Dr. Polak's Reading Blog.
Questions to Consider
Half of a Yellow Sun marks the exposure of a different angle of the Nigerian Civil War/Biafran War. During the period of this conflict, the world was painfully aware that there were children starving. After all, it was featured on the cover of Time magazine. However, because the conflict was so deeply decontextualized—it was attributed to “ancient tribal enmities”—it was difficult for most Westerners to get a grasp on anything aside from the image of the starving African child. Prior to this period, Africa was predominantly constructed as a lawless “frontier” to be discovered, but this conflict introduced a new motif into representations of Africa. The starving child became as common as the “savage” in terms of representation, and symbolized desperation in the same way that the “savage” had come to symbolize the need for a civilizing mission a bit under a century before. Of course, this image of the starving child served in a sense to infantilize Africans, and undermined the Western viewer’s sense of their agency and individual histories.
Half of a Yellow Sun seeks to recoup that image and place it in conversation with specific suffering. Furthermore, Adichie renders Nigerians/Biafrans as having lively intellectual lives, something that is sorely lacking in many representations of Africa. It is worth considering to what extent we peruse this work with the “starving child” and “savage” motifs in mind, and how Adichie treats each. On one hand, we have thoughtful, curious Ugwu, who is developing as an intellectual in his own right, but is nonetheless compromised by the image of savagery and commits rape. In this, he falls victim to the symbol, but at the end, when we discover that the book excerpts incorporated throughout were in fact his own work rather than Richard, we have to pause to reflect on the extent to which individuals can both conform to and reject stereotypes based on circumstance. This is not to exonerate him for his crime—it is a horrific crime—but to consider his perpetration of this crime within the hierarchy of successive denials of agency. After all, rape is a crime that is predicated on the denial of agency of the victim.
Similarly, we have Baby stand in as the “starving African child”. Baby has been purposefully de-individualized by her nickname, and is mostly an indistinct character in her own right. Instead, she becomes a limb for Olanna. Baby conforms in this sense to the trope, but eventually breaks away from her mother’s desires (to keep her clean, to separate her from the camp children). However, in this separation, she further conforms to the expectations of the trope—she becomes like the children in the picture on the cover. But I think of Baby as a warning to the Western viewer.
When Amabelle is following the tour guide, he remarks about Henry I that “He could be anywhere in this palace or nowhere here at all” (279). After following him, Amabelle lapses into her dream of Sebastien, telling herself that “I sense we no longer know the same words, no longer speak the same language” (283). These lines retain a certain echo, as a sense of identity or belonging in a place is ultimately determined in part by how well you are understood, and how well you understand those around you. Throughout the text, Danticat weaves bits of Haitian Kreyol, immediately translated, among the English. However, very few Spanish words appear, the most prominent of those being “perejil.” Why write a text in English centered around the dangerous prospect of mispronouncing a word? Why incorporate so many moments of translation between the creole and the language of the adopted country (the U.S.), but refrain from immersing the reader in the language of the perpetrator? The Parsley Massacre hinged on the pronunciation of a word, but ultimately, it also hinged on a shared and contentious history. History is not just a matter of “Famous men [who] never truly die” (280). Is Danticat attempting to reintegrate the memory of the “nameless and faceless” back into the historical record? Certainly.
But then why not make this a grand love story of Amabelle and Yves finding one another in the wilderness of the massacre? Why repeat “His name is Sebastien Onius” (282, emphasis mine). To what extent is existence tied to memory?
But perhaps more importantly for this work, we must ask to what extent existence is predicated on recognition? The lack of recognition of Haitians living in the Dominican Republic—the lack of recognition of their right to be there—is what made the slaughter possible. While the Holocaust began years afterward, it is reminiscent of this more familiar genocide in that the killing is predicated on the denial of a group’s right to live on a particular patch of land. When Amabelle goes to visit Senora Valencia many years after the massacre, she thinks to herself “That she did not recognize me made me feel that I had come back to Alegria and found it had never existed at all” (294). But here, we find an important ambivalence—a coming to knowledge of the distinction between the land and the body—because it is not that Amabelle never existed, but the place where she was had never been.
Restrepo is a consideration of perspective. Through variations in perspective in terms of person, cultural positioning, camera angle (particularly the rapid switches between aerial and on-the-ground), and placement in relation to actors, it considers how location changes what can be seen and how it is seen. I was particularly fascinated by the battle scenes in this review of the film. They bear many of the same hallmarks (tracer fire, explosions, crouching, etc.) as the battle scenes depicted in fictional films, yet there is also a distinct visual gulf. The men often stand fully erect behind the barricades, there is not as much fear on their faces (and in many cases, their faces are expression-free), and there is—in an odd way—altogether less energy than the battle scenes in the fictional works we’ve surveyed.
Certainly, this is a distinction between types of battles as well as a commentary on the routine nature (in some sense) of battle. Can it also be a commentary on the placement of the audience? As Phil lay remarked about Iraq in an essay for The New York Times, “If the past 10 years have taught us anything, it’s that in the age of an all-volunteer military, it is far too easy for Americans to send soldiers on deployment after deployment without making a serious effort to imagine what that means. We can do better.” His idea about the “failure of imagination” is important in terms of complicating our notions of the ethical boundaries between types of experience. While we by no means want to lay claim to the experience of combat simply because of a camera angle of a documentary we watched, in the same breath, we should also acknowledge our responsibility as citizens to imagine ourselves in different positions and how that positionality may affect our ethical stance on issues like war.
Of course, the correct answer isn’t necessarily one opposed to combat, nor is it one in full-throated favor of military intervention. What can we gain from this imagining, though, if not a particular position? On one hand, in the case of Restrepo in particular, it could be the process of managing the existential realities of Afghanistan. In Klay’s “Money as a Weapons System,” Bob’s stance that “his was not to question why” is—I think—insufficient for most of us when we think of war. But the existential viewpoint—the conflicts exist outside of opinions on them—can open a line of inquiry about how to improve that reality. This can only occur, of course, by carefully looking at that reality and making the effort to imagine and understand.
I find Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried fascinating in part for its connection to the legends of my own family, and partly for its meditation on the nature (and morality) of such storytelling.
I can’t remember precisely when I became conscious of the Kent State shooting on May 4th, 1970, but it was certainly referenced and memorialized in our household so that it would have been difficult to avoid. The Vietnam War shadowed my family in strange ways. My father had grown up poor, and when his number came up in the draft, he knew that he couldn’t avoid service even though he was at college. Through chance and luck, he avoided serving. My mother, from a solid, middle-class suburb of Cleveland, was largely apolitical. It wasn’t that she didn’t see the point. She just wasn’t interested.
On May 4th, my mother and father were both at the morning protests—not together, as they hadn’t met yet. That afternoon, my mother went for a stroll with a friend of hers, a veteran of Vietnam, while my father lingered at the bell, milling around in the crowd that had gathered.
This is, of course, my parents’ story, but it became—in some small measure—mine as well, given the weighted meaning the day carried. When I think of Norman Bowker on his endless revolution around the lake, thinking of all the things he wanted to say but failed to find the words for, I think also of “Notes,” wherein our narrator Tim tries to parse the “Two different time periods, two different sets of issues” (153) in regards to the war story and the post-war story. I also think of the timeline I made, wherein I struggled to emphasize geography, and the ways in which it was consequential in particular ways during that era (as in all eras).
His endless revolution becomes a strange sort of turning back to envision my family and where they turned. Both my mother and father had several siblings—none of their siblings attended Kent State, none of them experienced what my parents did, and none of them became in any way political. Same upbringing, but none of their lives hinged on a day that opened a sense of elsewhere in quite the same way.
The natural world, and our relationship to it, is a common area of exploration in literature. However, as we are increasingly seeing, the literature of war has a variety of philosophical engagements with this question. The sublimity of the larks rising from No Man's Land in All Quiet on the Western Front bears little resemblance to James Dickey's meditation on "The Heaven of Animals." The Thin Red Line is useful for complicating our ideas of how war and the natural world can be juxtaposed.
Witt, although he remarks early in the film that "We can't all be smart," is also a master of questioning his surroundings--men, animals, and landscape--and engaging with them at both an intellectual and spiritual level. Furthermore, I think it's important that he acknowledges his own misrecognitions alongside of fundamental changes in his surroundings. For example, the final scene with the indigenous group shows both the effect of war on the people in the village (from friendly to hostile) and the less-than-idyllic aspects of their culture that he failed to notice before (the shelf with skulls).
This is also linked with his propensity to speak to/question the viewer (and God?) about our relationships to one another and to anything beyond the physical realm. However, he is nonetheless immersed in the natural world, which grows increasingly complex as he looks more carefully. In Dickey's "A View of Fujiyama After the War," we see this complex juxtaposition in "When it is still, when it is as still as this,/ It could be a country where no one/ ever has died but of love." Emotion is linked here to the natural world, but the natural world is figured as being without intent--emotional content is mapped onto the landscape, rather than arising naturally from it. Furthermore, the feeling that is inspired is in fact false--certainly the highest mountain in Japan saw action during WWII, particularly during air raids. But the unease is not only from man's confrontation with the natural world, because this mountain is also an inactive volcano, and so hides a sort of violence without intent, much like those scenes of vultures circling the battlefield and the stray dogs eating... what?
Our relationship with nature is not all that is at stake, however. That misrecognition replays in a number of different contexts as well. In Mitsuye Yamada's poem "Evacuation," the final lines are haunting in part because the caption changes the context of the photograph. Similarly, in Nora Krug's "Kamikaze," photographs of kamikaze pilots and the ruins at Hiroshima are juxtaposed with cartoonish, ethereal illustrations that couch the horror of the kamikaze mission in the loops and swirls of a child's drawing.
Anyways, these are a few of the ideas I'm playing with right now.
I really appreciated the questions today, because they gave me a better way to frame my thoughts about this blog. “How could people not know?” is a question we understand as potentially insensitive, but nonetheless, it really needs to be asked given our culture. As Americans, we’re utterly immersed in representations of the Holocaust, and yet, we actually learn very little about it. The representations themselves stand in between us and the event, and often do as much to obscure the circumstances as they do to illuminate the ethical difficulties and moral atrocities it offers.
I reflect on Maus with this question of representation firmly in mind, because Maus is an example of an attempt to “de-romanticize” the representation of the Holocaust. “Romanticizing” the Holocaust is purposefully awkward (and problematic) phrasing: our visions of the Holocaust are bounded by the following tropes:
· Belief in the innate goodness of people (as with the diary of Anne Frank, although the diary ends on that note because she was sent to Auschwitz where she died of typhus).
· The triumph of good over evil (as with Inglorious Basterds and other works, in spite of the fact that evil succeeded in nearly annihilating a people).
· The resilience of the human spirit (as with The Pianist and other works, without reference to the long-standing effects of trauma, as well as the absence of millions of people).
· The reluctant savior (as with Schindler’s List and other works, which essentially recycle the Dances with Wolves white savior trope).
· The unspeakable nature of the “Holocaust experience” (as with Elie Weisel’s Night, although we nonetheless read and watch volumes of material about the Holocaust).
· The survivor as sacred (as with many approaches to Holocaust survivor’s narratives, although less so with how they tell their own stories).
· The dangers of racism (as with many survivor narratives, although we have a countercurrent of messages telling us that we live in a “post-racial age” precisely because of Holocaust education, education about slavery, etc.).
· And, perversely, the cry of “Never again!” I’ll be largely bracketing that one until Unit 2, but make sure you are thinking of it.
Maus seeks to disrupt these narratives by:
· Disrupting expectations about good and evil
· Exposing the idea of “triumph” as an artificial and arbitrary assessment and end.
· The damage that can be caused to the human spirit, and the value in understanding people as complex and wounded.
· The lack of authentic, disinterested saviors, particularly from outside of the Jewish population.
· The obsessive “talkiness” of the comic—Artie and Vladek are constantly filling the space of the page with words, so much so that they sometimes bleed out of the panel or over an image.
· The survivor as human—crotchety, sometimes selfish, awkward, and flawed.
· Troubling the very concept of racism, by exposing the arbitrary distinctions of ethnicity and nationality.
· And finally, gesturing towards the persistence of experiences of extremity, and the idea that the past is never that far behind.
Some of these points of disruption are problematic as well, but I’m well over my word count, so you’ll have to think about those.
On this re-reading of All Quiet on the Western Front, I find myself reflecting most on the dichotomy Paul posits between "primitivity" and "civilization". The "weapon of instinct" he describes (on p. 294 of my copy)leads to an extended meditation on the difference between being "naturally primitive" and "artificially primitive." He argues that he and his comrades experience an artificially primitive state during warfare, but "the Bushmen are primitive and naturally so" (294). My hackles raise at such descriptions--even while I know the historical context and I understand how casual racism does have a place in works of this period--because it partakes of a particularly ugly strain of thought that was dominant at the time.
"Eugenics" was a popular branch of pseudo-science at the turn of the century, positing that the human race could be selectively bred to minimize "undesireable" elements (including the mentally ill, the physically disabled, as well as the "stupid," etc.). This was paired with a conception of the "races" of humanity mapped onto a sort of family tree, which figured the "primitive" races at the bottom and the "civilized" races at top branches. The pseudo-scientific eugenics, when paired with the image of the "family of man," became a powerful cultural trope that persists today. The term "primitive" came to denote a (mis-)reading of Darwin, in which--with the help of the "civilized"--the "primitive" could become civilized.
As we may be able to tell with Remarque's work, however, a certain measure of "primitivity" is never distant--savagery abounds, and the combination of flat affect when describing the horrors undergone by Paul and his friends coupled with the elevated rhetoric of his philosophical meditations, we can tell that setting up "primitive" and "civilized" in contrast isn't a useful division. It's a category failure.
When we arrive at the final pages of the novel, Paul's tone grows more frantic as the "action" of the "civilized" diplomatic efforts is abstracted from his own circumstances.
As we go forward into the poetry of WWI and transition into WWII this week, it is worth considering the replication of this dichotomy, and how it fails in different ways.