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Critical Analysis of 'Split Stephen,' by Keller, et al.
Posted By: Sam, on host
Date: Friday, December 15, 2000, at 13:42:11

In "Split Stephen," main character and primary author Stephen Keller portrays
himself as, on the surface, a psychotic victim of multiple personality
disorder. If we look deeper, however, we can discern Keller's underlying
motive. In fact, through the use of hyperbole, metaphor, and symbolism, we
can burrow beneath the deceptively simple dialogue and arrive at the core
of his message: that, in actuality, we are all subject to -- or "victims of,"
if you will -- what is casually referred to as "multiple personality disorder"
and that in fact this is not a disorder at all but a natural element of our
human identity. No one is so shallow, Keller argues, that his or her
personality can be unequivocally classified with a mere series of adjectives.
Rather, our personalities are formulated by a mixture of tendencies: we have,
within us all, conflicting urges. Illustrating this principle by using the
overly simple paradigm Keller employs in "Split Stephen," we have an urge to
be "good," in the classic sense, as well as an urge to be "bad," however much
we might want to camouflage that urge and put forth the illusion that it
doesn't exist. Furthermore, Keller illustrates, that if on occasion one of
these conflicting urges overcomes the other, while at another time the second
prevails, this is not an abnormal psychosis but a natural consequence of what
it means to be human.

The subtext of "Split Stephen" becomes clear if we examine it closely enough
and read between the lines. In the opening lines of the transcript, Keller
(or "Stephen," as he ingenuously refers to himself) begins with a "hook" to
draw the reader in. His first comment is deliberately misleading for dramatic
effect. He says, "Could we please stop this hogwash? It's obvious that
nobody in this chat except myself rules," but then, immediately afterward, adds,
"The rest of you are FAR beyond sheer ruling." These opening lines serve
four separate functions: dramatically, as a hook; as exposition, to establish
the "good" urges within himself, which will become more manifest later; as
foreshadowing, for the initial appearance of conflict in his perceptions of
who is "ruling" and who is not is a subtle hint into the more overt conflict
to follow; and as a clever, cutting remark against the ill-thought stereotypes
held by the establishment: by "could we please stop all this hogwash?" Keller
is, besides addressing the immediate concerns of the conversation, opening
his satirical illustration with a plea that it be listened to, taken to heart,
and adopted. Hogwash, indeed, is it that individuals are expected to exist
without inner conflict and considered mentally disabled if they fall short
of those expectations.

What follows as an aside, but it's an aside so interesting, an entire paper
could be written on it, and this one would be incomplete without giving it due
mention. Keller argues, "Language is but a container, holding back the true
wonder that are the people of this chat." It's an excellent metaphor to
describe a metaphysical observation, and yet it inherently defies itself: by
condemning language as an inhibitor of understanding, the metaphor, since it
also uses language, becomes a paradox. The word "paradox" is used with great
care, here, for the metaphor is not a contradiction but an apparent
contradiction. In actuality, the deliberate use of language to show how
language does an injustice to greater truths, Keller makes his metaphor all
the more convincing: if the metaphor is a crippled illustration of its point,
so much the greater must the truth that it conveys actually be.

But what does it mean? If language is a container, it must contain something.
What does it contain? Keller tells us plainly: the true wonder that are the
people of this chat. Normally, containers collect and preserve the integrity
and completeness of something for us to employ as we need or wish, but Keller
very carefully uses the word "back": "language is but a container, holding
BACK the true wonder...." And so we learn that our realm of accessibility is
not in a closed system, not in a limited area of which we have control, but
in the immeasurable reaches of the metaphysical universe that we cannot
control at all. Anything controlled or "contained" is, by definition, beyond
our grasp to experience and understand meaningfully.

Keller gets back on track when he says, "I'm worthless scum, merely stating
what's painfully obvious." We will learn later that Keller is currently
allowing his "good" urges to prevail, and so we gather that humility, even
self-abasement, is considered a favorable quality.

It is, in fact, a PURELY "good" quality. Keller is portraying himself as
utterly lacking in conflicting tendencies. In this version of himself, good
has at last triumphed over evil and vanquished it once and for all. Shouldn't
this be cause for great cheer and rejoicing? The perpetual human struggle
against moral depravity is won! Alas, though it is a bit of a shock, this is
not at all the response. Instead of satisfaction and jubilation, the reactions
of Keller's peers are of disquiet, fear, and suspicion. Sakura writes, "This
is scaring me." Brunnen-G, when confronted with the possibility that this is
the way Keller has truly changed, says she "hopes not" and "couldn't stand"
it. Liface writes, "Whoa, it's almost like me not making typo's [sic]."
Only Nyperold admits that he "thinks this is an improvement"; on the whole,
the reactions are unsettled, in recognition of an undesirable straying from
the comfort of the norm upon which we invest our securities. The deviation
is too much for some to take. Kiki bursts, "ARRRUGHHH!!!!! I WANT EVIL
PSYCHO STEPHEN OF DOOM BACK!!!!" overreacting against the discomfort. Why
is the reception of a purely "good" Keller so adverse? It's clear that
Keller's companions sense the falseness of his humanity. Now lacking conflict
within himself, he is somehow less than human. It is curious to note and
ponder that, Keller argues, while it may be human to fight the war against
evil, it's not at all human to win it.

The premise of the transcript thus established, the story develops naturally
until the first plot point, where a heart operation triggers an emotional
change. Keller's "bad" tendency returns, personified as a separate entity,
and, just as we have been permitted to experience Keller without his "bad"
tendencies, now we can experience him without the "good" tendencies and compare
and contrast the two. "[The baby] would look much better with its insides
on your head!" Keller exclaims after his bad tendencies return but haven't
yet burst free. Keller employs an efficient means by which to portray his
darker side. As wanting to put a baby's entrails upon another's head is
commonly considered to be a "bad" urge, we instantly pick up on the subtle
change in Keller's personality. The emerging dominance of his darker half
is then illustrated all the more plainly when he writes, "I WILL FREAKING
RIP OFF YOUR HEADS and give you roses and hugs!!!!!" Here Keller relies on the
audience already understanding that roses and hugs are "good" things, and
ripping off people's heads is a "bad" thing. Assuming his readers connect with
this understanding, Keller subtlely establishes something else in the careful
manner of his phrasing: capital letters are introduced as a symbol for evil,
whereas mixed case remain indicative of more noble aspirations. Thereafter,
Keller uses upper case for evil and mixed case for good. This layer of
symbolism makes his depiction of his conflicted inner nature all the more

Let us examine the first words from each half of Keller's personality, after
it ruptures, yielding two separate, unconflicted entities. "I have survived,"
the good side of Keller says. "I'VE WON!" the bad side of Keller says. (At
first, each side thinks the other was destroyed.) The "good" side glories
in survival; the bad side -- note the capital letters -- glories in conquest.
From that moment, each half -- the good side meekly, the bad side
overconfidently -- vies for the upper hand. In the end, the bad side wins,
marking this episode a tragedy rather than comedy. What was the tragic flaw
that enabled the good side of Keller to be vanquished? Like all tragic flaws
in all the great tragic heroes of literature, it was a flaw inherent in his
humanity, and the nature of his flaw is worked into Keller's underlying theme:
since it is indeed a flaw embedded deeply in human nature, the key to resolving
this flaw in all of us is not to seek to fix it but to seek to cope with it.

Keller's demise is engendered by the actions of Darius Longshore, who, here,
symbolizes one of many oppressing factions of society. In particular, Longshore
stands for those who seek to deny the natural presence of conflict in the human
spirit by refusing to acknowledge competing tendencies. "THERE IS NO SUCH
THING AS A GOOD STEPHEN," Longshore asserts, and we know that this is
a deception because it is expressed in capital letters, which have already been
established as symbolizing evil. To illustrate the capriciousness of the
determination he makes about which half exists and which doesn't, he acts
oppositely toward a supporting character, which serves as a foil, a handy
point of comparison, for Keller: "THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A BAD BRUNNEN-G,"
Longshore proclaims. It is not the particular sides Longshore is taking that
matters, merely that he is taking sides at all. Longshore, symbolizing what
Keller would call a misled and harmful faction of mainstream society,
oppressively adheres to inaccurate conceptions of the nature of humanity and
thereby destroys the essence of humanity in enforcing the appearance of those
misconceptions around him. For when Longshore makes these proclamations, the
effect is devastating. "That can't be true!" the good side of Keller gasps
desperately, before he "crumbles" and withers away into nothing, leaving the
bad side of Keller to emerge victorious. The error of Longshore's ways is
MUST NOW KILL YOU," the bad side of Keller announces.

Unfortunately, like many populist commercial ventures, pressure from studios
and publicists, apprehensive about the commercial viability of Keller's
artistry realized purely, have blemished the integrity of Keller's work by
tacking on an artificial happy ending. The ending involves some absurdity
about sacred artifacts and their psycho-spiritual power, which is used as a
deus ex machina to conquer the bad side of Stephen, which, lacking conflicting
"good" tendencies, would have otherwise been an essentially unstoppable
force of evil thenceforth. Since this ending is not consistent with Keller's
vision, it is not fruitful to give it more than a passing anecdotal mention.

At any rate, the drama illustrates Keller's wake-up call convincingly. Neither
his "good" self nor his "bad" self is truly human; it is the combination of
both, moderating each other, that comprises the fullness of his humanity.
Yet society, inasmuch as it would (and did) attack either side alone, would
also attack the two together, mistakenly assuming that a conflicted human
spirit is an abnormal entity. But how else can good abide with evil but
uneasily? What makes us content in our humanity, Keller insists, is to
acknowledge that conflicting tendencies exist, so that we may progress beyond
that and learn how we might moderate and temper these aspects of our being.
Good vs. evil, of course, is only one example of many conflicting pairs of
tendencies in each of us, which begs the question, what enormousness of
harmful denial must we adopt to pretend they don't or shouldn't exist? What
damage have we already done to ourselves, and how much more might we inflict
if we do not change our way of thinking? These questions are those inevitably
posed by the assertions Keller makes in "Split Stephen." Like all good art,
it makes meaningful statements and observations and invites us to make more.


Link: 'Split Stephen,' by Stephen Keller, et al., (c) 2000.

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