Bang bang, my baby shot me down.
If the audience sees a gun onstage in Act One, the celebrated playwright Anton Chekhov declared on several occasions, the gun had better go off by Act Three. He was talking about dramatic structure, and the necessity of every element in a story being essential to the whole, with no loose ends: the sight of a gun raises certain expectations.
Well, yes, it does. And it’s taken as gospel in the worlds of theater, film, and literature that some form of violence, or at least consequential conflict (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, anyone?), is essential to drama. Macbeth has a dagger. Obi-Wan Kenobi has a lightsaber. Agatha Christie villains have little vials of poison to plop discreetly in their victims’ tea. Even Wile E. Coyote, for heaven’s sake, has an endless supply of Acme anvils and explosives, which always backfire, to the delight of cartoon audiences young and old.
Humanity, thy name is destruction. Right? Why, after all, did Chekhov use a gun as his example on dramatic unity? Why not a hat that’s never worn, or a painting on the wall that bears no relation to the story of the play, or a character who disappears, or a joke that goes nowhere, or a guitar that’s never played? If the audience sees a guitar onstage in Act One, someone had better play it by the end of Act Three.
In the light of recent mass murders in Buffalo and Uvalde, Texas – just the latest in a seemingly endless string of attacks, almost all by boys or young men and almost all using rapid-fire military style assault rifles, which can kill dozens in a relative blink of an eye – it seems as if the story’s come to life and swallowed the storytellers.
The mythos of individual rights (the gun wielders’, not the victims’, who apparently are acceptable collateral damage to the holy writ of a tortuously misinterpreted Second Amendment) is so firmly implanted in the belief system and strategy and storytelling of an entire major political party that no manner of reform seems possible.
Even proposed reforms that seem to have little to no chance of passing in Congress are mild to the point of absurdity. Raise the age limit for buying an assault rifle to 21? What is that compared to the reality that these readily available weapons – made for war, with no purpose other than to kill masses of humans in an extremely short time – should not be in the hands of any civilian? The New York Times, in one of its triple-decker headlines on the front page of Thursday’s print edition, spelled out the impasse:
HOUSE PASSES BILL
TO IMPOSE LIMITS
ON SALE OF GUNS
NO CHANCE IN SENATE
Pleas from Survivors Fail
to Make a Dent in an
Intractable, indeed. And yet, some sort of traction seems necessary if we are going to continue in the belief that we are living in a civil society – a question that rises to the fore once again after Thursday evening’s dramatic rollout of the congressional January 6 hearings. And artists and their audiences have a role in the traction process. What are the stories we tell? How do we decide which are to be taken literally and which metaphorically? How do we walk the line between description or exploration, and advocacy?
Because humans are aggressive, and storytellers, to accurately tell the story of humanity, must grapple with that core fact. It’s why stories as ancient and basic as Cain and Abel, or The Odyssey, or Grendel and Beowulf, are still with us, retold in various guises over and over again. It’s why Shakespeare remains crucial, and why The Threepenny Opera is more than just a song and a dance. It’s a messy process, this exploration of human urges; confusing and contradictory and necessary. But, here’s the catch: In telling our tales, how often do we shift away from examination of the causes and personal and societal effects of aggression, and get caught up in celebrating the allure of the violence itself? RoboCop to the rescue: Revenge is his, and by extension, his audience’s.
One old story not making the rounds very much anymore is the one from the Book of Isaiah, about beating swords into plowshares. Is this not a story worth the retelling? Why does it not trip easily off the tongue, the way that sayings like “knock ’em dead” or “you’re killing me” do? Maybe, just maybe, we need fewer tales about hunters and more tales about gatherers.
Trouble is, those itchy-fingered stories get our pulses racing and our pleasure centers pounding – and that means we return to them, over and over again, reinventing them endlessly, because on some primal level they feel good. And too often, we begin to think they are reality rather than desires. That opening line above, the “bang bang” one, is from a 1966 breakout single by Cher, written by her then-husband and singing partner, Sonny Bono. Pop goes the weasel. Or, as the Beatles put it in another musically catchy, lyrically menacing pop hit that entered the world’s bloodstream and lodged there, just waiting to break out and cause havoc: Run for your life if you can, little girl. Catch you with another man, that’s the end.
Ah, yes, stories, and the ones we’re allowed to hear and read. Another favorite game of the radical right wing in the United States (and very occasionally, as in the case of the Bible, of the left wing, too) is the banning and attempted banning of books in libraries – mainly in school libraries, but in public libraries, too. The idea that certain outlooks on life are unacceptable for consumption by innocent minds – that they might skew too far from the Received Wisdom of the Few Who Know – is on the rise, and the image of Savonarola, burning books in his bonfire of the vanities, is nigh unto inescapable.
What are these abominations? They range from old reliables (1984; Lord of the Flies; Fahrenheit 451, the one whose title refers to the temperature at which paper will burn on its own; Brave New World; Slaughterhouse Five, the one that unveils the otherworldly horrors of all-out war; Their Eyes Were Watching God; Art Spiegelman’s masterful Maus; Margaret Atwood’s perennially vilified The Handmaid’s Tale) to such dangerous titles as Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give; Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian; Maia Kobabe’s memoir Gender Queer; and – hold on to your absurdity hat – Dav Pilkey’s series Captain Underpants, about a very silly comic superhero.
Thursday’s Times also brought the obituary of Jim Murphy, a longtime writer of nonfiction books for young readers who was noted for never talking down to his audience and for refusing to sugar-coat history. One book discussed in the obituary by Neil Genzlinger was Murphy’s Breakthrough! How Three People Saved ‘Blue Babies’ and Changed Medicine Forever, a book that tells the story of a groundbreaking heart operation in 1944 that was credited to two white physicians, Alfred Blalock and Helen Taussig, even though a Black research assistant, Vivien Thomas, was also key to the breakthrough’s success.
Murphy, Genzlinger writes, “did not mince words regarding Dr. Blalock’s failure to include his Black assistant when taking credit for the operation. ‘Blalock could have pushed his talented research assistant’s career forward with little trouble, and he could have fended off any criticism hurled at him,’ he wrote. ‘But he didn’t. Instead, Blalock was, like too many people in positions of power, happy to allow an unfair situation to drift along.’”
Reading this, I immediately thought, “Well, I hope this one slid past the book banners’ eyes.”
All of which makes the work that libraries and librarians do in making available a vast breadth of human expression seem even more important, and, increasingly, brave. While hunting through my files for something else a couple of days ago, I stumbled across this brief piece, which was dated November 29, 2018. I vaguely remembered having written it, but could find no evidence that it was ever actually published anywhere:
“One of the lovely things about public libraries,” it read, “is that you never know what you might find there. In the main room of the little Toledo Public Library, a few miles inland from the Oregon Coast town of Newport, the unexpected yesterday was a display of newspaper pages on the end of the First World War, from Des Moines, Iowa, about as heart of the heartland of America as you can get, and more than 1,800 miles from Toledo. The display is a travel through time and space, history as it was writ at the moment: the lives of our grandparents and great-grandparents, on one of the most important days in the nation’s young life.
“On Armistice Day it was all right, it seemed, to refer to Germans as ‘Huns’ in 96-point type. Jubilation swept the state and nation, and other aspects of life went on: the Iowa attorney general delayed women’s suffrage in the state on a technicality, while a Des Moines woman prepared to head overseas to work in the Red Cross motor service. Peace came at 6 a.m., and Des Moines celebrated by whistles and cheering. (It’s the same year that an influenza pandemic killed more than 50 million people worldwide, but there is no front-page mention of that on this day of celebration.)
“What does this display mean to a school kid or retiree walking into the Toledo Public Library? It means that they can be in touch with the past as well as the present; that we are not trapped inside the tyrannies of our own moment; that through books and newspapers we can be present in the past and use it to help calibrate the future; that knowledge is both a necessity and a pleasure, and makes us bigger; and that institutions such as libraries and museums that hold the kernels of the past are vital to what is yet to come.
“A toast to librarians, teachers, journalists, historians, and all who expand and protect learning and knowledge in the face of orchestrated mob mentality. Keep up the good and necessary work. We need you now more than ever.”