On Twine Balls

My post from yesterday was not entirely a joke. In part it was (and inspired by a similar parallelism Chase noted between the setup to that Conan line and a similar query of Ph&aellig;drus). But in part it was not.

What is good in life? What should one do with that vital force in one’s time on earth? Conan gives one answer: the triumph of raw violence. One might quibble that only “crush” is directly violent, and is presumably not meant literally. (Otherwise, only squishing blows would count, and not slashing ones—but Conan himself wields a sword.) But the import is clear. One has enemies, and they must be smote.

Stephenson takes that impulse and makes it passably socially acceptable. One should be badass—but that badassity is to be directed at criminal scum, not just at all those who stand in ones’ way. Everything turns on who one’s enemies are, and Stephenson’s take makes clear that those enemies will be the drug dealers and street criminals. Fighting for the good, note, is thus perfectly compatible with being “bad.” But the core is still violent domination.

Winding up the biggest ball of twine in Minnesota, then, may sound like a bit of a let-down, as far as ambitions go. No one is crushed beneath it, not even a thug or a criminal mastermind. It’s just twenty thousand pounds of string under a makeshift pagoda. But is that such a bad thing?

Notice the stance of the narrator of the song. The maker of this ball of string is an enigma, his motivations unclear. Beating out the other twine-winders might have been the goal, but not necessarily. But it’s the narrator’s kids, and then the narrator himself, who pick out visiting the twine ball as the greatest possible accomplishment open to them in the whole wide world.

There’s some mocking irony in the song, sure, but there’s also sincere appreciation. And not just of big balls of string. The song itself is a bit of a Gordon Lightfoot tribute, with a chorus whose melody echoes The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. With lines like, “As the big freighters go, it was bigger than most,” the original already had some mismatch between song and subject matter. (Nonetheless, Lightfoot thinks it’s his most significant contribution to music. His ball of twine. Or perhaps the crushing of his enemies. Decades and centuries hence, will any Stephenson passage be quoted more than the one below? Perhaps that’s Stephenson’s ball of twine.)

Weird Al has had a career like that. He’s smart and articulate, with a lyrical gift and an amazing ear for musical stylistic tics. His work tends almost exclusively towards the loving tweaking—to the parody that gets so far inside its subject’s musical idiom that it goes a little native. He gets permission, which is part and parcel of the schtick. It’s twine-balling, not the driving of one’s enemies before one.

Let me put the question again. Is there something so wrong with the twine approach? Conan would say yes, but that’s easy to say when you’re a barbarian living outside the walls and on the steppes. Stephenson provides the link. Look again at how he frames the desire to be badass. It’s not just that all off the violence is channeled as society prefers. It’s also that the whole thing is hypothetical. If I moved to a martial-arts monastery. If I swore revenge. If. If. If.

And the whole thing is framed by that initial clause: “Until a man is twenty-five.” After that, then what? After maturity, what happens? You might not get Hiro Protagonist to say as much, but that’s where civilization happens. That’s the domain of the twine-ball wranglers. And that’s the domain of those who’d rather see the twine ball than anything else in the world. When the kids suggest it, they leave the next morning and drive straight through for three days. The twine ball is that which, once you have had the vision, becomes an all-consuming quest.

What’s your twine ball?