Can Nothing Save Us?

Author: Jason Kelly '95

Roy Scranton has written all this himself. Where he’s been, why he went, what happened to him from his Oregon boyhood to Moab to Baghdad, who he’s become.

He has recounted in New York Times essays his journey from aimless college dropout to Army sergeant to author and scholar. He has reimagined his curdled Iraq War experience in acrid fiction. He has thought through, in publications such as Rolling Stone and the Los Angeles Review of Books, his attitudes toward the war, its reverberations in the region and the literature it inspired. He has combined philosophy and polemic — gloom and doom — into an English major’s meditation on climate change, arguing that our survival depends on the end of civilization as we know it, and that only the humanities can save us now.

photo: Matt Cashore ’94

He deals in stories and ideas, gathering them scrupulously and assembling them in his own words. To write about Scranton, then, feels almost like an act of plagiarism. Stealing interesting stories and provocative ideas that he has already presented first-hand, first-person, first.

On the issue of narrative point of view, though, he’s flexible. In the creative writing classes he teaches at Notre Dame, he rejects the threadbare advice to “write what you know” as a fundamental misunderstanding of the essence of the endeavor: the opportunity — even responsibility — to inhabit other minds, other lives.

“I do believe,” Scranton allows, “that you should know what you write,” an exhortation to expand the range of knowledge, to research, to reach out. He’s not just talking about studying the subject at hand. “Know what you write” in Scranton’s sense encompasses something more like the history of human wisdom.

His work draws on Gilgamesh and Socrates, Montaigne and Wallace Stevens, the rich intellectual terroir that infuses new ideas with depth and complexity. Scranton calls this attention to heirloom ideas “cultivating the info-garden of the archive.” Resisting the impulse, becoming increasingly hardwired, to chase the laser pointer of modern life darting around us. Sinking deep into the cultural ground from which we came, to rediscover our common roots.

Only through an honest attempt at understanding can humanity approach the enlightened connectedness that provides the dimmest hope in Scranton’s otherwise grim vision. The most optimistic interpretation of his work is that civilization’s current predicament can still be called a rescue mission. In his telling, it is already an emergency situation and we must respond, collectively, not only with a sense that we’re in this together but that we’re a part of — and not apart from — all things.

Scranton writes of the transcendence inherent in the thought of light traveling millions of miles, visible to us across space and time, and warm on our skin: “Pleasure arises in feeling ourselves attuned and connected to such sublime power.”

The life generated from that light source includes us, but too often we cut ourselves out of the mesh of creation, a distancing we mistake for dominion. Instead, Scranton says, we should strive to see ourselves in the context of philosopher Baruch Spinoza’s “intellectual love of God,” the sense that our existence has meaning only to the extent that we recognize its relationship to everything else.

That awareness is the source of light emanating from us, our contribution to the cosmic grid. “The only practical question remaining,” Scranton writes, “is whether we, existing as we are, will be that light.”

It’s a rhetorical question, his answer apparent in the fact that he feels it necessary to ask. In Scranton’s experience, we generate mostly heat.

Himself included. His indictment of our distracted, indulgent culture wraps him firmly into its editorial we. He’s spared no blame, accorded no credit. He pleads guilty to virtue-signaling contributions to the virtual buzz that mistakes tear-drop emojis for sadness and angry faces for action.

“I see pictures of this or that suffering or injustice and I am moved,” Scranton writes. “To act, perhaps, but more accurately to emote. To react. To feel. To perform.” Such catharsis, he adds, creates only “stagnant flows that go nowhere and do nothing.”

Scranton went to war, in part, to earn the means to scrabble his way into that world of self-satisfied indignation. After the knife-edge of Iraq, the bias-confirming comment section of civilian life, a safe distance from imminent death, was lulling and welcome.

Then the threat of disaster on a scale even larger than war crept into his consciousness. Scientific research and government reports that he read as part of a seminar awakened him to the gathering clouds of climate change.

He thought of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, the Sandy-deluged East Coast, the dire warnings of global upheaval from military and national-security officials, the accumulating climatology. The images of what happened and the notion of worse to come disrupted his long-term vision, just then coming into post-Iraq focus.

“I put all this work into a sort of nice bourgeois, middle-class life thinking about poetry,” Scranton says, “and then all of a sudden I realized, oh, maybe I’ve got 10, 20 years of that before things start to look like Baghdad. If not sooner. Only with flooding.”

The kind of destabilizing event, like New Orleans after Katrina, that might require military intervention to rescue, restore, secure and keep the peace. Scranton’s response to climate peril was not to join up again but to harvest the info-garden of the archive to identify ways through the advancing storm.

Kant can’t trap carbon, he acknowledges, but little seems capable of countering the march of emissions, melting ice, rising seas. The problems facing our species at this moment in history, then, “are precisely those that have always been at the root of humanistic and philosophical questioning: ‘What does it mean to be human?’ and ‘What does it mean to live?’”

The current geologic era has become known as the Anthropocene, the period when the human impact on the planet has been baked into the earth’s crust for eons to come. Studying philosophy, meanwhile, has been described as learning how to die. “If that’s true,” Scranton writes, “then we have entered humanity’s most philosophical age. . . . The rub is that now we have to learn how to die not as individuals but as a civilization.”

He has some experience with that at the individual level. A daily meditation in Iraq involved imagining his own death, often a grisly exercise from the sound of it, before venturing into harm’s way. To come to accept, as he did with the guidance of 18th century Samurai Yamamoto Tsunetomo’s manual Hagakure, that he was already dead.

Now we must envision and accept the death of civilization as we know it, Scranton argues, and “get down to the hard work of adapting, with mortal humility, to our new reality.” That means nurturing old ideas with “active attention, cultivation and remaking. It is not enough for the archive to be stored, mapped or digitized. It must be worked.”

And so Scranton has set about tilling that field. In the face of catastrophic threats, he calls for conscious, sustained engagement with ancient thought to retain what truly makes us human. That, he believes, is how we can emerge intact from what he considers the inevitable demise of modern civilization. “The concrete record of human thought in all languages that comprises the entirety of our existence as historical beings, is not only the seed stock of our future intellectual growth, but its soil, its source, its womb.” If that record does not survive, neither can we.

Access to this nourishing wellspring comes not only in contemplation of dense philosophy but also of Iraqi rock music. The heavy metal band Acrassicauda represents, for Scranton, the power of art as a sustaining force through disaster. The band members could have discarded their heritage when they fled their war-forsaken home. They could have surrendered to hatred and abandoned the act of creation. Instead, he writes, “they chose to explore and strengthen the connections between cultures, our shared rhythms and common traditions. They embody for their fans the realized hope of transcending parochialism and strife while staying connected to tradition, the courage of surviving war not by violence but through decency and mutual support, and the lived possibility that we may . . . learn to die and yet be reborn.”

On the surface, Scranton seems like such a creature of academia that people can’t help but ask why he, wire-rimmed and studious, ever joined the Army. He doesn’t fit the profile.

In his own way, Scranton epitomizes the possibility of such reincarnations. He has acquired and shed labels — student, activist, veteran, writer, professor — each a little ill-fitting. Even his parallel academic interests of creative writing and humanities scholarship are often perceived as conflicting, popular and peer-reviewed work that opposes rather than complements each other.

They co-exist comfortably in his own mind. During a single advanced fiction writing class, spent mostly critiquing student stories, the discussion flips through a Rolodex of references from Stephen King to philosopher Walter Benjamin’s thoughts on artist Paul Klee to Kafka’s parable “Before the Law.”

Scranton has the students read “Before the Law” aloud, taking turns, one sentence at a time. At the line “he begs the fleas as well to help him,” Scranton mouths the words and gestures with his fingers pressed together. After the reading, he repeats the phrase like a refrain, rapt by the image as if encountering it for the first time.

On the surface, he seems like such a creature of academia that people can’t help but ask why he, wire-rimmed and studious, ever joined the Army. He doesn’t fit the profile.

But the path life set before him ran toward boot camp and camo, a working-class kid in a Navy family raised on hawkish patriotism and vestigial hatred of Hanoi Jane. He strayed from that straight line, too, although the appeal of military gear and the lure of adventure and rugged self-reliance crept deep into his psyche.

As a boy of 10 or 11, he lit out “to live in the woods like Rambo.” He biked away from home under cover of darkness, wearing fatigues, his face painted olive-drab. The woods were near his grandparents’ house and he retreated there in fear instead, sleeping over before his father — the real reason he ran away — brought him home.

Roy was not the son his dad wanted. Bookish, sensitive, inclined to cry, the boy’s delicate sensibilities provoked the “red-bearded, red-faced bald man with thick, hairy arms and a bulging gut,” into rages that brought more tears.

He rebelled against his father’s example of manhood, taking shelter in lean-to identities — “atheist anarchist nihilist revolutionary,” “secret, starry-eyed Emersonian ascetic,” “rabble-rousing martyr for redwoods and butterflies.” His protests included long hair, antiwar and environmental activism, and ongoing “nerdy predilections” toward learning. Not in college, though, not at first.

Scranton left the University of Puget Sound after less than a year. Financial problems were the main reason, but he also believed a writer should be unencumbered, living an existential gold rush, panning for insight. “What I needed to learn wasn’t going to be in a classroom,” he told himself then, “it was out there in the world, so I dropped out.”

He would find his way to someplace bristling with artistic solidarity. He would work enough to live, but not so much that he would be another consumer drone amassing the material of mindless distraction. He would write his words, his way. He would be free.

Moab, Utah, circa Y2K, became the West Egg to Scranton’s neo-Gatsby. He fell in with a community of writers; he fried eggs and mopped floors, hiked, wrote. No TV, only a radio. “I was like, this is it. This is great. I can just do this.”

His writing at that time was woodshedding, honing art and craft in private, a self-taught jazz musician noodling toward mastery. The words themselves went nowhere, like notes fading in the thin air, but in retrospect they were vital to his growth, even if the experience was unsustainable.

Scranton crashed on his bike one day on the way to work, shredding his lip and losing a tooth that he had neither the money nor the insurance to properly replace. An older friend from Moab, a fellow writer, died. Just dropped dead of a heart attack.

“Then September 11th happened.” Through his radio, he listened to the towers fall.

Those three events, so disparate in magnitude, so disconnected in the scheme of things, became forever merged in Scranton’s mind, drifting together like tectonic plates to form his personal rock bottom. From there, at age 25, he moved into his mom’s basement in Salem, Oregon.

The bike accident had made him unpresentable at interviews for any jobs that felt like a foothold up from where he had been. His face in the mirror was a foreboding metaphor for his prospects. Only one option tied together the frayed threads of his life into a rope strong enough to lift him.

“The military, it might be the only meritocratic leveling mechanism left in American society,” Scranton says, “where you can actually climb the social ladder.”

He wanted access to those rungs, and the Army offered it in the form of a steady paycheck, insurance to fix his tooth, college money.

He wanted to see for himself what he had known only from books and movies — the valor of the battlefield. His skepticism about macho-patriotic American war stories, the fife and bugle earworm of his youth, had not yet soured into cynicism. He still believed in it, at least a little bit. And 9/11 remained a fresh, galvanizing memory.

He also wanted to test himself against his father’s standard of masculinity, to prove himself equal to an ideal he disrespected but could not discard.

And the writer in him felt drawn to what he took to be the unadorned truth of war, “the ultimate authentic experience,” that made enlisting the most self-consciously literary of life choices. There would be stories over there.

There were stories, but the reality didn’t match his imagination. The reality he encountered, rendered through his imagination in the novel War Porn, includes avert-your-eyes incidents like an American solider shooting an Iraqi “retarded kid” for throwing a rock. The soldier gets a Bronze Star and a tongue-in-cheek dressing down for failing to kill the boy.

Scranton came back ambivalent, politically opposed to the flexing of American muscle and the waste he witnessed in its wake, personally gratified for having challenged himself and emerging stronger. There was a contradiction in those feelings, difficult to reconcile, especially in a society whose attitudes toward the war split along exactly the line he straddled.

The Venn diagram of American opinion overlapped in the phrase “thank you for your service.” Across the spectrum people asked “what was it like,” as if expecting a campy VH1 Behind the Music account illustrated with pop-up bubbles that explained what happened at Abu Ghraib.

In War Porn, an ex-soldier back home at a barbeque produces a thumb drive with pictures at once fascinating and repulsive to a “what was it like” new acquaintance, who discovers he didn’t really want to know. After Scranton’s own “easy deployment,” he bristled at similar curiosity whenever his service came up in conversation, without his character’s dark slideshow in his hip pocket as a macabre shield.

“I’d have to hear how they couldn’t imagine, or they wanted to thank me, or they wanted to know why I joined,” Scranton writes. “Every time it came up, I had to relive the whole question of why we were in Iraq and what it all meant.”

Ten years later, he went back to look for answers as a reporter for Rolling Stone. The political and cultural wreckage he found made him reconsider the banal, self-justifying responses he parroted when people asked about his tour of duty: “I’m proud of my service, but it’s complicated” or “I did the best I could in a bad situation.”

No. He could no longer separate the notion that he had served the United States with integrity, that the experience had provided him precisely the benefits he sought, and absolve himself of the impact of the intervention.

“I had helped cause immense suffering,” Scranton writes, “and I had profited by it.”

War had exposed him to the human inclination toward “terrible things rather than decency,” a strong current in his work ever since. Scranton confronts his subjects with a lapel-grabbing bluntness that makes book-jacket blurbs read like warning labels: “merciless,” “blistering,” “dire, savage,” “unnerving.”

In Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, his philosophical exploration of life and death and rebirth on a warming planet, Scranton “goes down to the darkness, looks hard and doesn’t blink.” A positive review of War Porn calls it “vile and reprehensible . . . not a book to be complimented or endorsed. It is not enjoyment or clarity. It is a darkness.”

Scranton himself says his novel occupies a moral black hole that distinguishes it from other American war literature, the subject of his Princeton Ph.D. dissertation. In the icons of the combat canon, he says, there is always the prospect of redemption, even if it’s only through the act of storytelling itself, a narrative cleansing of horror and trauma to restore a state of decency and innocence.

“_War Porn_ totally rejects that,” Scranton says, “and almost makes a farce of it,” dramatizing indiscriminate violence that spreads, like a disease, far from the shells and the IEDs to the entire body politic in whose name the weapons are deployed. In War Porn, Utah is not a safe distance from Iraq. In the broken country itself, citizens find their lives suffocating in a vise of competing loyalties and paranoid suspicions where no allegiance offers security. The war infects and corrupts all whom it touches until everybody is a victim and nobody is innocent.

The novel’s reception last fall positioned it as a more comprehensive and cold-blooded tally of the costs of war without the consolation that previous books offered. War Porn, Elliott Colla wrote in The Intercept, “arrives at the conclusion that war offers no lessons or truths, not even the existentialist ones so favored by other soldier authors.”

All soldier authors have their own stories, as expressed in the final words of James Jones’ World War II novel The Thin Red Line: “One day one of their number would write a book about all this, but none of them would believe it, because none of them would remember it that way.”

Reality, filtered through consciousness, is not objective. It is not true. It is not false. In that sense, war actually might be the “ultimate authentic experience,” its disorienting fog perfecting the art of human misinterpretation.

Factor in the spliced images, real and imagined, that form our memories, and the reflection of reality bends and stretches like a funhouse mirror. Scranton no longer remembers whether certain scenes in War Porn happened to him or if he invented them for the novel. Other plot points he knows to be based on actual events but can recall them only in their fictional form.

That’s why the first words in War Porn come from poet Wallace Stevens:
Soldier, there is a war between the mind
And sky, between thought and day and night.

“That’s the war that I’m really interested in,” Scranton says, “this war between the world in our heads, that we see this world through, and the actual world.”

To reconcile that conflict, he works the info-garden of the archive. Remembering and replenishing, refreshing the human capacity to create rather than destroy. Cultivating a relationship to the world rooted in Spinoza’s “intellectual love of God,” strengthening the connections to past and future that give meaning to the present.

“We’re part of this everything,” Scranton says, “and by understanding it, by working to understand it, it’s a form of love.”

Jason Kelly is an associate editor of this magazine; email him at