There have been key moments when forms and modes of perception and expression shift in a profound manner. Such shifts may be met with skepticism, even hostility. Eventually, a new paradigm seems to emerge, although the malleable nature of art is such that the new paradigm can co-exist with its forerunners – yet not always peacefully so. The predictable and easily danceable swing tunes of Benny Goodman-era jazz developed into the more amorphous, multi-dimensional bebop. The realism of 18th century paintings gave way to the new imageries of “modernism” and later to “postmodernism” (a term simultaneously impossible to prescriptively define and curiously passé). Literary shifts are endlessly classified and commented upon, especially with regard to the enigmatic influence of computerization and social media – hyperlinks and tweeted micro texts re-posted and commented upon in a form of conjoined, pluralistic written discourse, all in the context of endless fields of data-mining and neuro-marketing.
In the midst of these developments, the work of Harold Jaffe is significant. His writing spans a variety of modalities, including his noted development of “docufiction,” which treats (i.e. re-words / repositions / parodies / juxtaposes / underscores) established history or news reports in order to investigate their hidden assumptions. Jaffe’s newest work, Death Café, a collection of fictional texts, continues his experiments in sociocultural investigation and textual development. Its texts move from narrative to interrogatory to dialogue and beyond. Its “meaning” is variegated and multidimensional, cultivating the reader’s epistemological involvement at a profound level.
As Death Café addresses critical humanistic questions, the reader’s active assessment constitutes a new dimension of insight, self-understanding, and self-interrogation – even if the outcome of such is the realization that many of the most profound cultural issues necessarily exist as a nexus of oppositional perspectives, despite the overlay of corporate, governmental, and religious tenets. At its heart, amidst content which addresses violent and incongruent aspects of our world, as well as its beauty and ecstasies, Death Café is a call for compassion – toward self, society, and planet Earth.
The epigraph, “Out of our ugliness will grow the world’s heart,” opens the book, an entreaty for existential investigations on both microscopic and macroscopic levels. This epigraph is followed by the first text, “Orfeo,” which addresses the plight of the elderly and the inevitable arrival of Death, albeit cloaked and surreal. The narrator in “Orfeo,” visiting his dying father, comes into contact with an array of elderly individuals who have been shunted to the side – or more specifically relegated to a basement netherworld; they are victims of an institutionalized disconnect. The narrator unflinchingly confronts their predicament: “As my eyes accustomed to the dim light I saw that I was surrounded by old people… I thought of helping them but I didn’t know where to start.” Notably, this realization is itself a start.
Next, the book shifts to one of its seminal texts, “Stockholm Syndrome,” which presents the case of the fictive eight-year-old “Krista Ludwig,” kidnapped as a girl and held for many years by Wolfgang Priklopil – whose name matches that of an actual Austrian kidnapper who held a girl in a similar fashion. The disjunction between the news-reported name “Wolfgang Priklopil” and the fictive “Krista Ludwig” enables a zone wherein many aspects of the abduction can be investigated outside of the confines of reported news stories and purported journalistic “veracity.”
These investigations take a variety of dimensions, including Krista’s Stockholm Syndrome-induced self-validation of her situation, which also functions as a critique of certain aspects of modern life. Krista, who professes her fear of being alone, states that “her lengthy abduction actually spared her bad habits such as smoking, drinking to excess, injecting heroin or speed, snorting cocaine, playing video games and having ‘false friends’.” Pressed by media to voice a network-prescribed level of angst about her abduction, Krista does not lament her plight, nor the theft of her childhood. Rather she states, “As far as I can see, children are robbed of their childhood one way or another.” Krista is finally able to escape when Priklopil is talking on his cell phone.
In “Stockholm Syndrome,” the media’s sensationalism of any available issue is also posited concerning a film adaptation of Krista Ludwig’s plight, and its summarized “pitch”: “A beautiful Austrian ingénue portraying Ludwig [is] repeatedly raped by the captor who beat and starved her.” The film is “entered into several international film festivals” – testimony to the low levels of public entertainment.
The impact of the media plays a role in a number of texts in Death Café. The news media is portrayed as by no means being removed from a low level of agenda-driven discourse. In “Piano Man,” a commentator states, “We seem to forget that the whole point of the so-called news media… is to attract customers to their product, however degraded it may be. Truth and accuracy? Negotiable.” The book details the incredible power the corporatized media yields over individual decisions, even when those decisions would seem to violate health and welfare.
Death Café investigates the various manners in which individuals try to cope in the face of broad societal dysfunction and institutional/corporate onslaught. They strive to assert their individuality and to meet their individual needs. In “Sapeur,” a text concerning impoverished citizens of the Congo who are compelled to spend their minimal income on high-fashion items in lieu of food and items for sustenance, “Sapeurs adhere to a subculture of high fashion against a backdrop of extreme poverty… Those who can work double jobs; those who can’t beg, borrow and occasionally steal; whatever it takes to strut in Versace, Prada, Gucci.”
In “Butcher Love,” sexual release is attempted via a sadomasochistic nightclub – owned by a Disney affiliate. In “Chet Baker,” the famed jazz musician engages in a game of Russian Roulette in a search for excitement, and attempts to use drugs as a ladder of escape. In “Piano Man,” art as a means of cultural reprieve is also asserted; however, the potency of art against overwhelmingly oppositional societal conditions is questionable. In the text, a famed pianist is left homeless and virtually unrecognizable, roaming the streets – balancing on the thin line between genius and insanity.
On a macroscopic level, Death Café addresses the plight of the planet, a function of global warming and humanity’s callous disregard for flora and fauna. In the titular text, “Death Café,” the fundamental state of the planet is assessed: “Earth has suffered through 5 mass extinctions… Scientists maintain that our planet is not just threatened with the 6th mass extinction but that it has already begun.” The extreme seriousness of this situation, wherein the human species hovers on the brink of extinction, is intriguingly echoed in the plight of dolphins, with concomitant political intrigue. In “Dolphin,” society’s precarious future on the planet is paralleled with that of an endangered species of dolphin, and the plight of a particular injured dolphin named Chenguang becomes the fulcrum for war: “Is it possible that the death of a severely endangered dolphin could devolve into an actual war between China and Japan?” This question is directly answered in the affirmative. “It is entirely possible that the death of Chenguang, the beloved, sickened baiji dolphin, would constitute a casus belli.” The reader is left to ponder the irony.
Such pondering is not merely in the abstract. In “Auschwitz Crumbling,” historicity is reconnoitered both currently and retrospectively, parsing the struggle to maintain historic accuracy in the face of oppositional geo-physical and political factors. In the text, the actual structural remains of the Auschwitz camp are deteriorating, and thus evidence of its existence is at risk. The director of the remnants of the Auschwitz camp opines, “If we do not change that, this exhibition will say always less to the next generation until it will say nothing at all…” Then the narrator offers a final perspective: “As to the Holocaust deniers, they are spreading rapidly throughout the globe, even as newer, sanitized genocides are occurring on every continent.”
A salient aspect of Death Café is that, as the narrator requests that the reader examine his/her opinions and orientations to our world, the narrator engages in a similar level of self-interrogation: “What you believe or don’t believe has always been unclear. You claim not to write about yourself. You write ‘situationally’ and as a ‘social activist,’ but with attention to formal innovation… But what does all that mean?” This is an acknowledgement of a pitfall which plagues so many would-be cognoscenti, wherein ego-maintenance becomes a primary goal.
Death Café’s narrator clearly avoids such a pitfall by directly pointing the inspection camera at himself, although perhaps in a quasi-ironic gesture: “Does the Big D frighten you, elusive-reclusive writer of serial and mass murders? Knee-jerk advocate of all things rebellious?” The answer to the narrator’s self-queried “Big D” question remains elusive – or at least removed from simplistic rendition.
In this spirit, Death Café embraces the sheer act of contemplation, even if its result is far from a facile, high-definition response, suitable for digitized binary coding. The necessity of unfettered contemplation seems to characterize so much of what is missing in current society, with its absurd emphasis on checkboxes, rigid categorization, and regulations – all harshly applied and endlessly modified by worldly powers to serve their own self-interests.
For Death Café’s narrator, contemplation yields an array of situational vectors, as opposed to simplified pronouncements. These vectors are the texts and their implications.
A penultimate question in the book is a reissuance of the inquiry concerning the “Big D” which the narrator posed to himself. But to the reader, the question is rendered as a sequence:
Will you die like Blake singing songs to Catherine?
Like Vincent with his head turned to the wall?
Like Theo, dissident film-maker, hate monger, violently set upon, murdered, martyred?
Like Huxley, his thin legs in tweeds, sideways mover, ingesting sight?
Like the teenage virgin from Yugoslavia en route to Dublin then India on a prayer?
This sequence of interrogative analogies is by no means limited in scope. The implication is that the analogies continue ad infinitum, and on some level the reader must choose, or create an appropriate analogy for themselves.
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S. Bennett's writing appears in a number of literary magazines, including Paris Transcontinental, Alecart, The George Washington Review, Metropolitan, The William and Mary Review, and upcoming in Wisconsin Review and Oxford Magazine.