The Children’s Crusade, or, torpedoing future generations

A current preoccupation of mine is considering how each generation considers itself the absolute supreme, the most topical, the only one that matters. This makes a kind of sense, of course  but it’s something that’s taken some time for me to develop. Take the rash of movie remakes—I used to view the latest remake of some nostalgic property with a healthy dose of skepticism and disdain. And I still do, for the most part, since they’re typically just simple cash grabs. But among the pandering can be opportunities for reassessment: are the values of the original property intact? How does this resonate now? Do we look upon its shortcomings as a place to reflect, or readjust?

(As an aside, the latter question seems to come up a lot with video game remasters—are we compromising the game’s essence by cleaning up the presentation and streamlining the controls? Or are the changes warranted because they “translate” the game to the present moment?)

Do we look upon its shortcomings as a place to reflect, or readjust?

Many creatives choose to examine inter-generational uncertainty by creating a dystopia, and thrusting characters into it. Station Eleven by Emily St. john Mandel is a good example, as are The Road by Cormac McCarthy and Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban. In each, the world has been irreparably wrecked, and part of the joy(?!) of the reading is in uncovering the why, where, when, and how of the disaster, even if it isn’t clearly telegraphed.

Part of me has a gleefully dark sense of humor concerning our eventual doom, most characteristically a bet I made with my younger brother a few years ago. He was so convinced that the Ebola virus would have a catastrophic outbreak that he bet me something like $100 that Ebola would be responsible for at least one million deaths in the next 10 years. I was perhaps too tentative in not proffering a counter-bet on another disease, but I gleefully took his bet. (Still waiting for that payout…)

Perhaps this mentality also shows the bias of my present-ness, since in many ways our world is safer than prior generations: the threat of nuclear annihilation doesn’t loom as large, our ability to identify and cordon off dangerous viruses/epidemics is sophisticated, and we essentially live in a police state that makes it difficult to engage in terrorist activity. But that doesn’t mean that the near-future can’t be even more calamitous than our past. Which means that gleeful bet may not pan out like I thought.

‘Gleeful’ isn’t the word I would use to describe the dystopian world created in Yoko Tawada’s The Emissary, and ‘enjoyment’ sounds nearly as perverse, but it’s hard not to admire the effortless way the novel creates a sense of atmosphere and populates it with intriguing turns of language. It drops the reader right into its world, its brisk pace  working in step with its surrealist candor. And all in 138 pages.

The novel centers on Mumei, a precocious young Japanese boy, and his great-grandfather Yoshiro. More accurately, it centers on a world where global catastrophe has led Japan to isolate itself from the world. Soil is irradiated, earthquakes and other disasters are common, animals are scarce, and Japan’s youth have been so wracked by the changes that they no longer develop properly (or at all). Mumei himself is described variously as bow-legged, calcium-deficient, and octopus-like in his movements. He may actually be turning into an octopus. Heightening the tragedy, Yoshiro and his generation, those responsible for not preventing this doomed world (hint hint), seem unable to die, caught in a terrible limbo while they witness future generations wither. As the novel puts it: “Mumei’s generation was equipped with natural defenses against despair. As always, it was the elderly they had to feel sorry for.”

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adapted (by me) from “The Emissary”‘s cover art

In response, Japanese society loses all semblance of rationality, with facts being replaced by superstition and language being warped in a manner reminiscent of Infinite Jest‘s subsidized time. (With the old holidays no longer seeming appropriate, the public is queried and comes up with “Body Day” [to replace “Sports Day,” since children are no longer strong enough to play them], “Extinct Species Day,”  and, morbidly, “Being Alive is Enough Day” to replace them.) Though never explicitly stated, Japan’s culture is seen as being in such dire straits that the language spoken may be Mandarin instead of Japanese.

There’s dissonance in this last point: many of the most inventive parts of the novel, the ones that make you stop and forget the terrible world being depicted, deal with language being forgotten, nuance being misunderstood. Labels in English (a forgotten language for the younger generation) are instead broken into constituent sounds, or used by older folks to evoke nostalgia and cosmopolitanism. Supporting the hunch of Mandarin being the official language here, Chinese characters are constantly evoked in writing (the German city of Rothenberg being translated into “Outdoor Hot Springs Heaven”). There’s humor here, though its missed more often than not.

Despite the evocative (and perhaps even accusatory) setting, not much actually happens in the novel. But that’s perhaps the point, as the glimpses we do see form a concatenation of tiny rituals, compromises, of how Yoshiro and Mumei must exist in this world. The tartness of an orange,  the “scrapping of footsteps on gravel,” the feeling of the ground when one falls of of their wheelchair, all of these small moments inject some respite, some grace into this world ruined by simple indifference and neglect.

I’m the wrong person to follow up here, but the madcap ideas expressed here seem like logical extensions of current issues affecting Japan—falling birth rates, the effects of climate change, the tension between progress and tradition. There’s a very current fixation on issues which seem too large to tackle, and Tawada does a fantastic job showing how a society failing to deal with those issues can compromise itself in ways that make both perfect sense and no sense at all.

Many years apart but of the same sentiment is The Children’s Crusade, a little-known collection by French writer Marcel Schwob, recently republished by Wakefield Press. Written in 1896, it is framed as a number of stories following the actual “Children’s Crusade” that was said to have taken place in 1212. Each story in narrated by a different observer to the crusade: a cleric, a leper, two popes, a few of the children themselves.

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“The Children’s Crusade” by Marcel Schwob

Each of them bear testament to the endeavor, and in doing so reflect back their own concerns and desires of the world. A disaffected goliard flits between joy and despair at the thought of “cruel men who gouge out the eyes of children, and saw off their legs . . . to put them on display and evoke pity,” and wonders if God will save them. A leper seeks to frighten the children but is instead awed by their grace. A pope, upon hearing of the fate of these children (disappearance, death, slavery), curses and then absolves the Mediterranean. Each character is able to see and, to a certain extent, predict the doom that will befall these children, but none take any action in forestalling it, whether through a belief of divine providence (“Blessed be our god who does all he does well and protects even those who do not confide in him,” chants the Sufi Qalandar) or a pleading for divine intervention (an imagined Pope Innocent III stews over the news of the crusade while contemplating his own mortality). They are as sleepwalkers in a fugue.

Schwob presents these stories as short snippets, moments of clarity and/or madness plucked out of their daily struggle. In many ways the technique is similar to that utilized by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa in his short story “In a Grove,” more popularly known as the primary influence for Kurosawa’s Rashomon. Instead of one story, one truth, one arc, we are privy to a sequence that is shrouded, guided by voices whose worldviews are incompatible with one another. We are impelled to look for understanding and connection while simultaneously being compelled towards pity at the predetermined nature of the crusade. The truths these characters espouse are by-turns bleak, fleeting, and delusional. Far from being shepherds, they are instead wallflowers. Cognizant of the past, when they are confronted in the present they are aware of the future’s awful potential, but are powerless to influence it.

 


 

In college, in an English class, a professor showed our class a picture of Paul Klee’s “Angelus Novus” and asked us to interpret it. The angel—a ramshackle, ugly creation, appears as out of a fog, and its eyes are cast off both past us as the viewer and beyond, to some point we can’t yet see. The future? The hidden? The unknown? We were stumped, disarmed, by this unseemly creature.

The German critic Walter Benjamin, whose writings I greatly admire, was also transfixed by this piece. He wrote of it, describing it as:

though [the angel] were about to distance himself from something which he is staring at. His eyes are opened wide, his mouth stands open and his wings are outstretched. The Angel of History must look just so. His face is turned towards the past. Where we see the appearance of a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe, which unceasingly piles rubble on top of rubble and hurls it before his feet. He would like to pause for a moment so fair, to awaken the dead and to piece together what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise, it has caught itself up in his wings and is so strong that the Angel can no longer close them. The storm drives him irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned, while the rubble-heap before him grows sky-high. That which we call progress, is this storm.

The storm of the present, of circumstance, constantly throws off-course our calculations of where we currently are and where we aim to be. As our position amidst the storm changes, so too do our sign-posts, our safe harbors. If we miss a deadline, a climate goal, a child’s birthday, that’s fine. We adjust, we recalibrate, and then we move on. The danger is not in the sense of progress not being made, since we are constantly moving. It is instead in the lingering, centuries-old sensation that we are witnesses to a parade whose beginning has been forgotten and whose end, however enterprisingly aimless, is never in doubt.

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Angelus Novus, by Paul Klee

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“Missing Person” by Patrick Modiano

Winning the Nobel Prize in Literature is a momentous event, when the world’s stage clarifies a particular writer’s works into a cohesive, powerful body and then celebrates it. But even this prize, too, and its accolades, fades with the relentless march of new stuff: new books, new “literary events,” new sequels or endings of trilogies, new comebacks from old authors. Not to mention all the movies, games, and albums that come out. Daniel Handler at The Believer has an entire column dedicated to reading old Nobel laureates, and while it may be a good resource to find great old books, the laureates themselves appear as lost treasures, excluded from traditional canons and instead given this badge of distinction.

Patrick Modiano won the Nobel for Literature in 2014, and the reaction from many Americans (myself included) could be aptly described as fitting, if by “fitting” I mean fitting into the crux of his work and life (the latter of which I won’t touch on save to say that, in true Modiano style, it requires a lot of digging and isn’t quite fulfilling). Modiano delves into stories of characters reaching into their own histories—whether on a personal or communal level—and stitches these searches together with documents. The tension (and, indeed, irony) that arises here gives the novels their emotional heft: the characters are filled with doubts, gaps, and are looking for proof; the documents, forms, and conversations are concrete proof but lack any sort of context.

“Me? I’m following something up.”
“Following something up?”
“Yes. My past.”
I had said this rather portentiously and it made him smile.

This is certainly the case with Missing Person, published in 1978 and with a 1980 translation by Daniel Weissbort. The novel follows Guy Roland, amnesiac detective, as he decides to turn his sleuthing skills inward once his boss, Hutte, shutters the detective agency where Guy works. His search takes him from a community of Russian emigres in Paris to the snowy resort of Megève all the way to Bora Bora. And on his journey he meets the people who filled his supposed prior life: his girlfriend, a French model who he lost touch with at a border crossing; an old deceased friend, recollected through a photograph and brought to life by her despondent pianist husband; another friend, a former jockey with a disposition more spooked than the horses he used to ride.

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image courtesy https://www.pexels.com/photo/antique-ephemera-french-letters-268474/

 

Modiano’s style, filtered through Weissbort’s translation, is tight and without flourish, with some chapters dedicated solely to lists of addresses. Yet this simplicity by intent leaves gaps (literally, in dialogue; spatially, across the 47 chapters; and formally with a lack of adjectives and adverbs) through which the reader can sense longing, a lack of resolution. Similar to the way that the films of Ingmar Bergman may be better appreciated outside of Sweden, where they have to be read via subtitles as opposed to just heard, the lack of embellishment enhances the seriousness and intent of the writing, even as it keeps it at a distance.

I felt a different sense of dislocation and searching, one more meta-fictional than Guy’s/Pedro’s: my own awareness of the exoduses from Paris during the Occupation so lacking, I looked for clues, signifiers, in Modiano’s spare writing. Much as I’m sure he initially felt, I couldn’t make sense of the ephemera—the addresses, the phone numbers, the overheard conversations—and what was left to me was an overarching sense of sadness and loss, of an issue skirted around because of its raw pain.

“Is it really my life I’m tracking down? Or someone else’s into which I have somehow infiltrated myself?”

But on another, more general level, I realized the kind of searching I was doing, that we all do, when we read: we become familiarized with the stories, the goings-on of the characters, their peculiar traits. Aren’t we interjecting ourselves into their lives, ones which we had no place in at the novel’s start and which we have only a dim awareness of by its end? Of course, that may be the entire point of reading, to develop this awareness and understanding, and perhaps with it, empathy, but I appreciate the warning call Modiano raises, that our searches may be in vain, our hope for closure confounded.

Guy/Pedro certainly exists in this flux, and by the novel’s end he has the pieces to his prior life, but is still missing the frame with which to organize them. In a late letter to Hutte he voices this concern: “Until now, everything has seemed so chaotic, so fragmented … Scraps, shreds have come to light as a result of my searches … But then that is perhaps what a life amounts to … Is it really my life I’m tracking down? Or someone else’s into which I have somehow infiltrated myself?” The ghosts in Guy’s/Pedro’s story linger, but is he the right person to try to stir them?

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“Boluevard du Temple” by Louis Daguerre, 1838


Featured image: “Acid Victorian Age” by Giacomo Carmagnola

“Autumn” in Autumn

Essays, story collections, vignettes—they allow us the opportunity to read a variety of thoughts, on varied subjects. Devoid of any centralized focus, we’re invited to partake in them occasionally, like a painting, to engage deeply in the realm between the frame and then, satisfied, saunter off, perhaps to a new painting, a new sensation, or perhaps to our own thoughts.

Karl Ove Knausgaard has made a name for himself ruining the demarcation lines in his own memory, letting thoughts interrupt or interrogate moments otherwise mundane, charging them with a force flowing and vivid. It’s the struggle of a man coming to grips (in near real-time) with what it means to remember, to impart meaning in memory, and the tension between trying to impose some meaning on it now versus what must have been dredged from it then. We read this process page-by-page and feel we gain through it, if not an insight into our own relation to our past then through the fantastic, coherent confluence of another’s.

Autumn, by contrast, is a group of short pieces written chronologically, ostensibly to his then-unborn daughter, introducing her to the world. Its subject matter is precisely the mundane: teeth, twilight, fingers, chimneys, vomit. In Knausgaard’s hands they are rendered into tiny points of reflection and rumination, as when he transmogrifies shame into glee. Or, like their topic, they are more mundane, less filled with light, and while most do become interesting many begin with scientific descriptions of the topic at-hand. The joy of exploration sometimes becomes a slog.

The most compelling thing about Autumn, however, is not any particular section but the liminal space between them, when you turn the page from one fragment to the next. Each piece is an essay, an attempt, to reach some level of veracity with the subject, and when Knausgaard thinks he’s gotten there he’s content to end. It has (a degree of) closure, and must have felt so for him, given the remit of the book (one piece a day, each day). For the reader, however, such pacing is impractical, and the pieces aren’t suited to that level of deliberation. (Koans they ain’t.)

Walter Langley – Memories (1906)

Instead there’s much joy to be found the the space between them. In an early piece, “Wasps,” he procedurally recounts an encounter while painting, ending it with taping off some vents and trapping the wasps. This leads to “Plastic Bags,” which contrasts the artistic listing and swaying of the bags with their more problematic place in nature. As he stares at one bag, in water, he feels not any great resolution but the sense that he “was still in the middle of something  and always would be.” The parallels are suggestive and inviting.

But the most rewarding is halfway through the book. In “Autumn Leaves” he uses the item to evoke apples and family, the tart taste and cidery smell conjuring genealogies of both the apples he’s eating and the family he’s sharing them with. Yet while this evocation is felt, it brings about the larger realization that his current life is the one he’s fixated on, not the past one. “I think of it every day, that what matters is now, that the years we are living through now are when everything important happens,” he writes, leading to a conclusion where he proleptically mourns this moment, one where he’s trying to be present, to appreciate. It’s not about the past, it’s about the now.

Except it really isn’t, since the next piece, “Bottles,” is a humorous childhood story of a town drunk. It’s all reflective, vivid yet reduced in typical Knausgaard style. It begins, as many others, with an exploration of bottle-as-object, but it’s impossible to hide the smirk that forms when he segways into the memory. It seems such a playful refutation of what came before, and invites the reader to guess at Knausgaard’s thoughts: is he aware of this contradiction? Does he find it a joke? Or as a point to be proved? I’m not quite sure myself, but ask me tomorrow and I may have a new thought on the matter.