Saturday, February 25, 2017

The Most To Be Dreaded

‘A Distant Episode’ by Paul Bowles

Not all of the ravages caused by our merciless age are tangible ones. The subtler forms of destruction, those involving only the human spirit, are the most to be dreaded.
                                                                                                                                                Paul Bowles 

Sometime just after graduate school in New York, I (like thousands of other young men of my background and temperament) found myself bewitched by the life and work of Paul Bowles. So lost, so aimless, so claustrophobic did I feel in that city, did I feel in my skin, that I all but inhaled his keenly wrought stories of American alienation, psychic disintegration, and exotic (sometimes erotic) encounters with the foreign, the cryptic, the strange. I smoked, I read avidly, I wandered the lonely streets of New York some days, praying for a vision, a sign, some encounter that would open up the world to me, that would force me to commit myself to something significant at last. If that sounds a bit melodramatic it is, I was. ‘Who am I? What am I to the world?’ I wondered daily, a question to which Bowles (at least his fiction) was quick to reply: ‘Not much.’ 

It was the humbling I’d needed. After all I was broke; I wrote poorly, pretentiously; I had no real prospects at all—at least none that beckoned me. At the time I was working fifty-one weeks a year as an assistant editor at a local publishing house. My title, so it turned out, was meaningless: my job had nothing to do with editing, nothing to do with books. I was a factotum, plain and simple, so that most of my days were spent trying to look busy, filing papers, managing correspondence, and paginating by hand the many manuscripts submitted to us by authors who hadn’t bothered to number their pages. Still a change was in the offing; I could feel it. I grew restless, more determined than ever to get out of the country for a while, to test myself, to travel. That was when I met Annie, my wife-to-be, an aspiring printmaker and painter. We became inseparable, when one day she asked me to travel with her to Japan.
There in Japan that summer I read Bowles’ novels, The Sheltering Sky and Let It Come Down, and suddenly my future was plain: I would travel and write. Indeed over the following nine summers, with the money we earned as teachers, we travelled widely—to India (twice), South Africa, Swaziland, Mozambique, Mexico (multiple times), France, Italy, Germany, Belgium, Holland, Sweden, Costa Rica, Venezuela, China, Hong Kong, Bali, Ladakh, Nepal, and Thailand, where—more in love than ever—we got married in a civil ceremony in Bangkok, passing the hot summer night with Thai friends aboard one of the popular dinner cruises there, laughing, drinking Thai whiskey, and admiring the ancient temples along the busy Chao Phraya River. 

It was upon our return from that summer in Japan that I resolved to write to Bowles himself. Why not? What did I have to lose? At once I crafted a letter to him and sent it off to his publisher, praising his work and taking the opportunity (in all my youthful presumption) to tell him about a novel of my own, a distinctly Bowlesesque tale involving a disaffected young American couple adrift in Japan, which I’d entitled The Shadow Eaters, after an essay on Buddhism by Lafcadio Hearn. I’d thought he might like it very much.

Many months passed with no reply, so that I soon forgot about the letter. Then one day I received a surprise:

While I had no faith that The Shadow Eaters would ever appear in print, he—Paul Bowles—had written me back! What’s more he had referred to me as a fellow writer. No one had ever called me that. For the first time in my life I felt an urgency, a connection to some greater human project, that compelled me to read and write with an intensity and purpose I had never felt before.

In the ensuing months I read every story of his I could find, only to work my way, with insight and pleasure, while taking copious notes, through his autobiography, his essays, his poems, as well as his translations of the work the Moroccans Mohamed Choukri and Mohammed Mrabet. To top it off I read the singular fiction and letters of his brilliant and ailing wife, Jane Bowles—an adventure, an experience, I would recommend to everyone.

It was Bowles’ short story ‘A Distant Episode’ that really shook me to the core. Recognized widely as his ‘ur-tale’, that work that speaks most directly to his vision of life, it is a chilling story about a European linguist who travels to Morocco in search of new dialects only to be captured by some villagers who—in an act as symbolic as it is brutal—cut out his tongue. “It certainly takes its place,” writes James Lasdun, “as one of our civilizations’ more disturbing premonitions of its own breakdown.” Be sure to brace yourself for this one.

Peter Adam Nash

Sunday, February 12, 2017

On Beauty

To speak of beauty in this day and age (its significance, its necessity) is to mark oneself a snob. “Beauty,” writes Alexander Nehamas in his recent reflections on the matter, “is the most discredited philosophical notion—so discredited that I could not even find an entry for it in the index of the many books in the philosophy of art I consulted in order to find it discredited. Even if I believe that beauty is more than the charm of a lovely face, the seductive grace of a Mapplethorpe photograph, the symmetry of the sonata form, the tight construction of a sonnet, even if it is, in the most general terms, aesthetic value, I am not spared. For it is the judgment of aesthetic value itself—the judgment of taste—that is embarrassing. It is embarrassing ideologically, if to be able to judge aesthetically you must be educated and learned and if, as Pierre Bourdieu claims, ‘it is linked either to a bourgeois origin or to the most quasi-bourgeois mode of existence presupposed by prolonged schooling, or (most often) to both of these combined…’” To speak of beauty today is also morally embarrassing, as Nehamas is quick to explain: “The aesthetic judgment collapses into an instrument of political oppression or into an implement of moral edification.”

It is a problem with which I myself I have struggled for years. As an ardent admirer of the work of Marcel Proust, of his novel Á la recherche du temps perdu (even citing the French title of which now makes me seem pretentious), I have long felt the truth of what Nehamas says. After all how can I not be an elitist, a snob, if Proust—of all writers (matchless critic of snobbery though he was)—is one of my favorites, a rich, pampered, dandified aesthete?

For me the key to answering the question is this: as much as I admire the work of Marcel Proust (to cite but one example), I do not hold his fiction as the standard of either literature or beauty for you. I am the first to acknowledge that I have led a relatively privileged life and that that has shaped my perceptions, my values, my tastes. I, like you, have been predisposed by my upbringing to see beauty in particular ways, in ways that suit me, feel natural, feel right. Which is not to say that they are natural or right, let alone objective as a measure of things—a point with which some readers are sure to take issue, insisting as they will on a host of time-tested attributes and principles, each exemplified by particular paintings and sculptures, by particular odes and concertos, by particular novels, films, and plays.

While I certainly have my standards (my prejudices) when it comes to literature, when it comes to beauty itself, I make no claim that they are or should be definitive to you. I have read enough, I have travelled enough, to know that the deep appreciation of beauty is hardly just the bailiwick of my kind. Venture anywhere in the world and you will find it, the sort of purposeful, artifactual beauty that is cultivated by men and women of every level of education, of every race and tradition, of every culture, class, and creed. While there is, has been, and always will be widespread disagreement about the ultimate nature of Beauty (what is in fact a largely academic matter, preoccupied as it is with the judgment of taste), it seems plain to me that the only prerequisite for the appreciation of beauty is that of being simply, dreadfully human. 

Still, having said this, I do not believe that beauty is merely a private, subjective, finally solipsistic thing. I am convinced that, for all its variation, beauty is also and essentially communal, collaborative, contingent, a trust we hold in common with others. At the risk of generalizing, what seems to characterize all forms of beauty is their ability to enrich and intensify experience, to lend it depth and dimension, to make resonant, even eternal, the facts of what is otherwise but a bluntly mortal life. We find through beauty that we are capable of more. 

For some time now I have taught (and wrestled with) Alain de Botton’s smart and illuminating book The Architecture of Happiness, a laymen’s introduction to the practical, aesthetic, and philosophical implications of architecture, of the built environment in which we—at least an increasing proportion of us—now live. I say that I have wrestled with the book because, while it is clear that the author’s intention was to help popularize the conversation about beauty, about architectural beauty in particular, at points he does seem to imply (by his allusions, his language, by the very things he takes for granted) that the deep appreciation of beauty does indeed require a level of education and exposure well beyond the reach of most human beings. I think this inadvertent, the perhaps inevitable product of his own vernacular, of his own education and interests. Like Proust, like all authors, De Botton assumes a certain type of reader for his book, a reader who (for a host of different reasons) may or may not be you. No matter. For as with everything in life (love, sexuality, art, music, literature, food, ritual, politics, and faith), we engage with the world in whatever ways, at whatever levels, we find meaningful, true.

Even the Marxist revolutionary, Leon Trotsky, acknowledged the fundamental necessity of beauty and art: 
It is not true that we regard only that art as new and revolutionary which speaks of the worker, and it is nonsense to say that we demand that the poets should describe inevitably a factory chimney, or the uprising against capital! Of course the new art cannot but place the struggle of the proletariat in the center of its attention. But the plough of the new art is not limited to numbered strips. On the contrary, it must plough the entire field in all directions. Personal lyrics of the very smallest scope have an absolute right to exist within the new art. Moreover the new man cannot be formed without a new lyric poetry.

No wonder he was murdered. 

“It is in a dialogue with pain that many beautiful things acquire their value,” suggests De Botton in The Architecture of Happiness. Perhaps that is why the older I get the more I am alert to beauty, to the deft, complex, often fleeting relationship between subject and meaning and form. Nowhere is this truer for me than with literature. When I read I read with beauty in mind—the beauty of an image, a phrase, the beauty of a character, a setting, a scene. Just as beauty can be simple, reassuring, familiar, it can also be complex, horrific, sublime. What seems inarguable to me is that the need for beauty is an innately human thing. It is what moves us to think, to feel. It is what moves us to be.  

Peter Adam Nash  

Sunday, February 5, 2017

"Precision Unsurpassed"

Kim Garcia, Drone (Poems)

"I set my alarm by an inner dove / wake to crows." (KG)


"In November, 2002, a Predator drone would loose a Hellfire missile on a car in Yemen, a country with which we weren't at war....these robotic planes, with their young 'pilots' sitting in front of consoles 7,000 miles away from where their missiles and bombs are landing, have become another kind of American fever dream."*


 "Because war deals with prospective concerns, it relies less on exact information and more on probabilities, predictions and guesswork. The military bombs a building when it estimates with varying degrees of certainty that enemy soldiers or munitions are there. It does not wait to attack until it has proof beyond a reasonable doubt or probably [sic] cause." John Yoo


What Anthony Gottlieb has called the Dream of Reason was the fond notion, born in the European seventeenth century, that a set of universal laws, codified in mathematics and physical science, not only infused the universe, but that the mind of Man could perceive and understand this divine language and make it his own. The world was, in other words, perfectible, a reflection of God's omniscient and all-loving plan for us, his apes. Of course there were skeptics--Montaigne and Voltaire are among the better known naysayers--but the faith of the West, the touching notion that goodness and reason runs through the fabric of the world like some beautiful golden thread, lingers with the persistence of a deadly virus.

We could have used our power for anything. Anything.


Simone Weil writes: "But this indefinable influence that the presence of another human being has on us is not exercised by men whom a moment of impatience can deprive of life, who can die before thought even has a chance to pass sentence on them."


I hear the word "drone" and think: sexless bees or ants scurrying about a hive or hill--a sound without pitch or harmony or resolution--bars of color on paper that simply peter out--an oddly-shaped aircraft whirring like a demented bird above the park where my children are playing, a man in khaki staring upward, holding a black box (it's brown), smiling.


A colleague tells me that UAV's (unmanned aerial vehicles) controlled by computers that are themselves "ethically programmed" by other computers will someday insure that wars are both just and, for the victor, bloodless. I say that I prefer wars that are bloody, the siege of Troy for example, since the romance of killing is more likely to fade in presence of bloodshed. He tells me that I am naive, and I feel slightly better.


Kim Garcia's Drone  deploys formal, rhetorical, and existential modes of representation in order to speak coherently and passionately about something that is beyond our--my--ability to comprehend. Could a weapon have mystical properties, exist in a place beyond our ability to speak, to reason, to comprehend? What sorts of people make and deploy a soulless engine, devise weekly "kill lists," (are they typed on fine bond paper and handed to the president? Does he study them over coffee, make checks in red pen? Cross off names, add others?), sit in windowless rooms at Langley pushing buttons before heading out to face rush hour traffic and a late supper? No, I'm not a believer in the banality of evil--far from it. While the perpetrators look like us--how else should they look?--and while it helps to lack imagination when you're killing people long-distance, evil is anything but banal.

[A Madrasa in Pakistan]

 Drone is a brave book. How many truly memorable poems can you recall that deal with a single subject of such unpromising province?  I carried it with me to work for a month and read one or two poems each day during my free time. I memorized several so I could tell them to my wife, including this one:

What Fear Wants

In the early hour dispatches:
scorpion stings, dislocation, a sand-locked wheel
Somehow the wary hours pass, orders fulfilled, burrowers
and scalp suckers, sweat between shoulder blades--fear's
spit, hair prickling under the helmet, neck naked, raw.

What fear wants is to clear the ground bald, to flay
itself with shovels, to blacken with fire, to be Leviathan,
earth-shaker and cleaver, dirt-spitter, disrupter and penetrator
intimate with the tings feared, the cold sword in the ribs--fear's
sorcery like a cloud at sea, drawing up what it rains down.

Perfect. How fear is palpable, how it lives a life separate from us, how being afraid forces us to disdain consequences to others and to ourselves, how fear sucks life out of itself. Garcia does this thing with images that is stunning: fire and rain, the cold sword and the blackened ground, sand and sweat. The sibilants in stanza one sound out the whip of bullets--a terrified Marine at Fallujah--then the (perfectly natural) yearning for fire to pour down on the invisible enemy, on fear itself. The world ending in a conflagration rained down on us by machines that we've programmed to think for themselves. No scare quotes around "think" since words like truth and think and fact have been washed clean of their ordinary associations--all of our words, whether truly spoken or not, exist in quotation marks, so we can leave them out.

We can no longer trust language; the presumed fit with the world has been broken. All that is left of words is what is private: poetry and prayer. I'm not kidding.


In my view, Garcia's style resembles that of the metaphysical poets--Andrew Marvell comes to mind:

"The mind, that ocean where each kind
 Does straight its own resemblance find;
 Yet it creates, transcending these,
 Far other worlds, and other seas;
 Annihilating all that’s made
 To a green thought in a green shade."

The ability to see through the world is, I suppose, the point of Platonism, but in Garcia's poetry this ability suggests not worship of the invisible (that Platonic fallacy: the unseen being "higher" than what is at hand) or impatience with mere appearance, but bafflement with the surfaces of things--this is, I believe, irony of a higher kind, not skepticism about the possibility of meaning, but the acknowledgment that at least two different meanings always coexist, Abelard's Sic et Non.

Let me see if I can illustrate this point with the poem "Augury"

To read the new birds of the air,
a collection of intellectual property,
mapmakers, eyes of glass.

To read the flight paths, solo
and squadron, to observe
all hovering before splash.

To read the tremor between earth
and air, warcraft and godcraft,
and mend with sacrifice the flight-rift.

There is a priestly caste blood-woven
into power, undone by sites as thin
and sharp as a single quick beak.

Black, glass bead of an eye, wing
quiver, early morning song leaking
from beneath any boot made.

The air is still ours to stitch
with winged messengers, living books
not of our making, if we read rightly.

Each stanza has a bird poised next to, or within, a more sinister image (of the "eye" of the drone that sees all, indifferently). Drone is full of birds, the innocence and pleasure of the garden full of songbirds whose charming chirps--as the naturalists never tire of telling us--are not nature's lyrics but aggressive claims to territory and mates. Marvell's garden was not only pastoral, a site of courtship and romance, but the stage on which human failure was first manifest--O felix culpa! Or, unhappily, a fall with little hope of redemption.

Of what on earth can a drone be a symbol? Nothing. A blind, soulless, remotely-guided killing machine embodies "intellectual property" created by a "priestly caste" but to make a bomb or a gun or a drone represent something else isn't like making a garden or the color green into a symbol of fertility and life--"this is this" as Robert De Niro pointed out in Deer Hunter--and that is the problem Garcia has set out to solve in Drone. Each poem peers at the dreadful thing from a slightly different angle, trying to find the words for it, never quite succeeding, not for want of intelligence but for the failure of words. 

"Even now I can feel this poem dragnetting to its conclusion, scraping/ up and destroying what it can't speak..." ("Surveillance: A Screen Life")

Every gift that Garcia possesses--meter, imagery, diction, irony--shows up in one or more poems, but at no point can she (or anyone else) answer the fundamental question, the final question posed by the book:

And what shall we beat you into, little mechanical bird
with the head of a bowling pin, speculum, goose?

How to imagine our way back? Rules help: no weapons
in shared airspace, or in the spaces in between.

Then the dismantling, the tidy buttons
on the computer games that kills, yanked out

harmless like the horn on a Playskool car,
nobody listening, wires dangling and disconnected

from flesh.... ("Drone: Ploughshares")

Into what indeed. Garcia writes that we must throw the demon down to hell, and there are poems with "avenging angels;" dreams of peace; the Holy Ghost as harbinger of Revelation--apocalyptic images prevail in Drone--but these verses are offered (I think) in frustration and futility--"Can hills cover us"? Can clouds protect us from the glassy eye of the speculum, this mirror of our cruelty? No. The drone can't be turned into anything else; nothing hopeful lies behind it. I am reading my own memories into her poems, feeling again as I did when I was a child huddled in the family bomb shelter, practicing for the end of the world.


"All my life I have wanted the bombs to fall / someplace else."

It's not easy to admit that the terrible things that we have visited on other people might now be visited upon us.  I walked into an electronics store over Christmas to purchase a turntable--my analog yearning a joke to the sales clerk--and strolled right into a wall of drones. For a hundred dollars I could buy my own little UAV, attach a camera, and spy on my neighbors. Anyone can do it, and worse. The drone, unlike the F-15 or the ICBM, has the audacity and democratic destructive power of the AK-47, the universal artifact of global mayhem.

Garcia is aware of this, and many of Drone's poems acknowledge the ubiquity of the destructive element. "Surveillance: A Screen Life" examines this fact, and the corresponding paradox that comes when we know too much about our enemy--we might not hate him enough to bomb him..."then we are in danger of tenderness, a knowledge that complicates / where it does not disarm, unmanning in its call to husband life."

I've read many books about bombing campaigns--W.G. Sebald's On the Natural History of Destruction recently--and reading Garcia I began to wonder if my colleague was correct, if the done was really about saving American lives--do presidents really care about such things--or if it wasn't rather about installing yet another layer of mediation between us and our victims. "Islamic Script," a haunting poem, imagines the Islamic body as an abstraction, "calligraphy--vertebrae / into helix." Spine becomes blood, scholars become smoke, names are  erased: "you've never been." Is our beloved technocratic efficiency ever curtailed by our humanity, by compassion? I'm trying to remember when, and can't. The madmen call it "the fog of war."


There is a sub-text to Drone, the poems' secret life. The story of pregnancy and birth, told in snatches in poems about other things. A tenderness erupting among harsh imagery. The all-seeing eye of God, the gentle spying of a sonogram, the pilot's wife praying that her husband's hand might stop shaking ("Stop turning out the lights and then talking").  A lullaby (as I read it)--as I said, a metaphysical poet:


The hand at work, heart's drone,
map-dance in honeycomb. The path
of flower, clover-song, sweet magnetic
north, nectar cooled in flight. River

rocks' remembered wash, a karst of blue.
A sky mountainous with frowning cloud,

stars slipping the city's hot gaze, fastening
their new eyes over fresh yearnings--home

drawn up along the lines of the old ache
like desert seed, fashioning green tongues.

And I though of my own desert--karst of shaped limestone--blue sky like nothing you have ever seen, nightly stars despite the ambient glow of this unlikely city, a bit of rain and suddenly the brown becomes green. And then I imagine the low hum of a drone, like the honeybees of August multiplied by a thousand, and try to understand what fear is like. I've never known real fear and cannot imagine it.


"We are convicted by the things not seen. / Will this mountain fall on us? Can hills cover us?"
 ("Desert Litany")

"Then they shall begin to say to the mountains, Fall on us, and to the hills, Cover us."
(Luke, 23:30)

Finally, I think of the Jeremiad, as I imagine Kim Garcia has done in writing her remarkable poems. 

Perry Miller (via Sacvan Bercovitch) describes the genre in this way: "The exhortation to a reformation which never materializes serves as a token payment upon the obligation, and so liberates the debtors....Here I suggest that under the guise of this mounting wail of sinfulness, this incessant and never successful cry for repentance, the Puritans launched themselves upon the process of Americanization."

To be an American means to be constantly expiating guilt--there is much in our history for which we must atone. I wondered, finally, if the drone wasn't a way of getting us off the hook once and for all. The gunfighter nation hanging up its six-shooter and replacing it with a machine that, soulless and therefore beyond judgment, embodies out darkest wishes, our fever dreams, our need for unsurpassed precision. Somehow it seems all right if there's no passion in it.

Drone feels especially urgent right now. It's a book that doesn't charm us, or flatter our intelligence. It's a daunting, relentless confrontation with a part of ourselves, with our indifference, or perhaps with our willingness to mistake moral neutrality with goodness. 


Kim Garcia, Drone, The Backwaters Press, 2016.


Anthony Gottlieb, The Dream of Enlightenment, Liveright, 2016.
Simone Weil, "The Illiad, or The Poem of Force," here
Nick Turse and Tom Engelhardt, Terminator Planet, Dispatch Books, 2012
Sacvan Bercovitch, The American Jeremiad, Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1978

George Ovitt (February 5, 2017)