Sunday, September 12, 2010

On Enthusiasm for Violence

Autumn, or its atmosphere, must have arrived early this year, because I just had my first New York City dream of the season the other day, and recently I seem to have a two or three week stretch of New York City dreams around this time every year. This one started out most calm and pleasant. I was in some kind of consignment shop, apparently in Lower Manhattan as it would later appear. A couple of more purposeful, hurried people pushed past me as I was dawdling before one of the displays near the door, and I decided to go out into the street, where autumn was already in full realization. Once on the street I immediately began to do what I have done many times in New York, that is to search fruitlessly over blocks and blocks for a particular kind of drinking establishment where I would both not be too ridiculously out of place and still surrounded by the kind of people I like and find attractive. There are cities--London for example--where I usually don't have any problems finding this kind of place, but New York for some reason has not proven to be one of them. Anyway, after a few minutes I had walked so far that I had left the leafy residential and restaurant and small shop-filled streets behind and found the streets I was crossing getting wider and wider and the buildings lining them being more and more of the low slung warehouse surrounded by chain link fence variety and my instinct told me I was coming to the edge of the island and I ought to turn around and go back. At this point in the dream by the way darkness had fallen--the afternoon sun had been shining at the beginning. As I prepared to step off the curb four or five shabby cars suddenly whipped into the street I was about to cross from the main avenue and skidded to a stop, cutting off my path. The guys in the cars were menacing-looking Hispanics. My instinct being to flee, I cast a glance over my left shoulder where, from the other direction, four or five more shabby cars flew up and skidded to a stop right beside me. These cars were filled with angry looking black guys. At this point my thought was, 'Maybe they're going to fight each other and haven't noticed me, and I'll be able to slip quietly away' (not very tough, I know). In the interval while everyone remained poised and staring out the windows of their respective cars, I started to cross the street, perhaps a little too briskly, at which the Hispanics, anyway--they were the only ones I could see--burst out of the cars and began running at me. At this, being a coward, I woke up and saved myself the exertion of enduring a beating, but before I did I noted the expression on the faces of the people running towards, an expression I have noted in analagous situations in real life. This was, that, far from being afraid or uncomfortable at the very real prospect of a violent situation, they looked as if they were having the time of their lives. This is a psychology which is pretty foreign to me, and probably to most men of my type, but it, or at least a variation of it that minimizes the aversion to violence--might be the most useful widely uncultivated mindset whose cultivation could be emphasized, or re-emphasized, in the education and upbringing of middle and upper middle class boys, the number of whom are considered to be embarassingly deficient in manliness seeming to increase with every passing generation.

It's pretty clear that this dream was inspired in large part by an article in the New York Times about Rex Ryan, the outrageous New York Jets football coach, who it was reported has even beyond the ordinary regulated violence of organized football loved fighting and hanging around dangerous and violent men from a very early age. Indeed, he beat one of his neighbors to a pulp during an argument the subject of which was not clear just a few years ago, when he was well into his 40s. He projects a tremendous amount of self-confidence, and despite his uncouth appearance and manner--he weighs 345 pounds, wears sweatsuits everywhere and utters a profanity about every 4.4 words--he is clearly possessed of some kind of high intelligence. Many modern authors of course have cultivated a fearlessness regarding wars, violence and the like, Hemingway the primary example, Mailer a little more strainedly, more recently Christopher Hitchens has this kind of persona. Before modern times it seems that violence and war were either more generally accepted by writers as one of the conditions of life, or else one didn't seem to think about it. The self-consciousness of having a particular attitude towards or taste for such matters is in the main not as pronounced. One of the main dilemmas facing the modern would-be writer is that he is aware that a great many matters of high seriousness and drama are going on in all corners of the world at any moment, almost all of which are at the same time remote from his experience. There is an uneasy sense that certain subjects, once one is even tangentially aware of them, cannot be ignored if one wishes to stake a claim to seriousness and relevance. It is my impression that even writers who successfully cultivate a familiarity with and, if not delight, a certain comfort level and fascination with danger and war, cannot quite do so unselfconsciously. It is a learned fascination.

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