Hogan's Alley

Thursday, May 31, 2007

The Art of Writing

Don DeLillo is one of the great writers of our time. His great novel, "Underworld", arguably deserved the appelation "Great American Novel", at least of the Twentieth Century. Professional critics no doubt shied away from that weighty conclusion, for it brings the possibility of nothing but endless argument and avoids focus on the merits of the work.

His latest book is called "Falling Man". It begins with the fall of the Twin Towers. The central character wanders out of the dust and gloom in a half daze. His office was in the North Tower.

I am not today intending to write a review of this book. I have just begun it. But I was struck by one passage, which is set in a group of people in the early stages of Alzheimer's Disease. The group is asked to do writing exercises by their leader, the wife of our hero.

They wrote for roughly twenty minutes and then each, in turn, read aloud what he or she had written. Sometimes it scared her, the first signs of halting response, the losses and failings, the grim prefigurings that issued now and then from a mind beginning to slide away from the adhesive friction that makes an individual possible. It was in the language, the inverted letters, the lost word at the end of a struggling sentence. It was in the handwriting that might melt into runoff. But there were a thousand high times the members experienced, given a chance to encounter the crossing points of insight and memory that the act of writing allows. They laughed loud and often. They worked into themselves, finding narratives that rolled and tumbled, and how natural it seemed to do this, tell stories about themselves.
"...the crossing points of insight and memory that the act of writing allows." Everyone who writes, even those of us low enough to consider blogging to be a form of writing, knows this crossroads. One cannot write without thinking and remembering. The very act lights up neural pathways that can be excited in no other way. Books may die, replaced by some future version of the internet, but every signpost indicates that writing will still be the soul and substance of this new electronic communication.

That is, of course, not to say that every act of writing invokes some sacred reservoir of pure reason. Writers do not automatically achieve some Al Goreian state of absolute reason leading inexorably to The Truth.

Gore is wrong to assert that reason alone is the proper engine of political decision making. Reason, unfettered by the emotions, experiences, biases and hopes of the writer does not exist. Not, at least, in human beings. Even a casual viewing of the range of thought available on the web shows that political writing by thousands of intelligent people produces hundreds of differing views of which political choices should be made.

Political choices, especially in a democratic systems, always involves the weighing of competing values. The need for state control vs. the rights of the individual; the benefits of relative economic equality vs. the right of people to be free from state coercion in the taking of their monies for redistribution; etc. Reason cannot lead all people to the same conclusion at the same time. Some slightly shifting honoring of all of these competing interests brings us to some middle spot through compromise. The center point is always changing, as it should.

The other annoying aspect of Gore's thesis is that correctly formed reason will inevitably lead Americans to the Gore position. Surely he will not admit that his beliefs are unreasonable. Potential saviors of the republic cannot have such feet of clay. Thus, our salvation lies in seeing the wisdom of his view of the world. He did, after all attend a fine university and has vast experience in the workings of the nation. Why, we need to barely trouble our little heads about such complex matters. We have only to rise up and demand that he lead us and he will lay down his new found wealth to serve us. Hallelujah!

So it is that I react, as a full person, to DeLillo's novel. On September 11 my sister was in her office at Verizon on Vesey St. in lower Manhattan. The building was just across that narrow street from the North Tower of the World Trade Center. When she evacuated her building onto Vesey St., she naturally gazed up at the smoking towers. What she saw, and what haunts her was a falling man. Others followed him. The sounds of their bodies hitting the plaza below could not be shut out of her ears, nor her memories.

Her experience, recounted to me late that day, is also seared into my perceptions of that event. It enters the calculus of all my thinking about terrorism, America's place in the world and how we prevent even worse attacks.

Yesterday a tape by the so-called American al Qaeda, Adam Gadahan, threatened further attacks on US soil. "Your failure to heed our demands ... means that you and your people will ... experience things which will make you forget all about the horrors of September 11th, Afghanistan and Iraq and Virginia Tech," he said in the seven-minute video."

Handily, he also provides us with the al Qaeda prescription for avoiding further tragedy:

Gadahn -- sporting a headress, glasses and long beard -- said Bush had "embroiled his nation in a series of unwinable and bloody conflicts in the Islamic world."

He also called on the United States to cease support for the "bastard state of Israel" and the "56-plus apostate regimes of the Muslim world" and to free all Muslims from its prisons.

"We don't negotiate with war criminals and baby killers like you. No, these are legitimate demands which must be met," he said.

So there we have it. To avoid further attacks we need only totally disengage from the Islamic world and stand by while al Qaeda and its allies set up Taliban-like states around the world. And we must stand by while the Israeli state and all its Jewish inhabitants are wiped from the face of the middle east. On yes, and in the process give up any dependence on oil immediately and voluntarily devolve into a second rate power, a sort of France in North America.

At least those are today's demands. Were we to acquiesce I have no doubt that further layers of demand would be issued. By the way, which prisoner in America would be stupid enough to not immediately convert to Islam?

As you know, these demands resonate with many in America. Many think that our presence in Afghanistan and Iraq is wrong. Many think that it is unjust to favor Israel over the Palestinians. Many think that our support for the regimes in Saudi Arabia and other states is wrong. Many thing that we have too many poor black men in our prisons. Noam Chomsky thinks all of this is correct.

Happily, most have concluded that these positions do not represent the full measure of truth. Most Americans, thinking as clearly as they can and yet possessing the total experience of that September day, believe that we need to oppose these Islamic fascists aggressively. Can we do it smarter? Certainly. Can it be done with an array of military, diplomatic and economic tools? Yes it can. But for most of us, bowing before the terror is not an option. It will never be. Sadly the al Qaeda types will never see that. They have their justification for violence. Effectiveness is no part of their thinking.

Thus endeth today's sermon, formed at the nexus of insight and memory by the writing process, wholly and uniquely itself.

[Author photograph by Joyce Ravid for Simon and Shuster.]

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