Positives: So much effort was made to get the visuals right, and they are crisp and awe-inspiring. However, I wondered more about the volume of computing power that made such a spectacle possible than I did about the story. Unlike the first film, in which Jake’s amazement stood in for the audience—we watched him watching this world (the scene in which he tapped all the plants—How cool!—until a vicious creature was revealed—Scary, but still cool!). There is no similar character with whom I bonded, no one whose awe provided a point of entry for mine. So yes, the movie was a visual feast, but it remained at a distance.
The addition of children and watching them as they learned how to be an adult, or warrior, or mystic (or human being because even though Cameron populates the story with Na’vi, his project is deeply humanist) provided a welcome entry point for me. It added a coming of age angle that felt more natural than Jake Sully’s man-child evolution in the first film. Perhaps Cameron believes that all men are essentially immature—it’s a common enough trope, so not a surprise, but really? Round characters, please.
Not so positives: Avatar: The Way of Water is not a complete story. It is packed with loose ends of theme and plot that do not resolve at the film’s end. A three hour movie that ends with a battle that clearly is only the opening event in a war, with an father-son conflict stretched across species and moral codes, and with such gross power imbalances between the Na’vi and humans (seriously, you watched the return of the Sky People to Pandora and didn’t think, “Well, that’s horrible, but unbeatable”?) stretches this viewer’s patience. Wrap something up, for goodness’ sake.
Who’s your daddy/mommy? Grace’s avatar was pregnant when Grace died? And so she was an immaculately conceived girl? What? And Quaritch (the bad guy) had a son? And Grace’s daughter and Quaritch’s son are in love? Is this fan fiction? Are we supposed to tune in next week—or sometime in the next three or four years to discover the answer? This is a corollary to the Chekov’s gun axiom: if you put a gun on the mantel in Act One, it better go off by Act Three; big questions asked in Act One better be answered by Act Three. Cameron may expect the audience to wait a decade, but please do something with all those loose threads.
An assortment of complaints: 1) When did Neytiri become shrill? Did motherhood change her from Jake’s patient and wise tutor to a hissing ball of rage? Or is this just a lazy “tiger mom” cliche? Maybe since Kiri seems a more complex female character, the writers did not feel compelled to make Neytiri more than a plot device (she might drown!). 2) Does Kiri have epilepsy, or a profound (and important) connection to Eywa, the pantheistic force that unites all life on Pandora? Will circumstance force her to risk her life for the greater good? Then sharpen that possibility. 3) Did we really need a Quaritch avatar/clone? While the juxtaposition of Sully and Quaritch as fathers has potential, the deus ex machina was a little too handy. I suppose if the Avengers can invent time travel to save Endgame, a memory download is not too far afield. Nonetheless, no thank you.
There’s more, and I have already spent more time on this than I originally thought I would. After over three hours in a movie theater, nearly as long as Lawrence of Arabia, at minimum I expect something more than boggling my mind about how many terabytes of computing power went into the special effects. Three hours requires story, and Avatar: The Way of Water seemed incomplete in too many ways to satisfy. Ooh ah! And not meh. Feh.
I pulled the paddle into my lap and raised my gaze from the bow of the canoe to the sky. Insects thrummed from both banks of the river. Over my head, the telltale wings of raptors drifted. The smaller sets of wings belonged to hawks, the larger to the few eagles that patrolled the river. One began to circle—head down, eyes scanning the water, wings in a sturdy glide—one loop then another, as it made its way upriver, as slowly as my canoe drifted downriver. “Does it see me?” I wondered. “Does it care?”
I hadn’t looked up much. I paddled alone; that’s not true. I paddled in a group of sixteen students and five adults. A momentary miscalculation and late invitation made our group oddly numbered, which does not suit traveling in canoes. Yes, of course, one canoe could have set off with three. Still, three in a canoe with a river running low after a summer of less rain (I opened an umbrella once or twice and almost always—and only—during summer afternoon downpours) leads to too much scraping through what would have been more boisterous water. As our party assembled, I suggested that I would paddle solo. There was one slightly smaller canoe. Advice was offered. Off we went.
A very long time ago—almost fifty years now—I was required to solo to pass a course. I remember being in some quiet part of Pickering Creek and rocking the canoe from side to side to watch the ripples cascade against the shore. The instructor chastised me and threatened to withhold certification. What fourteen-year-old boy does not revel in the movement of water, whether caused by throwing rocks as heavy as he could muster from whatever height was possible or watching a leaf float down a dreary current in August? YMCA instructors advocate safety and not exuberance. I passed.
So as I took my seat—the molded plastic bow seat now used as a midstern soloists bench—I began simple “J” strokes, gauging how much my pull would shift the canoe on either side. One of the joys of canoeing with a partner is that you can take full strokes. While it’s not like lifting weights, catching the water and pulling the canoe forward with the strength of one’s arms, shoulders, back, and hips is gratifying. Exertion that has an immediate result is a pleasure. With a partner in the canoe, finding a rhythm and effort that matches and propels the boat forward in a resolutely straight line is like singing in an improvised harmony. Get it right, and it’s beautiful and swift.
I realized quickly that I was slower than the other canoes in the flotilla; I paddled with half the horsepower of the other boats. If the day before my partner and I had led us at a crisp, easy pace, today I would be challenged to keep up with eighteen-year-olds who were quick to fire. If the young like ripples, speed—whether running, swimming, paddling, or (prepare for this) driving—is an intoxication. Fortunately, after the first flurry, effort abates. I played the part of the tortoise and kept at it.
However, when soloing, each stroke contains a moment of counterpoise. Paddle too strongly, and the canoe will veer hard to the right or left, depending on which side of the boat you paddle. Fast in the wrong direction will not do. And so each stroke ends with a curl—the bottom of the “J”—that corrects direction but slows the boat. You are constantly foiling your effort to proceed forward. Think of it as “Yippee! Damn! Yippee! Damn!” I learned quickly that my right-armed strokes were too strong; they needed more “J” and, therefore, more slowing than my left-armed strokes. I am, after all, right-handed—naturally unbalanced.
The whole reason we were on the river was to forge bonds going into senior year. My school gathers the seniors for an overnight trip during which they hike and canoe together. Paddling alone ran counter to the purpose of our journey. Yet, there I was as they pushed ahead. I caught them when they rested, proceeded onward while they snacked, and then greeted them again as they passed me. Again. And again.
I scanned the water ahead and planned and planned and planned, reading and, almost as often, misreading the lay of the river. Paddling alone, I stayed focused on the water because the water was low, and I needed to find a way forward. Too often, I lacked the speed to catch the right course through the rocks that rested just below the surface and scraped to a halt, losing all the advantage of the river’s brief flurry of forward momentum.
However, keeping my eyes at river level meant that I witnessed turtles sunning themselves on rocks, a family of brown feathered ducks tucked in against the river bank, and once, when I was well ahead, a doe and fawn swimming across the river. At first, it looked like one small brown lump—I thought some small river mammal. I had never seen a deer in the water; the closest thing was a painting by Winslow Homer, The Hound and the Hunter. The deer I saw transforming from a brown lump to a full-bodied animal had no horns. She slowly emerged, an entire brown body of deer, picking its way across the rocks and onto the ledge at the river’s edge. Then the second body, still adorned with a fawn’s spotted coat, followed its mother. They stood by the water, then proceeded through the weeds covering the bank—eschewing a man-made stairway that led from a shed to the water—and into the woods. I was aware that they were aware and that if I had been surrounded by my group, their passage would have been quicker, affording a glimpse at best. Alone, I had moments with them.
Later, when I joined the crowd for lunch, one of the grown-ups recounted all the raptors they had seen along the way. I left the lunchers for a final three miles and put my paddle down, this time looking up. I had not looked up, my attention so much on the water and the passage.
On the final stretch, the wind picked up, and because canoes are keel-less, it pulled arrow-like into the wind, pulling me off the straight line of the river. However, if I paddled on my left side, I discovered that I could lay into my strokes more aggressively. The wind corrected my course without the impediment of the “J.” I began, over otherwise flat water, to make speed. I watch the blade of my paddle cut whirlpools that trailed deep. I watched my arm and hand as they worked lightly with effort. I may be sixty-two, and my knees ache, but movement delights me. I was delighted. Then the wind slackened, and my course went cattywampus. Everything is adjustment.
I arrived at our pick-up spot minutes before the students and teachers arrived. I pulled my canoe onto shore, tipped it over to expel the little water that had trickled into it while I shifted my paddle from side to side, and waited. Not long. One of my fellow grown-ups said, “You’ll sleep well tonight.” Little did he know that what would blanket me wasn’t lingering exhaustion but abundant happiness.
As I write, I realize that I have so much out; brief conversations as students and colleagues paddled around, then by me; a turtle that fell from a branch of a fallen tree; the angle of the sun. More. There is always more. And I acknowledge that there are several metaphors and lessons just below the water, and for once, I will ask you to avoid them as best you can. You won’t miss them all, just as I did not miss all the rock ledges that cut along the bottom of the south fork of the Shenandoah River. This is just about canoeing solo and together and the three and a half hours it took to go from Point A to Point B. Of course, it’s not, but put the paddle in and see where you go.
Okay, I don’t know if this scene will stay or not, but while drafting (and until someone snatches it out of my hands, it is all drafting), I wrote this:
We walked into the sunlight outside. The sidewalk was empty; Willi and Benjamin had already turned at the corner and another corner. Cars crept slowly down the one-way street, pausing at the stop sign and squeezing into city traffic. The waft of a pizza oven turned my nose in another direction, away from lunch with these men.
“Are you ever not paying attention?” Carlo asked. “It’s like you are everywhere else before you realize exactly where you are.”
“Isn’t that how everyone is? You pay attention—”
“Not like you,” he answered. He strode forward quickly. “If we don’t hurry, Benjamin will clean them out.”
Aletheia and the Thieves
My hero, Aletheia, has just managed a draw in a chess match with her mentor, Carlo. They are walking to lunch at the Reading Terminal Market, where they will join their friends. I had just finished writing the scene of the match and was getting them out the door and onto what was next, but I had an appointment to keep and didn’t want to leave the project on a closed note (the match was finished). I like to stop, when I stop, midair. Sometimes I stop mid-scene. Sometimes I stop mid-sentence.
When I want to move on with intent (write this tomorrow), I will end a writing session with a “tell” (as opposed to a “show”). I know the “tell” is not doing the work, and telling invites immediate revision. I set it down even if I have a glimmer of what the “show” will be. Tomorrow calls. Of course, as we know all too well, tomorrow is never guaranteed, but this novel writer must wrap himself in a heavy blanket of hope. More words will come.
This was not always the way.
In his column “The Greatest Life Hacks (For Now),” David Brooks included “The biggest lie we tell ourselves is, “I don’t need to write this down because I will remember it.” As much as we value multi-tasking, our brains don’t hold onto the gems. We think they will, but they don’t. We are eminently distractible. Something bright and shiny (or dark and jagged) will capture our attention, and flashes of brilliance dull quickly as we fall back into the morass of the already known and easily predictable. Surprise is the enemy of the homeostatic mind.
I carried a journal (hard cover, unlined) with me for years, taking notes about everything: movies, meals, architectural details, people. I accrued notes on pages of yellow, narrow-lined legal pads. Years of art history classes taught me to write quickly and legibly in the dark. I could (years of typing has muddled my handwriting) watch and listen and take notes simultaneously. I wrote everything down.
Yet, for all my writing, I did not have a daily specific writing practice. Even in graduate school, working toward a Ph.D. in Creative Writing (yes, that’s a thing), I wrote to meet deadlines. One short (1500-2000 word) and one long (6000 word) essay in each Literature class. Weekly seminar essays. Scrambling toward workshop slots (sure, I’ll have a story next week). I did not have a body of work to mine for revision. No particular point of view, no overarching theoretical approach, no “story of my life” that I wanted to unfold, refracted in fiction and poetry. I had come from a restaurant job where I worked 60-80 hours a week and had squeezed out enough chapters of a novel to get me into school, but once there, I was on terra incognito.
So I wrote everything down. Most of my work came about because I discovered new ways of writing each time I read something new. And everything was new. I wrote in response to—response through,really—the fiction, poetry, and philosophy I encountered in classes and on my own. I read constantly. My program’s joy (and hazard) was that the writing program was ensconced within an academic department. The creative writers met the exact requirements of our academic classmates: area distribution, exams, translation, and dissertation. In the course of my study, I didn’t just write. I learned about writers and writing, about processes and the vast array of forces that influence process. I took volumes of notes, repeatedly surprised by ideas and approaches, by the workings of minds so different and similar to my own.
Even though a biography of Dickens, Woolf, or Joyce will point out the peccadillos and triumphs, one thing rarely mentioned is the hours at work. Dickens could write in the company of friends as they gathered before a night out. Later, his study was off-limits to his family; he was not to be disturbed. Woolf wrote fiction in the morning, then focused on essays (or the other way around) after lunch. Yes, there were interruptions. Of course, there were interruptions, but writing became a habit. Are there writers for whom habit is anathema, who wait in a field with their pen held high, waiting for the jagged lightning of inspiration? Sure.
When you establish the habit of writing every day—and putting yourself to work for several hours every day—you never actually stop writing. You may not be typing. You may not be scribbling in your favorite notebook. However, your mind simmers. If you commit to 1500 words a day and stop after two or three or five or six hours, your mind will continue to work. You will not passively wait for pearls (or bakelite beads), so you will not be surprised when they come.
And you will not need to scurry to the pad when lightning strikes. You will be the blaze. Back to work.
We walked into the sunlight outside. The sidewalk was empty; Willi and Benjamin had already turned at the corner and then another corner. Cars drove slowly down the one-way street, pausing at the stop sign and squeezing into city traffic. The waft of a pizza oven turned my nose in another direction, away from lunch with my friends. My head turned toward the smell.
“Who’s driving the green sedan?” Carlo asked.
“A woman,” I shot back. “Was she wearing jewelry?”
“Jewelry. Was she wearing jewelry?”
“Earrings. Something dangling. Not hoops. I think.”
“No, you don’t ‘think.’ You know. What were they?”
“Fish,” I answered, recalling the glint beneath the voluminous red hair pulled back in an unkempt ponytail. “Gold fish hanging head to tail. Probably real gold. The sedan was a Mercedes 300.”
“Good.” Carlo hadn’t stopped walking. He hadn’t even turned toward me while he questioned me.
“Did you see her?” I asked. “No,” he answered. “Why would I? We’re walking to the Market, and I was thinking about the crowds.” He turned his head and glanced at me. “Besides, I knew you would.”
“Is that good?” I slowed down, and Carlo stayed on pace. I caught up to him at the corner. “Should I not pay attention?” The light for the cross traffic turned from green to yellow. I shifted my weight, ready for the walk sign. Carlo raised his arm to stop me when the white “WALK” sign lit up.
“Why are you stopping me?” He nudged me back from the curb and tilted his head to a space beneath a shop awning that was out of the flow of foot traffic.
“Do you want to pay attention?” he asked in front of a store that promised fast copies, faxes, and passport photos.
“What do you mean?”
“Do you look up and down the street and think about what you notice? Do you want to pay attention, or is it just what you do?”
“It just happens.”
“All the time,” he stated without a hint of a question.
“All the time.” A car horn barked at a man who had stepped into the intersection too late. A woman with red fingernails smoothed the back of her dress as she walked past. The man at the fax machine looked up at Carlo and me, and when I met his gaze, he looked away.
“Let’s walk.” Carlo reached out and guided me by the elbow. I felt adrift, like I would collide with everyone else on the sidewalk as he pushed me forward.
“Stop,” I insisted when we were less than halfway down the block. The city—all of it—seemed foreign, as if I had ever been here before. I felt out of breath.
The centerpiece of the Once Upon a Roof: Vanished Korean Architecture are three chimi—roof ornaments. They look similar enough that one might, at first glance, assume they come from the same site. After all, they are displayed together. However, they come from three sites across Korea: Iksan, Buyeo, and Gyeongju. Two are from Buddhist temples, the other from a palace complex.
It’s not the museum’s fault I leaped to an erroneous conclusion. Even a cursory examination reveals differences in the three chimi: articulation of the “feathers,” ratio of height to width, and depth of the curl. Clearly, they are not from the same site. Could a map display have helped me not make that mistake? Maybe. Fortunately, I was able to sort out my error and enjoyed getting past my mistake to something more truthful.
On the other side of the Smithsonian National Museum of Asian Art is the exhibit: Falcons: The Art of the Hunt. Two statues of falcons preside over the exhibit, and walking up to them, I thought, “What wonderful Horuses.” Both of the falcons have notched flat spaces atop their heads. Crowns would have rested on each, like this example of a Horus found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Except they aren’t representations of Horus. The display card reveals that they “bear the names of two gods, Herakles and Aphrodite, who were worshipped during the Ptolemaic (305-30 BCE) period.” This startled my mind into the thoughts: “How did the Ptolemaic Egyptians graft Greek and Egyptian religion (myth)?” and “Could falcons represent any god in ancient Egypt?”
Lesson one: read the display cards at the museum.
Lesson two: the story already in your mind may not be correct (even if you are wicked smaht). And while I recognize this on my Sunday wander, it happens everywhere else.
Why does the first draft (or first glimpse) of a story impress itself so firmly in our minds? I know that it does. To begin with, our minds are incredibly attuned to how we feel when we take in new information. For instance, the sudden “Aha!” when I realized that the roof ornaments came from three distinct and distant sites or the Greek connection to those stone falcons is a feeling I cherish. I seek that rush of discovery, and experiences that trigger that particular joy stick with me.
The innate fight or flight response does not lend itself to a careful mulling over facts. We jump to conclusions because of a deep-seated survival mechanism. Our minds are attuned to getting a story set as quickly as possible. Add to that the way our brains anticipate or predict every event that occurs in the world, and second thoughts become improbable, if not impossible.
So, it is not a surprise that we punish those who change their stories. “These people cannot keep their stories straight” is a refrain used to denigrate those trying to tell the truth. The minute the story changes, an error message is triggered in our mind, and out of that error, we envision obfuscations that reveal possibly darker machinations. And yes, sometimes that happens. The lesson of Watergate was that the crime of the cover-up can outstrip the original crime. However, even when there are no ulterior motives, we fight against the changes because the initial story carries such weight, even when it is inaccurate.
But how often do facts change because we learn more along the way? How often is the first report ever as accurate as a final thorough reckoning? In Think Again, Adam Grant suggests the power of thinking like a scientist (as opposed to a prosecutor, priest, or politician) can help us embrace “I don’t know”–not just as a starting point, but a possible if provisional endpoint. Did I know that Aphrodite and Herakles could be represented as falcons? No, but I can learn.
It would be too easy to ascribe the rush to judgment to a particular ideological camp; it is a universal proclivity. I have friends on the left whose anger at the changing approaches to the pandemic matches the rage on the right. However, it also points out the rationale behind people trying to manage the first blush of any story. Whether they know by inclination or research, those who manage stories in the public sphere know that once the bone of truth is set, it is hard to break again. And they also know that when the truth breaks, we want it set quickly.
What does allow us to change our minds? Well, let’s go back to feeling. Our feelings create a steady background noise in our minds. Suppose we are driven by a homeostatic impulse (maintaining not just a narrow physical temperature but a steady emotional disposition). In that case, things that interrupt that constant state will be rejected. We will seek out truths that align with our overall frame of mind. For example, if you own guns because you feel the need to protect yourself and your family, you probably feel that a threat already exists in the world. After a mass shooting event, someone may suggest that you (and everyone else) need to give up your guns. But after a shooting, do you feel more or less threatened? And does the request to disarm enhance or alleviate your fear? No matter what facts are bandied about, our feelings take precedence. In a similar vein, do teachers feel more or less threatened after a shooting? And does the thought of more guns in the classroom heighten or lessen their perception of threat? Our thoughts change to fit our feelings. And the same feeling can lead to entirely different thoughts.
The recent season of Michael Lewis’s podcast Against the Rules focused on experts and how, when confronted with a problem, we fail to find the right expert to help solve that problem. One stumbling block (and Lewis documents several) is that real experts will say, “I don’t know,” and “I don’t know” is never satisfying. We gravitate towards people who speak with authority, even when they are wrong. When experts do not clothe themselves in the trappings of authority, when they work in the basement as opposed to the corner office, or when they offer probabilities as opposed to certainties, we reject them and complain. Anyone who cannot provide a single understandable narrative (and the narrative we first decided on) must be wrong. And that wrong must be due to an intellectual and moral failing.
It’s a commonplace to acknowledge that “there are no wrong feelings.” But I wonder whether fear is still as helpful an emotion as when we wandered on the savannah or across the landbridge to the American continent? That’s a false wonder. I believe that fear—manifested in its instinctual form—is, as Roosevelt proclaimed, all we have to fear. As daunting as it may be, the unknown is fertile ground. I don’t know how fear keeps us from discovery, but I know there are discoveries to be made. Some are easy, like revelations I make on my Sunday museum walks. Others will prove challenging, almost intractable, like bridging the gap between equally frightened political camps. A commitment to the unknown, which is a commitment to the future, must be our North Star.
So, I posted my workout on Facebook, and one of my friends replied, “sounds like a good swimming workout to me!” Another responded, “Or something rather naughty.” A few weeks later, the woman I was married to threw a log onto whatever fire we were in the middle of and said she was ashamed by what I had posted. Her response did not rise to the level of high dudgeon: “How could you!” Instead, “You’re an embarrassing idiot.” Later in life, one of my blog posts earned a chilly, “Why are you sharing your emotions? It’s just like Taylor Swift.” I should be so lucky to have Taylor Swift’s “readership.” I lay myself bare here—joys and struggles—to let my tiny audience know that they are not alone. I have been in the hole, and I found a way out.
Some of this I learned from other writers. Over two thousand years ago, Aristotle wrote that effective speakers (and writers should think of themselves as speakers) needed to be aware of their own character, the demands of the audience, and, finally, the logic or quality of their arguments. I will not investigate or interrogate your character, and, honestly, character seems less and less an issue these days. Or, just as troublesome, the only issue. I have read excellent work by writers of execrable demeanor, and awful work written by saints. I don’t need my favorite writers to join me for dinner or win my vote in the next election. One hopes for excellence on the page, in public, and in private, but it doesn’t always work that way. Writers, like readers, are human.
As far as the quality of your work, if you have read any of what I have written before, you know that I believe the more you write, the more likely you are to improve. Grit out an hour, two, or six a day and fill the buckets. Murky water will become clear, and with a bit of luck and a ton of persistence, it will transform into decent ale, wine, or smoky whiskey. Are there savants who miraculously produce exceptional work as if their quills were wetted in holy ink? Maybe. While I am sure that lightning strikes, most writers have written gobs before their first miraculous effort arrives on the page. Dickens, Twain, and Marquez wrote for newspapers under deadlines. Virginia Woolf kept dense journals.
And here’s the second (the first was process) thing: when you write, you don’t write for yourself. Of course, you write for yourself, to answer some deep-seated god-only-knows-why-I’m-doing-this compunction, but the whole point is to tell. Your words seek another’s ear. Yes, yes, delight yourself and unburden yourself (or profoundly burden yourself) by what you do, but never forget that your words seek an audience. The reclusive Emily Dickinson wrote for God—at once the most daunting and forgiving audience. Joyce wrote the nearly impossible Finnegan’s Wake for a tiny audience—one that was brazen enough, curious enough, playful enough, and willing enough—but the effort was not solipsistic. His claim that if it took seventeen years to write, it should take seventeen years to read is as ponderous a gauntlet to throw down to the reader as any writer should manage. Easy messages (those that surprise but stay within narrower, almost expected bounds) get bigger audiences, but even Dubliners’ original print run was for only 1250 copies. It did better, but he fought hard for that initial print run. You will fight too.
So, write with an audience in mind, and know your audience. Your audience is not everyone (even if it could be anyone), and it is certainly not someone who willfully (and vindictively) misconstrues your meaning. Some people are beyond convincing It could be because of something their parent said, or where they were born, or the weather in Tasmania. If you chase that rabid white rabbit, you will get bitten. You have no control over how the reader feels when they read. With any luck, you will cheer those in need and charm those ready to be diverted and enchanted. Every reader carries baggage to your work, and not all of it will get in the way. Some readers are packed for whatever journey you take them on. Be ready for them. Seriously, they will expect your best work—meet their expectations.
Besides, writers come with our own freightload of luggage; it’s okay. The best you can do is enter into an unspoken contract with your readers to provide something clear and engaging (and in the broadest and most profound sense, entertaining) to read; they will enter into a similar contract to read as generously as they are able.
Not all readers will. Not all readers can. Some are just curmudgeons. Some will comment and criticize for their own delight. I once had a classmate add an illustration of eyes in flight to the margins of one of my fledgling efforts. He said he wanted to remind me that “eyes cannot fly around a room.” The eyes were artfully crafted but perhaps beside the point. Maybe you like that kind of attention. There is something enthralling about gobs of feedback, even down to the level of “Use curly, not straight quotation marks.” Or the other way around. A writer can become mesmerized by confirmation that readers have given their fullest attention even if the attention is toxic.
Let me remind you that some readers refuse to read anything out of their comfort zones, refusing to read a book about football, or only wanting to read books about football. They remind me of my daughter, who always wanted mac n’ cheese no matter where we ate. Some people don’t want a salad with goat cheese, a veggie burger, pasta primavera, or grilled fish. Some people turn their noses up at pecan pie. They aren’t wrong; they just aren’t right for you.
And there is a side to people we must admit. Let me share stories that will put this in sharper relief. On a zoom meeting with fellow faculty (weather kept us home), a number of us displayed our pets. One faculty member chimed in, “I can feel my allergies getting ready to kick in.” Delight, delight, delight, and fuck you. Or, while I sang the praises of hot and sour soup with duck from a Chinese restaurant, one person volunteers, “I don’t like spicy food.” It could have been “I don’t like duck.” Leaving a movie with friends, I shared that I was going home to enjoy a small glass of Lagavulin 16 year old Scotch. “If you like drinking a campfire,” one acquaintance replied. Witty, but really? Humans have a predilection for negativity, and on the other side, we drag negative comments behind us like a chain of money boxes. Oh, the humanity. This negative penchant can be fatal for writers struggling to break the shell between themselves and the world made of words—the world they can and should make.
You are going to need a thick skin. More importantly, you will need a clear vision of the star you hitched your wagon to (some readers will complain about what I just did).
In Salinger’s Seymour: An Introduction, Seymour advises his brother Buddy about writing: “[Y]ou’ve been a reader long before you were ever a writer… ask yourself, as a reader, what piece of writing in all the world [you] would most want to read… The next step is terrible, but so simple… You just sit down shamelessly and write the thing yourself.” Remember what delighted you, what amazed you, what made you turn page after page, or read and reread over and over again. What book do you thrust at friends and strangers, exclaiming, “You’ve got to read this!”? Of course, some will complain that they cannot keep all the Aurelianos straight in One Hundred Years of Solitude—you don’t have to be friends with them anymore; it’s okay to make that judgment. I jest. No, I don’t. Yes, I do.
No, I don’t.
Yes, you are the writer, but you are also your first audience. Have you written something that delights, amazes, frightens, shocks, excites, encourages, and engages you? If you have, it stands a chance to do the same for someone else. You might wonder if anyone will publish—or buy—what you write? Keep this in mind: shelves (actual and virtual) are full of product (yes, product) with a range of quality. Write well and let the market settle its own problems.
Be ready. Your audience will want you to guide them, to tickle them, and torment (for the right reasons) them. They will adjust their schedules and expectations when you surprise them. Surprise them!Write for that audience, delight and amaze them. And disregard all others. I think I may have drifted too far into a warning about that other audience, so let me insist that some people will cheer you on—as you work and for your finished work. One of my teachers would always comment “Keep writing!” on my stories whether he liked what I wrote or not. He wouldn’t invite me into the weeds of precisely what he thought I should fix or revise, even if his overall comment was “No,” he still cheered, “Keep writing!”
And so, keep writing. Find your audience. Be more patient with yourself and them. They will come around. So will you.
You’ll notice the range here—about 1500 years between the gold breastplate fragment and the bronze plate. Winged guardian spirits persisted in Mesopotamia all the way into earliest Islam. Where did they come from? We don’t know, the same way we don’t know where Jinn originated—or Angels. We only know our domesticated, religion-ified versions. Islam did the Jinn no kindnesses—our vision of them as evil or demonic spirits postdates and is influenced by the Quran, delivered not so long ago. The gold breast piece is twice as old as the Quran.
When I write that we don’t know the origins of myths, I don’t mean that they once existed (either the myths or the creatures from the myths) and have disappeared. I only point to our genuine ignorance. Our past is not like science. New devices like those that have allowed the first crude forays into the brain’s working will not uncover why Inanna is the god of love and the god of war (who thought of that combination?) or why winged lions guarded the throne room of Ashurnasirpal II. Lions in Iraq? Winged lions? They persist—becoming a symbol of Mark the Evangelist and the emblem of NATO. How and why the image began is less interesting (if only because it is entirely unanswerable) than how and why they persist and change over our brief human history.
One of the changes is a distillation of mythological figures into either good or evil characters. The Jinn suffered this transformation into demonic beings—evil and then even more evil beings (avoid ‘Ifrit and Marid at all costs, even if you are Aladdin, even if they do sound like Robin Williams). In Greek and Roman myth, the gods of love are less complicated than Inanna, as are the gods of war (and, perhaps not surprisingly, the gods of love and war have an affair and are caught in a golden web). Athena, especially the Athena of Homer’s Odyssey, is tricky—the Ur-trickster, if you will—but even she pales compared to the brief glimpses we get of Inanna.
There was a wildness in our early stories and beliefs. We lost much of that wonder and made it make more sense, conforming to ideas of should and could. We read in amazement until the story wraps itself into a moral. Our relationship with God is all but legalistic, and He doesn’t even have to swear on the Stygian marshes to bind him to a promise; we have it in writing. The Torah, the Bible, and the Quran are one part history, one (big) part contract.
And for those who insist that our current beliefs are too unbelievable, it’s not because these neo-heretics are demanding something wilder but seek a more logical and ordered universe. It’s as if we believe that it should be possible to predict the weather right down to the last degree as we leave our homes for another day of work. I remember listening to the automated voice deliver the weather forecast while sailing on the ocean: wind speed, wave height. And then, I got to the business of the waves and wind along my route. The windy, watery world was enduringly unpredictable.
If I was a deist, I would shudder to think that a contract written 1500-5000 years ago had any hold on a being I acknowledged as omnipotent. Like Oliver Twist, I would hold my empty bowl and beseech, “Please, sir, I want some more.” The “more” is more gruel. Somedays, the wild is as unpalatable as gruel, but more often, it is ambrosial in its unpredictability.
We strip the winged lion of its essential weirdness and wildness and turn it into an emblem—an organizational standard bereft of history and wonder. The weirdness and wonder persist too, and they rattle outside the self-imposed cages of our lives. Even when as small and inconsequential as a virus, we logical, rational humans capitulate to what we cannot control. We fail in the face of the wild.
When I was 17, I read Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan. Not on my own—it was for an Ethics class in high school. We also read Plato, Aristotle, Bentham, Mill, Kant, Golding, Dostoyevsky (Crime and Punishment over Winter Break!), Mishima, and Descartes. And when I wrote “Not on my own,” I lied. I chose the class, and I gobbled down everything Fritz Marks put in front of us. I still refer to Hobbes (40+ years later). I expanded on my understanding of the rationale behind Descartes in grad school, when I pulled apart the “cogito ergo sum” as it applied to ideas in William Blake’s prophetic poems. We are never done.
Hobbes’s vision of mankind, based so much on what was observable—limited, one might say—was grim—is grim—and foreboding. The social contract—or some kind of explicit and implicit agreement—was all that stood between us and the enduring war of all against all. Kant threw us a life preserver—the notion of the sunnum bonnum—but tell me when in history that any group of people could agree on a greatest good for more than 26 minutes. Hobbes hangs around the same way that Thrasymachus is craftily ushered out of Plato’s Republic. We may move on from the dark vision, but it’s hard to wash that blood off your hands.
This essay will head in two directions, and I’ll get the weighty one off first. I’m not sure how you feel about the social contract. We give it more than a little bit of lip service—some implicit set of agreements that keeps us from (figuratively and literally) eating each other. I once pointed out the difficulty of claiming a moral high ground because of the numerous daily petit disruptions to the explicit contracts. In a sermon, I pointed out speed limits as an indication of a rule that was almost designed to be broken—and was taken to task for asserting that people knowingly violated laws. But what high moral ground can we claim? I lived in West Philadelphia when the mayor allowed the police to drop an incendiary device—a bomb—on a row home; the resulting fire consumed 61 homes and killed eleven. In the final days of the US evacuation from Afghanistan, a drone strike killed 10 Afghan citizens, in what the US military admitted was a “fatal mistake.” Yesterday, 2000 people died of COVID in the United States, and we will never know how many of those were infected by people who refused vaccines or masks. We are always living in the fog of the war. Is it the war of all against all? I don’t know, but I know that despite best intentions or assertions of individual freedoms, someone, somewhere, is getting served. Again.
The will to power, in whatever form it takes, is hard to set aside. Jack Merridew (from Golding’s Lord of the Flies) stands as a perpetual caution. We want meat (metaphorical and actual), and we have Roger to keep the boys in order. I know that some point to the schoolboys who disproved Golding’s fictional account of our race to destruction. I will point to the differences: the Tongan schoolboys were not British schoolboys; the boys were friends and not assembled hodgepodge to avoid an oncoming nuclear war; there were only 5 boys joined in a common purpose as opposed to the 20-50 in Golding’s novel. And one is true, and the other rings true. So yes, given the circumstances, we can avoid eating each other. If we are those boys. An obvious common purpose wrapped in the warm cloth of friendship creates the conditions for a reasonable implicit contract.
In the end, I suspect that the social contract is a useful fiction, but I also acknowledge the power of story in our lives. We need good stories. Linda Cron says that we are “Wired for Story,” and I show my students clips of Marlon Brando weaving the story of Caesar’s assassination. Do you want to win the argument? Tell a better story. A bloodied body helps. Of course, Brando has the advantage of Shakespeare, but who hasn’t been swayed by rhetoric as sharp and story-bound? The line will be short.
One story is that we are brutish, that we are only a few thousand years removed from a more animal existence, and we must acknowledge that former life and behave accordingly. Our inherent biology drives us to fuck and fight and eat (Paleo!). This kind of biological absolutism ignores that whatever we evolved from, we did evolve (if in fits and starts) and continue to evolve. We are, always, changing—from our guts to our brains. One startling aspect of Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and his Emissary is how it posits an almost lightning-like speed of change.
Another story is that we are imbued with goodness or holiness. Or that at least a few of us have been chosen for such rewards. Can I not unpack the problems of us/them either/or here or the tribalism that religious fervor unleashes? The moment any group names itself “Select,” all those who do not face immediate peril. When a supreme being is the source of authority and man (any man) wields the will of God (any God), then disagreement and diversity become less than second thoughts. Or, to quote Hume, “[O]ne party by tracing up government to the DEITY, endeavor to render it so sacred and inviolate that it must be little less than sacrilege, however tyrannical it may become, to touch or invade it in the smallest article.” What you call Sharia, I call Texas.
It may seem as if misanthropy is the only safe harbor once one heaves the contract away. Still, this afternoon, I joked with complete strangers about the title of Tiepolo’s Wealth and Benefits of the Spanish Monarchy under Charles III. Beautiful painting. Hilarious title. I asked a guard about the signs surrounding parts of Sarah Cain’s installation. Huge single-colored circular inserts into stone benches have signs exhorting, “Please do not sit or stand on the colored circles.” As if. The guard laughed about the kids who could not help themselves. My daughter gets embarrassed by my exchanges, but they keep me sane. Without an esprit de corps, life becomes too ponderous. We are all in this together.
We all know this, especially after the past year. The virus ignored all divisions: class, race, gender, religion. The virus—as viruses always have—leaped across boundaries as nimbly as a 9-year-old leaping over hopscotch squares. COVID could have (should have?) been an occasion for recognizing our togetherness. After all, viruses have happened before and will happen again. Calling it a name or blaming someone (an animal, a person, a city, a nation) ignores history and biology. Viruses don’t mean to do anything; they have neither will nor strategy. Like the lilies of the field, they neither reap nor toil. You cannot go to war with a virus. We tried. And on a war footing, we—and this “we” is a particularly American “we”— got angry—and not at life in general or some god, but at each other. Perhaps, in our relatively comfortable lives, we forget that life is hard, that living in the world requires work and alteration.
A friend texted me Sunday morning with news of his family’s encounter with COVID. His daughter’s classmate brought the virus to school from her infected parents, and you can guess the rest. My initial response was anger, disgust, relief, and commiseration. I am a parent, and I teach.
I understand why we want our kids in school. Students do better when energized by each other and by teachers. Teachers also get more from the verbal and nonverbal give and take of the classroom. But schools, private schools too, are confluences of race, class, gender, religion, and now, attitude. We now claim attitude (I don’t like masks. What?) as a fundamental right, which strains even the fictional social contract. The virus has no attitude and no philosophy. Take a lesson.
I began this essay by explaining my first encounter with Hobbes. One of the initial contracts I entered into was a student. Throughout my life, I was an enthusiastic student, save for a few unfortunate cases. I never took to Mr. Ewell in chemistry, and as much as astronomy holds a charm for me today, I failed Wulff Henitz’s class at Swarthmore. Otherwise, I chased rabbits down the deepest holes, and learning never felt like a chore. Call me crazy (or seriously misguided), but I expected my students to feel the same way. I quickly recognized that I would need to persuade many of my students to my way of thinking, and I did. I cajoled. I amused. I swam across desks to demonstrate the power of metaphor. I taught for 25 years at various levels and enjoyed much of the task. This past year, when the pandemic tore the school year to shreds and sent us to zoom screens, I felt as if the implicit contract between my students and me—in fact, most of the unspoken agreements between administrators and teachers and parents—got tossed in the shredder. Contract, my foot.
Teaching English has always been a matter of teaching about humans. Writers may care about structure and grammar, but what matters most is the human condition. As a writer, the only thing that matters is getting a fully human experience onto the page. When I write “fully human experience,” I mean one that grapples with our brightest gifts and most dreadful failings. We live our lives veering from one to the other in some vast internal and external landscape. Mountain ranges and inward seas. Admirable struggles await.
Several years ago, I worked as a principal at an Orthodox Jewish Boys’ School, a Yeshiva. One of the Rabbis called me “The Warden,” and at that moment, I knew my time at that helm was short. I do not blindly accept authority, even my own, and I know there is so much that I do not know, and this goads me on to learn more, think harder, and dig deeper into this loamy life. The Cuban writer Virgilio Piñera has a story about a man who devours a mountain. If I am going to do the impossible, I will need to focus my efforts. This work will not devour itself.
I have chosen my mountain, and my ocean, my desert, and my city. I will write about what I find there, but I am no longer interested in standing at some imaginary gate telling students they didn’t qualify—either for entrance or escape. Not to put too fine a point on it, I am absolutely not interested in being the warden. I will wrestle with existential “no’s” in my work—and the existential “yes’s.” Always the Yes! I choose to cheer in my life among the young. They have hills enough to chew (read the Piñera). That is my contract. For now.
We all dream, and so the experience is not uncommon. We fly, we fuck, we fall. Jungians and archetypalists of all sorts would normalize and defragment the conspicuously bad writing in dreams to give them viable and understandable meaning. Last night—in the morning, really, when I cadged an extra hour of sleep after my alarm gently nudged me—I dreamed about lifting weights. The gym—a fancy place with magnetically attaching plates—did not have—or rather, did not seem to have—bars long enough for bench presses. I had to go outside—in the dark, behind what appeared to be a dock or loading bay—to find the six-foot-long, forty-five-pound bars. Then I put plates on the bar, started lifting, and the weights felt light. I told my friend, Brian (yes, I have a friend who shares my name), who was spotting me, to stop helping me. I was covered in sheets. The word that came to mind was “shroud,” and it was getting in the way. I needed to take it off. Then I woke up.
Yes, this dream is poorly written—a shroud? Really? Concelo ex machina. I remember thinking, “Get this fucking thing off me!” Yes, I curse as much in my dreams as in real life. Obvious, clunky, and weird.
I forgot to mention that the gym was in a hotel in Marseilles. My mind populated the rain-wet streets with a raft of people of different nationalities, all drawn to the port city—a city that is liminal in real life and not just my dreams. I heard them speaking French, Spanish, Arabic, and Farsi and knew that I could not communicate with them even as I heard them. They would not be able to tell me where to go—where the weights were—even if they knew.
There isn’t a book (or website, or Reddit thread) that will provide a definitive interpretation of a dream because there isn’t one. Even our own dreams unravel without narrative coherence or discernible significance. And they are our own dreams! Who better than the dreamer to make sense of the image soup that our brains simmer in the night? Besides, they almost always end with “And then I woke up.” So we rarely encounter a well-orchestrated climax and satisfying denouement.
Imagine, for a moment, treating what we read as if they were dreams. What if, instead of artistic unities, we sought to immerse ourselves the same way we are immersed in dreams. “Why not like life?” you ask. We exert—or attempt to exert—control over life. The homeostatic drive irons out all that is strange or random or, well, dream-like. In dreams, even for the lucid dreamer, there is an element of the unexpected. The joy (jouissance?) of dreams comes in their unpredictability. When else in life do we forsake prediction for sheer experience?
I struggled to teach my advanced students how to “read like a professor” because they sought to corral meaning. What they read needed to reflect their experiences or interests. But then, I also struggled with my professors and grad school colleagues, who also harnessed what they read to suit their beliefs. Few readers meet the work and let themselves alter when they alteration find. We have a terribly hard time meeting the wild with our own wildness. Besides, surprise, the harbinger of change, runs counter to how our brains process information. Brains—by design—seek to match what happens with deeply rooted predictions. We predict and demand that the world conforms to our predictions. I am drawing on the work of Mark Solms for this.
What if, instead, we read literature like reading a dream?
First, we must know the dreamer better—or, at the very least, recognize that the dream comes from a profoundly intimate and personal space that is entirely subjective and therefore unqualifiable compared to our lived experience. While there may be correspondences with our dreams, relying on what we know of ourselves will lead not so much to a misinterpretation as a “mis-experience” of the dream. While holding up a mirror to ourselves is absolutely enchanting (and even, at times, essential), it becomes a solipsistic activity when left unleavened by a deep understanding of the dreamer.
Second, just as dreams surprise us, we need to be astounded by what we read. Even if we are reading a novel in a class on post-colonialism, even if the novel makes straightforward claims about the post-colonial world, reading it only as an exemplar will circumscribe the work’s overall effect. It will remove the dreaminess of the work, and in that dream, there may be more (or less) about post-colonialism than we imagined at first. Pardon me while I carry this a step forward; we cannot colonize dreams with reason.
The same way that an out-of-place detail (that shroud!) opens up ways of understanding a dream, it is precisely literature’s ability to flash incongruous elements into being—not only as counterpoint but as mawing gaps in the well-knit Markov blankets of perception. We are lulled into a kind of affirmative satisfaction when pleasantly predictable patterns repeat. The surprises, the mistakes, and the interruptions all unravel the carefully constructed conceptions leaving what? A mad scramble to reweave—midnight (or midmorning) Penelopes trying to stay one step ahead of the rapacious reason-making suitors.
Dreams are strange, and most writing is not. Most writing belies its transactional origins. It keeps accounts, documents ownership, concretizes agreements, or dissolves partnerships. Most writing is officious and tedious. Dreams are not. Granted, we may feel that another person’s accounts of their nighttime rambles are inexplicable and therefore of little interest to us. Still, compared to a bill of sale or divorce decrees, they are candyfloss. The harder bone to chew is that we are primarily transactional beings. Writing reflects our need to organize and regiment experience to a suitable and predictable medium.
Dreams are a rebellion in our brains. While we spend our days demanding sense, dreams help settle a more extraordinary account—that of strangeness and unpredictability. Literature is a semi-intentional settling of accounts. It balances the need for predictable and measurable outcomes with the unsettled and unreliable aspects of existence. And if you make sense of last night’s dream, there is more confusion ahead. Why not court confusion and read to dissent with all common sense?
I go back to Mrs. Dalloway and how Septimus Smith’s death made Clarissa “feel the beauty; made her feel the fun.” Few moments feel as gloriously incongruous as that—as disruptive and necessarily reframing. You cannot read Mrs. Dalloway the same after that moment, and if you are a serious reader, you better start all over again. I will suggest that almost all works of literature have such moments—or several such moments—that just don’t fit. Or completely fit. Each one shatters the pattern and forces the reader to reconsider and reconceive.
There’s a reason that we do not experience reality the same way we experience dreams. It is impossible to have the world perpetually exploded and rearranged out of order. I may seem to critique how we live when I make claims about our essentially transactional natures; I am not. But I see the tension between the drive and indefatigable desire for predictable outcomes and the violently unpredictable nature of complex systems. Reading literature is not a way to practice making sense but of recognizing the failure of making sense. We must need to constantly reassess, and recognize that even in a world that we have (subconsciously) organized (that cleanly appointed gym in a hotel in Marseilles) that there are twists and turns ahead. We need to learn that the world is more unpredictable, more incongruous than we would like. As are we.
On Sunday at the French Open, Novak Djokovic, the number one tennis player in the world, dropped the first two sets of the championship to a rising star. He had faced the same situation in the fourth round of the tournament, but this was the final, and his opponent, Stefanos Tsitsipas, was poised to win his first major championship.
Djokovic retreated to the locker room after the second set and had a conversation with himself. “There is always two voices inside: one is telling you that you cannot do it, that it is done, it is finished,” he admitted. “That voice was pretty strong after that second set.”
Wait. The best tennis player in the world, a champion who had won 18 major titles (and would win his 19th that day), has a voice that says he cannot succeed?
Sit with that for a moment.
Yes, he has another voice, and he described how he asserted that voice between the second and third set. “I felt that that was a time for me to actually vocalise the other voice and try to suppress the first one that was saying I cannot make it. I told myself I can do it and encouraged myself. I strongly started to repeat that inside of my mind, and tried to live it with my entire being.”
Success is not about living without doubt. Doubt exists, even in the mind of a champion. Success happens when that “other voice” contends with doubt. Djokovic, who has won 19 major tournaments, has also lost 10, and there was a time when his losses and wins (8 apiece) were equal. Even for the most successful, failure—and failure on a grand stage—still happens. We chose to contend.
I do not have the same record of success as a tennis champion, but, like him, I also have doubt. I have often chided myself for doubt, and this is a mistake. There are two voices: one that says, “Yes”; the other that says, “No.” I have learned—perhaps it took me too long—to listen to that “other voice,” and, when necessary, to give it a push. Vocalize it. Shout it.
Last winter, during the Australian Open, Djokovic was injured, and after leading Taylor Fritz 2-0, he dropped the following two sets. Djokovic has an imposing record after winning the first two sets of matches: 209-1, but injuries are a wildcard in sports. He prevailed, and the victory was especially sweet. “This is definitely one of the most special wins in my life,” Djokovic claimed. “It does not matter what round it is, against who it is. Under these kinds of circumstances, to pull this through is definitely something I will remember forever.”
His immediate response after winning was more revealing. He vocalized. “That’s why I play!”
Play? Novak declares that he loves tennis “with all my heart.” That is what it takes, no matter what, to do something with all my heart—with all your heart. I have no idea what else Novak Djokovic could have been. His parents ran several small businesses. Maybe that’s what he would have done had he not displayed a gift for tennis. Perhaps he would have become the best small business owner in Serbia; I do not know. He chose—as much as anyone chooses—to play.
Writing is play—at least it is a kind of play. We do not play against anyone, only with the reader. We entice and enchant them. Shock and soothe them. We afflict their doubts and shift their worlds. Maybe. And we face our own doubts—quietly and not so quietly. We enlist rituals and habits that either quiell those doubts or quash our urge to write. Which voice do we vocalize most?
Two voices? Like the two wolves from the story. Feeding the wolf? How about giving voice to the wolf? Howl louder. Jettison all the other voices that urge “No.” There will be enough of that—too much—within you. Listen to the voices that encourage, even demand, that you write. And then write more and love the writing with all your heart.
Say, you live in Maine, far from the coast, in the softly rolling hills in the part of the state known as “The County.” In Winter, the days are short and bitter with cold. You are not at war with the dark, and the winter wind is not your enemy. You may decide to move someplace warmer, where the sun rises earlier and warms the world even in January, but no matter where you go, The County will be cold in January.
Say, you live in Florida, and for four months each year, you pay special attention to the weather forecast in the morning. You have sheets of plywood stowed away in your garage, just in case. In Winter, the streets fill with license plates from places up North. Hurricanes and snowbirds are the limits of your life, but you aren’t ready to chuck it all and move to Tempe. You aren’t at war with hurricanes—what a futile battle that would be. They pass through, soaking the earth and knocking down trees. At least they aren’t earthquakes—unpredictable and worse than ornery.
My father planned his trips to Bermuda in late May and early June—when the weather was usually warm enough and before hurricane season roared into full flower. Only once did a tropical depression explode into hurricane force. We were still inside the reef, making our way from Hamilton to the customs house in St. George. One of the ferries veered off its routine course to check on us as we were about to depart Hamilton Harbor. My father’s stubbornness was as unrelenting as the weather. It took us a day to power around the island’s northern passage—a trip that usually took scant happy hours. I held the helm as we motored inch by inch into idiot winds. I slept well in an uneasy anchorage that night. By morning, most of the cell had crawled on, slowly dissipating in the pan of the chilly Atlantic.
A sailor, a Floridian, or a Down Easter all understand that weather comes and keeps on coming. Some cycles are reasonably predictable, but day by day, if you are planning a day sail, a picnic, or a ski trip, you better check ahead.
There’s a lesson here, and it’s full of holes. Not everything is like the weather. When we describe people as walking hurricanes or icicles, we make metaphors to explain their character. We know that their behavior did not originate as the result of cold air spinning over warm water, or that they are actually frozen. We alert ourselves to the difficulty of such people because we know that grappling with rain and wind or freezing cold is a fool’s errand.
The coronavirus is more like weather than some “invisible enemy.” We will not “contain it,” or “defeat it,” as much as adapt to it—the way that we put on a heavy coat in the Winter, or attach plywood outside our windows when the storm heads toward us. Yes, the virus can kill us, but it’s not a willful assailant. It did not attack us or declare war on us. It has no strategy learned at war college. The virus just is.
We think of the world in terms of stories. Even the way I began this—weather—is just a story based on my experiences, although I have never sealed a window behind plywood or hunkered out to check fields in the brief sun of Winter. I can imagine such things because I have seen them depicted in the news or heard these stories from people who have done them. Or because my life has brushed close enough to these places and that weather. Besides, these are common enough stories.
But war? A friend reminded me—over and over—how poorly the military was depicted in film and television. The military and war are described to conform to our sense of what they are—to fit the stories we already have. I recall Henry in The Red Badge of Courage, marching off to war with heroic accounts of the Greeks dancing in his mind. And then the battle happens.
There was a singular absence of heroic poses. The men bending and surging in their haste and rage were in every impossible attitude. The steel ramrods clanked and clanged with incessant din as the men pounded them furiously into the hot rifle barrels. The flaps of the cartridge boxes were all unfastened, and bobbed idiotically with each movement. The rifles, once loaded, were jerked to the shoulder and fired without apparent aim into the smoke or at one of the blurred and shifting forms which upon the field before the regiment had been growing larger and larger like puppets under a magician’s hand. (Crane, The Red Badge of Courage)
Of course, this is a little too poetic. Crane gets at the chaos and absence. The overall effect of his novel is the persistent shift from order to chaos and back again. He did not experience war but learned by listening to veterans as he prepared to write. We can learn new stories.
We fall back on stories that we already know. The gravity of the familiar is too powerful for most to escape. We repeat and replicate the stories from our lives with tidal regularity. We do it automatically and insensibly. And that is fine and sensible when what we already know helps guide us back to familiar places. However, when faced with the exceptional, we must learn, quickly, to adapt and revise those familiar stories into something that will suit the present moment. “Must”? Why “must”? We do well enough with the old ways.
Metaphors, which are all that stories are, helpful tools that can open and expand our understanding. In Range, David Epstein writes how Kepler used metaphors to help him discern the motion of the planets. However, metaphors come imbued with values and can ensconce our judgment with moral values that impede clear vision. In Illness of a Metaphor, Susan Sontag points how “[i]llnesses have always been used to enliven charges that a society was corrupt or unjust.”
So, if we are at war with the virus, it must be a foe with corrupt and evil origins. We demonize the virus to create a familiar story of us vs them. We go to war with the virus to stir a sense of urgency; war is the epitome of urgency. The evil enemy must be defeated. Leave out the chaos and unpredictability. The slip of genetic information becomes an “invisible enemy,” the President takes on the mantle of “War President.” Except this enemy does not stand on a field and fight, does not snipe at us from a jungle blind, does not line up or plan or have a General in charge of strategy. There is no Rommel, no Lee, no Hannibal directing the forces. No more than some angry, vengeful force directs the cold wind to gnaw off the fingers of your left hand, or tears trees up by their roots and smashes them down through your roof.
The man who attacks the wind is worse than a fool and doomed to fail. Even if the wind abates, and the serene sun returns like a balm, he did not defeat the wind, and he did not bring the sun.
Still, we feel the need to play the useful if futile part. We must do something. During the pandemic, many will do—and should do— much, as we slowly find out a way to live with this next new virus. There have been other illnesses, and there will be others. We can be sure of that. We will learn this lesson, or forget it and retreat to the familiar old story. The story was there before and will wait for us, as it always has.