Saturday, October 13, 2007

Readings: Apocalypse When?


Taking center stage in my current reading regimen is the novel Tree of Smoke, by Denis Johnson. Johnson has long been one of my favorite contemporary writers of fiction, and ToS is his biggest, and, imho, most important, effort to-date. Johnson has also published some very good poetry. Those who read non-fiction exclusively might be interested in looking into Seek, a selection of essays and magazine articles, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I have also read a couple of his dramas, and, quite frankly, was not blown away by them. But the rest of it, I vouch for.

Tree of Smoke is primarily about the war in Vietnam and the role of the CIA in Southeast Asia. It contains several interwoven subplots, between which Johnson vacillates, a structure which has annoyed some reviewers. Personally, I find his pacing very effective. The novel is over 600 pages, and I find that moving the focus from one character to another, in fairly short segments, keeps it from ever becoming tedious. I am currently approaching page 400 and already regretting that the saga will too soon end.

But I’m not here to write a review, as such.

Having recently had my interest in reading Spinoza piqued by a fictional character in a novel by Rebecca Goldstein, I found myself in the same situation with regard to one of the characters in Tree of Smoke. The character is “Skip,” a young, idealistic and patriotic CIA operative, perhaps a generic Christian, who has been drawn into the Agency by hero-worship of his legendary uncle, also CIA, who is known to the world primarily as “the Colonel.” Without going too deeply into the plot, it is enough for my purposes here to say that Skip finds himself in Vietnam, carrying out duties which, to him, as well as to us, seem both meaningless and mysterious. The Colonel, he believes, knows all, but discloses little. Both Skip and the Colonel are attached to a Psy-Ops unit. But what the “Ops” consist of is a mystery. Skip is billeted in the house a deceased French colonial, a physician, who somehow has managed to blow himself to pieces underground, in what may, or may not, have been a Viet Cong tunnel. (These tunnels seem to play an important symbolic role in the novel.) The dead physician’s effects and possessions are all still in the house, and Skip begins the task of boxing them up for subsequent removal by the next-of-kin. In the course of this, Skip becomes engrossed in both the physician’s library and his journals. When, finally, a relative comes for the physician’s things, Skip keeps (steals) a couple of items. Long story short: the physician has been a reader of the Romanian writer/philosopher, Emil Cioran, whose writings lay an egg in Skip’s brain.

As a reader of Tree of Smoke, having become convinced that an understanding of where Cioran was coming from must be important to understanding what happens to Skip, and, thus, to at least one essential element of what Johnson is driving at in writing the novel, I decided to read some Cioran. Searching the Cioran listings of the university library, I came across the title Tears and Saints. Since Johnson’s writings nearly always contain a religious subtext in which something resembling the Holy Spirit nags at the peace of mind of his protagonists, I decided to try this title first.

In the translator’s introduction, Ilinca Zarifopol-Johnston writes:

“Cioran explicitly focuses on the political element in the saints’ lives, but in his view their charitable deeds represent the least interesting aspect of their lives. What fascinates him are their tears, their thirst for pain and their capacity to endure it: in short, the pathology or, as he puts it, the ‘voluptuousness of suffering,’ for ‘suffering is man’s only biography.’ Behind this suffering, and their uncanny ability to renounce everything through ascetic practices. Cioran detects the saints’ fanatical will to power.”

And later:

“In mysticism, redemption and the saints’ will to possess God are in fact one and the same thing. That is why the formula for redemption need not remain confined to the spiritual domain and can easily be translated into political terms: the mystic’s spiritual union with God becomes a (small) nation’s fulfillment of a greater destiny: ‘Our entire political and spiritual mission must concentrate on the determination to will a transfiguration, on the desperate and dramatic experience of transforming our whole way of life.’ [Cioran, Romania’s Transfiguration, 47]”

Finally, Zarifopol-Johnston quotes Cioran again from Romania’sTransfiguration:

“All means are legitimate when a people opens a road for itself in the world. Terror, crime, bestiality and perfidy are base and immoral only in decadence, when they defend a vacuum of content; if, on the other hand, they help in the ascension of a people, they are virtues. All triumphs are moral…”

So, Johnson has one of his central protagonists, a CIA operative assigned to a Psychological Operations unit, under the command of his uncle, a Kurtz-like figure, becoming obsessed with the ideas of a Romanian fascist, who is himself obsessed with saints as the embodiment of suffering as will-to-power in an otherwise meaningless existence. The enemy is “the Void.” The danger is falling into decadence and nihilism, and Skip seems--two-thirds of the way through the book--to be teetering on the brink. He has passively rejected, through his inability to empathize, the love of a truly suffering woman named Kathy; the widow of a murdered Seventh Day Adventist missionary, who continues her charitable work among the Vietnamese war orphans, despite apparently having lost her faith and entered into a Dark Night of the Soul (Mother Teresa, anyone?). And Skip is lost in a mission, the goals of which are as invisible as are their moral foundations.

What does Johnson have in mind for Skip? As a symbol of patriotic, casually Christian America, will Skip become even more the fascist than he already de facto is? Or will he veer off in the direction of sainthood, persevering, but suffering, in his new-found acknowledgement of the agony of existence in a fallen world? As a symbol of America, where will Skip find his will-to-power?

Cioran, for his part, says:

“We would have been better off without saints. Then each of us would have minded our own business and we would have rejoiced in our imperfection. Their presence among us brings about useless inferiority complexes, envy, spite. The world of saints is a heavenly poison that grows ever more virulent as our loneliness increases. They have corrupted us by providing a model that shows suffering attaining its goal.” [Tears and Saints, p.14]

(Simone Weil, anyone?)

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