Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The Mysterious Strangers Within Us

(copyright 1979, Contemporary Perspectives, Inc.)

This week's thrift store find is a little booklet that is labelled on the title page as "A High Action Treasure Chest Book." Apparently this is the paperback edition (1981) of The Mysterious Strangers Within Us. Larger than a mass market, it's more akin in size to religious pamphlets or recipe booklets.

It's unclear whether this is meant as a pre-teen book, sort of a Scholastic knock-off for book fairs, or if it was an item for the check-out rack at the grocery store. Judging by Peter Blackton's tone, sprinkled with conversational questions for the reader (or classroom), I'm guessing the former. The illustrations and subject matter, however fit right in with the tail end of public fascination with multiple personality disorder.

The trend probably peaked in 1973 with the publication of Sybil and When Rabbit Howls, when there was a bit of a controversy over whether MPD was a "real" disorder, or whether it was created, along with alien abduction scenarios and memories of past lives, by over-zealous psychologists experimenting with hypnotism.

In 1979, this book isn't concerned with showing any scientific arguments on either side. The publishers are obviously just interested in putting out weird yarns for people to read. I would easily consign this to the recycling bin of outdated pop trends if it wasn't for the amazing talent of the illustrator, Donald E. Schlegel. Here's a sampling of some of his pages:

"Edward, you are an evil and terrible man!"

The first story is a re-telling of Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which is a bit of a cheat. Blackton writes as if both characters shared the same body, but any reader of the original book knows that Jekyll actually transforms into Hyde, with both men having entirely different physical characteristics. There's also a cop-out in one of the illustrations being a still from the 1932 adaptation, probably reflecting the 1970s resurgence of classic horror movies.

"Instead she shouted at the great beast."

The next chapter tells of Mary Reynolds, one of the first documented cases, published in 1816. There's isn't as much theatricality here as there weren't personalities with different names as much as a regression into an infantile state. Still, Schlegel makes a great action painting here, showing Mary squaring off against a bear. I particularly like how he uses the frightened horse to balance out the composition.

"But this is your store. You live here, Mr. Brown..."

This next picture shows the awakening-from-fugue state of Ansel Bourne, another 19th century case. One day Mr. Bourne disappeared, set up shop in a new town under the name Ansel Brown, and then had a total melt-down in front of the public. Such was life before i.d. cards.

"This was not the shy and quiet Eve talking."

Our illustrator really goes to town on the chapter on Eve Black/Eve White. This is based on the 1957 book The Three Faces of Eve, later made into a fairly successful Hollywood movie.  It's hard to compete with the public memory of Joanne Woodward's performance, but Schlegel rises up to the challenge beautifully.

"This was not the quiet Eve her cousin remembered."

There is definitely a 1970s feel to the color scheme used here, reminding me a bit of LeRoy Neiman in his use of contrasts, but without the overt expressionism or abstraction that most commercial art was trending towards at the time.

"The world was becoming a far more beautiful place for her."
This last page is a wonderful evocation of the happy ending. The blue reflections in Eve's red dress are particularly good, perhaps reflecting the theme of integrating personalities. And the author even gives us a positive spin and happy moral in the epilogue:
"Unlike Robert Louis Stevenson's character, Mr. Hyde, a person's second self does not have to be cruel or vicious. Both of Ansel Bourne's personalities, for example, were very likeable. And although Eve Black was selfish, she was not all that different from some quite normal people."

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Harold Bloom's Shakespeare


Sometime around '86 or '87, I remember the local library getting their first selection of VHS tapes to lend. On their own shelf, made available by a local grant, were the complete series of PBS/BBC Shakespeare performances from the 1970s. I wasn't yet old enough to check out movies, and the librarian scowled at me for even looking over the selection. A few years later however, after being gifted a VCR, I went right to it.

I found myself watching Shakespeare surreptitiously late at night. My parents are not at all the bookish types, and wouldn't understand a burning need to watch The Tempest, much less Peter Greenaway's weird, but brilliant adaptation, Prospero's Books. By this point it had become too uncomfortable to watch even generic Hollywood movies with them, anyway. A viewing of Batman Returns or The Blues Brothers would be punctuated with remarks made against "the jews" and "the blacks." An attempt to watch anything theatrical would probably just raise their fears against the possibility of having a gay son.

Being heterosexual, however, I can't even use the outdated stereotype to explain my literary tastes. Somehow, I just needed to voraciously search out and read books of a certain quality. Being alone in my quest for ideas in a conservative world of pre-digested media, my search was fairly hap-hazard at this point. I certainly didn't have a guide as good as Harold Bloom, the self-proclaimed Bardolator, to point me towards Hazlett or Bradley on my path through the Bard's works.

Bloom wrote this book at the tail-end of the '90s, the great age of Political Correctness. It's amazing in retrospect, to think on how much more repressed the Clinton years were than the supposed conservative times that came before. Some commentators see this as the obvious result of applying various modern -isms to American culture and education. David Denby's Great Books, which I read last year, interpreted this shift as a mis-guided attack on the "core" Western texts. Jacques Barzun, in his masterpiece From Dawn to Decadence, saw it as an error in historical interpretation, reminding the reader that every current identified as a historic trend has a smaller, but identifiable counter-current.

Bloom is also pained by what he describes as the interpretation of a text as a collection of words, rather than as the work of an author. However, he is fairly self-deprecating about his romantic views of how to read a book, admitting that he is an old-fashioned professor now, perhaps a bit of a Falstaff. Every now and then he'll start to go down the road of his "rivals," perhaps speculating a bit too much about how much of Shakespeare is in the play, and recognize his borderline hypocrisy as he does so.

Most of the time, though, he sticks to what is in the text, and how the plays relate to each other. The theme of the book is the great line of character drawn from the early comedies to the late romances. To Bloom's point of view, this peaks in the creations of Falstaff, Hamlet and Cleopatra. He does go a bit into the possible influences, primarily Marlowe's ever-hovering shadow, but is more interested in how the plays influence us. It's almost a chicken-or-the-egg feedback loop, this seeking out of quality in Shakespeare, who is seen as creating the quality of personality in modern literature (if not our very selves by Bloom's Falstaffian fanboy thesis.) He pulls it off however, as all great magicians do, through great charm and leading of the eyes.

Of course, some would call this mis-direction rather than display of skill. Bloom would remind us, however, that we are living in a time of visual domination when reading Shakespeare takes instead, a great auditory skill. Instead of admiring the tricks of a great writer, we should be paying attention to what is actually being emoted through the words of our inner actors as we "hear" the play. I would apply this lesson to our teacher as well as to our subject, and recommend the reader to listen to Bloom's humanity instead of reacting automatically to his arguments.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Giving up on Marshall McLuhan


I was sitting in the Lincolnwood Town Center food court, under the vast ceiling of cloudy skylights, broken televisions and support beams, eating my processed food, when I realized that I was actively hating this book. I'm not sure that's ever happened before. Sitting in such a bland environment, I wasn't even sure where my frustration was coming from. I just knew that I really wanted to throw my book at something, possibly one of the many cell phone vendors hawking their service plans down below. Two birds with one tome and all that.

This was surprising, in a way. I've suffered through a lot of pretentious prose before, in the name of understanding an important book. Hell, I've read The Bible in two different translations all the way through, which is something more than most "Christians" do in their lifetime. But I don't think I've ever read such a obfuscated, hollow book before.

The writing style reminds me of both Ayn Rand and Jack Kerouac. On the one hand, like Rand, McLuhan will counter an argument by claiming a new use of a word, entirely different from the way that normal people talk or write. On the other hand, McLuhan doesn't believe in editing, giving the effect of an amphetamine addict vomiting his thoughts all over the page. There's nothing wrong with designing a compartmentalized, cross-referential book. Harold Bloom's Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, which I'm also reading, does this in a clear and useful fashion. But that's not really what Understanding Media does.

Those of us who work in retail know of a certain type of repeating customer, one that is just functional enough to walk into a store and not scare everyone, but who can't quite get enough coherent thoughts together to be sociable. That's this book. It doesn't care if the person listening gets any information and may not be able to express anything anyway. The medium and the message are both failures, whichever one is supposed to be carrying the other. And that's the real core problem: there is no great revelation gained from reading through the entire text.

In the end, one doesn't care about new forms of media carrying old media, or arbitrary distinctions of "hot" or "cool." Really, I just wanted to pat this crazy old man on the head and say, "it's all right guy, it's just the 21st century, there's nothing to be scared about." But I guess the talk shows and magazines of the 60s needed a harmless prophet of electronic doom. After all, media people love presenting stories about themselves. Otherwise, they'd have to discuss equal rights or something.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

More than meets the eye


Recently, I've read two very different takes on mid-century design, Thomas Hine's Populuxe and Stephen Bayley's Sex, Drink & Fast Cars. The first is a well researched coffee table book that tends to avoid any social implications of mid-century consumerism (any assertion that white suburbanites were running TO the suburbs for convenience rather than from racist fears should probably be backed up by more than just strong feeling.) The second is a series of essays focusing on automobile design as a function of class expression. So, we have writings on American middle-class and British high society, with both intersecting at the end of the 1950s with the introduction of the Ford Edsel.


Both authors posit the theory that the Edsel was just too "feminine" in design for the intended male target audience. In a world of phallic missile design (perhaps culminating in the early 60s Jaguar), the Edsel struck some viewers as having a design feature reminiscent of the female sex organ.


In a consumer society largely driven by the taste of housewives and their monthly magazines, car buying was probably one of the few bastions of "expression" available to the office-bound husband. As I've said before, one of the themes of the early 20th century was the search for masculinity within a shifting American culture. Once males developed this mid-century world of sports and automobiles, it became fiercely exclusive, keeping everyone in their proper Good Housekeeping roles.


In our new century, there seems to be a tendency to give the still vast female consumer audience "feminine" versions. In the geek world that I work in, there has been a small, but vocal (if not always coherent) group of men who feel threatened by the incursion into the previously masculine world of comics and video games of stories based around female characters. This response seems to be at its loudest when the characters deviate from the traditional male fantasy pulp tradition.


Which brings me to the weirdness of Hasbro's announcement this week of a major push to the "female" Transformers in their toy line. It's meant to be marketed to female fans, but obviously the company is hedging their bets and providing characters that all seem to have 1960s hourglass figures. And, of course, there is a lot of pink involved.


Now, why can't Optimus Prime, or any of the other "male" robots be re-presented as female?  Are trucks too masculine a form for a female robot to change into? Or boomboxes? Or automatic weapons and rifles? They can even be pink, if that's what tests well in the market.


Perhaps we should just take it as a matter of progress that they don't turn into pink refrigerators or vacuum cleaners. Though I think macho, gun-toting giant robots, painted in glistening chrome and matte black, that turn into hair dryers or purses would be fun. Let's have some gender-bending Hasbro! 


"And if all that isn't peculiar enough, the whole street is lined with good, macho stores, okay? Except that Danny has them all dressed up in fairy lights and lace curtains.
Gentlemen, this street is a shameless transvestite." -- Doom Patrol Vol. 2, #35 (script by Grant Morrison)