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the island of conclusions

Viscera (on images of war)

the island of conclusions

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Viscera (on images of war)

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I read a haunting novel on the train back and forth from DC: The Book of Jonas by Stephen Dau (his first novel, published in 2012).

It’s about a boy who is “rescued” from a country like Afghanistan and given asylum in the US after his village and family are destroyed by an American military operation. The boy Younis/Jonas tries to build a new life in the US, but is plagued by unresolved trauma/memories of how exactly he survived the devastation. His story intersects with that of a missing American soldier whose mother is trying to find him..

I would absolutely recommend it, but mostly if you have an interest in books about PTSD and dissociation, which it's quite good on.

The distance extends a bit to the writing, which tends, like the characters, to view things from a distance--lots of descriptions of scenes as if they were photographs, and lots of descriptions of actual photographs--after I while I started to miss the other four senses.

For example:

The last time he saw his village he was five thousand feet above it.

Sometimes it comes back to him as a word, or a sound, or a scent, and he can see the faint trace of smoke rising toward him like a prayer. From this height he can see the village’s broken shell, its careful, jigsaw delineations—yards and orchards and streets—scratched and blurred like a sand castle set on by a toddler.

Paul tells him that he tends to dissociate.

I don’t mean to criticize this passage at all; it is beautiful, and appropriate, and summarizes many of the themes of the novel in a few terse paragraphs. And, as I said, the novel is very powerfully about both the costs and necessities of dissociation with regard to trauma, so why shouldn’t it embody that in its prose?

Still, reading it, I was reminded of something Karl Marlantes writes in What It Is Like to Go To War, and that I’ve been meaning to post about: how numb we have become to visual representations of violence and destruction. For him, the issue is that this distancing cuts off our compassion for others. How do we “overcome this short-circuiting of compassion?” he asks.

“We make a conscious attempt to use other senses beside the visual whenever we are faced with making decisions that could result in killing or carnage. Our nonvisual sense haven’t been dulled like our visual ones. A congressional junket to a combat zone is one junket this taxpayer would feel good paying for—as long as it doesn’t stop short of headquarters…Walk through a burned-out village where the dogs haven’t been fed and you hear them eating the dead. If this doesn’t snap you out of your conditioning, then smell human meat rotting. Listen to the wailing of the orphaned child and go mad with it because you can’t get it out of your ears until you either walk away or do away with the child. Pick up chunks of body and feel the true meaning of dead weight. These senses aren’t filtered and dulled by visual media. These channels are much more directly open to the heart.” (77)

Here, thanks to tumblr, is a picture of a medic in the Vietnam War.

credit: Medic James E. Callahan of Pittsfield, Mass., gives mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to a dying soldier in war zone D, about 50 miles northeast of Saigon, June 17, 1967. (AP Photo/Henri Huet)

It’s a striking and moving photo, I think, but compare it to this written description of the same thing from What It Is Like to Go to War (nb: part of an account of how Marlantes won one of his medals, one he feels pretty deeply ambivalent about—a shorter version of this description also shows up in Matterhorn):

Doc Southern was just arriving. Bell and Putnam took off. They had other jobs to do. I covered for Doc Southern as he bent over Utter, giving him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Utter was spitting up vomit and blood and Southern kept spitting it out of his mouth and onto the ground next to Utter, sometimes right on Utter’s shirt. He kept pushing and pounding Utter’s chest, now sticky with vomit and blood, trying to keep his heart going. He’d suck in a lungful of air while doing this and press his mouth to Utter’s over and over again.

Now, this writing isn't nearly as pretty. To my mind, it's almost aggressively not pretty. But Marlantes has a gift for the tactile—particularly for the effluvia both inside and outside human bodies. Not just the blood and vomit here, but snot, sweat, come and shit, as well as mud, rain, and waste of all varieties are prominent in his writing. Either you think this is wonderful or it grosses you out, I guess. But note how tactile this description is, despite the fact that Marlantes is only watching—the stickiness of the shirt, the horror of taking someone else’s blood and vomit into your own mouth. The loss of personal boundaries is implicit in the photo—it’s the core of the medic’s heroism—but it’s made visceral in the verbal distinction. For me, the photo gives me with a nice, rousing sense of human heroism, while the description leaves me with a horror of the vulnerability of bodies and the way war unmakes them.

And what I find interesting is that in the context of the paragraph about the need to get beyond the visual, we can see this “style” as not just an aesthetic choice but also an ethical one.

I know these are a bunch of apples and oranges descriptions, but it's something I'm trying to puzzle out, so if you've made it this far, thanks!
  • I think I'll take some time to puzzle that out, but thank you for sharing and, if I can manage to make them intelligible at some point, I'll share some of my thoughts with you.
    • I'd love to hear your thoughts! I'm sorry if I was being elliptical. I guess the thing I'm most interested in is the way different representational strategies embody different sets of ethics. All writing has an ethos, of course, but I just got interested in it wrt this topic.

      thanks for reading!
  • very thought-provoking!

    I have a dollar-store address book where I record books (alphabetically by author) that I want to hunt down, and I'll be adding both of these to that list.
    • thanks for reading!

      Do! Both are excellent books, as is Matterhorn. Let me know what you think if you do end up reading any of them!

      Do you ever use goodreads? I started recently and kind of love it--it's nice for keeping track of what I want to read, and seeing what other people think of books.
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