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We Are the Choosers of the Slain

Many of the books we have read this semester have concerned the subject of death and discovering one’s own mortality.  Even more, the characters we have all come to know in these books have asked questions rarely voiced out loud in the real world: “How am I going to die?”  “Why does no one love me?”  “Who will remember me when I am gone?”.  Perhaps these questions might impertinently impose themselves on our sub-consciences on occasion, but they stop there, never reaching the level of public discourse.

Oscar Wao attempts to kill himself on p.191.  In this simple, tragic act he forces the reader to finally vocalize what Jack and Babette Gladney could not accomplish through there ranting existential crises.  Oscar forces the reader to face his or her own mortality because on some level we have all asked the questions that he asks himself.  We may not all be nerds or have backgrounds from countries with such tumultuous social situations, but we have all felt the sting of rejection, the pangs of unrequited love (see Oskar Schell), and the sense that we are alone in a world spinning out of control.  Oscar Wao is the embodiment of all the little pieces taken from each of us, the audience, he is our hopes, fears, and terror at life and death shaped into a person barely recognizable as ourselves.

But what really sets Oscar Wao apart from the menagerie of characters we have read this semester is his response to his close brush with death.  Where the Father in The Road could only hope to pass on the fire to his son, to keep him alive in a world devoid of life, Oscar Wao instead seizes the far from the jaws of death.  By chance he misses his seeming certain cessation and in his own words is “regenerated” with a purpose: to become the Dominican Tolkien.  This is a step not taken in the other books we have read I think.  Where most of the quests in The Road, Parable of the Sower, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, White Noise, and even Lucifer’s Hammer ended in uncertainty as to what the future held in store or ambiguity as to the purpose of quest in the first place, Oscar Wao takes his brush with death and all of our pieces and forges something new.

We are the choosers of the slain he seems to say, and we choose to live and create.  This gives us the readers hope, because if he can find the good in all the pain of his existence then surely there must be hope for us as well.  But at the last there remains the fuku, which as Oscar says was our parent’s shit but is our shit too.  So we have overcome our own mortality or at least come to terms with it, but in the end there is no escaping who we are the consequences of our own existence.

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“As you know, I’m extremely brave, but I can’t spend eternity in a small underground place.”(p.169)

Oskar voices many complex emotions and thoughts through the veil of childish, pretentious naivete in ELIC.  I find myself feeling a connection with him as I imagine I acted in much the same way, trying to armor myself with the bravado of perceived scholastic brilliance and superiority.  Children who experience traumatic events that they haven’t learned coping mechanisms for seem to react in one of two ways: they shut the world out by sulking and submerging themselves in independent activities like video games, or they make a show of being in the center of things and not caring about anyone else.  Oskar seems to try vert hard at doing the second, even so far as he constantly claims his mother doesn’t love him anymore and wishes he had died instead of his father.  For me the traumatic event that I reacted to for much of my childhood was the divorce of my parents.  One day I had a dad, and the next I didn’t, and now I can’t even remember what that must have felt like for young me.  But looking back I can see that more than anything else as a little boy I wanted a father, or maybe just a complete family.

For Oskar the idea that he should attach a memory of his father and meaning for his father to an empty box in the cemetery is ludicrous.  He believes that his father was cells which are now spread around the city, becoming part of the rest of the world.  This is verbal evidence of the shell he is attempting to project around himself to escape the pain and confusion of losing his father.  He blames his mother for his pain too because she wasn’t there to comfort him when his father died and he had to get home from school.  In my parallel story as a child I never really thought about blaming my mom exclusively, I blamed both of my parents equally, but looking back I can see times when I just wished she would find a new dad for me to fill the empty box in my life.  Oskar seems to show sometimes too that he cannot understand how his mom can miss his dad if she is still able to laugh.  What he has not learned yet for all his youthful smarts is that the indomitable nature of the human spirit in such cases as the extreme agony of losing a loved one so suddenly and violently is the true test of one’s character.  If we choose to crawl inside ourselves and cower until we die of dehydration from crying day after day, then the person we have lost has truly died.  For there is no evidence that we truly live on after death as Oskar says, and it is only through the memories of the living that the dead and disappeared live on.

So when Oskar dies he doesn’t want to be underground in that claustrophobic darkness of decay and anonymity, instead he and I would both like a place with a little elbow room, and some electric fencing to keep away the grave robbers.  Oh and some jewels.

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The Black Hole in The Road

A fundamental part of our humanity is our visceral experience of the world which becomes naturally desensitized over  time.  Specifically as this relates to The Road and The Black Hole of Trauma, experiencing continuous traumatic triggers can lead to two paths for a traumatized mind.  The first is the increasing insensitivity to these events as the mind becomes less and less effected in order to protect the subject of the trauma, or the mind becomes overwhelmed by its experience and the trauma becomes the new paradigm for the brain’s view of the world.  From that point on all experience will be filtered through or shown in the light of the defining traumatic experience of the individual’s life.

Clearly in The Road, the man and boy have reacted to the collapse of their world and the daily fight for survival by reacting in the first pattern, desensitization.  As has been stated earlier by Pierce I believe, on p. 12 , “You forget what you want to remember and you remember what you want to forget.”  This phrase provides an intriguing view into the otherwise ironclad psyche of the central character who’s wishes and desires are simple and known, to get his son to a safer place, but whose actual thoughts about his world and life are more ambiguous.  In this sentence on p.12 when faced with a rotting corpse in a rotting world, he wraps himself in a steely facade of indifference, but in his words we see deeper into his mind than anywhere else.  He makes it clear that he wishes he could forget all the traumatic things that he and his son witness on a daily basis, but he can’t, and so he falls into the second category from above as well: the trauma has become the paradigm for his experience of life.  He expects it and so is no longer surprised by the horror and devastation around him, but what if the bodies disappeared and the world returned to sunshine, parks, and dogs chasing cats?  Or even just dogs for that matter?  I don’t think the man would be able to cope in a restored world where his trauma had no context or application.

This hypothesis is corroborated by Van der Kolk and McFarlane on pp.5-6, where they say, “…it is the persistence of intrusive and distressing recollections, and not the direct experience of the traumatic event itself, that actually drives the biological and psychological dimensions of PTSD.”  As I have said in previous posts, it is our worst moments and most traumatic experiences that truly define who we are, or at least how we react to such life events defines who we are.  Professor Sample questioned this claim in my blogging audit and so I find this is the ideal time to support my argument given the context.  The reason going out for coffee or walking your dog does not define who you are is because those events are commonplace and do not require serious mental application.  It is the situations that effect our emotion or place us under great physical and/or mental strain that give us the opportunity to discover for ourselves who we are. A person only knows how they react in the split second of decision when they decide to save their own life or that of another.

The world of WWII did not have to turn a blind eye to the Holocaust, the information was available regarding the Nazi’s atrocities but people disbelieved it and discounted it as exaggeration, and thus 11 million people died horribly.  But some people did not turn a blind eye and instead risked their lives and often paid the ultimate price to right a terrible wrong.  These are the people we remember.  Oskar Schindler.  The Warsaw Ghetto that held out longer than France.  The Danish people and government.  The Holocaust is possibly the most internationally traumatizing event in recent history, and now we live in a world where genocide is seemingly commonplace and widespread from the Middle East to Africa to Indonesia.  Our global trauma has become a self-perpetuating experience.  What would this world be like with out the mass murder we have come to expect from the evening news?  That has so recently come home to us in our own schools and towns?  What would that world be like?  We are defined by this violence now, it is the prime characteristic of our world.

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The Prism of Perception

The camera rises up over a rise behind the man and boy walking down the road.  The shot shows a landscape of gray and brown spotted with blackened misshapen lumps.  The two figures seem insignifcantly small set against the desolated vista.

Camera snaps to a side shot of the boy standing next to his father as they take in the scene, the song playing is “Dead Reckoning” from Smokin’ Aces,

Father: (tragic/beaten) Take my hand.  I don’t think you should see this.

Son: (questioning/curious) What you put in your head is there forever?

Father: (resigned) Yes.

Son: (comforting) It’s okay Papa, they’re already there.

Father: (features gray and sunken, exhausted) I don’t want you to look.

Son: (shrugging) They’ll still be there.

Camera stays steady, showing the bow from the side and his father rising above him, both looking off screen.  Now the camera slews around to show over the boy’s shoulder.  The landscape is barren and charred, boxes, bags, old plastic suitcases, all turned to black tar and ash.  There a gnarled, blackened hand reaches up from the offal as if beseeching heaven for aid.  Then the boy blinks and the screen turns black as if the camera were his eyes, and when they open again he is looking at his father.

Son: (questioning/perplexed) Why don’t we just go on Papa?

Father: (relieved) Yes, okay.

Son: They were trying to get away, weren’t they Papa?

Father: (crushed) Yes, they were.

Camera snaps to black as the boy blinks in indifference again.  When the image returns the camera is viewing through the eyes of the father.  His eyes rise from the upturned face of the boy and turn to the scene of devastation as the music crescendos.  The world is no longer black and empty, it is full of writhing, running and screaming people, all on fire, all dying.  The world is all fire and pain, with no hope of escape.

The eyes blink once more, the music fades and the camera snaps to black.  End scene.

This is from a section on p.190-191 in my edition.

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The Self-Empowerment of the Masses

I was thinking more about our discussion of Earthseed and my topic for this optional blog post coalesced from there.  Why religion?  Why do people turn to deities and mystical powers to tell them how to act in extreme situations where moral action becomes ambiguous and survival becomes paramount?  Why do these people not gravitate to scientists and forward-thinking people who can give them tangible goals and returns on their devotion and hard work.  Such was done in the Stronghold of Lucifer’s Hammer, but Butler chose to use religion as her vehicle for the plot’s momentum.  Throughout history people have turned away from the eager face of science in the face of bewildering phenomena and turned instead to the banal and bold-faced hypocrisy of religion.  Lightning is an electrical discharge of the atmostphere caused by two different electric potentials occurring near each other, but in almost every world religion, lightning has been the symbol of god(s)’s fury.  Religion prevents progress by stagnating the growth of the adherents mind to accept the world for the way it is built and can be shaped by us, by humans.  The fact that there might be a god is irrelevant to humans except for the possible case of an afterlife, but Lauren does not seem to clearly imply that that is even an option of Earthseed.  Supposedly, the universe is one, and all part of god, suspended in a perpetual cycle of life and death, but who is to say that you are what you were next time the materials that compose you are reused?  This coincides with the preoccupation of most religious people who adhere to a religion promising eternal bliss in god’s paradise for good behavior: if these people are so sure of their religion and God’s existence, why do they still fear death and go to almost any lengths to preserve their life, when simply letting go would transport them all the sooner to that paradise?  Furthermore, why do people join Earthseed when it doesn’t even offer them this ridicuous and tenuous hope of eternal life?

To answer my own question, I suppose the reason is the core of Earthseed: change.  People who cannot divine the meaning in their own lives or find/create a purpose for themselves are as sheep, as Jesus so aptly recognized.  They are a weak minded and weak willed bunch who crave a magnanimous super being to pat them on the head and say, “It will be alright, be a good boy now.”  Thus, there can be no more powerfully godly suggestion than change as god.  You gain direct contact with your god in every movement, every though.  You become god, and as Butler said and I am now realizing, you reach the ultimate level of self-empowerment.  By deifing change, you surpass the meager efforts at immortality and control that other religions grasp at with dessicated fingers, and actually merge, in essence, with God.

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Lauren has a fascination with fire as do many of the other people living in Parable of the Sower.  Beginning with her dream in the very beginning of the book and continuing through several manifestations, fire plays and ever increasing role in her thoughts and life.  Humans have always had a primal fear and fascination for fire; we fear immolation but we create religions celebrating its use.  We have burned heretics at the stake, but sometimes entire cities or countries catch fire as an act of nature.  It is one of the our elements of the ancient world that composed in some part, all things made of matter.  And here in this book fire is the driving force, the seed of people’s fears and vehicle for abuse and manipulation.  Criminals set fire to houses in order to divert attention while they rob others; Lauren tells of the drug pyro in chapter 13 that makes the dance of the flames especially exciting and mind-altering.  Meanwhile the firemen are generally useless and corrupt, like every other vestigial social service in Lauren’s drab world.  This book is defamiliarizing the most basic assumptions most people have about fire: we use it for warmth and food, aware but not overly concerned about its dangerous capabilities.  In Lauren’s world though, fire is like dogs and people outside the community.  It is dangerous and it is remorseless.  But for the one girl who has to experience all the pain of her neighbors burning to death and being shot and murdered, the metaphoric immolation of her character gives rise to something new and potentially stronger.  As foreshadowed by the Earthseed quote on p. 153, “In order to rise from its ashes, a phoenix first must burn”, Lauren is merely suffering her trial by fire, as with many past leaders, and will emerge a new individual.

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The Consequences of Truth

The first chapter of Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower is short yet fraught with emotion and conflicting ideas.  It begans by suggesting that the main character is to be married or used in some other ritual the day after her birthday, then immediately tells us the ritual is a lie.  Her recurring dream of herself learning to fly and flying towards a door but hitting a wall of fire instead seems to be a fairly obvious metaphor.  As if in aiming for the truth she is inevitably destined to miss her intended mark, as if by fate, and suffer drastic and painful consequences.

If we aim for truth in our lives we often risk hurting people we care about or even hurting ourselves.  Truly, how often are people honest with themselves about their appearance, or that of their spouse/boyfriend/girlfriend?  Do people ever say, “Do I really need those shoes?”, or “I don’t know how to drive to Niagra Falls but I don’t need directions!”  Do we not all burn ourselves many times throughout our lives?  And after the burns heal and we have grafted metaphorical “new skin” onto our wounds in the form of learning and memory, do we not often forget the pain of those mistakes and repeat them?  Pain is the only real thing.  Period.  If you remember pain, which is not outweighed by some other factor such as saving your own life, or bringing into existence another, most people will avoid the pain.

I am reminded in this book of Ayn Rand’s book AnthemAnthem was not a long book, or a book of complicated plot and numerous and multifaceted characters.  It was a book about two people, told from the perspective of one in a future time when there is no future.  For Equality 7-2521, the protagonist, the past is far more mysterious and fascinating than the monotonous monochromatic future.  Like the girl in Parable, Equality 7-2521 aims for the truth and his world comes crashing down around him.  His “utopian” society is more aptly described as “dystopian”.  These themes seem to spring to the forefront in the girl’s dream-as-exposition, and it makes me eager to see what other similarities between these two tales of suffering might arise.

Often through human history, sowing the seeds of hope in a time when that word has been forgotten can lead to the most magnificent transformations in the human condition and psyche.  They even give out Nobel Peace Prizes for it.

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Binary Codes: The Symphony of My World

The past year has seen an explosion of construction on our campus, which seems to carry a message of new beginnings and reinvention in itself, but is more the context for my post this week.  The new Engineering Building has become a second home for me in this my final year of undergraduate study, its glistening glass windows reflecting back the receding forests and the upturned faces of new students.  Computers hum in the halls and classrooms, a babble of electrical jargon floats through the halls, resonating with the hardcore students and bypassing the pedestrian drones.  I know everyone, it is my job; I have worked here for more than two years now.  I know how to fix the multimeters and oscilloscopes when they break, but the new building and all its voices is not the home I want.  Its sensation of fresh sterility and distillation of knowledge is not what I seek, but its people are the ones I know.  Is home an idea created more by the people who fill a space?  By the objects?  Is home a static space?  These disparate notions lead me to occasionally flee the building to submerge myself in the song of the campus.  The melody is traffic and footsteps, the “vroom” of cars speeding around turns, the tip-tap of a lady’s heels on the sidewalk.  The harmony is the wind and the trees, a “swish” as the lush deciduous canopy, now transforming to a flaming red color-storm, sways as one above our unseeing heads as we walk through our own little worlds.  Worlds within the larger world of the university, and that within a larger world and on and on by many orders of magnitude until we are all as atoms of the universe, floating around each other, interacting, but never aware of the whole we make together.

And as I walk I seek the universe but I can’t find it, I only hear what my ears can tell me, and they are deaf to a voice that magnificent.  So I wander back to the Engineering Building and decide as I am once more ensconced in the familiar sounds of electronics, a binary code of knowledge, perhaps this is my home and the universe can wait a while.

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“Fuck” can be pretty much any part of speech and indeed can be used for every word in a sentence, i.e. “Fuck the fucking fuckers.”  Lucifer’s Hammer is a lesson in the uses of the English language’s most vulgar word, but its use is not meant for shock and vulgarity.  Fuck is a very strong word used to express the strongest of emotions, hate, love, tragedy, fury, etc.  In the book it is used 16 times as an adjective, “fucking”, and 10 times as a noun or verb in the past or present tense.  Most of the time it is used in Alim Nassor’s viewpoint sections or John Baker’s sections in Hammerlab, but as the story progresses after the impact more and more characters find that the only way to react to their problems is by throwing up their hands and saying, “Fuck it.”  Also after the impact the use of the stem-noun “motherfucker” becomes far more common, further exhibiting that the breakdown of civilization is such an intellectually staggering event for the characters that more diplomatic vocabulary is often set aside for the more stress-reducing power of using the “f-word”.  I think it is possible too that the author in his 70′s environment might have thought that black people swear more than white people since “fuck” is in every other sentence of Alim’s sections, then again it might be that any racism is purely incidental to the reader’s own perspective; maybe I have some subconscious racists stigmas about black people and swearing.  A caveat to the “blacks swear more than whites” claim though is that men swear more than women except in the few cases where Maureen talks about her or other women’s sexual habits.  The increased use of the word in the latter half of the book is meant to clearly counterpoint the devastation of civilization and reversion to man’s primordial selfish instincts with the previous state of high-civilization news networks, politicians, and billionaire cocktail parties.

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I find it very interesting, despite the italics, that Niven chose to give the comet a sort of voice in the book.  Not only the comet really, but the whole solar system is described through the eons prior to Hammerfall.  This gives a somewhat fated perspective to the whole collision, as if even from the conception of the celestial neighborhood the alignments of the planets and other heavenly bodies preordained the cataclysm of our world.  This idea in turn threatens a main premise of the book: we choose our fates and the way we live our lives.  This idea is used repeatedly throughout the book as the characters try to fulfill their dreams and fantasies before Hammerfall, and try to survive afterwards.  If events are so thoroughly out of our hands, then how can we or the characters find purpose in our own lives?  If we are just a virus on a rock hurtling through space and there is nothing more, why do we choose to continue to live?

This is not a lead-in to a religious discourse, but rather a reaction against Niven’s idea of universal chaos and irrevocable doom.  Personally, I prefer to think of the universe as a more ordered place where absurdly random acts of physics do not lead to the erasure from existence of the only known haven of life.  Yes, Niven gave explanations for the seemingly random incident, conjuring the existence of an often inferred by never seen Planet X, a massive black planet on a perpendicular orbit to the more common solar plane of the other 8 or 9, but the infinitesimally small possibility of this theoretical planet slinging a comet our way is still unbelievable to me.  There are more reasonable possibilities for Cataclysm on our world or in our solar system, such as the sun going red giant, the magnetic poles switching, the icecaps melting, the moon finally escaping its orbit and flying into space or the tectonic plates experienceing sudden massive shifts.  So despite the interesting characterization I found it hard to overcome the logical dilemma of proposing the comet-as-cataclysm in the first place and the suggestion of universal fate (universal in the context of the universe, not “over-arching”).