Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Wieseltier vs Basman: Boston Bombing: Don't Move On

Wieseltier TNR, 4, 24, 13

...Almost as soon as the bombs exploded on Boylston Street the calls were heard to move on. “Repair the sidewalk immediately,” exhorted one commentator, “fix the windows, fill the holes, and leave no trace—no shrines, no flowers, no statues, no plaques—and return life to normal there as fast as possible.” Anything less would be a victory for the terrorists, who should not be allowed, as if it is within our power to disallow it, to leave “even the smallest scar” on our cities and our psyches. “The best response to a tragedy such as the one in Boston,” declared another commentator, “is to go on with your life, eyes open.” 

The advice was perfectly anodyne—but who, except the victims of the atrocity, was preparing to do anything else? A security expert pronounced that “this is a singular event, and not something that should drive policy.” His certainty that there was nothing to be learned from the attack was expressed long before we learned very much about the attack. There was a lot of uplift, too, in the discussion of the horror, which was understandable, since there is nothing as comforting as cliché; but it seemed similarly panicked by the prospect of a rupture in quotidian American existence, of a disruption in the inertia of a good life. Some of this silly balm consisted in local chauvinism: suddenly everybody was singing the Standells. “They picked the wrong city,” 

President Obama said, along with many others. Which city would have been the right city? He also proclaimed proudly that “Americans refuse to be terrorized.” But Americans were terrorized, on the day of the bombing and on the day of the manhunt; and they were right to be terrorized, because what they had in their midst was terrorism.

Moving on is of course one of the quintessential expressions of the American spirit, and of the American shallowness. Our religion is the religion of movement; stillness offends our sense of possibility. We dodge the darker emotions by making ourselves into a moving target for them. We feel, but swiftly. This emotional efficiency, this cost-benefit calculus of the heart, is at once a strength and a weakness: you cannot be damaged by what cannot sink in. And so we acquire resilience through transience, and stoicism through speed. We cling desperately to the illusion of our immunity, even after it has just been disproved by experience, and to the fiction of the pastness of the past: we call it “closure,” which is just a decision not to care anymore, and not to let experience intrude any further. 

We need desperately to know that our insulation is intact. Hence the haste to get the marathon massacre behind us, to hold the memorial service and plan the next marathon. We are sometimes so anxious not to overreact that we underreact. Perhaps some people worried, in the aftermath of the Boston bombings, that if we lingered too long over the outrageous fact of what had been done to us, if we were patient with fear and tolerant with anger, then we, I mean our government, might be tempted to do something, and some airborne division might be dispatched for some more shock and awe. After all, if any past is not past, it is 2003. (The worry is plainly ridiculous, as our government prefers highly analytical inaction.) In any event, we decided that every detail of our lives before the bombings was now sacred. Americans do not like to be inconvenienced by history. 

We sometimes comport ourselves as if history is itself an inconvenience.
I remember reading these vicious lines by Frank Bidart, in 2002 in The Threepenny Review, in a poem called “Curse” about the terrorists of September 11: 
May what you have made descend upon you.
May the listening ears of your victims     their eyes     their


enter you, and eat like acid
the bubble of rectitude that allowed you breath.
I greatly admired their wrath. 

Sometimes anger is apposite, a sign that you have accurately understood what has befallen you; and the absence of anger a sign of intellectual or moral confusion. Most of the curses I heard during the week of Boston’s ordeal were directed at the allegedly heavy hand of law enforcement! The same with fear: it may have a basis in reality, and when it does it should be respected. Sometimes it is fearlessness that is unintelligent, and its consequences are not always laudable.
Only a stupid society would come away from the events in Boston with its sense of its security unshaken. Only a stupid society would refuse to acknowledge that its safety, and its peace of mind, may be affected by resentments and metaphysics that come from far away—from what Fouad Ajami recently described, in connection with the Tsarnaev brothers, as “the seam between countries and cultures.” Even though we must harbor no fantasy of invulnerability, we must not be glib about our vulnerabilities. Keep calm and carry on, sure—but also think strategically, and make adjustments, and learn lessons. 

Are there really no policy conclusions to be drawn from Boston? I do not believe it. The professors of risk, who peddle reassuring probabilities and are more anguished about whether cigarettes should be seen in the stores that sell them, measure evils only quantitatively, which has a certain consciousness-lowering effect.
Vigilance, increased and intense, is not a victory for the terrorists. Mourning, and the time it takes, is not a victory for the terrorists. 

Reflection on all the meanings and the implications—on the fragility of our lives—on terrorism and theodicy—is not a victory for the terrorists. A less than wholly sunny and pragmatic view of the world is not a victory for the terrorists. What happened on Boylston Street was not a common event, but it was not a singular event. There is a scar. Taking terrorism seriously is not a victory for terrorism.


...I didn’t like it much better second time round. “Why?” nobody asks.
For one, the premise isn’t earned: the anecdotal “Let’s move on” exhorted by a few commentators is hardly a firm for the premise of a deeply engrained American impulse here to get past it, forget it, assume again delusions of relative imperviousness, get closure, and make the passed past, in a word or two “Move on.” How does Wieseltier propose to demonstrate, provide the metrics by which to gauge, the accurate, singularity of American sensibility here.
For two, why the condescension towards what would be a universal desire to get some purchase on some relative sense of normalcy, to get back to daily life, to a “good life” or the best life lone can manage?
For three, consider the logical fallacy of the excluded middle between the binaries of moving on or dwelling with, absorbing, internalizing this latest terrorism on American soil. How does the desire for such normalcy in the wake of it entail just moving on without dwelling on it, considering it, absorbing it, internalizing it? Why can’t the desire for some daily normalcy coexist with dealing with the terror?
For four, why the snotty condescension to Americans, Bostonians, and the President wanting to vaunt the muscularity of Boston in the face of the attack? Isn’t that standing strong and municipally proud a good symbolic fist in the face of would be terrorists and their enablers, however ineffectual? And why the snotty condescension in the phrase “the silly balm of local chauvinism? Why “silly?” As just briefly explained, it’s understandable, all to the good, and it’s people seeking meaning and healing via civic pride and via certain touchstones of iconic local popular culture. /// For four, what’s with the pedantic mincing, chop logic and slicing of the meanings of words and phrases? Is this man so indwelling in his own convoluted head that he cannot recognize the attempt at invigorating sentiment in “They picked the wrong city?” Does he want to suggest Obama was in some way implying that there might have been “a right city? Does he want to suggest that Obama is saying Bostonians and Americans were not terrorized when he said “Americans refuse to be terrorized.” Is he buried so deep inside his own convolution and presumed superior sense of things that he fails to understand Obama’s words as a call to strength, as encouraging the refusal of the public to be cowed by these acts? Does he want to suggest that these words are a call to mindless obliviousness, immune from accommodating th meanings and consequences of what happened?
For five, the entirety of the second paragraph is a highly impressionistic paean to nothing so much as Wieseltier’s patently self congratulatory assertion of his own profundity, superior sensibility, and brilliance in diagnosis of the American sensibility. Evidence please to shore up that diagnosis, of the lack of a sense of living history in the American mind, of dodging the darker emotions, of clinging desperately to “an illusion of immunity, of the panic-stricken desire for indifference, that Americans aren’t lingering enough over the bombing, and all the other items so sneeringly laid out. And what of the utter abstracted stupidity that closes the second paragraph: the surmise that perhaps some are worried if Boston is too long lingered over America might be moved to reiterate some iteration of attacking Iraq—...some airborne division might be dispatched for some more shock and awe... Is he really positing that as an imaginable possibility, or is it just a disingenuous rhetorical ploy to give context to a snivelling swipe at Obama—The worry is plainly ridiculous,-- (as though anyone sane is harboring such worries)—as our government prefers highly analytical inaction...? (To be noted that this is about the 9.569th time Wieseltier has faulted Obama for not doing more war like things, without ever once hinting at one concrete detail of what these things might include.)
For six, evidence please: for the lack of righteous anger, for intellectual and moral confusion, for the curses directed at the “allegedly” heavy hand of law enforcement. My Canadian’s sense of the response from the wall to wall cable television coverage, from such of the American conversation within earshot via American radio, from reading news papers and magazines, from watching the investigation unfold, the beginnings of the administration of criminal justice, the mooting of the related questions of rights and liberties in the specifics of the case, from seeing these questions raised, from, most genrally, sensing the burning desire to have satiated the overarching preoccupation with “Why?” with “How from the shadow of thought to the act?” is a screamingly loud refutation of the entirety of Wieseltier’s diagnosis and his “superior” recommendations. Recommendations to do what specifically? Why nothing really.
For seven, evidence please of this society’s sense of its security left unshaken, of its stupidity to be inferred therefrom, of its fantasies of invulnerability, of the refusal to try to draw policy conclusions, of an Administration, as representative of its people, and its agencies not trying to do their best to cope with, deter, defend against terror at home and aboard, all lost in a complacent miasma of inactivity. For six, I have no doubt, I assume, I would bet on it, those is whose duty it is to consider what the policy consequences of this terrorism might be are doing their due considering. But please Wiesletier, so sure of the nascent policy consequences waiting full birth, gives us a hint. What policy consequences occur to you that you’d care to detail? I’m equally certain, assume, would bet on it, that one this question, you have nothing to say.
So I’ll finish where I began a few comments above: ... this is one of stupidest, most supercilious, overwrought, going nowhere things Wiselseltier has ever written in these pages...

Saturday, May 11, 2013

On Theme In Literature: A Response To A Friend

First of all, for Aristotle plot, the causality among events,  which I previously suggested is, as causality, an aspect of my conception of theme as world view--theme NOT BEING a moral or homily to be ascribed, tacked on, simple-mindedly to a text, as in an Aesop fable-- is more important than character. That's against you saying: ...  I follow the fortunes of characters, sympathizing, mocking, admiring, puzzling over motives, but with the expectation that it will lead somewhere significant.... And what you say, now that I've considered it, seems in fact inconsistent with an Aristotelean notion of plot. 

I think Aristotle is right that plot is more important than character. I may not understand what he meant, only having in my mind what has been said commonly about him, but it makes sense in the context of what I mean. 

Character doesn't exist outside world. It is a function of world. It is in a good book an effective representation of people so that we are interested, affected, aroused, moved, sometimes overjoyed, sometimes distraught and so on. That's what responding to literature involves. But moving from response to critical response means to think through one's feelings, which itself involves necessarily asking what it all means. That involves understanding character in light of what it all means. For that, what you "follow," which is of course fine, is inadequate to critical understanding, I'd respectfully argue.

And it is in the context of this understanding that "Trust the teller..." Is to be understood. The issue is of course the tale itself as contra-distinct from some external stated intention. But that trust needs a refinement beyond what you say you follow. The tale itself in its literary properties, in all its complexities, in understanding why sometimes just what you feel about say one character  is insufficient when seen against the whole, is what engenders resolutionary meaning, even if ambiguous and paradoxical--those qualities part of the essence of good literature.

Not to cavil, but saying stories are different from life, to escape truism, must mean that stories represent a vision life. For a God based writer, that representation may be of a universe determined by a God. His fiction may cleave to that. If the author wants to project a world of chance, of contingency, he will represent that. And one more point, your distinction between life--as chance, "no coherent pattern"-and literary art--as presumably constituted by "coherent patterns," my very argument in fact--needs the addition of the complicating fact that we in life see the world in coherent patterns, however things impinge on us, and literary art is of a piece with us in the nature of things seeing what's around us as world, as coherent pattern.

It's in these terms that I'd speak about the theme of Lear, or, more to immediate hand, Gatsby. For Lear, I'd have to give it some thought. For Gatsby, which I've been thinking about lately for obvious reasons, I'd conceptualize it as a matter of intellectual shorthand as something like irretrievably blackened idealism. 

I don't agree at all with your notion of theme, needless to say.