Thursday, June 02, 2016

Never Underestimate the Obsolete Man

"I am nothing more than a reminder to you that you cannot destroy truth by burning pages!"

Romney Wordsworth (Burgess Meredith)

Burgess Meredith made four separate appearances on Twilight Zone. I'm not sure what the record for appearances is, but that must be close. His co–star in the episode that premiered on this night in 1961, Fritz Weaver, only appeared in half as many episodes.

And most people, when they think of Burgess Meredith on the Twilight Zone, remember his portrayal of the bookworm who survived a nuclear blast because he was reading in the bank vault during his lunch break.

Meredith's Twilight Zone characters were usually bookish, nebbishy types — quite a contrast to the rough–around–the–edges boxing trainer he played in the early "Rocky" movies — and the one I liked best was featured in the episode that first aired on this night in 1961, "The Obsolete Man."

In a then–futuristic world that often seems to be emerging before our very eyes today, Meredith played a librarian who had been deemed obsolete and, consequently, had to be terminated. You see, in this futuristic world, there were no more books. (As a writer, I would not want to live in such a world, anyway.) As a result, there was no demand for the services of a librarian.

And anyone who could not justify his existence, anyone who could make no contribution to the success of the state, had to be terminated.

As is the case in any totalitarian society, it had been decided by a central committee what was true and what was not, what was needed and what was not.

It makes sense, doesn't it? In a twisted kind of way that, under certain circumstances, doesn't seem so twisted. Does it seem familiar? It should.

As Rod Serling said in his opening narration, "This is not a new world, it is simply an extension of what began in the old one. It has patterned itself after every dictator who has ever planted the ripping imprint of a boot on the pages of history since the beginning of time. It has refinements, technological advances and a more sophisticated approach to the destruction of human freedom. But like every one of the super–states that preceded it, it has one iron rule: Logic is an enemy and truth is a menace."

Upon being found obsolete, Meredith's character was told he would be liquidated within 48 hours. He was allowed to choose the method for his liquidation and the time it was to be carried out.

Meredith's character asked to be assigned "an assassin" to whom he would disclose his chosen method for execution but no one else was to know. That was an unusual request, but it was granted. Meredith also wanted the execution to be carried out in his room at midnight the next day.

He also wanted to die "with an audience." The chancellor (Weaver) readily agreed. Executions, he said, were often televised. They had an educational effect on the viewers.

The next day the chancellor received a request from Meredith. He wanted the chancellor to visit him in his room. It was a request he honored, even though, as he told Meredith, he might well be the target of an act of vengeance from a condemned man. The chancellor had, after all, been partly responsible for the ruling that had condemned Meredith.

The chancellor told Meredith that he had come to prove something — "that the state has no fears, none at all."

Meredith giggled. "You come to my room to prove that the state isn't afraid of me? What an incredible burden I must be, to have to prove that the state isn't afraid of an obsolete librarian like myself."

Then he said he would tell the chancellor the real reason why he came. Although it wasn't stated in so many words, my best guess is the chancellor came out of a sense of curiosity. That would certainly be what Meredith's words implied: "I don't fit your formulae. Somewhere along the line there's been a deviation from the norm. Your state has everything categorized, indexed, tagged. You are the strength. People like me are the weakness. You control and order and dictate, and my kind merely follow and obey. But something's gone wrong, hasn't it? I don't fit, do I?"

The chancellor disagreed. In a few minutes, he told Meredith, he would be begging for mercy "like they all do."

But then Meredith turned the tables on the chancellor.

He explained that the method he had chosen for his execution was to have a bomb go off in his apartment.

He also told the chancellor that he had locked the door — and, consequently, the chancellor would also die when the bomb went off.

Meredith asked him how he would use the time he had left — and said that he would spend the time reading his Bible. As the state had determined that God did not exist, possession of a Bible was an offense punishable by death. That made it the only possession he had that mattered to him at all.

Meredith began to serenely quote from the Psalms, and finally, in the last minutes, the chancellor broke down and pleaded for Meredith to let him go "in the name of God." Under those terms, Meredith said, he would unlock the door — and the chancellor dashed from the apartment only seconds before the bomb went off.

Meredith had been calm and accepting of his fate, but the chancellor had shown cowardice during the broadcast of Meredith's execution and was himself judged to be obsolete.

A welcome reminder, I suppose, that he who lives by the sword shall die by the sword.