FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

What Do You Want From Death?

by RON JACOBS

Novels that teach history by telling the life story of an individual can be fascinating journeys into humanity’s misadventures.  Likewise, they can also be equally tragic and entertaining.  Two such books that fit all of these adjectives and more are Michael Moorcock’s Byzantium Endures and Marc Estrin’s Insect Dreams: The Half-Life of Gregor Samsa The stories of these two characters are wittily relayed and perceptive each in their own way.  Both are simultaneously stories of the century just past; that graveyard of millions via mustard gas and the atom bomb, revolution, counter-revolution and world wars.  Naturally, the main protagonists meet a number of captivating and unique characters as they stumble, forge, fly and otherwise do through time.

The reader meets Moorcock’s protagonist, Colonel Pyat, as an old man in one of London’s ethnic neighborhoods; a neighborhood changing ethnicities as he grows closer to death.  He is a cynical old man, albeit with a sense of humor that is occasionally wicked and often just appreciative of the absurdity of the human endeavor.   Estrin’s protagonist Gregor Samsa is also appreciative of that absurdity, especially given his removal from it.  He is, after all, that cockroach introduced to the world by Franz Kafka in his story “The Metamorphosis.”  At one time a human, Estrin’s Samsa spends the rest of his life as a cockroach, arguably trying that entire time to become human again.

There are substantial differences between the worldviews of these two characters, despite their similarities.  Moorcock’s Pyat finds humor in humanity’s folly but cannot help but to look for blame.  Like so many others throughout history, especially in that most recent of centuries, he places that blame on the same groups so many have found convenient: primarily Jews, Asians and Africans. In other words: The traditional Other in European history.  He has little concern for anyone that does not fit his chauvinist approach and prides himself on his Orthodox faith and his Slavic ethnicity.  On the other hand, Estrin’s Samsa is the essence of the other.  Clearly not human in appearance, his emotions and intellect are immediately suspect.  Upon his transformation from human to insect, his only recourse is death or life as a freak.  Indeed, his first job upon leaving the rooming house he once lived in is in a sideshow along with a number of other freaks.

Pyat is an arrogant egocentric protagonist full of prejudices and assumptions about humanity.  Some of those assumptions are based on his life experience.  Many more are based on the class he strives to become part of.  Despite his humble beginnings, those experiences provide him with a viewpoint of one who is in power.  He has no use for the Russian revolution and prefers the counterrevolution of the aristocracy and its foreign imperialist allies.  Gregor Samsa is his opposite. The fact of Samsa’s non-humanness makes him appreciate humanity more than most who have never known any other form. He is the Other in every sense of the word. Yet he is the other who transcends his otherness but does not forget it.  He is not the African American who mouths the words of the white man after gaining his favor. He is not the Jew who becomes like those who have burned millions of his predecessors.  No, his otherness provides him with a perspective that prevents his moving from victim to executioner.

Pyat’s escapades take him from his mother’s home in Kiev to the universities, bars and brothels of Petrograd and into the desolate death ridden countryside of the Russian civil war. As noted earlier, Samsa’s begin as part of a carnival freakshow in wartime Vienna. From there, he flies across the Atlantic, invents the concept of risk analysis for Charles Ives’ insurance firm, attempts to make love to Alice Paul, becomes a family friend and consultant to President Franklin Roosevelt and ultimately ends up working on the development of the first nuclear weapons at Los Alamos in New Mexico, which is where he takes his life.  Moorcock’s Pyat is surrounded by the hideousness of modern warfare at the century’s beginning in this first installment of the colonel Pyat quartet.  Estrin’s Samsa is literally in the center of an explosion that will make previous horrors of combat seem almost humane in contrast.

What with Pyat’s distaste for much of humanity and cynical disregard for their state of existence, one might think that his was the darker tale.  Samsa, while easily more likable and at first impression a more lighthearted soul, is actually the troubled representative and denizen of the century.  Upon further thought, it is exactly that which makes Pyat unattractive that ensures his durability in a century of hate, genocide and disaster.  Samsa’s irrepressible optimism and larval innocence render him dead almost as soon as his transformation is complete.

Unfortunately in terms of this review, Moorcock’s book is but the first of a quartet.  Meanwhile, Estrin’s narrative is complete.  This leaves the reader unsure where Pyat’s path of cynical self-assurance will take him as he travels into the century.   Estrin’s Samsa, on the other hand, by deciding his fate, ends the narrative and his existence, seeming to say that the only real liberation from the madness of the modern world lies in death.  Since this is so, it becomes important to Samsa that he determine how and when his death occurs instead of leaving it up to other human forces over which he has no control.  By doing so, his hope is that his death will have some meaning.

There is a poem by the US poet Randall Jarrell titled “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner.”  In this poem, Jarrell defines the emptiness of death in modern warfare in a simple line: “When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.”  His compatriot, the Baltimore-born poet Karl Shapiro, goes even further on this theme in his poem “Auto Wreck;” placing the entire scale of our lives into the meaningless of that frequent event. This kind of death, he writes

spatters all we knew of denouement

Across the expedient and wicked stones.

In a contradiction that defies the miracles of modern technology and the possibilities for a long and meaningful life, it seems that the primary accomplishment of modern life is how meaningless it has made death.

Ron Jacobs is the author of The Way the Wind Blew: a History of the Weather Underground and Short Order Frame Up. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His collection of essays and other musings titled Tripping Through the American Night is now available and his new novel is The Co-Conspirator’s Tale. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press.  He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

 

COMING IN SEPTEMBER

A Special Memorial Issue of CounterPunch

Featuring recollections of Alexander Cockburn from Jeffrey St. Clair, Peter Linebaugh, Paul Craig Roberts, Noam Chomsky, Mike Whitney, Doug Peacock, Perry Anderson, Becky Grant, Dennis Kucinich, Michael Neumann, Susannah Hecht, P. Sainath, Ben Tripp, Alison Weir, James Ridgeway, JoAnn Wypijewski, John Strausbaugh, Pierre Sprey, Carolyn Cooke, Conn Hallinan, James Wolcott, Laura Flanders, Ken Silverstein, Tariq Ali and many others …

Subscribe to CounterPunch Today to Reserve Your Copy

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

December 08, 2016
John W. Whitehead
Power to the People: John Lennon’s Legacy Lives On
Mike Whitney
Rolling Back the Empire: Washington’s Proxy-Army Faces Decisive Defeat in Aleppo
Ellen Brown
“We’ll Look at Everything:” More Thoughts on Trump’s $1 Trillion Infrastructure Plan
John Stauber
The Rise and Fall of Obamacare: Will the Inside Story Ever be Told?
Ted Rall
Ameri-Splaining
Michael J. Sainato
Mainstream Media Continues Absolving Itself From Clinton, Trump Election Failures
Ralph Nader – Mark Green
Divest or Face Impeachment: an Open Letter to Donald Trump
Gareth Porter
US Airstrikes on Syrian Troops: Report Data Undermine Claim of “Mistake”
Martha Burke
What Trumponomics Means for Women
Ramzy Baroud
Fatah, Hold Your Applause: Palestinian Body Politic Rotten to the Core
Steve Horn
Jeff Sessions, Trump’s Attorney General Pick, Introduced First Bill Exempting Fracking from Drinking Water Rules
Joe Ware
The Big Shift: Why Banks Need to Stop Investing Our Money Into Fossil Fuels
Juliana Barnet
On the Ground at Standing Rock
Franklin Lamb
Aleppo Update: An Inspiring Return to the Bombed Out National Museum
Steve Kelly
Hidden Harmony: on the Perfection of Forests
December 07, 2016
Michael Schwalbe
What We Talk About When We Talk About Class
Karl Grossman
The Next Frontier: Trump and Space Weapons
Kenneth Surin
On Being Caught Speeding in Rural America
Chris Floyd
In Like Flynn: Blowback for Filth-Peddling Fascists
Serge Halimi
Trump, the Know-Nothing Victor
Paul DeRienzo
Flynn Flam: Neocon Ex-General to Be Trump’s National Security Advisor
Binoy Kampmark
Troubled Waters: Trump, Taiwan and Beijing
Tom Clifford
Trump and China: a Note From Beijing
Arnold August
Fidel’s Legacy to the World on Theory and Practice
Dave Lindorff
Is Trump’s Idea To Fix a ‘Rigged System’ by Appointing Crooks Who’ve Played It?
John Kirk
Cuba After Fidel
Jess Guh
Repeal of Affordable Care Act is Politics Playing with the Wellbeing of Americans
Eric Sommer
Team Trump: a Government of Generals and Billionaires
Lawrence Davidson
U.S. Reactions to the Death of Fidel Castro
John Garvey - Noel Ignatiev
Abolitionism: a Study Guide
Clancy Sigal
Caution: Conspiracy Theory Ahead!
December 06, 2016
Anthony DiMaggio
Post-Fact Politics: Reviewing the History of Fake News and Propaganda
Richard Moser
Standing Rock: Challenge to the Establishment, School for the Social Movements
Behrooz Ghamari Tabrizi
Warmongering 99 – Common Sense 0: the Senate’s Unanimous Renewal of Iran Sanctions Act
Norman Solomon
Media Complicity is Key to Blacklisting Websites
Michael J. Sainato
Elizabeth Warren’s Shameful Exploitation of Standing Rock Victory
David Rosen
State Power and Terror: From Wounded Knee to Standing Rock
Kim Ives
Deconstructing Another Right-Wing Victory in Haiti
Nile Bowie
South Korea’s Presidency On A Knife-Edge
Mateo Pimentel
Some Notes and a Song for Standing Rock
CJ Hopkins
Manufacturing Normality
Bill Fletcher Jr – Bob Wing
Fighting Back Against the White Revolt of 2016
Peter Lee
Is America Ready for a War on White Privilege?
Pepe Escobar
The Rules of the (Trump) Game
W. T. Whitney
No Peace Yet in Colombia Despite War’s End
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail