A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster

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Really Bad People: On Sebastian Junger’s ‘Tribe’

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“I do miss something from the war,” Bosnian journalist Nidzara Ahmetasevic tells Sebastian Junger halfway through his new book, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging. Ahmetasevic is talking about the wartime closeness she shared with friends in a basement bomb shelter in besieged Sarajevo. “The love that we shared was enormous,” Ahmetasevic says. “I missed being close to people, I missed being loved in that way.”

The sentiment lies at the heart of Tribe, a book offering a surprising thesis about the ways humans have traded communal belonging for excessive safety.

Junger gets a considerable amount done in a quick 133 pages: Tribe posits a reason why white settlers found life among Native American tribes appealing, theorizes about false PTSD claims among returned U.S. veterans, and conveys the author’s equality-minded view of how heroic behavior varies between genders — all in addition to remarks on hitchhiking, attachment parenting, Junger’s dad’s opinion of military service, and more. It’s an awful lot of ground to cover in such a short book, and it’s inevitable that Tribe would either feel inchoate and sketched or else aggravatingly dense. Because Junger is an adventurous storyteller (rather than, say, an academic theoretician), he opts for the former.

It’s not necessarily a good thing. The book’s lightness makes it accessible, an easy entry point to weighty subject matter. But its concision can make Tribe feel breezy even as it discusses life and death — if not outright incomprehensible.

Tribe is essentially a critique of modern civilization, beginning with Junger’s observation of the inexorable appeal of Native American lifeways to early settlers (“The intensely communal nature of an Indian tribe held an appeal that the material benefits of Western civilization couldn’t necessary compete with”). It proceeds through an examination of how disastrous or violent circumstances can create similar human closeness, and includes a discussion of how our society’s distancing itself from such harsh conditions has inadvertently sharpened those events’ capacity to traumatize the people who endure them.

All of these points have been covered in other, heavier books. Jared Diamond’s The World Until Yesterday examines traditional tribal lifestyles’ usefulness in the present day. The entanglement of war with human closeness and purpose is the focus of Chris Hedges’s War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning. (Both Hedges and Junger include the same anecdote, in fact, about a teenage couple in besieged Sarajevo, that dies, sniper-shot, on the banks of the Miljacka River.) Junger also briefly mentions the work of seminal disaster researcher Charles Fritz, noting that Fritz could find almost no examples of mass panic during large-scale disasters. This plays into his overarching point that difficult experiences can be unifying rather than shattering. The exact same studies by Fritz and fellow researchers — and that exact same, crucial point — are detailed in Rebecca Solnit’s brilliant A Paradise Built in Hell.

Junger uses these insights towards another point. “Because modern society has almost completely eliminated trauma and violence from everyday life, anyone who does suffer these things is deemed to be extraordinarily unfortunate,” he writes. “This gives people access to sympathy and resources but also creates an identity of victimhood that can delay recovery.” This is an important observation. It, too, resonates quite closely with previous work — in this case Harvard psychiatrist Judith Lewis Herman’s seminal book Trauma and Recovery, which remarks that “to hold traumatic reality in consciousness requires a social context that affirms and protects the victim and that joins victim and witness in a common alliance.”

What Junger achieves, then, is to assemble parts of all those books into one slim volume. So much the better for the busy reader. Unfortunately, Junger’s quick look at violence, trauma, and modern anomie also omits important information from other books, and as a result ends up on shaky ground, failing to consider counterpoints or bring its own arguments to a close.

Part of the takeaway from this book is that regarding military service as a source of permanent psychiatric disability is incorrect for most soldiers. Junger includes a lengthy discussion of how the U.S. Veterans Administration mishandles former soldiers’ mental health issues, and how America’s cultural misunderstanding of war plays into that deleterious milieu. The information isn’t wrong per se, but what it has to do with the rest of the romanticizing of foregone tribal lifeways, etc., or why that necessitates anything more than the 2015 Vanity Fair article from which the book sprung is never quite made clear. Worse, Junger says that the low rate of combat engagement among U.S. soldiers means their diagnoses of post-traumatic stress disorder often aren’t real — but he fails to consider that some soldiers develop PTSD from military sexual trauma, or from other adverse experiences outside of combat or before their enlistment.

Worse, he seems to misunderstand the diagnosis entirely. Here, as in the Vanity Fair article, Junger describes his own bout with what he calls “classic short-term PTSD,” departing from this insight to further dissect trauma and the ways modern society misunderstands it. The problem is, there really is no such thing as “short-term PTSD.” It sounds like what Junger had was post-traumatic stress, a weeks- or months-long psychological adaptation to adverse events (in his case, exposure to war) that typically resolves on its own. Although psychological care can sometimes be relevant, most mental health professionals don’t regard this as an illness. (Tellingly, Junger’s approach to his diagnosis involved little more than an acquaintance’s ad hoc comment at “a family picnic.”) Post-traumatic stress disorder is only diagnosable after three to six months, does not often go away on its own, and can endure for a lifetime if untreated. The implication that Junger’s case is typical PTSD is misleading — and to some extent, calls his conclusions into question.

The problems in his argument go even deeper. “In Bosnia — as it is now — we don’t trust each other anymore; we became really bad people,” Ahmetasevic tells Junger. “We didn’t learn the lesson of the war, which is how important it is to share everything you have with human beings close to you.” Junger’s thesis is that other cultures (the “Stone-Age tribes” white settlers once joined) did learn that lesson. But he assumes that violence is innate to humans and necessary for human closeness, never parsing evidence that it is not. And he doesn’t examine what this Bosnian journalist means by “really bad,” and how becoming so after the war might have arisen directly from the painful, long-lasting effects of the severe trauma Junger doesn’t quite seem to believe in.

He does argue that collective dissatisfaction with our “society that is basically at war with itself” should lead to a large-scale rearrangement of our lives and lifestyles. (“I also believe that the world we are living in — and the peace that we have — is very fucked up if somebody is missing war,” Ahmetasevic offers.) In a time of impending ecological disaster, that’s worth considering. Junger’s point about encouraging stronger communities and more human closeness is a good one. But this half-baked, too-brief book, so scattershot that its message is hard to ascertain, won’t get us there.

Telling Stories Keeps Us Alive: Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby

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Over the course of more than a dozen works of nonfiction, Rebecca Solnit has built a singular vehicle that traverses the poetics of place, and by “place” we mean everything.  She writes, with cerebral ferocity, about photography, human culture, literature, walking and wandering, politics, environment. In her latest, The Faraway Nearby, she writes about herself: that is to say, about the stories that comprise autobiography (the notion in general and hers specifically), literature, myth, fairytale, and the act of writing. By which we mean, again, everything.

“People disappear into their stories all the time,” she writes, inviting us to disappear into hers. We gladly do, since every careful sentence, every judicious image comprising chapters that take the reader forward and back into the nature of storytelling, is plenty alluring.  It is her contention that making stories — something we are, anyway, helpless not to do — is an act both of creation and deception, of the self and of others (“I am, we each are, the inmost of an endless series of Russian dolls; you who read are now encased within a layer I built for you, or perhaps my stories are now inside you”; “We think we tell stories, but stories often tell us, tell us to love or to hate, to see or to be blind”).

Solnit deploys several themes she manages, with a pickpocket’s skill, to remove from one place and insert into another: a visit to Iceland, her mother’s decline into the losses (and gains) of dementia, her own cancer surgery, and narcissism as personality disorder as well as literary construct, among others. Along the way, her erudition acts as a seine net wide enough to catch at once Frankenstein, Road Runner cartoons, Che Guevara, the Duino Elegies, Dutch vanitas paintings, and arctic terns. Improbably they all come together just so, and it’s a tour de force of logic and writing (done well, the latter is impossible without the former).

In the award-winning River of Shadows, Solnit’s project was to show how photographer Eadweard Muybridge, by inventing moving pictures, invented modern culture through giving rise to the California of Hollywood and Silicon Valley (near her home, another frequent subject) that has become our imaginative center; in the canny A Paradise Built in Hell, it was to explore the flip side of mass psychology and posit the contrary notion that it is in severe crisis that humans experience the bliss of ideal society, helpful and compassionate. Of course, this is the high-concept sell: they are no more “about” their ostensible subjects than a Cézanne still-life is about fruit. To truly describe her work, nonfiction in name only, it would be necessary to reproduce it in its seamless entirety; it is prose poetry, and cultural criticism, and polemic, and…just itself, sui generis. Her latest? Even more so.

The title is taken from the correspondence of the painter Georgia O’Keeffe who, after she had moved from New York to New Mexico, signed off “from the faraway nearby.” It summarizes Solnit’s primary thesis on the role of storytelling in our lives: that it displays an interplay of advance and retreat simultaneously bringing us close to a narrative’s meaning and distancing us from it. (And so a frequent theme of all her work, geography, here becomes metaphoric.) The whole book is an intricate working model of the idea. The progression of Alzheimer’s, which afflicts her mother and is a story that begins and ends the book and enfolds all that comes between, also causes a return to childhood; “time runs backward,” just as it does in varying accounts of “the mother who eats her children,” an Inuit woman who reputedly cannibalized her family during a weather-induced famine. (By association, Solnit also implicates her own mother, the selfishly bereft type “who gave herself away to everyone or someone and tried to get herself back from a daughter.”) The book itself is structured so that it goes forward, meets a mirror, whereupon it runs backward: the table of contents forms a chiastic concrete poem, Apricots, Mirrors, Ice, Flight, Breath, Wound, Knot, Unwound, Breath, Flight, Ice, Mirrors, Apricots.

A common theme of late in literary theory is the unreliable narrator. You’d think one of our foremost cultural critics, in a book about making stories, would be driven to have the last word in that debate.  And so she does, firmly, but only by not mentioning it. Her model of the story is one of lineage, of begetting and begat, of dialectic. By writing, “You can have an intimacy with the faraway and distance from the near at hand.” Underneath every story there is another one, and another below that, descending into the infinite basement of the past which is attained, temporally, by ascending into the future. Then she makes this assertion literal: beneath the stories on every page runs a single italicized line from yet another, and we can choose how to read them, continuously, like a subterranean stream, or as poem fragments intercepting the whole. (The one on page 6, by accident or even more incredibly by design, appears to give the reading instructions: “…like a ballad of one line or a history compressed down to its barest essentials…”)

The tale of Scheherazade, naturally, recurs in this symphony of recurrences. It distills the idea that telling stories keeps us alive. Solnit makes clear that it has saved her, again and again. In reading her story, we forestall the death of its ending, though “there is always more to tell; one thread is tangled up with all the others; even when it stops, other threads carry the story onward, beyond the horizon.”

The Faraway Nearby is a work of literary origami, amazing in its construction. Perfect, even. If pricked, though, I suspect it would bleed ice water, that which surrounded her in the art installation in which she took her Icelandic residency: it was called the Library of Water.

Like I said, perfect.

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