Sunday, October 5, 2008

Ruled by a two-faced deity

I was thinking this morning about our two-sidedness, our confounding capacity to do right one moment and wrong the next. Who was it, I asked myself, who wrote recently about Janus, the Roman god of doors, gates, and beginnings who is portrayed with two opposite faces? Studs Terkel.

His new book is P.S.: Further Thoughts from a Lifetime of Listening.

Oral historian, writer of conscience, and raconteur-on-a-mission Studs Terkel follows his vivid and affecting memoir, Touch and Go, with an electrifying set of found treasures: essays and interviews that have never been published before, or which only appeared long ago in a Chicago venue. These excavated works—and everyone whose personal archives are experiments in chaos will find Terkel’s description of their exhumation from his messy workroom comforting and amusing––are startlingly fresh and stingingly relevant.

Terkel’s recovered 1961 conversation with James Baldwin is worth the price of admission, so sharply and devastatingly candid is Baldwin about the legacy of hate, fear, lies, brutality, and oppression we sanitize with the bland term race issues. This exchange couldn’t be more timely. Ditto Terkel’s conversation with lyricist E. Y. Harburg, who wrote the Great Depression classic, “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”

Terkel also looks back to Chicago election shenanigans and the abuses of clout. And yes, Terkel writes of his city on the lake and on the make as a “city of hands” ruled by the deity Janus of the two faces, a theme brilliantly realized in portraits of Chicagoans of diverse backgrounds and shared needs and dreams. Hilarious, wry, sorrowful, and prescient, this gathering asserts Terkel’s great gift for tapping into the lifeblood of America, and for discerning, always with heart and clarity, what people suffer and how they lift themselves up and keep on keeping on. Long live Studs.

And may we turn two-facedness into the ability to look both back and forward so that we learn from the past, perceive continuity and achieve perspective. To look to others as well as to ourselves, to see both sides of the question and make decisions with reason and fairness, to think twice and not two-time each other but give each other and ourselves second chances to do our best.

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