Category Archives: History

Ann-Marie MacDonald’s ‘The Way the Crow Flies’ – A Review

IX-anne-marie-macdonald-as-the-crow-fliesAnn-Marie MacDonald’s The Way the Crow Flies is not a horror novel, but it certainly covered some horrific ground. Did I mention I also enjoy reading bildungsroman novels, especially ones that are fabulously written?

MacDonald’s second novel (after Fall on Your Knees) follows the life of eight-year-old Madeleine McCarthy, the daughter of Jack McCarthy, a high-ranking officer at the Royal Canadian Air Force station at Centralia, Ontario, Canada in the early sixties. Newly arrived after a long stint in Germany (where Madeleine was born), the family quickly adapts to life in a new part of the world, at least for Madeleine. Everything is off to a roaring start until she experiences unexpected trouble at school in the form of her abusive teacher Mr. March, who chooses a handful of girls to remain a few minutes after school for his personal pleasure, of which Madeleine is one. Tough subject matter to address in and of itself, but the bleakness level shifts into overdrive after Claire, an American classmate whose dad is stationed at the base for reasons known only to Madeleine’s father, is raped and murdered off-base and a beloved teenage neighbor, Ricky Froelich, becomes the state’s prime suspect, an easy scapegoat when the local authorities want to close this horrendous case quickly, and do so with the help of two of Madeleine’s classmates . . . who also happen to be members of the “after-three” club.

Is that dark enough for you? No? Well then, toss in the fact that the reason Claire’s father is stationed at the base is to smuggle a Nazi war criminal into the United States to serve as an assistant to Wernher von Braun as part of America’s plan to make sure it gets to the moon before those pesky Commies do, and that Madeleine’s father is a willing participant in this scheme, and that the teenager is the adopted son of Henry Froelich, a Jewish man who happened to be a prisoner at Mittelbau-Dora and knew the Nazi scientist who Jack secretly has holed up in a nearby town, only waiting for his order to brief Claire’s father and get the Nazi packing to the US. Jack also happens to be an important witness who could potentially vindicate Ricky’s innocence, but in doing so he would have to blow open the secret mission his own government has him participating in. Wait, even more issues come steadily down the pike with each new chapter, such as the fact that Madeleine is dealing with her burgeoning homosexuality, and her beloved older brother Mike is later sent to Vietnam. And, and . . .

If this plot seems over-complicated and a little too ‘just so’ to swallow, perhaps, but it should be noted that all of its various components were born from real-life events. Madeleine’s life is in part autobiographical, and the main plot point, the murder of Claire McCarroll, is based on the case of Steven Truscott. Of course, the Nazi war criminal being smuggled into Canada, and then into the US, is also modeled on historical precedent, namely Operation Paperclip. May be all of these events converging is one of those one-in-a-million things that sometimes do happen. It’s still pushing it, though MacDonald’s writing is so natural and self-assured that nothing ever feels forced, and the characters are sufficiently well-drawn that their respective motivations are perfectly understandable. Thus, it all feels too much like destiny about mid way through, a depressing conclusion indeed. Yet, somehow, amidst this carefully constructed fatalism, just when you think you have everything worked out and know how the story will end, the final piece is dropped into place, and it’s more shocking than you could ever have  imagined.

The Way the Crow Flies, published in 2003, was a well-deserving contender for both the Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Lambda Literary Award, though it ultimately won neither. That’s unfortunate. It’s a beautifully written novel that bounces back and forth between the two major p.o.v. characters, Madeleine and Jack, and spans around thirty years, as the adult Madeleine deals with the fallout from her own childhood abuse as well as watching a dear friend get sent up the river for crimes she knows he didn’t commit. Meanwhile, Jack’s big secret and the guilt that results from it is taking a toll on his health, which in turn is adding more stress to Madeleine’s life, and on it goes, until things finally come to a head and both Jack and Madeleine are forced to deal with their past. MacDonald perfectly captures the tone and details of life on a Canadian air force base in 1963, and weaves the various strands of her intricate and involving tale in such a way that they feel consistent and complimentary, which by all rights they shouldn’t.

That said, the novel is not without its flaws. Mr. March, the pedophile teacher, is perhaps too clichéd and one-dimensional to be perfectly believable. There’s also the matter of conflating homosexuality with being sexually abused, and though the novel goes out of its way to disassociate the two, it ultimately reinforces the stereotype by putting the central protagonist in both categories. The story would’ve been better served by not adding this additional wrinkle to an already complicated plot. And then there’s what becomes of Madeleine’s brother Mike, which does feel gratuitous. With all the stuff Madeleine goes through, it’s understandable that she’s a mess. In fact, it’s fairly startling that she isn’t more messed up than she is.

But these are fairly minor problems in the scheme of things. For the most part Madeleine McCarthy is that rarest of literary treasures, a believable child character, and a charming one at that. Part of her ability to cope comes down to the fact that she’s always been a natural comedian even as a little girl. Indeed, she will eventually choose to go into comedy as a career. In line with that aspect of her personality, one of the things that makes eight-year-old Madeleine such a lovable and well-rounded child character is her tendency to constantly mimic her favorite Warner Brothers cartoons. This is so exceedingly spot on that I wish I’d thought of it. And the story itself is a murder mystery of the most fascinating kind: one that is viewed through the eyes of a protagonist who isn’t particularly interested in solving it, while the investigating cops here are more like antiheroes, as they just want the case resolved quickly and efficiently at the expense of good police work, resulting in a clear miscarriage of justice. With respect to the guilt or innocence of Steven Truscott, the model for Ricky Froelich in the book, I’d say it’s pretty clear where Ms. MacDonald comes down. Having now read some of the details of the Truscott case myself, I’m still on the fence, though leaning in the direction of innocence.

But one thing is perfectly clear to me: MacDonald needs to keep writing. She not only manages to address issues like sexual abuse and moral panic in a sensitive and compelling way, she shines a light on one of the darker chapters of the space race and the development of the Saturn V rocket. The ghastly twist ending is just icing on the cake.

Grade: A-


The Final Word on Why the Civil War Was Fought

I grew up (and still live) in the South and there are some wonderful things about the place, but unfortunately, there is still a lot of nonsense here about the tainted history of the region, with many Southerners proclaiming that the Civil War was not fought over slavery, or that it was a minor issue at best.  These people are deluded.  Col. Ty Seidule, Professor of History at West Point, puts the final nail in the coffin of this argument in a succinct and powerful video in this article.  The debate is over.  The only people who still think that slavery was not the main issue that caused the Civil War are people who would not be convinced no matter how much evidence was presented to them—in other words, people who refuse to believe it because it hurts their pride.

I Came for the Sci-Fi; I Stayed for Robin Williams

Recently I got into a conversation on a friend’s Facebook thread about Robin Williams.  I grew up in the 70s and early 80s, so my fondest memories of Williams are as the iconic Mork from the sitcom Mork & Mindy.  I absolutely adored this show as a youngster.  The thing is, I was drawn to the show because it was about an alien from outer space living with a human, and as you know from the approximately google amount of times I’ve mentioned it here, I was obsessed with science fiction as a boy.  You can bet that if it had an alien, robot or weird creature in it, I was so there, especially since we only had two television channels where I lived, an ABC station (obviously) and the local PBS affiliate.  When there aren’t a lot of choices for a raging sci-fi geekboy, you tend to take whatever you can get.

Although in terms of science fiction content it wasn’t exactly on par with a Star Trek or a Battlestar Galactica, it had enough of a sci-fi hook to bring me in.  Even back then Mork & Mindy seemed to me less an out-an-out sci-fi show than a vehicle for allowing Robin Williams to vent his particular brand of hyperactive, oblique craziness.  But Williams was a world unto himself on the show, and the entire Mork & Mindy universe revolved around him and his ability to sell the character.  It was wildly successful, to say the least, and it’s hard to imagine a M&M series being half as entertaining without him.

After M&M Williams went on to fairly successful film acting career, including many roles for which he was nominated for some award or other, and a few that he won awards for.  What the films proved was that Robin was a versatile and dynamic performer, a man of many faces and identities.  But with all those masks, not a lot of people ever got to see his true face.  The sad clown is a bit of a cliche perhaps, but there is more than a grain of truth in it for Mr. Williams.  He battled chronic depression, alcohol and drug addiction to varying degrees throughout his life; I too have struggled with depression, and to a lesser extent drug problems.  It almost comes with the territory of being a creative person anyway, but when you have all the health issues I have and you’re too poor to afford treatment, it’s pretty much a foregone conclusion.

But one thing I have never had to contend with was being in the never-ending spotlight and having to keep up appearances for the sake of your fans.  One of the reasons I chose to obscure my identity and write under a pseudonym, in fact, was because I am not interested in being personally famous.  A renowned writer?  Sure, give me every bit of that (but only if I’m worthy of it).  But I also dig my privacy.  I’m not a life-of-the-party kind of person–never have been and never want to be.  I have seen what that can do to perfectly good writers, artists and performers who aren’t cut out for it, and often it’s not pretty.  Williams is the quintessential example du jour, but there are so so soooo many examples.

Anyway, I just wanted to share a few thoughts about one of the greatest entertainers the planet was ever blessed with, an amazing one-of-a-kind soul who will never be replaced.

Na-Nu Na-Nu, sir, wherever you are.

The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology: Film Review

Recently I’ve found myself searching through Netflix for the unusual, the oddball, the just plain bizarre.  When I happened upon a documentary called The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, the title hooked me immediately and I knew I had to watch it.  I have since watched it twice, finding some of the ideas presented in it useful to varying degrees.

Apparently a sequel to another doc, The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, which I haven’t seen, the film is basically a Marxist and Freudian examination of the concept of ideology as presented in and through an assortment of films both well-known and obscure.  Truthfully, I don’t really get the “pervert’s” part of the title–it seems to be little more than a red herring to draw attention to the film, and I can imagine it works like a charm.  Directed by Brit Sophie Fiennes and narrated by the thoroughly engaging (if sometimes difficult to follow) Slovenian Marxist psychoanalyst Slavoj Žižek, the film is a fascinating documentary that, if nothing else, offers us a unique perspective on a motley collection of films we know and love such as They LiveJaws and Titanic.

But I have to admire Žižek–a knotty foreigner with a thick beard, a pronounced Slovene accent and a stilted manner of speaking, he boldly challenges us thoroughly capitalist Americans to step outside our comfort zones and look at movies through utterly oblique eyes, and he somehow pulls it off spectacularly.

He begins by claiming that when we feel we have escaped the influence of ideology, it is then that we are most susceptible to it.  Indeed, we actively resist being removed from it because it is extremely uncomfortable to disengage from our ingrained social identities.  Or, as he succinctly puts it, “freedom hurts.”  It’s hard to argue with that, especially in a nation where the political divide continues to widen every year and where outlandish conspiracies once relegated to the political fringe have moved nearly into the mainstream.  Žižek aims his criticisms squarely at consumerist culture, of which we Americans are by far the biggest offenders.  Not that he has nothing positive to say about us.  For example, he makes no bones about the fact that he admires Starbucks’ model of compassionate capitalism, identifying it as the perfect form of capitalism in the age of cynicism.

With nary a misstep, Žižek tackles the symbolism of the shark in Jaws, the true message of the Catholic church in The Sound of Music, Travis Bickle’s sexual repression in Taxi Driver, and the concept of the Big Other as represented in propaganda films like post-WWII Russian narrative film The Fall of Berlin and the Nazi documentary The Eternal Jew, among other things, all from the Marxist point-of-view.  Whether you identify in any sense with Marxism or not, Žižek presents Marxist philosophy in terms that are easy to grasp, or at least much easier to grasp than the works of Karl Marx himself.  I can vouch for that–I have tried to delve into Marx’s writing several times, with various degrees of success.  I can understand the basic premise of Marxism, but it’s all pretty confusing beyond that.  In fact, the Marxist idea I find most engaging (but no less complex) has nothing much to do with economics per se: dialectical materialism.  But more about that later.

Anyway, if you’re at all interested in Freudianism, Marxism, semiotics, film history, film criticism, and so on, this shouldn’t be missed.  And now, to find a copy of The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema in my little Southern town.  Yeah, good luck to me, huh?

Grade: A

. . . Of the Week (7-6-14)

So, I am again a day or two behind.  This time I can chalk it up to it being the Fourth of July weekend.  On top of that my house has been undergoing some major work, so that has occupied much of my time as of late.  But anyway, here it is . . .

Article of the Week

This week’s article comes from a site called {Life}Buzz.  I don’t want to say too much about it, but it includes a touching video clip that’s guaranteed to bring a tear or two to your eye.

He saved 669 Children During the Holocaust…

Artwork of the Week

Marcela Bolívar is surrealist digital collage artist whose work has adorned album covers, book covers, t-shirts and magazine articles.  Her style reminds me a good deal of Dave McKean’s, though with a more feminine feel to it.  Here website contains a nice assortment of her work, so check it out.  This piece references Eden and the Fall of Man.

Marcela Bolívar - Garden
Marcela Bolívar – Garden

Album Cover of the Week

This cover design is for Enigma’s A Posteriori album.  Again, the design is enhanced by strong basic shapes, in this case circles.  The muted colors also give it a nice antique aura, and the pink lines (almost literally) tie all of its various elements together.

Enigma - A Posteriori (cover)
Enigma – A Posteriori (cover)

Book Cover of the Week

I haven’t done one of these in awhile.  This is a cover design for Ray Bradbury’s Machineries of Joy.  The coolest things about it are the way the artist/designer worked Bradbury’s name into the frames, and the Art Deco feel of it.  I could easily see this as a poster design from the 1920s or 1930s.  A great concept well executed.

Ray Bradbury - Machineries of Joy (cover)
Ray Bradbury – Machineries of Joy (cover)

Meme of the Week

Here’s a wonderful little cartoon that charmingly symbolizes the nature of books and the knowledge they offer.

Everyone, be good and have a wonderful week!


Society’s Dread of Children Coming to a Head: The Slender Man Murder Case

First off, my apologies for missing this week’s Of the Week post.  I had a lot on my plate Friday and Saturday, and I was ill all day yesterday.  I reckon we’ll skip it this time and get back on schedule next weekend.  Anyway . . .

Before I get into the meat of this article, it should be said up front that I support youth rights, favoring the kind of system (or something very near it) expounded upon in Dr. Robert Epstein’s excellent book Teen 2.0: Saving Our Children and Families from the Torment of Adolescence.  Everyone should read this book, seriously.  Epstein points out that by treating kids essentially as slaves until they reach the arbitrary age at which we decide they are adults, the effects of raising children this way have been profoundly negative, using examples from other cultures to show how children in the West are particularly disadvantaged by this system.  Epstein proposes a system of tests that children can take when and if they so choose, and if they pass the tests, they can opt into age of majority.  I think this is an excellent idea.  It doesn’t treat youngsters with the one-size-fits-all sledgehammer approach to age of minority/majority and its attendant rights, and that is important in raising children to recognize themselves as individuals rather than just cogs in a machine who only become fully human at age 18 (one might even argue that by then it is too late to reverse the damage of such a system).

This simplistic, black-and-white system is ultimately hypocritical by design, and nowhere is the flaming hypocrisy of it more evident then in cases where kids commit shockingly violent crimes.  It seems that society wants to have it both ways: when kids kill, they can be treated as adults by law and locked up for as long as possible, but otherwise they are perfectly innocent little angels who must be protected from themselves and the big bad world every second of the day.  Since kids do not transition mentally, physically, morally  and so on from pure childish ignorance to perfect adulthood all in one day but rather develop gradually over time, this Magic Age system is astoundingly stupid and just plain lazy, not to mention much too convenient for those who hold power over kids.  I think they deserve better than that.

This is the context in which I want to examine the attempted murder of a young girl by her two friends.  The victim was stabbed nearly twenty times by the young girls, who claim they intended to sacrifice her to an internet-born fiend called the Slender Man.  The perpetrators were Anissa Weier and Morgan Geyser, both aged 12.  You’ll note that the name and face of the victim in this case has not been released, which is typical in cases where a minor has been victimized under law.  And yet the names and faces of the perpetrators–also kids–have been plastered all over the internet at this point.  There has been a discussion of whether or not these girls fully understood the moral ramifications of their actions, and most people seem to agree that 12-year-olds do know the difference between right and wrong, at least to the extent that they know not to kill their friends.  I tend to agree, but then kids do not all develop at the same rate either.  What we have to go by in this case are the psychological profiles of the perps, and their motives.  Since we don’t yet have the former, we’ll have to focus solely on the latter.

These girls, perhaps out of fear, were attempting to sacrifice another girl to a fictitious monster.  Many cultures have a less than sparkling history when it comes to human sacrifices to nonexistent beings, and I’m not entirely convinced this action wasn’t committed in the same spirit.  And these are kids, after all, and clearly imaginative ones at that.  The evidence suggests both of these girls were obsessed with the Slender Man.  So, are these girls immature for their age?  Well, far too many people–most of them adults, sadly–believe in a lot of nonsensical supernatural things, and perhaps the only thing stopping them from committing murders in the name of their faith is the law.  People don’t give up their mystical ideas easily, and many of them will behave just as irrationally if given half a chance.

It’s easy to point the finger at an internet meme (or a movie, or a video game, or whatever) and say, “There’s the culprit!”  Certainly we cannot ignore those factors either, but if you want my opinion–and you must if you’re still reading this article–then the real culprit here is the willingness of far, far too many people in our culture to put  their particular brand of spiritual silliness before logic and empirical evidence, which is to say, they value religion over science.  Many people will argue that their religion isn’t dangerous–after all, most people don’t commit murders in the name of Christianity, Judaism, Islam and so on, but I suggest that it is only because they fear legal or social reprisals, not because their religion happens to be a peaceful one by design.  I grew up in Christianity, hearing the stories of the Bible, so I know better.  The evidence for this is overwhelming when you examine historical contexts in which the Church, Temple or Mosque was all-powerful, and even today in societies that are theocratic (I’m looking at you, Islam) you see all kinds of atrocities committed in support of upholding the supremacy of that particular faith.  The fact is, the more superstitious the people, the more violent they tend to be, and America is still a pretty violent culture when compared against other Western industrial nations that are much less religious than we are.

Sure, kids are often more susceptible to social pressures than adults, who tend to become set in their ways and resistant to the social pressures of youth culture.  In fact, I believe it is because adults fear the power of youth culture that they keep them oppressed.  Many argue that it’s for their own good, and to an extent that’s true, but can you imagine any other minority group being oppressed as a whole on that argument alone, or really any such simplistic argument?  The evidence that we have become more and more terrified of children can be seen in every aspect of society, from its hypocritical and nonsensical laws that keep them firmly under adult control at all times (we are all born with inalienable rights, but we can’t actually use them until we turn 18–doesn’t that remind you of the pigs in Orwell’s Animal Farm when they claim, “We are all equal, but some are more equal than others”?–it’s a flat-out contradiction and renders the whole concept of inalienable rights meaningless) to the massive moral panic we’re currently held captive to over child and adolescent sexuality.

And the argument that kids must be protected from themselves could just as easily be extended to, say, women, and in fact once was.  Men used to believe that women were too prone to emotion-based actions and thus had to be controlled.  Is that not exactly the same argument (or a variant of it) applied to the whole group of 0-18s today?  Granted, rights have limitations–of course they do.  It would be ridiculous to treat a newborn the same way we treat 16-year-olds or even 12-year-olds, but in legal terms–and very frequently in social terms–that’s precisely what we do.

Unless, of course, they commit a horrific crime.  Then all bets are off.  Kids are no longer innocent angels but violent predators who knew exactly what they were doing.  Sorry, but you can’t have it both ways and still have a morally consistent system.  Either these girls knew what they were getting into or they didn’t.  If they didn’t, then they cannot in good conscience be tried as adults.  But if they did know, then why are they still legally designated as minors?  Would any kid ever really grow up morally confident in such a system, where they are only treated like adults when they fuck up big time?  To me that is a glaring, almost paradoxical flaw in the system.  It’s time to reexamine how we treat and view children and adolescents in our culture.  And while we’re at it, maybe we should grow up as a society and give up our own absurd mystical crutches too, to show kids that adulthood is actually something worth aspiring to.  Mystical fantasies are fine when treated as such, but when you use them to guide not only your own behavior but attempt to force others to abide by your belief system, then why should you expect kids to be able to discern fantasy from reality? Just a thought.

. . . Of the Week (5-24-14)

Article of the Week

As serendipity would have it, I happened to be doing some research on Austrian writer Leopold von Sacher-Masoch a few days ago in relation to my novel AL+ER.  The connection is a bit oblique, but AL+ER is in part about the history of pop and rock music, as the main protagonist is both a musician and an aficionado of a wide range of music.  And as it turns out, Sacher-Masoch is a distant relation of singer Marianne Faithfull.  His most famous contribution to literature was the story Venus in Furs.  Sacher-Masoch also gave rise to the sexual kink we call masochism, so-named after the second part of his hyphenated last name.  With the Marquis De Sade’s fetish, sadism (the flip side of the coin, so to speak), masochism is usually combined into the all-encompassing erotic pain fetish known as sadomasochism, or S&M.  I confess that I’ve never really understood this fetish; but, as long as no one is really getting hurt and everything is consensual, who am I judge?  But I have long found the historical figures behind the odder aspects of science and culture to be fascinating.  I have an obsession of sorts with such people–the weirdos, outsiders, unsung geniuses, et al of history, as I have a sort of kinship with them.  Yes, folks, I too am weird. 🙂

Anyway, someone in the WordPress network caught my last Of the Week post and gave it the thumbs up.  I make a point of visiting every blog/website (if one exists) of whoever ‘likes’ anything on my site and was thus led to the blog ArtLark and, fortuitously, to this  article:

Furs and Female Domination in Sacher-Masoch’s Writing

If you like art and cultural history, the quality of ArtLark’s articles is consistently excellent. They’re going in my blogroll, so you can find them there from here on out.

Album Cover of the Week

Our album cover this week is from Moon Taxi’s Running Wild.  I can tell you pretty much exactly how this beautiful cover design was created.  First, the base image is a photo of some kind of natural formation taken from above at great distance.  The designer may have tinkered with the colors a bit beforehand, but it looks to me like he or she used a feature in Photoshop called ‘Invert’, which renders colors into their compliments.  It’s a bit like a film negative, actually.  Anyway, the inner image is simply a slightly smaller version of the base image rotated 180 degrees, so that’s how you get that bordered look.

Moon Taxi - Running Wild (cover)
Moon Taxi – Running Wild (cover)

Song of the Week

Josh Ritter has become one of my favorite singer-songwriters largely on the strength of one album, So Runs the World Away.  Not that his other albums are bad, mind you; it’s just that that particular album is . . . effin’ . . . amazing.  My favorite track on the album tends to shift day to day, but probably the one that I return to the most is Another New World.  The fact that one of the most poignant and haunting love songs ever penned was for a ship (called the Annabel Lee, no less) is, in my opinion, the ultimate testament to Ritter’s strength as a songwriter.  That he counts Stephen King as a fan doesn’t hurt either.  King may have provided the biggest bump to Ritter’s ever-rising popularity, and in return the musician gave the horror author a gift in the form of The Remnant, a song that, although not specifically about The Dark Tower as far as I know, definitely channels the spirit of King’s magnum opus.

In fact, I would call So Runs the World Away one of the most literary albums ever produced, containing as it does the musical narrative hat trick of The Curse, The Remnant and Another New World, not to mention a fine contribution to the Stagger Lee mythos in the form of Folk Bloodbath.  So there are many great choices here, but I have to go with Another New World.  It’s a heartbreaking story-song about one of those early polar expeditions that goes tragically wrong, and a man’s love for the ship that carried him through it.  Try not to cry while listening to this, I dare you . . .

Josh Ritter – Another New World

Meme of the Week

The quote, although not identified as such, is from dream hampton.

Art of the Week

A sweet Art Deco poster by Georges Favre for Peugeot, now a famous car company but originally a manufacturer of bicycles and coffee grinders . . .

Georges Favre - Peugeot (1924)
Georges Favre – Peugeot (1924)

That wraps it up for this week.  Everyone have a great Memorial Day weekend!

Fighting Monsters: Frankenstein’s Monster and the Culture of Outsider Persecution

I have good dispositions; my life has been hitherto harmless and in some degree beneficial; but a fatal prejudice clouds their eyes, and where they ought to see a feeling and kind friend, they behold only a detestable monster. – Mary Shelley, Frankenstein

Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster.  Friedrich Nietzsche

Chidog-01 - Frankenstein's Monster
Chidog-01 – Frankenstein’s Monster

DeviantArt: Chidog-01

I read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein about five years ago.  The novel had been calling to me for years, but I had avoided it for one reason or another.  Ultimately, I think it was because I knew in some deeply recessed, intangible part of my being that I simply wasn’t ready for it.  Not because of its nigh impenetrable pre-Victorian English or the complex philosophical and moral issues it presents, although that was part of it, I suppose.  No, I think the main reason I waited so long is that I sensed I would identify too much with the monster and would be emotionally devastated by his end, which I assumed, having seen the 1931 film long ago, was death by fire.  (“Fire bad!”)  Actually, in the novel the monster doesn’t die–not physically anyway–but instead is self-exiled to the Arctic.  Given that the monster appears to be nearly immortal, and knowing what I know about social isolation, the monster’s lot struck me as a fate far worse than death.  Needless to say, my fears about reading the novel were well-founded . . . and then some.  Not that I regret reading it, mind you.  Quite the contrary.  It’s just that I have since become haunted by Frankenstein’s monster long after the fact, sometimes imagining myself wandering the vast wastelands of ice and snow, alone and unloved, until the end of my days.

I could have handled the monster being murdered.  This is what we’ve been conditioned to expect of monsters, isn’t it?  Of course, Shelley’s monster is not the kind we’re used to.  He’s hateful and murderous by the end, yes, but he’s also deeply psychologically tortured.  Despite the many cultural depictions to the contrary, Dr. Frankenstein’s creation was originally not the lumbering, ignorant, feral thing he became; he’s quite intelligent, in fact, even brilliant.  He has a taste for literature, particularly John Milton’s Paradise Lost, viewing himself as akin to Adam in the poem.  Likewise, the monster is sensitive and (initially anyway) compassionate towards mankind, only turning bitter and abhorrent after numerous failed attempts to win the affections of men, who continually respond to him with fear and revulsion rather than kindness and acceptance.

In the end the monster comes to despise himself even more than others despise him, because his already unbearable misery is compounded by the fact that he has become exactly what people view him as: twisted, violent and horrific.  As he says to his creator, “My heart was fashioned to be susceptible of love and sympathy, and when wrenched by misery to vice and hatred, it did not endure the violence of the change without torture such as you cannot even imagine.”

The notion that a sentient being can take on aspects of how it is perceived by outsiders is nothing new today.  We even have a pretty solid and well-founded concept to describe this phenomenon: labeling theory.  In Mary Shelley’s time this was a fairly revolutionary idea though.  The basic view of criminal behavior at the time of her novel’s publication, the so-called Classical School of criminology, was that human behavior is essentially rational and that all crimes are therefore fully the choice of those committing them regardless of the circumstances or the mindset of the criminal.

There are tons of problems with this position.  First and most obvious, it ignores the root causes of crime pretty much entirely and focuses only on the behaviors associated with the crimes.  As a result, it tends to be reactive rather than proactive in terms of dealing with crime.  Second, it fails to account for mental illness, duress, or countless other things that might mitigate rational behavior and contribute to criminality.  Third, because it assumes that criminals are always solely and consciously responsible for their actions, it tends to encourage harsh and unfair punishments for crime.  There are others I could list but you get the idea.

So, Frankenstein’s monster is a classic example of the misunderstood villain.  Although his crimes are not exactly justified, they are perfectly understandable in light of how he is treated, and in perhaps one of the greatest bits of irony in all of literature, it is the very dread and repugnance society directs toward him which eventually turns him into something truly dreadful and repugnant.  The creature is merely fulfilling the social role expected of him, though he hates it and himself for doing so.

Beyond the book, most depictions of the monster lack this complexity, usually reducing him to a dimwitted thing that merely reacts to its environment and to humans, often angrily.  He is thus a precursor to the Incredible Hulk, whom I believe was influenced by Shelley’s character.  Hulk even shares the Frankenstein monster’s gray-green skin.

Positive depictions of the monster are rare and usually done for comic effect.  A friend of mine and I recently discussed the film The Monster Squad, for example, wherein Frankie deserts his cohorts–all classic movie monsters–and befriends the children of the Monster Squad, particularly young Phoebe, who demonstrates to the other kids that the monster is nothing to fear.  In direct contrast to the murder of the little girl in the original film, here he saves the little girl from death at the hands of his old boss, Dracula.  In many ways this small, nearly forgotten gem of a film takes a more enlightened view of monsters than many of its more respected predecessors.  There are still evil monsters, of course, but the movie demonstrates that not all monsters are bad; some are good, or potentially so, and only want to be loved.  In that sense The Monster Squad returns Frankenstein’s creature to his original status as a seeker of human companionship and understanding, even if it does reduce him to the nearly preverbal child-like being of his film heritage.  It’s a nice fusion of book and film Frankenstein.

The Monster Squad further blurs the line between human and monster when Scary German Guy (as the kids call him), formerly feared by them, becomes an ally of the Monster Squad.  During an early interaction between them, Scary German Guy (SGG) points out several facts about monsters which provokes one of the kids to say, “Man, you sure know a lot about monsters.”  SGG responds to this by raising his sleeve, displaying a series of tattooed numbers on his arm, and saying, “Now that you mention it, I suppose I do.”  Nothing further is said about this; nothing more needs to be said.  The audience, or rather those parts of it who are old enough to know about the Nazi atrocities, understands that SGG is saying implicitly that humans are capable of becoming monsters too.  SGG, whether intentionally or not, is essentially warning the kids not to lose their humanity in the process of hunting and destroying monsters.  Therefore, the Monster Squad (a club originally organized around a shared love of the classic monster films) must destroy their monstrous adversaries not because Dracula and the others are monsters in the traditional sense, but because they have evil intentions, and we as an audience know that the kids do understand the distinction due to their befriending of Frankenstein’s monster.

By contrast, the Nazis dehumanized and monstrocized entire classes of people: the Jews, of course, but also other ethnic minorities, gays and other “sexual deviants”, gypsies, the physically and mentally disabled, and yes, even criminals–pretty much anyone they perceived to be outsiders or a threat to their image of themselves as the Master Race.  All were subject to the Nazis’ Final Solution.  And no doubt, if Frankenstein’s monster had existed in Nazi Germany, whether the tortured, violent creature of Shelley’s book or the gentle giant of The Monster Squad, he would’ve met the same fate.


Side Note: With the release of I, Frankenstein earlier this year the character has been remade, so to speak, yet again, this time as a handsome hero (played by Aaron Eckhart of all people) who fights demons, a concept almost completely antithetical to everything Shelley envisioned.  I haven’t seen it, but I’m aware that the film performed badly in theaters and was pretty much universally panned by critics, which I’m ecstatic about.  I usually don’t revel in the failure of a film, especially one I haven’t seen, but Frankenstein’s monster is an important character in literature and one of deep symbolic resonance to me personally, and I cannot abide this crass Hollywood trend of reimagining every beloved cultural icon as a heroic two-fisted pretty boy.  It demeans and cheapens them, and worse: it undermines their entire raison d’être.  Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes films were bad enough, but I’ve never been into the Holmes mythos to the degree I am Frankenstein so that didn’t bother me nearly as much.

On Bigotry, Bugaboos, Beliefs & Balance . . .

(…And Boldly Going Where No One Has Gone Before)

On Facebook today, March 20th, I received the news that Fred Phelps, founder and ex-leader of the notoriously homophobic Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church, had died.  With Reverend Phelps at its helm, the activist faction of the WBC has protested against the socialization and acceptance of gays and gay culture since at least the early nineties.  Among other targets of the WBC were secular and reformed Jews, all of the other mainstream religions (including all branches of Protestant Christianity but their own) and pedophiles.  You can get a pretty good overview of their philosophy, politics and M.O. at the Wikipedia page I linked to above.

A few days ago I had read that Phelps, who resembled some creepy cross between Clint Eastwood and the evil minister from Poltergeist II: The Other Side, was on his deathbed, so today’s news of his passing did not come as a surprise.  No, the truly surprising tidbit that has come out of this coverage was that Phelps had been ousted from his own church last year.  At first this fact seemed to me shockingly ironic, but the more I thought about it the more I realized that it isn’t so ironic after all.  If one examines the history of all the extremist us-versus-them ideological movements, regardless of their rallying points or the basis for their beliefs they tend to implode, and I think it is because the psychology of the leadership of such movements are often so paranoid that they eventually begin to turn on each other.

Kane; Eastwood; Phelps

This is what happened with the Klu Klux Klan when they were at the height of their power in the 1920s.  Even when such groups manage to take over a government like the Nazis did in Germany and the Communists did in Russia, there is inevitably some internal purge that rarely spares even the most powerful members within that group.  With the Nazis it was Ernst Röhm and the leadership of the Sturm-Abteilung, without which Hitler never could have become Chancellor of Germany.  (If you’re interested, I discuss Röhm in some detail in an earlier article, Bothersome Nazis: Ernst Röhm and Julius Streicher.)  With the Communists the list was even longer and included many of the so-called Old Bolsheviks, again without whom the Russian Revolution would not have been successful.

Essentially, when one delves into their psychology and motivations, what becomes apparent is that trust issues and delusions of persecution are often innate to members of groups that are built around the persecution of other groups.  Hmm, whodathunkit?  It seems Alexander Pope had it right when he wrote:

All seems infected to th’ infected spy,
As all looks yellow to the jaundic’d eye.

This is of course a generalization and we should be careful not to assign to it more weight than it genuinely possesses, but we cannot ignore the patterns which persist time and time again amongst such groups, or within the broader context of society as a whole.

We should also keep this paradigm in mind when considering how such all-encompassing hatred might take root to begin with.  In that light we might better understand what Daily Kos contributor tmservo433 is driving at in this article when he points out, “Last year, right before his ex-communication, Phelps faced confrontation of former members who wondered if Phelps himself wasn’t a gay man who’s self hatred manifested itself as it did.”  The article goes on to state that Phelps’s rage was at its most piquant whenever he was personally confronted with accusations of his own possible repressed homosexual feelings.  We may be tempted to write off these accusations as simply a desire by those former members to get Phelps’s goat, and no doubt some of that was going on, but it is neither here nor there, for the evidence for homophobic projection is now pretty well established.

My hunch is that this sort of projection applies to much more than just unpopular sexual orientations; I suspect it can be said of a great many qualities innate to humans both individually and as a whole, such as a will to violence.  We may all look down on murderers, but is there a person alive who has never had murderous feelings in his heart at some time?  Or sexual desires that make him uncomfortable?  Furthermore, I believe the overall moral health of a society is directly impacted by how openly and honestly its members are able to deal with such desires or drives in themselves, and perhaps more importantly, whether they are able to set aside their own personal guilt, shame, anger, etc. in order to deal fairly and ethically with others who violate that society’s laws and taboos.  I’m sorry to say in comparison to most of the Western world, Americans get an F in this department.  We are among the worst when it comes to our treatment of criminals.  For example, we are the only Western industrial (First World) nation to still practice the death penalty, despite the overwhelming evidence that it doesn’t work as a detriment to violence, and we are number one in the entire world–including the worst of the Third World nations–when it comes to incarceration.

Why is this?  Whenever you ask this question of anyone who supports this Kafkaesque status quo, the answers you receive are invariably either astoundingly false (the deterrence argument), prone to mystical mumbo-jumbo (it’s God’s will), rooted in feelings of revenge, or some evasive thought-terminating cliche which ultimately amounts to a big “fuck you.”  Sometimes, in heated discussions, you get all of the above.  These replies never hold up to logical or ethical scrutiny, which is why the vast majority of the civilized world has rejected them.  We are the holdouts.  This is not to say that there haven’t been improvements over the years.  Those are pretty much inevitable, but they are usually slow in coming and almost always hard won.  It seems that we Americans, regardless of our political stripe, are all too frequently a prudish and mistrustful lot.

Maybe this traces back to our Puritan heritage.  I think that’s part of it, certainly.  But I think there is something else going on here too, something even bigger and older than religious fundamentalism.  We poor humans are doomed to operate our lives according to a great many internal prejudices called cognitive biases that trace back to the evolutionary development of our brains as organs of survival in a highly complex, ever-changing and seemingly infinite universe . . . what’s referred to by systems theorists as an open system.

What this means in the end is that the world we exist in provides so much information for our brains to take in, engaging us in feedback loops of such number and complexity that if our brains were unable to make speedy decisions based on this astounding amount of input, we would simply be unable to operate.  Our brains would be subject to something like combinatorial explosion, wherein a process becomes so exponentially complex that it becomes trapped in data processing and effectively ceases to function at the macro level in any useful way.  Ergo, without our built-in biases, we could never have evolved intelligence as the ability to do so would be an intractable problem for us.

As Jeremy Campbell has laid out in his excellent book The Improbable Machine, this has long been a thorn in the side of those attempting to develop a genuine AI; the original assumption of those working in this field–what makes humans intelligent is mostly/solely their capacity to be logical and that if a complex enough logic processor (Turing machine) could be developed, we would have an AI–has been all but demolished by a long history of abysmal failures sprinkled by a handful of modest successes.  Campbell shows that what makes us smart isn’t just our facility for logic but also–and perhaps even more importantly–our brain’s ability to make snap judgments based on previous experiences, no matter how skimpy or seemingly inapplicable to the extant problem those experiences may be.

But there is a price to be paid for this superfast inductive reasoning, and that price is the frustrating degree of inexactness we are subject to in this grand and mysterious universe we live in; moreover, the fact that we have a wide array of genetics and life experiences means that we can likely never reach a true philosophical consensus.  The advent of science has certainly pushed us forward by leaps and bounds on the logic front, but Campbell shows that logic has its limits.  In short, we owe as much (or more) to our structural cognitive biases for our intelligence as we do to our capacity for deduction, even as those same cognitive biases doom us to being wrong about the big things almost as often as we are right.

Some may find this fact distressing.  Personally, I embrace it, as it assures that humanity remains intellectually diverse enough to deal with almost any problem it faces.  Let’s put this into context.  Consider that there are types of algae that can reproduce both sexually and asexually (heterogamy); one magnificent example is the genus Volvox.  What’s fascinating about Volvox is that its use of heterogamy is dependent on environmental conditions.  When conditions are ideal, Volvox will often reproduce in asexual mode.  Asexual reproduction is basically a form of self-cloning, which makes sense for a species that finds its optimum environment.  It is operating by an instinctive version of that old adage ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’  However, when Volvox is threatened it will switch to sexual reproduction, diversifying itself so that some part of it will be able to meet the new environmental challenge.  When the Volvox finds a match for the new environmental conditions, it will then stabilize by once more switching to asexual reproduction mode.  It’s a beautiful survival strategy for this little waterborn plant.

Now, humans can only reproduce sexually, so diversity is assured in our species.  And that’s a good thing, as our diversity has been an essential contribution to our evolution as the dominant species on Earth, both in reaching that position and in maintaining it.  Could we ever have gotten this intelligent if we reproduced asexually and were all clones of each other?  I would argue that the chance of doing so approaches nil.  Diversity is not merely valuable for a species to reach this level of intelligence; it is vital.  And the more diversity, the better we are able to meet whatever challenges our infinitely complex universe has to throw at us.  The Vulcans of Star Trek have a more succinct way of putting it, a motto which is sacred to them and even has its own symbol.  This is IDIC, which stands for Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations.  For my part, I think the Vulcans are onto something.

Balsavor - Vulcan IDIC Symbol
Balsavor – Vulcan IDIC Symbol

DeviantArt – Balsavor

At any rate, our brains may be designed to be biased, but we shouldn’t assume that all forms of bias are then morally viable or insurmountable.  It is one thing to accept that our perception of reality is skewed in a thousand ways by our need to make sense of it and exist comfortably within it; it’s something else altogether to actively seek to justify the maltreatment of whole swaths of humanity based on these distorted perceptions.  Indeed, my point here is that we have a duty to try to understand our biases and overcome them when they negatively impact the moral status of society, because biases can be mimetic.

Yes, these cognitive biases can eventually manifest in some individuals as prejudice against whole groups of people, but that is not something that happens overnight.  It is largely a matter of social conditioning, and as such, it is morally unacceptable, for I see the higher moral imperative of diversity as a matter of survival for the entire human species, not just individuals (or races, or sexes, or cultures, or nations).  Why?  Because the humble Volvox, and indeed the whole history of humanity, demonstrates that the key to the survival of a species is to live within as broad an ecological niche as possible.

But what is it that provides the possibility for broadening our niche?  The answer is a broad environment with which to interact.  I include here in my definition of ‘environment’ aspects of both nature and human artifice, and I believe for the most part that anything that does not directly threaten the human species and does not threaten this highest of moral imperatives, the need for diversity, we should labor to protect.  Yet is there such a thing as too much diversity?  Theoretically at least, yes–when a species diversifies to the point where individuals can no longer interact, that is a direct threat to its continuance for obvious reasons.  But that is a difficult point for social animals like us to reach.  Still, the overall goal and the key to everything (you will hear me say this many more times on this blog) is balance.

It has been said that nature seeks stasis.  I think to a large degree this is true.  Nature is extremely flexible, but that flexibility is not, as many climate change deniers claim, infinite.  It does have limitations.  We should take care to keep in mind that it is absolutely a fact that humanity has within its capacity the ability to destroy all life on planet Earth.  A full-scale world war with nuclear weapons would probably do it.  If that is so, then isn’t it also the case that slowly corrupting the planet’s entire ecocosm could also eventually kill the planet off?  There is almost certainly a finite balance in the natural domain, but while we cannot know whether that balance can be permanently undermined, we can and do know that nature’s existing balance has served us well as a species thus far and is therefore worth conserving.

So, we now have a reason to embrace and defend diversity in both humanity and in nature as a whole: both are fundamental to our continued survival.  People like Fred Phelps are moral dinosaurs doomed to extinction not because they offend our sensibilities but because they are at heart anti-life.  They believe in rules for the sake of having rules rather than making life better and happier for us all.  They embrace hatred, cruelty and violence, which are inherently things of extreme divisiveness that, when taken to their logical conclusion, push our species towards extinction by directly threatening our need for diversity.

But, shouldn’t the views of people like Phelps be tolerated too, for, don’t they add to our diversity?  No, because their views and ideas are ultimately more destructive to this prime moral imperative than their existence is constructive to it.  And that is really where diversity as a moral imperative should end: at the point where it becomes anti-humanity and runs counter to itself.  That is only logical.

Shirley Temple: Our Little Girl Is Gone

Shirley Temple (enhanced)

It’s hard to be an uncloseted fan of Shirley Temple these days if you’re a middle aged man.  Yet, I have long proclaimed my fandom before all and sundry to the four corners of the Earth, and I am too old and stubborn to stop now.  My mother, another longtime fan, is really the one who instilled in me a love for the young actress, singer and dancer, and I have seen almost all of her films, including the notorious “Baby Burlesque” shorts that launched her career.  And so her death was a truly sad mile marker for me.  But I don’t want to talk about my own connections to the 1930s-era child star.  What I wish to do instead is outline what I think made Temple so special, and to do so we will need a bit of a history lesson.

To be sure, one can see even in Temple’s earliest work that she had that je ne sais quoi as the French say, that glimmer of something that one cannot quite put his finger on but nevertheless recognizes as a facet of greatness.  It was with this quality that the little girl managed a nearly impossible feat: taming the monster that was the Great Depression for many of her contemporary fans.  Now that we are in the 1930s, let us slip back even further in time: a few decades before Shirley Temple arrived on the scene, a peculiar but brilliant Victorian polymath–a mathematician, author, college professor and accomplished photographer, among other things–by the name of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (better known as Lewis Carroll), a self-confessed admirer of young girls, penned a poem for a beloved 5-year-old of his acquaintance named Beatrice, in which he wrote: 

For I think, if a grim wild beast
      Were to come from his charnel-cave,
From his jungle-home in the East–
      Stealthily creeping with bated breath,
      Stealthily creeping with eyes of death–
He would all forget his dream of the feast,
      And crouch at her feet a slave.

These lines perfectly sum up how a great many Victorians looked upon children.  It is difficult for modern folks, with all of their cynicism and paranoia about child sexual abuse, to understand the Victorian Cult of the Child and what it was about.  What it was really was an idea whose time had come, an essential stage of the Great Movement towards a more humane understanding and treatment of children.  This admiration ultimately stemmed from the fact that children were idealized in the Victorian mindset, seen as possessors of a quality of spiritual innocence that, once lost, could never be regained in this life (and only if one lived a morally upright life, meaning a life that adhered to Christian values, could one be assured of regaining this magical property in the next world).  As such, childhood and children themselves were almost worshiped, but this often had detrimental effects on real children, who were more often than not unable to live up to the moral standard imposed on them.   More on this another time.

Anyway, there can be no doubt that one of the manifestations of this Victorian idealization of children was the inevitable fetishization of children’s–especially girls’–perceived sexual innocence, and indeed whenever we encounter descriptions or discussions of the rampant problem of child prostitution in Victorian England, France and America during the time, we almost always see it framed not as a matter of physical or psychological harm but as a matter of spiritual harm, a corruption of children’s innate connection to Divine Perfection.  Unfortunately, this is where the origins of our modern understanding of the moral lives of children still lies to an embarrassingly large degree.  Despite our improved understanding of children’s brains, kids themselves have had a hard time shaking off this quaint moral yoke, and even now almost every morality movement of any persuasion has as at the bottom of its manifesto a famously effective thought-terminating cliché, that chronically reconstituted but undying refrain “Think of the children!

Here we are whisked back to the Great Depression, the dawn of the Child Star and the revitalization of a concept that had largely fallen out of favor with the arrival of Sigmund Freud and his psychoanalysis, which revealed children–albeit via notoriously fuzzy thinking–to be a seething cauldron of sexual weirdness that could be carried on into their adult lives.  Why, then, did Americans embrace the Victorian concept of the Sainted Child during the 1930s?  To me it is no mystery: both individuals and societies tend to swing conservative during bad times, likely owing to a chain of cognitive biases like the ambiguity effect (when facing the unknown, people tend to opt for the known), anchorism (overemphasizing an initial understanding of an issue and under-assessing new information) and of course risk compensation.  And there was comfort and hope in the old idea of children holding the keys to the kingdom inside them, a generation that could possibly bring about the rebirth of Paradise under the right conditions, if only they could be shielded from those worldly evils which had surely instigated this new economic Fall of Man.

To put this in perspective, we should note that the economy had had recessions and depressions before, but nothing like the Great Depression.  Although we have experienced a lesser depression (and seen a predictable rise in conservatism as a result), we have been largely isolated from the effects of our own depression in ways those who lived through the big one were not.

But throughout the majority of this horrific event, beginning in 1932, Shirley Temple was our nation’s fearless cheerleader, a pint-sized purveyor of America’s promise and a visible icon of the state of spiritual innocence we longed to return to.  Now, this calls for a bit of clarification, as there may be a tendency here to conclude that Temple was only a symbol and nothing more, but anyone with even a passing knowledge of her story knows otherwise.  For one thing, even as a child she was a certified genius, and we have the tests to prove it.  She was tested during the filming of Stowaway (she would’ve been around age eight at the time) and was found to possess an IQ of 155.  In comparison, physicist Richard Feynman, who was unquestionably a scientific genius, tested at 125!  So Temple wasn’t just a cute, curly-haired moppet; she was also brilliant.  And of course multitalented, which geniuses tend to be.

Despite the image of wholesome sweetness and innocence she projected, Temple was noted for her extreme professionalism, her polished performances and her maturity on set; and moreover, she seemed to be aware of the great weight she held as America’s darling, a true superstar who, whatever your opinion of her, did carry the financially strapped 20th Century Fox on her tiny back through the bulk of the Depression years and kept it from bankruptcy while other studios were falling down around them.

We cannot neglect to point out either that, even though she was young enough to deflect any serious accusations of promoting racial miscegenation, Temple shared the first on-screen dance with a black male partner (in The Little Colonel)–popular tap dancer extraordinaire Bill “Bojangles” Robinson–and therefore can be credited with breaking an important racial barrier on top of everything else.  As a matter of fact, the chemistry between Temple and Robinson was so natural that the two played opposite each other in no less than four films, and the little girl is reputed to have been in tune with Robinson to a degree that she could mimic his tap moves just by hearing them!

In this light we cannot doubt that Temple was an important figure of the time, and at that point everyone–well, everyone with a heart–was a fan, including grown men.  President Franklin Roosevelt spoke for an entire generation when he said, “As long as we have Shirley Temple, we’ll be alright.”  Perhaps there was a subtle sexual element to many men’s fascination with her, but again, I think it is foolish and simplistic to suggest such things amounted to outright conscious lust.

Of course, there were bound to be some men who did feel that way, but that would’ve been true regardless of the prevailing zeitgeist.  At any rate, anyone who suggested such a thing overtly was quickly derided, like critic Graham Greene when he wrote “Her admirers—middle-aged men and clergymen—respond to her dubious coquetry, to the sight of her well-shaped and desirable little body, packed with enormous vitality, only because the safety curtain of story and dialogue drops between their intelligence and their desire.”  Greene’s attempt to demystify the relationship between adult male fans and the little girl star, although noble, aside from coming off as snarky and demeaning to Temple, fails to grasp the complexity of what was actually occurring.  After all, the majority of Temple’s roles depicted her as a little ball of sunshine who cracked the stone-like hearts of stodgy, stoic men and let the light of love inside, forever changing them.  In effect, the films of Shirley Temple were a new manifestation of the Victorian Cult of the Child; what was different was that the concept was now writ larger than life on the silver screen and so came packaged with all of the additional magic of cinema.

Meanwhile, Temple herself seemed impenetrable to darkness, including the sexual variety.  When she was twelve, for example, and was visiting MGM studios (probably there to discuss the role of Dorothy for the upcoming The Wizard of Oz film, a role she obviously didn’t get), producer Arthur Freed exposed himself to her, and Temple, with her famous poise and cheeriness, reacted probably the best way anyone could react to a person who clearly meant to feed on her shock: she laughed at him and joked, “Mr. Freed, I thought you were a producer, not an exhibitor.”  I can see in my mind’s eye Freed deflating–in more ways than one–in embarrassment at such a quip before tossing the girl out of his office, which is precisely what happened.  Could it be that Temple lost what would arguably have been the biggest role of her life because she giggled at Arthur Freed’s goober?  Perhaps, but even if that is true, it is still Shirley Temple who comes across as the winner here, because that story alone is worth ten Wizard of Oz‘s.

In this light we can better understand why so many people, including adult males, fell in love with her at the time.  She was a distraction from the horrors of the Depression certainly, but more than that, her mere existence was an active force against them, and like Beatrice’s “grim wild beast”, the hell-hounds of Poverty and Want, of Cynicism and Despair, seemed to kneel before her while she pranced, curtsied and smiled in movie theaters across the nation.

Even after Hollywood no longer had any use for the child star and all but abandoned her, she rebranded herself before rebranding was a thing, making a new life for herself in the world of politics.  I cannot say I agreed much with her political views, although she is of that generation of politicians who, whatever their political stripe, still possessed enough character and respectability to be likable and persuasive. There aren’t many conservatives I respect these days, but Shirley Temple Black was one of them.  Needless to say, they are becoming fewer by the day as most of them belong to my grandparents’ generation (Temple was born the same year as my maternal grandfather, actually: 1928).  And after all is said and done, neither Shirley Temple the child superstar nor Shirley Temple Black the wife, mother, author and politician ever fell below the horizon the way many child stars of later years did.  It seems she was the closest thing we Americans have ever had to royalty, and right to the end our favorite Little Princess lived a pretty charmed life.

RIP Shirley Temple Black