Monday, November 30, 2015

BAE 2014 read by Christy Wampole: November Thirteenth

I had nearly finished a piece inspired by The Best American Essays of 2014 on the topic of essays as containers. Then Paris happened. Since the attacks on November 13, public discourse has hovered around uncontainability. The containers essay suddenly felt irrelevant. Luckily, some of the essays in the 2014 collection could allow me to write about (to process, to manage – whatever metaphor you prefer) the attacks. Specifically, Mary Gordon’s “On Enmity” and Dave Eggers’ “The Man at the River” give language to some of the abstractions that have clustered around the death cult called Daesh.

Some background: I am an assistant professor of French literature, I have lived in Paris, and spent my life trying to understand and explain French culture to others. In order to rationalize the attacks, a phlegmatic person who understands the historical landscape might point toward France’s colonial landgrabs, the brutalities of the Algerian war, the marginalization of immigrants to the banlieue in cities like Paris, or the country’s progressive Americanization. But I am not phlegmatic, nor sanguine, nor choleric. I’m a melancholic, whose moods are governed by black bile and spleen. Unlike the cholerics who hunger for vengeance or the sanguines who champion a quick return to restaurant terraces and dance clubs as a sign of defiance, my saturnine self looks toward the attacks with weariness and despondency. Last night at my university, during the candlelight vigil that honored the victims of the Paris slaughter as well as those of recent attacks in Kenya, Lebanon, Iraq, and Turkey, I kept thinking, “Humanity’s will is to self-extinguish. There is no other explanation. Everything in the world is set up for us to live right, and yet we persistently choose to live wrong.” The November breeze made my candle flicker each time I had the thought. The wax ran down the candle but congealed before reaching my fingers, fixed in time by the breeze. 

That was last night. And just now on campus, I sat near a stage and watched the Peruvian Nobel winner Mario Vargas Llosa in conversation with Philippe Lançon, a French journalist whose face was partially pulverized by bullets from the Kouachi brothers’ guns in the Charlie Hebdo office in January. This conversation had been planned for months. No one could have anticipated that the room would be filled with people trying to understand a newer, bloodier slaughter in the same city. They showed us Charlie Hebdo cartoons as they spoke about freedom of speech, fanaticism, barbarism, and recovery. The darkness of French humor has always aligned well with the darkness in my own soul. A world without space for this kind of humor would be bankrupt. Philippe looked small there on stage, a frail silhouette before the looming cartoon of Mohammed or of the Frenchman riddled with terrorist bullet holes whose just-drunk champagne spouts out of his body like a fountain. Philippe looks over his shoulder at the cartoons and smiles at them, even though a quarter of his jaw has been shredded. He’d played dead as the brothers walked from body to body after the room had fallen silent, shouting “Allahu akbar” and delivering one bullet per corpse, systematically. 

In her essay “On Enmity,” Mary Gordon keeps a notebook of free associations on the figure of the enemy. There is no system to her system; she just freestyles her way through the word “enemy,” improvising a definition here and tossing out an anecdote or distraught memory there. She works through several problems: Is an adversary the same as an enemy? Is it wrong to delight in the death of an enemy? How do animals choose which members of their own species are enemies or allies? What caught me in her piece was a short anecdote about Georges Bernanos, the right-wing French Catholic writer and Simone Weil, the left-wing French factory worker and Christian mystic. Gordon writes:

Simone Weil and Georges Bernanos both, or each, traveled to Spain to cover the Spanish Civil War, Bernanos for the right-wing press, Weil for the left. Each wrote: This war is hopeless, it is impossible to tell good from evil, there is such evil, such cruelty, such barbarity on both sides. Simone Weil wrote to Bernanos, “I thought you were my enemy, but you are my brother.”

Does anything about this anecdote apply to our terror war? The body of the civilian has become the prime site of cruelty in this shapeless war. Civilian bodies are torn to ribbons by drones, by AK47s, by homemade bombs, anytime and anywhere: at home, a place coded in theory as sound and safe; at the university, a haven for the humanities and humanity; at the peace rally, whose symbolism is too disturbing for proponents of terror; in the airplane, the thread that tethers one place to another; at holy sites, where God’s untouchables are touched; at weddings, where the matrimony of souls is witnessed; at the hotel, the locus of leisure. The primary targets aren’t just bodies but also abstractions like comfort, safety, and peace of mind. I wonder how many pacifists are left who have thus far resisted the pull of enmity. The ugliness of these acts lures even the most indulgent hearts toward hatred. 

Dave Eggers’ “The Man at the River” somehow gets us closer to understanding our encounter with those who differ from us. His innocuous tale is jam-packed with truth. An American man visiting South Sudan has a dilemma. His Sudanese friend wants him to cross a river with him, but the American, who has a small wound on his leg, doesn’t want to risk contracting “some parasite or exotic microbe” in the river. He tells his friend he’d prefer not to cross. His inept American politeness knots up the exchange between them until it cannot be untangled. The cultural misunderstanding continues, with another friend arriving and trying to persuade the American man that according to their customs, the Sudanese are required to accommodate him and that he, in return, is required to accept their hospitality. They recruit a passing fisherman to shuttle the hapless American across the river, against his will. The Sudanese are irritated, “forming, or confirming, an idea of this American and all Westerners: that they will not walk across a shallow river, that they insist on commandeering canoes from busy fishermen and being pulled across while they squat inside. That they are afraid to get wet.” The American man fails to convey his inner monologue to them, a monologue that would have explained everything, perhaps: 

But the American did not want to go across the river at all. He did not ask for this. He did not ask for any of this. All he wants is to be a man sitting by a riverbed. He doesn’t want to be a guest, or a white man, or a stranger or a strange man, or someone who needs to cross the river to see anything at all.

We did not ask for any of this. We are not our governments. We never conquered anyone. We did not personally launch empires. If anyone is complicit in anything, it is that by fact of birth, we are woven into a system in such a way that even going off the grid is not enough to extract ourselves fully from history and politics. The grid is everywhere anyway. The roots of all of this were festering before we were even born. We are fighting the battles of our forebears. Like Eggers’ American, we want to push a reset button that doesn’t exist. We want to unravel the stereotypes of ourselves, to emphasize our singularity in a system that tries to uniformize us. We want to exist away from demands to accommodate or be accommodated. We just want to be. We are jarred that global politics – about which we know almost nothing – might loot us of life and limb. 

This is our great dilemma in the moment of encounter with the world. It is easy to schematize the actions of another and to project some preconception on this schema. One only sees those features in the other that best confirm what one already believes. I sympathize with Eggers’ American, having lived similar hopeless moments in which I failed to get across what I really meant through all my cultural fumbling. “I’m not one of them,” you try to convey, referring to the caricatural Americans on the television. The American is much more complex than global and domestic media allows. This is true of every population on the planet. Reductive portraits are in part the cause of bloodshed. 

In terms of cultural (un)translatability, the example that has stayed lodged in my mind since the attacks last Friday is the band Eagles of Death Metal, whose members are now undoubtedly traumatized for life. How to explain to a religious fanatic the subtleties, ironies, richnesses of such a name, of such music? How to explain to them that metal is a bloodless outlet for people across the globe? That the tough exterior of metal dudes can only be matched by the tenderness of their insides? My brother is a metal drummer whose various band names have always referred to mortality or evil or violence. From the outside, it is easy to read all of these signs as the devil’s work. But read more closely and spend your life with metal dudes as I have, and you’ll discover that the vast majority of these gentle giants use their music as armor against the oppressive aspects of capitalism and corrupt power, against conformity and the surrender to injustice. Surely every young man of our time, across the globe, is faced with the forked road, making one of several choices: destruction of self, destruction of others, or an attempt at reconciliation with the pitiless planet. It seems unlikely that solid body six-strings will replace Kalashnikovs any time in the near future, but I can’t help but hope that some young man, somewhere, will understand that raging against the machine can take form as fertility or impotence. Destruction is ultimately the choice for impotence. 

I take comfort in the fact that in this battle against the impotent abstraction called “terror,” we have on our side the fertile impulses of music, art, literature, (mostly) free speech, sex, experimentation, science, philosophy, and other forms of creation. For this reason, we’ve already won.

Christy Wampole is an essayist and assistant professor of French literature at Princeton University. Her first book, titledThe Other Serious: Essays for the New American Generation, was published in 2015 and analyzes various aspects of American culture, including awkwardness, distraction, self-infantilization, irony, and consumerism. Her upcoming book, titled Rootedness: The Ramifications of a Metaphor, will appear in spring of 2016 and explores the overlap of politics and ecology, genealogy and identity, as they relate to the tendency of imagining ourselves as rooted beings. Why do we literalize the metaphor, believing ourselves to be rooted to a specific set of coordinates or a specific cultural heritage?

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