Tweeting life and death — Teju Cole’s seven short stories for our times

Teju Cole (Photo: Teju Cole)

Teju Cole (TejuCole.com)

Today is Thomas Merton’s 98th birthday. The American monk and prolific author died in 1968, but for some of us his spirit lingers, if only because the discoveries he was making in the last decade of his life still have traction. In the 1960s Merton found himself methodically dissolving the walls that his religious life had stringently erected between himself and the world. With growing clarity he realized that his job as a monk was to breach these barriers and to enter deeply into the planet’s woundedness and sacredness — which for him meant speaking up relentlessly for peace and nonviolence. Even when his superiors silenced him he kept at it, circulating letters and articles on war and peace through an informal network of friends and colleagues. Eventually the order lifted its ban and an unshackled Merton published a steady stream of essays and books on what he took to be the great spiritual crisis of his age.

Through his writings and occasional face-to-face encounters, Merton increasingly became a mentor and spiritual advisor for peace and justice activists. Part of what drew these change agents to a monk stationed in the knobby hills of Kentucky was his ability to connect the dots, for example, between the nuclear arms race and its spiritual foundations, as he demonstrated in his pivotal essay “The Root of War is Fear.” But almost as important was the way he wrote. Through confessional autobiography and lyrical prose-poems — but also ironic social commentary — Merton continually searched for a way to shake his readers free from their conventional thinking and prompt personal and social transformation.

These days Teju Cole, the acclaimed Nigerian American author of the novel Open City, has, like Merton, been experimenting with literary form to help sound the alarm about the challenges of our own time. He recently used a technology that wasn’t on the monk’s radar five decades ago: Twitter.

Merton before, and Cole now, urge us to see and act.

Toward the end of his life Merton’s poems were laced with free verse, verbal collages, made-up dialects (“double-talky witsdom,” he called it) and heavy irony. He was consistently on the lookout for a poetics that captured the peculiar dilemmas and resonances of his time. This was true of his last books of poetry (including Cables to the Ace and The Geography of Lograire) but also specific poems that offered a pointed and ironic illumination of technologized war: “Original Child Bomb” and “Chant to Be Used in Processions Around a Site With Furnaces.” Both works referenced World War II — the first focused on the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the second on the Holocaust — but they were ultimately trained on the contemporary reader caught in a world threatened by weapons of mass destruction and the systems maintaining them.

“Original Child Bomb” is a flat recitation of the decision and impact of dropping the first atomic bombs, shot through with American sloganeering (“Time is money!”). “Chant,” delivered in the matter-of-fact voice of a Third Reich concentration camp commander, is a paean to the industrialization of mass death. In the end the narrator refuses to let the morally superior reader off the hook: “Do not think yourself better because you burn up friends and enemies with long-range missiles without ever seeing what you have done.”

Merton set for himself the job of vividly clarifying the realities of his world. Now, 50 years later, we face the same task. How can we see and grapple with the challenges of our time, including a comprehensive national security state culture and its penchant for endless war operating far beyond the Cold War binaries with which Merton struggled? And, like Merton, can we find the forms to help us break through our jaded, conditioned vision of things?

This is a tall order, but every once in a while we get glimmers. Teju Cole has gotten us to struggle more concretely with the latest manifestation of our nation’s security mania — drone warfare — by recently writing a collection of short stories. Or, rather, short short stories: a series of tweets.

Each begins with the opening line of a well-known novel (with the books mostly drawn from the canon of modern European and U.S. literature), including Mrs. Dalloway (Virginia Woolf), Moby Dick (Herman Melville), Ulysses (James Joyce), Invisible Man (Ralph Ellison), The Trial (Franz Kafka), Things Fall Apart (Chinua Achebe) and The Stranger (Albert Camus). One at a time he sent these “seven short stories about drones” out into the world:

1. Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself. Pity. A signature strike leveled the florist’s.

2. Call me Ishmael. I was a young man of military age. I was immolated at my wedding. My parents are inconsolable.

3. Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather. A bomb whistled in. Blood on the walls. Fire from heaven.

4. I am an invisible man. My name is unknown. My loves are a mystery. But an unmanned aerial vehicle from a secret location has come for me.

5. Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was killed by a Predator drone.

6. Okonkwo was well known throughout the nine villages and even beyond. His torso was found, not his head.

7. Mother died today. The program saves American lives.

If this were a standard literary review, we would want to explore the plot, character development and authorial style of each of these stories. Cole’s strategy, of course, short-circuits this analysis. We are left with truncated narratives as much as truncated bodies. The author seems to want us to experience the shock of abrupt physical death but also the collapse of a traditional mechanism for interpreting the meaning of death and the life that precedes it: story-telling in general and literature in particular.

Reflecting on these stories, Cole explained on the radio program Day 6 that fiction often is designed to “close the empathy gap.” In a novel, hundreds of pages are devoted to getting to know characters in their richness, peculiarities, depth and complexity. In contrast, drones ignore the inherent complexity each person possesses and reduce their victims to pixelated objects on a screen thousands of miles away, all without due process and often resulting in civilian deaths. (A recent study conducted by Stanford and New York University, for example, found as many as 881 civilians have been killed by drone strikes in Pakistan.) What, Cole thought, could he do to sense the humanity that is being regularly extinguished in these strikes? What might help us “close the empathy gap”?

He was inspired to use the power of well-known fiction to both generate the expectations of narrative — a story with its own life-cycle, conflicts, insights and resolution is about to begin, in which we will meet a set of characters in all of their richness and idiosyncrasies — and to frustrate it. “Fire from heaven” has suddenly cut this life, and its story, short. Here “short story” means a life shortened, with its potential and meaning abruptly left dangling in the void it was meant to fill.

Storytellers sometimes capture their society in long, sprawling novels or epics. While these are needed, Cole’s “tweeted” short stories get at the heart of a woeful horror that is taking hold now, compressing in under 140 characters the millisecond killings carried out by drone aircraft.

The United Nations is beginning an investigation of U.S. and U.K. drone strikes. Unfortunately, it is beginning with the assumption that military drone aircraft are here to stay, and therefore what is needed are rules and regulations, not disarmament. As with previous attempts to deal with many other weapons systems, this represents a colossal failure of imagination.

Thomas Merton and Teju Cole urge us to think beyond this failure. This might involve seeking out the life-stories those who have been cut down by drones; perhaps it means developing an archive of the as-yet unwritten novel-length narratives revealing the fullness of those killed in these strikes. Perhaps, in that case, the tweet will appropriately give way to the epic novel exposing the intricacies and complexities of each child, woman and man assassinated from the sky.

Merton and Cole have creatively illuminated the reality we are up against. What is also needed is creatively illuminating what is possible. Following the impulse of these two visionary artists, we have before us a monumental task: imagining alternatives that do not rely on comprehensive geo-political surveillance and minute-by-minute airborne vigilantes dispatching the presumably guilty; imagining that those under the drones live complicated lives and how they, like us, deserve to continue uninterrupted; and imagining how we can we build a powerful people-power movement that will tell a very different kind of story than the foreshortened ones that Teju Cole has so powerfully created.

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