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Critic's Notebook: Essays tiptoe up to grab us unawares

Collections by Tom Bissell and Mark Dery join a growing list of works in which the universal becomes personal, then becomes universal again.

June 10, 2012|By David L. Ulin, Los Angeles Times Book Critic

"It's a postmodern truism," Dery writes in a piece called "Shoah Business," about the commercialism of the Holocaust, "that representations — photos, moving images, digital renderings, theme-park simulations — are displacing experience and historical memory." So what do we do about it? One answer comes at the end of the essay, when Dery describes a video installation of people eating in the cafeteria at Auschwitz, a building where inmates were once "registered, robbed, tattooed, shaved, disinfected, and dressed in the familiar striped pajamas … a 'humiliating baptism into the kingdom of death.'"

This juxtaposition of gluttony and mass genocide is striking, but Dery pushes even further, subverting our judgments, and his own. "Watching their videos," he writes, "we wonder what sort of human can eat lunch in a death camp? … In a creepy, deeply disorienting turnaround, we suddenly find ourselves face-to-face with our inner Nazis, the side of us that reassures us that the difference between us and the unfeeling creatures chowing down in a death-camp cafeteria is that they are somehow less than human."

What Dery is saying is that in a culture of image, of simulation, we need to look beyond the obvious, even (or especially) if it discomforts us. A similar idea also infuses Bissell's writing, which uses reportage and commentary to raise all sorts of questions — not least about our sense of truth itself. This emerges most directly in his profile of Herzog, in which Bissell defends the director's tendency to stage scenes in his documentaries, arguing that, in the right hands, facts are less important than point of view.

"Herzog," he points out, "is an artist, not a journalist. An artist can respect the backfield of fact before which every human being stands and choose not to address those facts." It's a provocative point, and by addressing it directly, Bissell challenges our preconceptions, which is exactly what an essayist ought to do.

david.ulin@latimes.com

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