Friday, July 22, 2005

The phone rings at 4am, It's Gershon Legman. I run to grab a pen and quickly begin to write it all down:

...Yes, Wertham! Are you listening? Two! TWO!!

TWO MASKS serve to cover our transvaluation of censored sexuality into sadism and literary lynch — the murder-mystery and the 'spirited' heroine. (More violent than either, the comic-book is reserved as yet for children.) The murder-mystery is still the more popular, and for that reason perhaps the more dangerous, but the two are not different in any integral respect. The 'spirited' heroine merely enacts openly the sadistic pursuit and ultimate flagellation and destruction that the murder-mystery generally expresses only in symbols: in an appeal that passes through the censorship of the conscious mind disguised as justice, disguised as an exercise in mental agility, disguised as light, 'relaxing' entertainment.

Keep writing this down, Wertham. I have a lot to get off my chest tonight.

Now where was I? Wertham, can you read that last bit back to me?

"... mental agility, disguised as light, 'relaxing' entertainment."

Oh Yes, that's right. Yes, for the real victim in the murder-mystery of our much consumption — as George Jean Nathan has pointed out — is not the murderee but the murderer. The mudered individual is seldom pictured as an object of sympathy. More likely he (or she) is described as 'swine' who should have been killled off years before, and whose murderer should really be given the Nobel prize. This is done partly to pose a large number of enemies — in the jargon, 'suspects' — but due to a greater degree in order not to excite any impulses of sympathy or tenderness in the reader, even for the victim; since the entire purpose of the murder book is to excite and satisfy quite different impulses.

By casting one living individual into the character of a murderer, he is thrown automatically outside the pale of humanity, and neither justice nor mercy need be shown him. He can be tracked down callously and with superhuman intelligence by the much-mannered detective with whom the reader is clearly expected to identify himself — except, perhaps, in the first few chapters, where he savors the details of the kill in the character of the killer. The inane mannerisms and exotic eruditions — more recently the mock-virile 'toughness' — of the detective-superman are solely intended (if their easing the writer's task be omitted from the consideration) to pose a high degree of superior individuality for him, and thus to increase the gratification and certainty with which the reader will project himself into the detective personality. Naturally, this projectability-coefficient is the measure of the length and financial success of the series in the which the particular detective appears.

The reader is, then, the detective — the supra-legal avenger. The police, who might snatch his prey from his private vengeance to public justice, are endlessly depicted as flat-footed bunglers, utterly incapable of bringing a routine murder to solution. And merely through committing this single murder — seldom more, unless forced into them to cover his tracks — the detective's prey (that is to say, the reader's prey) is degraded from the right of mercy, and is hounded without a qualm to his public humiliation before the assembled characters in the last chapter and to his eventual and inevitable suicide on the last page. This final humiliation and/or life-for-a-life suicide has, of course, become standard in murder-mysteries as being easier to write, less anti-climactic, and more titillatingly violent than courtroom justice — such as it might be — might be.

This pattern degradation of the murderer-victim from the right to mercy, to justice, due process of law, or even a lousy cot in the county jail is the hallmark and, in fact, the definition of lynching — whether armchair or hilltop. It works on the important but seldom stated principle by which, for instance, we arrange to have lambs slaughtered for food: They are very pretty little animals, and their bleating is quite piteous, but they simply are not human and they simply do not count.

In the same way Germans were given to understand that Jews are not human and, as such, can properly be gassed, electrocuted, and incinerated wholesale. In precisely the same way we are thrilled by a newsreel of the burning to death of a Japanese before our eyes. It is merely necessary to propagandize us first into an acceptance of the non-human status of the Japanese. This done, our previously conditioned sympathy with the underdog or with the inhumanly treated human can be shoved beneath the surface, and we are then properly able to enjoy photographs of a Japanese lynched with a flammenwerfer of his skull denuded of flesh, fitted with a brass top, and used as a tobacco humidor. Naturally, similar photographs of the body of an American burned to death or so desecrated by a Japanese would still strike as beastial and inhuman.

Though ignorance of the principle here involved, Northerners tend to assume a very superior attitude of deploring when confronted with the fact of lynching of Negroes in the South. They tend to think of Southerners as a gang of barbarians and murderers, of their well-publicized gallantry as a mere archaic pose. Yet there are thousands — perhaps millions — of Southerners who, for the pain protection of their economic interest, prefer to think of the Negro as non-human, and of his lynching as no more culpable, really, than the squashing of a cockroach in the sink; and who would feel no more outrage to their gallant impulses in castrating, branding, or a killing a Negro than a friendly Westerner feels in castrating, branding, or killing a bull.

We Northerners, in precisely the same way can accept with vapid equanimity the instantaneous obliteration of a hundred thousand Japanese, Germans, Russians, Martians, or any other group designated as enemy non-humans (reserving, of course, the right to execute enemy generals for slapping or underfeeding our prisoners of war), Englishmen deal in precisely the same way with Hindus and Jews, and — to revert — the reading public deals in precisely the same fashion with the synthetic murderer in its murder-fantasies. There is no difference, unless it be that all but the murder-mystery reader have some excuse. He alone lynches in cold blood.

Observe the specific requirements, his calmness, tabulated by Mr. Stephen Leacock in the Saturday Review of Literature for July 8th, 1939. The world is only a matter of months from the total conflagration of war, the Canadian humorist placidly congratulates himself thus:
I am one of those who like each night, after the fret and worry of the day, to enjoy about twenty cents' worth of murder before turning off the light and going to sleep. Twenty cents a night is about the cost of this, for first class murder by our best writers. Ten-cent murder is apt to be either stale or too suggestive of crime.
Did you say 'relaxing'? Soporific! Murder-lullabies for grown-ups like the Gebrüder Grimm's blood-thirsty folk tales, their sex watered down and their blood-thirstiness jazzed up from Giambattista Basile's originals. Mr. Leacock's concluding bit of advice is also worthy of any compleat lyncher's consideration:
Don't be afraid to hang the criminal at the end; better lay the story, if you can, in a jurisdiction where they hang them, because to us, the reader, the electric chair sounds too uncomfortable. But hanging is old and respectable ... I mean we want him hanged [Mr. Leacock's italics]; don't let him fall into the sea out of his aeroplane. It's not good enough. Hold him tight by the pants till you get him in the gallows.
Mr. Leacock is presumably kidding, but his bare-naked, unexpurgated accents of bloodlust would be printable even if — as one may suspect — he was entirely serious. The murder-mystery reader feels no shame, cannot see himself for the super-murderer that he patently is. His murderer-victim kills just once. He, the reader, kills three hundred times a year — daily except Sunday — generally just before going to sleep. 'First class murder by our best writers.'

... And with that, I too welcome sleep. Did you get all that? Thank you. Good night, Dr. Wertham. I'll speak with you again in a week.

(phone hangs up, end of transcript)