Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 12, 2014

Memories of Amiri Baraka and Adolfo Olaechea

Filed under: literature,Maoism,obituary — louisproyect @ 9:08 pm

Amiri Baraka

Amiri Baraka and Adolfo Olaechea both died on January 9, 2014, Baraka of an undisclosed illness at the age of 79 and Olaechea of pancreatic cancer at the age of 70. Besides dying on the same day, the two shared Maoist politics. Baraka was a member of the League of Revolutionary Struggle (Marxist-Leninist) that dissolved in 1990 while Olaechea was the most prominent spokesman for the Communist Party of Peru, better known as Shining Path. And perhaps as a bit of a surprise, both were subscribers at one point to Marxism listservs that are now based at the University of Utah. I never knew Baraka personally but his career had a significant impact on my own political development. I knew Olaechea as a bitter adversary on the Marxism lists but grew closer to him after offering my support when he was in danger of becoming a victim of Peru’s repressive judicial system. And long after that, he became a Facebook friend, where I learned of his death.

In 1961 I was a sixteen-year-old freshman at Bard College, having skipped my senior year of high school. I was about as confused as any teenager, in my case a member of the Young Americans for Freedom and an aspiring “beatnik”. Maybe that wasn’t so strange a combination since this was just around the time that Jack Kerouac was drifting to the right in an alcoholic haze.

When I discovered that Robert Kelly was giving a writer’s workshop, I signed up since he was pretty well known as a “new poet”. Kelly was committed to bringing kindred spirits up to Bard for readings, including Robert Duncan. When I discovered that Leroi Jones was going to give a reading from his novel-in-progress “The System of Dante’s Inferno”, I was really excited since Jones was becoming a star of the new poetry movement.

Nothing prepared me for “The System of Dante’s Inferno”. This was one of the first expressions of Black outrage at the time. Inferno was nothing less than American society and Jones’s protagonist was its victim. The reading was so powerful that I became an early convert to the Black struggle even though on all other fronts my consciousness lagged.

A year after Jones’s reading, I had dumped the conservatism of my high school years and subscribed to the Camus-influenced liberal existentialism that was in vogue at Bard and other “hip” colleges. But it was Black nationalism that intrigued me, not so much the “integrationism” of the student movement. Bard was the kind of place where “prejudice” was unheard of but I never heard any white students trying to figure out why only 2 percent of the student body was Black.

In my senior year, when I was in New York for the weekend I found out that there was going to be a debate on Black nationalism between Jones and Nat Hentoff at Art D’Lugoff’s Village Gate. This I would not miss for the world. The Village Voice reported on the event:

Village Voice March 18, 1965, Vol. X, No. 22
Gig at Gate: Return of the White Liberal Stompers
By Jack Newfield

Goateed, immaculately dressed Negroes looking for a pogrom, carefully coifed Hadassah ladies looking for a lynching and impassive hipsters looking for a “happening” jammed the Village Gate last Wednesday night. The marquee proclaimed blues singer Paul Butterfield, but the magnet was LeRoi Jones and his White Liberal Stompers.

The Stompers had made a spectacular debut at the Village Vanguard two weeks ago when they refused to play a dirge for the slain civil rights workers Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner and for the six million Jews incinerated by Hitler.

“Those boys were just artifacts, man,” poet-playwright-polemicist Jones had said of the dead integrationists. “They weren’t real. If they went (to Mississippi) to assuage their leaking consciences that’s their business. I won’t mourn for them. I have my own dead to mourn for.”

Full: http://blogs.villagevoice.com/runninscared/2009/09/clip_job_leroi_1.php

Even if I weren’t more sympathetic to Jones to begin with, I would have supported him no matter what Hentoff had to say. I always found him an insufferable Pecksniff and never understood how he became such an authority on jazz, let alone politics.

Two years later I found myself at the New School working on a PhD in philosophy, mostly as a way of staying out of the army. By day I was working for the welfare department in Harlem and becoming radicalized by the injustice that my clients faced and on a personal level facing the draft.

On July 12, 1967 the Newark ghetto exploded. I reacted to it with jubilation. People inside the U.S. were resisting the same rotten system that the Vietnamese were. Six weeks later I would join the Young Socialist Alliance, the youth group of the SWP.

Amiri Baraka, Newark, July 1967

During the Newark riots, the cops ganged up on Jones, who had changed his name to Amiri Baraka by this point. The charge was carrying an illegal weapon and resisting arrest that was later dropped. His real crime was being a Black militant.

As Amiri Baraka became more of an activist than an artist, his poetry suffered. I pretty much stopped paying any attention to him until he forsook Black nationalism for Maoism when he joined the League for Revolutionary Struggle. The LRS was the result of a fusion in 1978 of a number of Asian, Chicano and Black groups including Amiri Baraka’s Revolutionary Communist League (Marxist-Leninist-Mao Tse-tung Thought). By 1990 the group was a spent force and dissolved itself, with a number of members joining the Freedom Road Socialist Party that staggers on, although divided into two rival sects.

I never paid much attention to what Baraka was writing as a member of the LRS but decided to have a look today to help put his Marxism into context. On the Marxist Internet Archives, you can read his polemic with the Revolutionary Workers Headquarters (RWQ), a group that has like so many of these Maoist currents disappeared from the face of the earth. Baraka is anxious to take on the “workerism” of the RWQ that he evidently regards as too much influenced by their origins in Bob Avakian’s RCP. He lectures them:

RWH does not understand that black capitalism is the cry of the black bourgeoisie for self-determination!! And black capitalism can help the Black Nation at this point. We should encourage the black national bourgeoisie to be bigger and better capitalists (at present their whole gross income is about that of General Electric). We must, as Mao said in his classic work on the United Front, “respect the interests” of the black national bourgeoisie as well as all the other classes in the front. But obviously, as communists, we struggle for the leadership of the working class within the black united front. And even though we encourage black capitalists to become bigger and better capitalists, we do so urging that this proposed expansion of black capitalism be done in the interests of the Afro-American Nation.

I guess this sort of explains Baraka’s eventual embrace of Barack Obama (their names means “blessed” in Arabic and is obviously related to the Hebrew word “baruch”.)

The most interesting sentences in the polemic are those that evoke the incandescent imagery of “The System of Dante’s Hell” that I first heard 52 years ago:

But what is also overwhelming is RWH’s consistent upholding of these RU / RCP lines, in spire of themselves. Sometimes it is like an old junkie one has known a long time who now tells you he is going to “clean up” and bores a hole in your head with this Christmas tree fantasy, but at the same time still speaks so lovingly and hungrily about “scag” that one is certain he is never going to kick. In fact, while he is talking to you, you can still see a trace of spittle in the corners of the mouth, the eyes begin to sag just a bit, and the telltale hand starts to scratch ubiquitously at the dried skin the drug has made.

An old friend who graduated Bard the year I came in as a freshman started out preferring my non-political writings, especially ones that referred to birds. He would rebuke me: “more birds…” If I knew Amiri Baraka better, I would have told him “more junkies…”

In 1998 Adolfo Olaechea showed up on the Marxism-International mailing list that gave birth to Marxmail after he and Louis Godena, a CP’er who had become converted to Maoism, hijacked the moderation board and began expelling people right and left.

Like Amiri Baraka, he was capable of some truly bombastic “Marxist-Leninist” rhetoric:

Today’s social-fascists are the direct descendants of the Menshevik social-chauvinists who led the working masses into the butchery of the First Imperialist War, who later PAVED the way for FASCISM and nurtured and provided “intellectual muscle” for Mussolini’s anti-bolshevik “Fascios die Combattimento”, the same “white-gloved butchers” who showed Hitler and his brown shirts the road and methods for assassinating the working masses and the proletarian leaders by means of the Social Democrat revisionist “Frei-Korps” organised by the social-fascist regime of Ebert in Germany.

Within a year of “capturing” Marxism-International, the list was dead. And within another year, the Communist Party of Peru was also dead. Its founder Comrade Gonzalo had been captured in 1992 and by the late 90s, the group began to splinter—partly out of state repression but also out of its own sectarian logic.

Adolfo was out of sight and out of mind until 2004 when Louis Godena asked me to publicize efforts to prevent his being extradited to Peru, where he would face the firing squad or life imprisonment if he were lucky. When he was in Spain doing some consulting for his corporate employer, the Spanish cops arrested him.

Three years after being arrested, he stood trial and was cleared of all charges:

“CHANCELLOR OF TERROR” TRIAL COMES TO AN END IN PERU

In Lima’s National Criminal High Court, on Tuesday October 23, 2007, and after 4 years and 3 months of what started as one of the most internationally trumpeted “terrorism” extraditions and trials of recent times, these proceedings come to the end of the juridical road completely transformed into a purely political and ideological test of the essential democratic values of freedom of thought and freedom of expression.

Adolfo Olaechea was arrested July 3, 2003 in the Spanish town of Almeria, while on a consultancy assignment for the British firm Spectrum International Research Ltd. on behalf of a top Japanese vehicle manufacturer. The then Spanish govrenment of Jose Maria Aznar, involved to the hilt on Bush’s ‘war on terrorism’, had decided to enforce an extradition request from the Peruvian government. This extradition order had originally been issued in 1993 by the now himself extradited former Peruvian dictator Alberto Fujimori. Ironically, Fujimori himself is now in Lima too, awaiting trial for the same crimes against humanity that Olaechea had first denounced in a “war crimes trial” sponsored by the Secretariat of the late Lord Bertrand Russell in London back in 1992. This action of Olaechea’s has been revealed to be at the centre of the charges of “terrorism” brought illegally against this long standing British resident on the instructions of Vladimiro Montesinos, Fujimori’s spy chief.

Dubbed by the international press as the case of “Shining Path’s Chancellor”, the “ambassador of terror”, etc., the proceedings against Mr. Olaechea have involved international campaigns on his behalf by prominent personalities, among which several members of the House of Lords and the British parliament-. Among them Lords Eric Avebury and Lord Nicolas Rea, statement on his behalf by prominent intellectuals and writers, including Tony Benn and Mario Vargas Llosa, the famous Peruvian novelists, as well as writers, journalists and activists in many countries. Lord Nicolas Rea, the hereditary peer member of the All Party Human Rights Group of the British parliament, appeared in Lima’s High Court back in April 2007, as a witness for the defense, a totally unprecedented event in Peruvian juridical history. In the pre-trial stages of the proceedings, the famous Peruvian jurist, Javier Valle Riestra – now a member of the Peruvian Parliament again, and therefore unable by law to defend cases in which the Peruvian state is involved – took a prominent role, and even wrote a chapter dedicated to the case in his celebrated Treaty on Extradition, published in 4 volumes. Valle Riestra therefore, gets frequently quoted and mentioned during the closing stages of the proceedings. The case, also reached the Spanish Constitutional Court, that decided that Spain had violated Mr. Olaechea right to legality. In the European Court of Human Rights Spain was condemned and ordered to pay a fine for having extradited Olaechea in defiance of a directive from the Human Rights Directorate to have the case examined at Strasburg first.

Then, six years later, I got a Facebook friend request from Adolfo—of all people. In the first few months he was very warm and gracious even promising that I would be his guest of honor if I ever made it down to Lima.

The tone changed somewhat after he figured out that I was behind the Syrian armed struggle against the Baathists. As might be obvious, rallying around Bashar al-Assad comes easy for those who were trained in Stalinist politics.

I didn’t pay much attention to the sparks that flew when some of my pro-revolution FB friends began to take issue with him, but somewhere along the line I discovered that he was ill. When I found out how seriously ill he was, I urged my friends to avoid using invective with him. Even though he claimed that he had beaten the disease, I knew that pancreatic cancer had the lowest survival rate of all cancers.

This was the last conversation we had on September 14, 2013. I will really miss Adolfo.

Me: Adolfo, are you sick? What is going on?

Adolfo: I have been diagnosed last year (September) with cancer to the páncreas. Was given 3-6 months and dubbed a terminal case stage 4. However after undergoing a heavy chemio (against the advice of some doctors).the cáncer markers started giving negative results (no cancer) and the tomographies and magnetic resonances could´t visualise the tumour at all. Sincé then I have been put in an only pills chemiotherapy that actually does have as one of its side effects to empty my bowels in a full manner every morning at 6.00 am like clock work. Another side effect is losing my toenails due to swollen feet and therefore must spend a few hours of the day with my feet high up. Can´t complain. A leader of the Peruvian parliamentary “left” was disgnosed with the same cancer around the same time as mine. He died in less tan 4 months despite the most expensive treatments and private clinics. I am having treatment in the Social Security services, that even though seems more like a nuthouse, has evidently good doctors!

Me: I am so sorry to hear this. I am sure you know that pancreatic cancer is very deadly. I am an atheist but my thoughts are with you.

Adolfo: Well, I am an atheist too, however my family is not, and they are now trying to get my experience with pancreatic cancer declared a “miracle” and ascribe it to my mother or my aunt, both now diseadsed but with the last one, my aunt having died. – as the clerics like to say – in “odour of sanctity”. Don´t worry too much and remeber DEmocritus way of dealing with death: “When I am here, death is not. When death is there, I am not. We will never meet”.}

Me: Stay in remission, comrade.

Adolfo: I will. Thanks for your concern Louis!

October 10, 2013

A communication on Sol Yurick

Filed under: literature — louisproyect @ 3:29 pm

Dear Louis

Forgive this unsolicited approach, but after reading your piece on Sol on Counterpunch, I thought that you might be interested to know that my company are republishing his novels Fertig—which is out now, via rocket88books.com— and The Bag in a few months. We hope to make all of his out of print novels available in due course and if his agents approve our request to also put out Someone Just Like You, An Island Death, Richard A and Behold, Metatron. Naturally they wish to see how we do with Fertig and The Bag before agreeing.

I’d like to explain that this is a labour of love on my part, having been a fan since first discovering The Bag when in my early twenties in a thrift store (I was an anarchist squatter activist in London at the time, so it rang more than a few bells with me).Sol deserves to be remembered as far more than the author of a book that spawned a movie and video game, and both Fertig and The Bag are much bigger and more important American novels than The Warriors, I think.

I hesitate to ask, and hate to beg, but if there is any way that you could find the time and space to let people know about the republication of Fertig, we’d be hugely grateful. Any spreading of the word would help enomously.

Once again, apologies for intruding without introduction.

Yours with best wishes

Mal Peachey

Rocket88books.com

September 19, 2013

Under the Dome

Filed under: literature,television — louisproyect @ 4:54 pm

Counterpunch September 19, 2013
Remarks from an Ecosocialist

Under the Dome

by LOUIS PROYECT

In 2003, after the National Book Foundation presented Stephen King with a distinguished career award, a big hue and cry went up from all the snobbish critics and authors who regarded him in much the same way that Dumbo was viewed by the other elephants. King’s acceptance speech was an eloquent testimony to his belief in a people’s art:

Now, there are lots of people who will tell you that anyone who writes genre fiction or any kind of fiction that tells a story is in it for the money and nothing else. It’s a lie. The idea that all storytellers are in it for the money is untrue but it is still hurtful, it’s infuriating and it’s demeaning. I never in my life wrote a single word for money. As badly as we needed money, I never wrote for money. From those early days to this gala black tie night, I never once sat down at my desk thinking today I’m going to make a hundred grand. Or this story will make a great movie. If I had tried to write with those things in mind, I believe I would have sold my birthright for a plot of message, as the old pun has it. Either way, Tabby and I would still be living in a trailer or an equivalent, a boat. My wife knows the importance of this award isn’t the recognition of being a great writer or even a good writer but the recognition of being an honest writer.

Frank Norris, the author of McTeague, said something like this: “What should I care if they, i.e., the critics, single me out for sneers and laughter? I never truckled, I never lied. I told the truth.” And that’s always been the bottom line for me. The story and the people in it may be make believe but I need to ask myself over and over if I’ve told the truth about the way real people would behave in a similar situation.

Most people are aware that King writes horror stories but the reference to the muckraking Frank Norris hints at a side of the author that many of his fans never considered. King is also an outspoken liberal who takes on social and political issues but without the sterile didacticism so pervasive in leftist fiction.

When I discovered that CBS had adapted “Under the Dome” as a 13 episode series, whose finale aired last Monday night, I was eager to watch it not only as a long-time King fan but as an ecosocialist anxious to see how what some regarded as a parable on the environmental crisis would play out. Although I had not read the novel, I assumed that with King serving as executive producer it would ensure that the TV series would remain faithful to the novel. But only after watching the finale, a dreary conclusion to an altogether dreary series, did I begin to consider the possibility that King’s intentions would be subverted by another big-name executive producer: Stephen Spielberg as well as the show’s major creative force, one Brian K. Vaughan.

Before dealing with the novel and its original agenda, some thoughts on what was likely the worst adaptation of the author’s work ever made. Since King is on record as hating Stanley Kubrick’s masterful “The Shining”, I would love to get him alone for five minutes to find out why he did not leave this TV show on the cutting room floor in its entirety.

“Under the Dome” sticks to the premise of the novel, namely that a mysterious transparent dome lands on a town called Chester’s Mill cutting it off from the outside world. Nobody can get in and nobody can get out. If you were unfortunate enough to be on the perimeter of the dome at the moment it landed, you would be sliced in two. Each week the show begins with the shot of a cow being cut right down the middle and a small plane bursting into flames as it crashed into the dome. It goes downhill from there.

read full

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):

 HELLO FROM NOLA – 1

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

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

containing
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
says
“You look more
like a rabbi.”

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

Another in our group
observes:

“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
skirt.

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

“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
by LOUIS PROYECT

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

Affinities

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
By DWIGHT GARNER
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

IT’S NO GOOD
poems/essays/actions
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.

(clip)

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

by LOUIS PROYECT

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:

http://www.counterpunch.org/2013/01/09/the-death-of-a-culture-warrior/

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:

Richard1

Richard2Richard3

Richard4

“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.

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