Plots Are Excuses for Hanging Out in the Writer’s Reality

Anton ChekhovRight now I am listing Aimee Mann’s song “Frankenstein.” It’s kind of strange because I watched Frankenstein and then Bride of Frankenstein just last night. Well, it isn’t that strange. I watch those films a lot. If I like a film, I’ll watch it over and over again. But I don’t bring the song up because of Frankenstein. There is a line in the song, “I won’t find it fantastic or think it absurd; when the gun in the first act goes off in the third.” It is a reference to Anton Chekhov who noted, “Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.” This is a problem.

Why have centuries of audiences loved tragedies and comedies? We all know how they’re going to turn out. Imagine the first four acts of Othello exactly the same: Othello has his little jealousy problem and Iago jabbing at it. Then, at the beginning of the fifth act, Iago has an epiphany, “Why am I doing this?” He runs to Othello and says, “Hey buddy! I am so sorry. I was pissed off at you about passing me up for promotion. Desdemona is pure as the driven snow.” And they both burst out laughing. “I’m really glad you told me that,” Othello says. “Because I was just about the strangle her!” Iago replies, “Well, that would have been a tragedy!” Wiping his brow, Othello exhales profoundly, “I’ll bet after I found out the truth I would have killed myself!” Then they walk out into the fog and Iago says, “Othello, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

Other than those few people like me who would think that would be funny as hell, everyone would hate that ending. I mean, what was the point of those first acts anyway? The same goes for the comedies. Imagine if at the end of Much Ado About Nothing, Claudio lifts the veil and finds that it is Hero who he thought dead. But instead of rejoicing, Hero pulls out a knife and slits his throat. Actually, that’s a much better ending. But again, the audience wants what it expects. And Claudio is not the villain of the play (even though he is) and so he gets his happy ending.

Of course, I can see the two plays coming together. Because really: Claudio rejects and embarrasses Hero based upon almost nothing. And then, instead of confronting her in private, he does it in the most public way imaginable. Even if she were guilty, his behavior is abhorrent. So in the “Ballad of Claudio and Hero Part II” all it would take is a fifth rate Iago to move Claudio to strangle Hero. I think people would accept that even though the “Ballad of Claudio and Hero Part I” was a comedy.

The point is that when writing fiction, you have to walk this line where you give the reader what he expects but not so much that it is boring. The worst form of this is the Agatha Christie school of, “Oh, let’s just throw in red herrings.” Her best work is probably Murder on the Orient Express where the red herring is that there are no red herrings. But this is why I think postmodern fiction is a distinct improvement, because it isn’t about anything. It’s like the different between going to a regular party and going to a wedding. The essence of postmodern literature is that you are just going to hang out in a reality for a while and if someone gets married great, but it is hardly the point.

I think that this was always the case. Othello and Richard III are fun because of their smart villains. The overall plot of Much Ado About Nothing is stupid. The story of Benedick and Beatrice is concluded at the beginning of the fourth act. For all I care, Hero could have really died and the play end with Benedick killing Claudio. Although admit it: the play would be better without Claudio and Hero in it at all. The whole thing could be about tricking Benedick and Beatrice into falling in love. Much the same could be said about most of the other comedies.

So I don’t want random guns thrown into stories for no reason. But just the same, I don’t want everything to be important and everything to lead to something else. I just want to go to the party and I don’t want to feel like there has to be a wedding to justify it. Because I know how weddings end.

Afterword

For some reason, this song comes to mind:

I Am the Swampman

Donald DavidsonI have said it many times before and I stand by it, “It is more important to be interesting than to be right.” It just so happens that usually, the most uninteresting people are wrong most of the time. This is because uninteresting people just think the same things over and over. Take Dick Cheney. Did he really have to make the media rounds for us to know what he thinks of the current situation in Iraq? Of course not! He might as well be a really simple program running on a Commodore 64. But one can be completely wrong and be incredibly interesting. So keep this in mind as you read my next sentence.

The philosopher Donald Davidson was wrong. He could not have been more wrong. And what amazes me is that most people think that he was right. I am speaking, of course, about the Swampman thought experiment. Here it is:

Suppose Davidson goes hiking in the swamp and is struck and killed by a lightning bolt. At the same time, nearby in the swamp another lightning bolt spontaneously rearranges a bunch of molecules such that, entirely by coincidence, they take on exactly the same form that Davidson’s body had at the moment of his untimely death.

This being, whom Davidson terms “Swampman,” has, of course, a brain which is structurally identical to that which Davidson had, and will thus, presumably, behave exactly as Davidson would have. He will walk out of the swamp, return to Davidson’s office at Berkeley, and write the same essays he would have written; he will interact like an amicable person with all of Davidson’s friends and family, and so forth.

Davidson holds that there would nevertheless be a difference, though no one would notice it. Swampman will appear to recognize Davidson’s friends, but it is impossible for him to actually recognize them, as he has never seen them before. As Davidson puts it, “It can’t recognize anything, because it never cognized anything in the first place.”

Well, actually, in a trivial way he’s right. Because you can’t just be talking about atoms. You have to get all the quantum states exactly the same. But let’s just assume that Davidson didn’t know any better (which is probably true). In that case, he’s totally wrong.

My memory of what my mother looked like is not the result of my eyes having processed the light reflected off of her. Sure, that was the way that I got the information. But then that information was stored in the atoms of my body. Note: I don’t say brain, even though clearly that’s the biggest part. But I’m sure that we think of ourselves as beings in much more than just the brain. Anyway, the brain is hardly discrete from the rest of our bodies. But it doesn’t matter. All the atoms and quantum states and all that jazz are the same.

What bothers me about this thought experiment is that most people seem to think that Swampman wouldn’t have all the information that the original did. This implies that there is you body and then the rest is a kind of fairy dust. (Maybe a soul?) But think about it for a moment. What does it mean for my eyes to have gazed upon my mother. The eyes I have now are different. Every year, the vast majority of your body’s cells are replaced. You are not the same person you were a year ago or even an instant ago. So who exactly are “you” anyway?

This is an issue that has long fascinated me. I don’t think I exist as a going concern. Rather, I exist for an instant, to be replaced by another version of me that is very similar, but not the same. This is why humans so love narratives. That’s what keeps us going: the narrative that we are a single thing. I have in my mind that I am the same person who was playing on the sidewalk at four years old. But I’m not. I just have that memory. And I have all the memories in between and so I think it’s all me. But it is not.

(So why don’t I just kill myself? I mean, since I do nothing but die over and over again at every instant? Just because I think these things doesn’t mean it feels that way. It seems like I’m the same person who started writing this article. And even if I’m not, why should I stop future iterations of me from their instant of existence?)

Getting back to Swampman: what I’m saying is that what goes on with the creation of Swampman is what goes on with us all the time. These eyes I have right now have never seen my mother who has been dead for over a decade. And yet I recognize her when she shows up in my dreams. The people who want to say that Swampman would be different in a fundamental way are missing the nature of our existence.

But you will have to forgive me if we disagree. I understand that a lot of people think there is some “secret sauce” that makes us conscious. All I can say is that you need to read more Schopenhauer. And then you have to obsess about it for a couple of decades.

Small Victory for Homeless in Venice

Homeless Family

People don’t seem to understand that it isn’t 1830 anymore. You can’t just, “Go west, young man!” Thus I find laws that attempt to limit the options of the homeless far beyond heartless (Which they certainly are!) and all the way to brainless. In 1983, the City of Los Angeles passed a law that stated that no one could use their cars as living quarters. Like most laws, it pretty much laid unenforced until some powerful people decided that had a problem that the law could be used for. The “fine” people of Venice got upset because there were so many homeless people living in their cars. So in 2010, the police started using the law to arrest the homeless and impound their cars—cars, I’m sure, that most of them lost because it is expensive to get your car back.

What exactly it meant tht people were using their cars as living quarters was a matter of debate. In some cases, it simply meant that the police saw food in a car. According to Scott Shackford at Reason Magazine, one woman was arrested after being pulled over. That is to say that she was driving through Venice. So the police decided that the law was so expansive that no one who was living in their car anywhere in the world could even drive in Venice where the rich folks might be offended by the sight of a passing car drivin by one of those people.

Another example sounds like it comes from a modernization of a Dickens novel. A homeless man started sleeping on the sidewalk to comply with the law. You see: it is legal to sleep on the sidewalk. But it started to rain, so he sat in his car to stay dry. The police arrested him and impounded his car. Welcome to America: home of the free (if you’re rich). This 1983 law is nothing more than criminalizing poverty.

I have had the experience of being homeless twice. Once was when I was quite rich. It was just about impossible to find an apartment in Silicon Valley at the height of the dot-com boom. My wife and I had a nice Subaru Outback, but we were still harassed a fair amount. We were never arrested—just told to move along. I’m not at all certain that these instructions were legal, but we’d learned long before that you should not mess with cops. Just as in the case of the 1983 law that was rarely applied until 2010, a cop can always find some excuse to put you in jail and impound your car.

The second time I was homeless, I was very poor. And as a result, I was much more anxious. I moved my car excessively. I never read by flashlight for fear that it would attract attention. And the terrible thing is that there are people (kids mostly) who will terrorize you if they find you living in your car. So you have to worry about everyone. No one is your friend. Eventually, I got a job working in a gas station, so I was able to park there without too much concern. (One of the homeless people in Venice was arrested for living in his car on private property—a church—so you never know.) And then I got a room and within six months I got a high tech job that paid me as much as I’ve ever been paid. I’m a very lucky person because of my background. Most of the people being abused in Venice are not luck; they have no way out.

Despite all of this, the story has a happy ending. A group of homeless plaintiffs took the city to court. A lower court found in favor of the city. Of course! Why not, given that it was just a bunch of homeless people? But the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in a unanimous decision (by all Democratically appointed judges) found that the law was unconstitutionally vague. As Shackford put it, “[T]he description of what behavior violates the law is so unclear that it was being used by police to (surprise!) harass homeless people who believed they were actually complying with the law.” (I love the parenthetical “surprise!” That’s my kind of libertarian: the kind who knows that the official power will be used to abuse the powerless. Of course, the powerless would fare even worse in a libertarian utopia. But that hardly matter right now.)

The city has decided not to appeal the case. Instead, they are going to craft new legislation that “respects both the rights and needs of homeless individuals and protects the quality of life in our neighborhoods.” I take this to mean, a constitutionally viable way of abusing the homeless. Notice that they are trying to balance the basic needs and rights of the homeless against the “quality of life” of the rich people. Maybe if the rich people don’t want the homeless parking on their streets, they could do something to help the homeless out. No! That would be un-American!

Afterword

My first novel was “Kamping on Asphalt.” It involved a group of people who lived at and around a KOA. I wrote it back in 1998. That picture at the top of the page kind of sums it up, except the novel is kind of a comedy. It was my attempt to write a modern Cannery Row.

America Versus “America”

Infidel753 brought my attention to this David Cross video. Watch it and then we’ll talk:

This is an issue that I’ve written about quite a lot. We saw a related phenomenon at the 2012 RNC when Clint Eastwood showed us that when conservatives talk about Obama, they mean an imaginary one that doesn’t exist. When conservatives talk about “America” they don’t mean America as it now exists or ever existed. As far as I can tell, they mostly get their ideas about what “America” is from Leave it to Beaver.

So when they complain that America has gone to hell, what they mean is that the unquestioned superiority of white men is gone. Leave it to Beaver was on television from 1957 through 1963. There may have been no black folks demanding their rights on that show, but there sure as hell were blacks folks demanding their rights in America. Medgar Evers was murdered as part of that struggle while Leave it to Beaver was still in its first run.

But these conservatives are not idiots. They understand when liberals complain about America, they aren’t complaining about how America isn’t the same as “America.” They know that liberals are on the other side. Liberals want to destroy this fantasy America. The problems we see will, if anything, move the real America further away from the conservative fantasy. For conservatives, what’s wrong with America is summed up in “Are The Good Times Really Over” by Merle Haggard:

Note that Haggard is a total hypocrite. He makes disparaging remarks about two drugs that he is well known to have used a great deal. But the line that gets the biggest applause is, “When a girl could still cook and still would.” Why is it that June Cleaver ain’t cooking no more? It’s because she has to work outside the home because Ward no longer makes enough money to support a household. But there I go again, getting all liberal with facts. In the conservative fantasy, June left the house because of the pill.

When liberals talk about problems in America, they are talking about ways that we might fix those problems. The Tea Party notion of the problems with America is just that the wrong kind of people aren’t shutting up the way they should. It’s all social stuff. The one economic big complaint that they have is that taxes are too high, even though they are far lower than they used to be.

The whole of the conservative base is best thought of as one big cultural resentment. So it is no surprise that they find liberal criticism of “America” unacceptable. That’s one of the biggest things they resent! The conservative complaint is that America is not “America.” The liberal complaint is that America has problems and “America” is total joke. We might use the same words, but we are talking about different things. They are right to hate us.

Lillian Hellman

Lillian HellmanOn this day in 1905, the great playwright Lillian Hellman was born. I was kind of amazed that on the Wikipedia page, well over half of the overview section about her discussed not just her blacklisting by the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HCUA), but the fact that she really did lie at the time when she said she hadn’t been a member of the Communist Party. There are still a lot of small minds out in the world, I guess.

Something I don’t understand to this day is why it was such a big deal that people turned to the Communist Party at the height of the Great Depression. It just makes sense that when a capitalist country is going through a period that ought to repudiate the idea of pure capitalism, people would look to other political and economic systems. There was no witch hunt for fascists in the 1950s. What’s more, when Stalin made a pact with Hitler in 1939, that was pretty much the end of American leftist support for the Soviet Union. But for Hellman, it wasn’t even about that.

As she wrote in 1952, “I attended very few meetings and saw and heard nothing more than people sitting around a room talking of current events or discussing the books they had read. I drifted away from the Communist Party because I seemed to be in the wrong place. My own maverick nature was no more suitable to the political left than it had been to the conservative background from which I came.” But the HCUA and Joseph McCarthy’s similar nonsense in the Senate were very much about going after mavericks and trying to turn America into the same kind of place that despots like Stalin liked where dissent was not accepted.

Hellman is known primarily for two incredibly powerful plays. The first is The Children’s Hour, which deals with false allegations of lesbianism between two teachers, which ends up destroying the school and the teachers. The second is The Little Foxes, which deals with a rich southern family and their financial machinations. It features Regina Hubbard Giddens, one of the greatest evil female characters ever. But by Hellman’s standards, it’s kind of upbeat. The Children’s Hour is just horribly depressing.

She also had a long term relationship with Dashiell Hammett. Last year I wrote that she was the only one who really loved him. I think that’s about right. I think without her, he would have died a lot younger. But again, Wikipedia refers to him as “fellow left-wing writer.” Is that how anyone thinks of Hammett. I think they remember Sam Spade and Nick & Nora Charles. It’s clear that the conservatives have got to the Hellman page. She deserves better.

Happy birthday Lillian Hellman!