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Re: No Subject

by Wen Stephenson

> From: Sven
> To: Wen
> Sent: Saturday, June 07, 2003 5:54 AM
> Subject: Re: No Subject
>
> Yes, I’m being so clever. . . . But hey, is there a voice that ‘gets’ your
> generation? Is that why you cited Prague, because in its way it shoots
> for that, ‘getting’ here being as much a matter of hitting a tone as
> finding a subject? Salinger pulled off the voice-coup of all time with
> Catcher, and which of us has not dreamed of doing the same? Prague,
> which I never finished, was terminally glib, like the dialogue on ‘West
> Wing,’ which at some moments can seem so ‘on’ but then can
> suddenly get so cloying. . . . Don’t think of me as pressuring you. . . .
> much.

Sven:

I’ve been thinking, and thinking, about how to reply to your question (“is there a voice that ‘gets’ your generation?”), and I even started writing it out in longhand, about how I think Dave Eggers comes close to a kind of Salinger-like coup and how . . . here’s the big idea, the big epiphany . . . SELF-PARODY is the key to the whole thing! (You know, stripping away irony by making a parody of self-consciousness and irony itself, then taking the GREAT LEAP off the branch—the great risk, the great gamble—in the unabashedly quixotic effort to make some kind of GENUINE, sentimental, unironic, unmediated . . . HUMAN CONNECTION.)

And then it hit me! I’ve been searching for the form of this essay, something “looser,” less “conventional,” more my “real voice” (it’s always a quest for the real, the authentic, isn’t it? Even when it comes to one’s own voice. . . .), and as I started scribbling out my answer to you, I realized: write the essay as A LETTER TO SVEN!—“Dear Sven . . .”—responding to your question, then going off on a series of digressions, tangents (about my own experience, about “Earnest Young Americans Abroad in Search of Authenticity”. . . about IRONY and BELIEF and COMMITMENT and, yes, even WAR . . .) that ultimately circle back around to where we started. In other words, a long, searching “letter to the editor,” who just so happens to be a member of The Generation Looming Over Mine.

But I want to run this by you. Are you cool with this?

You asked the right question.

All best,
Wen

~

> From: Sven
> To: Wen
> Sent: Sunday, June 08, 2003 8:38 PM
> Subject: Re: No Subject
>
> absolutely—start there, anyway, and see where it goes, maybe like
> Wittgenstein’s ladder it can be dropped—the “dear Sven”—or
> turned into a more obscure “Dear————”. . . Trust the energy
> and keep me posted. This in moderate haste.

Dear Sven,

I’d rather not drop the “Dear Sven . . .” That OK?

But seriously, SINCERELY, this is where I have to make certain decisions . . . about where this essay is going . . . about what I have to say.

First of all, I know this whole “email dialogue” thing is tired. SO TIRED. Everyone’s done it. So what does that prove? Everything’s been done. But I’ll get to that in a minute.

Honestly, really, I want to try and explain my reaction to your question about “my generation.” You see, it’s not so easy. You ’60s guys may not understand, but “people my age” (I was born in 1968) find this concept of “my generation” . . . um . . . a little hard to take. It’s a cliché. It’s nostalgia. You guys were a “real” generation, and you knew it, and you took yourselves oh so seriously (still do!), as perhaps you should have (and maybe still should, considering you’re now running the world). But we all know what’s happened, how the generation tag has long since been turned into a marketing device. And we resist it. WE MOCK IT. If anything marks us as a generation, it’s our utter DISDAIN for a phrase like “my generation.” It’s always been others—you guys!—who’ve insisted on labeling us. The only way we can take the idea at all seriously is to engage it in a kind of meta-discourse. (Thus this essay!)

But that doesn’t mean we don’t HUNGER for authenticity, for some authentic relationship to history, to our times, to ourselves and others—we do, I assure you, maybe more than you know. Deep down, many of us (if we’ll admit it) WANT TO BE LIKE YOU! And yet, still, I know this idea of a coherent “generation” is complete bullshit. Who is this “we,” anyway? And who am I to speak for “us”?

But all of these feel like such tired observations. Like everything else, this conversation’s been worked over until there’s nothing more we can say that isn’t ALREADY OBVIOUS. Even the meta-discourse feels infinitely tired by now. (I mean, my god, the “meta-” felt exhausted ten years ago, when my tragically PoMo grad-school professors just kind of went through the motions, like they didn’t even trust, or believe in, their own suspicion . . . their own despair . . .)

You mentioned Arthur Phillips’ Prague. It’s a decent novel. I’m sorry you didn’t finish it. I agree it’s glib, but, Sven, I think that’s the point. My problem is that glibness, per se, as the point of a novel . . . means what? Adds up to what? I found it clever (too clever), entertaining in many places, moving in a few (too few), and finally rather hollow. Which, again, was maybe the idea: Phillips’ “hollow men”—incapable of believing in anything!—just like THE LOST GENERATION! Only nothing at all like them. After all, they’re in Budapest, not Paris, and it’s 1990, not 1925, and they all wish they were in Prague, where the real action is supposedly going on, the “real” generational “thing” in that heady post-’89 moment at the “End of History”!! THAT’S THE JOKE. Get it?

But this is why I bring up Dave Eggers. Yeah, I know, Eggers the media darling, the staggering genius, the saint. . . . But listen:

Phillips and Eggers published their first novels—Prague and You Shall Know Our Velocity—this past year. Both are about young, true-hearted Americans far from home in search of authentic experience, genuine self-knowledge, real human connection. And they’re about irony, self-consciousness, doubt, and moral confusion. Yet where one fails (Prague) the other (Velocity) more or less brilliantly succeeds.

I’m tempted to say that Eggers, to get back to your question, pulls off that Salingeresque (or is it Kerouackian?) trick, that generational “voice-coup” you’re talking about. And the way he carries it off, as I suggested, is SELF-parody. Not just satire. Not just irony. Not just parody. That’s the thing about Eggers. He “gets” the way we mock ourselves—how we’re THE BUTT-HEADS OF OUR OWN JOKES! We recognize ourselves in Will and Hand’s absurd antics in Senegal, Morocco, and Latvia as they try to make it around the world in a week, these missionary dumb-fuck tourists, giving away, offloading, $32,000 in cash to complete strangers, as though trying to offload their guilt—and we laugh. He’s funny, but not in some glib, corrosive, dishonest way. Will and Hand have souls! They want so badly to believe, IN SPITE OF THEMSELVES, that human connection, understanding—belief itself!—is possible.

So Eggers lets us laugh at ourselves—nervously, of course, conscious of the self-flattery it implies—and yet take him, and ourselves, seriously at the same time. It’s self-parody with a PURPOSE.

Because if you think about it, self-parody (the intentional kind!), is deeply serious at some level. YOU CAN’T PARODY WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW. Self-parody says, self-consciously, “I’m stripping away all this self-conscious bullshit, laughing at myself in the process—what an idiot! what an asshole!—but the reason I’m doing it, you see, is that I know there’s something hidden beneath it all, some underlying, maybe uncomfortable, maybe SELF-REVEALING TRUTH.” Because if you strip away irony—like so many coats of old paint, like so much god-awful ’70s wallpaper in that upstairs bedroom—by making a parody of it, by mocking it, by mocking the postmodern devil . . . what are you left with? What do you find under all those layers of paint and paper and dried-up toxic glue?

WHAT? That’s the question, isn’t it?

But to try and speak for my generation, or whatever, is laughable, naïve, self-deluded, vaguely obscene. . . .

Shit. I don’t know, Sven. Tell me when to stop.

As always,
Wen

~

Sven,

Where’d you go? . . . Are you still there?

Hey, did I ever tell you about Thailand? No, of course not. When would I have done that? . . .

But first, do you think I should dispense with the CAPS? What if people don’t get it? I mean, what an asshole, right? NO MORE CAPS!!! (Those are the last ones, I promise.)

So, anyway, why Thailand? Bear with me. This may take a while. But I’m pretty sure it’s relevant. . . .

OK, so we got to Thailand at the beginning of Feb. ’91, just in time for my twenty-third birthday and the climactic “ground war” in the Persian Gulf, which we caught snippets of on CNN and, when we could find it, in the International Herald Tribune. It was the midpoint of a six-month journey across Asia with my best friend from college. We’d just spent three months on the Subcontinent (a month in Nepal and two in India), and ahead of us lay Hong Kong and the Chinese mainland.

We flew from Madras to Singapore on Feb. 1, then from Singapore to Phuket, the large and heavily touristed island hugging the far southwestern coast of Thailand. (Sort of like landing in the Florida Keys and thinking you’re in the United States.) We needed some rest. We were looking to get in some R&R before resuming our “serious” travels. Yes, a vacation from our extended vacation . . . a mind-body-conscience-cleansing escape from the pressures of India. We wanted to have some fun.

But then there was the war—that goddamn fucking war—which had dogged us since Bombay in mid-January. When we’d left the States in the fall it was still just a distant possibility, somewhere on the horizon. But once the bombing started we’d been preoccupied with what scraps of news we could gather, and our mood, the whole mood of our travels—of our naïve project of cross-cultural connection and understanding—had altered. Soured. We were irritable (at least I was) and drank too much (or at least I did). I hardly remember the last two weeks in India as we hurried through the southern states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu. My journal for those weeks is a blank. Whatever shred of innocence we’d clung to after three months in South Asia had disintegrated. We were 10,000 miles from home, on our own, among people who looked on us with increasing suspicion, if not menace (or were we imagining?), as our country rained terror upon the people of Baghdad and the hapless Iraqi army.

One of our college roommates, as well as another classmate I knew from home in California, were newly commissioned officers in the United States military: one in the Army (Corps of Engineers, Ranger school), the other in the Navy (headed for SEAL training). We’d last seen them in Cambridge the previous June, and we had no idea where they were, whether either of them had shipped out to the Gulf. As far as we knew, two of our best friends were in the process of liberating Kuwait—if they were still alive. (It sounds melodramatic now, knowing how short and relatively bloodless—for the Americans—the Gulf War turned out to be. But remember, nobody knew what to expect in those first days of February 1991, and we were cut off from most media, which left a great deal to our imaginations. . . .)

Meanwhile, our plan for Thailand, where we’d spend a month before heading to Hong Kong to gear up for two months in China, was to go to Patong Beach, Phuket’s main resort town, where they had everything from first-class Western hotels to backpacker bungalows (we opted for something in between), and then figure out what to do from there. We’d read about the small, virtually unpopulated Phi Phi Islands several miles off the southern coast, where you could get a bamboo hut on the beach for a few dollars a night. That was the extent of the plan: beyond that, we just wanted to forget the war and reflect on where we’d been. . . .

But I need to pause here. I’ll get back to Thailand, trust me, but I have to mention something before I go any farther.

Do you remember what your fellow Boomer Paul Berman wrote about the “Generation of ’68” in his book A Tale of Two Utopias, in the chapter he calls “A Moral History of the Baby Boom Generation”? He talks about certain young people in France and the U.S. in the 1960s, children of the Left whose parents had suffered in the ’30s and ’40s, had fought in the Resistance, and so on. In the shadow of their parents’ generation, these kids felt, as Berman puts it, “tortured by moral self-doubt or self-contempt. . . . [T]hey said to themselves, as their elders would never have thought to say: I am privileged, therefore I am nothing. . . . Some people suffer from an inferiority complex; these people suffered, on moral grounds, from an ‘illegitimacy complex.’ ”

You get the idea. Maybe you know it all too well. But this next part may help explain the difference between your generation and mine—the difference and the similarity—so I hope you don’t mind the longish quote:

So the young people embarked on a reverse passion for the ‘other’—not a hatred for people who are different but a love for them, in eager acknowledgment of their very difference. Faraway solidarity became their religion. They said, in effect: I struggle on behalf of others, therefore I am. They conceived an idea of identity through action. It was a grand idea, morally. . . .

For to be young and morally troubled in 1968 . . . was to feel morally worthless in the face of what the parents’ generation had gone through—or had gone along with. And it was to feel contempt for what the parents had become. The young people wanted to redeem their souls. They wanted to leave behind the privileges and comforts of middle-class student life and go fight in the street and in the universities for a better world. . . .

The parents had struggled through the Great Depression and the Second World War, and they had endured the repression of the Communist movements in a number of Western countries when the war was over, and now they were exhausted, and the children who were born of those parents had something in common. They were the after-the-deluge children. . . .

Now transpose that into the key of a different decade, and listen for the echoes. The moral self-doubt, the self-contempt, the sense of illegitimacy. . . . A craving for authenticity, for connection, for purpose. . . .

But think about the differences. We may both be “after-the-deluge children,” you and I, but they were different deluges, to say the least. “Yours” was the deluge of mid-century, of Depression and World War, of Holocaust and the Bomb. “Ours” was the deluge of ’68, of Vietnam and Radical Chic, of Weatherman and Watergate. The world you inherited had been morally tested, and in some important ways had passed the test, maintaining for you at least the possibility of a moral idealism. The world we inherited was in ruins, so to speak. Morally, that is. No, I’m not talking about sex or drugs or whatever. I’m not talking about the culture warrior’s Gomorrah. I’m talking about Berman’s “grand idea”—the notion that one could “struggle on behalf of others” and not be compromised, implicated in their oppression. That one could act on an ideal and not look stupid, naïve, duped, deluded, self-righteous—not look like an asshole, a “guilty liberal” . . . a cliché. Berman again:

. . . the student movements of circa 1968 were a weird phenomenon, but not an unprecedented one. . . . [A] movement that sends up a pure flame of idealism, and is unable to preserve the purity of its idea; a radical ebullience that turns into radical ugliness; a movement for freedom and solidarity that turns into a movement for tyranny and violence, then produces rebellions against itself—that is not a novel pattern. Nothing is so old as a wave of the new.

Now, you can make of Berman what you will (the same Berman, it should be said, whose latest book, Terror and Liberalism, made a case for war to overthrow Saddam Hussein on liberal-democratic grounds). As a Boomer yourself, those lines no doubt affect you differently than they affect me. But here’s my point: If we’ve internalized anything—and by “we” I mean those of us born circa 1968 who are at all politically and morally aware—it is a sense that idealism, as much as we may want to believe otherwise, is a fool’s game or worse . . . that there are no more utopias, and that to believe in them is a dangerous, absurd, even ridiculous thing.

Of course, this is called disillusionment, and it hardly makes us unique. It’s “not a novel pattern.” Unless, perhaps, as after-the-deluge children—as post-’68, post-disillusionment, post-postmodern children—we had no illusions to begin with. Maybe that’s the difference between our generations. . . .

No, that would be self-flattery. We all have our illusions, don’t we?

But there I go talking about “generations” again. Are you still with me? You didn’t reply to my last message. . . .

-Wen

~

Sven,

OK, I’m pushing ahead, trusting you’ll tell me when you’ve heard enough—when I’ve become insufferably earnest (or just insufferable). Maybe you’re waiting to see where this leads, just to confirm your suspicions, before you give it the axe, pull the plug, hit the gong. Time’s up! Next contestant!

But Sven, something happened to me in Thailand, something I still don’t really understand. It had something to do with belief. Not necessarily in a religious or political sense—though there was that too, to be sure—but in some absolute moral sense that was separate in my mind from any formal religion or politics I’d ever known.

You see, I was raised in a devout Christian and Republican household, of the Bible Belt variety (which has put me in a distinct ethnic minority every place I’ve lived). We weren’t as fundamentalist as some of the families in our church, who, like us, had migrated to Southern California from Texas and other parts of the South (I’m the only member of my family born in California), nor were my parents very politically engaged, although my mother did volunteer for Goldwater in Texas in ’64. Still, my mother’s faith, especially, suffused my childhood. Hers was a love more than a fear of God—don’t worry, I got my dose of fear on Sundays—and it has left me with an unusual (in some quarters) respect for people of strong faith. I’ve long since parted ways with my particular religious and political upbringing, yet I carry some inescapable memory of it with me, and in Feb. ’91 that memory was still fresh—and painful.

But I’ve said too much on this topic already. This is not an essay about religion. . . .

Somebody told me that Patong Beach had been a rest-stop for the U.S. Navy during Vietnam (though I’ve never verified it), and this crept into my head and lodged there, coloring everything I saw. The thing you have to understand about Patong is that it was, even then, in 1991, a kind of sprawling tropical brothel—even with its big Holiday Inn and Meridien and Club Med resorts, and its middle-class Western tourists. All around us were older Western men driving rented motorcycles or scooters with beautiful young Thai girls attached to the back, their delicate arms wrapped absent-mindedly around the variously sized and shaped midsections. In the bungalows where we stayed near the main beach, ours was the only room not occupied by such a couple. They probably assumed we were gay.

Which may or may not have had anything to do with what happened that night at one of the countless outdoor bars along the beach. I’d had way too many Mai Tais and Singhas (the Thai beer—we’d have to wait for the Phi Phi Islands to enjoy the finer oblivion Thailand had to offer), and to be perfectly honest, I don’t remember much about the evening. All I know is that my friend, Eric, and I were engaged in an intense and rather beery conversation about the war. He saw the arguments on both sides and had decided he was against it. I was wracked by ambivalence:

“I hate this fucking war, but Kuwait is not Vietnam! This is not 1971! The moral facts on the ground are entirely different this time! Yes, it’s about the oil, of course it’s about the fucking oil (we wouldn’t be sitting here if it weren’t for the fucking oil!), but it’s about more than that! Are there no principles worth fighting for? Yes, I know innocent people are dying, but what about the innocent people killed and tortured by Saddam Hussein? And what about the guys our age, who didn’t have our advantages (and some who did), who are dying too!? Making the world safe for idiots like us? Don’t we owe them something?!”

And as I grew louder, which I tend to do when I’m drinking, and as my tortured moral reasoning grew to a fine, high pitch of self-pitying anguish, I must have said something about Jesus.

Something to the effect of: “Jesus, forgive us.”

And that’s when the guy sitting near us at the bar just couldn’t stand it any longer.

“Don’t bring Jesus into this,” he said. “What the fuck does Jesus have to do with it?”

He was older, probably in his forties, with some kind of British or Commonwealth accent, and he’d seen it all, heard it all, but I was without doubt the most pathetic thing he’d seen or heard in a long while—or at least that night. He couldn’t take another second of my ridiculous moral turmoil, much less my religious piety. (If he only knew.) The war was about oil and jobs, he said. Those were “the moral facts on the ground,” and if I didn’t like it I should go home and protest, burn my fucking draft card (never mind that there wasn’t a draft)—better yet, go join my comrades in the desert, go share the danger, if I had the balls, if I really cared that fucking much—not sit on my pampered ass in a bar on Patong Beach and whine about my tortured soul, my liberal guilt, my Christian conscience. America was an imperial power, and my friends in the military were professional killers, and I’d better get used to it, better make up my fucking mind how I felt about it, what I was going to do about it.

(Or that’s what I seem to remember him saying. Half of that might have been going through my own head.)

Eric got me out of there before I could do any more harm (and before we got our asses kicked), and on the way back to our room he pressed me to explain myself, to explain what I really did believe about the war, about America, about being an American—about being human.

The truth is, Sven, I didn’t have a fucking clue.

~

“Why does one want to tease the innocent?” asks Fowler, Graham Greene’s jaded journalist in The Quiet American, as he thinks back on his first encounter with the young Pyle, the earnest, quiet CIA operative in embattled French-colonial Saigon circa 1952.

Perhaps only ten days ago he had been walking back across the Common in Boston, his arms full of the books he had been reading in advance on the Far East and the problems of China. He didn’t hear what I said; he was absorbed already in the dilemmas of Democracy and the responsibilities of the West; he was determined—I learnt that very soon—to do good, not to any individual person but to a country, a continent, a world.

The thing about Greene’s novel that the recent (and overly praised) film misses, I think, is that Fowler is a less than trustworthy narrator. His is a doubly ironic voice—ironic on a literal level, in the sarcasm of his dialogue and his interior monologues, but also as a character himself, as a function of the novel, Greene satirizing Fowler as much as he satirizes Pyle.

On one level, of course, Fowler is simply the hard-boiled cynic uncomfortable in his own skin. Yet as the novel plays out, the struggle between Fowler’s irony, cynicism, and cool journalistic detachment (“I am not involved,” he keeps saying, “not engagé”) and his movement toward belief, commitment, and deadly action becomes a parable of moral confusion of a high order.

‘I’m not involved. Not involved,’ I repeated. It had been an article of my creed. The human condition being what it is, let them fight, let them love, let them murder, I would not be involved. My fellow journalists called themselves correspondents. I preferred the title of reporter. I wrote what I saw. I took no action—even an opinion is a kind of action.

The whole story, of course, is a confession of murder in a righteous cause, a confession of sin in a universe without God. And it’s at the same time a confession of the impossibility of any pure, untainted connection between human beings—of any understanding, any peace. Phuong, Fowler’s Vietnamese mistress, for whom Pyle and Fowler contend, is Greene’s heavy-handed embodiment of the innocent yet seductive East, colonized, possessed, corrupted by and corrupter of the masculine West. In the novel, she is no less a cipher than her country, or Fowler’s own soul:

“And did you [Pyle] understand her either?” . . . Wouldn’t we all do better not trying to understand, accepting the fact that no human being will ever understand another, not a wife a husband, a lover a mistress, nor a parent a child? Perhaps that’s why men have invented God—a being capable of understanding. Perhaps if I wanted to be understood or to understand I would bamboozle myself into belief, but I am a reporter; God exists only for leader-writers. . . .

‘I’ve been in India, Pyle, and I know the harm liberals do. . . . We are all either liberal conservatives or liberal socialists: we all have a good conscience. I’d rather be an exploiter who fights for what he exploits, and dies with it. . . .’

‘You know, it’s lucky I’m not engagé, there are things I might be tempted to do—because here in the East—well, I don’t like Ike.’

In the end, after he discovers Pyle’s covert role in a terrorist bombing in a Saigon street, meant to be blamed on the Communists, Fowler’s conscience is forced out of hiding, and he has to decide whether or not to get involved. Heng, a Communist operative, approaches Fowler about taking out Pyle. All Fowler has to do is set it up, invite Pyle to dinner, signal out his window, and the rest will be taken care of in some dark place (“We will act as gently as the situation allows. . . .”).

‘Will you do this for us, Mr. Fowler?’
‘I don’t know,’ I said, ‘I don’t know.’
‘Sooner or later,’ Heng said . . . , ‘one has to take sides.
If one is to be human.’

Fowler takes sides. Pyle dies. Phuong is caught in the middle, her future decided by Fowler’s action. In the Hollywood version, we’re left with a sense that Fowler’s decision is a distasteful yet necessary, even admirable, act of conscience—of engagement. Greene doesn’t let him off so easily: “. . . [B]ut how I wished there existed someone,” reads Fowler’s last line, “to whom I could say that I was sorry.”

~

Sven,

“. . . if one is to be human.”. . . ?

But I’ve gotten away from Thailand, haven’t I? I told you there would be digressions. . . .

My memory of Ko Phi Phi is a druggy haze of white sand, brilliant blue water, tall swaying palms, and cinematically perfect skies. Hendrix covered Dylan on the Walkman as Thai bud crackled in the bowl of the pipe. I sat outside the door of my bamboo hut, a living-breathing cliché, and stared across a shallow bay, on the other side of which enormous, fantastical cliffs shot vertically out of the sea.

The hour was getting late. I tried to write about what I’d seen in India over those past two months, but the words wouldn’t come, lost in the confusion and complacency of the high. And so I spent restless nights alone in my hut, the breeze lapping at my feet through the mosquito netting like water on the incoming tide and crawling across my sweating skin like an insect.

I was alone with myself and with the questions, voices, images of India, that I couldn’t get out of my head. What did it amount to, my presence there, my movement through that time and place? My witnessing of those things, my contact with those people? What connection did I make? How was I to understand it? Is connection even possible, across such distance? Yet how can there be understanding without connection? Without communication? How can there be any belief, any commitment—any taking of sides—without understanding? Maybe it’s simply the act of communication itself that matters. The reaching out to make some sort of human contact. To make a human gesture. Is that what it is to be authentically human? To communicate?

But communicate what? And how? What gesture, short of laying down one’s life, could possibly be enough? . . .

~

There was a brahmin in Varanasi who tended to one of the Shiva temples on the Manikarnika ghat. He was still a young man, perhaps thirty-five or forty, and from the shrine of the Shiva linga he looked out onto the slow, wide waters of the River Ganges, and each morning he saw the sun rise over the far shore and the mist clear, giving way to the smoke of the funeral pyres that burn ceaselessly at Manikarnika, the “burning ghat.” Those two things—water and fire—had structured the lives of his ancestors for generations as they presided over the rituals of death. As long as the water and the fire remained, the dead and the dying would come to Manikarnika, for to die at Varanasi and return to the Ganges is to know liberation from birth and rebirth, from the ongoing spin of samsara.

The ritual of death is a time-honored business. The family of the deceased pays not only for the time and space on the ghat but also for the wood of the pyre, the silk of the garments and ornaments dressing the corpse, the services of the brahmins. For the impoverished and for those without family there is the less conspicuous and less auspicious “electric ghat” farther up the river, whose industrial smokestack stands apart from the spires of temples and the towers of maharajas’ palaces and the minarets of mosques along the steep banks of the Ganges.

I met this brahmin one morning in December 1990 as I walked alone through the tangle of crooked lanes in the oldest part of Varanasi, between the Vishvanath, or Golden Temple, and Manikarnika. He showed me the way down to the ghat, as I’d managed only to walk in circles for half an hour, and as we walked he offered to answer any questions I might have concerning the Hindu religion. I told him I’d read some of the Hindu myths in the Puranas, or old stories, and in the epic of the Mahabharata, and had read the Bhagavad Gita and some of the Upanishads. He seemed to take an interest in me, and as we came out of the labyrinth of lanes and onto the open space of the ghat, standing directly above and behind the cremation fires on the level below, their acrid smoke blowing past and filling our nostrils, the Shiva temple at our backs, he explained the rituals: the cleansing of the body in the waters of the river, the lighting of the fire by the eldest son or male of the family, the shoveling of the ashes into large baskets for the final heave into the Ganges. He pointed out that there was space for about nine pyres and that the fires burned constantly, twenty-four hours a day, every day of the year.

He had a young and dark and slender face, with a mustache and a ready smile, and he spoke with a directness and simplicity that put me at ease, and I trusted him. He invited me to his house, saying it wasn’t far from where we stood, and I must come and drink tea with him, and there, away from the crowds and the noise of the ghat, we could sit comfortably for as long as I pleased, and he would answer my questions. He assured me, perhaps because I hesitated, that he had no silks to sell, no shop at all, for he was just a simple brahmin and his work was at the temple, not grubbing for “fucking money,” as he called it, among the tourists.

So he led me back through the winding footpaths of the old city, and I followed. At the door of his house he told me about its history and his family’s history, how he was the eighth generation to live in the house, and of the small Shiva shrine around which the entrance was built. Every morning he kept the rituals before its Shiva linga as his father had done and his grandfathers before him, and in this house he would raise a son to take his place, to whom he would teach the traditions and the rituals, the words of mantras spoken beyond memory.

I removed my shoes and entered the house. He showed me into the small room he used for receiving guests, consisting entirely of one large bed surrounded by shelves built into the walls and covered with religious objects and stacks of papers and books and carved wooden boxes. The room was dimly lit by one lamp at the head of the bed and a stream of sunlight from a small curtained window at the foot. We sat on the bed cross-legged, facing each other, and he called for tea to be brought in.

We drank the tea from small metal cups and went on talking, about our families and homes, but mostly about his way of life. And all the while he spoke he fixed his eyes on mine, sincere and unwavering, so that this was as much a line of communication between us as our words.

Our conversation came around to the topic of the mantras—the chants or prayers in his devotional worship of Shiva. I asked if he could explain their meaning and purpose, and he smiled and asked if I did not already know. I told him I did not, but that I was quite interested to learn. He nodded and smiled again, as if to say, yes, you are not the only one, and I can show you if you are willing.

He told me the mantra’s power can only be grasped by one with an honest heart, and that I must not go around bragging of my experience to people who would not understand. He made it clear that he would demonstrate the mantra only because of my sincere curiosity—not to amuse or impress me. Such would be a disgrace.

He then took the rosary of dark beads from around his neck and held them in the open palm of his hand. He asked me my mother’s name and my father’s name, then he touched the beads to the smear of ash at the center of his forehead and lowered them again, bending over them, his head slightly bowed, his body rocking gently backward and forward, and he repeated the words of the mantra in nearly inaudible tones. . . .

But why go on? I don’t know how to describe what followed, I can’t explain it, except to say that for a moment—I can’t say how long—everything I knew or thought I knew flowed out of me, until I was empty, and there was nothing but the mantra, the whispered rhythm of the words as a distant wind through the distant limbs of trees. . . .

I left the brahmin’s house and returned to the ghat at Manikarnika and watched the silk-draped bodies burn and smelled their smoke and saw the heaps of ash to be carried down to the water, where strings of orange flowers floated, tossed by the families of the departed.

I walked to the river’s edge and along its quiet banks toward Dashashvamedh ghat, leaving the smoke behind. I saw a group of small boys wrestling in the sand at the foot of a long flight of steps. A few yards beyond them a man squatted, defecating into a narrow ditch that drained into the sacred Ganges. A little farther on, a young woman bathed her infant while another washed clothing on the stone of the ghat. I reached Dashashvamedh and ascended the long stairs, heading into the haze of pollution and the noise of the crowds and other tourists toward my hotel. . . .

~

I knew at the time of my encounter with the brahmin—whose name, by the way, was Shankar, and who posed for me on his rooftop, with that warm smile of his, for the photo that rests on my desk as I write this—that I’d had something like an “authentic experience,” the kind I’d been searching for, the very thing I’d traveled so far to find. It was only later, looking back on it, that I came to see it as a cliché.

Is that what it was? Is that what I was? Just another wide-eyed Westerner seduced by the mystical East? Just another spiritual tourist looking for peace, or grace, along the banks of the Ganges? No money had changed hands. There was no commerce between us of any kind. Yet if there had been, might that have been more honest? Wasn’t there something inherently dishonest, something false or fake, something noncommittal or provisional or, worst of all, posed, about my presence there on the ghat and in the brahmin’s home—about my whole search for the “authentic”? My whole effort to connect? My belief that connection could come so easily . . . so unearned?

And yet . . . and yet . . . I’d looked into another’s eyes and seen a love for humanity as pure and as true and as strong as anything I’ve ever known. It had nothing to do with taking sides. There was only one side, and we were all on it together. That much was real. Doesn’t that count for something?

~

It’s a Sunday afternoon in March, and I’m sitting at the bar at Charlie’s Kitchen, that last of the “authentic” Harvard Square dives, surrounded by the familiar faces of the waitresses and the regulars, and the sound of the “classic” rock always playing at Charlie’s (the endless loop of Stones and Doors, Clapton and Credence, Zeppelin and the Dead), and I’m working on a series of interviews about Tony Blair and the “liberal divide” over the imminent invasion of Iraq—when there on the TV at the end of the bar appears Blair himself, the erstwhile rock impresario, current Prime Minister of Britain and leader of the free world, along with his sidekick George W. Bush. They’re holding a “press conference” on a remote island off the coast of Portugal, and they’re issuing an ultimatum, all but declaring war, and the crowd at Charlie’s quiets down, all eyes turning to the television sets. Several patrons even stand up and come over to the bar to get a better look and hear what’s being said.

It’s a strange and somehow fitting moment, there at Charlie’s. And we listen, my comrades and I, with varying degrees of cynicism and foreboding, to the statements of unbending principle and high moral certitude emitting from the cathode ray tubes. How like the young Pyle those two earnest faces appear (“He was impregnably armoured by his good intentions and his ignorance”), those two born-again idealists leading the world to war. And how like Berman’s ’68ers, Bush and Blair as the true legacy of ’68, the true product and ultimate irony, their blood-soaked utopian vision a struggle on behalf of others.

But it isn’t only Greene and Berman who come to mind that afternoon at Charlie’s. There’s Auden in the air—his 52nd Street dive, his “faces along the bar,” his music and his lights, his uncertainty and fear, as recorded on September 1, 1939, in midtown Manhattan (and recited countless times since September 11, 2001, like some kind of modern mantra). Auden had left England for America the previous January, as war loomed over Europe—and had been excoriated for doing it. Had he fled? Had he declined to take sides?

Now there was a generation, Auden’s and Greene’s, the generation of the ’30s. Not so much after as between deluges (though maybe that describes us all), they had to find their way back to belief of one kind or another: religious, political, or merely moral (i.e., human). But belief in what?

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

He might have stopped there, with that outrageous, indelible, inscrutable line. But he chose not to. He had to add this final stanza to the Poem Of The Century:

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

But affirming what? What side are you on, Wystan? The side of love, of justice, of peace? What are you going to do when they don’t fall into line, into step, into rhyme? What then, Wystan? What will your voice, your ironic points of light, your Just messages, affirm? Is that why you disowned that line—“We must love one another or die”—why you disowned the whole poem, “the most dishonest” you ever wrote? Because you knew it was a lie? That we can’t have it both ways: love as instinct, like hunger, allowing no choice in the matter; and love as decision, as action, as taking of sides? Because you knew that authentic love transcends the self and will lay down its life for another?

~

Dear Sven,

Maybe I should quit with that last one. Maybe that’s where the essay should end, with my unanswerable question. You can be the judge. You’re the editor, after all.

But there’s something else I need to say here—whether it’s relevant or not, whether it makes any sense or not—simply as one person, one human being, to another. Without all this author/editor stuff getting in the way (which is, inevitably, no matter how hard we try to pretend otherwise, fatally artificial). . . .

One morning this past April, I sat in my car in the parking lot where I work, reading the front page of The New York Times.

I work in the journalism business, as you know, and ever since 9/11, since the start of the “war on terrorism,” I’ve been hounded by images of death and fear and human suffering—some of it caused by my fellow Americans doing their best, just like Pyle, just like Berman’s ’68ers, to improve the world.

Yet the only image that has caused me to weep, out of all the images of war and suffering, was the photograph on the front page of the Times that morning in early April.

And do you know what it was a photo of?

It was a photo of Iraqi civilians. And they were smiling, celebrating, joyous. And there was a flower. And there was a gun. And there was a young, impossibly fresh-faced American soldier.

I wept not for the Iraqis, though I should have, not for the dead, not for the children without parents or homes or whole bodies, though I should have, but for that soldier—and for us, for myself, for my generation, for his generation, and for yours.

And I sat there, then as now, not knowing what to believe—what “intelligence” report, what statement for or against the war—not knowing whom to trust or what opinion to hold or what action to support.

Yet knowing, somehow, and with a kind of certainty, that the only side I could ever bring myself to take would be the side of that soldier. . . . that soldier. . . .

Oh but Jesus how I wished there were someone to whom I could say I’m sorry.

I’m sorry.

 

Wen Stephenson is an editor and writer based in Boston. From 1996 to 2001 he was the editor of The Atlantic Monthly’s online journal, Atlantic Unbound. His essays and reviews have appeared in The American Prospect, The Atlantic, The Washington Monthly, and elsewhere. He is now managing editor of the Web edition of PBS’s Frontline and lives in Wayland, Mass., with his wife and their three-year-old son. (10/2003)


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