The Breakfast Table

Just a Perfume

Dear Lucianne–

The world seems to be threatening to go seriously to hell today, but I plan to try to stick resolutely to my no-politics policy. I’m sure I’ll have abandoned it before this letter is over, but at least at the start I intend to focus on some of the “secular” subjects that have come up in our previous exchanges.

Such as character arcs. I love this topic. It’s such a luxury to talk about character arcs rather than actually have to improvise one while a studio executive is staring at me dubiously, drumming his fingertips on his desk. You asked me if they’re always necessary, and the answer is no. James Bond has no character arc, for example. You wouldn’t want him to change and grow and learn in the course of a movie. If he did effeminate things like that, he wouldn’t be James Bond. Or the Batman. The Batman has no particular character arc. He starts out as the Batman, and then when the movie’s finally over, some six or seven hours later, he’s still the Batman. Oh, he may have fallen in love in the interim, showing us his softer side, but even that usually leaves him unchanged. On the other hand, when you’re dealing with stories in which the interaction between character and situation is crucial–and it can be anything from Hamlet to There’s Something About Mary–you want your heroes and heroines to be affected by the experiences they undergo. And if they are, Presto! A character arc takes glorious shape beneath your hands.

I didn’t offer up my hypothetical medical researcher on speed to invite an anti-drug rant, Lucianne. So let me say this for the record, and as loudly and emphatically as I can, to all the children reading Slate today: DRUGS ARE BAD! DON’T TAKE THEM! No, I came up with that comparison because I think we’re dealing with a genuinely puzzling philosophical conundrum. If something external to yourself enhances your performance, does it remain your performance? And if not, then whose is it? Artificially extending one’s capacities, whether those capacities are physical or intellectual, is surely the question at issue here, or at least one of the questions. If Nabokov had written Lolita on speed, would his achievement be diminished? Would it be any less great a novel? If Gary Kasparov had won the World Chess Championship only after borrowing a couple of those pills from Mr. Nabokov, would the moves he made cease to be his own? After all, even if I consumed whole bottles-ful of little green pills, I still wouldn’t be capable of hitting a home-run against major league pitching, or writing Lolita, or out-maneuvering Kasparov, so it’s not as if the drugs are doing all the work. But as I say, the solution to this riddle eludes me. In the meantime, as an earnest of my sincerity, let me go ahead and provide another public-service spot: HEY THERE, NET KIDS! THIS IS YOUR BRAIN! THESE ARE DRUGS! THIS IS YOUR BRAIN ON DRUGS! ANY QUESTIONS?

Now, Lucianne, this really must be said … how, within a single paragraph, you managed to proceed from this question of green pills and home runs all the way to fruit loops, Bill Clinton, and oral sex utterly escapes me … Does the word “obsession” ring any bells? Something tells me it ain’t just a perfume.