Sunday, January 27, 2013

A Boy Waiting To Be Punished

I gave my son Miles Watership Down for Christmas. I must have been about his age (13) when I first read it; I went on to read it four or five times. Yet I have only the vaguest memory of it—or so I thought. Then Miles showed me a paragraph that he liked so much that he wanted to post it on Facebook, the second paragraph of chapter 12 of the book. As I read it, it came back to me with complete vividness and familiarity, as if I had only read it the day before myself:

Here is a boy who was waiting to be punished. But then, unexpectedly, he finds that his fault has been overlooked or forgiven, and at once the world reappears in brilliant colors, full of delightful prospects. Here is a soldier who was waiting, with a heavy heart, to suffer and die in battle. But suddenly the luck has changed. There is news! The war is over and everyone bursts out singing! He will go home after all! The sparrows in the plowland were crouching in terror of the kestrel. But she has gone; and they fly pell-mell up the hedgerow, frisking, chattering and perching where they will. The bitter winter had all the country in its grip. The hares on the down, stupid and torpid with cold, were resigned to sinking further and further into the freezing heart of snow and silence. But now—who would have dreamed it?—the thaw is trickling, the great tit is scented; and the hares bound and skip in the warm wind. Hopelessness and reluctance are blown away like a fog and the dumb solitude where they crept, a place desolate as a crack in the ground, opens like a rose and stretches to the hills and the sky.

Sunday, January 06, 2013

Telling and Selling Truth and Lies: The Milkman Scene in Alfred Hitchcock's "The 39 Steps"

This is a scene near the beginning of Alfred Hitchcock's The Thirty-Nine Steps:

Here, Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) makes three attempts to convince the milkman (Frederick Piper) to help him. Hannay first tries to bribe him. This would make help a commodity that can be bought and sold. But the milkman wants to know more ("What's the big idea?"), so Hannay concludes that "I'll have to trust you." He then tells a story about a murdered spy in his apartment—which is actually what happened in the previous scene. When this truth proves unconvincing, Hannay tries again, this time preceding his story differently: "I'll tell you the truth." Even though the story of adultery that follows is pure fiction (and in fact just as cliche-ridden as and hence no more credible than the story of the murdered spy), the milkman is finally convinced to help Hannay.

When Hannay can't buy help, he has to tell a story. And given that the milkman, as the saying goes, "doesn't buy it," what Hannay has to do is sell a different story. He has to give the milkman a story he wants to hear: not "a lot of tales about murderers and foreigners," but the kind of story he likes, about adultery. As the milkman says, "I only wanted to be told"—and what Hannay learns is that what people "want to be told" is not the truth, but something that they will "buy" because it is what they want to hear.

If Hannay thus discovers the utility of an effective lie, there is still a way in which Hannay is always telling the truth: he does need to "make a getaway" from the two men who are outside in the street. His intention is true, even if the story he eventually finds to realize his intention is not. This intention remains true throughout "The 39 Steps," even as it gets complicated by a second intention: Hannay's attempt to prove that he did not commit the murder in his apartment.

In order to prove himself innocent, Hannay has to learn, as he does here, that the story of his innocence is beside the point. The truth may come out in the end, but not because he tells people the truth. Nor can he buy people's trust; rather, they have to buy him by believing his stories (true or not). In "The 39 Steps," the truth may need to be revealed, but it is best gradually revealed by the telling—and selling—of effective lies.