The Fascism of Flowers
The SF Public Library has their “Friends of the Library” sale every year in the Fall, and since I don’t have a car anymore I conned my friend, Jeannie, into taking me last October. They hold the Big Book Sale, as they call it, at Ft. Mason—the wharf-and-warehouse area that was “reclaimed” many years ago and transformed into theatre complexes and small, community museums and which, except for being sort of at the ass-end of nowhere, is a lovely place. One entire hangar is turned over the library sale, which is of a truly impressive dimension. They say they have 135,000 books. When you go in, they give you a nifty little printed map that tells you where things are. Loosely speaking. Actually, by the second day of the sale, the map is rather subjunctive, because people have pawed over the books and moved them and hid them for later and dug into the boxes that are holding up the tables and have otherwise created havoc like a mad pack of human gerbils.
Like a mad pack of unwashed human gerbils, I might say, since second-hand-book buyers strike one as an especially unwholesome lot. Of course, I was there, too, and you know what they say about people who live in glass casas. In any case, since the sale takes place in a draughty, frigid room that could hold the pearl of the Cunard line, that’s a dramatic amount of havoc. Basically, by the time Jeannie and I got there, you more-or-less had to drift about, hoping for random treasures.
Anyway, I didn’t find much, though I picked up some old issues of Granta, which make excellent commute reading. I’ve had a love/hate thing with Granta for years. I used to subscribe, but it’s not cheap, and I always found the quality of the writing to be genuinely patchy. The problem is that it’s sometimes so fucking British that you can hardly stand it. And when the Brits get up to being all literary and post-modern, why, it’ll take the skin off your palms if you’re not careful.
One of the issues I got for a buck was called “Unbelievable,” and its theme (because they all have a theme) was “unlikely ends, fateful escapes, and the fascism of flowers.” Okay, so it seems pretentious, but as I say: It’s just British. “Unbelievable” included an Aimee Bender piece and another called “The Scrimshaw Violin” by Jonathan Levi that I turned out to like quite a lot, and an article by a woman dealing with her Alzheimer’s-addled mother. So I pulled “Unbelievable” out of a bin and dusted it off. The story goes faster from here if you know that the date of this particular number was Winter 1997.
Months after the book sale, I had finally made my way through the whole issue, which was entirely believable, if that was really what they were trying to work out, and I was feeling generally underwhelmed and slightly cross, but I was also coming back to San Francisco on the ferry from working all day in Kentfield, and it was already dark outside though the hour wasn’t late, and I was tired and I hadn’t quite managed to stretch the reading out to match the length of the ferry ride, and that’s the sort of thing that leaves me feeling strangely and suddenly bereft. Just like when I was a child and would stand in the doorway of the kitchen, the world in shards at my feet, and sob to my poor mother, “But I don’t have anything to do!” So the fillip of thrill I experienced, when I realized I’d inadvertently skipped over the first article in the issue, “Those Who Felt Differently,” is perhaps understandable.
But now we have to jump back to early September 1997—my second semester in the Creative Writing program at the University of New Mexico, and my friend, Jim’s, first as a professor there. One evening early in the term, we go out after fiction workshop to eat. Well, to drink, actually, but we call it eating. There are six or so of us—me, Jim, Ada ____, and several other students from the program whose faces and names I can no longer conjure up. But the thing is, the evening is memorable because Jim and I nearly cause Ada to run from the restaurant weeping.
It happens, in those days, that all Ada (and most of the world) can talk about is the tragic death of Princess Diana in a car wreck in a tunnel in Paris on August 31. As we sit around the table and listen to Ada run on about this in funereal and operatic tones, Jim is having none of it. In fact, this is the first time I realize that I adore him because he’s saying it exactly right: Why must we turn ourselves over to this national orgy of mourning for a woman whom (a) we didn’t know and who (b) volunteered with eyes wide open to marry into one of the most murderous, venal, and despotic traditions in the history of western civilization? In other words, while one might feel sorry for the personal tragedy, how is it possible not to feel ambivalence about the system that underpins it all? How to avoid reflecting that such an outpouring of sympathy seems misplaced with respect to a family whose practice for three hundred years has been to feel sorry for nobody?
Ada is not trying to hear a word against the British, but colonialism is one of my best topics: Lord Jeffrey Amherst and the smallpox blankets in 1763. The missionaries in Hawaii. The British in India. ‘Nuff said. (At this point, recuerda, we’re all mercifully unaware of the kind of imperialism that four years is going to bring us.) But even if all that’s true, Ada doesn’t see the connection, and anyway it’s all far, far in the past.
Which brings up all sorts of interesting questions about how long people are allowed to feel aggrieved, and isn’t it awfully easy for those who have no stake in the matter to tell other people that they ought to just get over it. Like black folks ought to get over slavery, and Jews ought to get over the Holocaust. Because, like, how long does history last anyway?
I don’t specifically remember saying these things, but somehow I’m quite sure I did.
When I was in Italy last December I visited the Cappella dei Martiri, a church in Otranto where the apse is stacked high with the skulls of 800 Catholic martyrs murdered by the Turks in 1480. Since it was one of the incidents that led to the creation of the Inquisition, it’s safe to say that people took it fairly seriously—and they’re still pissed off about it, using the Sack of Otranto as the jumping-off place for harangues about the dangers that Islam and Muslims pose to the world even today. So that’s some evidence for the proposition that you’re allowed to take things personally for at least 500 years.
Though the Italian writer, Oriana Fallaci, doesn’t specifically mention Otranto in her brilliant and terrifyingly unbalanced, “La rabbia e l’orgoglio,” written after the September 11 attacks in New York (, an indigenous mistrust of Muslims unmistakably undergirds her impassioned, delirious cri de coeur. For her, the Holy War has become strangely secular, but is no less a war; the wellspring of her rage is history.
And here is where the threads come together at last. The thing about the issue of Granta is this: “Those Who Felt Differently” turns out to be a collection of brief interviews with Brits who were fed up with the national bacchanal of grief following Diana’s death. You haven’t heard much about them. And the “fascism of flowers” refers to the compulsory mourning that so many people (one now learns) chafed against in the UK, the flowers representing the obligation not just to mourn, but to be seen mourning.
After reading the article, I could only admire the image. Within the masses of vegetation on the steps of Kensington Palace, the temperature reached 180 degrees Fahrenheit. The public had created the world’s largest compost heap.
In this country, of course, we also know a little something about mandatory public displays of allegiance: the American flags that appeared everywhere after September 11th (someone pinned one to the outside of my cubicle at work and kept putting it back, every time I took it down, for nearly two weeks); the belligerent, ubiquitous “I Support Our Troops” bumper stickers. In the BART lot where I used to park, some guy had taped a hand-lettered cardboard sign to the back window of his pickup: “Osama! Yo mama!”
In other words, the desire to be seen making a statement isn’t sophisticated, but it’s fervent. One of the women interviewed in the Granta article points out that Hitler was so effective not because people were afraid of Hitler, but because they were afraid of their neighbors.
Looking back on it now, I feel sorry about Ada, who never really spoke to me again. I was a scary neighbor. But I also think it wasn’t bad for her to have her world shaken and stirred a little. And now, eight years later, neither Jim nor I know where Ada is or what she’s doing, but he and I are still friends, and when I need the company of someone who feels differently, I know where to find him.