Don Delillo: Point Omega

Point OmegaPoint Omega by Don DeLillo

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’m learning to trust my son’s literary taste in the same way I do his musical acumen. That is, at 16 he is far hipper and knowing than I have the energy to even try to be, knowing I would fail. He’s also several years past insistently recommending the latest animal fable from Brian Jacques. (A guilty father’s admission: I don’t think I could have taken many more years of toiling through the literally untranslatable renditions of ferrets speaking in what appears to be a working class Scottish brogue.) This faith in my son’s judgment was rewarded again a couple of weeks ago as we were flying out together to see my parents in Oklahoma City. He finished Point Omega on the leg from Cincinnati to Dallas, and said I really needed to read it before we got home.

That the book is readable on a plane flight into flyover country says nothing about the substance, though I will say that there are times Delillo is getting away with being Delillo. Not least is the fact that he can disguise a novella as a novel with large print and widely spaced lines and still get away with charging novel prices. More importantly, I thought the first third to a half of this very short book required a lot of patience, with the reader saying, “I know this must be good; it’s Don Delillo.” The first third is filled with the exceedingly detached and ruminant monologue of a documentary film maker and his subject, an academician who has lent his talents to the government to justify a war. The book as a whole is on one level a meditation on the mystifications that led us to prosecuting the war in Iraq.

“I’ll tell you this much. War creates a closed world and not only for those in combat but for th eplotters, the strategists. Except their war is acronyms, projections, contingencies, methodologies.”

He chanted the words, he intoned liturgically.

“They become paralyzed by the systems at their disposal. Their war is abstract. they think they’re sending an army into a place on a map.”

He was not one of the strategists, he said unnecessarily. I knew what he was, or what he was supposed to be, a defense intellectual, without the usual credentials, and when I used the term it made him tense his jaw with a proud longing for the early weeks and months, before he began to understand that he was occupying an empty seat.

“There were times when no map existed to match the reality we were trying to create.”

“What reality?”

“This is something we do with every eyeblink. Human perception is a saga of created reality. But we were devising entities beyond the agreed-upon limits of recognition or interpretation. Lying is necessary. The state has to lie. There is no lie in war or in preparation for war that can’t be defended. We went beyond this. We tried to create new realities overnight, careful sets of words that resmble advertising slogans in memorability and repeatability. These were words that would yield pictures eventually and then become three-dimensional. The reality stands, it walks, it squats. Except when it doesn’t.”

This is vintage Delillo in a lot of ways, but I’m not sure this dry detachment would have born up for another fifty pages. We get it pretty quickly, the immorality of the abstracted intellectual. What makes the story go, finally, is his having to come face to face with flesh and blood loss, forced in to a recognition that he had become so abstracted from his life that he had only experienced it and those who he should have been caring about as an absence.

Ultimately in novels we care first about relationships and not ideas. Or, rather, we only care about ideas to the degree that they bear the weight of relationships or corrupt relationships or get fleshed out in relationships. And so Raskolnikov, the man of ideas in Crime and Punishment, fascinates not so much because of his ideas but because he makes them flesh and blood and bone. With an axe. What makes Dickens live is not the sociological abstraction of oppressive class circumstance, but the orphaning of Little Nell. Delillo follows in that line in that what makes the novel work is not ultimately the grand ideas of the abstracted intellectual but the ways in which those grand ideas fracture man and wife, father and daughter, man from himself.

That is not in itself profoundly new; if that were as far as Delillo’s book went we’d have to say it was an interesting enough take on the villany of intellectuals. We’ve had that since Faust. But as the book concludes, we recognize that the violence of abstraction is not so much a property of intellectuals as of all living in this twilight of the western world, all those of us who watch the unfolding of images on the screen of our lives, substituting the slow motion replay of dropping bombs and exploding lives for the event, experiencing that violence as an aesthetic object worthy of our repeated fascination, image abstracted from meaning, until the death of others becomes indistinguishable from other means of entertainment in an entertaining world.

Delillo ultimately is a moral visionary. The darkness of his vision is not simply that he sees a world gone bad–though he indeed sees that. Rather it is that one root of that badness lies in the violence we visit on the world through our ways of looking at it. It is in the looking that we can’t escape our own complicity.

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War and Community–Sebastian Junger’s “War”

Just got done reading Sebastian Junger’s new book, War.  The title is a little

Sebastian Junger--"War"

grandiose since I don’t think Junger delivers the truth of War, but I do think it is a very good book and certainly the best thing, in a relatively limited sample, that I’ve read about the American experience in Afghanistan.

Junger avoids political pronouncements in preference for a close examination of the individual experience of the soldier at war, and even more particularly on the soldier in the combat zone.   Indeed, I think to some degree that the book might more appropriately have been titled “Combat,” since it is really focused not on the large scale strategy, tactics or mechanics of carrying out a war, but on the men at the point of the spear who live under fire or the threat of it.

I’m interested in a lot of things about this book, but most particularly on Junger’s concentration on the supremacy of the combat unit, the squad or platoon through whom the basic bloody work of military strategy is made real.  Junger emphasizes the fact that survival and success in combat depends on every individual soldier deciding repeatedly, if unconsciously, that the lives of other members of the team are more important than his own.  Indeed, in what was to my mind Junger’s most startling claim,  courage in battle must be understood first and foremost as a form of love:

Combat fog obscures your fate–obscures when and where you might die–and from the unknown is born a desperate bond between the men.  That bond is the core experience of combat and the only thing you can absolutely count on.  the army might screw you and your girlfriend might dump you and the enemy might kill you, but the shared commitment to safeguard one another’s lives is unnegotiable and only deepens with time.  The willingness to die for another person is a form of love that even religions fail to inspire, and the experience of it changes a person profoundly.  What the Army sociologists, with their clipboards and their questions and their endless metanalyses, slowly came to understand was that courage was love.  In war, neither could exist without the other, and that in a sense they were just different ways of saying the same thing.  According to their questionnaries, the primary motivation in combat (other than “ending the task”–which meant they all could go home was “solidarity with the group.”  that far outweighed self-preservation or idealism as a motivator” (239-230).

Junger connects this even to the solidarity of the group in the pursuit of killing.  Killing in war is not primarily about the hatred or dehumanization of the enemy, idealism about causes, patriotism for country.  It is more primordially about saving the lives of those you love.

Junger’s depictions and ruminations here are convincing to me, quite apart from my own convictions about personal or state violence, and they do give me pause over a particular conundrum.  American life is so thoroughly characterized by individualism and self-promotion.   And yet life in combat–which is in some ways also seen as quintessentially American–is by Junger’s accounting absolutely about self-effacement in some profound and existential way.  I was reminded of the controversy over The Hurt Locker

The Hurt Locker Poster

where veterans of bomb squads were deeply troubled by the individualistic and cowboy renegade image that was projected by the protagonist.  Reading Junger, I understand that complaint more clearly now.  The individualistic hero who strikes out on his or her own at apparently great risk to himself and others is a Hollywood figure, but one who, if univeralized, would very quickly mean the absolute destruction of a fighting the unit, the opposite of the kind of sacrificial heroism that Junger believes is a characteristic not of exceptional persons in combat, but the fundamental nature of what makes combat possible at all.

Summer’s Guilty Pleasures: Tears of the Sun

I am a sucker for brainless Bruce Willis vehicles, but I’ll blame Tears of the Sun on my son, Colin. (Ok, I admit it was my money that rented it). Tears of the Sun falls in to the general time honored genre of films and novels that are set in the context of racial difference but really serve to obsess over the continuing moral drama of whiteness and its discontents. Think Kevin Costner in Dances with Wolves, or Dustin Hoffman in Little Big Man, or Leonardo Dicarpio in Blood Diamond, or for that matter Conrad, Kipling, and Fenimore Cooper. What gets me about these films, and Tears of the Sun seems especially egregious, is that all the moral wrestling with the curse of whiteness becomes, SURPRISE, yet another occasion for championing the moral ascendancy of white people. As if we say to ourselves “Look how hard I’m trying to be good, and humble, and true, and right, and how hard I am trying to atone for past racial sins; I must really be better than everyone else after all.”

Ok, I will admit that I liked the shoot-em-up scenes as much as any good war movie, and overall I can’t complain about the entertainment. But basically this movie was The Searchers (or maybe The Last of the Mohicans) dressed up in anti-racist drag. Bruce Willis and his band of commandos go to save the white missionaries and doctors caught in a Nigerian war zone. Predictably the doctor is gorgeously beautiful (and apparently French, perhaps a gesture toward globalization but more likely a gesture toward cross-national white solidarity), and we know that she and Bruce Willis will sleep together when they get back to base (which they don’t, actually, but we see them fly off together into the sunset on a helicopter. Let your imagination go to work). The film tries to develop a moral drama in which Bruce Willis “does the right thing” by risking himself and his men to disobey orders and try to rescue the Nigerian refugees in the doctor’s charge, one of whom, SURPRISE!, just happens to be a Nigerian prince who is being sought by rebel leaders of the coup d’etat. (The coup d’etat, generally, is a trope for Africanity in the American cinematic imagination). American individualism and rejection of authority becomes the source for global redemption.

I can live with all this since I like a good hokey story as much as the next guy (witness my oft-stated delight in Uncle Tom’s Cabin). But like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the film’s moral center becomes not really despair that attends a decade long civil war in Africa, or even a meditation on the variously subtle ways in which Western powers have contributed to the violence and instability of African nations. It becomes instead a meditation on the gloriously self-sacrifical superiority of white people. When, at the end of the film, the lead African female actor weepily looks into Bruce Willis’s bloodied face and repeatedly tells him how much God loves him and will bless him, I half expected the Nigerian nationals to pull out their American flags and start singing God Bless America. The film seemed to suggest that moral and ethical choices are occasions for narcissistic self-display. It also struck me as a propaganda piece for American interventionism. Released in 2003, perhaps we were still on the edge of believing that our guns and our good intentions could make the world a better place. Cf Iraq.

These things aside, I still like a good shoot-em-up, and I’m still a sucker for brainless Bruce Willis vehicles. Against all my better instincts.

For more of this summer’s guilty pleasures see:

Black Snake Moan–June 30th

A Movie Miscellany (Lars and the Real Girl, The Orphanage, and The Happening)–July 15

Hard Times with Hard Times–July 10

Summer’s Guilty Pleasures: A Movie Miscellany

In the Valley of Elah; or suffer the little ones

I watched “In the Valley of Elah” on DVD last night. As with most things, I find the pace of my life puts me about 4 steps and six months behind the rest of the world, and most often my very long list of things I’m going to get to later ends up being a private fantansy. Still, I’m glad I actually did get to this film. Most of In the Valley of Elahthe commentary in the immediate aftermath of it’s release was relatively laudatory, especially of Tommy Lee Jones performance, but also noted the distaste of the American populace for hard and depressing films about the war. One wants to say, “duh.” This is unsurprising. Several reviews I’ve read since last night take Haggis to task for disjointed storytelling and for not making his references clear. A number of folks complain that the title of the movie makes no sense.

Au contraire.

I think what’s central to the film is not the question of David’s heroism against Goliath in the Valley of Elah. What’s central is that old men send children to fight their wars without armor and without weapons. The film is, of course, an essay against war in general and the war in Iraq in particular, and if you can’t stand films that have a thesis, however poignantly rendered, then you’re not likely to enjoy the film. But more specifically the film is a powerful meditation on the notion that old men start wars and young men, or children, fight them. Several reviewers comment on how old Tommy Lee Jones looked. Well, of course. He is, and magnificently so. But almost no one remarks on just how young and unprotected the soldiers look, childlike even when drunk and hanging out in topless bars and strip clubs. Perhaps the most chilling scene of the film isn’t anything to do with Iraq and the immediacy of its violence. The most chilling scene for me was watching the young man–who looked mostly like an all star blond high school quarterback–confess to killing Tommy Lee Jones’s son, Mike, and then laugh as he reflected on how Mike would torture prisoners by probing their open wounds, a practice that earned him the Menglesque nickname of “Doc”.

The point of the Valley of Elah is that the mythology of David and Goliath is a lie, that children do not destroy giants in war. They kill and maim and destroy one another, and in the process destroy themselves. We discover that in the first week of his tour of duty, Mike, had run down a small Iraqi boy who appears to be throwing a stone at his Humvee. And while there is a certain domestic delight in seeing Hank Deerfield tell Charlize Theron’s son the story of the story of David and Goliath, in the context of the film as a whole this is a terrifying scene, showing that the mythologies of domestic safety are actually the training ground of a violent imagination, one that would encourage this small boy to believe that he too, perhaps, could throw stone at Goliath, or at a Humvee, and emerge unscathed. The same imagination requires us, of course, to imagine that a small boy throwing stones at a Humvee is really a Goliath to be destroyed.

On this score, I think several people have misread the scene where Jones tries but fails to read “The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe” to Charlize Theron’s son. It is yet another story where children are encouraged to believe that they should be at the forefront of the fight against evil. I’m not completely sure myself of what to make of that particular reference, but Hank Deerfield/Tommy Lee Jones does say he can’t Deerfield trying to read Lewisunderstand a word of it. In my own view, this book has a confused take on the role of violence in confronting evil–on the one hand insisting that Aslan self-sacrifice is the key to victory and on the other using his resurrection as a means of wreaking a satisfactory bloody end on all the evildoers. Still, in the context of the movie as a whole, I think what Hank Deerfield can’t read in the book is that Aslan would lie down on the altar to take the knife willingly, rather than take up a stone or a gun to destroy the White Witch. I’m not sure about this, again, because of the confused take on violence and self-sacrifice that I think is at the heart of the tale. Still, it does strike me that the book is a book about children at war, and yet it is a partially different take than that offered by the story of David and Goliath.

A final note, given that this blog is mostly about reading and writing. I was struck by the role of text and reading and visuality and orality in this film. Notably, the father and the son are in touch with each other less through words than through images. In the film itself, we are shown emails that we can’t really read (or at least I couldn’t), but the email is merely a pretext for the really important stuff, the images that the son sends to his father and through which he attempts to communicate with him. I was struck watching this film how much email and media files had changed the war film convention of the letter home from the front. Soldiers don’t send letters home, they call home, they email home, and most importantly in this film, they send images home.

The failure of text, and of language more generally, is a central trope of the film. Hank Deerfield can’t really talk with his son on the phone. The soldiers lie repeatedly. Deerfield can’t read The Lion, The Witch,and the Wardrobe–indeed, for a moment I wondered if Deerfield were really illiterate in some way, though I knew it was impossible given other moments in the film. On the other hand, it’s not clear that images are any better. The files are corrupted. They are without context. Deerfield can’t understand what to make of theDeerfield asks for an image to be explained pictures until he has some of Mike’s comrades explain them to him. The only genuine communication in the movie–or at least the appearance of communication–is in those moments when first Jones and then Theron are talking with the little boy about David and Goliath. And this communication itself is, in the context of the film as a whole, based on a lie that the rest of the film everywhere exposes.

In the end, Deerfield is left with what feels like a futile gesture (and to be honest, the only one in the film to my mind that was absolutely over thesis-like) when he hangs the American flag upside down on a local flag pole. Earlier in the film Deerfield told an El Salvadoran immigrant that hanging the flag upside down was the ultimate distress signal, a sign telling others that you were in “deep shit” with absolutely no way out unless someone came to get you. The film as a whole suggests that it is America itself that is in “deep shit” with no way out.

Who will see this sign and come to save us?