On Friday, there was a happening in Vienna, Austria. Ten iconoclasts stood around in full Santa garb on Mariahilferstrasse, offering to cut credit cards in half and suggesting that spending time with family might be a more appropriate way to celebrate the Christmas season than going shopping. The rogue Santas have been doing this for nine years now, but I doubt they’ve made many converts.
Friday was Buy Nothing Day, part of a fiendish plot hatched by an international consortium of grinches. How about Buy Nothing But Books Day instead?
I went through a phase in high school in which I gave only books for Christmas. Don’t know how many of them got read, but for me it was a lot of fun. I remember driving out to the bookstore in my sporty 1969 Type III Volkswagen and idling among the shelves, on the hunt for something to jump out at me for this person or that.
My mother, for some fuzzy logic that now escapes me, received Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which I’m fairly certain she never read. Her father, though, my Grandfather Schreiber, asked her right there amid the piles of loot and discarded wrapping paper if he could take a look at it. For the next few days, before the grandfolks had to fly back to Chicago, I would see him parked on a couch or perched in a chair, intent on the book.
It’s a road book. An epic scooter run provides the backdrop for the unfolding of a system of values. There’s the physical journey, the philosophical one, and a few others, including a detour for the author, who finds himself slipping into psychosis, for which he had been hospitalized before. Fortunately, he slips back out again, and you get the impression that this time, having found the road back on his own (with some help from his son), he’s going to be fine from here on out.
On that level, the book is a re-telling of the classical hero myth, in which the hero must pass through the underworld and return, having obtained something essential for his quest. In this case, the things obtained are self-knowledge and peace of mind. I could argue that in all hero myths, the things obtained are self-knowledge and peace of mind. The sword or spell or secret is only a symbol.
One of the great tellings of the hero myth is The Wizard of Oz. Like Zen, it is a road story. Dorothy and her motley crew journey to the witch’s castle, emblematic of the underworld, where the Scarecrow uses his brain, the Tin Man shows he has a heart, and the Cowardly Lion proves that he is actually brave. The only things the Wizard has to give them are symbols.
All gifts, of course, are symbols to some extent. Seen in that way, what the rogue Santas are saying is that the symbols have overshadowed the things they are supposed to signify.
Most people shy away from that journey to the underworld. There’s some scary stuff down there – those flying monkeys, for instance. This is a primary function of stories; to allow the rest of to partake in the hero-quest vicariously, which can actually be pretty useful. Anyone care to dress up like the Wizard of Oz for Buy Nothing But Books Day? Why should the Austrians have all the fun?