June 27, 2014

Will the Sleepers Awake? (May, 2002)

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[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.

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Posted by gerardvanderleun at June 27, 2014 10:34 PM
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

Whoa, Bob Guccione! Time was, I could do a passable impression of him, that would get laughs at parties. I Could neither read nor write in those days after 9/11. Lost interest in music as well. I did drink though, voluminously. Stopped visiting "The Last Exit" when they put the jersey barriers down the middle of Atlantic Ave. and occupied stools in the Slope...my, how I've changed in the years since...

Posted by: Will at June 27, 2014 2:09 PM

Will The Sleepers Awake? The sleepers are in a bubble that is about to burst. They are so much in a false reality of security that I doubt anything will awaken them.

I have do doubt the Islamic monsters are in the late stages of planning the detonation of a very serious "device" in a major population center soon. They know the US would not know where to strike back. The slime at the top here is beyond incompetent. As far as they are concerned WE are the enemy.

Posted by: Terry at June 27, 2014 2:10 PM

Bach - Cantata 140: Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, BWV 140
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3sj-NKqR0tw

Posted by: Fat Man at June 27, 2014 3:03 PM

Straight from 1968. The lyrics are recited.

Soft Machine-Why Are We Sleeping? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jwc_gosvQ_A

It begins with a blessing, it ends with a curse
Making life easy by making it worse
"My mask is my master," the trumpeter weeps
But his voice is so weak as he speaks from his sleep
Saying: "Why, why, why... Why are we sleeping?"

People are watching, people who stare
Waiting for something that's already there
"Tomorrow I'll find it," the trumpeter screams
And remembers he's hungry, and drowns in his dreams
Saying: "Why, why, why... Why are we sleeping?"

My head is a nightclub with glasses and wine
The customers dancing or just making time
While Daevid is cursing, the customers scream
Now everyone's shouting, "Get out of my dream!"
Saying: "Why, why, why... Why are we sleeping?"

Posted by: Fat Man at June 27, 2014 3:26 PM

We have such men. Unfortunately, they're not in our government, our media, academia, the unions, or civil service. Most are in the military, but that too is being turned into a social experiment and will eventually drive those men away.

Have you ever been involved in a big disaster? Like a big fire, the collapse of a building, a flood, a forest fire? Leaders and heroes will emerge in such circumstances. The margin of safety and comfort in this country is such that the sheeple are still grazing peacefully as the wolves gather in numbers. They are reassured of their safety by a slick politician who claims, "Iran is a tiny country. They're no threat to us." "Russia is a poor country, our economy is much bigger than theirs. They're no threat to us." "Those who would enable 'man caused disasters' are a nuisance, but they're no threat to us." "The Iraqis must sit down and talk out their differences. When they do, ISIS will collapse." And so on.

Maybe we conservatives are like the mountain men of old. They watched for signs. Keeping their scalps depended on reading the signs right. A broken twig, an alarmed bird, a rustling branch - maybe no threat, but best to keep the rifle close and sleep with one eye open. Only we're seeing more than subtle signs. We've got arrows and tomahawks in the air. The Indians (Islamists) have declared war. And we're still at the mall.

I would rather we were at war and full out at war.

Posted by: Jimmy J. at June 27, 2014 3:36 PM

Reminds me of a passage from Arthur Koestler's neglected 1950 novel, The Age of Longing. The action of the book takes place in France, where a massive Soviet invasion is clearly impending--but denial of this obvious reality abounds, especially among the intellectuals. Jules Commanche, a Resistance hero and a senior French security officer, explains this phenomenon to a young American woman:


"No, Mademoiselle, don't be misled by appearances. France and what else is left of Europe may look like a huge dormitory to you, but I assure you nobody in it is really asleep. Have you ever spent a night in a mental ward? During the Occupation, a doctor who belonged to our group got me into one when the police were after me. It was a ward of more or less hopeless cases, most of whom were marked down for drastic neurosurgical operations. When the male nurse made his round, I thought everybody was asleep. Later I found out that they were only pretending, and that everybody was busy, behind closed eyes, trying to cope after his own fashion with what was coming to him. Some were pursuing their delusions with a happy smile, like our famous Pontieux (a philosopher modelled on Sartre--ed). Others were working on their pathetic plans of escape, naively hoping that with a little dissimulation, or bribery, or self-abasement, they could get around the tough male nurses, the locked doors, the operating table. Others were busy explaining to themselves that it wouldn't hurt, and that to have holes drilled into one's skull and parts of one's brain taken out was the nicest thing that could happen to one. And still, others, the quiet schizos who were the majority, almost succeede in making themselves believe that nothing would happen, that it was all a matter of exaggerated rumours, and that tomorrow would be like yesterday. These looked as if they were really asleep. Only an occasional nervous twitch of their lips or eyes betrayed the strain of disbelieving what they knew to be inevitable...No, Mademoiselle nobody was really asleep."

Posted by: david foster at June 27, 2014 4:38 PM

Wade McClusky was certainly no sleeper. A career naval aviator, he survived the war, made Rear Admiral, and lived until 1976, unlike the others mentioned in the box, who did perish at Midway. In fact, it was his decision to follow a Japanese destroyer heading back to rejoin the IJN carrier force that resulted in the successful US dive bomber attacks on the Japanese carriers.

Posted by: waltj at June 28, 2014 12:05 PM

Gerard, I do value your company. I hope you have thirty sentient years left. I hope we all do. Thanks for all your deep mental ruminations.

Posted by: Casca at June 29, 2014 8:13 PM