Society

Zombies in our Midst: A Cultural Analysis

 

SinNight of the deadce I recently finished reading Max Brook’s World War Z, I thought I would post back up this essay that I wrote about zombie culture on my blog.  I wrote it a couple of years ago, but took it down for whatever reason.  Since I finished the book, I thought I would repost my thoughts on the topic.  After all, there is no denying the hype that exists around zombies these days.  In fact, whether looking for a book at the library or scanning the shelves at your local movie rental, these monsters seem to be everywhere you turn.   They are certainly not the prettiest things to look at, either.  By their very nature, they are rotten to the bone and keep getting gorier and gorier with every film.  They used to walk stiff-leggedly through the night, searching for brains, but now, they chase their prey down in mob fashion.  Hollywood keeps making it easier for these zombies to overwhelm survivors who haven’t died yet. One minute they’re limping and moaning, the next they’re running and snarling. They just keep getting meaner and meaner. No surprise really. When you stop to look at a list of movie titles available from Wikipedia, the zombie movie, arranged by year, is produced by the droves annually and has been since film production studios were able to produce films, so they need to do something to keep these slow moving mobs interesting. Budgets usually don’t help either. Earlier films managed to make really scary backdrops with hardly anything going for production crews. According to Zombiepedia (yes, such a website exists), George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead was filmed and produced on as little of a budget as $114,000. Regardless of the budget or theme, the film industry pushes the zombie movie through the production lines, because it is what most people want to see.  They are high in demand.  But why?  What is the fascination? Because we want to live to tell about it, that’s why.

HvZZombie culture is not just limited to the big screen.  In fact, it is invading college campuses all across the nation.  HUMANSVSZOMBIES is an organization devoted to social networking campus-wide events, where users can label themselves as either human survivors or zombie menace, in order to socialize and roleplay zombie apocalypse scenarios in a real-world setting.  I say campus-wide, but what I really meant was worldwide, as the influence of this organization seems to have quite the reach.  The location finder (Googlemaps) they have on their homepage shows their registered users extending even to remote countries like Kyrgyzstan, located in Euroasia.  So what does this glorified game of tag ultimately mean, in terms of the apparent obsession that people have with zombies?

While a game like this may be “fun” to play when it is not exam time, there are others who take the idea of a zombie apocalypse much more seriously.  Guns and Ammo magazine seems to have picked up on the fascination, as they offer an entire series of blog articles on their website titled “Zombie Nation.”  Their tag line: “When you’re helpless against the zombie horde and their blood lust, don’t say we didn’t warn you.  Get your tips, tactics and gear for zombie defense here” (Guns&Ammo).  There’s something disconcerting about a magazine that advocates second amendment rights, but uses a theme like the zombie apocalypse to inform their readers of “responsible” gunmanship.  One of the articles, for example, is about the Kel-Tec shotgun.  Tom Beckstrand, a demonstrator for the “Zombie Nation” column, advertises and promotes this tactical weapon when he states in the video: “If you’re going to carry a shotgun in the zombie apocalypse, this is a good one to have” (0:24, “Ultimate Zombie Shotgun).  He, then, proceeds to unload the 14-round magazine this .12 gauge pump-action shotgun is capable of holding into a series of zombie paper targets. “Alright, that was fourteen rounds of twelve-gauge goodness,” he concludes the video with.  What a safe feeling it brings to know that such tactical weapons are available on the open market.  Just think, weapons like this are being stockpiled and bunkered in American homes right now for the “coming” zombie apocalypse.

But, I digress.  This is more of a by-product with the fascination that surrounds the zombie, not an explanation for its influence over the American mentality.  Interestingly enough, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the governmental agency responsible for the nation’s immunal security, offers some insight into this fascination for the undead when director Dr. Ali Khan is quoted from a CNN interview to illustrate why they are using the zombie apocalypse theme to promote preparedness: “It’s a good metaphor for where you have complete disruption” (qtd. in Greene). He goes on to suggest that the same level of preparation needed for a pandemic or a natural catastrophe would be the same if the world were to be plagued by a zombie infestation.  It’s a step in the direction they want people to think in when it comes to a disaster, where they want people to survive and fend for themselves when the social system in place is disrupted by circumstances beyond anyone’s control.  In every way, they’re promoting survivalism.  In fact, from their Public Health Matters Blog, the CDC states:

When you walk up to a person and start talking about the undead they have all kinds of preparedness ideas, most involving food, water, and other life essentials which just so happen to be the same items that we recommend people put in their disaster kit. So, the old adage really holds true, if you’re prepared for zombies, then you’re prepared for anything (Zombie Nation).

Is this what we find fascinating about them?  Because we would rather be survivors than mindless zombies?  Perhaps watching a zombie film is not about watching a gore-fest, per say, but to see how we could potentially survive such a scenario.  As the quote above states, many people have their own ideas about preparedness when they talk about the undead.  Some believe that the possibility, although highly improbable, exists, so these people toy with the idea and concoct a hypothetical strategy for survival against an imaginary foe.  An exit plan, if you will, for when hell on Earth ensues.  As improbable as they may be, though, zombies are still dangerous — not just to the protagonists in the zombie story, but to the American way of life, in general.  They represent a much larger threat; one that is not detrimental to our physical, bodily condition, but a threat that is more psychologically restrictive.  With the violence our culture is often exposed to, both factual and fictional, most Americans like to think they can handle a zombie single-handedly.  But, when it comes to the zombie horde, closing in and cutting off all avenues of escape, liberties are at stake.  A person trapped cannot help but die an agonizing and terrible death.  To make matters worse, that individual rises again to join their ranks.  To this end, it goes against the very notion of being free and living your life the way you want to.  Is this not something Americans pride themselves with over anything else?  Once an individual turns into a zombie, he or she is no longer capable of their own free will, rather they become a part of the mob that makes up the undead.  This scares Americans.  Perhaps this is why the CDC uses the zombie as a means to encourage people to think for themselves in terms of their own survivability during a disaster.  Most people will listen and act when their civil liberties are at risk.

An article written by Stephen Gertz, then a senior English major for the project “An Exploration of Modern Monsters,” headed by Professor Eric Rabkin of the University of Michigan in 1999, addresses something similar about the notion of free will and the zombie, but he draws his conclusions by looking at the root of the zombie’s origins in Haitian Voodooism.  He declares that “by ‘controlling’ another person and eliminating that persons [sic] ability to make choices, let alone engage in conscious thought, the ‘controller’ has reduced that person to the level of an animal and has robbed him of his humanity” (Gertz).  The “controller” that he is referring to here is known as the bokor (evil sorceror) and the houngan (healer) in Haitian Voodoo, both who are capable of zombification through the use of a powder, where the victim is drugged into a zombie-like state, rendering them as “zombi astral” (Jacobi).  Wade Davis talks about this type of zombie in his widely acclaimed book, The Serpent and the Rainbow, an inside look at Haitian Voodoo and the secret societies that exist around it.  When the poison is used by a bokor or a houngan, the soul of the victim is released and becomes trapped.  He writes, “‘In that bottle was the soul of a human being… the control of which is an ominous power.  It is a ghost, or like a dream; it wanders at the command of the one who possesses it. It was a zombi astral captured from the victim by the magic of the bokor'” (Davis 167).  Clearly, an human being is placed into jeopardy when such a poison has the ability to render a person soulless, but this type of zombie that Gertz and Davis describes is more malevolently created by the hands of a witch doctor.  This is not the same zombie — zombi savanne — that returns from the dead (Jacobi); it is not the zombie that George A. Romero reinvented with Night of the Living Dead.  This zombie rises from the grave to feast on the flesh of the living and is controlled by no one but its own urges.

The zombi astral, then, is in every way the literal theft of the human soul from a poisoned victim, and the loss of free will imposed by such an act is undeniable.  But, does the zombi savanne, the undead corpse that returns from the dead to stalk the earth, still fall under the debate about civil liberties and the threat against the American way of life?  It certainly does.  Death, in the present hypothetical context, is not a release from the throes of life, because the individual who dies is doomed to turn into one of them.  This is what makes the zombie so menacing.  It is not enough that one should be ravaged by a mob of flesh-eating monsters, but that the condition is viral and spreads with each attack.  This is where the power of the zombie narrative exists.  This is what makes for compelling stories of survival.

Books like The Zombie Survival Guide, authored by Max Brooks in 2003, are popular for this very reason.   People want to read about ways in which they can survive a zombie apocalypse.  Afterall, who wants to become a zombie?  The AMC original series, The Walking Dead, is in its fifth season now, because most viewers want to know what happens to the survivors.  Their quest for survival and liberation from the oppressive and ever hostile zombie makes for compelling story.  We watch these shows always from the perspective of a survivor, someone whom we are sympathetic with, because we ourselves want to think we can survive such an event, too.  A book like this offers strategies and tips, all hypothetical, of course, that we can consult, much in the way of a Boyscout Handbook.  Afterall, does not the survivor, pitted against all odds against a horde of flesh-eating zombies, appeal to our gun-crazy, survivalistic, free-thinking society?  If anything, it makes for a compelling and dramatic storyline — the more apocalyptic and dire the backdrop, the better.  WWZMax Brook’s World War Z, a collection of testimonials from survivors of the “Zombie War,” which was very entertaining, given all of the different perspectives Brooks offers.  At one point he even shows what the zombie apocalypse looks like from an astronaut’s vantage point on the International Space Station.  Needless to say, it was a well-thought series of stories about a significant event, which Hollywood had to put on the big screen.  It was adapted and released as a film starring Brad Pitt back in 2013, making it the exact type of plot that attracts viewers.  It is post-apocalyptic and barren — a no-man’s land.  This is the direction that Hollywood film-making seems to be taking us, too.

In post-apocalyptic America, the rules change.  It is the wild, wild west all over again.  Lawlessness and zombie menace make life for survivors difficult and rugid, but they are free from the bonds of social restraint, from the bonds of government.  These survivors are where the appeal lies.  They are not limited by rules and regulations.  They do not live the mundane lives, where routine dictates what comes on the dinner table or what we wear when we go to work six days out of the week.  In fact, the more alone they are, the better.  There are no ties or commitments to be made.  It is simply a matter of fending for oneself.  In Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, for example, three survivors coup themselves up in a retail mall, where they clean out and barricade themselves inside for protection against the zombies that roam the land.  One of the protagonists, Roger, played by Scott Reiniger, is injured at one point in the film, where he is laid up in the storage room they turned into their home. There, he slowly rots from the viral infection that spreads from the attack.  Peter (Ken Foree) watches the heart-wrenching transformation from human to zombie and shots him once he turns.    This is one of the drawbacks that the zombie narrative plays on its survivors; the protagonists are forced to consider and do things that often go against their conscience, their very nature, in order to survive.  At first, they see the zombies as humans — from a distance — until they are up-close and aggressive.  Once they are forced to defend themselves, their demeanor becomes hardened.  They do not sympathize with the dead and are desensitized by the violence around them.  It becomes easier for them to do the harder tasks, like surviving.

There is a certain appeal to the zombie horror movie that people will acknowledge.  Any way you look at them, they make for intriguing but grisly stories.  We see these people placed in horrific environments, where they are forced to fend for their right to live.  Each turn the story takes leaves us predicting who amongst the cast will be killed and how.  As horrible as this may sound, it is something we are used to.  The exposure most Americans have to violence is commonplace, ranging from the sensationalized evening news to prime-time television,  making a topic like the zombie apocalypse an interesting one for some.  Therein lies the truth to the zombie myth in America: it is the by-product of a culture that thrives and profits off of violence.  We like to watch as the human condition is pushed to its limit.  Just looking at how Guns and Ammo‘s “Zombie Nation” column or the CDC’s “Preparedness 101” blog uses zombies to reach out and peek the interests of people is certainty of this.  Culturally, we are saturated in violence, so we long to sympathize with those who survive situations we would not otherwise want to be in.  It is thrilling, in a way: the anxiety that comes with isolation and the inescapability of death.  Some of us, though, would rather survive and live to tell about it than have our will to live taken away from us.

 

Works Cited

“About HVZ.” hVZ: HumansVS Zombies.Gnarwhal Studios, 2010. Web. 25 Nov. 2012.

Davis, Wade. The Serpent and the Rainbow: A Harvard Scientist’s Astonishing Journey into the Secret Societies of Haitian Voodoo, Zombis and Magic. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 1985. Print.

Dawn of the Dead. Dir. George A. Romero.  Perf. David Emge, Ken Foree, Gaylen Ross and Scott Reiniger. United Films, 1979. Film.

Gertz, Stephen. “Zombie Symbolism.” An Exploration of Modern Monsters. Ed. Eric Rabkin. University of Michigan, Fall 1999. Web. 26 Nov. 2012.

Greene, Richard A. “Ready for a Zombie Apocalypse? CDC has Advice.” CNN. Turner Broadcasting System, Inc. 19 May. 2011.  Web. 26 Nov. 2012.

Jacobi, Keith. “Zombies, Revenants, Vampires, and Reanimated Corpses.” Encyclopedia of Death and the Human Experience. Ed. Clifton D. Bryant, and Dennis L. Peck.  Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications, Inc., 2009. 1002-06. SAGE Knowledge. Web. 26 Nov. 2012.

Poole, Eric R. “Enough Gun for Zombies: Kel-Tec KSG Tactical Pump Shotgun.” Guns and Ammo: Zombie Nation. Intermedia Outdoors, 19 Apr. 2012. Web. 25 Nov. 2012.

“Ultimate Zombie Shotgun: The Kel-tec KSG.” Youtube. GunsAndAmmoMag, 19 Apr. 2012. Web. 25 Nov. 2012.

“Zombie Nation: Move Over Dorothy, Zombies are Taking Over.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Public Health Matters Blog.  19 May, 2012.  Web. 26 Nov. 2012.

Image Source

Romero, George A.  Night of the Living Dead. 1968. Screenshot. Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 14 Jul. 2006. Web. 13 Jul. 2013.

“The Humans vs. Zombies Logo.” hVZ: HumansVS Zombies. Gnarwhal Studios, 2010. Web. 13 Jul. 2013.

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Review of “Knowing the Enemy” by Mary Habeck

Knowing the Enemy: Jihadist Ideology and the War on TerrorThe world over seems to be in a miserable state at the moment. Watch the news for any given amount of time and you will most certainly hear about Islamic extremists instilling chaos in some part of the world.   One could even argue that Jihad and terror have become buzzwords in the media, but with little wonder considering how groups like Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) or al-Qaeda openly claim responsibility for attacks in the name of their religion, attacks such as those in Tunesia, Nigeria or Yemen, for example.  In fact, Tunesia could be considered a place that is volatile to extremism, given the March attacks made toward the Bardo national museum in the capital city of Tunis, to which responsibility is now being claimed by ISIS-inspired militants; Yemen is another hot spot for such activities, what with al-Qaeda fighters freeing hundreds of inmates in an attack on a prison in the port city of Al Mukalla, one New York Times article recently reports; and let us not forget the recent deadly attack made toward a university in Kenya by al-Shabab islamists, where at least 150 people were killed. All of these recent events are but a small fraction when considering the majority of terror-related news that seems to be streamlining the “front pages” of many news outlets in the west.  What does all of this mean, though?  What is a simple man, living a simple life, suppose to make of all this turmoil and carnage?  What is the point to the bloodshed and beheadings that act as trademarks to their systematic design?  It is with questions like these in mind that I take to the book Knowing the Enemy: Jihadist Ideology and the War on Terror, by Mary Habeck.

Habeck, an associate professor at John Hopkins University, writes an analysis on fundamentalist Islam in her 2006 Yale University Press book, in an effort to make sense of the attacks led by al-Qaeda extremists on the World Trade Center in September, 2001. Her research about jihadist ideology reveals an archaic form of right-wing thinking, where the word of three texts — the Qur’an, the hadith, and sira, which are a series of “sacralized biographies” about the life of the prophet Muhammad, which give insight into his “calling” as a political and spiritual leader — serve as the basis for their fundamentalism. In many ways, the life of Muhammad serves as the “model for the acquisition and use of power,” deeming these sacred texts as the guidelines for “defensive and offensive strategies of Islam at every stage of this global confrontation [known otherwise as jihad] over a very long time” (qtd. in Habeck 138). For example, one way of thinking derived from these texts lies in the concept of jahiliyya (ignorance), in that everyone is ignorant and blind in the world until they become enlightened by Islam, as the state of the Arab world was before Muhammad brought his message unto the people (Habeck 65).

Not everyone agrees with the interpretations these jihadists make of the sacred texts. As a matter of discourse, Habeck makes several references to this, reiterating throughout the book such assurances as:

the jihadist commitment to offensive warfare, their belief in terrorizing entire populations, their views on prisoners of war and booty, and their deliberate targeting of innocents have not found widespread support among the vast majority of the Islamic world (133).

This could be as much as to prevent any liabilities or offense for her scholarship and thesis, as it is to convey the truth of the matter.  For example, many scholars believe that jihadists never give “full interpretive weight” to the circumstances relating to the past, but instead pull loosely from the texts to meet and satisfy their own agenda. This blatant show of abuse towards interpreting these texts implies their desire to manipulate and control their followers, which Habeck believes is “one of the most important aspects of the current conflict, for the struggle over who controls the Qur’an and hadith is, in many ways, the key to the upheaval in the Islamic world” (53). She furthers her argument for this point when she writes, ” For many Muslims who take their religion seriously, the willingness of the jihadis to selectively ignore a thousand years of interpretive work and the traditional exegesis of the people of knowledge is a serious affront to their understanding of Islam” (55). This is creating an internal conflict within the Islamic world, where both fundamentalists and liberally-oriented modernists are claiming the sacred texts to be the “true voice of Islam” (42). The result has turned out to be a bloody conflict, with tensions and animosities running high from every direction.

Regardless the religion, this is generally the reaction made toward fundamentalism by more moderate and intellectually-oriented people in a given society.   Christian fundamentalism has a tendency to have a similar effect — picking and choosing– on many of its believers.  As one blogger from the Huffington Post puts it, “Few [Christian] fundamentalists care about the early church, the Gospels, the Catholic traditions, Augustine, Arian heresies, encyclicals and councils. Rather, they blend Southern Conservatism, bastardized Protestantism, some Pauline doctrine, gross nationalism and a heavy dose of naive anti-intellectualism for a peculiar American strain of bullshit” (McElwee). Whether it is preaching a right-wing agenda through sermon or picketing in protest over gay-rights, Christian fundamentalists seem to only listen to themselves.  As Habeck reminds us in her book, jihadists are no different: they pick and choose what they want to believe, which tends to be the more militant side of Islam (43).

Her argument toward jihadist ideology in a modern sense is not entirely clear, though.  As would be expected of a book covering a topic such as this, her argument attracts a lot of criticism. One reviewer from the website The American Thinker bluntly states that “Habeck’s scholarship is half-baked, meaning literally half done.” He goes on to justify his case: “After making it clear to us that jihadism has deep and historical roots in Islam, Habeck feels compelled to proclaim that jihadists have perverted ‘traditional Islam’ to suit their purposes, have moved contrary to the flow of ‘modern Islam’, and are heterodox in their condemnation of all of those who oppose… But repeating these statements time and again in conclusory fashion does not make it so, and she provides almost no source material or analysis of how the jihadists are in fact heterodox” (Yerushalmi). The book does maintain a repetitive feel at times, especially when considering some of the facts used in several of the chapters to discuss the historical roots of Islam fundamentalism. While the interpretations from such revolutionary thinkers like Ahmad ibn ‘Abd al-Halim Ibn Taymiyya (1263-1328), ‘Abd al-Wahhab (1703-1792) and Sayyid Qutb (1903-1966), to name a few (Habeck 18), are made clear early on in the book, she continually adds these thinkers’ ideals back into her dialogue, drowning out any discourse about the differences existing between modern jihadist groups.  Nevertheless, her book provides many insights into the topic, and I can see how parallels to what is happening in the Middle East exist with the fundamentalism she discusses. In fact, I noticed passages all throughout (see pages 64, 145, 148-149) that seemed to hint at the beginnings of such groups like ISIS, a fundamentalist group that did not rise to power until several years after her book was written.

Given her expertise on the subject, I was curious to know what her take is on the current volatile condition in the Arabian peninsula due to ISIS, so I pulled up an article she co-authored with Thomas Donnelly, a research fellow from the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, in the conservative magazine The Weekly Standard. There, they analyzed the current administration’s means of dealing with the Middle East thus far (as of January, 2014). They write that given the actions of the administration in their handling of the Benghazi attacks, the enemy is still largely misunderstood. “We still don’t understand the enemy,” she goes on to add, “more fatally… we do not understand the nature of the war.” That we don’t understand the enemy; that these al-Qaeda linked groups only reorganize and start anew once western intervention has packed up and gone home; that the terror network is more globally connected now than it was in the 80s and 90s; that, despite our “ebbing interest” in the region, the Middle East still maintains an interest in the United States, for better or worse: all of these facts weigh heavily on the decisions being made by the Obama administration during this political conundrum. Habeck and Donnelly make an interesting observation that has relevance to today’s understanding for the situation in the Middle East: “In sum, the state system — illegitimate and brittle as it has been — that largely defined the balance of power in the Middle East since World War II is in flux” (Habeck and Donnelly). It would seem that the writing is on the wall, as the proverbial saying goes, but with the Obama administration taking a passive approach to Middle Eastern affairs — furthermore, partnering with nuclear-ambitious Iran to negotiate settlements when America’s most influential ally, Israel, fears for such an act to happen and may take matters into their own hands — there is little that could be done to thwart the shifting balance of power that seems to be happening at the moment. The United States has always acted in some way to keep “the worst from happening in the Middle East” (Habeck and Donnelly), but the restraint shown by the current administration leaves the mildly complacent international community to ponder, “what are we to do now?” Many nations have an interest in the Middle East, for whatever reasons there may be, political or economic, so these nations are left to “reshape the international system to [their] liking” (Habeck and Donnelly).   Whether this is a good move for America and her interests in global affairs, especially since many Middle Eastern players like Saudi Arabia, are at risk of finding more compliant bedmates, only time will tell.

For all my purposes, this book has done a thorough job in answering many of the questions that I have had about the Islamic conflicts that seem to be growing in scale in the Middle East. One thing stands for certain, these jihadists have many enemies and their agenda is grandiose in every means, but it is a real one, a threat to any who think differently from them. They are more than just a small band of violent people who have murdered innocent people, rather they believe that they are “honored participants in a cosmic drama” where the fate of the world will be played out to its ultimate end, victoriously or not (Habeck 163). Habeck, along with many other western scholars (see Samuel Huntington’s article) see a “clash of civilizations” taking place around the world, where an either-or mentality motivates jihadist groups like al-Qaeda to lash out at non-believers and to destroy them (162). How long this will last is hard to say, but if history has shown us anything, it is that totalitarianism seldom lasts for long. The only problem is that history has a tendency of repeating itself.

Works Cited

Habeck, Mary and Thomas Donnelly. “The Unmaking of the Middle East.” the weekly Standard 19.18 (20 Jan. 2014). Web. 07 Apr. 2015.

Habeck, Mary. Knowing the Enemy: Jihadist Ideology and the War on Terror. New Haven: Yale UP, 2006. Print.

McElwee, Sean. “Five Things Christian Fundamentalists Just Don’t Get.” [Blog]. The Huffington Post. The Huffington Post.com, Inc., 08 Jun. 2015. Web. 11 Apr. 2015.

Yerushalmi, David. “Knowing the Enemy: A Book Review.” The American Thinker. American Thinker, 9 Sep. 2006. Web. 07 Apr. 2015.

Further Reading

Huntington, Samuel P. “The Clash of Civilizations?” Foreign Affairs 72.3 (Summer 1993): 22-49. Web. 06 Apr. 2015.

Houellebecq’s Nightmare

Screen grab of Charlie Hebdo website taken on 7 January 2015

In light of the recent massacre that took place in Paris at approximately 11:30 a.m. on Wednesday, 06 January, 2015,  over an article about the controversial author, Michel Houellebecq’s latest novel, Submission, I am reblogging this post by Andrew Sullivan from The Dish, which sheds some light on the reasons why this attack on Charlie Hebdo took place.  Censorship through fear should not be tolerated, nor should a democratic society that values freedom of press or expression give in to acts of aggression like these. Stand behind your values, France.  We stand behind you.  My thoughts go out to the victims and their families.

The Dish

Charlie-Hebdo-Secondary2-320The massacre at the offices of Charlie Hebdo this morning coincided with the publication of controversial author Michel Houellebecq’s latest novel, Submission, which today’s Charlie either lampoons or praises (or both) in the cover seen to the right. Today’s attack was so clearly planned and premeditated that it likely wasn’t a response to Houellebecq’s book or Charlie‘s cover thereof, but there are plenty of parallels between Submission, which critics have derided as an anti-Muslim screed, and the offensive material that made the satirical weekly a target for Islamic fundamentalists. Ishaan Tharoor explains what the book is about:

“Submission” tells the story of France in the near future — 2022 — where a Muslim wins a presidential election against a far-right candidate and presides over the Islamization of French society. Persian Gulf monarchies pump in funds into new Islamic schools; teachers at the Sorbonne are compelled to convert to Islam; women slowly disappear from the workplace; polygamy becomes legally permissible. …

Houellebecq says his book leaves…

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Candied Almonds at the Christkindelsmarkt 2014

I have written this story to thank an unknown vendor for a kind service rendered at the Christmas market this year.  The story is a bit off topic from what I usually post here, but I thought I would share the story for the holidays.  Season’s Greetings, good readers!



“So, can anyone tell me how to get to the bus depot from — let’s say — here, at the shopping center?” I scanned the room, looking for anyone willing enough to give the lesson a try.

I caught Gretchin out of the corner of my eye, who seemed moderately interested and brave enough to give the directions I was asking for.

“Gretchin, would you like to try it?”

“I will. Go out onto the street and turn right.”

“Good, and then?”

“Walk straight along the road to the intersection and turn left.” There was a slight pause as she thought a moment about the next step.

“Yes, and then?”

“The bus stop is in front of the hill,” she said, wincing at her uncertainty for this last part.

At the top of the hill,” I corrected.

“The bus stop is at the top of the hill,” she repeated, a little discouraged by her mistake but thankful for having the opportunity to have another go at it. A few of the others were diligently writing in their notebooks.

“Well then, everyone, I do believe we are running out of time,” I said, noting the relief in everyone’s faces, “so my last question for the day will be — where’s the Christkindelsmarkt?”

Everyone chuckled at the suggestion, and immediately began gathering their things. I too set to the task of straightening up, eager to join my students for a nice evening at the Christmas market. I hadn’t had the chance to visit the market yet, and it was already two weeks into the season for it. Judging how quietly most of my students reacted during this evening’s lesson, I would say we were all in need of a spiced wine.

I took my jacket down from the coat rack and pulled it on over my shoulders as I hoisted my leather tote, bulky and cumbersome from the weight of a whole day’s worth of English lessons, and made my way for the door, switching off the lights as I left. All of my students approached me the week before, asking if I would be interested in joining them after this evening’s class for a festive outing at the Christmas market, and I humbly accepted the invitation. It was a nice feeling to know that my relationship with them was being taken to a new level.

*****

We all walked down the steps together and made our way for the main entrance. I dropped off the CD player with the School’s caretaker, bid him a nice evening, and caught up with those who were making their way out of the door. The weather outside was frightful, and the misty dew made the evening air cold and clammy to the touch. One could see the mist swaying this way and that under the sodium lamps, the orange tinted glow taking the edge of the chill the moisture created. We walked together down the main street to the pedestrian zone, making small talk along the way.

Not even five minutes later, the cobble-stoned streets turned into the first signs of holiday festivities. Hanging over the street, from store front to store front, were the first ornaments leading one to the Christmas market. Wreaths adorned with holly berries and mistletoe hung from lighting fixtures at intervals of a few feet all the way down the street, marking the way through the city’s center to the marketplace where the kiosks could be found. People were coming and going from shops, large shopping bags showing their agendas, as we made our way closer to the market’s edge.

Finally, our group stood before the Christkindelsmarkt. We slowed down and stopped at the edge of the market to take the scenery before us in. The constant chatter of people talking, conversations that were muddled out by other conversations, filled the night sky. All of the eateries and stands were centered around a gigantic conifer tree that towered well over a few of the storefront buildings along the marketplace’s edge. The tree was adorned with large glass-ball ornaments in varying shades of red, green and violet; long strands of lights were draped from head to toe, illuminating the tree to reveal its magnificence.

I scanned my students, taking in their reactions, and waited for them to make the first move. It was soon clear that we didn’t have a plan of any sorts, so we decided to meet back up in ten minutes time to allow everyone a chance to fetch something for themselves. Most of them went for the eateries. I headed to the first spiced wine stand I could find. It wasn’t long before I was sipping on a steaming-hot mug of mulled wine, the savory taste of the wine lifting my spirit.

As everyone started to make their way back to our meeting point, we started to settle into our niches. Some of them were interested in practicing their English, so we conversed the majority of the evening on a wide range of topics. One of my colleagues from the school stopped by to join us, and she added all the more to great conversation that was developing from the evening.

I took a look around at the various stands, my wine having since been empty some minutes before, when I noticed people around the stands thinning out. More and more people were beginning to part ways. “Seems to be clearing out,” I commented, as the others turned around to look. The eight o’clock church bells started to ring out into the night, marking the closing of the Christmas market.

“Well, I must go home now,” Terrence said politely, addressing each of us, shaking everyone’s hand in turn. From there, it was a chain reaction of departures, everyone seeming to buzz still with the last vestiges of the festive outing. Suddenly, it dawned on me. I was forgetting something. Knowing that I was going to the Christkindelsmarkt that evening, my wife instructed me to pick up a bag of candied almonds. The last strike of the eight o’clock bell was like a light bulb going on in my head.

“Oh crap! I forget to buy almonds! I’ll be right back everyone.”

*****

In a mad dash, I raced through what remained of the Christmas market, but it seemed I was too late. Most of the kiosks had already closed up their stands, heavy blinds keeping me from fulfilling my promise. I paced the market aisles, running from one row to another, in the hopes that around the next corner would be a stand still open for business. By the last row, I had lost hope. I had forgotten to buy candied almonds, and my wife would be disappointed for it. “What luck,” I said to myself out loud, disappointed in myself for having gotten too wrapped up in the festive moment. Suddenly, I saw them.

“Wait! Please, wait,” I yelled, nearly out of breath from rushing over to them.

Two men were wrapping a tarp over the open side of their stand, both vendors struggling to fix the tarp in place. They stopped what they were doing to listen.

“Please, I made a promise to buy almonds for my wife this evening, and I nearly forgot. Would you be so kind to sell me some before you close up for the evening?” I pleaded, hoping they would make the transactions.

Both vendors looked at each other, when I added, “I know you’re closing up for the night, but I would be very grateful if you would sell me a bag.”

“Alright. No problem. We will sell you a bag,” said the man closest to me, a tall fellow in a winter vest and ski cap. He looked at his colleague, who immediately looked annoyed at his statement.

“You have no idea how much you’re helping me. Thank you.” I added, hoping to smooth things over a bit.

The other vendor, now behind the display, asked what I wanted. I took a look at the prices and opted for the more expensive bag, in hopes that my selection would at least show my gratitude for their service.

The man began shoveling candied almonds into the bag, setting it upon a scale for measure, and started closing it up, when his colleague closest to me said rather curtly, “This man asked for a large bag of almonds.”

With a mounting tension in the air, I listened as the vendor with my almonds exclaimed something back to his colleague in Russian, a language I didn’t need to understand to know just what was happening. I took a quick look at the scale and saw that the balance has tipped for a lesser weight. He was planning to rip me off a few almonds, no doubt for my disrupting their closing time.

I cast a quick look at the taller man next to me to see what his reaction would be and his glaring gaze at his colleague was colder than the night air where we were standing. I turned back to the vendor behind the display and asked how much it would be for a large bag, knowing full well the price was marked right in front of me.

I pulled out another bag, a larger bag, and began loading more almonds into my request, seemingly disgruntled at having been called out for his actions. Once he finished, he placed the rightful amount of almonds up on the glass counter and said, “5 Euros.”

I quickly paid the man, nodded to his friendlier colleague, thanking him for his kindness, wished them both a nice evening and ran back to my friends. Of course, they were waiting, perplexed by my sudden disappearance, as they knew I was coming back but they didn’t know why I had run off in the first place, so I owed them an explanation. I told them about my promise and why I needed to run off the way I did, and they all laughed with me.

*****

It was easy to shrug off what had happened just then in the presence of my new friends, but I couldn’t help but wonder on my way home that evening if I had set things in motion that would change the way those two men would come to work with one another. I wouldn’t have been none the wiser if that vendor had indeed cut me short on my request. The fact that his colleague stepped in to defend me, a customer — no doubt for something as simple as a bag of almonds — when he could have turned a blind eye to the own ordeal leaves me thankful for all of the honest people that exist out there in the world today.   It’s the principle of the matter that counts here, so I have written this piece to thank him, whoever he may be, for doing the right thing, even when it was at his expense in the end.

Image source: ReneS. “Christmas Market in Jena.” Wikipedia.org. Wikipedia foundation, Inc. 21 Dec. 2007. [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christmas_market#mediaviewer/File:ChristmasMarketJena.jpg]

Review of “The Catcher in the Rye” by J.D. Salinger

The Catcher in the Rye

Four years ago on the 27th of January, J.D. Salinger died in his home at Cornish, New Hampshire, having lived to the ripe old age of 91 years.  In his life time, he was famously known for his novel The Catcher in the Rye (Catcher), which was considered one of the prominent novels of the 20th century by Time but, in many of the same ways, has been widely challenged by censoring boards across the globe who view its message as more unorthodox and have seen it as so since it was first published in 1951.  Perhaps its popularity can be attributed to the fact that it has been deemed so controversial.  In fact, there are many dialogues happening to this day that attempt to take Catcher off of school reading lists.  The American Library Association (ALA) even ranks the novel as one of the most censored books of the 20th century, but why?  Where does the controversy exist?  I decided to reread Catcher for another look at what makes this book as widely discussed and timeless as it is, even four years after Salinger’s death.  In knowing about Catcher and its widely volatile nature amongst parents, I find it safe to say that this book is widely misunderstood by anyone who seeks to ban it.

First Impression of Catcher

The book is about Holden Caulfield, our protagonist who is an antihero of sorts, a teenager who seems to find trouble wherever he goes.  Throughout the novel, Caulfield offers numerous insights into the world of 1950s America.  Narrating his own personal accounts, we depend on him to describe, often with honest brutality, the way life is for him, but this is somewhat problematic for the reader, especially when he tells us early on in the novel that he’s “the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life” (Salinger 16).  I was on my guard, waiting for him to tell me that it was all made up, and that I had been suckered into reading about his Christmas break from school that year; however, this revelation never came, and I was left to ponder his reliability as a narrator, judging him and his actions along the way.

Yet, this is not what makes Catcher a controversial book.  The controversy seems to lie on everything one finds along the surface of the novel.  In fact, a long list of reasons for all the censoring boards across the country that have banned Catcher from being read by their schools has been published in Robert Doyle’s book, Banned Books: Challenging our Freedom to Read, and may be found on the ALA’s website.  Reasons often include the typical buzzwords, such as excessive or unacceptable sexual references and profanity; vulgar language; “anything dealing with the occult;” obscene, premarital sex, alcohol abuse and prostitution; statements defamatory to minorities, God, women, and the disabled; for it being “anti-white” and “obscene;”  for its “lurid passages about sex;” for being centered around negative activity; for its use of the ‘F’ word; for strong sexual situations; and a plethora of other reasons.  One source even goes as far as to challenge the book for being “blasphemous and undermin[ing] morality,” while another disgruntled parent called it a “filthy, filthy book” (qtd. in Banned and/or Challenged Books).  With each of these “reasons” spanning from parents in towns like Marysville, California, to places as far away as Savannah, Georgia, it is clear that this book causes friction when it is made out to be required reading in high school English classes.  Just from the rough sketch made out above, it is easy to see what makes Catcher appear as a “bad” book for adolescents to be influenced by.

Language and vulgarity, sexually explicit content and prostitution, and lastly, morality and Godlessness seem to make up the general consensus for why parents despise this book so much, but are these solid grounds to stand on for removing a book entirely from a school’s curriculum, especially when these have no bearing on what the book is really about?  Is there nothing that can be learned from it, these “vulgarities” serving merely as reasons for parents to jump on the bandwagon of censorship?  This book is clearly not just about teenage rebellion and adolescence struggling to find its own identity; rather, it is about society and learning our place in it.  As one scholar wrote, “Catcher in the Rye captured the zeitgeist, a particular way of looking at the world we share” (qtd. in “Catcher in the Rye Author”).  In almost every way, this book is about the status quo and applies just as much to today’s society as it did to society of the 1950s.

A Deeper Look at Catcher

While offensive language is seemingly noticeable throughout the novel, it should be stated for the record that the profanity we read actually plays a significant role in understanding  Caulfield.  “Goddam” is the strongest, and most frequently, used expression in the whole book, and it is used quite regularly, I will confess.  In fact, the word is used 12 times over two pages, let alone the rest of the book, but this is only because at this particular point he is upset with Jane Gallagher, a girl he secretly admires, for dating someone whom he considers a “phonie.”  This emotional outburst of cursing is nothing new in the way of profanities.  In fact, John Nicholas Beffel writes about “the lost art of profanity” in a 1925 column for The Nation, claiming that “nobody has a profane vocabulary any more, there is no variety in oaths, nothing unique, no artistry, no sparkle.  Everybody uses the same words in swearing. This indisputable fact is of course chargeable to the universal trend toward standardization in the United States…Originality faces starvation. Artists get no encouragement.  Emotion is at a low ebb.  Passion is gone from us” (270).  When it is put this way, the swearing Caulfield does in the book becomes somewhat relative and heartless, if what Beffel is saying is true about the “old-time brimstone language” of yesterday, particularly when we consider Caulfield’s profane, but limited, use of vocabulary in a modern context.   This book’s use of profanity, in all aspects, is relatively mild to what people generally hear throughout the media, especially when it is compared to how vulgar and sexist the music industry is today — a form of expression that has far more influence over modern audiences than the book Catcher has.  Maybe profanity is making a come-back but not within the context of this book.

When we check language and vulgarity off of the list, we find strong sexually explicit content to be next among the reasons for finding this book offensive.  After all, what kind of book about adolescent rebellion would you have if it didn’t include a few points about the self-indulgent, sexually impulsive tendencies that teenage boys often experience?  Perhaps we forget in his dialogue that Caulfield is only 16 years old.  It’s easy to do, actually, when you consider his mannerisms and outlooks read more like the author’s, the musings of a 32 year old man with a message to make.  To be disgruntled over the sexually explicit content of this book is to really do the book an injustice, as it’s not about Caulfield’s urges at all, but how he deals with them. Sure, he tells the bellhop on his way back up to his room that he’s interested in a “lil’ tail” when he’s asked, but he tells us that, “I was a little nervous. I was starting to feel pretty sexy and all, but I was a little nervous anyway.  If you want to know the truth, I’m a virgin.  I really am” (Salinger 92).  He then continues to explain to us why.  “The trouble with me is, I stop.  Most guys don’t.  I can’t help it…. I keep stopping.  The trouble is, I get to feeling sorry for them” (92).  This is not the kind of dialogue we would expect from a lustful teenager, but it is one example of the inner turmoil Caulfield has when trying to come to terms with what he feels are his shortcomings.  When Sunny, the prostitute, arrives to his room, his nervousness for losing his virginity amounts to nothing that parents should be concerned over in the long run.  He only ends up  feeling sorry for her in the end: “It made me feel sort of sad when I hung it [her dress] up.  I thought of her going in a store and buying it, and nobody in the store knowing she was a prostitute and all.  The salesman probably just thought she was a regular girl when she bought it.  It made me feel sad as hell — I don’t know why exactly” (96).  He feels sorry for people like this all throughout the book, which reveals a lot about his overall demeanor.

In fact, we learn a lot about his personal beliefs in this way.  Take, for instance, his beliefs in God.  It’s easy to recognize where a lot of the controversy comes into play with this aspect of the book.  Many of the censors argue that the book is grounded with immoral content, with Godlessness, yet the pity he feels for the prostitute in the earlier paragraph shows that he isn’t an immoral character.  He is actually distraught over many things that happen over the course of the story.  At one point, Caulfield even openly reveals his personal beliefs to the reader.  He tells us, “In the first place, I’m sort of an atheist.  I like Jesus and all, but I don’t care too much for most of the other stuff in the Bible” (Salinger 99).  To come forward openly with his beliefs like this for the sake of continuity in the story immediately sets him apart from the sympathy of the reader who may disagree with him.  His atheism defines him, establishing what many opponents of this book believe to be immoral and misguided.  At the same time, we as readers should be careful not to misjudge him.  He is not an immoral character.  He attracts our sympathies on several occasions: first, his curiosity as a teenage boy for the prostitute and his plea for conversation over sex; secondly, the two nuns he meets while having breakfast at the diner and his conversation with one of them about Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet; and lastly, his dialogue with old Sally at the Radio City Ice-skating rink.  All of these scenarios reveal information about Caulfield that require us to look at him as more than just a rebelling teen, but as someone who is struggling to find himself in the world around him, maybe even Salinger himself.

A Deeper Look at Caulfield

Taking a closer look at the dialogue he shares with Sally shows us where the real issues in the novel begin to emerge.  After skating with old Sally on the ice — “there were at least a couple of hundred rubbernecks that didn’t have anything better to do than stand around and watch everybody falling all over themselves” (Salinger 129) — Caulfield pulls Sally off for a cigarette and a coke, where he tells her a lot about the turmoil that seems to bother him.  This is a revealing moment for us, the readers, as it offers some insight into the reasons why he calls everyone a “phony,” a word he uses all throughout the book to describe people he meets.  Everyone is a phony to Caulfield, even Sally, the girl sitting across from him, listening to him,  his excitement for finally finding someone he can talk to.  This is the first point in the whole book that he tells someone other than us, the readers, that he sees the world full of “phonies,” or people who he feels are otherwise superficial, fake or shallow.  He asks Sally, “Did you ever get fed up?  I mean did you ever get scared that everything was going to go lousy unless you did something?  I mean do you like school, and all that stuff?”  Her reply — “It’s a terrific bore (original emphasis)” (130).  He continues:

“You ought to go to a boys’ school sometime.  Try it sometime, it’s full of phonies, and all you do is study so that you can learn enough to be smart enough to be able to buy a goddam Cadillac some day and you have to keep making believe you give a damn if the football team loses, and all you do is talk about girls and liquor and sex all day, and everybody sticks together in these dirty little goddam cliques” (131).

He is opening up to her, bestowing his trust and his personal opinions upon her, because he wants her to take a risk with him.  To leave everything behind and to start a new life, with no obligations or ties to anything or anyone but themselves.  He tries to convince her of what he sees all around him, but Sally still wants to experience life as it’s expected of her, “college… and marriage and all” (Salinger 133).  In the end, she is just a girl who knows nothing and cares nothing — “you could tell she wanted me to change the damn subject” (131) — for Caulfield’s disgruntled views toward society.  She fails to see what he wants from her, suggesting that it is not he who has lost sight of what’s good for him, rather that society has become a dull and drab existence of status symbols and “phony” appeasement, something that makes him “depressed as hell” (133).  Caulfield is the type of character who longs for genuine experiences, genuine emotions, and he realizes by the end of the chapter that he hasn’t found them with old Sally, the girl he exposes his true feelings to — and he laughs at her: “The whole thing was sort of funny, in a way, if you thought about it, and all of a sudden I did something I shouldn’t have, I laughed.  And I have one of these very loud, stupid laughs” (134).  This is the source of his angst — growing up to fulfill the status quo.  He wants to break away from it by any means that he can.

We detect his longing for honest and unadulterated people at several points throughout the novel too.  He admires the people he meets in his life who are genuine, authentic and true to themselves.   The feelings he has for Jane, for example, tell us that “all you knew was, you were happy.  You really were” (Salinger 79).  Everyone else depresses him.  Sadly, Jane is the one person he can’t share these feelings with.  He feels the same way for his deceased brother, Allie, who died from leukemia at an earlier point in Caulfield’s life, which explains a lot about his inner-turmoil and anguish.  Allie’s death, after all, was a tragic moment for him to deal with: “I was only thirteen, and they were going to have me psychoanalyzed and all, because I broke all the windows in the garage.  I don’t blame them [his parents].  I really don’t.  I slept in the garage the night he died, and I broke all the goddam windows with my fist, just for the hell of it” (39).  Caulfield is only three years older as he’s telling the story of Catcher, so it’s a strong possibility that his feelings for the loss of his brother are a strong source of his angst toward society.

He can’t look to his parents for help with this inner conflict, either, as he feels his father represents the very thing he’s disgruntled with — the material world around him, the status quo.  “What I don’t spend, I lose.  Half the time I sort of even forget to pick up my change, at restaurants and night clubs and all.  It drives my parents crazy.  You can’t blame them.  My father’s quite wealthy, though.  I don’t know how much he makes… but I imagine quite a lot.  He’s a corporation lawyer” (107).  His well-to-do parents are one reason for this blame game he puts himself through and how he rationalizes his own behavior when he’s up to no good.  In fact, he feels like a source of shame to his parents, especially with the circumstances surrounding his expulsion from school.  “She [his mother] hasn’t felt too healthy since my brother Allie died.  She’s very nervous.  That’s another reason why I hated like hell for her to know I got the ax again” (107).  One review written in an editorial for Life said that Holden Caulfield “is a misfit, but he is no freak; and his virtues and vices are peculiar to his generation.  Holden, for example, is no rebel; he willingly accepts the blame for his own failures. But while he does not dispute ‘the system’ he mentally punishes the many individuals who elicit his favorite adjective, ‘phony'” (“A Generation of Esthetes?” 96).  And punish them he does — he lets us know that these phonies are all about possessions and materialism, while he himself is suffering from loss.  In many ways, he is no better.  Are these not “virtues and vices” that our present generation of youth could learn from?  To owe up to your own actions?  To be responsible for yourself?

Understanding Catcher

Caulfield is a character with many flaws, and this is what makes him the widely discussed fictional character that he is.  It isn’t that he represents adolescent rebellion against all parents; to think this is to read the book the wrong way, to scream “CENSOR!” at the first profane word he uses, and to brand it an icon of the unruly.  On the contrary, Catcher is a book with a deeply embedded message about the status quo and the materialistic ways society drives us to fulfill them.  It is a coming-of-age novel about the struggles of finding our identities amongst a culture saturated with forceful impressions and advertisements that want you only to talk about their products for the sake of more sales.  We are defined by the products we buy, and Caulfield (moreover Salinger) realizes this.  It is a novel about identifying who we are and where we should be going.  Stephen Metcalf tells us in a tribute he wrote for Salinger shortly after his death in the e-zine, Slate, what Catcher meant for him: “Like many of my fellow pilgrims, I hit adolescence only to discover my autobiography had already been written; plagiarized, in fact, by a man named J.D. Salinger who, in appropriating to himself my inner mass of pain and confusion, had given me the unlikely name of ‘Holden Caulfield.'” Any sensible person who reaches the conclusion of the book without jumping on the censoring bandwagon probably feels the same way.  How can a book about teenage rebellion that has been dedicated to the author’s own mother, for whatever reasons therein may lie, be anything other than an apology for his own misbehavior as a teen?  If he was anything like myself, or Stephen Metcalf, or even you, sensible reader, then this book speaks about nothing more than being a teenager and fitting in.  We can all call ourselves ‘Holden Caulfield’ in this way, so Catcher is only as controversial as you or I.

Works Cited

“A Generation of Esthetes?” [Editorial]. Life. Time, Inc. 26 Nov. 1951. Google Books. Web. 29 Jan. 2013.

“Banned and/or Challenged Books from the Radcliffe Publishing Course Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century.” ALA.org. American Library Association, Banned and Challenged Books, 2013. Web. 29 Jan. 2013.

Beffel, John Nicholas. “The Lost Art Of Profanity.” Nation 123.3194 (1926): 270-272. Academic Search Complete. Web. 30 Jan. 2013

“‘Catcher in the Rye’ Author Leaves Behind Tales of Teen Angst.” PBS.org. Newshour, extra. MacNeil-Lehrer Productions, 29 Jan. 2010. Web. 29 Jan. 2013.

Metcalf, Stephen. “Salinger’s Genius.” Slate. The Slate Group, 28 Jan. 2010. Web. 29 Jan. 2013.

Salinger, J.D. The Catcher in the Rye. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1951. Print.