Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 29, 2009

The Pittsburgh Collective

Filed under: music — louisproyect @ 6:33 pm

If you’ll recall from my posts on big bands on Youtube, (Swing and Modern,  I am a big fan of this kind of music even though it is fairly difficult to hear nowadays, mostly for economic reasons. So when a cyberpal told me that he would be performing last night at the Jazz Gallery with a twenty-piece band called Pittsburgh Collective, I jumped at the opportunity. I haven’t heard any live jazz in perhaps three years, or much live music for that matter. Since my wife has been very busy working on her dissertation, now being turned into a book, I have tended to stay at home with her even though she is a big jazz fan herself (we met at a jazz club.)

The Jazz Gallery is located in fashionable Tribeca and is a throwback to the loft jazz spaces that were prevalent in the 60s and 70s. Eschewing food and drink, these were places for the hard-core jazz fan. I was rather surprised to see how much interest there is in jazz today since every seat in the Jazz Gallery was filled by the time the band started playing.

David Sanford

The Pittsburgh Collective is led by David Sanford, an African-American who teaches classical music theory and composition at Mount Holyoke. He did a dissertation on Miles Davis and named the group after his home town. The band’s website (http://www.pittsburghcollective.com/) describes it as follows:

Formed in 2003, the Pittsburgh Collective is a twenty-piece big band comprised of top-level jazz, classical and new music virtuosi.  Described with such praise as “a very original, innovative jazz orchestra”, “death star magnitude”, “full-throttle wailing from all sections”, “reaches out of the speakers and grabs you by the scruff of your neck”, and “a powerhouse of some of the most incredible musicians and jazz aficionados you have ever or never heard”, the band extends the Third Stream tradition of Ellington, Kenton, Gunther Schuller, George Russell and Charles Mingus, straddling jazz and classical idioms with a plurality and intensity reflective of the 21st century.  Members of the band come from the Meridian Arts Ensemble, the Atlantic Brass Quintet, Brass Roots, the Manhattan Brass, the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Boston Musica Viva, the New Millennium Ensemble, Urban Sun, and the bands of Ran Blake, Hugh Ragin, Gunther Schuller, Fred Hersch, and ICE, as well as leading their own groups for which they compose and arrange.

I was struck right off the bat by the band’s abrupt shifts in tonality and rhythms, a sort of jazz equivalent of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring”, but with a pronounced rock inflection lent by the band’s electric guitarist and drummer, who unlike most jazz drummers used the drums rather than cymbals to keep time. The effect was “thump-thump, ka-boom” rather than “sheesh, sheesh”. It reminded me a bit of what a Miles Davis-led big band might have sounded like during the “On the Corner”, “Jack Johnson” period except with a lot more complex harmonic structure. For a good example of the sound of the band, listen to the performances on the band’s Myspace page.

The band also played a more mainstream composition called “Women in the Shadows” that Sanford described as being inspired by a photograph by Luke Swank of the same name. Swank was a Pittsburgh photographer working mostly in black-and-white who drew beauty out of the city’s largely extinct industrial landscape. The piece evoked the Gil Evans orchestra of the late 50s and featured some beautiful muted trumpet solos a la Miles Davis.

You can order their CD from Oxingale, the band’s label.

Steel Worker in Foundry by Luke Swank

In addition to hearing some very interesting live jazz, I also had the opportunity to finally meet John Halle, the band’s pianist, and a fairly long-time cyberpal. John teaches classical music theory at Bard College’s Conservatory of Music and like David Sanford and everybody else in the band has superb improvisational chops. I can’t remember exactly when I started corresponding with John, but I imagine that it dated from around the time I took on the role of gadfly to Bard College’s President Leon Botstein.

John Halle

Like Joel Kovel, who was booted by Botstein after one too many articles critical of Israel, John Halle is not a toothless postmodernist or New York Review of Books liberal of the sort that festoons the faculty at Bard and which did not utter a peep when Kovel was fired. He is the real deal. Before John took a job at Bard, he taught at Yale and was active in the Green Party in New Haven. This was at a time when the Greens meant business and their energy helped to elect John as alderman. I conclude with this quote from his article on “Why I Ran: Reflections on a Green Alderman”, which remains very timely in this period of declining faith in President Obama:

The upshot is that I won not in spite of the fact that I was a Green running against an entrenched machine, I won because I was a Green running against an entrenched Democratic machine. And it wasn’t only me; following my first win in July of 2001, in the general election in November we elected a second Green in a predominantly African American ward. A third missed winning by 15 votes. A fourth and fifth garnered 42 and 25 percent respectively. All this was sufficient to create a panic in the Democratic ranks who are, unlike most political activists and political observers, acutely aware of the tenuousness of their hold on power.

The Democrat’s response to our success should have been predictable: rather than triangulating to the right as they have become accustomed to, they were forced to triangulate to the left. This trajectory was charted by the New Haven Advocate’s Paul Bass:

Two years ago, a left-wing Yale music professor made history in New Haven. He won an election as a third-party candidate, the first such victory in generations. He and his party, the Greens, called for publicly funded elections, bike lanes, cleaner air, support for Yale unions–all positions on which Democratic City Hall was either opposed or silent. The Yale prof rode his bike on his new rounds as a city alderman. He was dubbed “Alderman Bike.” The city’s Democratic mayor, John DeStefano, drove around town in his taxpayer-paid Lincoln Navigator SUV.

Fast-forward to fall 2003. Democrat DeStefano has proposed the state’s first municipal public financing (“clean elections”) law. He led a successful fight to block the restarting of the English Station power plant–and broadened it to take on other polluters. He joined forces with Yale’s unions and took on Yale. After Alderman Bike complained, the city hired a cop to chase illegal dumpers full-time and arrest them. City Hall has retrieved and dusted off an old bikeable-city plan; the first of many promised bike lanes has appeared, in Alderman Bike’s neighborhood. And the mayor, running for re-election, aired a commercial showing him riding his bike to work and lampooning mayors who drive luxury gas-guzzlers instead.

While the focus is local, Bass’s observations can be generalized to other cities and to other levels of government. The basic lesson is that the prospect of politics escaping from elite control and the fear that it induces among elites is what forces substantive, as opposed to merely superficial, political concessions from the actors in the two corporate parties who serve elite interests.

I had time to chat briefly with John and asked him how he got involved with left politics. Since he is a bit younger than me, I concluded that it could have not been the Vietnam War. He said that he was not quite a red diaper baby, but having a father in MIT’s linguistics department who was effectively Noam Chomsky’s boss had a lot to do with it. Morris Halle co-authored “The Sound Pattern of English” in 1968 with Chomsky and apparently shares a commitment to social justice as well as a professional connection to cognitive science.

John Halle website: http://www.johnhalle.com/

October 27, 2009

John Molyneux on party democracy

Filed under: revolutionary organizing,sectarianism,socialism — louisproyect @ 5:18 pm

John Molyneux

In the latest issue of International Socialism, a quarterly put out by the British SWP, John Molyneux has an 8600 word article “On Party Democracy”  that raises some interesting questions but fails to get to the heart of the real problem in self-declared Leninist vanguards like the SWP. The real threat to democracy in such formations is not ham-fisted bureaucratic interventions, such as the kind that typified the American SWP during its sad decline or the CPUSA throughout most of its life. It is instead self-censorship by the rank and file all the way up to key leaders who are very wary of challenging adopted party positions out of fear of being tarnished as “petty bourgeois”, not “understanding Marxism” and all the other insults that have found their way into this political subculture over ninety-plus years. As painful as it is to hear yourself addressed in such terms at a party meeting, it is even worse to become ostracized as is the fate of most dissidents who have the temerity to challenge the wisdom of whoever is at the very top of the party hierarchy. In the case of groups like the American SWP, this tends to be a single person who functions like a virtual pope. In healthier groups, such as the British SWP, it tends to be a core of people whose ranks change over the years.

For reasons that are not totally clear to me, Molyneux frames his discussion in terms of a response to a German sociologist of the early 20th century named Robert Michels who eventually became a fascist. Michels, who believed that the abuse of power is a function of “the cult of veneration among the masses”, wrote:

As the chiefs become detached from the mass they show themselves more and more inclined, when gaps in their own ranks appear, to effect this not by popular election, but by co-optation, and also to increase their own effectiveness wherever possible by creating new posts upon their own initiative. There arises in leaders a tendency to isolate themselves, to form a sort of cartel, and to surround themselves, as it were, with a wall, within which they will admit those only who are of their own way of thinking.

Hmmm, sort of rings a bell, doesn’t it?

Molyneux explains such tendencies as a response to external forces:

The pressures generated by bourgeois society are also a factor in the cult-like features exhibited by some small groups. In order to maintain the loyalty and discipline of a tiny number of adherents in more or less total opposition to wider society they develop the sort of characteristics typical of small religious sects such as the veneration of “the leader” and the establishment of shibboleths. A shibboleth was originally a code word or phrase whose use distinguished the member of a group from an enemy or spy. In our context a shibboleth is a belief or doctrine whose principal function is to separate the true believer from the common herd and reinforce their loyalty. This is, for example, the function of the ban on blood transfusions for Jehovah’s Witnesses or support for Israel for the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty. With the Socialist Labour League it was the perennial call for a general strike. These sect practices are highly anti-democratic because they strongly inhibit free and rational debate of policies and perspectives.

While there is an element of truth to this, it does not exactly dig into the history of such formations. How exactly did Lenin’s party avoid such cult-like behavior, even as the groups operating in his name—especially those deriving from the Fourth International—kept veering in that direction? Why is this tendency so less pronounced in the Latin American left that attempted, for better or for worse, to learn from the Cuban experience rather than Soviet party-building “norms”. Does it have something to do with a misunderstanding of Leninism that Lenin himself sought to correct in the years before his death?

Initially, Molyneux and his comrades regarded a lack of democracy as a problem more associated with trade unions, Stalinism and social democratic parties, not self-declared Leninist vanguards such as the kind that Tony Cliff launched under Leon Trotsky’s tutelage. But since the 1960s, he (and the rest of the revolutionary left for that matter) has had to deal with unfavorable political conditions that might have encouraged a cult of leadership and anti-democratic tendencies:

In conditions of downturn, when party members’ typical experience at work is of defeat or isolation, their confidence to challenge the party’s leadership is undermined. Even if they remain active revolutionary socialists, the feeling may develop that in addition to fighting the bosses, the government, the system, the media and probably their own union leaders, all as a small minority, arguing in their own party is just too much.

In these conditions the counterpart to a passive rank and file, a leadership that becomes accustomed to leading unchallenged, is virtually certain to develop or at least begin to develop.

Perhaps. But my experience, and I hazard to guess that this is true for “Leninist” groups in general, is that the rank-and-file is all the more inclined to not rock the boat when there is wind in the sails. During the 1960s, when most groups on the far left were growing by leaps and bounds, it would be highly unlikely for the ranks to question the political trajectory of the party. After all, who wants to argue with success?

In his conclusion, Molyneux—to his credit—offers no panaceas. He says that even though people come to a revolutionary party full of piss and vinegar ready to challenge the status quo, they might not have the same attitude toward the people in positions of authority supposedly leading a revolution against capitalist authority:

The world of work is invariably hierarchical and undemocratic. Working class occupations consist overwhelmingly of following orders, ruling class ones of giving them and middle class ones of enforcing decisions from above on those below. What is completely lacking from most people’s lives is any experience of democracy other than the extremely limited business of voting every so often in parliamentary or local elections. By far the most important exception is trade unionism, which does provide some working people with the experience of saying “no” to those in authority over them, but, as we know only too well, this is a highly uneven and fluctuating process and offers an ongoing regular democratic engagement to only a minority.

The act of joining a revolutionary organisation constitutes a major rebellion against society’s conditioning but it does not eliminate it. The anti-democratic pressures continue to operate on and within the party. This is why party democracy is not something that can be guaranteed by any constitution or set of institutional arrangements (which is not to gainsay the necessity of democratic constitutions and institutional arrangements) but also requires the development and maintenance of a democratic culture based on frank and open debate in which party members are encouraged to speak their mind. Such a culture has to be embodied in institutions and practices, of course, the most important and permanent of which is the principle of the party conference or congress as the party’s sovereign body. But the precise nature of these institutions and practices must necessarily be adapted to specific circumstances and change over time.

Unfortunately, Molyneux shows no signs of having absorbed any of the critiques of the “Leninist” party-building methodology that have been inspired by both a hard look at the sorry record of its adherents, nor the scholarly research of people such as Neil Harding or Lars Lih. These critiques that I obviously agree with make the point that Lenin’s party simply did not function in a “Leninist” manner, as understood by people such as Tony Cliff, James P. Cannon, Gerry Healy, Ted Grant or anybody else who formed the leadership of the Fourth International or any of its spin-off’s. This, of course, is a problem as well in the Maoist movement that perfected cult behavior into an art form.

Although I have made these points numerous times, it can’t hurt to make them once again. If you really wanted to build a party in the spirit of Lenin’s Bolsheviks, you would have to make sure to follow these norms:

  1. Debates in the party are carried out in public. The newspaper is not just a vehicle for the party line. It is also a place where ongoing debate about that line is carried out.
  2. Expulsions are rarer than rainstorms in the Sahara. During the entire time that the Bolshevik party operated, there was just a single expulsion. Bogdanov, whose philosophical peregrinations challenged the core beliefs of Marxism, was shown the exit door. But even after Zinoviev, Kamenev and Stalin broke discipline to oppose the seizure of power in October 1917, they did not face disciplinary charges.
  3. Membership was not akin to an initiation rite. In various factories, the workers aligned considered themselves Bolsheviks without having been groomed in Lenin-thought. In fact there was no such thing. All in all, the Bolshevik Party was much more of a movement than any group operating in its name today. Indeed, if there is ever a revolutionary party that has the power to challenge British or any other highly advanced capitalist system, it will not come into existence through a massive expansion of existing small groups. Indeed, it will be a challenge for such small groups not to get in the way of this process.

But the most important step would be to abolish once and for all the practice of “democratic centralism” in the sphere of ideas. Lenin intended that democratic centralism be applied to actions such as participating in a strike or votes in a parliament. The notion that a Leninist party could expel people for defending an analysis of Cuba, for example, in public contrary to that of the majority is alien to everything that Lenin stood for. During WWI he and Bukharin had furious debates about imperialism and the national question in public. That was the norm.

In parties such as the British SWP, the application of discipline to ideas is necessary for what they regard as “preservation” of the program, which essentially turns out to be a kind of collection of analyses around the “Russian question” and newer “litmus tests”. For example, the American co-thinkers of the British SWP were effectively expelled from their international organization for having the nerve to differ on the “importance of Seattle”. This, I should add, was about how to assess the “anti-globalization” movement of those days, which for some revolutionaries was a harbinger of class battles that would topple capitalism once and for all. If only that were the case…

Once you have established the “program”, it is necessary to elect a high priesthood that has been initiated into its mysteries. Like the Vatican, it is in guard of its purity. In the case of the “Leninist” party, it is not about whether priests should get married but whether the Russian society became capitalist in 1930 or in 1990. In my opinion, these are important questions but not ones that should provide the basis for disciplining members. On priests marrying, that of course is a split question since it might lead to a reduction in pederasty.

The best discussion of democratic centralism I’ve ever seen, by the way, is in chapter seven of Paul LeBlanc’s “Lenin and the Revolutionary Party”. He explains that the term predates Lenin by many years and was first used in 1865 by J.B. Schweitzer, a Lassallean.

Furthermore, in Russia it was first used by the Mensheviks at a November 1905 conference. In a resolution “On the Organization of the Party” adopted there, they agree that “The RSDLP must be organized according to the principle of democratic centralism.” A month later the Bolsheviks embraced the term at their own conference. A resolution titled “On Party Organization” states: “Recognizing as indisputable the principle of democratic centralism, the Conference considers the broad implementation of the elective principle necessary; and, while granting elected centers full powers in matters of ideological and practical leadership, they are at the same time subject to recall, their actions are given broad publicity, and they are to be strictly accountable for these activities.”

There is virtually no difference between the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks about the need for democratic centralism or its meaning. So claims that the two factions differed over this “Leninist” organizational breakthrough are simply mistaken. Moreover, the two groups had resolved many outstanding differences following the 1905 revolution. Menshevik leader Pavel Axelrod stated that “on the whole, the Menshevik tactics have hardly differed from the Bolshevik. I am not even sure that they differed from them at all.” Lenin concurred: “The tactics adopted in the period of the ‘whirlwind’ did not further estrange the two wings of the Social Democratic Party, but brought them closer together…The upsurge of the revolutionary tide pushed aside disagreements, compelling the Social Democrats to adopt militant tactics.”

In any case, whatever differences would resurface in the period leading up to 1917, “democratic centralism” was not one of them. At a unity conference held in 1906, the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks voted for a resolution that stated: “All party organizations are built on the principles of democratic centralism”.

The report on the commission that adopted this resolution was given by a Menshevik, Zagorsky-Kokhmal, who stated that “we accepted the formula for membership unanimously”. In other words, there was no objection to what some would characterize as “Leninist” norms. The reason for this is simple. Democratic centralism was never an issue.

Since Rosa Luxemburg’s critique of Lenin’s 1904 “One Step Forward, Two Steps Backwards” revolves around the charge that he was susceptible to “centralism”, you might get the impression that these differences revolved around the need for democratic centralism. In fact, this term does not appear in her critique which is online at: http://www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1904/questions-rsd/index.htm

For example, Luxemburg writes, “Lenin’s thesis is that the party Central Committee should have the privilege of naming all the local committees of the party.” Whatever else might say about this, it is not what we think of ordinarily when we hear the term democratic centralism. It is instead a reference to a specific practice rooted in the exigencies of the Russian class struggle, forced to operate under repressive and clandestine conditions. For example, I don’t recall James P. Cannon ever favoring this practice, despite being committed to the sort of democratic centralism that evolved under Zinoviev’s authority.

Not that Luxemburg is opposed to centralism itself. She is not a Foucauldian. When it takes shape from the self-activity of the working class, it is a good thing. “Centralism in the socialist sense is not an absolute thing applicable to any phase whatsoever of the labor movement. It is a tendency, which becomes real in proportion to the development and political training acquired by the working masses in the course of their struggle.”

Of course, the democratic centralism that defines “Leninist” organizations today had little to do with Lenin’s call for “freedom to criticize, but unity in action”. Somewhere along the line it became a formula for ideological homogeneity. It states that the “freedom to criticize” is permissible during preconvention discussion, a period that tolerates atypical behavior every couple of years or so, more or less like Spock undergoing “Pon farr”, the Vulcan version of mating season.

Those who have experienced this version of “freedom to criticize” understand that it is no such thing. Instead it is mainly an opportunity for the secondary leadership of the party to salute the central leadership for the brilliance of the line resolutions presented to the convention. Those who reach the conclusion that the line resolutions are full of baloney are ultimately viewed as scratches that are in danger of turning into gangrene. In such organizations, however, the main danger from the standpoint of medical analogies is hardening of the arteries.

October 25, 2009

Inglourious Basterds; Jackboot Mutiny

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 2:56 pm

In a comment under my review of “Valkyrie”, a movie starring Tom Cruise as a Nazi officer who attempted to assassinate Hitler, MN Roy suggested I look at GW Pabst’s 1955 “Jackboot Mutiny”, another movie dramatizing the General’s revolt.  I tracked down the DVD from International Historic Films several months ago (it is not available from Netflix, alas) and placed on a shelf where it gathered dust until I would find an occasion to write about it.

That occasion arrived a week or so ago when I finally got around to viewing “Inglourious Basterds”, a movie that I fully expected to hate. Surprise of surprises, it  is the best movie I have seen all year and by far Tarantino’s best. This movie dovetails neatly with Pabst’s since it too involves a conspiracy to assassinate Hitler. It also has several allusions to Pabst—and to Emil Jannings—who decided to work in Nazi Germany despite the universal revulsion felt toward Hitler. It was all the more remarkable for Pabst to work in Germany since he was acclaimed for his left-leaning earlier work in Weimar Germany, including a production of “Three Penny Opera”. What would make Pabst want to work in Nazi Germany?

Although Tarantino’s movie is mostly a saga about Jewish guerrillas tracking down and killing Nazi soldiers in occupied France, it has some very interesting observations about the Nazi film industry’s presence in that country. This is a subject that forms the backdrop for Alan Furst’s novel “Red Gold” as well as Bernard Tavernier’s 2002 movie “Safe Conduct“.

As Tarantino was anxious to point out, the Nazis viewed film as a key propaganda weapon. As someone who has an insider’s perspective on the Dream Factory, he understands this fully. In a climactic scene, an audience of Nazi high officials—including Hitler—is cheering wildly at a new movie that was directed by Goebbels. It was a biopic about a legendary Nazi sniper who killed over 100 enemy soldiers in Sergeant York style. The movie stars the actual soldier who was romantically pursuing (stalking actually) the owner of the theater in occupied Paris where the film was debuting. She is the daughter of a Jewish farmer who was killed by Nazis, along with the rest of the family in the opening scene.

As the Nazis go wild over the cinematic representation of violence, one cannot help but think of movies like “Saving Private Ryan” or a hundred other Hollywood movies that celebrate victories over a despised and dehumanized enemy. For that matter, it evokes much of what draws people to a Tarantino movie, although he has the good sense to stay away from ideology.

SPOILER ALERT

I am now going to discuss the tie-in to Pabst’s movie, which involves revealing a surprise ending of sorts to “Inglourious Basterds”. To avoid finding out about the ending, go directly to the subheading “JACKBOOT MUTINY”.

Ironically, Tarantino’s movie is a fictional realization of the vain hopes of the German officers who tried in vain to murder Adolph Hitler on July 20, 1944. The Jewish guerrillas, led by a gentile commander played rather insouciantly by Brad Pitt (he is named Aldo Raine—an obvious homage to the actor Aldo Ray, who played this kind of character repeatedly), don tuxedos and gain entrance to the theater on the night of the debut in order to set off a bomb. It is all rather far-fetched but totally in character with the genre.

(I should add parenthetically at this point that attempts to interpret this movie as an anti-Zionist statement by jazz musician Gilad Atzmon on Counterpunch is far-fetched. Closer to the mark is Harry Browne’s interpretation on the same venue that “film history is also the explicit subject of the film, much of which is set in a movie-house, and involves Joseph Goebbels in David O. Selznick mode, preparing to premiere the latest masterpiece of Nazi cinema.”

Like the German officers of “Valkyrie” and “Jackboot Mutineers”, Raine’s crew is just as doomed to fail. The shrewd Nazi SS officer Hans Landa (played by Christoph Waltz, my nomination for sure as best actor of the year) discovers the plot and has Raine arrested. His henchmen are left in the theater, however, bombs intact.

It seems that Landa has more or less the same agenda as the German officers who launched a coup in 1944, but with guarantees in advance that he will succeed. Sensing that the Nazi regime was destined to go down in flames, Landa proposes to Raine that in exchange for safe passage to the USA, a guarantee against criminal prosecution, and a cushy job working for the allies, he will allow the Jewish bombers to move ahead with their operation. And that is how the movie ends, with the theater and all its audience members—including Hitler—being incinerated.

Taking the most negative position on the Valkyrie plotters, can one say that there is much difference between them and Landa? Indeed, one comment under my review of “Valkyrie” said just about that:

Von Stauffenberg was a reactionary nationalist and racist who welcomed Hitler’s rise to power and supported Hitler’s programme of occupying Germany’s neighbours. His plot against Hitler was motivated not by nice democratic ideals, but the belief that the war had more chance of being successful if someone else ran it. The idea that we are being asked to sympathise with such a Nazi “hero” is quite disturbing.

JACKBOOT MUTINY

G.W. Pabst

Turning now to Pabst’s movie, it can best be described as a no-frills account of the plot without any efforts made to “dramatize” the characters. It comes across like an episode on the old “You are There” television show from the mid-50s that recreated historical events.

That being said, it has the tautness and intensity that could only originate from a great director like Pabst. The movie opens without any fanfare and you are drawn immediately into the action. Bernhard Wicki, not a major film star at the time, plays Colonel Stauffenberg, who placed the bomb under the conference table where Hitler sat. Four year later Wicki directed “The Bridge”, a highly acclaimed antiwar film about German youths defending a local bridge at the end of WWII. And in 1962, he co-directed “The Longest Day”.

Based on my reading of the events of July 20, 1944 I would have to say that Pabst’s movie is a more accurate account of what took place that day. That being said, the Tom Cruise movie is also quite faithful to the events. When I sat down to watch “Valkyrie”, I fully expected something in the vein of “Mission Impossible”, which it really was in fact, but it turned out to be a much more serious and thoughtful version of historical events.

What comes through in Pabst’s movie is the lack of a political agenda by the conservative opposition to Hitler. It was carried out strictly as a military coup with little regard to political preparation, a lack attributable in part to the totalitarian nature of Nazi society but also the Prussian mindset of the officers who demanded obedience above all. When they take over the military communications network, they instruct lower rank officers to carry out orders in line with the death of the Fuhrer. You are reminded to some extent of Alexander Haig telling reporters that “I am in charge” after the attempt on Reagan’s life. There is no attempt to justify the new command center in terms of liberating the German people, achieving peace, etc. It is strictly one of imposing a new order.

This is unfortunate, however. Granted that some if not all of the plotters were interested partially in turning back the clock to the glory days of Germany under Kaiser Wilhelm, there was a lot more going on politically than either “Valkyrie” or “Jackboot Mutiny” reveals.

In the September 1988 issue of “The Historical Journal”, there’s an article titled “Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg in the German Resistance to Hitler: Between East and West” that contains some startling information on the mindset of the plotters. Peter Hoffman, who wrote the 800+ page “German Resistance To Hitler”, a standard in the field, is the author.

Hoffman, a careful scholar not prone to speculation, insists nonetheless that some of the anti-Nazi German officers, including the aristocrat von Stauffenberg, were not only ready to make an alliance with the USSR (the “east” in the title of the article) but willing to preside over what amounted to a Soviet Germany.

It would appear that they were determined to preserve German power and prestige even if it meant attacking private property! If the West were determined to reduce Germany to the margins of history, some rebel Generals would orient to the East while their comrades looked to the West out of fears of the following:

A bolshevization of Germany through the rise of national communism as the deadliest imminent danger to Germany and the European family of nations.

On this they clearly saw eye to eye with Churchill.

Hans Gisevius, a German diplomat and member of the pro-West group, had been in constant communication with OSS chief Allen Dulles “concerning the dangers of communism and bolshevism, and had pleaded for a separate arrangement between a post-Hitler Germany and the western powers”, according to Hoffman. He advised Dulles that there others who were more sympathetic to the USSR, including Adam von Trott, a powerful Prussian civil servant and member of the Kreisau circle. Gisevius kept the pressure on Dulles, warning him again in July, 1944—the month of the attempted coup—that “the German masses gravitated toward bolshevization.” He saw the possibility of a “transformation of Hitler’s revolution into Lenin’s world revolution”, drawing attention to a “strong tendency among Germans in general and German military men in particular to be impressed with Russian military achievements, and to favour German-Russian cooperation”.

In his first interviews with the OSS after the end of the war, Gisevius informed them that:

Colonel von Stauffenberg, who made the attempts on Hitler’s life, had planned to conclude a peace with the Soviets, if he putsch were successful and proposed to announce the establishment of a workers and peasants regime in Germany.

Dulles would go on to write a book (“Germany’s Underground”) about the anti-Nazi conspirators. About Stauffenberg he had this to say:

Gisevius told me that Stauffenberg toyed with the idea of trying for a revolution of workers, peasants and soldiers. He hoped the Red Army would support a Communist Germany organized along Russian lines. His views were shared by certain of the younger men of the Kreisau circle, including the Haeften brothers and Trott.

Now, that would have made for an interesting movie if Tom Cruise’s director and screenwriter had the slightest interest in the politics of the plotters.

OSS official Charles S. Cheston wrote a memo to FDR sharing Dulles’s assessment:

The younger, active leaders [of the July plot] like Colonel von Stauffenberg favoured a pro-Soviet policy. The older and more conservative figures wanted to turn to the Western allies. The younger men were encouraged to a Soviet orientation by a feeling that Allied policy gave no hope for Germany’s future and as a result of alleged assurances from the Free Germany Committee in Moscow that Germany would receive a just peace from the Soviets and the Wehrmacht would not be totally disarmed.

As it turned out, Moscow had little genuine interest in Germany’s future other than retaining a chunk of real estate in the east as a buffer zone and hauling off every piece of machinery it could get its hands on. And they surely must have been aware of the thirst for revenge that the Kremlin harbored, as indicated by these utterances from Ilya Ehrenburg in 1944:

The Germans are not human beings. Henceforth the word German means to us the most terrible curse. From now on the word German will trigger your rifle. We shall not speak any more. We shall not get excited. We shall kill. If you have not killed at least one German a day, you have wasted that day.

How odd that these German officers would have much better class instincts than a high Kremlin official.

Up until this point, directors and screenwriters have shown more interest in the General’s revolt (“Valkyrie”) and the students of the White Rose circle (“The White Rose”, “Sophie Scholl”) than any other figures.

George Elser

Perhaps as interest in this period increases, someone will take up the cause of a more plebian opponent of the Nazi regime. I speak now of George Elser, who was one of 25 anti-Nazi resisters profiled by Michael Balfour in “Withstanding Hitler”:

Elser was a small, taciturn, innately sceptical man who was born in 1903, the son of an indigent small-holder in a Wiirttemberg village. He was a non-practising Protestant. Thanks to Germany’s system of technical education, he became a skilled cabinet-maker. He had however his own ideas of how things should be done and as a result wandered from one employer to another. For some time he worked at a clock-factory in Konstanz. He regularly voted Communist and belonged to the Red Association of Front Fighters but, except for playing in its brass band, did not engage in party activities. About 1938 he came to the conclusion that things had got worse for the average worker since the Nazis came to power and that war was inevitable. He therefore decided to kill Hitler, as an essential step towards bringing more moderate men to office.

He decided that one of the great Party occasions would provide him with the best opportunity of doing what he wanted and settled on the meeting held every year on 8 November at the Biirgerbraukeller in Munich to celebrate the 1923 attempt at revolution, a ceremony which Hitler always attended and at which he stood still for some time. In 1938 Elser came to Munich for the occasion and had a good look at the site. He decided to insert explosives into a pillar close to the platform and detonate them at a suitable time through a previously set mechanism. He went back home and got a job in a quarry, here he found it a simple matter to steal the necessary explosive and fuses. He made a number of sketches to settle how to instal the machinery and how to set it off; as regards the latter, his experience in clock-making proved valuable.

He came back to Munich at the beginning of August 1939 and set about his preparations, living on his savings. In the day-time he worked on the clock and the bomb in his lodgings; in the evening he went to the Keller for over thirty nights and had a modest meal, after which he hid himself in an obscure corner of the balcony until the restaurant was shut and empty. He first cut the cladding of the pillar and turned it into a door which, when shut, was unnoticeable. He hollowed out the space behind it, removing the bricks and mortar so as to leave no trace. Security was lax; he was mostly left undisturbed and on the one occasion when he was challenged managed to pass it off. A waitress who may have given him some help had no idea what he was up to, any more than did the four craftsmen who made separate bits of equipment to his specifications.

On 1 November he began to instal his machine, found various adjustments necessary but got everything finished by the night of 5-6 November. He took his belongings, such as they were, to his sister in Stuttgart, intending to go on across the Swiss frontier. But on the night of 7-8 November he came back again to make sure that the clock of the machine was working. On November he travelled to Konstanz and set out to cross the Swiss frontier by a little-used path. But for once he did not take sufficient care to make sure that the coast was clear and was caught by two German customs officials who by an ironical accident were listening to Hitler’s broadcast from the Keller. It is tempting to suppose that he may have stopped to listen himself so as to hear the bomb go off. They found on him a postcard of the Keller, a pair of pliers (to cut any wire on the frontier), a badge of the Red Front Fighters Association, various bolts, springs and screws and a list of German factories making armaments, which he said was intended to dissuade the Swiss authorities from extraditing him. This miscellaneous and superfluous collection aroused suspicion, especially when news of the explosion came through. He was transferred to Munich and then Berlin where he gave a detailed account of his activities which still exists. For a number of reasons it can be accepted as true.

Now that would make a hell of a movie, wouldn’t it? And who would play George Elser, you ask? How about William Macy? Or maybe Bill Murray, if you include some dark comedy elements. Hmmm.

To conclude, a word or two about G.W. Pabst is in order. I doubt if the average Tarantino fan will come away from “Inglourious Basterds” with an ax to grind against the famous director who comes across as Nazi collaborator. The truth is more complicated.

In an article titled “G.W. Pabst in Hollywood or Every Modern Hero Deserves a Mother” that appeared in Film History (1987, Vol 1., No. 1), Jan-Christopher Horak begins by posing the obvious questions:

Before his return to Nazi Germany in the Autumn of 1939, G.W. Pabst was considered the most important antifascist filmmaker in the German émigré community. Despite his professional successes in the Weimar period and his certified “aryan” background, Pabst had turned his back in 1933 on Berlin’s brownshirts, choosing instead the uncertainty of emigration. Yet after a brief sojourn in Hollywood and a number of years in Paris, Pabst had made his peace with Goebbels’ Propaganda Ministry. What happened in Hollywood? Why had he returned to a Europe threatened by war?

The answer to these questions has much less to do with ideology than it does with bread and butter. In a nutshell, Pabst simply could not find work in Hollywood. Like the Okies of the “Grapes of Wrath”, he discovered that the streets of California were not paved with gold, even though he had that impression at first.

In 1933, while he was living in Paris, Pabst signed a contract with Warner Brothers making $1200 per week, but discovered soon that the studio was not that free with its money. It refused to pay his travel expenses to Hollywood and for his rooms at the Wiltshire Hotel once he arrived.

His first project with Warner’s would be his last. He was asked to direct “A Modern Hero”, a movie based on Louis Bromfield’s novel. The ironically titled story had a lot of appeal for a leftist like Pabst since the protagonist is a real scumbag who sexually exploits women and backstabs partners in his relentless pursuit of success in the automobile industry.

From day one, he ran into problems with studio executives who insisted on artistic control of the project. The worst offender was Hal Wallis, who wrote a memo to his assistant James Seymour ordering him to keep Pabst on a short leash:

I don’t want Pabst to start re-writing the story now, or anything of the kind, so check with me and let me know if everything is all set to put this through.

Wallis also wrote Pabst directly warning him against “changing any dialogue or action or sequences.” Wallis was not a bad director, who would eventually have “Casablanca” and other Bogart classics to his credit but he really had no business bossing a great artist like Pabst around. All in all, his imperiousness reflected the prevailing attitude at all Hollywood production companies, namely that studio executives had the right to dictate to writers, directors and actors.

Eventually Wallis and Pabst went to war over camera angles, with Pabst insisting on the need for medium and long shots,–his preferred style–and Wallis demanding close-ups, which he thought would help the audience better identify with the characters.

Growing tired of Wallis’s interference, Pabst refused to renew his contract with Warner’s. Unfortunately, he was not able to line up new work despite his reputation. Finally, he returned to France in 1936 where many German émigrés could be found in the movie business. But poor economic circumstances finally forced him to return to Germany where he directed two movies. One of them is titled “Paracelsus” and has generated conflicting interpretations as to its relationship to Nazism. Some scholars view it as serving “Volkisch” ideology while others (Sheila Johnson, “Monatshefte”, Summer, 1991) view it as a subtle critique of the totalitarian system. Not having seen it (and likely never will), I cannot offer an opinion. I am much more qualified, however, to state that in Hollywood and Nazi Germany alike the artist is servant to those who have economic, political and social power.

October 22, 2009

Frederick Seidel

Filed under: literature,motorcycles — louisproyect @ 6:38 pm

Frederick Seidel

In the latest issue of Harper’s Magazine (unfortunately behind a subscriber’s firewall), there’s a terrific memoir about motorcycles by somebody named Frederick Seidel. As someone who owned a bike back in 1965, the topic remains of great interest to me. Even after close to a half-century, I still have vivid memories of riding my underpowered Czech-made Jawa along country roads near Bard College. As I read through Seidel’s article, it struck me that nobody has come nearly as close to describing the potent experience of motorcycle riding:

By now I had moved on to other motorcycles, a very fast Honda 750 and then a Suzuki 250cc two-stroke, the latter a spry, light, dangerous thing that my friend Jeremy Chisholm had won in a poker game. Chisholm was terrified of it and begged me to take it off his hands. My first bikes were all of the sit-up kind, comfortable for riding around town or on the highway. You sit up as you do on a normal nonracing bicycle. The other kind of motorcycle is one with abbreviated handlebars—called clip-ons—high-set footrests, and a seat mounted rather far back, behind a longish gas tank, so that when you ride you assume the posture of a jockey on a racehorse when he leans down low and gets his face close to his horse’s neck. You ride this kind of motorcycle with your weight on your arms and wrists, your back a bit curved, not the most restful position. Serious sport bikes and all racebikes are set up this way, though in addition racebikes are monoposto, a single seat with room for only one person, the racer himself. I bought an English sport bike called a Rickman Metisse. The word métisse means mix or mixture or mongrel in French. This bike was a mix but not a mongrel, not if the word “mongrel” suggests ratty ugliness. It had a dazzling nickel-plated frame made of hollow Reynolds 531 tubing, which held the oil for the engine. The engine was a Triumph 650 Bonneville. When the engine was warm, the oil got hot and the oil-holding frame got very hot.

His prose style was so elegant that I decided to find out more about Seidel upon finishing the article (contact me if you want a copy.) It turns out that he is one of America’s most respected poets. Not only that, he is sympathetic to the left just as Robert Lowell—a major influence—was. Here’s an excerpt from a review of his recently published “Poems 1959-2009” by Dan Chiasson in the New York Review (once again, behind a firewall but I would be happy to send you a copy on request):

Seidel was born, in 1936, in St. Louis. The family business delivering coal and ice had prospered. The Seidels owned a coal mine in West Virginia. Whatever was happening in that mine was very far from what was happening in the Seidels’ parlor. Among the most memorable things in his first book, the blasphemously titled Final Solutions, is this passage, spoken by a mine boss, from “The Coalman”:

I see me and the miners, the drivers,
And some poor nigger customers
Who can’t buy the smokeless fuel
Eating our soft coal whole,
And vomiting and vomiting slick eels
Of blackness. I can see this.

Seidel never got over the fact that remote misery could be laundered into money and converted into the pleasing objects of his prosperous childhood. It’s made him an expert on two things: luxury objects and human pain. In a recent poem about September 11, “The War of the Worlds,” scenes from the cosseted world of Seidel’s childhood are spliced into footage of the towers collapsing. The doe-eyed child and the postmillennial chill “war” each other, as do (in the paranoid terms of our paranoid time) the Western “world” and whatever “world” we designate as its antagonist. (Of course the title also refers to Orson Welles’s The War of the Worlds, the farcical precursor of September 11, which aired in 1938, when Seidel was two):

The child stands at the window, after his birthday party,
Gray flannel little boy shorts, shirt with an Eton collar,
St. Louis, Missouri, sixty years ago,
And sees the World Trade Center Towers falling.

The shorts and the collar owe too much to Lowell. But Lowell, who wrote beautifully about both family life and historical calamity, mostly kept the two zones from overlapping. Seidel wants them to overlap, and he wants everything inside those zones to collide.

Lowell was Seidel’s early benefactor, choosing his first book for a prize. Seidel had met Pound at the age of seventeen; through Pound, he met, and charmed, T.S. Eliot in London. He was what someone said of Nixon: “an old man’s idea of a young man,” refined, erudite, ironic. Which is precisely why Lowell, who had only recently given up that very role, was such an attractive—and such a hazardous—early model for Seidel, as every critic has noted and as anyone who first bones up on Lowell’s Life Studies before trying Final Solutions will detect:

Pictures of violins in the Wurlitzer collection
Were my bedroom’s one decoration,
Besides a blue horse and childish tan maiden by Gauguin,
Backs, bellies and scrolls,
Stradivarius, Guarnerius, Amati,
Colored like a calabash-and-meerschaum pipe bowl’s
Warmed, matured body….

(“Wanting to Live in Harlem”)

Here’s some more insights into Seidel from the April 8, 2009 NY Times, which fortunately is not behind a firewall.

In the autumn before his Bar Mitzvah, the 12-year-old made a discovery. In the Oct. 25, 1948, issue of Time, Seidel saw a review of Ezra Pound’s long poem “The Cantos.” The unsigned article offers little enduring interest as journalism but provided Seidel with his first exposure to Pound’s verse, lines of which the review quoted, including some from “The Pisan Cantos,” written while Pound was detained in Italy by the U.S. Army during World War II:

What thou lovest well remains,

the rest is dross

What thou lov’st well shall not be reft from thee

What thou lov’st well is thy true heritage

“That did it,” Seidel told me. “I had a moment of — shall we call it revelation? — age 12 and understanding that this was what I was meant to do — and would do. Like that. So I set about doing it, in a very uncoordinated 13-, 14-, 15-year-old way.”

Seidel’s first private steps on the road to self-knowledge went through the poetry of others: T. S. Eliot, Dante and Pound above all. “I got a great deal from reading Pound,” Seidel told me. “That was a major education. He gave me some sense of the world of literature, some sense of the parity of work from different ages. You tried to understand what was the excellence that you could make use of.” Seidel’s public soul-seeking was quite different. By 13, he was stealing his father’s cars and sneaking off to black nightclubs to hear jazz; at 14, he was answering only the questions on exams that interested him in school; and by 16, he was deceiving his parents into letting him travel alone with a friend to Mexico during a summer vacation, searching for adventure and finding it, but also catching hepatitis along the way, landing him back in a St. Louis hospital for three adventureless months of recovery.

When Seidel arrived for his freshman year at Harvard in 1953, he should have been thrilled to put St. Louis behind him. And yet: “I got to Harvard and was ready to leave Harvard, right away. I got on The Advocate” — the college literary magazine — “and it seemed . . . childish. I thought I made a mistake not going to Cambridge or Oxford.” Uncertain how to proceed, Seidel sought out Ezra Pound. At the time, Pound was incarcerated in Washington at St. Elizabeth’s ward for the criminally insane. “I wrote him and sent him a poem and said, ‘If it’s worth your while it’s worth mine.’ ” Pound wrote back, and Seidel visited at Thanksgiving, thinking he’d go for a day or two. “I stayed a week at least, met Mrs. Pound, saw him every day. I got him to read. I’d never heard Provençal, I’d never heard Cavalcanti. It was lovely. He’d throw his head back and recite in his sonorous voice. It was very purging, very much giving me the feeling that something was being passed on. He gave me that. It was very nice. Very kind.”” Once Seidel returned to Harvard, however, Pound began sending him letters that were anything but kind. “He argued very strongly that I needed to stay at Harvard, that it was important for Harvard that I stay, and that led to the reason I stopped conversing with him.” Pound wrote Seidel a note saying that it was up to him to save Harvard from the university’s Presbyterian head, Nathan Pusey, whom he accused of liking Jews too much, using an anti-Semitic vulgarism. “I explained to Pound that this just wouldn’t do. So that was it with Pound.”

Despite my obvious identification with the beat generation, I had a great affinity with the more formal poetry of the earlier generation. I was a protégé of Robert Kelly, a prototypical new poet influenced by Robert Duncan at Bard College, but was just as close to Anthony Hecht who would eventually become Poet Laureate at the Library of Congress. Born in 1923, Hecht was often grouped with poets like Robert Lowell, whose liberal politics he shared as well as his formal elegance. Here’s a Hecht poem titled “Prospects” that is as well-crafted as a Faberge egg:

We have set out from here for the sublime
Pastures of summer shade and mountain stream;
I have no doubt we shall arrive on time.

Is all the green of that enameled prime
A snapshot recollection or a dream?
We have set out from here for the sublime

Without provisions, without one thin dime,
And yet, for all our clumsiness, I deem
It certain that we shall arrive on time.

No guidebook tells you if you’ll have to climb
Or swim. However foolish we may seem,
We have set out from here for the sublime

And must get past the scene of an old crime
Before we falter and run out of steam,
Riddled by doubt that we’ll arrive on time.

Yet even in winter a pale paradigm
Of birdsong utters its obsessive theme.
We have set out from here for the sublime;
I have no doubt we shall arrive on time.

It makes perfect sense for Seidel’s piece to have appeared in Harper’s, a magazine that I have subscribed to for about three decades. It was edited for most of this time by Lewis Lapham, a patrician leftist like Seidel and also, for that matter, like Gore Vidal. Harper’s is sort of the FDR to the Nation Magazine’s Obama today. As has been noted, FDR felt no need to defer to his class when he was so sure of how to protect their long-term interests. Edited from the standpoint of the patrician left, Harper’s prefers scandalizing the rich to flattering them.

You can listen to Frederic Seidel reciting his poems here: http://www.nybooks.com/podcasts/

October 21, 2009

One Fast Move or I’m Gone: Kerouac’s Big Sur

Filed under: feminism,literature — louisproyect @ 8:11 pm

While not nearly as well known as “On the Road”, Jack Kerouac’s “Big Sur” is just as great a masterpiece. Written in 1951 and published 6 years later, “On the Road” marks the beginning of Kerouac’s career, a time of great joy even as he lived in poverty. Written in 1960 and published 2 years later, “Big Sur” was Kerouac at the pinnacle of his fame and fortune but totally miserable. Indeed, the main lesson of “Big Sur” is that fame can drive you crazy.

Kerouac fans and those who are interested in the creative process in general will surely want to get their hands on the documentary “One Fast Move or I’m Gone: Kerouac’s Big Sur”, directed by Curt Worden.  But even more it can be seen as a meditation on the corrupting influence of money and success on the arts. In one of the most revealing moments, Patti Smith reflects on the ambivalence that artists have about such matters. Speaking over the image of a Time Magazine cover, she says that Kerouac both hated what had become of him—the bad-boy “beatnik” darling of the mass media—as well as addicted to the very things that transformed him into such a commodity.

The movie has an outstanding cast of interviewees. Some are Kerouac’s contemporaries like Laurence Felinghetti, Kerouac’s girl friend Joyce Johnson (an outstanding writer in her own right; her “Minor Characters” is a must-read for those curious about the beats), Carolyn Cassady, and Michael McClure. There are also younger admirers of Kerouac like Smith, Tom Waits, and Sam Shepard. Every single one of them, it should be added, is intimately familiar with the corrupting influences of fame. Poor Sam Shepard, once one of the most gifted playwrights in the U.S., long ago became a mediocre Hollywood actor. One supposes that he makes more money in one film that he made as a playwright over a 2 or 3 year span. What a waste.

Kerouac’s novel was based on his experiences living in Big Sur as he tried to get over his addiction to alcohol and return to his roots as literary/mystical seer. He lived by himself in Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s cabin near the ocean and struggled largely in vain to stay away from San Francisco, where his fame could always draw a crowd of admirers at a North Beach saloon, as well as free drinks. After spending a weekend in debauchery at such places, Kerouac would return to his cabin and feel miserable for days on end. At the end of the novel, after one too many weekends in hell, he has a nervous breakdown that is described with great emotional and literary power.

The movie visits the cabin where Kerouac stayed as well as the North Beach neighborhoods that were his perdition. Interspersed are readings from “Big Sur” by John Ventimiglia, the actor who played Artie Bucco on “The Sopranos”. Ventimiglia, like everybody else, is a great admirer of Kerouac and manages to sound exactly like the writer but without the affectations usually associated with such performances.

Like millions of other teenagers, I became a big Kerouac fan after reading “On the Road” in 1959 or so. Ironically, I only discovered that Kerouac existed from reading Time Magazine, my periscope into a world different from the suffocating small town that I lived in. Two years later I was at Bard College, a kind of beat generation outpost in the early 60s along with other “alternative” colleges. Needless to say, Leon Botstein has made that place more “respectable” while draining all the energy and creativity out of it.

With a title like “Big Sur”, I expected Kerouac’s new novel to be one long feast of bebop, drugs, poetry and madness. It turned out there was madness but not the kind I expected. To this day, I have vivid memories of Kerouac’s harrowing confessional outpourings. Unfortunately, not much of the book is available on the Internet but these few observations/quotes from the Rainblessed website should give you an idea of what’s in Kerouac’s most powerful novel:

Towering cliffs, fog-banked canyon, roaring surf and the little cabin near the meadow and creek: Jack Kerouac went to Big Sur to escape his clamorous fans and the resulting circus of his life in Long Island. He went for peace and to write a poem about the sea sounds, a kind of Beat Jazz Serenade of Nature. Briefly, among premonitions of madness, he found a gentle peace.

Although Jack loves people and long talks, his new fame is incredibly stressful. As much as he enjoys rollicking orgies of booze and conversation, it seems to pull him down into mornings-after of despair.

…Drunken visitors puking in my study, stealing books and even pencils …Me drunk practically all the time to put on a jovial cap to keep up with all this but finally realizing I was surrounded and out numbered and had to get away to solitude again or die

I wake up drunk, sick, disgusted, frightened, in fact terrified by that sad song across the roofs mingling with the lachrymose cries of a Salvation Army meeting on the corner below “Satan is the cause of your alcoholism, Satan is the cause of your immorality, Satan is everywhere workin to destroy you unless you repent now” and worse than that the sound of old drunks throwing up in rooms next to mine, the creak of hall steps, the moans everywhere –Including the moan that had awakened me, my own moan in the lumpy bed, a moan caused by a big roaring Whoo Whoo in my head that had shot me out of my pillow like a ghost.

Alone in the Big Sur cabin, he is able to shake off his demons here and there. But always, bittersweet and dangerous, there are people hunting him down, firing him up, but also exhausting him.

Big Sur also has a tender image of Dean Moriarty (called Cody in this story) in case you wondered about him some years on from On the Road. Cody seems relatively softened and clarified following two years in San Quentin prison (for marijuana possession) and a return to wife and children:

…in the same cell with a murderous gunman…I expect him to be all bitter and out of his head because of this but strangely and magnificently he’s become quieter, more radiant, more patient, manly, more friendly even –and tho the wild frenzies of his old road days with me have banked down he still has the same taut eager face and supple muscles and looks like he’s ready to go anytime –But actually loves his home, loves his wife in a way tho they fight some, loves his kids …wants immediately to challenge somebody to a chess game but only has an hour to talk to us before he goes to work supporting the family by rushing out and pushing his Nash Rambler down the quiet Los Gatos suburb street, jumping in, starting the motor, in fact his only complaint is that the Nash wont start without a push –No bitter complaints about society whatever from this grand and ideal man who really loves me moreover as if I deserved it…

Movie website: http://www.kerouacfilms.com/onefastmove/index.html

October 19, 2009

Michael Yates’s “In and Out of the Working Class”

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 6:20 pm

Yates, Michael: In and Out of the Working Class, Arbeiter Ring Publishing Winnipeg, 2009, ISBN 978-1-894037-35-8, 217 pages.

(Swans – October 19, 2009)   In the course of reading Michael Yates’s collection of essays “In and Out of the Working Class”, it dawned on me that I prefer reading memoirs to novels in the same way that I generally prefer documentary to fiction films. If the essence of literature, as Henry James once pointed out, is character, then you are forced to stick with the truth. The explanation for this is socioeconomic and historical. Now that we have reached the end of the tether for American imperialism, which was correctly likened to Nero’s Rome in Michael Moore’s Capitalism: a Love Story, Hollywood and mainstream publishing have a vested interest in escapist fare that takes the minds of the citizenry off their real problems. Plots and characters become more and more removed from the reality we face, and hence less interesting.

It should be mentioned that while four pieces are labeled fiction, they are very closely related in subject matter and perspective to those labeled nonfiction — namely the conflicted lives of working people from the vantage point of the author, a lifelong academic who emerged — or escaped — from their world. Michael Yates’s writing is interesting in the same way that the literature of the 1930s remains interesting. Despite the fact that American society is made up in its vast majority by people who sell their labor power — to use a bit of the Marxist lexicon — they are almost invisible today. Like African-American Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, a novel about a black man’s search for identity in racist America, the worker is of little interest to the professional writer, except perhaps as an object of ridicule as in television shows like The King of Queens.

read full review: http://www.swans.com/library/art15/lproy56.html

October 17, 2009

A Serious Man; The Informant!

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 10:47 pm

With the New York Film Critics Online annual awards meeting only a couple months away, I decided to make time in my busy schedule for some mainstream movies. Instead of my usual fare of strident leftwing documentaries and neorealist fictional movies from semi-peripheral countries, I decided to check out some of the Hollywood blockbusters now showing in New York. Of course, this does not mean going to something like “Couples Retreat”, which for me is an experience more dreaded than cataract surgery.

Instead I decided to check out the latest movies by “edgy” directors who started out as indies. I fully expected to dislike all of them but was pleasantly surprised by Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds”, a movie that I will review separately in conjunction with an obscure movie about the General’s plot directed by G.W. Pabst, who was referred to knowingly in Basterds. As you may know, much of the action takes place in a Parisian movie theater commandeered by the Nazi high command that speaks reverentially of Pabst and actor Emil Jannings.

The other two did not pass muster. Stephen Soderberg’s “The Informant!” was based on a book about Mark Whitacre, a whistle blower who helped the FBI nail top executives at Archer-Daniels-Midland involved in price-fixing while he was embezzling millions from the company himself. Despite the nominally socio-economic backdrop, the movie is much more about Whitacre’s compulsive lying. If you liked Leonard DiCaprio in “Catch Me If You Can”, then you might like this one. I had no use for either film since the central characters were so off-putting and difficult to identify with. Why spend eleven dollars to see movies about characters that are so much like those who are running the country?

As off-putting as Mark Whitacre was, he was a Shakespearean hero in comparison to Larry Gopnik, the anti-hero of the Coen brothers’ “A Serious Man”. This is a reworking of the biblical tale of Job with Larry Gopnik, a Jewish physics professor, dealing with unappreciative family members and the vicissitudes of getting tenure. Job, by comparison, loses all his possessions and his family members die. I guess the people who wrote the story of Job had an underdeveloped sense of irony, a sensibility that unites Soderberg, the Coen brothers, Tarantino and two other directors who are in the pantheon of Hollywood bankables today: Tim Burton and David Cronenberg. As a rule of thumb, you will not find them making movies that follow past conventions in terms of character and plot. When you enter their world, you are never sure whether you are watching comedy or tragedy since the directors tend to use their principal characters mainly as a foil for their own mixture of nihilism and postmodernist smirking. Now this can often be entertaining, but in the case of these two new films you get a sense that the style has built in limitations.

As I walked out of “A Serious Man”, I tried to explain to an old friend why it was so dissatisfying. The main character is totally passive and takes each indignity without much complaint, even to the point of moving into a ratty motel on orders from his wife who has found a new lover. Since the heart of drama is struggle, I explained to him, it is a big letdown when the hero of a movie is such a “schlemiel”, a Yiddish term meaning loser. At least with the biblical Job, he knows how to make his own case forcefully before Yahweh:

When I say, My bed shall comfort me,
my couch shall ease my complaint;
then thou scarest me with dreams,
and terrifiest me through visions:
so that my soul chooseth strangling,
and death rather than my life.
I loathe it; I would not live alway:
let me alone; for my days are vanity.
What is man, that thou shouldest magnify him?
and that thou shouldest set thine heart upon him?

In some ways, “A Serious Man” demonstrates all the flaws of the Coens’ “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”, a reworking of Homer’s Odyssey. Without the grandeur of Homer’s characters, all you end up with is a kind of road movie that requires the talent of a Preston Sturges to pull off. Without a finely honed sense of comedy, the best that Coen brothers can come up with is characters that they can feel superior to while hoping that the audience can share the joke. In Preston Sturges’s Depression-era comedies, you cheer for the characters. Set in the same historical period, the characters of “O Brother, Where Art Thou” are involved with what film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum calls pop nihilism.

If it is impossible to conceive of “A Serious Man” in biblical terms, it is even more impossible to see it as satire about Jewish middle-class life. Unlike “Goodbye Columbus” or “The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz”, there is a kind of surreal quality to the goings on in suburban Minneapolis that suggests David Lynch rather than Larry David. There are some laughs in the movie but they are mostly in the vein of a Kafka novel rather than the glorious traditions of Jewish comedy. Indeed, the main feeling you get from “A Serious Man” is that of a character waking up one morning and discovering that he has been turned into an insect. In the right hands, this could provide a bunch of yuks. In the case of “A Serious Man”, all you are left with is 105 minutes worth of cringing.

Turning now to the mess that Soderberg wrought, it should be obvious that he is obsessed with dissembling. From “Sex, Lies and Videotape”, his “indie” premier, to his pop confections in the Oceans 10, 11 and 12 series, he appears to enjoy writing about liars and con artists.

I wonder if Soderberg is subconsciously making a connection between conning people and movie making, something that was openly made by Orson Welles in “F is for Fake”, his excellent documentary about hoaxes, covering the artist Elmyr de Hory who cranked out fake “Picassos” or “Chagalls” for ill-gotten gain to Clifford Irving, the author of the infamous Howard Hughes memoir hoax. In one key passage, Welles tells us that he was no different from de Hory or Irving, especially when he unleashed his 1938 radio version of “War of the Worlds” on the gullible public.

One can certainly understand why Matt Damon was cast as Mark Whitacre. In both Soderberg’s Ocean series and the unforgettable “The Talented Mr. Ripley”, Damon is adept at acting as a liar, in a kind of Escherian funhouse mirror.

When we first meet Mark Whitacre, he seems the pinnacle of normalcy living in a comfortable house with an adoring wife and a fleet of sports cars, ostensibly afforded through a handsome salary as a top executive of ADM.

But there’s something odd about him. As the movie progresses, we hear his stream-of-consciousness thoughts about everything and anything. We keep hearing Damon speaking Whitacre’s inner thoughts out loud–things like this: He is not sure whether the German sports car is pronounced “porsh” or “Portia.” He muses that Oscar de la Renta ties that are always on sale at the mall because nobody buys them.  It would be safe to say that James Joyce’s place in literary history will not be threatened by Soderberg’s monologues for Whitacre.

Eventually, the FBI investigates a story from Whitacre about ADM being blackmailed by an unidentified Japanese businessman in the grain processing business who has planted viruses in the ADM factory that destroys their commodities. When they learn that the story might have been fabricated, they are not discouraged since Whitacre, a seemingly virtuous character despite his talent for tall stories, assures them that there are bigger crimes going on at ADM. Higher-up’s are involved with a vast conspiracy that has forced higher prices for all the corn-syrup laden garbage in your grocery stores. The FBI persuades Whitacre to wear a tape recorder to meetings where the price-fixing takes place and through his efforts a number of executives are apprehended and imprisoned. Despite his role in uncovering the crimes, Whitacre ends up in the can himself for embezzling millions of dollars.

Toward the end of the movie, we finally learn that Whitacre’s compulsive lying and thieving were likely the result of a bipolar psychiatric disorder. Perhaps you can say that Soderberg succeeded in dramatizing the personality and behavior of a sick person, but it is a small victory considering his failure to make the character dramatically compelling. There is something uniquely one-dimensional and underdeveloped about the major character in the film, owing to his obvious detachment from reality. There is no attempt to make him sympathetic. Soderberg is mostly interested in presenting the audience with a kind of freak show that is worth neither the price of a ticket nor 108 minutes of squirming in your seat over the suffering of a character in the name of dark comedy.

October 16, 2009

Latin Music addendum

Filed under: Latin America,music — louisproyect @ 12:35 am

Desi Arnaz, husband to and co-star with Lucille Ball of the I Love Lucy Show in the 1950s when Latin Music was first taking off, performs “Babalu Aiye”, a Yoruban hymn to the Orisha god of death and healing. When I was a kid, we used to love to sing “Babalu”, the Afro-Cuban Santeria chant that slaves brought over from the Yoruba kingdom.

October 14, 2009

PBS Latin music documentary

Filed under: Latin America,music — louisproyect @ 4:13 pm

Departing from its usual stodgy, white bread fare, PBS has scheduled a two-part series on Latin Music. The first part aired last Monday night and can be viewed on their website as well, a benefit for those who are outside of the USA.

Part one focused on Afro-Cuban music and particularly the Fania Records phenomenon. When I was collecting vinyl records, I bought at least 50 Fania Records starting from the mid 70s until the label began to peter out after its sale in 1979. Fania was the place to go if you wanted to hear artists like Willie Colon, Ruben Blades, and Larry Harlow—all of whom are interviewed for this superb documentary. Now in their 50s and 60s, they reflect back on the golden age of Salsa, a term that was practically synonymous with the Fania label. The best way to think of Salsa is Afro-Cuban musician adapted to the streets of New York City. It is still played but without the passion and creativity of the 1970s. Like the jazz of that period, it was an art form that reached maturity and now exists only as a pale shadow of its golden age. And just as the Blue Note label epitomized classic modern jazz, so did the Fania label epitomize Salsa.

Part one puts Salsa into historical context, showing the importance of a Cuban musician like Israel “Cachao” Lopez who along with his brother Orestes López practically invented the Mambo in the 1940s. Cachao died in 2008 at the age of 90 but I had the great fortune to see him in concert. This is from my review:

While I’m sure just about everybody is aware of the phenomenon of Afro-Cuban music, or the derivative “salsa”, some words are in order about the origins of this music. Afro-Cuban music is distinguished by a rhythm known as “clave”, the Spanish word for key. This is a one-two-THREE, one-two beat that underlies all the various forms, from Mambo to Rumba to Charanga (what evolved into the 1950s dance craze, the cha-cha.) The music is characterized by improvisations on a repeated theme that grow in intensity. Imagine Ravel’s Bolero with a driving bongo beat and passionate lead singer and you get the idea.

The music is a marriage of African percussion and Spanish dance music that originated on the island of Cuba in the 1920s. A typical Afro-Cuban conjuto (band) consisted of African percussion instruments–bongo, timbale, conga–and some combination of brass, piano and strings. A key component was a coro (chorus) or lead singer who sang in a nasal, high-pitched style that evoked the folk singers of the countryside. Some musicologists speculate that this singing style was derived from the slaves’ attempt to vocally imitate the sounds of the guitar that they heard being played inside the plantation.

Two of the great pioneers of the style were the blind guitar player Arsenio Rodriguez and bandleader Benny More. Rodriguez adopted the polite danzon style of the predominantly white middle-class Cuban society and adapted it for performance in working-class African dance-halls in the 1930s. His driving guitar and the tight percussion ensembles that accompanied him captured the imagination of Cuban society. More’s band adapted the swing style of contemporaries like Count Basie and he performed before huge audiences in Havana throughout the 1940s and 50s. His music in turn influenced American Jazz, especially Dizzy Gillespie’s Afro-Cuban Jazz orchestras of the 1940s and 50s. Gillespie hired the Cuban percussionist Chano Pozo and the arranger Machito to help him incorporate the distinctive style.

Cachao…was born in 1918. He plays bass and was a member of the Havana Symphony orchestra for 30 years. He invented the Mambo in the 1940s. He arrived in the United States in 1963 and has never performed in Cuba since the revolution. Along with the singer Celia Cruz, Cachao is a symbol of the generation of Afro-Cuban musicians who felt more comfortable as expatriates. Cruz is an outspoken enemy of the Cuban revolution, while Cachao keeps his beliefs to himself for the most part.

Watching this show put me in a nostalgic mood, reminding me of my encounters with Latin music for over 50 years. Back in the mid 1950s, my Boy Scout troupe took Latin dancing lessons. We learned the mambo and the cha-cha-cha, which the documentary describes as a simplified Mambo. This was around the time of the Honeymooner’s episode when Jackie Gleason as the bus driver Ralph Kramden takes lessons as well. One of the most popular musicians of the time was Perez Prado, whose “Patricia”, a typical cha-cha-cha, was a huge hit.

In Kramden’s Brooklyn and the Catskill Mountains, where I grew up, Latin music was extremely popular with Jews. Larry Harlow muses that for some reason Jews took to Chinese food and Latin music. In the Borscht Belt hotels of my youth, you could always hear Tito Puente and other stars performing before adoring fans. Harlow was born as Lawrence Ira Kahn in Brooklyn in 1939. On his way to his classical piano lessons in East Harlem as a young boy, he was mesmerized by the sounds of Afro-Cuban music and resolved to become a Latin musician himself. Other Latin musicians referred to him as el Judio Maravilloso. Here’s the young Larry Harlow performing a classic Cuban tune “La Cartera”:

In 1966 I lived on the second floor of a tenement in Hoboken, New Jersey while going to graduate school. My apartment was above Felix’s restaurant, a lunch counter that catered to Latino longshoremen. This was long before Hoboken was transformed into a yuppie, hedge-fund manager playground. Sometimes I felt like I lived in Felix’s restaurant since the smell of bacon frying in the morning pervaded my apartment, as did the sounds of the juke box which blasted Latin music all day long. Although it is difficult to remember what they were playing, my guess is that it was what they call jibaro music, the sounds of the Puerto Rican countryside. As a Nuyorican, Willie Colon went back to the island frequently in order to learn how to play the music of his gente. The fruits of this labor was “There Goes the Neighborhood” (Se Chavó El Vecindario), an album featuring Hector Lavoe as lead singer and traditional Puerto Rican trombonist Mon Rivera.

A year later a friend who lived in the same tenement, who was always on the lookout for the latest thing happening in music, suggested we take in a concert featuring Eddie Palmieri who I knew nothing about. Palmieri did not record for Fania, but his albums were among the best-selling of that period. He is still going strong at the age of 73. Palmieri is an incredible song writer and pianist strongly influenced by Thelonious Monk and McCoy Tyner. And like Willie Colon and Ruben Blades, his music has always been socially aware without being didactic. Here he is in a 2008 performance of “Palo pa’ Rumba”. This is among the greatest music of the past half-century:

October 12, 2009

Food Beware

Filed under: Ecology,farming,Film — louisproyect @ 4:33 pm

Opening Thursday at the Quad Cinema in New York and available in home video on November 17th, “Food Beware: the French Organic Revolution” is a companion piece to films like “Food Inc.” and “The Future of Food” that detail the harm done to consumer and nature by chemical farming.

But “Food Beware” has an added dimension, going one step further to make the case that the cancer epidemic of our epoch is directly related to the chemical-laden agriculture that has been largely adopted in the pursuit of profit. Originally titled “Nos enfants nous accuseront”, this documentary by Jean-Paul Jaud explores the same deadly nexus that is the subject of Sandra Steingraber’s “Living Downstream”. Stricken by bladder cancer in her 20s, Steingraber—a biologist and poet—sought to make the connections between cancer and the toxins that seeped into the waters of her Illinois farming community. In that book she wrote:

To the 89 percent of Illinois that is farmland, an estimated 54 million pounds of synthetic pesticides are applied each year. Introduced into Illinois at the end of World War II, these chemical poisons quietly familiarized themselves with the landscape. In 1950, less than 10 percent of cornfields were sprayed with pesticides. In 1993, 99 percent were chemically treated.

This is exactly the same threat that the people living in the small, rustic farming village of Barjac faced when the mayor decided to make the school lunch organic. Alarmed by a spike in cancer rates in an area dominated by chemical-based farming, the Communist mayor Edouard Chaulet (an affiliation unfortunately not identified in the movie) decides to take action against a cancer epidemic that has become generalized in Europe as the press kid for “Food Beware” indicates:

  • In Europe every year, 100,000 children die of diseases caused by the environment.
  • In Europe 70% of cancers are linked to the environment: 30% to pollution and 40% to food.
  • In Europe cases of cancer in children have been increasing by 1.1% yearly for 30 years.
  • In France the number of cancers in males has increased by 93% in 25 years.

Despite the clearly polemical—and urgently needed—focus of the movie, it does not preach to the audience and even sustains a meditative and lyrical quality throughout. Nestled beneath the Cévennes Mountains in south-central France, the village of Barjac and the surrounding fields look like something out of an impressionist painting. Furthermore, despite having all the reason in the world to be outraged by being victimized by toxic chemicals, the villagers appear more interested in creating alternatives to the existing system than confronting the powers that be. Since many of their friends and neighbors are farmers using carcinogenic pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers, perhaps they have no choice in the matter unless they were willing to fight a kind of civil war.

Some of the more interesting moments of this very human drama involve local organic farmers and their chemical-based counterparts having discussions about whether it is feasible to make the transition to all-organic, exploring the social and economic factors that divide the two groups. Relying wholly on the testimony of the interviewees rather than direct commentary, the audience hears the case for organics in strictly economic terms—a clear rebuttal to those who condemn organic farming as impractical and expensive. Considering the subsidies that chemical-based farming receives as well as the damage it does to soil and water resources, not to speak of the collateral damage it does to human beings, it condemns itself in both economic and human terms.

The movie arrives at a time when the food production system has received intense scrutiny. Yesterday, when I watched the screener, the Sunday NY Times Magazine section had a special Food Issue. One article promoted vegetarianism and another considered the calorie-restriction diet, a regimen that allows people to live far longer and with fewer ailments like diabetes and heart disease based on statistics. There was also an article by Michael Pollan touting “Rules to Eat By”. Along with the Times’s Mark Bittman, whose most recent book “Food Matters” worries about unsustainable agriculture, Pollan has become one of the major spokesmen for the values upheld in movies like “Food Inc.” and “Food Beware”.

But there is not a neat fit between the Food Revolution and the more traditional ideas about revolution upheld by people like Barjac’s Communist mayor. Pollan became a lightning rod for criticism after he urged people to continue shopping at Whole Foods. After John Mackey, the libertarian founder of Whole Foods, had written an article in the Wall Street Journal attacking government involvement in health care, there were calls for boycotting his stores. Using his reputation as a prophet of healthy eating, Pollan denounced the boycott using a singularly tortured logic:

John Mackey’s views on health care, much as I disagree with them, will not prevent me from shopping at Whole Foods. I can understand why people would want to boycott, but it’s important to play out the hypothetical consequences of a successful boycott. Whole Foods is not perfect, however if they were to disappear, the cause of improving Americans’ health by building an alternative food system, based on more fresh food, pastured and humanely raised meats and sustainable agriculture, would suffer. I happen to believe health care reform has the potential to drive big changes in the food system, and to enlist the health care industry in the fight to reform agriculture. How? Because if health insurers can no longer pick and choose their clients, and throw sick people out, they will develop a much stronger interest in prevention, which is to say, in changing the way America feeds itself.

There is also some reason to question the NY Times’s commitment to healthy eating despite the frequent publication of Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman’s articles on eating healthy. Their science pages have been polluted for some years now by the writings of John Tierney, a libertarian who never saw a chemical he didn’t like. On June 5th 2007, Tierney mocked Rachel Carsons for warning of “a cancer epidemic that never came to pass.” He also touted the work of I. L. Baldwin, a professor of agricultural bacteriology at the University of Wisconsin who believes that “civilization depended on farmers and doctors fighting ‘an unrelenting war’ against insects, parasites and disease.”

Possibly an even worse offender is the NY Times’s Gina Kolata, who has virtually made a profession out of denying links between chemical pollutants and cancer, notwithstanding (or perhaps because of) being a sibling of Judi Bari, the environmental activist who was killed by a bomb planted in her car. In an article published in the July 6th 1998 Nation Magazine, environmental journalist/activist Mark Dowie pointed out:

On March 19, 1996, two long stories by Kolata appeared in the Science Times section. “Some environmentalists are asserting that humans and wildlife are facing a new and serious threat from synthetic chemicals,” reads Kolata’s lead, ignoring the fact that Colborn’s hypothesis was drawn not from environmentalists but from the work of more than 400 scientists, all of whose names and numbers were provided to the Times. Throughout the main article she uses the “e” word repeatedly to describe Colborn and Myers, though both have doctorates in zoology. And she calls Myers’s employer, The W. Alton Jones Foundation, “an environmental group.” (The private foundation dedicates only part of its philanthropy to environmental issues.) Kolata invokes the expertise of Dr. Bruce Ames of the University of California, Berkeley, and Dr. Stephen Safe of Texas A&M, as she has often before, to counter Colborn and Myers’s hypothesis. Ames is an active adviser to The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition (TASSC), a corporate-supported “watchdog coalition that advocates the use of sound sciences in public policy.” TASSC has about 900 members, 375 of whom are scientists. The rest are executives from the chemical, oil, dairy, timber, paper, mining, manufacturing and agribusiness industries seeking ways to defend their products in media and the courts.

Ultimately, the cognitive dissonance at work in the pages of the NY Times points to the political paralysis that prevents major reforms from taking place in American society as well as other major industrialized countries like France. The powers-that-be recognize that humanity is threatened by greenhouse gases, chemical-based farming, exhaustion of the world’s fishing stocks, mountaintop removal in coal country and a myriad of other environmental problems but they stop short of attacking the root of these problems, namely production on the basis of profit.

As the crisis deepens, with all its attendant symptoms from the cancer epidemic to species extinctions, the understanding that a radical change is necessary will seep into the consciousness of those who have the power to change the system, namely the working people who bear the brunt of unhealthy food, chemical pollution and other hazards that constantly lowering wages leaves them vulnerable to. A NY Times editor or a hedge fund manager can afford all the healthy food and the best medical care required to fix the illnesses that attack even the wealthy but the world we need should make it possible for everybody to live well, not just the rich. If it takes socialism to make that world possible, then let’s move forward.

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