[Preface to an Old Essay: Before there was an American Digest, there was another American Digest. It was begun as a response to 9/11 and was hosted on the servers of Penthouse.com which was, of course, a subset of Penthouse Magazine. In that time and in that place I was the VP in charge of Penthouse.com for Bob Guccione, the man that owned the company then. Both that man and that company are now gone from the face of the earth as is the first iteration of American Digest/New York City/2002. Except, of course, for some pages snagged and held at The Way Back Machine.
One of my readers reminded me of these scattered back pages the other day and looking through them I found a couple of items that still had some relevance to them from a time and a city under siege. This is one of them. The title, “”Will the Sleepers Awake,” is taken not from the famous Bach cantata (although that works well with the piece) but from a much more obscure book by the now forgotten poet Kenneth Patchen called Sleepers Awake on the Precipice. At that time, 2002, and in that place, New York City, it seemed to be an adequate title for a country roughly awakened and -- even then / even so soon -- slipping back into the arms of Morpheus, god of dreams.... back into the dark arms in which we slumber today.]
Just before dawn in Brooklyn Heights a dream woke me.
It was one of those troubled dreams where emblems and visions and snippets of your past and present lives cascade in an obscure but oddly familiar setting; a setting I’ve seen before in dreams; a setting I call “The Eternal City.” In those years I kept a notepad by the bed and, upon waking, I dutifully scribbled dream notes for discussion later in the week with my therapist. In those years I’d take notes for my therapist both out of fear of forgetting, and out of fear that I would again find myself “in session” with nothing substantive to talk about that seemed worthy of discussion.
Millions of Americans know, have known, or will know this petty little fear; you've paid for the hour, the hour is "all about you," and yet this stuff, your 'stuff ', seems only shameful and small and not really worth discussing at all. It’s, frankly, boring.
Millions also know the response to this complaint from the therapist. 'It is your therapy and it is supposed to be all about you, and it's in these petty and small details that you find out the larger truths that will, it is hoped, will lead you into some future where, when all is understood, all is forgiven.'
In therapy, confessions, or even "sessions of sweet, silent thought," the secular seek this odd forgiveness for what we have become in ever increasing numbers. We seek it because we live in a culture that has given us nothing larger than ourselves and, even though we might yearn for things larger than ourselves, there seems to be nothing but ourselves at hand. So we work with this small lump of clay that will never be the stone of Mt. Rushmore.
Abandoning God to his heaven in the sphere outside the universe, we seek recognition and forgiveness from the therapist, even though he insists it is ourselves that will forgive us. Rediscovering God we seek recognition and forgiveness, even though our priests cannot be trusted and will tell us to "Go and sin no more.”
Now, it seems, we seek forgiveness from our dreams.
But we wake up from dreams and the world awaits us, much the same as it was the day before, and the work of the world is also there to be done, whatever our roles in that work may be, most of which are, if we were frank, absurd.
And the world is not all about ourselves but pressingly, inevitably and enduringly about all the others with whom we share the world, its sordid and strange past, it's perplexing present and its unknowable future.
In our immediate orbit of work and family it is, in a sense, "our world" and is what we make it day by day. But our world is a small splinter of the larger world of every expanding and overlapping circles where greater issues and duties than our small needs, fears and hopes hold sway. And, at times, these larger circles of events and moments impinge on our small and pleasant worlds and draw our attention to them.
In these last eight months [since 9/11], I've been reading an inordinate number of books and articles on war and on history and on what the immediate future might bring. Like millions of other Americans, the 11th of September drew my attention in an immediate and violent manner. I've become, I think, both more thoughtful about the present state of the world, as well as angry about America's somnambulant and unprepared condition. Living where I do I've also become very sensitive to the sound of airplanes overhead. (A single engine plane is heading west to east at this moment, the sound fading to silence instead of an explosion so I assume that it is safe and being safely handled and tracked.) Indeed, it is usually not dreams but the jets overhead on track to an from LaGuardia or Kennedy that wake me in the morning.
Smiling foolish experts sitting knee to knee with the nation's foolish morning television mavens tell us that lots of New Yorkers have trouble sleeping these last months because we have "unresolved issues and anxieties." I demur when I hear nonsense like that. I like to think New Yorkers simply know first hand how quickly our enemies can effectively destroy your city, and that other Americans have yet to learn this lesson up close and personal. A lesson that I hope they will never learn, but one that I am resigned to seeing taught again in the near future, since many in my country seem not to have learned it yet, even those who breathed in the ashes of all those who died in the Towers.
In America in 2002 it still seems to me that we have an inordinate fondness for sleep, dreams and forgetting.
All of which is to say that, strangely, after waking and scribbling down the notes about the dream before they escaped me, my first thoughts went to a passage in a book I've been reading, "Culture and Carnage: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power" by Victor Davis Hanson. This is a book in which one deadly encounter between nations or other powers is detailed from the battle of Salamis in 480 BC to the Tet offensive in Vietnam. Two days ago I read Hanson's report on the fate of American torpedo bombers against the Japanese fleet at the battle of Midway. His report makes it clear that these bombers and the American crews were, because of the obsolescence of the machines and the commitment of the crews, doomed to destruction from the outset, but that their selfless courage in pressing forward made the victory of Midway, and the turning of the tide in the Pacific during the opening year of America's Second World War, possible. It's a vivid account of sacrifice for the sake of a greater good and a larger victory. But what came to my mind on waking today was not the details of the battle but of what Hanson writes as a kind of epitaph to the men of the torpedo bombers who sacrificed themselves:
"To the modern American at the millennium, these carrier pilots of more than a half century ago -- Massey, Waldron, and Lindsey last seen fighting to free themselves in a sea of flames as their planes were blasted apart by Zeros -- now appear as superhuman exemplars of what constituted heroism in the bleak months after the beginning of World War II. Even their names seem almost caricatures of an earlier stalwart American manhood -- Max Leslie, Lem Massey, Wade McClusky, Jack Waldron -- doomed fighters who were not all young eighteen-year-old conscripts, but often married and with children, enthusiastic rather than merely willing to fly their decrepit planes into a fiery end above the Japanese fleet, in a few seconds to orphan their families if need be to defend all that they held dear. One wonders if an America of suburban, video-playing Nicoles, Ashleys and Jasons shall ever see their like again."
A light rain is still falling on this street in Brooklyn Heights in the spring of 2002, and I would like to think that the kind of men described in that paragraph can still be called up our of this nation in the kind of numbers necessary to our tasks ahead. We've seen their like on horseback lately in Afghanistan, but these are our 'Special Forces,' and hence limited in number. I'd like to think that we have been woken from the long sleep of comfort, money, and ever-expanding special pleadings that have splintered us with the promise of bringing us together. But I know the temptation is always to roll over, hit the snooze bar, and try to grab a few more years of rest even as the enemies of our world patiently plan to assault us again and again, convinced of the weakness of our Nicoles, Ashleys, and Jasons, and the culture which created them.
Our mortal enemies possess, as they have shown, great patience. More patience than we have shown and far more commitment than we have shown to attaining their dark goals; our deaths. They are the Believers while we are still the Dreamers, waking only briefly to write down a few notes for discussion later in the week, during the hour when all that is in the world is really only about ourselves.
Posted by gerardvanderleun at June 27, 2014 10:34 PM