Thursday, December 03, 2009

Portelli, Stanton, and musing

Well, things are moving slowly. I'll be in the new old house by December 9, I think. I ran out of heating oil yesterday night, which made me pretty unhappy all night and half of today, as I tried to rectify that. And then back to work. There was one pleasant surprise this week--some positive comments back on a piece of writing. I almost had a heart attack and died.

We discussed Portelli's The Order Has Been Carried Out, and somewhat surprisingly, people reacted in some of the most cold, clinical ways to it. I could hardly imagine why! It was as if Umberto Eco and Elie Wiesel had somehow combined to conduct oral histories in Rome. How poetically David Blight and Ed Linenthal responded to it, and how unpoetically, well... Anyway, the story is this, briefly: a Nazi massacre of 335 Romans occurred less than 24 hours after an Italian Partisan attack on the Nazis (killing 35), but years and decades later, Italians remember the Nazis requesting the surrender of the partisans to avoid the retaliation. In the end, many people blame the partisans, not the Nazis, for the massacre. It is an fascinating ambivalence on the part of Italians about their own involvement, and a sad commentary on politics, and an intriguing study of memory--of course. But why on earth did no one mention the memorial structure of the book? (You'll have to look at the book to see it--I don't really want to describe it). How could you not see that aspect of the book as somehow central? Like it or hate it, it was probably what I would have written about, if I'd had to write about the book myself.

I was also drawn in to The Lowell Experiment, though a lot of people seemed to have a lot of problems with it. As for me, I thought it elaborated quite well on Handler and Gable's The New History in an Old Museum and attempted to address some of the potential problems with that particular study. And people love Handler and Gable. What gives? Stanton dives right into the difficult questions: what of the homogeneity of museum visitors, public historians, interpreters, et al? Do historic sites fail to bridge gaps between the present and the past, or fail to admit to cyclical economic behavior rather than a linear progression? What of the attempts at including diversity, or social justice in the historical narrative? And most fascinating of all, that historians and anthropologists and presumably other professionals have difficulties with insight into their own colleagues--and so, what result does that have on the evidence they collect? At every turn, there was something really exciting to think about--and the best part is, there are no answers.

I am often accused of "musing" in my writing (this criticism is accompanied by "lose the first person")... and as a matter of fact, I do often muse. Well, I think, what about all these authors we read, whose writing is littered with the first person, and who are musing in the extreme (!). I understand that you must pay your dues (apparently over and over and over again) but when you think about the mechanics of learning, you see that people learn to write by reading. And what they're reading influences what they write. (Which is why I continue to hope that someday I will pop out a Graham Greene novel, after so many years of wonderful immersion. I would settle for a short story.)

What else? I also had dream that involved me getting a paper back from DG, and as I flipped through it, I realized that I hadn't looked at the pages after they'd printed, and so did not realize that some of the paper had printed in gibberish (zapf wingdings?). And, in what might actually be in the style of DG's sense of humor, he had written some comments in French. I don't, of course, speak French. So naturally I found the joke very amusing, but I was also mortified. I think I would rather dream about the Mormons and the Mennonites fighting charcoal creatures at a sanatorium.

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