(Bonus Content) The Song of Bloody Bill Rhys

See also the audience discussion on the recent essay and the entry Gallows Steve and Ripper Kringle. Rhys is pronounced ‘rice’, and Fiennes ‘fine’.

This is the story of Bloody Bill Rhys,
A sick sort of man who just wouldn’t think twice
Of cutting your head off
And feeding it to
Your mother and brothers in the form of a stew.

He wasn’t a good man, not Bloody Bill Rhys,
But the things that fell out of his life, they were nice.
If he’d been in a town
The survivors knew bliss—
‘Twas the mark of his passage! And it was like this:

There were rainbows and kittens and great chocolate muffins,
There just wasn’t no one who didn’t have nuffin’,
In every home there was marital bliss!
And the air it would sparkle when two lovers kissed.

There was wealth and no shame and the bookstores were full
And the people worked hard and no children were dull
For all he was a fuckhead he had wonderful shoes—
In each of his footprints a new flower grew.

This is the story of Bloody Bill Rhys,
He didn’t kill once, it was lots more than twice,
At torture an expert,
At theft a guru—
And a deliberate vector for new kinds of flu!

A sadist, a killer, a filthy old bugger,
And no one would doubt he was truly meshugga
But nobody cared
Because when he left town—
The survivors were better ’cause he’d been around.

Were you were someone he hurt? Well, then,
That was a shame;
But that some people suffer
Is the price of the game.

This is the story of Bloody Bill Rhys,
It wasn’t on purpose. He wasn’t that nice.
His good works were burdens
Inflicted by fate—
His nature was rotten but his deeds turned out great.

When it came to protection,
The law looked away.
They knew they should seize him
But what can I say?

Were you someone he hurt? Then, well,
That was a shame;
But that some people suffer
Is the price of the game.

For twelve years of horrors
The price of the game.

This is the story of Bloody Bill Rhys
And a lawman named Fiennes just promoted from Vice,
He tracked down Bill Rhys
At the scene of a crime—
And “You’re under arrest,” said Officer Fiennes.

No rainbows, no kittens, no great chocolate muffins,
Until Bill moves on karma don’t give you nuffin’,
And when Bill resisted
Rick Fiennes shot him dead—
Once in the chest and three shots in the head.

No hearts and no flowers, no magical kiss,
The people of Fiennes’ town, they could have had bliss,
But he ended it all with the ring of his gun—
Filed a report, and Bill Rhys was done.

He was a sadist, a killer, a filthy old bugger,
And no one would doubt he was truly meshugga
But nobody cared
Because when he left town—
The survivors were better ’cause he’d been around.

There was wealth and no shame and the bookstores were full
And the people worked hard and no children were dull
And for all he was a fuckhead he had wonderful shoes—
In each of his footprints a new flower grew.

At his trial Fiennes said he was sad and ashamed
Of the outcome he’d brought
But he said, all the same,
“In the face of such men a cop
Does what he must—it’s
Cause outcomes are outcomes
And justice is justice.”

12 thoughts on “(Bonus Content) The Song of Bloody Bill Rhys

  1. I am reminded of Ursula K. Le Guin’s short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.”

    (EDIT: I found a copy online.)

    (EDIT again: someone pointed out to me that our gracious hostess might not take kindly to me linking to a site where someone is violating another author’s copyright, so I’ve deleted the link. The story is anthologized in The Wind’s Twelve Quarters. Go check it out of your local library, or better yet, buy a copy.)

  2. Good poem. I particularly like the use of anapestic tetrameter for its ironic contrast between form and content. (Anapestic tetrameter, for the non-poets reading this, is the meter of a good deal of comic and children’s poetry, such as most of Dr. Suess).

    The content I’m not really going to write about. Whatever I write is too likely to be misconstrued by someone here. (Solarbird, I think, has come closest to what I would say.) But as I was trying to put my thoughts in order, I realized: is Martin named Martin because of _Candide_?

    Metal Fatigue, I never was that impressed by “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”. The individuals of Omelas, if they truly want to rebel, always have the option of saying a single kind word to the child and bringing down the whole system. (As if.) But the story valorizes those who walk away. That’s the main reason it seems so fake to me; its implication that it is actually possible for individuals who believe that the world of Omelas is in some way the world of important reality to walk away.

    Here’s another example of what I mean, China Mieville on Tolkien:
    “Tolkien and his admirers (many of them leftists) gave his escapism an emancipatory gloss, claiming that jailers hate escapism. As the great anarchist fantasist Michael Moorcock has pointed out, this is precisely untrue. Jailers love escapism. What they hate is escape.”

    But — if you accept the value system that I assume that Moorcock and Mieville share — there is no escape from the world. So why not what they would see as escapism?

  3. rpuchalsky: Indeed? I don’t see that that’s necessarily the case. Nowhere in the story does it say that the youth of Omelas, when they come to see the child, are allowed close enough to communicate–only its jailers.

    If (as seems likely–the Utilitarians who established the city of Omelas were probably at least as clever as the monster) the circumstances of the child’s captivity are such that armed insurrection would be necessary to rescue it, what can you do but (1) accept that the great happiness of the many outweighs the suffering of one, or (2) walk away?

    And who knows what those who walk away do, beyond the mountains? Perhaps they are gathering an army to overthrow Omelas.

    The point I was trying to make is that both “The Song of Bloody Bill Rhys” and “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” are attacking Utilitarianism by reductio ad absurdum.

    I never intended to come off like a Utilitarian here, or here, but I seem to have utterly failed to convey what I did intend (especially in the latter post), so I’ll say it as explicitly as I can: I am mystified by the relationship between pain and art, and why the latter seems so often to proceed from the former.

    If there is a necessary connection between art and pain, then either Danielle’s father or Maya is right; and the Gnostics and the Buddhists agree that the proper response to such a world is to try to escape it. To walk away from Omelas.

    (The Mahayana Buddhists would be the ones gathering an army in the mountains, to storm the city and release the child, but even they begin by walking away.)

    If there is no necessary connection…then what an irony! Gallows humor on a truly cosmic scale! I’m still struggling with a response to this scenario.

    (EDIT: BTW, by his own definition, Mieville is a Socialist, not an Anarchist.)

  4. Metal Fatigue, the Ursula K LeGuin story makes it clear, I think, that there are no jailers as a seperate group of people from those of Omelas generally. The story describes how anyone, youth or adult, may see the child, and from other description in the story it is clear that this seeing is face-to-face. The whole concept of jailers and rescue would invalidate whatever force the story does have, turn it into a standard tale of good vs evil. I don’t think that LeGuin succeeds at what she’s trying to do, but I don’t think that she’s trying to do that.

    My own opinion is that art has no necessary connection to pain. People use art to express what is important to them. Because pain is important to people, it is often seen in their art. But there is no particular connection between suffering and artistic creation — unless perhaps in the sense that all people are sufferers. There are many people who suffer and do not produce art; many people who produce great art and have not unusually suffered.

    If I did believe that suffering was necessary for art, or for some other important, basic human value, that would make everything pretty easy for me to accept. That’s what Voltaire was writing about with his caricature of Dr. Pangloss and “this is the best of all possible worlds”. Who is to say which suffering is needless, once you’ve said that it in general is needed?

    There are a lot of possible interpretations of the The Story of Bloody Bill Rhys. But I don’t think it’s an attack on Utilitarianism; Rebecca doesn’t appear to often write attacks on isms. And I’m still resisting the impulse to write more about it.

  5. I find this poem extremely disturbing, because in thinking about it I keep finding myself assenting to two propositions:

    1. Given the situation as shown, Officer Fiennes did the wrong thing; Bloody Bill should have been allowed to live free.

    2. Anyone who assents to proposition 1 deserves to suffer and/or die at Bill’s hands.

    Regarding “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”, my feeling was that the walkers did not try to free the child because that would be imposing their choice upon everyone else in the city.

    Metal Fatigue: I didn’t think for a second that you were really arguing on the monster’s behalf, and I hope my response didn’t convey the impression that I did; I understood your post in essentially the same way in which you explained it here. Although I agree with rpuchalsky that there is no necessary correlation between suffering and art — look for instance at Shakespeare, who seems to have had a reasonably good life, and who produced some of the greatest art ever.

    rpuchalsky: I’m not sure why you’re reluctant to address the poem directly, I for one would be interested in what you have to say.

  6. I’m reluctant to address the poem directly because I can’t think of how to address this group, as a group, about it. It’s the kind of Gordian knot that I could get through if I were just talking, but with text and its concomitant inability to transmit nuance and nonverbal cues, I’m sure to bungle it. Interpretation relies on a knowledge of what context you are talking to people in. There are too many different contexts here; too many people with differing fields of view.

    But, OK, it’s too annoying of me to write all this and not attempt something. So — here are some study questions! (Yes, I know it’s a comic poem, yes, I know that I’m treating it seriously.) Now, if you think that these are in fact cowardly ways for me to suggest possibilities without stating them, you are entirely right. To begin:

    1. Why twelve years of horrors? Twelve is an awfully specific number, and shares the same meter as many other numbers, nor is it forced by rhyme. Who do you think is suffering the horrors?

    2. The word “shame” occurs five times in the poem (twice in each of two repeated or chorus stanzas, once in “ashamed” at the end. Why do you think that the only person ashamed in the poem is the cop who shot the murderer?

    3. Consider the poem as a character study. What kind of person might Bill Rhys be if he weren’t magically exaggerated? Does the phrase “he always seemed like such a nice guy” have any resonance here?

    4. The end of poem contrasts outcomes with justice. So, outcomes for who?

    4. a. Why is the poem linked to Gallows Steve and Ripper Kringle, a story about how Jack the Ripper thinks it’s fine for him to kill because he always gets presents when he does? Consider the differences between what happens to Gallows Steve, who kills a tax man, and Jack the Ripper, who kills prostitutes.

    4. b. Is it true that you could consider this poem to be a critique of utilitarian judgement based on overall outcome, or as a moral puzzle. However, even accepting a world in which the magical effects are real, do you think that a utilitarian would really judge them to be worth the murders as part of an overall outcome? Is the moral judgement really a puzzle when you consider the complicity in evil created by the law looking the other way within the poem? Given these factors, is this likely to be a critique or a parody?

    4. c. In what real life situations do people find it convenient to look away?

  7. I am confused by this poem, and it’s comments. I seem to feel slightly off-put by the poem, as if it is saying wrong. Yet I can’t understand individual parts well enough to tell if it saying something i agree with, or disagree with. Oddly, the exact same thing happens with the comments. I have read Voltare, experience with Utilitarianism (so far as to be suggested that I am one – but research suggests that I am not), have dealt with the concept of choice involving a single innocent’s murder and the continuation of a corrupt system, and and am familiar with other ideas, and yet i can’t tell if the writers of the comments are saying things I agree with or disagree with. I am very confused :oops:

  8. I don’t know. I feel like I’m flailing, here, like all I’ve brought to this discussion is my own sense of confusion, which can hardly be helpful (or rather, would be better addressed in the form of a legend, where ambiguity is a sought-after commodity, rather than in the form of an ostensibly logical argument).

    rpuchalsky: Yeah, you’re right about “Omelas,” I misread it. If I weren’t doped up on pain-killers following a visit to the ER for a strained back, I’d try to fix my argument to account for that, but I am, so I can’t. Which is, as I said, perhaps for the best.

    Everything that happens is possible, in this most probable of all possible worlds.

  9. Gvien the rampant confusion which I may have encouraged with mysterious references to Voltaire and so on, I’ll try to write more plainly. But remember that really I’m as uncertain as anyone else. Just because I have a somewhat didactic and stuffy Internet presence doesn’t mean that I think I’m some kind of authority.

    _Essay without Shame_, which the poem is also linked to, is “a real essay by the real author”. Therefore, the essay is about Rebecca Borgstrom and her abuse history, and the effects of that history.

    I’ve observed that when someone talks about a painful topic like this, there is often a rush by the hearers to deal with it in some way. All such responses are, I think, kind and well meant. But they have more to do with the hearer than the teller. They typically seek for some social role (“is there anything I can do for you?”), some kind of approved expression of emotion, some kind of way of intellectualizing what has been said. It is difficult to just indicate that you’re listening and not rush to deal.

    The danger of this comes when the dealing is done so quickly that the original statement gets buried. Even worse, it can become an ongoing process. Look at “Cold Forest Dogs” above. Why does Barnard feel that it is important to bark loudly whenever he suspects that Clancy is about to bring up a certain subject?

    Finally a personal process can become a philosophy. Voltaire wrote about Dr. Pangloss, someone who was so invested in his way of explaining away all evil that he could no longer acknowledge it. Leon Wieseltier, shortly after the Asian tsunami, talked about how some people rushed to theodicy as a matter of course, without taking the time to consider what had just happened. Wieseltier, given his beliefs, is going to return to theodicy himself, but he first let actual events challenge him.

    In the case of Hitherby, I think that we’re all dealing in a pretty good way. RSB is writing, and we are reading. Even better, some of us are also writing; I hope that everyone who has been commenting continues to comment. Not to say that this is all that Hitherby is about: it’s also a wonderful, comic, and witty set of short stories, and an exciting extended narrative, and a particularly Internet-style mode of fantasy, and can be fully appreciated on those levels. But if you read it only on those levels, occasionally there will be times when … well, never mind.

    So, back to this poem. I think that there are multiple levels in it. On one level, sure its about an imaginary guy named Bloody Bill Rhys, and about Hitherby, and about the recent discussion of whether outcomes are meaningful in judging what someone did. On another, it’s about Rebecca Borgstrom’s own abuse history. On another, it’s about the abuse histories of every abused person — and about the ways in which society refuses to see what’s going on, because it doesn’t want to. With that last, I’m not talking about the mild and personal ways of dealing that I talked about above, but more serious things. Like the refusal of people to take a complaint seriously, say, because the complained-against person is a nice guy, perhaps a pillar of the community, and no one really wants to stir up trouble.

  10. As far as the poem, I’m of the opinion that Officer Fiennes was in the right and Bloody Bill Rhys in the wrong, regardless of the results of their actions. But then, I’ve never been much of a utilitarian, preferring more a blend of aretaic and deontic ethics.


  11. The ones who walk away are moral relativists.
    The ones who stay are utilitarians.
    There are no deontologists or aretaists or anything else in Omelas.

  12. I’d say that the ones who walk away don’t look particularly relativist to me; it’s certainly not consequentialist, since their leaving doesn’t change anything in Omelas. I’d have to call it closest to aretaic: they don’t want to be the sort of person who profits by the unhappiness of another, but don’t actually prevent that unhappiness.

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