19 December 2008

Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.

Indeed, for any n ≥ 1, the sentence buffalo^n is grammatically correct (according to Chomskyan theories of grammar). The shortest is 'Buffalo!', meaning either 'Bully (someone)!', or 'Look, there are buffalo here!', or 'Behold, it is the city of Buffalo!' (Thanks, Wikipedia!)

Crows have a harsh, self-assured call

Fuck 2008

Finally this semester is over. I read some books and stuff, bits of lots and pieces of some. Worth mentioning is Thadeusz Borowski's This Way to the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, which is a beautiful and harrowing collection of stories about Auschwitz, one of the dark, dark, darkest books I've ever read; some John Dewey, who I can't decide whether I like or not (is he stupidly naive or possessed of an admirably deep faith in the idea of democracy? Dunno); some Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., who is fucking awesome; George Cotkin's William James, Public Philosopher, which was fine and helpful; chunks of Robert Westbrook's John Dewey and American Democracy, which seemed well-written, admirably researched, and dangerously close to hagiography; Jonathan Schell's lucid and noteworthy book of journalism from Vietnam, The Military Half; and a bunch of chunks of other crap.

I'm done! I'm done I tell you! Tomorrow is another day!

The Thing We Read

I just finished an unexpectedly challenging semester, the last of my BA degree. It was challenging for a variety of reasons, one of which was that I was learning some Arabic and continuing my French while taking three graduate courses, another of which was that I had a rather contentious course on "Literature and the Experience of War." Things did not end well there, which is a shame. I thought I'd post here my final paper for that class here, though, mainly because it expresses some of the problems I have with everybody's favorite Vietnam War novel, Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried. Enjoy.


“Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier.”
—Dr. Johnson

Each time I reread The Things They Carried, little pieces fall away. I never thought much of it the first time, with its earnest sentimentality and its cute pomo truth-tricks, but there were some real good lines in there, some things I knew were true that he managed to put into words, and you can’t blame a guy for trying. When I read it the second time, I found myself settling into the idea of the author a little better, this “Tim” behind the “Tim,” and I was willing to forgive the easiness of his prose, his occasional posturing, and the lame, redemptive ending because I started to think some of those stories were actually good stories. I didn’t like the simpler ones so much, the cartoony, smooth, and manicured tales like “On the Rainy River” and “The Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong,” but the messy ones, like “The Ghost Soldiers.” That sounded about right: absurd, humiliating injuries, petty revenge, isolation, fear, misplaced compassion, shame. In “The Ghost Soldiers,” “Tim” crosses a line he didn’t know he’d drawn, and suddenly finds himself inadequate to his own desires. Not such a badass as he thought, he feels some compassion, a “closeness” to the man he’d wanted to hurt, the medic Jorgensen. He wimps out, begs Azar to stop, says they’d done “enough,” but Azar, the kind of guy who “loves this shit,” he knows better. Azar carries out the mission, leaving Tim whimpering pathetically in the dark—while at the same time Jorgensen, the “kid” Tim thought he’d show up, behaves with courage and grace.

Good story. Ironic, funny, shitty. This time, though, rereading the book, it all seems a bit stale. Tim’s tricks seem tired, his prose overwrought, his stories dull and listless. What’s the problem? I can think of several answers, but the first that comes to mind is the question: who’s this for? Who’s the audience? If you’re gonna tell a war story, who you gonna tell it to, and why, and how? This question is close to me, because I’ve got some stories, so my interest is more than academic. Call it professional. And I find myself wondering, why all the fuss? What’s with the guilt trip, Tim? And why, in the last story, do you play this bullshit chemo-girl angle and wrap it up with saving your inner child? Little Timmy’s first crush died of cancer. That’s a real tear-jerker, but what’s it got to do with war?

The problem for me begins, in fact, with war. Some people think they have the whole thing figured out, but having been in a war, I would tend to say it’s more complicated than most folks assume. The closest analogy would be sex: it is something so essential to being human, so much a part of the species being, so mysterious and various, so impossible to imagine your way into if you haven’t crossed that threshold, and at the same time so banal, that in effect if functions like a rorschach blot: some people see trauma, some people see thrills, some people see sin, and some people see the only thing that ennobles man’s existence. Some people see it as a job, some people see it as something for the young, some people only ever dream about it. Some people think it’s a disease, other people think it’s the cure. For a lot of people, the most important thing is the emotional connection, the intimacy it brings. For others, it’s something solitary, something they like to imagine to themselves with a book or a magazine. In effect, just like with sex, what you see in war is what you bring to war. Some people love it, some people never get it over it, some people study it, and some people do it and get on with their lives.

So the question of what kind of war story to tell, and who to tell it to, takes on a different cast than what we might assume. Those of us who have gone over to the shadow and realized that there is no shadow, just your own self and a lot of hoodoo, we face an interesting question when it comes to what to tell folks. If I had to summarize my own message right now, I’d have to go with “War’s stupid.” It really is. Just out and out the dumbest goatfuck you’ve ever seen. The sad part is that people die by it and the beautiful part is that the people in it try to make their way with some kind of integrity, which mostly means lying to themselves about one thing or another, and the scary part is that war is, historically speaking, a fairly significant factor in most human lives. We happen to be lucky here in the big fat west, where we mostly only go to war when we want. But my feelings about war aren’t the point. The question is, why’s the teller telling this particular story, and who’s the audience?

Now, clearly O’Brien has some kind of guilt trip. He feels bad about the man he killed, he feels bad about some other stuff too, that inglorious day in the shit field, etc. I mean, he thinks he should feel bad for these kinds of things, we don’t know what he actually did or feels, because they’re just stories that he plays with. He doesn’t tell us whether he really did anything to feel guilty about or not, he just keeps toying with the idea. And here’s the thing, at the end, which takes us back to the pre-Rainy River Timmy: we are explicitly treated to a theme of recovered innocence. In church they call it redemption.

In church. At this point, perhaps it’s worth pointing out that there’s enough Christian imagery in this book to make us wonder whether O’Brien just feels bad about missing mass. From Curtis Lemon and “how the sun seemed to gather around him and pick him up and lift him high into a tree” to Lieutenant Jimmy “Cross” and his burden of guilt, from the “baptism” at the Rainy River (“Hey,” Berdahl tells him, pointing to an owl, “There’s Jesus.”) to Kiowa’s Bible, from the liturgy of “The Things They Carried” to how “at night, not quite dreaming, they gave themselves over to lightness, they were carried, they were purely borne,” it’s funny comparing this book to something like Herr’s Dispatches, which is a lot more about drugs and rock n’ roll. You’d hardly know Tim from Minnesota ever heard a rock song, by golly. The point here is that lost innocence, guilt, redemption, grace, and forgiveness are big themes in the book. Very heavy stuff.

So Tim has his story to tell, and what a story it is: the sinner’s strip-tease. With his pomo tricks and his overall narrative of lost innocence, what O’Brien offers is a now-I’m-guilty, now-I’m-not way for conflicted liberals to feel good about their war porn. He gives the voyeur—I mean lecteur—that bit of intellectual distance, combined with some good ol’ down home moralizing. It makes the American loss in Vietnam palatable because, like Tim, we never really wanted to go in the first place. It makes the voyeuristic thrill of war palatable because we feel vaguely bad about it. And it massages the experience for the more intellectual moralists because it may or may not be true in the end anyway. The story he tells is that war’s bad (a trauma), and he knows it’s bad but he has to keep going back to it, but his going back is a kind of process (a recovery) by which he hopes to transform it into redemption. His “process” is highlighted in the book’s playful fictions, in the sinner’s strip-tease, which leaves us at the end with what we must suppose is the psychologically naked “Tim”: “skimming across the surface of my own history, moving fast, riding the melt beneath the blades, doing loops and spins, and when I take a high leap into the dark and come down thirty years later, I realize it is as Tim trying to save Timmy’s life with a story.”

It is at this point that I must do what I swore to myself I would never do, and refer to Foucault. In his great little book, The History of Sexuality, Part I, Foucault Nietzscheanizes Freud. That is, he argues that the whole Freudian discursive machinery of talking about the repression of sexuality is in fact just another way of behaving sexually. I’m simplifying, of course, but that’s the gist. It seems to me that this is a profound point, and one we would do well to consider when it comes to the literature of war. What is it, really, that we’re looking for? And what is it, really, that some of us keep coming back to again and again? O’Brien’s “trauma narrative” allows him to keep writing war stories, to keep returning to the stuff that filled what was probably the most exciting and intense time in his life ever, but in a way that’s socially acceptable, in a way that all the people back home can handle. His sinner’s strip-tease, like the analysand’s process of repression and revelation, engages the audience (reader or listener) in a titillating, self-aware game that plays like the end is the important thing, when in fact the money shot is usually a let-down. People come for the tease, and O’Brien gives it to them. O’Brien gives us a war story in the form of an anti-war story, and he keeps flipping and stripping to keep our interest. Did he really kill that guy? Even if he didn’t, he must have killed some other guy, right? What’s it like to kill a guy?

This sort of frisson that O’Brien keeps clicking is itself a form of pleasure, but in the end his story is the old one of the sinner’s plea for redemption. This too, as Nietzsche and Foucault would be quick to point out, is a form of pleasure and power. Being able to moralize, being “purely borne” by a higher power that allows you look down on others as “evil” or “stuck,” this too is a path for the will. The pleasure that American audiences at home seem to take in O’Brien’s book seems to suggest a widespread desire to redeem themselves, to see themselves as better, after their communal shunning of the troops returning from Vietnam. O’Brien’s book lets them see the soldier as good and the war as bad, it explains things in a way that makes us all feel better, and lets us have our war porn and our morality both.

Of course, people read war literature for all kinds of reasons. Just like people go to war for all kinds of reasons. In both cases, what you find there will depend on what you have eyes to see.