A Tale of a Renaissance Man

In my review of Memoirs of Hadrian, I mentioned I was going to read another novel by Marguerite Yourcenar: The Abyss. I did, and it was well worth the time. The novel, published in 1968 and translated by Grace Frick, is traditional in form. Where Memoirs of Hadrian is told in the form of a fictional autobiography, The Abyss is a typical third-person omniscient narrative. The author contributes a degree of irony to the telling, but does not intrude. The descriptions are vivid, but we do not drown in details. The treatment of the characters is humane, i.e. they are portrayed with a reasonable amount of sympathy and not demonized, to the extent that that is possible in the brutal sixteenth century in which it is set.

The English title of the novel is not a translation of the French title. I think that was bad choice of words. In French, the title is L’Oeuvre au Noir. This means “the work in black.” In the author’s words it “designates what is said to be the most difficult phase of the alchemist’s process, the separation and dissolution of substance. It is still not clear whether the term applied to daring experiments on matter itself, or whether it was understood to symbolize trials of the mind in discarding all forms of routine and prejudice.”

Such trials of the mind form the heart of the story. Zeno Ligre, illegitimate son of a girl from a rich banker family in sixteenth-century Flanders, is on a quest to escape prejudice and discover knowledge. He was born at a time both dreadful and propitious for such an undertaking. While astrology and fanaticism still have a grip on the minds of the time, the foundations of modern science and medicine are being laid. While religious wars and the Inquisition bloody the land, it is still possible to wander from place to place, gleaning knowledge where one can.

Zeno is not based on any one thinker from that time, but he is representative of many great men. He is similar to Leonardo da Vinci, although Zeno is not an artist, but he is also similar to a host of other, more obscure figures of the Renaissance, such as Michael Servetus. Zeno is primarily a physician and publishes a book on the anatomy of the heart. But he is also a philosopher who writes about the nature of matter. And not least of all, Zeno is an alchemist, just as that proto-science was being transformed into real chemistry. (Alchemy also had a mystical-philosophical component, which Zeno draws the best from.)

An alchemist attempting to pierce the veil of truth

Perhaps most importantly, Zeno is a freethinker, an impatient, even brusque one. He forms his own opinions and is skeptical of religious dogma. In fact, he is an atheist at a time when a public expression of that sentiment meant certain death. Thus, Zeno spends a lot of his life speaking indirectly about or even concealing some of his fundamental beliefs. He also sometimes changes his identity, as when he lives under the name of Dr. Sebastian Theus when he returns to his hometown after a long absence.

The choice of aliases is telling on both Zeno’s and Yourcenar’s parts: Saint Sebastian was a martyr who became a gay icon, and “theus” means “god.” Zeno (like Hadrian) is predominantly gay (although he sometimes had relations with women), is constantly in danger of being martyred, and is a non-believer in God. (Interestingly, Yourcenar was a lesbian who had a number of frustrating infatuations with gay men. Perhaps that’s why she wrote about so many of them.)

The martyrdom of St. Sebastian

The novel does not concern itself with Zeno’s wanderings through Sweden and the Muslim world, but is centered on events Flanders and Germany before and after his wandering. We see how Zeno forms his basic identity (he starts out studying for the priesthood and is diverted by his interest in building mechanized looms), and later we see his interaction with clerics and common folk back in Flanders, when his wandering is done. These interactions are the real test of Zeno’s character.

Zeno as portrayed in the 1988 French film version of the novel.

Along the way we have a few interesting side-plots. One concerns Zeno’s beloved cousin Henry Maximilan Ligre, who leaves home to become a soldier and a poet. Henry represents another kind of escape from suffocations of “normal” life. Perhaps his story is Yourcenar’s way of saying that you do not have to be an intellectual to live a passionate and authentic life.

We also follow Zeno’s mother, who never cared for him. She becomes involved with an older merchant who leads her into trouble. The merchant is an Anabaptist. Anabaptism was a hydra-headed group of radical Christian sects that came into being in the early 1500s. Zeno’s step-father is a rich merchant who gets involved with the Anabaptist takeover of the German town Muenster in 1534 and the establishment of a brief polygamous, communistic, theocratic society there. Zeno’s mother and half-sister have the misfortune of being in the town at the time of the takeover and later siege. This is a long digression if you think the novel should be just about Zeno, but if you want to see Zeno in the context of his age, it serves an integral purpose.

Yourcenar is highly—and rightly—praised for her ability to take us into other times and into minds from those times. In the chapter entitled “The Abyss,” we see Zeno having an existential crisis as he ponders the earth spinning through space and the idea of human beings as in some sense interchangeable flesh. It’s hard to put our modern selves in the position of someone just realizing that there are infinite worlds out in space and that human beings are nothing more than meat-like tissue. Yourcenar’s imagination assists our own. Fortunately for Zeno and the story, the crisis does not last.

Zeno, despite the passion he feels for his quest for knowledge and freedom from dogma, is understandably bitter about living in a world where every town has a gallows and men are slaughtered by the thousands for following the wrong monarch. But somehow he always succeeds in not drowning in bitterness.

Zeno does grow during the story. At first he sees his patients as almost experimental subjects, but later he puts himself in danger in order to treat people he empathizes with. In some ways he “settles down,” although he never settles into thinking like other people. Furthermore, while he will dissemble to protect himself, he will not be a hypocrite.

Are we to take Zeno to be a great man, like Hadrian? In his own way, I think, yes. Zeno is portrayed as one of the pioneers of the modern world, struggling to leave the Middle Ages behind. It is easy to forget that being a Renaissance Man was not just exhilarating: One had to face both the dark night of the soul and the dark nights in prison. We are all in debt to these intrepid men.

One of the themes of both of Yourcenar’s major novels is the self-realization of great men who do not believe in gods and who do believe in themselves. If you are interested in the earthly, earthy details of such men’s lives and not just in seeing them as marble statues, then Yourcenar is an author for you. The Abyss is available on Amazon.

Marguerite Yourcenar (1903 – 1987)

The Defects of His Virtues, The Virtues of His Defects

As everyone knows, the novel and film Schindler’s List tells the true story of how Nazi party member Oskar Schindler, though he came to Poland to exploit Germany’s conquest of her, saved over 1000 Jews from certain extermination by using what would uncharitably be called the skills of a con man. A line from author Thomas Keneally’s introduction stays with me: “this is the story of the pragmatic triumph of good over evil.” Usually, according to Keneally, novelists write about the triumph of evil, and they choose to be “wise, ironic, piercing, to avoid bathos” when writing about the good. However, Keneally tells his story with a minimum of irony.

In Oskar Schindler, a man of dubious ethics, we do see the triumph of good over evil, not only in that he saved many lives from the evil Nazis but also in that Schindler’s own life was redeemed. And this triumph is pragmatic, not only because we can measure it in lives, but also because it involves a man sliding into good, when so many men pragmatically slide into evil or at least moral compromise. The difference makes us reflect on the relationship of virtues and defects of character.

Liam Neeson as Oskar Schindler
Liam Neeson as Oskar Schindler

We can put a magnifying glass to this relationship by focusing on character development in literature. (Keep in mind that most people only know Schindler as a character in a story.) A character can have the virtues of his defects, like Schindler, or, as is more commonly the case, the defects of his virtues. Let us first examine the more common case, as it is more straightforward.

The easy example of the defects of one’s virtues from real life is someone who is so “nice” that he, or perhaps more often she, gets taken advantage of. Things in literature are more complex but follow the same pattern.

An illustration of this pattern from classic literature can be found in the character of Brutus in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Brutus is a Stoic, a man of high moral character, an “honorable” man, as Mark Antony repeatedly reminds us in his funeral oration over Caesar’s body. Yet, as every point in the conspiracy to kill Caesar and save the Roman Republic, Brutus, in taking the high ground, makes the wrong choice. For example, Brutus’s co-conspirator, Cassius, wants to kill Mark Antony, who is wily and dangerous. Brutus squelches this notion, saying that Antony is only Caesar’s limb, which will be harmless when the head’s cut off and that no more blood should be shed than is necessary. This is a fatal underestimation of Antony, who of course ends up leading the army that eventually destroys Brutus and Cassius. Brutus is, yes, an honorable man, but honor, at least the kind that Brutus values, is not always what is called for in realpolitik, and in this context, Brutus’ virtues contain a deadly defect.

James Mason as Brutus
James Mason as Brutus

An example from more recent literature can be found the character of Howard Roark from Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead. Roark is the walking embodiment of the virtue of independence. He not only does not care what other people think; he does not even notice what other people think. For this reason, he can be quite naïve. He repeatedly helps his college roommate, second-hander fellow architect Peter Keating, with his design projects because he can’t let a bad building be built. This generosity, if that is the right word, gets him into a lot of trouble near the end of the novel but eventually he gains insight into philosophical truth and attains wisdom. But up until that point Roark’s virtues lead him to do bad things.

Gary Cooper as Howard Roark
Gary Cooper as Howard Roark

Giving a character the defects of his virtues is a good way to build a story around a basically good person, because the defects lead him into trouble, which creates narrative tension. If the author takes a dark, Byronic view of life, the defect can lead to the character’s downfall, although perhaps the virtues redeem the situation, at least in giving the character tragic dignity. If the author takes a more benevolent view, then the defect is a set-up for growth and the triumph of virtues through adversity.

But with Schindler, things are the other way around. Here we have defects that contain hidden virtues. Schindler was an operator, a schmoozer, a sybarite and a man who took advantage of other people’s misfortune. And of course, he was a member of the Nazi party. But these qualities are exactly what he needed to outfox his fellow Nazis. Schindler spent years conning the local Nazis into believing that his Jewish workers were needed for the war effort so that they would be spared from the Final Solution. Part of how he did this was by “partying” with the loathsome Nazi officer Amon Goeth. Part of it was that he was a good liar who inspired trust by displaying geniality. Again these are qualities that would well serve a con man.

That much is plain from the story. What is not so clear is why he did it. It appears that under that bluff bonhomie he did have a conscience and that despite his predatory tendencies he did feel compassion. We see this compassion most clearly in the scene in the story where he hoses down the train carrying Jews to their destruction.

But I have to wonder whether part of his motivation was that he relished the challenge. He was an adventurer in some sense, after all, rather like a pirate. Perhaps he enjoyed the scheming and the trickery. Perhaps he enjoyed walking the tightrope. Maybe he was the Reynard the trickster, who enjoyed fooling the foolish. He may have felt most alive when dancing along the edge. We’ll never know for sure.

One difference between the novel and the film is telling on this point. In the film version, right before he makes his escape, Schindler breaks down and cries. “I could have got more,” he sobs. If only he hadn’t held on to his fancy car and his gold Nazi party pin, he could have saved more lives. He feels guilty for his high living and probably also feels a release from the burden of his actions over the years.

This breakdown is not in the novel, which seems more reflective of the real man. Here Schindler coolly stashes diamonds in hidden compartments of his car and drives off. There isn’t the slightest suggestion of guilt. In fact, I would go so far as to say that Schindler probably felt pride in his accomplishment. Some of this is a matter of interpretation of course, but that is normal in literature.

Sometimes we need heroes who do great deeds, not out of a sense of nobility or altruism, but simply because they enjoy the thrill of the chase. Oskar Schindler seems to have turned his keenness for living, which had been directed at scheming, boozing and womanizing and incorporated a better goal of saving lives.

The hero who performs great deeds out of zest is a familiar figure, at least in popular culture. (Think Robin Hood.) But zest is a morally neutral category. One can murder zestfully as well as save lives zestfully. Up until the time he started saving lives, Oskar Schindler’s zest seems to have synergized with his moral defects (and he remained a philanderer even as he saved lives). But when he decided to do good, his zest largely repolarized and became a tool of virtue. I would venture a guess that Schindler found it more satisfying to be zestful in this way, but the emotional quality is largely the same. This suggests that character is as important as abstract morals, at least in many cases.

The real Oskar Schindler

The view that the high rises from the low is well-known: It is the notion that unites Nietzsche and Freud. But I am not claiming that Schindler sublimated primal urges that were naturally crude. I am saying that personality is made up of half-conceptualized, half-realized virtues and defects that thrust against each other and that when integrated by good or evil intentions can form an exquisite whole. This is the stuff of literature, and I would assert that we need literature as well as philosophy for an understanding of character, in both the sense of characters in literature and the sense of ethical character. But that is the subject of another essay.

Oskar Schindler never did anything else great for the rest of his life. In fact he was a failure in business and at his marriage. He was dependent on the gratitude of those he had saved. But for a few terrible, yet glorious years, Schindler realized himself as few of us do.

If you enjoyed this essay you may also be interested in my book Killing Cool: Fantasy vs. Reality in American Life.

Emily Dickinson: A Quiet Passion

You wouldn’t think much of a movie could be made about someone like Emily Dickinson, who ended up as more-or-less an agoraphobe, but her inner life as it manifested itself in her connections with her family and friends propels the narrative along. The plot of Terence Davies’ A Quiet Passion concerns a fiercely independent woman’s quest for moral perfection and happiness in an imperfect world.


The movie portrays nineteenth-century New England claustrophobia in agonizing detail: Emily, brilliantly played by Cynthia Nixon, has a few extremely close, possibly too close, relationships with her family, friends and minister, mostly without physical affection. Every time she loses someone to death, relocation or marriage, a little chunk is pulled from her heart. Eventually she retreats to her house and won’t even see visitors, requiring that they stay at the bottom of the stairs while she talks to them from the doorway of her room.

The pace and dialogue are very stylized. They are not “naturalistic” in the way we expect movies to be today. Characters speak as if they’re writing, very formally and with paradoxical wit, something like Oscar Wilde, but without the froth. Some would find the pace boring, but Stef and I got into it after a few minutes. The photography was very good.

One thing that struck me was the use of music. There was of course no recorded music in the middle of the nineteenth century, so music was a glimpse of heaven. Characters were beguiled by it. The soundtrack was largely mute, but there was one sequence in which Dickinson is having some sort of ecstatic vision that is accompanied by an angelic voice that shades into a clarinet solo.

There were a lot of voiceover readings of Dickinson’s poems, all of which fitted the context of the story.

I very much do not recommend this film to everyone, but if you’re deeply curious about the inner life of a sensitive person of a certain time and place, this movie might be for you. Trailer for A Quiet Passion

Thus speaks a spirit not broken.

If you enjoyed this essay you may also be interested in my book Killing Cool: Fantasy vs. Reality in American Life

Behold the Man: Memoirs of Hadrian

“In turning the pages of a volume of Flaubert’s correspondence much read and heavily underscored by me about the year 1927 I came again upon this admirable sentence: ‘Just when the gods had ceased to be, and the Christ had not yet come, there was a unique moment in history, between Cicero and Marcus Aurelius, when man stood alone.’ A great part of my life was going to be spent in trying to define, and then to portray that man existing alone and yet closely bound with all being.”
-Marguerite Yourcenar, “Reflections on the Composition of Memoirs of

Hadrian was the third of the “five good emperors of Rome,” of whom Marcus Aurelius was the fifth, in the first third of the second century. He was a soldier and administrator who worked his way up in the eyes of his predecessor Trajan, until Trajan, on his deathbed, adopted him. According to Yourcenar’s novel, which is regarded as her masterpiece, he was the paragon of men, a man of great achievement and vision who drank life to the fullest.

His accomplishments were many, and given the political context in which he lived, admirable. He decided that the empire had expanded enough and ended the ceaseless wars Rome waged on its neighbors. He built new ports and encouraged trade. He untangled legal codes and made taxes more fair. He couldn’t abolish slavery (and probably had no inclination to do so), but he made it much more humane: he forbade the castration of slaves, he ended the practice of forcing slaves into brothels or the gladiatorial ring, he banished rich people who were cruel to their slaves. In addition, he increased women’s control over their own property.

In government, he professionalized his advisors and lieutenants and ended the practice of provincial cities sending bribes to the imperial household. He was relentlessly on the move until his health failed, inspecting and bonding with the armies, supervising construction, mending fences with hostile neighbors and internal factions (although he failed with the Jews, or they with him). He tried to build a system that would survive bad emperors and last for centuries.

As a man he dabbled with superstitious ideas like astrology and Mithraism, but he never let them control him. He did not let pride or vanity or fanaticism get the better of him. He thought much farther ahead than anyone else in his time, but he was a sensualist who tried many things, including women and men. The love of his life was a teenaged Greek boy named Antinous. When Antinous died young, Hadrian created a cult around him, littering the empire with statues of him and naming a city after him.

The novel takes the form of a memoir written for Marcus Aurelius, who was Hadrian’s adopted grandson. The memoir was written at the end of Hadrian’s life and we get a lot of meditation on poor health and dying, but the bulk of the novel concerns Hadrian’s healthy days – and Hadrian was a very healthy man. In fact, Hadrian, as Yourcenar portrays him, was, warts and all, one of the greatest men of the ancient world.

The book is beautifully written, translated from the French by Yourcenar’s partner Grace Frick, in collaboration with Yourcenar. It is not like a conventional novel, though. It does not have scenes and dialogue. It is all tell and no show, as you might expect a memoir to be. So it’s not for everybody. But if you are interested in the life of a colossus, as told by the man himself, you might give it a try. Here is a link to the book’s page on Amazon: Memoirs of Hadrian

I have another novel by Yourcenar in the queue. I’ll report on it if it meets expectations.

Interview with Anti-Death Penalty Activist Richard D. Kimble, MD

Today we are interviewing Dr. Richard Kimble. Dr. Kimble is famous as an anti-death penalty activist. His passionate opposition to capital punishment came as a result of his own experience of having been wrongfully convicted of the murder of his wife in 1961 and sentenced to death in the electric chair. Dr. Kimble was spared by a train wreck that freed him en route to death row and was exonerated in 1967 after four years as a fugitive. But what has happened in his life in the 50 years since then? Dr. Kimble speaks to us at his home in Stafford, Indiana.

BWYA: Dr. Kimble, thank you for talking to us today.
RK: You’re quite welcome.
BWYA: I understand that congratulations are in order for your 90th birthday.
RK: Yes. I never thought I would make it this far.
Richard Kimble today
BWYA: If it’s not too painful, I’d like for you to recount the events in the 1960s that made you famous.
RK: Or infamous, at least for a time.
BWYA: Your ordeal began in 1961 with the murder of your wife, Helen.
RK: Actually, my “ordeal” as you call it, began about a year earlier. Helen’s pregnancy had come to term and it became obvious that she was going to need a C-section. When the procedure was performed it was found that the baby had died. When the surgeon tried to deliver the baby, he found it necessary to perform an emergency hysterectomy.
BWYA: But she recovered her health.
RK: Yes, physically. But she had terrible post-partum depression and suffered from enormous grief. I still very much wanted children, so I suggested adoption. The mere mention of the subject made Helen agitated. She thought that adopting a baby would be living a lie because the child would not be hers. She could not accept anything that seemed like a substitute for what she had lost. She took to drinking. I foolishly pressed the issue.
BWYA: Children meant a lot to you. Before you retired, you were a pediatrician, yes?
RK: That’s right. I have always loved kids and I thought children would make our marriage better. Unfortunately, perhaps in my own grief, I developed tunnel vision on the subject. We argued. A lot. She would become intoxicated to the point of falling down. A couple of times she bruised her face. The neighbors saw the bruises and heard the arguments and this laid the groundwork for the theory that I had been beating her.
BWYA: But you never did become violent with her, is that correct?
RK: Only one time. On the night she died she was drinking again and I grabbed a glass out of her hand. Needless to say, this led to a very tense moment. I was angry and walked out of the house. That was the last time I saw her alive.
BWYA: And what happened after you walked out?
RK: I drove out to the river to cool off. It was dark when I drove back. About a block from home I almost hit a man running from the direction of our house. He had one arm and the face of an animal. He was caught in the headlights for a few seconds, and then he ran away.
BWYA: I know this is painful, but what did you find at home?
RK: The front door was open and Helen was lying on the floor with the back of her skull cracked open. There was a lamp on the floor next to her that had obviously been used to beat her over the head. I tried to resuscitate her and after being unable to, called the police.
BWYA: How did the police respond?
RK: I think they believed me at first. They wanted to believe me. I was an upstanding member of the community, a children’s doctor. In those naïve times it was hard to believe that such a person would savagely kill his wife.
BWYA: And that’s when you met Lieutenant Philip Gerard?
RK: Yes. Strangely, we had never met before. Stafford was just large enough that you didn’t know everybody. And I had little occasion to rub shoulders with the police.
BWYA: What did Gerard do?
RK: He and his men took statements and then he started looking for the one-armed man.
BWYA: But he didn’t find the one-armed man.
RK: Oh, no, he found over 80 one-armed men, but they all had alibis or were missing the wrong arm or something else that ruled them out as suspects. He was quite thorough. After ten days they arrested me.
BWYA: And charged you with murder. Why not manslaughter? That would have been more in line with killing someone in anger, and it wouldn’t have carried the death penalty.
RK: The prosecutor was out for blood. Remember this was just a few years after the similar Sam Sheppard murder case in neighboring Ohio. His wife was beaten to death and he saw a “bushy-haired” man running from the scene of the crime. He was found guilty. Many people were outraged that he had gotten off too lightly by being sentenced to life in prison instead of death, so the state of Indiana took it out on me. The prosecution sold the jury this crazy theory that I had intended to kill Helen and make it look like a burglary.
BWYA: But what would have been the motive? After all, if you wanted to trade her in for a woman who could have children, you could have just divorced her.
RK: Well, getting a divorce in those days was not so easy, and according to the prosecutor’s theory I didn’t want to look like a heel for running out on my bereaved wife. Besides, Helen’s family had money, which I supposedly wanted to get my hands on. All that plus the bruises and the arguments was just enough to secure a conviction. The judge was up for reelection and didn’t want to appear soft on a wife-killer, so he sentenced me to death.
BWYA: But you appealed.
RK: Yes, I sat in prison through 18 months of appeals. The problem was that it had all been done legally. That’s one of the problems with the death penalty. Even when the system goes the way it’s supposed to, it can still kill an innocent man. Eventually, I ran out of appeals and was being transferred to a prison that had the electric chair when the train derailed.
BWYA: That’s something I was wondering about. Why were you being transported on a train handcuffed to a cop, instead of being transported on a secure Department of Corrections bus?
RK: That was luck. The bus had broken down. Gerard didn’t want to wait for it t be repaired, so he transported me himself.
BWYA: A detective lieutenant doing a prisoner transfer? Isn’t that a rather lowly task for him?
RK: Yes, this was an early sign of his neurosis about me. Gerard believed in the sanctity of the law with all his heart. For him our legal system was as just and impersonal as a monument. Yet he always harbored a little doubt about me. So he overcompensated by obsessing about me. He wanted to get me into the electric chair himself so he could relieve the tension.
BWYA: And then the train derailed.
RK: Yes, that was luck, too. I found myself lying on the ground with a handcuff on my wrist and no Gerard.
BWYA: But that seems impossible. Gerard’s hand would have come off before the handcuffs would have broken open.
RK: Yes, that’s a mystery. Maybe Gerard didn’t snap the handcuffs securely on his own wrist. Maybe, and here I am speculating, he actually unlocked himself from me in a half-conscious state because he felt I was innocent. At any rate, I was freed from him and I began to run.
BWYA: How did you survive?
RK: At first I stole things: a file for the handcuffs, clothes, food, hair dye. I stole rides on freights trains and trucks. When I got far enough away I changed my appearance and began taking odd jobs. I still stole things occasionally. I felt bad about it, but I was desperate, and I never took anything from someone who appeared to be poor. Maybe that’s a rationalization for being a thief, but I wasn’t going to freeze to death because my morals kept me from taking a jacket. After I was exonerated and built my practice back up to the point where I could afford to, I tried to track down everybody I had stolen from and repay them. Most of them refused to take my money.
BWYA: You’ve mentioned luck a few times. Have your experiences made you believe in the operation of fate?
RK: Not in the operation of some sort of divine plan, but in some kind of ironic chance. Why did Helen and I have an argument that particular night she was murdered? If we hadn’t, we would have gone out to dinner and not been there when the one-armed man broke in. Why did the transport bus break down? Why did the handcuff come off of Gerard’s wrist?
BWYA: It must have almost seemed like predestination. Like you were being sent on a journey of suffering.
RK: Let’s not get religious about this. I don’t think there’s any purpose in suffering. That’s why I became a doctor: to alleviate needless suffering. My suffering was not part of any divine plan.
BWYA: You saw a lot of America in your years on the run.
RK: I saw a great deal of America in those years, some of it was not very pretty.
BWYA: Why did you stay in the U.S.? Why didn’t you take work on a freighter and go to Brazil, where you could make a new life where they couldn’t extradite you?
RK: Because I didn’t want a new life. I wanted to be Richard Kimble again, be with my family, work in my profession. For that I needed to find the one-armed man. I wasn’t sure what to do with him when I found him. I wasn’t even sure he had murdered Helen, but I knew he was the key.
BWYA: It was a miracle you weren’t captured in all that those years. Fate again?
RK: It wasn’t fate. It was that Wanted poster. The pictures didn’t look anything like me. (Laughs a little.) It was the hair. Prematurely gray and that awful brush-cut – a little dye and a more natural style and I looked like a new man. That poster probably saved my life. And by the way, I was captured several times. But events always conspired in my favor. Perhaps you’re right about fate. But no, usually I was freed because of the kindness of strangers. That’s not fate, that’s free will. People aren’t naturally good – I came to know that in my travels. They have to choose to be good. Fortunately for me and for the world, most do make that choice.
Richard Kimble's Wanted poster
BWYA: All the while you were being chased by Lt. Gerard.
RK: Yes, Gerard was obsessed with my capture. He traveled from place to place trying to run me down. He even spent his own money to do so when the police department wanted him to give up and leave the matter to the feds, who were normally in charge of tracking down interstate fugitives.
BWYA: Do you have any idea about the source of his obsession?
RK: I think so. I got to know Gerard pretty well over the years. He regarded society as being based on the absolutism of the law. He did not see himself as personally responsible for bringing me to my death. Others found me guilty. Others sentenced me to die. His job was to execute the law, that is, to help execute me. What drove him crazy was the uncertainty. He knew at some level that there was a very large reasonable doubt in my case. He couldn’t admit that doubt, because to do so would be to admit the law was imperfect. Eventually, he tried to achieve a psychological compromise between my proven guilt and seeming innocence. According to his fantasy, I in my lonely desperation had come to believe my own story and had latched on to some random one-armed drifter to support my delusion. He thought I believed myself to be innocent. Of course, this was all some kind of projection on his part. In reality, it was he who believed I was innocent.
BWYA: So his anxiety fueled his relentlessness toward you.
RK: Yes, but at the same time – and here’s the really fascinating thing – he never stopped looking for the one-armed man. He would have said that it was his job to keep looking but really it was his doubt that drove him. He had nightmares that after I was executed, he would find him. He was running as much as I was.
BWYA: Eventually, after four years on the run, you were exonerated.
RK: That was due to Gerard. He got a lead on the one-armed man, whose real name we never did learn, but who we called Fred Johnson. He followed up on that lead trying to lay a trap for me, but when he came face-to-face with Johnson, he saw the truth. It’s lucky for him that he didn’t have a stroke. I heard later that he almost strangled Johnson.
BWYA: And you fell into the trap.
RK: Well, I had no choice. I didn’t want to keep running just for the sake of running. I wanted to catch up with Johnson and try to get my life back. As things developed, somebody bailed Johnson out and Gerard caught me.
BWYA: And he took you back to Indiana. Without cuffs this time.
RK: Yes, I had no motive to run. It looked as if the person who bailed Johnson out was from my hometown. It looked like Johnson was heading that way. Going there was maybe going to get me answers. Gerard promised to keep my arrest out of the papers in exchange for my waiving extradition and I gave him my word I wouldn’t try to escape.
BWYA: Even though you might be speeding to your own death.
RK: I had no more reason to run. I had no life left. I was about to give up anyway.
BWYA: But you eventually found your answers.
RK: Yes, what we found out was that a friend of mine – a so-called friend – was in the house the night Helen was killed and watched while Johnson murdered her.
BWYA: Why would he just stand by?
RK: He was scared. He ran away, afraid for his reputation. He didn’t think the police would blame me. By the time I was charged he felt it was too late to come forward.
BWYA: But in the end he did testify on your behalf.
RK: Yes he did, and he had made a very credible witness because he was ruining his own life by speaking up. And so I was exonerated.
BWYA: But the one-armed man was never charged.
RK: No, Gerard shot and killed him when he was about to shoot me. What an irony: While taking me to my execution, Gerard saved my life.
BWYA: That was fifty years ago. By most people’s lights, that should have been the end of your story. You were a free man. You and Gerard were reconciled, at least to the extent that was possible, and you walked off into the sunset with your soon-to-be new wife. You should have disappeared back into small-town obscurity.
RK: God knows I tried. My picture had been on the front pages of too many newspapers. I just wanted a normal life.
BWYA: And for a while you had one – before you became famous again.
RK: Not exactly a normal life, no. I had terrible problems after my exoneration. I had post-traumatic stress disorder and I had been concussed several times and I had been shot a few times in the leg. I was in the approximate condition of a soldier returning from battle. I had nightmares for years, and I abused alcohol. The worst of it was the guilt. If Helen and I had not argued, if I had not walked out on her, she would not have been killed. I had real trouble forgiving myself for that. Fortunately, my second wife, Jean, was very supportive and my practice provided scaffolding on which to build again.
BWYA: You had some trouble reestablishing your practice, though.
RK: Yes, the “friend” who testified on my behalf died a couple of months later of an aggressive cancer. Some of the neighbors began to whisper that he had testified in order to save me because he had nothing to lose in helping his friend. This was ridiculous. He did not know he was going to die when he testified, but he did know he would be branded a coward for not having come forward at the time of the murder. But because of the whispers, many people wouldn’t bring their boys and girls to see me; they still thought I had killed Helen.
BWYA: Ironically, it was Gerard who saved your career.
RK: Yes. His son developed childhood arthritis, and he brought him to me for treatment. Always brought him himself, didn’t let his mother bring him. He got the other officers to bring their kids to me too, and soon the tide of public opinion turned and I had my practice back.
BWYA: So you had your profession back. A new wife. Your PTSD was manageable. But no children.
RK: No. I didn’t think I could be a good father until I had straightened myself out. And I was 40 when I was exonerated. A little old to be starting a family. I didn’t know I was going to live into my 90s. [laughs] Jean wanted kids, but she understood. Eventually, she became a nurse at my practice and we had kids vicariously through my patients.
BWYA: But you did have children of your own eventually.
RK: Yes. After the end of the Vietnam War, there were, as you may remember, a lot of refugees from the communists. Boat People, they were called. A number were orphaned children. Jean and I adopted one. And then another. Until we eventually had four. They had been through something a little like what I had been through, losing loved ones to violence and having to run away, so we had a bond. Three of them grew up to be physicians and the fourth is an activist on behalf of refugee children.
BWYA: So you did get your normal life after all. But you didn’t stay obscure.
RK: No. The death penalty had been struck down for a few years because the Supreme Court found that it had been unfairly applied. Big surprise. But it was reinstated in 1976, and I became increasingly concerned about innocent men being put to death.
BWYA: You didn’t oppose capital punishment on moral grounds though.
RK: No. I thought and still think that depraved murderers ought, in a state of perfect knowledge, to be executed. I didn’t lose any sleep when Ted Bundy died. But justice miscarries so often in the U.S. that I believe that the only way to keep form killing innocent men is to not kill anybody. And that would include Ted Bundy. The slope is just too damn slippery, the temptation too strong. About 150 convicted murderers have been exonerated since capital punishment was reinstated. God knows how many others who were executed might have been exonerated.
BWYA: So in the late 70s you became an activist.
RK: Yes, I was a kind of poster child against the death penalty. It was easy for many people to ignore poor black men or trashy white men being put to death. But here I was, white, educated, a doctor. If I could be wrongly sentenced to die, no one was safe. I started appearing on platforms and participating in panel discussions. I became well known again and appeared on many news programs. It was ironic, because I really had sought obscurity.
BWYA: Surprisingly, you were joined by an old acquaintance.
RK: Yes, Philip Gerard joined me on more than a few stages. He became an expert on how bringing the death penalty into a case actually makes it less likely that the accused will get a fair trial, not more, as you would expect.
BWYA: Did you become friends?
RK: No, that was not possible, given all we had been through. But we did achieve a degree of cordiality. I had saved his life once and he had saved mine in effect twice, so we couldn’t hate each other. He was an interesting man and had done a lot of introspection about our relationship. I think it changed him and he became more nuanced about his principles. Once we were on a panel discussion and a fanatical woman in the audience asked him “Don’t you think it’s enough that murderers get years of appeals?” And Gerard replied, “I thought that once, but experience” – here he looked at me – “has caused me to change my mind.”
BWYA: Did you see him much after that?
RK: Only one time. He asked for me on his deathbed. I was hesitant, but I could not refuse. He took my hand and said, “For a long time, I thought I was going to watch you die. I’m glad it’s the other way around.”
BWYA: It was F. Scott Fitzgerald who said that American lives don’t have third acts, but yours has had a third, with your children, and a fourth, with your activism. Are you happy with how it all turned out?
RK: Yes, but I still have nightmares occasionally.
BWYA: Do you think your experience as a fugitive has in some way made you a better person?
RK: I’d like to think I was a good person before, but I could be insensitive and selfish, as I was when I pressured Helen to adopt, and I was a bit too concerned with superficial things such as golf. A lot of the impurities, if you want to call them that, were burned out of me by my time as a fugitive. I saw many bad people and many good ones along the way. That filled me with a sense of wonder, I supposed you’d call it. I learned a lot about empathy and finding quick connection with people, which has helped me as a physician and an activist. And with my activism, I found a calling beyond my profession, so I suppose all in all I am a better person. But I still refuse to call it fate. In the end I’m just a small-town pediatrician who got unlucky and then got lucky again.

If you enjoyed this article you may also be interested in my book Killing Cool: Fantasy vs. Reality in American Life

American Not-So-Pastoral

I have been obsessed with a novel and the film version of it, which will be released in October. It’s Philip Roth’s American Pastoral. It has a loose plot, but it’s really about the stresses placed on a reasonable man by horrific events. The man is a symbol for America.

It is the 1960s. The main character is Seymour Levov. Star athlete in high school, Seymour, though Jewish, looks so Nordic that everyone calls him the Swede. The Swede has a perfect life. He is married to a former Miss New Jersey, he runs a successful business, he has a beautiful home in the country, everybody likes him. That is, everybody but his daughter, Meredith, known ironically as Merry. A bright, charming child with a stutter, Merry becomes the teenager from Hell. She is angry about the Vietnam War, starts hanging out with communist revolutionaries and constantly defies and insults her parents.

Acting on the New Left injunction to bring the war home, i.e. to cause civil unrest in the U.S. as a protest against America’s involvement overseas, Merry blows up a post office in her sleepy rural village. The blast goes off at 5 am when the post office is closed, but an unlucky man, a universally loved doctor, is there mailing a letter on his way to work. He is instantly killed. Merry goes underground.

From there it gets more horrible. I won’t divulge the details, though I will discuss some of the themes. The Swede is baffled by what happened and drives himself crazy looking for an explanation. This parallels liberal America’s puzzlement over why their boomer children turned against them. Roth doesn’t settle for easy answers and we follow the Swede’s impressions, memories, anguish and confusion for most of the story.

There are two explanations for Merry’s descent into violence hinted at by Roth that I personally find convincing, although it’s not clear that Roth thinks we ought to settle on them. The first is that Merry and by extension her generation have been raised with no clear values. As the Swede’s brother says, the Swede is post-Jewish, his wife is post-Catholic and they moved into the country expecting to raise post-toasties. (Post Toasties were a popular breakfast cereal, a competitor to Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, and just as bland.) The Swede loves being an American and is grateful for the opportunities he has been given, but his notion of America has no intellectual content. It’s just baseball and serving in the Marines. He has never really thought for himself, perhaps because up until his forties, his luck had been so good, he never had to. He is coasting on the immigrant narrative of his recent forebears. His daughter, however, is an American vacuum waiting to be filled.

American icon Andy Griffith endorses the All-American cereal.

And this brings us to Roth’s second explanation of Merry’s rebellion. Merry is “selfless”, presumably because she contains a vacuum. She tries to become a mini-Audrey Hepburn as a little girl, she briefly adopts her grandmother’s Catholicism in her tweens, she becomes a violent leftist as a teenager and finally she becomes a religious fanatic, which the Swede learns about in a sequence too awful to describe.

The implication is that Merry became a political militant because that was what was in the air when she was an adolescent angry about her stutter. Her father and mother have nothing of substance with which to counter this transformation. You can see how this parallels one of America’s timelines: from vapid “Americanism” in the 1950s to political and cultural fanaticism in the 1960s to religious fanaticism in the 1970s. One reason why the book resonates with me is that I saw something a similar timeline in the lives of several people I have loved.

Roth’s novel is not for everyone. It is slow getting to the main story, it spends a lot of time inside the Swede’s head following his impressions and recollections, and the prose is dense with long paragraphs. It is not interested in the linear plot so much as in character and theme. On the other hand, it is searingly earnest (especially for Roth, who often deals in rabelaisian irony) and its descriptions are vivid and on target.

One thing I like about it is that it doesn’t tell you what to think. There is no character whose point-of-view you can fully identify with. You have to work to tease out the truth. And truth for Roth is not easy to come by. Sometimes the best you can do is to create a narrative and hope to learn from it.

Some readers may prefer the movie version, which comes out in October. Here is a trailer. A friend of mine felt that the trailer was cryptic and creepy. I assure you the movie will not be cryptic, but it definitely will have some creepy and painful moments. You can find the same qualities in Shakespeare, so hopefully that won’t put you off. In any case, it is a fascinating story about how America, without a solid foundation in ideas, cannot defend itself or its children.

The Underbook

I am going to re-direct my blog to a large degree. I will still publish occasional book and movie reviews and thought pieces, but now I will add evidence for and commentary on my book Killing Cool: Fantasy vs. Reality in American Life. I wanted the book to stay a reasonable length (it’s 260 pages), so there are lots of examples I did not use.

When William Safire wrote his novel about the Civil War, Freedom, he provided extensive documentation in aftermatter he called the underbook. That is what I am going to provide now.

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The Plot Against America

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Who knew that Philip Roth, best known for his obsession with sex in novels like Portnoy’s Complaint and The Breast, also wrote an alternate history–and a very good one at that? The point at which Roth’s novel deviates from real-world history is 1940. Germany is at war with the rest of Europe, but America retains its isolationist stance. FDR clearly wants to join the fight and institutes measures which technically void our status as neutrals, but forces at home like the organizations America First and the German-American Bund oppose any involvement.

The deviation occurs when Charles A. Lindbergh, dashing hero pilot, isolationist and anti-Semite marches into the Republican National Convention and captures the nomination for president. Running on a platform of “Vote for Lindbergh or Vote for War,” Lindbergh sweeps FDR from the White House.

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After taking office Lindbergh reaches an “understanding” with Hitler and the Japanese and, true to his word, keeps us out of the war. But President Lindbergh has a domestic agenda as well. He wants to “integrate” American Jews into broader American society by sending their boys to work on farms and having businesses (under pressure) relocate employees from Jewish enclaves out to the hinterlands. How far will this policy go? You’ll have to read the book, but I will say that things eventually get pretty ugly.

Now this is an interesting story in itself. A good what-if yarn. But the way in which Roth chooses to tell it is fascinating. He uses his own family, with himself as a nine-year-old boy narrating, as the focal characters. We don’t follow Charles Lindbergh around; we just see him in the newsreels. Instead we follow little Philip Roth around, as grown-up Roth imagines an alternate history for himself and his kin.

First, let me say that Roth is brilliant at showing the naive and sometimes strange perceptions and fears of a little boy. At one point little Philip contemplates running away to Father Flanagan’s Boys’ Town, a thousand miles away. This is some of the best treatment of the world through a child’s eyes I’ve seen since To Kill a Mockingbird.

But the real interest is not just little Philip but his family, including uncles, an aunt and a cousin–and beyond them the wider Jewish community of Newark, New Jersey. How do they respond to the threat of a quasi-fascist president? Do they collaborate, rebel, stand their ground, go down in flames or what? What interests Roth is not so much the affairs of the mighty but the question of what will Roth’s father, an insurance salesman with an eighth-grade education, do when ordered to move to Kentucky and leave behind everything he knows and loves? Roth the author is in the singularly fortunate position of being able to portray his father as a hero.

But not everyone in the Roths’s community is a hero. There is a local rabbi who acts as a Judas goat for Lindbergh, helping give the aviator credibility as a non-anti-Semite. And there is Philip’s cousin, who refuses to wait for America to enter the war and goes off to Canada to join up. His is not a happy trajectory.

One fascinating character is the gossip-columnist-turned-commentator Walter Winchell. Winchell is basically a loudmouth with a lot of listeners, like somebody on Fox News, but he is Jewish and he publicly and vehemently denounces Lindbergh. We only see him from afar, but what happens to him is at the heart of the story.

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Are there any themes here? Well, clearly the main one is: How the pressure of external events reveals character. Clearly some people in the story have a higher moral standing than others. The larger political story throws that into high relief.

Another major theme is the role of violence in social life, how some people struggle to live without violence and how in others violence burns just beneath the surface.

Still another theme is the greatness of the American system. The Jews in Roth’s environment are not Old Country sorts of people: They affirmatively define themselves as Americans. They believe in America. Can the American system right itself after almost capsizing? Well, you’ll have to read the book to see just whether that happens. I did find the ending a little bit unsatisfying, but it was in line with Roth’s themes.

I respect this novel, because, without descending into a naturalistic obsession with “humble” folk, it deals with “ordinary” people under stress and shows their true mettle. For me this is part of “Descending Mount Olympus” wherein I find my way to literature that doesn’t deal with the world’s greatest architect, but with people (some of) whom have an interesting kind of greatness anyway.

So that’s two novels now by an author I thought I would never like. I wrote about the other one here: “Happy Birthday, Coleman Silk”. Now I’ve got a third one on order. Will this be as far as I can go with Philip Roth? Time will tell.

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If you enjoyed this essay you may also be interested in my book Killing Cool: Fantasy vs. Reality in American Life

The Pretender Goes to the Movies

One problem I had with writing Killing Cool is that I didn’t want to label living people as Pretenders, i.e. persons who unconsciously assume a false sense of life. I don’t think it’s nice to label people. I also did not want to open myself up to charges of libel. So what I did was to comment almost exclusively on dead public figures, like Ronald Reagan and fictional ones like Jem and Scout Finch. At first I felt bad not being completely up-to-date and relevant, but later I was glad of it.

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I have come up with a list of movie and TV characters who are or are not Pretending a false self and sense of life. I didn’t want to rely too heavily on fictional examples because I wanted to make a point about the state of actual Americans. But I’ll share some of them here.

Some actors specialize in playing Pretenders. I hope that doesn’t say anything about them in real life. Examples: Humphrey Bogart, Samuel L. Jackson, Jack Nicholson, Bill Murray, Al Pacino, etc. Interestingly, they are capable of doing other things. Take Al Pacino as Michael Corleone. That character was not a Pretender. He was authentically cold and evil. My favorite female Pretenders are Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Sally Bowles in Cabaret. Perhaps the best example of a Pretender character of either sex isn’t American but Scottish: Jean Brodie in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Watch that movie and you will get the concept.

Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany's

Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s

Some actors specialize in playing non-Pretenders too, although the only example I can think of is Sidney Poitier. Perhaps Harrison Ford would count, at least post Star Wars.

Sometimes you get a Pretender/non-Pretender pair of characters in the same production. In Tombstone Wyatt Earp wasn’t and Doc Holliday was. In Deadwood Seth Bullock wasn’t and Al Swearingen was. It makes for an interesting dynamic. In both cases the Pretender is smarter than the non-Pretender and is either morally ambiguous (as in the case of Doc Holliday) or downright evil (as in the case of Al Swearingen). In Tombstone the non-Pretender gives hope to the Pretender. In Deadwood the Pretender sees through the non-Pretender in a cynical way, but also admires his moral character.

Kurt Russell as Wyatt Earp and Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday

Kurt Russell as Wyatt Earp and Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday

I don’t mean to say that Pretenderism is a smart person’s disorder. Plenty of dumb characters don their macho or torchy airs. John Wayne’s swaggering characters aren’t exactly dumb, but they’re certainly not intellectual either. But many of them are Pretenders.

John Wayne in Brothers

John Wayne in Brothers

Many characters are Pretenders by default, because nobody could authentically be like that. I am not sure their creators are aware of the Pretender concept. But other artists are aware of it, even though they haven’t worked it out as explicitly as I have. I believe Mark Twain knew that Tom Sawyer in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was a Pretender, and I believe that Harper Lee knew that Scout, Jem and Dill were proto-Pretenders in To Kill a Mockingbird.

How about farther back in literary history? Julius Caesar, in Shakespeare’s play, seems to have been a Pretender, talking about himself in the third person and posturing. I think Shakespeare at some level understood the concept. Hamlet, although he pretends to be mad, is not a Pretender, because his act is self-conscious.

Louis Calhern as Caesar not bewaring the Ides of March

Louis Calhern as Caesar not bewaring the Ides of March

Sometimes I joke with my wife that I see a Pretender under every bed, like Joe McCarthy and the communists. But joking aside, Pretenders are quite common in literature and in real life. You just have to learn how to spot them. And there’s a very good chance you’ve done some Pretending yourself, especially when you were younger, even if that is not your ultimate character type.

The Deception Game

Alan Turing and his friend Christopher are sitting under a tree at boarding school. Alan asks Christopher what he is reading, and Christopher says it’s a book about codes. Alan says, “You mean, like secret messages?” Christopher replies, No, a code is something everyone can hear but no one understands, and Alan replies, Isn’t that just talking? Everyone says something but means something else.

There in a nutshell is the character of Alan Turing The Imitation Game, the new film about the life of the British mathematician and codebreaker. I assume the reader is familiar with the basic story of Turing’s life, and so I will not withhold spoilers.

Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing in The Imitation Game

Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing in The Imitation Game

Everything in Turing’s life (as it is shown in this film) involves deception: He exchanges love notes with Christopher–but they have to be in code. He endeavors to break the German Enigma code, which is a deception. He has to hide the fact that he is a homosexual. He is required to lie about his work during the war and cannot take any credit for saving thousands or millions of lives and shortening the war.

The irony of Turing’s having to lie is that he had Asperger’s Syndrome (although it was not identified as such in Turing’s time) and is not a natural liar. He doesn’t even get jokes, he’s so literal-minded. There’s a hilarious scene where he’s pressed into service as a wing man in a bar and people keep kicking him in the ankles when he almost spoils their lies.

So the open and honest Turing is forced to be deceptive. But can he keep it up? The framing story is how he gets caught out as a homosexual and sentenced to chemical castration for it. Here the movie drops the ball by having Turing tell the story of his wartime experience to a copper who suspects him of being a spy.

The truth is less melodramatic and more poignant. When asked about the burglary of his house that brought him to the police’s attention in the first place, the real Turing blithely told them that a friend of his boyfriend did it. Perhaps Turing got tired of telling lies or perhaps he was such an open man that he didn’t see why he should conceal the simple facts. Either way, Turing suffered terribly for his honesty, and in the end probably committed suicide.

This bungle aside, the movie does have a consistent theme, and that is that some people are too good for this world, a world where, due to the malice of nations, deception is a necessity. God bless Alan Turing.

Alan Turing

Alan Turing

If you enjoyed this essay you may also be interested in my book Killing Cool: Fantasy vs. Reality in American Life