11 November 2011

“One is Reminded of Kierkegaard’s Remark…”

Revisiting James Wood’s review of White Teeth

To begin with, the term or terms: Hysterical realism. Hysterical. Realism.

Realism, of course, we all recognize as a set of techniques or conventions of (fictional) prose writing, perhaps even a genre, in which a kind of social and psychological description is used to foreground particular dramatic conflicts—most especially intimate or familial social conflicts and personal ethical dilemmas—with an appeal to its significance and “truthfulness” based on claims of mimetic representation. “Realism” claims to be “real.”

Hysterical is an adjective meaning affected by hysteria or convulsive emotion such as weeping or laughing fits. Hysteria, from the OED, is “a functional disturbance of the nervous system, characterized by such disorders as anæsthesia, hyperæsthesia, convulsions, etc., and usually attended with emotional disturbances and enfeeblement or perversion of the moral and intellectual faculties.” Historically associated with women, not least because of the etymology of hysteric (Greek, “of the womb”), it was a conventional way to describe upset women in the nineteenth century—and was a technical psychological term, as above, until psychoanalysis managed to reconceive it as neurosis. Hysterical is still used, as here, as a pejorative term of feminization and dismissal.

08 November 2011

Touching Down

(x-posted at The Quivering Pen, for David Abrams's "Catch-22" week)

The last time I read Catch-22 was in Kuwait, on environmental leave from Baghdad—I can’t remember now whether I was coming or going. It was a strange limbo, either way, raining in the desert, waiting for a flight, blissfully suspended between home and the war. It was like nothing counted there, nothing mattered. Since all I had to do each day was wait, then show up to formation to find out I had to wait some more, it was even more of a vacation than actually being on leave.

Back in America, nothing seemed right. I missed my rifle. I missed my buddies. Nobody knew or understood what was going on in Iraq, and when people thanked me I wanted to ask them “what for?” I got back just before Christmas, and among the lines of cheering supporters who greeted us at Dallas-Ft. Worth, an old man in a Santa suit handed us chocolates. I changed out of my DCUs as soon as I could, drank a beer, and eyed the crowds nervously.

07 November 2011

"As machines make ice..."

To World War Two, by Kenneth Koch

Early on you introduced me to young women in bars
You were large, and with a large hand
You presented them in different cities,
Made me in San Luis Obispo, drunk
On French seventy-fives, in Los Angeles, on pousse-cafes.
It was a time of general confusion
Of being a body hurled at a wall.
I didn't do much fighting. I sat, rather I stood, in a foxhole.
I stood while the typhoon splashed us into morning.
It felt unusual
Even if for a good cause
To be part of a destructive force
With a rifle in my hands
And in my head
My serial number
The entire object of my existence
To eliminate Japanese soldier
By killing them
With a rifle or with a grenade
And then, many years after that,
I could write poetry
Fall in love
And have a daughter
And think
About these things
From a great distance
If I survived
I was "paying my debt
To society" a paid
Killer. It wasn't
Like anything I'd done
Before, on the paved
Streets of Cincinnati
Or on the ballroom floor
At Mr. Vathe's dancing class
What would Anne Marie Goldsmith
Have thought of me
If instead of asking her to dance
I had put my BAR to my shoulder
And shot her in the face
I thought about her in my foxhole--
One, in a foxhole near me, has his throat cut during the night
We take more precautions but it is night and it is you.
The typhoon continues and so do you.
"I can't be killed--because of my poetry. I have to live on in order to write it."
I thought--even crazier thought, or just as crazy--
"If I'm killed while thinking of lines, it will be too corny
When it's reported" (I imagined it would be reported!)
So I kept thinking of lines of poetry. One that came to me on the beach on Leyte
Was "The surf comes in like masochistic lions."
I loved this terrible line. It was keeping me alive. My Uncle Leo wrote to me,
"You won't believe this, but some day you may wish
You were footloose and twenty on Leyte again." I have never wanted
To be on Leyte again,
With you, whispering into my ear,
"Go on and win me! Tomorrow you may not be alive,
So do it today!" How could anyone ever win you?
How many persons would I have to kill
Even to begin to be a part of winning you?
You were too much for me, though I
Was older than you were and in camouflage. But for you
Who threw everything together, and had all the systems
Working for you all the time, this was trivial. If you could use me
You'd use me, and then forget. How else
Did I think you'd behave?
I'm glad you ended. I'm glad I didn't die. Or lose my mind.
As machine make ice
We made dead enemy soldiers, in
Dark jungle alleys, with weapons in our hands
That produced fire and kept going straight through
I was carrying one,
I who had gone about for years as a child
Praying God don't let there ever be another war
Or if there is, don't let me be in it. Well, I was in you.
All you cared about was existing and being won.
You died of a bomb blast in Nagasaki, and there were parades.

05 November 2011

Coming up to Veterans Day

From On Being Numerous (1968), by George Oppen

I cannot even now
Altogether disengage myself
From those men

With whom I stood in emplacements, in mess tents,
In hospitals and sheds and hid in the gullies
Of blasted roads in a ruined country,

Among them many men
More capable than I--

Muykut and a sergeant
Named Healy,
That lieutenant also--

How forget that? How talk
Distantly of 'The People'

Who are that force
Within the walls
Of cities

Wherein their cars

Echo like history
Down walled avenues
In which one cannot speak.