There Is No Moral Here
The last journal that I wrote was about the last chapter of The Things They Carried, by Tim O'Brien. I wrote it twice, the second version being an attempt to compensate for the fact that the first really wasn't as good an essay as I would have liked. On both drafts, I received the comment that "the issue is truth / morality", that I should try to discuss that issue more. I would disagree with this statement. I would like to assert that, in this chapter, truth and morality are not at all at issue, that, in fact, they are pointedly excluded from the chapter and its content to a degree even that separates this chapter from the rest of the book.
The main idea of this chapter is the concept of bringing the dead back to life, through interactions with them, through telling stories about them. The idea of bringing the dead back to life is not a moral; it is a representative form of emotional completion, of helping oneself to understand, to come to terms with, the death of a friend. O'Brien creates these stories, these "illusions of aliveness" (230) to "ke[ep] the dead alive" (239), so that their death is not so sudden, so that it doesn't leave such a painful emptiness in his heart and mind. One could argue that this is the moral, that one has to tell stories about a dead friend in order to come to terms with the loss. Then again, one could argue that the whole thing is about red stocking caps and, with this style of writing, successfully prove the point. I should do that sometime; it would make for a good journal. But in any case, both of these ideas, in my opinion, are wrong.
This idea, this way of coming to terms with loss, cannot be the moral of the book, nor can it be the moral of this chapter. It can't be the moral of the book because it has nothing to do with any part of the book, except for this one chapter; nowhere else is there any sign of grief, does anyone show this need to recall the spirits of the dead. It can't be the moral of the chapter because it is by definition not a moral. The dictionary definition of a moral is:
mor - al
Teaching or exhibiting goodness or correctness of character and behavior: a moral lesson.(MS Bookshelf 1996-97 ed.)
Coming to terms with loss has nothing to do with 'goodness or correctness'; it is the fulfillment of a human need, necessary but neither right nor wrong.
Even if there were a moral, if there were an inner truth, the whole idea of looking for it would be completely beside the point. O'Brien says this himself, in the book: "In a true war story, if there's a moral at all, it's like the thread that makes the cloth. You can't tease it out. You can't extract the meaning" (77); "in a true war story, nothing is ever absolutely true" (82). This chapter clearly is a true war story, or at least a collection of them; it fulfills each of O'Brien's many definitions of a war story, and even just reading it, it feels like one. As a true war story, it does not and cannot have any definable moral; it does not and cannot hold a definable inner truth. It may very well hold both of these, a moral and a truth, but if it did it would be impossible to grasp either of them.
Often in a true war story there is not even a point, or else the point doesn't hit you until twenty years later, in your sleep, and you wake up and shake your wife and start telling the story to her, except when you get to the end you've forgotten the point again. And then for a long time you lie there watching the story happen in your head. You listen to your wife's breathing. The war's over. You close your eyes. You smile and think, Christ, what's the point? (82)
The point that O'Brien is trying to make about morals is that, in the realm of war, they don't exist. War is inherently immoral; in war, "[t]here is no rectitude whatsoever. There is no virtue" (69). Therefore, what's the point in looking for a moral? This, actually, is the closest thing to a moral in this book. But even it is not a moral; "[i]t does not instruct, nor encourage virtue" (68). It is an attempt to "restrain men from doing the things men have always done", but it would seem to have failed. We, as AP English students, spend all our time delving deep into the heart of the unanswered questions. For every question, there must be an answer; if we just dig a little deeper, it will surely be there. But in digging so deep, in focusing in so finely on a single idea, we lose track of the meaning of what we are looking at. We forget also that the resolution of writing is finite, that words themselves have no deeper meaning. The meaning that we so often find in them comes entirely from ourselves; we make it up.
I refer the reader to a story in Norton, Part I of "Examsmanship and the Liberal Arts" (544). I don't recall if we read it for homework or if I just stumbled upon it somehow, but in any case, it fits perfectly here. From this story, I would define 'bull' (547) as anything made-up, usually come upon through too deep an investigation into a piece of writing. As this story shows, anyone can make up a whole set of bull and use it to write an essay involving anything about which they have even the least bit of information. They need only dig around enough in that information to come up with a few made-up ideas, and then dig around in those ideas enough that they can make up some essay about them. The only trick is to be able to lead the reader on, to make them feel that the imagined ideas are inherent in the text. This is what we try to do, consciously or otherwise, in every essay that we write. The moment in time when I first realized this is the moment that I began to write good essays.
I say 'consciously or otherwise' because, in fact, the vast majority of the time we are not aware that we are writing bull. This is true for several reasons. Firstly, many of the ideas that we come up with are based strongly in our culture, in clichés, fables, stories with morals, in things that we have all been told since childhood. These are things that have become so much a part of each of us that unstated assumptions based on them, be they true or false, seem obvious and clearly correct. I present, as an example, the idea that war is a bad, destructive thing. We all know it; it is incredibly obvious, but at the same time, it is false, or at least nowhere near the whole story. Were there no such thing as war, we would not have ever gone to the moon, modern medicine would basically not exist, and the arts, based as they often are on strife and conflict, would be far less influential on our lives today.
My second reason for saying this is that, from my point of view, many people don't even really seem to know about this whole idea of writing bull. This opinion is based entirely on my own experiences; I have no good way to verify any of this, so nobody get mad at me here if I'm wrong… The knowledge may be subconsciously there, but it is often ignored or even suppressed; no one, especially those who really love working with this kind of writing, want to admit that their work has little grounding in reality (although it should be said that math, science, and a good part of history have equally little grounding in reality, so writing is hardly alone here). For some people, maybe, generation of good bull was just automatic; no thought went into it, so they never had occasion to think about the nature of such ideas.
This makes a good lead-in to explaining my earlier comment, "The moment in time when I first realized this is the moment that I began to write good essays". Some people may have unconsciously known that to write good English essays you have to make up stuff; I would not be one of them. 9th grade English: My essays weren't bad, but they had one core flaw; they were almost entirely composed of "cow" (Norton 547). They had no bull at all whatsoever; they were entirely fact-based, with only well-supported, proven analysis. 10th grade: Well, I could (and should) write an entire essay on that year; I went to a different school in a different state for the year.., but suffice it to say that, using what I learned there with what I had been thoroughly confounded by the year before, I figured out by the end of the year how to write bull. 11th grade: go figure. Or go read my other essays; either works. That's not to say that this year's essays are any better; I in fact think that they are worse, and that is the ultimate point of this essay.
I dislike this style of writing because it is based on 'bull', made-up figments of our imagination, more than it is based on the books and narratives that it is supposedly about. I suppose it would make a good tool for psychoanalysts; our essays tell more about ourselves than we sometimes think, and clearly more about ourselves than anything else. These essays are tools, if one is careful not to overanalyze them as well, for understanding ourselves. This is a very useful piece of information, but it means that we need another tool to understand literature.
I started off this essay by criticizing a comment made about an opinion I stated. As to which is right, which is the real truth, "it doesn't matter" (O'Brien 238). Both points of view can be seen as right, and both can be seen as wrong. This leads to a logical conundrum; unprovable ideas are the source of both the best and the worst essays; the only fundamental difference between the essays is that essays are called 'bad' "when we detect [bull]" (Norton 549) in them. So what to do with our present system of essays? I see two possible paths. One is to have fun with this seeming paradox; come up with the most fun and creative ideas that you can and "put fancy spin on [them], … make [them dance" (O'Brien 32), and then work out a way to convince the world of them. This is essentially what we are already doing, except that it acknowledges the myths that are being spread, and makes the official purpose of writing essays mirror the way they are judged. The other path is to develop an entirely different technique of writing, one that somehow evades the need for 'bull' while simultaneously avoids the dullness inherent in 'cow'. But the development of such a system is a task for someone either far more perceptive or with far more free time than myself, so I go with the first path. For me, the only good thing to do about bull is to have fun with it.