Friday, July 10, 2009

Dexter Filkins, Afghanistan, and Iraq

Dexter Filkins
I've just finished reading The Forever War, Dexter Filkins' superb account of his work as a journalist in Afghanistan and Iraq. He worked for the Los Angeles Times and then The New York Times. All told, he spent at least three years each of the two countries--plenty of time to get to know people and plumb the depths of each conflict. Most of the book concerns Iraq, taking us up through 2007, when matters still seemed pretty dismal. Since then the situation has by most accounts improved. American troops have now supposedly moved out of the cities. Yet there's been a recent surge in suicide bomb attacks on city streets. The length of time Filkins was "on the ground," as they say, means that he's able to provide a genuine feel for Iraqi culture, introducing us to a number of Iraqis of all stripes. His descriptions of the action--mostly in cities--is often harrowing because of his proximity. It's astonishing that he avoids getting injured or killed.

This book has at times been compared to Michael Herr's Vietnam reportage, Dispatches. Filkins is less flamboyant and ironic than Herr and relies less on the sort of dark humor that was so typical of Herr. The uncertainty and guesswork involved in fighting Iraqi insurgents is in many ways comparable to the sort of conflict Herr reports in Vietnam, though that conflict was less city-based. Herr's writing catches the tone of the futile war in Southeast Asia. But his limited time in-country (in contrast to Filkins' long visits) leads him to focus more exclusively on American soldiers than the broader tableau of individuals found in Filkins' book.

Friday, July 03, 2009

Destruction and Creativity

I've just discovered The Best American Poetry web site, which includes a blog featuring a different writer each week. The June 28 - July 4 blogger is fiction writer Tess Callahan. I especially like her entries on "The Perfect Day" and "The Creative Process: Painting, Writing, and the Case for Ruthlessness." The second one mentions Kali, the Hindu god of creativity and destruction. Also, Callahan evokes the film, The Mystery of Picasso:
Picasso starts with broad geometric shapes that immediately take possession of the entire page. Then come shading, color and depth. The most striking thing about the film is Picasso’s spontaneity, the dexterity with which he changes course. In one breath he has drawn an intricate fish. Just when you think it is perfect, he dives back in and transfigures it into a rooster. His changes are ruthless. He has no hesitation about obliterating what he has just done in order to transform it into something else. Just when you want to scream out, “Stop! You are destroying a Picasso!” he leaps in again to vaporize the rooster into a demon’s head. As an artist, it’s hard to watch this film without gasping. Many of us know the anguish of realizing we have to cut the very line we thought was brilliant. With Picasso, there is no anguish. His mercilessness is stunning. He may have been an arrogant SOB in life, but in art he was without egoic attachment. The film illustrates his total surrender to form. By prior agreement, when Clouzot finished shooting The Mystery of Picasso, all of the paintings were destroyed
Writers and artists, then, must be masters of destruction as well as creation.