Monday, July 28, 2008


"He had recognized a quality in her of which no one else among her companions... was in the least aware. The recognition laid special responsibilities on him for were we not all ultimately charged to live not according to general rules but by our own specific recognition of one another's quality? However, having the courage of one's recognitions was a lesson only slowly and painfully to be learnt...." -- Laurens van der Post, The Seed and the Sower

Atyp's mistake, in which Typ indulges with less dire consequences, is in failing to recognize Ob as an individual. He appears to recognize her as one; he appears to distinguish her from all others -- to render her the most individual individual in his world. In fact, though, he mistakes the collecting of details for their amalgamation into a real person. Ob is, for Atyp, Atyp himself, projected outward. Atyp merely has chosen which collection of details (including physical features and emotional output) suits him, and he may well translate these details into a picture or definition that has nothing to do with the real Ob. If she deviates a bit from the picture or definition, Atyp either won't see it or will make it fit. On his Procrustean bed, the teddy bear's image is stretched or chopped. If Ob dares to deviate beyond the latitude Atyp can offer, Atyp may suffer the equivalent of a broken heart. This may manifest itself quietly or Atyp may feel the need to express it, in which case the bear and not only the image may find itself stretched or chopped.

copyright Wikimedia Commons/MatthiasKabel
Public figures, particularly those in the arts, whose work includes higher emotional output than, say, that of a waitress, are particularly subject to the obsessive attentions of strangers, and often are considered to have, by their choice of profession, invited these attentions, or at least to have consented, by invisible contract, to tolerate them. "S/he should've thought of that before s/he became a star," say folks whose idea of what might be an actor's, writer's, painter's or musician's motivations for working, and for seeking publicity for themselves and the work (and sometimes there is only a very difficult to make distinction between the work and the artist). These folks seem also to have forgotten that not only strangers are victims of objectification and its consequences, and not only stars. Waitresses, too, can find themselves thus objectified, as can persons of any profession and either gender. They can remain untouched by the objectification, or be annoyed by it, or have their lives changed. They can have their lives ended.

In The Tzaddik of Tsurumai, my novel in progress (a polite way to say "novel I haven't got around to finishing yet") an actor is assassinated by a "fan." (I hope you have all been admiring my restraint in not pointing out that "fan" is short for "fanatic"; I hope you're not too disappointed that I finally broke down and pointed it out, since I feel this is an appropriate point at which to do so.) One short chapter, narrated by the slain actor's father, a Polish immigrant, now follows:



I have heard Christians say "Jesus died for our sins." What a funny idea! I think actors do that: die for us, if not for our sins. I am not referring to the real death of my son, Dashiell, but to the deaths actors die on behalf of their characters. We are all afraid of death but we are all drawn to it, too, and are curious, and want to know what it would be like to die, but then to live and remember what it was like, and maybe be reassured.

I have heard that to stimulate and feed this kind of curiosity encourages real-life violence. I do not believe such a thing. Ancient Greek tragedy did not, as far as I know, increase the murder rate in ancient Greek civilization. True, there were no mass media as we know it (but this is a Greek word, is it not?) but our world population is larger now; there are more masses. And furthermore, I wonder, is it believed that the deciding factor is numbers? Frequency? Distance? Is inviting death into your home less safe than going out for it? I wonder, too: if Leopold and Loeb had stayed home to watch something awful on television, would Bobby Franks have grown up and had grandchildren?

But this is not what I wish to tell you. I wish to tell you that actors do not only die for us but also perform for us great heroic deeds as well as murder, and feel for us great emotions that perhaps we are too tired or distracted to feel for ourselves, and be for us people whom we would love to be, die to be, perform great heroic acts to be, but are too tired or distracted or poor or persecuted or lazy or in the wrong place at the wrong time to be. I mean good actors, of course. So then if everyone disagrees about who is and who is not a good actor, is the actor's value to society diminished? I like to read crime novels, not only American ones, and I would like to recommend to you the novels of an expatriated Englishman -- oh, how I think the word Englishman fails to suit him somehow, although all it means is a man born in England -- Nicolas Freeling, whose characters are in their way actors, or at least perform the function, for us, of actors; Freeling reminds us, though I misquote, that bad taste should not be confused with crime.

But, you remind me, my son was literally killed, and literally because of television. Not because of violence on television but because he himself was on television. So television is not dangerous to the general population -- only to actors!

Oh, this is not at all what I wish to say. I mean that people, ordinary people who did not know Dashiell, felt that they knew him, and had opinions about him, loved him and hated him, had expectations of him, and one of them felt so strongly about this that he killed him. Yes, it was a boy, a young man, barely twenty, a fan in the sense of a fanatic, who says now that he is sorry but he could not bear to see such a good man -- a good man! How would he know? -- become so evil. Dashiell had played the villain in a television movie. The orange didn't come up the straw, the cigarettes didn't dance. We saw Jack Ruby commit murder before our eyes, we watched David Frost interview Charles Manson, Los Angeles collapsed in upon itself, first spiritually and then physically, never mind Hitler, never mind Stalin, never mind the Khmer Rouge, we have seen everything there is to see: how can we be so naive?

It is very odd, but in the fifties, when I was first married, there was a big scare about communism, I mean Communism, and a handful, less than a handful, really, of fanatical men decided to control which actors worked and which ones did not. I am not speaking of the House Un-American Activities Committee, which did concern itself with this but also with a much wider range of "activities," mostly imagined; I am speaking of private individuals who appointed themselves the guardians of radio, film and television, and in fact blackmailed the entire industry into hiring only those actors these guardians deemed safe for American consumption. This is bad enough, the blackmail of the blacklist, but there was something else very curious about it, and that is that in retrospect we can see that only bad actors were sanctioned and almost anyone with a scrap of talent was banned. Why should this be? The answer is simple: bad actors say lines and purvey ideas only through words, assuming we are not too bored to be reached, and good actors transmit emotions and make us feel, and feeling the truth is dangerous. Adlai tells me that the Japanese once called actors "riverbed bandits." Shakespeare, who was himself an actor, made asses of them. The only kind of person portrayed by Hollywood writers as worse than the actor is the Hollywood writer (self-hatred is a powerful evil). Yes, there is another amazing thing the Christians say: "And the truth shall set you free." Don't you see that it was not in the interest of the tyrants of the blacklist or of any other tyrants that we should be free? And don't you see now that this is what actors do, and why they are scorned and idolized and feared and loved??

a riverbed bandit?

copyright Wikimedia Commons/Kuniyoshi Utagawa (public domain)
Everyone is objectified to an extent, and objectifies right back. Learning to recognize individuals is a process, and each time we encounter a new person, that person is for us at least partly an object until we begin to recognize his or her individuality. The serious problem begins when the learning-to-recognize process fails to begin. Observation alone is not enough of a catalyst, although it is necessary. Empathy too is needed. Perspective doesn't hurt.

Unfortunately, all of that requires involvement, and that is, to many, a pain in the ass.

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