Prague Metro Time Table

Drunk expat walks off
the metro platform.
At last relaxed, he falls
awakened only by the loss
of ground to sleep walk on.

Dazed, strangers are yelling,
gesturing wildly,
pulling him up to safety
and more gestures
pointing to the escalator exit up.

While ascending to Charles Square
towards daylight,
the Saturday morning metro arrives.
I wander towards Angel district
and its three story mall,
the free bathroom on the second floor,
to wash the rail grease from my face,
and look dismally at the rips
in my Offspring t-shirt.

That day I realized
When I die, it will be some way
similar, just as stupid
and preventable
(a public inconvenience maybe).
Last time I was early, but next time
I will not be late.

The newspaper would read,
“John White, an American in Prague, died last night
in Peace Square underground metro station.
He was catching the metro home.
It hit him in the face.”

I’ll take Universal Harvester over Mein Kampf any day

“I’ll take Universal Harvester over Mein Kampf any day.”

Review of John Darnielle’s book Universal Harvester. Published Feb 7, 2017.

Reviewed by John White

 

NOTICE: This reviews contains spoilers. If you haven’t read or listened to it by now, tick tock. Seriously, I really liked the book and I hope you will too.

 

Darnielle’s Universal Harvester and Hitler’s Mein Kampf are both narrated by someone deeply traumatized who struggles with staggering personal loss. Their struggle to overcome unspeakable hurt becomes a defining trait of their identity. The former is about loss of a parent and a sense of home and the latter is about the loss of one’s parents, the perceived loss of one’s country and homeland, and pointing the blame. In Harverster, there’s no one to blame for the sadness, only coping with the void. Both narrators struggle to make sense of their pain by hurting others and call it help. For the former, harassing hooded strangers in a shed, for the latter, genocide and lebensraum (German “living space”) flavored with German Idealism. In both cases, if they don’t hurt their victims physically, they hurt them psychologically. Ordinary events fill the victims with dread and they hope that if left alone, the insanity will resolve itself and life with go on as before. For the novel, the protagonist (Jeremy) seek to justify and enable the antagonist’s (Lisa) desperate attempt at emotional catharsis. For the National Socialist regime, different social strata identified with various parts of Hitler’s two volume rant on why multi-culturalism is bad, Germans lost World War One, and how the Germans could regain their national self-respect. Well-intentioned but emotionally scarred and proud people inadvertently permitted the annihilation of tens of millions of people because they wanted to help their country and themselves. That’s where the similarities end and let’s never speak of it again. Comparing anything with Hitler’s warped and hateful ‘World-Concept’ (his term was Weltanschauung) is like bringing a gun to a knife fight.  Don’t reference it unless you understand the concept and don’t mind shooting yourself in the foot.

Darnielle speaks the way Edward Hopper paints. The scenes are of everyday middle America with a sense of vague unease lurking beyond the picture’s frame. The setting of Harvester is wholly in small towns and farmland between Eastern Nebraska and Iowa. Hopper uses washed out colors and empty scenes to convey the unspoken. When there are people in the scenes, they’re always alone, even when with others. They are merely props on the canvas for the real depth is in the places themselves. To the viewer, this conveys a sad alienation. Unlike Hopper, Darnielle lets the people take center stage without diminishing the locale’s role in the story. The settings exist and they enable the characters to breath with their mystery intact. Darnielle’s use of irreducible spaces gives life to the country most Americans will never see. However, what is witnessed and remembered is dutifully preserved through family histories told over holiday dinner tables, with the cameras of those passing through, and with writing like the novel Universal Harvester.

This book is beautifully written and hauntingly read by Darnielle from the beginning to the heartfelt and unsettling end. The plot’s main conflict is that disturbing home movies are being spliced into commercial movies available a small video rental store in rural Iowa. The retail clerk (Jeremy), the store owner, and a customer all seek in different ways to uncover the truth of the footage. The plot’s overarching themes are of grief over the loss of a parent.  For one character, their mother died in a car crash when they were a teenager. For another, their mother disappeared when they were a child.  How their fathers struggled to maintain a sense of normalcy and how the children internalized their father’s behavior makes all the difference.  Near the end of the book, Lisa makes a speech rationalizing her actions. It’s a heartfelt speech and the reader or listener is genuinely moved. I was. Its only after some thought that we stop and think, ‘wait, did she just gloss over the most puzzling and criminal part of her behavior?  Did we just condone what she did because we felt sorry for her? Did we the reader just get fooled along with the characters?’ Yes. Yes. And Yes.  Due to Darnielle’s masterful and poetic storytelling, the reader’s personal feelings become part of the plot.  The characters are disturbed by the video edits and we are disturbed by our sense of being duped (The rise of National Socialism also couldn’t have happened without audience participation.).

After I finished listening to this book, I felt Jeremy, Jeremy’s dad, and Lisa are really out there even now, living in Navada, Collins, or Tama, Iowa. I felt that if I went to thrift stores there today, I’d find those altered VHS tapes. This sense of realness is due in part to the sparse writing style of the author and in part to the universal themes he investigates. The author is a song writer and knows that a few well-chosen words can describe a scene better than long descriptive paragraphs. The main characters are given a life of their own and secrets left intact. The reader or listener cares because the characters cared about one another. Small towns have a way of protecting their own and not prying too much into one’s personal life. If someone needs a friend, several are readily available to help even if it puts their own well-being in danger. This book reflects that.

The book isn’t without its faults. Some of the characters seem like mere plot devices or obvious red herrings and I keep expecting them to show larger purpose, but they don’t. Sometimes the author relies on the reader’s acceptance of the character’s judgments or a scene is left too vague. If a particular character sums up some extremely disturbing event as “she’s hurt”, that’s all the reader gets and we the objective public remain unsatisfied. The momentum of the early chapters halts suddenly and shifts to a background story of characters we at the time feel are unnecessary. The backstory takes 1 hour out of the 6 total hours of the audio book.  The side story is quaint, touching, and poignant on its own, but I kept thinking, ‘And about those videos…’.  Eventually the side story merged with the initial story and I realized the video splicing from the book’s publisher is just a hook. The real story is much more original and unsettling.  I’d also slight the book a bit because of some unnecessary poetic flourishes describing objects or moods.  These are minimal though, and I liked them for themselves. My criticism is the momentum of the plot lags sometimes so I hope the reader enjoys the fragmentary reflections. I did.

What makes a good book great is how it lingers in the mind after one has finished reading it.  It’s the impression it makes.  If the drama is all resolved and there are no more questions and nothing left to tell, then why should I remember the book?  If I liked some of the characters or a few turns of phrase, maybe I’ll remember those lines for a little while.  But a great book has more questions than answers whether in trying to ‘decipher’ the plot’s nuance or comparing those nuances within the book to films referenced. Inside the relatively short text (6 hours for an audiobook is half the typical audiobook length. Hitler’s tedious diatribe is a numbing 27 hours.) are different parallels between the protagonist and antagonist, between the ‘crimes’ of the antagonist and the movies the home footage is spliced in.  One of the first movies is “Targets”, which briefly is about an emotionally damaged Vietnam vet who comes home from the war, kills his family, and goes on a shooting spree at a movie theater. When he’s caught, he wonders if he’ll make the evening news.  It’s a very stylized and public display of an inconceivable inner wound. How does that compare to the motives and methods of the Harvester’s chief villain?  In Lisa’s final monolog, she admits offhand that the films weren’t always chosen randomly.  Sometimes she picked certain films and deliberately spliced in certain home footage. Another parallel is how the itinerate nature of her childhood contrasts to her home films. How her, at times, criminal insanity serves to achieve mastery over her trauma.  How she views her work as bearing witness to the anonymous lives of the Midwest, to her mother’s absence, to her own life. Without her home movies, her video splicing, and desperate re-watching of old surveillance footage in search for her lost mother, her life would also be anonymous and lost.  Her single minded focus is her only claim to Midwestern life origins.  If we deny her the expression or ‘witness’ of her grieve, does she cease to exist?

Years after the main action takes place, a family of newly arrived residents find the video tape of Jeremy and track him down for some explanation of what they’ve seen. He replies that he doesn’t want them to write him anymore, but gives them the address of the person behind the camera.  He says, “I know you have many questions, but you should leave her alone. I know you won’t, but you should.” Throughout the novel, Darnielle presents an unsettling detective story mixed with a presentation of personal grief.  He shows how a family copes with the loss of the mother, how they grieve, and how they try to redeem the mother’s memory. He respects his subjects enough to give them room for their emotions despite the consequences.  The ending places the reader into the story, acknowledges that we want the big reveal, but we don’t get it. Jeremy believes the search for answers should be dropped. John Darnielle does too.

 

 

When Vivienne Arrived Early

The first time I cried for you was five minutes after you were born.  Your mum had come into the clinic that afternoon for a routine check-up two weeks before you were due. Her doctor was concerned she had preeclampsia so she sent her to the labor and delivery wing for tests. A few hours later, they decided to perform an emergency C-section.  They gave your mum medication and put her on a table with a big blue sheet with a plastic window between the surgery and her.  She was dreamy and she looked beautiful. There were all sorts of commotion in the room, and at 11pm on the dot your wailing added to the mix.  They thrust you up to the window for a few seconds and you were a gooey hysterical mess. Immediately afterwards, you and I went to a table where they took your vitals to medically confirm what everyone already knew, that you were alive. They gave me scissors to cut your umbilical cord and then they wiped the womb’s residue from your body and gave you a tiny knit hat. As they prepared for your first official photo, I stood back and looked at your distraught screaming frown, your open reaching arms, and bowl shaped legs sticking wide up in the air. You were pitiful, helpless, and vulnerable, and I knew I was responsible to keep you safe. Your and my feelings surfaced together, and I choked with empathy.

The next afternoon I drove back home to check on our cat Lola and grab our bag of hospital essentials for you, your mum, and me. While I was out, I was also supposed to pick up chicken soup for your mum.  On the return drive, the radio played the theme from the film Mr. Holland’s Opus.  They introduced the theme by explaining how the character Mr. Holland had always wanted to become a great composer but instead spent his life as a high school music teacher.  On the evening he retired, his family and former students threw him a surprise party in the school’s auditorium. The guest speaker referenced John Lennon’s quote on when his child was born, “Life is what happens while you’re making other plans.” Then, to Mr. Holland’s immense surprise, they began playing his opus he’d privately been working on throughout his career.

When I was in seventh grade orchestra class, we played a simplified version of that song. At the time, I was unimpressed.  It was slow to start, slow throughout, and climaxed with a mild symphonic flair before it ended.  This time, it was different.  The sound was slow, but it was subtle, serene, and brimming with anticipation. During the ever so slow build up, I thought about that Lennon quote and thought self pityingly about my unsuccessful and desperate attempts to continue my academic studies. Instead I’m barely getting by with a low income but financially stable warehouse job. I thought about what I really want to do with myself and with my writing. Then I thought about the previous night and how your mum successfully gave birth to you, Vivienne Ruth White. After, we had returned to the hospital room with bedside couch. While your mum rested in exhaustion, I lay down under a blanket and held you against my chest for an hour and half. You and I both dosing but waking up to look at each other again. Your mum and I took care of each other and would do anything to take care of you. I thought all this while I drove and the song’s subtle build up played on. Then, when the listener stops expecting any change at all, the entire symphony comes together in a triumphant release that seems to surprise even the composer himself. My chest started heaving in waves with the music and I let myself go. The opus and I were one. For the second time in twenty-four hours, I cried.

Property IS not theft

Dear anti readers, I’m making this little post to test my blog page on my smartphone.

If it works easily, I’ll start uploading content while I’m at work or on the go. My plan is simple. I will write what I want to post on FB first on this page so it’s copyrighted, then link to this blog instead of risking original content being lost to the freeware libertine zone of FB. Property is NOT theft, bitches. Property and Intellectual Property is responsibility for one’s actions. I’ll expand on this soon hopefully.

 

Caroline and She Dances

Came upon this song yesterday (which I hadn’t heard) and watched the 80’s movie (which I hadn’t seen). After listening to different versions of the song, here’s what I think about this one, the original one, which I’ve posted with lyrics.

It’s about a woman with an animated spirit. Guys pass casually into her life, looking for a good time, stress free. But when they realize they can’t contain her, can’t have her, and don’t take the time to understand her, they move on. They’re left with “rags” of memories. They talk about how pretty she is pink (present tense, though for them she’s past), her past gestures of affection, and how they didn’t return them. There’s a reoccurring image of these boys actually wearing the clothes she’s left behind in an act of sentimental regret or nostalgia. Appropriately, they think about her in terms of what she wore. As in, how she appeared to them, a fun and easy moment in a pretty dress. They’re the ones that gave up or lost interest in her and now they’re just lost. Some versions of the song end with this realization.

But the original version of the song has a final verse in barely audible spoken word, but it’s there complimenting the instrumental out.

In the final verse, she’s worn out, “confidence is in the sea” but she’s aware of the joke, the irony that they will regret their loss too late for it to matter. She’s aware that they wear their memories and sorrows like a uniform. When they’re with her, they’ll see the individuality of her, and perhaps they too will be free of themselves and an individual too. “until tomorrow / everything you are you’ll see in pure shiny buttons” After they wake and drive away for good, And in daylight, they see lives in terms of social forms. But then someone else comes along, and her spirits rise again. “Caroline laughs / and it’s raining all day” She knows “she lives in the place / in the side of our lives” where she’s not treated fairly and understood. But the next morning, that side lined memory is all they have of her.That’s the joke. The passersby don’t think she’s anything special and then, afterwards, they know she is the only thing special. And Caroline still dances, pretty as always.

Totalitarian Sexuality

(this blog is right after the previous entry of the “Disordering Rimbaud” category. These are extra text essays written after I read the whole book 1 or 2 times. Some passages more than twice. For details from the book, refer to category “No Text is Innocent”, or even better, ask me personally!)

1 Oct 14.  11:58am.

In “Singularity of Lacan”, Mari Ruti says Total belief systems lead to Totalitarianism.  Amazingly true because when an idea develops from being abstract to concrete, a material idea – it no longer is disputable or so people believe.  The oppression of totalitarian societies is the lack of the other accepted or tolerated idea systems.  To claim One is all means all must conform to One. Without this conformity, the One loses its credibility – when it claims to be all.  If it claimed to be many, then there’s no harm.  Many can and are represented by One.  In Totalitarian systems, that margin of error  (the minority) are oppressed.

Totality is finite.  It is a self-referential loop that defines itself by itself.  It looks upon a universe of variations, forms, and unform, and says, “This is me.  These are variations of me, forms of me, and nebulous matter that can be formed and defined in relation to me.”

1 Oct 14 16:56

What makes Rimbaud’s book interesting is how he links state repression with sexual repression.  He does this by showing the corrupting influence of religious and political dogma that is both rigid and totalizing.

The Diamond Signature’s cynicism on the brink of despondency is the product of this totalizing process. He writes of an extreme fatalism which is founded on our linear logic – line of sight worldview.  He writes, “we’re doomed by our perspective.” Ordered houses become ordered graves.  Interestingly, the outcropping that produced these graves isn’t ordered.  Time and again, he refers to mass graves, genocide of World War Two, and post-colonial wars of the 1960’s.  These mass killings are not ordered in themselves.  They’re hysterical breaks in the order.  Yes, they might have started or been conceived as a systematic or scientific response to an ethnic or political problem, but somehow in the acting out, dogma got involved, and the task was carried out in a frenzied disordered way.  I.E. An irrational pleasure in carrying an inhuman mass murder to its final and bloody conclusion.  The methodology could have been rational, but the abandonment of human values required to complete the task was irrational.

This fanatic zeal (and self delusion) for organized violence on inter-state levels could, I believe, be called Fascist or proto fascist behavior.

This is where Rimbaud brings in sexual repression or Totalitarian Sexuality. Sexuality for him, is repressed by social values that are Church of England – moralistically inspired.  C of E might have started his discontent, but 1960’s New Age Buddhism and Hippy eastern philosophies didn’t bring any new or real change.  If anything, they just made change less likely because drugs and commune (peace avoidance) neutralized the discontented’s will to fight and work.  And when they did, they produced new fascist or violent behavior.

This is where Rimbaud returns to Totalitarian Sexuality by way of Freud’s Sex-Death drive.  In one of Rimbaud’s colleague’s songs, (A-Soma’s “Vortex of Blades”), there’s the exceedingly appropriate chorus, “If we can’t find peace, then we’ll embrace the chaos.”  It’s appropriate because the narrator of Rimbaud’s “Diamond Signature” tries to find his physical body and sexuality out of socially repressed sexual norms.  He finds it in moments of “vertical” time, which contrast to “horizontal” time.  Respectively, the Here and Now versus the continuity of history, collective will, and perspective.  Once he finds his body in vertical time and feels kindred spirit with Nature, he tries to experience vertical time with lovemaking, passionate lovemaking.

(Note: He also associates horizontal time with his ego and self image.  At some points he tries to reconcile the childhood photo of himself with who he feels to be at present.  But he can’t.  His memory of self and how he identifies himself are irreconcilable.  Hence, his “vertical” self is an unstable composite of desires, drives, fragmentary memories and aspirations.  All bound up in the immediate.  They’re unstable because it takes time to build continuity or if not time, then a radical or superhuman kinetic act. In Mari Ruti’s terms or Lacan’s terms, this act could be called a Singularity or encounter with the real, or a significant event.

By definition, they’re unsustainable because they’re always pushing identity and normative limits.  They destroy and create in the same moment, but if done too often, they destroy what they just created and there’s nothing to build from.  What’s left is physical exhaustion, spiritual ruin, and quite possibly social loneliness and alienation with few deep relationships.)

In Diamond Signature, the narrator’s lovemaking acts seem to always be with women of social archetypes. Maybe that’s the problem.  They’re not real women. They’re symbolic and the narrator seems to reduce women to whores or virginal saints.  They meet, they fuck, they penetrate each other and share body fluids in an effort of achieving some depersonalized non-subjective unity.

But it seems every time the narrator is reminded of his horizontal self. He is mocked by the virginal saint as still a boy – maybe the one from the picture – and he reacts by fucking more intensely, almost fanatically or fascistically.  The book is divided into 4 parts.  Parts 1, 2, and 3 all start with the mythical encounter.  In the first, she’s wearing white because she’s “the bride of his hopes”.  The second, “because she’s the virgin of his dreams”, the third, she’s wearing white because she’s the whore of his consciousness.  The fourth part develops differently.  Although the book is lyrical and thematically repetitive and complex, it does have a general consistent development.

The narrator’s fascism in sex is that when he’s at the moment of depersonalization and is reminded of the self he’s ashamed of. He reacts with violence and aggression and a desire to dominate or subjugate her completely to his will, his pleasure, his compulsions.  Her view and preferences are never really brought up, except when provoked in dialog.  But most of the time, the Ideal Saint becomes the debased whore he uses. When there’s a woman that starts as a whore, she’s vulgar, stupid, and low class.  She’s lumped into the category of oppressed masses.  Then, out of rage or amused anarchy, he oppresses them violently by mutilating their breasts and face with his knife.  His knife metaphorically is a lobotomist’s  scalpel that’s turned to a piercing blade of consciousness.  This sharpness of intellect in turn protects him from being oppressed.  Okay, so he uses the tool of the state against the state.  But he does so by forcing anarchy and body disfiguring violence onto ordinary people.  His despair of state’s politics and social control is acted out like the state, only with less methodology and disinterested bureaucracy.  He rallies against Social Fascism by adopting a micro fascist attitude.  Most of the time.  This is a developmental work and characters develop or learn or at least change.  The main change is learning that we’re social beings, and to act for change in the public social realm is almost doomed from the start.  Almost, but not quite.  Real change is fraught with peril at being destroyed by the system or becoming  it.  But one still has themselves and their consciousness, and their choice to speak out or join, “the silent, violent, majority.” This choice is also an expression of freedom. Sartre said that during the Nazi Occupation of France, members of the underground resistance were the most free.  They were free because every time they left their homes and see the occupying soldiers on the street, the fact of their choice was most obvious. They had to deliberately choose to resist the overt political system under penalty of death, or they consciously chose appeasement or silence.

There is a fourth type of woman that shows up, and she is called Maya – the silver War Machine. She seems to represent the marginalized social groups or working classes that have been brought back into the fold, the social waves of grain. But she doesn’t seem to represent those who never resisted or achieved consciousness.  She represents generally Socialist-Marxist inspired workers’ rights groups of England and other western countries.  These disenfranchised proletariats followed Marx and worked the factory floors, dreaming, scheming for a social revolution “that will never happen.”

Rimbaud despised ideologies like Marxism because they function like Christianity and New Age Buddhism.  They appease the followers with dreams while Power figures continually take away their rights.  In short, these martyrs Christ and Buddha silence the marginal classes.  As they’re silenced, defeated, or bought off, their factory expertise is used against them to build bombs and tanks to fight them or establish and reaffirm a political system that keeps them down.

Between the Virgin and the Whore, Rimbaud hates Maya the most because Maya is conscious, calculating, and consuming.  She consumes the lives and when there’s a critical mass, war breaks out and the depersonalized “collective will” becomes a focused, sharpened, weapon.

(Stay tuned for more, Kiddos!)

 

Creative Commons License
Voices from the Silence by John White is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.