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    swirls of paint

    Book Tour: To Prevent Our Falling into Greater Disasters

    Can remembering the past save the present or the future?

    By Phil Christman

    July 29, 2020
    • Peter McCallum

      Wikipedia has a beautiful expression - weasel words; such as "especially not the disaster that is white supremacy." If you tell a lie often enough it becomes the truth.

    • Lawrence

      Here is a notion. Learning from the past has demonstrably failed. How about UN-learning? (No, not simply forgetting.) Perhaps we should not add more trials and errors and subsequent corrections to our lives. Better a clean-up job by the Holy Spirit, which would result in renewed minds. Consider no longer "knowing how" to make a mistake. It sounds a bit grand, I know. If someone were to invite us to participate in a war, how nice it would be to be able say, "Sorry, I no longer know how." Farfetched? I suppose so. But it would confirm the quote of Jesus for becoming as little children. See Matthew 18:1–5. Your correspondent (a writer, poor soul), to his own detriment, has realised that philosophy alone is useless.


      I'm not sure Lee and Rommel were the utter villains Christman claims. President Lincoln and General Grant both had great respect for Lee. Lincoln even asked him to lead the Union army at one point. Rommel wasn't a devout Nazi. He defied Hitler's "stand or die" order in North Africa, and he later joined a failed plot against Hitler.

    Book Tour is a bimonthly review by Phil Christman of new titles, each exploring a theme to trace hidden connections among books and writers.

    At one point in Adrienne Kennedy’s superb short play He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box, we hear a quotation that, in another context, might seem tailor-made for the tumult of this year. Here it is: “We must expect reverses, even defeats. They are sent to teach us wisdom and prudence, to call forth greater energies, and to prevent our falling into greater disasters.” Slightly too long for a needlepoint sampler, but you can just see it on a plaque in some coach’s office. The speaker of these words is Robert E. Lee; Kennedy has cunningly appropriated them for a play that is about, among other things, the impossibility of gaining any real grip on disaster, especially not the disaster that is white supremacy.

    Kennedy is eighty-eight. Her best-known work is probably Funnyhouse of a Negro in 1964, but her consistent excellence and productivity over the decades since is staggering. He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box, published this summer with several other recent pieces, was first performed last year. It is like one of those perfect fragments we find in Kafka, mystifying precisely because it illuminates so much. Set in Georgia in 1941, it concerns Chris and Kay, an interracial couple. Chris is the son of the town magnate, a man so good at building segregated institutions that the Nazis sought him out for advice. He has also paid for the only headstones in the black cemetery – they memorialize the mothers of Chris’s black half-siblings. Kay doesn’t know much about her parents, though her father was white. Perhaps her mother killed herself; perhaps the father killed her and, well, see the title of the play. At the beginning, they watch the children in the town’s black school act out Christopher Marlowe’s The Massacre at Paris, as Chris’s father, who wrote the school’s curriculum, requires that they do. This deeply Protestant play, which memorializes a moment in Reformation history that has become part of the story (a story) of the growth of freedom and human rights, sounds like nonsense in the mouths of these schoolchildren. Kennedy specifies that they “do not try to make sense of this play.” 

    We must expect reverses, even defeats. They are sent to teach us wisdom and prudence, to call forth greater energies, and to prevent our falling into greater disasters.

    Speaking in the incantatory style typical of Kennedy’s productions, Chris and Kay exchange scraps of family memory. They agree to marry; the rest of their dialogue consists of long excerpts from their letters to each other. Chris is far away, studying to be an actor. But their histories – they are both the children of white men who used and discarded black women at will – raise the question of whether their loving, mutual relationship doesn’t also echo those disturbing imbalances of power. Chris is, at least, freer to enter and leave the relationship than Kay is. (Kennedy, a writer as generous as she is tough-minded, does allow Chris a moment of unambiguous moral triumph over his father, but at a huge cost.) Like the schoolchildren who have been taught to mouth Marlowe’s play, but not to understand it – still less to see how they have been shut out of the history it celebrates – the characters in this play can only dimly know what they mean.

    Lee was a slaveocrat and nothing finer. For his words to appear in a play by a black woman would surely strike him as a disaster with no lesson in it. The virtues for which he is remembered – physical courage, discipline, dedication – are shared by such figures as Nazi field marshal Erwin Rommel, who, like him, brought those virtues to the service of a cause so evil as to make of them glittering vices. But as this national moment reminds us, those same virtues may be used to undo Lee’s hateful legacy. The bravery of activists for black lives and equality may, among other concrete goals, reduce Lee’s memory to what it deserves.

    And yet, Lee’s strategy for making sense of defeat remains uncontroversial. Even those who don’t believe in a providence that “sends” reversals tend still to think of loss as a lesson somehow given for us. We reinterpret misfortune as mistake, then set about learning from it. Without this cultural commonplace to elaborate, the nation’s business-book writers would have trouble filling out a page. 

    If I hadn’t recently read Elisa Gabbert’s valuable new essay collection, The Unreality of Memory, the Lee quotation wouldn’t have stuck out to me. It would have seemed merely another of Kennedy’s finely-wrought ironies. But Gabbert’s opening essay takes direct aim at the idea that we can really either prepare for or learn from a disaster. She takes the sinking of the Titanic as an example: this event was not the simple parable about hubris that most of us have received. The thing was built to survive an iceberg – just not one that hits in exactly that specific, unlikely way. “No iceberg in history had done that kind of damage to a ship,” she writes, “and none has done that kind of damage since.” And the ship’s builders didn’t skimp on lifeboats because they couldn’t imagine any were needed; they envisioned a situation in which passengers would be ferried from the slow-sinking Titanic to a rescue ship. (If you’re in conditions where the Titanic isn’t safe, what good is a tiny lifeboat?)

    We can never have all the information. In creating new technology to address known problems, we unavoidably create new problems, new unknowns.

    Gabbert concludes: “We can never have all the information. In creating new technology to address known problems, we unavoidably create new problems, new unknowns.” Each disaster teaches us how to engineer our way around it, and in the process make new disasters possible. Gabbert is that most valuable thing, a poet who is good at research; her details convince, and her style inveigles. Succeeding pieces about Chernobyl, the Challenger and Columbia explosions, the shocking 2016 election, and other examples all reinforce her point – including her rather detailed anticipation of a viral pandemic.

    Jill Lepore’s If Then: How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future reads like an extended and quite entertaining variation on Gabbert’s theme. I had not heard of the Simulmatics Corporation, but it turns out to be the hidden link between a great many things I had heard of. Basically, it was an applied-social science company founded in 1960 to do computer simulations of voter behavior. (The first model for such simulations was written by William McPhee, an Ivy League mathematician and Simulmatics executive, who built it while confined to Bellevue for beating his wife.) It was a Simulmatics report that told John F. Kennedy to go ahead and make his famous “Religion Address”: based on interviews with voters, the report’s authors concluded that Kennedy would gain more white-ethnic Catholic voters, by addressing the issue of his religion head-on, than he would lose Protestant ones. It was Simulmatics researchers who gathered data for the famous Kerner Commission report on the riots of the 1960s. (One of those researchers was a young writer named Clarence Major. The Essential Clarence Major, published this summer by UNC Press, obligingly includes, along with many other excerpts from the lifework of this important experimental writer, some autobiographical pages about his time with Simulmatics.) The famous “red line” between Moscow and Washington, put in place after the Cuban missile crisis, was inspired by a plot point from a novel by Eugene Burdick, a friend and former collaborator of the founders of Simulmatics who soon became the company’s fierce critic. Simulmatics was the Cambridge Analytica of the New Camelot. 

    You can’t simulate the consequences of simulation.

    It was also creepy and inept. The company’s founders loved Adlai Stevenson, whom they saw as a sort of fine cheese rejected by the stupid American electorate, who preferred Kraft Singles. With the power of computers, they set about to analyze his mistakes in the elections of 1952 and 1956 in hopes of helping him become the candidate to beat Richard Nixon in 1960 – that is, to prevent what they saw as a disastrous loss from occurring again. What their computers could not tell them was that Stevenson’s inability to communicate with voters was a sign not of superior intelligence, but of its lack. Real political geniuses want to be understood.

    Meanwhile, time went on, and conditions changed, as conditions cruelly insist on doing. The Simulmatics boys wound up serving a Cold War liberalism that bombed children under one and then the other of Stevenson’s hated Democratic rivals. One Simulmatics researcher, a Freudian, went to Vietnam to ask captured enemy soldiers why they fight; when they gave him the staggeringly obvious answer – that that’s what you do when you’re invaded – he typed up long reports about their problems with their dads.

    The company’s geniuses did not even think, in all their forecasting, to forecast the effect of their own presence on the scene; Lepore tells stories of Simulmatics teams traipsing through the Vietnamese countryside with a huge government retinue, not realizing that this might affect how people answered their questions. “You can’t simulate the consequences of simulation,” as Harold Laswell, a founder, said to Harpers’ in 1960, in a story that (Lepore reveals) was written by a journalist who was moonlighting as a Simulmatics PR man.

    That story, which Lepore quotes at length, is written in the style of regretful certainty that constitutes one of tech journalism’s two dominant modes (the other being gee-whiz excitement). This suggests the broader possibility that writers and pundits who talk solemnly about the inevitable dehumanizing effects of technologies that don’t yet exist may be engaging (inadvertently or otherwise) in a kind of PR for those technologies. Dehumanization is not inevitable; nor is technology. (Think of the way that widespread masking, as a result of the pandemic, has already devastated the facial-recognition-tech industry. May it be so.) They may just want you to stop fighting. 

    In August 1970, Simulmatics declared bankruptcy. Eleven months later, the experimental poet Bernadette Mayer set out on a project that seems almost a parody of that company’s dreams of omniscience. For every day of July 1971, she shot a roll of film, then wrote as much as she could, in a variety of modes, about the day’s activities. She was trying to win an argument with Gertrude Stein, who, following William James, had urged writers to tread in the continuous stream of present-tense consciousness. Mayer wanted, by contrast, to write a book that was as self-consciously past-tense as she could. Today any person with a Facebook account outdoes Mayer without thinking much about it, but for 1971, Memory is a stunningly complete self-dossier, an “emotional science project,” in Mayer’s phrase.

    These precious little words, written small, are not meant to come on too strong but just to lull you like the whirr of a car or an airplane interior or like the sound of birds clinking glasses together at tea.

    Until now, this Memory was not really accessible to posterity. You can compile the data, but that doesn’t mean anyone can read it, or draw conclusions from it. It may just sit there. The project showed in galleries in 1972 – Mayer read the text portions onto a tape, which would play in the gallery – and again in 2016. The text then appeared alone at one point, after a planned version with the photos fell through, until it was revived by the new, gorgeously produced, more-or-less-complete edition from Siglio. (The Simulmatics archives that allowed Lepore to write If Then reached her, too, via a long pathway of accident and neglect.) What it reveals is Mayer’s commitment to the everyday, her vote of confidence in each of these details, the meanings of which were probably already receding from her as she wrote each one down. Her writing enacts a faith that they still matter. 

    Like experience, like disaster, Memory thwarts our efforts to draw any simple meaning from it. The book stays ahead of you; memory is a continuous new construction. As is often the case with experimental poetry, it most often snaps into focus when Mayer talks about what, precisely, she’s doing: 

    an observer is there as I am that was the end of that page, these precious little words, written small, are not meant to come on too strong but just to lull you like the whirr of a car or an airplane interior or like the sound of birds clinking glasses together at tea, glasses of tea, to lull you then into now being for a while into being me, can you feel it, becoming part of the rest of the story goes

    Indeed, the written portion of the book at times “whirrs” in the reader’s head; you sort of float in the stream of her past-consciousness, though she occasionally draws you up short with an especially gorgeous verbal image or apt phrase. Mayer’s Polaroids are the large, beguiling objects that float alongside you, inviting you to reconstruct what was here before time flooded through. Images of a New York City lost to wave after wave of “urban renewal,” and of long-vanished rural upstate towns and farms, and of Mayer’s friends – how many still live? – they have the poignancy of all lost objects. They are so complete, so full of information, that they feel like they should explain themselves, as those Kafka and Kennedy fragments do, and they remind you how little you understand. Sometimes the book is boring; Mayer is a literary experimental par excellence, and not every part of an experiment will pan out. 

    But I keep returning to Memory, stirred by the beauty of its images, and also, perhaps, by its very failure to fully cohere. In a society that seems bent on building itself into a nightmare of Simulmatic self-understanding, every call recorded, every purchase logged, every mistake by every person noted on a spreadsheet somewhere for purposes of later violent correction, Memory reminds us that such a vision of completion is illusory. Released into this moment, a book so full of information that you can barely make sense of it, it reads like a parody of the many would-be Simulmatics Corporations that aim to control our future. Their efforts to do so only create a new situation, which they are exactly as capable of understanding as we are. To finish their Tower of Babel is the one sort of damage they can never do.

    Contributed By PhilChristman Phil Christman

    Phil Christman teaches first-year writing at the University of Michigan and is the editor of the Michigan Review of Prisoner Creative Writing.

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