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Horrendous Things

While having lunch with my friend, I mentioned a few of the podcasts I had heard en route to see our daughter in Philadelphia.One of them had left an indelible image in my head, one I wished I had never heard. A producer or editor of This American Life, an NPR show, had related that one of her and her peer’s earliest fears was being taken to the The Black Wax Museum in Baltimore, a terrifying wax museum that documented the atrocities and outrages visited on black people from slave holds to lynchings to the one that has uncomfortably lodged in my head- of the brutal treatment of Nat Turner, the leader of a slave rebellion in the 1830’s and even worse, his pregnant wife: so as not to impart this indelible crime I will not share it here. But rest assured, you would not want the details to permeate your consciousness.

As a segue, my friend mentioned Transparent, saying she had endured only fifteen minutes of it, and I agreed, that the people on the Emmy winning show by Jill Solway can be unbearable, but like a train wreck, once hooked , viewers stand amazed, perplexed and cannot look away. But as I knit while watching and only half consume television shows, I remarked that although I hadn’t seen the Nat Turner horror, the power of a word somehow more strongly imprints on me. Interesting observation- as foremost, I am a visual person who responds to sights. But in our conversation, I mentioned as well a scene of torture from Lawrence Thornton’s Imagining Argentine, a book I had taught to my students maybe twenty years ago. And she agreed, nodding her head and affirming, we both immediately recalling the same scene from the book.

Watching Ken Burns’ documentary Viet Nam is an 18 hour visual immersion into the horror and stupidity of war, a topic almost normalized as Trump struts and threatens and preens like some obnoxious rooster before pecking the ground. Marc Maron on his WTH interview with Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, the creators of the documentary, present a 360 of views , stories and tragedies, framed as they both attested to the “ goalposts” or the chronology of dates of when the war began and when it finally ended; rather than a so- called theme or story that shaped the documentary. For baby boomers growing up in Canada, at least for ones like me , the war was backdrop to the first excitement of university , folk singers at The Riverboat in Yorkville, student protests, draft dodgers to the city, sit- ins, newspaper articles on napalm, and that haunting picture of the naked young girl running and screaming in the street. In other words, a mixture of amazement, righteousness, ignorance, dread and relief that we were living safely in Canada. The filmmakers of Viet Nam, with the advantage of years passed , archival information and the wisdom of the survivors, sought a multiplicity of views from civilians, policy makers, veterans, protesters. They underlined in the Maron interview that they purposely did not interview on tape the well known proponents and objectors such as Jane Fonda, John McCain, the recognizable voices usually associated with the war.

On a personal note, a cousin of mine, actually a Canadian having been relocated to California with his family, came back to Toronto to contemplate whether he should return to the States and participate in the war. Strange, as I often overheard how as a high school student there, he had refused to put his hand over his heart and swear allegiance to the flag every day so his previous twelve years as a Canadian must have been deep in his mind. But he did return home to Culver City and went to war. So we worried and my mother poured over his letters, coveting them as signs of his survival in a war Canadians particularly did not understand or support.Burns and Novick include the tapes between Nixon and Johnson, the deals, the treason, the wastage of young men who perished , or returned home with PTSD and missing limbs.

And I could not help but think of our visit to Saigon several years back, sitting in the Caravelle bar overlooking the city where once the military gabbed over drinks, plotting their strategies of devastation. Now western business, capitalism, the way of life, for which soldiers on both sides fought and died has overtaken the bustling, dangerous streets of Saigon with Gap, Louis Vuitton and Coach. Needless stupid suffering and earth so all that crap from the West is available. Business overtaking ideology. And at what cost?That’s what Burns film screams at me.

No doubt part of Burns and Novick’s ‘s incentive for the documentary resided in the contrast between their earlier documentary , The War that dealt with WWII, associated with a certain heroism and sentimentality whereas Viet Nam represented a failure and shamed those associated with it. They said they knew while working on the one, they had to do the other.

My friend says politicians fight for ideals, a way of life. I say it is power grabbing and grubbing, the film, Viet Nam, even documenting that the children of the top brass of communists were sent away to foreign schools to keep them safe from fighting. Hardly one for all and all for one. Congruently my friend, my husband and I have all been reading The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen, the 2016 Nobel Prize winner, the story of a split narrator, a traitor, a spy, a misfit, a sympathizer, an outsider during the Viet Nam timeline. The unnamed protagonist arrested by the Communists is the illegitimate son of a Vietnamese woman and a priest, his loyalties twisted, as his friendships with two of his classmates appear to be the only straight forward and clear relationships he possesses, along with his enduring love of his positive mother. He is a multi faced actor.

Apparently supportive of the America exploits and invasion of his country, in truth the narrator is a North Vietnamese spy reporting all American plans to reconquest his country in his invisible ink letters to his “ Aunt” in France.At the heart of the story is the narrator’s own unhappiness, his search for identity and inability to discover where he can belong and feel safe. On his back are the years of French colonial conquest in Viet Nam, his hatred, his cynicism and deep feelings of rejection: common to many terrorists.There is an arrogance, a smugness, perhaps because he knows he is bright, assuming he can help inject a sense of his country into a film ( resembling Apocalypse Now). This attempt affords him some satisfaction because he ironically demands truth in the movie describing the war: he strongly suggests real Viet Namese actors be employed in stead of ciphers and stereotypes. And in truth he manages to provide some of his countrymen with work, his belief being to portray or create as truthful a verisimilitude as possible. However, film and especially an American film made by Americans are little concerned for the true emotions of the pawns or enemies in their film. When an explosion lands the wounded narrator in the hospital it is a symbolic and total rejection of both him and his views.

And just as in The Black Wax Museum and the Thornton book, the author’s description of those attempting to leave Saigon in its last days , climbing on top of one another, the political bribes and money for passage out, the pressing bodies, the screams, the push and tear of flesh, the despair, the exploding planes, the carnage of bodies torn apart and especially the destruction of his friend’s wife and baby have seared my brain in indelible images. The word. Again, the words that make us( me) create pictures deeply into our imaginations. Coupled with Burns and Novick’s film, especially in Segment 8 The hideous My Lai Massacre, The Sympathizer has carved horrendous events into my mind never to be forgotten.

The brilliance of the documentary is the completeness of here and there, home and away: fresh soldiers in the field, their stories of being prisoners of war and eating a commander’s cat, their realization that a peasant’s hut where there is enough rice to feed six must hide Viet Cong, the Tet offensive, explosions if Agent Orange, crumpled dead…. are juxtaposed with the events back in the States such as the Chicago convention, the brutality of the police on the heads of the idealistic youth, the music of Clearance Clearwater, the burgeoning role of women, civil rights abrogation, films that began to protest the war. It is a panorama of years through which I blithely lived and for which I now feel like weeping.  

My cousin posted on Facebook that it was fifty years ago that he had gone to Viet Nam, never really having openly discussed it when he was home. No doubt the public attitude, the derision heaped on the vets when they returned from the war that lingered on and on, unwinnable and untenable, caused many to rethink why they had not left the country or refused on some moral ground that they would not be manipulated. But most were young, untried, many not focused on a life path between those idyllic years having finished high school, loosely finding themselves and their paths, perhaps trusting their leaders knew what was right and in truth, there was little choice but to go.But they did not repatriate as heroes. Burns’ war speaks to those vets, uplifting them by explaining in a nonjudgmental way, these are your valuable and significant stories, the true history of those days- on both sides, of brilliant young men just like you. And this was the situation- the terrible, terrible situation, but we honour you. We see you at the blaze of experience, fresh, willing, wondrous in a new place with the dream of heroism and moral good in your pockets, too naïve to know you were sacrificial lambs to party votes and politics, maybe believing the American way would be best for all folks- even those in a sweaty, swampy land whose language and traditions you could not fathom. Besides your birthday number was called and maybe it was just fate that recruited you as you sat with your friends around the television set, frozen and waiting to hear how the dice had rolled out and likely ruined your future.

Scary stuff. War stuff. Horrendous stuff.

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Handmaid’s Tale

Back in the 90’s when I worked at Northern Secondary and we had something called OAC to replace Grade 13, one of our novels for study was Handmaid’s. Even now I shudder at the brilliance of teaching a novel so ahead of its time, a work that stood at the crossroads, linking and drawing from actual documented Totalitarian events in the past- for each storied event in the book: from the wall hangings that occurred as warnings in Auschwitz to the prescribed dress and demeanour of women covering their bodies and faces. Child stealing, Salem witch trials, even women betraying women, and male-  dominations been lived out again and again.

At the same time, the book was prophetic in terms of banning travel, allowing for toxic waste, or in our present day, the pollution of air. At the heart of the novel is the control over women’s bodies, as seen by the laws that have passed in the US, supported and driven by Vice President Pence and his sanctimonious brethren, rights to abortion at the heart of the issue.

I don’t think my students recognized the book as momentous back then, for along with Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure or Timothy Findley’s Not Wanted on the Voyage, these were the texts that the english department had decided were important to the development of thinking, critiquing and engaging curriculum. But clearly our department head was way ahead of his time. The themes covered in these prescribed studies were the farthest reaching in terms of power structures, freedoms, approaches and interpretations of moral structures, rebellions, silence, repression…

The test of a book is its ability to transcend time, to keep it current and relevant and so the book Stoner, or the authors Orwell, the Bard, Copperfield and many others are names ever recognizable to our young populations. Interestingly as I read David Shribman’s column this morning in the Globe, he encourages Trump to read: Robert Caro on Lyndon Johnson, Tyler Anbinder on City of Dreams, Barbara Tuchman ‘s Guns of August, Buchman’s Pilgrims Progress along with presidential biographies that reflect on the difficult tasks a president must encounter. In Offred’s forced tryst with the Commander, her jaw falls open to see his walls lined with books, a commodity now burned and vanished from society for their dangerous power to assuage, critique, demonstrate and change minds. Wicked, wicked books, pen to paper that empowers. How can one not think back on the book burnings pre and during the holocaust, and revisited in Fahrenheit 451 or the destruction of the Buddhas in Bamiyan by the Taliban…as if beauty and wisdom like a viral infection will corrupt. But of course, it does.

The timeless quality to transcend has made The Handmaid’s Tale a thrilling television production with Elizabeth Moss. Perfect as Offred, she embodies the repressed but still hopeful personality of the protagonist. Her name although a prefix to the name of the commander, Fred, also suggests she is “ offered”, and of-red, the colour of the clothing she must wear as a potential bearer of children, signifying first blood or the onset of fertility.But mostly a possession, deserving no name. Standing by a window, she murmurs her own real name, longing to resume an identity of her own, untouchable by forces that would diminish her.

The society shown in the television production appears at first far fetched with its restrictions, each class of women delineated by colour.Simple freedoms such as Offred’s game of scrabble is a delight made palatable. That she is still able to resist, as she spits out the macaron offered to her by Serena Joy, the commandeer’s wife, in defiance, bolsters her/ our hope she may be able to escape. Yet almost as quickly as her spirits soar are they extinguished when she realizes her walkmate has been exchanged, or more likely silenced in a nefarious way. She is precariously perched on a tenuous tightrope of emotions twisting her as she attempts some independence where there is none.

 Along with Handmaid’s in OAC, we taught Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and. Lawrence Thornton’s Imagining Argentina that spoke to methods of resistance in terrible times. In most, it was the mind that allowed one to survive the here and now: so to live in the head, obliterating the slings and arrows set against the body provided the escape hatch. Just as Nelson Mandela somehow resisted in his 17 years in Roblen island, with a few smuggled in books such as Shakespeare as his treasured companions .Those dangerous, dangerous books that preach and teach. Mandela’s favourite poem by Henley from 1875 Invictus inspired him:

Out of the night that covers me,

Black as the Pit from pole to pole,

I thank whatever gods may be

For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance

I have not winced nor cried aloud.

Under the bludgeonings of chance

My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears

Looms but the Horror of the shade,

And yet the menace of the years

Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,

How charged with punishments the scroll.

I am the master of my fate:

I am the captain of my soul.

Hopefully we the viewers, the  population who still cares about liberties, can chant – even today- with the  mantra of the Handmaids,” Don’t let the bastards grind you down.

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