Monday, February 23, 2015

Sherlock Holmes and Batman as Aspirational Superheroes

Some people reject the notion of Sherlock Holmes as a superhero because Arthur Conan Doyle's books weren't science fiction, or fantasy. The original character possessed qualities that were within the realm of human possibility, thus making him an aspirational figure. Then again, some people hate superheroes. Those people immediately have something in common with super villains, but that's another story. I love superheroes and argue that Sherlock Holmes most certainly was and always has been a great one.

Wikipedia defines a superhero as:
...a type of heroic character possessing extraordinary talents, supernatural phenomena, or superhuman powers and dedicated to protecting the public.
Sherlock Holmes was/is dedicated to protecting the public. He even has an archenemy. His powers now seem completely within the realm of human possibility, but so do Batman's.

In the 1890s, Sherlock Holmes' powers were most certainly science fiction. His, fortunately, was a case of life imitating art.

When Conan Doyle invented Sherlock Holmes in 1887, police relied on rudimentary evidence and witness testimony to solve criminal cases. There's no way Jack the Ripper would still be a mystery today if police still relied on those techniques and the public was beginning to chalk the lack of science up to police incompetence, but they didn't know it was the science that police were missing.

In many ways, modern science was still being invented and could be viewed as an 1890s gentleman's pursuit, one that Conan Doyle's detective was adept at in ways that no one had ever imagined. In addition to his incredible powers of observation, Sherlock Holmes used chemistry to solve crimes. His methods were aspirational and inspired the first generation of forensic scientists.

Catching a murderer through a blood stain was as unfathomable in 1887 as Batman's collapsable jet-skates were in 1967. Unfortunately, the crime solving applications of Batman's jet-skates are still unfathomable, but when we get there, some people may try to argue that Batman's not a superhero either.

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Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Throwing Rotten Food in the Theatre

An interesting article about Oscar Wilde's cabbage got me thinking about writers and vegetables today, partially because I find it particularly disturbing when it takes a long time for a vegetable to go bad. (One of our neighbours left a real pumpkin in the basement last October. It's still there and shows no signs of decay. I also have a six-week green pepper in my fridge that seems perfectly fine.) The article is about Queensberry's bouquet of vegetables.

Act out in spite and you shall forever be remembered for your spitefulness. I find it hard to imagine that throwing rotten vegetables was ever really a thing, though it's a common motif in popular culture.

Bram Stoker shares this funny story about a politician's belief in their own popularity:
"I am growing popular!"
"Popular!" said his friend.
"Why, last night I saw them pelt you with rotten eggs!"
"Yes!" he replied with gratification, "that is right! But they used to throw bricks!"
The tradition of throwing rotten food dates back to medieval times, when it was customary to pelt petty criminals with rotten eggs, fruit, and vegetables. The first recorded instance of food being thrown as a form of protest took place in 63 AD; Vespasian was pelted with turnips by people who were angry over food shortages.

Rotten eggs soon became and seem to remain the most popular protest food. They are easy to carry and make a big smelly mess. As in the story about Wilde, vegetables are more popular in the theatre, though I don't know who brings rotten vegetables into a theatre, other than the spiteful Marquess of Queensberry.

The first actor recorded as being pelted with a tomato was John Ritchie in 1883 New York. The headline in the New York Times read: "An Actor Demoralized by Tomatoes." The New York Times article reads:
He had a crowded house, and was warmly received, in fact, it was altogether hot for him, there being distributed among the audience a bushel or two of rotten tomatoes. The first act opened with Mr. Ritchie trying to turn a somersault. He probably would have succeeded had not a great many tomatoes struck him, throwing him off his balance and demoralizing him… a large tomato thrown from the gallery struck him square between the eyes, and he fell to the stage floor just as several bad eggs dropped upon his head. Then the tomatoes flew thick and fast, and Ritchie fled for the stage door.
This was twelve years before Wilde's cabbage. With websites, like Rotten Tomatoes, and commercials that depict Justin Bieber being pelted with eggs, it doesn't seem like protest food will be coming to an end anytime soon. I just don't understand how so many people revel in their dislike of things. I'd rather just surround myself with fresh food and things I do like.

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Friday, February 13, 2015

Ten More Terrible Valentines

If you missed the first ten terrible Valentines, you can find them here. My mom asked for more. Today is her birthday and tomorrow is Valentine's Day, so I thought I better do as she asked.

Behold this pale little poet,
With finger at forehead to show it;
But the way he gets scads
Is by writing soap ads,
But he wants nobody to know it!
You're old and gray, you're bent and lame
Yet on each arm you boast a dame
You think the gals are sweet on you
It's just your SUGAR, sad but true!"
Of growling your
household hears more
than its share.
For your manners are
modelled on those
of a bear.
Of this sort of thing
you should know people tire
Do give them a rest,
now and then
from your ire."
'To my Valentine
'Tis a lemon that I hand you
And bid you now "skidoo,"
Because I love another -
There is no chance for you!'
Into your soft and susceptible heart,
Cupid, shy Cupid sends many a dart!
Some arrow-proof armour you ought to prepare;
Then the pangs of these wounds you'd not have to endure."
"Sure such monstrosities as these appear
Can never last the fashion for a year
Such vast dimensions! such a breadth of skirt!
'Tis all one's work to keep it from the dirt
And scarlet petticoats are all the rage
With dress suspended by a lady's page.
While hoops and bones and such like things
Keep up the fabric working upon springs."
Your bright shining pate is seen at all shows
And invariably down the bald-headed rows.
Where you make conspicuous by your ardent care
Your true ardent love for that one lonesome hair.
"Beware of the
Snake in the Grass."
On account of your talk of others' affairs
At most dances you sit warming the chairs.
Because of the care with which you attend
To all others' business you haven't a friend."
And, of course, there's one for the postal worker who delivers these cards!

"Did you ever lose a letter in the post?
I'll take this lot
home tonight
and deliver them
by the morning's
Hurry up! Hurry up! with that Post Card.
Your pay is not quite princely. your work is
somewhat hard.
To wed a penny postman is not my fate,
For that you'll find I'm posted much too late."

I hope your Valentines are friendlier!

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Saturday, February 7, 2015

The Importance of Being Irish Gentlemen

Source of quote.
I've been thinking about the way that Oscar Wilde's family treated him when he was going to trial. The following is an excerpt from H. Montgomery Hyde's book: Oscar Wilde.
The Marquess had hired a gang of roughs and instructed them to follow Wilde and see that he did not secure admittance to any hotel in town. [...] Towards midnight, however, they lost sight of him. At this time Wilde's mother was living with Willie in Oakley Street, Chelsea, and it was to the door of their house that Wilde at length staggered in a state of complete physical exhaustion. 'Give me shelter, Willie,' he gasped as his astonished brother opened the door. 'Let me lie on the floor, or I shall die in the streets.' With these words he collapsed across the threshold, as Willie Wilde put it, 'like a wounded stag.'
[...] The family atmosphere had the worst possible psychological effect upon him. Both his eccentric mother and his drunken brother kept telling him that he must behave like an Irish gentleman and face the music. 'This house is depressing,' he complained. 'Willie makes such a merit of giving me shelter. He means well, I suppose, but it is all dreadful.'
I feel I should make it clear that Oscar's brother, Willie, wasn't housing their mother, but their mother was housing him and his wife. It was her house.
Newman Noggs and Kate Nickleby
Charles Dickens

Franny Moyle calls Oscar's trials eerily similar to his father's own scandal years before. The scandal of Wilde's father came about as part of the fallout of a relationship with a young woman, called Mary Travers. After their relationship ended, Travers accused Sir Wilde of seducing her, then published a pamphlet that parodied Sir and Lady Wilde as Dr and Mrs Quilp. In her pamphlet, Dr Quilp raped a female patient anaesthetised under chloroform. Lady Wilde was vocal and outraged; Travers sued her for libel. The legal costs financially ruined the Wildes. The case was publicized all over Dublin and Sir Wilde was criticized for refusing to enter the witness box - an act which was criticized as ungentlemanly.

Oscar's mother obviously remembered the Travers case. Her insistence that it would be ungentlemanly for him not to turn up in court clearly echoes what happened with her husband. But Willie actively prevented Oscar from fleeing.

I'm beginning to believe that Oscar's older brother, Willie, was scarred deeply by these events. As in Edgar Allan Poe's The Telltale Heart, the things that people frequently repeat about themselves are the things that they are trying to convince themselves of; that's why one doesn't go around telling people they're not crazy! Willie oft repeated that he was an 'Irish gentleman'. Never was he more adamant that his brother was also an Irish gentleman than when Oscar was thinking of fleeing to Paris.

It was never inevitable that Oscar would be convicted in court. Everybody, including Queensberry and the judge, thought that Oscar would flee to Paris. His friends even arranged transportation for him. I believe Oscar wanted to flee to Paris and that was why his brother blackmailed him into staying. His brother could not stand the idea of history repeating itself in their family.

In Willie's mind, after all, they were Irish gentlemen.

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