Posts tagged ‘Death’

January 24th, 2013

Not So Hungry Games

Last May, I bought a copy of the book The Hunger Games at Costco. The movie had been released and the frenzy had mostly passed, but seeing the book on sale I decided to investigate–and I was especially intrigued by the blurb on the inside back cover:

Suzanne Collins is the author of the bestselling Underland Chronicle, which started with George the Overlander. In The Hunger Games, she continues to explore the effects of war and violence on those coming of age.

The book sat until recently, and then I finally got around to reading it–having forgotten all about that dust jacket description, and most of the hype about the movie, too.

If you’re looking for an extended summary of the plot, go check out the book’s Wikipedia entry. Here’s a short version: a boy and a girl from each of 12 districts of the country of Panem are chosen at random to compete against each other–to the death–in a fantasy land arena that in some ways resembles the Holodeck from Star Trek: The Next Generation. The losers die and their districts get nothing; the winner gets fame, some fortune, and good things for his/her district. The entire proceedings are broadcast on television to the nation.

Collins borrows from all sorts of sources: We and 1984 created the framework for the kind of controlling, monolithic police state in the book; there’s a slightly post-apocalyptic feel that has resonances of A Canticle for Leibowitz, with its knowledge lost and re-gained; and the themes of violent children come from sources as varied as the Grimm Brothers and Shakespeare to Lord of the Flies. Not to mention the many stories of star-crossed (young) lovers have we all read, including those with twists that give the girls a more tomboyish demeanor and the boys a quieter, SNAG-like feel, as well as those (such as in 1984) who find ways to try to subvert the oppressive regime under which they live. Katniss (the girl) and Peeta (the boy) are composites, and don’t add much new by way of character development.

And this is where I disagree with the blurb. Perhaps what Collins intended to do was explore how young people relate to and respond to violence, but this is not what emerges. If anything, while there is some rejection of and sadness about all the violence and death in evidence from Katniss and Peeta, they seem to adjust to it–to its necessity, to the feeling of needing to inflict it–with the ease that comes from a will to survive. The reader roots for them because, well, of course we do: isn’t that the point?

The radical part of what Collins does is mix all these things together into a new stew with a distinctly 21st century twist: the reality show. This is also the part that gets the least exploration in the book, and deserves the most examination from the perspective of its social impact. Katniss, Peeta, and the other forced “contestants” are aware of being watched by their families and districts. They can play to the cameras for support–often literally, in the form of supplies that get dropped into the game for them–and they wonder occasionally about the reactions of those at home.  Yet we get virtually nothing from the audience’s side of the story except the imaginings of those in the game, who presume there to be shouts of glee or signs of sadness when players die or survive. (The one exception is a gift to Katniss that she thinks comes from the members of another district, in recognition of something nice she has done, some subversion of the power of the state.)

It is frighteningly easy to see how we, as a society, could make the transition from the current entertainments of Survivor and The Biggest Loser to the genuine violence and death of The Hunger Games. We accept the former already, not just as entertainment but as a social structure: people are inherently in competition; their achievements in a (probably rigged) game constitute an acceptable judgment of their value; and teamwork is itself a fleeting concept, with alliances formed and reformed until ultimately abandoned in favor of a single victor. (If this sounds both vaguely Darwinian and vaguely like the Republican party platform for the 2012 presidential election, I will let you sort out for yourselves the irony of a party pursuing a Darwinian strategy while denying Darwin’s most important evolutionary insight.) This separation, this distinction between an audience and its entertainment, is dehumanizing, tapping into our basest instincts–to see harm done to those we think we don’t like–while further inoculating us from taking too seriously the reactions of those who are physically or psychically wounded. Collins’ book is no great piece of literature, but in revealing this point so clearly she may have done something good for her “young adult” readers, if only they step back long enough to see it.

October 9th, 2011

Dvar Torah 2011 & 5772

This summer, Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky asked me if I would give the dvar Torah on the second day of Rosh Hashanah–in our synagogue, a speaking spot usually reserved for someone from the congregation. I accepted with some trepidation; Torah study hasn’t exactly been my strength. But I looked over the text for that Torah portion (English translation: Va-yera, Genesis 18:1-22:24, though on Rosh Hashanah we read only 22:1-22:24), came up with a couple of ideas, and discussed them with the rabbi.

We settled on one that seemed the strongest: to try to explore the impact of the Akedah, the binding and near-sacrifice of Isaac by his father, Abraham, on Isaac’s psyche and life. What interested me about this idea is that there seems to be so little written about it: both the text and most of the subsequent commentary focus on Abraham, which seems rather unjust given that he’s not the one who nearly lost his life. It’s a terrible and terrifying story–and that might be precisely what makes it good for Rosh Hashanah, day 2.

The complete text of my dvar Torah can be downloaded/opened here as a PDF. Writing this was a great, and challenging, experience. For anyone who is ever offered the chance, I encourage you to accept the offer: it is not only a great honor, but a great opportunity to engage with and think about Judaism (or whatever religion) through a new, different, and very personal lens. That cannot help but enhance its meaning.

March 8th, 2011

For Lester

I’m not much for euphemisms about death. People don’t pass (either on or away); they die. I think the man I’m about to eulogize would have agreed with me.

Not that Lester Mazor (1936-2011) was above a good euphemism when it suited his purposes. Lester was, among other things, a master of subtle language–of making direct statements that also embraced a particularly enigmatic psychic space that made it hard to tell what he really thought. As a person, his views on humanitarianism, justice, equality, and power were all crystal clear. (He was for the first three of those, and generally skeptical of the latter.) As a teacher–and he was a master teacher–he managed to cloak his own views in ways that forced his students to think, to confront their own (mis)perceptions and prejudices, and to dig a little deeper.

I first met Lester when a friend convinced me to go to a “Law Lunch” that Lester and some of his students had organized in one of the Master’s Houses on the Hampshire College campus; the speaker was someone from Eastern (then Soviet) Europe. “Law Lunch” was definitely a euphemism. There was lunch, that was literally true. But “law” was part of it only insofar as a discussion of what it was like to live under totalitarian rule is actually about “the law.” As a professor of law and legal philosophy, with an interest in Eastern European culture, politics, and history, Lester knew what he was doing. He made the the system at Hampshire work for him, and he used it to attract and build out programs and student participants across the spectrum of his and their mutual interests.

For me, that event was a hook from which I couldn’t wriggle off. Through one vehicle or another, he introduced me to people who remain friends to this day, all while pushing–sometimes gently, sometimes less so–towards the intellectual and academic areas needed to help us grow. When a friend and I expressed an interest in Kafka–an outgrowth of a reading for some other class with him–he encouraged us to teach our own class on it, and taught us how to learn even more in the process. When the study of Dead White European Males seemed in danger of being overthrown completely, Lester helped some of us organize the “DWEM Sem.” Then by co-teaching it with us, he stirred in all the radicalism needed to keep the conversation lively and the academics sharp and relevant.

This was all during an era of turmoil, the last great moment of revolution before the one we’re in now, from the reunification of his beloved Berlin, to the liberation of Eastern Europe, the fall of the Soviet Union, the first Iraq war, and the election of the first Baby Boomer president. Through all of that, Lester remained a stabilizing force, that rare kind of person with whom you can study history as it’s being made. And now, as then, it makes me mindful–amidst the exhilaration of freedom–of the ways in which justice can be brushed aside. Lester was a revolutionary, but he wasn’t in it for the fervor.

There’s something euphemistic about the term “memorial service,” too; I’m not sure what Lester would have thought of that one. Calm and sometimes paternal, I had seen him cry and I knew his larger-than-life exterior was a container for a larger-then-life heart. Still, I think he would have readily signed on to the idea that we do these things–memorials, public eulogies, remembrances of those just … passed–for ourselves more than for the dead. And if I’d ever said I’d write such a thing about him when he was gone, no doubt he’d have shrugged his shoulders and given me one of his little “hmm-mmms” that seemed to emanate from somewhere deep inside, and then suggest that I check both Aristotle’s “Poetics” and Norman O. Brown‘s “Life Against Death.”

I have mine right here, Lester, and Brown quotes Jespersen quite clearly: “Men sang out their feelings long before they were able to speak their thoughts.” Consider this my song.