We believe what we can see: In the Garden of Beasts edition

From Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin, which is worth getting from the library (this section deals with 1933):

It was one thing to read newspaper stories about Hitler’s erratic behavior and his government’s brutality toward Jews, communists, and other opponents, for throughout America there was a widely held belief that such reports must be exaggerated, that surely no modern state could behave in such a manner. Here at the State Department, however, Dodd read dispatch after dispatch in which Messersmith [the Consul General] described Germany’s rapid descent from democratic republic to brutal dictatorship. Messersmith spared no detail—his tendency to write long had early on saddled him with the nickname ‘Forty-Page George.’ He wrote of the widespread violence that had occurred in the several months that immediately followed Hitler’s appointment and of the increasing control the government exerted over all aspects of German society.

People in the 1930s simply couldn’t believe that Germany would act as it did. This might be one reason why cell phones and cell phone cameras are so powerful: it’s very hard to deny video. If cell phone cameras had been widely available in 1930, could the Holocaust have unfolded as it did, in a major Western country? The answer, of course, will always be “maybe,” but I think the shock of seeing footage of Jews and others being beaten and murdered in the streets might have had a powerful effect around the world.

I wonder if we’re on the cusp of seeing cell phone cameras reduce the amount of police brutality in public places, since police will know they’re likely to be taped. Cops don’t like this (see here and here for more).

Although I obviously love reading, it’s relatively easy to deny a written description of an event. It’s much harder to deny a video that shows the people involved. That’s not to say video can’t be manipulated—it obviously can—but sometimes a short video can do what “Forty-Page George” can’t. It’s hard or impossible to “exaggerate” video, even if it can be maliciously edited. We should still read, as “Twilight of the Books” makes clear, but video still changes things (it changes what can happen in fiction, for example; people have been writing about blue movies or explicit pictures for a long time, but the plausibility of something like Anita Shreve’s Testimony depends on widespread access to inexpensive video equipment (see also Caitlin Flanagan’s somewhat misguided but interesting essay on the novel). That’s relatively recent, and we’re still dealing with what it means.)

EDIT: See also this discussion of police and cameras from Crooked Timber.

Nine and a Half Weeks: A Memoir of a Love Affair — Elizabeth Mcneill

Most novels (and memoirs) leave you with a sense of distance, a sense of being at a comfortable remove. Nine and a Half Weeks doesn’t: it’s too graphic, too immediate, too flat. One sees this effect in the first sentences, without any preamble as to who these people are and how they came to be: “The first time we were in bed together he held my hands pinned down above my head. I liked it. I liked him. He was moody in a way that struck me as romantic; he was funny, bright, interesting to talk to; and he gave me pleasure.” One senses quickening thoughts and pulses in those short sentences, and even in the long one, where semicolons could be periods, and the last descriptor—”he gave me pleasure”—is the really important one. You don’t get the very ironic tone of a book like Alain de Botton’s On Love, letting us see that love is irrational but really understandably so. Alain, the narrator of On Love is basically a needy, endearing, neurotic weakling; his self-consciousness contrasts so much with the man in Nine and a Half Weeks that they’re practically different species.

There are clever phrases in the memoir, as when the narrator says of her lover, “His face turns attractive when he talks;” I like the strange word choice, as if the head is physically turning, or as if he has two, or multiple, faces. A few moments are archaic—the man describes a friend or rival coming over as “This dope” (emphasis in original), which hasn’t been currently slang in decades and stands out in a book that otherwise stands out for not being part of any particular time. The prose holds up, and the narrator has an eye for tedious rituals, as when she tells of a “statistical tale,” where the contrast of statistics and narrative stands out:

In the middle of the statistical tale he’s requested from me—brothers and sisters and parents and grandparents, hometown, schools, jobs—I stop and close my eyes . . . please, I think, inarticulate even in my own mind, unable to turn to him and make the first move, please . . .

There’s a pervasive fear of dullness running through the memoir. The narrator notes that she and her lover looked like “An attractive, well-educated couple in New York City, average, middle-class, civilized.” That contrasts with what came before and will come after. Or does it? The memoir teases us by making us wonder if the the narrator isn’t so unusual as public discourse would make her out to be. I think the story’s flatness, the unwillingness to engage in direct commentary on what’s happening, points us in this direction, as when the narrator says, “I am standing, nearly on tiptoes, across the room from him, my arms raised above my head. My hands are tied to the hook on the wall on which his one large painting hangs during the day.” She’s hung like a painting and enjoys it. There is no further morality or analysis. Sixty Minutes plays in the background, a reminder of the middle America the narrator feels like she’s leaving behind even when she imagines it as a foil to her own actions.

Images repeat through the memoir. Scarves reappear. The words “like” and “love” are reconfigured like body parts. One senses Nabokovian echoes in the prose that one distantly hears on the first read but can’t make out. The narrator also feels her internal sense of self discombobulating, like a washing machine that shakes itself apart from within. She knows this is happening and imagines the reactions of otherwise course, until she writes of her experience.

We don’t know what the narrator wants beyond the obvious: sexual satisfaction. That she might only want the obvious might be the most frightening thing of all. What if everything else she has—a job, presumed communal respect, literary and political opinions—don’t matter very much? What if your real self isn’t those frontal cortex developments, but something deeper, more primal? I find posing the questions unsettling. The answers implied by Nine and a Half Weeks are more so. The patina of everyday experience conceals so much, especially in the realm of inchoate desire that social life is designed to channel. What happens when the channeling breaks? What happens when we want it to break? I’m reminded of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, which also features the discarding of the mind in pursuit of a mental state or feeling very unlike the one most of us presumably inhabit most of the time—the mental state worried about how much money we have, what other people think about us, whether we’ll get the job / life partner / degree / accommodates of our dreams.

The narrator likes the man’s dominance above all other traits, which derive from that dominance. He says of a friend or rival, “he’s got no guts whatsoever.” Note what she likes in the contrast he offers by comparison. He shows mastery by reading Gide in French and Kafka in German, both implying continental expertise and sexuality. Some moments are obvious, as when the narrator reads with “his thick pen solid and comfortable in my hand.” One doesn’t need to be Freud to imagine that the pen is not just a pen. In the same scene, the narrator says, “I write the letter (‘. . . met this man a few days ago, nice start, very different from Gerry, who’s more than happy with Harriett these day, you remember her . . .’)” (sic). The dig at her ex-boyfriend is subtle but present: he isn’t dominant, won’t tie her up, and presumably has settled with a lesser woman.

He demonstrates great knowledge too: “[. . .] whatever else he may do [in] it, this man clearly does read his original-language books in bed; why would anyone want to miss out on one of the most satisfying pleasures available? All he’d need is a better bulb, a few more pillows, and a reading lamp. . . .” The room sounds sad and denuded, but it doesn’t matter much, even if the narrator is right about beds, which are good for more than just sleeping and that other thing. He offers commands, as when the narrator says:

He guides my hands between my legs and says, ‘I’d like to watch you make yourself come.’

He is sitting idly, comfortably, one leg crossed over the other, the creases sharp in the freshly cleaned suit. I do not try to move my hands. He waits. ‘You don’t understand.’ My voice cracks. ‘I never . . .’ He is silent. ‘I’ve never done that in front of anybody. It embarrasses me.’ “

She does, of course. That it embarrasses her is part of the point. What embarrasses her in the moment becomes the fodder for memoir, even under a pseudonym, long after. She likes giving power to him, which she does by letting him watch her masturbate. She also does by repeating how much she loves him, but I don’t think he ever says it back. It’s like he doesn’t need to, and by withholding the confirmation of his love he creates a neurotic fear in her. Only at one moment does he crack, when “All at once he is a decade my junior, a very young man asking me to have a drink with him, expecting to be refused.” But that doesn’t last long. Little does in this memoir, including their relationship, whose duration is given away by the title. But the narrator learns a lot in a short period. She says, “If you’ve never screamed, out of control, you can’t imagine how it feels. Now I know how it feels, it’s like coming.” She never goes the Biblical or mythological root and thinks there are things we shouldn’t know. For her, all knowledge is knowledge.

You can see that McNeill’s memoir doesn’t sit well with current ideals of equality and mutual respect in all fields. As Laura Kipnis says in “Off Limits: Should students be allowed to hook up with professors?” for Slate.com, “Feminism has taught us to recognize the power dynamics in these kinds of relationships, and this has evolved into a dominant paradigm, the new propriety.” Feminism has taught us to recognize power dynamics, but it should also teach us to recognize points of view. The narrator gets this; she thinks the man’s room is “too plain to be called plain. It’s austere, if you want to be charitable, or chic, if you want to be snide, or boring, if you want to be honest. It is not, in any event, a room you’d call cozy” {McNeill “Love”@9}. So the narrator is aware of angles, points of view, possibilities. I’ve been told I use “or” a lot in my own writing. It’s a useful word for people who perceive many ways of describing things, and here it betrays an openness to experience that the memoir exploits. She has a strong theory of mind that weakens as she awakens to herself.

I should point out that I call the narrator “the narrator” as opposed to “McNeill” or something more conventional because she feels like a fictional person more than a real person (which is strange, given how many fictional characters seem real, but that’s a topic for another time). Elizabeth McNeill is itself a pseudonym. We don’t know who the real author is. The man is never given a name—he’s only given traits, like his penchant for Brooks Brothers and sadomasochism (sometimes, especially when it comes to belts, simultaneously). So I don’t entirely know what to call them, or what to call their madness, if it is indeed madness. Can we find pleasure in madness? The narrator’s point is that many of these normally distinct categories eventually blur. I think that’s one of Tartt’s points in The Secret History too. There is more to be written about the book—its strange tenses, leaping from past to present to future, to what extent we should indulge in or avoid attempting to apply universal lessons—but this gives flavor of it and why its merits still show.

Guy pounds on my door and screams that he's going to kill me

I wrote this on Friday morning at about 3:00 a.m.

I’ve probably just had the most immediately frightening experience of my life: a little before 2:00 a.m., I’m mostly asleep when I hear someone running up the stairs to my apartment. This is doubly curious because my neighbor, Josh, moved out a few days ago. Some guy starts pounding on my door, demanding that I open up. This scares me, I shout at him that I’m calling 911 (which I do), and tell the dispatcher where I am. The guy is yelling stuff like “open up.”

I grab the couch and push it in the front of the door and grab the chair and push it in front of the couch.

In the meantime, the pounding is sometimes louder, sometimes not, and the guy is shouting things like, “open up,” “I’ll kick your ass,” “open the door and I won’t kill you” and “if you don’t open the door, I’m going to fucking kill you.”

I pile books on the couch. Hundreds of them, probably. Heavy library ones, hardcovers, paperbacks, whatever I can grab off the shelves.

Does this guy have some kind of mental illness?

Most of the time I’m not piling books, I’m hovering at the border between my bedroom (where there’s a window) and the common room (where I can dash for the door). If he breaks down the door and comes in, I’ll flee out my window. If he breaks the window, I’ll try for the door, which I’ve barricaded, which means I’m probably done.

The Tucson PD shows up about 14 minutes (thanks iPhone! And 14 minutes? WTF?) after my initial call to 911. I hear a cop shout for the guy to come down. I am never happier to hear or learn about a cop in my life. I thank the dispatcher profusely. She kept saying things like, “I can’t hear the guy shouting” and variations thereof while we were waiting. In other words, she thought I might be crazy. But a cop did get here.

Eventually Officer Miller knocks on the door, and I open my window (since the door is barricaded). He says the guy is drunk off his ass and thought my apartment was his buddy’s apartment. Meanwhile, I’m still fucking terrified (as you probably would be in the circumstances). The adrenaline still hasn’t worn off as I write this.

The guy did some damage to my door, which still shuts (for the time being). I have a victim report number for management. When Miller said that he was just some drunk fool, I was relieved. Miller’s observation: if this had been his house, the guy would’ve been staring down the barrel of a gun. My observation: I start to see the appeal of gun ownership.

He goes down. There’s also a cute blond cop; she comes up to ask a few questions, leaves. She’s not much older than me, if she is at all, and reminds me a bit of my students, except she’s strapped. I start cleaning up all those books.

Nothing like a stranger threatening to kill you to make your night more interesting.

And now my library is totally out of order.

Guy pounds on my door and screams that he’s going to kill me

I wrote this on Friday morning at about 3:00 a.m.

I’ve probably just had the most immediately frightening experience of my life: a little before 2:00 a.m., I’m mostly asleep when I hear someone running up the stairs to my apartment. This is doubly curious because my neighbor, Josh, moved out a few days ago. Some guy starts pounding on my door, demanding that I open up. This scares me, I shout at him that I’m calling 911 (which I do), and tell the dispatcher where I am. The guy is yelling stuff like “open up.”

I grab the couch and push it in the front of the door and grab the chair and push it in front of the couch.

In the meantime, the pounding is sometimes louder, sometimes not, and the guy is shouting things like, “open up,” “I’ll kick your ass,” “open the door and I won’t kill you,” and “if you don’t open the door, I’m going to fucking kill you.”

I pile books on the couch. Hundreds, probably. Heavy library ones, hardcovers, paperbacks, whatever I can grab off the shelves.

Does this guy have some kind of mental illness?

Most of the time I’m not piling books, because there are only so many I can pile before they slide off the couch. Instead I’m hovering at the border between my bedroom (where there’s a window) and the common room (where I can dash for the door). I have a chef’s knife but this is Tucson, where everyone is armed. You know how they say don’t bring a knife to a gunfight? I like it better as a metaphor.

If he breaks down the door and comes in, I’ll flee out my window. If he breaks the window, I’ll try for the door, which I’ve barricaded, which means I’m probably done.

The Tucson PD shows up about 14 minutes (thanks iPhone! And 14 minutes? WTF?) after my initial call to 911. I hear a cop shout for the guy to come down. I am never happier to hear or learn about a cop in my life. I thank the dispatcher profusely. She kept saying things like, “I can’t hear the guy shouting” and variations thereof while we were waiting. In other words, she thought I might be crazy. But a cop did get here.

Eventually Officer Miller knocks on the door, and I open my window (since the door is barricaded) to talk to him. He says the guy is drunk off his ass and thought my apartment was his buddy’s apartment. Next time I worry about the caliber of my friends, I’ll think of this guy. Meanwhile, I’m still fucking terrified, as you probably would be in the circumstances. The adrenaline still hasn’t worn off as I write this. I’m writing in lieu of sleeping because sleep isn’t an option right now.

The guy did some damage to my door, which still shuts, sort of, for the time being. I have a victim report number for the apartment management. When Miller said that he was just some drunk fool, I was relieved. Miller’s observation: if this had been his house, the guy would’ve been staring down the barrel of a gun. My observation: I start to see the appeal of gun ownership.

Miller goes down to his car to do whatever cops do. There’s also a cute blond cop; she comes up to ask a few questions, leaves. She’s not much older than me, if at all, and reminds me a bit of my students, except she’s strapped. Too bad I’m seeing someone. I start cleaning up all those books.

Nothing like a stranger threatening to kill you to make your night more interesting.

And now my library is totally out of order.

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