Friday, August 19, 2005

My eyes have not dried yet. I'm still crying as I replay this voice message from Gershon Legman again and again and again, over and over...

Wertham ... I apologize for this, but I'm intentionally leaving you this phone message on your answering machine at a time when I know you're not home, and are out at the Clinic. My reasons for this are complicated, but the short statement is I need to leave for a while. This will be the last you hear from me for sometime, and I'm sorry. But keep on with your own work and one day, I'll hope to return. I like you. Know that. And I'm sorry.

I want to close saying that with the exception of C.Day-Lewis ('Nicholas Blake') and Donat O'Donnell, who know what a murder-mystery is — and why — Mr. Howard Haycraft and his assembled experts in The Art of the Mystery Story (1946) — likewise Miss Barbara Howes and hers, in Chimera, Summer 1947 — confess themselves frankly puzzled as to why, except for the money in it, they write about murder, and why anybody wants to read about it. Their provisional solution, and apology, seems to be that human beings naturally lust after blood, and that the murder-writer is a sort of literary pimp, who serves the socially useful purpose of giving vicarious satisfaction on paper to this natural urge, thus keeping it from finding expression in lethal fact.

That 'mystery' writers are murder-pimps would be hard to gainsay. But the presumption that we, all of us, have some 'natural' component of bloodlust is presumption indeed. We have nothing of the sort. No animal kills for pleasure alone. But — we do have our frustrations. We do have our fears. We all have our inadequacies; sexual, economic, and personal. And it is for these that the prize-fight, the fox hunt, the sports page, tabloid, comic-book, and murder-mystery supply a safe, cheap, socially water-tight solution: institutionalized amok.

Are you impotent, frigid? Does your wife insult you in bed, your husband dominate you? Why get a divorce? Divorce is expensive — for Catholics, impossible. A murder-book is only ten cents to borrow, twenty-five cents to own — free, gratis & for nothing to write. Strangle your spouse nightly on paper. (The murder-mystery is the foundation of the family: it prevents divorce.) Does your boss tyranize and exploit you? Don't shoot him — you'll hang for it. Kill him nightly on paper — you the detective, he the hounded-down murderer. (The murder-mystery is the mainstay of usury: it prevents revolution.) Are you weak, stupid, namby-pamby, ineffective? Don't improve yourself. Don't turn against your constricting, recalcitrant environment. Dissipate the aggression you feel, siphon off your endocrine resources, be a killer, nightly — three hundred nights a year — for a dollar a week. Absurdly simple, cheaper than a hunting license, and you hunt human beings. (The murder-mystery is the backbone of civilization: it dispenses utterly with intelligence.)

Human blood in the gladiatorial arena kept Roman slave hordes satisfied with their dole of bread. Panem et circenses. Not by bread alone does man live. He needs blood spilled before his eyes, too, or he may want butter on that bread. Next after fire, the murder-mystery in society's most valuable servant. Without it, there might be some changes made.

Optimistically, perhaps, the Right Reverend Monsignor Ronald Knox finds the murder-mystery 'in danger of getting played out.' (The Tablet, London, Xmas 1946, vol. 188: page 355.) And modestly, as becomes the author of The Viaduct Murder, The Body in the Silo, &c. &c. — and, between murders, Bible translator and domestic prelate to His Holiness the Pope — Monsignor Knox adds:
Nobody can have failed to notice that while the public demand remains unshaken ... the means of writing [a 'detective mystery'] with any symptom of originality about it, becomes rarer with each succeeding year. The game is getting played out ... the stories get cleverer and cleverer, but the readers are getting cleverer ... too.
Perhaps. But Monsignor Knox is misled. The literary quality of the murder-mystery has nothing to do with its sales. The murder-reading public is not hungry for style; it is thirsty for blood. The puzzle element, the cleverness of writers or audience, the word 'mystery' itself — all are simply frauds: pretty lamb-chop panties of paper with which genteelly to grab ahold the raw meet of sadism. The problem, however, is not one of wilful pathology. The literate population of Great Britain and America is not largely composed of fantasy-sadists out of malice prepense. The cannot help themselves.

Nor are they comfortable in their uncontrollable letch for death. A gnawing guilt disturbs them. And they must dither and blather, refer nervously to 'the search for certainty in an uncertain world,' to 'puzzles,' to 'pattern,' and plain 'addiction.' They must write yearly defenses — with no attack ever yet published. They must point with anxious pride to kings and lesser fry (the frustrated do-gooders: Lincoln, Wilson, Roosevelt) sharing their lethal 'relaxation,' to an arbiter homicidarum hustling a murder-library into the White House, to a Catholic priest with five murder-mysteries 'to his credit' and a Marxist critic ('Caudwell'-Sprigg) with six, to the titubating comedy of a titled English philosopher carving up a Christmas pudden of self-congratulation for himself and the other 'mystery'-fanciers of Great Britain with the nincumpoop suggestion that reading about murder will 'realise ... the unification of mankind' and 'abolish war.' (Lord Bertrand Russell, in The Listener, Xmas 1948, vol. 40: page 1010.)

Least innocent, because they are most aware, are the amateurs of murder—the writers especially—the feuilletonist clergymen, the pansy intellectuals, the homicidal housewives and pseudonymous college professors, all swilling happily through paper straws at their hot cathartic toddy of blood. Least guilty, because stupidest, are the professionals — the word-mongers: publishers and their hacks — hip-deep in murder strictly for the dollar, the merest puppets of their Zeitgeist. And they will tell you that only the public is responsible, on the reader-mass is culpable. And yet, are even these to blame?

The frustration implicit in the twentieth-century life, that make neccessary our diet of murder, have not been resolved and cannot be resolved within the framework of our profit-economy and anti-sexual morality. Love being unwholesome, and revolution unhealthy, only one petcock of release is left us: we may dream of violence, of death; watch it in arenas, quiver over it on paper, run amok in fantasy, identifying ourselves always with the killers, the killers of killers — the superman. Our need is acute. The demand is paramount. And blood and death and violence will therefore continue to be supplied.

(COUGH) Excuse me.

As I was saying - Like the Talmudic pig, holding up its cloven forefeet from the dungwallow where it lies, grunting 'Clean! I'm clean!' murder-writers and readers are anxious to demonstrate that at least their feet are kosher: there is no sex anywhere to be seen. (The exceptions, and what they actually prove, will be considered later.) Absorbed in their obedience to the Sixth Commandment — the one against killing — reminding themselves nightly of its sinfulness, they would view with consternation the proposal that, simultaneously and by similar means (let us say three hundred juicily-titled pornographic novels yearly, all ending with horribly punishment in the venereal ward), society might show its reverence for the Seventh. No. This goose and this gander require different sauces. Literary murder is respectable, 'relaxing,' anything you please. Literary sex — it doesn't even have to be adultery — is 'obscene.'

Mr. Rex Stout, who opines (in Howard Haycraft's cynically-titled centenary, Murder for Pleasure: The Life & Times of the Detective Story, 1941, page vii) that 'people who don't like mystery stories are anarchists,' warily announces over the radio that if 'by romance ... you mean love ... I'm out of it. I'm a writer of murder-mysteries and I'm not supposed to know anything about it.' (The Author Meets the Critics, December 5th, 1946.) Naturally, Mr. Stout, naturally. When 'our best writers' are profitably peddling murder, and our best critic, Edmund Wilson, is barely escaping jail for 'obscenity,' who wants to bother with love?

In the midst of death, love is no part of our dream. Our imaginations stuffed with murder, we are too moral for sex. Drugged on blood and death, murder upon murder, two abreast, three hundred deep, year after bloody year; killing for the pure lust of killing — for the lack of courage to rebel; usurping, in the name of justice, the prerogatives of all justice, human & divine; our multi-millions of 'mystery' readers prefer their transvalued pattern — empty of sex, reeking with sadism — within the boundaries of which, as it would seem, no one dares to attack them.

So, you see, Wertham, this is why I have to leave for a while.

Goodby Wertham. I like you. ... Know that.

[sound of room hum, possibly from within a motel cabin, nothing more but this hum for twenty seconds, slightly increasing in volume and hum the longer the silence goes on]

(phone hangs up)

(end of transcript)