What You Got Ain’t Nothin New

I can’t stop thinking about the horror and sadness in this story about three kids who killed a guy because they “were bored and didn’t have anything to do”. Obviously my heart goes out to his family, and I simply cannot imagine the grief and pain they’re going through.

And I also feel horrible for the kids who did this terrible thing, and what their families must be going through. They more or less ended their own lives on that day as well. As Wackle says in Rudy Rucker’s novel Spaceland, “Killing kills the killer.” (Of course their lives were probably pretty horrible before that fateful moment.)

It’s tempting to think about all of this as a post-modern phenomenon, something totally new and unique to our decrepit age. But I’m pretty certain that it’s not. There’s an important scene in the movie No Country for Old Men in which Bell and his Uncle Ellis discuss when Bell’s father was killed in a savage and horrible way. Ellis says:

What you got ain’t nothin new. This country is hard on people. Hard and crazy. Got the devil in it yet folks never seem to hold it to account.

(The conversation is a bit different in the novel, and contains an important story about Bell’s actions in the war.)

I’m also reminded of this comment made by the Chicago writer Nelson Algren, in an interview from 1963:

I think the trouble with American literature is it doesn’t know who it is. [...] American literature is the woman in the courtroom who, finding herself undefended on a charge, asked, “Isn’t anybody on my side?” It’s also the phrase I used that was once used in a court of a kid who, on being sentenced to death, said, “I knew I’d never get to be twenty-one anyhow.”

More recently I think American literature is also the fifteen-year-old who, after he had stabbed somebody, said, ‘Put me in the electric chair — my mother can watch me burn.’

Even more recently, American literature is a seventeen-year-old kid picked up on a double murder charge, two killings in a boat, in a ship off Miami, who said he was very glad it happened, he had absolutely no regrets, his only fear was that he might not get the electric chair. He had no vindictiveness toward those two people he killed. He said they were pretty good about it. They didn’t know, they had no idea, that he was going to come up with a knife. He had, in fact, a little bit of admiration for their coolness.

One of them, finding himself stabbed, said, “Why?” He wanted to know. He said, “I can’t tell them why.” But I know he’s been trying to get out of it since he’s six years old. This is an honors student, you understand, this is a bright boy from a respectable home. He never remembers a time when he wasn’t fully convinced that death was better than life. And now he was very contented, his only worry being that he might not get the electric chair. He’s afraid of that. That’s the only fear he has, that he might have to continue to live. I think that’s American literature.

American literature is The King and Duke selling Jim out in Huck Finn. It’s Cholly doing horrible things to his daughter in The Bluest Eye. It’s Bob Ewell doing horrible things to his daughter in To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s Lenny killing things in Of Mice and Men. It’s the firebombing of Dresden in Slaughterhouse Five.

I want to turn away from this sadness and horror, but I can’t. And I guess it’s a good thing. As Franz Kafka supposedly said:

You can hold yourself back from the sufferings of the world, that is something you are free to do and it accords with your nature, but perhaps this very holding back is the one suffering you could avoid.

Now I’m going to go do something for someone else, because that’s usually the best way to deal with this sort of thing.

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