To think the disaster (if this is possible, and it is not possible inasmuch as we suspect that the disaster is thought) is to have no longer any future in which to think it.
—Valery Nugatov, ‘Love. Of Art’ - you’re going to want to read the whole thing
—Taylor Mead, ‘The Movies Are a Revolution’ (1963)
In 2006 and I took a train across Boston on the last day they ever used “T” tokens and ended up sitting in a restaurant on the south bank of the Charles River at lunch time with Mort Dean and Paul McDermot and a pocket full of Sacajawea dollars. Paul used to work for the Kennedy family, doing who knows what, and then became very important in marketing, doing who knows what. Mort used to be a news anchor and reported on NASA with Cronkite when NASA still mattered. They met when Mort broke the news to Bobby Kennedy’s camp that John had been shot in Houston. It was Paul that he’d told, and Paul relayed it to somebody who presumably told Bobby. Or maybe Paul told Bobby. A bad way to meet anyhow. But they’d remained friends. And I was having lunch with them. I had nothing to do with NASA or Bobby Kennedy. I had barely survived an undergraduate degree in English at a cut-rate liberal arts school in a New England mill town that was dying like it had been shot in the stomach. But there we were.
I ordered a club sandwich. Paul had to eat soup because he’d thrown his neck out, an affliction I’d never even heard of. Mort had a cocktail. I don’t know if that’s really true. I seem to remember him fiddling with a lowball glass and maybe saying something a bit suggestive the server, but I probably added that later.
They did most of the talking. I did most of the sweating. Biting and chewing seemed to require incredible mandibular dexterity. I had to learn how to do it all over again. There was a very real risk that I might somehow miscalculate and stuff the sandwich into the side of my face, or send sprouts and mushy white bread flying out of my mouth across the table. I can’t remember what they said, only that Mort had curly hair which struck me as somehow funny for an ex-anchor and that Paul’s neck problem meant that he spent the lunch with his face very close to his soup. I do remember being asked what I wanted to do, career-wise, but I don’t remember what I said. I doubt very much it was the truth, which was that I had no idea. It seemed very important in those days to know what you wanted.
Afterward Paul offered to drive me wherever I was going in the city. I remember that because I didn’t want an old man whose chin was stuck to his sternum driving me anywhere, but since I didn’t know how to say no politely, I said yes. Paul used to be a taxi driver and he put his wife through college driving a taxi around Boston. I wanted to ask how he went from driving a taxi to working for Bobby Kennedy. It must have been some kind of great secret. But I didn’t ask. Paul fixed his neck by tilting the driver’s seat all the way back and I sat there wondering what it meant that I’d had lunch with these two men. Or, anyway, I’m wondering that now. Maybe then I was wondering what it felt like to throw your neck out, or whether Paul would crash.
The next day, I drove back to New Hampshire and spent my last winter on the east coast as a ski instructor drinking coffee made from grounds stored in a Folger’s tin the size of an oil drum in a frozen shack with a walkie-talkie I never bothered to turn on. Not every story has a point.
Apparently, I’m meant to be promoting my article for Hypocrite Reader. So to further entice you here’s my favorite part, which is actually Emily Balsamo’s illustration.
I generally don’t like to weigh in on current events, in part because I have no intention to be a cultural commentator and in part because I find self-published “news” pieces to consist primarily of psychological masturbation. But when I read that “therapy dogs” were being brought to Boston to comfort the victims of the Boston Marathon bombings, I felt somewhat impelled… To say what and to whom I wasn’t entirely sure.
It’s not that I look critically on the therapy dog, as idea or practice. It’s rather that the existence of such a thing makes me incredibly conscious of the perspectival gulf that separates American trauma from trauma in the rest of the world. Yesterday Guernica magazine published a short piece by Pakistani journalist Rafia Zakaria that offers better context than I - as an American who has only experienced American tragedies - can provide. Obviously the numbers tell a story of their own, and I would contest the lack of attention given to domestic acts of violence (which is certainly not the same as domestic terrorism, however), but Zakaria’s marathon anecdote suggested much. I found myself adding my own blush to it, thinking about the significance of the training that goes into a marathon - by conditioning the body so as to actually sublate suffering it is made into an almost purely aesthetic experience. Of course there is still literal suffering, but as Zakaria points out, it is a kind of triumphant suffering. I have Lionel Trilling’s claim about the Oedipal death as apotheosis buzzing around in my head, but I think this paradigm is important. It is a part of the systematic conditioning in which many nations participate, some more successfully than others, to develop a response mechanism that nationalizes the experience. The Olympic Games are far and away the most prolific example. This isn’t some kind of conspiracy theory, I don’t even think it’s necessarily negative, but rather an inevitable expansion of one of the basic aspects of human psychology on the grand scale. We organize our experiences aesthetically so that they mean something, so that they don’t appear as a series of random events over which we have no control and in which we play only a marginal part.
On the day of the bombings it was all too clear that the immediate reaction was fear and confusion. I know a good deal of people in Boston, so my Facebook feed was full of people trying to locate one another, ensuring the safety of friends and family, and posting their uncomprehending reactions as news rolled in. But after a while it was hard to deny a histrionic turn, especially when people started posting the bizarre and menacing rendering of the Boston sports mascots with the text, “You fucked with the wrong city”. Again, I’m not pointing this out to be critical, but as an indication of the degree to which Americans - myself included - feel events like this as a particularly intimate intrusion. Aggressive posturing against an imagined perpetrator is a natural response, if not necessarily an ideal one. The affectation of these acts is in the reaction to this intimacy, a rush to reestablish the distance between the victim and the perpetrator.
There are potential consequences, of course. It was precisely the phenomenon of this response on a national level that justified American military activity after 9/11. But I think it’s important not to confuse the circumstances of the social response for the actions carried out in the name of that response. It is precisely the role of republican government to legislate the sublimation of potentially destructive or violent aspects of the psyche, not to exploit them. We know, however, that this is a lot to ask of our elected leadership these days - I only need mention in passing the incomprehensible defeat of the gun control reform bill this week.
In fact, given the amount of military antagonism the U.S. is responsible for, the degree of almost hermetic safety we enjoy is absurd. This is what separates us from the world, our relative imperviousness, and it is what makes something like these bombings so difficult to stomach even in a world which daily provides us with news of atrocities. Those happen beyond U.S. borders, beyond the protection implied by those borders, and only desensitize us to the violence of a less fortunate world while our sensitivity to the sight of American blood remains a taut line.
From Issue 15 (Autumn ‘12): In the name of digital feminism, n+1 calls out the boys’ club of American magazine publishing, and then, in a move you’d never have seen coming (except that I’m telling you) whips out its, er, pen and pisses ink all over the Paris Review. Aside from the laughable hypocrisy of n+1 admonishing a “lifestyle product”, its a damned enjoyable lampoon.