Revolutions and Writing

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It’s been said that the best creative writing comes from periods when political and social revolutions are happening. I suppose the drama of a revolution is a part of that, and the intellectualizing or rationale for the revolution generates situations and characters that writers can easily work with. But a quick survey of modern revolutions and their run-ups reveals different sorts of creativity.

Nothing much in the way of literature came directly out of the American revolution, but in its aftermath, as American society began to settle in, we had novelists Melville and Hawthorne, poets Whitman and Dickinson. The French revolution? Here think foremost of Hugo and Marat, who wrote their stories amid the revolution’s action. And similarly in Russia, the great writer Tolstoy. However, preceding the Soviet Union’s dismantling – a relatively gentle revolution – we have firebrand novelist Solzhenitsyn and poet Yevtushenko.

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In later years, the literary medium changed. The Cuban revolution and the U.S.’s almost-revolution of the fifties and sixties brought a new form of creativity to the fore: songs. Things were happening so rapidly, in the U.S. particularly,  that songs quickly written, recorded and put on the airwaves were the best way for energy to coalesce about the day’s drama.

In South Africa, the grander literature preceded the revolution outright, in the novels of Coetzee, and Gordimer, to name a mere pair of many.

And so we see the great fertile literary periods of the twentieth century were in times of ideological change and consequent revolution. What will this century bring, with its social media and blogs – something new and as yet undeveloped?

 

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The Revolution that Almost Was

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Witness to the Revolution – Radicals, Resisters, Vets, Hippies, and the Year America Lost Its Mind and Found Its Soul, by Clara Bingham

We Americans tend to ignore the social and political discomforts our nation has experienced from time to time, particularly in our examinations of national history, and that’s why Clara Bingham’s book seems so important. At times, our form of government forgets that is it is of, by, and for the people, and goes off on tangents that wear holes in the nation’s fabric. This is hardly unique to these United States, or to any thriving democratic form of society, for that matter. But the U.S. has put itself in the often uncomfortable position of refuge for the poor and weary of the world, as proselytizer of democracy and advocate of capitalistic opportunity, and that’s where trouble begins.
In the late ‘Sixties, we sought to save Asia from Communism, to shore up our position as economic supplier to the world at a time when Europe and Asia were finally climbing out of the morass of poverty and despair wrought by World War II. In so doing, we lost our way, and this is where Bingham’s book begins. The veneer of racial elitism that undercoats our culture found us murdering Vietnamese from the skies and up close and personal while attempting to hide these brutal forms from U.S. citizens. Fortunately, the media of that era exposed them and gave the U.S.’s people a new and ragged view of the power of empire.
And so, how were the people to respond to this tainted view of U.S. power? Students rebelled, only to be fired on, killed and injured by our own domestic military. Returning vets tossed their uniforms and deserted in numbers not seen since the Civil War. Governmental officials began not only to criticize our nation’s policies but to expose details of those secretive policies to public view. And young adults gave up on college and the American social structure, took on menial labor and formed rural and urban communes.
But perhaps the most awkward reaction to the time was the way young idealists turned America’s violence back on itself through a series of university and governmental building bombings. The Weather Underground and the Black Panthers openly challenged the U.S. to a fight, a fight both were destined to lose.

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Bingham keeps her editorializing to a minimum and quotes the participants of that era in strung-together vignettes that give the reader a complex perspective of hippies and Nixonites, of Weathermen and FBI agents, of involved celebrities and journalists. In opting for this approach, coupled to copious footnotes and photos, the reader gathers a new view of this era, an era which, Bingham contends, almost led to a full-scale revolution in these United States.
My rating: 19 of 20 stars

Dreams of a Better World

Most Blessed of the Patriarchs – Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination, by Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter S. Onuf

 

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I’ve been fascinated for years by Jefferson, and have read most of what’s out there on this sometimes eccentric man. But this book takes a new tack. Rather than focus on his politics, his accomplishments in government as well as other areas of life, the authors let us in on the man’s psychology, the ways in which the vagaries of life drove him in one direction versus another.

Above all, Jefferson was a people person. Even late in life, he’d never turn away anyone showing up at Monticello to meet the great man. He lost his wife early in their marriage, and raised his daughters in proper fashion while attending to his responsibilities as a U.S. representative to France. He disliked politics; even so, he served admirably as Secretary of State, Vice President, and finally President, after a harrowing, revolutionary campaign. Slavery stood among his complexities; he maintained slaves at Monticello, but he worked continuously to end slavery, believing that institution would be a fatal blight on the new nation. Ever the idealist revolutionary, he dreamed of the U.S. as an ongoing citadel of freedom and equality in a world of the dominant and dominated.

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The writing here is sometimes hard to follow; at others it’s as lean and taut as the best fiction, both testifying to the authors’ love for Jefferson. I found the book fascinating and Jefferson’s inner life as portrayed here inspiring. It’s a must read for those fascinated with the Jeffersonian era and the life of Thomas Jefferson.

 

My rating: 16 of 20 stars

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The Dawn of Barzun’s Decadence

I came across Jacques Barzun (see link below) in the late nineties as his book, From Dawn to Decadence – 1500 to the Present – 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, began to gain traction. I was still bogged down in an engineering career then, had divorced my first wife and 2.4 kids, and was in the early stages of re-marriage, but I felt compelled by the idea of this book and began to read it in what spare time I could summon.

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What a book! And what a mind. Barzun was in his mid-nineties then, an age in which you – stereotypically – expect to listen to addled, semi-remembered stories from these elderlies and watch them hobble from bed to bathroom on a rickety walker. Not so with Barzun, as this book attests.

He had and eye on the past, to be sure, and he wasn’t about to be ensnared by the candy floss of modern culture. We in our age tend to dismiss the elderly, but in previous eras, younger folk sought out these aged ones, simply because they’d seen so much of life and consequently were expected to have a broader vision of where their society had come from, where it was going. Sometimes such views were a tad jaundiced, but it has always been hard to dismiss the views of someone who has seen so much of life.

Barzun’s book, Dawn to Decadence, gives us both ends of this personal spectrum. In it he traces western society’s evolution from its Greek and Roman roots, in which our understanding of the world we live in  – and of ourselves – began to develop from the minds and experiences of a few. Subsequent cultures built on the ideas of these few individuals, then more collective ideas wrung from cities, then nations, each differing to a great degree in its approaches to life and culture based on what each had to work with, geographically and ethnically.

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What seems to have troubled Barzun was the ephemeralization of culture as it began to manifest in the late 1800 and as it reached a crescendo in our modern times. Art, literature, philosophy, politics – all these and more – began to reach deep within the global hodgepodge to find some common, abstracted ground. This is where we seem logjammed today with our postmodern sensibilities (note that postmodernism isn’t a what-is; instead it’s a what-is-not), and this is where Barzun began to wring his hands. As tribal, national, and regional cultures interacted more and more, there were bound to be conflicts in habits and beliefs, and this has led to all of today’s “isms,” (Pick one or a pair: socialism, fascism, communism, Catholicism, Mormonism, evangelism, modernism, postmodernism…on and on).

A great deal of our current social angst has its roots in our clinging belief in practices that led to many of western society’s earlier stages: conflict, violence, war. These now are cultural norms – from the push-pull of regional conflicts to man-woman interactions – and Barzun was right to point this out. And he was also right in another thing: our urge for some abstract common ground begat superficiality: fashion, political correctness, compounding fantasies in politics and religion, and even science.

But is Barzun right? Will we look over our shoulders, just before we see the dark side of the sod, and see western society fallen to a smoldering piles of ashes? We can’t know, of course, because there are too many steps yet to take, too many possibilities yet unborn. All we can know is that we’re on the cusp of something. We at least owe Jacques Barzun  a tip of the hat for bringing us up to speed on this realization.

Jacques Barzun Dies at 104; Cultural Critic Saw the Sun Setting on the West

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Crossing the Border

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End of the year magazine issues tend to be retrospectives, or the content seems more strained than usual. The January 2012 issue of Harper's Magazine seem to fall in line with the latter. However, there's one curious juxtaposition:

A piece of first person reportage by Cecelia Balli, "Calderon's War," exposes the way the war on drugs leaves the average Mexican citizen caught, if not in the well-reported crossfire between soldiers and drug gangs, then at least at the mercy of both in other ways. In a country as corrupt as Mexico has been, says Balli, reform and stability of the Law and Order variety is slow, but it's happening. Of course, this slowly fructifying stability will affect the U.S.in a positive way if it takes root.

Whech brings us to a memoir/essay by Alexandra Fuller, "Her Heart Inform Her Tongue." Fuller is from Rhodesia, a British colony of yesteryear that more or less assumed its independence sometime between 1965 and 1979, and she wrote this piece about a trip she and her daughter made to Mexico, ostensibly to learn Spanish. On the way to that, her thoughts returned to the conditions, the bloody days that fomented the move to Rhodesian independence. Why? She saw so much of that in Mexico.  

Both articles are, in a way, object lessons for us of the U.S. We're precariously perched on, hopefully, the other side of economic apocalypse, but there are predators all around us, who could send us backsliding. Just knowing how bad conditions have been and, for the most part, still are with our neighbor to the south, should make us work harder to maintain a middle class, to revive our egalitarian ethos, to basically live up to our ideals. And that will take honest pragmatism, not ideology-cloaking elitism, racism, and whatever other isms brought us to this place.

Iron Souls, Fragile Bodies

Age of Iron, by J.M. Coetzee

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An early novel in Coetzee’s list of achievements, Age of Iron, depicts the author’s distaste for apartheid, the revolution against it, and gives prescient hints as to what was to come of South Africa after Mandela. Coetzee has always seemed to this reader an idealist, harping eloquently against human imperfections and the flawed institutions created by flawed people. But he’s always seemed to know this about himself, and he’s made obvious attempts in his fiction to resolve this inner conflict. In Age of Iron, such conflict couldn’t be more apparent.

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His protagonist here is a Mrs. Curren, a former classics professor suffering a terminal case of cancer, who has always looked down on both apartheid and the struggle against it from her academic ivory tower. Now, however, the mud and blood of the struggle reach her personally, and they won’t let go. Her housekeeper, Florence, has a young son, Bheki, who has involved himself in the revolution’s rising violence. He disappears, and Mrs. Curren offers to help Florence find him. This takes them into a poor black community being burned by the police, as if to exterminate rats.

Bheki has been shot dead, they quickly discover, and Mrs. Curren now faces the life and death reality of the struggle. Too, she’s seen as unwelcome in that place, both by the white policemen and the poor black residents. She begins to realize a suppressed alienation rising to her surface, an alienation that allows her no emotional refuge from either the social conflict or her disease.

 Then there’s Vercueil – an alcoholic hobo and, if he can be believed, an ex-trawler sailor who was hurt in a shipboard accident, rendering him unable to work. He becomes Mrs. Curren’s alter ego, a sometimes-sounding board, who is willing to help her end her life – more willing that she is, however.

To Mrs. Curren, she and the likes of other whites in South Africa are floss, mere visitors hovering over the African soil. Florence, Bheki, and their kind are a kind of iron – fragile of body, but of more durable stuff soul-wise. This then is Coetzee’s metaphor – that the most durable souls seem to be the most set upon in the flesh.

This book doesn’t really take sides in the struggle to throw off apartheid; instead it summons us to the view that South Africa could have been saved at one time, but now, with the first shots having been fired, it’s too late for all that.

If there’s one flaw to the book it’s the almost parenthetical role of Vercueil. He could have played to the hilt the truth-dealing drunkard to Mrs. Curren’s indignation, her ivory towered view of life in that torn country. He has moments of this, to be sure, but he could have been much more.

 

My rating: 4-1/2 of 5 stars