… what Steinbeck is arguing in his writing is that we have to be responsible for what he terms the whole thing, known and unknowable, in a very deep way: that if you step into a tide pool, you have to realize that that step has changed the entire universe, and that will fit neatly into what Silko’s arguing in Ceremony, the whole sense of having to be careful, to walk in balance, to be responsible for knowing that every single act of humanity changes the world. Steinbeck was arguing that sixty years ago, before anybody in white America really was… Louis Owens
I’ve been meaning to write about Louis for some time now, but it was a ridiculous photo I saw on the San Francisco Chronicle website a couple of days back of troops preparing for battle by doing a “Seminole War Dance” that brought his spirit back into the room. It was the kind of thing that he would have laughed at, with that dark laugh of his, a laugh that for a long time managed to stay just ahead of the despair at its heart.
I’ve been thinking of Louis because he was the only writer I knew personally whose work took as its central question the real problem of evil, how evil walks in the world, how evil manifests itself in violence. Louis’s novels, particularly The Sharpest Sight, Bone Game and Dark River all take as their central question the ramifications of violence — on individuals, on cultures, on landscape and place. Louis is the guy I would have called, or emailed when I saw that silly photo, the guy I would have gone to because Louis had the singular ability to acknowledge your fear, your despair, your flagging faith with the kind of dark joke that could keep you going.
And I’ve been thinking of Louis, because for several days I’ve been trying to wrap my brain around the process that brings a person to the point where he or she feels entitled to kill another person. There was a death penalty advocate on NPR the other morning, I only heard a fragment of it, but he was saying that the Supreme Court’s recent stay of execution wouldn’t deter him from proceeding with executions even in the face of DNA evidence exonerating those on death row. Coming on the heels of our President’s weird television appearances in which it was clear that he was looking forward to going to war, that despite his words to the contrary, all his body language screamed how badly he wanted to go to war, that he really really wanted to go kill Iraquis, and that he felt fully entitled to do this, that he felt they deserved to be killed by him, I found myself missing Louis. So this morning, when I couldn’t sleep, I went to Google; I thought maybe I could find something of his out there about violence that would help me make sense of this process. There’s a section of the interview from which I pulled Louis’ quote about Steinbeck, where he and John Purdy discuss Vietnam. Louis didn’t go to Vietnam, but his beloved older brother Gene did, and came back deeply wounded by the experience. Gene disappeared one night, and it was thirty years before Louis found him again. (His essay Finding Gene describes the experience.) I thought this exchange about Dark River was interesting:
JP: … I like how you play with …the “week-end warrior” who is out there trying to experience the “thrill” of war . . .
LO: The militia . . .
JP: Yeah, but even more insidious than that in some ways, less blatant. The professional person who comes from the urban center to learn the ways of the “wilds” and to hunt humans. Then the convention of the Vietnam veteran, the Black OPS type of characters, and you take them all apart.
LO: Well, good. I�m glad you think that. And actually, the militia were inspired by a group of guys I ran into when I was backpacking on a reservation. They were wearing camouflage uniforms, out practicing war. Disneyland with weapons. I know there are people like that, practicing violence against others. ….
JP: That group is an interesting group because it has such a wide array of characters; they�re all participating in the same type of activity, but operating from different backgrounds and values, so there are these moments of crises for some of them: “Are we going to kill these women, or what?” It is no longer a game, and they have to decide.
LO: Ironically, in a group like that the most violent are often the individuals who never experienced war.
JP: They haven�t had to live the aftereffects.
LO: Well, yeah. You were in Vietnam. You know what I�m talking about. I wasn�t but my brother was there for three years and a lot of my friends were there and a number of them died there. It seems to me that it is almost always the people who haven�t experienced the immediacy of violence who are capable of getting involved in it as a game.
As a game. That’s certainly how it’s being portrayed on the television (yeah, yeah, I turned it on again last night despite my best intentions). As the latest, “realest,” reality TV. But those aren’t suckers who volunteered for some stupid tv show out there, they’re actual people who for any variety of reasons agreed to take up arms and defend our country (note: defense not offense) and despite the ways the media and the government are colluding to try to assure us that this is a “clean” war, that these strikes are “surgical” go read the guys who were there the last time, and what they have to say about the experience on the ground.
The doublespeak is so virulent right now. This morning’s newspaper is full of angry letters to the editor from people outraged by the peace demonstrations. There is this suffocating voice from the right, a voice so full of anger and hostility, calling for unanimity. Claiming that dissent is treason. Claiming that we all need to obey. Like my inability to figure out how someone makes it okay in their own head to go kill someone else, I don’t really understand why anyone would think a nation of people all lined up in lockstep agreement is a good thing. Unless maybe it’s denial at the heart of it all.
Louis says in the John Purdy interview:
I guess one thing I’m working on in most of my writing is the way America has tried, and continues to try, to bury the past, pretending that once it’s over we no longer need to think about it. We live in a world full of buried things, many of them very painful and often horrific, like passing out smallpox-infested blankets to Indians or worse, and until we acknowledge and come to terms with the past we’ll keep believing in a dangerous and deadly kind of innocence, and we’ll keep thinking we can just move on and leave it all behind. That’s a reason that one of Nightland’s protagonists, Will, ends up living on a ranch containing a world of buried things, including even a smashed Range Rover…. But he�s going to stay there. You can�t run from that buried history.
But you can try to shout down anyone who mentions it, I guess. You can start a war to “prove” our dangerous innocence.
Louis was my mentor and my friend. I can’t ask Louis any of the questions I want to ask him, the questions I’m posing in this entry, because on July 25 of last year, Louis put a gun to his chest and shot himself. Somehow the violence he’d spent his life exploring in fiction came off the page and claimed him. Louis’ friend Glen Martin said it best, expressed the shock and sorrow and anger many of us felt, still feel.
Violence begets only violence.