Man Against the Earth


Jill Lepore’s New Yorker article on the great Rachel Carson is amazing, inspiring, and confirms the three intellectual giants of the twentieth century:

Shawn called her at home to tell her that he’d finishing reading and that the book was “a brilliant achievement.” He said, “You have made it literature, full of beauty and loveliness and depth of feeling.” Carson, who had been quite unsure she’d survive to finish writing the book, was sure, for the first time, that the book was going to do in the world what she’d wanted it to do. She hung up the phone, put Roger to bed, picked up her cat, and burst into tears, collapsing with relief.

“Silent Spring” appeared in The New Yorker, in three parts, in June, 1962, and as a book, published by Houghton Mifflin, in September. Everything is connected to everything else, she showed. “We poison the caddis flies in a stream and the salmon runs dwindle and die,” Carson wrote:

We poison the gnats in a lake and the poison travels from link to link of the food chain and soon the birds of the lake margins become its victims. We spray our elms and the following springs are silent of robin song, not because we sprayed the robins directly but because the poison traveled, step by step, through the now familiar elm-leaf-earthworm cycle. These are matters of record, observable, part of the visible world around us. They reflect the web of life—or death—that scientists know as ecology.

Its force was felt immediately. Readers wrote to share their own stories. “I can go into the feed stores here and buy, without giving any reason, enough poison to do away with all the people in Oregon,” one gardener wrote. They began calling members of Congress. E. B. White wrote to Carson, declaring the pieces to be “the most valuable articles the magazine had ever published.” At a press conference at the White House on August 29th, a reporter asked President Kennedy whether his Administration intended to investigate the long-range side effects of DDT and other pesticides. “Yes,” he answered. “I know that they already are, I think particularly, of course, since Miss Carson’s book.”

Which itself brings to mind (my recollection of) Abraham Lincoln’s words when he met Harriet Beecher Stowe: “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war!”

But back to the 20th century giants, Jane Jacobs:

So perhaps now, on the 100th anniversary of her birth [2016], we should all be asking: what is it that Jane Jacobs made us want to see in the city?

Thinking about this question leads me to focus on the conditions that make a metropolis – the enormous diversity of workers, their living and work spaces, the multiple sub-economies involved. Many of these are now seen as irrelevant to the global city, or belonging to another era. But a close look, as encouraged by Jacobs, shows us this is wrong.

She would ask us to look at the consequences of these sub-economies for the city – for its people, its neighbourhoods, and the visual orders involved. She would ask us to consider all the other economies and spaces impacted by the massive gentrifications of the modern city – not least, the resultant displacements of modest households and profit-making, neighbourhood firms.

How do we see those aspects that are typically rendered invisible by modern narratives of development and urban competitiveness? In the early 1900s, the city was a lens for understanding larger processes – but half a century later, it had lost that role. It was Jane Jacobs who taught us again to view the city in a deeper, more complex way.

She helped us re-emphasise dimensions that were usually excluded – no, expelled – from general analyses of the urban economy. Indeed, I can imagine she would have affirmed without a quiver of doubt that, no matter how electronic and global the city might one day become, it still has to be “made” – and therein lies the importance of place.

And of course, Hannah Arendt

There is almost no politics in “Origins” beyond the decisions and processes that eventuated in total domination. It is a dark book, written in a dark time and reflecting on the darkest moment of modern European (and arguably world) history. But it is not without hope. In her preface, Arendt envisions a new form of transnational governance, insisting that “human dignity needs a new guarantee which can be found only in a new political principle, in a new law on earth, whose validity this time must comprehend the whole of humanity while its powerful must remain strictly limited, rooted in and controlled by newly established territorial entities.” And in her conclusion she insists that there is always the possibility of renewal: “But there remains also the truth that every end in history also contains a new beginning; this beginning is the promise, the only ‘message’ which the end can ever produce. Beginning, before it becomes a historical event, is the supreme capacity of man; politically, it is identical with man’s freedom . . . This beginning is guaranteed by each new birth; it is indeed every man.”

In her subsequent work, Arendt reflected at length about the revival of a politics of human dignity, autonomy and active citizenship. While she was highly critical of the depoliticizing tendencies of modern liberal individualism, she was a strong believer in the rule of law and in the importance of constitutional and extraconstitutional restraints on political power. This is most clear in her 1972 “Crises of Republic,” collecting four essays written in the midst of the legitimacy crises associated with the Vietnam War, the rise of the New Left and Black Power movements, and the deceit and authoritarianism of the Nixon administration.

What other major figures might outflank them in impact and vital importance to the world as it was then, and as it is now? Russell? Derrida? Keynes? Orwell? It’s not even close. To be continued, hopefully.

The eve and the morrow

The great Colm Tóibín assembles and unfurls several aspects of Conrad in a review of a new book about the writer, sharing earlier appraisals by V.S. Naipaul and Chinua Achebe. How’s this for precision:

In his essay, Naipaul invokes Conrad as “a writer who is missing a society…. Conrad’s experience was too scattered; he knew many societies by their externals, but he knew none in depth.” And then he laments:

The great societies that produced the great novels of the past have cracked…. The novel as a form no longer carries conviction…. The novelist, like the painter, no longer recognizes his interpretative function; he seeks to go beyond it; and his audience diminishes. And so the world we inhabit, which is always new, goes by unexamined, made ordinary by the camera, unmeditated on.

And

Since Naipaul cannot detach himself as a writer from “the corruption of causes, half-made societies that seemed doomed to remain half-made,” he finds “that Conrad—sixty years before, in a time of a great peace—had been everywhere before me.” In rereading The Secret Agent, he discovers characters and phrases that strike him as “real” in a way they had not before. He notes a phrase—the “exasperated vanity of ignorance”—about one of the terrorists in the book who “took the part of an insolent and venomous evoker of sinister impulses which lurk in the blind envy and exasperated vanity of ignorance.”

As Naipaul grows to appreciate that phrase he sees something essential in Conrad: nouns that seemed muted or throttled by their adjectives, as though the impulse were merely to make a fine-sounding phrase or add impressively to the mystery, can, in fact, if studied carefully or read in a certain light, stand apart, become precise. He observes that Conrad, despite all his concern with ineffability, often meant business. “Words which at one time we disregard,” Naipaul wrote, “at another moment glitter.” Even though his “reservations about Conrad as a novelist remain,” still he cannot dismiss him: “Conrad’s value to me is that he is someone who sixty to seventy years ago meditated on my world, a world I recognize today. I feel this about no other writer of the century.”

Just go read it all. It’s Friday – what else are you doing? Plus you’ll be relieved of thinking about vulgarians for a while better for it.

Image: Marlon Brando as Colonel Kurtz.

Genet… Away


A young* man in dark slacks, white shoes, a blue button down shirt and vest walked up the steps of a library. A grand edifice equal to its holdings, the building featured a trio of main entrances and the man entered, knowingly, the one on the right with an automatic door. Past security to the bank of elevators, he waited only momentarily for the doors to open, close and transport him quickly up to the third floor. He found the PQ’s and three rows in walked all the way down the aisle, almost to the very end. He arrived at the section and began reading titles.

After a minute so poised, reading the spines as if making a selection beyond a single book he had come for, he pulled out one book, opened it, perused, but then replaced it. He took out another and put it back without opening. Then spying another on a higher shelf, he took down the book, opened it to the verso and just before letting out a startling loud sneeze, lofted the book high in one hand to avoid splattering it with the involuntary spray.

Involuntary, but not invisible. Because when quiet down the row resealed itself and he looked around and saw no one, the man spied the bit of phlegm he had caught in the other hand that covered his mouth, just as involuntarily. Now quite deliberately attempting to safeguard the books from the one soiled hand, he continued his quest for a few more minutes. When he had finally decided on a selection, the man took the book back down the long aisle. Before turning into the bank of stairs as though he studiously and by habit avoided the elevator on the way down, he turned into the men’s room just opposite the first shelf of PR’s.

Inside the empty lavatory, he shifted the book to hold it under the armpit of the left, soiled hand, while he turned on the cold water with his right. The handle was easy to turn, perhaps, easier than expected, and just as the water fired against the basin, the book came loose from the pit, as he leaned over the sink to clean his hand. Into the full spray and quickly filling basin it fell, splayed open at page 139.

He grabbed the book quickly, though damage had been done. He finished cleaning the hand and went downstairs to circulation.

“Can I help you?” the kind young woman asked.

“I….” and he proceeded to explain what had happened. She frowned, but not in the way he might have expected.

“What book is it?” she asked.

“Oh, it’s a novel by Jean Genet. It might actually have been a play…” he was saying but she shook her head.

“OH. Don’t worry about. No one reads that book,” she said.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, it’s kind of ruined. But really, no one is going to miss it. So don’t worry about it.”

“I came here for it, to get it,” he said, as though he stood for legions.

“It’s not even in English,” she assured, of which there was no need.

“No, Genet was… it’s in French.”

“Exactly.”

“How does that matter?” he asked but exasperation began to appear on the woman’s pleasant face. She seemed so understanding. Too understanding, such that her understanding seemed worth nothing at all.

“Look at the last time it was checked out,” she instructed, with a kind of obviousness the man felt he had little encountered. “1972?”

“What difference does that make? It was about to be,” he said and looked at the women checking out a book with the next clerk down, “tied for 1st as the most recent book checked out of this library.”

“Do you want me to ask my supervisor?”

“Ask her what?”

“it’s a him,” she pointed out and now the young man began to appear exasperated.

“Okay. Ask him if you can dry off the book and lend it out to me.”

“it’s pretty wet.”

“Indeed. Tell him I’m very sorry.”

“He won’t care. He’ll just say to take it out of circulation.”

“It’s the only copy you have.”

“Was,” she corrected him. The man sighed, handed over the book and felt a sneeze coming on.

By Alan Flurry
________________________
*Relatively

Wynema: A Child of the Forest

The illusion itself is a reasonable encapsulation of our fascination with Native Americans. And the unfortunate bigoted bullying that compels our childish attention to the sewer to and from which so much is presently flowing does also provide an opportunity to remind.
Despite even the earliest Experience of William Apess (1829) to reject the stereotyping of Indians, our wider ambivalence about native identity in the face of slaughter, genocide and Christianity (I know) has left most Americans on the wrong side of a deep divide. We need to learn so much more than our cartoon histories allow. So let’s do.

Creek writer Sophia Alice Callahan wrote the first novel written by a woman Native American called Wynema: A Child of the
Forest, which was published in 1891. The novel stresses how a white girl’s progressive adoption of an
identifiably Native American perspective enhances her relationship with a Native American girl named
Wynema.

By ensuring mutual comprehension and respect and, on a larger level, promoting intercultural
bonds they break down the barriers that their own cultures had enveloped them with. As the story
progresses, both the white girl named Genevieve and Wynema learn more about one another’s cultural
customs, and this cross-cultural appreciation fortifies their loving relationship.
While Wynema starts out as Genevieve’s student, she soon becomes her friend and her sister, which the novel suggests evolves not
simply with the passing of time but rather from Genevieve’s increasing understanding of and respect for Muscogee people. As
Genevieve becomes more assimilated into Muscogee life, she refers to Wynema specifically as “a friend” rather than as a pupil or
protege. Moreover, Genevieve’s acceptance of Wynema and Robin’s marriage and, thus, of Wynema as a sister coincides with a
profound shift in the way that Genevieve refers to the Muscogee. Whereas she once referred to them with the objectifying label of “this
people” (emphasis added), by the end of the story she tenderly deems them “my people” (emphasis added). The novel further
highlights that the Muscogee are “her people,” a sign of her acculturation, when they welcome her back after her return from a trip to
her mother’s home with all of the unbridled enthusiasm and “warmth” afforded to any member of the tribe, including Wynema.

Other Native American writers are listed at the link. A wonderful contemporary Native Canadian writer, Joseph Boyden, is the author of an amazing novel about World War I, Three Day Road.
Familiarize yourself. Don’t let a stupid bully hung up on a childish reference be the stand-in for anything in your consciousness. Reject the caricature, if not on behalf of its target than in solidarity with its origin.

Image of Sophia Alice Callahan via wikipedia.

Fiction and the carbon economy


The concept of imaginative fatigue in the Anthropocene presents a kind of heady platform for lighting into all kinds of literary corruption and gatekeeping issues that are holding the rising waters in place, out of view or at least off the page:

This makes itself evident in the paucity of fiction devoted to the carbon economy, something the Brooklyn-based Indian writer Amitav Ghosh addresses in his marvelous recent book, The Great Derangement, writing, “When the subject of climate change occurs . . . it is almost always in relation to nonfiction; novels and short stories are very rarely to be glimpsed within this horizon.” Ghosh, who has depicted the precarious ecology of the Sundarban mangrove forests of Bengal in his novel, The Hungry Tide, says that this absence has to be “counted as an aspect of the broader imaginative and cultural failure that lies at the heart of the climate crisis,” a failure so pervasive that he calls our era, “which so congratulates itself on its self-awareness . . . the time of the Great Derangement.”

I agree with the reviewer that any discussions about the ‘ravages of the carbon economy’ would necessarily include story lines on the failure of capitalism. And talk about a contrivance. Who would believe that? Perhaps at no point have we ever been so self-hemmed in – constrained by our own no-go areas. Does any writer today imagine Zola or Hugo, or Anatole France or, good grief Racine, adhering to such constraints? Is it only fear? Will the publishers and agents love us no longer? What then? Asking for a friend of the fate of the world.

Image: Author photo of the flooded Seine, June 2016.