No Child Left Behind (on Doctorow’s Book of Daniel and Prison Break)

Whereas in Prison Break (see my 1st essay here) the escapee from the system has tattooed the system onto his body as a powerful trope of his inability to really escape it, the character of Paul Isaacson in E.L. Doctorow’s vivid novel The Book of Daniel has implanted the system into his thoughts: the belief in democracy assures his inability to understand what happens all around him. His son Daniel, who faithfully and thoroughly records his father’s failure, copies his bourgeois sexual morals and ‘improves’ upon them. However, as he gains insight in his father’s mental blocks, his own epistemological stability gives way, which accounts for the fractured narrative of Doctorow’s novel.

So how could either of them ever escape ‘the tyranny of what everyone knows’, to quote a BSF song? Were they to stage a violent revolution and destroy the system, would it not still cling to them? To a part of themselves they cannot access? [I will reread Marcuse and insert him later on, promise] Would Daniel’s both physical and mental abuse of his wife stop? Or, to cite an idea of Eske Bokelmann‘s which I have encountered only recently but which is certainly worth investigating, would he stop thinking in terms of value and evaluation? Would, for instance (and I am not suggesting that this is the correct way to go about it, it’s just an example), a rearrangement of the means of production have an effect like that?

There is, one could say, a certain development from The Book of Daniel to Prison Break. This development becomes obvious once we see the changed visibility of the mire these texts’ characters, hell, we all, are in. So how do we change that? Simplistic attitudes like Raymond Tallis‘ (I will review a preposterously stupid and disingenuous text of his when I return) don’t of course help, but skepticism of my sort doesn’t either. So what? Education? Sexual Education? Something like that. No Child Left Behind, that ill-conceived act of the Bush administration could nevertheless provide a slogan for the way one could go about it. But then again, how? What teachers? What schools?

In both texts there is an admirable honesty, one that I personally, with my limited reading, only know from Müller plays. The way, for example, a revolutionary in Zement tries to beat his wife into submission, or the cyclical, self-devouring vision of revolution in Mauser or Der Auftrag are kin to Michael Scofield’s tattoos or Paul Isaacson’s conversion to baseball in prison. In nuce, this is contained in one of the most famous statements by the probably most popular Founding Father, who demanded of each new generation to have its very own revolution. However what he probably meant wasn’t really revolution (for this, see Hannah Arendt’s enlightening essay On Revolution) in the sense that I (or Isaacson, for that matter) have been using it. With Jefferson, I get the impression, revolution is more like a catharsis or like a correcting instance. When I read that statement years ago, I was stunned by its cynicism. But of course it wasn’t cynicism. He probably thought it was a good thing. Maybe it is. Maybe this is the only reasonable way to look at it. It may well be the case that children get left behind, no matter how considerate a ‘complete’ revolution is carried out. But if we leave the children behind, and our minds are polluted with The Old, as Scofield’s body is, in what meaningful sense will the revoluted world be different from the Old?

Or maybe drowning is the only way to step out of the river. Maybe Paul Isaacson was lucky. Now that’s cynicism. And unjustified. Isaacson was tortured for having ideals. As a character in Doctorow’s novel says: revolution was harder in the old days. And it was. Will I get punished for writing such a whack essay as the present one? No. But maybe the development from the harder days to the easier, priviledged days of today is due to the fact that there isn’t any need to repress today’s mild revolutionaries as I am one. We, like Scofield, no longer have the same kind of distance to the system. It pervades every aspect of us. Yet didn’t Adorno teach us that all that the culture industry does is make these kind of bindings visible, bindings that were present all along?

Oh what a terrible essay this has been. More questions than answers and no structure to speak of. Yet that is my mind, currently. An ugly mess of ideas. I will rework this text when I’m back. Promise.

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