The sky looks ever so deep when you lay down on your back in the moonshine; I never knowed it before. And how far a body can hear on the water such nights! ~Huck Finn
Ernest Hemingway famously said, “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.” Although most people acknowledge the book’s importance in shaping American Literature, the debate rages on concerning Mark Twain’s novel – The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – and its place in the canon. It is clear that Twain’s political views changed as he grew older. It is also clear that wherever one finds oneself in the argument regarding whether Twain’s novel either perpetuates or condemns racism, Mark Twain became more and more vocal – in word and deed – against post-civil war racism as well as American Imperialism as he matured. It is also clear that although critics are right to debate and study this novel and its complexities, there is an argument to be made for following the author’s instructions in his preface and reading the text for the simpler things, for instance enjoying the book as an endearing love letter to an American region, and most especially to the great Mississippi River.
Twain attempts to paint the Mississippi River in a way that gives the reader an understanding of the fullness of beauty and mystery which he himself found on the great river. In his memoir Life on the Mississippi he wrote:
To say that De Soto, the first white man who ever saw the Mississippi River, saw it in 1542, is a remark which states a fact without interpreting it: it is something like giving the dimensions of a sunset by astronomical measurements, and cataloguing the colors by their scientific names;–as a result, you get the bald fact of the sunset, but you don’t see the sunset. It would have been better to paint a picture of it. (4)
Time and again in Huckleberry Finn, this ‘sunset’ is seen and described through the innocence of a child’s eyes. This allows Twain to show his river without the constraints of an adult view which would see things through a more complicated lens already layered with societal expectations, ideology, and institutions. It allows Twain to write about the river as a river, with smells and sounds and feelings, as opposed to only writing about it for its widely accepted symbolic power as freedom itself.
Perhaps one of the shared traits of great writers is an actual acceptance of the limitation of words and language. As Twain writes about the Mississippi, “The river looked miles and miles across. The moon was so bright I could a counted the drift logs that went a-slipping along, black and still, hundreds of yards out from shore. Everything was dead quiet, and it looked late, and smelt late. You know what I mean — I don’t know the words to put it in” (Huck 54). Clearly Twain understands that no matter how deep his genius, as a writer he will never be able to fully communicate his feelings about the River which he devoted so much of his life to. However, generations of readers have also understood that Mark Twain was first and foremost a storyteller, and if they are open to his story about a boy named Huck, they will undoubtedly begin to see and perhaps even know something about his sunset.
The Matador as Existentialist Ideal in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises
Hemingway had the great feeling for mans’ ability to choose. He was an existentialist – he understood existentialism before Sartre did. ~Tennessee Williams
It is well known that Albert Camus was influenced by Ernest Hemingway’s prose style when he wrote some of his most seminal works such as The Stranger, yet inadequate attention is paid to Hemingway’s philosophical influences on the Existentialists. In his novel The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway attempts to illuminate the existential urgency of the individual to create meaning, by showing the consequences of an aimless life lived without apparent meaning. In order to accomplish this, the writer contrasts the lives of his main characters with that of the Spanish matador. Hemingway was fond of the Spanish word pundonor, which is representative of honor and integrity, and of ‘the code’ which is prevalent throughout much of his oeuvre. In the figure of the matador, Hemingway symbolizes the existentialist call to confront the reality of existence through the confrontation of one’s death, as well as the persistent need of the individual to live a creative life of courage and authenticity in the face of absurdity and despair.
Hemingway’s oeuvre is rife with existential notions such as free will, the absurd, alienation, and in stories such as A Clean, Well Lighted Place he presents the reader with an eloquent rendering of Nothingness. Yet part of Hemingway’s power was the fact that he was not attempting to write philosophical works. In the book “Irrational Man” – considered an important piece of the existentialist cannon – William Barrett writes:
…Hemingway is valuable here, for he is not an artist inspired by intellectual themes; quite the contrary, he is a reporter and a poet intent on reporting what it is he really sees in experience, and what he has seen and reports to us in [A Clean, Well Lighted Place] is the Nothing that sometimes rises up before the eyes of human beings. (Barrett 62)
In praising American novelists including Hemingway, Sartre himself declared the analytic novel “was no longer anything but an old mechanism badly adapted to the needs of the time… Could it take into account the brutal death of a Jew in Auschwitz, the bombardment of Madrid by the planes of France?” (Lehan 36). The uncertain time after the First World War brought an important wave of defining philosophy as well as art. It is clear that Hemingway’s role in this wave and his role as an artist and an American existentialist cannot be underestimated.
The absurd is a fairly wide-ranging concept in existentialism and can be as broad as man’s unique awareness of his or her own death. However, Camus considered the binary aspect of mortality in rendering our lives meaningless while at the same time allowing the greatest opportunity to create meaning as part of the absurd which should perpetuate action in man as opposed to nihilism He saw this realization that life is meaningless as the most promising way forward as opposed to a dead end. Importantly, the initial step in moving forward can not occur without accepting the absurd.
Although there are ways in which he fails, in The Sun Also Rises the character of Jake Barnes certainly comes closest to an attempt at embracing absurd. Perhaps it is the absurdity of his injury which forces his hand, as he must learn to live with its repercussions or simply give up and give in to loss and despair. In fact, as the novel progresses, he seems to be assimilating the concept of despair actually being one of the keys to unlocking an authentic life. He chooses to face reality much more than those around him. One of the ways Jake fails and lives in Sartre’s bad faith (self-deception) is his choice to take Ecclesiastes’ philosophy too far by using the avoidance tool of alcohol and social activity in order to escape reality.
Hemingway writes about the human tendency to avoid reality when Jake talks about how his life would have been far different if he had not met Brett, “I suppose she only wanted what she couldn’t have. Well, people were that way. To hell with people. The Catholic Church had an awfully good way of handling all that. Good advice, anyway. Not to think about it. Oh, it was swell advice. Try and take it sometime. Try and take it.” (Hemingway 31). Notably, Jake attends mass several times in The Sun Also Rises and it is clear that he wishes he could find religious solace, as well as the ability to live within one of the more romantic meta-narratives or ideologies brought down by the bombs of World War One. Wayne Holcombe writes, “Sartre would agree with Jake Barnes’ sardonic assessment of the “not to think about it” dictum: “Try and take it.” For Sartre, man is condemned to consciousness just as he is condemned to be free, and it is as morally wrong as it is hopeless for him to try and escape either of these” (Holcombe 26). Regardless of the method employed by a man or woman in the quest to avoid thinking about the sometimes futility of existence, Sartre believed it to be bad faith with serious repercussions.
J’aimé L. Sanders explains Hemingway’s idealization of the matador:
For Hemingway, this situation requires that we break all illusions and face the stark realities of life, that every individual be brave in his/her own way, that every individual take responsibility for creating meaning and content for his/her own life as a “whole,” and that every individual face his/her own death in order to live life with clarity, integrity, purpose, and meaning; in short, one must face the reality of death with earnestness or pundonor in order to live life earnestly. (Sanders 168)
In Death in the Afternoon, Hemingway talks about the concept of pundonor by saying, “Bullfighting is the only art in which the artist is in danger of death and in which the degree of brilliance in the performance is left to the fighter’s honor. In Spain honor is a very real thing. Called pundonor, it means honor, probity, courage, self respect, and pride in one word” (Death 91). The Spanish matador not only confronts his own death every day in the bullfighting ring, he is courageous in the face of it. He creates in the face of it. He lives within a code of honor in the face of it. He creates meaning in the face of it. The matador takes control of the absurd as opposed to allowing the absurd to control him.
However, from Mike Campbell’s flight into pessimism and Robert Cohn’s attempt to hide from reality in manufactured romanticism, Jake’s circle of friends show few actions (in the present) which could qualify as courageous or honorable. They do not exhibit self-respect and their integrity seems to be left in a past made irrelevant by modernity and war. Lehan writes that some of Hemingway’s characters including Barnes, “…can use Romero’s [The Matador’s] life as a model for their own and approximate it in their own way by ordering themselves against the chaos of life, especially the final chaos – death” (Lehan 50). But theses characters that move in and out of Jake Barnes’ orbit do not make the same attempt at “ordering themselves” as Jake. They are constantly running and shifting away from anything which may force them into a confrontation with the absurd. They are not facing reality or living authentically, and they seem to be absent of the courage to move their existence beyond being into be-ing.
This is especially true of Lady Brett Ashley, who is a sad character, but one that does not elicit sympathy because she clearly has the ability to change her life and yet does not. In a letter Hemingway wrote of his novel, “It contains much garbage but no smut and what I hoped to do was contrast the people, most of who were pretty lousy, with the country which was pretty fine. I tried to give the destruction of character in the woman Brett – that was the story and I failed to do it” (Scafalla 111). Perhaps there are many who agree with the author and think of The Sun Also Rises as a failure, but there are others who judge it to be a critical link in the development of modernism.
Another way of expressing a similar idea to pundonor is in Montoya’s use of the word “aficionado”. Montoya tells Jake that he is an aficionado. He says aficion means passion, and people who are passionate about the bullfight are aficionados. Jake finds this meaningful because he seems to need Montoya’s approval in an almost paternalistic way. Hemingway writes, “Montoya could forgive anything of a bull-fighter who had aficion. He could forgive attacks of nerves, panic, bad unexplainable actions, all sorts of lapses. For who had aficion he could forgive anything” (137). In part, this is at the core of what is causing problems for Jake and his friends. They are unable to forgive themselves, and much of that has to do with the heaviness of the burden and the collective guilt which the war placed on human consciousness.
Jake’s injury which renders him impotent is also symbolic of the larger impotence felt by the Lost Generation. This generation had their foundation pulled out from underneath them as all of their beliefs about humanity were challenged by the sheer brutality and carnage it had shown itself to be capable of inflicting. Another member of this group, F. Scott Fitzgerald, stated they had “grown up to find all gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken” (Cotkin 24). Fitzgerald perfectly describes the dilemma the characters face in The Sun Also Rises. As Richard Lehan writes regarding this same loss of beliefs in “God, history, society, and the rational self…,” it was “Meaning lost to madness, fixity giving way to displacement, man striving to define himself in a world growing more inimical to the individual – all of these element s are part of the existential view of man” (Lehan xviii). This is certainly the existential view Hemingway puts forward in The Sun Also Rises, and in particular in the character of Jake Barnes.
In describing the modern period, Barrett quotes Hemingway from the novel A Farewell to Arms, “Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the number of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates.” Barrett then goes on to state, “For a whole generation that was the great statement of protest against the butchery of the First World War,” and concludes Hemingway was breaking through “empty abstractions of whatever kind, to destroy sentimentality even if the real feelings exposed should appear humble and impoverished…even if stripping himself naked the artist seems to be left with Nothing” (Barrett 45). He further compares modern art and specifically the Dada movement with Hemingway saying they, “…must now be regarded as one of the valid eruptions of the irrational in this century. The generation of the First World War could hardly be expected to view Western culture as sacrosanct, since they perceived – and rightly – that it was bound up with the civilization that had ended in that ghastly butchery” (Barrett 46). The existentialist considers this revolt to be the correct course of action. As opposed to attempting to pick up the pieces of shattered meaning, Hemingway stands directly in the middle of the shards and points to them through his art.
However, Hemingway found in the matador a tangible symbol of something which had not been shattered. The matador remained a constant symbol of virility. He did not lose his pundonor, his aficion, or his willingness to continue finding the cause to fight. Importantly, the cause to fight which Jake does not find when he is attacked by Robert Cohn, a man who continually causes him to seethe with contempt. In many ways, the matador is Hemingway’s surrogate for Jake. He is the man Jake aspires to be, but cannot live up to either sexually or in character and spirit. This is why Jake facilitates Romero and Brett in their relationship. Romero is a stand-in of sorts for Jake. He has pundonor and courage, as opposed to Jake who is able to recognize these characteristics in others, yet never quite able to fully possess them himself. Much in the same way he must endure other men becoming sexually involved with Brett while he watches from a distance forced upon him by his injury, or more importantly by Brett’s inability to deal with his injury because she is incapable of any intimacy or relationship beyond one that is purely sexual and superficial.
Sartre talked about man being condemned to freedom. Hemingway condemns his characters inThe Sun Also Rises to freedom. He uses their lives to show how they fail to overcome their sentence. He uses the matador’s life and the cultural life of Spain in order to contrast that failure, and what he saw as his own country’s loss of individuality as people began to drown in conformity, to give their lives over to capitalist values and ideologies, and to trade their authenticity for a social mask in order to hide the reality of their individual existence. The novel ends with Brett dreamily speculating that she and Jake could have been happy with each other, and in the novels final line Jake replies, “Isn’t it pretty to think so” (251). Hemingway felt it was time to dispense with this kind of romantic notion – thinking pretty thoughts – which did nothing to facilitate answering the important questions of existence in a world shattered by war. But he found hope in the idea that if the individual lives as the matador lives, facing life and death with pundonor, the individual could begin to address the most important questions in human existence.
Barrett, William. Irrational Man a Study in Existential Philosophy. New York: Anchor Books, Doubleday, 1990. Print.
Cotkin, George. Existential America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2003. Print.
Hemingway, Ernest. Death in the afternoon. New York: Scribner, 1900. Print.
—.The Sun Also Rises. New York: Scribner, 1954. Print.
Holcombe, Wayne C. “The Motive of the Motif: Some Thoughts on Hemingway’s Existentialism”. Hemingway Review (Fall 83): 3-1 18-27. Web.
Lehan, Richard Daniel. Dangerous crossing French literary existentialism and the modern American novel. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1973. Print.
Sanders, J’aimé L. “The Art of Existentialism: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Norman Mailer and the American Existential Tradition”. Diss. University of South Florida, 2007. Web.
Scafalla, Frank. “The Sun Also Rises: Owen Wister’s ‘Garbage Pail,’ Hemingway’s Passage of the ‘Human Soul’”. Hemingway Review (Fall 86): 6 -1. 101 -111 Web.
Turning and turning in the widening gyre.
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart;
the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed,
When Islamic State fighters overran a string of Iraqi cities last year, analysts at United States Central Command wrote classified assessments for military intelligence officials and policy makers that documented the humiliating retreat of the Iraqi Army. But before the assessments were final, former intelligence officials said, the analysts’ superiors made significant changes.
In the revised documents, the Iraqi Army had not retreated at all. The soldiers had simply “redeployed.”
Such changes are at the heart of an expanding internal Pentagon investigation of Centcom, as Central Command is known, where analysts say that supervisors revised conclusions to mask some of the American military’s failures in training Iraqi troops and beating back the Islamic State. The analysts say supervisors were particularly eager to paint a more optimistic picture of America’s role in the conflict than was warranted.
In recent weeks, the Pentagon inspector general seized a large trove of emails and documents from military servers as it examines the claims, and has added more investigators to the inquiry.
That is OUR military reviewing OUR military response!
As my mother used to put it, I bout fell out. I had no idea of this seedling of a scandal that could prove to be one of our most shameful — even though now I’ve found hints of it for months.
So is Obama’s administration pressuring them or are they being bought or do they just know the American people don’t want forever wars even though that now seems likely? In other words, what the hell?
Here’s another report:
Did the Pentagon Cook the Books on Its Afghanistan Intel?The military has been accused of fudging the numbers in the fight against the Islamic State. Congress wants to know if it did with the Taliban too.
Military officers are often in the difficult position of having to defend the performance of Afghan security forces, while intelligence analysts are more ready to point to the weaknesses and shortcomings of the Kabul government’s army, he said.
And the officers overseeing the intelligence analysts are keen to find information that shows that their mission objectives are being fulfilled, he said.
“If you have an assessment that undermines the commander’s objectives, that’s not going to go well for that J2,” said the former analyst, referring to the designation for a military intelligence chief.
The current clash at Centcom is aggravated by strong passions developed by analysts who have spent years studying a particular region and who have deployed alongside troops in the field, he said.
“These are not just guys sitting in cubicles who have never been there,” he said.
I’ve mentioned before that my friend’s father when I lived on Camp Lejeune was General Anthony Zinni. At that time, in the early eighties, he was of course a lower rank. Maybe a Colonel, I cannot be certain. The Zinni family and others left an impression on me and Mr. Zinni (as I remember him) was a man who although I don’t have a lot of particular memories about him, I certainly remember always feeling safe in his home in a way I did not in my own.
When I saw the Times story this afternoon, I again thought of General Zinni. He was the head dude at Centcom for a brief time. And as I’ve followed him closely over the years, I have agreed and disagreed with him on policy matters – but I have never once felt as though he was playing politics or coloring his opinion due to outside pressures. Most likely this is why he finally ruled out ever running for political office. This man is a warrior, a leader, but seems unwilling to say what is popular as opposed to his opinion which he has no doubt invested a lot of time in.
One of the biggest agreements we had was about Iraq.
The Middle East peace process, in my mind, has to be a higher priority. Winning the war on terrorism has to be a higher priority. More directly, the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Central Asia need to be resolved, making sure Al Qaeda can’t rise again from the ashes that are destroyed. Taliban cannot come back. That the warlords can’t regain power over Kabul and Karzai, and destroy everything that has happened so far.
Our relationships in the region are in major disrepair, not to the point where we can’t fix them, but we need to quit making enemies we don’t need to make enemies out of. And we need to fix those relationships. There’s a deep chasm growing between that part of the world and our part of the world. And it’s strange, about a month after 9/11, they were sympathetic and compassionate toward us. How did it happen over the last year? And we need to look at that — that is a higher priority.
The country that started this, Iran, is about to turn around, 180 degrees. We ought to be focused on that. The father of extremism, the home of the ayatollah — the young people are ready to throw out the mullahs and turn around, become a secular society and throw off these ideas of extremism. That is more important and critical. They’re the ones that funded Hezbollah and other terrorist organizations. That ought to be a focus. And I can give you many, many more before you get down to Saddam and Iraq.
Our friends in the region who, a couple years ago, every time we wanted to throw a bomb at Saddam, kept saying, “Why don’t you get serious? We’ll support you if you take him out. But if you’re only going to piss him off and let him rise from the ashes, we don’t want to do it.”
Now that we want to do it, it’s the wrong time. He’ll drag Israel into the war. The mood on the street is very hostile at this moment. It is the wrong time. You could create a backlash to regimes that are friendly to us. You could create a sense of anti-Arab, anti-Islamic feelings from the West (among people who) misinterpret the attack.
We could end up with collateral damage.
You could inherit the country of Iraq, if you’re willing to do it — if our economy is so great that you’re willing to put billions of dollars into reforming Iraq. If you want to put soldiers that are already stretched so thin all around the world and add them into a security force there forever, like we see in places like the Sinai. If you want to fight with other countries in the region to try to keep Iraq together as Kurds and Shiites try and split off, you’re going to have to make a good case for that. And that’s what I think has to be done, that’s my honest opinion.
I know that’s a long quote. But he was right, amiright?
How about after the Iraq war?
In 1998 we bombed Iraq. [Saddam Hussein] threw out the inspectors and we conducted an operation called Desert Fox, and we bombed facilities that could be used to develop weapons systems for WMD, because we didn’t know if he had them or didn’t have them, but we could hit missile production facilities, the intelligence headquarters, etc. At the end of that four days an interesting thing happened. I was commander of Central Command at the time, and we started to get reports from embassies that were in that they had never seen the government so shaken, almost paralyzed. And when I traveled around the region and spoke to Kuwaitis, Jordanians, and others, they said, ‘You know, you are bombing them all the time, you are hitting them, and you are shaking them, what if he were to collapse? What if you got Saddam in a palace or somewhere, or the people rose up and its chaos? What are you going to do about it?’
“And it struck me then that we had a plan to defeat Saddam’s army, but we didn’t have a plan to rebuild Iraq. And so I asked the different agencies of government to come together to talk about reconstruction planning for Iraq. . . . I thought we ought to look at political reconstruction, economic reconstruction, security reconstruction, humanitarian need, services, and infrastructure development. We met in Washington, DC. We called the plan, and we gamed it out in the scenario, Desert Crossing. The first meeting surfaced all the problems that have exactly happened now. This was 1999. And when I took it back and looked at it, I said, we need a plan. Not all of this is a military responsibility. I went back to State Department, to the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, Department of Commerce and others and said, all right, how about you guys taking part of the plan. We need a plan in addition to the war plan for the reconstruction. Not interested. Would not look at it. So at Central Command before I left — I retired in 2000 — I started a plan called Desert Crossing for the reconstruction of Iraq. Because I was convinced nobody in Washington was going to plan for it, and we, the military, would get stuck with it. So when I left in 2000 we were in the process of that planning. When it looked like we were going in, I called back down to Centcom and said, You need to dust off Desert Crossing. They said, What’s that? Never heard of it. So in a matter of just a few years it was gone. The corporate memory. And in addition I was told, ‘We’ve been told not to do any of the planning. It would all be done in the Pentagon.’
“In February , the month before the war, I was called before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to testify on this, and the panel before me was the planner for the State Department and the planner for the Pentagon. And they were briefing their so-called plan. It was clear to me, and I testified to that effect afterwards in the next panel, that there was no plan. That they were way underestimating what they were getting into. That they had done virtually no planning. And that they were in for big trouble. And to answer your question why didn’t they do it, the only thing I can say, they naively misjudged the scope and the complexity of the problems they were going to have. They thought they could do it seat of the pants.
Then there was the time he talked about repositioning the military in response to climate change and how wars would be fought over water not oil. Really, please watch this. You would be hard-pressed to find a more serious Marine and leader than this. Go to Wikipedia and read about him. You’ll believe me.
Here is is, still in uniform, on Iran being the great long-term threat.
I believe Putin is doing two things. One, testing American leadership, particularly in Europe. And second, testing European will, resolve and cohesion. It’s very important that our leadership be demonstrated clearly and decisively, and that the Europeans, through N.A.T.O., stand. I agree with everything that Michele said. Now is the time to bolster Ukrainian military support.
It’s also time to find a way to engage Putin. And maybe even leadership to a meeting or a summit with the president and Putin. But of course a lot of work done before that. I think one mistake we make, and it’s a point I would disagree with Senator Feinstein, sending the secretary of state out to meet with Putin probably insults him even more. I think you need to do the groundwork to build up to something. But we’re going to need a way to walk this down where there’s face-saving, or else we’re going to have a confrontation that we don’t want.
What I am showing is a leader who pulls no punches whether you are Bush or Obama, Republican or Democrat, and that is like seeing a unicorn with lots of brass on its chest. Someone who looks forward, after looking back at what has come before. He has integrity. That is the American standard that slips through our fingers like sand more and more each day. We all know it. Every thing and every one seems to be bought and paid for or servants to the Governcorp that causes intelligence people to not just endanger a few lives but very many of them.
There is no doubt in my mind that General Zinni is pissed at our President and mortified by the absolute insanity of shutting this country in a bunker and telling refugees that even if they can make it here and survive our vetting they are not welcome because many of our “leaders” have turned into a bunch of fraidy cats all too willing to sell this country’s values down the river in order to score a point with the people they’re letting down by instilling irrational fear instead of the kind of courage that means the difference between living and walking dead. Turns out, it’s not always the zombies trying to get into your bunker, it’s what is in your own bunker. Look around.
Integrity. Whole and undivided. In our country we are built on a foundation of debate and disagreement which never ever threatens the core integrity of the nation.
We are built on the land we took from the native people. We are still trying to work through the sins of slavery. We have gone through periods of demonizing immigrant group after immigrant group. We are short in years and short in memory. That is a lot of work we have to do, just as a result of our own history never mind what we have done in foreign lands.
But we still hold her beacon. We better find our way back to hearing one another and being able to say no to doing the wrong thing whether the consequences of that action is the loss of a job or a fortune or your own life. The root of courage is core, heart, that is what we must strengthen again if we are to learn to hear each other keep our center holding.
It is Timshel. A word Steinbeck built East of Eden on. A word about free will and choice, and in the end a word about choosing integrity.
…this was the gold from our mining: ‘Thou mayest.’ The American Standard translation orders men to triumph over sin (and you can call sin ignorance). The King James translation makes a promise in ‘Thou shalt,’ meaning that men will surely triumph over sin. But the Hebrew word timshel—’Thou mayest’—that gives a choice. For if ‘Thou mayest’—it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.’ That makes a man great and that gives him stature with the gods, for in his weakness and his filth and his murder of his brother he has still the great choice. He can choose his course and fight it through and win.
It is ATSDR’s position that past exposures from the 1950s through February 1985 to trichloroethylene (TCE), tetrachloroethylene (PCE), vinyl chloride, and other contaminants in the drinking water at the Camp Lejeune likely increased the risk of cancers (kidney, multiple myeloma, leukemias, and others), adverse birth outcomes, and other adverse health effects of residents (including infants and children), civilian workers, Marines and Naval personnel at Camp Lejeune.
I will spend the last week in August finally doing something I have talked and talked about for years. I’m going West. Not Texas or Louisiana west, I’ve done those, but the American Southwest and California. The original reason was born from a writing assignment. I have a funded project at Beacon that is giving me the opportunity to write about the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) and the contamination at Ft McClellan .
From the VA:
Fort McClellan was an Army installation in Alabama that opened in 1917.
Some members of the U.S. Army Chemical Corp School, Army Combat Development Command Chemical/Biological/Radiological Agency, Army Military Police School and Women’s Army Corps, among others, may have been exposed to one or more of several hazardous materials, likely at low levels, during their service at Fort McClellan. Potential exposures could have included, but are not limited to, the following:
- Radioactive compounds (cesium-137 and cobalt-60) used in decontamination training activities in isolated locations on base.
- Chemical warfare agents (mustard gas and nerve agents) used in decontamination testing activities in isolated locations on base.
- Airborne polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) from the Monsanto plant in the neighboring town.
Although exposures to high levels of these compounds have been shown to cause a variety of adverse health effects in humans and laboratory animals, there is no evidence of exposures of this magnitude having occurred at Fort McClellan.
What you need to know about the above is that it is bullshit. The ‘low level’ terminology, the ‘may have’ terminology, is all too familiar to those of us who work to shed light on chemical exposures at DoD sites.
Having said that, the main part of my project is to introduce these incredible women from the WAC and that is something I am very much looking forward to. My first step is to attend their convention in Scottsdale, Arizona. I will be posting on social media during the convention which takes place during the last weekend of August.
I will also be following up for my Beacon project.
But along the way, something happened. As I was planning this, I was shocked to find out about the loss of my young cousin. Because he has always lived in Texas, we had not seen each other since I was a young woman and he was a little boy. But one day I somehow ran across him on facebook and knowing he was a fellow-writer I sent him a friend request. Knowing he would not recognize me by name (Lou is a nickname) and we had not spoken as adults, I made a mental note to follow-up and let him know who I was. Of course, that mental note got lost with other stacks of notes and I neglected to do that. Yet after we connected, I began seeing what an amazing young man he had become.
Perhaps I was stalking him but that is the age we live in. My cousin, Kellen, was not only a writer but he was a poet, and adventurer, a kind-heart, a wise spirit. He appeared to me to be a young Renaissance Man unfolding his youth and I could not wait to watch what he did as time passed.
Kellen teaching English in Poland.
After a few weeks, Kellen posted something on facebook and I ‘liked’ it. I also thought, gee I really need to let him know who I am and began to message him. When I hit send, I saw that we had messaged each other at the same time. He said, in part, “Hi Lou. I don’t know if that’s your actual name, and I apologize if we have met and I don’t remember your actual name. I’m actually not sure how I have known you actually beyond Facebook, but I love the stuff you put on Facebook.” Of course that made me smile so big. Then we geeked out on messaging each other at the same exact time.
After getting to know him, albeit through the limited means of facebook, it was striking how his life was bursting at the seems with experience.
It was as if he needed to quickly add experience post-wisdom in order to make sense of himself.
At the Great Wall
He traveled to places, but the photos always seem to show a person who is not touristing or exploring a new place, but someone returning to the familiar.
In photo after photo Kellen is not photographed at a place, instead he is part of the place – As if it had always been that way. These two are from his travels to Huangshan. Part of those magical mountains in Asia.
When I was his age I bought a book about them.
He went to them.
Kellen and I had a some more direct messages and talked about things on facebook, and talked about visiting each other, but we were both busy and in my case I thought of him as young and that gave me time to get to know him.
Never think that.
Never take anyone for granted.
Kellen was lost to us recently in a what we tend to call a tragic or a freak accident. He was somewhere he loved with someone he loved and he was there to write poetry. Of course, he was.
HIs spirit wasn’t lost, though, and I will carry it with me forever. He will serve as my reminder that there really is not another time.
Which brings me back to my trip out West.
Looking at Kellen’s life and seeing how he attacked it with a relentless determination to drink every drop possible, I decided I was not just going to go and do my work and sneak in a few peaks at the desert. I decided to travel west. To really travel west. I began planning for the week leading up to the convention, and I decided to take my daughter and her best friend who is a part of my family, too. These soon-to-be young women will be entering their Senior year in high school, on the day after we return from Arizona. Like me, neither of them have been to the western part of our country.
They share the spirit of adventure and travel that Kellen lived, so I am going to reward that and nurture that, by blowing their minds at the edge of the Grand Canyon.
And, because it has forever been my daughter’s best friend’s dream to see the Golden Gate Bridge – just because that’s her dream – we are going to make that happen, too.
We are going to make the music of life a little louder, a little more memorable, and a little more exhausting.
A couple of years ago I gave a home to some sister cats. I love them, watching and observing them, sneaking those earned moments of trust, and their purrs calm and center me. They have a few toys, but not many. One of those toys is a tiny dark blue cloth mouse.
Now here is where the story gets interesting, if you are interested in how the brain works. Especially how it works when it is a chronically traumatized while being wired up brain.
But in order to tell the rest of this story, first I need to go back in time a bit. This painting taught me a lot when I was really in the teeth of my PTSD.
It is in an art book which I purchased when I was finding my only solace in discovering art and making my own crude attempts at creating it. I was flipping through the book, painting after painting, and then I came to this one. And there was something that immediately bothered me about it. Bothered me in a visceral way. I felt this painting in my stomach, and not like the feeling I had seeing my first Van Gogh and standing in front of it with tears from some deep undiscovered well because I had one of those rare experiences which seem to connect across time and understanding human pain.
My mind, my turbulent mind, was in this ravine with Vincent.
But back to the first painting, and all those flamingos. My reaction to the painting was so intense, I closed the book and put it on the shelf. And for the longest time I left it there, and when I did take it down again I stayed away from the flamingos. Now on top of that strange thing, for a long time I developed a fear a flamingos. Yep, a real deal flamingo phobia. Go ahead and laugh, how could you not?
Because I’m talking about the plastic ones in yards, too.
At some point someone wise connected all of this, and took a look at the painting and soon had it figured out.
When you looked at the painting, you may have seen a hunter in waiting?
Well I did not ‘see’ that hunter crouched down there in the corner. The painting is called Ambush for flamingos in South America. An ambush. That is what some part of my brain saw before the other part caught up. Somehow it caused me to feel terror. Like I was being ambushed. Like that sense you might get walking down a dark alley when you know someone else is there but you cannot see them because they do not want to be seen. As to how all of this translated to being afraid of the poor flamingos, at rest and unsuspecting, I’ve got nothing on that. But I am quite convinced my hyper-vigilant brain saw the hunter in the periphery and the flight part of fight or flight was triggered. All before the neurons connected to make me consciously aware of what I was ‘seeing’ at the time.
If you’ve made it this far you are probably wondering what the hell any of this has to do with a cat and a mouse. Or, you may be wondering if – as we say in the South – if I ain’t right in the head.
Here it goes: A few nights ago I was almost asleep. In that wake and not awake place. The place that often triggers me to jolt up for absolutely no reason anyway. I was told it is because my at-war-with-itself brain senses my vigilance waning as I relax into sleep, so it figures it better do something (!!) about that relaxation and it screams DANGER so I’ll get my gloves back up. (This is partly why Million Dollar Baby slaughtered me emotionally) But a few nights ago, it was my cat that began to pull me into wakefulness.
She came up onto the bed, as she often does, and eased up next to me. I opened my eyes and she was standing there in an odd way. My brain said ALERT — I sat up and saw that she had her cloth toy mouse. But quite literally as I cognitively processed (thought?) ‘the cat has a toy’ – I also began to feel the all too familiar sensations of an adrenaline dump. Taken hostage, my body tore out of the bed as if being chased by the worst of the worst demons chasing me for my life. The room went dark in my periphery, tunnel vision. My heart, boom boom boom. My muscles, tense, tight, my fists clenched.
It was not a toy mouse. My cat had found a live mouse, the same size as her small toy. She brought it to my bed, as some sort of gift, as these animals often do. Skipping past the next few awful minutes, I will go ahead and tell you that an alive but not doing so well tiny mouse was set free.
But well beyond the little creature’s liberation, it became apparent to me that this was not going to be one of the frights, or gross things, or startles, that I could simply let run through me until it was gone. After an hour or so, I knew my nervous system had grabbed hold of this one. Made it a part of me for as long as it wanted to. My fight, flight, or freeze, is a ride I am always standing in line for, never knowing when I will actually be ushered into the cold metal seat with no belt.
Over the next couple of days, no one in my life could tell I was battling my own nervous system.
Talking it through each and every semi-loud noise. Stabilizing it after every comment directed at me that I perceived had a sharp edge. Sitting it on my own bed, desensitizing myself to my own bed.
And the thing that I hate the most, the thing that is quite rare so many years after living with a more controlled PTSD, they began to enter me like a gaseous ghost. Flashbacks.
I want to say something about flashbacks. I can only speak for myself, but I have also talked to a few others who share this. Flashbacks aren’t always like a movie flashback. A literal re-seeing/hearing/feeling of a particular event. For me, most of them, even when I was in the most violent onset stage, were more like flashing fragments. However, there is also the kind that are difficult to name therefore difficult to put down. These are fuzzy, hard to see, but what is unmistakeable is the pain and fear felt with them. Like a cramp, they squeeze hard making you want to place your hand on the source of the pain as if you have the powers of a faith healer. But with these kind of flashbacks there is nowhere to put your hand.
I think the only way to really help you connect to what I am trying to describe is to give you the literal example from this story. I did not have flashbacks of some previous mouse incident. Not even an animal incident. Or a bed, or anything else particular to my cat and mouse incident. What happened to me for several days was the emergence of new memory(ies) that I quite honestly cannot even tell you whether they/it are reality based or not.
I began to remember my step-father throwing things on me to scare me. Gross things, but I have no idea what things. All I can tell you is that for days I kept feeling him throwing something on me. After a few times, the things became worms, slugs, spiders, and then his stinky socks. And those socks brought on the clear and real memories of him torturing me with his smells. His feet stunk, bad. He was a Marine in a hot, hot, place. He enjoyed making me miserable with his stink. He would take his socks off and leave them where he knew I would be. He would fan his farts toward me. Make joyous noises about them. Put his BDU black boots under my chair after coming in from the field.
I have no confirmation that he threw scary things on me. But I have a definite sense that he did. During those years with him, I was five years old to fifteen years old. But in me now, it is one solid thing. One solid feeling. And that is what came back on me for a few days – because a cat was being a cat.
I wonder, is this anything like combat PTSD? I know the flashbacks can be more clear, reliable, real. But do you suffer with this other vague thing, too?
And speaking of combat PTSD, one thing I do know we share is how difficult it is to express what is happening to us when it comes to well-meaning loved ones and friends. What I heard from them after the cat and mouse, because they see me as strong, as a warrior, what I heard were things like how I grew up in the country, and how I must have seen mice before? Yes, big ol’ field rats, actually. But that has no connection to a traumatized brain. So as always, I stopped trying to explain something I cannot even fully understand myself and I just stayed on the ride until a few days passed and those felt memories of a very bad man firmed back into thought memories. New ones, new ones that now linger there with the others.
It is still difficult for me to talk about this, but I remain determined to do just that because I think PTSD needs to be looked at with more complexity. Even if I’m asking questions, admitting confusion, that is better than fixed image of a Veteran on the verge of doing something crazy because of a tortured mind.
In closing, as I was writing this post and finding the pictures, I discovered something about Van Gogh’s Ravine.
Just like the hunter and the flamingos, there was something else in this painting that I had no idea was there.
Or did I?
From Herman Melville’s Moby Dick
Consider the subtleness of the sea; how its most dreaded creatures glide under water, inapparent for the most part, and treacherously hidden beneath the loveliest tints of azure. Consider also the devilish brilliance and beauty of many of its most remorseless tribes, as the dainty embellished shape of many species of sharks. Consider, once more, the universal cannibalism of the sea; all whose creatures prey upon each other, carrying on eternal war since the world began.
Consider all this; and then turn to the green, gentle, and most docile earth; consider them both, the sea and the land; and do you not find a strange analogy to something in yourself? For as this appalling ocean surrounds the verdant land, so in the soul of man there lies one insular Tahiti, full of peace and joy, but encompassed by all the horrors of the half-known life.