Tag Archives: Mark Twain

Glimpses of the Modern Empire: “The Unwinding” by George Packer

The Unwinding by George Packer

The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America
by George Packer
448 pages, May, 2013
Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Part I. Pained Epiphanies

ONE OF THE most fascinating plot-points in the story of America’s financial crisis of 2008 was not how, as house prices started to plunge, the tables turned against those who’d invested in too large a property, or in too many. Rather it was how the tables spun and rattled and leapt like something out of Mary Todd Lincoln’s famous séances in the White House – turning against lending agencies and lawyers, then big banks, Wall Street, the government itself.

At first the debt-ridden homeowners simply relinquished their assets. The documents for foreclosure looked official enough. The Law Offices of So-and-So, Esq., on behalf of Nationwide Lending, or Bank of America, or some other vast untouchable entity. They did owe money after all, these once so optimistic homeowners; and if they couldn’t pay, the sheriff’s office would pin a summons to their door, and that was that.

But something wasn’t right. The banks’ paperwork bore fraudulent signatures, phony dates, bogus seals. The original title deeds for the houses were nowhere to be found, because financial institutions had been trading them like monopoly cards, that is, an online version of monopoly, or rather, an online version of monopoly hosted by an eight-year-old. “America’s mortgages turned out to be a hoax,” writes George Packer in his tremendous new book, The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America. Or, as one of his many carefully drawn subjects, a Tampa-based attorney named Matthew D. Weidner, sums it up: “Our entire system of property ownership is in chaos and turmoil.”

America has always produced some of the highest grade of hucksterism. Mark Twain captured the essence of this refinement in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, through a pair of petty charlatans who call themselves the “King” and the “Duke.” Twain understood the trickery of language; how easy it was to dupe a provincial Southerner by taking on a royal title, or employing (and usually massacring) a phrase from Shakespeare. Even more insightful, at one point Tom Sawyer imagines a coat of arms for Jim, the runaway slave. Tom’s description of the fake escutcheon is so opaque, so impossible to decipher – a “saltire murrey,” with “nombril points on a dancette indented” – that it’s as if Twain wants us to understand: Here, reader, is what it’s like to be enslaved by gibberish.

And so the brows of America furrowed at “synthetic collateralized debt obligations” and “credit default swaps” while melting in dreamy infatuation at the snake-oil evangelists feeding off their confusion. One of the great puzzles about America’s democracy, according to Packer, is how in recent years the underclass have favoured policies that hurt them. “White people [who were] getting poorer every day voted for a party [the Republicans] that wanted to deregulate Wall Street and zero out of the capital gains tax.” Just how Americans can formulate such wildly incongruous dreams and convictions is a mystery which Packer sets out to examine.

He assembles the full gamut of shady dealers, suspects, victims, heroes, innocent bystanders, all involved in what becomes the American “unwinding” – a decline, an implosion — between the years 1978 and 2012. The investigation is meticulous and often reads like a police report written by someone with an ear for J.S. Bach (Packer, a staff writer for the New Yorker, knows how a few closely observed refrains can transform into a fugue of social events). Front doors, closets, refrigerators are opened and searched; a struggling family in Tampa eat cheap Wal-Mart pizzas, “Velveeta Cheesy Skillets and six Salisbury steaks for $2.28,” while cockroaches, the small infesting kind (as opposed to the larger breed which Oprah Winfrey claims to have kept as pets in childhood), are found in “the bathroom sink and the kitchen Tupperware, the air-conditioning ducts blowing the horrible smell of their poo throughout the apartment.”

Trailer parks and cockroaches. Assembly lines, picket lines, tobacco barns and canola oil; porches and pool halls, maids and mansions and private planes and the elegant offices of a lobbyist in Washington D.C.; truck stops, Tastee Freez, Backyard Burgers, Hot Diggity Dog – The Unwinding is an elaborate mosaic of an elaborate country viewed as a con-game. And on September 11th, 2001, a financial day-trader gazes outside his office window in downtown Manhattan to see what looks like a ticker-tape parade. Only — the shreds of paper are on fire.

To be American is to grapple with the quackery of ambition. Some, like Shawn Corey Carter (a.k.a. Jay-Z, the rapper), who grew up in the Brooklyn projects selling cocaine and busting rhymes, are born hustlers, embracing their inner gangster, flaunting their guns, their diamonds, driving their BMWs straight into the Palace of Forbes. Some develop their guile over time. And some, like a four-star General named Colin Powell who showed up at the United Nations to peddle a fraudulent war, have their quackery thrust upon them.

The Unwinding is so effective at calibrating our fraud detectors, with alarms sounding every time Oprah enters the room, that it’s hard not to wonder if the book itself is a kind of artful dodge: A collection of Packer’s profiles made to look bulky, but ultimately unified by nothing more than the nationality of the subjects. Packer repackaged, so to speak. New, improved.

Possibly. But holding everything together are the fine details of disillusionment. And something profound, as well. “Empires decline when elites become irresponsible” is the banal observation of one of Packer’s characters, a congressman from Virginia. The Unwinding, however, is not just about irresponsibility, or about committing oneself to the latest self-help books only to wake up a few years later to discover the hoax (Packer alludes to the history of this tradition in America, from the popular 1937 book, Think and Grow Rich, by Napoleon Hill, to the cassette tapes by Glenn W. Turner, “Dare to be Great,” which sold for $5000 a piece in the 1960s). Rather, The Unwinding captures the moment when the veil rips open and we catch a glimpse of the world; when our eyes de-scale and Jim, the runaway slave, sees Huck’s chicanery for what it is; and Huck sees Jim as more than a target for tomfoolery (“It made me feel so mean,” says Huck, “I could almost kissed his foot.”). It’s the pained epiphany that comes in a crisis. A once touted wisdom turns to gibberish, and authority descends into rancour…

…the din of shouting in town halls and on AM radio, cable TV, and the Internet; the hostile and anonymous commercials filling the airwaves, paid for by the coal and insurance companies and the Koch brothers; the entanglement of cash, interest groups and spinelessness on Capitol Hill; the strangely ineffectual Obama White House.

It’s that moment when a city’s tallest building starts to shake, and someone shouts for everyone to stay calm, the Fire Marshall is on his way, but you think like Packer’s day-trader did on that terrible day: “I’m not staying calm. I’m getting the fuck out of here.” As Packer sums it up: “In a crisis you realized that society operated without anyone knowing deep down what the hell was really going on.”

Read Part II

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“America” by Zireaux

‘…and, of course / by Sendak’s blessed isle…’

America
by
Zireaux

(Lines from Kamal, Book One).

To M.

America! You gave me your tongue.
Your child-bard who madly swung
your throbbing bullroarer around
his head to hear the primal sound
of Quaoar – out there among

the muted witnesses of rape,
the oaks and willows and wild grape
(who once heard stories Ovid’s lyre
would take a thousand years to sire )
– that child, who with your giants shivered
in his sleep, whose soul was roused
by songs that crossed a frozen river’s
rails to Ursula (which housed
the torch dear Langston and Zora delivered);
was stirred by Twain’s and Whitman’s sermons,
inspired by Nathan, Edgar and Herman
(forgive me, men — you shouldn’t be put
in lists to keep one’s rhyme afoot);
and christened – or rather, his faith determined

by Walden’s water (and, of course,
by Sendak’s blessed isle — that source
of yearned for metamorphosis) –
O! I could go on like this,
but here’s my point: That child was me!
Is me still! Your wondrous lessons
even now – in south-most sea –
still surface with their phosphoresce.
Usonian Calliope!
Great Astronaut of Art! The part
you played for me still stokes my heart;
– for who, but you, oh country mine,
could give the god of epic rhyme
a wife like Marge, a son like Bart?

And then there are my children. Their sleep
reminds us: Angels are not ours to keep.
That never-met custodian takes back
her wards each night. A firm but light arrest,
as when a butterfly, on losing track
of up and down, decides it might just test
that rippling sky that blinks below (in fact,
a shimmering pond) and lo, it’s quickly pressed
into a specimen! So, too, my kids,
– awake beyond their closed eyelids –

seem caught in buoyant immobility.
Kamal’s face shows that same tranquility.
He even has my little Clara’s way
of tipping down her chin, as when a tide
recedes, the shore dips down into a bay;
the day’s sweet effervescent magic sighed
out from her chest. Kamal’s lips also splay
apart, and seem unlikely to subside;
the upper most of all – not just agape,
but puckered in a suckling shape.

_____
Published as part of the dVerse poetry group.

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The “Leafy Light” of H.G. Wells and an Exchange with Susan Pearce

From the George Pal film of The Time Machine.

From the George Pal film of The Time Machine.

Thanks to J.G. Hammond, author of H.G Wells and Rebecca West, I’m able to offer another specimen of what I’ve been seeking, casually, over the last year or so — examples of H.G. Wells’s poetry.

The following poem by Wells appeared in the Pall Mall Gazette on 13 March, 1894:

Episode

A meeting under the greenwood tree
In a soft, leaf-filtered light;
A meeting or so, and a passion to know
If I read your eyes aright.

A parting under the greenwood tree
A delicate passion of pain
And soberly I return to my
Mature and elegant Jane.

Some comments on these lines in a moment…but first, the subject of Wells’s poetry arose in an on-line exchange with Susan Pearce, author of Acts of Love (University of Victoria Press), over her stimulating blog post, Where do ideas come from?

In the post she discusses some musings about inspiration by the literary slapstick artist, Elizabeth Gilbert (author of Cheat, Pray, Love), and the strange disparity between a writer’s personal vision of the world and the vision presented by his or her art. Susan mentions an article by John Gray, a professor of European thought at the London School of Economics, which points to H.G. Wells as just such a case of a bifurcated personality — a man who professed a faith in the world-saving potential of science even as his art (a la The Time Machine and The Island of Doctor Zireaux) spoke otherwise.

Here is our exchange:

Zireaux: I appreciate your thoughts here, Susan. This strikes me, however, as a misreading of Wells. He was a very young Herbert when he wrote his great romantic novel, The Time Machine; and a very mature Herbert when he embraced — or I would say, was embraced by — the political snake of Bolshevism. Something tells me this talk of the writing process, of the sub-conscious, of “characters coming alive on the page, telling me what to do etc” (a modern banality, let’s be honest) is something the Bolshevik writers of today would call refreshing. For a comedian like Gilbert, and for her flock, I find myself compelled to buff the gold-plated sign beneath a genius like Wells: “Please do not touch.”

Can I recommend you have a look at my comments on “The Poet as Absent-Minded Neuroscientist“? This is as far as I go on the topic of a “writing process,” and it’s perhaps too pseudo-scientific for my taste (in retrospect); but you may find it relevant to your post.

Susan Pearce: Your insight on Wells is interesting. Not being an expert on the man or his writings, I’ve taken John Gray at his word. Maybe he has conflated Wells’ career to make a point. Neither do I know enough about the details of Bolshevism to be able to grasp exactly why current Bolshevik writers (who are they?) would be keen on ‘talk of the writing process, of the subconscious [etc]‘. Would you enlighten me?

I gather that you don’t like ‘talk of the writing process’: it’s something I like to think about, because it hasn’t been a straightforward path for me, though is becoming more so. I use ‘sub-conscious’ pretty loosely, and mean by it ‘what we don’t know we know’. As far as the modern banality, I’d hoped to make clear in the post that like Nabokov (‘my characters are galley slaves’), I too dislike the notion that the character can take over from the writer like some external spirit.

I’m amused that you recommend I look at comments that you now find beneath you. I enjoyed your discussion of Larkin and Nabokov. ‘Pseudo-science’: the word comes in useful to describe quacks or the over-enthusiastic of any description using mock-science to try to market unproven theories. However, it’s inevitable that those of us who are fascinated by what neurology, quantum physics, cosmology etc tell us (insofar as we understand it) will try to draw some parallels with what we do know. If we’re not to become quacks ourselves, we have to be aware of the biases of the ‘science writers’ we read or listen to, and of when the scientists themselves correct us. Those conditions set in place, I think it’s misleading to call those discussions ‘pseudo-science’.

Mark Twain on his world tour.

Mark Twain on his world tour.

Zireaux: I suppose every era has its Bolsheviks, its philistines, its Oprahs and Chopras, its creative writing schools, Red Books and Facebooks, gurus and Gilrus, Rasputins and RasPalins.

Interesting if we compare three of the English literary sensations of the fin de siècle period — Twain, Kipling, Wells. International luminaries, all three. Sought after world-wide for their views on politics, science, futurism.

Twain, bankrupt Twain, having toured the globe, comes away least scathed by such mundanities, his artistic heart still beating strong (real heart flagging). Kipling grabs politics by the horns — a mistake, no doubt, impaled as he was — but at least in my mind he chose the most honorable fight. I’d let Kipling cast my vote on just about any issue, any day.

Wells, however, Wells is a tragic case. To me the secret to John Gray’s article lies in Wells’s “flash of passion” for Gorky’s partner and Soviet spy, Moura Budberg. Wells lacked the word-love of Twain and Kipling. His verse — the few lines of it I’ve been able to locate (not including the doggerel of Ann Veronica) is badly tuned. His art, it seems to me, relies primarily on the strength of his loins. Gray calls Wells’s works “Scientific Romances.” I call them “Romances,” but anything is better than “Science Fiction,” which, although it might apply to someone like Verne, is a travesty for the genius Wells possessed.

If you enjoy the stark asphalt-and-plastic pathway from Nabokov to neuroscience, you might want to read Brian Boyd’s book — The Origin of Stories. For my part, however, I find little of interest in such works.

Susan Pearce: Zireaux, thank you for that comparison of Twain, Kipling and Wells. The example of some contemporary writers (e.g. McEwan & Amis) would reinforce your point that it is indeed dangerous for writers to venture into commentary on politics, etc: that it does result, as you say, in mundanities.

I do reflect on how to get myself sitting at the desk (no podium here) when there’s the opportunity. And I like to think about how to generate more ideas and get over that block where you just don’t know where the story’s going. Thus my posts on the writing process.

However, although I appreciate your book recommendation, I don’t think I’ll get to it. What keeps me listening to science podcasts etc is not that I want to know the scientific detail of how the ‘creative mind’ works. It’s simply that I love the weird ideas which speak to us about a possible reality we can only begin to imagine. I don’t *think* I want to write science fiction, but it seems to me that even if our narratives describe events as we know them in this mechanical world, our narrative structures must begin to reflect the strain that this new knowledge places on us. Don’t ask me what I mean by that: I’m just beginning to figure it out.

————————-

H.G. Wells in 1907 at the door of his house at Sandgate

H.G. Wells in 1907 at the door of his house at Sandgate

And that was the end of my exchange with Ms. Pearce. Now let’s return to Wells’s leafy little poem, the revealing (yet, alas, badly tuned) “Episodes.”

Try to imagine Newt Gingrich writing (and publishing for all to see) a poem like “Episodes” — a candid, artful ditty to adultery. Unlike Gingrich, Wells, the artist, could perceive the “Lover-Shadow,” as he called it, that part of his consciousness which lived “under the greenwood tree / in a soft, leaf-filtered light.” And Wells wrote honestly, unashamedly, about these shadowy passions, an approach which many readers at the time — be it out of fear, reserve, or simply an overabundance of commonness — found difficult to digest.

Wells was never asked to write about his passions. They leaked unbidden from his aesthetic glands while he busied himself for the Gazette with what were called “single-sitting” tales of science. Perhaps he wrote so little poetry because, in his mind, passion itself — the song of the mermaids — was never subject enough for an audience. Certainly not a paying subject. For Wells there was always a mysterious door between the city and the garden, the career and the caress, the “mature and elegant Jane” (his wife) and the “leaf-filtered light,” the industrial cauldrons of science and the fires raging in his heart.

I’m inclined to think that although Wells could feel the soft light of genius which shone upon him, he couldn’t possibly perceive the unfathomable fusion behind it. The sheer immensity of this genius (and I’m not talking about his visions of the future, which are actually quite trivial) produced artistic decisions in The Time Machine which seem to me far too brilliant for the person Wells was when he wrote it.

How can this be?

One finds this with other artists — Melville, Poe, Keats, Audobon (the ornithological painter) — as if these poor souls were the victims of a parasite, an artistic genius hatched within them, forcing them to act according to its whims. An illusion, I think, but a convincing one. In fact, Wells wrote his Time Machine again and again, draft after draft, and out of the over 100 books he produced in his lifetime, the quality of each corresponds, more or less, to the number of re-writes he ministered to their creation.

The miracle of Wells is not the divergence of his futuristic visions — between a curative science and a corrupting one. Rather it’s the ability to climb so completely into the machinery of his epoch — buttoned-up, in waistcoat and patent-leather shoes — while, at the same time, letting his passions transport him wherever they pleased.

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“Jim’s Coat of Arms” by Mark Twain

Selected for Immortal Muse by Zireaux (read Zireaux’s comments on this poem)

“Jim’s Coat of Arms,” as described by Tom Sawyer in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

On the scutcheon we’ll have a bend
or in the dexter base, a saltire murrey
in the fess, with a dog, couchant,
for common charge, and under his foot
a chain embattled, for slavery,
with a chevron vert in a chief engrailed,
and three invected lines on a field azure,
with the nombril points rampant
on a dancette indented; crest, a runaway nigger,
sable, with his bundle over his shoulder
on a bar sinister; and a couple of gules
for supporters, which is you and me;
motto, Maggiore fretta, minore atto.
Got it out of a book —
means the more haste the less speed.

Jim's Coat of Arms in Huckleberry Finn

An illustration of Jim's Coat of Arms from Las Aventuras De Huckleberry Finn


Zireaux’s comments on this poem:
Speaking of photographs (see last Tuesday’s poem), consider for a moment — in a kind of parallel multi-mediaverse — a collection of the greatest fictional photos, illustrations and paintings conjured up in the last half-century by literary masters. That is to say: Fantastical ekphrasis. Great words describing imaginary pictures.

We’d start with something like Bassanio’s description of “fair Portia’s counterfiet” (“What demi-god / Hath come so near creation”) in The Merchant of Venice; and move forward in time to sample the most memorable paintings, lithographs, wall-hangings, daguerreotypes, photogravures, snapshots in attic boxes and so forth found throughout 20th century fiction. Think, for example, of that alluring lady in the fur hat, boa and hand-muff which Gregor Samsa has cut out from a magazine, framed and hung on his wall (it’s the first thing he sees when he awakes as a beetle); or that magic aquarelle depicting a path through American beechwood which decorates the young Vladimir’s Russian bedroom in Speak, Memory.

But what about this astonishing Coat of Arms which Tom Sawyer imagines for the runnaway slave, Jim, in Huckleberry Finn? A difficult, absurd, almost impenetrable jumbling of language — and yet has any assortment of emblems better captured the soul of a nation? I say absurd, because Tom Sawyer, who is speaking these words to Huck, couldn’t possibly string together such language; no boy his age, no human engaged in spontaneous speech, could string together such language. Although Tom is doing the talking (and making a kind of Lady Jane Grey or Guilford Dudley of Jim), it’s Twain we hear, particularly Twain’s fascination with the poetic sounds of words, and particularly with foreign-sounding words.

Just see these stanzas from Twain’s “A Sweltering Day in Australia”:

Sweet Nangwarry’s desolate, Coonamble wails,
And Tungkillo Kuito in sables is drest,
For the Whangerei winds fall asleep in the sails
And the Booleroo life-breeze is dead in the west.

Narrandera mourns, Cameron answers not
When the roll of the scathless we cry
Tongariro, Goondiwindi, Woolundunga, the spot
Is mute and forlorn where ye lie.

They make no sense. The place names are all wrong. Twain just likes the exotic sound of the words and the dreams they create. (Like another Samuel, who wrote “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan / a stately pleasure dome decree…”). I can’t emphasize enough the miracle of Jim’s Coat of Arms, and not just in Huckleberry Finn, not just in American literature, but as a literary creation. Because remember — throughout Huckleberry Finn, Twain has employed the amusing Southern vernacular of Huck and Jim and many others to expose the pathos, the humor, and ultimately the provincialism of the American South: from Huck’s discussions about Louis XVI and “his little boy the dolphin,” to Huck’s charlatan companions, the “King” and the “Duke,” who make a massacre of Hamlet’s soliloquy (“To be, or not to be; that is the bare bodkin,” etc).

But with Jim’s Coat of Arms, a strange little island of English suddenly appears amidst the colloquial current, a single paragraph near the very end of our long river-raft journey — as if to confront us, at last, with our own provincialism. Using this strange-sounding language of heraldry, Twain has drawn a most indelible portrait (see image), and yet it’s a portrait most English readers, even the best of them, unfamiliar with such words, won’t immediately replicate in their minds. We’re like Jim, like every far-flung English-colonized thinker from New Zealand to Australia to India and Africa (places traveled, in fact, by the debt-ridden Twain while in his stalwart 60s): We’re puzzled by these flashy, hieratic glyphs, these unfamiliar pieces of pomp and antiquity, and yet we can’t ignore them either. We know they mean something very important; they describe our lives, our country, the essence of our times, yet all we see are fragments of sound and meaning. All we see is poetry.

Note: I hope to touch a bit more on this theme — with greater clarity — in my review of that excellent new compendium by Harry Ricketts and Paula Green, 99 Ways into New Zealand Poetry. Readers seeking to follow this thread further may also be interested in my comments on Indian-English literature, and why India, despite a similar regional richness as the American South, has produced so few English writers of Twain’s caliber.

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