Chris Gisonny on the rhythms of language in Peter Dimock’s George Anderson: Notes for a Love Song in Imperial Time.
Do Americans lack a language adequate to the history they are living? Peter Dimock believes so, and he explores this issue in his strange and remarkable novel George Anderson: Notes for a Love Song in Imperial Time, published by Dalkey Archive Press. “Empire and democracy are not compatible,” Dimock writes. “By what narrative logic do we reconcile them?” The more specific question the novel poses is: What is it in our language that has fostered the American public’s complicity with their government’s use of torture despite its violation of international and domestic laws?
Dimock’s novel asserts that Empire’s delusions infuse the very rhythms of our language, which is to say our collective imagination. The US continually demonstrates an eagerness to defend its lofty principles via policies that negate those very principles. But this seems difficult for many Americans to grasp or confront in any meaningful way. In a broad sense this is probably due to what Dimock in his “Author’s Note” deems a “subjective internalization of [a] historical narrative of national triumph”—in other words, a pervasively accepted exceptionalism has crippled the critical thinking capacities of many Americans. The spurious pieties regurgitated endlessly by our pundits and demagogues do not help the situation; forging a collective sense of clarity in this purported democracy appears to be nothing more than the flimsiest of utopian fantasies.
But hold on, put down those cyanide capsules—we may not be completely fucked. Not just yet. The torture, the drones, the secret prisons, the assassinations of American citizens, the reduction of habeas corpus to some quaint, anachronistic custom—this is deplorable, yes, but as George Anderson argues, a true confrontation with Empire first requires us to confront Empire’s contamination of our own minds.
Theo Fales, the novel’s narrator, is a prominent editor responsible for ghostwriting a former C.I.A. Director’s memoir, in which he shrouds the organization’s criminal activities with specious, moralistic prose. The Harvard-educated Fales is well aware of his role as a neoliberal ideologue: “I am an expert by formal training in our national narrative. Over my long career as editor, I helped regulate a bourgeois ethical monopoly over the words by which we know ourselves and understand others as universal democratic citizens sharing a modern and Humanist historical good faith.”
George Anderson is a refreshing detraction from that sophistic ethical monopoly. Rather than resorting to the problematic realism common to much of contemporary literary fiction, Dimock’s more adventurous novel assumes the form of a long letter addressed by Fales to David Kallen (most likely based on the attorney Daniel Levin), who in “December of 2004 . . . signed on behalf of the Office of Legal Counsel the document that contained a footnote that found the policies and acts of torture committed by the officials of the George W. Bush administration legal.”
In his letter, Fales prescribes for Kallen a strict regimen of meditation based on The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola. In what is arguably the novel’s most satirical element, Fales instructs Kallen (a former classmate whom he has never actually met) to implement this five-week meditation routine as a means of purifying his consciousness of his collaboration with Empire. Fales repeatedly references a vision he has experienced at a colleague’s funeral, which at first makes his letter read like that of a madman systematizing his madness. But as the letter proceeds, a complex ethical credo emerges in a labyrinth of allusions, quotations, and arguments.
As such, I would argue that George Anderson qualifies as a collage novel. To bolster his idiosyncratic system of ethics, Fales includes quotes from the likes of John Berger, Aristotle, John Coltrane, George Eliot, Erich Auerbach, Marshall McLuhan, and Ralph Ellison. In addition to segments from the Declaration of Independence, Dimock has inserted into his book two historical documents: a newspaper article concerning a liberated slave whose name graces the novel’s title, and the 2004 OLC memorandum addressed to the Attorney General, which reviews the concept of torture in a stifling web of convoluted legal terminology. Fales weaves the same quotations into his prose again and again, and reiterates his own assertions in altered forms. The pluralism inherent in this method challenges the nationalist narrative that wields its monolithic influence over the collective imagination. The variety of voices that flow together in Dimock’s prose river evoke the polyphonic, the democratic, the multitude.
Fales employs the second person frequently; he is addressing Kallen, but often readers may fall into the illusion that they themselves are the recipients of his direct address. The meditative process that Fales prescribes for Kallen he essentially prescribes for the reader as well. “Refuse Empire, create reciprocity inside the present moment with which to build a society of equal historical selves.” This is the book’s most subversive tactic: prompting readers to question themselves about their own complicity in their government’s atrocities.
And although President Obama insists that the country only look forward with regard to this matter, those pesky sins of the national past just won’t go away. “Globalizing Torture,” a report released by The Open Society Foundation just a few weeks prior to the publication of George Anderson is, like Dimock’s novel, an invitation to look back, to remind ourselves how far we’ve strayed from our supposed principles. The report details the CIA’s criminal “extraordinary rendition” program of the last decade. I recommend you read it, but first be sure to pour yourself a tall glass of whiskey, because (forgive me) when you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you. However overused, this famous Nietzsche aphorism serves us better than Dick Cheney’s declaration that the War on Terror necessitates that the US go over to the “dark side” and operate in “the shadows of the intelligence world,” if only because of its implied reciprocity: in Cheney’s conception, one can engage with the dark side unscathed, whereas Nietzsche correctly cautions against the contamination that can result from such a perilous engagement.
However, for the purposes of any American citizen who reads this report, the abyss aphorism indicates a different but nonetheless crucial reciprocity: complicity with the war crimes enumerated within its pages. And let us make no mistake: the US government’s use of torture was and is a crime. As the report makes clear:
International law unequivocally prohibits torture. The norm against torture is a jus cogens norm from which no derogation is permitted. The U.N. Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT), to which the United States and 152 other countries are party, expressly states that ‘[n]o exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.’ In fulfillment of its obligation under Articles 4 and 5 of CAT to criminalize torture, the United States enacted 18 U.S.C. §2340A, a federal criminal statute that provides criminal penalties for acts of torture—including attempts and conspiracy to commit such acts—committed outside the United States.
Well, fuck. And yet government officials and a large portion of the public, conservative and liberal alike, invoke as a justification the sort of extraordinary circumstances (the ongoing homeland security emergency posed by the farcical War on Terror) that the CAT explicitly prohibits as an excuse for implementing torture. Faced with the government’s sinister machinations, the mainstream media’s lamentable complacency, and the public’s misguided indifference, what is John Q. Progressive to do?
There is of course no ready-made answer. But in the efforts of our more scrupulous citizens—among them those behind “Globalizing Torture” and George Anderson—we may enjoy, if not the appearance of an outright solution, at least an alternative reflective space in which solutions may emerge. The concept of reciprocity is the driving engine of Dimock’s novel. Fales may intend this term to signify a level of productive collaboration or dialogue between citizens which has evidently fallen into disrepair. But reciprocity may also signify a level of productive collaboration or dialogue between the text and its reader.
George Anderson is a good ol’ Barthesian writerly text, one that encourages the reader’s participation in its creation by inviting multiple interpretations. It is a reminder that reciprocity resides in the very act of reading itself. And so maybe it is not necessarily a lack of an adequate language that afflicts the American imagination—that language is available, it resides somewhere between the minds of potential readers and the books gathering dust on the shelves of our under-funded libraries. The written word engages the reader’s imaginative apparatus; great and challenging works of literature hold enormous potential for enhancing the functionality of that imaginative apparatus, which lies inert in the minds of too many Americans under layers of ideological rust.
Reciprocity between reader and text—reciprocity mediated by language—language revitalized in this reciprocal exchange of meaning. Collective confrontation of Empire, should it ever occur, must begin in our ability to effectively channel the language that flows through us, from individual to individual, and to reinvigorate, via an active imagination, our shared reservoir of words and concepts grown stagnant under Empire’s complacencies.
In the meantime, do as Theo Fales urges David Kallen: “Be sure to attend to the sound of reproach in the voices of all the anonymous dead.”
Chris Gisonny is a writer based in New York. He is currently pursuing an MFA in Fiction at The New School.