Monday Bits and Pieces
Let's see how many variations on 'Fragmentary Monday' I can come up with...
Michel de Montaigne tells us in his autobiography of his children. He and his wife had six daughters, only one of whom lived more than a few months. In a span of a little more than 12 years, between the summer of 1570 and early 1583, he and his wife mourned the deaths of five newborns.
It is breathtaking to reflect on the frequency of such death in the human world up until just yesterday in the grand sweep of history. In the local cemetery, there is a version of the Montaigne’s story told in stone, which I sometimes share with students.
David and Margaret Ginter of Lewisburg lost six children aged under four years between 1841 and 1854. Mary Jane and Aaron (whose grave markers can be seen above) died, ages three and two respectively, within just a few weeks of one another in what must have been a devastating winter of 1836 for the unlucky family.
What were they made of, these parents, that they survived such despair?
That feeling in the morning, a few hours after waking, hard at work on something, when suddenly your body is on the verge of failing you, and you feel shaky and weak, and you realize you have not yet had anything to eat and the caffeine in the large amount of coffee you drank, which sustained the mad fury of the production of the many words you somehow managed to channel forth into the keyboard since waking, is now having its inevitable negative consequences, and you are torn as to whether or not you should eat something, even though to avoid doing so might well end in unconsciousness, because you know that putting food into your stomach will blunt the sharp edge of the cognitive knife with which you have been so marvelously cutting through the lethargy to do what you believe the god Writing has given you to do as your mission on this planet.
Karl Marlantes, one of the greatest writers on the war in Vietnam (much of it autobiographical in inspiration), on war: “Combat is like crack cocaine. It’s an enormous high but it has enormous costs…You’re terrified, you’re miserable, but then the fighting starts and suddenly everything is at stake, your life, your friends’ lives, it’s almost like transcendence because you’re no longer a person…you’re just the platoon, and the platoon can’t be beat…there’s a savage joy in overcoming your enemy…I think we make a big mistake when we say “war is hell”—we all know the war is hell story. It is. But there’s an enormously exhilarating part of it.”
The “war is hell” narrative might even be enhanced by this complexity. How much more awful it becomes when we realize that some of the same emotional forces that drive us to brotherly love drive this too. How much harder it becomes to imagine that we will ever see the end of it.
Compare Marlantes’ perspective to the indescribably morally simplistic “Peace Studies” view in the contemporary academy, which is produced nearly entirely by the intellectual energy of people who have never been within a thousand miles of the phenomenon “War” about which they purport to expertly write and teach.
When an image of a place comes into your mind, clear as a map in a book on the table in front of you, and you yet cannot identify it, indeed you aren’t even sure it is not just a mythical place that came to you in a dream—what a delightful mystery.
For many years, I had such a memory of a street that I could never place. It was not anything from the neighborhood in which I grew up nor from any other in which I had lived.
Recently, I was watching bits and pieces of films I had seen during high school, for no particular reason beyond nostalgia. In a Clint Eastwood movie Any Which Way You Can, a scene appeared that was the very copy of the image I had carried all those years in my brain without being able to identify it. I don’t know how it could have burned itself so thoroughly into my mind, as I saw the film only once, at a cinema with friends, and given both the nature of the movie and the group of friends with whom I saw it, I feel certain we couldn’t have watched it very attentively.
I viewed the scene in question this second time as a man seeing a dream realized, almost disbelieving that a mystery presumed unsolvable had been so abruptly and unexpectedly revealed.
This country changed fundamentally in the mid-1960s, in the early Johnson administration, entirely or nearly entirely as a result of the national political groupthink created by the unthinkable event of the Kennedy assassination.
No pushback or criticism of any kind was permissible, or even thinkable, against the considerable radicalism of the Great Society, under pain of instantly being labeled an opponent of the fallen chief’s legacy, and therefore disrespectful of his martyrdom: “President Kennedy would have wanted this; how can you stand in our way?”
The death of a president as the impetus for the complete remaking of the country.
I’m a sociologist by training. I understand how deeply social a species we are. How much we need one another, how helpless we would be without the support society gives us. I understand it well. Sartre’s famous line “L’enfer, c’est les autres/Hell is other people” is as wrong as a statement about human life can be. “Hell is being totally, utterly alone” is more like a truth.
Sometimes when I am alone in a crowd, I experience a strange kind of transcendence.
It happened most recently this past weekend. I drove my oldest daughter to a swim meet in a distant town, and my wife and youngest stayed home because we had to leave so early to get there on time and it’s just too much work to get out the door on time with this many people, especially on a Saturday.
I dropped her off to join her team and then I looked around for a place to sit down. There were many people crowded about, grouped into their team identities. I walked until I got outside the mass (smiling and looking sheepish when I passed the group of families and supporters of my daughter’s team) and settled, separated perhaps by 20 yards from the crowd’s edge, under a shady tree, looking on at the others all crowded together.
I felt…not superiority, not that at all, because I still recognized what I receive from the warmth of their togetherness, just off there at a slight and easily bridgeable distance, but nonetheless a certain haughtiness connected to my declining of their unspoken invitation to join them, which was not in fact a declining, really, but rather a constitutional inability on my part to melt easily into their midst, even while I love them, brothers and sisters that they are in our common journey, and recognize my need of them.
I felt a kind of pride in the fortitude or the eccentricity that allows me to be apart and yet to be content. I don’t know if this is a good thing or not. Perhaps it makes me a morally corrupt person. I’m just reporting.
The utter sense of failure—no, not just that, but worse: betrayal of comrades—I feel when I find myself in a foreign country in a cab, often just after arrival in the country on a plane, and the driver is extraordinarily helpful, helping with bags, giving me insights on where to find something I will need quickly after arrival at my destination, and we speak in friendly terms and I feel overwhelming gratitude and then, as the ride is ending, I realize I have no cash with which to tip him.
If I were properly bourgeois, I’d always be prepared for such things. I still find travel an unexpected and confusing situation, something for which I am wholly unsuited. I unfailingly reflexively think I should be driving the cab in which I am heading to or from the airport.
Message seen scrawled in Sharpie on a Mexican license plate: “Vivir es increible.” “To live is incredible.”
Yes, it is. And more people should write this on their license plate. I’m considering it myself.
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