April 16, 2007


Like most people, I imagine, I have spent much of the day wishing that the news of the day was something altogether and entirely different.

Inevitably, we will hear much about the author of these crimes--and the country will be introduced, perhaps, to new subcultures, just as in the wake of the Colombine killings we learned about Goth, and in previous school shootings we learned all about first person shooter games. Perhaps the slaughterer had a fondness for anime or the new wave of Asian gangster films. Perhaps he belonged to a Neo-Marxist listserve, or a gnostic study group. From the incidentals and ephemera of the slaughterer's life, some will try to construct meaningful patterns.

But there are no patterns. There are individuals, and some of us, frankly, are somewhat defective. Most of us have had our hearts "broken" at one point or another, most of us have enjoyed competitive games, a violent movie or two, a sad song...but we don't strap on a vest loaded with ammo...

When the novel The Sorrows of Young Werther was published in the 18th Century, it created something of a sensation. A favorite among the young, it was translated into dozens of languages. Emulating the novel's hapless hero, some readers committed suicide over unhappy romances. In China, a professor once told me, young men threw themselves into volcanoes...

A couple of centuries after its original publication, the book retains much of its power. I read it as a teenager, and found it profoundly moving. As luck would have it, I was going through a bit of a breakup myself at the time I read it, and, while my circumstances couldn't have been more different than Werther's, I still thought of his sorrows useful to drown my own in. Despite that, I had no desire to dive into a volcano.

It is not relevant to my point to note that Werther reads very differently to, say, a better adjusted 22-year-old than it did to a 17-year-old (I was rather embarrassed to see how little I understood the book the first time around).

It may well have been better had the slaughterer similarly misunderstood Goethe, and thrown himself into a volcano. But attempts to point to culture as the key to his actions are misguided.

Posted by Ideofact at April 16, 2007 11:11 PM