Sunday, October 10, 2010

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hand

Full disclosure: this has nothing to do with Thailand.

Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, in addition to being the very definition of a rip-roaring yarn, was also widely thought to presage the age of psychoanalysis.  (Freud was 29 when the book was published in 1886.)  When the upright and slightly boring Dr. Jekyll first quaffs that smoking potion to release the beast within, it's a profound revelation.  Not only that the beast is there, but also that he has been suppressed.  As Jekyll writes . . . It was thus rather the exacting nature of my aspirations . . . that severed in me those provinces of good and ill which divide and compound man's dual nature.  And later, he observes . . . that man is not truly one, but truly two.

Well, of course, today we know that two is barely a starting point, that every one of us is apparently a cloud of warring inner children, each struggling for supremacy.  But two was good enough for Stevenson (and certainly more manageable in a story than, say, eight or ten -- imagine just naming them all) and it will suffice for the humble purposes of this blog.

When Stevenson wrote his story, London was all a-swirl with fog and weak gas lamps, and a guy could wear a cape and act depraved with every expectation of getting away with it.  In today's 24-hour high-noon glare of surveillance videos and social networking, Dr. Jekyll would probably click over to YouTube and watch in horror the security footage of Mr. Hyde wrecking a 7-11 or running a stop sign, followed by the prompt arrival of the authorities and the subsequent freeing of Mr. Hyde on bail.

I'm afraid we're past the point at which two warring internal opposites make for thrilling fiction.  And despite the durability of the Jekyll/Hyde dichotomy, I believe we're in a new age, in which the warring elements are nowhere near so fierce or so riveting.  This is the age, I think, of Mr. Bill and Mr. Hand.

For those of you who are (tragically) too young to remember Mr. Bill, he was the creation of a deranged genius named Walter Williams.  In a series of short films aired on Saturday Night Live back when it was actually funny, a little clay guy named Mr. Bill, who spoke in a male falsetto irritating enough to engrave diamonds, was first tempted and then destroyed by his nemesis, Mr. Hand, who was just what he sounds like.  A hand.  Most of the films ended with Mr. Bill's destruction, accompanied by his trademark, "Ohhh, noooooooooooooooo."

The implication is inescapable that Mr. Hand created Mr. Bill, which has certain Old Testament overtones.  Psychologically, too, it's apt.  We each create a persona and project it to the world.  Those of us who are healthy will adjust that persona over time to meet the needs of reality or our own changing perceptions of who we are (or would like to be) but we don't destroy it.  Mr. Hand crumpling up and totaling Mr. Bill is, I think, a more modern metaphor for insanity than Jekyll/Hyde, as well as being a good deal funnier.

Also, I'm afraid that most modern men, of whom I am inescapably one, are closer to Mr. Bill than we are to Mr. Hyde.  (I'm excluding from this comparison serial killers, Total Smackdown fighters, and Jean-Claude Van Damme.)  Beneath our manly exteriors, I think most of us, when confronted with Mr. Hand in devastation mode, are less likely to swirl our capes and sneer than we are to say, in falsetto, "Ohhhh noooooooooo."  In fact, I think this is the age of "Oh, nooooooooo."  That's certainly how politics makes me feel.

Okay, this has gone on long enough.  And, yes, that is an action figure of Mr. Hyde up there.  I'd like one, too, but I don't know where to get it.

Tim -- Sundays

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