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Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Dangerous Paths of the Idle Mind: The Soundtrack of "My" War

Away from courses, teaching, and committees for the summer and this is the first thing I can come up to write here?  It might end up being one sad, unproductive summer if I don't watch out.

A few nights ago, engaged in hand-to-hand combat with a terrible bout of insomnia, I broke down and turned my television on.  Some channel was playing the movie "Jarhead," a movie (and a book) I had refused to read or watch for some time.  The book I tackled some years ago; the movie I just swallowed a couple of nights ago and I still feel like vomiting.  At any rate, this is the story of how I developed a ridiculous impulse to write an entry on this blog dealing with Operation Desert Shield/Storm and the music soundtrack of the war itself.

There are many reasons why I found the book attractive when it first came out in 2003, some more obvious than others.  Regardless of my personal experiences in 1990-1991, the fact that the book was published in the months leading to the controversial Iraq invasion was enough to stimulate my overriding impulses to keep my budget that month and I went out and bought a hardcover first edition at the outrageous price of $24.00 which I couldn't afford at the time. It sat on my shelve for a couple of years before I read it.  One of the things that bothered me about the book was a criticism shared by most combat veterans from that now seemingly distant conflict.  With all my respect to Mr. Swofford, the book was preachy and at times even horribly pedantic.  Parts of the books seemed more interesting in proving which Marines fought real combat and which Marines distributed out shit-paper and toothpaste at the supply depot.  Michiko Kakutani's statement from "The New York Times" went as far as comparing it to Michael Herr's "Dispatches," which many found insulting and emblematic of how ignorant the media can be about serious matters such as men at war.  Again, I was divided on what to think--2003 was not the easiest year for me personally and whatever attention I could give to book criticism was very limited.  The common criticism among former Jarheads was that Swofford wanted to sound like a professor of Marine Corps history and insisted in pointing out details about the Corps that were either unimportant or irrelevant to the narrative.  I remember that (for whatever the reason) I tried defending the book at the last "India" Co., 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines reunion.  It was a futile effort--most of my former brothers in arms had watched the movie, not read the book.  For this reason, I was been divided on whether to watch the movie or not, until a few nights ago.

The main objective of this entry is to prove a slightly off comment I watched in the film but cannot remember whether or not it was in the book.  Swofford laments the fact that the helicopters flying overhead with loud speakers were playing music from the 1960s, Vietnam music.  It's not clear to me now whether it was The Rolling Stones or The Doors, but music from the 60s it was.  Swofford's commentary was something to do with the shitty music of the early 1990s, particularly from the duration time of the war itself.  I did a little research and found out he was absolutely right--top music lists from the fall of 1990 to the spring of 1991 were full of fluffy, bubble gum popular tunes.  But wait... during that time wasn't I listening to Don Henley's "The End of the Innocence" and Tom Petty's "Full Moon Fever" and also the soundtrack from Ken Burn's "The Civil War?"  Sure, some of these were released in late 1989, but most radio stations (including the Armed Forced network) were still very actively playing both Don Henley and Tom Petty.  Songs like "Free Falling," and "The Heart of the Matter" were not only philosophically insightful but also comforting to a nineteen or twenty-something 3,000 miles from home, missing his girlfriend, sitting on so much sand; Swofford called it "the sweaty arm pit of the world."  That was the soundtrack of my war, and there isn't a single time since I've heard any of those songs played on the radio when I don't get pulled back to that confusing war.  In the absence of music of real substance, all one had to do was pop in a carefully selected (operative words) cassette and dream on. Peace.

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Tuesday, June 14, 2011

On Not Taking One's Self Too Seriously: Perhaps a Writer's Best Tool

Books on how to write fiction abound.  One advice that is constant in a great majority of them is not taking one's self too seriously--especially upon finishing the first draft.  I not only find this advice wise, but also see it as a deterrent to writers' block.
This is a pile of draft (some fiction, some academic research) next to my desk.  I printed the "Parish Newsletter" from "The School of Life" from the wonderful online lecture by Alain de Botton "On Pessimism".  The goofy Marx brothers glasses are rather necessary in not taking one's self too seriously.  The idea is certainly not a new one--expect the worst, and you shall be pleasantly surprised.  The trick is to not be disappointed when the rejection notifications begin to pile up.  That, I believe in my non-professional opinion, is more an issue of behavioral/psychological individuality.  How we take on rejection is in essence a matter of managing our tolerance for the same.  We work incessantly and we are not rewarded for our efforts.  It is a matter of perspective, of course, but in America (especially newer generations) perseverance is often spoken about but little applied.  Immediate gratification is the term on the streets.  de Botton explains that we mustn't take anything against us personally, and that not knowing failure signifies for him a half-empty life.  Writing is such a thing.  People who write are often called eccentric, rare birds, among many other names.  Bitterness accumulates and whatever eccentricities emerge from it have little to do with being a writer, or, more precisely, trying to write.  Rejections are not to be taken personal.  Most of the time, we don't even know the person sending the rejection notification.  Frankly, I am more afraid of a jury summons order or my American Express bill in the mail than I am of rejection notes.  It's a matter of opinion, and, as de Botton explains, it is a matter of perspective.

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Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Farewell... Inmate 44.904 Jorge Semprun 1923-2011

Jorge Semprum, French resistance fighter, essayist, philosopher, author of "Literature or Life" and holocaust survivor (Buchenwald camp) died in Paris this morning.  Here is the beautiful remembrance page from "El Mundo" in Madrid.


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Thursday, June 02, 2011

20 Years: Bret Easton Ellis' "American Psycho" Still Relevant After All These Years!

What is really important about Bret Easton Ellis' "American Psycho" is its social criticism--not to mention the existential issues, depictions of mental illness, and even some pathology still not cataloged by the American Medical Association.  All part-humor aside, this is a novel that stands the test of time not only because Patrick Bateman is an accurate picture of the late 1980s excess, but because since the late 1990s and onto contemporary American society we have taken excess to much higher levels.  Patrick Bateman is what Goldman Sachs, Freddie Mac, Fannie May, and Enron would look like if by some misguided science project we could give a face to the "faceless high-command" who robbed America blind in the last 10 years.  But the greed is not the most important theme.  What gives Patrick Bateman his staying power is the accuracy of a superficial and disturbed mind.  Bret Easton Ellis' technique and craft achieved a Raskolnikovian figure, a "Bigger" Thomas with an MBA and that kind of intellectual violence that later made "Pulp Fiction" attractive to nuclear physicists and Nobel prize winners.

In the last few months, and unknowingly of the anniversary, a couple of my friends (in separate occasions) were talking about the "American Psycho" movie and Christian Bale's performance.  Mary Harron's work as director has much to do with how well the book translated to the screen.  One of my friends actually mentioned how much he enjoyed the monologues, the overly-intellectual, technical and erudite analysis of Genesis' music and wished he could memorize them.  I wouldn't go that far, but I can see why someone would want to burst out one of those monologues during a boring party!

Getting back to the book, there are--admittedly--parts of the book that read like explicit pornography.  The scene with Christine and Sabrina is such an example.  However, if one is to blush over it, then one must blush to Diane DiPrima's "Memoirs of a Beatnik."  If the argument about "American Psycho" being pornographic and written by a male author seems lopsided, Diane DiPrima's book exceeds the illustrative nature of Bret Easton Ellis' work.

"American Psycho" is one of those rare classics, incomparable, often insurmountable in creativity and originality.  Yes, I am re-reading it as soon as the teaching semester is over.  Put down the DVD and read the book... it's about time, if you haven't read it.

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