George Saunders’ The Braindead Megaphone: Essays

Huck and Tom represent two viable models of the American Character. They exist side by side in every American and every American action. America is, and always has been, undecided about whether it will be the United States of Tom or the United States of Huck. The United States of Tom looks at misery and says: Hey, I didn’t do it. It looks at inequity and says: All my life I have busted my butt to get where I am, so don’t come crying to me. Tom likes kings, codified nobility, unquestioned privilege. Huck likes people, fair play, spreading the truck around. Whereas Tom knows, Huck wonders. Whereas Huck hopes, Tom presumes. Whereas Huck cares, Tom denies. These two parts of the American Psyche have been at war since the beginning of the nation, and come to think of it, these two parts of the World Psyche have been at war since the beginning of the world, and the hope of the nation and of the world is to embrace the Huck part and send the Tom part back up the river, where it belongs.

It is a great work of our national literature because, more than any book before or since, it locates itself squarely on our National Dilemma, which is: How can anyone be truly free in a country as violent and stupid as ours? The book still lives, because the question does.

–George Saunders, “The United States of Huck”, 2007

Boswell’s Life of Johnson

I would put a child into a library (where no unfit books are) and let him read at his choice. A child should not be discouraged from reading any thing that he takes a liking to, from a notion that it is above his reach. If that be the ease, the child will soon find it out and desist; if not, he of course gains the instruction; which is so much the more likely to come, from the inclination with which he takes up the study.

–James Boswell, quoting Johnson, 1791

Smile on the Void: the Mythhistory of Ralph M’Botu Kitaj (5)

…we are free, we are terrifyingly free, which is why we’re still shut up on this planet, deliberately ignoring what we truly see…because we’re scared to be free. Yet we have more possibilities and powers than any of us have ever imagined. Look at history. There are natural forces from which we grew estranged during the development of the intellect. We turned collectively from the Mother to the Father and the moon to the sun, from the earth to the sky and the gut to the brain. Losses and gains, learnings and forgettings–but there has been an increase. One cycle, one age has been completed, a new spiral up the ladder is beginning, and on this one we have to take charge of ourselves. Yet still we fight against out own innate freedom and power, and people still ask to be given everything on a plate. Some of them, anyway.

The smile grew wide.

The trouble is…that the survival and evolutionary value of a sense of humor is not fully appreciated. The sense of paradox and inner flexibility that gives us space to move in. People don’t laugh enough! But laughter can free us from the bonds of matter. It releases the consrictions in the body-field. And people talk of ‘dissolving into laughter’. Don’t you think that’s very suggestive?

–Stuart Gordon, 1981

Smile on the Void: the Mythhistory of Ralph M’Botu Kitaj (4)

Control of the energy of thought…The old dualism is dead. The entire Right Wing-Left Wing system. Just two monolithic lies propping each other up over a chasm. Two adjacent fingers of the same hand, in the same game, waving at each other as though they were opposites. Likewise all the other nineteenth-century reductionist rationalist fixations we’re still using as concept structure to hide in and fight about. Don’t you know? Sure you do! Politics of evolution. Some want to take the blinkers off and see more. Others want to keep them on and make sure everyone else does the same. Politics. And people who try taking the blinkers off all see different things, and start arguing about what’s the real description. More politics. Right now in this time we have to be asking the questions that matter–the big-time questions that’ll turn us to an overall view and some plan to know what the hell to do with this planet and ourselves. Because if we don’t, soon it’s all jackshit.

–Stuart Gordon, 1981

Smile on the Void: the Mythhistory of Ralph M’Botu Kitaj (3)

For a long time now information has been streaming into this world, into our varied minds, important information, from sources beyond our planetary system. The information itself is clear enough, but reception here has been poor. We have been picking it up in confused and incomplete form. One person intuits one part of the jigsaw, another picks up another, but few realize how the pieces fit, and false religion results.

Our names were called out long ago. We have taken many partners. We have danced many dances. We have made many patterns and worn many disguises–but now it is time to take off the masks and integrate, for the bell is tolling, we have little time, we have now to form a new realization of what we are and act on this realization–or we will die uselessly, and the planet will dance no more. We are here to stand as individuals, we are here to come together with our pieces of the jigsaw, we are here to admit and harness the powers that flow through us…for we are the Transformers of the world, and can decide the shape of things on earth.

–Stuart Gordon, 1981

Smile on the Void: the Mythhistory of Ralph M’Botu Kitaj (2)

The complexities are endless. Nobody agrees. There is no clarity in such theories. No useful light is shed. They reduce [him] to the status of robot or puppet, explaining his every action as the result of influence by other directed forces, giving him no free will at all. The arguments advanced by on faction (good-bad) can just as well be employed by another (bad-good). Nothing and anything at all can be suggested by such dualistic and nonrelative thinking, and I submit that the purpose of such speculation is not to discover anything valuable, but merely so that people can keep themselves happy by inventing something to believe in. Whatever is really going on, it is not to be understood by any fixed or conventional mode of thought. “Convictions make convicts”–we are imprisoned by whatever we believe, and it seems that many of us want to stay in jail. In a sense we are all battlegrounds of cosmic conflict (“As above, so below”) and I suspect there is indeed some truth, somewhere, somehow, in the “War in Heaven” theory. But dependence on such beliefs can lead to paranoia and irresponsibility: it is better to consider everything and believe nothing… for sure. The Unknown cannot contract to fit the Known. We have to expand.

–Stuart Gordon, 1981

Smile on the Void: the Mythhistory of Ralph M’Botu Kitaj (1)

…many of us have been educated to deny myth-thinking as part of the baggage of a nightmare past from which we are now struggling to awake. To pay heed to myth (as the Nazis did) can seem to mean a terrifying regression back to a superstitious sleep from which science and reason have but lately rescued us. However, the creative use of myth can guide us in self-discovery and lure us to wider understandings. It need not mean abandonment of reason and common sense; rather, it can lead to expansion and reorientation of the faculties. It is an obvious illusion to conisder this horrific era an Age of Reason: if we deny our mythic and intuitive faculties we will only plunge ourselves into worse confusion and disorder.

–Stuart Gordon, 1981

Spook Country

…how these heresies would get started, often spontaneously generating around some medieval equivalent of your more outspoken homeless mumbler. Organized religion, he saw, back in the day, had been purely a signal-to-noise proposition, at once the medium and he message, a one-channel universe. For Europe, that channel was Christian, and broadcasting from Rome, but nothing could broadcast faster than a man could travel on horseback. There was a hierarchy in place, and a highly organized methodology of top-down signal dissemination, but the time lag enforced by tech-lack imposed a near-disastrous ratio, the noise of heresy constantly threatening to overwhelm the signal.

–William Gibson, 2007

The Healthy Dead

Desire for goodness, Mister Reese, leads to earnestness. Earnestness in turn leads to sanctimonious self-righteousness, which breeds intolerance, upon which harsh judgement quickly follows, yielding dire punishment, inflicting general terror and paranoia, eventually culminating in revolt, leading to chaos, then dissolution, and thus, the end of civilisation.


Good living and health, as you say, yielding well being. But well-being is a contextual notion, a relative notion. Perceived benefits are measured by way of contrast. In any case, the result is smugness, and from that an overwhelming desire to deliver conformity among those perceived as less pure, less fortunate–the unenlightened, if you will. But conformity leads to ennui, and then indifference. From indifference, Mister Reese, dissolution follows as a natural course, and with it, once again, the end of civilisation.


The guise of reasonableness, Mister Reese, permits all manner of intolerance and indeed, pernicious attack. Once that illusion is torn away, however, the terror of oppression becomes a random act, perhaps indeed an all-encompassing one.


Do you think Lust thrives only in matters of sex and sordid indulgences? If so, my friends, you are wrong! Lust is born of obsession! Obsession begets zealotry! Zealotry breeds deadly intolerance! Intolerance leads to oppression, and oppression to tyranny. And tyrranny, citizens of Quaint, leads to–“

“The end of civilisation!” a thousand voices roared.

–Steven Erikson, 2004

Rant: An Oral Biography of Buster Casey (5)

I want to ask, you ever wonder why the dominant culture says certain stuff? I mean, really hammers on you that some stuff is absolutely, deadly impossible? For instance, what science calls the “Grandfather Paradox”? How it works out that you should never, ever even consider time travel, because you might go back in time and kill your own grandfather by accident, let’s say, and then–kah-poof–you’d not exist? I mean, if you trusted in the government experts, wouldn’t you be careful and never go back in time?

–Chuck Palahniuk, 2007