The Bear: Romance Revealed as Farce in Chekhov

Anton Chekhov’s play “The Bear” is typically relegated to that subgenre of comedy known as the farce. What separates a farce from the more pedestrian and commonplace “comedy” is that it is infused with a sense of whimsy as well as a detachment from reality that, paradoxically, should serve to make it all the more realistic. In the case of “The Bear” the farcical elements are utilized to heighten the emotional intensity that is under normal circumstances subject to far too much control and restraint to allow it freedom in a work of drama as short as this play. The revelation that love and the realization of love is enough to make Smirnoff undergo the series of truly bizarre and unexpected changes in register could probably only be accomplished in a farce.

The arguments that take place between Mrs. Popov and Smirnov serve both to provide the comic material for the play and as a foundation upon which to build Smirnov’s growing realization that he succumbing to the ultimate debt of love. Popov has retained her commitment to her husband long after his death has released her from that debt. Smirnov is a landowner who had lent money to Mr. Popov’s husband before his death and who has now shown up to demand repayment because he, in turn, is facing down his own creditors. The cyclical nature of debt and repayment serves as a metaphor for relationships between men and women. The play proceeds from a point of Popov’s refusal and Smirnov’s reactions. It is the evolution of Smirnov’s reactions that is the key to understanding his character.

The progression of the play is through dialogue rather than action and the progression of the dialogue of Smirnov is one of self-assuredness—almost cockiness—to a sense of losing control, which ultimately leads Smirnov to realize he has fallen in love. Smirnov boasts that he has “refused twelve women and nine have refused” him. These are the words of a man still secure in his independence before a woman; an insecure man never admits that a woman has refused him, much less nine. The subject at hand is still the debt as the argument intensifies, but then Mrs. Popov takes it from the financial to the personal. She attacks his very humanity by crying out “You’re nothing but a crude, bear! A brute! A monster!”. Finally, things progress—as it seems it always must—to weapons being brought to bear. Mrs. Popov goes for her husband’s pistols, essentially turning the argument into a full scale duel. There is only one problem: Mrs. Popov does not know how to fire the gun. At this point, she ceases to be a debtor and is well on her way to becoming a woman. Smirnov is lost.

Smirnov’s reactions to Mrs. Popov change considerably after weapons are introduced and since it is clear he has no real fear for his life, this change that comes over only can only be attributed to a death in his original feelings for the widow as his emotional trek comes to a rest a full one-hundred eighty degrees from where he started. Nothing in either his words or his actions could lead one to suppose that any element of truth is expressed when Smirnov asserts “If she fights I’ll shoot her like a chicken!”. One can well imagine the Smirnov who first entered Mrs. Popov’s home at the beginning of the play actually entertaining this idea—if not actually going through with it—but the words ring empty and hollow by the point at which they are actually spoken.

“The Bear” is a drama—perhaps even a tragedy if one cares to extrapolate what may happen to these two characters once the curtain comes down upon this small moment in their lives—masquerading as a farce. And, of course, it has to be that way. If the events that take place within the short period of time allotted in this short play were played straight and dramatically, Smirnov’s strange, comedic odyssey from cold, heartless debt collector to overwhelmed object of love would draw even more laughs, albeit unintentionally. To show the absurdity of Smirnov’s situation, indeed the absurdity of how any two people come to fall in love, the farce is the writer’s best weapon. It provides a method of distancing the audience from realizing they too are characters in a real life farce every time they fall in love.

The Passion of the Tinker Bell

When you get right down to it, Tinker Bell isn’t really the lovable impish fairy that Disney has made her out to be. Of course, since Tink has risen to become the unofficial spokesperson (so to speak) for Disney’s theme parks, that should come as no surprise. The relatively recent live action Peter Pan featured the most memorable Tinker Bell in cinematic history; in fact, she and Captain Hook are really the only good reasons to spend time with this movie. As written and wonderfully portrayed by French actress Ludivine Sagnier, the full petulance and jealousy of Tinker Bell at last was revealed. Compare Ms. Sagnier’s performance to that Julia Robert’s in Hook to see how talent can make a great character come alive and how lack of talent can leave even the most fascinating of characters dead in the water. The Tinker Bell of Sagnier is in keeping with J.M. Barrie’s original conception. Something that cannot come through in any stage version where Tink is merely a spotlight is the quite palpable sexual desire and the feelings of proprietary ownership that she feels for Peter.

To suggest that Tinker Bell’s jealousy of Wendy upon the arrival of the young British girl is beyond the ken is to state the obvious. Tink’s impolitic attitude toward this romantic rival for Peter’s affections is quite clearly delineated in a conversation between Pan and Wendy: “She says you are a great ugly girl, and that she is my fairy” It doesn’t take long to realize that in Tinker Bell’s mind there is a place for only one girl in Peter’s life, even if that girl is a fairy. Fairy Tink may be but one cannot help but feel that were she in the real world she might one day wind up on Jerry Springer. Tinker Bell expresses her feelings toward Peter through violence inflicted upon Wendy. The most infamous of these assaults takes place, not coincidentally, when Peter and Wendy share a kiss in the Darling nursery. Wendy tells Peter that she felt as if someone were tugging at her hair and Peter replies, tellingly, that he’s never known Tink to be so naughty in the past. Of course not; in the past Tinker Bell never had a rival. It would be enough if Tink merely stopped at harmless things like pulling Wendy’s hair, but our dear fairy is nothing at all like the impish little sprite as portrayed in those Disney commercials.

If you’ve never read J.M. Barrie’s original novel you might be shocked to learn that Tinker Bell actually calls upon one of the Lost Boys to shoot Wendy directly in her heart, and then arrange for it to appear as though the order was handed down by Peter Pan himself. As these kinds of Lifetime Movies plot twists often do, things backfired for Tinker Bell as Peter’s love for Wendy grows stronger in the face of almost losing her. As for Tink, this episode only served to deepen her hatred for Wendy. The depth of jealousy is described in a way that gives an element of humanity to the fairy. One element obviously missing is size. Tinker Bell knows she could well compete-and with that figure quite easily-with the girlish Wendy. Tinker Bell is never assumed to be anything other than a mature fairy, as is made evident from the palpable sexual tension existing between her and Peter. Also consider Barrie’s description of Tinker Bell as given to embonpoint, which is simply a fancy French term to describe a woman who is voluptuous. Barrie even gives one description of Tinker Bell in which he outlines what she is wearing making sure to add that “her figure could be seen to the advantage.” At another point Peter admonishes “Tink, if you don’t get up and dress at once I will open the curtain, and then we shall all see you in your negligee.” If that isn’t a sign that the relationship between Pan and Tink is intended to be a bit more ambiguous than usually portrayed, I don’t know what is. And then of course there is Tinker Bell’s decision to down the poison that was supposed to be ingested by Captain Hook.

As usual in these situations, Peter Pan is oblivious to the depth of feeling that Tinker Bell has for him. Tinker Bell chooses to drink the poison as an act of romantic passion and Peter is not mature enough to understand. He mistakenly believes that Tink merely drank the poison to save him. Tinkerbell’s reply is to call Pan a silly ass. Silly he is, unable to fully meander through the complexity of his relationship with the fairy. The decision by Tinker Bell to drink the poison also works as a way to tell Peter that she understands that he loves another and that she realizes her passion will forever remain unrequited. The bizarre love triangle that is at the center of Peter Pan elevates this children’s novel to a sphere in which it very subtly touches upon sexual awakening and romantic maturity. In many ways Peter Pan is a far more mature novel about sexuality than many other more

adult novels because the relationship between Peter-Tink-Wendy is fraught with passion and jealousy and the violence that is usually missing from novels directed to younger readers. Tinker Bell acts as the voice of unchained passion capable of going to the most extreme lengths to deal with her rival. Peter and Wendy are ultimately still children in the early stages of maturation and sexual awakening, whereas Tink is a fully eroticized character. Naturally, in order to make this palatable, not to mention to downplay the creepiness quotient, Barrie chose to make Tinker Bell a fairy, which not only removed her from humanity but made her too small to really be a threat to Wendy by herself.

Next time you see Tinker Bell whizzing around on one of those commercials for Disney World, you just might have a little more respect for her. You’d better respect her at least. Or you may find yourself the target of a Lost Boy arrow aimed at your heart.

Plato’s Republic: Utopia or Kakistocracy?

The Republic is one of the foundational texts of philosophy. Plato’s outline for an ideal utopian civilization has influenced political leaders, literature and sociology on its way to the establishment of the dialogues as one of the most influential and analyzed texts in history. The characteristics which Plato argues are the composition of a just state can be extrapolated as the characteristics which make up a just man. The initial response to The Republic is the revelation that the reason for its continued influence upon those whom would seek to replicate in practice the ideal state Plato offers in theory is precisely because his republic reflects a patriarchal, misogynistic, militaristic society in which the creative spirit is censored because it is viewed as the most dangerous influence. So far, all attempts to impose Plato’s idea of a “just state” on actual citizenry have failed, though that certainly may have changed by January 19, 2021.

Not without reason did Plato decide in The Republic to name his warrior class charged with keeping the distinctly undemocratic ideals necessity for such a social and political construct to run smoothly the Guardians. Guardians such as those entities that Plato describes in The Republic do exist today, as they have always, and do what they always do: stand guard against the morality of society being infected by ideas which, if implemented into action, would change the status quo forever and in ways likely to upset the balance of power existing with that status quo. What is most telling about Plato’s Guardians is not that they are the state’s moral police force nor even that they receive special training, education and living quarters. What makes the Guardians so more fascinating than the classes they oversee in that idyllic and utopic republic which Plato describes is that Plato provides such ample description for them. The motivation behind the dogged pursuit of putting into practice what the Republic suggests is ideal in theory makes perfect sense when one stops to look closely at the text and realize despite spending considerable time crafting this society and explaining the mechanics of its function through the roles established for its citizens, the reader is offered almost no information about the life of the masses of those living in this republic. They are merely the masses and as the masses they do what masses are expected to do: allow themselves to be acted upon rather than act as agencies of their own fate and destiny.

The Republic ultimately is revealed to be far less a handbook for creating a utopian society where everyone will be happy because they are doing what they are good at than it is a psychological study of the mind of a political despot. Plato’s apprehension toward the effects of mimetic entertainment upon the security of the state is not the conception of one concerned with bringing harmony, but yet another version of the same manifestation of paranoia that is experienced by all those trying to rein in the masses under the aegis of their own illegitimate rule: the desire to control ideas because ideas are dangerous.

The Republic holds an elevated distinction as a foundation of philosophical thought, but in reality it is not philosophy at all. Plato, whether intentionally or not, has done a service to the mankind. He has created what amounts to a psychological profile of those whose idea of the ideal society is more accurately described as a kakistocracy: government by the worst or least qualified citizens. Perhaps the most effective way to avoid such governance would be to obstruct from attaining power those who find Plato’s Republic an example of utopia.

Flannery O’Connor: Everything That Rises Must Subvert

Few American writers are as deserving of the description iconoclastic as Flannery O’Connor. While often lumped in amongst the multitudinous brothers and sisters who comprise that subgenre known as Southern Gothic which seems to cover an astonishingly broad range of plot and thematic elements, her career—and the sound of the shared letters in her name—has also brought her into direct comparison with Carson McCullers (Friedman 1962). What has perhaps kept Flannery O’Connor from achieving the place within the commercial world of American literary history that has been assumed by many other writers of far lesser talent is perhaps that very inability to easily pigeonhole her work which is certainly no closer to that of Poe than it is to Faulkner or Harper Lee, yet which engages so many of the same issues surrounding what it means to grow up among the often grotesque, but unavoidably fascinating denizens of Dixie.

Despite the similarities between these and certain other writers to which O’Connor is routinely compared, the very ineffectuality of determining a writer’s purpose and intent through her work is exemplified by trying to reach that understanding through the comparison with others. While it may be true that the Homeric motif of the return of the native from a prophetic journey to discover himself that is at the center of the some of the best works by William Styron, Faulkner and McCullers is actually nowhere more “strenuously present as in the fiction of Flannery O’Connor” (Friedman 1962), such a truism is hardly representative of all of her fiction.

Of far greater utility is the observation that O’Connor regularly engages a literary device developed by another writer—James Joyce—to endow in her characters ideas and perspectives that would be utterly untenable within the author herself. Upon learning that O’Connor “uses a limited third-person perspective that at times expresses the authorial voice, but at other times reveals only the protagonist’s” (Paulson 1988) is the type of comparison that can prove actually useful in explicating the work of just the one author without necessarily making a comparison or contrast with the other. An excellent example of how O’Connor puts to use techniques perfected by Joyce in his experiments with stream of consciousness is her highly anthologized short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” The element that separates this story from being merely a story of bad timing that harkens back to mythic themes of destiny is the portrayal of that family. While fate intervenes in a way that is perhaps unavoidable, the family certainly does not help their case by allowing one particular member to enjoy free range when it comes to worsening their situation. The most important character here is the grandmother and while extensive sections of the third person narration provide insight into the grandmother alone, the story also contains sections that allow for an interpretation of the character of the author. One of those sections may well be the elegantly simple, yet profoundly important way in which O’Connor foreshadows the emotional tenor which all but guarantees how the story will end while also revealing that the author may well have injected a little bit of her own voice into a character that can only be assumed to possess traits which are decidedly not autobiographical.

O’Connor perhaps tips hand at how much she views herself as an iconoclastic writer by revealing the underlying strain of rebellion—perhaps inadvisable rebellion—that drives the grandmother. Against her son’s order and against all common sense, this woman disobeys her own son’s admonition against bringing her cat along for the trip by furtively smuggling the feline into the vehicle. This relatively benign, but by no means prudent act of defiance, quickly delineates the grandmother’s central character traits: a selfish sort of entitlement that infringes upon others. Because the act is so benign, it connects compliantly with her further demonstrations of wheedling others as a means of achieving dominance over them. This very same character trait will prove to be not only her undoing but the undoing of her entire family when she puts it to use against the Misfit.

That smuggled cat comes into sharp relief as the central player in an event which transforms the forbidden act of bringing it along from one this relatively benign into one that seals the fate of every member of the family in the car. What gives this event special significance is the way it can be read biographically. Indeed, darkly comic turn of events that forces the cat from thematic background player to starring role in the narrative is a concrete example of the way that so much of her writings reflect her own domestic situation by presenting tales of adult children forced into a close quarters with an oppressive or needy mother (O’Connor). When viewed from this light, the passive-aggressive act of smuggling the cat not only provides insight directly into the character, but expands back to present the larger message at work in all of O’Connor’s writing: creating “a set of priorities that made gaining salvation the focus of their lives” (O’Connor). The salvation in this story is sought because the grandmother directly caused their situation in which the Misfit could be in a position to leave the murdered in a ditch.

“A Good Man is Hard to Find” is highly representative of the work of the author in large part because it features—like so much of her short stories and her novels that she wrote—a distinctly distressing, disturbing and downbeat conclusion. A conclusion that is also, however, characterized by the quality of its ambiguity and its potential for being not quite as tragic and depression as it might seem. While it is certainly tragic in the sense that ever member of an innocent family lies dead by the time it ends, the Misfit may not necessarily be the better off. He does get away with murder on a relatively mass scale, but O’Connor really is writing about salvation here and elsewhere. The dead grandmother lies in that ditch with a wide smile upon her face. Annoying and even unlikable in a way that exceeds the Misfit she may be, but she has found redemption. Meanwhile, there is nothing to suggest that the Misfit will achieve that.

One critic has examined the nature of the ambiguity present throughout the entirety of Flannery O’Connor’s body of work and has arrived at as succinct an encapsulation of the goal she set for herself across the length and breadth of this massive outpouring of words as is likely to be found. Claire Katz is not encumbered by any ambiguity of meaning at all when she asserts that “O’Connor’s conscious purpose is evident enough, and has been abundantly observed by her critics: to reveal the need for grace in a world grotesquely without a transcendent context” (54). Admittedly, that is a rather grandiose statement one on hand while being almost glibly simplistic as an application toward a writer’s entire body of work on the other. Within those two boundaries, however, there is something definitely to be said for the insight of Katz. Where the critic may fall short of covering the thematic output of the writer in its entirety is that contention that O’Connor’s characters populated a work without transcendent context.

Consider that not just “Greenleaf” but “The Partridge Festival” as well, O’Connor’s characters in a grotesque world (or grotesque characters in a normal world) reveal the surprising capacity to discard the intellect in favor of emotion as a means of connecting with others. The skepticism that drives the Misfit directly toward psychopathology is refreshingly absent here, thus exhibiting that O’Connor is entirely capable of retaining her iconoclastic qualities even when providing a context for transcendence. Ambiguity is put on display toward the end of “Greenleaf” when it is applied directly to the intellectual underpinning of Mrs. May’s belief in revelations, but ultimately the ambiguous nature of that skepticism only serves to confirm O’Connor’s trust in grace that results from a distrust of a purely intellectual leap of faith such as the skeptical nature of the Misfit.

Flannery O’Connor’s ability to provide a transcendent context within her world in which the grotesque seeks grace extends beyond character and into the very imagery of that world. An almost fairy tale quality is at play in “A Circle in the Fire” where the woods once again take their place in fiction as the topographical dividing line between the rules of society and the freedom of natural desires. If one were to seek for meaning in one writer’s works by comparing them to another, one might well point out how in so many fairy tales the woods become a place where the imagery defines them as a place filled with fear and the unknown. By contrast, O’Connor creates in the woods described in “A Circle in the Fire” a contextual location that endows them with contractual issues having more to do with economics than witchcraft and debate over private ownership than the site of weird rituals. How much more iconoclastic can a writer get than contravening the long tradition of the woods as a place of freedom unbound than by making them seem to be a place where modern rules are far more important than ancient rituals?

Clair Katz is right: Flannery O’Connor’s fiction is a place where the world is more grotesque and ambiguous than what is expected. Just as James Joyce uses stream of consciousness techniques to present a world that is familiar and strange at the same time, O’Connor engages point of view perspective to provide insight both into her own motivations for writing and the motivations of her characters in ways that are at times perfectly aligned and other times disjointed. Throughout both examples, however, one can discover the context for transcendence in the search for grace that Katz fails to uncover. The context, put as plainly as possible, is one that combines both the writer’s authorial voice and the oppositional voices of characters like the Misfit and the old woman he murders that speak not for the writer: it is one where everything that rises must subvert. It is the goal of every true iconoclast who views their identity as one shaped by being the outsider even among those with whom they seem to share so much.

Works Cited

Friedman, Melvin J. “Flannery O’Connor: Another Legend in Southern Fiction.” The English Journal 51.4 (1962): 233-43. Web.

Katz, Claire. “Flannery O’Connor’s Rage of Vision.” American Literature 46.1 (1974): 54-67. Web.

O’Connor, Margaret Anne. “Flannery O’Connor.” The Oxford Companion to Women’s Writing. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995. 641-642.

Paulson, Suzanne Morrow. Flannery O’Connor: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1988. Print.

Green Eggs and Ham: The Story of Us

Has there ever been a truer story written about America than Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham? Everything that you could possibly want to know about 20th and 21st century America is contained within the pages of this deceptively slight book. Forget about writing the Great American Novel; it’s been done. And while you’re at it, put Green Eggs and Ham at the top of your list of Important American Novels to Read; above Catch-22, The Catcher in the Rye and The Great Gatsby. Those books cannot tell you anything more about American that Theodor Seuss Geisel’s extraordinarily perceptive little tale of Sam-I-Am and his attempt to foist the disgusting meal of green eggs and ham upon an unsuspecting consumer. It is truly nothing less than astonishing that Dr. Seuss could do with just 50 words what it took hundreds of pages for other, far more respected and studied, others to do. And neither The Naked and the Dead nor An American Tragedy offer the kind of prescient glimpse into the next century that Green Eggs and Ham accomplishes.

“I would not like them

here or there.

I would not like them

anywhere.

I do not like

green eggs and ham.

I do not like them,

Sam-I-am.”

It is not that Sam-I-Am, and oh how I also do not like that Sam-I-Am, doesn’t get the fact that the anonymous consumer of the story really and truly does not like green eggs and ham; it is not even that he doesn’t know whether the dude ever even tried green eggs and ham. The point is that Sam-I-Am doesn’t care about these things. Sam-I-Am has one job and one job only and it has nothing to do with delivering a quality food product. His job is to sell to the trapped consumer. And thus is the vital element that makes Green Eggs and Ham the finest, most cogent observation of the American identity ever put to paper. America has long been about selling and buying, and far less about manufacturing quality goods. Look at the way we choose our President. It is not about selling the ability of one candidate or another to do the job that the present occupant of the Oval Office could not; it is about selling us something of dubious quality and making us like it. Consider that there are still, as we speak, between 40 and 50 percent of this country that would vote for George W. Bush if he ran again. How do I arrive at this figure? Because that is how many people say they would vote for one of the Republican candidates and if you can find a significant policy difference between any of them and George W. Bush, I’d sure like you to enlighten me. John McCain is Sam-I-Am, but then so is Hillary and Obama. What choice do we have but to buy green eggs and ham and like it.

Sam-I-Am lives among us, every day, everywhere. In any given hour on any given cable channel in my home, there will be at least three or four Cox Cable commercials. Cox Cable is green eggs and ham. People do try it, just like the unnamed eater of the ham and eggs in Seuss’ cautionary tale. And a great many are, just like that guy, convinced it is good and would try it not only in their house, but with a mouse. The fact is, however, that Cox Cable sucks. Just like your cable company sucks. Just like all cable companies suck. Every single day we gobble up green eggs and ham and consider it to be filet mignon. Look at America’s health care system. It is the most unaffordable in the world and we’re still getting daily horror stories like the ones about Dennis Quaid’s babies, or the woman who died from an unnecessary mastectomy. And yet a great deal of our population remain under the delusion that our health care system is filet mignon instead of green eggs and ham.

I do not like that Sam-I-Am. But there’s no getting away from him, is there?

Montresor: The Charm of the Psychopath

Edgar Allan Poe often seems to be a writer obsessed with blurry intersection of mentally disturbed exhibitions of violence and sheer, unadulterated evil. Is the narrator of “The Tell-Tale Heart” really as guilelessly driven by guilt as he seems…or is he a something of a prototype for Keyser Soze, leading the police down a confessional hole straight to an insanity defense that gets him out of jail? The typical reading of that particular killer in the Poe canon is generally one of a soul driven over the edge first by greed and then by remorse. Poe’s other great killer is usually not the recipient of such bleeding heart liberalism. In fact, Montresor in “The Cask of Amontillado” remains one of American literature’s great psychopaths.

And yet, Montresor seems every bit as much the unreliable narrator as that guy who suddenly goes mental over the image of the beating of the hideous heart. It may be that readers have been far less forgiving about Montresor’s crime due to the heightened rationality of his monologue. A coldly lucid assertion that “a wrong is unredressed when retribution overtakes its redresser” (340) is, after all, something that the hysterical narrator of “The Tell-Tale Heart” seems almost incapable of formulating. And Montresor’s continuing monologue follows along the same path of highly functioning sociopathy throughout his tale of perceived insult and overwrought retribution.

It is that overwrought ambition to right the perceived wrongs of insult that creates a bizarre irony in “The Cask of Amontillado.” The killer driven to madness by his imagination in “The Tell-Tale Heart” ultimately becomes something of a pathetic figure almost worthy of sympathy whereas those who feel sympathy toward Montresor might find themselves subject to a psychological evaluation. In reality, these opposite emotions would seem to be reversed. After all, few can truly empathize with much of that other great Poe killer, but who cannot sympathize with Montresor’s justification for murder? “The Cask of Amontillado” is, ultimately, a story of vengeance. We don’t get to know exactly what it was that Fortunato did to tick off Montresor to such a degree, but the imagination can certainly take most people to a place where they side with Montresor. Then there is the fact that from the kidnapping victim in “Oldboy” to meth kingpin Walter White, modern day readers of the story have been fully conditioned to root for the guy seeking vengeance, regardless of the nature of the wrongs they are seeking to right or the method by which such revenge is achieved.

Another paradox at work in the fact that Montresor rarely gets the sympathy that other patently deranged killers throughout literary history have enjoyed is that he remains at such an emotional distance despite possessing that one trait that separates the legendary serial killers from the grotesque crowd. Montresor is genuinely charming. In fact, it is not unreasonable to assume that were Montresor lacking in charm, his plan might never have come to fruition as it is not without reason to assume that Fortunato would not be as quick to follow Montresor to his own doom if Montresor were not the master of such lines as “You are rich, respected, admired, beloved; you are happy, as once I was. You are a man to be missed. For me it is no matter” (Poe 342).

Ultimately, it must be admitted that Montresor’s charming sociopathy is the key to succeeding at his plans for vengeance, but without Fortunato’s utter lack of all those things that allow Montresor to succeed in his nefarious plot, that plan would likely have fallen apart at some point. Perhaps Montresor is that rarest of birds: the killer who is just a little too coldly calculating in his charm to win the hearts of an American public all too willing to embrace otherwise nice guys who break a little too badly for comfort.

Rick Deckard's Perceptual Dissonance

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When Phil Resch is trying to convince a dubious Rick Deckard of his irrefutable humanity, his explanation relies upon the fact that he owns a squirrel which he keeps in cage equipped with a wheel which circles around and around as the squirrel runs inside it. He never gets anywhere, but still the squirrel seems to Phil to be perfectly content with the illusion of forward movement. Upon hearing this, Deckard’s response brings under suspicion the possibility that squirrels as entire species are lacking in some vital aspect of intellect. The theme of pursuing illusions in the faint hope of finding reality is pervasive throughout the novel.

The very opening the novel sets the stage for this thematic path which consistently suggests that human beings are constantly on a hamster wheel inside a cage. On his way to his car atop his roof, Deckard feeds electronic sheep. Earth has become a horrifically absurd dystopia in which the loss of real pets has given over to digital counterpart an association verging on the tactile. And yet, as if foreseeing the rise of Pokemon and digital pets, they cannot bring the tactile happiness of real, living, flesh and blood animals. A synthetic horse is a not a horse, of course, but a synthetic human being?

This is the crux at which Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep gets really interesting. In a way, pets can be seen as the android counterparts created for a society lulled into a cognitive anesthetic state in the future. Pets are not at the same level of human beings, but they seem to possess at least certain primitive emotions. And while people certainly give their pets the power of thought and sentient independence—if only in a way that may be half-joking—most pet owners do not view their animals as being on the same level as themselves. Or, at least, most do not admit it. The squirrel running and running and running and never really getting anywhere, but being happy all the same is just one example of the imagery of dehumanization in the form of pursuing a false illusion of something one really wants.

All those electronic animals that have replace the loss of real pets serves to underscore the fact that even though they are living and breathing creatures, dogs and cats and sheep and cows and squirrels do not look like us. Therefore, they cannot ever hope to rise to the same level as being like us. The imagery undermines any attempt to impose true potential for sentient independence upon even the most beloved pet. Up in the sky among those colonizing Mars are the images of disaffected and alienated androids engage in insurrection against their evil capitalist masters. Except in this case, the Marxist revolution is not embodied in the disaffected and alienated worker in rebellion against profit-driven bosses, it is embodied in the machines bought and owned by a company. How can the androids rise in revolt when they do not possess emotions; when they are no different from a vehicle or even a toaster? Because the androids look like us. And if they look like us enough to allow the illusion to stick, they can be endowed with the possibility for emotion. Here is a revolution not spurred by the evil capitalist industrialists for once. Here is a revolution that can only exist because the pursuit of an illusory substitute for the real thing has been allowed to get too far out of hand. After all, how big a leap might there be from “feeding” electronic sheep to believing that robots that look just like humans can actually feel like humans?

Eventually, Dick will force complicity from his reader in the process of accepting illusions as real without bothering to inquire very deeply. The narrative perspective that the author engages is limited third-person omniscient that, as the story unfolds, gradually begins to seem less than entirely reliable. Not that the narrative voice is offering false information to the reader for the purpose of deception or even to misguide understanding, but rather that in some cases distinctly empty space exists between what the narrator asserts and what he describes as actually happening. The biggest and most disconcerting empty space here is the one occupied by narrative instruction that collecting the bounty on the rogue androids is no walk in the park and only getting more difficult with the complexity of the Nexus-6 androids. While the reader is told that Deckard has a tough duty, the actual difficulty involved in dispatching Pris and Roy do not in reality seem to jibe. The narrative perspective here and in other less jarring empty spaces between what is told and what is shown gradually comes to seem like yet another example of how human being are willing to spin around and around in pursuit of an acceptable simulacrum of movement without there being any actual progress.

Deckard’s easy and glib dismissal of the intellectual capacity of Phil Resch’s pet squirrel is utterly understandable. Deckard overlooks the obvious association between the primitive acceptance of a totally false reality as actual reality and his own examples of doing exactly the same thing as the squirrel precisely because his intellect is greater. Like all humans, Deckard has endowed his species with a sense of superiority so finely tuned that he is absolutely incapable of making that kind connection because the more developed the mind becomes, the more open it is to perceptual dissonance. The squirrel cannot question the difference between actually running around and running in place without getting anywhere. A human being can question that difference and, unlike a machine wired to make decisions purely out of a series of logical responses to a Yes or No inquiry, he can arrive at the consideration that running in place can be a perceptual reality every bit the same as running with forward motion. Unless the human just is not quite bright enough to recognize his own limitations, of course.

The Relevance of King Lear Today

The relevance of King Lear today is partly due to the relevance of the story as a timeless portrait of family dysfunction, sibling rivalry and the inability of family members to properly communicate. All those aspects contribute to the universality of King Lear as a tragedy that thought it may be about kings and princesses also manages to transcend its fairy tale construction to speak to those at all stages of class division and economic empowerment. What really makes the story especially relevant to today’s audiences, however, is the subplot involving Edmund which speaks directly to the issues of class division and economic disempowerment that has resulted in movements like Occupy Wall Street and the realization of the chasm existing between the 99% and the 1%.

The story of the fairy tale kingdom of Lear becoming a nightmarish retelling straight out of the Brothers Grimm is due specifically to the same sort of absence of communication skills among family members that is on display every day on the Jerry Springer or Maury Povich shows. Lear and Gloucester may represent the elitist aristocracy, but their respective family squabbles would fit right at home inside today’s trailer parks. All one needs to do is update the lexicon and on those shows and around the world every day would be heard the same sentiment that is expressed by Gloucester:  “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is/To have a thankless child.—Away, away! (1.4.302-303).  It is Kent who really speaks for the relevance of the tragedy’s commentary on family disputes in the modern world. For that matter, Kent also speaks to the relevance of King Lear to the worlds of the past as well. Upon the orders from the King to remove himself from his sight, Kent a suggestion that fathers around the world would do well to follow:  “See better, Lear” (I. i. 166).

Game of Thrones Season 5!

The main plot of Lear and the subplot of Gloucester provide an example of parallel plotting that makes both of them relevant today. Lear and Gloucester both commence a journey toward redemption for their lack of ability to communicate with their children precisely due to that lack of communicative capacity. What is at stake in the narrative of both the King and the Lord is a distinct inability of both fathers to correctly judge the sense of character within their offspring.  Expectations of characters insight are based somewhat on a dislocated sense of pride. It is Cordelia who provides the illuminating insight this time when she observes that “We are not the first/Who with best meaning have incurred the worst” (5.3.4-5). Lear trusts that maintaining a truly bizarre contest between his children to determine which of them loves him the most is the key to keeping the family and kingdom together. How many sibling rivalries and estranged families today result from exactly that sort of misapprehension of intentions?

The most relevant aspect of King Lear has to do with both family squabbles and the economics of familial relations. Edmund ties both family squabbles today while also acting as the symbol of the distinctly unfair economic laws of the times. Edmund’s extended soliloquy opening the second scene of the first act reveals explicitly the contradictory values that not only existed between the haves and have-nots of his own time but also are relevant for the same two levels of class today. Some may find it distasteful to view Edmund as a heroic character, but the fact remains that unlike Goneril he is not merely trying to grab for more than he deserves, but is only making a play for what he has coming to him.

“Wherefore should I
Stand in the plague of custom, and permit
The curiosity of nations to deprive me
For that I am some twelve or fourteen moonshines
Lag of a brother? why ‘bastard’? Wherefore ‘base,’
When my dimensions are as well compact,
My mind as generous and my shape as true
As honest madam’s issue?
Why brand they us
With ‘base,’ with ‘baseness,’ ‘bastardy,’ ‘base,’
‘base,’
Who, in the lusty stealth of nature, take
More composition and fierce quality
Than doth, within a dull, stale, tired bed
Go to th’ creating a whole tribe of fops
Got ‘tween asleep and wake? Well then,
Legitimate Edgar, I must have your land.
Our father’s love is to the bastard Edmund
As to th’ legitimate. Fine word, ‘legitimate,’
Well, my legitimate, if this letter speed
And my invention thrive, Edmund the base
Shall top th’ legitimate. I grow, I prosper.
Now, gods, stand up for bastards!” (I. ii. 2-23).

What Edmund is saying throughout this long and involved and insightful soliloquy is the same that many members of the 99% are saying today. Why should they be left out of the game simply as a result of custom, tradition and accident of birth? Edmund will spend the rest of the play proving time and again that he is more intelligent and even, in a sense, wiser than most of the other characters. Certainly, Edmund comes off as far more deserving Lear’s kingdom than Lear himself or Goneril or Regan or, really, any other character. Changes in the wording a little here and there and the long passage quoted above could be spoken not just by Edmund in an updated version of King Lear but by anyone in the Occupy Movement or any socialist supporting Bernie Sanders who sees the patently unfair system of economics which capitalism has become. “I grow, I prosper” thus becomes a manifesto for the working class.

The relevance of King Lear to modern society is illuminated daily whether it is family feuding on reality TV shows or whether it is the struggle of the oppressed underclasses attempting to impose fairness upon an outdated and outmoded system. The tragedy that plays out reveals that both internal fighting among family members and external fighting against conventions based on family history are timeless and pass from one generation to the next with little change or improvement.

The Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault

In his landmark examination of the more mature aspects of the original versions of fairy tales, “The Uses of Enchantment,” Bruno Bettelheim targets Charles Perrault for some very criticism in the way that he edited and reinterpreted folks tales that had been handed down in the oral tradition for centuries. According to Bettelheim, Perrault’s version of these stories which nearly every American adult knows by heart suffer from other versions collected or written by the likes of the Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Andersen as a result of Perrault’s insistent refusal to take the literary genre seriously. In fact, according to Bettelheim, Perrault was far more interested in crafting his version of the stories for the purpose of applying “cute or moralistic verse ending” (230). Bettelheim’s critique of the Perrault versions’ cuteness ultimately serves to call into question the contention that his writings were intended for adult female readers since his quest was to remove all offensive or vulgar content from the tales (250). Such an argument is actually counterintuitive since the flaws that Bettelheim is describing can also be read as an example of Perrault transforming the overly horrific melodrama of the traditional elements of fairy tales intended to scare young girls into more subtle life lessons directed toward adult women with a more fully developed maturity about how the world really works.

Fairy tales are a literary genre with a long tradition of conventional utilization for the purposes of inspiring self-control over impulsive desires. When it comes to such impulse control, who is more in need of learning lessons through moral tales than children? And what better mean do storytellers have at their disposal for instilling such moral lessons about the potential dangers of giving into impulsive desires than provocative horror stories that indulge in the most unsubtle of images designed to essentially freak out unmolded minds about the terror that awaits them in the scary adult world. The unsympathetic underpinning of strict morality that lies at the heart of the fairy tale’s reason for being no longer has the power to secure the attention of adults. After all, they are no longer the innocent protagonist, but one of the masses of adults or beasts who are not to be entirely trusted. The central conceit that the horror and terror found in other versions (such as Cinderella’s ugly stepsisters cutting off their toes or otherwise mutilating their bodies in order to make the shoe fit) no longer provides an entryway into the conscious workings of the adult mind. Thus stripped those vulgar and offensive elements that are situated within fairy tales as a means for scaring underdeveloped minds into adhering to the dominant moral code, Perrault’s versions become capable of existing on two levels. The surface level still retains enough of the core warnings to influence young readers to behave while also existing as pure entertainment.

It is that second level that Perrault adds which comes into direct conflict with the criticism of Bettelheim and others over the subject of to whom the stories are intended. While not generally lumped into the same category as the fables of Aesop, fairy tales do exist for the purpose of serving a moral. The moral, however, is typically an inherent one that serves as part of the narrative process. When Bettelheim criticizes Perrault for recrafting these tales expressly for the purpose of adding a cute bit of verse or prose at the end, he is referring to Perrault’s penchant for replicating the inherent moral in a more direct, explicit and, it would seem, ironic way.

Take, for instance, the addendum to the story of Little Red Riding Hood: “Children, especially attractive, well-bred young ladies, should never talk to strangers, for if they should do so, they may well provide dinner for a wolf. I say “wolf,” but there are various kinds of wolves. There are also those who are charming, quiet, polite, unassuming, complacent, and sweet, who pursue young women at home and in the streets. And unfortunately, it is these gentle wolves who are the most dangerous ones of all” (Perrault). Prior to this moral, the story of Red’s ill-fated decision trip to granny’s house in the woods is amazingly free of the most gruesome elements to be found in some other versions. And yet, there is yet to be found any “version of the story prior to Perrault’s manuscript in which both Granny and Little Red are devoured” (Panati, 1989, p. 171). So even though Perrault’s account is low on gore, it is the first in which both young girl and old woman die and the wolf walks away unscathed. Perrault’s separately constructed moral addendum thus seems strangely out of tune with the tone of the preceding story leading up to it.

This disconnect is consistent throughout his canon but is especially true in Perrault’s version of Cinderella in which he offers not just one moral addendum, but two. If there is any doubt that Perrault was writing not just for children, but adults, there is this except from the first moral: “Young women, in the winning of a heart, graciousness is more important than a beautiful hairdo. It is a true gift of the fairies. Without it nothing is possible; with it, one can do anything (Perrault). And if anyone remains unconvinced that Perrault’s moral additions inhabit a real of irony clearly aimed well over the head of children on their way to a target made up of adult maturity, the second moral of his Cinderella should clear away any remaining doubt:

“Without doubt it is a great advantage to have intelligence, courage, good breeding, and common sense. These, and similar talents come only from heaven, and it is good to have them. However, even these may fail to bring you success, without the blessing of a godfather or a godmother” (Perrault).

Bruno Bettelheim’s criticism of the way that Perrault handles his recreation of fairy tales is not directed toward his talent as a writer and indeed, he even explicitly states that he certainly not “lacking in artistry.” The criticism is actually leveled more toward how Perrault allowed his intended readers to wield undue influence over his artistry. According to Bettelheim, “Perrault, speaking to the courtiers he had in mind as his readers, made fun of the fairy stories he told” (230). If this is true, it is certainly not too great a leap of extrapolation to implicate the level of maturity of these courtiers as the stimulus for the realm of irony which those moral addendums of Perrault’s versions inhabit.

Thomas Berger's Comic Novels that Hollywood Should Adapt

“Meeting Evil” is categorized under genres such as mystery, drama and thriller in its movie form. The source material for this dark drama is a Thomas Berger novel. Berger specializes in comic novels, albeit the shades of his humor reveal that black comes in a variety of hues. “Meeting Evil” may be one of Thomas Berger’s darkest comedies, but it is a comic novel nonetheless. That blackness may not be well translated to the screen, but since Hollywood has experienced success with Berger’s novels before, there is no reason why they should stop even if “Meeting Evil” does not meet with success at the box office.

THE RETURN OF LITTLE BIG MAN

More than three decades after Thomas Berger published his most commercially successful novel, he wrote a sequel. “Little Big Man” was made into one of the finest revisionist westerns in Hollywood history and featured a monumental performance by Dustin Hoffman. Hoffman is too old to take on the younger part of Jack Crabbe in a big screen version of the sequel, but he could more easily play the centenarian narrator. “The Return of Little Big Man” features the same episodic structure of the original, but the centerpiece of the novel is one that reveals that Jack Crabbe was actually a witness to the Battle of the O.K. Corral and Wyatt Earp and his gang of brutes were not the heroes they made themselves out to be.

SNEAKY PEOPLE

“Sneaky People” is one of the best novels I’ve ever read and in the right hands would make a magnificently funny film. In the wrong hands, like the ones who took Berger’s “The Feud” and stripped it of all its charm and rhythm, the novel would fall apart on the screen. A darkly comic tale of a used car salesman plotting to kill his wife and marry his cheap mistress seems a likely project for the Coen Brothers. That simplistic overview of the plot, however, is really just the thin layer of veneer plastered over a much deep investigation into the inherent sneakiness of the human race.

ARTHUR REX

A great comic film about the world of King Arthur could even be fashioned from the novels of Thomas Berger. “Arthur Rex” covers not just Arthur, Lancelot and Guinevere, but also Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Tristan and Isolde and Morgan Le Fay and Mordred. The novel is long, epic and upends the conventional dramatic impact of these stories by looking at chivalry from a comic perspective that ultimately deepens the tragic implications of these mythic tales.