‘Fallen Idol’

M*A*S*H: A writer’s view. #9 in the series.

Before we can continue with the story of Margaret Houlihan, we need to take note of an irrevocable change that happened on M*A*S*H at this time. In 1977, after five years on the show, Gene Reynolds stepped down as executive producer. He continued to be listed on the credits as ‘Creative Consultant’, but what this meant, in effect, was that the new production team had a chat with him once a week or thereabouts. It was no longer his show. Larry Gelbart, as we have seen, left a year earlier and was not even involved as an occasional consultant. At the same time, Allan Katz and Don Reo stepped down as producers after a single year at the helm.

So whose show was M*A*S*H now? Burt Metcalfe, who had been with the show from the beginning, and had shared production credit with Katz and Reo in the fifth season, was now credited as sole producer. But this is misleading. Metcalfe was a superb technician, who could always be relied upon to keep a show running smoothly, to work around any production glitches and keep the Hollywood-sized egos around him suitably groomed and massaged. He was a perfect right-hand man. That was the job he had done for Gene Reynolds for five years, and he would continue to do it for six more. But for whom? In theory, Reynolds was still his superior. But his actual boss was the other man listed in the new position of Creative Consultant: Alan Alda.

Without any direct testimony about the exercise of power on the M*A*S*H set, we can demonstrate this fact from both internal and external evidence. The external evidence lies in the logic of syndicated reruns. It was only about 1970 that the television studios really began to exploit the lucrative business of packaging old shows and selling them to local TV stations to broadcast in off-peak hours. This changed the economics of television in ways that were neither trivial nor obvious.

To begin with, syndication dramatically increased the value of long-running series. Formerly, the value of a new episode of any TV show depended entirely on the show’s current ratings. Those ratings determined how much advertisers would pay for commercial time during the original network broadcast (and a probable summer repeat). Since the network was, in effect, the studio’s sole customer, even a long-running and beloved show was subject to cancellation on a whim. If the show’s ratings fell, the price that the network would pay for the show fell with it; and if that price was not enough to pay the full cost of production, the show would be cancelled without a second thought.

Ratings were not the index of success; cost-benefit ratio was. A show could be cancelled because it was unprofitable, and its replacement could be viewed as a success with lower ratings – provided that the replacement series had a low enough production cost. (This is why there used to be so many game shows on network schedules, and more recently, so many ‘reality TV’ shows. Most viewers don’t especially care for them, but they are the cheapest kind of television to produce – much cheaper than comedies and dramas, where you have to pay a lot of pestilent actors.)

The original Star Trek fell victim to this. By the standards of the 1960s, it was exceptionally expensive to produce. For the show’s third season (1968–69), NBC proposed to move it to 7:30 Monday evening, where it would attract the largest possible audience, and the network could charge top dollar for advertising. But Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, the surprise smash hit of 1968, was already at 8:00 on Mondays and the producers angrily refused to be put back to 8:30. So Star Trek was rescheduled to 10:00 Friday night, a death sentence for the show.

Within a year or two after Star Trek was cancelled, the Nielsen company began measuring audience demographics as well as raw numbers of households. Advertisers at that time were desperate to win over young customers – the enormous Baby Boom audience. It turned out that Star Trek had the greatest appeal to exactly that group, so that NBC had made a grave error by cancelling the show. CBS, on the other hand, discovered that many of its long-running sitcoms, though they had high overall ratings, were watched mostly by older audiences whom the advertisers considered less valuable. So in 1971, in a general bloodletting, CBS cancelled a slew of shows like Green Acres and The Beverly Hillbillies, to make room for shows aimed at the Boomers – shows like All in the Family, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and in due course, M*A*S*H.

Then syndication came along, and it turned out that both approaches were wrong. Network TV showed only one episode of a new series per week, and generally for only half the year – 24 to 28 episodes per season at the time. Local stations were willing to ‘strip’ reruns of the same show five days a week. Each local market was tiny compared to the network audiences, but taken together, and multiplied by five, they added up to more viewers and more money than a show could garner in prime time.

Since ‘stripping’ ran through series at great speed, long-running series had by far the greatest value. If a series ran for only one season on network TV, the stripped reruns would run out in about five weeks – too short a time to build a reliable audience. Three seasons meant about three and a half months before the station had to either run the show again (which might bore the audience) or switch to a different show (which might lose them entirely). After five seasons, a show could be ‘stripped’ for six months; and the networks had already proved that audiences were willing to watch a summer repeat of an episode that had aired six months previously. If a show had five seasons of film in the can, it had a chance to become immortal in syndication. The Beverly Hillbillies ran for nine, and is still in syndication today. Star Trek lasted only three, but the particular appeal of the series was so strong that audiences were willing to stay with it despite the shorter cycle.

In syndicated reruns, more episodes mean more profit, not in a linear, but a geometric ratio. Each new episode of a series not only adds its own value to the syndication package, but increases the value of all the previous episodes. Once a show has lasted five years, syndication rights become so valuable that a studio can nearly afford to give away new episodes to the networks. The game is to keep the show airing as long as possible, even at a loss, and make it up on the perpetual cash cow of syndication. After the fifth year, as long as a show’s numbers are good enough to keep it somewhere on the network’s schedule (even 10:00 Friday), it is effectively unkillable. This effect is so powerful that it has kept The Simpsons on the air for twenty-five years, despite the generally wretched quality of the later seasons.

Such a show can only die from within. Producers, directors, writers, crew – these people are invisible to the viewing public and can be easily replaced. The big audience cares about actors and characters. Pop culture buffs argue to this day whether it was a good idea for Dick Sargent to replace Dick York on Bewitched. If York had not been too ill to continue with the show, the question would never have arisen. Consequently, the first business of a long-running TV series is to keep the stars happy so that the cash cow will continue to give milk. Pleasing the audience is a distant second. As long as the show’s format (or formula) remains recognizable, and the stars play their characters well enough to be likable and familiar, audiences will put up with nearly anything else.

The first order of business for M*A*S*H in 1977, then, was to keep Alan Alda happy. Other actors had come and gone; the format of the show was robust enough to sustain it through major changes of cast. But nobody was willing to risk a M*A*S*H without Hawkeye Pierce, and nobody, it seems, seriously contemplated what such a show might be like. So on external evidence alone, the studio had a sufficient motive to tell Burt Metcalfe: ‘From now on, you are working for Alan Alda. If he ever quits, you’re out of a job.’

The internal evidence is stronger still.

For the fourth consecutive year, Jim Fritzell and Everett Greenbaum were assigned to write the season premiere. That was ‘Fade Out, Fade In’, an episode that had some difficult jobs to do. Larry Linville had left the show upon the expiration of his contract. His replacement was David Ogden Stiers, playing Maj. Charles Emerson Winchester III, a stuffy Boston Brahmin, a technically brilliant surgeon but an amateur human being. Frank Burns was a suitable adversary for the Swampmen only as long as he was in a position of at least occasional power over them. Since Col. Potter’s arrival, that no longer occurred, and so the new nemesis had to be a strong character in his own right. ‘Fade Out, Fade In’ had to introduce this character in style, and at the same time give Frank Burns an appropriate sendoff without ever showing him on the screen, since Linville was not available to play him.

That done, the new production team had free rein thereafter to remould the show in an image of Alda’s choosing. The second episode of the 1977–78 season was ‘Fallen Idol’, which Alda wrote and directed. It makes for painful viewing, for the entire purpose of the episode is to make Hawkeye the villain on his own show. Alda had long had a love-hate relationship with his own character; here the hate comes to the fore and is fully indulged.

Radar comes to Hawkeye (as so often before) for advice about women, and Hawkeye gives him the appallingly foolish idea of going to a whorehouse in Seoul to get his ashes hauled. Since nothing can be allowed to go well for Hawkeye (who is here being set up as a cartoon villain, just as Frank used to be), Radar never makes it to Seoul: he runs into an artillery barrage, is hit by a shell fragment, and comes back to the 4077th as a casualty. Overcome with remorse, Hawkeye stupidly takes refuge in booze; he makes himself unfit to operate, and has to walk out on a patient so he can throw up. (He makes a flippant excuse for this: ‘I always wanted to barf on Uijeongbu, and this seemed like a good time.’)

Radar, hearing about this in post-op, chews Hawkeye out in the most deferential possible manner: ‘A lot of people look up to you here. They admire you, and they kind of feel like they want to be like you.’ Hawkeye, who is spared no opportunity to behave like an idiot, loses his temper: ‘The hell with your Iowa naïveté, and the hell with your hero-worship and your teddy bear, and while we’re at it, the hell with you!’ Potter, Mulcahy, and Margaret separately tear strips off Hawkeye; the whole camp shuns him; even B. J. gives him the cold shoulder. When he goes crawling into post-op to apologize, Radar pours scorn and hostility on him, finishing with a ‘The hell with you’ of his own. At the end, cooler heads (of a sort) prevail. Potter has a fatherly chat with Radar, telling him that he might actually like Hawkeye better now that he doesn’t have to look up to him anymore—

And here, ladies and gentlemen, we have arrived at a landmark on M*A*S*H: the first occurrence of the tacked-on sententious moral, what in the TV trade (with appropriately thorough cynicism) is technically known as ‘the Moment of Shit’. All the characters have been behaving out of register, doing foolish or nasty or just plain pointless things in order to railroad the plot along the required route to arrive at the predetermined moral. Watching, we feel that the whole 4077th has gone crazy in a new and particularly unpleasant way. Everything has been twisted out of shape; we are in a sort of evil mirror universe in which Hawkeye is the fool and the villain, stepping into the shoes recently vacated by Frank Burns.

It is somewhat surprising that Fox (and CBS) allowed the show to take this turn. Alda, as star, ‘Creative Consultant’, and still more important, as the one man who had the power to stop the gravy train by disembarking, had to be allowed his creative freedom; but he was using that freedom to undermine the sympathy and liking that the audience had been building up for Hawkeye for five solid years. He had just been made engineer of the gravy train, and his first act was to chuck a spanner into the engine.

Perhaps it was inevitable that he would use his power in such a way, and perhaps the higher-ups at Twentieth Century Fox foresaw it, and were resigned to the outcome. Alda had been writing and directing occasional episodes of M*A*S*H for years, and would do so more often now that it was definitely his show. In this sixth season alone, he would write five episodes and direct four of them. That put him in a tie with Fritzell and Greenbaum for the most writing credits on the year, and with Metcalfe, Don Weis, and Charles S. Dubin for the most directing credits. (Dubin, a veteran director who had been filming TV shows since the early fifties, was the show’s workhorse from this point on. In the last six seasons of M*A*S*H, he directed 43 episodes out of 131.) Alda had written only four scripts previously, but already his writing style was well established, and if Fox did not know what to expect from him, they had only themselves to blame.

There are two ways of approaching the events of a story, and most writers have a strong tendency to favour one approach or the other. I call them ‘As’ and ‘As If’. The ‘As’ approach treats the fiction as an extension of reality: the events are related as things that actually happened, and the audience is asked to respond as it would to such events in real life. (Tolkien called this response ‘Secondary Belief’.) The ‘As If’ approach treats the events as psychodrama; as if the jumble of thoughts and feelings inside the protagonist’s head were translated into external action, as in a dream. They are not intended to be realistic or plausible, even within the confines of the story with its alternative version of reality. The audience is not asked for Secondary Belief; it is asked to respond emotionally (if at all) to the symbolic values of the individual scenes, and still more to the writer’s craft on the sentence level, or the director’s choice of lighting and camera angles. The fourth wall is not so much broken as wished away ab initio.

There is a persistent belief among a good many writers, directors, and critics that ‘As If’ stories are inherently superior to ‘As’ stories – more artistic, more highbrow, more worthy of awards. This is probably because they are inherently inferior. ‘Secondary Belief’ is a powerful tool. The most reliable way of touching an audience’s emotions, and permanently affecting their thoughts and their understanding of the world, is to give them a deep and sensuous immersion in a vicarious experience. If you leave the audience outside your story, critically observing a performance rather than emotionally participating in it, you have already denied yourself half the range of responses that you could have achieved by inviting them inside.

But the limited range of responses to an ‘As If’ story are all learned responses. The untrained reader or viewer tends to reject them instinctively. Since the responses must be learned, there is a tendency among the people who do learn them to regard themselves as an ‘Inner Ring’ (C. S. Lewis’s term), a brotherhood of superior minds gifted with a gnosis that the masses outside are too dull to comprehend. I use the term gnosis advisedly, for it is this feeling of superiority that is the fundamental appeal of Gnosticism. Snobs hanker for esoteric knowledge because it confirms their membership in the circle of snobs; exoteric knowledge might have been acquired by anybody. Even a child can appreciate a story like ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’, and only a trained littérateur can appreciate Ulysses; but that does not make Ulysses superior to the fairy-tale. Considered purely as a story, in fact, Ulysses is inferior to just about anything with an intelligible sequence of events. Most of its good qualities are accessible only to those with the special training to appreciate them; and this is why snobs love Ulysses, and the mass of ordinary people would pay to be excused from it.

For the first five seasons, M*A*S*H was overwhelmingly an ‘As’ show: necessarily so, because one does not keep a series on network television for years on end except by appealing to a mass audience, which ‘As If’ stories, by design, are unable to do. But if we look at Alan Alda’s scripts, we see abundant signs that he was a pronounced ‘As If’ writer, chafing at the restrictions of writing situation comedy for the big public.

The key to Alda’s writing is psychoanalysis. In a typical Alda script, he puts his leading character (in the case of M*A*S*H, usually but not always Hawkeye) through a series of strange events, explicable only in terms of the character’s own mental processes, unknown to himself, and resolved by a clever exercise in psychological sleuthing. We do not have to look very far to see this pattern emerge.

Alda’s first writing credit on M*A*S*H (indeed, his first screenwriting credit anywhere) was for a first-season episode called ‘The Longjohn Flap’. This was an ephemeral bit of fluff, in which the members of the cast (and some guest stars) serially and shamelessly con each other out of a single pair of long underwear that Hawkeye has received as a present from home. This is a straightforward ‘As’ story, and not a very good one. We often see, with avant-gardists in various media, that they begin by trying conventional forms, fail at them, and succeed by chucking form and appealing to snobs and novelty-seekers. Paul Simon was an unsuccessful pop singer before he became a successful navel-gazing folk artiste. Allen Ginsberg wrote quantities of appallingly inept rhymed and metrical verse, as twee as a Hallmark card, before he found his métier as a ranting vers-libre Beat poet.

Alda’s second script is a blatant exercise in pop psychonalysis. ‘Dr. Pierce and Mr. Hyde’ (co-written with Robert Klane) portrays Hawkeye going through the stages of a full-blown psychotic break, induced by a surfeit of adrenaline in response to three straight days of surgery without sleep. His symptoms come straight out of a medical textbook; the script consists mostly of his increasingly surreal monologues, ascending the scale into outright rants. In the climax, he decides that the war has been caused by North Korea’s envy of capitalist plumbing, steals a jeep, and tries to tow the officers’ latrine to North Korea as a peace offering – with a visiting general inside. This works as comedy because of the obvious incongruity between Hawkeye’s mental state and the reactions of the sane people around him. As drama, it hardly works at all.

For a long time after that, Alda made his off-camera contributions from the director’s chair. His next script was ‘Dear Sigmund’, from the fifth season, and the psychoanalytic angle could not be more obvious.

One of the recurring motifs on M*A*S*H is the epistolary episode, where various events (sometimes making a unified plot, sometimes just an omnium gatherum of comedy skits) are related by one of the regulars in a letter home. Hawkeye, Trapper, Radar, B. J., Potter, and Klinger all took turns as the letter-writers, and Charles Winchester, in a memorable twist on the trope, sent a tape-recorded epistle to his parents in Boston (‘The Winchester Tapes’), ending with the frantic plea, ‘Get me the hell out of here!’

In ‘Dear Sigmund’, the visiting psychiatrist, Dr. Sidney Freedman, is writing a letter home; but he is writing, not to his friends or family, but to the late Sigmund Freud. He describes each of the M*A*S*H regulars in turn, from a frankly psychoanalytical point of view. Some scenes achieve high comedy, as with Frank Burns’ paranoiac response to Sidney’s friendly overtures. (‘I should have known better than to tell anything personal to a psychiatrist!’) Some work excellently well on the level of farce, as when the mysterious practical joker who has been terrorizing the 4077th turns out to be the deceptively quiet and clean-cut B. J. Hunnicutt. And there are scenes of completely serious drama, as when an ambulance overturns whilst carrying a full load of patients. Col. Potter threatens to throw the book at the driver for being reckless, only to be told by a choked-up Radar: ‘He’s dead, sir.’

At least once, we catch Sidney (or Alda) in an error that no Army psychiatrist could plausibly have made. He describes Father Mulcahy with a mixture of admiration and condescension: ‘With absolutely no training, he seems to be a complete natural as a therapist.’ One of the principal duties of any priest is pastoral counselling, and they are thoroughly prepared for the job in the seminary. Priests (and rabbis), in fact, were doing the work of therapists for over a thousand years before the field of psychiatry was invented. Perhaps Dr. Freedman does not know anything about the seminary curriculum; but how has he served in the Army for all this time without ever seeing a chaplain at work?

‘Hepatitis’ is largely an ‘As’ story, centring on Mulcahy’s bout of camp jaundice and Potter’s efforts to prevent a general outbreak of the disease. But, true to form, Alda includes a subplot in which Hawkeye suffers from psychosomatic back pain.

That completes the roll of Alan Alda’s M*A*S*H scripts up to the point where he took over effective creative control of the show.

In the light of these, it is not surprising that in ‘Fallen Idol’, he deforms every character on the series to drive home his psychoanalytic point. In effect, all the other characters become figures in Hawkeye’s nightmare – punctuation marks in Alda’s poison-pen letter to his on-screen persona.

From first to last, Alda received 19 writing credits on the series, and we see the same tendencies in most of them:

  • ‘War of Nerves’ (season 6) features Sidney Freedman again, called in by Col. Potter to do some on-the-fly therapy for various members of the 4077th, who are going crazier than usual from overwork. In the end they find their own cure, by building a bonfire and burning symbolic bits and pieces of the camp, ranging from the Army cookbook to Winchester’s cot.
  • ‘Lend a Hand’ (season 8) features the return of Dr. Borelli, a visiting surgeon who first appeared in the third-season episode ‘The Consultant’. This time, Borelli and Hawkeye irritate each other thoroughly, and resolve their differences when they are forced to work together under fire at a battalion aid station. Robert Alda plays Borelli, and Antony Alda (Alan’s younger half-brother) plays a medic at the aid station, and much screen time is taken up with a weird kind of role-playing therapy to thrash out the Alda family’s own dysfunctions.
  • ‘Dreams’ (season 8) is a series of vignettes in which each of the regulars in turn falls asleep during a marathon surgery session, and has a dream revealing his pet psychological maladjustment to life in the Korean War. Nearly all the dreams, of course, are nightmares. Hawkeye dreams about having to perform surgery with both his arms removed.
  • ‘The Life You Save’ (season 9) sees Winchester narrowly escape being killed by a sniper’s bullet, after which he develops a morbid fascination with death. He actually steals a jeep, drives to the front, and lets a wounded GI die without treatment so he can interrogate him and find out whatever he can tell him about the experience of death. The dying man’s deep philosophical revelation: ‘I smell bread.’
  • ‘Follies of the Living – Concerns of the Dead’ (season 10) shows Klinger in a delirium from fever. Because of his condition, he is the only one who can see or interact with the ghost of a dead patient, who spends the whole episode vainly trying to attract the attention of the (bickering and ineffectual) MASH personnel, before being called away to the afterlife by his dead comrades.
  • ‘Hey, Look Me Over’ (season 11) is the only episode principally about the peripheral character of Nurse Kellye. By this time, every other nurse at the 4077th is sick of Hawkeye’s constant passes at them. Kellye is equally sick because she has a crush on Hawkeye, and is the only nurse he doesn’t make passes at. By watching her ease the last moments of a dying patient, Hawkeye comes to appreciate her inner beauty, and mends his ways, in a manner of speaking, by making a pass at Kellye – which is duly and comically rebuffed, since it is part of Alda’s schtick to make Hawkeye a failed womanizer.

The second hallmark of Alda’s writing is also highly characteristic of ‘As If’ writers: a desperate quest for novelty, arising from a horror of the obvious. We see this in ‘Dreams’, which was nominated for an Emmy Award (neatly fitting with the snobbery of jaded critics, too many of whom have an unhealthy obsession with ‘As If’ stories). It is the only episode of the series that can be classified as outright surrealism. Even the connecting scenes where the characters are awake are surreal. Listening to a patient’s confession while he is fighting to stay awake, Father Mulcahy hears the following gibberish (taken verbatim from the closed captions):

The first time was a bar in Seoul in which I trove sobbert in farley quince to civilar falamaries with closive infliches and depationary farven.

So, of course, we started drinking and then I saw again staven in tusiflia thurgis. In frawl with sagullery purchel. But franges are gurvel, you know. Iskeep perobic tondo.

‘Follies of the Living’ also breaks the show’s format, being the one episode of M*A*S*H that veers off into out-and-out fantasy. Incidentally, the ‘As’/‘As If’ distinction has nothing to do with realism (in the ordinary sense) versus fantasy. Most ‘As If’ stories are firmly set in the real world, though they often depict reality with the techniques of surrealism, because they are concerned with the interior drama of the characters rather than with reality as such. On the other hand, the best and most popular fantasies have a strong tendency to be ‘As’ stories, because it is essential to the audience’s involvement that the fantastic events be treated as real.

Tolkien is an ‘As’ storyteller par excellence, elaborately buttressing his fantasy with histories and biographies and textual references to the ‘Red Book of Westmarch’. Contrast this with the ‘As If’ fantasies of Franz Kafka, or of the Latin American magic realists, in which the events not only do not make sense, but are meant to make us feel (if anything at all) that sense is an illusion – that reality itself is surreal. There is a deep and fully justified hostility between devotees of these two kinds of fantasy, founded not only in what they expect from literature, but to a considerable extent, in their bedrock views of the world. (Indeed, ‘magic realism’ is particularly favoured by a subset of littérateurs who make no secret of their hatred and disdain for fantasy, but fail to recognize it as such when it is clothed in ‘As If’ drag. ‘It’s only symbolism,’ they say; ‘they don’t really mean it – unlike those awful escapists!’)

Probably the best episode that Alan Alda (co)wrote was ‘Life Time’, with the help of the show’s medical consultant, Walter D. Dishell. This episode is justly famous; but it is just as stark a departure from the normal format of the series as ‘Dreams’ or ‘Follies of the Living’. The events are portrayed in real time, all but the tag occurring within the show’s actual running time of 25 minutes – with a clock superimposed on a corner of the screen to keep track. A patient comes in by chopper with a lacerated aorta. Without a graft, he will die; and if the graft is not performed within 20 minutes, and his circulation restored, he will probably suffer permanent paralysis from lack of oxygen to the spinal cord. But there is no graft on hand. The operation is held up while B. J. waits for a prospective donor to die, while the donor’s best friend looks on helplessly and castigates the whole 4077th as a pack of ghouls. (Actually, the donor has no hope of survival, most of his brain having been destroyed by a direct hit from a shell fragment. As B. J. explains, ‘His heart doesn’t know enough to stop beating.’) The story works powerfully as drama, but apart from a few lines of gallows humour, it is not funny in the slightest.

Alda’s worst episode was probably one called ‘In Love and War’, which is hardly an episode of M*A*S*H at all. Hawkeye, going against his well-established character as a serial skirt-chaser, falls in love with a haughtily aristocratic Korean woman, formerly rich, now ruined by the war and merely waiting for her elderly mother to die so she can abandon the wreckage of the family home and join the stream of refugees heading south. None of the other regulars have any part to play in the main plot, though there is a subplot that gives them an excuse for a bit of screen time. The main plot would be a shameless tearjerker, except that it completely fails to jerk any tears. We are meant to feel for the Korean lady’s plight, as Hawkeye himself obviously does, but she is so prickly and unlikable that most viewers, I believe, feel nothing but tedium. However, the script is true to Alda’s nature as a writer, since it breaks the show’s format and focuses obsessively on one character’s private emotional conflict.

Perhaps because he was so determined to be outré and break the normal rules of the show, Alda’s scripts have surprisingly little influence on the development of the characters at the 4077th. The one exception is Margaret Houlihan – and here we return to her story.

Back to M*A*S*H: A writer’s view


  1. Wow! This is one of three best, perhaps THE best, series commentaries I have ever read. Kudos.

    When you finish your deconstruction of M*A*S*H, please collect and publish them in a book.

    I confess that I lost my taste for M*A*S*H after the second season. What series will you do next? Will you entertain suggestions?

    • I will entertain suggestions, but my TV viewing over the years has been spotty and sporadic, and I reserve the right to reject any suggested series because it does not appeal to me or because I am not sufficiently familiar with it.

      However, it may be some time before I tackle a project like this again. As usual, I am writing essais chiefly to discover what it is that I think myself.

      If you don’t mind my asking, what are the other two commentaries you would nominate as best? I might be interested in having a look at them.

  2. Jay Allman says

    This is going to sound off-topic, but the scope and depth of this entry are such that I don’t think it would be an out-and-out hijacking.

    Two thoughts regarding ‘As’ and ‘As if’ stories:

    1. Are you sure you mean JL Borges and not GG Marquez? Because —

    Yes, Borges creates a distance between the reader and the story. Sometimes it’s by using the essay form (e.g., “The Approach to Al-Mu’tasim”): but the pretense in these is so deep that readers may be easily convinced of the reality of what they describe — more easily than they are convinced of the reality of “The Red Book of the Westmarch.” Sometimes he does it through phantasmagorical descriptions (e.g., “Theme of the Traitor and the Hero”) or nightmarish situations (e.g., “The Two Kings and the Two Labyrinths”): but so did Chesterton, to whom Borges explicitly said he meant to pay tribute. Sometimes it’s with stories about impossible objects (the Aleph, the Zahir, the Book of Sand): but he wrote about these in a scrupulously realistic way, describing how excruciating it would be to encounter these objects in real life. Sometimes he wrote parables (e.g., “The Library of Babel”): I think no defense of the parable form is necessary here.

    I would certainly not classify Borges in any relevant category alongside Tolkien. But I would put most of his works in categories containing Kafka’s “Metamorphosis,” Chesterton’s “The Man Who Was Thursday”, and MacDonald’s “Lilith.” Would you disagree, and if so, why? [I don’t mean to be impudent, unless impudence will provoke you into answering in another essay, because I like your essays, and if I can provoke you this way, then poke poke poke poke poke.]

    Between Borges and Tolkien I do not see a distinction in types of fantasy, but only of narrative styles. I grant that the former’s techniques are a specialized taste, but I don’t think you must have a weakness for gnosis to enjoy them. A taste for “A Survey of the Works of Herbert Quain,” it seems to me, isn’t much different from a taste for the Times Literary Supplement.

    I’d also like to go on record (as a reader who adores both Tolkien and Borges) as saying that if there really is enmity between their admirers, then a more pointless and factitious quarrel I have never heard of. It’s like a quarrel between lovers of chocolate and lovers of daffodils.

    Now, if you did mean “Marquez” there, then I can’t comment. I only know him by reputation because I fell asleep every time I tried to read him.

    2. M*A*S*H* is a television show — a work of cinema. If you’re going to talk about the difference between ‘As’ and ‘As if’ storytelling, I think you would be on firmer ground in drawing the relevant contrasting examples from cinema. For instance, “Dreams,” which I remember with deep ambivalence, is most obviously compared to Bunuel. But if we’re going to distinguish between an ‘As if’ filmmaker like Bunuel and an ‘As’ filmmaker like (let us say) John Ford, what would you do with Alfred Hitchcock, most of whose films are deeply implausible but psychologically expressive (as you characterize ‘As if’ stories) but also extraordinarily popular, to the point that most critics had to be dragged over broken glass into acknowledging their artistic merits?

    • To talk about film would be wide of the point; I was pointing out that ‘As’ vs. ‘As If’ has nothing to do with realism vs. fantasy, and chose two fantasists to make the point. There is very little ‘As If’ fantasy in film outside of art houses, and I’m not sufficiently familiar with it to have examples ready to hand.

      As for Borges, I would maintain that ‘The Library of Babel’, and still more, ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’, are ‘As If’ fantasies where the central conceit is employed not to tell a story as such – it is virtually impossible to read those pieces immersively – but to construct parables about epistemology, and ultimately, to undermine the belief in objective knowledge by making knowledge as such look ridiculous.

      The Man Who Was Thursday is not a very good example of either kind of storytelling, because Chesterton waffles between them: he sets out, I believe, to tell a straightforward adventure story with a philosophical gimmick, and ends up being hagridden by the message without fully understanding what it is. (He was not, by his own account, a Christian when he wrote it, though he had pretty much settled down as one by the time it was published. Like Lewis a generation later, he seems to have been horrified by the implications of conversion until he actually experienced it – which may be why ‘Sunday’ is such an ambivalent figure, and why the book itself is subtitled ‘A Nightmare’.)

      Kafka does make a better example of ‘As If’ fantasy, and I wish I had thought of him. The trouble is that his storytelling is so very ‘As If’ that the littérateurs have hugged him possessively to their bosom, and most of them would deny that his work is fantasy at all. This does not fool the savvy reader, but it caused me to overlook him.

      • Jay Allman says

        Thanks for the reply. If Kafka replaces Borges as a representative example of “As If” fantasy, I am entirely pleased with the distinction. The proper classification of Borges I think can be laid aside as an irrelevancy. With his taste for hoax-reviews and literary thought experiments, he is probably a bad fit for any category except “Those That at a Distance Resemble Flies.”

  3. I suspect a better example of the As If category in literature would be someone like Flann O’Brien, who practically gives the formula for it in The Third Policeman: the narrator is so immersed in his own mind that even death can’t take him out of it, and thought and language are ‘omnium’ with which even an idiot can manufacture a world.

  4. I more or less liked “Metamorphosis”. Trippy, man.

    • My favourite take on that book comes from The Producers. Leo Bloom and Max Bialystock are reading mountains of slush to try to find the worst play ever written. Max picks up a script and reads: ‘ “Gregor Samsa awoke one morning to discover that he had been transformed into a giant cockroach.” It’s too good.’

  5. Bob McMaster says

    I am enjoying this series despite myself. I never watched MASH, nor had any interest in it and am (was?) completely unfamiliar with all the characters. Despite that, your analysis of the series is fascinating and I find myself looking forward to each post such that I end up checking your site several times a day in anticipation. Thank you.

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