Tuesday, June 11, 2019


 Jean-Luc Godard, Breathless (a film)

Valeria Luiselli, Lost Children Archive 

Andres Resendez, The Other Slavery

Karl Jacoby, Shadows at Dawn

Richard Slotkin, Fatal Environment


 [Apologies for the silence. It's a long story; suffice to say, it's good to be back and writing].

Thanks to the Criterion Collection now having gone online, I have been able to rewatch one of my favorite scenes in all of movie history, a scene from Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless. In this part of the film, Jean Seberg and Jean Paul Belmondo are crammed together in the narrow space of Seberg's character's tiny hotel room, smoking furiously, arguing, flirting, thinking aloud the kinds of existential thoughts Parisians were bound to think in the 1960's. Godard himself pushed the wheelchair in which Raul Coutard sat filming--that's how claustrophobic the scene feels.  Belmondo, a cheap hoodlum, having impulsively shot a policeman, is on the run, hiding out with an unwitting American student and aspiring writer, played perfectly by the ingenue Seberg.  In the end, Seberg's Patricia Franchini betrays Michel Poiccard, who is killed by the police.  It's a great film, and, in 1960, it changed the course of cinema history by adopting the techniques--low lighting, handheld cameras, documentary style, long scenes full of closeups and thick with dialogue--that we associate with French "New Wave" cinema.

What makes the film especially poignant for me is the real-life story of Jean Seberg, who was haunted by the FBI for her support of the Black Panthers--stalked, photographed, libeled--until the Iowa-born expat who lived most of her adult life in Paris took her own life.  J. Edgar Hoover took as great an interest in investigating Seberg as he did in looking into the life of Martin Luther King.  His FBI agents scurrilously accused Seberg of having a child out of wedlock by one of the Panthers, demonstrating again Hoover's creepy obsession with "race mixing," sex, and black males. 

The thought of Seberg harried to a lonely death from an overdose of barbiturates--her suicide note said, "Forgive me. I can no longer live with my nerves"--for sending money to the Panthers seems emblematic of a more terrible story that I have been reading about these past several months. It's the story of America's self-created myth of a white Protestant nation; the internalized and perverted version of the "city upon a hill" rolled together with the myth of manifest destiny and godly providence, leavened with the poisons of slavery, racism, and greed.  Seberg was just one of millions of victims of a crusade to destroy any threat to a mythical country, one that existed in the minds of men whose imaginations were unconstrained by history or ethics. I can't untangle all of the strands of this story yet, but Valeria Luiselli's extraordinary new novel goes as far as anything I have read in coming to grips with this tangled history.

Here is where the story begins: On the border between the empire of the United States and the empire of Spain--this was long before the United States conquered what was then the northern third of Mexico in 1848--a state of nature prevailed. Beginning in the sixteenth-century, the northern Sonora on both sides of the Rio Grande was a source of Indian slaves for the Spanish, whose mines in Hispaniola and Mexico ground up slave labor with ruthless efficiency.  The story of this other slavery is told in Andres Resendez's The Other Slavery, a book that shatters many myths about the Spanish conquest of the New World.  For one thing, Christopher Columbus wasn't only intent on making a fortune in gold; he was also the first slave-trader of the New World, and his plans to enslave the entire population of the Caribbean were thwarted only by Queen Isabella's opposition to the enslavement, rather than the Christianization of the Indians. Resendez's account of the history of the enslavement of the Indians helped me to make sense of something I had always found troubling, namely the canonical account of Indian genocide in the Americas as being due to microbes, an account that largely exculpates the Spanish, and later, the British, from responsibility for the catastrophic demographic collapse of the indigenous population of the New World.  There is no doubting the impact of European disease on an Indian population lacking in exposure to smallpox, measles, and other infectious diseases; however, the Spanish and the British also instituted practices--revolving around impressed labor--that precipitated the destruction of the Indians. The Spanish remained ambivalent about Indian slavery thanks to critics of the practice like Bartolome de Las Casas, but the need for laborers in the mines and on the encomiendas (grants of Indian labor) in northern Mexico led the Crown to find tortuous scholastic justifications for Indian indenture or slavery.  Here I was reminded of the position of Mississippi Delta cotton planters who found themselves, after the Civil War, scrambling for ways to keep African Americans from emigrating north, including actively curtailing the Klan's racial violence and easing, ever so slightly, the odious racial practices we associate with the rest of Mississippi.  In any case, the Spanish, needing labor, ignored the strictures of the Crown, waged "just wars" against the Indians in order to take prisoners of war, or simply enslaved peaceful Indians and sold them to the mines, where the Indian lives were short and horrible.

Image from the1872 Skeleton Cave Massacre, Salt River Canyon
And then there was the war against the "savages." Here I have learned most from Karl Jacoby and Resendez, whose books, by the way, provide excellent background to Cormac McCarthy's important novel Blood Meridian. This is of course a long story, and for my purposes--a review of The Lost Children Archive--suffice to say that Indians were considered savage in direct proportion to their resistance to the Spanish/Mexican/North American conquest of their lands.  The Apaches therefore were the tribe most in need of elimination. Hence the Camp Grant massacre, a story vividly and powerfully told in Jacoby's Shadows at Dawn.  The Camp Grant massacre was a relatively late event in the story of Indian dislocation, enslavement, and extirpation (1871), but reading Resendez and Jacoby back-to-back lays out with clarity and precision the continuity of an Indian policy pursued on both sides of the Gila and Rio Grande Rivers by successive generation of Spanish, Mexican, and North American governments.  If one wishes to dig more deeply into the fate of the Indians of the Southwest, don't neglect Richard Slotkin's Fatal Environment, volume two in his "gunfighter nation" trilogy. Here Slotkin lays out the development of the American identity as it was forged in the blood of the "savages" of the West. Slotkin's isn't Turner's heroic march from Atlantic to Pacific but a nightmare of violence more in the vein of Cormac McCarthy than Thomas Jefferson's agrarian utopianism.

Border wars, Indian massacres, truth telling and memory, love and commitment, parents and children--Valeria Luiselli weaves all of these themes and more into a novel that is so smart, so fresh and surprising, so unforgettable, that now, deep into my second reading, I am still marking up the book, making marginal notes, running off to find books to help me more deeply understand what Luiselli is telling me.

I have read three of her books already: The Lost Children Archive: Faces in the Crowd, Sidewalks (reflective essays full of surprises), and Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in 40 Questions, a kind of workbook for The Lost Children Archive.

A 'blended family'--mother and daughter, father and son--buy a Volvo and set off on a month-long car trip from New York to Arizona, to Apacheria, the vast desert extending from west Texas across southern New Mexico and Arizona which was once the home of the Apache. The parents are documentarians, that is, they produce documentaries based on sound recordings.  The husband--Lusielli uses the terms "husband," "boy," and "girl" rather than names, thus allowing the family to become representative and keeping the story from falling into the trap of banality--specializes in the world's soundscape (bird calls, traffic noise), while the wife, who is also unnamed in the book, records voices, conversations, and interviews.  With this simple distinction, Luiselli begins to reveal the fissures in the family that reflect fissures--chasms--in the world outside the tiny space of the automobile.  (Claustrophobia within vast spaces: this was something Lusielli made me think about, just as Godard had me considering how human interactions shift with locale). The husband's mind is rooted in the past, in the destruction of the Apache, in the stories of Indian resistance to the "white eyes," while the wife can think only of the lost children, the immigrant boys and girls who wander in the desolate spaces of the southwest.  This tension between past and present, between the husband's righteous anger and the wife's compassion reveals itself in the daily interactions of the family, in their fleeting moments of camaraderie and in their far more frequent bouts of brooding silence. The family is collapsing, and yet neither wife nor husband is willing to say so. Only the boy, aged ten, and one of the novel's two narrators, is able to face the truth.

Along the empty road, in the mostly silent car, the Archives, the boxes of memory, are unpacked. In them one finds books--Susan Sontag's journals, Geronimo's autobiography, maps of the desert terrain, immigrant mortality reports ("Nuria Huertas-Fernandez, Female, age 9, COD: hyperthermia, dehydration"), postcards, sound recordings, notebooks waiting to be filled.  The boxes of the children are empty, waiting to be filled with their own perceptions of the trip. The boy, an aspiring documentarian himself, takes streaky Polaroids along the way, and filters through these crude images an alternative story of the journey, one that looks inward at the family's dissolution.

Luiselli blends with perfect pitch the mundane details of a road trip--where the family eats, where they sleep--with poignant observations on the horror of lost children, the growing distance the wife feels from her husband and children, the story of the great border that divides not only countries but cultures and histories.  It's a tour de force, rich in visual and psychological description, with a plot that takes a surprising shift when the narrator hands off storytelling duties to the ten-year-old boy.  If there is a single criticism of the book, I suppose it might be of the remarkable sensitivity and intelligence of a ten-year-old; then again, Lusielli is so skillful a writer that you are prepared long before the final, luminescent chapters for the shift in point of view.

If you wish to think about borders, or the crisis now unfolding in the American southwest, you can do no better than read this extraordinary novel.

George Ovitt (June 10, 2019)

Friday, March 29, 2019

An Insidious Entrapment

A Woman’s Story and A Frozen Woman by Annie Ernaux

In an opening smartly reminiscent of the first lines of Camus’ novel The Stranger, the French writer Annie Ernaux begins A Woman’s Story (Une femme), her spare, deeply affecting memoir-novel of her relationship with her late mother, with the simple declaration:

My mother died on Monday 7 April in the old people’s home attached to the hospital at Pontoise, where I had installed her two years previously. The nurse said over the phone: ‘Your mother passed away this morning, after breakfast.’ It was around ten o’clock.

Yet the story she tells in this terse, laconic style, a style she calls écriture plate, is anything but detached, anything but absurd, as she struggles earnestly to see and make sense of her proud, self-sufficient mother, a woman for whom, all her life, she felt a profound ambivalence, a troubling mixture of love, hate, guilt, frustration, and pride. In short it is the story of daughters and mothers everywhere—powerfully, honestly told. 

Having read A Woman’s Story in a single sitting (it is just 92 pages long), I began Ernaux’s novel A Frozen Woman (Femme gelée) that same night and was even more impressed with the story, even more enamored with her style.

In brief, the novel charts Ernaux’s awakening as a teenage girl to the bourgeois realities in store for her as a young woman. Hemmed in at an early age by society’s expectations for her, the unnamed narrator suddenly finds herself a settled, intellectually stifled thirty-year-old woman with a husband and two children, trapped—like a fly in web—in the very life she’d struggled so hard to avoid. It is a poignant, familiar, finally harrowing tale, a twisted Bildungsroman in which, by the end, she can only gape in amazement at the woman she’s become:

"Just on the verge, just. Soon I’ll have one of those lined, pathetic faces that horrify me at the beauty parlor when I see them titled back over the shampooing sink, eyes closed. In how many years? On the verge of sagging cheeks and wrinkles that can no longer be disguised.
                                                          Already me, that face."

Peter Adam Nash

Friday, March 15, 2019

Is It A Scandal? An Economic Diversion

The Passions and the Interests, Albert O. Hirschman

The Great Transformation, Karl Polanyi

Voltaire's Bastards, John Ralston Saul

While nearly everyone is familiar, usually at second or third hand, with Adam Smith's famous justification of self-interest as the most rational way to organize economic life ("It is thus that the private interests and passions of individuals naturally dispose them to turn their stock towards the employments which in the ordinary cases are most advantageous to the society," and so forth), fewer readers are aware of this passage, generally ignored by the defenders of free-market capitalism:

"These are the disadvantages of a commercial spirit. the minds of men are contracted, and rendered incapable of elevation. Education is despised, or at least neglected, and the heroic spirit is almost utterly extinguished. To remedy these defects would be an object worthy of serious attention."

I was reminded of this passage in The Wealth of Nations while rereading Albert Hirschman's seminal essay The Passions and the Interests, a rereading prompted by the college-admissions scandal that broke this past week.  The spectacle of wealthy families bribing college coaches, SAT and ACT tutors and anyone else who could advance the chances of their (dull-witted) children gaining admission to America's elite colleges and universities--USC, Georgetown, Yale, etc.--reminded me yet again of how unlikely it is that, despite the optimistic predictions of Montesquieu, Steuart, Smith and other political thinkers of the Enlightenment, human folly will ever by tamed by self-interest.

Hirschman's compact essay relates the history of the idea that human passions--primarily greed and violence--can be redirected into self-interested economic activity.  From Francis Bacon to Adam Smith men who saw in mercantilism an irrational centralization of political and economic power in the hands of absolute monarchs, a compressing of power that resulted, as it must, in constant wars over limited resources, developed what they believed was the antidote: the enlightened, rational, and unregulated pursuit of self-interest.  Adam Smith is the most famous of the proponents of this view, though as the quotation above indicates, he was able to see the moral risks of self-interest more clearly than many of his disciples.

The "inoculation" theory of the social and economic order has never made sense to me. The idea that you encourage individuals to cultivate their worst instincts in a framework that ends up benefiting society as a whole seems as irrational as the Victorian idea that if you have an erotic impulse you either bottle it up or redirect it, usually as violence against dark-skinned people (e.g. Passage to India).  Neither viewpoint places much hope in the possibility of human self-improvement through education, in the potential of a just government to constructively overrule the irrational passions of its citizens, or in the existence of altruistic impulses that might very well be as deeply embedded in human character as greed and vanity.

Adam Smith felt that capitalism was likely to channel our passions into socially constructive modes of economic production, but he also recognized that human material needs are limited, and that most of what industry produces is not needed for survival but instead is a form of personal aggrandizement.  What we end up with under capitalism, what we have always ended up with, are self-interested people who game the system for themselves and who have not the slightest concern for the well-being of others. (Any economic system that could lead a judge--a judge!--to placidly summarize Paul Manafort's life as "blameless" has something wrong with it.)

A cursory reading of history confirms this as a fact, not an ideological pronouncement. One might rationalize this truism (if one is capable of recognizing it as such) by saying something like, "Well, sure, but look at all the good things we have," a view that I think of as the "breaking-a-few-eggs" theory of history. Easy to say if you know you aren't going to be one of the eggs. But why not argue instead that we might have all these good things without breaking any eggs at all? (See below)

It baffles me when the talking heads and editorial writers wring their hands, as they have all week, over the college admissions scandal. (By the way, if you type the word "college" into your search engine the first link to appear will be "college admissions scandal.") Well, what did we expect?  If you set up a system of economics and social life that rewards greed and egotism, how can you be surprised by daily examples of greedy, egotistical behavior? If Masha Gessen were a talking head and offered her view of American higher education, Americans would express shock that such a "radical" perspective was allowed to be aired. Have a look at her article, linked below, and see if her interpretation makes sense.


That's a picture of Karl Polanyi, whose 1944 book, The Great Transformation has helped me to think more clearly (I hope) about politics, economics, and history.  Contrary to the classical/liberal view that self-regulating markets arose necessarily out of the developing conditions of economic history, Polanyi painstakingly demonstrates that the so-called free market, with its alleged reconciliation of the passions and the interests, was but one alternative, and that many societies have organized production and exchange along social and reciprocal lines, rather than through the deliberate optimization of personal self-interest.  The "great transformation" came when, in the eighteenth century, a particular set of economic and social relations, born in a time of relative peace and described with canonical certitude by Adam Smith and others, became an article of nearly religious faith.  The next time you are relaxing with friends try saying, "the self-regulating capitalist market, far from being the inevitable by-product of economic history, was only one option for organizing production and exchange, and not, as history shows, the best one," and see how quickly you are dismissed as a "socialist" or worse.  Every FOX commentator will tell you that Marx was wrong in seeing communism as the inevitable end of history (as he was), but suggest to them that there is no reason to see the "free market" as any more "inevitable" and you will be called a crackpot or get punched in the nose (e.g. the blowhard Bill O'Reilly on the writings of Robert Reich).

Here's a snippet of Polanyi: 

"To allow the market mechanism to be sole director of the fate of human beings and their natural environment, indeed, even of the amount and use of purchasing power, would result in the demolition of society. For the alleged commodity 'labor power' cannot be shoved about, used indiscriminately, or even left unused, without affecting also the human individual who happens to be the bearer of this particular commodity. In disposing of a [person's] labor power the system [the free market] would, incidentally, dispose of the physical, psychological, and moral entity 'man' attached to that tag. Robbed of the protective covering of cultural institutions, human beings would perish from the effects of social exposure; they would die as the victims of acute social dislocation through vice, perversion, crime and starvation. Nature would be reduced to its elements, neighborhoods and landscapes despoiled, rivers polluted, military safety jeopardized, the power to produce food and raw materials destroyed." (GT, p. 73)

Human beings are more than their passions and interests.  Remarkable, really, that most economists can't grasp this fact. I suppose every astronomer (as Walt Whitman reminds us) sees human beings as dust, and every cardiologist as a beating heart. Dear Milton Friedman: Communities are more than markets. And culture is more than money. And a good life, as even Adam Smith saw, is more than a totting up of possessions. Dear Lori Loughlin: Why not send your underachieving child to trade school? Better to be an honest electrician than a crooked TV actor or Instagram doyen. Way better.

Speaking of Ms. Lori Loughlin. She wanted her daughter to attend an "elite" university.  Ms. Loughlin and her husband have lots of money and so they did what (I hope) only a very few people with lots of money do--they bought their daughter the credentials she needed to join the elite at an elite university so that, upon graduating (presumably after more bribes and more cheating), she would take her place among the elite (and the rich, it goes without saying).

No one has done more to uncover the pretensions and perversions of elitism in supposedly democratic societies than the Canadian political theorist John Ralston Saul.  Claiming access to what is called "rationality," elites have, since the eighteenth century, dominated society.  Because "rationality" is nothing but a neutral sounding word for ideology, access to reason has become the holy grail of economic and social power in capitalist societies.  Graduate from Harvard or Stanford and you have been baptized into the minuscule population of true elites, and you are henceforth immune from the oversight of the masses: "There is no language available for outsiders who wish to criticize [elites]." How can an ordinary person challenge the policies of a pharmaceutical company, of Exxon/Mobil, of his local cable provider, of the wunderkind Wall Street broker who leveraged his house out from under him?  The junior college graduate, or, worse, one of the thirty-percent of Americans who don't attend college at all, has no place to stand, no voice to raise, no words to address those who tower above him in credentials, in contacts, and in social capital.  This loss of public power is what moves the voiceless to the exercise of private power and violence.  And to the support of demagogues.

Those who attend elite universities belong to a club.  They may be nasty to one another, but, in the end, when it's time for cocktails, Donald Trump (Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania) will be more likely to be sitting down with Hillary Clinton (Wellesley) than with you or me.

I pity the poor mentsh who works hard, plays by the rules, saves her pennies for the kids' college, goes into debt, who can't afford expensive tutors, and who would be mortified to learn her son or daughter had cheated on the SAT's or faked athletic credentials.  As one commentator, dismissing the seriousness of the college admissions scandal put it: "This is the way the game is played." It's callous to say so, but, unfortunately, he's right.   

George Ovitt (Pie/Pi Day, 2019)



Friday, March 8, 2019

Reimagining (later in life) D.H. Lawrence

Selected Letters of D. H. Lawrence, James T. Boulton, editor

Mornings in Mexico, D. H. Lawrence

Sons and Lovers, D. H. Lawrence

Women in Love, D. H. Lawrence

Out of Sheer Rage, Geoff Dyer 

"The world is as it is. I am as I am. We don't fit very well." (to Catherine Carswell, May 18, 1924)

He fit not at all, not anywhere.  His life was a dizzying procession through temporary lodgings, perennial poverty, ill-health, and flashes of writing, sometimes brilliant, sometimes not so much. The letters--seven volumes of them--are wonderful, better than the novels, none of which moved me when I first read them in college, but all of which have shown me more as I began to reread them in my eighth decade.  (So much is revealed that was kept hidden when we were young; then I read to understand myself, now I read to understand others). Best are the travel books. Lawrence was a keen observer, and his agility in blending objective observation with personal reflection makes his non-fiction more readable than his oftentimes mawkish stories about lust and love.

Here's Lawrence wandering Italy's ancient and sacred hills:

"But gradually, one after another looming shadowily [sic] under their hoods, the crucifixes seem to create a new atmosphere over the whole of the countryside, a darkness, a weight in the air that is so unnaturally bright and rare with the reflection from the snows above, a darkness hovering just over the earth. So rare and unearthly the light is, from the mountains, full of strange radiance. then every now and again recurs the crucifix, at the turning of an open, grassy road, holding a shadow and a mystery under its pointy hood." (from Twilight in Italy, 1916)

There's more eroticism in Lawrence's descriptions of nature than in the stormy couplings of Gudrun and Gerald.  And far less melodrama.  From Sons and Lovers onward, Lawrence was given to precise, microscopic examinations of his inner life.  To say he was a romantic or that his passions prevailed over his intellect seems false: the letters and the travel books show Lawrence to have been thoughtful, with a remarkable memory for books and ideas, with an enviable ability to blend feeling and thinking.  "I believe that a man is converted when first he hears the low, vast murmur of human life, troubling his hitherto unconscious self. ... Most [men] are born again on entering manhood; then they are born to humanity, to a consciousness of all the laughing, and the never-ceasing murmur of pain and sorrow that comes from the terrible multitudes of brothers." (Letter to Rev. Robert Reid, December 3, 1907).  The "laughter" to which men and women are reborn is surely ironic, for while there is pleasure and joy in Lawrence, he is never unaware of life's tragic dimensions. He couldn't be, given his health and the struggle he imposed on himself by declining to live as a comfortable bourgeois. And, frankly, there are some questions to be answered about Lawrence's commitment to "the terrible multitudes of brothers."

It was the provocative wag Geoff Dyer who forced me to recover from my long disinterest in Lawrence.  Reading his unclassifiable, Bernhard-infected rant/meditation on everything not about Lawrence and just sort of about Lawrence, I knew that I'd lost again.  Hard as I try to put away interests--there's only so much time--someone comes along and writes a book that I can't ignore, and that book leads to another, ad infinitum.  I hope that I am done with Karl Ove, and Founder bios, and Cormac McCarthy, but Out of Sheer Rage has made Lawrence, once again, irresistible.  Dyer, if you don't know his work, is a fabulist, a Restoration wit, an essayist in a league of his own (Zadie Smith meets W.T. Vollman)--funny, self-deprecating, vulgar and refined, lyrical and wise.  His pursuit of the ghost of Lawrence--from Taos to Sicily to Mexico to Eastwood--is evidence of enviable literary obsession.  What's the point of reading books if you don't allow yourself to become obsessed with certain writers? We do it with musicians and hobbies--I know people who "followed" the Grateful Dead for years, a few who are Miles Davis completists, and others who collect beer glasses from every micro-brewery they visit (me).  So why not chase Lawrence around the globe, read his letters obsessively, and spend years thinking of all the ways this unpleasant, brilliant, tubercular neurotic changed your life?

I feel especially engaged by Lawrence due to his having lived, thanks to Mable Dodge Luhan and weak lungs, on a small ranch outside of Taos, New Mexico.  He's buried near San Cristobal, and the letters suggest that this austere landscape meant more to Lawrence than any other. The Lawrence ranch isn't much to look at; he and Freida lived in a ramshackle cabin that looks about to collapse, but the surrounding desert and mountains invite the contemplative viewpoint one finds in the writing Lawrence did during his sojourns in New Mexico.

I first saw the shrine--for that is what it is--in the early 1990's when I was in the throes of my obsession with visiting writers' homes and grave sites.  On a warm summer afternoon, the air still and the sky a blue so deep you sensed, at once, the immensity of the world, there was a holiness conveyed by the plain cross and white-washed memorial that I think Lawrence would have approved. Of course every pilgrimage feels anti-climactic.  We ask ourselves if is this all that is left of the person whose books have so moved us? But if we carry away a memory of the place it turns out to have surprising resilience, and this memory gives the books a depth of feeling we hadn't experienced before.


In preparing for a spring visit to Chihuahua in Old Mexico, I have been reading Lawrence's Mornings in Mexico.  It's nearly always summer in Lawrence. As "Paul Morel" he must have tired of the coal-black skies of Eastwood, of England's grimness, and we know for certain that he tired of his fellow Englishmen:

"Curse the blasted, jelly-boned swines, the slimy, the belly-wriggling invertebrates, the miserable sodding rotters, the flaming sods, the snivelling,[sic] dribbling, dithering palsied pulse-less lot that make up England today. . . . God, how I hate them! God curse them, funkers. God blast them, wishwash. Exterminate them, slime."

Always it was summer, and he bothered to learn the names of the flowers and trees, paid close attention to the birds and to the clarity of the air.  Often we find him sitting still, jotting notes or writing letters--what a loss the end of letter writing has been! He doesn't say too much about what he's eating or drinking or wearing, it's the passing impressions on his lively mind that we are privy to, and to what are often stilted conversations with the "natives." 

Martin Amis, not jolly himself, has described Lawrence as the most ill-tempered of English writers.  We know that Lawrence struck his wife (she was larger and she hit him back). He disliked Jews, wrote cringing sentences about Mexicans (Rosalino, Lawrence's faithful Indian servant in Mornings in Mexico is "a dumb-bell, as the Americans would say"), and was as often unkind and gossipy as not.  He had a Freudian dossier of sexual hang-ups--his is the finest example of an Oedipus complex since Hamlet, and that he loved men more than women is a reasonable inference from the letters and fiction.  

His writing can be overwrought, sentimental, incoherent:

"[Miriam]knew she felt in a sort of bondage to him, which she hated because she could not control it. She hated her love for him from the moment it grew too strong for her. And, deep down, she had hated him because she loved him and he dominated her. She had resisted his denomination. She had fought to keep herself free of him in the last issue. And she was free of him, even more than he of her."  Sons and Lovers, Part 2, Chapter 11. 

I find most objectionable the way in which his narrators project themselves into the minds of everyone around them, creating a world that existed solely to mirror Lawrence. A lot of writers do this, but Sons and Lovers and Women in Love feel emotionally claustrophobic, as if there were one voice speaking and everyone else was just moving her lips. This habit imparts a sameness to the novels, a predictability in terms of character and plot.  And Lawrence's women are sexualized in the way a man might imagine or wish them to be,  and they are also, like Lawrence, tormented by sex. His men are austere and predatory, not often admirable.  Nothing wrong with sex, but what seemed tantalizing when I was in the my twenties--this was long before ubiquitous porn or even the tedium of sex-obsessed sit coms--is now boring, even juvenile. There are times when I imagine Lawrence sniggering over his foolscap, shocking the Puritans, working himself up for Freida. (Joyce's letters to Nora are a nice cure for the flowery pudenda and penises of Lawrence). 

Henry Miller mirrors Lawrence's preoccupations, his fear (?) of women, his narcissism.  There might be a scholarly book comparing the two, something richer than Sexual Politics, but if there is, I don't know about it. Miller grew beyond the Tropics and the Rosy Crucifixion trilogy, but he remained a dirty old man right to the end of his long life. Both writers were strange, isolated men who appeared to yearn for companionship and yet disdained those who provided it. (See Miller's letters to Anais Nin). Both broke the rules and challenged taboos that now seem incomprehensible. Both had to go to Paris to get their books published, as if that were a hardship!


John Middleton Murry, second husband of Katherine Mansfield, flogged Lawrence in his book D. H. Lawrence (1930).  Lawrence called Murray "an obscene bug sucking my life away," and Murry repaid the complaint, finding Lawrence domineering and self-centered. Murry and Mansfield both showed up in Lawrence's novels, and the Frieda/DH/Murry/Mansfield quartet is the subject of a group biography by Sydney Janet Kaplan, Circulating Genius that I hope to read soon. Since Murry's book, Lawrence's reputation both as a man and as a writer has undergone several transformations.  I find much to admire in the writing, but, with some reservations, I have to agree with Amis--Lawrence is a difficult person to warm up to.

"Sheer rage," Dyer's title is from Lawrence's Letters, and it's a phrase that turns up often in the correspondence. From rage comes art, of a kind. Would that his sheer rage been leavened with some of Frieda's exuberance, or Geoff Dyer's playfulness.  Lawrence wrote in order to be saved--I believe he was religious, despite his protestations to the contrary.  And he found his version of the divine in "nature" though not of the romantic's sort. He appears never to have made his peace with other people.  He was a stranger wherever he went, an emigre Englishmen looking askance at the "wogs," an uptight libertine, dry and judgmental. But, for now--he's fascinating. 


George Ovitt (9 March 2019)

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

‘The Most Surreal Place on Earth’

The Mexico City Reader, edited by Rubén Gallo

Mexico, D.F., La Ciudad. The oldest capital in the Americas, contemporary Mexico City is a sprawling megalopolis that all but beggars description, spread out, as it is, over 579 square miles and home to some twenty-one million people, speaking a mixture of Spanish, English, Nahuatl, Otomi, Mixtec, Zapotec, and Mazahuaare.

In The Mexico City Reader, editor Rubén Gallo has compiled an urgent and eclectic anthology of croncias—short hybrid texts—from the last thirty years about life in one of the world’s most vibrant, chaotic, delirious cities, a city André Breton called the most surreal place on earth. Writes Gallo: 

The writers included in this selection not only live in Mexico City but have made it one of the most prominent themes in their work. They are avid flâneurs, persistent explorers of the most recondite corners of the capital, even at a time when highways, expressways, and periféricos have left many parts of the city inaccessible to pedestrians. This collection of varied texts about life on the city’s streets aims to replicate the experience of walking through the streets of Mexico City, where one’s five senses are constantly bombarded by the cultural contradictions that make life in the capital unpredictable.

The history of the Mexico City flâneur is as old as the city itself. From the poems of the pre-Columbian poet-king Nezahaulcóyotl to the reflections-observations of Bernardo del Balbuena, Fanny Calderón del la Barca, and Alexander Humboldt to the brilliant, sometimes darkly stirring testimonies of Artemio de Valle-Arizpe, Salvador Novo, Carlos Fuentes, Gonzalo Celorio, David Lida, and Francisco Goldman, the city has long been a source of fascination for writers—native and foreign alike.

Covering topics as varied as neighborhoods, the Metro, monuments, eating and drinking, maids, urban planning, corruption and bureaucracy, waste disposal, and the morgue, The Mexico City Reader represents a complex, humane, nearly kaleidoscopic perspective on what is surely one of my favorite cities in the world.


Peter Adam Nash

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

"The Death of the Heart"

Go Tell It On The Mountain, and other works by James Baldwin

"I Am Not Your Negro," a film by Raoul Peck 

"Black Body," Teju Cole

"James Baldwin's Istanbul," Suzy Hansen

David Leeming, James Baldwin: A Life

From Teju Cole we learn that James Baldwin, who struggled for eight years with the manuscript of his first novel, Go Tell It On The Mountain, finished the book at the chalet of Lucien Happersberger's family in the Swiss Alps, in the town of Leukerbad, in 1951.  "From all available evidence no black man had ever set foot in this tiny Swiss village before I came," Baldwin wrote, and this sense of dispossession, of belonging no where because of the color of his skin, of being in possession of nothing but his black body--bereft of the Great Traditions of the (white) Western World--followed Baldwin throughout his life-long exile from America.  In his essay on his stay in Leukerbad, "Stranger in the Village," Baldwin wrote:

"These people [the Swiss] cannot be, from the point of view of power, strangers anywhere in the world; they have made the modern world, in effect, even if they do not know it. The most illiterate among them is related, in a way that I am not, to Dante, Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Aeschylus, Da Vinci, Rembrandt, and Racine; the cathedral at Chartres says something to them which it cannot say to me, as indeed would New York's Empire State Building, should anyone here ever see it. Out of their hymns and dances come Beethoven and Bach. Go back a few centuries and they are in their full glory--but I am in Africa, watching the conquerors arrive."

Cole distances himself from Baldwin on this point: for Cole, the legacy of the the world's culture is his birthright as much as anyone's, but this, I'm afraid, is a matter of temperament and not a fact of history. All of Baldwin's writing, from the lyricism of Go Tell It On The Mountain to the realism and prophetic insights of Another Country, is a struggle against his conviction that "the American Negro has arrived at his identity by virtue of the absoluteness of his estrangement from his past." The sum total of Baldwin's novels and essays create a realistic--bitter yet truthful--version of the African-American past. Our fashionable cant about "inclusion" and our presumed belief in "diversity" wilt before Baldwin's decades-old but intensely relevant and clear-eyed view of the "Negro problem."

Baldwin's FBI file describes him as a person "likely to commit acts inimical to the interests of the United States," as a "person who has traveled abroad," and as someone who was rumored to be "an homosexual" at a time when the line between homosexuality and communism was thin indeed.  The Klansmen who savagely beat and tortured and murdered African American men and women did not fall under the paranoid gaze of J. Edgar Hoover, but Baldwin and his friends seem all to have amassed hefty Bureau files.

In Raoul Peck's film, Baldwin speaks with quiet eloquence of the horrifying facts of American life: of white apathy, of moral bankruptcy, of the "death of the heart" that is manifest in the images of white power rallies from Birmingham, Alabama in 1963 to Ferguson, Missouri in 2014.  Progress?  To make the point that there's been none, director Peck overlays photographs of young African American's shot by the police in the last half-dozen years, lest we forget that our willingness to forget the past does nothing to erase it.

Baldwin's bitter words contrast with his gentle manner and with the luminous beauty of his prose.  He was articulate even when he was incensed, and one feels the quiet despair that underlay everything that he wrote.  His first novel, an autobiographical story that cut deeply into Baldwin's early life in Harlem, reads in parts like the King James Bible.  John, Baldwin's fictional self, receives a few coins for his birthday (late in the day, nearly forgotten, in images that feel freshly lifted from "Araby"), and for the first time in his life goes to the movies, not daring to breath, "He stared at the darkness around him, and at the profiles that gradually emerged from this gloom, which was so like the gloom of Hell. He waited for the darkness to be shattered by the light of the second coming, for the ceiling to creak upward, revealing, for every eye to see, the chariots of fire on which descended a wrathful God and all the host of Heaven."  So much of Baldwin's fiction is concerned with sin and redemption; he was willing to see himself as an imperfect being, a child of God, but shaped in large measure by a society that could only regard the color of his skin. In Baldwin's prose, from Go Tell It On the Mountain to If Beale Street Could Talk, one feels the weight of Baldwin's early fervor for the pulpit, his brief career as a street minister, a calling inspired by his stepfather.

 In his novel Compass, the French writer Mathias Enard imagines Baldwin during the latter's long sojourn in Istanbul.  Suzy Hansen writes,  '“I feel free in Istanbul,” Baldwin told his friend, the Turkish writer Yaşar Kemal. “That’s because you’re American,” Kemal replied. Baldwin loved the city. He combed through the sahaflar, the second-hand bookshops that line the streets around the Grand Bazaar, their dusty wares stacked on haphazard tables. He sat by the New Mosque, drinking tea out of tulip-shaped cups, playing backgammon, and watching the fishermen’s wooden boats launch into the dirty waters of the Golden Horn.'  Even more than Paris, the faded Turkish city was an escape from America's racism and cruelty, and "it was easier to be gay in Istanbul, easier to be black."

 But it was never easy for Baldwin, no matter where he lived.  While I admire David Leeming's biography of Baldwin--Leeming was a personal friend and had full access to Baldwin's papers--I wonder if Leeming makes too much of his subject's "search for his father" and not quite enough of the historical realities of America, in Harlem in particular, in the years leading up to World War II.  Who can forget the prophetic jeremiad of The Fire Next Time, with its assertion that all of America's woes are attributable to white America's pathologies and not to any characteristic of the Negro:

"The white man's unadmitted--and apparently, to him, unspeakable--private fears and longings are projected onto the Negro. The only way he can be released from the Negro's tyrannical power over him is to consent, in effect, to become black himself, to become part of that suffering and dancing country that he now watches wistfully from the heights of his lonely power and, armed with spiritual traveler's checks, visits surreptitiously after dark."

This seems right: how often is this fear of blackness that is, in fact, a fear of an emptiness within our (white) selves a justification for cruelty based on an abject failure of human sympathy?  "Therefore, a vast amount of the energy that goes into what we call the Negro problem is produced by the white man's profound desire not to be judged by those who are not white, not to be seen as he is, and at the same time a vast amount of the white anguish is rooted in the white man's equally profound need to be seen as he is, to be released from the tyranny of his mirror."  We know from James McPherson's Why They Fought that Confederate soldiers, who were mostly dirt poor and despised by the planter elite for whom the Civil War was a fight, above all else, for the preservation of African chattel slavery, took up arms against the Union to defend their superiority to black men.  And we know that even today, the shock troops of Klan and neo-Nazi racism are poor white men, themselves disenfranchised by corporate capitalism, who find in common cause in irrational hatred for a people with whom they have no contact.  Fear of blackness was a brilliant insight, one that came to Baldwin during his years of exile, particularly in Istanbul where the color of his skin meant as little as it ever would.

My favorite scene in Peck's unforgettable documentary shows Baldwin standing in front of an audience, gesturing mildly, and explaining the ways in which his life has mirrored the lives of millions of African Americans.  He turned this life, these lives, into enduring art and unforgettable polemic.

"Set thy house in order," the prophet Isaiah tells the King Hezekih, "for thou shalt die, and not live." And this message, that death comes for us all, and that it is in love and understanding that we make our peace with death, constitutes Baldwin's testimony in "Down From the Cross," written in 1962. "One is responsible to life," Baldwin wrote, "it is the small beacon in the terrifying darkness..."

George Ovitt (Presidents Day, 2019)  

Thursday, February 7, 2019

The Lucid Objects of Language

Education by Stone: Selected Poems by João Cabral de Melo Neto

The late Brazilian poet and diplomat, João Cabral de Melo Neto, was the leading voice of the post WWII Brazilian poets called the “Generation of ‘45”, a group whose work was best know for its austere and rigorous style. Known as “a poet of thingness”, João Cabral strove, in his poetry, for what has often been described as “a staunch formal righteousness” characterized by a rigid adherence to the description of images, actions, and things.

Here is a brief  sampling of his work:

The Table

The folded newspaper
on the simple table;
the tablecloth clean,
the dishes white

and fresh like bread.

The green-skinned orange:
your unfailing landscape,
your open air, the sun
of your beaches: bright

and fresh like bread.

The knife that sharpened
your spent pencil;
your first book
whose cover is white

and fresh like bread.

And the verse born
of your living morning,
of your finished dream:
still warm, light

and fresh like bread.


There’s a man dreaming
on a beach, another
who remembers dates.
There’s a man running away
from a tree, another missing
his boat or his hat.
There’s a man who’s a soldier,
another who acts like an airplane,
another who keeps forgetting
his time his mystery
his fear of the word veil.
And there’s yet another who,
stretched out like a ship, fell asleep.

 The Insomnia of Monsieur Teste

A lucidity which sees everything,
as if by lamp- or daylight,
and which, at nightfall, turns on
behind he eyelids of the tooth
of a sharp and skinless light,
extreme and serving for nothing:
a light so lucid it fools you
into thinking you can do everything.

The Nothing That Is

A sugarcane field is so vast
that all measures of it are vain.

It has the sea’s unending
wide-openness, defying

numbers and their ilk
to trap it in their assertions.

In the cane field one forgets
to measure anything at all,

for although it is populous,
its population is anonymous,

making it resemble a pregnancy
of nothingness, like the sea’s.

Peter Adam Nash

Saturday, January 26, 2019


Eye Contact, William Benton (essays on art)

The Museum of Modern Love, Heather Rose (a novel)

During the decade that I spent living in Washington, D.C., I visited the National Gallery several times a month, and Thomas Eakins's "Biglin Brothers Racing" (1872) grew to be the painting that meant most to me. Eakins's composition feels perfect--the postures of John and Barney are balanced as each prepares to dip his oar back into the water, and the care with which Eakins composed the background, visible only upon close inspection of the original, made me feel as if, in viewing the picture, I had fallen back in time to that day in May 1872 when the Biglins raced Harry Coulter and Lewis Cavitt along the smooth surface of the Schuylkill River.  Eakins painted the pair numerous times, and his study of (nearly) nude human figures, a study that gave him the skill to reproduce the musculature in the arms and legs of the straining oarsmen, eventually cost him his teaching position at the Pennsylvania Academy of of the Fine Arts.  I love Eakins's work, and, for reasons that are unclear to me, this painting in particular has been one that I have wanted to really and truly see.

We often look at pictures, but how often do we see them? We have to internalize the object, pull it off the wall and into our consciousness in the way that, from time to time, we pull a fictional character, or a poetic image, into ourselves, making it a part of the way we imagine the world. Most of the time I wander through museums reminding myself to pay careful attention; and then, in the Rembrandt room of the National Gallery, or in in front of the Kandinskys at the Guggenheim, or in the astonishing room that holds Monet's "Water Lily Pond" at the Art Institute, I don't have to remind myself at all, I become, as one must, fully attentive, present in my person in the way I always should be but almost never am.

Heather Rose's wonderful novel The Museum of Modern Love, which takes as its subject the famous Marina Abramovic piece The Artist is Present from 2010 (seen above), a performance work during which, for seventy-five days, Abramovic sat still and silent, inviting anyone who wished to sit opposite her and to immerse themselves in the commitment to truth that has defined Abramovic's work for decades. "Commitment to truth?" As Rose makes plain in her evocation of the performance as experienced through a cross-section of (fictional and real) individuals, it was indeed the "truth" that Abramovic was seeking, that is, the unmediated experience of looking into the eyes of another human being, without preconceptions, without judgement, outside of language, politics, and even time (those who sat could sit for as long as they liked; over 1500 people participated and three-quarters of million visited the gallery space where Abramovic sat).  Rose, a Tasmanian novelist, beautifully recreates the effect on the viewer of the raw experience of another's presence.  The central character, a musician whose own art has failed him, whose wife is dying, and whose daughter thinks him unfeeling, finds in Abramovic's stoic sitting a restoration of the values that had slipped from his grasp.

Like Rose, the poet and art critic William Benton is attuned to the life-changing power of art.  Most everyone enjoys looking at pretty pictures, but thinking about what these pictures mean to us, how they change us, is a rare gift.  Among the best essays on art I have ever read is Benton's "Prodigies," a concise recognition of the role played by children's art in the Modernist movement.  I thought about these sentences of Benton's as I was thumbing through the images in Sandler's Art of the Postmodern Era: "In 'The Dance I,' 1909, the anatomical inaccuracy in Matisse's line has vivid equivalents in the markings of a six-year-old. That no six-year-old could perceive how a departure from precise rendering redistributes energy across the canvas in a way that gives an allover aspect to the composition is what makes art Art [!]. It bears repeating: perception, not dexterity."

True in painting, true also in poetry and fiction--perception, not dexterity or talent.  Benton offers us insights into the making and seeing of art in each of the twenty-nine short pieces collected in Eye Contact.  So much art criticism, taking a cue perhaps from the ex cathedra style of Clement Greenberg, fails to consider how and why art become Art for the average viewer.  Greenberg's pronouncement "Value judgments constitute the substance of aesthetic experience" seems wrong-headed to me.  Of course value judgements are an important part of our experience of art--what are we to bother looking at?--but the substance of aesthetic experience must also include questions about meaning, about our inner transformation in the presence of beauty (however defined), about what in the world art does for us, how it unsettles us--"unsettles" in the sense that Heather Rose asks this question in The Museum of Modern Love.

Here's Benton on the solitary female figures of Nathan Oliveria, a comment that quickly laid to rest my own inability to make sense of this painter: "Oliveria's women are other. Their native element is mind. They owe their lineage to the formative welter of male imagination. The central position they occupy on the canvas has less to do with existential space than with immanent singularity." This seems exactly right.  Not that it matters, but I want to see pictures--not "correctly"--but with the greatest possible insight, and Benton, in his brief essays on Knobelsdorf, Gordon Baldwin, and Oliveria (artists whose work I have seen), and on James McGarrell, Edmund E. Niemann, and Sidney Nolan (artists of whom I knew nothing of before Benton), allowed me to search their work with renewed confidence that I wasn't shortchanging either them or myself.

 Not only is Benton a perceptive critic of art, and, in particular, of artist of whom one might know little, he is also a fine poet, as evidenced by his sensitive transformations of images into words:

Tree Trunks Reflected in Water 

Standing in a row
at the edge of the river,

those trees are the men.
I'm the water. I mimic the way

they look and what they do
in the sliding wind.


I take on the mannerisms, voices,
even the thought processes of others.

I despise my skin and can't escape or fully occupy it.
An empty insufficiency

forces me to act. I pool slowly, all
surface stars and self doubt.


The row of trunks

in a single motion

rakes through my life.

Eye Contact is published by Fomite (58 Peru St., Burlington, VT, 05401)

The Museum of Modern Love is published by Algonquin

George Ovitt (1/25/2019)

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

To Build a Road

Man As An End: A Defense of Humanism by Alberto Moravia

The only truly rational means is violence.

                                                                                Alberto Moravia

Now, more than ever before in my lifetime, it is money that is the nation’s Holy Writ, the people who manipulate it—the CEOs and CFOs, the brokers and accountants—our sages and savants. Indeed for many their reach, their vision, is oracular. Yet one needn’t be a prophet to understand that our adherence to this faith, this cult, has proven catastrophic in its impact on the environment, on our civic life, on our very understanding of what it means to be human.

While the base, reductive thinking of Wall Street was once restricted to the financial sector itself, to the hawking of stocks and bonds, to the humdrum vernacular of saving accounts and IRAs, it now has permeated every aspect of life in this country. Not only has this mercenary dogma redefined and subverted democratic governance, healthcare, publishing, sports, news, fashion, entertainment, policing, urban planning, public transportation, food systems, social services, national security, the military, water and land management, social media, the criminal justice system, and international relations, but it has even permeated the Arts and education, traditionally the bastions of civil, humanistic discourse.

The result is that now virtually every significant decision in the country is made (or at least highly influenced) by some man or woman with an MBA. Time and again their decisions are sold to us (for now everything is sold) as logical, rational (meaning tested, scientific, objective), as justly, even supremely, pragmatic. Just ask these ‘experts’, these mystagogues; they will show you the numbers on the page.

Of course to treat something—anything—‘objectively’, is to abstract it, deform it, to exempt it from the messy realm of human affairs, so as to make it manipulable, so as to make it useful, profitable. Look around you: nearly everything these days has been reduced to a ‘science’, a technique, a method to be mastered and exploited by rational means. A scam, a pyramid scheme, this ubiquitous corporate gospel is the ultimate realpolitik.  

If neo-capitalism (or anti-humanism) was a concern to Moravia in 1963, when he compiled this book, it (like the state of the environment today) is now a matter of despair. His warning is plain:

So we must have no illusions. We shall have an ever larger number of cheap, well-made consumer goods; our life will become more and more comfortable; and out arts, even the most demanding and difficult ones, indeed those especially, will become more and more accessible to the masses; and at the same time we shall feel more and more that at the heart of this prosperity lies nothingness or a fetishism which, like all fetishisms, is an end in itself and cannot be put to the service of man.

In his first essay, “Man As An End”, he goes further to say:

Since then [in Bismark’s Germany] the strides made by Machiavellianism have been triumphant, like a headlong, irresistible river that swells and increases in power thanks to the very obstacles it overcomes on its way. Machiavellianism now seems inevitable, it is taken for granted and seems to have no alternative. In the field of pure thought it appears invincible, and it is the ineluctable center towards which all roads in politics seem to lead… The only result of the universal and indiscriminate practice of Machiavellianism in modern times has been to provoke the two biggest wars in history and to bring infinite suffering and immense destruction on mankind.

Arguably the most powerful part of this book for me appears in his first and aforementioned essay, “Man As An End”, an essay and introduction in which Moravia, by way of an example, describes two approaches to building a road. The first, a method employed since the beginning of time, involves nothing less than an exhaustive study of the land and peoples through which the new road would pass. As the road is meant to serve them, such an approach makes sense. It follows that central to this approach must be the careful consideration of the landscape itself, the hills and mountains, the streams and rivers, the fishes and mammals and plants. What’s more, the planners must get to know the people who reside there, their farms and villages, their hunting and fishing grounds, their churches and temples and shrines. They must devote months, even years, to familiarizing themselves with the local customs and traditions, living closely with the locals, as one of their own. Only in this way will the planners know if the construction of the road makes sense, if it will enrich rather than impoverish the locals’ lives. 

Of course you know the other way. Trump and his kind have made of virtue of it. Writes Moravia:

The second way is just the opposite and consists in building the road without bothering about the obstacles. In this case my road will cut across the farm land, span the river at its widest point, flatten the homesteads. I shall hack down mills, oil presses, chapels and workshops, fill in the wells, eliminate the sports ground. Furthermore I shall dynamite hundreds of thousands of cubic rock and dry up hundreds of thousands of square yards of marshland.

Nothing binds me to build the road in one way or the other. The law is on my side. There is a decree of my government whose execution is guaranteed by force. I can do whatever I want: I can even kill the inhabitants down to the last man and destroy all the farms and farmland… It is enough to say that I want to build a road.

In the first scenario the people and the environment are considered the end itself, the very reason for the road, if the road is to be built at all, while in the second the people and the environment are resources, tools, things, but the means to an end that has little or nothing do with them. 

Peter Adam Nash