Tuesday, October 14, 2014

In the Gene Pool

“Accidents which happen to a man before he is born, in the persons of his ancestors, will, if he remembers them at all, leave an indelible impression on him; they will have molded his character so that, do what he will, it is hardly possible for him to escape their consequences.”



Samuel Butler's semi-autobiographical novel, The Way of All Flesh, covers four generations of Pontifex men. The forefather "Old" John Pontifex is a village carpenter; his only son, George, a big city publisher and first-class "prig;" George's second son, Theobald, is a miserly village rector; finally Theobald's eldest son, Ernest, is a bit of a lost soul due his father's dictatorial parenting: at first a scholar and clergyman like Theobald, he cannot articulate reasons for loving or even believing in God. He gets into trouble and is sent to prison. An apostate when released into society, he leaves the Church of England and his parents' shadow forever. He finds a trade as a tailor but struggles with an alcoholic wife. At this time, his only outlet for pleasure is his love of Handel's music and scribbled intellectual musings. After so much failure, he comes into a large inheritance, adopts Darwin as a guiding light, and writes a series of book treatises that the public mostly ignores, but with wealth and self-realization, Ernest remains finally happy all the same.

Our narrator, Mr. Overton, is Ernest's godfather. He is an English gentleman, meaning he is independently wealthy, runs in high society, and the quotidian problems of the hoi polloi are not his concern. He writes for the theater and lives a bohemian lifestyle. He has an active interest in Ernest's welfare and is the caretaker of the wealthy estate left to Ernest by his aunt. Overton doesn't like Theobald, and neither do we, as he is a bit of a manipulative monster. As the title suggests, the novel is about how difficult it is to break free from the stranglehold of family. The mistakes of our ancestors, the rage and sense of inferiority are embedded in our DNA. We might hate where we come from but we are not so dissimilar in temperament and life outlook. 

Ernest's avidness as a do-right clergyman (along with a fellow London curate, Prior, he seeks to found a "College of Spiritual Pathology") is not a handpicked life. He is following his father's footsteps and in a burgeoning adult intelligence realizes that he is not only not good at offering spiritual comfort but that he cannot exactly rationalize God's existence in the first place. “By faith in what, then shall a just man endeavor to live at this present time? At any rate not by faith in the supernatural element of the Christian religion.” Leaving the Church of England is rejecting his parents' piety as much as it is abandoning God. Being free-thinking is not just a secular thing, but also a declaration of independence: Ernest looked "back upon this as the time when he began to know that he had a cordial and active dislike for both his parents, which I suppose means that he was now beginning to be aware that he was reaching man's estate.”

Ernest's departure from religion to philosophy reminds me quite a bit of James Joyce's Stephen Dedalus in The Portrait of the Young Artist As a Young Man, substituting Catholicism for the Church of England (Joyce's narrative owes some considerable debt to Samuel Butler, who got here first and seems that for most critics this debt remains unacknowledged). Ernest is something of a fool and a sucker, buying into various ideas and schemes with a fanatic's enthusiasm, only to be ruined when truth (or reality) destroy the fantasy. Like many literary heroes he is something of a loser who must live and learn that it was  “...impossible to reduce life to an exact science. There was a rough-and-ready, rule-of-thumb test of truth, and a number of rules as regards exceptions which could be mastered without much trouble, yet there was a residue of cases in which decision was difficult-- so difficult that a man had better follow his instinct than attempt to decide them by any process of reasoning.”

Samuel Butler-- The Way of All Flesh,
 due its autobiographical nature, was published posthumously 

It is a wonderful pleasure to read about fuck-ups, but there is one keen problem with Butler's novel: it is something of a deus ex machina, in that for all his wrong turns, Ernest is still an entitled aristocrat, though one slow in coming. His problems are solved for him, rather than him wising up to the ways of the world, or finding happiness without money. There is thus no drama to the novel, since the reader knows quite early that Ernest is to inherit a great sum (we know even if Ernest himself does not). And while he might reject his parents' conditional love, he is far from an ideal father himself. We follow his journey for almost 400 pages, and for what? To see him evolve into a pompous essayist? Is he then just a variation of his overbearing father, the way of all flesh? At the end, the self-confident, ultimately well-adjusted Ernest is far less likable than the impressionable naive young man: “I will live as I like living, not as other people would like me to live; thanks to my aunt and you, I can afford the luxury of a quiet, unobtrusive life of self-indulgence.” This might be the end-all for someone of Butler's taste, but definitely not welcomed words of any hero of my own.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Dropping Out Means You Need a Plan Too


"Outside, at the main gate to the Drop City ranch, there was a plywood sign nailed clumsily to the wooden crossbars: NO MEN, NO WOMEN-- ONLY CHILDREN."

"All the communities he'd been a part of, or tried to be a part of, had fallen to pieces under the pressure of the little things, the essentials, the cooking and the cleaning and the repairs, and while it was nice to think everybody would pitch in during a crisis, it didn't always work out that way."


Beyond Haight-Ashbury is there a greater physical space symbol of 1960s counterculture than the hippie commune? A place in the country, back to the land, grow your own food, no Mr. Jones looking over your shoulder with his taxes and laws and bourgeois habits and what's that you're smoking, man, pass it along this way, you hear? And that was what did in nearly all the utopian experiments of the Aquarius Hair era: loafers, parasites, and dropouts not doing their share of the work while enjoying a disproportionate share of the sex and drugs. Living off the land and thus outside the realm of The Man is a romantic idea, Thoroueu-ian American, but self-sufficiency doesn't come easy. And what begins as egalitarianism collapses often enough into hierarchy with all the social pressures and personality conflicts so redolent of the outside world. This might be inevitable whenever human beings try to assemble a new social organization, no matter how noble their original intentions. An autonomous society where everyone is equal and which also values individualism and hedonism is going to have a rough go at it. "This time it'll be different," is one of the great lies we tell ourselves.

T. C. Boyle's novel, Drop City, about a 1970 California hippie commune in trouble with the law and relocating to Alaska's wild frontier is one part adventure yarn/ one part anthropological fiction/ one part human comedy. Of the many dropouts who make up the Drop City roster, there are four principle characters, each one representing a paradigm of communal life. Norm, a chunky dude in overalls and body hair is the guru, the Big Daddy, whose inheritance and money make Drop City a reality. His charisma keeps spirits high and hopeful, but he is not necessarily competent nor sensible. Pan (or Ronnie as he was known in the straight world) abandoned the suburbs to reinvent himself as a stoned sexual primitive in beads and hair, who would much rather get high, screw, and lay in the sun than dig septic fields for overflowing latrines. Marco is a bit of a drifter, in trouble with The Law for burning his draft card-- he can't go home, not with an arrest warrant in his name. More than anyone else Marco wants Drop City to make it; he indulges in the hippie rhetoric and aesthetic but his puritan work habits makes him a vital member of the Drop City community. He is also monogamous with Star, a flower child with a "million-kilowatt smile" who, along with the other "chicks" bear the soul of the community; the women doing most of the cooking and cleaning while some of the men work and others lounge. Originally, she came out west with Pan, but like many of the other girls of the community, she got fed up with free love and accusations of "bourgeois hangups" when refusing to indulge in sexual demands: "Free love was just an invention of some cat with pimples and terminally bad hair and maybe crossed eyes who couldn't get laid any other way..."

The novel begins in the commune, high summer. Work progresses slowly in the California sun (as Ronnie says, "he didn't come all the way out here to dig sewers." Tourists and weekenders come by to participate (i.e. get high, get laid) or gawk as they would at a circus. Some "cats" taking a too liberal interpretation of sixties sexual politics rape a runaway and there is some dissension about what to do, as Norm has an open door policy called "LATWIDNO, Land Access to Which Is Denied No One." Shortly thereafter, things come to a head on Druid Day, better known in the straight world as Summer Solstice, in which Drop City indulges the longest day of the year with pitchers of LSD-laced orange juice for communal tripping. That day both of the commune's young children, Che and Sunshine, also dosing, are almost killed in drowning incidents. Moreover, Norm totals the VW bus in an accident involving the community's stray mare and two other vehicles. He flees the scene (he is tripping after all and this is heavy, man, dig?) and an arrest warrant is issued. Worse, the county authorities licking its lips over numerous safety code violations and unpaid debts finally have the catalyst it needs to call in the bulldozers and raze the commune once and for all. But Norm has an uncle who'd recently retired from Alaskan trapping and has abandoned a working cabin and land no one is using.  "Are you fucking crazy?" Star wants to know, speaking on behalf of nearly every concerned hippie. Norm, who spent a few sentimental summers in Alaska twenty years past, responds with a confident huckster's speech worth quoting in full:

"...The cabin is ours, people, fully stocked and ready to go, traps, guns, snowshoes, six cords of wood stacked up outside the door, pots and pans and homemade furniture and all the rest, and it's going to be an adventure, it is. We're going to take down some trees, because that's the way you do it-- lumber is free up there, can you dig that, free-- and we're going to build four more cabins and a meeting house and we're going to build right on down to the river because the salmon are running up that river even as we speak and they're running in the millions. You dig smoked salmon? Anybody here dig smoked salmon? And the blueberries. The cranberries. You never saw anything like it. You want to know what we're going to eat? We're going to eat the land because it's one big smorgasbord. And there's nobody-- I mean nobody-- to stop us."

When? Where? How?  But logistics can wait-- it is Druid Day after all, and Norm leads the hippies dancing around a wild bonfire. Within a few days Norm has purchased an old school bus (a la Ken Kesey), and over the ensuing days, the bus is outfitted for the long trip (supplies and provisions packed, most especially Drop City's rock and roll record collection and the house speakers). Within a week they are gone, on their way up through Canada and most of Alaska to the very frontier, beyond civilization altogether, to establish Drop City North.

T. C. Boyle

Before the hippies arrive, Boyle has set up a parallel storyline in Boynton, the last town on the road. Most of the inhabitants are "coots"-- anti-social survivalists, almost universally male. Cecil "Sess" Harder is not as wealthy as some of the others who are involved in exploitation of the land and misery (either in resources or tourism or the running of contraband). Sess grows his own herbs and vegetables, hunts moose and bear with his rifle, and runs an extensive trapline with his dogs. Entirely self-sufficient, constitutionally and psychologically he's well-built and adaptable for Alaska's long, dark winter, but would prefer having someone to share the cabin with. After a disastrous relationship in which his last girl left him with severe cabin fever, he discovers Pamela in the classifieds. She wants out of society with its druggies and crimes and governmental overreach. She's beautiful, blonde locks and blue eyes, and a hard worker and Sess really is lucky when she chooses to marry him. Sess and Pamela live in a cabin out by the river called the Thirtymile-- but often go into Boynton or beyond for supply runs or a bit of "civilization." The only problem in his life is Joe Bosky, a psychotic asshole rich from running whiskey crates to alcoholic Eskimos. Their vendetta is brutal, the stakes growing more vicious with each retaliation.

Into this sleepy community, the hippie bus pulls in with its rock and roll, its groovy argot and its birthright naivety. The bus breaks down for the umpteenth time just a couple miles outside Boynton. Fixing it they meet Sess and Pamela walking up the road and they go into town together to the Three Pup, the local drunks' watering hole. Soon as they arrive, Sess knocks the weepy honky tonk ballad off the needle and chooses three plays of Van Morrison's Mystic Eyes. Flabbergasting the local rustics, "the hippies had caught on and kept feeding the jukebox quarters and the only song they played-- the song of the night, the anthem-- was Mystic Eyes. It was a joke. Hilarious. Fifteen times, twenty, twenty-five. They danced and pounded and threw back beers and shots of peppermint schnapps and whatever else they could lay their hands on. All was movement and noise and the swirling interleaved colors of the dancers' shirts and jackets and the flapping wind-propelled cuffs of their pants."

Hippies

On the road, Norm, slumped over the school bus wheel, pops some uppers and points out some trees leaning willy nilly, "the drunken forest... What happens is the trees can't put down their roots more than maybe twenty-four inches or whatever and then the wind comes along and gives them a shove. And don't think there's anything wrong with them. They're alive and thriving. It's just that they're never going to grow straight. Or much."  Is there a better description of the hippie drifter? Soaking up a scene and then bailing when the vibes go bad? Half the season is over by the time Drop City North chops down its first tree. It's too late for the growing season and hunting and skinning a moose, laying traps, and building log cabins is not exactly an intuitive knowledge, not anymore at least in our consumeristic society. The pleasure of Boyle's novel is wondering whether Drop City will make it to the winter, and if so, how the hell it will deal with its noon-time moon and 40-below nights. The barriers are not only physical or mechanical, but psychological and spiritual as well. How that plays out with a clan of dropouts who never saw themselves in the Alaskan wilderness in the first place is the sort of vicarious thrill that inspires the thrill of reading in the first place.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

A Matter of Lying


“Always in this region at about this time they began to speak the truth at each other. The truth, he thought, has never been of any real value to any human being-- it is a symbol for mathematicians and philosophers to pursue. In human relations kindness and lies are worth a thousand truths.”



No writer of the twentieth century quite mastered the heartbreak of married old men in love with younger women in wartime frontier posts like Graham Greene did. The Quiet American is more famous (due the fact it too is excellent, it was made into a decent movie in 2002, and that it is the first novel about the Vietnam War), but The Heart of the Matter-- a surprisingly tense, bitter telling of a policeman, Major Scobie, an honest do-right old-school type in a loveless marriage delving into lies in order to pursue a relationship that brings him some happiness in some godforsaken colonial town in the middle of World War II-- might be the best written book of Greene's wonderful oeuvre.

Scobie is married to Louise, a high-strung devotedly Catholic bibliophile who doesn't do idle talk well and is a bit of a pariah among plain-spoken bureaucratic types.  When the Europeans gather for gossip and spirits, she is distinctly uncomfortable and nearly always unhappy. However, a recent arrival on the lethargic colonial scene, Wilson, has a secret love of poetry and falls in love with her; so much so he is openly contemptuous of Scobie, whom he might be spying on and reporting for transgressions. Louise isn't quite flattered by Wilson's clumsy amorous declarations and pushes her husband to find some means to get her on a boat out of the colony, preferably to Cape Town, South Africa where she has friends (England being too dangerous to return to during the war).

A dated photo of Freetown, Sierra Leone, 
where Greene admitted to being the setting of The Heart of the Matter

Scobie, a by-the-books honest cop who never learned how to accept the appropriate bribe resorts to a loan from Yusuf, a Syrian trader with a bad rep in town and who may or may not be smuggling diamonds. The loan is straightforward and legal, and Yusuf is unfailingly polite and friendly, but to be on any kind of business terms with Yusuf, especially for a police officer, is suspicious. But with the loan, Scobie is able to send Louise away. Her emotional instability no longer a living tension, Scobie, while in debt, looks forward to a relatively uncomplicated life.

However, there is a ferry accident up the river. One of the survivors, a Mrs. Helen Rolt, newly widowed and too traumatized to make the long return to England stays on in the town and the rapport she has with Scobie, a man twenty years her senior, develops into a clandestine love affair. Scobie promises to see to her needs devotedly, only to have Louise return early to the colony complicating his life, as is his business with Yusuf until the policeman's moral character is stretched to a breaking point.

By the end of WWII, it had become difficult to rationalize the existence of the Christian God, for what kind of Omnipotent Force would have permitted the outrageous atrocities overwhelming the world throughout the 20th century? Like Ingmar Bergman's doubting priests and spiritually fraught christian knights, Greene's heroes are often men who know all the words of the Lord's Prayers, but who have lost all faith in their meanings. Godless and isolated thus, Scobie has his own moral playbook, but the pages are torn out one by one in an enveloping complex of lies.  In his futile attempt to please everyone and compartmentalize his feelings, Scobie becomes completely unmoored and his nervous breakdown has a palpable sense of doom.

The author, Graham Greene, 
around the time of the publication of The Heart of the Matter

There are few novels that capture the painful tedium of loving your partner without being the least bit in love as The Heart of the Matter does. A loveless marriage is a horrible thing to bear and Greene brings an immediacy to the day-to-day walking-on-eggshells hopelessness: “People talk about the courage of condemned men walking to the place of execution: sometimes it needs as much courage to walk with any kind of bearing towards another person's habitual misery.” It is lies that unravel Scobie, but he'd long inured himself to reality, forced pleasantries with his wife, whom he wholly pitied and loved not at all. Our hero is a noble failure, but there is a bit of him in all of us, trying for goodness even when exhausted, even when it would be so easy to just give up and move on. "No man is an island," the poet John Donne famously writes, but then Greene writes, less romantically, but perhaps more truthfully, “When he was young, he had thought love had something to do with understanding, but with age he knew that no human being understood another. Love was the wish to understand, and presently with constant failure the wish died too perhaps or changed into this painful affection, loyalty, pity...”

Devastating, isn't it?

Friday, September 19, 2014

Ginsberg Guru


“And I will worship him by eating bananas!”

--Allen Ginsberg



You would have thought that the guy that wrote the legendary poem Howl (“I saw the best minds of my generation...”) and who (along with Jack Kerouac) personified what was perhaps the most important cultural movement in 1950s America would have felt some satisfaction in a life well lived. But Allen Ginsberg, Beatnik genius, was a mess of confusion and anxiety when JFK's New Frontier era began. A born traveler, though always a poet of limited means, Ginsberg's insatiable curiosity for life would take him across the world. Deborah Baker's A Blue Hand is the wonderful story of Ginsberg's sixteen months spent in India in 1961-2. Told in non-linear fashion, the story shifts often, like a moth zigzagging towards a light source, jumping between Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky's rendezvous with Joanne Kyger and Gary Snyder (Jack's hero Jahpy Rhyder in The Dharma Bums), Allen's camaraderie with Calcutta's coffeehouse poets, his desperate search for a guru in Benares, and being stoned out of his mind at the funeral pyres, then rewinding to his teen years, New York, the scene in San Francisco, friends like Kerouac, William Burroughs and Gregory Corso and a femme fatale named Hope Savage flitting into the narrative, backwards and forwards and back again, much like the mind might reconstruct existence on a sleepless night wondering how it all came together, this seemingly random chain of events that is called life.

Ginsberg's spiritual quest begins with his famous Blake vision in 1948. Twenty-two years old, confused by his homosexuality and whether or not he should dedicate his life to poetry or follow the American Way and occupy a real job, he experiences an auditory hallucination of William Blake's voice narrating his poem “Ah Sunflower!” He realizes then that “a poem might open the door to the cosmos” but also that the flip side of a mystical experience is paranoid delusion. Nevertheless, he decides to “never forget, never renege, never deny the sense sublime.”

Thus years later the trip to India. And “tripping” for Ginsberg is a loaded word. It involves drugs: pot, of course, mescaline in Mexico, ayahuasca in Peru, and Allen is conversant with Tim Leary on the social revolution they might engineer with LSD. But tripping for Allen was also the clumsy pratfalls of looking for meaning in foreign lands when one tires of the empty promises of home. Ginsberg was neither the first, nor certainly the last, Westerner coming to India assuming its exotic traditions was the answer to existential dilemmas. After more than a year abroad and no closer to replicating the sublimity of his Blakean vision, Allen is devastated. There is no guru who can nurture in Ginsberg some guidance to a higher enlightened state. Drugs have become “a blind alley” and anyway his friend Gary Snyder, an ascetic disciplined in meditation and koan study, often chastises Allen for even considering drugs could be the means for a breakthrough satori.

“Don't you want to study Zen and lose your ego?” Gary Snyder asked his wife, Joanne Kyger, who famously answered, “What! After all this struggle to obtain one?” This conundrum of mind-body balance-of-power affects many travelers to India, including Allen. However, while worrying and wondering what effect ego might have on mystical truths, Ginsberg finally learns that while he might never rein control over visionary powers, he nevertheless concludes being stuck as Allen Ginsberg isn't the worst. The purpose of the journey evolves-- India is not epiphany or new poetry, so much as acceptance of self, that is a gay, spiritual, sensitive, charismatic, questing, uniquely original Jewish American poet whose words have made many of us feel a little less lonely. Why embrace the Indian deities when William Blake might be his saint? An Indian sadhu tells Allen how he “had spent thirty years waiting for Krishna to appear to him, only to realize himself that it was not Krishna he sought, but the love he inspired.”



And that is the thing about Ginsberg: it is love, self-love, yes, everyone needs that, but more importantly brotherly love, love of Man, true, gentle love-- certainly more than Kerouac or the other Beats, and most other poets, who in trying to interpret God in verse, end up careless of others' feelings. For all his friends' emotional abuse and failure to reciprocate kindness, Allen is always there to give. That quality of goodness becomes evident in his friendships with the Calcutta coffeehouse poets, one of whom he helps leave India for America for a fellowship and whose life is thus transformed. At the heart of the Beats' stormy plans for poetry, revolution, and life, Ginsberg is the center of it all, the guiding light. He is nervous, silly, impressionable, high-strung but also reflective, empathetic, brave and strong, one of those artists who is wise enough to understand the monumental consequences of giving himself wholly over to poetry and does so anyway. We often travel to lose ourselves, to be free (as Thoreau wrote: “to reveal our truest self”) but in the end, coming home, we occasionally realize we were never quite so lost in the first place.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Human See Human Do


“The way we see things is affected by what we know or what we believe.”


It is important for the photographer to have a verbal vocabulary of what, how, and why he sees. Such working philosophies rarely emerge from a vacuum but are often a compendium of ideas amalgamated from different sources. A book like John Berger's Ways of Seeing, though somewhat outdated (originally published in 1972) and in need of a contemporary update, is a worthwhile read not only for the visualist, but the layman as well (supposedly everyone who goes to art school reads it at some point.) It is easy to take “seeing” for granted and most of us do in fact (I know I did). This is true especially if one does not travel much and becomes accustomed to familiar landscapes. But Berger, coming from a Marxist humanist background, persuasively argues that there is a subtext to our conclusions of seeing-- that they are colored by education, upbringing, prejudices, social standing, and wealth (or lack of it). But for purposes of clarity, Ways of Seeing is focused specifically on art and advertising.

A short book that can be read in one intense sitting, the treatise is divided into seven parts, four verbal expositions and three pictorial “stories.” The first essay reiterates Walter Benjamin's classic pamphlet The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction; the second explores the depiction of women in oil paintings; the third essay discusses the long period of oil painting 1500-1900 as a province of the rich in a class war context; the final piece ruminates on advertising. More or less, the pictorial montages in between the four written works visually supplement his ideas.

For a small book, Berger covers a lot of ground and utilizes paintings and/or adverts to illustrate his points. Many of the ideas are familiar if you've delved into social and media criticism, or if one is thoughtful and has a tendency to look beyond surfaces into perhaps more truthful contexts. Context is extremely important. Everything has layers of meaning that suggest economic, political, and social histories, whether they be paintings or advertisements, not to mention residences, stores, amusement parks, office towers, restaurants-- just about anywhere and anything.

Berger's prose style, though academic, is mostly free of jargon and his takeaway points are on message. The visual world and how we process what we see has economic roots, more than ever in the advertising age, where visual stimuli are intended to foster our insecurities so that we consume what we don't actually need. Berger writes, “The purpose of publicity is to make the spectator marginally dissatisfied with his present way of life. Not with the way of life of society, but with his own within it. It suggests that if he buys what it is offering, his life will become better... All publicity works upon anxiety.” In 2014 this criticism of advertising has become quite commonplace. Yet in spite of knowing better we continue to spend more than we need, as American credit card debt statistics will attest. But for some, particularly those of a naturally cynical disposition, such revelations are like the light in Plato's Cave, of which we can never get out of our mind and so the material world takes the form of a television commercial montage from which there is not much hope for escape.

See anything?

Berger ends his polemic with the challenge, “To be continued by the reader...” So some casual observations from a personal viewpoint then: More than forty years since Berger laid down his arguments, exposure to visual stimuli has increased manifold, particularly since nearly everyone in a considerably broad age bracket in wealthy, industrialized countries carries a mini-computer in their pocket for which putting away seems somewhat difficult. This distraction (for even if one is doing work emails or reading an essay on Sufism in The New Yorker one is still distracted from one's immediate environment or company). As that rare young(ish) person who has decided to disavow smartphones from my life (at least for now, though I am considering procuring one for work reasons), I've noticed that most people are constantly occupied with their mini-entertainment systems. Often on subway trains it is just myself, young children and the very old letting our eyes wander. Not only are most of us then not witnessing our environment, but for those who have chosen to see, what we get for our effort is a collection of individuals hunched over their devices in defiantly anti-social postures. As a photographer whose significant inspiration comes from the streets, these are rather uninspiring tableaux from which to work, and which I nearly always refrain from shooting (pictures where the subject is disengaged from his or her environs are almost always boring). The pleasure of seeing then has become a little lonelier.

Indeed in my frequent travels to historic cultural sites, I find most tourists rarely let their vision wander over the ruins, the palaces, the ruined castles, the verdant riverbank, but scuttle about clutching iphones, ipads, and large digital cameras. Seeing only through their screens, they take dozens of pictures, sometimes hundreds, probably all of them very bad, as a very good photograph requires some consideration as to point-of-view, composition, and the angle of light. But I have noticed that in refraining from picture-taking altogether, I am much better at sensory-mapping my experience so that the memory is stronger, and when conjured, is a more sensational nostalgia-high than what one hundred photographs could ever deliver. The point of travel is not picture taking, but that the experience enriches your life so that is fuller, deeper, better lived. Anyways, as there are a million images of any place on earth accessible via the internet, I don't often see the point in taking yet another redundant picture just so that I can prove I've been somewhere (even if my artistic avocation is that of photographer). 

 Our evolving landscape 
(though particularly eloquently rendered here by the wonderful Jakob Holdt)

To be honest, I'm rather concerned with our collective future of seeing in general and the state of photography in particular. Though I would advocate the use of film over digital to any photographer who can afford the traditional medium, it is not the digital camera itself that worries me but its application. When you need to take fifty images when one will suffice then you are not seeing properly, or perhaps not at all. And with everyone staring with Pavlovian anxiety at their phones awaiting “likes” and “faves” the corporate advertisers have to work that much harder to secure our attention, becoming louder, larger, and more obnoxious in order to cut a slice of our diminished attention spans. It all compounds so that the world becomes an increasingly uninteresting place to exist. If this is so, what would become the point of seeing? You might as well join the screenheads, for at least they can filter their content when the Earth has become a neon-glowing billboard.

That would be an absolute shame because the world still has moments of extraordinary sublimity-- you just have to look longer, see more. Seeing took me years to learn to do properly and had I never left my native Los Angeles, perhaps I never would have learned. But coming to Japan and later traveling in India, Africa, and the Middle East, whose places' various scripts I was illiterate to understand, striking visual cues helped me navigate and make sense of my environment. From these cues slowly emerged colors, then forms, and eventually mise-en-scene which could be extravagantly beautiful but not by any conventional standard (which is easy to see anyways and psychologically conditioned for us, right, Mr. Berger?). I would say this hypothesized moment of beauty is inexplicable, but that is being evasive. What I'm talking about is a personal vision, one that arrives only with experience, not just with seeing, but also from reading, loving, learning, losing. It is the sum of life lived with eyes open. 

So I worry then for the future. When I was a child I had video games and television but I gave those up for girls and football in High School. I didn't have a mobile until I was 25 years old and I've never owned a smartphone. And it's taken me this long to learn how to see. How will today's children, weaned on screens from the age of two, ever learn how to see so that the world might become a uniquely complex personal vision? I'm not talking about photography here but a life philosophy attached to seeing. Listen, I'm not always pessimistic. I like to believe that the current trend of 'mindfulness' -- call it neo-Luddite if you will-- will become a full-fledged movement to disconnect from our convenient distractions for the more arduous, but infinitely more rewarding pleasure of wandering and seeing and, eventually, understanding.

Monday, August 25, 2014

The Adventures of Fitzroy MacLean


I remember visiting a hand-grenade factory; and a hospital where a man was having his leg cut off by a German-Jewish doctor; and a printing press where nothing in particular was happening. I have a vivid recollection of making several speeches in Serbo-Croat, one from a balcony...Finally I have hazy memories of the dance at a village called Blato which rounded off our day's entertainment and which was dramatically interrupted by the explosion of a small red Italian hand-grenade which became detached from one of the girls' belts as she whirled round the barn in which it was being held.”



Rumored to be the original inspiration for playboy spy James Bond, Fitzroy Maclean, in eight very active years from 1937-1945, is transferred to Britain's foreign office in Moscow, masters the Russian language, becomes the first (non-Russian) European to visit various villages and towns in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Kirghizia, among others (all the while being trailed by the Secret Police), witnesses the infamous purge trials of 1938, enlists in the armed forces following the outbreak of World War II, is elected to Parliament, helps lead sabotage missions behind enemy lines in North Africa, kidnaps an Iranian general sympathetic to Hitler, is parachuted into Yugoslavia to help Tito and the Partisans in their guerilla war against the Nazis, fraternizes with Winston Churchill, and following Nazi defeat in Belgrade, helps smooth the transition of government to avoid a civil war between communists and royalists, all the while, maintaining a committed work ethic, a keen purpose and most importantly, a sense of humor. In fact, the most significant difference between James Bond and Fitzroy MacLean is that the former is a fictional character and the latter a real man who somehow survived this incredible string of adventures.

MacLean compiled his experiences into a big book Eastern Approaches, organizing it into three parts: “Golden Road” about his diplomatic life in Moscow and clever sidestepping ventures into former Silk Route kingdoms; “Orient Sand” regarding his experiences as a saboteur in North Africa; and “Balkan War” detailing his experience with the guerillas. The entire book is a wonderful read, in particular the first two parts. The Balkan years have moments of extreme vividness, but they go a little long and are a bit much on logistical information that might not interest the casual reader (as opposed to the history buff).

MacLean launches right into his story-- there is no mention of childhood, university days, or any pertinent autobiographical information. It is very present-tense storytelling, concerned with whatever obstacles MacLean must overcome, whether they be eluding authorities on the road to the fabled ancient city of Bokhara or securing a safe supply drop zone for partisan guerillas. Through it all, he is detailed in his descriptions, anecdotal in his storytelling, and ribald in describing his more acute setbacks, as when he is briefly waylaid in Biisk, a small town in Central Asia: “Biisk did no credit to anyone. The dozen stone-built houses were without exception of pre-revolutionary construction and the wooden houses with their eaves carved in the old Siberian style were unbelievably dilapidated. The row of shops in the high street were a disgrace even by Soviet standards and the unpaved streets a sea of mud. What I saw of the population looked depressed, which indeed they had every right to be.” And then, in what seems could be another lifetime but is only a few years later, retreating with his Allied desert patrol unit after an unsuccessful sneak attack against Italian supply lines in Benghazi, an air raid of Italian fighter planes nearly obliterates their convoy: “Another truck full of explosives went up, taking with it all my personal kit. That was another two trucks gone. My equipment was now reduced to an automatic pistol, a prismatic compass and one plated teaspoon. From now onwards I should be traveling light.” Arguably such a quip would not be out of place in a cinematic 007 Act II setback.

The adventurer, Fitzroy MacLean

MacLean's firsthand experience in a paranoiac Soviet Russia and the camraderie of guerilla life in Yugoslavia are invaluable historical accounts. Obviously a winning personality (and a bit of a natural linguist, conversant in English, French, Italian, Russian, Serb-Croat and basic German) he gets on well with the hundreds of invididuals passing through his journeys-- not just Churchill and Tito, or his comrades in the Bosnian wilderness, but even the Secret Police members doing their best to follow him. His curiosity pushes him to plunge deeper into Russia's frontiers and his enthusiasm for these experiences make for enjoyable, if not enviable reading. He could easily have sat out the war with the Foreign Office, but runs for a political seat (as it was this clause only that enabled him to resign from the Foreign Office) and enlists in the army. Competent, creative, and intelligent, he rises quickly through the ranks and is trusted with very difficult missions. His bravery in North Africa is astonishing. The story of crossing the desert and sneaking into one of the largest enemy-occupied cities in North Africa so as to install time bombs on large Axis cargo ships is the stuff of pulp fiction (and the mission turns into a complete disaster, but with a twist, that is some of the best narrative in a very good story).

Tito

Eastern Approaches was originally published in 1949, following the onset of the Cold War. Though MacLean reluctantly involved himself in politics (his entry into Parliament, and later the difficult task of managing compromise between leaders of oppositional ideaologies), what he had witnessed in the Soviet Union convinced him that capitalist democracy is much preferable to communism and its totalitarian excesses (which would prove to be a conundrum for MacLean later in Yugoslavia, supporting Partisans at the expense of Royalists and their King. But it was the communists truly committed to fighting fascism and to betray them after defeating a common foe was nearly as disagreeable as communism itself). The show trials in 1938 were particularly disturbing. Stalin purged his leadership in Moscow including Bukharin, a former confidant of Lenin and legend in the Russian Revolution, and Yagoda who had been People's commisssar for Internal Affairs. Tried in a kangaroo court with no hope of acquittal, it was difficult for a foreigner like MacLean to understand why a nation would sacrifice those responsible for running it. Left to conjecture, he writes:

The trial would serve, too, as a reminder of the dangers besetting both the Soviet State and the individual citizen. It would help to keep up the nervous tension which, extending to every walk of life, had become one off the chief instruments of Soviet internal policy. By making people suspicous of one another, by teaching them to see spies and traitors everywhere, it would increase 'vigilance,' render even more improbably the germination of subversive ideas... Much, too, would be explained that had hitherto been obscure. Shortages, famines had been due, not to the shortcomings of the Soviet system, but to deliberate wrecking.”

No doubt MacLean did not want the same institutions installed in Yugoslavia, where he risked his life to liberate the Slavs from the Nazis. We say that hindsight is 20/20 and it is quite true. At the time of WWII, when history was unfolding, a soldier was only trying to stay alive long enough to win victory. Yugoslavia would eventually go communist under Tito, but the Marshall would break from Stalin and the Soviets and pursue an independent non-aligned form of communism much more open than Stalin's satellites in Eastern Europe. MacLean pretty much understood this from the get-go, but following orders, successfully organized the Partisans with supplies and air support, and operated as a liason between them and Allied command. This entailed going back and forth from the forested hillsides of Bosnia, hungry, wet, desolate, to lavish State dinners in Italy, and MacLean, an epicurian with endurance to spare enjoyed the best of both worlds. They say in sports it's not a matter of winning or losing but how you play the game. The same is not exactly true in war-- losing could mean the punishment of death or a very miserable existence, but how you fight is particularly important. We should never romanticize war, but MacLean does make the most of his numerous situations and while the following passage describing gurerrila life in the Serbian countryside does not glamorize war, it is plain from MacLean's recollections that the daily grind, while alternately terrifying and exhausting, was occasionally idyllic, or at the very least, interspersed with beautiful moments:

I recall, too, without being able to place them in the general plan of or journey, numerous isolated scenes and incidents which have somehow stuck in my memory; cold clear water spurting from a pump on the hillside under the trees in a village where we stopped in the blazing heat of midday, one working the pump while the others put their heads under it; a vast meal of milk and scrambled eggs eaten ravenously by the open window of a low, cool, upper room overlooking a valley; sleeping on the grass in an orchard by a little stream and waking suddenly in the dark to find Sergeant Duncan's hand on my shoulder; 'They're moving off, sir; they say the Germans are coming;' and then shouts of 'Pokret!' 'Get going!' and confusion and plunging horses and 'What's happened to the wireless set?'; long dismal tramps in pitch darkness through pouring rain; discussion whether to push on or to stop in a village with a population reputed to be pro-German or riddled with typhus; knocking and being told that one of the family has just died of typhus; hoping this is bluff and sleeping there all the same, all crowded into one room; waking next morning to find the rain stopped and the house, where we had arrived in the middle of the night, surrounded by orchards laded with ripe plums; arriving in a village to find a wedding in progress and being swept, before we know where we are, into a kolo, twisting and whirling in the sunshine on the green with the village maidens; lying at night out in the our sleeping bags and listening to the wireless; the BBC, the 9 o'clock news, Tomny Handley.”

It is our good fortune MacLean survived so that his recollections are now part of the collected narrative of those years. Such memories resurrect the past vividly, reminding us history is not just made up of nation states, war victories, or ideaologies, but of individuals from different tribes breaking bread together and a dance with the local maiden under the moonlight, a most ephemeral moment, might linger in your soul forever and ever.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

A Coin Locker Life


“The whole city stinks of age and stagnation and boredom, and it makes Sachiko as sick as it does me; but she goes on listening to the same old songs, trying to keep from dying of boredom, while I'd rather puke it all out, puke up a great cloud of boredom and let it rain all over Tokyo, rain till your lungs rot in your chest, till the streets crack and wash away and rivers of puke run between the buildings...”



The aforementioned "puke" features prominently in the novel, Coin Locker Babies, as does rotting fruit, raw flesh, spilling cum, soaked urine, human sweat, sour breath, cigarette smoke, exposed brain matter, and stale garbage, among other sensational olfactory transgressions. Part and parcel of a book's theme, I suppose, when it pertains to true human horror, in this case, the abandonment of a newborn baby in a coin locker. That a toddler should be left to perish and rot anonymously in a coin locker is an action so grotesquely hideous, our natural instinct is to look away, feeling an admixture of disgust, pity, and rage. But as an idea for a story, it intimates an intriguing premise and Ryu Murakami's weird-ass pseudo-sci-fi novel is almost great. Certainly there are superb moments, a wild imagination, and occasionally vivid sentences, but after getting revved up and going, the story gets distracted by its subplots and later languishes in some end-of-the-world apocalyptic ludicrousness.

An opening sentence often sets a story's tone, no less true here, and one of the wickedest in contemporary literature: “The woman pushed on the baby's stomach and sucked its penis into her mouth; it was thinner than the American menthols she smoked and a bit slimy, like raw fish.” The baby is Kiku, abandoned in a coin locker in Yokohama in July, discovered when the summer heat causes him to scream for his life. Found and placed in an orphanage, he naturally befriends Hashi, a fellow coin locker baby. But beyond the inevitable trauma of having survived something extraordinary and spending formative years raised by Catholic nuns, they have unique personalities. Kiku is shy, athletic, tough, and spiteful at the world. Hashi, on the other hand, is social but physically awkward, artistically inclined, especially adept at music and singing. Inevitably  such tragically terrible beginnings in the world would inform both their lifelong outlooks.

They are adopted by a childless couple to live in a remote island near Kyushu. Wandering the island, they find an abandoned coal mine town and a rebel drifter on a motorcycle named Gazelle, who puts a word in Kiku's head, “DATURA,” that would help him “off the whole world” including the mother who left him in a coin locker. The boys struggle in school, receive psychological testing to normalize them, and while they are teenagers, Hashi leaves the island for Tokyo to find his mother.

Written in 1980, Murakami's Tokyo is a strange, urban nightmare with its own no-go neighborhood, a Fukushimaesque city ward called Toxitown that's been contaminated and where only outcasts and outlaws, prostitutes and the mentally insane now roam (abandoned by former residents like the coal mining town of the boys' childhood, as well as the boys themselves). A high-perimeter fence with armed guards surround the community, which occupies a terrific piece of real estate in Shinjuku in “the shadow of the thirteen towers.” This is where Hashi ends up, and later, Kiku when he goes to find him.

Already a strange novel, Tokyo is where the circumstances become intensely surreal for the boys. More country bumpkin that Hashi, Kiku somehow gets involved with a supermodel named Anemone who shares his nihilistic visions, and Hashi, pimping his dolled-up body to rich, gay men, falls under the spell of D, a megaproducer in pop music, who transforms Hashi into a superstar, utilizing for marketing purposes Hashi's provenance as a coin locker baby. This leads to an incredible mid-book climax too good to spoil by mentioning, though it is worth saying that, unfortunately, Murakami never recovers the story's earlier momentum (though the ending does deliver a Hollywood-style nightmare finish).

Ryu (the superior) Murakami

Nevertheless, this is a unique work of fiction. Unlike most Japanese novelists (and a much more famous Murakami), Ryu Murakami is an exciting social critic. Japan, a mannered civilization known for many sacred cows, is skewered relentlessly in Coin Locker Babies; the music business, reality TV, the vapidity of authorities, social hypocrisies, and the “normal” people from whose custom the Underworld depends. And Murakami, at least via his protagonists, does not advocate some patsy tonic to redeem social ills, nor a revolution, but something more destructive, something punk, as when Kiku witnesses in Hashi's star makeover a new cage, gilded bars, but a locker all the same:

“The locker was bigger, maybe; the new one had a pool and gardens, with a band, people wandering abut half-naked...but it was still a huge coin locker, and no matter how many layers of camouflage you had to dig through if you felt like digging, in the end you still ran up against a wall...There's only one solution, one way out, and that's to smash everything around you to smithereens, to start over from the beginning, lay everything to waste.”

Perhaps total annihilation of everyone is a bit extreme and not extraordinarily sympathetic to most readers. Murakami came of age in the 1960s, a generation known for wanting to smash old orders and start afresh. His characters' solution, that of wiping out the human race with a US army chemical agent (DATURA) takes a potentially subversive novel and turns it into a horror show. Arguably it's a forgivable misstep, since the novel has enough going for it to be a good read. But it could have been so much more. Had Murakami kept his narrative grounded in reality the society he savages would have been understood in a more believable context that makes his characters' lives more tragically poignant. Instead of something that devolves into entertaining pulp fiction escapism, he might have written a novel for all time.


Friday, August 1, 2014

The Enigmatic Patient


“...he began to scratch her through the sari, then pulled it aside and scratched her skin-- as Hana now received this tender art, his nails against the million cells of her skin, in his tent, in 1945, where their continents met in a hill town.”



Perhaps due to prejudices from a half-remembered movie watched almost seventeen years ago, I was a bit tentative beginning Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient, slightly worried that melodrama and preciousness might make for an unsatisfying reading experience. However, I was pleasantly surprised to find Ondaatje's prose alternately simple and complex, his multiple storytelling point-of-views Faulkneresque, and the uncovering of the novel's central mystery, that of the missing identity of the “English” patient, worthwhile. It is a WWII novel in that the story is set in Italy in the summer of 1945 at the tail end of the conflict, but it is more of a character study, in which four uniquely different persons are marooned in a villa in the countryside, survivors of a devastating manmade catastrophe, not quite ready to return to the real world and its frivilous matters when so much death and tragedy has been absorbed.

A temporary makeshift hospital, the Villa San Girolamo is a former monastary laden with mines and the refuse of a brutal campaign: “It is still terrible out there. Dead cattle. Horses shot dead, half eaten. People hanging upside down from bridges. The last vices of war.” All of the patients and staff have relocated from the villa to safer grounds, save a Canadian nurse named Hana and her charge, a burn victim who survived a plane crash in North Africa, was rescued by bedouins, and who everyone believes is English, due, I suppose, his elegant speech and extravagant politeness. A family friend of Hana's, Caravaggio, an Allies spy in war and thief in peacetime, moves in, and later, a Sikh, Kip, a brilliant young sapper who, slowly, deliberately, defuses the many explosives on the villa's grounds. Alone on beautiful ruined grounds while Europe has finally stopped disintegrating, they comprise something of a post-apocalyptic family with separate responsibilities. Hana nurses and gardens, Kip scours for mines, and Caravaggio pilfers goodies like record players and vintage bottles.

Meanwhile, the English Patient, under increasingly larger doses of morphine opens up about his past-- he is something of a polymath and an explorer, mapping Egypt's Great Western Desert and spending weeks at a time searching for a lost oasis, Zerzura. A rugged indvidualist, at least, until he fell in love with another man's wife, Katherine. It was one of those passionate affairs that burn up and flame out, but only circumstantially, for the explorer was clearly smitten: “He feels everything is missing from his body, feels he contains smoke. All that is alive is the knowledge of future desire and want.” Needless to say, the affair never really fades and is the harbinger of much heartbreak including the terrible plane accident.

World War II Sikh Sappers

There is backstory to the other characters, prewar history as well as martial sacrifices-- Caravaggio's slippery espionage behind enemy lines; Kip advancing with the vanguard in the invasion of Naples, setting up makeshift bridges for armies to cross and sleeping under saints' statues in bombed-out churches; and Hana's abortion of a soldier's baby and her stoic nursing of hundreds of wounded (she has a beautiful tirade against the warmongering elite: “Every damn general should have had my job. It should have been a prerequisite for any river crossing. Who the hell were we to be given this responsibility, expected to be as wise as old priests...? I could never believe in all those services they gave for the dead. Their vulgar rhetoric. How dare they! How dare they talk like that about a human being dying.” And in the present tense of villa life there is Caravaggio's avuncular teasing of Hana; Hana's and Kip's playful, innocent courtship; a few drunken nights of revelry, with a record player and found bottles of booze.

A Bedouin of the Desert

However, the crux of the story's drama lies on the mystery of the English Patient's real identity. It is nearly always sensible to be wary of stories where the title character is bedridden. But the explorer whom the English Patient once was, is an incredible figure (literally-- so couragous, intelligent, and resourceful he is nearly beyond credibility), and Ondaatje draws out the unveling of his past in sparse, beautiful sentenes, remembered (perhaps dubiously) by a voice under the influence of morphine. The imagery is poetic, the observations acutely romantic, as when he describes walking into the desert questing for a mythical oasis: “It was as if he had walked under the millimeter of haze just above the inked fibers of a map, that pure zone between land and chart between distances and legend between nature and storyteller...The place they had chosen to come to, to be their best selves, to be unconscious of ancestry.” All the man has now is his past-- in his condition there is no future or even present. He says, recalling his fumbling of love, “I had reached that stage in life where I identified with cynical villains in books.” But this is a novel in the romantic tradition and thus certain expectations must be met. Sometimes, then, the villain learns the hard way what it is to be a hero.  

Saturday, July 19, 2014

The Barbarian Inside


“What has made it impossible for us to live in time like fish in water, like birds in air, like children? It is the fault of Empire! Empire has created the time of history. Empire has located its existence not in the smooth recurrent spinning time of the cycle of the seasons but in the jagged time of rise and fall, of beginning and end, of catastrophe. Empire dooms itself to live in history and plot against history. One thought alone preoccupies the submerged mind of Empire: how not to end, how not to die, how to prolong its era.”

“When some men suffer unjustly, it is the fate of those who witness their suffering to suffer the shame of it.”




During a tumultuous period in the history of apartheid, the government in Pretoria, morally isolated by the international community, committed some of the worst excesses of violence against the native tribes whom it had subjugated and humiliated for more than two centuries. In the midst of this bloodletting, J. M. Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians was published in 1980. The novel clearly indicts the apartheid government for crimes against humanity, though Coetzee was clever enough to set his story in the horse-and-wagon days in a frontier, far away, long ago. Also, intelligently, Pretoria, South Africa, even the Magistrate of this frontier town are never outright named, so that the injustice it dramatizes could be anywhere in the world. Technology might evolve, but Man's abominations only change form or flags or color.

Our narrator, the Magistrate, does not rule nor think like a despot, but trusts in the Law, even when he doesn't agree with it (as he explains to a young deserter he is sentencing, “All we can do is to uphold the laws, all of us, without allowing the memory of justice to fade.”). His days progress uneventfully with dull bureaucratic work, he hunts (but sometimes lacks the nerve to kill his prey), reads the classics, visits the outpost's demimonde once a week, and collects artifacts of the desert from past civilizations. He has “not asked for more than a quiet life in quiet times.”

This tranquility is disturbed by a Colonel Joll, a man who hides his eyes behind dark glasses and is investigating a “disturbance” caused by some barbarians. There are two prisoners, a boy and his grandfather, hardly “terrorist” types, but without due process and under the duress of torture (in which the old man dies) the boy, traumatized and scarred, concedes a barbarian plot in the works. The Magistrate, who loathes the Colonel's methods, nevertheless rubber-stamps a reconnaissance expedition into the countryside. A week later, prisoners are sent back, aboriginal fisherfolk, arrested for simply existing. After Joll returns to the capital the Magistrate has the prisoners released to return to their land.

But one young woman doesn't leave. Her father had been killed in Joll's interrogations and she has had her ankles broken and her corneas burned so that she can only see penumbra forms. She is begging for food, and the Magistrate taking pity on her, invites her to work in the kitchen, and she becomes something of a concubine. But he doesn't sleep with her-- he washes and dresses her wounds and caresses her body, but doesn't go any further. The actions of the Magistrate seem to embody liberal guilt: the white man feels bad about the unfairness of the power structure, but as he yet benefits from such relationships, hesitates to go any further than cosmetic aid. Eventually, accompanied by a guide and two soldiers, the Magistrate undertakes a harrowing journey to return the woman (she, too, never named) to her people.

When he returns, he finds a charged atmosphere in his sleepy outpost. The Magistrate-- accused of conspiring with the enemy regarding the government's intended campaign-- is stripped of authority and imprisoned, while Joll assumes despotic rule. In the process of losing everything: his authority, his reputation, his comfortable life, the Magistrate moves beyond pity and compassion into outrage and rather than apologize he determines to protest and provoke the Colonel, until he is then stripped of his last vestige, his dignity, when severely tortured: “They were interested only in demonstrating to me what it meant to live in a body, as a body, a body which can entertain notions of justice only as long as it is whole and well, which very soon forgets them when its head is gripped and a pipe is pushed down its gullet and pints of salt water are poured into it till it coughs and retches and flails and voids itself.”

The Magistrate is so humiliated authorities don't even bother locking him up anymore. He is allowed to roam the yard like an animal, begging for scraps, his self-respect annihilated. For all his concepts of social justice, he is no revolutionary; he merely wants to survive, even “to be fat again.” The crisis for the Magistrate comes when he cannot offer a credible alternative between Joll's fascist maneuvers and the only truly righteous scenario: “Justice: once that word is uttered, where will it all end? Easier to shout No! Easier to be beaten and made a martyr. Easier to lay my head on a block than to defend the cause of justice for the barbarians: for where can that argument lead but to laying down our arms and opening the gates of the town to the people whose land we have raped?”

Through it all, the Colonel doubles down on the settlers' worst fears regarding their “enemy.” He is invisible, just outside the walls, lurking: “There is no woman living along the frontier who has not dreamed of a dark barbarian hand coming from under the bed to grip her ankle, no man who has not frightened himself with visions of the barbarians carousing in his home, breaking the plates, setting fire to the curtains, raping his daughters.” The soldiers, drunken, carousing parasites on the town, are thus bandied as the last defense against the much ballyhooed “barbarians.” Never mind that many of the settlers have never encountered or been directly threatened by this invoked Boogeyman. Their emotions are merely fomented by the most obvious physical differences in “us-and-them” adversarial relations. And it can be hopeless talking them out of their fears and prejudices: “How do you eradicate contempt, especially when the contempt is founded on nothing more substantial than differences in table manners, variations in the structure of the eyelid?” Of course, it doesn't take much effort to realize that the titular barbarians we await are not necessarily the "other," but a kind of monster within, surfacing when we give in to our prejudices, self-interest, and fear of the unknown. 

The writer, J. M. Coetzee

Before his fall from power, the Magistrate is queried by a military officer as to the intentions of the barbarians. The answer is simple, but actualization seemingly impossible. “They want an end to the spread of settlements across their land. They want their land back, finally. They want to be free to move about with their flocks from pasture to pasture as they used to.” We could be talking Tibetans, Palestinians, and the Aboriginals, to name but a few indigenous peoples whose lives were uprooted, reconstituted in poverty and neglect, and sentenced to live a second-class existence. That is the most poignant reaction to Coetzee's novel-- that he has dramatized the violence of power structures, to guide our outrage and compassion, reminding us of the complex bravery choosing to stand for social justice, all the while being faithful to universal truths in beautiful, clear prose. It is not every day that a reader discovers an overlooked masterpiece.


Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Renaissance Man, Narcissist, Psychopath: The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini


“Though I know the angry words that passed between them I shall not report them, as I am not meant to be writing history. I shall concern myself only with my own affairs.”
--Benvenuto Cellini

“He's the greatest man his profession has ever known.”
Pope Clement VII on Cellini (allegedly)


One of the great godfathers of the memoir genre is arguably Benvenuto Cellini, a Florentine polymath of the High Renaissance, who penned his life story over five years between 1558 and 1563 when the sculptor was in his early sixties. No doubt one of the inspirations for the autobiography was to present his side of the story, a defense of lifestyle anticipating whatever disagreeable remembrances his many enemies (legion in numbers) might put down in writing. Though Cellini does his very best to portray himself as, at best, a respected genius, and at worst, a wronged innocent, he does admit to various offenses, most especially cold-blooded murder and hot-blooded sodomy. He is alternately lucid, pious, vain, psychotic, pretentious, delusional, and self-pitying. Somehow he is consistently charming despite being a prodigious name-dropper, an untiring braggart, and a master of invective and disrespect. But mostly his story regards the life of the artist and how, just as in the present day, it was incredibly difficult to be fairly compensated for commissioned work, even when your patrons were popes, kings, and dukes.

Cellini was born in Florence in 1500. Establishing his reputation early on as a talented goldsmith, he had ambitions for Rome, but a scandal involving the murder of an adversary expedited his departure from his native city. Cellini came of age when the Medicis of Florence were the most powerful family in Italy, and one of their own was Pope Clement VII. He gushed over Cellini's work and trusted him with his jewels and the defense of Rome when Spanish Imperialists sacked the city in 1527. Cellini turned out to be a talented soldier, as he has us believe he single-handedly saved the city from greater ruin by killing both The Duke of Bourbon and the Prince of Orange with his sharpshooting. Later, under a new papal chief, Pope Paul III, he would be imprisoned, but manage to escape in spectacular fashion. Leaving Rome persona non grata, his talents would flourish in the court of Fontainebleu under the patronage of King Francis I. His self-destructive tendencies never waning, Cellini was eventually chased out of Paris in a cloud of intrigue. Returning home, he worked for Cosimo I de Medici, the Duke of Florence, where he thrived and struggled, and less than a decade after completing his autobiography, died of pleurisy at the age of 71.

Cosimo de Medici, autocrat, Cellini's great patron in Florence in his later years

Cellini's prose style is jocular and conversational, almost as if he had dictated his life story to a scribe while busy designing the duke's profile on a silver coin. Of course, this being an autobiography, Cellini freely edits the story due the priorities of self-aggrandizement. Despite this, the narrative flows rather well, though unpleasant episodes are left out (most conspicuously absent were his imprisonments in his fifties for assault and sodomy). But Cellini is selling us an archetype of an artist (that when circumstances necessitate, makes both love and war), who doesn't trifle with (in his estimation) trivial details: “There was a suitable opportunity for me to speak of my daughter here, and I did so in order not to distract from other, more important matters. I shall say nothing more of her till the proper time.” In the instance when Cellini's parents die of the plague he doesn't remark or mourn their passing. Nevertheless, he waxes poetically on the mutual admiration he and his contemporary Michelangelo share, indulges us in his experiments in black magic with a necromancer, and describes in detail both times he was poisoned by his adversaries. And then there is his time in prison, where like so many before and after him, he finds salvation in God, and discovers in himself a halo of beatification: “From the time I had my vision till now, a light-- a brilliant splendor-- has rested above my head, and has been clearly seen by those very few men I have wanted to show it to.” And from finding and loving God, he then makes his famous prison break, the narrative never missing a beat.

What makes Cellini's prose such a delightful read are his prejudices, his asides, his brusqueness. He is a first-rate raconteur in the Italian tradition. Cellini on his courtship of a lady: “We had a very agreeable talk together, and it wasn't about things you can buy in a shop.” Cellini stereotyping: “I left Naples at night, with the money on my person, in case I fell victim to the usual Neapolitan custom and was attacked and murdered.” Cellini hot-tempered: “I was advised to seek redress by legal means, though my immediate impulse was to cut his arm off.” Cellini quoting the King of France: “I am certain that such beautiful work was never known to the ancients: I well remember having seen all the best works done by the finest craftsmen of all Italy, but I never saw any that moved me more than this.” Cellini traveling in the countryside: “It was an enjoyable journey, save for an incident near La Palice, when a band of robbers, the Adventurers, tried to murder us. But we fought them off boldly, and pushed on to Paris. We arrived there safely, singing and laughing all the way and not meeting the slightest accident.” Cellini describing a ploy of his French enemies: “They planned to have their revenge on me and they consulted a Norman lawyer, who advised them that she should say I had used her in the Italian fashion, that is to say, unnaturally, like a sodomite.” And Cellini insulting a rival artist and his rendition of a model of Hercules: “...one can't be sure whether his face is that of a man or a cross between a lion and an ox; that it's not looking the right way; and that it's badly joined to the neck, so clumsily and unskillfully that nothing worse has ever been seen; and that his ugly shoulders are like the two pommels of an ass's pack-saddle; that his breasts and the rest of his muscles aren't based on a man's but are copied from a great sack full of melons...”

One of Cellini's great works, Perseus holding the head of Medusa

Taking offense at another sculptor's grandstanding, Cellini quipped, “Outstanding artists act as such, and brilliant men who create good and beautiful works of art are shown in a much better light when others praise them than when they praise themselves so confidently.” Very agreeable but a bit rich, of course, when the speaker seems to embellish his received accolades. But this is Cellini's story and so we should take him at his word because to repudiate the lavish praise is to doubt all the strange and horrible misadventures too. In the end, he is clearly a narcissistic psychopath, but a charming one, and so with the blood spilled long since washed away, we mostly forgive him. While mostly overlooked as one of the great Renaissance sculptors, Cellini's autobiography, almost five centuries later, remains a literary classic. No doubt his ghost, whether it be in heaven, hell, or lurking somewhere in the halls of Florence's splendid palace museums, is not displeased with this good turn in posterity.