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Slouching Toward Bethlehem

A book review of The Empty Shield: A Decision by Giacomo Donis

I believe I first got wind of Giacomo Donis’ book, The Empty Shield: A Decision (2020, Eyewear Publishing, London), in a note from my brother Bill. Apparently there was this book, self-described as a “political autobiography,” by a guy who left the US and moved to Italy, self-exiling at the height of the Vietnam war. Not only that, but it recounts days and weeks of riding the New York subways, thinking, reflecting, over-thinking, obsessing, about whether to leave or not, and how to live in a world gone mad with war. The premise seemed fascinating enough so I ordered the book from the publisher.

I was not prepared for the tome that arrived in the mail, five hundred pages of stream-of-consciousness and circular mind meandering, as circular as the subway journey from Coney Island to the Bronx and back. Most modern novels are clear and easily consumed — nicely laid out premises, conflicts introduced, subtleties and surprises laid in, and an ending where it should be. I love these books — by Celeste Ng, Delia Owens, Hari Kunzru and so many more — and continue to read my way through the pandemic. Anyone expecting this kind of story will be put off and likely will put The Empty Shield down after fifty pages, which I understand. It is not for the faint of heart.

But I found myself soldiering on (to use a terrible military image) because the prose kept calling me back.

I learned long ago while experiencing stream-of-consciousness writing, that one doesn’t stop to decode and construct meaning with every paragraph. I realized I had to let the narration run on, just read each sentence, and anything I was new to would be revisited again and again, each time layering on new meaning (kind of like riding around and around on the subway). You just keep going, one word, one sentence, after the other. Let the cumulative experience work for you. I would stop when I got sleepy, put in the bookmark, and come back later and just keep reading, not trying to discern an arc or “message.”

It touched me because I am of Giacomo’s time and disposition –I graduated high school in 1965, was a classics nerd at University of Michigan, into Greek and Latin, a radical horrified by the Vietnam war. I was also a young man who overthought things, who was required to make a big decision. My own decision, to destroy my draft card which forced me into action as the military draft came to get me, was against the same background as this story. Donis’ writing reminds me of a kind of radical madness journey, like Kenneth Patchen’s Journey of Albion Moonlight. I was hooked.

For Donis, the execution, the rendering of this journey, proved as surreal, circular and wild as the subject itself. Like the subway lines, he continually comes back to themes, questions, points of reference as he reads, people-watches, and writes notes on the subway. The list of references, some explained some just gestured to, is long: Melville’s Billy Budd, Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes and Eteocles’ decision, notes from his professor at NYU, Dr. Benardete, Gen. Leonard Wood (I did army basic training at Ft. Leonard Wood and never knew about the Moro Crater Massacre in the Philippines), the SCREECH of the subway brakes, Vietnam atrocities, resistance actions by Vietnam vet Scott Camil, the Black Panthers, the Weathermen, Bob Dylan, Lee Morgan, Nina Simone . . . it’s a wonderful parade of images, brilliant insights, and questions, questions, questions. I have to admit that some of his most passionate reference points, such as Hegelian systems and Buddhism — Zen & Satori — didn’t really resonate with me at all. I don’t understand them, they don’t fit in my meaning-making brain. But no problem. One reads along, learning a bit more on the way (about Hegel and Zen too) while savoring the parts that particularly do work.

One of Donis’ reference points is the placard men, the people he encounters on the subway who are wearing a sign, often collecting money. He describes seven (connected, of course to the seven gates of Thebes in Aeschylus’ play) “placard men,” most of them Vietnam vets, and the meaning their signs add to his fevered obsession, to decide whether to stay and fight in the US — fight against the warmakers — or to go into an exile of protest. The repetition, the revisiting of the themes and the images, is hypnotic.

Here is a short quotation, found by opening the book at random, like one might open the I Ching:

(Quoting Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun) “Make no mistake of it we will live. We will be alive and we will walk and talk and eat and sing and laugh and feel and love and bear our children in tranquility in security in decency in peace. You plan the wars you masters of men plan the wars and point the way and we will point the gun.”

SOUND, 36th Street, under the ground. You can’t say it any better than that. Dostoevsky. A fire in the minds of men. B Train, still practically nobody else in the car, Saturday night, but heading for the middle of the night, nobody headed for Manhattan at this hour. Whatever happened to Benardete’s second Note, “II. Eteocles’ Interpretations of the Shields.” Hold your horses, I’m coming to it right now, it’s why I’m here. In the transit system. First, just one word on Scott Camil, who may be but probably isn’t the sixth placard-man. I happen to know that, ever since Detroit, he has been getting more and more riled up. It’s quite possible that he’s read Johnny Got his Gun recently. “Bring the war home.” No, he hasn’t joined the Weather Underground, but — riled up. A sea change. “The World Turned Upside Down,” as the Brits sang when they lost our revolution. (p. 318)

Donis continually comes back to the question of “what a decision is and what making a decision means.” But while he goes over the question of political, philosophical, and personal decisions, it is not in the end about him, it is not a narcissistic exercise. The book foregrounds the American “decision” to exterminate the Native Americans (referring to Columbus as “the father of all holocausts”). So he describes the book as a “double decision” the decision of the United States to attack and invade Vietnam and the decision of many young Americans to go and fight there. He explains, “My personal decision to leave the country in 1972 is pure pretext for the big decisions discussed in the book.”

What Donis captures, and what is inscribed in the very form of the novel, is the zeitgeist, the feel and cloud, of the time, the early 1970s, Vietnam, war at home, things fall apart. It captures both the menace and the generative creativity of the time, something powerfully relevant to the current fraught era. In this radical piece of art, he is not just thinking outside the box but obliterating the box.

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A community of people who are curious to find out what others have already figured out // Curious is a new personal growth publication by The Startup (https://medium.com/swlh).

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Rick Ayers

Rick Ayers

Rick Ayers is an associate professor of education at the University of San Francisco.

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