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Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Sir Charles Grandison

My husband and I started reading Sir Charles Grandison this summer during car trips and finished volume I yesterday. (Only six to go.) This novel was a favorite of Jane Austen's, according to her brother Henry.

The plot line thus far is similar to The Sylph by Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire--the innocent, high spirited, forthright, and beautiful Harriet travels to London where many suitors pursue her and she encounters wickedness. The standout evil suitor, the arrogant, vain and wealthy Sir Hargrave Pollexfen,  arranges to kidnap Harriet from a masquerade ball by hiring unscrupulous servants to commandeer her chariot (strong shades of The Sylph). Sir Hargrave plans to force Harriet to marry him, but  Sir Charles Grandison foils the plan when he rescues her. At his home, she meets and becomes friends with his sister, Miss Grandison, a spicy figure, who later visits Harriet and demands breakfast immediately because "I can't eat my gloves." As the volume ends, Sir Charles refuses a duel with Sir Hargrave and makes a strong argument against duels for their spread of unneeded suffering. Certainly it seems as if Sir Charles and Harriet are destined to marry one another.

Probably my favorite letter in this volume was from a servant, Wilson, who helped with the kidnapping. The letter is a masterwork of rationalization and an expression of the limitations of the powerless--an apt psychological portrait as he tries to exonerate himself for his part in the misdeed. After all, he was just obeying orders. 

I can understand where Jane Austen loved Grandison, for in it women are allowed to be intelligent, strong and to have common sense. Richardson offers much proto-feminist rumination, calling for rationality to reign between the sexes, and advocating strongly for marriages based on love and mutual compatibility. I can see the seeds of Elizabeth Bennett in Harriet and can see Darcy as an amalgam of Sir Hargrave without the depravity (Arnie will no doubt argue that the shadow Darcy IS Sir Hargrave) and Sir Charles. Interestingly, however, we never encounter a masquerade ball in Austen. 

If Grandison is one source of many for Pride and Prejudice, Austen complicates the marriage plot by making the Bennet family's reputation questionable and the daughters fortuneless, problems Harriet does not have to contend with.

I still find myself amazed that the only novel Darwin took with him on The Beagle was Sir Charles Grandison. This novel is part of a stream of works that have fallen out of the canon because of changed tastes--yet this stream reamined influential into the first half of the 20th century. Others of this ilk, which I would characterize as too slow-moving for modern sensibilities, include Queechy by American Susan Warner and Swiss Adalbert Stifler's Indian Summer, to name two I have read or tried to read. 

Grandison is an exploration of point of view, but in a very different way from Austen. What Grandison does is use the epistolary form to layer various point of view, essentially retelling an episode from multiple perspectives. This creates tedium (in spots--in other spots the book is delightful) but also is integral to his purpose. What Austen has done is grasp the importance of point of view while dispensing with the tedium. She deliberately narrows her focus to one point of view and drops enough hints to let the reader figure out what is going on (or not).

Arnie tells me that Darwin was Mrs. Pole's grandson. Mrs. Pole was a friend of Austen and a perceptive reader of her novels. Darwin also married a Wedgewood daughter. The Wedgewood connection has long nagged at me as I think Austen must have had some interaction with the family. Wedgewood did finance the young, radical Coleridge, another link to the radical movement. Austen was not a radical but tantalizing hints of links or sympathy with some strands of radical thinking dance through her writing.  

Theopoetics and Quakerism II

I am reading Amos Wilder's seminal 1976 book, Theopoetic. Theopoetics, which I will define as the intersection of the literary with the theological, the manifestation of faith in art, has come to forefront as I have been thinking about Quaker literature.  I will, therefore, be working through Theopoetic in light of its relevance for Quakerism. 

In Theopoetic, Wilder begins with what theopoetics is not. First, it's not a shallow aestheticism. It's not ornamentation nor is it window dressing that prettifies religion by making it look more beautiful on the outside. It emerges from "the essential dynamics of the heart and soul." (2) Second, while it does not supersede love and action, it "orients" and "empowers" action. Third, a truly powerful theopoetic is neither sentimental nor nostalgic. Instead, a generative theopoetic is exorcising and revelatory: it challenges us, presumably by changing how we see ourselves or the world. Finally, it is not meant to displace but to enhance and enlarge tradition theology. (3) Part of that enrichment involves taking seriously secular literary criticism. (4) Renewing faith through renewing language is not a quick fix nor is it easy. "It is a costly transaction and cannot be manipulated." (5) 

Wilder notes that the work of the greatest theologians has been "shot through with the imagination." He lists Augustine, Calvin and Jonathan Edwards. (3) We might add to that list George Fox, John Woolman and Thomas Kelly.

In part II of chapter 1, Wilder mentions several motifs in the contemporary world he believes not adequately addressed in the current religious imagination. The first he calls a "hunger for innocence and naivete." (7) Another is the transformative "experience of glory" or "intoxication."  The intoxication theme also includes the "revolt of the beggars or vagabonds." Finally, he mentions the apocalypse, noting the "vision of an End can mean catastrophe to some, a new heaven and new earth to others." (10)

Quaker literature has been preoccupied in the last two centuries with a "hunger for innocence of naivete"--but in ways that look backward nostalgically rather than forward to become exorcising and revelatory. The social justice theme expressed in the revolt of the beggars, with its promise of transformative Jubilee, has been another Quaker preoccupation, but in its work in the world rather than its fiction. Would Quakers be better equipped for effective work with a more creative fiction? Finally, Quakerism is founded on a apocalyptic vision of a new heaven and new earth emerging  in the present moment. We live on the fumes of that vision today, but do little imaginatively to express this ecstatic future as a counterweight to the dark forebodings that dominate our times.

A Quaker fiction of the heart and soul would shatter us, not soothe us. 

Theopoetics and Quakerism: I

I am reading Amos Wilder's seminal 1976 book, Theopoetic. Theopoetics, which I will define as the intersection of the literary with the theological, the manifestation of faith in art, has come to forefront as I have been thinking about Quaker literature.  I will, therefore, be working through Theopoetic in light of its relevance for Quakerism. 

Theopoetic is first of all a response to the 1960s--a period crystallized in the social upheavals of 1968 whose effects are still with us--and the kind of creativity and turbulence that upheaval unleashed. That dizzying, revolutionary, futuristic backdrop of the 1960s, that sense of the whole world shaking and ready to tumble, couldn't, on the surface, be more different than our own frozen and backward-looking times. On the other hand, the 1960s represents the last heyday of Quakerism (whether a heyday of happiness or horror is a matter of perspective) and the fervor of that period harkens back even further to the revolutionary upheavals that produced the earliest Quakerism.


I see truths about Quakerism looking at it through the lens of its fictions. But let's first focus on Wilder, whose concern is the way Christian imagination had not, by the early 1970s, kept pace with the revolutionary changes he saw in the world around him.

"It is at the level of the imagination," writes Wilder, "that the fateful issues of our new world experience must first be mastered. ... Old words do not reach across the new gulfs, and it is only in vision in oracle that we can chart the unknown and new name the creatures. Before the message their must be the vision, before the sermon the hymn, before the prose the poem." (1)

We are motivated, he writes, by images and stories, because these move us more than ideas. Imagination is the life's blood of religion. Without it, "doctrines become ossified, witness and proclamation wooden ... litanies empty, consolations hollows and ethics legalistic." Without imagination, "doctrine becomes a caricature of itself" and begins to "suffocate" us. (2)

And thus ends his prelude.

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Wife of the Author of Beltraffio

After reading Henry James's "The Author of Beltraffio," one of the most misogynist in the James canon: http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/3145/pg3145.html, I thought it only fit to publish his wife's response. 

"The Wife of the Author of Beltraffio"
by Beatrice Ambient

I am not dead. 

As my would-be murderer knows, I want little more than to be left in peace. Yet, because people are taking this man’s writings seriously, I must rise from my imagined grave to say that I did not kill my young son.  

My only crime was to marry the wrong person.

Before I met Mark, “Mr Ambient,” I had been pursued by a wealthy and well-connected gentleman, tall and handsome with auburn hair, beginning to recede, so that his shiny forehead seemed all the higher. He had a noble look, people said, strong features, a Roman nose, good teeth. Attention turned his way when he entered a room.  As for me, I saw a man with slightly protruding eyes that became glassy when he was displeased, a purple vein in the side of his forehead that pulsed when he was annoyed, and a trumpeting voice underlaced with a snarl. He pursued me—I can’t say courted—with a brutal impatience, as if bored from the start with forms.

Although my family was almost in raptures over the idea of the match, I sidestepped him. I often thought of myself as a white feathered bird, flitting away from him from leafy tree to tree, he a panther with bulging cold eyes.

 I was relieved when Mark—the author of Beltraffio as my writer so coyly calls him—appeared, languid, slim, large eyed, fine boned and dark-haired. He’d just returned from Switzerland and carried with him the scent of clean snow, the look of clear blue lakes, a complexion made lively  by a tint of ruddiness in his cheeks. He was gentle, gracious, lightly earnest, deliberate and detached in his courtship. My family approved of him.

Mark in the days of our courtship


Mark was almost as acceptable to my parents and cousins as my brute, and my preference for him was so marked that the family gave way.

He had taken his time to marry. He had been careful, people said, waiting for the right woman. I was the kind of fair, slender beauty Mark might have dreamed up, a porcelain figurine with a long neck and pretty eyes. Nature imitates art, Mark said to me over and over. What you dream shall be. He liked that I was delicate and still and wore white gowns. We made a breathtaking couple, people said, with our clear eyes, shining hair, our delicacy and good breeding. It didn’t hurt either that I was “connected with the aristocracy,” as my young biographer remarked.


Me in happier times, reading


Mark was exquisitely gentle during our courtship, tentative even. He liked to smooth my stray hairs behind my ears, to run delicate fingertips over the lace of my cuffs or, after we were engaged, to touch the cameo I wore pinned at my neck.  Carefully, quietly, he would show me prints of the Italian paintings he loved, pointing out the details, the folds of Mary’s dark blue robe, the rich velvet, deep pink, of an angel’s tunic, the pointed tracery of its wingtips. I felt safe in his presence. He must have thought me endlessly malleable.

He took longer than I expected to propose. That was to be expected people said, for, after all, he was a writer, a thinker, an artist.

He was pensive during the wedding, tremulous, preoccupied. I found it touching, for he seemed to understand the gravity of the ceremony, uttering his vows with an almost funereal solemnity.

Yet he remained distant as we set off on our honeymoon, first to France, then to Italy. It was as if I were made of the same shimmering gauze as my gowns, my corporeality not quite real to him, as if I were an angel and might disappear into the ether. He treated me both as ethereal and as a precious artifact, exercising towards me a sort of adoration or veneration. He touched my hair and gown as if I were a saint. It was not until we were Rome that he consummated the marriage, and then pulled away as if shocked by the vulgarity of the act.

I was confused. Before I met the brute and before Mark, I had fallen in love with a neighborhood boy. Alone together in his father’s high walled garden, amid the scents of medicinal herbs and lavender, in a shaded corner, we had kissed and embraced with heart-pounding passion. And then in the small pantry filled with hanging herbs and glass jars of crushed potions and pills and a shelf with a neat row of mortars and pestles, we’d found transporting joys that fell short of the final act. 

No such heart stopping lust drove Mark towards me. He was attentive, well mannered, even tremulous, his large eyes catching mine bright with joy as he showed me a beautiful enameled box he wanted to buy or the Lacocoon, that tangle of snakes and nude males bodies, fathers and sons, a sculpture that he said transported him with bliss.

It was only when I saw the attention he paid the sturdy, square shouldered Italian youth we somehow got caught up with in Rome that I began to suspect, and when we took up with the delicate, long limbed young man with brown ringlets in Venice that I understood.

Back in England, we assembled an artistic home, a work of mellow, understated beauty. He had taste. He knew how to put together what was opulent with what was faded. Our home was infinitely, gently lovely. I planted flowers and herbs in the walled garden. Mark crucified the fruit trees and trained the rose against the garden’s crumbling brick walls.

A grove of beech trees cast the house in shadow, while the little creaking lattices and  tangles of ivy covering the walls sometimes oppressed me. Mark  now began to affect a Bohemian pose, donning velvet jackets, smoking cigarettes, and loosening his shirt collars to look disheveled.

In our new house, I became pregnant from one of our few encounters, and Mark seemed relieved. Relations stopped. He treated me even more as a priceless fragile piece of china. I noticed at the same time the steady stream of men that gathered around him, acolytes, disciples, devotees of his books and poems, all young and smooth, beautiful. At last, I confronted him about them. Again, he seemed relieved.

Me pregnant with Dolcino and already sadder.


“Finally,” he said, “the last barrier is down. Now we truly can be one. Now you will understand my art, everything in it I am not allowed to say.” He showed me his private collection of nude male sculptures, his gathered sheets of nude male drawings and photographs. As I reread his poems, I understood what they meant for the first time.

The last barrier was down but that led to a recognition that what lay between us was an unfathomable chasm, a thousand feet deep.

The author of “The Author of Beltraffio” accused me of narrow mindedness, of not understanding my husband’s art, of willful, even cruel, conventionality. He called me objectionable, cold and bland. But let me put to you, dear Reader, how you would feel had you discovered, after you were married, that your spouse had been unfaithful? How would you have responded had you realized he or she had never loved you and never could have, but had always loved others, a series of favorites who were not you? Would it matter if they were male or female, this run of servants, synocphants and scholars? Would it matter if some of them were hardly teenagers?

I felt played for a fool, betrayed, angry, used. Why, Mark, I wondered, marry at all if your desires run in a different direction? Why use me? Plenty of men lived together as confirmed bachelors. People knew enough not to know. Why pull me into this?

Perhaps because I was in the placid glow of pregnancy I was able to believe for a time his protestations that he cared for me, but the truth he had hoped would dissolve all barriers and bring us closer—closer mentally, that is—instead erected such a barrier that he had to bring his sister Gwendolyn to mediate between us. Our author tried to paint her as ridiculous, odd and unsavory—but even he could not. She is a person of rare intelligence and insight, as well as kindness and compassion.

The baby was born, our son. Mark named him Mark over my protests. I was glad to call him Dolcino, affected as I found the name. I thought he was the most beautiful baby ever born, perfect.

He grew. The more Gwendolyn and I focused on him and each other, the more we could drown out the ever more open situation between Mark and his friends.

The writer was just another in a series. He’d gotten in our door through what he coyly called a “very frank expression” of his “sentiments.” In other words, he'd made it clear he would be an easy conquest.

Mark in our lovely home, with a friend.


Gwendolyn loathed him on sight. He was condescending to us, a fawning syncophant to Mark, not half as good looking as he believed himself, with a nose destined to grow bulbous , a midriff already running to fat, a roundish face. If he fancied himself of good blood lines, he hardly looked the part.

Gwendolyn, dear forthright person that she is, never could fake her civility well. Our writer sensed her contempt and so called her “a fatuous artificial creature.” Yes, she was artificial —to him. He would have hardly liked the alternative of hearing what she really thought of him. He called her “disappointed” and she was--disappointed in Mark. Our writer accused her of being vain, of wanting to be looked at. He wrote that “she wished to be thought original,” but all these were all traits he paraded shamelessly before Mark—and perhaps her “dejection” was his own, as Mark was less impressed with him than he would have wished. It was our writer guest, not my sister-in-law, who “parted with a hope he couldn’t have sanely entertained”-- of a conquest in Mark.  It was his “affectations,” not Gwendolyn’s,  that brought a faint blush of shame to her brother’s cheek, though that wouldn’t stop Mark from fulfilling his desires.

We sat in the garden while Mark worked in his study. Our writer went on endlessly about him until Gwendolyn jumped up, pacing  and quoting Dante with affected theatricality. I tried to ignore him as much as possible whilst keeping a polite smile pinned to my face, but when his patronizing talk became too much—how good of him to bestow such time on me, as if he had a choice!—I told him, glancing pointedly at his groin, that Mark was very fond of plums,  hoping he would take the hint that I was not a fool.  Did he really think I didn’t know what kind of “ramble” through fields he and Mark took while Gwendolyn and I were at church?

I did try to keep Dolcino from his father, from that confusing world of lies and innuendo, where everything meant something else. I wanted to keep him from the harshness Mark, with good intentions, planned to subject him to to make him strong: cold baths, too much exercise, strenuous swims, what he called a Spartan regime. But I did not let him die to keep him from his father. I did not like our writer or the contempt he showed for my sister-in-law or his vague disdain of women, and I did hope to protect my son from him as well. However, it never occurred to me he would spin the fantasy that I had killed my child.

Of course, that story—that I locked Mark out of the nursery, refused the doctor, that I kept the sick child to myself to die—was utterly untrue. Anyone could come and go. The doctor had reassured me that all was well and implied the child would be fine. Mark simply didn’t visit during that long night. Perhaps the possibilities offered with his new young friend were too tantalizing. I don’t mean to imply he was a bad father—I am sure he felt secure, as I did, that Dolcino would recover. Our child dying was unfathomable to both of us.

I remember that night vividly. Dolcino’s body was hot and drafts blew through the cracks between the window and the frame. I never questioned the doctor’s assurance that Dolcino would be well. It was not his first fever. I had seen him worse. I stayed with him. Finally, when he seemed settled, I fell asleep beside him on the bed, his little arms around my waist in an innocent, uncomplicated love unlike anything his father ever expressed or felt for me. His little heart pounded against my back, but he was not tossing or turning or calling out. His peace and warmth became mine and I fell asleep. I dreamed he was three and I was carrying him in the garden in late summer. The apples were ripening and we were under a tree. He put his warm hands on my cheeks and  looked into my eyes. “Be happy mother,” he said in a childish voice. “Aren't you happy?” His eyes scanned my face, all concern. I held him tight for a moment in the dream, then woke up, crying.  I turned around and pulled him into my arms, hugging him tight as I had in the dream, determined I would keep my troubles from him and never let anything hurt him.

The first traces of a grayish yellow sunlight were coming through the window—not quite dawn. It was then that he shuddered, stiffened and moaned through parched lips, and I jolted fully awake. He was burning up. Something was wrong. I scrambled out of bed and lifted him into my arms, calling for Gwendolyn, and then for a servant to run get the doctor. “Right now!” I cried. “Quickly! Hurry!”

Gwendolyn, all good sense, came rushing in, pulling on her dressing gown as she ran, her hair tumbling down her shoulders in a disarray. Dolcino was unconscious, his head lolling back. She dashed water on him, called for smelling salts, sent the alarm through the house that alerted our writer I was frightened.

I tried and tried to wake Dolcino but I could feel him drawing further away. I smashed his favorite teddy bear in his arms, forced juice through his lips, called to him, shook him. He no longer moaned, just drifted farther from me.

The doctor turned ashen in the lamplight when he saw him. “Oh my God,” he said. “Oh my dear woman,” he said, turning to me.  “Your son will go to heaven with a unblemished soul,” he said at last.

I couldn’t stop crying. It was a lament for my child that seemed bottomless but also a lament for my sham of a marriage, for my life.

The fear our guest witnessed that morning, what he called “my revulsion,” “the fright” that allegedly “betrayed” me into trying to save my child—the reality of my distress that  even he could not deny—represented no change of heart. Never, for one instant, did I want my child to die, not for any reason. As for my sister-in-law confiding in him that I had chosen not to seek help so the child would die—that’s an utter fabrication. He thought her strange, as he wrote, and he thought women fools—if she had said such a thing, he would have dismissed it as mad ravings. I imagine it was Mark who said that to him.

What kind of mind could write that the child “was more exquisitely beautiful in death than he had been in life?”

After the funeral, after Gwendolyn had thrown our eager writer out of the house, Mark and I separated. I now live abroad. He pays for me to stay away and not betray his secrets. If I were to have another child, although we have not seen each other for two years, he would accept it as his own. Dolcino—the living boy with his runny nose and scratched legs and dirt under his fingernails, not the corpse that so entranced Mark’s friend—still haunts me.

Mark continues with his young men.  And what if they were young women? Would those who sympathize with his plight sympathize then? Mark wants to be seen a tragic figure, a noble sufferer, martyred by cruel conventions. I might have more compassion had he not married me. 

What I have trouble forgiving is not so much the contemptuous, priggish portrait the young author painted of me, but his romanticizing of Mark. Mark was nothing more than selfish to marry me, and he coldly used me for his own ends as he uses his string of paramours.  There’s nothing sublime in that, nothing to celebrate.

The young guest wished me dead because my presence disturbed him. He wanted my son dead too, to become an exquisite statue under the ground, cold and still, both of us out of the way. So in his fiction, not satisfied with witnessing the one death, he killed me too. 

I didn’t read my husband’s book, the one he was working on when Dolcino died, much as the young man author thought it the ultimate sin that I refused. What he didn’t want to understand was that I didn’t care about Mark’s book. It wasn’t that the so-called daring, radical subject matter would have shocked me—what could I read in a book that would be different from what I had seen? Indifference is worse than hate, I have read, and neither Mark nor his young friend could bear that.

I now lead a quiet life with Gwendolyn and tend my herb garden, and between us, we keep the world at bay. We use some of the money Mark sends us to finance schooling for young orphan boys. Gwendolyn handles it as it is too much for me to see these youngsters who remind  me of my son, and we say nothing to Mark, for fear our project might cause him to visit. Dolcino is buried near us, and in the garden I keep a statue of an angel, pretending it marks my husband’s grave. I don't think the affectation would please him, as the angel is not attractive.




















Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Revenge's Emily Thorne: A Shadow Nancy Drew?

     Imagine Nancy Drew's father, Carson, going up against the corrupt, nouveau-riche Tophams from Nancy's very first case, The Secret of the Old Clock--and losing. Imagine Carson framed for the Topham's fraud, ending up in prison, and dying behind bars as a result of a murder the Tophams have orchestrated to silence him forever. Imagine Nancy Drew in foster care and then juvenile prison. In this alternative scenario, instead of launching her on a successful run of solving mysteries that right injustices and help the downtrodden, Nancy's very first case leads to disaster.



In this new universe, by the time young adult Nancy learns of her father's innocence and inherits the fortune he has safeguarded for her, she's changed. A desire for justice has warped into a desire for revenge.

Say hello to Emily Thorne, the shadow Nancy Drew.

Emily Thorne

In Revenge, Emily's father has been framed as a terrorist who blew up a plane. The adult Emily, with a fortune and computer hacker friend behind her, plans to destroy the people who destroyed her father.

I didn't recognize the parallels with Nancy Drew right away. I knew Emily reminded me of someone, but the association lurked, fittingly, as a shadow that kept flitting out of view. It wasn't until I watched a Revenge episode with a masquerade ball and another  in which Emily saves a friend from a sinking boat that the similarity clicked into place. These are exactly the kind of situations in which Nancy finds herself.  Emily is Nancy, updated for a grimmer time.

Like Nancy Drew, Emily is a WASP. She has long golden blond hair, unlimited supplies of money, is slim, athletic, independent, and wears any number of pretty frocks that she doesn't really care about. She's multi-talented, highly intelligent and never loses her poise. As an added bonus, she has learned the arts of fighting and revenge from a mysterious Asian master. Although it's never spoken, she's old money against the declasse Graysons, the enemies who destroyed her father. They live in a monstrosity: an oversized fortress of a stone beach home decorated like a generic hotel chain; in contrast, Emily's beach house, which once was her family home, is a tasteful frame cottage--large, but never crass, windswept, cozy, understated, with sea foam colored walls and cosy wooden outdoor rockers on a big wraparound porch.

Emily succeeds at all she tries with near effortless aplomb and stays one step ahead of her enemies. Despite her passion to take people down, we know she's kind-hearted, caring and generous at core. She attracts loyal friends, who will do anything to help her. Men fall in love with her. Bad women see her as a dangerous rival; good women, like her friend from juvenile detention, want to be with her.

As we move back towards a 1930s world of great disparities between rich and poor, it's no wonder we recreate Nancy Drew. And at time when most people know the very wealthy have often amassed their fortunes at the expense of the hopes and dreams of the little people, as the Tophams attempt to do at the expense of impoverished widows and orphans, we look for the avenger--the Nancy Drew--capable of taking them on.

Yet today, our patrician angel is dark. This is nostalgia gone bad. If Nancy Drew met deviousness and deception with straightforward ingenuity and courage rather than moral compromise, our new heroine fights fire with fire, adopting the tactics of the enemy. On the outside she looks and acts like Nancy Drew. On the inside, she's follows the game plan of the morally bankrupt and ruthless Graysons.

I think this doubleness says something about the world we live in. No longer does it seem as if we can win following the straight ethical path. In The Sopranos, Carmela, wife of the Mafia boss, finally decides that what the Mafia does, while deplorable, is no different, morally, from the ways and means of the "legitimate" rich--it's all a rip off of the weaker. In Breaking Bad, high school teacher Walter White leaves the straight and narrow after a cancer diagnosis--and an inability to afford "good" treatments--convince him that only an illegal meth business, predicated on murder and exploitation, will get him ahead. Emily views the world through a hard Machiavellian lens of treachery that justifies lies, deception and cheating.

All three shows problematize their characters' actions. Emily's friends have increasingly challenged her quest for revenge and what it is doing to her, as well as the damage--and even death--it has caused innocent people. But none of these series offer an alternative to behavior that we might label evil--behavior that causes death and the destruction of lives. None of them challenges the basic premises under which our society operates. I also think it's not by accident that the more recent series, clearly aimed at white audiences, have chosen WASPs as their problematized protagonists: Walter White, blond haired Nancy Drew clone Emily Thorne.

Everyman gone bad: Walter White


If our arts--literature, movies, drama, painting--show us the part of ourselves as a society that we don't want to see, we might say that these series show us in dire straits: we've lost our moorings. Is it a measure of how powerless we feel that we can only imagine amassing power through cruelty, subterfuge and violence?

One could argue that in all these series, hardness, with its focus on the quick fix and ego aggrandizement, has become the substitute for strength. But more on that next time.

I am interested in what others might think.