A long-range idea was maturing in his mind; there merged and forged a chain of ideas he had had for a long time. Why did Father smile to himself, why did his eyes turn up, misty, in a parody of mock admiration? Who can tell? Did he foresee the coarse trick, the vulgar intrigue, the transparent machinations behind the amazing manifestations of the secret force?
- Bruno Schulz, The Street of Crocodiles
There's a good essay hiding out in the underbrush of this whopping great long set of notes pretending it's an essay. Part II to be posted tomorrow or the day after, if I get it ready; comments welcome.
The literary device I will consider is a misty-eyed parody of mock admiration. Possibly on behalf of hidden transparent machinations behind a manifest secret force. And variations on that theme.
In other words, it is a device by which heroes of apparently exhausted genre fiction can be permanently recast as wise fools. And have long and happy second careers.
Don Quixote is the classic case. A nobility descends on him, the more so the more comic indignities he endures. The story about Cervantes (does anyone know how true?) is that the ass he rode in on got away from him. The book was supposed to be a plain old spoof on stupid chivalry, then the butt of the joke asserted its moral authority over the author, turning the tables.
Following Empson in Some Versions of Pastoral, I will call this sort of literary occasion ‘mock-pastoral’, which gets at most of the central manifestations, involving what Empson calls a compacting of ‘the complex in the simple’, which is more or less how he defines ‘pastoral’.
Of course, when you think how many literary devices might answer to ‘complex in the simple’ – all symbols and tropes, for starters - you realize Empson is attempting more than a little cramming on his own time. But so long as we understand that ‘pastoral’ is being defined artificially broadly we should be able to forestall false wonder at the discovery that so much literature has been put out to pasture. (A little false wonder never hurt anyone, but a little goes a long way.)
Roughly, the motivation for employing these terms - ‘pastoral’ and ‘mock-pastoral’ - is to highlight how specific sorts of fictional wise fools are genealogically rooted in, then transplanted from, stock genres. And, roughly, ‘complex in the simple’ indicates concern with relations between complex and simple people and, by extension, perspectives and, by extensions, answers to Big Questions about life, the universe, and everything.
(Of course there is no such thing as a ‘complex’ or a ‘simple’ person. But that doesn’t stop it being a literary theme.)
Part II will forge the connection between pastoral and heroic fiction, via the mechanism of the mock. Mock-heroic is almost indistinguishable from mock-pastoral. Since my least unoriginal observations concern heroic fiction – action heroes who are wise fools – and since I will be slow to get to that action, let me indicate here at the start what problems and questions I mean my long passage through pastoral to address.
The puzzle of Don Quixote, action hero, is that his tale is oddly three-dimensional. It has length, breadth and depth when by rights it ought to have none of these. Why not? To be fair, it is easy to make any episodic thing as long as you like by repeating yourself, but Cervantes manages to make it long without it being too long (many critics have long agreed.) Basically one joke told and retold does not wear out. Perhaps no special account is required. From pornography to pop songs to sitcoms to roadrunner cartoons to three stooges movies to picaresque novels, there may be no accounting for human love of simple repetition. But in this case the goodness of great length, plus thematic repetitiveness, does seem somehow due to the fact that Don Quixote really does grow depths and widths to match its length. Where do they come from? The slap of the stick to the effect that medieval romance is inane is well and good. But it seems possible to see to the bottom here. Furthermore, since parody of genre typically works by foregrounding absurd constraints of genre, one might think such parody would be doomed too hyper-narrowness.
Cervantes' narrator laments this from the start: "I could not counteract Nature's law that everything shall beget its like; and what, then, could this sterile, ill-tilled wit of mine beget but the story of a dry, shrivelled, whimsical offspring." This seems to make sense. The soil here - medieval romance - may seem exhausted or exhaustible (and, by extension, any wit raised on such soil.) But it doesn't turn out that way.
Parody is a parasite. If it grows as big as its host it ought to kill the host, then exhaust itself. If this does not happen, there are two possible explanations. First, the host is strong. Second, the parasite isn't a parasite after all. I think it's a bit of both in this case. Partly Don Quixote works by showing us just how much a certain form of romantic adventure story appeals, even when our nose is rubbed in its inanity. (In fact, a rubbed nose is like a badge of courage that says: we know it's stupid we're not stupid, you know.) And partly well, heres one way to put it. I will presently consider Charlie Kaufmans Adaptation as an exemplary instance of mock-pastoral. Appropriately, it is about flowers. Even more appropriately, it is about flowers that seem like parasites but are really epiphytes. They grow on another organism but get all their nourishment from the air and rain. This is a nice metaphor for Don Quixote: its an epiphyte, perched on a branch of medieval romance for preference, but not sucking the life out of it. So what are its air and rain? (In fact, it's a nice metaphor for Don Quixote, the character, as well as the book as a whole. He seems to be feeding on this weak stuff that should make him weak. But really he is getting some strength from elsewhere.)
Im not going to analyze Cervantes. Im going to look at more contemporary cases that have the same features. For example, Terry Pratchett, to whom I suspect (anyone know whether this is right?) the same thing happened. The first Discworld book, The Color of Magic, clearly grew up around the seed of a bit of an alright spoof on Fritz Leibers Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories the Weasel and Bravd in Ankh-Morpork, a knock-off of Lankhmar. What was unsuspected initially by Pratchett indeed for several whole novels, I wouldnt be at all surprised was that so many characters begotten from one-dimensional parents would prove to have considerable depth, and the whole system would acquire not just breadth but a kind of gravity. (Of course gravity on the discworld, like light, is a slow-flowing, molasses-like thing. No surprise that it took so long to arrive in force.) In general, what looked like a thin, exhaustible comic vein proved the motherlode of all literary treacle-mines. What exactly is holding it up? (A turtle. Yes, but ...)
I think the same thing happened to Alan Moore. He has said in interviews [anyone have the reference?] that he and Frank Miller were trying to kill superheroes in the mid-80s with Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns. But instead it turned out superheroes were the key to unanticipated and considerable literary complexity and riches. So the surprise wasnt that the stuff could be mocked. What was surprising was that the mock didnt dry up the original and blow it away in fairly short order. Instead the mock opened new terrain that was really almost self-sustaining as literary ground.
And I think the same thing happened to Dave Sim and Cerebus, whom we have discussed lately. Who would have thought a few innocent chainmail bikini jokes could encompass a whole globe of living, breathing, meaty, firm, well-rounded literary .... well, whatever.
I would like to analyze Moore and Pratchett in particular (and a few others, but I'll leave Sim out, because I haven't thought about him enough.) Then there are quite a number of less obvious cases as well. I want to make this essay the first of several discussing these other sorts of less obvious cases. Maybe I'll even get around to motivating my Bruno Schulz epigraph by talking about David Grossman's mock-pastoral masterpiece, See Under: LOVE. We'll see about that.
The cases I have just mentioned, and Cervantes, have much in common: an apparently parasitic growth on an easily parodied genre proves capable of growing and autonomously sustaining itself because because its an epiphyte, whose air and rain are mock-pastoral. So I will argue.
To shift biological metaphors one last time: pastoral and heroic have sufficient genetic closeness to allow the jackass of the one to ride the noble horse of the other. Their mulish offspring is not only viable but has strength, endurance and does not startle easily. It is doubtful whether it is fertile. You have to go back to parents of the original types if you want more. But wonders may never cease.
§2 The Structure of Complex People
Back to pastoral. Empson has another good book, The Structure of Complex Words, whose title is misleading. Well, never mind about that. Some Versions of Pastoral might have been titled, with some justice, The Structure of Complex People. For example, should you be a fox or a hedgehog? Some say fox, some hedgehog. And some say: a fox in a hedgehog. Pictorially, a smirking cartoon fox in a prickly, protective hedgehog suit. (As versatile as ever, but now with extra one big thing immunity to slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.) This is one model for a wise fool. There are sorts and sorts.
You would not be too far wrong to say: mock-pastoral indicates concern for comedies and tragedies of manners that result when one style of thinking wears another on the outside, or the inside. But you weren't going to say that, were you? Probably we should forge ahead. According to Empson:
The essential trick of the old pastoral, which was felt to imply a beautiful relation between rich and poor, was to make simple people express strong feelings (felt as the most universal subject, something fundamentally true about everybody) in learned and fashionable language (so that you wrote about the best subject in the best way). From seeing the two sorts of people combined like this you thought better of both; the best parts of both were used. The effect was in some degree to combine in the reader or author the merits of the two sorts; he was made to mirror in himself more completely the effective elements of the society he lived in. This was not a process that you could explain in the course of writing pastoral; it was already shown by the clash between style and theme, and to make the clash work in the right way (not become funny) the writer must keep up a firm pretence that he was unconscious of it.
Cant throw a rock at sentimental literature without cracking one of these types on the head. Oliver Twists suspiciously good grammar, etc. But in the classic form the shepard is noble king of the sheep and speaks simply, without affectation, about the important things in life. Or two dumb farm kids wonder what love is, by way of naively exhibiting it, and turn out to be nobly born, so thats all right.
Pastoral is sentimentality for sophisticates. A jaded, grass is greener attitude induced by weariness with the vanity/artificiality of court/modern life. Not that there arent interesting, ironic games to be played while playing pastoral tolerably straight. The poet can undermine obligatory flattery of the noble patron. Empson has a humorous interpretation of Shakespeares sonnet 94 as more or less straight pastoral that begins: I am praising to you the contemptible things you admire, you little plotter. Well, maybe thats already mock pastoral. But the mock can be surprisingly external to the handling of the pastoral matter itself.
Mostly the clash of style and theme in pastoral is so unignorably extreme, on every level, that the essence of pastoral is mock-pastoral waiting to happen. You have peasants talking as no peasant would, and sophisticated audiences ignoring this affectation because they are won over by the thematic denunciation of affectation. Highly stilted nonsense.
The most famous example of mock-pastoral is probably the bad play the Rude Mechanicals stage for the smirking aristos in A Midsummer Nights Dream. Mock-pastoral essentially consists of pointing out that bumpkins, far from speaking about important things in the best way, are going to flub their lines in the worst way.
Alternatively, you can play it so that, despite themselves, the aristos are dabbing a few tears by the end (as in this film version .) Then straight pastoral vaguely reasserts itself over mock. This preserves not only the dignity of the mechanicals but also that of the aristos, whose snarky, complexer-than-thou snickers sour pretty quick, on contact with the plain good will of Bottom and the rest of the crew.
But even if you dont take the optional staging decision of having the aristos moved by the death of Thisby, the truly peculiar and interesting thing about mock-pastoral is that, even if the mock remains technically ascendant, it can very easily fail to negate the pastoral synthesis; the best of both natures, complex and simple, compacted in the simple.
The Rude Mechanicals speak from the heart, though they flub every line and have no idea what they are talking about. But the complex truth of the plays outer fairy tale frame best in this kind are but shadows; what fools these mortals be affords the mechanicals a sort of last-minute, here comes the cavalry recovery of metaphysical dignity, however you stage their crummy play, and despite the fact that they are ground zero for most of the undignifying fairy strikes. The Mechanicals are oddly capable of withstanding such assaults are nigh invulnerable, to use the technical, comic book term because they are so clueless to begin with.
The sophisticated thought: if we are all in the same boat, and it is a ship of fools
As Empson writes:
The simple man becomes a clumsy fool who yet has better sense than his betters and can say things more fundamentally true; he is in contact with nature, which the complex man needs to be, so that Bottom is not afraid of the fairies; he is in contact with the mysterious forces of our own nature, so that the clown has the wit of the Unconscious; he can speak the truth because he has nothing to lose.
Pastoral says the simple bumpkin can be as wise as a king, because the important things in life are so simple (even a bumpkin can understand.) Mock-pastoral says the simple bumpkin can be as wise as a king because the important things in life are so complex (not even a king can understand.)
In the one, the fool speaks the deep truth more plainly, in the other he is a plainer symptom of an unspeakably deep truth.
In literary practice, the fact that straight and mock can be so close means that if you arent sure whether life is really simple or really complex, or perhaps a bit of both, you can tell a nice mock-pastoral version of it while hogging the truth by foxily hedging your bets. And this is by no means an either/or. There is an impressive range of moods and modes accessible and sustainable from the mocking high ground in the middle of the field that is, the pasture. This is basically going to be my explanation of what makes a certain sort of hero turned wise-fool especially satisfying. Stuff that might have been pretty thin parody turns thick and satisfying, because it can continuously draw on this rich mock-pastoral palette of moral moods.
Let us start by considering two examples, structurally and thematically identical but you wouldnt necessarily notice it because of the difference in mood, and the absence of a strict pasture.
§3 Two Versions of Mock-Pastoral: Three Hermits vs. Galaxy Quest
First, take Leo Tolstoys pious fable, The Three Hermits. (I dont have a copy handy, so Ill summarize to the best of my recollection.) A high church official bishop or patriarch (Im not up on my Russian orthodox clerical hierarchies) visits an isolated hermitage where three simple souls are piously lodged. They know one prayer: we are three and Thee are three, forgive us. This they recite day and night. The high cleric admires such piety but deplores the lack of ecclesiastical orthodoxy, doctrinal and liturgical complexity, so forth. In his benevolence he deigns to give the three, who are respectfully eager to learn, a crash course in what they are actually supposed to be on about. Then he leaves by boat, but, alerted by an anxious sailor, looks back to see the three hermits walking on water after him. They have already forgotten everything. Would he please teach them again? Better that you pray for the rest of us, fathers. Thats the pious tale.
This fits the pastoral bill. The simple, untutored soul knows best: pious-pastoral. This already expresses the classic objection to late Tolstoy: all this isnt so simple. Its bursting at the seams with crammed in complexity. It isnt a pure, light breath of piety but the labored breathing of a weary, sophisticated aristocrat. It is a story by and for, but not about, the likes of Count Leo. This threatens to make the tale a sentimental lie. (Nietzsche: why do mystical explanations feel deep when in fact they aren't even shallow?) Pastoral is not a genre for the simple people, or by them, merely about them and about them only in rather strained, almost Rube Goldberg fashion. A silly, complex machine trying to do something simple.
Of course, the alternative view is that Tolstoys late fiction is awesome in its power and simplicity.
Our second example an exceedingly trivial one just goes to show how much of this stuff is lying around. And how precisely patterns get repeated. Consider the plot of the silly movie, "Galaxy Quest". (Here is a screenplay that has had an unfortunate encounter with an unsufficiently clear-eyed OCR. But it's mostly readable.)
The aging cast of a cancelled, Trek-like TV show are just getting by, making the circuit of conventions where fanboys and girls ask dumb questions and make demeaning requests. I played Richard III...Five curtain calls! I was an ACTOR once, damn it. Now look at me... LOOK AT ME.
The fans dont care. Alan Rickmans character, Sir Alexander Dane, is doomed to be Dr. Lazarus, whose tagline By the hammer of Grabthar gets dragged out of him over and over.
The cast is abducted by a race of rudely mechanical aliens, the Thermians, who have been watching the show dont know its a show and have built an entire society and culture around it. Theyve reconstructed the ship down to the last idiot detail. Now they want the crew to lead them in their struggle against bad aliens threatening them with extermination. The joke is that the ship actually works, even though it is modeled on something that in the way of TV - makes profoundly no sense whatsoever. This is the technological equivalent of the hermits able to walk on water. Fools can do things they are too blessedly dumb to know cant possibly be done. Then there are the dumb things the new human crew does before realizing they are on a real ship, engaging in real battles; they punch buttons randomly, just like back on the set. (They think at first that they must be in some sort of unusually elaborate fan-fic event back home.) Of course it all works perfectly. Classic pastoral theme: simple fools are wisest. From simplicity springs nobility and power.
The evil aliens are sophisticated and urbane, naturally. They figure out what has happened. The fact that the Thermians take everything at face value should put them at a hopeless disadvantage, especially when the humans are captured and forced to dumb down the sad, complex truth of the situation to the point where even a Thermian can understand it.
SARRIS [evil alien]
Tell him. This is a moment I will treasure. Explain who you
Jason [Tim Allen] looks up at Mathesar [nice Thermian]. A long pause.
My name is Jason Nesmith. I'm an actor. We're all actors.
Our dimwitted friends don't understand the concept of acting.
They have no theater, no imagination these scientists.
We pretend ...
We we lie.
Inevitably, the naivete of these intergalactic Rude Mechanicals turns out to be their strength and saving grace.
So the gag turns out to be that not only does the impossible TV technology work, so does the equally ill-conceived ethics and spirituality. Alexander finds himself tearfully delivering by the hammer of Grabthar last rites to Quellek, a dying Thermian who has built his life around Dr. Lazarus pitifully small stock of absurdly meaningless TV gestures.
But any prayer is a true prayer if it comes from the heart. Like Tolstoys high-ranking cleric, Dr. Lazarus hereby acquires a spiritual teacher who can teach him by being fool enough to think he Quellek - is just the student.
... It has been my greatest honor to serve with you. Living by
your example these years, my life has had meaning. I have been
blessed. Sir, I... I...
He cringes in pain. Alexander looks at him, full of emotion.
Don't speak, Quellek.
You'll forgive my impertinence, sir, but even though we had never
before met, always considered you as a father to me.
Blood appears in the corner of Quellek's mouth, his life fading
away. Alexander strokes his head, devastated. He looks him right
in the eyes, his eyes welling with tears. Then with intensity,
and absolute sincerity...
Quellek... By Grabthar's hammer, by the suns of Warvan... You
shall be avenged.
Quellek's appreciation of this is Indescribable. A tiny spark
behind his eyes light up, and he smiles, completely content as he
surrenders to death.
Tears fall down Alexander's cheek as he holds Quellek's limp
body. Then a blast hits a corner nearby. Alexander lays
Quellek's head to the ground softly, then rises. There is an
Intensity to him we haven't seen before ... His eyes BURN.
Alexander moves into the hallway, fixing his attention on Sarris'
Man [who has killed Quellek]. The guard looks up, momentarily shaken; Alexander looks truly ALIEN. His eyes afire with VENGEANCE. Nervous, one guard fires twice, missing. Alexander begins to RUN toward the guard, picking up speed. The guard tries to reload his gun but his eyes are locked on Alexander like a frightened animal and his cartridges clatter to the ground. Alexander ROARS like a creature, baring his teeth It the final moments ... The guard stands there as he meets his death, so terrified he can only mutter a single word
as ALEXANDER envelopes him like a force of nature.
So Alexander goes from wanting to be a true actor, not a cheap set of stock TV gestures, to being a true force of nature, no mere actor, in virtue of a cheap set of stock TV gestures.
Nothing with Tim Allen in it can be important. Or natural. My point is just that we have here an extremely basic and common pastoral trick of compacting complex views about the human condition into some crude formula or epithet or prayer. (Exercise to perform at home: multiply examples of fiction with this highly specific plot structure. Hint: first make a pile of everything that condescendingly mocks some element of popular culture while also sentimentally affirming that very element. Then start digging in the pile.)
The point of putting late Tolstoy and "Galaxy Quest" together apart from the incongruity value of rattling them against each other in the box is to give some indication of the range of moods that are supportable on the seemingly narrow basis of mock-pastoral; also, how easy it is to straddle these moods in an agnostic, equivocal or flagrantly inconsistent way. The scene I just quoted manages to be incredibly silly, in a self-mocking satiric way, while also being preposterously and completely sincerely sentimental. Whether you think this scene works, it can be oddly effective to have something that laughs at itself while being deeply sentimental about itself. At least if you like Dickens. That's a mock-pastoral mood. So even just the mocking half of the pasture is broader than it looks.
§4 Straight or Mock?
Is Tolstoys tale straight pastoral or mock-pastoral? He is so self-important and unwilling to crack a smile our first impulse is to say he is straight to a fault. But, of course, mock here means ersatz, not funny (although fake is often cheap, is often funny.) Tolstoys story is a mix of mock and straight. It is straight to the extent that the point is: life is simple and essentially easy to those who are, or make themselves, simple. It is mock to the extent that the moral of the story is that the fool is wisest not because the good life is simple but because it is deeply, mystically incomprehensible. (Incomprehensibility is just the limiting case of complexity, from a human standpoint.) The outer fairy-tale frame of Christianity is firmly in place what fools these mortals be - although Count Leo, bardophobe, would be insulted by this puckish but perfectly fair comparison.
Straight pastoral tends to have a shallow, Polonius-like quality. Neither a borrower nor a lender be, the shepard instructs his sheep. The good life results from adhering to truly simple rules. But even Polonius wades out as far as to thine own self be true, so the water gets deep quick. We are practically all the way to romanticism in no time. And mostly pastoral is about love. And love is romantic. Basically, pastoral sentimentality and affected indifference to urbane intellectualism can tip over into anti-rationalism and romanticism and mysticism at the slightest nudge. Tolstoyan pietism is a distinctive, not obviously self-consistent mix of these mock-pastoral moods and potentialities.
What about "Galaxy Quest"? No doubt I am the very first to label it pastoral. For one thing, the pasture is missing. But our Empsonian definition does not demand real grass. Pop culture is the new nature. Pave paradise, put up a parking lot and convention center, invite trekkies and in no time flat the place is every bit as dumb as rural bumpkins could ever have made it. (Sometimes you dont know what youve got till it seems to be gone, but youve still got it.) Some hip-deep detritus of mechanically thoughtless pop cultural production is very serviceable as a suitably naive backdrop against which a knowing, relatively sophisticated eye can watch idiots stage their rustic, strangely dignified lives. (There is a reason they are called rude mechanicals, after all.)
Put it that way and the mock-pastoral form pretty obviously has intimate connections with camp, which has been a huge industry lo these last 150 or so years. In fact, I was half chagrined and half reassured to reread Sontags classic essay, "Notes on Camp", upon having this thought, only to find that she has been here, done that:
All Camp objects, and persons, contain a large element of artifice. Nothing in nature can be campy Rural Camp is still man-made, and most campy objects are urban. (Yet, they often have a serenity - or a naiveté which is the equivalent of pastoral. A great deal of Camp suggests Empson's phrase, "urban pastoral.")
Artifice the new guilelessness in the urban pasture. Well, there are levels and levels. (Is all reality TV striving to attain a state of blessed mock-pastoral?) I wont try to map it out, or note all the secret passages by means of which increasing sophistication implies new levels of simplicity and vice versa. There is certainly a lot to say. Sontag makes the correct point that camp is tied up with the history of mannerism and the birth of romanticism. That is certainly right. And camp is really just late mock-pastoral.
Sticking with "Galaxy Quest", it is mostly mock-pastoral. Specifically, it sustains at least three moods of mock, which are harmonized but not consistently resolved. First, there is simple parody, of a light and affectionate sort: making fun of trekkies. (I wont insult the readers intelligence by explaining how it is possible to make fun of trekkies.)
Second, arising out of the parody, there is a strain of what we might call (risking our dignity with this grand thing) Montaignean skepticism about human intellectual and moral capacities. The complex truth is that humans are simple and ought not to try to claw after a lot of complex insights that are beyond them.
It might seem that anything with Tim Allen in it is even less likely to be Montaignean than it is to be natural, let alone important. But let me defend this unpromising line. Montaigne favors a classic form of anti-Platonic, Socratic judo. Grant Plato his cave, then use its strength against him.
If we are natural-born spelunkers, if wisdom demands knowing ones nature for example, knowing one is not wise, if one is not - then wisdom should mean not busying ourselves with pastimes unsuited to our station. We ought to stick with the shadows on the wall. Any attempt to spelunk above our station by turning our heads and making for the light will be an unwise, false betrayal of our true nature; it will only hurt our weak eyes.
This is not an argument; but then, the myth of the cave never was. It is a comic counter-myth. My favorite expression of it is due to Terry Pratchett, in Small Gods. (I quoted it in a previous post.) The speaker is but of course a philosopher:
Life in this world, he said, is, as it were, a sojourn in a cave. What can we know of reality? For all we see of the true nature of existence is, shall we say, no more than bewildering and amusing shadows cast upon the inner wall of a cave by the unseen blinding light of absolute truth, from which we may or may not deduce some glimmer of veracity, and we troglodyte seekers of wisdom can only lift our voices to the unseen and say, humbly, Go on, do Deformed Rabbit. . . its my favourite.
Here is a similarly-themed passage from Montaigne, "Of Repentance" (again, quoted in a previous post.)
Others form man; I tell of him, and portray a particular one, very ill-formed, whom I should really make very different from what he is if I had to fashion him over again. But now it is done.
Now the lines of my painting do not go astray, though they change and vary I cannot keep my subject still. It goes along befuddled and staggering, with a natural drunkenness .I set forth a humble and inglorious life; that does not matter. You can tie up all moral philosophy with a common and private life just as well as with a life of richer stuff. Each man bears the entire form of mans estate.
Shorter Montaigne: I do deformed rabbit; its my favorite.
And not just his favorite, the one that is truest, because truest to him, authentically suited to him. Paradoxically, a shadow on the wall can be the solid platform for the whole form of mans estate. In "Galaxy Quest", this skeptical denegration, tipping over into admiration, is equivocatlly exemplified by the fans who obsessively chase the shadowiest of shadows: namely, the shadowy reasons why shadows appear on the television screen in the order they do.
BRANDON [fanatical fan at convention]
Commander, as I was saying... In "The Quasar Dilemma", you used
the auxiliary of deck b for Gamma override. But online blueprints
indicate deck b is independent of the guidance matrix, so we were
wondering where the error lies?
It's a television show. Okay? That's all. It's just a bunch of
fake sets, and wooden props, do you understand?
Yes but, we were wondering-
Naturally, by the end of the movie Jason has been forced to call Brandon and consult him about details of ship architecture, since it isnt fake after all. Moral of the story: stupid troglodytes are the only people who understand how things really work.
§5 Deformed Rabbit
Of course the writers of "Galaxy Quest" werent thinking about Montaigne or Plato. Its just that certain comic inversions are almost dramatically obligatory once you have taken the first step. You start with a sort of do deformed rabbit intuition or half-formulated premise, and cave practically carves itself. (Again, multiplication of pop culture examples is left as an exercise for the interested reader.)
The moment you start toying with deformed rabbit as an expression of the deep truth about mans estate you are teeter-tottering on a thematic tipping point. Before this point you have a skeptical mode of mock pyrhonnistic, if you want to be fancy which implies the deep truth is that we are all incapable and shallow, therefore truest to our own true natures when we just go with the flow, allowing ourselves to be preoccupied with probably false ephemera (like TV shows.) But if the tipping point tips, we are onto a third species of mock that says: strangely, shallow things are astonishingly deep are mythic or mystic. This is the dominant mood of the Tolstoy story, which causes some readers to claw the walls and some to sigh in exquisite spiritual satisfaction, or self-satisfaction. "Galaxy Quest" comes close in the scene quoted above where Alexander finds his calling as a force of nature by realizing the strangely authentic power latent in his cheap hammer of Grabthar epithet. But there are any number of other points at which the plot seems to imply cluelessness makes you mysteriously effective. He who is most unconflictedly a fool is most in touch with his own deep nature, and that of the world around him; hence is the wisest of fools.
This third sort of mock is sentimental tripe this dabbling of the big toe of comedy in the waters of myth and mysticism or maybe it is some sort of nostalgic child-cult, or knee-jerk anti-rationalism, or kitsch, or failed romanticism, or deep romanticism, or a deep insight into the human condition, or profound mysticism. Or maybe a bit of all of these at once.
§6 Montaigne As Mock-Pastoral
Both types of mock you encounter when advancing past mere parody i.e. the pyrhhonistic and the mystic, as we may call them are in Montaigne, balanced against each other. (Not that Motaigne originates either, but the balance achieved is exemplary.) Mostly he conveys a strong sense that diving deep will only lead you to the conclusion that it is best to float lightly back to the surface. So complex people are at best like simple people, although cleverness inevitably makes you a little slower on the uptake. But there is a soft line played against this, that is never silent for long. Montaigne induces a countervailing sense that floating lightly on the surface is the best way of acquiring the gravity to sink down to the depths. This seems to be a contradiction, but it can easily feel oddly consistent, or at least like a deep paradox, or at least dramatically satisfying.
The most eloquent expression of these contrary motions from deep to shallow; from shallow to deep comes in Montaignes Apology for Raymond Sebond. Summarizing this vast and subtle essay rather brutally: Montaignes father asks him to translate a treasured book about natural theology that Montaigne more philosophically acute than his father feels to be intellectual rubbish. Montaignes defense of this book, by Raymond Sebond, assumes a most ironic aspect. Sebond says that by rational contemplation of the ever-rising Great Chain of Being, and our place in the chain, we will be able to rise above ourselves and attain spiritual grace. We will be able to see that we are above the animals and on the cusp of angelic divinity. And really anyone can see this, without a lot of head-troubling theological book-learning. Simply read the complex book of the world with plain reason as your guide!
Montaigne sets out to defend this position, which he does not believe to be remotely defensible, thusly. Oddly, Sebond is exactly right. Rational contemplation of the human condition will show us where we stand on the Great Chain of Being: to wit, on a wretched, flat plain. We are no higher than the animals just look at this idiot Sebond, for example and there are no angels hovering above. (If people ever actually got any inkling of angels, they would behave better. So obviously they dont.) Yet contemplating this desert of an unascending Great Chain of Being rationally may well fortify us with faith, because it will make us humble, make us realize what fools we mortals are. We will realize we cannot do anything whatsoever by our own rational power and had better open ourselves up to mysterious infusions of grace, which is absolutely our only hope. (This is a precise theological transposition of the pyrhonnist fable of the artist who tries and tries to paint foam on the horses mouth, gives up throws in the towel right at the painting and thereby renders the foam perfectly.) Montaignes conclusion: in a way, people like his father do very well to read authors like Sebond, because although it does not make sense, they are sure not to notice. At any rate, this stuff is as likely to work as anything else, i.e. it is completely mysterious how it could ever work. And that is the defense of Raymond Sebond.
Let us turn Apology For Raymond Sebond into a story, like so. A pair of brothers. The older, a philosophically sophisticated student of theology has read his Barth, Buber, Kierkegaard, Heidegger and Levinas, knows his Aquinas and Augustine, can read everything in the original. He is a recent Ph.D. struggling to get an academic post. The younger, an idiot who picks up a dumb, popular book from the shelf of his local Borders and decides to learn about spiritual stuff, just like his smart older brother. This leads to much excruciation, as the older brother becomes increasingly agitated and embarrassed by the younger showing up on academic occasions. And no one else minds nearly as much as the older brother, of course. You could play complex versus simple a couple ways, in mock-pastoral fashion. Maybe the lesson will be that the older brother ought to realize the important thing is to have healthy relations with people like his brother. He learns to value his younger brother for his good will and sincerity, gets his own spiritual priorities straighter as a result. Starts to understand Kierkegaard better, clarifies his own understanding of the value of academic complexity, applied to spirit. There could be a sort of well met, fellow troglodyte reconciliation of the brothers, at any rate.
Another way to play it would be to have the younger brother become a strangely powerful mystic personality, on the strength of the stupid book he reads. The brothers go for a walk in the woods. The younger one discourses spontaneously and eloquently about Nature. Later, he gives away his worldly goods, starts praying insensely for hours, sees angels, suffers stigmata. The older brother doesnt know what to do in such a case goes from being annoyed to confused to frightened; doesnt know whether to believe this is real or delusion; starts to reread his own sophisticated stuff frantically, perhaps consults in despair the author of the offending spirituality for dummies book and finds an intensely religious personality. Or a fraud. You decide.
In short, the theme could be: the complex truth is that you should be simple thinking deep at best leads you to float voluntarily to the surface. That would be a lighter mood. Alternatively: superficial stuff can be eerily, mystically deep. Fools sink into the metaphysical depths, while complex thinkers flail vainly on the surface, unable to follow until they have arranged their frantic limbs more simply. Or you could mix the two. Have a final scene in which the older brother realizes that the important thing is to have healthy human relations with his wild-eyed, stigmata-afflicted, mystic brother.
Thematically, this theologico-pastoral fable would have the same structure as "Galaxy Quest", as Montaignes Apology For Raymond Sebond, as Tolstoys Three Hermits. The thematic differences would be comparatively minor distinctions of mood. As per above: mock-pastoral synthesis of complex and simple can sustain anything from light parody, to camp, to vicious satire, to various modes of sentimentality (semi-ironic to syrupy); you can indulge in child-cult (never trust anyone over the age of ten); pious anti-rationalism, out-and-out mysticism. And several of these moods can be sustained at once, unresolved against each other or harmonizing. This can be either an argumentative cheat, or an experimental expression of a genuinely felt conflict, or agnostic uncertainty. Or you can simply enable the reader to feel and think for him or herself, without presuming to do that on his or her behalf.
§7 Evolution in the Field
Let me consider one more case of mock-pastoral, Charlie Kaufmans Adaptation (here's a PDF of the screenplay), which has basically the same plot as the Montaignean theological parable I just concocted. Adaptation is the story of two brothers, Charlie and Donald Kaufman. (Donald Kaufman is not a real person, but that did not stop the real Charlie Kaufman from giving him a screenwritng credit, and thanking him in an award acceptance speech.) Charlie is the complex one, Donald the simple one. Charlie is struggling to adapt a book, Susan Orleans The Orchid Thief, into a screenplay. He is quite literally struggling to achieve pastoral simplicity, and neurotically complex urban sophisticate that he is has no notion of simplicity or even what sorts of things grow in pastures.
Anyway, I wanted to grow as a writer, do something profound and simple. Show people how amazing flowers are.
MARTY [his agent]
Are they amazing?
I don't know. (uncertain) I think they are.
Classic grass is greener syndrome, one of the major symptoms of which is pastoral literature. Despite not really knowing what he wants, Charlie is very concerned that any Hollywood weeds springing up in his field be ruthlessly weeded.
It's just, I don't want to ruin it by making it a Hollywood product. Like, an orchid heist movie or something. Or changing the orchids into poppies and turning it into a movie about drug running. Y'know? Why can't there be a movie simply about flowers? That's all.
VALERIE [agent for the author of The Orchid Thief]
That's what we're thinking. Definitely.
Like, I don't want to cram in sex, or car chases, or guns. Or characters learning profound life lessons. Or growing or coming to like each other or overcoming obstacles to succeed in the end. Y'know? The book isn't like that. Life isn't like that. It just isn't. I feel very strongly about this to me this alienated journalist writing about a passionate backwoods guy and he teaches her to love that's like... fake. I mean, it didn't happen. It wouldn't happen.
Having blocked all this out, Charlie is blocked. To make matters worse, brother Donald moves in and takes up screenwriting. He takes a class that teaches him lots of stock principles all of which mortally offend Charlie, since they effectively mandate stock genre conventions, which he regards as artistically false.
Of course, Donalds screenplay takes form very rapidly, and he quickly gets six-figure offers from interested studios. He is writing, The Three, a stupid thriller.
Okay, but there's a twist. See, we find out the killer suffers from multiple personality disorder. Okay? See, he's really also the cop and the girl. All of them are him! Isn't that fucked-up?
Donald waits, proud.
The only idea more overused than serial killers, is multiple personality. On top of that you explore the notion that cop and criminal are really two aspects of the same person. See every cop movie ever made for other examples of this.
Mom called it psychologically taut.
The other thing is, there's no way to write this. Did you consider that? I mean, how could you have someone held prisoner in a basement and working in a police station at the same time?
Okay, that's not what I'm asking. Listen closely, what I'm asking is... in the reality of this movie, if there's only one character, right? ... Okay? How could you... What exactly would the...
Donald waits blankly. Kaufman gives up.
The irony is even thicker than it might seem. Charlie Kaufmans Adaptation is itself an exploration of multiple personalities Donald and Charlie are halves of one nature - something Charlie Kaufman (the character) resists. So much is obvious. So we have a personality split between one side that resists split personality and one that doesnt. Furthermore, at the time Charlie Kaufman was working on the script for Adapation he was also working on an adaptation of Philip K. Dicks classic novel Through A Scanner Darkly, which makes use of the device Donald uses in his stupid thriller: cop and criminal one and the same person. And there are points in Dicks novel where it is not clear how this can be possible, let alone advisable. The novel is not obviously a coherent narrative.
Of course, Dicks novel is commonly regarded as a classic. Dicks reputation is strong, and this novel in particular enjoys as much critical cachet as any sci-fi novel; Kaufman himself presumably sees some merit in it, or feels some authorial affinity, if he was willing to adapt it. Appropriately, then, in Adaptation a certain awareness begins to dawn on Charlie: the things he thinks are simple and shallow may be secretly complex, or secretly deep, or both. I will not attempt to summarize, but all the features of stupid Hollywood Charlie is concerned to keep out of his adaptation car chases, orchid heists, drug dealing overwhelm his life, and his adaptation.
And, of course, all these Hollywood absurdities teach him important life lessons, as well as reconciling him with Brother Donald. He consults Donalds screenwriting guru, who turns out to be extremely blunt and perceptive; says a lot of true things very simply. So the pasture the field in which simple truths shine forth like innocent flowers turns out not to be any sort of field of flowers but a field of car-chases and so forth. Hollywood.
Charlie and Donald have a heart to heart while hiding behind a log in a swamp, while the drug-crazed author of The Orchid Thief and her backwoods lover hunt them with shotguns:
I wasted it. I admire you, Donald, y'know? I spend my whole life paralyzed worrying what people think of me and you - you're just oblivious.
I'm not oblivious.
No, you don't understand. I say that as a compliment. I really do. (beat) There was this time in high school. I was watching you out the library window. You were talking to Sarah Marsh.
Oh, God. I was so in love with her.
KAUFMAN I know. And you were flirting with her. And she was really sweet to you.
I remember that.
Then when you walked away, she started making fun of you with Kim Canetti. It was like they were laughing at me. You didn't know at all. You seemed so happy.
I knew. I heard them.
How come you looked so happy?
I loved Sarah, Charles. It was mine, that love. I owned it. Even Sarah didn't have the right to take it away. I can love whoever I want.
She thought you were pathetic.
DONALD That was her business, not mine. You are what you love, not what loves you. That's what I decided a long time ago.
Kaufman and Donald sit there for a long while in silence. Kaufman starts to cry softly.
Donald is, after all, a forgetful and oblivious wise fool. So we have in Adaptation the modes of mock-pastoral rehearsed above. There is a great deal of straight satire. You cannot turn Hollywood into your pasture without inducing a certain campiness. There is also a strong strain of troglodyte affirmation, in the Montaignean mode, of the virtues of being superficial - of deformed rabbit for deformed rabbits sake: car-chases and so forth. In the passage above Donald expresses the simple thought that it is enough to love something even if, from a more sophisticated perspective, its a lie. This leads to the apparently contrary thought, not merely that superficiality is the best we can do, but that superficiality makes one genuinely deep and not a shadow-gazing idiot after all. Cluelessness is a deep well of authentic harmony with life; and harmony is a sort of mystical in-touchness. Either way, clearly the solution for Charlie is to compact his own complexities into Donalds simplicities, thereby saving himself.
And so it goes. Donald is shot saving Charlie and lies bleeding to death. Charlie attempts to keep him awake by making him sing.
KAUFMAN Imagine me and you. I do.
DONALD AND KAUFMAN
I think about you day and night. It's only right. To think about the one you love...
The two brothers, halves of one nature, speak in one voice for the first and final time, turning the Turtles sentimental Happy Together into a paean to authentic self-love.
The movie ends with the true brothers implicitly so happy together. Charlie does what Donald would have done without a second thought. He tells the girl he loves he loves her. So the final direction of the screenplay reads: They drive off, both staring ahead, both sweetly anxious on this new adventure.
§8 Heroic and Pastoral
That word, adventure, will get us finally over the hump and on to our properly heroic subject matter. To review my thesis, stated at the outset, there is a puzzle explaining how a certain sort of fiction works. Don Quixote is the paradigm case, but I am interested in more recent entries in the field. How and why do certain parodies of heroic genre conventions manage to achieve such impressive, self-sustaining proportions? What explains the length, depth and breadth of something like Don Quixote or Terry Pratchett, or Alan Moore? My answer: this stuff is functioning as mock-pastoral, which is almost the same as mock-heroic. Mock-heroic fiction gets its breadth and depth by playing on the various mock-pastoral moods I have outlined in previous sections. (Please note that a few of my examples "Galaxy Quest", notably are already mock-heroic.)
Working up, how shall we understand heroic? Im not going to define it, merely indicate a characteristic element that makes the connection I want to make. In doing so I am still following Empson. His heroic case in point is the great blind pulp fiction hack, Homer:
One idea essential to a primitive epic style is that the good is not separable (anyway at first level judgments) from a life of straightforward worldly success in which you keep certain rules; the plain satisfactions are good in themselves and make great the men who enjoy them. From this comes the 'sense of glory' and of controlling nature by delight in it. It is absurd to call this a 'pre-moralistic' view, since the rules may demand great sacrifices and it is shameful not to keep them; there is merely a naive view of the nature of good. (Both a limitation of the things that are good and a partial failure to separate the idea of good from the idea of those things.)
As I mentioned in my previous post, the pre-moralistic bit which is a bit confusing - would seem to be a swipe at Arthur Waleys The Way and Its Power, in which much is made of auguristic-sacrificial points of view, versus moral ones. Empson says this opposition is false. That he is right about this is sufficiently demonstrated by the fact that every James Bond movie begins with an auguristic-sacrificial ceremony the giving of the gadgets by Q. (Waleys version of Bond is the Duke of Chou, who has some telecommunicationally efficacious jade discs and tortoise shells.) But every James Bond movie is a morality tale, just well, a naïve one. The equation of straightforward worldly success with keeping certain simple rules.
The naïve fallacy of the primitive epic style is not to leave ethics out, for the sake of good things. The fallacy is to have a strong conception of moral goodness and a strong emphasis on material goodness and never to explore the odd contingency of the linkage. Of course, stories are free to suppress this or practically any other fallacy by never allowing any counter-example to arise. You stuff the huge crack between contingency and necessity with the good straw of glory in success. But to an even mildly sophisticated eye the cheat is obvious; so the inhabitants of these stories must look like well, wise fools; fools whose peculiar brand of idiocy graces them with charmed lives.
To be hero of some stock genre tale chivalry, capes and tights, swords and sorcery, secret agency is most frequently to suffer a sort of enforced self-oblivion and moral idiocy. At least thats the risk. You are obliged, as a point of convention, not to notice your own essential, highly artificial nature. You are governed by rules that you cannot note without breaking frame, which is not allowed. And not to know who you are, why you do what you do? Well, the unexamined life is not worth living, according to a famous authority on the subjct. Most genre heroes are better off dead by that benchmark.
So the worlds of genre heroes are playpens for children, in effect not just because children are often doing the reading or viewing (though that is hardly a coincidence) but also because of the artificial barriers and padding necessarily installed to preserve heroes from the effects of their silly lives. You couldnt just release these poor things into nature. Theyd never make it. In Dr. No Bond surely manages to irradiate and render uninhabitable the Caribbean by melting down the nuclear reactor/conversation pit but his mission is a success. He is not tried for crimes against humanity. Reed Richards (thats Mr. Fantastic to you) is forever inventing things on top of the Baxter Building, and forgetting about what he invented last month next month, and opening up portals to the Negative Zone, with blithe disregard for the interests and safety of the inhabitants of Manhattan. Heroes have big boxes of toys, and never put away their toys when they are done, and are always making a mess with their toys. There must be parents we don't see, cleaning this stuff up.
Getting back to our rule: keep the goods in view fine clothes and expensive gear and treat them as indexing moral goodness. Ludicrous fallacy. Anyone capable of treating a link between superhero costumes and moral goodness as conceptually (as opposed to sartorially) tight is not going to make it in the real world, not morally. This is, of course, Don Quixote's problem, too. His morals are hopelessly naive.
So the road to mock-heroic is downhill and easy. You dont have to do anything really; just neglect to get out in front and heroically stop the parody from happening; forebear to install the conventional safety features that keep moral absurdity from erupting.
Running around in tights with boy wards in the night, indeed.
But there is a countervailing movement. Empson makes an important point in his continuation of the passage about heroic epic. The naivete of the primitive heroic conception of the good can be the source of an odd illusion, seen through layers and layers of subsequent sophistication.
The naïve view is so often more true than the sophisticated ones [cue attitude of jaded weariness with vanity and artificiality of court/modern life] that this comes in later ages to take on an air of massive grandeur; it gives a feeling of freedom from humbug which is undoubtedly noble, and the Homeric heroes support this by the far from savage trait of questioning the beliefs they die for [e.g. Helen is a bit of a tramp, but what the Hades.] Stock epithets about the good wine or the well-built gates imply so one always rightly feels; such a thing essentially has virtue in it, is a piece of virtue; a later reader feels this to be symbolic, a process of packing all the sorts of good into a simple one. Material things are taken as part of a moral admiration, and to a later reader (with less pride, for example, in the fact that his culture uses iron) this seems an inspiring moral paradox like those of pastoral to one who knows how to live the ideal is easily reached.
So a sophisticated reader characteristically misreads heroic as an expression of the pastoral paradox of the complex in the simple - perhaps through a failure to keep in mind certain basic facts about the history of metallurgy, but in general through an over-reading of something that really wasnt thinking very far ahead. Stuff that is simple through a failure to consider sophisticated alternatives can seem like a wise reproach to a sophistication, if you are a jaded sophisticate.
An example from the high-end of the brow market. Empson makes an aside: Shakespeares Troilus and Cressida is often taken as a sort of parody of the Iliad, but there is little in it that Homer did not imply. Troilus and Cressida (now I am completing the good critics thought) is a murky, cynical, Montaignean meditation on the pettiness of great men, who are afflicted with comic and unsightly mental tics and low urges. Homer is no true son of Montaigne, but oddly all that is needed to turn Homer into Montaigne is to release stuff in Homer, pent up behind the artificial strictures of genre. You vent a little more steam about how everyone thinks Helen is a slut; Hector is a bit of a big play up and play the game schoolboy; give Ulysses a Nixonian scowl; let Thersites rip. Buggery, buggery. All in the original, strictly speaking. Silly asses are they. But the fact that heroes can be silly asses makes us wonder whether silly asses can be heroes. Because there seems to be some lingering attraction to the simplicity of the primitive heroic model. The grandeur is only made stranger, not undone, by all the idiocy that underlies it. This is a typically Montaignean equivocal teeter-totter of a psychological and moral equation. (Not that all Shakespeare is Montaignean, but Troilus and Cressida is. I have a pet theory about how the play was not merely thematically but linguistically inspired by John Holofernes Florios first English translation of Montaigne, Apology For Raymond Sebond in particular. But never mind my crank theories.)
Back to the low end of the heroic market, by way of solidifying the connection with pastoral via mock-pastoral. One more passage from Empson about proletarian literature and folk literature. I should add: proletarian literature is a less lively topic today than in 1935, when this was written. But the subject, defined broadly, has not gone away.
The wider sense of the term [proletarian literature] includes such folk literature as is by the people, for the people, and about the people. But most fairy stories and ballads, though by and for are not about; whereas pastoral though about is not by or for. The Border Ballads assume a society of fighting clans who are protected by their leaders since leaders can afford expensive weapons; the aristocrat has an obvious function for the people, and they are pleased to describe his grandeur and fine clothes. (This pleasure in him as an object of fantasy is the normal thing, but usually there are forces the other way.) They were class-conscious all right, but not conscious of class war. Pastoral is a queerer business, but I think permanent and not dependent on a system of class exploitation.
I hope it is clear (Im not going to bother to explain) how most stock genre adventure fiction, from Homeric heroes to superheroes to secret agents to swords and sorcery - are basically fairy story border ballads in which a small band of protectors of society are held up for admiration in large part on account of their fine gear. What is interesting, Empson notes, is the way that this genre Crom knows it has its apparently exhaustible limits can be oddly and fertilely married with pastoral. You just muck with the 'about', 'by' and 'for' so that you have a heroic narrative appropriate to bumpkin audiences admiring aristos, but a moral mood or moods appropriate to aristos consdescendingly admiring bumpkins. Thus, action heroes afflicted with hopelessly naïve conceptions of the good can acquire a new, permanent, self-sustaining literary basis as protagonists of wise fool literature. Superheroes, in particular, may go from being admired aristocrats to rudely mechanical bumpkins, staging oddly significant dramas whose shallow crudity is somehow the deep point. (Well, now Im going beyond Empson a bit. And I'll try to go further tomorrow.)
Superheroes are not exactly rustics (although there are good jokes to be made about Supermans hometown.) But, at the hands of writers like Alan Moore, they are functionally like rustics in pastoral literature. But the fact that they started out as heroes makes this a marriage of heroic and pastoral via the mock. And pure mockery gets in, too. And pure heroism never goes out. So we really have an astonishingly rich palette of moods and modes. And quite a number of them can be expressed at once. And Pratchett has the magic touch of writing parody that is cynical-sentimental and serious-silly and realist-romantic and mature-child-cult in mood. Because he has the whole mock-pastoral wise-fool palette at his fingertips. But that's enough for tonight.
UPDATE: Ray responds.
"One way to de-simplify is to display those results: Don Quixote riding the bomb that'll trigger the Doomsday Device, hee-yah!; or Troilus and Cressida, even: A Trojan Ending. That's intellectually respectable, but there's something unlovably smug and stand-offish about it, with a whiff of titillation-and-punishment hypocrisy."Yes, that's the trick and the trouble, isn't it?