Friday, February 5, 2010

painting on a moving train

It's slightly embarrassing to admit that I learned of Howard Zinn's passing belatedly, and through a freaking comic. Sure, I was traveling that week, but still -- there are writers and thinkers whose status I try to stay aware of, not because we're chums, but because death means they're really not going to produce anything else.

Zinn is the historian and activist whose People's History of the United States continues to inspire countless young students of history (and, most significantly of course, ["I'm fucking"] Matt Damon). I remember the first time I was truly thunderstruck reading that book in high school, sitting at the Newkirk Avenue stop on the subway as I read about the ILGWU and its role in the history of New York City -- something I thought, up until that moment, I had a pretty good handle on. The enormity of the stories in the book, stories that had until then been erased from our collective history, brought home how badly the fix was in. I was shattered in a way only a far-too-earnest adolescent can be shattered.

(My freshman year of college, I was a still-earnest-but-less-so newly minted history major when Zinn was invited for a lecture; at the luncheon following, I was seated across from him at a narrow table and completely overwhelmed. I had not understood that college could bring me into close proximity with my idols like this.)

When shortly thereafter someone put his one-man play Marx In Soho across my desk, I thought it was going to be the deliverance I sought, the much-needed synthesis of my dueling interests in history and drama. Instead I found, with a sinking heart, a bad play.

Zinn opened my eyes to the artistry and passion one could bring to historiography; he also showed me the limits ideology places on art. The title of Zinn's memoirs, You Can't Be Neutral On A Moving Train, showcases his gifts as a polemicist and limitations as a thinker. The idea that art must submit to the struggle is as bankrupt as the idea that art stands completely apart from society and history: it's something else entirely, something much more complicated. I was a true believer who had forever lost his church; it was a lonely discovery.

While it had been a long time since Zinn was my sun and moon, it is nevertheless a lonely realization that he is not around anymore.

[portrait by Robert Shetterly]

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