Archive for January, 2011

Orwell Watch #5: Before we shoot off our mouths again…

Sunday, January 30th, 2011

The last few weeks have focused on the upsetting use of language – at the Book Haven, a lot of what we used to call “column inches” have been devoted to the use of the “n-word” in Mark Twain‘s Huck Finn. The Book Haven is not alone in its concern about words: The entire nation has been worrying about the violence in our political speech this month.

They shouldn’t fash themselves. It’s hardly a new phenomenon. I remember living to London in the 1970s. The man I was involved with at the time, born in the quiet prewar days, deplored my metaphorical use of guns, blood, dynamite, and other explosives in my language … me, a milquetoast vegetarian and half-hearted pacifist. (Half-hearted, because I know if the Gestapo were banging down my door, it would take more than Yoko Ono bumperstickers and scented candles to drive them away. It is so easy to be a pacifist in Palo Alto.)

I remembered those Islington conversations again this past month, now that things have settled down a bit and political language has resumed its normal level of gunfire. … see? There I go again.

On Jan. 10th, after the first feverish round of accusations had paused so that people could inhale, I pointed out, via an article in Der Spiegel posted on my Facebook page, that I thought the recent attacks on Sarah Palin were a teensy bit wrong-headed and likely to backfire. But what were the words that slipped off my fingers and onto the keyboard? I thought the liberals were “shooting themselves in the foot.” A cliché, obviously, but what does it mean that the most immediate words that came to my mind involve gunfire?

I began compiling a list, with the help of my daughter and Matthew Tiews: gun-shy, fired the first shot, shot heard round the world, firing line, dodged a bullet, silver bullet, rifle (as a verb), cannon fodder, shoot yourselves in the foot, in my crosshairs, target (noun and verb), road kill, “shoot first, ask questions later”, shotgun wedding, trigger happy, at gunpoint, at knifepoint, riding shotgun, “ready aim fire!”, Playing Russian roulette, crying bloody murder, making a killing, don’t give up, reload, playing with a loaded gun, you’re fired.

I’m not alone. Someone on the TalkLeft website offered these: “being a ‘bombshell’ or the ‘air wars/ground attack’ or someone ‘running out of ammo’ or a particular person ‘has a bullseye on them’ or ‘we are targeting so and so’ or ‘a target rich environment’ or something being a ‘nuclear option’ etc. etc. etc.’’ To which I would add, “Nuke ‘em” – whether applied to frozen carrots or foreign governments.

A rightwing site added “’battleground states’ and ‘targeting’ opponents. Indeed, the very word for an electoral contest — ‘campaign’ — is an appropriation from warfare.”

Obviously, I comb both the right-wing and the left-wing media. What both have in common — in fact, their most salient feature — is their preoccupation with pinning the blame on the other, who started it first, or is the worst offender. (I’ve raised toddlers already, thank you very much.) In short, I honestly don’t see a ha’penny worth’s difference between the bloody speech of the right or left. I don’t think the problem is one of language, as such, but of rectitude and sanctimoniousness, which language reflects and then reinforces. In my own lifetime, I’ve seen a marked decrease in the ability to listen to a viewpoint not one’s own, the joy of kicking around an idea for the fun of it.

Joseph Brodsky said, “Evil takes root when one man starts to think that he is better than another.” I still think that’s the best guideline, and it’s obvious that both on the left and right, people think that they are better, superior, smarter than the people in the other half. That sense of superiority is the root of the problem, the unwillingness to listen to the other, who is seen as having nothing to bring to the intellectual table. The result? Hyperbole and shrieking to make one’s point heard. A public discourse that does not address the serious concerns of opponents (because they haven’t listened to them), but instead resorts to ad hominem attacks.

So an obvious solution to the problem of political language is to listen to the other side, assuming the best motives, assuming that they are as smart and concerned as yourself. Try above all for fairness and justice, rather than self-righteousness. Check out the National Review or Hot Air as well as the Daily Kos or Talk Left. No, I don’t want to hear how it’s attendant to the other side to understand you. Be the first. Start a trend.

But my own question goes beyond that, to those conversations in Islington. Knowing what George Orwell said about the relationship of politics and language, what does it mean that so much of our public language is seeped in violence? Why do we feel more real or honest or witty when we are expressing ourselves this way?

I have no answer, but note that a quick image search for guns shows a lot of women pouring out of bikinis along with Glocks. Sometimes they’re holding guns, too. So what’s with that?

Perhaps Clint Eastwood, of all people, offered another glimmer of a clue in today’s WSJ (with a hat tip to Books Inq.), on his comment about war:

“As for Josey Wales [from his film, The Outlaw Josey Wales], I saw the parallels to the modern day at that time. Everybody gets tired of it, but it never ends. A war is a horrible thing, but it’s also a unifier of countries. . . . Man becomes his most creative during war. Look at the amount of weaponry that was made in four short years of World War II—the amount of ships and guns and tanks and inventions and planes and P-38s and P-51s, and just the urgency and the camaraderie, and the unifying. But that’s kind of a sad statement on mankind, if that’s what it takes.”

“This is Egypt, Joseph, the old school of the soul.”

Friday, January 28th, 2011

"It is strange to think of surviving..."

A few days ago, I wrote a belated birthday card for Joseph Brodsky, who would have been 70 last year.  Today, Patrick Kurp at Anecdotal Evidence commemorates a different anniversary:  Joseph died fifteen years ago today.

Patrick opens with Joseph’s line from “Lullaby of Cape Cod”:  “It is strange to think of surviving, but that’s what happened.”  Odd way to open a post commemorating a death …  Patrick’s reaction to his 1996 death was, “How unfair,” but the death was by all accounts somewhat self-inflicted.

In the introduction to Joseph Brodsky: Conversations, I wrote:

Friends and colleagues remember his chain-smoking, even as he took capsules of nitroglycerine.  … ‘I saw him five days before he died, and he was the color of ashes,’ said Ardis publisher Ellendea Proffer, whose efforts with her husband, the late Professor Carl Proffer, brought Brodsky to the United States.  ‘But I’d seen him that way before and he had lived.’ For Brodsky, smoking and writing were tragically linked.  Proffer told me he insisted, after his many heart surgeries, ‘If I can’t smoke, I can’t write.’ His choice was staggeringly characteristic, arguably heroic, ultimately fatal.

Patrick adds, “By all accounts, Brodsky was a charming, deeply civilized man. …” Well, count me out on that one.  When he meant to, he could be extraordinarily charming.  On other occasions, he could be aggressively abrasive.  John Woodford at the University of Michigan told me,  “Sure he could be arrogant and swaggering. … When someone asked about the sensual impact of various languages on his ear and mind, and included Spanish in the question: ‘Spanish?!’ he said. “I don’t believe I consider it a language.’

Richard Wilbur, ever the gentleman, put it wisely:  he said that the Nobel poet could be “harshly downright at times,” but added that “a little scorn can be a precious thing in a slack age.”

Patrick, in his tribute, cites Anthony Hecht:

“In Millions of Strange Shadows (1977), Hecht dedicated “Exile” to Brodsky. The poem blurs the Russian with his biblical namesake, and generously welcomes him to his adopted land. Here are the final lines:

You will recognize the rank smell of a stable
And the soft patience in a donkey’s eyes,
Telling you you are welcome and at home.”

I went back and looked up Hecht’s poem – surely Hecht couldn’t have confused the patriarch Joseph with the New Testament one – but in this remarkable poem, the two Josephs segue into each other, and end with the Russian one.

But the line that caught my eye was the one just before Patrick’s excerpt, after Hecht warns:  “These are the faces that everywhere surround you;/They have all the emptiness of gravel pits”:

Out of Egypt...

“This is Egypt, Joseph, the old school of the soul.”

Hecht’s book was published in 1977, and the poem was probably published at least a year or two earlier than that.

I remember about that time, in an elevator in the University of Michigan’s ugly Modern Language Building, Joseph saying apropos of nothing: “We are dying, Egypt, dying.”

From Act IV of Antony and Cleopatra.  But perhaps he was echoing an American Anthony, who had just written a poem for him about other Josephs, in other Egypts, and about his new terra deserta.

Melancholy thoughts on an evening when Alexandria and Cairo are swept in flames.

Chris Christie: “We’re done with soaring rhetoric.”

Friday, January 28th, 2011


We certainly are, sport.  But we’ve been done with it for some time.  Where you been?  Here’s what we said about the term way back on Nov. 16:

Nobel economist Paul Krugman is a smart guy.  So why does he use clichés?  His article today, “The World as He Finds It” refers to President Obama’s “soaring rhetoric.”  Lordy, I am tired of that term.  A google search for the phrase turned up 136,000 usages for “soaring rhetoric” and Obama — for one suggestive, if not entirely reliable, measure.

Call this particular non-thought — the hooking together of a noun with a much-repeated adjective to make a prefabricated phrase — a pet peeve.  (Yes, I know, I know…) In any case, here’s what the guv’na said today:

“Soaring rhetoric feels good for a little while, but if there’s no follow-through, all that’s left is the same problems except bigger because we put them off.”

For some of us it feels good, Chris, for some of us.  For those of us not addicted to the high, it feels like trying to live entirely on a diet of clichés …  I meant soufflés.  Or maybe both.

Tobias Wolff, Tim O’Brien on the kitschification of Vietnam

Wednesday, January 26th, 2011

Every cliché marks a little dead spot in the brain.  Yet after any intense experience — sex, childbirth, love, death, war — they are on-the-ready to frame our experience the way we’ve heard before, in ways that dull our own rough, unwelcome, and unmanageable perceptions.

Giving into them is like sinking comfortably into a jacuzzi.  Resisting is like swatting at the nasty flies buzzing around your head.

That’s precisely the role of the writer.  It’s got to do with staying honest.  Joseph Brodsky referred to it as resisting the “vulgarity of the human heart” — which is endlessly inventive in creating new clichés (yes, I’m aware of the irony) to do our thinking for us, to digest and regugitate our experience in pre-packaged, socially acceptable, and often sentimentalized ways.

We can jeer some of these prefabricated phrases, stereotypes, and the habitual ways of thinking and feeling into a well-earned oblivion — one by one, or, on occasion, in groups.  So when writers Tobias Wolff and Tim O’Brien appeared  in an onstage conversation Monday night to talk about writing and war, it was a rare opportunity.  I wrote about their discussion here.  Excerpts:

Wolff, author of Old School, This Boy’s Life and In Pharaoh’s Army, noted that war writing is “so encrusted with cliché,” replete with images of “helicopters coming out of the mist” and jazzy lingo among soldiers. Wolff recoils at the clichés, adding that, for him, “When people use the word ‘Nam’ it’s like salt on a slug.”

Wolff: Keeping honest

Wolff, who has received two PEN awards and a Los Angeles Times Book Prize, said war writing typically features “ossified conventions” – soldier teams that inevitably include “a Polock,” and “a guy who wears glasses; they call him ‘Doc.'” Wolff recalled hammy stereotypes of more recent vintage – a recent portrayal of a vet as an amputee, wheeling himself on a sort of scooter, “like Porgy.”

“It took years before I could deal with my memory honestly,” he said.

Wolff said he already had literary aspirations when he went to Vietnam. He wrote letters home with the idea that they would be the basis of his future writing. On reviewing them years later, he said, laughing, that “they were just crap.”

“They were totally untrue. They were literary. I was actually there, writing home literary experiences from books I had read,” he said.

His letters failed to capture the “growing corruption,” “the horrible way we treated people,” “the ironic vocabulary around every corrupt thing you did, how you became habituated to it, callous.”

O’Brien: No “male adventure”

O’Brien, author of The Things They Carried, In the Lake of the Woods, and July, July, noted that

he didn’t have the expected “shoot ’em up stuff” in his books for a simple reason: “Part of it is that I can’t recall well. There was a general atmosphere of chaos, fear-based,” he told an overflow crowd at Cubberley Auditorium. “Memory evaporates,” said the writer, who has received a National Book Award. …

He added that he never saw war as “male adventure,” but was drafted: “I went to war kicking and screaming. I was terrified of dying.”

O’Brien considered how he writes about war:   “You do it sentence by sentence, line by line, character by character, even syllable by syllable,” said O’Brien. “You have to have a poetic sensibility – that language matters.” He approaches his books not first by theme, but by language (another part that didn’t make it into the story) “out of that, your body as a writer is moving — I’m not talking mystically about hearing stuff coming at me.”

O’Brien turned audience expectations upside down again when a woman asked him about treating post-traumatic stress disorder.  O’Brien took an unconventional stance: “One of the ways to deal with trauma is to be traumatized,” he said.  “I worry that there’s not enough trauma,” said O’Brien. “We seem to heal too quickly, too easily, too smoothly. I think you’re nuts if you come back from what I went through and aren’t nuts,” he said. “If you don’t have anger issues, I think you’re crazy, you’re not human.”

Actually, I’ve often thought that myself:  Why does therapy attempt to smooth out the rough edges of our life, to level the hard iron ore of experience? We talk about “processing” our emotions.  What exactly do “grief counselors” do?  We talk about “not being bitter” when people undergo experiences that are, essentially, bitter.  Drink it down to the bottom and then move on … well, “move on.”  There’s another one, eh?

Just when the audience was convinced that Vietnam was a meaningless horror, expectations turned again, with the poignant witness of a Vietnamese-American young woman, presumably a Stanford student, who said she felt “blessed” to be in the room — and without the American soldiers, she would not be privileged to be here.  She asked about “demonizing the enemy,” and said when she visits Vietnam, it’s hard to believe anything ever happened.

O’Brien, who has returned to Vietnam in recent years, grew thoughtful. “There’s a beauty that I missed, the first time around. The tree was ugly to me because someone might be behind it, shooting at me.”

He recalled returning to Vietnam and feeling “forgiven.”  He even went drinking with his erstwhile enemies, who joked about how easy it had been to find “big and noisy” Americans.  For the Vietnamese, “Our American War was just a blip on their radar screen. Not as big as the China War.

“There was none of the bone-killing animosity,” he said, “which makes you wonder: Which is the real world? That one or this one?”

Postscript on 2/2: The video of the event has just been posted — included below.

Tim O’Brien in Conversation with Tobias Wolff on “Writing and War” from Stanford Humanities on Vimeo.

Hey! I’m in the top ten at Publisher’s Weekly! (Hat tip, Dave Lull)

Wednesday, January 26th, 2011

Okay, okay.  I think it’s kind of something.  At the very least, it’s not nothing.  My book is famous.  Sort of.

Yesterday, Publisher’s Weekly named An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czeslaw Milosz one of the top ten books for the spring, in the “Belles Lettres and Reflections” category.

That’s me.  Belle-lettrist.  That is how I shall think of myself from now on.

Go ahead.  Look.  It’s here.  Scroll halfway down the long page.  Then you’ll find it:

A gigantic figure in 20th-century poetry, Czeslaw Milosz, is remembered in a series of portraits collected by Cynthia L. Haven in An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czeslaw Milosz, from Swallow Press. Together, the essays show the breadth of the Polish poet’s fascinating life in poetry and politics.

(I put it in boldfaced red so you won’t miss it.)

Here’s the whole list.  It’s halfway down that, too:

The Quotable Hitchens: From Alcohol to Zionism
Christopher Hitchens. Da Capo, May.

The Inevitable: Contemporary Writers Confront Death
Edited by David Shields and Bradford Morrow. Norton, Feb.

Otherwise Known as the Human Condition
Geoff Dyer. Graywolf, Mar.

At Home: What It Means and Why It Matters
Mary Gordon. Sterling, Apr.

An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czeslaw Milosz

Cynthia L. Haven. Swallow Press, Apr.

Elizabeth Bishop and The New Yorker: The Complete Correspondence
Joelle Biele, Elizabeth Bishop. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, Feb.

A Journey with Two Maps: Becoming a Woman Poet
Eavan Boland. Norton, Apr.

Beautiful & Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry
David Orr. HarperCollins, Mar.

The Anatomy of Influence: Literature as a Way of Life
Harold Bloom. Yale, Apr.

In Search of Civilization: Remaking a Tarnished Idea

John Armstrong. Graywolf, Mar.

(Did you catch the boldfaced red, this time?)

Altogether not a bad thing.  I’m kind of a big deal.

Orwell Watch #4: Jared Loughner – madman, terrorist, or both?

Tuesday, January 25th, 2011

Jen Paton over at 3quarksdaily has a provocative post comparing two Time Magazine cover boys:  Timothy McVeigh in 1995 and this month’s Jared Loughner.  One, the nation decided, was a terrorist; the other a madman.

In their way, the Times makes a nod toward balance, setting up a binary opposition: when it comes to Loughner, they say, there are “those who see premeditation” and “those who suspect he is insane, and therefore a step removed from being responsible for his actions…” Are the insane unable to plan? Do only terrorists plan? Is he a terrorist, or is he mad? The word terrorist remains unspoken: apparently, it could never apply here, not now.

Paton challenges our “reluctance to view a troubled young white American with no religious ties as a terrorist. In 1995, this was not a distinction we made so easily.”

Like McVeigh, Loughner targeted a symbol of government power, and hurt innocent people. Like McVeigh, Loughner had a complicated relationship with the military and, like McVeigh, he apparently had a deep mistrust of the United States government. Jared Loughner, like Timothy McVeigh, “had reasons of his own,” which are and always will be inaccessible to the rest of us.

But we called McVeigh a terrorist. Why isn’t Loughner a terrorist? Has America redefined its criteria for who can be one?

This is not to say Loughner’s actions weren’t swept up into other people’s political frameworks. …  David Brooks argued that mainstream coverage overemphasized possible political motivations, with all the talk of Sarah Palin’s map and the “violent rhetoric of the Tea Party.” Brooks describes  “a news media that is psychologically ill informed but politically inflamed, so it naturally leads toward political explanations.” Brooks is right in his diagnosis, but I see the opposite symptom: the media may be psychologically ill informed, but that hasn’t stopped them from attempting to psychologize Loughner to the nth degree.

What about John Hinkley, who also had a political target? Or  Nidal Malik Hasan?

Terrorism expert Jeff Victorof notes that though there is a lack of consensus on what defines terrorism, “two common elements are usually found in contemporary definitions: (1) that terrorism involves aggression against non-combatants and (2) that the terrorist action in itself is not expected by its perpetrator to accomplish a political goal but instead to influence a target audience and change that audience’s behavior in a way that will serve the interests of the terrorist”  (Victoroff, 2005)

By this definition, Jared Loughner fits the ticket, though he may also be psychotic.  It’s akin to the people who say that we cannot call Loughner evil — he was insane.  Well, why not both?  Why do we presuppose two non-overlapping categories?  And how does the craving for celebrity mutilate any political designs, whether garbled or coherent — or become a psychological disease itself?  How is language used to shape our latent political ends?

But read Jen Paton’s post here — and the comments afterward, too.

Postscript: Over on my Facebook page, Agustín Maes wrote this:

“Interesting, and similar to what I was thinking about after the Tucson shooting. It annoyed me that so much attention was being given to Loughner’s supposed insanity. Loughner does indeed seem as though he may be psychologically ill, but …talking about his mental deficiencies seems more like an attempt to rationalize his evil actions more than anything else. McVeigh wasn’t nuts, neither was Ted Kaczynski. (Neither was Hitler.) But the Unabomber was consistently called ‘crazy’ because it helped people cope with his amorality.”

The last few weeks events, especially the kerfuffle about the term “blood libel,” made me think about Jean-Marie Apostolidès and his writings about Ted Kaczynski.  I’ve written about it here.

Postscript to postscript:  Whoops.  I meant here, “Unabomber’s writings raise uneasy ethical questions.”