We’re Not Rome…

December 31, 2008

… we’re Athens circa 431 BC.  At least that’s what starting Andrew Bacevich’s The Limits of Powerabout a week after a book on the Peloponnesian War seems to imply.  Athens in 431 not in the sense of faced with Sparta, but faced with choices about itself.  Reagan’s Star Wars/SDI, in this reading, would kick off something akin to the American quest to build the Long Walls.

That’s all I’ve got for now.  Chew on it for a little while; I will be.  Meanwhile, Happy New Year, and remember to never fully trust any historical parallel given to present times.  It’s never literal.

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Facts Are Stubborn Things

December 30, 2008

George Packer, in his introduction to Facing Unpleasant Facts, a collection of Orwell’s narrative essays, says of “Shooting an Elephant” (pp. xxi-xxii):

“Here’s a troubling thought: There’s no way of knowing whether the events in the essay ever happened. […] Does it matter? Would the essay be any less powerful if Orwell never actually shot an elephant?”

So far, so good. A potential problem well worth addressing – and almost certainly so, in light of Orwell’s own concerns of the relationship of language, truth, politics, and power. But then his way of approaching this question gets weird:

“If you’re a literary sophisticate, the correct answer is obvious: of course not. All we have are Orwell’s words; they are what they are regardless of his life story, and only a naïve reader demands that they reflect factual truth. If anything, an invented incident would show that Orwell’s imaginative writing is underrated.”

He begins the next paragraph by stating that in his opinion “the naïve reaction is the right one,” making nearly moot my furious margin scribblings just above it. Nearly, because he’s not setting up a straw man from which to pivot toward Orwell’s “fear that facts could materialize or appear on demand.” Note that language: Sophisticate. Obvious. Naïve.

I take exception to this because I don’t consider myself “a naïve reader” and the rather obvious answer I saw was: Of course it does! How could it not? But while I’m more or less in agreement that it makes very little difference whether Woolf really saw a moth dying on her windowsill before composing “The Death of a Moth,” the two shouldn’t be compared. Woolf’s essay is a meditation – which Packer freely admits – and Orwell’s is a narrative. It would be frustrating if the images (moths, people on trains, flowers, etc.) which Woolf uses as something akin to living prompts for many of her essays were never truly encountered, and yes, I’d be offended that she was lying, but it wouldn’t affect the essence of her essays because they are just that: prompts. The truth she seeks to reveal and examine in the “The Death of a Moth” is in the death of a moth, and death itself, rather than the death of the particular moth. The truth she exposes would be created rather than revealed only if moths did not die.

“Shooting an Elephant” is a narrative, and it approaches truth through that narrative – which is to say, through the sequence of events and the author’s reflection on them, not through a meditation upon a single image. The shooting of an elephant is not a prompt; it is the essay. Unlike Woolf’s essay, if it did not happen, or did happen but substantially differently, the truth Orwell seeks to reveal dissipates. It, as in all narrative essays, is contingent upon the truth of the narrative. (The meditative essay, too, must be truthful; but since the image of the dying moth was the prompt and the image, certainly, is true, the honesty of having literally seen one matters less than the honesty of the meditations – that, I’d say, is on what the essay’s truth depends.)

The relationship between author and reader is dependant upon trust. There are, admittedly, different types of trust: we do not expect the same thing from the author of non-fiction as we do from the author of fiction. How else could those conceits of unreliable narration, postmodernism, “meta,” (all of the twentieth century, really, and much of what came before) have any meaning if we trusted the author of fiction on the same terms as an author of non-fiction. But this works because fiction approaches truth differently than non-fiction; in many cases, I’d go so far as to say, it aims to reveal a different type of truth. Part of the truth Faulkner seeks to reveal in The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, and Absalom, Absalom! is that which is revealed when narrators contradict one another and the stories told are, though about the same event, not the same. Non-fiction, on the other hand is precisely that: grounded in the true, in facts.

Which is all to say that the meaning would be irreparably altered if the narrative of any narrative essay turns out to be fabricated. Orwell chose the form of non-fiction, not fiction, to reveal and examine the truth he wants to get at in “Shooting an Elephant.” There are types and aspects of truth that can be examined through non-fiction but not fiction, or examined better (and vice-versa). To lie for the sake of revealing truth is to fabricate that truth, to create it out of thin air.

I fail to see the naivete in this, or the so-called “sophistication” in claiming that the meaningfulness of truth is the exception rather than the rule. The purpose of a piece of writing is not merely to be beautiful, though there is truth in beauty. Prettiness is not greatness; and writing should move us – that is, teach us something, point us toward something, do its damnedest to reveal some truth (or some aspect of truth) to us. Sometimes this will be beautiful, something this will be didactic, sometimes both at once. Maybe I’m demanding too much of writing, but I want it to place some demand on me. I want it to have been worth my time to read something.

There is nothing avant-garde about lying – and if there is and I’m wrong, then I want nothing to do with it. But that’ll be the least of culture’s worries. If we divorce truth from beauty, we’re engaging in a sophomorically lazy reading of Keats’ dictum, forgetting that beauty alone does not make something truth: we must have truth to have beauty.

I love that question – though I don’t have any good answer to it. I think that any simple answer is prevented by the following sets of (reported) facts:

  • Sokrates fought with noted bravery at Amphipolis, Potideia, and as the Athenians were routed at Delium, dragging Alkibiades off the field even though himself wounded.

  • Sokrates took on as students those who carried themselves in a “Spartan” fashion – during the war, no less – and among The Thirty were some who would be his followers; while he did not offer his support to this latter group, he did not, as a “good citizen” would, denounce them.

Add in the sheer weirdness of his trial and the supposed defense speeches, and it’s all a perfectly muddled jumble. But there is something too purely human about a man risking his life for the democracy, stalwart though well past his physical prime, even though he was not a supporter of that government. He was no democrat, but he was an Athenian.

It’s tempting to attribute this to a sense of place, or “from-ness,” but there’s simply no evidence. If, for example, we knew that someone in his immediate family were landed, or held employment in the country – but then again, the city-dwellers also had an exceptionally strong (albeit democratic) sense of place; indeed, that’s what the rise of the Athenian military is often attributed to.

What with the generally vague and often contradictory (or at least not helpfully complementary) details of Sokrates’ life given by Plato and Xenophon, and his drift into near-myth over the course of 2500 years, it’s easy to lose sight of him as a man, particularly a man who existed in flesh and blood. I think there’s something in that contradictory relationship to Athens that rings very true, within and despite the obfuscations of time and his own devilishly smart students, and from which we might be able to catch a bit of light glinting off the truth of him. I don’t pretend that it’s much less fragmentary a truth than any piece of Heraklitos, but it seems so purely human (do I daresay Southern?) that I can’t bring myself to deny its truthfulness.

Cowhide Aesthetics

December 28, 2008

Baseball and North Carolina in the same sentence make me think of the Durham Bulls (not, to clear things up, Bull Durham, though I quite love Annie’s opening monologue). Which makes me think of tracking a handful of players who made it to the Majors through their programs (and guessing which ones would) with a couple of friends, and learning how to keep score. And this piece of conversation has stuck with me for a number of years now:

“You know, the Minor Leagues are probably a better representation of true baseball – as it’s meant to be played – than the Majors.”

It wasn’t my thought, and it had something to do with salaries, steroids, prima donna player drama, and a handful of other things I don’t quite remember anymore. But the logic was that players in the Minors aren’t out there for a paycheck so much as they are to play as well as they can and prove themselves, because if they don’t, they’re out of a job or will be fairly soon.

I agree a little more with that statement now than I did then, but not for those reasons. It has to do with the particular aesthetic of watching Major League and Minor League baseball, at least from my perspective: in Major League games, I want a particular team to win, or a particular player to do well. I’m partisan, whereas I’m more prone to relax and watch the beauty of the game (and I do find it quite beautiful; I’m on George Will’s side when it comes to this – mess with us and we’ll strangle you with bow ties) if it’s one which I have no (or little) stake in, like a Minor League game. Even if I’m watching the Louisville Bats play, it just doesn’t seem to matter as much who wins or loses so much as it does that the game is a good one.

If baseball is meant to be played for aesthetic purposes, then I want to say the Minors are generally a better representation of that, but I’d be wrong: they’re just better at enabling my viewing of that aesthetic.

* * *

This was supposed to be a post on a line of dialogue from HBO’s John Adams miniseries, which I’ve been watching on DVD (I’m one of those people who have an unhealthy favoritism for all things Adams Family – he just reminds me so much of Old Tully sometimes!) But I can’t think of anything worthwhile to say about it other than the let it stand alone. I don’t know if it is anything he actually said or wrote (I’ve caught some parts of the dialogue – particularly between John and Abigail – that seem to be from letters), but I kind of hope it is. It would be a prescient rebuttal of the French Revolution if it were. And if not, it’s just a nice explanatory companion to what Adams meant when saying he was on the law’s side:

“Do you approve of a brutal and illegal act to enforce a political principle?”

“or are forbidden to sing or play songs that explicitly refer to Christ”

And then Ivan Kenneally gives me an off-topic (or is it?) flashback: Eighth grade, I think, outside during gym class. OK, that’s what it was – we were doing our end of year “Olympics”: the various jumps, relay races, etc. (I was not particularly good at these.) So there was a lot of still time, and I turned around and saw/heard one of the guys in my grade (who I really couldn’t stand) swaying and singing, “Jesus Loves Me,” while two girls were talking next to him. No big problem, except he and I are both Jewish, they’re Christian and more religious than either of us at the time, and he’s singing it in a sort of asshole-like tone.

I don’t remember what transpired in detail, but the short of it is: I wanted him to stop, because it was pretty clear that he was mocking them; one of the girls – exceptionally sincere and one of my favorite people from then – said that she didn’t mind because it was true. At the time, I was mostly frustrated by the fact that her letting him go on like that would probably make him more insufferably obnoxious elsewhere.

I didn’t really understand any of what she meant until four or five years later — and part of it is something I am capable of understanding as distinct from Jesus though she (if I were talking to her right now) might tell me that she understands it as indistinct from him, but also understands what I mean.  I think it has something to do with this: that even if they’re not any more effective, smiles are at least more beautiful than hellfire.

Via PhDiva, a headline I didn’t quite expect to see —  Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ Is Surprise Christmas Hit.” (Though since this is in Britain, I’m reminded of Cohen’s quip that he had always appreciated the support he received from music labels for American promotion — Various Positions, on which the original version of “Hallelujah” appeared, was not released in the US until it came out on CD in the 90s.)  Even though they’re not buying his version(s).  As much as I prefer the inclusion of the full original lyric (as he’s been doing in recent shows, apparently), the live version from the aptly titled Cohen Live is phenomenal.  Maybe he’s an acquired taste, but then again, I am a member of the Facebook group, “If I Listen to Anyone Singing ‘Hallelujah,’ It’ll Be Leonard Cohen.'”  (Take that, Buckley-promoting-Facebookers!)*

But then there was this sentence:

Some may argue that “Hallelujah” is an inappropriate song for Christmas since it is represented in the dolorous lyric as a cry of sexual climax, and romantic failure.

What makes the stunning Positions triad of “Hallelujah,” “If It Be Your Will,” and “Night Comes On” so stunning is that Cohen is talking purely about sex just as much as Donne was ever talking purely about sex.**  (Or, to quote Cohen quoting Faulkner talking about Keats, “He’s talking about a girl” — “Well, he had to talk about something.”)  The redeeming aspect of the song, religiously speaking, isn’t that it’s educational, but that it is about God, belief, and faith.***  Take the final verse of all versions of the song:****

I did my best, it wasn’t much
I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch
I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you
And even though
It all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah

Understood without any consideration of faith, it’s hardly understood at all.  It’s praise for the fact of life amid disaster; from a more religious perspective, I suppose, one might say for being created because even when the Creation does not seem or appear good, he knows that it is good and to be a part of it is good and worth thanks.

*I should eventually admit that Buckley’s version is wonderful, and that Cohen’s (lack of) singing voice does hamper him, especially on the Various Positions version.  But someone has to be a Cohen partisan when it comes to this song, and I’m more than willing to fight losing battles.

**This also probably applies to “Coming Back To You,” but it’s just not on the level of the other three.

***I should point out here that Cohen’s  never been one for orthodoxy; from what I can gather, he’s a Reform Bu-Jew who, even in the phases more Bu than Jew, made sure to light candles on Friday night.  This is mostly irrelevant, but worth pointing out when talking about religion and the man, I suppose.

****Firstly, WordPress needs to give me a footnoting function.  Secondly: HOLY SHIT: the Buckley/Wainwright version of the lyrics drops this verse.  Don’t know how I hadn’t realized it/forgot this.  Let me retract the word “wonderful” and replace it with, “is much prettier than Cohen’s/is (possibly) the prettiest.”  OK, so that version the Brits are buying up maybe is really about sex, but that’s beside the point.  Just a general bone to pick here: yeah, you can probably sing it and arrange its music better than Leonard originally did.  But leave the lyric alone.  You’re not going to make it any better.

And even though I’ve posted this before, I’ll do it again as a (relevant) Chanukah/Christmas treat: Leonard Cohen singing his song, his way, this summer:

Happy Chanukah and Merry Christmas, everyone.

A Tree Like No Other

December 24, 2008

Victor Davis Hanson in an endnote ostensibly about the religious value of olive trees in ancient Greece (A War Like No Other, p. 332):

Both sides in the present-day Israeli-Palestinian conflict seem to embrace the importance of olive trees as symbolic capital that has value far beyond producing olives.  Throughout the years 2000-2002 the Palestinians cited the Israelis as bulldozing some fifteen thousand of their olive trees — about one hundred acres at normal planting densities — to clear paths along strategic areas to prevent sniper attacks.  Yet the Christian Science Monitor (December 8, 2000) reported that both the destroyers and the owners, as traditional Mediterranean peoples, were depressed by the tactic: “We were educated not to uproot a sapling, and for us Israelis, this has left a bad taste,” remarked Yoni Figel, an Israel government official.  In turn, the Palestinian mayor of Hares lamented, “Olives are like water to us.  You cannot imagine a home without olive oil.  The olive tree is a symbol of our people, surviving for centuries on these hillsides” (Daily Telegraph, London, November 3, 2000).

Makes you wonder if there might actually be some truth in this.

Quoth Rod Dreher, in my favorite 2009 prediction yet:

“I predict President Obama’s going to spend 2009 chain-smoking.”

My immediate reaction, as one who spent an hour a week for seven years watching The West Wing: if it talks like a Bartlet, and has advisors like a Bartlet, and smokes like a Bartlet…

Barack Obama.  Brought to you by Aaron Sorkin and the millions of television viewers who took refuge in a make-believe world where everything, in the end, turns out alright.

Stalin To The Defense!

December 22, 2008

Andrew seems to have thoughts on torture/”physical pressure” and alleged “legality”/”necessity” to those I had a few days ago, only he goes and does some good old fashioned research, and comes up with a gem to prove the point.

“Experience has shown that such an arrangement has produced good results and has greatly expedited the unmasking of enemies of the people. True, subsequently in practice the method of physical pressure was abused by Zakovsky, Litvin, Uspensky, and other scoundrels, converting it from an exception into a rule and beginning to apply it against honest people who had been arrested accidentally. For these abuses, they [the scoundrels] have been given due punishment. “

That due punishment line, in a weird, vaguely inappropriate dark humor kind of way, was my favorite.  I suppose that I owe the Soviets an apology for focusing solely on the Vietnamese in my earlier post at their expense.  Whoops!

Three-hundred pages into Charles Frazier’s novel Cold Mountain, and while I think I’m going to put together something on the book once I finish it, I think this passage deserves to be shared without comment:

“The grouping of sounds, their forms in the air as they rang out and faded, said something comforting to him about the rule of creation.  What the music said was that there is a right way for things to be ordered so that life might not always be just tangle and drift but have a shape, an aim.  It was a powerful argument against the notion that things just happen.  By now he knew nine hundred fiddle tunes, some hundred of them being his own compositions.”

OK, so without much comment.  A while back I promised that I would post something on Oakeshott’s contemplative mode since I was in the habit of referring to it, and while I have not yet had time and my volume of Oakeshott isn’t with me right now (so I’ll get to it, I suppose, in January), the ability of music — simply the notes and sounds, setting aside for the moment all lyrics — to move one may provide something approaching an example.  Especially when, like me, one knows exceptionally little about the makings of music on a note-by-note level, and his emotions are stirred by little more than the natural beauty of it.