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

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.

Weekend Edition
February 23, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Richard D. Wolff
Capitalism as Obstacle to Equality and Democracy: the US Story
Paul Street
Where’s the Beef Stroganoff? Eight Sacrilegious Reflections on Russiagate
Jeffrey St. Clair
They Came, They Saw, They Tweeted
Andrew Levine
Their Meddlers and Ours
Charles Pierson
Nuclear Nonproliferation, American Style
Joseph Essertier
Why Japan’s Ultranationalists Hate the Olympic Truce
W. T. Whitney
US and Allies Look to Military Intervention in Venezuela
John Laforge
Maybe All Threats of Mass Destruction are “Mentally Deranged”
Matthew Stevenson
Why Vietnam Still Matters: an American Reckoning
David Rosen
For Some Reason, Being White Still Matters
Robert Fantina
Nikki Haley: the U.S. Embarrassment at the United Nations
Joyce Nelson
Why Mueller’s Indictments Are Hugely Important
Joshua Frank
Pearl Jam, Will You Help Stop Sen. Tester From Destroying Montana’s Public Lands?
Dana E. Abizaid
The Attack on Historical Perspective
Conn Hallinan
Immigration and the Italian Elections
George Ochenski
The Great Danger of Anthropocentricity
Pete Dolack
China Can’t Save Capitalism from Environmental Destruction
Joseph Natoli
Broken Lives
Manuel García, Jr.
Why Did Russia Vote For Trump?
Geoff Dutton
One Regime to Rule Them All
Torkil Lauesen – Gabriel Kuhn
Radical Theory and Academia: a Thorny Relationship
Wilfred Burchett
Vietnam Will Win: The Work of Persuasion
Thomas Klikauer
Umberto Eco and Germany’s New Fascism
George Burchett
La Folie Des Grandeurs
Howard Lisnoff
Minister of War
Eileen Appelbaum
Why Trump’s Plan Won’t Solve the Problems of America’s Crumbling Infrastructure
Ramzy Baroud
More Than a Fight over Couscous: Why the Palestinian Narrative Must Be Embraced
Jill Richardson
Mass Shootings Shouldn’t Be the Only Time We Talk About Mental Illness
Jessicah Pierre
Racism is Killing African American Mothers
Steve Horn
Wyoming Now Third State to Propose ALEC Bill Cracking Down on Pipeline Protests
David Griscom
When ‘Fake News’ is Good For Business
Barton Kunstler
Brainwashed Nation
Griffin Bird
I’m an Eagle Scout and I Don’t Want Pipelines in My Wilderness
Edward Curtin
The Coming Wars to End All Wars
Missy Comley Beattie
Message To New Activists
Jonah Raskin
Literary Hubbub in Sonoma: Novel about Mrs. Jack London Roils the Faithful
Binoy Kampmark
Frontiersman of the Internet: John Perry Barlow
Chelli Stanley
The Mirrors of Palestine
James McEnteer
How Brexit Won World War Two
Ralph Nader
Absorbing the Irresistible Consumer Reports Magazine
Cesar Chelala
A Word I Shouldn’t Use
Louis Proyect
Marx at the Movies
Osha Neumann
A White Guy Watches “The Black Panther”
Stephen Cooper
Rebel Talk with Nattali Rize: the Interview
David Yearsley
Market Music
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail