Thursday, January 28, 2010

What Kind of 91 Years Is Spent in So Much Anger?

So here’s my thing with J. D. Salinger. For me, it all started with how irritating Holden Caulfield was. His character development didn’t really matter, though understanding the character as an ironic commentary on the quest for sincerity alleviated this somewhat. Despite my detatched view of Holden, I can never avoid holding him in contempt myself. He has a vision of a perfect world, and then holds the world in absolute contempt because it won’t conform to his vision. And I can’t get past the stupendous immaturity of that worldview.

And also, there’s Mark David Chapman.

The reclusiveness of his life was a major irritant for me as well. Now, I’ve also become a big Thomas Pynchon fan, so you may ask about any hypocrisy between my love of Pynchon and my irritation by Salinger over the reclusiveness. There’s a difference between the two in their hiding. Pynchon isn’t belligerent about his reclusiveness. He lives in New York state like a normal person. He just isn’t photographed. I mean, Pynchon was on The Simpsons making fun of his own reclusiveness. His animated self was wearing a paper bag over his head standing next to a huge sign that directed you to his house, while he flagged people down on the highway to “Get your picture taken with a reclusive author!” Pynchon could joke about his hideaway along with you.

Salinger didn’t just hide in his house; he hid with a snarl of contempt for anyone who would even approach him. He refused to publish anything, despite it eventually becoming general knowledge that he was still working even while he lived off the substantial royalties still collected from Catcher. If it was perfectionism, it infested him to the point where it became almost pointless. Despite writing huge amounts, no one ever saw it, and there were doubts that anyone ever would.

Oh yeah, and Mark David Chapman.

This is the other, more sympathetic reason Salinger never published. From the very moment when Catcher was published, people sympathized with Holden Caulfield, to the point where they sincerely took on his contempt for the phony, for hypocrites, into their own lives. But they didn’t realize that the whole point of Holden’s character was to show the futility of a life that refuses to compromise with even the minor hypocrisies and inconsistencies that are necessary for life in the world. Now here were people taking Holden Caulfield of all people as a role model?

The worst of these worshipers of Holden, if we’re talking about consequences unintended by the author, was Mark David Chapman. This was a mentally disturbed man who needed help and guidance, and found it in a directly literal understanding of Holden Caulfield’s acidic contempt for phonies, for people who say they have one belief, but live according to another. The paradigm phony for Chapman was John Lennon, who professed values of peace and love while living the high life in a New York penthouse and going through long periods of Hollywood lifestyles and drug abuse. Chapman considered himself a hero worthy of Holden, and Salinger, when he rid the world of that ultimate phony.

Mark David fucking Chapman.

If I’ve learned anything about literature, it’s that great literature has no ideology. Whatever instruction manual you find in a genuinely great work of art is whatever you bring there yourself. You can read Oliver Twist entirely accurately as a condemnation of exploitation in the name of profit, and a celebration of the self-made capitalist working his way up from the bottom. And you’d be right both times, no matter what Dickens himself might have thought. A writer can only be responsible for the words s/he writes, but never how those words are understood, taken up, and carried forward. Maybe Salinger really did intend to indict Holden for his myopically selfish idiocy, but there were a lot of people who came to Catcher struggling for a way of living that could approach authenticity, consistency, coherence, and truth without hypocrisy. Holden may have been an egotistical fool to me, but he was a mirror to millions more. Really, Holden Caulfield and a self-absorbed teenager just reflect each other.

That, I think, was Salinger’s goal in writing. He saw a kind of innocence in youth that was washed away by the compromises of adulthood, and all his books tried to capture that adolescent innocence. But the innocence of youth, the innocence of a life that doesn’t yet have to make deals in a tough and messy world, is an innocence of extremism. It’s a refusal to compromise, a demand that the world be just as I want it to be because it is right that it be right and I am right to make it right! To deal with that world, to move among it and negotiate it, is just that: a negotiation. Life in the world entails compromises, and in the second half of his life that Salinger spent away from the world, he compromised nothing.

Really, Salinger will always be associated with Holden for just this reason. It wasn’t just that Holden is his most iconic character in popular consciousness. Holden was a character whose very existence, A Catcher in the Rye, was defined by his incredible sincerity, consumed by his yearning for a perfect and totally fair world. That’s an incredible dream to have. But learning to let go of that dream and understand the universe as being great precisely because it can never be perfect, because it is a place of disorder and craziness and compromise, that’s the sign of a mature personality, of someone who can be joyful in the deepest, strongest, most true sense.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Patches of Scenery in the Past and Future at Once

In the weeks since I’ve gotten back to quite a busy semester, I haven’t really blogged anything. I decided to drop the gossipy post I wrote about my time in St John’s. Suffice to say that my friends who are doing well are doing rather well, and the rest should really move to the opposite side of the country. Or at least Montreal. Cabs in St John’s are now impossible to flag down now that they’re the regular targets of rich coke-addled morons visiting back from Fort MacMurray. The downtown is marvellously beautiful as always, only slightly marred by the charred gap in the joined buildings on Water street from the last fire.

However, the best part of my month so far has been my week in Cuenca. I don’t count having to stay the night in Quito airport or the non-existent internet connection at my hotel among my highlights. But the conference itself offered some wonderful ideas to steal, we had a formal reception with the mayor of the city, and I made some pleasant and intelligent new friends, one of whom has even given me a lead on a job when I finish my degree in 2012.

The heat of the tropics was not particularly hot, hovering around a comfortable low to middle twenties every day. The architecture was beautiful, a blend of buildings constructed over three centuries in Spanish, French/Spanish, French, and occasionally industrial American, styles. The streets were narrow, and mostly one-way, at least in old Cuenca, where I spent all my time. There were churches everywhere, magnificent stone buildings where there were daily masses held, all of which had impressively high audiences. On the way to the formal conference dinner, a couple of other attendees from my hotel wanted to take pictures inside. It was during a service, and I walked behind them for a moment, but had to step outside. The aura of their submission and devotion was too powerful for me, and I began to have trouble breathing.

Being out of breath was especially common in a city eight thousand feet in the Andes. Walking from my hotel to the University of Cuenca, where the conference was being held, I had to cross a small river over a stone bridge that consisted of three stories of stone steps. Walking down the stairway, even though it was crumbling on the edges of some steps, gave a fantastic view of the university and surrounding houses spread out through the valley between enormous green mountains. The university itself was peppered with pictures of Ché, sometimes two stories tall, along official buildings. I felt a strange pride at being in a place where leftist revolution was actually taken seriously, not just a stereotype on the walls of politically ignorant guitarists.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

We Interrupt South American Stories for a Party Political Broadcast

This is pretty much the only political issue I can get excited about, since my own country's leaders are arrogant imbeciles. Stewart, Colbert, and Conan are the only people I can believe in anymore. I think I'm not alone here.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Written From a Cheap Hotel With a Spotty Wireless Connection in the Middle of Cuenca: Part Two, Doctor Who

When I was staying in Toronto overnight with my friend / former professor Dr Garrett, I caught on his quite efficient broadband internet David Tennant’s last episode of Doctor Who. I had seen part one of “The End of Time” the day after Xmas over the internet at my mother’s house, and have taken in events such that I can give a solid review of my thoughts.

I’ve only seen four regenerations ‘live’ in the chronology of the show. Of course, I wasn’t alive for most of them. I saw Colin Baker become Sylvester McCoy, but this was actually the first episode of Doctor Who I ever saw, at age five, so I had no attachment to Colin’s Doctor. I didn’t even really respect Colin’s Doctor until I returned to the show in the mid-2000s, exploring his character in novels and audios, which let me see his much-maligned television stories in a better light.

In 1996, I watched Sylvester turn into Paul McGann, but knew too little of the backstory in the Seventh Doctor novels for it to have appropriate impact, and the script was too mediocre for me to care. Like Colin, Paul’s Doctor was one who grew on me after rediscovery. The foreshadowing of Sylvester’s regeneration in the novels was actually quite similar to how David’s last year was developed, as Sylvester’s grand plans wound down to a surprising death in a random act of violence.

Then in 2005, I saw Christopher Eccleston become David Tennant. We had known this was coming because of a news leak from the production after broadcast of the first new series episode. So there was a touch of dissonance, as I knew Christopher would die, but no one on the show did. And Christopher’s regeneration was a kind of consummation of the character. Christopher’s Doctor was traumatized by his role in the Time War and the destruction of his people. This trauma defined his Doctor, hardened him and at times gave him a kind of death wish. Rose’s willingness to sacrifice herself to save him inspired his own sacrifice to save her. Christopher’s Doctor was at peace when he regenerated, able to accept his new body as a new beginning for his life.

David’s regeneration this New Year’s Day was of an utterly different sort, because the Doctor himself could see premonitions of his death long before it happened. Early in season four, Ood Sigma told him that his “song is ending soon.” And he heard the same thing from the psychic on the bus in “Planet of the Dead,” adding that “he will knock four times.” The story arc of the 2009 specials was David’s Doctor travelling alone confronting and running from the inevitability of this event. “The End of Time” saw him face this inevitability.

David’s Doctor stood out most in his enthusiasm for life, sometimes acting like a giddy child when he can defeat a destructive force or save a life that otherwise would have ended. These moments were insufferable at times, but they best embodied the simple joy at being alive that David’s Doctor was all about. I remember in the forum discussions of “Love and Monsters,” one of the most contentious elements of that story was how he saved Ursula’s life, by embedding her face and neural architecture in a paving slab. Many fans said it would have been better to die, but that was an essential moment of David’s character: any life is better than death. That’s why he saved River Song and her crew in the virtual world of The Library’s computer in “Forest of the Dead:” they were no longer bodily alive, but lived for thousands of years as mental patterns in the computer’s Matrix.

So when David is faced with his own death, he avoids it at all costs. When the Ood reveal the return of The Master on Earth, he is sure that confronting him will lead to his death, the four-times knocking being the drumbeat The Master heard in his head since he was a child. All his conversations with Wilf, his companion for this story, are the reflections of two old men facing the end of each other; Wilf with his old age and The Doctor with his premonition.

Part One is basically exposition of the situation, examples of the typical tropes of the series setting up the pieces by which the story’s real conflict will become clear and be resolved. The increasingly insane Master cruelly and literally devours others to keep his degrading resurrected body alive. A small-minded businessman plays with technology he doesn’t understand for selfish purposes, while two mysterious aliens, Vinvocci, lurk in the background. All the publicity leading up to the broadcast focussed on these elements so that we thought this was what the story was really about. Then the episode ends, revealing the Timothy Dalton led Time Lords about to return.

Part Two opens with a meeting of the Time Lord High Council on the eve of the Time War’s end, when The Doctor is about to use ‘The Moment,’ the weapon that will burn away the Dalek fleets and Gallifrey alike. But Dalton’s Rassilon angrily and violently refuses to die, a malevolent reflection of David’s Doctor’s refusal to give in to the inevitable. And he formulates the real scheme, seeding The Master, as a boy, with the sound that will drive him mad, and sending a Gallifreyan diamond to Earth just after The Doctor and Wilf flee to the Vinvocci ship in orbit to plan their counter-attack against The Master. All the time, the two old men contemplate with terror and sadness what they are prepared to do to save the Earth, whether they are willing to kill The Master to save humanity.

The Master discovers the diamond, and in his investigation of it, uses it as an anchor to lead Gallifrey back to reality, sitting ominously next to Earth. When the Doctor discovers the existence of the Gallifreyan diamond, he takes Wilf’s service revolver, which he had refused to use against The Master, to use against his own President. Here we finally discover the truth behind The Doctor’s destruction of Gallifrey: as Davros and the Daleks planned at the end of season four, the Time Lords were about to destroy all reality, to exist as consciousness alone. Rassilon would end the Time War by destroying the entire universe, and leaving the Time Lords as beings of pure energy. Rassilon’s refusal to die transformed him into someone willing to kill everything else.

Of course, Rassilon is defeated with the help of The Master, indignant at being reduced to a pawn. Gallifrey and the Time Lords return to die in the Time War, and The Master disappears. The Doctor thinks he has beaten the inevitability of his own end, until he hears four faint knocks: Wilf, trapped in a chamber that will soon flood with deadly radiation, and the only way to release him is to climb in the chamber’s twin to be fatally irradiated himself. Wilf urges The Doctor to let him die, because he’s already an old man, and David is enraged at the unfairness of it all. He has survived a battle with his life-long enemy and the most powerful Time Lord ever to live, but now faces death to save one old man. After all that he has achieved, his reward is his own demise. But he strides into the chamber, telling Wilf to be quick after unlocking the door.

He steps out of the chamber, thinking he has survived, but noticing that his cuts have healed: the regeneration is slow, but it’s begun. And so he goes for his reward, an epilogue that the general fandom sees as too sentimental, but that I see as a perfect summation of David’s Doctor. He, probably in great pain, holds off his regeneration, travelling to visit briefly his former companions who have meant the most to him, and gives them a second chance at life.

He saves Martha and Mickey from being shot by a Sontaran sniper. He gives Wilf a wedding gift for Donna and her new husband, both working minimum wage jobs: a £10-million lottery ticket for the next day. He passes Jack, in despair over his actions in Children of Earth, a note introducing him to Alonso Frame, the Stovian Titanic midshipman from “Voyage of the Damned,” offering the isolated Jack a new connection in the world, a new start for the immortal man. He visits the granddaughter of Joan Redfern, the nurse he fell in love with in “Human Nature,” seeking to know if Joan was ever happy again, pleased to know that she was. He saves Sarah Jane’s son Luke from being hit by a passing car, and finally visits Rose. It’s the first hours of 2005, a few months before she met Christopher’s Doctor, and David stands in the shadows of an alleyway, wishing Rose to have a great year.

She leaves, and David, doubled over in pain, staggers back to the TARDIS. David’s Doctor was shaped by a reaction to the despair of Christopher’s, his character informed most deeply by a love of life and a desire to improve the lives of those he cared about. This was why he didn’t go straight back to the TARDIS, why he held off regenerating to say goodbye and give one more life to his deepest friends. After all that, he is on the verge of tears as his regeneration begins, but they are not of happiness: “I don’t want to go!” he whimpers, and sets the TARDIS on fire with the pent-up energy of his transformation.

Matt Smith’s first actions as The Doctor are a radical break from David’s character, simply because he seems completely indifferent to the story we’ve just seen. He is the clearest indication that the story of Russell T Davies’ Doctor Who is over, and that an entirely new path for the show as begun with Steven Moffat in charage, Matt Smith as The Doctor, and Karen Gillan as companion Amy Pond. I think the closest analogue in the history of the show may be the weirdness of Tom Baker’s Doctor and the heightened creepiness of his early years under Phillip Hinchcliffe. Steven has a similar reputation for frightening stories, Matt can be seen in the trailer below to be utterly idiosyncratic in his eccentricity, and Amy seems to be quite a match for it. I can tell a lot from a pair of googly eyes.

To days to come, and all my love to long ago.