FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

What Do You Want From Death?

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

More articles by:

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. His latest offering is a pamphlet titled Capitalism: Is the Problem.  He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

August 15, 2018
Jason Hirthler
Russiagate and the Men with Glass Eyes
Paul Street
Omaorosa’s Book Tour vs. Forty More Murdered Yemeni Children
Charles Pierson
Is Bankruptcy in Your Future?
George Ochenski
The Absolute Futility of ‘Global Dominance’ in the 21st Century
Gary Olson
Are We Governed by Secondary Psychopaths
Fred Guerin
On News, Fake News and Donald Trump
Arshad Khan
A Rip Van Winkle President Sleeps as Proof of Man’s Hand in Climate Change Multiplies and Disasters Strike
P. Sainath
The Unsung Heroism of Hausabai
Georgina Downs
Landmark Glyphosate Cancer Ruling Sets a Precedent for All Those Affected by Crop Poisons
Rev. William Alberts
United We Kneel, Divided We Stand
Chris Gilbert
How to Reactivate Chavismo
Kim C. Domenico
A Coffeehouse Hallucination: The Anti-American Dream Dream
August 14, 2018
Daniel Falcone
On Taking on the Mobilized Capitalist Class in Elections: an Interview With Noam Chomsky
Karl Grossman
Turning Space Into a War Zone
Jonah Raskin
“Fuck Wine Grapes, Fuck Wines”: the Coming Napafication of the World
Manuel García, Jr.
Climate Change Bites Big Business
Alberto Zuppi - Cesar Chelala
Argentina at a Crossroads
Chris Wright
On “Bullshit Jobs”
Rosita A. Sweetman
Dear Jorge: On the Pope’s Visit to Ireland
Binoy Kampmark
Authoritarian Revocations: Australia, Terrorism and Citizenship
Sara Johnson
The Incredible Benefits of Sagebrush and Juniper in the West
Martin Billheimer
White & Red Aunts, Capital Gains and Anarchy
Walter Clemens
Enough Already! Donald J. Trump Resignation Speech
August 13, 2018
Michael Colby
Migrant Injustice: Ben & Jerry’s Farmworker Exploitation
John Davis
California: Waging War on Wildfire
Alex Strauss
Chasing Shadows: Socialism Won’t Go Away Because It is Capitalism’s Antithesis 
Kathy Kelly
U.S. is Complicit in Child Slaughter in Yemen
Fran Shor
The Distemper of White Spite
Chad Hanson
We Know How to Protect Homes From Wildfires. Logging Isn’t the Way to Do It
Faisal Khan
Nawaz Sharif: Has Pakistan’s Houdini Finally Met his End?
Binoy Kampmark
Trump Versus Journalism: the Travails of Fourth Estate
Wim Laven
Honestly Looking at Family Values
Fred Gardner
Exploiting Styron’s Ghost
Dean Baker
Fact-Checking the Fact-Checker on Medicare-for-All
Weekend Edition
August 10, 2018
Friday - Sunday
David Price
Militarizing Space: Starship Troopers, Same As It Ever Was
Andrew Levine
No Attack on Iran, Yet
Melvin Goodman
The CIA’s Double Standard Revisited
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: The Grifter’s Lament
Aidan O'Brien
In Italy, There are 12,000 American Soldiers and 500,000 African Refugees: Connect the Dots 
Robert Fantina
Pity the Democrats and Republicans
Ishmael Reed
Am I More Nordic Than Members of the Alt Right?
Kristine Mattis
Dying of Consumption While Guzzling Snake Oil: a Realist’s Perspective on the Environmental Crisis
James Munson
The Upside of Defeat
Brian Cloughley
Pentagon Spending Funds the Politicians
Pavel Kozhevnikov
Cold War in the Sauna: Notes From a Russian American
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail