Violence in American Myth, Imagination & Literature
Introductory Remarks For A Discussion
We might start by asking ourselves what Americans love, what myths and stories feed our perceptions of ourselves as a changing people and much divided community. The source of myth, world-wide, is often violent or cataclysmic, but its reduction as an idea that permeates and shapes a culture often becomes romanticized, simplified, removed from its context and reality. Myth then loses dimension. Myth can become dangerous justification, a costume or disguise up for grabs. The inverse of the myth is always worth our attention, and in America, the inverse of the myth can become a kind of politically correct myth, a myth equally reduced. When we talk about American myth, we’re talking about the stories indigenous to a baby country, a big country geographically isolated by its own adherence to and achievement of Manifest Destiny, a country awash in amnesia and ignorance, a country in the habit of distancing itself from its own history or context as quickly as possible. We were a primal wilderness. We were a colonial backwater. We were a refuge for those unwelcome or endangered in older, more static cultures; we engaged in the genocide of an indigenous population. We were a frontier country in which a man, if not a woman, could breathe, could homestead his own land; could cut loose from whatever context defined and limited him: he became a loner, carving out a place for himself and his family, his people. On the frontier, community might consist of communication between individual homesteads Those homesteads would eventually multiply into towns and cities, but the credo of ‘each man for himself,’ responsible finally to himself, has persisted as an American birthright. Individuals who surrender individual interests to those of the community, or who believe that their interest is better served by nurtured, historically grounded community, are the exception in this, quote, New World. We have served as that New World to the likes of Christopher Columbus and Miles Standish, to the forebears of Sacco and Vinsetti and the Rosenbergs, to cyclical waves of immigrants, and we have closed the portals of that New World to boatloads of turned-away refugees, whether those refugees fled Hitler’s terror or the terror of Haiti’s Ton-ton Macoutes. We have valued, always, individualism, the more rugged the better, over community. Our cultural heroes include gunslingers, cowboys and the calvary, sports stars, rock stars, movie stars — stars of nearly any stripe. Our cultural heroes do not include writers and artists, classical musicians, labor organizers, elementary school teachers, or politicians. We are a complex mixture of various peoples and tribes, each more and more distanced from a history, a specific culture or set of beliefs. We become American by entering the American fray, a kind of swirl or maelstrom characterized by desire for mobility and possibility, rather than by any particular morality or set of values. How does violence operate in the American imagination? If we think of the imagination of a people as similar in nature to the Jung’s idea of a collective unconscious, we might come up with an imagination of violence which is really changing. In the past, say in the first 200 years of America’s existence as a country, we thought of ourselves as unafraid of violence. The frontier mentality lends a certain credence or rationale for violence: the right to bear arms, the right to protect one’s turf, the right to ownership of a place, spiritually and physically. Now we live in an America whose collective imagination is a web of images more or less instantly communicated by sophisticated technology: we see the same pictures: OJ in his seat, listening to testimony; Richard Rosenthal being arraigned, Susan Smith in custody, ruins in Oklahoma City. The images tend to shock and numb us, or polarize us, because the dialogue, the exchange of words needed to give the pictures dimension, doesn’t happen in any collective fashion.
I believe that the issue of American violence has been addressed in depth only in American literature, and it seems a pity that so few Americans have the presence of mind, the education, and the interest, to read it. American literature does not present a flat, reduced, shock value, confusing version of a complex issue. How many dimensions of violence in America are dealt with in say, THE TUNNEL, or PARALLEL TIME, or SHELTER or OUTERBRIDGE REACH, or HUCKLEBERRY FINN or BLOOD MERIDIAN or THE AMERICANS or THE SCARLET LETTER or TYPICAL AMERICAN or THE INVISIBLE MAN or WINTER IN THE BLOOD– and we might go on and on. I don’t think the question is whether or not American literature has aptly or variously enough represented the concept or the reality of American violence: I refer to the violence of physical confrontation as well as to the violence of coercion, whether played out in racist or sexist terms. I refer to the violence of American poverty, whether spiritual or material, the violence of American domestic abuse, the violence of American child abuse, the violence of American political games and manipulation. American literature is uniquely American precisely because it represents, within specific worlds, within story and character, the American Project, from start to finish, from primal landscape to right now, tonight, on the Avenue of the Americas.
Chekov once replied to an irate reader by asserting that it was the writer’s responsibility not to solve a problem, but to state the problem correctly. That is our responsibility. It is our concern that Americans have little understanding of their own history, that Americans don’t read, by and large, American literature, or feel they need to, that Americans are preternaturally isolated in an assaltive sea of information. It is this concern we gather to discuss.