Now that the *Chuck* storm is subsiding (I am now just doing some desultory redrafting), I am going to turn my attention to John Wisdom’s *Other Minds*. I plan to write a bit about it here over the next few weeks. It was Wisdom, not Wittgenstein, not Austin, who first drew me into ordinary language philosophy. I am a big fan. More on this soon.
[Here is a bit of the Introduction to the Chuck book.]
Thinking about Chuck, Reading Chuck
Chuck artfully grafts a spy thriller onto a romantic comedy. It deepens the romantic comedy by including within it two complementary Bildungsromane, the story of the growth of the two central characters–their growth as individuals, as a couple, and as individuals because they are a couple. Each tutors the other; their we tutors their I’s. The show explores trust and mistrust, belief and doubt, truth and falsity, and reality and appearance. It also explores hope and despondency, love, loss and loneliness. Sarah challenges Chuck’s self-mistrust. She gives him the will and confidence to become what he is (but cannot believe himself to be). Chuck challenges Sarah’s moral imagination. He quickens her sense of human actualities of trust, warmth and hearth. Sarah models competence for Chuck. Chuck models vulnerability for Sarah. Chuck becomes a spy while remaining a human being; Sarah becomes a human being while remaining a spy.
Chuck achieves density and resonance. It is a show of patterns: of duplications, of symmetries, of echoes, of types and anti-types. It is animately, virtuosically contrapuntal–like Bach. It speaks an elaborate language of images, events, actions, places, words and music. It also speaks that language quite quickly and volubly, making serious demands on its audience’s attention and memory. But it also rewards that attention, that active participatory recollection, by steadily ingathering meaning.
Density and Resonance
Let me clarify some of my terms. What do I mean by ‘density’ and ‘resonance’? By calling the show ‘dense’ I mean that in it many meanings are often carried by one image, event, action, phrase or word. By calling it ‘resonant’, I meant that one word, phrase, action, event , place or image is often projected into or recollected in many other contexts. Think of density as a many-in-one phenomenon and of resonance as a one-in-many phenomenon.
One interesting, complicated example of density is the word ‘date’. The problematic meaning of the word between Chuck and Sarah (the central characters) is established in the very first episode. They go on what Chuck takes to be a date. Sarah takes it to be an opportunity to establish herself as her asset’s handler, i.e., as her chance to insinuate herself into Chuck’s life and establish control over him. But one problem with going on a pretend date (of the sort they go on) is that it is very much like going on a real date (think how much like waving pretending to wave is). Sarah gets dressed up, as Chuck does–except her outfit includes body armor and weapons. He picks her up and takes her to dinner. They talk. They go dancing. Chuck intends to go on a date and believes he is on one. Sarah intends to develop an asset, and so begins the evening with intentions unlike those that normally are involved in an actual date, those like Chuck has. But before the evening ends, her intentions have become unclear. Maybe she is on a date. It starts to seem–to her–like she is on a date. Eventually, she is on a date–although she would deny it if asked. So did they go on a date or not? Yes? No? Sort of? Whether this is the right word, or at any rate what meaning the word has, will remain an issue between them. They will come back to it several times in the course of the show and even in the final episode. For them, the word bears both an attenuated and a full meaning–say that it is appearance/reality ambiguous. The attenuated sense is the sense of a merely apparent date, a pretend date. The full sense is the sense of a real date. Many of the words of Chuck are appearance/reality ambiguous, and thus dense in a problematic way.
Here are a couple of examples of resonance in the show (they will be discussed in later chapters):
Rings: engagement rings, wedding rings (fake and genuine), ordinary rings, even an evil spy organization known as “The Ring”–rings appear and reappear throughout the show.
Trains and train stations: many of the significant moments of the show take place on trains or at trains stations, a train station in Prague and Union Station in LA are perhaps the most significant.
Together, the density and resonance of the show make reading it (I will say more about this use of ‘reading’ below) tricky in specific ways. Often, the full meaning of an episode will not be revealed until a later episode, but not because there is something unexplained in the earlier episode–say, something kept secret. No, the full meaning of an episode will not be revealed because there is a word, phrase, action, event or image that gets projected into a later episode, and which deepens or widens or heightens the significance of the earlier one. We can call density and resonance ‘linguistic’ phenomena: a language is marked by the way in which its individual words and phrases can simultaneously carry many different meanings and by the way in which its individual words and phrases can be projected into new contexts, contexts in which their old meaning remains part of their story, but only part of their story. The words now have more to tell. That is part of the reason I say of the show that it speaks an elaborate language.
Chuck strives for formal completeness. It is not just telling a story that begins, has a middle and that ends. Of course, it does do that. But the story-telling is peculiar. Put it this way: the beginning of Chuck presupposes its ending as its ending presupposes its beginning. The final episode presents the end of the events began in the pilot. But it does more than that. It retells the pilot episode, reenacts it. By an instance of what James Joyce in Finnegans Wake calls “a commodius vicus of recirculation”, the end of the show takes us back to its beginning a second time, to a second beginning. When They Might Be Giants sing, “How About Another First Kiss?”, part of the fun of the song is the impossibility of what is requested. But Chuck, because it has structuring principles other than temporal ones, contrives to make what is requested an actuality.
Understanding the show as linguistic, as speaking a language, helps to explain why I want to call what I am doing reading the show. But I use that word to do more than to provide an appropriate description of my response to the show’s linguistic character. I also use it because I want to situate Chuck in relation to various (other) texts–works of philosophy and works of literature. By saying that I am reading Chuck I am insisting on the fact (I take it to be a fact) that the show can withstand sustained comparison to such works. It can be read in the active, inward and sympathetic way that they can. For example, I repeatedly appeal to the work of the philosopher Gabriel Marcel in what follows–I have used lines of his as epigraphs for the book itself and for some of its chapters. Marcel’s work clarifies the show, helps to bring its deeper concerns and its fixations into view and to make them easier to understand.
I realize that this may seem fantastic. After all, a tv show, a network tv show, a long-arc romantic comedy network tv show? Surely, pairing Gabriel Marcel with Chuck staggers credulity. I must be mistreating Marcel. I can’t be serious. –I am serious. The show can survive such a pairing, and still others that will appear in the pages below. The pairing does no damage to Marcel–in fact, it helps to clarify what he is saying and why he is saying it.
Skepticism is superstition with the signs reversed. –John Wisdom, Other Minds (p. 190).
Sarah is still in her yellow nightie with a short white robe over it, barefoot. Chuck has put a blue-grey suit jacket on over his pajamas. Sarah begins the ceremony wearing a doily on her head, simulating a veil. Chuck reaches for it and removes it ceremoniously. Sarah is smiling widely, laughing. Chuck laughs too. The moment has tremendous symbolic significance. Sarah has been veiled from Chuck for most of the time he has known her. While the veils protected her, kept her from being known, they also made it nearly impossible for her to make herself known. Our faces harden into the contours of the masks we wear. Chuck has removed those veils with painstaking care. He now removes the last. He knows this woman. She is gladly known. She knows this man. He is gladly known. ‘Know’ has older meanings–perhaps most famously used in the Authorized Version–like to approve and to acknowledge with due respect and to commit or have. These meanings coalesce here. Their wedding celebrates and consecrates their mutual knowledge.
Sarah picks up a piece of paper on which she has written her vows. Chuck gently chides her. This is their wedding ceremony. He has written his vows in a leather journal–a document appropriate to the occasion. But Sarah is satisfied with her vows.
Sarah: I think I covered the bases.
Chuck: Ok, cool. Yeah, good, good. You go then I’ll go and then we’ll have a little note session, afterwards.
Sarah: Ok. I’m just gonna go…
Chuck: You go..mm hmm.
Sarah: [clearing her throat] “Chuck, you’re a gift. You’re a gift I never dreamed I could want or need. And every day I will show you that you’re a gift that I deserve. You make me the best person I could ever hope to be, and I want to spend and learn and love the rest of my life with you.”
Chuck is listening with his eyes closed as Sarah begins to read. He opens his eyes as the words reach his heart. Sarah begins by reading but ends speaking the words from her heart directly to Chuck’s heart, heart to heart. The woman who is no good at the saying-how-she-feels part says how she feels with more direct, economical and poetic power than anyone else–including Chuck–ever manages. She summons and commands a word magic here, one that even Chuck, for all his articulateness, cannot summon or command. Perhaps it is overcoming all the years of living at a distance from her feelings, refusing and abusing them, perhaps it is the freshness of her efforts to express herself, perhaps it is Chuck’s ability to invite expression from her. Perhap it is all of these–and also perhaps it is love itself, love’s uncanny ability to raise us above ourselves, to allow us to do and be what we never imagined we could do or be. Sarah speaks from within the glow of a mandoria, the meeting place of the person she was and the person she hopes to be–the person she is and keeps becoming. In their very first extended conversation, in the Mexican restaurant, Chuck used a complicated rhetorical figure to make a joke about Devon. Sarah uses one to capture the multiple-dimensionality of her life with Chuck: she wants to spend the rest of her life with Chuck, to learn (for) the rest of her life with Chuck, she want to love Chuck and to love with Chuck (to share the things they love) for the rest of her life. The three verbs, ‘spend’, ‘learn’ and ‘love’ all govern ‘the rest of my life with you’ but they do so in different ways.
But the most striking feature of Sarah’s vows is the way in which they transfigure Chuck and reveal the way he has transfigured her. Just before Sarah walks to Chuck for the first time, she is on the phone being briefed about him. He is her asset. Asset. An asset is something disposable, something to be used. He is now her gift. Gift. A gift that she deserves and wants to keep deserving. Gifts are not mere assets. Assets I can have with no question of desert. But not gifts. Gifts impose responsibilities on the person who receives them. If someone paints me a picture and gives it to me, and I take it home and use it as a serving tray, that will be taken (so long as there is nothing else to say) as an expression of contempt not only for the gift, but also for the giver of it. Sarah knows how lucky she is that Chuck appeared in her life–a comet lighting up her darkness, quickening her numbness–and she wants him to know how grateful she is. Her vows give thanks for Chuck. The asset she unveils as a gift.
Wonder overcomes Chuck. Her vows plumb his heart, find in it depths of responsiveness he did not know it had. She asks if the vows were talky. He tells her the vows are perfect, so perfect. He hugs her to him.
After Chuck and Volkoff save Sarah, we are taken into the ceremony just after Sarah’s has made her vows. The bells peal joyously. Sarah sighs, satisfied and relieved, and Chuck begins to speak.
Chuck: Right. My vows. My turn for that. They just don’t cut it. I’m sorry Sarah. How do I express the depth of my love for you? Or my dreams for our future? Or the fact that I will fight for you every day? Or that our kids will be like little superheroes, with little capes and stuff like that? Words can’t express that. They don’t cut it. So no vows. I’ll just prove it to you every day for the rest of our lives. You can count on me.
Chuck of course makes vows here. What he means is that he will not read the vows he wrote. Sarah’s vows already made him describe them as a complete tear down, a page one rewrite. He has not found anything better that he can prepare to say. And so his vows are his confession of inarticulateness before this woman and the prospect of a life with her. The man of words finds that they have deserted him.
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still.
Chuck has attempted a raid on the inarticulate but returned empty-handed. The guy who is good at the saying-how-he-feels part fails to find words. But his very inarticulateness is expressive. Sarah is closer to him than words are. She has accepted his invitation into the very heart of who he is–and so it is easier for him to show her his avowal than to say vows to her. He is her very own baggage handler. He is her guy. He will fight for her. She can count on him. He is very available. His schedule is wide open.
Dwelling in Wonder
Together, their vows testify to their wonder at each other. R. W. Hepburn notes that
Wonder does not see its objects possessively: they remain ‘other’ and unmastered. Wonder does dwell in its objects with rapt attentiveness.
Hepburn continues by explaining that although we may reach a point at which the interrogative element in wonder–”What is this? How can it be?”–may no longer expect further answers, it still remains in a muted and generalized form. We always find ourselves in an interrogatory posture before proper objects of wonder. She continues
With [the interrogatory element] may persist also an odd sense of the gratuitousness of the object and its qualities. Its existence strikes us as a gift, undeserved. A sense of unlikelihood pervades the experience.
Both Sarah and Chuck, each in his or her own way, is struck by the gratuitousness and the unlikelihood of the other. Each is struck by the sense that the other is ‘other’ and yet belongs to him or her. Each is struck by the fact that the other, loved and trusted, remains still unmastered. Their fidelity to each other will be, will have to be, a creative fidelity. They vow to dwell with each other in rapt attentiveness.
[A short excerpt from the penultimate chapter of the Chuck book. The working title of the book is Chuck: Nerd Herder and Girl Impossible. Beware: this definitely contains spoilers.]
I suspect that one reason why a number of fans of the show disliked the ending was that they confused their reaction to the end of the show with their reaction to the end of the episode, to the storyline about Sarah’s memory loss and its possible return. Chuck’s power resides ultimately in how invested we became in these characters and in the world they inhabited. They came to be presences in our real lives despite being fictional. The show took our hearts captive. And so its ending is not something we can meet tranquilly. No, we hate that it ends. The ending makes us sad. That is perfectly appropriate. Watching the final episode is like having to say goodbye to friends who we will not see again. That sorrow hangs over and permeates the final episode, and it can seem like that sorrow somehow determines the ending, decides how it is to be understood. We are sad–and so we attribute that sadness to the ending of the storyline. But they are two separate endings–one can be happy (the storyline ending) while the other is sad (the end of the show). To respond properly to the final episode, we have to keep the endings and our reactions to them separated. I have had my say about why I regard the storyline ending as happy. Let me say a word more about the ending of the show.
Samuel Johnson, writing the final essay in his series of essays, The Idler, discusses what he calls “our secret horror of the last”. He notes that
There are few things not purely evil, of which we can say, without some emotion of uneasiness, “this is the last”.
He continues by linking this secret horror to the limits of our life and our dread of death. We mark periods of our life in various ways–and one of them is by the duration of a tv show that matters to us. And when a period of our life ends, we make a “secret comparison” between part and whole; we are forcibly reminded that life itself has a final episode, that our show too must end. Eventually, all screens go black. I mention this not to be morbid, but rather to explain why I find reacting to the final episode correctly to be hard to do. The show is ending, and we experience our secret horror of the last, we experience the pain of parting with these (fictional) friends. That there is a reminder of death in all this seems to me undeniable. But there is also a reminder of death internal to the storyline of the final episode. Sarah’s memory loss, if permanent and complete, feels functionally equivalent, for Chuck, to her dying. He loses her (or at least five years with her), despite the fact that she goes on living. Their five years together are irrevocably taken from them. That does not happen. Still, the specter of it haunts the unfolding of the storyline. But then another specter of death–the reminder that the last brings with it–also haunts the ending of the show. One specter is laid to rest, the one in the storyline. But the other remains. And in the black of that final screen, it is hard to tell the specters apart.