This is the best cow and bull post about invisible cities like Hong Kong starring well-loved Disney characters such as Scrooge McDuck and Donald Duck I’ve ever written.
A Little Important Introduction
The popularity and success of Tanoshimi’s Today’s News in Stealth Marketing and my good friend goldensneer’s Short Cuts have made me consider what I should do with this little blog of mine. My unpaid internship gives me free rein in what the hell I should do. Researching and data mining through social media are more tedious than one can imagine. And I feel weird not typing words in an editorial internship. It does not make me look busy too.
And I’ve always wanted to talk about works outside Japanese media. As Twitter followers will know, I enjoy reading Western novels, comics, and games. Recently, I’ve gotten into Hong Kong dramas and wondering if I should dive into my parents’ favorite media Korean dramas too.
So with so much to say but nowhere to speak except in Twitter, I feel like I should use みみドしま as it was intended to: my own blog.
But I didn’t start this introduction to just talk about the motivations that drove me to write this hopefully monthly feature. No, I’m more concerned about the format.
Unlike TNSM and Short Cuts, I want to instead write mini-essays. They are not mini-reviews like those two features, but rather they are essays themed around one subject or thesis. I have great essay ideas that can only last a few hundred words before exhausting every possibility and I don’t want to subject anyone to filler content. So think of it as a compilation of spergs, mini-essays, something like that.
There will be three mini-essays, all varying in length depending on how much I have to say. They are still as in-depth as my other articles, but I feel that they don’t necessitate a full post by themselves. Together, these three mini-essays should be large and expansive enough as any of my normal single subject post. They “complete” each other not in how similar the subjects they are (as you will see, they are wildly different from each other) but aspects I’ve been thinking about for a long time. They have no home but here. And I hope the first essay shows why I think the more disparate and homeless these essays are, the more “at home” they are in this feature.
So without further ado —
The Best Cock and Bull Story I’ve Ever Heard
I doubt anyone would believe me when I say the ending of The Life and Opinions of Tristam Shandy, a Gentleman is a bunch of guys talking about a cow and bull fucking. The narrator’s mom, confused, cries out, “L–d, what is all this story about?”. And Father Yorick, the author avatar of Laurence Sterne, replies, “A COCK and BULL and one of the best of its kind, I ever heard.”
This is how the fictional autobiography of Tristam Shandy ends. Tis’ a strange journey. After four volumes of Tristam backtracking and explaining details of his father and his brother, we finally read about how Tristam narrates how he finally gets born into the world. Then, we go all over the place. And Tristam declares to the reader that he can write twenty novels and will in fact finish his proposed chapters on buttons as promised — but the real life Laurence Sterne was getting sick from tuberculosis and in debt — so Tristam apologizes and says that he will proceed with the storytelling. And he jumps to travel fiction and at times would have empty chapters, asking the readers to fill in the blanks. It is quite a loopy novel if you can imagine.
Why the jumps at the expense of typical storytelling? When the first volume came out, people were disgusted at Sterne’s sex jokes and confused by his argument for digressions found very early in the book:
Digressions, incontestably, are the sunshine, the life, the soul of reading! Take them out and one cold winter would reign in every page. Restore them to the writer — he steps forth like a bridegroom, bids them all-hail, brings in variety and forbids the appetite to fail.
Does this allow Sterne’s digressions into human nature as philosophized by Locke and Burton? Isn’t this about the life and opinions of a gentleman named Tristam Shandy?
Actually, Sterne seems to imply, everything is indeed about Tristam Shandy. The punchline of Tristam Shandy is “writing a book about your life is actually fucking hard”.
We have many things to talk about: our influences, the history of the world that shapes how our family functions, philosophies, experiences et cetera. These ideas come in a flash of inspiration and Tristam, not a fan of editing it seems, has no choice but to digress hard. And he accepts and loves its function as a way to make the novel move and be a rollicking piece of entertainment.
Digression is the spice of life. It’s not some postmodernist discovery — this has been stated in Tristam Shandy in 1767 and there are plenty of predecessors including Cervantes’s, Montaigne’s, and Rabelais’s works.
It is in total retaliation against Longinus’s On the Sublime where he rants about how great writing is great and bad writing is bad through a set of absurd rules. Pope wrote a wonderful poem about this in his Essay on Criticism:
Thee, bold Longinus! all the Nine inspire,
And bless their Critick with a Poet’s Fire.
An ardent Judge, who Zealous in his Trust,
With Warmth gives Sentence, yet is always Just;
Whose own Example strengthens all his Laws,
And Is himself that great Sublime he draws.
Longinus’s (and Aristotle’s) laws are not applicable to how real writing works. It is a matter of digression, letting the pen roll through the paper while the mind thinks about what to say. When someone takes the ambitious project of writing about one’s life, they don’t really care about what rules of sublime they must adhere to. They must write. Time is fleeting away:
Time wastes too fast: every letter I trace tells me with what rapidity Life follows my pen ; the days and hours of it, more precious, my dear Jenny! than the rubies about thy neck, are flying over our heads like light clouds of a windy day, never to return more — every thing presses on — whilst thou are twisting that lock, — see! it grows grey; and every time I kiss thy hand to bid adieu, and every absence which follows it, are preludes to that eternal separation which we are shortly to make!
Everything in art is ruled by one law: digressions. It’s hard to imagine anything without a sudden drift into another direction. It plays with the reader’s expectation and puts the characters into new conflicts. Not every plot follows a mountain-like structure. Rather, it can be something like Tristam’s which Sterne has helpfully drawn it out for us:
Sterne races against time and money to “finish” this work and has “no choice” but to use this strange structure of what a “cock and bull story” might look like. A British phrase that means “a fanciful and unbelievable tale”, “a cock and bull story” as an ending reveal gives huge repercussions to how we read. It makes us wonder if everything we read is in fact all cock and bull stories in their own right.
But does that matter? It’s just our prejudiced sensibility to think it’s incomplete when it is in reality complete. A book cannot depict someone’s life without compromises and we have to reach that tacit agreement whenever we open up a biography. That’s why we read several biographies and histories to understand someone. A hour of adventures cannot be summarized into a paragraph as easily as one can imagine.
So we digress not to make our lives more difficult but to explain ourselves fuller in our own ways. We know the impossibility of explaining something in full detail, so we dance around the subject. Unsurprisingly enough, this is why essays and criticism can be somewhat personal too for the personal shows the humanistic side of the writer. How else can you be humanistic in writing without being less of a machine interested in orderly paragraphs than going insane and jumping around like any other human being?
Stories are written on the whim of the writers and rarely conform to “laws” of good art. And when you have the whims of a genius writer like Sterne who lets himself free through the usage of digressions, you can have only one thing: the best cock and bull story you will ever hear in a long time.
Last December, I walked around dazed in Hong Kong unsure what the hell to do with my life. College was exhausting my mind and I would not be back in Asia for a whole year after tomorrow. I was gradually becoming homesick and tired of being alienated from American culture. This was when I reached a bookstore in the middle of the city.
It was like any ordinary bookstore: dark, dusty, and filled with tourists and curious locals interested in English books. Books on China and Hong Kong are arranged on one table while the second floor had more general nonfiction including politics. It was certainly a serious bookstore with its share of serious readers. Very little comics, pulp fiction and bestsellers are hidden as if ashamed of them. I looked around the classics section because I didn’t feel like searching for masterpieces in the humongous literary fiction section and found Calvino’s Invisible Cities.
Calvino is a strange Italian writer whose cult popularity makes me wonder if he would do well today. The likes of Marquez and Rushdie have flourished because of the time they are writing. Calvino dies at 1985 and his genius has been eclipsed by a greater Italian writer Umberto Eco. His novels, according to fans, have never followed a path that has been tread upon once. His writing is inventive, original, and highly magical. His Cosmonomics (which I am reading now) and If on a winter’s night a traveler have been considered masterpieces of magical realism. There is no denying Invisible Cities is one of that ephemeral movement that seems uncodified and more like a marketing term nowadays.
But what Invisible Cities to me is beyond an example mentioned in some stuffy term paper on magical realism and Italian writing. For me, it is Hong Kong.
People who read the book or know about the premise might be confused. Isn’t the whole deal with Invisible Cities about Marco Polo describing many exotic cities to Kublai Khan but actually he is describing Venice? Yes, I’ll get into that but going around sleep-deprived I see alleys and buildings that just fit the building as I walked around Causeway Bay. The glamorous lights that twinkled in the dark, the blurring image of people rushing back home in cars and buses, the dumb show that featured music and blaring sound effects in the Bay showcasing the different skyscrapers — all of that somehow become a chapter of Invisible Cities as I flip through pages of it, walking around like a drunkard.
You see, Marco Polo has described all “cities”. He uses his memory of Venice to paint one aspect and then call it a city. For example, he would dedicate a chapter (they are generally a page long) to the roads and supply it with a theme relating to objects, descriptors, and semiotics. For example, in Cities of Desire 5:
From there, after six days and seven nights, you arrive at Zobeide, the white city, well exposed to the moon, with streets wound about themselves as in a skein. They tell this tale of its foundation: men of various nations had an identical dream. They saw a woman running at night through an unknown city; she was seen from behind, with long hair, and she was naked. They dreamed of pursuing her. As they twisted and turned, each of them lost her. After the dream they set out in search of that city; they never found it, but they found one another; they decided to build a city like the one in the dream. In laying out the streets, each followed the course of his pursuit; at the spot where they had lost the fugitive’s trail, they arranged spaces and walls differently from the dream, so she would be unable to escape again.
This was the city of Zobeide, where they settled, waiting for that scene to be repeated one night. None of them, asleep or awake, ever saw the woman again. The city’s streets were streets where they went to work every day, with no link any more to the dreamed chase. Which, for that matter, had long been forgotten.
New men arrived from each other lands, having had a dream like theirs, and in the city of Zobeide, they recognized something of the streets of the dream, and they changed the position of arcades and stairways to resemble more closely to the path of the pursued woman and so, at the spot where she had vanished, there would remain no avenue of escape.
The first to arrive could not understand what drew these people to Zobeide, the ugly city, this trap.
It sounds like a fantastical city, but you can almost immediately say, “This sort of sounds like New York City or San Francisco. Immigrants came to those cities to pursue a dream — a better living.” And you would be entirely right because this description can describe all cities.
Unconvinced? Try this chapter, “Cities and Eyes 2”:
It is the mood of the beholder which gives the city of Zemrude its form. If you go by whistling, your nose a-tilt behind the whistle, you will know it from below: window sills, flapping curtains, fountains. If you walk along hanging your head, your nails dug into the palms of your hands, your gaze will be held on the ground, in the gutters, the manhole covers, the fish scales, wastepaper. You cannot say that one aspect of the city is truer than the other, but you hear of the upper Zemrude chiefly from those who remember it, as they sink into the lower Zemrude, following every day the same stretches of street and finding again each morning the ill-humor of the day before, encrusted at the foot of the walls. For everyone, sooner or later, the day comes when we bring our gaze down along the drainpipes and we can no longer detach it from the cobblestones. The reverse is not impossible, but it is more rare: and so we continue walking through Zemrude’s streets with eyes now digging into the cellars, the foundations, the wells.
Beneath the intentional vagueness and supposed resemblance of Venice lay an actual philosophy to life and the world. For Calvino’s Polo, reassuring Kublai Khan (and the reader) is not some light task. Every place in the world is the same, marked by different degrees of “exoticism” and “cultures”. When you get to the end of it, Tokyo functions like Salt Lake City. Hong Kong is like Venice — or even better, Hong Kong might be part of Venice. All cities might be one part of Venice or whatever city you wish.
Marco Polo describes a bridge, stone by stone.
“But which is the stone that supports the bridge?” Kublai Khan asks.
“The bridge is not supported by one stone or another,” Marco answers, “but by the line of the arc that they form.”
Kublai Khan remains silent, reflecting. Then he adds: “Why do you speak to me of the stones? It is only the arc that matters to me.”
Polo answers: “Without stones there is no arch.”
There is no explicit delineation between the stones of the bridge and the arc. They need each other to exist. We can see content and form, we may even be able to separate them in our mind, but we can’t do it in reality.
This can be seen in how city-building games and actual city planning work.
For example, the Caesar games let you zone residential districts based on classes. You wouldn’t want poor and rich people to hang out together because they hate each other’s guts; they also have different needs such as luxury goods to grow and expand their size. So which of those zones would you call the city if you use the whole map? Would you ignore the plebeians and call the patricians’ area the “city” or at least “downtown”? Or would you call the whole thing a city?
Chicago is a real life example that does the latter to an absurd degree. Most tourists would be confused how this is one of the largest cities in America when the portion they’ve been to is small: downtown and some of the areas near Lake Michigan. They don’t factor in residential districts — or as the Chicagoians like to call them, suburbs. Chicago is actually a network of suburbs under one city government. Suburbs as far from downtown like Des Plaines are considered Chicago. Most Chicagoians have a simple metric of what is Chicago and what isn’t: they use the L networks of trains. If your suburb has a L station, then for all purposes of discussion it’s part of Chicago. You call yourself a Chicagoian, not an Evanstonian.
The definition of what it means to be a city is vaguer than one can imagine. Suburbs by definition cannot be a “city” since they are part of the city as well. But if you have enough people and political power, as common sense might dictate, you should be able to make a city? Right? Seattle, much like Chicago, is a “city of neighborhoods” as dubbed by former mayor Greg Nickells. However, their definition is not at all serviceable for most people. For one, elementary schools and public library branches are apparently enough to call them a neighborhood. Going from neighborhood to city requires more hurdles to jump over. This is what Fremont, Seattle’s Silicon Valley, tried to do. They consider themselves a large population with different ideas on how to govern. According to rumors and gossip, the tech people wanted to smoke pot without any legal repercussions. They also wanted more freedom to control their neighborhood, so they formed a small “government”. This small “government” has no power over any decision they have voted for because they are, well, under Seattle’s jurisdiction. They may call themselves independent, but they do not really have any say. Unsurprisingly, when Seattle legalized cannabis, the Fremont “government” remained quiet.
So it isn’t hard to imagine the lack of delineations with national borders. In the EU (as of now), you can cross borders without the need to do passport control because the EU is effectively one country. You have the Senkaku/Diaoyu Island dispute between Japan and China. Borders look sillier once you are in the air and fly to countries all over the world. The only way you would know that you are entering a border today would be if there was a passport control system in place.
Cities and countries blend into each other for better or worse. Globalization has sped up the process of being one nation and blurred the lines. The other day, I’ve heard people describe Toronto as something like Chicago. My parents described Canada to their relatives as United States with poutine. Back when I was schooling in Singapore, Johor Bahru was apparently a shoddier or rawer version of Singapore. Singapore, on the other hand, is the workplace version of Johor Bahru for some Malaysians. Everything is a version of each other and what you have is only a relative point. This is why Hong Kong feels like a version of Venice when I read the book.
That’s what the real and Calvino’s Marco Polos do to the mind. He may have never visited China and instead talked out of his ass to Kublai Khan in Cathay, but his exotic descriptions are relative to Venice’s. He knows that his Venetian audience well and needs to entertain them with not just unique Oriental sights but familiar ones as well.
Much like how we cannot differentiate cities from suburbs, the mind cannot differentiate reality from fake. Science fiction from fantasy (some argue it’s the same). Popular/low art from fine/high art. The butterfly from Zhuangzi. Subarashiki Hibi sees no difference between death and living — maybe, death doesn’t exist because it is part of living. SeaBed embraces the lack of borders between the conscious and subconscious. And Konbini Ningen argues that there is no difference between society and the people they push out from the circle.
If you connect it to Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler, you realize that the books that we are all reading are all the same book but with different words organized too.
This impossibility to delineate may make people queasy because we humans like to think we are organized and on top of things. However, these works suggest that it’s impossible to keep this up when you see how everything is chaotic and borders are at most a temporary measure to protect our sanity. So when one notices this (in the last pages of the book, it is referred to as the “inferno”), one is given two options: to accept it and be part of that inferno or to “seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure and give them space.”
As I was leaving Hong Kong, I clutched the book in my hand. Even after a day of buying it, it had survived rain and dirt. My homesickness was abated because of this book which told me that Hong Kong, Singapore, Jakarta, and of course Chicago are not that far off from each other. When I am in Chicago, I am in Singapore, Jakarta, and Hong Kong. It is a simple remedy that works wonders on the homesick me.
Sentimentalism and Ducks
I’ve finished Sterne’s Sentimental Journey recently, a far cry from Tristam Shandy but it also retreads familiar ground. It is barely a hundred and ten pages because it is incomplete. As mentioned, Sterne passed away while writing this. However, what remains of these two volumes shows not only genius but genuine affection. Father Yorick returns, detailing the adventures found in the final volumes of Tristam Shandy in a straightforward manner. This being Sterne, it is also filled with sex jokes and has digressions that make you wander Europe together with Yorick.
But it has a clever message that’s hidden by plain sight — it’s in the title. Sentimentalism. The throngs of passion and woe encapsulated in novels that call themselves examples of what sensibility should be. Today, we would call these novels “feels books”. It is no surprise to anyone this would later pave the foundation of what we would now call romance comedy. Everything from plot to characters is toyed with to create emotional suspense and endearment from the reader. They can become melodramatic or sometimes become so-called novels of conduct. Sometimes, the writers acknowledge this like Sterne and Fielding who parodied this movement in another book I’m reading Tom Jones. Pathos triumphs over logos and ethos — hence, sentimentalism and its successor Gothic fiction being reactive to the Enlightenment. Today, reading sentimentalist novels can be quite a chore. Some characters may feel one-dimensional and the readers feel manipulated and wonder if they are reading a KEY novel. Sterne’s Sentimental Journey is no exception — because it argues that true travelers, as opposed to tourists and knowledge seekers, are sentimentalists by nature.
Sterne outlines the reasons why people travel:
Infirmity of body,
Imbecility of mind, or
He notes what modes of transports these travelers use and the character traits that they have. But in typical Sterne fashion, he has left out a fourth reason:
There is a fourth class, but their number is so small that they would not deserve a distinction, were it not necessary in a work of this nature to observe the greatest precision and nicety, to avoid a confusion of character. And these men I speak of, are such as cross the seas and sojourn in a land of strangers, with a view of saving money for various reasons and upon various pretences: but as they might also save themselves and others a great deal of unnecessary trouble by saving their money at home,—and as their reasons for travelling are the least complex of any other species of emigrants, I shall distinguish these gentlemen by the name of
He then subcategorizes them even further:
So back to the basic categories, it then follows:
The Travellers of Necessity,
The Delinquent and Felonious Traveller,
The Unfortunate and Innocent Traveller,
The Simple Traveller,
It is now complete — or is it? The comma shows Sterne implying it isn’t — it’s incomplete without creating another class of travelers:
And last of all (if you please) The Sentimental Traveller, (meaning thereby myself) who have travell’d, and of which I am now sitting down to give an account,—as much out of Necessity, and the besoin de Voyager, as any one in the class.
It is the Sentimental Traveler that one can only call a true traveler and Yorick is the purest sentimental traveler there is in the book. It is how we should all travel according to Sterne.
So what does this mean to travel like Yorick? Apparently, you have to find yourself in mishap after mishap and broken love after broken love. Yorick finds himself talking to sketchy folks, distracted by ladies, in political turmoil, jailed, and then god knows what. It ends with him supposedly sleeping with a mistress and maid, but it obviously is them having a threesome.
This bizarre journey is, in the modern eye, nothing sentimental. It’s kinda fucked up. There are hints of political satire at the British-French situation, a poke at how social classes work, and witty observations of the sexual relations of men and women of that era. There are sentimentalist novels that digress this much and talk about how sensible certain behaviors are, but in a span of hundred and ten pages this incomplete novel is all over the place.
And it is intentionally so if we look at it in the eyes of Tobias Smollett. It was he who this novel was directed to. How can a chaotic activity like traveling be fun? Smollet, according to Sterne, was not a traveler when he wrote about his travels. Immortalized in Sentimental Journey as Smelfungus, Smollett had “travelled from Boulogne to Paris,—from Paris to Rome,—and so on;—but he set out with the spleen and jaundice, and every object he pass’d by was discoloured or distorted.—He wrote an account of them, but ’twas nothing but the account of his miserable feelings.” Miserable feelings are not the place for travel writings. This is something Sterne is surprisingly passionate about for he writes a couple of scenarios between Yorick and Smelfungus:
I met Smelfungus in the grand portico of the Pantheon:—he was just coming out of it.—’Tis nothing but a huge cockpit, said he:—I wish you had said nothing worse of the Venus of Medicis, replied I;—for in passing through Florence, I had heard he had fallen foul upon the goddess, and used her worse than a common strumpet, without the least provocation in nature.
I popp’d upon Smelfungus again at Turin, in his return home; and a sad tale of sorrowful adventures had he to tell, “wherein he spoke of moving accidents by flood and field, and of the cannibals that each other eat: the Anthropophagi:”—he had been flayed alive, and bedevil’d, and used worse than St. Bartholomew, at every stage he had come at.—
—I’ll tell it, cried Smelfungus, to the world. You had better tell it, said I, to your physician.
Likewise, he finds Mundugus a deplorable character for his immense wealth but using none of it to enjoy the pleasures of making memories in traveling. He also pities men who “can travel from Dan to Beersheba, and cry, ’Tis all barren;—and so it is: and so is all the world to him who will not cultivate the fruits it offers.”
This is not true traveling.
Traveling is when you are riding yourself to the hotel in the chaise, hearing the town bell of Calais ring in your ears, and realizing that you have only spent one hour in here but you’ve seen so many sights and partook in myriad adventures:
—What a large volume of adventures may be grasped within this little span of life by him who interests his heart in every thing, and who, having eyes to see what time and chance are perpetually holding out to him as he journeyeth on his way, misses nothing he can fairly lay his hands on!
—If this won’t turn out something,—another will;—no matter,—’tis an assay upon human nature—I get my labour for my pains,—’tis enough;—the pleasure of the experiment has kept my senses and the best part of my blood awake, and laid the gross to sleep.
The journey is the series of accidents for Yorick. It is the momentary dazzle of each accident and love lost that makes up the sentimentalism of traveling. Consider films like Lost in Translation where Bill Murray’s and Scarlett Johannson’s characters fall in love with each other in their little journeys around Japan. However, when they have to leave and go back to resume their ordinary places in life, they can only say goodbye and keep their emotions intact. This is why the lady in Sentimental Journey who also has to unfortunately leave Yorick says to him, “You have been making love to me all this while.”
That is the power of sentimentalism. Sentimentalism can reform traditional and antisocial models of masculinity by embracing the effeminate. Leaving up to Sterne’s favorite themes of time and chance, adventures can be made through the power of sentiment. Sentiment — or moderation of love and passion — is good for one’s health because Sterne truly believes that “love is nothing without sentiment. And sentiment is still less without love.” He believes it will cure one’s spleen and “harmonizes the soul” in one letter dated in 1765. If one learns to be sentimental, your body will not suffer.
It’s not hard to imagine why Goethe would be so inspired by Sterne’s novel when he wrote his own novels, which was then adapted into philosophy by Nietzche, and finally into eroge form by Masada…
With that knowledge in mind, it makes a rereading of Don Rosa’s The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck more interesting than I previously thought. There is catharsis in Rosa’s sentimentalist portrayal of Scrooge and it has made me wonder what exactly made it tick.
A historical revisionist undertaking to tie in the canonicity of Carl Barks’s Scrooge with history, this honest comic book is overflowing with research and appeal to human emotion. Each detail presented haphazardly in Barks’s characterization is meticulously explained with world events. On one page, the teenage Scrooge McDuck becomes a captain of a riverboat and friends with the lovable Gyro Gearloose. Another would pit him against Marcus Daly. His notoriety as a cowboy gained him respect from Wyatt Earp. And then, you see him beaming after at last finally digging up a gold egg and treasuring his first income.
Each event in Scrooge’s life always shows the humanistic, sentimentalist side of life’s adventures and falls. With Sterne’s analysis of sentimentalism, it’s not that difficult to realize that you empathize with Scrooge precisely because he enjoyed the sentimentalist side of adventuring. The minute he leaves Scotland for America, he wonders if he is ever going to make it in the country.
But there is a stark contrast between this and the beginning pages of the final chapter:
Scrooge McDuck as Charles Foster Kane is unhappy. He finds his life meaningless because he has acquired a lot of wealth. He has become a hermit with no will to live. At this moment, he’d rather prefer to die. He wonders why he even wasted his life pursuing this meaningless goal of wealth at the cost of alienating his whole family.
But he gets reunited with Donald and his grandnephews after pursuing his old nemesis, the Beagle Boys. It is then he finds himself sprightly and young again. When the book finally ends, it shows Scrooge McDuck as we are familiar with: the stingy duck who loves swimming in his tub of money.
The moral of the book is simple: Success is built up by hard work and if you don’t look at hard work with introspection, success becomes meaningless.
But its simplicity comes from a complex understanding of why sentimentalism works. If success without sentimentalism is nothing, then imagine how less of a form sentimentalism without success. And it’s not like Scrooge succeeds in acquiring wealth all the time — he pretty much fails in doing so in the first half. But his “success” comes from building experience and character to finally digging up the gold egg. That series of failures has now become a streak of success. And you can’t do that without sentimentalism.
This idea has been brewing in Don Rosa’s mind for quite some time. One of the most interesting aspects of Scrooge McDuck is that he’s actually the ideal protagonist. He is the exemplar of the rugged individualism found in writings like Teddy Roosevelt’s (who according to Don Rosa’s comics quoted Scrooge himself). According to research as I haven’t read Carl Barks’s comics yet, Scrooge was originally slated to be a villain but turned more human as Barks found more interest in him. In an interview, he talks about why he fleshed out Scrooge McDuck:
I’ve always looked at the ducks as caricatured human beings. In rereading the stories, I realized that I had gotten kind of deep in some of them: there was philosophy in there that I hadn’t realized I was putting in. It was an added feature that went along with the stories. I think a lot of the philosophy in my stories is conservative—conservative in the sense that I feel our civilization peaked around 1910. Since then we’ve been going downhill. Much of the older culture had basic qualities that the new stuff we keep hatching can never match.
Look at the magnificent cathedrals and palaces that were built. Nobody can build that sort of thing nowadays. Also, I believe that we should preserve many old ideals and methods of working: honor, honesty, allowing other people to believe in their own ideas, not trying to force everyone into one form. The thing I have against the present political system is that it tries to make everybody exactly alike. We should have a million different patterns.
They say that wealthy people like the Vanderbilts and Rockefellers are sinful because they accumulated fortunes by exploiting the poor. I feel that everybody should be able to rise as high as they can or want to, provided they don’t kill anybody or actually oppress other people on the way up. A little exploitation is something you come by in nature. We see it in the pecking order of animals—everybody has to be exploited or to exploit someone else to a certain extent. I don’t resent those things.
For Barks and many conservatives of that nature, liberals make everyone look the same and equal. America is founded upon differences and equality is an ideal but not always real. Rosa has a similar philosophy to Barks who he considers his idol. In the earlier Don Rosa Library Collections, Scrooge McDuck outright says this:
The commentary on that panel is actually interesting because it is critical of comic book collectors who, rather than reading comics, preserves and sells these “gold edition comics” in plastic sleeves. Donald Duck in that particular comic wants to do exactly the same: to use Scrooge’s ancient money to sell to collectors and get profit for himself. He builds a mine out of Scrooge’s tub of cash, but the mine collapses and he almost dies if not for Scrooge’s knowledge of where each coin is at. Don Rosa’s approval can be seen by one of the triplets giving a thumbs up.
But the panel is also enlightening because it shows how humanizing success can actually be. For all the talk about how rich people are evil and exploitative, there is Scrooge McDuck who clearly loves and appreciate every coin and bill in his pool. Each coin represents a hard-earned moment — a momentary passion — for Scrooge. Money explains his life and this is not some cynical boohoo attempt at apologizing for capitalism. It is idealized, well-deserved success.
Sentimentalism doesn’t always come in the form of money in Rosa’s comics. His other favorite character to focus on is Donald Duck, the irascible hero who wants to find a job — something we can all relate to. His plight and failures are amusing to read. He is also as human as Scrooge when you realize how heroic his situation is. In this comic, Donald Duck is frustrated that his nephews are reading superhero comics — comics, in Rosa’s mind, where problems are not solved by wit or diplomacy but violence.
Donald however wonders if he is a good role model because right now, he is just delivering packages on his bicycle. If they are feeling empty and need to escape from reality to superhero comics, then is he a horrible uncle? He thus steals a potion and becomes a superhero. However, in typical Donald Duck fashion, he screws up. The potion wears off and he loses his job again. The three nephews see him being abused by the denizens of Duckburg and they have this interaction:
Heroism is not about talent, but the sentiments we are bestowed upon. In fact, is that what our idols are? They are ordinary people like you and me, but they symbolize an aspect of something we admire and thus we sentimentalize — idealize — them and give them high regard. Unlike those “superheroes” however, Donald Duck, Scrooge McDuck, and Father Yorick are more everyday than lawyer and cop heroes. Donald represents anyone who wants to do good for their family, Scrooge is someone who understands how to keep success through sentiments, and Father Yorick is a lover of women and journeys.
This traditionalist, conservative notion of good morals may not be suitable for modern audiences, but as a human being in love with the past more than the present I find it charming. It reminds me why I read — not to be a critic but to be a passionate lover. Who knew this once socialist brought up by commie-loving parents now extreme liberal by American standards had the feels for nostalgia, conservatism, and an idealized past that may never exist? I can’t blame conservatives for wishing to return to a past that never existed; it is really sentimental and especially beautiful.