Tuesday, September 29, 2009

THE BROTHEL BOY by Norval Morris

One of my little “elitisms” is having attended the University of Chicago, but I didn’t do it for the coursework. I’m a firm believer in the value lodged in people, both faculty and fellow students. The courses are just chances to interact since the content and method of most courses change over the years (or SHOULD) and often radically as they respond to new insights.

Once one knows who is there and how they work, it’s possible to follow them (or even double back and retrace their trail) simply by reading books. I don’t know how internet vids will fit into this, but for now books are at the heart of the “company of scholars” that Hannah Gray welcomed us to when she handed over our Master’s Degree velvet hoods (which are not really hoods anymore -- just a velvet drape to wear over one’s black gown.)

One of the professors who made a huge impression on me without me ever taking a course or having a long conversation was Norval Morris. I was typing for my “supper” at the U of Chicago Law School and technically assigned to the newest profs, but occasionally -- since it was a typing pool -- given work that was overflow from someone else. Thus, I typed a chapter from “The Brothel Boy and Other Parables of the Law.” The chapter was called “The Planter’s Dream,” in which a white man was taking advantage of his wife’s absence by sleeping with his Burmese mistress, dreamt that she was being raped by a mysterious “black man” and shotgunned the intruder, who was not there. His mistress was destroyed. Was he a murderer?

Morris’ work was focused on the insanity plea, but within the context of the hard work of trying to get justice to bear some relationship to the law -- or the other way around -- esp. in places where an empire-mongering nation had come in over the top of an ancient pre-existing way of doing things. In order to do this in a class discussion without either free-floating in theory or invading someone’s privacy (often legally forbidden) and in order to make sure the salient points were covered, Morris wrote up what amounted to short stories, all composed around the invented career of Eric Blair, better known by his nom de plume, George Orwell. Most people who have made it to the graduate level of a good university have read at least one essay (the one about having to shoot an elephant in order to save people and crops, but hating every moment of the task) and have at least heard of his novels, “1984” and “Animal Farm.”

Morris decided that he would write taking Orwell’s real name as his nom de plume. Orwell/Blair is considered one of the finest of writers of his type. Morris pretended -- as has often been done, maybe more commonly with paintings -- that he had found a cache of long-lost manuscripts. Morris, as an Aussie, was rather audacious. The trouble was that since he could write as well as Orwell, his faux essays were picked up by the credulous media as real. So he had to get a friend to label him a hoax. It happened that I was typing for him and even answering his phone (his secretary must have been on vacation) when the media began to call about the “hoax,” which excited them as much as the original “discovery.” I went over to the Faculty Club where Morris was playing tennis to give him the “urgent” messages. What I remember was that when I poked them through the cyclone fence, he looked at me sharply and said, “You’re enjoying this, aren’t you?” And I realized that I WAS. I had an appetite for the strategy and excitement. Something to watch out for in the ministry. A path into the swamp.

Back to the book, which I ordered because of “wrestling alligators” alongside Barrus and hoping that I could pick up some inspiration. Absolutely, I could. And enjoyed every minute of it. Norval Morris was a witty and humane man, much mourned when he passed away.

The title chapter “The Brothel Boy” is obviously meant to attract attention and titillate the reader, but it is a very closely reasoned account of a retarded boy in Burma in the 1920’s who had been produced and sheltered in a brothel. His job, among others, was to be the fan wallah. That is, while customers panted and sweated over the prostitutes, he shared the room and kept a big sheet of fabric waving back and forth over their heads to create a breeze. Often he would lie back and loop the rope over his foot while he nearly slept, so it wasn’t exactly onerous work. He made a tiny bit of money and witnessed both acts and payments. At some point in his physical maturation he tried the act with a laundry girl, who did not cooperate. In the tussle she hit her head on a rock which killed her. He put the money in her pocket and did not seem to realize she was dead. To him, so long as the woman was paid, everything was fine.

So “Eric Blair” had to unravel all this to the satisfaction of the community, his Brit superiors, the boy’s employer/family, and his own conscience, newly challenged by this foreign context. In the story the boy ends up hanged, so it’s lucky he was fictional.

Sometimes Morris rewrites actual cases so as to sharpen the issues and close down the loopholes or create new loopholes. His character of “Blair” is joined by the local doctor, a man of vast experience from India, and a Burmese Buddhist politician who -- with good humor -- loves to exploit Blair’s missteps. Sometimes there are other outsiders, like the overseeing officer and his wife who become involved in the death of a baby out in a village.

A Brit family employ a very pretty Burmese girl who has a baby she leaves in the care of her aged and erratic mother. They are so poor that when the baby’s teeth become abscessed, the problem progresses to gangrene which becomes fatal. The girl brings her dying baby in from the village and shows her to her white employers, who are unsympathetic and direct her to take the child to a doctor but not before serving dinner to guests. The delay contributes to the death. The matter is complicated by the gender of the baby, since females are not valued, and indications that the father may be the husband-employer. Discussion is enriched by the opinions of the beautiful wife of the supervising officer who arrives to make sure “Blair” does the right thing -- whatever that is.

These puzzles are not Sudoku. They are human dilemmas. But fiction. Based on fact. Like much of Tim Barrus’ work. Like my “Twelve Blackfeet Stories.” This sort of inquiry is key to the values of a humanities education. And to religion as well as law. Parables.


Anonymous said...

You need to write an essay about this nude negro law they want to pass down in Florida. I'm kind of intrigued by the idea myself. Think of the possibilities.

Lance Michael Foster said...

That's a prank: