The term intersubjectivity has a bunch of different definitions, based on what discipline you’re applying it to, but for the purposes of this ill-trafficked blog, we’ll stick with a basic one: intersubjectivity is what occurs when two people agree on some third perception based on overlap in their own subjective assessments of what they are seeing and feeling.
Say Bill and Gerald look up in the sky at a cloud scudding past. Bill claims he sees a rabbit shape, while Gerald says he sees an elephant. We have stalemate, until a tiebreaker is brought in (let’s say, Sally). If Sally decides that the cloud looks like a rabbit, well then Bill and Sally have some intersubjective common ground there.
Read enough books on a subject and you’ll notice that people who’ve undergone the same experience have overlap in their stories and also have some points in which they differ (and perhaps even contradict each other). Based on your own obsessions/fascinations, you can probably cite examples from your reading.
For me, I’ve noticed this overlap (and these gulfs) seem to be most acute when reading about the experiences of war and of serving time in prison. “This,” one man insists, “is the way it was.” To which another replies, “Yes, but…” Or “Sort of, except.” Or even in some cases, “Actually, no.”
To give just one example (from the war files) years ago I remember reading in “Goodbye to All that” a passage in which Robert Graves talks about the Tommies in the trenches deliberately firing their Vickers (a crew-served machinegun) in order to use the thing’s water-cooled mechanism to boil their tea.
I remember reading George Coppard’s “With a Machinegun to Cambrai”some time later, in which Coppard said that this practice would have been quite unsavory, perhaps even impossible, since the water used in the machinegun would mix with lubricant and other particles while boiling, and that the resulting cookoff would not be suitable for drinking.
Probably Coppard, since he was a grunt while Graves was more of an Oxford don (though he was loved by his rank and file Tommies, as I remember).
Some of these disagreements can be a bit more contentious.
Take Gus Hasford, and his book “The Short-Timers”.
You know “The Short-Timers” even if you don’t think you do, since Stanley Kubrick adapted the book (and combined it with Michael Herr’s “Dispatches”) to create “Full Metal Jacket”.
When Herr recalled reading “The Short-Timers” for the first time, he couldn’t be effusive enough in his praise. He talked about knowing, within a couple of pages, that Hasford had revealed some dark, primal secret about the war in Vietnam, and he said that after only consuming a few chapters of the book he’d felt as if he’d read a whole novel.
Oliver Stone, however, who later went on to make the film “Platoon,” claimed that he thought “The Short-Timers” was fraudulent, one step removed from the sort of Edgar Rice Burroughs adventure stories that used to show up in men’s magazines like Argosy. Stone was a Vietnam vet as well, and I consider his film “Platoon” far superior to “Full Metal Jacket”.
Kubrick’s obviously a superior director to Stone, but you can smell Stone’s Vietnam, the damp olive drab and khaki, the sweat of the canvas helmet covers.
Leaving that aside, though, what’s to explain an account by one man (Hasford) who was a veteran that strikes another vet (Stone) as preposterous? To complicate things even more, how come Herr, who was in Vietnam, found Hasford’s account to be of an unimpeachable veracity?
Sure, Herr went to the Nam as a journalist and not as an infantryman (or as an enlisted correspondent, a la Hasford or his onscreen doppelganger, Joker), but he made the point himself that the line between observer and participant was razor-thin and crossed many times. Herr is considered, along with contemporary Hunter S. Thompson, a seminal figure in the New Journalism school and had a weapon in his hand, in-country.
I think that despite the absence of intersubjectivity between Stone on the one hand and Herr and Hasford on the other that no one is lying and that no one’s account of the war is superior to the other’s (in terms of concrete details, not aesthetics).
Gus Hasford was a marine, and Herr was embedded with them. And while Oliver Stone’s experience in the bush was obviously no picnic, the marines were on a whole other planet of insanity in Vietnam (especially when artillery started erupting at Khe Sanh).
Khe Sanh is one of those insane setpiece engagements the experience of which drove mad even the most hardened combat vets; like with the Battles in Betio/Tarawa in World War II, men who had experience of previous wars discovered that new depths of horror could always be unearthed to make the nightmares that came before seem tame by comparison.
I could go on (and actually meant to get to some examples from the world of prison literature), but you get the point.
The main thing to remember is that it is not necessary to have experienced something to write credibly about it, because even those who’ve undergone an experience many times can’t write authoritatively about it.
Not only that, their memories are many times faulty and betray them, whether due to the nature of time, trauma or due to some self-serving motive.
In defense of the authors who get the particulars of their stories wrong, it’s hard to be objective when people are trying to kill you in a jungle in Southeast Asia or rape you in some stone castle like San Quentin, and solipsism is a much easier state to achieve when you’ve been trapped in a foxhole for days on end without sleep or have been cast Jack Henry Abbott-style into some room of reinforced concrete without windows or light.
The writer William Styron once remarked that the heart knew all terra and that none was totally incognita, except, he added, for the experience of American prisons. To write convincingly about that milieu, he claimed, to write with authority, one must have been there.
But I’m not sure Styron and I agree on this point.
Take my cousin, for instance, who’s spent a large part of his adult life in prison. He managed to pass time in the federal pen by reading everything he could get his hands on and he especially enjoyed ticking off the boxes on his Stephen King checklist.
When I asked him what his favorite King works were, he answered that it was a tossup between The Green Mile and Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption.
And I don’t think that King’s ever been to jail except for maybe research purposes or perhaps a long time ago for a DUI or something.
So write whatever the hell you want, and if someone who’s been there tells you it’s not realistic, screw them, because their “There” is not the same as the there that’s there for anyone else, whether or not you yourself have ever really been there.
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