The view from outside
Or The Alienation of Our Mourning
There is a lie, a deceit perpetrated on our minds by our culture of visual images; of movies and TV as narrators of our reality, which affects our expectations about loving, relating to each other, working together and even, finally, even grieving.
The paradigm of our modern and stylized idea of mourning assumes the visual/cinematographic form of a sequence of “best of” moments flowing seamlessly through our minds.
The act of remembering is aestheticized and depurated – and in the process globalized by this model. In turn, we are expected to respond to these images in correspondingly predictable ways.
Being the power of mass media what it is, I can only imagine that some of us feel by now that such is the “right” way to transit our very real feelings of loss.
Such imposition upon our nature would do great violence to our true selves – although forcing ourselves into artificialities such as this one is by no means an exclusive sin of our century – not just because it replaces and voids the functions of other senses, or because it establishes an internal time and a single threaded flow essentially unnatural, but because it infallibly leave “us” outside of our own memories: the viewer – or at most the camera.
What is essential about us, as we pair in any kind of intense relationship is the sense of immersion in it. Most disassociations, which from time to time would allows us to view events and images from our life from outside ourselves, are by definition pathological. But we have invented an aesthetic way to resolve its narrative in the visual language that we created for our shows of light and magic, and it’s very success – as that of most of our successes of the imagination – made it into a virus.
We have changed by means of similar processes for millennia, on the wings of oral traditions, theater, literature, opera… but there is the small issue of the accelerated rate and momentum that seem to leave more often than not, the human out of “human change” in the changes our ever speeding
technological development are begetting as of late.
Of course, we also change when we relate to others. We multiply into the persons we create with each of our relations. Some are very strong and have a solid and independent existence: such as the one that without prior consultation chooses the paint color for the living room, or a piece of décor, for a couple that has lived in deep consubstantiation for many years. Other beings so borne – most of them, in fact – are very faint – ghostly: just a shared joke or the memory of a shared experience; yet they do ride with us for a few floors on the elevator.
Is the loss of these persons which we miss most dearly in our Hollywood laced mode of mourning. The fact that we are not just missing the person that died or left us, but the persons we made with that other being, the daily begotten children of our spirits, among which we lived and grew together.
Our Celluloid Life
I like the part where we meet: so funny and yet so full of romance; although I am not crazy about all the coming and goings until we finally get together – all the little bits that showcase our fierce rivalry and one-upmanship that suddenly evaporates into naught when love comes to ring the bell at our doors.
I also like the part where I save you. Although I cringe a bit thinking about the imminent danger you were put in by my recklessness/my commitment to a cause/our sense of adventure/our life in the wrong side of the law/the bad guy dislike of me-you-us etc…
But I like the most the part where we kiss. You bend your head up and half open your willing lips and I lean over you and just take them in mine – discreetly, gentlemanly… the spotlight centers on us making a ring of light and leaving everything outside it in complete darkness. And we remain frozen this way, kissing forever, outside of the world, time, petty life and entropy.
Heller re-read. Again.
Every ten years or thereabouts I re-read Catch 22. It is not something I plan ahead, it is just something towards which I gravitate naturally, almost by default.
Each time I do, the book changes for me. Just as it changes as you read it, it does with each cycle within readings.
As we travel through the book, the infatuation with the witty characters of Yossarian and Dunbar, the ingenious repartee and humorous, surreal situations, give way to the nightmare they frame, the un-heroic human nature of the characters, the horror of the war and its absurdity. Without altogether ceasing to laugh, the taste of laughter seems to grow bitter in your mouth and somehow the joke is not as funny as you thought it was.
While I was younger, and my concerns perhaps lighter, the overall experience was still fun, albeit high and heady fun. But the balance between funny and tragic evolves and mutates as your perception and understanding of life does…
This last lecture was decidedly more on the nightmare end of it the spectrum. I do not mean it was no fun, nor that I didn’t have as many laughs and appreciative smiles; only that the balance had shifted.
The tragedy was now in the foreground. The characters where more human than witty, my empathy embraced more widely their humanity, their fears, their disgust, their understandable betrayals, their all too human failure to raise to some occasion or other…
As I did once before, I went from Catch 22 to Something Happened.
Here is how my narrative went before this second reading of S.H.: “Catch 22 is one of the masterpieces of the literature of the mid 20th century; but everything else Heller wrote stinks.” Such thinking, in turn, merited the following reflection: “How is that even possible?”
What I really meant with this was: “How did Heller changed from one writer to the other? Had the sense of self importance brought by having written a seminal novel sabotaged his writing?”
I was wrong. Not on all counts, but wrong nevertheless. On a second lecture Something Happened while not a great book, it is a very good one. More relevantly, it doesn’t fail because of an allegedly bloated head in its author shoulders, but because as a natural continuation of Catch 22 it was doomed to fail. Because it somehow follows the mood deviation of its predecessor but starts at the place where the other ends.
There is a few pitfalls in the book that couldn’t be avoided, perhaps a simple consequence of its being a child of its own epoch, rooted perhaps too deeply in the trends of its times. Ironically, by trying to expose some of the prejudices of its time, it ended up entangled in them, revealing more about the times’ prejudices regarding prejudices than about the nature of the prejudices it intended to expose.
The book tries to be raw and honest – with the caveat that this honesty is supposed to shock and disgust us in its boundlessness. It wants us to feels repugnance, but also guilt – “Oh, my god, I have harboured some of these disgusting thoughts myself!” would Heller’s ideal reader say, and a lot would be revealed to him about his nature and about humanity in general. But it falls short, and it comes through gimmicky and in no small part naive.
On the other hand, under the guise of depicting a character that often uses its considerable wit as a defensive weapon, the book is densely populated with quotable moments. Each one of those worth indeed of laudation, but with the accumulated effect falling short of the desired result.
Regardless of these shortcomings, Something Happened has truly valuable moments and constitutes a worthy reading. Strangely, some of it comes about because of those very same defects. The wit is enjoyable, the failure to achieve organic honesty, didactic. What the book reveals as a witness of its times and its social breadth is certainly worthy of consideration. What it intends to convey in its thwarted way is a valid message.
More valuable than any of these is without doubt the purely literary component. Heller uses again a circular approach to building the story. As in Catch 22, he sets the main motifs and landmarks very early and gets back to them throughout the book, jumping from one to the next over and over, repeating himself generously before expanding on each theme. The effect of this accumulative process is powerful. It feels inspired by musical composition techniques or tidal forces.
Another significant aspect of his construction – and another point of concomitance with its predecessor – is the freedom of moving back and forth through the timeline without providing the reader fast and easy indications to follow his movements. On each instance, you learn your chronological situation by your understanding of the facts at hand and how they relate to the story.
There is, as with his earlier masterpiece, one exception: the end chapter is in both novels located at the only point in time that hasn’t been touched during the build-up; the only time span that never gets revisited or digested in the narrative, the only real “future” time in these books.
I am left with the impression that this book is a reading experience that complements my readings of Catch 22, and helps me approach and close the wound the first book never fails to open.
This doesn’t arise from plot manipulation techniques or moral constructs attach to the narrative, but by the realization that the stories themselves are, in some ways, one and the same, that the horrors and miseries of the war are explained by the close examination of the individuals produced by the warring societies.
It definitely stands miles aside from any feel-good kind of closure one may want to get, but it is a closure that heals because it satisfies the understanding, if not of the world at large, perhaps of Joseph Heller’s vision of the world and that of some of his contemporaries.
Here is my most harrowing tale:
“Once upon a time there was a very sad and horrible story.
And it didn’t end.”
Laudation of Mariana, a sort of late toast.
Let me raise my Vegetarian Glass to make In Absentia, a rather late but simple laudation of my beloved niece Mariana, in the occasion of her marriage.
She is universally considered beautiful – which she no doubt is; and sweet – to which again, I have no objection. But that is the outside, and the outside is only the decor, the fine garment, if you will, to the truly beautiful person that she is.
I can only hope this marriage will nurture and grow that person, and will not let her get lost in the warm and tempting oneness of its binary essence. Let us remember that it is only well to be lost in the two when the one is healthy and strong.
Mariana was the oldest cousin to my baby boy. The luminous smile that adorned his face when he saw her and her sister is one of the most powerful reasons why I will always love them. But she was also my own child for a while, when times were hard and her own family was in crisis, I got to live with them and care for them and take them to school every day. She was a gook kid at home and she was a good kid at school. She used to go to her Montessori class eagerly and with anticipation. Her teachers loved her, and her classmates too.
Mariana is an intelligent woman, gifted with not only of the fleeting intelligence that lives in quick responses and witty conversation, but with the sturdy persevering intelligence that fights and lives on in creativity and accomplishment no matter how uphill the road might seem to be. She can tackle difficult subjects and master them because her intelligence is allied to a strong will.
Mariana is a loving person. She hides behind the social manifestations of friendliness, but it was not just the age difference that made her the first of the children to “return” to the joy of the family reunions, when all the others had wondered away in their search for independence. You could see her loving nature in the way she treated her old grandparents or the younger boys and girls in the family, the way she never missed a birthday even when it was a clandestine affair.
She once wanted to be a veterinarian. She volunteer at an animal refuge. She left Victoria with few possessions but with her pets. She loves animals, not in the fashion-accessory manner she sometimes affects, but with total sincerity.
I meet Mariana first when she was only two very short years old. She was behind her father’s car, playing, with her “mimi” (her security blanket) firmly in her grasp, waiting to meet her Aunt that had been living in Europe and the new Uncle she had brought back with her. From the very beginning I had not the impression of meeting a child, but a person. Very late that night, while her parents and us were conversing after dinner, Mariana showed up dragging her sister by the leg. All matter of fact-like, she said: “Mom, she needs you.” – and went back to bed by herself.