Tag Archives: B. Traven

Clerks and Errand Boys

The other day I read about a writer for Guns and Ammo magazine who was abruptly fired after an article of his questioned the notion that any regulation of guns was unconstitutional. Apparently advertisers suggested that if the writer stayed, they wouldn’t.

One Friday evening I attended church and heard the pastor utter a phrase that astonished me, given his evangelical audience. He said, “Look, if you think ‘My country is always right and the enemy’s always wrong,’ you’re not getting that from the Bible.”

On Sunday, I returned to see if he repeated the phrase to the much larger and generally more traditional audience. He didn’t. For a couple weeks I was furious, until I began to look at the log in my own eye and realize that I, like everyone who speaks or writes for a living, to one degree or another plays to his or her audience.

As do we all, whether our audience be a public, a boss, or an institution.

Still, whenever I’m reminded of how much our careers depend upon not only upon what we do or say but also upon what we don’t do or say, I recall the Marlon Brando character Kurtz in the film Apocalypse Now.

A soldier named Willard has been sent into the jungle to terminate Kurtz, a renegade American army captain who appears to have gone mad and resorted to the most savage tactics.

Here’s the scene:

Kurtz: You are an assassin?

Willard: A soldier.

Kurtz: You are neither. You are an errand boy, sent by grocery clerks, to collect a bill.

I had the privilege of meeting the author Kurt Vonnegut when I was studying at the University of Iowa and he came for a visit. At a party, a few of us were in the kitchen when Mr. Vonnegut offered some theories about how the world works. A big issue at the time was the price of gasoline. He said, “Suppose you work at a gas station and I come to buy gas and you charge me a dollar a gallon, and I argue that you’re out of line charging so much, and you say ‘I have to charge you that much, because that’s the price my boss set.’ You see, that’s a lie. You don’t have to charge that much. You don’t have to keep that job.”

Certainly there are rebuttals to his argument, but they all are pragmatic, and they lead me to think about another fine author, B. Traven (who, by the way, appears in my upcoming Tom Hickey novel The Good Know Nothing). Traven argued that we always have a choice. If, with a gun barrel pressed to our temples, we are commanded to do something, we can refuse, and die.

Which makes me think of our challenge as writers, or students, or employees of any sort. Because the degree to which we cater to our audience, even though the effort may oppose our own aesthetics or values, may well determine our material success or failure.

I’m not advocating that we should approach our work idealistically, pragmatically, or with a moderate dose of each attitude. That has to be a personal decision.

But I am suggesting that we would do well to recognize our freedom and now and then stop to ask “Am I an errand boy sent by grocery clerks to collect a bill?”

Or what?


Getting It

The common belief about knowledge, at least in our culture, is that to claim knowledge about something we should be able to backup the claim with logic, sensory observation, personal experience, or a solid reason to trust the provider of the knowledge.

But sometimes we encounter ideas we simply know are true even though they don’t come through any of the accepted methods.  Occasionally an idea rings so true that it sets off a whole new vision and calls us to view ourselves, or an element of our lives, or the whole world, in a remarkably different way. Light breaks into the cave.  Suddenly we “get it.”

My earliest recollection of “getting it” is of my reaction to Feodor Dostoyevski’s Crime and Punishment.  The best I can express the experience in words is, I realized that compared to love, nothing else matters.

Later, the final lines of John Keats “Ode on a Grecian Urn” knocked me out cold.  “Beauty is truth, truth beauty–that is all/ Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” When I came to, the world was a far richer place.

And William Butler Yeats’ “The Second Coming” floored me, and convinced me that the “rough beast … slouching toward Bethlehem to be born,” was real and something I had better reckon with.

Then came Sören Kierkegaard.  I wish I could recall the passage, because its theme has haunted me ever since, with the knowledge that Christian churches can be the enemies of Christ.

While most evangelists labor to bring people to church or lead them to professions of faith, Kierkegaard challenged us to undertake a passionate, vigilant, and persistent search for truth.  I suspect he believed that if Christ, as he claimed, is the truth, to Christ is where honest truth seekers are bound, whether or not they set off in that direction.

Churches, like schools or mentors, can be valuable resources, or distractions, or worse.

During graduate school, I had the privilege of hanging out with novelist Kurt Vonnegut. At a party, a few of us gathered in the kitchen, which is often the setting for the most engaging conversations.  Mr. Vonnegut used the platform to argue that if one of us worked in a gas station and the price of a gallon was outrageous, we should realize our responsibility for charging that price, and not blame the station owner or anyone else. Because we had chosen to work there.

B. Traven, author of Treasure of the Sierra Madre, maintained that oppressed people should realize that they don’t need to remain oppressed. They could choose to die resisting.

What these bright fellows were getting at with their extreme examples is that each of us, not our nation, employer, family, or pastor holds the ultimately responsibility for our thoughts or actions.

As Kierkegaard would have us recognize, neither God nor our conscience, if we attend to it, condones the neglect of our capacity to discover the truth and act accordingly.

Which is good advice to remember especially now that a cadre of pastors have declared they mean to preach on politics.

Ken Kuhlken, www.kenkuhlken.net