The Empty Shield
by Giacomo Donis
Black Spring Press, an imprint of Eyewear Publishing
Whew! My shield is empty, my sword sheathed.
What a book! What a dazzling experience! Discovery and surprise on every page!
But this is not a book one reads; rather, it’s an encounter one yields to, an experience one accommodates.
Right here, right now, just this.
Take this book firmly in both hands and fly upward, kissing the clouds and winking at the kites and condors and whooper swans flashing by. Or dive deep, and slide past the luminous sea creatures sparkling in the yawning darkness all round. Perform wheelies and magic tricks with the book, but do not—under any circumstances—ask it to tell you what it means. It means everything, and it means nothing at all. You decide.
Or do what I did: Stuff it into your back-pack with your other survival supplies—water, Vaseline, Vitamin C—add whoever you like for ballast (I took George Orwell, James Baldwin, and Angela Davis—Giacomo had Melville, Conrad, the Greeks and the Zen masters as his traveling companions). Best read on a circular subway, the alphabet soup of D, F, B, A offering incalculable choices and unbound opportunities for getting lost and being found. The hours of folly are measured by the clock, says Blake, but of wisdom no clock can measure.
Joy and Justice, Bill
From Hilton Obenzinger:
The Empty Shield by Giacomo Donis is a splendid tour de force. The narrator spends two full days and nights riding the NYC subway March 1972, contemplating his decision (or, as he puts it, his decision to decide) to leave the country. Earlier he had rejected his student deferment for the draft then went to his physical after starving himself and then demanding to be drafted so he could organize against the war in the military. He was given a 4F but he wasn’t done yet.
In his night journey he travels through NYC subways reading and arguing to himself, bringing a wide range of intellectual sources, such as Hegel, Melville, classical Greek myth (he was a classics major), Zen masters, and much more, as well as a keen, immediate sense of all the events of the Vietnam War and opposition to it leading up to that date. If you lived through that time, and even if you didn’t, you are overcome with how much was happening with the war and in the US. Termed a political autobiography, it is a somewhat fictionalized expository journey through the underworld, expressing the desperation of that time, especially for young men facing war, debating all the grand questions.
Take a look at the blurb, which gives a deeper description. The Epilogue of the book gives a wonderful gloss to the whole journey of the book:
“I had remarkable conversations with my grandfather. I went
to Atlantic City to see him every few months when I was at
NYU. The last time, of course, was in June, 1972. I told him I
was unhappy with life in the United States—with the political
life, which he knew. Vietnam. Injustice. I said I had decided
to try to do something about it, not accept it passively.
‘When you were unhappy with life in the Old Country you did
something.’ ‘To accept it was to die,’ he said. ‘But what will
you do?’ he asked. I said I wanted to write a book that would
change people’s minds, make even just a few people see things
differently. It’s the only political action I can believe in. ‘If you
believe in it, do it,’ he said. ‘To have any chance of doing it I
have to get outside of this life. I have to move back to the Old
Country.’ ‘It will take a long time,’ he said. ‘Yes, I think so.’ He
said, ‘I think it will be a very long book.’ Unfortunately, this was
our last conversation.”
In the author’s own words:
A people’s history and the horror of war: Howard Zinn meets Apocalypse Now. Political autobiography. March 1972, about to graduate from NYU. A journey: two days and nights in the New York subway. Love it or leave it. A decision: become a Great Academic Marxist; blow up the Williamsburg Bridge; go into exile. Vietnam Veterans with placards, for and against the war. Seven placard-men at the seven gates of Thebes, brandishing their shields.
A decision. Political or personal? Or pure Zen? Mind or no-mind? Kill for peace! Dylan, Hendrix, or the Fugs. The two Suzukis, or Dogen. Monk and Coltrane! The relation between Hegel’s logic of thinking as such and his logic of practice, which does not exist. The screech of the subway stops. A fork where three roads cross, the realm of shadows, what is to be done? A Chinese menu? Stab it! Stab it with your fork!
But what I, myself, decide is not the point. The point is the question of ‘what a decision is and what making a decision means.’ The answer is ‘never stop asking.’ Ask yourself. Ask FDR, JFK, LBJ, McNamara and his band, John Kerry, or a Vietnam War veteran of your choice. Ask Nixon, Kissinger—Trump! Ask Trump! Ye great decision-makers, have you ever asked yourselves what a decision is and what making a decision means! That is the question. The Empty Shield asks it. Repeatedly, repetitiously, abysally, and, possibly, once and for all.
The book is amazing. The longest chapter has earned the right to its size, having been built up to by a master symphonist. I found myself tuning into the author’s frequencies in both senses: Hegel, Melville, Dostoevsky, Kafka, the Greeks. His mighty voice is from the depths, as in Ellison’s Invisible Man, Camus’s The Fall, Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground. He sustains the voice throughout, in a relentless crescendo. Readers with a sensitive ear and heart and mind, tuning in, will be swept away—as when exploring Celine or Pound or Wagner, irrespective of their politics. A tour de force. A triumph.