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.

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Downing Dostoevsky–Book the First–Poor Folk

Up until three weeks ago I didn’t even know Dostoevsky had written a book called “Poor Folk,” and up until last week I hadn’t read it.  I think there’s probably a dissertation to be written by someone out there entitled “Obscure Third Rank Novels by Great Writers: or, Non-canonical Aesthetics.”  Seriously, though, I think the continued publication life of this book depends a great deal upon the existence and reputation of its author and his attendant acolytes rather than on it’s inherent interest to a contemporary audience.  It’s evidence of Foucault’s dictum that the social construction of the author and authorship in a world is at least as important as the formal and aesthetic facts of the work itself in our receiving and treating of a work as important.

At the same time, Poor Folk surely rises above the level of a laundry list or a letter to an accountant, texts that only a scholar with no life or a graduate student with little hope could find endearing.  Indeed, third rank Dostoevsky is better than first rank Stephanie Meyer, whose tertalogy devoted to vampiric chastity I spent the better part of the past year reading so that I could claim that I was being a good father by reading up on my daughter’s obsessions.  (Mostly we argued over the fact that I see Edward, prince of vampires, as a model spouse abuser–smirking at Bella’s every half thought and more or less stalking her every move.  This analysis did not go over well.  I also find it bizarre and somewhat icky that Meyer seems to endorse the idea that men–whether werewolves or vampires–can find soulmates and life partners in women who are approximately one-sixth their age.  But that’s a whole nother blog and a whole nother argument with my daughter).

Back to my point.  Even though I didn’t feel gripped by Poor Folk, and even if I imagine it as bad Dostoevsky, it was better by several factors than most of the  schlock that passes for a reading life these days.  All of which points to two inconvenient beliefs that most of the literary academy these days seems to want to dismiss:  first, some books are clearly better than other books, at least in specifically aesthetic and formal ways;  second, and a corollary of the first, some authors really are better than other authors.  These seem basic and obvious things to say, but they aren’t so basic and obvious in the academy these days, wherein every author, giving evidence of our infinitely multiple intelligences and creativities, is good in his or her own special way and shouldn’t be compared to other authors in some kind of formal hierarchy.  I used to believe this, but as I’ve started pressing up against fifty, I’ve realized I don’t have the time or inclination to believe that everything is of equal value just because it is of value to someone.  So even though I only read this book because it was written by Dostoevsky, and even though the only reason I can think that anyone living today would want to read this book is because it was written by Dostoevsky, I can still see that it’s better than a lot of books I read for whatever reasons.

I’m not sure if Poor Folk gives evidence or betrays the later obsessions that characterize Dostoevsky’s work.  Largely because i don’t know much about Dostoevsky’s work at all.  It strikes me as thinner and less complex than the things I remember from Brother K and from Crime and Punishment, but I doubt that should be the standard.  What I do like about the book is its effort for psychological complexity, and the sophistication it displays in using the epistolary novel form.  I’ll admit that when I saw the title Poor Folk, and read a few comments on the book jacket, I was kind of ready for a lachrymose and sentimental journey into the heart of the poor–a Stowesque tour of life among the lowly.  Or perhaps, alternatively, into a reversed naturalistic sentimentality that depicted the deprivity of the depraved or the depravity of the deprived.   Native Son in a Russian key.  Novel titles linked to abstract social categories seem to shout–come learn about group X.

But I really didn’t get that in this book.  To be sure, there’s a concern with the way in which social conditions press upon the main characters, Barbara Dobroselova and Makar Dievushkin.  But I very quickly got beyond the feeling that these were somehow to be taken as pasteboard representatives of “Poor Folk,”  and instead they lived uniquely individual lives made of various and even competing levels of personal responsibility and delusion.  In moral terms, I never feel Dostoevsky sets the lowly innocent against the amoral or immoral forces of social might–as, usually, do both sentimental romance and naturalism though to different ends.  Instead, these characters are complex, partially self-aware, partially deluded, and partially free to make bad choices in restricted circumstances.  In other words, I think what I like about this book in the end is that Dostoevsky gives “Poor Folk” the human dignity to participate in the process of their own damnation.

Dievushkin, for instance, repeatedly makes really bad choices with what little money he does have, sometimes in the name of romance and sometimes in the name of drink–and that these two are linked as the usual occasions for his fiscal irresponsibility is telling as well since it’s not entirely clear whether his romantic attachment to the much younger Dobroselova is a love based in the purity of self-giving or in the mania of self-delusion–an escapist addiction as powerful as vodka.

For her part, Dobroselova protests throughout the book that Dievushkin must not be sending her gifts and money, that he is being dissolute and irresponsible in doing so when he has so little himself.  Yet one cannot help noticing that she never refuses, in fact, to take what he offers.  In the end, her decision to enter a loveless but secure marriage with a wealthier man does little to allay the suspicion that her relationship with Dievushkin is one–even unknowingly–of mutual enablement. Or disablement.   She feeds his addiction to love while he enhances her personal sense of moral wisdom, one on which she relies in making the apparent self-sacrifice in marrying a man that she despises. Yet this “self-sacrifice” is in the end the latest in a long string of decisions to live in relationships that guarantee her survival.

Yet they are without guile, sincere in their delusions.  This from the final page of the book as Dobroselova has driven off in to the sunset with her sour lover.

Nevertheless, as soon as I have received my next installment of salary I mean to buy you a new cloak.  I mean to buy it at a shop with which I am acquainted.  Only, you must wait until my next installment is due, my angel of a Barbara.  Ah, God, my God! To think that you are going away into the Steppes with Monsieur Bwikov–that you are going away never to return!…nay, nay, but you shall write to me.  you shall write me a letter as soon as you have started, even if it be your last letter of all, my dearest.  Yet will it be your last letter?  How has it come about so suddenly, so irrevocably, that this letter should be your last?  Nay, nay;  I will write, and you shall write– yes, now, when at length I am beginning to improve my style.  Style?  I do not know what I  am writing.  I never do know what I am writing.  I could not possibly know, for I never read over what I have written, nor correct its orthography.  At the present moment, I am writing merely for the sake of writing, and to put as much as possible into this last letter of mine….

Ah, dearest, my pet, my own darling…!

No, he won’t buy her a coat–or perhaps he will in all sincerity.   No, she will not write.  Perhaps they will both live out their lives with the delusion of a great love lost, though, in the end what did that love amount to except a pile of letters, in the language of love that sometimes seems in its abstractions more about itself than about another.   Or perhaps they will think of that love as eternal for a day or a month or a year, but it will drift in the end, an attenuated ellipsis wherein letters and words aren’t broken off definitively but drift and sway and finally fade into an indeterminate silence.

What I like about this finally is that “Poor Folk” finally isn’t about “THEM” and their circumstance, but about us, however idiosyncratic or complex or individual our own stories may be.  How much we live sincerely in the grip of our half-awareness, loving in ways that seem both self-giving and selfish at the same time, love seeming both to reveal to us the world as it really is and to grip us with a fantasy about who we might become.  There are probably books that do this better.  Maybe even books by Dostoevsky.  But even second rate Dostoevsky seems to do this well.

Summer’s Guilty Pleasures: A Movie Miscellany

Several movies and DVDs with my astute and incisive observations so that I can keep up my hard-won reputation as a connoseur of film.

Lars and the Real Girl: This flick is so good it had me crying twice. At the beginning I laughed so hard tears were dripping down my nose. At the end I sniffled at the funeral of a life-size doll designed to be a

Lars and Love Interest in Church

Lars and Love Interest in Church

sex-toy. Ok, this doesn’t sound too promising. Ryan Gosling is compelling as a man with a deeply disturbed psyche damaged by accumulated guilt at his mother having died during childbirth. His own childbirth. Ok, this also doesn’t sound promising, but the Gosling character compensates for his inability to connect with others by falling in love with life-size female doll he orders from an online sex-toy company. Ok, none of this sounds promising at all, but you still really have to see it. The film isn’t so much about sex-toys as it is about the need for love, the need to connect, and the redeeming possibilities of love. In some ways, though Gosling is astonishing, the center of film is the way the rest of the town responds to his need, the way it bucks up, overcomes its squeamishness, and helps Gosling’s character find the healing he needs. In some ways the film feeds that weird human response to crisis, our welcoming of crisis when we find in it that human beings can respond in ways that love and build up rather than tear down. The way a soldier, perversely, misses war because he or she remembers the ways others stood up for him, or the way she stood up for others. (Side note: I wonder if female soldiers experience this nostalgia for war in the same way that men do; I have a suspicion not since the crisis of war forces connection upon men in the way the rest of society seems to disallow). Gosling’s crisis is the occasion not only for his healing, but also for the rest of the town to become more human because they choose to care. A winner.

The poster is more interesting

The poster is more interesting

The Happening–There’s a reason that M. Night Shyamalan is considered a has-been at the age of 38. This movie was atrocious. I kept hope alive as long as I could, but was tempted to look at my watch. Wait, I don’t wear a watch anymore. A metaphor that will go the way of the dodo bird, and M. Night Shyamalan. The acting is almost universally bad. Even Mark Wahlberg, who I normally really like, is bad beyond reckoning. Every line is delivered as if the actors are saying under their breath, “I really can’t believe I’m in this sucky movie saying these sucky lines. But, hey, it’s M. Night Shyamalan; maybe this will all work out.”

By the way, did you know that his real name is Manoj Nelliyattu Shyamalan. I think that someone who would rename himself M. Night is probably just pretentious enough to be a bad film maker. Leave the name changes to the actors.

The Orphanage–This was also an astonishingly good film. I like well-made horror films, but this wasn’t even a horror pic, though it is often advertised as such. Yes, it is a ghost story, but that’s a little like saying Henry James’s Turn of the Screw is a horror story or a ghost story. The dismissiveness implied by the generic name doesn’t get at the emotional complexity of the film. It’s a horror story like Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth is a horror story–Horrifying, but in the way humanity is horrifying and life can be horrifying, not because we make

The Orphanage

The Orphanage

up monsters in our brains. The film traces what happens after a boy’s disappearance as his mother seeks to find him, convinced that he has been somehow abducted by ghosts who inhabit the orphanage where she grew up. In the process of that search what she discovers is the relentless ways that human beings can be cruel and vicious to one another, and most especially to those who are most defenseless among us. In the end the film resorts to the cliche that a mother’s love transcends death, even her own, but that conclusion seemed compelling in the end. As with Lars and the Real Girl, the film offers hope that there’s a way to transcend our pettiness and mindless cruelties to one another. That we can give ourselves to others and be given to in return.

For more of my Summer’s Guilty Pleasures see:
Hard Times with Hard Times–July 10
Summer’s Guilty Pleasures: Black Snake Moan–June 30

Insomniac dreams; boys who love language

I’m not sure blogging is good for insomnia, but when I lay awake at night I find myself thinking of things to blog about. So why waste all those synapses firing in a haze of sleep-deprived wakefulness. Following up on my post of earlier this evening where I despaired of the new (or not so old, perhaps ancient?) mechanistic view of both reading and writing that seemed, well, deadly, I remembered the following video that I stumbled over at Hopping Into Puddles.

Here at least language is not a machine. I realize that if these kids were older it would play right in to Gilbert and Gubar’s thesis that language, in the hands of men and boys at least, is a phallus. Which also calls all kinds of other things to mind. Still, better this than the dead metaphors of language as a tool, a medium, an interface. If it is, let’s at least say that language is the vehicle of the heart, the hands of one soul reaching out to another.

As Michael over at Hopping Into Puddles observes, this classroom too exemplifies a lot of what could be stereotypically wrong with an educational setting. The teacher reading that private speech aloud says that the only thing the classroom is for is the instrumentality of public speech. Any word that passes sideways is called in to public account. No doubt some techie out there would like a computer to grade this young Romeo’s note for word choice, sentence variation and paragraph length.

Anything so we forget that language is first and foremost a means of touching. My pen is the tongue of a ready scribe. Indeed.

One of my great failed experiments as a teacher of composition was to ask my students to go home and write the most beautiful sentence they could muster and come back prepared to tell why they experienced it as beautiful.

I had forgotten these kids attended high schools in America. Ah well. I’ve also learned not to assign a particularly beautiful bit of prose to my composition classes and ask them to comment on what makes it an effective or ineffective piece of prose. To a man or woman they destroy my icons by describing them as “wordy,” “unclear,” clogged with long sentences, or damaged by short sentences.

My question is, who damages kids this way, having dulled their imaginations, their inner ears into insensitivity to language? It can’t be their fault, surely. They are only 17 or 18 at the most. Too young to think the only thing important in the world is getting the job done as efficiently as possible. Or probably not. This is why we send them to school no doubt.

The boys especially struggle with this assignment, confirming my general sense that the literary theories emphasizing the masculinist and misogynistic biases of language have never been around a teenaged boy who loved poetry. This is a love won at the cost–society tells him–of his manhood, not a way of winning it. What the video above leaves out is the mocking laughter the boy will face at recess, no less from girls than from the boys. And why? Words expose, exposure disarms, potentially humiliates. James Baldwin truly believed that confession of one’s hidden self was the surest way to freedom, but it’s not clear that this wasn’t a romantic dream after all. The Hemingways and Norman Mailers of the world are not exceptions that prove the rule. They are more like men so unsure of their own sexuality they have to posture and preen; their viciousness with words reassures them that, loving words, they are men none the less for that.