It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country

Wilfred Owen wrote this poem in 1917 at a hospital where he was recovering from shell shock.  He died the next year, at the age of 25. Is there any more vivid description of what it is like to die for one’s country?

Dulce Et Decorum Est

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of disappointed shells that dropped behind.

GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!– An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime.–
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,–
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

And here is John Singer Sargent’s large painting “Gassed,” completed in 1919 and on display at the Imperial War Museum in London.
Gassed© IWM (Art.IWM ART 1460)

World-building and storytelling

Posting has been light while I’ve tried to meet my goal of finishing the first draft of my novel in six months.  I probably won’t make it, but I’ll come close.

This is a sequel to my novel The Portal, and the experience of writing it is interestingly different from my previous effort: writing another novel in The Last P.I series, which turned out to be Where All the Ladders Start.  Both novels are science fiction, but Where All the Ladders Start uses a future world (and a set of characters) that I’ve already created. The challenge in writing it was coming up with another mystery plot (or two) for my protagonist to get involved in.

The sequel to The Portal takes place in a parallel (or alternative, or maybe alternate) universe.  It’s an adventure story rather than a mystery, so the plot doesn’t have to be as tightly wound as that of Where All the Ladders Start.  But I have to do a whole lot of world-building for it, and that offers its own difficulties.  There are two things that have been happening in the course of the first draft:

First, I keep coming up with new ideas about the world.  Some are just local color to give the novel added depth; others are dictated by the plot (which, as usual, has veered off in unexpected directions as I write).  All that stuff needs to be worked into the second draft. This is pretty much business as usual.

Second, and more interesting, there’s material I wanted to work into the novel, but I never seemed to find the right place for it.  Now what?  Will I have better luck in the second draft?  The problem I’m having is the world-building does not always play well with storytelling.  For example, at one point in the draft I thought I had reached a good spot in the book where a character could spend a few pages giving some needed background, but my writing group gave the scene a unanimous thumbs-down: it slowed the action too much, I was informed.  Ditch the exposition and ramp up the conflict. The best science fiction novels make integrating the description of the fictional world with the action of the plot seem natural; but it’s hard work.  At least for me.  The challenge of the second draft is going to be making that hard work look effortless.

Diagramming the first sentences of famous novels

For Christmas one of my sons gave me a wonderful present–a poster showing the grammatical diagrams of the opening sentences of some famous novels.  What a kid!

Here’s a column about this poster.titled “23 Sentence Diagrams That Show the Brilliance of Famous Novels’ Opening Lines”.  It’s nice that Business Insider thinks that grammar and literature are worth a column, but the diagrams show nothing of the sort.  Here, for example, is the first line of 1984:

This is a wonderful sentence, but its diagram doesn’t tell you why.  Substitute the word “twelve” for the word “thirteen” and you just have bland scene-setting.  The “thirteen” jars you–something is different here; something is off.  That’s where the brilliance comes in.

Similarly, here is one of my favorites:

What makes this sentence brliiant?  It’s the word “screaming,” of course.  Substitute the word “plane” or “bird” and the sentence loses everything.

And another favorite, Lolita:

Hey, that isn’t even a sentence!  You’ve gotta pretend it has a verb.  But anyway, would this sentence work if it read: “Ernie, fixer of my brakes, changer of my oil”?  Same diagram, but not quite the same effect.  The brilliance comes from the alliteration and the rhythm; it’s closer to poetry than to prose.

Some famous first sentences having nothing much to recommend them except that they begin famous novels.  Like:

This is a nice, short, punchy sentence, but there’s nothing special about the three words it contains.  It’s memorable because of what comes after it.

Anyway, the poster is great, my kid is great, and the sentences are great.  Let’s not oversell the concept, though.

Knee-jerk liberalism and me

I tend to describe myself as a knee-jerk liberal.  But free speech seems to be an issue where conventional liberalism and me have parted company.  The recent incident in Garland, Texas is a case in point.  Pam Geller, as far as I can tell, is a creep, and her “Draw Muhammad” contest was a deliberate provocation.  On the other hand, here is the New York Times:

Those two men were would-be murderers. But their thwarted attack, or the murderous rampage of the Charlie Hebdo killers, or even the greater threat posed by the barbaric killers of the Islamic State or Al Qaeda, cannot justify blatantly Islamophobic provocations like the Garland event.

Actually, sure it can.  Here is the conservative David Frum (inventor of the phrase “Axis of Evil”) in response:

Anti-Muslim bigotry is a real and ugly phenomenon. But there’s a necessary distinction to be drawn between vilifying people and repudiating their beliefs. Blasphemy isn’t bigotry. Applying the single term “Islamophobia” blurs that difference: conflating the denial of a belief with discrimination against the believer.

Is that such a difficult distinction to make?  And later:

We owe equality and respect to persons. Ideas and beliefs have to prove their worth. Pamela Geller, the organizer of the Garland, Texas, “Draw Muhammad” contest, attracts criticism because she so often pushes up to and over the line separating criticism of ideas from vilification of groups of people. She’s an uncomfortable person to defend. But that’s often true of the people who test the rights that define a free society.

This all seems perfectly sensible to me.  I don’t think I’m becoming grumpy in my old age.  I think conventional liberalism has lost its way here, and that’s bad for the country.

Here’s another long-time liberal who is having problems with this.

I don’t think Geller’s goal was to provoke a murderous attack. Perhaps verbal attacks, but of course that’s Charlie Hebdo’s goal, too, for the reaction to its mockery of all religions was absolutely predictable. Charlie Hebdo existed to mock and provoke. By all means, says the Times, let’s not publish cartoons of the prophet, for whatever one’s motivation, it will “serve only to exacerbate tensions and to give extremists more fuel.” That goes for both Geller and Charlie Hebdo. What is the newspaper saying here? Apparently, that we should keep our hands off religion, at least those faiths whose adherents become murderous when offended.

Two minutes and forty seconds of immortality

Once upon a time I had a tape of “The Best of Louie, Louie” from the inimitable Rhino Records. (My favorite track was the version by the Rice University Marching Owls Band.  What a great song for a marching band!  I was less impressed by the versions where you could actually make out the lyrics.  Who cares what the song is really about?

Amazon tells me I can also purchase “Love that Louie: The Louie Files” , “The Best of Louie Louie Vol 02“, and other compilations.  I guess this tells you the song is a classic.

Jack Ely, the Kingsmen’s lead singer, died yesterday, so let’s take this outa here — let’s go!

Should Charlie Hebdo get an award?

PEN wants to give Charlie Hebdo its “freedom of expression courage” award.  This has provoked an outcry from many writers. PEN isn’t backing down, saying that they reject the “assassin’s veto”.

My son lives in the Middle East, and he was baffled by the “Je Suis Charlie” thing.  Why isn’t the West protesting the many courageous Muslim bloggers and journalists being persecuted by autocratic governments in the Middle East and elsewhere?  Well, fair enough, I’m happy if they get awards too.  But I’m a part of the West, and free speech is one of the things the West does right.  As a writer, that matters to me.

Nowadays, the “most helpful” review of my novel Senator on Barnes & Noble is a one-star review complaining that it used the Lord’s name in vain multiple times at the beginning, so the anonymous reviewer read no further.  Again, fair enough.  Readers who don’t approve of using the Lord’s name in vain have been warned.  But nowadays I could easily imagine a world where offending religious people like my anonymous reviewer would be illegal (especially in Europe); or, where corporations like Barnes & Noble would decline to sell books that contained certain words or phrases deemed offensive to a religion.  (Does Barnes & Noble sell books that contain imagines of Mohammed?  I have no idea.)

I have this sense that conventional liberalism has lots its way over this issue–or at least, it’s too vexing an issue for liberals to respond to it coherently.  What happens when two core liberal values–diversity and freedom of speech–collide?  When blacks on campus claim they are the victims of hate speech?  When Muslims claim they have been scapegoated for the actions of a few crazy terrorists?  Do we have to parse all of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons to determine if the magazine is worthy of an award?

Here’s a paragraph from the PEN statement that I like very much:

The rising prevalence of various efforts to delimit speech and narrow the bounds of any permitted speech concern us; we defend free speech above its contents. We do not believe that any of us must endorse the content of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons in order to affirm the importance of the medium of satire, or to applaud the staff’s bravery in holding fast to those values in the face of life and death threats. There is courage in refusing the very idea of forbidden statements, an urgent brilliance in saying what you have been told not to say in order to make it sayable.

Good for them.