Oh Abbottabad we are leaving you now
Okay, so . . . Osama bin Laden. Not gonna miss the dude, frankly.
It’s been a little over two months now since Bin Laden got himself assassinated by U.S. Navy SEALs in Abbottabad, Pakistan. My spouse and I made it an early night on Sunday, May 1, and as such we were unaware until the following morning that we’d been sleeping in a post-Osama world.
I didn’t chart my reaction to the news very rigorously. I remember being a little surprised at exactly where the guy had turned up (nice neighborhood!) and otherwise just sort of generally relieved—relieved less that Bin Laden was no longer a threat than that the raid that killed him wasn’t a total fiasco, as it might well have been. Mine was not a put-on-an-American-flag-cape-and-climb-up-a-tree type of reaction, or even a woohoo-Facebook-status-update kind of deal. I felt neither more nor less safe, neither more nor less “confident in the direction of the country” as the pollsters like to say. I guess I’d characterize myself as satisfied.
Now, I don’t like to think of myself as someone who happily receives news of extrajudicial killings paid for by my tax dollars . . . but there you have it, gang. The best argument I can offer in my defense is the hope that Bin Laden’s assassination has marked the beginning of the end of a very bad time—not only the military engagement in Afghanistan, but an entire decade of U.S. foreign policy conducted in the manner of the wounded Polyphemus, blinded and drunk. If our only post-9/11 retributive options were 1) to invade and occupy two sizable Asian countries—one of which had absolutely nothing to do with the 2001 attacks—with nearly half a million coalition troops and 2) to assassinate a bunch of suspicious individuals via special-forces hit squad and flying robot, then I’ll take Option Two, thanks. (I hope you don’t need me to point out that, strictly speaking, these were NOT our only two options.) Taken together, two recent policy statements—one by President Obama regarding a post-Bin-Laden troop drawdown in Afghanistan, and one by homeland-security wonk John O. Brennan announcing Obama’s hip new counterterrorism strategy—clearly indicate that this is how our nation’s dirty business will be conducted in the future . . . which is how we used to say “going forward.” (In a small masterpiece of grammatical hedging, Brennan’s speech promises that the administration “will be mindful that if our nation is threatened, our best offense won’t always [!] be deploying large armies abroad but delivering targeted, surgical pressure to the groups that threaten us.”)
While the success of “Operation Neptune Spear”—I’m just gonna go ahead and [sic] that—has no doubt inspired the institutions charged with counterterrorism and counterinsurgency to try stuff like this even more often, it has also removed a major justification for such covert programs. Additionally, unlike the other approximately 12,000 extrajudicial assassinations and arrests carried out by the United States during the past calendar year—and who knows how many more in the course of our nation’s mostly unspoken-of history—this one got a ton of press, which helps to make the practice visible as a policy and a strategy, instead of just as a thing that happens. If this analysis strikes you as rather disappointingly glib and pragmatic, well, it strikes me that way too. What can I say? Sometimes the only way out is through.
Many people, it seems, had rather different and more emphatic reactions than I did to the news of Bin Laden’s death. A significant number evidently celebrated the event as they might have a local team’s championship victory, i.e. by dancing and cheering in public spaces, cracking open beers, and/or having sex. Another significant group observed the occasion by commenting on the unseemliness of the celebrations of the first group, and suggesting that this behavior was at best an unwise way for us to present ourselves to the world, at worst an indication of a damning flaw in the American character, or even in the human character. (Among the best of these latter folks was Mike Meginnis, blogging at the journal Uncanny Valley, who connected the desire to celebrate Bin Laden’s death with kitsch; I have some quibbles with this connection . . . but I’ll get to that.) At the time, I didn’t share any of these sentiments or concerns. This is maybe a little embarrassing, but the three major reactions I can recall having had while reading the news in the days following Bin Laden’s killing were these:
1) Abbottabad seems like a weird name for a city in Pakistan.
2) OMG, the race is like SO ON to be the first person to write a horrid jingoistic children’s book about the brave anti-terror dog that took part in the raid!
3) Geronimo? Seriously? We’re really going there?
Embarrassing or not, I’d like to spend a little more time over the next few weeks kicking around all three of these reactions. Thus, I bring you part one of three: Abbottabad.
Seems like a really nice place: mild weather, picturesque hills, etc. Based on some very rough projections from available demographic data, I’m imagining it as about the size of Pittsburgh. It was evidently a stop on the Silk Road—or one of the Silk Roads, at any rate—and, as we all know by now, it’s presently the site of “Pakistan’s West Point.”
Behind the weird name, there is indeed a story. The city was established in 1853 by Major James Abbott, following the annexation of the Punjab by the British East India Company in 1849. (This episode of global history is widely known, of course, but not commented on as often as it ought to be, so I’ll spell that out: for about a hundred years, from the mid-Eighteenth to the mid-Nineteenth Century, most of the Indian Subcontinent was controlled by a corporation.) Major Abbott—later General Sir Abbott, Knight Commander, Order of the Bath—was an English soldier, secret agent, administrator, adventurer, and writer, described by his superior Henry Lawrence (quoted in a charming obituary pasted into a copy of Abbott’s best-known work and inadvertently scanned by Google) as
made of the stuff of the true knight-errant, gentle as a girl in thought, word, and deed, overflowing with warm affection, and ready at all times to sacrifice himself for his country or his friend. He is at the same time a brave, scientific, and energetic soldier, with a peculiar power of attracting others, especially Asiatics, to his person.
Abbott was one of Lawrence’s “young men,” a group of British East India Company operatives sent as “advisors” to the Sikh Empire after the First Anglo-Sikh War, essentially to gather intelligence and to keep the Punjab pacified; he was instrumental in enabling the eventual British annexation of India’s Northwest Frontier. Earlier in his career, Abbott had travelled throughout Central Asia—to Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan, and Russia—intriguing with and against agents of the Russian Empire as a participant in what came to be known popularly (thanks to Rudyard Kipling) as The Great Game.
The Great Game is one of those fun episodes that seems to presage an improbably large portion of the history that followed it. Like the Cold War, it presents the spectacle of two global powers doing ostensible battle—mostly through proxies, by means of exacerbating and exploiting ethnic and religious conflicts—in theaters of war that neither calls home. (Also like the Cold War, it looks in retrospect less like two nations fighting each other than like two empires bent on devouring the rest of the world, competing to exploit its resources more quickly and efficiently.) In the Great Game, the field of play was Central Asia, particularly Afghanistan—a region which of course came to feature prominently in late episodes of the Cold War, as well as in more recent events. The Great Game also seems to have foreshadowed other more abstract conflicts: that of megacorporations versus nation-states, for instance, and that of Western neoliberalism versus Islamism and tribalism. Even the phrase “The Great Game” has displayed an increasing propensity to slip the bonds of specific historical circumstance and become general verbal shorthand for covert action on a global scale.
Therefore, it’s not much of a stretch to suggest that James Abbott is among the very few guys with a plausible claim on having definitively steered the course of world history. Did I mention he was also a poet? He totally was! Check out this little gem, composed in 1853, on the occasion of the author’s departure from the outpost that had come to bear his name:
I remember the day when I first came here
And smelt the sweet Abbottabad air
The trees and ground covered with snow
Gave us indeed a brilliant show
To me the place seemed like a dream
And far ran a lonesome stream
The wind hissed as if welcoming us
The pine swayed creating a lot of fuss
And the tiny cuckoo sang it away
A song very melodious and gay
I adored the place from the first sight
And was happy that my coming here was right
And eight good years here passed very soon
And we leave you perhaps on a sunny noon
Oh Abbottabad we are leaving you now
To your natural beauty do I bow
Perhaps your winds [sic] sound will never reach my ear
My gift for you is a few sad tears
I bid you farewell with a heavy heart
Never from my mind will your memories thwart
One of the things you may have noticed about this poem is that it COMPLETELY sucks: metrics sloppy, syntax twisted to force clunky rhymes, punctuation absent, words repeated carelessly—and then there’s the whole logical fallacy of the two opening lines, because, dude, the place is NAMED AFTER YOU, so it can’t have been called “Abbottabad” when you first . . . oh, never mind.
A catalogue of this poem’s technical shortcomings, however, does not fully—or even mostly—explain why it’s such a piece of crap. It’s not only badly executed, but also badly conceived: bereft of any particularizing detail about either the departing speaker’s circumstances or the place he’s leaving, this is pretty much the most generic farewell poem imaginable. It could be applied to just about anybody leaving any nonurban locale anywhere between the subtropics and the Arctic and Antarctic Circles. It’s entirely possible that Abbott wrote these lines while overcome with genuine sorrow at leaving his namesake cantonment; it seems more likely that he just figured the occasion would benefit from some verse. But neither of these motives—not sincere emotion, nor social necessity—in itself provides sufficient material for writing a halfway decent poem.
Believe it or not, this IS going to have something to do with the death of Osama bin Laden.
I should probably historicize my critique a little: Abbott’s literary missteps probably seem more blatant to a modern reader than they would have back in the day. Among the courses my spouse currently teaches are surveys in reading poetry; she’s recently added “Abbottabad” to a list of really lame poems she uses to explain why syllabi tend to pass over certain eras in silence and haste—and also to demonstrate what cosmopolitan Anglophone modernist poets like Stein, Pound, and Eliot would later be writing in opposition to. In 1853, the British Empire was conspicuously light on rigorous and effective poets: Tennyson’s freedom had been compromised by his hiring-on as Poet Laureate, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s perceived sphere of authority was constrained by her gender, nobody was yet paying much attention to Robert Browning or Matthew Arnold, and William Wordsworth—Tennyson’s Poet Laureate predecessor—was three years in the grave.
The evil that men do lives after them, and Wordsworth may actually be the key figure in explaining why Abbott’s cultured contemporaries might have accepted “Abbottabad” as being worth even the teensiest, weensiest damn. As you probably know, Wordsworth and his much cooler buddy Samuel Taylor Coleridge burst onto the scene in 1798 with a collection of poems called Lyrical Ballads, which set out (according to Wordsworth’s famous preface to the 1802 edition),
to chuse incidents and situations from common life, and to relate or describe them [. . .] in a selection of language really used by men; [. . .] to throw over them a certain colouring of imagination, whereby ordinary things should be presented to the mind in an unusual way; and, further, and above all, to make these incidents and situations interesting by tracing in them [. . .] the primary laws of our nature: chiefly, as far as regards the manner in which we associate ideas in a state of excitement.
Wordsworth’s and Coleridge’s aim was to make English poetry—which in their not-unjustified view had grown elitist, stylized, calcified, and smug—accessible to and conversant with the experience of common folks. Which, fine: this needed doing. But their prescriptions—which elevated forthrightness over wit, the individual over society, simplicity over complexity, and emotion over technique—have proved to possess some unpleasant side effects.
Coleridge’s work often tended toward the bizarre and sensational—cursed wandering sailors, druggy Orientalist fantasias, hot lesbian vampires—and often sought to achieve psychological insight by way of freaky supernatural dread. On the whole it looks rather sillier than Wordsworth’s output does, but also seems to have worn better over time—maybe because it doesn’t purport to be rooted in anybody’s authentic embodied experience, and therefore doesn’t overstep its authority. (Coleridge, who coined the phrase “willing suspension of disbelief,” is a total whiz on how writing goes about earning authority over readers.) Rereading Wordsworth’s preface—which explains that the poems in Lyrical Ballads take “low and rustic life” as their subject and as the source of their language because “in that condition of life our elementary feelings co-exist in a state of greater simplicity” and “the passions of men are incorporated with the beautiful and permanent forms of nature”—I am struck by how closely his arguments match the uncritical assertions of a particularly bad-news brand of populist conservatism: both maintain that passion is more trustworthy than erudition, that country folk live simpler lives than city folk do (and therefore have a better claim on moral and philosophical clarity), and that human character proceeds directly from nature (and is therefore always essentially the same, once removed from the perversions of culture).
Assertions like these HAVE to be made uncritically, of course, because they have no basis in fact, and can’t survive objective scrutiny. Though he calls Lyrical Ballads an “experiment” in his preface, Wordsworth’s project isn’t rigorous, and the extent to which he himself buys into what he’s peddling isn’t clear: when he wrote it, he was ostensibly a political radical cheering on the French Revolution and opposing urbanization, industrialization, and the monarchy; in less than a decade, however, he would become an avowed reactionary nationalist—a role he’d inhabit plausibly enough to be named Poet Laureate in 1843. (Cynical and/or fatuous contempt for consistency and logic is another quality I can’t help but associate with populist conservatism.)
The problem here, I think, is pretty obvious: Wordsworth’s flattering conception of the agricultural class—sincere though it may have been—these days comes off as presumptuous, self-serving, and disrespectful. And here’s the thing: this flaw didn’t make Lyrical Ballads any less popular or influential. In fact, it made it MORE influential—and more useful, at least in certain quarters—by suggesting and legitimating an approach to verse that was easy to write, easy to read, and easy to digest. I have no doubt that Wordsworth genuinely sought a way to jolt English poetry from its sclerotic state; unfortunately, replacing high-flown versification with plain language just resulted in the establishment of a new standard poetic diction, folksier in tone but no less amenable to vacuity. Wordsworth’s goal of presenting “ordinary things” in “an unusual way” is totally solid: this is where just about all avants-gardes start, with a desire to wake people up and make them critically aware of their situations. But almost right away, we find ourselves in trouble again. Dig:
1) Almost by definition, cultural apparatus that propagate works of art do not share that art’s aim of disrupting the status quo; in fact, they always depend to some degree on the status quo, in sort of the same way that the pharmaceutical industry depends on sick people.
2) One of the cultural apparatus’ favorite tricks—one that’s performed automatically, without anybody having to think about it—is to defuse radical works of art by promoting other works that are imitative of them: superficially similar, but less overtly challenging. This imitation has the effect of making the derivative works seem novel and cutting-edge—owing to their resemblance to the uncompromised original—while at the same time being far more accessible to a casual audience. Furthermore—and this is the best part—the success of the imitative works has the added effect of making the original work of art easier for that same casual audience to consume with comfort: instead of being received as a confounding and alienating indictment of that audience’s entire way of life and system of values, it can now be understood as a thing that’s, y’know, kind of like those other things. (The Situationist International called this trick recuperation.)
The real problem with English poetry in the Nineteenth Century—and maybe with all art, in every century—wasn’t the calcification of its rhetoric, exactly. Rather, it was the powerful tendency of dominant culture to refresh itself by devouring and digesting every work of art produced in opposition to it, and regurgitating that art as something that actually reinforces it. Therefore any renewal based solely on updating language can at best be a temporary fix. Wordsworth’s principled objections to the culture of his time led him toward certain subjects and gestures; these subjects and gestures got imitated and standardized as techniques; then, once readers learned to spot the techniques, they used them to define—and effectively to defang—a genre: English Romantic Poetry.
So that’s the big picture. The practical effect of this phenomenon was that after Romanticism reintroduced earnestness and emotional directness to English poetry, that poetry started to become sentimental. What I mean by “sentimental” is pretty much what Oscar Wilde meant in De Profundis—though the context of Wilde’s remarks was significant, and very personal. “A sentimentalist,” wrote the imprisoned Wilde to his erstwhile lover Bosie Douglas,
is simply one who desires to have the luxury of an emotion without paying for it. [. . .] You think that one can have one’s emotions for nothing. One cannot. Even the finest and most self-satisfying emotions have to be paid for. Strangely enough, that is what makes them fine. The intellectual and emotional life of ordinary people is a very contemptible affair. Just as they borrow their ideas from a sort of circulating library of thought—the Zeitgeist of an age that has no soul—and send them back soiled at the end of each week, so they always try to get their emotions on credit, and refuse to pay the bill when it comes in. [. . .] And remember that the sentimentalist is always a cynic at heart. Indeed, sentimentality is merely the bank holiday of cynicism. And delightful as cynicism is from its intellectual side, now that it has left the Tub for the Club, it never can be more than the perfect philosophy for a man who has no soul. It has its social value, and to an artist all modes of expression are interesting, but in itself it is a poor affair, for to the true cynic nothing is ever revealed.
The key thing to get here is that sentimentality of the kind that Wilde deplores is a) borrowed and b) unearned. Rather than being rooted in an individual’s response to a particular situation—whether depicted or experienced first-hand—sentimentality involves a response that’s rehearsed and performed. Instead of requiring any close attention to or sympathetic understanding of the specific circumstances, sentimentality provides a canned social script that efficiently circumvents attention and understanding while reassuring us that we are indeed attentive, understanding people; i.e. we convince ourselves that we’ve responded sensitively when in fact we’ve ignored the circumstances in favor of focusing on our own capacity for, and facility with, emotion.
We can build on Wilde’s indictment with the useful definitions of sentimentality provided by I. A. Richards, writing rather more impersonally in his 1929 book Practical Criticism. In trying to explain what people mean when they complain that something is sentimental, Richards identifies three subspecies: quantitative sentimentality (“A response is sentimental when it is too great for the occasion”), qualitative sentimentality (“A crude emotion, as opposed to a refined emotion, can be set off by all manner of situations [. . . p]oems which are very ‘moving’ may be negligible or bad”), and a third, somewhat trickier variety:
Sentiments [. . .] are the result of our past interest in the object. For this reason they are apt to persist even when our present interest in the object is changed. For example, a schoolmaster that we discover in later life to have been always a quite unimportant and negligible person may still retain something of his power to overawe us. Again the object itself may change, yet our sentiment towards it not as it was but as it is may so much remain the same that it becomes inappropriate. For example, we may go on living in a certain house although increase in motor traffic has made life there almost insupportable. Conversely, though the object is just what it was, our sentiment towards it may completely change through a strange and little understood influence from other sentiments of later growth. The best example is the pathetic and terrible change that can too often be observed in the sentiments entertained towards the War by men who suffered from it and hated it to the extremist [sic] degree while it was raging. After only ten years they sometimes seem to feel that after all it was “not so bad,” and a Brigadier-General recently told a gathering of Comrades of the Great War that they “must agree that it was the happiest time of their lives.” [. . .] A response is sentimental when, either through the overpersistence of tendencies or through the interaction of sentiments, it is inappropriate to the situation that calls it forth. It becomes inappropriate, as a rule, either by confining itself to one aspect only of the many that the situation can present, or by substituting for it a factitious, illusory situation that may, in extreme cases, have hardly anything in common with it.
Richards finishes his treatment of the topic with the important observation that although we tend to associate sentimentality with an excess of emotion, the real problem is often exactly the opposite:
Most, if not all, sentimental fixations and distortions of feeling are the result of inhibitions, and often when we discuss sentimentality we are looking at the wrong side of the picture. If a man can only think of his childhood as a lost heaven it is probably because he is afraid to think of its other aspects. And those who contrive to look back to the War as “a good time” are probably busy dodging certain other memories.
If the task of a work of art, as the young Wordsworth suggested, is to present ordinary things in an unusual way with the aim of making the audience more alert to and engaged with the experience of existing in the world, then the major challenge that art faces is the fact that people don’t actually WANT to be alert and engaged—at least not for more than a couple of hours at a time, in specific social settings. Such heightened sensitivity swiftly becomes a real pain in the ass: the sort of thing that’s likely to cause us to miss deadlines on quarterly reports and forget to pick the kids up from daycare. We do, however, want to feel the emotional intensity that comes with being alert and engaged—to borrow, as Wilde might say, feelings that we have not earned—and we always find no shortage of lenders. This is the secret to sentimental art’s success; I think we can all appreciate the appeal. And provided we’re able to recognize this stuff for what it is when we’re consuming it (which isn’t always easy) I don’t really see that it deserves to be stamped out, or campaigned against. It’s not particularly valuable, but neither does it do a tremendous amount of harm. It may be dishonest—to no one more than itself—but it isn’t deceitful.
“Abbottabad,” however, is another story. It isn’t sentimental, exactly, although it contains sentimentality. It’s characterized less by its lack of self-consciousness than by its deliberate omission of key context: specifically any reference to what Abbottabad actually is (a British cantonment in the recently-annexed Punjab) or to what Abbott himself is actually doing there (conducting a counterinsurgency campaign to pacify the local population). These are pretty important details, and we can be pretty sure they weren’t omitted by accident—but this is not to say Abbott’s omission of them was deceitful. Power doesn’t often deceive; it doesn’t need to. Instead of making persuasive statements at variance with reality, power determines reality. “Abbottabad” erases the insurgency that Abbott and his men had already suppressed: as described in the poem, the Punjab isn’t a region in conflict, but rather a civilized outpost of the British Empire, where gentlemen write heartfelt poems in observance of significant occasions. In its cloying banality, “Abbottabad” is precisely an assertion of its author’s total control: aside from the flat statement that “coming here was right,” the poem advances no arguments, because there’s nothing to argue. Move along, it says; there’s nothing to see here.
As Richards’ analysis suggests, sentimentality has a political dimension, and therefore a political application. When a work of art—maybe we should just call it a cultural product—operates by taking deliberate advantage of its audience’s sentiments in order to recuperate dissent and reinforce an established social order, then something pernicious is afoot. “Abbottabad,” therefore, is something rather more troublesome than sentimental verse: “Abbottabad” is kitsch.
I hope to get into what kitsch means, exactly—and how kitsch has and hasn’t manifested itself in our national reaction to the killing of Osama Bin Laden—in my next post, which will feature as its special guest star Cairo, the fearless anti-terror dog. Until then . . . happy Independence Day!