10 January 2003: In the current issue of The New York Review of Books (Vol. L, No. 1), Joan Didion has published an address that she delivered at the New York Public Library in November, 2002, entitled 'Fixed Opinions, or the Hinge of History.' At the beginning of the speech, Ms Didion tells of a momentary paralysis that seized her in the fall of 2001, after the terrorist attacks, when, on a book tour to promote Political Fictions, she found herself unable to pronounce the word 'perishable.' She was reading from something she had written in 1967 about New York. In those days, to say that the city was perishable must have seemed no more than a poetic stretch. Now that it was literally true, she could not say the word. She spent the rest of the book tour listening, for as long as people would talk.
'Fixed Opinions' is about the entrenchment, during the succeeding year, of pieties and bromides that by the time her tour was over appeared to have shut everyone up. It expresses, in Ms Didion's dry way, a furious anger with the political and media forces that moved quickly to stop all real discussion of what the attacks might really have meant. "What did we do to deserve this?" decayed quickly into "What's wrong with them that they would do such a thing?" The difference between these questions is that because Americans cannot be expected to have any meaningful answers to the second, it is far more fruitful to ask the first. One of the things we have done, Ms Didion points out midway through the address, is to pursue a hopelessly inconsistent policy toward the nations of the Middle East, with the one hand supporting Israel while with the other propping up regimes that grant access to oil. This policy goes all the way back to FDR, and no subsequent president has been able to make sense of it. But the conflict cannot really be discussed in today's America, because to question these or any other American policies has become tantamount to sympathizing with America's enemies. What happened on September 11 is all their fault, period; there is nothing for us to do but to take steps to assure that nothing like it will happen again. Like the current government of Israel, the Bush Administration is impatient with history, and sees only the future. It succeeds, I fear, because most Americans are just as prepared - determined, perhaps - to forget the past.
Forget 9/11? Not bloody likely, you say. But I think that Joan Didion's right - we've already forgotten it. We've immured what happened in a treacly amber of sentimental self-righteousness, burnished by the genuine horror of the catastrophe that befell three thousand lives. What we remember - the crumbling towers, the reckless heroes, and the hallowed hole in the ground - is only part of what happened, the last part. Whatever it was that motivated nineteen young men to take control of four aircraft and then to snuff out their own lives is part of what happened, too, perhaps the most significant part. But those nineteen men, and the culture in which their hatred hardened, don't count for us, because we've drained them of their humanity and made them irredeemably other. We cannot even imagine! how men could do such things - and we're proud to say so. Our inability to conceive acts of such evil is our badge of virtue.
Given the nation's power, America's disregard for history amounts to a tragic flaw. From the beginning, this country has been aimed at paradise, either here on earth or beyond. Millions of immigrants, beginning with the pilgrims, have braved largely self-selected hardships in order to reach this land of promise - this land of the future. But what America's critics - most heroically, Susan Sontag - were trying to tell us in the wake of the attacks was that our characteristic search for perfection might have degenerated into an itch for simplification. The word used to describe this transformation is 'infantilization.' It's coinage sufficiently novel that my spell-checker doesn't recognize it. For my part, I don't believe that the Administration or anyone else can infantilize grown Americans. But if Americans seem content to be treated, if not as infants, then as adolescents, why shouldn't the government oblige? It makes things so much easier for everyone.
The art of leading adults, as adults, is very rarely mastered. It involves telling grown men and women things that they don't want to hear, and inspiring them to make real sacrifices. Real leaders help their followers to understand the world that we all live in, and if a comprehensive grasp of the complexity of that world is beyond the intellectual capacity of most people, then a genuine respect for the difficulties that it inevitably entails makes a perfectly workable substitute. This respect must be founded on a trust that no one on the current political scene appears to be capable of inspiring. And that's our fault, not the politicians'. For in the end, leaders don't impose themselves on the body politic. They emerge from it.
And ours is a teenaged body.
Joan Didion writes,
I found in New York that "the death of irony" had already been declared, repeatedly and curiously , since irony had been declared dead at the precise moment - given that the gravity of September 11 derived specifically from its designated implosion of historical ironies - when we might have seemed most in need of it.
But the irony that died on September 11 was the irony of adolescents, the suspicion that no choice - whatever - is preferable to any choice. It was a refusal to take things seriously motivated by the fear of looking foolish. Adult irony is quite different. Far from impeding the making of hard choices, it reassures us that no choice is perfect. But if, in dealing death to a teenaged brand of irony, September 11 killed off a trivial, useless habit of mind, it did not guarantee any happy replacements. What appears to have taken its place, if Joan Didion's report is accurate (and I'm afraid that it is), is a particularly stubborn strain of wishful thinking.
In the same issue of The New York Review, Daniel Mendelsohn reviews the hugely popular first novel, Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones. Now, I haven't read this book, and I don't intend to read it; I'm taking the extracts that I've read in reviews as representative, and steering clear. I make it a rule not to discuss books that I haven't read; what I'm discussing here is the broad appeal of what appears to be - I'll take Mr Mendelsohn's word for it - a decidedly feel-good book about a victim of rape and dismemberment. The crime itself is glossed over; anyone looking for a lurid corpus delecti will be disappointed. What Bones is about is closure. The dead victim herself takes the place of the omniscient author, narrating in a bland, sweet voice from a kind of celestial college without classes, where she has a roommate, a grief counselor, and limitless snacks. She's okay; what she wants to tell us about is how her family, coming to terms with her death over several years, becomes okay, too. Mr Mendelsohn has no doubt that readers have taken to this book as a form of consolation for the trauma of September 11.
For who is Sebold's public, but one that has very recently seen innocents die horribly, one to whom Sebold's fantasy of recuperation and, indeed, an endless, video-like replay has a vital subconscious appeal? ... A public, moreoever, that is now able to see itself an an entire nation of innocent victims? ... Confidence and grief management are what The Lovely Bones offers, too; it, too is bent on convincing us that everything is OK - whatever, indeed, its author and promoters keep telling us about how unflinchingly it examines bad things.
As it happens, another recent novel that has attracted wide notices also begins with the death of a child. Nearly every review has stumbled on the fact that the child's murderer is not revealed at the end. By then it ought to be clear that the murder was not the point of the story, but merely a detail in the life of the novel's robust heroine, but even so the author's withholding of closure has for many readers diminished the book's abundant satisfactions. The more I contemplate this seemingly perverse decision, the more strongly I believe that it was meant as a tart, two-word slap on the wrist.
An unremarked implication of Web publishing that has captured my attention is its open-endedness. Book publishing requires author and editor to make hard decisions in order to that a final text ready for the printers. Changing the text thereafter requires the production of a new book, equally laborious to print, bind, and distribute, and perhaps chancier to sell.
The ease of revising a Web page changes the way the word ‘finished’ applies to writing. It’s possible to finish work without being finished with it. I can rewrite this page every day from now until kingdom come, and so long as my grammar and spelling are up to snuff it will be finished every time. I’m sure that there’s a perfectionist out here in cyberspace doing just that. On the Web, moreover, ‘page’ refers not to a piece of paper but to a piece of work. Today’s page of two paragraphs can be replaced, with hardly more effort than what’s required for the writing, with one of ten tomorrow.
Whenever technological innovation makes it possible do something old in a new way, the chorus of skeptics arches its eyebrows and squawks, ‘Why?’ Why not try to get it right the first time? And isn’t there something unseemly about doing one’s thinking in public?
‘Thinking out loud,’ as it’s quaintly called, has done more to put people off e-mail than any other vice. In the old days (I mean the recent past), nobody wrote letters; nowadays everybody writes too many, all too often turning out offhand, incomprehensible messages that nobody wants to read. When you think of all the lists of insulting and obscene jokes that are in circulation, it’s astonishing how much more offensive the ill-considered witticism can be. Irony, so dependent on vocal inflection and coded language, does not thrive in a forum that’s open to everybody. Attempts at jocularity had best be left to writers with a very good – sympathetic - ear.
But as to getting it right the first time, this is one of those workmanlike propositions that doesn’t do justice to comprehensive thinking. ‘Getting it right’ swaggers with macho but doesn’t bother overmuch to specify what ‘it’ is supposed to be, so in practice the rule is inverted. Whatever can be stated clearly and distinctly in whatever’s felt to be a reasonable time must be the right thing. Here we have the fons et origo of most journalism, and the reason for its short shelf-life.
On the other hand, writers interested in sharing their views don’t postpone publication until every ramification of every idea has been worked out. Definite enough as objects in the hand, books only appear to have beginnings and endings. No subject is ever fully covered – the very idea of ‘subject’ is highly artificial. Authors may sound authoritative when they declare that ‘space does not permit’ or that ‘this is not the place for’ a full discussion of some related tangent, but all they’re saying is ‘if I get involved with that I’ll never finish this book.’ Web publishing isn’t going to bring us any closer to the Ultimate Tome. But it allows us to dispense with the corset of thinking in books.
Which isn’t to suggest the end of books. On the contrary: a new way to begin them.
Copyright (c) 2004 Pourover Press