What I learned from Joss Whedon (I actually learned from Shakespeare)

I watched Whedon’s version of Much Ado About Nothing in between days of a writing conference. I noticed all these contrasts: bickering Benedick and Beatrice vs. sweet Claudius and Hero, Benedick’s proclaimed disdain for love vs. his need for Beatrice’s attention, the bumbling constables vs. their actual apprehension of the conspirators, Whedon’s house vs. my own. (It was hard not to notice, even in black and white.) The next morning, contrast reappeared at the conference as humor vs. gore in someone’s opening line about tripping over a hurdle and finding a dead body. Our brains, it seems, like to compare, and comparison, it seems, creates narrative tension: we compare our hopes against realities, our one wish against another, one character’s rise against another’s fall. What is tension, after all, but a pull in one direction against an opposing force?

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Comparison also seems to explain my current obsession with Dunlap Pearce Penhallow (a sainted name for a writer, if ever there was one), or more specifically, his Military Surgery (Oxford UP, 1916.) In this handy, handsome tome of high gloss pages, you’ll find almost all the horror of World War I: “extreme trauma due to avulsion of the teeth” (269), which were blasted loose by a bullet and sent through one man’s cheek, “presence of a metallic foreign body” (317) for the bullet in the bladder of another man that otherwise caused no harm except when it rolled into position to plug his urethra, or the increased chance of infected wounds due to the muck and manure—“high degree of fertilisation”—in which the men fought—“a natural habitat for spore-bearing organisms” (27). A diagnostician’s cool discourse vs. crippled bodies, a reader’s horror in imagining these injuries vs. his safety in his comfy chair. If we first chide Penhallow for being so detached, we next chide ourselves for complaining when it was Penhallow who drained the pus, smelled the gas gangrene, removed the projectiles, and stitched together passable lives.

That is the trick of the author: to make us feel one thing, and then to feel another for having felt that–contrast–for at least in imagination if not in life, “there is nothing / either good or bad, but thinking makes it so” (Hamlet II, ii.)

Mark Meier’s most recent book, Wisecrack, is available now.Meier - Wisecrack cover small