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What A Waste

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So, here’s the thing.  I know I was in the middle of talking about something else, but this keeps coming up, and I find that it bugs me more as I get older than it did when I was very young.  Consider the following passage:

>>>In some old magazine or newspaper, I recollect a story, told as truth, of a man – let us call him Wakefield – who absented himself for a long time, from his wife. The fact, thus abstractedly is not very uncommon, nor – without a proper distinction of circumstances – to be condemned either as naughty or nonsensical. Howbeit, this, though far from the most aggravated, is perhaps the strangest instance, on record, of marital delinquency; and, moreover, as remarkable a freak as may be found in the whole list of human oddities. The wedded couple lived in London. The man, under presence of going a journey, took lodgings in the next street to his own house, and there, unheard of by his wife or friends, and without the shadow of a reason for such self-banishment, dwelt upwards of twenty years. During that period, he beheld his home every day, and frequently the forlorn Mrs. Wakefield. And after so great a gap in his matrimonial felicity – when his death was reckoned certain, his estate settled, his name dismissed from memory, and his wife, long, long ago, resigned to her autumnal widowhood – he entered the door one evening, quietly, as from a day’s absence, and became a loving spouse till death.
<<<

That is the opening paragraph of a “short story” by Nathaniel Hawthorne called “Wakefield,” and until I started my present obsession with all things Hawthorne I had never heard of it.  I have a number of Hawthorne books around the house, including a couple of collections meant to be used as textbooks in lit courses, and none of them included this “story” either. 

And once I  had heard of it–it was referred to in the Wineapple biography, twice, and in a couple of essays on  Hawthorne I had in essay collections and a few more I found on the web–I was completely mystified as to why it hadn’t ever been included in anything.   I mean, think about it.  This is one of the most peculiar ideas ever conceived for a short story.  In the hands of one of the masters of the deadpan Gothic, like Shirley Jackson, it would have been creepy as hell.  It’s the kind of plot that shakes students out of their lethargy, if only to express outrage at being asked to read anything so ‘weird.”

Then I read the thing, and it all became plain.  There’s a reason why I’ve been putting quotation marks around the word story, because “Wakefield” isn’t one.   Rather, it goes on in the way it starts, with the narrative voice staying well outside the events being related, and the events themselves being presented as hypothetical musings on the possible character and motives of Wakefield himself. 

The thing is, in short, God awful, and boring as hell.  Of all the things I can think of that could be done to this basic idea–and I  can think of a lot of them–Hawthorne does none of them.   And  I mean none.   Granted, this is a very early work, after Fanshawe and before the novels that made Hawthorne an American literary star, but even so.   The man was master of the Gothic himself.  He was capable of The House of  Seven Gables and “Young Goodman Brown.”   Even fairly early in his career, he knew better than to pull the sort of emotionally detached nonsense he pulls here.  And now I sit here looking at this absolutely wonderful idea, gone entirely to waste.

It isn’t the first time, either, and it isn’t just first rate authors who have done it to me.  About twenty years ago, I picked up a paperback by a minor horror writer named F. Paul Wilson called, I think, The Keep.  It was the story of a Jewish man who had been picked up by the Nazis and brought to their local headquarters somewhere in Eastern Europe, this castle they’d just happened to commandeer.

Which turned out to be Dracula’s castle.

The possibilities here are really endless.  The Dracula legend as it has come down to us, thanks to Bram Stoker and his many followers, has a distinctly Christian foundation.  Dracula cannot stand the sight of the cross.  His skin burns when holy water is thrown on him. 

Our hero is a Jew imprisoned by Nazis in Dracula’s castle?  We’ve got the set up for one of the great religious conflicts of all time.  The mere question of whether the tradtional defenses against vampires are going to work is a tangled mess–if they don’t work, all well and good.  Our protagonist will have to find out what works, and Wilson will have to find something new to do in a vampire novel.

If the traditional remedies do work, however, our protagonist will be presented with empirical evidence that his religious commitments are factually wrong, that Jesus  Christ was the Messiah.  But this is WWII, and our protagonist is in danger because he is Jewish.  Even granted that the Nazi antipathy to Jews was racial, not really religious, we’re still left with a significant more dilemma:  if Jesus was the  Christ, He should not be denied, but the force of Nazi evil must be countered in the most direct way possible, and that is necessarily by reaffirming your commitment to  Judaism in the face of persecution.

And F. Paul Wilson does–absolutely nothing with any of this.  The traditional remedies mostly work.  Our protagonist doesn’t think anything of it.  There’s a standard horror plot mixed with a standard action-adventure plot.  Our protagonist’s Jewishness turns out to be “essential” only in the sense that it gives a plausible historical excuse for the villains to lock him up in the castle.  Besides, Nazis are always good villains, since everybody knows they’re evil.   It saves a lot of trouble trying to make evil plausible itself.

Thesea are certainly not the only cases I can think of where I have looked at somebody else’s work and just cringed at the way a great plot idea, a great situation, a great character, was simply thrown away.   They are the two cases where I truly wish I’d gotten there first, because I think I could have done a better job than either of these writers with their central premises.   I might not have been that good with the F. Paul  Wilson plot, because I don’t write that kind of in-your-face, mosters and zombies and vampires and ghouls, kind of horror very well.

But the “Wakefield” idea–the short story that should have been written has been running through my head for days, and it’s a damned shame it doesn’t exist.  Now that I’ve seen the actual short story, though, I know I won’t write one of my own, because–because–

It’s odd to think that Shakespeare never thought for a second about whether or not he was “original,” and probably didn’t care.  Nobody cared, in the Elizabethan era.  Nobody cared in the eras before, either.   “Originality” as a mark of the ‘artist” enters the culture with the imagine of the artist as a Genius, and the  Genius is the result of Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young  Werther.  It’s almost unheard of for an author to invent a new mythic archetype and have it taken up by the culture around him.  Plenty of writers much better than Goethe never managed it.   Maybe Geothe was just in the right place at the right time.

The Sorrows of Young Werther is a thoroughly silly book, and a dangerous one as well.  It was published in 1776, just as the Enlightenment was about to bring to fruition its one great triumph.  It is, on every level, a denial of everything the Enlightenment proposed.  It validated emotion over reason, and overblown, uncontrolled, irrational emotion at that.  It celebrated the artist not as craftsman or even exemplar of human enterprise, but as emotionally tortured, singular, and entirely outside the human enterprise.  It is, in fact, the very beginning of the Romantic movement.

My professors in college would have said–did say–that the  Romantic movement was a reaction, a backlash against all that measured reasonableness, a revolt against science and that rationalization of life that it brought with it.  What bothers me is that it established an archetype of the “artist”–writer, painting, composer–as “tortured Genius,” too fine a soul to stand living among ordinary men and women, misunderstood by the vulgar, crass, mindless practicality of people who are “successful’ in everyday life, and, above all, as “original.”

I think originality is, in large part, a delusion.  There really are only a finite number of narrative arcs, and only a finite number of mythic archetypes.   But delusion or not, “originality” has become the bottom line that every work of art, high or low, has to meet.  

In painting, this has been a complete disaster,  wrecking the form as a viable enterprise in the modern world.   Contemporary art has been reduced to a status game whose only real function is to give a certain small group of people–not only the artists, but the gallery owners and the critics and the collectors–an excuse to exhibit the superiority of their taste to those Philistines in the population who aren’t able to see past their own prejudices to the Greatness that is the latest statement installation.  After all, the public never bought van Gogh, either, and the public will always oblige by picketing.

In music, the form has been saved largely because there have been avenues outside the standard ones.  John Williams composes what we would otherwise call “classical’ music, he just does it for the movies, and therefore doesn’t hae to rely on the arts establishment for either money or validation. Still, even in popular music we celebrate John Lennon instead of Paul McCartney.   We’re all convinced Lennon must have been the superior composer, since he was so tortured and misunderstood.  We think McCartney is far too sane to produce anything, you know–good.

In writing, what all this means is that I will not write a version of “Wakefield,” although I should.

Handled properly, that ought to be a really bang up creepy tale.

Written by janeh

December 10th, 2008 at 5:31 am

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response to 'What A Waste'

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  1. Tell the story. No one criticizes Shakespeare for ripping off Pyramus and Thisbee, and more to the point, no one hammers WEST SIDE STORY for ripping off Shakespeare. The Humphrey Bogart MALTESE FALCON was the third movie based on the Hammett novel, and the counts prior to the Garland WIZARD OF OZ and the Heston BEN-HUR are much higher. Yes, I’ve read THE PRISONER OF ZENDA–another two-version movie, now that I think of it–but it’s Edgar Rice Burrough’s blatant rip-off THE MAD KING which I keep on my shelves. Critics talk about originality, because they’ve seen everything a hundred times and are bored out of their skulls. But if you do a great job of telling the story, no one else will remember how many times it had been told before.

    And who’s this “we” anyway? I’ve got all the original Limeliters and original Kingston Trio, but not a Beetle in the apartment, tortured or otherwise. In fact, I scanned the bookshelves and found very few authors who didn’t live long and reasonably prosperous lives.

    And just as Williams–and before him Alfred Newman and Elmer Bernstein–keep music alive despite the art establishment, painting continues well enough. Take a good look at “commercial” art before you despair.

    Critics live in their own world, and I have no desire to join them there.

    robert_piepenbrink

    10 Dec 08 at 5:45 pm

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