Literature as History

February 16, 2017 § Leave a comment

img_0822I am reading Matthew Beaumont’s Nightwalking: A Nocturnal History of London.  This nocturnal history of London was constructed through literature.  He relies on everything from Geoffrey Chaucer to Charles Dickens to William Shakespeare, amongst others to reconstruct the nocturnal London, though he focuses particularly on the 16th and 17th centuries.  The Amazon reviews are about what you would expect, especially the negative ones.  They castigate Beaumont for writing ‘history’ using ‘literature.’  And you can see the logic here.  Literature isn’t history, it’s make-believe. It’s fiction.  And I can certainly hear some of my professors saying the exact same thing.

I use fiction a fair lot when teaching.  I assign ‘history’ for my students to read besides the textbook, but I also make wide use of fiction.  This is true both in the case of literature and film.  So how is literature history, you ask?

Literature is a reflection of the time in which it is written.  This is true of historical fiction and non-historical fiction.  The historical fiction of our era is a reflection of our attempt to find a way through changing and complex times.  It is a reaching back for something simpler (as we imagine the past to be), or for an explanation of the world through the past.   Literature, like film, reflects the mood of the times, the neuroses we, as a society, carry.  What fascinates, puzzles, and frustrates us.  It is, in many ways it is the id to our rational ego.

So Beaumont reconstructs a history of London through fiction, and in so doing, he discovers what London’s nighttime meant to writers in their time and their place in London’s past.  Chaucer’s 14th century London is a very different beast from Shakespeare’s 16th and 17th century version, just as his is different from Charles Dickens’ 19th century London, which is different from Zadie Smith’s 20th and 21st century London. But each of those authors reflect the city as it was in those times and those places.

And while their stories may be fictitious, the city they are set in is not.  Each of these authors takes great effort to reflect London, the London they knew, to their reader.  And this is the point of using literature as an historical text.  Fictitious as the stories may be, their settings are not.

And so Beaumont’s nocturnal journey through London after dark is, in fact, a history.

Trauma and Memory

January 18, 2017 § 3 Comments

I read David Means’ novel, Hystopia, last week.  It is an alternative history of the 1960s and 70s in the United States; a novel within a novel.  Hystopia, according to the editor’s notes, was actually written by a Vietnam vet named Eugene Allen,  shortly before he killed himself in 1973 or 1974.  In Hystopia, JFK survived Lee Harvey Oswald’s bullet, and continued on as president and is now in his 3rd term (the scholar in me wonders how he got passed the 27th Amendment, mind you).  He oversaw a massive increase in American involvement in Vietnam, much greater than that of his successor in real life, Lyndon Baines Johnson.  And, of course, there was no Great Society policy initiatives. He was eventually assassinated in Springfield, IL, in 1970.  But this is not the interesting part.  The interesting part is what happens to Vietnam vets when they get home: they get enfolded.

A new branch of the government, Psych Corps, has attempted to use drugs to deal with the horrors that the soldiers in Vietnam saw, with a caveat: they only accept men who are not physically disabled by the war.  At the Psych Corps HQ, the vets are fed an anti-psychotic drug and ‘enfolded.’  Psych Corps re-creates the source of the trauma and PTSD for soldiers, they are forced to relive it, and in so doing, their memories are essentially wiped.  Thus, veterans who have been enfolded don’t remember their experience in the war, such as the ‘hero’ of the novel, a veteran named Singleton.  Singleton, we eventually realise was an officer in Vietnam and commanded the unit that also included the other main characters of the book.  But he has no recollection of this. The only thing that connects him to Vietnam is a horrible burn scar on his left side.  Singleton’s scar comes from a friendly fire caused by a soldier calling in the wrong co-ordinates for a fire bombing, resulting in his own death.

Now employed by Psych Corps, Singleton falls in love (against regulation) with a fellow officer, Wendy, and sets off to Northern Michigan to track down Rake, a former member of his unit and a failed enfold.  Rake, meanwhile, has kidnapped the beautiful but deeply troubled, Meg, whose boyfriend and first love was the soldier who got himself killed.  Meg is also Eugene Allen’s sister.

Immediately after Hystopia, I picked up Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps The Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, for a new researh project I am undertaking.  It turns out that Hystopia and The Body Keeps The Score are directly related for my purposes.  I am still only about 100 pages into the book, but van der Kolk is talking about his early experiences in the field of psychiatry in the early 1970s (the same period the fictive Eugene Allen was writing his novel, incidentally) and his first clients, including Vietnam vets at the VA in Boston.

He writes about what trauma does to the brain, using a vet as an illustration.  This guy was a high functioning, and very successful criminal lawyer in Boston.  But, he was completely empty inside. He went through the motions at home, with his family, at work.  He felt violent impulses and thus recused himself from his family, spending weekends at a time drinking heavily in an attempt to get his war experiences out of his head. He had been a platoon leader, and watched helplessly as he lead his men into an ambush. They were all killed or wounded.  He was not.  The next day, he took his wrath out on a Vietnamese village, killed at least one child and raped a woman.

As I read this story, and others, I couldn’t help think of Hystopia, and the vets being drugged to forget stories such as this veteran’s.  In the late 1980s, van der Kolk began experimenting with PET scans and, ultimately, fMRIs, by which the traumatising event is re-created, according to a script, in order to discover which parts of the brain are triggered.  It turns out it is exactly the same parts of the brain that one would expect to be triggered during a traumatic event. More to the point, the participants in these experiments reported feeling exactly as they did during the original event.  And thus, van der Kolk notes, his colleagues began to wonder about how to use drugs to treat PTSD patients, using the information from the PET and fMRI scans to learn which parts of the brain neeed to be treated.  Or, in other words, exactly what happens in Hystopia when the soldiers are enfolded upon return from Vietnam.  The difference, of course, is that enfolding works for the majority of patients.  There is no cure-all for PTSD for us in the real world.

Nonetheless, van der Kolk notes that we tend to respond to deeply traumatising events, whether something as graphic and terrifying and terrible as his Vietnam vet, or other traumas such as sexual assault, rape, being beaten as a child, etc..  And I found myself wondering about how our brains work to incorporate these memories and recast them in terms of society, how our memories and our traumas are never ours alone, but also belong to our wider society.  Our memories are formed, re-formed, and re-fined in light of our interaction with society, of course.  And it is difficult to tell where our individual experiences end and our societal imports begin, or vice versa.

And as I embark on a this project, I am wondering where that dividing line is between our own personal traumas and where society intervenes in the reconstructions of the narratives we tell ourselves about our experience.  What makes our traumas unique and what makes them like other victims of traumatising experiences?

The Dystopian Promise of Neo-Liberalism

September 6, 2016 § 3 Comments

I spent late last week laid up with the flu.  This means I read. A lot.  I don’t have the patience for TV when I’m sick, unless it’s hockey.  And since it’s late August, that didn’t happen.  While laid up, I finished Jonathan Lethem’s early career Amnesia Moon, and also ploughed through Owen Hatherley’s The Ministry of Nostalgia.  On the surface, these two books don’t have anything in common.  The former is a novel set in a dystopic American future, whilst the latter is a polemic against austerity and the Conservative Party in the United Kingdom.

But both point to a golden era past.  In the case of Amnesia Moon, obviously, given its  dystopic future setting.  And Hatherley is perplexed over the British right’s ability to control a public discourse of British history and memory.

In Amnesia Moon, the protagonist, a man named Chaos in some situations and Everett Moon in others, finds himself in Vacaville, which is actually a real place, about halfway between Sacramento and San Francisco in North Central California.  In Vacaville, the residents are kept unstable by the central state: they are forced to move residences every Wednesday and Sunday.  The majority of the residents work mind-numbing jobs, including Chaos’ love interest, Edie.  The society is run by the gorgeous, who are featured on TV every night, parading about in an early version of reality TV.  The people of Vacaville love and worship them.  All of pop culture in Vacaville has been re-written to venerate the president and the ruling class.  But most insidious, everything in Vacaville, for all residents, is based on ‘luck,’ a state-sponsored system based on a test administered by bureaucrats.  Not surprisingly, those with the best luck are in the ruling classes.  And then everyone else is organized and assigned their place in society based on their luck.  Not surprisingly, our Edie has bad luck: her ex-husband has lost his mind, so she is a single mother with two children.  She is also kept in place by a desperate government official, Ian Cooley, who is in love with her.

Compare this to Hatherley’s view of the United Kingdom in 2016:

We find ourselves in an increasingly nightmarish situation where an entirely twenty-first century society — constantly wired up to smartphones and the internet, living via complicated systems of derivatives, credit and unstable property investments, inherently and deeply insecure — appears to console itself with the iconography of a completely different and highly unlikely era, to which it is linked solely through the liberal use of the ‘A’ [i.e.: austerity] word.

See the similarities?

On Reading: My Books of 2013

January 2, 2014 § 5 Comments

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I read. A lot.  In 2013, I decided to track the books I read for pleasure, so I created this stack.  It got dangerously tall and slightly unsteady around November.  This also doesn’t include the other two dozen books I read for classes and research purposes in 2013.  But of this stack of 33 books I read in 2013, I can happily report that almost all of them were excellent reads and all but a couple were, at least for me, important reads.  I have blogged about some them already. (Kim Eichlen’s The Disappeared; Eleanor Henderson’s Ten Thousand Saints (and here) Teofilio Ruiz’s The Terror of History; C.J. Shivers’ The Gun; Sarah Schulman’s The Gentrification of the Mind (also here); Terry Eagleton’s On Evil; and Amy Waldman’s The Submission).  Time permitting, I will write about more of these books.

So, for those wondering, the best non-fiction book I read last year was Schulman’s The Gentrification of the Mind, with Eagleton’s On Evil a close second.  As far as fiction goes, I’d say it was a tie between Hilary Mantel’s Bringing Up the Bodies, Zadie Smith’s NW and the grande dame of CanLit, Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake.  Here’s the interesting thing: I’ve never liked Atwood.  I’ve always thought that her ability as a writer couldn’t cash the cheques here imagination wrote.  But Oryx and Crake has caused me to re-think my position.  The next two books in that trilogy, The Year of the Flood and MaddAddam are in my stack of books to read already.

The only truly disappointing book I read in 2013 was the 1993 Booker Prize winner, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, by Roddy Doyle, the great Irish novelist whose work I have always enjoyed.  Tant pis.

Shameless

December 7, 2013 § Leave a comment

We’ve been watching the American version of Shameless off and on for the past year.  The American version is based on the British show, but is set in the South Side of Chicago.  It is centred around the big and cacophonous Gallagher clan.  The patriarch is Frank, played by William H. Macy.  Frank is a drunk asshole.  There’s no other way to put it.  His wife, the children’s mother, has up and left.  The family is held together by the eldest daughter, Fiona.  There are 5 more children, the youngest of which is 2 (and somehow African American in a family of white Irish Americans; this is never explained).  Fiona scrounges and scrimps and saves to keep food on the table and the roof over the heads of the other Gallagher kids.  The house is possessed by the Gallaghers through dubious means, involving some welfare scam on the part of Frank.  Fiona is left to scam to keep the family together and to keep the rest of the kids from ending in foster care.

I have to say, I enjoy the TV show, though occasionally it hits kind of close to home, in that I grew up mostly poor with an alcoholic and abusive step-father.  But, this show is a rather complicated look at poverty, particularly white poverty in America.  It also dovetails nicely with Michael Patrick MacDonald’s points about South Boston.  The show is set in Canaryville, the historically Irish section of Chicago’s South Side.  Canaryville, like Southie or Griff, is rather legendary for being both Irish and hostile to outsiders.

As I watch the show, I can’t help but wonder if Shameless romanticises poverty, portrays it accurately, or stereotypes poor people as scammers.  I find myself torn every time I watch it.

On the one hand, the Gallagher clan and their friends struggle everyday trying to make ends meet, but it seems they’re always able to put aside their money worries to have fun.  No, they don’t get drunk (except for Frank) and they don’t do drugs.  But they do have a lot of fun, there’s a lot of wisecracking, and teasing.  There’s also a lot of scamming of pretty much anything that can be scammed, from welfare officers to schools, to businesses and anyone else stupid enough to get involved.

When I was growing up, my life wasn’t exactly as glamourous as the Gallaghers, but it’s not like we spent our entire lives miserable because we were poor.  And the “system,” such as it were, was there to be scammed.  To a degree.  It was not like anyone I knew scammed welfare or Unemployment Insurance (as Employment Insurance was once called in Canada), and so on.  Scams tended to be smaller scale.  Like scamming free rides on the bus or the Skytrain.  Life wasn’t one thing or the other, it wasn’t black and white.  It was complicated.

And this is where I think Shameless is a brilliant show.  Obviously there is some mugging for the cameras and the creation of some dramatic storylines for entertainment purposes.  But it represents the life of these poor white trash Irish Americans in Canaryvlle, South Side Chicago, as complicated.  Their lives aren’t all of one or the other.  They live lives as complicated as the middle-classes.  Perhaps more so, because they’re always worried about having something to eat and having gas to heat the house.  In the end, Shameless represents the poor as multi-faceted, complicated people, who are pulled in various different directions according to their conflicting and various roles (as breadwinner, daughter, son, friend, lover, etc.).  In short, at the core, their lives are no different than ours.  They are, essentially, fully human.

Too often, when I see representations of the working-classes and the poor in pop culture, whether fiction or non-fiction, these representations are nothing more than stereotypes.  Poor people are lazy.  Poor people are scammers.  Poor people are dishonest.  Poor people are victims.  Poor people need help.  And so on and so on.  In reality poor people are none of these things and all of these things and more.  In fact, the poor are just like you and me.  And, at least in my experience, essentialising the working classes does them a disservice.

And this is where works like Shameless or All Souls come in.  MacDonald complicates our stereotypes of Southie.  He shows us the complications of the impoverished Irish of South Boston, and he makes it impossible for us to stereotype.  In the end, Shameless does the exact same thing.

The Terror of History

June 8, 2013 § 8 Comments

I’m teaching a summer course, a quick, 6-week course wherein I’m supposed to cover World History from approximately the Enlightenment in Western Europe in the mid-18th century until the late 20th century.  It’s impossible to do this topic justice in a 15-week semester, let alone a quick summer course.  For that reason, and because I’ve been teaching variations of this course for far too long, I decided to try something new with this class.  In essence, my students are my guinea pigs this semester.  I am teaching the Terror of History/The History of Terror.

A few years ago, I read a fantastic book by UCLA History Professor Teofilo Ruiz, The Terror of History: On the Uncertainties of Life in Western Civilization.  Ruiz expanded on something that had been travelling around the back of my own brain since I first read Boccaccio’s The Decameron some twenty years ago.  In his Introduction, Boccaccio lays out the response of people in Florence to the Plague: What they did.  According to Boccaccio, there are three basic human responses to terror and misery: 1) Religion; 2) Debauchery; or 3) Flight.  To that, Ruiz adds that there’s a 4th category: those who remain in place, who attempt to carry on in the midst of chaos.  Since I read Ruiz, I’ve been thinking about this more explicitly, and I have re-read The Decameron (as an aside, I find it rather insulting that my MacBook insists that Decameron is a spelling error).  Sometimes it’s hard not to become a miserable cynic when teaching history.  We humans have come up with so many ways to terrorise, torture, and kill each other. If you don’t believe me, look at how Romans dealt with traitors: crucifixion.  Or the Holocaust or any genocide you want.

Religion, it occurred to me when I was a teenager, was simply a means of ordering the world in order to allow ourselves not to lose our minds, to try to find wider significance and meaning for the bad things that happen.  When I was a bit older, I dabbled in Buddhism, which was much more explicit about this.  This isn’t to demean religion, it is a powerful force for some, and it allows an ordering of the universe.  But, as the Buddha noted, life is suffering.  What we control is our response to that.

So, Ruiz pointed out the terror of history, of the endless crashing of shit on our heads.  Pretty much everything in our world is predicated on it.  We live a comfortable life in North America because my shoes were made in Vietnam in a sweat shop.  My car emits pollution into the air.  Historically, systems of power are predicated on fear, terror, and awe.  That’s how order is kept.  Uplifting, isn’t it?

So, this semester, I’ve made that explicit in my class.  I cannot even hope to do justice to World History, so I am trying to cherry-pick my way through all the mire.  I am focussing on the chaos and terror at moments like the American War of Independence or the French Revolution.  Or the terror of slave owners in the American South or in Brazil.  Or the use of terror by the world’s first terrorist, Maximillien Robespierre, who explicitly declared that he wanted to terrorise his enemies.  Lenin and Trotsky rolled in a very similar manner.  So, too, did the Qing Dynasty in China.  Or the British imperial system in Africa or India.  Or the Belgians in the Congo.  But this wasn’t an export of Europe.  Slavery has existed since approximately forever, and was an integral part of Ancient Warfare, but it was also central to African warfare in the 18th century.  The list goes on and on.

How do we survive in this endless cycle of bad news? We do what Boccaccio said we do.  We find religion.  We despoil ourselves in debauchery.  We find joy in religion or debauchery.  Or we find it in flight.  Flight doesn’t have to be literal, like the 10 young men and women in The Decameron, flight can be symbolic.  It can be a search for beauty, awareness, or knowledge.  In many ways, the three categories can overlap, like in the mystic cults of the Roman Republic.  But we are remarkably resilient creatures, and we find our joys and happiness in the midst of the shit of life.

Ruiz notes that people almost always attempt to step outside the colossal weight of history by following these paths to religion, debauchery, or flight.  Events like Carnival, whether in Medieval Europe or Rio de Janeiro (or Québec City in winter, for that matter), is exactly that, an escape, temporary as it might be, from history.  We escape systems of power and oppression for brief moments.

The hard part in teaching the Terror of History is finding the escapes and not making them sound like they are hokey or unimportant or trivial, which is what they sound like in the face of this colossal wave of bad news.  But we all do this, we all find means of escaping the news.  Right now, the news in my local newspaper concerns the government spying on its own citizens, a war in Syria, and people trying to recover from a bomb going off during a marathon.  If I took each at face value, I’m sure I’d be lying prostate on the floor, sucking my thumb.  So, clearly, I have coping mechanisms.  And humans have always had them.  But it remains difficult to talk about these in class without making them sound hokey.

This week, we’re reading Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.’s, SlaughterHouse 5, which takes place in part at the end of the Second World War and was Vonnegut’s attempt to make sense of having been in Dresden in 1945, when the city was firebombed by the Allies.  The terror of that, the horror, the devastation.  All throughout the novel, the narrator declares “So it goes” when dealing with death and other calamities.  We have a philosophy, then, here, one of stoicism.  Stoicism and Buddhism are fairly closely related.  This is an attempt to deal with the Terror of History.

At any rate, this is making for an interesting summer course, and it seems as though my students are, if not exactly enjoying it, are learning something.  Along with SlaughterHouse 5, we’re also going to watch Triumph of the Will this week.

Re-Manufacturing the War of 1812

April 30, 2013 § 2 Comments

Over at the National Council of Public History‘s (NCPH) blog, history@work (wherein public historians such as yours truly discuss issues related to history and the public and historical public memory), I have a new piece up on Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s delusional history of the War of 1812, entitled Re-manufacturing 1812: Stephen Harper’s Glorious Vision of Canada’s Past.  From the title, you can probably guess my angle on Harper’s attempts to re-brand Canadian History through the War of 1812.  Quite frankly, I find it disturbing.  Let me know what you think.

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