November 16, 2006


Working for Peace: A Handbook of Practical Psychology and Other Tools. Edited by Rachel M. MacNair, Ph.D., and Psychologists for Social Responsibility. Impact Publishers. $17.95.

The Book of Martyrdom and Artifice: First Journals and Poems 1937-1952. By Allen Ginsburg. Edited by Juanita Lieberman-Plimpton and Bill Morgan. Da Capo. $27.50.

     Although almost everyone believes in peace in the abstract, getting to it in any concrete way tends to seem extraordinarily difficult, even impossible.  Most guides to the cause of peace focus on its importance, on the horrors of the alternative, and on how to get like-minded groups together to protest and/or contact lawmakers and/or stir things up in some other way.  Not so Working for Peace.  This is a guidebook to the psychology of social activism, in which active peace workers seek to help others build their confidence, organize volunteers, overcome the inevitable obstacles and get out whatever word they are trying to get out.  It is certainly true, as editor Rachel MacNair says, that understanding the issues and knowing how to do a press release are necessary abilities but not sufficient ones.  The contributors to Working for Peace try to add other, less-often-considered necessities: handling stressful emotions, learning how to assess your own interests and skills, improving your mood during an uphill struggle, fighting “commitment exhaustion,” motivating others to work for or with you, and more.  Everything here is exceedingly well-meaning, but if activists suffered from exhaustion before, getting through this book – never mind trying to follow all the prescriptions in it – will be a recipe for collapse.  Even a single brief point in a single essay can carry a wealth of difficulty: “A hand placed on someone’s shoulder can be seen as an assertion of status or as a sign of affection.  Do not automatically assume that it will be taken as a sign of affection.”  Or: “The secret to the effective sound bite is something we call ‘Media Haiku’: Find different ways of saying the same thing.  Connect them with ‘and,’ ‘so,’ ‘therefore,’ so your presentation seems like [sic] you’re doing a logical progression (this follows that) rather than merely repeating the same thing.”  Bad grammar aside, there’s a lot to digest there.  In fact, there is a great deal to digest in the whole book, not all of it especially nutritious.  Even the essay on “Three Examples of Successful Social Action Groups” has lessons that may only be applicable to roughly analogous situations – not as general rules.  Working for Peace turns out to be more well-intentioned than practical.

     One hesitates to think of peace as a cause célèbre, but it certainly seems that way when so many celebrities-of-the-moment fixate on it for the betterment (one suspects) of themselves, not necessarily the rest of humanity.  One need not hesitate, however, in thinking of poet Allen Ginsburg as a cause célèbre: that’s how he came to see himself.  How he got to that point is the subject of The Book of Martyrdom and Artifice, which is strictly for Ginsburg aficionados and for people – such as the co-editors – who seem to have defined their lives largely in relationship to where they were in Ginsburg’s life’s orbit.  This is not to say that Juanita Lieberman-Plimpton (who worked with Ginsburg) and Bill Morgan (Ginsburg’s friend and literary archivist) do a poor job editing these minutiae of Ginsburg’s life from high school onwards.  But really – there is so much here (more than 500 pages of it), and so much of it is trivial or, what is worse, simply boring.  There are 100 poems in this book, 65 of which have never been published before – most of them, it seems, deservedly.  Yes, fans of the group that included Ginsburg, William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac will find things to enthrall them here, such as an account of Ginsburg’s relationship with Neal Cassady that contrasts in significant ways with the story as told by Kerouac.  But really, who cares – other than Ginsburg scholars and Ginsburg fanatics (there’s a lot of overlap there)?  If you are a committed fan of Ginsburg’s later writings and want to see much of what he wrote on the road to his better work, you will find plenty of it here.  But without a preexisting commitment to all things Ginsburg, there’s little reason to martyr yourself by slogging through the artifice of this book.

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