I finished the book yesterday during a long afternoon spent in bed recovering from my illness. It was an especially fitting setting. The Great Fire is full of languid afternoons and young men beset by obscure diseases and weary from the war. I enjoyed the setting; the sense of war nearby, war recently ended and perhaps soon to be reignited. It was like a less bleary version of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises it also reminded me a lot of the film Casablanca, but maybe just because I happened to watch it around when I started reading the book. The book revolves around a couple of former soldiers, Aldred Leith and Peter Exley, who have been cast far and wide, to Japan and Hong Kong respectively, in the aftermath of World War II. They are surrounded on all sides by others, women and older folks, whose lives have been similarly touched by the war, and all of whom seem to be searching in vain for normalcy in the aftermath of shattering conflict. The central drama of the book concerns a budding love affair between Leith and a student of his, Helen Driscoll. Helen’s dull and menacing parents as well as the vast age difference between Aldred and Helen set up what turns out to be a fairly filmic love story. The chief drama for the reader lies both in wending one’s way through Hazzard’s elliptical, lyrical prose and in wondering whether or not the May – December romance will ever be consummated.
With an archive of blistering personal data at his disposal, but Hughes’s very human survivors more or less at his mercy, Bate faced a crushing ethical dilemma. The work that followed seems perpetually caught between the thrill of scandal and compulsion to soften the blow by selectively presenting Hughes’s most incendiary work as “symbolic.”
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I began this all wrong, so the paragraph you’re reading now is actually a total do-over. Or maybe not “total” – if you swallow certain theories of the universe, a completed draft of that aborted essay exists somewhere in an alternate reality, one which follows the course of my errant lede. As far as I can tell, though, that’s still only a theory. Perhaps it seems a little too perfect that this misstep should transpire in an examination of Laura van den Berg’s second collection of short fiction, as the seven narratives in The Isle of Youth turn again and again at the point-zero restart, obsessed with roads-not-taken and changes so drastic that reality itself seems to skip to a new dimension. Perhaps it seems a little too perfect, but to read The Isle of Youth is to witness how every fresh start only brings a new set of complications. Can this possibly be my life? Any of the six words in that sentence can hold the stress, and facing some intersection of the preposterous and the mundane, the female narrators in van den Berg’s debut collection (What The World Will Look Like When All The Water Leaves Us) consistently grappled with their own spin on the question. Can THIS possibly be...? An actress settles in a detour town with a stunted career and a terminal boyfriend; an art history student drops out of college to raise her troubled little brother after their parents are killed abroad; a botanist joins a lengthy research mission in Scotland to flee a crumbling relationship. While these women confronted the quotidian fuss of a life they never foresaw, van den Berg played with a counter-level of the unfathomable, situating unseen creatures on the fringe of each narrative: Bigfoot, the mapinguari, the Loch Ness Monster; all these believe-it-or-not haunts proving a minor threat compared to the demands of just getting by. Before the close of that first book, the procession of tangential monsters threatened to lapse into shtick, and in The Isle of Youth van den Berg forces her characters to stand down life’s bafflements with little more than their own wits, prevarications, and sleight of hand. Without a “Missing Link” to further destabilize reality, in this new batch of stories van den Berg achieves the same dramatic weight by utilizing The Eisenberg Uncertainty Principle. “By the time you see there’s a decision to be made,” short story master Deborah Eisenberg once wrote, “you can be pretty sure it’s a decision you’ve already made.” Originally I’d decided to use that quote as the opening sentence of this essay, but then I changed my mind after the subsequent paragraphs trailed off into an understory of Eisenberg’s gracefully canted prose, with The Isle of Youth nowhere in sight. What once appeared an ideal opening line now serves as a practical pivot point, clearing the way to set forth how – across three decades of short fiction – Eisenberg has found a way to channel narrative momentum less by plodding points and more by harnessing waves, jarring reality out of focus and gaining force by sharpening it once again. Cobbled out of all four collections of Eisenberg’s stories, from Transactions in a Foreign Currency (1986) to Twilight of the Superheroes, (2006) The Eisenberg Uncertainty Principle incorporates derivations of The Many Worlds Theory (where all the possible outcomes of each decision and action exist in split copies of reality); the observer-effect (named for the guy who suggested that certainty was impossible since the tools for measurement inevitably impact the object being measured); and Viktor Shklovsky’s formalist principle of ostranenie, or “enstrangement” (wherein an artist recasts the common in a way that allows it to be appreciated anew – such as slipping an innocuous “n” into the word “estrangement” and voilà). “We really don’t know to what degree time is linear, and under what circumstances,” suggests a mathematical genius in Eisenberg’s “Some Other, Better Otto.” “Is it actually, in fact, manifold? Or pleated? Is it frilly?” Sure, that same genius was also prone to psychic breaks severe enough to require hospitalization, but that’s just the author being mischievous. Even in her earlier work, from the story of a teen girl who realizes she quibbled away a typical day while unaware her mother was dead to the narrative of a middling concert pianist who wakes in a foreign city after his wife has left him, Eisenberg has constructed her work around overlaps of time, with characters knocked for a loop by the “now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t quality about life that makes one so very nervous.” The mysteries of time and space don’t resolve with age, observation, or relative sanity; in the post-9/11 title story of Twilight of the Superheroes, a widowed Manhattanite reflects on the “eternal, poignant weariness of youth” while his own sensory grasp of reality often betrays him: “During his waking hours, the food on his plate would abruptly lose its taste, the painting he was studying would bleach off the canvas, the friend he was talking to would turn into a stranger.” Shklovsky’s oft-repeated quote is that estrangement serves “to make the stone stony,” and Eisenberg makes life lively through that formalist technique of defamiliarization, exploding moments where her characters see their lives in shards of bizarre impossibility, leading her fictions to crystalize at counter-epiphanies – rather than light bulb flashes of enlightenment or moral truth, readers are able to observe how direction takes shape from a blinding overwhelm. “It is amazing to be able to find out what I want to do at any given moment, out of what seems to be nothing, out of not knowing at all,” says the narrator of Eisenberg’s “Days,” a woman who needs to develop entirely new concepts of time and identity after she quits smoking. “It is secretly and individually thrilling, like being able to open my fist and release into the air a flock of white doves.” Should anyone in The Isle of Youth loose captive birds from their palm, don’t believe your eyes. Prestidigitators, performers, twins...amid stories of wit and misdirection van den Berg follows in Eisenberg’s suit, equally fascinated with capitulations and recapitulations, simulacra, and the suddenness of disorder. And when all else fails, van den Berg’s characters resort to the layperson’s application of The Many Worlds theory: the good old-fashioned whopper. “Talking to someone who didn’t know me, who couldn’t separate the truth from the lie, always gave me the most ruthless sense of freedom,” says the narrator of “Acrobat.” That unbound freedom equates to a form of coherent superposition, the theoretical condition of existing in all possible states at once. Imagine two complete strangers who have yet to meet or speak – between them, a limitless world of possibility exists. Superposition, however, immediately collapses on contact: truth or lie, consequences unfold and the infinite gives way. Distracted by a trio of Parisian street performers, the fib-prone narrator of “Acrobat” fails to hear a rather crucial bit of information about why her husband has decided to leave her right then and there. Among the next available steps, she chooses one of the least likely, following the acrobats from the Jardin de Tuileries to the Champs-Élysées to the Eiffel Tower, stopping at cafés and bistros for cigarettes and meals before finally joining the trio at a house party jammed with costumed contortionists and buskers. Though thoroughly disorienting, “Acrobat” applies The Eisenberg Uncertainty Principle to avoid pure randomness, with the narrator moving forward in time while trying to recapture a missed point. With a billion swirling atoms of possibility and just that one fixed coordinate, a story takes shape as van den Berg brings the unexpected into brilliant focus. Often the best measure of a presence is the quality of its absence, and “Lessons” is the lone story in The Isle of Youth where van den Berg abandons The Eisenberg Uncertainty Principle, tipping her hand with foreshadowing and narrative ineluctability: a teenage survivalist drags her little brother along to serve as the lookout while she and her cousins pull a series of small-time stickup jobs. Inexorable forces + cute kid in peril = no room to breathe. Leaving a little wiggle room for the reader avoids manipulation, but in “Lessons” the kid’s name is Pinky and he just wants to build a robot and however many outcomes exist, you can be certain that none bode well. Throughout the rest of The Isle of Youth, van den Berg’s protagonists continue to ask can this possibly be my life, with only the thread of family ties binding them to a prior state of being. Without ever dipping into fabulism or the surreal, the twin-swapping title story and the deceptively profound “Opa-Locka” challenge perceived reality; in the latter, sisters at loose ends decide to start their own detective agency, but as the mismatched duo puzzle out the disappearances of a client’s husband and their own long-gone father, the misguided energy of their surveillance skews the picture: “I did feel partly responsible for whatever it was that had happened to her husband,” says the more sensible sister, “as though our mere presence had set something in motion that might have remained dormant otherwise.” “Opa-Locka” begins amid the familiar tropes of a stakeout, but from the sisters’ flawed investigation van den Berg tells an entirely different story, one of secrets, risk, loss, and “two little girls who tried to make something out of nothing.” Such is the legerdemain of The Isle of Youth – which itself is both an ideal of new beginnings and also some shabby tourist trap off the coast of Cuba. There are few tidy resolutions between these alternate versions, though that shouldn’t come as any surprise: one of basic tenets of The Eisenberg Uncertainty Principle is that things don’t get any easier, they only get different.
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1. Uwe Johnson never quite knew what to do with the self-satisfied authority of superlatives. He was interested in the inconclusive, the ambiguous, and preferred observing things from the edge. The texture of a frame seemed to him more revealing than the painting, the smell of ink on one’s fingers more revealing than the content of a newspaper article. He had originally wanted to call his novel The Third Book about Achim something different: Description of a Description, which would have been the more apt title. Thus, he would only have quietly shaken his bald head and tapped out his pipe ashes when confronted with a statement like: Anniversaries is the best novel ever written about America in the German language. Nevertheless, it is true. Anniversaries was conceived as a book of normal length, but became a life’s work, in the true sense of the word. Johnson worked for fifteen years, and sometimes he was defeated. It would take him 1,900 pages to finish, and in reading one quickly realizes that even a single page less would have been a problematic simplification. (It is all the more inexplicable that there has only been an abridged version published in English.) After the last of its four volumes appeared, he died at the early age of 49. He was very lonely in the end; life on the edge had turned into solitude. He was found in his house in England three weeks after he died. For all its bulk, though, the book doesn’t give you much time to decide against reading it. Two long sentences, to be precise: Long waves sweep slanting against the beach, hump muscled backs, raise trembling combs that tip over at the greenest summit. The taut roll, already streaked with white, enfolds a hollow space of air that is crushed by the clear mass as if a secret had been created and destroyed there. Yes, I will read you, I thought, as I finished these lines last summer. I would begin Anniversaries on an anniversary - August 20th, 2009 - and planned to read its 365 entries in 365 days. 2. Anniversaries follows the form of a diary. It begins on August 20th, 1967, at the New Jersey coast, and ends exactly one year later, when Russian tanks invade Prague. To describe what happens in between seems almost out of the question; the book is more of a literary landscape than a novel, and a mountain wants to be climbed, not surveyed. Once, when Johnson was asked to summarize the plot before a reading, he talked for one and a half hours (no time was left for the reading itself) not because the plot was so extravagant, but because some books are long for a reason, and because some novels about the passing of time need time to pass instead of just claiming that it passes. One needs to actually read them in order to respect them, just as Hannah Arendt wanted to call a life a life only after it was lived. The particular life we follow in Anniversaries belongs to Gesine Cressphal, who works as a translator in a Manhattan bank. She was born into Hitler’s Reich and grew up in East Germany, where, in many offices and classrooms soon after the war, pictures of Hitler were simply replaced by portraits of Stalin. Gesine has learned early on how to lie; when she arrives in New York, "freedom" isn't much more than a word. She has left behind in Germany a dead husband, Jakob. He didn’t exactly die peacefully. (In fact, Jakob has been the protagonist of Johnson’s earlier novel Speculations about Jakob. As with Faulkner, whom Johnson admired almost more than any other writer, Johnson's books are intertwined over decades, full of connections, rumors, and secrets between people and places, like an old neighborhood. Johnson refused to bring characters into life just to have them suffocate between the boards of a book. During his time in New York, Johnson would sometimes say to his acquaintances that he just ran into Gesine Cressphal at Grand Central. He was actually serious.) From August of 1967 to August of 1968, at a rate of one entry per day, Gesine tells her daughter the story of her life and asks - as Johnson does in all of his writing - What brought us here? She talks about her father who, in his hometown of Jerichow in Mecklenburg, saw the evil of Nazism approaching but nevertheless accommodated himself to it in order to not lose his family. She talks about her mother who once tried to let little Gesine drown in a rain barrel. She talks about time and guilt and why one passes and the other doesn’t. She also deals with religion, Vietnam, and America as the fetish of our world - but only marginally. Throughout, a larger question looms: Is it possible, after all, that the truth doesn’t have an essence, only edges? Long before it became the duty of cultural theorists to damn it, Johnson was mistrusting “truth." For him, it was no more palpable than memory, which Gesine likens to a cat: "independent, incorruptible, intractable. And yet a comfortable companion, when it puts in an appearance, even if it stays out of reach." Perhaps one learns this automatically, growing up during a dictatorship. 3. And yet, as a reader, I can’t let go of truth - not for moral reasons but because nothing else touches me. The truth I look for in a novel has little to do with what is depicted, with the characters or historical details. It lies instead in what one might call the tone. Over time, I forget much of what I read; only this tone stays with me. But when is a tone truthful? When is it authentic? I suppose the answer has something to do with what is personal and peculiar, with what Nabokov called, when he spoke about exhilarating reading and writing experiences, "looking through glasses which will fit no one else." The dialect of a text, something between the lines, more audible than actually readable, its volume, its acoustic color... The hidden lust for life in Thomas Mann’s books. The curiosity and angst (those twin sisters) in Kafka’s. With people, too, one knows after a few sentences whether one wants to show them one’s favorite café. Many North Germans feel more familiar with the English temper than with, say, the Bavarian temper. Johnson’s language has much of this polite and confident restraint, which, in every sentence, hides as much as it displays. He barely dares to say “I." To mistake this for frigidity, however, is a popular misunderstanding, about Johnson as much as about North Germans. When Max Frisch, one of his few long-term friends, said that it’s not the writer who finds his language, but vice versa, it was especially true for Johnson. He approaches his sentences carefully; he doesn’t triumph over them by stretching them into long technically obsessed hypotaxis or by brutally shortening them into bossy staccatos (both of which we Germans know how to do very well.) Sometimes he inadvertently falls into an English syntax shorter and more flexible than German, a syntax that flows where the German constricts. He seems to let the sentences have the shapes they chose for themselves. This has nothing to do with the trivial concept of the "death of the author." Johnson always remains tangible in the background, but discreetly, like a concerned father who secretly hides in the car when his daughter goes to her first party. He believes in narrative, but wants neither the dubious dominance of an omnipotent narrator nor a visa into the anonymous universe of texts and textures. For where there’s no narrator, there can be no responsibility - and of course writing was for Johnson an act of social conscience. In the Sixties, in Germany, literature and politics were still strongly looking to communicate with each other; the "Gruppe 47," in which Günter Grass, Heinrich Böll and many others grew as writers, was regarded as a moral authority. Johnson was perhaps the most intellectual among them; certainly he was the quietest. In a time of heated debates, his tone was laconic. Lacking the vanity required for outright outrage, he analyzed where others barked. He didn’t have to be politicized by loud agitation; the infringement of political power on private life had already shaped him in his youth, when he refused to denounce "hostile elements." It is said that the division of Germany first came into literature with Johnson, that he was a representative for the people whose lives were, like his, shaped by living in East Germany. But nothing was farther from him than to draw a line under German misery. He didn’t want to conjure up a "zero hour" or a new beginning which was as clamorous as it was convenient. The present, in his work, is too full of the past. Gesine Cresspehl always hears the voices of the dead and calls upon them when she needs them, just as Johnson's calm and serious tone resembles someone remembering those forgotten by time. Anniversaries, then, is a singular monument to justice, unraveling the fates of dozens of people over a span of forty years along the eternal conflict of assimilation and protest. 4. As I've moved through it over the last several months, it has been the curious unity of thoughtfulness and definiteness, of irony and moral seriousness that has fascinated me most. Alone, each is more often than not hard to bear. But Johnson both respects and distrusts language. He plays with it and, in the next moment, forces it to be austere. If he gets carried away with a pun, a dramatic turn or even just a jaunty image - for example with a waiter who "tucks a smile into his mustache" - then it seems as if he wants to apologize for it in the next sentence, as if he needed to put a stop to what mustn’t get out of control. Johnson is a moralist, but not a polemicist who would lose his authority by putting himself above his topic, even for the sake of a laugh. His sentences are humorous in themselves, but don’t tell jokes; they’re chucklers, not kneeslappers. He knows better than to celebrate the violence of a Nazi-gang with rhetorical drama, and he portrays them instead as a pathetic but brutal amateur dramatic performance. One is almost relieved when he suddenly describes a Nazi official as a pig, only to be brought up short by the ironic twist that follows: "Not in any metaphorical sense, simply on the basis of physical similarity." Admittedly, he isn’t easy on his readers: He rushes them through places, times and several narrative levels, at times - dauntingly, within one sentence. The frame of the plot is complex; the structure of the journal is porous. Sometimes Gesine is the narrator, sometimes she is being narrated. She merges into the narrative and surfaces again, unexpectedly. Sometimes she is in dialogue with the author himself - in Plattdeutsch, the Low German dialect. Perhaps this, too, has roots in an adolescence defined by state power, when not being too direct can save one’s life. But the unity is greater than that; it’s as if the peculiar was only made discernible by the random. The more complex a truth is, the harder it is to bind it into sentences, and one will be more successful looking for it in the margins. Johnson approaches the truth like a partisan, indirectly; but where postmodernity often circles narcissistically around an empty center, Johnson fulfills his self-imposed task - depicting the embrace of political history and personal biography - by sometimes losing sight of it. Gesine, for example, is addicted to reading The New York Times, which she respectfully calls a "stubborn old aunt," and which doesn’t only report the number of crosses erected on American military cemeteries during the Vietnam war, but also what wood they were made from and where it was cut. As with a picture that loses its sharp contours as we move closer, one can get dizzy in the face of this abundance of details and episodes, the branching out of coincidences and allusions, a cocoon in which (hi)story lies like a larva. But Johnson’s language is always both concrete and allegorical. As smooth as the surface seems, there is above it a large space for reverberations. 5. Anniversaries is, above all, a novel about guilt. I have never read a book that dissects guilt with such precision and empathy without ever losing the clarity of its point of view. Evil is not personified in Johnson’s novels; it remains nameless, and thus threatening. Characters are people, not incarnations, and they are all entangled in their own time, their own space. That Johnson avoids a quick verdict doesn’t weaken his judgments. On the contrary, his moral questions gain power precisely by being less flexible for the lookers-on and hangers-on: the readers, us. The attraction of accusing others, which often lies in the suggestion of one’s own innocence, is what Johnson denies us; we are drawn closer already during the process of reading, by gazing into the abyss - just like Gesine’s mother, who sees synagogues burning and a Jewish girl dying during the Kristallnacht of November 9, 1938, and hours later goes into the flames herself. Any kind of over-dramatization seems to embarrass Johnson, and yet his prose is distant and serene only as long as we stubbornly swing from one word to the next while the seething has started beneath us. No sentence in itself gives in to the fury of horror―but just as every bright photograph has a disturbingly dark negative, so also is the beauty of Johnson’s language one that chokes on itself. It describes an execution as indifferently as it describes the ocean "crocheting delicate fringes to the land." And seemingly all of a sudden, the stores of the Jewish cloth merchants in Jerichow are burning. Here is what’s most disturbing about Johnson’s language: that the barbarism takes hold of it so gradually, just as with people, where it may have hidden in all-too-familiar notions of envy or fear or pain. The idea that evil rages with unmistakable thunder right from the start provides us, in the present, with a false reassurance. When Hitler’s soldiers marched into Poland, Mein Kampf had been standing on German bookshelves for 14 years already. 6. Anniversaries studies Germany from the viewpoint of New York for a reason. Martin Luther King is shot in Memphis, and one week later the revolutionary leader of the student movement, Rudi Dutschke, is shot in Berlin. In 1968, the New World present merges with the Old World past. Wrong wars are being fought. Capitalism falters, but Communism also fails. There have been worse times than ours to rediscover Uwe Johnson. It is worth noting, in this connection, that Anniversaries is a Heimatroman, a "home-novel." The word Heimat, which can be your home or home country, bears a burden, a patina unlike any other German word. Its proximity to Unheimlichkeit (uncanniness) is definitely appropriate. Origin always needs the gaze of someone looking back or coming back in order to become Heimat; it only exists with distance, loss, and in the realization of the past. For Kafka, only death was a true Heimat, the actual good place. The fact that his beloved New York didn’t need to embrace or suffocate him like a homeland was a relief to Uwe Johnson as much as to Gesine. "True," he wrote, our home on Manhattan's Upper West Side is imaginary. The process of addiction to the area has been solely on our side, we cannot expect the others to reciprocate. And yet, an hour's walk through the neighborhood inoculates us for years against moving away. To read Anniversaries in New York, in its own rhythm, over the course of one year, has been like looking doubtfully at long-hidden pictures from the wild youth of an old lady. One will see her with different eyes from now on. And like hearing at least one familiar voice every day. Like Anniversaries, New York is "crowded with the past, with presence." The dialectic of freedom and constraint has always been more palpable here than anywhere else in the world. Freedom and promises can rise like water up to one’s neck; where everything seems possible, the road to nothingness seems very short. (Tell me your city, I’ll tell you mine.) But since reading Anniversaries I feel more at home in this foreign land - as if I had returned after a long time and as if Gesine Cressphal’s presence were my past and Johnson’s sentences the echo of my memory. Whoever recognizes something is at home. I’ve been here before. (Translated from the German by Christian Hawkey and Uljana Wolf) [Image credits: Thomas Kohler, Johannes Pape]
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1. Before being sentenced for abandoning the Patna, a ship carrying 800 pilgrims in the Indian Ocean, the hero—or antihero?—of Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim has ample opportunity to flee, an opportunity the rest of the disgraced crew took. However, as Jim explains to Marlow: “I may have jumped, but I don’t run away.” Coupling an admission of past cowardice with a defiant assertion of backbone, Jim’s statement exemplifies the uneasy proximity of shame and glory in the novel's title character. Jim is “as genuine as a new sovereign” but with “some infernal alloy in his metal…the least drop of something rare and accursed.” That ruinous, majestic flaw immediately attracts Marlow, a worldly student of human nature, who sees that in Jim’s case, the “facts” of the sordid case have little to do with the “truth” about the romantic, fanciful and supremely brave youth. Chris Walsh doesn’t mention Jim’s infamous jump in his plucky Cowardice: A Brief History, but like Conrad, he is interested in painting a fuller picture of this reviled but universal attribute, one which is paradoxically central to heroism: “The coward casts a shadow that throws heroes into relief, giving them substance and credibility.” A fuller picture is precisely what cowardice needs given the reticence surrounding the topic. Virgil tells Dante, “Let us not speak of them,” upon seeing the shades of cowardly neutrals in “hell’s squalid lobby”; a Spanish proverb states that “of the coward, nothing is written”; and Kierkegaard opines that there “must be something wrong with cowardliness, since it is so detested, so averse to being mentioned, that its name has completely disappeared from use.” We hear of a scholar who undertook a study of cowardice only to run into difficulties. The title of the book he eventually produced? The Mystery of Courage. Cowardice is the flaw that dare not speak its name, or as Walsh wryly puts it: “Every other species of human baseness, it seems, has rated a monograph.” 2. Enter Walsh, whose study delves into the various and occasionally contradictory social, moral, and psychological pressures at work on the cowardly mind. Walsh strews entertaining etymological and cultural tidbits throughout. He tells us that coward comes from “the Latin cauda, meaning ‘tail.’ The cowardly creature 'turns tail' to escape danger, or ‘puts its tail between its legs’ in fear and submission.” The Germans, who can always be counted on for a colorful compound descriptor, have their own term for a coward: Schlappschwanz, or limp dick, which hints at the possible evolutionary drawbacks of the affliction. Walsh also introduces us to the Buid and the Semai, two Southeast Asian tribes who have “so thoroughly adapted a policy of fleeing from fear that they do not even have a word to condemn the behavior.” They have no compunction about abandoning their “grandmothers in collapsed shelters” at the slightest rumble of thunder. This wholehearted embrace of cowardice might seem liberating, especially to the more lily-livered among us, did not these tribes not live in abject terror of their surroundings; apparently, even butterflies spook them. Anthropological oddities aside, Walsh is most concerned with cowardice in war. Walsh’s working definition of a coward is “someone who, because of excessive fear, fails to do what he is supposed to do,” which aligns with his military focus. From the plains of Ilion to colonial America to modern-day Iraq, Walsh describes scenes from what he neatly calls the “primal theater of cowardice.” There are ample entertainments in this arena, from the redemptive case of John Callender, who disgraced himself at the Battle of Bunker Hill only to perform valiantly through the rest of his career (“an object lesson in the bracing utility of the shame of cowardice”), to the poignant handwritten note produced by the WWII deserter Eddie Slovik, who was executed for treason: “AND ILL RUN AWAY AGAIN IF I HAVE TO GO OUT THEIR [sic].” Slovik’s harsh punishment speaks to a core anxiety about military cowardice. Underlying the barbaric or shameful punishments for cowardice over the centuries (e.g., execution, branding, Patton’s hospital assault on a GI suffering from battle fatigue) is an anxiety over contagion: “…fear in the context of battle is generally viewed as excessive when a soldier reveals it in a way that threatens to spread it.” The historical glee with which propagandists paint the enemy as a coward—from cartoons depicting a fleeing Jefferson Davis disguising himself in his wife’s shawl to the New York Post’s headline announcing Saddam Hussein’s capture—“Cowardly Lyin’ Saddam: Bush Whacks Scaredy Rat for Crawling in Hole”—is balanced by the fear of a cowardly plague within one’s own ranks. Reading Walsh on infectious fear, I realized that no cultural artifact dramatizes this anxiety better than the uber-macho Top Gun, a story of contagious cowardice that spreads from Cougar, the original candidate selected to attend Camp Shirtless Volleyball, to a most unlikely host: Maverick, the pilot defined by his recklessness. Walsh’s loose thesis is that cowardice is at once a “dangerous, harmful idea” that can shame the powerless and the powerful alike into doing senseless, reckless things and a useful tool for self-improvement and self-examination: “It pushes us to ponder seriously what we should do, how we should act, and what it is we’re so afraid of.” That “seriously” is a crucial adverb; Walsh seems to agree with Robert Frost that humor or cheap irony is itself a kind of cowardice, though he does point out that earnestness and sincerity “can be morally cowardly too when it unthinkingly and abjectly stays the course…It is possible to have the cowardice of one’s convictions.” Such a statement is typical of Walsh’s playful, provocative method of teasing out the ethical implications of cowardice (and courage). In his chapter on the paradox of duty, he points out that military systems in a sense compel courage and seek to forcibly prevent cowardice. One telling ancient example is the Greek and Roman strategy of putting the most skittish fighters at the center of a phalanx so that they would be forced to fight, which Walsh argues “deprives [their] actions of their moral content.” (I wonder if a hoplite would be relieved to be so assigned or aggrieved, as when a kid is picked last on the playground.) Later, and implicitly in response to Lyndon Jonson’s defensive claim about cowardice having gotten the United States into more wars than has aggressive response to global threats, Walsh cites Adlai Stevenson’s courageous and sensible advice during the Cuban Missile Crisis: “We need a coward in the room when we are talking about nuclear war.” Amen. In questioning the relative merits of cowardice and courage, those antipodal attributes, Walsh draws on war literature as well. His key texts are Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, the Vietnam writings of Tim O'Brien ("I was a coward…I went to the war” ends one story) and James Jones’s The Thin Red Line, in which, Walsh argues, Jones “…deflates, even denatures” the moral categories of courage and bravery. An aggrieved Hemingway makes an appearance to complain to his editor that Jones is a “psycho and not a real solider.” Walsh is perhaps a little too intrepid in wading into the field of evolutionary theory to explain the adaptive benefits or drawbacks what he “loosely call[s] cowardly genes.” Cowards are better suited to survive, and thus reproduce, than the reckless; on the other hand, the “erect epauletted soldier in his plumed helmet” trades his safety for the reproductive conquests sure to follow his battlefield ones. In another context, mirror neurons are needlessly invoked to explain a relatively simple phenomenon of spreading fear. The payoff of these quick ventures into evolutionary theory or social neuroscience is questionable, especially when, as Walsh himself admits, the “evolutionary legacy is so complicated and conflicted that it does little to explain our own moral intuitions about cowardice.” And yet Walsh’s broad-ranging curiosity about cowardice and its manifestations more often than not prove stirring. Take the account of encopresis, or the act of involuntarily soiling oneself. Walsh offers a Freudian explanation for our disgust, which stems from a desire “to indulge incontinence of every kind and be cowardly ourselves. Deep down, we are cowardly, and so we build a wall of disgusted contempt to protect ourselves from such revelations.” After considering the same act as “disturbing preview of human frailty,” Walsh next pivots to its “adaptive value”: shitting oneself drops some excess weight as one prepares to flee, to which the long Port-o-Potty lines at the start of any marathon attest. When he takes a broader view of the topic, Walsh make the convincing case that a series of cultural, medical and military trends have lessened our coward-shaming impulses: a shift from “duty-based republicanism to a liberalism” that values individual choice over sacrificial devotion; the development of an “institutionally sanctioned medical vocabulary” that has begun to mitigate the stigma of cowardice; and the “growing impersonality of modern war,” which, coupled with an all-volunteer military, “narrows the possibility for cowardice” and allows the average citizen to avoid the topic altogether. Or as he puts it in a hypocrite lecteur moment: “Pondering the cowardice of a solider might also lead all too readily to question of why we ourselves have not answered or even heard the call to duty.” 3. In the last chapter, Walsh shifts to the (non-military) literature of moral courage, a relief after encountering all those sententious moralizers and blustery generals, and considers Henry James’s “The Beast in the Jungle” and Kafka’s parable “Before the Law.” Walsh handles both of these sensitive authors rather roughly. No doubt many a reader would like to slap a dithering James protagonist in the face, something he recommends for John Marcher, who is paralyzed by “the sense of being kept for something rare and strange, possibly prodigious and terrible, that was sooner or later to happen to [him].” But such flippancy misreads the nature of Marcher’s problem, which isn’t cowardice; indeed, communicating his secret to May Bartram in the first place takes courage. Rather, Marcher is tenaciously, almost chivalrously committed to his treasured delusion: It signified little whether the crouching Beast were destined to slay him or to be slain. The definite point was the inevitable spring of the creature; and the definite lesson from that was that a man of feeling didn’t cause himself to be accompanied by a lady on a tiger-hunt. Marcher’s “figuring” of the Beast necessarily blinds him its connection with May, and blindness of this type can’t necessarily be cured by courage. Lambert Strether, and his midlife discovery of a rapturous, life-embracing pluck, might have been a better James character to pick. Walsh’s analysis of Kafka calls to mind those entrepreneurs who have taken to invoking Beckett’s “Fail Better” as a slogan. In “Before the Law,” a man seeking entry to the law is barred by a gigantic, fearsome gatekeeper, who is as trapped in his role as the seeker is in his. The man is “insatiable” and tries every tactic he can to enter over the course of many years. He fixates on this one doorkeeper, forgetting the (possibly) innumerable other doors and guards beyond him. It takes a lifetime before he asks the key question about why if everyone wants to access the law, he has never seen anyone else attempt entry, to which the keeper replies: "No one else could ever be admitted here, since this gate was made only for you. I am now going to shut it." “Before the Law” is a disturbing, insoluble parable and not, as Walsh would have it, a self-help story: “The implication is that we squander our lives and souls when we await permission to go down a path that is our for the taking.” Bursting past the guard is an inconceivable as Joseph K. being found innocent in his trial. The man is consigned to his own special kind of purgatory, and we are left to wonder whether the glimpse of a radiance he finally sees from behind the door before it is shut for good is the hint of a future blessing or the culmination of a cruel joke. If I’m harping too much on these literary readings, which take up a mere two or three pages, it’s only because my critical courage was pricked by the rest of this galvanizing history.
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