The Taser's Edge

Believing is Seeing (Observations on the Mysteries of Photography) by Errol Morris

I was elated when I heard that Errol Morris was coming out with this book, even when all I knew about it was the title and the author. (Fog of War is only one of the must-watch documentaries Morris is responsible for.) And the book exceeded my expectations.

Believing is Seeing is not so much about photography as it is about whether objectivity is possible (or desirable), about what and how and whether we can know, about history and memory, about how our expectations create our observations in things small and enormous. It’s not even that I agree with all his arguments (and, in fact, I found myself dissatisfied at the end of perhaps half of his photo essays), but he is an original thinker who helps others think, and that makes this book worth reading and re-reading.

There are six essays, each based around a photograph or set of photographs which have caused problems of interpretation, often with the help of mass media, but just as often with the help of historians and other scholars. Then Morris gathers interviewees and experts and other data and begins thinking through the puzzle.

The photography is great, the history is great, the interviewees are great, the anecdotes are great, the analysis is great, the prose is great. What more do you want? Excerpts?:

I also remember reading an account of October 28, 1962–the last night of the Cuban missile crisis, when many knowledgeable people thought the world would end. Khrushchev had not yet capitulated and Kennedy was poised for nuclear war. Khrushchev was in Moscow, Kennedy in Washington. We know what Khrushchev was doing from the accounts written by his son, Sergei. Khrushchev was so worried about the possibility of nuclear war that he spent a sleepless night and then announced his decision to remove the missiles from Cuba over Radio Moscow the following morning so that it could be broadcast to the entire world without delay. On the same night, Kennedy was down by the White House pool with his aide, Dave Powers, and two girlfriends watching Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday. What a story. Hepburn, heir to some unspecified throne, dreams of being free of the obligations of state, but in the end knows she must return to the requirements of the monarchy. That die, too, was cast. It was a fantasy within a fantasy within the reality of the White House.

and, in a later essay…

A photograph can capture a patch of reality, but it can also leave a strange footprint: an impression of an instantly lost past around which memories collect.

The best way to get a taste of this book also happens to be about JFK. Last week, on the anniversary of the President’s assassination, Errol Morris created a short documentary for The New York Times called “The Umbrella Man.” The way the documentary winds around, altering your mind and surprising you in the process, is the way each essay in this book works.

Here’s the link to the NY Times “Op-doc.” Here’s the link to buy Morris’ book. Here’s the link to his website. Get clickin.’

Kip’s Provocative Interpretation

If there's one thing more annoying than a movie tie-in edition paperback, it's a cover that shows beautiful actors but doesn't mention that the book won the Booker Prize..

Near the very end of Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, Kip, an Indian Sikh man who has disarmed bombs and mines for the English throughout World War II, hears of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and his belief in just about everything good in the world is lost:

My brother told me.  Never turn your back on Europe.  The deal makers.  The contract makers.  The map drawers.  Never trust Europeans, he said.  Never shake hands with them.  But we, oh, we were easily impressed–by speeches and medals and your ceremonies.  What have I been doing these last few years?  Cutting away, defusing, limbs of evil.  For what?  For this to happen?…

American, French, I don’t care.  When you start bombing the brown races of the world, you’re an Englishman.  You had King Leopold of Belgium and now you have fucking Harry Truman of the USA.  You all learned it from the English…

He [Caravaggio, a white Canadian character] knows the young soldier is right.  They would never have dropped such a bomb on a white nation.

I don’t know how to react to such a claim.  For this Indian man, ‘English’ and ‘whiteness’ are synonymous, although the latter term would be anachronistic in 1945.  This is the problematic piece for me.  Is Ondaatje, a post-colonial author born in 1943 Sri Lanka who now lives in Canada (and who is therefore a near-lifelong British subject), doing an unfair revision of history, or is he simply telling the truth (albeit in likely an anachronistic way)?

The evidence against Kip’s claim is the firebombing of Dresden and other European cities by the Allies, the race between Germany and the US to create the atomic bomb, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the entire Cold War.

The evidence for his claim is that the bombing of the Japanese mainland’s population centers (military and civilian targets) by the Allies was unbelievably more brutal and sustained than the bombing of Germany.  In Errol Morris’ The Fog of War, Robert McNamara says that by late summer 1945 the US was mere weeks away from literally running out of targets for its conventional bombs, when we bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Would that have eventually happened in Europe, would we have firebombed every civilian population center possible, would we have nuked Berlin?  If the political climate in relation to the USSR had been a bit different at the close of WWII, would we have nuked Moscow in ’46 or ’47?

These, of course, are ridiculous unanswerables, but the characterization, “They would never have dropped such a bomb on a white nation,” is one very much worth considering.

Interestingly, Ondaatje speaks some more about the Bomb as a major plot element in a interview from 1996, after the film version’s release.  The interviewer doesn’t really ask the questions about that one provocative line, but he does ask about the Bomb, and thus I can end this post with Ondaatje’s own words:

This is an element that has nothing to do with the film, it’s only in the book. I had some questions about Kip’s radical change after the A-Bomb was dropped, when he becomes enraged and breaks with everyone. It made sense intellectually, but it seemed a little deus ex machina-like to me.

Okay. That’s interesting. If ever there was a deus ex machina of our generation it was The Bomb. So how do you evoke that in a book? I thought about this a lot, actually. I thought about it a lot since I wrote it, because a lot of people have real problems with that scene. Some people think it’s the essential scene, some people can say it’s not. I was trying to convey that a public act like this does fuck up people utterly. It is what happens to Almasy as well. So, in a way, it’s a kind of parallel story about fate.

When I realized that that was where something was going to happen, when I went back and rewrote the book, I tried to somehow prepare the reader for it, with the arguments with his brother, the stuff in Naples, in a city that’s been blown up, references to words like “nuclear,” buried bombs, all those things, because I couldn’t say, “We know this is going to come in August.” It was a very odd thing. It was like preparing for Othello without anyone talking about him before he comes onstage. Usually you have 18 people talking about what a wonderful guy he was, and so it was a real problem how to do it. And I am not sure I did it right. I just think it is a thing where it suddenly happens like that [snaps fingers] and it is a complete deus ex machina. I don’t know. Maybe I didn’t prepare it enough, but when I wrote it, I couldn’t prepare it any more than I did. Because, you couldn’t tip your hand on that. I don’t know how it can work, I don’t know how to make it work better.