Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 20, 2013

Poetry notes

Filed under: literature — louisproyect @ 8:32 pm

Paul Pines

Quite by coincidence two very interesting items that fall within the general rubric of poetry arrived in my mailbox within the last week. One was the long and very interesting article by Mark Edmundson titled “Poetry Slam, Or, The decline of American verse” that was part of the July 2013 Harper’s, a magazine that I have been subscribed to for three decades now. The other was Paul Pines’s latest book of poems titled “New Orleans Variations & Paris Ouroboros”, a collection that serves as a counter-example to the malaise described by Edmundson. While I don’t want to get a reprimand from Harper’s web-master about purloining their intellectual property (and worse?), I think that quotes qualify as “fair use”:

Contemporary American poetry speaks its own confined language, not ours. It is, by and large, pure. It does not generally traffic in the icons of pop culture; it doesn’t immerse itself in ad-speak, rock lyrics, or politicians’ posturing: it gravitates to the obscure, the recondite, the precious, the ancient, trying to get outside the mash of culture that surrounds it. The result is poetry that can be exquisite, but that has too few resources to use to take on consequential events.

 Mass culture and mechanical reproduction surely play a part in the current retreat of American poetry, but what about MFA programs? Poetry now is something of a business. You make your way into the game by getting a sponsor: often it’s a writer in residence from your undergraduate school. Then come the MFA and the first book, both of which usually require sponsorship—which is to say pull.

 To thrive in this process you often must write in the mode of the mentor—you must play the game that is there to be played. You must be a member of the school, you must sing in the correct key. If you try to overwhelm the sponsor, explode his work into irrelevance—well, the first law of success is simple: Never outshine the master. The well-tempered courtier knows how to make those above him feel superior. He knows that in his desire to succeed he must not go too far in displaying what he can do. The master will not like it—and there will be no first book, no fellowship, no job, no preferment. It is only by making the master look more accomplished, by writing in his mode, becoming a disciple, that the novice ascends.

When reading this it dawned on me that academy-based poets trying to “make it”, to invoke the title of Norman Podhoretz’s memoir about his climb to the top of the literary establishment, have lots in common with dissertation students who shy away from writing something that will irk a member of their board. Since their career is on the line, they avoid sounding too “Marxist” or any other ism that is frowned upon in the academy.

Paul Pines took another route entirely as should be obvious from the home page of his website.

Paul Pines grew up in Brooklyn around the corner from Ebbets Field and passed the early sixties on the Lower East Side of New York. He shipped out as a merchant seaman, spending 1965-66 in Vietnam, after which he drove a taxi and tended bar until he opened The Tin Palace in 1970, the setting for his novel, The Tin Angel (Wm Morrow, 1983). Redemption (Editions du Rocher, 1997), a second novel, is set against the genocide of Guatemalan Mayans. My Brother’s Madness(Curbstone, 2007) a memoir, has recently enjoyed wide critical acclaim.

This sort of background is equal to a thousand MFA’s. Oddly enough, it reminds me of what Karl Marx wrote to W. Bracke in 1875: “Every step of real movement is more important than a dozen programmes.”

Perhaps the best illustration of Paul’s ability to write some of the most memorable and finely wrought poems of anybody on the scene today is the first one in the series titled “HELLO FROM NOLA” (NOLA is New Orleans, Louisiana):


I dress up for Mardi-gras
in a costume provided
by my hostess

on the package
Jesus, “one size
fits all.”

a long white gown
a red sash
a wild wig of auburn curls
down to my shoulders
and a beard
I can’t secure
to my ears which
are too small
must finally pin to
my “soft” crown
of thorns

When I appear
my hostess
“You look more
like a rabbi.”

I point out that many
called him this
which is what he
probably was.

Another in our group

“He looks more
like Moses.”

On our way through
the French Quarter
to a party
in Jackson Square
at La Petit Theatre
(oldest community
theater in the U.S.)
celebrants ask
for my blessing
attempt to kiss
the hem of my

I confess relief
when a beefy guy
in a New Orleans Saints
football jersey jumps
in front of me

“Hail, Bacchus!”

obviously mistaking
my crown of thorns
for grape leaves.

“New Orleans Variations & Paris Ouroboros” can be ordered direct from the publisher: http://www.dosmadres.com/shop/new-orleans-variations-paris-ouroboros-by-paul-pines/.

June 7, 2013

George Scialabba: The Best Since Gore Vidal

Filed under: literature — louisproyect @ 8:09 pm

George Scialabba

Counterpunch Weekend Edition June 7-9, 2013
For the Republic: Political Essays
George Scialabba: The Best Since Gore Vidal

There’s a special place in my heart for writers whose day job is unconnected from their art. Whether it is Charles Bukowski sorting mail by day and writing profane short stories in the evening or fellow poet Wallace Stevens sitting behind a desk at Hartford Insurance, I have to believe that the flame burns brighter when you are writing “on your own time”.

And within that special place, there are those people who held down administrative positions at universities, as I did at Columbia University for 21 years until retiring last August. One of them was Hal Draper who worked as a microfilm acquisitions librarian at Berkeley by day while making major contributions to Marxist theory by night, including the five-volume Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution. Of course, his night hours were freed up for this kind of productive work once he severed his ties to a group called International Socialism, a forerunner of the ISO whose members have laid siege to CounterPunch in recent weeks. When he quit the IS in 1971, he summed the experience up in a way that could apply to the entire alphabet soup of “Leninist” sects: “From behind its organizational walls, it sends out scouting parties to contact the working class, and missionaries to convert two here and three there.”

And then there’s George Scialabba. After starting out as a substitute teacher and a Welfare Department caseworker, the same jobs I held down in the 1960s before becoming a computer programmer, he got a job as a building manager at Harvard University, his alma mater. When I met George at a book party for his newly published For the Republic: Political Essays on the upper west side (where else?) a month or so ago, I could not help but chuckle. You are one of those facilities people, I said with a knowing smile. (I pictured him in a windbreaker with his name stenciled on the breast pocket training a flashlight on a delinquent boiler.)

The hostess of the book party was a Harvard graduate herself and spoke glowingly about her contacts with George as an undergraduate. She described him as part of the broader milieu of the campus that made her education such a memorable experience. If I had introduced George, I would have gone a bit further. Considering all of the scandalous muck-a-mucks who have spoken in the name of the university over the years, from Alan Dershowitz to Larry Summers, I would say that the school would have had a much better reputation if George had been in charge.

Probably we are better off that he has focused on what he is cut out for: reviewing books and writing political essays. Notwithstanding the very real possibility that print publishing is going the way of the blacksmith, we are blessed to have someone as good at that craft as George Scialabba who I would count as one of the best we have since the passing of Gore Vidal.

full: http://www.counterpunch.org/2013/06/07/the-lacking-leninists/

April 1, 2013


Filed under: Film,literature — louisproyect @ 12:59 am

March 21, 2013

Kirill Medvedev’s “It’s No Good”

Filed under: literature,Russia — louisproyect @ 4:53 pm

A few months ago I got a copy of this book from Keith Gessen, a contributor and editor at N+1 who covers the Russia beat. Keith is a friend of Marxmailer Thomas Campbell who is a member of Chto Delat (What is to be Done), a collective of artists and intellectuals in Russia who share Medvedev’s leftwing politics. Whether they share Medvedev’s love of Charles Bukowski, whose poems he has translated into Russian, I don’t know…

I was surprised that the NYT would review Medvedev’s book and even more surprised that it would be so flattering. I am including an excerpt from the review below as well as a  passage from “My Fascism”, a wonderful rant about the cultural and political rot in Putin’s Russia-that wonderful BRIC power that has the blood of 80,000 Syrians on its hands.

A Litany of Betrayals, Petty Yet Terrifying
‘It’s No Good’ by Kirill Medvedev
Published: March 20, 2013

The feminist Russian punk band Pussy Riot, some of its members recently imprisoned, stands for many things, notably opposition to the policies of Vladimir Putin. One of its best-known songs contains the line “Virgin birth-giver of God, drive away Putin!” Another is titled, depending on the translation, “Putin Is Wetting Himself.”

Kirill Medvedev

By Kirill Medvedev
Translated by Keith Gessen with Mark Krotov, Cory Merrill and Bela Shayevich
278 pages. n+1/Ugly Duckling Press. $16.

The band rejects the criminal capitalism so prevalent in Russia. When Madonna and Björk offered to perform alongside the group, a Pussy Riot member replied: “The only performances we’ll participate in are illegal ones. We refuse to perform as part of the capitalist system, at concerts where they sell tickets.”

This stance echoes one taken years earlier by the young Russian poet Kirill Medvedev, whose writing is introduced to American readers in “It’s No Good,” a spirited compendium translated by the novelist and n+1 magazine editor Keith Gessen, along with Mark Krotov, Cory Merrill and Bela Shayevich.

It’s not often you open a book, flip to its title page, and read a declaration like the one printed here: “Copyright denied by Kirill Medvedev, 2012.” He’s opted out of the literary world. He’s decided that his books will appear in pirate editions or not at all. Mr. Medvedev notes, in an observation that hangs over this book, “It’s strange now to think that business was once portrayed as the enemy of authority.”

In his introduction to “It’s No Good” Mr. Gessen calls Mr. Medvedev “Russia’s first genuinely post-Soviet writer.” It’s no surprise to learn that Mr. Medvedev and members of his folk-protest band, Arkady Kots, were detained by the police for performing in support of Pussy Riot.


From “My Fascism”:

Just as culture didn’t take advantage of the post-Soviet moment (to develop, to interrogate itself, to change), neither did business. There was no bourgeois revolution, no “rise of the middle class”; instead, we had the creation of a vulgar, vicious, largely ethnic-based clan capitalism. It was Komsomol activists who taught the new generation about contemporary values: careerism, success, drive, the “quick buck,” etc. These men told the young: “It’s best not to work at all, but if you must work, make sure you are paid for it well, unlike the losers who work as doctors, miners, teachers. He who has the money also has the power.” It’s strange now to think that business was once portrayed as the enemy of authority. During the 1990s, big business quietly tried to amass and secure power; now those in power are trying to do the same to big business. During the ’90s, it was “commercial structures” that evicted Muscovites from their apartments and shut off their electricity; now it is the government that does it, passing in the process what-ever laws it needs.

The rise of criminal capitalism in Russia in the 1990s took its toll on books as well. Toward the end of the decade, the publishing industry experienced a real boom. I’m not sure it was a particularly healthy or thriving industry, but somehow or other publishers were making money from books. This engendered the notion that a book could be an object of consumption. And in this way the anti-literary sentiment of the 1990s acquired, in a sense, an economic foundation. Russian literature-centrism seemed to be a thing of the past.

Around the same time, literature began to develop a more acute sense of politics. Literary critics became more sophisticated in this realm than art critics, who, along with the artists they studied, had previously enjoyed something of a monopoly on the analysis of contemporary life. The same phenomenon took place in literature proper. And so there was a breakthrough: tons of books were being published, including many from the West, but the translation and production of these books was carried out cheaply, as the spirit of economic competition was prioritized over aesthetic concerns. As a result, the concepts of rebellion, marginality, and political incorrectness, much like literature itself, were suddenly on the verge of total devaluation. Whether this is good or bad—whether in general it is good or bad when literature and other kinds of art become objects of merciless “Russian consumption” as though they were any other material commodity, depends on whether one approves of the social/political system that has taken shape in Russia, or not, and whether one believes that art has the power to change it. Either way, the triumph of consumerism eventually begat a backlash, a movement in the opposite direction—toward a more politicized literature. Scandals erupted, lawsuits against authors were filed, and some books were even publicly and symbolically destroyed while others were banned from bookstores. Technically all these bannings and lawsuits came from the authorities, but at the center of them, in my view, was a resurgent sense that literature was a central element of Russian consciousness—a sense that had started to lose its footing in the post-Soviet chaos.

(In general, all this darting back and forth between scorn for Russian logocentrism and profound dependence on it must seem funny to anyone who holds a reasoned, Western view that the whole concept of national identity should be treated with extreme skepticism. What’s the point? What good does it do anyone? And is the root of evil in Russian logocentrism? In other words, is logo-centrism a compensatory mechanism in the face of irrelevance and ideological stagnation, or is it in fact our only bulwark against the kind of evil that does not utter any words at all and refuses to listen to anyone else’s? It’s possible that both are the case. Recall, for example, the fate of Russian Conceptualism, which in the process of tearing free from the overpowering mythology of Soviet literary culture developed its own ambitions to power, and achieved for itself influence and wealth.)

Right now the government has begun to take an interest in culture, and before long it may decide that it won’t be able to create a national idea without dragging literature into it. I mean, if it bothers to think that long about it. But even now there is talk of creating a government-sponsored system of literary prizes, and of creating a unified writers’ union, like in 1932, and so on.

In this way, literature, if it wants to have any kind of special status—whether privileged or shunned, which in some sense comes to the same thing—and therefore any kind of special effect, either needs to hope for help from the authorities in the form of direct repression (like the incarceration of Eduard Limonov), or else it needs to take itself out of the frame of the current cultural and economic paradigm—all the while knowing that these kinds of experiments are often in danger of total failure and collapse.

Here I’d like to move away from global problems and talk for a bit about my own small personal relations with culture and literature. I should say that I’m not urging anyone to do as I have done; I just want to explain my position.

Three years ago I wrote a poem about how I wasn’t going to translate anymore, because I didn’t want to work for publishers and participate in the formation of a new bourgeois culture. It’s not that I was dead set on following this rule, but it turned out that, for a while, I really didn’t translate much. It was hard for me to stop translating; I’d considered this my calling. But in my logocentric imagination, it was better to renounce one’s gift than to force it to depend on the market. And I still remember how not a single publisher wanted to print my translations of Charles Bukowski’s poetry. “POEMS??!!” they’d say. I’d get upset but also understand that this was the way of things. Now Bukowski is well-known in Russia and gets published all the time. A large publisher recently put out a book of his poems, but I felt like I was no longer interested, this was no longer what I was doing. I had a similar experience when the magazine Afisha asked me to participate in a photo shoot with other young poets, and I said no. What else could I say? What I should have said is: Why didn’t you come earlier, why didn’t you come three years ago? THEN I WOULD HAVE SAID YES. WHY ARE YOU SO BAD AT FOLLOWING THE CULTURAL PROCESS? In truth, I don’t enjoy any of this, these refusals, but there’s nothing I can do—if something is easy to get, you should probably refuse it, but more than that I always feel the dark corners of Moscow tugging at me—even now they still exist, even as they’re being destroyed and sterilized, and I need to return to them, to run from the glossy magazines, into those folds of humiliation and failure that I came from, and that have always produced the literature that means the most to me. I’m a child of the Russian intelligentsia, I’m a person of culture, and culture for me does not consist of rhymes and motifs, but of legends, of gossip, like a thread winding through the centuries, like a moral (as in the moral of a tale), like air—and that’s the only thing worth inheriting (not the “outlines of a poetics” or whatever). This is the only cultural inheritance that interests me. I’d like to be the descendant of Leonid Gubanov, the Moscow poet who was trampled and humiliated and yet never gave in to the Soviet authorities, and of Roald Mandelstam17, who died in poverty and obscurity. Their voices cry inside me, I want to record an album of their poetry, but I feel like I shouldn’t, or can’t, if I’m a poet with status who is part of the normalized mainstream.

Once, after performing in a poetry competition in Rome, I remember walking around that city, absolutely happy, a kind of successful poet on tour, half-Bukowski, half-Yevtushenko, a real VIP (and at the same time a child), sipping at a gigantic bottle of beer, which seemed to terrify the woman I was walking with, a young Swiss poet, and I remember thinking—or, no, at the time I couldn’t think it, but I felt it—that nothing better than this would ever happen to me, not, anyway, in this sense, and so I should probably not do it again. That all this recognition, such as it was, and the fact that I’d dreamed of this recognition for so long, changed nothing. You can’t change the world that way, you can’t rise to the next level of existence that way—you can only end up getting something for yourself, feeling like a conqueror for a short time. But your ambitions (my ambitions) won’t let you just be another conqueror in this city, in Rome. The people who came into the train station (the poetry competition took place in one of the chambers of the train station), and those reading my poems translated into Italian on the big screen in the waiting room, said that they liked the poems; I traveled there and back by bus, it was a long slow trip through daytime and nighttime Europe—I experienced a complete fugue state on the way—I felt like I could see and understand reality without actually coming into contact with it, I was untouchable, and on the way there and back I wrote a long poem whose reading six months later became my final public appearance as a poet.

I have a website, and I’m very happy that this is where my relations with the literary world end. I think this is a very simple and natural state of affairs. I see in this a kind of purity of genre, like a sonnet or haiku or a strictly organized architectural space. I understand that this is how thousands of poets exist. Many of them are talentless, but some are not, some are gifted, and there are probably those among them who are more gifted than I, but no one knows anything about them. In any case, I’m happy to be like them. And people will say: “You’re lying. Those poets are unknown and will die unknown, whereas you, in any case, won’t entirely disappear. This is just a game to you.” And yet I think that in the end this isn’t just a game.

I don’t like it when former victims, rebels, and avant-gardists become themselves masters of the culture. Like the actual revolutionaries they once modeled themselves on, they often become undisciplined and brutal masters. This is an old and boring story, as old as the world, one that one would really like to avoid in one’s own case.

The thing is that for worries such as I have, for qualms such as mine, people IN THIS SYSTEM often receive presents—and I would not like to receive any presents.

Of all the many kinds of artists that I know, the only one I like right now (and I should say that I am not this kind of artist yet myself, but I hope to be) is the artist-monk, who has (like a real monk) no rights, only responsibilities. His responsibility is to pray. That is, God in this instance is the social body, which gives some people the talent to move other people, and gives other people other qualities.., and in this context praying consists of living an honest life and creating uncompromising art so as to balance out the amount of dirt with which the rest of the social body is filled—be it a narrow stratum, or your nation, or all of humanity.

And the culture that I see around me is busy with other things—whether good things or bad things, they are things that don’t interest me, and so I don’t want to have any formal connection to this culture. Is that so hard to understand?

I am, of course, exaggerating. I’m forcing reality to fit under my favorite rubric of “it’s no good.” It’s not entirely true; some things are good; there are oases. It’s possible, for example, that there’s something interesting going on right now in the theater. I know for certain that in poetry at the beginning of this decade there was a surge, which went largely unnoticed within poetry circles, not to mention outside of them, because the world of poetry is still on the whole reactionary, even ideological liberals within it are aesthetically very reactionary. But the surge I’m talking about couldn’t help but happen, because tectonic shifts in the Russian language are taking place, there’s a very powerful process of rejuvenation, as at the beginning of the 19th century, and many successful experiments were attempted, by which you could easily measure the condition of contemporary Russian and its possibilities. You could even measure the condition and the possibilities of society in general by reading these poems.

The main conflict of this time—for Russia, a very serious one—was the conflict between received ideas of what poetry is and what it ought to be (simple and “soulful” versus intellectual and complex; rhyming versus free verse; “spoken” versus written, and so on) as against the idea, until recently foreign to these parts, that poetry is only the maximal expression, via the medium of language, of this or that authentic way of seeing, and that it is precisely this—the degree of its expressiveness—that is the only criterion by which you can determine its quality.

February 8, 2013

Dancing to Ferlinghetti’s Beat

Filed under: Film,literature — louisproyect @ 2:35 pm

Counterpunch Weekend Edition February 8-10, 2013

America’s Revolutionary Poet

Dancing to Ferlinghetti’s Beat


As you watch the 93-year-old Lawrence Ferlinghetti with shoulders squared back like a 21-year-old athlete striding briskly through the streets of San Francisco in the marvelous new documentary “Ferlinghetti: a Rebirth of Wonder”, it might occur to you that poetry and radical politics are the magic elixir that Ponce De Leon was searching for in vain.

As a seminal figure of the Beat Generation, Ferlinghetti is still going strong as are a number of other poets who pay tribute to him throughout the film, including Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, and Amiri Baraka (who started out as a beat poet named LeRoi Jones.) Though having departed to higher spiritual realms, Allen Ginsberg makes a striking appearance as well, sitting side by side with Ferlinghetti as they are interviewed on art and politics. The connection between the two is particularly intimate since Ferlinghetti risked prison time for publishing “Howl” back in 1956 through the auspices of City Lights Books, an offshoot of the bookstore he had launched a few years earlier.

full: http://www.counterpunch.org/2013/02/08/dancing-to-ferlinghettis-beat/

January 9, 2013

The Death of a Culture Warrior: Sol Yurick 1925-2013

Filed under: literature,obituary — louisproyect @ 4:55 pm

Sol Yurick

My take on a great radical writer’s contribution:


December 17, 2012

Bard College and the real world

Filed under: art,bard college,literature — louisproyect @ 6:18 pm

I have been reminded over the past few months why Bard College was such a special place for me. While I tend to avoid alumni cocktail parties, it has been a kind of virtual reunion as I connect to old friends and classmates through their art. When we were all in our late teens and early twenties, we had dreams of being poets and artists—including me. I took a detour in 1967 that led to little more than a 250 page FBI file but for the others—Richard Allen, Josephine Sacabo, Dalt Wonk, and Paul Pines—who stayed true to their artistic vision, the fruits have been sweeter. I suppose the one thing we all had in common was a willingness to stay true to our youthful dreams even as we confront the American Moloch whose soul is electricity and banks—as Allen Ginsberg put it in “Howl”.

Richard Allen

The first paragraph of Richard Allen’s introduction to “Street Shots/Hooky: New York City Photographs 1970s” certainly puts us in a Moloch frame of mind:

I woke up, New Year’s Day 1970, in a straitjacket. I had no memory, of anything, at least not at first. I was in an asylum on Long Island after taking an overdose of some pills a shrink gave me. Slowly awareness arose. First, I realized had to protect myself. Await… I asked to have the jacket removed and they did. Bit by bit memories came back. I could recall details of my childhood. I remembered I’d married my girlfriend Cathy, months ago, when she turned eighteen. Cathy and I had Peter, a son, now 6 months. In a few days I felt normal. Still, I had no job. But this is not my concern. No, it’s to finish editing a short comedy, completing a film I shot while on TV men landed on the moon. The film hung in hundreds of carefully cut strips an inch to many feet long, like drying fish, unique species, needing me. I had read a book on film editing and had just started when this came along.

I suppose that despite all his flaws, R.D. Laing was on to something when he described insanity as “a perfectly rational adjustment to an insane world.” The war in Vietnam, ghetto rebellions, psychedelics, the breakdown of the nuclear family, all worked together to make the case that we were living in an insane world, particularly those among us who were more open to such a perception—in other words, Bard College students.

If the world was going nuts, then Manhattan was the epicenter. Ironically it was also the epicenter of sanity since many of its denizens were striving to lead a life devoted to the arts and to peace. Richard Allen’s book brings back that 70s world to life. Despite all the horrors of the time, New York was a place of astonishing visual poetry. Using mostly black-and-white film and a Leica camera, Richard captured a moment in time. With the city now being taken over by hedge fund employees living in condominiums with Duane Reade pharmacies and nail parlors on the ground floor, you can get a good idea of what things were like 40 years or so from Richard’s collection. Nearly all of the photos are of people, and what’s more interesting than the characters of Manhattan? This is especially true when the photos are accompanied by the subjects’ words. After taking their photo, Richard invited them to identify themselves and offer up their impromptu thoughts. Ivan Bankoff tells Richard that he was once “the world’s greatest ballet dancer.” John Richardson, an African-American huddled against the wind, says, “If this is for posterity, tell them I’ve read Thoreau. And I know that love is the greatest thing.”

Here are some of my favorites:




“Street Shots/Hooky: New York City Photographs 1970s” can be purchased from the Book Culture stores near Columbia University and from BookCourt in Brooklyn. (Plans are afoot to make the book purchasable from amazon.com. I will announce that when it happens.) For those who lived through the 70s and those with a curiosity about a period that still lingers on in many ways, this is a perfect Christmas gift or a gift for all seasons, for that matter.

Josephine Sacabo

Dalt Wonk

On October 26th I attended an opening for Nocturnes, the first book to be published by Josephine Sacabo and Dalt Wonk’s new venture Luna Press. If you go to the Luna Press website, you can see an intriguing video of a hand thumbing its way through the book.

Here is a photograph titled “Moon” taken by Sacabo:

Dalt wrote poems to accompany the photos. Here is the one he wrote to accompany “Moon”:

Would it be a stretch to say that the city of New Orleans, where they have lived for decades, is a primary influence on their esthetic? Although I have never been to the city myself, it seems that if any city in the U.S. could have inspired a hauntingly beautiful combination of word and image as “Nocturnes”, it is New Orleans.

Back in 1965, Bob Dylan was spending a fair amount of time at Bard. I am not sure if Dalt and Josephine ever ran into him there, but I am sure that they would feel some kinship with his take on their city found in volume one of his memoirs:

Right now, I strolled into the dusk. The air was murky and intoxicating. At the corner of the block, a giant, gaunt cat crouched on a concrete ledge. I got up close to it and stopped and the cat didn’t move. I wished I had a jug of milk. My eyes and ears were open, my consciousness fully alive. The first thing you notice about New Orleans are the burying grounds-the cemeteries-and they’re a cold proposition, one of the best things there are here. Going by, you try to be as quiet as possible, better to let them sleep. Greek, Roman, sepulchres-palatial mausoleums made to order, phantomesque, signs and symbols of hidden decay-ghosts of women and men who have sinned and who’ve died and are now living in tombs. The past doesn’t pass away so quickly here. You could be dead for a long time. The ghosts race towards the light, you can almost hear the heavy breathing- spirits, all determined to get somewhere. New Orleans, unlike a lot of those places you go back to and that don’t have the magic anymore, still has got it.

Nocturnes can be ordered from the Luna Press website.

Paul Pines

I found out about the opening for Nocturnes from Paul Pines, the poet who has kept in touch with Sacabo and Wonk over the years. A month or so before the opening, I attended a reading for Paul’s latest book titled “Divine Madness”, words that evoke both the opening paragraph of Richard Allen’s photography book as well as Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl”, a poem that served as the anthem for our generation in many ways.

The epigraph to Book Three of Paul’s collection comes from Carl Jung’s “The Red Book”: “…there is a divine madness which is nothing other than the overpowering of the spirit of the time through the spirit of the depths.”

This is an appropriate quote for a book of poems that owes much to mythology, both from the Mayan Indians to the ancient Greeks and Babylonians. Paul spent a fair amount of time in Guatemala, the experience of which helped him to craft his second novel “Redemption” that deals with the genocide against the Mayan peasantry.

Every one of the poems in “Divine Madness” is a jewel but I treasure this one especially:

December sun seeps into the woods orange yolk over bare limbs drips into a grove where woodpeckers tap tiny solos

a net cast

in the wake of the day

Chinese monarch King Wen

tells us the wanderer can progress in little things

when the source of light is farthest from the earth

and bends the prism

like a bow

and he finds himself surrounded by woodpeckers tapping out their eternal question

how to hold

interwoven rhythms

in a net of changing light

“Divine Madness” can be ordered from Marsh Hawk Press.

Some closing thoughts. All of us are now in our sixties and above but it seems like only yesterday when we would be drinking “down the road” at a college pub called “Adolph’s” (named after the owner, born obviously before Hitler made the name taboo). The subject came up all the time about how Bard was totally unlike “the real world”, which for us could have been reduced to the one depicted in AMC’s “Mad Men”.

There’s always a tension between our ideals and the “real world” that in some ways is analogous to Plato’s story of the cave. It is a struggle to hew to our youthful ideals in a world that is fundamentally aligned with the insides of a cave, as testified by news reports that come our way on  a daily basis, the latest of which is the kindergarten massacre in Connecticut.

Of all my  Bertolt Brecht quotes, this is my favorite:

There are men who struggle for a day, and they are good. There are others who struggle for a year, and they are better. There are some who struggle many years, and they are better still. But there are those who struggle all their lives, and these are the indispensable ones.

Whether you struggle with a camera or a poet’s pen, or most quixotically with a propagandist’s, it is a Sisyphean task. Here’s my salute to those who never give up. Keep on keeping on.

October 6, 2012

A communist (?) poem in a bourgeois magazine

Filed under: literature — louisproyect @ 11:40 pm

From the latest New Yorker Magazine (Oct. 8, 2012 issue)

September 25, 2012

Jeffrey Marlin on Kindle

Filed under: literature — louisproyect @ 1:43 am

Jeffrey Marlin

Jeffrey Marlin, whom I recently interviewed here, has just released a 1300- page opus on Amazon Kindle. It’s entitled Tales of the Great Moral Symmetry, by J. Marlin, and includes five complete verse-novels: The Three Wicked Pigs; Jack and the Time Stalk; Boots: By Puss Possessed; The Outlaw Rumplestiltskin; and Snow White and the 7 Deadly Sins. You’ll find some more-or-less progressive social commentary around the edges, and whether or not it’s your idea of great literature, I can guarantee you’ve never read anything like it. Comrades with Kindles may want to have a look.

August 6, 2012

The Eleanor and Ronnie Kasrils story

Filed under: literature,South Africa — louisproyect @ 10:03 pm

Usually I tend to discount back-cover blurbs but concur with John le Carré on The Unlikely Secret Agent: “This is a wonderful book about a courageous and extraordinary woman who was highly principled, yet endowed by nature with all the clandestine skills. Her exploits recall the heroism of the great Special Operations Executive women agents of the Second World War, yet the values she fought for so intrepidly are still in the balance today.”

Her husband Ronnie Kasrils wrote the book on the occasion of her death from a stroke at the age of 72 in 2009. So overwhelmed was I by his literary skills and political insights that I could not resist reading Armed and Dangerous, his own memoir published in 1993. Much of the story about Eleanor’s escape from a South African mental hospital appears in his memoir but in a much briefer version. Suffice it to say that if you are part of the left these two books will be deeply rewarding. The story of young people resisting an evil system is compelling in its own right but Ronnie Kasrils’s ability to convey psychological and political complexities in riveting prose elevates the two books to the status of instant classics. While their story is focused on the experience of the South African Communist Party and its milieu, there is something universal about the transformation that led the two of them to risk their lives fighting oppression.

Eleanor Logan was born in Scotland but moved to South Africa with her mother as an infant, joined by her father a few years later. While not wealthy, they enjoyed a life of privilege. Eleanor was working at Griggs bookstore in Durban, a counterpart to forward-thinking institutions like the 8th Street bookstore in NY or City Lights in San Francisco in the early 60s. These were the sorts of places where you had to go to get a copy of something written by Che Guevara or Allen Ginsberg.

Ronnie Kasrils entered Eleanor’s life in 1960 shortly after the Sharpeville Massacre. For many people now in their late 60s to mid-70s, including me, the early 1960s were time of great ferment—both cultural and political. For Ronnie and Eleanor, the walls between Che Guevara and Allen Ginsberg were highly porous. The two met in early 1960, just after the Sharpeville Massacre. His description of one of their initial encounters sounds novelesque but is all the more compelling because it describes the complex interaction of the political and the personal between two real people:

She soon found him frequenting Griggs Bookshop but thought nothing unusual in this. He was clearly keen on purchasing good books. On one occasion, spotting him in the store, she told him that Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was available and he promptly bought a copy, which he later came in to discuss with her.

Yes, he argued, it exposed Stalin’s brutality as she had said when he purchased the copy, but why was the author being lauded in the West? Because he was a great writer, she responded. He conceded this but maintained it was largely because he undermined Soviet rule, which he defined as worker and peasant power, rather than the power of the capitalist class, which he referred to as the bourgeoisie. They agreed to continue the debate over coffee, and for a time she felt he was too earnest, too propagandistic for her liking. But nevertheless she could feel a tingling attraction building up inside her, uncertain whether it denoted a response to charm or challenge.

The slim, blonde and tough-minded young woman had a tingling effect on Ronnie as well. And just as importantly, she had access to writings that were as dangerous to the system as a well-placed bomb, including Che Guevara’s new book on guerrilla warfare. When Ronnie asked her to order 20 copies, her only response was to laugh and say, “You like to do things in a big way.”

Before long Eleanor agreed to allow Griggs to function as a drop box for top-secret ANC communications. Given her disgust with the white power structure, her willingness to risk arrest was both heroic and natural. This led her to take the next step in becoming Ronnie’s partner in urban guerrilla warfare. In one of the most visible counter-attacks against apartheid, the two went out and blew up a key pylon that caused a major blackout in Durban. Kasril describes their keen anticipation of the consequences:

They were back in the house with twenty minutes to spare. They sat in the small sitting room, starting a game of chess, anxiously counting down the time. Suddenly the cottage was plunged into darkness. ‘Christ, we’ve done it,’ he whispered triumphantly, embracing her. They rushed outside to assess the extent of the power failure. The entire street was in darkness, not a home or building in light. They walked, almost ran, up the hill to the park at the top of their road with its panoramic view of Durban. The darkness was dense and all-pervading. The busy city centre, normally bright with its lights glowing, was lost in the black void. They hugged each other and walked swiftly back to the cottage, knowing that before long the Special Branch would arrive to check if they were at home.

That evening Ronnie narrowly escaped arrest but Eleanor was not as lucky. On August 19, 1963 the cops came to Griggs and arrested her under the draconian detention laws intended to break the back of the ANC-led resistance. After taking Eleanor into captivity, Lieutenant Grobler, the leader of the raid, threatened to “break her or hang her” unless she revealed the location of Ronnie Kasrils and other leading ANC operatives.

In the two books, Lieutenant Grobler functions like Inspector Javert in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables but because he is real, he is all the more horrifying and an apt symbol of a decaying system. When he is not beating or threatening Eleanor, he is grabbing her breasts. The interrogations are laced with anti-Semitic diatribes against Ronnie Kasrils:

Grobler had been silently following every word. ‘Look, missis, this is no trivial matter,’ he started. ‘Do you think it’s a coincidence that all these people belong to the Goldreich-Slovo clan? Virtually all their lawyers are Jews – Maisels, Chaskalson, Joel Joffe.’ He said something vulgar in Afrikaans to his colleagues, about ‘n Jood se piel, and they all laughed uproariously.

‘We want you to confirm whether he’s a Jew,’ Grobler demanded, thumping the desk. ‘Is he a Jew?

After her arrest, two thoughts began to consume Eleanor: How could she resist giving the cops the information they seek despite their threats and their beatings?  How could she escape and rejoin the movement?

One part a natural reaction to their brutality and one part wile, she feigns a breakdown to get out of jail. Believing that a mental hospital would break a spirit that mental, physical and sexual abuse could not, her captors transfer Eleanor to Pietermaritzburg Mental Hospital, a gloomy warehouse for psychotics that is somewhere in between Bedlam and Bellevue. As bad as it was, the segregated facility was too good for the nation’s Blacks and coloreds.

Once arriving there, Eleanor shows a surprising ability to bind with the patients and to plot an escape. Ronnie Kasrils describes all of this in brisk and often darkly comical terms, especially a dance that the patients are allowed to have on special occasions.

It was good old-fashioned tickey-draai. The male extended his left arm rigidly up and to the side, while holding his partner’s right arm outwards. The woman’s arm would be vigorously pumped up and down as though it was a handle. At the same time the man’s other arm would be pressed into the crook of his partner’s lower back while she clutched his shoulder. In this stylised manner they would stride in stiff fashion swiftly across the floor, striving to keep time with the music. At times when the pace of the music increased in tempo they almost galloped around the hall. At last, when the music ended they broke apart without a word and retreated back to their chairs, waiting patiently for the next dance.

As is the case throughout “The Unlikely Secret Agent” and “Armed and Dangerous”, Kasrils’s prose has a cinematic quality. The chapters taking place in Pietermaritzburg could far surpass “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” given the right screenplay and director. Indeed, one would hope that the Kasrils story will eventually find its way to the Big Screen, if for no other reason than to compensate for some truly awful films about South Africa that amount to ANC hagiography, from “Invictus” to “In My Country”. These two films that depict the ANC in power make it easy to forget that the struggle for power often involved moral and political dilemmas that tested the mettle of even the best of humanity.

That is one of the chief merits of “Armed and Dangerous”. It depicts in unsparing details what it meant to be a leader of Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation, also called MK), the ANC’s armed wing. While the armed struggle was a key ingredient of the democratic revolution in South Africa, it was a constant challenge to keep it together against centripetal forces of the sort that Ronnie Kasrils describes with astonishing frankness.

Long before he was dodging SADF bullets, Ronnie Kasrils was like lots of young people around the world in the early 60s who had begun to experiment with marijuana and look to the beat generation for inspiration. What makes his story all the more compelling is that it takes place in South Africa, a country that for all its repression had begun to lose its grip on the young. The scene that Kasril describes in late 50s Cape Town will be familiar to anybody who was reading Jack Kerouac at the time, including me, but with all the attendant risks of living in a police state.

A friendship with an art student had drawn me into a bohemian circle based in the cafe society of Hillbrow, an upbeat cosmopolitan area. By day I had been a lawyer’s clerk, at night and on weekends I listened to heated arguments about art, poetry, literature and music, while swigging wine amid clouds of other people’s dagga(hemp) smoke.

I tried the weed but preferred to keep a clear head. I began writing poetry and prose and was soon meeting some of the creative people from the townships.

Black writers were making an impact through Drum magazine and a wealth of artistic talent was bursting onto the stage, notably through the musical King Kong. Those were the days of swinging multi-racial parties, called jolls, which made the city buzz. If the police raided the premises, all the blacks present grabbed soft drinks because it was illegal to serve them alcohol. There were liaisons across the colour line, which often ended with the unfortunate couples being arrested and charged under an Immorality Act forbidding sex between the races.

Just as the Vietnam War had the effect of transforming bohemians into Bolsheviks, so did the Sharpeville Massacre. Kasrils told his weed-smoking friends that they fiddled while Rome burned. When he poured out his anguish to a leftist acquaintance, he was asked if he knew anything about “the Movement”. His response was to ask what ballet had to do with the Sharpeville Massacre.

Eventually Ronnie was drawn into the underground movement through Rowley Arnstein, a Jewish CP’er and lawyer who he channeled into a safe house. Arnstein remembered Ronnie Kasrils as a young boy from a neighborhood in Durban that sounds a bit like Flatbush in Brooklyn around the same time. While Lieutenant Grobler was obviously a bigot, it was fairly clear that Jews played a significant role in the Communist movement just as was the case in the U.S.A. at the time. In my small town in upstate N.Y., all the “reds” were Jews, who while being nonobservant were certainly proud of their Jewish identity just like Julius and Ethel Rosenberg et al.

In 1963 Ronnie Kasrils went to Odessa in the USSR for military training. His account of the time spent there is far more interesting and far better written than the heavily hyped “Red Plenty” by Francis Spufford.

Although much of the housing was inadequate, we understood that this was a result of wartime destruction, and an ambitious construction programme was taking place before our eyes. Housing rent was less than five per cent of wages, and the cost of heat and electricity was barely one per cent. There were no beggars and few idlers on the streets, although there were plenty of hand-drawn cartoons and posters lampooning drunkenness. It was the older generation that looked as though it had experienced hardship, and there were many legless war veterans, propelling themselves about in antiquated wheelchairs. We saw alcoholism as a legacy of the war and the exceptionally low price of liquor. It was only later, when I became less naive about social problems in the Soviet Union, that I realised the extent to which boredom and frustration were contributory factors.

This single paragraph gave me more insights into the problems of the USSR than the entire 362 pages of “Red Plenty”.

While Kasrils makes no bones about his commitment to the South African Communist Party’s ideology, there is a constant engagement with the ideas of its opponents, including Pallo Jordan who is described as “a fiercely independent thinker” and who was also described by those “who could not match his intellect” as a “Trotskyist”. When he applied for membership in Mayibuye, a cultural group, some hard-liners opposed his admission because of his independence. Kasrils fought on his behalf whether or not “he accepted the Moscow line”. He recounts a “fierce row” one night with Jordan over George Orwell’s “Animal Farm”, a book that Kasrils regarded as crude, anti-Communist propaganda. Frankly, if I had been there that night, I might have sided with Kasrils.

Some of the more psychologically and politically complex topics covered by Kasrils involve his relationship with impetuous and in one case mutinous MK enlistees. They chafe at the discipline of the training camp and the length of the training program that they see as an impediment to fighting the South African cops and army. As an official at the training camp in Angola, Kasrils is determined to maintain discipline even if it involves severe punishment—including the firing squad—of those who refuse to take orders. Those who have read Che Guevara’s memoirs will understand the need for discipline in such conditions.

‘Comrades,’ I began, drawing a line in the dust with my boot, ‘the difference between anarchy and order is as easy as crossing this line. You have to decide on which side of the line you want to be.’

I spoke about the need for discipline and order in the ANC and MK, which we had often discussed in class, pointing out that this was not like the orders from the racists, intended to keep people suppressed. I spoke about the fourteen sitting in the tent, defying orders because they wanted to go home to fight. I pointed out that they had no hope of surviving the journey without adequate prep-aration. It could be frustrating waiting to return home after training, but the leaders had made no secret of the prob-lems. We were not like the Zimbabweans, with a single border to cross from a friendly state. We were very far from home, and had to move secretly through several countries. I concluded by pointing out that if only some of us followed the rules we would have confusion.

‘With confusion and anarchy we will never succeed in our aims. No army or organisation can win unless there is discipline and order in its ranks.’

Back in the 60s most South African CP’ers thought that the war against apartheid would be over in 10 years at most, including Kasrils. Such heady optimism was not that different from that which most 1960s radicals felt around the same time. He of course would live to see victory after 30 years while those of us living in the belly of the beast have been pretty much on the defensive all this time.

Since the book ends in 1993, there was obviously no reason for the author to deal with the ANC’s current problems symbolized most of all by Jacob Zuma’s obvious flaws. His empty populist promises helped him to outmaneuver Thabo Mbeki but the lives of ordinary South Africans have not changed at all.

Zuma obviously meant something a lot different to Ronnie Kasrils than he did to the average citizen. He was a comrade in struggle who could be counted on for clear-headed and decisive action under fire. I was deeply surprised to see this aspect of Zuma’s personality revealed.

Kasrils describes Zuma as a young factory worker with no formal education when he joined the ANC in the early 60s. After being arrested in 1962, he spent 12 years on Robbens Island where he taught himself to read and write English and master politics.

One night in 1980 Zuma and Kasrils were climbing a fence that separated Swaziland from South Africa proper (Swaziland was basically an internal colony.) Burdened by a heavy bag of pistols and grenades for his comrades, Kasrils fell clumsily from the fence and tore a ligament in his ankle. Zuma stood by his comrade.

‘Should we continue or go back, umfowetu [brother]?’ Zuma asked anxiously. We were due to be picked up on the road only a few kilometres away from where we were crossing, and we had an important meeting to get to in Manzini with comrades from home.

I tried standing on my foot, thankful that the rain which was pelting down afforded good cover, and insisted that we continue. I hobbled along until we arrived at our rendezvous point. We were thoroughly soaked by the rain and sat shivering in a cold wind for over two hours. It was a wicked night and it became obvious that our lift was not coming. We waited another hour fend decided to return to Mozambique. By now my ankle had got much worse. I was in excruciating pain.

Zuma considered for a moment. ‘Just hold on to my arm, umfowetu, nobody’s out in this rain. We’ll take a chance and just walk through the village.’

In 1987 I visited ANC headquarters in Lusaka, Zambia along with four other Tecnica members where we met with Thabo Mbeki and other leaders. I might have run into Ronnie Kasrils just by accident then in the same manner that I crossed paths with Oliver Tambo who was chatting in a relaxed fashion in the courtyard one morning when we were there. We had the opportunity on that trip to discuss politics with young ANC’ers and at least one SACP’er who held out great hope for the future. He and our delegation felt that an ANC government could help to galvanize the entire continent in a revolutionary direction.

The actual results have been a disappointment, even if the smashing of de jure discrimination is as important to South Africa as the end of Jim Crow was in the U.S.A.

My friend Patrick Bond, who is a long-time critic of the ANC based in South Africa, wrote an interesting piece on Ronnie Kasrils for Counterpunch back in March 2012. I was pleased to see that Patrick was as big a Kasrils fan as me:

Like most who meet Kasrils, it took me only four discussions to depart so charmed as to confess I will now blindly follow him on any madcap adventure – albeit one in September 1992, when he marched 80 000 protesters to the ‘Ciskei’ government’s doorstep, left dozens to return home in coffins, after pro-apartheid armed forces opened fire. But dangerous as he has been, armed or not, this is the kind of mensch who would have us cracking up on our way to the gallows, more gregarious and fun-loving than any lefty I’ve ever known.

As it turns out, Kasrils broke with Zuma politically despite the great trust he once put in him. It also would appear that he tired of the ANC’s performance just as had so many people in the grass-roots movements. Bond explains:

Kasrils was quite right to finally quit the Pretoria regime, as he witnessed extreme abuses of power within his beloved ANC, and on occasion was attacked – without merit, he insists – for allegedly being a guiding force in the network of Mbeki supporters trying to halt Zuma’s presidential push.

The worst of it, he recounts, was when in early 2006 the Young Communist League leadership accused him of setting up a ‘honey trap’ for Zuma, who was accused of rape a few weeks earlier by an openly HIV+ lesbian known as Khwezi. The future president was acquitted after a trial in which misogynist patriarchy by Zuma and his supporters was on blatant display.

Kasrils had known the 30 year-old victim for a quarter of a century (as had Zuma) because her parents provided a safehouse during anti-apartheid military missions deep in Durban’s townships. He was drawn in against his will in a peripheral way, making clear that Khwezi should sort out the charge with professional aid, not old family connections to the Minister of Intelligence. But that moment was when the break with Zuma became irreparable.

There’s a lot more in Patrick’s article that I recommend as must-reading in tandem with the wonderful books under review here. Some of it is quite unflattering, as you might expect from a long-time left critic of the ANC. In trying to put Kasrils into context, Patrick states that as Marx put it in Capital: ‘Individuals are dealt with here only in so far as they are the personifications of economic categories, the bearers of particular class-relations and interest.’

So for Patrick Ronnie Kasrils functions as a kind of symbol of South Africa’s new dominant political class with all its sordid ties to global capitalism. While I cannot take exception to the dossier he has assembled in his article, there is another dimension that he might have missed.

For me one of the more important dimensions of Ronnie Kasrils career was his ability to function in the mass movement. As a critic of sectarianism in the Trotskyist movement, I have often found great value in memoirs written by veterans of the Communist movement because they understood what it meant to have responsibility for the lives and future of millions of people. The role of the SACP in toppling de jure segregation in South Africa cannot be minimized even if economic apartheid remains a major challenge to all revolutionaries.

You can read many attacks on the ANC and the SACP in the left press but they fail to account for its enormous success. Studying the leadership examples of people like Joe Slovo, the Kasrils and Ruth Furst can help us in a way that the negative criticisms cannot.

Given the glaring contradiction between the mass suffering experienced by millions of the unemployed in the U.S.A. and Western Europe today, the development of both the ANC and the SACP into true vanguards cannot be discounted. I say this as someone who has written every bit as harshly of these groups as Patrick Bond.

Finally, the kind of left we need to build must be able to include the new Eleanor and Ronnie Kasrils that are emerging all across the planet as the contradictions of capitalism begin to produce the same kinds of political awakenings that the Sharpeville Massacre produced in 1960.

As chronicles of the struggle in South Africa, one of the greatest in 20th century history, these two books by Ronnie Kasrils deserve your attention both as personal drama and as political instruction. These literary treasures will enchant all readers, especially those who make this blog a regular guilty pleasure.

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