Posts Tagged ‘serving’

Looking back over Stevenson’s previous novels, the predominant feeling I get about this one is, What the fuck? Picaresque boys’ adventure stories are done. Instead, we get a philosophical allegory out of nowhere. Maybe his short stories prepared readers for this, but even though I’d read it before, I was completely taken aback. Treasure Island, Kidnapped, Prince Otto, and The Black Arrow did not make me think this was coming.

Of course, a lifetime of watching this theme being played out in movies and television shows didn’t really prepare me for the book either. If I think of it, I can name five or six other important characters, but they’re almost completely forgettable, even the narrator. There are no female characters of any consequence, and surprisingly little action. There’s just the mystery, Why does your friend have friends that you don’t like?

First of all, let me say that Dr Jekyll is not the good side.

And indeed the worst of my faults was a certain impatient gaiety of disposition, such as has made the happiness of many, but such as I found it hard to reconcile with my imperious desire to carry my head high, and wear a more than commonly grave countenance before the public. Hence it came about that I concealed my pleasures; and that when I reached years of reflection, and began to look round me and take stock of my progress and position in the world, I stood already committed to a profound duplicity of life. Many a man would have even blazoned such irregularities as I was guilty of; but from the high views that I had set before me, I regarded and hid them with an almost morbid sense of shame.

Most stories begin with problems or needs that have to be fixed or fulfilled, and Jekyll’s problem is that he wants to look more pious than anyone else. Note the emphasis on the external – he doesn’t actually want to be a good person, he wants everyone to think he’s a good person. There’s actually a big difference. The typical spiritual disciplines don’t help Jekyll be the man he wants people to think he is, though I don’t think he actually tried fasting and prayer to overcome temptation. He relies on science instead; he devises a medicine that will suppress the parts of his personality he doesn’t approve of. He relies on the drug more and more often, but it has a side effect he wasn’t prepared for: it periodically releases the evil parts of himself that he’s been afraid to reveal. His evil is personified in Mr Hyde, and Mr Hyde starts taking over more often so that Jekyll has to keep overdosing. Eventually he realizes that he can’t control Hyde and commits suicide to save the world from the two of them.

These days Mr Hyde’s portrayal is radically different from what Stevenson imagined. His Hyde is little, being only a small part of Dr Jekyll, and by ‘evil’ Stevenson means physically violent. He hits people, sometimes to the point of killing them. These days there are things that we consider much worse, but Hyde’s evil is only in physical violence, most of it not sexual. Hyde was ugly, and people thought of him as having some kind of birth defect but they were unable to say what it was. This is part of what I find interesting in the story – people lose their ability to speak and describe Hyde. It’s like Stevenson’s time didn’t have vocabulary for the type of evil he imagined, so he couldn’t represent it on the page. But in films, nothing exists if we don’t see it. There are two ways of portraying Hyde. In the first, he’s a monster, generally larger with scoliosis and other malformed joints. He’s kind of like the Incredible Hulk. In the second, he’s kind of smooth and sexy, so still taller with a deeper voice. This Hyde isn’t an animal; he’s a more pronounced version of stereotypical masculinity. Evil no longer shrinks and tramples little girls in the street; it seduces, it overshadows, it is strength. Hyde is so successful that some directors give him the nobility and strength of character as well as the muscles. Evil is a more nuanced, complicated, difficult problem than it seems to have been for a Victorian writer of children’s stories.

I feel more connections with Dr Jekyll’s story than are perhaps complimentary. I’ve never wanted to seem better than others, but I like being the best I can be, and when I was a religious person I wanted to be the best religious person possible. I tried really hard, and I was good at it. I became an expert in self-denial because that’s what my deity expected (in this sentence, ‘my deity’ is a set of cultural constructs that is pretty close to an amalgamation of my perceptions of my parents – my dad’s physical distance, my mom’s emotional distance and judgmentalism). Unfortunately, being religious creates this internal divide – like Dr Jekyll, I labeled some parts of myself as evil and crushed or ignored them. But, as in the Langston Hughes poem, parts of the self that are denied don’t just dry up like a raisin in the sun, they explode.

Six or seven years ago, my entire life collapsed. The first part was losing the religion. I was a good and faithful member of that church for more than thirty years; it was the most important part of my cultural identity. I had given everything I had to them, until something in me just broke and I couldn’t do it any more. I was severely depressed and no amount of service was changing that (they tell you to forget about yourself and work for others and you’ll find peace, but it’s a lie). I thought God hated me, and when I tried communing with him he was sort of unfeeling and cruel about the whole thing, which I now take as evidence that the voice in my head was just me. As they say, you know you’ve created God in your own image when he hates all the same people you do. My wife was a big help and support during this time. She had always seen my church as pulling us apart, so when I got rid of it she thought we were growing closer. She had reached a relationship goal, and we started going to churches together, with her settling on Catholicism. I guess she didn’t notice how often I used the baby as an excuse to leave Mass.

A few months later, I told my wife that I’m gay and she left me. She insists that she had no idea it was coming; I insist that she must have been willfully blind. If I had been looking for evidence that I was evil, this was it: not the whole gay thing, the fact that I broke the heart of the only person I felt truly loved me. I suppose I did have some self-hatred for being gay, but the way that the fact I’m gay hurt her is the thing I hated. If I could have taken a pill that would force me to be straight, I would have done it, for her. We had the kind of codependent relationship where each only exists as an extension of the other – I didn’t know who I was in isolation, or whether I existed at all. I had lost my self.

There are those who say suicide is never an option. That’s dumb; suicide is always an option. It’s not a good option, but it’s there. I actively wanted to die for a long time. I had several lengthy, detailed fantasies about killing myself. Most involved cutting, a few were burning, drowning, or hanging. When a friend gave me some sleeping pills, I couldn’t take any because I knew I’d overdose. There were some times the only reason I left the house was to get away from all the kitchen knives. I used to walk around the city at night trying to get up the nerve to jump in front of a truck. Fortunately, I’m also lazy, and the idea that suicide is always an option was really helpful. Because it was always there, there was no rush. I can live through today and try it tomorrow. I’m alive now because I kept procrastinating suicide until I didn’t want to do it any more. Some people say that suicide is selfish and we shouldn’t do it because of the pain it will bring to others; that seems like another dumb thing to say. Living my life for other people is what drove me to suicidal depression, so it wasn’t going to help me get out of it.

Counseling helped. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy wasn’t the path for me – it felt like I was Jekyll-and-Hyding again, naming a part of myself as evil and containing it, partitioning my self like a hard drive. The Emotional Freedom Techniques of Henry Grayson were better, but the most useful idea of his was the warm-up, where I say out loud that I love and accept myself even if I still think I’m not that great. I started visualizing myself as having separate people who live inside me, like The Ego Pirate or The Crying Boy. I stopped trying to correct any of these weird partial selves I have and just focused on loving them as they were, loving myself as I was. I started treating myself as I would my kids, with the same patience for my own vulnerability that I have with theirs. The little boy in me cried all he needed to and then stopped, my ego stopped trying to kill off the parts of me that were hurting, and I stopped feeling so fractured. I don’t need the visualizations any more.

I still get depressed sometimes, but it’s not constant. It’s been a long time since I thought about killing myself. With all the high-profile suicides, the thing that people seem not to be talking about is the fact that suicidal ideation isn’t a constant thing. It hits like a thunderstorm; sometimes it lasts for days, but sometimes only for a few minutes. Sometimes there are triggers, sometimes there aren’t. Sometimes memories are the trigger, and it can take a while for them to surface. For example. When I first came out, my brother called me on the phone, already a drastic step because he only has about a third of his hearing. He yelled at me for twenty minutes and threatened to kill me, and we haven’t spoken since. While that memory hurts, he’s not the one that’s bothering me right now. It’s my mom. When I told her about this, she didn’t react. She still tells me about what’s going on in his life as if nothing happened. No one else in my family responded either, except to agree that he’s an asshole and to say there’s nothing anyone can do about it. Not that anyone’s tried.

The Mom thing brings up a couple of important habits of hers that contribute to my depression. The first is her habit of ignoring everything she doesn’t like or approve of. She doesn’t have any photographs of my adolescence because I was weird and awkward-looking. This is where the partitioning began; to get parental approval, I had to lock away the aspects of myself that my mom didn’t like. “Don’t walk like that – you look like a fairy.” The second thing is the way that she blamed me for everything that happened to me. If I had a problem, it was always my fault, and usually my responsibility to get out of it myself. I can understand the desire to teach her kids to be independent and to think critically, but sometimes a kid needs a hug and to hear that everything is going to be okay. We need to feel that our mother is on our side, but I rarely felt like she was biased in my favor. More often, it went the other way. “And what did you do to deserve it?” Why do you assume that I always deserve it? She got a little hurt a few years ago because I never take my problems to her now, but she is the least sympathetic person I know. Why would I take her anything? With these attitudes growing up, of course I ended up feeling like there was an evil inside me that was going to consume the entire earth, and that it was my duty to protect everyone from me. Of course I wanted to commit suicide like Dr Jekyll.

I’m not evil. I’m gay and angry, but I don’t damage or poison people just by being in the same room with them. I’m fairly quiet with people I don’t trust, so most people (including my family) see me as a mirror of themselves – they’re shocked when I suddenly have different opinions than they do, but that’s not my fault, and it’s not proof of hidden evil. The more I embrace the parts of me that my mom doesn’t like or see, the more I like myself, and the more my real friends like me too. Even the worst parts of me can be loved.

So, if Stevenson’s story is about good and evil, what is evil? And what is good? Dr Jekyll’s evil is rejecting himself. His locked-up desires get stronger and stronger and burst out in violent and unexpected ways, but those desires didn’t start out as evil. His vices are initially so mild that other people brag about them. Evil is naming part of yourself evil and hating yourself because of it. And good? Well, like so many stories that people say are about good and evil, this isn’t a story about good. People talk of Hyde as the evil and Jekyll as the good, but he’s only one person, and Jekyll isn’t that great.

This book is short and strange, but not David Lynch strange, it’s what-does-Stevenson-think-he’s-doing strange. He’s writing something different than his usual books, and the result is weird, like he doesn’t know how to write this kind of story. Worth reading, but don’t assume you’re going to know anything useful about the author’s style or habits of storytelling. Obviously it’s helped me articulate things I’m experiencing, but that’s more to do with my response and less with the book itself. He’s tapped into something universal and collective, much more than ever before, but he doesn’t handle it with the skill that he did earlier novels. With all the retellings, I feel like I shouldn’t be surprised, especially since I’ve read this before, but it’s still unexpected and weird, every time.

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I’ve just finished four days of this program, one season per day. It’s been a bit rough, but I made it through. In some ways, this program fits the definition for addiction: the more I watch, the less satisfied I become with it, but I can’t seem to stop. I hate Game of Thrones spoilers as much as other people, so I’ll refrain from doing that here. Much.

I’m pretty rubbish at remembering people’s names, especially when I only see them on television. In a book, every time you see someone you read her name, but people don’t always say the names of the people they’re talking to. And the names on this show are usually pretty weird. I remember the names that are short and easily recognized, like Stannis, or the nicknames, like The Hound, or I call them functional names, like The King’s Bastard. It’s hard to know which names are important, because sometimes people seem like extras but end up being rather important recurring characters. Others seem hugely important, but only actually appear a small number of times, like Balon Greyjoy. They keep giving more details about Robert’s Rebellion, but I can’t remember most of the story because I get all those dead Targaryens mixed up.

Backstory. Fifteen or twenty years before the show begins, there was the Mad King, something-or-other Targaryen. He was obsessed with fire, and started burning people alive. Robert Baratheon led a rebellion against him, assisted by his very good friend Eddard Stark. Tywin Lannister, the Hand of the King, was also somehow involved. His son Jaime was the youngest member of the king’s guard, and one day Jaime killed the Mad King, saving thousands of lives. Forever after he’s known as The Kingslayer. Robert became king. He had been engaged to Ned Stark’s sister, but she died, so he married Jaime’s twin sister Cersei. During all the fighting Ned produced an illegitimate child, which he took home to his faithful wife. Catelyn Stark can forgive Ned for cheating, but she can’t forgive the boy for existing.

As the story begins, the King’s Hand, Jon Arryn, has been murdered, so Robert comes to the far north to ask Ned Stark to take his place. Ned is the last man in the seven kingdoms that Robert can trust. So Ned travels to the capital to serve the king, which means figuring out who killed Jon Arryn and why. Game of Thrones begins as a murder mystery set in a sword-and-sorcery fantasy world. Unfortunately, as Ned learns how the structures of power work in King’s Landing, the mystery becomes less important and court intrigues take over the plot; they lead to a civil war partially based on the Wars of the Roses (Stark/Lannister, York/Lancaster). The war carries on through several seasons. Meanwhile, Danaerys Targaryen is across the sea, gathering followers, giving birth to dragons, preparing to recover the throne that belonged to her family. Also meanwhile, mystical snow zombies are marching south to destroy everyone. There’s a great wall that should protect them, but the people who live north of the wall (Wildings or Free Folk, depending on your point of view) are running scared, desperate to get to the other side but not desperate enough to abide lawfully.

Issues. The first that springs to mind is gender roles. Jaime and Cersei are twins born to the most wealthy family in existence; he is taught to fight, she is taught to smile. Gender is very rigidly defined, and those who would break the traditional roles end up in a heap of trouble. Brienne of Tarth, for example, is one of the best swordfighters in the show. She’s hugely tall and very strong. She wears armor and protects her king, but people are always making fun of her and she’s always saying either that she’s not a knight or that she’s not a lady. She’s kind of both, actually. I’m not sure what her relationship is to her own body, but she covers it more effectively than most women even when she’s not dressed for battle. There’s a bathing scene that’s kind of awkward; it feels like a violation to see her, even though we don’t see anything. Most of the named female characters are brave and intelligent, and many of them are more effective in achieving their goals than the males. Unfortunately, the unnamed female characters tend to be whores or kitchen wenches. Even those intelligent women often have to use their bodies to get their needs met, and after a while the screen nudity just becomes normal. I kind of went into breast overload and stopped reacting to them. Rape seems to be pretty common; people certainly talk about it a lot.

Men do their best to reduce women to a single trait, beauty. However, they do the same to each other; men are reduced to strength. At one point, a very large man and a girl are traveling through the countryside and he kills a farmer. She asks why, and he says that it is simply because the man is weak. Physical strength is generally the most important, but having powerful allies or a lot of money are also ways to avoid being killed. The pressure on men is most apparent in the portrayal of homosexual men. Yes, there are gay men with almost graphic sex scenes, so hooray for that. But, once a man is seen in bed with another man, he immediately becomes ineffective. Gay men are reduced to their sexuality; there’s very little else interesting about them, and they don’t win any fights. Once a relationship is over, they disappear. Male bodies are often displayed as completely as female, but less often. There is some full frontal action, if (like me) that’s what you’re into, but much less frequently than for the women. It’s almost like an afterthought or a mistake, even though I know it isn’t.

Servitude is also important. Danaerys wanders around Essos freeing slaves, which is great except for the unfortunate race thing, but I’m more interested in the attitudes in Westeros. Most of the characters seem to see their lives as meant for service; they get their identities and self-esteem from serving their masters well. There’s no shame in service, but the dependent attitude bothers me. I go to work eight hours a day, but I tend to think of that as the price I pay for living here. My real life is at home, where I don’t have any masters. I don’t think of myself as serving my employers, either. They do, but I don’t. I teach people to communicate, and in order to work contentedly I have to think of it in these idealistic terms. My teenage rebellion came a little late, when I was thirty years old, and I’m still too independent to be happy working for someone else just to get a paycheck. Almost all of the ‘good guys’ on the show insist on being servants, though, and that makes me uncomfortable.

Reputation is everything at court. It can be built on nothing at all, but it must exist. The world is full of spies and rumors, so it is vital to understand what is being said about you. The reputation for strength is more important than actual displays of it; win a couple of well-publicized fights and you never need to fight again, if you don’t want to. Loras’s grandmother can argue for the value of a little discreet buggery, but no repeated action is that discreet, and people saying tolerant things doesn’t stop jokes like, ‘He can’t be that great a swordsman. He’s been stabbing Renly for years, and he’s still alive.’ It would be very difficult for Loras to lead any kind of group because they’re too worried about what he does off the battlefield; therefore, he doesn’t. On the other hand, Petyr Baelish has worked his way up from nothing to the king’s Small Council; being called Littlefinger doesn’t seem to have damaged him much. As the owner and manager of one of the more exclusive whorehouses, he has a lot of other people’s reputations in his power as well. According to the show, ‘Men like to talk when they’re happy.’ Littlefinger isn’t the only one who rises almost to the top by keeping other people’s secrets.

Power is generally sought by those least suited to wielding it.

People on this show go on and on about justice, but I don’t see much of it. It looks more like revenge most of the time. Justice implies a certain balance, an order restored; there is no balance or order here. Just a lot of violence, some of it for no reason at all. People who watch the show talk about evil, but I think of evil as involving some form of malice that is either without motive or disproportionate to its cause. I’ve heard Cersei Lannister in particular called evil, but she doesn’t fit my definition. She’s selfish and cruel, but her motives are pretty clear, and everyone else’s hatred is on the same scale as hers. In terms of good and evil, she’s not that different from Arya Stark; she’s just in a position to do more about it.

The religion of people is interesting. There are old gods, and there are also several new gods. There’s a group of seven mentioned at weddings, Father Warrior Smith Mother Maiden Crone Stranger. The meaning of those words becomes more clear in Season Four when people start praying out loud, to all seven individually. [See the codification of gender roles in religion! The males are defined by profession, the females by age.] The other gods can be hard to keep up with; there’s a Flayed God and a Drowned God, and probably several more. There’s also a cult of The One True God, some kind of fire deity who demands human sacrifices and calls himself The Lord of Light. He’s involved in several supernatural occurrences, while the other gods aren’t. I think it’s the old gods who are involved in the tree at Winterfell – up north, there’s a species of white tree with red leaves that grows a pattern that looks like a face in its bark and oozes red sap. These trees are regarded as sacred spaces. My favorite religious statement, though, is from Arya’s dancing master: ‘There is only one god, Death. And there is only one thing that we say to Death: Not today.’

Death is one of the most important things in this series. Everyone dies. We all know that, but Americans try to ignore it. In this series, you can’t. Everyone dies. When you get attached to a character, that’s almost a surefire way to predict that he’s going to die. Bad people die, good people die, badass people die, people with nice asses die, everyone dies. It’s actually understandable; there are several dozen named characters, most of whom have their own story to live out, and it’s hard to follow that many plotlines. Solution? Kill people. Maybe they will have some closure, maybe not. But kill them all the same.

Some authors simply love their characters: Jane Austen and Piers Anthony spring to mind. They are determined to give as many happy endings as possible. I have never seen an author who hates his characters as much as George R R Martin. A boy likes to climb? Let’s cripple him. A man gets his identity from swordfighting? Let’s chop off his sword hand. Someone has the initiative, intelligence, deviousness, and proper family to rule the Kingdoms? Let’s make him a dwarf so that no one will listen to him. Someone’s trying to do the right thing? Let’s give him partial information so that his decisions have disastrous consequences. There’s a limit to my tolerance for dramatic irony. The Mad King died shouting, “Burn them all! Burn them all!” I sometimes feel like Martin is going to go the same way. No one is going to survive this series.