April 18, 2007

Special Report: Cho Seung-Hui No Great Playwright

For those who have not been following the fallout of the Virgina Tech shooting, it has come to light that the 23-year-old South Korean gunman was an English Major. More amazingly, his class writings were so disturbing that one of his professors, Lucinda Roy, had contacted the police & sent him to counseling. His poetry professor, Nikki Giovanni (whom Oprah is a fan of), said that his poems scared away his fellow students from attending class! From the Times Lede blog:

In interview after interview in newspapers and on TV, Ms. Giovanni has described a student whose behavior caused her creative writing class to drop from about 70 to 7 students in the fall of 2005.

“Once I realized my class was scared, I knew I had to do something,” she told The Washington Post.

So she confronted him about the dark sunglasses and maroon cap he would wear in class and the darker poetry that he would write.

“You can’t do that,” she told him, referring to the “intimidating” poems.

“You can’t make me,” he replied.

“Yeah, I can.”

Her next step was to lobby the department head, Lucinda Roy, writing a letter requesting he leave the class, she told CNN. And she was ready to go all the way.

“I was willing to resign before I would continue with him,” she told CNN. “It was the meanness.”

Well, two of his short plays have been leaked to the internet. Of course, they are as sick & angry as everyone has been saying they were. But I'm happy to report that they are also really dumb & poorly written. I must admit to having a brief glimmer of wonder if this was some misunderstood writer, & if his writings may have been "disturbing" like Nabokov is disturbing or Andres Serrano is disturbing. There is no depth tho, here's a passage from "Richard McBeef":

Must kill Dick. Must kill Dick. Dick must die. Kill Dick ... Richard McBeef. What kind of name is that? What an asshole name. I don't like it. And look at his face. What an asshole face. I don't like his face at all. You don't think I can kill you, Dick? You don't think I can kill you? Gotcha. Got one eye ... Got the other eye.

The play is entirely a son & mother hurling dumb insults at their loser step-father, who has no redeeming qualities. With Ahab, the boy character shares a revenging obsession to kill a large Dick, but the sexual undertones in Melville are much more interesting. Are any of the insults at least a little Shakespearean in their variety? I admit to liking "Eat this, you giant tree trunk piece of ass." But, no, they're mostly pretty boring, like this rant:

What are you, a Catholic priest! I will not be molested by an aging balding overweight pedophilc stepdad named Dick! Get your hands off me you sicko! Damn you, you Catholic priest. Just stop it, Michael Jackson. Let me guess, you have a pet named Dick in Neverland ranch and you want me to go with you to pet him, right?

The second play is "Mr Brownstone", in which three 17-year-olds sneak into a casino with apparently no other purpose than verbally abusing their "ass-raping" math teacher Mr Brownstone, whose name is cleverly compared to a kidney stone. This play turns into a musical, with two of the eleven pages devoted to the kids singing a Guns 'n Roses song. Originally, there's a bit of diversity in the teens' obscenities, but by the last two pages, they settle on simply repeating "muthafucker" over & over again.

I assume it will only be a matter of time before someone leaks the poetry which so frightened Ms Giovanni's class. It's amazing to me that both these teachers went to the administration & even the police about this student's writings, almost two years before he was to become the gunman in the most violent non-Indian massacre in American history. Six years ago, performances of the works of composer Karlheinz Stockhausen were canceled after he made a comment comparing the September 11th bombings to a "great work of art". He publicly apologized, explaining that he had simply meant that the time, effort, & finances it takes to create a large work of destruction is comparable to creating something constructive, say, like an opera or a building. Not to mention how much more media attention the ideas & images "destructive art" can receive.

Cho had serious psychotic & angry tendencies & he expressed them first thru some terrible plays & then thru a violent movie-inspired rampage - (a semiautomatic gun in each hand? come on, man, that's as cliche as your pedophilic step-father, an uninspired blend of Claudius & Humbert Humbert). Interestingly, this massacre came right after Quintin Tarantino & Robert Rodriguez's double-feature
Grindhouse hit the cinemas - a very gory flick lampooning old slasher B-movies. Compare how Cho & Tarantino differ in their response to their shared muse - the latter with taste & irony, the former with a tragic lack of creativity & loss of human life. And Cho received ten times the media attention; possibly more people are reading his lame plays online today than watching that movie - indeed, I'm sure this real grindhouse will bitter everyone's taste to watch a clever send-up.

T.S. Eliot said "there will be time to murder and create", we all have the potential for either creation or destruction, but most of us won't make the news.


Anonymous said...

It is too bad that Giovanni is trying to use this situation as a platform to promote her own political agenda. It is supposed to be about the victims, not Giovanni’s political ideology.

Bubbler said...

What, exactly, is Giovanni's political agenda? I'm a bit confused about that even being a part of anything here..

James, I agree about it being pretty disturbing that his stupid ass plays are going to receive all this attention, as well as his life, psychotic problems, ad nauseum. All this media attention does is to encourage other would-be juvenile terrorists so desperate attention that they would shoot themselves to make the news.

Albert said...

I've forwarded some of these thoughts to Cho's English Prof's at VT, one has already written back, finding them insightful, and has forwarded it along to a contact at the NY Times. Let me know what you think:


In my mind there is no question why Cho Seung Hui went by "Question Mark." I was born in the US, given a Westernized first name of Albert at birth, but given the Chinese middle name of "Shing-yah." At a very young age I quickly learned that my middle-name would be source of taunt and torment by my non-Asian classmates, so I would always leave it blank on forms. If anyone asked me what my middle name was I responded, "S." Often this would be followed by, "What does 'S.' stand for?" And when I told them "Shing-yah," my colleagues would usually erupt into laughter, chanting "Shing-yah, ching chang chung hiyah" or other gibberish in a mock Asian accent.

This response to me--born and raised in the state of Georgia--and I even spoke English with a Southern drawl!! I can't imagine how much worse it could have been for Cho who, after living in the US for 15 years, still had a foreign Korean accent. He probably used the "Question Mark" out of fear of being taunted, since he had no other name to go by....I at least had a Westernized first name to save me from such ridicule. We see his use of "?" in a class sign-in sheet. I imagine this resulted from his experience of countless times of such name lists being read aloud, every time fearfully anticipating when the teacher would read his name, knowing it would lead to snickers or outright bursts of laughter by the classroom. On NBC I saw a clip of an instant messenger conversation where he refused to provide his identity. I imagine in his sad and delusional fantasies he would hope that the person he was stalking on the other side wouldn't realize he was Asian, fall in love with him online (or something along the lines of "You've Got Mail"), and could accept him later on, strange foreign-ness and all...who knows what he was thinking. But in my mind, there is no doubt as to the source of this mysterious "Question Mark."


I have to admit I'm still pondering this one over. As mentioned by the media Cho wasn't the greatest writer, but I see quite a bit of symbolism in this play. This play is the closest allegory we have to Cho's life experience. First of all, the story if of a 13 year old boy whose father reportedly dies in a boating accident and gets a new ex-football player stepfather, Richard McBeef. The boating accident is symbolic of Cho's family's journey from Korea to America. In that voyage, Cho feels cutoff from his roots, culture, and heritage, and hence symbolically experiences the death of his true biological father (easy to make this connection with the male-centric Korean culture). Further, this strained relationship and Cho's accusation that Richard McBeef killed his father so he could "get into [his] mom's pant" may also symbolize what Cho views as America's imperialistic conspiracy (he rants about in his manifesto), as this next section discusses the symbolism behind "Richard McBeef."

Cho is all of a sudden thrown into a new and unfamiliar American culture, symbolized by his new stepfather Richard McBeef. We've seen his criticism of "hedonism" and "debauchery", showing his purposeful intent of the choice of the name "Dick" to symbolize the high emphasis on sex in America. Richard McBeef also personifies what Cho views as America's imperialistic tendencies, since Richard "knew [John/Cho's] mom was too good for [John/Cho's] father. So you took him out and stole her." In this light, whereas his father symbolized his Korean culture and heritage that was destroyed, his mother symbolizes the attempts by Koreans to assimilate to American culture, hysterical and unwilling to accept the truth of what is actually happening to today's Korean-American youth and merely judging by outward appearances. The fact that Richard McBeef is an ex-football player says a lot too, as we all know what football players were like in high school; the handsome athlete all the girls love [which he also sought after], but also the source of ridicule and bullying. The choice of McBeef as a last name is also quite intentional, symbolizing the excess of McDonald's and bovines symbolizing fat, lazy...and ready for slaughter. Through him he accuses American culture of murdering his Korean heritage. Since we could entertain that Richard McBeef the football player is something that Cho may have aspired to be but knew he could never achieve, another possible dimension is that Richard McBeef may also symbolize Cho's sexual frustration he encounters here in the US. As we have discovered, many of Cho's advances towards American women were rebuffed. Realizing his aspirations for having a love relationship with an American woman are futile, he resigns to a Freudian "Must Kill Dick" mentality to put an end to his frustration. I'll admit this might be a bit of a stretch...and finally to state the obvious, he probably also felt that Americans were "dicks" to him.

The ending of Richard McBeef also speaks volumes. Up to this point, Richard has been quite passive, and outside of his accusations we actually have no reason to believe he even actually molested John. Perhaps Cho realizes that as much as the Americans in his life have taunted and ridiculed him, no one has actually caused any real physical harm. He accuses Richard McBeef of physically raping him, when in fact perhaps Cho only feels psychologically raped and tormented by his exclusion. Or perhaps Richard's passiveness is Cho's view of American's "politically correct" culture that is too scared to say anything out of fear. But in perhaps his final foreshadowing, as Cho attempts to kill Richard McBeef by shoving a candy bar down his throat, deep down he knows that American culture is too big of an opponent to fight back against on his own, and the true America will fight back and not tolerate such unacceptable behavior. At this point, perhaps he already had devised his macabre plan and envisioned he would be brought down in a blaze of glory by law enforcement when he finally decides to fight back against American society/Richard McBeef.

The boy's name "John" is quite generic, even glaringly generic, for such a disturbing piece. Cho uses the name John and other generic western names in other writings. In light of the "Question Mark" discussion, perhaps this is a manifestation of his desire to have just a normal name to fit in with his peers. Again, might be a bit of a stretch.

April 16th, 2007

The media mentions that he had postponed his plan multiple times, but in my opinion, there is no other day that such a planned out deed could have been carried out. Cho's videos leave little doubt that he is well aware of the Columbine shooters Eric and Dylan, and in his mind he idolizes them as martyrs. We compare this duo to Cho and see little similarity--in fact I would have trouble believing that people such as Eric and Dylan would even welcome Cho into their circles. But in Cho's mind, they were speaking up and acting on behalf of a larger group---those experiencing the pain of ostracism and exclusion by society. With the April 20th anniversary falling on a Friday this year, Cho could not have picked a worse day to carry out his plan if his main objective was to inspire copycat killers. Indeed he even created the media "manifesto" that show his delusions of grandeur of starting a "revolution", which reflects his desire for his acts to inspire as many as possible. He must have known that by carrying out his plan early Monday morning at 7am, he would achieve the maximum amount of media coverage possible that week. The purpose of the non-stop mind-numbing media coverage? To inspire other societal outcasts to carry out a similar plan...and what more symbolic day than the anniversary of the Columbine shootings? And indeed, we saw a number of threats at schools around the country all week....and I am thankful that we didn't see anything worse this past Friday.

But not just the timing...even the sequence of events that occurred last Monday, to me were quite intentional. The media package was purposefully made. The plan for mailing the package between shootings was even more intentional, almost a cry out for attention, as he seemed to be saying, "Look! You didn't think I could commit the act. But I've done it. And you [the world and elitist snobs who have excluded me] have caused me so much pain in my life, I have no remorse and I'm going to do even more." In all likelihood, I imagine Cho elaborately and carefully planned every detail.

James Welsch said...

I don't know, Albert. It's clear that Seung Cho identified with the profane angsty youth in his plays. But you're making too much of the Asian-White tensions in both the plays & his life. Some of what you're perceiving is simply not there, like the boat accident as a metaphor for Korean immigration. It was a trite plot devise with no symbolism.

I feel that some of my essay was immediately made irrelevant by the news break that day about his press-kit sent to NBC. Because the killings were done by a "writer", I only wanted to evaluate his life from an aesthetic point of view. I came to the conclusion that both his writings & his actions were cliche & unimaginative; that he was a bad artist. The only thing that captured the imagination of the nation was the carnage, a cowardly & easy artistic statement. But, as I didn't know when I first wrote about it, he had added a "literary dimension" in the press-kit, a "rambling" manifesto complete with visual imagery & a pseudo-terrorist home-cam rant. Again, all of this was terrible, cliche, unimaginative. His actions spoke louder than his words.

You can always read anything into even the worst piece literature - some of when I was "reading into" Richard McBeef was meant as a joke.