Dr. Polak's Reading Blog.
Questions to Consider
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.