books
Type
Essay
Category
Activism
Reading

The five books of my apocalypse

Given the assignment of choosing a handful of books that to me represent, or inform, or speak to, or embody, or maybe manifest the spirit of the Occupy movement (that should probably be capitalised: the Spirit Of the Occupy Movement – SOOM), I went democratic: I asked around. With clarifications, of course: no Zinn, no Chomsky, no Klein; not Fanon, not Marx, not Kropotkin. The task as given was to make a list of novels, but I requested and received special dispensation to include anything outside of theory and discipline. Stories, more or less, if we can think of stories as freely as SOOM imagined a better world growing from the dirty granite of Zuccotti.

But first, the result of my polling: Orwell’s 1984; Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale; Suzanne Collins’ bestselling ‘young adult’ trilogy The Hunger Games, which might be thought of as a post-apocalyptic Gladiator for tweens; Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age, about a future defined by omnipresent nanotechnology; Cormac McCarthy’s The Road; Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. The SOOM, in the minds of my respondents, was born of a grim vision, through a glass darkly, etc. – either from a sense of warning or a sense that the dark ages are already upon us. And there surely are intimations of such. I think of the mobile surveillance tower over Zuccotti, the apparent preference among senior New York police officers for violence against young women; the New York Police Department’s 15 November destruction of thousands of books at the Occupy Wall Street library and its subsequent determination to keep books out of the park.

But that’s not the apocalypse. Not even close. Things could get much worse before they even approached as bad as they’ve been, even in New York City. What’s remarkable to me about the Occupy movement is not the ugly response it provoked, but the awkward, hiccupping, misshapen loveliness of its vision. My selections of books for the SOOM are also apocalyptic, but they proceed from a recognition, at some level, that the apocalypse is always now, that things are always falling apart, that the centre which cannot hold isn’t a kind of doom but a clearing, a momentary opening – a park in lower Manhattan that for a few months came as close to utopia as I’ve witnessed in many years of wandering among and writing about utopian dreamers of the Left and the Right. Which is to say, not very close, but still.

I realised this the first night I slept there, when I borrowed from the Occupy Wall Street library a copy of Cynthia Ozick’s collection of stories, The Pagan Rabbi, to read by streetlight beneath the honey locust trees. The epiphany wasn’t mine but that of the narrator, deciphering a suicide note left behind by the pagan rabbi: ‘It was a crisis of insight one experiences when one has just read out, for the first time, that conglomeration of figurines which makes a word. In that moment I penetrated beyond [the rabbi]’s alphabet into his language. I saw that he was on the side of possibility: he was both sane and inspired. His intention was not to accumulate mystery but to dispel it.’

Yes, to dispel it: to make a clearing in the murk of our neoliberal days in which we can gather, attempt democracy and achieve desire. Maybe.

But Ozick doesn’t make my list: she’s too keen on tearing down her own imaginary cities. Instead, I start with Tony Kushner’s two-part play, Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. As with Ozick, I’ll skip plot and introduce you to the text or, if you know it, to my occupied reading of it, through character and voice – much like Occupy’s general assemblies and even more like the cacophonous hum of Zuccotti and the city around it during the high days of Occupy, when the question of democracy was just that – a question. Here’s Harper, the spurned Mormon wife, on the cusp of what Kushner calls a ‘mutual dream scene’: ‘People who are lonely, people left alone, sit talking nonsense to the air, imagining … beautiful systems dying, old orders spiralling apart.’ And Prior Walter, dying of AIDS, soon to be burdened with prophecy: ‘I find myself drawn to anything that’s suspended, that lacks an ending.’ Kushner himself, in a note to actors and directors preceding Part II, Perestroika: ‘Every moment must be played for its reality, the terms always life and death; only then will the comedy emerge.’ And Rabbi Isidor Chemelwitz, playing cards in heaven, ‘because, mister, with the Angels, may their names be always worshipped and adored, it’s all gloom and doom and give up already. But still is there Accident, in this pack of playing cards, still is there Unknown, the Future. You understand me? It ain’t all so mechanical as they think.’

My second selection is an ancestor of Angels, Walt Whitman’s Specimen Days. I much prefer this collection of ragged journals to Whitman’s poetry, though I’m not enough of a Whitman scholar to know if he’d draw a distinction. The pieces I care most about are the entries from the US Civil War, beginning in 1862 and proceeding through 1865: ‘I have dozens of such little notebooks,’ writes Whitman in a footnote, ‘forming a special history of those years, for myself alone, full of associations never to be possibly said or sung.’ One of the things I love best about Whitman is that he was such a liar: as far as I can tell, he never wrote for himself alone, and he never quit the notion that ‘associations’ could, in fact, be said and sung, if only imperfectly. He was a free association man, in every sense. It’s in this text that I find the roots of the genre in which I write, literary journalism, a hybrid as unlikely as the crisis of civil war in a democracy seemed to Whitman – a genre both pious and democratic, indebted to ancestors and as immediate as the notebooks that became Specimen Days, ‘each composed of a sheet or two of paper, folded small to carry in the pocket, and fastened with a pin,’ and ‘blotch’d here and there with more than one blood-stain.’

Likewise, I think, is the nature of political imagination, haunted as Kushner’s and Whitman’s Americas are by the angels of history and yet capable of dreaming a present when supplied with fact and experience. The facts, for Whitman, of wounded soldiers in 1863; the facts, for every honest writer or reader now, of a free library under the trees in 2011 that was so threatening to Things as They Are, that such Things (I mean Mayor Bloomberg) needed a small army, with air power, to hide its destruction from journalists, both ‘professional’ and Whitmanised by Occupy.

Number three. I said no theory, but I’ll break my own rule for Cornel West’s first book, 1982’s Prophesy Deliverance!: An Afro-American Revolutionary Christianity, which I read as not theology or philosophy but, like the novel West wanted to write and never completed, a tragicomedy. West told me that when he published it, he thought, like many first-time authors, that nothing would ever be the same. He remembers standing in the street, looking at his book on display in a store window, thinking, ‘This is it.’ Not just for him and his career, but for the world, which could not possibly continue as it was. His book would join revolt against the final extremes of Reagan and Thatcher and Pinochet and Suharto, every revolutionary drawing from his or her traditions, his or her pieties, as West drew from his, all of them mingling into ‘existential democratic practices,’ ‘fugitives in history’. For instance: I’m not a Christian, but I’m in love with two of the ‘fundamental elements’ of the Christian gospel as West preached them in the church talks that gave rise to this book: the dignity and depravity of persons. At first blush, neither term seems to have a place within an appropriately raucous democracy, but consider West’s definitions: ‘The dignity of persons is their ability to contradict what is, to change and be changed, and to act in the light of that which is not-yet. The depravity of persons is their proclivity to cling to the moment.’

I’ve not yet encountered a more concise description of my experience of the SOOM. That West, standing on the street looking at his own book cover in 1982 was wrong about what was to come – the world could continue as it was – makes it no less true now. As the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg tells Roy Cohn, her red-hunting murderer, in Kushner’s Angels, ‘History is about to crack wide open.’ Always.

Which reminds me (number four) of the poet Catullus, writing in Rome, First Century BC. Or, really, it reminds me of Catullus as I encounter him, translated in 1974 by the American poet Carl Sesar. As it happened, history actually was about to crack wide open when Catullus wrote, but he didn’t much care. Sesar’s Catullus is vulgar and funny, at turns ridiculously mean (but rarely cruel) and foolishly dear, a sex poet, a satirical wit overwhelmed by the earnestness of desire. True desire is always earnest, absurdly so, a paradox with the emotional power of cold fusion. It shouldn’t be possible, but it is, a fact capitalism’s commodification of desire obscures behind screens of style and false irony. Usually the term ‘commodification’ is used disdainfully, with an implicit contempt for those fooled by such a process. I don’t mean it as such. The commodification of desire, or, to put it in less economic terms, the allure of the shallows, is a genuine seduction. Catullus knew about that. I’ll quote only two lines: ‘Calling all syllables! Calling all syllables! / Let’s go! I need all the help I can get!’

Last, I chose Beginning to See the Light, a 1981 collection of writing about rock’n’roll and feminism by the late critic Ellen Willis. Coming to the end of my list, I notice that three of my selections are connected to the 1980s. No accident, I think. I grew up in the 80s, during the neoliberal ice age that began with Reagan, melted for a flickering moment during the global resistance to the first Gulf War, and then froze solid until. That’s where that sentence ends: Until. The Occupy movement warms my cockles but I don’t think it yet amounts to a thaw. Not yet. ‘Rebellion,’ Willis reminds us, ‘is not the same as revolution. It’s not only that capitalists are experts at palming off fake rope – as the development of the rock establishment attests – but that revolt does not necessarily imply radicalism, as a long line of rock-and-rollers, from the apolitical Little Richard to the antipolitical Ramones, attests … Subversion begins to be radical only when we ask what we really want or think we should have, who or what is obstructing us, and what to do about it.’

The reason I love Willis’ Beginning to See the Light, which is part bittersweet eulogy for the liberationist strands of both feminism and rock’n’roll and part resistance to the cultural amnesia that obscures them, is that the foundation of her formula for subversion is a kind of paradox: ‘What we really want.’ Collective selfishness. Desire experienced not individually, not for another, but with others. SOOM, my loves, SOOM.

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Jeff Sharlet's Australian publications include The Family and C Street. His most recent book is Sweet Heaven When I Die. He’s a co-creator of OccupyWriters.com and Mellon Assistant Professor of Creative Nonfiction at Dartmouth College in the US.

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