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Arts

May 17, 2010

The Game is Real, Sort Of

Philosophy professor Harvey Cormier examines the impossible reality of gallant Wire protagonist Omar Little.

Michael Gluckstadt

**SPOILER ALERT: Read no further if you haven't finished—or started—watching The Wire, and intend to. Also, a disclosure: The author of this interview works at HBO.

A Baltimore street corner is bustling. Junkies are lining-up to purchase drugs, then picking them up around the corner. The mid-level dealers supervise the operation, surrounded by muscle. Suddenly, a young lookout comes running down the street. A faint whistling is heard, quickly crescendoing: "The Farmer in the Dell." The lookout yells, "Omar comin'!" Soon the corner is empty, and Omar Little, shotgun in hand, claims his unguarded prize.

Of all the remarkable characters introduced in the celebrated HBO series The Wire, Omar is, for many, its most memorable. He is a gay stickup artist who fears no man in the street, courtroom, or prison, and adheres to a rigid moral code. Like many devoted Wire viewers, Harvey Cormier was taken by Omar's improbable character. But Cormier, associate professor of philosophy at Stony Brook University in New York, took his interest a step further.

Harvey Cormier. Photo provided by the author
"Omar's object-lesson death felt to me as if a nun were giving me a nasty swat on the back of the hand with a ruler."

Harvey Cormier. Photo provided by the author

In November 2008, around six months after the show's final episode, Cormier published "Bringing Omar Back to Life," a scholarly deconstruction that examines Omar's character through the lens of David Hume and Friedrich Nietzsche. The work was published in the Journal of Speculative Philosophy, a quarterly anthology of creative philosophical application. The paper, which argues that Omar exhibits the traits of a superhero, has received mixed reactions. "[Some people] don't get the whole idea that Omar is unrealistic," Cormier explains. "His unrealism leavens the show and makes it palatable." In the following interview, which was conducted over email and has been edited for clarity, Cormier shares his thoughts on Omar's demise, why The Wire is a comedy, and the humanity of HAL 9000.

Gelf Magazine: Of all of the memorable characters from The Wire, why did you decide to write about Omar?

Harvey Cormier: The title of the paper says it all. I was so troubled by his death on the show that I wished I could bring him back to life. This was my attempt to do so.

Gelf Magazine: I find it interesting that your first description of the show is "very funny." What role did you see humor playing in The Wire?

Harvey Cormier: Simon himself has said that people fail to appreciate the extent to which this grim set of stories is a comedy. Black life and language are full of humor, even, or maybe especially, in the bleakest circumstances. Maybe it's because too often all black folks can do is laugh at the absurd stuff going on around them. One of the best things about the show is the way it captures that humor.

Gelf Magazine: Are there any other shows about which you could write a similar academic work?

Harvey Cormier: I published an essay about Star Trek, in which I talk about the evolving ideas of species and race in the original series and Star Trek: The Next Generation. The first thing I ever published was an explanation of the puzzling ending of the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. It's an explanation in terms of the very idea of "modern" or modernistic art, which tries to avoid literary representation and work like music. Only, as it turns out, there is no non-representational art. Even music represents emotions, and modern art in general is art about…art.

Gelf Magazine: How has the piece been received?

Harvey Cormier: The one audience I read it to seemed to like it. But I think the few people who have read it on their own regard it skeptically. They don't like the idea that I treat Omar's gayness as a kind of a fantasy quality. "Why couldn't a gay man be violent and brave?" Or they don't get the whole idea that Omar is unrealistic. "How could he be, since he's based on real people who actually lived in Baltimore?" Understanding the answer to that question is one key to getting my main point.

Gelf Magazine: In the piece you reference Omar's homosexuality but don't particularly dwell on it. What do you think of the decision to make Omar a gay character?

Harvey Cormier: I thought it made him a hundred times more interesting; it made him a cultural outlaw as well as a legal outlaw. I loved one scene in [Omar's mentor] Butchie's bar: Streetwise, hard, round-the-way people who would have no trouble accepting Omar as a gunslinging thug were discomfited, even terrified, by the idea that he was gay, and they were too afraid even to look at him or, still scarier, to be seen looking at him or talking to him. And Omar's typical "who cares" reactions to the people who hated or feared him for his sexuality seemed to me a lot more audacious and admirable than his walking up to nitwit thugs, pointing a shotgun at them, then ripping and running.

Gelf Magazine: Do you find it makes him more or less of a "real" character, as you define it?

Harvey Cormier: It makes him more improbable. That doesn't make him less "real." One of the main points of the paper is that the events of fiction generally have to be lawlike and probable and thus believable—unlike reality. Donnie Andrews, one of the two real-life characters on whom Omar was based, reports that there was a gay stickup artist named Billy Outlaw and that he was the other inspiration for Omar. That person was real, but hard to believe in. Andrews also had some hard-to-believe events in his own story. Such people and things turn up in real life, but of course they are not what you expect, so by introducing them into fiction, you make the fiction less "realistic."
But another of the main points of the paper is that you and I are both fictions, too, at least if Hume and Nietzsche are right. And obviously we have a kind of reality, as well. I think that a fictional person, even an unrealistic fiction like Omar, can have something like my and your kind of reality. Your and my reality consists in the usefulness of "Harvey" and "Michael" as heuristic and mnemonic devices, or as ways of summing up and making predictable two collections of events, the events that come to be associated with my and your personalities. "Omar" is also a device like this, educational and useful in its way. It's just that it is a symbol not for the doings of one "real person" but for those of many. "Romeo" helps us make sense of and know what to expect next from passionate young boys with girls on their minds. "HAL 9000" helps us think about the thinking machines we seem to be in the process of making in our own image. And "Omar" helps us think of the Nietzschean free spirits of the world, the people who have the courage to defy expectations and make themselves up as they go along. Young lovers, computers that display disturbingly if ambiguously human characteristics, and free spirits are all real, and to just that extent, so are Romeo, HAL, and Omar. Or, at least, we could say that these beings are all real possibilities, and to the extent we contribute to making them real, we contribute to the reality of those "fictional characters."

"Realistic fiction typically has to make more sense and display more real possibility than truth or reality."
Gelf Magazine: When Omar jumps outs of a six-story building and emerges with only a busted ankle—"some Spiderman shit," as [drug lord] Marlo calls it—it could be the most blatant break with reality in the entire series. Did you see that as an extension of the myth of Omar or a lapse in the show's vérité style?

Harvey Cormier: Both. The first thing to note is that, according to Donnie Andrews, that actually happened to him! He also jumped out of a high-rise window and took a fall nobody expected him to survive, and he thus got away from an ambush. Once again, realistic fiction typically has to make more sense and display more real possibility than truth or reality, so yes, that was a fantastic—in both senses—moment in the series, a lapse of realism. And, again, Omar is in many ways generally unrealistic, especially in his sexuality and his high moral code, which are both improbable characteristics of street predators. But Omar and his superhero exploits still have a place in a realistic story. Omar's unrealism leavens the show and makes it palatable. He thus makes it possible for us to pay attention to what might instead be a hopeless and demoralizing story of ignorant people exploiting each other. Thanks to him and his amazing ghetto heroics, we can stand to learn the sadly predictable truth about life among people trapped in poverty and violence. Moreover, even though a particular person like Omar is improbable, free-spiritedness, courage, honor, and grace are not exactly unheard of, even among the poorest and most despised people. Omar realistically represents those characteristics as they sometimes appear in those circumstances.

Gelf Magazine: What did you make of Omar's demise coming at the hands of Kenard, one of the young'uns who we've seen flee from but also imitate Omar?

Harvey Cormier: I was so mad I couldn't see straight. At first I was mad at the authors of the story, who, I felt, had offered a big F-U to the people who loved and admired Omar and who were in the middle of watching him struggle to get justice for Butchie. Later, though, I more or less accepted the dramatic rightness of Omar's death in that particular circumstance. The writers had a point. The worst thing about violence is that it can suddenly end, for no good reason, all our little human projects, including the projects of the best people. Omar would have been a better man if he had put his courage to use teaching kids something other than how to play with guns.
Hmm. Does that sound completely sincere? I'm not sure it is. To be really honest, I think I'm still a little mad at the authors of the show. "Live by the sword, die by the sword" is an awfully unoriginal message. We Omar fans knew that already, even if that little rat-turd Kenard didn't. And it wasn't Omar's violent ways that killed him, really; he had given up all that stuff and gone to live in the tropics. It was his courage and his sense of honor that brought him back to the war. He was even in the middle of a chivalrous call to his nemesis Marlo to come fight it out man-to-man rather than gang-to-gang. So Omar's object-lesson death felt to me as if a nun were giving me a nasty swat on the back of the hand with a ruler: "That'll teach you to admire a violent man!" I think it displayed just a bit of moral self-righteousness on the part of Simon and the gang.

Gelf Magazine: In the series finale's montage, do you see Michael Lee as filling in Omar's role? Can anyone?

Harvey Cormier: Yes, I figured that Michael was turning into the new Omar, though I have to say I found something troubling in that development. His boy partner in the final stick-up seemed awfully "pretty." I got the distinct suggestion that not only was Michael the new stickup artist, but he was also the new gay stickup artist, having maybe been turned gay by sexual abuse on the part of his stepfather. The old idea that sexual abuse can turn someone gay is a pretty bad one to be playing around with.
Anyway, can anyone take Omar's place? Yes, the main point of the paper is that we can all take Omar's place, and even make him (more) "real," by displaying his kind of courage, defiance in the face not only of bullets but also of social disapproval. The latter is in a way the harder thing to fight, because it works on us from the inside.

Michael Gluckstadt

Michael Gluckstadt is an editor at Gelf and host of the Varsity Letters speaking series.







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Article by Michael Gluckstadt

Michael Gluckstadt is an editor at Gelf and host of the Varsity Letters speaking series.

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