Hold It All

Philosophy/Poetics/Politics

Category: Journalists

Authors for Reading Alongside Svetlana Alexievich’s Secondhand Time

I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.
—Franz Kafka, Letters 

Though for us it’s absurd to cut our brother’s head off only because he’s become our brother and grace has descended upon him, still, I repeat, we have our own ways, which are almost as good. We have our historical, direct, and intimate delight in the torture of beating. Nekrasov has a poem describing a peasant flogging a horse on its eyes with a knout, ‘on its meek eyes.’ We’ve all seen that; that is Russianism. He describes a weak nag, harnessed with too heavy a load, that gets stuck in the mud with her cart and is unable to pull it out. The peasant beats her, beats her savagely, beats her finally not knowing what he’s doing; drunk with beating, he flogs her painfully, repeatedly: ‘Pull, though you have no strength, pull, though you die! ‘ The little nag strains, and now he begins flogging her, flogging the defenseless creature on her weeping, her ‘meek eyes.’ Beside herself, she strains and pulls the cart out, trembling all over, not breathing, moving somehow sideways, with a sort of skipping motion, somehow unnaturally and shamefully—it’s horrible in Nekrasov. But that’s only a horse; God gave us horses so that we could flog them.
—Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

There [Communist bloc] nothing goes and everything matters; here [USA] everything goes and nothing matters.
—Philip Roth, Shop Talk Read the rest of this entry »

American Ingenuity

[Daisy Cutters were] so named
because they were designed to explode
just above the ground
so the main force of the explosion was horizontal
in order to cause the maximum destruction at ground level.
The Americans claimed that these monsters were used only
for blasting helicopter landing pads out of the jungle.

The CBU-55 was the latest,
and most horrifying death-dealing device,
the Pentagon tried out in Indochina.
The CBU was a “mother-bomb” which spewed forth
scores of small bombs each of which sprayed
a highly inflammable aerosol gas,
ignited by a special firing device.
The resulting explosion of flame,
apart from anything else,
consumed all the oxygen in an area of several hundred yards radius,
automatically killing every living thing.

—adapted from Wilfred Burchett, Grasshoppers & Elephants:
Why Vietnam Fell — The Viet Cong Account of the Last 55 Days of the War

 

–from novel-in-progress, Our Heroic and Ceaseless 24/7 Struggle against Tsuris

Dear Randa

6 September 2009

Dear Randa,

Given how busy you must be, I can’t imagine that you would have brought along with you Robert Fisk’s The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East. I regret that we didn’t have nearly enough time to discuss this book while you were here in St. Louis, so I thought I would send you an occasional “rereading” of that heart-breaking, illuminating, and disturbing tome. Perhaps next summer we can resume such discussions in cafes around St. Louis.

Since his youth, Fisk had long aspired to be a foreign correspondent, and he mentions that when he was 29, he received a letter from one of the higher-ups at The Times, in which he was told: “Paul Martin has requested to be moved from the Middle East. His wife has had more than enough, and I don’t blame her. I am offering him the number two job in Paris, Richard Wigg Lisbon—and to you I offer the Middle East. Let me know if you want it… It would be a splendid opportunity for you, with good stories, lots of travel and sunshine…” [xix]

In Fisk’s preface, he quotes Israeli journalist Amira Hass as saying that the journalist’s role is to “to monitor the centers of power,” the power that invades other countries, the power that sends people to be tortured, the power that conceives of genocide and implements it, the power that draws borders of the lands of others in its interests, the power that is drunk with its own dizzying rhetoric of rectitude, the power that predictably invites “blowback,” the power that acts as if it is above the law, with a quasi-divine right to disturb the lives and worlds of others. Read the rest of this entry »

Svetlana Alexievich: Fascinated by People

Svetlana Alexievich won the Nobel Prize for Literature last year.  Her oral history, Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets, appeared this spring in the US. Translated by Bela Shayevich, the book is a compelling portrait of life in and after the Soviet Union.  The author states early in the work, “I want to know about love, jealousy, childhood, old age. Music, dances, hairdos. The myriad sundry details of a vanished way of life. it’s the only way to chase the catastrophe into the contours of the ordinary and try to tell a story. Make some small discovery. It never ceases to amaze me how interesting everyday life really is. There is an endless number of human truths. History is concerned solely with the acts; emotions are outside its realm of interest. In fact, it’s considered improper to admit feelings into history. But I look at the world as a writer and not a historian. I am fascinated by people.”

470 pages long, comprised of interviews with hundreds of people, the following passages were among the many that caught my attention…

 

The [tank] drivers weren’t murderers, they were just frightened kids with guilty looks on their faces.  24

Down from the throne, straight into the gutter.  30

All of you wanted capitalism.  You dreamt of it! Don’t go crying now that you’ve been lied to… 32

God is the infinite within us … We are created in His likeness and image … 36

His motto was, “Man up—the worst is yet to come.”46

They’re not afraid of anyone. Flying around in their private jets with their gilded toilets and bragging about it to boot. 54

The Russian intelligentsia never used to pander to the rich. Now there’s no one left—no one will speak for the soul except the priests. Where are the former supporters of Perestroika? 54

—- An indescribable passion for newspapers and magazines took hold of us—circulation numbers skyrocketed into the millions. Periodicals became more popular than books. In the morning, in the Metro, day in and day out you’d find  entire subway cars reading. 61

—A mysterious new life awaited us, and everyone was eager to see it. We all believed that the kingdom of freedom as right around the corner…. But life just kept getting worse.  63

—I ran into my neighbor: “I’m embarrassed that I’m so excited because of  German coffee grinder… but I’m just so happy!” It had only been moments ago—just a moment ago—that she’d spent the night waiting in line to get her hands on a volume by Akhmatova. Now she was head over heels for a coffee grinder.  66 Read the rest of this entry »

Dear Isabel (Letter/11)

Wednesday 1 July 2015

Dear Isabel

End of page 12 and all of page 13

You WERE paralyzed with fear.  Fear comes and goes.
You can write anything you want.
You can go outside the mainstream.
You can move in and out of the mainstream, whenever you want.
You can start building your post-grad-school-certified readership one person at a time. Read the rest of this entry »

Dear Isabel (Letter/10)

The End of June 2015

Page 12, paragraph 1

Can you tell me the names of journalists you respect whose work you could also accurately describe as  “Self-serving, theatrical, and soothing”?

The part of you that is not selfish, beside being sad, could also be awake and vigilant to mind-states, intentions that are self-inflating.  As I am sure you are.  If I sound a little kvetchy about all this, it’s because I think you are way too hard on yourself.

But I invite you to share one of your published pieces that you think is “self-serving, theatrical, and soothing” and tell me what else it might be besides those three adjectives.

Then, can you share pieces you’ve published that were “other-serving, undramatic, unsoothing”?

Here’s a passage from Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish (the context is Beirut, summer 1982 when Israel is pounding it into the dust [about 18,000 people were killed]): Read the rest of this entry »

Dear Isabel (Letter/9)

Monday 29 June 2015

Dear Isabel

Glad you had friends visiting over the weekend and that you now have a little more space for your daily practices and chill time/spaces.

Page 11, paragraph 1

Don Quixote: “Comparisons are odious.” You don’t need to compare your US writing and El Salvador writing. You may not WANT to write about the USA; if so, you can explore why that might be so.

And is it really “emoting” that characterizes your Salvador writing? Speaking of emotions and Salvador, here’s a part of an interview with Chomsky [note the comments on Joan Didion’s book]: Read the rest of this entry »

Dear Isabel (Letter/7)

Friday 26 June 2015

Dear Isabel

Happy Friday, you’ve finished one week at the new job.

Page 8, top paragraph 

I take back what I said yesterday about boycotting the word “solidarity.”  That first sentence should be tweeted world-wide.  Well expressed.

Page 8, paragraph 2

Solidarity is analogous to a committed relationship; sure, both are “rife with potential for violating the dignity of those [communities or significant others]” we yearn to “join” and  honor.

How and when did you “join” specific Salvadoran communities when you lived there?  Was there a rite of passage, was it official, informal, no big deal?  Was it acknowledged by one particular person or a whole group?

Also, could you join those communities at a distance, say, when you were at grad school? I remember a Buddhist referring to her “floating transnational sangha.”  Or were you objectively and subjectively already part of such communities WHILE YOU WERE IN GRAD SCHOOL?

Agnes Heller, a European philosopher had an essay on civic virtues I read back in the 1990s.  Some short excerpts (she’s secular; it may  be that—still— solidarity in Salvador has a faint (or full) religious tint to it):

There are two kinds— in-group and universal fellow-feeling.

Solidarity = “a readiness to translate the feeling of brotherliness and sisterliness  into acts of support for those groups, movements or other collectivities which are intent on reducing the level of violence, domination or force in political and social institutions.”

“The virtue of solidarity thus defined, does not include unqualified support for the in-group (nor for that matter, any other group or movement); rather it excludes unqualified support.”

“Practicing the virtue of solidarity requires a gesture of active help.  Whenever someone we are familiar with becomes the victim of domination, violence, force or injustice of any kind, we must lend our support to the cause of the victim with civic courage.  Indeed, we must do even more:  we have to stand by the victim with advice, and give the persecuted shelter against the persecutors in a gesture of solidarity.  Those who fail to lend such support fall short of all that the virtue of solidarity implies.  Solidarity is a virtue which pertain to the quality of life to the same extent as radical tolerance or civic courage are.”

Can you easily name (not for me, but for yourself) some times when you overstepped your bounds in the communities you are connected to by solidarity?  Again, we fail in our committed relationships in countless ways both “subtle” and overt.  That’s why, in Book of Mev,  I mentioned in Part Two that people who wanted “to help out” at our home had to be willing to fuck up— a lot—if they wanted to be part of that scene (where, to quote you from earlier in the letter, “… because vulnerability is easier if every day feels like the last. — or like it’s a last for someone.”)  Fucking up is ordinary, not to say we should be lackadaisical; in a situation like Salvador, with linguistic, cultural, and social differences, fucking up would be as frequent as the number of cigarettes the baddest-ass activist smokes in a day.

I received a hardback and paperback of Dear Layla in today’s mail. Saw on Amazon that the e-book is available.

Let’s be the solidarity we wish to see in the world.

Mark

 

Ann M 1993

Ann Manganaro, SL and colleagues; Guarjila Clinic; El Salvador; January 1993

photo by Mev Puleo

Dear Isabel (Letter/5)

Wednesday 24 June 2015

Dear Isabel

Page 5

Ah, claridad in El Salvador, because it is (seems?) so black and white.  Your description of what living there, amidst violence, gives you is powerful; e.g., “vulnerability is easier if every day feels like the last.” Drama City, Day after Day. (Our neurotic responses to drama can make it Melodrama City.)

You admit that you experienced your skin being endangered rarely. BUT.  Proximity to danger, death, corpses on the street, those realities must do something to you.  Like splitting your soul. Something dis-integrates.  Even with “fumes of the second-hand,” it can drive you crazy some times. Yes?

And you next say “So sometimes… I am engaging in a dangerous act.”  What does ”dangerous” mean here?  Like you morally shouldn’t do that?  And why would that be, NOT to stake a political claim, NOT to write an article? Those two activities are within your power, “power” meaning the ability to act, those are specific actions you can take in response to what you’ve experienced and witnessed.  Other times would it be irresponsible NOT to stake claims and NOT to get the word out? Read the rest of this entry »

Dear Isabel (Letter/4)

Tuesday 23 June 2015

Dear Isabel

Page 4, line 3

Have you, with all your white privilege, ever led the space of  non-whites?

Did you simply choose journalism because it made you feel special and it was enjoyable? (There are 100 other fields or professions you could have chosen.) I think there’s more to it than that, namely, that  you can claim YOU WANT TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE.  And why shouldn’t you want to?  That’s why that piece on Chomsky by Susan George is on my mind.  Read those parts of Manufacturing Consent when you have time; it will encourage (and sober) you on your path.  Now the thing about Chomsky—he is going after his own tribe, the liberal intelligentsia, because they play a cultural significant role  in promoting thinkable thought that, in Ignacio Martin-Baro’s expression, perpetuates the Official Lie about our horrific violence towards many peoples.   Who at your grad school spoke like they knew this, believed this, and wanted to change this?   Read the rest of this entry »