Periscope Depth

gunpowder, treason and plot

Two things.

First, I heard Fox News call it for Obama, with CNN and MSNBC following shortly, in the cabaret room at ImprovBoston last night. BostonNewsNet hosted a live election returns party, with a long string of sketches and comedian acts sprinkled between bits of breaking news. I had a couple beers and a cookie and chatted with various theater friends. Every time I made to leave – three times, at least – something interesting happened, or someone I hadn’t seen in a while wandered in.

When the announcement spread across the cabaret room’s three TVs, applause broke out spontaneously; shockingly enough, a Cambridge crowd tends to swing Obamaward. I’d spoken in yesterday’s post about the pre-rational appeal of picking sides and cheering for an abstract entity, and I got sucked into it with the rest of the room. The human brain evolved to respond strongly to us-vs-them impulses, and nowhere do you see that drawn more starkly than in election returns. Grown men weeped openly. Friends pounded me on the back. What I’m saying is: I may have clapped for a man I didn’t vote for.

Lest I come off too deconstructingly cynical, let me say sincerely: I was glad to be in a room packed with happy friends when I heard history being made. So last night was fun.

(Also, BostonNewsNet’s coverage was hilarious. TC, Kevin, Meghan, Bobby, Harry, Marcelo, Robert, everyone – beautifully done!)

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Second: I haven’t made a point of observing Guy Fawkes Day, November 5th, in years. Really, we Americans owe what little interest we have in a failed act of radical religious terrorism to Alan Moore. He forever linked Guy Fawkes with anarchism in my mind with V For Vendetta, a remarkable graphic novel that I discovered in college. My views on politics have changed since then (I can’t say whether for better or worse), as has my fascination with the comic form.

But when Guy Fawkes Day falls the day after one of the most interesting elections in U.S. history? I know of no reason that striking coincidence should ever be forgot.

Reprinted from an earlier post (March 2006, LiveJournal), here’s my take on the two most compelling themes of V for Vendetta. They’re what inspired me the most, and what I think elevates the story from a comic book to a timeless graphic novel.

The message of V for Vendetta, the graphic novel, can be summed up in two lines. Both of these lines come from the book. One is unsettling; one is inspiring.

1. “Happiness is a prison, Evey.”

Part of what makes V such a fascinating character is that he might not be human. The story hints at superhuman alterations made to him at Larkhill, and the detectives surmise in Act One that he might be stronger or faster than a normal man. We never see his face. And he speaks and acts (and attacks) with such rehearsed precision that it’s as if he knew every move in advance.

But V’s ultimate inhumanity – in every sense of the word – comes when he kidnaps Evey and forces her through a faux-Guantanamo, torturing her and trying to trick her into giving up. He reveals this all to her later, only to meet with her shock and disapproval. Yes, most of the oppressed citizens of London are living in misery. But she had a life in the real world with a man she loved. She was happy.

“Happiness is a prison, Evey,” V tells her. “Happiness is the most insidious prison of all.”

That line is, at the same time, absolutely psychopathic and absolutely true.

To say that “happiness is a prison” demonstrates a fundamental detachment from the way humans perceive the world. However you define happiness – gut satisfaction, enlightened contentment, pure giddy joy – you’d have to be insane to say that the very idea is bad. Not just bad but a prison: a cage, a confinement, a restriction.

Let’s make that unstintingly clear. V is insane in every definition we’re comfortable with.

But he’s nonetheless correct. Happiness is the last obstacle to an absolute devotion to liberty. And it makes sense if you think about it. Don’t like your job? You could always quit tomorrow, sell everything you can’t carry, pack the rest in a car and drive off into the sunset. But that kind of freedom is scary: it contains a wild number of risks. If total social order broke down tomorrow in the United States, that would also be a new, unparalleled freedom. It would also be a terrifying ordeal.

Pure freedom, if such a thing is practical, may be too raw and terrible for humans. We all trade a little bit of our liberty in exchange for living comfortably with our neighbors. Every now and then, however, some misfit comes along and asks if perhaps we’ve traded too much. Our first answer is always, “No,” because he’s challenging our security. And we like to feel safe. V, in this role, represents the eternal misfit. He is violently unsatisfied with the fascist England of a postwar future; he would be just as unsatisfied with the United States under George W. Bush. Or under Andrew Jackson. Or under the Articles of Confederation.

The movie shies away from going this far in its agenda. This, along with other touches, makes V a little more sympathetic. Personally, I missed it, though. I don’t know if living the life of a Puritan guerrilla is a healthy pursuit of freedom. But I do know that no one’s going to be challenged by the notion of revolting against black-uniformed fascists. Fascists are easy villains. It’s the ones who tell you that Officer Friendly is your enemy – as V would – that get you thinking.

2. “It is the very last inch of us. But within that inch we are free.”

All law ultimately comes down to a man with a gun, pointed at you. All of it. Even the most trivial infraction – a speeding ticket, overdue taxes – will be corrected at gunpoint if you try and ignore it for too long.

That being said, all law ultimately comes down to one choice: obey or perish. For most laws this isn’t a hard choice at all. These are the laws we find moral anyway – don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t vandalize. It’s the fuzzier ones that make us criminals. Don’t drive so fast. Don’t smoke that. Don’t get on the plane with that. Don’t try and sit there if your skin’s that color.

We conform, of course. We go along, because it’s that or our heads. If we break the law, we do it quietly, with soft whispers or when no one’s looking. If no one went along, then there wouldn’t be enough cops in the world to enforce the law. It’s the threat of violence and the consent of our neighbors that keeps our heads down. And it’s not so bad, anyway. Besides, if anyone reproves us later, we can always say we were forced to.

Every now and then, though, we’re reminded that there is a choice. We were reminded in Tienanmen Square, in East Berlin, in Johannesburg and in Alabama. There’s always a choice. You can live in conformity or you can die with your integrity.

The point of V’s insane experiment with Evey is to remind her that there is a choice. No matter how many options are denied us, no matter how much of our property is seized, no matter how numerous our opponents, no matter how high the wall or how sturdy the bars, there is one last inch where they cannot trespass. There’s one sacred possession that can never be taken, only given away. As soon as we give it, they have everything. As long as we don’t, we are still free.

Like the other message of V for Vendetta, this vision – the vision of a life without compromise – is also hard to swallow. But we must occasionally be reminded of the heroic, the ideal, the beautifully naive and the practically impossible. Without such stories our lives are, to borrow Hobbes, nasty, savage, brutish and short.