BOOKS AND ARTS NOVEMBER 5, 2001
By Sebastian Junger
(W.W. Norton, 224 pp., $24.95)
There is a point in Hemingway's Death in the Afternoon where the old lady turns on the writer and asks: "How is it, young man, that you talk so much and write so long about these bullfights and yet are not a bullfighter yourself?" The writer admits that he did try it once or twice—on bulls with blunted horns. But the result was comedy, a travesty, so that "my decision was reached on a consideration of my physical ineptitudes, on the welcome advice of my friends and from the fact that it became increasingly harder as I grew older to enter the ring happily except after drinking three or four absinthes which, while they inflamed my courage, slightly distorted my reflexes." So he gave up on the corrida, and "as age comes on I feel I must devote myself more and more to the practice of letters."
Death in the Afternoon was published in 1932—a great book, but early Hemingway. More or less he carried on wondering whether "letters" could accommodate the unresolved matters of courage and death. It is this preoccupation that leaves some people uneasy with Hemingway, but it is likely that he shared the disquiet, and never really disposed of the old lady's question. Old women can be persistent and brave: they see through you. Hemingway shot himself one day in 1961, and I suspect that he was wondering all the way through the careful, tricky arrangement of his gun and firing of it (Norman Mailer worked it all out) whether he was brave or not to take matters into his own hands, or too afraid of madness, impotence, the loss of his taut sentences, the IRS, or just being a laughingstock.
A person can reflect too long on his own courage, until character drains away and he is just a stock figure in a naive adventure. If he wants to be a real writer, as opposed to a crack journalist, Sebastian Junger is going to have to ponder this cautionary distinction between actual courage and literary courage. And he could start with his new book about fire, which was a strange concoction even before the fiery events of September 11.
IF ANYONE IS still unaware of his backstory, let me supply this information. Sebastian Junger in the late 1980s was a waiter longing to be a writer. He was in his late twenties when he saw a magazine photograph of forest-fire fighters. "There was something about the men in that photo—their awe, their exhaustion, their sense of purpose—that I wanted in my life." He got into tree-felling, and he wrote more. That led to the start of a journalistic career, writing about people in dangerous jobs. He got to follow fire-fighters on the lines; he saw trees burst open so flame ran out like liquid.
That led him to the swordfishermen of Gloucester, Massachusetts, and the story of the Andrea Gail, lost in an exceptional storm in 1991. He called his book The Perfect Storm, just as meteorologists had used the term to remark on the spectacular collision of two dire weather systems. The book was published in 1997, and it became a best-seller and then a "major motion picture" with George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg as two of the doomed fishermen, and with computer-generated tempests standing in for storms that no one could see or film and survive. The movie was not well received: the storm was amazing, but the fakery was hard to ignore; and actors like Clooney and Wahlberg were so much smoother, so better treated and protected by life, than the actual hard men who lost their lives to the merciless economics of the swordfish trade. But the picture did well at the box office. And Junger was plainly a hit because of it.
To read Junger is to meet a decent, compassionate if not overly complicated man. He was stirred by the good fortune that he had mined in the death of those men, and he created The Perfect Storm Foundation to help the children of Gloucester fishermen and made two quite large (though unspecified) contributions to it. Now, four years later, it is time for a follow-up book, which turns out to be only the collected magazine pieces published in places like Harper's, Vanity Fair, and Men's Journal. So Fire is a little misleading: there are two reports on firefighting in the Northwest, including the disaster at Storm King Mountain in Idaho, but there are other pieces on the last hand-harpooner of whales, an incident with Kashmir terrorists, the ongoing stand-off in Cyprus, the war in Kosovo, the lethal diamond trade in Sierra Leone, and even one on Ahmed Shah Massoud, the anti-Taliban resistance fighter in Afghanistan who was assassinated just before (and maybe as part of) the events of September 11.
I don't doubt that Fire will sell well: it has a striking jacket front, with amber, orange, and gold bursting out of the dark; and on the back of the jacket there is Junger himself, rather better looking than Clooney or Wahlberg, with eyes that seem to have seen peril as well as the best-seller charts. The essays are short, punchy, full of fascinating factual research, and altogether very readable. Still, I wonder whether some readers won't come away a little queasy at all this bold boosting of danger and courage. For we have just had a lesson in the ordinariness of such things, and the simplifications in Junger's boyish hurry seem more naked now.
In his introduction to Fire, Junger makes an important admission that turns into an inadvertent confession. "The stories in this book," he writes,
all deal, in one way or another, with people confronting situations that could easily destroy them. I should make it clear that as a journalist I was not in their shoes; I was rarely in serious danger, and I rarely lacked a quick way out. I had my own fears to confront, though. Stepping off an airplane to work in a foreign country is one of the most terrifying feelings I know, not because something bad might happen to me but because I'm convinced that I'm going to fail. You have two weeks to understand a completely alien culture, find a story that no one has heard of, and run it into the ground. It never feels even remotely possible.
One day, perhaps, the American enterprise may learn not just how hard it is to understand an alien culture in two weeks, but also how many failings or handicaps that determined policy ensures. Nor is this over-confidence simply the ignorance of one journalist rushed into the cockpit of action. Far more, it is the decision of the American media to dispense with foreign correspondents on the ground as a matter of course, for half a lifetime. Those men and women may once have seemed the dull or semi-retired members of a dramatic profession, but they had advantages: they spoke the languages of their station fluently; sometimes they had married into the local community; and they had time to acquire respect for the nuanced history of something all too easily dismissed as "alien."
Far too often the media descend on these remote places, armored with equipment and videophones, and with the glamorous chic of a famous "anchorperson" or reporter, but without local knowledge or even the realization that it needs to be acquired if anything like sound judgment is to obtain. Consider how far those modern shortcomings may have affected the foreign service and even the military, and you have some explanation for the willful misunderstandings that bedevil international relations. The notion persists, even in a very patriotic America, that taped telephone calls giving significant clues to the events of September 11 had piled up and were waiting for translators. Courage, evil, wisdom, and poetry can all come in other languages than English.
HEMINGWAY HAD BEEN to the bullfights for years before he wrote Death in the Afternoon. That book is as good as it is because of professional knowledge and background, prolonged association with the people involved, and a good grasp of how the bulls represented Spanish history and culture. Junger seldom bothers with those things for more than a paragraph or so. For him, the history is something to be seized and nutshelled: "Fighting Afghans was like nailing jelly to a wall"; John Colter was "tall, lean, and a wicked shot"; "Why did one hillside explode in a chain reaction that was fast enough to catch birds in midair?"; "Ollivierre walked up the beach unassisted, his tibia showing and his foot as heavy as cement."
That is pull-quote prose, vivid but always on the edge of cliche or unreliability. Yes, the tibia was exposed (by rope burn), but did Ollivierre, a seventy-four-year-old harpooner on the island of Bequia, possess that command of metaphor or Hollywood writing? This is a quandary that haunts Junger, for very often he is not so much reporting as passing on stories that have been told to him, or that he has researched. In The Perfect Storm, Junger concedes that he cannot know what the seven fishermen thought or felt as their boat foundered. Instead he has talked to people who narrowly survived drowning, and then he imagines.
In that process there is much of value—like a thoroughly researched passage on what happens physically and emotionally in the act of drowning, so well done and so powerful that Junger might yet make it as a far better writer. But the fishermen in The Perfect Storm never really come alive as individuals. Junger does not do character very well—not because he never met those men, I think, but rather because he writes about heroes with a kind of awe and vagueness that begs Hollywood casting. In Fire, he is very good on the equipment the firefighters carry, and he is lucid and frightening on the exact process of being burned to death, but he just doesn't get the guys, or the women, who do it.
Junger was an observer of firefighting crews—he really was there—but not long enough, or with the right openness, to make them live on the page. Joan Didion's essay "Fire Season," written in 1989, is more useful and eloquent, because, living in Los Angeles, she saw fire not as exotic but as a part of life. Whereas you have the feeling always that Junger's chief emotion is a kind of aspiration or hero worship. So the people that he describes are models for himself.
REMEMBER WHEN HE first saw that photograph of firefighters, and how he wanted them in his life. That drive is made very clear in what is the most marginal, yet most revealing, essay in his new book: a short piece called "Colter's Way," written for National Geographic Adventure. John Colter had first been in Blackfeet country with Lewis and Clark. He went back, time and again. He once outran and outfought the Indians. He survived many famous ordeals and adventures, and in 1810 he retired to St. Louis and marriage. But, says Junger, "where the Blackfeet had failed, civilization succeeded. He died just two years later."
That is Junger at his dramatic best--fine adventure writing for boys. Yet it begs a larger question. We are not told how Colter died. We do not actually know, or have to accept, that the Blackfeet were the opposite of "civilization." After all, the Blackfeet felt that their territory had been invaded by people looking for wealth, and for things to steal. Colter might have died in a fire, or by drowning. He might have succumbed to cancer, or whatever. (Ulysses Grant was braver in death than in battle.) Yet Junger cherishes the easy irony in the formula, "where the Blackfeet had failed, civilization succeeded."
His real need to tell Colter's story is part of this sentimentality: "Given the trajectory of Colter's life, one could say that the wilderness was good for him, kept him alive. It was there that he functioned at the outer limits of his abilities, a state that humans have always thrived on." I don't doubt the sincerity of this, or even the passion. Nor do I mean to deny the need that some people have to live at extreme peril--whether facing the Blackfeet or waiting for the roulette ball to drop. But Junger goes a little too far. He wants this reckless urge in all of us. He is soon saying that "American soldiers at the end of their tour in Vietnam would realize they could not go back to civilized life and would volunteer for one more stint in hell."
He doesn't say "some American soldiers," and I would not doubt that there were "some." But I would love to know the figures, and without them I cannot believe that too many veterans of that uncertain war were so addicted. Junger then says that for the Colters of the world "the one thing more terrifying than having something bad happen must have been to have nothing happen at all." He does not define "nothing." He does not pause to say whether or not it includes an uneventful day with your family, talking, eating, reading, listening to music, walking, playing games, whatever. Junger does not precisely dismiss that casual happiness, but then the actioneer pounces: "Modern society, of course, has perfected the art of having nothing happen at all.There is nothing particularly wrong with this except that for vast numbers of Americans, as life has become staggeringly easy, it has also become vaguely unfulfilling." And there, I think, we reach a very important modern crossroads, one that could easily be the site for a military recruiting post, or an institution inclined to teach the ways of happiness.
IN A WAY, it is too easy, after September 11, to see the holes in Junger's thinking. But Jungerism is everywhere in our crisis, and it deserves some correction. I'm sure that there are, or were before September 11, Americans bored by ease, security, and plenty, people who felt the need for hazard in their lives. But as to the "vastness" of our society, I suspect instead that large numbers (try the majority) live with constant money worries despite that bull market that we had. That is because, like firefighters or Gloucester fishermen, they do jobs that pay survival money and offer no kind of killing break-out.
These people are troubled by loneliness sometimes, or by the suspicion that their close personal relationships are not as good as they would wish. They feel their marriage is rocky. They see their kids drifting away, reluctant even to argue. They hate the noise, the dirt, the inefficiency, the waiting, the bureaucracy, the trashiness of everyday hiatus in ordinary places, the humiliation of our "entertainment." Their homes are too cramped, too mean and too expensive, too ugly and too restricting. They may be sick, or subsist in fear of illness. But no matter how depleting or boring this daily strain may be, they do not want fuel-laden airliners ramming into their home or their philosophy. Next to that threat, they would settle for "nothing," or less, day after day.
Well, some things may pick up. We are back again in that season of military reports with wicked tracer lines illuminating the video mud, and sunburst explosions prompting cheers from the guys. We are trained in those long-distance video games, and their elimination of pain or damage. This is a process perfected in The Godfather and The Sopranos, in Saving Private Ryan and The Terminator. It has nothing to do with the "evil" of the film-makers; it relies on the way the media separate sensation from feeling. So you would do well at exactly this moment to recall, as vividly as you can, your own reality: think what one punch would do to you—how odious, how cruel, how shocking it must be. Now make it a commercial airliner slamming into your building, or a cruise missile, or whatever.
There were welcome lessons on September 11. One was a hint of what it is like to be bombed or bombarded, one of those life experiences that the United States has missed in the last sixty years (though we have often made it available for others). Another lesson is that firefighters and cops are not uniforms waiting to be filled by the likes of George Clooney, but men in whom humbleness and nobility are seamless. We live in a society of inadequately rewarded jobs, and now we have had instruction in what we owe to—and take for granted in—the uniformed guys.
Real firemen take their jobs not for reward or glamour, not to be part of a show called fire. They follow family traditions of work; they enjoy the comradeship and the duty; and they live with the anonymity. When asked, they tame their own glory by saying that it was just their job. They want to be like everyone else. They know that they are too plain, homely, or awkward with words, with "lines," to play themselves in the films that must come. They remind me of the firemen in what is still the best account of that job, Humphrey Jennings's documentary film Fires Were Started, which was made in 1943. The very title of that film affirms the nature of fire and the way it has always existed and is as normal as lightning hitting dry brush.
I prefer such common heroes, job-bound, to the Pattonesque glory-seekers. I suspect that we are more civilized in noticing the ordinary strands of bravery and fear than in setting up icons and wanting them in our lives. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier moves me more than the statues of Sherman or Henry V. And this is a proper warning to be offered to the chronic adventure-seekers, whether Sebastian Junger, Ernest Hemingway, or Ernest Shackleton.
SHAKELTON IS MUCH in fashion now, and he stirs me for a reason that will emerge. He is the central figure in a beautiful new documentary film called The Endurance, which uses film shot in Antarctica by Frank Hurley in 1914 and 1915. Kenneth Branagh will soon be on our screens as Shackleton. For the British especially, Shackleton has come into his own as a hero, just as his sometime boss, and rival, Captain Robert Falcon Scott, has been re-appraised as cold, confused, and a bit of a bungler. Yet Shackleton, too, is suspect.
Consider the skeleton of facts. From 1901 to 1904, Shackleton went on a journey to the South Pole as a merchant marine lieutenant to Scott. He was one of Scott's three-man team in a final attempt on the Pole, and it was Shackleton's illness that forced Scott to turn back way short of success. There was some blame, it seems, adding to Scott's feeling that Shackleton was a social upstart and a naked careerist. (Scott told himself he was doing it all for Britain.) In 1907, "stealing" Scott's province (as Scott saw it), Shackleton led his own expedition south. They got far closer to the Pole, and it was a measure of Shackleton's judgment and leadership that he turned away when only a hundred miles short. That caution was underlined a few years later when Scott and four others died on their way back from the Pole, eleven miles short of a provisions depot.
Then in 1914, days before the outbreak of the Great War, Shackleton went south once more. Why? Well, there was some difficulty in answering that question. The Norwegian Roald Amundsen had "discovered" the Pole. Scott had made it there next, and he had had his sad photograph taken there. What else was there to do in the white wilderness? So Shackleton invented the challenge of walking all the way across the Antarctic mainland simply because it was there.
He never came close to facing that task. His ship, the Endurance, was trapped and crushed in the ice. His men scrambled to make land on Elephant Island, but they were beyond rescue. So Shackleton and a few others took an open boat, the James Caird, and did the eight-hundred-mile journey in heavy seas to South Georgia, where whaling stations allowed rescue.
It was a triumph of courage and endeavor, and it meant that Shackleton lost not one man. But Shackleton returned to that enormous world war. He was not forgotten, but he was not the right hero for the moment. The James Caird was kept in a cage, behind the boiler room, on the grounds of Dulwich College (Shackleton's old school). I was a pupil there in the 1950s, but we took the shabby boat for granted. I was more impressed that P.G. Wodehouse, Raymond Chandler, and Michael Powell had also been to the school.
Not that Shackleton was done with. In 1919, he turned south yet again. This time he could not summon a single reason. He never told his men what the goal of the trip might be. He left a wife, a family, and a mistress. He was helpless; he had to have the danger, or the escape, in his life. "Sometimes I think I am no good at anything but being away in the wilds just with men," he wrote to his wife. He died of a heart attack in the Antarctic. His wife sent word: don't bring the body back, bury him there.
And now Shackleton's time for attention has come. Which is all very well, for it takes courage to leave wife and family, just as it takes courage to handle an open boat in wild seas. But such adventuring is a romantic gesture, too, a kind of escapism, a special pleading that some of us deserve to be excused from the plain, dull duties of ordinary life, which anyway culminate in waiting for death. So it is about time that we agreed on the virtue of such a patient acceptance of quotidian existence, and did what we could to aim our culture towards this acceptance (with some happiness along the way, why not?), instead of determining in advance that we are danger addicts, and ready to live on the edge. After all, the culture of the edge is a kind of superiority, even a form of fascism. And no one knows when danger will appear out of boredom.
This article originally appeared in the November 5, 2001 issue of the magazine.