Austerlitz

Categories Bookshelf, Comment

In Sebald’s book “Austerlitz” it isn’t until you’re more than halfway through that you find out what you probably knew a lot earlier, that Austerlitz left as a child during WWII, that whatever life he’d had before the war was gone, in reality, and in memory too.

Only after unlayering the years of his childhood, and then his years as a student, and then a professor, and then a loner wandering through London and talking with strangers on trips to Brussels, do both we the readers and Austerlitz himself go back to find his past.

It’s then when he’s talking with Vera in Prague, Vera being his nanny as a child and a friend of his parent, that she tells him everything he had repressed.

Vera tells Austerlitz what his father Maximilian told her about his trips to Germany in the 1930s, about the “positive horror” it filled him with, watching the country become ready for greatness. It’s hard to excerpt this part, because the effect of the way Sebald writes is its buildup, over pages, and the sentences that don’t end but that you can trace through the pages. Here’s how he begins a description of a Hitler rally in Nuremberg:

Hours before his arrival, the entire population of Nuremberg and indeed people from much further afield, crowds flocking in not just from Franconia and Bavaria but from the most remote parts of the country, Holstein and Pomerania, Silesia and the Black Forest, stood shoulder to shoulder all agog with excitement along the predetermined route, until at last, heralded by roars of acclamation, the motorcade of heavy Mercedes limousines came gliding at walking pace down the narrow alley which parted the sea of radiant uplifted faces and the arms outstretched in yearning. Maximilian had told her, said Vera, that in the middle of this crowd, which had merged into a single living organism racked by strange, convulsive contractions, he had felt like a foreign body about to be crushed and then excreted.

What emerges from these pages is not that Maximilian saw it coming, but that he knew what he was witnessing. But Maximilian didn’t need to know the future—he didn’t need to know the camps and the gas and the dead children and the death marches—to know that these crowds and their need for Hitler’s promises; their worship of them, was its own evil. And all because, in Maximilian’s words to Vera, repeated to Austerlitz who then tells them to the narrator and the narrator to us, he recalls Hitler’s speeches coming through the wireless, “drumming into the Germans the notion that the promise of their own greatness was about to be fulfilled.”

And their wild, hungry, bottomless acceptance of it.

Maybe you don’t need 1939 to be held accountable for 1933.

 

Two Orlando stories

Categories Comment, Journalism

As it turned out I wrote two very different stories about Orlando this week. One about the past, one about the recurring present.

For Timeline: In the 70s, Orlando’s gay bars catalyzed a community

It’s a story that deserved to be told better. Which it was to some extent by the memory palace, in a 10-minute tribute to White Horse, the maybe-oldest gay bar in the United States. It’s been around since the thirties.

Listen. A White Horse.

For CJR: The Fundamental dilemma of covering the Orlando shooting

It boils down to this:

But ultimately, with as many answers as we report and confirm and document, one unanswerable question will remain: the question of why a man would pick up a gun and shoot 100 people while they danced.

 

Consumed

Categories Comment, Half of Myself

That we’re aware of it (and by we I mean I) does not absolve us of signing away our lives. What has happened now that the childhood virtue, the long hours in rebellious books, is temptation and escape?

Which is it? A life to take and take the best of music and wisdom and sentences, or to add to the beast? Consume or create, the only options.

Who is being hurt? Are we depriving ourselves of the world or depriving the world of us? The answer is among friends. I’ll send you a letter and then publish it for all. Am I a writer or a millennial? Am I enriching myself or drowning?

The redemption is a world submerged in water, engulfed and breathing truth, knowledge and light. Says Maimonides. A frightening image in some ways, if you’re afraid of water. I wonder if we’re not already there. There is no need to wake up, except for better dreams.

We are not prepared for infinity, but it has found us.

Consume and be consumed.

Now that we know everything

Categories Comment, Journalism

Once, journalists knew some things, but not all things. So they reported on some murders, the ones that raised eyebrows. They wrote about some events around town, and some that happened far away. They wrote most stories about the unordinary and occasionally questioned the ordinary.

Now we know everything. We know every murder in Los Angeles, ever person who’s been killed by police in 2015, every mass shooting in 2015, every mass grave found in Mexico uncovered in the last 10 years and how many bodies in each one. We even know every insult Trump has made on Twitter in the last 7 months.

Sure, there are limits. We know every school shooting in 2015 as Vox defines it. We know only as much detail as we’ve chosen to collect, within the timeframe we’ve chosen. And we sometimes use words that no numbers at all can explain. If a man is black, what makes him black? If a man is unarmed, what makes him unarmed?

Certainly, knowing the tally is not everything. There are other questions. About why it happened and what’s to be done about it, and who were the people before they were in the spreadsheet, and who are they now.

Somehow though, reading the ‘Every Time This Thing Happened, Mapped’ stories feels like an ending instead of a beginning. The definitiveness feels heavy. Like we should take a moment just to recite the names, and that will take up all the time we have.

This isn’t true only of journalists by the way. There are fields now for computational sociology and computational criminology and computational everything else. It’s another way of saying big data. Ocean big data. Space size data. Data data data.

It’s so enticing, this notion of knowing, of capturing the squirming human psyche in a gridlike model. But have we?

Already in 1921 Walter Lippman was lamenting the impossiblities of knowing everything and the weakness of applying the certainty of physics to the haphazard knowing of the social sciences, which sounds remarkably like journalism. He writes, “If you are going to Armageddon, you have to battle for the Lord, but the political scientist is always a little doubtful whether the Lord called him.”

What a wonderful way to describe it.

Maybe as time goes on we’ll find out that with enough data even the human is knowable, but at least for the foreseeable future we’ll continue to elude ourselves.

Four things at once

Categories Comment

1. I am deeply sad about Syria.
I don’t think I can help. I don’t think that my sitting here with two coffees and a chipotle sweet potato soup procrastinating on my master’s and feeling sad is an appropriate offering, but I don’t have another one. I’m sad about many other things too, but I’m especially by Syria. It’s unimportant why. Syria is great human suffering and great human helplessness, and maybe in my post-god years, it seems unfathomably worse to accept that. Syria is the inherent contradiction between numbers and faces, between fathoming and empathizing. I’m a journalist but I don’t think journalism is a contribution.

2. everyone is wrong about diversity
Privilege and identity and minority and political correctness. I’m choking on them all.

Because all of it is moralistic. It places too high a value on what should be and not what is. I say that as an idealist. We should want the world to be better but we should know and accept our own puniness.

Because it’s a language of division. It closes dialogue, it dampens curiosity. If I am genuinely interest in your practice or tradition or roots or music tastes, I am reaching across what divides every human being from another. I am not judging, moralizing, suggesting you’re an outsider, an insider, a good, bad, beautiful, angry person. I want to know why you wear what you wear, what you think of human dignity, the places you’ve seen, the lies you tell yourself, and do you like orange soda,.

Because it is external.

I’m in a radio class and we are encouraged to put diverse voices on our show. Last week the student ep sent out an email, “I’m so proud we have no straight white male voices on our show until 20 minutes in”. At drinks after the show, a week later, our legendary professor said, “Yes, but what about class and income diversity? Is everyone on our show professional, educated, urban?” Even that suggests the only struggle worth describing is upward mobility.

If I told you all my demographics – age, race, hair color, eye color, ethnicity, religion, education, profession, income, political party, where I grew up – would you know me?

What about if you knew the last thing I splurged on, the way orange Advil tablets taste in my mouth, how I grimace when I drink coffee, the shoes I refuse to throw out, that I eat microwaved potatoes for dinner, the only time I danced, what makes me laugh, what scares me most about love, would you know me more?

Change and equality and tolerance are great. The absurd obsession with victimhood and guilt and the god complex of thinking we can erase all of life’s injustices would be admirable if it wasn’t harmful.

3. related to above, journalism is reductionist
reductionism is the new evil. just like reducing human diversity to skin color and income brackets is a criminal enterprise against the hugeness of life, so is journalism’s relentless quest to present sides. there aren’t two sides to anything. there aren’t seven sides to anything. that suggests something flat, linear, two dimensional. nothing can save or destroy our planet. nothing is dead. and if King Solomon is right, there is nothing new under the sun.

In Hebrew the word for definition shares a root with fence. something defined is something limited. gone the possibilities. gone the infinite inputs and caveats and blinking arrows. this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t define, only we should know what we lose when we do.

4. I can’t make sense of myself
Never have. Today it’s between learning Arabic and knowing more and accepting that Israel is a part of my story, and getting as far as I can. I am not a party to this particular conflict. I’m not a party at all. I can write about immigration policy and privacy violations and never have to say anything about Jews, Judaism, Israel, the holocaust, promises, Yiddish accents, identity, that my name means mother of all. Kabbalisticaly, it means to speak, to reveal. You can tell because of it’s numerical value.

End Times

Categories Comment, Religion

People think the difference between religious and non-religious people is their belief in god. It’s not. It’s accompanying beliefs that have other kind of impacts.

For example: religious people know how the world is going to end. There’s going to be a redemption, a second coming, a reckoning.

That’s why the don’t have to worry about climate change, why they don’t make movies about nuclear or zombie apocalypses or alien invasions, or what happens when all the fuel is used up, or the world floods or the sun dies, or everything goes black.

They don’t have the same fears, they don’t lie awake genuinely worried about what their grandchildren will eat.

“Science fiction”, a comic-reading, TV-watching, video-gaming teenager once told me, “is the philosophy of today.” He should know. It’s how he thinks about what makes us human vs alien vs animal vs machine. It’s how he questions self, purpose, soul, morality, social contracts. Many of the working definitions we use to function break down when you enter space, introduce new species, when you can design aliens to be any combination of feeling, thinking, communicating, acting beings.

(He tried for a long time to teach me the difference between Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek, Stargate Atlantis and various other shows that all seamed to feature very idealistic humans in uniform, strangely-shaped, pointy-eared, scaly-skinned foes, and voluptuous music scores set to scenes of deep space.)

Religious people know the answers to those questions, and if they don’t, they start from the position that there is an answer, and a body of thought from which to decipher it. To a deep-space explorer, there is only possibility.

A few days ago the mother of teenager, who is no longer a teenager, told me that he told her that he no longer believes in god. A difficult thing to hear. I guess I knew it was coming. Can god compete with science fiction?