David Klion, "Werner Herzog's Ode to Gorbachev"
David Klion's review of Herzog's documentary is an incredible piece of writing. I don't think there's a paragraph of his which doesn't fail to turn some idea of how Capitalist America and Communist Russia opposed each other on its head. To wit, on Gorbachev's rise:
As a child, he endured both famine and Nazi occupation, and for a period of several months in 1942, he wrongly believed his father to be a casualty of war. After the war, he became involved in the Komsomol, the Soviet youth league, and excelled at both school and farm work. He made his way to Moscow State University, the Soviet Harvard, where he met and married Raisa Titarenko, with whom he would go on to enjoy 46 years of happy marriage until her death in 1999. After university, he returned to the provincial capital of his home region, Stavropol, where he enjoyed a rapid rise in the Communist Party, modernized the local agricultural economy, and drew the attention of the Party leadership in Moscow. His early years, in short, present an uninterrupted meritocratic rise from the most humble beginnings, almost a mirror image of the American Dream, and an implicit credit to a political system premised on rule by the proletariat.
Despite the ubiquitous "what would you say if you saw it in another country," I confess I do not give too much thought to how other places work, i.e. how the world works. I just assume things happen! Sometimes good, sometimes bad. I am much poorer for not appreciating that if people get ahead, that might happen because some aspect of their system works well.
Again, Klion's whole piece works like this. It's especially amazing when he writes about Herzog's view toward his subject, a view which must be shared by many Germans, Czechs, Poles, etc.
Porochista Khakpour, "Just (Don't) Do It"
I want to scream.
While job hunting, I wrote about myself constantly. Letters detailing experience and interests, declarations about how I teach and what I explore. Often my thought was sloppy; correspondingly, the prose collapsed. The pressure of correctly thinking about oneself, I found, is especially high. Still, I got something done.
Now I have to write about myself again. It's not going great. Lots of sweeping statements must be made about my history, my projects, and my ambitions. I mean, I'd rather not talk about myself at all. Every sentence has the weight of a risk, an exaggeration or a promise that can't be fulfilled. It feels so much better to do nearly anything else. Anything not as loaded with expectation.
I'm revisiting Porochista Khakpour's "Just (Don't) Do It," a short essay about her ambitions, achievements, and struggles with Lyme. She recounts a history where she began with high goals. After massive effort and a high-octane lifestyle, she "achieved them all." And then Lyme hits, taking away the ability to focus and doing far, far worse. Life has to change: self-help, meditation, and doing nothing become a priority. A space for managing one's health and healing must be created.
My first Introduction to Philosophy class opened up after reading her essay. It was an evening class primarily composed of immigrants looking to finish nursing and business degrees. Their lives revolved around family, school, and the jobs they took to survive. They were constantly in motion. In her second paragraph, Khakpour describes herself as a "high-achieving workaholic." I imagine my students felt exactly the same, not because they wanted to be published, but because their efforts were relentless and productive.
However, Khakpour speaks at length to another theme they wouldn't have missed. Her description of herself at 12 not only declares it, but captures a tone which defined much of her life: "English was my second language, after all, and I—a new refugee from Iran—felt compelled to master it." That fundamental drive, the thought one must prove oneself to belong, is inescapable in her essay. More choice lines: "[W]ho is more American than an immigrant?" "I... had no choice but to become an entirely different person." "[S]ometimes the story of Western ambition does not end well." Khakpour weaves the question of what it means to be an American between ghastly details of her illness and frank talk about her determination. She's holding up a mirror to more than herself.
What am I learning from "Just (Don't) Do It?"
I'd like talking about myself to be easier, sure. But Khakpour demonstrates how much is potentially at stake in what seems a simple act. She presents issues of change and freedom, life and death, and the coherence of a national creed all while talking about herself.
I guess what's most important is that she writes to start thinking through these things. The question of what her ambition means is visible to her, and she doesn't blink. This is not true for me, not yet. I'm punting on that question, delaying until I've "done" something. This is probably not the healthiest approach.
The truth is I'm in awe of how fluidly she tells her story. I'm realizing I'm not only going to have to try like I've never tried in order to tell mine, but it will take some practice. Writing, at this juncture, is the realization of what I have not been writing this whole time.