Against Forgetting

I’ve been helping a couple of young filmmakers with their writing and have discovered some missing bridges on each of their cultural access roads.So I do what I can to improvise zip-lines to help these young dudes across the often barren gully of dead pixels into the forest of the living past from which I find so much inspiration.

Albert Camus

I tell them stories. What else? The time, in 1965, I hitchhiked across Algeria, where, by the way, Camus’ The Stranger is set. Who was Albert Camus? Well, he was a Frenchman born in Algeria who believed that the universe has no predetermined, God-given meaning, but that people can choose to give their lives meaning – or not – by their actions. His novels are about people who mostly fail at that and suffer the consequences, which might have had to do with what he experienced growing up as part of the French colonial establishment that was destroying Algeria, and later, as a member of the French resistance against the Nazis. Anyway. From Algeria, I got to Tunis and then crossed by boat to Sicily where I got very sick and finally, after a shorter boat ride, found a youth hostel perched on a rocky cliff at the very tip of the Italian peninsula above a village called Scilla.I recognized the name from my senior comp lit class as a place in Homer’s Odyssey. Ulysses has to navigate between Scilla, the rock and Charybdis, the whirlpool.

Scilla

I wanted my to convey to my young auteur the numinous sense of discovery that came when I found an ancient name persisting in a landscape where I now stood. The key to that feeling though, which grew through the week I spent resting under shade trees overlooking the straits of Messina and the whirlpool that almost sunk Ulysses, had been given me in the twelfth grade by Mr Sussman, adamant that we drink from those wells to which he dragged us. Homer. Dante. Shakespeare. He had no investment at all in being liked or admired. He threw stinging missiles of chalk at anyone who dared doze in his class. He was on a mission to inoculate us against what he foresaw, even back in 1962. He had to give us a strong enough dose of terza rima, iambic pentameter, and epic repetition, of character and fate and choice and wonder to instill resistance to the packaged emptiness he saw coming.

There were other teachers who followed him. I was blessed to come up in a time before semiotics and new internet memes 24/7 took over the humanities; a time when wisdom, albeit insecure, was still a possibility, when an assistant history prof with no publications to his name could assign The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann as the primary text for a year-long, required undergraduate course on the History of Western Civilization.

In the weekly meetings with my young filmmaker, I find myself blurting synopses of everything from the Spanish Civil War to One Hundred Years of Solitude as if they were sandbags I was desperately tossing onto a crumbling levee. (I’ve been watching Treme.)

The other evening I discovered that a 35 year old young woman I know, a gifted student of psychology and its intersection with spirituality, had, until the other day, never heard or heard of Joni Mitchell. Further questioning revealed her fairly patchy sense of what happened in the time we call the sixties (ca. 1964 – 1977). The analogous years for me and my cohort (I was born in 1945) would be 1934 – 1947, the years that include the depression, the Second World War, the start of the Cold War, and the seeds of both the conformism and the rebellions of the fifties.

My own sense of the “present” as part of a larger narrative, could not exist without the presence of the past. In that sense it’s akin to the Buddhist notion of dependent arising; nothing can come into existence independent of myriad other factors which condition its being. There is no “independent arising.” In other words, everything that happens is connected in space andtime. Here, I must thank my wife for introducing me to one of America’s great working historians, Manning Marable. An idea of his says it all: in order to have a shared future, people must understand their common past.

The Group Theatre at their first summer work camp in 1931

That’s why I’ve been transforming four or five years of research into a play that tells the story of The Group Theatre, who not only changed American theatre forever, but were part of that era, the thirties, the meaning of which, the particularity of which, is also in danger of being glossed over and obscured by generalities and clichés. In learning the stories of that time, I’ve begun to wonder if it was the only time in American history when the assumptions underlying our free-market economic system were seriously questioned by a majority ofthe population. This is also why, at long last, I am watching, on DVD,The Wire and Mad Men, having missed them on their original cable TV presentations. I’m enthralled, especially by The Wire, and understand why the new mayor of Reykjavik, Iceland will hire no one to work for the city unless they have seen all five seasons of that show.

scene from The Wire

Nothing like it has been attempted in any form that I know of. In fact, that project, along with several others of near equal stature have developed a new medium as unlike network television as a Phillip Roth novel is to a 1950 issue of ReadersDigest. The Wire takes around sixty hours to weave a richly detailed, painfully coherent tapestry of stories that form a narrative of American urban life as tragedy, farce and morality play, with the authority of a documentary. As in the best of Shakespeare, we become complicit, at least empathically, with the worst villains, and we see the flaws in the heroes. And the lines between the two are often ambiguous and mutable. About two thirds through the opus, it becomes clear that no matter what battles are won or lost, the community that is inner-city Baltimore is at the mercy of a system so structurally unjust, so clearly distorted to serve the greedy and powerful who are thus so invested in its suffering, that there’s little chance it will ever end unless everything changes.

There’s an article in last week’s New Yorker about the impact of a private, secular TV/radio network in Afghanistan. Since there was no TV, only Taliban approved radio, until nine years ago, the new media is having a huge cultural impact. On the new commercial TV station, men and women are seen talking together, women’s faces are revealed, they read the news, voice opinions, even sing. These are capital offenses under the Taliban version of religious law. But two thirds of the entire population of the country are watching the Afghani version of American Idol even if they have to crank up the village generator to do it. The article argues that this sort of programming is causing the largest cultural transformation in the country since the end of the Taliban regime in 2001-02.

But the U.S. is inured to television and I fear that the brilliant new work now seen on HBO, Showtime, AMC and other cable sources may only reach a fraction of our huge population. This time, I’m less than hopeful of a new consensus that might tip us toward the level of change that we experienced in the thirties or that may be happening in Afghanistan right now. Fortunately, I know a few stories that tell me I could be very wrong.

Carl Safina and Friend

Many of us seem to be wondering if the horrific act of environmental terror wrought in the Gulf of Mexico by BP and all who colluded with their practices might be the tipping point that will catalyze a new level of outrage, action and change.  The activist, scientist and writer Carl Safina, in a video talk online at TED makes the most powerful and perceptive statement on the disaster that I’ve heard.  He connects it to the moral dimension of every choice this country has ever made about its sources of energy, beginning with slavery! You can see this essential talk at http://tinyurl.com/carlsafina

Robert Bly

As the enormity of the BP criminal catastrophe continues to grow, a phrase has been echoing in my mind: The world will soon break up into small colonies of the saved.  I wasn’t sure if it was a paraphrase or an exact quote. I imagined it was from a poem. Auden perhaps? Not from 1939. Not from Yeats’ Prophecy. A few moments ago I finally found the source!  It’s the last line of a poem I once knew well by a poet who for some years I counted as a friend and mentor, but with whom, sadly, I have not managed to stay in touch over time and distance, Robert Bly. Here it is, as powerful and unsettling today as it was over forty years ago

Those Being Eaten by America

by Robert Bly

The cry of those being eaten by America,
others pale and soft being stored for later eating
And Jefferson
Who saw hope in new oats
The wild houses go on
With long hair growing from between their toes
The feet at night get up
And run down the long white roads by themselves
The dams reverse themselves and want to go stand alone in the desert
That is why these poems are so sad
The long dead running over the fields
The mass sinking down
The light in children’s faces fading at six or seven
The world will soon break up into small colonies of the saved

Robert Bly, “Those Being Eaten by America from The Light Around the Body.
Copyright © 1967 and renewed 1995 by Robert Bly.
Reprinted with the permission of HarperCollins Publishers.

Whether taken as metaphor or observation, that last line spurs my growing  desire to stock the lifeboats, the wagons, the starships, the mountain monasteries, the desert wadis, wherever the “colonies” will wait out the interregnum, with the stories that are the carriers of the cultural DNA I’d like to imagine a human future will need.

Recent “discoveries” that might interest you:

Siri Hustvdt

Siri Hustvedt writes novels and non-fiction. I hadn’t known of her until I heard her interviewed by the heroic Terry Gross on Fresh Air upon the publication of Hustvedt’s most recent book, The Shaking Woman, a History of my Nerves. I was immediately interested by the story she told on the air about her own neurological journeys, first with migraines (I, too am a migraineur) and, later, with a never-to-be diagnosed condition that caused her to shake with seizure-like paroxysms when she read and spoke in public. I immediately read the book, a complex but highly readable blend of memoir with an impressively researched history of neuropsychiatry from its pre-Freudian origins to its current focus on brain chemistry and neuroplasticity.  I came away in awe of her writerly powers and her hard won expansiveness, which I confess I also envy.  I went on to read her two most recent novels: The Sorrows of an American and What I Loved. The former is close to a fictional companion to The Shaking Woman but yields its own pleasures.  What I Loved reminded me of the novels that formed me as a young man, full of rich lives deeply carved by painful losses, lived by characters whose triumphs lay in their capacity to love and to create. This one has a first-person narrator who remembers the story as an old man, so there’s a recurring waft of longing and well-seasoned grief moving lightly though the telling. But any danger of sentimentality is balanced by the narrator’s astringent observations of the New York art world (he’s an art historian and critic and the protagonist, his best friend, is a painter and sculptor) and his rigorous engagement with the process of seeing.  Siri H is now on my unwritten list of writers and others I claim as kin, a secret guest list for a dream-salon in paradise.

I’d never heard of singer, songwriter and guitarist Dayna Kurtz until I clicked a link in a newsletter from writer Steve Almond. I’m not the only one who is mystified by her lack of fame in the U.S.  It seems she’s well known in Europe though.  Could be the lame old “hard-to-categorize” excuse since her vocal range is so unusual – and unusually expressive.  She often sings in a tenor range or even down to a light baritone, but can also break upwards to a clear mountain-stream soprano as easily as an antelope leaps. She sings her own songs and covers an eclectic mix of others. Even made me listen to “Those Were the Days” all the way through – and enjoy it.  Her Klezmer-Apocalyptic “Day of Atonement 2001”  is the most moving response in an art form to 9/11 I’ve come upon. She has  American roots music – African, Balkan, Celtic, Acadian, Flamenco, Polka, and more – growing from her kishkes and flowering in her voice and guitar fingers.  Go listen and if you can, kick in something to help her complete the American release of her latest CD, already released in Europe. Also read her “comments” which have much to say about the lives of today’s artists.

I have a shelf full of novels by Steve Stern, Lorrie Moore, Gary Shteyngart and David Mitchel  I want to tell you about in future posts, but right now, I’m off to rehearse a reading for the
Bay Area Playwrights Festival of a brilliant new play about the Czech composer Leos Janacek, inspired by his magnificent second string quartet, Intimate Letters. There are seven other provocative new plays being read this coming weekend and next (July 23 – August 1, 2010) so click the link a few lines back for details. The Janacek play (I’m rading the role of Janacek) is Tva, Kamila.

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