The Atlantic, October 2011

The current issue of The Atlantic contains four pieces on which I took notes.  All four of them had to do with masculinity in one way or another.

Historian Taylor Branch contributes an article about college sports in the USA.  Non-USA types may not be aware that colleges and universities in the United States operate sports franchises, some of which have a mass following and an extremely lucrative financial aspect.  The athletes are not paid for their participation in this multibillion dollar industry; they are not even compensated for injuries they receive in the course of them.  Branch outlines the story of how this preposterously unfair system came to exist, and considers several recent developments that may bring it to an end.  Athletes are symbols of masculinity in the USA, as elsewhere; the amateur ideal may once have been part of a concept of masculinity that some upper-class Americans cherished, but nowadays even volunteerism is often justified in terms of its resume-building potential.  Moneymaking has become the masculine activity par excellence.  So the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s (NCAA’s) model of the unpaid “student-athlete” is a bit of an anachronism.

A piece called “Sex and the Married Politician” includes several references to the fall of New York Congressman Anthony Weiner.  Mr Weiner resigned his seat in the US House of Representatives shortly after it emerged that he had posted a picture of his genitalia on Twitter.  It strikes me as misleading to call this story a “sex scandal.”  Since everything on Twitter is public, Mr Weiner’s offense was not illicit sexual relations, but indecent exposure.  As such, he is in a league with longtime Friendsville, Maryland mayor Spencer Schlosnagle, who in the mid-1990s pled guilty to charges stemming from several incidents when he exposed himself to passersby on the highway.  Mr Schlosnagle paid a fine, went to a psychiatrist, and was reelected.  He continues in office today.  I think that the case of Mr Schlosnagle shows a community and a political system with a rational attitude towards mental illness.  Mr Schlosnagle initially tried to deny the charges against him; when the prosecution made such denials impossible, he accepted punishment and sought counseling, thus reducing the likelihood that he will reoffend.  Since his behavior was a real nuisance, the prosecution was rational.  On the other hand, it was only a nuisance, not a serious threat to anyone in particular; therefore, the voters’ decision to reelect him once he had shown that he was addressing his mental health problems was also rational.   Schlosnagle disclosed that he had suffered sexual abuse as a child, thus disowning any model of masculinity that would require him to project an image of himself as invulnerable or invincible.  The description of Weiner as the main figure in a “sex scandal,” by contrast, both obscures the fact that he doesn’t seem to have had any sexual contact with anyone and presents him as a menacingly potent figure.  I suppose it makes sense that he would have an easier time playing along with that image of himself that with presenting himself as a sick man compelled to behave in a somewhat annoying fashion.

The Library of America has finally devoted a volume to Ambrose Bierce, and this issue includes an admiring review of  Bierce’s work and of the Library’s edition.  I liked this sentence: “Bierce, after all, has always been best known for being undeservedly unknown.”  Reviewer Benjamin Schwarz also makes some good points about Bierce’s lapidary style, such as this:

Bierce’s seminal contribution to American letters is that “sharp-edged and flexible style, like the ribbon of a wound-up steel tape-measure,” as Edmund Wilson perfectly defined it. But that style emerged from Bierce’s compulsion to reveal a truth that remains unacceptable—or only selectively acceptable—today. It’s all very nice to decry the horror of war, but to Bierce its obscenity and its meaninglessness were merely integral to those of life. Bierce’s friend the editor Bailey Millard explained why all the leading publishers of the day rejected Bierce’s war fiction: they “admitted the purity of his diction and the magic of his haunting power, but the stories were regarded as revolting.” Understandably so, given what Bierce knew to be our delusional and self-serving tendencies.

Schwarz approves of Bierce’s flatly declarative style, especially as regards the US Civil War in which Bierce fought with distinction.  He quotes Walt Whitman’s remark that “The real war will never get into the books,” then says: “And in fact, excepting Bierce’s work, it didn’t.”  That’s high praise indeed; Bierce, alone among the tens of thousands of authors who have published books on that conflict, succeeded in putting “the real war” into his books.  I’ve posted previously about Bierce’s characteristic pose as The Man Without Illusions; evidently this is a pose Schwarz accepts at face value, and a form of masculinity he values highly.

B. R. Myers contributes a brief review essay on Australian crime fiction.  He quotes this exchange from one such novel:

“I hear someone punched out that cunt Derry Callahan,” he said. “Stole a can of dog food too. You blokes investigatin that?”

Cashin frowned. “That right? No complaint that I know of. When it happens, we’ll pull out all the stops. Door-to-door. Manhunt.”

“Let’s see your hand.”

“Let’s see your dick.”

“C’mon. Hiding somethin?”

“Fuck off.”

Bern laughed, delighted, punched Cashin’s upper arm. “You fuckin violent bastard.”

Upon which Myers comments “I grinned right along with that, as if I hadn’t left high school hoping never to have to hear such exchanges again.”  Indeed, talk like that is common among males of many ages and nationalities, and I can sympathize with Myers’ wish to escape from it.  As with his admiration for that rather well-crafted specimen of it.

More ghosts

On Halloween, I posted about Ambrose Bierce’s idea of ghosts as beings who come from nowhere, go nowhere, and are powerless to play a direct role in human life.  I suggested that Bierce might have been expected to come up with an idea like this, given that his religious background was a self-conscious Protestantism that made a point of renouncing notions like Purgatory and intercessory prayer.  Bierce grew up hearing that at the moment of death, a soul passes either to Heaven or to Hell.  With that belief as the starting-point for his thoughts about the afterlife, how could Bierce have crafted a drama of any substance for the dead to enact?  How could he have attributed to them the power to influence our lives?

Similar thoughts seem to have been working lately in the mind of cartoonist David Malki.  The four most recent installments of his Wondermark have dealt with ghosts.  Here’s one from earlier this week:

Bierce has his ghost explain that the spirits of the dead are “invisible even to ourselves, and to one another”; on rare occasions, she says, “we are seen by those whom we would warn, console, or punish. What form we seem to them to bear we know not; we know only that we terrify even those whom we most wish to comfort, and from whom we most crave tenderness and sympathy.”  Perhaps the ghost in this comic is under the impression that she is communicating with the medium, who does not really hear her at all but is deceiving her and his clients; or perhaps the medium does hear her and is  faithfully reporting what he hears, which is distorted in the way that Bierce’s ghost had complained her attempts to communicate with the living had been distorted.

The careers of ghosts

One of Ambrose Bierce’s most famous stories is “The Moonlit Road.”  Three narrators describe the same killing.  The third narrator is the victim, speaking through a medium.  Two of the victim’s remarks suggests that Bierce had worked out some sort of a theory about what it’s like to be a ghost:

Fear has no brains; it is an idiot. The dismal witness that it bears and the cowardly counsel that it whispers are unrelated. We know this well, we who have passed into the Realm of Terror, who skulk in eternal dusk among the scenes of our former lives, invisible even to ourselves, and one another, yet hiding forlorn in lonely places; yearning for speech with our loved ones, yet dumb, and as fearful of them as they of us. Sometimes the disability is removed, the law suspended: by the deathless power of love or hate we break the spell — we are seen by those whom we would warn, console, or punish. What form we seem to them to bear we know not; we know only that we terrify even those whom we most wish to comfort, and from whom we most crave tenderness and sympathy.

A bit later, she elaborates on this:

You think that we are of another world.  No, we have knowledge of no world but yours, though for us it holds no sunlight, no warmth, no music, no laughter, no song of birds, nor any companionship.  O God!  what a thing it is to be a ghost, cowering and shivering in an altered world, a prey to apprehension and despair.

A very similar theory seems to inform the lyrics of Lila Burns’ “Young Hearts, Young Minds.”  A contender for “Ukulele Video of the Year” honors at Al Wood’s incomparable Ukulele Hunt,  the song enlists our sympathies for those who are powerless to do anything but “float around town/ just sing out loud goin oo oo oo-oo oo-oo.”  Whether Lila Burns has read Ambrose Bierce or developed her conception of the afterlife independently I don’t know.

While I’m at it, I should mention John Zmirak’s recent Halloween essay.  Who likes Halloween?  Radical traditionalist Catholics, that’s who likes Halloween.  Zmirak expresses a measure of sympathy for anti-Halloween Protestants:

Some homeschooling friends of mine confessed to me that they felt torn over whether or not to let their son dress up and go trick-or-treating; their Protestant friends kept telling them that this holiday was pagan or even Satanic. And given their theology, you can see their point: The souls of the dead are either in Heaven — in which case they’re not walking the earth and need not be appeased, represented, mocked, or even commemorated, depending on which reading you give to the way we Catholics appropriated old pagan customs that marked this time of year– or else they’re in Hell, and not worth remembering.

Only if you believe in Purgatory, Zmirak argues, can you fit earth-haunting ghosts into the world of Christian imagination.  Zmirak gladly claims the Addams family as rad-trad Catholics.  “Indeed, I think I may have spotted several Addamses at the indult parish in New York City…”  He urges devout parents not to dress their little trick-or-treaters as saints, but to give them costumes that display the eerie and frightening parts of life that Halloween is meant to confront.  He does draw the line somewhere, though:

Now, I’m very much in agreement that two-year-old children should not be dressed as Satan. For one thing, it’s a little bit too realistic. Indeed, the fallenness of children, which Augustine bemoaned in his Confessions, is so evident to everyone that garbing the little tykes in the robes of absolute evil seems to overstress the point. Nor do we wish to trivialize the serious, deadly purpose of our infernal enemy — dragging each of us screaming to Hell. If you’re feeling puckish, it’s in much better taste to dress up your kids as Osama bin Laden, Annibale Bugnini, or some other of the Evil One’s lesser minions. If you must dress your boys as saints, choose military martyrs, canonized crusaders, or patriarchs from the Old Testament. One suggestion I made as editor of the Feasts and Seasons section of Faith & Family magazine was this: Dress up your daughters as early Roman martyrs, like Agnes and Agatha, and your sons as the Roman soldiers, gladiators, and lions that sent them to heaven. Stock up on lots of fake blood for the girls’ machine-washable tunics, and let the games begin! (Alas, this idea never saw print.)

Bierce grew up in Ohio in the 1840s and 1850s; his family and neighbors were staunch Calvinists.  One of his sisters was so committed to that faith that she went to Africa as a missionary.  She was never heard from again; many Ohioans thought that she had been eaten by cannibals.  Perhaps she was an inspiration for the cartoons magazines used to run showing pith-helmeted figures in great pots of boiling water.  Bierce himself was alienated from religion; at times he made a show of atheism, at other times he cultivated a reputation for the Satanic.  The God in whom Bierce did not believe was the God of Calvin.  When he turned his imagination to the supernatural, Calvinism would have been his starting point.  Perhaps the isolated, helpless, misunderstood ghosts of Ambrose Bierce and Lila Burns represent a stage in the decay of Calvinist theology, even as the Addams family and other products Zmirak endorses represent the current stage of rad-trad Catholicism.

Ambrose Bierce and The Man Without Illusions

Several weeks ago, The Nation ran a review-essay about Ambrose Bierce.  A few days before happening on this piece, I’d my old Dover Thrift Edition collection of Bierce’s Civil War stories, a paperback I’d bought for a dollar in 1996 and had been meaning to read ever since.  I was interested in the reviewer’s remarks about one of those stories in particular:

In another powerful story, “The Affair at Coulter’s Notch,” Bierce writes of a face-off between two batteries of well-fortified Confederate cannons, twelve in total, and a single Union cannon crew led by Captain Coulter. Coulter’s crew is forced into an open notch and ordered to engage in a firefight just because a general in the field wants to see if the stories of Coulter’s bravery are true. Though Coulter hesitates, he follows the order. He and his crew wheel one cannon out to the notch and commence firing. Soon the twelve Confederate cannons respond and the two sides are lost in the thunderous explosions and enormous clouds of artillery smoke. Each time one of Coulter’s cannons is destroyed, his crew wheels a new one up to the notch so the fight can continue. Eventually the Union officers ride up to the notch to check on Coulter and his men:

Within that defile, barely broad enough for a single gun, were piled the wrecks of no fewer than four. They had noted the silencing of only the last one disabled—there had been a lack of men to replace it quickly with another. The debris lay on both sides of the road; the men had managed to keep an open way between, through which the fifth piece was now firing. The men?—they looked like demons of the pit! All were hatless, all stripped to the waist, their reeking skins black with blotches of powder and spattered with gouts of blood. They worked like madmen, with rammer and cartridge, lever and lanyard. They set their swollen shoulders and bleeding hands against the wheels at each recoil and heaved the heavy gun back to its place. There were no commands; in that awful environment of whooping shot, exploding shells, shrieking fragments of iron, and flying splinters of wood, none could have been heard. Officers, if officers there were, were indistinguishable; all worked together—each while he lasted—governed by the eye. When the gun was sponged, it was loaded; when loaded, aimed and fired. The colonel observed something new to his military experience—something horrible and unnatural: the gun was bleeding at the mouth! In temporary default of water, the man sponging had dipped his sponge into a pool of comrade’s blood.

The cannon drooling blood is certainly a memorable image, and as I read the story I was sure it would be the detail that stayed with me.  By the end, however, even that horror has been put into the shade.  At first we think that Captain Coulter’s commanding officer sent him to that desperately exposed position and ordered him to shell the house opposite simply because he “wants to see if the stories of Coulter’s bravery are true.”  Then one officer tells another that Coulter was a southerner who had left his family behind Confederate lines to join the Union army.  He goes on to report a rumor that the commander had led an occupying force that patroled the area where Coulter’s family was.  This rumor held that the commander had made advances to Coulter’s wife.  She rebuffed him, and the officer wonders if that was why the commander put Coulter in such danger.  By the end of the story, even this grotesque idea is shown to be short of the full horror of the situation. 

The Nation‘s reviewer quotes Bierce’s definition of “realism” from The Devil’s Dictionary as “The art of depicting nature as it is seen by toads.”  This quote is at the center of a little disquisition on Bierce’s use of improbable events in his fiction.  The last two paragraphs of the review sum this disquisition up:

Bierce often resorted to horror, whether grisly war stories or even supernatural tales, but he didn’t do this to avoid writing about reality; he used the genre to confront the truths of his day—the monstrosity of battle, the terror of extinction.

Read Bierce and try not to think of soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Read Bierce and consider the ways “probability” can be a poor test; sometimes realism just fails. Every era needs a genre through which it understands itself. We are living in the age of the uncanny once again. Time to testify.

This point is very close to something that came to my mind while I was reading that collection of Bierce’s Civil War stories.  The stories are full of wildly improbable events; random shots fired at distant enemies can be relied upon to kill the gunners’ fathers, brothers, wives.  Bierce presents these freak occurrences not to undercut the sense of his stories’ reality, but to emphasize their truthfulness.   

What truth does Bierce want us to think fills his stories?  I think it is the same truth that was publicized almost two decades ago, when a hit movie was advertised with an image of a Marine colonel shouting “You can’t handle the truth!”  Even though the movie passed through theaters in 1992,  a Google search for “You can’t handle the truth” restricted to results that went up this week draws over 16,000 hits.  I wonder if the resonance of that line and the power of Bierce’s stories don’t combine to show that there is an idea at large in American culture of truth as something necessarily violent, of war as the ultimate truth.  If so, the colonel in the movie and the highly decorated Civil War veteran Bierce would both figure as men with a privileged access to truth, as warriors who had seen the heart of battle.