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Dreadful "essay" about Cartagia, and a response

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  • Dreadful "essay" about Cartagia, and a response

    http://www.sf-foundation.org/publica...track/keen.php

    Found this via the Babylon Podcast, and had to post. At first I was interested - both my girlfriend and I are fascinated by the Romans (for her birthday, almost everything I bought her was about Rome - Tacitus, Gibbons, that sort of thing), and the parallels between the Centauri Republic and Rome are a fun topic.

    But this... "essay" is quite simply dreadful.

    Let us ignore the grammatical errors. They are embarrassing, but well, no-one's perfect. So let us talk about content.

    The essay begins by trying to present similarities between Cartagia and other portrayals of mad emperors in film. At first, this seems to make sense; the parallels to I, Claudius are quite resonant (as has been discussed in the forum). But then it goes on - and on and on and on, trying to tie the portrayal of Cartagia to a long series of other portrayals. And one begins to wonder... why? It's all more or less arbitrary; there's nothing in Babylon 5's portrayal of Cartagia, aside from the I, Claudius connection, to tell us that it is meant as a clear reference, or that it has somehow been inspired by some other portrayal. Yes, there may be similarities, but these do not necessarily constitute references. They are not necessarily relevant.

    With the kind of logic followed here, you could take apart any performance by any actor and claim that every tiny bit of it is inspired by a similar tiny bit in a performance that has some kind of conceptual relation to it (the same, of course, goes for the writing). By insisting on this ridiculous "intertextual" approach, the author of the essay utterly disregards the possibility that these similarities of form may derive from similarities of concept, thus denying the character any originality from the get-go. (He also misses a wonderful performance by Wortham Krimmer, but that's another aspect.) If you can only look at a character in terms of how he reminds you of other characters, you are bound to be disappointed - because you have never seen the actual character.

    The whole thing becomes utterly ridiculous when, in a desperate attempt by the author to appear modern, Cartagia is related Gladiator's Commodus.

    It is therefore not surprising that the Hollywood emperor Cartagia most resembles is one who actually postdates him, Joaquin Phoenix’s Commodus in Gladiator (2000), as both are conglomerations of previous imperial depictions.
    While both may be slightly mad, the comparison is profoundly off - where Cartagia is power-hungry and mad, Commodus (a tragic figure) is far more interested in being loved and respected. Their methods are very different, as is the shade of their madness. The performances of the actors, finally, are miles apart - not in quality, but in direction. The comparison is offensive both to Gladiator and to Babylon 5, and incredibly short-sighted. The author wishes to believe that all portrayals of mad emperors are the same, and therefore simply claims that it is so.

    Ultimately Cartagia not a very cleverly-drawn character, ending up as rather a cardboard cut-out. As noted, he is a conglomeration of many previous depictions of emperors, with the only absent theme being incest.
    This accusation is truly poor. As noted above, the character is only a conglomeration in the eyes of someone who chooses to see nothing but intertextual references; furthermore, it seems clear that the author of the essay is incapable of understanding Cartagia's function within the plot. What does the demand for a more "cleverly-drawn" character entail? A more "ambiguous" figure - perhaps more like the kind of inconsistently-written character that has become popular due to twist-obsessed shows like Lost, that end up sacrificing believable characterization in favour of "surprises" that are already anticipated by the viewer? Perhaps a more psychological background for the character, making him an abused child rather than a true madman, the result of a corrupt and degenerate imperial system? None of the above would be particularly enlightening - if anything, they would appear as dreadful clichés.

    Because the point is that sometimes there is a monster on the throne, as history has shown us more than enough times. And that is why Cartagia is well-drawn and frightening: because he really is mad and dangerous, and because his threat to the characters and their world is real. When Straczynski says that the character is unpredictable, that doesn't mean the audience is supposed to spend their entire time wondering what will happen next - we know Cartagia is insane, we know he is murderous; the death of the jester isn't meant to come as a surprise, it's a confirmation of his madness. His unpredictability is important because we don't know what form his madness will take, and especially because the characters do not know.

    Which brings me to what I mentioned before - that the author of the essay does not understand the function of Cartagia. Cartagia, despite his madness, is a straight man. He has a clear purpose to fulfill and does not question it or deviate from it. His true importance is in how he affects all those around him: mainly Londo, Vir, and G'Kar. Londo shows his true face as a patriot; G'Kar shows his true face as a champion of his people, and finds some manner of enlightenment in the darkest of moments. The loss of his eye is a powerful symbol and central to the series - and it is Cartagia that causes it (the fact that he does so without realizing the weight of his action - only the viewers understand the connection to future events - is particularly important). As for Vir, he has some of the most powerful moments in the whole story - not only killing Cartagia, but also deciding to kill him. When Cartagia's torture of G'Kar drives Vir to say "kill him", we truly understand the horror the emperor represents; this is innocent, bumbling Vir, after all. The same Vir who will some day occupy that throne, after Londo is dead - and here, in a way, he is taking one of his first steps towards that future, because of Cartagia.

    That is the point of Cartagia. He is a real threat, a real villain, and not an unrealistic one at that; and it is fitting for a show as complex as Babylon 5 that he does, in fact, have a moment of humanity (or at least sadness) at the end.

    I believe this illustrates one of the flaws of Straczynski’s writing. Though he is certainly historically aware as a writer (James and Mendlesohn, op. cit., pp. 1-10), sometimes he is not very historically sophisticated. This is perhaps shown at its worst in the fifth season episode ‘A Tragedy of Telepaths’. In this episode, it is discovered that the Narn Na’Toth, former aide to G’Kar, continues to be imprisoned on Centauri Prime after all other Narns have been freed. This is because her imprisonment was by the specific order of Cartagia, and Mollari explains to G’Kar that ‘this sort of thing happens in a monarchy’. It might be the sort of thing that would take place in a mediaeval autocracy, but it seems less likely to occur in a bureaucratic constitutional monarchy such as the Centauri empire is supposed to be.
    This argument is particularly absurd, giving us the vague impression that perhaps the author has not been entirely attentive. Everything we have seen about the Centauri Republic - the disdain for the Narn, the prevalence of age-old traditions, the total control of a few individuals over the bureaucratic apparatus, and the amount of things going in the shadows - tells us that this is the sort of thing that is very likely to occur in the Centauri Republic. (Which, by the way, can hardly be described as a bureaucratic constitutional monarchy. That is a more fitting description of modern England than of ancient Rome, or the Centauri Republic.) Furthermore, if you want an intertextual connection, the story that Londo tells derives from a true story in the latter years of the Czars. And Czarist Russia, as we all ought to know, was not a medieval autocracy at all. In fact, the Wikipedia says:

    Russia was described in the Almanach de Gotha for 1910 as "a constitutional monarchy under an autocratic tsar." [...]The imperial style is still "Emperor and Autocrat of All the Russias"; but in the fundamental laws as remodeled between the October Manifesto and the opening of the first Imperial Duma on 27 April 1906, while the name and principle of autocracy was jealously preserved, the word "unlimited" vanished. Not that the regime in Russia had become in any true sense constitutional, far less parliamentary; but the "unlimited autocracy" had given place to a "self-limited autocracy," whether permanently so limited, or only at the discretion of the autocrat, remaining a subject of heated controversy between conflicting parties in the state. Provisionally, then, the Russian governmental system may perhaps be best defined as "a limited monarchy under an autocratic emperor."
    So much for Straczynski's lack of historical sophistication - clearly it is the author of the essay who is lacking in historical understanding.

    All in all, the essay contributes nothing to our understanding of Cartagia as a character or a storytelling device; it attempts to find intertextual connections to other characters, but - aside from the obvious - gives us mostly nonsense and name-dropping. It displays a lack of understanding, both in terms of history and of storytelling structures. In the end, it falls flat, showing itself to be little more than a vain attempt to sound intellectual by creating irrelevant connections and irrational points of criticism.

    Like every great work of art, Babylon 5 has its flaws - but it certainly deserves better academic work than this.
    Last edited by Jonas; 10-18-2008, 06:28 AM.
    Jonas Kyratzes | Lands of Dream

  • #2
    Where I usually stop reading that sort of thing is when the writer insists that the character/story is "based on", or "_____(fitb) rewritten" or "a homage to," etc. Sure, any and all of those things may have been used to inform or flavor the character or events, but that's not all there is to writing and to think so is simplistic in the extreme. If that was all that JMS did, some fans would constantly be on a 'treasure hunt' to sniff out the references. Heck, many of them were, anyway, to the point that I wondered if they ever noticed the story going on around them. If I want to read history or stories that have been told before, I'll do that. Somebody who can take disparate elements and weave them into new stories and interesting characters is what I'm interested in, not somebody whose main goal seems to be to dissect and deconstruct those stories.

    Your point about Cartagia's function is *very* nicely made, Jonas. Refa had served to show us the difference between Londo's ambition for his planet and the self-serving ambition of an opportunistic politician but Cartagia showed us Londo's true patriotism. That Cartagia turned out to be such a memorable character is thanks to Wortham Krimmer's acting as well as JMS's writing. He could easily have been nothing better than a caricature if not for the skills of both.

    Jan
    "As empathy spreads, civilization spreads. As empathy contracts, civilization contracts...as we're seeing now.

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    • #3
      Agree with both of you. Cartegia had a role to fill within a very limited timeframe, and JMS used the time very well.

      It is emblematic of the extent to which Tony Keen is reaching that he actually says that JMS's character is closest to the Commodus character in Gladiator - and then makes absolutely no attempt to either explain or use that comparison.

      This is, regrettably, another example of how the internet can simply confuse when it should enlighten, because there is no editorial control over web content. This isn't necessarily bad, except insofar as a credulous reader might take this analysis at its face value, and accept the conclusion that "Cartagia not a very cleverly-drawn character, ending up as rather a cardboard cut-out." Did the Science Fiction Foundation allow for same-page comment on such essays, the damage could be undone. Alas, it does not.
      I believe that when we leave a place, part of it goes with us and part of us remains. Go anywhere in the station, when it is quiet, and just listen. After a while, you will hear the echoes of all our conversations, every thought and word we've exchanged. Long after we are gone .. our voices will linger in these walls for as long as this place remains. But I will admit .. that the part of me that is going .. will very much miss the part of you that is staying.

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