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More Rye wrangling

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Whatever one might think about the continuing utility of meat space libraries and tangible newspapers, these entities sure write decent amicus briefs.  NYT, AP, Tribune, Gannett, along with the American Library Association, have weighed in on Fredrik Colting's appeal of Judge Batts' order banning his book, 60 Years Later: Coming Through the Rye, which uses J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye as a point of departure. 

The amicus briefs are great reading - you can download them both here - if you enjoy watching a judge get spanked in a figurative, verbose and decidedly legalistic way.  "What was Judge Batts thinking?" is all you can wonder when you finish all 89 pages of the two briefs.  "Boy, she really messed up the law on this one," you say, rolling your eyes. 

The persuasive and passionate fervor of these amicus briefs may relate to the wellsprings of empathy their authors ought to have for Colting - depths of personal engagement analagous to Thurgood Marshall's personal connection to Brown v. Board, or Sarah Weddington's personal stake in Roe v.  Wade - or the rogue's sympathy for the hanged man. 

Quite simply, the differences between writing a legal brief and an unauthorized sequel (or parody, or whatever Colting's work is) are less significant than one might imagine.  Both use pre-existing works - in Colting's case, Catcher; in the attorneys' cases, caselaw - from which they borrow, to a greater or lesser extent, in order to fashion a story line that positions the original in the service of the author's agenda.  What else, in the end, is a legal brief, but a pastiche, a collage, a derivative work? 

Colting's misfortune is that his original work is protected by copyright law; the attorneys, on the other hand, owe their children's college tuition to the exemption from copyright of caselaw - and other works written by the US government.  But does that circumstance change the moral valence of the activity?  Colting engaged in fundamentally the identical process as the attorneys who wrote the amicus briefs - just using a different source material.  Does that make Colting bad?  (And before you interject that anything lawyers do can't be "good," think whether Judge Batts' decision should've been different - as it would have had to have been - if Colting had parodied a work that wasn't protected by copyright - 60 Years Later: Another Midsummer Night's Dream, for example.)

The process of active engagement with texts - arguing with them, bowlderizing them, cutting them up and reconfiguring them, reimagining them, twisting their meaning or amplifying their subtext - is a side-effect of being a thinking animal.  The law, in its wisdom, recognizes such behavior as "fair use."  Limiting the texts with which we can engage as thinking beings is both unwise and unfair - it's also impractical.

Of course, lack of awareness can stymie any insight, and active engagement with texts doesn't necessarily put one on the side of the angels on this issue: after all, J.D. Salinger's attorneys will use the same process to write an opposing brief.  Let's hope the Second Circuit Court of Appeals doesn't sympathize with the devil.

A different kind of inauspicious start

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Much has been written about the importance of the beginning of a novel.  Notwithstanding the volume that's been written on this topic, the essential message rarely varies: 

Undoubtedly good advice, but in this thicket of mono-messaging writers may lose sight of another risk that lurks at the opening of a novel: captivating the reader's attention with the appalling limitedness of the writer's point-of-view.

Such was my experience reading the Prologue of Errol Trzebinski's Silence Will Speak: A Study of the Life of Denys Finch Hatton and his Relationship with Karen Blixen.  First sentence: "It was dawn."  Not good, but not going to make me put the book down, either.  Trzebinski's first sentence sets the scene.  It's concise.  (Personally, I wouldn't start a book with the word "it," since "it" is supposed to refer to the foregoing noun, and by definition, at the first word of the first sentence of a novel, there's no foregoing noun - but whatever.)

No, the trouble in earnest started with this sentence, on the following page:  "The African sitting in the back of the truck reached forward to the woman and lightly touched her shoulder extending his other hand to point out what he had spotted, with his inherent native instinct, more swiftly than she."  My concern was not so much the omission of the comma after "shoulder" (although that bothered me, too), but the inclusion of the phrase "inherent native instinct."  Sorry, but the book was published in 1977 by The University of Chicago Press.  Hello editor?

The issues only multiplied from there.  Although I like to think of myself as someone who reserves judgment, I was fully turned off within the next two sentences, when Trzebinski describes a lionness feeding on the rotting carcass of an "obscenely prostrate bull giraffe" as "looking up from her vile feast."  (p. 2.)  I mean, really, it's one thing to be racist (e.g., Margaret Mitchell; still imminently readable), and quite another to be critical of the diet of wild animals.  What does Trzebinski want the lioness to eat?  Linguini alfredo?

Passages like these shift the nature of reading for me; I no longer continue to turn pages to find out what happens, but to see just how demented the author is.  With 309 pages of Silence Will Speak to go, however, I'm wishing silence had less to say.

Honest labor

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Call me defensive, but I'm an honest woman, and I resent the fact that the two great artistic loves of my life are both associated with lying.  I used to be an actor, which many people think synonymous with lying for a living.  (Or, at least, lying on the casting couch; but resenting that the two great artistic loves of my life are both associated with whoring is another blog post.) 

"I'm a very good actor," is allegedly what Sir Jock Delves Broughton said to the prosecutor, after a jury acquitted Broughton of the murder of Joss Hay, Earl of Erroll - a murder that Broughton almost certainly committed.  When I read statements like that, I'm in anguish: why smear actors?  Acting is a noble profession, a rigorous craft, with an esteemed history (Shakespeare, Ellen Terry, Laurence Olivier).  We're not clowns, for Christ's sake.

Fiction is - obviously - also problemmatic.  Writing down stuff that you make up is - to some people's way of thinking - a lot like lying (or the practice of law; "liar, oh sorry lawyer" used to be the favorite joke of one of my brothers).  So imagine my despair to see Mario Vargas Llosa embracing - yes! embracing - the accusation of lying in his novel, The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta.

An investigation into the life of an imaginary (but based on real-life) Communist revolutionary by an imaginary (but based on real-life) Peruvian novelist, The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta is salted with confrontations between the novelist and his skeptical audience.  "It won't be the real story, but, just as you say, a novel," the nameless novelist assures one interviewee, "A faint, remote, and, if you like, false version." (p. 66.)  "'Because I'm a realist, in my novels I always try to lie knowing why I do it,'" the novelist elaborates. (p. 67.) 

To another interviewee, he protests, "I only want to garner as much information, as many opinions about [Alejandro Mayta] as I can, so that later I can add a large dose of fancy to all that data, so I can create something that will be an unrecognizable version of what actually happened."  (p. 81.)

"[A]ll stories mix truth and lies," he concludes.  (p. 118.)

Nonsense!  The sloppiness - of thinking, or word usage - of confusing fiction writing with lying makes me bristle with indignation.  Detective work involves following a factual path to the truth; fiction writing - and acting, as well - entails discovery of an imaginary path to the truth.  Writing fiction is the creation of a description or account that makes the reader recognize: yes, this is just what life is like. 

Lying, by contrast, is not about truth, but deceit.  While fiction aims for the enlightenment that comes from being able to accept reality, lying achieves its purpose by tricking people into remaining ignorant.   

Of course, I'm so in love with Vargas Llosa's work, that I'll forgive him anything - even a difference of opinion.  His repeated insistence on his own lies in Alejandro Mayta is meant to illustrate a larger social phenomenon: "Since it is impossible to know what's really happening, we Peruvians lie, invent, dream, and take refuge in illusion.  Because of these strange circumstances, Peruvian life, a life in which so few actually do read, has become literary."  (p. 246.)

Nonetheless, I think Vargas Llosa is selling himself short; taking refuge from reality in an illusion is quite different than what Vargas Llosa is doing: confronting the reader with the desolation and despair that they might otherwise deny.  And I suspect that Vargas Llosa understands the difference.  As his novelist protagonist responds to one tough customer, who demands: "'Does it make any sense to be writing a novel with Peru in this condition and Peruvians all living on borrowed time?' Does it make any sense?  I tell him it certainly does, since I'm doing it."  (p. 140.)

Words to make an honest novelist proud.

Against the Wall

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Why call a written account of a trip to Occupied Palestinian Territories a "monologue," instead of a "feature article" or "travelogue"?  One reason is that, as David Hare apparently has done, the piece is meant to be performed by a single person in front of an audience.  Another reason might be that David Hare, an experienced playwright, feels more comfortable writing in a familiar format, and one that absolves him entirely from journalistic standards.

Yet a third reason is that a monologue is a device for allowing the audience a privileged glimpse of the character's interior.  From its tone, I suspect that David Hare, in his "Wall: A Monologue," published in The New York Review of Books, intended his monologue as more of a Hyde Park op-ed piece - a voluble, live-action, attention-grabbing public intellectual's speech - than as a window into his depths, but I found the piece most significant for what it revealed about him: that he's a shallow-thinking asshole.

I don't say this for political reasons.  I agree with his political conclusions.  Like him, I am against the Wall.

But I don't support Hare coming to the same conclusions for the wrong reasons.  And Hare, from the evidence of his monologue, can't reason.

Two examples suffice.  First, Hare quotes with approval the analogy posed by Professor Sari Nusseibeh:

[The wall is] like sticking someone in a cage and then when he starts screaming, as any normal person would, using his violent temper as justification for putting him in the cage in the first place. The wall is the perfect crime because it creates the violence it was ostensibly built to prevent.
(p. 8.)  This analogy is dramatic and emotionally-manipulative, but it's wrong.  The wall is like sticking a criminal in prison, along with his family, his neighbors, and everyone in a miles-wide diameter.  Yes, it's unfair.  Yes, it's disproportionate. Yes, the innocent suffer.  But, yes, there is a criminal in the mix.  The criminal doesn't justify the wall, but any reasoned conclusion about the wall has to absorb the baseline fact that Israelis are trying to protect themselves from suicide bombers.

Hare does not absorb this fundament.  As he says later, after having been scandalized by a Saddam Hussein poster in a coffee shop in Nablus,

At least now I know why the wall's gone up. The Israelis want to separate themselves from people who display posters of Saddam Hussein. Who can blame them? Or - hold on, the old conundrum - do they display posters of Saddam Hussein because somebody just put up a wall?

(p.12.)  Hold on, Hare: Saddam Hussein posters are not the issue.  The wall has gone up because Israelis are dying in suicide bombings, which have - as Hare acknowledges - decreased 80% since the wall went up.

I don't think this statistic justifies the wall; even 100% reduction in suicide bombings wouldn't justify the wall from my perspective.  The wall imposes unwarranted punishments on too many innocent people for its effectiveness against criminals to be justified.  But I accept that deaths - not the unbearable sight of Saddam Hussein's visage - is the price of the wall's removal. 

In Hare's view, the wall is a frivolous exercise in power "because they [the Israelis] can."  (p. 10.)  Well, if that's the way you see the balance of costs, then it takes no courage, conviction or intellectual exercise to conclude that the wall needs "gates."  (p.12.)

The Israelis who are against the wall, on the other hand, have a more nuanced understanding of the balance of costs.  Consciously deciding that the wall is the wrong approach to security in Israel requires an openness to risk, a breadth of compassion, and a generous measure of moral integrity (better to live in danger than impose harm on innocents) - qualities that, in Hare's analysis, the Israelis don't have.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has imposed such profound, unnecessary and devastating costs on so many people for so long for many reasons, but one reason has been an absence of clear thinking.  Despite Hare's obvious empathy for the Palestinians (which I share), he's doing them no favors with his contribution to the muddled (lack of) reasoning that has characterized the Israeli-Palestinian confrontations.

So should I call this blog post a "monologue"?

For the real mischief, try fiction

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As difficult as writing fiction is, I'm thankful that I'm not a non-fiction writer.  James Fox's White Mischief, which I recently finished, confirmed my sense that sustaining the reader's (or this reader's) interest over a the course of a long work of non-fiction is a task so thankless as to be not worth attempting.  A plea: writers of non-fiction, can't you wrap it up in 20,000 words?

White Mischief is a journalistic-historical account of the murder of Josslyn Hay (a/k/a Earl of Erroll), an event which effectively ended the Happy Valley era for Kenya's white colonialists.  The story ought to be interesting.  All the characters, even those tangentially involved, were glamorous, scandalous, drug-and-sex addled adventurers, many of them fabulously wealthy, who did things about which people like to gossip: attempted suicide, attempted murder, abandoned their children, kept wild animals as pets, mistreated their servants, slept around.

In James Fox's hands, however, the story becomes . . . long.  Because Fox devoted years to investigating the story, he wants to write about his investigation.  The resulting meta-narrative detour introduces the reader to the boring, authorially self-involved, and irrelevant aspects of Fox's tale.  Fox, unlike his Happy Valley subjects - sadly - seems not to have attempted suicide or murder, abondoned his child, kept a beast as a pet, mistreated his help staff, or indulged in promiscuous sex. 

Fox does, however, admire the deceased writer and gourmand Cyril Connolly, who spent the later years of his life obsessed with the Joss Hay murder.  While I can appreciate Fox's tribute to Connolly, his mentor and writing partner - and the source of Fox's own obsession with the case - only someone who knew Connolly personally could appreciate the lavish detail with which Fox recounts what Connolly ate and drank at their meetings.  I, on the other hand, don't care.

Purely out of luck, as I was wondering, "How could Fox have told this story without the boring bits?" I began reading Mario Vargas Llosa's The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta, and I had my answer.  Vargas Llosa's book, like Fox's, is about unearthing the truth about a violent event that happened more than twenty years previously.  Moreover, Vargas Llosa's book, like Fox's, is as much about the investigation of the event as it is about the event itself.  Unlike Fox's book, however, Vargas Llosa's is fascinating.

Vargas Llosa uses a technique of seamlessly intersplicing his account of the investigation and the event itself.  In Alejandro Mayta, a nameless novelist in 1983 interviews people with relevant information about Mayta, a Communist revolutionary in 1958 Peru.  Vargas Llosa interweaves the testimony of each of these interviewees, along with a first person account of the interviews, with a third person narrative of the events that occurred 25 year previously.  The first person account of the interviews is supposed to be "real," while the third person narrative is supposed to be "fiction."  The technique works brilliantly, not merely to generate a page-turning story, but also to probe questions of consequence, like, "How can we ever know the truth about historic events?" and "Why is fiction sometimes a better vehicle for truth than non-fiction?"

To compare Vargas Llosa and Fox is unfair.  Vargas Llosa consistently and prolifically produces books of astonishing skill; Fox is a hack.  With Alejandro Mayta, Vargas Llosa wrote a po-mo novel; Fox's book is more of an extended feature article for a newspaper's Sunday magazine.

Still, however unfair, the comparison sharply reveals - to my mind - the superiority of fiction as a medium.  Freedom from the bondage of facts releases the author from the tiresome task of shaping a page-turner out of life's petty story lines; instead, the author's challenge is to imagine a story line that's also a page turner.  The former is a problem of organizing information; the latter is a problem of art.  For the both (this) author and (this) reader, the choice of which book is more worthwhile is clear.

This is Hitler. See Hitler read.

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Hitler is the poster boy for the limits of activities and practices that are supposed to be good for you.  For example, Hitler advocated vegetarianism and seems to have practiced something close to it.  He probably even ate granola.  Nonetheless, he wasn't interested in giving peace a chance.  As for the purported health benefits of a vegetarian diet, for Hitler, vegetarianism didn't impart glowing skin and glossy hair; nor did it counteract the effects of a self-inflicted bullet wound to the head.

Now Hitler is exposed as an avid reader.  In Timothy Ryback's Hitler's Private Library: The Books that Shaped His Life (reviewed by John Gross in The New York Review of Books), Hitler is revealed as a bookworm and condemned as an "autodidact, with an autodidact's limitations."

After quoting the book's epigraph, a passage from Alexander Pope's Essay on Criticism: "A little learning is a dangerous thing; Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring," Gross reflects:

The trouble was not that [Hitler] didn't drink deeply enough, but that he drank from the wrong springs. . . . It wasn't his defective learning that was dangerous, but his ideas.
I see the problem a bit differently.  Ideas, from my perspective, are neutral.  They take on positive or negative valences depending on how people make use of them.  Shielding Hitler from the idea of anti-Semitism, for example, wouldn't have protected the Catholics, Gypsies, homosexuals or handicapped who also died in concentration camps, or humanized the Slavs and Russians who were characterized as animals by the Nazis.

The problem wasn't the idea of anti-Semitism, but the way Hitler responded to it.  And his response may have had something to do with the way he read.  I have been extremely enamored of an explanation put forth by Maryanne Wolf in Proust and the Squid (reviewed by Caleb Crain in The New Yorker; shamefully I haven't read it yet) about the way reading changes human thinking.

"The secret at the heart of reading," Wolf writes, is "the time it frees for the brain to have thoughts deeper than those that came before."  According to Wolf, reading doesn't use much of the brain, allowing the rest of the gray matter to engage with the text, both rationally (e.g., interrogating the accuracy of a given statement) and irrationally (e.g., calling up emotions provoked by the text).  "The efficient reading brain," Wolf explains, "quite literally has more time to think."

Our brains don't respond the same way to video, for example.  Crain writes:

Moving and talking images are much richer in information about a performer's appearance, manner, and tone of voice, and they give us the impression that we know more about her health and mood, too. The viewer may not catch all the details of a candidate's health-care plan, but he has a much more definite sense of her as a personality, and his response to her is therefore likely to be more full of emotion. . . . The viewer feels at home with his show, or else he changes the channel. The closeness makes it hard to negotiate differences of opinion. It can be amusing to read a magazine whose principles you despise, but it is almost unbearable to watch such a television show.
With the caveat that one can never know what's in the mind of another, I'll hazard that Hitler can't have been engaging very strenuously with his reading material.  He seems to have been reading not to "have thoughts deeper than those that came before," but to "feel at home with his show."  Ryback "constantly reminds us [in Hitler's Private Library] of [Hitler's] intellectual shallowness," says Gross, and Gross himself labels Hitler a "lumpenintellectual."  Hitler apparently read, not for the pleasure of learning, but to bolster his insecurity.  "Cruelty, resentment, and the lust for power weren't the only things driving him.  He needed to believe in himself as a thinker as well," writes Gross.

A man who read to appear learned, and who abstained from meat in order to appear humane.  (According to Léon Degrelle, an SS general, Hitler "could not bear to eat meat, because it meant the death of a living creature.")  Perhaps Hitler is not the poster child for the limits of vegetarianism and bookishness, but instead the poster child for the hazards of cultivating a facade at the expense of the interior.  

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