Thursday, April 24, 2008

Clockstopping: Bart, Borges and Bloch

In the writing process, not everything that is written goes into print. Sometimes things are left out to improve the flow of a book. When writing my Simpsons book, I had a lot of extra material for the chapter "Clockstopping" that pertained to literary and other ideas about stopping time. Here is an example:

Clockstopping: Bart, Borges and Bloch - By Paul Halpern. Copyright 2006.

To examine [the question of stopping time], let's see how popular culture and science have dealt with the topic. Savvy viewers have noted that the Simpsons segment parodies earlier depictions, including the classic Twilight Zone episode, "A Kind of a Stopwatch," the film "Clockstoppers," and a number of literary efforts. In "Clockstoppers," I recall one particularly silly scene in which a gawky character is taught hip-hop dancing through the process of stopping time, having his friends rearrange his limbs, and then starting time again. Freeze, stretch, spin and repeat until song is over.

For a more somber freeze-framing pursuit, we turn to "The Secret Miracle," a classic short story by the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges. In that tale, set during World War II, a Czech playwright named Hladik, about to be shot by the Nazis, prays for more time to complete his magnum opus. Miraculously his wish is granted and time freezes for an entire year—not just for everyone else, but for him too. Though he can't move a muscle, his mind is still active, and he uses the time to finish his great play. Finally, when the last word is written (alas, in his head only), time resumes and he expires. Stopping time allows Hladik to fulfill his literary dream, just as Bart satisfies his own quest to humiliate the entire town of Springfield. Which is worthier? Let cultural historians be the judge.

Divine intervention is one prominent theme in time-stopping stories; diabolical interference is another. From Faust's epic bargain to Homer selling his soul for a doughnut, there is a rich vein of literature about pacts made with the devil. In Robert Bloch's eerie story, "The Hell-Bound Train," a never-do-good drifter named Martin encounters a mysterious railroad Conductor, who offers a soul-trading deal that involves the gift of a stopwatch similar to Bart's. The Conductor gives Martin the timepiece and tells him that he can use it to stop time forever—ideally at any point of his life when he is especially content. However—here's the catch—if he dies before getting a chance to stop the watch, he's stuck with a one-way ticket on the Hell-bound train.

If it were Martin Prince instead of Martin the drifter, undoubtedly he'd use the watch to stop time when seated in the library happily working on a research project. He could forever investigate agricultural commerce in ancient Mesopotamia, or something similarly exciting. But Martin the drifter has no hankering for libraries; he craves an earthier kind of bliss, but exactly what he doesn't know. He squanders opportunity after opportunity to use the stopwatch, and finally finds himself seated on the express train to the "Depot Way Down Yonder."

The Hell-bound train is full of mean, nasty, awful characters—gamblers, grifters and ruffians of all sorts. Imagine a carriage crammed with the likes of Snake, Sideshow Bob, Nelson Muntz's father, Barney Gumble, and so forth—all drinking, joking, singing and throwing dice. But Martin relishes the company of bums and no-goodniks. He stops the watch right then and there, preventing the train from ever reaching the Depot, allowing him and the other passengers to party forever, and hence foiling the plans of the sinister Conductor. Whoa. Way to go, dude. Party on.

So we see that Bart and Milhouse were not the first, and probably not the last, characters to fulfill their fantasies while the rest of the world stands like statues. Time's grand clock does not always tick at the same rate for all.


Fernando Cassia said...

Wow... Borges and The Simpsons!... would have never thought of that.

Kudos from down under from a Simpsons fan. Great blog idea I wish it had more content. :)

Buenos Aires, Argentina

Paul said...

Hi Fernando,

Thanks for your comments. Yes I am a fan of Borges, science and the Simpsons. Hope you enjoy my book.

Best regards,