Thursday, March 31, 2011

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Who we're fighting for

If bullets begin to fly in a nation ruled by an eccentric strongman, a despotic junta, or quarreling warlords, you can bet that Jon Lee Anderson will be there. The New Yorker's resident chronicler of revolution, invasion, and civil war, Anderson reports from war-torn states with a frequency that suggests he doesn't spend much time at home. Naturally, he's been hanging out in Libya; in the magazine's latest issue, he wrote a compelling brief on his experiences with the enigmatic rebels opposing Muammar Qaddafi.

Much of what he reports is not encouraging. U.S. officials are worried about the presence of al-Qaeda members in the rebels' ranks. Anderson writes that he saw little evidence of this, and relates the following anecdote:

"One zealous-looking fighter at Brega acknowledged that he was a jihadi—a veteran of the Iraq war—but said that he welcomed U.S. involvement in Libya, because Qaddafi was a kafir, an unbeliever."

Anderson apparently means this to be comforting, but its absurdity speaks for itself. Surely, this fighter doesn't think the United States is a nation of "believers"?

But there is also a heartening story that serves as a reminder of war's real potential for comedy:

"Outside Ajdabiya, a man named Ibrahim, one of many émigrés who have returned, said, 'Libyans have always been Muslims—good Muslims.' People here regard themselves as decent and observant; a bit old-fashioned and parochial, but not Islamist radicals. Ibrahim is fifty-seven. He lives in Chicago, and turned over his auto-body shop and car wash to a friend so that he could come and fight. He had made his life in the United States, he said, but it was his duty as a Libyan to help get rid of Qaddafi––'the monster.' "

Upon first reading this, I paused in confusion and wondered if there was a city in Libya called Chicago. But no; this rebel had indeed lived in the Windy City. It's a wonderful story for a reporter to find, and one that points to the dreams and aspirations that are an elemental part of these conflicts, though they often go overlooked. Sure, the Western media reports that these fighters want "law" and "democracy," but these are vague and empty terms when applied to large groups.

A story like the one Anderson has uncovered, however, points to the those words' real power, especially for those who know what it is to live in their absence. This man had found a better life in the United States, but still felt compelled to return to Libya to try and secure a similar existence for the countrymen he had left behind. It's a story riddled with pathos, and it exhibits a tough patriotism that puts to shame American politicians' carping over who has and hasn't been wearing their flag pins. Above all, it's a reminder that there really is no place like home.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

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The Fish Inside

The March issue of Harper's contains one of the strangest short stories I've read in a while (this includes works by Kafka, who I've been studying this semester; his strangeness quickly becomes predictable). "The Miraculous Discovery of Psammetichus I," written by Daniel Mason, begins with an extended quote from Herodotus' Histories. The story's nine ensuing parts are all written as extensions of that initial excerpt, which establishes Psammetichus as an amusingly inquisitive pharaoh who runs an experiment to discover which is the oldest language.

As I read, my expectation was to classify the story as a smart and odd bit of amusement. Mason uncannily replicates Herodotus' voice, each section beginning with "And..." or "Now,..." But he also indulges in what I find to be one of the cheapest and most overused types of humor, the mocking of our forefathers' credulity at things we now know as either false or unremarkable. This is the type of joke that shows up in a show like Mad Men, when the office secretaries crowd around a new typewriter and marvel at it as the height of man's achievement, while we look up from our iPads and smirk.

It's rare these days to find any period art that refrains from this gag, and so I wasn't really surprised to find that Mason's story just couldn't help itself. In the eighth section, Herodotus asks a prophetess about the source of Psammetichus' insatiable thirst for knowledge. She responds "that it was not possession but rather a fluttering moth a sorcerer had placed inside his chest. But I do not believe this either, for the inside of the body is moist, and no one has ever observed a moth in water. More likely it was a fish."

Boy, those ancients had some crazy beliefs! I can't say I was too disappointed, the story having held my interest thus far more because of its inventiveness and oddities than any real profundity. But I was delighted by the turn Mason takes in the next section, inverting the overused joke into the hinge upon which the story makes its turn into a higher realm. Herodotus relates that as Psammetichus' grew older and his experiments (all of them involving some variation of the 'wild child' experiment, taking newborns and having them grow up in animal or otherwise unusual environments) multiplied, speculation grew about what exactly the pharaoh was seeking. After offering a number of fairly mundane examples (the source of stories, the thoughts of infants in the womb, etc), Herodotus gives his own view:

"But I, who have observed that men with many questions are driven by an emptiness inside them, knew that he was searching even deeper. And this was the opinion that I expressed to the priestess of Dodona, whereupon she asked what I thought was the question that so tormented him, and I made answer thus: What is Psammetichus? Or to put it otherwise: Which of these quiet, quaking children is Psammetichus? What was I before they bound me to this throne, these gods, this tongue?

And I knew I was correct, for the priestess did not dispute me but said, What is Herodotus? and a small fish leapt inside my chest."

It's a brilliant turn. At the same instant that Herodotus learns what exactly this eccentric Pharaoh has been up to with his children raised by gorillas, the reader learns what this funny little story is up to: the question of our deeper desires, the quiet things that swim beneath the daily roles imposed upon us by others and ourselves. Mason enacts this quest with a pathos that bites, as Psammetichus pursues his quest while his sycophantic priests prepare the rituals that will send him to an afterlife in which he doesn't believe: "Now, Psammetichus knew that his priests were already preparing or his passage into the afterlife, for the carts of animals were arriving, and the embalming ointments gave off sweet smells that wafted through the palace, and the corridors echoed with the terrified cries of slaves selected to serve him on his journey down."

This is both terrifying and funny, for it's an eccentric enactment of the farce we all live, all of us in our own way comically impotent pharaohs. This type of recognition is one of the joys of fiction, and upon finishing Daniel Mason's story, a small fish leapt inside my own chest.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

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Your Attention, Please!


When my copy of the New Yorker arrived the other day, I was disturbed by the cover, but not because of its content. Drawn by Christoph Niemann, it depicts a cherry blossom tree whose flowers form the atomic radiation symbol. Poignant, lovely, and quietly outraged, Niemann's cover was a brilliant response to the nuclear crisis in Japan, an artistic rendering of the silent helplessness we all feel in the face of disasters that seem to be such a banal and ineluctable part of modern life.

No, what troubled me was the realization, upon seeing Niemann's illustration, that I had completely and utterly forgot about the situation in Japan for a solid three days. After closely following the crisis last week, it had indetectably been replaced in my consciousness by America's budding military adventure in Libya, which I'd imbibed through glanced-at New York Times headlines (I haven't been able to bring myself to read the thing for a month or so) and the ten silent TV screens facing me during my afternoon run at the gym. Through no agency of my own, I had forgotten the decade's greatest disaster; it had deeply troubled me one day, and was nowhere to be found the next.

The dismay I felt at my involuntary amnesia put me in mind of David Foster Wallace's words from his bracing Kenyon College commencement address (a speech that was commercialized and sentimentalized with all dispatch after his suicide in 2008): "The only thing that's capital-T True is that you get to decide how you're going to try to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn't. You get to decide what to worship... "

In our society, this is a heroic thing to say. Wallace was fighting a losing battle, trying to reclaim the ehtical dimension of the word choice from the consumerist logic that has so thoroughly appropriated it. Our society has powerful mechanisms in place to make consumers of us all. I do not mean this insidiously or conspiratorially; by and large, it's simply how things have played out. But the fact remains that so much of modern life--television, the Internet, our news sources (Saul Bellow once called the Sunday New York Times poisionous), our politics, advertising--is incredibly adept at making human beings passive. And it does so, in large part, by emphasizing choice. Pepsi is the choice of a new generation!; vote now on your favorite Mountain Dew flavor!; design your own Nike sneakers!.

But these are false choices, and easy ones. We've come to expect that everything ought to be as easy as texting, or as shopping for a new bag. The way we choose whether we're pro-life or pro-choice is not substantially different than the way we choose between two cars ("Bullshit! 'Pro-life' is a bumper sticker! Tell me what you believe," a brilliant theology teacher once yelled at a classmate of mind who had lamely offered, in response to some prodding, that he was Pro-Life). And so, we farm out many of our so-called choices. Through an inattentiveness that felt no different from what I tend to call "living," my awareness of a disaster that killed upwards of 10,000 people was totally replaced by America's latest game of cruise-missile shotput.

This is a frightening realization. More frightening is the fact that I have one week like this just about every month. By virtue of living in our society, I've become less attentive, more passive. I have to constantly remind myself that I get to choose. And reversing this trend is annoying and difficult work. I find that my attention span for really great writing is diminished, because really great writing tends to ask you to choose between many things, things that do not come with a celebrity endorsement or a familiar brand. This, in many ways, was Jacques Derrida's whole project. At first daunted by his difficulty, I've become enamored with his inimitable power to avoid binaries, to refuse to have things chosen for him.

This state of affairs, this location between the easy logic of texting and consumption on the one hand and really difficult, attentive living on the other, can be very stressful. People tell me to relax; as my recent posts on John Steinbeck related, I try to avoid being a curmudgeon dug in against all progress. But my gut tells me something is wrong. These competing voices lead to a lot of self-flagellation, a lot of writer's block, a lot of mindless Facebook surfing, hours of futile mental wrangling that end with me flopping into bed in order to fall asleep and forget the whole thing. But I've noticed a pattern beneath these monthly agonias. I wake up the next day recommitted to paying attention.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

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Steinbeck: An Addendum

At the end of Travels with Charley, Steinbeck recounts his visit to New Orleans, made largely for the purpose of observing the racial tensions surrounding the integration of a local school there. Steinbeck has this to say of the hostility he and other writers encountered there:

"When people are engaged in something they are not proud of, they do not welcome witnesses. In fact, they come to believe the witness causes the trouble."

Nothing to add to such a concise observation, except that it strikes me as applicable to any number of recent developments from Tripoli to Cairo to Washington, D.C.

Friday, March 4, 2011

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Steinbeck's America, and Mine




This past week, I found myself beset by the Scylla of literary theory on one side and the Charybdis of Joyce's Ulysses on the other. Behind in both readings, and with spring break ahead, I froze up; I lost a lot of time to aimless Internet surfing and aimless rambles around campus. Because not reading when you're a person who harangues other people for not reading is apt to give rise to guilt and self-loathing, I picked up a book from my queue, John Steinbeck's Travels with Charley in Search of America, to ease my anxieties.

The book was exactly what I needed: a winning narrative to get lost in. I've long thought that Steinbeck is vastly underrated as a sentence-by-sentence writer; that, along with Updike and Cheever, he ought to be named one of the century's great stylists. Of course, Steinbeck was a masterful observer as well, and I found myself struck by many of the passages in Travels, the author's travelogue of a 1960 drive across the country with his pet poodle, Charley. The book is poignant and funny (Steinbeck has Twain's gift for satirizing America's cherished absurdities), but what's really drawn me in is how many of Steinbeck's commentaries on American life at the dawn of the Kennedy years echo with our own.

Lying in his trailer one night after speaking with a farmer about the fast pace of modern times, for instance, Steinbeck thinks: "And maybe [the farmer]  had put his finger on it. Humans had perhaps a million years to get used to fire as a thing and as an idea. Between the time a man got his fingers burned on a lighting-struck tree until another man carried some inside a cave and found it kept him warm, maybe a hundred thousand years, and from there to the blast furnaces in Detroit—how long?

And now a force was in hand how much more strong, and we hadn't had time to develop the means to think, for man has to have feelings and then words before he can come close to thought and, in the past at least, that has taken a long time."

The bomb is often on Steinbeck's mind during his journey, but never more eloquently than here. His approach to the terror that the bomb inspires is unique; it's not simply that we've developed the capacity to destroy ourselves (though this does worry him), but that we've developed such a thing faster than we've learned to think about it—before we really have the words to grasp what a tremendous shift it rendered in the metaphysical landscape of human life.

The other striking passage bears quoting at length:

"It seemed to me that regional speech is in the process of disappearing, not gone but going. Forty years of radio and twenty years of television must have this impact. Communications must destroy localness by a slow, inevitable process...Radio and television speech becomes standardized, perhaps better English than we have ever used. Just as our bread, mixed and baked, packaged and sold without benefit of accident or human frailty, is uniformly good and uniformly tasteless, so will our speech become one speech."

What makes Steinbeck's lament more admirable is his commitment to avoiding romanticizing the past:

"Even while I protest the assembly-line production of our food, our songs, our language, and eventually our souls, I know that it was a rare home that baked good bread in the old days. Mother's cooking was with rare exceptions poor, that good unpasteurized milk touched only by flies...the healthy old-time life was riddled with aches, sudden death from unknown causes, and that sweet local speech I mourn was the child of illiteracy and ignorance. It is the nature of a man as he gets older, a small bridge in time, to protest against change, particularly change for the better. But it is true that we have exchanged corpulence for starvation, and either one will kill us. The lines of change are drawn. We, or at least I, can have no conception of human life and human thought in a hundred years or fifty years. Perhaps my greatest wisdom is the knowledge that I do not know. The sad ones are those who waste their energy in trying to hold it back, for they can only feel bitterness in loss and no joy in gain."

Even with these attempts at even-handedness, it's no secret where Steinbeck's sympathies lie on the question of our accelerating capacity for technological innovation. Still, he's right to point out that in terms of modernity, griping about the past can only strip life of its joy. And the past that we romanticize rarely includes the nasty diseases and discomforts that we've overcome.

But what would Steinbeck, who loved both cars and the American landscape, say about the seemingly inexorable progress of global warming? What would Steinbeck, who made his living by the written word, say about the imminent decline of bookstores?

Of course, he's not around anymore, so I'm stuck by myself on this one. As someone who loves reading and writing, I'm troubled by the effect electronic gadgets are having on reading. I don't think reading is going to disappear, but neither do I think it's wise to deny that reading hasn't already changed. I know more people in college who don't read outside of class than those who do; even those who read only magazines and newspapers do so frantically, clicking from link to link. I know that even I find focusing on a book for more than an hour straight to be a daily struggle.

I suppose the challenge is to find the balance between appreciating the blessings that progress brings while not fetishizing it a priori as good; to worship at the altar of progress for its own sake is dangerous in almost every sense: politically, morally, biologically. That, I think, is the job of the writer, to point out the value of localization in the face of increasing homogenization, to be a gadfly on the city.

A final passage, in which Steinbeck recalls stealing books from his grandfather's glass-enclosed bookcase:

"I think today if we forbade our illiterate children to touch the wonderful things of our literature, perhaps they might steal them and find secret joy."

The illiterate children of whom Steinbeck writes are those of my parents' generation, by any standards a group of avid readers.