Originally presented during the “Behemoth Subjects” panel at the 2015 NonfictioNOW conference in Flagstaff, Arizona.
In August of 1966, a band of actor-musicians released their debut single, a month before their sitcom first aired. By November of that year, the Monkees’ “Last Train to Clarksville” was at the top of the charts, and by the end of 1966 their second, even more successful single, “I’m a Believer,” was number one in the US and the UK. When the story broke, however, that the actors on the album covers had not, with the exception of the vocals, recorded any of the music, critics revolted, dubbing them the prefab four.
Written and recorded by duo Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, “Last Train to Clarksville” seems to be about leaving for the Vietnam war, but the song – like the Monkees themselves – is so ebullient that the speaker’s claim that he may never come home doesn’t sound all that dire. The repeated no’s at the end of each verse paradoxically rise in pitch (oh no, no, no), turning the explicit protest into something like enthusiasm. These no’s are nothing like Lear’s (No, no, no life!), but then he’s gesturing toward his dead Cordelia (Look there! Look there!), naming and lamenting her loss, whereas the widely reproduced story is that the Clarksville of the Monkees song – putatively Clarksville, Tennessee – isn’t Clarksville at all: Boyce and Hart just liked the sound of the name.
At its Latin roots, a subject is something over which power is exerted. One is subject to a sovereign, under its control, and in writing, too, the subject is the thing treated, or acted upon, intellectually. But a subject is also, philosophically and grammatically, that upon which everything else is predicated, the underlying substance of a thing. This is the etymological paradox at the heart of subject: a word that alternately denotes servant and master, the conscious mind and the conditioned one.
The question before us today is how to approach monstrous topics – large, beastly matters that defy understanding. The question I’m interested in has to do not only with writing about unwieldy subjects but also with writing from the position of a monster.
Suppose, for instance, I were to undertake a consideration of the drone. That I have no intention of writing such an essay is, for now, immaterial. It turns out there is a “crucial difference between hitting the target and hitting only the target,” and one unfortunate product of this difference is that we will never know with any accuracy how many children in rural Pakistan – the number is conservatively in the hundreds – have died at the hands of American drone pilots, flying remotely from Nevada and California the unmanned aerial vehicles whose construction and operation is financed by my tax dollars and in a sense sanctioned by my unintentional disinterest.
But already the drone is flying off in all directions. I can’t tell who’s at the controls. Do I write about the drone as an emblem of a deeply flawed foreign policy, as repugnant as the one that produced Guantanamo, if not more so, or do I explore the replacement, enacted by the architects of that policy, of political bodies by political automata? In writing about the monstrousness of the drone, wouldn’t I also be writing about the monstrousness of state power as it has developed in the wake of 9/11, the generally complacent acceptance of this power by the people in whose name it’s wielded? This is all far too big for one small essay, the only kind I have the time to write at the moment. The sun is coming through the trees to the east, and my six year old will be waking up soon. I flip through the pages of the book before me, Gregoire Chamayou’s Theory of the Drone. “What, actually, is ‘collateral damage’?” he asks. “What bodies lie buried beneath these words?”
One response to an unruly subject is to shut down completely. To say, in effect, there is nothing I can say. The behemoth, terrestrial counterpart to leviathan, has silenced me with fear. Staring up at it – which is also, in a way, staring in the mirror – I want nothing more than to hide.
As I consider my options for escape, a second response occurs to me. Instead of writing the essay I’ve proposed, I might write an exhaustive analysis of the gaps between narrative fragments in the fourth season of the TV show Louie. This will be infinitely more entertaining than the drone. Better yet, whereas no one will want to read about dead children, let alone be told they’re to blame, comedy can be a balm. Or as the late Joan Rivers said, If we didn’t laugh, where the hell would we all be?
My son, for his part, loves to tell jokes:
No, you’re a poo.
For months his favorite went like this:
What time is it when an elephant sits on your fence?
Time to get a new fence.
Our forty-fourth president, with whom I share a birthday, also likes a good joke, and at the 2010 White House Correspondents Dinner he noted the presence in the audience of tween pop stars the Jonas Brothers. His daughters were huge fans, he said, but he warned the boys not to get any ideas. I have two words for you, he told the audience: predator drones. You will never see it coming, he added, after the audience responded with a big laugh. And then, looking serious: You think I’m joking.
Has humor made the pain bearable here, as Rivers suggests? Not for the people directly affected, of course, who must be beyond consolation. But maybe for the people indirectly affected: the White House correspondents and, by extension, their audiences, who likely have varied degrees of opposition to a war waged by remote control. Obama’s joke appears casual, but it may be rhetorically rather sly. Does the President disarm the deadly drone by pairing it with the innocuous Jonas Brothers? Has he lightened the drone’s discursive weight? Or, on the contrary, is the conjunction insulting, yet another sign of the west’s indifference to the plight of non-westerners?
I owe my presence on this panel today – and much else, for that matter – to Amy Wright, poet, essayist, and director of creative writing at Austin Peay State University, located in the real Clarksville, Tennessee. In her role as editor of the journal Zone 3, Amy published, in 2014, an essay of mine about the looming catastrophic effects of climate change and how or why, as a writer, one might address them. As a Word document, the piece is twelve pages long, but it contains enough white space that it’s probably more like nine. This is an obscenely small amount of space to give to such a large topic, but I have a habit of underreporting, of saying less than I might. Maybe it’s all those years that I tried to be a poet coming through in my prose, or maybe it’s an expression of my long-held belief, derived from W.G. Sebald, that atrocity requires no exaggeration.
I relied in the essay on a formal device known as a hermit crab: essentially, I adopted a borrowed form – in this case the model of the classic Hollywood narrative. I called my piece “Flutter Point: An Essay in Three Acts,” and it even contained an intermission. On one level, the hermit crab solved the perennial problem of structure, and the intractable struggle, articulated by John McPhee in a 2013 piece for The New Yorker, between chronology and theme. But the more significant advantage was that the form granted me a certain freedom from saying what I meant, as the gaps between acts, not unlike the gaps between neurons or between narrative fragments in the TV show Louie, carried me through those places where I would have otherwise been forced to elaborate.
For some, that wouldn’t have been a bad thing. One critique that’s been leveled at the so-called lyric essay, one easily extended to my “Flutter Point,” is that the writer excuses herself from saying anything of substance, from making any real claims on the reader. The borrowed form of the Hollywood narrative may seem to such readers like scaffolding or, worse, a gimmick – designed either to shirk any real responsibility for the subject or to sidestep it altogether. In fact “Flutter Point” was about responsibility, and about the ways distance often negates it. Intellectually I get that the CO2 I burn in Pennsylvania has an effect in the Arctic Circle, but here’s the hurdle: I don’t see melting ice caps or stranded walruses. My actions may have consequences but I don’t have to deal with them. They’re divorced from my body, and as such I may feel absolved from any ethical obligation.
Animating that distance, which is not the same as collapsing it, was what mattered to me in that essay. It’s not unlike what matters to me in this one. For the true dilemma is not the behemoth subject itself, but the tension between “these words” and “those bodies.”
In 2012, it was widely reported that a Silicon Valley startup would soon begin taking orders via its smartphone app. The drone-based delivery service was to be called Tacocopter, and if the idea sounds too good to be true that’s because it was a hoax.
As a result of a 2015 law, however, it’s now legal for police departments in North Dakota to weaponize drones with Tasers, tear gas, and rubber bullets. Call it a pilot program, a test of legality in one of the least populous states in the country. That such a bill has not yet made it to the floor in Pennsylvania or even Arizona misses the point of its passage. It’s not a prank; it sets a precedent.
Much can and should be made of the embrace, first abroad and now domestically, of dangerous applications of the drone while laughing off benign ones like Tacocopter. But then this isn’t really about drones, or not entirely. It’s about the ways we might situate our subjects, in all senses, in the purely figurative crosshairs – and about why this gesture is necessary, especially now.
I want to say that an essay can force me to own my monstrosity, not reason or finesse or engineer it away, that the form can force me to show my face – and to acknowledge yours through the membrane of the page. Insomuch as the essay depends on the subject, insomuch as it demands the kind of responsibility in which response itself is the operative word, I want to say that I’m a believer, that I believe in presence, in persons, in a self that isn’t simply a fairly tale, although it’s that too.
And yet when I hear Micky Dolenz sing, on the studio version of the Monkees hit, that he’s a believer, I know that isn’t him playing the drums. I know that Neil Diamond wrote the words.
Erik Anderson is the author of The Poetics of Trespass (Otis Books/Seismicity Editions, 2010), as well as two forthcoming books: Estranger (Rescue Press, 2016) and Flutter Point (Zone 3 Press, 2017). He teaches at Franklin and Marshall College, where he also directs the annual Emerging Writers Festival.