Parable For The Death Culture

Copyright © by SuZi, 9/4/12


  Human beings are brutal, cruel: it is this which distinguishes us humans from the other beings of our home, our beleaguered planet. Many assert that it is the use of tools that distinguishes humans, but is not the careful weaving of materials into a nest a cradle, has not enough documentation of twigs used as forks by other primates sufficient to show that humans are not the only tool users—let it be so. Humans are brutal: they kill for pleasure. Even the virus that kills its host, does so because of rapacity –which humans also possess in the form of colonization, over-population, resource exhaustion and environmental toxication. Since the cultural shift generally called the Industrial Revolution, human violence has escalated to the point of planetary toxicosis; human culture is now so Post-Industrial that we are even Post-Technological—since Technology is as entrenched in our lives as the steam engine once was—and human arrogance has gone beyond mere killing of individuals to wholesale species extinction. The apogee of the commitment of Human Culture to being a Death Culture was the invention of the atomic bomb.

  Robert Olen Butler, in Countrymen of Bones, takes this moment in human history and the Los Alamos setting as the basis for what might appear to be a historical novel. There’s two primary characters and a love interest; a superficial read of this text would yield only amusing portraits—Oppenheimer wearing tweed in the heat, an irate rancher who has lost his generations-held land to the military—yet Butler makes a promise in the first paragraph for a subtext: “The mesquite was stunted and hard, like the souls of the men making this war.” Butler keeps his didactic point slyly withheld for the next twenty pages, investing the reader’s attention into the character of  the archeologist (who he names Darrell Reeves), and making the text’s  didactic points part of the character’s perception: “ […] 800 Die; Russians Reach Baltic; A Thousand Dead; 500 Dead; Civilian Dead; Dead; Die; Fall […]The world had gone mad and the madness was all being chronicles in carefully set type […] Only those who were alive filled Darrell’s head for a moment. Only the living, the madmen, running governments, armies.” (39) That the primary character is an archeologist is an amusing symbol: comparable to a  writer, an archeologist invests ghosts with presence and a sympathetic eye. Butler has his archeologist specialize in a lost culture of North America, of that of a city in the Mississippi River bottoms “that could have been the largest in the world in the twelfth century and the center of a great empire of trade” (65). Wry, ironic, Butler posits the sad comparison of a culture destroyed to that of our own current one.

  In conflict to Butler’s archeologist is his scientist, ostensibly a physicist (Lloyd  Coulter). Butler has his characters create a touchstone of detente with the phrase “We’re men of science, you and I. Men of the mind” (85) when they first meet, but the physicist is concerned only with his project and with the love interest Butler names Anna Brown. More importantly, Butler’s physicist is depicted as “frankly threatening” (84), and the first meeting between these two “men of the mind” as being one where “ their faces neutral now but hard, their bodies motionless but oscillating within, waiting for something drastic” (85). Whether or not the reader can relate to the concerns of archeology, anthropology and physics depicted in the text, Butler’s two primary characters also exist as men, as brutes interested in the same female, and the rising anxiety of the novel is not just the creation of the apocalyptic bomb, but also of the rising violence between the two characters.

  Unfortunately, Butler’s female remains a symbolic character, an Anywoman, distinguished  in romantic terms by physical characteristics: “She had  very large, dark eyes –the eyes of one of the King’s women, the dark eyes of a Pre-Columbian Indian”(53). Later, the archeologist finds female bodies buried “three young women lay side by side at the feet of the King”(137), and it is here that Butler’s didactic point becomes a parable of the patriarchy, for the concern is with the male characters, the females depicted are –in the case of the primary female character—to be won for sexual conquest. The few secondary female characters in this text are mated, become mothers. The mothers of the two male characters are victims, depicted by internal flashbacks at various points. The novel alternates between the perceptions of the archeologist and the physicist, and the woman they seek remains objectified, she never rises to the reader as a living being with thoughts of her own.

  Butler makes a point of connecting his lines of argument : the archeologist finds a “ sunken-cheeked face […]from the eyes fell jagged lines down the face. Weeping eyes. […]Anguish in this face, anguish and fear …it’s the southern death cult”  and goes on the explain the reaction of the Native Americans to the Spanish colonization as “ A feeling of impending doom. They had a vision of a new violence”(87); the physicist, on the other hand, becomes the symbol of this new violence “ she was making him angry, the power of the bomb was his own power and so it was he that she was afraid of and he knew that fear taunts power, fear challenges power to show itself, to complete the equation, fear sucks at power, like the suck of sex” (136). In Butler’s two characters, readers can see the polarization of a sensibility—albeit a deliberately and specifically  delineated male one— of that which honors and that which revels in destruction, and both being the human male. Butler posits that it is the destructive urge that is toxic, intoxicating; his archeologist finds himself “ trembling in anger. […] he realized what was coursing in him: the urge to violence. He’d been caught up by the undercurrent he’d felt in all of his visitors from the south. Not just the soldiers. Even the scientists”(157). Butler’s lesson is thus clear: men are apt to become violent, even when their own dispositions are not generally prone to violence. That the archeologist uses his knowledge of anatomy to kill a secondary character becomes an underscore of this point.

   That the atomic bomb explodes is no real surprise, since the reader has had half a century to become acculturated to recorded visions of that horrifying apex in human violence. That the two primary characters in the novel also experience violence is Butler’s point, especially in the way the violence becomes manifest. The reader might not think an archeologist and a physicist would be demonstrable of the cruelty and brutality Butler germinates in his characters, but his point is clear; no one is exempt—or rather, no human male is exempt, for the women  ultimately are depicted as pawns of male power, they are never realized as sentient, emotive creatures. Even after the novel’s violent climax, Anna shows little sign of lasting disturbance to her being; nor do two of the characters show any physical after effect from watching the bomb actually explode. Butler’s novel exists in the realm of myth, albeit a modern one with all the rules of the modern potboiler enough observed to satisfy the taste of a popularized reader. Butler even makes a wry joke regarding his own awareness of myth when, at the novel’s end, he makes the allusion “expecting to find her dead, or changed into a pillar of salt” (215). What any reader ought to realize is Butler’s lesson that, despite the 1983 copyright, the escalation of human violence is a genuine threat that has not been quieted in the generations since the atomic age in human history. Ours is a crucial choice—to be easily persuaded to join the drunken orgy of brutality that has become the arrogant norm of our species, or to make the effort to abstain. Butler’s horrific parable leaves no room for middle ground, and his portrait of the violence leaves no doubt of the wee bit of time left before our own doom.


Return to Bylines

Bookmark and Share