Science Fiction Studies

# 12 = Volume 4, Part 2 = July 1977

Michael D. White

Ellison's Harlequin: Irrational Moral Action in Static Time

Harlan Ellison's "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman," first published in 1965, is a purposefully extrapolative story about social regimentation.1 "Repent, Harlequin!" locates in the future our present world having gone mad with militarized labor forces, preoccupation with time, emphasis on mass consumption, and totalitarian rule. The socially critical purpose of the story is clear in its satirization of hierarchical hypocrisy in which even the chief Timekeeper himself is not on time. A repressive "criminology" is contemned, for it employs "bribery.... intimidation.... torture.... finks.... cops.... search&seizure.... treachery." The Harlequin rejects compelled and persuaded conformism as found in Alice's disgusting betrayal of him because she "wants to belong, conform." Indeed, in a society where workers obediently march "with practiced motion and an absolute conservation of movement," the disruptive and rebellious Harlequin is an anomaly: the only human being distinguishable from machines.               

Ellison describes the contradictions present within a dominated and repressed society. Ticktockman and Harlequin respectively represent the struggles between rationalized order and revolutionary chaos, between created (coerced) discipline and disciplined creativity, between quantified motion in space and qualitative judgment in time. Missing, however, is an historical and philosophical perspective of history as process. Instead of an explanation of the origin of the disciplined regulation of motion in time and the rise of brutal authoritarianism, time in the Ticktockman stands still. Certainly "Repent, Harlequin!" is a forewarning, a prophecy that if events continue in the future as they have occurred in the present, Homo sapiens sapiens shall become Homo automatus. After all, the world of Ticktockman is "the very world they had allowed it to become." Yet, I wonder if this is an accurate representation of our present time in America. In a world of class, sex and national revolutionary conflicts, it seems an inaccurate portrayal of the present world (even extrapolated into the future) as a futile struggle of a few individuals against an ahistorical social equilibrium entrenched in and protected by unmoving time. While Ellison's work is extrapolative in the sense that he has placed social relationships of the present America in the future in order to logically extend the implications of industrial management under monopoly capitalism (the world of "Timkin roller bearing"), I believe the capitulation of the Harlequin to the Ticktockman signifies the loss of motion, activity and transformation in The One Great Omnipresent Unchanging Godhead of Time. Movement through time is reified as the circumscribed mechanics of human metronomes, in a time, The One Time.                

The introduction of "Repent, Harlequin!," complete with its citation from Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience," suggests that the mass of humanity is necessarily relegated to the status of machines which unthinkingly serve the privileged few. Only "a very few, as heroes, martyrs, reformers in the great sense, and men, serve the state with their consciences also, and so necessarily resist it for the most part; and they are commonly treated as enemies by it." In this maxim, martyrs, masses and the revolutionary process of history are all grist for the indefatigable mills of the State. Only the "very few" are great reformers, while the many wear their chains like "good" slaves. On the one hand, this philosophical platitude suggests that the bourgeois state can be served through revolutionary activity. Yet, on the other hand, it implies that social reform is accomplished (rarely) by the exceptional individual who has managed not to be smashed by that same state which is thought to be adversarial by virtue of the fact that it is the State—not, as according to the Marxist tradition, by virtue of the class interests which the State serves. This philosophical, pseudo-historical analysis results in a pessimistic, ahistorical conclusion; ergo, social reform is slow in coming, if it ever arrives.                

Indeed, Thoreau's words and Ellison's reference to them have nothing to do with social reform. The notion that only "a very few...serve the state with their consciences...and [yet] are commonly treated as enemies by it" is self-serving egoistic moralizing for both Thoreau and the Harlequin. The purpose of resistance, then, is not the overthrow of an oppressive government, but rather the balming of a repressed conscience. In this case, one chooses the moral position, as Kant noted, without regard for the consequences or end of the moral activity. Though, according to Kant's metaphysics of ethics, reason is the regulative concept determining the right and the good by an appeal to an absolute moral law, the moral action can only be nonrational or irrational because it has no regard for its effect on the existent world. In the Harlequin's case, his play-revolt is irrational because he can find no rational basis on which to establish his own let alone others' rebellion to unjust oppression. Thus, for the Harlequin as for Kant, the consequences of moral action are irrelevant. The ends of rebellion, i.e. social change, are not real, rational considerations of rebellious activity. It is the neurotic (nonrational) personality in search of  its moral conscience which mandates this rebellion, a rebellion basically unconcerned with its chances of and means to success.                

Science -fictional extrapolation of our present time into the future often provides an effective social critique of our own time. But when an extrapolation is made without the perception of continuing historical process, the strength of the ideological content of the extrapolation can be called into question, regardless of the ideological or non-ideological claims of the author. While "Repent, Harlequin!" attempts to depict the social relations in our time within the imaginary perspective of the future, it ultimately provides an inadequate portrayal of these relationships, why and how they have come to be, and why and how they can be changed. Because there is no recognition of the dialectical historical process, Ellison's characterization of the Harlequin is beleaguered with a cynical atomization of social conflict which results in a pessimistic representation of the Harlequin's—and our own—ability to overturn a system already reified by its appearance of invincibility. Ellison's weakness is not that he fails to portray the worst aspect of social relations as they do, can, and will exist under an increasingly autocratic, merciless form of monopoly capital. Rather his weakness stems from his inability to place this mechanistic, efficiency-oriented, and profit-geared system in the proper light of its historical origins and development. The system's past is absorbed in its present-future. The present is seen as always having been with us, and the future is projected as a simple replication of the present. "The end will take care of itself." In "Repent, Harlequin!" the past, historical motion and activity, is absorbed just as the Ticktockman absorbs the resistance of the Harlequin. The eschatological meaning of "repent" is lost in the eternal omnipotent stasis of the Ticktockman, who embodies all present and future time.                

Though Ellison has written this story to protest a rigid bureaucracy ruled by a social elite, his story fails to negate the power and the future of this totalitarian dictatorship. What is negated is protest itself; the Harlequin, a symbol of the individual, enlightened yet anguished conscience rather than a symbol of history as process, is negated. Thus, historical process itself is nullified, because "Repent, Harlequin!" is not about historical process and social change. Even if Ellison meant to portray the Harlequin as a symbol of historical process, the Harlequin as an individual—particularly the nonrational individual acting alone—could never be an adequate symbol of history as process. So Ellison's protest of a social system corrupted with rational technocracy and with bloodied but rich overseers is as ineffective as the Harlequin's conscientious rebellion against Ticktockman. Both content (the theme of rebellion, ineffective rebellion at that, against oppressive authority) and form (the ahistorical embodiment of conscience and rebellion in one person, the Harlequin) nullify the purpose and the consequences of social protest.                

While the point of view expressed in "Repent, Harlequin!" is not necessarily that of the Weberian positivist who separates "what ought to be" from "what is," the glib cynicism expressed produces the same effect. Discontent gorgeously manifests itself in the Harlequin, his clown costume, and the jelly bean "colors of joy and childhood and holidays." And yet, for all his jester-like disdain, in spite of his Great Refusal, the Harlequin represents the cynicism of the isolated rebel who has lost his revolutionary heritage. Note that the Harlequin "wasn't much to begin with, except a man who had no sense of time," and thus, no memory. And that makes all the difference:

Remembrance of the past may give rise to dangerous insights, and the established society seems to be apprehensive of the subversive contents of memory. Remembrance is a mode of dissociation from the given facts, a mode of mediation which breaks, for short moments, the omnipresent power of the given fact.2

Sadly enough, then, Harlequin is "the spectre of man without memory...necessarily linked with the principle of progress in bourgeois society."3 It is not his opposition to the Timekeeper, but the Harlequin's own loss of a sense of time, history, memory, which prepares and, in the end which takes care of itself, determines his own demise. To remember only jelly beans is not enough to dismember the juggernaut of the Lord of the World. To see the colors of candy is not enough to bring light to a poisonously gray society. To romanticize the days of youth and free time is not enough to remove the Foreman of the Time Card. To have lost the actual past is to lose the potential future. Consequently, the play of the Harlequin is ended, not the rule of the metronomic warlord, Ticktockman.                

In short, Ellison's Harlequin falls victim to the superior force of technological rationality, perhaps because Ellison himself disbelieves in the efficacy of the struggle of the oppressed against the oppressor. Harlequin's vicarious suffering is a Christ-like sacrifice designed to win some type of universal redemption for a hopeless world against which human struggle is also hopeless. Unfortunately, as Marcuse noted when describing the effects of technological rationality, "Reason repels transcendence."4 In this case, Ticktockman's reason repels Harlequin's transcendence. In the end the basic premise of social rule which has been protested is reinforced. The humanistic cry for freedom is swallowed by an efficient, human-consuming system based on bourgeois rationality. "This means no less than that the advancing bourgeois society liquidates Memory, Time, Recollection as irrational leftovers of the past...."5 The Ticktockman is in firm control of Time and Memory, Freedom and Life. He apportions them and takes them away as he will.                

Drawing attention to the Timeless society consumed by Time itself does not make Ellison's story a successful social protest, for his portrayal of the Harlequin without more than a childish memory, as salvific or redeeming clown, as one person without serious mass support, belies the ideological premise of the Ticktockman. Resistance is irrational. It will be superseded by the "truly" rational, which is always successful, always dominant, and always with us. Consequently, "Repent, Harlequin!" is no more than a superficial ideological penetration of "what ails us" and serves more as a positivistic affirmation that "what is real [i.e. presently existent] is rational."           

Though "Repent, Harlequin!" is a protest against the inhuman fulfillment of the time and motion studies of Frederick Winslow Taylor,6 it is nonetheless a modern individualist's acceptance of Weber's view of capitalism as an ever-present necessary evil of modern times. Weber's philosophy of technological rationality, simply put, holds that capitalism is a sad and oftentimes brutal, but still necessary and efficient operation. Its necessity is proof positive of its rational characteristics. Furthermore, in demonstrating capitalism's efficiency, Weber contrasted capitalism to pre-capitalist forms of production; in so doing he obliterated the notion of tradition (memory, recollection, history), which he associated with feudal society, in order to replace it with technical reason. Indeed, his opposition to the German socialist struggles of 1918 was the result of his belief in the perpetuity of this new Western rationality manifest in the capitalist form of production. Philosophically influenced by Immanuel Kant's limitation of "knowledge," Weber's sociological theory resounds with this "factual" analysis of the world made ugly by its savage economic system, but a world still necessarily present and thus "rational." Though Ellison protests more vociferously than Weber the degradation of human life technologically rationalized, he sees no way out. History, process, change do not exist; all hang immovable, outside of time. Time itself becomes meaningless, for time is no longer synonymous with history, process and change. To portray time as static or synchronic as Ellison does in "Repent, Harlequin!" is to negate time, to strip it of its meaning, its essential quality. All that is left is that which is, and that which is, is always with us. The automated technocracy, the impervious bureaucracy is, as Weber said, the "absolutely inescapable condition of our entire existence."7 Quite naturally, then, given this Weltanschauung, the Harlequin is captured and repents:

So they sent him to Coventry. And in Coventry they worked him over.... and one day quite a long time later, the Harlequin appeared on the communications web, appearing elfish and dimpled and bright-eyed, and not at all brainwashed, and he said he had been wrong, that it was a good, a very good thing indeed, to belong, and be right on time hip-ho and away we go, and everyone stared up at him on the public screens that covered an entire city block, and they said to themselves, well, you see, he was just a nut after all, and if that's the way the system is run, then let's do it that way, because it doesn't pay to fight city hall, or in this case, the Ticktockman.... because that's the way it happens....

Ellison has fictionally embodied the Kantian-Weberian ideological separation of "fact" from "value." Like Weber, he has provided a "factual" analysis of an ugly mechanical world about which one can do nothing, empirically. As Kant would have it, the ethical decisions made by the moral being (Harlequin) are non-factual and unconnected with the world of fact. The Harlequin's personal revolution may be, for him, personally necessary. But in the end, as in the beginning and in the middle, his rebellion, grounded in a world of technological rationality, is essentially empirically nonrational. Because it is anthropologically inconsequential to human existence and politically irrational with respect to a needed revolution in social relations, his rebellion fails to transcend what is, the modern Reason. His comical acts of disruption cannot succeed; they are doomed to tragicomic failure by a superior, technical rationality. Such an anarchistic expression of death-wishing moralism is indicative of the Harlequin's inability to deduce a material basis for revolutionary success in a society in which that basis is ideologically suffocated by apparent stasis. Progressive social change is not and cannot be the theme of Ellison's Harlequin. The theme is the futility of protest in effecting social change. We are left with only the existential Angst of the great tragicomic clown-hero who valiantly throws himself under the wheels of the great machine only to be "worked over" and mechanically recycled by the Timeless Technology.


1. First published in Galaxy in 1965, "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman," hereafter referred to as "Repent, Harlequin!," has been reprinted in numerous anthologies as well as in the author's collections: Paingod and Other Delusions. (Pyramid pb nd [ 1965]) and Alone Against Tomorrow (US nd [1971] 312p). On October 2, 1976, Ellsion addressed a science-fiction conference at Kent State University and noted that "Repent, Harlequin!" is "a story about regimentation."                

2. Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society (US 1964; US 1966 xvii+260), p 98.

3. Theodore W. Adorno quoted in Marcuse, p 99.

4. Marcuse, p 173.

5. Adorno quoted in Marcuse, p 99.                

6. F.W. Taylor (1856-1915), "father of scientific management," was the first to introduce detailed time-motion studies of workers and their work tasks to the capitalist owners of modern industrial production.                

7. Max Weber quoted in Herbert Marcuse, Negations: Essays in Critical Theory, tr Jeremy J. Shapiro (US 1968 xx+290), p 204.

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