gall and gumption

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Another Reason to Go To New York

Goya at the Frick.

The image is one of Eric's creations. He makes them on his printing press now.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Why They Blog

Read this piece by Steve Gilliard.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Gerda -- III

If you're just arriving, here's Part I and here's Part II.

"These conditions apply to too many people all over the world to make me regard Gerda as isolated. She is an interantional phenomenon. But all the same I think that there may be enough Gerdas concentrated in separate areas to make her in effect a nationalist phenomenon. She probably exists in sufficient numbers in Central Europe to make it an aggressive and, indeed, irresistible power. She was, after all, the determining element in the Austro-Hungarian Empire all through the nineteenth century. The parasite city of Vienna, spoiled by its share of the luxury the Austrian and Hungarian nobles wrung out of their peasantry, and terrified by the signs of economic insecurity, howled all the time to be given other people's loaves. Think how furiously they demanded that they should be given preference over the Czechs in seeking employment, that they should not have to pass such difficult examinations as the Czechs for entrance to the Civil Service. It must have disgusted a proud German like Bismarck, who was an aristocrat, a rounded ma who repudiated nothing of life and knew the peasant's role as well as his own, and who was not afraid. But Gerda would have thought the agitation quite natural.

"Let us admit it, for a little while the whole of our world may belong to Gerda. She will snatch it out of hands too well-bred and compassionate and astonished to defend it. What we must remember is that she will not be able to keep it. For her contempt for the process makes her unable to conduct any process. You remember how when we met her at the station at Belgrade she expressed an opinion on the book you held in your hand, The Healing Hand, which was sheer nonsense, becauseu she had not read the book; she imagined that she could judge it by her knowledge of the bare fact of its existence. You saw at Ochrid how she had not the faitest idea of what Communism is and how it is distinguished from Social Democracy, though she was once a Cmmunist herself; she had obviously never thought of making any effort to find out what was the creed behind the church she had joined simply because it was large and many other people had joined it before her. You can conquer a country on this principle. To go up in an airplane and drop bombs is a simple use of an elaborate process that has already been developed. But you cannot administer a country on this principle....."

I've quoted this at length because, it's good to bear in mind, that World War II was imminent. At the time of this visit, the Nazis had already had their putsch in Austria. West's husband, considering process, is looking back at the financial mess that Germany was between the wars, for one thing. "Consider the disastrous history of Austrian and German banking since the war," he says, "which is not to be explained by anything except the sheer inability of bankers of Gerda's kind to realize that banking is a process in which due regard has to be paid all the time to the laws of causality."

By the time the book came out in 1940 his prophecy had become horribly horribly true. He gave them about five, maybe ten years before the Gerdas would pull something. That turns out to have been a rather optimistic calculation.

It sounds quite prophetic for our time, too, or worth thinking about. Suppose instead of the nice cellophane-wrapped loaf of bread he was talking about oil? And suppose Gerda was a Security Mom? How much of the current fears about security can be laid to feelings and impulses such as he describes here? A lot, I think. And I'm sure other current analogous situations will suggest themselves. When I read this whole passage I felt I was having one of those experiences when literature of the past was looking at me and the times I live in, rather than the other way around.

I love the arc of this argument from the very specific observation of one person's behavior, to the recognition of a social type, to seeing how these impulses, organized and given a lot of power -- say military power -- are destructive on a vaster scale but on the same principle. That's what I wanted to share, at least till the publishers bust me on fair use. But you should read the book. When I ask why people do some things -- I used to wonder about the Serb violence against the Bosnians in teh 1990s, for instance, and all the articles I read that tried to explain it would depart into these summaries of ancient history. But they didn't explain the violent impulse. This passage, I think, is one explanation of the violent impulse, and it places it really really near.

Gerda -- II

If you are just getting to this, Part I is here.

"....Look how she has defeated us. You love Macedonia more than any other country you have ever visited. Sveti Naum is to you a place apart; you wanted to take me there. We have made that journey. We have made it in the company of an enemy who tormented us not only by her atrocious behaviour to us but by behaving atrociously to other people whom we liked when she was with us. This has clouded our vision of the country, it has angered us and weakened us. When Constantine said to us, 'My wife wants to come to Macedonia with us,' we should not merely have said, 'We do not think that will be a success, we would rather she did not come,' we should have said, 'We dislike your wife extremely, we dislike the way she speaks against you and Yugoslavia, we will not travel with her, and if she turns up at the train we will take our luggage out of it.' But we could not. We did not believe that she could go on being as bad as she had been; we were sorry for her because she was a German who loved her country, and had committed herself to living in the Balkans; we have been elaborately trained from our infancy not to express frankly our detestation of others. So she got what she wanted, and she is still getting what she wanted. Do not think that she is going to Belgrade because we did not want her to go to Petch: she is going, quite simply, because she thinks it would be more pleasant to go back to her children.

"Gerda, in fact, is irresistible. It is therefore of enormous importance to calculate how many Gerdas there are in the world, and whether they are likely to combine for any purpose...." [Here I'll omit their recollection of other Gerdas they have known in their lifetimes - k} "In fact this type appears anywhere and everywhere, though probably much more densely in some areas than others. It seems to me that it appears wherever people are subject to two conditions. The first condition is that they should have lost sight of the importance of process; that they have forgotten that everything which is not natural is artificial and that artifice is painful and difficult; that they should be able to look at a loaf of bread and not realize the miracles of endurance and ingenuity that had to be performed before the wheat grew, and the mill ground, and the oven baked. This condition can be brought about by several causes: one is successful imperialism, when the conquering people has the loaf built for it from the what ear up by its conquered subjects; another is modern machine civilization, where a small but influential proportion of the population lives in towns in such artificial conditions that a loaf of bread comes to them in a cellophane wrapper with its origins as unvisualized as the beginning and birth of a friend's baby. The other condition is that people should have acquired a terror of losing the results of process, which are all they know about; they must be afraid that everything artificial is going to disappear, and they are going to be thrown back on the natural; they must foresee with a shudder a day when there will be no miraculous loaf born in its virginity of cellophane, and they will have to eat grass.

"Now, these conditions obtained in the case of the Turks when they became nuisances in the Balkan Peninsula. At first their wars were inspired not by fanaticism or greed or to enslave foreign populations but by legitimate enough desires for political and commercial security. They became cruel and tyrannous only when they were glutted by the conquest of Mohammed the Conqueror and Selim and Suleiman the Magnificent, and when the emergence of Russia and the successful opposition of Central Europe and Venice made them afraid of losing the fruits of those victories. They had never learned the art of prosperity in peacetime, they were not economically productive. Neither, oddly enough, is Germany, in spite of her enormous energy and resources. Gerda is bourgeoisis and town-bred. She is proud because her family are all professional men. It is of importance to her that she cannot bake a loaf, she likes to buy her cakes in a shop. Her theory of her own social value depends on her being able to put down money and buy results of processes without being concerned in the processes themselves. And she is enormously afraid that she will not be able to go on doing this. The war made her afraid, the depression has made her still more afraid. It does not occur to her that what she and her kind must do is to reorganize the process of state life till there is some sort of guarantee of a certain amount of artificial goods for all of us. It does not occur to her that she had better learn to bake bread instead of buy it, for since her social value depends on her not doing so, she regards this as a sentence of death. Therefore she wants to take results that belong to other people, she wants to bone everybody else's loaf."

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Black Lamb, Grey Falcon, Batshit German Lady

Rebecca West and her wealthy and extremely affable are traveling over what seems to be every square inch of the country that, in the mid 1930s when they took this tour, had just become Yugoslavia. We have now lived, of course, to see it no longer be Yugoslavia. One of the sad things about reading it, which the book does not make explicit, is the realization that in a matter of a few years from the time of this narrative, the region will see slaughter that will make all the centuries of slaughter that went before there look like a picnic. You meet these wonderful characters and you wonder if they survived it and think, well, probably not. Too too creepy sad.

The comic relief (and mercifully there is some) is provided by the wife of West's friend Constantine, who is also their companion, their host and their guide. Constantine is a Serb nationalist and poet with some sort of official standing (one of his jobs is official censor), and he is a splendid guy, a motor-mouth with an endless fund of stories, loves to chat chat chat, knows everybody and everybody loves him, he's so sympathetic, he's a cherub. He's married to Gerda, who is this German woman. And she is AWFUL. I mean, she should have entered the AWFUL Olympics for Germany. She insists on going with them on this two-week trip far into the country. When Rebecca West hears that Gerda is coming along, this tough journalist and fighter for women's rights actually breaks into tears. Because Gerda hates her and hates her husband and can't stop showing it, she is just seething with it, flushed with it, it comes ripping out of her at every opportunity. She hates all the Slavs, too, and the gypsies, and, of course, the Jews. She drives West's wonderful husband to utter the only rough words he utters to anyone on all their travels, and he, of course, is racked with remorse, which makes no impression on Gerda at all. She is just spectacularly appalling. I have to fight the impulse to skip ahead in each chapter to the Gerda part.

So comes the end of the two weeks of touring Macedonian towns and villages and Gerda finally departs. West's husband, over the course of the following day, indulges in some thinking out loud about Gerda, which West summarizes in a passage in the book that is so radical that after reading it I was simply unable to go on -- and there are some 500 or so pages left! It's hard for me to imagine anything that will beat it in what follows. It's so prophetic and important that I feel compelled to put that passage here, just so you can think about it, in small installments. Of course it will be much better if you read the book and get to the Great Gerda Aria by accumulating all the wonderful experiences that get you there, and I hope you do. But in the meantime I'll fill this space with some bits.

"Gerda has no sense of process. That is what is the matter with Gerda. She wants the result without doing any of the work that goes to make it. She wants to enjoy the position of a wife without going to the trouble of making a real marriage, without admiring her husband for his good qualities, without practising loyal discretion regarding his bad qualities, without respecting those of his gods which are not hers. She wants to enjoy motherhood without taking care of her children, without training them in good manners or giving them a calm atmosphere. She wants to be our friend, to be so close to us in friendship that we will ask her to travel about the country with us, but she does not make the slightest effort to like us, or even to conceal that she dislikes us. She is angry when you are paid such little respect as comes your way because you are a well-known writer, she feels it ought to come to her also, though she has never written any books. She is angry because we have some money. She feels that it might just as well belong to her. That our possession of this money has something to do with my work in the City and my family's work in Burma never occurs to her. For her the money might as easily have been attached to her as to us by a movement as simple as that which pastes a label on a trunk. As she has no sense of what goes to bring people love, or friendship, or distinction, or wealth, it seems to her that the whole world is enjoying undeserved benefits, and in a universe where all is arbitraray it might just as well happen that the injustice was pushed a little further and that all of these benefits were taken from other people, leaving them nothing, and transferred to her, giving her everything. Given the premise that the universe is purely arbitrary, that there is no causality at work anywhere, there is nothing absurd in that proposal.

"That is the conqueror's point of view. It was the Turks' point of view in all their aggressive periods. Everybody who is not Gerda is to Gerda 'a dog of an infidel,' to be treated without mercy. If she could get hold of our money by killing us, and would not be punished for it, I think she would do it, not out of cruelty, but out of blankness. Since she denies the reality of process, she would only envisage our death, which would be a great convenience to her, and not our dying, which would be a great inconvenience to us. She has shut herself off from the possibility of feeling mercy, since pain is a process and not a result. This will give her a great advantage in any conflict with more sensitive people, and indeed it is not her only advantage. Her nature gives her a firm foundation for her life that many a better woman lacks. Constantine is not less but more devoted as a husband because she is a bad wife to him. All his humility says, 'If she thinks so little of me, is there perhaps some lack in me?' All his affection says, 'Since she is so desperately hungry, what can I give her?' And, needless to say, her children are devoted to her. It is the impulse of children to do whatever their parents do not. If their parents bend to them, they turn away; if their parents turn away, they bend to them.

"In her wider relationships also she is very happy. To begin with, nobody who is not like Gerda can believe how bad Gerda is. We did not at the beginning; and if we told people the story of what Gerda has been to us on this trip in anything like the concentrated terms in which one usually tells a story we should see a doubt pass over their faces. 'They must have been tactless with her,' 'They cannot have made her properly welcome,' is what they would think to themselves. That she invited herself to be our guest and then continuously insulted us is not a proposition acceptable to the mind, which rightly sees that there is no hope for humanity if it can bring itself to behave like that. If we established the truth of our story they would grasp at excuses for her, would plead that she was an alien in a strange land, that her experience as a young girl in the war had made her neurotic, that she had been given an inferiority complex by the Treaty of Versailles.

"These things may be true; but it is also true that to recognize them is dangerous. It weakens the resistance that should be made against Gerda. Foir there is no way to be safe from her except to treat her as if she were, finally and exclusively, a threat to existence...."

And he's just getting warmed up, do remember that. More in the next posting. You won't be sorry to read the whole thing.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006


Ian Buruma has a nice piece about him in the New York Review of Books. The same issue has a piece on Rembrandt by Robert Hughes.

I'm liking the Goya book. For one thing, I do like the way Hughes talks about individual paintings and etchings. He is observant, I mean he really observes and I get the feeling that observation always beats theorizing or "having a theoretical apparatus" with him, though you shouldn't take that to mean he's some kind of naif. He's a person who knows what it is possible to know. This makes him a real critic, not a pundit. His respect for Goya, based on what he can see of the painter's genius in the paintings, makes the book nice to read because he isn't crowding in on him with a lot of flatfooted psychologizing; nor is there any of the mean-spiritedness and unwarranted condescension to a greater mind that make reading your typical academic biography such a chore. You get the feeling Hughes is trying as far as possible to let Goya be himself in the book, to let him speak for himself in the book. Aside from the fact that Goya's life, his energy, are really interesting in themselves, Hughes's care to do him justice is a nice thing to watch too.

The result is a biography that does a good job with not a lot of biographical materials. Nothing is known, for instance, about how Goya got on with his wife. But the context of his work and his working life is put before you with great economy and clarity. Hughes is also really scrupulous about distinguishing between what you can know, what you need to know, and what you will never know that it may or may not have been nice to know. That's good, yes, but the real thing that I think got me going with this book was a warmth I feel in it. I feel that it is a personal book. As any really really good criticism should be. Hughes had this awful car accident in Australia during a period when he had gotten sort of stuck and blocked. He was hospitalized with terrible injuries that took a lot of surgeries and a lot of suffering to get over, it was a nightmare. Something of the consciousness of suffering (Goya was struck down by a mysterious illness in mid-life that left him suffering from vertigo for months after he recovered, and left him permanently deaf), of what a real thing it is, not a thing to speak of in a trivial way.

Another writer who writes about painters in a way that I like (I actually think he's a better writer than Hughes, if not necessarily so transparent in his explanations of what he sees in a painting) is Kenneth Clark. His book, the Romantic Rebellion, is a series of short essays about painters of the Romantic era, roughly, starting with David and ending with i think Delacroix. It includes Blake, who isn't exactly a Romantic but he fits in the book beautifully. The same quality of genial respect and curiosity -- I mean, why the hell not? -- is present in Clark's attitude to all of them. And there are some bits that made me laugh out loud. It's definitely light reading, but after what I said the other day about overviews, I'd take it all back if overviews were all written like this, to stimulate one's curiosity by picking out just the aspects of it that would do so and lucidly explaining why they are important.


Tom sent me this link after he read a clip I sent him, an article about people who collect things in Sonoma County (antique marbles, Oz books, beautiful things, you name it) that mentioned Zulu Lulu.

The piece he found, about Jezebels, is interesting even though it's about a subject that usually doesn't light me up much: sterotypes. But this one was specifically the stereotypes of the sex-mad black woman, especially how slavery helped to propagate that stereotype. That's something I've been writing about as well but, I hope, not in the way this article does. Well, you know me.... This Jezebel article has some nice images though.

In the context of my recent posting about Passa Passa, it's interesting too, I'm not sure what the two things have to say about each other, one thing I mean being the phenomenon of Passa Passa and the other being the phenomenon of scholars writing about the stereotypes of sexually abandoned black women. They probably don't have anything to do with each other. But I wonder how you would fit Passa Passa into an article like this. It would be fun to try. Even (heck, especially) if it sort of broke the article in the process.

And I'm still trying to find out what mythology invented the notion that it was cute to make an ashtray in the image of a little naked black boy sitting on the rim of a giant bedpan. I saw several of these when I was writing about the collectors and just couldn't make head or tail of them. I try, for example, to think, well, maybe there was a story behind it. But I cannot think of where I might find the story. So far the one explanation that I kind of like of all the ones I have pulled out of thin air, is no explanation at all. I just see a bunch of people getting drunk and Fred goes and fetches the little black boy on the bedpan ashtray and the whole crowd of them (they all go to the same church) fall about the living room laughing.

It's interesting, isn't it? I mean, some things need to be understood in terms of their causes. Others only make sense when they are considered in terms of their effects.

That's the moral. Here endeth the lesson (I have always wanted to use that phrase).

How To Post a Comment

When you click on the word "Comment" at the bottom of each of the posts here, you are taken to the page that is for the posting and all the comments it has had so far. If you click on "Post a Comment" it opens a page that has a window for you to write in and some other possibly confusing features. Write your comment in the window.

Below the window you will see three little buttons. These buttons say who you are. You can sign in as a Blogger user. If you do not ever remember registering to be a Blogger user (which you might have done if you wanted to start your own blog so I think you'd remember if you did) make sure that that button is not chosen.

Choose Other or Anonymous. My own personal preference, which you are not obliged to pay any attention to at all, is for you to not use "Anonymous." Just because it's boring. Use "Other" and give yourself a cool handle. Or just use your name so I'll know it's you -- I mean, if you want me to.

There is also this thing with the wiggly-looking letters? Type the letters as you see them. Yours don't have to be wiggly, of course, they only have to match letter for letter.

I know some people are reading and I'm glad you're dropping by and hope you continue to enjoy it. But I think this is sort of a two-way street. You might get more out of me this way, too...

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Passa Passa Melee

The island of Grenada is in a bit of an uproar these days because of something called "Passa Passa." It is described in a news item on Caribbean Net News, as follows:

Passa Passa involves crowds of music fans congregating late at night until the early morning in noted downtown areas to dance and chill out to music, while street vendors provide refreshments.

The GNCRC [Grenada National Coalition for the Rights of the Child] in a news release said that they believe this non-traditional form of entertainment has serious implementation [they mean implications, of course --kp] for the social development of the nation’s youth.

The release further added that this adverse cultural penetration, which can best be described as lawless, doesn’t uplift the morals of young people and “we are calling on the members of the Royal Grenada Police Force to take the necessary actions as the law provides.”

There are some metaphors gone amok in this whole piece, and the Minister of Education chimes in with a few contributions along the same lines.

The Education Minister, Claris Charles, in recent time has come out against the emergence of Jamaican-styled 'Passa Passa' entertainment events on the Caribbean island's entertainment circuit.

Charles noted that Passa Passa, the popular weekly street dance, has no place in Grenadian society and is definitely not welcome.

"I am hearing of something called Passa Passa which is creeping into the public," she is quoted as saying. "It's where persons are having dances and some young ladies are half-naked."

Continuing, Charles said, "I think when we want to be monkeys and copy other people, we should copy the right thing. There is no merit in young ladies exposing themselves in public and letting a DVD be made of them. These things are reminiscent of Sodom and Gomorrah. This has no place in Grenada."

The education minister urged the Grenadian people to "let Passa Passa pass Grenada by" calling it one of the biggest problems yet to face the island.

Consider that last statement, and consider that two years ago Grenada was hit by a hurricane that resulted in the destruction of most of the island's housing and infrastructure.

The people there lived in really wretched conditions for -- well, some of them probably still are.

And now, you see, this new threat.

Passa Passa is a dance style that comes from Jamaica. I remember an AP story that came out while I was in St. Kitts, I think it was an AP story, about a competition that had started as a local parish affair somewhere in the country and now women were coming from all over the world to join in.

The BBC has been covering the fuss and cites one promoter who sounds altogether sensible:

Speaking exclusively to BBC Caribbean Magazine from a Passa Passa dance in Tivoli Gardens, Jamaica on Thursday morning, Carlton 'Popcorn' McBridge said he'd been involved in Passa Passa events for more than a decade. He responded to Grenada’s opposition to Passa Passa.

"Its stupideness. Look at what they call Carnival. Look how they dress! Is there any murmur about that? They're almost naked! It’s the same thing – its culture.

"I don't understand why they would have anything to say about our culture. Passa Passa is one of the things that brings the whole island together. Everybody from all parts of the island come to Passa Passa. People can park their cars and leave them unlocked and come back and find them the same way. When Passa Passa finishes, you don't hear that someone has picked someone's pocket. You don't hear that anyone's been robbed or been raped. Those things don't go on at Passa Passa."

BBC Caribbean Magazine raised the issue Passa Passa DVDs. These are comprised of footage filmed at Passa Passas nights. Many are concerned at the unsuitable attire worn by women and young girls featured in the DVDs, and the overtly sexual dances that take place. Mr Mc Bridge said:

"That's not our fault you know. Before we came on the earth, there were people dancing naked. We must look back in our history, it’s the same thing."

Also, I'm wondering if Grenada is especially sheltered in some way from what goes on in the rest of the Eastern Caribbean. Most Carnivals there have wayyyyy dirty dancing as a matter of course, among the road marchers and on top of the trucks as well. I saw some amazing stuff in St. Kitts. And they are one of the more conservative places, surely. Also, Grenada is very near to Trinidad, which has Carnival and also a number of tabloid newspapers that are entirely dedicated to pictures of Dance Hall Queens in full gear, which is to say next to nothing at all.

DVDs are popular, a few of them actually teach you how to do it. When you look at the pictures in this link, you must remember that what you see there is not being done in some locked sound stage or motel room or other private location, but in crowded dance halls, on the densely crowded streets during Carnival, and pretty much everywhere where popular music is played -- which is to say just about everywhere. The women enjoy it at least as much as the men do. Which I think is wonderful.

For Grenadians, and indeed for a lot of the small islands, the fact that this thing comes from Jamaica is another sore point. All these Grenadian ministers think the solution is to promote their folk culture, which is really pretty much for museums and tourists. This is just another instance of the prodigious firepower of Jamaican music, the incredible energies it draws on from its sources in Jamaican life as it is lived now, it's this huge creative outpouring that has gone on almost without abatement for the last 40 years. The effect is felt all over the world, and in the Caribbean, as this illustrates, it's like King Log. And it wasn't all that long ago when a lot of these small islands were getting used to the idea of Rastafarians with dreadlocks showing up amongst them. It was only three years ago that the British Virgin Islands rescinded its "Rasta law" which denied entry to anyone wearing dreadlocks.

In about a year or two, someone will be offering Passa Passa at community centers and the YMCA as a new workout.

Correction: The BVI rescinded the Rasta laws in 2004. A whole big conference of Rastas promptly showed up to celebrate. So easy to forget, isn't it? Too many people think fighting for freedom is this big stupid business involving jets and bombs. But then you see this little step forward for some Caribbean people, they took care of it themselves and then showed up for the party afterwards.

SKN Headlines of the Week

It is, I admit, an irregular feature.

Two shootings have occurrred in the last week, with at least one of them fatal. The news of this one has run under the heading

Another Son Shot...Another Mother Weeps.

But apparently someone has gotten bored with the subject already, or perhaps just with the sort of comment that usually follows. At any rate, tonight I notice a new, "improved" heading:

Another Son Shot... Another Mother Weeps... Let She Arse Bawl.

Update: Caroline, who is apparently developing Postaphobia, writes offline to ask why the mother of the shooting victim was to bawl. From what I can gather the victim had something of a reputation as a bad boy or gangster and the shooting involved the police in some way.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Dog Query

I really don't know what's up but Sweetie, my dog, is suddenly on a chewing binge. If you don't know Sweetie's history, she's the dog I brought back from St. Kitts with me. A veterinarian gave her to me, she had rescued Sweetie from the neighbors who were mistreating her. She delivered her to me one night at Mr. X's beach bar, this slender dog who was in a state of helpless dread. But Kelly, my friend from Texas, took one look at her and said, "She's a good dog." Which she has certainly turned out to be. She is what I call a Third World Economy Model Street Dog, lean and very shrewd and quick. She looks like what you might get if you crossed a Doberman with an Italian greyhound, and moves like what you'd expect from such a cross too. She is very fast on her feet and unbelievably vain about it.

For the first few days of course terror was still her main state of emotion, then one day when she realized that no harm was coming to her, just regular meals, she showed signs of a sense of humor, her first steps at what has come to be known as The Dance of Joy. But it was much much later, after we had moved back to the States, that I discovered that she really likes toys. Squeaky fuzzy toys. She seems to regard all squeaks of squeaky toys as personally addressed to her in some way. She likes to play with a ball, too, likes to toss it in the air and pretend to run away from it.

There are quirks. She is wonderfully respectful of my property, only chews up the possessions of other people in the household. She had a shoe thing for a while and everybody had some losses except me. You know how people say, "Oh my dog so-and so thinks he's a person?" Well, Sweetie has never thought of herself as a person. She thinks of herself as a dog. And she just tries so hard to be a good dog by her little lights. All her good deeds come from her very doggy nature. They are her contributions to the welfare of the pack, however it happens to be constituted at the moment.

When we left the paper in Sebastopol Jim gave her this splendid toy, virtually indestructible, a stuffed bear with rope arms and legs and a squeak. It's still holding up. About a month ago I bought her a little fuzzy squeaky squirrel. She has been recovering, the last couple of days, from what appears to have been a slight cold. With the recovery has come this new chewing mania. Chewing corners of low tables, chewing the windowsill, chewing the toys of course (she has just about demolished the squirrel) two pens, a pencil, a roll of scotch tape.

My theory at this point is that for the four days that I was away she got a little less exercise than normal. But I've certainly made up for it since I got back, and as I type this she is just shredding that old torn-up squirrel.

Misha meanwhile is sitting in the recliner, she's fallen asleep looking out the window for my father, who went off to New York for the night, for a mystery date..

Misha is in love with my father. This is, so far, her most attractive quality. She is a fat neurotic dog with secret fantasies of dominating the world through passive-aggressive methods. Or sometimes just aggressive methods. She's been through a lot that a dog should not have had to go through, and she's recovering, but I think she was probably always a bit of a nut. To look at her you'd think, "Well, I'm glad she's not my dog." Which I think now and then, unkindly. But the one absolute conviction in her life is that my father is the most wonderful being on earth. She is pretty much constantly focused on him when he is in the house. She always wants him to take her out on dates. A date could be a ride in the car to nowehere in particular, say the gas station, and she will guard the car and warn off with loud hysterical barking anyone who threatens to approach too close, which is to say anyone who is walking within sight. Sometimes I take them on walks that I've prearranged with my father to meet us with the car. When he arrives she is of course frantic to get into the car and when she finally does she seems to take up the whole front seat. Sometimes I'll decide after this to just walk home with Sweetie anyway, as she (and I) need a lot more exercise than Misha is willing to go for. I look back at the car with Misha and my father in it and she is in the front seat, utterly besotted with happiness. A date might be a little stroll up to the dumpster in the bitterest cold of the dead of night, just to see if maybe someone left some pork chop bones there like they did this one time a while back. Sometimes, to be fair, she really has to go pee or poop, so you can't be sure, which is nerve-racking.And of course, you know she is the kind of dog who undertakes those functions with the absolute maximum of fuss and solemn ceremony, pacing up and down looking for just exactly the right spot -- why? why? -- etc.

Sometimes she just flops down at his feet and makes this ghastly noise which means he is to rub her stomach. If he doesn't rub it this noise occurs, repeatedly, until he does. Other times she will climb into his lap (she weighs not less than 89 pounds) and lean against his chest. Other times still she just sits at his knee and gazes at him with her mouth hanging open and this slightly imbecile look of expectation on her face.

In all of this she is sort of a hog, a drama queen. I don't doubt the sincerity of her attachment to my father, but her methods of expressing it seem a bit vulgar. The frequent demands to be taken out on dates fret my father no end, especially in winter. Occasionally he gets exasperated and makes threats at her, Jamaican-style: "Misha, I going claat you in you head if you keep up this foolishness." Or, when he is really exercised by it, "I'm just going to take her to the pound, I can't take this any more." She doesn't understand what he's saying, she's just so happy he's talking, her big and, it must be said, beautiful limpid brown eyes just taking it all in gratefully.

They are both exquisitely considerate in one respect. If Misha has to take a crap while I'm out and can't hold it any longer, she does it as far away as possible from where my father likes to hang out -- which happens to be my bedroom. Sweetie, on the other hand, out of a delicate regard for my feelings, leaves her little occasional accidents as far away from me as possible. Which usually means in my father's bedroom or under his desk.

Friday, March 17, 2006


Last night I kept trying to post the entry about the Goya book and Blogger kept telling me "There was a problem." So then I'd post it again a little later and get the same message. The result is three entries for the same posting. I'm going to delete the extras and also do a bit of editing on the one I'm keeping so it looks nicer.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

El Ilustrado

Doesn't this make you want to read the book?

Goya, being neither madman nor masochist, had no taste for martyrdom. But he sometimes was heroic, particularly in his conflicted relations with the last Bourbon monarch he served, the odious and arbitrarily cruel Fernando VII. His work asserted that men and women should be free from tyranny and superstition; that torture, rape, despoliation, and massacre, those prennial props of power in both the civil and the religious arena, were intolerable; and those who condoned or employed them were not to be trusted, no matter how seductive the bugle calls and the searing of allegiance might seem. At fifteen, to find this voice -- so finely wrought and yet so raw, public and yet strangely private--speaking to me with such insistence and urgency from a remote time and country I'd never been to, of whose language I spoke not a word, was no small thing. It had the feeling of a message transmitted with terrible urgency, mouth to ear: this is the truth, you must know this, I have been through it. Or, as Goya scratched at the bottom of his copperplates in Los desastres de la guerra: "Yo la vi," "I saw it." Italics by Hughes

I've been going up to the public library to do my little editing gig the last couple of days. I wish I had thought of it before. I get through a lot of work there and then when I need a break I make myself stay because I know that if I stop and pack up to go home it will be an enormous interruption so it would be better to do a little more, a little more. So for my little break what could be better than wandering among the shelves, where I found Robert Hughes's life of Goya.

Well, that was enough to get me to get the library card organized.

I've already begun it even though I'm not quite halfway through Rebecca West's great tome on Yugoslavia, Black Lamb, Grey Falcon. It's fascinating but exhausting. I have moments when I start to hate her, I don't know why.

But I got the Robert Hughes and of course started in on it as soon as I got home (Cf. "enormous interruption," above). And oh dear it is so good that it is almost too exciting to read. I read a bit and my mind takes off and then I have to bring it back and focus on not thinking, just reading, but I'm so impatient to think and write in response that I can barely read. I think I remember Max talking about this happening when he was reading, in an interview once, and I think I have that interview in a box somewhere. The funny thing is I sort of have had mixed feelings about Hughes, suspected him of being a bit of a cranky guy. Which he might be. And sometimes I'm a cranky girl.

It's much too soon to start thinking about it, but the reasons for the anticipatory excitement are several: one is Goya for god's sake. The others are this quiet little fascination I'm beginning to have with the Napoleonic era in France and a little after. Actually when I think about it it's the whole century I'm curious about. But not in the same way for each section. Talleyrand is one of my favorite historical characters. I love every detail of his life, and I used to keep a picture of him in my cubicle, back when I had a cubicle. So everything related to him is interesting. I think it was the Roberto Calasso book, The Ruin of Kasch that put me onto him. It got me interested also in Simone Weil, some of whose writings I like. Her aphorisms in Gravity and Grace are interesting. She's 20th century not really 19th but still...) Then from reading about Talleyrand I found another reason to try Balzac again. Now Balzac is a writer I cannot love. But when I read his novels as history, as documentaries describing something that was happening in the society after Napoleon, I'm fascinated. This was Delacroix's time, too, and he was the son of Talleyrand, a fact I just cannot help being pleased by. Herzen was here, and all the characters who pass through his pages.

As you can see this is a very unmethodical way of going at a subject. I think it's a much better way to start. If you do academic research (which I don't think is what I'd call what I do now, but I used to) the image you have of it is that you work from a general view of a subject to greater and greater specialization. Well, often, the general overview of a subject, the one that just lays down the facts, is boring. And it seems to me that it's a hopeless proposition to start out on a subject and immediately be bored. The boring information can become more interesting once you've gotten excited about the subject. Getting excited about it, from reading the life of Talleyrand, or from reading Herzen, can give meaning to other facts that on the surface don't seem so interesting. Usually if that has happened, you still don't want the boring old general overview except maybe for checking dates and IDs and small facts like that, because you are so impatient of the lack of content. By which term I refer not only to information but to thinking. What I find is that by following the trail of my interests, following my nose, so to speak, I really do absorb more information and my ability to imagine and synthesize, to "visualize" events and relationships, is boosted right along with this extra ability to take in information.

(When you are ready to learn everything, and do need to learn everything, such as before you write a doctoral dissertation, to have motivated curiosity of the kind I describe is an enormous advantage in getting through the material you have to read, material no sane person would read unless they were writing a doctoral dissertation, you can dispense with it so much more quickly.)

So which one of these frames of mind is the real thing? Is it the curiosity that searches hungrily, or is it the more conventional approach? Well, one of the weird things about the motivated curiosity approach is that I hardly have to memorize anything I read this way except dates. When I was an undergrad I did have to take these science courses in which you memorized great masses of material. There were humanities courses that were taught in this way, but I was fortunate enough never to have to take one. I made my way into a couple of smaller seminars, in fact I specially looked out for them. And while I always did horribly in the lower-division lectures, I was doing fine in the senior seminars. This wasn't just for the subject matter: it really was that I was looking for an environment that was congenial to my mind's way of learning. I know a lot of academic hacks who will say that this is wrong, that I should not have taken it upon myself to try to make my path easier, instead I should have let myself be winnowed out like the chaff I was proving myself to be.

It was incredible good fortune for me to get into Creative Studies, because there I really found a place where it felt like I could learn in my own way. And the standard was very high. I entered as a biology major, and the biology students I met were taking all the regular classes, plus working in labs on research projects, plus doing research of the kind where you find out all that is known about a subject so you can find out what isn't known. They loved it, they were having fun. And the College's science majors were always outstanding, impressive people. So the first thing I want to emphasize that while it was fun, these people were not playing. They needed those credits in the big lectures, but they were excited about the real learning opportunities they had at the College.

But by this point I was too demoralized by my experience of science classes, so I let myself switch to literature. Where we read more and discussed things much more freely than in Letters and Science, there was never the sense of someone simply feeding their schtick to you and expecting you to just repeat it back to them. And all this work and challenge operated under the non-punitive grading system, in which you got only as much credit as you did work for. And if you didn't like a class you could drop it all the way up to the last day, though it wasn't even necessary to go through the formal process of dropping it. The whole system was designed for maximum browsing. The thing really worked, CCS students really distinguished themselves, wrote good stuff, got into great graduate programs, stayed interested in their subject field for years and years and years, went on and got all sorts of cool jobs. As they still do, every year.

Well, the last quarter that I taught there was a ways into a period of assiduous marketing by the College's then Provost. He marketed it to the university administration, and they finally overcame their loathing for everything Marvin Mudrick stood for. So you can imagine what must have gone into the marketing. Ah well, like they say about the sausage... So instead of being regarded as a bunch of upstart pariahs, suddenly it began to seem a rather prestigious place to teach, given its success, especially if you could get the teaching out of the hands of the literature teachers who -- yeah they got spectacular results but they were WRONG. And so this one character showed up from the College of Letters and Science, an ass and a creep. He got about five students for a seminar he came in to teach. And over the next couple of weeks, a couple more students did what the College was designed to enable them to do, voted with their feet and never returned. He was down to three.

He confided to me that he couldn't understand it. "It's just what they do here," I said. "Sometimes a course works and sometimes it doesn't." I didn't want to tell him more than that, but I did want to place the situation in front of him in such a way that there wouldn't be a whole lot of ego about it. That didn't really work. He went off complaining in surprise that the College didn't have a way of compelling students to take his class. Next thing I knew, a couple years later he was on some sort of administrative committee overseeing the College.

This is a sure sign of yer "failed creative." People who don't produce anything interesting, who can't even teach, go into administration or bureaucracy where they work to create an audience that will have to like their shit. They overthrow governments for this, actually mostly they sit in their little offices and dream about overthrowing governments for it, for their wretched little ideas. I've met a few of those. And then you get this other type, who nested securely in the system, is working to leverage it to cover his own deficiencies and thinks that that's what his status entitles him to do. It's all status, all the time with these folks, who fight for it like lizards in a garbage pail while fancying themselves on the very cutting edge of culture.

Update: Afterthought: That consuming progress of the lizard brain? That is what Balzac saw. That is what he described. This reptilian self-servingness, munching, munching, munching everything it could take hold of.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Another by Alan Stephens

This is Alan Stephens's translation of a chorus from Antigone. I could speculate about why he picked this particular passage, but I'll spare us all. Best to just read it, really.

Sophocles: Antigone 332-372

There is much that's wondrous, much that awakens dread--
Nothing more so than the human, Sophocles says,
In the best description of us ever made:
This creature crosses the gray sea in the winter
Facing the storm-winds, making his way along
In the traffic of the billows,
And of all goddesses the one greatest, Earth
The undying, the tireless--he wears her down
With his plowing back and forth, year after year.

The light-witted race of the birds he takes,
And the tribes of the wild beasts, and the swimmers
Through sea-deeps, in the meshy folds of his nets,
This busy-thinking human.
With his tactics he masters the firld-dwellers,
And the hill-ranging animals; shaggy maned
Horses he reins in, he yokes the necks of
The tireless bulls brought down from the high country.

And speech, and wind-quick thought, and living
In a city together, he taught himself, and how to avoid
The bolts of storms, and having to sleep out
In cold clear weather. He is all inventiveness. Never
Does he go bereft of means into the future.
Death alone he cannot contrive to evade; though
From hopeless diseases he has found escapes.
Cleverness surpassing all hopes he possesses
In his plans and devices; by which sometimes to evil
Sometimes to excellence he creeps. Honoring
Earth and her laws, and the sworn justice
Of the gods, he will thrive in his city. --Shun him
When he harms what's good out of recklessness,
Shun the contagion of an arrogant cast of mind....

Alan Stephens, Away from the Road (Albuquerque: Living Batch Press, 1998), 42-43.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Silicon Alley Redux?

Just out of Columbia I actually had an interview with Jason Calacanis at the Silicon Alley Reporter. I could tell immediately that it did not take. I was not impressed with him and I rather doubt he was impressed with me. This was my first glimpse into the so-called dotcom world. I saw the sort of person who made me flinch when they showed up as students in my classes. Someone who would try to work the social angle of things, that is, try (and often quite successfully) to dominate his social environment, to his own advantage, while insisting on credit for great intellectual seriousness while never actually doing anything. Every year there were a couple of these. They seemed to favor the black jacket, as if they were practicing wearing a suit or going in for some decadent punk-based attempt at parodying T.S. Eliot's sartorial style. At any rate, the one consistency was they did not work. They yakked. They could not muster up even a decent appearance of being interested in literature, their writing was perfunctory but they wanted it considered great. Their greatness was either to be extorted out of you by nagging and whining or - less frequently - what passed with them for charm; or it was to come later when their genius had found its right soil for flowering. That right soil was usually a place where if "work" was the term for "aggressive, self-serving schmoozing, and impressing chicks with your profundity" yes, they'd be very busy indeed.

I can think of one former student of this type, manipulative, hostile, self-serving, hugely full of himself and a non-performer, whose main nourishment, apparently, was the ambrosia of female adoration, who fit right into this scene, and from the great heights of his current small notoriety, pronounces on the teachers who did or did not "appreciate" him.

So far my favorite writer on this era I think is Steve Gilliard, who is totally unillusioned about it.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

The Matilija

My mother gave me this camera when I was in St. Kitts. She is a rather geeky person, she loves cameras and camera accessories and computers. The great thing about having a geek for a mother is, of course, the hand-me-downs. I used this as my work camera when I was running the paper in St. Kitts. Left most of my photos there, in the office computer, along with the majority of what I wrote. I haven't used it for a while and I took it on the trip to Santa Barbara for no other reason than that it happened to be in the bag. When Caroline and John proposed this trip, rather impulsively, I equally impulsively threw in the camera. Actually I packed a totally redundant and excessive watercolor painting kit along and only threw in the camera just in case. No painting occurred but it turned out to be a piece of good fortune that I brought the camera. I look at the pictures I took and I think of Al and I think of my friends.

A woman I know who has lived in Washington for some five or six years told me today that she has dropped all her American friends. She herself is Canadian-Jamaican. A large part of the reason, she said, was that the war got between them. She found herself getting too angry with people who said things like land mines were OK because they helped Americans have jobs. Or who didn't feel outraged at the bombing of children in Iraq. It happened to her, several times, in this crowd that she ran with, that people would ask her, "Do you consider yourself to be white or black?" Her mother was a Jamaican, her father is French. This woman I know would hold up two fingers and say, "This one's white and this one's black." But then she got tired of the question and began to answer, in some irritation, "I don't come from the US and so I don't think about myself in those terms." Which, she told me, always silenced them.

She wondered how I managed. I said I didn't have any friends who would say such stupid things. I told her that probably if I had not found my little circle of friends I might not have learned to live in the U.S. at all.

On reflection I don't absolutely know if that's true but I know that it would have been very different. I came here at 17, this really rather muddle-headed Jamaican teenager. Now that I am living with my father, who only really settled in this country about 10 years ago, I am reminded daily of what I brought with me -- the feelings of the exile. Very strong feeling that "I am not really here." An accent and a way of using language that exposed me sometimes to teasing and sometimes just left people staring blankly, unable to comprehend my words, perhaps, or my thinking because it was in English but a different idiom. As if I didn't have all that generic exile experience, I had my own special private reserves of misery that set me apart, at least in my own mind. When I moved to the States in 1977 to go to college I was struck by how everybody had the same things: everybody was running around in Dolphin shorts, those lightweight high-cut running shorts. Everybody had a stereo in their room. Everybody was sporting expensive sneakers. There was the respectable backpack and there was the pathetic backpack. I had no expensive sneakers, no Dolphin shorts, my backpack was pathetic, I had no stereo. All this, in addition to being, for a long time, quite unintelligible, was also financially out of my reach. I couldn't afford to look like everybody else when I was in college, even if you subtract the factor that I was a person of indefinable racial makeup and would never look like everybody else anyway. When you're 18, even if you don't feel envy over these things or even resentment, sometimes self-doubt happens, and I was certainly susceptible to that feeling.

Even though I had always been at or near the top of my class in all the various schools I attended, I was having a hard time with my studies because I had never been expected to memorize large chunks of material before and it bored me. I had really learned to learn in a very different way. The fact that I loathed competition didn't help me in my classes either. I was a science major at that point and while other students visited professors to try to find enough stray points on a test to bump them up a grade point or two, I disdained such measures. I was revolted when people stole the sample exams, or the recommended reading, so that other people couldn't read them and share the advantage. I didn't want to be like people who would do such things, I didn't want to have anything to do with them, and my science classes were full of that sort of thing. All this was deeply discouraging to me, And the misery. Did I mention the misery? I was nearly out of my mind with it, I was a wounded person.

I've known people since then who were setting out from much greater hardships than I had. I hadn't suffered any positive evil in my life until then, but I had experienced some negative ones, subtly negative ones, and I had been beating my stubborn head against them for three years when I boarded the plane to go off to California. Having failed to get them to yield, I left my father's house feeling like a failure, feeling cursed.

I felt, by this point, that I wasn't even a typical Jamaican any more. I hadn't lived there for two years when I went off to college in California. I had spent a year at boarding school in England and when I wasn't at school I was touring around England with my mother, going to museums, plays, restaurants, historical sights, all this culture stuff that she and my stepfather were sort of dosing me with at every turn. I quite liked all the things I saw, I had a lot of curiosity and, as always, was responsive to beautiful places and, sometimes when I was apparently being a silent sullen teen I was trying in some way to soak up as much of the environment as I could; besides, wandering around some old castle ruin was really quite enjoyable to a person as given to brooding as I was/am. Which all meant that if I had returned to Jamaica to live I would have sooner or later found out how much I had grown different. I had adaptability, at some emotional cost. So by the end of my first year in college, I felt like I didn't know who I was or where I was from any more. All through that year, people would ask me the eternal Two Questions of Freshman Year: "Where are you from?" and "What's your major?" I would tell them where I was from and what my major was. A lot of them didn't know where Jamaica was. But I didn't know any of the places in California where they were from. And, because of my exiled state, I wasn't interested in where they were from, because I was not really in California. I was there, but when someone told me she was from Coalinga, for example, or Mill Valley, I might as well have been in Jamaica for all the interest or meaning this information had for me. And I suspect that it showed.

The other thing I didn't have as a result of this difference was complete possession of the Platitudes of Attitude that were current at the time. I literally didn't speak the idiom, but I also didn't think it either. My bluntness and unconventionality of opinion and my smaller gaucheries elicited clucking disapproval which shocked me because wasn't this California where people were supposed to be tolerant? I wasn't asking for a lot of tolerance: just so much as you need to have a conversation. And I certainly wasn't asking for it in some sort of personal way. I saw their rather passive intolerance as making them boring. That living in an atmosphere where my difference isolated me and sometimes exposed me to contempt was something to take personally just didn't occur to me. The failure to realize what I was dealing with -- in myself and in them -- was a blessing, as it happened. A rather perverse blessing. I was living on rage, it was like a special high-energy diet. One person in the world could hurt me, and he had, and my rage over this left me little time to notice other people except from a distance. But from that distance I was seeing a creature I had never seen much of before, the product of American suburbia. Conformity was its highest virtue, and it just happened coincidentally, that what they were conforming to was a late 1970s cocktail of social cliches and attitudes with which I was mostly unfamiliar. When they became preppies a few years later they were the same, they are the same now. They were the most unconversational people I have ever met, and I come from a culture where people had a way of saying whatever came into their heads because no one was ever shocked by speech. That California -- in so far as these folks represented it -- was less tolerant than Jamaica was came as a huge surprise.

Now, at this point, I must say, you can begin to see the tint of the rose around my memories of Jamaica in addition to my failure to see something in myself. It is true that Jamaicans - and Caribbean people generally - indulge richly in their right of freedom of speech. They don't just possess it, they use it. If you express an unpopular opinion in a company of Jamaicans you find yourself in an argument, carried on with great gusto on all sides. If you express only irritation or exasperation -- well, the more color you can put into it the better, it is a very flourishy culture, big on rhetorical excess.

It was purely the chances of life that helped me find my way to the College. I arrived there and sort of declared my presence there, quite unintentionally, as a talent. Which is very nice, especially in a place that values talent as much as the College. But it's terrible to learn that you have talent before you really know how to use it. And that was the situation I was in. It took me years of blundering about and being a general pain in the ass before I learned to work, and by then I had friends for life, friends who for the sake of my talent had treated me with incredible kindness. What I found, when I first arrived at the College, was people who were talking and thinking and writing about books the way I had thought about books. This was something I had rarely had in my life before. Most of my friends were hardly aware of how much I read, or if they did know, they were not curious, I was a pretty girl who was also known to have a brain, but a brain was not considered much of a social advantage. At the College it was different, it was as if this one little bit of sanity in my chaotic misery-filled inner life had found a home.

The Matilija

This is Matilija Creek just outside Ojai, California. It's where Alan Stephens spent many days over many years walking, fly-fishing and thinking and observing the life of this lovely place. He wrote poems based on experiences he had up here. On Wednesday March 8, the College of Creative Studies at UC Santa Barbara held a special session of the lit symp, a tribute to Al, who was such a great teacher to all of us. The next day, a couple of friends and I hiked up it. It was one of those days you get in California where the light gives this incredibly soft and mellow glow to everything. The ceonothus was blooming white and pale blue and giving off that clean, delicate scent that I like so much, and the creek had plenty of water in it, running clear. My two friends and I, all former students and now his friends, thought about him a lot while we were up there. He can't go up the Matilija any more, his health won't permit it. So we have to make do with the poems he already wrote about it.

This is one of them:

Alan Stephens--Draft from the Matilija

Down off the burnt-off slope
   for a drink, the big snake
Stops me on my way
   home at mid-day
To responsibilities (miles from here
   in what is, for the U.S.,
A well-built little city)–how
   quietly he lies,
In slow, slack curves, broken
   by shadow, among three rocks,
Lowering his chin daintily to the Matilija.

Having paused to judge of me
   by tonguing the air,
He resumes drinking now,
   letting down and lifting
His U-shaped, thin, flat jaw.
   On and on he drinks, taking
a very little at a time,
Slaking the whole length
   of his thirst.

Earth’s a great harsh gaunt garden
   here, made out of spiny chaparral,
The cliffs, bare crests, dry, stony slopes,
   the fan that opens, desolate,
Scattered with boulders, below
   this canyon; and, running through,
Narrow, bright and chill among its stones,
   the Matilija. – Born
Somewhere in all this, on his own
   from birth, in the fit
And hard gloss of his scales,
   eye of translucent, dry horn,
Or some clear stone, for his seeing, strange
   but, still seeing:
He lifts his head at last, done
   with drinking, and without haste
Or hesitation winds out over the water–
   not toward the far bank
But downstream, steering purposefully
   between the rocks, the current
Very fast down there, he lifting his head higher,
   moving rapidly now with an air
Of matter-of-fact eagerness into the loud water
   smashing itself solid white
Among the boulders jammed together
   below, where he vanishes.

What is it, to be? Slowly to find yourself
   already alive to some place, alone with
Purposes already forming; what is snake
   intelligence but intelligence
First and last, snake experience
   but wholly experience?
No king of darkness, no god, something
   as good, I think…. To live,
To live and at midday there, to be
   a snake completely, very thirsty,
And drink your fill, at length, of
   the clear Matilija.

This poem is from Water Among the Stones.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Tolerance Part Two

I keep digging good things out of my boxes of books. They're still in boxes because bookshelves can't happen till a job happens. Sometimes I open a box and spot a book and wonder why I've been keeping it all these years. Other books, like my nice collection of Hazlitt, I would think about during the years they were in storage and miss, I'd have this piping little inner wail of anguish at the thought that I might never get my hands on them again. I now have just about half of them, 35 boxes that arrived here about six weeks ago.

The rest are still in Santa Barbara and I've got to get them here somehow, but that is an even more remote prospect than bookshelves just at the moment. But things happen. I didn't expect I'd have as many of them as I now do. So you never know.

I'm really glad to have the Hazlitt books back. They were a strange thing. I don't know why, but this publisher, Chelsea House, put together this series with the really AWFUL title, Prophets of Sensibility: Precursors of Modern Cultural Thought." Professor Harold Bloom, Yale University is General Editor. I believe that Bloom contributed his name, the title and the blurbage which describes the authors in the series, among whom there is conspicuously, blessedly, Hazlitt, as "Forerunners of our aesthetic sensibility." Which would surely make Hazlitt sit up and wonder. Then the blurbage takes on a slightly scolding tone. "These volumes are a great voice from the last century, calling us to ourselves."

Yeah! Straigten up and fly right, people!

All of this would put me off, of course, but the text is just a reprint of an old edition of Hazlitt. It's just the pure stuff, uncut as they say. The weird thing is that I have never seen anything else in this series -- no other authors. I can think of a few who would do. But no, a bunch of Hazlitt came out and that was that. Well, it could have been worse.

So I have been feasting on them. Because he writes things like this:

Prejudice, in short, is egotism: we see a part, and substitute it for the whole; a thing strikes us casually and by halves, and we would have the universe stand proxy for our decision, in order to rivet it more firmly in our own belief; however insufficient or sinister the grounds of our opeinions, we would persuade ourselves that they arise out of the strongest conviction, and are entitled to unqualified approbation; slaves of our own prejudices, caprice, igrnoance, we would be lords of the understandings and reason of others; and (strange infatuation!) taking up an opinion solely from our own narrow and partial point of view, without consulting the feelings of others, or the reason of things, we are still uneasy if all the world do not come into our way of thinking.

Here's another snippet:

To show at once the danger and extent of prejudice, it may be sufficient to observe that all our convictions, however arrived at, and whether founded on a strict demonstration or the merest delusion, are crusted over with the same varnish of confidence; or if there be any difference, we are in general "most ignorant of what we are most assured," the strength of will and impatience of contradiction making up for the want of evidence.

Last bit:

All the great points that men have founded a claim to superiority, wisdom, and illumination upon, that they have embroiled the world with,and made matters of the last importance, are what one age and country differ diametrically with each other about, have been successively and justly exploded, and have been the levers of opinion and the gorunds of contention, precisely because, as their expounders and believers are equally in the dark about them, they rest wholly on the fluctuations ofo will and passion, and as they can neither be proved nor disproved, admit of the fiercest opposition or th emost bigoted faith.

His essays move: they don't end up where they started out, he takes you to surprising places. The essay is not really adequately represented by the snips I've put here. Someone or something called Blupete has posted the whole essay.

But I said I'd come back to this tolerance subject and here, you see, I have. Just go with that for a while, if you're following me on this at all.

Friday, March 03, 2006


People think of Watergate, or Iran Contra as constituting crises. They were in the sense that an executive branch was acting in violation of the law, and in tension with the majority party in the congress. But in the end, the system worked, the abuses were investigated, and actions were taken - even if presidential pardons ultimately prevented a full measure of justice.

Today, the crisis is substantively and systemically far worse. The alleged acts of wrongdoing - lying about the decision to go to war; manipulation of intelligence; facilitating and countenancing torture; using confidential information to out a CIA agent; open and flagrant violations of federal wiretap laws - are far more egregious than any I have witnessed in my 41 years in Congress. The majority party has shown no ability to engage in simple oversight, let alone challenge the Administration directly. The courts, while operating as an occasional and partial check, are institutionally incapable of delving into most of the controversies we are presented with as a result of limitations on standing, ripeness, and other doctrines. The media, which is increasingly concentrated, was shell-shocked and in some respects cowered by 9/11, and for the most part unwilling to alienate the party in charge.

Faced with that dilemma, we had a choice. We could simply ignore the myriad of transgressions being committed, and continue to reacting to the legislative agenda put before us by the Republican Party on a day-to-day basis, or we could do everything in our power to call attention to and document these very grave abuses of power. I opted for the latter course.

I could not live with myself or my children, if when faced with an Administration that went to war under false pretenses, used classified information to smear political opponents; and wiretapped innocent Americans without warrants, I did not formally respond to it. If the Ranking Member of the Judiciary Committee, which has jurisdiction over the constitution, is silent on these matters, who else can we expect to speak out?

Get the March issue of Harper's. It's out now.

When You Want to Get Down...

The History Of Funk Archives

with Rickey Vincent

Now Airing Fridays at 10:00 pm

Uh huh. Uh huh.

Thank you, Lani. I'll have to see if I can make it into a podcast...

Thursday, March 02, 2006

On Sleep

I sleep a little worse every year, I think. I cherish this optimistic belief that it will be solved, but it isn't. I am basically a crap sleeper. But I really like to sleep. Some people who don't sleep much I think don't like to sleep. But I have always loved to sleep and when I was younger could fall asleep almost anywhere. At night now I fall asleep with the light on and a big stack of a variety of soothing literature piled up on the bed next to me in case I wake up. In Santa Rosa, in the anguished weeks after the breakup, I even read novels in bed, a pleasure I have denied myself for years because once I start it's kind of hard to stop. I have this really cool lamp. It is ugly but it is a daylight bulb.

When I was growing up in the house in Jamaica that my father built I had a four-poster mahogany bed in my room. It was nice, I think it belonged to Aunt Emmy in Oracabessa. There was also in my room a really lugubrious mahogany dresser, damn that thing was ugly. The bed of those days was very high, which I liked. I used to hide my favorite pair of cutoff shorts between the mattress and the box spring. My mother hated these shorts and I wore them everywhere, usually with this Che Guevara T-shirt that had a stain on it. I used to pretend I didn't know it had the stain on it. I mean I kept pulling this trick for months. She would call my attention to it and I would pretend that I was seeing it for the first time, that it had acquired the stain since I put it on that morning. Once, just in a fever of irritation with my slobby ways, she threatened to get hold of the shorts and the Che Guevara T-shirt and cut them up. So that's why I hid them under the mattress. When she found out about this she laughed. One day she did, at last, get hold of the shorts. I found them cut up in pieces in the waste paper basket in her bathroom. She had hacked away with them with the scissors, it must have been quite a bit of work, and, I have long suspected, did not quite deliver the satisfaction she had hoped for. The weird thing was that I laughed about that.

Anyway when I first got to "The DC Metro Area" my father and I, refugees from various shipwrecks, didn't have hardly any furniture, just a sofa and a table and a couple of chairs and the TV. We have added things. Including the table I'm writing at, this big long dark dining table that has seen a bit of life, but I'm fond of it because Aunty Babs gave it to my father years ago. And my bed, which we bought from a neighbor of my cousin. Which is, amazingly, another four-poster except queen size this time. It is even more colonial than the last mahogany four-poster I had. And it is high. Daddy's dog can't climb up into it, but she can fit her whole fat self underneath it. (We had to buy some lifters for Daddy's bed because she kept getting her head stuck underneath it in the middle of the night.) In addition to room for the dog there is about an acre or so for storing things like watercolor paper, drawings, books, etc. It is quite comfortable but nevertheless I still don't sleep in it with abandon.

I mention all of this because i think the sofa is haunted. Of course it is haunted by the dogs who spend most of the day on it, with rotations on the recliner at the window. They have become quite adept at looking out of the window. But mostly they are on the red sofa. We keep it clean with a fleece blanket. At night I settle down on the couch for a bout of editing or other writing, with the TV turned to Law and Order, which is always showing somewhere. Soon I stretch out, trying nonetheless not to crowd my dog who is lying on it and looking aggrieved about the crowding. Then hours later I wake up with a feeling that I am being strangled by my sweater. The TV is on, I haven't heard a sound of it, the cop show is over and I am just this side of stuporous. Thick, soupy sleep, sleep that I never get in the bed. But, hopeful, I stagger off to the bed, this is the time when if I do anything it is likely to be goofy. Like leave the water running in the kitchen after I get a glass of water. Or trip over Daddy's dog in the middle of the floor, or kick the dog's water dish and spill water all over my toes. Get... to... bed. Crawl under the covers and well, what do you know, wide awake with all the bats flitting about the belfry again. So that's why I think the sofa may be haunted by something more than the dogs.

But it is something to have insomnia in such a splendiferous bed.

So what books do I have in the bed just now?

Montaigne - Essays, trans. Donald M. Frame
William Hazlitt - Sketches and Essays
William Hazlitt - Literary Remains
Popper - Selections
Carlson's Guide to Landscape Painting
Drawing - Daniel Mendelowitz
Ruskin - Selections
William Blake - The Complete Works
A couple of other books on drawing
S.J. Perelman - The most of S.J. Perelman
A clipboard with sheets of paper for scribbling thoughts in the middle of the night.

This lists represents what I put back on the bed after I made it. Another stack almost as big was relegated to the floor for being boring. That stack included The Wings of The Dove.

Why the drawing books? They used to have a magical effect. I would read about drawing and look at the illustrations and get completely absorbed. They were perfect, they were like thinking about nothing while having something to look at. But in the last five or six months they seem to have lost their mojo. So I hardly look at them. I just keep them there in the hope that they will put me to sleep again. Also they make a good stand for my computer when I bring it to bed with me, which I am ashamed to say I do, too too often.

Two mornings ago Daddy's dog woke me up at about 4 a.m. to go out. She has to take phenobarbitol for seizures and it makes her drink a lot of water and pee. I got up, took her out and then went back to bed. About an hour later my father got up for work. As he always does he took his dog out for a walk. My dog, Sweetie, will not go with them as she refuses to go out of the house without me. Well all I can tell you is that my dreams were, some time later, sort of penetrated with the sound of a dog barking. It was going on for a while before it woke me. I got up and it was Sweetie, sort of running up and down the apartment and barking up a storm. I looked through the peephole in the front door and my father was standing in the hall. He had forgotten his keys and locked himself out and had been banging on the door to no effect except the mad barking of Sweetie. His dog, Misha, who was out in the hall with him, was so disturbed by the commotion that she was trying to run out of the building and was down near the door at the furthest extremity of her leash. I opened the door.

"That must have been some deep sleep you were having," my father said very, very drily.

I finished The Golden Bowl today. Why am I reading so much Henry James? Think big fat novel. Think page counts. I believe that the Golden Bowl is the novel of his that I will hate the most. I really am not trying to be perverse when I tell you that my sympathies were so completely with the wrong people in the book that the supposedly happy ending made me just peeved. I got down to the last few chapters, the ones where things actually move at the pace of actual human beings, albeit very slow ones, and as I got to the end of each I was thinking, "All right, come on now, bring it back around." But he never did, the bastard.

Audio Tolstoy

Bob sent me this link. It's a recording of Tolstoy himself, the actual voice of Leo Tolstoy, people.

I did not listen to it because it is a zip file, which I cannot open on a Mac, evidently. But anyone who is using a PC should give it a go and report back here. Especially if your Russian isi functional. Bob just came back from Moscow with lots of Russian audio materials to study with and figures he'll understand them in about 10 years. He has, so far, recognized that a Pushkin short story, otherwise incomoprehensible, has the devil in it. The thing is I can't remember any Pushkin stories with the devil in them. Maybe he was playing it backways...

Update: I did manage to listen to it. What happens if you click on the link is you download a bunch of mp3 files. It's files, not streaming. Which means that they will take up hard drive space but you've probably got lots and lots of it. Can't tell if he's talking about the devil though.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006


Links to some other people, blogs and sites added on the right. Suggestions are welcome if not, for any number of reasons sensible and silly, not always implemented. Just ignore the links that say "Edit-Me." They are works in progress. So is the list.