Tuesday, February 26, 2013


I see that I haven't written here recently.  This is not my fault, since nothing much ever happens to me.   I am always amazed at the number of people who wish to be writers, since one supposes that most people are in pursuit of novelty and pleasure.  The writing life has little of either, alas. Each day is more or less the same, especially in Seattle, the long skein of indistinguishable cloudy days with about the same temperature for months on end, and each day is more or less a failure, since one never gets enough writing done, and the writing that does get done is never up to expectations.  This is my experience, but your mileage may vary.   There may be writers who do have fascinating lives.  Writers' memoirs attest to this (Graham Greene! Bruce Chatwin!  Jack Kerouac!) but I don't seem to be that kind of writer.  I envy chatty blogs full of event, but I can't do one like that. 

I often think that I should live in a place with a lively writers' community, like Brooklyn.  Unfortunately I was born in Brooklyn and devoted my early years to getting as far away from it as I could, and it still seems nuts to me to learn that Brooklyn is the pulsing heart of literary America.  There are actually a lot of writers living in the Pacific Northwest, but all of them seem to have come here so as not to ever have to meet another writer.  

I did finish chapter 11 of the historical novel I am writing, Charles Bridge.  I may be half done or one third or one quarter done.  I am writing without an outline so it is a little like that primitive computer game called Adventure, where the player explores, via ASCII text commands, a cave that seems without limit.  Or like that parable about the bird that once a century pecks a speck from the world's greatest mountain. I tell myself that I will finish at the end of this year, but I don't know.  I am doing about a chapter a month, which for the former me would be writer's block.  I tell myself that historical novels are just harder--you can't describe a guy taking a walk without reams of research--but maybe it is just brain plaque. 
I watched the first disk of season one of Homeland, because I am interested in popular views of Muslim terrorists, having written a novel on the subject, and because I heard it was "great television."  I am suspicious when I hear a show is great television--I suspect that the phrase is oxymoronic.  I actually watched a couple of episodes each of The Sopranos and The Wire, also great television, but I did not get hooked as so many millions clearly were.  The basic form of TV is the soap opera, and any great television soon succumbs to the influence of this esthetic DNA.  The addition of violence to the essential soap plotting is not, to me, a saving grace, and I feel badly when good actors spend their skills on a vehicle that cannot rise above sentimentality. 

The other thing about Homeland is that its motor is fear of terrorism, which is essentially specious.  I mean it would be hard to do a show about a crack team of lovely actors who protected us against other unlikely events.  (Meteorite Squad!  Coming this fall.) The idea of a mastermind terrorist that the protagonist must defeat is, of course, a familiar trope, extended from the equally silly master criminal found in nearly every thriller. In reality, almost all criminals are stupid and terrorists are largely incompetent assholes.  Terrorists only succeed against societies guarded by even more abysmal incompetents, as was the case with 9/11.   But clearly fear of terrorism is alive in America today, and it is interesting to compare this hysteria with the anti-communist hysteria of fifty-sixty years ago.  Well, history repeats itself, in the familiar Marxian formulation, the first time is tragedy, the second time as farce.

At one time, we should recall, the Soviet Union was pointing well over ten thousand nuclear-tipped missiles at us.  We all grew up, those of us of a certain age, with the quite realistic understanding that the world could end at any time,   This was real, but also unthinkable, so average people didn't give it much thought. We should give it some thought, now that we face a threat that is extremely thinkable, but barely real.  Certainly there are fanatics who would like to harm the United States and we should keep a prudent eye on them, but there are probably no terrorist masterminds at work, simply because having anything like a master-type mind virtually insures that you will realize that terrorism is futile.  Therefore the only people who actually do terror are futile sorts of people, as witness the sad sacks the FBI is always dragging into court.  

After I watched Homeland I thought of a peculiar piece of public sculpture at Magnuson Park here in Seattle.  It goes by the sappy name of FinArt, and it is supposed to represent the dorsal fins of a pod of whales.  It consists of a dozen or so gigantic black steel diving planes off of decommissioned nuclear ballistic missile submarines.  The planes are set vertically in clusters on a lawn.   It's important that they are actual war relics, that these things once guided a fleet of colossally expensive boats whose sole purpose was to participate, at need, in the destruction of human civilization.  

They certainly don't summon up anything as peaceful as a whale pod to me, but rather the claws or teeth of a immense demon that rose up from Hell and just barely broke into the world of life.  It wanted to eat us all, but somehow we were able to stop it.  It always makes me a bit giddy when I walk among the black teeth thinking about what went on during the Cold War, how all those people served in those ships for such a long time, led by ordinary fallible people, and how at the same time Russians were in the same sort of vessels, and that these guys were from a deeply corrupt and damaged society, and yet not one of these tens of thousands of people ever made an error bad enough to launch Armageddon.  

I guess this is why I can't get worried about Islamic terrorists or North Korea or Iran.  We really have faced down the worst conceivable terror, defeated the most dreadful demon imaginable.  As John Le CarrĂ© said when the Cold War ended, "We have achieved the impossible and are now baffled by the merely difficult."   So, first tragedy, then farce.  It would be sad indeed if we had to roll through another repeat of tragedy again, by failing to fix the clearly fixable problems we now face.   These do not, unfortunately, fit into the typical dramatic usages of great television.

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