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Battling the hard man: notes on addiction to the pornography of violence.

At first I barely noticed "him"--the sly, implausible, mean-spirited loiterer whispering hard-man trash in my head. I dismissed the filth and cant as an insignificant side current--something that could have been running in me, polluted and unnoticed, for years, hidden by high-level self-regard. Who let this in? Who could the hard man hurt?

But over time, he's claimed space. Before my own eyes, not (I swear) because of any overt action on my part, I have changed for the worse in thought and feeling. It's a done thing, seemingly, over and done. The hard man has finished the job.

At moments I'm certain my shame is genuine--the same for the pain. But I can also see myself as one more overwrought, late-life ego-tripper--self-deceived, lost in his Eigenwelt, thinking and writing in Bud Light, not blood. If I could put this as a plea to authority I would say: Give me back my vacancy. Not my "goodness," not my innocence, just yesterday's futureless let-it-be vacancy--the self who couldn't conceivably say make it happen. This was the writer at sixteen, a twelve-dollars-weekly map clerk, kid soon to be called up, prospectless runaway from home and school, who sometimes climbed to a fifty-five-cent Saturday matinee seat at the Morosco or wherever, and when he did was ready to tear up the minute Saroyan's pearly-pure offstage cornetist eased into "My Wonderful One." Big-eared in the photo album, wide round eyes, sweet grin picking daisies in a field with an older sister, he knew from toddlerhood the blame was his for what he was--a fuckup--and surrendered in early adolescence, without protest or resentment, to going nowhere and hating nothing. If I could recover him, this everything-accepted sentimentalist and weeper, if we could somehow get back in touch--


The hard man wears a grim look as the nightly TV news casualty report draws near. The purpose is to forestall--through playacted concern--charges of heartlessness. My humanity isn't yet extinguished, says the look--my anguish at the suffering of the dead and injured and bereaved. Naturally the look isn't to be trusted. The numbers delivered by anchorpersons settle and spread within the hard man's body much like any familiar, anticipated, enjoyable, middle-range, controlled-substance fix. Always I'm aware that the emotions I present in living room response to the human tragedies--my gestures of "bitter revulsion and despair" (a bewildered headshake at the "terrible futility," weighty sigh or slow zombielike nodding meant to bespeak frustration and impotence)--are removed (either slightly or far) from the emotions felt (the latter can include gratification).

But unambiguous guilt about mixed hypocrisy and duplicity seldom obtrudes. When, as happens, a newscast ends without casualty totals--for soldiers, civilians, or both--impatience and aggravation follow. The drink in my hand becomes the target of a grimace. Changing position with a purposeful air, I reach for the remote and commence surfing--grim look intact--for the missing numbers.

Recent "breaking stories" of terror bombs initially stir weak response; the reported numbers seem nugatory. As the totals swell--80 reduced to 60, 43 increased to 47, 52 plus 700 injured plus amputations mentioned by officials together with video of ghastly bloodied faces--the violence-addicted, hard-man self grows more attentive. But terror lacks dailiness--predictability, continuity. Terror meets only my shallower needs.

Wanting terrible news to be worse, relishing catastrophe whose bottom can't be sounded--this condition developed quite swiftly, moving the victim--me--away from appropriate feeling toward the forbidden. The hard man commenced functioning as an independent mind-within-a-mind, finding satisfaction in crashes both abstract and substantive, confirmation in ruin, self-cleansing in intermittent, as-if identification with killers.

Claims that one's soul has hardened necessarily rouse suspicion even in the claimant that such "confessing" is melodramatizing. ("Nothing equals the pride of the self-lacerator.") But the doubt and suspicion of others have lost their power to wound; interest in "sincere" and "authentic" persuasion fades. Dread of one's emerging self counts; strangers' skepticism doesn't. Turning backward in memory to the flaming flying bodies from the Trade Center towers, recalling leaning toward the screen from my reading chair, eyes straining for the sight of those bodies, ears alert for the crushed-bone pavement "contact," remembering my mounting anger at authorities who ruled against my "ghoulish" desire ... With any of that in mind there's almost as little use in fretting about self-lacerating pride as in framing one's features in expressions of decent shock and protest for presentation to the mate with whom one watches the night's news. Day-to-day declines in the number of casualties cause serious disappointment within the hard man, a discernible sense of letdown. Explode us another Humvee, break blast and burn our helpless countrymen, mock and humiliate the mad authorities once more, lengthen the list of the dead. Four more, six more, ninety-seven more--

Sickness, dehumanization--these terms explain nothing. A key element in the condition, as comes clearer with time, is the accompanying cruelly neutral curiosity about what is happening to us inside and why--whether our occasional eruptions of "moral concern" have any weight whatever. Other elements in the condition are the empowering rights and fantasies conferred on me and the rest of the millennium mass audience by the pathological culture of replay--the right to erase nuance and context, the right to murder sympathy, make-it-happen-again rights. Not the least of the problem is that extended analysis of these rights obscures the bare ugly simple truth with which everything now begins and ends--the truth that therefore has to be repeated over and over, namely: for hard men, male or female, of my pornified stripe the day-to-day content of mind and heart (mean satisfaction, mean discontent) is shaped by the nightly casualty report.


Car commercial puts me in a floor--to-ceiling windowed chamber with a white-coated man. Indoor crash lab. The man touches a switch and a remote-controlled car slices in from the right, smashing into a wall on the left. POW. Toyota. Seconds later another car races across the track. POW. The children in the booth--who let them in?--jump about delightedly. The technician touches the switch again, and again--two more crashes. The youngsters demand another but the technician, out of test vehicles--"No more left"--turns up his hands. The kids are unhappy. Their protests grow loud and at the end one of them calls out, What about your car?

The ad upsets my mate. "Did you see that?" she says in wincing disbelief. "How can they do that? Didn't you see them?" Meaning, what allows children to be taught that appetites for mayhem aren't to be chided and the same for demands that people ante up their personal property to keep the mayhem going? How dare they?

In response I offer a commiserating headshake and frown. Stoic cold mimicry of concern. Watching the ad my thought was: this is a sharp copy team, shrewd about kids. When illusion puts kids in the middle of the action they don't brook interruption and denial. Hip-hop, video games, blockbuster space wars, gladiator epics, the usual suspects ... Surroundsound malls. Kidlets build twin towers with blocks and take them down repeatedly with remotes and hurtling mini-cars, demonstrating they know what they want: keep it happening. Make it happen again. Shock nails the message; Toyota spends big on testing; the ticket to brand retention in a certain demographic segment is outrage.

Displays of supposed media knowingness as above are distractions--interruptions in the work of probing the hard man's nagging maddening violence addiction. The latter is my work. The work of approaching as close as possible to the grain of feeling. Knowing the core. For the record: distant from my mate's outrage at commercial exploiters of violence I nevertheless pretend to share it and, over the past many weeks, grow increasingly habituated to myself as pretender. More adept now than before at hiding the taste for crash-crash, I'm amused. I slip into "loving" condescension. The central feeling: mild pardonable deceit. Borderline betrayal.

   We are the beneficiaries and the victims of different theatrical
   moments in life, and, indeed, a child who at the age of three in
   1890 witnessed some sort of enormous horse race in which horses
   dashed at top speed and collided with one another and riders were
   thrown and blood was spilled and a horse had to be put down with
   a rifle and all of that--this remarkable event would naturally
   have energized the child's mind in a certain never-to-be-altered
   way, and would have validated, made permanent, some potential
   brain pathways that otherwise might have been stagnant or
   nonexistent. Well, every child in America has had those
   crash-and-burn brain pathways energized and activated. This is
   something that we must all necessarily understand. There is no
   child born now who has access to television who does not have
   those hyperactive pathways energized and validated.

--George W. S. Trow,
My Pilgrim's Progress

My Umwelt was mild, maybe as mild as 1890. Birth year: 1924. Grandfather farms. Fragrance of grape arbor, sun&dust barn easily evoked. Can harness team, clean draft hooves. Father missed first war. (No war talk in front of kids.) No football. (Fatal accident to player five years before I start high school.) Few hyperactive energized pathways, in short. Played fine "Wonderful One"--no sloppy vibrato--on borrowed Olds trombone.

No crash-and-burn environment to blame.


A swagger is the outward expression of the inward reality of feeling oneself "in the midst of power." The power swirls round the hard man's shoulders and extends downward into the hands--my loosely clenched (but also mysteriously, even humorously relaxed) fists. The careless coordination of knees, elbows--the general physique--speaks for--or at least claims--at-homeness in any and every field of force. Mental at-homeness.

When a NASCAR event goes wrong and therefore erupts on a screen, this car goes toward the infield, that car dodges it but swipes car three, five or six cars bang each other, a wheel comes off, tearing down the track on its own--straight up, running synecdoche--past a driver peeling himself from wreckage in flames. When and if the TV rebukes hard men--sends us back, that is, to the prissy anchor desk--there's again the sense of letdown. (Night without casualty report.) The same when that desk "cuts away from" just-exploded, burning Humvees on the Baghdad airport expressway. "Cars, cars, fast, fast!" Le Corbusier wrote close to a century ago. "One is seized, filled with enthusiasm, with joy. ... The simple and naive pleasure of being in the midst of power.... One participates in it.... One takes part in [it].... One believes in it."

Le Corbusier had only the whizzing in mind, not the POW--not so much as a fenderbender. But in the global present "fast, fast" and crash-crash constitute kindergarten prep in seeing and feeling for all. What binds us to the Toyota kids--crash-empowered viopornified grownups to crash-empowered youth--is felt intimacy with, direct or near-direct experience of, explosive strength: something in which to participate, believe, get off. A strong lasting experience, says the Levitra woman.

The ecstasy of impact underwrites the hard man's viofreak swagger. Or, rather, the memory or imagination of such ecstasy. A knife through butter, a car through the wall. The sense that one CAN bring it down, bring all of it, all of it down. Atta at the wall of the Old City in Cairo watching U.S. enterprise and taste bring down a world (homes, relics, kitchens, prayers, memories). Bush telling a Tampa crowd--I saw this--that he dares to touch the third rail--social security--which others are frightened even to gaze at. You feel power swirling close to the man's collarbone--upper torso. So does he. A casual thing yet clearly joyful. The hijacker's manual, says Kanan Makiya, explains what to do if a passenger does "rise up and stop you." You are to "consider that this is an offering that God has given you.... It is a gift--not an offering, a gift--that has been bestowed, which you can give as an offering to your mother and father as you slaughter the passenger.... An act of slaughter emulating the great sacrifice that stands at the foundations of religious faith, namely that of Abraham sacrificing his son. A great foundational story of faith ... turned on its head." The joy--the ecstasy--of impact.
   Cold. No life in his face. No expression in his face. If I am
   happy, I smile. When I'm angry, I look angry. This guy [Atta] had
   just a cold face.

--Rudi Dekkers,
flight school owner

   When you came down from a flying lesson you'd be very excited,
   you'd want to share some information, et cetera. You never had that
   feeling with Mohammed Atta, definitely not. Because I can see him
   striding towards me, towards the aircraft, and the thing that
   struck me was that he had a terribly set expression on his face.
   Totally unemotionless. Cold eyes.... He seemed to have a sort of
   fixed purposeful expression on his face almost as though he was
   hypnotized, in a way. There was not a flicker of a smile, or of a
   recognition ...

--Anne Greaves, student pilot


Fantasies of obliteration--or, at the minimum, of inflicting pain that shocks and awes--are correctly assumed to figure in the ecstasy of impact. "What driver is not tempted," Adorno wrote a half-century ago, "merely by the power of his engine, to wipe out the vermin of the street, pedestrians, children and cyclists? The movements machines demand of their users ... have the violent, hard-hitting, unresting jerkiness of Fascist maltreatment." It's a mistake to fail to reckon the joy of slaughter, in short, when brooding on your own and others' temptations. After years I haven't forgotten sweeping myself--my former less polluted self, that is--my wife and young daughter back onto the curb, a half-second to spare, just out of a truck's path, on a center-city European street; the approaching truck driver running the light had made his decision: stay in my path, vermin, and you are done. The hard man's anticipatory joy of impact.


But is impact hunger necessarily connected to meanness? Where is your car? The ad team the other night--they grasped that delight lies in impact alone. The passion seals itself from the minute before and the minute after, from insatiation and satiation--from consequences generally. It's utterly apolitical--impatient with or derisive of ownership rights (of car, country, or person). It's self-authorized to delete complicating detail (youth, age, ugliness, beauty, attachments, commitments)--stripped of sympathy by the fierce need to make it happen. "Terrible hits" on football fields--make them happen. After the middle linebackers level the pitiably vulnerable end, down and score momentarily vanish. Immaterial to the hard-man spectator whether the prone motionless casualty belongs to "my" team or theirs, whether my side loses or gains from the event. Desire suspends attachment at an unacknowledged still point. I want another crushing full-throttle collision. Give me a repeat of the featureless player driven into the ground again, vaporized again. Make it happen. How many flaming flying bodies from the towers? "Everything but the engine was vaporized," says the voiceover as the camera noses about in the Baghdad smoke. One hundred and sixteen dead. No, one hundred and twenty-two. Infuriatingly postponed at first, response to my demand for replay arrives as trainer and stretcher approach the crash site, whereupon power and strength swirl around my shoulders again, granting another interval of participation and belief in the all-or-nothing violent stroke. Here at last--the censored flaming burning bodies!

Replay is to violence porn and its hard-man audience what bondage (capture, whipping, and the like) is to standard porn. The promise of endless return.

But who made a boy in a daisy field the client? The teenager who teared up for The Beautiful People?


The papers announce that Spielberg the filmmaker will address the killing of eleven Israeli athletes, by the P.L.O.'s Fatah, at the Munich Olympics in 1972, and the retaliatory assassinations of Palestinians by the Mossad. The article notes Spielberg's hiring of the playwright Tony Kushner "to humanize" what he felt was in one script "too procedural a thriller." The film's first fifteen minutes will be devoted to the killing of the Israeli athletes. The problem for the filmmaker, according to one historian invited to comment on the project, concerns the alleged "misgivings" after the fact felt by at least a few of the Mossad assassins. "It's become," said this observer, "a stereotype, the guilt-ridden Mossad hit man. You never see guilt-ridden hit men in any other ethnicity. Somehow it's only the Jews. I don't see Dirty Harry feeling guilt-ridden. It's the flip side of the rationally motivated Palestinian terrorist: you can't have a Jew going to exact vengeance and not feel guilt-ridden about it, and you can't have a Palestinian who's operating out of pure evil--it's got to be the result of some trauma."

This historian may or may not be wrong--but the business about guilt-ridden Jewish hit men is an irrelevancy. What is relevant is Spielberg's own unexamined addiction--the pretense that this pornified artist's subject is the appetite of others, not his own, that he isn't himself a creator of the hard man's taste he now presumes to examine. At the summit of the murder of mind and feeling in our day stand the Spielberg monuments--fifteen, twenty, twenty-five minutes and more of soul-crushing flesh-rending savored human destruction. Make it happen again--the immeasurable brutalities of war, genocides, slave torture, assassinations ... Have it both ways. Present yourself as humane inquirer--a cute ET sensitif--as you intensify the worldwide--the universal--viopornifying epidemic.

Neither high art nor mass art--never mind how rich in "sympathy"--can wash away the vioporn prisoner's sins.

I have just committed a self-excusing indictment? Yes, but the result all the same is a true bill. Takes a hard man to know one.


He came off the mound flying almost at the moment the bat met the ball and the concussed ball struck into his head. The terrible sound that's profaned when you attempt to pull it up into words, forgetting that it was never really a sound, that it stopped sound, speech, cheers, crowd noise. "Matt Clement--" A play-by-play announcer began with those words and broke off. He's down, the line drive hit him, hit his head--

Now came the interval of decency. Trainers and players rushed to the fallen man, became a protective circle for him. A player held Clement's hand. An announcer gave the man's name. Another player was on a cell phone and a voice from the screen speculated that the call was made to Clement's wife. The camera followed the movements of the emergency workers. The silences were protracted. The period of seconds--or half-minutes--the increments were taut, strained--but unpolluted by excesses of interruption. Interruption, in other words, meant to establish mastery. A moment of violence was allowed to settle in the mind. Leisurely was a word one might have dared to use had it not communicated unconcern, absence of intense involvement. I remember "thinking" when the play-by-play man spoke of someone holding Clement's hand--thinking of the day I went to see my dying friend Eric at Columbia Presbyterian. Sitting in a chair at bedside I touched his face. He seemed in a deep nap. Patted the "tousled" gray hair round his ears. I thought of Eric's best friend Kingsley's loving dismay that no one had thought to have Eric's hair cut in the hospital. "He looks like Lear on the moor," Kingsley complained sharply. I stroked Eric's face, realizing never in a whole lifetime had I caressed a man physically until this moment. I was in tears at the pleasure--the lost pleasure, too--of the experience. I imagined a smile forming on Eric's features. I thought--No, he's smiling, is he half-conscious?

When the play-by-play people spoke of the possible phone call to Clement's wife I thought of Mailer's tribute to DiMaggio's courage--day after day facing pitchers' efforts to brush him back, scare him--using the awful power of the headhunter to break his will to face them down. Was this tribute pure macho bonding? One more embrace of violence? An attempt to peer into the mystery of his wife's love for him? I wondered, waiting with millions of others, if Mailer's feelings had any tincture of awe for a life of excellence built on daily courage, rather than the hyped-up rush of wartime or ringtime combat. Did a routinization of risk occur. Could it immunize the potential victim.

My wayward reflection went to DiMaggio's marriage, back to Clement still down, the silent stands, on to the pitcher's wife. Did she come to the park for home games? Were there children? What were players' human relationships truly like? How many team friends might they have? Did they ever talk, as grown men talk, about their wives' foibles, their children's achievements?

Later in the day, on other news programs, and in the sports pages--everywhere as it seemed--the moment was reduced to the simplifying cruelty of the replay. The sound of the click off the head, the instant racing on about Clement, the hospital, condition, and so forth. The rumination, the succession of irrelevancies, the connecting of the moment of violence with family, family life and love, friendship, death, physical inhibition, courage--all that assimilates horror, all that enters into the weak but durable thing called human decency--the space to imagine the impulse of giving physical comfort to the doomed athlete, stroke his hair, his face, to tell his unconscious form that he is deeply loved--

All that space was erased by replay. But I remember that during the time that space existed I occupied it naturally, easily, no effort. I was not impatient for the replay. The bang bang crash. I grew back to humanness. No longer conditioned to demand they make it happen.

I resolved to store this memory within myself. Together with the kind face, the love of the poet, and of the Tranenregen.

When Clement returned to action, sportswriters and play-by-play men raised the question: will he now be gun-shy?

   A small clothing store near the Trade Center Towers enclosed in
   glass one section of the store as it was immediately after the
   attack. "The ash sits thick on the jeans.... It forms a crust on
   the shoulders of the sweaters, and put[s] a gray-white stripe on
   red tank tops."

--Jimmy Breslin,
"Simple Sight Is Most Moving,"
Newsday, May 21, 2002


What is to be done with meaning fetishists like myself? With the therefore-crazed? With those who crave understanding but will not reckon with their own insides? People who will say anything in their pursuit of causation except I am the cause. When I wrote last night I was chasing a cause. Asserting that I have become what I have become owing to the techne of replay. The age of mechanical reproduction. We begin in innocence. A case of inevitable decline.

This explanation I find more tolerable, true, than Jerry Falwell on the why of 9/11 ("the pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and lesbians" are responsible). Billy Graham's daughter who believes the "cause" was or is irreverence is a fool. (For years now "Americans in a sense have shaken their fist at God and said, 'God, we want you out of our schools, our government, our businesses, we want you out ...'") When I hear myself saying, Experience is to blame, Experience did me in, the idea of decline becomes likable--more so, at least, than the idea of guilty gay fist-shaking compatriots. Once I was good, you see. I can tell from the snapshot. In the field with my dear sister Jannie, picking daisies. The four-year-old I already mentioned, him with the large ears, sweet eyes, nothing cruel nor isolate in sight.

But, face it, there was a hard man to come. The hard man cometh.


A dozen years ago, in a hospital for the first time since the war, I pushed myself to walk from my bed to the nurses' station and one day a nurse, very young, probably new, quite nice looking, spoke to me when I stopped near the desk catching my breath. She said: You have such a kind face. I smiled. Aren't you nice, I said, teasingly. Lately when this memory returns I dispatch it quickly. My perceived "kind face" is moral capital I will not--must not--spend. I have similarly wary, husbanding attitudes about certain pieces of music--sounds that could sweeten time at the end. Shored-up fragments wear out, crumble at the touch, if overused. Implicit here is the assumption that redemption is conceivable straight to the end for the hard man as for others. Straight to the end one will be capable of needing or relishing a Schubert trio or Purcell aria or Billie&LesterorBen duet (ooh-ooh-ooh/what a little moonlight will doo-oo-oo)--or the memory of a young nurse reading one's face (hence one's nature) as "kind." Straight to the end not even the hard man will believe that the losses suffered--the inexpressible damage--are permanent.


Because of the remembered nurse and a precious snapshot in a family album and inexpressible devotion to Schubert's B-flat Trio and the song "Tranenregen" and many lines of Wordsworth (memorized 1942-45) still recitable minus error, I believe a time existed in my life when I could not have passed over, unaffected, the presidential visits to Walter Reed hospital to talk with wounded troops--the living human creatures whose limbs were cut off, burned, blasted, ripped because of the authorities' desire for impact. (I defend herewith and hereby the assertion that once I wasn't a hard man.) The authorities stand beside the maimed human creature, in front of him, speaking cordially. I would have at least protested in thought. Matthews of Hardball wanted to know what the President said to the Captain with the leg blown off by a land mine (the man wishes to return to combat). Replay footage is shown of the man's prosthesis flying off as they teach him to run. Thing flew into the air. He thanked me, said the Captain, author of the best-selling book Back in Action.

Matthews was especially taken by the evocation in the Captain's book of the experience of feeling the leg come off in the boot. The moment of being hit. You make us feel it, Matthews said admiringly to the Captain. He tries with a hand gesture or movement of his head to create the sense of physicality that the Captain brought to his description of the moment of the wounding. As to the final severance--

MATTHEWS: When you're confronted by a doctor ... it is pretty direct. He says, "Do you want to keeps--"

CAPTAIN: He said, "We can cut it off or we can try to put something back together. It's banged up, and--"

MATTHEWS: "--it will have a hole in it"?

CAPTAIN: "--we'll probably cut it off. We'll probably cut it off in a year."

MATTHEWS: But didn't he say, "It will have a hole in it"?

I listened with interest, feeling no more revulsion at Matthews's fascination than at the authorities' cordiality. The "self" that understands Matthews's detached curiosity about "how it feels" and is undisturbed by the authorities' clubbable congeniality with the representative of those killed and maimed is like the poacher-to-be who doesn't protest as Moktir the kid steals fancy scissors in Gide's The Immoralist. The scene screams for outrage--my wife's outrage at Toyota teaching mayhem to children. The "adversary culture"--Lionel Trilling's phrase--won't pony up the outrage. For plausible-sounding reasons detailed ironically by dozens of Underground Men and Women. I have my reasons, too: my reasons are my decline, which is not my fault.

Decline from what?


Feelings of distance, detachment, cruelty--these are inescapable. But the sense that they don't matter--that they belong either to a puzzle or to fiction--comes from the mind of the hard-man prick. I am nagged, I admit, by contempt for my own "seriousness." When I feel concern flickering at my losses--of decency, rightmindedness, goodness--I blame others--persons, institutions--as a means of changing the subject. When I try to isolate details of feeling in myself I discover they're insubstantial--snowflakes and dandelion fluff, breathe and they're gone. I laugh out loud at tough political mockery of "sensitivity," enjoying it, and abruptly remember that once I was on the side of those who found sensitivity to be the defining human quality (such a kind face)--but feel shame only briefly about laughing. I work at drawing a fine contrast--between, for instance, my loved one and myself--and then mute the lines because understanding what I'm truly about might establish one way or another that something of consequence is indeed happening. But why, always why--the question is ineradicable. Why must this something of consequence happen?


Before he began the 9/11 planning, Mohammed Atta lived crash after crash. There was the cavity somewhere outside Aleppo in Syria--a lost city being excavated. (Atta's dissertation master at Hamburg Technical U. sent Atta to the ruins in 1994 to observe because of the latter's interests in archaeology, architecture, city planning, the Islamic past.) Soon after came Aleppo itself, another crash-crash site because a redevelopment project was in progress. Tear the kitchens down. A reporter, Terry McDermott, following Atta's tracks years later, wrote that in Aleppo "the collision of old and new isn't merely theoretical":
   You can follow old roads, twisting along lines of elevation and
   drainage, through old neighborhoods, dense and jumbled just as they
   must have been a thousand years before, then suddenly come upon
   something new--a concrete apartment building that looks like it
   arrived from Mars or Moscow, or a three-story mini-mall fresh off
   the boat from Sherman Oaks.

      Atta focused on a neighborhood called Almadiyeh Square. It,
   too, had suffered modern improvements. In the 1970s, the government
   dug broad new [access] roads ... to and through the old town. Crews
   cut part of a road right through Almadiyeh, tearing down what they
   needed to, and put up a small building to sell souvenirs to the
   tourists the road was intended to carry.

The following summer Atta and a couple of friends won a grant to study the Egyptian government's plans for redeveloping the Islamic City in Cairo. Probably this was the onset of his huge hunger--triggered by direct encounter with modernization's earthmovers. Grounds for life and work--ragged, familial, stony--were to be cleared as if for Western eyes. All changed, changed utterly. The revolutionary prospect: a theme park. Malls to survey a collection of shiny "monuments," "Oriental" cafes and ersatz arts-and-crafts workshops, lots of lawn. A place inhabited for more than fifty centuries was to be recast, complete with costumes, atta and companions were appalled. "The government planned [on] removing many of the people who lived there, evicting the onion and garlic sellers ... and bringing in troupes of actors to play the real people they would displace." In a word, the old city was to be knocked down and marketed as "an Islamic Disneyland."

Events demanded replay.


NOTE: [to anybody trying to read this through: The passage ahead with the Saroyan and his hero who destroys advertisements--papering the stage with ads for the goods--matters to the whole for the reason that the kid isn't ripping anything violently. The kid plays randomly (rip) against or with the pearly comet. A page in the air. No purposedriven motivedriven. He spoke to me because of a peculiar note of hopelessness somehow reconciled. You are going nowhere young man, but maybe there's nowhere to go. No talent. No inside track. No education. So what you could not have, would not have, any kind of a future, well, let it be. Don't mean I was happy about the situation, just that it was so utterly emptied of possibility or destination or any reason to fool yourself with make-it-happen imaginings that you made your bed with it. In your fifty-five-cent seat. I'm not sure I can write this yieldingness--the way the sweetness of Saroyan gave it a kind of voice, made you feel kind, as the playwright imagined himself, as "My Wonderful One" was--the song with its self-abnegating sense of the perfection of the beloved--but the idea is to try. Not to say surrender's the OPPOSITE of pornification. Some would dispute that. For myself I would claim that, after all, by the time I went in the Army, I was a step beyond Saroyan, why else would I know three or was it four stanzas of the Nightingale Ode? And I did, I did.

An irrelevancy. The point is the replay-making self, the make-it-happen self did not then exist. Look, I had no MEANS. I was not Atta.]

My family broke, I'm out of high school, clerking in NYC for minimum dough but still enough for one two-bit or dollar-ten matinee Saturday, and it's Saroyan I love. Soft, saccharine Saroyan. I can still see the kid ripping pages out of the Satevepost downstage and the lovely pure comet offstage doing "My Wonderful One" and I can see Eddie Dowling with the "whore" in the bar--all of it still vivid. I teared up in pity for myself over and over, which was bad but not proof of monsterhood. And when Lynn B. set me straight--my first grownup friend, teacher at Hopkins where the infantry sent me for six months before the program folded he did so by giving me his copy of Keats's letters and then a Pal grave. I think it was a Palgrave. * And, back in a rifle company, I memorized some short ones, or pieces of the long ones. The Reaper singing was, for me, a version of "Wonderful One" offstage. But there is no proof of monsterhood in this sentimentality. Nor is it mere--I mean, nor was it--softness. It was a principle of let it lone, don't push. Let it alone. "Just you only you in the silvery moonlight, my wonderful wonderful--" Let the ad pages disappear. Let the story not advance. Let the cornet keep singing to no end--

   As the millennium approached, American culture became fascinated
   with violence and disaster scenarios of all types, from
   police-chase television programs, to animal-attack exposes, to
   nuclear-apocalypse movies.... The obsession with destroying New
   York continued to pervade every aspect of our culture. The cover of
   the hip hop [artist] Busta Rhymes's album E.L.E., which stands for
   "Extinction Level Event," [shows] a massive ball of fire engulfing
   all of lower Manhattan. SimCity software allows computer users to
   choose what disaster will strike New York, or just watch as
   programmed disasters play out before their eyes. Microsoft's Flight
   Simulator software made it possible to fly between the World Trade
   Center towers, or, if one weren't skilled enough, to crash into
   them.... In Deep Impact, huge waves rose over the World Trade
   Center, obliterating all in their path. And in the months before
   9/11, American image makers portrayed disasters that were
   remarkably similar to what happened on 9/11.... Just before
   September 11, New York and its World Trade Center were repeatedly
   destroyed.... [T]hese fantasies seemed to be irresistible to
   writers and filmmakers.

--Max Page, "The City's End,"
in The Resilient City


The commonplace book I kept into my late thirties contains nothing out right mean or violence-craving. The last thing in it--I just checked--is a snippet of Raymond Williams copied out of the New Left Review in 1960:
   "Impact" has become the normal description of the effect of
   successful communication, and "impact," like "consumer," is now
   habitually used by people to whom it ought to be repugnant (what
   sort of person really wants to "make an impact" or create a "smash
   hit," and what state is a society in when this can be its normal
   cultural language?).

And it is a fact that I can still say the closing lines of the "Immortality Ode" and maybe two whole stanzas of the "Reaper."
   Thanks to the human heart by which we
   Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears,
   To me the meanest flower that blows can
   Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.


My doctor interrupts a physical exam to talk politics. In a tone partly puzzled, partly confessional he says that reports of declining casualties--a week with a single Marine lost--leave him unhappy. For some time he's almost been rooting against his own country.

At a class reunion supper a tablemate lists some sayings that anger him--afflatus that "hope is on the rise," that "we have turned a corner," that "all of us pray this catastrophic eventuality can be avoided" ... Nothing appalls him, he says. Not the shooting of a robed judge or a dozen helpless kids in a classroom, nothing ...

During a long phone conversation a friend, recently widowed, recalls he used to look away in repugnance from ghoulish footage--planes striking the towers, Kennedy's brains splattered over Jackie--but no longer. An animal's death on the road: repugnance is replaced by defiance. He no longer looks away.

Needless to say, the audience matters. I am the audience. The speakers are confident that my negativity matches or overmatches theirs. The confidence arises from my own blackish comments.

Listening to them I want to disavow my blackishness. Instead I proffer my practiced helpless nod.


One link to orthodox porn lies of course in the abstractness: observation at a remove, no fucking; casualty statistics, no blood on my hands when slivers of disappointment come that although six Americans were wounded, none died.

Shrewd early criticism of American culture took it to task for being insufficiently materialistic--not coveting the goods manufactured and sold but hungering for intangibles that hype claimed were embedded in the goods. Which intangibles exactly? The envy of others, the conviction of personal well-being. (I covet an S300 because it will vivify for me the deprivation of others.) The porn-pleasure-like ecstasy of impact resembles boughten envy because, reliant on fleshly images of events, objects, explosions, cars and games, it's also abstract: an affirmation in taut urge-filled silence that heightens my personal consequence as well as his--the leader's--without endangering either of us. I want, says the internal hot whisper, therefore I too shall have. And (vide Pat Robertson, the careless aside) nobody will be hurt.

Again I'm writing the obvious: Leaders cherish impact. It hasn't just happened to me, the replay fantasy. In the Reagan years, Cheney, then chair of the House Republican Policy Committee, was said to speak often, in private, about the political benefits of small wars. (Make it happen: jump in and invade.) The thrusting, imprinting example of Margaret Thatcher had shown the way--the people's idolatry of her Falklands war, standing ovations in Parliament, streets mounded with flowers thrown by ecstatic fans as the waving goddess passed ...

"One of the keys to being seen as a great leader," said George W. Bush to a biographer named Mickey Herskowitz two years before 9/11, "is to be seen as a commander-in-chief." (The biographer was later discharged.) The President-to-be added: "My father had all this political capital built up when he drove the Iraqis out of Kuwait and he wasted it. If I have a chance to invade ... if I had that much capital, I'm not going to waste it...." The leader who wastes capital is a hunter who has failed to bag impact. He's expended spirit in a waste of shame--failed to provide followers with experiences of impact in which to participate. Purely masturbatory. The current President's moment of extraordinary animation--eyes brightening, voice rising, half-smile flickering--occurs when he points to images of impact: lines of Shiite voters in Baghdad, for example. "We are watching history being made," he avers with the impatient half-smile. "History that will change the world." I am making history happen. I am changing the world. Watch. Participate. Believe. Momentarily the believers feel the weight of events from within. The very word, history, underlined and crashed into the wall, becomes history, a weapon fashioned for impact's sake by the Chief Executive, as Commander-technician. There's exhilaration in the observation chamber--the sense of shared triumph--and, subsequently, a return to mass insatiation and new demands.

Risk, daring, fearlessness, bold strokes--these and other key terms in the language of heroism slip smoothly from the discourse of combat and crusade to realms as remote from bomb runs as library reading rooms. The infinite elasticity of metaphor permits the refashioning of debates about privatized deductions and health savings accounts, regulation easements and tax reform--timid deskbound exchanges of neatly marked-up budgetary spreadsheets--into sweaty gore-strewn life-and-death struggles of warriors. The Commander in Chief reminds us that others in his place have lacked the guts to face the "challenges" and "dangers" against which he has resolved to test himself. He draws contrasts between their cowardice and passivity--their terror of consequence, their crippled will to impact--and his own readiness to hurl himself at the wall. The edifice he'll take down is a paper construct, sure, an edifice built of H.R. this and that, compromises, Congressional Record posturing, a structure revised and amended and amended and revised over decades by forgotten legislators and committee staffs the memory of whose dogged expertise has all but vanished.

No matter. The thing long ago gained concrete substance in and through leased space, machines, files, tables of organization. Housed in solid federal buildings and offices in a thousand urban downtowns, it's treated by insiders with a kind of wary mockery: the view is that anyone elected who speaks publicly of it without deference can count on being seared and burned. And this potentiality seized the Commander in Chief, lent edge to his appetite. Invade on this ground and you legitimize your salute to doughtiness. You are one who dares what others fear--dares to touch "the third rail of American politics" at the risk of personal destruction. The difficulty of the challenge will make the victory all the more exciting, the Commander in Chief cries out to crowds assembled to hear "the details" of the promised revolution. A daring pilot in no extremity except that which he himself invents, he does not hide his intention--sails brazenly on the wind, not with it, regardless of destination--drives the ship of state hard, makes the trip happen.

And the crowds respond. I saw it, as I said. In Tampa, Florida, an entire hall rises to its feet and shouts Bush's name after a speech on paper money and paper pensions. It's a moment which, for the impact hunter--the hungry master of the politics of impact--renders the risk worthwhile.

What is the point? The point is that I am with him. The policy is immaterial. The need, the longing, the taste--it's all shared. Cars, cars. Fast, fast. The hard man cometh. The hard man stays.

   I listened, motionless and still;
   And, as I mounted up the hill,
   The music in my heart I bore,
   Long after it was heard no more.

   I wandered lonely as a cloud
   That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
   When all at once I saw a crowd,
   A host, of golden daffodils ...

   For oft, when on my couch I lie
   In vacant or in pensive mood,
   They flash upon that inward eye
   Which is the bliss of solitude;
   And then my heart with pleasure fills,
   And dances with the daffodils.


I need to remember what happened with me and Wordsworth the English romantic poet. The man who "taught" him to me--after, just after, the second war--was a New Humanist. An Irving Babbitt follower. Anti-romantic, anti-Rousseau. The intellectual episode is all gone, of course. Paul Elmer More, etc. So many decades ago. We chuckled, war vets, as the teacher mockingly did the bio and the way-out poems. He told us there was a great Triangle Club show at Princeton in which Wordsworth's wanderjahr in Europe figured. I sat remembering my Palgrave and my deep gratitude to Benny who gave me poetry to help me with my war. My career as "infantry replacement," heavy weapons gunner.

It seems that on his grand tour, wandering "lonely as a cloud," Wordsworth fell in with Annette, got her pregnant, and then cleared out shamelessly. The Triangle sketchwriters spoofed this episode with a song one line of which went, "and Wordsworth sowed his one wild oat." We, the audience for our professor's joke about silly-assed, timid Willy W the poet who with his friend Coleridge celebrated "wild asses" and lonely wandering, were responsive because we were of necessity hustlers, not wanderers. Having grown up, I grasped that only the rich or the feeling-less could relax into a Wordsworth moment, cherishing dancing daffodils, or a youngster named Lucy, enjoying evenings in the cottage with Dorothy and the kettle on the hob. The rest of us had miles to go--long miles, oral exams to face, theses to write, hardnosed postures to perfect.

Seven years before the Wordsworth-mocking teacher came another. Rockett, my high school classmate whose folks weren't broke hence could afford MIT, had me up to Cambridge and took me to meet his English teacher. Old building, arched windows and river behind the man at his desk. Not unkind, he took my question, which was about the essay I imagined writing--utter fantasy--for a contest in some theater magazine. Subject: Theater and the Brotherhood of Man. Guy looks at me and at Rockett. This was 1940. You know what was playing in the West End in World War I--or maybe it was 1940, who knew? Chu Chin Chow. Hit show, the guy said. Biggest hit in the world. (Expression of disgust to accompany scathing tone.) Brotherhood of man? The question left, as Henry James would say, hanging. High school boy learning a little something for the road. Wordsworth sowed his one wild oat. I might well be a damned fool.

Benny said no, god bless him but he's gone. Made me say some lines again, as we smoked outside the Hopkins library. My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains my sense. O Benny my friend, Blessings for the help you gave the hard man to come.

   Go balloons, go balloons? Go balloons? I don't see anything
   happening. Go balloons! Go balloons? Go balloons! Standby confetti.
   Keep coming, balloons. More balloons. Bring it--balloons, balloons,
   balloons? We want balloons, tons of them. Bring them down. Let them
   all come. No confetti. No confetti yet. No confetti. All right, go
   balloons, go balloons. We need more balloons. All balloons! All
   balloons! Keep going! Come on guys, let's move it. Jesus! We need
   more balloons. I want all balloons to go, goddammit. Go confetti.
   Go confetti. More confetti. I want more balloons. What's happening
   to the balloons? We need more balloons. We need all of them coming
   down. Go balloons--balloons? What's happening balloons? THERE'S NOT
   ENOUGH COMING DOWN? All balloons, what the hell! There's nothing
   falling! What the fuck are you guys doing up there? We want more
   balloons coming down, more balloons, more balloons, more

--DNC director Don Mischer
on CNN, end of Kerry
acceptance speech

   Cold. No life in his face. No expression in his face. If I am
   happy, I smile. When I'm angry, I look angry. This guy [Atta] had
   just a cold face.

--Rudi Dekkers

   The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer.

--D. H. Lawrence

On Monday six Marines dead. Yesterday, fourteen. I watched replays of explosions.
   Thanks to the human heart by which we

   Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears,
   To me the meanest flower that blows can
   Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.

And again, for the replay's sake:
   Thanks to the human heart by which we
   Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears,
   To me the meanest flower that blows can
   Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.

I believe a time existed in my life when I could not have passed over, unaffected, the presidential visits to Walter Reed hospital to talk with wounded troops--the living human creatures whose limbs are cut off, burned, blasted, ripped because of the authorities' desire for impact. The authorities stand beside the maimed human creature, in front of him, speaking cordially. I would have at least protested in thought. Maybe left to walk the dog. Matthews of Hardball wanted to know what the President said to the Captain with the leg blown off by land mine who's returning to combat. There was footage of the man's prosthesis flying off as they taught him to run. Thing flew into the air. He thanked me, said the Captain, author of the best-selling Back in Action.

Regeneration, as the scholar says. Regeneration through violence.

Dear hearts, kids, anyone who reads: I'm still in it, wanting to battle. Wanting not to give in all the way. Reciting to myself thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.

Editors' note: When our friend and longtime contributor Benjamin DeMott passed away on September 29, 2005, he left behind the following manuscript, which he had worked on steadily throughout his final illness. We find it remarkable not only for its courage and style but for an honest insight that if anything has only appreciated with time.

* Francis Palgrave's selection of "the best songs and lyrical poems in the English language": The Golden Treasury (1861; still loved, still in print).
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Title Annotation:CRITICISM
Author:DeMott, Benjamin
Publication:Harper's Magazine
Article Type:Viewpoint essay
Date:Aug 1, 2007
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