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Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Literary Detours: "Dispatches" by Michael Herr (re-read)

The first time I came to know this book I was still serving in the U.S. Marine Corps.  I was at the main library in Camp LeJuene reading Colonel David Hackworth's "About Face" when a young 2nd lieutenant came over and asked me what I was reading.  He was friendly and motioned me to remain seated (my propensity to follow military courtesy bordered on the ridiculous), a welcome gesture to me as I'm not very fond of being interrupted when I am reading.  To make a short conversation even shorter, the 2nd lieutenant complimented me in the choice of title yet recommended various titles but was insistent in asking me to write down the title "Dispatches" by Michael Herr.  I folded the piece of paper I used to write the title down and slipped it into Colonel Hackworth's book.  In 1994, while in the process of researching a paper as a college student, and a year after leaving the U.S. Marine Corps, I found the piece of paper and decided to finally pick up Herr's classic.  It was a decision I regretted because then I couldn't put down the book despite being in the middle of the semester and short on time for just about everything, let alone non-required reading.

What struck me early on about "Dispatches" is the fact that for as brutal as the book reads, it is actually written by a war correspondent.  The book details in part the attack on the walled city of Hue, otherwise known as the citadel.  The writing is honest and carries with it the right amount of detachment for objective thought, reasoning and judgment that fails in most combat writing by the actual participants.  For example, the narrator depicts the voice of men from their own perspective, and even when he is rephasing it, the honesty comes out clear and truthful.  For example, “Amazing, unbelievable, guys who’d played a lot of hard sports said they’d never felt anything like it, the sudden adrenaline you could make available to yourself, pumping it up and putting it out until you were lost floating in it, not afraid, almost open to clear orgasmic death-by-drowning in it, actually relaxed... Unless of course you’d shit your pants or were screaming or praying or giving anything at all to the hundred-channel panic that blew word salad all around you and sometimes clean through you. Maybe you couldn’t love war and hate it inside the same instant, but sometimes those feelings alternated so rapidly that they spun together in a strobic wheel rolling all the way up until you were literally High On War, like it said on the helmet covers. Coming off a jag like that could really make a mess of you.”  I remember underlining this passage and knowing it made an impact on me back then.  Re-reading it now, and after 13 years of a war that has not been my experience directly, I can see it reflected on the young veterans I share time with today.  Theirs is a war for younger Marines, not like the conflicts I fought in which a large number of top senior NCOs were men who had seen heavy action in Vietnam; men who were coming to the end of their tenure as active military and still had to put one more experience under their belts before calling it quits.  From the "outside," I see the young veterans of today taking about being under fire and see the universality of what Michael Herr put down on paper so eloquently... that war in its many incarnations will have a similar effect on the men who fight it.  It's nearly impossible to describe the rush of combat and its many emotions, but Herr's description comes to a near-perfect account.

The book is filled with criticism of the "high command" and its decisions.  Of particular interest is Herr's account of the siege of the fire-base at Khe Sanh.  Herr's accounts of being under fire while waiting for a ferry out, laying down so close to the ground hoping the airplane or helicopter coming in didn't get shot down as it made its approach, and the wounded and dead laid out at the edge of the runway really make a mental image of the insanity of it all.  Then, almost as fast as it began, the four North Vietnamese Army division surrounding the base disappeared into the jungle and Khe Sanh disappeared from the headlines with a quick "high-command" briefing to the correspondents.

There are accounts about Michael Herr's colleagues, most interesting the story of Sean Flynn, photojournalist and son of the famous actor Errol Flynn.  Flynn is featured in the book at length, depicted as a jovial and intense photojournalist with a sensitive touch to both his work and his relationships with others.  The tragedy remains painful to Herr and he writes consolingly about the memories he shared with his friend.  Of all the people covered in the book, Flynn was the one that most attracted my attention--not simply because of his famous father but because of the circumstances behind his disappearance.  He was reported missing in Cambodia and was never found.  In 1984, he was officially declared dead.

I enjoyed taking a literary detour from this year's reading list to read "Dispatches."  It is a book that intoxicates with its accounts of brutality while at the same time reigniting the desire to come to terms with all that has been seen and done in combat.  It is books like "Dispatches" that fill the great void between those who experience and those who yearn to appropriate the experience through the great vehicle that is literature.

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Monday, May 05, 2014

Jean Paul Sartre's "The Wall" and Pre-World War II Existentialism

Jean Paul Sartre's "The Wall" is full of those tiny stylistic nuances, so much so that if the reader "blinks" too fast, he might miss them. On the other hand, "The Wall" manifests characters that are alive to more than just emerging literary traits of the "not quite" mid-20th Century. Published in 1939 just about the same time Europe was about to explode to the fury of a new war, "The Wall" pre-dates much of the experiences that later led to Sartre's all-encompassing philosophy. The existentialism is certainly there, but in a "younger" form distinct from his post-World War II literary endeavors.

The title story builds upon the painful experience of prisoners during the Spanish Civil War. While a lot has been made of the allegorical "wall," the absurdity of these prisoners' condition and their suffering certainly points to the existential question, but it is the outcome of the story that reveals the truly over-the-top ridiculousness of "being." The protagonist seems to have sworn allegiance to the cause or to one of its leaders or to God knows what, and to that allegiance he is determined to be truthful to the very end. As he is interrogated, he is asked about the whereabouts of the leader and he responds with an absurd suggestion he anticipates the interrogators would never take serious. Nevertheless, when the suggestion is followed through and investigated, it turns out satisfactory to the powers in charge. This is not revealed to the protagonist after his companions have been executed, including among them a very young man who is emblematic of the existential idea of waste.

 The story "The Room" explores the capacity of loyalty but in much different fashion. A woman is married to a man who has become "questionably" insane. Her parents are caught in the whirlwind of decisions and options, as they do not want to see her "waste" her life away. In its own way, the story explores questions of self-sacrifice, loyalty and discipline to one's beliefs. This is a brief story (compared with the others) and, on the surface, seems to reveal less about the characters than the other stories in the collection. The question of insanity transfers from one character to the other, primarily displaying how each is committed to their own ideals of truth. The father, for example, is quite disgusted when he learns from the mother that their daughter is still being intimate with her husband. The premise reminded me of a quote from a novel by Ernest Hebert which I read in 1993 or thereabouts and made a great impact on me: "Men are loyal to their own ideas as dogs are loyal to undeserving owners," or something to that effect. In the end, the young woman is unable to leave her husband illustrating the despair of choices and the absurdity of attachments.

"Erostratus" follows a character in a desperate path to commit an act of violence for which he has no reason or explanation. By killing six people he hopes to "write" some history for himself, an existential mold that draws quite a bit from Kirilov, the nihilist in Fyodor Dostoyevsky's "The Demons." "If I am to prove powerful to some extent," observed Kirilov, "then I must kill myself." He intends to leave a mark on history, however insignificant by simply exercising the power of the act in itself. The judgment of how useless and wasteful those deaths happen to be is beyond his act; a judgment to be formulated by others, as if to say, by second hand. The failure of his act paints a portrait of existential ready-made art--that is to say, Sartre does not judge right or wrong despite the psychological and philosophical tendencies of the story. Sartre simply states the events as they happen and the reader is left to judge. This echoes the stream of consciousness of the protagonist and the close reader is rewarded with this epiphany at the end. We are led to judge, again, in second hand.

Lulu has a friend named Rirette and a lover named Pierre. She also has a husband who exemplifies the archetypal domineering male who emotionally abuses his wife. But the seemingly clearly cut characters of "Intimacy" reveal more than stereotypical traits. Lulu is a complex female character not just struggling with issues of repression, guilt and loyalty, but also with existential conundrums revealing society's pressures of role and decorum. She intends to leave her husband, and goes as far as to plan her eloping with Pierre but fails in dramatic fashion leaving Rirette to piece together the irrational behavior of her dear friend.

"The Childhood of Leader" is the story of the making of a fascist. The main character Lucien Fleurier is depicted from early childhood into young adulthood in a series of psychologically linked scenes. From simple angst about not belonging to being sexually abused by a child predator, Lucien (who is the son of an industrialist) gravitates from ideas about self to growing connections about the world around him. The fascist element is connected by Sartre to the impending explosion of violence that is both relevant to the story and relevant to the historic events taking place at the time. Lucien is aimless in the sense that he looks into the future with a clear idea of what he does not want, yet he is powerful to transform his life away in a way that would direct him away from what he sees as doom. Therefore, he falls easy prey of those around him. Here Sartre uses a different technique--he does not so much inject existentialism into the story as he allows it to grow with the character, often simply displayed as anger, frustration and angst. The revelatory factor of the story is Lucien's acknowledgment of the absurd, with the disturbing vagueness of his acceptance as an added bonus to the reader.

I am surprised at how much I enjoyed deciphering these short stories and connecting the dots about Sartre's intentional use or outright avoidance) of existentialism. I have to look to more of Sartre's pre-war works.

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