Mark Danner’s speech at the 2017 Jonathan Schell Memorial Lecture on the Fate of the Earth
It’s astonishing how voices can imprint themselves on us and reach places that images can’t. I came to love Jonathan’s voice long before I knew his name. I was an adolescent, young teenager, living in Utica New York and had become obsessed with the Vietnam War — obsessed with Watergate and the procession of Watergate. I obsessively watched the Watergate hearings to the extent that my parents would essentially say, “Go out and play.” They began to worry about me. One night my father took me to the Utica public library hoping to distract me. And I found on a great reading table in a great hall in the library a single copy of The New Yorker, a magazine I had never heard of. And I read — I’m astonished to say — that piece […] At the time it didn’t occur to me that a single writer had written this. It seemed like somehow the voice of God. It was an astonishing piece. It opened my eyes and its clarity electrified me — the clear-eyed vision of it. The idea that you could simply look at things hard enough, and with a sensible, determined, patriotic, mildly indignant gaze, come to understand it, and tell others about it, and tell others how to understand it. It was only much later that I learned that this was a particular writer — his name was Jonathan Schell — and I began to read him. And only much later that I really realized — when I came to The New Yorker myself — that the comments were actually written by individual writers.
Jonathan did his work armed with the newspaper, the Constitution and his own two eyes, and I’ve realized that the marvel of that only much later when I tried to become a writer myself. The “only two-eyes” part is what fascinates me. There’s a voluptuous pleasure, I think, in being a reporter. And the voluptuous pleasure comes in knowing when you’re far away from events you can be certain about them, you can understand them completely. Ideology can guide you, and then when you land in a particularly complicated, violent, contradictory, messed up place, suddenly all is darkness. You’re inundated by a blizzard of sense of prescience and suddenly you know nothing.
And that is a gorgeous moment — an immensely enjoyable moment — and I know from reading Jonathan’s early work in particular that he knew the voluptuousness of that moment, of knowing nothing and of realizing that what he had to do is to go out and to see things for himself and to report as clearly as possible what he had seen.
And the difficulty of this, I think, cannot be exaggerated. Reporters move — like most people — in pacts. Reporters tell one another what they’re seeing, what they’ve seen, what should be seen. We all tell one another how to see the world. To actually see it yourself uniquely is a triumph, a triumph of purpose and a triumph of the will, I think.
I’m going to read the passage from the Village of Ben Suc, the last paragraph of which Tom Iglehart read, because I think it exemplifies his method, and when you say method you’re talking about something that came in some way from deep in his soul, because this is a 24-year-old man, a young man, who has never written, and this is his first published piece. It’s an astonishing thing. Let me read this.
This is from the first third of the article. It’s a scene […] well the village has been cleared, it’s going to be destroyed […] The villagers are being taken away to a camp that’s been constructed for them. Jonathan has arrived on a helicopter and he is sitting on the outskirts of the village with several soldiers, who are simply sitting by the side of the road. And I will read:
The sky which had been overcast, began to show streaks of blue, and a light wind stirred the trees. The bombing, the machine-gunning from helicopters, the shelling, and the rocket firing continued steadily. Suddenly a Vietnamese man on a bicycle appeared, pedaling rapidly along the road from the direction of the village. He was wearing the collarless, pajama like black garment that is both the customary dress of the Vietnamese peasant and the uniform of the National Liberation Front, and although he was riding away from the center of the village — a move forbidden by the voices from the helicopters — he had, it appeared, already run by a long gantlet of American soldiers without being stopped. But when he had ridden about twenty yards past the point where he first came in sight, there was a burst of machine-gun fire from a copse thirty yards in front of him, joined immediately by a burst form a vegetable field to one side, and he was hurled off his bicycle into a ditch a yard from the road. The bicycle crashed into a side embankment. The man with the Minolta camera, who had done the firing from the vegetable patch, stood up after about a minute and walked over to the ditch, followed by one of the engineers. The Vietnamese in the ditch appeared to be about twenty, and he lay on his side without moving, blood flowing from his face, which, with the eyes open, was half buried in the dirt at the bottom of the ditch. The engineer leaned down, felt the man’s wrist, and said, “He’s dead.” The two men — both companions of mine on No. 47 — stood still for a while, with folded arms, and stared down at the dead man’s face, as though they were giving him a chance to say something. Then the engineer said, with a tone of finality, “That’s a V.C. for you. He’s a V.C., all right. That’s what they wear. He was leaving town.” He had to have some reason.
The two men walked back to a ridge in the vegetable field and sat down on it, looking off into the distance in a puzzled way and no longer bothering to keep low. The man who had fired spoke suddenly as though coming out of deep thought. I saw this guy coming down the road on a bicycle,” he said. “And I thought, you know, is this it? Do I shoot? Then some guy over there in the bushes opened up, so I cut loose.”
The engineer raised his eyes in the manner of someone who has made a strange discovery and said, “I’m not worried. You know, that’s the first time I’ve ever seen a dead guy, and I don’t feel bad. I just don’t, that’s all.” Then, with a hard edge of defiance in his voice, he added, “Actually, I’m glad. I’m glad we killed the little V.C.”
I’d say that this is a very simple passage. It consists purely of description and the recording of dialogue, but it does something very complicated. It shows you that this is a murder. It shows you without telling you. It makes no case for itself, it argues no editorial point, but it does something — the only writer I’ve ever seen do this actually is Tolstoy, the critic Viktor Shklovsky calls this verfremdungseffekt or estrangement. That is, you describe everyday things in an absolutely black, absolutely clear, absolutely mechanical way and in so doing you show the undercurrent, what’s really going on. And in doing this, Jonathan shows that this is not just a particular murder, a unrecorded murder, something that no one will ever talk about or know about. It shows us the impossibility — as he does in this entire piece — of this particular war. The fact that it is going to fail. And it is very hard, I think, to read the Village of Ben Suc and not come away with the impression conveyed to us by 24-year-old Jonathan Schell that the war is going to fail, that the war was doomed.
Jonathan it seems to me was an American Jeremiah. He had a prophetic streak in him. He had a patriotic streak in him that was very very strong, and he had a streak of humanism that told him — mixed with patriotism — that if you could just get people to see what’s going on, what’s really going on, if you can get through those ten-feet of lies, somehow, and reveal what’s really happening, whether its Vietnam, or Iraq or with nuclear deterrence or war economy — or you name the subject — if you can just show them, they will act together to do the right thing.
It’s a deeply patriotic notion. It goes along the lines of reveal, then investigate, then expiate, then solve the problem. It was true about Watergate, and it’s one of the reasons I think I was so captivated as a 12 and 13 year old by Watergate, by the great American processional, the American Oresteia, the American coming to justice. The journalist revealed, the Congress investigated and a person went to jail.