YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

January 26, 2013

Decoding “Call me Ishmael” and The Following

Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan Poe

The new Fox horror-thriller series The Following has elicited mixed reviews, for instance though The Huffington Post welcomes the new arrival, a Los Angeles Times review is annoyed that the use of Edgar Allen Poe’s oeuvre is misleading, for Poe unambiguously took the side of detectives, not criminals. (http://www.latimes.com/features/books/jacketcopy/la-et-jc-woe-is-poe-the-tv-show-the-following-is-a-horror-20130121,0,3709889.story).  But critic Carolyn Kellog distorts Poe’s writing, which, as a whole, takes a strong stand against the French Revolution, the fearsome guillotine (“The Pit and the Pendulum”?) and the entrance of mass politics upon the world scene, a locale that was formerly monopolized by aristocrats, Kings, and the Church. I have argued elsewhere that there is a strong Tory subtext to other popular detective television shows, binding autodidact, somewhat unstable detectives such as Bobby Goren (Law and Order Criminal Intent) or Patrick Jane (The Mentalist) to serial killers such as “Nicole Wallace” or “Red John.” (In both these series, Moby-Dick and the obsessive monomaniac Captain Ahab are frequently mentioned.)  In a related narrative, social psychologists and other academic liberals associated with the Roosevelt administration blamed mass murderer Adolf Hitler on mass politics and the deployment of propaganda through the burgeoning mass media. If my analysis is correct, then the “Hollywood liberals” who dominate movies and television writing are crypto-Tories and antidemocrats, notwithstanding their populist love for “the People” whom they defend against the depredations of finance capital and its offshoots in the “Nazi” Republican Party.

In the following excerpt from a draft of my book Hunting Captain Ahab, I mentioned Poe’s story “William Wilson”. I could have added his lesser known story “The Man of the Crowd” (a figure of the death-dealing Romantic Wandering Jew and a symbol of the revolutionary mob). This excerpt starts with the last words of the allegorical novel that preceded Moby-Dick, narrated by a character Melville named “Taji.”

[ms. excerpt:] Melville’s Mardi concludes with his salute to Milton and an acknowledgment of their shared peril, dove-like, god-like, “brooding on the vast abyss.” Taji has “seized the helm” with “eternity…in his eye.”

“Now I am my soul’s own emperor; and my first act is abdication! Hail! realm of shades!”–and turning my prow into the racing tide, which seized me like a hand omnipotent, I darted through.

Churned in foam, that outer ocean lashed the clouds; and straight in my white wake, headlong dashed a shallop, three fixed specters leaning o’er its prow: three arrows poising. And thus, pursuers and pursued flew on, over an endless sea.[end Mardi excerpt]

Melville’s Satanic self-assertion as writer and social critic was linked to ambivalent feelings about departed relatives whose deaths he imagined his (and their) flaws had hastened.  These were flaws he associated with Hebraic Puritans, the bad Jews whom Tories claimed had delivered the world-destroying materialist epistemology.  In his Tory mood, the “rebel senses” were the keys that unlocked state secrets to over-reaching “citizen-kings.” Father Mapple’s Sermon instructed Ahab; Taji, Mapple, and Ahab were repudiated by Ishmael.  Two incompatible definitions of “balance” were at odds: for Ishmael, the lesson of Narcissus was the key to it all.

“Let me call myself, for the present, William Wilson.”

A depressed young man with a classical education, well-born but fallen on hard times, narrates the tale of a mad whale hunt from the vantage point of the lone survivor.  His first words, “Call me Ishmael” may be a rectification of the too deferential opening sentence of Poe’s “William Wilson,” the story of a dissipated student and his stalking conscience whom he finally stabs in the mirror, thus destroying himself.  Since Ishmael tells us at once that the legend of Narcissus is “the key to it all,” the reader may sense he is not reading the commonplace tale of a White Whale and his pursuers, but a work with literary ambitions and mythic resonances. And since the bargain between Faust and the devil is also discussed, and since Ahab instructs his first mate that the whale hunt is an allegory (Ahab to Starbuck: “Hark ye, the little lower layer,”) the reader might surmise that nothing that transpires is to be taken as a literal representation, that the unclassifiable composition has something to do with the search for knowledge in the modern world at a time of waning upper-class authority and the not unrelated encounter with non-Western societies.

[Poe:]  What say of it?  What say [of] CONSCIENCE grim.  That spectre in my path?  (Epigraph to Poe’s “William Wilson,” publ. 1839) [end, ms. excerpt]

FabularFilms_WilliamWilson

We are left with a looming question: What persons and what institutions determine the precise content of our superegos? And what institutions and practices have so weakened our “consciences” that serial killers and other psychopaths/sociopaths pick up a weapon and murder their families and/or their surrogates? Why does the auxiliary television material to THE FOLLOWING advertise “a love story” between the detective (played by Kevin Bacon) and the serial killer (played by James Purefoy)? Is Poe’s “William Wilson” more timely than ever? Hint: the answer will not be found in blaming modernity, the internet, public education,  and its alleged narcissistic and Faustian characters. (On the perils of the internet, see https://clarespark.com/2010/05/20/criminal-minds-and-the-pathology-of-rural-america/. The internet as a source of pathology was briefly mentioned in the second episode of THE FOLLOWING. See https://clarespark.com/2009/09/17/moderate-men-and-dirty-jews-part-two/, on the general ignorance even among intellectuals regarding antisemitism and its dynamics.)


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May 18, 2012

“Smash” and the demonic

Theresa Rebeck and Jess LynnI will get to Smash in a minute. I watch a lot of television, and have previously blogged about some of the ‘classier’ series, noting how the same intertwined themes are reiterated that have occupied culture in the West since the invention of the printing press:

  1. The authority of science and empiricism versus the claims and ordering of religious belief.
  2. Worldliness versus other-worldliness, sometimes expressed as the conflict between the world, the flesh, and the devil. (Nouveaux riches, like advertising men, are the devil’s disciples. Bruno Heller’s The Mentalist plays with this theme constantly, see https://clarespark.com/2011/05/20/the-mentalist-melville-blake-and-israel/.)
  3. With Promethean romanticism, the lure of fame and hyper-individualism as a threat to “traditional family values”.
  4. And flitting and in and out of all of the above, the thrill of the “demonic” as allied to “the  mob.”
  5. The role of the Broadway stage, movies, and television, now the internet in star-making or  conversely, dethroning or debunking “authority” and/or religion. The health-conferring country versus the crazy-making city, that unleashes  illicit ambition and Faustian bargains.
  6. How the social movements that accelerated in the 1960s have plunged American culture into heightened conflict regarding all of the above.
  7. Fat people versus thin people, and the health effects therein.

On to the super-expensive NBC-produced backstage musical, Smash. Theresa Rebeck, artistic creator, has left the show, for reasons that are not publicly stated. Rebeck is illustrated above, with a colleague, Sam Gold.

I have watched every episode twice. The actors and writers who have attempted to describe it have been mostly vague in their public pronouncements regarding their own characters, nor do they pretend to see deeply into the admitted complexities of Marilyn Monroe and/or her obvious predecessor the fabulous and similarly self-destructive Marilyn Miller, for whom she (no longer Norma Jean) was named. Rather, the series is organized around the conflicts I listed above: for instance, Marilyn, though a “bombshell” in the sex appeal department, has an underlying innocence, wholesomeness, and sweetness that the Jack Davenport character, director “Derek” (like JFK before him), sees in the Katherine McPhee character (Karen), in the series, a corn-fed Iowan with ordinary middle class parents, unlike her competition, the treacherous Megan Hilty (“Ivy,” the daughter of an aging Broadway star played by Bernadette Peters, who may expect too much of her daughter).  The country (as represented by “Iowa” Karen) wins the coveted starring role, partly because Derek has a hallucination in which she appears (more than once) in an entirely modest dress, of lavender with white trim; moreover she is not zoftig, unlike her rival Ivy (let alone size 14 MM), the easy urban girl, who, in her crushing defeat in the last episode is seen taking a full bottle of tranquilizers, rhyming with the death of MM from barbiturates and chloral hydrate.

The fact that Karen is living “in sin” with her (Asian) Indian boyfriend, does not detract from her purity, for she resists the temptation to sleep with Derek, unlike Ivy. Indeed, Karen is loyal to the play (still in workshop or previews) over temptations from a record producer who could make her famous without the slog through ensemble singing and dancing. In one of the funnier moments, Karen indignantly rebukes her lover in his proposal of marriage, for she exclaims that the show is “in tech!” and how dare he expect her to focus on anything outside the theater, though at that moment, she is only in the chorus.

On the fat versus thin battlefield, it is worth noting that tall and slender Katherine McPhee battled an eating disorder at one time, and that neither Marilyn Miller nor Marilyn Monroe was skinny. They were plump and shapely bottle blondes, and MM succumbed to a Hollywood makeover.

Marilyn Miller as brunette

One more item: the pilot for the show begins with McPhee singing Midwesterner Judy Garland’s signature song “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Of course the romantic yearning these days is for stardom, which is not necessarily the same as fame. McPhee has a big voice, and I wonder if she is being promoted as another Judy Garland, whom she slightly resembles and perhaps imitates in her body movements. Is it only a coincidence that Judy Garland played Marilyn Miller in the 1946 MGM film, Till The Clouds Roll By, a movie whose chief theme is the supremacy of the “theater” over the whims of any individual, surely the ideology promoted by Smash. A nice collectivist touch that follows progressive ideology, such as the hopeful  “Look For The  Silver Lining,” Marilyn Miller’s most famous number.

There is really not much more to say about this musical, which I found compelling and well-acted despite the annoyingly weak book; anyone can see the conflict between traditional attachments and the bohemian lives of actors; Goethe laid it out in his contrasting Wilhelm Meister novels long ago. But anyone who expects music and lyrics of the quality of Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, the Gershwin brothers, Rodgers and Hart, Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Frank Loesser, Kurt Weill, Leonard Bernstein, Yip Harburg and Harold Arlen, Stephen Sondheim, Lerner and Loewe, or their antecedents in opera, operetta, or Gilbert and Sullivan, will be disappointed, for the music is at best, mediocre, signifying the general degeneration of middle class culture since the 1960s, and perhaps the decline of the singing actress with a large vocal range. (Though I must admit that I like McPhee’s singing and dancing. She does remind me of Judy Garland in a favorable way, and both were indebted to female black singers.)

Have we become a country of characters, over-identifying with fictional or fictionalized movie and television stars, whom we worship, neglecting our responsibilities to ourselves as striving, creative beings? Are we living our unique lives or are we hypnotized by the lives of others, fixated on “stars” and happily regressed so as to be ever more manipulated by celebrities who do not share our needs and interests? [Added 6-13-12: Everything I have written above can be applied to the better-written My Week With Marilyn. Michelle Williams, though slender, does a more convincing rendition of suffering Marilyn and she has the singing skills to be plausible.]

[Added Season two, as of 3-19-13]: The focus has shifted from rivalry over who is to play Marilyn Monroe to the ongoing debate in popular culture: “commercial theater” vs. “fringe”-type romantically defiant off-broadway theater. It is too soon to determine how the story will resolve the various triangles, but Katherine McPhee has returned with larger breasts, and there is a new love interest, indeed, a triangle between her, the director played by Jack Davenport (who so far has gone over to the Romantics), and the angst-ridden young offbeat genius played by Jeremy Jordan. The bad writing has not been amended, notwithstanding the addition of various guest stars designed to boost ratings. To one who grew up loving the musicals of the 20th century, with lyricists of the quality of Stephen Sondheim, Cole Porter, Oscar  Hammerstein II, Alan Jay Lerner, Yip  Harburg, and a slew of other artists, the deterioration in middle-class entertainment can only come as a shock and disappointment.

Internet sources consulted for this blog:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marilyn_Miller. http://web.usi.edu/boneyard/miller.htm

http://www.squidoo.com/MarilynMiller?utm_source=google&utm_medium=imgres&utm_campaign=framebuster#module19718002

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theresa_Rebeck

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marilyn_Monroe. (the latter quotes JFK “sweet and wholesome” public characterization of Marilyn’s notorious Happy Birthday song)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Smash_(TV_series)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marc_Shaiman, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scott_Wittman  (life partners, previous hit Hairspray)

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