September 24, 2008

A tap on the head and a good whack

The poet, Charles Simic, in reviewing Phillip Roth's latest book, Indignation, writes in the NY Review of Books:

What do people think when they come across photographs in a newspaper of young men and women killed in Iraq? I take it for granted that they feel pity and horror that someone so young is no more, but it would be interesting to know just how far they venture to imagine the lives of the young as they read the few lines of biographical information that accompany the picture. Here’s Fred Something-or-Other, born in a small town out west, or in some city in the east, whose name and face recall someone we used to know in high school, looking at us, out of a photograph taken by the military, with the usual swagger of young men wearing a uniform. Many are making an effort to smile, some appear grim and determined, and only a few have the vulnerable, worried look of kids who think they might come back to their parents in a coffin.

The Pentagon’s ban on making images of dead soldiers’ homecomings and burials is intended to prevent us from turning into novelists for a moment, from speculating about their lives and the cause for which they died. This order of things, knowing nothing about the fate of others, is evidently necessary, Chekhov observes in one of his stories. What he has to say on that subject was true of the Russia of his day and is true of America today:

The happy man only feels at ease because the unhappy bear their burdens in silence, and without that silence happiness would be impossible.

It follows that what a writer must do is give a reader an occasional tap on the head and once in a while a good whack.

I'd go for the good whack! Why? I'll let Simic's words speak for what I want to convey:

We keep sacrificing the young, supposedly for the noblest of causes, and expect their grief-stricken parents to accept that and be proud of their sacrifice, so the rest of us can sleep well at night.


Roth doesn’t have to spell out the implication of this Korean War story for today’s readers. In case we missed it, there are the words of the president of the college, who addresses the students following the riot. He says to them:

Beyond your dormitories, a world is on fire and you are kindled by underwear. Beyond your fraternities, history unfolds daily—warfare, bombings, wholesale slaughter, and you are oblivious of it all. Well, you won’t be oblivious for long! You can be as stupid as you like, can even give every sign, as you did here on Friday night, of passionately wanting to be stupid, but history will catch you in the end. Because history is not the background—history is the stage! And you are on the stage! Oh, how sickening is your appalling ignorance of your own times! Most sickening of all is that it is just that ignorance that you are purportedly at Winesburg to expunge. What kind of a time do you think you belong to, anyway? Can you answer? Do you know ? Do you have any idea that you belong to a time at all ?

Anyways, go read it in its entirety - not only because it is a good review of the book but also as an exposition of our times.


The president smiles to himself; he loves war
And another one is coming soon.
Each day we can feel the merriment mount
In government offices and TV studios
As our bombers fly off to distant countries.

- Charles Simic in his poem, Dance of the Macabre Mice, which was in his book of poems, That Little Something, published earlier this year. Review here.

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