Judgement Day: Salman Rushdie’s Shame

by Kerrin Ross Monahan

 “Words are the only victors.”—Salman Rushdie’s Victory City

Salman Rushdie is a brilliant, inventive, and most important of all, an acutely perceptive writer. He won the 1981 Booker Prize for Midnight’s Children, and in 1988, with the publication of The Satanic Verses, unleashed the fury of Islamic zealots, causing him to go into hiding for fear of being assassinated, due to a fatwa issued against him by the Ayatollah Khomeini. In 1990 he wrote the vastly humorous and magical Haroun and The Sea of Stories. In 1995, he received the Whitbread award for The Moor’s Last Sigh. In 1998 he wrote The Ground Beneath Her Feet, and the author issued a collection of non-fiction (1992-2002) Step Across This Line, in which he shows us that he will not let the fatwa define him; he will define it.

Rushdie’s writings demonstrate themes of opposites: comedy and drama, life and death, light and dark, good and evil, angels and devils, and, in Shame, up (hell) down (heaven), as well as shame and shamelessness. He draws on a vast knowledge of Eastern and Western history, literature and culture. The tone of his work also shows opposites: fireworks here, a steady flame there; shooting stars, then an unwavering glow.

Rushdie is a good genie, who holds up his lamp and illuminates the whole world in order to expose the religious, political, and national evils that exist where societies remain closed. He is a great crusader who has given up a large part of his own personal freedom in order that others may keep theirs. (Perhaps some day, the pen will prove mightier than the sword.) But the author knows that good and evil are so often tightly entwined.

In Midnight’s Children (the story of modern India, but can also be applied to the emergence of the evil and destructive component of the modern Arab world as a whole), he laments: “. . . it is the privilege and the curse of midnight’s children to be both masters and victims of their times, to forsake privacy and be sucked into the annihilating whirlpool of the multitudes, and to be unable to live or die in peace.” It can indeed be said that we are all midnight’s children to a degree—caught between good and evil, life and death. Let us pray to Yahweh, Jehovah, Abraham, Jesus, God, Mohammed, and Allah, that we will all be able to live and die in peace.

Pax Vobiscum.

“In the name of God, the compassionate, the merciful say: I seek refuge in the Lord of men, the King of men, 114:1. The God of Men, from the mischief of the slinking prompter Who whispers in the hearts of men; from jinn and men” 114:6 (The Qumran).

Shame was written in 1983 and can be considered purposefully prophetic today. The Washington Post “Book World” commented back then on Rushdie’s ” . . . ability to convey, to a Western readership, the physical and psychic landscapes of (the East).”

In Salman Rushdie’s Shame, Omar Khayyam Shakil, the most important character in the book, is never really at center stage until the very end of the story. Omar considered himself a “peripheral man . . . born and raised in the condition of being out of things” (p.10). Not only did he feel that he was living at the edge of the world, he also perceived that he had grown up between “twin eternities” (p.17) existing in a kind of limbo between Heaven and Hell. He had an inverted sense of things from the moment of his birth, when, hanging upside down, his first vision was of the “inverted summits” that he later named the “Impossible Mountains” (p.14).

Rushdie plays upon these themes of periphery, limbo, and inversions all through the book, and time and again invests everything with political and religious overtones. The central theme is shame and shamelessness, their evil and violence and how they manifest themselves in all of the characters, especially Omar, and ultimately their consequences.

Omar was named after the famous Eleventh Century Persian poet, Omar Khayyam. Not only was he noted for his immortal Rubaiyat (“Quatrains”), a thousand epigrammatic fourth line stanzas, but he was also an important mathematician and astronomer to the Royal Court. Omar Shakil himself, though not a poet, was a brilliant self-taught scholar, and certainly loved his telescope (although he was far more interested in watching the intriguing Farah than in observing the Milky Way). In a sense too, Omar Shakil was, like the first Omar, a courtier.

Omar’s three mothers, the Shakil sisters, made sure that he would be a peripheral man until the moment of his death. Not only did he never find out who his father was, he didn’t even know which of his sisters was actually his biological mother. “Nishapur,” the enormous crumbling structure that was his home (named after the poet’s home) was located in between, as well as a little above, the English (“Angrez”) Cantonment and the native village. Most of the windows in this decaying edifice faced inward, and after the sisters’ infamous party, the subsequent sealing up of the great door and installation of the dumbwaiter, Omar learned to always face inward himself. He spent his formative years in splendid isolation and it is interesting to note that he spent a good part of his life living under other people’s roofs.

Rushdie refers to Omar’s mothers’ “three-in-oneness” (p.31) and speaks of their “anchoritic existence” (p.12) and their “isolated trinity” (p. 6). There is a fascinating paradoxical element about all of this: we see the sisters as a type of cloistered nun on the one hand, and as sensual, obviously fertile women on the other. Omar comes into life “without divine approval” (p.15) the women later tell him that “his maker was a devil out of Hell (p. 308). The reader sees the mothers as the three Fates, the three witches of Endor, or a female Holy Trinity on the one hand, and also feels that they were innocent young women who were adversely and irreversibly affected by their own harsh prison like upbringing on the other.

When Omar is reluctantly allowed into the outside world, the mothers tell him: “Don’t let them make you feel shame.” Rushdie interprets this to mean: don’t let them make you feel embarrassment, modesty, decency, the sense of having an ordained peace in the world—a “remarkable ban” (p. 34). Omar becomes an “invisible” man by becoming unashamed; by existing in a kind of “Eden of the morals” (p.13) and later by wearing nothing but unobtrusive grey clothing (p.136).

Omar’s sense of inversion, his feeling of being turned upside down, turned inward, turned back upon himself, leads him to create his own sort of Cosmos. He feels that, because of the many earthquakes that were always occurring in the region, that Paradise must be underneath his feet and that the motion was caused by Angels emerging through the resultant fissures in the rocks (p.17). Therefore, Hell must be above, and limbo, that “third world” that was neither “spiritual or material” (p. 25) was where he lived. The religious fanatic Maulana Dawood accused him of descending to earth in “the machine of your mother’s iniquity” (p.173) meaning that Omar really came to earth from Hell; and of course, in the last descriptive paragraph, we do see his disembodied cloudy essence floating upward. Rushdie makes a political comment that Islamic fundamentalism is imposed on the people from above, (another subtle example of inversion) and we hear General Raza state the “the higher you climb, the thicker the blasted mud” (p. 223).

Omar made the decision to escape from the “unpalatable reality of dreams into the slightly more acceptable illusions of his everyday life” (p.16). He trains himself to get by on “forty winks” in order to avoid these nightmares. Again, more authorial inversion.
Rushdie cloaks (veils) things in fairy tales. Is he or isn’t he? Is this what it seems to be? Is that real or make believe? Should we feel sorry for Omar? Is Rushdie the narrator? Should we feel sorry for him? Is he or isn’t he talking about Pakistan—(he claims: “not quite.”)The reader follows Omar’s shameless degenerate trail, from Farah’s impregnation (through his use of hypnotism), to whoring and drinking with Isky, to marrying into the family that killed his half-brother Babar, to impregnating his wife’s Ayah (under his father-in-law’s roof, a particularly serious taboo), then to his financing of her abortion.

Omar, because he never knew who his father was (only that he was told that he was “Angrez”), picked the foreign teacher, the kindly Eduardo as a surrogate. Omar himself, having no children—how do we really know that Farah’s child lived?—is himself an unknown father. He also receives censure from his mothers for being a sort of “absent father” to Babar (p.139).

Although we see young Omar vomiting out his shame (at impregnating Farah while she was under his hypnotic spell) (p. 52) Rushdie shows that he later deliberately suppresses it “lest its explosive presence there . . . shatter him” (p. 84). Omar’s shame is signaled by dizziness which serves as a reminder of how close he is to the edge. He learns to distance himself, and in doing so makes himself into an “ethical zombie” (p.137). He is passive, a figure on the sidelines, a shadowy courtier. It is ironic that he becomes a famous immunologist. (He is adept at making himself immune to shame and this choice of profession is certainly apt.)His vertigo will only return when he finally goes back to Nishapur to face his shame, back to his birthplace “where you have been heading all your life.” His mothers had forbidden him to face shame and in the end, upon his return, had forced him to gorge upon it. He had even been obliged to immunize his wife Sufiya from shame—Sufiya, “his destiny” (p.153). Sufiya, the embodiment of shame, vessel of the world’s shame and shamelessness, who is saved again and again from destruction by Omar’s needle, who is rescued from being devoured by the beast of shame that occupies her body. Omar, himself an expert hypnotist, had looked into Sufiya’s eyes and seen “the golden eyes of the most powerful mesmerist on earth” (p.261)—certainly a diabolical reference. The time finally comes when Omar can no longer avoid the last confrontation with his shame.

Back in Nishapur, the beast corners him and he is forced to recite a confession, a sort of litany of his own shameful acts. Omar, in facing his shame and taking on full responsibility for his shameless deeds, finally moves out of the wings and onto center stage. He actively plays his part and in doing so sacrifices himself to Sufiya. She in turn is consumed by the power of shame and blows up. There is a strange, never before consummation between husband and wife. At last they are free of shame, and they float up into the ether; Omar copying exactly his “adopted” father Eduardo’s stance that he had dreamt of long ago: lifting his hand in farewell (benediction?) like a headless genie—not going back into the magic lamp, but emerging from a vessel of shame up into hell. Here Rushdie continues his “veiling” and inversion. Is Omar, in death, finally free of sin (shame) and/or has he been consigned to his own inverted hell?

Rushdie himself has mesmerized us and has also at times distanced himself from us, and in other instances, has drifted close to us. He operates on so many different levels and in so many different ways: practical, journalistic, and incisive, and, dreamlike storytelling, poetic. Who is Rushdie? Who is Omar? He could be Pakistan itself. His mother could be India and his father “Angrez.” He is a country divided, living in limbo, with a “mortal fear of falling into the void” (p.196).Perhaps this story is a veiled political warning to Pakistan. (Look what may happen to you if your shameful politics aren’t subdued. Poof! You may go up in a puff of smoke.) In retrospect we may also see it as a foreshadowing of what has happened to Rushdie, and what may happen to him in future. “Look what may happen to you if your shameful blasphemy isn’t subdued! You may go up in a puff of smoke”—Shazam!” Straight up into a Muslim hell.
God forbid.

Dictionary of Definitions

“Angrez”: English/British

Ayah: native maid, nurse or nanny

Ayatollah: A title in the religious hierarchy achieved by scholars who have demonstrated highly advanced knowledge of Islamic law.

Fatwa: A legal statement in Islam issued by a mufti or religious lawyer, which must be rendered in accordance with fixed precedent, and not an individual’s own will or ideas. A theological decision.

Genie: (Jinn)-(Islamic mythology). Any of a class of spirits, lower than the angels, capable of appearing in human and animal forms, and influencing mankind for good and evil.

Intifada: movement, uprising, protest. (Mainly associated with the Palestinian uprising against Israel.)

Jihad: (Islam) To strive in the way of Allah. To fight in order to extend the bounds of Islam. A war against those who threaten the community. A battle, struggle, holy war for Islam. Can be used as a defense as well as an attack.

Mufti: Muslim legal adviser consulted in applying the religious law.

Qur’an: (Koran) Regarded by Muslims as the Word of God revealed in the Arabic language through the prophet Muham.

Shame: The painful feeling arising from the consciousness of something dishonorable, improper, ridiculous, done by oneself or another. To cover with ignominy or reproach, disgrace.

Shameless: Lacking any sense of shame. Immodest, audacious, insensible to disgrace. Brazen, unabashed. Hardened, unprincipled. Corrupt.

Freeman, John. Rocky Mountain News. Denver Post. November 3rd, 2002.

Hourani, Albert. A History of the Arab Peoples. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1991.

The Koran. (N.J. Dawood trans.) 5th rev. ed. London: Penguin Books 1990.

Random House Dictionary of the English Language. Unabridged. New York: 1983.

Rushdie, Salman. Midnight’s Children. Picador Ed. London: Pan Books Ltd, 1981.

Rushdie, Salman. Shame. First Adventura Ed. New York: Random House, 1984.

Rushdie, Salman. The Satanic Verses. Ontario, Canada: Penguin Books Canada LTD, 1988.

Rushdie, Salman. Haroun and The Sea of Stories. New York: Granta Books/Penguin Books U.S.A, 1990.

Rushdie, Salman. Step Across This Line. (Collected Fiction) 1992-2002. New York: Random House, 2002.

Haiku TV Review: Abbott Elementary

Quinta: The Magical Number

by Katharine Elizabeth Monahan Huntley

Teachers love school true.
Abbott Elementary.
Rome + Juliuss.

Clarence: We call him Mr. C ‘cuz he’s corny. But I like his class. It’s fun. He showed us Summer of Soul. That was good. He’s cool.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Musical

by Katharine Elizabeth Monahan Huntley

Buffy Lunchbox Courtesy of Lili Hardy

I come from the imagination/and I’m here strictly by your invocation.
So what do you say/why don’t we dance awhile?
—intones the devil in a blue suit

The Bewitched television era titles for Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s, “Once More with Feeling,” conjures up an I Was a Teenage Werewolf drive-in flick sensation, and forewarns an evening of “retro-pastiche.” Joss Whedon, creator of this hip horror show, wrote the songs and music in addition to writing and directing the episode—wielding the blade that gives Buffy its edge.

The plot is a slayer standard:

A demon causes an imbalance in the universe. In this case, “Sweet” sports a zoot suit and arranges a danse macabre for Sunnydale. Spellbound, Buffy and the Slayerettes burst into song—each revealing their own private hell.

It’s the do or die attitude that prevails, however, as wedding jitters, mind control, ejection from heaven, et cetera, are momentarily set aside for a showstopping number that gives the dapper devil his due. As his “due” is Xander for a bride—the fiend opts to “blow this scene.”

Ah, but Sweet has the last laugh as the devil is always in the details:

“What a lot of fun/you guys have been real swell.
And there’s not a one/who can say this ended well.
All those secrets/you’ve been concealing,
Say you’re happy now/once more with feeling.
Now I gotta run/see you all in hell.”

The day may be saved but relationships are left uneasy and unclear as the characters warble, “Where do we go from here?” The music swells and the curtains close on a kiss between Buffy the teenage zombie and the only one who can make her feel alive—Spike, the dead sexy swain who vamps in the dark shadows.

“Once More With Feeling” can be interpreted as a dialogue Whedon imagines between the audience and himself. When Buffy sings “Every single night, the same arrangement, I go out and fight the fight,” and rejects the notion of just “going through the motions” it’s as if he acknowledges the dangers of bloody boredom that may befall any series in its sixth season. Buffy asks Giles: “What do you expect me to do?” He replies: “Your best.” Fortunately, Whedon’s best exceeds our already high expectations.

Where does Joss Whedon go from here? Wherever that may be, we are certain to be square in front of the tube, invoking the song and dance man to bring in his own brand of funky noise.

My So Called Life and Buffy the Vampire Slayer

by Katharine Elizabeth Monahan Huntley

Forget academics. When it comes to high school, the rule is to be cool. For main characters Angela in the My So Called Life episode “Self-Esteem” written by Winnie Holzman and directed by Michael Engler, and Xander, in Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode “The Zeppo” written by Dan Vebber and directed by James Whitmore Jr., image is of utmost concern.

Both episodes of the critically acclaimed television dramas are Dramatica grand argument stories. Each emphasizes the thematic conflict of worth vs. value. In My So-Called Life, feelings of self-worth are explored in the overall story domain of fixed attitudes (mind)-and are directly related to the problem of expectations-high and low. For example, Renee Lerner, the high school math teacher calls out in the hallway:

Angela Chase! Why weren’t you in geometry review? 
Angela, you need this. . . . How do you expect (overall story problem) to pass your midterm? [To other teacher] It breaks my heart, some of these girls. They are just so smart and yet . . .

It’s called low self-esteem.

The thematic issue of worth is carried on when Rayanne and Sharon express disapproval of Angela and Jordan’s (impact character) relationship-one that is confined to kissing in the boiler room:

Why is he keeping you two a secret?

How do you know he’s keeping us a secret?

Rayanne told me.

Look . . . we care about you. When I was drinking and drugging, you wanted me to stop (main character growth), as my friend.

Wait. You’re comparing me making out with Jordan Catalano to you getting your stomach pumped?

You don’t see the connection?

The connection is self-respect. . . . You deserve, like, so much better.

Just because he’s not Kyle and he doesn’t parade with me down the halls holding hands.

In an effort to save face, Angela brazenly lies to her friends, telling them Jordan has asked her to meet him at a music club. Rayanne and Sharon force the issue by accompanying Angela to the Pike Street club. Angela is humiliated when Jordan blatantly ignores her-compelling Rayanne to confront the beautiful, brooding boyfriend:

You know you like her. Would it kill you to admit it? Maybe treat her halfway decent? Because, you know, she deserves it. And she’s not going to wait around for you forever (main vs. impact direction-unending).

Two objective character subplots offer thematic parallels. In one, Angela’s father, Graham, is undergoing a career crisis. Determined (overall story solution) to do what he loves and excels in, instead of what is expected (overall story problem), is behavior Graham’s father-in-law, Chuck Wood, finds indulgent:

Where’s Mr. Fixit tonight?

He’s taking a [cooking] class.

He ought to be pulling his weight. . . . [You should] get one of those . . . headhunter[s]. That’s what you need. Somebody to get him a job . . . [so he can] stop sponging off his wife.

Dad, this is between me and Graham. Okay, please? You don’t know all the particulars.

I’m your father. That’s the particulars. And you deserve better.

Graham’s renowned culinary teacher turns out to be drunken disappointment, prompting a classmate to comment: “We deserve better. I mean, don’t we?”
Much to his and Patty’s surprise (overall story problem-expectations), Graham later informs her: “They want me to teach the class.”

In another subplot, the new English teacher attempts to convince a student to sign up for the drama club:

Why are you doing this? This is not something I am gonna do. I’m not the sort of person who joins things, okay?

I’m really sorry, but no, that’s not okay. . . . Well, I mean, come on, I’m a teacher. How do you expect (overall story problem) me to react to a ridiculous statement like that-you don’t join things? Who are you, Groucho Marx-you’d never belong to any club that would have you as a member? . . . Look, what is holding you back here? That I’m not cool enough? Don’t let the fact that your English teacher is a dork stop you from fulfilling your potential. Just pretend-that I’m a track coach. I happen to notice that you can run fast. I need you on my team (overall story problem-expectation)! It’s as simple as that, Enrique.

Stop calling me that! Why are you calling me that?

I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I keep forgetting. It’s just, it’s just-gee whiz, it’s such a great name. When I was in high school, I hated my name. I hated it.

I don’t-hate my name, I-I just . . .

Oh, oh good. I’m really glad. No-nobody should hate who they are.

After “being made a fool of by the only person I’ll ever love” (main vs. impact thematic issue-fantasy), Angela surreptitiously meets Jordan one last time:

The truly frightening thing, is that even after everything that happened, Jordan Catalano left a note in my locker to meet him in the boiler room. The nauseating part is that I went.

She demands he admit: “That all of this happened (main vs. impact thematic counterpoint-fact). That you have emotions. That you can’t, like, treat me one way in front of your friends then the next minute leave me some note.”

Success (outcome) is illustrated when Jordan, in front of everyone, asks Angela “Can we, like, go somewhere?” (impact character resolve-change) and her immediate response (story goal-preconscious) is “Sure.” With all eyes upon them-they parade down the hall, holding hands (main character judgment-good).

For Xander in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the real horror show in high school is not necessarily Sunnydale’s proximity to the Hellmouth (overall story domain-universe) and the always impending end (overall story focus) of the world, but combating the role (main character concern-being) of the “boy who has no cool.”

It must be really hard when all your friends have, like, superpowers (impact character thematic conflict-experience vs. skill). Slayer, werewolf, witches, vampires, and you’re like this little nothing (main character thematic counterpoint-ability).

. . . I happen to be an integral part of that group (impact character). I happen to have a lot to offer (main vs. impact thematic conflict-worth vs. value).

. . . Oh, please.

Xander obsesses (main character domain-psychology) over his “lack (main character growth-start) of cool,” and sets out to discover what will make him unique (mc thematic issue-desire). In the midst of apocalyptic evil (overall story thematic counterpoint-fact), Xander is only allowed to run inconsequential errandsleaving idle time that allows for running with the wrong crowd-like becoming (main character journey 2) the wheel man for zombies.

At story’s end, Xander comes to realization (main character resolve-change) that cool is not about show and tell-but quiet grace (main character judgment-good) under unexpected (main vs. impact-solution) pressure.

Welcome to the Dollhouse and Happiness

by Katharine Elizabeth Monahan Huntley

“Well, there are never enough entertaining movies. . . . But there’s entertainment, and then there’s engagement.  And ideally both can happen.”—Todd Solondz

Todd Solondz, an original voice in the independent film world, creates family relationships that are immediately, if not uneasily, recognizable.  Welcome to the Dollhouse is a grand argument story.  Happiness is not, it is instead: “. . . five separate tales of modern alienation, romantic woe, and shocking transgression into a merciless critique of American lifestyles . . .” (“That Lovin’ Feeling” 37).

The title Welcome to the Dollhouse serves as ironic commentary on main character Dawn Wiener’s throughline, neither welcome nor a pretty doll the eleven-year-old is put in her place and must stay there.  She is the quintessential middle child of a middle class family in suburbia, New Jersey.

Dawn’s main character throughline is an exploration of her present situation.  Ignored at home and designated “dogface” at school, she is not accepted.  Typical conversation is: “Why do you hate me?”  “Because you’re ugly.”  Nevertheless, when confronted with a dilemma, Dawn takes immediate, external action.  In one scene, she shoots a spitball back at the boys who have antagonized her.  Unfortunately, it hits a teacher right in the eye.  When she explains to her parents in the principal’s office: “I was fighting back!”  Dawn’s mother’s response is: “Who ever told you to fight back?”

The impact character function is handed off between two characters; Brandon, a junior high classmate of Dawn’s, and Steve, lead singer of Dawn’s older brother Mark’s garage rock band.  They each contend with issues of image.  Brandon puts on a cool juvenile delinquent act; Steve is a longhaired wannabe rock star popular with the girls—high school and junior high.  Neither is onscreen at the same time, both irrevocably impact Dawn.

In the main vs. impact story throughline, teen crush takes on new meaning when Steve, adored by Dawn, humiliates her after weeks of encouraging the infatuation:


I was wondering if . . . well, I’ve been thinking seriously of building another clubhouse, and I wanted to know, would you be interested in being my first honorary member?


What are you talking about?


The “special people” club.


Special people?


What’s the matter?


Do you know what “special people” means?




Special people equals retarded.  Your club is for retards.

Dawn and Brandon continue on in the main vs. impact story throughline, learning the “mechanics of the dance,” a courtship ritual that necessitates vicious dialogue to protect their vulnerability:


Brandon, are you still going to rape me?


What time is it?


I don’t know.  But I guess I don’t have to be home yet.


Nah, there’s not enough time.


Thanks, Brandon.


[Affectionately holding her close] Yeah, but just remember, this didn’t happen.  I mean no one . . . because if you do, I really will rape you next time.



The overall story throughline addresses what happens to those who have ideas about what makes them unique, ideas that differ from the accepted norm.  They fail.  Steve goes off to New York:


He dropped out of school and left town.  He wants to try making in New York as the next Jim Morrison.


Stupid idiot kid.  He’ll never make it.


Yeah, that’s what I told him.  He’ll never get into a good school now.


Oh, he won’t make it.


Never make it.



Brandon is unfairly expelled for drug dealing (a crime he does not commit), and his father’s reaction is to send him to the reformatory.  Instead, Brandon ends the impact character throughline by running away to New York, after first asking Dawn to accompany him.  An offer she cannot accept.


Wait—I’m so sorry.


Well, it’s too late.  I’m getting’ outta here.  And who knows, maybe I will deal drugs now.

Dawn takes a trip to New York as well, but unlike Steve and Brandon it is not to make a new start, it is a reaction to her little sister’s kidnapping.  She searches for Missy to bring her desolate family back into balance and hopes it will finally give her the love and acceptance she desperately needs.  The Wieners barely notice her absence:


Is mom really upset?


Not really, actually.  They found Missy this morning.

Todd Solondz’ grand argument against conformity concludes when, unlike Ibsen’s Nora, Dawn doesn’t leave the dollhouse.  She instead takes a school bus to Disneyworld, just one of the Benjamin Franklin “Hummingbirds” numbly singing her junior high school song: “. . . now put on a smile then wipe off that frown . . .”

Solondz revisits New Jersey (“a state of irony”) in his next film, Happiness, which is anything but.  His disturbing depiction of American life (carried over from Welcome to the Dollhouse) stings with caustic humor as it attacks pretension and reveals aberrant behavior behind closed doors.  Happiness is fleeting, illustrated when one sad sack announces: “I am champagne,” then later commits suicide.

Happiness is not a grand argument story.  It is Solondz’ indictment against adults who are egocentric and perversely afflicted.  The characters are loosely related to three sisters, Trish, Helen, and Joy, and not a jot of fun is to be found in this family’s dysfunctions.  Solondz’ denouncement of grown-ups can be inferred from a scene in which Trish’s husband Bill Maplewood, a psychiatrist, allows to his psychiatrist:


My patients are ugly.  Their problems are trite.  Each one thinks he is unique.  On a professional level they bore me.  On a personal level I have no sympathy.  They deserve what they get.

The relationship between Bill and his eleven-year-old son, Billy, has the makings of a main vs. impact story, but it is not fully developed.  What is certain is an unhappy ending; Bill’s stoic countenance masks his anguish as he admits his pedophilia to the shattered boy.

Solondz does concede a hint of hope for humans and their frailties, indicated in an exchange between Kristina and Allen:


(while eating her sundae)

Anyway, so then I had to cut up his body, plastic bag all the parts . . . I’ve been throwing it out gradually ever since.  There’s still a little left in my freezer.


So you cut off his . . .


No.  I left it attached.  I didn’t want to have to touch it again. . . . Can we still be . . . friends?


Um . . . I guess . . . Yeah . . . I mean, we all have our . . . you know . . . pluses and minuses . . .

Happiness is a bold statement that is brave in its subject matter.  Unlike Welcome to the Dollhouse, however, it is not a grand argument that examines the problems from the overall story, main vs. impact story, main character, and impact character points of view.  Without all four of these perspectives it remains just one auteur’s harsh, albeit darkly humorous, opinion.

Works Cited

Solondz, Todd.  Happiness.  Screenplay, 1997.

Solondz, Todd.  “That Lovin’ Feeling.”  With Scott Macaulay.  FILMMAKER 7 1998: 37-39, 104-05.

Welcome to the Dollhouse.  Dir. Todd Solondz.  Screenwriter Todd Solondz. COL, 1995.

Death in Venice

by Kerrin Ross Monahan

Death in Venice (1911) by Thomas Mann, is a story that deals with mortality on many different levels. There is the obvious physical death by cholera, and the cyclical death in nature: in the beginning it is spring and in the end, autumn. We see a kind of death of the ego in Gustav Aschenbach’s dreams. Venice itself is a personification of death, and death is seen as the leitmotif in musical terms. It is also reflected in the idea of the traveler coming to the end of a long fatiguing journey.

It must also be noted there are no women in the story with prominent roles. The hero’s wife is long dead and his daughter has been married and gone for many years. Any women in the story are merely in the background, unnamed and colorless—totally insignificant. Mann has purposely left them out because they are life givers, the symbol of fertility and birth. (The only one scene where women have an active role is in the degrading and violently promiscuous dream.) There are definite homosexual overtones evident almost from the moment Aschenbach sees Tadzio—the object of his obsession.

By far the most important level of death appears in the crumbling of Aschenbach’s life principles: the giving up and letting go of all those ideals that molded his character and had shaped his work and guided every aspect of his entire life. It is a complete handing over of oneself to all that was heretofore anathema to him. The mind, reason, rationality, and all that goes with it: service, dignity, and restraint all buckle and die—all fall in the wake of the onslaught of passion and chaos.

Dreams play a major role in the story, and, throughout the history of literature, sleep has often been considered to be a form of death. Freud (who was professionally prominent at the time the story was written) believed when one is awake, one’s ego acts as a censor of the libido, however, when a person is asleep and dreaming, there is a repression (“death”) of the ego, or conscious mind, thus allowing the unconscious wishes (which were, for the most part, sexual) to then be fulfilled (Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis-Sigmund Freud, Chps. 9, 14). It is ironic that Aschenbach, who had written his book The Abject “as a rebuke to the excess of a psychology-ridden age” (13) succumbs to an egoless state, not only in the last grotesque dream, but directly after it in his conscious mind as well. From this point on, Gustav becomes totally shameless. (We have seen this theme of loss of shame as being a kind of death, and actually leading to literal death as well, in Salman Rushdie’s Shame.)

Mann’s use of Venice as a backdrop is critical. Venice, an ancient city, inexorably sinking beneath the water, a “forbidden spot” (38) with “stagnant lagoons” (28) the “fallen queen of the sea” (36). Venice, with a “faintly rotten scent” (37) “half fairy tale, half snare” (55) “that hid sickness for love of gain . . . (56). The city that had “a disreputable secret [like] his own” (57).

In musical terms, death is the leitmotif, the theme keeps reappearing: heard in the overture (the first stranger Aschenbach sees in Munich), continually sounded in the Venetian passages (more odd men), swelling to a crescendo of hysterical laughter and swirling pipes of Pan, and, in the finale, of fading notes washing into the outgoing Adriatic tide. It brings Wagner to mind, who, with failing health, went to Venice and died there suddenly in 1883. His music was considered to be the highest expression of romanticism in European music and he was the originator of the “music-drama,” wherein the dramatic needs of the story take precedence over the music itself. (Funk and Wagnalls New Encyclopedia Vol. 24, p. 388). There is a touch of irony here, since Gustav had represented the antithesis of romanticism until he met Tadzio. Tadzio’s very name, like “two musical syllables” (32) echoed in the flute notes of Gustav’s orgiastic dream. One is also led to think of the “siren song” of love and emotionalism which led him the break up upon the rocks of passion.

The collection of mysterious emissaries all luring Aschenbach on, starts with the “snub-nosed” red haired traveler with a summer straw hat and rucksack and “long white glistening teeth” (4) positioned under the door of a Munich mortuary. It is here Gustav is seized with the overwhelming desire to travel, which he had never before cared to do. Then, the seedy boat ticket seller with goat-like beard and bony yellow fingers, reminding Gustav of a “circus director” or “croupier” (16). Next, the “horrible old fop” (24) with a “rakish Panama” hat, wig, dyed beard, and hideous false teeth, followed by the “outlaw boatman” in Venice (24) with short snub nose and straw hat, who bared his teeth to the gums (22). Lastly, there is the strolling musician, the “Neapolitan jester” (59) who of course has the ubiquitous red hair and snub nose. These carbon copy agents of death, along with boatmen, porters, managers, and the barber, are all trying to bring Gustav closer to death physically or mentally. (It is only the English clerk at the travel bureau who tries to send Aschenbach out of danger.) We finally see Aschenbach, garishly attired like these mysterious beings: dyed hair, rouged cheeks, with a red tie and a straw hat with a “gay striped band” (70)-and we know his inward degradation has now progressed outward.

Tadzio, of course, is the most significant male figure of all-the primary lure. By not leaving Venice until summer’s end, he is assuring Aschenbach’s death, the final destination on his mad journey. It was Tadzio who unwittingly inspired him to lose his lifelong principles of rigorous duty, discipline, and conservative classical formalism. Tadzio stands for many things: he is Gustav’s muse, he is Art, which “heightens life . . . gives deeper joy . . . consumes more swiftly” (15). Art, which was “war-a grilling, exhausting struggle” (56). He is the essence of beauty, “chaste perfection of form” (25). He is Narcissus, Hyacinthus, Phaeax, Eros, Phaedrus to Aschenbach’s Socrates, his lover, the “charmer” (54) with twilit grey eyes” (74) whose milk white skin was never burnt by sun and sea air (51). Tadzio was also the “crouching tiger” (6) in Gustav’s early hallucination, the “stranger god” in his later demoniacal dream, he was the “pale and lovely summoner” beckoning on the sandbar (75) the plague, the pit, the abyss-Death itself. (It is interesting to note Tadzio, with all his perfect beauty, has imperfect teeth, “rather jagged and bluish, without a healthy glaze” (34), teeth remarkably like all the other emissaries of death.) Ironically, Aschenbacher feels the youth is ill and won’t live long, when actually it is he who is to die.

All his life, Gustav Aschenbach had been figuratively dead. He was caught up in his work, “dour, steadfast, abstinent” (56) to the total exclusion of soul-nourishing feelings. In Venice, after being overwhelmed by Tadzio’s beauty he finally allows the barriers to fall, relaxes completely, and comes alive for the first time in his life. Inspired by Tadzio, he starts writing with emotional intensity, but this turned out to be an arduous and consuming job that left him “exhausted . . . broken” (47). His excessive passions tipped the scale entirely in the other direction and it was this total abandonment of former ideals that killed him. Gustav lacked the balance he felt would have been the artist’s highest joy: when thought and feeling are able to completely merge one into the other (46). He had been able to write solely rationally, then, solely emotionally, but was unable to produce a melding of the two.

It was there in decadent Venice, surrounded by water (symbol of not only birth and baptism, but also of death) that Gustav Aschenbach, led there by Death’s legions, finally gave up the ghost, unable to effect a compromise, a victim in a final terrible battle of the classicism and romanticism gods, caught in the crossfire of what Nietzsche labeled the Apollonian and Dionysian principles. Since Mann has extensively employed paganism and mythology (excluding any Christian references) one can surmise perhaps Aschenbach’s shade would then have been rowed across the Styx (in a black gondola), or more possibly he would have followed Tadzio’s outwardly pointing finger and joined Poseidon’s ranks, plunging “into an immensity of richest expectation” (75) seeking “refuge . . . in the bosom of the simple and vast” [ocean] (31). Gustav thought of the boy as Phaeax, one of the sea god’s sons (29). He had seen this godlike creature “with dripping locks . . . emerging from the depths of sea and sky” (33).

What more fitting manner of leaving the earthly fray than by returning to “the birth of form . . . the origin of the gods” (33)?

Works Cited
Freud, Sigmund.Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis. Chps. 9, 14.
Funk and Wagnalls New Encyclopedia Vol. 24, p. 388.
Mann, Thomas. Death in Venice. 1911. New York: Vintage, 1958.