Jimmie Gatz, AKA Jay Gatsby, debuted in dual-identity crime fiction long before the prototypal Bruce Wayne slipped on his Bat tights. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby rolled off the press in 1925, Detective Comics No. 27 in 1939. When Bob Kane and his writers (probably Bill Finger, possibly Gardner Fox) tacked on an origin story six issues later, they set the alleyway murder of Bruce’s parents “Some fifteen years ago.” I’m not suggesting Gatz (it’s slang for “gun”) was that homicidal thug (one of Mr. Wolfshiem’s other associates would be a better guess), but the Gatsby and Wayne funerals would have been simultaneous. Which might explain why nobody attended Gatsby’s. Though I suppose friends of the extravagantly respected Waynes would have snubbed a West Egger regardless. Thomas and Martha Wayne were tight with the Buchanan crowd.
“Jay Gatsby” is a disguise, one as elaborate as the mild-mannered reporter a certain Kryptonian invented for himself. Jimmie Gatz was born on the alien planet of smallville Minnesota. To the snobbish Nick Carraway, he might as well have crawled out of New York’s lower East Side or the swamps of Louisiana. He is a rough-neck trying to pass as an Oxford man. And, unlike Bruce and Kal-El, he’s not one of the good guys.
Jay is a party-crasher to a long tradition of gentleman thieves popular in the first decades of the century. For an origin point, see E. W. Hornung’s 1898 “A. J. Raffles,” a man of seeming wealth and leisure who secretly burgles his fellow aristocrats. Hornung was a brother-in-law of Arthur Conan Doyle, and his character is an inverted Sherlock Holmes. By 1925, the character type’s anti-heroism had mutated to Robin Hood do-goodery, the mission Kane and Finger burgled for Batman. Graham Montague Jeffries published Blackshirt the same year, another tale of a thieving yet well-intentioned well-born—this time inspired by Mussolini’s Fascists. Hitler published Mein Kampf in 1925 too, a treatise Tom Buchanan and many of his fellow East Eggers sent up the best seller list.
As far as supervillainous schemes go, the Gatz Plan for World Domination is small-fry, mostly bootlegging and stock scamming. Unless you count his secret identity itself. “Jay Gatsby” is an agent of social chaos greater than Christopher Nolan’s Joker. To Tom Buchanan, the mere existence of the new money millionaire signifies the collapse of Aryan Civilization. Soon blacks and whites will be marrying. He’s the bridge beyond which anything can happen.
But what ultimately wins Nick over to Gatsby’s belated side is his other Plan for World Domination, the wooing of Daisy Buchanan. In addition to re-inventing himself, Jay invents a time-machine more complex than Dr. Doom’s or Kang the Conqueror’s. He wants to reboot the world and repair the moment he lost Daisy. And like any Quixotic supervillain, he can’t see the futility of his own plan. Of course he’s going to fail. That’s the point.
I miss teaching The Great Gatsby. Before I re-invented myself as a college professor, Fitzgerald was a perennial high point on my high school syllabus—same as most high school syllabi. I don’t need a time machine to visualize the filmstrips from the 1974 adaptation I had to watch when I was sixteen. It’s a god awful film, the surprisingly incompetent script penned by Francis Ford Coppola. So imagine my delight when I heard Baz Luhrmann was taking a fresh shot. His Romeo and Juliet was a delightfully frenetic mess, Moulin Rouge yet more so, and so who better to capture the excesses of the decadent 20s?
True to form, Baz delivers a circus wagon of a movie. I was planning to enjoy it, but despite the incongruous hip-hop beats, it was almost as yawningly dull as last time Gatsby the Great popped into our timeline. I admit much of the problem is me. I know the book embarrassingly well, and the Luhrmann script, like the Coppola script, is a collage of favorite lines. I know, you’d think that would be a good thing—Fitzgerald’s own words!—but it means neither doggishly devoted screenplay ever commits to its own storytelling.
Worse, Luhrmann loves voiceovers. Which isn’t necessarily an absolute evil in screenwriting. But instead of visual juxtapositions or contradictions, we get lazy repetitions. Tobey Maguire narrates what we’re already seeing. He tells us that his neighbor is standing on the dock reaching for the green light. And, yep, sure enough, there’s Leonardo DiCaprio doing exactly that. It’s the definition of excess, but not the fun kind (like replacing Klipspringer’s baby grand with a church-sized organ—why not!). Early comics suffered similar redundancy. Look at the Bill Finger panel declaring Batman’s first appearance in Detective Comics 27: “As the two men leer over their conquest, they do not notice a third menacing figure behind them… It is the ‘BAT-MAN!’” And, yep, that’s exactly what Bob Kane drew in the panel under it. Comics outgrew the flaw decades ago, making poor Tobey all the more annoying now.
But maybe Baz is fulfilling a larger theme here. Gatsby has to fail. It’s what makes him Great. Ultimately, he and Bruce aren’t very different. Yes, Batman directs his megalomania for good—but just barely. His never-ending war on criminals is about vengeance and self-punishment. He’s ceaselessly borne back into his parents’ alleyway, endlessly replaying a botched past he will never get right. Gatsby’s jilting at the hands of the Daisy is no different. It’s a fate he’ll never escape either.
“Can’t repeat the past?” he cried incredulously. “Why of course you can!”
I can’t wait till the next time Hollywood reboots him.
Who stuck an adaptation of the 1999 cartoon The Iron Giant into the middle of Iron Man 3? Not that I’m complaining. Even The New Yorker loved it (as opposed to the formulaic explosions that bookend the movie). Robert Downey Jr.’s abrasive bromance with 11-year-old Ty Simpkins is the film’s brightest and most unexpected subplot. Though it also adds to the film’s overall incoherence. Which, again, might be a good thing. Not since Tim Burton was defining the superhero blockbuster in a single bound have we gotten such a (to use Tony’s term) “hot mess” of a movie.
Even before the young Mr. Simpkins’ entrance, Iron Man 3 was straining its thematic rivets. Aside from the obligatory bad guy machinations, the story scaffold looks like your standard marriage plot variety. Yes, Tony and Pepper are already together at the start, not married exactly, but at least, you know, whatever. Tony quickly overturns the domestic bliss by sending one of his remote control drones to romance his girl while he finishes some work in the lab (anyone notice that Shane Black and Drew Pearce lifted the scene from Watchmen?). Tony is literally phoning it in, and Pepper’s stuck with his empty shell.
Soon the robot drone is jumping into bed with them (yep, Watchmen again) and Pepper is packing. Next thing she’s climbing inside some other super-genius’s brain, and Tony’s pal warns he’s going to lose her if he doesn’t change. Which he does. When things start exploding, he remote controls that robot suit to encase her instead of himself. It’s actually a bit poignant—especially when Iron Pepper returns the favor by shielding him a moment later.
The weird thing though? We’re only about thirty minutes in. Sure, there’s a reprise when Pepper saves him a second time at the climax, followed by the formal exploding of the Iron drones in evidence of Tony’s now focused devotion to Pepper. He even chucks his cyborg heart over a cliff in the epilogue.
But romance is not the machine driving this movie. In addition to becoming a less dickish boyfriend, Tony has to get over the PTSD brought on by his near-death in The Avengers. This is fairly new terrain for a superhero plot and is one of several ways the specter of Afghanistan haunts the movie. The platoon of regenerative thugs are all maimed soldiers who literally grow back lost limbs. Osama Bin Laden is played by the Mandarin—who is played by a Baptist minister—who is played by a washed-up British actor—who’s played by Ben Kingsley—who most of us remember best as Gandhi. Terrorism, it turns out, is not the problem. It’s the War on Terrorism. Which might explain why the President looks like George Bush and not Barack Obama—especially when he’s being rescued by Don Cheadle. So when Tony blows up his armada of Iron Drones, he’s also saying goodbye to a military policy a lot of Americans would like to see go too.
Except when exactly is it that Tony gets over all that pesky post-traumatic stuff? He’s been tinkering in his basement for months, so why does one Home Depot shopping spree turn him into a McGuiver-esque 007? And what does it mean that he promises Pepper he’ll catch her and then can only watch with us as she plummets to her (apparent) death? And if both the romance plot and the foreign policy allegory agree on vanquishing all that deadly hardware, why does the newly superpowered Pepper need an extra boost of tech to put the bad guy down a final time?
Maybe this is where Ty Simpkins and The Iron Giant come in.
If you’ve not seen the Brad Bird movie, I highly recommend it. My daughter adored it when she was four. A mail-functioning robot crashlands in smallville where a father-less boy hides it in his shed while he and a wacky father-figure partner work to repair it. Sound familiar? It gets better. Like the Iron Man suit, the Iron Giant divides into semi-autonomous pieces, and the story climaxes with the self-sacrificing hero sailing into the sky to prevent a U.S. nuclear warhead from destroying the town. Which, incidentally, is also the climax of The Avengers. The Iron Giant even pays homage to the ur-superhero, Superman, who the Giant emulates to escape his programming as a soulless military machine.
But if being a less dickish boyfriend means finding your inner father figure for a half-orphan, the film mocks the tropes more than it fulfills them. This isn’t Spielberg. It’s a Spielberg parody—a particularly hilarious one. Downey and Simpkins are a comic tag-team that skewer the feel-good formula they’re only half pretending to inhabit. It’s as if we’ve crashlanded in a different movie.
But soon Tony is driving back down the main plotline, his remote control suit soon to follow. And what is it exactly that he learned during the detour? Mock sincerity. Deadpan delivery. Comic timing. All the things we loved about Tony but that no longer worked with Pepper in the room. He had to drop his defenses or lose her. All his jokes were misfires on the home front. So the kid gave him a new comic target. Simpkins replaces Paltrow as sparring partner and straight man. Iron Man is above all else a comedian. Refueled with a live audience laugh track, he’s ready to smash the bad guys again.
This all makes sense for one reason only. Iron Man isn’t Tony Stark. He’s Robert Downey Jr. Yes, Black and Pearce wrote the script, and Paramount dropped some $200 million into the budget, but the film’s structural logic isn’t animated by CGI effects. The movie only works because it’s so damn funny.
Even the post-credit Avengers 2 teaser is pure sketch comedy—Tony and Doc Banner trading barbs in a two-minute therapist routine. The material is pretty hackneyed, but these guys make you want to laugh anyway. Political commentary, character arcs, plot structure—it all melts away when you’re laughing.
Comedy is Iron Man’s real superpower.
I’m teaching my Superheroes seminar again this Spring, and Marvel very kindly scheduled Iron Man 3 to fit our syllabus. So my students and I abandoned our classroom and strolled downtown to our smallville theater. Here’s their verdict.
Alejandro Paniagua: “Iron Man 3 was a movie filled with action, violence, and the right amount of comic relief. Eccentric billionaire Tony Stark is portrayed as a more relatable character that suffers from anxiety attacks and is even saved by Pepper who assumes the role of superhero in an exhilarating final battle against Killian who wants to create an army of “ubermensch”. Like in The Dark Night Rises, this movie adopts the idea of portraying an image of evil that society will accept while the real villain remains unknown until the end.”
Alena Hamrick: “It was brilliant how Pepper’s role changed from the previous movies. You see it when, for the first time (even if it is of Tony’s will), Pepper dons the Iron Man suit and saves Tony from falling debris. This was ingenious foreshadowing. She again comes through at a crucial moment and saves Tony’s life; this time, not with the Iron Man suit on her, but with her own super powers. In this sense, Pepper became a superhero. It was a super intriguing role reversal (the fact that Tony Stark needed to be rescued by a woman!!!!).”
Clark Hildabrand: “A cynical melding of the Marvel universe and everyday reality, Iron Man 3 marks the return of the suave and battle-hardened Tony Stark. Rather than the super villain of the comics, the Mandarin is a spokesperson for the alleged villains of democracy: think tanks and PACs. Killian tempts scientists, veterans, and even the vice president with money and the possibility of greater power. Although the boy sidekick from Tennessee may make this film more palatable to younger audiences, the violence of both Iron Man and the antagonists is distressing.”
Sarah Michalik: “Having not seen either of its precursors, I did not know what to expect with Iron Man 3. I heard it was a superhero movie, but this movie did not seem to be a superhero film to me. Tony Stark has no real superpowers, unless you count his ability to build a whole fleet of metal suits. The Iron Man suits are what hold the real power, and in this film, many people wear the suits to help defeat the ‘Mandarin’. In short, the action scenes were exciting, but I do not think it was a real superhero movie.”
Becca Brown: “Iron Man 3 explores to what extent a superhero can act as an independent agent. Before this movie, Iron Man operated as a lone hero, with the exceptions of his alliance with War Machine and his recent team-up with the Avengers. This movie sees Iron Man expand his personal ‘saving the day’ network. He enlists the aid of not only the newly dubbed Iron Patriot and his girlfriend Pepper Potts, but must also rely on civilian strangers to help him complete his mission.”
Lijiang Liu: “The love interest is the key. If Iron Man didn’t hit on the bio girl, he won’t meet the guy who owns the think tank. Kind of ironic that Iron Man said that his sole mission is to protect the girl, yet the girl saved him. More ironically, the girl is “superhuman” when she kills the think tank guy, while Iron man is lying on the ground without his suit. So it seems like the girl is the superhero in this movie. Yet we still have a Hollywood ending, hero and the good girl are together.”
Gray Jones: “In Shane Black’s Iron Man 3, there are spectacular explosions, battles between good and evil, and an underlying love story. Black is no stranger to action-packed movies as he wrote screenplays for Lethal Weapon 1, 2, 3, and 4, but unlike his previous movies, he artistically weaves in several humorous and heart-warming side plots into Iron Man 3. In this sequel, the mysterious and formidable terrorist called the Mandarin tests Tony Stark’s strength both as a man and a machine. Iron Man 3 is heart-pounding sequel and well worth two hours.”
Margaret Felger: “One of the most important points of the movie was Tony’s battle with his identity. The public knows that Tony is Iron Man and he doesn’t try to hide his identity. Because of this, it is harder for Tony to keep his lives separate. This movie, more than the other Iron Man movies or the Avengers, made it seem like Iron Man has eclipsed the life of Tony Stark. While we see Tony “give up” being Iron Man, the end was ambiguous enough to allow Tony to return as Iron Man in other movies (for example he’s in the next Avengers movie).”
Carissa Steichen: “The film Iron Man 3 presented a hero with many of the same traits and tropes of the superheroes we have read about. A major element of the film was Tony Stark’s conflict with his identity as a human versus his identity as Iron Man. While the movie was serious at times, there was comic relief throughout the action packed story. The romantic aspect of the film gave it a positive ending, leading to Tony giving up his identity of Iron Man, which brought closure to the plot.”
Scott Mokris: “While Iron Man/Tony Stark is the supposed superhero of the film, I found it fascinating how Aldrich Killian, the film’s supposed principle villain, is also portrayed as a type of superhero. Not only does he have superpowers given to him by Extremis, he also has a pro-social mission, which Peter Coogan finds essential for a superhero, in his attempt to create better humans. Another aspect of Killian as a superhero is his second/secret identity as The Mandarin. This second identity is unique in the fact that, instead of putting on a costume, Killian has another person be the costume and identity for him.”
Ali Coy: “The dual identity between Tony Stark and Iron Man, the superhero, is a prevalent issue throughout Iron Man 3. At the end of film, Stark destroys all of his Iron Man suits, freeing himself of his superhero identity. However, his final words of the film are roughly, “I am Iron Man.” Therefore, even though his suits are destroyed and he removes the iron heart from his chest, his identity as Iron Man is still a part of him and always will be. Also, the character of Pepper, Tony’s girlfriend, reminds me of Lois Lane, by playing the damsel in distress-like character and having Iron Man come to her rescue.”
Elizabeth Lamb: “Despite the unfortunate mischaracterization of The Mandarin, the epitome of Eastern mysticism and the perfect foible for Western technology’s Iron Man, this latest addition brings to a fiery light the dangers of biotechnology while still gracing fans with irresistibly clever one-liners. Defying the typical damsel-in-distress motif, Pepper Potts joins in the action, rescuing Stark twice, while still maintaining her delightfully pure charm. With homegrown terrorists, corrupted good intentions, and a hero struggling to overcome his anxiety, Iron Man 3 reflects the image of a nation in chaos – a vision of present day America.”
Nolan Doyle: “The film concludes with the iconic line: “I am Iron Man”, as spoken by Tony Stark. This is not only a reference to the song “Iron Man” by Black Sabbath, but also a commentary on the character himself. Iron Man is quite different from most superheroes in that he doesn’t care to hide his identity. Such is the unique characteristic of the hero, his singular identity: Iron Man is Tony Stark and Tony Stark is Iron Man.”
About five years ago, a group of honors students were trolling campus for a professor willing to create and teach a course on superheroes. They found me. The syllabus I submitted to C&D for approval included a predictable roster of comic books, interspersed with a few influential pulp novels and even a smattering of Nietzsche and Shaw. But then a friend handed me a novel I’d never heard of, a then recent hardback about an evil genius and the team of superheroes he fights. Standard comic book fodder, but the blurbs on the back assured me this was a literary novel.
And I thought: Really?
This is of course well before my superhero obsession had achieved its current proportions, but I had serious doubts. Sure, in rare cases, a comic book, say Alan Moore’s The Watchmen, could scale the pop culture ladder to achieve recognition as a work of serious literature. But this Austin Grossman guy, he was going the other direction. Soon I Will Be Invincible was a novel descending into comic book clichés. Yes, Michael Chabon had won the Pulitzer for The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, but that wasn’t a novel about superheroes—that was a novel about superhero creators. Totally different.
And then I started reading. I didn’t make it through the first chapter before going online and ordering my own copy so I wouldn’t mark up my friend’s with underlines and scribbles. Always a sure sign I’m in love. This evil genius, Dr. Impossible, he was hilariously witty and improbably poignant. Where Alan Moore applies psychological realism to darken comic book stereotypes, Grossman achieved a realism that didn’t destroy the beloved formulas. His supervillain still MWAHAHA-ed, doomed to lose every plan for world domination, but under that absurd surface was a frighteningly familiar human being. Where Moore devastates superheroes, Grossman heightens the character types by constructing vast inner psychologies.
So I revised my syllabus and made those honors students read it. And then I made my book club read it. And then, since my kids weren’t reading entirely on their own yet, I read it to them. (My son’s twelve now, and when he heard Austin Grossman was coming to my campus, he found my scribbled-up copy and read it to himself again.) My daughter had already read most of Harry Potter on her own a few times, but she liked the ritual of a parent droning from a book over the breakfast table and after dinner on a couch. Soon I Will Be Invincible may be the last novel I read to them both. When I tried to start another, she very politely asked: “Dad, can we do something not about superheroes?”
But she loved Grossman too. How could the children of two professors not fall in love with a geeky genius in an endless battle against the stuck-up superhero bullies who persecuted him in middle school? But it was Grossman’s second narrator, an amnesic cyborg, who bulled me over. Despite (or perhaps because of) her fantastical absurdities—she shoots rubber bullets and a grappling hook from her forearms—her character took on emotional resonances I didn’t notice at first, meanings smuggled in under all the fun.
So when I got to the paragraph where she mourns the loss of her old self, the kid she can’t even remember ever being, I couldn’t read it. Literally. I choked up. Repeatedly. My kids thought I was having some kind of seizure. I was looking at my almost-pubescent daughter, a girl who had maybe ten minutes left in her childhood, and suddenly the metaphor of an amnesic cyborg was the most profound truth I’d ever read. Or not read. I eventually had to give up and hand the book to her to read aloud to her brother.
And now Austin Grossman has a new novel. How will I cope?
He’s again returned to my childhood, not to comic books this time, but video games. I can recall reading a green computer screen over a high school friend’s shoulder as he typed responses to text-only prompts. The game Zork began with the words: “You are standing in an open field west of a white house, with a boarded front door.”
That nameless main character, “You,” is also the title of Grossman’s new novel. Instead of plumbing the secret depths of superheroes, YOU offers a subterranean view of the computer gaming industry, a multiverse Grossman knows particularly well. He started writing games twenty years ago—because what else would you do with a B.A. from Harvard?—stopping to study Victorian literature at Berkley before launching his literary career while still continuing to expand his work in video.
My family has more Austin Grossman on our shelves than I had realized. He co-wrote Epic Mickey, a game I’ve watched my son slash through with our Wii remote. His credits are long, and even a non-gamer like me recognizes titles like Tomb Raider and Jurassic Park. Though I admit when I saw the headline “Dishonored Writer’s New Novel Shows a Video Game Generation Being Born,” I thought Grossman must have done something really, you know, dishonorable. (Dishonored actually won a range of awards last year and is considered the best action-adventure of 2012. )
I predict equally honorable accolades for YOU. The novel just launched, and Washington and Lee University will be hosting a reading on May 14th. Should you happen to be in attendance and feel a sudden, inexplicable wave of déjà vu, it might because Austin’s identical twin, Lev, stood on the same stage last fall to read from his own upcoming novel, a sequel to The Magician King. There’s clearly an annoying surplus of talent in the Grossman gene pool.
In my family, all the computer DNA went to my two brothers, stepbrothers, so no nature-nurture mystery there. Grossman’s characters enrolled in their high school’s first offering of computer math. So did I—before fleeing the next day. My brothers basically taught the class. I’d still rather watch Space Invaders over someone’s shoulder than play it myself. So all the more amazing to me that Grossman can render the spectacle of 80s and 90s games so thrillingly. Graphically you might just be a plus sign battling hordes of ampersands in a forest of Vs, but his prose imbues your plight with improbable depth, both three-dimensional and psychological.
My brothers went on to careers as programmers, and one is, in fact, a game designer in a universe that bears an uncanny resemblance to YOU. But saying the novel is about video games is like saying The Old Man and the Sea is about fishing. It tells you a great deal and nothing at all.
I will say that YOU is a fantastic novel, but not fantastical. Sure, the game’s archetypal adventurers chat with the narrator on a regular basis, but you can write those off as dreams and daydreams. And, yes, that ur-bug infecting the game code has an almost supernatural vibe, but Grossman never quite exits realism. Or rather, fantasy and reality become flip sides of a single coin. While Invincible explores the disturbing borders where real and unreal meet (the seams in cyborg skin graphs, for example), YOU overlaps the two worlds–literally, the game maps are overlays of Central Park, Disneyland, Scotland.
Ultimately, the difference between here and there, you and your role-playing self, tumble into a shared real/unreal universe, the coin Grossman keeps spinning for almost four hundred dizzying pages. When I set the book down, I had to recalibrate my senses, shake-off the metafictional jet-lag, before handing YOU to my son. He’s a video game junky. He’d dive through the screen of his laptop if he could. I’m glad he can’t, but Grossman provides the next best thrill.
I can restart the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in three words.
But first a lesson in grammar.
Passive voice. Ever heard of it?
Super-grammarian Geoffrey Pullum has. Daily Planet editor Perry White has too. But White, according to Pullum, has no idea what it is.
In J. Michael Straczynski and Shane Davis’ Superman: Earth One, Mr. White explains to cub reporter Clark Kent: “Active sentence structure versus passive structure. A good reporter always goes for the former, never the latter. It’s ‘A dog was killed last night,’ not ‘Last night, a dog was killed.’”
And then Pullum swoops in through a window: “It looks as if the editor of The Daily Planet thinks that it is passive sentence structure to use any adjunct constituent set off by commas. So he would condemn sentences like Michael Corleone’s You’re out, Tom, or Today, I settle all family business, for being passive!”
In his Chronicle of Higher Education article “Passive Writing at the ‘Daily Planet,’” Pullum bemoans the sorry state of grammatical knowledge among not just fictional newspaper editors. Your “freshman-comp TA” and writing gurus Strunk and White get it wrong too. Pullum considers it a serious educational issue.
I teach first-year composition, but my concern isn’t educational. It’s moral.
Passive voice is evil.
If you accept Stan Lee’s superhero prime directive, “With great power comes great responsibility,” then passive voice is a supervillain’s weapon of choice.
Which might explain why politicians use it so often. The Fat Man and Little Boy of literary examples were both launched by the Nixon administration. When press secretary Ron Ziegler was discussing Watergate, and when Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was discussing Vietnam, both deployed the same phrase:
“Mistakes were made.”
Who made the mistakes? Impossible to say. The sentence is missing its subject, the agent, the actor of the action. And there lies the villainy. Passive voice erases responsibility. It’s how bad guys make their escape.
Look at Mysterio. He routinely eludes Spider-Man by dropping smoke bombs and ducking away in the confusion. If you rewrite the sentence
“Mysterio dropped a smoke bomb,”
“A smoke bomb was dropped,”
then Mysterio (subject and villain) vanishes twice. He ducks away in the syntactical confusion. Passive voice writes him right out of the sentence.
Perry’s example, “A dog was killed,” actually IS passive voice (whether it happened last night or not), because the sentence masks the identity of the dog-killer. Did Mysterio kill the dog? Did Richard Nixon? Nobody knows.
Which is why reporters like Clark Kent sometimes use passive voice. The police, like the readers of the sentence, are still searching for the killer.
But what if the information is known and the writer obscures it?
That’s where things get ugly.
Reaching past my shelf of comic books, I have The Palestine-Israeli Conflict in hand. Instead of dual-statehood, Dan Cohn-Sherbok and Dawoud El-Alami settle for dual-authorship. And that’s about all they agree on. Each pens his own history. The book is a journey down the same river twice, but in very different boats.
When describing events of 1948, Dawoud El-Alami writes: “Jewish terrorist organizations . . . carried out a massacre of men, women and children in the village of Dier Yassin.” That’s active voice. The subject of the sentence carries out the massacre. In contrast, Dan Cohn-Sherbok describes the same incident with the phrase: “the policy of self-restraint was abandoned.” That’s passive. Who abandoned self-restraint? His syntax doesn’t want to tell.
Cohn-Sherbok goes on to describe a similar incident from 1982: “More than three hundred refuges were massacred.” Passive again. And Dawoud El-Alami, to no surprise, employs active voice again: “The militia massacred between seven hundred and one thousand people (some reports say two thousand).”
Technically, the two pairs of sentences don’t contradict (even mathematically, since two thousand is “more than” three hundred). But Cohn-Sherbok employs passive voice at its immoral worse. His syntax erases responsibility.
Now I’m not suggesting that the “Palestinian Perspective” half of The Palestine-Israeli Conflict is any more accurate than the “Jewish Perspective.” Dawoud El-Alami has his own array of rhetorical maneuvers for ducking blame.
If you’re wondering about my political biases, I find myself agonizingly sympathetic to both sides. The most guilty party is England, who, desperate to fight Nazi Germany, promised the same homeland to two different aspiring nations. The results were horrifically predictable.
But if you don’t think England is responsible, then this is a job for passive voice:
“The Jews and the Palestinians were promised the same land.”
Promised by whom? By Mysterio’s trademark cloud of syntactical smoke.
But at least Clark Kent is too fast for him. Clark recently escaped the grammatical misinformation of Perry White to strike out on his own as a blogger. It was big news. Last November, after a discussion of the Israel-Hamas cease-fire, NPR’s Talk of the Nation host Neal Conan explained:
“After more than 70 years as a mild-mannered reporter, Superman quit his day job at The Daily Planet. A fed-up Clark Kent delivered a diatribe in front of the entire newsroom on his way out the door. ‘I was taught to believe you could use words to change the course of rivers,’ he said, ‘that even the darkest secrets would fall under the harsh light of the sun.’”
Are you listening, Dan and Dawoud? Your words are changing the course of rivers. Take responsibility for your subjects, even their darkest secrets.
That’s the first step in this English professor’s plan for world peace:
Ban passive voice.
[And for the super-grammarians out there, I should point out that both “The dog was killed” and “The dog was killed by Richard Nixon” are examples of passive voice, even though the second sentence apprehends the killer. Only the first, the agentless subgroup of passive voice, is evil. The second is just criminally clumsy.]
April 15, 2013 The Terminator Time Travels to Cambridge to Study Nietzsche and Plot the End of the World
It’s rare to find folks willing to look sillier than me (an English professor who takes seriously the study of superheroes). Your hosting institution (Cambridge) dwarfs my tiny liberal arts college, and your collective degrees (Philosophy, Cosmology & Astrophysics, Theoretical Physics) and CV (dozens of books, hundreds of essays, and, oh yeah, Skype) makes me look like an under-achieving high schooler—which I was when the scifi classic The Terminator was released in 1984.
And yet it’s you, not me, taking James Cameron’s robot holocaust seriously. Or, as you urge: “stop treating intelligent machines as the stuff of science fiction, and start thinking of them as a part of the reality that we or our descendants may actually confront.”
So, to clarify, by “existential risk,” you don’t mean the soul-wrenching ennui kind. We’re talking the extinction of the human race. So Bravo. With all the press drones are getting lately, those hovering Skynet bombers don’t look so farfetched anymore.
Your website went online this winter, and to help the cause, I enlisted my book club to peruse the introductory links of articles and lectures on your “Resources & reading” page. It’s good stuff, but I think you should expand the list a bit. It’s all written from the 21st century. And yet the century you seem most aligned with is the 19th.
I know, barring some steampunk time travel plot, it’s unlikely the Victorians are going to invent the Matrix. But reading your admonitory essays, I sense you’ve set the controls on your own time machine in the wrong direction. It was H.G. Wells who warned in 1891 of the “Coming Beast,” “some now humble creature” that “Nature is, in unsuspected obscurity, equipping . . . with wider possibilities of appetite, endurance, or destruction, to rise in the fullness of time and sweep homo away.” Your stuff of science fiction isn’t William Gibson’s but Mary Shelley’s. The author of Frankenstein warned in 1818 that “a race of devils would be propagated upon the earth, who might make the very existence of the species of man a condition precarious and full of terror.”
Although today’s lowly machines pose no real competitive threat (it’s still easier to teach my sixteen-year-old daughter how to drive a car), your A.-I.-dominated future simmers with similar anxiety: “Would we be humans surviving (or not) in an environment in which superior machine intelligences had taken the reins, to speak?” As early as 2030, you prophesize “life as we know it getting replaced by more advanced life,” asking whether we should view “the future beings as our descendants or our conquerors.”
Either answer is a product of the same, oddly applied paradigm: Evolution.
Why do you talk about technology as a species?
Darwin quietly co-authors much of your analysis: “we risk yielding control over the planet to intelligences that are simply indifferent to us . . . just ask gorillas how it feels to compete for resources with the most intelligent species – the reason they are going extinct is not (on the whole) because humans are actively hostile towards them, but because we control the environment in ways that are detrimental to their continuing survival.”Natural selection is an allegory, yet you posit literally that our “most powerful 21st-century technologies – robotics, genetic engineering, and nanotech – are threatening to make humans an endangered species.”
I’m not arguing that these technologies are not as potentially harmful as you suggest. But talking about those potentials in Darwinistic terms (while viscerally effective) drags some unintended and unacknowledged baggage into the conversation. To express your fears, you stumble into the rhetoric of miscegenation and eugenics.
To borrow a postcolonial term, you talk about A.I. as if it’s a racial other, the nonhuman flipside of your us-them dichotomy. You worry “how we can best coexist with them,” alarmed because there’s “no reason to think that intelligent machines would share our values.” You describe technological enhancement as a slippery slope that could jeopardize human purity. You present the possibility that we are “going to become robots or fuse with robots.” Our seemingly harmless smartphones could lead to smart glasses and then brain implants, ending with humans “merging with super-intelligent computers.” Moreover, “Even if we humans nominally merge with such machines, we might have no guarantees whatsoever about the ultimate outcome, making it feel less like a merger and more like a hostile corporate takeover.” As result, “our humanity may well be lost.”
In other words, those dirty, mudblood cyborgs want to destroy our way of life.
Once we allow machines to fornicate with our women, their half-breed offspring could become “in some sense entirely posthuman.” Even if they think of themselves “as descendants of humans,” these new robo-mongrels may not share our goals (“love, happiness”) and may look down at us as indifferently as we regard “bugs on the windscreen.”
“Posthuman” sounds futuristic, but it’s another 19th century throwback. Before George Bernard Shaw rendered “Ubermensch” as “Superman,” Nietzsche’s first translator went with “beyond-man.” “Posthuman” is an equally apt fit.
When you warn us not to fall victim to the “comforting” thought that these future species will be “just like us, but smarter,” do you know you’re paraphrasing Shaw? He declared in 1903 that “contemporary Man” will “make no objection to the production of a race of [Supermen], because he will imagine them, not as true Supermen, but as himself endowed with infinite brains.” Shaw, like you, argued that the Superman will not share our human values: he “will snap his superfingers at all Man’s present trumpery ideals of right, duty, honor, justice, religion, even decency, and accept moral obligations beyond present human endurance.”
Shaw, oddly, thought this was a good thing. He, like Wells, believed in scientific breeding, the brave new thing that, like the fledgling technologies you envision, promised to transform the human race into something superior. It didn’t. But Nazi Germany gave it their best shot.
You quote the wrong line from Nietzsche (“The truth that science seeks can certainly be considered a dangerous substitute for God if it is likely to lead to our extinction”). Add Also Spake Zarathustra to your “Resources & reading” instead. Zarathustra advocates for the future you most fear, one in which “Man is something that is to be surpassed,” and so we bring about our end by creating the race that replaces us. “What is the ape to man?” asks Zarathustra, “A laughing-stock, a thing of shame. And just the same shall man be to the Superman: a laughing-stock, a thing of shame.”
Sounds like an existential risk to me.
And that’s the problem. In an attempt to map our future, you’re stumbling down the abandoned ant trails of our ugliest pasts. I think we can agree it’s a bad thing to accidentally conjure the specters of scientific racism and Adolf Hitler, but if your concerns are right, the problem is significantly bigger. We’re barreling blindly into territory that needs to be charted. So, yes, please start charting, but remember, the more your 21st century resembles the 19th, the more likely you’re getting everything wrong.
“I have the power to drop into the Fold,” Arno Strine tells us on the first page of his autobiography. All he has to do is push “my glasses up on my nose Clark Kentishly,” and “I am alive and ambulatory and thinking and looking, while the rest of the world is stopped.”
It’s an unusual superpower, one possibly due to his being born with a knot in his umbilical cord which required him “to form a loop and then pass right through it.” Also his job transcribing taped dictation, “starting and stopping so many thousands and thousands of modest human sentences-in-progress with my foot-pedal,” may have honed his time-pausing powers.
Being “a thirty-five year old male temp who has achieved nothing in his life” is a pretty lackluster existence for one of the most powerful human beings on the planet. But like so many who maintain alter egos, Arno wants to keep his superpowered life “a secret, and as a result it has swallowed up large chunks of my personality.” What superhero can’t relate?
Aside from a couple more intentionally bogus origin stories, Arno does purport to being “guided by a will greater than my own” and even theorizes “the reason I have been chose over any other contemporary human to receive and develop this chronanistic ability (if there is indeed some supernatural temp agency doing the choosing) is maybe that I can be trusted with it.”
And for the most part, Arno really is a trustworthy guy. “Fear” is his “least favorite emotion,” and he wants “to be responsible for creating as little of it as possible.” He doesn’t even like using his powers against his own would-be muggers, and as penance he spends an afternoon “performing acts of lite altruism,” including “collecting concealed handguns off anyone who looked under thirty” and disposing of them (forty-four in all) in newly poured cement.
“I have never deliberately caused anyone anguish,” Arno reports. He literally wouldn’t hurt a “grub” or want to cause “trouble for any living thing.”Or, for that matter, a non-living thing such as the bookstore paperback he purchases because he wrote in it while in the Fold. Other would-be Fold-users might enrich themselves as spies and thieves, but he can’t bring himself to steal a dollar from a cash register. He sincerely wishes to do no harm to anyone. “The last thing in the world I want,” he tells us, “is to be seen as a threat.”
So what’s this swell guy’s one and only downside?
He’s a rapist.
Or, to be fair, he’s something that doesn’t have a name. Because what do you call a man who while in the Fold, undresses women, gropes them, and, in at least one case, ejaculates on their unaware bodies?
It was not, by the way, a supernatural temp agency who bestowed Arno’s “time-perversion” powers. It was Nicholson Baker. Arno doesn’t live in a comic book or, more plausibly, a Penthouse comic strip. He’s the narrator of Baker’s 1994 novel, The Fermata. (That’s just two years before the collapsing Marvel Comics finally filed for bankruptcy protection after farming its pantheon to temps, and so a fitting backdrop for such a morally bankrupt novel.)
Which is not to say The Fermata (another term for the Fold) is a bad novel. Baker is an excellent writer (my wife teaches his Lovecraft homage to gothic potatoes), and when not falling victim to the contrivances of their pornographic plots, Arno and his fellow characters are rendered with stylistic brilliance.
But, unlike Oscar Wilde, I do believe art can also be judged in moral terms. All art is propaganda, and The Fermata advocates for a way of thinking that gets a lot of women raped.
University of Rochester Professor Steven Landsburg recently blogged in response to the rape conviction of two high school football players in Steubenville, Ohio: “As long as I’m safely unconscious and therefore shielded from the costs of an assault, why shouldn’t the rest of the world (or more specifically my attackers) be allowed to reap the benefits?” Landsburg notes that the “Steubenville rape victim, according to all the accounts I’ve read, was not even aware that she’d been sexually assaulted until she learned about it from the Internet some days later.” Since there was “no direct physical harm – no injury, no pregnancy, no disease transmission,” Landsburg asks, “Ought the law discourage such acts of rape? Should they be illegal?”
Students of Rochester have answered with a resounding YES! They are protesting outside Professor Landsburg’s classroom and petitioning the administration to censure and/or fire him.
According to national statistics, at least 1 in 4 women are sexually assaulted while at college. My school’s rate probably isn’t much higher. Though when the women in questions are the ones sitting in my literature classes, the statistic isn’t abstract.
Their assaulters sit in front of me too. They seem like good guys. In fact, they are good guys—friendly, bright, engaged, funny, sincere, all-around well-intentioned young gentlemen who on occasion will rape their fellow classmates.
By rape I mean, for the most part, render unconscious and sexually penetrate. A behavior which, amazingly, horrifically, unfathomably, they do not register as morally repulsive. Somehow many of these young men do not realize that sex with an unconscious body is not sex. They do not understand that sex without consent is rape. Or, more accurately, they do not wish to understand.
Which brings us back to Arno.
Basically the Fold is a super-roofie. One he’s employed on “hundreds” of women. Arno’s ex-girlfriend likened his behavior (or would-be behavior, since Rhody thought he was only divulging a fantasy—which was reason enough for her to dump him) to necrophilia. She found it, and so him, “repellent,” deserving to be “criminally prosecuted.” And Arno knows it’s true. He “would condemn in the strongest terms anyone else who did what I have done.” In fact, “when I try to imagine defending my actions verbally I find that they are indefensible, and I don’t want to know that.”
And yet he spends some 300 pages detailing those exploits, acknowledging the “self-deception” that allows him to commit them. Basically he’s a tidy pervert, meticulously cleaning up afterwards, restoring every fold of clothing to its precise position, so the female wearer is in no way aware of or troubled by the events she did not witness. And his concern seems genuine. We have every reason to believe him when he declares: “I want above all for women not to cry.”
This is a kind of duality outside most superhero tales. I don’t know how Nicholson Baker would render the self-deluding mindset of a W&L rapist, but the mental gymnastics of willed ignorance must approach the superhuman. And on the moral scale, Arno is a step up: “I could never get interested in a woman who was passed out drunk, or was sedated, in a coma, or dead.” His victims don’t wake up hungover. They don’t suffer from disturbing half-memories and chunks of lost time. They never suspect a thing.
In Arno’s defense, he never ogles women when not in the Fold because he would never wants to make anyone uncomfortable. His moral duality is also nothing like the security guard who proudly shows Arno photos of his wife and kids while describing how he would use the Fold to drag a “mint chick” into an alley, turning time on and off so he can feel her fighting as he’s “hammering the shit out of her.”
“But that’s rape,” says Arno.
Baker, if you haven’t noticed, is toying with us. And I don’t object to the moral puzzle of his conscientious sex offender narrator. I don’t even object that Arno goes unpunished and forgiven. I like forgiveness. Arno finds his in Joyce, a woman he dates only after admitting to her that he ogled and fondled her unaware body. She’s pissed at first, but deals with it. (Note that Baker does not have Arno attempt a confession/apology with the woman with whom he rubbed naked anuses before ejaculating into her face.)
No, I’m pissed at Baker because he allows Arno to go unredeemed. Unlike Nabakov’s Humbert Humbert, Arno doesn’t even know he needs redemption. And neither does his new girlfriend. Joyce, it turns out, is a like-minded sex offender, who (when Arno accidentally transfers his powers to her during sex) carries on his legacy, exposing and groping at will.
A reader—say, for example, one of my well-intentioned sex offender students—might set the novel down thinking he’s just read an oddly literary, essentially harmless bout of erotica. I’m told some Frat house TVs here spin porn 24/7, so Arno’s Fold adventures may seem comparatively quaint. And since Joyce and Baker let Arno off the hook, that lost male reader might think he’s off the hook too—even though, like Arno, he must know he’s not.
What kinds of damage does unexamined guilt inflict on a psyche? What new kinds of damage will a guilt-Folded rapist continue to inflict on victims while trying desperately “not to know”?
These are moral puzzles Nicholson Baker didn’t find time to ask.
Professor Landsburg, however, is rethinking (and/or massively clarifying) his own moral puzzle.
He recently wrote that “some readers might have thought [my original post] was an argument for rape. It wasn’t; it was an argument against,” specifically the legal idea that “You can do anything you want as long as you’re not causing anybody direct physical harm,” because that reasoning would “allow you to rape an unconscious victim if there were no physical consequences. That seems grotesque, so this rule seems wrong.” The reason he mentioned rape at all, he explains, “is because rape is particularly bad, so we can be quite sure we don’t want to adopt a rule that might allow it, even in the extreme hypothetical case with no physical damage. In other words, it’s mentioned because it’s horrible.”
Thank you, Professor.