Monday, January 3, 2011

Bemis and the Buttheads

One of the first "Twilight Zone" episodes I ever saw was the renowned “Time Enough At Last.” It is the one where Burgess Meredith plays Henry Bemis, a time-constrained bank teller who is always being “conspired against” by his wife and boss in his quest to find time for reading. Bemis survives an H-bomb blast (because he is sneaking in some book time in the bank’s vault), and in the resulting solitude finally finds enough time to read, read, read. That is, until his glasses break. “Time Enough” is one of the show’s best remembered episodes, and whenever there is a TZ marathon, I try to catch it.

For some viewers, one takeaway from “Time Enough” seems to be that it is a condemnation of anti-intellectualism; the tyranny of the anti-book rabble. After all, poor Burgess is callously denounced by his wife and boss for reading. Sounds like an open-and-shut moral.

The tirades of Mrs. Bemis are one thing (women live to corrode what little joy can be mined on this accursed rock). But as far as work goes, remember, Henry Bemis is a bank teller who reads on-the-job. An early scene shows how this on-the-job reading causes him to miscount change. Bemis’s hammy ogre of a boss summarily roasts him for being “a reader.” Bemis’s boss is right. Bemis works as a bank teller. That means cashing checks and taking deposits. It does not mean assailing short-changed patrons with lines from David Copperfield.

Calling Mr. Bemis on this dereliction of duty does not make Bemis’s boss an anti-intellectual or any other brand of villain. It makes him a guy who does his job, which is to supervise bank employees to ensure they perform their tasks and provide adequate customer service. A bank supervisor’s sole literary focus should be reading the riot act to bums like Bemis.

Had Henry Bemis been reading on his lunch break, and been accosted for being a reader, then yes, you could make the case that he is surrounded by anti-intellectuals. But being kept from reading the classics while being paid for work that has nothing to do with reading the classics hardly makes you a victim of those "illiterate," "unwashed" whatevers. Not in the 5th dimension or anywhere else.

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