Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Torture, differently considered

My former colleague Angela Zito, an unorthodoxly radical media scholar at NYU, dismisses the liberal complaints about Zero Dark Thirty in favor of a deeper -- and more intriguingly appreciative -- reading:
The film’s “realism” lies elsewhere, buried deep in its own materiality on the screen.  I found it confusing to watch at an intimate level, at the level of the eye.... we’re sharing the experience of the characters who cannot grasp without great difficulty the vast amount of information they must sift through, much of which is images: the plot hinges on the misinterpretation of a photograph of a person. It conveys the reality of their lives through the reality of the materiality of the image itself in our digital age—distortable, manipulable, grainy, foggy, overwhelmingly too much.
"On Not Enjoying Zero Dark Thirty," at The Revealer.

The Revealer's current editor, Ann Neumann, has filed one of the most gripping and artfully constructed essays on a boring subject I can imagine at Guernica. By "boring" I mean a subject I'd normally avoid: forced feeding. But trust me -- you read "The Longest Hunger Strike" not just for what it says about torture (a theme of my digressive reading today, apparently) but also for the way Ann makes characters out of talking heads, vivid images out of phone conversations, empathy out of wonkery, and a terrifying, compelling, and perhaps necessary story out of this most gruesome of topics.

Here's a related post I wrote for The Revealer back when I was its editor: "Making Torture Beautiful."

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Digressions, 1/13/13

Searching for a certain kind of popular criticism to send to a student as an example, I found something more interesting right at home on Killing the Buddha: my pal S. Brent Plate's essay on suburbs and God (also, Arcade Fire and Douglas Coupland).

Caleb Crain's New Yorker obituary for (of?) Aaron Swartz, the activist who committed suicide while facing a felony prosecution for hacking JSTOR academic articles to make them available to everyone.

A short tabloid article about Courtni Webb, a high school student suspended for writing a poem about understanding Newtown killer Adam Lanza's rage and sense of powerlessness.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Instead of Working, 1/11/13

"Ektachrome," by "David." This is a story, or maybe a prose poem, or maybe just a hallucination, at a site called Cowbird. I guess Cowbird is a "platform" -- anyone can post a picture and a story, which sounds pretty simple. The art, as always, is in the arrangement.

I also read David's story "Stings."

Then, since I'm on a panel on "The Dangers of Self in Writing about Religion" at the Associated Writing Programs conference -- a conference, I have to admit, I've been proud not to attend before now -- I looked up my fellow panelists. The organizer, Jeremy B. Jones, I already knew, or knew of, through his writing for Killing the Buddha. Here's one called "Silver Trumpets." Then I read this good bloody Jesus mountain poem "Hem," by Jessie van Eerden, and "The Day I Met Hillbilly Jim" by Josh MacIvor-Andersen.

Later, a blip from current Modern Language Association president Michael Bérubé, on how an English major might enable you to become a general or a titan of finance. In response I wrote the following to a colleague:

"Humanities majors scored quite well; business majors did not." This is what it really comes down to, right? But I don't suppose we can insult our colleagues.

Which is too bad, because as the article makes clear, "Business" doesn't need to bash the humanities. Its assault is implicit. Which raises the question of how we can make a case for the humanities without responding to the assumption that's been put in place. The best we can do is to say, weakly, that English can also be useful out in the world. That is, if you really don't want to study econ or gov, or you're a scientist or a general with a whimsical side. We're moving English from a deficit major to a third-best, and third-best in a contest defined by the terms of "business."

I'm all for it, because that's what we can do now, but I think we need to shift the terms from scientists and generals to the most logical end of an English major: writers, artists, and scholars. And let students know that if they don't do well enough in their English major to become Toni Morrison, they can always fall back on number crunching and be rich. Seriously -- I meet these people at readings all the time, middle-aged lawyers and doctors and businesspeople working away at a mystery novel and haunting readings in the hope that some writer can anoint their manuscripts -- plenty of them bring them to the event -- and return them to the English major they abandoned. That's what they say: "I studied English in college, but then..."

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

A Fortunate Man

There were no distractions today. Only classes. Little pieces -- the beginning of Stephen Elliott's Adderall Diaries, the first view pages of Vivian Gornick's Fierce Attachments -- her sly revelation of her hatred for her mother, her fairytale-like three questions, each one the same, about the time a man crept into her mother's bed, each answer every so slightly a new one until finally a confrontation. Between Gornick and her mother. What, her mother wants to know, are you trying to say I wanted it? Gornick laughs "gleefully." That, I underlined. An adverb, within it so much of a relationship between a parent and a child.

Thursday I teach John Berger's A Fortunate Man. My grandmother gave me the book, but I didn't read it for years. Now, each time I re-read it, I'm more amazed. I think of the books my grandmother gave me. She was second oldest of twelve, I think, pretty certain she didn't finish high school, became a reader when someone left behind a box of books in a shack her family moved into. She gave me Balzac and Dostoyevsky, Oliver Sacks and John Berger, Flannery O'Connor and Peter Taylor, Ian Frazier--Great Plains was probably the only book she gave me I appreciated as a child--and many others, each one a time-release capsule. In college it was Dostoyevsky, then O'Connor and Sacks; now it's Berger.

Union dues bought her books. My grandfather was an organizer for the Boilermakers union. No college, labor, and a library. She told me she'd leave me her books, but when she died my uncle, as I understand it, sold them. He didn't know. What I have left are paperbacks, yellowing crisp. I'm teaching from one this Thursday.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Hearing is Believing

I teach an "intermediate creative nonfiction" class here at Dartmouth College. This term, I'm teaching it as "Ordinary Extraordinary: Literary Journalism, the Lyric Essay, and the Art of Fact." However I teach it, though, I always like to start with a bit of sound. I used to use Scott Carrier's This American Life piece, "The Test." But I've decided it's too bleak -- brilliantly bleak -- to begin a course with. (In the course of looking for that piece online again, I found this fabulous archive of all of Carrier's uncanny stories. As I write, I'm listening to his portrait of Charles Bowden, one of my favorite writers.

Last year, I used Quince Mountain's very funny, and very sharp reading of his story "Cowboy for Christ" at the launch party for Believer, Beware, a book I co-edited with the staff of Killing the Buddha. I asked my students to break into workshopping by workshopping this reading. But Quince is well past that writing now, so it seems too far past.

Right now I'm leaning toward Larry Masset's "A Night on Mt. Shasta." Twenty years ago, long before This American Life, I sat on the floor in a room at Hampshire College one night while a strange man named Masset played this story and others. That night was part of how I became a writer. I haven't listened to the story since, until today.

But I'm still poking around. Some audio documentary/storytelling sites worth remembering: The Moth. (Every hipster knows this site, but not everyone is a hipster.) Mortified Angst. Radio Diaries. TransomRisk. Hearing Voices. Third Coast Festival.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

What I Read Instead of Work, 1/5/13

Not-work is a subtle exercise. Sometimes work can creep up on you. This morning I accidentally woke up early and read George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss to put me back to sleep. But I love George Eliot now like I loved Tolkien when I was twelve, and pretty soon I was so happy with words I decided I could do some work. That meant re-reading, for the fourth time, James Baldwin's "Down at the Cross." Which provoked a perusal of Cornel West's 1982 first book, Prophesy Deliverance! The combination resulted in the mini-essay I needed to write on Baldwin for an anthology of literary journalism, the essay that had been defeating me for weeks. I should have kept going--next up was a mini-essay on Mailer's Armies of the Night--but I decided to take a break with Lucas Mann's excellent forthcoming book of literary journalism, Class A: Baseball in the Middle of Everywhere. I could justify this as part-work, since I'd promised to write a blurb for the book, but the truth is it was a pleasure I didn't want to interrupt with a re-reading of Mailer.

I decided to relocate to my office. I don't have internet at home--to save me from even further distraction--so the first thing I did was look at the New York Times. "Just the headlines," I told myself. But how could I resist "Former CIA Officer is the First to Face Prison for a Classified Leak," especially since it led with a happy photo of said spook putting a sneaker on his laughing 8-year-old daughter, a sure sign that his imprisonment is an injustice. Or that the NYT thinks so.

A passing reference to Jerry Falwell's Liberty University in the article caught my interest -- the spy had been invited to teach there, and had even taught Liberty U students surveillance techniques in Washington. It wasn't hard to find a picture of the class, which suggests that these students may not have such stellar careers in front of them. From there I wandered around the spy studies programs of Liberty and even further right Patrick Henry College, both dedicated to applying a "Christian worldview" to intelligence work. Their faculties are full of retired heavies with still-active consulting gigs, and their alumni seem to get placed. I justified my digression by tweeting it. Maybe somebody will do some actual journalism.

Back to Mailer, only to be interrupted by an essay by my pal Nathan Schneider, author of a great forthcoming book called God in Proof.

Back to Mailer. Phone call. Need to get my head back into the work. How? By poking around the internet, of course, and landing on this: "Be Wrong as Fast as You Can," by Hugo Lindgren, on work that never gets written.

Friday, January 4, 2013

How I Avoided Work, 1/4/13

Daily Distractions:

A Romance of the Sea-Serpent, or The Icthyosaurus.: A Collection of the Ancient and Modern Authorities, with Letters from Merchants and Men of Science, by Eugene Batchelder, 1850

Literary Journalism Studies, a scholarly journal dedicated to the genre known here as mutant journalism. I've been poking through back issues and lamenting the existence of Tom Wolfe.

"Grinding obviousness, bizarrely sprinkled." Victoria Beale on Alain De Botton's "School of Life" imprint.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Michael Herr, Dispatches, and Wallace Stevens, "Anecdote of the Jar"

Got to talking awhile back with some students about a Wallace Stevens poem mentioned in Michael Herr's Dispatches.

* * *

Below is the Wallace Stevens poem Herr alludes to on p. 107 of my edition of Dispatches -- the last line before section IV of "Khe Sanh."  It's called "Anecodote of the Jar."As for some of the other mysterious terms -- Tet, Dien Bien Phu, etc. -- some of you may have had that in high school history, others can learn all they need by context (Tet = the moment when every sane person understood the war would never be won; Dien Bien Phu = the moment when the French, before the Americans, were biblically defeated by their own vanity, plus overwhelming numbers).

The history, of course, is not the point. We don't read Dispatches to learn about the Vietnam War anymore than we read Moby-Dick to learn about whaling. Then again, one should never rest too easy on symbolism. One of you asked about the insertion of symbols in creative nonfiction, whether it could be done. With the reminder that rules are for breaking, no -- just as you shouldn't insert symbols into fiction, or a poem. One doesn't insert symbols, one -- perhaps -- finds them, recognizes them, maybe even accentuates them. There really was a white whale, there really was a war. The rest is in the telling. And Dispatches, in particular, is in the words.

For instance: rereading the "Khe Sanh" section, I had to stop and read this simple bit aloud a couple of times: "A vision of as many as 40,000 of them out there in the open, fighting it out on our terms, fighting for once like men, fighting to no avail. There would be a battle, a set-piece battle where he could be killed by the numbers, killed wholesale, and if we killed enough of him, maybe he would go away."

There's the devastating kindness of this passage, its sweet empathetic suspension of disbelief, for just a moment, for just long enough to evoke not only the delusion of the generals but also the vulnerable childishness of that delusion: "maybe he would go away." But there are cross currents in this passage, so read it again, with ears for the emphases and the deliberate cliches: "A vision of as many as 40,000 of them out there in the open, FIGHTING it out on our terms, FIGHTING for once like men, FIGHTING to no avail. There would be a BATTLE, a set-piece BATTLE where he could be KILLED by the numbers, KILLED wholesale, and if we KILLED enough of him, maybe he would go away."

My third time through I realized that "maybe he would good go away" isn't even the most absurd, most heartbreaking phrase; I think it's "there would be" -- "there would be a battle." That's the saddest, most pathetic verb tense in the language. I'm using the term "pathetic" colloquially, but it might apply formally, too -- part of what makes Dispatches so powerful, so unlike other war stories even as it traffics in machismo and cynicism, is that he never allows "the Mission," as he describes in a bit of magical realism, the grandeur or depth or romance of tragedy.

Ok, enough of that -- if you still want it, the Stevens poem:

I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.

The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.

It took dominion everywhere.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.

Daily Distractions 1/3/13

Today's detours:

"You can't get an ought from a was." -- Atossa Araxia Abrahamian on the so-called paleolithic diet for rugged hipsters, at The New Inquiry.

"It looks like it's MLA-bashing season again." -- anonymous professor quoted by Gideon Lewis-Krauss in "In the Penthouse of the Ivory Tower," at The Believer.

Whenever we say the word "beautiful" in front of others, [Dave Hickey] argues, our feelings are transformed from private experiences into actions with public consequences, taking us into the political arena of give and take—what he calls "wrangling" over ideas that, in essence, resembles the disputes over the value of physical things in the capitalist marketplace. We utter the word "beauty," Hickey contends, at least in part "because we are good democrats, who aspire to transparency and consensus."
--Laurie Fendrich, "Dave Hickey's Politics of Beauty," The Chronicle Review

And because I have a weird thrumming in my left ear, "Home Taping Is Skill in Buddha," by M. Sophia Newman, at Killing the Buddha.