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Archive for the month “December, 2011”

Fear of Writing

Mom

Four years ago my mother died. She’d had a stroke a month earlier. The doctors asked about an autopsy. They were curious, I suppose, about the overall picture and unanswered questions regarding Mom’s health during those final years. Perhaps I should have been grateful. But honestly, I sure would have appreciated little more of that medical curiosity while she was alive. Maybe an autopsy would have been informative, but I declined the offer. The questions I had (and still have) about Mom wouldn’t even have been asked, let alone answered.

A parent’s death reminds us that our days our numbered. It also highlights our own pieces of unfinished business, which plague us in the form of The List. The List is a catalogue of things that we just haven’t gotten around to doing. But that we will do, really, once we have a little more time. The items on The List may include (but are not limited to): going to the gym, losing weight, gaining weight, skydiving, travelling abroad, going to Disneyland, cleaning out the basement, cleaning out the garage, reading Moby Dick, spending more time with the kids, spending more time with the parents, quitting coffee, quitting drinking, taking up running, eliminating cholesterol, volunteering during the holidays, or getting up in the morning and writing that pain in the ass goddamn stupid novel.

My mom had her own List, and if writing wasn’t on top, it was very, very close. Her relationship with the craft was complicated and sometimes tortured. As a professor of English at a highly respected liberal arts college, she was a sensationally avid and astute reader. She alone introduced me to critical thought; I’ve never had a better teacher. And you could not ask for a more enjoyable reading or movie companion than my mom. Her ability to contextual details and show how they illuminated a complete work of art was exhilarating, and one of the things that made her a brilliant and wonderful teacher.

As for writing? I wish I could tell you. While rereading The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was always more important than cleaning up her study, the same could not be said for writing. The prospect seemed to frighten her, and my childhood memories of Mom composing her doctoral thesis are neither warm nor fuzzy. She certainly talked about ideas for articles and books, and to be sure, her job required writing and publishing. But it didn’t seem fun. I never remember hearing, “Jesus, would you kids be quiet? Don’t bother me while I’m writing!” Indeed, interruptions seemed welcome, and as any procrastinator knows, a welcomed interruption will always oblige the invitation.

It’s easy to pick apart someone’s unfinished business. But now, Mom’s final List is the mirror image of my own work in progress. Parts of my List seem permanent, like going to the dentist or cleaning up my own messy office. Not so with writing, a figure far more elusive and complicated, leaving and rejoining The List like a smoker at a party: present yet absent, engaged yet aloof, a charismatic and absorbing celebrity who might vanish or reappear at any random moment.

I did not wake up the day after my mother’s funeral and begin my life as a writer. But reminded of my own mortality, I looked at The List. I started to panic. And I began to work things out.

Three and a half years later, I have two full-length plays, a few comedy sketches, and at least two solid one acts to show for my efforts. Good for me! Right? Demon conquered! Correct? Isn’t that awesome that I snatched a victory out of the jaws of tragedy? Well? Isn’t it? Isn’t it?

Maybe. But not really. Truth be told, I haven’t completed anything major for over a year and a half. That’s right: largely unproduced, and completely unpublished, I appear to be resting on my rather slender laurels. And so, procrastination proves to be the eternal Hydra: forever sprouting two heads in the place where one has just been cut off.

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Google ‘books on writing fiction’, and you’ll get over 412 million results. A search for ‘creative writing programs’ yields hits of a mere 14 million. Amazon appears to sell over 30,000 books on writing fiction (although some of the listings may be duplicates). I could go on, but you get the point. For a society that’s supposed to be post literate, there sure are a lot of people who desperately want to write.

So what’s the problem? Don DeLillo tells us that, “A writer’s role is to sit in a room and write,” so why don’t we get over ourselves and do it?

As is so often the case, the answer comes from fiction: “I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.” Hamlet knew all to well that the human psyche is a terrifying place. Natural disasters and pandemics are plenty scary. But they pale against the likes of the Holocaust or Spanish Inquisition. What makes these atrocities so terrifying is that they are human nightmares, products of the hominine imagination. Someone has to imagine an act of torture before putting it into practice. Now, as all parents and teachers know, “imagination” and “creativity” are almost always described as unconditionally positive. But how often do we overlook (or simply deny) the darker power of our own thoughts? Herein lies one of the many transformative aspects of Shakespeare’s art. While earlier tragedies show us the sins of hubris and denial, Shakespeare (especially in Hamlet and Macbeth) dramatizes the awesomely tragic potential of the power of imagination.

I am in no way suggesting that writing is a gateway activity towards unspeakable (or unwritable) acts of depravity. But Americans who bask in First Amendment liberties forget the incendiary potential of the written word. A figure no less horrifying than Stalin stated it with brutal simplicity: “Ideas are more powerful than guns. We would not let our enemies have guns. Why should we let them have ideas?”

Forrest Gump compares life to a box of chocolates because, “you never know what you’re gonna get.” That is especially true of writing. How often do we hear authors and readers speak of fictional characters as real people (as I just did), with the capacity to act beyond (and perhaps against) the wills of their creators? It’s as if every author is a potential Frankenstein: creating life from nothing, and committing the ultimate act of sacrilege by playing the role of God.

Do I overstate my case? Probably. But here’s what Truman Capote had to say about the matter in his 1966 interview with Barbara Walters:

I happen to think that art is a form of religion and a way of reaching God. Occasionally and very rarely, in sudden moments, one feels in art a state of grace. It is as though a voice from a cloud is speaking to you and dictating to you what is transmitted through your hands to art. It is a religious experience.

Such grace proved too much for Capote: In Cold Blood was his last major work. He would spend the rest of his life in a terrible cycle of self parody and destruction. How telling is it that a decade before the Walters conversation, Capote conducted his own interview with Marlon Brando in the infamous New Yorker piece “The Duke and His Domain”? Capote and Brando were made for each other: two 20th century giants of genius, of taken and missed opportunity, whose lives now serve as cautionary parables of tragically wasted talent.

But the lure of the blank page is irresistible. Can anyone who’s ever experienced the thrill of writing ever completely leave it behind? I’ve heard lots of people (including me) make excuses for not writing, but I’ve never heard anyone claim to be done with it. For every Caliban housed in the human imagination, there is an Ariel to balance him out: joyful, effervescent, vulnerable, resilient, eternally optimistic, and forever longing to be free. The cave paintings of Chauvet and Lascaux prove beyond all doubt that our need to process experience through art is human, ancient, and primal. The Hydra is menacing, but not invincible. Sometimes we jut need to ask for a little bit of help from the gods.

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Earlier this month I went into my parents’ attic in my annual search for Christmas ornaments. I had a hard time locating them, as the top floor had been professionally reorganized during the summer. In the midst of my search, I found a manuscript housed in an old manila envelope. It is a murder mystery written over thirty years ago. The novel’s author is my mother.

Culturally important as the Lascaux cave paintings? Of course not. But no less thrilling for me. Mom carved out time for this novel, and writing it gave her tremendous joy. And she finished it! I don’t recall whether or not she tried to publish, but I certainly remember the teenage version of me reading that mystery with tremendous pride and pleasure. The discovery of this manuscript serves as its own cautionary tale: don’t oversimplify your parents’ vices; there’s always an Ariel waiting to be liberated.

The supreme irony of the piece that you are reading is that it’s just another form of procrastination. I have my own neglected novel, waiting ever so patiently for me in my eternally messy study. I have the story mapped out. I’ve written over 200 pages. But most mornings, I cannot call myself the king of infinite space. The bad dreams are just too frightening.

But ask, and ye shall receive. The discovered manuscript is my golden sword from Athena; I am ready, once again, to face the dreaded Hydra. And of course, Mom’s work is now at the top of my own growing reading list. Now that I know where it is, I am going pour myself a drink, settle down in a chair, and reread my mother’s novel. But not before I spend a little more time with my own.

David Berkson

12/27/11

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Freud, Marx, And The Awful Truth About Rudolph’s Red Nose

 Rankin/Bass’s 1964 TV holiday classic Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer has stood the test of time. Indeed, you’ve probably seen it more than once. Perhaps you approach it with joy, and even deep nostalgia as your number of viewings rise into the double digits. Maybe you’ve shared it with your children, and made it an annual holiday family night. And you might even watch it ironically, chortling over its cheesy songs, primitive production values, and ridiculously dated kitsch.

 But after you’ve turned the television off, finished up the eggnog, and hopped into bed, no visions of sugarplums dance in your head. No, something is wrong. Terribly, terribly wrong. Like its protagonist, something marks this holiday special as different, aberrant, and even terrifying. So it’s time to stop pretending and face the brutal facts. Some boils disappear of their own accord; Rudolph is one that must be lanced with a sharp and pointy needle. Get ready, America. And let the puss run where it may.

Even from a very early age, I found this show profoundly unsettling. It is only in hindsight (and after several more viewings) that I have been able to ask the question that should be asked by every American humanities, economic, and psychology undergraduate today: what would Freud and Marx have said about Rankin/Bass’s Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer? The question is impossible to answer with any degree of certainty.  But we owe it to ourselves to try.

Perhaps we are on safer ground if we wonder which of the narrative’s details might have captured the interests of these two giants of critical thought. It is with that in mind that I record, and reflect upon, the following facts:

1. Let’s start with a few Freudian observations. The plot of Rankin/Bass’ Rudolph, The Red Nosed Reindeer revolves around one society’s cruel, obsessive insistence upon a rigid code of physical normality. Indeed, abnormality is the cardinal sin of the reindeer boysNorth Pole’s Christmastown. While the 1949 song (by Johnny Marks and Robert L. May) only has the other reindeer “laugh and call him names,” the 1964 script by Marks and Romeo Muller has Rudolph spending his childhood closeting his deformity. Upon reaching puberty, his shameful secret is discovered, and the young reindeer is effectively driven out of society.

2. The fixation on abnormality appears to be exclusively male. Indeed, Rudolph’s love interest (and presumably future mate) Clarice finds him more attractive when discovering the truth about his red nose. And bizarrely, it is the father figures in Rudolph’s life such as Donner, Santa, and the reindeer coach who beat the drum of shame, and in the latter’s case, encourage Rudolph’s peers to humiliate and ostracize him.

3. Perhaps the most curious figure in Rankin/Bass’s North Pole is Santa Claus himself.  He is remarkably unremarkable, ornery, and ordinary. This Santa is not the “jolly old elf” of Clement Clarke Moore’s ‘Twas The Night Before Christmas. Nor is he the terrifying, Orwellian figure of awe and omniscience in the Coots/Gillespie hit Santa Claus is Coming to Town (who “sees you when you’re sleeping/[and] knows when you’re awake.”) No, the Santa of your favorite holiday special is a harried and frustrated 1960s businessman. Bereft of magic, or even kindness, he is motivated by one thing, and one thing only: the bottom line. Boys and girls, Santa Claus works hard to bring you all of those toys. Very hard. He has lots of responsibilities, and that’s why he’s so cranky all the time. I’m sorry, but is it really so miserable making children happy? What, are we supposed to feel guilty? It’s as if Santa Claus is merely a role that this unhappy man is annually forced to play. (While others call him “Santa”, he prefers the quainter moniker of “Kris Kringle”). This misery is further (and strangely) dramatized through a bizarre eating disorder that leaves St. Nick emaciated 364 days out of the year, only to be fattened in up in the nick of time by a wife whose life mission is encouraging her husband’s eating binges.

Santa & WifeThe relationship between the Clauses demands further scrutiny. Conventional on the surface, it is not particularly happy.  The preoccupation with food and weight is unusual; I’ve never seen it dramatized in any other program for very young children. The fact that it is the male figure whose body image is so central to the success of the holiday (and marriage) makes the relationship even more odd and disquieting.

But the weirdest part of this marriage lies in the apparently affectionate nicknames that the Clauses bestow upon one another: “Mama” and “Papa”. Now, don’t get me wrong, I mean…I guess that’s ok. But doesn’t it strike you as odd that this is a family without any offspring? Sure, you could argue that the elves are like their children, or that the whole set up makes the Clauses figurative parents of the entire world. Still, the issue is unresolved, and before you can say, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” you might begin to wonder: “What’s the real need that all of this food is replacing?”

4. The conformity and fear of abnormality themes are echoed in a subplot, which has no antecedent in the song. The curiously Hermeynamed elf “Hermey” (yes, that’s his real name) is at odds with his overbearing, Strindbergian father figure, ominously credited only as “Head Elf”.  Head Elf serves as Santa’s enormously powerful minister of production and culture, working as both shop foreman and elf choir conductor. Muller and May have him endlessly chastising his younger charge for his failure to keep up with toy production. Hermey appears to be cursed with an oral fixation, which apparently can only be satisfied through a career in dentistry, a profession off limits for elves, who must only make toys. While the obsession with production and usefulness would appear to fall under Marx’s bailiwick, the rigid obsession with normality takes us right back to Freud, and it forms a parallel narrative that eventually unites Rudolph and Hermey as outcasts of society. Forced into a literal and metaphoric wilderness with only each other for support, the two sever their ties to Christmastown, and like Lear and his Fool, throw themselves upon the mercy of Nature.

5. Rudolph and Hermey’s decision to go into the wilderness is a clear turning point. But here is where the show’s creators stumble.  If society is rejected, what is embraced in its place? Rankin/Bass and co. couldn’t make up their minds, so they had it both ways. In the original 1964 airing, Rudolph and Hermey sing a reprise of the Misfit song, effectively owning their outcast status, and wholeheartedly rejecting any need to conform to any normative paradigm.

Rudolph and HermeyThis evidently was too radical a choice for the program’s creators, and the after the first broadcast, the song Fame and Fortune replaced the reprise. The shift is extremely telling. Rudolph and Hermey are no longer rejecting society. Now they are actively seeking its approval in their quest to become rich celebrities, as they imagine being embraced by the world that once rejected them. Fame and Fortune was played on network broadcasts for the next 32 years.

6. The shift towards capitalism as a redeeming force is emphasized by the pair’s discovery of (and metaphorical adoption by) Yukon Cornelius. Much more a stereotypical Santa figure than the story’s real one, Yukon accepts Rudolph and Hermey with no apparent conditions. But as his name suggests, he is an obsessive prospector, driven by greed for silver and gold. The wilderness that Rudolph and Hermey run toward, therefore, is not bereft of capitalism. Rather, it represents return to the mythical frontier of America’s 19th century, unlimited in its entrepreneurial potential.

7. Like almost every hero’s journey, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer involves a confrontation with a terrifying monster. But it is not the Abominable Snowman who fills the Humbaba/Caliban role. “Bumble”, as he is affectionately called later, proves to be a red herring, a convenient device for the cliffhanger before a commercial break. No, Rudolph and Hermey confront not one, but an entire community of terrifying monsters when they land upon The Island of Misfit Toys.

Those searching for a stroke of genius in this holiday classic need look no further. Haunting, dark, and strangely moving, the misfit toys represent Rudolph and Hermey’s deepest fears. The metaphor of the island could not be clearer. The inhabitants’ separation seems permanent, and this may be no accident. Apparently, Santa and Rudolph’s last minute rescue was another ’65 afterthought; the show’s 1964 original airing sparked a letter writing campaign that asked for the redemption of the island’s toys to be more clearly dramatized.

But the tacked on resolution lacks the impact of the heroes’ first arrival on the moribund island. The sequence begins just beforeIsland of Misfit Toys sunset, and has horrific resonance for anyone who has been ostracized or abandoned as a child. It is one thing to be humiliated on a playground, or rejected by your parents. It is something quite different to feel that this aloneness will last forever and ever. Even king of the island, the toys’ host and benefactor, appears to be living isolated in an enormous, empty palace.

How telling is it that our heroes ask to stay on the island, and even more telling that their request is denied? However bizarre and freakish Rudolph and Hermey may be, they are deeply invested in the society that has rejected them. More importantly, they have assimilated its values of material and production based worth. Again, don’t be fooled by Rudolph’s fear of being discovered by the Abominable Snowman. The hero’s decision to return to Christmastown is clearly precipitated by his gaze into the abyss of The Island of Misfit Toys, and the need to resist the temptation to become one of them.

8. Once Rudolph returns to Christmastown, the remaining pieces of the puzzle fall quickly into place. Regretful, but not entirely repentant, society seems willing to tolerate his abnormality. It is only (and here, the story follows the song) when this abnormality becomes useful to the capitalist model that it is wholly embraced. Rudolph’s nose guides Santa’s sleigh, Hermey’s oral fixation finds an appropriate outlet in dentistry, and “Bumble” is cheered only after performing the critical task of placing the star on top of a very large Christmas tree. Not even the misfit inhabitants of the island can be redeemed until children are found to consume them.

LinusProduction and consumption, then, are the foundations upon which Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer rests. To be sure, its aggressively pro-capitalistic message is offered openly and without any intentional irony. If no toys are delivered, then “Christmas is cancelled.” This stands in stark opposition to the other major holiday specials of the period. Dr. Seuss’s Whos in How The Grinch Stole Christmas joyfully celebrate the holiday after all of their gifts are stolen. Charles M. Schulz has Charlie Brown rail openly against the commercialization of yuletide, with Linus reciting Luke’s gospel verbatim near the climax of A Charlie Brown Christmas.

None of this sentimental nonsense pervades Rudolph. Christmas is nothing more than children getting toys, and lots and lots of them. Society errs in rejecting Rudolph, not because the rejection is morally wrong, but because his abnormality is a technological innovation, much like the products manufactured and sold by the show’s original sponsor, General Electric. Seuss and Schulz were both intentional ironists with deep moral (and in the latter’s case, religious) agendas. They were also producers of important and enduring children’s literature, sharing a profound sense of responsibility to ethically engage their readers and viewers.

But it was a different story for the Rankin/Bass creative team. Indeed, Rudolph’s tale comes from a bestseller that May created
during the Great Depression for Montgomery Ward. To paraphrase Herbert Hoover: the business of Christmas is business, and those who ignore it do so at their peril. While Seuss and Schulz tell us how we should celebrate Christmas, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer tells us how we do celebrate it. The program’s charms are cynical, kitschy, and speak to us with a terrible and familiar clarity. And as American consumers, who are we to argue? Just remember, boys and girls, it’s essential to be useful, or at the very least desirable. After all: everyone wants a Jack in the Box. Nobody wants a Charlie in the Box.

David Berkson

December 21, 2011

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