Monday, June 28, 2010

Dien Bien Phu by Ted Morgan

Valley of Death; The Tragedy At Dien Bien Phu That Led America Into The Vietnam War by Ted Morgan; Random House, 2010

In Paris the news of the defeat arrived at noon 7 May, 1954. At The National Assembly, so bitterly divided over the war, the deputies discussed the disaster in hushed tones as they filed into the main chamber. Premier Laniel asked for a minute of silence, the entire six-hundred-odd assembly, except for the Communists, rose in a collective gesture of regard for the garrison.

“... The enemy wanted to obtain the fall of Dien Bien Phu before the [Indochina part of the ] Geneva Convention opened. He thought that this would be as decisive blow to French morale. . . The enemy has sacrificed thousands of men to defeat the heroes who in fifty-five days have won the admiration of the world and covered themselves in glory. . . “

A front-page editorial in Le Figaro the next day, signed by its editor in chief, Pierre Brisson, judged the conduct of the war severely: “The men of Dien Bien Phu died because we lied to ourselves. They died because we did not know how to fight this war and because we were incapable of not fighting it. During these nine years of war, opportunities to win, as well as opportunities to negotiate, were lost because of our weakness. By giving in to Communist blackmail, we fought this war shamefully. The conduct of operations was a series of excuses.”

This harsh though credible appraisal was the exception, however, for in their collective self-regard, the French were compelled to turn defeat into an act of heroism. Dien Bien Phu was a perfect failure that had to be converted into an admirable feat of arms. The feel-good outlets in the media sounded the trumpet. The popular weekly Paris Match said : “ A clearing in the Indochina jungle has become the capital of heroism." Dien Bien Phu was compared to Verdun, the most celebrated victory of World War I, an absurd comparison. It was forgotten that a poll of the French public in February showed only 8 percent in favor of the war. Heroism at Dien Bien Phu became a bumper to absorb the shock of defeat, and the “honor of the soldiers” was a way of hiding political cowardice.

But were the thousands of men who died there heroes? Victims, rather, ignored by a government of bunglers in Paris and a high command in Saigon too divided to do its job. On May 9, General Navarre adopted the requisite tone of heroism in a message to the troops: “The glorious conduct of our army gives us new reason to fight. The war will continue.” He expounded on the aid the Vietminh had received from China, which had changed the nature of the war, for which Narvarre had made no adjustments in strategy or tactics.

The previous day, Ho Chi Minh had congratulated his troops by asking for the avoidance of hubris: “Our victory is brilliant but it is not decisive. We must not be too proud of our success. We must not underestimate the enemy.”

Back in the defeated valley, the Vietminh were facing the dilemma of victory, which mainly had to do with numbers: a total of 10,261 prisoners – 2,257 French, the rest Moroccans, Algerians, Africans, Legionnaires ( mostly German veterans of W.W. II) Vietnamese and Thais. Roughly half of whom were wounded.

The Vietnimh were unprepared to deal with these numbers. The victory had come more suddenly than General Giap had imagined. Never before had the Vietnimh anywhere near that many prisoners and the number of wounded was far in excess of anything Giap had imagined, even though he had prevented their evacuation as a way of breaking down morale. He proceeded to remove the wounded from their filthy trenches and place them under tents made from parachutes in groups of twenty. The emerged from their burrows blinded by the light of day. Giap's plan was to disperse his divisions quickly, leaving only a regiment of the 308th to take care of the seriously wounded. The 316th Division would take the POWS on foot to Vietminh camps hundreds of miles away.

In their haste to get moving, the Vietnimh conducted a triage of captured French forces that was far too simplistic. Those wounded below the waist who couldn't walk would be kept in the tents. Those wounded above the waist were presumed to be capable of walking. In the process, many who were near death with chest or abdominal wounds compounded with gangrene and dysentery were forced to join the long march. It was a form of cruelty based on haste and indifference to suffering.

Even while air evacuation of the severely wounded proceeded at Dien Bien Phu, Vietminh combat divisions dispersed to the north delta and the POW columns wound their way to camps near Giap's main bases of supply along the northern border with China, French forces continued to bombard critical junctures of their routes. Faced with the belligerent intransigence of John Foster Dulles, at Geneva, and the instability of the French government the fate of the POWs did not prove to be much of a bargaining chip.

For weeks after the fall of Dien Bien Phu, the trails leading to the highlands were crowded with a pitiful procession of prisoners, who reached the camps with fatalities of up to 30 percent. These were not the camps of World War II movies, with tidy barracks, barbed-wire enclosures, watchtowers and searchlights. They were ramshackle bamboo huts in the jungle. “Nature and the population are our guard,” the can bos said. There was no need for walls – the jungle did the job.

The men arrived in a state of exhaustion. Subsisting on a ration of one pound of rice daily and perhaps an occasional banana if they were lucky, all had suffered severe weight loss. Among the diseases incurred on the march or then in the camps themselves, where rats as big as rabbits carried typhus in their urine, were amoebic dysentery, which led to dehydration and dead; beriberi, where the extremities swelled, the lungs filled with fluid, and people died looking like a fairground doll; nematode worms that came up from the intestines into the larynx, bring death by suffocation; and the skin disease called yaws. There was no medical care to speak of – the infirmary was known as 'the morgue'”. Men went there to die, with their foul smelling bandages that were never changed and their abdominal wounds that burst open.

The diet was rice and more rice. A soldier needs twenty-five hundred calories a day, and their rice rations delivered a thousand, so the men's bodies fed on themselves. And, in any case, for a Frenchman, a day without bread was a calamity. The men spent hours each day delousing themselves. The mornings were taken up by rice and wood details, for the rice depots were miles away. In the afternoons the prisoners attended brainwashing sessions, called reeducation. One of the reasons the men had been separated from their officers was to end all hierarchical influence and make them more amenable. They soon learned to go along to get along, and obediently recited the catechism:

“What do you think of this war?”

“It is an unjust and criminal war.”

“Why is this a criminal war?”

“ Because it is an armed aggression against the Vietnamese people.”

They said in unison, “We are all murderers,” and sang “The Internationale”

From the start of the war until the armistice, the French lost 45,013 captured or missing. In the final prisoner exchange, 10,752 were turned over. That left 34,261 unaccounted for. Of the surviving 10,752, 3,290 were from Dien Bien Phu, out of the 10,863 taken prisoner there.

The French military came to believe that the towering mortality rate among the POWs was due to a deliberate policy that amounted to a refinement of the Nazi death camps. Comparisons were made: at camps like Dachau or Buchenwald, 80% had died; among the Dien Bien Phu prisoners, 70 percent perished. Instead of the gas chamber, the men died of malnutrition, disease, and their neglected wounds. Colonel Bonafous, however, who wrote the authoritative study on the prisoners, concluded: “ It cannot be established that this was a deliberate plan.” It was Bonafous who obtained the documents showing that nine thousand Vietnimh prisoners of the French – handed over to their Vietnamese allies-were killed the camps with no nutritional or medical problems. Most were simply executed.

{ But who cares about “authoritative studies”? Too inconvenient for the high opinion we must necessarily maintain about ourselves]

We Are Truly Sleepwalking Through History

"We stand passively mute... and are truly sleepwalking through history.”

Senate Remarks by Robert C. Byrd

February 12, 2003

To contemplate war is to think about the most horrible of human experiences. On this February day, as this nation stands at the brink of battle, every American on some level must be contemplating the horrors of war.

Yet, this Chamber is, for the most part, silent -- ominously, dreadfully silent. There is no debate, no discussion, no attempt to lay out for the nation the pros and cons of this particular war. There is nothing.

We stand passively mute in the United States Senate, paralyzed by our own uncertainty, seemingly stunned by the sheer turmoil of events. Only on the editorial pages of our newspapers is there much substantive discussion of the prudence or imprudence of engaging in this particular war. And this is no small conflagration we contemplate. This is no simple attempt to defang a villain. No. This coming battle, if it materializes, represents a turning point in U.S. foreign policy and possibly a turning point in the recent history of the world.

This nation is about to embark upon the first test of a revolutionary doctrine applied in an extraordinary way at an unfortunate time. The doctrine of preemption -- the idea that the United States or any other nation can legitimately attack a nation that is not imminently threatening but may be threatening in the future -- is a radical new twist on the traditional idea of self defense. It appears to be in contravention of international law and the UN Charter. And it is being tested at a time of world-wide terrorism, making many countries around the globe wonder if they will soon be on our -- or some other nation's -- hit list. 

High level Administration figures recently refused to take nuclear weapons off of the table when discussing a possible attack against Iraq. What could be more destabilizing and unwise than this type of uncertainty, particularly in a world where globalism has tied the vital economic and security interests of many nations so closely together? There are huge cracks emerging in our time-honored alliances, and U.S. intentions are suddenly subject to damaging worldwide speculation. Anti-Americanism based on mistrust, misinformation, suspicion, and alarming rhetoric from U.S. leaders is fracturing the once solid alliance against global terrorism which existed after September 11.

Here at home, people are warned of imminent terrorist attacks with little guidance as to when or where such attacks might occur. Family members are being called to active military duty, with no idea of the duration of their stay or what horrors they may face. Communities are being left with less than adequate police and fire protection.  Other essential services are also short-staffed. The mood of the nation is grim. The economy is stumbling. Fuel prices are rising and may soon spike higher.

This Administration, now in power for a little over two years, must be judged on its record. I believe that that record is dismal.

In that scant two years, this Administration has squandered a large projected surplus of some $5.6 trillion over the next decade and taken us to projected deficits as far as the eye can see. This Administration's domestic policy has put many of our states in dire financial condition, under funding scores of essential programs for our people. This Administration has fostered policies which have slowed economic growth. This Administration has ignored urgent matters such as the crisis in health care for our elderly. This Administration has been slow to provide adequate funding for homeland security. This Administration has been reluctant to better protect our long and porous borders.

In foreign policy, this Administration has failed to find Osama bin Laden. In fact, just yesterday we heard from him again marshaling his forces and urging them to kill. This Administration has split traditional alliances, possibly crippling, for all time, International order-keeping entities like the United Nations and NATO. This Administration has called into question the traditional worldwide perception of the United States as well-intentioned, peacekeeper. This Administration has turned the patient art of diplomacy into threats, labeling, and name calling of the sort that reflects quite poorly on the intelligence and sensitivity of our leaders, and which will have consequences for years to come.

Calling heads of state pygmies, labeling whole countries as evil, denigrating powerful European allies as irrelevant -- these types of crude insensitivities can do our great nation no good. We may have massive military might, but we cannot fight a global war on terrorism alone. We need the cooperation and friendship of our time-honored allies as well as the newer found friends whom we can attract with our wealth. Our awesome military machine will do us little good if we suffer another devastating attack on our homeland which severely damages our economy. Our military manpower is already stretched thin and we will need the augmenting support of those nations who can supply troop strength, not just sign letters cheering us on.

The war in Afghanistan has cost us $37 billion so far, yet there is evidence that terrorism may already be starting to regain its hold in that region. We have not found bin Laden, and unless we secure the peace in Afghanistan, the dark dens of terrorism may yet again flourish in that remote and devastated land.

Pakistan as well is at risk of destabilizing forces. This Administration has not finished the first war against terrorism and yet it is eager to embark on another conflict with perils much greater than those in Afghanistan. Is our attention span that short? Have we not learned that after winning the war one must always secure the peace?

And yet we hear little about the aftermath of war in Iraq. In the absence of plans, speculation abroad is rife. Will we seize Iraq's oil fields, becoming an occupying power which controls the price and supply of that nation's oil for the foreseeable future? To whom do we propose to hand the reins of power after Saddam Hussein?

Will our war inflame the Muslim world resulting in devastating attacks on Israel? Will Israel retaliate with its own nuclear arsenal? Will the Jordanian and Saudi Arabian governments be toppled by radicals, bolstered by Iran which has much closer ties to terrorism than Iraq?

Could a disruption of the world's oil supply lead to a world-wide recession? Has our senselessly bellicose language and our callous disregard of the interests and opinions of other nations increased the global race to join the nuclear club and made proliferation an even more lucrative practice for nations which need the income?

In only the space of two short years this reckless and arrogant Administration has initiated policies which may reap disastrous consequences for years.

One can understand the anger and shock of any President after the savage attacks of September 11. One can appreciate the frustration of having only a shadow to chase and an amorphous, fleeting enemy on which it is nearly impossible to exact retribution.

But to turn one's frustration and anger into the kind of extremely destabilizing and dangerous foreign policy debacle that the world is currently witnessing is inexcusable from any Administration charged with the awesome power and responsibility of guiding the destiny of the greatest superpower on the planet. Frankly many of the pronouncements made by this Administration are outrageous. There is no other word.

Yet this chamber is hauntingly silent. On what is possibly the eve of horrific infliction of death and destruction on the population of the nation of Iraq -- a population, I might add, of which over 50% is under age 15 -- this chamber is silent. On what is possibly only days before we send thousands of our own citizens to face unimagined horrors of chemical and biological warfare -- this chamber is silent. On the eve of what could possibly be a vicious terrorist attack in retaliation for our attack on Iraq, it is business as usual in the United States Senate.

We are truly "sleepwalking through history." In my heart of hearts I pray that this great nation and its good and trusting citizens are not in for a rudest of awakenings.

To engage in war is always to pick a wild card. And war must always be a last resort, not a first choice. I truly must question the judgment of any President who can say that a massive unprovoked military attack on a nation which is over 50% children is "in the highest moral traditions of our country". This war is not necessary at this time. Pressure appears to be having a good result in Iraq. Our mistake was to put ourselves in a corner so quickly. Our challenge is to now find a graceful way out of a box of our own making. Perhaps there is still a way if we allow more time.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Intro to Sartor Resartus by Kerry McSweeney and Peter Sabor

While Thomas Carlyle's Sartor Resartus has little in common with the realistic tradition of verisimilar representation of human situations in their social and moral contexts, it does have affinities with another fictional tradition, one that is well described by Robert Alter. This tradition includes the kind of prose fiction that 'expresses its seriousness through playfulness, that is acutely aware of itself as a mere structure of words even as it tries to discover ways of going beyond words to the experiences which words seem to indicate'. The fully conscious novel is 'one in which from beginning to end, through the style, the handling of the narrative viewpoint, the names and words imposed on the characters, the patterning of the narration, the nature of the characters and what befalls them, there is a consistent effort to convey to us a sense of a fictional world as an authorial construct set up against a background of literary tradition and convention'. ( Partial Magic, Berkeley, 1975) For Alter, prime examples of fully achieve self-conscious novels include Cervantes' Don Quixote, Fielding's “Tom Jones”, Diderot's Jacques the Fatalist, Sterne's Tristam Shandy, and Nabokov's Pale Fire; and others would want to add works like Melville's Moby-Dick. . .

The key feature of Carlyle's 'modus operandi' is that the text is about both itself and the experience of reading it. Sartor its own commentary and has within itself a fully developed model of a reader grappling with a difficult text. . . On behalf of the reader, the Editor attempts to find useful meanings in materials that fascinate him and compel his attention even while he suspects their authenticity, doubts the intentions and sincerity of their author, and comes to realize that none of his doubts can ever be settled with certainty.

In her English Romantic Irony (Cambridge, MA, 1980), Anne Mellor presents Sartor as a 'self- consuming artifact' that does not preach the truth, but asks that its readers discover the truth for themselves'. Sartor Resartus is a fictional work 'designed to consume itself by revealing the limitations of both its symbolic language and of language as such. It is not intended as a monument of truth but as a goad to action.'

Janice L Hanley has argued that the last three chapters of Sartor show a turning away from an outmoded Romantic vision towards a Victorian social actuality, 'an emerging Victorian mode of making meaning which pits 'an empirical self' against a metaphysical and aesthetic self; together they compose a book about the quest for meaning.” ( Shadow Hunting, Studies in Romanticism, xvii (1978).

In Sartus Resartus it is important to realize that Teufelsdrockh's philosophical belief's are essentially a simplified version of the leading themes of eighteenth-century German Idealist philosophy, especially as it contrasts with an equally simplified version of eighteenth-century British empirical philosophy, the nineteenth-century name for which was Utilitarianism. The fundamental premise of Teufelsdrockh's thought is the epistomological distinction between the understanding (Verstand) and Reason ( Vernunft). The former mental faculty is essentially passive, containing impressions ultimately derived from sense experience. Such empirical knowledge is strictly bounded by the containers of time and space, by WHERE, with its brother, WHEN, as Teufelsdrockh ( aka 'The Devil's Shit') puts it, and can supply knowledge only of the appearance of things, never of things in themselves. Such knowledge can be objective and accurate, even scientific; and it can certainly be useful; but can never tell anyone about the noumenal ( as opposed to phenomenal) objects of thought. The existence of God, an after-life, or the soul can never be established by the empirical understanding.

Noumenal knowledge is supplied by the intuitive faculty of Reason ( or the Fantasy, as Teufelsdrockh sometimes calls it). Reason, the organ of spiritual and imaginative insight, can reveal to man supersensible realities undetectable by the understanding. 'To the eye of vulgar Logic', Teufelsdruckh asks, 'what is man? An omnivorous Biped that wears Breeches. To the eye of Pure Reason what is he? A Soul, a Spirit, and a Divine Apparition... Reason can pierce through the Where and When to the celestial EVERYWHERE and FOREVER, to the universal HERE and the everlasting NOW'.

According to Teufelsdrockh [ sounding remarkably like Kierkegaard-J.S.] the progress of science, that is, the increasing power and dominance of the faculty of understanding, has led to the destruction of wonder and its replacement by mensuration and numeration. The more this power waxes, the more the intuitive power of Reason wanes. In the wintry light of understanding, the soul has become synonymous with the stomach, and happiness has become the aim of man, who, in the hedonistic calculus of the Utilitarians ( the Motive-Millwrights), has become 'a dead Iron-Balance for weighing Pains and Pleasures on.' What is needed is a restoration to its rightful kingly place in the human personality of Reason, Fantasy, Intuition, and Wonder. Love, Duty, and a sense of the sacred nature of social bonds can only flourish in the light of Reason, which can give a saving sense of the infinite within the finite, of the religious nature of human life, and of the miraculous potential of any aspect of creation.

There are certain features of Teufelsdruckh's thought, however, which are bound to give careful readers pause. One of them concerns the extraordinary number of Christian and biblical allusions embedded in his utterances. This suggests a deliberate attempt to blur the differences between traditional Christian beliefs and the subjectivity of Romantic regeneration. A second trouble spot is Teufelsdruckh's insistence on the moral imperative of duty: 'Do the Duty which lies nearest thee', which he says cannot be grounded in Speculation, only 'felt' in experience. But in the highly schematized and rhetorical account of Teufelsdruckh's conversion experience in Book II, one is only told about, never convincingly shown, his inner transformation. As a result the reader cannot feel with Teufelsdrockh. At best he can give only a notional assent to the professor's moral injunctions, at worse he may come to find them factitious.

An overemphasis on moral conduct, triggered by the breakdown of traditional religious beliefs, was a leading feature of the Victorian temper. The syndrome was memorably encapsulated in George Eliot's solemn observation that while God was inconceivable and immortality unbelievable, Duty was 'peremptory and absolute'. What Nietzsche said apropos of George Eliot in Twilight of the Idols could be well applied to Teufelsdruckh: 'They are rid of the Christian God and now believe all he more firmly that they must cling to Christian morality...We other hold otherwise. When one gives up the Christian faith, one pulls the right to Christian morality out from under one's feet. This morality is by no means self-evident... it stands and falls with faith in God.”

Teufelsdrockh also tries to finesse the question that was to become of pre-eminent concern to many Victorian writers: the question of immortality, of life after death. His answer is that only the 'Time-shadows' have perished and that 'the real Being of whatever was, and whatever is, and whatever will be, is even now and for ever. . . believe thou must; understand it thou canst not.' It is hard not to regard this passage as rhetoric in the pejorative sense of the term, as an attempt to substitute the wish for the deed. Why must we believe? Not because one is assured of a life after death; but precisely because one is not. One must believe because it is to demoralizing not to. “Better an ignis fatuus/ Than no illume at all' as Emily Dickinson wryly remarked in her little poem on the breakdown of traditional Christian beliefs. In this passage, as in other utterances of Teufelsdrockh, one is once again reminded of Twilight of the Idols, this time what Nietzsche said about Teufelsdruck's creator:

"Carlyle: a man of strong words and attitudes, a rhetor from need, constantly lured by the craving for a strong faith and the feeling of his incapacity for it (in this respect, a typical romantic!). The craving for a strong faith is no proof of a strong faith, but quite the contrary. If one has such a faith, then one can afford the beautiful luxury of scepticism: one is sure enough, firm enough, has ties enough for that. . . (Carlyle) requires noise. A constant passionate dishonesty against himself – that is his proprium; in this respect he is and remains interesting. Of course, in England he is admired precisely for his honesty. Well, that is English. . . at bottom, Carlyle is an English atheist who makes a point of honor not to be one.”

Recent critical reorientation to Sartor Resartus is a welcome reminder that when he wrote it Carlyle had not yet become Carlylean, had not yet successfully substituted biography, history, and social prophesy for imaginative fiction. It was perhaps for this reason that John Stuart Mill always regarded Sartor Resartus as Carlyle's 'best and greatest work'. It's distinction, however, was not immediately apparent to Mill any more than to most first-time readers, who may take heart from Mill's experience. When first shown the manuscript by Carlyle, he 'made little of it'; but by the time it appeared in Fraser's Magazine two years later he had grown sufficiently advanced in 'new modes of thought' to read Sartor Resartus 'with enthusiastic admiration and the keenest delight'.

Robert Alter on Style by Stephen Miller

Beginning With the Word
How the cadences and diction of the King James Bible affected the prose style of American writers.

Once upon a time critics spoke of the pleasure they derived from reading a work of literature. They talked of an author's descriptive gifts or insight into human nature—even about a distinctive literary voice or prose style. But a generation ago many scholars, besotted by French theorists, concluded that this way of discussing literature was na├»ve, if not wrong. They argued that one should instead scrutinize novels—now called "texts"—for the self-subversive qualities of language itself or for hidden authorial bias.

Robert Alter would like us to return to the earlier view. These days, he says, teachers "look right through" literary style in their effort to ground texts "in one ideology or another." But style is valuable in itself. It is not only a source of "deep pleasure"; it is, he says, "the vehicle of a particular vision of reality." In "Pen of Iron," Mr. Alter—best known for his translations and close readings of the Hebrew Bible—looks in particular at how the King James Bible has influenced the prose style and literary voice of several American writers.

The first work he discusses, as it happens, is not a novel; it is the Gettysburg Address. Why does Lincoln say "four score and seven years ago" rather than 87? The locution alludes to "three score and ten," a phrase that appears in the King James Bible more than 100 times. Like other Bible-derived phrases from Lincoln's public speaking—"a house divided against itself cannot stand" is perhaps the most famous—the biblical cadences of the Gettysburg Address confer "weight and solemnity."

The King James Bible, Mr. Alter observes, has two major stylistic traits. It generally uses words of Anglo-Saxon rather than Latin origin, and its sentences often have a paratactic structure—that is, they juxtapose a series of short elements, sometimes joining them with a simple conjunction (usually "and"). Mr. Alter hears biblical diction and rhythms in several 20th-century novels, including Hemingway's "The Sun Also Rises" (1926), Marilynne Robinson's "Gilead" (2004) and Cormac McCarthy's "The Road" (2007). Not that biblical echoes, by themselves, make for great literature. "After the passage of eight decades," Mr. Alter writes of Hemingway's book, "much of the novel looks rather flat—its characters sketchy, lacking psychological or moral complexity." Mr. McCarthy's "mesmerizing power as a stylist," he says, "often seems to exceed his range and insights as a novelist."

Mr. Alter prefers novels that offer a range of styles, like Herman Melville's "Moby-Dick." The Bible is a "strong thread" in that novel's prose and themes. There is the thundering sermon to the whalers in New Bedford, for instance, before the voyage begins. Ahab's name (like Ishmael's) comes from the Bible, and Ahab's war with the whale has an apocalyptic quality to it, as if aimed at vanquishing evil itself. The grog onboard the Pequod, Ahab says to his men, is "hot as Satan's hoof" and "forks out at the serpent-snapping eye." Ishmael, serving as Melville's narrator, can be paratactic, too: "Lank Bildad, as pilot, headed the first watch, and ever and anon, as the old craft dived deep in the green seas, and sent the shivering frost all over her, and the winds howled, and the cordage rang, his steady notes were heard."

But there are other threads in "Moby-Dick," Mr. Alter says: "Shakespeare, Milton, the English Baroque prose writers of the seventeenth century, sailors' argot . . . and the colloquial Yankee speech of antebellum New England." He argues that "extravagant stylistic hybridity" in "Moby-Dick" is an appropriate vehicle for what Melville wants to convey—"the unfathomability of human nature" and "the inscrutability and blind power of the natural world."

Mr. Alter sees admirable stylistic variety of Saul Bellow's "Seize the Day" (1956), too. Bellow, who confessed to reading the King James Bible all his life, drew on its "stylistic spareness" as a counterweight to "the exuberant side of his writing." At one point the novel's hapless protagonist, Tommy Wilhelm, remembers a time in his life when he was at peace with himself. The language is strongly indebted to Psalms: "He breathed in the sugar of the pure morning. He heard the long phrases of the birds. No enemy wanted his life."

Mr. Alter discusses Faulkner's "Absalom, Absalom!" (1936), but his argument centers less on style than on theme, since Faulkner's prose is not especially biblical. Rather, Mr. Alter writes, the King James Bible serves as a "thematic lexicon" for Faulkner. Certain key words give "Absalom, Absalom!" a scriptural quality even beyond its retelling of the King David story. Faulkner pulls together into "a catastrophic climax" a cluster of terms that are "drawn from the Bible—land, curse, son, birthright, inheritance, house." As for Faulkner's style, it is not entirely to Mr. Alter's liking. He speaks disapprovingly of Faulkner's "often bewildering abstractions," his "fondness for arcane and flamboyant terms" and his "convoluted syntax." These qualities, it should be said, have attracted readers as much as repelled them over the years.

Will 21st-century American novelists be influenced by the King James Bible—or any other version? Mr. Alter notes that "the Pilgrims, and their descendants for many generations, were Bible-steeped, Bible-quoting folk," but the popularity of the Bible waned by the end of the nineteenth century. Though of course it looms large in the lives of church-going Americans, "we no longer have a culture pervaded by Scripture, where . . . the active memories of ordinary people are stocked with many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of phrases and verses from the canonical texts." It looks as if, to keep this classic work of English prose alive, it will have to be read in school.

Friday, June 25, 2010

The Hearings of Robert Bork

I spent a lot of time watching the hearing. Bork approached the Committee in his role as a Professor of the Law and was not unwilling to engage in a highly theoretical discussion and provided very candid views of where he stood on the various issues like original intent, which, since it is based on historical interpretation and all the complexity involved in the relative weight of the evidences that history itself provides, turns out to be a sort of quicksand. A quicksand- a moving target subject to the vagaries of time and circumstance- that the authors of the Constitution themselves had to deal with and were not able to resolve in an entirely satisfactory manner. So how could Bork presume to do so himself?

There is rarely an "absolute" answer to any of the really difficult questions which, especially in the atmosphere generated by party politics ( as the 'Founding Fathers' clearly recognized) and special- interest pressure groups using the instruments of mass media, quickly take on the aspect of " a can of worms". An additional difficulty was that Bork himself was not a particularly attractive person. Today, nominees try not to "lecture" Senators on Constitutional Law but every decision they end up making involves taking a stand on the questions raised by Bork in those hearings and many have views very similar to those he expressed at the time.

The above being the reason I would prefer a Judge ( and a President for that matter) who is broadly educated in the Humanities- History, Literature, Art- in which the formal study of the Law is a part- but not perhaps not the whole parcel. A Justice who has a personal sense of the pain, human misery- perpetrator and victim alike- of those who find themselves exposed to the necessity of bringing their problems and frustrations before a Court and the great difficulty of obtaining justice- blind and impartial- in such circumstances these or on any of the days in our brief lives on this planet. It ought to be remembered more often that, at the end, regardless of any degree of guilt or innocence, the final verdict for each and everyone of us is a capital one, and, at least as far as anyone really knows with scientific certainty, of the exact same character and duration.

All Souls College Election by Hugh Trevor-Roper

6 July, 1951

Of the election in University College there is little to say. This was partly, of course, because no one is much interested in what goes on there, so the usual system of espionage has not been developed. The University College is a sort of Oxford Tibet, with primitive inhabitants, strange superstitions, and few economic attractions for colonizing powers. Consequently the election was enveloped in that secrecy which customarily shrouds ( it is said) the election in Lhasa of the Dalai Lama. Quite the opposite, of course, was the election of a warden of All Souls. That should rather be compared with a Presidential Election in America....

You must understand that there is in this university, as in all institutions (see the Bible, passim) a Party of Light (to which the writer belongs) and a Party of Darkness (consisting of those who hold different views). Our party of Light regards a University as a place of Learning and Pleasure, to be controlled by us; their party of Darkness regards it as a place of administrative efficiency and Dullness to be controlled by them. These two parties are nearly always locked in apparently insoluble deadlock; which, however, is ultimately solved by the existence, at a far lower level, of a third party, conveniently described as the Jellies, or party of compromise.

Whereas the Parties of Light and Darkness are distinguished by the enlightenment or blackness of their views, the Jellies or perhaps I should say Jellyfish– are distinguished by their complete absence of any views. They float now this way, now that, as the tide ebbs or flows, sucked helplessly into the wake of ships passing this way now that, sometimes stranded on the beach by the advancing tide, and left to dissolve in the sun, sometimes carried away by the receding tide, quavering, into the strange and terrifying currents of the uncomprehended Ocean.

In spite of their general helplessness the Jellies have, however, two important qualities: first, though sometimes submerged, they never sink; second, though unable to control the direction of their movements, some of them can, if touched, sting. In periods of violent storm ( naturalists observe) these Jellies appear in large numbers around our otherwise placid academic coasts; and the results of their intervention in our elections ( I must now return from metaphor to the world of plain fact) is almost always the same: a compromise candidate is discovered who, in the exhaustion of both parties, is found acceptable by all...he appeals to the Party of Light by being thoroughly inefficient at administration; he appeals to the Party of Darkness by showing no interest in either Learning or Pleasure. Thus, although nobody positively wants him, each party prefers him to the candidate of the other, and he is elected.

Of course the late Warden of All Souls had hardly been buried, and the black hatchment had hardly been hung out, like a somewhat tipsy pub-sign, over the college gate, before the preparations and speculations about the succession had begun. There are in All Souls 51 voting Fellows, and a candidate, to be elected Warden, must obtain at least 26 votes at the formal meeting, but before this formal meeting there are preliminary meetings at which those candidates who are thought to be worth running are selected b a straw vote. Our candidate was, of course, Isaiah Berlin. Theirs was, of course, a professional administrator. At the first straw vote they obtained a majority for their candidate, Sir Edward Bridges, head of the civil service; but Bridges declined the offer, and from this moment the battle can be said to have begun.

The most determined advocate of Darkness in All Souls – A.L. Rowse – happened, at this crucial juncture, to be in California, and ever since airplanes were invented he has loudly declared that his neurosis would never allow him to travel in such a vessel; but when the fate of Darkness in Oxford hung thus precariously in the balance, he at once disinterestedly jettisoned his long and carefully sustained neurosis and appeared with a few days in the surprised cloisters of All Souls. For a week every alcove hummed; then at the next meeting 26 Fellows, with apparent unanimity, supported the proposal of Rowse of a hitherto quite unknown figure: Sir Eric Beckett. Such support, if repeated at the official meeting would infallibly bring Beckett in. The question which everybody naturally asked (including some who had already voted for him) was, Who is Sir Eric Beckett?

Deep research has been devoted to this problem. So far the only clear facts that have emerged are that Sir Eric Beckett is (thanks to an airplane crash which killed his superior) legal adviser to the Foreign Office; that he was once struck in the face by Douglas Jay who, though himself a well-behaved Wykehamist, was outraged beyond endurance by his pro-Franco views, and has twice been in a lunatic asylum.

Conceive, if you can, the crescendo of buzzing in the alcoves, the feverish motion from staircase to staircase in these normally somnolent quadrangles, the sudden attentiveness towards younger voters of hitherto aloof elderly peers, the carefully timed indiscretions and skilfully calculated chance meetings by which, in the next fortnight, each party sought desperately to detach from the other its floating voters; and having conceived it, transport yourself in imagination to the official meeting at which whosoever obtained 26 votes would thereby become Warden of the College.

The first proposal was was made by Rowse who, as sub-warden, controlled the machinery of debate. He proposed Sir Eric Beckett; and thereupon the carefully oiled mechanism of election began those calculated revolutions which could slide the candidate effortlessly into place. Began – but did not complete. Suddenly strange creaks issued from parts of the equipment, as if saboteurs had secretly inserted sand in some essential aperture. The great engine groaned to a standstill, and certain small but important cogs, rods or pistons had not moved – with disastrous consequences: the candidate was not in place. In spite of his earlier absolute majority, he had now only got 23 votes; and 23 were not enough.

At once the Party of Light advanced to try their hand at the machine. Their candidate was in turn placed on the springboard: Isaiah Berlin; and the Party foremen wound enthusiastically with recalcitrant handles. But once again essential springs failed to respond, and the candidate could not be carried forth into the Warden's lodgings. He had only obtained 21 votes, and 21 votes was not enough either.

And now began a famous scene which will long be remembered in Oxford history and quoted in the manuals of our constitutional procedure. Each party in despair began to put up candidate after candidate in the hope of breaking the deadlock, and every advocate of Light, and every advocate of Darkness, in turn submitted to the test in the hope of detaching either three votes in one direction or five votes in the other in order to achieve a majority. Scenes of indescribable confusion followed. Twice did Isaiah withdraw his candidature amid applause from his adversaries; twice he was dragged back by his supporters. Now one hand, now another, grasped the handle of the obstinate machine, but it failed to turn. The issue was always the same. Whoever stood against Isaiah infallibly obtained 23 votes - - the voting strength of embattled Darkness; whoever stood against Beckett as infallibly obtain 21 votes – the voting strength of mobilized Light. There was total deadlock. What was to be done?

At this point the watchers on the academic cliffs began to espy, out at sea, the familiar phenomena of the storm: great shoals of Jellies drifting slowly toward the shore; and within the conclave, by a natural consequence of this news, the cry for a compromise candidate began to be heard. The question was, who could that compromise candidate be? You will have observed that the full toll of voters was 52, but also that the united strength of the two parties amounts only to 44; and whereas we can account for one of the omissions by the fact that the candidate of the moment was always out of the room at the time of the voting, and for a second by the fact that one voter - -Professor Wheare – overcome by the strain of the conclave, had to be carried out on a stretcher, there are still other abstainers to be accounted for. Naturally it was among these abstainers that a compromise candidate would be sought. Who among them was the most appropriate candidate?

Sir Hubert Henderson, Drummond Professor of Political Economy, is a respectable elderly gentleman who is generally known in Oxford for one reason only: in 1949 he made, before the largest Convocation ever remembered at Oxford, the most boring speech that has ever been heard in that assembly. Had there been any votes to lose on that occasion it is universally agreed that Henderson's speech would indubitably have lost them all. ( in fact his speech made no difference at all: everyone came to that meeting with his mind firmly made up that no oratory, however plausible, could have altered it: for we were voting an increase in our own salaries.)

When the first straw vote for the Wardenship of All Souls was taken, Sir Hubert Henderson had only obtained one vote; and it was perhaps this fact (by rendering the whole business academic to him) had caused him to sleep, and thereby abstain, throughout the long struggle of the parties. At all events, when the deadlock within the college walls was complete, and the swish of Jellies in the tide had become audible, the double fact that nobody seemed to want Hubert Henderson and that Sir Hubert Henderson did not seem to want anyone, naturally made him the man of the hour. And thus it was that suddenly, at the crucial moment, when Sir Hubert Henderson was placed in the machine, the handle at last turned effortlessly in its socket; the wheels revolved, the rods and cams, ratchets and pinions all slid with lubricated ease on their intended courses, and the candidate was at last, by 36 votes, carried effortlessly forward into the Warden's Lodgings of All Souls.

It only remains to add that Sir Hubert Henderson, overcome by the excitement of the election, has retired to the hospital with a heart-attack; so a spare hatchment has been commissioned and discrete preparations are already, but I hope wrongly, being made for the resumption of the struggle.

My dear BB, I had meant to touch but briefly on the All Souls election, which concerned your friend Isaiah Berlin, in order thereafter to describe at greater length the even more protracted election - it lasted more than two months – to the Chair of History, which concerned me; but I have already written too much, and perhaps on more personal matters it is more prudent to be brief. Suffice it then that this election ran true to form. For two months there was a total deadlock between those who insisted that they would impose their dead bodies between that candidate and that chair. (The objection is that I write history; and that, they say, should never be done: it is certainly not done by them.) Then, at the usual moment, the Jellies advanced; and the leisure that I had hoped to achieve for study and writing has been awarded instead to a last-minute candidate whose historical studies, confined to one branch of the State Papers during the reign of Elizabeth, have so far yielded, in 25 years, two slender articles. I am sure they are exact and competent articles; but since the author of them touches nothing that he does not desiccate, I cannot find anyone who has read them. However, I must not make any uncivil comment on this election, so I will only say that the standards of Oxford professors of history have been maintained....

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

In Requiem by Hugh Trevor Roper

In 1942 Logan Pearsall Smith* made the historian Hugh Trevor-Roper the chief heir in his will, which was, however, revoked shortly before his death. Characteristically, Trevor-Roper did not mind forfeiting the money, but was exasperated by his difficulties in obtaining the books that he had been bequeathed under the new will. Smith's greatest gift to his protege had, anyway, been given in his lifetime: he passed on his literary precepts, which were evident in everything that Trevor-Roper wrote – books, essays, reviews and his supremely private letters – after 1940.

Partly because Trevor-Roper was in Germany, researching The Last Days of Hitler, and partly because Smith had suffered a nervous breakdown and was forbidden visitors, the two men seldom met in the nine months before Smith died on 2 March 1946. ' A great section of my life seems to me to have ended with his death. No one else has had such an effect on my personal life. It is ineradicable,' Trevor-Roper wrote in requiem. 'What did I learn from him? When I ask myself this question, I do not know how to answer it, for I learned everything. My whole philosophy seems, now that I consider it retrospectively, to have come from him, and what I would have been without him I cannot envisage, cannot imagine.

From that day when, walking alone around the Christ Church Meadow, I had resolved to trifle no more among the twigs of matter but to try to understand the root of it, I had, for two years, forsaken all literary and artistic interests. I neglected poetry & prose; cared nothing for music or pictures, read neither Gibbon nor Homer, but only studied, and studied only essential monographs and laborious theses; and in the book that I was myself writing, Archbishop Laud, I consciously ignored the temptation of style. I only sought to understand, & to this extent, though I understood imperfectly, it is at least an honest book. But neither humanity nor divinity touched it, & therefore it is also incomplete & a narrow book. I cannot now think why Logan thought so highly of it.

' For it was Logan who afterward re-interested me, in a time when the war had separated me from desperate academic study, in style & the world of sensation,& enabled me thus to fill in the hard structural pattern of thought I had thus evolved; and how can I express gratitude for such an experience?

Who showed me that life is short, and three parts routine, & most of it comedy, & can only be saved from triviality & given significance by some ideal to which all else, or at least much else […] including human pleasures and meritorious aims, and especially power and success, must be sacrificed, as by a merchant who sold out to reinvest all in one pearl of great price; and that style is worthy of this sacrifice.

This I learned from him and believed, & I still believe it, and shall, I hope, continue, like Gibbon, to value reading above the wealth of India. For in his life and conversation, among the tinkle of coronets and the wild extravagant gossip, and the exquisite relish of high life and la comedie humaine, of which it also witness, he illustrated this philosophy to me so vividly that if it has not become mine, at least mine can never be altogether emancipated from its influence.'

Introduction to Letters From Oxford; Hugh Trevor-Roper to Bernard Berenson edited by Richard Davenport-Hines; Phoenix Paperback, Orion Books, 2006.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

On The Waterfront by Nathan Ward

In the 1940s New York Harbor was still the world's greatest port, a collection of bays rimmed with more than nine hundred piers and noisily crowded with hundreds of express liners, freighters, ferries, lighters, garbage scows, car flats, battleships, yachts, floating elevators, coffee barges, and constantly whistling tugs. The Hudson was still known as the North River ( to distinguish it from the Delaware, or South River) along its length from the Battery, to the deep Midtown piers. This book is about that old waterfront, and its “criminal coloration”, where money washed in and out, and graft mingled the longshore Union with racketeers.

Touring the harbor today, it is hard to imagine their quiet frontages of rot and renewal ever knowing such a fearful time that a reporter could write, “It has been said, and with some justification that the waterfront of New York produces more murder to the square foot than does any other section of the country. Most such murders go unsolved." In 1948, the shooting of a young boss stevedore brought reporter Malcolm “Mike” Johnson of the New York Sun to the West Side docks where he soon learned that snaking around the watery edges of his town was a very different city than he had hitherto imagined; “Murder on the waterfront is commonplace”, he wrote, “a logical product of widespread gangsterism”.

When Johnson's 24-part series broke on the front page in 1949 no one greeted them with more disgust, and impervious equanimity, than life-time president of the International Longshoreman's Association, Joe Ryan, whose downfall ( if you could call it that) was still decades in the future (see : ).

N.Y. businessman Wiiliam J. McCormack - "Mr. Big"- also figured prominently in this sad tale, along with William O'Dwyer, the one-hundredth mayor of New York City. (whose exposures in this book might add significant material to their rather bare-bones biographies in Wikepedia.)

The estimated annual 'take' from waterfront rackets ( pay-offs, extortion, loan-sharking, number-games, tax evasion and theft) was $50 million, which might be considered a trifle compared to the OECD estimate of $11 trillion for the global black market (with its tax havens, shell banks,shielded trusts, anonymous foundations, dummy corporations, mispricing schemes and the like all administered by the "pinstripe infrastructure" of mainstream banks, lawyers, and accountants) today, but 'not so bad' considering inflation and the limited scope of dockside operations in N.Y.C. in the 1940s. Neither is there anyone remotely resembling the labor-crusading Jesuit priest John M. Corridan to raise a stink in these times of unlimited corruption.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Marlon Brando came down to the wintry docks of Hoboken to try out as a longshoreman in late November 1953. For Elia Kazan, he had already played both the combustible brute Stanley Kowalski and the Mexican Revolutionary leader Emiliano Zapata. Yet Brando refused the new part on first pass without reading the script, irked at his favorite director, he claimed later, for “finking” by cooperating with the Communist hunt in Washington. The lead in Kazan's waterfront movie went briefly to a real son of Hoboken, Frank Sinatra, before producer Sam Spiegal brought Brando on board through some world class flattering. So the film that had begun with Mike Johnson's crime series and survived attacks by Joe Ryan and rejections from nearly every major studio was about to begin filming when Brando asked screenwriter Budd Schulberg ( Arthur Miller refused to purge 'communist sympathies' from his script) to join him for a walk. The Nebraskan movie star was ready to see if he could pass as an ordinary docker.

Brando proposed that he cross Hoboken in character, making a kind of casual audition before the whole city. “I told him he could never walk through Hoboken without being recognized,” Schulberg wrote later in Vanity Fair. “Let's try it,” Brando- well known for his prep work- insisted. “Terry” walked from one end of Hoboken to the other, so convincing in his checkered jacket and shoulder-rolling gait that no one asked for an autograph, not even a group of Catholic schoolgirls whose rooms were no doubt filled with stashes of movie magazines. The two men managed to down beers undisturbed at one of the pubs where Schulberg had studied true Terry Malloys. Once the filming began and Brando was surrounded by working longshoremen and real ex-fighters on the windblown piers, he somehow became even more convincing. The film was shot over thirty-five frigid days, with some dockers ( in Fr. Corridan's group) acting as bodyguards against local hoods who didn't appreciate the film's criminal story line.

It was Joe Ryan himself who first branded the waterfront drama being adapted from Mike Johnson's crime series as Communist propaganda- years before the film opened or even involved Elia Kazan as director. So a cold war argument was soon launched over On The Waterfront's meanings and intentions. ( Some even insisted the movie's murderous dock boss Johnny Friendly was a stand-in for Joseph Stalin.) But audiences in 1954 would have known that the movie's thuggish setting was no metaphor, just as moviegoers of the Watergate era recognized every criminal reference in All The President's Men). On the Waterfront earned eight Oscars overall so Budd Schulberg's gamble, mortgaging his Pennsylvania farm to keep his project going, more than paid off.

Beyond the academy, the film and Brando's performance even passed scrutiny with many longshoreman. “They got a kick out of the movie”, remembers Artie Piecoro, who still has the broad shoulders and thick fingers from his nearly three decades on the Brooklyn docks. “We all like Brando and accepted him as a regular guy. I guess the Irish guys loved him even more, since he made them seem so tough." But a half century after its premier Jim Longhi still saw Kazan's film as a political betrayal.

Near the end of his life, Longhi was well aware how far he had come from his days doing dock injury cases as a waterfront lawyer in long-ago Red Hook. He cut an elegant, genial figure and could go from cultured conversation into one of his tales from the waterfront, where he had long ago helped Arthur Miller with his unfilmed screenplay about the life of Peter Panto.

“The hero in the story of the waterfront is the longshoremen themselves”, he explained, “whereas in the movie they're a bunch of sheep. The hero of this fight was Pete Panto, but in the movie, instead of writing a story about a young labor leader, a rebel, an uneducated Jesus Christ guy who said, “I'm gonna go out there and do it,' and said 'You gonna go along with this?' and they [the gangsters] said, 'Fuck you!' and they killed him. That's a hero and who did they [Hollywood] make a hero? A punch-drunk prize-fighter who doesn't know shit... it's a travesty of the subject matter.” (If anything might be ascribed to Elia Kazan's own experience as a government witness, it is his insistence that Terry Malloy triumphantly survive his betrayal of the racketeers. It is significant that in Budd Schulberg's novel Waterfront, published after the Award-winning movie, Terry Malloy comes to a more Panto-like end, ice-picked and stuffed in a barrel of lime in a Jersey swamp.)

Dark Harbor; The War for the New York Waterfront by Nathan Ward; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Moby-Dick by Philip Hoare

It was here in Western Massachusetts, in the summer of 1850, away from 'the heat and dust of the babylonish brick-kiln of New York', that Herman Melville met a man who would change the course of his life. While staying with his aunt in Pittsfield, he read Nathaniel Hawthorne's Mosses from an Old Manse, and was besotted with its wistful evocation of old New England. By coincidence Hawthorne himself was living nearby, drawn to the sublime beauty of the Berkshires – countryside not unlike England's Lake District. It was a romantic setting in the purest sense of the word; and what happened next was a kind of epiphany.

At forty-six years old, Hawthorne was America's most famous writer. He to came from a sea-going family, that much he and Melville had in common. But where the sea was Melville's Harvard and Yale, Nathaniel had attended the grassy campus of Bowdoin College, Maine, before exchanging it for a gloomy house in Salem, where he spent twelve years sequestered in his attic, emerging only at night to walk the streets. 'I have made a captive of myself, and put me into a dungeon,' he confessed 'and now, I cannot find the key to let myself out.'

Hawthorne dwelt on morbid things, although the monsters he summoned were decidedly human - his Puritan ancestors with ' all the Puritanical traits, both good and evil'- a legacy the fictional world Hawthorne inhabited, and the real world he invented. He was, as the poet Mary Oliver would write, 'one of the great imaginers of evil'.

Hawthorne was filled with regret at the way the world had been, and the way it was becoming. 'Here and there and all around us,' he wrote in his story, 'Fire worship...the inventions of mankind are fast blotting the picturesque, the poetic, and the beautiful out of human life.' He once told his wife Sophia that he felt as if he were 'already in the grave, with only enough life to be chilled and benumbed.'

Hawthorne was, in his own words, ' a man not estranged from human life, yet enveloped in the midst of it, with a veil woven of intermingled gloom and brightness. He wrote artful allegories burdened with the weight of history, guilt and revenge, especially in the stories that Melville saw as Hawthorne's masterpieces, and which would influence his own work. In Young Goodman Brown a young man is summoned to the forest at night to find the entire town enslaved to the devil, even his young wife. In the futuristic Earth's Holocaust', a bonfire on the prairie incinerates every example of human excess, from tobacco to the works of literature. Yet one thing will not burn in this reforming pyre: the latent evil in every human heart. Sin, too, was the subject of his novel The Scarlet Letter and it was in the wake of its success that Hawthorne had escaped the clamour of fame by moving to Lenox in the Berkshires.

Hawthorne could not avoid society even in the country, and it was on 5 August he was persuaded to attend a picnic organized by David Dudley Field, a well-connected New York lawyer. The guests included distinguished literary figures: Evert Duyckinck, Oliver Wendell Holmes – coiner of the term, Boston Brahmin, 'several ladies' and Melville. The party set off for Monument Mountain, but before they could reach the summit a sudden shower sent them running for shelter under a rocky ledge, where they drank champagne from a silver mug.

As the sun reappeared, the picnickers struck out for the mountain top. Melville was in high spirits; perhaps the alcohol and the rarefied air had gone to his head. He clambered over a long rock which jutted out like a bowsprit, pretending to haul in an imaginary rigging, and made as if to harpoon a whale-shaped pond in the valley below. The young man's play-acting was a burst of energy in the dog-days of summer- an echo of the scenes in Typee in which the narrator and his fellow deserter Toby climb a tropical peak to escape the tyranny of their ship, and feel the intensity of their new -found freedom.

The headiness of the day, the sublimity of the landscape, and, perhaps, Melville's company, were infectious, and they roused Hawthorne to similar antics. That afternoon, as they wandered through the 'Gothic shades' of a gloomy spot known as the Icy Glen – it was said ice was found in its mossy recesses all year round- it was his turn to perform, shouting out in his rich voice, 'warnings of the inevitable destruction of the whole party.'

It was clear that Hawthorne – already an admirer of Typee – found Melville a magnetic figure... that day on the mountain marked an almost alchemical mix: of fire - -Hawthorne's prairie holocaust – and water Melville's whalish romance. Both were men of a brave new republic; both might have looked optimistically towards the future. But in time, the lively and mercurial Melville would descend into the gloom that Hawthorne inhabited, swapping the sun-baked summit for the drank dripping glen.

At Lenox, the two men would sit in the Hawthorne's parlor smoking cigars normally forbidden in the house, talking 'about time and eternity, things of this world and the next...and all possible and impossible matters, that lasted pretty deep into the night ( a phrase that Sophia inked out when editing her husband's journal for publication). They did not agree on all subjects: on slavery, for instance, for whose victims Hawthorne had not 'the slightest sympathy...or, at least, not half as much for the laboring whites, who, I believe, as a general thing, are ten times worse off.' For all Melville felt for Hawthorne, it seemed he wanted more than his friend could give.

Melville's book- which he had described to Evert Duyckinck as 'a romantic, fanciful & literal & most enjoyable presentment of the Whale Fishery'- was almost finished when he came to the Berkshires. Meeting Hawthorne changed all that. Now he was compelled to see the significance of his experiences, and as if to set them in context, he began to read rapaciously, as though he had never read before: A complete edition of Shakespeare's plays, Mary Shelly's Frankenstein, William Scoresby's An Account of the Arctic Regions, Robert Burton's eccentric and digressive Anatomy of Melancholy, essays by Emerson, Thomas Carlyle's Sartor Resartus - imbued with dreams, daemonic possession and self-sacrificing love. It also seems clear that the eerie otherworld of Edgar Allen Poe's only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838), teetering between travelogue and science fiction, was the birthing-ground for Melville's monster. It is the source of the whiteness that appals Ishmael and on which he expands compendiously, if erratically, like a nineteenth century search engine.

If Moby-Dick owed its metaphysics to Nathaniel Hawthorne, then it owed its facts to Thomas Beale. Entire passages in Melville's book are filched directly- one might say almost brazenly – from Beale's. The Natural History of the Sperm Whale was the archetype for Moby-Dick, not only in its cetological details, but in its other preoccupations, too: the whale's role in the human chain of consumption (see comment), its slavery. Beale criticized the respected French naturalist Baron Cuvier, for instance, for claiming that that the whale struck fear into all the inhabitants of the deep. To Beale this was just so much hogwash; 'for not only does the sperm whale in reality happen to be the most timid and inoffensive animal...readily endeavoring to escape from the slightest thing which bears an unusual appearance, but is also quite incapable of being guilty of the acts of which he is so strongly accused.”

In 1845 and 1846 J.M.W. Turner, the greatest artist of his age, exhibited four scenes of whaling at the Royal Academy, along with a catalogue attribution: “Whalers. Vide Beale's Voyage, p. 175'. They portray the heroic hunt for the whale in luminous, almost abstract forms; the whales themselves are the merest, ghostly suggestions. “ Turner's pictures were suggested by this book” Melville wrote on the title page of his copy of Voyage, and the influence of Turner's sublime vistas, numinous with storms and shadows, emerges in Moby-Dick from the first. The romantic vision that Turner realized in paint, Melville attempted in words.

But Melville would also fill his own book with earthy asides and euphemisms; jokes about chowder and bar-room quips with which Ishmael wryly undermines his creators high-flown words, declaring a one point that he regards the whole dangerous voyage of the Pequod – and life itself – as a 'vast practical joke'.

Something fused into one headlong effort, as great as his quarry, as great as the industry it commemorated. With sprawling ambition and an utter lack of convention, Melville crossed latitudes of time and space, blurring them as he did so, constantly reiterating, 'All this is not without its meaning', laying meaning upon meaning, drawing himself on, writing and rewriting obsessively, creating a kind of exclusion zone to which his own wife could only gain admittance by knocking incessantly on his door until he deigned to answer. He created the conditions on board ship inside his study and in his mind, and in the process Moby-Dick changed from a romance to a fearful, fated work. Parts of the book seem to be written automatically, as if possessed by the spirit of the White Whale, the Shaker God incarnate.

Melville almost dared not to write his book, even as he advised a female friend not to read it. 'Don't you buy it – don't you read it, when it comes out,' he warned her, 'It is not a piece of fine Spitalfields silk – but it is of the horrible texture of a fabric that should be woven of ships' cables and hausers. A Polar wind blows through it, & birds of prey hover over it.' With Mary Shelley's man-made monster at the back of his head, he conjured images of Ahab's ship ploughing through stormy seas as 'the ivory-tusked Pequod sharply bowed to the blast, and gored the dark waves in her madness'. Only half-jokingly, he spoke of his work as though it were some transgression of natural law which ought not to have appeared at all. What began as an exercise in propaganda for the American whaling industry ended up as a warning to all mankind of its own evil.

Ah the world, oh the whale.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Superbug by Maryn McKenna

The case studies in this book are frightening and might be especially so for those who have had staphylococcus infections like boils, strange forms of cellulitis which only responded IV antibiotics or have spent abnormal amounts of time recovering from surgery for unknown reasons. Such was the rising sense of panic in my breast as I read along, it took me several days to get through the first chapter of this book. As the story of each new case of anti-biotic resistant staph infection ( Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus- MRSA) unfolded , along with a recognition of how things might have been, I had to put the book aside and reach for something a little less personal and discomforting. Never-the-less, by my indomitable will always to learn something no matter horrible the subject, I prevailed and completed the book.

We are all colonized by various types and strains of staphylococcus bacteria. In fact, such is the evolutionary adaptability of this bacteria, it is safe to say that most of us are even colonized by antibiotic resistant types and strains of it, even if we'd never used an antibiotic or been near a hospital. We have it but it has not yet made us ill.

Bacteria have an array of strategies for evolving- surviving - altering their DNA. Everybody thinks of mutation but this is a random process and slow; the genetic equivalent of waiting for all the cherries to line up in a slot machine. Bacteria have faster strategies. They can trade entire DNA segments by opening their membranes to each other ( conjugation). They can receive them via phages, viruses that infect bacteria ( transduction) or they can pick up, from their environments, free DNA released by other bacteria that have died or broken open (transformation). Thus, so far, they have been able to defeat every counter-measure modern science in its infinite wisdom has thrown against them. They can do it so quickly that during the last twenty years big Pharma has cut back its investment to discover new types and strains of antibiotics. Since each new anti-biotic is overcome by resistant bacteria in short order, their applicability rapidly deteriorates, along with the profits to be gained from selling them. Drugs like Viagra or any number of pain-killers and anti-depressants are far more marketable.

At this stage there is no point in going off the deep end. Many anti-biotics still work against many of the common strains of staphylococcus, even against most MRSA, albeit in higher doses and longer courses of treatment. And medicine doesn't quit just because the “wonder” of antibiotics has worn off. It has its surgical interventions which, though it may be costly and mutilating, used along with various life-support systems, buys time and the chance for numerous combinations of antibiotics and the miracle of the body's own mysterious healing powers to work their magic. Gradually, over the years, Medicine has also developed some useful preventive strategies, however much the fragmentation, lack of communication and the dumb persistence of old habits in American medical practice has made this so difficult.

One preventive strategy has been an attempt to get doctors to quit prescribing antibiotics for conditions that cannot be cured by them, like most of the earaches and sore-throats of children, which are usually viral in nature. Doctors are also advised to curtail prescribing powerful, broadly acting antibiotics when weaker, more narrowly focused ones might do just as well. This slows down staph's ability to mutate, transduce and transform their resistance. The monitoring of initial campaigns to this effect showed some effects- doctors prescribed less- but progress was hard to maintain. Many doctors tend to give their patients what they expect and , furthermore, conservative treatments which require follow-ups tend to be time consuming and costly. Quantifying results in terms of fewer MRSA infections is also difficult in the short term.

Three are three basic types of MRSA: those that are generated in hospitals, those that are generated in the community and those associated with animal husbandry, especially pigs, but also horses and chickens. MRSA appeared first in hospitals, in their most destructive strains, since that was where antibiotics were used most extensively ( the more they are used the more rapidly the bacteria evolve). MRSA then began to appear, principally in populations of poor people, among prisoners and in schools and athletic facilities. The deadly, virtually untreatable “Superbug” of the title of this book is “a cross" between the in-hospital and in-community strains of MRSA. Although there is clear evidence that some MRSA-like strains jump from factory farmed animals to human beings, gathering a sufficient amount to overcome the objections of that powerful interest has been difficult.

Some of the most effective measures for preventing the spread of MRSA in hospitals, besides identifying and keeping an accurate, published record of their presence- not at all a universal practice- is pre-screening and isolation. Many patients and medical personnel arrive at the hospital colonized by MRSA though it may not be effecting their health in the least. It is actually possible to de-colonize these patients with short courses of anti-biotic treatment and re-colonize them with more benign forms of staph which thus replace beleaguered MRSA. Patients with MRSA can also be isolated by various procedures to keep them from infecting other patients and staff. Thorough and routine sterilization of hospital rooms, equipment and supplies is vital. Imposing rigorous standards of hand-washing among nurses, staff and physicians is an extremely effective preventive measure but, as experience has shown, often very difficult and costly to impose consistently, either in terms of overcoming habits, normal patterns of inattention in all human behavior and labor-hours consumed. Although it does not de-colonize its patients, the biggest single endorser of screening and isolation is the Veterans Health Administration, the most socialized health care system in the U.S.A.. Its record of success is similar to some systems in Scandinavia.

Dangerous outbreaks of MRSA have occurred in association with contact sports. Although organizations like the NFL have the means to take very effective countermeasures- using anti-bacterial surfaces in their locker-rooms, super-heating their laundry, restricting the sharing of equipment, spraying and pre-screening, most public schools lack this ability. It is amazing the extent to which kids these days do not use the shower facilities in their schools athletic facilities, how poorly maintained these facilities and regular bathrooms are, often lacking even soap or sanitary towels. However, in some districts, where prior victims MRSA or their surviving relatives have become active, improvements have been made.

Poor neighborhoods , nursing homes and prisons remain among the most intractable environments for transmission of MRSA. These populations are often composed of individuals whose health is already comprised, are crowded together and have very little access to any ( or the best sorts of ) health care. For some this might actually be an encouraging situation since they are healthy, are not crowded together and have access to health care. Therefore, it would seem, they are much less likely to contract a MRSA infection. Frankly, these facts ( along with the fact that I am assiduous hand-washer) helped to calm the fear I experienced when I first started to read the case studies in this book. But ( I now proceed entirely in the author's own words)...

For a very long time, no one wondered what the effect might be of so many prisoners picking up MRSA in jail and carrying with them when they are released. In 2006, though, a group of epidemiologists at the University of Maryland became interested in a vast increase in MRSA in the main jail in Baltimore and wondered what its impact on the surrounding city might be. They used a measure called “epidemiological weight,” a calculation that assesses how much risk an outbreak in a self-contained group poses to its larger setting, based on how many people join the group, become infected without receiving treatment, and exit the group, as well as how fast or slowly that churning happens. Because hospitals have hundreds of patients staying for weeks, while jails have thousands of people staying for years, the researchers assumed that hospitals would feed the larger epidemic, while prison outbreaks would harm only those inside. Their calculations revealed that assumption to be wrong.

MRSA in correctional facilities affects a wider segment of the population than prisoners, and reaches neighborhoods far beyond the ones where the former prisoners lived. About 750,000 people go in and go out of correctional institutions in the United States every day. They are administrators, guards, cleaners, and cooks, and they have enough close contact with prisoners to be vulnerable to their infections, as well. Jails and prisons are “superspreaders”, seeding MRSA into society at large. Of course reforming health care in our jails and prisons is not a high priority, and often a matter of lengthy and contentious lawsuits.

Superbug; The Fatal Menace of MRSA by Maryn McKenna; Free Press, 2010

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Chickenshit by Paul Fussell

What does that rude term signify? It does not imply complaint about the inevitable inconveniences of military life: overcrowding and lack of privacy, tedious institutional cookery, deprivation of personality, general boredom. Nothing much can be done about those things. Chickenshit refers to behavior that makes military life worse than it need be: petty harassment of the weak by the strong; open scrimmage for power and authority and prestige; sadism thinly disguised as necessary discipline; a constant "paying off of old scores"; and insistence on the letter rather than the spirit of the ordinances.

Chickenshit is so called- instead of horse or bull- or elephant shit- because it is small- minded and ignoble and takes the trivial seriously. Chickenshit can be recognized instantly because it never has anything to do with winning the war. Its victims, generally, have it coming for disagreeing on matters of taste: asking questions sergeant couldn't answer, interposing a 'liberal' observation, uttering mild remonstrances in combat, being a Jew, the 'long hair', the artist, - the 'so-called intellectual'- one who sneers at sports, the 'smart ass', the 'stuck up, the foreigner, anyone conceived to be “not our crowd”, being “sloppy or in the U.K., 'slack'.

Because chickenshit shifts the emphasis from reality to appearance, its favored terms of approbation are smartness and swank [ today we have 'Smart Diplomacy'].

Chickenshit is for 'keeping the men on their toes' , frustrating their plans for a good time. For the victims it has its own serial psychological structure generating maximum anxiety over matters of minimum significance. Its stages are nervous waiting, last-minute flurry, final resignation , the sagging aftermath... the official power to inconvenience but as a Vietnam veteran once noted, 'The needle is only so long, you can escape from it by going forward into combat. ( Donald Pfarrer in Neverlight)

It would be hard not to notice the proximity of Allied chickenshit to certain stigmata of Fascism, all sorts of opportunities for irony present themselves and much of the writing from World War Two tends not so much to convey news from the battlefield as to expose the chickenshit lurking behind it , like Catch-22. Exceptions are to be found in popular fiction, the works Leon Uris and Herman Wouk, for example. Their audience being untrained in the irony of a world in which blunders are more common than usual, in their novels, especially Wouk's overproduced ones, there are few blunders or errors and everyone does what he was supposed to do, with minimal chickenshit. (Result: Victory).

The more verbally confident poetry of World War One emerged from a proud verbal culture, where language was trusted to convey and retain profound, permanent meaning, while the later world from which the laconic notations of Uris and Wouk arise is one so doubtful of language that the responsible feel that only the fewest words, debased as they have been by advertising, publicity, politics and the rhetoric of nationalism, should be hazarded. In his poem Memorial to the Great Big Beautiful Self-Sacrificing Advertisers, Frederick Ebright concludes with the line “there is dignity in silence”

It was not just among soldiers and journalists that uncertainties about the War's meaning arose; that no very precise ideological appeal would work on the wartime audience was a fact accurately sensed by ad-men...Clearly, any attempt to define that new world ("that we are fighting to make ready") would result in bafflement , dispute and severe loss of confidence in Carnation products. Vagueness was all.

The post- war survey found that 14% of the bombs dropped never went off (ironically balancing out the large number of U.S. anti-tank mines that went off when they weren't supposed to) Was sabotage behind these failures? No, simply error. It is hard to embrace ironies like this because the human mind, avid for clear meaning, experiences frustration and pain when confronted by events which seem purposeless or meaningless. Even more today, in wartime everything you might hear and read during a day might be false, planted to be passed on to deceive either you or the enemy. Living in wartime thus resembled living in a play, with nothing real or certain. You literally did not know for sure what was going on, and you had to take on faith the public appearance of things, costly as this might prove for perceptual or intellectual life."

In reality, war is opposed to every reasonable conception of what life is for, every ambition of the mind or delight in the senses. Both civilians and soldiers were right to perceive in war, as Dwight MacDonald has said, "the maximum of physical devastation accompanied by the minimum of human meaning". It takes some honesty, even if that honesty arises from despair, to perceive that some events, being inhuman, have no human meaning.

Wartime Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War by Paul Fussell; Oxford Paperbacks 1989

History of the Beat Generation by Bill Morgan

I would compare the Beat Generation to a freight train, with Allen Ginsberg as the locomotive that pulled the others along like so many boxcars. It is really the story of this one man's desire to gather a circle of friends around him, people he loved and who could love him. What united these people was not only love of literature, but also Ginsberg's supportive character, a trait that often verged on obsession. It was their friendship that they shared, not any one common literary style, philosophy, or social theory. At the center of all those friendships was the strongly cohesive glue that was Allen Ginsberg.

Ginsberg was the unofficial literary agent of the whole crowd, supporting them when he could afford it, encouraging them to write and put their writings into publishable forms, promoting their works to established, independent and self-publishing enterprises, organized public readings and symposiums. The threat of government intervention and repression in the arts persisted well into the 1960s and this forced Ginsberg to take direct political action on a number of occasions. For this purpose, he founded the Committee on Poetry, to help pay legal fees in cases such as N.Y.C's attempt to ban poetry readings in the city's coffee houses. All the money Ginsberg received from his readings went directly into this non-profit foundation, while he supported himself on what little income was left. Later he decided to continue funding COP for the support of worthy causes and to fund individual poets in dire straits. Over the years, he was able to help dozens of down-and-out artists financially. The fund helped Lenny Bruce pay for his court battles; it also provided legal support to Ed Sanders when his Peace Eye Bookstore was raided by the police.

As the years went by and the decades passed, Ginsberg gained respectability and was asked to organize the poetics program at Naropa Institute in Boulder Colorado, which he named the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. He spent a part of every year teaching in Boulder at little or no pay but managed, at one point or another, to bring all his friends into the writing program there. In 1987 Ginsberg was hired by Brooklyn College to fill a chair in their English Department and shortly thereafter inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters where he worked to bring in several members of his own circle including Robert Creeley, William Burroughs, Gary Snyder, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Amiri Baraka. Ginsberg rarely failed to support his friends even when they found it impossible to help themselves or turned their backs to him.

The biggest publicity break for the so-called Beat Generation of writers came with the publication of Ginsberg's Howl and Other Poems. Published abroad and shipped to the U.S. It was temporarily seized by U.S. Customs, although the U.S. Attorney General subsequently decided not to prosecute the case. However, on June 3, 1957, The San Francisco Police Department raided the City Lights bookstore, grabbed the new U.S. Printed edition, and arrested the bookstore's manager. They claimed it was obscene and would be harmful if it fell into the hands of children. The courts had recently ruled that not everything in America had to be written for children, but the district attorney ignored that and pressed on, bringing the case to trial. From that moment on, the press covered the story in great detail and Americans became much more generally aware of the new spirit of artistic freedom and vitality that was growing in places like North Beach and Greenwich village.

The judge found that Howl was not obscene because it had “ some redeeming social value." The case set a precedent allowing many other important literary works like Lawrence's Lady Chatterly's Lover and Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer to be published without fear of censorship. Publishers and his writer friends began listening more carefully Ginsberg' entreaties.

Beat was a word in common usage during the late 1940s and familiar to most jazz musicians and hipsters around the seedier fringes of Times Square. The circle of Allen Ginsberg's friends had frequently heard people like Herbert Huncke using the word to refer to themselves and others who were tired of the status quo, maybe even tired of life in general and the continual frustration and despair that came with living in America in those times.

In the 1940s Jack Kerouac hung out with John Holmes; they spent many nights discussing their craft over quarts of beer. Together they enrolled in Elbert Lenrow's classes in literature at the New School of Social Research in Greenwich Village. One evening after class they had a philosophical conversation about their own generation. They compared it to Hemingway's “lost generation” but felt that the word lost didn't sum up their times. In the course of the conversation Holmes urged Kerouac to characterize the current situation, and Jack responded by saying that he felt their minds were furtive, chock-full of hidden motives, and that as a result it was a “beat” generation. After some reflection Holmes agreed that it was the best name for the young people who had come through World War II. They were weary, they had been beaten down by society, the war, the need to conform to the times, behind which lurked some sort of spiritual longing.

In November 1952, the New York Times commissioned Holmes to write an article about the young writers of his generation. In that article, Holmes recalled the conversation he and Jack had had about it being a “beat generation.” The article became the first to use that phrase in print. Although Holmes credited Kerouac in his article, Jack himself sulked and pouted and even at one point refused to speak with Holmes. He wrote to John, “I have ask'd that my name be withdrawn from all yr. councils- I have my own new ideas about the generation, this isn't 1948, there's nothing beat about these sleek beasts & middleclass subterraneans.”

In spite of Ginsberg's continuing efforts to find a publisher for Jack's books, Kerouac was mad at Allen too. He was beginning to consider him part of a giant Jewish conspiracy that kept his books from being published while books in a like vein which he considered inferior, like Holmes' Go, found audiences. At the very first moment the public first heard about the Beat Generation, Kerouac, the man who coined the phrase and would become synonymous with it, was beginning to distance himself from the group and would continue to do so till the end of his life.

After the Howl trial in San Francisco, and the realization that the public was hungry for information and work by this “new” literary phenomena, editors at Viking press at last came to understand the commercial potential of On The Road: the story of a young man coming of age as he ricocheted back and forth across the country, “dreaming of the immensity of it”, with his inexhaustible friend, in search of kicks, atonement and redemption . And Kerouac had managed to employ a new spontaneous style, which he had first recognized in the letters of Neal Cassady, to craft a book original in both style and content. The basic story of people leaving their pasts behind and striking out on their own in search of something was not new but one of the longest traditions in literature, and Kerouac's genius was in writing a story in which the stated search for Dean Moriarity's father was not actually the true goal. Through his wanderings, he discovered that everyone he encountered along the way was a reflection of God. There are no villains in Jack's stories, only angels. The irony of the story is that Sal wants to settle down and give up the road. This struck a chord with millions of readers for nearly fifty years after its first publication.

Although On The Road got a good first review in the N.Y. Times harsh criticisms of Kerouac and the Beat Generation soon followed. Articles with titles like “The Know-Nothing Bohemians” and “The Cult of Unthink” ( Robert Brustein) began to appear regularly in the press. Even the few reporters who were more sensitive to the Beat writers wrote articles like “Here to Save Us, But Not Sure from What.” Even Al Capp's Li'l Abner comic strip featured a character named Ginzbird, “the most irritable unidentified flying object on earth.”

No one was more outspoken in his criticisms of the Beats than Norman Podhoretz who, ironically, was once a classmate and colleague of Ginsberg and Kerouac and knew them personally. In one of his first essays castigating the new group, he wrote, “this notion that to be hopped-up is the most desirable of all human conditions, lies at the heart of the Beat Generation ethos.” He criticized Kerouac for “his simple inability to express anything in words.” Podhoretz declared the Beats to be “young men who can't think straight and so hate anyone who can,” and believed that “the spirit of the Beat Generation is the same which animates the young savages in leather jackets who have been running amuck in the last few years with their switch-blades and zip guns.”

Critics defined who the Beats were and what they represented to suit their own agendas. For whatever reasons, they felt the need to pigeonhole everyone into a single category. And as if the harsh criticism wasn't enough, Herb Caen overheard Bob Kaufmann playfully invent the work beatnik and used it pejoratively in his Column in the San Francisco Chronicle. The term shortly became synonymous with juvenile delinquent, or other oddballs, troublemakers, weirdos and rebellious punks trying to avoid getting jobs. The character of Maynard G. Krebs in the television program The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis became , in the popular media, the quintessential beat (nik). The qualities that made Maynard memorable- laziness, insipience, sloppiness, lack of ambition, and a self-conscious jazz vocabulary – were a caricature that had little to do with the Beat Generation.

Even though Kerouac was the original icon and King of the Beat Generation he found it hard to deal the criticism and mockery . He wanted to be accepted as the serious and important writer that he considered himself to be. In many interviews he tried to clarify the Beat Generation phenomena as he saw it to be but his views were ignored or dismissed by the press. He continued to drink heavily and bitterly distance himself from his former friends. Allen Ginsberg, using his early experience as an ad and public relations man, transformed himself into an icon of counter-culture and continued to use every opportunity fame presented to promote the literary works of his friends.