Wednesday June 21, 2017

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The Arrival of the Past

You wake wanting the dream
you left behind in sleep,
water washing through everything,
clearing away sediment
of years, uncovering the lost
and forgotten. You hear the sun
breaking on cold grass,
on eaves, on stone steps
outside. You see light
igniting sparks of dust
in the air. You feel for the first
time in years the world
electrified with morning.

You know something has changed
in the night, something you thought
gone from the world has come back:
shooting stars in the pasture,
sleeping beneath a field
of daisies, wisteria climbing
over fences, houses, trees.

This is a place that smells
like childhood and old age.
It is a limb you swung from,
a field you go back to.
It is a part of whatever you do.

“The Arrival of the Past” by Scott Owens from Down to Sleep. © Main Street Rag Publishing Company, 2016. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It is the birthday of French existentialist philosopher and writer Jean-Paul Sartre (books by this author), born in Paris (1905). Among his most well-known works: No Exit, Nausea, and The Roads to Freedom trilogy.

Unlike his existentialist colleague Albert Camus — who achieved something akin to movie star status in their homeland of France with his traditionally handsome looks — Sartre stood just five feet tall, had a lazy eye, and dressed in oversized clothes.

Still, Sartre caught the attention of a young woman by the name of Simone de Beauvoir as the two studied for the national competitive exam for a career as a schoolteacher. Sartre scored first in the class, and Beauvoir a close second. The two began a lifelong intellectual and romantic courtship. Beauvoir would herself become a prominent philosopher and feminist scholar.

Shortly after their meeting, Sartre was drafted into the French army to serve as meteorologist. He was captured by the Germans and kept as a prisoner of war for nearly a year. He became an outspoken Marxist, though not a communist; in fact, he was one of the first to point out human rights abuses in the Soviet Union. He was also anti-colonialist, opposing French occupation of Algeria.

He was awarded the 1964 Nobel Prize in literature, but became one of only two laureates in the prize’s history to decline it. He said that “a writer should not allow himself to be turned into an institution.”

It’s the birthday of English novelist Ian McEwan (books by this author) (1948), best known for his internationally best-selling novel Atonement (2001), about a young girl who starts a disastrous rumor. It was later made into a hit film starring Keira Knightley. McEwan tends to write about unsavory characters and situations, like incest and murder. He likes to choose unlikely and provocative ways to tell a story. His novel Nutshell (2016) is essentially a retelling of Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, but told from the point of view of a fetus in his mother’s womb. His penchant for dark material has earned him the nickname “Ian Macabre” in the British press.

McEwan’s novels include The Comfort of Strangers (1981), Amsterdam (1998), and On Chesil Beach (2007). He’s fond of intense research for his books, like shadowing a neurosurgeon for two years for the novel Saturday (2003) and immersing himself in physics for Solar (2010).

When asked how his writing process has changed with the onset of technology, McEwan answered: “In the seventies I used to work in the bedroom of my flat at a little table. I worked in longhand with a fountain pen. I’d type out a draft, mark up the typescript, type it out again. Once I paid a professional to type a final draft, but I felt I was missing things I would have changed if I had done it myself. In the mid-eighties I was a grateful convert to computers. Word processing is more intimate, more like thinking itself. In retrospect, the typewriter seems a gross mechanical obstruction. I like the provisional nature of unprinted material held in the computer’s memory — like an unspoken thought. I like the way sentences or passages can be endlessly reworked, and the way this faithful machine remembers all your little jottings and messages to yourself. Until, of course, it sulks and crashes.”

About writing, he says, “Not being boring is quite a challenge.”

It’s the birthday of Edward Snowden, born in Elizabeth City, North Carolina (1983). His family moved to Maryland when he was a boy, and his mother went to work for the federal court in Baltimore. Snowden dropped out of high school, but later earned his GED, and studied computers at a community college. He never earned his college degree, but he seemed to have a natural aptitude for technology. He also enlisted in the Army Reserves but left after four months; depending on whom you ask, he either broke both his legs in a training accident or washed out of the program when he developed shin splints.

He got a job with the Center for Advanced Study of Language at the University of Maryland. The center had ties to the National Security Agency. From there, Snowden went to work for the CIA in 2006; he quit when people began to suspect him of breaking into classified files. He took a series of jobs with NSA subcontractors, and while he was working for consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton, he began secretly copying classified documents. He believed that the NSA was gathering too much information on American citizens, and he intended to blow the whistle. In May 2013, he told his supervisor that he needed a medical leave, and then took off for Hong Kong. Soon after, the Guardian and the Washington Post released some of his secret documents.

Snowden has lived overseas ever since and is currently living in Russia on a three-year residence permit that expires this August; his request for clemency from the U.S. government was denied, and despite a plea from various human rights groups, President Obama declined to pardon him before he left office. The House Intelligence Committee called Snowden a “disgruntled employee” and a “serial exaggerator,” and said he “caused tremendous damage to national security.” For his part, Snowden said: “I love my country. I love my family. I don’t know where we’re going from here. I don’t know what tomorrow looks like. But I’m glad for the decisions I’ve made.”

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®