Posted tagged ‘memory’

Grace In Extremis, And Its Reward

September 29, 2015

I’m not going to get in the way. This story speaks for itself:

I’ll only add that I found Francine Christoph’s story to be both a reminder of the evil of which human individuals and societies are capable, and a glorious rebuke to those then and now who would urge us to heed our yetzer hara.

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How They Make Fishwrap

August 15, 2012

I haven’t posted stolen anything from xkcd lately — dropped out of the habit of reading it for while, actually — but a couple of hyperbright young geek friends of mine reminded me of what I’ve been missing.

Hence, just now, as I ponder this morning’s posts from around the web with more stomach for the fray than I can muster today, I stumble on this:

John Maynard Keynes was right, but incomplete.  In the long run we are all dead.  In the medium turn, we are understood as fossils by the kids who just won’t get off my lawn.

What do you plan to forget today?

Edit:  I just noticed that the 1/2 way to oblivion date for the Bush Presidency is scheduled for 2043.  Watching coverage of the GOP effort this year, I’d say Romney’s team is desperately trying to move that date up.

Eine Kleine Sunday Light Reading

September 25, 2011

I’ve been uncharacteristically quiet the last several days, I know.  That’s what happens when a lot of years thinking about Albert Einstein brings one an invitation to the city of Medellin, Colombia to talk Big Al to the public.

Medellin is a fascinating place, as it happens, though I didn’t get that much time to explore.  I was struck throughout my visit at the oddness of the mix of circumstances that brought me to a place I’d truly never imagined I’d go, to speak of relativity, Hitler, and all kinds of things.  Funny old life and all that.

It’s not that complicated to get to Medellin from Boston — a hop to Miami and then a direct flight from there — but the plane rides and the layovers added up to the longest stretch of uninterrupted pure reading time I’ve had in a while.  On the way down, I finished Tom Bissell’s really interesting Extra Lives: Why Videogames Matter — I may write about this non-gamer’s reaction to Bissell’s attempt to locate the game-specific artistic core of the genre — but what has me captivated from a couple of days ago is my re-entry into Tony Judt’s The Memory Chalet.

That book, a memoir written from deep within the consuming fact of Judt’s last illness — ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease — is really a collection of short essay/memories.  Judt was a historian — his work centers on post-war Europe — and a public intellectual, the author of essays that detailed the flaws and follies of politics and culture on both sides of the Atlantic with bite — even ferocity.  The Memory Chalet touches on such concerns only obliquely.  But even so, in the midst of this exercise of recollection, flashes of connection arc across time and wit to produce sudden, wonderful set pieces.

Like the one prompted by a remembrance of Britain’s end-of and post-war Prime Minister Clement Atlee — so precisely rendered as to strike switchblade slash of political observation that makes me wish (again) that this particular wit were still unsheathed:

Moral seriousness in public life is like pornography:  hard to define but you know it when you see it.  It describes a coherence of intention and action, an ethic of political responsibilty.  All politics is the art of the possible.  But art too has its ethic.  If politicians were painters, with FDR as Titian and Churchill as Rubens, then Atlee would be the Vermeer of the profession:  precise, restrained — and long undervalued.

 

Bill Clinton might aspire to the heights of Salvador Dali (and believe himself complimented by the comparison), Tony Blair to the standing — and cupidity — of Damien Hurst.

Blair as Hurst.  Perfect.

See what I mean, though?  Would that Judt were around to wrap mind and apply pen to the freak show of contemporary Republican politics!

One more thing.  Given that it’s Sunday, and we should not live by politics alone, here’s a bonus bit of Judt, pure memory here, in a brief passage that tries to capture an identity formed through a childhood transected by warring cuisines:  the postwar English assaults against food; his grandparents’ resistant strain of Eastern European Jewish Sabbath meals; the first hints of a world of food beyond Land’s End.  What did all this add up to for the grown up Judt, that sophisticated citizen of Intelligentsia?  This:

As for the madeleine that would trigger the memory?  Naan dunked in matzohball soup, served by a Yiddish-speaking waiter from Madras.  We are what we ate.  And I am very English

For me, it would be the wonton soup from the long lost Yee’s Canton Café — the consequence of having a Jewish historian of China for a father, who declared that the Chief Rabbinate’s writ ended at the door to a Chinese restaurant — followed by my mothers’ leg of lamb with red currant jelly.  You?

Image:  J. Vermeer, The Geographer, c. 1668-1669.

 

Veteran’s Day — nee Armistice Day — poem and remembrance

November 11, 2008

Update: Check out Lovable Liberal’s remembrance too.

Michael D. over at Balloon Juice has dredged up the inevitable In Flanders Fields as a token of memory on this sad day.

I have to confess I hate John McCrae’s poem because of the third verse, with its appropriating of the dead to keep the torch burning that consumed so many young men in a truly pointless and brutally mis-led war.  It’s home-front poetry, for all that it was written by a man who fought and died in the conflict — by which I mean that it plays on the familiar tropes of glory and honor deemed suitable for the consumption of those gentlemen and ladies then a-bed safely removed from the horror and squalor of the trenches.*

In the comment thread, one reader offers up Owen’s equally famous Dulce et Decorum Est as an antidote — and it certainly does offer the honest soldier’s counter argument:

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

For my part, two thoughts:  first to McCrae himself.  The poem was born of his direct experience that was fully immersed in the bloody and in-the-moment pointlessness of the war as anything Owen wrote.  Read the story of how the poem came to be here.  The third verse that so offends me?…I have no doubt that it was truly felt, the more so that the poem was written in the spring of 1915 — the first full campaign season in the trenches — and before the grinding fact of the four-year meatgrinder could fully crush its schoolboy bravado.  In any event, he was there, he saw what he saw and felt what he felt, and he gets to express that emotion any way he damn pleases.

It’s the use of the poem by those who have not earned that authority in the same way that gets me, especially now, in the wake of five years of war when my friends on the other side of keyboard wars have so often called for sacrifices as long as others make them.  Maybe I’m the one fighting old battles here, in the new world after November 4, 2008, but I don’t think so.

(Note that I haven’t even begun to write about the collective criminal folly that permitted the trenches to consume so many men for so long.  For a lucid professional’s take on that question, the best place to start is the classic:  B.H. Liddell Hart’s seminal work Strategy.  My own take on it can be found in, interspersed with other stuff, in chapters 3-12 of this book.**)

Second thought:  here is one more poem just to make sure that I  drive home the point about the cost of stupid decisions in war.

This is another by Wilfred Owen, much less well known, perhaps less well made than Dulce…. but in its own way yet more wrenching:

S. I. W.

“I will to the King,
And offer him consolation in his trouble,
For that man there has set his teeth to die,
And being one that hates obedience,
Discipline, and orderliness of life,
I cannot mourn him.”
W. B. Yeats.

Patting goodbye, doubtless they told the lad
He’d always show the Hun a brave man’s face;
Father would sooner him dead than in disgrace, —
Was proud to see him going, aye, and glad.
Perhaps his Mother whimpered how she’d fret
Until he got a nice, safe wound to nurse.
Sisters would wish girls too could shoot, charge, curse, . . .
Brothers — would send his favourite cigarette,
Each week, month after month, they wrote the same,
Thinking him sheltered in some Y.M. Hut,
Where once an hour a bullet missed its aim
And misses teased the hunger of his brain.
His eyes grew old with wincing, and his hand
Reckless with ague. Courage leaked, as sand
From the best sandbags after years of rain.
But never leave, wound, fever, trench-foot, shock,
Untrapped the wretch. And death seemed still withheld
For torture of lying machinally shelled,
At the pleasure of this world’s Powers who’d run amok.

He’d seen men shoot their hands, on night patrol,
Their people never knew. Yet they were vile.
“Death sooner than dishonour, that’s the style!”
So Father said.

One dawn, our wire patrol
Carried him. This time, Death had not missed.
We could do nothing, but wipe his bleeding cough.
Could it be accident? — Rifles go off . . .
Not sniped? No. (Later they found the English ball.)

It was the reasoned crisis of his soul.
Against the fires that would not burn him whole
But kept him for death’s perjury and scoff
And life’s half-promising, and both their riling.

With him they buried the muzzle his teeth had kissed,
And truthfully wrote the Mother “Tim died smiling.”

*There is no shortage of great prose accounts of the disasters of the Western Front.  The first I read were by two of the War Poets — Robert Graves, in Goodbye To All That, and Siegfried Sasoon in his trilogy collected under the title George Sherston’s Memoirs, now out of print.  The central work of the trilogy, Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, can still be found.

**Here’s a passage from my attempt to capture the relentless pointlessness of the so-called Great War at the level of the battlefield.  The incident described took place 90 years ago to the day.

There was one incident that captured the essence of war on the western front, the distillation of its arbitrary violence.  At two minutes to eleven in the vicinity of Mons a Canadian private named George Price was hit by a sniper’s bullet.  He died instantly.  The man who killed him remains unknown.  That man made a choice.  He was a marksman, a skilled soldier.  He had just moments remaining in which it was legal for him to kill.  There was no need to fire, no purpose, and some risk at least to himself and any comrades near him.  If he waited until eleven, and then put his gun down, the only consequence would be that a young stranger would go home.   Instead, the shot rang out.  Two minutes ticked past.  The war ended.  George Price lay dead.

Image:  Red Poppies at the Menin Gate, Ypres, Belgium.  Photograph taken on March 11, 2006.

For All Those I Wish Could See This Day

November 5, 2008

Readers of this blog know that my uncle Daniel Levenson died early this year, in September.  He was a good man, and I miss him, especially today.  Throughout his professional life he put in the time, the energy, and whatever else it took on the right side of critical struggles, from the anti-war movement to the fight against hunger.  He was a passionate Democrat and deeply hoped to see Barack Obama elected President.  He didn’t.

My mother died more than ten years ago.  She too was a happily partisan Democrat, having adopted US citizenship a few years after she emigrated from England so that she would never again feel the frustration of not being able to vote that she endured after desperately wanting to cast her ballot for Adlai Stephenson in 1956.  She too would have loved to have had a chance to vote for Barack Obama, and I would have pitied the poor undecided wretch who came up against her posh accent and absolute conviction in any canvassing call.

My father, Joseph Levenson, died when I was ten.  He was a World War II veteran — he floated all the way from the west coast to Tokyo Bay between 1942-1946.  He became a historian of China after the war, and one of the members of the academy who early recognized the folly of the Vietnam War.  He too would have loved this day — and in particular he would have loved the grace of language, the tragically rare political gift Obama has displayed consistently throughout this campaign, of being able to articulate both thoughtfully and beautifully, poetically, complex and important ideas.

They should all have seen this day, they and I’m sure many others.  For them, let Martin speak:

One Last Sunday Post…Lest We Forget Thursday Night Edition

August 31, 2008

This is truly off theme for this blog — but reading Ta-Nehisi Coates yesterday I came across this post on his (and my) most remembered Martin Luther King speech.  The post resonated later in the evening as, I listened to Tavis Smiley’s show on NPR and heard one his guests argue that Obama’s nomination acceptance on the anniversary of the “I have a dream” speech did not sufficiently emphasize the Blackness of the Civil Rights struggle and of King’s message.

Smiley and several of his other guests disagreed, but the comment made me go back and listen again — second time in a day — to the clip Ta-Nehisi posted, the key passage in the “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech delivered the day before he was assassinated.

Listening and watching again — especially with the foreknowledge that MLK seemed to have of what was coming so unbelievably soon — crystallized why I thought Obama got his note just right in his acceptance speech.  He spoke of King not by name, remember, but as the Preacher from Georgia.

The Preacher — someone who teaches, persuades, one whose success is judged by what his or her words inspire their listeners to do.  The rhetorical idea was obvious, and I think right:  Obama was saying that King’s words belong not just to one man, time, and struggle, but form a teaching that transcends those particulars.

And in that context, the Mountaintop speech is as important, maybe more so, than the visionary and uplifting Dream.

Remember, King really was a preacher, steeped in Bible.  He knew exactly what he wanted to do with the image of the mountaintop.  His predecessor there was Moses — not like Jesus a messiah, divine and already at least in one attribute an inhabitant of the world to come, but a prophet, a teacher, a mortal man with great flaws to accompany his strengths, who had done his best by his stubborn and stiffnecked people.

Moses had led that people for a long time; at the threshold of success, of labor’s end, he learns he will not complete the journey.  Most of the book of Deuteronomy is devoted to Moses giving the last lessons he can to his people, uplift and threats, and a final admonition:  “Therefore choose life.”  Then he climbs to the mountain peak, looks over the land promised the Jews, and dies.

The full range of meaning and feeling in the old tale of work transcending death is what makes King’s reworking so powerful.  This is what great speakers and teachers do:  they endow their words not just with overt meaning, but with a layered wealth of story, more meaning, more stuff for their listeners to chew on.

Obama in a literally mundane context turned his speech on the same idea.  He’s a great speaker in the same vein as King, not because he can deliver a line well, but because the speeches he writes and delivers as well as he does have both sound and meaning — a very carefully constructed web of references and connections to other stories we have told each other.  The Preacher from Georgia was a great way to frame the memory of Dr. King, that is, IMHO, not because in anonymized him, making him safe for white America — King is too strong a figure to be overtaken by his epithet, and Obama knows it.  Rather the trope works because it demands we pay attention to the full meaning of both King’s words and Obama’s.

In other words, what a great speech, for what it said, for what it demands of its listeners, (all 40 million of us) and what it requires we remember.

So:  for your viewing pleasure:  “I’ve been to the mountaintop” excerpt (the full text and video can be found at the link above); “I have a Dream” and the last section of Barack  Obama’s DNC acceptance speech in which the young preacher from Georgia makes his appearance.  (Full forty-five minute version here):