Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The content of a/your character

Chen Mengjia and Bill Hicks never met. Except in my mind. I read of them two books apart but I'm sure, despite lacking a common tongue, might speak a common language. And despite being of different times and cultures, they might have had some common references. 
The two come to mind for many similarities - but mainly because I read them close together: Chen was a thread in a book, Oracle Bones (by Peter Hessler, mentioned in an earlier blog). He was vocal to prevent Chinese characters being discarded in favour of an alphabet and first got labelled a Rightist, then a Counter-Revolutionary and when the Cultural Revolution happened, he had one Struggle Session too many and leapt out a window to end it all.
He had a certain foolhardiness to be vocal about Chinese characters because it was Chairman Mao who was the proponent of using an alphabet. Speaking against an idea of the leader, is to speak against the leader. But he had something to say. And why not say it? Can holding opinions really be a crime? And what if they're transformed into words?
Bill Hicks lived in a more forgiving time although he still found the social climate of America in the 80s and early 90s a cross to bear. But if he didn't have that cross to bear perhaps he wouldn't have been a comedian. His opinions, probably most of them, were transformed into "sets" and rants that he did on stage to both entertained and appalled audiences. He did feel that he had a message of change. But perhaps, crudely, his work only pushed the boundaries of acceptability.
My introduction to him had been a strange one. A cassette album I bought about 12 years ago had a drawing of him on the inside cover (captioned: "another dead hero"), without explanation. I thought it was the band trying to create a mythology for their album and thought nothing of it. It was only later that I read that the weird stand-up clips that got spliced into songs on another album were said by the very same person, but without referencing where they came from. It is strange to know the words spoken by someone long before you know the person themselves.
Hicks died young from pancreatic cancer. A harrowing struggle session in itself, but not from the Man he railed against, and who swallowed Chen, but from the Nature that he venerated. Irony, I guess. His comedy wasn't terribly accessible. His words could be coarse, crude, brutal and violent. But that was part of his point: that there is freedom to say and do these things. When flag burning became a constitutional issue, he lit cigarettes with a burning flag. A symbol of what gives freedom should not be used to suppress freedom.
In the last phase of his life, Hicks had his own patch of being censored. He had huge admiration for David Letterman and felt it a privilege till the twelth and final time he appeared on the Late Show with David Letterman. The best way to tell this story is from the mouth, well, show, of one of the protagonists: Click on 1, 2, and 3. I'll take the apparent: David Letterman can be exceedingly humble in his apology. Truly, a lesson for us all. In the Hick's biography he was a paper thin character but I'd assume that he decided to seek this redemption off his own bat. 
Mao, our fourth protagonist, probably didn't specifically demand the persecution of Chen Mengjia. He didn't need to. (Society also doesn't need to, either, to snuff out undesireable voices.) But he pre-empted some of the Hicks irony with his own form: After being strongly of the mind that Chinese Characters should be done away with in order to increase literacy, he did an about-turn and decided they just needed to be simplified. At the time it wasn't explained why. But Mao had said it and thus it was done. Literacy didn't improve but in death, perhaps, Chen might feel better though not if he knew the whole story: According to Hessler, Mao wasn't swayed by the martyr-like words of people like Chen; he had a chat with Stalin who advised against it.
We can pipe up and pipe down but change often happens in its own way.

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