Rage against the Teacher

June 23, 2011

Wisconsin’s Supreme Court cleared the way for Scott Walker’s anti-union law to go into effect. At the same time, legislation against unions – namely teachers and firefighters – is spreading out among many states. As this trend continues to grow exponentially, one image from those heady days of the Wisconsin legislative standoff that still sticks in my head is a pic of Tom Morello (guitarist of the once and future band Rage against the Machine) among the protesters, in support of the teachers and the unions. His presence and stance were memorable not so much for his celebrity (he had no effect on the outcome anyway) but because he is a key cog in a band that spouted these lyrics in “Know Your Enemy”:

Yes I know my enemies
They’re the teachers who taught me to fight me
Compromise, conformity, assimilation, submission
Ignorance, hypocrisy, brutality, the elite

I wonder, how many awesome dudes from the early 90s poked their heads out of a pulsating mosh pit long enough to hear those lyrics and think that maybe, just maybe, teachers are getting paid too much? Maybe they don’t deserve those “Cadillac benefits” since they’re part of the great lame-ass conformist factory?

As the great Kurt Vonnegut said, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be.”

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A Legacy of Annihiliation

May 23, 2009

Palahniuk takes an expansive approach to the culling song in his book Lullaby. For those who have not read the book, it features a bedtime poem, the recitation of which kills the listener. If word got out that this poem can kill, it would  create mass panic, leading to restrictions on sound and limits on anything that could carry this killer spell. Things would get very quiet.

That puts him within the thematic legacy of annihilation. Gilgamesh and Noah are part of that tradition – one could say they are its progenitors, at least in the scope of Western Literature – while Kurt Vonnegut’s ice-nine in Cat’s Cradle is a 20th-century take on the classic end-of-the-world conceit. What would you expect of literature from a century of nuclear technology, catastrophic wars,  and environmental decline, when we perfect our ability to blow up the world?

For Palahniuk, the annihilation is numbing. Big Brother controls through noise, something that winnows its way into your head like the Ceti eels in Star Trek II, and there is no big explosion, no gore … people just drop. Sort of like the people who watched the movie An Echo of Wolves in my serial Martin Garvin. Except I had not yet reached such broad societal implications as Palahniuk.

So, from the first time time we’ve put writing implement to writing recipient, we have been trying to imagine and predict the cause of our annihilation. And we generally imagine it to be our fault. From the early days – when rampant sin prompted the powers in the sky to cleanse the earth – to now, when rampant consumption threatens to make the world uninhabitable. The Bible even warned us that the end of the world is coming (expedited by the flaws in our human natures).

This literary legacy of annihilation makes for an interesting companion to the Socratic tradition on the limits of our knowledge – or if you prefer Shakespeare – “The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool” (As You Like It, Act V, Scene I). Truth is, we probably won’t see the killing blow until it is too late. Take, for example, the species disappearing from our planet today. Conservationists have fought for years against hunting and poaching, only to see species, even the most protected species (apes, tigers, cheetahs, rhinos), on the brink due to habitat loss and deforestation. The end is not as dramatic as once envisioned, it is much more gradual, a cancer that is slower, more internal, but just as ugly and arguably more difficult to avert. And one we did not see until, in many cases, we were past the tipping point. Seriously, did anyone expect a bedtime poem to cause the end of the world?

Damn that Palahniuk

April 10, 2009

Chuck Palahniuk can do things that elude us lesser writers. There is a quality to his writing that is prima facie absurd. It shouldn’t work. Kurt Vonnegut was the same way. It is absurd to think you can end multiple paragraphs and sections with the refrain “So it goes.” But Vonnegut does it, and it works. If anyone else tries the same thing (or at least a similar convention), the work falls apart. They read like a poor copy of Kurt Vonnegut.

Regarding Palahniuk, who else could offer up the refrain, “I am Jack’s Raging Bile Duct” without sounding like a boob? That struck me as I was reading Lullaby the other day (and yes, I know that previous quote is from Fight Club). He has that same Vonnegut-like quality – he does things on the printed page that should not work. And I know. I’ve written lots of things that haven’t worked. And I’ve read a few short stories from the bizarro genre, which has tried to associate itself with Palahniuk, but (to me, at least) most of the “bizarro” stories come across as self-indulgent, with a Mad Libs approach to the profane. In contrast, Palahniuk’s work is complete, organic, where lesser writers sound trite and derivative.

And speaking of derivative, Lullaby has that same theme of “deadly art” that I was using in Martin Garvin, except he has a killer poem (or culling song) and mine was a movie. Damn you, Noosphere! Not that I ever thought that plot point was original.

Monty Python has a classic skit with “the deadliest joke in the world,” which the allies used as a weapon of mass destruction (and that was the motivation for the government agents in Martin Garvin Part 2).

Lovecraft imagined a world of ancient tomes where reading the words of certain ancient texts would drive one mad.

Del Close and John Ostrander told the story of a root that gives the ultimate high before killing you, in the unfortunately named “Foo Goo,” from the comic-book anthology series Wasteland #1. (How’s that for an obscure reference?)

The Ring had a killer videotape. In keeping with the limitations of that analog world, one has to wait a few days after watching the videotape to meet one’s demise.

Original ideas are hard to come by, so says Ecclesiastes. I don’t think that should be a deterrant to creating. But still, I also noticed some similarities between Palahniuk’s character Oyster (in Lullaby) and a character in one of my short stories. No wonder that damn story keeps getting rejected…