Literary Corner

Trash Culture Literary Corner Special: What the Hell, Orson Scott Card?!

Today we’re going to get a bit controversial, or at least be more controversial than debating the merits of Generation One Transformers episodes versus the Gobots cartoon series.

I personally don’t really feel strongly one way or the other about the Ender’s Game movie and the attempts to boycott it.  On one hand, I am one of the people Card would have labelled mentally ill or imprisoned for being gay and I personally would never want to give him enough money to get a soda from a vending machine.  On the other hand, I am also a big fan of H.P. Lovecraft, whose racism was considered excessive by his correspondents even by the standards of 1930s America.  Granted Lovecraft is safely dead while Card is very much alive and still raking in profits from his well-established name, but regardless I’d feel like a hypocrite for decrying anyone for getting some joy and perspective from an author’s works despite how downright vile and personally threatening the author’s personal beliefs may be.

All I really want is that people, no matter which side they take, are aware that writer Orson Scott Card’s views on homosexuality go just a tad beyond just opposing same-sex marriage.  For example:

The dark secret of homosexual society — the one that dares not speak its name — is how many homosexuals first entered into that world through a disturbing seduction or rape or molestation or abuse, and how many of them yearn to get out of the homosexual community and live normally.

It’s that desire for normality, that discontent with perpetual adolescent sexuality, that is at least partly behind this hunger for homosexual “marriage.”  (Source).

Or this gem, from way back in 1990:

Laws against homosexual behavior should remain on the books, not to be indiscriminately enforced against anyone who happens to be caught violating them, but to be used when necessary to send a clear message that those who flagrantly violate society’s regulation of sexual behavior cannot be permitted to remain as acceptable, equal citizens within that society.  (Source).

All that said, there are people who have been profoundly moved by reading Ender’s Game or Card’s other works and feel that it taught them lessons that are actually counter to the bigoted sentiments expressed in Card’s own words above.   So if you do want to pay to see the movie, do so;  no boycott, however successful, is going to change Card’s mind or overturn his position as one of the grand gurus of American science-fiction.  All I wish is that everyone who cares about the issue is aware of why so many don’t want to see their money go into his bank account.

So with that, I want to take the opportunity of this controversy to do something I’ve wanted to do for over a year now;  well, besides having an excuse not have to talk about that damn Worlds of Power book.  Let’s look at one of Card’s more recent works, and see just how much his…unique views on sexuality have seeped into his fictional writings.  This is “Hamlet’s Father,” which was written for an anthology of ghost stories published in 2008.  It received some ridicule here and there on the Internet, for perhaps revealing a bit too much of what Card thinks about homosexuality.  But how ham-fisted is it really?  Well, that’s what I’m here for.

So we when we start we see Card is taking a similar revisionist line to John Updike’s Gertrude and Claudius (heartily recommended, and I’m anything but an Updike fan, by the way).  Hamlet’s father is an inept king and a coarse jerk besides, while Claudius is a tactful, intelligent man whom Gertrude, forced into a typical dynastic match, can’t help but fall in love with.  Still, the story is told through Hamlet’s perspective, and there’s a darker secret hanging around Hamlet in his adolescence than just his father’s royal incompetence.  See, the teenaged noblemen that Hamlet is surrounded by keep going off on hunts with Hamlet’s father, while for some mysterious reason Hamlet is never invited.  This includes Horatio:

Hamlet made a noise, so Horatio would know someone was coming.  Thus when Hamlet came around the corner, Horatio was not crying at all, though his eyes were red and his nose was red and a little snotty, as was his sleeve.

“How was the hunt?” asked Hamlet.

Horatio tried a little smile.  “I’m sorry to go, when I know you wanted to.”  […]

“We got lost,” said Horation.  “We didn’t rejoin the hunt until on the way home.”  […]

“You must have been sorry, though to miss the kill.”  Horatio almost sobbed again.  “I am very sorry to miss it,” he said, as soon as he had control of his emotions again.

Okay, I know you probably already figured it out, unless you grew up in a convent – and a convent run by nuns who would make Julie Andrews from The Sound of Music look jaded and world-weary by comparison – but let’s look in on our Laertes:

Hamlet’s tone had been jesting, but the darkness that came upon Laertes’s face was almost painful.  “What is it?”  “Hamlet, I beg you, before you go, ask your father to send me away.  To France…”

Before I get much further, let me clarify:  I am absolutely convinced that Card is a very good writer, even long after his Ender’s Game heyday.  He has a knack for a narrative that’s expressive and vivid yet brisk.  When his characters are meant to be seen as “wise,” they do sound like they’re quoting from a prepared sermon or lecture rather than like human beings who are just speaking in a casual conversation, but he’s far from the only writer guilty of that quirk.  It’s just that the entire first part of this story is mostly about, believe it or not, Hamlet’s father might just be sexually molesting all these pretty, athletic teenagers he’s surrounding his son with.

Granted we do find out more about Hamlet’s character – he’s sullen and envious, basically – and about his relationship (or lack thereof) with his father, but all the “hints” are just so distracting in much the same way a kid punching your arm while chanting, “Is this bothering you?  Is this bothering you?” can be.  And I get that this may have been intentional.  Card is trying to make the point that Hamlet has been sheltered all his childhood and has only seen as much of the world and humanity as his father allowed.  Maybe Card is even trying to draw a gap between what a modern reader would immediately pick up on and what someone in Hamlet’s time and position could understand. Even then, Hamlet just comes across as dense.  He doesn’t even wonder why Horatio has been sobbing.

Anyway, the story finally gains some momentum when Hamlet learns from his father that he’s to be sent to receive an education at a university in the Holy Roman Empire (Germany, basically, more or less; go read up on your medieval European history!).   After trying to get Gertrude to support Laertes’ plea to leave for France, Hamlet says goodbye to his mother and they have this exchange:

“You’re a better son than your father and I had any right to hope for,” she said.  “It’s a well-kept secret from my father.”  “You do not know what you do not know,” said Mother.  “Your father has loved you better than you think.”

So, yeah, Hamlet’s father sends Hamlet away because he’s afraid that now that Hamlet has passed puberty he’ll just have to rape him. That’s a little strange, if only for revising Hamlet and his father’s entire relationship to be about potential rape,  but it still doesn’t completely set off my official alert system for these types of things:

screwedupviewsalertwithcardatblue

The morning after discovering that Claudius was in his mother’s bedroom hiding behind a tapestry (here Card actually does practice some subtlety, as he leaves it up to the reader to guess if Claudius and Gertrude are having an affair, at least for now), Hamlet leaves for Heidelburg.  There Hamlet studies until he learns his father had died and the nobles of the realm elected not him, but Claudius, to succeed him.  Also Claudius had already married his mother, which shocks Hamlet, but not as much as not getting the throne.  I think this is the part of the story I like most so far, as Card does a good job of portraying Hamlet’s ambition and frustration without squandering the reader’s sympathy or clashing with his previous characterization of Hamlet as bright but naive.  At least the story has stopped being about implied child abuse.

Hamlet has gotten past his thwarted ambition and has resigned himself to being a scholar and perhaps a member of the Church.  At least until that faithful night when Horatio tells Hamlet about a ghost he has seen…

“Murder and usurpation, treason and adultery,” said the ghost.  “I live now in hell.  Will you have all Denmark join me there?  Avenge me, and purify this kingdom.”

Hamlet is skeptical, and debates with his father’s spirit over whether or not Claudius really did murder him, Gertrude truly cheated on him, and if his father ever loved him.

“Why did you wait?” whispered Hamlet.  “Why did you keep me at such a distance?”

“I would have coddled you.  Spoiled you.  I needed you to be a man of firm resolve.  Strong, cold-blooded as a King must be, and yet I knew I injured you.  Even that was a gift to my people:  Out of your anguish would come your compassion.  A just and merciful judge you would have been, but now you are supplanted, as I was supplanted.”

This is really where Card’s lack of subtlety causes the story to derail.  We know what Hamlet’s father has done (again, unless you were raised in that hypothetical convent), so readers won’t trust the ghost’s side of the argument.  The reader is kept two steps ahead of the story’s own protagonist.

Eventually Hamlet’s father plays on Hamlet’s sense of filial obligation and gets him to swear to avenge him.  Of course, the ghost’s story looks more and more implausible.

“Garden?” asked Horatio.  “He told me he lay sleeping in the garden.”  “I didn’t know that,” said Horatio.  “I thought they found him in his bed.”  “He said the garden,” said Hamlet.

Subtlety is spelled with O-S-C here!

Now I haven’t been discussing the original play, but I will point out that there have been critics who have argued that the reason the play is so compelling is its portrayal of Hamlet’s madness, whether it’s coming from the demands placed on him by his father’s ghost, an existential crisis, or (as one critic argued) Shakespeare’s depiction of what we now call bipolar disorder.  What’s happening with Card’s Hamlet?

It was almost fun, and certainly exhilarating, to feign a bit of madness and watch them all hop. […] I’m a coward, that’s what my madness is about, to delay the day of action, and then delay some more.

So he’s going to take one of the most famous psychological portraits in all of English literature and interpret it as, to put it in twenty-first century terms, faking it for the lulz.  That’s…one way to do it, I guess?

Speaking of madness, Ophelia does get mentioned and eventually shows up, but she never gets any dialogue.  Hamlet’s narration does mention he could conceive of marrying and having children with her, so at least she does help prove Hamlet is heterosexual.  But guess who isn’t heterosexual, according to Horatio…

“[Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are] not the friends that I remember.”  “Things changed in the four years you were gone.  When the Companions were dissolved at your parting, they decided not to dissolve themselves.  Living four years together on Guildenstern’s estates has made them as fusty and peculiar as an old married couple.  I pity the woman who tries to wed her way into that house.”

So, yeah, two of the nobles Hamlet’s father sexually abused are now living together as a married gay couple.

I hate to say this, Orson, but I’m afraid you’ve forced me to heighten the alert.

terroristalertlevelwithcardatyellow

Card rushes a bit through the next two parts of the play:  Hamlet mourning Yorick, his confrontation with his mother and his murder of Polonius while he’s hiding behind the tapestry, and Ophelia’s suicide.  And no, we never get Card’s take on the “to be or not to be” soliloquy or the “Get thee to a nunnery” line (Hamlet does at one point misogynistically compare women to pudding as food you take your fill of and throw away, which may or may not be way more sexual than Card intended).  For that matter, Claudius never tries to kill Hamlet by having the King of England execute him and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are never captured and killed by pirates.  Whatever issues Card has while writing this story, at least he does leave Rosencrantz and Guildenstern living happily in a castle somewhere in Denmark.  Maybe they even open up a bed and breakfast.

Another revision Card does take is having Horatio imply that Laertes had been practicing as a swordsman because he wanted to kill Hamlet’s father for abusing him (although even now toward the end of the story it still is only all but spelled out) and assumed he’d have to fight Hamlet, who starts the story as a naturally talented swordsman, to do it.  There’s no poison in any wine or on any sword either; only a reference from Hamlet who says, “The only way I’ll die is if you poisoned your blade and some of it spills on me.”  In Card’s version, Hamlet simply stabs both Claudius and Laertes to death, which causes Horatio to reveal one of the weirdest plot twists in a reinterpretation of a Shakespeare play this side of Xena versus Anthony and Cleopatra (okay, that doesn’t actually exist…I think).

“Oh God!”  cried Horatio.  “O God, how could you punish them all for my sin!”  “Your sin?”  said Hamlet.  “I killed your father!”  […]  “He lied!  The old bastard lied!”  cried Horatio.  “Why didn’t you tell me what he said?  I would have told you.  I thought you knew the truth – I offered to let you kill me right there in the garden!  I thought you understood!”

“Offered?  But I never – why would you kill him?”

“Because he was evil.  Because of what he did to us.  All of us.  the Companions.  All the boys but you!”

Oh, and if you didn’t pick up on the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern thing…

“It twisted us.  I saw it in the others.  Rosencrantz and Guindenstern, they could never look at women.  Laertes – he told me, even before he left for France, that his stick was broken and would never grow again. [?!?!]  And me – I thought I was all right.  I thought…”  He broke down and wept.  

But we’re not done yet!  So it turns out that Gertrude once caught Hamlet’s father molesting him as a baby (which shows that Card doesn’t know the difference between a pedophile and someone who molests boys after puberty, but that’s really the least of our issues here, I think…).  She threatened to tell the nobles that their king was a latter-day Tiberius (my words), but (somehow) never figured out that he was molesting “the Companions.”  Horatio continues:

“Too late,” echoed Horatio.  “A few months ago, a new page came to the castle.  I taught him.  He followed me everywhere like a dog.  I delighted in his company.  And then one day I found myself…I had him naked, I was telling him how a boy shows love to his friend and teacher…the words your father used, the very words.”

And Gertrude does pull out some poison and kills herself, but not before saying farewell:

“I love you, Hamlet,” she said.  “I tried to protect you.  Horatio did only what I should have done.  What the law of God demanded.”

I’m guessing that’s a reference to Leviticus, so, there you have it, any guy who wants to “lie with men” is either a molester, was molested, or both!

Alright, Card, in these few pages you’ve already shown more bizarre and simply wrong ideas about human sexuality than a dozen Oral Roberts University textbooks.  You can’t possibly…

[Hamlet kills himself after refusing to kill Horatio and instructing Horatio to let the invading Fortinbras, King of Norway, unite the kingdoms of Norway and Denmark.]  Then Hamlet’s body slumped onto the floor.  But his spirit did not go where his body went.  His spirit arose and looked around the hall.  To where Laertes’s spirit held his father’s and his sister’s hands; then they arose into heaven.  To where his mother and Claudius, bright spirits both, embraced each other, and also rose in the air, toward the bright light awaiting them.  And finally to the dark shadowy corner where his father’s spirit stood, laughing, laughing, laughing.  “Welcome to hell, my beautiful son.  At last we’ll be together as I always longed for us to be.”

Yes, you might be tempted to  look at that passage a dozen times, possibly more, but, yes, Card just ended his version of “Hamlet” by having Hamlet condemned to Hell where his pedophile-ephebophile-homosexual-whatever father will rape him for all eternity.

At the risk of making a pun…

terroristalertlevelwithcardatred

But, yeah, this is kind of why some people don’t want to pay money to see Ender’s Game.  

 

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