Friday, February 18, 2011

The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien

In The Things They Carried (Houghton Mifflin, 1990) Tim O’Brien writes about his experiences in Vietnam. Rather than a personal memoir, this is a book of closely related stories in which O’Brien actively participates as author and character. As he narrates the stories, he explains how he came to write them, how he changed characters and experiences. He makes himself the persona of the book, the author-narrator. In most of the stories he examines characters coming to grips with their experiences. One story, “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong,” about a soldier who manages to bring his girlfriend to Vietnam, and who then goes native, is reminiscent in ways of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Another, “Speaking of Courage,” which describes the difficulty of a former soldier named Norman Bowker to connect to his life after the war to the war itself, suggests Hemingway’s ”Solder’s Home,” from In Our Time. A number of personal narratives I’ve read about the Vietnamese conflict are linear in how they recount events, beginning with arrival and proceeding through wartime experiences. O’Brien’s approach is not linear. He constantly circles back and forth from his position as a 43-year-old writer trying to make sense of his experiences to the experiences themselves—a constant movement between past and present. He offers multiple presentations of a single image—for example, of a dead soldier on the trail (“The Man I Killed”), or a fellow soldier blown apart by a mortar shell (“How to Tell a True War Story”).

As in many other Vietnam narratives, the narrator’s voice is a forceful perspective. Michael Herr’s Dispatches provides the archetype. O’Brien’s persona actively tries to make sense of the war, obsessed with memories of friends who died and how they died, of how others changed, of how he himself changed.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Freedom Summer: The Savage Season That Made Mississippi Burn and Made America a Democracy, by Bruce Watson

The Freedom Summer of 1964 in Mississippi is one of the great stories of the 20th century in America. Drawing from interviews, documents, personal accounts published and unpublished, and published scholarship, Bruce Watson in Freedom Summer: The Savage Season That Made Mississippi Burn and Made America a Democracy (Viking Adult, 2010) tells the story of these volunteers who move to Mississippi for ten weeks in the summer of 1964 to register voters, teach in freedom schools, and otherwise develop a movement for civil rights. The murder of the three civil rights workers near Philadelphia, Mississippi, serves as a framing device for the narrative. The workers disappear on the first day most of the Freedom Summer volunteers arrived in Mississippi, and their bodies were recovered as the summer began to wind down. He also focuses on a number of volunteers in the project, beginning with Robert Moses, and continuing on through a teacher, two college students, an organizer, and Fanny Lou Hamer, who became famous for the speech she gave at the 1964 Democratic Convention in an attempt to get the Mississippi Freedom Delegation seated in place of the all-white delegation Mississippi democrats had chosen.

As a fourteen-year-old during the year of the Freedom Summer Project, I was far removed from what was going on. I followed with dismay the disappearance of the three volunteer workers, who were brutally killed by Klansmen and buried in a dam, all with the collusion of local law enforcement. But many of the details of the project I didn’t learn until I read this book. An amazing list of prominent names from the 1960s and 1970s forward had a role as organizers and volunteers in the project: Stokeley Carmichael, Moses, Abbie Hoffman, Susan Brownmiller, William Kunstler, Mario Savio, John Lewis, Barney Frank, are among them. With the exception of Moses, regarded as a kind of saint by many in the project, and resented by some, the figures on whom Watson focuses were rank-and-file participants.

The brutality with which African Americans in Mississippi were refused basic rights, including the right to vote, and the right to equal treatment under the law, during the 1960s and earlier is sobering. The experience of the Freedom Summer volunteers—young and old, black and white, from all over the nation—was brutal.

Despite the hyperbole, some minor instances of repetitiveness, and less analysis than I would like, this book is a good introduction to the Freedom Summer Project and is the product of a daunting amount of research, reading, and work. It’s exciting, filled with tension and human interest, and a compelling story of courage, moral fortitude, and heroism.


Inception has been hailed as a groundbreaking film that utilizes cutting-edge special effects with state-of-the-art postmodern narrative. Director Christopher Nolan made his mark in the The Dark Knight (2008) with intensely somber and moody visual presentations of an oversized American city, the aesthetics of film noir, and a fully realized Byronic hero. The visual aspect of Inception is perhaps its most striking element--in scenes where the main character Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) demonstrates to a new recruit the ability to manipulate the content of dreams, where a modern city seems to rotate in upon itself; where confetti spontaneously erupts into the air; where decaying buildings collapse into the sea of what appears to be an earth in the distant future – these are rendered with overwhelming detail, imagination, and artistry. Such scenes occupy a relatively brief portion of the film, but they certainly capture your interest. Almost as important is a narrative plot that sets its own ground rules and adheres to them. The film is built on an unlikely premise. To say that it's unlikely is not to say that it's impossible. The technology, the scientific knowledge, that would make it possible, as this film suggests, to invade the dreams of other people, to alter what they're dreaming about, to discover secrets they're hiding, is simply not within the realm of the near future. It may be possible one day, or it may not. The notion that we could one day read the thoughts of other people by scanning their brain waves would have seemed ridiculous 10 years ago. It's now beginning to happen, at least in a rudimentary form, and it's likely in another few decades that electronically reading human minds will be commonplace. Although by current levels of technology the film's claims about invading the dreams of other people are unlikely, at least they are conceivable.

The characters in Inception work for a security agency that specializes in invading the dreams of people who have important information that others—the government or a corporation--want. One company wants to plant in the mind of the owner of another company’s owner an idea that will affect business decisions he must make in the near future. The film never really questions the ethics of trying to do this. It's as if the film occupies a post-ethical world where such considerations are irrelevant. What the film pays attention to is the process, and director/screenwriter Nolan weaves around that process an exciting and innovative adventure. The people in this company determine that they will have to penetrate through six nested levels of dreams to carry out their assignment. This means that a character invades one dream and then in the dream contrives to go to sleep and have another dream in which he contrives to go to sleep and have a third dream and so on. This is convoluted, and at some point I lost track of where we were. But the concept as a narrative form works.

There's a complication. The main character played by Leonardo DiCaprio lost his wife two years before. He feels responsible for her death and constantly dreams about her. In fact he goes to sleep with the intention of meeting and talking to her. He’s grief stricken but can't let go of his grief because he's able to see his wife in his dreams, literally. The film does make clear that when DiCaprio encounters his dead wife in dreams he's not literally encountering her—she’s not a spirit--he's encountering his memories and his guilt over her loss. As he talks to his wife he's attempting, perhaps unwittingly, to come to grips with her death. But he’s still so wrapped in grief that he puts himself and the whole team at risk as they penetrate deeper and deeper from one dream to another. His dead wife is continually appearing in his dreams, at times interfering with the project, and in general offering added layers of distraction.

Director Nolan and the rest of his crew effectively keep multiple narratives in motion—the action within each dream takes place at different rates of speed. In one case the members of the team are on a van that drives off a bridge and plunges towards the river. The 2 1/2 seconds that it takes for the van to hit the water are in fact the time period during which much of the rest of film takes place. In other dreams narratives occur in real time, and the film switches back and forth from the people on the bus as it careens towards the river and to what people in other parts of the film are doing. This could become so confusing that the narrative of the film simply collapses into meaninglessness, but that never really happens. Nolan employed a somewhat different use of fragmented parallel narratives in his early film Memento (2000)

Inception offers an effective fusion of state-of-the-art special effects, an innovative script, and many good elements of filmmaking. Excellent actors include DiCaprio and Ellen Page. the young student he recruits to assist in the project. The music is effective, similar to the music from the The Dark Knight written by the same composers, James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer.

The nested narratives central to Inception are not new. They’re a primary device in modernist and postmodernist literature of the 20th and 21st centuries. One film Inception particularly reminded me of was Flatliners (1990), where medical students experiment with near-death experiences to discover whether there is life after death, and in which one character tries to contact a deceased relative.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Notes for a Roundtable on the Future of the PhD in the Humanities

The topic of the future of the PhD in the Humanities might seem to have been suggested by the ongoing crisis in the job market. Are we producing too many PhDs when many of them can’t get suitable jobs? Are we training them properly, given the kind of teaching many of them go into. Can a humanities PhD prepare them for employment in nonacademic fields. Should we even worry over whether our PhDs are employable?

There has always been a crisis in the humanities job market—it was in crisis when I started looking for jobs 33 years ago. There has always been the promised surge of open positions when the current generations of faculty retire. But economic crisis, downsizing of programs, changes in universities, and changes in the humanities itself have proved such hopes empty.

The job crisis raises serious ethical and professional issues that we cannot ignore or pretend not to see.

However, the PhD’s future in the humanities is not merely an issue of too many graduates and too few jobs. It’s a matter of whether graduate programs in the 21st century should be governed by disciplinary models that date back into the 19th century. It’s about the quality and substance of the graduate education we provide. Do we overvalue the dissertation? Do our students take too long to finish, or not enough time? Is humanities graduate study too narrow and focused? Is a new PhD who has never studied outside a single discipline truly educated? Our world is one of virtualities, of inter- and multidisciplinary research and teaching, of the traditional monograph’s rapid decline, of radically evolving forms of scholarly publishing, of new technologies in instruction and research. Can we afford not to consider the fundamental shape of doctoral study in the humanities?