Just a Little Bit of History Repeating

Through the window I can see the National Guardsmen, standing with their rifles next to a bright yellow forsythia bush that has just come into bloom. Every now and again helicopters pass by overhead, but since it’s already pretty windy today, the most noticeable thing about their transit is the noise.

I’m in Watertown, Mass., a couple blocks away from the area that has become Ground Zero for a manhunt; they’re going house to house looking for a suspect in this Monday’s bombing of the Boston Marathon. It feels surreal, this being the second time (after 9/11) that I’ve had the experience of watching on t.v. the same things that are happening on the street outside.

Right now I happen to be reading Libra by Don DeLillo, his epic novel about Lee Harvey Oswald and the Kennedy assassination. As my own novel turns more and more into an exploration of the American psyche during the 20th and early 21st centuries, I can’t help but feel an uncanny resonance between Oswald’s age and this one. (For a moving pictorial trip back to that point in time, I highly recommend The Atlantic‘s In Focus gallery from this February, 50 Years Ago: The World in 1963.) Fear, social unrest, and high paranoia appear to be the reigning sensibilities of the day, then as now. But I suppose what I’m trying to get at with Dead SULs is what’s different, how the existence of the internet has changed our ways of perceiving the world.

I’m off to try to put those thoughts into the book itself – I find too much literal analysis tends to get in the way of literary transubstantiation – so I’ll leave the last words to DeLillo, talking about Libra in a 1992 interview from The Paris Review:

Our culture changed in important ways. And these changes are among the things that go into my work. There’s the shattering randomness of the event, the missing motive, the violence that people not only commit but seem to watch simultaneously from a disinterested distance. Then the uncertainty we feel about the basic facts that surround the case—number of gunmen, number of shots, and so on. Our grip on reality has felt a little threatened. Every revelation about the event seems to produce new levels of secrecy, unexpected links, and I guess this has been part of my work, the clandestine mentality—how ordinary people spy on themselves, how the power centers operate and manipulate. Our postwar history has seen tanks in the streets and occasional massive force. But mainly we have the individual in the small room, the nobody who walks out of the shadows and changes everything.

Film allows us to examine ourselves in ways earlier societies could not—examine ourselves, imitate ourselves, extend ourselves, reshape our reality. It permeates our lives, this double vision, and also detaches us, turns some of us into actors doing walk-throughs. In my work, film and television are often linked with disaster. Because this is one of the energies that charges the culture. TV has a sort of panting lust for bad news and calamity as long as it is visual. We’ve reached the point where things exist so they can be filmed and played and replayed… Think about the images most often repeated. The Rodney King videotape or the Challenger disaster or Ruby shooting Oswald. These are the images that connect us the way Betty Grable used to connect us in her white swimsuit, looking back at us over her shoulder in the famous pinup. And they play the tape again and again and again and again. This is the world narrative, so they play it until everyone in the world has seen it.

This is the force of the culture and the power of the image. And this is also a story we’ve seen updated through the years. It’s the story of the disaffected young man who suspects there are sacred emanations flowing from the media heavens and who feels the only way to enter this holy vortex is through some act of violent theater. I think Oswald was a person who lost his faith—his faith in politics and in the possibility of change—and who entered the last months of his life not very different from the media-poisoned boys who would follow.

[Update: Adam Gopnik has an astute piece on one of The New Yorker‘s blogs that I think provides the perfect postscript:]

The toxic combination of round-the-clock cable television—does anyone now recall the killer of Gianni Versace, who claimed exactly the same kind of attention then as Dzhokhar Tsarnaev did today?—and an already exaggerated sense of the risk of terrorism turned a horrible story of maiming and death and cruelty into a national epic of fear. What terrorists want is to terrify people; Americans always oblige.

Experts tell us the meaning of what they haven’t seen; poets and novelists tell us the meaning of what they haven’t seen, either, but have somehow managed to fully imagine. Acts of imagination are different from acts of projection: the first kind clarify; the second merely terrify.

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