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Zunguzungu
By Aaron Bady
Anyone claiming to be an expert is selling something. I brandish my ignorance like a crucifix at vampires.
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None of You

nineveh-s

Doing the impossible in the Anthropocene: Henrietta Rose-Innes’ Nineveh.

Katya, an ethical pest removal specialist, has an impossible job. Rich people hire her to remove pests from their homes, as they once hired her father, Len, a more conventional (and less subtle) exterminator. But Katya has introduced a wrinkle into the family business: she extracts the range of “unloved and unlovely” creatures that hide and survive in the nooks and crannies—the “caterpillars, snakes, frogs, slugs, cockroaches, baboons, rats, mice, snails, pigeons, ticks, geckos, flies, fleas, cockroaches, bats, and spiders,” as she enumerates for a client—but she does it without actually killing them. She moves them and dumps them in parks or in the wilderness outside the city limits; she coaxes them out of wherever they are, and transports them to new hiding places, as gently and humanely as she can.

She is a liberal exterminator; we might even call her a specialist in pest gentrification.

On the surface, Henrietta Rose-Innes’ Nineveh is a realist novel, but an air of unreality enters the narrative with this exterminator who does not exterminate. The novel takes place in a recognizable Cape Town, South Africa, in the present, in a luxury housing complex—called Nineveh, infested with creatures she has been hired to remove—which is not quite fantastical or futuristic enough to make this a work of fantasy or science fiction. In the first scene, we see Katya demonstrate her craft, expertly and painlessly removing a swarm of caterpillars from a tree and transporting it elsewhere. But the prose seethes and shimmers with the uncanny and unsettled, a garden haunted by matter-out-of-place:

“It’s a strange sight, this writhing tree: a tree in mortification. Particularly here, where the perfect lawn slopes down to the grand white house below between clipped flowerbeds flecked with pink and blue. Off to the side, just in the corner of her vision, a gardener is trimming the edge of the lawn… It’s a lovely afternoon for a garden party. But at the center of this picture, an abomination: a single tree sleeved with a rind of invertebrate matter, with plump, spiked bodies the color of burnt sugar. It’s possible to imagine that the whole tree has been eaten away, replaced by a crude facsimile made of caterpillar flesh.”

And yet this sense of strangeness, this surreal image of a tree-shaped pillar of caterpillars, is met with hard-headed practical expertise: with skillful care, Katya encourages the insects on the tree to re-swarm, gently directing the swarm into a specially constructed box, and carrying them off (to be deposited in a nearby forest). There’s a trick to it, or a set of techniques that use the tendencies of the caterpillars against themselves: they follow a leader, so get the leader moving, and off they all go. Put them in a container for transport, close it up, carry them off, and there you are. Done. What is left behind is just a normal tree.

It’s utterly plausible. What do you do, then, with the creepy-crawling feeling left over? If bugs make you itch, then so will descriptions of Katya’s caterpillars (even if she removes them with clinical precision), and so does the reality she excavates. Bugs are everywhere. And even though it isn’t, this novel feels like science fiction; it itches like the dystopian, the speculative, and the post-apocalyptic, even as it’s realistically set in the present. But what is realistic about realism? Cut open a wall, and you’ll find it buzzing with insects; chop open the floor, and there are pests; do a survey of the air in your bedroom, and count the flies—or eat them in the night, without ever knowing it. Our stomachs are filled with bugs, as we know without knowing; nothing is more real than the pests we learn not to see, taste, smell, and know.

On one level, the novel is obviously allegorical, directly political. An ethical pest removal specialist is a perfect figure of liberal gentrification, the well-meaning city-planner who use capitalism to solve capitalism’s problems.As Engels once observed, bourgeois reformers never solve the problems created by capitalism, because they cannot address the root causes; since you can’t just kill the poor, the next best thing is to move “blighted” populations elsewhere, out of sight and out of mind. To “revitalize” a city center, therefore, is to make room for capital development by moving unwanted and unproductive (and uncapitalized) people elsewhere. Gentrification is ethical pest removal. (Indeed, the parallel is made very precisely when Katya returns home to her next-door park being bulldozed for development: the clan of homeless people living in the park have moved into the alley next to her house.)

If the allegory is clear, however, the novel muddies it by placing symbolism and reality side-by-side: if an ethical pest removal specialist is a figure for gentrification, then what is she doing working for actual gentrifiers? What is fantasy doing in the realist novel? What is realism doing in fantasy?

Katya’s job is impossible: that she does it, anyway, is the problem the novel sets itself to work out. It’s messy, and this is the point. If we dig a little deeper, we find that “realism” is composed of erasure and removal. There are always bugs in the picture, especially when they’re not pictured; without insects and parasites and critters and creepy crawlies, the rest of the world dies. That which is out of sight and mind is never out of reach. And so, the real and unreal live side by side, symbol and object, fantasy and real. What is one without the other? Matter is always in place; wherever it is, that’s where it is. And no one understands dirt like the people who clean it up.

 

 

 

Thanksgiving is Bullshit

bounty-social

But you already knew that.

Thanksgiving might be the most intuitive holiday, the least strange, the least alienating. A non-ecumenical holiday, all are welcome; though it isn’t not religious, there is no religious content to disagree with, or be excluded by; if Thanksgiving were to intersect with another holiday—say, a Jewish Holiday like Hanukkah—it will consume it, gladly, absorbing potato pancakes into its bloodstream as easily as it absorbs everything else. There is really not any ritual content at all to Thanksgiving, in fact, which is precisely what makes it so unstoppable: you eat turkey (or don’t), but not for any particular reason. You can watch the football if you want, but not doing so wouldn’t even signify as a lack; there are parades, but there don’t have to be. There’s a story about the first Thanksgiving, which most people ignore. Basically, it’s just families and friends getting together and eating a meal, which is about the most transparent, empty un-ritualistic ritual there could be.

Thanksgiving is therefore the most ideological holiday. There is no “war on Thanksgiving,” not really, but not because the holiday has no ideological content—to be asserted, attacked, and defended—but rather  because the ideology is buried so deeply, so firmly, as not to signify as such. It is so established, so settled, so natural, that it doesn’t need to speak itself; you can totally ignore it, and it lives on, undisturbed. Who could object to a family getting together to break bread? Who could possibly find fault with a ritual of togetherness sealed by food, or by the humble expression of gratitude for all that we might thank the universe for providing? I mean, yeah, that pilgrim stuff. But that’s not what it means to me, etc. Anyone can eat food and enjoy it; that’s the point of it.

Also, obviously, the holiday is a racist and nationalist celebration of American manifest destiny, an expression of gratitude for God’s gift of “America” to the (white) people who arrived and took it by force from the (non-white) people who were living there. There are always debunkers, who point out that the original Thanksgiving never really took place—and they’re partly right, in that the “first thanksgiving” narrative is total bullshit—but the truly damning thing about the holiday is that it actually does go all the way back to John Winthrop’s corn-stealing and grave-robbing shenanigans in 1624 (albeit by way of a protracted editorial campaign by Sarah Josepha Hale, of Godey’s Lady’s Book and Abraham Lincoln’s canny deployment of this nationalist myth in the middle of the civil war). It was in the 19th century that the ritual practice took shape, and the holiday was created, but the events which it sanctifies not only symbolically happened, but they kind of actually really happened. The darker and more grisly version of the story—as David Murray tells it in Indian Giving: Economies of Power in Indian-white Exchanges—is of starving and traumatized Englishmen wandering through a unsettled and uncanny ghostly landscape, digging up graves for food: some of the objects they grave-robbed, they put back—realizing that it would be an abomination to keep them—and others they ate, though they pledged they would make some kind of recompense to the Indians if they could ever find any living ones. They didn’t, of course. In the end, they decided that that it wasn’t to the Indians that they owed their salvation: it was to God they gave their thanks for the Indian death they had found.

But this history doesn’t really matter. I mean, obviously, the beginning of white settlement was the beginning of the end of native sovereignty. And just as obviously, when we celebrate the success of the “pilgrims” at eating native foods—turkey, yams, corn, etc—we are celebrating the beginning of a genocidal holocaust, our ability to “eat” this land, which meant that they were to be deprived of it. But the power of it is both that we make ourselves as a “we” by positioning ourselves within that story, and also that we don’t even have to. It’s already done. We even make jokes about it, a genocide which is a constant and painless source of amusement in the many comics and cartoons which observe that maybe Thanksgiving didn’t work out real well for the Indians (HAHA).

The genius of Thanksgiving is that it’s not only a specifically American holiday, and not only a ritual making of American-ness, but even we cynics who see through the bullshit, are no less American for doing so. For this reason, Sarah Josepha Hale’s editorials make interesting reading (albeit repetitive), because she is quite clear on her intention to make it a second Independence Day. While the Fourth of July commemorates American independence from Great Britain—on the field of battle and print culture, with the publication of the Declaration of Independence—her vision of a national Thanksgiving is an interestingly feminine counterpart to these masculine expressions of national patriotism, a national unity produced and consecrated through hearth and home, domestic plenty and consumption, and the bonds of love. In a turn of expression that will gladden the hearts of people who have read Imagined Communities, it is particularly important to her that every state (and Americans overseas) celebrate the holiday simultaneously, and know that they are, such that “From the St. Johns to the Rio Grande, from the Atlantic to the Pacific border, the telegraph of human happiness would move every heart to gladness simultaneously, and to render thanks to God for the blessings showered on our beloved country.” The medium is the message; the form is the content.

If the Fourth of July celebrates the moment in which “we” Americans stopped being British—the patricidal violence by which the United States broke away—Hale and Lincoln created a second ritual commemoration of American-making, the union of many different domestic states into a single Federal nation, all eating together in imagined simultaneity: “though the members of the same family might be too far separated to meet around one festive board, they would have the gratification of knowing that all were enjoying the feast.” In this sense, if the Eagle is the national symbol for a masculine Fourth of July, enshrining the Turkey in a feminized Thanksgiving would make it a different kind of national bird, but no less important: if the Eagle is the violence by which we stopped being British, the Turkey is the love by which “we” become a singular “we,” the love of a bird that we kill and eat, who makes the “ultimate sacrifice.”

The violence of it, then, is that it isn’t violent, in part because the victim gives its death willingly. But we also just don’t know, or care. As a celebration of the first hearth, the first ritual communion of togetherness—the first moment in which “we” were a “we” together—it establishes “white settlement” as the moment when we became a we, the first moment of Americans, and not only erases the previous “Americans”—and the fact that the word “American” meant “those savage red people” until it stopped meaning that, and started meaning the “we” which meant “not them”—but it lays claim to an origin story that, because it is the original, the first, wipes the slate clean of everything else that came before. If Plymouth Rock is the beginning, then the thing which was begun requires the absence of anything that preceded it, which is not only forgotten, but as it is eliminated, disappears even as the thing requiring the work of erasing.

I’m not telling you anything you don’t know. In the same way that the fiction of “Santa Claus” is actually a fiction to adults—which is to say, we need the children to think it’s real so that we can know that it’s not, thereby establishing the difference between adults and children—the fiction of “the first Thanksgiving” is not even surface-deep. Of course it’s bullshit. That some people believe it, or pretend to—children, grandparents, the television, right-wing culture warriors—is necessary to the establishment of the story as bullshit, as a story whose truth is literally irrelevant. But no one cares, and even they only pretend to. This is, in fact, Harry Frankfurt’s definition of bullshit, which he gives in his scholarly monograph, On Bullshit; the essence of bullshit, he writes, is “lack of connection to a concern with truth…indifference to how things really are.” In fact, when Frankfurt goes on at some length about the bullshit/humbug that is the Fourth of July, he could be talking about Thanksgiving:

Consider a Fourth of July orator, who goes on bombastically about “our great and blessed country, whose Founding-Fathers under divine guidance created a new beginning for mankind.” This is surely humbug…the orator is not lying. He would be lying only if it were his intention to bring about in his audience beliefs which he himself regards as false, concerning such matters as whether our country is great, whether it is blessed, whether the Founders had divine guidance, and whether what they did was in fact to create a new beginning for mankind. But the orator does not really care what his audience thinks about the Founding Fathers, or about the role of the deity in our country’s history, or the like. At least, it is not an interest in what anyone thinks about these matters that motivates his speech. It is clear that what makes Fourth of July oration humbug is not fundamentally that the speaker regards his statements as false. Rather…the orator intends these statements to convey a certain impression of himself. He is not trying to deceive anyone concerning American history. What he cares about is what people think of him. He wants them to think of him as a patriot, as someone who has deep thoughts and feelings about the origins and the mission of our country, who appreciates the importance of religion, who is sensitive to the greatness of our history, whose pride in that history is combined with humility before God, and so on…it is short of lying and [yet] those who perpetrate it misrepresent themselves in a certain way.

Ideology is another word for bullshit. It’s wrong, or not wrong, but who cares? It literally does not matter what you say, because it’s what you do, the structure of your actions, that retroactively determines the structures of what it is you need to believe. And because it’s true for you—and because you are true as you through it—it doesn’t matter what “really” happened, and who is to say anyway? And no one is really asking, anyway, because the answers don’t matter. We who aren’t descendants of the original people who died so we could live as Americans, we eat the fruits of that conquest every day and it makes us who we are. It doesn’t matter if we want to, or choose to, or like it, or don’t. We still live in houses built on graves, and we rob them again every day. It’s bullshit to pretend we don’t, whether by forgetting it happened, or by remembering; bullshit doesn’t stink any less when we call it “untrue.”

Undivided Essay

greater

Forget the story. What animates Bae Suah’s A Greater Music is the question of whether there are greater (and lesser) forms of art. Or perhaps “question” is the wrong word; perhaps “compulsion.” Perhaps “need,” or “hope,” or “memory.” Perhaps love. Perhaps grief. Perhaps what animates this little novel is the question of the capital letter in Art and how Love might mean more than a word, beyond sentiments; how a greater music might index the presence of a soul beyond death, an art beyond life, or a Love that can survive the ending of a love affair. It’s a novel about the persistence of something in the meaningless void, the faith that there might be something, and also the loneliness of living in the uncertainty. Or maybe it’s just a tone poem set to language, a dream of the lovely, dark, and deep edges of twilight in Berlin in the winter snow, and a love letter to a lost love.

As I try to write my way around what makes this novel feel like that, the words I’m writing turn into clichés, into the kinds of abstractions that make it feel sophomoric to dwell on the absolute. After all, art, love, death… are there words more thoroughly standardized and deadened by overuse? There are passages in A Greater Music that, if they are forced to stand on their own, might read like a freshman philosophy seminar, as when the novel begins with a radio announcer using the phrase, “A Greater Music,” words that provoke the narrator to reverie. “We never say ‘greater death,’” she remarks,

“death being an absolute value that does not admit comparison. Like one’s hand, that can be flipped to show either the back or the palm, it’s something that can exist as only one of two possibilities. Music is absolute, just like death. Just as ‘greater death’ or ‘lesser death’ is a logical impossibility, so the same can be said of music which is of the same order as the soul.”

Life, death, art… here, reduced to a grammatical problem, a question of definition. But it’s only when stripped of their context, in this attempt at a review of the novel, that these sentences get frozen into concepts, fossils of dead thought. By contrast, the novel itself flows: nothing is abstract because it un-freezes like water, a stream of consciousness in the most literal sense. Or rain. When she is moved by a piece of music—when Shostakovich’s “at the Santé prison” affects her, in ways she cannot immediately express—she leaves, abruptly, and begins walking into the night.

“The night was deep,” she writes, “the lamps stood unlit, and the paved road was uneven; the tram stop was some way off”:

“Beneath the raindrops, still more raindrops were falling, not at a constant speed, but continuously. Beside them other raindrops were falling, also at unappointed intervals, and beside them still more raindrops, and beside them still more . . . thus was the world beneath the massed clouds captured and occupied. It was the empire of a mathematics which, for all its exquisite detail, was freed from the strictures of an orderly rhythm, and played extempore.”

There is a story, of sorts. The protagonist is a Korean writer in Germany for eleven months—and also a return, years later—and her resemblance to Bae Suah is not a coincidence. A few things happen. She falls into a frozen river, for example; she begins and ends a love affair; she takes a drive in the rain; she takes German lessons; she goes to a terrible New Year’s Eve party. She walks a dog named Benny. And all of these things may or may not have happened to Bae Suah when she lived in Germany for eleven months, or when she returned. But the book is built more like a piece of classical music than a narrative. If there’s an architecture of themes and concerns, and a formal logic to how it develops—and as with life, there might or might not be—there’s nothing like a story that ties it all together, nothing at all like cause and effect. This is the problem: as with life—indeed, exactly as with life—the novel seems freed from the strictures of an orderly rhythm, and plays extempore. But it sings.