The White Clouds
by ALEX CARNEVALE
creator Joe Weisberg
“Every one of you here has the opportunity to live an authentic life,” explains a guy wearing a really nice sweater. At Est, the concept of being trapped by other people’s impressions and feelings about you is the real danger. “There is something so American about it,” Elizabeth explains, since needing help with self-realization is a Western concept stolen from the East. They just didn’t realize it.
Gary Snyder translated poems by a ninth century Chinese recluse named Han Shan that I was reading the other day. It is astonishing how modern they are, although Snyder’s grasp of the timelessness of human expression in his translation is a major factor. Many Americans know and understand very little about life in other places, even within their own nation, and there has rarely been a good way of explaining it authentically.
This week Obama made an attempt at it, so he found himself drinking water in Flint, Michigan. It was an impressive feat; something I would never do. A famous moment in the 1992 campaign took place when Bill Clinton told an enraged protestor that he felt the man’s pain; it also marked the permanent departure of the Clintons from the left-wing of that party. Why Obama drank the water I don’t really know. It probably didn’t taste very good, since afterwards he announced that “kids are very resilient” indicating that they could rebound from whatever illness the water imparted. Then he distributed filters for everyone.
One poem of Han Shan goes like this:
Spring water in the green creek is clear
Moonlight on Cold Mountain is white
Silent knowledge — the spirit is enlightened of itself
Contemplate the void: this world exceeds stillness.
This sentimentality is ancient. Even Elizabeth, after murdering an African-American woman with several kids, was momentarily absorbed into it. There is a literal nature to both politics and violence that Elizabeth grasps instinctively, in this episode directed by Matthew Rhys. What is common in both disciplines is a 1:1 relationship between the meaning of an act and the act itself.
Keri Russell’s character embodies this completely. When Elizabeth says that Martha was simple, and straightforward, she was really describing her own outlook. To the extent that she has emotions, altering them isn’t her forte, or her husband’s.
Don’t get me wrong: they can do what every good politician can do. It is only a matter of creating another feeling, and layering it over that initial anger. Bill Clinton did not “feel the pain” of the AIDS activist – in that moment he was merely a mirror. (The irony is that one of the campaign songs for Clinton-Gore was Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror.”)
Martha was more complicated than a lot of people gave her credit for. She was more adaptable than she believed, although that was likely indicated by the fact she married her clandestine lover and suggested he take her from behind. For Martha, the world was not a literal place, full of sound and fury, signifying various somethings. No, the world is full of illusions of various values. Weighing one more heavily is only possible at the expense of another.
In light of that, Han Shan becomes a recluse. He writes,
There’s no through trail.
In summer, ice doesn’t melt
The rising sun blurs in swirling fog.
How did I make it?
My heart’s not the same as yours.
If your heart was like mine
You’d get it and be right here.
It will take over two years to fix the pipes in Flint, Michigan. In the meantime, Kevin Drum put up a post explaining that very few children would be harmed by this, on average. He calculated half an IQ point, which was apparently not the biggest deal. I suppose it depends on how much of the water you drank.
In the neighborhood I grew up in, lots of people contracted cancer and many died. Looking at it statistically it must have been well above the average, for so many families to have parents taken away. Lots of theories went around as to why this was happening — many worked near a nuclear power plant, and there was other heavy industry in the area.
Most of those companies have moved their jobs overseas due to America’s corporate tax rate. I don’t think there are any travel agents around, and jobs in the region are hard to come by. Then and now, it was wise to make a point of not sampling the tap water. Some people were angry about the impact of cancer, but most tolerated it with good grace. We could not really know what had happened to us.
The Americans becomes a little too much like a fairy tale when Clark sobs for hours on end about how Martha is off to Prague. She made a choice, and knew what could happen. She’s probably alive, and she should feel lucky that she had a chance to choose. I don’t want to say that the people who make The Americans are spoiled, or that the people who walk into a town, sip the water and leave are inauthentic. I don’t have any idea what motivates such an act.
The moss is slippery, though there’s been no rain
The pine sings, but there’s no wind.
Who can leap the world’s ties
And sit with me among the white clouds?
Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.