Sunday, April 4, 2010

Asunder: "It is, before all, to make you see"

To mark the 35th anniversary of the fall of Saigon, the front page of the April 4, 2010, New York Times Book Review came into our homes speaking of two novels about the Vietnam War. One of these, Karl Marlantes's Matterhorn, was a first book which (according to the reviewer, Sebastian Junger) took 30 years to write. "Reading his account of the bloody folly surrounding the Matterhorn outpost," breathes the awed Junger, "you get the feeling Marlantes is not overly worried about the attention span of his readers; you get the feeling he was not desperate or impatient to be published."

But then Junger quotes a sample of Marlantes's prose. It goes like this.

No, the jungle wasn't evil. It was indifferent. So, too, was the world. Evil, then, must be the negation of something man had added to the world. Ultimately, it was caring about something that made the world liable to evil. Caring. And then the caring gets torn asunder. Everybody dies, but not everybody cares.

Well, as Samuel Johnson said about the Metaphysical poets, "To write on their plan it was at least necessary to read and think." To write this passage, Merlantes seems to have read Conrad (Heart of Darkness), Emerson (the Divinity School Address -- "Evil is merely privative. It is like cold, which is the privation of heat"), and Hemingway (passim).

But "asunder"?

In prose that attempted an act of representation all the way down to the heart of language, the washerwomen on the Liffey once listened and sighed and wondered:

Waterhouse's clogh. They took it asunder, I hurd thum sigh. When will they reassemble it? (213)

"Asunder" is a word signifying separation in a definitive way. It is to "apart," say, as adieu is to au revoir. Whispering such significances through intervals between the words in its lexicon, Finnegans Wake would seem to be an instructive textbook in the language of loss of meaning, negation, and the subsumption of the human into wordless time. But Finnegans Wake doesn't seem to be part of the library underlying Matterhorn. If Marlantes and Junger and the New York Times Book Review had a theory of language in mind when they wrote their words down and showed them to us, it was probably not much more ambitious than the serviceable goal that Joseph Conrad had in mind in 1897 when he wrote his preface to The Nigger of the "Narcissus":

My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel -- it is, before all, to make you see. That -- and no more, and it is everything.

But on the day in 1975 when the helicopters took off from the rooftops of Saigon, could it still be everything? In its formal capacity of an agent of the power of the written word, the New York Times Book Review doesn't seem to believe that itself.

Click to enlarge.

Even the compositor's math will convince you of that. Of the four columns on this page, prose occupies the one on the left and the one on the right, but the two in the center are all a wordless image by an artist whose wordy name is reduced to a fine-print legality in the corner, Patrick Thomas. On the page, the wordless image is the only thing close to a work of art -- that is, a piece of representation capable of lifting us off the page. Remembering as we rise free of the undistinguished prose on its margins, we look back at the picture and see silhouettes of Blackhawk helicopters and F-4 bombers, of peace signs and a map of Vietnam. The color scheme is camouflage, and that helps us set the silhouettes to words of our own -- moralizing words, nostalgia words circa 2010.

But two more of the silhouettes are redacted versions of images that evoked words in their own time: Eddie Adams's 1968 photograph of South Vietnamese national police chief Nguyen Ngoc Loan blowing a handcuffed prisoner's brains out and Nick Ut's 1972 photograph of a scattering crowd of screaming children fleeing before a napalm attack. America saw those images shortly after their artists interacted with history to bring them forth, and after that it was harder to read Heart of Darkness as simply as Conrad had written it -- and harder too, of course, to think about war as it had been thought about in Conrad's time. Something in the relation between a writer and his readers had been sundered. Thanks to photographic technology, some of the artist's responsibility for making us see had passed from the written word to an instrumentality of less mediated sight.

So it may be that Matterhorn will ultimately have less to say about the Vietnam War than Finnegans Wake. Situated on a borderline between direct seeing and direct speech, whispering to us in dream language of an experience that its words can never completely make us see, Finnegans Wake may be readable as an episode in the representation of the extreme. And in the way it places words before us as simply there, irreducible to any morality except its own grammar, it begins to seem, in certain lights, like a photograph.