Friday, February 5, 2016

Old Sins Cast Long Shadows

Svetlana Alexievich’s Voices From Chernobyl is a marvelous and tragic book. It is also an exceptional one, of form—Alexievich’s curates the book, as she does most of her work, in what she calls a “genre of actual human voices and confessions, witness evidences and documents”—and by orientation. Voices From Chernobyl is a continuing study of consolation and sequence at and beyond the human scale, unpredictable in its humanity but also (especially for those in power) its immediate consequence. As Sergei Gurin notes in his testimony:

People who’ve been through that kind of humiliation together, or who’ve seen what people can be like, at the bottom, run from one another. There’s something I felt in Chernobyl, something I understood that I don’t really want to talk about. About the fact, for example, that all our humanistic ideas are relative. In an extreme situation, people don’t behave the way you read about in books. Sooner the other way around. People aren’t heroes.

In the book, there are heroes, the many heroic individual who race to the scene (words of national admiration—heroes, victory, sacrifice—are often shorthand for impending illness and early death), but also, those many who speak now of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, recount the devastating effects of its initial denial by the Soviet government, name the politicos who denied and exploited it, and give witness to the continuing, decades-long poisoning that follows it in the region, especially Belarus. Always, the human perspective comes forward. The interest to deny and “move on,” whether political or national or personal, is denied at every turn. Memory is lived with, rather than past. In this way, Voices From Chernobyl is a moral and democratic work, willing a perspective—arbitrary, individual, vulnerable to memory and time and bias, felt and continuous—that un-writes, with each recounting, the oppressiveness of a single (national, official, historical) narrative. We are, as Alexievich notes in her postscript, at a debt to these people who have prematurely fixed their relationship with death and time. "These people had already seen what for everyone else is still unknown. I felt like I was recording the future."

I have not so actively read a book in years. I was showing Cait my copy this evening, and the progression of my notations is positively manic, beginning with a periodic single line that becomes underlining passages, then double-underlining and writing in the margins, making all kinds of symbols to distinguish one passage within another, one form of admiration against the next, a shorthand I’m still not sure I really understand. Surely, this was part of Alexievich’s design, the accumulation of testimonials, their impact and effect. Still, I feel at a loss to describe exactly how I enjoyed this book. I did enjoy reading it. I felt very alive while reading it. The book is full of feeling, and with each account made, an overwhelming sense of the ephemeral is twinned with some magnificent intrusion of the natural world. The forests turn, in the days after the accident, yellow, then orange. An abundance of cows and chickens are seized and eaten by bandits returning to the city. Rusting, radioactive hulks are unearthed from mass graves and deep pits, scavenged and sold across the region. Alexievich has said that she is interested in

what happens to the human being, what happens to it in our time. How does man behave and react. How much of the biological man is in him, how much of the man of his time, how much man of the man.

Nowhere in Voices From Chernobyl is suffering ornamented. Suffering is never secondary to anything except, perhaps, feeling. But the natural world, modified and, with some 48,000-odd years of inhabitation to follow and certain to be neglected in large swaths, persists in spite of a human sense of consequence, much less the individual.

There is a Danish proverb, Old sins cast long shadows. I came across it while watching an episode of River on Netflix. River is the sort of excellent BBC show that I am less and less interested to watch. Beautifully shot, very well written and acted, full of unpredictable twists that elegantly resolve across scenes, episodes, and seasons, River suggests a kind of familiarity to the crime drama that feels strangely lifeless. Stellan Skaarsgard is terrific in the lead, as a police detective who lives between the worlds of the living and the dead. His partner—his best friend and confidante—is recently murdered. He works to piece his life together and solve her murder. He is a brilliant mess. At the end of the second episode, I thought, Okay, I sort of know where this is going, right? Big twist. Revelation. Someone is either not dead or really dead. The external will gradually become the internal, or vice versa. Life will go on but it really won’t. Was I so wrong? I have no idea. I can’t emphasize how essentially good the show was, and how disinterested I was in its excellence. I don’t think it's a disinterest in the show, so much as a dread at whatever horrible final twist—the excellent Broadchurch, the pretty-good-until-the-end London Spy, the thoroughly okay The Fall—will finally release our hero from his suffering. What is there to live with, finally, that will not inevitably come next?

A couple of weeks ago, Bruce Springsteen gave out a free download of his recent Chicago live show. It was a gesture to his New York fans. Winter Storm Jonas had postponed the Madison Square Garden show of his tour in support of the 30th anniversary of The River and the wonderful bells-and-whistles box set reissue, The Ties That Bind. So, The Boss offered all of his fans a fantastic consolation prize. It’s a terrific live show and recording, and of course, amazing that The E Street Band is more or less at it still, and so well, all these years later. I liked it so well that I downloaded much of The River that I hadn’t really listened in a while, which led me to this terrific 1980 (Tempe, Arizona) live version of “Out in the Street”:


Bruce is skinny. Little Steven is really skinny! Clarence Clemons is dapper, in full force. The tone on his tenor is unbelievable. The song is up-tempo compared with the Chicago version. The vocals have a bigger range. The arrangement is so tight: fast. It’s hard to believe that this is the same song as the Chicago concert. It sounds like the original that it is. The new version sounds almost like a cover. Both sound wonderful. YouTube is well populated with great Springsteen tunes from across the years but those prime middle years feel distinctly uncurated and live, (sorry to use this word) visceral. Near the end of his 1980 review in Rolling Stone rock journalist Paul Nelson says this about The River:

While most of The River runs wide and deep, there are a few problems. Ever since he started conceptualizing and thinking in terms of trilogies, Springsteen has lost some of his naturalness and seemed more than a bit self-conscious about being an artist. At times, you think he's closed off his casualness altogether, that he can't bear the idea of playing around with a phrase when he could be underlining it instead. Will we never hear the spring and summer of "Wild Billy's Circus Story," "4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)," "Thunder Road" and "Born to Run" again? Must even the brightest days now be touched by autumnal tones and winter light? Bruce Springsteen isn't an old man yet. Isn't it odd that he's trying so hard to adopt the visions of one?


''Suffering and I,'' Mr. Updike concludes, ''have had a basically glancing, flirtatious acquaintanceship.'' I see no harm in that, no reason why those flirtations should not continue. I trust they will. Mr. Updike writes, in ''Self-Consciousness,'' as if he had nothing to look forward to but sunset and the western porch: ''Between now and the grave lies a long slide of forestallment, a slew of dutiful, dutifully paid-for maintenance routines in which dermatological makeshift joins periodontal work and prostate examinations on the crowded appointment calendar of dwindling days.''

Meanwhile I note that he is four years younger than I am.

A few weeks before he died, Cait and I saw Clarence Clemons getting out of a car in Marin. He was using crutches, or a cane, I think. I remember that he was moving really slowly. I said to Cait, “Hey, that’s Clarence Clemons!” and she had no idea who he was, and by the time I explained it, he was smiling and talking with someone, and we didn’t really want to interrupt him, so we kept walking. Clemons is 38 in the above video. Which is to say, he is my age. It’s hard to think that there is anything more representative of this time in life than sitting here, writing a blog post, listening to Sam snore loudly in the bedroom, the baby waking and crying, Cait grading papers, Walt finally gone to sleep after some epic Minecraft-related page-turning. Sure, yes, there is an eagerness in my attentiveness. It feels a bit too on the nose, a warmness to the kitchen (autumnal?) light and wistfulness for Bruce Springsteen that is maybe quasi-elegiac in its anticipation, or worse pre-nostalgic, a sure symptom of what the Chicago doc calls an unease with happiness, or perhaps even a wariness for what Josh Billings notes is “the only difference between the poor and the rich…the poor suffer misery, while the rich have to enjoy it.” Better, I think, to try to leave such happiness alone, rather than topple it with acknowledgments and testimonials and evaluations, to “just for this evening” let it alone, a line I curated right out of Mary Szybist’s Incarnadine, a collection that begins with an epigraph from Simone Weil’s Gravity and Grace:

The mysteries of faith are degraded if they are made into an object of affirmation and negation, when in reality they should be an object of contemplation.

Walt loves the 1980s television game show, Press Your Luck. We watch it most nights. I turned it on in a moment of desperation a couple of weeks ago, when Walt and Sam were home sick, and I haven’t heard the end of it since. His enthusiasm and our watching have led me down any number of internet rabbit holes, the least fascinating of which might be my extensive knowledge of the life of Peter Tomarken, the creator and host of Press Your Luck. What Walt loves, of course, are the whammies. Before every episode begins I have to reassure him that we are cheering for the whammies, we want the whammies to win, even if we like one of the contestants, which isn’t really the point of the show, we want to see more whammies. Walt loves the Tarzan whammy the best. The Michael Jackson and Cyndi Lauper whammies are beyond him. I love that this is one way to spend time with him now that’s new, a way to share what I know will one day become his sense of humor, a concept I associate frequently with leisure and silliness, as opposed to the gallows, the satirical, the ironic, and feel fortunate to do so.



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