Fifty Years In

Like smartphones teach us to be dumb – to not know things, to not be able to find our way except by using the device – we are also learning how to forget the past. Or how to remember it inaccurately, disconnected from the forks in the road where our path darkened and we lost something irretrievable, something we did not make nor deserve but that came from us and birthed us, was us, the best and the worst, that pushed us in the right direction because we were scared to go on our own until we learned we could pull ourselves there if we could just join enough hands.
April 4, 1968, the Lorraine Motel, Memphis, TN, the alternately riotous and trippy sixties, the whole twentieth century, came crashing to a sudden end.
Now, 50 years into the 21st we wonder how long it’s going to last. This should not be our mindset; it wasn’t his. Is there an ideal that’s not an ideology? Is there optimism greater than hope?
Can we contemplate the breadth of shared possibility? How much justice will the market allow? The answers are not in your phone.

Descent in Joy

The continued protest by Native people against the DAPL leads me to Camus and his Myth of Sysiphus:

sisyphus

You have already grasped that Sisyphus is the absurd hero. He is, as much through his passions as through his torture. His scorn of the gods, his hatred of death, and his passion for life won him that unspeakable penalty in which the whole being is exerted toward accomplishing nothing. This is the price that must be paid for the passions of this earth. Nothing is told us about Sisyphus in the underworld. Myths are made for the imagination to breathe life into them. As for this myth, one sees merely the whole effort of a body straining to raise the huge stone, to roll it, and push it up a slope a hundred times over; one sees the face screwed up, the cheek tight against the stone, the shoulder bracing the clay-covered mass, the foot wedging it, the fresh start with arms outstretched, the wholly human security of two earth-clotted hands. At the very end of his long effort measured by skyless space and time without depth, the purpose is achieved. Then Sisyphus watches the stone rush down in a few moments toward tlower world whence he will have to push it up again toward the summit. He goes back down to the plain.

It is during that return, that pause, that Sisyphus interests me. A face that toils so close to stones is already stone itself! I see that man going back down with a heavy yet measured step toward the torment of which he will never know the end. That hour like a breathing-space which returns as surely as his suffering, that is the hour of consciousness. At each of those moments when he leaves the heights and gradually sinks toward the lairs of the gods, he is superior to his fate. He is stronger than his rock.

If this myth is tragic, that is because its hero is conscious. Where would his torture be, indeed, if at every step the hope of succeeding upheld him? The workman of today works everyday in his life at the same tasks, and his fate is no less absurd. But it is tragic only at the rare moments when it becomes conscious. Sisyphus, proletarian of the gods, powerless and rebellious, knows the whole extent of his wretched condition: it is what he thinks of during his descent. The lucidity that was to constitute his torture at the same time crowns his victory. There is no fate that can not be surmounted by scorn.

Happy [reading] Friday.

What does Henry Green mean?

h-greenGetting back to our actual life, I’ll be reading “Concluding” now and finding out more about this now-obscure mid-century wonder:

At the time, Green was in his late forties and the author of nine novels, including “Living,” “Party Going,” and “Loving,” and a memoir, “Pack My Bag.” His stock was high among fellow-writers. In a 1952 Life profile, W. H. Auden was quoted calling him “the best English novelist alive.” The following year, T. S. Eliot, talking to the Times, cited Green’s novels as proof that the “creative advance in our age is in prose fiction.” But Green had never been a popular success. In 1930, Evelyn Waugh had reviewed “Living,” Green’s novel about Birmingham factory life, under the headline “A Neglected Masterpiece.” It was the first of several dozen articles that bemoaned Green’s lack of acceptance and helped bind his name as closely to the epithet “neglected” as Pallas Athena is to “bright-eyed.”

Waugh blamed philistine book reviewers, but he knew that Green’s image hadn’t helped. “From motives inscrutable to his friends, the author of Living chooses to publish his work under a pseudonym of peculiar drabness,” he wrote. Green was born Henry Vincent Yorke, to a prominent Gloucestershire family, and he worked as the managing director of H Pontifex & Sons Ltd., a manufacturing company purchased by his grandfather; he presented himself as a Sunday writer. (Where other novelists might serve as secretary of pen, Green did a stint as chairman of the British Chemical Plant Manufacturers’ Association.) He claimed that he wrote under an assumed name in order to hide his writing from colleagues and associates. The Life profile, “The Double Life of Henry Green,” had the subtitle “The ‘secret’ vice of a top British industrialist is writing some of Britain’s best novels.” But Green’s first book, “Blindness,” was published in 1926, while he was at Oxford, and a desire for privacy characterized much of his behavior. After a certain point, he refused to have his portrait taken. Dundy had first recognized him from a Cecil Beaton photograph that showed only the back of his head.

As a fan of Auden, I take the above characterization with great seriousness. The undermining of omniscience on the part of the narrator is also serious business, to which I will attend.

PHOTOGRAPH BY CECIL BEATON / CONDÉ NAST

Learning from the Greeks

5760This is what compassion for refugees looks like:

Pulitzer Prize winning photojournalist Daniel Etter, whose images from Kos touched the hearts of millions last year, returned to Greece this September to photograph the islanders who feature in the new documentary short Ode to Lesvos, created by Johnnie Walker® to shine a light on the inspirational acts of compassion shown in response to the refugee crisis.

Everyone who cringes from fear and/or accuses refugees should be embarrassed by the empathy and compassion of the people of Lesvos. But only for a moment. Then you should do the same.

Alice

Alice WThe great American novelist and poet Alice Walker was in town the last two days, and I was fortunate enough to be in attendance at her public event last night at the Morton Theatre. It was a conversation with a great and generous soul, who reminded us to be kind, generous, curious and grateful to the wonder of which we are all a part, and to which we are ever-present witnesses. She instructed us to read, read, read, and to be aware of all that we allow into our consciousness via the invasive nature of electronic and broadcast media. We should be mindful of our ancestors and their suffering, because of which we should work to alleviate all suffering that we are aware of and encounter. Truly amazing and inspiring. She even read a couple of pages of dialogue between Shug and Celie talking about God from The Color Purple. I hope your Thursday night was good, too.

But here, I’ll share a poem from her website [yes, she blogs]. This is The Future Captured in A Heartless Fist by Alice Walker:

Somehow it is left to us

This most hopeful of generations

To bear

The unbearable.

We do not need to have given birth

To the children

Who are being destroyed

To know they are our children

Not only in the present and the past

But certainly in the future.

All children are connected at birth

To all the others ever to arrive.

Their faces turned upward

Toward the parents all grown-ups were meant to be.

How can you separate your child

From mine?

Little one, they have captured you

And placed you in a cage.

What are we to make of this?

Are we supposed to see you

As an animal?

Though animals also do not deserve

This fate.

Are we supposed to think

That you are, at five years old,

Already a “terrorist”?

Are we to believe you deserve

To stand alone in this tiny jail

Obviously constructed with you in mind

While grownups stand around

And frighten you?

Who paid for this cage

Anyway?

Whose taxes?

Whose labor?

Whose sweat?

Little One,

You are Palestinian

You are also Earthling,

You are Every Child.

By most humans of this planet

You are beloved.

But in this moment,

So hard to own

As what any parent or grownup

Anywhere

Could desire or wish

You are The Future

Captured in a heartless

Fist.

Image from last night, stolen without permission from fB.

Arendt: on Violence

Arendt_stampMy summer reading fling with Hannah Arendt is showing some signs of making the turn into fall – weather willing. Something I had not seen yet but offer here is from Arendt’s Reflections on Violence from the Feb. 27, 1969 issue of the NYRB. Writes one of the 20th century’s most brilliant thinkers about lessons we refuse to learn:

No one concerned with history and politics can remain unaware of the enormous role violence has always played in human affairs; and it is at first glance rather surprising that violence has so seldom been singled out for special consideration. This shows to what extent violence and its arbitrary nature were taken for granted and therefore neglected; no one questions or examines what is obvious to all. Whoever looked for some kind of sense in the records of the past was almost bound to look upon violence as a marginal phenomenon. When Clausewitz calls war “the continuation of politics with other means,” or Engels defines violence as the accelerator of economic development, the emphasis is on political or economic continuity, on continuing a process which is determined by what preceded violent action. Hence, students of international relations have held until very recently that “it was a maxim that a military resolution in discord with the deeper cultural sources of national power could not be stable,” or that, in Engels’s words, “wherever the power structure of a country contradicts its economic development” political power with its means of violence will suffer defeat.

Today all these old verities about the relation of war and politics or about violence and power no longer apply. We know that “a few weapons could wipe out all other sources of national power in a few moments,” that biological weapons are devised which would enable “small groups of individuals…to upset the strategic balance” and be cheap enough to be produced by “nations unable to develop nuclear striking forces,” that “within a very few years” robot soldiers will have made “human soldiers completely obsolete,” and that, finally, in conventional warfare the poor countries are much less vulnerable than the great powers precisely because they are “underdeveloped” and because technical superiority can “be much more of a liability than an asset” in guerrilla wars.

What all these very uncomfortable novelties add up to is a reversal in the relationship between power and violence, foreshadowing another reversal in the future relationship between small and great powers. The amount of violence at the disposal of a given country may no longer be a reliable indication of that country’s strength or a reliable guarantee against destruction by a substantially smaller and weaker power. This again bears an ominous similarity to one of the oldest insights of political science, namely that power cannot be measured by wealth, that an abundance of wealth may erode power, that riches are particularly dangerous for the power and well-being of republics.

 

Food and Where It Comes From, part MCMXIV

1744293_mexico_farm_labor_diptych_09_DPB

Great dinner out last night with Mrs. G, and probably a nice lunch in a little while – two examples of the luxury amidst which we find ourselves. Just order, buy, what looks good? How our food choices got there practically never enters into our thinking, but the Los Angeles Times published some extraordinary journalism earlier this week, an investigation of the Mexican farms that send us all the delightful produce we choose or ignore – all while choosing to ignore something much greater and more fundamentally wrong with this scenario:

American consumers get all the salsa, squash and melons they can eat at affordable prices. And top U.S. brands — Wal-Mart, Whole Foods, Subway and Safeway, among many others — profit from produce they have come to depend on.

These corporations say their Mexican suppliers have committed to decent treatment and living conditions for workers.

But a Los Angeles Times investigation found that for thousands of farm laborers south of the border, the export boom is a story of exploitation and extreme hardship.

The Times found:

  • Many farm laborers are essentially trapped for months at a time in rat-infested camps, often without beds and sometimes without functioning toilets or a reliable water supply.
  • Some camp bosses illegally withhold wages to prevent workers from leaving during peak harvest periods.
  • Laborers often go deep in debt paying inflated prices for necessities at company stores. Some are reduced to scavenging for food when their credit is cut off. It’s common for laborers to head home penniless at the end of a harvest.
  • Those who seek to escape their debts and miserable living conditions have to contend with guards, barbed-wire fences and sometimes threats of violence from camp supervisors.
  • Major U.S. companies have done little to enforce social responsibility guidelines that call for basic worker protections such as clean housing and fair pay practices.

Doing anything differently begins with just knowing. So, just know. There are real people involved in the growing and harvesting of our bounty.

via LGM.

Translations

Translating what one person says in the same language in which they said it can be difficult enough. One language to another can be very tricky; crossing languages with poetry can be outright criminal.

One of our favorites, Vladimir Nabokov, published a translation of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin into English in 1964 (later revised, 1975). The publication literally ended his long friendship with the great Edmund Wilson, who took the great novelist to task in the pages of the New York Review of Books, a deed Nabokov never forgave.

As great as such literary skirmishes can be (as well how far away they can seem, as though from a misty past on some faraway planet), the challenge itself of translation stands rude, even obdurate. Here is Nabokov’s translation of the first stanza of chapter one of Pushkin’s novel in verse, Onegin:

“My uncle has most honest principles:

when taken ill in earnest,

he has made one respect him

and nothing better could invent.

To others his example is a lesson;

but, good God, what a bore

to sit by a sick man both day and night,

without moving a step away!

What base perfidiousness

the half-alive one to amuse,

adjust for him the pillows,

sadly present the medicine,

sigh — and think inwardly

when will the devil take you?”

Now here’s another translation of the same section by Walter Arendt:

“Now that he is in grave condition,

My uncle, decorous old dunce,

Has won respectful recognition;

And done the perfect thing for once.

His action be a guide to others;

But what a bore, I ask you, brothers,

To tend a patient night and day

And venture not a step away:

Is there hypocracy more glaring

Than to amuse one all but dead,

Shake up the pillow for his head,

Dose him with melancholy bearing,

And think behind a public sigh:

‘Duce take you, step on it and die!'”

Words for thought, nourishment for the hungry. And you can still buy Nabokov’s translation. So take that, Mr. W.

Image: Portrait of Aleksander Pushkin by Orest Admovich Kiprensky. Oil on canvas, 1827.

“Fanaticism Anxiety,” a vestige of the Colonial Era

The-Morocco-crisis_1911At Juan Cole’s Informed Comment, Edmund Burke III (!) on déjà vu all over again in the Middle East:

In 1900 media fulmination about the threat posed by alleged Muslim fanaticism dominated the headlines. Then as now, nineteenth century European tabloid railings against the Sudanese Mahdi and pan-Islamic conspiracies were a proven way to sell newspapers. Then as now, the lords of empire sought to spook metropolitan populations into supporting military interventions by manufacturing Muslim rebels. Then as now, this helped win continued public support for endless war and colonial expansion. Thus our current preoccupations with al-Qaida, Somali hijackers and ISIS fanatics, fit rather well in the museum of imperialist culture.

The French colonial experience provides a salient example. French Algeria was a veritable bestiary of what not to do, ranging from such Islamophobic policies of closing mosques, libraries and Islamic schools to demonizing sufi brotherhoods as the sources of alleged pan-Islamic insurgency. By 1900, French colonial experts and metropolitan officials had become convinced that a change was needed. They looked to the model of British India for an example of what worked, and to Morocco as the potential site where they could “get it right” by introducing the model of British India. But before they could do that, they first had to get acquiescence of the other European powers and contend with Moroccan resistance.

Still an independent state in 1900, Morocco was coveted by no less than four major European powers. Indeed, Europe would several times come to the brink of war in the period 1900-1912 over what was then called “the Moroccan Question.” In order to deploy the “scientific imperialism” tool kit, a systematic French effort to study Moroccan society and its culture and institutions was required. Yet as late as 1900, European ignorance about Morocco was profound.. Few studies existed, and those that did traded heavily in orientalist clichés. Morocco was viewed as a “Tibet on the doorstep of Europe.” And France was only slightly better informed about Morocco than its main rivals–Britain, Spain and Germany

What makes the Moroccan case so interesting is that the Moroccan colonial archive was created in the span of a single generation in the heyday of “scientific imperialism.” Thus from the start “Moroccan Islam” was intended to provide support for the French colonial project. In Morocco we get to see the elaboration of a colonial archive—a task that took a century for the British to accomplish in India. We also get to see the uses to which ethnographic knowledge was put in the elaboration of the colonial project. This story is the very opposite of the U.S. experience in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The larger curve

I love this stuff. From Henry David Thoreau‘s Journal, July 18, 1851:

Here I am thirty-four years old, and yet my life is almost wholly unexpanded. How much is in the germ! There is such an interval between my ideal and the actual in many instances that I may say I am unborn. There is the instinct for society, but no society. Life is not long enough for one success. Within another thirty-four years that miracle can hardly take place. Methinks my seasons revolve more slowly than those of nature; I am differently timed. I am contented. This rapid revolution of nature, even of nature in me, why should it hurry me? Let a man step to the music which he hears, however measured. Is it important that I should mature as soon as an apple tree? aye, as soon as an oak? May not my life in nature, in proportion as it is supernatural, be only the spring and infantile portion of my spirit’s life? Shall I turn my spring to summer? May I not sacrifice a hasty and petty completeness here to entireness there? If my curve is large, why bend it to a smaller circle? My spirit’s unfolding observes not the pace of nature. The society which I was made for is not here. Shall I, then, substitute for the anticipation of that this poor reality? I would [rather] have the unmixed expectation of that than this reality. If life is a waiting, so be it. I will not be shipwrecked on a vain reality. What were any reality which I can substitute? Shall I with pains erect a heaven of blue glass over myself, though when it is done I shall be sure to gaze still on the true ethereal heaven far above, as if the former were not, – that still distant sky o’er-arching that blue expressive eye of heaven? I am enamored of the blue-eyed arch of heaven.