Thursday, November 17, 2011

INDIGNEZ-VOUS! by Stephane Hessel

This week of nationwide police repression of the U.S. Occupy movement, a reminder from Mayors Quan, Bloomberg et al that all repression is local, seems a perfect time to read Stephane Hessel's universal call to (nonviolent) arms. Hessel's tiny book--so small you can stuff it in your pocket where it will be safe when Billionaire Bloomberg's robothugs come to toss all your other books into a garbage truck--delivers a simple and important message that has already resonated around the world: Get angry...and then channel that anger into political engagement. As Hessel writes, "...there are unbearable things all around us...If you spend a little time searching, you will find your reasons to engage. The worst attitude is indifference. 'There's nothing I can do; I get by'--adopting this mindset will deprive you of one of the fundamental qualities of being human: outrage. Our capacity for protest is indispensable, as is our freedom to engage." If that passage sounds rather Sartrean, there's good reason for it: Hessel was influenced by Sartre (and Merleau-Ponty, and Hegel, and surely a host of others) during his long-ago Normalien years. Indeed, the nonagenarian Hessel has lived so long that he comes to us now like a revenant from a gone world, a time of authentic heroism (he fought with the French Resistance), unspeakable horror (he was tortured by the Gestapo and imprisoned at Buchenwald and Dora), and triumphant intellectual accomplishment (his father knew Walter Benjamin and was a translator of Proust). Hessel comes out of this past now fading from memory to myth with a warning that we not betray the spirit of the Resistance, not turn a blind eye to injustice at home and abroad, not follow the siren songs of consumerism and accumulation. There are no new ideas in his pamphlet--just good ones. The same might be said of many books that changed the world. It's not a manifesto but a call to authentic action, with the emphasis on authenticity. The Tea Party 'acts,' but its actions are transparently inauthentic, born of Murdochian misinformation, channeled by political demagoguery and funded by corporations. The current Republican presidential debates are little more than a Koch Brothers Muppet Show, a sorry parade of corporatist drones--let's see if any of them can talk while David Koch drinks a glass of water. Don't bother seeking authenticity there, especially not from the probable nominee, Mitt "Corporations are people, my friend" Romney, who if elected will be a worse president than George W. Bush. Domestically, a President Romney will act as corporate-raider-in-chief, and internationally he will resurrect Bush's foreign policy team to foment more international disasters. Anyone who liked Dubya will love Willard. Today, if you seek authenticity, look in the streets. It was there in the encampment at Zuccotti Park until Bloomberg turned the park into a police state: a utopian experiment in noncapitalist life, a reminder to the millions that there is another way of living. This is the message the millionaires find insufferable, and that's why the batons flew Monday night. In The Middle Mind, Curtis White writes, "We will know we have succeeded in saying something that matters when we are told that it won't be tolerated." On Monday night, Occupy Wall Street received the bluntest possible confirmation that what they are saying matters. It matters profoundly. It matters so much that in order to stop it Michael Bloomberg left his 'reasonable man' reputation in tatters and acted--as John Hodgman said on last night's Rachel Maddow Show--like a papier mache puppet in an anarchist parade. The Occupy movement, wherever it moves from here, is meeting Hessel's challenge.

A piece of Hessel trivia: Stephane Hessel's father Franz Hessel was involved in a very Parisian menage a trois ca.1910 with the painter Marie Laurencin and the writer Henri-Pierre Roche. Roche later fictionalized the relationship in a novel titled Jules et Jim, the basis for Truffaut's great film. Stephane, then, is the son of 'Jim.'

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Progress of Work on Work in Progress (not an exagmination round my factification...)

After a month's work on the book announced in my previous post, I've written my way through two distinct conceptions before finally arriving at a third that's good enough to take all the way to completion. First, I began the book as the digressive travel narrative vaguely outlined in the post below, but after about 25 pages it became a creature of tangents without a center. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it is in this case. I was trying to put everything into the book and succeeded only in drowning the narrative in details and digressions, factual and fictional. So I started over, this time writing a more narrowly focused nonfiction travel book, less Sebald and more Paul Theroux. But it wasn't long before this book went completely, manically fictional in a gonzo Hunter Thompson kind of way. Again, not necessarily a bad thing, but not the book I want to write at this time. The swerve toward fiction in this (and the first) false starts, however, showed me what this book really wants to be: a novel. And that's what it is now. The third conception, of which I am now on page 40 of the rough draft (written in my nearly microscopic, often illegible hand on that quasi-Luddite cliche of cliches, the yellow legal pad), is the story of a man named Steiner, a chemical engineer working for an oil company in the Midwest, who, nine months after the deaths of his wife and twin daughters in a car crash, takes a trip into the west for reasons he does not completely understand. The novel is about what happens to Steiner after the Tragedy (as he thinks of it), after his personal and professional lives suddenly crash down around him. I'm giving him my route and many of my experiences--Steinerized, seen from the perspective of a smart, shy, geeky, middle-aged engineer who is suffering intensely and who is also that rare thing in literature, a genuinely and complexly good man.

That's where the thing stands today. And that's probably all I'll be saying about it until the rough draft is completed. My new working title: Steiner's Journey.