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Thursday, July 8, 2010

Stephen King Meets Niccolo Machiavelli “Under the Dome”

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

Big Jim Rennie, observing his dejected townspeople, comments upon the military’s failed attempt to blast through the dome covering Chester’ Mill, Maine, with a pair of Cruise missiles, his remark sounding like something critics of President Obama might say concerning the real-world commander in chief: “Take a good look, pal--this is what incompetency, false hope, and too much information gets you.”

The federal government has failed to deliver the citizens of the small town from their captivity, just as, in real life, Obama has failed to deliver the citizens of the southern United States from the effects of British Petroleum’s Gulf Oil leak. The crisis in Chester’s Mill is one that Big Jim means to capitalize upon, just as Rahm Emmanuel advised President Obama to take full advantage of every crisis, lest it go to “waste.”

However, there is another lens through which to interpret the political machinations in Stephen King’s latest novel, one provided by non other than the Machiavellian mastermind Niccolo Machiavelli himself, who, in The Discourses (1519), contends that monarchy devolves into tyranny; aristocracy, into oligarchy; and “popular government,” such as democracy, into licentiousness. In fact, these dissolutions occur, again and again, in a “circle,” monarchy-tyranny giving way to aristocracy-oligarchy, aristocracy-oligarchy succumbing to democracy-licentiousness, and so on, continuously, unless and until the three types of government, monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy are included in one and the same system, each a check and a balance to the other: Presumably, the American founding fathers had such a strategy in mind when they established the United States federal government, wherein a president fulfills the role of the monarch, the congress is a stand-in for the aristocracy, and the “popular government” is made up of the masses.

Applying this formula to the government of Chester’s Mill, Maine, Big Jim Rennie is the tyrant, and Colonel Barbara, Julie Shumway, Brenda Perkins, and their followers represent the aristocracy whom Machiavelli characterizes as “those citizens who, surpassing the others in grandeur of soul, in wealth, and in courage,” are unwilling to “submit to the outrages and excesses” of the tyrant and who gather unto themselves “the masses” to “rid themselves” of the tyrant. However, there is a transitional period between the overthrow of a tyranny and the subsequent government “in strict accordance with the laws. . . established” by the victorious aristocracy. This is the period of time with which Under the Dome is concerned--the transitional period wherein the aristocrats begin to assert themselves against the town’s tyrant. The allegiance of “the masses” is divided between the tyrant and the aristocracy and subject to vacillation.

Such is the case in Chester’s Mill. Some retain loyalty to Big Jim Rennie, the tyrant; others have formed an allegiance with Colonel Dale Barbara, Julie Shumway, and Brenda Perkins. For example, when Big Jim orders Barbie to discontinue the video feed from the expected point of the missiles’ impact to television screens upon which the masses crowding the interior of Dippy’s nightclub hope to see for themselves the effect of the federal government’s attempt to demolish the dome and rescue them, Barbie puts the issue to the people: “The video deal out here on Little Bitch Road is entirely my responsibility,” he tells the crowd, “and as you may have gathered, there has been a difference of opinion between myself and Selectman Rennie about whether or not to continue the feed.” The crowd is not pleased to hear that the official wants the feed discontinued: “This time the ripple was louder and not happy,” and Will Freeman, “owner and operator of the local Toyota dealership (and no friend of James Rennie) spoke directly to the TV. ‘Leave it alone, Jimmy, or there’s gonna be a new Selectman in The Mill by the end of the week’” (338).

The people are behind Barbie at the moment, but Big Jim is counting upon them returning to his fold if the missiles fail to demolish the dome, and, when the missiles do fail to liberate the townspeople, it seems that the wily old politician is correct (as is Barbie, for that matter), for “those who had watched the Air Force’s failed attempt to punch through the Dome left Dipper’s pretty much as Barbie had imagined: slowly, with their heads down, not talking much. . . some crying.” Moreover, their rebelliousness seems to have evaporated: “Three town police cars were parked across the road from Dipper’s, and half a dozen cops stood leaning against them, ready for trouble. But there was no trouble” (351). Disappointed at the federal government’s failure to rescue them from the crisis, the townspeople are dejected, demoralized, and despondent, rather than rebellious, disobedient, and defiant. One suspects they will be more amenable to whatever Big Jim suggests in the immediate future. Score: Tyranny, 1; Aristocracy, 0.

When Barbie earlier suggests that Julia run against Big Jim when they “call for elections,” it is clear that she doesn’t underestimate the power that the tyrannical selectman exercises over the town and its residents. She regards Barbie “pityingly,” as she asks him, “Do you think Jim Rennie is going to allow elections as long as the Dome is in place? What world are you living in, my friend?’” Barbie responds with the courage and resolve of the aristocrat who’s had enough and means to marshal “the masses” against the tyrant: “Don’t underestimate the will of the town, Julia.”

The battle lines are clearly drawn, with the tyrant Big Jim Rennie and his cronies on one side; the aristocracy, comprised of Colonel Dale Barbara, newspaper owner and editor Julia Shumway, Third Selectman Andrea Grinnell, and the police chief’s widow Brenda Perkins, on the other; and the townspeople in the middle. Machiavelli wrote the ending of the story in 1519. According to him, tyranny will be overthrown by the aristocracy, which, in due time, will itself devolve into an oligarchy, the circle circling onward forevermore unless and until the checks and balances of a three-branched system of monarchy-aristocracy-and-popular government is established.

It will be interesting to see whether Machiavelli’s analysis is borne out by the denouement of Under the Dome.

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Paranormal vs. Supernatural: What’s the Diff?

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

Sometimes, in demonstrating how to brainstorm about an essay topic, selecting horror movies, I ask students to name the titles of as many such movies as spring to mind (seldom a difficult feat for them, as the genre remains quite popular among young adults). Then, I ask them to identify the monster, or threat--the antagonist, to use the proper terminology--that appears in each of the films they have named. Again, this is usually a quick and easy task. Finally, I ask them to group the films’ adversaries into one of three possible categories: natural, paranormal, or supernatural. This is where the fun begins.

It’s a simple enough matter, usually, to identify the threats which fall under the “natural” label, especially after I supply my students with the scientific definition of “nature”: everything that exists as either matter or energy (which are, of course, the same thing, in different forms--in other words, the universe itself. The supernatural is anything which falls outside, or is beyond, the universe: God, angels, demons, and the like, if they exist. Mad scientists, mutant cannibals (and just plain cannibals), serial killers, and such are examples of natural threats. So far, so simple.

What about borderline creatures, though? Are vampires, werewolves, and zombies, for example, natural or supernatural? And what about Freddy Krueger? In fact, what does the word “paranormal” mean, anyway? If the universe is nature and anything outside or beyond the universe is supernatural, where does the paranormal fit into the scheme of things?

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word “paranormal,” formed of the prefix “para,” meaning alongside, and “normal,” meaning “conforming to common standards, usual,” was coined in 1920. The American Heritage Dictionary defines “paranormal” to mean “beyond the range of normal experience or scientific explanation.” In other words, the paranormal is not supernatural--it is not outside or beyond the universe; it is natural, but, at the present, at least, inexplicable, which is to say that science cannot yet explain its nature. The same dictionary offers, as examples of paranormal phenomena, telepathy and “a medium’s paranormal powers.”

Wikipedia offers a few other examples of such phenomena or of paranormal sciences, including the percentages of the American population which, according to a Gallup poll, believes in each phenomenon, shown here in parentheses: psychic or spiritual healing (54), extrasensory perception (ESP) (50), ghosts (42), demons (41), extraterrestrials (33), clairvoyance and prophecy (32), communication with the dead (28), astrology (28), witchcraft (26), reincarnation (25), and channeling (15); 36 percent believe in telepathy.

As can be seen from this list, which includes demons, ghosts, and witches along with psychics and extraterrestrials, there is a confusion as to which phenomena and which individuals belong to the paranormal and which belong to the supernatural categories. This confusion, I believe, results from the scientism of our age, which makes it fashionable for people who fancy themselves intelligent and educated to dismiss whatever cannot be explained scientifically or, if such phenomena cannot be entirely rejected, to classify them as as-yet inexplicable natural phenomena. That way, the existence of a supernatural realm need not be admitted or even entertained. Scientists tend to be materialists, believing that the real consists only of the twofold unity of matter and energy, not dualists who believe that there is both the material (matter and energy) and the spiritual, or supernatural. If so, everything that was once regarded as having been supernatural will be regarded (if it cannot be dismissed) as paranormal and, maybe, if and when it is explained by science, as natural. Indeed, Sigmund Freud sought to explain even God as but a natural--and in Freud’s opinion, an obsolete--phenomenon.

Meanwhile, among skeptics, there is an ongoing campaign to eliminate the paranormal by explaining them as products of ignorance, misunderstanding, or deceit. Ridicule is also a tactic that skeptics sometimes employ in this campaign. For example, The Skeptics’ Dictionary contends that the perception of some “events” as being of a paranormal nature may be attributed to “ignorance or magical thinking.” The dictionary is equally suspicious of each individual phenomenon or “paranormal science” as well. Concerning psychics’ alleged ability to discern future events, for example, The Skeptic’s Dictionary quotes Jay Leno (“How come you never see a headline like 'Psychic Wins Lottery'?”), following with a number of similar observations:

Psychics don't rely on psychics to warn them of impending disasters. Psychics don't predict their own deaths or diseases. They go to the dentist like the rest of us. They're as surprised and disturbed as the rest of us when they have to call a plumber or an electrician to fix some defect at home. Their planes are delayed without their being able to anticipate the delays. If they want to know something about Abraham Lincoln, they go to the library; they don't try to talk to Abe's spirit. In short, psychics live by the known laws of nature except when they are playing the psychic game with people.
In An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural, James Randi, a magician who exercises a skeptical attitude toward all things alleged to be paranormal or supernatural, takes issue with the notion of such phenomena as well, often employing the same arguments and rhetorical strategies as The Skeptic’s Dictionary.

In short, the difference between the paranormal and the supernatural lies in whether one is a materialist, believing in only the existence of matter and energy, or a dualist, believing in the existence of both matter and energy and spirit. If one maintains a belief in the reality of the spiritual, he or she will classify such entities as angels, demons, ghosts, gods, vampires, and other threats of a spiritual nature as supernatural, rather than paranormal, phenomena. He or she may also include witches (because, although they are human, they are empowered by the devil, who is himself a supernatural entity) and other natural threats that are energized, so to speak, by a power that transcends nature and is, as such, outside or beyond the universe. Otherwise, one is likely to reject the supernatural as a category altogether, identifying every inexplicable phenomenon as paranormal, whether it is dark matter or a teenage werewolf. Indeed, some scientists dedicate at least part of their time to debunking allegedly paranormal phenomena, explaining what natural conditions or processes may explain them, as the author of The Serpent and the Rainbow explains the creation of zombies by voodoo priests.

Based upon my recent reading of Tzvetan Todorov's The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to the Fantastic, I add the following addendum to this essay.

According to Todorov:

The fantastic. . . lasts only as long as a certain hesitation [in deciding] whether or not what they [the reader and the protagonist] perceive derives from "reality" as it exists in the common opinion. . . . If he [the reader] decides that the laws of reality remain intact and permit an explanation of the phenomena described, we can say that the work belongs to the another genre [than the fantastic]: the uncanny. If, on the contrary, he decides that new laws of nature must be entertained to account for the phenomena, we enter the genre of the marvelous (The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, 41).
Todorov further differentiates these two categories by characterizing the uncanny as “the supernatural explained” and the marvelous as “the supernatural accepted” (41-42).

Interestingly, the prejudice against even the possibility of the supernatural’s existence which is implicit in the designation of natural versus paranormal phenomena, which excludes any consideration of the supernatural, suggests that there are no marvelous phenomena; instead, there can be only the uncanny. Consequently, for those who subscribe to this view, the fantastic itself no longer exists in this scheme, for the fantastic depends, as Todorov points out, upon the tension of indecision concerning to which category an incident belongs, the natural or the supernatural. The paranormal is understood, by those who posit it, in lieu of the supernatural, as the natural as yet unexplained.

And now, back to a fate worse than death: grading students’ papers.

My Cup of Blood

Anyone who becomes an aficionado of anything tends, eventually, to develop criteria for elements or features of the person, place, or thing of whom or which he or she has become enamored. Horror fiction--admittedly not everyone’s cuppa blood--is no different (okay, maybe it’s a little different): it, too, appeals to different fans, each for reasons of his or her own. Of course, in general, book reviews, the flyleaves of novels, and movie trailers suggest what many, maybe even most, readers of a particular type of fiction enjoy, but, right here, right now, I’m talking more specifically--one might say, even more eccentrically. In other words, I’m talking what I happen to like, without assuming (assuming makes an “ass” of “u” and “me”) that you also like the same. It’s entirely possible that you will; on the other hand, it’s entirely likely that you won’t.

Anyway, this is what I happen to like in horror fiction:

Small-town settings in which I get to know the townspeople, both the good, the bad, and the ugly. For this reason alone, I’m a sucker for most of Stephen King’s novels. Most of them, from 'Salem's Lot to Under the Dome, are set in small towns that are peopled by the good, the bad, and the ugly. Part of the appeal here, granted, is the sense of community that such settings entail.

Isolated settings, such as caves, desert wastelands, islands, mountaintops, space, swamps, where characters are cut off from civilization and culture and must survive and thrive or die on their own, without assistance, by their wits and other personal resources. Many are the examples of such novels and screenplays, but Alien, The Shining, The Descent, Desperation, and The Island of Dr. Moreau, are some of the ones that come readily to mind.

Total institutions as settings. Camps, hospitals, military installations, nursing homes, prisons, resorts, spaceships, and other worlds unto themselves are examples of such settings, and Sleepaway Camp, Coma, The Green Mile, and Aliens are some of the novels or films that take place in such settings.

Anecdotal scenes--in other words, short scenes that showcase a character--usually, an unusual, even eccentric, character. Both Dean Koontz and the dynamic duo, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, excel at this, so I keep reading their series (although Koontz’s canine companions frequently--indeed, almost always--annoy, as does his relentless optimism).

Atmosphere, mood, and tone. Here, King is king, but so is Bentley Little. In the use of description to terrorize and horrify, both are masters of the craft.

A bit of erotica (okay, okay, sex--are you satisfied?), often of the unusual variety. Sex sells, and, yes, sex whets my reader’s appetite. Bentley Little is the go-to guy for this spicy ingredient, although Koontz has done a bit of seasoning with this spice, too, in such novels as Lightning and Demon Seed (and, some say, Hung).

Believable characters. Stephen King, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, and Dan Simmons are great at creating characters that stick to readers’ ribs.

Innovation. Bram Stoker demonstrates it, especially in his short story “Dracula’s Guest,” as does H. P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, Shirley Jackson, and a host of other, mostly classical, horror novelists and short story writers. For an example, check out my post on Stoker’s story, which is a real stoker, to be sure. Stephen King shows innovation, too, in ‘Salem’s Lot, The Shining, It, and other novels. One might even argue that Dean Koontz’s something-for-everyone, cross-genre writing is innovative; he seems to have been one of the first, if not the first, to pen such tales.

Technique. Check out Frank Peretti’s use of maps and his allusions to the senses in Monster; my post on this very topic is worth a look, if I do say so myself, which, of course, I do. Opening chapters that accomplish a multitude of narrative purposes (not usually all at once, but successively) are attractive, too, and Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child are as good as anyone, and better than many, at this art.

A connective universe--a mythos, if you will, such as both H. P. Lovecraft and Stephen King, and, to a lesser extent, Dean Koontz, Bentley Little, and even Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child have created through the use of recurring settings, characters, themes, and other elements of fiction.

A lack of pretentiousness. Dean Koontz has it, as do Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, Bentley Little, and (to some extent, although he has become condescending and self-indulgent of late, Stephen King); unfortunately, both Dan Simmons and Robert McCammon have become too self-important in their later works, Simmons almost to the point of becoming unreadable. Come on, people, you’re writing about monsters--you should be humble.

Longevity. Writers who have been around for a while usually get better, Stephen King, Dan Simmons, and Robert McCammon excepted.

Pacing. Neither too fast nor too slow. Dean Koontz is good, maybe the best, here, of contemporary horror writers.

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