“We have nothing to fear but fear itself”–FDR

One of my great pleasures each week is reading the Sunday NY Times Magazine from front to back. Actually, it’s usually back to front, because I always start with the puzzles on the next to last page.

It offers many of the hallmarks of a well-edited publication, including this one: The articles included are often synergistic. When you have read the whole magazine, you realize that the individual pieces complement each other in such a way that the sum adds up to more than the individual pieces. This week’s magazine was no exception.

I haven’t even read the premier feature article this week. It is about the exodus from Iraq of many of the people who could help rebuild the nation. But after reading the other stories, I think I already know what it’s going to say. Here’s why.

The critical essay, the one that tells you what most of the rest of the issue is about, is by Israeli novelist David Grossman, a piece called “Writing in the Dark.” He begins by talking about Kafka’s fabled mouse, who is caught in a trap with a cat lurking nearby. The mouse says, “Alas. . .the world is growing narrower each day.”

Grossman builds on this to talk about the ways in which we use language to deceive ourselves. My friend Whig has written elsewhere that he never deceives himself with language. I hope that is true, but I doubt it. To fail to deceive ourselves in times of terrible pain might become unbearable.

Grossman writes: “Fear makes us shut down our sensibilities.” He is careful to note that he is not just writing about current conflicts in the middle East, although these obviously weigh heavy on his mind. But what he is obviously concerned about is the weigh we jigger language to reduce our pain or our sense of inevitable disaster. He writes: “The language with which the citizens of a sustained conflict describe their predicament becomes progressively shallower the longer the conflict endures.”

Grossman’s main point seems to be this: By writing, and by writing as truthfully as we know how, we can prevent that shrinkage of the world. Writing opens our eyes and our hearts, It makes our world bigger.

This has also been my experience.

When the truth is unbearable, whether it’s international conflict, interpersonal relationships, or any other circumstance that’s weighs heavily on our sensibilities, we find ways to describe it that mitigate or deaden the effect. We become somewhat less than fully human in our efforts to avoid pain.

Also in this issue is an interview with Pulitzer-prize-winning poet Natasha Trethewey. In it she (as did Grossman) talks about the conflict between imagination and memory. Her prize-winning book is, in many ways, about her mother, who was murdered.

She makes this interesting observation: ” For the sake of sanity, there is a lot of necessary forgetting. But the trick is to balance forgetting with necessary remembering, to avoid historical amnesia.”

At any rate, there’s a terrific amount of meat in this week’s magazine. If you’d like to read some of it, you can find it here.


18 Responses to ““We have nothing to fear but fear itself”–FDR”

  1. OmbudsBen Says:

    I love your comment on the synergy of the magazine, and have noticed it elsewhere. Also how as time passes the descriptions of a conflict become shallower.

    HL Mencken was pro-German during WW1. In his essays he wrote bitterly about the pro-English propaganda of the war and what a large volume it woudl take to correct all the lies — but, of course, that shallowness and forgetting creep in, and it all recedes.

  2. mklekacz Says:

    I had a meeting and writing session with my friend Carla earlier this week, and I was trying to tell her about this article/phenomenon. She said that she couldn’t get through the day if she watched the television news or read The Oregonian newspaper. She could deal with NPR, but these other sources disturbed her too much.

    It is painful to deal with the daily deaths in which our country is involved. This isn’t a statement about blame. It’s hardly worth noting that more Americans have died in the Iraq conflict than were killed in New York and other places on September 11, 2001. I know that’s been said in a million venues. And that doesn’t begin to address the other deaths associated with this conflict or the number of people whose lives have been forever changed in probably not fun ways.

    But I find it disturbing that we can make these events remote to us, even people like my passionate friend Carla.

  3. whig Says:

    “My friend Whig has written elsewhere that he never deceives himself with language.”

    Can you cite where I said that?

  4. mklekacz Says:

    Whig, I thought I responded to this yesterday, but for some reason it’s not showing up.

    I did a quick search (which I admit to being very poor at) without success. It was in one of the rather long exchanges we had about semantics and language deception, and I think it was in response to a comment I made about how we all deceive ourselves. I think it was in Ben’s blog, but since I can’t find it, if you think I’ve misquoted you, please say so and accept my apologies.

  5. whig Says:

    I think you’ve misquoted me.

  6. whig Says:

    I have long said that language is metaphor, the words are not the things described, the map is not the territory. It is easy to be deceived if you let your words think for you.

  7. mklekacz Says:

    Well then, please accept my apology. It wasn’t deliberate, just the impression that whatever you actually wrote left on me. Clearly I must have been deceived. ;^}

  8. whig Says:

    Not deceived, no, but possibly misunderstanding. There is no intent to cause misunderstanding, at any rate.

  9. whig Says:

    A frame of reference must be shared to understand some things. Do you drink tea or coffee?

  10. mklekacz Says:

    Whig, I found it. Here it is:

    Posted May 3, 2007 at | Permalink
    I do not use language to deceive myself or anyone else.

    The whole thread can be found on Ben’s blog at: http://ombudsben.wordpress.com/2007/04/30/stay-out-of-those-plum-trees-you-hear/#comments

    If there are nuances here that I’ve misinterpreted, I’m sure you’ll set me straight. I didn’t mean my comment as a perjorative but as an observation.

    As to your question about coffee or tea, the ansser is “yes.”

  11. whig Says:

    Thank you for finding this, it helps a great deal because I do understand what I meant.

    “I do not use language to deceive myself or anyone else” does not mean the same thing as “I never deceive myself with language.”

    I can be mistaken, or use a word incorrectly. It is not my intent to deceive, but because I am capable of changing my mind, it is the case that things I have said before my mind changed would be from my later and hopefully better perspective, wrong.

    I do not use a hammer to hit my hand, but it does not therefore follow that I never hit my hand with a hammer. I really try not to ever do that, by the way.

    I think I lost my need for a tea or coffee metaphor, or else I will recall it later.

  12. mklekacz Says:

    Whig, I understand the difference. I wasn’t trying to put words in your nouth, just echoing the way your statement struck me. And I admire people who can change their minds. My favorite philosophers have mostly done so as they aged.

    If you ever recover your need for metaphor, I drink both coffee and tea, and generally both on a daily basis. I also like scotch and good wines.

  13. whig Says:

    I think that words are written from a perspective, and someone else who shares that perspective will understand them, and oftentimes another person with a different perspective will not.

    I write from Berkeley differently than I think I would have written from New Haven (which was our other possible destination for my wife’s graduate studies). I certainly write differently than I did when I lived in Pittsburgh, which was almost a year ago (and only that long). I can speak openly about some things here, I can even make it the primary subject of my blog, which would have put me at some concern of a knock at the door in other parts of the country.

    I hope you understand. If tea and coffee and other caffeine containing herbs were prohibited, would you quit them? Or would you replace the government?

  14. OmbudsBen Says:

    Whig & Marianne, the quote is this:

    Posted May 3, 2007 at | Permalink
    I do not use language to deceive myself or anyone else.”

    you can find it as the 25th comment here:


  15. OmbudsBen Says:

    Oops — I read far enough through the comments to see you were looking for it, then read farther and saw you found it. Sorry for the redundancy.

  16. mklekacz Says:

    Ben, no problem.

    Whig, I find it most interesting that your writing has changed with your venue. I’m not totally sure whether you mean the style or the content, but I still find it interesting.

    About your question: One of the most interesting things about my current lifestyle and location is that for the most part we can pretty much ignore the government and tend to do so. Thoreau is one of my great heroes. I admire tremendously his commitment to values that caused him to refuse to pay his taxes (he believed they were mostly funding a war he didn’t approve of) and land in jail, but I’m unlikely to emulate him in that. So I probably wouldn’t go to jail over caffeine, either. But we have only to look at Prohibition to discover why our war on drugs offers so little success.

  17. whig Says:

    Marianne, it is good that you feel much as I do about this. I am able to speak as freely as I do about cannabis because I have no real concern about being taken to jail. When I was in Pittsburgh, more discretion was necessary both as to having and discussing it.

    I think it is possible to build a new political consensus in this country, which permits us to live as we see fit and without interference as long as we are peaceful, and which provides benefits which make participation desirable and voluntary. I do not want there to be a single political party, but I do want to make the purposes of government conform to our desire to be beneficial and abolish the unnecessary evil.

    Can we bridge here and how would you proceed if so?

  18. mklekacz Says:

    Whig, this might be where we actually part company. I don’t believe that the solution lies in politics nor that it can ever be found there.

    My desire is to live a good life and to help others achieve the same. I have no illusions that others’ definitions of “the good life” would in any way, shape, or form resemble mine. Therein lies the rub in trying to organize and act “politically.”

    I’m actually embarked on a little social experiment locally. I’m going to be writing much more extensively in this over the next few days, and I’ll try to explain what I mean a little more fully.

    But it does make me happy that we can find some points of agreement. I think there are many more of them among most of us and that we lose sight of them in our daily squabbling.

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