Sunday, November 3, 2013

The Residents of Pious Mountain

One of the most interesting things I ever did in Grad school was a reception study of Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five. A reception study is a research paper in which you research how a work was received by critics and popular culture upon its first publication. This has always been one of my favorite books so I found the exercise fascinating. Other people in the class were doing equally interesting projects on controversial works, one did Lolita and another The Tropic of Cancer. We all found some really odd articles about our given work of literature, some strange, comical or even disturbing. The one that always stuck out with me was an article I found where the critic accused Vonnegut of anti-Semitism, not for anything he said, but for what he didn't say. This critic suggested that any novel about World War II that didn't mention The Holocaust was anti-Semitic. I found this preposterous and still do. Slaughterhouse Five is Vonnegut's most personal work and is a farcical representation of his own experience during the air bombing of Dresden. He didn't mention The Holocaust because he didn't experience it. He was a prisoner of war for most of the War.

This critic was a resident of Pious Mountain. The residents of Pious Mountain never miss an opportunity to fill the world with their deafening cries of superiority. They have to bring you down, to bring themselves up. This may be the oldest example that I have ever seen. Nowadays, they are everywhere. They can be seen all over the Internet, calling everyone names, "racist," "classist," "ageist" or "misogynist." The Residents of Pious Mountain shut down dialogue with every stroke of their Enter key, accomplishing nothing other than augmenting their own sense of smugness and self-entitlement.

They aren't always on the Internet. A few years ago, I arrived at work with a copy of Huckleberry Finn which I read on the bus. This is a great American classic, that everyone should read, full of political humor, sarcasm and biting commentary on 19th century America. But on that day, a coworker of mine picked up my Twain and said (paraphrasing), "you shouldn't be reading this book, it is a racist book." I believe I responded by saying, "What does that mean? Books can't be racists, people are racist." He had surprised me, so I probably wasn't that coherent. He then opened the book, leafed through it and then pointed at a page, "there it is, the N word." I tried to convince him of the book's greatness, of its importance in the canon, that you cannot judge a book by picking and choosing individual words and quoting them out of context. As you would expect, he never came down from Pious Mountain and I sat down there in the valley of my shame being put in the position of explaining myself.

I have had similar experiences with Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass. An acquaintance called it "pornography." After these two experiences, I learned to tuck my book into my backpack before entering the workplace. When it comes to Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer, get yourself a good old fashioned book cover and don't leave the house without it.

The residents of Pious Mountain are usually well-meaning, well-educated and possessors of much guilt. It is understandable why surface judgements are easy, especially of anything that challenges your beliefs or makes you look at the world in a new way. It is a lot easier to point a finger and judge than grasp a new idea. That new idea might make you feel bad, in a society of participation trophies and self-esteem junkies, judging others for not being as pious as you is mere food for the ego. The Internet has brought this to epidemic levels. The easiest targets are celebrities and politicians. Michael Richards has a moment of weakness while doing a stand-up and every pious jerk on the net is calling him a "racist."

I have always called myself a liberal. What this means to me is that I am open to new ideas and possibilities, but it is difficult, when there is a screen of taboo words, ideas or books blocking the view. It just makes me want to scream at the top of my lungs, "come down from Pious Mountain."


Olga said...

Reading is a dangerous and subversive activity. It leaves one prey to all kinds of manipulation. Read a certain and--just like that!--you under the mind control of the author. The notion that a reader might be able to think objectively about what she is reading, be able to put ideas into context? Where does that come from?
My sister actually had the members of a book group she belonged to ask her if she could not just, please, read the book and not think about it.
It is a hard row to hoe, being a liberal these days.

Mark Peloquin said...

Wow, not think during a book group! I can't say I am surprised. They seem more social than intellectual.

Sextant said...

Excellent post! One of the things that I have read, and I am guilty of it myself, is that people on the Web tend to the old adage the bird of the feather flock together. So not only do we tend to get righteously indignant but we tend to get righteously indignant in flocks of righteously indignants.

Cable news shows fall into the same category, we often get our news only from the talking head that tells us what we want to hear.

This is a wonderful post and I need to chew on it a while.

Mark Peloquin said...

I stand up at the top of Pious Mountain too much myself. I have to say that I have been catching myself since I wrote this. This is a good thing.