September 2012

Lightsey Darst


Genocide and Tuna Salad

As I eat breakfast or lunch or dinner I read, often The New Yorker. I start with the bits that attract me -- pieces about fashion, fragments of memoir, Malcolm Gladwell discoveries that apply to worlds of business or sport I'll never be part of -- and move on to Shouts & Murmurs, reviews occasioned by the republication or translation of the work of long-deceased vagrant European intellectuals, and the deeply unfunny captions readers think up for cartoons; then The Talk of the Town (skipping anything polemical), then Peter Schjeldahl's jewel-like capsule takes on gallery shows ("Casady's faux-na´ve, vrai-perverse stylings bring news from an international archipelago of smoky demimondes"), reviews of movies I'll never see and restaurants where I'll never eat, perhaps the beginning and the end of the short story (checking whether the narrator is elevated or demolished by the emotional weather of the middle I won't read), a profile of someone I don't know or care anything about. Then I toy with the remainder and hope that perhaps a new New Yorker has arrived in my box.

I avoid, this way, the news from Libya, Syria, Uganda. I don't say this proudly. I used to tell people I didn't read the news because the news never changes and because there's nothing I can do about it: the concern I can muster up for people I never heard of who are now grieving or dead does nothing for them, I would say. But now I'm curious -- having been to a place whose mysterious past formed the backdrop to all my photographs, now I want to know.

Or I wanted to know when I was there. Home, I start reading a chapter in Samantha Power's "A Problem from Hell": America and the Age of Genocide. This is the history, even in my lifetime, of a place I can't look on and may never return to. What does it mean? (And what I mean is: what does it mean to me?) Perhaps I shouldn't read this chapter in isolation, plucking it from Power's careful contexts. I turn back to the introduction. Here, Power attacks my head-in-sand pose:

... the United States did have countless opportunities to mitigate and prevent slaughter. But time and again, decent men and women chose to look away. We have all been bystanders to genocide. The crucial question is why.

And damningly:

It is in the realm of domestic politics that the battle to stop genocide is lost. American political leaders interpret society-wide silence as an indicator of public indifference. They reason that they will incur no costs if the United States remains uninvolved but will face steep risks if they engage.

I've gotten only a few pages in. The book was published in 2002. The author photo shows an attractive blonde, younger then than I am now, her faint smile cut by her unresting eyes, her portrait a study in glare and shadow. I wonder what she's doing now, where she is, what she's reading.

Reading the news over lunch might not be, though, what Power has in mind for the involvement of the average American. I can't help noticing that reading the report on Russia did nothing for the grammar of the report from Mexico; I felt the same disagreeable yet empty shock, the same unanchored dread. No, I'll read Power's book. That will put a dent in my ignorance, anyway, and give me a platform on which to build. But I can't read about genocide over tuna salad.

I turn The New Yorker over. What's unread in this issue is surely what everyone will post on Facebook; everyone else seems to love being riled up to no end. My eye roams to the nearby bookshelf. I haven't finished Patrick White's strange novel Voss, though the bookmark is stuck surprisingly far in. Two-thirds of the way and I left these passionate people, the explorer and his reckless love, in the thick of their story, he starving in the desert, she feverish in roses and blood.

Then, when the wind had cut the last shred of flesh from the girl's bones, and was whistling in the little cage that remained, she began even to experience a shrill happiness, to sing the wounds her flesh would never suffer. Yet, such was their weakness, her bones continued to crave earthly love, to hold his skull against the hollow where her heart had been.

Or maybe that's why I left them. White published Voss in 1957, but the novel's setting is the colonial Australia of the 1840s. Reading it -- the expanse Voss travels, his love Laura's clipped and battering life in gardens and drawing rooms -- launches me into an abyss of nowhere, no-time. I learn nothing, or, at any rate, nothing quickly. I have the feeling of being lost in a grotto while a parade or an army marches by on the boulevard.

If I am going to lose myself, why not do it in unmistakable style; why not go further back? There's The Wings of the Dove; the bookmark is twelve pages in, and I don't remember the characters or their already-labyrinthine relations, nor do I know how many times I've read these opening pages. The last time I made serious progress in late Henry James was six years ago, when I read some three hundred pages into The Golden Bowl, at which point an encounter between two sphinx-like characters bucked me. I knew that at the bottom of their myriad layers of contact (like ghost fingers) with each other lay something intense, but I had no idea whether it was passionate sympathy, antipathy, or boredom verging on violence.

I read once that what we know as late James -- the dizzyingly complex sentences, the horrifying its and unstated understandings and misunderstandings and revelations around which the novels revolve -- occurred when James ceased writing for himself and began dictating to a secretary. If it's true, I don't know whether to be amazed at the mind that, Milton-like, spewed up such syntax from its letterless dark, or whether to suspect that, not having to read himself, James ceased to mind the monsters he made.

In any case, it's hard to do much with James in half an hour, or with Voss, or with Power's opus. I have time to be confused, that's all. Or I have time to wait: to wait, like a woman in a novel, for the world's shimmer to resolve itself into a form I can enter. As James writes of his Kate Croy, "She sat there for real things."