Monday, November 28, 2011

perilously, empiricism verges on magic

In my awesome junior high gifted-ed class we studied the Kennedy assassination, and I've had a residual fascination with that universe of conspiracy theories since then. Turns out one of my favorite writers, John Updike, had something to say about it in the New Yorker in 1967. My friend Dan kindly provided me the text, which is (bittersweetly) short enough to quote here:
We used to think that only the vagueness and enchantment of distance could create mythical figures; now, after reading Josiah Thompson's "micro-study" of the Kennedy assassination, entitled "Six Seconds in Dallas," we conclude that closeness of scrutiny is also mythopoeic. For example, "the umbrella man": though the day was clear and blowy, he can be detected, in photographs, standing on the curh just about where the assassination would in a few seconds occur, holding a black umbrella above him; seconds later he is again photographed, walking away, gazing tranquilly at the scramble of horrified spectators. His umbrella is now furled. Who was he? Where is he now? And would any crowd, caught in the matrix of interlocking photographs taken in those few momentous seconds in Dealey Plaza, yield a figure or two equally anomalous and ominous? He dangles around history's neck like a fetish. And what of the other substanceless figures sifted from the clouds of witnesses: "the tan-coated man," seen now running away from the Texas School Book Depository Building, now riding in a gray Rambler driven by a Negro; and "the Secret Service agent," who identified himself to Patrolman Smith hehind the stockade fence, though all Secret Service men had gone to Parkland Hospital; and eeriest of all-the blurry figure visible, in some frames of Robert Hughes' 8-mm. movie film, in the window beside the pair of windows from which the shots, or some of the shots, were fired? We wonder whether a genuine mystery is being concealed here or whether any similar scrutiny of a minute oection of time and space would yield similar strangenesses-gaps, inconsistencies, warps, and bubbles in the surface of circumstance. Perhaps, as with the elements of matter, investigation passes a threshold of common sense and enters a sub-atomic realm where laws are mocked, where persons have the life-span of beta particles and the transparency of neutrinos, and where a rough kind of averaging out must substitute for the absolute truth. The truth about those seconds in Dallas is especially elusive; the search for it seems to demonstrate how perilously empiricism verges on magic. 
Isn't that wonderful, both in content and conveyance? That's Updike for you.

Updike was the master of the microstudy in the fictional realm; I wish somehow the story of those six seconds could be told via his voice. But possibly even better than that, it turns out that one of my favorite film directors, Errol Morris*, has done just that, in his new six-minute documentary "The Umbrella Man", with the author of Six Seconds in Dallas referenced above. (Psst, the umbrella man himself shows up.) Fantastic. Go watch.

*you MUST see Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control if you have any interest at all in the defining boundaries and limitations of our humanity. Or just really great cinematography (so great that even I can identify it...)

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