Quote for Discussion: James Ellroy (with bonus commentary)

I posted this as a comment in NPK’s essay, but it is one of my favorites, and I thought it deserves a QFD of its own.

America was never innocent. We popped our cherry on the boat over and looked back with no regrets. You can’t ascribe our fall from grace to any single event or set of circumstances. You can’t lose what you lacked at conception.

“Mass-market nostalgia gets you hopped up for a past that never existed. Hagiography sanctifies shuck-and-jive politicians and reinvents their expedient gestures as moments of great moral weight. Our continuing narrative line is blurred past truth and hindsight. Only a reckless verisimilitude can set that line straight.

~James Ellroy, American Tabloid

Emphasis added.

If there is anything I take to heart, it is this (in spite of being something of a neo-fascist, Ellroy is brilliant and capable of significant insight – and cracking good crime stories).

There was never an Eden.  Despite our worship (and lack thereof) of varying faiths, the Eden myth is still one of the most pervasive in our culture.  The belief that there used to be a day when the Constitution really was the law of the land.  That more people used to be involved politically.  That our nation used to be a better, more decent place.

These ideas are fully intertwined with the notion that we have fallen from grace.  It isn’t like it was in the good old days.  We sinned.  We lost our greatness.  We should feel badly about this, and do good deeds to try and redeem it, and while we will never achieve our past greatness again, we can become worthy of salvation.

Our greatest, most legendary Presidents were slaveowners and aristocrats, suspended the Constitution at will, put hundreds of thousands of Americans in concentration camps, and invaded other nations without even informing Congress.  Lincoln had the US Navy attack protesters in New York City.  Democratic Presidents from FDR to LBJ oversaw the Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male.  America was never innocent.

Which is why I added the emphasis.  It is important – it is essential – for us to be reckless.  To follow the facts wherever they lead.  We must face ourselves as we truly are, because otherwise, we can never be anything that we want to be.  It is nothing if we are merely willing to face the truths that serve our interests, or that we find pleasant to face.  We must be willing to look into the darkness, and see not only our enemies, but ourselves.


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    • Jay Elias on September 14, 2008 at 7:59 am

    …hope y’all are enjoying the weekend.

    P.S. Mazel tov to Pico!

  1. because I agree with Ellroy. I always liked his fiction because all of his characters were either profoundly wounded or hopelessly corrupt.

    I am curious how you go through the process Jay of selecting your quotes for discussion. You just at least in the on line world do not seem like a “random” guy your thinking is pretty deliberate. Just being nosy.

  2. both a “reckless verisimilitude” and a “narrative line” at the same time.

    “Our continuing narrative line is blurred past truth and hindsight. Only a reckless verisimilitude can set that line straight.”

    A reckless verisimilitude, it seems to me, would be a collection of unconnected facts.  All narrative is sentimental.  Or at least, in some moods that is the sort of thing I am inclined to say.

    To be fairer to the quote, it seems Ellroy is associating narrative sucker-tude with to a greater-than-inevitable nostalgia for a supposedly lost past.  (Which is fair enough of course: if you call all narratives nostalgic than the word “nostalgic” loses its usefulness, it doesn’t distinguish anything.)  A good example of this is the way we find it useful to forget, temporarily at least, that the U.S. tortured and warmongered long before Bush came along, when we are getting our disgust on for Bush.

    As a separate point, I am concerned that Ellroy first says the line is blurred and then says it needs to be set “straight.”  Did he forget that he did not say the line was crooked?

  3. in my logical approach as you and others are to this kind of thing. But I do think Ellroy is making a very important point that bothers me often about progressives as much as conservatives. The history we are building on in this country is one of violence and dominance, and I fail to see a “good old days” much of anywhere in our past. Although there have been moments when we’ve managed to move the bar forward towards justice as well.

    I find the narrative of Eden, fall from grace, and salvation to be fascinating. Seems to be something that is pretty locked into our psyche these days. The problem all too often is that violence seems to be our mode of salvation (ie Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ”).

  4. and idealistic liberal my main fiction reading has always been pulp of the murderous kind. From Jim Thomson to Ellroy and sometimes the cozy’s, I read for entertainment these tales of the dark side of our nature and the slimy underbelly of our ‘culture’. Is it because the darkness is contained in all of human endeavors despite our unwillingness to see it? I feel that if you deny the dark the light then becomes swallowed by the delusion that black is white. The balance is tipped by denial. Our capacity for good and evil is as old as we are, it is not unique to America. What frightens me about America is our insistence that were heroes. Everytime I hear people talk of ‘values’ I freak. Our myths are upside down.

    I rode a tank

    Held a generals rank

    When the blitzkrieg raged

    And the bodies stank

    Pleased to meet you

    Hope you guess my name,

    Ah, whats puzzling you

    Is the nature of my game,

    I watched with glee

    While your kings and queens

    Fought for ten decades

    For the gods they made

    I shouted out,

    Who killed the kennedys?

    When after all

    It was you and me

    Let me please introduce myself

    Im a man of wealth and taste

    And I laid traps for troubadours

    Who get killed before they reached bombay

    Just as every cop is a criminal

    And all the sinners saints

    As heads is tails

    Just call me lucifer

    cause Im in need of some restraint

    So if you meet me

    Have some courtesy

    Have some sympathy, and some taste

    Use all your well-learned politesse

    Or Ill lay your soul to waste


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