Paul O'Brian writes about Watchmen, trivia, albums, interactive fiction, and more.

Author: Paul O'Brian

Portrait of Dante by Botticelli

The Watchmen Bestiary 33 – The Morality of My Activities

Abandon all hope of avoiding Watchmen spoilers, ye who read this post.

Our journey through Watchmen references has now crossed into Chapter 4, a chapter devoted exclusively to exploring the character and memories of Jon Osterman, Doctor Manhattan. One of those memories contains the next reference — from his early foray into superheroing:
Watchmen Chapter 4, page 14, panel 2. Dr. Manhattan points at a gunman, whose head explodes. A large caption almost covers up the word "Dante's". A smaller caption reads "The morality of my activities escapes me."
The eagle-eyed Annotated Watchmen v2.0 finds a reference here that even Leslie Klinger missed, looking behind the caption box to notice:

The name of this “crime-den” is “Dante’s,” a reference to the Italian author best known for the Divine Comedy, which included a trip to Hell. The name and red lighting seem to be intended to invoke a hellish atmosphere.

Aside from the fact that the writer likely meant “evoke” rather than “invoke”, and that “vice-den” is improperly quoted as “crime-den”, this is an astute observation! The club name is mostly obscured, but once we see it as “Dante’s”, we can’t possibly see it as anything else, and indeed Dante’s version of Hell is underground, just as Moloch’s vice-den is said to be. The connection is very clear.

Dante and the Commedia

So let’s dive a bit into Dante and his greatest work. Dante Alighieri was born in 13th-century Florence, Italy. His birth year is widely accepted as 1265, though the logic behind establishing this birth year is, as Mark Scarbrough points out in his stellar podcast Walking With Dante, pretty specious. But it’s enough for our purposes to know that he was born midway through the 13th century, became active in Florentine politics as an adult, and was exiled in 1302 as the political terrain shifted. He died in 1321, having never returned to his home.

Dante had been writing and releasing poetry since well before the turn of the century, but it was in exile that he composed his master work, a work he simply called Comedy — “Commedia” in his medieval Tuscan. (The “Divine” would be added by his fan and commentator Boccaccio, well after Dante’s death. It’s also worth pointing out that the name “Comedy” isn’t after our modern sense of hilarity, but the older sense of a happy ending.) Comedy was a trip through the known universe, as Dante understood and imagined it, and it was also a comprehensive catalog of his moral and philosophical thought, deeply rooted in the Christianity (specifically Catholicism) of his time.

Dante composed his poem of individual cantos (think chapters or sections) grouped into three canticles: Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. It’s written in the first person voice, and claims to be an account of how Dante became lost in a dark wood, and with help from the ghost of the classical poet Virgil, traversed every level of Hell (Inferno) and Purgatory (Purgatorio). He must leave Virgil behind to travel through Heaven (Paradiso), so Beatrice — his idealized woman and the object of his courtly love poems, who had died in 1290 — becomes his guide for the final piece of the trilogy.

Comedy makes a number of surprising literary moves, not least the way that it mixes together figures from disparate parts of both literature, religion, history, and local politics. In his travels, Dante the pilgrim meets characters from the Bible standing alongside men, women, and creatures from mythology. People from history and Dante’s own Florentine contemporaries populate the mix as well, so that the landscape of God’s judgment includes everyone who ever was or ever was imagined.

From our modern perspective, mixtures like this may not be too startling — we’ve seen Bill and Ted joshing with Socrates and Joan of Arc, or a Marvel comics universe where Thor and Hercules (and seemingly all the members of every other pantheon) run around with futuristic scientists and soldiers. For that matter, we’ve got Watchmen, in which we get The Comedian shaking hands with Gerald Ford and Doctor Manhattan with JFK. But in the 13th century, religion, myth, history, and current events didn’t mix in fiction — until Dante.
A diagram of the universe described in the Comedy, including Hell, Purgatory, and the celestial spheres of paradise.
In addition to its bold approach to bricolage, Comedy also displays an astonishing level of structure. Medieval numerology is everywhere, peppering the work with threes, nines, tens and hundreds, among other sacred numbers. Three, being the holy number of the Trinity, appears at the highest level of abstraction — three parts of the Comedy itself — down to the lowest level of the poetic lines, which are written in a form called terza rima, in which rhymes repeat and interlock three times each. Nine, being three times three, is holy times holy, which is why we see nine circles of Hell, nine spheres of heaven, and so forth. Thirty-three is also a big one, with two of the canticles containing 33 cantos each, and most stanzas containing thirty-three syllables. (Dante would love the fact that this post is entry number 33 in the Watchmen Bestiary.)

Ten appears various places in the Bible, such as the Ten Commandments or the ten plagues of Egypt. Similarly, tens show up in the Comedy as well, such as when we add the “vestibules” to the nine levels of Hell and Heaven. Ten times ten — a perfect number in Dante’s sight — was the number of overall cantos in Comedy, and in fact that hundred is made of three thirty-threes plus an introductory one. (Inferno has 34 cantos.) This formulation of 9+1 or 99+1 undergirds the Comedy‘s structure, but there’s more to it than just numbers. Structure appears thematically, such as in Inferno, where Dante the pilgrim often echoes the sin he sees punished, and linguistically, such as the fact that each canticle of Comedy ends with the word “stelle” — stars.

In this way, Comedy resonates with Watchmen, which is itself richly structured. Moore and Gibbons aren’t so concerned with numbers, though Dante would doubtless appreciate the nine-panel layout employed throughout the book. With Watchmen, structure becomes more a matter of rhythm, such as the way that (for most of the book) plot-driven chapters alternate with character-driven chapters, or the way that changes in scene or lighting can create “X” and “O” shapes on the page.

Structure also shows up on the chapter level. In the Love & Rockets post, I went on at length about the structure of Chapter 2 — a present-day storyline interspersed with flashbacks, progressing in chronological order, with each showing The Comedian from a different character’s viewpoint. Probably the most famous structural trick in Watchmen occurs in Chapter 5, “Fearful Symmetry”, in which the panel layout for the entire issue is completely symmetrical, meeting in the middle with a double-page splash of Adrian Veidt fighting his would-be assassin. (Adrian, appropriately, is at the center of the story.) Symmetry appears in Comedy as well, with the mountain of Purgatory reflecting the cavern of Hell, and Purgatory itself poised midway through Dante’s journey, its middle cantos discussing the questions of free will that underpin the entire moral and theological structure of the poem.

The plots of the two works are quite different, of course. Watchmen operates (on the surface level anyway) as a mystery, while Comedy is essentially a tour — a very long tour through all the levels of a highly structured afterlife. That afterlife is divided according to sins and virtues, with each division populated by emblematic examples of the behavior — Judas as the ultimate traitor, Midas as the icon of avarice, and so on.

That said, Chapter 1 of Watchmen does take us on a tour, with Rorschach as our pilgrim and his own paranoia acting as his guide. As we follow, he takes us to each circle of “superhero” existence in his world, circles which encompass a number of solid archetypes. There’s the rough Comedian, grizzled and dark like a Punisher or Nick Fury. There’s the earnest Nite Owl and his cave full of gadgets and vehicles a la Batman. Ozymandias embodies the wealthy altruist — again Batman, but also Iron Man, Green Arrow, and many others — as well as the perfected human athlete such as Captain America or, uh… Batman. Silk Spectre comes across as the sex-bomb gymnast type, like Black Canary or Black Widow, while Dr. Manhattan has both the super-science of a Mr. Fantastic and the godlike power of a Superman. Thus our introduction to Watchmen takes us through a Dante-esque journey of figures exemplifying ideas, but the book holds their fates until its final chapter.

Manhattan and Morality

About those fates — one aspect of the moral structure that pervades the Inferno (and to a lesser extent Purgatorio) is the notion of contrapasso, which we may define more or less as “the punishment fitting the crime.” Thus usurers must carry a purse around their necks as they avoid fire raining from the sky. Soothsayers who tried to predict the future spend their time in Hell with their necks twisted 180 degrees, so they are only able to look backward. Flatterers are, well, immersed in shit. And so forth.
A painting by Stradanus of soothsayers in Hell, with their heads turned backwards.
Watchmen doesn’t portray an afterlife of just desserts, but it does endeavor to show a variety of human (and superhuman) natures and their consequences, with no shortage of poetic justice, or at least poetic irony. Thus The Comedian, who lives his life as a fallen hero, becomes a truly fallen hero at his life’s end. Thus Nite Owl, who can only really feel like himself behind a mask, ends up adopting a whole new identity at the story’s end. Thus Ozymandias, whose name evokes Shelley’s poem about a king whose works were far less lasting than he belived they would be, creates a peace so fragile that a diary can tip it over. Thus Rorschach becomes a blot on a featureless white surface.

And what of Doctor Manhattan, the character whose chapter gets the Dante reference? Here we see some of the widest gaps between Comedy and Watchmen. Dante’s entire project is to flesh out a moral universe overseen by a stern and loving God, whose limitless knowledge pairs with a vast array of punishments, rewards, and (in the case of Purgatorio) one that can lead to the other. The closest thing to God in Watchmen‘s universe, though, is Doctor Manhattan himself, and the transformed Jon Osterman has very little interest in engaging with humanity at all, let alone constructing an afterlife of individual contrapasso for each member of it. The moral universe of Watchmen, as I discussed in the Bible reference posts, inverts traditional Christian stories to become a parody of their viewpoints.

Thus Doctor Manhattan’s story ends with him deciding to become God, and having observed him through the course of Watchmen, we might justifiably have our doubts about the sort of universe he will create. Where Dante’s God has love, Manhattan has only curiosity, and a rather weary curiosity at that. But there’s even more to this question of creators and the moral dimensions of their creations.

Consider this: Dante presents Comedy as the exploration of an afterlife created by God. But is it that, really? Of course not. It is the exploration of an afterlife created by Dante. And to make things even more complicated, Dante the creator poet explores his creation via the viewpoint of a pilgrim… who is also Dante. These two — the poet and the pilgrim — claim the same identity, but they are clearly not the same. Dante the pilgrim is a fictional character, entirely controlled by Dante the poet, who was a real person.

Moore and Gibbons don’t insert themselves into their story, but they do create a world that opens thorny questions about the nature of authorship. In the last entry, I asked whether Jon Osterman might have collapsed the probability waveform of his universe at the moment he became Doctor Manhattan, thus creating the future of his world at the moment he observed it. Maybe, maybe not, but the story does make very clear that at least he can see that future. More than that, as Chapter 4 shows, he lives it in all in the same moment, inhabiting a bewildering consciousness of mixed simultaneity and linearity.

He is, he tells us, a puppet who can see the strings. But he clearly can’t see all of them, because he remains unaware of his creators: Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. He is a sort of stand-in for the reader (or at least, the repeat reader) in his awareness of the full story, but even aside from not knowing the authors of it, there are other dimensions of his story that he fails to understand. In the panel that inspired this post, his voiceover states, “the morality of my activities escapes me,” as we see him exploding a gunman’s head. Let’s unpack that a little.

In the context of the story Dr. Manhattan is telling us, he’s been placed at that moment into a dubiously moral framework by the newspapers calling him a “crimefighter”, and the government insisting he live up to the label. So he might be saying that despite the entities claiming otherwise, he fails to see the morality of what he’s been sent out to do. As readers, we might agree with him there. But as is so often the case in Watchmen, the juxtaposition of words and pictures strikes a heavily ironic note — in this case, we’re watching the “crimefighter” casually murder a human who poses no threat to him. (No humans pose any threat to him, no matter how heavily armed.) The rest of the crowd, whatever their other vices, is shocked and horrified at this sight. Yet the immorality of Dr. Manhattan’s activities escapes him as well.

But it doesn’t escape us, and it doesn’t escape Moore and Gibbons. In that moment, they are clearly showing us the distance between Manhattan’s moral compass and their own, and presumably ours as well. So while Manhattan may be able to see the strings, that doesn’t mean he understands them. He is a compromised reader, and a compromised author. Why is he this way? I would suggest that, like Dante, Jon Osterman is an exile, and like Dante, the experience of exile fundamentally shapes his consciousness.

Osterman in Exile

In fact, Jon suffers a series of exiles, several of which we see in this chapter. In 1945, his father reacts to the news of Hiroshima by throwing away Jon’s cogs, in effect exiling him from his childhood identity as an aspiring watchmaker. From there, he is ejected from his childhood home, first to Princeton and then to Gila Flats. At that lab, inside the intrinsic field chamber, he suffers an exile far more profound: permanent estrangement from his own body.
Watchmen, Chapter 4, page 8, panel 4. Jon reduced to a skeleton, and even that disintegrating. Caption: The light is taking me to pieces.
There’s a section of the Inferno where Dante (the pilgrim) encounters the fate of suicides. The contrapasso for these souls, who shed their bodies voluntarily, is that they are forever denied those bodies in the afterlife. They are transformed into strange trees and bushes, gnarled and devoid of leaves. In this form, they can see other humans only as menaces — breakers of branches. After he constitutes an artificial body for himself, Jon Osterman finds himself similarly distanced from humanity, watching and participating in its activities with diminishing interest.

Finally, in the course of the book, he chooses to exile himself from humanity altogether, first to Mars, and then (we presume) much further by the story’s end. Perhaps in a sense this series of exiles echoes the progression of Comedy. Where at first Jon finds his expulsion from the life he imagined hellish, he seems to experience the removal of his body as purgatorial, a purgation of self, albeit an involuntary one. His final exiles out into space echo the images of the Paradiso, which was a journey through the celestial spheres of Ptolemaic medieval astronomy, including Mars. But Dante’s story of paradise centers the notion of transcendence, and Jon’s resignation and removal manifest as a parody of that paradise, not an attainment of it.

Jon’s detachment from humanity isn’t just because he loses the physical, carnal aspect of being human. Dante’s suffering shades have lost that aspect too, but those who haven’t ascended are as human and limited as they ever were. Dr. Osterman, though, reconstructs his consciousness as he reconstructs his body, and in doing so, becomes an exile from the human experience of linear time.

In Canto 29 of the Paradiso, Beatrice explains how the mind of God exists in an “eternity outside of time”, and that “after” and “before” did not exist until He created them. His angels, she says, have never turned their vision from the face of God, “so that their sight is never intercepted / by a new object, and they have no need / to recollect an interrupted concept.” (Translation by Allen Mandelbaum.) Dante scholar John Took sees these lines as defining a fundamental difference between human and divine experience:

Thus time enters into human experience in respect of one of the most fundamental aspects of man’s activity as man, namely in respect of his intentional reconstruction both of self and the world beyond self as the basis for everything coming next by way of its proper conception and celebration. The intentional reconstruction both of self and of the world beyond self, Dante thinks, is always temporally conditioned. It is always a matter of its successive moments. (Dante, pg. 386)

Took tends toward the obtuse and rococo, and this passage is certainly no exception, but it does help us understand just how far away Jon Osterman has been sent from us. If human experience is always temporally conditioned, always a matter of successive moments, then human experience is no longer available to Jon.

Given that reality, is it any wonder he finds himself a stranger to human morality? This panel, in a club called “Dante’s”, shows us how removed he has become from such concepts, even in 1960, well before the main events of the book’s plot. In fact, that panel is pretty much entirely devoid of morality — not just the Manhattan murder, but Moloch himself and all the sinners in the vice-den. Naming the club “Dante’s” is a perfect irony generator by Moore and Gibbons, since human morality was the basis of Dante’s entire project.

Dante explored morality by constructing an extended encounter between the human and the divine. Moore and Gibbons do something similar, but in their case the human and divine meet in a single figure, and that figure is very far from Christlike. Instead, he personifies the morality of the atomic bomb, of humankind ascended to godlike power without transcending its fundamental flaws. Jon Osterman cannot resolve this tension within himself, but he does his best to abandon it, hoping to leave our (and his) complicated and messy humanity behind for the cleaner and simpler stars.

Cover of the D&D basic rulebook from 1981, described elsewhere in the post

D&D&Me

I’m the same age as the kids in Stranger Things. Like them, I rode my bike around the neighborhood a bunch, loved my Kenner Star Wars stuff, and dropped many a quarter on arcade games. Also like them, I played a whole lot of Dungeons and Dragons as a tween and early teen.

Exact ages and dates are a little hazy behind the mists of time, but my introduction to the game happened on a birthday — 11th or 12th I think. On some gift-giving occasions, my parents would send me on a treasure hunt through the house, following a trail of clues until I finally found a present. On that birthday, I opened a drawer at the end of the trail and found… something?

It was a bunch of solid shapes — a pyramid, a cube, and others with many more sides. Each one was a different color, and each side had a number written on it. They seemed like dice, maybe? The note with them said, “What are these? I don’t know either, but let’s find out together!”

Three very worn plastic dice

The survivors of that original batch of dice — edges worn down from many rolls!

Then out came the purple box, with the red rule book, each of which sported a picture of a couple of adventurers taking on a big water-dwelling dragon. I learned about the dice, the attribute scores, the combat, and all the other mechanics, and was quite intrigued. But what hooked me was this new kind of game playing, one that combined elements of the board games I loved with themes from the Tolkien and Zelazny books I’d been reading, while at the same time bringing in an element of pure pretend play, a part of childhood I’d been leaving behind with some ambivalence.

My dad was the Dungeon Master for our D&D session that night. I was an elf, lured into an underground vault to uncover its secrets alongside another character played by my mom. I still remember our kitchen table, Dad behind the cardboard screen, narrating our adventure. “You creep as quietly as possible through the dark underground passage. From far off, you hear the sound of water slowly dripping. Your torches illuminate gauzy threads, strung across the passageway AND SUDDENLY A GIANT SPIDER DROPS DOWN FROM THE CEILING!!” Oh man, my mom and I just about jumped out of our skins. But I was enchanted.

That was the last time for a very long time that I got to be a D&D player. I corralled some friends to play, but the only way I could sell the concept was if I was the Dungeon Master. That was okay — I was utterly fascinated with the game, and more than happy to spend hours populating dungeons with monsters and making up narrative threads for my friends’ characters. Through a combination of allowance spending and holiday gifts, I acquired all the advanced rulebooks, and many an adventure module. I even branched out into RPGs (role-playing games) from other genres — science fiction, James Bond spy stuff, and of course Marvel superheroes.

On a regular basis, 3 or 4 kids would gather in my basement and I’d take them through adventures. Or try to. As much as I dug everything about the game, there was always something a touch unsatisfying about those gaming sessions. My friends and I weren’t quite on the same wavelength, and I didn’t have the skill to even identify that, let alone talk about it. I wanted to be transported into a story and soar on the high-flown fantasy of it all, but most of the time everything remained stubbornly prosaic, a hack & slash gold-grubbing exercise, never really suspending disbelief. I suspect that’s down to my lack of skill as a DM, our ages, and the overall awkwardness of role-playing among non-theatrical types.

In any case, after a few years all the RPG stuff got packed away, and we all moved on to other pursuits, including — for me — actual theater. I sold a bunch of D&D modules and such on eBay some time ago, happy to recoup a little money for papers that were just mouldering away in a box. Selling that stuff made me quite sure that the D&D part of my life was over.

Then came Dante. As he became a teenager, Dante began to be deeply interested in game design. He’d always been someone who immediately wanted to make up variants to any game we played together, but as his brain matured, he started seriously exploring whatever gaming avenues he could find and learning about all sorts of genres and mechanics. This led him to discovering some retro roguelikes, in particular Angband. As he unpacked Angband‘s mechanics, he got very interested in their origins, which allowed me to explain to him all about Dungeons and Dragons.

A collection of vintage D&D rulebooks, along with a dungeon master's screen and a few peripherals

Some of those childhood rulebooks and accessories — I didn’t sell everything!

He wanted to try it. Of course, I’d sold much of my D&D stuff years ago, and I had no concept of the way the game had evolved since. But between the Internet and the resources I still had, I cobbled some rules together, getting as far as helping him put together a character and taking him on the rudimentary beginnings of an adventure. Right after that, magic struck.

I’d been talking to a co-worker of mine socially about Dante’s interest in D&D and well, it turns out her husband is a longtime DM who wanted to start up a campaign again. They invited us to join. I was a little shy about it at first, intimidated by the gulf between my early-teen self and my current self, and all the D&D lore that had gone by in the meantime. But “for Dante’s sake”, I warmed up to it, and we created some characters.

Starting then, and for about 16 months, Dante and I took our dwarven cleric and half-orc barbarian through a series of great adventures. The 5th edition D&D rules are a deep well of delight, and I got to be the D&D player I’d always secretly wanted to be, with a great DM and a great group. During that time, I realized something pretty profound: Dungeons and Dragons played a crucial part in making me who I am today, and some of my most ingrained personality characteristics are either extensions of the D&D aesthetic or attempts to complete the experience I reached for as a kid but couldn’t quite grasp.

Take that theater, for instance. You know one way to get involved in a story, becoming one of the characters? Audition for a play! In improv, you can even invent that character’s direction as you go along! I wouldn’t make the claim that my heavy involvement in high school theater was a direct outgrowth of my preteen D&D session frustrations, but I will say that being in plays scratched an itch that I could never quite get at via RPGs.

Here’s a broader, deeper one: systems and randomness. For all of my adult life, I’ve been someone who makes decisions via diceroll, in the framework of a set of rules. Not huge decisions, mind you (usually), but routine and daily ones. Today I decided to drink water (instead of tea or soda) via diceroll, and also what book I would read — 1950s Ditko/Lee comics on Marvel Unlimited, also selected randomly. I’m focused on writing this post today via a random choice. I’m drinking a beer right now because of what I rolled a half-hour ago.

Writing about it a little over fifteen years ago, I called this habit “a coping mechanism to deal with a world of too much choice.” And that’s still true. But after returning to D&D, I realized that of course I’d imprinted on this behavior because I fell in love with its manifestation in the D&D rules. One of the most fascinating and incredible things about the game is the way that the dice shape the characters’ lives, taking both mundane and exotic moments in directions that nobody can wholly predict, and around which everyone’s stories must flow. Of course, in the game those dice are merely symbolic of the randomness in the universe, but my personal universe’s randomness comes directly from dice and other random number generators.

Once I started thinking in this direction, I was floored to understand how much of my identity has its roots in the D&D experience. My love for interactive fiction, I realized, is also an attempt to find what childhood RPGing didn’t provide. Even the best IF doesn’t let you have totally free rein to take the story in any direction, but honestly neither does the best RPG session. The best IF does give you an interactive experience with a storyteller who is fully committed to immersing you in a compelling fictional world, with no risk of other humans ruining the vibe. Those hundreds upon hundreds of hours I spent text adventuring had an intrinsic value of their own, of course, but they were also a balm to the part of me that just kept longing for a deep, immersive role-playing experience.

Cover of the Player's Handbook from the 5th edition of the D&D rules

Why was that longing so powerful, that it set me on these lifelong courses of extension and compensation? Judging by the ache that comes up in me when I write about it, I think some part of it is deeply connected to loneliness. By most measures, I’m not a lonely person. I have a family who I genuinely enjoy living with, and friends across many different realms, from workplace to trivia to IF to longtime high school bonds. But looking back on those childhood D&D sessions feels lonely in a specific way: the loneliness of being with people who are all there for a different reason than you are.

That’s nothing against those childhood friends, who were perfectly fine and most likely very patient with my D&D obsession. It’s more about trying to find a match for a part of me, and it not being there. For all the friends and family I have, I still never found that match, until my adventures with Dante and my co-workers.

Getting to have that experience after all, almost forty years after first opening that drawer with the dice inside, was an enormous blessing. But this story doesn’t have the happiest ending. Our D&D campaign broke up about 9 months ago, foundering on the pandemic-scarred shoals of some ugly real-life events. According to our DM, it’s not coming back anytime soon, certainly not in 2021.

I miss those gaming sessions terribly, with an outsized grief that I only now understand has been sublimated for most of my life into other forms. Finally assuaging that lonely feeling and then having it come back makes it so much sharper. I really, really want to return to Dungeons and Dragons again, or more specifically, I really really want to be a Dungeons and Dragons player again. That’s where I found the joy for which I’d been unconsciously yearning. Dante hasn’t been grieving it the way I have, of course, and unlike me he’s more into mechanics than story, but I know he hopes to return to the D&D table as well.

Anybody want to run a campaign for a 50-year-old lapsed roleplayer and his gentle, genderqueer 15-year-old son?

Photo of Albert Einstein

The Watchmen Bestiary 32 – Time Pieces

Spoilers for Watchmen are relatively plentiful below.

Like Watchmen itself, The Annotated Watchmen v2.0 is divided into chapters, and the beginning of each chapter’s annotations outlines its motifs, its focus, its cover, and the source of its title quotation. Thus it is that as we enter Chapter 4, we focus on its epigraph, which the annotations cite as “A quotation from Albert Einstein.” Specifically, the epigraph is this:

The release of atom power has changed everything except our way of thinking… The solution to this problem lies in the heart of mankind. If only I had known, I should have become a watchmaker.
— Albert Einstein

There’s only one problem: Einstein never said this. As Leslie Klinger correctly points out, the source of this alleged quote has not been found, and professional quote verifier Ralph Keyes has flatly stated that “Einstein said no such thing.” (The Quote Verifier, pg. 53.)

Say What?

The “quote” is in fact cobbled together from various things that Einstein said or sort-of said, but assembled to imply a sense that is quite false to Einstein’s actual viewpoints. There are three fundamental pieces to the epigraph:

1) “The release of atom power has changed everything except our way of thinking.”

This part of the epigraph nearly matches a sentence that Einstein wrote in a 1946 fund-raising telegram for the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists. The first two sentences of that telegram are:

Our world faces crisis as yet unperceived by those possessing power to make great decisions for good or evil. The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.

In the context created by Watchmen, this first portion of the Einstein “quote” sounds a bit resigned. In its true context, however, and with its final clause restored, it’s meant to instill a driving sense of urgency. The telegram winds up with a pitch for money — two hundred thousand dollars for a “nationwide campaign to let the people know that new type of thinking essential if mankind is to survive and move toward higher levels.”

Einstein passionately believed that atomic weapons were too dangerous to rest in the hands of individual nations, and that the information on how to create them should be held only by a “supranational” world government organization. This was the mode of thinking he wished to change — a focus away from nationalism, and toward a one-world philosophy. Away from competition, toward cooperation. Having lived through two World Wars and having seen a Holocaust perpetrated against his people, Einstein felt convinced that if individual nations held atomic weapons, they would certainly use them against each other. He saw arms control as humanity’s best hope.

Unfortunately, though the Emergency Committee promoted peace plans, gave speeches, and even produced a couple of short movies to support its peaceful message, that message failed to gain a foothold in a world whose international temperature was rapidly plummeting toward Cold War. The Committee disbanded in 1951. Incidentally, one of the groups it funded during its lifespan was the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, also co-founded by Einstein, and more importantly for our purposes, creators of the Doomsday Clock whose iconography Moore and Gibbons weave into every issue of Watchmen.

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists' Doomsday Clock alongside the Watchmen one

2) “The solution to this problem lies in the heart of mankind.”

The ellipsis in Chapter 4’s epigraph is doing a lot of heavy lifting. Normally that punctuation mark suggests that we’re skipping over some superfluous material to arrive at a later point in the same quoted document. However, this “heart of mankind” sentence does not appear at all in the Emergency Committee’s fundraising telegram. It instead paraphrases a sentiment that the post-WWII Einstein frequently expressed, one which was arguably most prominent in a June 23, 1946 article in the New York Times Magazine, entitled “The Real Problem Is In the Hearts of Men.” Note that here Einstein does not argue that the solution is to be found in humanity’s heart, but rather the problem itself.

This article leads off with a recapitulation of the “new type of thinking” quote from the Emergency Committee’s telegram, so it’s reasonable enough to assume that “this problem” does in fact refer to the change in thinking Einstein saw as necessary. He then goes on to argue that the bomb makes armies irrelevant, now that nations can wage war on each other with rockets while never crossing each other’s borders. Furthermore, science has no defense against this kind of attack, and therefore national military buildup has become an obsolete strategy to secure safety. This article has several versions of Einstein’s famous “We cannot simultaneously plan for war and peace” sentiment, in service once again of the world government proposal.

The problem, as he states it, is that humans must cooperate to avoid self-inflicted destruction, but that competition comes much more easily to us than does cooperation. “It is easier to denature plutonium,” he asserts, “than it is to denature the evil spirit of man.” And yet, his only option is to speak to our higher selves, hoping to persuade enough people to change their way of thinking. “We will not change the hearts of other men by mechanisms,” he says, “but by changing our hearts and speaking bravely… When we are clear in heart and mind — only then shall we find courage to surmount the fear which haunts the world.”

This topic comes up a lot in a book called Einstein and the Poet, a fairly low-quality retelling of some Einstein interviews in which “the poet” (as the author has dubbed himself) speaks with Einstein on four different occasions: once before World War II, once during, and twice after. In the later discussions, Einstein returns again and again to the theme that humanity’s only hope is to alter its own heart. A sample:

I agree with you, intellect has never saved the world. If we want to improve the world we cannot do it with scientific knowledge but with ideals. Confucius, Buddha, Jesus, and Gandhi have done more for humanity than science has done. We must begin with the heart of man — with his conscience — and the values of conscience can only be manifested by selfless service to mankind. (The pages are unnumbered in this book, so I can’t cite a page number.)

However, while it’s true that Einstein saw this change as humanity’s only hope, his outlook was not optimistic. When “the poet” asks him, “Why is it that you stand so alone in your plan to create a supranational government?”, Einstein replies, “Because men don’t want to change their hearts. At the bottom of all problems stands the human animal, with his greed.”

If the need to change our way of thinking is the problem, than of course the solution must come from within us, but Einstein didn’t tend to see “the heart of mankind” as a solution, but rather as a problem which must be overcome despite humanity’s natural inclinations.

3) “If only I had known, I should have become a watchmaker.”

The last panel of Watchmen Chapter 4, displaying the Einstein epigraphHere we come to the most problematic piece of them all. While it’s very difficult to prove a negative, no one who has researched this quote can find any place where Einstein expresses any wistful proclivity for making watches. More’s the pity (I almost said “Moore’s the pity”) for Watchmen, which relies on that sentiment to tie Jon Osterman the walking bomb to his watchmaking father, and to the clock motif of the whole book. The very chapter title, “Watchmaker”, relies on the one word of this quote that Einstein does not seem to have said at all.

Not only that, but where Einstein did express this sort of regretful sentiment (albeit always with other professions like plumber or cobbler), it was not in the context that this epigraph tries to present. In the “quote” of Chapter 4’s last panel, the “if only I had known” seems to refer back to “the release of atom power”, and “this problem” of needing to instill new thinking in old human brains. The suggestion seems to be that if Einstein had known his investigations into relativity would result in the atomic bomb, he would never have become a scientist at all. But while he did feel some amount of guilt for his role in the bomb’s arrival, he never tied that guilt to any hindsight renunciation of his scientific career. On the contrary, science remained the guiding light of his entire life through his old age, and he continued passionately to advocate on behalf of its search for truth.

Now, he was certainly known to inveigh against things that irritated him in the human or physical realm, and to do so by rhetorically making a retroactive change to his profession — just not about his role in the creation of the bomb. Probably his most well-known use of this formula was in an 1954 interview in which he was bemoaning McCarthyism’s effects on academia.

In pushing back against the politicization of his profession, he stated that if he were young again and had to decide how to make a living in 1954, “I would not try to become a scientist or scholar or teacher. I would rather choose to be a plumber or a peddler, in the hope of finding that modest degree of independence still available.” In other words, he’d still pursue science, just outside the academic cloister that had become a target of the political right. (This assertion, by the way, won him an honorary membership card in a plumber’s union.) (Einstein: His Life And Universe, pg. 533-4)

Even thirty years earlier, in a 1924 letter to Max Born, he made a statement like this about his deep discomfort with quantum physics and its notions of using probabilities and uncertainties in its model of the physical world:

I find it quite intolerable that an electron exposed to radiation should choose of its own free will not only its moment to jump off but also its direction. In that case, I would rather be a cobbler, or even an employee of a gaming house, than a physicist. (Ibid., pg. 325)

This is not a statement of regret or guilt, but more an ultimatum delivered to physics itself. Though he’s often mistakenly associated with relativism (rather than relativity), Einstein in fact believed wholly in a physics whose rules were certain and unvarying — in fact he nearly named his theory of relativity the Invariance Theory, due to its strict causality and its assertion that the relationship between space and time remains constant no matter from what perspective it is viewed.

Photo of Einstein and Bohr

Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein, 1925

He spent the latter half of his career challenging Werner Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and Niels Bohr’s probabilistic model of the atom, frequently reiterating various versions of “God does not play dice with the universe.” Far from dramatically abandoning his discoveries, his letter to Born about wanting to be a cobbler or gaming-house employee was a rhetorical position that demanded the falsity of quantum theory in order for physics to retain Einstein’s allegiance. He remained loyal to his deterministic vision throughout his life, ironically displaying a reluctance to change his own mode of thinking.

The closest approximation I could find to any wish on Einstein’s part to revise his past because of the bomb didn’t invoke any other profession at all. In 1939, Einstein had co-authored a letter to Franklin Roosevelt, warning him that a nuclear chain reaction in a large mass of uranium could be made into an extremely powerful bomb, and that German scientists might be pursuing such a bomb. The letter suggested that Roosevelt may want to have “some permanent contact maintained between the Administration and the group of physicists working on chain reactions in America.” Roosevelt agreed, and the result was the Manhattan Project.

After Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the conclusion of World War II, Einstein was horrified by the moral dimensions of the bomb. Due to his letter to Roosevelt and his E=mc2 equation demonstrating the relationship between mass and energy, the popular press tagged Einstein as “father of the bomb”, though he’d done none of the technological work necessary to bring it to fruition. He was deeply uncomfortable with this label, lamenting the Roosevelt letter in a 1947 Newsweek article: “Had I known that the Germans would not succeed in producing an atomic bomb, I never would have lifted a finger.”

Again, this quote does not in the slightest shy away from a career in physics, let alone yearn for one in watchmaking. Instead, his sense of regret spurred his quest for a world government. Meanwhile Truman, that leader so beloved by Rorschach, dropped the bomb “with little high-level debate.” (Ibid, pg. 484)

Pieces of Time

So okay, Einstein didn’t really say what Watchmen says he said. But Chapter 4 focuses on Doctor Manhattan, and even choosing Einstein as the figure for the epigraph, regardless of the accuracy of the words, feels like a rich connection. What light can Einstein shed on the good Doctor?

Well, for one thing, their personalities have some attributes in common. Einstein was rebellious where Jon is passive, but they shared a similar difficulty in dealing with humans, especially in Einstein’s childhood. Einstein biographer Walter Isaacson wrote, “To use the language of psychologists, the young Einstein’s ability to systemize (identify the laws that govern a system) was far greater than his ability to empathize (sense and care about what other humans are feeling).” (Ibid., pg. 12) This doesn’t necessarily mean that he was “on the spectrum” as we say now (though some have certainly argued that case) — in fact he became very socially skilled in his adulthood. But human beings did pose more of a puzzle for him throughout his life than other natural phenomena — he knew how everything in this world fits together except people.

Perhaps related to this sense of remove, Einstein seemed to share with Dr. Manhattan a certain indifference to death. Here’s a quote from his letter of condolence to the family of his dear friend Michele Besso:

Now he has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me. That signifies nothing. For those of us who believe in physics, the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion. (The Ultimate Quotable Einstein, pg. 113)

Not only does his quote (to a grieving family!) veer rather close to “A live body and a dead body contain the same number of particles” territory, he also seems to echo Doctor Manhattan’s insistence that linear time is an illusion.

Chapter 1, page 21, panel 3 of Watchmen. Dr. Manhattan says, "A live body and a dead body contain the same number of particles. Structurally, there's no discernible difference. life and death are unquantifiable abstracts. Why should I be concerned?"

From here, it’s probably worth a step or two into the theory of relativity, a theory that has some rather surprising implications for the Watchmen universe. I’m hardly an expert on the topic, and I’d welcome any corrections, but based on my understanding, the first piece of this theory that Einstein worked out, leading to his landmark paper on special relativity in 1905, was a realization about time. In the Newtonian model of the 19th century and prior, time exists in a pure form, detached from observation — Newton wrote in his Principia, “Absolute, true, and mathematical time, of itself and from its own nature, flows equably without relation to anything external.”

Einstein, however, asserted that time is not absolute, but rather localized to each individual observer, with no way to determine what observation is “correct”. What seems simultaneous to one observer may not be so to another, and those observations depend upon the observer’s position and movement through space, thus revealing time and space as dimensions of the same fundamental fabric.

Now, consider that realization in light of a universe in which one tall blue observer experiences all occurrences as simultaneous, independent of his relationship to space. Does this disrupt the relativistic model? Jon certainly seems to think so. In his frustration at how humans insist on on seeing the “intricately structured jewel” of time edge by edge, he strongly implies that his viewpoint is the correct one, whereas in a relativistic model, he might see that his experience of time is no more or less true than Laurie’s. The notion of time as an “intricately structured jewel” rather than a quality woven together with space seems to me somehow even more Newtonian than time as “absolute, true, and mathematical.” One wonders if Jon is mistaking his own observations for fact, just as Newton did before he was upended by Einstein.

But while Jon’s experience of a whole and “true” time may seem Newtonian, the idea that all of it is predetermined actually fits quite well into Einstein’s worldview. In a 1929 interview, Einstein stated plainly: “I am a determinist. I do not believe in free will.” In this way, his viewpoint comports well with Dr. Manhattan’s experience of reality. As Isaacson explains, “Einstein… believed, as did Spinoza, that a person’s actions were just as determined as that of a billiard ball, planet, or star.” (Ibid, pg. 391) For Einstein, everything was governed by natural laws, including humans. It must have been enticing to believe that if he could only discover the full truth of those laws, the future would be laid out before him, just as it is for Doctor Manhattan.

Spooky Action At A Distance

This is why Einstein was so deeply discomfited by Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, which states that, “an electron does not have a definite position or path until we observe it… It asserts that there is no objective reality — not even objective position of a particle — outside of our observations.” (Again, summarized by Isaacson, pg. 331-32) This assertion undermined the strict causality in which Einstein believed, and further fueled the arguments he had been having with Bohr about the structure of the atom and, by a web of interconnections, about the fundamental nature of reality itself. Bohr’s theories and observations seemed to argue against the existence of laws that determined a strict system of causation, and therefore against the existence of an objective reality, and certainly against Einstein’s determinism.

It would seem a question more for philosophers than physicists, but the quantum theory of Bohr and Heisenberg stood against Einstein’s notions of invariance to pose the fundamental query, “Is everything in the universe predetermined?” In the Watchmen universe, at least as experienced by Doctor Manhattan, the answer would seem to be: yes! It would have to be, in order for the Doctor to perceive time as all one piece. Einstein insists that God does not play dice, and Dr. Manhattan’s experience proves him right. But in fact, it appears that in our universe, he is wrong. In our universe, Bohr’s rejoinder is relevant: that it is not for us to tell God how to run his creation.

Einstein refused to accept quantum mechanical theory throughout his life, asserting that at best it is incomplete — he steadfastly refused to believe in the “spooky action at a distance” its tenets seemed to require. Consequently, he devoted much of his brilliance in the latter half of his career to devising thought experiments that could undermine the foundations of quantum physics. He co-published one of the most effective of these with Nathan Rosen and Boris Podolsky, and it became known as the EPR paradox, after the initials of its authors’ last names.

Diagram of the EPR paradox

An illustration of the EPR paradox, in which Alice and Bob are two separate observers.

Put simply, the argument asks us to consider two particles that have collided or been emitted from the same source, and whose properties are thus correlated. Quantum theory states that until these particles are observed, their position and momentum exist in multiple states at once. But once we observe the first particle, we know something about the second due to their correlation, without ever having observed the second. For Einstein, this meant that the second particle has a reality of its own which exists independent of its observation — otherwise the first particle would have to somehow communicate with the second particle faster than the speed of light, which would violate the theory of relativity.

Bohr responded by introducing the concept of quantum entanglement. Because the particles have affected each other, they are “entangled” despite their distance from each other, and thus part of the same system. To deal further with the EPR paradox, some quantum theorists introduced the notion of branching alternate histories. Isaacson:

In the case of the EPR thought experiment, the position of one of the two particles is measured on one branch of history. Because of the common origin of the particles, the position of the other one is determined as well. On a different branch of history, the momentum of one of the particles may be measured, and the momentum of the other one is also determined. On each branch nothing occurs that violates the laws of classical physics. The information about one particle implies the corresponding information about the other one, but nothing happens to the second particle as a result of the measurement of the first one. So there is no threat to special relativity and its prohibition of instantaneous transmission of information. What is special about quantum mechanics is that the simultaneous determination of the position and the momentum of a particle is impossible, so if these two determinations occur, it must be on different branches of history.(pg. 460)

Thus histories branch out from each other based on the “decisions” made by particles of their direction & speed. This “decoherent histories” view is fundamentally antithetical to Einstein’s determinism, and to Dr. Manhattan’s experience of time as a single coherent block. Yet the Doctor is no stranger to submatomic physics, locating gluinos & being muddled by tachyons. How can we reconcile his subatomic awareness with his encompassing knowledge of the future, which seems fundamentally hostile to the notion of probabilities and uncertainties?

Are alternate histories a way out? Perhaps what the Doctor thinks of as his single jewel of perceived time is only one of an infinite array of such jewels? I think this line of reasoning shuts down rather quickly. Doctor Manhattan doesn’t just know or predict the future — Chapter 4 demonstrates clearly that he experiences the future even as he experiences what the rest of us would call the present and the past, all simultaneously. If there were any uncertainty involved, he’d be experiencing a range of possible futures all at once, not just one. His experience still stands with the theories of Einstein, shutting down those of Bohr.

Schrödinger’s Future

But wait. We may be able to reconcile these two seemingly antagonistic theories through the work of one more quantum physicist: Erwin Schrödinger. Schrödinger, like Einstein, had his doubts about the prevailing interpretations of quantum theory, and also like Einstein, loved a good thought experiment. In fact, his most famous thought experiment by far was directly influenced by Einstein, both his work and Schrödinger’s discussions with him. I’m referring of course to the unfortunate feline known as Schrödinger’s cat.

A brief summary: Schrödinger posited a cat inside a closed, opaque box, in which there is a tiny amount of a radioactive substance, one which has a 50% chance of decaying in the course of an hour. If the substance decays, it emits a particle which causes the cat to be poisoned. If it doesn’t, the cat is safe. The prevailing quantum theory of the time (called the Copenhagen interpretation) asserts that the particle’s behavior is governed by a probability waveform until such time as its behavior is observed, at which point the waveform collapses into an observed behavior which conforms to classical mechanics. Thus, until the box is opened, the cat is (according to the Copenhagen interpretation) both alive and dead at the same time.

A photo of a cat in a box, with superimposed text: "In Ur Quantum Box... Maybe"

For us humans, the future is rather like that closed box — indeterminate and existing in a variety of possible states at once, until we observe what actually occurs. As it becomes the present and then instantly the past, its waveform collapses into a single, clear reality. Up until November 22, 1959, that’s what the future was like in the Watchmen universe too. But on that day, Jon Osterman reassembled his components in the correct sequence, and became the fully fleshed Doctor Manhattan for the first time. On that day, he became aware of all times simultaneously, experiencing them as a coherent whole. On that day, he opened the box.

Might it be the case that Jon’s incarnation as Doctor Manhattan is the event that collapsed the waveform of the future into a single reality? And if so, knowing that his powers also allow him to control that reality down to its smallest particle, what part might his consciousness have played in the shape that future took? In becoming unmoored from linear time, could his sudden awareness of the future have created that future? At the end of the book, Jon decides he’s going to go to some less complicated galaxy and create some human life. But what if he already has?

All the living and dead cats and other beings of Watchmen snapped into a single observed reality in that one November moment. What influence Jon had over them, it’s obviously impossible to say. He was an oddly passive 20th century man, a frustrated watchmaker and a reluctant physicist. The course of his life was forcibly altered by his father, based on the existence of the atomic bomb. He had recently experienced the profound trauma of having his body dismantled down to the atomic level, then putting it back together for himself. If he decided the future, might it look like a confused horrorshow that somehow does stop the bombs from falling? Perhaps it might.

But if Jon truly is the observer of the open box of time, there are some things we’re hard pressed to explain given the evidence of the text. There are several times we witness limits to Jon’s understanding, superior though it may be to any human’s. What are we to make of his drive to search out particles and add them to the bestiary? Surely if he’s aware of every infinitesimal piece of reality, he’d already know where all the gluinos are, wouldn’t he? So there must be a frontier of his awareness at the subatomic level. Furthermore, his awareness of the single jewel of time must be incomplete if he can be muddled by tachyons, right? There must be parts of the future whose waveform is still intact, still within that closed box, shielded even from his sight.

This is the level at which Watchmen itself begins to decohere. For all its astonishing structural integrity, the early issues of the book were released before the final ones had been written. Moore himself has affirmed on numerous occasions his surprise at some of the deeper levels that he and Gibbons found themselves reaching as the creation continued. Thus are inconsistencies introduced, and although Moore and Gibbons do a marvelous job of spackling most of the cracks, they don’t get them all. If Watchmen were a true “graphic novel” — created as a single whole and released as such — rather than a Dickensian serial collage, perhaps we wouldn’t bump into these logical problems with Doctor Manhattan.

In the world of comics, we call these continuity problems — the way something established in an early issue grates against something in a later one. People loved to write into Marvel and point them out, and Marvel decided to give those people a little award made of words only, literally called a “no-prize”. Then they got even cleverer, crowdsourcing solutions to these problems by saying that they’d only give no-prizes to those readers who not only find the problems but find an explanation to solve them.

So let me take my own shot at a Watchmen no-prize, with this suggestion about Doctor Manhattan. On the day he becomes himself, he experiences all his times at once, and perceives himself as knowing how he’d act in all of those times, and how others would too. But his understanding is more limited than he knows it is, and his freedom less limited than he believes. He could in fact choose to behave differently than he experiences himself doing, but if he did, he wouldn’t be Jon Osterman anymore, the man whose moves are all made by other people. His fate isn’t pre-determined, but rather calculated on a scale that is precise but not infinitely precise. He is still vulnerable to thermodynamic miracles he wasn’t expecting.

Previous entry: Part Of The Legend

A Crack In The Shell cover image - a chick hatching among eggs

A Crack In The Shell

It’s January 1, and that means it’s time for another year-end music mix. As always, this is a year-end mix I make for some friends — full explanation on the first one I posted in 2010. It’s not all music from 2020 (in fact, my backlog of music to listen to pretty much guarantees that very little on here is timely.) It’s just songs I listened to this year that meant something to me.

As terrible a year as 2020 was, I spent much of it feeling pretty lucky. My job was able to smoothly transition into working safely at home, and I never felt the economic threat that hit so many people. (Laura’s job wasn’t quite so smooth, but she still has it at least.) I love the people I live with, and even after being in close proximity for much more time than usual, we still have a great time together. Our house has enough space for each of us to do our thing remotely if that’s needed.

Also, I’m so grateful that Dante is in high school, and therefore can pretty much self-manage everything he needs to do while we’re working. My colleagues and friends who have young children at home have it much rougher. For that matter, I’m grateful that school and work can even happen remotely. It’s hard to imagine how much more disruptive a pandemic like this would have been in pre-Internet days. I’m even able to virtually get together with friends for things like trivia, board games, and the occasional celebration, thanks to the Jetsons technology we all have now.

Still, god, what a year. As good as we have it, I defintely felt my share of disruptions, and one of those was in my life with music. The Album Assignments project went on pause, as Robby took on the daunting task of educating 5th graders remotely and I transitioned into a very different way of working. In the course of that transition, I found myself listening to music much less than I had before. My previous time with music was mostly spent on my commute, which evaporated after COVID-19 hit. I also worked a lot with music on, but that dried up too as I acclimated to working from home, with other people around.

Finally, sometime in June, it hit me that I was desperately missing music, and I made some changes. While I still listen to podcasts on my walks, I switched over to music while doing the dishes, cooking, and other household chores. I figured out ways to integrate it back into my work life, and I made it a part of the time I spent with Dante, including an awesome music trivia habit where we quiz each other on our favorite musical canons so that we can each learn from the other. (His are all instrumental videogame music, definitely not a strong genre for me.) We also found ourselves doing a lot of text adventures and board games (physical and virtual) together, activities which lend themselves to background music.

In any case, when it came time to make this mix, I was picking from a much shorter list than usual. Nevertheless, I’m very happy with how it came out. Here are some musical highlights from a pretty tough year.

1. Jonathan Coulton – Pictures Of Cats
How 2020 are these opening lines? “All at once, it fills up my feed / More bad news that I didn’t need / I can’t stop reading but I wish that I didn’t know.” I had that experience over and over this year, and definitely ended up doomscrolling through Twitter plenty of times when I should have just switched over to looking at pictures of cats. Strangely, I listened to this song before the full 2020 of it all hit the world, but when I reviewed the list, I knew there was no better song to kick off this mix.

2. Aimee Mann feat. James Mercer – Living A Lie
Like almost all of these tracks, this one was written prior to 2020, and in fact came out before the Trump era. And I don’t think it was ever intended politically — it’s about a relationship — but I felt like it perfectly captured a mood this year. When you’re stuck with a frantic liar, you have no choice but to live inside a lie. That was never more clear than in 2020, when the President’s relentless need for self-aggrandizement and seeking short-term advantage had him undermining and upending every single institution that any of the rest of us could trust. It got to the point where we couldn’t even be sure our own Centers For Disease Control were able to provide us reliable information. Often it felt like all we could do is wait for a crack in the shell. Thank god one came at the end of the year.

3. Richard Thompson – Keep Your Distance
I listened to a fair amount of Richard Thompson (and Linda too) toward the beginning of the year, so I wanted to include a song of his in this mix. When I looked over the list, the words “Keep Your Distance” jumped out at me. Once again, this is meant in the relationship sense, but “keep your distance” is so 2020! This was the year that simple trips to the grocery store felt like foraging expeditions into deadly territory, not helped by the wingnut contingent who wear their masks under their noses or not at all, because freedom or whatever. Keep your distance, wingnuts! (And sadly, everyone else too.)

4. Frank Sinatra – Mood Indigo
This was from one of the few 2020 album assignments, Sinatra’s In The Wee Small Hours. (Well, actually the tail end of 2019, but my listening year goes November-October, so it’s 2020 to me.) This was a concept album of sadness, and Sinatra’s smooth reading of this wonderful, melancholy Duke Ellington tune felt like a good summation of the story so far. Also, “Indigo” was particularly important this year, but more about that later.

5. Aretha Franklin – Chain Of Fools (unedited version)
And here’s the turn. I vividly remember waiting in the checkout line at the grocery store when this version of “Chain Of Fools” came into my ears. I’d never heard it before — it came up on Spotify or something. The slow, soulful intro — “the sound of pain” — suddenly bursting into “chain chain chain”… BLEW MY MIND. I’ve always loved the single version of this song, and having it set up like this made little fireworks of joy go off in my head. When I finally figured out in June that I needed to bring more music back in, Aretha’s Lady Soul was the album I started with, and it worked perfectly. I will never forget giddily dancing around the kitchen to these songs, like some kind of solo remake of The Big Chill, blissfully losing everything else in music and simple tasks.

6. Prince – Little Red Corvette
Lady Soul was the first album that brought music definitively back into my life. The Very Best Of Prince was the second. Prince hit big in the early ’80s, ages 12-14 for me, and I didn’t know how to process him. I think he scared me, honestly. I had friends who were fans, but all that sexuality, androgyny, and funk — I couldn’t deal with it. I pushed it away. This year, I invited it back in, and found that I love it now. Like a lot of parties, I’m very late to it, but having a great time now that I’m here.

7. Stevie Nicks – Stand Back
Anytime I hear “Little Red Corvette”, I’m pretty much always going to think of “Stand Back.” That’s because Stevie has a story she’s told many times, of driving on the highway towards her honeymoon of a short-lived, ill-advised marriage, pretty much the opposite of “a love that’s gonna last.” When “Little Red Corvette” came on the radio, she was inspired. She found a tape recorder, and composed her own song on top of Prince’s. Then, when recording “Stand Back”, she found the courage to call him and tell him this story, and in response he showed up and played the synth riff on it. “Stand Back” is the love child of ’80s chiffon royalty’s king and queen.

8. Stevie Nicks – Crying In The Night (live 2017)
You can hear that story, and many others, in Stevie’s concert film from her 24 Karat Gold tour. Despite the pandemic, I found my way to a movie theater twice this year. Once was for The New Mutants, a superhero movie that features my favorite Marvel character of all time, a Scottish mutant codenamed Wolfsbane. Having loved this character since I was 12, there was simply no way that I was going to miss seeing her played by Maisie Williams on the big screen. The movie had plenty of flaws, but it got Wolfsbane right, and for that I will always love it.

The other movie I showed up for was Stevie’s aforementioned concert film. It’s a filmed version of what I called “the Stevie Nicks show I’d been awaiting for 30 years.” In it, she told lots of stories like the one above — seriously, the movie is 2 hours and 15 minutes, and I think about 30 minutes of it is storytelling. She also sang songs she’d NEVER sung before in concert, including this one from the Buckingham Nicks album. That album isn’t even available on CD! What a thrill it was to hear her sing it in concert, and the movie brought back that thrill. Totally worth braving the virus.

9. Prince – Kiss
The next couple songs are just more sweet memories of my “soul kitchen” moments this year. “Kiss” is a super fun song on its own, and I can’t help hearing it in my mind juxtaposed with the version that The Art Of Noise recorded featuring Tom Jones. I thought about including that version in this mix, but after I went back and listened to it, I found that Prince outstripped it so dramatically that its inclusion could only feel disappointing after the real thing.

10. Aretha Franklin – (Sweet Sweet Baby) Since You’ve Been Gone
There’s not a lot to say about this one, except that it’s another standout moment from Lady Soul. My thick socks sliding around on our wooden kitchen floor, with this song playing in earbuds, led to great moments of happiness this year.

11. clipping. – All Black
Conversely, there is a lot to say about this one. First, some explanation of who this band is. The vocalist is Daveed Diggs, who has a bunch of credits, all of which are far overshadowed by the fact that he originated the roles of Jefferson and Lafayette in the Broadway production of Hamilton. clipping. is an experimental hip-hop trio in which Diggs joins producers William Hutson and Jonathan Snipes. Their album Splendor & Misery was the last album assignment I wrote, posted just a few days before everybody went home and stayed there. Listening to it now, the music feels shockingly prophetic of what was to come. First of all, most of the story on the album is about a guy who is alone in space, first captured and then in control, but exiled from the world he knew. There have been plenty of times this year where I felt like I was in a space capsule, well-furnished and supplied with plenty of entertainment, but orbiting Earth rather than on it.

Secondly, the album and in particular this song is centrally concerned with Blackness and oppression. As it turned out, so was the summer of 2020. I wrote about this in the album post, how “all black everything” partakes of many layers of meaning, including as an allusion to other hip-hop songs that take it as a declaration of pride and strength. Those two images together — all black everything but isolated from everywhere — bundled up a lot of 2020 for me.

12. Jonathan Coulton – All This Time
Here’s another sci-fi song, albeit one in a vastly different musical mode. “All This Time” is from Coulton’s album Solid State, which I listened to a lot early in the year. It’s a wonderful album of thoughtful power pop about surveillance, technology, and love, and this is one of the standout songs. However, my attachment to this song in this year was more about its video than the song itself. That video was in the form of a text adventure — it’s by far the best text-adventure-themed video ever made, no disrespect to MC Frontalot’s “It Is Pitch Dark”.

That fits this year perfectly, because this was the year I jumped back into my passion for interactive fiction. Part of that was creating a new blog to house the many IF reviews that live on my old web page, and another big part of it was revisiting many games from the Infocom canon, but this time with Dante guiding the play. Together we replayed (or in his case, played for the first time) all the Zork and Enchanter games, and had a fantastic time doing it. I may write about it in the new blog at some point, but even if I don’t, I’ll treasure that experience. This year, many things were taken away in exchange for all this newfound time, and sometimes we made the most of it.

13. Genesis – No Reply At All
Some of those losses, though, had a really negative effect on me. Here’s one that I didn’t expect, until I understood how much I counted on what I didn’t have anymore. I found myself dealing with a pretty shocking (for me) level of insecurity this year. Uncharacteristically, I found myself frequently fretting about my relationships with pretty much everybody who doesn’t live with me, especially co-workers. Absences of replies, or even delays, had me worrying I’d somehow done something to upset whoever my anxious mind chose to focus on. It turns out that I really depend on mundane social interactions at work to provide a normalizing effect that reassures my brain that everything is okay. Take those away, and throw in a round of really stressful and destabilizing layoffs, and suddenly I become Anxious Guy.

By the way, I absolutely adore the bridge to this song. (The part that starts “Maybe deep down inside…”) I find bridges fascinating in general, the way they’re like a miniature new and different song inside the bigger song, and this one just really grabs me.

14. Adele – Cold Shoulder
Continuing the insecurity theme, this felt like the right Adele song to pick for my 2020. It’s not even that people were giving me the cold shoulder. (I don’t THINK?!? :P) I just spent way too much time worried about it. I’m still working on coping with that one.

15. Buffalo Springfield – For What It’s Worth
What is all this anyway? It’s paranoia, that’s what. So here’s “For What It’s Worth”, the best song I know about paranoia. On the personal level, my paranoia strikes deep, but isn’t really justified. On the larger cultural level, I’m not so sure. There’s the erosion of trust I talked about in #2. There’s the general bone-chill about how much support there still is for the lying, bullshitting, racist, bullying Toddler-In-Chief and the party that bent its knee to his every whim. As Bruce Springsteen said in a recent interview, “Overall, as somebody who was a born populist, I’ve got a little less faith in my neighbors than I had four years ago.” And then, of course, there are the police.

The comparison that keeps coming to my mind, that I haven’t heard anyone else make yet, is to the Catholic church. Both the church and the police in America are these institutions that many of us (at least, the “us” at less danger of victimization) grow up seeing as helpful, honorable, and virtuous. In both cases, there are some fundamental problems with the concept and structure of the institution itself, but they also perform a great deal of good in the world. In both cases, becoming part of the priesthood or fraternity requires an amount of self-sacrifice that is reflexively seen as noble, but that carries within it seeds that can bloom into full-blown evil.

In the movie Spotlight, but there’s a moment in it that has always stuck with me. The team of reporters is just figuring out the scope of the abuse that has happened in the Boston diocese, and they’re on the phone with a researcher (a former priest and current psychotherapist) who has spent years gathering data about it. The researcher says “Look, the church wants us to believe that it’s a few bad apples, but it’s a much bigger problem than that.” How much bigger? “Well, based on the research, I would classify it as a recognizable psychiatric phenomenon.”

That’s big. I think something similar is at work with cops, race, and violence. In both cases, the evil behavior (I don’t think there’s any reasonable way out of that descriptor) is so shocking and repugnant when it comes to light that it permanently cracks my ability to ever trust that institution again. But even worse than that, in both cases, the institution does absolutely everything it possibly can to ensure that the perpetrators of that evil escape detection and escape the consequences. Over, and over, and over again, to the tune of thousands of cases. Thousands of innocent victims raped, molested, traumatized, killed. How in the hell is anybody supposed to trust them after that? In both cases, for me, that combination taints the institution so thoroughly that I don’t think it can be redeemed. We have to demolish it and start over with something fundamentally different.

Now, I know there’s about as much chance of doing that with the police as there is with the church. But I believe that there’s a version of it that could be as much a godsend to the police as to marginalized communities. What if we had another kind of first responder, someone trained to deal with issues of mental illness and addiction? After all, we don’t send police to fires. We don’t send them to epileptic seizures. We don’t expect a single kind of responder to have to deal with everything. What if we saved the police for, y’know, CRIME, and created a new role to take over some of the stuff we’re currently asking armed, uniformed officers of the state to take on, despite the fact that they’re trained much more for situations that require force, and therefore tend to bring it to situations that don’t when they’re sent there?

Okay, that was a long digression, wasn’t it? Anyway, great song, right? Moving on.

16. Indigo Girls – Pendulum Swinger
Amy and Emily were crucial to Laura and I this year. For a while there, as Look Long was getting ready to come out, they were doing weekly or near-weekly livestreams, and for each one we would joyfully gather ’round the screen, find a way to turn up the music, and feel like we were hanging out with old friends. The one they did where they were “playing for tips” to raise money for their crew, was an utter high point for me. Hearing them play stuff I’d never heard them do before — Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here”, Elton John’s “Love Song” and “Holiday Inn” — OMG it was so wonderful.

They featured this one in their “parking lot” concert in October, with Emily introducing it as just, “This is a song about change.” It felt like a little prayer, or a little wish that came true.

17. Amy Ray – Tear It Down
This was another special moment from that concert. I love how Amy here grapples with how she genuinely loves where she grew up and the traditions that shaped her, while still unshakably rejecting the racism and hate that is inextricably interwoven with that past. The studio version is a little sweeter and more subdued, but her solo acoustic live performance of it was just electrifying.

18. Mudcrutch – I Forgive It All
The Mudcrutch albums are hidden gems in Tom Petty’s catalog, and this one in particular is special, because it’s the last studio recording that Petty did before his death. For this mix, the Indigo Girls lift me out of fear and paranoia, into hope and resolution. Petty provides the final piece: forgiveness.

19. Stevie Nicks – Show Them The Way
Hope, resolution, and forgiveness all blend into Stevie’s 2020 song. Besides “All This Time”, this is the other song in this mix that I strongly associate with its video. That video, directed by Cameron Crowe, blends black and white footage from the 1960s into black and white footage from 2020 and points in between, drawing a clear line from the Civil Rights Movement to the Black Lives Matter movement. And over it all, Stevie prays for all of us to find our way to a better future. Invoking the icons of 60s dreams — JFK, RFK, MLK — she tries to dream us back to ourselves. And Crowe, piling powerful images on top of each other with increasing urgency, ends with a simple message: “Vote”. In October of 2020, it felt like exactly the magic we needed.

20. Prince – 1999
When it came out, this song was about an apocalyptic future. Listening to it now, it feels like Prince was only 20 years off with the “party over, oops, out of time” description, and 1999 sounds like a pretty good place to be. The mood of it is of jubilation even through devastation, and I think we could use a little of that. Here’s to a brighter 2021.

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