Seth Morgan

Seth Morgan currently lives in Chattanooga, Tennessee where he teaches a drug prevention class for middle-schoolers, tutors, elementary students and serves as Lay Missioner for Southside Abbey, an Episcopal worshiping community in Chattanooga's Southside neighborhood. He blogs intermittently at growingglobal.wordpress.com and tweets from @sethhenrymorgan.

Another Hemisphere’s Stars

Growing up my heroes were martial. Flying aces, squadron commanders, generals, fighter pilots. Sergeant York, General Patton, Ulysses S. Grant, Hannibal of Carthage, Sun Tzu. The ones I dreamed about most flew planes, steely-eyed men wedded to sleek flying machines dealing death from the air. I had a profusion of inner effigies, models of me at war, reflected back by the pictures in books about dog-fights and bombing runs.

I was in the woods when we declared war on Iraq. Two days later my rain-sodden Boy Scout troop emerged for Pepsi and sandwiches and we saw the announcement in the papers. I was psyched. It seemed like history was finally happening to me, something important enough to be in the books I read.

Because we had war we had heroes, we had pageantry, we had symbols and songs. We had courage to celebrate, and cowardice to disdain. We had what we needed to feel like a nation. I’m not sure even now I can entirely do without my war-like heroes. We all need other faces, other lives to throw ourselves into.

Adam Hochschild wants to give us an alternative heroism. His book To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion celebrates those in Britain who opposed WWI, even in the face of national war-fever. The men and women he depicts are heroes of another kind, like constellations in another hemisphere’s stars.

Sylvia Pankhurst endured imprisonment, hunger strikes and forced feeding protesting for women’s suffrage. When the war came she opposed it and was disowned by her suffragette activist mother.

Charlotte Despard formed one of the first aid societies for workers in the London slums, then defied her own brother—none other than Sir John French, commander of the British Army—to become a noted pacifist.

Emily Hobhouse traveled to South Africa to uncover concentration camps established by the British during the Boer War, then continued her career in international activism by making herself the sole British citizen to advance terms of peace to Germany. While neither side took her back-channel negotiations seriously, she was the only one who even tried to seek peace.

Bert Brocklesby, a conscientious objector, was arrested and shipped to the front with a group of other protesters, where under military law they could be summarily executed. Through a letter thrown out of a train car their supporters at home learned of their plight and petitioned for clemency. Their death sentences were commuted on the day of the execution.

Stephen Hobhouse, Emily’s brother, spent most of the war in prison, writing an underground pacifist newspaper on pieces of toilet paper.

Bertrand Russell, the renowned philosopher, lost his seat at Cambridge and was imprisoned for his objections to conscription.

These are Adam Hochschild’s heroes. They join such figures as Roger Casement and E.D. Morel, whose investigations into conditions in the Belgian Congo Hochschild narrated in King Leopold’s Ghost. For Hochschild pacifists and human rights activists are in a higher firmament than generals.

We need more of these heroes. We need more names like Martin Luther King Jr., names that mean peace through justice. And we need the unnamed: the countless Danish patriots who proved that pacifism’s great counter-example, the Nazi’s, could be stymied, delayed and defeated by nonviolent means. The anonymous Russians who danced arm-in-arm with the enemy, their own truce declared before the Tsar’s. The soldiers in the trenches, during the unofficial Christmas truce, playing soccer with the other side. Would such figures have appealed to my 15-year-old self, my imagination brimming with war machines?

When asked whether boys should be allowed to hunt, Thoreau answered yes, “make them hunters, though sportsmen only at first, if possible, mighty hunters at last, so that they shall not find game large enough for them in this or any vegetable wilderness—hunters as well as fishers of men.” Thoreau’s humans pass through stages, and it wouldn’t do to skip a step from hunting animals to the soul’s hunger.

Do nations pass through stages like Thoreau’s hunters? Is there still more day to dawn on the nation-state? Perhaps our national rush of emotions, the us-ness, the great we together, could one day find itself mirrored in the stories of conscientious objectors, conscription resisters, Quakers, Ghandians, Mennonites, Tolstoyans, Anti-Stalinists, community organizers, civil rights leaders, peacemakers and diplomats.

Perhaps a new kind of hero demands a new kind of nation to recognize it. If that nation is ever to be, Adam Hochschild might be its bard. But I must admit, it is hard to imagine. Nations were born of violence, forged for mutual defense. And they’ve since spent an astonishing amount of creative effort gilding their swords with poetry and myth.

It’s hard to break oneself of myth. Sometimes, if I’m walking alone, I begin to sing to myself in the street. Then, when another person rounds the corner I stop, and the song hangs between us awkwardly, like a broken promise. The shabby street in winter and the uncaring stranger make my singing absurd. My old war-like patriotism feels like that hopeful, embarrassing moment—a feeling ill-fit the world that is.

Part of me is ashamed of my younger self. But I can’t yet wish away his martial hero worship. I’m only now beginning to find something to replace it with. With the help of Hochschild and others, I’m hunting for game large enough. After reading To End All Wars, I’m beginning to think that the quarry is in reach.

The Barbershop

They killed the dogs last night. Gunshots and panicked yelps then—for the first time in two months—silence. Now I’m walking two blocks toward the river on the way to the barbershop and there are corpses piled in heaps on the curb awaiting removal.

Calo is unconcerned. He is singing the praises of the neighborhood barber. My hair is thick and shaggy, while Calo’s is buzzed tight; his dense Dominican curls smooth against his head.

“He will make you…zzzt,” he runs his fingers across his scalp, “so good, so cool.”

Dog tongues loll out of dog mouths. The flies, used to the meager pickings on discarded mango pits, are feasting.

“Que…” I search for the right question, “Que es esto?” “What is this?” As if some thing has been here, some single beast, slouching toward the river to die.

Calo shrugs his shoulders. “Sanidad.”

The dogs ran wild all summer, howling through the night, scrapping over trash bins and mating in the dust. Now they’re gone. Caught in some kind of city sanitation drag net, killed, then left in piles to be carried away by trucks mid-morning.

We stroll past the piles to the end of the road, where the paving gives out into a dirt track down to the slum by the river. The barbershop is sea-foam green with the picture of a man’s head, well-shaven, painted on the wall. The customers and hangers-on surround it, spilling from its small storefront into the street.

The barber is genial, and like most male barbers, knows approximately what I want with minimal instruction. He calls me by my neighborhood nickname, “El Rubio,” (The Blonde).

The conversation around me is politics. This is an opposition neighborhood, draped in white flags in contrast to the incumbent’s purple. “No solo un politico, un buen administrador,” the banners say of their candidate. “Not just a politician, a good administrator.” Hardly an inspiring rallying cry.

Meanwhile the state’s power and munificence were still on display in the pile of dead dogs outside. The men are saying it is all politics—the sanitary sweep of the strays and the extra hours of electricity at night. It’s all politics. Sops to the slums to buy a few votes. “No solo un politico.” No one believes that. We are all political animals here. Even the dogs.

Elsewhere, the day after, they killed Bin Ladin. I need a haircut and a shave. I am in Khujand, Tajikistan—a small city in a majority Muslim country containing 149,000 people, two universities, several uranium mines, and at least one untriggered car bomb at the bottom of the river.

Islamic extremists were said to be behind the bombing attempt—foiled by pushing the car, bomb and all, into the Syr Darya River. But if there is a radical element in the city, its presence is muted. The only response to Bin Ladin’s death I have so far received is a message of congratulations from my students—“your nation’s enemy is dead,” they say, quite formally—and the nonplussed commentary of my host mother:

“Osama bin Ladin died,” I say.

“Who?” she asks.

“Osama bin Ladin.”

“Did the police catch him?”

“No. American special forces.” I know how to say this in Tajik because my host father and I have debated whether America’s Special Forces or Russia’s are more formidable. I hope the news will tip the scales in favor of the Navy Seals, but she is unimpressed.

“How old was he?” she asks, her back to me, tending the stove.

“I don’t know.”

The embassy warns us to be careful, though no specific threat is apparent. They say to stay away from crowds, stay inside if possible.

But I have my classes and I hate staying home and hanging about the house, busy with its own life, in which I feel like an intruder when I don’t go to work. And there is the barber. I’m past due, disreputably unshorn by Tajik standards.

My barber in Khujand has his shop in the courtyard of a mosque, a small storefront in the corner of the surrounding wall, with a door facing out to the street. Inside hangs a picture of the Kabbah—the black stone known as God’s House, Islam’s most holy site—and a poster of Mecca, foregrounded by a young girl in a headscarf, a single tear of contrition or ecstasy trailing down her cheek. He’s a jovial old man with a white beard who refuses payment every time I come.

Here in Tajikistan, the barber’s place at the mosque is no accident. Men must be well-groomed when they enter to pray. The body is holy and it must be clean and presentable—fingernails trimmed, face and hands washed, prepared.

But there is an ambivalence to the barber’s shop as well. Men are required, by the state, to remain clean-shaven until they are fifty. Paranoid about extremism, the government regulates outward signs of piety like the beards so ubiquitous in other Islamic societies. The body is holy. It bows, it kneels, it prays. It also stands and marches and bears an AK-47.

But my barber seems to ignore the double nature of his trade. He is white-bearded and plainly devout. He smiles and brushes on the hot lather with practiced circular motion. Then he fits a new blade into his straight razor and bends over me.

And I would like to say I don’t shudder slightly as this man—behind him the Kabbah—holds a sharp blade to my throat. But I do. Then I stop, grip the chair, and we begin.

After I stand up from the barber’s chair we enact the ritual: he refuses payment, I offer three times before stuffing the money in his pocket and leaving with smiles and thanks and salams all around.

Orhan Pamuk writes[1] that when Mahmud II upended the old Ottoman Janissary order in Istanbul, he sent his soldiers to the barbershops first. They were centers of dissent, and were closed as soon as his modernized army solidified control of the city.

In a similar vein, Henry VIII, while tightening his grip on the church, exercised his sovereignty over the barbers as well. Their guild was merged with their brothers-in-blades the surgeons for more efficient regulation.

The moment is commemorated by Hans Holbein[2]—who so often commemorated Henry’s momentous occasions. Which, make no mistake, this was. As in the struggle of Mahmud II and the Janissaries, Henry subdued the more intransigent elements of medieval society in order to establish the modern state. That there was less violence in Henry’s conquest is incidental. He had co-opted the body’s stewards and caretakers, the performers of bloodletting, circumcision, surgery, and yes, shaves and haircuts.

But despite the rise of the early modern state, despite the eventual division between barbers and surgeons—which nonetheless left the barbers with their characteristic emblem, a pole festooned in their patients’ blood—despite the myriad changes from the dawn of the profession to today, barbershops retain their magic.

Democratic, yet class-haunted—as all the service professions are. Political, but neutral ground. You can talk about anything, but what you do talk about is last Sunday’s scores. And while you’re sitting there, everyone else is doing the same thing, everywhere around this planet. Sitting, safe for the moment, ready for the blade.

 

[1]    In Other Colors: Essays and a Story

[2]    His painting Henry VIII and the Barber-Surgeons is now kept in the Royal College of Surgeons of England in London.

 

 

Photo by: Frederic Brenner

Hunting Complexity

“The scaling down is unlimited. Like the tiny diatom shells whose markings, however magnified, change almost indefinitely into new patterns, so each particle of matter, ever smaller and smaller, under the physicist’s analysis tends to reduce itself into something yet more finely granulated. And at each new step in this progressive approach to the infinitely small the whole configuration of the world is for a moment blurred and then renewed.

~ Pierre Teilhard de Chardin 

This is the only nightmare I’ve ever had: when I close my eyes the room recedes on all sides, giving way to a dark, sickening expanse. Blackness impinges everywhere on my field of vision, but it is not empty, not blank. Often I feel a need to complete some task immediately—a need to have already done the impossible that combines the sense of limitless space with a feeling of slipping time, the moment for action continually present but continually already past, like a parabola approaching its limit, closer each moment but never arriving.

Sometimes someone’s life is on the line and I am on the verge of acting, but already certain that it is too late. Sometimes I am in the presence of God, and the time is past to mend what I would like to mend as I rise, slowly, suspended by my chest, toward the unknown.

This dream, if it is a dream, combines gut-dropping nausea at infinity with panic at the sudden realization of time passing. But there’s something else too: an overwhelming intricacy, a sense of ineluctable complexity. I’ve never known what to make of it, what I could possibly infer from it about the shape of my mind. But occasionally in waking life, a sharp, sinking feeling of deja vu offers me hints, if not to meaning, at least to some pattern of associations.

***

The economist Eric Beinhocker estimates that the number of products available in advanced economies is in excess of 10 to the 10th power, two orders of magnitude greater than the presumed number of species on the planet.

Of the species on earth, over 10,000 may be represented within a spoonful of garden soil, potentially amounting to a million individual fungi and 10 billion bacteria, not to mention protists, nematodes, and larger creatures like earthworms and insects. We are treading on worlds within worlds, each square inch teaming with the drama of life and death.

In our own bodies, the cells of our human organism are outnumbered 10 to 1 by the cells of microscopic creatures sharing our abundant ambulatory biosphere. Look at a person, see an ecosystem.

Around us and inside us matter flows, boils, swings, grows and proliferates, in motions so complex that no constituent part can be predicted. From the steam above a coffee cup to the price of rice in China, the world is full of systems so teeming, so ungraspable, that the imprecise but evocative term “chaos” remains the most compelling name for the theory that describes them.

***

The infinite scalability Teilhard de Chardin saw in diatom shells complicates the already difficult question, “How long is the border of Tajikistan?” The answer: infinite. Or, it depends on the size of your measuring stick.

Imagine flipping a yardstick end over end around the mountainous nation, its boundaries set by tortuous soviet gerrymandering. You would arrive at one figure. But someone flipping a stick half that length would find a longer border by taking in more complexity, including more of the bends and curves of the real geography. And someone with an even shorter stick would find a longer boundary still, ad infinitum.

*** 

On the frontier between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, a fox flitted just beyond our sight. We ran a circle around the hill, my hunting companion and I, gum boots sloshing through the snow. Each time we charged down a valley then crept up the crest of the next one, it would disappear beyond us down the next ridge. We ran breathing cold, ragged breath until we finally glimpsed a few seconds of fleeting red. We pulled up, fired and missed.

Down below us came shots from the rest of the party. The fox ran over yet another ridge. Borders snaked around us. One moment the quarry was in one nation, the next moment the other. Kyrgyz, Tajik, Tajik, Kyrgyz. Gone.

“We are…” my companion searched through his cache of English words, gasping bent double, “very hunting!”

We were indeed. Though where we were “very hunting” could not be precisely defined. My English students, their elder brother, uncle and I, stood in no man’s land, wheezing for breath.

The uncle was known as the gurki kor, or “wolf at work.” He’d known where to find the fox. He did not know currently whether it was a Tajik or a Kyrgyz fox. Regardless, it was gone. We left the mountain and trudged down into the fallow cotton fields to hunt for rabbits.

***

What lies beyond us, creeping at the edge of our understanding—the infinite—is not just space, not just the expanse of time. It is complexity. And it is everywhere apparent. The more you look, the more there is. The deeper you go, the deeper it is.

It may be that my dreaming mind is haunted by this insight: no reality exists but what is backed by intricate mystery. In every dream I’m breathless. Sometimes I wake up sweating. But sometimes the dream continues. My arms drape behind me as my heaving chest rises toward the irreducible inhabited expanse above me. I feel terror, panic, awe. Either the infinitude of space, or the swarming of an algal bloom, or the source of both somehow fills my vision, backed by a wash of light. Finally, in a flash, the panicked self is gone. Out of all of it a unity arrives that enfolds in a single forgiveness what there was of me that feared. Then I wake up.

Is this my conception of the divine, spreading out and seeping in to fill the intricate holes of our teeming reality? Could it be that my infinite God has been, not too small, but too simple? 

***

Down in the fields we trudge along lines of humped furrows, stippled by dead cotton stalks. Here we are on surer geopolitical footing, but uncertainties remain. A rabbit startles out of a furrow ahead. My student pulls up and fires, and the small creature pitches over without a cry. Now we approach across the monochrome landscape, where, in the absence of landmarks, distance is hard to measure. Where is the rabbit? When will we reach it?

Zeno’s paradox suddenly seems relevant: if we walk halfway to the carcass, then walk half the distance that remains, then half the distance still left, and so on, we’ll never arrive at the creature’s bloodied remains. We despair for a moment. It’s as if the shotgun slug has blasted the rabbit out of existence. Then, down the line of a furrow, the gurki kor spots it with a whoop: two spry ears peeking over the tilled-up soil. We are rescued, once again, from the brink. Zeno be damned. Hunters are never cynics once the quarry is spotted. And we feel for a moment, my friends and I, that we are hunters. This wild fleet world is ours to run to ground and capture. We are very hunting.

***

Back in my bedroom, awake and sweat-soaked, I do the only thing I know to do: grab at a fixed point and stare it down, forcing the infinite back to the margins of my mind. Eventually I’m able to close my eyes again without the nightmare’s nauseous grasp. This is all I can do, I think as I fall asleep, all I can ever do. Look here, look up and around. Aim where I can, and fire.

19 Notes on 6 Languages

  • In Thai, one word (tam), suffices for both “make” and “do.” The same is true for the Tajik kardan and the Spanish hacer. English is the only language I’ve yet learned that separates the idea of action from that of creation.
  • When Thais say they are eating, they say they are eating rice. When they say they are hungry, they say they are hungry for rice, whether they plan to eat rice or not. Rice is food. The real food. This linguistic association of the staple with the very concept of food is common. Congolese will often say they have not eaten today if they have not yet eaten manioc.
  • The Tajiks call their national dish osh, shorthand for oshi-palav. Osh means food, or meal. Oshi-palav can be taken to mean the meal that is pilaf (to use a more familiar spelling). Pilaf/pilau/palav/plov can be found across Central Asia, from Turkey to India. It means, more or less, a pile of rice and vegetables topped with meat. The dish itself can hardly be claimed by any one ethnicity, but the word is Persian, leaving evidence of the breadth of their empire to this day.
  • The Tajik word for “book” is kitab. This is also the word in Hindi, Turkish and Swahili. Its origin is Arabic. The word Tajiks use for ice cream is the Russian morozhna. The word they use for computer is, of course, computer.
  • Peel back the accumulated loan-words and you’ll see the traces power leaves on language.
  • Every year, during the festival of Loy Krathong, when the rainy season is ending and the rivers and canals are full, Thais make (tam) floating votaries out of banana leaves and shove them off into the waterways as prayers for good fortune and forgiveness. Not coincidentally, the Thai word, mae, for mother is the same as the word for river.
  • The English word “deity” comes from the Latin word for god: deus, a cognate with the Greek theos, and the name of the sky-god Zeus. This cluster of words originates in the Proto-Indo-European word for the sky or sun god div, preserved as deva in Hindu worship. The association between the sky and God persists all the way to English. “Deity” comes from the same root as “day.”
  • The word “god” comes to us via the German gott, which was first applied to the Christian God when the Bible was translated into Gothic in the 4th century. The Gothic guda or gud itself has Proto-Indo-European origins. Scholarly consensus is that it comes from a verb: the word for to pour/to libate. Conjugated, it would have meant the one to whom libations were made, i.e. the idol.
  • All names are borrowed.
  • Tajik is a dialect of Western Persian, though the territory of modern Tajikistan lies near the eastern edge of the old Persian empire. The various splintered dialects of the empire were reunited after the Arab conquest, which first subdued the western territory of Fars then used its people as administrators and puppet rulers across Central Asia.

This process spread Farsi across the continent, making it the foundation of Modern Persian—of which Tajik is one branch of three. But still, in the Yaghnob valley, an isolated backwater in Northern Tajikistan, a group of subsistence farmers preserves a dialect of Eastern Persian little changed since Cyrus the Great.

  • The dialect which has best preserved the elements of Old Castilian is Ladino, or Judeo-Spanish; which means that linguists who wish to hear the language of Ferdinand and Isabella currently travel to Israel. The Sephardic Jews achieved this feet of linguistic preservation primarily because they were expelled from Spain in the 14th Century. Forced to form enclaves in other countries, they passed down, with few changes, the Spanish of a more tolerant time.
  • According to Czeslaw Milosz the modern language which hews closest to Sanskrit—and therefore closest to its roots in Proto-Indo-European—is Lithuanian. This means, strangely enough, that in the racially charged and wildly inaccurate terminology of the Nazis, Lithuanian is the most Aryan language in Europe. That this earned the Lithuanians no gratitude or respect from Nazi Germany indicates to what degree totalitarian states treat language as an object of manipulation rather than a subject for study.
  • Preservation happens at the margins. The center, the metropolis, is always subject to influence, recombination, reinvention.
  • In Santo Domingo in the summer of 2008 I took communion in a storefront church just above the floodplain, where many families had lost all their possessions to the river more than once. Every week after taking the bread and wine the priest would start the song: la paz de Dios con nosotros.” The peace of God with us. And we would go from person to person, clasping hands, then kissing on both cheeks, saying, la paz, la paz,” to each. Kiss, kiss, la paz, la paz.” Peace, peace.
  • In a region called Mostcho in Northern Tajikistan, populated by forced migration during the Soviet era, young people greeted each other, tinjai?” “Are you peaceful?” and responded, tinj, hamma tinj.” “Yes, peaceful. Everything is peaceful.” Elsewhere, government forces used a prison break as an excuse for martial law in the country’s mountainous center. Beards were outlawed for fear that bearded men were Islamic extremists. In the Pamirs to the East, ethnic minorities talked openly of revolt. But in Mostcho—where the elderly still spoke of “Old Mostcho,” their home before Stalin deported them to the cotton-bearing plains—hamma tinj.
  • That summer in Santo Domingo people told me, tranquilo” in response to the question, “¿como estas?”

2008 was an election year in the Dominican Republic, as it was in the United States, and the streets were filled with partisans waving white or purple flags. TVs blared slogans, people chanted, neighborhoods were bused en masse to the polls. But then the election came, the incumbent won as expected, and things settled down. After that people only burned tires in the streets to protest power outages. Tranquilo.

  • Some words stand more for hope than for reality.
  • The Thai word for Christmas is the transliteration, “Krisama.” For Krisama we slaughtered a pig. I brought my notebook along for a vocabulary lesson.

I learned “to cut” first, and then “knife” and “kill.” As they bathed the carcass in boiling water and scraped away the bristles, I learned “to shave.” It was white and soft, roughness removed, its body clean and smooth. They ripped open its chest. I learned “bone” and “heart” and “blood.”

It is a bloody act, to force the thing itself down on a bamboo mat and take whatever understanding, whatever sustenance you can.

The body’s quarters dripped on the grass as we carried them to the baskets. I learned “heavy.”

  • Language holds us. Gives us place and purpose. Makes fixed what is in motion. Voices our ambitions and identities. Confronts our ambiguities.

Language leaves evidence of force, overlays of empires. Language is what we do (tam, kardan, hacer) to the world, what we make of it (tam, kardan, hacer). God forgive us.

Day In, Day Out

If there is an Oscar for the category, “best glorification of the life of the mind” then Hannah Arendt deserves it. Rarely have the classroom and the writing desk glowed with more fervor on-screen than in Margarethe Von Trotta’s biopic of the acclaimed Jewish political theorist.

It’s a winning presentation. Barbara Sukowa’s Arendt is a lantern-jawed hero of independent thought, steely-eyed in the face of criticism.

And that criticism is stiff, for Hannah Arendt chooses to center its drama around Arendt’s coverage of the Adolf Eichmann trial and the writing of the subsequent book, Eichmann in Jerusalema period in Arendt’s life when she was embroiled in controversy. The film makes much of this drama, reminding the viewers that what is now familiar in the history of ideas was once too hot to handle.

Arendt’s argument was a lightning rod: she attended the trial of Adolf Eichmann, lieutenant colonel in the S.S. and chief logistician of the Holocaust, and declared him — in what seemed at the time a grievous and even culpable understatement — guilty of not thinking.

Worse, she leveled an accusatory gaze — one which her opponents accused her of sparing Eichmann himself — at the Jewish leaders in the Judenrate, committees of elders assembled by the Nazis as go-betweens with the Jewish community. The complicity of these leaders, combined with the mindlessness which she sees in Eichmann, make up the crux of her argument about the nature of evil in Eichmann in Jerusalem.

Evil is a troublesome word. Use it and you’re committing to a visceral reaction in your reader. So when Arendt coined the phrase, “the banality of evil” and used it for both the subtitle and last sentence of Eichmann in Jersualem, she was condemning her ideas to overreaction and misprision. But she was also guaranteeing that they would stick in the public imagination as no measured, equivocal term could.

Arendt uses Eichmann’s testimony and cross examination as an opportunity to look evil in the face and think from its — his — perspective. The resulting book alternates from the court in Jerusalem, where the prosecutor attempts to paint Eichmann as the mastermind of the Holocaust, and the narrative of Eichmann’s S.S. career — a career marked mostly by mediocrity, remarkable only for that facility with deportation logistics which secured Eichmann his place in the Nazi hierarchy and in the halls of history’s villains.

Eichmann, as described by Arendt, is a factotum, a non-entity, a man given to cliche and averse to thought, a capable functionary and nothing more. She mocks his grammar, notices the pat phrases which he repeats in his own defense, and marvels that such a man could even be worthy of the attention given him by the world.

Arendt is concerned with debunking the mythos of Eichmann’s monstrous power. The portrait that emerges is of a deflated man, a functionary with no function, being called to account for his involvement in an evil too great for him to engineer or even comprehend.

This does not mean that she is absolving Eichmann of wrong. But Arendt is condemning Eichmann for a different, less dramatic, but more insidious crime: Eichmann is guilty of non-thought, of anti-thought. He condemned himself to complicity with great wrong because of his total lack, or total suppression, of critical faculty.

It is this lack of originality, this absence of the jack-boot glamour one might associate with the S.S., that led Arendt to describe Eichmann’s brand of evil as banal. But the more interesting — and more controversial — conclusion one might draw from Eichmann is not that evil is banal but that evil, of the kind practiced by the Nazis, required mass complicity.

According to Arendt, Eichmann “expected — and received, to a truly extraordinary degree — [the Jews’] cooperation.” She goes so far as to argue that the Final Solution would have been impossible without Jewish cooperation:

“There can be no doubt that without the cooperation of the victims it would hardly have been possible for a few thousand people — most of whom moreover worked in offices — to liquidate many hundreds of thousands of other people,” she says in one of her most controversial passages.

This shift of focus away from Eichmann and toward the alleged collusion of Jewish leaders — in administering ghettos, registering possessions for confiscation and even preparing deportation lists — earned Arendt excoriation from many in the Jewish community.

Yet this portrayal is central to the argument Arendt makes in Eichmann about the nature of evil. Evil, she argues, is not a man in tall, black boots with a skull on his cap. Evil is thoughtless complicity with injustice.

This is powerfully illustrated in the section of the book where she examines the varying results of the Nazis’ attempts to exterminate Jews in occupied countries. Though they were successful in their horrifying end in Austria, Hungary, Poland and Romania — where the local population accepted and cooperated with the deportation of the Jews — they were stymied in Italy, Bulgaria and Denmark, even though each of these countries was either allied with, or occupied by, the German military.

Denmark surrendered to Germany early in 1940, but the population engaged in a systematic campaign of civil resistance, including strikes, work slow-downs and protests, keeping the German authorities from establishing full control over the economy and society. Eventually the German military fully invaded in 1943 and attempted to deport Denmark’s 8,000 Jews.

What resulted, instead of the predictable concentration and deportation that was Eichmann’s modus operandi in the other occupied territories, is remarkable. Nearly every Jewish inhabitant of Denmark was hidden in neighboring Danish homes, and then ferried by night across the North Sea to neutral Sweden. In the end, only a few hundred Danish Jews died in the war years.

This account illustrates the knife-edge between hope and condemnation that Arendt brandishes. As she notes, though the Holocaust “could have happened anywhere, it did not have to happen everywhere.”

Eichmann, in his trial, tried to exonerate himself by playing up the utter hopelessness of resistance to Nazi power. “Everyone thought it was useless to resist” he says in footage included in Von Trotta’s film, “like a drop on a hot stone that evaporates without purpose or success or failure or anything.”

Yet the testimony of the Danes stands as an accusation: resistance was possible and meaningful. Therefore, those that refused to consider resistance are guilty not of a monstrous evil but of a banal one.

In the end, the terrifying yet hopeful conclusion to be drawn from Eichmann in Jerusalem is that evil needs no monsters; it needs us. Evil cannot thrive disembodied. Only the consent of ordinary, thoughtless, working-day banality can give it flesh.

Hannah Arendt opens and closes on Sukowa’s Arendt, alone in her apartment, smoking, a figure of bodily repose contrasted with an active mind. This, we are supposed to see, is a bulwark against evil. The assumption may well be idealistic on both Arendt’s and Von Trotta’s part. But the film nevertheless does us a great service. It graces with dignity the citizen’s task: look at what’s in front of you. Think.

 

 

“A Bow From My Shadow”

I began reading A Bow From My Shadow—a new collection of poetry by Luke Irwin and Alex Miller Jr., available from Ecco Qua Press—in a car wash.

The thud-slap-thud of the rotary brushes rumbled around me while the soap suds darkened the windows, cutting me off from the world long enough to leave me alone with the opening poems. I tend to associate poetry with this kind of solitude.

But the greats often remind us that poetry is a conversation, a society, as when Etheridge Knight speaks back to Gwendolyn Brooks like an impertinent student in “The Sun Came,” or when Frost chides Yeats’ other-worldliness in “Birches.”

Irwin and Miller’s collection is further evidence that the poetic project can just as often be convivial as solitary. Their poems alternate pages, making the book feel less like a single companion than an invitation to a long friendly evening.

The collection begins with a statement of style. Miller’s poem “Drying Lines” is followed by Irwin’s “Dry Mouth Aubade,” and both feel as if they were intended to display both poets in their characteristic strengths and weaknesses.

“Drying Lines” is well within the tradition of the post-war Mid-Atlantic lyric: an observational sketch taking in the domestic ritual of laundry, moving subtly toward a loose volta by the end. Elizabeth Bishop and Seamus Heaney loom. Meanwhile “Dry Mouth Aubade” drives more into surrealism, declaring its affinity with that other stream of 20th Century American verse: the John Berryman/Kenneth Patchen fun-house, its speaker sliding in and out of sleep, reality refracted through a dream filter.

Both are fine examples of the respective poets’ styles. But both are also in danger of failing eros, Miller by way of an easy sort of domesticity, Irwin by weirding desire out of recognition. Fortunately, this is a set-up. The two performers have made their first glides across the stage and from here things only get more interesting.

Miller quickly shows signs of stretching himself with “Song: Atlantic Wreckage.” A study in four parts, the poem sees unsettled images approaching, blue herons, drifting fog, razor clams, which all coalesce, with a sense of continuing surprise, into people.

the wampanoag saw clouds,
hoarfrosted fogdrifts that only codifed as ships
when human arms started unloading silver, bibles, axes,
tobacco, flint.

Meanwhile on the next page, Irwin’s speaker continues to flirt with dreams, but in “Ninny” a single moment grounds the piece, anchored by the loss of a voice that the poem cannot restore:

What will she do? My ninny, my dearheart, my child,

my mother—lost in the groves she grew green in the heat

of first flight.

My heart is an old man pulling his white beard He sits on

a bench,

fog grown on pale lawns. He has a thick overcoat

Stressed syllables pile up: “dearheart,” “grew green,” “first flight,” precipitous sloping iambs from high to higher, as if chasing the margin in a loping gate.

This is the first intimation we get of Irwin’s approach to loss. The speaker of his poems seems engaged in a pursuit whose quarry keeps slipping out of view. This chase, the attempt to name what is just beyond sight, returns with erotic overtones in “Ars Poetica.”

My ghosts uncoil, walk her between rooms.
I bribe the guards of memory
to wiretap the textures of her tongue.

The speaker’s ghosts pursue an ephemeral figure, but then the poem crashes into matter and sense by skillfully evoking a difficult feeling: the desire to remember more vividly, eavesdrop on the past, recapture what was once solidly tactile.

Miller also returns to eros with a vengeance near the collection’s mid-point. “What Perishes” is his best performance in the collection. The poem echoes the domesticity of “Drying Lines,” but this time in the kitchen instead of the clothesline, and with a more amorous eye. Peaches are being sliced, and the poem takes their perspective:

For a while the peaches thought

their point was to hang ripe alone in the orchard. But

there is also

the human mouth and tongue, a devouring, companionable

redness, preening in the dark.

The poem manages to wrap up incarnate sacrifice into the daily renunciations of domestic life, all through the culinary transmigrations of a peach. This is Miller at his best, raising the domestic into the sacred, veering into the erotic and back again, by way of death. The poem rings a Blakean note, echoing the Book of Thel’s “we live not for ourselves” as much as Christ’s “unless a seed die it remains alone.”

It is a difficult tightrope to walk, and one could fault Miller for his unblinkingly male sensibility, but he lands the dismount, managing to fuse the disparate themes together in the kind of alchemy ambitious poetry demands.

As A Bow From My Shadow moves toward its close, both poets return to the elegiac, Miller in “Autumn Moss,” for the late Robert Siegel, and Irwin with the remarkable “Inexorable,” where books, conversation about books, and the thought of a child long dead weave in and out of the poem’s sight:

All movement is motion toward God–
That’s Aquinas lifting Aristotle–
The infant’s ascent is inexorable to heaven,
Past these pattering veils, poor words,
As surely as their fallen motion fails.

This poem, like many in the collection, laments the failure of words, here with a kind of pity as the child’s soul passes the poor words falling behind on the way to heaven. It is a gentle poem, a gentleness hard-earned elsewhere in the collection by Irwin’s persistent, unsettling irony.

Irwin spends much of his time distancing the reader, separating images from their emotional referents. In A Bow From My Shadow he has guppies pondering Lucretius, video gamers quoting Donne, and Oprah becoming a category of being. The reader is delightfully off balance in his work. So when he offers grief simply yet artfully, the effect is startling, like a sudden undertow.

Throughout, A Bow From My Shadow offers opportunities for reassessment, the way great conversations shape-shift across an evening. The two poets trade lines, offering new contexts for each others words, commenting on their contrasting aesthetics.

By the end of the collection, like two old friends in a decades-long argument, they’ve come near exchanging positions. Miller is restless, reminding himself in “Twitch on the Line” to “adjust the tautness. Keep the line out.” He ends more alert, more alive to the strangeness in words than he began.

Meanwhile Irwin’s “Atlas” closes the collection, beginning with what rings like a statement of hope, or self-deception: “At last/I am simple.” But the unsettling murmurs he brings into poetry are not quieted.

At last, at last
the chatter of tidal life
when considering a thing
now past.

The speaker seems to have found a place for the chatter, leaving with something less than contentment, but more confident and mature than the reader might have expected from the collection’s opening.

A Bow From My Shadow is a delightful cumulative experience, showcasing two young poets eager to challenge each other in their craft. I finished reading it in a cafe, the bustle of the lunch rush building around me. Conversations collided, people built flimsy bridges with words then stepped out onto them—as everyone must, everyday. I closed the book satisfied that Irwin and Miller had entered this fray and acquitted themselves well.

 

photo by: zenera

What it’s Like to be Tajik

Shamsiddin makes rock candy. Each week he receives a shipment of sugar in tall plastic sacks. He melts it with water in a cauldron as wide as my arm-span and boils it all day. Then he pours it off into basins strung with cross-hatched fishing line and lets it cool. The candy crystalizes on the string as the basins cool for three days. Then he tips them over, breaks the yellow crystals out and boxes them up for sale.

Shamsiddin was born a citizen of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Tajikistan. He trained as a boxer, served in the army, then came home to take a job with the people’s silk weaving industry in the city of Khujand.

Life was good for his family. His father was a doctor—which earned him the distinction of a brand-new Lada automobile. His family arranged a marriage for him with an educated girl. She taught economics at the university.

When the Soviet Union broke apart Shamsiddin was bewildered. He’d been taught that the wise and peace-loving Communist Party would ensure prosperity in Central Asia for ages to come. In school he’d been the first with the answers:

“What is the ultimate end of capitalism?”

“Imperialism!”

“And what country is the most imperialist nation in the world?”

“The United States!”

Now two decades later, reclining at the low table in the house he’d built with free market profits—the silk factory long privatized and relocated, but candy selling well—he regarded the new world order with a sort of quizzical wonder.

If he’d been told in 1987 that he’d have an American under his roof one day he would have been incredulous, and a little afraid—in the cartoons Americans had fangs. But here I was, drinking his tea, eating his bread, sleeping in his upper room, sponsored by the U.S. State Department to spread good will and English in independent Tajikistan.

Shamsiddin and I had so little to say to each other at first, so few shared words. But as I learned his language, and he learned to speak in the dumbed down child-like vocabulary I could understand, our rapport grew.

He told me about the army, about Islam, about his childhood, his mother’s village, his father’s medical practice, his hopes as a young man in the Tajik SSR. He was granting me, each evening as we sat after meals with the TV blaring, a piece of his irreducible consciousness.

One night we reclined at the low table, nursing our cups of tea. Tomorrow was Eidi Kurbon, the day of sacrifice. Tied in the courtyard, the chosen lamb bleated uncertainly.

“Let me tell you something,” Shamsiddin said in Tajik, leaning across the table.

“Yes?” I said.

“The sheep in the courtyard, it is for my mother. We will kill it tomorrow, and it will go ahead of her, to the Day of Judgment. It will walk across the pit of hell on a bridge the width of a single human hair. If it makes it across to the other side, so will my mother. If it falls into the flames, so will she.”

“That,” he said, pausing for dramatic emphasis, “is why we must choose a good sheep.”

I looked at him incredulously. Outside the sheep bleated again, tugging at its rope.

“The sheep is happy,” he assured me, “It knows it will be a sacrifice.”

I saw little cause for joy from the sheep’s perspective. But it was the hair-bridge and the mother’s fate resting on the nervous animal’s unsteady steps that occupied my mind.

Nothing I’d read in the Koran, or heard from the neighborhood mullah, or discussed with my eager students had prepared me for this story. Whatever insight I’d been granted over the past months seemed suddenly opaque. I was reminded that every day in such a place is a new opportunity to be surprised.

I’d been abroad before, but just for three months as a homesick undergraduate, wearing my culture-shock around Santo Domingo like a germophobe’s face mask. In Tajikistan I pushed through it.

I stayed a year, and when the twelve months were up—twelve months of effusive greetings, communal plates of pilaf, of kites armed with taut noisemakers buzzing through the sky—it hurt to leave.

For some time after returning to the States I curled my legs instinctively under me when I sat down, as if reclining on a cushion. It pained me to see bread dropped on the ground—in Central Asia bread is holy; if it is dropped it is picked up, kissed lovingly, and returned to the table.

My hand found itself at my heart during greetings, and my mind rehearsed the litany of polite inquiries required by good breeding in Khujand: “Are you good? Are you well? Is everything perfect? How’s your work? How’s your health?” When I entered a house I instinctively slipped my shoes off, and when I entered a room I ducked my head politely toward anyone older than me.

What was this strange overlay, this patina of manners I’d had accumulated? I had adapted, in a host of ways that, isolated, seemed superficial. But taken as a whole, they seemed at least something like empathy, a familiarity close enough to change what I noticed and how I reacted, to mold me into something a little more Tajik.

But still this capacity for surprise remained. No matter how much I learned or adapted, I was not a Tajik.  I wasn’t born in a Soviet hospital, nor in an earth-brick house. I wasn’t swaddled into a wooden cradle, nor weaned on tandoori bread dipped in thick kefir; I wasn’t taught to name God and the Prophet five times a day facing southwest to Mecca. Twelve months does not a Tajik make.

Every detail, from civil wars to soda pop, contributes to the web of associations from which we build our minds. I could no more take on another culture than I could inhabit another brain.

But…we do collide. We do adapt. We live together for months or years, share homes and food, converse, debate, inquire and even convert. And from this we build the kind of “fellow-feeling” we call empathy.

Across the table from Shamsiddin, I want to know what I can know about him. About the ones I love at home. About others who might have thought they’d hate me before we met. And others who I thought I’d hate.

Thomas Nagel famously asked if we can really know what it is like to be a bat. His answer was no. But we could perhaps understand the shapes looming in the bat’s cave. We could imagine what inner light guides it, what kind of echoes lead it from room to room. What it approaches, from what it flees. Perhaps from this we could feel our way toward the bat, sense its flight through the darkness. But if we are wrong, we collide.

The question, “What is it like to be a bat?” begs the question, “What is it like to be that human?” What is it like to be a Muslim? Or a communist? Or an American Evangelical protestant?

And how much do we need to know to ensure a peace between us? Are we given the tools to cross these riven valleys of divergent experience?

That night before Eidi Khurbon, Shamsiddin and I stayed up late, talking about druzak—hell. He described for me pincers of flaming iron, bodies torn and repaired ceaselessly, the heat of God’s wrath radiating from the throne of judgment. I went to bed reeling, rehearsing the sheep’s traverse across hell, hair-bridge trembling under its weight.

I knew now a little of his fear, a little of his hope, a little more of the shapes bulging out of his teeming darkness. Were we united that night, sweating through the same nightmares? Can this granted insight ever be reversed?

I don’t know. But I’ll be returning soon. We’ll see then what remains between us.

 

Like See-Through Birds

Five times that I can remember I’ve fallen for a novel so hard I’ve inadvertently prayed for its characters. The first was T.H. White’s sprawling, maudlin Arthurian epic The Once and Future King.

The next two were both Tolstoy: War and Peace and Anna Karenina—whose final scene, where Anna enters the train station, I still associate with the sharp sinking feeling of watching a child sucked over a waterfall.

Then came Rohinton Mistry’s A Difficult Balance, which in its own final scene pays near-explicit homage to Anna.

The fifth and most recent novel to make me feel this strongly was Wieslaw Mysliwski’s Stone Upon Stone.

I began reading Stone Upon Stone in early 2012. I’ve moved twice since then, picking it up first in Florida, next in Oklahoma, chopping the narrative into segments; then finally finishing it a month ago in Thailand, the final chapters flying by in the kind of excitement I last experienced when a budding flirtation bloomed into hesitant love.

Stone Upon Stone is a glorious thing of language, a fountain of stream-of-consciousness speech, its formal playfulness comparable to James Joyce or Virginia Woolf, but in a resolutely agrarian setting.

It inhabits the mind and manners of Szymek Pietruzka, a Polish resistance hero, marriage registrar, barber, farmer, and possessor of a truly prodigious gift of gab. The book that pours out of this character’s voice may well be the best post-war agrarian novel available in English (it was capably translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston in 2010), and strangely enough, it bears significant resemblance in plot and themes to another contender for that title, Wendell Berry’s Jayber Crow. Both novels observe a rural town from the years preceding World War II up to the present through the eyes of an aging narrator irresistibly drawn back to his home-place. Both narrators are barbers. Both comment extensively on the transformative power of roads, the temptation of cash crops, and the dislocation associated with extensive urbanization. Both experience unfulfilled romance. The two books cover much of the same thematic ground as well, with mortality and the land central to both author’s preoccupations. But, despite the esteem in which I hold Wendell Berry, I am convinced that Mysliwski’s is by far the better novel.

From the very first chapter, Stone Upon Stone achieves with a flourish what few novels are capable of: a flawlessly embodied voice. Szymek begins and ends his narration with his tomb—a topic on which he holds forth with equal parts gallows humor and raconteur’s relish. The book begins: “Having a tomb built. It’s easy enough to say. But if you’ve never done it, you have no idea how much one of those things costs.” So Szymek embarks on his rambling, circular tale, which meanders, in the course of one chapter, through the pros and cons of growing flax, the benefits of heifer ownership, the advantages of thatched roofing, his grandfather’s lost land title, and the perils of a soldier’s untimely itch while hiding from the Nazis in an empty mausoleum.

Every chapter is like this, treading lightly around a central theme, with the totality of Szymek’s life available as material for rabbit trails. Or almost the totality. There are certain things that Szymek’s narration takes in peripherally, but never stares at. The source of his brother Michal’s unbreakable silence, for example—a mystery which the novel leaves unexplained.

The chapters chart their elliptical courses through Szymek’s life, with titles like “The Cemetery,” “Brothers,” and “Weeping,” until the end when the thematic conceits are driven home in Szymek’s final monologue, where death and the land are joined by the other underlying theme central to the novel: words, their power and necessity. Words for Szymek are sacred. They impart, if not create, individuality. “God tells us to pray in words because without words he wouldn’t know one person from the next,” he says. In Szymek’s insistence on the centrality of words Mysliwski the novelist can be heard talking up his own art. And he’s got a point. Novels are about human nature in a way no other art form is. They depict the human as a singular being in a way no art form did before the novel’s invention, and they watch this being change. To read a novel is to experience another entity, unitary but diverse over time, driven by desire (after all plot is just desire plus time). When we’ve gone through a novel we’ve admitted that others have the same nature we claim for ourselves—and the same right to change, reinvent, love, pursue, despair, triumph. This admission begins the moment we open a book’s cover, that act itself offering to the other the most potent of rights: the right to use words. In Stone Upon Stone, Michal’s refusal to exercise this right is an affront to Szymek’s infinite volubility. Szymek berates his brother’s silence, exhorting him to begin with the most basic words: “Mother, home, earth…You know what earth is. Where do you spit?” he says.

This is the novel at its best. Affecting because it is unsentimental. It is a work of love where other books with agrarian concerns like Jayber Crow are works of nostalgia. Wendell Berry’s characters too often seem to have sprung from the womb endowed with preternatural amounts of integrity and common sense. Jayber at least gets to wander a bit in his youth, but he too is given a voice with little opportunity to err. He is not full and fleshy enough. When he is angry, it is righteous; when he is sad, it is somber and befitting. Szymek on the other hand, is one of us mortals. He’s a drunken oaf one minute, boasting of his martial and sexual conquests, then next minute he’s weeping in his cup. And there is desperation in his final speech, spoken under the shadow of 500 pages worth of poverty, world war, dictatorship, dead parents, lost love, and broken faith. Szymek seems to be angrily fighting off the idea that Michal’s silence may really be the best response to the world’s dirty face. But he doesn’t stop talking. “Words don’t know death,” he says, “they’re like see-through birds, once they’ve spoken they circle over us forever.”

And the book keeps circling too. It ends where it began, with the half-built tomb. Like Finnegan’s Wake, it invites the reader to keep the words flowing, to read and re-read and never stop reading, to rebuild the Polish village that is the novel’s world over and over again—this is the work that author and reader accomplish together. As with many challenging works of literature, it can be taxing work indeed. But it is a labor leavened by delight.

And yes, mid-way through the novel, in a half-conscious movement of empathy, I prayed for Szymek. God bless him and his endless chatter. If Stone Upon Stone gains the reputation it deserves maybe he’ll never have to stop.

 

So God Made a Farmer

Picture a farmer. No, not one from the “God Made a Farmer” Super Bowl ad. Someone you actually know or at least have seen in person.

If you’re from an urban area you are likely not imagining a face like those accompanied by Paul Harvey’s comforting rasp in the commercial. You are picturing a scruffy 20-something in overalls and potentially dread-locked. She runs an organic vegetable farm—or interns on one—and you see her at the farmers market on Tuesdays. You may even call her “your farmer” if you get a CSA box.

You are not imagining your farmer driving a tractor. You’re imagining one standing in rubber boots over a raised bed full of heirloom veggies. He does not drive a Dodge truck—at least you hope he doesn’t. Ideally he doesn’t drive at all, trundling his produce from his urban homestead to market in a bicycle trailer. Failing that, he drives a VW bus that runs on recycled vegetable oil, or at the very least a station wagon with food-themed bumper stickers plastered on the back hatch.

If you don’t relate to Dodge’s “God Made a Farmer” commercial, it’s because you aren’t its target audience. What pulls your heartstrings is this video by Greenhorns, an association of young organic farmers. “In the flower garden I just speak hen,” says a clucking, gangly hippy. That’s your farmer. Crucially, your farmer does not grow corn, soybeans, wheat, rice or sorghum. She grows heirloom tomatoes, kohlrabi, pok choi and kale.

If you’re from a more rural part of the country, Dodge means that commercial for you. Because your farmer is not the cute young hippie of above. He’s probably a man. (Male faces outnumbered females 5:1 in the Dodge video.) He drives a truck, and a tractor, and a harvester, and a four-wheeler on the weekend. And he grows grain. Corn most likely, rotated with soybeans. Rice if you’re from Arkansas, potatoes if you’re from Idaho. But mostly corn. Tomatoes come from a garden. Corn comes from a farm.

There’s a simple economic reason for this dichotomy in our visions of agrarianism: fresh vegetables provide enough value per acre to make it—however tenuously—in the peri-urban areas where the locavore movement sources its produce. Despite record corn prices, grain can’t pay the city rent.

But the division goes beyond economics. This is an aesthetic divide. Increasingly, the vast grainscapes lovingly photographed for the Dodge commercial, heirs to Psalm 65’s “valleys covered over with corn,” and the Koran’s “grain piled up in the ear,” are unappealing to urban foodies. The grain belt has taken a hammering at the hands of Michael Pollan and the makers of documentaries like Food, Inc. and King Corn. Once near-eastern monotheism’s great metaphor for divine provision, grain is now a symbol for all that is wrong in the agro-industrial complex.

It’s true that rising prices have meant more acreage going to corn than ever, with some farmers in recent years even short-cutting the (already barely-adequate) two-year rotation with soybeans to plant corn after corn. This mono-cropping (if not monomania-cropping) is what draws the ire of food activists like Michael Pollan.

But this oft-repeated portrait obscures a great deal of dynamism in Midwestern farming. Grain farming in the United States is a complex business which has seen strides forward in the areas of soil conservation and integrated pest management, even while it has stepped willingly into extremely intensive corn production, escalating pesticide toxicity and extensive use of genetically modified organisms.

Soil conservation provides some of the most heartening evidence that our farming practices can change for the better. Though there is still much work to be done, and current practices fall far short of the ideals of agroecologists and soil scientists, grain farmers have taken significant steps to slow erosion and preserve fertility.

More specifically, reduced tillage and contour plowing made Paul Harvey’s admonition to “plow deep and straight,” passé well before 1978 when the “God Made a Farmer” speech was originally delivered. Good farmers, particularly in Mr. Harvey’s native Oklahoma, where the dust bowl is still a living memory, till as shallowly as possible—if at all—and run their tractors along GPS-guided curves across the contours of the land, sowing their fields in waves and whorls as unique as thumbprints.

And innovation continues. The University of Iowa’s Aldo Leopold Center recently published the results of a trial indicating reduced pest pressure and consistent profits from a four-year crop rotation with livestock integrated into the farm system.

The Leopold Center study offers an alternate vision of Iowa farming, one where the deep alluvial top-soil is planted in a patchwork quilt, with no more than a quarter of it in corn at a time. The rest is alfalfa hay, with small grains like oat and rye in winter rotation.

In this vision the farm itself, or neighboring farms, keeps cattle to provide market for fodder and supply of manure. The longer rotations restore the soil’s fertility with fewer external inputs, as well as limiting pest populations by removing their host plants for three out of four years. The resulting farm is more diverse, less input-intensive, and dare I say, more beautiful than its two-year rotation counterpart.

This is Hopkins’ “landscape plotted and pieced” —the Midwestern monotony broken into multi-colored stained glass panes of alternating crops. You don’t have to be an agronomist to see the improvement. Well-managed diversity is appealing on an aesthetic level.

As this example demonstrates, America’s grain belt is not static; nor is it unlovely. It is a landscape prone to change, home to human beings capable of doing it both harm and benefit. And what these human beings do is, in a way that has been celebrated in art and literature almost since the invention of agriculture, beautiful.

America’s rural landscape deserves better than “God Made a Farmer.” Dodge-style nostalgia is as profoundly unhelpful—both aesthetically and practically—to agrarian reality as is urbanites’ ignorance.

But so far, despite the rise of the new agrarian movement spearheaded by Wendell Berry, I have still not seen a work of literature that lives up to the rich, protean reality of contemporary rural American life—Mr. Berry’s own oeuvre not excepted. I would love to be proved wrong, but it seems as if this generation’s Steinbecks, Cathers and Thoreaus have yet to come.

Nevertheless, the rise of agrarianism in American letters is a real opportunity to reimagine the land and our relationship to it. We will spoil this opportunity if artists fail to depict both sides of American agriculture. To reimagine the possible, we must first grasp the actual—dichotomous and contradictory though it may seem.

We need visions of renewal, care and abundance that actually relate to the vast swaths of farmland that are planted in grain, and a full agrarian aesthetic that embraces the rural landscape in toto: from the vegetable beds to the corn fields. Because what is left out of art is left out of the affections. And we are unlikely to improve what we do not love.

So picture a farmer. Or, better yet, picture a crowd of farmers as diverse as the 7,000 cultivated crop species they care for. Those are your farmers. Don’t deny them in art the complexity that is theirs to steward in life.

Digging and Reading

Friday morning Earth hands me a hoe. Today we will till the garden, he tells me in Thai—which I don’t understand. But I understand the hoe. Up the hill, we go to the plot where the seed bank I work for grows out the varieties slated for multiplication. We begin to dig. Earth (his name an unintentional homonym with the planet) goes at it with purposeful speed; short jabs, his body bent at the waist. I watch for a moment then do my best to copy his technique. Seamus Heaney described the “clean rasping sound/when the spade sinks into gravelly ground.” But here in Northern Thailand the hoe makes a squelching sort of chunk-a-chunk as it slices in and turns the sticky clay. So different from the sand of Florida, the last place I gardened. This is more of a challenge.

When the weeds have been removed and the soil is soft and chunky we cart in the manure. Two bags-worth for each bed, scooped and poured then tilled in. The work is easier now, but I still fall behind Earth. His bed is smooth and he is covering the surface with straw mulch while I finish turning the manure under in mine. By now there are blisters on my hands and I hold my hoe gingerly, thinking of the line from Archibald Macleish, “life is a haft that has fitted the palms of many.” This haft fits Earth’s palms far better than mine, but I keep at it.

Digging is not on my resume, nor on my skills assessment. I’ve taken no classes in hand-tilling gardens. My degree is in something far more abstract. I shouldn’t be here. I should be somewhere inside with a computer and a stack of books—so say most of the proxies for vocation we recognize. But here I am. Because the seed must be grown and harvested before it can be analyzed. Because the database I’m working on can wait. Because everyone is supposed to know how to dig.

The following Sunday afternoon I spend reading—another skill we consider universally obligatory. This is more my element. Here I am part of a discussion not bound by time or place, a meeting of minds on the shared forum of the page. My education was predicated on the assumption that this is an innately worthwhile activity. But recently the activity of reading has changed. I brought a Kindle to Thailand and, though the seed bank is located on a rural demonstration farm, we have the internet here. So despite my relative isolation I have become well-nigh inundated with the fruits of the e-publishing revolution.

Right now I’m reading Palestine, by Joe Sacco, a graphic novel about the first intifada. I’ve also been skimming “Utopian for Beginners” by Joshua Foer, an article from The New Yorker about the creator of an invented language called Ithkuil, and “Unpacking My Library,” Walter Benjamin’s classic essay on book collecting. Earlier I read a few reviews of Guy Deutscher’s book on linguistics, Through the Language Glass, and I’ve loaded up the Kindle with a couple more articles of a literary bent: one on the relationship between Bram Stoker and Walt Whitman, the other a defense of the word “palimpsest.” Never have my reading appetites been so tantalized by choice and so unconstrained by location or budget.

Many a writer has mourned this revolution’s attendant scrapping of paper and ink. Walter Benjamin would certainly have hated it. E-books cannot—as in the aforementioned essay—be unpacked. They cannot be auctioned. They can never be considered rare or difficult to obtain. They cannot, in any sense that would be recognizable to Benjamin, be owned. They have no fate, no circumstance. E-books are, in the physical sense, nothing. “Book” verbed.

But I’m of a different mind from the nostalgists. Half-raised by the public library, for me books have always been in “the cloud.” I had no sense of the collector’s passion for a particular book. Books were but manifestations, avatars of the words printed in them. As long as my library card granted me access, I didn’t need to own a single volume. I’ve always been a book gnostic. I want the word free of its slavery to pulp, winging its way across the data-winds to my home in Thailand.

But still, something about all this bothers me. The day is wearing on. I’d intended to study Thai today, maybe walk to my co-worker’s house and try some new vocabulary on for size. But the sun is setting and here I am, still reading. I’m retreating from all this foreignness for a while, and the internet is aiding and abetting me. For here I have my ultimate retreat: Twitter knows I like long-form journalism on economics and foreign policy, particularly those written from a center-left neoliberal perspective (The Economist, Foreign Policy, the long articles in The New Yorker). Amazon knows I like literary nonfiction and American poetry from the mid-twentieth century, with a dash of Eastern Europe for variety (Philip Levine, W.S. Merwin, Wyslawa Szymborska and the ever-present Czeslaw Milosz). Here in my cocoon of preferences, wound ever tighter the more data these services gather, I need not be surprised or confronted. I can simply consume. No digging today. Everything I encounter will match my profile perfectly. “What I saw or heard or felt [or read] came not but from myself,” as Wallace Stevens might have said if he’d seen Twitter.

This is not what made me fall in love with literature in the first place. Back among the shelves of the public library my fantasy addiction led me toward an encounter with the Russian novel simply because Tolkein is next to Tolstoy on the poorly lit final aisle of the fiction section—which also providentially contained Turgenev and Solzhenitsen. I still remember my exhilaration—akin to the joy I felt at my first conversation in a foreign language—when I realized I like this.

Such lateral leaps are rare in the new cloud of data that provides me with reading material. Just as I’ve retreated from the public space outside my room—where foreign words are spoken, foreign food cooked, foreign customs observed—the new way of reading makes it possible to retreat from the public forum into a place shared only by people who think and write like me. The internet has made unlikely the very thing it promised to make possible: a pan-cultural marketplace of ideas.

But it does not have to be this way. I do not have to retreat. I can open my door and walk straight into Thailand. And I can seek out devil’s advocates to my own opinions: The American Conservative and The Front Porch Republic might fit the bill for me. I can do actual research, scan bibliographies, find authors with opposing viewpoints, read academic as well as popular texts. I can spread my media consumption across diverse platforms. I can read books recommended by friends with weird taste and books from countries I’ve never visited. I can read books thought to be “difficult”—Joyce, Gaddis, Pynchon, Shakespeare for heaven’s sake! I can stretch beyond my profile. I can dig.

 

Photo by: Rick Burnette (Director of ECHO Asia)