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The Shaman

One evening last October, Mark Fisher, a nineteen-year-old student at Fairfield University in Connecticut, who had gone into Manhattan with friends, met a girl in a bar on First Avenue on the Upper East Side, got separated from his group, and was found dead the next morning on a Brooklyn sidewalk, his body wrapped in a yellow blanket, five gunshot wounds in his chest. According to a long article in The New York Times, Fisher’s case remains unsolved mostly because no one who was with him that night seemed to want to tell the police everything that they knew. This uncertainty was a further affliction on the young victim’s parents, Michael and Nancy Fisher, who explained that their son’s trip into Manhattan was the first time he had gone there without them. You felt so enraged by their suffering that you searched the article looking for clues on their behalf, or simply to reassure yourself that the world was not such a senseless place that a young person could not venture into it alone, without protection. You put down the paper thinking that you knew who the murderer was; and so you couldn’t help wondering what might have happened that night if Mark Fisher had picked up all the clues that you did, not as clues but as warnings of an imminent doom. The ego being the avid entity that it is, you even ended up putting yourself in the poor young man’s place, grasping the clues as hints about the future and thereby avoiding his terrible fate, in this way experiencing a catharsis for the pity and the terror that his story had aroused in you in the first place.

Surely, that illusion of control is what lies behind the popularity of a police show such as CSI, in which cases are solved by the kind of fancy technology that we have come to depend on—alarm systems, drugs, Blackberries, TiVo—to organize the senseless world more and more in our favor. (We call this rearrangement of the real “customization.”) But what kind of mental condition would result if a person could apply his or her powers of detection not to looking into the past but to looking into the future, so that every uncertain portent of trouble became a divination of certain disaster? This would be paranoia; and it would place the detective’s pellucid intuition a hairbreadth away from mental illness.

Adrian Monk, the protagonist of what is now television’s most original cop show, is both a detective and a seer—excuse me, a victim of obsessive- compulsive disorder, as well as of myriad phobias. He is, in other words, a type of paranoid. Monk worked as a detective for the San Francisco police department until his wife was found murdered in an underground garage. Her murder went unsolved, and Monk grew unhinged. As viewers discovered during this, the show’s third season, Monk has had a tendency ever since he was a boy to throw up neurotic defenses against a threatening world. (He never used the swing set his father bought for him when he was eight because the young Monk considered it a “death trap.”) With the killing of his wife, Monk’s clinical complexity, especially his fantastical vigilance toward germs, intensified to the point where it interfered with his work, and his superiors had to let him go. But he is such a genius at detection that his former boss, Captain Stottlemeyer, keeps him on as a consultant for the most difficult cases, which he investigates with the help of Sharona Fleming, his shrewd, earthy nurse and personal assistant. Naturally, he always solves these cases: there never has been a detective show in which the sleuth does not get his man—or woman. Viewers have to be able to sleep. Monk’s complication of the cop show’s happy ending, its own innovation in its genre, is that an unsolved crime, the murder of Monk’s wife, is what animates everything from its pathos-laden atmosphere to its characters’ motivations.

IN A SENSE, Monk is one more example of a larger development that has been growing stronger and stronger in recent years: the culture’s subtle uprising against its own images of perfection. Reality shows, which celebrate the imperfect, the defeated, the humiliated, are one phase of this phenomenon. Television shows and movies in which the hero is a neurotic, or even a semi- paralyzed obsessive-compulsive, express another instance of rebellion. (The revolt of the messes.)

They come in two main varieties. There are OCD heroes such as Jack Nicholson in As Good as It Gets and Nicolas Cage in Matchstick Men, their forerunners probably going all the way back through Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man to Cliff Robertson as the retarded man in Charly. (Larry David, though hardly hampered by his neuroses, certainly portrays a neurotic of the first order.) And there is the increasing frequency of movie and television heroes, often criminals of one kind or another, who are in therapy: Robert DeNiro in Analyze This, William H. Macy in Panic, Pierce Brosnan in The Thomas Crown Affair, Tony Soprano. The very effective—and entertaining—purpose of these scenes with a shrink is to bring out the interiority of a character, but these outlaw analysands also conventionalize and even glamorize certain antisocial traits that seem to be growing more socially accepted: selfishness, greed, a total rejection of responsibility toward other people except as instruments of gratification.

But the former group, the autistics and the obsessive-compulsives and the chronic phobics, are different: they offer comfort for our strangeness. These funnily and not-so-funnily tortured characters are alone even when they are in public; and they make us grateful that we, unlike them, have not revealed our private, unassimilable peculiarities so openly. We see Hoffman’s public display of utter individual strangeness, we watch Nicholson’s or Cage’s neurotic performance of our deepest anxieties and fears, and we leave the theater buoyant with the thought that our secret selves remain secret and hidden, and that we are in better shape than these people. It is like waking from a repression dream in which we find ourselves, to our horror, sitting at the office, or back in a college or high school classroom, naked or wearing pajamas. We come out of the dream—or we leave the silver screen—relieved: our private rituals of self-protection, our petty and not-so-petty traumas, are still safe inside us, silent and unseen.

YET ADRIAN MONK, WHO IS every bit as wounded as his OCD predecessors, and who also sees a therapist, is in his own category. He does not exhibit pathological behavior. On the contrary: his psyche is still reeling from his wife’s murder, and he has no tolerance for the dark, violent side of human behavior. Indeed, unlike the outlaw analysands, he does not really tell his therapist, who sometimes seems as vulnerable and defenseless as Monk, anything significant about his inner life. In one lovely moment, an almost perfect comitragic mixture, Monk’s therapist asks him what his sex life with his late wife was like, and Monk, rather than answer, sits in his chair and sings an old torch song. (The show’s charm is that it moves from one wildly inventive whimsy to another; if the series has a flaw, it is that it sometimes does not know what to do with itself between whimsies.)

But Monk is also nothing like his OCD precursors, whose maladies are pure negatives that make us feel grateful for our positives, or for the lesser magnitude of our negatives. Monk is sui generis because his curse is his blessing. The condition that is obstructing his wish to be back in the department is also what makes him indispensable to the department. He is a modern-day Philoctetes, the legendary archer of ancient Greek mythology whose prowess with the bow was the reverse side of a festering wound, which emitted such a noxious odor that his fellow soldiers isolated him even as they depended on his gift to save them. The uncannily gifted Monk is the wounded detective; his wound comprises his gift.

This is what makes the show something new. For once, popular culture does not drag the fact of creative genius down—as it did in A Beautiful Mind and Hilary and Jackie—by making it seem as if some kind of unique suffering is the price that must be paid for great creativity, as if one could be thankful for not being brilliant, or feel that in not “choosing” genius one could avoid suffering. Instead, Monk elevates intuitive genius by demonstrating how it elevates and transforms suffering, and by presenting suffering as a condition that everyone shares, no matter what their gifts may or may not be. Nearly everyone on the show has some inflection of Monk-like torment, whether it is Stottlemeyer, who becomes briefly deranged when his own wife is nearly killed in a car accident; or Monk’s agoraphobic brother, portrayed in a small tour de force by John Turturro in a guest appearance; or the helpless, nave upstairs neighbor who is deceived and nearly murdered by a vampish grifter; or Sharona, whose solitary devotion to Monk is something like a renunciation of earthly pleasure. At the core of Monk is the unsolved murder of Monk’s wife, which colors the show like a metaphor for universal precariousness, for the bruise of mortality on the heart of the world. Or, as Randy Newman sings in the show’s theme song, “It’s a jungle out there/Disorder and confusion everywhere. . . . / You better pay attention/Or this world we love so much might just kill you.”

Into this jungle comes Monk, traversing the thin line between comedy and tragedy, sanity and madness, his gift fueling his illness and his illness stimulating his gift. In the same way, his obsessive-compulsive straightening of crooked objects, his repetition of gestures, and his avoidance of germ-laden surfaces alternates with his alertness to clues: a sundial moved when the perpetrator ran out of his house; a single shoe in a garbage pail that makes him suspect that the other shoe disappeared when its owner was murdered; a case- cracking clue that comes from scouring the newspaper, of all things, for if the world is a jungle, the newspaper is its daily drumbeat. Monk’s weakness is his strength: he is preternaturally aware of the external world.

The gentle, almost rueful humor of the show derives from this double motion: just about every incident and scene undulates between absurdity and poignancy. The doubleness is reflected in the extraordinary performance of Tony Shalhoub, who does not play Monk as helpless or nebbishy in the slightest way, but as a shaken yet undefeated worldly man both harassed and reassured by an enigmatic thought or image somewhere in the recesses of his psyche. Shalhoub’s Monk goes around half-buried within himself, not so much distracted from the world around him as intensely focused on both the grief and the gift inside him, so that when he is startled out of his mysterious inwardness, which happens constantly, the foolishness of his preoccupied air is immediately absorbed by the intensity of his eccentric attention to the matter at hand. (Turturro, by contrast, instead of playing the agoraphobic brother shifting between his inner world and the world around him, as Monk does, portrays the brother as being lost within himself while interacting with other people at the very same time. Seeing these two masterful character actors work together was a special treat.)

SO THE SYMBIOTIC RELATIONSHIP of Monk’s illness to his gift is embedded in the show’s structure and style. A very old resonance hangs about this character. He is “always sickly or morbidly sensitive”; his chosen vocation “allows him to expend [his] nervous force freely”; he exists on “a vital plane that shows him the fundamental data of human existence, that is, solitude, danger, hostility of the surrounding world.” I take those descriptions from Mircea Eliade’s great book, Shamanism. Adrian Monk is the ancient shaman as modern shamus. His strange interlude in his therapist’s office recalls “the famous Yakut shaman Tusput (that is, ‘fallen from the sky’) [who] had been ill at the age of twenty; he began to sing, and felt better.”

But, Eliade goes on, “the shaman is not only a sick man; he is, above all, a sick man who has been cured, who has succeeded in curing himself . . . the shamans, for all their apparent likeness to epileptics and hysterics, show proof of a more than normal nervous constitution; they achieve a degree of concentration beyond the capacity of the profane; they sustain exhausting efforts. . . .” Monk succeeds in curing himself every time he solves a crime by means of his superhuman powers of concentration. If his wife’s murder remains unsolved, and he has to try to solve another crime to fend off madness, that is as it should be. Like that aboriginal detective Oedipus, Monk, when he finally solves the riddle of his wife’s senseless death, will also solve the riddle of mortality. And that will be his final season.

This article appeared in the March 22, 2004 issue of the magazine.