Category Archives: what I’m working on

Nostalgia for the Imaginary

So, given that we seem to be opening up—I’ve eaten at restaurants three times in the past two weeks, and after five months of isolation, each time felt like a revelation—I’ll be taking my blog out of “Isolated Thoughts” mode. Hopefully I won’t need to return to it.

I mean, it’s not a big deal, it’s just a way of titling my posts. But I won’t pretend it isn’t a relief, and touch wood hoping I didn’t just jinx it.


The article I’m currently working on is all about The Lord of the Rings, nostalgia, and the ways in which Tolkien imbues various conceptions of “home” with magic. To that end, I’ve been reading a lot of theory about nostalgia as a concept—not something new to me, but I’ve been finding a lot of cool stuff—and thinking as I go about how our own notions and thoughts about “home” inform us, especially in this moment of dislocation and uncertainty. “Home” during a period of self-quarantine and lockdown takes on a weightier significance, both when we are separated from family, and when we are contained with family. I am fortunate that I consider the house I live in with my partner home—but I also miss my family in Ontario, and there is a sense in which my parents’ house will always also be home. The other day my partner Stephanie’s mom visited us for the first time since the pandemic struck, and, because of the fact that St. John’s has loosened restrictions, we went for lunch on a brilliant summer day downtown. I have been many times now to Steph’s family’s house in Clarenville, and it is also now a home to me.

Home, ideally, is where we feel safe and secure. So it is perhaps not surprising that “nostalgia” literally means homesickness: the term was coined in 1688 by a Swiss physician named Johannes Hofer in his medical dissertation, in which he sought to diagnose puzzling illnesses experienced by Swiss people abroad. Reading his account today, it is easy to see that what he is talking about are the physical manifestations of depression and anxiety; what clued Hofer into his patients’ malaises was the fact that when they were told they were being sent home to Switzerland, they almost immediately recovered.


And so Hofer coined a term, a combination of the Greek word nostos (νόστος), meaning homecoming, and algos (άλγος), meaning longing. Or as Milan Kundera put it, “The Greek word for ‘return’ is nostos. Algos means ‘suffering.’ So nostalgia is the suffering caused by an unappeased yearning to return.” In the final episode of the first season of Mad Men, Don Draper gets this translation totally wrong in literal terms, but pretty much hits the nail on the head in spiritual terms:

“It takes us to a place where we ache to go again.” Don Draper’s voice grows rough with emotion as he uses his own family pictures to make his pitch, inadvertently introducing his own emotional ambivalence about his recent separation from his wife. That much may be specific to him, but in terms of advertising, he is—as usual—intuitively shrewd, given that nostalgia’s “ache” isn’t necessarily tied to specific moments or events.

Nostalgia, indeed, can be collective and cultural. And it can be for things that never happened. I said as much in an earlier draft of the article on which I’m working, in a section I discarded, but which works well enough here:

Whenever I have the occasion to teach fantasy—or for that matter, to talk about fantasy in relation to whatever else might comprise the focus of a given class—I always make the assertion that fantasy is, or at least largely has been, an inherently nostalgic genre. In this, I suggest, it shares a sensibility with post-apocalyptic narratives that return survivors to a premodern existence in which moral choices tend to be more starkly delineated. The erasure of the confusions of modernity (or postmodernity, as the case may be) and the return to a more putatively authentic state of being is not substantively different from fantasy’s imagining of alternate, usually neo-medieval realities (the most crucial difference, it should go without saying, is the absence of magic from your average post-apocalyptic story). Usually when I make this assertion in my classes, the students nod along, either accepting my argument without question, or (more likely) not really paying attention. Every so often, however, I am fortunate enough to have a student who raises their hand to protest, “Wait, how can we be nostalgic for something that never happened?” And then we’re off to the races.

My instinctive, snarky response to the question is to say “Ask a Trump voter,” and press the class to speculate on just what moment or phase of American history the Trump campaign was alluding to with the slogan “Make America Great Again.”

I’ll come back to MAGA, but I do want to cite a section of Johannes Hofer’s treatise on nostalgia that resonated rather jarringly. I’m quoting it directly, but have put it into bullet points for clarity’s sake. When listing the ways one might see “the diagnostic signs which indicate an imminent nostalgia,” Hofer enumerates of possible sufferers that:

  • they frequently wander about sad
  •  they scorn foreign manners
  •  they are seized by a distaste of strange conversations
  •  they incline by nature to melancholy
  •  they bear jokes or the slightest injuries or other petty inconveniences in the most unhealthy frame of mind
  •  they frequently make a show of the delights of the Fatherland and prefer them to all foreign things

While some of these “symptoms” are indicative of straightforward depression, the nativism Hofer hints at—the scorn of “foreign manners,” the distaste of “strange conversations”—is certainly symptomatic of the MAGA crowd. Also, the description of thin-skinned humourlessness so entirely describes Trump that it’s a little eerie. And I have to say, it is—perhaps serendipitously—disturbing that the nationalist jingoism suggested by the final indicator refers to the home country as the “Fatherland”–perhaps not a bad reminder that the fascist movements of the 20th century were themselves nostalgic in nature.

But to come back to my discarded passage—I decided against using this section in its original form—I have a shorter, more succinct edit that I still may cut—in part because it’s a bit glib, and it’s probably not the best form in an essay on J.R.R. Tolkien to snark at Donald Trump (though I’m also working on an article about Game of Thrones and The Wire, and I think such snark would be fair game there). That being said, one of the key points I always raise when discussing nostalgia is that it always necessarily entails a certain amount of fabulation: even when remembering a specific happy time or event, nostalgia sands down the edges, embellishes the pleasure, and elides any incidental unpleasantness. So, you remember a summer spent at a cottage in your youth as sunny and idyllic, but your memory leaves out the rainy days, the mosquitoes, and your rage when your little brother cheated at Monopoly. Or as Dylan Moran puts it:

(To be fair, I think I would actively repress memories of Japanese fighting spiders).

In and of itself, unconsciously burnishing happy memories is harmless, except for when your longing for happier days impedes your capacity for happiness in the present, or sabotages your ability to imagine a better future.

And what if you’re nostalgic not for a specific memory, but for something that never happened?

That brings us back to my student’s question: fantasy’s nostalgia isn’t for an actual Narnia or Middle-Earth, but rather a set of qualities evoked by the magical, neo-medieval setting—not least of which is a desire for (post)modernity’s erasure and a return to a simpler, cleaner, less confused world. And when I say “cleaner,” I mean less morally or ethically complex—in which there’s usually an unequivocal evil to be combatted, and a hero destined to do the combatting—but it’s worth thinking about how the larger portion of fantasy fiction does not, despite the usual medieval setting, tend to dwell on, or really even acknowledge the filth and unhygienic reality of a world without sanitation, nor the disease endemic to such contexts.

As it happens, there’s a word for this kind of nostalgia: “anemoia,” which the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows defines as “nostalgia for a time you’ve never known.” (To be clear: not an actual dictionary, but a “fictionary,” developed by writer John Koenig, that features words he coins to fill a lexical gap. It’s actually quite brilliant). And I cannot think of anything more anemoiac than the MAGA desire to return the United States to an imagined past. Though it’s a vanishingly rare thing to use the words “Trump” and “brilliant” in the same sentence, “Make America Great Again” is a genuinely brilliant—and genuinely pernicious—slogan, precisely because it evokes nostalgia for an imaginary past. Its elemental power is grievance, dissatisfaction with the present moment combined with an instinctive belief in America’s greatness; hence, if one is unhappy or disaffected now, it must be because that greatness has been eroded. So there is a powerful but vague sense of decline, but never during any of his campaigning before or after winning the presidency did Trump ever clarify when in American history the U.S. was great. We can infer from his putative concern for blue-collar workers and his preoccupation with factories and coal mines that he’s pointing to the 1950s and 60s, when a working-class job could support a family, but again, he’s never specific—and given the racial animus that stokes much of his rhetoric, one has to imagine that for some of his supporters it’s the 1850s that comes to mind.

But if, for the sake of argument, we assume that it is in fact the 1950s to which MAGA refers, we cannot escape the fact that this vision of America’s history is imaginary. I’d make the obvious point that this was a period of prosperity that solely benefited white men, while marginalizing Blacks and women, and criminalizing LGBTQ people, but it’s not as though that isn’t one of its principal selling points for Trump’s base. There’s also the inconvenient fact that the kind of jobs Trump promised to bring back were only possible then because of strong private sector unions. And then, of course, there’s the even more inconvenient fact that America’s mid-century prosperity was more or less sui generis, an ephemeral economic phase made possible by the fact that the U.S., unlike the rest of the world, emerged from WWII with its manufacturing base intact, and no global economic competition. But let me make you all nostalgic by letting someone else explain this particular historical reality:

Of course, even Trump has been cognizant of the fact that after one term in office, “Make America Great Again” is going to wear thin, hence the shift to the infinitely lamer “Keep America Great.” Unfortunately for him (and, well, everybody), now that his incomparable incompetence in the face of a pandemic and the largest protest movement since the 60s has turned the U.S. into a genuine dumpster fire, we haven’t heard that slogan in a while. Instead, the strategy now seems to be pointing to the current chaos and saying that this is what America will look like under a Biden presidency, and hoping people don’t recognize that this is the reality of the Trump presidency.

Ironically, if (when, please be when) Biden wins in November, part of what will carry him to the White House is nostalgia for Obama’s presidency.

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Isolated Thoughts

I had my first real bout of pandemic-related depression the other day. I woke up from a bad dream whose details I could not recall, but which was coronavirus-related, and the lingering sense of sadness and dread dogged me for the better part of the day as I looked out my office window at the grey and miserable weather that frequently passes as spring in Newfoundland.

It actually took me a few hours to put my finger on why I was feeling down, and it came, weirdly, as something of a surprise. Right. Things are kind of fucked up right now. I had by this point been party to any number of expressions of sadness, depression, anger, frustration, and a host of vagaries of brown study inspired by isolation, anxiety, and worry for the future, all of them communicated over social media. I read every day news stories, think pieces, and op-eds from the seat of my own isolation, connected to the world but separated from it. I go for long walks every day; my grocery shopping is an infrequent but excruciatingly long process as I buy mountains of food and necessities so I don’t have to do it again any time soon, all the while getting annoyed at people who don’t seem to grasp the basics of social distancing or the point of the arrows spaced six feet apart on the store floor. I return home and subject myself to a Silkwood-style scrubbing, and sit again in front of my portal to the world after putting the groceries away.

In a number of ways, this pandemic is the apotheosis of what we once called the postmodern condition, one aspect of which was neatly characterized by Fredric Jameson as the paradox of collectivity experienced in isolation by way of mass media. As traumatic as the assassination of John F. Kennedy was, Jameson writes, it offered a “utopian glimpse” of shared experience, but an experience shared by an atomized population watching television. September 11th, 2001 offered a similar experience, but one rendered uncanny by its familiarity. As Slavoj Zizek pointed out, the true shock of 9/11 wasn’t its novelty, but the haunting sense of “where have I seen this before?” Popular culture had been imagining apocalyptic destruction for years; contra what innumerable pundits were saying in the aftermath, said Zizek, “It wasn’t that reality entered to shatter the illusion, illusion entered to shatter the reality.”

And now we sit in self-isolation watching a pandemic unfold after having imagined it in literally hundreds if not thousands of movies, TV shows, novels, and video games. It is with no small sense of serendipity that I spend part of my days working on a series of articles that have been in the works for some time on post-apocalyptic imaginings: one on zombie apocalypse as an expression of ambivalence to mass culture, one on apocalyptic figurations as an expression of “hopeful nihilism” (the flip side to Lauren Berlant’s formulation of “cruel optimism”), and one on the humanist nostalgia of Emily St. John Mandel’s novel Station Eleven, a novel about the persistence of art in a post-pandemic world. One character in Station Eleven remarks ironically, “It could be worse. There could be zombies.”

apocalypse outfit

It could be worse. One of the more amusing memes circulating on social media is the contrast between how one imagined what their post-apocalypse outfit would look like versus what it actually is—the former being something badass with a lot of leather and guns, and the latter being sweatpants and a housecoat. But what art and narrative offer that real life tends to lack is catharsis. Killing zombies with a crossbow or blasting across the alkaline flats in a souped-up semi with Imperia Furiosa would be harrowing but thrilling; sitting (as I am right now) in flannel pyjama bottoms and a hoodie with a dozen tabs open to different stories in my browser, is, to say the least, a counter-intuitive way to endure a pandemic, and not one that should lend itself to anxiety and depression.

But of course it does. The surprising thing, on reflection, was not that I was depressed the other day, but that it took that long for it to happen. I am, by my count, twenty-two days into self isolation, the first fourteen of which were actual quarantine. My partner Stephanie and I were in Barbados on vacation when the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic and Justin Trudeau strongly encouraged all Canadians abroad to come home. We cut short our time in Barbados, and the relief we felt on making it home after the headache of rebooking flights was palpable; it was good to get home, and we also had the glow of time spent in the Caribbean lingering. And I have been on a half-sabbatical since the start of January, so I’ve more or less been self-isolating and social distancing before I was aware that either expression was a thing. I am, I’m almost a little embarrassed to admit, perfectly well situated to endure the lockdown with minimal issues.

And so I try to keep in the front of my mind the fact that whatever anxiety, frustration, and depression I experience is being experienced tenfold, a hundredfold, by many others. I think of how much worse this would be if it had happened when I was a graduate student living alone in a small apartment on a pittance, and I think of my students, current and former, enduring that now themselves.

My biggest fear is not that the world will be different when all this is over, but that it won’t be—that we won’t have learned the lessons about the fragility of our political and economic system, that those most vital to society aren’t the wealthy but those who get shit done every day, whether they’re stocking shelves or caring for the ill.

It’s a bit ironic to think that one of my standard riffs in my lectures on the nature of power is to get my students to imagine how long my authority as a professor would last into a zombie apocalypse. Think about it, I say: you’ve all paid tuition to sit in this class; I am granted authority both tacit and explicit as someone with a doctorate in this subject to run this class and evaluate your work. The very room is arranged with that power dynamic in mind. But if the zombie apocalypse happens while we’re in here, it’s quite likely that my usefulness will be reduced to being shoved out into the hallway to see if the coast is clear.

I can’t help feeling like we’re sort of in a moment like that now. It’s vital that when we come out the other side of this, we remember who kept things running, who put themselves in harm’s way for minimum wage, and who deserves the greatest consideration when we rethink everything. The biggest problem with our fascination with apocalyptic narratives, as has been observed by Jameson and Zizek and others, is that they comprise a failure of imagination—that it’s easier to imagine the wholesale destruction of capitalism than any sort of functional alternative. This failure, in a nutshell, is what I mean by “hopeful nihilism”—the idea that burning it all down will somehow make way for something better, without any clear idea of what “better” entails. It should go without saying that this kind of thinking was at least partially responsible for the election of Donald Trump (one of my more glib titles for the hopeful nihilism essay is “Were the Zombies Trying to Warn Us About Trump?”).

One sentiment that made the rounds on social media that made me laugh was someone who, commenting on the fact that quarantined Italians were singing from their balconies, said “I can’t sing opera, so I plan to conduct a PowerPoint presentation from my balcony this evening.” I laughed at that, thinking that my equivalent would be to deliver a rambling lecture on postmodernism from my balcony.

As it happens, I don’t have a balcony. So stay tuned for more isolated thoughts.

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A literally fantastic autumn

I have a bad habit of letting this blog lie fallow for months at a time, and then posting something somewhat apologetically and promising to get back into regular posting. Well, I guess it’s that time again! At least this time I posted something substantive without comment first, but now I feel I should offer some explanation for what will hopefully be a more productive summer of blogging.

I’m extremely excited about my fall term: for one thing, I will once again be teaching English 3811: The Lord of the Rings. When I taught this course for the first and so far only time four years ago, I posted an awful lot under the header “Return to Middle-Earth.”


I mean to do a lot more of that, both over the summer and during the term.

I will also be teaching a graduate course that I’ve been working up to over the past two years or so:

ENGL 7352 poster

As my ever-so-clever title suggests, the course will be looking at the intersection between “magic worlds,” as in the world-building and creation of alternative realities in fantasy, and “magic words,” as in the role played by language in the figuration of magic and conjuring, as well as the way in which these imaginary worlds are linguistic and semantic creations.

As you might imagine, that’s a lot of ground to cover in just thirteen weeks, so the reading list is by necessity somewhat eclectic and wide-ranging:

Anonymous, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Jorge Luis Borges, Labyrinths
Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
Neil Gaiman, Sandman: Season of Mists
Lev Grossman, The Magicians
N.K. Jemisin, The One Hundred Thousand Kingdoms
Ursula K. Le Guin, A Wizard of Earthsea
John Milton, Paradise Lost
Thomas More, Utopia
Terry Pratchett, Witches Abroad
Vernor Vinge, True Names

(Students will also be enjoined to have The Fellowship of the Ring and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe under their belts before classes start).

A big chunk of my summer is going to be devoted to prepping this class, both because of the rather large scale of material it entails, but also because doing so feeds into my current research preoccupations. I’ll be posting as I go, using this blog as I so often do: as a means of thinking out loud.

Look for a multi-part series on the whole “expanded universe” phenomenon to lead us off, coming soon.

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Returning to blogging, and a recent symposium

Yes, yes, this blog has lain fallow for quite some time … as usual, it’s not for lack of desire to write or a lack of anything to write about, just … well, a lack of motivation, I suppose. That and just the press of other obligations, professional and otherwise.

But it is strange, I suppose, that I never think of shuttering this blog or otherwise abandoning it—I’m quite proud of a lot of the stuff I’ve written here, and always have the best intentions of getting back to posting on a regular, or at least a semi-regular basis.

So here’s an attempt to get back to it, and hopefully get myself back into the habit of working out my thoughts out loud, as it were—which, really, is the greatest value this forum has for me. I have no illusions that I’ll ever have a huge readership—the stuff I post about and the format I tend to write in (i.e. long) pretty much guarantees that my audience remains somewhat limited—but that doesn’t bother me. I have come to think of this space as an intermediate stage between scribbling in my journal and writing more formally. My ruminations here have more to do with the former, but in putting in out publicly, at least I have to keep myself honest (to a point).

visual symposium

Anyway, the occasion for getting back into it is a symposium in which I took part, organized by a colleague of mine, featuring brief (5-7 minute) presentations on various aspects of visual culture.

Now, keeping an academic-ish presentation to five to seven minutes is hard. I can reliably burn through five to seven minutes at the start of a lecture just clearing my throat. And as anyone who has read my posts on this blog knows, brevity isn’t exactly my strong suit (to quote President Josiah Bartlett, “In my house, anyone who uses one word when he could have used ten just isn’t trying hard”).

But it was a useful exercise; my topic is one I’ve aired on this blog before, namely, maps, fiction, and fantasy. I’ve been kicking around a variety of thoughts and ideas about this for a long time now, but never really had the impetus to find my traction. I don’t know, necessarily, that I’ve got that now, but this talk certainly forced me to distill the key ideas down to the point where I can see a few avenues opening up for future exploration.

The symposium itself went extremely well—five presenters, each of us compressing our thoughts into the crucible of five to seven minutes. It’s always a shame that academics can get so insular in our own research, writing, and teaching—especially in winter, and especially as the semester gets busier—because one thing I love about this job is listening to my brilliant colleagues share their work.

As it turns out, my medievalist colleague John Geck was also presenting on maps, looking at medieval conceptions of space and place, especially in terms of “itinerary” maps that stress the experience of travel as opposed to the abstraction of a god’s-eye empirical perspective. We sat down a few times before the symposium to share ideas, and to see whether our respective topics would have any overlap.

As things happened, they did. Here’s the text of my presentation along with the slides I showed.

1 - fantasy and cartography - title card

What I want to do here is make a bridge from John’s discussion of medieval itinerary maps to the maps we find in fantasy, a genre which for the purposes of my talk could be usefully characterized as the bastard love child of medieval romance and historical fiction.

2 - earthsea

My representative fantasy map, chosen to honour one of the greats. R.I.P. Ursula K. Le Guin.

Given the brevity of this presentation, I need to make one point quickly and hope to stick the landing: that maps and cartography are by definition fictional. Mapping resembles the writing of fiction in at least two principal respects: one, it is mimetic; two, it invariably distorts or deforms what it imitates according to its preoccupations—or, to put it another way, according to the story it wants to tell.

4 - world maps

The fact that we speak of maps as projections is a useful point to keep in mind, considering that term’s use in psychology to refer to forms of ideation.

3 - projections

7 - mercator-peters copy

Wish I’d had time to show the “Cartographers for Social Justice” clip from The West Wing.

All of which is to say nothing of the more overtly fictional elements of mapping, such as the consensual hallucinations of place-names and borders, all of which come freighted with their own histories, stories, conflicts, and connotations. I mean … we live on a peninsula named “Avalon” by Sir George Calvert in the hopes that, like its namesake, it would be paradisaical.

5 - Arthur - Avalon

To take the analogy between mapping and fiction a step further, we could liken the itinerary maps John discussed to the genre of romance, and “empirical” maps to realism … and as I suggested, it is at the intersection of these two that we find fantasy, or at least the kind of fantasy modeled on J.R.R. Tolkien’s example (which is to say, most of it).

8 - GoT - credits

And as those who read fantasy know, maps frequently play a key paratextual role, and are distinct from “real” maps for obvious reasons. They do not render or imitate territory. Maps in fantasy are deterministic, which is to say they define the territory rather than vice versa. They provide readers with a gods-eye view not available to the characters—and in this respect comprise a conflation of fantasy’s premodern and/or quasi-medieval sensibilities and those of modernity’s empirical presumptions.

9 - middle-earth

As a case in point (to use my favourite example): in The Fellowship of the Ring, some time after departing Rivendell, the Fellowship hoves into view of a western spur of the Misty Mountains. When Pippin protests that they must have turned eastward in the night, Gandalf says, “There are many maps in Elrond’s house, but I suppose you never thought to look at them?” (283). To which Gimli the dwarf declares that he needs no map, and proceeds to name the peaks on the horizon. “There is the land where our fathers worked of old, and we have wrought the image of those stone mountains into many works of metal and of stone, and into many songs and tales.”

10 - misty-mountains

Shortly after, Sam confides to Frodo that “I’m beginning to think it’s time we got a sight of that Fiery Mountain, and saw the end of the Road, so to speak. I thought perhaps that this here [mountain] … might be it, till Gimli spoke his piece” (285). Tolkien then observes that “Maps conveyed nothing to Sam’s mind, and all distances in these strange lands seemed so vast that he was quite out of his reckoning.”

A few points here: maps are presented in this instance as all but useless to those who have no wider knowledge of Middle-Earth, and unnecessary for those who do. The provincial hobbits are quite at sea, while Gimli’s rather intuitive knowledge of the landscape evokes the experiential understanding of space and place discussed by John in his talk: Gimli can recognize and name the mountains because of his familiarity with “many songs and tales.”

By contrast, the paratextual map of Middle-Earth provides readers with a privileged perspective, one that lets us know, even without Tolkien’s somewhat patronizing observation, precisely how naïve Sam Gamgee’s hopeful sense of place is.

12 - middle-earth 2

This privileged perspective creates an interesting thematic contradiction at a point in the narrative most deeply embedded in the conventions of medieval quest romance. We as readers can pin Sam and the Fellowship to a specific place—as if we could pull up Google Maps and inform Sir Gawain that he’s just half a kilometer east of Bertilak’s Castle, or let Hansel and Gretel know that if they carry on past the gingerbread house for another hour or so they’ll be literally out of the woods.

This, for the record, is the nub of my particular interest in fantasy: the contradiction of Tolkien’s (and by extension, fantasy’s) nostalgic rendition of medieval romance, and the imaginary but exhaustive empiricism of his invented mythology, for which the map of Middle-Earth functions emblematically, subverting the mystery and caprice of romance with cartographic, historical, and linguistic determinism. Tolkien’s “mythology” is ultimately evocative of Jorge Luis Borges’ Tlon, a fictional world so scrupulously detailed and imagined that it takes on corporeal reality.

13 - tolkien-lewis

This contradiction is doubly interesting insofar as both Tolkien and his good friend C.S. Lewis both created their fantasy worlds in part as a corrective to what they saw as the spiritual aridity of secular, scientific modernity with its emphasis on the empirical at the expense of mystery. Echoing Keats’ injunction against unweaving the rainbow, Tolkien writes in his poem “Mythopoeia” that “I will not walk with your progressive apes, / erect and sapient. Before them gapes / the dark abyss to which their progress tends / … I will not tread your dusty path and flat, / denoting this and that by this and that.” It is thus perhaps something of an irony that Tolkien privately loathed Lewis’ Narnia chronicles, considering them slapdash and careless in their world-building and too reliant upon allegory, and lacking the kind of exhaustive intellectual rigor he would ultimately bring to the creation of Middle-Earth.

I have no conclusion other than to say that this is my starting point from which to explore how this contradiction in the “cartographic imagination,” more broadly considered, is deployed by contemporary fantasists to articulate a secular and humanist worldview.




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New courses, and a new school year

As those who follow my blog know, my posting tends to come in bursts of productivity interspersed by long fallow periods (at this point, I’d estimate my Game of Thrones posts account for about a third of the material here).

I’m hoping the next few months will be more productive. This time last year, I managed to post on a more or less weekly basis about the texts I was doing in my Revenge of the Genres fourth-year seminar; I want to repeat that, this time with a new fourth-year class. Introducing “The Triumph of Death”!

ENGL 4272 - title

Basically, we’re looking at twenty-first century narratives of post-apocalypse—a sub-genre that is coming to rival (if only because of the ubiquity of zombie apocalypse) young adult dystopia as the most prevalent dystopian SF on the market. Here’s our schedule of readings for anyone who wants to play the home version:

Sept. 12-21: Cormac McCarthy, The Road
Sept. 26-Oct. 5: Colson Whitehead, Zone One
Oct. 12-19: Lidia Yuknavitch, The Book of Joan
Oct. 24-Nov. 2: Edan Lepucki, California
Nov. 7-9: Kevin Brockmeier, The Brief History of the Dead
Nov. 14-16: Max Brooks, World War Z
Nov. 21-30: Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven

If you followed my course-based blog posts of last fall, you’ll note two repetitions: Zone One and Station Eleven. That’s due in part to the fact that it was thinking about Station Eleven (I also taught it in my winter SF/F class, so now I’ve basically put it on a course for three straight semesters) that led me to the project I’m currently working on, a book I’m tentatively titling The Spectre of Catastrophe, about—you guessed it—twenty-first century post-apocalyptic narratives. I wrote a draft of an article on Station Eleven, which grew too long, so I hived off a digression about zombie apocalypse to be its own article, which itself grew too long and so I’ve divided it in two. Meanwhile, another digression in the Station Eleven paper gave rise to a meditation on the shift from disaster films in the 1990s, which are preoccupied with the spectacle of catastrophe, to the post-apocalyptic boom of the new century, which is preoccupied with the aftermath of catastrophe. Then the play on “spectacle” vs. “spectre” popped into my head, and suddenly I had a book title.

I made a fair bit of progress writing this past summer, with four articles in varying stages of completion and a reasonably good idea of what the other chapters of the book will look like. And in the interests of keeping the momentum going, I decided that a fourth-year seminar would harmonize nicely and keep these topics in the forefront of my mind during what promises to be an insanely busy fall term.

Hence, the blog posts: once again, I want to post once or twice a week as a supplement to our class, but also as a way of testing out new material (as it were). Words on the page, as my thesis advisor used to say, are money in the bank—even if you don’t end up using them in your finished product.


I’m also teaching two second-year courses this term, one on American literature after 1945, and one on popular culture for our Communication Studies program. The American literature course is a new addition. Prior to this year, our curriculum had two second year American courses, one on 19th and the other on 20th-century U.S. fiction. Last year, my colleague Andrew and I changed that, replacing them with three courses that would cover not just fiction but poetry, non-fiction, and drama as well—on the principle that lower-level courses should be surveys that introduce students to a range of genres and forms. So now we have three second-year courses in American literature: 1776-1865, 1865-1945, and after 1945 (the reasoning behind that periodization might make for a blog post in the near future, as it comprises at least part of my intro lecture on Tuesday).

I’m also returning to Critical Approaches to Popular Culture, a required course for our Communication Studies degree. The English Department absorbed Communication Studies last year; last fall was my first chance to teach the class, and the first time I taught popular culture since 2004-2005, when I taught it at UWO. Western’s version was (and presumably still is) a full-year course, which gives one a certain amount of leisure to develop themes; like every course here at Memorial, this one is a single semester. Twelve and a half weeks can be a remarkably tight time frame to teach, well, anything … hopefully I’ll be learning this year from the mistakes I made last year.

One way or another, I’m happy with my syllabus cover image, even though we’re not doing either The Simpsons or Game of Thrones:


I’m pretty stoked about this incarnation, though, and hopefully will have a post or three inspired by it here (I’m already making notes toward one. Fingers crossed).

One way or another, happy September, everyone. My new year always begins the day after Labour Day—it has since I first started going to school, and that’s still the way of things. Until later …

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The Ballad of Joss and Sir Terry, Genre Warriors

More Cabin in the Woods musings. The recap of the Game of Thrones finale will be up soon, promise. (And by “soon,” I mean late tomorrow or early Wednesday. Nikki is currently on the road, and I will be as of tomorrow).

As often happens with my blog posts, this one grew in the telling. For the actual discussion of Cabin and its relation to Terry Pratchett, you want to skip about halfway down.

When I was casting about for a topic to propose for my Slayage paper, I settled on Cabin because it seemed to fit vaguely in with the broader research I’ve been doing on fantasy and humanism. As I have watched and re-watched the film and worked through my arguments, it has become clear that it doesn’t vaguely fit with the broader research so much as it fits perfectly—and has helped me focus and hone my more general thinking as I focus and hone my argument for this paper. I love serendipity.


One big thing that unfortunately won’t make it into the conference paper is just how reminiscent Cabin is of Terry Pratchett’s writing, most specifically his novel Witches Abroad. It should not perhaps be surprising, as both Joss and Sir Terry are in the business of upending generic expectations and critiquing the ways in which genre tends toward reductive formulae that, while working within the genre’s peculiar logic, ultimately come to defy common sense. In The Political Unconscious, Fredric Jameson likens the evolution of genre to the process of sedimentation: when a genre is new—that is, before it is identifiably generic—it is radical and possibly revolutionary and comprises a fresh and unique form of representation. As the form is repeated in various iterations over years and generations, it creates its own set of expectations, and what was once fresh and new becomes ossified as new layers of sediment are laid down.

Which is not to say that all genre fiction, film, and television is reductive or formulaic, just that much of it is. Joss Whedon has frequently averred that he first conceived of the idea for Buffy the Vampire Slayer when watching a typical slasher film and wishing that the ditzy blonde who always dies first would instead turn around and beat the crap out of the would-be killer. The ossification of genre reinscribes narrative patterns and character behavior to the point where—as we all know from horror films—people make choices that make literally no sense. Run back upstairs from the bad guy? Of course. Go make out in a creepy forest after hearing about an escaped serial killer on the news? Why not! You heard a weird noise? Let’s have sex!

There’s a number of reasons why enough academics adore Joss’ work to sustain a conference and peer-reviewed journal; first and foremost is the application of his irreverent sense of humour to a genre that is not merely regressive but frequently actually retrograde in its portrayal of women, gender roles, sexual politics, to say nothing of its deeply conservative moral universe. Indeed, the very title Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which served and still serves to make people dismiss it out of hand, is itself typical of Joss’ approach: it subverts expectations by elevating the character we expect to be comic relief and an early victim to the role of hero.

But integral to Joss’ work is the very humour I mentioned above, which is not (as one might expect from the title) parodic or satirical, but often takes the form of a studied irreverence in the face of the terrible (“terrible” in the truest sense of the word). Call it “strategic snark,” if you like: though both Buffy and Angel manage to be frequently scary and even horrifying, the soul of the shows lies in how the main characters are constantly unimpressed by monsters, demons, and various other supernatural beings who demand terror and awe.



Buffy: So let me get this straight. You’re… Dracula. The guy. The Count.
Dracula: I am.
Buffy: And you’re sure this isn’t just some fanboy thing? Because … I’ve fought more than a couple of pimply overweight vamps that called themselves Lestat.
Dracula: You know who I am. As I would know without question that you are Buffy Summers.
Buffy: You’ve heard of me?
Dracula: Naturally. You’re known throughout the world.
Buffy: Naw. Really?
Dracula: Why else would I come here? For the sun? I came to meet the renowned … killer.
Buffy: Yeah, I prefer the term Slayer. You know, killer just sounds so …
Dracula: Naked?
Buffy: Like I … paint clowns or something.
(Ep. 5.01 “Buffy vs. Dracula”)

This tendency makes itself felt in just about everything Joss does, and certainly everything he writes. To my mind, the most Whedonesque moment of The Avengers is when the Hulk confronts Loki (starts at 0:43):

The snark and irreverence of Joss’ work is more than just comedy, as it articulates a very basic human defiance to instrumental and autocratic expectations. It is no coincidence that his work consistently exhibits a deep suspicion of and antipathy to powerful, conspiratorial groups and organizations dedicated to control, manipulation, and surveillance: the Watchers’ Council and the Initiative in Buffy, Wolfram and Hart in Angel, the Alliance in Firefly, the Rossum Corporation in Dollhouse, and SHIELD in The Avengers and Agents of SHIELD … and it doesn’t make much difference when the organizations are ostensibly on the side of the good guys, they are still treated with fundamental ambivalence.

I suppose if this post has a thesis (besides the obvious observation that Joss and Sir Terry are awesome), it is that Joss’ resistance to generic expectations allegorizes this similar resistance to instrumentality. And what makes his work fundamentally humanist is that he does not oppose the heroic individual against the faceless collective—he is no Ayn Rand—but rather the village. Or, well, the symbolic village, the small group of people representing an often ad-hoc comingling of strengths and flaws. Whedon heroes are never weaker, never more alienated than when they eschew the village to strike out on their own (as happens with Buffy about twice a season). The Scoobies, Angel Investigations, the crew of Serenity, the Avengers … Malcolm Reynolds is no ubermensch, Buffy no uberfrau, for the simple reason that they flag and fail when flying solo.

All of which makes The Cabin in the Woods such an interesting addition to the Whedon canon. As he and director Drew Goddard have said, they were interested in creating, if not a corrective to recent trends in horror, something that would put their spin on the genre—at once acting in homage by making allusions to literally dozens of classic horror movies, but also critiquing what I characterized above as the ossifying tendencies of genre (OK, I’m putting words in their mouths here a bit—neither of them used the word “ossify”). As mentioned in my previous post, Cabin takes the cliché story of a group of college students encountering murderous monsters on what was supposed to be a party weekend in the wilderness, and frames it as an event entirely contrived by a top-secret, vaguely military, conspiratorial agency that manipulates them into precisely that cliché horror narrative, for the purposes of turning them into a ritual sacrifice to the “Ancient Ones”—old gods now dormant beneath the earth who demand bloodletting in exchange for their quiescence.


The crux of the film is the way in which the framing device—the conspiratorial apparatus—dramatizes the artifice of horror film clichés, the deformation of characters into types. The ritual demands five types to be submitted to the slaughter, as the Director (Sigourney Weaver) explains in the film’s final moments:

There must be at least five. The whore: she’s corrupted. She dies first. The athlete. The scholar. The fool. All suffer at the hands of whatever horror they have raised. Leaving the last: to live or die, as fate decides. The virgin.

The Director enumerates familiar stock characters from many, many horror films (and the films of John Hughes, but that’s another essay). Except that in Cabin, the five characters are artificially forced into those roles by chemical means. Jules (Anna Hutchison), the ostensible whore, is characteristically blonde—though we learn at the very beginning that she only bleached her hair recently, and we further learn that the product had been doctored by the technicians to modify her behavior. Far from being a whore or a slut, she is in what appears to be a stable and loving relationship with Curt (Chris Hemsworth). Curt is on full academic scholarship, and in the opening scenes coaches Dana (Kristen Connolly) on the best books to read in a class she’s taking: “Seriously, Professor Bennett covers this entire book in his lectures. You should read this … now, this is way more interesting. Also, Bennett doesn’t know it by heart, so he’ll think you’re insightful.” But as the film goes on, he behaves increasingly like a testosterone-laden meathead, egging Jules on as she dances provocatively for the group, and causing pothead Marty (Fran Kanz) to protest “Since when does Curt pull this alpha-male bullshit? I mean, he’s a sociology major.” Marty himself is the film’s Cassandra, and who ironically fits most naturally into his role as the clown—ironically because he is the sole person unaffected by the technicians’ pharmaceutical interventions (his high-octane pot, we learn, renders him immune), and is the person who utters the common-sense protests most often heard from horror-movie audiences. The “scholar” is Holden (Jesse Williams), who is, in contrast to Curt, actually an athlete, a recent and much-desired addition to their college’s football team. And yet later in the film he dons spectacles and translates the Latin in the diary of Patience Buckner. And Dana, the ostensible virgin, is actually no such thing: we learn at the outset that she has recently emerged from an affair with one of her professors … a fact that does not deter Curt from later obnoxiously urging Holden to “de-virginize” her.

Throughout the film, the characters’ behavior is manipulated by technicians. When Jules resists Curt’s urging to have sex out in the forest, they raise the temperature, make the lighting in the clearing more romantic, and release pheromones. And when one character makes the totally commonsensical suggestion that everyone stick together?

Implied by this square peg, round hole approach (“We work with what we’ve got,” the Director shrugs in response to Dana’s protest that she’s not, in fact, a virgin) is that the artifice of the narrative is more critical than any basis in or resemblance to reality. What is most important is story, that everything unfolds the way it is supposed to, which is to say: they way it has always gone. In the end, Cabin is about resistance to narrative.

Discworld_Josh_Kirby_Witches_Abroad_detailWhich is where it starts to resonate with Sir Terry, and in particular with Witches Abroad. There is a tendency in the Discworld novels toward events unfolding because of a certain narrative inevitability (or as I like to call it, the “narrative imperative). In Moving Pictures, in which the Discworld gets the fantasy version of the silver screen, the Librarian of Unseen University—who is a very large orangutan—sees a tall tower and a pretty blond woman, and so feel mysteriously compelled to abduct her and climb the building. The blurb on the back of the recent Snuff, which is about Watch Commander Samuel Vimes taking a long-overdue vacation, reads: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a policeman taking a holiday would barely have had time to open his suitcase before he finds his first corpse.”

And so on. But it is in Witches Abroad that Sir Terry really addresses this theme of narrative inevitability. The three witches of Lancre—Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg, and Magrit Garlick—travel to the city of Genua (the Discworld New Orleans) to confront a fairy godmother determined to play out a Cinderella story no matter what the costs. As they travel, they encounter a trail of stories left in the fairy godmother’s wake, the most poignant of which is a version of Little Red Riding Hood, in which the big bad wolf welcomes death because he has been driven mad by the need to play the part ordained for him by the story. And in a more comic encounter, Nanny Ogg dons her brightly coloured striped tights only to have a farmhouse come crashing down on her head, followed by a bunch of confused dwarfs wondering why they feel compelled to sing.

Stories’ “very existence,” Pratchett writes at the start of the novel,

overlays a faint but insistent pattern on the chaos that is history. Stories etch grooves deep enough for people to follow in the same way that water follows certain paths down the mountainside. And every time fresh actors tread the path of the story, the groove runs deeper.

This, he continues, “is called the theory of narrative causality.” What it means is that stories, once told, take a shape, which is why they keep repeating themselves:

This is why history keeps on repeating all the time … So a thousand heroes have stolen fire from the gods. A thousand wolves have eaten grandmother, a thousand princesses have been kissed. A million unknowing actors have moved, unknowing, through the pathways of story.

This is a typical Pratchettian gesture: the Discworld novels started as parodies of fantasy fiction’s more egregious tendencies, but have evolved into a consistently trenchant humanist critique of absolutism and authoritarianism, and valorize pragmatism as both a simple virtue and philosophical system. His theory of “narrative causality” allegorizes the way in which custom can calcify and in the process come to be understood as inevitable. In this respect, Pratchett offers a useful rubric for reading Whedon’s central trope in Cabin. The narrative determinism as described in Witches Abroad is fundamentally similar to the ritualistic repetition of generic horror plots. In both cases there lies at the heart of the texts a resistance to transcendental logic. In Witches Abroad, one of the objects of Pratchett’s critique is fantasy’s tendency to rely on the dual crutches of prophecy and destiny; the stories are not preordained or divinely guided, but establish patterns through retelling, until “It is now impossible for the third and youngest son of any king, if he should embark on a quest which has so far claimed his brothers, not to succeed.” Pratchett’s theory of “narrative causality” is an inversion of the transcendental conception of destiny, fate, and predestination. It is also a far more complex and contingent one: not abandoning the notion of destiny altogether, but figuring it rather as inevitability wrought of repetition and iteration, and however deeply entrenched, ultimately disruptable. Destiny then, in Pratchett’s hands, becomes practically synonymous with genre. That is to say, the narrative expectations Pratchett describes in Witches Abroad—and their inevitability—effectively reflect the way generic expectations govern the telling and retelling of certain kinds of story. Hence destiny in Pratchett’s figuration is not an absolute, externally imposed by a transcendent power, but patterns of behaviour and custom wrought of our own making.


Phew. OK, that’s as far as I want to go with this one. If you made it this far, I feel as though I owe you a beer …

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How Many Children did Lady Macbeth Have in the Cabin in the Woods?

title_cardTo the long list of reasons why I love my job, you can add this one: in a week I’m going to Sacramento CA to present a paper at the biennial Whedon Studies Conference. Yep, that’s a thing. And as much as it might sound vaguely comic-con-ish, it’s actually a serious academic conference that has been happening for twelve years. It should not be such a surprise, really, considering the fondness (and by “fondness,” I mean “obsession”) that a great many academics have for Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Joss Whedon’s other creations.

My good friend Nikki Stafford, whom you may remember from such roles as my partner in crime in our Game of Thrones posts, has been bugging me to go for years. She has been to most, if not in fact all, of the conferences so far, at least one time as a keynote speaker. And given that I am on the cusp of my very first sabbatical (yet another reason to love my job), I thought what the hell … it’s time.

And it’s also in Sacramento, which is just down the road from San Francisco. So, double score.

I’m presenting a paper on The Cabin in the Woods, a film Joss wrote and Drew Goddard directed, which was filmed in 2009 but didn’t get released unto 2012 because of distribution issues. If you haven’t seen the film, go watch it right now. Or at least stop reading this blog post, because SPOILERS.

For those who haven’t seen it but laugh in the face of spoilers, the premise of the film is that a group of five college co-eds go to a remote cabin, where they encounter in the basement a variety of creepy tchotchkes. As it turns out, each of them, handled in a certain way, will summon a specific monster (or cluster of monsters) that will kill them in succession. As it happens, Dana (Kristen Connolly) inadvertently summons the Buckner clan, a family of “zombified pain-worshipping backwoods idiots” by reading a Latin incantation out of the journal of Patience Buckner.


The conceit of the film, and what makes it a brilliant inversion of the horror genre, is that the five main characters are being manipulated by a clandestine group of technicians in a hi-tech facility underneath the cabin. The whole point of having the five oblivious co-eds play out a cliché horror movie narrative is to make them a sacrifice to the “Old Gods”—ancient, powerful beings who pre-existed humans and who demand ritual sacrifice, without which they will rise from their slumber and destroy the world. And so a sort of global conspiracy has arisen, with different countries performing their own sacrifices but all essentially working together as a fail-safe, so if one fails others will succeed and keep the stroppy Old Ones quiescent.

My paper, which is still in the process of being written (hey, I started on it a week and a half before flying to the conference—this is me being on the ball) is a consideration of the Lovecraftian influences on Cabin, and the ways in which Whedon rewrites H.P. Lovecraft’s “Old Ones” mythos. I’ll post the text of the paper after I’ve presented it … for now, I’m just using this blog to ruminate over elements of the film, and speculations about it, that won’t be making it into the paper itself.

Why won’t they make it into the paper? Because some of the notes I was writing today were veering dangerously close to fan fiction. Cabin leaves a lot of unanswered questions, especially in terms of history, and I found myself today maundering over possible origin stories for the film’s present-day military-industrial conspiratorial scheming. The implicit suggestion is that this ritual sacrifice has been going on for time out of mind—since the dawn of human civilization and before. And because I have one of those minds that can’t help puzzling over such questions, I find myself wondering: how did people get by before the advent of such omniscient technology such as is on display in the film? The lead “technicians” Stitterson and Hadley (Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford, the latter essentially playing the role as if Josh Lyman had gone into covert ops rather than D.C. politics) nudge their five victims into classic stupid horror movie behavior by releasing chemicals and pheromones, changing the lighting and temperature, and just generally making use of the impressive technology at their fingertips to better facilitate the ritual slaughter. And yet they ultimately fail, as do all the other stations around the world (spoiler). So if this all-powerful technological juggernaut fails, how on earth did previous sacrifices succeed?


Nate Fischer Sr., Fred Burkle, and Josh Lyman.

Of course, once we move into speculation on such an issue, for which there is little or no exposition in the film, we’re engaging in a version of what a former professor of mine called the Lady Macbeth’s children question. Apparently (I’ll have to take his word for it, as I’ve never encountered it myself), once upon a time Shakespeare enthusiasts speculated at length about how many children Lady Macbeth had. The only reference to her (possibly) having had children is when she coldly declares she would kill her own child to win Macbeth the throne: “I have given suck, and know / How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me: / I would, while it was smiling in my face, / Have pluck’d my nipple from his boneless gums, / And dash’d the brains out.” But from this utterance apparently sprang interpretations of the play based in whether she had actually had children, and how many. Or perhaps it just functions as an exemplar of the fatuity of speculating too far outside the text. Either way, I can’t help doing it with The Cabin in the Woods—in part because I think I have a reasonable case to make. Not in front of a scholarly audience, mind you, but what use is a blog if I can’t use it for dorky speculation?

So: how did humanity fare with the sacrifice before they could build elaborate underground complexes dedicated to carrying it out? One possibility, which I’ll call the Lovecraft scenario, is that secret societies have existed since the dawn of civilization and before, who passed the secret of the Ancient Ones on down through the generations, and in premodern days it was easier to carry out human sacrifices without ruffling the sensibilities of the larger population. And perhaps there were even volunteers to do the ritual dying. Such a scenario is not, after all, too far from the mythology Whedon created for Buffy, in which the Slayer and the Watchers Council stretch in an unbroken line back to Neolithic times.


The other possibility, which I’ll call the Gaiman scenario, suggests that the contemporary technological apparatus facilitating the sacrifice, and its concomitant conspiratorial secrecy—and the intricate process of the sacrifice itself—are products of modernity. Perhaps in ancient times the ritual did not need to be nearly so elaborate, as the larger portion of humanity engaged in worship and sacrifice, and the copia of blood offerings satiated the Ancient Ones. In the final moments of the film, as it slowly dawns on survivors Dana and Marty (Fran Kanz) that they are the subjects of ritual sacrifice, Marty plaintively wonders at the hoops they’ve been made to jump through: “A ritual sacrifice?” he asks. “Great. You tie someone to a stone, get a fancy dagger and a bunch of robes. It’s not that complicated.” In this bewildered comment, I’d argue, lies a key to the film as a whole. Why is this ritual so complicated? In the Gaiman scenario, the Ancient Ones were not necessarily secret but worshipped in various guises, from Marduk to Anubis to Quetzacoatl to Zeus to Mithras to Elohim; but as humanity emerged from its dark ages, worship became less primal and more formalized, and hence less satisfying to the gods. Here emerged the conspiratorial cabals dedicated to placating them, and as modernity took humanity away from not just primal worship but religion generally, the ritual sacrifice became necessarily more elaborate and sophisticated, to compensate for its infrequency.

All of which is fun to speculate on, but as I mentioned, it veers dangerously close to fan fiction. Yet I would argue that the Gaiman scenario is consonant with the film’s broader themes, and in working it out in my head I think I’ve arrived at the core of my paper’s argument. What is brilliant about Cabin is the way it stages a confrontation between Enlightenment rationality (manifested in the technicians’ military-industrial technology) and what China Mieville has called H.P. Lovecraft’s “bad numinous”: Cabin is rooted in an identifiably Lovecraftian mythos, in which humanity inhabits a thin scrim of ignorance in time and space, insignificant grubs compared to the Old Gods. Lovecraft’s vision is religious in nature, but without the meaningfulness humans glean from a relationship to the divine. The motifs of madness and unreason run throughout his work.

H.P. Lovecraft's old god Cthulhu: bad, bad  numinous!

H.P. Lovecraft’s old god Cthulhu: bad, bad numinous!

The conspiratorial nature of the technicians’ ministrations is also key, for the film plays on classic, even cliché tropes of conspiracy and paranoia: the massive yet invisible omniscient organization (as Fredric Jameson notes, the “minimum basic components” of a conspiracy narrative are “a potentially infinite network [and] a plausible explanation of its invisibility”); the fetishization of the technology of surveillance and control; the one paranoid Cassandra (Marty) whose warnings are ignored as the rantings of a lunatic (or in Marty’s case, chronic pothead); but most importantly, the way in which the conspiracy comes to function as a supplemental or substitute religion.


Seeing as how I wrote my dissertation on conspiracy and paranoia, I might as well quote myself making this very point:

[C]onspiracy sometimes seems to have something of the divine to it: “Conspiracy,” writes Don DeLillo, “is the new faith.” Scott Sanders similarly declares, “God is the original conspiracy theory,” and goes on to say that the conspiratorial world is one “governed by shadowy figures whose powers approach omniscience and omnipotence.” In Totem and Taboo, Sigmund Freud relates the character of the paranoiac to primitive societies (“savages”) who ascribe to their god-king persecutory powers of weather and plague; he makes an identical argument in Psychopathology of Everyday Life. And sociologist Karl Popper suggests that “the conspiracy theory of society” is simply a form of perverse theism, of “a belief in gods whose whims and wills rule everything.”

Hence, conspiracy narratives frequently have something of the bad numinous at their center, manifesting symbolically as the suggestion of a continuity with a conspiratorial past—or more broadly, with the positing of history as conspiracy. Or to again quote Jameson, the symbolic force of conspiracy narrative “draws not on the advanced or futuristic technology of the contemporary media so much as from their endowment with an archaic past.” He’s speaking specifically here about The Crying of Lot 49, but the point holds for a surprising number of conspiracy narratives—as indeed, as it should be obvious, it does for The Cabin in the Woods.

Wait, I think I've seen this movie before ... where's Ash when you need him?

Wait, I think I’ve seen this movie before … where’s Ash when you need him?

Cabin’s unique twist, however, is that while typical conspiracy narratives constitute a substitute theism and draw symbolic force from the suggestion of continuity with an archaic past, Cabin’s conspiratorial apparatus is explicitly established as being in the service of an extant (albeit secret) theism; and while I can speculate on its continuity with an archaic past, as I did above, the film itself sets up the conspiratorial organization in symbolic opposition to that past as manifested in the Ancient Ones. And yes, I do mean in opposition, for while the technicians’ conspiratorial network—which is ostensibly global—is in the service of the Ancient Ones, that service is explicitly a matter of abject submission. The climactic sequence when Marty and Dana release all of the monsters in the technicians’ bestiary—which of course then proceed to horrifically kill all of the people in the underground lair—drives this point home with literal vengeance (and is, indeed, a characteristically Whedon gesture: the weaponization of the supernatural and its tendency to backfire feature highly in Buffy season four, in Firefly with River’s “modifications,” and in the Heroes­-esque attempts to contain emergent superpowers in Agents of SHIELD).


Yup. It gets a bit messy when you unleash hundreds of bloodthirsty monsters all at once.

To return to why I think the Gaiman scenario holds water in all this: the contemporary moment of the film allegorizes the divorce of instrumental reason and the numinous (bad or otherwise), even as rationality in the form of technology not only submits to unreason (the Lovecraftian Ancient Ones) but produces it (the murder of innocents). If we consider the evolution of Cabin’s ritual as the gradual distanciation of science and reason from the numinous, the film becomes a potent allegory for the ossification of science and religion into incommensurability, with neither providing a rational, humanist moral center.


At any rate, that seems to be where my paper’s argument is going … now if I can just get there without having to ask how many children Lady Macbeth had in the cabin in the woods, it might just work.

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Ich bin ein Narnian

jfk-assassination-1.pngYesterday was the fiftieth anniversary of JFK’s assassination. Given that I wrote my doctoral dissertation on conspiracy theory and paranoia in postwar American literature and popular culture, it seemed appropriate that I should make some comment—I did, after all, devote a good many pages to discussing the key themes and tropes at work in various imaginative treatments of the assassination, especially Don DeLillo’s marvelous novel Libra and Oliver Stone’s less-than-marvelous film JFK (and a whole host of wackiness in between).

The more I thought about what I might write, however, the more it seemed like a futile endeavour—there is little or nothing I could say that would be enlightening about Kennedy at this point, and frankly, I think I’ve got conspiracy fatigue. Not just because I spent five years writing a three-hundred page thesis on the topic, but because of everything that has happened since. When I first conceived of the project, it was still the late 90s (1999, to be precise), a decade that, after some investigation, appeared to comprise a critical mass of conspiracism, from television and film (The X-Files, Enemy of the State, The Matrix) to rather terrifying real-world examples like Timothy McVeigh and the paramilitaries that spawned him. There were very few scholarly studies of conspiracy and paranoia when I sat down to work on my thesis; but as I struggled through it, more and more surfaced, until I began to dread scanning the lists of recently published scholarly books. I never published my thesis as a book, for several reasons: one was that I had the great good fortune to get hired at Memorial about eight months after defending my thesis, which took a lot of the pressure to get it published off; another was that I suffered from that common post-dissertation malaise, in which returning to the scene of the crime (as it were) and revising what you have just devoted (in my case) five years of your life to writing is not unlike probing the nerve of a tooth.

But there was a third factor (or a fourth, if we’re also including my congenital laziness), which was that by the time I defended in September 2004, conspiracism was at once everywhere and nowhere. Everywhere, because 9/11 had given us a brand new morass of paranoid thought (trutherism), and nowhere because the Bush administration—especially in the persons of Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney—was so shameless in its prosecution of the War on Terror and the Iraq War, wearing the Patriot Act on its sleeve, that the entire concept of “conspiracy” came to seem somewhat trite. Surveillance? Of course. Torture? You bet your ass. Blatant misdirection? Well, as one unnamed Bush aide (whom we all assume to be Karl Rove) told a reporter, “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.” It was enough to make one nostalgic for the acknowledgement of transgression that the act of covering up covert operations like Watergate or Iran-Contra implied. The prospect of an enormous conspiracy behind JFK’s assassination is positively comforting by comparison.

I remember an important moment in the evolution of my thinking on conspiracy and paranoia: while going over a chapter in which JFK figured highly, my second reader said, “So tell me something. If someone were to produce absolute, ironclad proof about the truth of Kennedy’s assassination … would it matter?” I’m sure there have been many, many times in my life when I’ve gaped in consternation, and mercifully, I don’t remember most of them. I remember that time. Because of course, the answer is: No, in thunder. The sheer glut of details and information, much of it incongruous and conflicting, has made for a tar-pit that doesn’t just blunt Occam’s Razor but dissolves it to nothing. Don DeLillo captures this critical mass beautifully in Libra in the figure of Nicholas Branch, a CIA researcher tasked with writing the official “secret history” of the Kennedy assassination. After years of work, he has produced next to nothing: “He has extensive and overlapping notes—notes in three-foot drifts, all these years of notes. But of actual finished prose, there is precious little. It is impossible to stop assembling data.” The Warren Report itself, Branch speculates, is “the megaton novel James Joyce would have written if he’d moved to Iowa City and lived to be a hundred.” Included in its twenty-six volumes are

Baptismal records, report cards, postcards, divorce petitions, cancelled checks, daily timesheets, tax returns, property lists, postoperative x-rays, photos of knotted string, thousands of pages of testimony, of voices droning in hearing rooms in old courthouse buildings, an incredible haul of human utterance. It lies so flat on the page, hangs so still in the lazy air, lost to syntax and other arrangement, that it resembles a kind of mind-spatter, a poetry of lives muddied and dripping in language.

Perhaps I’m wrong about this, but it seems to me that the center of gravity of JFK theories has been slowly shifting toward grudging acceptance of the single-shooter theory … or perhaps I only think that because that’s where my mind has gone. Once upon a time, I assumed that the chaos of seemingly conflicting detail, with whole hosts of elements unaccounted for, pointed to a conspiracy; now, I tend to think the opposite. Now, I tend to think that everyday life is a muddle of random crap, most of which we forget when we construct the memory of a given time. If any of us had the misfortune of having a twelve-hour slice of our life, one in which only some of the details were available, pored over by thousands upon thousands of observers and analysts, all of them attempting to determine logical causation, how much of our behaviour wouldn’t add up? How many caprices of impulse, forgetfulness, irritation, weariness, euphoria, to say nothing of such caprices in the lives of all the people we interact with, would conspiratorially-minded observers have to deal with? Narrative is how we make meaning of events, but narrative involves leaving out far more than it leaves in, and when every detail becomes meaningful, everything becomes meaningless. And often the most baffling observations can be made comprehensible with the introduction of the smallest of details (you can skip to 2:56 for an alternative to the “magic bullet” theory):

I’m not naïve: I have no doubt that there will be Kennedy conspiracists until the end of time, in the same way there will be those who deny the moon landing. And there will probably always be truthers and birthers. So it goes.

But what made me sit down to write (a day late) my thoughts on the fiftieth anniversary of November 22, 1963, was the discovery yesterday of something I never knew: on the day of Kennedy’s death, C.S. Lewis died. There is something to be written about this serendipity, something about the resonance between two rather different utopian visions—Kennedy’s New Frontier versus Lewis’ pastoral Narnia, the faith in the possibilities of an American future versus the nostalgia for the romance of an English past—but the thoughts are too inchoate in my mind for me to attempt it at this moment. There is also the possibility of a new swarm of satirical conspiracy theories (is Kennedy sitting on one of the thrones at Cair Paravel? Was the White Witch behind the grassy knoll?), but again, same thing.

TheLionWitchWardrobe(1stEd)In an entirely other, and entirely self-absorbed fashion, however, it is weirdly appropriate that I should only discover this intersection now … given that conspiracy theory was my entre to academia, and I’m currently researching fantasy. C.S. Lewis might not be one of the authors on whom I am focusing, but he is a massive influence—both on them, and on me. My graduate seminar recently looked at The Magicians by Lev Grossman, a novel that is deeply indebted to the Narnia chronicles in a variety of ways—and one of my students did a presentation of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe apropos of that fact. (For Grossman’s fifty-year tribute to Lewis, which doesn’t mention JFK at all, go here).

I have no real point to this post, unless it is this: something to do with the increasing comfort with life’s messiness and complexity that age bestows. If there is a single point of contact with Narnia and Camelot, it is the investment in reductive mythology. Conspiracism, for all its apparent fascination with vast and myriad seas of information and data, is dedicated to the creation of narratives whose ostensible complexities are really just a smokescreen for their simplistic natures. They are just as mythological in nature as either the hagiographies of Kennedy or the stories of his criminal malfeasance. I was thinking yesterday of the film Thirteen Days, a reasonably good dramatization of the Cuban Missile Crisis—and the fact that in it, Kennedy displays none of his less palatable qualities. There are no quickies with any of his many mistresses, none of the arrogance or cruelty we now know marked many of his interactions with others … Bruce Greenwood does an excellent job of portraying the president as conflicted and beset (though as much as I like Greenwood, fine upstanding Canadian that he is, Stephen Culp’s RFK steals the film), but there is little in the way of nuance. Perhaps even more than Oliver Stone’s JFK, this film settles into the category of Kennedy hagiography. All of which made me wonder: does the sheer scope of JFK’s complexities as a man make him impossible to depict?

TheMagiciansThe Magicians pretty much split my grad class down the middle in terms of students’ reactions: half loved it, half hated it, and for pretty much the same reasons: that it gives us a version of Harry Potter and Narnia that introduces the elements of ordinary angst, emotional caprice, and thoughtless cruelty on the part of characters who are also protagonists. Fantasy as a genre carries the connotations of unequivocal good and evil: Aslan versus the White Witch, Gandalf versus Sauron, Harry Potter versus Voldemort, and so on. What I love about a lot of recent works by George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, and Richard Morgan is that we’re leaving that simplistic mythos behind and finding a more nuanced narrative.

Now, if someone could do that with JFK …

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Breaking Rand: Walter White as (Failed) Objectivist

“There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.”
John Rogers

Warning: spoilers for all five seasons of Breaking Bad, and mild spoilers for The Sopranos and The Wire.

The other day I saw the following meme posted in Facebook:

breaking bad canada

What I love about this isn’t just the smug Canadian schadenfreude (though I do love that, make no mistake), but the way in which this meme symbolically encapsulates the quasi-canard about the difference between Canadians and Americans. (I say “quasi” because it’s not all fiction, but I’ll get to that below). As anyone who watches Breaking Bad knows, the crisis point that comes in the very first episode is that Walter White—ostensibly mild and meek teacher of high school chemistry—receives a dire prognosis of lung cancer and, knowing that his insurance will not cover his treatments, chooses to put his expertise as a chemist to use cooking methamphetamine. Five seasons later as the show enters its endgame, Walt has long ago discarded his initial intention to make just enough cash to leave his family comfortable when he dies, and has instead risen the pinnacle of the drug world as “Heisenberg.”

What the meme highlights is that, in a context with nationally-funded health care, Breaking Bad loses its most crucial plot point, the catalyst that sends Walt on his lucrative and self-destructive path. In the early days when we were all still naïve about Walt’s character and imagined him as a nice guy forced into dire straits by American health care policy (or the lack thereof), Breaking Bad was often characterized as a trenchant critique of same. Such a reading wasn’t hurt by the fact that season two aired from March-May 2009, when the initial debates about Obamacare were in the works, and season three was just getting under way when it was passed in March 2010. And it should be said that such a reading of the show isn’t wrong by any means—just that, as we head into the final stretch, the series has proved rather more nuanced and complex.

The corollary argument to the Breaking Bad Canada meme is that, whatever his ultimate faults and crimes, Walter White would never have rediscovered ambition, excellence, and accomplishment in the Canadian system—he would have received his treatment, gone on being meek and ineffectual, a shell of a man who had traded off his original chance for wealth and power in exchange (as he tells Jesse) for a few months’ rent. He would never have learned—or relearned—personal power. He would never have risen to the top of his chosen profession, and likely would have simply been consumed by his cancer and died without ever having achieved greatness.

I call this the Ayn Rand argument.

Increasingly as I have watched the series I have come to see Walt as an ambivalent critique of Randian, and by extension, libertarian philosophy. Ambivalent for several reasons: one, however appalling Walt’s actions and behaviours have been, there remains that kernel of sympathy for him (and for many, much more than a kernel—the fact that there are legions of fans who hate Skyler because they see her as a shrew and a killjoy is at once awful and unsurprising); two, because the facts of Walt’s original dire circumstances and his health-care straitjacket are unavoidable; three, because Breaking Bad is not simplistic or straightforward in its various critiques. Like The Wire, it is a show that (to use David Simon’s phrasing) “builds toward argument.” Unlike The Wire, it is far less rooted in systemic issues and far more in character; and four, in the end Walt is himself a deeply ambivalent figure who ultimately fails (he says, hoping this argument isn’t obviated by the final episodes) as a Randian protagonist. In the end, he cannot divest himself of those personal attachments—in his case, family—that Rand repeatedly argued were impediments to greatness. The only true morality, she argued, was selfishness—and that such qualities as charity, love, generosity, spirituality, and so forth, were emphatically immoral.

My overarching argument here, then, is that Breaking Bad is among other things a wonderfully complex and shrewd critique of a broader philosophy and mindset that has enthralled a significant American constituency since … well, I want to say Reagan, but in truth it has always been around. Ayn Rand is merely a good lightning-rod for this discussion, as her novels and other writings tend to distill the go-it-alone spirit to its most absurd extremes.

My discussion proceeds in two sections: first, considering Walter White in the context of the other anti-heroes of prestige television (especially Tony Soprano); and second, looking at the Randian elements and political implications of the series.

Bear with me, I’ve been working on this one for a while.


A Different Species of Anti-Hero

I wrote a blog post last summer about Aaron Sorkin’s new HBO drama The Newsroom in the context of the other key shows in what I suppose we now call “prestige television.” To sum up: I basically observed that most of these shows, such as The Sopranos, Oz, Deadwood, The Wire, Sons of Anarchy, and so forth, reversed a long tradition in television drama insofar as they were not aspirational. That is to say, they focused on working-class, uneducated but extremely intelligent characters whose lifestyles and livings were largely based in illegality. This is in marked contrast to the legions of hospital and medical procedurals, legal dramas, and other situations and contexts that valorized education and professions that required education. From the start, television has tended to eschew working-class characters and contexts, with the handful of shows like The Honeymooners, All in the Family or King of Queens functioning as the exceptions that proved the rule. Even police procedurals tended to follow suit: for every gritty street-smart drama like NYPD Blue or Hill Street Blues, there are many shows like C.S.I., as well as any number of cop shows featuring unusually expensively-dressed and expensively-wheeled detectives (Miami Vice, anyone?).

So this shift is notable, especially considering that these new prestige shows have as a significant portion of their audiences the intelligentsia: those highly-educated and affluent people who might well have been the focus of traditional television dramas have delighted to the shrewd but unlettered machinations of Tony Soprano. Precisely why there has been this shift is uncertain, but aspirational shows like The Newsroom or Mad Men are the exceptions (though it does beg the question about just how aspirational a figure Don Draper is).

At any rate, I don’t want to rehash my original discussion. I just raise it because it occurred to me recently that Breaking Bad, while superficially possessing many of the elements and qualities of other prestige shows about illegal endeavours, is actually doing something very different—something subtly and yet crucially different, which, I want to argue, is the root of its brilliance.

Vince Gilligan famously pitched Breaking Bad as “Mr. Chips becomes Scarface.” That description, which seems to get quoted any time anyone writes about Breaking Bad (guilty), is wonderfully compelling and woefully inadequate, as all good synopses of complex narratives are. It was a description that held up well for the first stretch of the series but has increasingly become less than satisfactory. We have come to realize that Walter White is not a good man forced by circumstances into a series of soul-destroying choices and actions, but rather a prideful, cruel, and arrogant man who has found circumstances in which these elements of his nature can emerge and indeed flourish. He always was Scarface; his “Mr. Chips” persona was something he only reluctantly adopted.

This reversal is at the heart of Breaking Bad’s particular genius, and it is part of what sets Walter White apart from the other anti-heroes of prestige television. Had Walter come to the meth trade as a good man, honestly and genuinely exploiting his talents as a chemist (or, well, as honestly as one can in the production of illegal narcotics), we might have expected to see him become somewhat more like Tony Soprano. But he is utterly unlike Tony: he is austere where Tony is sensual and hedonistic, focused and rigid where Tony is opportunistic and improvisational, uncompromising where Tony is pragmatic. As I suggested in my previously-mentioned blog post, much of the television shows in the vein of The Sopranos are very much about the negotiation of power—they are, as Tony might say, about business, and in business, it’s all in the game (to quote another show).

Power is obviously a crucial trope in Breaking Bad, but in a significantly different manner. When, halfway through season five, Jesse Pinkman tries to convince Walt to agree to sell their hijacked methylamine, he quotes back the numbers Walt had crunched in the first season—the amount he needed to earn to provide for his family when he died of the cancer ravaging his system. At the beginning, it was three quarters of a million dollars … but as the series went on, the actual dollar value of Walt’s meth cooking became less and less significant to him. What became more important was being the best—which was why his lab assistant Gale was a threat.

(Can we have a parenthetical celebration of the actor who played Gale, David Constabile? I have seen this guy now in countless shows, and he is never anything but amazing in a quiet and competent way. Wire-heads will know him as the unctuous managing editor of the Baltimore Sun, Thomas Klebanow. Klebanow tracks well enough with the nebbish Gale, but Constabile proved he could play menacing and dangerous in the first two seasons of Damages, in which he played a corrupt cop moonlighting as a fixer and hitman).

Gale was a threat because he was a chemist almost as good as Walt, and in practical terms that meant he could potentially figure out how to replicate Walt’s formula and make Walt redundant. But as Kira Bolonik points out in an excellent article about Breaking Bad’s use of poetry generally (and Walt Whitman specifically), where Gale quotes Whitman’s “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” to disparage the pedantry of the lecture hall and celebrate the creativity and “magic” of the laboratory, “Walt loves being a teacher—his ego is ravenous for the applause—so he winds up swapping out Gale for the less competent Jesse, his old student and partner.” Indeed, Bolonik’s observation raises a crucial point about Walt, whose fraught relationship with Jesse Pinkman comprises one of the show’s key thematic arcs. They begin as the irascible teacher and slacker student; Walt is constantly resentful of his reliance on Jesse, and the resentment makes itself known in a steady stream of condescension, high-handedness, and outright bullying. But as the show progresses, Jesse goes from being a hapless meth head and clown to becoming the show’s moral compass. For Walt, Jesse’s presence becomes ever more important as he develops a fatherly affection—but as Bolonik points out, Jesse is more critical to Walt as audience to his brilliance. The early resentment at his reliance on Jesse becomes a different kind of resentment—a resentment born of jealousy—when Mike takes Jesse under his wing and attempts to wean him away from what he sees (rightly) as Walt’s pernicious influence.

To return to my early comparison between Breaking Bad and The Sopranos, the laconic and surly Mike Ehrmantraut could well be read as the representative figure from Tony’s world—and indeed, he would fit in well among Tony’s crew (or in the Baltimore police department). So, for that matter, would Gus Fring: both of them are businessmen in the mold of Tony Soprano, Al Swearingen, or Stringer Bell, and both of them have an instinctive distrust of Walter White … a fact that baffles Walt to no end, and deepens his resentment when Jesse starts to admire Mike. Walt’s attempts to connect with Mike are pathetic and would be comic if they weren’t played with such deliberate humourlessness. Mike’s rant at Walt early in season five, castigating him for screwing up the good thing they had going with Gus, epitomizes this conflict: as Mike points out, Walt couldn’t be satisfied with keeping his head down and working, and in the process earning far more than the initial sum he had entered the meth business to make. Somewhere along the line it became about pride, probably exacerbated by the fact that he received no thanks or praise from his new employers for his genius—just the goad of being given a lab “assistant” whose job was to make him obsolete.

It is this prideful need for praise and greatness that make both Gus and Mike leery of Walt, for they know too well it makes him erratic and unpredictable. Over its six seasons, The Sopranos was littered with the corpses of those who let personal pride and ambition interfere with Tony’s earnings—and indeed, most of Tony’s biggest crises arose when he let his own pride and petty hatreds interfere with his business. But perhaps the best analog that comes to mind is this wonderful three minutes from The Wire:

In his own, much more understated way, Avon Barksdale has a bit of Walt to him—as does his successor Marlo Stanfield—insofar as he becomes less concerned about making money than he does with having his “name ring out.” And later in the series when Marlo is warned that “prisons and graveyards, full of boys who wore the crown,” he retorts, “But they wore it.” Wearing the crown, and being seen wearing it, is the driving force for Marlo and Avon … as it becomes for Walt. Marlo’s later angry declaration that “My name is my name” finds an echo in the now notorious scene from season five of Breaking Bad:

As Shakespeare himself was fond of pointing out however, crowns are ephemeral—hence the preoccupation with the name, which is supposed to become the legacy.  One of the trailers for the final stretch of Breaking Bad, however, offers a poetic dismissal of this sentiment: it features a montage of familiar New Mexico landscapes while Walter White recites Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias.”

The poem, a classic commentary on the hubris of power and empire, is eminently appropriate to Breaking Bad, especially after Walt’s speech to Jesse in the penultimate episode of season five’s first half:

The second half of season five has thus far changed this particular game: the apogee of Walt’s empire-building comes with the “say my name” scene (and the subsequent montage of him earning obscene amounts of money, with his meth spreading out far beyond New Mexico). But he has apparently relinquished his desire for empire, and given it up; the drama of the home stretch looks like it will be about the battle of wills between Walt and Hank.

That being said, that battle of wills is a direct result of Walt’s previous ambitions. Indeed, the shift in tone in the second half of season five is perhaps the most contrived plot turn Breaking Bad has offered—Walt’s sudden change of heart, his willingness to give up his empire and return to his family, all of these elements are believable but sudden after his bravura display of arrogance.

The Failed Randian Hero

Of a piece with this last clip is the bit where Walt rebukes Jesse for willingly walking away from his chance for greatness: “Jesse, this—what we do? Being the best at something? It’s a very rare thing. You don’t just toss something like that away. You want to squander that potential? Your potential? Why? To do what?” On one hand his anger at Jesse is yet another lie he tells himself, believing that he is helping Jesse realize his potential, rather than needing him around as audience to his brilliance and justification for his choices. On another hand, this self-image as being “the best” has long since displaced his need and desire for money. Walt’s obsession with product purity becomes a powerful metaphor for ideological purity. His disparagement of Jesse for giving up the opportunity to be the absolute best at something (or, more accurately, be in the best’s august presence), for instead wallowing in the morass of his conscience, resonates with Ayn Rand’s two most famous heroes, John Galt and Howard Roark—though more, perhaps with the latter, for The Fountainhead is less concerned with economic power (as Atlas Shrugged is) than with the purity and excellence of one’s craft. For Roark it is architecture; for Walt, chemistry. But in both novels, as in Breaking Bad, the protagonists seek to practice their art without the interference of lesser, weaker minds whose resentment in the face of greatness leads them to want to tear it down and domesticate it. Rand’s novels are fables of individual brilliance besieged by collective mediocrity, and both possess a certain petulant nihilism: Howard Roark blows up his masterpiece rather than allow it to be compromised, and Atlas Shrugs is basically the story of the uber-wealthy leaving the world to rack and ruin in retaliation for “socialist” policies.

In a host of ways, Walter White is nine-tenths of the perfect Ayn Rand protagonist. His initial story arc, or what we are able to glean, starts out with the ruin of a man: a high school teacher whose students contemptuously ignore him, and whose teaching salary is so paltry he is reduced to working a second job at a local car wash. To make matters worse, his brother-in-law Hank is initially presented as a bellicose, ultra-masculine man with an ultra-masculine job in the DEA. Despite the fact that Hank also works a public sector job, his salary is apparently enough to afford him and his wife a far larger and more attractive house than the one Walt shares with his wife and son. Hank clearly pities Walt, and just as clearly sees him (and treats him) as something less than a man.

Walt, it seems clear, is someone who has long been victimized because he plays by society’s written and unwritten rules and has allowed himself to be trod upon. Early on, we learn that he had been in on the ground floor of a new company while still in college, one that has since become worth billions, and which he sold his stake in because he was newly married and had a baby on the way (though the reasons why he sold become murkier as the series goes on)—again, ostensibly doing the responsible thing and playing by the rules.

It is his emergence from this cowed and put-upon bubble that forms the show’s Randian subtext. His transformation from meek Walter to drug kingpin Heisenberg sees him embracing the attitudes and behaviour that Rand’s “objectivism” celebrate: he is arrogant and uncompromising, driven by a singular pursuit of excellence and perfection, and perfectly willing to flout laws both governmental and social. When he first meets Gale and asks him how he got into the meth business, Gale replies that he is by temperament a libertarian, and he doesn’t think the government has any right to tell people what they can and cannot put in their bodies. “Consenting adults want what they want,” he says. “At least with me they’re getting exactly what they pay for.”

But Gale’s political sensibility is more anti-establishment than it is Randian (more Rand Paul than Ayn Rand, if you like), far more interested in personal exploration than personal accomplishment, something made evident in his vaguely artistic journal and his personality more generally. To again quote Bolonik, he is “a sensual, sentient, self-admitted nerd, a vegan with a passion for Italian music and horticulture, and who prides himself on his elaborate vacuum reflux/distillation system that brews the perfect cup of coffee.” Gale is self-effacing to a fault, and has no apparent desire to do more than futz about in a lab and play with chemical equations, which, so long as he makes his quotas, makes him a far more amenable master chef for Gus Fring than Walt’s demanding arrogance.

(Fring himself is a fascinating paradox of a character, the massively powerful kingpin who manages to be veritably invisible. He is the consummate businessman, and would probably make Stringer Bell rabidly jealous of the scope and reach of his empire. As already mentioned, someone like Walt is anathema to the way he does business. It is against his better judgment that he makes Walt his head meth cook, and he pays for it with suddenly increased visibility, as Walt’s blue meth makes the appearance and circulation of the product much easier for law enforcement to track. Also, Walt ends up killing him … so, y’know, doubly a poor choice).

Walt remains however a flawed Randian character because he clings to those initial reasons for getting into the meth business to begin with—namely, his wife and son. The Randian purist argues that family, friendships, romantic relationships, and love itself more broadly are impediments to success. Whereas Walt’s refusal to let Skyler and Walt Jr. (sorry, Flynn) go has provided one of the show’s most troubling conflicts. As stated above, there is a not-insignificant portion of Breaking Bad’s viewership that delights in Walt’s escalating badassery and has come to hate Skyler for spoiling the fun. This constituency of viewers has founded a handful of websites and Facebook pages, as well as numerous discussion threads in fan forums. They have been vocal enough and virulent enough that the hatred has spilled over from vilifying Skyler to attacking Anna Gunn, the actress portraying her. It has gotten bad enough that Gunn recently authored a bewildered op-ed in The New York Times asking “Could it be that they can’t stand a woman who won’t suffer silently or ‘stand by her man’? That they despise her because she won’t back down or give up? Or because she is, in fact, Walter’s equal?” Vince Gilligan himself dismissed the Skyler-haters with contempt: “People are griping about Skyler White being too much of a killjoy to her meth-cooking, murdering husband? She’s telling him not to be a murderer and a guy who cooks drugs for kids. How could you have a problem with that?”

How indeed? This is still just an embryonic thought for me, but it strikes me that this fan reaction gets to the heart of Breaking Bad’s broader critique. Are the haters really angry with Skyler, or are they more frustrated with Walt for not cutting her loose? She certainly gives him ample opportunities to do so from the moment she discovers his criminal activities. Also, it is possible the irritation comes from the fact that Walt effectively flouts the expectation of genre. I would suggest this is especially the case if we consider Scarface: Tony Montana ends up alone but magnificently unrepentant in his mansion as his enemies close in on him. At this point it remains to be seen how Breaking Bad will end, though a similar catastrophic climax is presumably not out of the question. Certainly, I would have to assume that such a finale would please the fans of Badass Heisenberg.

Skyler is to my mind however the show’s most pivotal character. Even more than Jesse Pinkman, she represents something like a badly magnetized moral compass. Jesse is there to say “But … but …” at whatever the most egregious transgression has been, and to wear his guilty conscience on his sleeve while Walt buries his own (if he has one: I think there’s a decent case to be made for Walt’s sociopathic tendencies). Skyler, conversely, presents a much more complex, much more fraught study. She is both victim and accomplice, hostage and negotiator, and by the most recent episodes has had little choice but to embrace her complicity. But of course she does so at huge personal cost. Walt essentially put her in a no-win situation, in which her only options were turning him in, which at the start would have left her destitute and would have devastated her son; after a certain amount of time, she was culpable. She could have fled, but would have had to leave her son behind. What she ended up doing was at once the best and worst compromise. Unlike Walt, she and Jesse suffer genuine emotional trauma from the whole sordid mess; unlike Jesse, Skyler was one of Walt’s principal reasons for doing everything he did to start with. Jesse always had the option of telling Walt to fuck off; that option was never available to Skyler, or at least not to the same extent as it was for Jesse. As a result, Walt’s transformation into Heisenberg was unavoidably, irredeemably toxic. The cancer with which he was diagnosed in episode one became an elaborate metaphor for the disease that metastasized in the family unit he set out to save.

I’ve cited Shelley and Whitman—how about Wilde?

And all men kill the thing they love,
By all let this be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word,
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword!

To reiterate my point, Walt’s flaw from a Randian perspective is his refusal to divest himself of emotional ties, and instead of Scarface’s meteoric rise and spectacular fall, he agrees in the end to abandon meth and return to his family. The second half of season five (so far) has seen the apogee of Heisenberg and a tentative reconciliation with Skyler—though the latter is a fragile thing, and has entailed Skyler’s final, irrevocable complicity with Walt. I think it is safe to say that Breaking Bad will not end well for anyone involved, and therein lies the rub. The easy divestment of familial and social ties in the name of personal accomplishment is a myth, and in the end I suspect Walt will indeed have killed the things he loves.

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Fantasy and Cruelty I: A Preamble

One of the things I want to do on this blog is air snippets of the research and writing I’m doing, stuff that’s still only partially thought out and in process. Hopefully it won’t be as garbled as all that—the idea here is more thinking out loud, as it were, working through some of my key ideas and (hopefully) getting some feedback and (even more hopefully) starting a conversation. This post is my first attempt.

I’ve been thinking for some time now about fantasy’s odd appeal—odd, because when you think about it, only those among us with absolutely no sense of history would willingly be zapped back in time to the middle ages. And yet that is what fantasy (imaginatively) does, and arguably is part of its great appeal to many readers. One of the larger questions I’m trying to address is the nature of this appeal, and the ways in which fantasy operates in dialogue with our contemporary historical moment (or the historical moments in which different narratives were composed). And one of the questions within that is the persistence of cruelty as a theme and motif.

This post is the first of a series looking at the knotty (and naughty) presence of cruelty, torture, sexual violence, and misogyny in fantasy fiction. Given that this preamble enters the subject by way of a discussion of misogyny in Game of Thrones, I found myself stuck for a banner image. On one hand, a picture of Ros’ cleavage or Daenerys naked and soot-covered would be appropriate to the topic and wholly inappropriate to the tone I hope this post conveys; then I thought of trying to balance the preponderance of female flesh in the series a bit by posting something like a shirtless Robb Stark, but that might go too far in the other direction. So in the interests of splitting the difference, here’s a picture of Jon Snow holding a direwolf puppy. Everyone wins.


When I was visiting London, Ontario in May, I had drinks with one of my favourite people in the world, a professor at my doctoral alma mater who was the second reader on my dissertation; but more importantly, she is simply one of the smartest, coolest, and most level-headed academics I’ve ever known. So imagine my delight when I discovered that she had become a huge Game of Thrones fan.

This delight exists on several levels. First is the lovely experience of having someone you love and respect share an enthusiasm—always gratifying, like when a good friend finally reads that novel you’ve been recommending and is an instant convert. But with something like Game of Thrones, there’s a satisfying feeling of vindication, because both the novels and the series come in at times for the sneering or dismissive criticism that genre fiction often receives. So when someone whose critical acumen you respect and admire effectively endorses something you love that others dismiss, there’s no small feeling of triumph.

With Game of Thrones there is a further dimension, however. While I disagree with a certain amount of the criticism the series receives, there’s not much I can say when it is attacked for overdoing the gratuitous nudity, for throwing in unnecessary amounts of naked female flesh for what are often purely salacious reasons. It is bothersome to me for a host of reasons, not least of which is the straightforward misogyny of it. But it is also bothersome because, to my mind, the show is (or should be) better than that. The story is compelling, the characters vivid, and the sword-and-sorcery elements subordinated to a more specifically historical sensibility. Unlike the Starz series Spartacus, which combines softcore porn and the worst excesses of 300’s sepia-tinged violence, Game of Thrones actually has a story worth watching. And what’s more, sometimes nudity, violence, and cruelty are thematically crucial … a fact that gets obscured when yet again we are treated to wholly unnecessary sexposition.

In all my blog posts on Game of Thrones with Nikki, I skirted these discomforting elements, aside from snarking at a few of the more ridiculous instances—in part because it’s easy enough to focus on the good stuff, but also because I’d never framed a decent answer to the implied question, “Sure, it’s a good series, but how do you deal with the misogyny?”

So when I discovered that my friend, whom we’ll call Alison (because, well, that’s her name), was a fan, I was doubly delighted because she’s someone with pretty solid feminist street cred. Understand, I did not think to myself “Excellent! If a feminist likes GoT, I’m off the hook!” … or, well, I didn’t think so in so many words. But Alison doesn’t give out hall passes, and somewhere in the middle of geeking out about the show, she asked “But how do you deal with the misogyny?” Because of course, it bothered her too—and neither of us being baby-with-bathwater types, the solution of dismissing the series of out hand wasn’t an option.

As an aside: what follows is the first post of several teasing out some of the broader implications of this straightforward question, which ultimately does not give a straightforward answer. The straightforward answer goes something like this: the gratuitous nudity on display in Game of Thrones makes me cringe, and at times makes me angry, and I wish they’d ratchet it back—not least because, as I just said above, it cheapens those instances when it is thematically significant. I would argue, for example, that Daenerys’ nude scenes fall into this category, wherein her nakedness has moved progressively from symbolizing her vulnerability and exploitation at others’ hands to her growing strength and confidence. By contrast, pretty much every scene in Littlefinger’s bordello has been excessive and unnecessary.


More puppies.

So, that’s the straightforward answer, for what it’s worth. It’s not perfect, but hopefully the more extended meditations that follow will fill in the gaps. There are of course several other simple answers to the question, none of which are satisfying. “At least it has strong and nuanced female characters”; “Well, brothels are a recurrent setting in the novels, and you can’t really expect an HBO series to be prudish”; “But sometimes the nudity and sexual violence is thematically significant!”; or, worst of all, a shrug and “I try not to think about it.” There’s something to all of these answers (except the last, which is a cowardly cop-out), but none really address the question properly, any more than a wholesale condemnation of the series is fair.

Part of the problem—and what makes the question interesting—is that it gets at a larger question inherent to fantasy as a genre. For about ten minutes or so after Alison asked the question, I essayed a half-assed attempt to frame it within what I see as the bigger picture of cruelty as a structural motif in fantasy. My convoluted response (a little bit straightened out here) went something like this: fantasy tends to walk a line between gothic and romantic irrationalism on one hand, and historical realism on the other. Which is to say: it is a genre rooted in medieval romance and the capital-R Romantics’ rejection of modernity, and a certain nostalgic fascination with medieval Europe. Hence the mixing of magic and the supernatural with displaced historical realities. These tendencies were generally inchoate until the mid-twentieth century, when they were conflated (or, if you’re uncharitable, calcified) into the works that, for all intents and purposes, created fantasy as a genre: C.S. Lewis’ Narnia Chronicles, and J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.

(Please note: this is an extremely reductive account of fantasy’s history. I’ll be more expansive in future posts).

The result is a speculative genre—much, of not all, of fantasy can be read as asking “what if?”—grafted onto a fascination with medievalism, a fascination that is in no small measure nostalgic for a premodern, pre-industrial world. Tolkien epitomizes this pastoral sensibility, with all of his virtuous characters being identified in some capacity with nature (whether agrarian hobbits or forest-dwelling elves), and the villains identified with industrialism and its depredations.


The Alberta Tar Sands, replete with the Eye of Harper.

There is thus a tension built into fantasy, between its supernatural and romantic elements on one hand and its need to make its settings recognizably medieval (however vaguely). Always at question is its degree of historical fidelity, or, to put it another way: just how medieval does the story want to be? How much squalor, filth, disease, and appalling hygiene does it want to depict? (I find it somewhat ironic that the most honest depiction of medieval squalor is Monty Python and the Holy Grail, wherein the king is recognizably a king because “He hasn’t got shit all over him”).

By the same token, how much of medieval political and social mores does the story want to include? Perhaps unsurprisingly, these tend to get more play than the gritty, grimy textures of medieval life—if for no other reason than that an unrelentingly accurate depiction of the age’s hygiene (or lack thereof) would sooner or later prove repellent. But divine right and absolute monarchy? Rigid caste systems? The disenfranchisement of women? Valorization of warrior culture? Rapine as a weapon of war? Roving bands of ruthless bandits? Torture as an accepted fact of life? Yup. That’ll do for much fantasy. At its best, the genre uses these historical realities in intelligent and thought-provoking ways, at times discomfiting audiences, at times reflexively making us question why precisely we are drawn to these scenarios. At its best, fantasy proceeds speculatively, suturing the imaginative freedom of an invented world onto historical actualities in such a way that reflects back on our own contemporary moment.

And at its worst? Well, while I am an avid reader of fantasy, and have been since first reading Lewis and Tolkien, I am not undiscriminating. There is much that has been written in the genre that I find simply unpalatable, which embraces the social mores as enumerated above uncritically and unironically, expressing nostalgia for regressive social and political structures. (As with any genre or art form, often the unpalatable elements are present in its greatest works: while Tolkien will always be one of my favourite authors, I would never attempt to defend his treatments of race and gender.)

Which is one of the reasons why the sexposition in Game of Thrones irks me: the series, and the novels on which it is based, is otherwise a remarkable example of how fantasy employs its neo-medieval setting to great thematic and critical effect.

I’ll bring this to a close here; I’ll be continuing this line of discussion with a few more posts. My next installment will deal a little more specifically with fantasy’s tendency toward lurid and exploitative representations of women, apropos of the fact that I am currently reading the Conan stories (the barbarian, not the late-night host) for the first time (yup, I’ve somehow avoided that all these years—part of that selective fantasy reading I mentioned above). I will then have posts on rapine and warfare, and torture and the dungeon as imaginative space. So, y’know … stay tuned.

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