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Eventually

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So.

The papers and exams are graded and all but one set of grades is handed in.  I’ll do that tomorrow, probably, when I feel less like  having a fit about it. 

And that brings me to this morning, which is kind of nice at the moment.  I can look out the windows of my office and see my back yard, which is no longer full of debris from the storm in October. 

I has, let’s face it, been not one of my better years–it’s been the sort of period where every time I turn around there’s been something else and the something elses have been largely major rather than otherwise.  It would be nice to have one big, rousing something good happen to balance it all out, but I’m not expecting it.

With the coming of the end of the year, though, I have at least been reading books, and so on to those, and a little look back at the last post on a perennial issue in the writing of fiction.

First, the book I’m reading now is a collection of essays by Hannah Arendt. 

For those of you who have never heard of her, Arendt was a German Jew, born in 1906, who became one of the first women to hold a serious position as an intellectual in post-WWI Germany.  She studied under both Karl Jaspers and Martin Heidigger and eventually became Heidigger’s lover. 

She remained Heidigger’s lover right up until the day he joined the Nazi Party, accepted the post of Chancellor of the German universities, and promptly expelled all the Jewish students and faculty. 

She left Germany for good in 1933, ahead of that particular incident–but she maintained a fondness for Heidigger all her life, even after the war.  And although she was asked about it on many occasions–and married other people over the course of time–she never really answered the obvious question.

An all too human tendency to be irrational in love notwithstanding, Arendt is the kind of intellectual I would have liked to have become, if I’d headed myself in that direction.

She had a broad education, which included Christian theology of various kinds in spite of the fact that she wasn’t one.  She was not an idiot.  She coined the word “totalitarianism,” because she needed it to write about the fact that the foundations of Naziism and Communism were largely identical.   She knew Augustine and Aquinas as well as she knew Nietzsche and Marx–and she knew them in their original languages, and she knew how they were all connected.

In the Thirties, she walked away from an intellectual career and from intellectuals generally, to work for Zionist organizations even though she wasn’t a Zionist, on the feeling that there was something about intellectuals that made them fatally attracted to totalitarianisms of all sorts.

Her most famous book did not start out to be a book at all.  Rather, it was a series of articles she wrote for The New Yorker, which sent her to cover Eichmann’s trial on charges of genocide in Jerusalem. 

The articles were eventually collected in a book called Eichmann in Jerusalem, which is still in print today.   It caused a lot of trouble at the time, not the least on account of another phrase she coined–the banality of evil.

Reading Hannah Arendt reminds me of another refugee writer, but a refugee of a later period.  His name is Czeslaw Milosz, and if you’re going to ask me to pronounce it, don’t.  There is a woman at my place who actually immigrated from Poland, and I got her to pronounce it for me a couple of times, and I’m pretty much hopeless.

Milosz was a refugee from Communism, and a poet.  He came to California in the early 1960s as a defector, and remained there for the rest of his life.

In spite of being, by all reports, rather gung ho on the subject of his adopted country, he wrote all of his life in Polish.  What appeared in the American press and in English publication generally had to be translated from that.

I’m not really all that entranced by poetry, and I haven’t read his–never mind that language matters with poetry in a way it doesn’t with other things, so I’m not sure what I could have done with the poems anyway–

But about ten years ago his essays were published in a collected edition, and they are spectacular.

Here’s another mind with broad education and broad interests–philosophy, politics, art, literature, history.

Like I said, there is in the back of my mind the intellectual I would have liked to be if I’d gone in for being an intellectual.  I think–like Arendt in the 1930s–I had a period of time when I thought that no such intellectual life was possible, that there was something about intellectual life that led one to be, inevitably, Bertrand Russell.

Better red than dead.

Right.

But Arendt and Milosz are out there as evidence that the kind of thing I’m thinking off–what the truly well-educated person would look like, maybe–has actually been out there, and may still be out there, just hidden by the idiots.  Idiots tend to make a lot of noise.

Finally, the look back to the last post.

I’ve been thinking about Robert’s comment that the problem with “based on a true story” movies and books is that you don’t really know if the people involved were as they are portrayed.

And that, of course, is certainly true.

In a way, it’s a variation on the question of how much accuracy is necessary in fiction–do you have to get the history right?  the landscape?  the forensics?

And, on thinking about it, I’ve come up with this:

First, Shattered Glass is a movie about a personality (actually, two personalities), not about “the situation.”

It’s actually the movie version of an article that I haven’t read.  I don’t know if the article concentrated on the situation, or if it too was about the personalities.

That said, anybody coming to Shattered Glass looking for insight into how a magazine could allow something like this to happen isn’t going to find it, because the question isn’t addressed.

Robert mentioned a few other scandals of the same sort at other places–and another one at The New Republic that I don’t know about–but I don’t think it’s quite as easy as it seems to be to conflate them.  The Jayson Blair case at The New York Times almost certainly occurred because Blair was the Times’s post boy for a newly diversified newsroom.  The kinds of articles he fabricated were not the same kinds of articles Glass wrote.

And there are issues here that are general, but dealt with only in articles in the Columbia Journalism Review.   Things like the fact that newspapers come out every day.  There’s a lot of rush.  Things like the fact that most editors don’t expect their writers to be fabricating  stories, any more than most other employers don’t expect their accountants to be embezzling funds. 

I agree that we all tend to believe what we already expect to hear, but that’s endemic to everybody everywhere.

But it seems to me that it ought to be legitimate for a movie to concentrate on the personalities, and as such a movie I think that Shattered Glass is an interesting one. 

One of the subthemes throughout the movie is that the grown ups are intrinsically less entertaining than a pseudo-child like Glass.  They’re more serious and responsible.  They’re less likely to either speak or write primarily for effect, and because of that their effects are often less flashy and startling.

Glass’s nemesis inthe movie is a man named Charles (Chuck) Lane, who took over as editor after Michael Kelly left.

(Some of you may remember Michael Kelly as the reporter who was killed in Iraq while embedded with the US Army 3rd division in the first year of the war.)

Anyway the contrast is played for all its worth, as well as the impression that Lane never could quite stomach Glass and never actually completely believed him. 

The movie is, in its way, a riff on the dangers of extended childhood and an ode to being a grown up.

And I don’t know if it bothers me that that may not be what actually happened, that Glass may be simply a sociopath.

I still don’t have an answer to how much accuracy I want or need, but this issues–the issue of the inner lives and inner realities of characters–is, as far as I’m concerned, what fiction is all about.

So I probably should.

Written by janeh

December 20th, 2011 at 9:50 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'Eventually'

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  1. Fiction may well be about inner lives of characters, but I think that biography has to move into fiction when it starts in on its subject’s inner lives. Even those living a life don’t know (or can’t or won’t admit publically to) whatever is their inner reality, and any outsiders is even more handicapped by having only actions and public statements to go by.

    I never understood the fascination with childhood. I could hardly wait for mine to be over, and have never wanted to extend it, or looked back at it with wistful longing to have it back again.

    Cheryl

    20 Dec 11 at 10:23 am

  2. To me, when a bank starts handing out counterfeit twenties, the story is not that someone has a reason to counterfeit money, but that something’s wrong with the bank. Google “Scott Thomas Beauchamp” for proof the NEW REPUBLIC learned nothing from the Glass business. Or you could google “Janet Leslie Cooke” to see the Washington POST in action.

    “It is a brilliant story—fake and fraud that it is. It would be absurd for me or any other editor to review the authenticity or accuracy of stories that are nominated for prizes.” –Bob Woodward, with his hand well inside the cookie jar.

    No, I don’t suppose editors expect their writers to invent stories. Banks don’t expect the tellers to embezzle–but they check the drawers every night, because the tellers may–and some will if they aren’t checked. When I was on active service, arms room inventory was a regular extra duty. At no more than 30 day intervals, every weapon was inventoried by serial number by two NCOs, and at least one of the NCOs for the next inventory had to be a different person. And if the armorer was known to be having financial difficulties, he was given different duties–not because anyone expected the armorer to sell weapons, but because we knew he could, and regular checking was how we made sure he didn’t.

    I see no reason the editors of a national magazine can’t be expected to show the same level of competence as a captain of artillery or a branch bank manager.

    Inner lives, though. The movie can say as it pleases, but I don’t find children more interesting than adults, and even less so when they display at 30 traits I didn’t much care for in First Grade. Give me the adult mind, with its memories and mistakes, obsessions and idiosyncracies every time.

    And I’m a bit biased toward behavior rather than thought processes. Whether we can know what someone’s thinking, as opposed to how they behave, is another issue. We are, after all, each of us alone in our own skulls. (OK, I think some of us may have company, but that’s different.) But in any event, demonstrating that it’s possible to think in a certain way isn’t proof anyone does. Poul Anderson published a number of stories over the years–some of them brilliant–about intelligences arising from different evolutions. They met John Campbell’s old cry form “someone who thinks as well as a man, but not like a man.” The stories have some real insights into why and how we think as we do–but Anderson’s ability to describe his aliens doesn’t make them real, either.

    I’ve got lots of maps of places that don’t exist. For all I know, any description of someone else’s thinking processes is just one more.

    But as I’ve said before, if we all looked for the same thing in fiction, there would only be about 400 new novels a year. (The 400 authors would be doing pretty well, though.)

    robert_piepenbrink

    20 Dec 11 at 6:42 pm

  3. You know, Robert, this is why credible studies of psychic powers include a professional magician on the team. Most researchers don’t expect fraud because physical phenomena don’t cheat. (Of course, those of us who do clinical assessment, where there is the possibility of secondary gain and therefore fraud, do expect it and prepare for it.)

    Cathy F

    CAFiorello

    21 Dec 11 at 1:29 pm

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