Thursday, November 24, 2022

What if they never meant to leave directions

I’ve come to realize that pretty much everything I’ve written over the last twenty years, all the research I have pursued, all of the philosophical backwaters I have wandered, has been about trying to understand the history of our flight toward origins, and to understand that history as a kind of extensively elaborated practical joke. In large part, this is because I have come to believe that most of what Americans take for granted as history rests upon a similar structure, that the structure of a joke, a narrative figure that turns upon the physical immediacy of tension and release, is fundamentally the structure of our most preferred stories about ourselves; because the structure of tension and release is also the structure of our other favorite national story, which is the story of sin and redemption. We are drawn to the story of sin and redemption because we all know we are sinners and because we crave some absolution, in part because the promise of absolution means we can go on with our sinning, but because it affirms our conviction that there is an end to this road, and at the end of the road, we will finally be allowed to see the map. We like to believe that here is a destination and there is a path, and that there is someone ahead of us who knows the way, even if they have not been able to share all the turns we are going to have to take. This is the rousing fiction we all crave, the thing that, even if we can sense its logical inconsistency, allows us to get out of the bed in the morning and go about our business, to act as if we are participants in some greater design. This is why we enjoy conspiracies, it is why we enjoy ghost stories, this is why we call our prisons penitentiaries: we like the idea of a plot because it suggests that someone is in charge, that there is logic in play, and if we look hard enough to uncover it, we will have a blueprint for right and wrong that turns on the question of what is correct. And that what is correct will inevitably be good. The answer to the question “What is correct?” can of course only be answered provisionally, and therein lies the problem. This is particularly so in a society based upon multiple overlapping genocides, and these peculiar ways we have of talking about work and social belonging, these things we call race and gender and sexuality; a society in which security is established through and guaranteed by institutions whose complicity with power is tempered by the barest pretense of democratic engagements. There is no doubt an end, but presuming that someone made it there before us, what if they do not know how they got there either; what if they never meant to leave directions; what if they remain as confused as we are now, here, in this moment, even with the benefit of all that hindsight? One of the unlikely points of commonality between the United States and Lebanon is the propensity to establish claims of moral rectitude through recourse to religiously-sanctified notions of conspiracy and origins. This is perhaps not all that unusual, especially so in a world in which we have long concluded that the nation-state is somehow the most reasonable framework for the negotiation of social and political relations. Nonetheless, the enduring and conspicuous plurality of these nations, historically and presently, as well as their relative youth among the global community of nations, has all but ensured that, for Lebanon and the United States, that the question of origins has been endowed with an inordinate degree of significance, and that it is pursued with all the vigor of a contact sport. Within modern Lebanon–the nation of Lebanon being a somewhat modern contrivance in itself–there remains an enduring fidelity to the mythos of the Phoenician past, and all the glorious achievements of the Phoenicians’ commercial empire, their skill as sea-borne navigators, their facility in business. In this inordinately contemporary mythos, the relative successes of people who might claim some diasporic relationship to Lebanon speaks to an innate, almost genetic disposition toward achievement; we are born this way. Conversely, those who have not achieved some reasonable measure of success have no one to blame but themselves and their ancestors. They were betrayed by the blood long before any of us who presently walk the earth had deigned to arrive. One of course cannot deny that certain cities in modern Lebanon can trace their histories through the history of Phoenicia’s Mediterranean empire. At the same time, certain inconvenient facts about the history of the Phoenician empire disappear in the present-day retelling, and one can never quite escape the feeling that contemporary obsessions with the Lebanese-Phoenician past accord, all too comfortably, with certain less than palatable strains of Lebanese Christian nationalism, strains that are right-wing, sectarian, and abiding in their exclusivity. Contemporary Phoenicianism is a way of imagining and ideally securing a national patrimony that is distinctively non-Arab and non-Muslim, a turning away from the East to the West, which of course is where the political entity we call Lebanon finds its actual origins–in the Sykes-Picot Accord, the Balfour Declaration, the Wilsonian pretense of the League of Nations, and the map of the world drawn by the imperialist powers in the years immediately following the first World War. Contemporary Phoenicianism is a way of turning toward the West, but also a means to circumvent the history of contemporary Lebanon’s imperialist origins by transforming the history of Phoenicia into a story about Europe, at large; about Phoenicia as giving birth to Europe, shifting narratives of European patrimonies away from Rome, or Constantinople, or the Battle of Hastings, or the Mongols or whatever, and rooting the geopolitical fictions of the present in the soil of the eastern Mediterranean, at Saida and Tyre, and the material histories of the Alexandrian conquest. As is often the case with American obsessions over origins, the unavoidable plurality of these historical precedents is not effaced so much as it is marshaled into service as evidence by which to dismiss any claim that the story itself bears certain marks of an exclusionary purpose; that is, that the story is only ever really about the ways in which we ratify certain types of social hierarchy in the present, and the symbolic methods by which class domination is secured, and exploitation is excused. The particular element of the American mythos of origins generally draws upon the history of the immigrant past as a means to negotiate the plurality we find in the present, to understand how so many different people find themselves together in a place none of them necessarily started out, and what might have become of the people that were already here to begin with. Of course, the facts of this history are generally molded to suit different political ends, in different moments, as we seek some kind of negotiation over the terms of our plurality, what it means, and how to live together when none of us really like each other, or bound to any sort of injunction that we must like one another. The idea of the immigrant history of the United States is not wholly incorrect, but more often than not, it has all too often served as a means of affirming, if implicitly, the settler colonial trope of a nation born of emptiness, a place that people have come to as a matter of choice, a place that has received far more than it has denied, a place that is perpetually in the business of its own renewal. On its face, this is not a wholly unpleasant story, but it is one that speaks more to the megalomaniacal egocentrism that haunts the national psyche than it does that it does the heartwarming generosity of a people disposed to suffer and to the suffering, a nation founded to alleviate the hunger of the huddled masses, to give them the room to take a breath. As with Lebanon, the inconvenient details of recent history only serve to expose the holes in the plot. The legacies of ethnic cleansing go missing; the theft of Indigenous land, cultures, strategies for survival, are forgotten; to say nothing of the offense done to the descendents those who were brought here in bondage, those whose bondage was conditioned by, and formative of, enduring notions of race and racial difference, of sexuality, labor, and the extraction of labor power. Slavery appears in this story as our great and foundational original sin, and Lincoln assumes the place of the Savior. Through his sacrifice, we attain absolution. We now live in a state of grace. Except of course we do not. All of this is insane. And yet somehow, I’m the one with the diagnosis. I’m the one who is crazy.

Tuesday, November 15, 2022

The assembled guests chase down oblivion

I mean no disrespect. Being cracked myself, I tend to have an affection for those who are similarly afflicted. I also find much of the policing of language around the ways we talk about mental health more than a little bit tedious, and probably counterproductive. At this point, I prefer being called crazy to being called anything as lazy as bipolar. “Bipolar” suggests that the etiology of this condition, whatever is taking place in the relationship between my mind and my brain, my body and the society in which it has been placed, manic depression can be dignified by being understood as primarily organic, and that the organic is somehow more real than the affective. It is a somewhat clumsy way of ignoring the problem by making it into something that can be managed by the grand designs of pharmacology. It is also a particularly handy way of absolving manic depressives of blame: we did not do anything to deserve this, there is nothing we can do about it, just wait for the pill to kick in. It does not work like that. If it did, the crisis before us would not be so daunting. We did not do anything to deserve it or to cause it; this does not spare us the burden of it, or the inevitability that eventually we will have to work with it, and that maybe working with it, or trying to decipher it, is preferable to the alternative, which is the pretense that one can overcome it. Americans are big believers in “don’t dwell on it, move on,” a prescription that is itself suffused with the misplaced hopefulness of the settler and the frontier. Moreover, even as we claim not to, that the best solution is that we not dwell on “it”--whatever “it” may be–we dwell on “it” constantly, we talk about “it” constantly. Most of what we say is not particularly useful because it is designed for the confessional: we curate our sins so we might be absolved through the grace on offer from the other. But most of the time we usually tend to leave out the really juicy parts. This is one of the reasons I do not particularly like the word “trauma”. As it has come to be deployed in our post-Millennial cataclysm, the word has come to do entirely too much work, collapsing a wide range of emotionally peculiar or troubling circumstances into a single explanatory paradigm, often conflating the most banal forms of distress with the most terrible. From one angle, the fact of birth is traumatic; we call that trauma life, and it is the one thing we can never hope to recover from, the thing that sets us on the path to an impossible reparation, which is another word for desire. Grouping all difficult circumstances within a single descriptive frame does a disservice to the infinite variety of human experiences, overloading the sheer commonality of many of those experiences with undue liability for explanation or redress. With respect to wellness, whatever that is, saying “I have trauma,” or “I have been traumatized,” is about as useful as saying “I am bipolar”–it offers a most general description of a set of symptoms as if the description alone is curative, as if being aware of the symptoms is tantamount to recovery, as if there is nothing to be gained by an exploration of the symptoms or, as if there is someway all symptoms might be tallied. The actuarialism here is punishing. A therapist once asked me, “Have you ever asked yourself why you are depressed?” It was all I could do to restrain the acid rejoinder. “Do you really think I’ve gotten this far in life without wondering why I’m like this?” I wanted to say. “I’m a highly functioning, highly educated, manic depressive neurotic who displays certain minor symptoms of hysteria. Have I thought about why I am depressed? No, it never occurred to me to wonder. Does it not occur to you that the attempt at explaining myself to myself might in fact be part of the underlying problem?” All that being said, my great-grandfather was somebody who almost certainly came back from the war suffering the effects of war trauma. He was, of course, never diagnosed as such, and it does not seem that anyone around him really bothered to connect the dots. The only contemporary of my great-grandfather who left a written account of the man (outside of the obituary composed by his eldest son and namesake) describes Edward Grady as stern, unsmiling, and irascible, completely lacking in the buoyancy characteristic of his brothers and sisters. The Irish propensity for gallows humor, that occasionally remarked upon demonstration of a joyous fatalism, was completely absent in his person, and in his personal interactions. “From his childhood and on through the years, he made a great effort to isolate himself even from his own family….What unknown reasons were part of his decision to isolate himself, I do not know. His choices seemed to say, ‘Please leave me alone; I feel better within myself.’” This brief account of my great-grandfather and his personality was recorded by his nephew, Joseph L. Grady, who wrote a compendious history of the family stretching back to Clare Island, to County Mayo, to Kilgarvan, Kilitmagh, and Killarney. By and large, the Joseph Grady account does not dwell overlong on any single person or speculate on their motivations for the choices they made or how they did or did not choose to live their lives. Every life is singular, but in the written history of the family, pretty much everyone seemed to be cast from similar molds; where there was variability, it was not worth accounting for. Which makes Joe’s account of my great-grandfather all the more striking, as is the implicit denial that there might be anything behind Edward’s eccentricities. Ed was just like this, Joe tells his readers–most of whom would likely have been family members–no one knows why, it is just how he was. Joe does mention that Ed had a distinguished record of service in the war, but makes no gesture to connect his more inscrutable choices–his decision, in 1919, to become a homesteader on land that was long-settled and extensively developed, for instance–speaks to the ruination that stems from the silences, from a Catholic trust in the power of absolution as endlessly ameliorative. I have a modest proposal, or is it an addendum: Edward Grady was not well. One cannot know this for certain, and one cannot blame him for this if it is a reasonably correct assessment of his person. Indeed, it does not need to be correct; it needs to be truthful, which is a more precarious business, all around. In a nation that has never not been at war, somewhere, in some capacity, the fact that we have been able to evade the question for so long–What has all of this done to us? What is it doing to us?–is perhaps the clearest evidence we have of our boundless capacity for misrecognition, for the impossibility of self-recognition in the Socratic sense. Our culture was forged in war, and in the desire for redemption, to know that one is redeemed. Confronted with the injunction to know ourselves, most of us respond with Bartelby, the implacable emblem of the national soul: “I prefer not to.” As is generally the case, the silence that clusters around traumatic circumstances only serves to compound the original injury, as the person who has been traumatized seeks some form of redress by dividing up the circumstances of the injury and distributing them to those who are trapped in his orbit. Joe Grady’s account is marked by this unwelcome dispensation, and it carries it forward, neatly sidestepping the dangerous fact of Edward’s illness by taking refuge in the heartwarming trappings of late immigrant romance, of hearth and family and achievement, of celebrity and sport as synecdoches for working-class ambition, and substitutes for the achievements born through social solidarities. “Reaction among his family and friends to his announced intentions was just plain amazement. Why would he pursue this course when the times and change had made it unnecessary?” A reasonable question, one to which the author attempts no reasonable answer. Instead, what we get is this: “I have a memory of that woods,” Joe writes, “for it was there among those majestic oaks, ironwood, butternut and some poplars, that a large family picnic was held on July 4, 1919, the day that Jack Dempsey won the world’s heavyweight boxing title from Jess Willard….I remember well the sumptuous feast of homecooking that was in progress when someone arrived from town with the news of the outcome of the fight. It had just come over the wire to the Monona depot.” Close your eyes and think of Dempsey; let your misplaced pride be a salve. It bears mentioning that, in Joe’s account, the world goes missing yet again. The woods, the farm, the food: these constitute the physical shape of my great-grandfather’s silence, a silence that will haunt my grandfather and his siblings, my mother and hers, and–in some portion, in some way that I have only started to consider, myself, my sister, my cousins. I speak for none of these people except myself, and I can barely speak for myself, for some of the reasons I have already outlined. For now, let me point out, in this brief account of immigrants and the children of immigrants, the new home takes shape in the undignified quiet that is the lot of the old. Ireland disappears. Its recent history, its present history, the fields and the famine, the Easter and the uprising, the relationship of a place once so dearly held, so vibrant, so well cherished, is conveniently forgotten as, through food and fighting, the assembled guests chase down oblivion.

Monday, November 07, 2022

The histories of the worlds and the worlds they made

One of the reasons we Midwesterners do not like to think of ourselves as being in the world is that the world was already here long before we deigned to show up. Long before the French Creole trader and financier Auguste Chouteau ran aground near the site of what would become the city of St. Louis, the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers was the site of the ancient city of Cahokia, built and inhabited by Indigenous peoples known to historians only as the Mound Builders. At the height of its power, Cahokia commanded an immediate hinterland that extended fifty miles in all directions, and a population of some 40,000, but its trade networks penetrated far deeper into the continent. The mounds built at Cahokia were, well into the nineteenth century, some of the largest constructions in North America; the Mound Builders fashioned them in a ceremonial relationship with the skies, to celestial events, most conspicuously, to the movement of the sun. The people who once inhabited Cahokia had largely abandoned the city itself by the time Christopher Columbus stumbled onto the beaches of the island known to its Native inhabitants as Guanahani but that Europeans would later call the Bahamas–a word that might by derived from the Lucayan Taino language, but might also be a corruption of the Spanish word “bajamar,” meaning “shallow waters.” It is not entirely clear what drove the depopulation of Cahokia in the period before colonization–political conflicts, internal wars, over hunting and over farming are all possible explanations, as is the possibility of a mass death precipitated by viruses introduced by earlier waves of European explorers that had been less disposed to settlement–but it is generally believed that the people of Cahokia would go on to join older Indigenous nations both east and west of the city, or to form new communities from the remains of their old polity. These would be the nations that, from the early seventeenth century, Europeans would meet and come to rely upon as trading partners, confidents, and informants. If it is not already a truism that European settlers could not have survived in their New World without Native help, as well as the gift–and, later, outright theft–of Indigenous know-how, it should be. Native peoples sustained Europeans throughout the Americas–not because they were particularly altruistic, but because Europeans seemed to be interesting trading partners, people who dealt in unfamiliar goods that, if not immediately useful, were beautifully seductive. They also looked upon these raggedy newcomers with a certain degree of pity. For most reasonable people, it is hard to watch somebody starve; it is easier if you do not have to see them waste away. So, Native peoples helped to keep Europeans alive. Their generosity would not go unpunished. The worldliness of this encounter–the world-making violence of the encounter–would be quite deliberately dis-remembered. By the time my family showed up in Iowa, the ethnic cleansing of Native peoples was largely complete across the Midwest, while the regulation of Black people and Black mobility, the ability of freedpeople to move within and between states, was just getting underway. Many radical Abolitionists had hailed from Iowa–in 1859, Josiah Bushnell Grinnell, US Congressman from Iowa’s fourth district, had sheltered John Brown after Brown’s attacks on pro-slavery forces in Kansas; after Brown’s raid on the armory at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, in 1860, the village of Winfield, Iowa changed its name to Harper’s Ferry, something that later generations would claim had nothing to do with Brown–but in the years following the Civil War the state legislature passed new law barring Black settlement within its borders, and attempted to limit the movement of freedpeople in the state. Both of these processes would prove to be to the advantage of later generations of European immigrants, particularly among the Irish immigrants who found a welcoming home among an earlier generation of French-American Catholics. A certain strand of my family history is woven through this larger tapestry, dependent upon, and contributing to, the reproduction of state counter-sovereignty and the jealously acquisitive logic of capital accumulation. The farm on which my mother grew up, on which her father had grown up, the farm his father had carved into forty acres of wooded land just a few miles west of the Mississippi in Monona Township, was once part of what was called “the Black Hawk Purchase.” Ceded to the US government under the terms of the treaty that ended the so-called Black Hawk War of 1832, the Black Hawk Purchase involved the sale of a strip of land on the western banks of the Mississippi, exacted as an indemnity for Sauk and Fox involvement in the conflict. Fifty miles at both ends, and forty at the middle, the strip extended from the northern border of Missouri–a border that remained in dispute until 1839, when the Supreme Court determined the border to be fixed at the site of Keokuk’s village on the Des Moines Rapids–to the mouth of the Upper Iowa River as it drains into the Mississippi. All told, the Black Hawk Purchase covered about six million acres of land, much of it in what geologists now call the Driftless Region, the topographical peculiarity that extends for maybe a hundred miles east and west of the Mississippi above the Missouri drainage, the only area in the Midwest that, because it was not leveled by glaciers during the last ice age, has hills, and forests, and is home to somewhere in the neighborhood of ninety percent of the region’s naturally occurring water features–streams, rivers, ponds, lakes, limestone aquifers and underground springs. This land, in 1832, was held, in large part, by Indian nations who were not themselves party to the Black Hawk War or to the treaty that ended the war. It was not land the Sauk and the Fox had any compellingly exclusive claim over, much less a right to sell. This, of course, did not much matter to the architects of American empire. For what they stole, the US paid the Sauk and Fox a little less than a quarter million dollars; many of the regular soldiers who were witnesses and signatories to the treaty would go on to settle on the southern shores of Lake Michigan near the scraggly little settlement that would very quickly rise to become St. Louis’s most direct competitor in the region and the nation, the old French trading post at Chicago. By the time my great-grandfather bought the land that he would make into his farm, in 1919, the memory of Black Hawk and the Black Hawk Purchase had mostly passed from the land, and the dominance of Chicago over agricultural markets in what had become the West was a foregone conclusion. The arcane witchery of what would evolve into the Chicago futures exchange, of course, bedevils Midwestern farmers to this day. My great-grandfather was part of this chicanery, his labor helping to ensure that his efforts to eke a living from the soil would be forever undermined by the unknown presences that haunted the trading pits of a far distant city. One of many workers who would, over decades, essay forth the spellcraft by which a quasi-national rail infrastructure would come to participate in the transformation of agricultural commodities into troublesome financial instruments, my great-grandfather was incidentally adjacent this history, having spent some portion of his later twenties working on the electrification of the stretch of the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul, and Pacific Railroad that spanned Montana and Idaho. While the rail network linking Chicago to the Pacific had been completed decades earlier, the electric EF-1 and EF-2 locomotives pioneered by the American Locomotive Company and General Electric promised a reduction of costs through greater fuel efficiency and more consistency with respect to schedules, allowing for more efficient–or at least more convincing–means of assessing supply, demand, and value. The wages my great-grandfather drew from this employment were most likely the basis for the capital he used to purchase his land in Iowa; they were no doubt augmented by work on the Milwaukee Road ended in 1917, when he was drafted into the military and sent to France, where he was one of the 1.2 million American soldiers who fought in the Meuse-Argonne offensive. Over a third of the soldiers who fought in the six week Meuse-Argonne campaign died on the battlefield. My great-grandfather did not. He survived the campaign and was mustered out of the service shortly after the Armistice. He came back to Iowa physically unharmed, but by most accounts, he came back from the war maybe just a little bit cracked. Seeing the world he was of may have broken him.

Tuesday, November 01, 2022

Capitalist Agriculture, Cuisine, and the History of Modern War

The politics of war and of presidential elections are perhaps the most conspicuous examples of the ways in which Iowa is in the world it so fervently denies; but, of course, Iowa has long been in the world long before Iowa was a place one could point to on a map, long before the contemporary borders of the state had been laid down; long before settlers arrived to carve their cruel grammar into the land. This particular piece of land was once fought over by far distant imperial powers, each seeking to leverage their position in the region to realize some kind of competitive advantage over the others. These late to arrive empires were never not in dialogue with the Indigenous nations who lived on this land, who stewarded the land over untold generations. Upon their arrival, the agents of foreign empires were quick to realize that one of the surest strategies for establishing and maintaining control of the land and its resources was to stoke the jealousies that obtained among Native peoples, to establish alliances between European and Indigenous nations that would encourage competition among disparate peoples over a necessarily finite and dwindling resource base, thus establishing commerce as a hedge against forms of alliance and confederation among Natives, or between Natives and settlers. The violence of this process was very much in the world, of the world, and it made the world anew, a new world of settler fantasies of mobility and desire, of wish-fulfillment as infinitely capacious, of never being denied that which one wants. From the first, these fantasies were tethered to an economy organized largely–though not exclusively–around agriculture. While the earliest settlers arrived as traders and trappers, part of the luxury economy built around the capture of game for the harvesting of furs, the growth of extractive industries and a corresponding market in land as property, encouraged the development of settler agriculture, particularly around grain and livestock. For settlers, as it concerned the business of sustaining life and expanding trade, domesticated farm animals were infinitely preferable to wild game animals, the populations of which, in addition to be mobile and thus notoriously unreliable as a source of food, were dwindling in the face of an increasing settler population, and the commercialization of the hunt among Native peoples. These processes were abetted, and new structures enforced, as a consequence of the regional lead industry, and the rising industrial production of munitions, small arms, and bullets. Rock Island, site of the primary village of the Sauk nation, was captured through a series of military engagements between 1831 and 1832, culminating in the so-called Black Hawk War. Fortified by the US military since 1816, in the 1880s, as the US was poised to enter into a new era of foreign conquest, Rock Island was converted into an armory and a weapons plant. As of 2022, the Rock Island Arsenal remains the single largest–as it is the only–federally-owned weapons manufactory in the United States. In Iowa, we prefer to think of agriculture as something quaint, if not antique; the image of farm and family provides agreeable cover for a whole lot of nefarious doings. The legal fiction of US sovereignty over this particular piece of the continent is invested with the affective power of this image, and we hold it dear. To think about the overlapping histories of violence by which this land was acquired, the histories of violence by which its peoples have been party, demands that we attend to a far more ugly history than the one we like to entertain, one whose complications cannot be easily accounted for, much less resolved. That the United States came to assume dominion over this piece of land because France was about to lose control of sugar production in the colony of Saint-Domingue, and the Mississippi River was less and less necessary to the provisioning of France’s territories in the Caribbean, presents us with a difficult truth. We did not do it on our own, we did not, and we never have. Settlers could flock to the banks of the river and make it over in the perverse image of their insatiable hungers only because a bunch of Black insurgents on an island two thousand miles away succeeded in liberating themselves from what was–at the time–the most powerful and strategically canny military force in the world. This fact does not sit well. Because we are a free people and we worked for what we had, it must not be true. It cannot be true, because it does not feel right. So we should ignore it, just as we should probably ignore the price Haiti paid for its freedom, the indemnity it was forced to pay to France as the cost of its freedom being perhaps the single most profound cause of the impoverishment of the island over the past two centuries, of the underdevelopment of its resources, and its peoples. That many of our relations showed up in this place because of the underdevelopment of another island nation, of a small place in the North Atlantic, by another imperial power should perhaps prompt some sense of kinship with the people of Haiti. It does not. This too is ironic, and another reason why we Midwesterners do not appreciate irony. The business of Midwestern agriculture–the expansion of agricultural production across the plains, the destruction of old growth forests and prairie lands, the emergence of markets and transportation infrastructures, was always about the world, about feeding the world. This seems like an eminently laudable goal until one begins to account for all that was destroyed, all the forms of life, respirant and inert, that were upended in service to the imperatives of capital, its accumulation and maldistribution. Zea mays, the grass plant Americans call “corn,” was engineered by Indigenous agriculturalists well over a thousand years ago; the multifarious varietals of corn are preserved, still, by Indigneous nations throughout the Americas. It fell to settlers to embark upon the commodification of maize through ever-expansive industrial scale agricultural practices, and the transformation of corn into a staple in the diets of humans and animals around the world. Processed as a sweetener, corn is an ingredient in virtually every food product humans consume. Those of us who eat meat or who are dependent upon infrastructures of electrification consume corn far less inconspicuously, inasmuch as corn provides fodder for livestock, or is processed for fuel as ethanol, or consumed in the form of methane derived from animal excrement. One of the single largest contributors to greenhouse gasses and planetary heating, cattle farming in the Midwest is presently as much about the production of manure as it is about the production of meat. The image of the farm as bucolic idyll is part of the stockpile of delusions by which we have come to ignore the ways in which the very practices of industrial scale agriculture undermine the very possibility of the family farm and its long-term survival, the practices that undermine the possibility of farming as an act of ecological stewardship. Capitalist agriculture was always about feeding the world, in making a new world for capitalism by sustaining the reproduction of workers, increasing the supply of available workers and sponsoring competition among them by rendering them disposable, thereby undermining wages and inhibiting the formation of class-based solidarities. Which is to say it capitalist agriculture was always about class domination and sex, about gender and sex as terrains of class warfare, and about war as a technology of population management and resource control. Provisioning the military, feeding the troops, has always been a notoriously fraught aspect of war, just as the waging of war, the distribution of troops across different zones of conflict, has of necessity allowed for exchanges among different food cultures, introducing soldiers to unfamiliar forms of food, uncommon cuisines, and unusual modes of food preparation. The history of conquest is written into the history of food culture. Corn, potatoes and tomatoes all became staples of European food cultures through the conquest of the Americas; forms of Mexican cuisine enter the American diet after the US-Mexico War of 1846-48. Cane sugar is, of course, a relic of a long and torturous history of colonial warfare throughout west Africa and the colonization Indigenous lands in the Caribbean. American GIs developed a taste for sushi during and after the US occupation of Japan. Sushi chefs in the US would later develop the California roll and the Philadelphia roll, which would be exported back to Japan during the US war in Vietnam. Those workers who built the infrastructures necessary to the production, circulation, and distribution of agricultural produce, those tens of thousands of immigrants from the Chinese province of Guangdong, adapted elements of Cantonese cuisine to the tastes of miners who flocked to the West in pursuit of mineral wealth. James Beard contended that it was amateur chefs among Chinese workers who first developed the Denver omelet, which was–he believed–a distant cousin to the St. Paul sandwich, a long-time staple of Chinese restaurants in St. Louis, composed of an egg foo young patty, served on two slices of white bread, slathered in mayonnaise, and garnished with lettuce, tomato and pickle. The entanglements of capitalist food cultures are expressions of what Lisa Lowe has referred to as the intimacies of four continents, the asymmetrical relationships that obtain between Europe, Africa, the Americas, and Asia, the forms of extraction and accumulation sustained by the military violence of imperial warfare. As a matter of military logistics, in the modern era–or, at least, since the Napoleonic wars–going to war and feeding an army has entailed certain innovations in food preparation, of the large scale processing of fruits and vegetables and meat, and the preservation of these staples through the introduction of the metal tins, the industrialization of canning and meat packing. Again, we are back in the Midwest. We are with Hormel in Austin, which is a city in Minnesota that is not named for Stephen Austin, the Virginian-cum-Kentuckian-cum-Missourian who would become “the father of Texas” but for another settler who conscended to bear the Austin family name. We are with Agriprocessors, and the Rubashkin family of deepest Brooklyn, with Guatemalan workers and the Israeli Orthodox Rabbinate, with the producers and consumers of kosher meats. And somehow, magically, we are with energy markets. It starts with SPAM, it ends with Shabbat, and how we keep the lights on during the sabbath. And something somewhere is about inflation at the pump and who will win the election this year. This is a long and winding road, but we must drive it if we hope to figure out how to get to our destination. We do not yet know what that destination is, and how we will get to this place we do not yet know is really anyone's guess. Somewhere, we will get back to the question that set us going. Was Grandpa in the CIA?

Saturday, October 29, 2022

The things we prefer not to think of

I come from a place in the world that does not like to think of itself as being in the world. Truth be told, it is not particularly interested in being part of this nation, but it puts up a good show of it, nonetheless. It sings the songs; it casts the votes; it genuflects before the flag and the troops. But typically we think we are out here on our own. This is the Wild West. Whatever we are, whatever we have, we did it ourselves. No one helped us. And, since no one helped us and look what we’ve accomplished, why should we help you? This is Iowa. This is the Midwest. A place where, if you strangled yourself with your own bootstraps most people probably wouldn’t give it a second thought. We are calm, if not demure. We spare ourselves the bother of getting involved. Until, of course, we don’t. Iowa is the first state in the United States to cast something like a vote in the presidential primaries, and this gives it something like influence, something like a reputation, at least as it comes to matters of state. During the primaries, Iowans do not vote, per se, but they do make their voices heard. They engage in a process that is called caucusing, which is insane. But I love it. This is what happens. Basically, everyone gets together in a room somewhere, on some evening. It is usually in the winter, well after the harvest, and late enough in the day that the dairy farmers can attend. In that room, they proceed to divide themselves up by political parties. The members of said political parties then begin to argue amongst themselves about which of the available candidates are preferable, and for what reasons. Different camps begin to take shape. The members of one camp begin to lobby the members of other camps, hoping to achieve something like a majority. Somewhere, along the way, the people in the room talk about the parties and about policy, about what the party should stand for, and what they want to see their elected officials do. Meanwhile, journalists from local and national media outlets stand by, monitoring the melee, shaking their heads in wonderment at the absurdity of it all, while still very carefully parsing the words of the old woman in Dubuque who thinks Donald Trump is a stone cold genius American patriot because he managed to convince an Australian to build a janky reality show around him and around the premise that he single handedly built the borough of Manhattan and that you too could have dinner at 21 if only you worked for him, never suspecting that 21 is an irrelevant gaucherie and no one eats there who really matters. Somehow, out of this mess, Iowans decide who they want to nominate to run for president of the United States. To be clear: The United States is a country that is only one of five that has the legal right, under international law, to control–and manufacture–nuclear weapons. (In total, at least nine countries do, but let's not get too worked up about that just now.) And yet, this is how our politics works. Yes. This is nonsense, but it makes for a fun night out. It makes for interesting bedfellows and arresting diversions. Once, when I was suffering through my first Democratic Party caucus in 1996, my grandmother proposed that support for an English-only amendment–to both the state and the federal constitution–be added to the party’s platform. It fell to a man we all called “Sleepy” to explain to her why this was unacceptable and unnecessary. My grandmother, whose grandparents did not speak English and whose mother had only a very elementary command of the language, did not look kindly on those immigrants from Central America who were mucking things up for those of us whose relatives arrived when they were supposed to, which was in the later years of the nineteenth century. Also, despite the fact that the Spanish-speaking immigrants who arrived in Iowa in the 1990s were largely people who had been displaced by US-stoked civil wars in Guatemala and El Salvador, she and everyone else called them “Mexicans,” because we could find Mexico on a map. The small places did not matter so much. Which, of course, says something about who we were, who we are, and how we think of ourselves. We are from a small place and we don't much matter. Somehow it always managed to escape our notice that we were deeply involved in the business of electing the leader of the ostensibly free world. A world that had once been very openly hostile to our relations, the Irish and the Middeleuropeans who got here too late and brought their superstitions and their Catholicism and their general quixoticism. We Midwesterners are not a people that appreciates irony. We did not understand that Lake Woebegone was a joke. So yeah. Iowa is in the world. We pretend not to notice it. Or we pretend to pretend. One is never entirely sure what exactly is going on here. Pretty much every generation of my family, on both sides, up to the present day, has had at least one member who fought in a foreign war. Until I went to Spain in the year 2000, this was pretty much the only way any of the members of my family ever left the country. My parents were 46 and 56 the first time they traveled by air, and that was just to come to New York, the place that I had lodged myself for much of my adult life. The world was always here. We just preferred not to think too hard about it. It was a problem for somebody else.

Wednesday, October 26, 2022

Five rials in the tackle

Of the milder pathologies enjoyed by my family, perhaps the mildest is the compulsion to save. Magpies among the hominids, we assemble our nests from odds and ends, the things that we find, that arrive before us; the things that fascinate us, the things that we cannot give up. The more charming word for this phenomenon is preservation, but to call what we do preservation would imply that there is some sort of strategy or business model that would valorize the ensemble. There is not. We are collectors, and we have no time for a plan. A less dignified word for this practice might be hoarding, but we are not hoarders. We are instinctive antiquarians, faithful to the intention of the antique, unbound from convention and design. Disciples of the leftovers, acolytes of the refuse, we see the otherwise inconspicuous value in what has been left behind, the value in the forgotten. However one chooses to describe this condition, this way of relating to the world, the point is that we save the things that otherwise might have been overlooked, the things that might have been mislaid; things that, in being mislaid, are condemned to evanescence, to be lost, to be denied the privilege of purpose and of meaning.. It is a melancholy habit, to be sure, the saving of things; a way of dwelling with the pasts we cannot quite bring ourselves to part with, a way of reckoning with the anxiety that attends our inevitable lurch into the future. This is why sometimes these things loom larger than we had expected. This is why sometimes, just as the night descends, the things we save, the things that have been saved, afford us unlikely avenues for reflection, for discovery. When the dusk has exhausted itself and the clouds have not yet consumed the stars, sometimes the things we save allow us, perhaps, to think of new ways we might save ourselves. My grandmother was an inveterate saver. She kept a shadow box on her wall in which she preserved artifacts of her children, her parents, her grandparents. It held homemade Christmas cards scrawled in impish crayon; rosaries brought from the old world to the new, brought from Rome and Amsterdam and Bremen, places she had never been and would never go, plastic beads once sanctified by the blessings offered by long dead popes. My grandfather brought one of these from Rome. He was on leave from the war, and like a good Catholic he went to Italy and he bought a rosary outside of San Pietro. It would come to rest in the box. It was made out of mother of pearl, which is like pearl, but not. Mother of pearl is a lie. We will get to this. There were also books of matches decorated, made over as unassuming gifts from her younger children; there was a small vial of dirt from the farm on which my grandmother raised her family, the farm my great-grandfather had carved into the ground which a previous generation had stolen from the Sauks. In the shadow box, she kept the things that were especially precious to her, the things with which she wished to be buried. I very desperately wanted to keep the rosaries from Bohemia, but it was made clear to me, at some point, that these were not things that would be passed on. They were destined to return to the earth, to be preserved in the decision to let them be lost. I preserve the compulsions of my grandmother in my own erratic collection of sacred beads: misbahah from Algeria, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria; rosaries from Damascus and Qana, from the house where Saint Paul was baptized and the site upon which Jesus turned water into wine; the unblessed beads from my first communion; the three strings of polyethylene baubles that are dedicated to my three orixas. These I too keep in a box. This box is one I bought in Cairo. It is handmade. It holds the objects I cannot surrender, the photos of dead friends and the mass cards from their funerals, the dried corn that spilled from the train the car crashed into when those three kids were killed. The wildflower seeds I was supposed to plant, that were meant to be a living memorial to the one that was gone who died far far far too young. In looking over her things, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that my grandmother had a striking preoccupation with money. She kept years and years of checkbook registers, she kept the canceled checks that my grandfather had written to the state, quarterly installments in payment of sales taxes he owed in 1969. In yet another box, she squirreled away the diaries in which her mother, my great-grandmother, kept the record of the hours she had worked and for whom, how much the families for whom she kept house had paid her, or how much they owed. It should be said: I am insanely proud that my Grandma Waalk was a maid. That she gave life to we spoiled children of better times is close to astonishing. But let us move on. The somewhat crude actuarial figures of my great-grandmother now find their contemporary expression through my mother and my sister, both of whom work as financial analysts and financial planners, their genius in the design of estates, the equations that allow for the accumulation, preservation, and transfer of wealth, of that which will be bequeathed, and how it will be distributed. When my great-grandmother died, she had $3.36 to her name, dimes and pennies and quarters stowed away in her small coin purse, which she kept inside a slightly larger coin purse, both with the characteristic coin purse clasp. I know this because my grandmother kept these things, the purses and the money, and she left behind a note. She itemized the contents of these purses; she wanted to make sure the accounts were balanced, that we knew how much was there, that her mother’s bequest had not been recklessly mismanaged. It was still there for us, she wanted us to know. It was always there if we needed it. In addition to her preoccupation with accountancy, my grandmother collected what she considered the more exotic forms of specie. There are countless silver dollars and memorial half-dollar coins in her tackle, the coins that were struck with images of Kennedy and Eisenhower and the moon shot; there are sheaves of two-dollar bills, the Toms that bear the image of Mr. Jefferson, that are now apparently totems among Second Amendment extremists and pro-gun enthusiasts. Folded within these more familiar currencies are currencies from abroad, mostly bills that returned to Iowa with my grandfather after his term of service in the Korean War, when he was stationed in Germany and the Netherlands. Among these, there are three bills that are particularly conspicuous. There is a note issued by the Central Bank of China, dated 1930. There is a five franc note issued by the State Bank of Morocco, dating from roughly the same period. And, perhaps most peculiar, there is a five rial note, issued by the central bank of Iran. The writing on the note is composed in Perso-Arabic script, and it is emblazoned with an image of the young Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who looks like kind of a snack. While there are numbers on the bill there is no obvious date, yet based on the portrait of Pahlavi, it is likely that it was printed around 1944, just three years after Pahlavi's ascension to the throne. On the left side of the bill, handwritten in pencil, in cursive Roman characters, is a brief legend. It reads: “5 rials,” “value–15 cts,” “Abadan”. This is in my grandfather's handwriting. I had never seen this bill before. Almost all the artifacts my mother had preserved of my grandmother were things that my grandmother had shown me while she was still alive, including her collection of foreign coins, all of which came with a backstory, usually about the men in my family who had been drafted into the service and sent abroad. To the best of my knowledge, however, none of the men in my family had served in North Africa or the Middle East. Until my sister went on study abroad, no one in the family had been to China. I was certainly the first person in my family, on either side, to attempt to make a life abroad that did not also involve the military. And while I've been to Morocco, I don't have any stories to tell about it. As far as I know, no one in the family had any stories that came from these places, or in which these places were mentioned. Among those generations who went to war, returning GIs were neither inclined nor encouraged to talk about their experiences. If not for 'MASH' it is likely the Korean War would have been forgotten altogether. Nonetheless, certain details would of course slip through the miasmatics of trauma. We had certain pieces of the puzzle. This, however, was just strange. That someone in my family–that people who were alive in my lifetime–could have made it to Morocco and China and Iran, and that there would not be some faint shimmering of anecdote that survived them, something that had passed through the layers of battle fatigue and the amnesias of war, seemed unlikely, if not impossible. Where did this money come from? How did it get into the hands of my grandparents? The most likely explanation is that it found its way to them entirely by chance, that someone my grandfather knew, some comrade in arms in Germany, happened to pass it along to him, an uncommon memento of their service together. My grandfather never much talked about the war, and when he did it usually concerned his time on base in Germany, or the brief period he was reassigned to the Netherlands in the wake of the North Sea Flood of January 1953. There were few stories except those about Jonesy, his good friend who might well have been the only black person my grandfather ever knew or for whom he had a good word. Collectively, our family knows little of John Thomas Grady’s term of service, but we know that he never once mentioned any place more exotic than Bavaria. We know that he was drafted and sent abroad in 1951; he was discharged and returned to Iowa sometime in September 1953, about six weeks after the Armistice that ended the Korean War. My grandparents were married that October, late in the month. Before Halloween. Before the Day of the Dead. As it concerns this piece of Iranian currency, how my grandfather came to possess it, and why it ends up here, shuffled between inconsequential relics of all too common financial hardships–the artistry involved in managing a burgeoning household when income is next to nothing–these dates are enormously important. Not perhaps with respect to the masterful housewifery of my grandmother, but for what her archival chicanery suggests about the unavoidably disordered remnants of our shared pasts, of the unconscious as the voracious collector of things that disturb our best efforts at fashioning order, about the consequences of those things we cannot acknowledge, much less confront. And It says many things about the next seventy years of global politics. Probably many things it does not mean to say. What falls between July 27 and September 1953? A lot of stuff, to be sure, but if you’re Iranian, or if you know anything about the history of Iran or the history of the modern Middle East, what is most relevant is probably this: From August 15 to August 19, 1953, the United States and Britain, through the offices of the CIA and MI-6, helped to orchestrate a coup by which Mohammad Mosaddegh, the democratically-elected Prime Minister of Iran, was deposed. As Prime Minister, Mosaddegh had nationalized the Iranian oil industry, which had been largely under British control since at least the end of the first World War, and he had threatened a take-over of US munitions manufactories in the south, in the port cities of the Persian Gulf, where the US had built an aircraft assemblies in the years after WWII, in the brief period before the Cold War when the US was still selling weapons to the Soviets. By January 1953, as my grandfather was deployed to Holland, ostensibly to help shore up the dikes after the flooding of the North Sea, Eisenhower and Churchill had decided that nationalization of Iranian energy production was such a grave threat to US and British interests in the Middle East that the Iranian government needed to be overthrown. And so, Operation Ajax, or Operation Boot, was put into motion. Mossadegh was ousted, eventually tried and convicted of something that was probably made up, and placed under house arrest in Ahmadabad until his death in 1967. In the aftermath of the coup, General Fazlollah Zehedi was installed as head of the government, and the Shah assumed ever greater authority over affairs of state. Under the Shah, after 1953, the policies that concerned the nationalization of Iran’s energy sector were reversed. British Petroleum stepped in as the primary actor in Iran’s energy sector, with other US and European corporations taking the remainder. To ensure the security of the Shah’s rule and the expropriative designs of Britain and the US, in 1957, the new government formed the SAVAK, the CIA-trained Iranian secret police force that would go on to violently suppress all dissent until it was dissolved during the revolution of 1979. Despite decades of human rights violations, the violent suppression of democratic movements for republican government, and the wildly imperious overreach of monarchical authority, British and American governments would continue to support the Shah, so long as the Shah pursued policies that were conducive to the maintenance of Anglo-American dominance over the Iranian energy industry, until the revolution of 1979, until the return of Khomeini, until the embassies and the hostages. But this is what comes later. In 1953, in the months my grandfather cannot be accounted for, the city Abadan was at the center of this conflict. And somehow he had money that he knew to be from there. In Arabic, 'abadan' means 'never'. As in, 'we speak of it never'. What are the things we never speak of? Is Abadan our never-neverland? Was my grandpa in the CIA? Who knows, and what does it matter? The coup happened, Iran was scarred. That is what is important. The evidence of my grandfather's involvement is circumstantial, but compelling nonetheless. He never talked about these things. I have to wonder: Are there reasons why he couldn't? It seems impossible that he was an agent; but then, I was casually recruited, too, once upon a time, so why not? Recruitment, as far as I know, as far as my experience would suggest, is generally, and largely, a casual matter. Do agents ever know what they are doing, what ends they serve? Some do, of course. But did the men on my rooftop in Beirut know why they were surveying Sharia Adel al-Solh with a telescope at nighttime in June 2022? Did they know that Edward Said's sister lived just down the street? Had they seen the CIA file on Vanessa and her time with Arafat, or that she and I and Doyle once drank together at Gruen at Gefinor before heading down to Abou Elie? I'm pretty sure Keta╩┐ El Amn El Watani has a file on me; at least, they knew that I was supposed to be traveling with my ex when they stopped him for questioning in Doha when he was flying to the United States to apply for political asylum, which is something we had only told to US diplomatic personnel in Beirut. We who live in Karakas guard our secrets too well for them to find out what we know, and those things we don't. But to the matter of the family, my family, to those of us in Iowa: What does this silence mean? What did my grandfather do? And what does it do when his silence about what he did gets passed on to subsequent generations? What does it do to the rest of us?

The tenth plague, the eagle, and the rock

Another way of saying the tenth plague founded the Jewish people is that the tenth plague founded monotheism; or, that the tenth plague is an allegory for the foundations of monotheism in much the way the story of the Black Plague is an allegory of capitalism emerging for itself by strangling the slumbering figure of medieval feudalism in its bedclothes. After violently suppressing the baroque polytheism of traditional Egyptian religion, Aton monotheism was itself violently suppressed. The unavoidable mutuality of life, of all lives, respirant and inert, necessitates that we are, together, forever engaged in the negotiation of what constitutes the domain of what is permissible, of socially acceptable pleasures and the means of their satisfaction. The concept of God is one way of conceiving a mutually acceptable end to our desires, the ultimate form of their satisfaction, the form through which all desires will be sated. Still, if for we sorry creatures, satisfaction is something can never be attained–indeed, if the impossibility of satisfaction is the condition that sustains those of us cursed with desire, those who necessarily consign themselves to a world that is soaked in pain, is our dissatisfaction with the stories not part of the design? It this not why we seek, but also why we rest? Is this not the lesson in the rock? What little scholars have been able to discern about the historical suppression of the Sun God and his preservation among the Hebrews who fled from Egypt to Canaan invites us to consider the relationship between the eagle and the rock, between all that is solid and that refuses to give, and all of those things that will not yield. Of pleasure, happiness, and the desire to remain still. “The eagle that has his young look into the sun and requires that they should not be dazzled by its light is behaving, then, like a descendent of the sun, submitting his children to the ancestral trial. And when Schreber lays claim to being able to being able to look into the sun unpunished and without being dazzled he has retrieved the mythological expression for his filial relationship to the sun as a symbol of the father.” Schreber knew these things; Schreber tried to tell us. God the father, God the son, God the holy spirit: three and one and one and three. All is ephemeral but ephemerality takes different guises. All endings are beginnings. All beginnings are endings, but nothing ever really ends. People once killed each other over these things. People are still killing each other over these things. On the Mississippi, the eagles are dying of lead poisoning. In Palestine, in Lebanon, in Syria, much the same might be said.

Thursday, October 20, 2022

Saint Joan

But these are not the old ways; these are the new. “Like Adam, I was apparently united by no link to any other being in existence; but his state was far different from mine in every other respect. He had come forth from the hands of God a perfect creature, happy and prosperous, guarded by the especial care of his Creator; he was allowed to converse with and acquire knowledge from beings of a superior nature, but I was wretched, helpless, and alone.” A pentatonic, a dissonance, the monster is a collection of tones that barely tolerate one another. The mask. The mask. With the music comes the mask and the eyes, the eyes. He wants to hear the eyes. He hears the vibration of the scar, the frequency at which this unstrung cello vibrates. Resonant, sonorous, the scar seeks its bow, camel hair against unwilling flesh, untuned sorrow. You see the blood, the blood and the pool, cerulean blue with clouds of crimson. Two days, five seizures. A dream a delusion a fantasy of jackboots, of handcuffs and rubber bands and shreds of cotton, a choir of nurses a chorale of police. This is my aria, or is it a solo. How can I perform with my wrists tied to the bed when I wake on the floor of the airport, Leo’s rainbow beside me, six fireman bending over me, a leash and a dog and the gendarmerie, my audience. Do you know where you are? You don’t know what happened? You don’t need to know what happened? Stigmata present. A present of stigmata. More things about which I am not permitted to speak. But this is what it feels like: There are spasms in my teeth. My legs twitch, my jaw locks. I fall to the ground and no one can tell if I am alive. Slowly, slowly the face of a young woman comes into focus. She is an emissary from the gendarme. I do not trust her, I do not believe in her. The brave men stand back while she clears their path. The brave men are afraid of me and this is before the stigmata; this is before the thumbprint of the beast. And then you wake up and it’s America. You wake up outside in America. Gotta get up gotta get up before the morning comes. Don’t forget me, please don’t forget me. Make it easy for me just a little while. Monday, Nebraska. Freight. The Train. Boxcar Willie and the Banshees. The Irish dragged the banshees here to terrify the Sioux. They succeeded only in scaring themselves, their children, and their animals. The Indians did not know the language of the banshees, but it did not matter. They had their own evening wraiths, and the banshees had no interest in their affairs. For the Indians, the living dead were of greater concern. The whiteness of the shroud, of the grave, is nowhere near as forbidding as the whiteness of the skin, of the teeth and the litany of lies that spill from their mouths, as if even the most casual untruth cannot bear to share space with the radiance of the spirit. The monster hears the story in the wailing of the train. It cannot it will not restrain itself. The monster is compelled to ride the train as freight, but it cannot plug up its ears. Whoever made him did not know what he was doing, and he hears every sound, smells every smell, but he is not allowed to see. And somehow he knows there is much to see. He can hear the scar, he can feel its vibration. Somehow he knows it is a map. How he knows this, he does not know. But he knows that he is the progeny of a demented cartographer. The rock, the river, and the tree are less inviting than he had hoped. He has come from France. He has crossed the Arctic circle. He has seen the ice of Lapland. There were no tiny men. There were no magical deer. The world begins to take some kind of shape. The monster is learning not to fear the wrath of saline, the injunction not to look back. What he will do with this knowledge remains to be seen. Looking back, what will he see? What is there to be seen? He knows that he is being followed. He has heard the footsteps of his pursuer; he has come to know his stride. What is it that he wants? What does the pursuer want? The map, the scar, the record of where the monster has been. The prophecy of what yet may come. I am at the river and I feel nothing. Despite its majesty, it is nothing but a hollow, the shape of something lost, of an attachment undone. I had assumed coming back here would awaken something else, something other than the creature. But now, there is only the echo of the sadness once carried along by the current, once breaking around these islands, breaking upon these banks. Now littered with boutique contrivances, bordered by a concrete path wandered by dim-witted eccentrics, the river has been robbed of its voice, its sorrow. Even in the dying light, the embers of fall now lit in the trees of the islands. If it sings, I cannot hear it. This is alarming but not without precedent. The first time I saw the Nile I found it underwhelming too. The Nile, when I met it, seemed a collector of stories. The Mississippi set its stories to music and invited all to dance. Only on subsequent trips to Egypt did the Nile begin to open up. Frozen, the colossus of lions at the base of the Qasr al-Nil Bridge, forever braced in preparation for the kill, they started to speak to me. They started to roar. Perhaps this is why I cannot hear the Mississippi. Perhaps Yemanja is upset. Perhaps I need to go to the Amazon. A new water, a new baptism. I will wash away my collection of sins by casting them upon the water. You do not know what disaster will come upon the land. Of the five, I remember only the first. This is the only one during which I did not pass out. There have been others, but I do not remember them either, except in retrospect, as reconstructions. With the first in Paris, I feel my jaw come unhinged, I feel it move through my neck and my head and remember knowing that I was never going to be okay again. I remember the contortions in my face, my visage taking the appearance of a terracotta satyr bellowing throughout some antique drama. This too is Hamlet: a play within a play within a play. No hay banda. Es una grabacion. It is a tape recording. Llorando. Llorando. The puzzle box and the key. Dora and the jewels. Speech is of course forbidden, but you have no idea how difficult it is to write these things down. Once written they are indelible. Speech might be recorded but somehow it remains porous and inexact. Recording sound is not quite the same thing as manipulating surfaces, tracing the shape assigned a vibration. Speech is alluring, writing is conspicuous. Both are beautiful, but one moves with purpose. Jealous of each other, speech is forgiving; the written is cruel and demanding. While the breath will disperse, ink is indelible. Whatever form it takes, the written always leaves a trace. Writing things down is a way of keeping the wound open. On this business of place, a moment, a feeling, an interlude: “This was an adequate enough performance, as improvisations go. The only problem was that my entire education, everything I had ever been told or had told myself, insisted that the production was never meant to be improvised….I wanted still to believe in the narrative and in the narrative’s intelligibility, but to know that one could change the sense with every cut was to begin to perceive the experience as rather more electrical than ethical.” In “The White Album,” Joan Didion sorts through the texture of her experience, the emotional peculiarities of her life between 1966 and 1971. Immediately following her willful exile to New York, these are the first years after her return to California, to home. Yet, in these years she finds herself less a refugee restored to her rightful estate than a sojourner in a doubly uncanny place, the Sacramento of her youth supplanted by the eternal now of Los Angeles, a post-war Los Angeles pulled apart by concrete thoroughfares meant not for people but for machines, cameras, set dressing, dolly tracks, klieg lights, cars. The phoenix of Hollywood is about to be born, the New rising from the Old, and Didion is there, a somewhat unsteady bystander who just happened to wander into the scene of the egg and the hatching. Something is happening. Something is being born. The old rules no longer apply. Meyer is dead. Selznick is dead. Goldwyn and Warner are not dead but they might as well be. And without them, who was there to tell the story, who was there to tell us what the story should be. “I was supposed to have a script, and had mislaid it. I was supposed to hear cues, and no longer did. I was meant to know the plot, but all I knew was what I saw: flash pictures in variable sequence, images with no ‘meaning’ beyond their temporary arrangement, not a movie but a cutting room experience.” A trick of the light, of reels and motors and threads of celluloid, still pictures come alive; the pictures are moving and we are still but the image comes alive, the light dances. That is cinema. That is Hollywood. There is sequence and flow and flow emerges from structure, the delicate work of splicing pictures into certain patterns, deliberately arranged so to advance a beautiful lie. The stories themselves of course are lies but we get lost in them anyway, captives bound with scraps of velvet. We know the ending before we begin, and most of the time it does not matter because this is what we want. But now we find the pages in the script have been shuffled. When the still pictures are scrambled, montage returns to its makers, to its visionaries, to Vertov and Eisenstein, to the recusal of cinema from the administration of time. Illness removes us from society and, as such, it removes us, inevitably, from time, and time is the miasma that cinema exhales. Didion returns, throughout her work, to the figure of montage as a way of conceptualizing illnesses, those symptoms that wind their way through the mind, the body, and the social. Illness is presented routinely as both metaphor and theme, a topic Didion will return to over and again as she searches for a language through which to understand her own mental and physical ailments, as well as the relationship between her illnesses and the world in which she finds herself cast adrift. “The White Album” is, above all, an account of the circumstances surrounding an event that Didion is careful not to characterize as a nervous breakdown, but that most certainly was, leading to her stay in a psychiatric hospital in Santa Monica sometime in the summer of 1968. The circumstances of that breakdown become part of a larger story about Los Angeles at the end of the 1960s, to Los Angeles and the counterculture, to California, Charlie Manson, Sharon Tate, Roman Polanski, J. Paul Getty, and Patty Hearst; to symptoms of a social disorder unprecedented in her American experience. Even disdainful of cant, Didion eschews the popular psychological euphemisms that still float through the blood of our necrotic culture, instead turning to the clinical language of the report compiled by her doctors upon her entrance to the hospital. She quotes the report at length. Her doctors, she reports, describe her as “fundamentally pessimistic, fatalistic, and depressive,” exhibiting the tendencies of “a personality in process of disintegration.” Having entered the hospital complaining of “vertigo, nausea and a feeling she was going to pass out,” the doctors in Santa Monica put her on Elavil, a trycyclic antidepressant developed by Merck and approved by the FDA in 1961. She is instructed to take 20 milligrams, three times a day. Didion leaves no further account of her time in the psychiatric ward, nor does she describe any of the side effects associated with the long term use of Elavil, most of which I recognize in myself. Until it was decertified by the FDA in 2000, Elavil had been associated with a range of symptoms, from mild to severe, abnormal drowsiness and weight gain to tremors, spasms, and seizures, as well as fainting and “developing a mask-like face,” a condition in which one felt one’s features as frozen, the muscles shaping one’s countenance conspicuously immobilized. This inventory, and my now long-term reliance on antidepressants, does nothing to improve my opinion of psychopharmacology, or the equivalent forms of cognitive behavioral therapy with which its wares are often paired. Fluoxetine, branded in the US as Prozac, is associated with a similar raft of symptoms, from nausea and vomiting, stuffy nose and heartburn, to fainting, irregular heartbeat, and seizures. The correlation between the worst of my physical symptoms is striking. Still. The bipolar predates the medications, just as assuredly as Didion’s nausea and paranoia was present long before she entered the hospital in Santa Monica. In “The White Album,” Didion neglects to mention that 1966–the year she associates with the beginning of her deterioration–is the year her daughter was born. Let us begin again.