A couple weeks ago I was sitting in an examination room with my daughter, waiting for the pediatrician to come in and see her. As we waited I was sneaking a few more minutes of guilty pleasure reading on my tablet. As the doctor came in a few minutes later, he asked what I was reading, “The Hunger Games” I answered, “Oh..!“, he said, grimacing a bit, and then said,
“I must be the only person who isn’t reading those books.”
I’ll admit to feeling a little awkward being seen reading ‘teen fiction’, not that that itself makes it somehow ‘less’ than worthwhile, but… still… ‘awkward’.
“Yeah, it’s not my normal faire, but… my son Ryan recommended it, & when I picked it up in the bookstore a few days ago, I couldn’t put it down. I’m just finishing up with the last book now. It’s no masterpiece, but it’s a surprisingly good action story.”
I was ready to feel goofy for being a grown man reading ‘teen fiction’, but our Pediatrician cured me of that pretty quickly. The good doctor glanced at me and said,
“Well, maybe it’s just because of my line of work, but I just can’t imagine reading or seeing something having to do with kids being harmed.”
, which I thought, more than a bit… odd. Oddly enough I thought it was a rather juvenile way to assess fiction – teen, children’s, adult or any other variety you’d like to pretend exists. What sober method of evaluating and criticizing fiction, its plot devices and themes, allowed you to get away with a literal assessment of the story, as if you were reading a news story or an innovative new approach to physical fitness. Seriously? Still… temper… doctor… come on Van, relax… but curiosity… just… just a quick, teensie, comment.
“That’s got to put a big limit on your choices…”
, I said, and then looking over his glasses at me, he said,
“Well I guess I’m just a bit pickier than most.”
, and there was an audible sniff of holier-than-thouness dripping off his words and manner that got my hackles up. Now, he’s a good doctor & I like the guy… and he was just about to treat my daughter… sooo… I tamped down my ready reaction of grilling with a side order of mockery, and just let it go with,
“I suppose you’d have to be picky in order to find anything worthwhile with those standards; what with starting off by ruling out ‘Romeo & Juliet’ and the like.”
He blinked over at me, smiled, and went on with his examination, and I let mine rest.
He’s a very good Doctor, but that sentiment, I couldn’t help but thinking is some very bad medicine. I finally got to see the Movie of “The Hunger Games” this evening, with Rachel,(two thumbs up, btw), and seeing it brought that exchange back to me afresh. It goes much farther than simply ‘teen fiction’ and movies, the same tone has creeped into all areas of our language, behavior and thought – our culture has been prescribed this malicious medicine and we’ve been dosed with it, and overdosed with it, for going on two centuries now, and it seems to me that an emergency room visit isn’t too far in the future for our society.
What do I mean by that? What I mean is that this sentiment, this habit of literalizing and denouncing everything which contains less than pristine behaviors or distasteful situations or language, as if doing so is somehow going to rid us of having less than pristine thoughts and less than admirable behavior… is… sick. IMHO it is a near pathological delusion, and it is far from limited to our choices in entertainment, we see it in our day to day speech, we see it in all forms of our Political Correctness, and in all areas of our lives – mustn’t say target or kill, mustn’t be insensitive to those who are ‘disadvantaged’ or to those having delicate sensibilities, and so on.
We see it in practice in our schools, where they either seek to vandalize books, excising or pasting over language, as with Mark Twain’s ‘Huckleberry Finn’, or banishing them entirely, as with ‘Grimm’s Fairy Tales’ and ‘The Iliad’ too violent, disrespectful to witches, unkind to the handicapped, demeaning to the ‘different’, etc.
This literal prissiness is dulling our ability to be able to speak our minds, and it is dulling our ability to know ourselves.
But maybe the worst part is that it is futile, it is folly, it is an absolute waste of time, and we are devoting enormous amounts of our time, energy and wealth in pursuit of something that is not even remotely possible to achieve; I think you’d have more luck exterminating the human race, than in eradicating these stories and sentiments from us, in the West, at any rate.
“Waitttt a minute,” I can hear people stammering at me, “We were just talking about ‘The Hunger Games‘, weren’t we?!”
Well. Yes. And no.
Here, in case you haven’t seen the movie or read the books, let’s go over a quick plot synopsis, I won’t reveal any spoilers, but just see if you recognize any of the theme here:
A central imperial power, offended at rebellion among its vassal states, and determined to prevent their ever rising up again, demands that every year, each of them will be forced to offer up a tribute of their best youths, and those youths, the flower of their lands, will be gathered up by lottery and sent to their capital city, where they will be violently slain for the amusement of their conquerors.
This particular year though, in one of the more backwater locales, one person, a brave and skilled youth, will volunteer to take the place of another, and vowing to their family to return, the volunteer goes as a slave goes off to the slaughter, but secretly they are resolved to put an end to this annual tribute of young lives.
During the trek, the volunteer’s valiant heart stirs the heart of another, and together their efforts set in motion a series of actions that will end the annual tribute, and bring about the destruction of the imperial power.
Through their heroics and sacrifice and their intellectual sharpness, the volunteer succeeds in finding his way through the game of the labyrinth, killing the Minotaur, and getting back out, but in the process of accomplishing that, the two heroes are divided – the golden thread that brought one out is not sufficient to lead him beyond the labyrinth – and unexpected tragedy is visited upon the volunteer’s family as a result, even in the crowning moment of their victory.
Wounded, saddened and wiser, the volunteer carries on and leads their people to greatness.
Was that a spoiler?
Well, not really, at least it’s not directly a spoiler for the “The Hunger Games”, though people who’ve seen the movie know that there is no ‘Minotaur’ in The Hunger Games, or labyrinth, or golden thread (really? You sure about that?); still though, those who’ve read all three books should recognize this as essentially being the general plot of “The Hunger Games”… so… was that a spoiler?
Well… sort of, I suppose, but come on now, I mean, really, after a certain amount of time some plot lines have got to be understood to have been revealed, right? I mean, after three thousand years or so, the story’s gotten around, hasn’t it?
No, I’m not saying that Suzanne Collins, the author of “The Hunger Games” books is exceedingly long in the tooth. But the plot line of “The Hunger Games”, in its essentials, is little different from those I mentioned above, that of Theseus and the Minotaur, and countless other Myths, Fairy Tales, tall tales, stories and more, and in all of them, youths, youths & teens, are put into perilous positions, even battling against themselves to…
… to do what?
Why tell such ‘awful’ tales?
What is the point? Are the stories meant to exploit the young? Are they stories told to be insensitive to the handicapped and deformed? Are they glorifying violence?
No, they are not, though they also are not unrealistically pretending that violence can be pretended to not exist, either.
More to the point, in banning these scenarios, as they’ve been progressively excluded from our children’s education (beginning around 1800 when our ProRegressive ‘teachers’ began seeking to set aside all instances of classical literature – Greek, Roman and Hebrew – until they’ve nearly succeeded in expunging the heart of Western Culture from our lives) have they come even close to ‘saving’ us from such stories, plot themes or archetypes?
A quick glance at “The Hunger Games”, “Star Wars”, “The Lord of the Rings”, “Harry Potter”, Spider man, Superman & The Avengers, should tell you that, no, they haven’t succeeded, not in the least. But in the effort to, we seemingly have lost our ability to recognize them, lost our ability to appreciate these images and perhaps even lost the ability to better access and understand their wisdom through their many facets refracting from the jeweled surfaces of our cultural crown jewels… but they haven’t eradicated them from us.
The fact is that they can’t eliminate these stories from us, or at least I don’t think they can; but they can, and have, set us back centuries, Millenia even, in our ability to make those fine distinctions that a healthy culture must be able to make, and which they must be able to recognize in themselves and in their day to day lives. The great and small heroism’s, tragedies, passions, virtues and evils, and the tragic impossibility of separating Us, from Them, that is something that’s central to the West(maybe even the origin of the west), and it is something which I think we must always have before us – whether we’re talking Shakespeare or Star Wars or The Iliad. Such material is never, Never wholly dispensed with, not even for a moment.
But pretending that it can be accomplished, leads to people who think that they can make a man made heaven right here on earth, and what inevitably follows from such notions (once highly familiar to us all as Hubris… ever heard the word? Ever really understand it? Ever spent much time trying to understand it? Have your kids? If not, welcome to the culturally walking wounded), is, as those old stories did so well to illustrate, is hell on earth, in precisely the place they sought for heaven.
Fortunately for us, in our movies, in our video games, cartoons and comic books and in the libraries of some of us more stubborn sorts, they haven’t succeeded in wiping our culture’s wisdom out of us.
But they have gone a long way towards getting us to stop looking for them, and when found, they’ve gotten us to stop looking beneath the surface of them, with powerful illusions posing as ‘answers’, like ‘teen fiction’, and ‘action/adventure’. But the truth is that there is much more to these stories, just as there is more to ‘myths’ such as Theseus and the Minotaur, than meets the eye; as there is more to the story of The Hunger Games than is expected to be found in ‘teen fiction’. To find what isn’t seen on the surface, requires readers who aren’t satisfied with floating on the surface, but who’ve learned to dive beneath it, who’ve accustomed themselves to seeking and plunging into the depths, but that requires readers who’ve learned to ask questions – and that is something our school system (or any other labyrinth) is fundamentally unsuited to teaching – it is much more concerned with packing kids heads with answers – which tends to keep them from asking questions that might reach beneath the surface of appearances.
Which is not surprising, if you understand the labyrinth and the monster within, these, and all such stories, have at their heart the struggle of virtue against vice, of love against hate, and Truth against Power… which are unlikely to be found floating on the surface with the answers – and King Minos is damn sure not going to clue you in.
But as long as the stories are there, the questions are still there waiting to be asked, and the gamers of the labyrinth haven’t succeeded in hiding that golden thread yet.
They’re trying… but… not… yet.