood and who failed:
Freely they stood who stood and fell who fell.
Not free, what proof could they have giv’n sincere
Of true allegiance, constant faith or love
Where only what they needs must do appeared,
Not what they would? What praise could they receive?
What pleasure I from such obedience paid
When will and reason… had served necessity,
Not me? (3.96-111)

God is defending himself against the charge that his foreknowledge of the fall implies that Man’s decision to disobey was borne of something other than his free will. What choice could there have been if the outcome of Satan’s temptation was predetermined? If it wasn’t predetermined, how could God know what the outcome would be in advance? God’s answer—of course I granted humans free will because otherwise their obedience would mean nothing—only introduces further doubt. Now we must wonder why God cherishes Man’s obedience so fervently. Is God hungry for political power? If we conclude he is—and that conclusion seems eminently warranted—then we find ourselves on the side of Satan. It’s not so much God’s foreknowledge of Man’s fall that undermines human freedom; it’s God’s insistence on our obedience, under threat of God’s terrible punishment.

            Milton faces a still greater challenge in his attempt to justify God’s ways “upon our pulses” when it comes to the fallout of Man’s original act of disobedience. The Son argues on behalf of Man, pointing out that the original sin was brought about through temptation. If God responds by turning against Man, then Satan wins. The Son thus argues that God must do something to thwart Satan: “Or shall the Adversary thus obtain/ His end and frustrate Thine?” (3.156-7). Before laying out his plan for Man’s redemption, God explains why punishment is necessary:

            …Man disobeying
            Disloyal breaks his fealty and sins
            Against the high supremacy of Heav’n,
            Affecting godhead, and so, losing all,
            To expiate his treason hath naught left
            But to destruction sacred and devote
            He with his whole posterity must die. (3. 203-9)

The potential contradiction between foreknowledge and free choice may be abstruse enough for Milton’s character to convincingly discount: “If I foreknew/ Foreknowledge had no influence on their fault/ Which had no less proved certain unforeknown” (3.116-9). There is another contradiction, however, that Milton neglects to take on. If Man is “Sufficient to have stood though free to fall,” then God must justify his decision to punish the “whole posterity” as opposed to the individuals who choose to disobey. The Son agrees to redeem all of humanity for the offense committed by the original pair. His knowledge that every last human will disobey may not be logically incompatible with their freedom to choose; if every last human does disobey, however, the case for that freedom is severely undermined. The axiom of collective guilt precludes the axiom of freedom of choice both logically and upon our pulses.

            In characterizing disobedience as a sin worthy of severe punishment—banishment from paradise, shame, toil, death—an offense he can generously expiate for Man by sacrificing the (his) Son, God seems to be justifying his dominion by pronouncing disobedience to him evil, allowing him to claim that Man’s evil made it necessary for him to suffer a profound loss, the death of his offspring. In place of a justification for his rule, then, God resorts to a simple guilt trip.

            Man shall not quite be lost but saved who will,
            Yet not of will in him but grace in me
            Freely vouchsafed. Once more I will renew
            His lapsed pow’rs though forfeit and enthralled
            By sin to foul exorbitant desires.
            Upheld by me, yet once more he shall stand
            On even ground against his mortal foe,
            By me upheld that he may know how frail
            His fall’n condition is and to me owe
            All his deliv’rance, and to none but me. (3.173-83)

Having decided to take on the burden of repairing the damage wrought by Man’s disobedience to him, God explains his plan:

            Die he or justice must, unless for him
            Some other as able and as willing pay
            The rigid satisfaction, death for death. (3.210-3)

He then asks for a volunteer. In an echo of an earlier episode in the poem which has Satan asking for a volunteer to leave hell on a mission of exploration, there is a moment of hesitation before the Son offers himself up to die on Man’s behalf.

            …On Me let thine anger fall.
            Account Me Man. I for his sake will leave
            Thy bosom and this glory next to Thee
            Freely put off and for him lastly die
            Well pleased. On Me let Death wreck all his rage! (3.37-42)

This great sacrifice, which is supposed to be the basis of the Son’s privileged status over the angels, is immediately undermined because he knows he won’t stay dead for long: “Yet that debt paid/ Thou wilt not leave me in the loathsome grave” (246-7). The Son will only die momentarily. This sacrifice doesn’t stack up well against the real risks and sacrifices made by Satan.

            All the poetry about obedience and freedom and debt never takes on the central questionSatan’s rebellion forces readers to ponder: Does God deserve our obedience? Or are the labels of good and evil applied arbitrarily? The original pair was forbidden from eating from the Tree of Knowledge—could they possibly have been right to contravene the interdiction? Since it is God being discussed, however, the assumption that his dominion requires no justification, that it is instead simply in the nature of things, might prevail among some readers, as it does for the angels who refuse to join Satan’s rebellion. The angels, after all, owe their very existence to God, as Abdiel insists to Satan. Who, then, are any of them to question his authority? This argument sets the stage for Satan’s remarkable rebuttal:

                        …Strange point and new!
Doctrine which we would know whence learnt: who saw
When this creation was? Remember’st thou
Thy making while the Maker gave thee being?
We know no time when we were not as now,
Know none before us, self-begot, self-raised
By our own quick’ning power…
Our puissance is our own. Our own right hand
Shall teach us highest deeds by proof to try
Who is our equal. (5.855-66)

Just as a pharaoh could claim credit for all the monuments and infrastructure he had commissioned the construction of, any king or dictator might try to convince his subjects that his deeds far exceed what he is truly capable of. If there’s no record and no witness—or if the records have been doctored and the witnesses silenced—the subjects have to take the king’s word for it.

            That God’s dominion depends on some natural order, which he himself presumably put in place, makes his tendency to protect knowledge deeply suspicious. Even the angels ultimately have to take God’s claims to have created the universe and them along with it solely on faith. Because that same unquestioning faith is precisely what Satan and the readers of Paradise Lost are seeking a justification for, they could be forgiven for finding the answer tautological and unsatisfying. It is the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil that Adam and Eve are forbidden to eat fruit from. When Adam, after hearing Raphael’s recounting of the war in heaven, asks the angel how the earth was created, he does receive an answer, but only after a suspicious preamble:

                        …such commission from above
            I have received to answer thy desire
            Of knowledge with bounds. Beyond abstain
            To ask nor let thine own inventions hope
            Things not revealed which the invisible King
            Only omniscient hath suppressed in night,
            To none communicable in Earth or Heaven:
            Enough is left besides to search and know. (7.118-125)

Raphael goes on to compare knowledge to food, suggesting that excessively indulging curiosity is unhealthy. This proscription of knowledge reminded Shelley of the Prometheus myth. It might remind modern readers of The Wizard of Oz—“Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain”—or to the space monkeys in Fight Club, who repeatedly remind us that “The first rule of Project Mayhem is, you do not ask questions.” It may also resonate with news about dictators in Asia or the Middle East trying to desperately to keep social media outlets from spreading word of their atrocities.

            Like the protesters of the Arab Spring, Satan is putting himself at great risk by challenging God’s authority. If God’s dominion over Man and the angels is evidence not of his benevolence but of his supreme selfishness, then Satan’srebellion becomes an attempt at altruistic punishment. The extrapolation from economic experiments like the ultimatum and dictator games to efforts to topple dictators may seem like a stretch, especially if humans are predisposed to forming and accepting positions in hierarchies, as a casual survey of virtually any modern organization suggests is the case.

Organized institutions, however, are a recent development in terms of human evolution. The English missionary Lucas Bridges wrote about his experiences with the Ona foragers in Tierra del Fuego in his 1948 book Uttermost Part of the Earth, and he expresses his amusement at his fellow outsiders’ befuddlement when they learn about the Ona’s political dynamics:

A certain scientist visited our part of the world and, in answer to his inquiries on this matter, I told him that the Ona had no chieftains, as we understand the word. Seeing that he did not believe me, I summoned Kankoat, who by that time spoke some Spanish. When the visitor repeated his question, Kankoat, too polite to answer in the negative, said: “Yes, senor, we, the Ona, have many chiefs. The men are all captains and all the women are sailors” (quoted in Boehm 62).

At least among Ona men, it seems there was no clear hierarchy. The anthropologist Richard Lee discovered a similar dynamic operating among the !Kung foragers of the Kalahari. In order to ensure that no one in the group can attain an elevated status which would allow him to dominate the others, several leveling mechanisms are in place. Lee quotes one of his informants:

When a young man kills much meat, he comes to think of himself as a chief or a big man, and he thinks of the rest of us as his servants or inferiors. We can’t accept this. We refuse one who boasts, for someday his pride will make him kill somebody. So we always speak of his meat as worthless. In this way we cool his heart and make him gentle. (quoted in Boehm 45)

These examples of egalitarianism among nomadic foragers are part of anthropologist Christopher Boehm’s survey of every known group of hunter-gatherers. His central finding is that “A distinctively egalitarian political style is highly predictable wherever people live in small, locally autonomous social and economic groups” (35-36). This finding bears on any discussion of human evolution and human nature because small groups like these constituted the whole of humanity for all but what amounts to the final instants of geological time.

           

           

Seduced by Satan

            Why do we like the guys who seem not to care whether or not what they’re doing is right, but who often manage to do what’s right anyway? In the Star Wars series, Han Solo is introduced as a mercenary, concerned only with monetary reward. In the first episode of Mad Men, audiences see Don Draper saying to a woman that they should get married, and then in the final scene he arrives home to his actual wife. Tony Soprano, Jack Sparrow, Tom Sawyer, the list of male characters who flout rules and conventions, who lie, cheat and steal, but who nevertheless compel the attention, the favor, even the love of readers and moviegoers would be difficult to exhaust.

            John Milton has been accused of both betraying his own and inspiring others' sympathy and admiration for what should be the most detestable character imaginable. When he has Satan, in Paradise Lost, say, “Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven,” many believed he was signaling his support of the king of England’s overthrow. Regicidal politics are well and good—at least from the remove of many generations—but voicing your opinions through such a disreputable mouthpiece? That’s difficult to defend. Imagine using a fictional Hitler to convey your stance on the current president.

            Stanley Fish theorizes that Milton’s game was a much subtler one: he didn’t intend for Satan to be sympathetic so much as seductive, so that in being persuaded and won over to him readers would be falling prey to the same temptation that brought about the fall. As humans, all our hearts are marked with original sin. So if many readers of Milton’s magnum opus come away thinking Satan may have been in the right all along, the failure wasn’t the author’s unconstrained admiration for the rebel angel so much as it was his inability to adequately “justify the ways of God to men.” God’s ways may follow a certain logic, but the appeal of Satan’s ways is deeper, more primal.

            In the “Argument,” or summary, prefacing Book Three, Milton relays some of God’s logic: “Man hath offended the majesty of God by aspiring to godhead and therefore, with all his progeny devoted to death, must die unless someone can be found sufficient to answer for his offence and undergo his punishment.” The Son volunteers. This reasoning has been justly characterized as “barking mad” by Richard Dawkins. But the lines give us an important insight into what Milton saw as the principle failing of the human race, their ambition to be godlike. It is this ambition which allows us to sympathize with Satan, who incited his fellow angels to rebellion against the rule of God.

            In Book Five, we learn that what provoked Satan to rebellion was God’s arbitrary promotion of his own Son to a status higher than the angels: “by Decree/ Another now hath to himself ingross’t/ All Power, and us eclipst under the name/ Of King anointed.” Citing these lines, William Flesch explains, “Satan’s grandeur, even if it is the grandeur of archangel ruined, comes from his iconoclasm, from his desire for liberty.” At the same time, however, Flesch insists that, “Satan’s revolt is not against tyranny. It is against a tyrant whose place he wishes to usurp.” So, it’s not so much freedom from domination he wants, according to Flesch, as the power to dominate.

            Anthropologist Christopher Boehm describes the political dynamics of nomadic peoples in his book Hierarchy in the Forest: TheEvolution of Egalitarian Behavior, and his descriptions suggest that parsing a motive of domination from one of preserving autonomy is much more complicated than Flesch’s analysis assumes. “In my opinion,” Boehm writes, “nomadic foragers are universally—and all but obsessively—concerned with being free from the authority of others” (68). As long as the group they belong to is small enough for each group member to monitor the actions of the others, people can maintain strict egalitarianism, giving up whatever dominance they may desire for the assurance of not being dominated themselves.

            Satan very likely speaks to this natural ambivalence in humans. Benevolent leaders win our love and admiration through their selflessness and charisma. But no one wants to be a slave. Does Satan’s admirable resistance and defiance shade into narcissistic self-aggrandizement and an unchecked will to power? If so, is his tyranny any more savage than that of God? And might there even be something not altogether off-putting about a certain degree self-indulgent badness?

Hierarchies in Hell and Leaderless Fight Clubs: a More Modest Thesis Prospectus

Question:

Do the sciences of human behavior as practiced and understood in the Twenty-First Century have anything of value to contribute to the study of literature? Will the application of theories arising from the fields of evolutionary psychology and evolutionary anthropology to literary works yield anything beyond one more perspective in the seemingly endless succession of momentarily fashionable approaches to literary scholarship? Or is the scientific exploration of human behavior itself hopelessly incapable of transcending the culture in which it is undertaken? And, assuming any ultimate verdict on the value of evolutionary theories of literature is at present impossible to render, might they nonetheless shed some light on issues posing difficulties for other theoretical approaches? For instance, what accounts for centuries of readers’ sympathy toward characters who are on the surface meant to serve as villains? Milton’s Satan is a classic example of this phenomenon, while Palahniuk’s Tyler Durden is a more contemporary one. Are reader’s strong feelings on behalf of these antagonists understandable in terms of evolutionary theories of human behavior? And, if so, what does that suggest about the nature of human interest in fictional narratives like Paradise Lost and Fight Club?

Implications:

William Flesch, in his book Comeuppance: Costly Signaling, Altruistic Punishment, and Other Biological Components of Fiction, theorizes that humans’ passion for fictional narratives emerges from a predilection for monitoring one another for signals of their capacity for cooperative relationships. Humans naturally favor conspecifics who prove themselves capable of setting aside their own rational self-interests to act on behalf of others or on behalf of the larger group to which they belong. And they demonstrate their own altruistic tendencies by favoring other altruists and punishing those who would take advantage of them. Does the character Satan in Milton’s epic poem somehow signal to readers that he is altruistic? And is there some type of underlying message about cooperation in the seemingly senseless violence in Palahniuk’s novel?

Flesch, however, leaves another dimension of evolutionary psychology unexplored, one which could provide much insight into the appeal of both Milton’s and Palahniuk’s stories. Anthropologist Christopher Boehm explores the human propensity toward forming hierarchies in his book Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior. It turns out that, contrary to conventional wisdom, humans in foraging bands similar to those they have lived in for the vast majority of their time on earth are strictly egalitarian. Indeed, most contemporary hunter-gatherers would, with little prompting, express support for Satan’s famous line about it being better to reign in hell than to serve in heaven. And they would likely recognize many of the group dynamics Tyler Durden manipulates to gain ascendancy among the members of the fight clubs—as well as the ultimate necessity of having someone end his reign.

The theoretical foundation established by Flesch can likely support considerations of male competition for status, since one of the conditions thought necessary for the evolution of cooperation among humans is a relative absence of hierarchical behavior. One common form of selfishness humans are vigilant of in their neighbors is a strong motivation to dominate others. When a person, or a fictional representation of one, acquires influence incommensurate with others in the group, those other group members can be counted on to pay close attention to the way that person yields his (or less often her) power. If it turns out to be for the benefit of the group, the higher status individual will continue to have the support of the group. If it is to further selfish gains, the lower-ranking group members will usually act collectively to bring an end to his dominance. And this dynamic plays out in stories told by hunter-gatherers and writers in more complex societies alike.

Methods:

This project will explore the central characters of Paradise Lost and Fight Club in an attempt to illuminate readers’ feelings toward them. In particular, it will focus on Milton’s Satan and Palahniuk’s Tyler Durder, and will examine the way in which they are portrayed in search of recognizable signals of either selfishness or altruism. Such an exploration might also yield insights into how Boehm’s theories of human hierarchical or egalitarian proclivities can be integrated into the approach to literature set out by Flesch.

1st and Overly Ambitious Prospectus for a Master's Thesis


I'll be paring this down a bit. My advisors felt that the project spelled out here is more appropriate for doctoral disseration or some such longer work.

Grandeur in This View of Literature?

Question:

What, if anything, can evolutionary theory contribute to the study of literature? Is it possible to study literature scientifically, and if so what are the advantages and disadvantages of doing so? The trend among literary theorists is to regard science in general, and evolutionary theory in particular as deeply suspect since they have historically functioned as ideological justifications for various types of violence and oppression. Yet, by unmooring literary scholarship from sound epistemology, critics almost inevitably fall victim to what Frederick Crews calls “the fast-talking superstars who have prostituted it to crank theory, political conformism, and cliquishness” (xv). Will E.O. Wilson’s idea of consilience between science and the humanities be just another trendy fashion among literary scholars—if it ever takes hold at all? Will science ever serve any role in the humanities other than that of ideological bastion of European male hegemony? Does an evolutionary approach to literature hold promise in the quest for insights based on sound reasoning that go beyond mere justification for the political status quo?

Implications:
The primary function of a literary theory is to offer insight into works of literature, what they mean, why they appeal or fail to appeal to readers, how they are influenced by and how they in turn influence the cultures in which they emerge and in which they are appreciated. But the insights borne of the application of a theory to a text cannot be taken as evidence of that theory’s validity. Many literary works have been interpreted psychoanalytically, for instance, and the application of Freud’s theory has yielded insights into those works. But, as evidence against psychoanalytic theories mounts, those insights must be called into question. Theories must be validated independently of their application to texts. And the validity of insights produced through the application of theories is contingent on the validity of those theories.

Interpreting a literary work from the perspective of one or another ideology is usually an easy task, regardless of whether that ideology is scientifically grounded. The question then becomes are there empirically validated theories that might be of interest to literary scholars? If so, do they yield insights into literary works beyond simple distillations of the prevailing culture? Once the difficulty of arriving at scientifically sound theories and the threat that such theories somehow encourage the oppression of women and minorities are dealt with, a third potential stumbling block remains. If a scientific theory of narrative is possible, might it reduce literature to a set of mechanistic principles, and thus rob it of some of its mysterious capacity to enchant audiences? Or might such a theory somehow enrich the experience of literature?

Methods:
This project will begin with an exploration of some current approaches to bringing literature into the realm of human biological and cultural evolution. The most promising of these approaches to date sees storytelling as emerging from evolved dispositions toward monitoring other people for signals of their propensity for either selfishness or altruism, and toward signaling one’s own altruism by emotionally favoring altruistic characters. This approach is described by William Flesch in his book, Comeuppance: Costly Signaling, Altruistic Punishment, and Other Biological Components of Fiction. Is Flesch’s theory valid? Does it offer any insight into actual literary works?

The second part of the project will explore possible methods whereby theories of narrative may be tested to establish their validity. Of course, these tests must go beyond seeing whether or not applying the theory generates insights into a literary work, because it’s possible for invalid theories to generate invalid insights. The tests must involve predictions emerging from the theories that can either fail or succeed. One possible way to test Flesch’s social monitoring and volunteered affect theory, for instance, would be to sample a large body of works to see if a strong trend exists for stories to focus on conflicts between selfish characters and altruistic ones. If such conflicts only show up in a minority of literary works, or if they take place only at the periphery of most stories, then the prediction, and the theory along with it, fail.

Since gathering such a large sample would be a daunting endeavor, bringing with it a large risk of confirmation bias, previous attempts by scholars to come up with exhaustive catalogues of plot and character types may be of use. Ronald Tobias’s 20 Master Plots and Georges Polti’s The Thirty-six Dramatic Situations suggests themselves as good sources for data.

The third and final part of this project will consist of an application of evolutionary theories of literature to diverse works so that an (unavoidably subjective) assessment of the value of the insights can be made. Works from different historical eras and spanning a wide breadth of geographical space may serve to highlight the complementary roles of universal cognitive mechanisms and cultural traditions. What counts as altruism, for instance, might vary across cultures. Likewise, each culture tends to sanction certain selfish acts more than others. So the basic framework of selfless protagonist and selfish antagonist can take on countless forms and carry with it important information about a culture and what’s expected of individuals living in it. Possible candidates for this type of analysis are Milton’s Paradise Lost—an interesting case because many readers sympathize strongly with Satan, the antagonist—and Palahniuk’s Fight Club, a modern cult classic in which one character teaches the other the importance of self-destruction.

I am Jack’s Raging Insomnia: The Tragically Overlooked Moral Dilemma at the Heart of Fight Club

If you were to ask one of the millions of guys who love the movie Fight Club what the story is about, his answer would most likely emphasize the violence. He might say something like, “It’s about men returning to their primal nature and getting carried away when they find out how good it feels.” Actually, this is an answer I would expect from a guy with exceptional insight. A majority would probably just say it’s about a bunch of guys who get together to beat the crap out of each other and pull a bunch pranks. Some might remember all the talk about IKEA and other consumerist products. Our insightful guy may even connect the dots and explain that consumerism somehow made the characters in the movie feel emasculated, and so they had to resort to fighting and vandalism to reassert their manhood. But, aside from ensuring they would know what a duvet is—“It’s a fucking blanket”—what is it exactly about shopping for household décor and modern conveniences that makes men less manly?

Maybe Fight Club is just supposed to be fun, with all the violence and the weird sex scene with Marla and all the crazy mischief the guys get in, but also with a few interesting monologues and voiceovers to hint at deeper meanings. And of course there’s Tyler Durden—fearless, clever, charismatic, and did you see those shredded abs? Not only does he not take shit from anyone, he gets a whole army to follow his lead, loyal to the death. On the other hand, there’s no shortage of characters like this in movies, and if that’s all men liked about Fight Club they wouldn’t sit through all the plane flights, support groups, and soap-making. It just may be that, despite the rarity of fans who can articulate what they are, the movie actually does have profound and important resonances.

And guys who can’t put their finger on what’s so good about the movie shouldn’t feel too bad. I recommend anyone interested in film or literary criticism go to the Wikipedia site devoted to academic interpretations of Fight Club because it’s a good indication of just how far critics have gotten up the asses of the handful of ascendant naked emperors in the field. This pseudo-scholarship is so stupid and yet so common in humanities departments that it’s past the time when we should’ve started holding these so-called theorists accountable. It takes a certain kind of person, though, to confront people who are behaving improperly or acting to the detriment of others, in this case of trusting undergraduates in departments under the sway of poststructuralism or new historicism. It’s safer and more comfortable just to accept what your teachers say. And why should we care what other people are being taught? It’s none of our business, right? If we think it sounds like hogswoggle then we can simply look the other way.

If you recall, the Edward Norton character, whom I’ll call Jack (following the convention of the script), decides that his story should begin with the advent of his insomnia. He goes to the doctor but is told nothing is wrong with him. His first night’s sleep comes only after he goes to a support group and meets Bob, he of the “bitch tits,” and cries a smiley face onto his t-shirt. But along comes Marla who like Jack is visiting support groups but is not in fact recovering, sick, or dying. She is another tourist. As long as she's around, he can’t cry and so can’t sleep. Soon after Jack and Marla make a deal to divide the group meetings and avoid each other, Tyler Durden shows up and we’re on our way to Fight Clubs and Project Mayhem. Now, why the hell would we accept these bizarre premises and continue watching the movie unless at some level Jack’s difficulties, as well as their solutions, make sense to us?

So why exactly was it that Jack couldn’t sleep at night? The simple answer, the one that Tyler gives later in the movie, is that he’s unhappy with his life. He hates his job. Something about his “filing cabinet” apartment rankles him. And he’s alone. Jack’s job is to fly all over the country to investigate accidents involving his company’s vehicles and to apply “the formula.” I’m going to quote from Chuck Palahniuk’s book so I don’t have to dick around with the DVD player:
“You take the population of vehicles in the field (A) and multiply it by the probable rate of failure (B), then multiply the result by the average cost of an out-of-court settlement (C).
"A times B times C equals X. This is what it will cost if we don’t initiate a recall.
“If X is greater than the cost of a recall, we recall the cars and no one gets hurt.
“If X is less than the cost of a recall, then we don’t recall” (30).
Palahniuk's inspiration for Jack's job was an actual case involving the Ford Pinto.
What this means is that Jack goes around trying to protect his company's bottom line to the detriment of people who drive his company's cars. You can imagine the husband or wife or child or parent of one of these accident victims hearing about this job and asking Jack, "How do you sleep at night?"

Going to support groups makes life seem pointless, short, and horrible. Ultimately, we all have little control over our fates, so there's no good reason to take responsibility for anything. When Jack burst into tears as Bob pulls his face into his enlarged breasts, he's relinquishing all accountability; he's, in a sense, becoming a child again. Accordingly, he's able to sleep like a baby. When Marla shows up, not only is he forced to confront the fact that he's healthy and perfectly able to behave responsibly, but he is also provided with an incentive to grow up because, as his fatuous grin informs us, he likes her. And, even though the support groups eventually fail to assuage his guilt, they do inspire him with the idea of hitting bottom, losing all control, losing all hope.

If Jack didn't have to worry about losing his apartment, or losing all his IKEA products, or losing his job, or falling out of favor with his boss, well, then he would be free to confront that same boss and tell him what he really thinks of the operation that has supported and enriched them both. Enter Tyler Durden, who systematically turns all these conditionals into realities. In game theory terms, Jack is both a 1st order and a 2nd order free rider because he both gains at the expense of others and knowingly allows others to gain in the same way. He carries on like this because he's more motivated by comfort and safety than he is by any assurance that he's doing right by other people.

This is where Jack being of "a generation of men raised by women" becomes important (50). Fathers and mothers tend to treat children differently. (It should go without saying--but feminist critics tend to be agenda- as opposed to truth-driven--this research is descriptive and not prescriptive; no one is interested in enforcing these statistical differences.) A study that functions well symbolically in this context examined the ways moms and dads tend to hold their babies in pools. Moms hold them facing themselves. Dads hold them facing away. Think of the way Bob's embrace of Jack changes between the support group and the fight club. When picked up by moms, babies breathing and heart-rates slow. Just the opposite happens when dads pick them up--they get excited. And if you inventory the types of interactions that go on between the two parents it's easy to see why.

Not only do dads engage children in more rough-and-tumble play; they are also far more likely to encourage children to take risks. In one study, fathers told they'd have to observe their child climbing a slope from a distance making any kind of rescue impossible in the event of a fall set the slopes at a much steeper angle than mothers in the same setup. Contrary to theory-addled critics, Fight Club isn't about dominance or triumphalism or white males' reaction to losing control; it's about men learning that they can't really live if they're always playing it safe. Jack actually says at one point that winning or losing doesn't much matter. Indeed, one of homework assignments Tyler gives everyone is to start a fight and lose. The point is to be willing to risk a fight when it's necessary--i.e. when someone attempts to exploit or seduce you based on the assumption that you'll always act according to your rational self-interest.

And the disturbing truth is that we are all lulled into hypocrisy and moral complacency by the allures of consumerism. We may not be "recall campaign coordinators" like Jack. But do we know or care where our food comes from? Do we know or care how our soap is made? Do we bother to ask why Disney movies are so devoid of the gross mechanics of life? We would do just about anything for comfort and safety. And that is precisely how material goods and material security have emasculated us. It's easy to imagine Jack's mother soothing him to sleep some night, saying, "Now, the best thing to do, dear, is to sit down and talk this out with your boss."

There are two scenes in Fight Club that I can't think of any other word to describe but sublime. The first is when Jack finally confronts his boss, threatening to expose the company's practices if he is not allowed to leave with full salary. At first, his boss reasons that Jack's threat is not credible, because bringing his crimes to light would hurt Jack just as much. But the key element to altruistic punishment is that the punisher is willing to incur risks or costs to mete it out. Jack, having been well-fathered, as it were, by Tyler, proceeds to engage in costly signaling of his willingness to harm himself by beating himself up, literally. In game theory terms, he's being rationally irrational, making his threat credible by demonstrating he can't be counted on to pursue his own rational self-interest. The money he gets through this maneuver goes, of course, not into anything for Jack, but into Fight Club and Project Mayhem.

The second sublime scene, and for me the best in the movie, is the one in which Jack is himself punished for his complicity in the crimes of his company. How can a guy with stitches in his face and broken teeth, a guy with a chemical burn on his hand, be punished? Fittingly, he lets Tyler get them both in a car accident. At this point, Jack is in control of his life, he's no longer emasculated. And Tyler flees.

One of the confusing things about the movie is that it has two overlapping plots. The first, which I've been exploring up to this point, centers on Jack's struggle to man up and become an altruistic punisher. The second is about the danger of violent reactions to the murder machine of consumerism. The male ethic of justice through violence can all too easily morph into fascism. And so once Jack has created this father figure and been initiated into manhood by him he then has to reign him in--specifically, he has to keep him from killing Marla. This second plot entails what anthropologist Christopher Boehm calls a "domination episode," in which an otherwise egalitarian group gets taken over by a despot who must then be defeated. Interestingly, only Jack knows for sure how much authority Tyler has, because Tyler seemingly undermines that authority by giving contradictory orders. But by now Jack is well schooled on how to beat Tyler--pretty much the same way he beat his boss.

It's interesting to think about possible parallels between the way Fight Club ends and what happened a couple years later on 9/11. The violent reaction to the criminal excesses of consumerism and capitalism wasn't, as it actually occurred, homegrown. And it wasn't inspired by any primal notion of manhood but by religious fanaticism. Still, in the minds of the terrorists, the attacks were certainly a punishment, and there's no denying the cost to the punishers.

True Love with a Bloody Twist: the Uses and Abuses of the Sympathetic Vampire

             Two strangers lock eyes from across a crowded bar. She is a small-town waitress, living with her grandmother, he a veteran returning home. They look at each other and experience a mutual frisson of seeming recognition. First they’re intrigued with each other, then, within moments, they’re enthralled. With their long, guileless stares, involuntary shifting of their bodies to bring themselves helplessly forward, leaning toward one another then back in an unconscious conscious dance—as if it didn’t matter that they’ve been aware of each other’s existence for only a few minutes—their eyes begin to dart away from that requited gaze toward each other's lips; she tilts back her head, actually closes her eyes until she remembers where she is; any second he will heed the cues and pull her to him for the first kiss. But then they’re interrupted by rowdy patrons in the next booth over.

            There’s something not right about the following scene, which has our war-weary lover lying supine as those rowdy restaurant patrons rob him outside in the parking lot. And there’s something not right about how the waitress manages to fight them off, rescuing the helpless veteran. By the end of the first episode of True Blood, though, we see the waitress, Sookie Stackhouse, playing the more familiar role of damsel in distress—just in time for the credits to role, as if the cliffhanger left any doubt about whether the veteran, Bill Compton, would play the role of knight. And yet the familiarity of the romantic plot at the heart of the series is well subsumed within the supernatural subject matter and countless other plotlines. Bill, it turns out, is a veteran not of the Iraq or Afghanistan wars, but of the Civil War. He is a 170-plus-year-old vampire. Those patrons were robbing him not of his wallet but of his blood, which can be sold to humans as a potent aphrodisiac, having subdued him with silver chains and inserted needles into his veins.

            In terms of pure entertainment, True Blood is the best show I’ve seen in a long time. It aspires to seriousness by allegorizing the plight of homosexuals (LGBT) in modern America, while featuring a cast of characters transparently designed to explode stereotypes. Tara, an angry young black woman, is constantly reading, knows legal and medical jargon, and just wants to be loved. Lafayette, Tara’s cousin, a black flamboyantly gay cook who moonlights as a drug dealer and prostitute, is a Machiavellian mastermind who can whoop some ass. Jason, Sookie’s brother, a narcissistic horn-dog jock, has a heart of gold, and can’t bear to see anyone hurt who doesn’t deserve it. Sookie herself, at first blush an innocent and dizzy blonde, all smiles, quick nervous laughs, and friendly manners, is telepathic, strong-willed, and possesses boundless courage, as she displays in her rescue of Bill. But most of the show’s appeal comes from traditional—you might even say conservative—storytelling.

            Bill is played by Stephen Moyers, who was forty when the first season of True Blood was filmed, and Sookie by Anna Paquin, who was 27. (The actors, who began dating the first season, are now married.) Sookie likes her men older, as one of the central plotlines in season one is the love triangle she and Bill make up with Sam Merlotte, the owner of the bar where she works, who has neat tufts of gray hair and is played by Sam Trammell, 39 at the time. In season two, despite herself, Sookie takes a shine to Eric Northman, a thousand-year-old vampire played by Alexander Skarsgard, then 31.

            If the May December pairings seem insignificant, there’s also the throwback that Sookie, a woman in her mid-twenties, is a virgin when she meets Bill. Her telepathy supposedly explains her sexual reticence, as hearing the raunchy thoughts of men her own age inevitably precludes the budding of any intimacy—neat little plot device that. But there’s no doubt what the writers are really up to in the episode that has Sookie donning a billowy white dress and running bare-foot just after sunset to offer herself to Bill for the first time. The encounter takes place on a velvet blanket before a fireplace with candles on the mantle. Lest we get bored with this old-fashioned scene—or embarrassed by how much we’re enjoying it—Bill’s fangs emerge. “Do it. I want you to,” Sookie says. Sure enough, he plunges them into her neck, and lovingly licks up the gusher he’s caused. But the blood drinking is merely an interlude—in fact, it’s used as another cliffhanger—and the scene ends with Sookie’s orgasm. The sixteen-year-old boy in me exulted.

            What happens next is emblematic of the show’s worst vices. Sitting in the bathtub with Bill, Sookie reveals that she was once inappropriately touched by her great uncle when she was a young girl. What actually happened is obscured by her recollection of the man’s thoughts. The only offense actually depicted is him having her sit on his lap as he helps with her math homework. “It was just touching,” she says. “It wasn’t nearly as bad as what happens to some girls.” This storyline is superfluous, even gratuitous, meant simply to signal that Sookie is deep and complex. When Bill confronts the man, wheelchair-bound and in his eighties, the encounter is disturbing for all the wrong reasons. Bill is supposed to be struggling with his vampiric urge to kill, and the writers saw this subplot as an opportunity to let him backslide in a way that would, if anything, make him more sympathetic. But in a show so proud of its own sexual openness the unceremonious execution of a helpless old man for an unvoiced and opaquely acted out attraction he had no control over is unsettlingly hypocritical and unenlightened. (For punishment to qualify as altruistic, it needs to entail a cost or a risk to the punisher.)

            True Blood relies far too heavily on the trope of the haunted past for characterization. Watching the show, I keep imagining a Family Guy-style cutaway to Vince Vaughn in Wedding Crashers saying in a mock-tragic tone, “We lost a lot of good men out there.” This is bad psychology and lazy storytelling. The idea that personality is reducible to background lends itself to the very urge toward stereotyping the show delights in frustrating. And yet the show has the redeeming quality of being snarkily aware of its own reliance on pulp fiction conventions. In a scene from season one that has Sam and Tara somewhat begrudgingly allowing themselves to fall into a courtship of sorts, he asks her why she likes Sookie’s brother Jason and why she doesn’t do anything about it. She responds in her endearing-annoying rhotic twang, “It’s part of my whole fucked-up thing: low self-esteem, childhood trauma, blah, blah, snore.”

            In season two of Mad Men, Don Draper responds to an idea for a TV show, “It’s derivative with a twist, which is what they’re looking for.” Shows like True Blood, The Vampire Diaries, and Twilight certainly fall into the derivative-with-a-twist category. They’re all traditional romances jazzed up with supposed monsters who turn out to be nice guys with tragic pasts. And they all center on prototypes Anne Rice deserves credit for, even though her stories weren’t romances at all. Bill, Stefan, and Edward are really all Louis. Eric, Damon, and—sorry, Twilight is just too awful to watch—are Lestat. What makes the HBO version so much better is certainly not that it has anything like the substance of Rice’s early installments of The Vampire Chronicles, which owe much of their profundity to her abandonment—unfortunately short-lived—of Catholicism and her wrestling with existentialism; True Blood is fun because unlike the other shows in the paranormal romance genre it doesn’t take itself so damn seriously.

            Not all of the comedy comes from the characters’ snarky remarks about the ridiculous plots they find themselves in. The hectic pacing does wonders to keep the tone light, an effect that harks back to a much earlier HBO series dealing in supernatural fare, Tales from the Crypt. Watching the episodes, I almost want to pull out a stopwatch and see if the editors are allotting each subplot its portion of the show according to some preset pattern. Indeed, the intricate workings of the multiple plots suggest nothing so much as the inner mechanics of a watch. And the writers are savvy enough never to answer a question without replacing it with three others.

            Ultimately, True Blood fails to be anywhere near as progressive as it seems to want to be. For all the collective wincing among the audience every time someone speaks of favoring his or her own kind, any show that pits good guys against bad guys both panders to and promotes tribalism, however it’s defined in the narrative context. Some of the characters who appear bad at first show signs of redeemability. In fact, the writers, in making Eric so much worse than Bill before having him break down in tears at the death of the vampire who made him and becoming inexplicably protective of Sookie, are at risk of letting him steal the show. But there are plenty of other characters—that uncle, Maryanne, Loraine—who are simply beyond sympathy.

            The show does, however, have moments when it transcends its mere functionality as pure entertainment. There’s a scene in season one, for instance, in which Bill is sitting at a table in the kitchen of a church, his hand on a bottle of synthetic blood—ironically called true blood—awaiting the arrival of all the townspeople so he can give a speech about his memories of the Civil War, and all the while listening in, with his keen vampire hearing, as everyone remarks on the potential dangers in hosting a blood-thirsty monster. Just as you find yourself desperate for him to prove them all wrong and win them over, Sookie arrives on the arm of Sam Merlotte. Meanwhile, the gears of the watch are turning: Jason is tripping on vampire blood; his friend Hoyt is tempted to taste some true blood; the cops are keeping their ears open for clues about some murders, for which both Bill and Jason are suspects; and a group of miscreants is gearing up to ruin to the lecture. For all its busy distractibility, the scene is masterful. As Bill walks out, takes the American flag from where it’s been draped over a cross for his benefit, hangs it on its pole, and continues winning over the crowd, just as you'd hoped, you know that’s character, in both senses of the term.

Bad Men


Though I had mixed feelings about the first season of Mad Men, which I picked up at Half Price Books for a steal, I still found enormous appeal in the more drawn out experience of the series unfolding. Movies lately have been leaving me tragically unmoved, with those in the action category being far too noisy and preposterous and those in the drama one too brief to establish any significant emotional investment in the characters. In a series, though, especially those in the new style pioneered by The Sopranos which eschew efforts to wrap up their plots by the end of each episode, viewers get a chance to follow characters as they develop, and the resultant investment in them makes even the most underplayed and realistic violence among them excruciatingly riveting. So, even though I found Pete Campbell, an account executive at the ad agency Sterling Cooper, the main setting for Mad Men, annoying instead of despicable, and the treatment of what we would today call sexual harassment in the office crude, self-congratulatory, and overdone, by the time I had finished watching the first season I was eager to get my hands on the second. I’ve now seen the first four seasons.

Reading up on the show on Wikipedia, I came across a few quotes from Daniel Mendelsohn’s screed against the series, “The Mad Men Account” in the New York Review of Books, and since Mendelsohn is always fascinating even when you disagree with him I made a point of reading his review after I’d finished the fourth season. His response was similar to mine in that he found himself engrossed in the show despite himself. There’s so much hoopla. But there’s so much wrong with the show. Allow me a longish quote:

“The writing is extremely weak, the plotting haphazard and often preposterous, the characterizations shallow and sometimes incoherent; its attitude toward the past is glib and its self-positioning in the present is unattractively smug; the acting is, almost without exception, bland and sometimes amateurish.
Worst of all—in a drama with aspirations to treating social and historical ‘issues’—the show is melodramatic rather than dramatic. By this I mean that it proceeds, for the most part, like a soap opera, serially (and often unbelievably) generating, and then resolving, successive personal crises (adulteries, abortions, premarital pregnancies, interracial affairs, alcoholism and drug addiction, etc.), rather than exploring, by means of believable conflicts between personality and situation, the contemporary social and cultural phenomena it regards with such fascination: sexism, misogyny, social hypocrisy, racism, the counterculture, and so forth.”

I have to say Mendelsohn is right on the mark here—though I will take issue with his categorical claims about the acting—leaving us with the question of why so many of us, me and Mendelsohn included, find the show so fascinating. Reading the review I found myself wanting to applaud at several points as it captures so precisely, and even artistically, the show’s failings. And yet these failings seem to me mild annoyances marring the otherwise profound gratification I get from watching. Mendelsohn lights on an answer for how it can be good while being so bad, one that squares the circle by turning the shortcomings into strengths.

If the characters are bland, stereotypical sixties people instead of individuals, if the issues are advertised rather than dramatized, if everyone depicted is hopelessly venal while evincing a smug, smiling commitment to decorum, well it’s because the show’s creator, Matthew Weiner, was born in 1965, and he’s trying to recreate the world of his parents. Mendelsohn quotes Weiner:

“part of the show is trying to figure out—this sounds really ineloquent—trying to figure out what is the deal with my parents. Am I them? Because you know you are…. The truth is it’s such a trope to sit around and bash your parents. I don’t want it to be like that. They are my inspiration, let’s not pretend.”

Mendelsohn’s clever solution to the Mad Men puzzle is that its appeal derives from its child’s-eye view of the period during which its enthusiasts’ parents were in their ascendancy. The characters aren’t deep because children wouldn’t have the wherewithal to appreciate their depth. The issues aren’t explored in all their complexity because children are only ever vaguely aware of them. For Mendelsohn, the most important characters are the Drapers’ daughter, Sally, and the neighbor kid, Glen, who first has a crush on Don’s wife, Betty, and then falls for Sally herself. And it turns out Glen is played by Weiner’s own son.

I admit the episodes that portrayed the Draper’s divorce struck me as poignant to the point of being slightly painful, resonating as they did with my memories of my own parents’ divorce. But that was in the ‘80’s not the 60’s. And Glen is, at least for me, one of the show’s annoyances, not by any means its main appeal. His long, unblinking stares at Betty, which Mendelsohn sees as so fraught with meaning, I can’t help finding creepy. The kid makes my skin crawl, much the way Pete Campbell does. I’m forced to consider that Mendelsohn, as astute as he is about a lot of the scenes and characters, is missing something, or getting something really wrong.

In trying to account for the show’s overwhelming appeal, I think Mendelsohn is a bit too clever. I haven’t done a survey but I’d wager the results would be pretty simple: it’s Don Draper stupid. While I agree that much of the characterization and background of the central character is overwrought and unsubtle (“meretricious,” “literally,” the reviewer jokes, assuming we all know the etymology of the word), I would suggest this only makes the question of his overwhelming attractiveness all the more fascinating. Mendelsohn finds him flat. But, at least in his review, he overlooks all the crucial scenes and instead, understandably, focuses on the lame flashbacks that supposedly explain his bad behavior.

All the characters are racist, Mendelsohn charges. But in the first scene of the first episode Don notices that the black busser clearing his table is smoking a rival brand of cigarettes—that he’s a potential new customer for his clients—and casually asks him what it would take for him to switch brands. When the manager arrives at the table to chide the busser for being so talkative, Don is as shocked as we are. I can’t recall a single scene in which Don is overtly racist.

Then there’s the relationship between Don and Peggy, which, as difficult as it is to believe for all the other characters, is never sexual. Everyone is sexist, yet in the first scene bringing together Don, Peggy, and Pete, our protagonist ends up chiding the younger man, who has been giving Peggy a fashion lesson, for being disrespectful. In season two, we see Don in an elevator with two men, one of whom is giving the raunchy details of his previous night’s conquest and doesn’t bother to pause the recounting when a woman enters. Her face registers something like terror, Don’s unmistakable disgust. “Take your hat off,” he says to the offender, and for a brief moment you wonder if the two men are going to tear into him. Then Don reaches over, unchecked, removes the man’s hat, and shoves it into his chest, rendering both men silent for the duration of the elevator ride. I hate to be one of those critics who reflexively resort to their pet theory, but my enjoyment of the scene long preceded my realization that it entailed an act of altruistic punishment.

The opening credits say it all, as we see a silhouetted man, obviously Don, walking into an office which begins to collapse, and cuts to him falling through the sky against the backdrop of skyscrapers with billboards and snappy slogans. How far will Don fall? For that matter, how far will Peggy? Their experiences oddly mirror each other, and it becomes clear that while Don barks denunciations at the other members of his creative team, he often goes out of his way to mentor Peggy. He’s the one, in fact, who recognizes her potential and promotes her from a secretary to a copywriter, a move which so confounds all the other men that they conclude he must have knocked her up.

Mendelsohn is especially disappointed in Mad Men’s portrayal, or rather its failure to portray, the plight of closeted gays. He complains that when Don witnesses Sal Romano kissing a male bellhop in a hotel on a business trip, the revelation “weirdly” “has no repercussions.” But it’s not weird at all because we experience some of Sal’s anxiety about how Don will react. On the plain home, Sal is terrified, but Don rather subtly lets him know he has nothing to worry about. Don can sympathize about having secrets. We can just imagine if one of the characters other than Don had been the one to discover Sal’s homosexuality—actually we don’t have to imagine it because it happens later.

Unlike the other characters, Don’s vices, chief among them his philandering, are timeless (except his chain-smoking) and universal. And though we can’t forgive him for what he does to Betty (another annoying character, who, like some women I’ve dated, uses the strategy of being constantly aggrieved to trick you into being nice to her, which backfires because the suggestion that your proclivities aren’t nice actually provokes you), we can’t help hoping that he’ll find a way to redeem himself. As cheesy as they are, the scenes that have Don furrowing his brow and extemporizing on what people want and how he can turn it into a marketing strategy, along with the similar ones in which he feels the weight of his crimes against others, are my favorites. His voice has the amazing quality of being authoritative and yet at the same time signaling vulnerability. This guy should be able to get it. But he’s surrounded by vipers. His job is to lie. His identity is a lie he can’t escape. How will he preserve his humanity, his soul? Or will he? These questions, and similar ones about Peggy, are what keep me watching.

Don Draper, then, is a character from a long tradition of bad boys who give contradictory signals of their moral worth. Milton inadvertently discovered how powerful these characters are when Satan turned out to be by far the most compelling character in Paradise Lost. (Byron understood why immediately.) George Lucas made a similar discovery when Han Solo stole the show from Luke Skywalker. From Tom Sawyer to Jack Sparrow and Tony Soprano (Weiner was also a writer on that show), the fascination with these guys savvy enough to get away with being bad but sensitive and compassionate enough to feel bad about it has been taking a firm grip on audiences sympathies since long before Don Draper put on his hat.


A couple final notes on the show's personal appeal for me: given my interests and education, marketing and advertising would be a natural fit for me, absent my moral compunctions about deceiving people to their detriment to enrich myself. Still, it's nice to see a show focusing on the processes behind creativity. Then there's the scene in season four in which Don realizes he's in love with his secretary because she doesn't freak out when his daughter spills her milkshake. Having spent too much of my adult life around women with short fuses, and so much of my time watching Mad Men being annoyed with Betty, I laughed until I teared up.