Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Why the Great American Novel Won't Get Written

Recently, I watched a DVD of La mariée était en noir [The Bride Wore Black]. The film, adapted from a novel by Cornell Woolrich (writing under the pseudonym “William Irish”), was directed by François Truffaut and starred Jeanne Moreau as the title character. Wed and widowed within a few minutes, Julie Kohler seeks revenge against the five men who were responsible for the murder of her newly-minted husband as he and Julie posed on the church steps for a formal wedding photograph. To accomplish her mission, Julie, adopting various personae, travels across France (for the men have scattered after the fatal moment and never maintained contact with each other) to hunt them down and do them in, crossing off one by one each name on the list in her little black book when she has succeeded.

Though the movie lives up to its reputation as a classic and I enjoyed it immensely, I nevertheless could not get one big question about the plot out of my mind: how did Julie know who the responsible parties were (and, concomitantly, how did she know where to find them)? The police have no idea that the murders are linked or that any of the victims were involved in the unsolved murder of Julie’s husband. Only a second sighting of Julie by a character who was friends with both victims one and four leads to her connection to the revenge murders—but not their connection to the original murder of her husband.
It took me several years of procrastination after my retirement before I was ready to sit myself down before my computer keyboard to write the Great American Novel (Mystery Division). I had had several plot ideas in my head for a while, and I plucked the “stolen identity” one from the gray matter, fired up the machine, and started to write. I knocked out the first (admittedly short) scene fairly quickly, saved it on a floppy disk, and spent the rest of the day feeling rather Hemingwayish and Fitzgeraldian.

And so to bed—where I lay awake all night, trying to weave together the strands of the plot (how did A get to location Z?; when did B find out about Y?; and on and on through the night). I tossed, I turned, and, when the little voice in the back of my mind whispered, “Gotthelf hath murdered sleep,” I realized that if I continued my project, I would never sleep again until I, unlike Truffaut, left no questions to be answered.

That opening scene remains on that floppy, on some shelf or in some drawer—perhaps to be found in some heap of rubble many centuries from now by a future generation able to apply its superior knowledge to crack the Rosetta Stone floppy and to discover the mysteries of our culture—then again, maybe not.

But I’m not going to lose any sleep over it.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Geese and Ganders

Three Analogies

Analogy One:

From Plato’s Apology

(Translated by Benjamin Jowett)

Socrates questions one of his accusers.

Come hither, Meletus, and let me ask a question of you. You think a great deal about the improvement of youth?

Yes, I do.

Tell the judges, then, who is their improver; for you must know, as you have taken the pains to discover their corrupter, and are citing and accusing me before them. Speak, then, and tell the judges who their improver is….

The judges, Socrates, who are present in court.

What do you mean to say, Meletus, that they are able to instruct and improve youth?

Certainly they are.

What, all of them, or some only and not others?

All of them.

By the goddess Here, that is good news! There are plenty of improvers, then. And what do you say of the audience, - do they improve them?

Yes, they do.

And the senators?

Yes, the senators improve them.

But perhaps the members of the citizen assembly corrupt them? - or do they too improve them?

They improve them.

Then every Athenian improves and elevates them; all with the exception of myself; and I alone am their corrupter? Is that what you affirm?

That is what I stoutly affirm.

I am very unfortunate if that is true. But suppose I ask you a question: Would you say that this also holds true in the case of horses? Does one man do them harm and all the world good? Is not the exact opposite of this true? One man is able to do them good, or at least not many; - the trainer of horses, that is to say, does them good, and others who have to do with them rather injure them?

And so Socrates rebuts the charge that he alone of all Athenians is a corrupter of youth. Or does he? His defense rests on an analogy: The training of youth is like the training of horses. Are you willing to buy that analogy? Socrates puts forward the analogy but offers no proof that the analogy is sound. The question “Does a human being need only one teacher?” (for having many will corrupt him) is never examined.


Analogy Two:

The statement “You can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs” is most famously attributed to Josef Stalin (although apparently it did not originate with him).

Stalin used that analogy to claim that desired political results necessitated harsh measures. (Basically, “the ends justify the means” defense.) Can the loss of millions of lives be exculpated by the omelets made from the eggs laid by the hens on collectivized farms?


Analogy Three:

A half century ago, in the long shadow of the McCarthy era, the student government of my college (the City College of New York) defiantly held an Academic Freedom Week each year. I was co-chair of the event one year, although I must confess that my partner did most of the work. And she it was who was able to snare Ayn Rand for an appearance during the event. Now, Rand was too grand to lower herself to debate anyone, but she did deign to “share” the platform with another speaker, in this case a member of the New York University law faculty, Robert B. McKay*.

In her presentation Rand sneered at the concept of academic freedom and asserted that a professor who upset the university powers-that-be should be sacked as easily and rightfully as a worker in a shoe factory who crossed the business’ owner. When it was his turn to speak, McKay riposted: “The soul of a man is different from the sole of a shoe.”


In his book The Duck That Won the Lottery, Julian Baggini states: “Arguments from analogy can be rhetorically powerful, but it is vital that we question whether the parallels are close enough to justify the conclusions drawn from them.” An analogy is not a proof; I prefer to think of it as a suggestion (“Look at example A as if were case B”). And analogies must be examined to see if, as Baggini points out, “the content of the arguments is analogous, [and] not just the forms.”

In conclusion: are human beings analogous to horses, eggs, or shoes?


*McKay’s obituary from the New York Times: