The Man Who Japed by Philip K Dick
2 March 2019
adultery, cheating, Choice, Control, Individual Will, Laughter, Laughter in the Dark, Literature, Masculinity Studies, Mid-Life Crisis, Novel, prose, Sexual Fantasy, Sexuality, Tropes, Vladimir Nabokov, Writing
I made my wife laugh terribly so that she almost fell over. I was glad that my personal pain amused her so as it’s a sign that our marriage is healthy and whole and we will probably make it. Then again if Jack Davenport gives up cigarettes and suddenly takes an interest in brown haired sarcastic women from East Texas I’m screwed. But I’ll save adultery till after the lead-in.
I suspect that laughter, in fact I know that laughter, is one of the most enjoyable and horrific experiences that a human being can experience in their life times. Most of us live our lives desperate not to be laughed at, while many in their time do everything in their power to make sure those around them are doing nothing but. Laughter as a mechanism is really nothing but a series of brief and controlled coughs that are, psychologically speaking, often a response to absurdity. It’s a way to respond to the unnatural, the strange, the weird, or simply anything that deviates from the norm.
I tend to go to bed long after my wife because I like to read and write during my time off from work, and this night was no different from any other. I brushed my teeth, took my benadryl and melatonin, locked up the house, counted the cats, and went to bed. Once I was beneath the covers my usual struggle to fall asleep began and I tossed and turned, like I usually do, trying to just relax, get cozy, and drift off. It was several minutes into this nightly struggle when my wife began to snore. I tend to be the one who snores because my sinuses are broken-down tractors and so I tend to make cacophonous roars at night, but tonight it was my wife’s turn. I reached over, and gently shook her and she responded by laughing. It was a soft albeit malevolent chuckle that was like something from a bad horror movie, but it froze me in place and scared the shit out of me. I didn’t move until she rolled over onto her other side, but I had only a moment before she laughed again.
Sleep was not to take me that night, and I was left, in the dark, beside a laughing creature I couldn’t see.
I know she wouldn’t kill me, and that’s because I trust her. Though that trust is something precious which leads me to infidelity and Nabokov.
Vladimir Nabokov is one of the few novelists whose work I’m still regularly reading and collecting. Part of this is simply distance from graduate school and warming up to my new life and identity as a library employee. I’m spending my days immersed in the collected volumes of literature, and because of that I’ve been able to return to many of my true passions: comics, non fiction, Criterion films, and anything that has to do with sex between men. Yet despite this shift of focus I’m still dedicated to reading literature voraciously and a few of the fiction writers I still spend my time and energy on tends to be Neil Gaiman, Ray Bradbury, Albert Camus, William Faulkner, and Vladimir Nabokov. Each of these writers has their own charms and appeal, but Nabokov will always be one of the first I gravitate towards because there has always been something about the way the man writes.
Recently I completed his novel Laughter in the Dark (at this my reader goes “ahh” and sees what I did there) and looking at the introduction perhaps the reader will see something akin to what I see:
Once upon a time there lived in Berlin, Germany, a man called Albinus. He was rich, respectable, happy; one day he abandoned his wife for the sake of a youthful mistress; he loved; was not loved; and his life ended in disaster.
This is the whole of the story and we might have left it at that had there not been profit and pleasure in the telling; and although there is plenty of space on a gravestone to contain, bound in moss, the abridged version of a man’s life, detail is always welcome. (7).
I predict my reader’s reaction, or at least one of them, “dude that’s so meta.” I haven’t decided yet if “meta,” which in this instance is short for “metafiction,” is meant to be an insult or not. I think it is because usually if something is labeled as “meta” it is usually synonymous with the more condemnatory word “pretentious.” Writers who try to make the reader aware that they are reading a story are usually hacks, or at least are perceived as such. “Meta” as a narrative tool for writers and story tellers was something that really seemed to come to prominence during the 80s when Ferris Bueler and Goodfellas made it not just a unique trick, but a fundamental part of the story, but today’s audiences seem far more concerned with hearing an actual journey and escaping from the world rather than observing craft.
Perhaps I’m being too harsh and too general, as there might be plenty of readers who enjoy “meta” narratives, or narratives that use meta as a tool. But I don’t believe I’m wrong.
Nabokov as a writer was skilled and far too careful to be unaware of the effect such an opening would have on his reader and by the end of Laughter in the Dark they are sure to have observed that he’s very much correct in his early assessment. Reading the novel myself I was often struck by the recurrent thought: “I’ve read this story before.” It was both true, and untrue. It was untrue in the fact that I hadn’t in fact read the story of Albinus, but it was true in the fact that I had read this narrative before. The story of a middle aged man who has become inured or bored with his daily existence and so seeks to escape his boredom, and dim awareness of his coming mortality, in the arms of a younger woman isn’t anything new. In fact the story of a middle aged man leaving his wife for a younger and more physically attractive mistress is so common it borders on cliche.
The reader may wonder then what is so impressive about a novel which explores so paltry a common theme? Why should I read a book about a middle aged man leaving his wife for a younger woman when I could just watch an episode of Desperate Housewives or Cheaters?
The answer to the second question, is actually the same as the first: the quality of Laughter in the Dark is dramatically more impressive.
As is always the case, Nabaokov doesn’t just use words to tell a story, Nabaokov uses words to play while he tells a story. Anyone who has bothered to read Lolita, Pnin, or Invitation to a Beheading is sure to remember that Nabokov manages to make even the most grotesque something beautiful and possibly even sublime. And looking at Albinus’s first sexual encounter with his mistress Margot, the homeless model and aspiring actress, is able to observe the careful attention the man pays to his craft:
He was conscious of a dull discomfort. He was hungry; he had neither shaved nor bathed; the touch of yesterday’s shirt against his skin was exasperating. He felt utterly spent—and no wonder. This had been the night of which he had dreamed for years. The very way in which she had drawn her shoulder blades together and purred when he first kissed her downy back had told him that he would get exactly what he wanted, and what he wanted was not the chill of innocence. As in his most reckless visions, everything was permissible, a puritan’s love, priggish reserve, was less known in this new free world than white bears in Honolulu.
Her nudity was as natural as though she had long been want to run along the shore of his dreams. There was something delightfully acrobatic about her bed manners. And afterward she would skip out and prance up and down the room, swinging her girlish hips and gnawing at a dry roll left over from supper. (83-4).
Nabokov is not the first writer who has managed to recreate human sexuality through writing, and he is not the first to observe that when two people, who have not spent years together, fuck they tend to do so with abandon. What’s unique, or at least feels unique when I read this passage, is how Nabokov plays with the language. Rather just describe which parts are rubbing or penetrating or getting sweaty as some writers might, Nabakov understands the capacity of words to affect mood and feeling. I felt this sexuality while reading it, and loathe as I am to admit it, I understood and appreciated Albinus’s passion. And that capacity to understand a man whom I find detestable is the make of a great writer.
Albinus is a man in yet another in a long line of Nabokovian narrators (I hope Nabokovian is a word and if it isn’t I’ve just invented it, dibs) obsessed with control. He sees in his life some hole, or absence which disturbs and troubles him immensely and so rather than try to find personal satisfaction he attempts to control his existence by engaging in a sensuous relationship with a younger woman. But like all Nabokovian narrators malevolently preoccupied with their lack of control, Albinus’s desires are ultimate his undoing as the woman he tried to control eventually leads the man to his downfall.
Margot eventually meets a young painter and sadist named Rex who seduces her and convinces her to help him steal Albinus’s money. The plan slowly works, until Albinus suffers a terrible car crash and is struck blind.
And here is where the predictable narrative began to change, because Albinus at this point differed from the numerous instances of Mid-life crises in literature, for while their demises usually amounted to cuckolding Albinus’s demise was far more complex with Margot and Rex setting up shop in a large house and having regular affairs while Albinus stumbled around in the dark. And the eventual reveal leaves the man bitterly destroyed as Nabokov writes magnificently:
With extraordinary distinctness he pictured Margot and Rex—both quick and alert, with terrible, beaming, goggle eyes and long, lithe limbs—packing after his departure; Margot fawned, and caressed Rex among the open trunks and then they both went away—but where, where? Not a light in the darkness. But their sinuous path burned in him like a trace which a foul, crawling creature leaves on the skin. (283-4).
Infidelity is a theme which leaves me rather troubled and it’s almost certainly because I have poor self image. I recognize that my wife would never cheat on me, but I can never completely know that she wouldn’t. In my more darker moments I have visited the possibility of discovering that she might have been cheating on me with another man, and because I also suffer from depression, and because I’m a writer with an overactive imagination, this thought is often accompanied with all manner of cruel and malicious images. The emotion that such a betrayal would create in me is, at times, too monstrous to consider.
I’ve seen in the lives of family and friends what adultery and infidelity can do to someone firsthand, and so it needs be repeated that even if it’s a familiar narrative, Nabakov was keen to observe that some of the details are an important reminder of what is implied by the sin.
Adultery is often employed, effectively or piss-poorly, by a number of writers and creators for the purpose of generated drama or character development and this is because the act creates real disruption in the universe. The cheater violates the trust of their partner and that distrust can poison any relationship, twisting it into something corrupt and unhealthy. The person who is cheated on is left permanently altered because they have to wonder why their partner strayed: was it something they did or didn’t do, was it because of a single action or was it multiple little things that just built, or perhaps, and even worse, did the other person never actually care for them? All of these realities collect together, and many artists have explored it because infidelity is, unfortunately, just something that isn’t going away.
Nabokov doesn’t just write a story about infidelity however, because as the opening passage suggested, that’s a story that has been told ad nauseum. It’s the details of the story that ultimately matter because that is where one can determine the quality of the story. Laughter in the Dark isn’t just a predictable narrative about a middle aged man trying to escape his mid-life crisis, it’s the story of a man who attempted to control his reality to the point that he lost his entire being because he pursued a passion relentlessly to his ultimate ruin.
Reading of Rex and Margot laughing and fucking while Albinus was in the next room was something that bordered on horrific, not just because of its potential plausibility, but because by the end of the story, I wasn’t sure whether or not I didn’t feel Albinus didn’t deserve it.
Laughter in the Dark is not the strongest novel that Nabokov has ever written, but much like his other works the man was able to push past the subtleties of everyday existence to create something unlike anything the reader has experienced. What is a peacock feather to a blind man, and are it’s edges like the tongues of snails that leave such bitter trails of memory on men whose virtue was not so great that they deserved a second glance?
I don’t have a good answer, but I know that when Middle Age arrives I’ll just try to get into stamp collecting or model cars, because the alternative is far less pleasant.
All quotes cited from Laughter in the Dark were quoted from the Vintage paperback edition.
I didn’t get a chance to include this quote in the essay, but I did want to have it somewhere so I’ll add it here in these little notes of mine. This quote comes from his short book letters to a young contrarian.
Laughter can be the most unpleasant sound; it’s an essential element in mob conduct and is part of the background noise of taunting and jeering at lynching’s and executions. Very often, crowds or audiences will laugh complicity or slavishly, just to show they “see” the joke and are all together. […] It’s therefore not true to say, as some optimists do, that humor is essentially subversive. It can be an appeal to the familiar and clichéd a source of reassurance through shared hilarity. (116).
I wanted to include some information below about infidelity for the reader in case they don’t realize how prevalent adultery is in our society. At least 1 in 3 relationships can be expected to be damaged or completely destroyed by one partner cheating. That is, to quote a friend of mine who I hold dearly to, one too many.
A final note on the images:
I usually try to include as many relevant images in these essays as I can. This is because I write rather densly and so I try to give my reader a break with a few visuals that bear some general connection to the theme of the article. However, since I work with the free package provided by WordPress, I only have so many free MB of space before I’ll eventually run out, and since I’v written about Nabakov at least three times now I thought I would save some space and use some old images. I hope they haven’t appeared too odd to the reader who probably didn’t even notice it until I posted this charming and flattering image of Miley Cyrus.
I guess if you squint hard enough her licking the mirror could be construed as a kind of commentary on Albinus’s egomania coupled with his compulsive need to satisfy his erotic longings and use Margot at the expense of his wife and daughter….But then again it’s probably just Miley Cyrus licking a mirror.
I’m not sure what just happened in this paragraph but it feels terribly revealing.
"Love that dare not speak its name", Amira Casar, Andre Aciman, Annie Proulx, Armie Hammer, Attraction, Bisexuality, Bret Easton Ellis, Brokeback Mountain, Call Me By Your Name, Elio and Oliver, Esther Garrel, Father-Son Relationship, fathers, Film, film review, First Love, Gay, Gay Literature, Gay Men, Homosexuality, Italy, Literature, Love Story, Luca Guadagnino, Masculinity Studies, Michael Stuhlbarg, Mr. Perlman, Novel, Parents of LGBTQ+ Children, Peach, Queer-Bashing, Sexual Exploration, Sexual identity, Sexuality, Timothée Chalamet, Young Gay Love
I’ve never openly considered using any food for masturbation. I know being of the American Pie generation I was supposed to have stuck my penis in some sort of food at this point. Apparently the Millennial coming of age ritual, apart from eating tide-pods, snorting condoms, and killing virtually every sector of the economy according to snarky facebook posts your uncle leaves on your facebook page, is performing some sort of onanistic ritual with a pie, a piece of fruit, or anything sweet and delectable. This demonstrates a clear divide between the generations because, as Portnoy’s Complaint demonstrated, Baby Boomers had the luxury of getting their rocks off by jerking it into raw liver. There’s almost assuredly a writer out there somewhere who is going to write an essay about generational divides and the compulsion to fuck food, and it’s probably me, but I’d prefer to write a few more reviews of great films before I tackle food lust.
Apart from my wife, who reminds me everyday that I’m hers and hers alone and then laughs maniacally before adoring her kitty cats, the reason why I could never date another man is because it would almost assuredly end in violence or bloodshed. Now I’m not talking about Days of Our Lives Soap Opera bloodshed, where people are slapped and/or shot and hit the ground without starting to scream or hemorrhage out all over the credenza before Stefano’s evil twin drags the body away to clone the victim. Violence against LGBTQ couples and individuals, often referred to as Queer bashing, is a mode of violence that has unfortunately become almost tropic. If two gay people in a film love one another the ending will almost always imply that they cannot be together because straight people will not understand their love and will enact violence against one or both partners.
Perhaps the best example of this is the novella Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx. A melodrama about two ranch hands for hire who fall in love in the mountains of Montana, the pair are in bed together when Ennis explains why they can’t be seentogether:
“Whoa, whoa, whoa. It ain’t goin a be that way. We can’t. I’m stuck with what I got, caught in my own loop. Can’t get out of it. Jack, I don’t want a be like them guys you see around sometimes. And I don’t want a be dead. There was these two old guys ranched together down home, Earl and Rich—Dad would pass a remark when he seen them. They was a joke even though they was pretty tough old birds. I was what, nine years old, and they found Earl dead in a irrigation ditch. They’d took a tire iron to him, spurred him up, drug him around by his dick until it pulled off, just bloody pulp. What the tire iron done looked like pieces a burnedtomatoes all over him, nose tore down from skiddin on gravel.”
“You seen that?”
“Dad made sure I seen it. Took me to see it. Me and K.E. Dad laughed about it. Hell, for all I know he done the job. If he was alive and was to put his head in that door right now you bet he’d go get his tire iron. Two guys livin together? No. All I can see is we get together once in a while way the hell out in the back a nowhere—” (29-30).
This violence is a threat to existence is often at the root of something in Queer literature often referred to as “Love that dare not speak its name.” Due often to the fact that homosexuality was often listed either as a sin, a vice, or as a mental disorder, homosexuals over the ages have had to bury their sexual and emotional passions, and those of us that were artists had to find a way to express our frustrations and desires through art. Often is two characters in a story were gay, or often as was the case hinted at being gay, then by the end of their story no matter how happy they were there had to be a ending in which they could not be together. Sometimes this resulted simply in heartbreak, but far more often it was the case that one or both partners wound up being killed.
The ‘Love that dare not speak it’s name” is a trope which has haunted queer literature and queer art for decades, even centuries and so when watching Call Me By Your Name I was waiting and expecting for it to happen. And in a way it did, Oliver and Elio did not wind up together, but not because there was anything wrong with their love.
The film, which is based on the novel by Andre Aciman, explores the life of Elio Perlman, the son of a jewish classical art professor. The family lives in Italy and occasionally hosts graduate students of Elio’s father while he performs his research. One such graduate student, an American by the name of Oliver arrives and very quickly catches the attention of Elio who is a teenager and developing his sexual and personal identity as he is on the cusp of adulthood. Elio explores his sexuality with a young woman who lives in town, but he finds himself more and more drawn to Oliver who appears distant until, over time, the pair of them eventually abandon themselves to a love affair. The story is about falling in love in a Pre-AIDS era and how two men were able to find one another, and for Elio, the story revolves around the discovery of his sexuality and the “first love” of his life. By the end of the film the pair of them do not wind up together, Oliver winds up marrying a woman while never completely abandoning his erotic truth.
This would at first seem to satisfy the old “Love that Dare Not Speak It’s Name,” henceforward referred to as LTDNSIN, no never mind that’s a terrible acronym, but watching the film and having read the novel I’m not so quick to slap that label on what is arguably one of the most beautiful films I’ve ever watched. Luca Guadagnino has made a visually stunning film that, even when it is not experimenting with camera angles, is just gorgeous to watch. Guadagnino captures the landscape and feel of Italy taking timeto film the peach trees, the ruins that litter the landscape, the pools of cold water in which the characters swim, or even simply the actual Italians themselves that call this beautiful country home. Elio and Oliver exist in a sort of timeless space caught between antiquity and the contemporary period of the early 1980s. And this attention to detail allows for the exploration of sensuality and sexuality of the characters.
In one moment of the film Elio and Oliver are discussing their mutual attraction beside a roman ruin and the camera follows them around the ruined edifice as they talk:
Oliver: Is there anything you don’t know?
Elio: I know nothing, Oliver.
Oliver: Well, you seem to know more than anyone else around here.
Elio: Well, if you only knew how little I really know about the things that matter.
Oliver: What “things that matter?”
Elio: You know what things.
Oliver: Why are you telling me this?
Elio: Because I thought you should know.
Oliver: Because you thought I should know?
Elio: Because I wanted you to know.
Elio: [to himself] Because I wanted you to know. Because I wanted you to know. Because I wanted you to know.
Elio: [to Oliver] Because there’s no one else I can say this to but you.
Oliver: Are you saying what I think you’re saying?
Oliver: Wait for me here. Don’t go away.
Elio: You know I’m not going anywhere.
The scene is powerful for the shot Guadagnino uses and the way the music builds the dramatic tension. By the end of the scene, even though it doesn’t at first appear that much of anything has actually taken place, the reader feels that something powerful has happened in the film.
The love affair between Elio and Oliver was beautiful to watch, and I admit that the film made me nostalgic for the days when I was young, discovering myself, and falling in love. But for whatever reason the most powerful moment of the film was not any of the scenes between the two lovers, but a moment between Elio and his father after Oliver leaves the villa. Elio is emotional about the separation and he goes to speak with his father, and what occurs between the pair of them is arguably one of the most powerful demonstrations of affection between a gay child and a parent in recent cinema.
Mr. Perlman offers his son several moments of honest sentiment.
Mr. Perlman: You two had a nice friendship.
Mr. Perlman: You’re too smart not to know how rare, how special what you two had was.
Elio: Oliver was Oliver.
Mr. Perlman: Parce-que c’etait lui, parce-que c’etait moi.
Elio: Oliver may be very intelligent but…
Mr. Perlman: Oh no, no, no. He was more than intelligent. What you two had, had everything and nothing to do with intelligence. He was good. You were both lucky to have found each other, because you too are good.
Elio: I think he was better than me. I think he was better than me.
Mr. Perlman: I’m sure he’d say the same thing about you. Which flatters you both.
He clears through the suggestions and offers his honest take on the relationship,
Mr. Perlman: In my place, most parents would hope the whole thing goes away. Pray their sons land on their feet, but… I am not such a parent.
Mr. Perlman: Right now you may not want to feel anything. Maybe you neverwanted to feel anything. And maybe it’s not to me you’ll want to speak about these things. But feel something you obviously did. We rip out so much of ourselves to be cured of things faster than we should that we go bankrupt by the age of thirty and have less to offer each time we start with someone new. But to make yourself feel nothing so as not to feel anything – what a waste!
And finally he offers his son, with obvious tears in his eyes, one last final offering.
Mr. Perlman: Have I spoken out of turn? Then I’ll say one more thing. It’ll clear the air. I may have come close, but I never had what you two have. Something always held me back or stood in the way. How you live your life is your business, just remember, our hearts and our bodies are given to us only once. And before youknow it, your heart is worn out, and, as for your body, there comes a point when no one looks at it, much less wants to come near it. Right now, there’s sorrow, pain. Don’t kill it and with it the joy you’ve felt.
Elio: Does mom know?
Mr. Perlman: I don’t think she does.
There were so many moments during Call Me By Your Name, where I found myself “remembering.” When Elio smells Olivers shirt I “remembered” the discovery of the sensual power of your partner’s smell. When Oliver masturbates into a Peach I “remembered” the early experiments with masturbation. When Elio tries to kiss Oliver I “remembered” the early attempts at demonstrations of affection and how some of them failed. Mr. Perlman’s talk with his son however was the only moment of the film where I felt a real emotion to the point that I was actually crying. I wish had I had a moment like that when I was young, and I wish I had had the courage to be myself, and have someone there to offer such a net. I wish I hadn’t been so afraid to just be who I really was, which was gay.
I love my parents, and I do not wish to speak out of turn towards them. I am who I am today because of them because they offered me endless love and support. All I am saying is, there might have been a different man writing this post if I had had someone in the form of a guardian who allowed me the language and space to feel safe acknowledging my attraction.
And this emotion isn’t just limited to myself, as Bret Easton Ellis points out on his review of the film, commenting first on Michael Stuhlbarg’s final speech,
And yet Stuhlberg sells it with a hushed technical virtuosity that makes every word land and vibrate even though at times he overdoes the saintly Jewish-Daddy thing. Stuhlberg makes this the real climax of the movie—it becomes a primal scene—and in the packed theater I saw the movie you could hear the gay men (at least half the audience) barely holding back muffled sobs. Call Me By Your Name is the movie generations of gay men have been waiting for: the fullest, least condescending expression of gay desire yet brought to mainstream film. It ends with a nearly wordless four-minute shot of a tear-stained Chalamet staring into a fireplace, a myriad of emotions subtly morphing over his face while the credits roll and which reminds us: there cannot be love without pain, the two are intertwined and intractable, and that the boy might be destroyed but a man will emerge and survive.
Mr. Perlman’s speech to his son can at times be just that, a speech. And speeches are, by their nature, a one sided affair where one person delivers their thoughts, sentiments, philosophies, and opinions with an understanding that this is a passive affair for the listener. What felt different while watching it was how the man seemed to be not just lecturing his son, but honestly trying to communicate to him. Mr. Perlman is a man who has obviously experienced great frustration in his life, but just as likely he’s a man who’s starved for desire.
Growing older is a sensation that is often defined by such starvation of spirit. I find myself wondering more and more “what do I want out of life, and shouldn’t I have figured it out by now?” And looking back only feeds such hunger as one feels the advantages of maturity and personal agency and wonders “why didn’t I take advantage of that? Why did I choose not to pursue this?” And this desire tends to feed a bitterness of spirit that can sap one dry. Sexuality especially can starve the soul and leave one often wondering, why was I not more ambitious, spontaneous, more confident, and Mr. Perlman’s speech offers a kind of closure for such pain.
But as Ellis points out, Call Me By Your Name wasn’t an opportunity to mourn the loss of love, but to recognize that love. Too often the “first love” of our lives are encouraged to be forgotten or cynically dismissed as foolish or naive, but such a recommendation is not only barbaric it’s false. That first love is real because it is felt with such profound passion that will never be repeated in our lives, and while some are fortunate enough to turn that love into a lasting commitment, often such passion just cannot last. What’s important about the film is not simply that the film is a “gay movie,” but that it’s a film which explores the first love of homosexuality and does not dismiss it as something obscene, foolish, or doomed. It’s instead portrayed as the first part of a long and beautiful life.
Call Me By Your Name is a film gay men have been waiting for for decades, centuries even. And like the sexual grace carved into the hellenistic statues of Greek Gods, it’s a sexuality that cannot be denied, nor ignored, long after the men who experienced and recorded it are just the dust beneath the treads of bicycle wheels.
All quotes cited from Call Me By Your Name were provided by IMDB.com. All quotes taken from OUT’s review of Call Me By Your Name were provided by their website. If the reader is interested in reading the full review I’ve provided a link below:
I’ve taken the liberty of supplying a few reviews of the film and novel Call Me By Your Name below in case the reader would like a few more opportunities to read about the film instead of just taking my biased opinion.
In case the reader was curious, I really didn’t have any rhyme or reason for including the image below into the essay. I just typed in “supergay” into Google Images and I got this wonder. I used it as the temprary “Featured image” while I waited to get around to editing this one, and by the time I had everything ready I didn’t need it anymore, but I didn’t want to give up this guy because, he’s, well, perfect.
So, please enjoy this supergay photo because lord knows I certainly do.
Atheism, Babel Fish, Book Covers and why the Matter, Douglas Adams, Fonts, god, GoodReads Reviews, Happiness, Hitchhiker's Guide, Jealousy between Writers, Language, Lesbian Flamingos, Literature, Novel, Savannah Blair, Science, science fiction, Sexuality, Slartbartfast, suicide, The Book Market is a real Bitch, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Typefaces, Untied Shoelaces, Writers, Writing
In between perusing the collected writings of Stephen Hawking, William Shakespeare, and the comics of Robert Crumb I received a strange parcel in the mail. It was wrapped in paper that had once been a vibrant yellow. It smelled like ripe bananas. But most distressing to me above all was that the name on the front of the package was misspelled. I’m not sure who “Jeshua Jammer Smyth” is, but he’s sure to be missing his package. Unless of course “Jeshua” is a she and I have made the assumption of their, her, zir’s choice of pro-nouns. Whatever the case, I opened the package believing it to belong to me, and inside I found several crumpled up notes concerning Douglas Adam’s novel A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Several of these notes were immediately eaten out of pure jealousy for the genius of their composition.
The rest were either used as toilet paper, scratch paper for handling my income tax filing, or in one case constructing a lovely dress for my kitty cat Mortimer. I’m most proud of the ruffles near the ends of the sleeves, though the absence of lapels still haunts me.
After having coffee with my friend Alia Pappas however, and discussing how lovely it was being gay for boys and girls and everyone in between, I sat down at my desk to record what essays, novels, audiobooks, and poems I had read or completed that day and I stumbled upon the notes again.
What follows are my transcribing of said notes. And it should be noted that the very last comment on the very last piece of paper I transcribed before eating that last page read simply: “I hope the reader appreciates this pathetic attempt at a framing device for a review of a science fiction novel.”
On the Complicated Religious Implications of Goodreads Reviews and Why One Appeared in the first Place…
It’s a well known fact, that few people actually bother to read past the first review on Goodreads. For instance, this review randomly appeared on Goodreads at the very bottom of the previous 22,000 reviews when the author of said review, who had recently purchasedthe book because it was the favorite novel of a friend who had only recently committed suicide the week earlier. The reviewer, a rather gloomy person with many friends who spent an awful lot of time worrying about him and not worrying about whether their shoe laces were of appropriate length, wanted to read the book again, and discovered in fact, that it was a beautiful novel with a few gags that were worth stealing when he decided to write his review on Goodreads.
Coincidently enough, the date in question in which this review was written was the third of March 2018, which, when added together, forms the number 2039 which also by a bizarre coincidence correlates to an undiscovered pocket of the universe where Goodreads reviews are only observed by the Penguino-Factoid Rockzoans who treat such reviews as sacred scriptures. It should also be noted, that the Penguino-Factoid Rockzoans spend a solid quarter of their existence also not worrying about the length of their shoe-laces.
The first volume of HitchHiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was an amusing distraction to the otherwise unpleasantness of the reviewer’s friend’s suicide, but also a rather depressing reminder of it as he realized not long after reading it, that she was no longer around to read it herself and then discuss it with the reviewer. With this knowledge in hand the reviewer considered the text at large, and wondered whether it constituted a real review, should any reader reading this text, apart from the Penguino-Factoid Rockzoans who of course are already dedicated seminaries to it’s deconstruction, would substantiate any real interest in the novel. And so the reviewer was left with the following conclusion:
In the face of loss it is important to remember “Don’t Panic,” always know where one’s towel is located, take the time to recognize how important one’s mortality is because at any moment life can be obliterated by the absurdity of reality in the form of suicide or revolting bureaucratic aliens building expressways through space, and most importantly to appreciate fjords in streams because somebody somewhere worked hard on those.
This revelation in hand, the reviewer decided to finish his review, unaware of course that the Penguino-Factoid Rockzoans had already spent the last three thousand years suffering a particularly bloody civil-war over the meaning of the period in the second sentence of his review. It should also be noted, that of the thousands of young men, women, and inter-sex non-binary individuals who died in the name of that particular grammatical mark, all of them considered the young woman who had inspired the reviewer to read the book in the first place and thus create such harmony/dis-harmony in their universe.
Her name was Savannah and she loved this book. And she might have liked this review. Though she would almost certainly never have considered the length of her shoelaces, or, for that matter, their cosmological significance.
On the Nature of God, Divine Prominence, and the Foresight to not Place all Your Faith in Fish…
A great number of people in a little town called El Paso, not to be confused with the El Paso currently located in the Rich district of Neptunio 17, cannot actually stand fish. It’s for this reason that many social and political activists in the area, other than the ones concerned with making sure teenagers cannot earn money for lollipops, have begun to lobby the current administration for the complete and total removal of fish from the one and only restaurant in the city. This charming establishment, known simply as “Ed’s” has never in fact sold fish on their menu, and never would even consider this possibility as fish is rather difficult to serve alongside corn-dogs and deep-fried tater-tots which the owners refer to as Fritter-Balls.
This stunning political and social revolution partly came about because Philip Denfry, the local barber and mortician, just so happened to have a copy of Adam’s A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and in the middle of his rant concerning the zoning board’s recent decision to obliterate his house for the construction of a flower preserve, he happened to read the following passage:
“The Babel Fish,” said the Hitchhiker’s Guide Quietly, “is small, yellow and leechlike, and probably the oddest thing in the universe. It feeds on Brainwave energy received bot from its own carrier, but from those around it. It absorbs all unconscious mental frequencies from this brainwave to nourish itself with. It then excretes into the mind of its carrier a telepathic matrix formed by combining the conscious thought frequencies with nerve signals picked up from the speech centers of the brain which has supplied then. The practical upshot of all of this is that if you stick a Babel fish in your ear you can instantly understand anything said to you in any form of language. The speech patterns you actually hear decode the brainwave matrix which has been fed into your mind by your babel fish.
“Now it is such a bizarrely improbably coincidence that anything so mind-bogglingly useful could have evolved purely by chance that some thinkers have chosen to see it as a final and clinching proof of the nonexistence of God.
“The argument goes something like this: ‘I refuse to prove that I exist,’ says God, ‘for proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing.’
“ ‘But,’ says Man, ‘the Babel fish proves you exist, and so therefore, by your own argument you don’t. QED.’”
“ ‘Oh dear,’ says God, ‘I hadn’t thought of that,’ and promptly vanishes in a puff of logic. (42).
The collected citizens of El Paso reacted to this passage as many sane individuals would: they all collectively agreed to burn Philip Denfry at the stake for his crimes of speaking when he did not have the floor, and then promptly became the nation’s first autonomous collective of rational atheists. This came at some great benefit to the community as themoney that was spent tithing for the church was instead turned back into the economy of the small town and allowed it’s citizens levels of economic prosperity which hadn’t been felt since the first prospectors arrived in their town looking for gold and the world’s cheapest bars of soaps.
However with the arrival of Ed’s Burger Joint, the autonomous collective had a difficult proposition, do they stand by the proposition that a small perfect organism disproves the existence of god, or do they allow their economic prosperity to suffer because Ed’s fries were truly the stuff of greatness.
Fortunately for the masses this decision did not need to be made because, by a stunning coincidence, a man by the name of Jesus C. Hrist at the local nuclear facilities felt an immediate and sudden conviction that he could become the spider-monkey god of the eighth dimension by causing an immediate and sudden meltdown of the reactor. The city of El Paso Georgia was immediately terminated, though I suppose one could make the argument that the “faith” of the autonomous collected lived on. Not that there’s much proof of that outside of the random appearance of the shape of an atom etched into the ash at the exact location where the great prophet Philip Denfry was burned at the stake.
Of the Necessity of Adorning Ones Periodicals and Tomes with Comforting Type Fonts and Messages As to Not Causing Unnecessary Discomfort to the Reader
It’s rather unfortunate to observe that over 53,431 designs for individual typeface have been created, used, absconded, and subsequently destroyed by the individual known simply as Maynard. Maynard, the reader should note, is in fact a post-doctoral candidate from the illustrious university of LV-7999. Sub Q, located on the asteroid which, by some grandcoincidence, is also known as Maynard. While it is not uncommon for post-doctoral candidates of LV-7999 to become mildly obsessed by typeface and other printing accoutrements, Maynard became something of a legend in his department for crafting all 53, 431 typefaces in the space of under seven minutes. It was for this achievement that Maynard was immediately denied his doctorate and promptly hurled from the front doors of the university by his thesis committee who were largely jealous, but more enraged by the fact that three of his typefaces were in fact just rip-offs of Comic Sans.
Although it violated most agreed upon natural laws and regulations, one of the numerous typefaces managed to separate from Maynard’s word processing interface unit, which was in fact nothing but a hologram projector in the shape of a snail, and made its way to the apartment of a Caroline Powers M.D. Dr. Powers was soaking her feet, petting her cat, and reading her favorite book The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy when the typeface imprinted itself dramatically upon her psyche. She looked down and read the following passage:
“I like the cover,” he said. “Don’t Panic.’ It’s the first helpful or intelligible thing anybody’s said to me all day.” (37).
Dr. Powers did not in fact read the passage in the previous way however, for the typeface created by Maynard appeared in her eyes as a series of dots and dashes reminiscent of the shape of those sort of fish one places on the back of car bumpers. While she read the words inspired visions of tornadoes reverberating around barns and lifting up poor cows who had little time or patience to consider the nature of tornadoes. The texture of said tornadoes imprinted itself on Dr. Powers mind and she had, in a burst of sheer erotic jubilance, the answer to numerous afflictions for those who suffer from foot bunions. The poor woman leapt up, shouted eureka, and ran to the phone, forgetting that her feet were contained within the Orthopedic Foot Bath #34, and she immediately tripped, fell, and cracked her skull against her rather gaudy looking coffee table.
Some physicists have made the case that if she had bothered to dress the table up a bit with a shawl or at least a quilt then perhaps she might have avoided her fate and thus freed mankind from the annoyance of bunions, but then the conversations are still open. Whatever the case all have agreed that recommending someone to “Don’t Panic” is in fact one of the few universally agreed upon intergalactic truths, right alongside the sentiment expressed by Maynard upon returning to University LV-7999 with a chest strapped to the brim with dynamite, “it’s important to remember whether ones shoelaces are tied in the morning before one leaves for work.”
ON THE PREMISE OF HAPPINESS AND WHY SO FEW PEOPLE TRUST IT OR ACHIEVE IT
Happiness, what exactly is it anyway? The Websters dictionary of the Flamingo-Neck people of Thular 17, who by strange coincidence happen to resemble the flamingos found here on planet Earth, define the happiness as the sensation of discovering a rather large and plump beetle crawling up the spindly leg of the woman standing next to you. The Flamingo-neck people of Thular 17, it should also be noted, are an entire population of self-regulating, self-reproducing lesbians who rather enjoy licking and kissing each others legs. This definition of happiness from their society has caught on however thus spurring an increase of homosexual sexual practices between the various women of the known universe, but also encouraging people to devour beetles in large quantities. The protein levels alone have justified this habit although there are some religious circles that are dubious that such record consumption and health has much to do with lesbianism.
During the latest update of the Websters Dictionary, the Flamingo-neck people took considerable effort to redefine lesbianism as not only a well-respected means of sexual recreation, but also as an effort to understand the deeper meaning of life and overall existence. Their definition for the phrase cunnilingus alone contained two rather remarkable passages which by sheer coincidence were two small passages found near the end of the first volumes Douglas Adams’s A Hitchikers Guide to the Universe. The first was as follows:
“Maybe. Who cares?” Said Slartibartfast before Arthur got too excited. “Perhaps I’m old and tired,” he continued, “but I always think that the chances of finding out what really is going on are so absurdly remote that the only thing to do is to say hang the sense of it and just keep yourself occupied. Look at me I design coastlines. I got an award for Norway.” (127)
There were some of the Flamingo-neck peoples, most notably the few remaining heterosexual males who were making a concerted effort to stave off the overthrow of the patriarchy, that complained that this definition violated many tenants of reality. The most damning defense, they so claimed, was that this did very little to explain what happiness was or why it should be equated with lesbianism. The Flamingo-Neck Consortium of Lesbians for the Promotion of Philosophical and Physical Lady-Love decided to check this argument by adding the following passage to the definition:
“What does it matter? Science has achieved some wonderful things, of course, but I’d far rather be happy than right any day.”
“And are you?”
“No. That’s where it all falls down, of course.”
“Pity,” said Arthur with sympathy. “It sounded like quite a good style otherwise.” (128)
With their new definition in hand the Flamingo-Neck Consortium of Lesbians for the Promotion of Philosophical and Physical Lady-Love felt confident that they had a best-seller on their hands. Much to their chagrin and frustration the Goddess incarnate of the Molarr dimension just past the edge of the observable universe appeared in order to promote her latest novel: A Million and One Incredibly Fun Things to Do Sexually With Women and No One Else. It became an instant best-seller with many critics arguing it surpassed her previous work Women, Well, Da-Da-Damn.
The Flamingo-Neck Peoples of Thular 17 watched their media dreams fizzle away and the Consortium begin to implode not long thereafter. In the absence of a best-seller to justify their lesbianism to their stuffy-close-minded parents many began to fall back into hiking and just doing their own things on weekends. The Flamingo-neck Peoples returned to their home world bitterly disappointed, wondering why they bothered with happiness in the first place. Much to their surprise however, they discovered that there is something to forgoing fame and fortune and instead living a quiet, comfy, homosexual existence devouring beetles off of each others legs. It wasn’t grand knowledge, but it was most certainly life changing.
This concludes the passages that were supposed to be delivered to Jeshua “Jammer” Smyth. They shall henceforth be destroyed because I’m a pissy little bitch who cannot live with the knowledge that there is another mind who’s existence possesses such a sublime capacity for writing and art. I recognize that I’m committing a grand disservice to society and humanity by eliminating these letters, but it’s not like I’ve posted them to my blog where the whole world can see it, right?
This review was written several months ago, not long after my friend Savannah committed suicide, and not long after I finished Hitchhiker’s Guide. I hate that it took so long, but at least it’s here. Miss you Sav.
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I had to pee up to around 10 times when I saw Return of the King in theaters, and that was during my third watching.
Though my condition has improved as I’ve aged, my wife has gone so far as to suggest that I download an app to my phone which actually sets a timer on your phone which coordinates one’s bladder while one is watching a movie. The basic premise is, that way, you won’t waste a lot of time during a movie going back and forth to the toilet. RunPee isnot only an app, it is an entire website where there is a community of fellow pissers who exchange dialogue about when is the best time to get and urinate during a film. I have yet to really dig into the language and psychology of this community because frankly I’m terrified of the reviews of Lawrence of Arabia. I’m terrified they’re going to say the whole film is one long piss-fest, and I like Lawrence of Arabia.
As for my nervous pissing as a teenager, it came about entirely because I didn’t want to miss anything because I knew, as I watched, that this would be the last time I would see Middle Earth on the big screen. I was wrong largely for two reasons. The first reason was that by getting up to pee I was actually missing part of the film, and the second reason was because Peter Jackson would begin The Hobbit trilogy just a few years later. And while The Hobbit films were not the barbarous human rights atrocity that they’ve been made out to be, Billy Connolly plays a dwarf who rides a motherfucking boar and he only shows up in the last hour of the last fucking film for fucks sake…I’m a little bitter. But that’s only because it’s Billy motherfucking Connolly.
The Lord of the Rings the Return of the King was a beautiful film however, and so for many years I hated myself for never actually finishing the book. It was fun knowing how the story ended, and it was fun appearing smart as I informed people who knew nothing about the series (and who probably didn’t give a shit about it) that I knew that in fact that when the Hobbits returned to Hobbiton the Great Party Tree was destroyed andthe Hobbits actually had to fight a large gathering of ghouls and cretins who had polluted the Shire, but it was all, ultimately, just an exercise in ego. That is when I finally finished The Return of the King at the end of last year, I finally felt as though I was not so much of a “would-be.”
Book six of the Return of the King came and went, and I was left in a rather difficult position: how am I going to write about the last book. Book five at least had Eowyn, but for the most part the final section of the book is for Frodo and Sam, and I don’t have much to say about either. It’s not that I fail to recognize the potential for character exploration as both men have interesting material to work with, but by the end of Return of the King both of these characters have been essentially stripped to the bareness of their souls and are nearly destroyed.
The quest for the Ring, and the physical and psychological effects it has upon Frodo have been analyzed by scholars, fans, bloggers, writers, poets, and that weird guy at CVS pharmacy with the neck-beard who’s actually got great puns the world over. Whether it’s been interpreted as a metaphor for drug use, the ultimate corrupting power ofpower, veiled symbolism of unholy temptations, or simply human weakness, ultimately everyone arrives at the same conclusion for why Frodo ultimately fails to drop the Ring of Power into the fire of the Crack of Doom in Orodruin, usually just called Mount Doom: Frodo has no choice. Ultimately the ring corrupts otherwise good people to it’s will, and they are powerless to stop such evil. Temptation is a force that compels and corrupts the will, and those who possess the ring are ultimately undone by this power.
What fool would I be to argue against this interpretation? Apparently a great fool indeed, but I not only disagree with this collected sentiment, I actually find it a dangerous proposition. Though I’m not the only one who find this argument weak.
As I have noted since the start of these essays, Michael D.C. Drout’s lecture series Of Sorcerer’s and Men completely altered my perception of the trilogy and the ultimate aesthetic effect that Tolkien was attempting in this fantasy series, and I’m still feeling the reverberating effects as I consider each text one by one. What struck me most about his analysis of The Lord of the Rings was the final failure of Frodo, and as he quoted the scene directly I suppose I should as well. Sam and Frodo have traveled over the plains of Gorgoroth, and as they made their way up the side of Mount doom they have been attacked by Gollum. Frodo manages to escape and make his way inside of the volcano and after Sam has spared Gollum he chases after his master who he finds standing on the perch. All is darkness until the fire lifts up and Tolkien writes the scene so that every word matters:
The light sprang up again, and there on the brink of the chasm, at the very Crack of Doom, stood Frodo, black against the glare, tense, erect, but still as if he had been turned to stone.
“Master!” Cried Sam.
Then Frodo stirred and spoke with a clear voice, indeed with a voice clearer and more powerful than Sam had ever heard him use, and it rose above the throb and turmoil of Mount Doom, ringing in the roof and walls.
‘I have come,’ he said. ‘But I do not choose now to do what I came to do. I will not do this deed. The Ring is mine!’ And suddenly, as he set it on his finger, he vanished from Sam’s sight. Sam gasped, but he had no chance to cry out, for at that moment many things happened. (924).
There is always going to be somebody whispering to the reader and saying “the book was better,” and while I won’t say that this scene in the final film of the trilogy was not great, it reinforced the traditional narrative of Frodo’s failure where the book left a more nuanced point. Every word in Frodo’s declaration speaks to the real power of the ring and the effect that it has upon those who bear it or desire it.
If the reader pays close attention to Frodo’s language it is clear what is compelling Frodo is not solely weakness of spirit or supernatural influence, it is choice. Frodo does “not choose” to destroy the ring, instead his choice is to keep it for himself. And this idea of choice is everything because choice is always a matter of one’s personal conviction. A person chooses what color clothes to dress in, what books to read or not read, what films to see, what religion or philosophy should govern their life, what political beliefs they subscribe to, what games to play or not play, and what sort of people they prefer to spend their time with. Each of these choices reflects the character and values of that individual, and those choices are ultimately founded upon a foundation of desire. I choose to spend most of my time reading andwriting, because I desire to communicate to other people in a different way than conversation, dinner parties, or Eyes Wide Shut Orgies every third Tuesdays at Sarah and Jacob’s house (BYOB). These actions coalesce together to create who I am, but it’s always the desire that compels these choices.
The power of the One Ring then is not just to warp a person using evil magic, what’s truly horrifying is that the power of the ring is to warp a person’s choice.
This of course creates problems because most readers would probably prefer a reality where Frodo does not choose to keep the One Ring, because if it his choice it becomes harder for us to forgive his final failure? If it is just supernatural power, magic, temptation, then it’s easy to forgive the man’s weakness. But as long as the final choice to keep the One Ring for himself is his choice the reader has to make an important decision: is it fair to fault Frodo?
This is where I look to outside books, which, in my case, tends to be the entire space of my office which is not just dedicated to coffee stains, cat hair, 3D prints of busts and statues. There’s an entire shelf dedicated to J.R.R. Tolkien (which he shares, just for the record, with Ta-Nehisi Coates), and as of this writing a significant amount of space is dedicated to the writings of Tom Shippey. Shippey is a big name in Tolkien studies, largely because he has become a sort of literary successor to Tolkien, assuming the man’s former position at Oxford University and also writing multiple books about the man’s collected work. Shortly after my inhalation of Drout’s lecture I absorbed every book the library hadabout Tolkien and his body of work, and Shippey’s J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century served as one of the first real stimuli of the of my intellectual flood.
That’s all a fancy-pants way of saying I read a lot of Shippey’s work.
Author of the Century is an important book in looking at almost every level of Tolkien’s oeuvre, and there’s no element of the book series that Shippey doesn’t analyze. Whether it’s the linguistic models of character names, parallel mythic structures of themes, literary references contained within the novels, or even simply studying the shorter poetic works of Tolkien, Shippey is often the sort of writer that cuts open the butterfly to see how it works without managing to damage or smudge the original beauty.
Looking at this book then I looked to see how Shippey handles this problem of Frodo’s choice:
With that he puts it on for the sixth and final time. It is a vital question to know whether Frodo does this because he has been made to, or whether he has succumbed to inner temptation. What he says suggests the latter, for he appears to be claiming responsibility very firmly […] Against that, there has been the increasing sense of reaching a centre of power, where all other powers are ‘subdued’. If that is the case Frodo could no more help himself than if he had been swept away by a river, or buried in a landslide. It is also interesting that Frodo does not say, ‘I choose not to,’ but ‘I do not choose to do.’ Maybe (and Tolkien was a professor of language) the choice of words is absolutely accurate. Frodo does not choose; the choice is made for him. (140)
Looking at this passage Shippey seems to come to the conclusion that Frodo has no real say in the matter. But if one looks to another one of his books, The Road to Middle Earth, he provides a far more nuanced perspective:
Nevertheless it seems that there the external power is abetted by some inner weakness, some potentially wicked-impulse towards the wrong side. In the chamber of Sammath Nauer one’s judgement must also be suspended. Frodo makes a clear and active statement in his own evil intention […] Are Frodo’s will, and his virtue, among those powers? To say so would be Manichaean, It would deny that men are responsible for their actions, make evil into a positive force. On the other hand to put the whole blame on Frodo would seem (to use a distinctively English ethical term) ‘unfair’; if he had been an entirely wicked person, he would never have reached Sammath Nauer in the first place. (144)
Shippey seems to arrive at what I would call a really mature understanding of good and evil and the nature of temptation. Like so many aspects of life, one’s actions are usually a multifaceted creature which is determined on your individual self and environment. Who I am and what decisions I make in my own home are entirely different from the decisions I make when I’m at work. Both spaces create my reality and the way I’m supposed to behave in that reality, and before I become ungodly academic about this its fair to say that your environment has as much determining factor on your choices as whether or not external forces play a role in your decisions.
For this I have to go to heavy metal, because just two years ago I went with a friend to see my favorite band Slipknot in concert. They were the last band to go on and my friend Josh really wanted to get in a mosh pit. So when Lamb of God came on, and we were both very very very VERY drunk, he handed me his forty and hopped into the hurricane which was the mass of bodies running and fighting in a large circle. I recognize comparing a Lamb of God mosh pit to Sammath Nauer is probably ridiculous, but in fact it actually bears some resemblance, because while my friend Josh was fine to hop into the chaos that was the pit, I stood at a distance watching grown men and women escape from the carnage with bloody noses and black eyes laughing while on the stage twin guitarists stood in front of atom bombs blowing up and head-banging. I chose not to go into the pit, largely for reasons of self preservation, but also because it was my choice.
A pit in a heavy metal concert is not a force of pure evil, (although “Force of Pure Evil” would be a great title for a Metal Album) but anyone who’s attended a concert knows these “rings” are spaces where rational thought disappears and one is left solely to one’s passions and impulses.
I guess what I’m trying to communicate is that Frodo’s decision is complex, and arguably the zenith of the entire trilogy, because in this moment Tolkien challenges his own conception of evil as something of absence, and allows the reader to question how we look at our own choices. And Shippey, to his credit, provides a beautiful analysis of it.
As to the questions of how far responsibility is to be allocated to between us and our tempters, how much temptation human beings can ‘reasonably’ be expected to stand—these are obviously not to be answered by mere mortals. Tolkien saw the problem of evil in books as in realities, and he told his story at least in part to dramatize that problem; he did not, however, claim to know the answer to it. (145)
The problem of Frodo’s choice is that it is a problem, largely for the reader. Up to this point Frodo has seemed to be a purely good person, or at least a good person who’sexperienced great struggle and has done the best he could. The ultimate choice to keep the ring for himself however calls many character aspects into question. Was this always his intention, and did he intend to keep the ring from the start? Or is it simply that the power of the ring is just too tempting and he realizes what he could be and do with its power? Is Frodo even in his right mind when he makes this decision, or is it the combination of the Ring and the fires of Mt. Doom?
I’m not sure that I have an answer that feels satisfying. My personal take at the end of everything is that, while the Ring is ultimately exerting the influence over Frodo, the extent of that influence is allowing Frodo the space to feel he can make this terrible choice. And at the end of everything perhaps the ultimate power of the One Ring is not that it possesses any sort of supernatural power other than to allow people their selfishness. This is not a terrible supernatural power, but it is a frightening prospect nonetheless for the reader who knows their own mind, and the terrible impulses and sudden desires they may have and not share.
Our wants are not always selfless, in fact almost all of them are selfish. Our wants are our selfish desires, and the real threat of evil is the temptation to act on everyone of them. Frodo was a good person, but ultimately no one could stand against the temptation to do and have everything they want. Frodo’s redemption then is the journey itself, for while he is ultimately a failure, his effort to deliver the ring to Sammath Nauer and Orodruin comes from a want and desire to be a good person and save the home he loves.
Goodness then, at the end of The Return of the King, is about overcoming personal selfishness and sacrificing for the general good. The hero cannot win this fight, because selfishness and temptation is ultimately too great an opponent, this is made clear when Gollum steals the ring from Frodo by biting off his finger and falling back into the fires of Mount Doom. Frodo too cannot escape the destruction of the Ring. He ultimately leaves Middle Earth with Gandalf, Bilbo, and the last of the Elves to the Grey Havens.
Though I suppose all of this is not entirely correct, for at the very end of this long journey is Sam who does not desire or want for much except a home, and good tilled earth. And Tolkien gives the man just that:
At last they rode over the downs and took the East Road, and then Merry and Pippin rode on to Buckland; and already they were singing again as they went. But Sam turned to Bywater, and so came back up the Hill, as day was ending once more. And he went on, and there was yellow light, and fire within; and the evening meal was ready, and he was expected. And Rose drew him in, and set him in his chair, and put little Eleanor upon his lap.
He drew a deep breath. “Well, I’m back,” he said. (1008).
This ending may in fact offer the reader one more, and far more satisfactory conclusion about the journey. Want and desire is not a solely selfish emotion, and can in fact lead to one’s salvation, as long as one’s wants are not so great to blind one to what you have.
All quotes taken from The Return of the King were cited from the Mariner paperback edition. All quotes taken from J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century were cited from the hardback Houghton Mifflin edition. All quotes taken from The Road to Middle Earth were cited from the paperback Houghton Mifflin edition.
I realized not long after finishing this essay that there were multiple forums dedicated entirely to the question of Frodo’s failure, arguing whether in fact his final act is a failure. As I said before, I land in the middle of this issue personally but each person is different, and dialogue is vital to the health of the humanities. So if the reader is at all interested in seeing a few of the multitudinous perspectives which govern the Tolkien fan-base feel free to follow any of the links below:
I get that being a queer man this argument is probably pointless, but it must needs be repeated, I don’t believe that Frodo and Sam are gay. But even if they were that doesn’t make any part of their relationship stupid, silly, grotesque, or not worth exploring, and if you’re the kind of shitty asshole who disagrees with me then go fuck yourself. You take a long and emotionally exhausting adventure carrying the Ring of Power to Oroduin so that you can cast the ring into the fires of Samath Nauer ultimately to be undone by the will to dominate before managing to destroy the ring after all and hold each other close as the land of Morder begins to crumble in the aftermath of the collpase of the spirit of Sauron and NOT develope a bromance. Go on. Seriously. I dare you.
"More Human than Human", alien, Blade Runner, Blade Runner 2049, creation, Creators and Creations, domestic affection, Eldon Tyrell, empathy, Engineer, Film, film review, Frankenstein, Frankenstein 200th anniversary, Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus, horror, Literature, Mary Shelley, Niander Wallace, Novel, Peter Weyland, Philosophy, Prometheus, Ridley Scott, Robots, Science, science fiction, Victor Frankenstein, You cannot just put your hand in a goddamn beehive and act like you cool and shit that it some real noise son
I watched Blade Runner 2049 three times this year. That’s three times I watch Jared Leto perform in what I would argue is his best read to date, and three times I watched Ryan Gosling stick his whole hand into a bee hive. It might just be because I helped my father and sister collect honey this year and spent a good afternoon literally surrounded by swarming bees, but every time I watch his calm demeanor as he places his hand into the hive I can’t help but remember the sensation of watching close to a thousand bees buzz and fly around my face and I just want to yell “bullshit at the screen.” I don’t though because it’s hard enough to find movies I feel are truly great, and that also use bees for aesthetic brilliance so I’ll bite my lip.
The sensation of working in a library is a constant feeling of being behind, or at least it seems so for me. Working in the Reference department at the public library where I work there is always, until there isn’t, a project to be working. There’s new displays that need to be made, promotional posters and graphics for said displays as well ads the new programs that are about to be started up, there’s the logistics of acquiring guest speakers and/or teachers for adult programs, and while I’m attempting to work with the rest of my library family towards these goals I can be expected to be interrupted, depending on the day and time, at least two or three times by patrons looking for books, patrons looking for information, and patrons needing to send faxes. And with the exception of this last example (I loathe faxes with a passion I never knew I could ever actually feel) I never feel any frustration with my job. I love my work because I stay so busy. And looking at aproject a few of my coworkers are working towards I’m just reminded more and more why I have found, and chosen, a career in libraries.
Frankenstein turns 200 years old this year, and it being a novel I read prolifically during my college years, it seemed an excellent chance to look back to the novel, and look back also to a few films that seem terribly relevant as this foundational science-fiction novel comes to it’s anniversary.
It doesn’t seem like Blade Runner, Blade Runner 2049, and Prometheus would have much in common with Frankenstein, but having watched all three films this year, there’s just no way that I can’t make the argument. In fact one one occasion I did. Each of these films centers around the dynamic of the creation and creator relationship and each film manages to capture the same sense of corruption that Frankenstein originally inspired.
If my reader has never read the novel Frankenstein, first of all they really should because it’s beautiful, and second they should read it because the novel has remained, since it’s publication, a relevant document about the human condition in relation to scientific enterprize. The novel is written as a series of letters by a man named R.Walton to his sister Delores. Walton is a man driven to find a path through the north pole to achieve glory ever lasting, and while he fails at this task he discovers a young man in the ice named Victor Frankenstein. Victor is chasing a giant, who Walton and his crew had spotted just the day before, who Victor eventually confesses is a living being created by himself. Victor was a young man enraptured with the writings of alchemists, and upon the death of his mother and attending university where he learned everything was false he decides to overcome death by bring dead tissue back to life. His experiment is a success, but he is horrified by his creation and the remainder of the novel focuses on Victor’s attempts to escape responsibility for his creation, while his creature (who is never named for the record) lives a miserable life wanting only to be loved. The novel culminates in Victor losing his friends and loved ones to his creation and he eventually dies from the sheer exhaustion of following his creature to the literal ends of the earth.
What’s fascinating about the novel Frankenstein isn’t just that it’s one of the earliest science fiction novels, it’s a novel which really explored the vanity that lies at the heart of creators. Looking at just one passage Victor Frankenstein’s hubris is as glaring as it is ridiculous.
No one can conceive the variety of feelings which bore me onwards, like a hurricane, in the first enthusiasm of success. Life and death appeared to me ideal bounds, which I should first break through and pour a torrent of light into our dark world. A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me. No father could claim the gratitude or his child so complete as I should deserve their’s. Pursuing these reflections, I thought, that if I could bestow animation upon lifeless matter, I might in process of time (although I now found it impossible) renew life where death had apparentlydevoted the body to corruption. (34).
I’ll admit freely that I have moments of vanity. There’s nothing like checking the stats for this blog and seeing that I’ve had fifty or even sixty visitors on one day. Similarly whenever friends confess they are in awe of the fact that I can read close to 100 books a year while they barely manage to fit in 3 or 4, there is a small twinge of ego that swells inside of me. And finally, whenever I finish another page of my graphic novel that I’m slowly working on and show it to a friend I receive a real boost of confidence as they smile and tell me what they like about it. These are moments of vanity, which is really just another way of saying, their moments where I celebrate myself and my achievements. There is nothing wrong in celebrating the self, a lesson I’m trying everyday to remind myself as I overcome a lifetime of self-depreciation.
But hubris is endless vanity where one cannot perceive any personal fault and Victor Frankenstein’s hubris is the stuff of psychology graduate theses. He is a man full of himself, and even after he realizes what he has done he never completely acknowledges his guilt. In fact he denies his creation thus setting about a course of events whichdestroys himself and the people he loves. It’s not just that he is selfish, it’s the fact that he doesn’t seem to really care about the fact that he is responsible for this new life.
And looking at this apathy I thought immediately of Dr. Eldon Tyrell and Niander Wallace from Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049 respectively. Both men are corporate moguls who have made a prosperous living from the creation and sale of humanoid robots known as synthetics. These “robots” are ultimately human beings who’s bodies are effectively controlled by the corporations to live only a few years, and essentially act as slave labor for terraforming (colonizing new planets). Both men are driven by the need to make the “perfect” organism, not becuse they desire the new life they are making to succeed and flourish, but because they are driven by an intense hubris.
Looking at the Eldon Tyrell there is a brief exchange between him and officer Deckard that reveals to what lengths he is willing to go:
Tyrell: We began to recognize in them a strange obsession. After all, they are emotionally inexperienced, with only a few years in which to store up the experiences which you and I take for granted. If we gift them with a past, we create a cushion or a pillow for their emotions, and consequently, we can control them better.
Deckard: Memories! You’re talking about memories!
And the real demonstration of his perception is clear when he says,
Tyrell: “More human than human” is our motto.
Tyrell is a man who is generating what most people would recognize as sentient life. And rather than empathize with his creations he is seeing only the design flaws that will affect his business. The language at first doesn’t seem to reveal this, but if the reader looks closer at the words what he’s clearly describing is the scenario that synthetic humans are essentially being made and then being destroyed by lunacy before any actual biological degradation. To Tyrell these people losing their minds and destroying themselves and other is not something to be remorseful about, but instead is simply a design flaw that reflects poorly on his brand. And in an effort to save financial face he creates memories and implant them into people’s minds.
This is barbaric enough, and then the reader encounters in the sequel a man by the name of Niander Wallace. Following the death of Eldon Tytrell in the first Blade Runner Wallace purchases the company after making billions in agriculture developments that have saved the population of the planet. Along with this he has also proven to be a capable leader in the terraforming movement specifically by using synthetic humans as slave labor. Wallace is a man who has achieved something incredible, and rather than relish what he has achieved he is driven by a real god complex.
In one scene the reader observes the birth of a synthetic human, a woman specifically who, while she is trembling in the shock of being born is examined by Wallace. While feeling her body the man complains that human beings have only colonized nine planets before remarking on the limitations of his synthetics:
Niander Wallace: That barren pasture. Empty, and salted. The dead space between the stars.
Niander Wallace: [He places his hand on the newborn Replicant’s womb] Right here.
Niander Wallace: And this is the seed that we must change for Heaven.
[He slices her womb]
Niander Wallace: I cannot breed them. So help me, I have tried. We need more Replicants than can ever be assembled. Millions, so we can be trillions more. We could storm Eden and retake her.
Niander is a man compelled by his vision to transcend mortality, but this ultimately reveals that, as he has acquired more and more personal power, and as he has generated more and more synthetic people he has stopped seeing them as anything other than robots. The fact that he is so willing to kill a sytnthetic, literally minutes after she is born reveals that he sees them as nothing but products. It’s not even a violent act in his mind because the woman is nothing to him, just another in a long line of products that will generate revenue.
And looking at just one more example, Prometheus offers the reader another fantastic example. Peter Weyland, a man I’ve written about before is a man who a titan of industry as he has, like Tyrell and Wallace, made a fortune by creating synthetic human beings that aid in terraforming operations. In a scene that did not make the theatrical cut of Prometheus, Peter Weyland address a stadium sized crowd and discussestechnology.
Peter Weyland: [from TED Talks viral video] 100,000 BC: stone tools. 4,000 BC: the wheel. 900 AD: gunpowder – bit of a game changer, that one. 19th century: eureka, the lightbulb! 20th century: the automobile, television, nuclear weapons, spacecrafts, Internet. 21st century: biotech, nanotech, fusion and fission and M theory – and THAT, was just the first decade! We are now three months into the year of our Lord, 2023. At this moment of our civilization, we can create cybernetic individuals, who in just a few short years will be completely indistinguishable from us. Which leads to an obvious conclusion: WE are the gods now.
Prometheus is a film which explores the ideas of life, creation, apathy, and what is the role of the creator in our existence. Human beings are revealed to be the design oforganisms known as engineers, massive humanoids that, upon waking, elect to destroy humanity and create something new in it’s place. This apathy for creation ultimately brings about their destruction and the humans that survive the onslaught are left wondering why their creators despise them, or, more appropriately, why they felt nothing for their existence.
I’ll explore the idea of creations desiring compassion for their creators in the follow-up to this essay, but for now I wanted to look at some examples of the mad genius creatorbecause, since the publication of Frankenstein this character is something of a recurring trope. Even if it is not science fiction there is still often the dynamic in literature, and unfortunately sometimes in real life as well, of one individual essentially breaking and making another and feeling nothing for the creation they have made. Victor Frankenstein is a man who wants to become a god, but rather than assume any personal responsibility for his creation, or his creation’s actions, he falls back upon his ego and self-pity.
What connects men like Frankenstein, Tyrell, Wallace, and Weyland is not just their apathy however. All of these men are defined first and foremost by their hubris, and by their conviction that they are somehow above their creations and fellow human beings. In a later passage Victor is speaking with Walton, and the reader is able to observe that the man suffers no real regret for his accomplishments because he cannot look past his ego:
“When younger,” said he, “I felt as if I were destined for some great enterprise. My feelings were profound; but I possessed a coolness of judgement that fitted me for illustrious achievements. This sentiment of worth of my nature supported me, when others would have been oppressed; for I deemed it criminal to throw away in useless grief those talents that might be useful to my fellow-creatures. When Ireflected on the work I had completed, no less a one than the creation of a sensitive and rational animal, I could not rank myself with the heard of common projectors. […]. I trod heaven in my thoughts, now exulting in my powers, now burning with the idea of their effects. (167).
Victor Frankenstein is a man who believes that he is special, and, by that implication, more important than other people. This is vanity, and while that word gets thrown around a lot, it’s important to remember than the vain person is one who believes themselves superior and therefore above other people, and when someone is obsessed with the self it becomes difficult to realize faults. Victor cannot and could not perceive himself at fault because he could not see anything that was truly outside of his own mind. Because he isolated himself, because he failed to allow himself domestic affection, and because he would not allow himself to observe anything outside of his grand personal vision of himself he brought about the destruction of his life and the lives of those closest to him.
Frankenstein, Tyrell, Wallace, and Weyland are not just empty tropes, their examples of people who allowed themselves to look at themselves as gods, and that behavior had real implications for the people who lived “beneath” them. In real life there are Victor Frankensteins and Eldon Tyrells; there are men who believe themselves to be above their fellow human beings, either because of their talents, wealth, or personal beliefs. And so the real life implication of such men is that many people wind up suffering.
The lesson of Frankenstein, Blade Runner, Blade Runner 2049, and Prometheus is that creation is not simply an empty act. By bringing something into existence you assume a real responsibility for it. Whether it’s a painting, a novel, an essay, a company, a robot, oreven a synthetic human being, creators cannot simply abandon their work or become apathetic to what they have made. They own a responsibility to that creation and to those who encounter it.
Victor Frankenstein wasn’t a nrillionaire, terraforming other worlds, and in fact he only ever made one living creature. But the impact of his creation has reverberated 200 years after him. Mary Shelly’s novel has never been out of print since its original publication in 1818, and the reason is rather simple: in the course of 200 years human beings haven’t stopped looking up to the stars wondering if they might supplant the gods, and neither have they stopped looking into the water and, like Narcissus, becoming enraptured with their own reflection. A million rocket ships and a million new worlds or even millions of robots are nothing compared to the sheer power of the human ego.
And we are, all of us, left wondering when we’re going to figure out when we’ll get a decent Frankenstein or Alien film again.
All quotes cited from Frankenstein were quoted from the paperback Longman Cultural Edition, 1818 version. All quotes cited from Blade Runner, Blade Runner 2049, and Prometheus were provided care of IMDb.com.
I’ve provided a few links to some articles which discuss the novel Frankenstein in case my readers would like to read some work about the book by writers who can afford editors…and food. Anyway, enjoy:
"I am no Man!", Betty Friedan, Butch, Butch Lesbian, Dyke, Eowyn, fantasy, Female Masculinity, Feminism, Gal Gadot, gender, Gender Inversion, Good vs Evil, J.R.R. Tolkien, Jack Halberstam, Literature, Miranda Otto, Novel, Queer, Queer Theory, Return of the King, Stephen King of the Lesbians made an appearance in this essay, The Feminine Mystique, The Lord of the Rings, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Witch King of Angmar, Women in drag, Women in Tolkien, Womyn
Don’t tell me not to live
Just sit and putter
Life’s candy and the sun’s
A ball of butter
Don’t bring around a cloud
To rain on my parade.
Don’t tell me not to fly
I’ve simply got to
—Don’t Rain on My Parade, Barbara Steisand
Don’t tell me how to live my life, I am a headstrong, independent, wo-man!
—The writer’s wife
With the exception of M. Knight Shamylan’s The Village, watching films with my mother is a pleasant experience. This is due in large part to the fact that she, like myself, can become passionate while watching a film and is prone to speak up while watching a movie. I can always tell when Mom is enjoying herself because she will often begin to rant about “[X] shouldn’t be doing that because she doesn’t realize that [Y] is a catch,” or perhaps it might go, “Boy [Z] is going to be mad when he finds out [C] is a bitch.” These moments and statements are usually built upon by my little sister and I eventually have to pause the movie so that the symposium can continue. Still, these moments are fantastic and remind me how much I love my family and all its oddity.
To this day however The Lord of the Rings films hold a special place in my heart, largely because they shaped my perception of reality for close to six years, but also because Mom would always cheer when Eowyn killed the Witch King of Angmar with what is to this day oneof the finest executed lines in cinema history. The reason is largely because of the line in question:
Witch King: [taking Eowyn by the throat] You fool. No man can kill me. Die now.
[Merry stabs the Witch King from behind; the Witch King shrieks and falls to his knees. Eowyn rises and pulls off her helm, her hair falls down over her shoulder]
Eowyn: I am no man.
[she thrusts her sword into the Witch King’s helm and twists; he shrieks and implodes]
Mom would usually yell out, “YES!” and punch the air as the Witch King would crumple and implode into nothing and I would always laugh. This laughter would usually hide the fact that I was right alongside Mom on this one, Eowyn was a badass and didn’t take any shit from anybody.
This scene also, for the record, remained the moment of pure female badassery until Gal Gadot stepped into our lives and became goddess supreme as Wonder Woman.
Having finished The Return of the King for the first time in my life, and possibly the last time unless I need something to do during retirement besides count my money and regrets, I realized that there was no other character or element in Book 5 of the Lord of the Rings that I wanted to write about more. The reason for this is probably apparent to any regular reader of this blog: Eowyn is obviously a pre-op transexual using Post-Modern Anti-Patriarchal Drag Performance to disestablish the cultural construction of gender of Rohan society in order to establish a working PostModern, Post-Marxist, Post-Deconstructionist Model of Masculine Femininity.
That was a joke, even I’m not that pretentious.
However, Eowyn is a woman wearing drag in order to find some sort of agency in a culture and society that is relentlessly patriarchal and seeks to keep her confined in the home. So, I’m afraid there is something terribly queer, and terribly feminist in her decision to dress up as a man. Or at least it seems so.
Eowyn is a woman who is a sort of “lady of court,” a female individual who is responsible for numerous social tasks around the castle, namely making sure that food is ready, that the fires are lit, that there is ale or drink should anyone require it, and to make sure that the beds of the great halls are clean and ready for the men when they return from their fighting or outings. It is the stuff of feminist nightmares, but again, because Tolkien was often writing from direct inspiration from works like Beowulf this responsibility and social role is not outside the source material, or source inspiration I should say. Now as for Tolkien himself there is some issue with calling the “old Professor” a feminist by any means. Having grown up during the early decade of the 20th century, and having fought in the first World War it’s difficult to say whether the man harbored what would be considered a more progressive view of women, or whether he bought into the ideaof patriarchal masculinity. It’s almost certainly the latter case, but without having read more about the man personally I can’t say. Whatever the case the women in The Lord of the Rings rarely assume any sort of personality, and while Lady Galadriel assumes a pressing spiritual importance to the over-all plot, Tolkien’s work tends to reinforce traditional gender types rather than etching out new territory to work with. I’m not in the interest of defending patriarchy, and I much prefer the fun-bits that involve queering shit up. Therefore Tolkien’s feminism, or lack of feminism really, seems to become apparent in the character of Eowyn because her motivations and actions reek of a desire for real agency.
Early in the Return of the King Aragorn is speaking with Eowyn about the attack, and her role in the larger logistical structure. Eowyn begins to express her dictate for her role and the pair have a brief exchange:
‘Your duty is with your people,” he answered.
‘Too Often have I heard of duty,’ she cried. ‘But I am not of the House of Eorl, a sheildmaiden and not a dry-nurse? I have waited on faltering feet long enough. Since they falter no longer, it seems, may I not now spend my life as I will?’
‘Few may have that honour,’ he answered. ‘But as for you, lady: did you not accept the charge to govern the people until the lord’s return? If you had not been chosen, then some marshal or captain would have been set in the same place, and he could not ride away from his charge, were he weary of it or no.’
‘Shall I always be chosen?’ she said bitterly. ‘Shall I always be left behind when the Riders depart, to mind the house while they win renown, and find food and beds when they return?’
‘A time may come soon,’ said he, ‘when none will return. There there will be need of valour without renown, for none shall remember the deed that are done in the last defense of your homes. Yet the deeds will not be less valiant because they are upraised.’
And she answered: ‘All your words are but to say: you are a woman, and your part is in the house. But when the men have died in battle and honour, you have leave to be burned in the house, for the men will need it no more. But I am of the House of Earl and not a serving woman. I can ride and weld blade, and do not fear either pain or death.’
‘What do you fear, lady?’ He asked.
‘A cage,’ she said. ‘To stay behind bars, until use and old age accept them, and all chance of doing great deeds is gone beyond recall or desire.’ (767).
There is without doubt a feminist message and conviction in this passage, but before I get to it I feel the overwhelming need to nod gently to myself and sigh, for it feels, as of this writing, that I feel more and more like I am caught in a similar position. There is this compulsion towards the desire for something, even if I am not sure what that something actually is. In all likelihood this sensation, the “burning desire” as Bono once so beautifully put it, is just part of getting older and feeling that life might still “owe” me something for my efforts.
But my own wandering aside, the previous quote is really the key to Eowyn’s character, while at the same time part of the larger problem. Eowyn as a woman cannot expectanything in terms of real agency because the society of Rohan is very much medieval England. Women are expected to be romantically and sexually focused on their husbands, while also managing the day-to-day upkeeps demands of the home. This is to say nothing of their own desires and needs. It is a world where men go out and fight, often dying and leaving women to manage the home, the children, the farm, before dying themselves without having lived a life of their own volition.
And considering this, and because I am the kind of nerd who likes to find connections between things, reading this passage I was reminded of a book that I have not actually read to it’s completion, but it is a book I know by reputation. Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique is a book that is considered a landmark feminist text, if not an outright cultural event in Western Society. And before my reader begins to complain I should cite the passage:
The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women. It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of twentieth century in the United Started. Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night—she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question—“Is this all?” (1).
Now of course I anticipate the reaction: Rohan women are not American women. That’s a stupid argument. Period.
This is a fair rebuttal, though the punctuation at the end of the sentence really makes the “Period” comment rather unnecessary. Still this is a fair consideration, and as I wasdoing some initial research for this essay, and talking to friends who I consider Tolkien resources, the general summation was usually the same. Tolkien as an author really isn’t a feminist by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, it’s fair to say, Tolkien really doesn’t have much use for women in his books. What women exist tend to be sidelined characters who are either part of the “Deep-Time” aesthetic, or else they tend to be marriage fodder: women who exist solely to be married to the protagonists. Whether it’s Rosie Cotton, who wore ribbons in her hair, Lady Galadriel, who gave three of her hairs to Gimili, or Arwen, who oddly enough has no real description of hair so she could be bald for all we know, these women are not really there at all.
Eowyn assumes a character in the story, and this passage is, to note, the most substantial voice a woman has in the plot of the novels. Her struggle is not solely that she is threatened by Sauron, Saruman, and the endless legion of orcs that want to destroy her and Middle Earth. Eowyn is a woman fighting both the enemy, as well as the paradigms of her own culture. And so faced with a life of servitude she knows she cannot live, she performs an act of rebuttal and disguises herself as a man to fight in the great battle of Pelennor.
And, to the woman’s credit, she kicks ass. It’s not enough that she fights with honor alongside the Muster of the Rohirrim. Eowyn fights the Witch King of Angmar, the greatest of the Nazgul and the virtual leader of both Sauron’s black army, as well as the souls monsters that hunt the ring with unwavering obsession. After the creature hasmore-or-less dispatched King Theoden Eowyn stands between the Witch King, his literally flying bat-dragon-monster, and threatens to kill him if he should touch Theoden, offering up the line that made both me, and my mother, fist-bump.
‘But no living man am I! You look upon a woman. Eowyn I am, Eomund’s daughter. You stand between me and my lord and kin. Begone, if you be not deathless! For living or dark undead, I will smite you, if you touch him.
The winged creature screamed at her, but the Ringwraith made no answer, and was silent, as if in sudden doubt. (823).
Some scholars, notably Michael Drout, observe that this subversion of the Witch King’s threat of “No man can kill me” is reminiscent of the prophecy in William Shakespeare’s MacBeth when the Wyrd Sisters warn the ruined king to “Beware the man not born of woman.” And as much as I would love to say Tolkien was attempting to go another path, it feels far more likely that Tolkien was ripping off the bard rather than future secondwave feminists.
Eowyn’s defiance however does seem to fall in line with my previous argument about Tolkien’s system of Good and Evil. The Witch King doesn’t laugh or threaten Eowyn after her defiance. It pauses. The silence following this declaration reveals not just doubt on this creatures part, but a continuation of the idea that evil in the Tolkien universe is not about personal identity issues, it’s defined by a real absence of essence. The Witch King is nothing, whereas Eowyn is a woman who has created a new persona to be who she wants to be.
There is some desire on my part to argue that this constitutes a feminist argument for the Lord of the Rings as a text, but the problem with this argument is that the text immediately negates my argument. Eowyn fights the Witch King and defeats him, but only with the help of Meriadoc (a man) and afterwards becomes ill and must be tended to before she falls in love with Faramir the son of the Stewart of Gondor. Rather than return to her home land a warrior, Eowyn falls in love with Faramir and the two wed retiring to the Ithelian where she becomes a wife and mother. This isn’t just a negation of the dreams and ambitions she has been speaking about throughout her entire character arc, it’s almost a violent jerk back into the home she spent so much time complaining about.
And here of course I have to dig into my bag of queer tricks because, well dear reader, it’s me.
It’s difficult calling Eowyn’s action of dressing in drag a queer act because there’s nothing really sexual about it. There is also little real gender reconstruction or re-imagination about it. Eowyn is donning a man’s clothes, not because she wants to be a man, not because she doesn’t identify with the gender that was assigned her at birth, not because she desires to recreate the gender modes and roles of her culture and society, not because she wants to sleep with women, and absolutely not because the pant sizes areeasier.
If my male reader didn’t understand that last one ask any woman anywhere and they’ll explain.
Dressing in men’s clothes isn’t a queer act in any real sense of the term. It’s merely a means to an end, and Eowyn is not the first woman in literature to don men’s clothes for the sake of plot. William Shakespeare regularly relied on such a trick in such works as As You Like it or Twelfth Night. The transvestite is a character that actually is pretty recurring throughout most of the tradition of Western Literature and Tolkien’s use of it here seems to follow a pattern. A woman is allowed to dress like a man, but only, and I mean only when there is an understanding that she will return to her place in society. If she does not then she is a female hermaphrodite, a dangerous creature.
As Jack Halberstam notes in Female Masculinity:
The female Hermaphrodite was considered a freak of nature with an enlarged clitoris who desired to penetrate other women who might be drawn to her ambiguity. (55).
What’s worse than a woman wearing pants? A woman who might have a penis. And if a woman has a penis then she’s some sort of inverted, or deviant man. And that, dear reader, would be really, really gay.
After considering all of this I don’t believe then that Eowyn’s character arc has any real element of feminism to it.
But then again I am not a woman, and sometimes it’s best to actually consult a woman. Being married to one allows me then another side of things, and when I asked my wife about Eowyn’s arc she said simply, “As long as it is her choice to become a wife and mother, then that is feminism.”
Tolkien does make any of this easy, because as I’ve noted over and over and over again (to the point my reader has probably bailed and is now perusing an instagram account run by a very, very handsome chimpanzee named Bert) his women are not really women at all. They’re these atmosphere pieces that exist largely to inform either the deep time or else a man’s character arc. But Eowyn does offer the reader a real character. She’s a real woman with desires, faults, ambitions, eccentricities and so she is able to assume some kind of real arc. Tolkien may, by the end of the book, throw her back into the home and the hall where she’ll cook and tend to her husband and family, but if this act is her choice then who am I to argue against it? And even if she never again achieves such a courageous act as facing down the Witch King, at least that moment exists.
Eowyn is difficult, but that’s what makes writing about her so fun. I have no idea if I was able to really unearth any sort of queer or feminist qualities to The Lord of the Rings, but I can rest assured that my mother and I will continue to fist-bump every-time Eowyn takes off her helmet and plunges her sword into the black abyss of the Witch King’s face.
All quotes cited from The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King were taken from the Mariner paperback edition. All quotes cited from The Return of the King film were taken from IMDb. All quotes cited from Female Masculinity were taken from the paperback Duke University Press edition.
It should be noted that the only reason I stated that my mother is not fun to watch The Village with is sort of an inside joke. I could tell you what happened but then it wouldn’t be an inside joke and she already hates it when I divulge personal or embarrassing information about her. I know as a son I’m supposed to do that anyway, but my mom was actually, and still is actually, a pretty cool individual and so I would prefer not to embarrass her more than I already have. Love you Mom.
I’m a man writing about feminism. This isn’t a problem, but it is. Because I do not possess a vagina, and the unending wisdom of all creation that comes with having one it’s important to question my arguments and, far more importantly, listen to the arguments of people who have vaginas when they comment or argue about characters that have vaginas. As such, I’ve compiled a small list of articles where some writers have discussed the films and books of The Lord of the rIngs, specifically Eowyn and her presentation. Enjoy:
Because I love you all, please enjoy this animated adaptation of Eowyn confronting what I can only figure is The Witch King of Ang-mar if he was cross breeded with Skeletor. Enjoy: