“The Bright Clang of the Indeterminate Present”
More on that subject line below…
This newsletter includes
two of the books I’ve recently read
one hifalutin call-to-action (by which I really mean call-to-reading)
Comenzamos: I recently slow read (reading between many other books) Timothy Snyder’s excellent, haunting, and often quite gory Bloodlands. It had been on my list for years, and I decided to finally jump in soon after Putin launched, as former President Bush termed it, the “wholly unjustified and brutal invasion of Iraq… I mean Ukraine.” (Nothing cute about Bush’s gaffe, btw.)
Chillingly, while also reading Luke Mogelson’s reporting from Ukraine for The New Yorker, or Azadeh Moaveni writing from Poland for London Review of Books, I could barely differentiate between Snyder’s descriptions of the atrocities committed in eastern Europe in the 1930s and ‘40s and Mogelson’s and Moaveni’s observations of systematic rape, torture chambers, or the targeting and murder of civilians taking place in Ukraine today. Of course, the scales are incomparable — tens of million of people were slaughtered in Eastern Europe in and around World War Two — but the tactics are terrifyingly similar.
I write “in and around World War Two” because one of Snyder’s key points is to underscore how the ruthless killing, civilian targeting, partisan warfare, and ethnic cleansing took place, at massive scale, both before and after the official dates of the World War II.
Snyder also elucidates one of the questions a lot of people have been asking for the last decade: Why Ukraine? From Putin’s irredentist war first begun in 2014, Trump’s infamous quid-pro-quo with Zelensky, Trump’s campaign manager Paul Manafort’s shady get-rich-quick scheming in Ukraine, Hunter Biden’s shady get-rich-quick scheming in Ukraine, as well as efforts to try to embroil Hillary into a Ukrainian scandal of her own — why has this eastern European country remained so prominently at the center of international scandal after scandal amid long-simmering tension and now war?
Snyder’s book was written before these recent and often deadly imbroglios, but it does shed light on how Ukraine has stood as fulcrum point and battleground between various empires for the last ninety-some years.
As Snyder puts it, “Hitler and Stalin rose to power in Berlin and Moscow, but their visions of transformation concerned above all the lands between. Their utopias of control overlapped in Ukraine.” Utopias of control is a scary term, especially when envisioned by a totalitarian dictator. What both Stalin and Hitler recognized was that “their programs and their power all depended upon their control of Ukraine’s fertile soil and its millions of agricultural laborers.” For Stalin, it was the seemingly paradoxical term “internal colonization.” (Seemingly paradoxical, but also standard operating procedure for nascent empires, as evidenced by the US extermination campaign of Native Americans, another internal colonization.) For Hitler, it was European colonization, modeled (again and explicitly) on the the US’s genocidal colonization of Indigenous lands.
Stalin ravaged the Soviet Union’s own territory through the intentionally deadly collectivization program, while the Nazis sought to colonize occupied Soviet Ukraine with the intent of deliberately starving to death tens of millions. Similar tactics, similar target: the diverse people of Ukraine.
In the end, more people were killed in Ukraine than anywhere else in the world from the 1930s through the 40s.
Another quote from Snyder, which I think captures a tinge of the horror that the bloodlands experienced: “There came a moment in Ukraine when there was little or no grain, and the only meat was human. A black market arose in human flesh; human meat may even have entered the official economy.” But Snyder also reminds us that it is life that gives meaning to death, and not the other way around. A true identification with the victims of any conflict would be “grasping their lives rather than grasping at their deaths.” (It’s a stance I often try to take when reporting on any kind of abuse.)
If you want to begin to understand the long history and current deadly predicament Ukraine faces, read Snyder.
The other stunning book I just read is Lisa Hsiao Chen’s (a good friend of mine!) debut novel, Activities of Daily Living. I would have enjoyed reading this novel even if it wasn’t good, just because I like Lisa so much and I was so damn excited to read the project she’s long been working on. But her book blew me away. It’s smart, witty, brilliantly written, and so damn engaging. The kind of book that changes you when you’re reading it, that makes you believe in literature.
Chen’s novel is about real-life performance artist Tehching Hsieh and Alice’s, the Brooklyn 30-something narrator, relationship to her ailing father. Though calling the novel about anything may confuse its conceit, which is driven by Alice’s nearly singular concern with “the project” which is a catchall for Alice’s aesthetic approach to life and a guiding principle (and sometimes maybe shield) for any and all daily activity.
Here’s Alice positioning herself in comparison with her sister: “And she didn’t have what Alice had, what Alice always had when confronted with an ordeal: the possibility that the experience would prove useful for a project. She could endure anything as long as it could be bent, in recollection, to her design, the mercenary impulse as coping mechanism.”
Besides such reflections which felt like they were stripping me of my own defenses, as well as the fascinating portrait of Hsieh (whose endurance art performances are, at the same time, both simple and shocking) the book is full of stunning, careful sentences — the kind of stuff you want to frame and put up on the wall or stick on a post-it note behind your computer.
The winter cold clung on for months before the trees began releasing their blooms. The sky was sheathed in its crispest cerulean; people liberated from the weight of their winter coats walked freely in the street. Unseen in the trees, newborn birds shrieked with the shock of their own hunger. Every spring a few unlucky hatchlings fell to their deaths onto the pavement, their skulls tiny and translucent as grapes.
Each word placed with such care, such art. This book is a connoisseur’s feast. The subject line is another Chen quote.
To (rather hamhandedly, I admit) bring this back to Snyder and Ukraine: in 1951 Hannah Arendt wrote that factuality itself “depends for its continued existence upon the existence of the nontotalitarian world.” There are other elements to factuality, of course, which include not only the purveyors of fact, but its recipients (readers). We owe it not only to ourselves, but to each other and to factuality, to read with care and love. That’s part of my goal with this occasional newsletter: to fill it with a few careful thoughts and recommendations.
So forgive me (or don’t) but there’s nowhere else but this newsletter where I can scribble such bathetic bombast without an editor after me with an axe.
Another change of gear: here’s the article/review I published this week at both The Baffler and AZ Lu, about the 100-year anniversary of the birth of Charles Mingus, for which a new park was dedicated in Nogales, Arizona, a series of shows were performed, and a “lost” album was released. I delve into the history of Mingus’s birth city and reflect on his music and the new album. Here’s a track that’ll tap right into your border-crossing soul.