1965 - 'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman

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Chuck Messer
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Postby Chuck Messer » Mon Jan 17, 2005 2:44 am

Once again, my reaction to the story is a bit more visceral, almost literally. I work at an establishment where we more or less have to pee on a schedule - during our 15 minute breaks and 1/2 hour lunches. We cannot, except under the most urgent circumstances, go to the john at other times. The call center has to keep a certain number of people on the phones, providing customer service, at any given time, so if it's not too urgent you have to hold it until the next break, even if it's an hour and a half away.

Oog. :shock:

Also, we can't be too early or too late in starting our breaks. We must remain "In Adherence" Everything a timed and watched precisely. If you make a habit of being too late to take a break, not to mention tardy to often....

Terminated. With extreme prejudice.

We go along because we have no union, because there are too many people who would gladly take our places if we're terminated, like so many machine parts.

I hate being a machine part. I would love to have the subersive ingenuity of an Everett C. Marm. I'd love to dump the equivalent of a shipload of jellybeans in that place. I don't know how, just yet. Maybe never.

This is nothing new. I've seen films made in the 30's showing how workers were making too many wasted movments at their desks. All they had to do was make efficient, mechanical, metronomic movments and the system would run on greased grooves, God would be in his heaven and all would be right with the world.

This is what Repent, Harlequin! playfully rails against.


Jelly beans.

Jelly? Beans?

What an ideal terrorist weapon. If more terrorists used those kind of "weapons" I think they'd be so much more effective.

As for the Mrmee thing:

I always felt the Ticktockman was not literally a machine. He was just someone who was as much a slave to the system as the poor slobs going right-left-right on the walkways right on rythm. The Mrmee, mrmee, mrmee sounded like a machinelike human being going haywire.

And now if you'll excuse me, I'm feeling a little pressure down there, and need to take an unscheduled leak.

Just keep an eye on my caridoplate.


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Jon Stover
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Postby Jon Stover » Mon Jan 17, 2005 5:41 am

Right on, Chuck -- it's easy to forget, while one looks for allusions and themes, that the story taps into exactly your type of experience. The dystopias/cautionary tales I'd see it as having the greatest affinity with are both by Vonnegut -- Player Piano and "Harrison Bergeron," to be exact. The scariest thing, I suppose, is that the story may have more resonance now than it did when it was published, in terms of how society operates in the Western World. But I can't make that statement authoritatively, not having been around in the 1950s and 1960s. Well, I cameoed in the 1960s, but it was hardly a lengthy appearance.

Cheers, Jon

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Postby lonegungirl » Mon Jan 17, 2005 6:04 am

This is one of my favorites, simply because it has such a light-hearted feel to it, compared with most of the other stories. Of course, the fact that I now consider a story where the hero is brainwashed and killed at the end to be a fuzzy bunny tale, just shows the corruption of my standards.

In some aspects, it is vaguely similar to the Deathbird, with the idea that most of humanity goes around oblivious/unconscious of their willing abdication of self-determinism. The exception is the hero who possesses the spark to see the power resting within himself. The difference between the two would be that Earth dies at the end of one story, while the community is irrevokably changed at the end of the other--the difference between Greek tragedy and comedy? Perhaps someone closer to English classes could refresh my memory...

Interesting how fascinated we are by the mrmee thing--I remember a discussion we had on the sound some years ago which lasted until HE told us we were over-analytical and pompous. But I've never even had a martini, I swear...

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Jon Stover
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Postby Jon Stover » Mon Jan 17, 2005 6:22 am

Nothing wrong with playing with the meaning of what's going on, lonegun -- I think Harlan's anecdote has more to do with people asserting that they've found a secret key to a story than it does with the perils of analysis by people who are willing to admit that they're not necessarily going to be right when they're theorizing. The best literary analysis (and theory, for that matter) acknowledges, even if only implicitly, that it's one of a number of lenses to look at a text, and that it's not authoritative except when it's addressing factual issues.

Or at least that's my theory about that anecdote...

Cheers, Jon

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Postby Steven Dooner » Mon Jan 17, 2005 7:51 am

Ack! I can't believe I wrote Eliot instead of Everett! Thank you, Kristen.

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P.A. Berman
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Postby P.A. Berman » Mon Jan 17, 2005 1:00 pm

Jon Stover wrote:I think you may have gone too far with Mree, PAB, but it's an interesting idea.

But if you read it as "mrmee," as it is in the story, don't you think it's too much of a coincidence that the protagonist's name is "Marm, E.," and the Ticktockman is murmurring the syllables of his name? Harlan could have picked any nonsense syllables, but he picked those. It also works with the idea that Marm hadn't failed completely in his mission if he's gotten into the Ticktockman's head in that manner. A slight note of cheer in an otherwise sad ending for the Harlequin.


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Postby Jan » Mon Jan 17, 2005 1:01 pm

I've just read my way through the postings. Michaels essay was teriffic, it summed up the most important aspects very well. After that, I liked Steve Jarrett's comment about Harlequin being somewhat similar to Zorro in his tactics. Makes me wonder what Harlan thinks about that. Lonegungirl made a good point about the similarities betwen this and THE DEATHBIRD, I think that's correct and interesting, and I would have forgotten to mention it, but I got that same impression when I re-read DEATHBIRD last week.

I guess Harlan doesn't want us to over-analyze this, but there's some things left to say that I think are of interest.

Yes, Harlequin sounds like Harlan. It's pretty obvious this story was inspired by his personal experiences as an artist. Harlequin to me is an ARTIST, showing the world possibilities by doing what he does, reminding people about things that are important. The jellys are art. Conformity is the death of artistry, and certainly a major subject of art. One thing an artist has to deal with is deadlines (Harlan's constant battle). Anyway, many people could (and do) resist the need to conform, but few actually have something to offer as an alternative, intelectuals and artists being among them, terrorists not. I think terrorism has nothing to do with this story.

Like THE DEATHBIRD, though, the story is about more than is seems, as Michael already made clear. I think that when I read it the first time as a kid, I though it was mosty about time and schedules, but like DEATHBIRD the story concentrates on one thing and means all the rest als well. I'm just pointing this out because in many ways the story could have been changed and expanded to more obviously include other aspects. Harlan just drops a few keywords like equality, unity, and belonging, and we know what's going on.

The theme is most brilliantly developed. I love how Harlan takes his cue from Taylorism, and expands the metaphor of the factory to encompass all aspects of life, most notably by introducing the concept of "slidewalks" (perfect), which are reminiscent of assembly lines. I wonder if Harlan has read Georg Simmel's text on modern city life. Simmel, like many sociologists, dealt with the same subject, and a lot of the Chicago school was influenced by him.

I am also reminded of the tv show THE PRISONER which dealt with freedom vs. conformity and what this world is turning into. Some of Harlan's essays would serve as interesting supplementary reading to TICKTOCKMAN, especially the dead gopher story and AN EDGE IN MY VOICE #54 (both on ON THE ROAD WITH ELLISON Vol. 1).

I noticed that the idea of "revocation" was revealed in a very simple and straightforward manner, which raises the question if it couldn't have been dramatized and moved to somewhere near the end as a twist or surprise. Probably most writers would have done that.

Harlan's tendency to cut out his own scenes and replace them with a reference, like he does with the torture scene, is both unique and a constant delight to the reader. (I was reminded of the missing prison escape sequence in SOLDIER.) :-)

I ask myself if the Ticktockman is actually an external factor or something inside of us. I think it's possible to read it both ways, although Harlan probably didn't intend that. Remember the I, ROBOT anecdote where the executives left Harlan waiting for twenty minutes and he got totally pissed? Anyway, the need to conform is inside of us, more so than on the outside. (I forgot who, but someone else here said something similar, I believe.)

Another pessimistic story, the good guys lose, the downfall of humanity is unstoppable. (Well, it's a warning, so it can't have a happy ending.)

If anyone cares to know, I am always a little late and often have to deal with quite serious consequences. When I last talked with the Ticktockman, and he sayd I'm a swell guy, but nothing can be done, although he agreed with my points and said that technically anything is possible! Except there's this artificial deadline thing. I wanted to shoot the guy, but I didn't have my gun on me.

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Steve Evil
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Tick Tock Tick. . .

Postby Steve Evil » Mon Jan 17, 2005 1:14 pm

Robin WIlliams? Sorry, just don't see it that way. . .

Now here's a discussion I can contribute to. Civil Dissobedience, Social Satire. . . none of that religous stuff.

It's not particularily deep. It is a very short, almost off the cuff little fable about striking back at an oppressive society simply by enjoying oneself. It reminded me alot of guerilla street theatre, that's still used today by some activist groups.

Unca Harlan's always been a nonconformist. The Harlequin seems a projection of himself, his stories are huge piles of jelly beans dumped into an overmechanized society. Not that I like to dismiss everything as metaphor, but I think there's a strong element of that here.

We're all so dehumanized in this modern economy. Cogs in the machine, alientated from our labour. Machines don't think or feel or laugh or cry. They just function.

This story's definately an attack on that kind of society.

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Postby sjarrett » Mon Jan 17, 2005 10:53 pm

Micheal wrote:SJarret: No, the Master Timekeeper (none would dare call him Ticktockman to his face) is far too real. He goes by many names: Bush, Clinton, Kennedy, Ashcroft, Pearson, Mulroney, Martin; all the grey men who mouth the words but never dream the ideal, much less see the potential in its realization.

I absolutely agree; I certainly didn't mean to suggest otherwise. However we read the character of the Master Timekeeper, it is clear that this fictional figure points to very real figures -- past, present, and future -- in the real world.

Steve J.

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Barney Dannelke
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More pie please.

Postby Barney Dannelke » Mon Jan 17, 2005 11:23 pm

With regard to "mrmee mrmee", or whatever the spelling is, I always had a different reading than the automaton reading. I just thought it sounded like the sound you get when you take your forefinger and bounce your lower lip up and down while making idiot mouth noises. Simply the sound of someone going around the bend or falling off his hobbyhorse. I believe someone else said this a couple of years ago when this came up and I said to myself, "ok, good, then it wasn't just me."

I was going to say this is a small part of the story but it's gotten quite a bit of traction and after my close re-reading of THE DEATHBIRD I am no longer convinced there are any small parts to Ellison stories - at least those published after the early 1960's.

I also wanted to footnote my own remark about the Merry Pranksters in my earlier post. I see that spirit is not entirely dead. As we approch the 2nd Bush coronation I have been made aware of a groundswell movement to literally turn ones back on Bush as he passes by on the parade route as a way of showing a certain level of disrespect for the Prez without - I would hope - getting tear-gassed, maced or rubber bulleted. This isn't quite the daisy in the rifle, jellybeans in the causeway I might personally hope for but it's a clever enough statement of civil disobediance that hurts nobody, and thus has my full support.

I'd hold up a copy of 1984 as well if I were going to be there but there's probably some sort of law about certain books being allowed inside the Commander in Chief's defensive perimeter.

And while I'm on this path, here is a "poem" that was composed/compiled by a friend of my daughter. I'm starting to think Bush is a big Edward Lear/ Dada-ist who should be booked to any gig that Professor Erwin Corey used to do. Enjoy. - Barney

by George W. Bush
I think we all agree, the past is over.
This is still a dangerous world.
It's a world of madmen and uncertainty
and potential mental losses.
Rarely is the question asked
Is our children learning?
Will the highways of the Internet become more few?
How many hands have I shaked?
They misunderestimate me.
I am a pitbull on the pantleg of opportunity.
I know that the human being and the fish can coexist.
Families is where our nation finds hope, where our wings take dream.
Put food on your family!
Knock down the tollbooth!
Vulcanize society!
Make the pie higher! Make the pie higher!

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Postby KristinRuhle » Tue Jan 18, 2005 1:51 am

..sometimes a story is just a story, right?

Not sure what I can add to what has already been said. It is a fable. One interesting thing is that it was written during the turbulent 1960s - civil disobedience was on the nightly news a lot.

Uh, my name is spelled "Kristin" (LOL I got what I deserved for hassling Harlan about it! I knew perfectly well he knew how to spell it having ordered books from Susan, but Dutton's got what, 500 pre-orders of Strange Wine? And I know how bad a cellphone connection can be...HE wrote my name in it about four times and then "Frum" (sic) above his signature.)


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Postby Micheal » Tue Jan 18, 2005 8:07 am

I'm less interested in the "mrmee, mrmee, mrmee" than I am in the fact that an aide oh so gently pointing out to the Master Timekeeper that he is three and a half minutes late in the final paragraph of the tale, and that the schedule is off as a result.

One can never underestimate the power within a conscience and a soul.

Barney: In regards to the Bushisms: Both damned funny and damned frightening.

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Barney Dannelke
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Postby Barney Dannelke » Tue Jan 18, 2005 11:15 am

I worried briefly about putting so much politics in that last post but I justified it to myself like this...

I really do believe that story, although becoming, *ahem*, timeless, comes from a very particular time and place and that was a time of political outrage and protest. So it warms me inside that another generation has, at least not entirely abandoned this form of speaking out.

If I had put the Bush thing together I probably would have posted it somewhere else and not here but since it was done by a 16 year old girl and the more I looked at it the more I thought, "damn, this NEEDS a soapbox". So here's where it got plonked. And who knows? Maybe it'll develop its own cultural traction like the Peter David village idiot remark.


Now that I've been thinking about this story for a few days I realize that it also reads different for me at 45 than at 17 or 25 or 35. Until recently it was a very depressing story for me. Spanner in the works ending aside, they turn the hero to their purpose and that's always a major bummer.

But now I'm thinking - ah, what the hell, we all get turned by degrees - and the story says to me something more like "you know, we're all going down that hole, we're all taking the dirt nap so you might as well go clever. Might as well go with some style."

Terrorists have no sense of humor. You can hate them for whatever reasons you like. But that's why I hate them.

The Harlequin is working from a completely different instruction manual. Something that reads more like Camus' THE MYTH OF SYSYPHUS.

Jellybeans? How absurd!

- Barney

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David Loftus
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Postby David Loftus » Tue Jan 18, 2005 12:52 pm

I'm utterly delighted by the level of discourse in these story discussions so far. The Webderland Board, then the Pavilion, and then the Forums, always featured at least some erudition, but when we really focus on a subject, that's when the talk hits a new level.

I haven't read "Harlequin" in months, but I've read it many times, and listened to Ellison recordings of it on at least a half dozen occasions, so the story is very clear in my mind. In my mind I can hear his particular stress and phrasing in a lot of passages.

Micheal's initial post to this thread is of course brilliant. I would just add that his remarks about Harlequin's peculiar brand of terrorism also indicate how awful that world has become: when such play can wreak such societal havoc and bring down such wrath, that is an indication of how rotten that particular civilization is at its core.

In some ways, the world we have made is even worse than that, because some acts of serious play and intellectual terrorism don't even raise a peep out of the authorities. They get laughed off, misread, and ignored by the populace -- subsumed under the white noise of consumerist entertainment.

Our "complicity in silencing" those alternative, creative voices is bound up in our desire not only for security, but comfort and distraction. We choose easy routes, tasty but empty calories, and quick answers -- which is reflected in our purchases, elected officials, and government policies.

I never thought the Ticktockman was a robot . . . though he sometimes behaves in robot-like ways. PAB's suggestion that "mrmee" unconsciously refers to "Marm, E." is great . . . and sj's suggestion that it might even connote "Marm = me" is also terrific! I wouldn't imagine Harlan thought of or intended such readings when he hit upon that mumble, but they work for me! Because the Master Timekeeper himself has thrown the office schedule off just a little, his subconscious could be scolding him and saying "you can get away with it just this once, since you're in charge, but if you don't shape up you could end up just like Marm, E." !

sj mentioned Zorro. Can't remember where, but some rear book flap or other two to three decades ago said that Ellison viewed himself as a cross between Jiminy Cricket and Zorro.

About the real counterparts of the Ticktockman cited by Micheal; somewhere recently, someone complained within my hearing that "the Hall Monitors have taken over."

I don't know whether anyone is likely to have access to this soon, but there's a monologist/actor named Mike Daisey who's currently doing a one-man show here in Portland called "21 Dog Years." It's primarily about his three years working for Amazon.com, and eventual escape to pursue his creative dreams. His description of working conditions and the corporate psychology there is frightening and hilarious, and has much in common with Chuck Messer's workplace. Oh, the story is out in book form now, too . . . for sale on Amazon.com!

Barney -- I share some of your 45-year-old reaction to the story. We're all going down, in death as well as in a welter of living compromises beforehand, but we can do it with a grin and a guffaw. Since you mention Camus's little book of essays, I will recall a line from the one on Kafka, I think, in which he says people have a tiresome habit of referring to misfortune as fateful, but happiness is just as random and inevitable, and so just as much a matter of fate.

I wish I had some good plans for Bush's second inauguration, but I don't. People have been passing a plan around the Internet for Not One Dime Day, but that just struck me as pointless and stupid. It's not going to hurt corporate America (people will just make their usual purchases a day early or later), it's not going to affect or impress Bush, so the only result is to make its participants feel good about themselves. That doesn't quite cut it for me. Better to just act as if it's a normal, average day in which nothing special is happening at all.

In 2000, I had the extreme pleasure of reading "A Boy and His Dog" aloud to a dinner party of a dozen people, on the day that Bush was inaugurated. Seemed like declaiming about rape, murder, and cannibalism was just the right sort of classy protest against the way the country was going.
War is, at first, the hope that one will be better off; next, the expectation that the other fellow will be worse off; then, the satisfaction that he isn't any better off; and, finally, the surprise at everyone's being worse off. - Karl Kraus

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Postby Micheal » Tue Jan 18, 2005 1:30 pm

Finally, a little more time, meaning a bit more comment.

Chuck: I share your pain, but have no blue dress to ejaculate upon. In my case, myself and a friend run our local food bank, with the assistance of the people at Daily Bread in Toronto. The hours are vaired, the people are always interesting, and the chore is always rewarding. I get depressed at the amount of business we do, but never dismayed at the fact that I serve in a fashion that leaves me feeling pretty good at the end of the day.

We do each take a salary, less than if we started a for-profit business, but the bills do get paid.

Sometimes one sees a niche that needs filling, and decides to fill it.

Jan and David: I'll borrow Harlan's 'aw shucks' comment, but thank both for the expansion of the themes.

As or Barney's assertion about going out with a bang, I can't believe that our lives are of such little consequence that we see action to benefit ourselves and others measured against the press of fate. In my opinion, the chances are always open to us, we have but to take hold of them. Most likely I will not save the world, but if I can keep my soul moderately clean while maintaining majority ownership, I feel I'll have made a difference. Or, at least have lived one.


I remember my mother stifling a laugh when I yelled at the Mother Superior; "I don't care if you send me to Hell right now!" as I sat in the office. Mom had been called to the school for one of my various minor acts of malfeasance.

A nun attempting to correct my obvious deviance manifested in the evil practice of writing with my left hand had been bitten during an altercation resulting from my refusal to allow the offending appendage to be tied off. Of course, it didn't help matters when I'd struck the nun earlier in reciprocation for her act of initially delivering a painful smack on my hand for defying her authority in repeatedly committing the evil deed.

Dad always had told me; "If somebody hits you, hit them back".

My teeth are just as sharp as ever.

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