Thursday, November 19, 2009

Dr. Jekyll, Mr. Asshole, and the Haiku of Fight Club

Last week, Poetry & Popular Culture tried—via some amateur and possibly dubious ornithological sleuthing—to argue for the singular importance of John Keats's "Ode to a Nightingale" in understanding Rouben Mamoulian's 1931 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Make no mistake: the P&PC Office wasn't allowed to carry off this claim unchallenged. Some respondents contended that whether or not the nightingale in the park scene was actually a nightingale makes no difference and that, in that scene, "bird" is understood to signify "nightingale" simply enough. Other whistle blowers argued that Jekyll's transformation into Hyde wasn't precipitated by poetry at all all but by the fact that Jekyll witnessed a cat eating a bird; observing an instinctual predator at work hailed Mr. Hyde and prompted his manifestation. Still other naysayers argued that Victor Fleming's 1941 remake is more sophisticated than P&PC gave it credit for being even though Fleming axed Keats from the script and left Jekyll whistling a song he first heard, as Hyde, in the company of Ivy.

Fair enough, we say, while nevertheless sticking to our guns: the fact that Jekyll's first-ever involuntary transformation into Hyde occurs immediately after he addresses a poem to another creature makes that moment particularly significant. It suggests that the re-appearance of Hyde has less to do with the return of the repressed than it does with either 1) the ability (or inability) to communicate to the proper auditor, or 2) the gap between reality and the world imagined by poetry. It's not poetry, per se, that the film associates with Jekyll's propriety, or with learning, or with class, or with culture, but, rather, the activity of saying or thinking about poetry as a way of relating to the specifics of this world.

Admittedly, part of our obstinacy in this matter is due to temperament, but part stems from the fact that one of the most recent Jekyll-and-Hyde movies—David Fincher's 1999 Fight Club starring Brad Pitt and Edward Norton—also suggests the central importance of poetry to the destabilization of the self. Fight Club centers on two characters, played by Pitt and Norton, who begin an underground amateur fight-club scene as a way of recruiting disaffected men into a terrorist network intent on breaking the power of financial institutions, especially the credit system and its record of debt. Pitt plays Tyler Durden, the impulsive, charismatic Hyde to Norton's nameless, conservative, insomniac Jekyll. As the movie develops [SPOILER ALERT], we discover that Norton's character is a delusional schizophrenic and that Tyler is really his alter ego with a six pack full of wish fulfillment. (At one point, his girlfriend Marla Singer, played by Helena Bonham Carter, describes Norton as "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Asshole" to sum up her feelings of being mistreated by both his selves.) How Norton ultimately untangles himself from himself—how he even discovers himself within himself—is the primary "fight" at the center of Fight Club.

There's a scene in the middle of the movie where Norton's heretofore cautious character begins to embrace Tyler's life philosophy in earnest; he detaches himself from the mind-numbing trappings of consumerist America in order to experience LIFE in all of its brutal vitality. He goes to work with blood on his shirt. He smokes cigarettes in his cubicle. You know, productive, radical stuff. In a little poetic series of voice-over I statements accompanying this change, he explains:

I was the Zen master.
I became the calm little center of the world.
I wrote little haiku poems.
I emailed them to everyone.
I got right in everyone's hostile little face.

That's not the poetry, however. As Norton is explaining this, we get a close-up view of his computer screen where he is in the process of word processing one of those "little haiku poems" that symbolizes his new attitude. Here's that haiku:

Worker bees can leave
Even drones can fly away
The queen is their slave

Unlike Dr. Jekyll in the 1931 film, who becomes a performer of the Keats poem prior to his trans- formation, Norton's character becomes an author. And the haiku may be the perfect poetic form to bring his two selves into some sort of alignment: it's as lean as Tyler's six pack and has the sort of Spartan ethos Tyler would advocate, yet its regular 5-7-5 form would appeal to the structure Norton's other half needs. And it's a poetic form as at home in the iconoclastic, seventeenth-century, world-renouncing hands of Basho as it is in the the 21st-Century American cubicle. (See how Craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster has been writing haiku in lieu of error messages to help police disruptive activity on the online site.) Rather than separating Norton from his alter ego, as it does with Jekyll, poetry appears, however uneasily, to synchronize the two.

All of this isn't to say that Jekyll's recitation of "Ode to a Nightingale" in 1931 and Norton's composition of seventeen syllables in 1999 are equivalent acts. Far from it. While both do occur at a significant moment of transformation from Jekyll to Hyde—or from Jekyll to Mr. Asshole—those transformations are complicated by the nature of authorship (Norton is an author, Jekyll is not), the media entailed (Jekyll uses his voice, Norton uses email), their respective cultures (Jekyll is in 19th-century Britain, Norton is not), etc. That is, if the 1931 flick is about the birds (the Nightingale), then the 1999 film is about the bees (drones, workers, queens). But the simple fact that this Jekyll-Hyde transformation is articulated in both cases via poetry should be enough to create some buzz—if not give one something to sing about.