Lullaby by Chuck Palahniuk: “I don’t know the difference between what I want and what I’m trained to want.”
Lullaby: A Wake-Up Call From Chuck Palahniuk
The truth is, even if you read to your wife and child some night. You read them a lullaby. And the next morning, you wake up but your family doesn’t. You lie in bed, still curled against your wife. She’s still warm but not breathing. Your daughter’s not crying. The house is already hectic with traffic and talk radio and steam pounding through the pipes inside the wall. The truth is, you can forget even that day for the moment it takes to make a perfect knot in your tie.
This I know. This is my life.
Do I really want a big house, a fast car, a thousand beautiful sex partners? Do I really want these things? Or am I trained to want them?
Are these things really better than the things I already have? Or am I just trained to be dissatisfied with what I have now? Am I just under a spell that says nothing is ever good enough?
There are worse things you can do to the people you love than kill them. The regular way is just to watch the world do it. Just read the newspaper.
Do you realize that anything you can do in your lifetime will be meaningless a hundred years from now?
You might move away, but that’s not enough. You’ll take up a hobby. You’ll bury yourself in work. Change your name. You’ll cobble things together. Make order out of chaos. You’ll do this each time your foot is healed enough, and you have the money. Organize every detail.
This isn’t what a therapist will tell you to do, but it works.
The problem with every story is you tell it after the fact. Even play-by-play description on the radio, the home runs, and strikeouts, even that’s delayed a few minutes. Even live television is postponed a couple seconds. Even sound and light can only go so fast.
Something foreign is always living itself through you. Your whole life is the vehicle for something to come to earth An evil spirit. A theory. A marketing campaign. A political strategy. A religious doctrine.
Centuries ago, sailors on long voyages used to leave a pair of pigs on every deserted island. Or they’d leave a pair of goats. Either way, on any future visit, the island would be a source of meat. These islands, they were pristine. These were home to breeds of birds with no natural predators. Breeds of birds that lived nowhere else on earth. The plants there, without enemies they evolved without thorns or poisons. Without predators and enemies, these islands, they were paradise. The sailors, the next time they visited these islands, the only things still there would be herds of goats or pigs. …. Does this remind you of anything? Maybe the ol’ Adam and Eve story? …. You ever wonder when God’s coming back with a lot of barbecue sauce?
So if reality is all a spell, and you don’t really want what you think you want… If you have no free will. You don’t really know what you know. You don’t really love who you only think you love. What do you have left to live for?
The muffled thunder of dialogue comes through the walls, then a chorus of laughter. Then more thunder. Most of the laugh tracks on television were recorded in the early 1950s. These days, most of the people you hear laughing are dead.
The voice says, maybe you don’t go to hell for the things you do. Maybe you go to hell for the things you don’t do. The things you don’t finish.
Her haunting me. The way a song stays in your head. The way you think life should be. How anything holds your
attention. How your past goes with you into every day of your future.
This isn’t about love and hate, it’s about control. People don’t sit down and read a poem to kill their child. They just want the child to sleep. They just want to dominate. No matter how much you love someone, you still want to have your own way. The masochist bullies the sadist into action. The most passive person is actually an aggressor.
You ever wonder if Adam and Eve were just the puppies God dumped because they wouldn’t house-train?
Do we have free will, or do the mass media and our culture control us, our desires and actions, from the moment we’re born?
We’re all of us haunted and haunting.
These music-oholics. These calm-ophobics.
No one wants to admit we’re addicted to music. That’s just not possible. No one’s addicted to music and television and radio. We just need more of it, more channels, a larger screen, more volume. We can’t bear to be without it, but no, nobody’s addicted.
We could turn it off anytime we wanted.
Are these things really better than the things I already have? Or am I just trained to be dissatisfied with what I have now?
Experts in ancient Greek culture say that people back then didn’t see their thoughts as belonging to them. When ancient Greeks had a thought, it occurred to them as a god or goddess giving an order. Apollo was telling them to be brave. Athena was telling them to fall in love.
Now people hear a commercial for sour cream potato chips and rush out to buy, but now they call this free will. At least the ancient Greeks were being honest.
Maybe humans are just the pet alligators that God flushed down the toilet.
These distraction-oholics. These focus-ophobics.
Old George Orwell got it backward.
Big Brother isn’t watching. He’s singing and dancing. He’s pulling rabbits out of a hat. Big Brother’s busy holding your attention every moment you’re awake. He’s making sure you’re always distracted. He’s making sure you’re fully absorbed.
He’s making sure your imagination withers. Until it’s as useful as your appendix. He’s making sure your attention is always filled.
And this being fed, it’s worse than being watched. With the world always filling you, no one has to worry about what’s in your mind. With everyone’s imagination atrophied, no one will ever be a threat to the world.
There are worse things than finding your wife and child dead.
You can watch the world do it. You can watch your wife get old and bored. You can watch your kids discover everything in the world you’ve tried to save them from. Drugs, divorce, conformity, disease. All the nice clean books, music, television. Distraction.
Every generation wants to be the last. Every generation hates the next trend in music they can’t understand. We hate to give up those reins of our culture. To find our own music playing in elevators. The ballad for our revolution turned into background music for a television commercial. To find our generation’s clothes and hair suddenly retro.
The best way to waste your life is by taking notes. The easiest way to avoid living is to just watch. Look for the details. Report. Don’t participate. Let Big Brother do the singing and dancing for you. Be a reporter. Be a good witness. A grateful member of the
The more people die, the more things stay the same.
The music and laughter eat away at your thoughts. The noise blots them out. All the sound distracts. Your headaches from the glue.
Anymore, no one’s mind is their own. You can’t concentrate. You can’t think. There’s always some noise worming in. Singers shouting. Dead people laughing. Actors crying. All these little doses of emotion.
Someone’s always spraying the air with their mood.
Their car stereo, broadcasting their grief or joy or anger all over the neighborhood.
The new death, this plague, can come from anywhere. A song. An overhead announcement. A news bulletin. A sermon. A street musician. You can catch death from a telemarketer. A teacher. An Internet file. A birthday card. A fortune cookie.
A million people might watch a television show, then be dead the next morning because of an advertising jingle.
Imagine the panic.
It’s nothing perfect or complete, but this is what I’ve made of my life. Right or wrong, it follows no great master plan. All you can do is hope for a pattern to emerge, and sometimes it never does. Still, with a plan, you only get the best you can imagine. I’d always hoped for something better than that.
Imagine a world of silence where any sound loud enough or long enough to harbor a deadly poem would be banned. No more motorcycles, lawn mowers, jet planes, electric blenders, hair dryers. The world where people are afraid to listen, afraid they’ll hear something behind the din of traffic. Some toxic words buried in the loud music playing next door. Imagine a higher and higher resistance to language. No one talks because no one dares to listen.
Gemstones are the hardest things on earth, but they still break. They can take constant stress and pressure, but a sudden, sharp impact can shatter them into dust.
The trick to forgetting the big picture is to look at everything close-up.
She said to think of all the people you’d like out of your life. Think of all the loose ends you could tie up. The revenge. Think how easy it would be.
Do you know why most survivors of the Holocaust are vegan? It’s because they know what it’s like to be treated like an animal.
Up through the floor, someone’s barking the words to a song. These people who need their television or stereo or radio playing all the time. These people so scared of silence. These are my neighbors. These sound-oholics. These quiet-ophobics. Laughter of the dead comes through every wall. These days, this is what passes for home sweet home. This siege of noise.
You tell yourself that noise is what defines silence. Without noise, silence would not be golden. Noise is the exception. Think of deep outer space, the incredible cold and quiet where your wife and kid wait. Silence, not heaven, would be reward enough.
You turn up your music to hide the noise. Other people turn up their music to hide yours. You turn up yours again. Everyone buys a bigger stereo system. This is the arms race of sound. You don’t win with a lot of treble.
This isn’t about quality. It’s about volume.
This isn’t about music. This is about winning.
You stomp the competition with the bass line. You rattle windows. You drop the melody line and shout the lyrics. You put in foul language and come down hard on each cussword.
You dominate. This is really about power.
Until you deal with your real personal issues, you’ll never be able to control yourself.
I need to rebel against myself. It’s the opposite of following your bliss. I need to do what I most fear.
You kill strangers deliberately so you don’t accidentally kill the people you love.
This isn’t about guilt or innocence, he says. The dinosaurs weren’t morally good or bad, but they’re all dead.
No matter how bad things get, you can still walk away.
The trick to forgetting the big picture is to look at everything close-up.
The shortcut to closing a door is to bury yourself in the details.
This is how we must look to God.
As if everything’s just fine.
In journalism school, they teach you to start with your most important fact. The inverted pyramid, they call it. Put the who, what, where, when, and why at the top of the article. Then list the lesser facts in descending order. That way, an editor can lop off any length of the story without losing anything too important.
All the little details, the smell of the bedspread, the food on the plates, the color of the Christmas tree ornament, that stuff always gets left on the Composing Room floor.
The only pattern in crib death is it tends to increase as the weather cools in the fall. This is the fact my editor wants to lead with in our first installment. Something to panic people. Five babies, five installments. This way we can keep people reading the series for five consecutive Sundays. We can promise to explore the causes and patterns of sudden infant death. We can hold out hope.
Some people still think knowledge is power.
In a world where vows are worthless. Where making a pledge means nothing. Where promises are made to be broken, it would be nice to see words come back into power.
Sticks and stones will break your bones, but now words can kill, too.
According to Mona, you shouldn’t kill people, because that drives you away from humanity. In order to justify killing, you have to make the victim your enemy. To justify any crime, you have to make the victim your enemy.
After long enough, everyone in the world will be your enemy.
With every crime, Mona says, you’re more and more alienated from the world. More and more, you imagine the whole world is against you.
In the Greco-Roman literary tradition, Mona says, there are night witches and day witches. Day witches are good and nurturing. Night witches are secretive and bent on destroying all civilization.
Mona says, “You two are definitely night witches.”
These people who gave us democracy and architecture, Mona says magic was an everyday part of their lives. Businessmen put curses on each other. Neighbors cursed neighbors. Near the site of the original Olympic Games, archaeologists have found old wells full of curses placed by athletes on other athletes.
Imagine a plague you catch through your ears.
Oyster and his tree-hugging, eco-bullshit, his bio-invasive, apocryphal bullshit. The virus of his information. What used to be a beautiful deep green jungle to me, it’s now a tragedy of English ivy choking everything else to death. The lovely shining black flocks of starlings, with their creepy whistling songs, they rob the nests of a hundred different native birds.
Imagine an idea that occupies your mind the way an army occupies a city.
All we know is, we don’t know.
After listening to Oyster, a glass of milk isn’t just a nice drink with chocolate chip cookies. It’s cows forced to stay pregnant and pumped with hormones. It’s the inevitable calves that live a few miserable months, squeezed in veal boxes. A pork chop means a pig, stabbed and bleeding, with a snare around one foot, being hung up to die screaming as it’s sectioned into chops and roasts and lard. Even a hard-boiled egg is a hen with her feet crippled from living in a battery cage only four inches wide, so narrow she can’t raise her wings, so maddening her beak is cut off so she won’t attack the hens trapped on each side of her. With her feathers rubbed off by the cage and her beak cut, she lays egg after egg until her bones are so depleted of calcium that they shatter at the slaughterhouse.
This is the chicken in chicken noodle soup, the laying hens, the hens so bruised and scarred that they have to be shredded and cooked because nobody would ever buy them in a butcher’s case. This is the chicken in corn dogs. Chicken nuggets.
This is all Oyster talks about. This is his plague of information. This is when I turn on the radio, to country and western music. To basketball. Anything, so long as it’s loud and constant and lets me pretend my breakfast sandwich is just a breakfast sandwich. That an animal is just that. An egg is just an egg. Cheese isn’t a tiny suffering veal. That eating this is my right as a human being.
Here’s Big Brother singing and dancing so I don’t start thinking too much for my own good.
The only rule was, a spell has to be twisted. The more hidden, the more twisted, the more powerful the spell. To witches, the twists themselves are magical. They draw or sculpt the magician-god Hephaestus with his legs twisted.
The more twisted the spell, the more it will twist and hobble the victim. It’ll confuse them. Occupy their attention. They’ll stumble. Get dizzy. Not concentrate.
The same as Big Brother with all his singing and dancing.
The best way to waste your life is by taking notes. The easiest way to avoid living is to just watch. Look for the details. Report. Don’t participate. Let Big Brother do the singing and dancing for you. Be a reporter. Be a good witness. A grateful member of the audience.
All that work and love and effort and time, my life, wasted. Everything I hoped would outlive me I’ve ruined.
All you can do is hope for a pattern to emerge, and sometimes it never does. Still, with a plan, you only get the best you can imagine. I’d always hoped for something better than that.
Between television and radio and Helen Hoover Boyle’s magic spells, I don’t know what I really want anymore. If I even believe myself, I don’t know.
I don’t know the difference between what I want and what I’m trained to want.
I can’t tell what I really want and what I’ve been tricked into wanting.
What I’m talking about is free will. Do we have it, or does God dictate and script everything we do and say and want? Do we have free will, or do the mass media and our culture control us, our desires and actions, from the moment we’re born? Do I have it, or is my mind under the control of Helen’s spell?
“So if reality is all a spell, and you don’t really want what you think you want … If you have no free will. You don’t really know what you know. You don’t really love who you only think you love. What do you have left to live for?”
All images © Yishu Wang