Blog: Work Woes, Le Guin & Wolfenstein

I am headed back to the day job tomorrow after a full week & change off – hooray, for being able to take the time! Boo, for enough time off to realize exactly how tired I am and how existentially messed up all of this is.

One thing that does hearten me is seeing all the people who’re just refusing to go back into office environments. Not everyone has that choice, but the people who do are taking it, and it’s a lovely thing. Office culture is distracting at its absolute best, and a consummate parasocial nightmare at all other times.

I am grateful for where I work as we’re keeping a realistic and compassionate hat on and not forcing people to return. Still, we are not family, we are not friends, we are not kin. Maybe with some exceptions – friendships and relationships do spring out of work environs – but sum total, I’m more than capable of hearing your meandering weekend update on Zoom, and delivering my own over your laptop speakers in return.

A few individuals notwithstanding, people who thrive in corporate office culture repel me.

Late to Le Guin, Among Other Things

Wizard of – wait, what?

I’m not sure what the heck I was reading when I was younger – likely some harder sci-fi brick I picked up at Dark Carnival or at a book fair – but Earthsea and all of that good stuff completely passed me by. I’m also of the esoteric bent that authors and books find you when you’re ready, so digging into Le Guin’s short stories and essays on her work has been a real joy lately.

She’s acerbic, funny and humble about her process, mostly in that she thinks a lot of process is bunk. Have the idea, do the thing. Still, my blender brain popped out a weird cultural artifact in response to some of her points about mythologies as critical to human development: Wolfenstein.

Castle Wolfenstein (1981) kicked off this seminal franchise, but the recent games (Old Blood, New Order, New Colossus) are firm favorites of mine, and they’re staggeringly good. William Joseph “B.J.” Blazkowicz bullet-hosing his way through Nazi pukes is a fun way to get some catharsis, sure, but New Order/New Colossus leans into a blistering critique of where we’re at as a culture, and added some lyricism and heartbreaking beauty to the mix. More than we ever could’ve asked for from our “shootin’, stabbin’, stranglin’ Nazis” fav.

The West is obsessed with World War II on every level, from increasingly absurd and fantastical “kill Hitler” pop-culture narratives to an enduring unease at the gaping wound this particular atrocity left on our collective psyches and cultures. We struggle in many ways to box it up and shelve it in our shared past even as we obsessively mythologize it. Its ramifications endure, and we’d do well to remember what happened, what could have happened, and what is continuing to happen.

Wolfenstein offers us an entry point, and a reminder that the sum total tragedy of World War II did not exceed a short fascist’s wildest dreams – we merely stopped the obvious onslaught before it could consume the world. Wolfenstein shows us a world in which the German war machine won, and an abused, Middle-American son of Polish and Jewish immigrants proceeded on a quest to kick the shit out of said war machine, collaborators and all, because he knows it’s right. Full stop.

“For fantasy is true, of course. It isn’t factual, but it is true. Children know that. Adults know it too, and that is precisely why many of them are afraid of fantasy. They know that its truth challenges, even threatens, all that is false, all that is phony, unnecessary, and trivial in the life they have let themselves be forced into living. They are afraid of dragons, because they are afraid of freedom.”

Ursula K. Le Guin, “Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons?”

Lest we get into deification mode, my point is that Wolfenstein takes you by the arm and shoves you face-first into a world in which you are supposed to damn well know what’s evil and what’s good, no matter who the hell you are, and act accordingly. From MechaHitler all the way down to shitty individual sympathizers, Wolfenstein demands that you identify fascism for what it is, and fight it. No morality scales, no shitty side-stepping, no mealy-mouthed politicking. It’s not just wish-fulfillment, either.

B.J. has to make horrific choices in service of his own survival and the good of the coalition to take the heinous HBIC Frau Engel down. Those choices matter. They’re not sugar-coated, they’re not excused and they’re not easy. But the takedown itself is a given because in the world of Wolfenstein, evil is fucking evil. And you act to stop it because that is what good people do.

Wolfenstein has a lot to say, and it does some of it imperfectly. Still, any reminder we can get to organize across class, race and gender lines in service of collective liberation is a worthy one, especially now. Wolfenstein takes the WWII mythos we’ve built in our psyche and rips the weather-proofing off. It reminds us that control, thwarted once, learns from its mistakes and always tries again. It’s the essential, pulsing agony of a culture that once was, and still is, willing to crush difference, will, intellect, emotion and spirit under the boot of control and “progress,” for a buck, by the effective and awful yardstick of hate.

Wolfenstein is a fantastical, grotesque “what if?” that’s shockingly necessary in a hyper-vigilant, voraciously consumptive society. Yes, we have been there, and yes, we can get there again, quicker than anyone could possibly imagine.

A modern myth, indeed.

Monday Morning Coda

We’re very much in love with speaking about fascism, especially online, and we need to grasp something important about resistance, and how the power structure codifies “deviance.”

Wolfenstein addresses this: the coalition B.J. and his comrades form is decidedly against the weird, Puritanical moralizing we see from younger/online progressives. It warns us against doing the gestapo’s work for it on all sides – from ratting out neighbors for personal gain or safety to self-policing with “good” or “wholesome” intentions.

Don’t let the language of the powerful overtake your judgment and critical thought. Difference is vital, crucial even, to human freedom and expression. Build resilience, and recognize how the far right and left will, eventually, come together to codify new forms of control.

It starts in intellectual pursuits, in the arts. Your personal discomfort is exactly that. Be cautious, be critical and be kind.

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