Evil bastards

What do we do with evil bastards in literature? Not every work of literature includes them, but those that do seem to gain a particular purchase on the reader’s attention. Writers love to dream up evil bastards, and we love to enter the dream. But why are we drawn to representations of evil? Maybe because consciousness evolved as a practical adaptation, a problem-solving mechanism. If there’s a small flaw on a large canvas, we tend to zero in on the flaw. If twenty kids are playing nicely in a playground and one is misbehaving, all attention turns to the miscreant. Where there is no problem, consciousness relaxes; where there is a problem, consciousness engages in an urge to explain, to determine, to get our arms around the problem for future reference.

Whether you buy that intro or not, you might find it interesting to explore how fictional evil occurs as a problem we urgently want to explain, to learn from, to pin down for further reference. Below are a few templates for how to explain evil in its fictional deployments.

Social conditions

I might also call this the “materialist template”, and it is big in the age of realism. Evil is a result of historical conditions. Dickens novels might best exemplify this on the literary side, Marx on the philosophy side – human nature is neither good nor evil, but social conditions make it so.

Metaphysical/religious

Evil is part of the great cosmic struggle that is larger than any human life, an absolute that must be faced on its own terms. This model dominates not only overtly religious stories like Paradise Lost, but also heavily symbolic ones like Melville’s Billy Budd, where the human struggle of good and evil seems a shadow cast by some larger eternal archetypal or cosmic struggle.

Psychoanalytic/Freudian

Evil results from a deformation in the individual psyche, some repressed psychological trauma from the personal past that emerges in a destructive form. Poe’s psychopaths, for example: Montresor’s evil in “The Cask of Amontillado” is that of a mentally ill individual. There are no signs of poor social conditions or interventions of spiritual entities from some religious outer frame. There is just the nameless “injury” in Montresor’s personal past that rearranged his mind into that of a monster. (Note: If I were to separate a Psychoanalytic/Jungian version, I would fold it back into the metaphysical/religious. Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, e.g., is essentially a  Jungian/archteypal quest, and any good and evil Milkman encounters along the way are not just realistic details in the life of a man but plot points in an archetypal struggle. Again, the Jungian/archetypal model is my metaphysical/religious model recast into the language of psychoanalysis.)

Existentialist

Here, evil is irreducibly inexplicable, absurd, too arbitrary to be explained via any diagnostic metric. When Meursault kills the Arab in Camus’s The Stranger, we might call this evil in its existentialist aspect. Indeed, it is so inexplicable that we can hardly call it evil. It may be that the existentialist world view, following Nietzsche, is better relegated to the territory “beyond good and evil.” Let’s try Shakespeare’s Iago. He seems to represent a version of evil that is unmotivated, unexplained by a bad childhood or poor social conditions or metaphysical/religious interference or any other rational explanation. He just expresses evil as a random and fundamental force. Of course, his evil is recontained in Shakespeare’s world – not before harm is done, but the moral framing in Othello is not existentialist in tone. There is a moral order to the universe that we can glean from the tragedy. So perhaps Iago shows evil in its absurd or irrational aspect as something that can be recontained in a moral universe, whereas Meursault shows evil in the same aspect but with little or no moral framing.

I could probably think of more, but that is enough to chew on for one day. Feedback welcome.

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Colliding values in Frankenstein

That the monster represents some projected aspect of the good Dr. Frankenstein is clear enough. (And Victor is indeed a good and noble man at bottom, his fall that of a tragic hero.) But what projected aspect? What exactly is it that the doctor sublimates into monstrosity? I’m sure many illuminating answers are possible, but I have one that relates to three value systems operable in the culture and literature of Shelley’s day.

I am grateful to Shelley for giving Victor a pathological work ethic, evidenced by the time he spends in his lab, because I call on the doctor here to perform a double duty. Among the value systems of the day, Victor represents both the Enlightenment faith in science and the Romantic passion to strive beyond all accepted limits. A third value system – let’s call it the Sentimental — was anchored in the kinder, simpler domestic bonding of friendship and companionate marriage as the locus of value, and it would reach from the 18th century Cult of Sensibility (Laurence Sterne, Henry Mackenzie, et al) toward the novels Dickens would write in the decades after Frankenstein. Even as a teenager, Mary Shelley would be quite aware of these cultural formations, since her parents were famous Enlightenment radicals, her young husband already a famous Romantic poet, and the sentimental novel had been all the craze for some decades.

While Victor epitomizes both the Enlightenment faith in science and the Romantic excess of passion in his pursuits, Elizabeth (and to a lesser extent, Henry) represents the Sentimental, pulling Victor away from strife and excess toward the more domesticated bliss, the sweet contentment of conjugal love and home life. Elizabeth fails, of course, and Victor hurtles to the outer reaches of the earth, following his extravagant aspirations to his own self-destruction. Elizabeth fails to turn the plot, that is. In terms of the moral of the tale, she wins hands down. What did Victor’s relentless Romantic passion to do great things beyond measure, what did his faith in human science get him? How much more fulfilled might he have been if he had settled down with Elizabeth in domestic bliss and spent out his years peacefully “tending his own garden,” as Voltaire had recommended we do? Despite the wild and stormy romanticism of the novel’s setting and plot, despite the fact that Shelley was at the time of writing traveling with two of the greatest Romantic poets of the day – it seems that the novel’s resolution, after all the crash-and-burn of colliding value systems, favors the Sentimental anchor of fulfillment – at least for us mere mortals.

German

For my German friends, or anyone interested in the German language, or in German anything, here is one of the many wonderful sentences in Mark Twain’s The Awful German Language, one which, incidentally, mimics the infelicities it recounts:

“An average sentence, in a German newspaper, is a sublime and impressive curiosity; it occupies a quarter of a column; it contains all the ten parts of speech — not in regular order, but mixed; it is built mainly of compound words constructed by the writer on the spot, and not to be found in any dictionary — six or seven words compacted into one, without joint or seam — that is, without hyphens; it treats of fourteen or fifteen different subjects, each enclosed in a parenthesis of its own, with here and there extra parentheses which re-enclose three or four of the minor parentheses, making pens within pens; finally, all the parentheses and reparentheses are massed together between a couple of king-parentheses, one of which is placed in the first line of the majestic sentence and the other in the middle of the last line of it — after which comes the verb, and you find out for the first time what the man has been talking about; and after the verb — merely by way of ornament, as far as I can make out, — the writer shovels in ‘haben sind gewesen gehabt haben geworden sein,’ or words to that effect, and the monument is finished.”

Cp. “The best sentence in English literature”

 

 

Maledicus

Review of Maledicus, Charles French. CreateSpace, 2016.

If you like the horror genre, you will enjoy Maledicus, as it gives you the creepy activity around the edges and the throughline hunt for the demonic villain that you expect from a tale of horror. I am not a typical fan of the genre, and for me it had its flaws. There are times when the pace is too fast, as when French tells us of Maledicus’s evil traits on the first page instead of gradually showing us and letting the chill build. There are times when the pace is too slow, as in some of the chapters devoted to the backstory of the coterie of elderly heroes who hunt Maledicus out in his modern incarnation. The prose style varies from excellent, and French clearly has good range and facility with the language, to repetitive, with the occasional redundant sentence or typo or overworked adverb (“gently,” “softly”). One gets the sense that French is a very promising writer who is still honing his style.

Despite the flaws, though, I enjoyed the story and always looked forward to picking up where I left off. French is at his best when he is in the reign of Caligula, showing a comfortable command of historical detail and creating a vivid sense of time and place. And even when he is not at his best, the story continues to engage. For readers of horror fiction, I would give the book 3.5 to 4 stars, for readers of literary fiction and other curious bibliophiles, 3.

Reviewed by the author of Hippies

Sally’s Cafe and Bookstore

Sally’s Cafe and Bookstore is featuring Hippies this week. Click the pic to give her a virtual visit:

Or check out the Hippies links:

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Hippies-Gary-Gautier/dp/1535579862/

Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/BooksByGaryGautier/

Now dig in and rediscover your inner hippie. We all have one, young or old.

San Fran ’60s

Review of San Fran ‘60s, M. W. Jacobs. Escallonia Press, 2017.

If you want an insider, Gonzo-style, journalistic account of daily life in late ‘60s Haight-Ashbury, this is your book. Jacobs gives a series of varied-length vignettes moving back and forth across time, as our personal memory moves back and forth across time, from the early 60s to the 80s, from San Francisco to a cabin and milk truck proto-commune in the Mendocino forests, with forays to Mexico and New York. But the keynote keeps coming back to 1967, the Summer of Love in the Upper Haight.

Some might wish for more pop and drama, or maybe a more well-wrought plot to sustain a rollicking ride. I myself was looking for a bit more development of the ideals that we all associate with the hippies. These stories can get a little dark after 150 pages. But perhaps this is all personal preference. What Jacobs does he does well, and that is to give an unromanticized, street-level account of the male hippie’s daily hunt (in both its comical and disturbing aspects) for chicks and drugs and ways to beat the draft. We do get some dramatic tension with recurring mini-plots that thread through multiple stories – the “speed disaster,” Bernie’s big secret – but many of the tales are uneventful, in the way that the stories in James Joyce’s Dubliners are uneventful, giving no payoff but leaving you at a point that’s poised between potential and kinetic energy. If Jacobs’s plot lines don’t keep you on the edge of your sit, though, his prose style always engages. His wit can be purely humorous, as with the “plump, middle-aged straight lady” who works the sidewalk grill and is presently “expounding, spatula in hand, on what was thrown off Tallahatchie bridge in the lyrics of an AM radio hit” (“The Street”). Or it can be disquieting, as when he describes driving high in the fog: “It was Russian roulette and every car that didn’t hit us was an empty chamber” (“Gilroy”). This latter expression too is humorous, no doubt, but it is the humor of Hunter Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, a belly laugh laced with the idea that this could turn very serious any moment.

The parade of momentary but sharply sketched characters is also memorable – the speed freak who’s “a walking filibuster” (“Amateur Insanity”), or Cappy, “a gifted storyteller” who was “short, skinny, and hunched, with a spoon-shaped torso” (“Junkie Love”), or Dan, “who no more believed in God than a man believes in the train that has run over him” (“There Is Only One Misfortune”), or the various “couch nomads” and communist “connoisseurs of outrage” to be found in this “colony of rejects” (“Summer of ‘66”). The characters sometimes come and go too quickly, but the narrator’s observation of them is packed with emotional and psychological nuance. Even his own “frenzied self-analysis” (“Gilroy”) may not be healthy, but it brings us closer to him.

The book’s strengths are in the vivid, grounded sense of time and place, in the parade of quirky but real characters, and in the play of the language when Jacobs works it. Plot and theme seem a little uneven, and as I think back on what I enjoyed most about the book, they do not rise to the top. In my opinion, though, the tradeoff is worth it, as we get a sense of journalistic, unembellished life in the Haight – and beyond the Haight as we come to identify with our narrator in general, to feel his emotional life as his memory moves poignantly back and forth, from the primeval forest moments with Yvette in the ‘70s, then back to ’67, then up to the 1980s, recounting personal loves and losses as he ponders his luck at catching cultural history at just the right time and place.

  

Reviewed by the author of

 

Psychomachia and Autobiography (with frolicking hippies)

The first question people always ask me about Hippies is whether this romp through the psychedelics and sexual liberation and ideals, the music scene and the war scene, all the darkness and all the light of the late 1960s, is autobiographical. And am I like Ragman or Ziggy or Tex, etc.?

It’s not exactly autobiographical in that sense. But I draw from autobiography on every page. I am a bit part in every character. But perhaps this is tautological. Perhaps every artwork with more than one character is a kind of psychomachia, all characters projecting different aspects of the writer’s soul or psyche. Perhaps this is not just a psychological necessity (creative arts are after all self-expression) but a metaphysical one as well. How metaphysical? If all the people of the world – past, present, and future – are so many surface expressions of the single personality of godhead, then the whole great drama, the extended “vanity fair” of human history, is one great psychomachia. And divine history, too, as the figures that populate the collective imagination are just as much expressions of godhead as the figures that populate physical reality. Indeed, the figures of imagination may be more intimate expressions of godhead, as Jung’s collective unconscious transcends the individual psyche and gets one step closer the universal Psyche.

At least this literary theory, this metaphysics, seems consistent with the cosmic laws governing the created world of Hippies. And perhaps that is enough.