Special Christmas Carol Edition: NPR and Villainy
Don’t repeat the same thing I just said, in different fucking words.
-Ian McShane as “Al Swearingen” in Deadwood
Something that I actually heard today on National Public Radio’s “Talk of the Nation”:
PROFESSOR OF “PHILOSOPHY”: Well, Scrooge does have a point. After all, he is paying for the poorhouse and those other institutions.
OBSEQUIOUS ANCHOR: Right, he’s paying his taxes…
PROFESSOR OF “PHILOSOPHY”: Exactly! Ha, ha. Plus, Bob Cratchit is always complaining about being cold, but actually, he’s getting paid that wage because that’s what his labor is worth. If he doesn’t want the job, there are plenty of other people who would be glad to have it, maybe for half the wages he’s getting. In fact, economically speaking, we need people like Scrooge to finance business and make new investments. He’s a much more valuable person than the Cratchits.
* * *
AT this point, I would like to warn you that when we return to the Professor of Philosophy, we will commence putting words in his mouth that he did not actually say. I emphasize this because all of the foregoing is more or less direct quotation.
Which brings us to the lovely quote from Al Swearingen. Do not, Al reminds us, repeat the same fucking thing you just head from the villain in charge. That is exactly what the professor did this morning on the radio — his “defense” of Scrooge was just a series of quotations from Scrooge’s own monologues.
The fact that Scrooge exists and speaks within a narrative proves that the text is “conscious” of its antagonists. Dickens’s text is smart enough to comprehend the arguments in favor of the free market, and to put the best possible defense of selfishness in Scrooge’s mouth.
Perhaps this has to be written out to be understood: the characteristic quality of all great villains is that they satisfy their own needs fully (calling thus to our own desires), but suffer from a form of perceptual blindness. They cannot see what is coming: Tony Soprano does not realize he is bringing a curse down on himself and his family, and Humbert Humbert cannot handle Lolita’s independence or growing maturity. They cannot see the effects of their actions on others, nor can they recognize their own suffering for what it is. Here I am thinking not only of Scrooge’s journey’s of “seeing” throughout his purgatorial night, but also of the corrupted idealism of Colonel Aureliano Buendia in 100 Years of Solitude.
The “discovery” and defense of Scrooge, in the form of parroting Scrooge, is really nothing more than intellectual regression. For a reading against the grain to really succeed, it must simultaneously work against the conclusion of the narrative, and against the arguments put forward by the antagonistic character. If the NPR commentator cannot enjoy Scrooge’s redemption, and cannot go Scrooge’s arguments one better either, then he is simply not equal to the text, and ought to make himself scarce.
However, instead of doing that, he went on (not) to say the following:
PROFESSOR OF PHILOSOPHY: Also, people are always hating on Cruella de Vil. But I don’t think they’ve really considered her point of view. First of all, as she herself says, she is constantly miserable, darling, and the only thing that makes her happy is fur. Now, I think we can all agree that puppies make people happy. Ergo, their purpose is to make people happy.
GLAUCON: Surely you are right.
PROFESSOR OF PHILOSOPHY: But they don’t all make people happy in the same way. For example, one person might enjoy scratching them behind the ears, while another person might enjoy having the dog fetch a thrown stick.
GLAUCON: Now that you have put it like this, National Public Radio, I don’t see how I can possibly argue.
PROFESSOR OF PHILOSOPHY: So, the only criminal thing would be preventing a person from doing whatever makes them happiest with respect to the dalmatian, or preventing the dalmatian from playing its part.
GLAUCON: Like, totally.
PROFESSOR OF PHILOSOPHY: Therefore Cruella should have the right to wear a very stylish fur coat, because that way she is making full use of all the puppies, and making herself happy. That follows from their purpose qua puppies.
GLAUCON: Could you prove that Ursula from The Little Mermaid is not a villain?
PROFESSOR OF PHILOSOPHY: Sorry, that is our subject for next week. For our discussion of Ursula, please read Who Stole Ariel’s Voice?: Masculine Fears And The Monstrous Feminine.