*This is an essay I wrote and published on my blog in 2007
This essay is in self-contained sections, which I arranged intuitively. It doesn’t have a single message. Its topics of interest include loneliness, sadness, death, good/bad in art, fiction writing, the media, concrete reality, abstraction/imagination.
I feel sympathy with Cho Seung-Hui naturally, because he was a person who felt depressed and lonely. I also choose to feel sympathy with him, or to always be trying to feel more, instead of less, sympathy with him, because I don’t think that anger, sadness, confusion, indifference, shock, horror, disbelief, excitement, [probably anything except sympathy] would prevent killing rampages as effectively, in the long term, as sympathy.
“I feel sympathy” does not mean I promote violence. It means I feel emotional when I think about how a person enjoyed life so little and — probably gradually, over 23 years — became so alienated that, before killing himself, he decided to communicate a concrete, one-way message, in the form of a killing rampage, to what, to him, to a large degree, was probably an abstract otherness, not ~50 people. My definition of “sympathy,” for this essay, is something like (1) metaphysical discomfort that can be mollified by earnestly trying to assimilate its source (2) feelings that encourage, rather than discourage, behavior that can reduce, or at least not increase, alienation in aforementioned source.
Cho Seung-Hui probably felt lonely and depressed most of his life due to difficulties in communicating with people. It seems, based on what I’ve read, like he talked much less than I did in high school. I knew of maybe 2 other students in my high school (of maybe ~2k students) as untalkative as myself. I didn’t talk, not because I hated people or was “content to be alone” or had nothing to say, but because talking, at some point, for me, had become intensely embarrassing and scary. I was afraid to talk because I knew from experience that my neck/eyes might tremor and I might stutter and lose control of my body/face, feel dizzy, speak incoherently, blush, etc. I cried in bed sometimes even in college. Listening to music and reading lyrics and books by people who seemed to have felt like me, to any degree, was a little consoling and motivated me to “keep going.” I thought about killing myself sometimes but my self-pity (my sympathy, I think, with myself) would be so intense that I’d feel a kind of suicide-preventing excitement, as if I were in the presence of something rare and therefore valuable, or at least interesting, in my view. I had many friends in elementary/middle school that Cho Seung-Hui probably didn’t. I had some friends in high school and college. Cho Seung-Hui probably didn’t.
I didn’t feel bad, or anything, when Kurt Vonnegut died. While alive he was capable, I feel, of doing what he wanted and, if/when he felt depressed he probably also felt self-conscious, so was always a little outside his depression, viewing it with disapproval or amusement or interest. I don’t feel bad for myself, at this point in my life, either. I feel capable of doing what I want and of always remaining, to some degree, an observer of myself, positioned at least partially outside my emotions. I feel capable, in an increasing manner, of accepting whatever may happen: not getting what I want, unfair-seeming situations, feeling sad for “no concrete reason,” multiple amputations, terminal illness, being randomly attacked, dying. To me I’m already dead — and death is not painful or a form of suffering — so I don’t want to allow it the power to affect me, to cause me to feel sad, because if I feel sad I will be more inclined to behave in a certain way. Emotions influence behavior. I want pain/suffering to affect me, to be the source of my sadness, because pain/suffering, unlike death, can be studied, avoided, reduced. Sadness about death has no effect on death. Emotions influence behavior, and sadness about death tends to encourage behavior — reduced productivity, increased media attention on the insensate dead, decreased media attention on those in pain — that, in not reducing future deaths, or having any effect on the existence of death as a universal inevitability, has no logical function but does have the side effect of obscuring but effectively increasing pain/suffering. Whereas sadness about pain/suffering can — and is most likely to — encourage behavior that will reduce future pain/suffering, because people, discerning cause-and-effect, a natural law of concrete reality, can physically arrange things to reduce the future pain/suffering of themselves and/or others.
Death, to me, would only be justifiably sadness-causing, if it happened to someone whose concrete existence had concrete effects on my daily life. For example if someone I liked to touch and be touched by died I would feel sad in a manner that would make sense, but still not be ideal. Kurt Vonnegut currently exists ~99.999999% as much, for me as a month before he died.
An amount of people seemed automatically sad when Kurt Vonnegut died. The sadness, for most of them, was “cliché,” in that it was reflexive and accepted without examination, probably unconsciously, as the result of some inner manual on “how to feel.” Sadness influences behavior. Sadness about death, especially regarding a person whose concrete existence has no affect on you, is “meaningless,” illogical, counterproductive. It implies this logic: “I feel sad ___ died. I don’t want to feel sad. I want to resurrect ___.” It ignores pain/suffering and allows death, which can’t be avoided, to appear (to yourself and those who see you’re sad) like it can and should be, and should’ve been, avoided.
Feeling sad for the people Cho Seung-Hui killed won’t as effectively prevent killing rampages as feeling the sadness of the person in the “weaker,” more oppressed, longer suffering position — which is maybe the only “helpful” feeling, in this case, if the goal is to prevent killing rampages. Feeling sad about Cho Seung-Hui’s alienation, engaging in the endless process of assimilating him into what one views as oneself, probably will have the subtle effect, for the rest of your life, of reduced alienation in people (potentially as alienated as Cho Seung-Hui) you meet; feeling something else about Cho Seung-Hui, like anger or incomprehension, categorizing him as “evil” or “insane” or “a sociopath,” or some other abstraction, probably will have the self-perpetuating effect of transforming the world, for everyone, into an unending war in which the only solution, for any discomfort, is to eliminate or increasingly quarantine an increasingly abstracted “other.”
Many more than 33 people die each day. Many more people suffer more than those killed by Cho Seung-Hui. I’m not saying “33 deaths in one day does not matter because thousands die every day.” I’m saying that a person who earnestly wants to most effectively reduce pain/suffering, or lengthen the net amount of time of humans “being alive,” in the world, should probably always ignore “the media,” especially outlets whose existence depend on viewership size, and focus instead, as a computer would, on numbers.
Media outlets that are publicly-owned, or part of publicly-owned companies, will always focus, in the long-term, regardless of the beliefs or honest desires of its individual employees, on whatever will generate the most profits at the quickest rate. I’m not being “cynical.” This is, based on what I know, fact: investors use money to buy “stock” in publicly-owned companies, who use the money (via New York Times, McDonald’s, IBM, etc.) to increase the value, by increasing their size and therefore worth, of their “stock” for the sole purpose of increasing the money of their investors. If Noam Chomsky became editor-in-chief of the New Yorker, and focused the magazine on topics that decreased circulation, there would be pressure, via representatives, from investors in the corporation that owns the New Yorker to replace Noam Chomsky. Even if Noam Chomsky was CEO of the corporation that owns the New Yorker he would be voted out of his position if the investors in the corporation were unsatisfied with the rate of their money’s increase.
Therefore a person who earnestly wants (there are, I know, degrees of earnestness/want) to reduce pain/suffering should probably always ignore CNN, NBC, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, [anything on TV], [maybe any newspaper], [most websites]. (Example: billions invested in stem-cell research could save, I don’t know, thousands from, say, degenerative spinal diseases; billions invested in clean water and sustainable farming, or whatever, could save millions, or more, taking into account future generations, from entire lives of spinal-disease-like suffering.) The person who wants to reduce pain/suffering in the world should probably completely ignore killing rampages. Probably less than 10k (I’m not sure at all, just estimating) people have died from single-person killing rampages. Probably almost every person who has felt “horror” about a killing rampage, or who is simply aware of the existence of killing rampages, has been manipulated by [actualization, via people wanting to increase their money by collectively investing in a company that exists to increase their money, of the concept of “publicly-owned company”] to feel what they logically would not want to feel.
Some people “freak out” when they see a PETA video and feel sad for 10 or 20 minutes. The person who earnestly wants to reduce pain/suffering in the world should internalize those videos and train themselves to be equally affected by “cuteness” and “ugliness” and by what they can and, at whatever moment, can’t see. If one, for example, earnestly wants to reduce pain/suffering in the world one would not stop jogging upon seeing a rabbit that’s been hit by a car but is still alive; one could better utilize one’s pain/suffering-reducing time by gaining money and spending it on organic vegetables, for example, from companies that are independently owned by specific people who have the option, unlike publicly-owned companies, to use profits in ways, like increasing wages or improving sustainability, that aren’t ultimately means for greater profits.
CLICHES, GENERALIZATIONS, ABSTRACTIONS
Cho Seung-Hui used many cliches in the video he sent CNN. He said things like “now you have blood on your hands that will never wash off.” He said things against “rich kids,” which doesn’t reference a specific thing in concrete reality.
If Cho Seung-Hui had to explain specifically (without cliches) to himself what he was doing and why he was doing it and what the specific causes and effects were, in concrete reality, of what he wanted to do, I don’t think he would have felt able to go on a killing rampage. His brain would not have allowed his body to do it, or would have resisted to a degree that might’ve been sufficient to prevent it.
Being around people who speak in cliches can affect a person to think and speak in cliches and generalizations, I think. I’m not sure how to eliminate unexamined cliches/generalizations from people’s thoughts. Associated Press articles are mostly detached, unemotional, specific, concrete. I think political pundits — and talk-show hosts, and others on TV — use many cliches/generalizations.
INTOLERANCE OF ART
“I dislike [specific book or story]” can be a fact; “[specific book or story] is [abstraction, such as ‘bad’ or ‘good’ or ‘important’]” can not be a fact unless a context/goal has been defined and calculations have been made to discern if [specific book or story] benefits the goal, or not, taking into account a limited context of a range of time and area of space. Saying “[specific book or story] is [abstraction]” without adding “to me”/“in my view” or without defining a context/goal is like saying “I am the only person who exists and my opinions are facts” or “I am the entire universe and the universe is not indifferent but actually makes value judgments on specific parts of itself without knowing for what goal the specific part is valuable within what temporal and spatial context.”
A person’s writing comes from their brain. It is who they are. Some people have sad facial expressions and when they talk their voices tremble and maybe they look in certain directions, like down or up, or at their hands, or directly at you, while maybe responding mostly monosyllabically, or with eloquence and insight, or not at all — and, in this way, a person, most would agree, conveys him or herself. You wouldn’t tell someone: “Your expression and voice are horrible, you have no talent. You have no talent for the pitch of your voice. You are talentless and horrible and unoriginal. Your voice and where you look while talking are bad. You should stop doing all this. You should stop releasing your terrible shit into the world. Try something else, instead of existing. Maybe you would be good at something else.” Most people would not say that about a person’s idiosyncrasies — their “personality,” or who they are — but, it seems, most people frequently say those things about a person’s writing.
A person’s effect on the world (how they move, release noises, console their friends, arrange their rooms, arrange their sentences, inflect their voice, position their bodies, wear their clothes, edit their poems, compose their songs, write their books, buy their food, etc.) is their “art.”
People laughed at Cho Seung-Hui’s voice. Currently, on the internet, people (and journalists, writing for major media outlets) are calling his writing “bad,” “horrible,” “talentless.”
“You have no talent” means “I am the only perspective that exists and I am judging, without revealing to anyone, even myself, what your goal is, within what context, in life, that you are not good, as a person, so should stop existing.”
Fiction writing has no universally agreed upon purpose. Something without a goal cannot be “good” or “bad.” It can only be “liked” or “disliked,” though even those are not completely accurate. Someone can accurately say “Stephen King’s writing makes my face feel like a giant pancake” or “this sentence by Stephen King caused my heart-rate to increase by 2 beats-per-minute.”
I feel that people who say things like “this is the best novel of 2007” are increasing pain/suffering in the world. It is a widespread, circuitous, untraceable way of increasing pain/suffering, so is routinely viewed as acceptable, or “harmless,” in the same way that it’s viewed as acceptable for a person to eat veal or spend money at Wal-Mart or sign a paper causing someone to tell someone else to tell a person to push a button to launch a rocket. The effects are not immediate and cannot be seen or easily traced to their sources (the affected are not able to know the source of their pain/suffering) therefore the sources rarely suffer the consequences of what they’ve done; the consequences, in the “sign a paper” example, on “someone else” or the person who pushed the button or the company who built the rocket, or in a diluted way toward the people who identify themselves to be part of the same political party, religion, nation, etc. as the person who signed the paper — people who themselves did not, and maybe would not have signed — or abstractions like “evil,” “karma,” “bad luck,” etc.
Some people rarely talk and are often incoherent and maybe spend most of their time alone. Those are facts, which are not inherently good or bad. Some people prefer people who talk a lot and can maintain eye contact without awkwardness. Some people prefer people who rarely talk and do not make eye contact. These preferences — and the way people uniquely, in each moment of space-time, convey a configuration of a behavior — are constantly changing, to some degree, for each person, so that what’s desirable can quickly become not, or what’s not can suddenly be very.
EXTREME SHYNESS IN AN ENVIRONMENT INTOLERANT TO ART
An extremely shy person who is in an environment intolerant to art (an environment in which the language of concrete reality, words like good/bad, is also used when discussing the world of abstraction/imagination) can’t communicate honestly, due to fear, or lack of earnest listeners, with other people. When a person cannot communicate with other people, other people come to be viewed differently, maybe like rocks or trees, except inherently “not good.” People mostly do not feel they have the ability to communicate with rocks or trees. I don’t feel bad if I kick or throw a rock or take a leave off a tree. If I viewed other people as things that I could not communicate with, and who could not communicate with me, I would not hesitate to do whatever I wanted to do to them as a means for other things, for example to relieve boredom, convey frustration/anger, exercise, see what happens, etc. For example I might throw a rock to feel entertained, or stimulated, by its movement through space.
“YOU AREN’T GOING TO DEFEND CHO SEUNG-HUI ARE YOU?”
Facts do not defend. A person can use facts to defend or attack an assumption, but only if they also define a context and a goal. It would be impossible, I feel, for me to convincingly defend or condemn Cho Seung-Hui unless the context was something like .000000000000001% of the space I’m vaguely aware of existing on Earth and .0000000000001% of the time in the future I can realistically comprehend and the goal was something like “eliminate killing rampages where more than 15 people die on a college campus.”
What if a person’s context was “The Solar System, 2000AD to 2100AD” and goal was “reduce the pain/suffering, as much as possible, of all known humans (which includes those in Argentina and other places the person knows little about).” In that context is what Cho Seung-Hui did good or bad? One would need to study Cho’s effect on the media, the relocation of charity funds and media attention, changes in laws, estimated effect on those not yet born, etc. to begin to study whether it was good or bad, because the deaths, in this case, of 33 people, is maybe something like .0000000000000001% of the pain/suffering occurring daily, in that context, of the Solar System. It would require an impossibly powerful computer, I think, to conclude if what Cho did was good or bad within the stated context, which seems, though probably longer than I’ll live and further than humans will travel before I die, like an incredibly tiny-seeming context, in terms of the stated goal.
To censor or express “concern” about a person’s non-rhetorical writing is to censor or express “concern” about a person’s existence. Which is to stop a person not from maintaining, or being aware of their location within and alone, but from sharing their private world of abstraction in a carefree and honest manner. Which is to encourage a wariness and secrecy with — and something like fear of — one’s own imagination, different than anyone else’s, with unique and ever-changing guidelines, or tendencies, but no shared laws like concrete reality’s cause-and-effect or gravity.
If Cho Seung-Hui was in my writing class and wrote a story like “Cho Seung-Hui picked up a knife and followed Tao Lin into the bathroom and stabbed Tao Lin repeatedly and put Tao Lin in a bag, brought him home, ate his corpse” I wouldn’t report him for counseling. I would treat the story like anything else that exists in the imagination. I would probably like the story because those are all things I’ve probably thought myself. I have thought about killing people, etc.
Then we’d both be less lonely and maybe less afraid of being alive, alone with, or within, our imaginations. Cho Seung-Hui would feel less alienated — would know at least one other person was able, in their imagination, to allow thoughts similar to his that, in concrete reality, as physical presentations, would result in pain/suffering and punishments — and more like a human, a thing that avoids pain and seeks pleasure, that wants to be happy and not afraid of their own thoughts. He would maybe want, more than before, to live. And, if this became a regular occurrence, so that he became gradually more comfortable with his existence inside himself alone and inside the shared space of concrete reality with others, he would eventually maybe not want to die, or not be able to physically present what previously was only imaginable, and not go on a killing-rampage.
Fiction exists privately and uniquely to each reader, not in the shared space of concrete reality. Applying concrete reality’s laws, of cause-and-effect, to the world of abstraction — to people’s imaginations, where dreams and thoughts cannot directly cause pain/suffering to others — is illogical and seems, to me, egregiously misguided, and is the main cause, I think, of censorship.
In middle school my friends and I would talk about how we would kill the most white people if we were Native Americans. We talked, for example, about flying over the Superbowl and dropping grenades. But, from these imagined events, vocalized to each other, no one felt pain/suffering, because what’s spoken or written or imagined — consciously or subconsciously, in dreams or publicly, in books, or in simulations like videogames or movies — does not exist in concrete reality, which is the only world, of the two, that I know of, in which pain/suffering can be directly afflicted, due to cause-and-effect, onto another consciousness’ physical manifestation) but only in the world of abstraction.
Teaching people that thinking, or drawing, or speaking is not the same as doing — that representation, like acting, or pretending, is not the same as presenting — is the long-term solution, I think, to violence. (And it does not even acknowledge censorship, a concept which seems, just by existing, to indicate that someone somewhere has openly confused concrete reality and the world of abstraction.) Teaching people to change what they think — to imagine less violent or “depressing” images, to forcefully assign the hierarchies and values of others to their formerly unique worlds — is censorship, the short-term solution. Which is actually not even a short-term solution, but something more like a period of time during which the mind (in despair from the task of accommodating what, to itself, doesn’t exist, but is being forced to pretend does even more than what pre-existed) is occupied in the construction, to remain sane to itself, if only in a makeshift way, of previously non-existent problems.
Noah Cicero wrote a story about a character who consoles himself by, among other ways, eating ice cream and pizza and not answering the phone. Instead of doing what the character did, and what he might have otherwise done, Noah instead wrote a story, which other people, when feeling depressed, can maybe read (instead of eating unhealthy food) to feel better. What happened in Noah’s story happened in the world of abstraction. It does not, even implicitly, condone eating ice cream, or not answering the phone, as ways to feel better. To those who view imagination and concrete reality as separate, the message, if anything, derived from the observation that Noah, at least during the time of writing, did not console himself by eating ice cream, but wrote a story about a character eating ice cream, would seem to be that it’s possible — and, to most people, more desirable — to write a story, when feeling bad, instead of eating ice cream. So the story, in that way, functions as encouragement to not “give in” to ice cream.
That’s one function of “depressing” stories, and it’s a life-affirming function. But if one neglects to process that the story’s characters, being imaginary, cannot feel pain/suffering, which exists only in concrete reality, the story will seem to be creating pain/suffering out of nothing, by Noah, who could’ve instead not created pain/suffering, but instead written about a character doing happy things. The story, thought of in that manner, will seem not life-affirming and one would feel correct in wanting to censor it and stop Noah from writing more stories like it in the future. But that reading (or the kind of reading, which seems common, that views the story as a message to do what it shows) ignores, has confused, or has muddled the clear distinction between concrete reality and the world of abstraction. For one to be “against” the story (to want to stop it, in the same manner they might want, in concrete reality, to stop a person from hitting another person) they maybe need to not believe, or temporarily not believe — or, by not considering this as a factor, be operating on an inaccurate, default worldview — that people exist in 2 different worlds, concrete reality and the world of abstraction/imagination, each with different laws.
Reading literature where the characters feel undesirable emotions most of the time, but mostly only struggle internally, against themselves, reacting passively or with acceptance when in situations involving outside forces, such as other people, antagonizing them, has I think increased my ability to remain calm and accepting in situations where the reflexive response is frustration, the feeling of being targeted in an unfair manner. I feel more accepting, less likely to feel anger, blame others, or complain — and more likely to react calmly, in a sustainably productive manner, instead of with a killing rampage — after and while reading work by Jean Rhys, Richard Yates, Ann Beattie, Matthew Rohrer, Michael Earl Craig, Lydia Davis, Joy Williams, Frederick Barthelme, Kafka, Schopenhauer, Fernando Pessoa.
Much of my writing is written, I think, to help myself accept things like death, limited-time, the arbitrary nature of the universe, etc., and also things like shyness, loneliness, “not getting what I want,” low self-esteem, etc.
After I read Mr. Brownstone, a play by Cho Seung-Hui, I felt a little more prepared to accept the events of my life. In the play 3 teenagers, who’ve been “ass-raped” by their math teacher, are in a casino. They win $5 million, and are happy, but the math teacher gains the $5 million by lying. The play ends with the 17-year-olds about to go to jail without the money they’d won. It’s an unfair situation, and it ends there. I feel like Cho Seung-Hui wrote it, on some level, to try to help himself accept what, failing ultimately to accept, he hopelessly tried to change in a desperate and self-canceling way.