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28 JANUARY, 2013

Stephen King on Gun Control and Violence

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“Assault weapons will remain readily available to crazy people until the powerful pro-gun forces … accept responsibility, recognizing that responsibility is not the same as culpability.”

More than merely resurfacing the discourse on gun control, the recent tragedy in Newtown illustrated the futile ebb-and-flow of these debates as school shooting after school shooting shakes the nation yet fails to bubble up into actionable government policy. So argues Stephen King in Guns — a short Kindle e-book in which the celebrated novelist brings his uncompromising lens, at once passionate and rationally composed, to the issue of gun violence in America. He argues that while the mere presence of guns may not be a direct cause of violence, access to them in a formidable enabler of existing problems and pathologies in perpetrators who might not otherwise resort to outward violence, harming many.

He begins:

Here’s how it shakes out.

First there’s the shooting. Few of the trigger-pullers are middle-aged, and practically none are old. Some are young men; many are just boys. The Jonesboro, Arkansas, school shooters were 13 and 11.

Second, the initial TV news reports, accompanied by flourishes of music and dramatic BREAKING NEWS logos at the bottom of your screen. No one really knows what the fuck is going on, but it’s exciting. You get your still photo of the location; you get your map from Google or Bing. The cable news producers are busting their asses, trying to get some local news reporter on the phone.

[…]

Twentieth, there’s a killer tornado in Louisiana, or an outbreak of hostilities in the Mideast, or a celebrity dead of a drug overdose. Out comes the dramatic music and the BREAKING NEWS chyrons. The shooting is relegated to second place. Pretty soon it’s in third place. Then it’s a squib behind that day’s funny YouTube video.

Twenty-first, any bills to change existing gun laws, including those that make it possible for almost anyone in America to purchase a high-capacity assault weapon, quietly disappear into the legislative swamp.

Twenty-second, it happens again and the whole thing starts over.

That’s how it shakes out.

King cites the case of his early novel Rage, published under the pseudonym Richard Bachman, which resurfaced in the late 1980s and 1990s in four separate incidents of mass shootings, both attempted and actual, by teenagers who had read and seemingly imitated the novel. Even though by the time of the fourth incident in 1997 the book was already part of an omnibus, King insisted it be pulled by the publisher. While his argument bears a faint hue of apologism (one can only imagine the cognitive dissonance that comes with a situation like this), King makes a lucid case for the triggers of violence, be those guns or novels, as precisely that — triggers — rather than singular causes:

These were unhappy boys with deep psychological problems, boys who were bullied at school and bruised at home by parental neglect or outright abuse. They seem to have been operating in a dream, two of them verbally asking themselves afterward why they did what they did.

[…]

My book did not break [them] or turn them into killers; they found something in my book that spoke to them because they were already broken. Yet I did see Rage as a possible accelerant, which is why I pulled it from sale. You don’t leave a can of gasoline where a boy with firebug tendencies can lay hands on it.

Nevertheless, I pulled it with real regret. Not because it was great literature — with the possible exception of Arthur Rimbaud, teenagers rarely pen great literature — but because it contained a nasty glowing center of truth that was more accessible to me as an adolescent.

King goes on to argue how profoundly our adolescent experience shapes us, something science has corroborated:

Adults do not forget the horrors and shamings of their childhood, but those feelings tend to lose their immediacy (except perhaps in dreams, where even old men and women find themselves taking tests they have not studied for with no clothes on). The violent actions and emotions portrayed in Rage were drawn directly from the high school life I was living five days a week, nine months of the year. The book told unpleasant truths, and anyone who doesn’t feel a qualm of regret at throwing a blanket over the truth is an asshole with no conscience.

As far as I’m concerned, high school sucked when I went, and probably sucks now. I tend to regard people who remember it as the best four years of their lives with caution and a degree of pity. For most kids, it’s a time of doubt, stress, painful self-consciousness, and unhappiness. They’re actually the lucky ones. For the bullied underclass — the wimps, the shrimps, and the girls who are routinely referred to as scags, bags, or hos — it’s four years of misery and two kinds of hate: the kind you feel for yourself and the kind you feel for the jackwads who bump you in the halls, pull down your shorts in gym class, and pick out some charming nickname like Queerboy or Frogface that sticks to you like glue.

In likening the current state of American political dialogue, including the debate on gun control, to “drunks in a barroom,” King argues the solution lies in the bursting of the “filter bubble”:

If I could wave a magic wand and have one wish granted, I’d wish for an end to world hunger; the small shit could wait in line. If, however, the god or genie who bestowed the magic wand told me my one wish had to do with American politics, I think I’d wave it and make the following proclamation: ‘Every liberal in the country must watch Fox News for one year, and every conservative in the country must watch MSNBC for one year.’ (Middle-of-the-roaders could stick with CSI.)

Can you imagine what that would be like? For the first month, the screams of ‘What IS this shit???’ would echo high to the heavens. For the next three, there would be a period of grumbling readjustment as both sides of the political spectrum realized that, loathsome politics aside, they were still getting the weather, the sports scores, the hard news, and the Geico Gecko. During the next four months, viewers might begin seeing different anchors and commentators, as each news network’s fringe bellowers attracted increasing flak from their new captive audiences. Adamantly shrill editorial stances would begin to modify as a result of tweets and emails saying, ‘Oh, wait a minute, Slick, that’s fucking ridiculous.’ Finally, the viewers themselves might change. Not a lot; just a slide-step or two away from the kumbayah socialists of the left and the Tea Partiers of the right. I’m not saying they’d re-colonize the all-but-deserted middle (lot of cheap real estate there, my brothers and sisters), but they might close in on it a trifle.

[…]

Think of the quiet that might ensue if all that shrill rhetoric were turned down a few notches! Think of the dinner table arguments that might not happen! There might even be (o lost and shining city) a resumption of actual dialogue.

In trying to peer past the us-vs-them rhetoric of the gun control debate, King speaks to the cluster of contradictions inherent to each of us:

When I think of the politically conservative gun enthusiasts who are opposed to any form of gun control, no matter how many innocents die in acts of gun violence, I remember something a Democratic member of the House of Representatives is reputed to have said about Gerald Ford: ‘If he saw a hungry child as he walked to work, he would give that child his bag lunch without hesitation, then go ahead and vote against school lunch subsidies without ever seeing the contradiction.’

Most anti-control firearms enthusiasts have similarly split personalities, and the slogan you sometimes see pasted to the bumpers of their station wagons, campers, and SUVs — YOU WILL TAKE MY GUN WHEN YOU PRY IT FROM MY COLD DEAD HANDS — does not make them bad people. It only makes them walking contradictions, and which of us does not have a few contradictions in our personalities? Most Americans who insist upon their right to own as many guns (and of as many types) as they want see themselves as independent folk who stand on their own two feet; they may send food or clothes to the victims of a natural disaster, but they sure-God don’t want charity themselves. They are, by and large, decent citizens who help their neighbors, do volunteer work in the community, and would not hesitate to stop and help a stranger broke down by the side of the road.

The only assertion I find worrisome is the bombastic certainty with which King dismisses how the “culture of violence” dominating the media, especially entertainment media aimed at young people, affects the development of the human psyche — not so much because I happen to have logged considerable academic hours studying developmental psychology in my own ancient past and remember well Bandura’s famous behavior modeling studies of violence, but mostly because sandwiched in King’s questionably substantiated contention is an outright affront to the general public’s capacity for intellectual stimulation:

The assertion that Americans love violence and bathe in it daily is a self-serving lie promulgated by fundamentalist religious types and America’s propaganda-savvy gun-pimps. It’s believed by people who don’t read novels, play video games, or go to many movies. People actually in touch with the culture understand that what Americans really want (besides knowing all about Princess Kate’s pregnancy) is The Lion King on Broadway, a foul-talking stuffed toy named Ted at the movies, Two and a Half Men on TV, Words with Friends on their iPads, and Fifty Shades of Grey on their Kindles. To claim that America’s ‘culture of violence’ is responsible for school shootings is tantamount to cigarette company executives declaring that environmental pollution is the chief cause of lung cancer.

What a tragic conception of culture, if we were to subscribe to the binary choice between violence and intellectually vacant entertainment. Let’s instead stay with David Foster Wallace, who reminded us that “what we need…is seriously engaged art that can teach us again that we’re smart” and embrace E. B. White’s conviction that the role of the media is “to lift people up, not lower them down.”

Ultimately, King returns to the ethics and rationale behind his decision to revoke Rage, echoing Anaïs Nin on character and responsibility:

I didn’t pull Rage from publication because the law demanded it; I was protected under the First Amendment, and the law couldn’t demand it. I pulled it because in my judgment it might be hurting people, and that made it the responsible thing to do. Assault weapons will remain readily available to crazy people until the powerful pro-gun forces in this country decide to do a similar turnaround. They must accept responsibility, recognizing that responsibility is not the same as culpability. They need to say, ‘We support these measures not because the law demands we support them, but because it’s the sensible thing.’

Until that happens, shooting sprees will continue. We will see the BREAKING NEWS chyrons, the blurry cellphone videos of running people, the tearful relatives, the rolling hearses. We will also see, time and time and time again, how easy it is for the crazies among us to get their hands on portable and efficient weapons of mass destruction.

Because, boys and girls, that’s how it shakes out.

Guns comes as a kind of follow-up to King’s 2008 op-ed on video game violence and, at just $0.99, is well worth a read.

Public domain photographs via Flickr Commons

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25 JANUARY, 2013

Virginia Woolf on the Creative Benefits of Keeping a Diary

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“The habit of writing thus for my own eye only is good practice. It loosens the ligaments.”

Literary icon Virginia Woolf (January 25, 1882–March 28, 1941) was not only a masterful letter-writer and little-known children’s book author, but also a dedicated diarist on par with Susan Sontag and Anaïs Nin. A fairly late journaling bloomer, she began writing in 1915, at the age of 33, and continued until her last entry in 1941, four days before her death, leaving behind 26 volumes written in her own hand. More than a mere tool of self-exploration, however, Woolf approached the diary as a kind of R&D lab for her craft. As her husband observes in the introduction to her collected journals, A Writer’s Diary (UK; public library), Woolf’s journaling was “a method of practicing or trying out the art of writing.”

In an entry from April 20th, 1919, Woolf makes a case for the creative benefits of keeping a diary — something Joan Didion echoed nearly a century and a half later in her timeless essay on keeping a notebook — and argues for it as an essential tool for honing one’s writing style:

I got out this diary and read, as one always does read one’s own writing, with a kind of guilty intensity. I confess that the rough and random style of it, often so ungrammatical, and crying for a word altered, afflicted me somewhat. I am trying to tell whichever self it is that reads this hereafter that I can write very much better; and take no time over this; and forbid her to let the eye of man behold it. And now I may add my little compliment to the effect that it has a slapdash and vigour and sometimes hits an unexpected bull’s eye. But what is more to the point is my belief that the habit of writing thus for my own eye only is good practice. It loosens the ligaments. Never mind the misses and the stumbles. Going at such a pace as I do I must make the most direct and instant shots at my object, and thus have to lay hands on words, choose them and shoot them with no more pause than is needed to put my pen in the ink. I believe that during the past year I can trace some increase of ease in my professional writing which I attribute to my casual half hours after tea. Moreover there looms ahead of me the shadow of some kind of form which a diary might attain to. I might in the course of time learn what it is that one can make of this loose, drifting material of life; finding another use for it than the use I put it to, so much more consciously and scrupulously, in fiction. What sort of diary should I like mine to be? Something loose knit and yet not slovenly, so elastic that it will embrace anything, solemn, slight or beautiful that comes into my mind. I should like it to resemble some deep old desk, or capacious hold-all, in which one flings a mass of odds and ends without looking them through. I should like to come back, after a year or two, and find that the collection had sorted itself and refined itself and coalesced, as such deposits so mysteriously do, into a mould, transparent enough to reflect the light of our life, and yet steady, tranquil compounds with the aloofness of a work of art. The main requisite, I think on re-reading my old volumes, is not to play the part of censor, but to write as the mood comes or of anything whatever; since I was curious to find how I went for things put in haphazard, and found the significance to lie where I never saw it at the time. But looseness quickly becomes slovenly. A little effort is needed to face a character or an incident which needs to be recorded. Nor can one let the pen write without guidance; for fear of becoming slack and untidy. . . .

It was also an autobiographical tool. In an entry from January 20th, 1919, a 37-year-old Woolf considers the utility of the diaries to her future self, noting with equal parts sharp self-awareness and near-comic self-consciousness her own young-person’s perception of 50 as an “elderly” age:

I note however that this diary writing does not count as writing, since I have just re-read my year’s diary and am much struck by the rapid haphazard gallop at which it swings along, sometimes indeed jerking almost intolerably over the cobbles. Still if it were not written rather faster than the fastest type-writing, if I stopped and took thought, it would never be written at all; and the advantage of the method is that it sweeps up accidentally several stray matters which I should exclude if I hesitated, but which are the diamonds of the dustheap. If Virginia Woolf at the age of 50, when she sits down to build her memoirs out of these books, is unable to make a phrase as it should be made, I can only condole with her and remind her of the existence of the fireplace, where she has my leave to burn these pages to so many black films with red eyes in them. But how I envy her the task I am preparing for her! There is none I should like better. Already my 37th birthday next Saturday is robbed of some of its terrors by the thought. Partly for the benefit of this elderly lady (no subterfuges will then be possible: 50 is elderly, though I anticipate her protest and agree that it is not old) partly to give the year a solid foundation I intend to spend the evenings of this week of captivity in making out an account of my friendships and their present condition, with some account of my friends’ characters; and to add an estimate of their work and a forecast of their future works. The lady of 50 will be able to say how near to the truth I come; but I have written enough for tonight (only 15 minutes, I see).

On March 9th, 1920, she returns to her future “elderly” self, this time with more hopefulness, presenting the diary as fodder for her future creative output — the building blocks of her combinatorial creativity:

In spite of some tremors I think I shall go on with this diary for the present. I sometimes think that I have worked through the layer of style which suited it — suited the comfortable bright hour, after tea; and the thing I’ve reached now is less pliable. Never mind; I fancy old Virginia, putting on her spectacles to read of March 1920 will decidedly wish me to continue. Greetings! my dear ghost; and take heed that I don’t think 50 a very great age. Several good books can be written still; and here’s the bricks for a fine one.

Portrait of Virginia Woolf by Roger Fry, 1917, via Wikimedia Commons

And yet Woolf’s relationship with the diary is at times ambivalent: On June 14th, 1925, she laments:

A disgraceful confession — this is Sunday morning and just after ten, and here I am sitting down to write diary and not fiction or reviews, without any excuse, except the state of my mind.

Like any dedicated diarist has experienced first-hand, Woolf observes the troublesome friction between the diary as a therapeutic tool for exorcising one’s demons and its uncomfortable counterarguments for one’s ego. On October 25th, 1920, she records her anguish:

(First day of winter time) Why is life so tragic; so like a little strip of pavement over an abyss. I look down; I feel giddy; I wonder how I am ever to walk to the end. But why do I feel this: Now that I say it I don’t feel it. The fire burns; we are going to hear the Beggar’s Opera. Only it lies about me; I can’t keep my eyes shut. It’s a feeling of impotence; of cutting no ice. Here I sit at Richmond, and like a lantern stood in the middle of a field my light goes up in darkness. Melancholy diminishes as I write. Why then don’t I write it down oftener? Well, one’s vanity forbids. I want to appear a success even to myself. Yet I don’t get to the bottom of it.

On December 29th, 1940, some eight years after her self-constructed brink of elderly age, she observes wistfully, aligning the desire to write in the diary with her writerly and existential vitality:

There are moments when the sail flaps. Then, being a great amateur of the art of life, determined to suck my orange, off, like a wasp if the blossom I’m on fades, as it did yesterday — I ride across the downs to the cliffs. A roll of barbed wire is hooped on the edge. I rubbed my mind brisk along the Newhaven road. Shabby old maids buying groceries, in that desert road with the villas; in the wet. And Newhaven gashed. But tire the body and the mind sleeps. All desire to write diary here has flagged. What is the right antidote? I must sniff round. I think Mme. de Sevigne. Writing to be a daily pleasure. I detest the hardness of old age — I feel it. I rasp. I’m tart.

Exactly three months later, Woolf filled her pockets with stones, walked into the river near her home in Sussex, and drowned herself.

In the introduction to A Writer’s Diary, from which all of these excerpts come, Woolf’s husband adds an apt caveat:

The diary is too personal to be published as a whole during the lifetime of many people referred to in it. It is, I think, nearly always a mistake to publish extracts from diaries or letters, particularly if the omissions have to be made in order to protect the feelings or reputations of the living. The omissions almost always distort or conceal the true character of the diarist or letter-writer and produce spiritually what an Academy picture does materially, smoothing out the wrinkles, warts, frowns, and asperities. At the best and even unexpurgated, diaries give a distorted or one-sided portrait of the writer, because, as Virginia Woolf herself remarks somewhere in these diaries, one gets into the habit of recording one particular kind of mood — irritation or misery, say — and of not writing one’s diary when one is feeling the opposite. The portrait is therefore from the start unbalanced, and, if someone then deliberately removes another characteristic, it may well become a mere caricature.

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25 JANUARY, 2013

Dorion Sagan on the First Ejaculation in Earth’s History

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“When we hook up with another, in sex or love (or, more rarely, both) we prove that our isolation is not permanent. In the fullness of time, we may all be linked.”

Whenever we talk about the origins of sex and its cultural baggage, we’re inevitably talking about human sex. And yet our planet has a salacious record dating much further back than the solipsism of our species might suggest.

In Death & Sex (UK; public library) — a curious two-in-one volume with one half comprising Death by NYU biologist Tyler Volk and the other, printed upside-down and back to front, Sex by science writer Dorion Sagan, son of Carl Sagan — Sagan takes us back to the very first ejaculation in recorded history:

The oldest ejaculation in the fossil record occurs in the Devonian, 408 to 363 million years ago. The paleological preservation of the salacious scene is reminiscent of the erotic frescoes of erotic paintings preserved at the village of Mount Pompeii by the volcano Vesuvius. Long before humanity, the earliest preserved ejaculation took place among a member of the Rhyniophyta, a phylum that contains the first land plants, which began to diversify some four hundred million years ago. The act was caught in flagrante delicto by chert, fine crystalline quartz with an uncanny ability to preserve fossils. Algaophyton major is one of the most common plants in the volcanically preserved Rhynie Chert, named for the nearby village of Rhynie in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. Early in the colonization of land by plants, and before the evolution of true leaves, the fast-setting minerals preserved a host of petrified plant, fungal, lichen, and animal specimens. (Animals evolved earlier but came to land after plants.)

Since sex usually occurs in water, it doesn’t tend to preserve well. But in one four-hundred-million-year-old silica-rich deposit local changes in pH remobilized some of the silica, leaving behind thin films of the original organic material. In the specimen the chert beautifully preserved the plant’s delicate archegonium (from goni, Hindi for ‘sack,’ akin to yoni, Sanskrit for ‘vagina’) — the female sex organ. Another sample of rock, sliced thin and observed with a microscope, shows Aglaphyton’s antheridium, its male sex organ — filled with sperm cells ready to explode. Here, preserved by chance, with neither compromised actors nor moral qualm, is a geographic equivalent of the ‘money shot’ of pornographic films — an ejaculation event 140,000 times older than Homer’s Odyssey, 400 times older than the human species, and almost as old as the appearance of animals in the fossil record.

Detailed preservation of sperm ejection from sporangia in the Rhynie Chert fossil

And yet that primordial canoodling came at a price: The awareness that, as Leslie Paul wrote in 1944, “all life is no more than a match struck in the dark and blown out again,” which makes the wax-and-wane dance of life unsettlingly palpable as we come to grips with the notion that, to use Henry Miller’s words, “to escape death is to escape life.” And yet, like in the afterlife of a whale, there’s a strange serenity in that awareness. Sagan writes:

The sexual reproductive cycles that got swinging not even a billion years ago, brought with them a frightening complementary motion, the switching from side to side of the Grim Reaper’s scythe. With meiosis came mortality because going back to sperm and eggs eventually meant discarding those trillions of somatic cells that, although having brilliantly served their purpose, were not directly represented in evolution. And with reproductive sex came programmed cell and differentiated body death, because evolutionarily our bodies are husks, biodegradable reserves of valuable bioelements that belong to the ecosystem and must be returned, like overdue books, after performing their natural duty of keeping going the larger energetic process. Personally, as intelligent animals, we identify as individual bodies. Although easier said than done, the mystics advocate a larger view in which we identify with the cycles of natural energy-transforming forms, as well as release from such cycles, which they call nirvana. Creeping behind the bright prospect of Mesozoic ginkgo-sniffing reptiles, primeval ejaculators, and the first fragrant flowers was that dark figure, the inevitability of their demise. A melancholy note was struck in the cosmic love machine.

But Sagan ends on a note of rational optimism, equal parts soulful and scientific, poetic and pragmatic — a poignant addition to history’s most beautiful definitions of love:

A Tibetan mystic saying goes: We are here to realize the illusion of our separateness. The spiritual sentiment has a biological cognate. Our xenotropic drive — to merge with what is not us, temporarily in sex, or permanently in symbiosis or cross-species hybrids — is more than a metaphor. But it also offers spiritual solace. When we hook up with another, in sex or love (or, more rarely, both) we prove that our isolation is not permanent. In the fullness of time, we may all be linked. In the meantime, eros brings us together, making us more than we are alone. Cupid’s arrow, quivering into the heart of loneliness, kills us even as it sets us free.

Death & Sex is remarkable — fascinating, absorbing, often stimulatingly uncomfortable — in its entirety. Complement it with The Origins of Sex, one of the best history books of 2012.

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