Gaga Families and Steven’s Queer Universe

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Ch-ch-ch-ch-Changes

(Turn and face the strange)

–Changes, David Bowie

Why don’t you let yourself just be somewhere different.
Whoa, why don’t you let yourself just be whoever you are.

–Be Wherever You Are, Rebecca Sugar

 

To be frank I have often considered myself more of a fan of We Bare Bears.  Growing up I didn’t have a brother, I was blessed with a sister who would frequently whoop my ass, and so watching the show there’s a nice opportunity to watch a relationship I never had.  That and I love Ice Bear, his monotones are the stuff of genius.  As for my wife her favorite Cartoon Network show is still The Amazing World of Gumball.  It’s incredible to see how a show riddled with so many smart jokes that range in satire of government bureaucracy to economic strategies retail outlets employ in order to sucker people into impulse buying.  Along with these shows we also enjoy watching Adventure Time, Uncle Grandpa (at least I1280x720-ZKU do), and even Clarence.  Let’s not talk about Teen Titans Go! however, it’s still too soon.

It may seem odd at first that a man in his late twenties enjoys cartoons designed for children and young adults, but I can assure you there’s a harmless albeit pathetic explanation for this: my wife and I are often out of the house and so we leave the television on for the pets.  It may seem ridiculous but since we were in school most of the day, and now entering “the real world” whatever that is, we weren’t comfortable just leaving the pets in the dark of the house with no noise.  My Huckleberry is a bit of a weenie and I wanted to make sure he felt like someone was still there and I don’t have the heart to leave FOX News on for him.  Sometimes it would be PBS, other times it was CNN, but after a while the go-to channel was Cartoon Network because…Cry_For_Help_Group_Sees_Transmissionwell, there it was.  In my madder moments I would imagine the pets asking me to leave on Cartoon Network because they wanted to watch Adventure Time, but that’s revealing information my wife will need for the committal.  After a while we would come home, either together or separately and over time we found that, after a long day at work and school, it was nice to just sit down and watch an episode of Gumball or Clarence.  The shows were designed for kids, but the humor was often smart in these shows and so they became a staple.  One show in particular however I resisted for reasons I honestly don’t know.

Steven Universe, for those unfamiliar with the show, is rather Queer is almost every sense of the term.  I won’t be the first person writing on a blog that has observed this, and I surely won’t be the last, but recently I began reading J. Jack Halberstam’s Steven-Universe-Episode-44-Marble-Madnessbook Gaga Feminism: Sex, Gender, and the End of Normal and so looking at Steven Universe and my recent upsurge in watching the show it seemed like a good time to throw my hat into the ring if I can use an over-used yet still effective visual metaphor.

Steven Universe is about a young boy growing up in a small town on the edge of the ocean called Beach City.  It has a donut shop, the local blogger/conspiracy theorist, a group of trendy teenagers resisting the fact that they’re going to wind up working and living mundane lives in the city when they get older, and at the very edge of town live a group of outcasts by the name of The Crystal Gems.  Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl are three survivors of an ancient war between a civilization known as Gems.  Gems are 9601anthropomorphic feminine humanoids that are, in the most basic explanation possible, rocks.  A Gem’s main body is a single gem that contains their spirit, energy, and soul and from it they are able to manifest a physical body which assumes different personalities depending on the gem which can run from pearls, amethysts, diamonds, rubies, paradot, lapis lazuli, quartz, jasper, etc. and within this society is a rigid class system which assigns “roles” to gems given their stone.  The Crystal Gems are the last of a rebellion army that tried to fight this system and their former leader, a gem known as Rose Quartz but often referred to as “Rose,” has been remade after falling in love with a young human named Greg Universe.  Steven is their “son,” but he’s also Rose for on his stomach he bears her quartz.  The show then, is about the Crystal Gems raising Steven along with Greg and often encountering gems from the Home World who are in constant effort trying to defeat them.

The reader may wonder where the Queerness comes into play, and I have to start first with the most Ruby_and_Sapphire_fusion_01obvious example of the character Garnet who is in fact a “fusion” of two smaller gems named Ruby and Sapphire.  Now it’s important to clarify the misinterpretation, that many casual viewers including myself early on made about what “fusion” actually is.  The Gems in Steven Universe, while they don’t possess any kind of sex, do exhibit feminine gender presentations and even use female pro-nouns when referring themselves or others.  This by itself wouldn’t be so terribly interesting since we’re living in a period of Third-Wave Feminism and so seeing more and more female representation in cartoons isn’t that shocking.  It’s refreshing and fun to watch, but not necessarily shocking.  Many have objected to Steven Universe however for the show relies on Garnet as well as other gems “fusing” which many see as sex, when watching the show regularly clearly demonstrates something far more important.

Fusion is not sex, but rather a kind of energy relationship.1faacfd57d5aba235392932b1fb02da7

To give the best explanation I can I have to go to chemistry.  I tutored biology for four years, married a biologist, my best friend is a biochemist, and through these regular interactions I learned a bit about chemistry particularly about chemical bonds.  What my friends, wife, teachers, and eventually I would stress to students was that chemical bonds, that is bonds between the various elements that exist in nature, were not physical objects.  Many people would show bonding by holding hands, but what I eventually learned was that that visual didn’t actually work.  Chemical bonds were described as “energy relationships” in which the elements would remain connected through the electromagnetics of the bond, and while there was nothing physical holding them together, there was still energy drawing them towards one another.

This to me is the best way to explain “fusion” in Steven Universe for it’s clear that the creator of the show, Rebecca Sugar, wants to introduce young kids to the idea of queer relationships and queer families.Rebecca_sugar

Recently at San Diego Comic-Con Sugar came-out as bisexual to an adoring crowd:

These things have so much to do with who you are, and there’s this idea that these are themes that should not be shared with kids, but everyone shares stories about love and attraction with kids. So many stories for kids are about love, and it really makes a difference to hear stories about how someone like you can be loved and if you don’t hear those stories it will change who you are. It’s very important to me that we speak to kids about consent and we speak to kids about identity and that we speak to kids about so much. I want to feel like I exist and I want everyone else who wants to feel that way to feel that way too.

It might just be because of the region I grew up but this has been seen by some as a radical approach, and while some parents have tried to make the argument that kids should wait until they’re older Sugar’s response has both tact and wisdom:1452169554_309656_1452170082_noticia_normal

“You can’t wait until kids have grown up to let them know that queer people exist. There’s this idea that that is something that should only be discussed with adults — that is completely wrong. If you wait to tell queer youth that it matters how they feel or that they are even a person, then it’s going to be too late!”

The first person I ever came out to was a transgender man.  I use the word “man” loosely because they confessed to me later on that my use of the word “man,” “dude,” “sir,” and “he” made them uncomfortable, the argument being that, while they understood it was hardwired Southern gentility on my part and not an effort to write the narrative of their life, it was still an act of “gendering” them which felt far more nuanced and personal.  There are some that might immediately ask “well dude is it really that important,” Halberstam-Jack-flap-Assaf-Evronbut I try to avoid being an asshole to the best of my ability and so when somebody tells me they don’t like something I try to avoid doing it.  They became J—- instead.  I’ve censored their name because I don’t wish to “out” them.  J—- remains such a crucial part of my life, not just because he was the first person I came out to as Bi, but because he introduced me to Jack Halberstam.

I’ve mentioned before, some would say ad nauseum, that I took a Queer Theory course in graduate school and while I read Bersani, Sedgewick, Butler, and Foucault, Halberstam was an entirely different animal, and in fact I originally had no real intention of reading their work.  Before one of our meetings J—- showed me the book Gaga Feminism and encouraged me to read it when I could, but whenever people tell me I should read a book it’s like placing a letter in a mass mail box.  I’ll eventually get to it, but it’s going to be buried beneath dozens of other suggestions, considerations, and recommendations.  After reading the first half of Female Masculinity however I was hooked and I realized Halberstam was not only an important Queer theorist, they were also someone that had a unique perspective into multiple areas of culture.

And its Lady Gaga who provides the working model.HALBERSTAM-GagaFeminism

Halberstam argues in the first chapter of their book that Lady Gaga’s stage performance provides a fascinating new platform for a new kind of feminism:

Gaga feminism proposes that we look more closely at heterosexuality, not simply to blame it for the continued imbalance of the sexes but to find in its collapse new modes of intimate relation.  And this form of feminism actually imagines that men as well as women will feel liberated by the possibilities that the end of heterosexuality and the end of normal create.  (22).

This quote is perfectly functional for an opening thesis, and while I understand Halberstam’s point, I feel genuinely that the passage that follows it lays out a far clearer message of what their creative and intellectual goals are:

But…what if we incorporate all the macro changes that we have experienced in a few short decades into the everyday?  What if we start noticing that the families in which children grow up are far different from the families in which many of us were raised, and that those changes have often been for the better?  The claustrophobias of the nuclear family was formerly only alleviated by more family, extended family, by cousins 810597and aunts and uncles and grandparents.  But now, children are apt to have many adults in their life, adults, moreover, to whom they are not even related.  […]  What would happen if we actually began to incorporate this version of the family into our mainstream representations?  (22-23).

Growing up I was raised in what is often referred to as a “nuclear family unit” and this structure is made up of the characters of father, mother, and two children usually of different sexes.  This working model of the family is the stuff of 1950s white suburbia and came to embody the cultural consciousness in television programs like Leave it to Beaver and also in later shows like Happy Days, The Simpsons, and Boy Meets World.  Even animated television programs like Doug and Rugrats growing up would rely on fact that the nuclear family was the standard unit that made up the family of America, and while most mainstream films and television continue this model for fear of offending or upsetting the heterosexual “majority,” Halberstam’s analysis does beg the question: is the nuclear family still “the norm?”

For my own part I’ll say no because growing up I watched many Robin William’s movies, one of which was Mrs. Doubtfire.  On a small note I watched this movie and wept on the night I heard that Robin Williams had died, but then again who didn’t?  The film was unique for the fact that it freely dealt with the topic of divorce, and while the film does rely on heterosexual relationships for it’s “norm,” the final lines of the film do seem to echo the sentiment of Halberstam’s questions:tumblr_oapzomjkjd1uruoe9o1_1280

Mrs. Doubtfire: [reading a letter] “Dear Mrs. Doubtfire, two months ago, my mom and dad decided to separate. Now they live in different houses. My brother Andrew says that we aren’t to be a family anymore. Is this true? Did I lose my family? Is there anything I can do to get my parents back together? Sincerely, Katie McCormick.” Oh, my dear Katie. You know, some parents, when they’re angry, they get along much better when they don’t live together. They don’t fight all the time, and they can become better people, and much better mummies and daddies for you. And sometimes they get back together. And sometimes they don’t, dear. And if they don’t, don’t blame yourself. Just because they don’t love each other anymore, doesn’t mean that they don’t love you. 9e15f74027510817e2dcc5b427a27086There are all sorts of different families, Katie. Some families have one mommy, some families have one daddy, or two families. And some children live with their uncle or aunt. Some live with their grandparents, and some children live with foster parents. And some live in separate homes, in separate neighborhoods, in different areas of the country – and they may not see each other for days, or weeks, months… even years at a time. But if there’s love, dear… those are the ties that bind, and you’ll have a family in your heart, forever. All my love to you, poppet, you’re going to be all right… bye-bye.

Throughout Gaga Feminism Jack Halberstam cites the examples of contemporary films noting how heterosexuality is often painted as “the norm” or ideal relationship model for people living in contemporary society, but as Mrs. Doubtfire, Halberstam, and Steven tumblr_nkysjnDthg1u1e188o4_500Universe have demonstrated that particular model is not only not always efficient, sometimes it just doesn’t work for everyone and so different family models emerge.  This is not to suggest that heterosexual people are doomed to suffer unnecessarily in their relationships and that only Queer people will find happiness.  While I am bisexual, I married a woman because I loved her and so far it’s not only worked, it’s given me what I needed psychologically, philosophically, personally, etc.  My success in the heteronormative model of relationship however should never be looked upon as “the norm” because my wife and I are far too odd to ever be called normal (just to put it in perspective I’m an atheist who spends most of his time reading and talking to himself and my wife reveres “Ceiling Cat” …Google it).

To be honest, having finished Gaga Feminism now I recognize some flaws, or perhaps just perceive some, in Halberstam’s final answer to the flaws and weaknesses inmaxresdefault the marriage narrative, but looking back to Steven Universe there is one point Halberstam notes that is pressingly relevant:

Marriage pits the family and the couple against everyone else; alternative intimacies stretch connections between people and across neighborhoods like invisible webs, and they bind us to one another in ways that foster communication, responsibility, and generosity.  (110-1).

Steven Universe is an odd and wonderful show because it offers a chance to see a side of the world that has, up to this point, largely been ignored by mainstream cartoons:  the lives and relationships of queer women.  I recognize that technically the gems are not women in the sense that human beings are women, but female humanoids interacting and forming homo-social, homo-erotic bonds is enough of a political statement to argue that the characters are at least queer.  In that past cartoons have afforded only minimal access to queer men and women, and often their sexuality is pushed to only a brief reference to a lost love or an old friend, but now a space has been provided in which animators and writers can actually explore queer relationships in cartoons.

Rebecca Sugar is the first creative director of a cartoon for Cartoon Network, and the cast list of Steven Universe is made up of a wide variety of female tumblr_nri47nVbrh1r8mkcxo1_500actresses from different racial and ethnic background.  These achievements are important, but more important is the fact that Sugar pointed out earlier which is that young children who are queer finally have a voice and a presence on T.V.  Steven as a character is raised not only by queer women, but also in a queer family structure that satisfies, as far as my reading is concerned, Halberstam’s model of Gaga Feminism, for while gems and characters may form relationships, the topic of marriage is largely left out.  Marriage isn’t important or necessary because the energy relationship sustains and nurtures Steven.  The best part is despite all the weirdness in his life, or perhaps even better, because of the non-stop weirdness, Steven is a kind soul who only wants to help people.

Part of growing up is asking your parents how they met, how they fell in love, or in the case of children missing a father or mother, what their parent was like.  Stronger_Than_YouPsychologists most likely have an explanation for this behavior, but for my own part children learn early that narratives are how they shape their identity and eventually find a mate to share their life with and the model that parents establish for their kids at a young age helps them formulate what they understand an ideal mate to be.  Queer families may be a recent phenomenon, but as time continues on it’s likely that they’ll become far more prevalent and as such Queer parents, and queer kids, can use a television program like Steven Universe because it offers the same story but with a new face.

Prince Charming may not find Sleeping beauty resting in the tower, but that’s only because another princess got to her first.

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*Writer’s Note*

I’ve provided a few links to articles about the LGBTQ themes in Steven Universe, two of which provided the quotes by Sugar herself:

http://moviepilot.com/posts/3954346

http://www.autostraddle.com/steven-universe-and-the-importance-of-all-ages-queer-representation-281482/

http://www.autostraddle.com/rebecca-sugar-is-bisexual-steven-universe-creator-comes-out-at-comic-con-346094/

http://www.pinknews.co.uk/2016/01/05/cartoon-network-defends-decision-to-censor-same-sex-romance-in-steven-universe/

http://www.avclub.com/article/controversial-steven-universe-edit-omits-more-same-230494

http://www.ozy.com/true-story/let-me-introduce-you-to-my-husband-wife/5992?utm_source=facebook&utm_medium=cpc&utm_campaign=US_LGBT

mgid uma image logotv.com 11641323

 

**Writer’s Note***

If this hasn’t sold you to Steven Universe, then I can at least win you over to Rebecca Sugar.  She wrote a song for the show Adventure Time and it kind of broke the internet there for a while.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cUYSGojUuAU

 

***Writer’s Note***

I went ahead and posted a link to the end of Mrs. Doubtfire because watching the scene is far better than ever just reading it, plus it’s a special video that acts as a kind of “tribute” to Robin Williams:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Kuz3zve4LE

 

****Writer’s FINAL Note****

I discovered this right before publishing this essay and so here it is, Rebecca Sugar’s Demo of the song Be Wherever You Are.  There is a version of Steven singing the song, but to be honest, Sugar’s voice just gives the song a more soulful delivery, and the way she says “Be” just makes me feel happy.  Enjoy:

A Letter From a Young Existentialist: New Starts and Sartre’s Atheism

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Dear B——-,

I’m am greatly tempted to call myself an existentialist but I’ve never read Kapital by Karl Marx all the way through.  I’ve never read Being and Nothingness either though so perhaps my desire for identity is just egomaniacal.  This is all an overly distracting way of saying I’m thinking about adding another identity to myself alongside atheist, feminist, bisexual, and democrat, but the angry mob that chases me from place to place is already large enough and I don’t think adding angry philosophy professors and Marxists is really the best idea for this stage of life.  Angry mobs are starting to unionize now and I can’t afford to pay for any more benefits, you understand of course.

I’m glad that you found the Nietzsche essay enjoyable, I’m positive that’s the first time that statement’s ever appeared in print, and I’m glad Charlie agrees with me that Margot Robbie is…is…MG

Ahem.  I was uh…saying something.

I was happy to receive your letter, and in fact it was part of my motivation for beginning a new series of letters that we can share.  If I understood, you correctly from a previous essay you have some questions about Existentialism.  Let me be clear then.  As with the atheist letters I am not placing myself as an authority of Existentialism as a movement for as of this writing I’m still learning the implications, ethos, methodology, and overall idea of the writers-writemovement along with familiarizing myself with the writers who contributed the most to it.  Like you, and I’m going off of your letter here, I was mostly taught that Existentialism was about meaninglessness of existence and how life was hollow and pointless and we were all going to die and there was no afterlife and so existence was pointless, the end.

Such is the cartoon character that is existentialism but not the reality.  My little sister received the Great Courses audio lecture No Excuses: Existentialism and the Meaning of Life taught by Robert C. Solomon, and I’m positive that my regular readers are getting sick of hearing his name because I’ve mentioned it in like five to six essays in the last two months.  I keep returning to these lectures however B—– because they’ve had a profound, and I don’t use that word lightly here, impact upon me.  It’s been a lovely experience for me because despite the popular image of Existentialists flipping coins next to dead horses and screaming “why” to tumblr_murzhgV61f1qz7wfjo1_1280the heavens with a clenched fist, the philosophy I’ve been studying is actually positive and life affirming.  The reason I’ve warmed up to Existentialism is because I finally understand what the Philosophy is about and I find a lot of the ideas since with my worldview already.

From this lecture, along with my other readings, I’ve come to the conclusion that Existentialism places responsibility above everything else, upon the individual and the choices they make.

Existentialism can be a bit brusque concerning institutions like Christianity, but the lecturer Robert C. Solomon does an excellent job demonstrating that many of the writings of these philosophers really pushes towards this idea that human life is its own and that people can and should embrace their choices for there is not only their mettle but also their character.  This idea of choice is fascinating, and also validating since I have no choice but to believe in free will.laughter

That’s a philosophy joke in case you missed it.

While the series covered Camus, Kierkegaurd, Nietzsche, and Heidegger, the last philosopher that Dr. Solomon discusses is Jean-Paul Sartre and, it should be noted, Solomon dedicates the last three tapes out of twelve to the man and his work.  This is understandable seeing as how Sartre was essentially the champion of the Existentialist movement, giving it not only its name but also scores of writings and arguments to support it and, at times, apologize for it.  Sartre as a man and writer is interesting, for not only was he awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature he refused the award becoming one of the first, and possibly only writer, to have done so.  He spent most of his life writing, and it has been said that he supposedly wrote 20 pages of text a day, and when you remember that he wrote literature, philosophy, newspaper articles, magazine articles this becomes understandable but also incredibly incredible.

It also reminds that I really need to stop getting distracted while I write.  I mean I start a review of a biography about Jim Henson or a sermon by Johnathan Edwards, and half an hour later I find myself drooling onto my keyboard while Google has pulled up somewhere around 100-200 pictures of Margot Robbie, and those are just the Harley Quinn Suicide Squad photos. the-one-thing-margot-robbie-would-change-about-harley-quinn-956050

Solomon’s lecture wasn’t my first encounter with Sartre however.  I stumbled across Sartre originally when my wife and I moved into her parents’ garage in a small apartment that had shower and A/C.  Along with that was a filing cabinet filled with many of my mother-in-law’s books ranging from The Annals of Imperial Rome to Leaves of Grass to a small yellowed book titled Literary and Philosophical Essays.  This was my first taste of Sartre, and while I recognized his talents I was pushed that summer towards Camus’s The Stranger instead and so Sartre essaysSartre went back on the bookshelf.  It wasn’t until a few weeks back when my friend Christie mentioned that she and her girlfriend were moving and needed to get rid of some books…and honestly I can’t remember what happened next because I heard the word books and I began to growl and beat my chest making a “hungry” gesture.  In the pile was a Modern Library copy titled Basic Writings of Existentialism, and opening the book I spotted the name Sartre again and turned to a passage simply titled Existentialism.

The essay was in fact an excerpt from one of Sartre’s longer works, Existentialism and Human Emotions, and was nothing but an apology, in the more historical sense, for the school of thought.  From the beginning he makes his intention and concern clear:

First, it has been charged with inviting people to remain in a kind of desperate quietism because since no solutions are possible, we should have to consider action in this world as quite impossible.  We should then end up in a philosophy of contemplation; and since contemplation is a luxury, we come in the end to a bourgeois philosophy.  The communists in particular have made these charges.  (341).

Sartre is working against a multi-fold front, and not just that dude in your history class who laughs when you tell him you’re majoring in philosophy.  That ass-clown aside, Sartre is in a position where he has to defend his philosophical movement from those who either misunderstand his argument, or else his harshest critics which in this moment happen to be the Marxists.  From afar it’s easy to understand why someone would look upon Existentialism with its calls to the freedom of the individual and the vital necessary role it places upon the idea of choice, as an elitist philosophy.  If you’re working three jobs just to make ends meet, if you have four or five kids to take care of, if you tend to a sick parents or spouse your time is being constantly spent managing and satisfying the needs of otherssartre and so contemplation really isn’t a concrete reality.  The people who have “time” tend to be rich people and so communists, who tend to despise rich people, would look upon a philosophy that seems to be nothing but air-headed contemplation with contempt.

Sartre however is calling bullshit on this and continuing. By addressing the criticism of his second set of critics, Christians.  Once he has he makes the following claim:

In any case, what can be said from the very beginning is that by existentialism we mean a doctrine which makes human life possible and, in addition, declares that every truth and every action implies a human setting and a human subjectivity.  (343).

On the next page follows this with:cropped-Caravaggio_-_San_Gerolamo

Can it be that what really scares them in the doctrine I shall try to present here is that it leaves to man a possibility of choice?  To answer this question, we must re-examine it on a strictly philosophical plane.  What is meant by the term existentialism?  (343).

Before I get to that I should probably answer the immediate question put forth by my seasoned contester B——-: who the hell cares?  It’s philosophy.  It’s a bunch of bullshit that doesn’t really matter except to a few hipsters who listen to Dylan on Vinyl, smoke a hookah, and complain that Camus is so yesterday man.

First of all, kudos to my contester for finally nailing hipsters who smoke hookahs.  Seriously puffing one of those is apparently worse than smoking cigarettes yet for some reason people do it.  Second, unfortunately you’re wrong, both about philosophy and Dylan on Vinyl.  Dylan is sick on Vinyl, and philosophy has more relevance to human existence than most people really recognize.  Existentialism is sartre-cat-nothingnot about Metaphysics, the branch of philosophy that concerns itself with the nature of reality.  Existentialism relies on the fact that there is a reality and that human beings occupy space within it.  From there the life of man is about choices, but a second philosophic concern needs to be addressed.

Jean-Paul Sartre was an atheist, and apart from the Marxists who criticize the philosophy, Sartre spends a fair amount of the essay addressing the concerns of Christians who argue that Existentialism is inherently atheistic.  Sartre doesn’t attempt to defend those existentialists who may be Christian, however it important to note B——– that Sartre does try to make sure that Existentialism is not declared nihilism.

In one passage he notes:

The existentialist is strongly opposed to a certain kind of secular ethics which would like to abolish God with the least possible expense.  About 1880, some French teachers tried to set up a secular ethics which went something like this: God is useless and costly hypothesis; we are discarding it; but, meanwhile, in order for there to be an ethics, a society, a civilization, it imageis essential that certain values be taken seriously and that they be considered as having a priori existence.

[…]

The existentialist, on the contrary, think is it very distressing that God does not exist, because all possibility of finding values in a heaven of ideas disappears along with Him; there can be no longer be an a priori Good, since there is no infinite and perfect consciousness to think it.  Nowhere is it written that good exists, that we must be honest, that we must not lie; because the fact is we are on a plane where there are only men.  Dostoievsky[sic] said, “If God didn’t exist, everything would be possible.” That is the very starting point of 886884d380da18a2cf9e71396dfec39eexistentialism.  Indeed, everything is permissible if God does not exist, and as a result man is forlorn, because neither within him nor without does he find anything to cling to.  He can’t start making excuses for himself.  (349).

The first paragraph bothers me terribly and the second paragraph is painfully familiar.  I’ll address the first part B—–.  I distinctly remember one moment from my Intro to Philosophy class, and not just Dr. Krebs’s Hawaiin shirts and cowboy boots.  We were discussing Ethics and at one point, after I had confessed to the class that I was an atheist, I argued that solipsism was a ridiculous position because it violated the basic principle that you should try to avoid being a dick to people.  I argued that morality, or at least basic virtue towards other human beings was important.  One of the students who I regularly talked to in class immediately asked, “Well what do you care, you’re an atheist.”  This comment leads me to the second paragraph.  When I was struggling with recognizing that I was an atheist my first thought was “if there’s no god then why should I be a good person?”  This idea is not original for the very fact that Dostoyevsky wrote it and he lived at least a hundred years before I did.

Human beings look to god to find morality because god is beyond mortal understanding, as such he is ideal and beyond mortal constraints.  The conflict however is that often the model of god that many Christians worship is not a philosophical god, 43150but a purely benevolent creature that is static and does work well with moral grey area.  As such whenever Christians hear phrases like “God is Dead,” or “You Don’t need god to be moral,” there is usually a violent reaction.  I can attest to this for when I still had my faith I clung to the idea that it because of god that humans, and by extension myself, had to be moral or else all chaos would ensue.  The conflict with this is that it is bullshit and reveals painful weakness.

If the reason human beings are moral is because they believe god exists it says a great deal about their so-called morality.  I do believe however that Sartre makes a mistake arguing that the absence of god is the start of existentialism for there were some existentialists who believe in god.  Despite naysayers Nietzsche believed in some kind of divinity, and Søren Kierkegaard wrote many essays and tracts on Christianity.  Sartre pushes atheism because he himself is an atheist, and anyone who assumes that they cannot be an existentialist and someone who believes in god is simply trying to apply a particular brand of existentialism.

Sartre finishes his essay by addressing the absence of god by pointing out that it really doesn’t matter:homosexuals

It isn’t trying to plunge man into despair at all.  But if one calls every attitude of unbelief despair, like the Christians, then the word is not being used in its original sense.  Existentialism isn’t so atheistic that it wears itself out showing that God doesn’t exist.  Rather, it declares that even if God did exist, that would change nothing.  There you’ve got our point of view.  Not that we believe God exists, but we think that the problem of His existence is not the issue.  (366-7).

Looking at this B—– I return to the image of the man lying in a ditch beside the dead horse and screaming “why” with clenched fist towards the heavens.  While this letter has focused mostly on Sartre’s atheism in the essay Existentialism, I do want it to serve as a kind of starting point.  Sartre points out that it doesn’t matter ultimately whether or not god exists because it isn’t god that will make an individual person’s life.  Existentialism is first and foremost a philosophy that argues that choices are what makes human beings who they are, and in fact those choices create our reality.  Living in the age that we do Existentialism seems all the more important to consider since our life is made up of choices:

  • Do I vote for Hillary or Trump?
  • Do I buy eggs this week or should I try yogurt?
  • Should I watch the Deadpool or Labyrynth Honest Trailer?
  • Should I watch Pound the Alarm or Telephone?tumblr_m81aorvtAp1r4cnlko1_500
  • Should I look for a job today or help my mother move?
  • Should I vacuum or have a beer and watch a movie?
  • Should I write, or should I do the dishes?
  • Should I pick up cat food now or just wait till Sunday?
  • Should I read The Hunger Games, or should I read that essay by Sartre that dude on that website wrote about?
  • Should I watch CNN or FOX News?
  • Should I be at all?

It may seem trivial or cliché from afar B——, but these little choices assume meaning for who we are, and what we make our life.  elysium-starsSartre’s essay is largely a defense, but it’s also a reminder that free will, or more importantly what we do with free will, is what makes our species unique.  By adopting philosophies like Marxism or Christianity, both institutions that tend to usurp individual will, humans are rejecting the most important facet of their reality.

This is just a start B—-, and I’ll continue to try to answer any and all questions you have, and I’ll continue recommending books and essays for you to read.  Just remember that personal ideologies and philosophies are never static.  They are constantly being updated and altered and changed, and so right now Existentialism is young and flexible.  Just keep writing and we’ll keep talking it out.

As the last part of your letter all I can say is, I told you so.  Girls like it when you do stuff for them and don’t expect anything in return.  For the record it’s kind of sad when you’re the woman I have to be telling you this stuff, but that’s reinforcing bad stereotypes.  As per your second question, yes Margot Robbie is in Wolf of Wallstreet so it’s more than likely your girlfriend wants to watch it so she can see her naked, or else lounging seductively in a couch wearing nothing but her underwear and….and…

giphy

Anyway, have fun.  I’m told it’s a good movie, then again it’s Scorsese so how could it not be?  Until next time.

 

Sincerely, yours in the best of confidence and support,

Joshua “Jammer” Smith

 

P.S.

If you were at all interested B—-, I found a blogpost about Sartre refusing the Nobel Prize.  If you’re interested follow the link below:

Jean-Paul Sartre On The Nobel Prize and His Refusal

 

PPS.

I know I’ve mentioned Margot Robbie a lot in this essay B—–, but here’s a bit of a secret, I actually think Kate Micucci is a lot cuter, but then again I’m a sucker for brunette’s with a sharp sense of humor.

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#53: Self-Indulgence and Prime Numbers

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The boy is a Greek; the youth, romantic; the adult, reflective.

–Ralph Waldo Emerson, The American Scholar

 

And now for something, completely different.

–John Cleese, Monty Python

 

 #53: Self Indulgence and Prime Numbers

  1. Is writing about Writing really writing, or is it simply writing about writing in order to avoid the hard work of actually writing?
  2. I’m being serious.
  3. Really.
  4. Really I am.
  5. You see I actively avoid books about creative writing or creativity because often what happens is the reader of said book spends more of their time dreaming up the possibilities of creativity than actually writing anything at all, or at least writing something that has any teeth.
  6. Metacognition.
  7. Thinking about thinking.
  8. This word, this idea boils down to a central concept.
  9. Thinking about thinking.
  10. This is not a wasted exercise like Writing about writing, though I should be fair in the fact that I haven’t determined yet if writing about writing is actually writing at all.
  11. Metacognition is thinking about thinking in order to be reflective so that the individual doing the actual thinking has something at the end of the contemplation to consider and eventually pursue in terms of agency.
  12. Agency = freedom of will and choice.
  13. Agency is important because ultimately everyone in their own small way fights for agency, sometimes at the expense of other people.The_art_scholar_by_amartinsdebarros
  14. The person who works as a retail associate at Walmart of Target.  These people are not the lazy drones of corporate America, they’re flesh and blood people who work a hard shitty job because they want to make a little money so that they can live their life, the rest of their life, in moderate comfort.  The conflict with shitty retail gigs is that the associates often suffer the wrath of customers, people who assume more agency when they walk into said retail outlet.  Customers are selfish because they’ve been told by corporate policy that their voices matters over employees, though to be fair if employees could not work they would.  The employee works the shitty job and has their agency reduced the customer, management, corporate, etc. up to the end of their shift at which point the world can suck it because they have Game of Thrones tonight, and afterward they’re meeting up with some friends to play Doomtown.  The employee of the retail outlet does not waste much of their time on metacognition, nor on reading about creativity because they have other things to do.
  15. What good is the example then?
  16. Perhaps none at all.
  17. Or perhaps it is riddled with meaning.
  18. Or perhaps I simply created a hypothetical and lost my train of thought.
  19. Perhaps I’m just enjoying the sound of my voice as I write this out loud.
  20. This self-indulgent bullshit reminds me of writing about writing and my original problem however.
  21. Each and every essay written up to this point has had a purpose.
  22. A book, a poem, a play, a graphic novel, a biography, a film, a television show, an essay.
  23. Sometimes the point is to explore an idea simply for the sake of exploring an idea.
  24. It’s in the latter category that a writer can simply without worrying about the form or thesis or management or style or any of the other concerns.
  25. The other concerns are what the writer is actually contributing to writing, and for myself I notice the conflict with this because there are many people who like to call themselves writers because they believe it gives them some kind of position in society but it doesn’t because they tend to produce drek.
  26. This is part of the other concerns.
  27. This essay is Self-Indulgent.
  28. It’s an exploration of conviction and consideration.
  29. Each essay has a purpose, but because of that the form becomes rigid and possibilities to really experiment with the form of the essay tends to be overshadowed by the nitty-gritty details of “reviewing” rather than simply writing
    1. Quotes need to be found,
    2. A first sentence is first however.
    3. First sentence has to be a “Hooker.”
      1. See previous essay “Great Hookers Don’t Return My Calls”
    4. First sentence has to be:
      1. Catching
      2. Funny
      3. Shocking
      4. Inflammatory973c4978-a5b4-4367-b3b2-808063736735.img
      5. Needlessly provocative
      6. Be a reference to a movie to television quote or a song
      7. Inquisitive.
    5. After the first sentence there needs to be anecdotal evidence for the origin of the book and this includes how I found the book and why I think it’s important and in this I get caught because almost every book possesses some kernel, some relevance to somebody somewhere reading a random article they found on the internet because they’re waiting in line at the Post-Office so that they can renew their passport so they can go to Milan with their sister-in-law and spend the week shopping and considering considering considering cheating on their boyfriend who’s sweet and everything she knows she wants but she knows before she dies she wants one honest-to-god free-fuck with a total stranger to prove to herself that she isn’t the “level-headed one” like her mother, co-workers, girlfriends, and boyfriend is always telling her.
    6. The anecdotal story gives the semblance to people as well that I am actually doing something with my time rather than simply reading reading reading, and writing writing writing, and thinking thinking thinking.
    7. Quotes have to be precise and support the thesis.
    8. Thesis sounds academic and I’m tired of academic writing.  I’m a reviewer now.
    9. An essayist.
    10. Quotes tend to overshadow the rest of the writing I produce, and despite many compliments there is a concern that I am sacrificing my own integrity as a writer simply to wax philosophic about others’ works.  That I could be actually submitting my work out into the world and hope that I myself might get reviewed somewhere by somebody who matters and that my work won’t simply boil down to a reading list.
    11. Every writer hopes for originality, novelty, or significance because writers are rather lonely, selfish, self-absorbed, sometimes self-indulgent, little pricks who spend their life wanting after something.
    12. End the essay on something:
      1. Hopeful
      2. Philosophical
      3. Funny
      4. Wise-assish
      5. And thus the essay format is presented.
    13. This takes usually three hours while my wife watches Netflix, plays Skyrim, or works on lesson plans.
  30. I have more or less spent #29 mentally masturbating but this honest examination off the craft,
    1. Which isn’t really honest because I didn’t mention the fact that often I interrupt myself looking for facts:
      1. How old was William Faulkner when he died?
      2. What year did Faulkner receive the Nobel Prize?b5411c9366e51b06e9f50a9d54ebe3a1
      3. What college did Christopher Hitchens go to?
      4. How old is Margot Robbie?
      5. How did David Foster Wallace commit suicide?
      6. Why is there a picture of a girl in a bikini one of the top hits for the Google Search “Joshua Jammer Smith?”
    2. And while looking for these facts I become distracted by:
      1. Pictures of hot girls.
      2. Pictures of hot guys.
      3. Pictures of Presidents.
      4. Pictures of memes of hot Presidents.
      5. More pictures of hot girls.
      6. Pictures of breasts.
      7. Pictures of athletic men.
      8. Pictures of Ronald Reagan riding a velociraptor firing a machine gun set against a waving American flag.
    3. And this leads to:
      1. Hours wasted
      2. Folders full of pictures of Margot Robbie
      3. Which is weird and sad and gross in so many ways
      4. A general feeling of self-revulsion
      5. Only 500 words (if that) produced.
  31. #30 got overtaken by a tangent, but this honest examination of the craft tends to make it difficult when people say they love my work because sometimes it doesn’t feel like actual work.  It feels like the story of James Joyce:
    1. James Joyce’s friend was visiting him while he was writing Ulysses.  He walks in and Joyce is weeping.  His friend, desperate to help his friend because they’re bros, grabs his shoulder and say “James, James whatever is the matter?”539741_355062484564309_748576634_n
    2. Joyce looks up, tries to speak and only falls back weeping.  His friend eventually manages to wake him out of it and Joyce manages to say “I’ve been writing all day.”
    3. “But my friend that’s wonderful.  You said the other day you’ve been having difficulty writing.  How many words have you managed to produce?”
    4. Joyce’s lip trembles before he dribbles out the word:
      1. “Eight.”
      2. 8
    5. Joyce’s friend is shocked, but holds back and continues his encouragement, saying “Well…eight is better than nothing.  You’ve actually written something.  Then why are you so sad my friend?”
    6. Joyce’s lip trembles again and he opens his mouth and wails as he screams, “I don’t know what order they go in!”
  32. There sometimes feels like there’s a pronounced lack of productivity in the writings that I write because so often there’s so much research and distraction in the work that I wonder what I’m actually producing.
  33. Does bitching about the fact that you feel frustrated allow for creativity?
  34. Is it Self-Indulgent?
  35. The title of this essay is Self-Indulgence, and so it must be in some form.  But I have been writing about my writing which is the focus of my original concern.  But I also notice that I’m not really writing about Creativity in general which was my concern.  I distrust “writers” that write books about the necessity of creativity because often it seems like nothing but mental masturbation (See #’s 29, 30, & 31 for examples) and while exploring and dicking around can be useful when a writer is young and writers-writeinexperienced (no matter how old you are) as a writer progresses they should settle into a style that allows for more in-depth exploration of what they’re actually doing with the craft of writing, what they’re contributing to their own style, how they look upon their craft, whether or not they consider themselves artists, whether or not they legitimately believe in the work that they’re producing, and most importantly have they actually said something that isn’t just them talking about abstract creativity.
  36. Writers that talk about spiritual writing, and the importance of art and writing for the exploration of the soul can be excused if they’re observing the complexities of the mental process of creativity.  But writers who write endlessly about how much creativity matters to them and then do nothing but lift creativity into an ideal and never produce anything of original work are cowards.
  37. Clarification.
  38. A writer is not always going to be:
    1. Emily Dickinson
    2. Jonathan Franzen
    3. Ernest Hemingway
    4. Stephen King
    5. Ovid
    6. David McCulloughKingTypewriterphp
    7. Goethe
    8. Alison Bechdel
    9. Neil Gaiman
  39. There are writers who are:
    1. Sports writers
    2. Technical writers
    3. Mathematical history writers
    4. Academic writers
    5. Political writers
    6. Op-Ed Piece writers
    7. Speech Writers
    8. See ETC.
  40. These writers fulfill great purpose and necessity in society because they master their craft, become important figures in their field, and generally help humanity in whatever capacity they can.
    1. It is important to note
    2. However
    3. That even these writers
    4. Can become
    5. Self-Indulgent200px-Onwriting
  41. Writing about writing seems to possess great merit for On Writing is a book about writing and it has provided one of the most important lessons about writing that I have ever learned:
    1. If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.  There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.  (145).
  42. Everything else seems immaterial, but I felt that this essay was necessary.
    1. Because I had already written the first line.
      1. Which I thought was funny.
        1. And Kafkaesque.
          1. And a great way to fuck with people.
            1. Because I am that pathetic.
              1. And I believe that I’m actually sometimes funny.
  43. And because I really did want to examine whether or not writing about writing could provide an opportunity for:
    1. Self-exploration.
    2. And the chance to see if I could make art out of it.WIN_20160618_22_25_39_Pro
  44. To be honest this exercise has seemed incredibly indulgent because it seems like I mostly whined through most of it, which often happens when I’m reflective, but nearing the end, because I know, I can feel that I’m getting close to the end, there is a remarkable sense of release because it feels like I have broken free from the usual way that I write essays, because for once I’m writing about something original that doesn’t seem to fit into a formula pattern or be about someone else’s work.
  45. The essay as a topic of discussion, worthy of being written about, is subject to the writer that writes in its form.
    1. Essays come from Essais which come from Michel de Montaigne, a French aristocrat who wrote Of Cannibals, Of Books, Of Conscience, Of Friends,
    2. See Etc.montaigne
  46. However unlike the novel, poem, play, of non-fiction work, the essay is pliable.
  47. Subject to experimentation.
  48. As such.
  49. It is open to exploring the topic of writing about writing because such an essay allows the writer to understand and re-assess whether or not they are producing something of merit,
    1. And at this point I should drop the fucking “the writer” because even I’m starting to indulge in that bullshit that writers are some kind of abstract being or creature of standard because really writers are just,
    2. Flesh and blood people who get a kick out of writing and because,
    3. They need to write because
    4. Writing gives them something that they lack, either in their personal lives or else in their relationships with people outside of their immediate circle because
    5. I think all writers are trying in their own way to write out the
      1. Ideas
      2. Desperations
      3. Desires
      4. Suggestions
      5. Pleads
        1. See Etc.
    6. That they lack or miss in casual conversation.
    7. Writer’s aren’t fuck-ups.
    8. But they’re close.
    9. I would rather write out a five-page explanation of why somebody should read
      1. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
      2. god is Not Great
      3. Go Set a Watchman1-fun-home-alison-bechdel-cover1
      4. Infinite Jest
      5. Ulysses
      6. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic
      7. Fart Proudly
      8. The Great Gatsby
      9. Flashpoint
      10. See Etc.
    10. Because whenever I try to actually tell someone why they should read it I am
      1. Nervous
      2. Often interrupted before I can complete my explanation
      3. Remiss of the exact quote that I am trying to remember
      4. Desperate for attention
      5. Trying to show off
      6. Trying to explain why I’ve spent the last six years studying English rather than a STEM field
      7.  Always bumbling the words I speak
      8.  Never as eloquent as I should be
      9. And I think that’s it.
    11. And so I call myself a writer because I read a lot and think a lot and writing gives me a space in which to explore these ideas that I have read and thought.  But most importantly it gives me purpose.  Writing has provided me an outlet that, had it not come about, I might not still be around.
      1. But suicide is selfishness I won’t consider and so I write odd essays wonder.
      2. Wondering:
  50. Is writing about writing really writing?
    1. It’s an honest question.  The only real answer I have is that allows me to try something different and new.
    2. I think I’ll end on #50.
    3. I like even numbers.
  51. Although 51 is a prime number.
  52. Wait no it isn’t.
  53. Great. I wasted the opportunity to be funny or smart.
  54. Now I just a look like a yutz.
    1. Fuck me.
  55. Thanks for reading.
    1. Now Piss Off.
    2. Should’ve ended it on #53.
    3. That one’s a prime number.
    4. And it satisfied the rule of #29, Section “l”, Sub-Sections (i, ii, iii, iv).

time

Commune, Arches, Umbra, Night Vision, & bite my shoulder: White Tower Guest Poetry

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I’m hitting a point now where I’m pleasantly surprised that people want to publish their work on my site.  I suppose it’s the phase right before pompous egomania when you assume the stance of “well of COURSE people want to submit essays to my blog.  I’m a celebrity damn it.”  With any hope my good breeding and lack of substantial ego will prevent this from happening.  If it doesn’t, more’s-the-pity.  At any rate a friend of mine recently contacted me and asked if I would be willing to publish a few of his poems on the cite.  I made him mow my lawn and clean my toilets for seven weeks, but after a while I relented…okay now the ego’s starting to take over.

Please enjoy these five beautiful poems, care of Brad Douglas.

 

 

Commune

 

I.

 

I use my hands to pull up your mud,

my nails to get at the gems inside

the cavern your back hoards,

 

and I am closer than any panting jeweler.

 

I go to work

excavating with kiss and pinch,

pulling you to me.

 

II.

 

You move like the earth

upon itself, leaving markings

where you once were.

 

You know these bones are blood iron

and break them, so they are yours.

 

You bury me in you.

 

III.

 

When I lay soundless

your pressure molds me

crystalline.

 

When your skin shivers

I am touching the soft walls

with luster.

 

When we break

how we shimmer in the other.

__________________________________________________

 

Arches

On your bleeding thigh

my hand

moves in your pulses

 

Before you might fall

you breathe

and lean into me

 

Where the blood stays

our weight

will be bandaged together

______________________________________________________

Umbra

Brad M. Douglas

 

My skin glows from light

cast in dark

searching

 

We dilate into the other

 

You are revealed in light

held by dark

outlines

___________________________________________________

 

Night Vision

The day we screamed until our throats scraped away

and you cancelled your wedding anniversary to teach me a lesson,

I crawled under my bed, past the dusty marbles, beyond

the body bagged comics; clawed until I was covered

by all I had ever been, and in that moment,

you were a monster, not a mother,

and I no longer feared the dark.

 

 _________________________________________________

 

bite my shoulder

by the time the morning

wrapped us in dew-soaked gauze

our nails were already sharpened

and we cut the sheets to catch the breeze

 

 

Brad Douglass

About the Author:

“Brad M. Douglas is a Texas-based writer. His first book, a volume of poetry titled “For Love” was self-published in 2009, when the author was sixteen. He has been at work on the follow up ever since. Many of the themes found in his writing are largely informed by Dylan Thomas, Jeff Buckley, and Derrick Brown. This leads his words to have both a vocal and introspective aspect; they may be either screamed or whispered, so listen close.”

The Unifying Pleasure of Watching Watching According to Mr. Wallace

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Robot Chicken and Honest Trailers remain two of my unashamed pleasures, and within that pleasure lies a connection to the rest of humanity, at least according to David Foster Wallace.  I like many people grew up watching cartoons and television almost to the point of obsession, and in hindsight it’s a wonder at all that I became the reader I am today.  As I’ve written before in several instances I actually wasn’t much of a reader as a child, and in fact the only thing my parents could get me to read on my own was either Captain Underpants or Calvin and Hobbes.  When I wasn’t watching Loony Tunes, Swat Kats, Huckleberry Hound, Arnold, Doug, Rugrats, Cow & Chicken, and Rocko’s Modern Life I was usually playing Super Nintendo.  For the record I’ve never finished Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, and as such I’ve had to achieve closure like every nerd who can’t finish a video game, I watched someone else beat it on YouTube.a-link-to-the-past-snes-2

For some reason I’ve lately found myself being attracted to David Foster Wallace.  That’s not a homoerotic remark by the way, I just go through these intellectual storms or moods that tend to center around a person, idea, or word.  I’d actually been exposed to the man two years ago when I was studying creative writing with Luke Goebel.  There wasn’t any required reading in the course, Luke was cool in so many ways and that was just one of them, but there was suggested readings.  Alongside Susan Steinberg’s short story collection Spectacle, there was also an anthology titled The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories.   I was one of the few people in class who actually bought the book, and almost every one of the other books Luke would “suggest” we read (Luke tends to bark out his suggestions so that they’re almost call-to-arms) but I found a lot of inspiration Luke-B-Goebelin this collection, trying to read as many as I could.

I had no idea who David Foster Wallace was, and at the time I didn’t care.  Joe Wenderoth, Padget Powell, and Aimee Bender were far more interesting to me or at least more relevant to the type of writing I was trying to accomplish.  I read the passage “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men” not knowing that this was a passage from a novel Wallace had written, and I remarked to myself that he was the only person, apart from Ed Park, who made the “interview” format of writing interesting to read.  It’s funny in hindsight as I approach this essay because this line of the passage including in the Anchor collection begins:

As a child I watched a great deal of American television.  No matter of where my father was being posted, it seemed always that American television was available, with its glorious and powerful women performers.  Perhaps this was one more advantage anchor%20coverof the importance of my father’s work to the defense of the state, for we had privileges and lived comfortably.  The television program I most preferred then was to watch Betwitched, featuring American performer Elizabeth Montgomery.  (349).

The reader may not understand at first why this amusing, but that’s only because I haven’t gotten around to stating the focus of this essay.  As I said at the start of this work I adore watching Robot Chicken and Honest Trailers for both of these shows invite viewers into a kind of complicity.  Watching Robot Chicken the viewer is aware that they’re re-watching most of the television programs they enjoyed as children, just reimagined to fit an adapted adult-childhood.  Skeletor is no longer the bumbling and inept supervillain who always loses, he’s now a man who can call people douchebags and give a banker a blowjob to pay for his mortgage.  Likewise with Honest Trailers, while there is definitely a nostalgia factor in place, the joy of the program is recognizing similar thoughts as the deep throated god who narrates the videos brings to life every criticism, concern, and reflection the viewer had while watching the movie.

What these programs have in common, beyond the surface comedy factor, is the fact that both rely on television and watching in order to be understood.

The generations being entertained grew up watching most of the shows and movies being parodied and critiqued, and rather than shaming the viewer by suggesting they have wasted their life watching these programs invite the viewer: do you remember show/movie “X”?  If you do check this out.DAVIDFOSTERWALLACE-WHITNEY2014

This is an important distinction from most conversations about television because it’s not condemnatory and this leads me to David Foster Wallace’s Essay E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction.

E Unibus Pluram is the second essay in the collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again which I bought after a friend of mine who teaches college composition recommended it.  I had started Infinite Jest on a whim already, and after steadily becoming more and more cognizant of who Wallace actually was I decided to give him a chance.  The essay in question deals with the topic of contemporary fiction, specifically how television has altered the creative landscape for writers as well as readers.

One passage in particular outlines this conflict:20160523_100226

The plain fact is that certain things having to do with fiction production are different for young U.S. writers now.  And television is at the vortex of most of the flux.  Because younger writers are not only Artists probing for the nobler interstices in what Stanley Cavell calls the reader’s “willingness to be pleased”; we are also, now, self-defined parts of the great U.S. Audience, and have our own aesthetic pleasure-centers; and television has formed and trained us.  It won’t do, then, for the literary establishment simply to complain that, for instance, young-written characters don’t have very interesting dialogues with each other, that young writer’s ears seem “tinny.”  Tinny they may be, but the truth is that, in young Americans’ experience, people in the same room don’t do all that much direct conversing with each other.  What most people I know do is they all sit and face the same direction and stare at the same thing and then structure commercial-length conversations around the sorts of questions that myopic car-crash witnesses might ask each other— “Did you just see what I just saw?” (44).

This long quote precedes the chapter “i do have a thesis,” where he actually lays out his thesis, but looking at this passage I’m reminded that I’m an avid fan of the show Family Guy and that lately I’ve gone back and watched the first three seasons.  The reader may wonder what that has to do with anything?  You see I was one of many high school family-guy-seth-macfarlan-007losers who could never get a date, didn’t understand that not washing my hair repelled women, and often found solace listening to Slipknot’s “Wait and Bleed” on repeat, or else memorizing virtually every episode of Family Guy.  To this day I can quote lengthy passages from the earlier shows at will, sometimes to the annoyance, dismay, or pity of my wife and friends, but it’s impossible to deconstruct this muscle memory and allow room for more important facts and information.  Family Guy was a television program I adored, my friends adored, and some girls actually at least pretended to like because they were bored and our interactions would usually revolve around starting each other up to do moments from the episodes.  AFTINDAThese repeated actions assume great weight as I look back on my development and realize that it wasn’t the nurturing sublime language of Shakespeare or the Transcendental beauty of Emily Dickinson, it was sitting with my friends, or often alone, watching Peter Griffin try to come up with a fake name before looking at a pea, a tear, and a griffin before saying “Peter Griffin.  Aw, crap.”

Television has been a formative influence upon my consciousness, and as a writer it directly affects the kind of prose I produce.  Likewise for many writers of my generation, the consistent watching of television has played its own role on them.

Wallace’s essay is not designed to shame the reader, in fact consistently he makes sure his reader recognizes that he objects to the old ideas of television as a corrupting influence.

He notes early on in the essay:

I am concerned to avoid anti-TV paranoia here.  Though I’m convinced that telelvsion today lies, with a potency somewhere between symptom and synechdoche, behind a genuine crisis for U.S. Culture and literature, I do not agree with reactionaries who regard TV as some malignancy visited upon an innocent populace, sapping IQs and compromising SAT scores while we all sit there on ever fatter bottoms with little mesmerized spirals revolving in our eyes.  (36).

Likewise he notes earlier that another consistent criticism of television is that it encourages perverse voyeurism.  Rather than suggesting viewers are corrupted “Peeping-Toms” voyeuristically watching people who are unsuspecting he provides a different assessment:infinite-jest-david-foster-wallace-newsweek

But TV-watching is different from genuine Peeping-Tomism.  Because the people we’re watching through TV’s framed-glass screen are not really ignorant of the fact that somebody is watching them.  In fact a whole lot of somebodies.  […]  Television does not afford true espial because television is performance, spectacle, which by definition requires watchers.  We’re not voyeurs here at all.  We’re just viewers.  We are the Audience, megametircally many, though most often we watch alone: E Unibus Pluram.  (23).

The consistent argument against regular consumption of television has been that it rots the mind and inhibits the ability to connect with other people, but as Wallace just demonstrated that is an outdated fallacy upon closer inspection.  Television relies on the idea that somebody is watching the characters on the screen, and so rather than present human beings in situations that would reveal the true nature of their being or self, television is often presented through what Wallace refers to as irony.  The form of irony in question is not so much a clever high art variety one might encounter in Shakespeare or Beckett, but rather an irony rooted in the conditioning of advertising.  This form of irony is understood by the way it presents itself, which Wallace explains:

Products are now most often pitched as helping the viewer “express himself,” assert his individuality, “stand out from the crowd.”  (55).

While I write I typically have Pandora on, either my Disturbed Channel or else the Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart channel, and while the music sometimes distracts me, it’s nice to be able to put music on and focus on the writing, however because I work with the free model of the site I’m regularly interrupted by commercials.  vicarious_by_ajgiel-d5a5lxf

The most glaring of them has lately been a Dr. Pepper commercial: two friends enter a retail outlet and they’re in a hurry, one man pleads for his friend to hurry up but the other explains it isn’t that simple, he tells “Gary” (which for the record is a glaring demonstration of the lack of originality or else outright brilliance in the writing that went into the add) that he’s conflicted because each Dr. Pepper bottle has different labels, the manager of the shop tells them to hurry up, to which Gary responds that his friend is simply trying to “express himself” with “the rich taste of Dr. Pepper” spoken in the most hammed up delivery, the ad ends with the discovery of a “pirate” wrapper before a voice comes over suggesting that one is able to express ones entire individuality through purchasing different labels.  My music sometimes starts up after that, though often I have to listen to Jack King (a local used car salesman in my area) and afterwards I’m struck by the sheer absurdity of the actual ad.  Wallace, would argue that it’s actually a kind of irony.  6a00d83451bb2969e200e54f5f33388834-640wiHe provides his own example, a Pepsi ad in which an entire beach full of people scramble to a food truck to purchase the soft drink after the van projects the sound of a carbonated drink opening up:

There’s about as much “choice” at work in this commercial as there was in Pavlov’s bell-kennel.  The use of the word “choice” here is a dark joke.  In fact the whole 30-second spot is tongue-in-cheek, ironic, self-mocking.  As Miller argues, it’s not really choice that the commercial is selling Joe Briefcase on, “but the total negation of choices.  Indeed, the product itself is finally incidental to the pitch.  The ad does not extol Pepsi per se as recommend it by implying that a lot of people have been fooled into buying it.  (60).

Looking back at “Gary,” and my quenchless desire to punch him as well as his friend in the face for interrupting my Slipknot and Evanescence lineup, I’m struck by the fact that these people who regularly intrude my metal fest are now figures that I pity rather than despise.  Their conversation in the gas station over the labels of Dr. Pepper become a kind of sick tragedy that I have to calvin-hobbes-tv-3watch over and over again, aware of the irony that is taking place as well as the invitation to participate in this farce.  Advertising is not malevolent by nature, it simply serves the purpose of allowing companies to make their product known the consumer.  Wallace achieves a brilliance in recognizing and thus writing out the fact that the viewer of such adds is not helpless in this matter, that in fact they fully recognize on some level that the ad is being purposefully hyperbolic to appear absurd.  What’s complicated is the nature of choice that follows that recognition for absurdity is not necessarily a protection from it.

At this point though my contester interrupts.  This is all terribly interesting, but how exactly does this possess much, if any, relevance to average people who derive great enjoyment from television?  The essay just sounds like a long esoteric criticism of television without offering any significant statement about television as a viable media, or the way it has affected culture.

My contester is right, David_Foster_Wallace 2as usual, but also wrong, also usual.  Looking over the passages cited already is enough evidence to demonstrate the relevance of the article to fans of television because it’s clear that Wallace is not condemning television as a form of media, he’s simply trying to understand it and offer up fresh arguments about what role it plays in society.  Perhaps the best example of this comes from a quote following a passage from Don DeLillo’s novel White Noise where two characters have stopped to see “THE MOST PHOTOGRAPHED BARN IN AMERICA.”  The characters get out and watched the crowd and Wallace writes a beautiful and, as usual, insightful analysis:

I quote this at length not only because it’s too good to edit but also to draw your attention to two relevant features.  One is the Dobynsesque message about the metastasis of watching.  For not only are people watching a barn whose only claim to fame is being an object of watching, but the pop-culture scholar Murray is watching people watch a barn, and his friend Jack is watching Murray watch the watching, and we readers are pretty obviously watching Jack the narrator watch Murray watching, etc.  If you leave out the reader, there’s similar regress of recording of barn and barn-watching.  (48).

It’s in this passage that Wallace E Unibus Pluram comes full circle and I apologize but I most quote one last passage, for it is, after all, wallace’s thesis:calvin-hobbes-popular-culture-and-tv

My two big premises are that, one the one hand, a certain subgenre of pop-conscious postmodern fiction, written mostly by young Americans, has lately arisen and made a real attempt to transfigure a world of and for appearance, mass appeal, and television; and that, on the other hand, televisual culture has somehow evolved to a point where it seems invulnerable to any such transfiguring assault.  Television, in other words, has become able to capture and neutralize any attempt to change or even protest the attitudes of passive unease and cynicism that television requires of Audience in order to be commercially or psychologically viable at doses of several hours a day.  (49-50).

At the start of every episode of Family Guy there is a shot of someone watching television.  At the end of The Simpsons intro the family all sits down to watch television before Rixty_Minutes_Better_Picturesomething quirky happens.  Every season of Rick and Morty has at least one episode dedicated to the family sitting and flipping through infinite numbers of channels from infinite numbers of realities that have television.  Robot Chicken’s central narrative is of a chicken strapped to a chair being forced to watch television.  These are just some examples but they demonstrate the relevance of Wallace’s essay and why the reader should care.

It would simple to suggest that watching television for extended periods of time is laziness, and while some part of me agrees with that statement reading E Unibus Pluram makes it difficult to completely condemn television as I have done in the past.  Even after reading the essay I still hold to the fact that I don’t enjoy watching television much, but that has more to do with personal idiosyncrasy than contempt.  I’d rather be writing, reading, or making video lectures most of the time, but I even I will drop what I’m doing to watch Ricky and Morty because simpsons__130718221845there’s a simple joy in being passive and receiving data.  Television as a medium has become so much a part of the cultural and psychological landscape that simply writing it off as corrupting is becoming immaterial.  More to the point when a person condemns television and then themselves enjoy watching it they’re simply engaging in hypocrisy.

Television has affected literacy and writing tremendously because writers who decide to attempt to speak and discuss human beings in contemporary times have to deal with the reality of television.  It influences dialogue, motivations, time people spend, and the atmosphere of the creations.  Ignoring television and condemning it, rather than accepting it and trying to understand it, isn’t helping the situation.  It’s only making it more difficult for readers to separate themselves from the tube in the first place.

Authors who wish to write about the human condition have to recognize the creative landscape now includes the, to quote Stewie Griffin, “flickering box.”  Wallace ends E Unibus Pluram wondering about the fate of future authors, wondering if they will in their own movements, actually submit to television and dare to produce art that encourages further passivity.  For myself I can offer the sentiment that I will spend my life actively avoiding such garbage, but then I remember that Robot Chicken comes at 11 and I have only a few minutes to wrap this essay up.

DavidFosterWallace

 

 

*Writer’s Note*

If the reader is at all interested I’ve actually found a pdf of Wallace’s essay.  While all quotes in this essay came from the collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, they can also the entire work by following the link below:

https://jsomers.net/DFW_TV.pdf

 

**Writer’s Note**

In case the reader is like me and never finished the game Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past I’ve included a link to a video which shows the final boss battle against Ganon and the conclusion of the game.  I don’t know how this person did it, but damn if it wasn’t nice finally watching that fat pig wizard SOB get destroyed:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hGLBBE_edF0

 

***Writer’s Note***

I’ve included a few Calvin and Hobbes Strips in this article because often, growing up, they were some of my favorite.  It’s entirely by accident that most of them are relentless criticism of television, or, I suppose, it’s ironic.

Hubris Blinds Even Batman’s Eyes

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batman-court-of-owls-city-of-owls

Batman has become an archetype, and because of this making additions or alterations to his character or universe is not only a daunting task, it’s damn near impossible.  I remember a few months back the Graphic Novel Book Club that I’m a part of finally decided to read Batman Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on a Serious Earth by Grant Morrison and Dave McKean.  I’d been lobbying for the book because, apart from Fun Home, thetalonI had never read a graphic novel that was so dense with symbolism and meaning.  I’d actually written an essay that a friend of mine published, presented a paper on it at a small academic conference, and even written two papers for school on it.  As such, when the meeting came, I gave my rating (10 means you have a shrine for it, 1 is you burned it and cursed the ashes) and then shortened my multivolume lecture on the book to a 10 minute ass-kissing monologue explaining why I thought the graphic novel was brilliant.

The remainder of the group didn’t share my views and proceeded to thrash the book apart.

Contrary to some though I actually enjoy it when I receive criticism because it forces me to consider new angles and either drop my old perceptions or reconsider my position to strengthen it.  After the meeting one of my friends approached me and apologized, “It’s just that Batman is an archetype you know?  He has to fit a structure or he isn’t Batman.”

This idea intrigued me, but it also made me wary about writing about Batman books or movies lest I suffer the eternal and unforgiving wrath of the internet.  736480._SY540_Whoever has suggested that nerds are meek clearly had never met one for the last decade has demonstrated that nerds can be vicious and cruel when so inspired, and speaking as one I can attest to this fact.  Still though it’s getting to a point when scholars are able to sneak in copies of The Dark Knight Returns or Batman: Year One to conferences and classrooms and the eyebrows of the academy are not so ruffled.  Batman always was art, and now that people have the venue and gumption to argue it as such I want to contribute in any way I can.

One of my favorite Batman stories is The Court of Owls.  Around five years ago I went through a Comics explosion after one of my colleagues in the SI Office dropped ten comic books on a table and went to work.  The first book I picked up was Detective Comics #1 of something called The New 52.  DC comics had just rereleased their entire publishing line starting over from number 1 and so comic fans everywhere were both ecstatic and cautiously optimistic, or, as so often happens, waiting Snyderfor somebody to mess up.  I read the books on the table and immediately acquired directions to Ground Zero Comics, and from there my life was changed.  I didn’t just read comic books, I inhaled them.  It was about eight months later when I picked up Scott Snyder’s Swamp Thing run (impressive in itself for being the first good thing to happen to that franchise since Alan Moore), and from there I went to Batman which had been following the Court of Owls storyline.

What’s impressive about the series is not just how beautiful the actual books are, it’s the level of detail packed into every frame, every dialogue, every character.  The resulting strength of the two volume story line made it quickly surpass every book in terms of sales of The New 52, and it has effectively established Snyder as one of comics’ greatest contemporary writers of the medium.

What makes Court of Owls unique is not just reinventing Batman’s badass badassery, it’s something far more ambitious.  The first page of the book creates it:

Court of Owls

In this one page Snyder has introduced a newspaper and a civilian populace alongside the architectural structures that make up Gotham and in this effort there is an attempt to create a real landscape of Gotham city.  My reader may immediately protest, Gotham always had a landscape.  I would argue however that Gotham was more of an abstract plain.  Reading books like Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Batman: Hush, and even Batman Arkham Asylum there was a pronounced lack of physical space concerning Gotham owls-batman-3-1and this first page is only one example of it.   Snyder regularly begins each chapter at a landmark, a social group, a historical scene, etc. and each of these opening passages brings out Gotham city not only as an urban hub, but a city with a rich history and culture that often gets ignored because Green Lantern’s in Gotham and needs Batman’s help.

It’s fair to say the history of Gotham city has largely been ignored because of such distractions, and while they were fun and interesting, the effect was to turn Gotham into an arena in which the gods were often fighting and dueling.  Snyder himself isn’t immune to this, for in the Endgame saga when Joker returns he plays on this very idea pitting Batman against Wonder Woman, The Flash, Aquaman, and Superman employing references to opera in order to solidify the presentation.  Before the reader gets the idea that I feel this is a cop-out it’s important to note that I actually don’t mind this.  Superhero’s by nature have always been melodramatic and archetypal, and while realism is slowly infecting the genre (sometimes to its benefit but often to its misfortune), the figure of superheroes in the collective imagination remains god-like.

Still, The Court of Owls succeeds as a story because of it’s grounding of Batman as a man with faults, particularly as it presents him as a man who felt himself master of history.  In the graphic novel’s second opening Bruce Wayne narrates the history behind Wayne Tower, one of the city’s cultural landmarks:2498858-old_wayne_tower_01

The original Wayne Tower.

If you came to Gotham city today, right now, and took a tour of the building, here are some things your guide would tell you:

The tower was constructed in 1888, under the watch of my great, great grandfather Alan Wayne.  He built the tower to serve as a symbol of welcome to people coming to Gotham.  And, as your tour guide will point out, from the ground up it’s designed to give visitors like you the feeling that they’re cared for and protected.  For example, your guide will say, the building has twelve gargoyles or “guardians” as Alan insisted they be called—one to watch over each passageway into the city.  The five guardians at the first tier were placed there to watch over the five original gateways to the city—the three bridges and two tunnels.  Higher up the tower is a ring of seven guardians, one to 2498859-old_wayne_tower_02protect each of the seven train lines that converge at union station, below Wayne Tower’s base.  And at the top of the tower, is the observation deck in which Alan insisted remain free and open to the public every weekend, all year round.

This is a long passage, and remember that this is only one page with several shots of a tower silhouetted against a sunrise.  The Court of Owls is rife with presentations of the urban landscape, and while part of that is to hint at the idea that someone is watching from afar, another rhetorical effect is to place the figures in question against the size of the city and legacy of Gotham.  Bruce Wayne is Batman, but he is just a man, and as the end of this chapter demonstrates he’s plagued by hubris:bruce-wayne-vs-the-talon-5

Whoever it was that just tried to kill me, he was good.  But he made a mistake.  He tried to use Gotham’s legends against me.  But I’m the only legend this city needs.  In many ways, it’s my oldest and truest friend.  And it knows me better than anyone, just as I know it.  Which is why I can say that there is no Court of Owls.  Not in Gotham.  Not in my city.

The words “my city” betray the man, not the god that’s often presented.

While I was originally going to simply review Court of Owls, as I wrote and researched images for this essay I began to observe more and more how much Snyder presents Bruce Wayne as a man who believes himself totally in control of his city and its history, and as this pride becomes more and more apparent there is constant references and attention paid to eyes.  Because I’m that kind of writer, connections between works are always being made apparent.  The combination of eyes, hubris, city, and owls all lead eventually to Oedipus the King, sometimes if inaccurately referred to as Oedipus Rex.

Oedipus the King is a play I had to read originally in High School, and I don’t mean the summarized portion of Edith Hamilton’s Mythology.  Freshman year of high school was when we had to read the classics such as Medea, Oedipus the King, Antigone, Julius Caesar, The Odyssey, The Aeneid, and watch the film O, Brother Where Are Thou?  We also got to read Great Expectations and Faulkner’s short story A Rose For Emily, which in hindsight still doesn’t make much sense but at least both of those of those texts got me permanently hooked to Dickens and Faulkner.  Oedipus the King was the first on the list, and It was all very Greek to me.

That’s a joke, and a reference to Shakespeare you see.  See?  I should never try to be funny.

Oedipus the King, just in case the reader was sleeping during class when they should have been paying attention, is a play written by Sophocles and the inspiration Freud’s famous Oedipus complex.  He’s also the figure of a brief mention in Disney’s Hercules movie.  Oedipus is considered a hero of Greek tragedy because the man’s182036-004-39731BEC downfall essentially defined tragedy in drama.  King of the city of Thebes during a time of great plague, Oedipus calls out to the citizens of the city-state that he will discover the cause of the disease and punish those responsible.  Consulting with the city’s oracle Tiresias he discovers that someone has violated the royalty of the city.  It becomes clear to Oedipus, and his wife Jocasta the wife of the former ruler, that he has performed the atrocity.  Clues and prophecies eventually lead the viewer, as well as Oedipus himself to recognize that he is the culprit of the offense until at last he recognizes that the plague has been caused because Oedipus has killed the former King of Thebes and taken his wife, who is also Oedipus’s mother, into his bed and sired two children from her.  Jocasta hangs herself at the revealing of this fact, and Oedipus upon finding her puts out his eyes with the pins that holds up her garment.  The play ends with Oedipus being sent out into exile from the city state with Creon assuming control of the city.

At this point the reader may wonder what significance or relevance Oedipus has to the Batman graphic novel currently under discussion.  If my reader will be patient, I will demonstrate how the stories mirror one another.

Throughout the play Oedipus the King there are brief allusions to eyes, often used in both the figurative and symbolic sense.  In one scene the blind oracle Tiresias is summoned to the palace and gives the following prophecy:

In name he is a stranger among citizens but soon he Oedipus-Rex-1957will be shown to be homegrown true native Theban, and he’ll have no joy of the discovery: blindness for sight and beggary for riches his exchange, […].  (93).

Oedipus himself makes numerous allusions to sight during his investigation, but the most damning is near the end when he describes the death of the man who would become his father:

O no, no, no—O holy majesty of god on high, may I not see that day!  May I be gone out of men’s sight before I see the deadly taint of this disaster come upon me.  (110).

Oedipus eventually makes his wretched discovery and a second messenger relays what occurs after he discovers his mother/wife has hung herself:

Second Messenger: He tore the brooches—the gold chased brooches fastening her robe—away from her and lifting them up high dashed them on his own eyeballs, […] he struck his eyes again and yet again with the brooches.  And the bleeding eyeballs gushed and stained his cheeks—no sluggish oozing drops but a black rain and bloody hail poured down.  (132).1565666cfa289fafa5299e9de03aad1b

Before I suffered my first dream about my teeth falling out, there was nothing that bothered me so much as damage, specifically damage by needles, to the eyes.  Oedipus’s tragedy was ultimately his hubris because it “blinded” him to the reality of the fact that he believed himself a kind of god or blessing to the city of Thebes, and that blindness was due in part to the fact he was blind to the history of his lineage and city.  Looking back to Court of Owls there’s a similar predicament as Batman discovers that not only does the Court of Owls, a secret society responsible for the covert assassination of respectable citizens over the entire history of Gotham, exist but that it has existed seemingly hidden from him despite multiple efforts during his life to find it.  He’s also blind to the fact that a man by the name of Lincoln March is growing ever closer to him eventually appearing to say that he is Bruce’s brother.

Eyes hold a special significance to the human species and Ralph Waldo Emerson explored it in his essay Circles:Tool-tool-10572324-1600-1200

The eye is the first circle; the horizon which it forms is the second; and throughout nature this primary figure is repeated without end.  It is the highest emblem in the cipher of the world.  St. Augustine described the nature of God as a circle whose center was everywhere, and its circumference nowhere.  (403).

Snyder uses technology to show Batman’s blindness, for at the start Bruce demonstrates a contact lens that acts as a kind of supercomputer.  This is the stuff of Batman technology that, while a first outlandish, is actually based in real or upcoming technology not that far away.  But more than the “super-computer contacts” is the constant closeness of Bruce’s enemy that, like the truth of Oedipus’s past, ultimately attempts to destroy him by revealing that he has been blind to the true nature of the city.calling-out-for-someone-someone-to-help-him

Gotham and Thebes are the plains from which these two characters emerge because in the classical drama the city, the polis, is everything.  Human beings are social creatures by nature, and reading many ancient and pre-modern texts one often sees that the punishment of criminals is often not death, but banishment.  Human beings establish their identity and comfort in relation to one another, therefore when the hero suffers exile he experiences the ultimate punishment because he is denied the chance to find comfort and happiness by interacting with his friends and fellow citizens.

A conflict emerges however.  Oedipus is ultimately destroyed by his blindness by actually blinding himself and becoming exiled.  Batman, being Batman, cannot be exiled from Gotham (unless they’re doing some kind of “event” storyline, but even that doesn’t really mean anything when there are around six to seven Batman books on the market), but by the end of the Court of Owls Bruce’s ego has been broken and then eventually restored.  And it’s rather telling that the final panel in the graphic novel is Bruce’s eye containing Gotham.

bruces-eye-in-the-court-of-owls-finale

By now it should hopefully be clear what my actual thesis is.  Batman: The Court of Owls follows in the tradition that my friend Anthony spoke of earlier.  Batman is an archetype in the vein of a classical hero, however rather than Oedipus who is destroyed by his tragedy, Batman satisfies the new paradigms concerning the hero.  Batman is a superhero, a figure who overcomes his mistakes and survives through it and so what is happening here is a kind of alteration on the traditional narrative.  The reader of Batman is different than the citizen of Greece who would have watched Oedipus and felt a kind of catharsis from the tragedy.  Hero-worship and hero-fantasy have become the norms of contemporary narratives; people like to watch the hero win and overcome. Rather than mourn a man’s tragedy, the contemporary reader wants to see Batman overcome and conquer the enemy that seeks to destroy him.

What unites these two works however is the idea of the city as a place of power where men find their destiny and greatness.  Snyder’s gift to the Batman universe is not just a great new villain for fans to enjoy, his gift is giving the city of Gotham new details and features from which new writers and story tellers will be able to draw inspiration from.  While the character of Batman will remain the superhuman tactician with enough gadgets to give James Bond penis envy, The Court of Owls has brought new life, energy, and most importantly a new Gotham City for Batman to discover.

The hero’s ego has been damaged, but bats always return with a vengeance.

Batman09page13-usethis

 

*Writer’s Note*

If the reader is interested in seeing Oedipus the King performed much the way it would during ancient times there’s a brilliant version from 1957 which involves elaborate costumes and masks.  You can see it by following the link below:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZZUCgq8LfhY

 

**Writer’s Note**

All passages from Oedipus the King were taken from the David Grene translation published in the University of Chicago Press book Sophocles 1 edited by David Grene and Richard Lattimore.  The passages from Circles was published in Emerson: Essays and Lecture The Library of America Edition.

 

***Writer’s Note***

I didn’t mention it in the essay, but in case anyone was interested the riddle of the sphinx is as follows:

“What is the creature that walks on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon and three in the evening?”

 

Answer:

“Man.”  When he’s born he crawls on four legs, when he grows up he walks on two, and in the evening of his life he walks with a cane making three legs.

Whispers in the Dark: A White Tower Guest Play

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There are few people in this life that can really earn the title of deep soul.  I’ve been fortunate in my life to meet more than one person who actually possesses this quality and character, and Amy Holt most certainly does.  We met originally when she was one of my SI students and, though this is a cliché, she was impossible to forget.  With her pink hair, boisterous laughter, and wisdom of topics from fantasy/sci-fi to using wasp spray instead of mace to take down muggers (it’s a neurotoxin so they have to go to the hospital) she instantly became my friend.  Over the years she’s been not just an incredible intellectual companion but a true friend.

I don’t like to kiss ass, and so when Amy sent me a one act play she had written in a creative writing class I read it and knew I had to publish it.  A dark masterpiece about abuse the psychological state it can leave us in, Amy’s play is haunting and beautiful.

I hope you enjoy.

Whispers in the Dark

            [The scene opens to an empty kitchen, a dining table with no chairs [DSC], and one          window [CSL], only one light spotlights the table and room, but it is daylight          “outside”; there are a two entrances to the kitchen, one [CSR], the other is where a      woman enters. [USC]].

(WOMAN enters.)

            [standing with a blank look, she shambles across the room, swaying and clutching a          whiskey glass that only has ice left to her chest, staring at her bare feet. Dressed in a            shabby-looking sweater that looks two sizes too big and hole-riddled jeans, she        shuffles to one wall in an empty kitchen, nothing but a black ashtray on an empty         table. She leans her left side against it. Her hair is erratically messy, with dark circles      under her eyes. In the other hand, she holds an unlit cigarette. Closing her eyes, she           talks into the empty glass:]

WOMAN

            It was your fault, really, but you’ll never know it.

(said sadly and with a heavy sigh, crosses stage to [DSR])

            You were the tragic antagonist that was never supposed to be in my life.

            You were never supposed to mean anything.

            But you did. You did.

(shouted)

            GOD DAMN IT!

(throws a drinking glass against [USL] wall, shattering it. WOMAN chuckles darkly.)

            God damn it.

(pauses solemnly)

            That was the last one. The last glass that was left of you.

(tugs at the sweatshirt)

            There’s still this. I swear I’ll be buried in it.

(looks out towards the audience, her gaze sweeping back and forth; dreamily)

            I burned the photos; that night in fact. What few there were. What little of us there was. Odd- how I don’t remember how you even became a part of my life.

(WOMAN fishes a lighter out of her pants, leans her back to the wall and slides down, lights the cigarette, and takes a long drag, before colliding her forehead into her knees and exhaling.

She raises her head up so fast it knocks against the wall behind her. She lets it rest there.)

WOMAN

            You were just… there. At parties- I saw shadows of you, ghosting in and out of the social circles. Then after the bar, racing my ex-husband down hydroplane highway to smoke hydroponic.

            How you slid your car into a ditch and cried like a bitch, and it was fine.

            The bruise you lied about.

            The trip to jail.

            And then there’s the big hole that you left at the end. Or at the beginning, depending on how you look at it.

            You were always looking with those orbs of malachite.

(snorts and takes a drag)

            Fuck you, darling. You and your damn green doe-eyes.

(WOMAN hits her head against her knees 5 times, saying “Fucking. Damn. Green. Doe. Eyes.” on each respective hit. WOMAN raises her head and shimmies up the wall to stand. She moves across the stage to set her cigarette down in the ashtray, strip off the sweatshirt and lay it across the table. She is wearing a vibrant red camisole top underneath it and a pearl necklace. Leaving the one cigarette burning in the ashtray, she takes out another and lights it, moving from [DSC] upstage to [CSL], opening the cabinet to get a dustpan. She sets it on the counter and looks out the window.)

            Thinking back, it was always your eyes.

            The way your hair fell in rings of gold curtains, casting a malicious shadow under your eyes, making your soul-sucking jade slivers shine like the Styx. That sexy dark mystery. My forbidden fallen child-man.

(takes another long drag, exhaling up and staring into dead space, pauses, then bluntly:)

            A virgin at 22.

(chuckles, takes another drag)

            Playing with cards and telling tales of wizards, rolling dice… surprising your dad one morning with a girl in your bed. Hiding under the family quilt in the morning light, shadows cast on the wall your mother hand-painted.

(snorts, and takes another drag, wobbling to the center of the room, waving the dustpan in one hand and the cigarette in the other, mimicking a man:)

            “Dad! I have a guest. Coffee for two.”

                        That was my introduction. Like a harlot.

            And we hadn’t done anything…

            Yet.

(laughs darkly, and looks behind her out the window)

            Is it sick that I find glee and guilt in that I was your first?

            Glee because it was so trusting of you.

            Guilt because it was so trusting of you.

(pauses sadly, takes another drag)

            You didn’t know me. I didn’t know you. The monster you became. The nightmare I began. I knew it, but I didn’t.

(talks to the audience, wide-eyed, palms flat on the table, on the chest of the sweatshirt.)

            Deep down, that blackness that whispers in the dark while dreaming- the things that claw you apart in dreams and leave real wounds to find when you wake.

            Deeper down that that, go there.

(takes a drag, exhales sensually/languidly)

            I reveled in the darkness, bathing in it and the spiritual blood it would spill.

            The unbridled chaos.

            Life was so fucking stagnant and yet in such an angry turmoil, it might as well have been inverting the intestines into the bloodstream.

            Deliciously toxic and horrifyingly pleasing. Gut-wrenching insides that coiled and spawned the meal worms of desire. That was the lust I felt for you.

(Ashes the cigarette, takes another drag and puts it out on her jeans.)

            Broken. You wanted to fix me. Promise me anything to get a grin. Full, gorgeous, tempting lies about traveling and hidden money; promises of jade tigers and other sparkling trinkets to buy affections of air-headed simpletons. You managed to slip in the promise of something more dazzling though.

            Love.

(WOMAN bursts out laughing, throwing head back, losing her balance and stumbling into the wall [DSR],hitting it and falling down it, then begins hitting her head sideways into the wall over and over, before breaking into sobs and screaming.)

            I NEVER WANTED IT!! I NEVER NEEDED IT!!

            I WAS LOVED! I HAD LOVE!             I HAD LEFT LOVE IN SEARCH OF BETTER LOVE WHILE STILL BEING IN LOVE!!

(Gasping for air, she continues softer:)

            Being lonely and in love. Fuck.

(sniffles, then struggles to stand.)

            And now you’re in my head. It’s your fault, really. I bet you fucking put a hex on me. That would be like you.

(wipes her nose on her sleeve, then stops, chuckles and shakes her head, taking out another cigarette and lighting it.)

            You were never just a rag. Though I could throw you like one. Skinny ass.

(reaches around the corner and grabs a broom; begins sweeping up the glass, putting the cigarette in the ashtray.)

            Though not when I needed to. Muscle is more dense than fat.

(WOMAN begins sweeping)

            I can’t hear water without thinking of all those candles. Never fails, every time.

            My favorite show was ruined when you changed the lyrics so you could serenade my narcissism, with such genuine love in your eyes.

(stops, leans her forehead on the top of the broom)

            Such love… that led to obsession.

(WOMAN unnerved; moves to the ashtray, picks up the cigarette and takes a long drag. She looks out the window and down at the sweatshirt.)

            Coming home at 4 a.m. To find you sitting on my apartment stairs in icicle-balls cold, shivering, crying- no, whimpering, like a beaten animal, cowering and injured from a comment I made about not wanting to go to your bed that night.

            Begging forgiveness for any misdeed that would cause such a harsh denial of, “Not tonight, I’m too tired.”

            No was rarely told to you. You didn’t like it- fucking spoiled child.

(takes another drag)

            Child. You were still considered a child. Barely legal, running wild and hot.

(takes another drag)

            I had wanted children one day. I thought they would look beautiful if they looked like you.

(takes another drag, then puts the cigarette back into the ashtray to continue sweeping)

 

            And you never thought that I would find out about your lies.

            Not the elaborate ones, that seemed so good, they could never be a falsehood.

(takes another drag, snorts and laughs)

            Bitch, please. I’ve kept my darkness hidden from most of the world for years; not to mention all the petty shit I kept from you.

            So I guess it was only fair.

            Wrongs and rights and all that horse shit.

(takes another drag)

WOMAN

            And yet, I still could have had it all. Without you.

(shouts and throws the broom, begins to stomp her feet as she screams and throws her arms out to the audience in rage.)

 

            I COULD HAVE HAD CANADA, FUCKER. I would have been round and plump with life, probably on my 3rd batch of bun-in-the-oven. Fresh and full of promises.

(stops and picks up her foot, she stepped on a piece of glass. Laughs darkly and looks out the window [CSL], then down to the floor, her hair hanging in her face. Terrified:)

            Glass against flesh. That was what it felt like as you tore through me.

(sounds of a car pulling up, a door shutting, and footsteps outside)

            I have it great now.

            So why can’t you get the fuck out of my head. Why can’t I sleep at night?   WHY DO I ALWAYS SEE YOUR FACE?

(throws cigarette. Sighs. Limps over to the cigarette, leaving a trail of blood. Picks up cig, takes a drag)

            Why do I hope that I didn’t ruin your life, but still secretly hope that I did, just so I know that you will never forget me?

(Puts a half-lit cigarette in the ashtray and lights another, limping around.

The sound of front door unlocking echoes.)

            That should have been my roommate. My brother.

(She stares at the window, silent.

Recording of WOMAN saying “Be right there! Clumsy me knocked a glass off the shelf!”, her face visible to the audience, silent. She takes a drag, then puts cigarette into ashtray and looks to the audience)

            I worry that you’ll forget me.

(She limps upstage to [USC] to answer the door, fade to black)

                        (Offstage)

            I never saw it, but I was told of how your eyes bore into the backs of my brothers when I would hug them in greeting.

WOMAN

Hey, sorry it took me so long, I knocked a glass o… What are you doing here? I told you to stay away from me! No, let go of me! Stop it! NO! STOP! GOD PLEASE NO!

(screaming begins offstage, sounds of things shattering, door slams. Lights come back on stage, showing a man disheveled and covered in blood. He grabs the sweatshirt off the table and picks up the cigarette, taking a long drag, exhales, before smirking to the audience:)

MAN

            I really did love you.

(fade to black)

 

 

 

 

Amy

About the Author:

I have always had a fascination with the power of language when woven into a story.

 Since I was small, when I would drift off to the sounds of fantastical things and magical impossibilities, my imagination would overflow into vivid dreams. I would regale my family with these dreams, some horrific, some overbearingly sappy. I was encouraged to write them down.  However, this was the last thing I wanted to do, as my handwriting was atrocious (ask my Third Grade teacher…). Side note: never tell your mother you are bored at her office. You’ll promptly receive a spiral notebook and be instructed to write ten pages of the Alphabet in print, and then ten pages in cursive. Yes, this was when cursive was still a big thing in schools. I improved a bit, and began writing girlie poetry and dreaming of love.

 I fell in love in seventh grade. The Secret of Dragonhome by John Peel. I had crushed before, on wondrous magical tales like The Secret Garden, The Fairy Rebel, and the entire series of The Chronicles of Narnia­ but nothing had entranced me so as the world of John Peel. I followed with feverent passion into the world of Garth Nix’s Sabriel, then the brilliance of J.K. Rowling.

 High school and college brought forth new challenges and magical realms of their own, and I developed a deeper passion for writing my own stories that had crawled from the depths of my dreams. I didn’t realize it, but I was becoming ravenous for words. The Romantic Era blew my mind.  

 My thirst was both quenched and further fathomed to my soul in Tyler, Texas. A marvelous group of delightfully mad people in a cackling class of creative writing. Brilliance in a 24­pack. Their inspiration, encouragement, and no-holds-barred critiques helped me to bloom into a binding thirsty bookworm and writer.

 I am grateful to those who read the work I write, and please be advised, a great deal is  surreal and slightly disturbed. I hope you enjoy, and if not, blame my dreams.

Thank you for your time,

 Amy Holt

Lover and Dreamers and the Eternal Optimist

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 JimHenson-BiographyCover

Jim Henson had me in tears after only three pages.  The biography begins with a brief narrative describing the filming of a scene in Sesame Street when Kermit the Frog, played ever always by Jim Henson, sings the ABCs with a little girl named Joey who constantly interrupts the song by saying Cookie Monster instead of a letter.  If that sounds unbearably cute I’ve provided a link at the bottom of this review and you can watch it for yourself.  For my part I didn’t watch it until after I finished the biography and I was still rendered a puddle.

Jim Henson: The Biography by Brian Jay Jones does everything a biography should do, and here I fall back upon Christopher Hitchens’s list he provides in his essay Mark Twain: American Radical:

  1. That a biography shall cause us to wish we had known its subject in person, and inspire in us a desire to improve on such vicarious acquaintance as we possess.
  2. That the elements of biography make a distinction between the essential and the inessential, winnowing the quotidian and burnishing those moments of glory and elevation that place a human life in the first rank.Henrowlf-_muponpup68
  3. That a biographer furnish something by way of context, so that the place of the subject within history and society is illuminated, and his progress through life made intelligible by reference to his times.
  4. That the private person be allowed to appear in all his idiosyncrasy, and not as a mere reflection of the correspondence or reminiscences of others, or as a subjective projection of the mind of the biographer.
  5. That a biographer have some conception of his subject, which he wishes to advance or defend against prevailing or even erroneous interpretations. (40-41, Appears here in selections).

All of these requirements are satisfied by reading to the end of Jim Henson, for after I had finished reading the book it was impossible for me to idealize the man who made the Muppets and by extension most of my childhood.  That’s not to say that Jim Henson was a monster, for anyone who reads the book is sure to discover Henson the man was just benevolent as the creations he made in life, however the man himself was not the faultless Kermit who sang Rainbow Connection.  But he almost was.

I picked up Jim Henson: The Biography despite the fact that I really shouldn’t have.  Whenever my family makes it pilgrimage to Half Price Books in Dallas my sister and father leave the store with three, four, maybe even five books.  My mother and I on the other hand tend to leave with entire baskets.  Carts really, and I do mean shopping carts full of books.  My mother is more practical, and I might even go so far as to say shrewd ds_19008_04in her book buying, because she makes sure that almost every book in her stack(s) is from the bargain section at the back of the store and so most of her purchases amount to $1-2 American.  As such she could buy 40 books and wind up paying only 40-80 dollars.  As for myself, I am not so clever, and I have never been shrewd.  I already had a stack that amounted to over $100, yet while I was looking for my little sister I was passing through the biographies and I looked up and there it was.  I plucked it off the shelf, read two lines, and placed it on the ever growing stack.

I began reading the book and it’s difficult to process what this meant for me.  My parents tell me, because I have no memory of it, that when I was an infant my favorite television show was Fraggle Rock.  This would eventually be replaced with Sesame Street and Barney, though I only admit to the first one.  Most of the early memory’s I have of my hqdefaultchildhood is singing along to the Sesame Street sing-along cassette tape my mother bought for us, and the songs “C is for Cookie” and “Rubber Ducky” are still fixed in my mind to the point to this day I’ll find myself, usually while washing dishes or walking my friend’s dog, humming “Rubber ducky, you’re the one.”  Jim Henson, like many before me, left a distinct impression upon my life because he created an aesthetic so unlike anything else I would experience on television.  While 3-D, and 2-D animation were the standards of most animated programs, I loved Sesame Street and eventually The Muppet Movie because it was different to see puppets on the screen.  Puppets weren’t like cartoons, because unlike the drawings and three-dimensional models, I realized that these were real objects operated by real people that eventually became real people themselves.

This experience was not novel, for Jim Henson himself marveled at television, and Brian Jones explains the young man’s fascination with the device:

To the boy who had sat spellbound in the movie theater watching exotic tales of the Far East, this was like a genie’s sorcery.  “I loved the idea that what you saw was taking place somewhere else at the same time,” Jim recalled.  “It was one of those absolutely wonderful things.”  After watching television at a friend’s house in late 1949, Jim was convinced his family had to have a television set of their very own.  Now.  (24).

Jim Henson grew up in a relatively calm Christian Scientist household within the Mississippi delta.  This atmosphere would eventually be replicated in the opening scene of The Muppet Movie when Kermit would sing the song Rainbow Connectiongonzo1As the reader learns of Jim’s early life his character is arrived at relatively quickly.  Henson was a thoughtful creative type, and while he was quiet the young man he had a passion for both cars as well as pretty girls (and as Jones goes into some explicit detail Henson preferred the cheerleader types and wasn’t exactly virginal in any sense.).  It’s the influence of television however that became the interest, or really the locus of his entire creative and personal goals.  He attended briefly The University of Maryland, but by the time he reached college he was already working in television studios, learning about the trappings that made up the industry as well as experimenting with puppetry and trying to find a way to blend the two.

Jim would eventually create a small host of puppets and Jones does take the time to explain out a rumor that has emerged for years about how the term “muppet” muppethedcame about.

Interestingly, Jim was already using the term Muppet as early as December 1954, while working for Joe Campbell at Circle 4 Ranch. 

[…]

“It was really just a term we made up,” Jim admitted later.  “For a long time I would tell people it was a combination of marionettes and puppets, but, basically, it was really just a word that we coined,” he added, pointing out correctly that, “we have done very few things connected with marionettes.  (41).

The reader is probably waiting for one glaring mention and so I suppose I should get to that quote.  Henson, and the woman who would eventually become his first wife Jane, began to work together and after securing a deal at a local television station a group of these “Muppets” was constructed for five minute sketches to be included at the end of a local variety program.  The cast was called Sam and Friends and in this group there was one member who would outlast all of his troupe:SamandFriends

There was another abstract Muppet in Sam’s cast who, while still only relegated to mostly small parts—and usually getting devoured at the end—already has a special place in Jim’s heart.  It was a puppet Jim had built while passing several long sad days tending to his grandfather Pop, who was slowly dying of heart failure—a puppet that, even early on, Jim would always call his favorite.

It was a milky blue character a named Kermit.  (46).

Reading Brian Jones’s biography there is often this efficient delivery, for when I read those two brief paragraphs I felt a small tear well up in my eye.  Part of this was simple nostalgia, in fact most of it was, but it’s important to note how effectively this reveal serves in the book.  Many of the characters that occupy the creative landscape of Henson’s creative world are introduced in a way that feels not only natural, but like the meeting of an old friend.  Later in the book when he describes the fashioning of characters like Fozzy Bear, Dr. Teeth, Miss Piggy, MahnamuppetRolf the Dog, Cookie Monster, Ernie and Bert, and (still to this day my favorite) Gonzo there is never this sense of hammed-up attempt to inspire nostalgia.  Each character came about through Jim Henson’s personal development, and often was the case he wasn’t directly responsible for said creation.  The point is that rather than allow his writing to become a long tiresome list of when Jim Henson created what program, Jones writes a biography about the development of a creative individual who left a tremendous impact not just upon the community of puppeteers, but the culture at large.  President Obama has not only expressed his admiration for the show, his wife and other first ladies have appeared on the program alongside actors, athletes, singers, writers and this enduring desire to appear alongside the Muppets speaks to how relevant they remain in the hearts and imaginations of people.The_Muppet_Movie

What’s fascinating is that while this nostalgia is largely what keeps the Muppets going, Jim Henson spent most of his life trying to escape the identity of being a children’s entertainer, and even after he defeated this image he found problems:

With the worldwide popularity of both The Muppet Show and now The Muppet movie, Jim had, it seemed, conclusively put to rest the puppetry prejudice that had plagued him since Sesame Street.  If there were still critics clinging to the stifling misperception that puppets were purely kid’s entertainment, Jim had universally acclaimed a motion picture, an Emmy, and 235 million weekly television viewers who would likely help him argue otherwise.  But the international success of the Muppets of television and movie screen had created a different kind of perception problem for Jim.  True, he was no longer considered a children’s performer; instead, to the entire world, he was now “the Muppet Guy.”  (303).

It was this perception that eventually fueled Jim Henson’s creative output into the films The Dark Crystal (brilliantly satirized by Robot Chicken) and Labyrinth (also brilliantly Robotchicken.darkcrystalsatirized by Robot Chicken and Honest Trailers).  These films have a bit of a reputation for not only being weird, but being somewhat beyond the audience’s ability to comprehend what exactly was going on.  It would a be a mistake to call them both flops, for The Dark Crystal actually had relatively commercial success, and even Labyrinth has assumed the title of “cult classic.”  These films each receive a chapter dedication to themselves and Jones’s description of each time in Henson’s life attests to the importance these projects had to the man.  Labyrinth in particular was Henson’s first “failure” and it’s clear the lack of success impacted him tremendously.  Jones goes so far as to quote Jim Henson directly:

Jim was devastated by the response.  “I was stunned and dazed for several months trying to figure out what went wrong—where I went wrong,” he said later.  (390).

The end of Henson’s life was largely a series of frustrations and disappointments as he dealt not only with the failed Labyrinth_ver2success of these two films, but also with the failure of a television program called The Jim Henson Hour as well as the troublesome negotiations with the corporation Disney who wished to purchase his company.  It’s fair to say that most of the biography is the story of Jim Henson’s struggles or else his business actions for huge swaths of the book describe him attending promotion parties, interviews with the press, the backroom business of purchasing and owning his creative projects, and nearly every chapter has at least one mention of Jim Henson’s love of either yacht sailing or skiing in Europe with celebrities.

However, the soul of this biography rests not with Henson’s personal tastes for finer things, or even the numerous affairs with women that eventually crumbled his marriage, but in fact it’s the small stories that contribute to the larger picture of Jim Henson as a man.  For example a failed acid trip:

[…]  the Muppet crew was, for the most part, fairly straightlaced.  [Frank] Oz wasn’t a partier at all—he found large gatherings too noisy—and Jim, while he might enjoy a glass of wine or two from time to time—and maybe, said Nelson, “a little grass”—rarely ingested anything more potent than aspirin.  He has, however, tried LSD exactly once—and, if asked, would probably confess that it had been something of a disappointment.Performing_Kermit_copy

[…]

“I remember Jim sitting at his little desk in that Eames chair of his, looking at his sugar cube laced with LSD,” said Oz […]  “I took it,” Jim reported later, “and I waited…and nothing happened.”  Only slightly disappointed, he wished Sarah and Nelson good night and drove home.  If Jim’s experiment with with drugs had been a failure, one thing was clear: Jim didn’t need chemicals to take his mind to new worlds; his mind was already there.  (226-7).

This scene made me laugh, simply for the fact Jim Henson’s mind was so trippy on his own that even LSD couldn’t keep up with him.  Having watched the Labyrinth only two weeks ago, I can attest to the fact however that Henson really didn’t need drugs to make his mind go places so many people would require chemicals for.

I’ve provided a lot of synopsis of the biography and a few quotes to give the impression of the book, but as always I have to address my contester who wonders ever and always why they should bother.

What good does it do me reading about Jim Henson’s life when I could just watch Sesame Street with my kids, or watch The Muppet Movie and cry like a baby to I’m Going to Go Back There Someday?  Why should I bother reading about image_4a9a4f54the life of an artist?

The value, dear reader, lies in the fact that reading about Henson’s life is an opportunity to see how the characters who have impacted generation after generation came to be.  There is a kind of dampening effect in some biographies of creative individuals as you learn about their affairs and faulty personalities, but often that has more to do with the writing of said biographies, or else simply the people themselves.  Reading Jim Henson: The Biography is an entirely different experience however, for like I said before, reading the book is like meeting old friends, and learning about their past in a way that not only makes you closer to them, it informs your love for them in the first place.  The quality of the book is due both to Jones’s ability as a writer as well as the man Jim Henson himself.

Growing up Ernie and Bert were two of my favorite friends, partly because of my mother’s willingness to let me play “Rubber Ducky” over and over again in the car, and the story of their creation is one of the sweetest passages in the book:

CTW intended to have pilot episode of Sesame Street ready by June 1969, so Jim began sketching out a few new Muppets for the show early that spring, handing Don Sahlin a felt-tip drawing, little more than a doodle, of two characters.  hensonozThe first has surprised eyes set in a tall, banana shaped head, topped by a shock of dark hair, while the other—looking rather like Moldy Hay from Sam and Friends—had a head like a football, a large nose, and even larger ears, with shaggy dark hair covering his eyes.  […]  In the talented hands of Oz and Jim, those vertical and horizontal characters would quickly become, in the minds of many, one of the funniest comedy duos anywhere, providing teachable moments for millions even as they poked, prodded, teased, and taunted each other: Ernie and Bert.  (143-4).

Reading Jim Henson: The Biography often left me in tears, simply for the fact that so much of life, memories, and emotions were connected to Jim Henson’s work, and reading about his life it’s a marvel to know that someone who created so much wanted only ever and always to change people’s lives.  It’s not idealizing Jim Henson to say that he was a selfless dreamer who only wanted to make people happy, for almost every person he met, worked with, lived with, or was related to attests that was his living breathing personality.  As his work and legacy have grown, Henson has managed to escape the identity of being just a children’s entertainer, but his life’s work did reach children the most because he understood the need to reach children’s hearts and souls.muppets3-large

Looking at the character of Big Bird, Jones provides a creative insight:

One of his thoughts was “to have a character that a child could live through,” a Muppet who was representative of the audience.  “Big Bird, in theory, is himself a child,” said Jim, “and we wanted to make this great big silly awkward creature that would make the same kind of dumb mistakes that kids make.”  (146).

The use of the word “dumb” is a little harsh for my taste, if only because of one scene in The Muppet Movie that, my wife can attest to this, I always have to silence the room and turn up the volume to watch.  It’s in the middle of the song “Movin’ Right Along” and Fozzy and Kermit spot a Hitchhiker:

Kermit: Hey, Fozzie, look up ahead there.

Fozzie: What is that? TMM-Promo-BigBird

Kermit: Maybe we should give him a ride.

Fozzie: I don’t know, he’s pretty big.

Fozzie: [to Big Bird] Hey there, wanna lift?

Big Bird: Oh, no thanks. I’m on my way to New York City to try to break into public television.

Fozzie: Oh. Hm, good luck.

The Studebaker (a bear’s natural habitat according to Fozzy) drives away and Big Bird bumbles along the empty dusty highway.  One some level this is pathos, but there is something to be said about Big Bird as an innocent rather than “dumb” character.  In this scene it’s clear that Big Bird was just a kid from the Mid-West hoping to get into television so that he could help children learn.  Likewise Fozzy and Kermit are on their way to Hollywood to make movies and make people laugh.  At this point Jim Henson’s entire creative ethos and life goal’s meet in a perfect point, and while they divided and headed towards different ends of the country this small scene seems to embody everything Jim Henson tried to do in his life.

The fact that I always tear up during this scene is also a lasting tribute to the fact that I’m am emotional shlub.Henson.png

Jones offers one assessment however that does a better job than I could, as he looks at the parallels between Jim and his “favorite” character Kermit:

Like Kermit, Jim had left the swamps of Mississippi for the glitter of television and film, had put together his own “clan of wackos” to work with, and had struggled to break away from the clutches of the advertising business, which didn’t want to see him leave.  Kermit’s motivation in heading for Hollywood wasn’t so far removed from Jim’s own outlook, either—rather than solely seeking fame and fortune, Kermit sees it as an opportunity to entertain and “make millions of people happy.”  (297). 

Jim Henson: The Biography isn’t just a list of life events that made Jim Henson famous, it’s a lasting tribute to a man who wanted to change the world, and actually managed to.

jandk

 

 

 

*Writer’s Note*

I looked up the scene described in the prologue that made me weep like a punk, and to protect my ego I’ve provided a link to it below so that the reader can watch it for themselves and see if they’re so badass as they think they are.Screen-Shot-2013-04-02-at-3.42.52-PM

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lYIRO97dhII

 

**Writer’s Note**

For the record Gonzo remains my favorite Muppet, but should I ever be struck with a violent or malignant disease my “Make-A-Wish” last request would be to sing at least three or four songs with Rolf, and also Seth McFarlane if he’d be willing to join.

If the reader has any idea how to make this happen, please let me know.

 

***Writer’s Note***

I managed to find an actual interview with Brian Jay Jones that deals with him writing the book Jim Henson: The Biography.  Enjoy:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IbogAU934z8

 

****Writer’s FINAL Note****

I had to share one last video.  If nothing else will demonstrate the creative power that is Jim Henson then surely the song “I’m Going to Go Back There, Someday” will help.  Fair warning, I can’t even make it past the harmonica playing before I’m a puddle.  Whatever the case the song reminds me why I love the Muppets: there’s art beneath a seemingly nonsensical song about friendship.

gonzo1

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ryEjm3k6uY0

 

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