EFFORTS TO FORCE collective amnesia are as old as conquest. The Roman decree damnatio memoriae — ‘‘condemnation of memory’’ — punished individuals by destroying every trace of them from the city, down to chiseling faces off statues. It was considered a fate worse than execution. But there are subtler, everyday forms of banishing people from public life.
In December, Daniel Holtzclaw, a former Oklahoma City police officer,stood trial for sexually assaulting 12 black women and one teenager. He preyed on the vulnerable — the poor or drug-addicted or those with outstanding warrants — threatening them with arrest if they wouldn’t comply. Few people were following the case, however, until black women on social media began calling out the press for ignoring the story. Many reached for one word — ‘‘erasure’’ — for what they felt was happening. ‘‘Not covering the #Holtzclaw verdict is erasing black women’s lives from notice,’’ one woman tweeted. ‘‘ERASURE IS VIOLENCE.’’ Deborah Douglas, writing for Ebony magazine, argued that not reporting on the case ‘‘continues the erasure of black women from the national conversation on race, police brutality and the right to safety.’’
BOHUMIL HRABAL DIED only once — in Prague, on Feb. 3, 1997 — but there are at least two versions of the story.
In the first, Hrabal — one of the great prose stylists of the 20th century; the scourge of state censors; the gregarious bar hound and lover of gossip, beer, cats and women (in roughly that order) — slipped from a window while feeding birds at the hospital where he was being treated for arthritis.
In the second, Hrabal, whose books had been periodically banned by the government and burned by dissidents, now tormented by loneliness, became consumed with jumping from the fifth floor of his apartment, “where every room hurts.” He wrote about others who had fantasized about jumping from the same floor: Kafka, Rilke’s character Malte Brigge. And on a winter’s day, a couple of months shy of his 83rd birthday, he threw himself from a fifth-floor hospital window.
Because this is Hrabal, in whose work beauty, pity, sorrow and high silliness come tightly braided, both versions have prevailed; there is no official narrative. He leapt and fell to his death. He died of an excess of despair and enthusiasm, both retreating from life and nourishing it.
It’s a death out of his own fiction, with the grave absurdity of his greatest novels — “I Served the King of England” (1971); “Too Loud a Solitude” (1976); “Closely Watched Trains” (1964), made into an Oscar-winning film in 1966 — that mournful laughter in the dark. He once said his comic sensibility was shaped by a warning on a dry cleaner’s receipt: “Some stains can be removed only by the destruction of the material itself.”
In 2015, the Department of Education reported 146 cases of racial harassment on campuses, although studies suggest that only 13 percent of racial incidents are reported. By playing down the racism that the students have faced, it’s easier to frame the protests as tantrums, products of brittle spirits, on a continuum with grade grubbing. Somehow, demands for resilience have become a cleverly coded way to shame those speaking out against injustices.
WHEN THE WRITER Mary Gaitskill was a child in the 1950s, she was once taken to a roller-skating rink. She looked around and burst into tears. She didn’t understand why everybody was wearing the same thing, those poodle skirts and poodle hairdos.
‘‘It meant something, and I didn’t know what it was — it felt frightening to me,’’ she told me recently. ‘‘I thought, My God, this is too complicated.’’ It was a feeling that lasted until adulthood — a sense that people were speaking to one another in a code she couldn’t decipher. Out of this elemental confusion, Gaitskill has produced a body of work so acutely observant of human behavior that it’s frequently described in the language of violation: a vivisection, a dental drill, a flogging. There is very rough sex in her books, and characters who binge eat and rip out their hair. But the real danger is elsewhere: It’s in glances and gestures and sudden silences, in craving contact and being rebuffed. ‘‘I wanted to communicate and connect,’’ Gaitskill said when I asked why she became a writer. ‘‘I simply didn’t seem able to do it.’’
IT’S A TRUTH only selectively acknowledged that all cultures are mongrel. One of the first Indian words to be brought into English was the Hindi ‘‘loot’’ — ‘‘plunder.’’ Some of the Ku Klux Klan’s 19th-century costumes were, of all things, inspired in part by the festival wear of West African slaves; the traditional wax-print designs we associate with West Africa are apparently Indonesian — by way of the Netherlands. Gandhi cribbed nonviolence from the Sermon on the Mount.
THIS SPRING, THE novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie put a new spin on the commencement speech, that most staid of genres. Speaking at Wellesley College, she didn’t emphasize how the graduates had been helped by their education, but how they had been hindered by it. She invoked their privilege — and her own — to describe how ‘‘privilege blinds.’’ As a highly educated woman, she told them, she hadn’t always been alert to the ‘‘nuances’’ of people who were different from her. ‘‘Privilege blinds, because it’s in its nature to blind,’’ she said. ‘‘Don’t let it blind you too often. Sometimes you will need to push it aside in order to see clearly.’’
Adichie was speaking to her audience in their own language. The word ‘‘privilege’’ has become ubiquitous on college campuses — but in her coolness, in her ability to claim her own privilege without anxiety or abjection, she restored some dignity to an overstuffed, overheated word.
Francis Bacon said he wanted “to paint the scream more than the horror.” Marilyn Minter’s multivalent mouths manage to be both the scream and the horror, the laughter and the joke. “I’ve always been interested in things that drip, things that sweat, wet things,” she says. Her work celebrates this leakiness in self and sensibility, too, in pleasures that can’t be bound by ideology or taste. Everything runs in her work, everything runs free.
“The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty” doesn’t offer the same well-chewed conclusion that so many novels in the genre do: “You can’t get away from yourself by moving from one place to another,” as Hemingway wrote in “The Sun Also Rises.” It posits more interesting questions. It wants to know what remains when you’re stripped of a name and possessions, your family and country. It wants to know where the self resides. It captures an anarchic, contradictory strain of the spirit: We may brayingly announce ourselves to the world and crave its notice, but we desire freedom from the self too, the freedom to be someone else or perhaps to be no one at all. We accumulate, but we also desire to master, as the narrator does, the art of losing, to learn to drift in the knowledge that, in Bowles’s words, “Eventually everything would happen.”
As an institution, the family is in the curious position of being regarded as both crucial to human survival and inimical to human freedom. It bears a note of bondage down to its root; family, that wonderfully warm, nourishing-sounding word (it’s the echo of mammal, mammary, mama, I suspect), derives from the Latin familia, a group of servants, the human property of a given household, from famulus, slave. Since its beginnings, family has carried this strain of being bonded—and not just in body but in imagination. “In landlessness alone resides the highest truth, shoreless, indefinite as God,” says Ishmael, setting sail in Moby-Dick. On shore, we are to understand, our minds remain manacled, too absorbed with the hearth to look up at the stars. The first thing the Buddha did in pursuit of enlightenment was to leave home (after naming his newborn son Rahula—“fetter”). For writers, the family has been posited as an especially hazardous pastime; as Cyril Connolly’s lugubrious forecast goes: “There is no more somber enemy of good art than the pram in the hall.”
“Thrive, cities,” Walt Whitman wrote in “Crossing the Brooklyn Ferry,” one of his great love songs to urban life. “Expand” but “Keep your places.”
This tension is at the heart of DW Gibson’s “The Edge Becomes the Center: An Oral History of Gentrification in the Twenty-First Century,” a noisy, tender tour of New York much in the mode of Studs Terkel, and a companion volume of sorts to Mr. Gibson’s “Not Working” (2012), which featured interviews with people who had recently lost their jobs. The new book is a slurry of voices. Mr. Gibson talks to the gentrifiers and the gentrified, state senators and the homeless men of the Bowery Mission, developers and community organizers, celebrated artists and the brokers who hype real estate as the art form of the moment.