Saturday, October 4, 2014

"You be Hide and I play Seek!" To its end.

If you're like me, the only thing I knew about "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" came from Hollywood, especially the movie starring Fredric March in 1931, and the remake with Spencer Tracy in 1941. I never read the book, I just saw movies; I really knew nothing at all -- not until I read this book. This is one of the few books I've read that I was sorry when it was over. The biggest disappointment was that there wasn't another four-hundred pages! To paraphrase Justice Potter Stewart: I can't define it, but I know a masterpiece when I see it, and "Hyde" is a masterpiece! Someday it'll be a classic, required reading by college lit majors. This is Daniel Levine's first novel, and it describes a nightmare of terror. It's also a perfect introduction, albeit unintentional, to the subject of mysticism and transcendental psychology as precursors to the formation of secret societies of leading artists, psychologists and scientists of the 19th and 20th centuries who were visionaries and perhaps even prophets, beyond good and evil.

"Hyde" is so well-written that I started believing it was a true-crime novel about real people with a real history, almost like a documentary. For example, it was a serious character flaw that Dr. Jekyll completely underestimated or willfully ignored (because of his egomania) the importance of the protective friendship, one might even say "brotherly affection", that the lawyer, Mr. Utterson, had for him. Jekyll never anticipated the consequences of disturbing Utterson's life-long confidence in his friend; he overlooked it entirely and considered it of no consequence, presuming that Utterson would simply execute his Will as instructed, never questioning it or refusing Jekyll's demands. This was naïve and foolish, a fatal mistake on Dr. Jekyll's part, because Utterson was anything but obedient. Dr. Jekyll's safety was more important to Utterson than making good on a promise he thought was part of a blackmail scheme!

As conscientious as he was in his professional life, Jekyll's failure to predict Utterson's fears over his deteriorating mental and physical health would prove to be the ruin of his personal life. Jekyll's insistence, prematurely, on rewriting his Last Will forced Utterson to promise to faithfully execute it, a promise he couldn't keep, obviously. Jekyll's judgment, in this case at least, was reckless and arrogant. Unlike Mr. Hyde, Dr. Jekyll was not menacing enough to be aware of the blind spots in his own mind. He wasn't careful like Hyde, nor did he "look out for and protect" Mr. Hyde, not the way Hyde protected Jekyll. This is an important distinction between the two personalities: one careless but fair, one homicidal but thorough - not good qualities to find at home in the same man. Stevenson's original had Jekyll blaming Hyde for everything: "It was Hyde after all, and Hyde alone that was guilty." In reality, however, the man was "both an angel and a fiend."

The book fills in gaps between Jekyll's meeting with Utterson and Carew's murder a year later. "Hyde" gives us the backstory of what happened. "The details were few and startling", Stevenson writes, but "Hyde" scares us with the facts. If you put the two together, the books balance each other, giving us a profile of mystic-turned-addict, or addict-turned-mystic, the habit merely an attempt to escape by "disappearing and vanishing into some nightmare version of hide and seek in which everyone is hiding and no one seeking", except Mr. Hyde. (Note: the full-length original story by Robert Louis Stevenson is included at the back of the book.)

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