What I learned from Joss Whedon (I actually learned from Shakespeare)

I watched Whedon’s version of Much Ado About Nothing in between days of a writing conference. I noticed all these contrasts: bickering Benedick and Beatrice vs. sweet Claudius and Hero, Benedick’s proclaimed disdain for love vs. his need for Beatrice’s attention, the bumbling constables vs. their actual apprehension of the conspirators, Whedon’s house vs. my own. (It was hard not to notice, even in black and white.) The next morning, contrast reappeared at the conference as humor vs. gore in someone’s opening line about tripping over a hurdle and finding a dead body. Our brains, it seems, like to compare, and comparison, it seems, creates narrative tension: we compare our hopes against realities, our one wish against another, one character’s rise against another’s fall. What is tension, after all, but a pull in one direction against an opposing force?

mil surgery cover_small mil surgery inside_small

Comparison also seems to explain my current obsession with Dunlap Pearce Penhallow (a sainted name for a writer, if ever there was one), or more specifically, his Military Surgery (Oxford UP, 1916.) In this handy, handsome tome of high gloss pages, you’ll find almost all the horror of World War I: “extreme trauma due to avulsion of the teeth” (269), which were blasted loose by a bullet and sent through one man’s cheek, “presence of a metallic foreign body” (317) for the bullet in the bladder of another man that otherwise caused no harm except when it rolled into position to plug his urethra, or the increased chance of infected wounds due to the muck and manure—“high degree of fertilisation”—in which the men fought—“a natural habitat for spore-bearing organisms” (27). A diagnostician’s cool discourse vs. crippled bodies, a reader’s horror in imagining these injuries vs. his safety in his comfy chair. If we first chide Penhallow for being so detached, we next chide ourselves for complaining when it was Penhallow who drained the pus, smelled the gas gangrene, removed the projectiles, and stitched together passable lives.

That is the trick of the author: to make us feel one thing, and then to feel another for having felt that–contrast–for at least in imagination if not in life, “there is nothing / either good or bad, but thinking makes it so” (Hamlet II, ii.)

Mark Meier’s most recent book, Wisecrack, is available now.Meier - Wisecrack cover small



History as the Imagists’ Dream (or Cuisine of Spam)

Mailer’s World War II novel, The Naked and the Dead, reduces the experience of the war largely to petty slights and vendettas played out among individual men, as well as the goals and fears they cling to, sometimes irrationally, often for the sake of keeping some organizing force in their lives. The main drama of the second half underscores this experience of the personally minute amid the massively incomprehensible: a patrol undertakes a mission to prove the cleverness of a general, which also gives a sergeant a chance to prove his tenacity. The patrol needlessly loses several of its members as it scouts a way to surprise the enemy while the main Japanese line simply collapses from starvation.

In Sebald’s Austerlitz, a hideous library is built in Paris atop what was once the depot for goods expropriated from the city’s Jewish population in World War II. The library is ugly, but worse, it impedes people’s access to the books, as well as to the knowledge of what lay in them or below. The eponymous Austerlitz has to fight continually against losing his memory and identity.

I doubt, however, either of these visions of the war will persist, or if they do, they will need to be recuperated by a later era. After all, World War II has become the Last Good War, when Good and Evil were clearly demarcated, when Victory was obvious and American. We consume what reinforces that image more than what challenges it—these days, for most Americans that probably means The Diary of Anne Frank, Band of Brothers, and Saving Private Ryan. Catch-22 and a Randall Jarrell poem may make the list to add another dimension: bombing missions were harrowing (though not much is heard from those on the other end of the bombs.) World War I, meanwhile, has basically settled into a few Wilfred Owens poems in most anthologies and maybe mention of Im Westen Nichts Neues and rarely, and usually in disdainful contrast, In Stahlgewittern. Why these? Because we “all know” World War I was brutal, terrifying, and senseless, a case of alliances and hubris gone awry. History persists most often as metaphor, not fact, or in what Nietzsche called its monumental form.

Meanwhile, the decision to intervene or not in Syria invokes one of two precedents: the 2003 invasion of Iraq or the 1999 bombings of the disintegrated Yugoslavia. Both incidents lose all complexity to become metaphorical shorthand: either a bad intelligence failure/boldfaced lie that should restrain us now or a successful humanitarian intervention that should have happened in 1938 already and should encourage us now.

Yes, history supposedly proceeds from tragedy to farce, but as often, it proceeds from reality to pre-packaged analogy, a sort of intellectual Spam, ready to crack open when needed, the contents already known and not particularly complex, except, perhaps, in the effort to manufacture them.

Is there simply too much to know, so we have to draw a lesson and compress reality, or can we proceed another way?