I didn’t intend to write about Guilt and Incident at Vichy at such length in previous essay but, given events which occurred last week, it seemed germane, as does writing a separate essay on a remainder of topics from Echoes Down The Corridor which I would like to explore. Following the model of the last essay, in this essay I’ll discuss some of Miller’s lighter essays before allowing any one topic to commandeer it.
I classify the first set of essays I’ll discuss briefly as “anecdotes from abroad.” The three of these I enjoyed most were “Kidnapped,” “The Opera House in Tashkent,” and “The Pure in Heart Need No Lawyers”*.
In each case, Miller’s writing demonstrates his natural critical tendencies- his thoughtfulness and, even, rich interiority. Those three essays are non-fiction, but the sum qualities of the way Miller writes (his “style”) intimate how easily he could adapt any to fiction- and, importantly, without a diminished quality of authenticity. For example, “Kidnapped” amounts to a suspenseful mash-up of memories from trips to Italy taken twenty years apart. Still, ultimately these stories have little in common. Without racking my brain, only these come to mind: (i) they take place in Italy, and (ii) a sequence of events creates a distrustful dynamic between Miller and an Italian.
In the end, one of two intertwined stories in “Kidnapped” is decidedly extraordinary while the other is, in most ways, ordinary. In one case, Miller finds himself distrustful of notorious mobster Lucky Luciano (Cuba deported him to Italy in 1947); in the other case, Miller worries a taxi driver kidnapped him. In the end, the fact that two such different stories- one extraordinary, one ultimately ordinary- can arouse the same sensations, made me consider the fact one or the other need not be true.
I thought of Philip Roth’s The Ghost Writer– specifically, Zuckerman’s stubborn notion Amy may in fact be Anne Frank. At some point, it didn’t matter whether Amy was, or wasn’t Anne Frank- the possibility felt real enough. Similarly, at some point in “Kidnapped” it didn’t matter whether Lucky Luciano really stalked Miller, or whether he’d really been kidnapped- at moments, the possibility felt real enough. Whether the events were true of not, Miller told the stories in a way which felt true and authentic.
It surprised me to look back at another essay, “The Opera House in Tashkent,” and see it spans little more than two pages- it took so few words to make a very strong impression. It describes Miller’s ultimately awkward experience visiting a beautiful opera house in Tashkent (then USSR, now Uzbekistan), apparently an “up-and-coming” city at the time. The opera house is beautiful, Miller says, and the production is well-enough done, but only his and one other party attended the production. In the end, he asks whether seeing the opera in that (international) city is much different from seeing the opera in Duluth, Minnesota. Why is it there, he seems to ask without asking, and is the answer significant?
In the last of the three essays I mentioned, “The Pure in Heart Need No Lawyers,” Miller recounts a trip to China in the 1970’s. He stayed with an old friend, Sid Shapiro, whom he grew up with in Brooklyn. Miller describes strained conversations with Sid about what ultimately seems to boil down to totalitarian aspects of China’s ostensibly communist system.
The crux of the essay is China’s judicial system- or lack-thereof, in Miller’s opinion. China had no civil legal code*, hence no lawyers (hence the title of the essay**). How were civil disputes settled in China, Miller wondered, and pestered Sid with that and other questions- “Let’s say a kid smashes a window, a guy beats up his wife.” Sid (with increasing terseness, it seems) answers such questions with relative ease, thanks to in no small part because communism is self-justifying (i.e. totalitarian). Miller describes the perspective as follows: “injustice is not an inclination of humanity but something imposed by unjust social conditions” (pg 176); the corollary is, China’s social conditions are just, so there is little delinquency. What makes the premise “totalitarian” (my word, not Miller’s) is that citizens must collectively believe “social conditions are just”, else the system will collapse.
Sid would have Miller believe such things as theft and spousal abuse rarely occur. Of theft, he says,
Theft is the attempt to consume foods without working or producing, so it is antisocialist and therefore a political act…. So political means are the only ones which can cure it. (pg 177)
By “political means” he means, essentially, peer pressure based on political principal. “Peer pressure can weigh fifty tons,” he says. Communism’s ubiquitous emphasis on the collective precludes individual acts of injustice. In cases where such acts occur, establishing a person’s guilt and meting out punishment is not important- reforming that person is important. Maybe, just maybe, the prospect of neighbors and co-workers badgering, or giving the stink-eye to an individual whose child acts delinquently, or whose spouse has a black eye, is a more effective deterrent than expensive, protracted trials.
Miller, a victim of McCarthyism, felt unnerved by what he perceived as culture whose people did not have clearly-defined individual rights. He says,
Every eighteenth- and nineteenth century revolution at least declared the rights of the person to be the centerpiece of society and sought to draw a line beyond which he state could not reach into the individual’s life. Now only the state has rights and powers, and the person, like his property,belongs to the collective, with no recourse or appeal if fools or factions should decide on his ruin. (pg 178)
Miller and Sid dance around the theme. Everything Sid says indicates he buys into China’s systems, and Miller cannot believe Sid, who grew up with him in Brooklyn, could assimilate to his apparent degree. At the same time, he begins to sense Sid needed to assimilate. Sid exemplified the self-justifying quality of China’s communism. If he didn’t assimilate, he knew he might find fifty tons of peer pressure atop him.
I think this awkward sentence best conveys Miller’s general ambivalence about China, and his old friend’s apparent acceptance of it:
Shapiro must surely be disturbed, if only remotely, by a society in effect without law, but a revolutionary cannot display his own uncertainties, let alone allow them to be a part of the discussion. (pg 178)
I began this essay in April 2017, and never finished writing it, for no particular reason. It and the preceding essay cover only roughly half of essays I intended to discuss in this venue. Now, five months have passed and, while the remaining essays still strike me as worthy of additional contemplation, I need to move on. I have stacked many other books beside my couch since March, and plan to write a little something (or a lot) about each of them.
As such, even though I have not really “finished” this essay, I decided I am finished with it 🙁