Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Palestinians Denied Water

The shortage of water in the West Bank and Gaza is a very old story, but it is still disturbingly true.

Israelis have swimming pools and gardens; Palestinians have barely enough for subsistence survival.

For an update on the situation (and information from Amnesty International's new report on the issue), see BBC's October 27th article, Report: Palestinians denied water.

While sad, Israel's attempts to keep "their" water for themselves is unsurprising. What I find truly sickening is the wanton destruction of Palestinian water reserves by the Israeli military. One soldier reports that Palestinian water tanks make good target practice.

This needless, pointless waste -- the loss of water in a desert country, the theft of life from a people who love to grow green things -- strikes me as evil. To take something away from someone, not to use it, but simply to prove that one has the power to destroy . . . every bully, from Hitler to Stalin, has done the same.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Slaughter-House Five

This is another reflection I wrote almost two years ago, for my Modern Novel class.

The book, Slaughterhouse-Five, is rather indescribable. It's part autobiography (based on Vonnegut's experiences in WWII, particularly during the Dresden firebombing), and part fantastical science fiction. The book's main character, Billy Pilgrim, is unstuck in time and abducted by aliens. Juxtaposed with these events, however, is the more intense absurdity of humans' actions against each other - death marches, death camps, and cities boiled in flame.

Slaughterhouse-Five, or the Children’s Crusade: a Duty-Dance with Death, by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., is less of a novel than a parable. A parable marked by its dreamlike attention to detail, and complete absence of any traditional plot. A parable that is not story, but interwoven bursts of history, nonsense, and character study. Bursts that are strung together into an overarching commentary on the presence, or absence, of meaning.

And that, it seems, is the book’s ultimate question, for itself and for the world — is there a point, or isn’t there? Is Slaughterhouse-Five a commentary on the deep significance of life, or the ultimate absurdity of it all? Is Vonnegut combining these fragments of truth and fantasy into a collage that celebrates meaning, even amidst the madness, or a shattered mural that undermines it? He tells us that the Trafalmadores believe that individual moments, seen all at one time, can “produce an image of life that is beautiful and surprising and deep” (84). Is this what Slaughterhouse-Five accomplishes (or attempts), or does Vonnegut intentionally fall short? Is the moral of the parable that meaning can be wrested from the ashes, or simply that it cannot? — and no amount of artful deception will ever turn the Dresden firebombing beautiful. This is a question for which there are no simple answers.

Slaughterhouse-Five is heavy with its recognition of humanity’s attempts to trivialize life and death. To minimize atrocity by building walls between “us” and “them". The good guys and the bad. Those who deserve to die, and those who don’t. But as Vonnegut writes in his preface, “the corpses could have been anybody, including me” (xii). His book cuts through the lines of separation, and presents humans as simply that, human. In all of their odd frailty. Creatures, who, if shown in the right light, make less sense than Billy Pilgrim’s aliens from Tralfamadore. Aliens who understand that death is irrelevant, not because people are irrelevant, but because time is. And in this way, the book is laced with irony. A calm, self-aware absurdity (in the form of flying saucers, time travel, and other fantastical non-events) that calls the reader’s attention to the more hysterical absurdity of actual reality. Firebombings. Girls boiled to death in water towers. Candles made from human fat. A man shot for stealing a teapot. British POWs performing Cinderella. Billy crying for a horse in pain, amidst the wreckage that once was Dresden. All so much more unbelievably ridiculous than time travel, and green Martians. Vonnegut writes (once again, in his preface) that Slaughterhouse-Five is meant to be a “nonjudgmental expression of astonishment” at what he experienced in Dresden (xii). And that it is. An astonishment that is mirrored through science fiction and the recounting of the fantastical.

But none of this really answers the question of meaning. Of hope. Billy recounts that the Tralfamadorians believe every moment to always exist — in the past, present, and future. And if every moment exists, always, then there is no potential for change. Billy sees his death, but never tries to stop it, just as the Tralfamadorians will never try to stop destroying the universe. It has already happened, always has happened, and always will happen. This fatalistic attitude is hardly heartwarming. Hardly conducive to transformation. So the question becomes, is Vonnegut’s work a tribute to that view (at least its power, if not its morality), or a violent mockery of it? Far from condoning this attitude of detached acceptance, Slaughterhouse-Five may be placing judgment on all who embrace it by viewing war as a necessary evil. Something that is hardly worth striving to abolish. Or Vonnegut may simply be recounting what he saw. What he experienced. And what, realistically, the world may always be — the absurd process of destruction. Us, against them. A truly “nonjudgmental” account (xii).

Monday, October 19, 2009

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

I wrote this reflection for my Modern Novel class in university. The book was highly engrossing, thought provoking, and — perhaps — profound.

The story is about Oskar, a precocious child who lost his father in the Twin Towers. The message, however, is about unity, healing, and the possibility of a wholeness that transcends hate.


Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is a beautiful book. It is a book to be experienced, rather than just read. Blank space, color, photos, and small black words all combine to create a holistic picture that is greater than the sum of its parts. A metaphor for life. It is a book about pain, and loss, and the distance between people. But it is also a book about hope, and the journey back to wholeness. Back together.

By combining the story of 9-11 with Hiroshima and Dresden, Foer takes an American event and makes it universal. Rather than allowing his story to become a political or national commentary, he writes about the human experience. And by so doing, he demonstrates the power of art to bring healing. I would argue that Foer, by writing this book, allows us to see the events of September 11th with a new clarity. Perhaps not the clarity George Bush would have us posses. Not "us" versus "them". Not division. Not enmity. But unity. Pain and loss and death. The great levelers. The horrible monster under the bed that leaves us all equal. All human. All broken.

And in this way, I think that Foer’s book is truly profound. He has written about something horrible and real. A turning point in American history. A tragedy. A landmark. A rallying cry. But he has done so in a way that brings cosmos out of chaos (as Madeleine L’Engle might put it). A way that helps us be more human. Helps us feel more. Helps us see more. Replaces destruction with creativity. Focuses on love, rather than hate.

I love that Oskar’s journey passes through so many people’s lives. As he struggles to stay connected to his father, to feel and not feel, to make some sense out of anything at all, he touches and touches and touches. All the Blacks with all of their individual pains and joys. His grandmother. His grandfather. His doorman. The cab driver. The limo driver. His mother. The child, with all of his quirky habits, brilliance, and pain, is so very much alive. And without knowing he is doing it—without really trying to do it—he brings that life to others.

And this is why Foer’s narrator must be a child. For the overabundance of life. Of feeling. For the honesty of pain. Oskar’s “heavy boots.” Foer contrasts this perspective, and the new pain, with Oskar’s grandparents, and their old pain. Oskar believes the world can somehow be alright again if he can just find a lock that matches a key. Or dig up an empty grave. For his grandparents, life is more complex. They live in a world where nothing will every be alright again. Where words have run out. Or the space in which to write them. And without the words, how can gaps be bridged? And yet, they too journey with Oskar towards hope. Towards healing. Towards each other.