Monthly archives of “June 2018

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The Missing of the Somme, Geoff Dyer (1994)

Dyer’s book is about trench warfare, World War I, artistic responses to war (especially in literature), the conventions of war memorial sculptures, his personal journeys around WWI battlefields and cemeteries in France, and other things, but his main concern is the nature of cultural memory. How do societies construct and revise the past? “The issue, in short, is not simply the way the war generates memory but the way memory has determined — and continues to determine — the meaning of the war.”

While this is a book very much focused on WWI, a period which of course had massive (and, he shows, lasting) import for Dyer’s native Britain, many of the book’s insights about history and memory are easily transferrable to other events. He writes persuasively, for example, about the ways in which the realities of historical events and their representations in language interact and determine each other, and his observations seem to me applicable to any such events, from the fall of Rome to 9/11.

One thing that feels kind of weird  here is the personal parts, which I think maybe — speaking of how our perception of the past changes over time —  may have seemed innovative and edgy in 1994 but now after 25 years of rapid evolution in the genre of CNF seems no longer very edgy and in this case kind of just annoying. When we get the accounts of Dyer driving around from monument to monument, village to village with his buddies, cracking jokes and eating sandwiches in their rental car, I think we’re meant to understand something about how memory is always cultural but also always personal? But the jokes are dumb and I could have done without them.

I don’t want to end on a sour note because this is a very sharp book and I enjoyed it. There are plenty of passages worth underlining. The one I’ll probably remember best: “Theodor Adorno said famously that there could be no poetry after Auschwitz. Instead, he failed to add, there would be photography.” Smart. Not entirely accurate, but smart.

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Dispatches from Pluto: Lost and Found in the Mississippi Delta, Richard Grant (2015)

Grant’s an itinerant English writer who got beguiled by the memory, amnesia, beauty, and ugliness of the Mississippi Delta region and wound up buying a house and spending enough time there to develop some relationships with people and a better-than-facile understanding of the place, its culture, history, and inhabitants. I would hope any undergrad fresh from Anthropology 101 could shoot this book full of holes easy as shotgunning a speed limit sign outside Itta Bena. Grant is white, educated, urbane, and for God’s sake British; we can easily question both his capacity to understand and his right to speak. To his credit, he cops to all that, not in a self-flagellating way but with amiable candor. Some will surely say he is too quick to grant himself permission and authority. I found myself trusting him. No, that’s not quite true; I don’t trust him, but he’s resolutely well-intentioned and a seductive storyteller, so I was willing to bracket my resistance for a spell and enjoy his anecdotes. It helps that he’s resolutely in the mode of first person memoir with occasional gestures toward cultural analysis. The claims are less “here’s how things are” than “given my experience, this is what I think might be so.” (Geoff Dyer’s The Missing of the Somme, which my next post will be about, inverts this pattern.)

I’ve spent some time in the Delta as a tourist, and every time I go I feel a little more confused about why I’m there. Like other tourists, I went the first time because it’s where American music was born. I also wanted to see the cotton fields I’d only imagined, and to put my hand on the rails that carried the Great Migration from Greenwood to Memphis to Cairo to Chicago. Given its history, the Delta is arguably the most American place there is. But sadly, being the most American place there is also means it is a place of enduring inequality, injustice, poverty, and utter resistance to change. The Delta loves to “celebrate heritage” with museums, memorials, cultural centers, ersatz juke joints, roadside markers, and the like. In recent decades, some of these gestures — the Emmett Till Center in Glendora, for example — have done much to bring attention to the evil which runs through that heritage like arteries through a body. But I think many visitors, myself and Richard Grant included, are too easily tempted to turn from the evil and focus on the charm, or what appears to be charm. A simple thought experiment: If Grant were everything he is — British, educated, urbane, gregarious, etc. — and also black, how would his reception in the Delta been different?