“. . . for anxiety is invariably the result of a certain mode of being implicated in the game, of being caught by the game, of being as it were at stake in the game from the outset.” – Jacques Derrida
There is the occasional (very occasional) interesting sentence or two. But, Derrida’s Writing and Difference was a slog that just didn’t seem worth it.
In Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, you learn to experience American history as a series of absurdities, contradictions, ironies, and paradoxes.
The wagonloads of wounded Sioux (four men and forty-seven women and children) reached Pine Ridge after dark. Because all available barracks were filled with soldiers, they were left lying in the open wagons in the bitter cold while an inept Army officer searched for shelter. Finally an Episcopal mission was opened, the benches taken out, and hay scattered over the rough flooring.
It was the fourth day after Christmas in the Year of Our Lord 1890. When the first torn and bleeding bodies were carried into the candlelit church, those who were conscious could see Christmas greenery hanging from the open rafters. Across the chancel front above the pulpit was strung a crudely lettered banner: PEACE ON EARTH, GOOD WILL TO MEN.
Throw in a little work reading while on vacation, N. T. Wright’s For All the Saints?, preparing for my November sermons.
“War, whose highest purpose was the creation of clarity where none existed, the noble clarity of victory and defeat, had solved nothing.”
In Shalimar the Clown, Salman Rushdie gives us some perspective of radical Islam seen through the lens of Kashmir. Maybe the book is an appraisal of contemporary humanity’s ability to destroy beauty. Though he never quotes it outright (he comes close twice), I felt that a line from the Bhagavad-Gita, most famously quoted by J. Robert Oppenheimer, actually lay behind the entire novel: “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” In this spirit, an Indian army officer has these thoughts:
Elasticnagar was unpopular, the colonel knew that, but unpopularity was illegal. The legal position was that the Indian military presence in Kashmir had the full support of the population, and to say otherwise was to break the law. To break the law was to be a criminal and criminals were not to be tolerated and it was right to come down on them heavily with the full panoply of the law and with hobnailed boots and lathi sticks as well. The key to understanding this position was the word integral and its associated concepts. Elasticnagar was integral to the Indian effort and the Indian effort was to preserve the integrity of the nation. Integrity was a quality to be honored and an attack on the integrity of the nation was an attack on its honor and was not to be tolerated. Therefore Elasticnagar was to be honored and all other attitudes were dishonorable and consequently illegal. Kashmir was an integral part of India. An integer was a whole and India was an integer and fractions were illegal. Fractions caused fractures in the integer and were thus not integral. Not to accept this was to lack integrity and implicitly or explicitly to question the unquestionable integrity of those who did accept it. Not to accept this was latently or patently to favor disintegration. This was subversive. Subversion leading to disintegration was not to be tolerated and it was right to come down on it heavily whether it was of the over or covert kind. The legally compulsory and enforceable popularity of Elasticnagar was thus a matter of integrity, pure and simple, even if the truth was that Elasticnagar was unpopular. When the truth and integrity conflicted it was integrity that had to be given precedence. Not even the truth could be permitted to dishonor the nation. Therefore Elasticnagar was popular even thought it was not popular. It was a simple enough matter to understand.
On the drive home I read Part One: Millennium Approaches of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. If you’ve been a reader of this blog for any length of time, then you know the significance of the film version to MyQuest. These phrases are like the contours of a path that is my path.
Finally, in this list of books I completed just before or on vacation, I add one that I’ve only begun, Christopher Isherwood’s Christopher and His Kind. This is Isherwood’s memoir from 1976 that retells the stories he had told in many of his earlier novels and memoirs, like Goodbye to Berlin, the source of the musical Cabaret. In the earlier accounts, Isherwood left his homosexuality vague, something that the aware reader would pick up, but it was never explicit. The septuagenarian finally feels free to recount his real life story. Which makes for an odd book. He spends so much of it quoting from the older accounts and correcting them, giving the real names of the “fictional characters.” In the process there is a muddle. “Isherwood” becomes the name used to refer to the “Christopher Isherwood” who appeared as a character in the novels. “Christopher” refers to the author. He almost always refers to himself in the second person. Sometimes by “Christopher” he means the Christopher Isherwood of the 1930’s whose story is being recounted. Sometimes he means the Christopher Isherwood of the 1970’s who is trying to remember and reconstruct and reappraise the earlier Christopher. So, you get an odd paragraph such as this one:
In the novel, it seems to be implied that what Bernhard is hiding is a romantic attachment to “Isherwood.” The shared trip to China which Bernhard proposes is made to sound like an elopement. Whether Wilfrid [Bernhard the character’s real name] was or wasn’t homosexual is neither here nor there. Of one thing I am certain, he wasn’t in love with Christopher. I therefore find the hint contained in the novel offensive, vague as it is, and I am embarrassed to know that Wilfrid read it.
So, what you’ve got is these various layers of personality/character/identity/memory/history/commentary that play upon one another. What are the thoughts remembered from the thirties and what are the thoughts of the seventies? I find myself not liking Christopher Isherwood (his name dropping is most annoying), but I’m confused as to whether I dislike the young man or the old man or the man in his totality. Maybe the text even raises the question as to what can meaningfully be said about identity having a sense of totality?