Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Where do babies come from? Your Levi's

"Practise your beauty, blue girls, before it fail;
And I will cry with my loud lips and publish
Beauty which all our powers shall never establish,
It is so frail." -- John Crowe Ransom, "Blue Girls"
Hold that thought.

On the television, they have medicines more various than any Wild West show tent. At the break of the 20th century, men adventurous and adventitious went about with products to cure each malady, even the ones that people hadn't any idea they suffered from. (Be aware, O ye historically naive, that the wild west in 1825 was Alabama, that it did not go to Texas, Arizona and the like until the 1840's, and the people who showed up fully grown malcontents were already twisted criminals back home in Georgia, Florida, Mississippi.)

The television makes money for people today as surely as the newspapers did then. Why, now you can not only cure your iron-poor blood, but you can make your eye lashes grow! The huckster's old claim that "it" will restore youth has turned into "Regeneris" face cream to putty-in wrinkles or Botox to freeze them, and his pitch that "it" will grow hair on a bald man is, at long, long last, a dream come true. O brave new world that has such creams and potions in it! In fact, the same pill can relieve the blues or relieve your pain, and this is revolutionary, because, in the past, we were only worried about nasty, evil people who, when sad, would go buy illegal drugs that would make them happy and relieve their pain.

Well, among the illnesses we have discovered once we found their cures on the television was "man-o-pause" or, for those wanting language that sounds less like a joke, "andropause." ("Andros" is the Greek word for male, but that "pause" is a problem.) Here is a typical discussion, guys. It will help you with "that little problem."

Now, me? I entered into the shadow of death long ago, and time's umbra covered me in its numbing wing. Like the noble mosquito, "it doesn't hurt when it begins," but, of course, it does not merely begin. I was never particularly over dosing on martial prowess, or any other sort, but a few blood tests showed the infamous "low T." I thus found a ready supplier of injectables and began a few months of imitating Barry Bonds and other heroes of the game.

My motivation on the surface was to rectify biochemical abnormalities and to achieve triglyceride reduction. My ulterior motivation was the relief of fatigue. Really, it was. Ok, and some awakening of desire, but not in any way the other. That, alas, has not been a concern.

You don't care about why, though. You want to know what happened. Well, after a full summer of shooting the dope every two weeks, I have decided to return to my old self. The effect of exogenous testosterone was....

Do you know where babies come from? They come from lawn mowers. Now, I have never seen a lawn mower directly involved in the insemination or ovulation or carrying of a fetal human, but I have noticed an overwhelming correlation between young couples purchasing a lawn mower and producing a baby. Newly weds beware the John Deere salesman! Unless the purchase is of an ATV -- which is a well known contraceptive and cause of sterility -- any purchase of a lawnmower is likely to cause conception.

Not many people are aware of this correlative relationship, but I figured it out about the time my friends Bill and Donna bought a lawn and then a lawn mower. I had no proof of causality, no isolation of the agent, but I knew the phenomenon. I could not isolate the cause... until now! You see, taking testosterone made me want to mow the lawn.

I'm serious. All summer, I watched the grass grow, hoping for it to recover from its last scalping so that I could go inflict more savagery upon it. I loved the soaking with sweat, the smushing of dog poo, the face slap of tree branches, the stings of the ants. I stomped and chopped and was smelly, wet, and manly.

I was not, however, more lusty. Not in one way or the other. Nor did I grow large. Not in one way or the other.

So, do I quit shooting it because autumn will be coming in two or three months? No.

Remember that quote from John Crowe Ransom? Well, compare it to something I wrote recently: "The youth of beauty, and the beauty of youth, demand those who lost years to watch and demand them to seek out the joy of their own vital pulse, the concerns of the overhang and undertow that remove their exceptions, and who can blame either party? The one who missed and misses longed and longs and surfaces briefly in the filling of senses, and the one in potential is compelled and curtailed, devoted and dovetailed by and in time. Nature could allow no exception, and will complies." Pretty whiny, isn't it?

What both of them are talking about is that men and women who grow older as they stand before college audiences notice, more and more keenly, the beauty of young members of the opposite sex. The desire increases as the distance from the competition for them does. Now, there certainly are creeps. Make no mistake: some people are creeps and maladaptive fools. However, every one I have known has been content to sit in the stands and watch the game, has loved walking through the gallery and looking at the paintings. None of them has grown confused and tried to grab the merchandise, run onto the field, or believed that he or she was in the game.

Actually, I take that back. Very recently, I knew of a teacher who was by no means on the field nor artist. However, every female student reported that she was creeped out by the way he looked at her. They were not able to articulate precisely what it was, but they knew what they experienced, understood what was conveyed. The pornographic gaze wishes to take. It wishes to strip, to dissect, to grab, and to own. The other one... the aged eye, I suppose, wishes to linger and to revel and is shy; it wants the original to remain. (It can be as guilty of objectifying as anything -- is guilty -- but not guilty of malice.)

John Crowe Ransom at Vanderbilt saw the pretty girls. This is no surprise. Robert Herrick saw them too. Whether a man has the years to justify it or not, the same feeling is the same: presence calls to loss, loss longs for surfeit. Surfeit never knows itself. These are truths abiding. However, the sweet melancholy plays an artistic tune in even the dullest woman or man.

At the same time, Levi's Jeans company is running commercials, has been running them, which purport to be American (TM). They have Frosty sounding recitations. "You (glug glug) are a god!/ The gods (glug) dance before you (glug)/ Hoping to catch your radiance (glug glug) on their tongues/ The dumb jerks," the poet says, and we see truly spectacular images of youth.

I'm amazed. The pictures are exactly like the poetry. Both are seductions. Read the Whitman, or the Ginsberg. These are poetic lines in praise of the young American, and of American youth, that is primarily flattering, not celebratory. Instead of taking a real quality and showing its beauty, it takes a quality and gives it hyperbolic, mythic, supernatural qualities. Instead of, "You weave through the air," it is "her skin is like nature dipp'd her hands in milk." Everyone knows that the lover gets the beloved by compliments.

The message from Levi's is not "go, do something," but "come here, you." The visuals celebrate the bodies of youth, youth stretching, contorting, sweating, and doing other physical functions that show the body's shapes and features alone, and they do so wonderfully but synecdotally. Each is a clipped fragment rather than a montage. The message is, "Your blue jeans want to have you," rather than "you want to have blue jeans."

Perhaps young buyers are flattered by the commercials, but it's more likely that men and women of my age are stricken by sympathy pains. We, like the commercial, long for what is lost, and we will buy some jeans. We will need some help, perhaps, need a supply, but we will avoid that longing and shovel dirt into the hole.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Job and the Neutrality of Suffering

“'Can mortal man be righteous before God? Can a man be pure before
his Maker? Even in his servants he puts no trust, and his angels he
charges with error; how much more those who dwell in houses of clay,
whose foundation is in the dust, who are crushed before the moth.
Between morning and evening they are destroyed; they perish for ever
without any regarding it. …they die, and that without wisdom'” -- Job 4:17-21
On his birthday every year, Jonathan Swift used to read from Job 3, where Job curses the day of his birth. It's a long way to go for a joke, but it might not have been a joke in jest. John Gay's epitaph, “Life's a jest, and all things show it./ I thought so once, but now I know it,” is similarly mirthlessly funny. One of the reasons I like these writers so much is that they had been made unafraid, had been plunged into the miseries and truths we would like to avoid, and had gotten a humor that was neither gallows nor false out of it. Samuel Johnson wanted epitaphs to be dignified and to elevate the sentiments of the reader, and so he did not like Gay's, or Swift's, but Gay's, at least, was a last bit of conversation between the dead and the living.
I could expound on the ambiguous “now” of John Gay's grave marker, but there is no point. Instead, I have been thinking about Job. The book of Job is pretty ancient, and the textual folks think it may be the oldest part of the Bible. Those who notice that invariably go wrong by then doing source studies and looking at analogs. They have a project of reconstructing the True Meaning of “the adversary” as the composer of the book meant it and battling a received wisdom about the story. Those are interesting things, sure enough, but they're not really so revolutionary. After all, the text gives it to us. To me, though, stands out because of the story itself and what it tells us about humanity and divinity and the non-Western nature of morality, as opposed to ethics.

Clear your mind of the "God did it!" folderol. It isn't important, unless you entirely miss the  point of the book. Is a person good for having stuff? Is a person evil for lacking stuff? Is illness a sign of being bad? In other words, is Donald Trump a saint? Is a five year old with leukemia  an especially sinful child? If you answered "no," then saying that God's causing sores and losses is no indictment.  

We're accustomed to beginning from the premise that suffering is bad. In fact, in Plato's Republic, Socrates gets a group of rebarbative and wary customers to agree that the good is  that which decreases suffering, alleviates suffering, and avoids suffering. Upon that basis, they could reason forward to other propositions. We tend to agree with the dinner party on that head. However, Job seems to indicate that the good is not in relation to suffering, and that's what is so strange, so revolutionary, so perplexing. 
When we were little, we might have said "that which reduces broccoli and squash is the good." We might now laugh at that conclusion, but we shouldn't laugh too much. We would have been using our reason on our data. Our senses affirmed that the greatest bad was being chained to a dinner table with a horror-food before us. Socrates and company are merely doing the same. The reason Job doesn't is that he is asking for a different judgment. Our parents judgment, as the ones > looking over our heads, seeing beyond our senses and our present moment, might say that the vile squash is "good for you," and they would be right on the basis of perspective. Job differs from Western philosophy by beginning with the idea that there is a God who sees beyond all of our abilities in time and space and judgment.

Think about that human reaction to suffering. We tend to react to it based on deserving. The friend of Job's who I quote at the top is taking a position that today's Calvinists would embrace, and he grows angry when Job refuses to admit that he, as a sinner by nature, must confess sins by commission. Job's friends can make no sense of his sufferings without a more primitive belief than Eliphaz is willing to admit. Eliphaz might say, in effect, "Everyone is sinful and deserves a kick, so don't defend yourself," he seems to believe that not admitting some active sinfulness (not marching up to the altar rail to confess) is the reason that God is punishing Job. In other words, he thinks that all deserve punishment, and none get it. However, by refusing to say you deserve it in a specific way (by not committing sins willfully), you will be punished.
Job, of course, is in a position of being forsworn. If he confesses to sins against God that he has not committed, then that would be sin. Further, his faith is in the uprightness of duty, and doubting that justice would be doubting God.

Still, Job's friends are true friends. If we look at what they do, not how they do it, we can see something to learn. Each wants to help. First, they weep with him (more later). Then, they try to put his sufferings into reason. Then they want to fix the situation for him. Indeed, what makes them angry is not that he suffers, but that he won't take the fixes.

To me, they've always been a perfect illustration of our own responses to random suffering. We should do more sympathizing, but we spend most of our time, like them, trying to eliminate the problem by giving it an explanation. Like Voltaire's doctors, who "pour drugs of which (they) know little into a body of which (they) know less." If we can only put the think into a system, regardless of fundamental understanding, then it will have a place, and a place is a position in relation. What we cannot tolerate is that which eludes the "natural order," even if we have to place it into the "divine order." Death, of course, is, as Alexander Pope said in Essay on Man (ii 135-6), the "young disease, that must subdue at length,/ Grows with his growth, and strengthens with his strength." It is the natural order.

Similarly, though, it is in our native cast to avoid death, both in our thoughts and in its grisly effects. This means also the alleviation of suffering. The dark lords of our economies who suggest that we are happiest when standing on the smoking corpse of our neighbors or that we have no natural concern for another's welfare are wrong. Sociopaths and narcissists exist in unnatural profusion, the truth is that we hate hearing, seeing, or being near a suffering person.

Rich lawyers complain that it's "depressing" to see a homeless shelter across the street from their social club. Americans wince and give phenomenal amounts of money when they see starving children, homeless hurricane and earthquake victims, and meanwhile the masters of talking-about-politics swear that those same Americans would never agree to a fraction of that amount going to taxes. In fact, we do not want suffering to occur. We want to stop it. The worst thing is suffering we cannot affect.

Men may be worse than women in this, but we're all pretty lousy friends to the wounded. Job shows that we have learned to be bad friends. We want to repair the hurting. We want to say, "Here's what you do, Job." "If you introduce an austerity plan for your children and get your sanitation situation under control by reducing the number of dogs who lick your sores and going without food, we can lend you some money, and everything will be fine," we say.

Job denounces his friends as false counselors in the end because, in the end, they are not counselors, but accusers, and so are we.

When you see a person suffering and reach for the shelf of cures and fixes, what you're doing is complaining that the person has given you sympathy pain. You are saying, "You violate the order of how things should be, and so you must be sanded down or built up." The suffering person is in pain, certainly wants aid, and you are seeking to help, but when you or I cross from helping from love of the other and helping from disquiet, we have gone from friendship to overseer, from supporter to accuser, from beloved to judge.

"Now when Job's three friends heard of all these troubles that had come upon him, each of them set out from his home -- Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite. they met together to go and console and comfort him.  When they saw him from a distance, they did not recognize him, and they raised their voices and wept aloud; they tore their robes and threw dust in the air upon their heads. They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great."
Job 2:11-3, RSV

The man who shoos the beggar away shoos Christ from his heart, but the man or woman who insists on fixing the poor is certainly cold, as surely refusing the healing power of consolation. One of the bitter herbs of technology is that our sadness and suffering drive us ever onward toward medicine, psychology, appliances, and travel, and we get better and better at amelioration and alleviation. In the process, we lose dying, willfully forget that dead is a noun, but dying a verb of duration. We get so facile at fixes that the irreparable baffles us and then enrages us. The men and women who lived in an age of infant mortality earned their jokes with death, deserved their wide-angle view of joy and murk intermingled, understood that a man who wrote like an angel might suffer like a devil with an infected spine. We could do worse than read again, and this time with feeling.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Anniversaries and the Lies

It's time to have it out with the date, to have the date out, and all that it brings, to neutralize the things above it. I have written about September 11, 2001 twice now, and I never thought that I would write about it once. I hadn't the right, for one thing, and I am not special. Further, there was nothing to say: what does the fly say about the glass sky scraper it bumps into?

Immediately after September 11 itself, there were calls for oral history projects. One of the major insurance companies, I believe, offered to cover psychological counseling for anyone. (The catch was that they wanted you to become a policy holder, and then they'd offer it.) There were services available, but I needed and had a right to none of that. First, there were worthier stories, worthier people, worthier deeds and witnesses. Secondly, I had nothing to say. Nor was I honoring my phlegmatic heritage nor modesty by trying to allow the graver wounds a place in line.

Whenever there are military memoirs, they begin with statements like, “I arrived on Paris Island October 3, 1967” or “I served Mil. Sec. IV, Advanced Combat, for III Corps in-country 1971.” This is one reason such memoirs have always had the smell of gun oil about them for me. They begin, and sometimes continue, with barking of incomprehensible military acronyms and slang, and I never understood why any honest person would write that way until I came to write about 9/11 for a wide audience this year (2011). I make no claims for my honesty, but the reason that the military memoir starts with such mystifying language is fear. It is the same reason that I would not go forward at the time, the same reason I would not speak of my experiences, the same reason that I do not have a right to be bothered by them now.

We live in a world of official voices and official views, an atmosphere deep in images and narratives of what has happened and, worse, what it means or meant. A soldier writing about Fallujah first knows that an official account exists and/or that there is a news and television narrative competing with his own. (If there were not, he would have no need to write. He could simply say, “Richard Lowry's book on the battle mentions X, and I was part of that” or “Most people know that the battle for Fallujah happened twice....” This is why soldiers, to qualify themselves, and to validate and limit themselves, to protect themselves, have to say exactly who they were inside the context of the military and how they have a right to a story in the first place. Even if the public never challenges the author, the author feels that challenge, just because she or he knows about the competition, knows that, in a sense, the world does not need a new story as much as the author needs the world to hear it.

If a memoirist continues with the slang and acronyms, then he or she is probably a chowder head, but most do not. The same is true, I think, of those who write now, years too late, of 9/11. I will not speak for others, though. They speak for themselves.

My experiences were non-traumatic. I lost no loved ones. I was not injured. My apartment did not burn, and I did not even go without electricity. I have the least right to a voice of any who were on Manhattan that day. This is a fact, and it is an inescapable one. I have reminded myself of it, too. Every time that the vague misery, the disquiet that cannot be found or quelled, the sense of misunderstanding and theft, has come up, I have repeated this to myself. I can be depressed about my economic position, my finances, my family life, my love life, politics, the people claiming to speak for religion, but not this.

“Nevertheless, it moves,” as the man said. In 2002, we did not talk about the attacks. In fact, no one I knew talked about them at all. We knew about them, so we didn't talk about them. Even as we navigated around the attack sites, we did not speak of them. As we developed strategies for teaching students who had lost parents, we did not speak of the attacks. As we saw and read about the clean ups that were going to identify “abandoned” cars and property, we did not say anything. In fact, the first time I remember even alluding to the attacks with another New Yorker was in early August of 2003, when I was on the #6 train, heading home at 4:30, and the power went out just as the train was over the Bronx River. We sat in the car for twenty minutes before MTA had a solution, and, while we sat there, we talked, and several of us were of the opinion that it was another terrorist attack, and we'd just have to find out after we got somewhere what was affected. (We sat in the car for only twenty minutes, because the MTA had all sorts of plans and were very well practiced. They got us from a trestle bridge to a station without A/C power.) The attacks were there, like the delays, like the smoke, like the hole, like the idiot tourists, like the souvenir sellers from New Jersey, like the new emergency plans, like the economic depression that hit the island, so what was to talk about?

In 2006, I was away from there. I was in small town Georgia. The television did not have a major paroxysm over the anniversary, but public radio shows that were based in New York or Philadelphia did. I found myself, though, having sadness that I could not argue myself out of. The day – the unfathomable mixture and lack of meaning of it – was a revenant, and I had come to its grave. I had had an experience. I had an experience that a million shared, at least.

My experience was of an open question, of an unsolvable riddle. I do not mean “Why did they do it?” Who cares why they did it? It would make no difference. I do not mean, “What are we going to do about it?” It doesn't matter what we do, neither to the dead nor the living. I also do not mean, “What does this mean?” I think most people would be satisfied with knowing that it is random or purposed or cut off from sequence. I mean, instead, “Who am I in this? What happened?”

That year, 2006, I grappled with the single question that had been most on me since the day: am I brave, selfish, giving, or cold? Hundreds of people without training ran down to the pile to help, but I didn't. Tens of thousands suffered the ash, but I didn't. Dozens hugged and cried with survivors, but I didn't. I was practical. I was analytical. I was intellectual. I considered the various authorities, evaluated them, and made decisions. The jumpers and those who were showered with body parts or the binary of life/death presented in a second mesmerized me as a symbol of all of these questions combined. Neither prepared, thought, analyzed, but each had to be herself or himself, and I did not know that I had such a self to rely on, that there was a core beyond the analytical. The artist – refined soul, delicate senses – and the vision most raw and unsought flung upon her became my heroine. She was 9/11 in sum. [I link little. I can tolerate few.]

Five years later, the world has only grown colder, and the chill has allowed not oblivion, but deception. The stunned, altered, confused, tearful visage has suffered another insult: it has been erased, substituted, and summarized. None of us could perceive what happened, either in real time or in its contours. I do not think the Palestinian family or neighborhood struck by an 'errant' missile, or an Afghan wedding party mistakenly hit by Hellfire missiles can. Death that appears so quickly with such ragged and arbitrary edges cannot be understood by the living, because to understand a thing, we have to have a concept of it, and that means being able to define it. To define something, we must know where it begins and ends. (Hegel's phenomenology vexes us because, if someone points at an apple and says, “I mean
that apple,” he says, “By apple to do you mean the skin, the red, the shape, the thing on the table, the thing on this table, the thing and the table, the thing, table and chairs? What is it exactly that makes it 'this'?”) When there is a 9/11, no one inside it can know it. It is too big, and we are too small.

We started out not knowing what was happening, but we who lived did so only by never understanding what it was that actually happened. To live, we cut our perspective down into segments of arc. However, the nation outside us had an image. While we knew who we lost, for the nation the victims of the attack were changing. We all knew and mourned and loved the lost firefighters and police who responded to the attacks. We took flowers to the fire houses. However, before Oliver Stone's movie, “9/11,” came out, but definitely shortly after, the nation's image of the victims of the attack changed from stock brokers and office workers to firefighters and police. The image now is perhaps two large, empty buildings falling on 3,000 firemen.

Additionally, the then-president used the attacks as a reason to bomb (which I supported) and invade (which I supported somewhat) Afghanistan. After that, the then-vice president began trying to use 9/11 as a reason for invading Iraq. I was one of 500,000 New York City residents who marched to protest that. However, in the national consciousness these are both “wars of 9/11.” Thus, for many people and, ten years later, media services, the 9/11 attacks are 'about' firefighters and the U.S. military.

The attacks also meant the rapid passing of numerous laws that took away civil rights from citizens. There followed new practices and Executive Orders that reversed longstanding U.S. practices. These are each comprehensible. The wars fit into a narrative logic for the national mind and mood. The civil rights measures affect citizens and inflame imaginations. If we combine this “meaning of 9/11” with the other, we have either a fascist or proudly strong state either regaining its strength or betraying its foundations. Either way, it makes for good television and good debate. It also makes for possible debate.
From Iwo a vigorous debate!
As the tenth anniversary has come along, outrage pushed me. I am no closer to solving the questions the day embedded in my soul. I do not know who I am at core, do not think that I have now grown some core being that would show in the flame. I do not know what the day meant. I do, however, know that understanding its ineffability will do absolutely nothing to cure the pain the question causes. However, when someone else comes along and says that there are “conclusions” for 9/11, I boil. Conclusions? We can't even find the facts yet.

I should allow the nation its track and train, and saying “Not in my name” rings hollow, but there is an evil at work that is as old as the serpent. Humans can turn on the television or the DVD-box and watch people get their throats slit, listen to the blood gurgle. We can excitedly tune in to see a man saw his leg off to get to a knife to stab another man in the stomach. However, if we hear a baby cry, or if our own child is screaming, or if we see a starving child, we cannot bear it. This is because, as animals and creatures, we have a place in our minds called Story. In Story, violence is acceptable, because it is “not real” and always has a reason. For a non-sociopath, reality is sharply different, and the person who can watch violence in story may not be able to watch any pain in person. So long as narrative (story) is used only for made-up things, it is useful.

Evil occurs when reality is put into narrative so as to remove part of its meaning. Sometimes, this is done on purpose, and we call it propaganda. Other times, it is done unintentionally, and we should watch out. I hope what is happening to 9/11 is unintended. I hope that the news people of the moment and the producers today were and are overwhelmed by the event and as unable to put contours onto experience as we were, that they were as shocked and blinded by the violence as we and that their subconscious minds merely protect them by imposing a narrative. However, after a decade it is no longer possible to forgive or excuse imposing story.

The actual story tellers have avoided narrative (“9/11” and “Flight 93”), but the news people have resorted to it. From them we get “What is the reason” (cause) and “How will we react” (response) and “What with the country do” (reply), to “How is the battle to find the Guy” (climax) and a wished-for “Mission Accomplished” (denouement). This narration was overlayed on our reality. Stories have their conclusions built into them by their forms. The political story news created was on top of the original fiction of getting “the guys who did this.” They, of course, were dead already.

We have to stop telling lies. It isn't that the conclusions of that narrative are worse than another. It isn't that it's a bad story or a good story. It's that it's a story. Let at least one thing be untellable. Let it be uncontainable. Let it be too big to explain. That, after all, would be the only experience-based explanation. The only way to stop inflicting the trauma on us is to let the trauma be too big to be falsified.