Thursday, September 27, 2012

What I like about fiction and history

The same things draw me to history as draw me to literature. A well written history is a great story in the same way, say, Moby Dick is. To be more specific, I think good history and good literature are exercises in empathy. Both provide windows into characters and worlds that are often difficult for me to understand or even conceive of. After reading Lincoln by David Donald or The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Leguin, I felt like I understood the minds of people who lived in different universes and had much different values than me.

There's a tendency towards presentism in reading history--that is, a tendency to evaluate the past in the context of the present--and there's a tendency to write literary characters without regard to their different settings. That is, it's much easier to write a character who thinks essentially like a modern person from a familiar location and culture than write a character from a strange time, place, and culture. Writing characters true to their time and place; evaluating historical characters in their native context: these are strains of the same problem.

When I read Alexander Stephen's Cornerstone Speech, I wonder: how could someone think that? And then I try to understand. It's easy to write off slaveholders or confederates as evil, but the challenge of history is to understand them in context. Similarly, it's easy to write off soldiers of Nazi Germany as basically evil (Saving Private Ryan does this, even though it is a great movie), but the history is obviously a lot more complex.

It's often said that science fiction is at its best when it uses its central idea to interrogate some aspect of modern culture. I believe that this is true in general for all literature, and for history as well. Eric Foner's Reconstruction describes in detail the hope and eventual betrayal of reconstruction. By the end I felt frustrated and horrified. But the book is also a warning. It suggests that the compelling central issue of reconstruction (how should the United States change to include African Americans?) is still relevant, still urgent.

Works of literature and of history represent acts of imagination by an author. These works are full of characters who have motivations and desires that are often outside my realm of experience. Each story is a ticket to another universe and other minds, and I like that.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Collected Quotations, September 2012

A kind of second childhood falls on so many men. They trade their violence for the promise of a small increase of life span. In effect, the head of the house becomes the youngest child. And I have searched myself for this possibility with a kind of horror. For I have always lived violently, drunk hugely, eaten too much or not at all, slept around the clock or missed two nights of sleeping, worked too hard and too long in glory, or slobbed for a time in utter laziness. I've lifted, pulled, chopped, climbed, made love with joy and taken my hangovers as a consequence, not as a punishment. I did not want to surrender fierceness for a small gain in yardage. My wife married a man; I saw no reason why she should inherit a baby. I knew that ten or twelve thousand miles driving a truck, alone and unattended, over every kind of road, would be hard work, but to me it represented the antidote for the poison of the professional sick man. And in my own life I am not willing to trade quality for quantity. If this projected journey should prove too much then it was time to go anyway. I see too many men delay their exits with a sickly, slow reluctance to leave the stage. It's bad theater as well as bad living.
-John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley
What most worries daybeepers about people from Europe, and specifically about missionaries, is that they confuse the Earth, whose divinity is equal to that of the celestial God, with the devil. As the daykeepers put it, "He who makes an enemy of the Earth makes an enemy of his own body."
-Dennis Tedlock, from the preface of his translation of the Popul Vuh
Drought indeed stressed the [Mayan] system, but the societal disintegration in the south was due not to surpassing inherent ecological limits but the political failure to find solutions. In our day the Soviet Union disintegrated after drought caused a series of bad harvests in the 1970s and 1980s, but nobody argues that climate ended Communist rule. Similarly, one should grant the Maya the dignity of assigning them responsibility for their failures as well as their successes.
-Charles C. Mann, 1491

Friday, September 21, 2012

Freeing the Slaves

I've thought a lot recently about the way the Civil War is remembered on the most macro scale possible. That is, for a mainstream northern audience, the war is remembered as a righteous cause that ended slavery. I have problems with that interpretation of the war, but that's not what I'm speaking to here. Instead, I claim that this narrative--that the Civil War was just because Lincoln freed the slaves--whether "true" or not, is deeply conservative.

I'm finishing up Sick From Freedom, by Jim Downs, which examines the welfare of freed slaves during reconstruction, with an eye towards health. The book is disturbing. It reconstructs a smallpox epidemic among freed slaves, which went largely unrecorded and untreated by the overwhelmed doctors of the Freedmen's Bureau. It conveys general poverty, and a conspiracy of interests that served to frequently push freed people towards work and economical circumstances not unlike slave labor. For a few years after the war, radical republicans in congress often tried to help freed people, but by the mid-70s both north and south had had enough of freedmen, and the official end of reconstruction in '77 enabled a brutal southern culture of white supremacy and jim crow.

Ending slavery was, morally, the right thing to do. That point is not up for debate.  But the federal government had a responsibility to the freed people. The freed people faced particular challenges and suffered from absolute poverty. Eric Foner's Reconstruction dedicates much of its first quarter to detailing the ways that freed people educated themselves, found community in religion, and tried to make new lives. But they had very little money, and owned almost no land, so landowners and local governments often exploited them. Instead of helping freed slaves by providing them with accessible health care or land, the federal government pursued a policy that pushed many freed people back to the same plantations they had worked as slaves to restart the southern economy. Reconstruction, and certainly the end of reconstruction, betrayed freed people.

So: the Civil War was righteous because Lincoln freed the slaves. This short history only deals with the morality of slavery, which is simple, and forgets everything that came after freedom--the smallpox, the death, the exploitation, the lynching, every act of violence and exclusion perpetrated against African Americans through today. It posits that the only responsibility the United States had, after hundreds of years of bondage, was to let slaves go their own way. I think that's wrong.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Shifgrethor and Ta'arof

I read an interesting piece in this month's Atlantic about Ta'arof, an Iranian form of civility in which its participants (i.e. everyone) negotiate the world of social rank and etiquette through self-deference and self-abasement. To quote from wikipedia:
It is a way of denying your will to please your counterpart, however the will is only denied because of the custom and not to please the counterpart. But there are situations where tarof persist upon a request to make the counterpart genuinely satisfied. Tarof often causes misunderstandings between both parties and is a source for awkward situations in a social setting.
The closest one can come to tarof in the western culture is the question of "Who's paying the restaurant bill?" This is an awkward situation where everybody in the company is reaching for their wallets and it's usually resolved by social status, the one with the highest income, biggest reason or most power pays. But, still everyone insists on paying.
As I read I remembered shifgrethor from The Left Hand of Darkness. In the novel all Karhidians have shifgrethor, a sort of social status which can be gained or lost in conversation or interaction with anyone else. For example: Genly Ai, the emissary from another world, arrives in Karhide without shifgrethor. He does not even realize that he is "playing" shifgrethor until later, when he has already been thoroughly confused by the actions of the people around him. His most important ally, the Karhidish Prime Minister Estraven, knows that Genly is in danger. But Estraven cannot give Genly direct advice, because that would harm (I think) both their shifgrethor. Naturally, Estraven believes that Genly should be able to decode his vagueness given the knowledge that they are playing shifgrethor, allowing Estraven to communicate while maintaining shifgrethor. Genly does not understand. Difficulties ensue.

Shifgethor is competition in conversation, so that one person may "win" more status over another, or "lose" and prove oneself a fool.

I find this all very interesting. The concept of an adversarial conversation cloaked in false modesty or false friendliness is not unknown in American culture*.  But the idea that, at all times, in every interaction, something fundamental about your status or honor could be at stake sounds terrifying.

*A couple of examples that spring to mind:

-Mean Girls; deeply gendered

-Beer commercials in which a boyfriend seeks to trick his girlfriend to gain status with his male friends; in which misogyny is the currency that adds status

Perhaps Le Guin imagined shifgrethor in response to this sort of thinking?

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

I have a secret power: a positive attitude

I've been submitting stories for about four months, and the number of stories I consider submission-worthy has gone down over time, not up, even though I've written about three stories per month since april. This is because the stories I wrote at the beginning are almost all bad. When I wrote them I thought they were good, but, really, they're bad.

There's a positive to this. It means I've spent enough time wrestling with the mechanics of fiction writing to at least know if what I've written is bad. It means that my ability to detect my own clunky writing and poorly drawn characters is developing.

Of course, since I'm still figuring out how to write, it's likely that in another four months I'll look back at what I'm writing now and think it's bad, too. Until then, I'm predisposed to think that my new stories, which incorporate the knowledge I've gained from trying and failing with earlier stories, are good. I am not interested in wallowing in self-pity or crying over rejections, because my secret power is to have an extremely positive attitude. It's not the flashiest super power, but it's a valuable one. I want to keep writing because I'm convinced I can improve.

So far I've collected sixteen rejections, and written (roughly) ten bad stories. But I've also written five stories that read differently from the bad ones. Those better stories, even if they aren't good enough to sell, make me feel like I'm on the right track. That feels exciting.

Monday, September 17, 2012

150 years ago today...

About 2,500 people died on the field at Antietam. Another 20,000 were shot with minie balls and had limbs amputated, or took shrapnel from shells or splinters from fences, or fell and were trampled, or had their heads split open with a rifle butt.

Antietam is important in the story of the Civil War:

-It was the single bloodiest day in American history, and serves a reminder of the "cost" of war, as though war was something you want that you have to pay for.

-It was the "victory" Abraham Lincoln needed to make his Emancipation Proclamation viable politically.

-It was when, perhaps, any rational hope of Confederate victory fled.

I think there's a tendency to see history as a story that someone wrote a long time ago, which is already whole and complete. When the story of The American Civil War, or the War Between the States, or The War of Northern Aggression is told, Antietam is only another necessary scene in the middle, in which men die to help Lincoln provide the war's mature moral dimension. But Antietam never had to happen. The soldiers who died didn't have to die then. The war that brought those soldiers there to die didn't have to happen. Lincoln didn't have to write or issue the Emancipation Proclamation.

It's worth thinking about what the "cost" of not having a war would have been.

Dealing with that thought on a cosmic scale: 

-600,000 (more like 750,000 according to updated research) men (and an unknown, much smaller number of women) who died as soldiers would have lived.

-Four million slaves would have remained slaves for an indeterminate amount of time.

-There might have been an independent nation known as the Confederate States of America.

-If Lincoln is to be believed, democracy, the concept, would have been proved wrong.

Obviously, there are a lot of other things that would have been different if there hadn't been a war. 

I guess my question is: when Antietam is remembered, should it be celebrated? Is it good that so many people died or lost limbs? Does it make sense to discuss the "cost" of Antietam, because, really, it was something that we wanted, after all?

When I visited Appomattox last year the tour guide made a point to mention that the 150th anniversary was a "remembrance" and not a "celebration". But, why not? Wasn't the immediate outcome worth celebrating?

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Sleepwalk With Me

I liked it.

It's a movie about Matt and Abby in a dead relationship. The relationship has probably been dead for some time but neither of them knows it because they don't talk to each other about their feelings and desires. The relationship felt real, like a couple of people who have never really been with anyone else and who fell into a lot of bad habits with each other in the early days of their love. I thought the sleepwalking would somehow be important to the plot, but it acts mostly as a framing metaphor. Which is: Matt (and Abby, too) sleepwalks through his relationship, avoiding the questions that occupy his mind (how do we/when do we/should we get married?). Matt's emotions, which he doesn't understand and can't control and doesn't know how to talk about, drive him to do things that are strange to him. When he ignores his sleepwalking, he's nearly killed (a couple of times!). When he ignores his feelings, he almost marries Abby even though he doesn't want to.

The movie worked for me on an emotional level. I thought it was very funny, too. I laughed out loud a lot, and the crowd (an almost full theater on opening night) laughed a lot, too.

One more thing. This movie accesses a trope that has bubbled to the surface of the zeitgeist a lot in the last 5-10 years: the Man-Child. Mike is an "aspiring" comedian when the movie starts, working nights behind the bar at a comedy club and not really trying to be a comedian. Very Man-Childish. He's often portrayed as a child: either as a complete newcomer to the comedy scene, when other grizzled comedians pass advice along to him; or, as the son of his parents, who don't treat him like an adult (by forcing him to take money, telling him to get his shit together, etc). Normally I have a lot of issues with the Man-Child, because the trope seems to have sprung from a collective dude hive mind. Man-children are often entitled and have a strange, unexplained appeal to the other characters around them, including their partners, who love them even as they spend their time smoking weed and playing video games. I think where Sleepwalk With Me moves past the trope is in the depth of Matt's character, who responds to his failed dreams with appropriate shame and a general existential angst. It seems like he loves Abby, and it's believable that she might love him, too. And I don't think he smokes weed or plays video games, which helps.

Sleepwalk With Me is the second movie I've seen in the last month or so that expands the Man-Child trope to make it more interesting (the other was Celeste and Jesse Forever).

Those two movies have a lot in common. They both explore characters who begin their films in stunted, childish relationships, who spend their screen time growing up and discovering their emotions.

Friday, September 14, 2012

The "Lincoln" trailer

A few thoughts on the Lincoln trailer.

The voice. Everything I've read about Lincoln's voice suggests that it was tinny, nasal, and higher pitched than the prototypical masculine hero's. It's a good sign that DDL chose a reasonably "accurate" timbre and accent for the role. In some ways it's a brave choice, because Lincoln is often portrayed with a deeper voice. And since his words, and his voice, and one of the most important parts of his legacy, a thinner voice may shock some people. The makeup, beard, and hair coloring are right on.

The movie seems to be about the end of the war and the 13th amendment. This strikes me as a bold choice, but a smart one. The film seems like less of a biopic and more of a character study of Lincoln at the end of his life. Biopics almost never work for me, because the story of a life is often too decentralized and sprawling to make sense of in a movie. By limiting the scope of the film Spielberg has the opportunity to really build Lincoln's character.

I know this is only a trailer, and I know that this is a Spielberg film, so maybe I should expect this...but the trailer is full of hokey, overly simple racial politics. Slavery? Well, that's bad. But there are bad people out there! So, let's end it? It's presentism, thinking about history without historical context. One of the difficult aspects of studying history, for me, is trying to understand how someone I admire (namely, Lincoln) could think that black people are naturally inferior to white people. Or why he thought that we should send American freedmen to a colony in Central America. These sorts of questions are central to any real understanding of history, and the trailer didn't seem interested in tackling them.

Anyway, I'm stoked to see this. It can't be worse than the vampire movie.