Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 17, 2014

Jack and the Timestalk

Filed under: humor,Jeffrey Marlin,literature — louisproyect @ 6:34 pm

Jack and the Timestalk

(This is the second in a series of guest posts from Jeffrey Marlin whose e-books, including this one are available from Amazon.com. )

This challenging version of Jack and the Beanstalk takes a critical look at finance capitalism, imperial politics, state religion, sadism as statecraft, the nature of time, and related lesser themes. Like all timeless stories, it has its beginnings in common human flaws. Chapter One plunges us directly into the vortex when Jack’s desperately poor, deeply traumatized household finds itself laid lower still by another disabling shock.

Jack found Mother digging Father’s grave.

She worked at the end of a vegetable garden that yielded no better than ragweed and clover. Her skeletal frame was as spare as the spade that was blunted by use and of meager assistance. The strings of her hair fluttered stiff in the atmosphere, every one stubborn and strange to its sisters.

“I saw Father die,” Jack informed her politely.

She turned at the sound but displayed no excitement. Her small emerald eyes were decidedly dry as her love for her husband, once slight, had expired. What troubled her now was the difficult duty that loomed on the edge of a ruined horizon.

She wiped at her brow with a sleeve gone to tatters.

“Child, have you witnessed him brained by Matilda?”

“I slept in rickety lap of the hayloft, distaining my chores at the side of the highway.”

He should have been roaming the much traveled thoroughfares searching for soot-covered fragments of anthracite fallen like pebbles from coal-traders’ wagons. He knew he’d no business refreshing himself in the cool of the tumbledown barn in the morning.

“And then?” she persisted, a note of severity clearly intended but widely eluding her.

“Pa wandered in with his milk pail a’ clanging. He settled his stool by the unwilling animal. Touching his hand to her ulcerate udder incited a sudden, unfeigned indignation. She groaned her annoyance and eyed him maliciously. Father assaulted the desiccate organ. The twitch of a tendon and swishing of tail posted eloquent notice to ‘Tilda’s intention. He tilted his brow in the lethal direction. Her hoof found a wing and his braincase exploded, unleashing the sound of the late summer thunder. And rather than linger to rescue survivors, I fled in the sweat of my fear and my triumph.”

“I casted all blame on the cow,” mused his mother. “But she was his instrument, utterly innocent.”

Jack was relieved by so mild a reply, for while hiding all day in a ditch in a cornfield he’d feared an inquisitive light in her eye and a volley of questions requiring answers: Did you not warn the old man of his peril? Or stop for an instant to mend up the fracture?Or cry for a parent to join you in mourning?

He’d also considered the life soon to follow. The issue outstanding was whether his mother would man the tradition her husband invented, the sting of the wand in reply to transgressions defined to encompass the measliest error.

The day of her watching from doorways was over.

She must do the wickedest business herself or submit to the rule of maternal emotions – foregoing the branch and accepting the worst of Jack’s endlessly impish, nay roguish, behavior.

The boy had no means of predicting her thinking. So, watching her wrestling spadesful of garden, he tested her gumption and probed her position by pressing the following order of inquiry: “May we not slaughter Matilda for eating?”

“She carries no fat or respectable sinew.”

“What of the marrow alive in her femurs with plenty of oil for the frying of supper? Boil up her hide for a snack in the winter – when edible weeds become scarcer and tougher!”

Mother sighed deeply and Jack knew the reason. They needed the pennies Matilda might bring them. Father stole bravely but had not the gift for it; often was caught and then savagely punished, accounting for tendencies vented on family.

Absent the fruits of his nominal larcenies, what would they live on and how to procure it?

Better to barter what piffle they could for an ill-tempered creature a decade past milking. (Though hitched to a plow she might grudgingly pull it.) The beast wasn’t even a little beloved – except by the master whose skull she’d dismantled. He’d he kept her around as a breathing reminder of better days gone and a hopeful tomorrow.

Jack let the subject of butchery fizzle.

Mother ground acorns and served them with sparrow.

Then, before sleeping, she tested her conscience confronting her stark, unavoidable choices. Not overly backboned she’d come to admire her husband’s commitment to corporal discipline. Nevertheless she collapsed into weeping as Jack cried to Heaven protesting his whippings.

Now she was caught by the fork of dilemma. Surrender her duty or pick up the willow? She stiffened her spine in the midst of her sorrow.

She vowed that tomorrow would pay for today and let Jack once abandon the courteous pathway and vex her again with impertinent questions, she’d stand to her task with a gritty persistence, as Father would do, although anguish engorge her.

A shiver of unexpressed anger tormented her; forced her to think how the man had abandoned her. Longed she to rise from the grave of her bed and make straight for that bovadine venue of slaughter.

She yearned to bestraddle the stool of Matilda expanding her nostrils to smell her own dying. She’d rise from this prison of bone and resentment and bend an ephemeral head looking downward to glimpse all her misery cracked like an eggshell.

Then search out her husband now blistered in Hell and in penitent dread of her vengeful arrival.

But here was the turbulent boy to look after; a millstone to drag through her burdensome labors. So flowed the gist of abrasive reflections which bled into dreams as her husband pursued her with fiery torch never giving her respite before she awoke to the pain of the morning.

She gathered up weeds from the cornfields adjacent.

These had been theirs until stolen at auction – required by law for repayment of losses. She mashed the leaves thoroughly, seasoned them sparingly, summoned her son from his desolate bed to imbibe her instructions along with his breakfast:

“All hope for tomorrow resides in your person.

“Now lead old Matilda to sale at the market.

“Insist on the price nor surrender a penny as long as the bubbling sulfur keeps rising. Relent as it slowly subsides to the West and its sinister shadow grows longer and darker.

“Accept what you must should she garner no offers as farmers pass by and no bidders step forward and all appear lost and the moon mock our losses come end of the reddening day.”

“Mother, I beg thee let’s slaughter the monster, a mooing accomplice to murderous suicide, presently toasting her skull and her femurs and rendering each for the sumptuous marrow.”

“Wherefore the coal or the requisite firewood? How shall we gather up fuel for the roasting?”

“Give me the morning to steal what I’m able.

“Otherwise break up the barn and we’ll burn it.

“Relinquish my father’s delusional thinking that we will be farmers and prosper tomorrow. No longer a jade to his merciless ways and his many abusive, disquieting habits, abandon the ghost of that shit-bestained man and his vilely degenerate use of the willow.”

Try as she might she could hardly deny that he’d tested her well past the point of postponement. Hand over heart, with a groan in her throat, she directed the impudent boy to bend over.


August 7, 2014

The Three Wicked Pigs

Filed under: humor,Jeffrey Marlin,literature — louisproyect @ 3:23 pm

Jeffrey Marlin, a friend for the past 53 years, has produced a number of fiction titles now available as Amazon e-books. I’ve mentioned them here in the past. By way of introduction I should add that Jeffrey has the added distinction of weaning me off Goldwater conservatism in 1961 when I was a callow 16-year-old freshman at Bard College and moving toward the Camus-style existential liberalism that was prevalent on the campus. You might say that if not for his intervention, I never would have become a Marxist later on. In effect, my liberalism became a gateway to Marxism, just as marijuana leads to heroin. So that’s that.

Starting today, Jeffrey will serve as a guest blogger, offering extended excerpts from these books once a week over the next few months. He’ll start with his Tales of the Great Moral Symmetry series, verse novels that take popular fables in very unexpected directions. The new feature kicks off with Chapter One of THE THREE WICKED PIGS, wherein the widely despised villain of this venerated piece is revealed to have problems of his own.

The Three Wicked Pigs

The Wolf walked alone, for no clan could abide him.

His four-footed kind looked askance at his habits. They loathed his perversely irregular posture, refusal to share, and insistence on clothing. They winced at his claims of superior breeding, his hissing contempt for the rest of his species.

What stood him apart from the run of his breed was a tragically fractured historical narrative; earliest circumstance stained and bespattered by grief unconducive to healthy development. Family slain by the highest-born ogres who hunted for pelts of the lupine persuasion, The Wolf was made captive by Royal marauders who flaunted the skins of his kin on their shoulders.

Confused by the likeness of mother and father, mistook his abductors for substitute parents and gave them his love in exchange for acceptance.

He sat at their fire imbibing their thinking; comported himself as a source of amusement, a mascot imbued by a knack for hilarity.

Mimicked their method of two-legged walking and put on their raggedy, cast-away garments. He grappled their language and preoccupation with spirits of darkness that seek to control us. He joined in discussions of civilized living – to which they aspired, but lacked the essentials. He pondered the number of forks on the table, the delicate question of beating inferiors. What were the ways of the uppermost nations?

How ought the ogres devise emulation?

He came to delight in their wide speculations on races of mortals in faraway places. He ventured his thinking per mythical beings.

A pet of the court of the King of the Ogres, his head in their laps ever eager for stroking, he loved to roll over and beg for a scratching. And romp at their sides when the ogres went hunting. And so he was loved by the young and the aged with whom he comingled as daily companion.

Conformed to a diet of meat from the table he grew to the size of a lupine colossus. And this saved his life when his luck ran against him. A famine descended in wake of the locusts which plague every seventh and twelfth generation. The Ogerine Kingdom grew grievously famished as crops turned to dust and the herbivores vanished.

The King of the Ogres suggested the populace gulp their emotions and sauté their parakeets; ordered his subjects make fritters of monkeys and published an edict per ferrets and puppies. The Wolf, for the heft of his flesh and his femurs, stood first among those to be sent to the cleaver.

The King spoke his heart to that innocent creature: “The Wolf, we are grieved that the reign of starvation requires your imminent decapitation, reluctant de-pelting, and deft preparation. But this is the dictate of civilization. Famine enjoins us to slaughter familiars; in order of march go the pets before children. So it must be among better-bred nations, to which we aspire as best we are able.

“And now that we’ve nourished you up to a giant, the harvest is come and we ask your compliance that we may distribute your tissues among us. Your tonnage of protein and rivers of marrow will keep us alive for a better tomorrow. We wish that the ending were very much different, but bid you submit to this difficult finish aware that our love is in no sense diminished.”

The Wolf could not hide his intense disappointment. “But am I not one of the family party? Erect as an ogre and clad in your garments? Have we not spoken at length by the fire? Compacted our minds in dissecting the universe? Am I no more than a gibbering primate? A cat on a leash? An uncircumcised parrot? What of the lives I have saved on the hunt and the hundreds of times you have tickled my tummy?”

The creature’s complaint bore the truth of an arrow. It lodged in the bosom of each within hearing. The eyes of the wives and the children grew teary. Blessing the beast who was soon to be dinner, the King of the ogres, though hollowed by hunger, yet showed his respect by delaying the process to offer this tenderly felt explanation:

“’Tis true, you’ve lived gently amidst and among us whilst sharing our thoughts and the wealth of our table. How often we’ve lauded your bipedal posture and habit of sporting our gloves and our stockings. Nor any deny that you’ve mastered our speech more completely than many a natural ogre.”

Touched to the bone by so humid a tribute, The Wolf cried aloud in his honest confusion: “Then how am I fit for inglorious stewing?”

“For lack of a soul which partakes of the vices and widely notorious virtues of ogres observed in the high-born, especially Royals, less evident surely in petty nobility, dormant recessive in ogerine peasants and largely extinct in our soldiers and simpletons. Here I am speaking of lust, sloth, and vanity, bubbling avarice, blubberous gluttony, pride and corruption, abiding brutality.

“Much as you’ve dabbled in low metaphysics and cheered our debauches with bloodthirsty giggles, and woven our spells in the voice of the cello (a gift of our Maker’s unstinted benevolence) yet notwithstanding the ogerine soul is the ogre’s alone and foreclosed to the Wolven. For this is the line we have drawn by tradition; on one side our own, on the other perdition. And so, with regret, other options prohibitive, gamely relinquish your hopes and ambitions.”

Far worse than the fact of his death in the offing, The Wolf was undone by his dread of rejection – the product, we’ve seen, of a much-perturbed infancy. Thus he was gripped by primordial terror. It darkened his blood and obstructed his vision, unhinging his mind and his prim inhibitions. It severed his heretofore supine affections releasing the instincts imbedded by nature.

Instead of assuming the prayerful position inviting the axe and its lethal sequellum, he leapt at the throat of the King of the Ogres dividing the heart from the shoulder and belly, nor pausing to rest but devoured the servants, the wives standing by and a dozen of children. Refreshed and renewed by the influx of protein, yet stung to the core of his put-upon psyche, The Wolf made his way through the phalanx of officers charging en masse to the scene of the slaughter.

Attracted too late by the angst of the babies they covered their eyes in their grief as they passed him. And so he departed the tumbledown castle of misaligned boulders and happenstance brickwork (the off-putting look which the ogres preferred for their humblest hovels and highest-born dwellings.)

Pursued by his fears of a warm retribution he traveled by night and by evening and morning. Nor stopped all that month for so long as an hour as time may be judged in the depths of a forest. For hot on his heels came conflicted emotions more aimed at his heart than the arrows of ogres. He carried a rage burning angry as fire, as heavy as stone and unyielding as iron. Imprisoned by anguish engulfing his psyche, he found no relief in the pleasure of killing. It lasted an instant before it was spoiled by the onset of sorrow and gush of self-pity.

He found in his travels no home with his kindred, whose views he disparaged as crude and simplistic. He stole from the clotheslines whatever might fit him and sought in the sinews of cattle and rabbits and gophers and mole-rats comprising his diet, the taste of the souls of his late beloved ogres.

But never again did he savor the Heaven that dwelt in the delicate flesh of the Royals.

He sniffed as he covered inordinate distances, always alert for the warm reminiscence of jealousy, vanity, avarice, gluttony, pride, and the hint of abiding brutality. Such was the life of the fugitive hunter whose hunger was more for redemption than sustenance. Thusly he wandered the islands and continents searching in vain for an end to his suffering.

Living his life through consumption of others, The Wolf was consumed by a cratering lovelessness.

Go to Jeffrey’s author page at Amazon.com to order this and other titles.

June 27, 2014

Saïd Sayrafiezadeh behind the curve

Filed under: anti-Communism,literature — louisproyect @ 11:17 pm

Said Sayrafiezadeh, right, on his wedding day in 2005 along with his father, Mahmoud (Karen Mainenti, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

The latest issue of Book Forum has a section titled “War All the Time” that has reviews of books about war as well as essays by various people, including Saïd Sayrafiezadeh, the 46 year old Iranian-American who enjoyed 5 minutes of fame in 2009 as the author of “When Skateboards Will be Free”, a Trotskyist red diaper baby memoir that got rave reviews in the NY Times and Washington Post. My reaction was less enthusiastic:

The best thing that can be said about this memoir is that it is well written. Clearly, the author knows how to sustain a reader’s interest even if his story either stretches reality or in some cases breaks with it entirely. One doubts that this rather modest work of literature would have commanded the attention of the two most important papers in the United States if it had been about an unhappy childhood spent with Seventh Day Adventist or vegetarian parents imposing their beliefs on the author. There is something about the excesses of Marxist revolutionaries that gets the blood of a New York Times book review editor flowing.

He seems to be in a sophomore slump since his latest book “Brief Encounters with the Enemy”, a collection of stories that according to Amazon.com “chronicles modern, nameless cities crumbling in the shadows of war”, is ranked only 227,506 on Amazon.com, hardly enough to support the consumerist lifestyle the aging author enjoys or—more accurately—aspires to enjoy. In my review of “When Skateboards Will be Free”, I could not help but notice that his appetites were more that of the vulgarian than the artiste. From a 2009 interview in New York Magazine:

Q: So what do you say now when people start ranting about capitalism’s dying days?

A: People have been fucking saying that my whole life. I like my life, and I don’t really want to change. I don’t need society to be dismantled. I don’t want to feel guilty about the things I have. I have a 32-inch high-def flat-screen TV. I fucking love that thing, man.

My review looked askance at his claim that the SWP refused to take action against a babysitter member of the sect who molested him at his mother’s apartment in Brooklyn. The incidents would have occurred 40 years or so ago when the party was still relatively normal. But even if they did, I wonder why Sayrafiezadeh never bothered to report them to the police. Supposedly his mother protected the molester because she was anxious not to challenge the party leadership that wanted to protect him but what was Sayrafiezadeh’s excuse? Catholics have no trouble naming names, why doesn’t he? Is it possible that this incident was fictionalized to make the SWP look even worse than it was? We’ll never know, I guess.

“When Skateboards Will be Free” came out in early 2009. Since he probably began writing the book in 2007, or even earlier, there was no reason for him to acknowledge that a financial crisis would rob millions of Americans not only the opportunity to have a 32-inch high-def flat-screen TV but also a roof over their head.  Talk about being behind the curve.

Like an East German running across the demolished Berlin wall to buy bananas and porn, he assumed that American capitalism would go onward and upward forever. His memoir draws a contrast between his own desires to live a normal consumerist existence and his ridiculous parents’ utopian dreams about socialist revolution. His father, who surely risked his life arguing for socialism in the Islamic Republic, comes off particularly bad–ordering the wrong wine at a restaurant.

Maybe hoping to mine a few shekels from the anti-Communist industry,  Sayrafiezadeh’s article titled “Blood on the Tracts” returns once again to the sad, self-deluding world of his sectarian parents. Our writer begins:

THE BOOKS THAT LINED THE SHELVES in my mother’s home, and that, when I was growing up in Pittsburgh in the 1970s and ’80s, helped to shape my worldview, were almost entirely about war and written almost entirely by communists. There were Marx and Engels, of course, and Trotsky (not Stalin), but there were also quite a few other authors, hovering on the margins of the canon, such as Farrell Dobbs and George Breitman, less talented and lesser known, who would have been read, and published, by the truly initiated, namely members of the Socialist Workers Party.

What “war” could he possibly be writing about, unless he is referring to the class war in which case every single Marxist work would qualify? In terms of Dobbs and Breitman, the “less talented and lesser known”, this put down would have hardly mattered to them since their goal was to influence history rather than be interviewed in New York Magazine, the venue for articles on the very best chocolate and bargain rentals in the Hamptons.

He continues:

And because my mother was herself an avid reader, a former student of English literature who as a young woman had once dreamed of becoming a novelist—before being thwarted by a failed marriage, three children, and clinical depression—there could be found, occasionally, an anomaly wedged in between these other books. Steinbeck’s The Red Pony comes to mind. How it made its way onto our bookshelf, and, more to the point, how it remained, I have no idea. If there were other examples, and I’m sure there must have been, I cannot now specifically recall them. The reading of fiction, discouraged by the Socialist Workers Party, as most pursuits of pleasure were discouraged, was something that my mother undertook with considerable guilt and shame.

What an absurd statement. The reading of fiction was not “discouraged”. Nobody cared particularly what you did in your free time. I read everything by Charles Bukowski I could get my hands on. Most people did not read fiction for the same reason ordinary Americans do not read it. It is a dying art. People watch television or go to the movies. Who can blame them? I have 3 or 4 novels sitting on my bookshelves that I plan to read in the next year or so, mainly because they deal with political issues of some importance to me—like Jonathan Lethem’s novel about a Communist family. But I get more “pleasure” out of reading history or political analysis. If people were still writing like Steinbeck, I’d probably read that.

In terms of “most pursuits of pleasure” being discouraged, what an asinine remark. In the 1970s, SWP members went out to dinner, drank wine, fucked, played basketball or went to the beach just like other normal people did. The only difference between us and the rest of society is that we had less time to do such things because we were always at meetings.

After some more what a bunch of hairshirt assholes from Sayrafiezadeh, he gets into the question of Commies and warfare:

The literature taught well to expect the unhappy sequence of a second Great Depression, followed by a third world war that will dwarf the wars that have preceded it, followed by, if we were truly unlucky, fascism, followed, finally, by the rising up of the working class. These horrors to come dovetailed nicely with what had already arrived, i.e., the various military engagements that the United States was involved in during the years of my childhood, including those in Vietnam, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Grenada, and the long stalemate with the Soviet Union. It would be hard to disprove at least some of the dire predictions of those books when all around us it seemed we were heading in that direction. In the spirit of other, more playful literary genres, like satire or science fiction, the literature of our household was not only exaggerating but also reflecting something that was already very real. It was also reflecting the state of our own broken family, with missing father and unhappy mother. Therefore, it would have been hard for me as a child not to somehow unconsciously be rooting for the world to hurtle, with even greater speed, toward all-out war. The fiction, as nightmarish as it might have been, provided me with solace: If war was what we had to go through in order to finally achieve a splendid life, then the faster we could begin the better. So, for instance, when the United States invaded Grenada and overthrew the Socialist government, the sadness that my mother and I shared was tempered by the understanding that of course things would be playing out this way, since Marx taught well that capitalism can only do what is in its nature to do. The years of my childhood brought more of the same, which is to say, more war, economic crisis, but no workers’ revolt, and eventually my mother, exhausted and disillusioned, resigned from the Socialist Workers Party and purged our household of its communist literature. Our best-laid plans had not come close to being borne out. But it’s not so easy to abandon one’s fantasies, and even as the years passed, and my mother tried, and failed, to become a writer, and I engaged in some decidedly capitalist behavior, like owning my own home, we occasionally found ourselves, at the beginning of yet another war, entertaining thoughts that the gravediggers would soon arrive. Still, we dreamed.

When I read such mind-numbing stupidity, I can understand why Random House published “When Skateboards Will be Free” and torpedoed the comic book I did with Harvey Pekar. The Trotskyists were not obsessed with war. They were for peace, especially in places like Nicaragua, Grenada and Cuba where attempts to create an alternative to capitalism had to be nurtured not bombed into submission.

He states: “Therefore, it would have been hard for me as a child not to somehow unconsciously be rooting for the world to hurtle, with even greater speed, toward all-out war.” Yes, I am sure that this is true. Children have confused thoughts. When I was six years old, I used to fantasize about going into outer space in a huge rocket ship that could satisfy all my desires like in “The Forbidden Planet”. At least after I grew up a bit, I realized that childhood fantasies should be left in the past since they are obstacles to coming to terms with life’s challenges. For a shithead like Saïd Sayrafiezadeh, they obviously serve some pecuniary interest since there is a market for red-baiting crap and not memoirs that celebrate a life led as a radical—warts and all.

May 25, 2014

Fishing on the Pole Star

Filed under: animal rights,literature — louisproyect @ 8:49 pm

My Facebook friends know that lately I have been posting poems on my timeline. It has been many decades, five at least, that I have read poems—let alone try to write one. After getting radicalized in 1967, my life took a rather prosaic turn.

Most of the poets I like to read are long dead, including Herman Melville who was damned fine even if he is best known for his prose. As might be expected, his poems share the subject matter of his best-known prose:

The Maldives Shark

About the Shark, phlegmatical one,
Pale sot of the Maldive sea,
The sleek little pilot-fish, azure and slim,
How alert in attendance be.
From his saw-pit of mouth, from his charnel of maw,
They have nothing of harm to dread,
But liquidly glide on his ghastly flank
Or before his Gorgonian head;
Or lurk in the port of serrated teeth
In white triple tiers of glittering gates,
And there find a haven when peril’s abroad,
An asylum in jaws of the Fates!
They are friends; and friendly they guide him to prey,
Yet never partake of the treat —
Eyes and brains to the dotard lethargic and dull,
Pale ravener of horrible meat.

Just by coincidence it seems, I got a copy of Paul Pines’s latest book of poems titled “Fishing on the Pole Star” that also has a great poem about sharks:

Screen shot 2014-05-25 at 4.08.58 PM

Like Herman Melville, Paul Pines was not a product of the Iowa Writers Workshop but a life of wanderlust including time spent as a deckhand on merchant ships. In the introduction to “Fishing on the Pole Star”, he explains the book’s origin:

As a boy in Brooklyn I fished for crappies in Prospect Park with my brother Claude, and later bottom-fished on party boats out of Sheepshead Bay and Boston Whalers on Long Island Sound. When I owned a bar and restaurant, several of my staff, including our chef, Nathan Metz, fished out of Montauk for blues and stripers which we brought back to feed our patrons. While living in Belize my buddy Ted Berlin, a peerless hand-line fisherman and free-diver, showed me how to scour coral heads for crab, lobster, conch and snapper. But nothing can convey the mystery and challenge of those weeks at sea tracking the great marlin south through the out-islands of the Bahamas—and to those who opened that world to me, starting with my father, I will be forever grateful.

I never did any salt-water fishing but growing up in upstate NY, there were many days spent fresh-water fishing including on the Neversink River, one of the state’s legendary trout streams a couple of miles from my home.

But the fondest memories were of fishing for pickerel, perch and crappies (we called them sunfish) in Silver Lake in Woodridge, my hometown. My father was about as distant from me as could be imagined. Since I was born in January 1945 when he was off fighting in the Battle of the Bulge, he never bonded with me. I suppose even if he had been around, he still would have been a distant figure—that’s the way that Jewish men who lived through the Depression were so often. But when we were on the dock watching the red-and-white float bobbing on the surface, it was like a scene from The Andy Griffith Show, with me playing Opie.

Despite my overall prosaic mindset, there’s something that still touches my mystical inner eye when it comes to water. I don’t think I could ever live very far from the water. When I did so in Kansas City, I was miserable most of the time. Of course that was just as likely a function of belong to a cult that was forcing me to get an entry-level factory job at the age of 33.

When I croak, I will have my wife cremate me and dump the ashes into the Hudson River, for me an especially holy body of water—my Ganges in effect.

It is so easy to take water for granted. But did you ever stop to think about where it came from? When the planet earth was born, there was no water (and no god to create it either.) Although it is only a theory, there’s a good chance that it came from a water-laden comet or meteor crashing into our planet was responsible.

The other thing that intrigues me is our connection to the fish itself. While we are obviously far removed from them on the evolutionary ladder, they are our great-grandfathers and grandmothers. Despite our terror of the shark, they are in some ways our closest relatives since they are at the top of the aquatic food chain just as we are at the top of the entire food chain. Unlike us, the shark poses no danger to the survival of the planet, however. In a very real sense, the shark in “Jaws” was a lot less scary than BP or Exxon-Mobil.

I recommend the website of Thomas Peschak, a National Geographic photographer, conservationist, and author of “Sharks and People”.  Peschak has a few videos there, including one of the Manta Rays on a feeding frenzy in the Maldives, the same place that Melville’s poem was set in.

I have no idea how the world will end, whether with a bang or a whimper but I’d hold out hope that the sharks and other swimming creatures will survive our wickedness and give evolution a chance to start all over. Those beasts at least know how to participate in the great circle of being, unlike our own sharks on Wall Street who will certainly destroy us given the chance.

Paul’s very fine new book can be ordered from the publisher’s website. Not only are the words great, the accompanying seascape collages by Wayne Atherton are priceless. Paul dedicated the book to his late brother Claude who was a good friend of mine during the halcyon days before the Vietnam War. The book is a fitting tribute to Claude as well as a major contribution to the poetry canon by a true original. Waste no time. Buy the book and get spiritually elevated.

April 21, 2014

The return of Stefan Zweig

Filed under: Fascism,Film,Jewish question,literature,war — louisproyect @ 5:23 pm

Counterpunch April 21, 2014

Madness and War

The Return of Stefan Zweig


When a publicist from IFC invited me to a press screening of Patrice Leconte’s “A Promise” (the film opens Friday in NY), I could not resist. Leconte was one of my favorite directors and I considered his “Ridicule” a masterpiece. Since IFC described “A Promise” as a tale about a young man of humble origins taking up a clerical post in a German steel factory at the beginning of WWI, it sounded as if Leconte had returned to the concerns of “Ridicule”, a film that pitted a minor aristocrat in pre-revolutionary France against the snobbery and authoritarianism of Louis XIV’s court. It seemed all the more promising (no pun intended) given the screenplay’s origins as a Stefan Zweig novella titled “Journey into the Past”. I was aware that there was something of a Stefan Zweig revival afoot, reflected by Wes Anderson’s homage to him in “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and new editions of his fiction and nonfiction work from both New York Review of Books and Pushkin Press, a boutique publisher specializing in fine literature.

This much I knew about Stefan Zweig. He was the quintessential fin de siècle author from the quintessential fin de siècle city—Vienna. He was a pacifist who opposed WWI and a Jew who fled Nazi Germany. He was also connected to a wide range of intellectuals and public figures, ranging from the Zionist Theodor Herzl to Richard Strauss, the German composer who had an ambivalent relationship to the Third Reich but who stood by Zweig when it came to including his librettist’s name in a programme. He was particularly close to Sigmund Freud, Arthur Schnitzler and Romain Rolland, three other key figures from fin de siècle Vienna. After relocating to Brazil, Stefan Zweig and his wife committed suicide together. Like fellow Jew Walter Benjamin, he succumbed to despair.

read full article: http://www.counterpunch.org/2014/04/21/the-return-of-stefan-zweig/

March 17, 2014

Thoughts on a Counterpunch article paying tribute to Cormac McCarthy

Filed under: indigenous,literature — louisproyect @ 4:40 pm

Cormac McCarthy

In today’s Counterpunch—my favorite online and print publication—there’s a tribute to Cormac McCarthy, my least favorite novelist, by a Texas attorney named Carl E. Kandutsch who holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Yale University. Often set in Texas and the old west, McCarthy’s novels leave me with the impression that they are a mosh-up of overwrought Faulknerian or Melvillian prose and the Warner brother’s Roadrunner cartoons.

I first became—how should I put it?—obsessed with McCarthy after seeing “No Country for Old Men” in 2007. When the most likable character, a blue-collar worker who has absconded with the drug money found at the site of a shootout that left the dealers killed, is killed off himself long before the end of the flick only to leave a sheriff played by Tommie Lee Jones to blather on about the state of the world, I turned to my wife and said, “What the hell? Is this the way this stupid movie ends?”

That led me to an examination of the Cormac McCarthy fan’s website (http://www.cormacmccarthy.com/), where I saw his 1985 “Blood Meridian” described as a dismantling of “the politically correct myth of aboriginal victimization, so that victims and their antagonists become indistinguishable.”

Since I guess I am one of those people who subscribes to the “the politically correct myth of aboriginal victimization”, I had problems with McCarthy’s novel even before I read it.

Kandutsch’s tribute references “Blood Meridian”, a novel most pro-McCarthy critics regard as his finest and liken to “Moby Dick”. With respect to the “politically correct” question, Kandutsch states:

There are no “noble savages” in these novels, and the Indians described in Blood Meridian are every bit as brutal, rapacious and blood-thirsty as the lawless gang of gringos who patrol the border badlands destroying villages in search of Indian scalps to sell for bounties offered by the Texas and Mexican governments.

Before I turn to the Comanche “noble savage” topic, I want to say something about McCarthy’s style. In the interests of transparency, I have to admit that I can’t stand overwriting so that probably disqualifies me as an objective critic of McCarthy to begin with. The late Nora Ephron, a wise and witty critic of male foibles and a pellucid prose stylist, had these words on McCarthy in the New Yorker magazine as related in a bedtime chat she was having with an unidentified man:

She opened the book and started reading from the end.

He does this weird thing with contractions, she said. He uses apostrophes for words like that’s and it’s but he doesnt use them for dont and wasnt and wont. He doesnt use quotation marks, either.


Cormac McCarthy.

As the best example of what I find troubling about both McCarthy’s writing and his politics, there’s no better example than this passage from “Blood Meridian” that describes a Comanche band returning from a raid on a Texas village as if it was a Walpurgisnacht procession:

A legion of horribles, hundreds in number, half naked or clad in costumes attic or biblical or wardrobed out of a fevered dream with the skins of animals and silk finery and pieces of uniform still tracked with the blood of prior owners, coats of slain dragoons, frogged and braided cavalry jackets, one in a stovepipe hat and one with an umbrella and one in white stockings and a bloodstained wedding veil and some in headgear or cranefeathers or rawhide helmets that bore the horns of bull or buffalo and one in a pigeontailed coat worn backwards and otherwise naked and one in the armor of a Spanish conquistador, the breastplate and pauldrons deeply dented with old blows of mace or sabre done in another country by men whose very bones were dust and many with their braids spliced up with the hair of other beasts until they trailed upon the ground and their horses’ ears and tails worked with bits of brightly colored cloth and one whose horse’s whole head was painted crimson red and all the horsemen’s faces gaudy and grotesque with daubings like a company of mounted clowns, death hilarious, all howling in a barbarous tongue and riding down upon them like a horde from a hell more horrible yet than the brimstone land of Christian reckoning, screeching and yammering and clothed in smoke like those vaporous beings in regions beyond right knowing where the eye wanders and the lip jerks and drools.

Wow, that’s all one sentence! Back in 1977 when I was working for Salomon Brothers, the programmers took a workshop on writing memos that was better than any writer’s workshop class I ever took at Bard or NYU. We learned to avoid the passive voice, number one (you’ll rarely see them in my articles.) The next thing was to understand the Gunning Fog Index that rated prose on the basis of readability, including the average number of words in a sentence, etc. Running the passage above against a Gunning Fog Index calculator (http://gunning-fog-index.com/fog.cgi) returned a rather feverish reading of 102.2. Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gunning_fog_index) states that texts for a wide audience generally need a fog index less than 12 and those for universal audience require an index of less than 8.

Turning to the substance of the passage, a careful reader with a tolerance for high Gunning Factor Indices might wonder what Comanche Indians were doing wearing stovepipe hats, an umbrella, white stockings, a bloodstained wedding veil, etc. As McCarthy was reported to have read extensively on the historical background of the Comanche Indian wars celebrated in films like “The Searchers”, you would have to believe that he was not making this up. In fact there was such a procession of weirdly dressed Indians with a telltale sign of a recent massacre of whites (bloodstained wedding veil) in Texas history.

This was a reference to the August 6, 1840 Linville Raid when 600 Comanche killed and kidnapped many settlers, including Daniel Boone’s granddaughter. What struck McCarthy’s literary fancy was the raiding party’s looting of the town’s general store, resulting in the aforementioned sinister costume party.

However, what McCarthy leaves out is the incident that led to the raid. While McCarthy’s account of the raid is accurate if overwrought stylistically, it leaves out an important element. This was not an unprovoked attack but vengeance for the killing of 12 of the top Comanche leaders at a peace negotiations meeting in the San Antonio Council House on March 19th of that year. The Indians sought agreement on the boundaries of their territory—the Comancheria—and the Texans the return of some captives. When the Texans learned that only one captive was being returned at the meeting, they told the chiefs that they would be held hostage until the rest were returned. A pitched battle ensued leaving all the chiefs dead as well as a number of warriors, three of their wives, and two children.

McCarthy is not interested in this part of the story since it would interfere with the Hobbesian vision of his novel. Without mentioning the philosopher who is always pitted against the “novel savage” vision of Rousseau, Kandutsch seems to get that it is his philosophy that guides McCarthy’s narrative: “Others have attacked his allegedly reactionary moral and political stance, based on little more than his commitment to pessimism and his evident distaste for modern urban life.” Yup.

In “Blood Meridian”, the most repugnant character among a host of vile bodies is “The Judge”, the leader of a band of bounty hunters trading Comanche scalps for dollars who is based on the historical figure John Joel Glanton. The Judge muses:

These things are known to all the world. The world is construed out of blood and nothing else but blood. Death is the condition of existence and life is but an emanation thereof. What is constant in history is greed and foolishness and a love of blood. Before man was, war waited for him. The idea that man can be understood is an illusion.

Now McCarthy is a pretty smart guy even if he cant write worth a lick (that’s a McCarthy parody italicized there.) This notion of perpetual bloodlust is one I am very familiar with after having seen numerous accounts debunking the “noble savage” myth from one sociobiologist or another over the years, starting with Jared Diamond. McCarthy seems to be aware of their legacy from the appearance of the epigraph to “Blood Meridian”:

“Clark, who led last year’s expedition to the Afar region of northern Ethiopia, and UC Berkeley colleague Tim D. White, also said that a re-examination of a 300,000-year-old fossil skull found in the same region earlier shows evidence of having been scalped.”

The Yuma Daily Sun, June 13, 1982

You see, war must be in our genes based on the evidence of scalping 300,000 years ago.

It turns out that the primary resource for “Blood Meridian” was T. R. Fehrenbach’s “Comanches: the Destruction of a People”. Fehrenbach, who is considered the dean of Texas history writing, died on December 1, 2013. Despite the ostensibly pro-indigenous title, the study was likely the inspiration for the novel’s Walpurgisnacht scene. The chapter titled “The Blood Trail” begins with an epigraph by the famous anthropologist Alfred L. Kroeber: “War was a state of mind among the Indians, and therefore never terminated.” This connects to Fehrenbach’s observation: “The first drive of the Amerindians was a biological imperative, the hunt for food in the struggle to survive. Their one great social imperative, however, was war.” He adds, “…it is reasonably certain that warfare and killing between men is as old as the symbolic story of Cain and Abel, and that the Amerindian war ethic, like the scalp pole, came with the race from the Old War”. These words must have resonated deeply with McCarthy who was determined to prove that there was no “noble savage” even if it was necessary leave out those aspects of Texas history that undermined his fictionalized sociobiology.

February 28, 2014

The Obedient Assassin

Filed under: Counterpunch,literature,Stalinism,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 1:45 pm

Counterpunch Weekend Edition Feb 28-Mar 02, 2014

John Davidson’s “The Obedient Assassin”

Killing Trotsky


Although the movement he created is on its last legs, Leon Trotsky is still a compelling figure for the artist based on the evidence of three novels focused on his sojourn in Coyoacan that have appeared in the last several years.

Barbara Kingsolver’s “The Lacuna” came out in 2009. Like the 2002 film “Frida” (screenplay by CounterPunch regular Clancy Sigal), Kingsolver put Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo into the foreground. For her the two characters enabled her “to examine the modern American political psyche, using artists as a vehicle”, as she states on her website. The World Socialist Website frowned on the novel’s treatment of Trotsky and its deficiencies in the dialectical materialism department, which I suppose is reason enough to recommend it.

That very same year Leonardo Padura, a Cuban, wrote “The Man who Loved Dogs”, a nearly 600-page novel about Trotsky now available in English translation. Naturally the N.Y. Times reviewer, a Mexican novelist named Álvaro Enrique, saw it as a parable on Cuban society with the artist in mortal danger of being killed by a state inspired by the Moscow Trials: “Cuba may be the last place in the Americas where being a writer means living in terror.” One must conclude that Enrique does not consider reporters to be writers since a hundred have been murdered in Mexico since 2000, with most of the cases being unsolved.

I imagine that I will get around to reading Kingsolver and Padura at some point, but I had a keener interest in what John P. Davidson had to say about Trotsky in the brand new “The Obedient Assassin”, a novel that turns Ramon Mercader—Trotsky’s killer—into the major character.

I was surprised if not shocked to discover that this was the same John P. Davidson who had written a supremely witty and thoughtful account about going to butler’s school in the January 2014 Harper’s titled You Rang?, where he writes:

For some time, becoming a servant had been one of those idle dropout fantasies I entertained, along with becoming a shepherd or joining a monastery. Now, having sold my house and spent ten years and a great deal of money writing a novel that my agent hadn’t been able to sell, I had a somewhat more urgent interest in the six-figure jobs the Starkey Institute dangles before prospective students.

Assuming that the unsellable novel is “The Obedient Assassin”, we can only thank our lucky stars that he was a washout as a butler and that his agent finally hit pay dirt. As someone who has been a professional journalist for thirty-five years for reputable outlets like Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone, Davidson brings to the table an ability to write briskly and without a single superfluous word. Nor will you find the trendiness favored by MFA graduates. Sometimes it is easy to forget that some of the greatest novels were written by men and women who started out as journalists, first and foremost among them Ernest Hemingway.

full: http://www.counterpunch.org/2014/02/28/killing-trotsky/

January 27, 2014

Recent novels about Leon Trotsky

Filed under: literature,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 6:47 pm

For reasons not clear to me, there’s been a bumper crop of novels about Trotsky in Mexico published recently. The first was Barbara Kingsolver’s “The Lacuna” that came out in 2009 and is very pro-Trotsky. I have not made time for it, however, because most critics view it as a lesser work.

Moving closer to the current day, there are two books about the assassination of Leon Trotsky that have just been published. One is titled “The Man who Loved Dogs” and written in 2009 by Leonardo Padura, a Cuban. A translation by Anna Kushner now makes the nearly 600-page novel available to English readers. The N.Y. Times review would have us believe that Padura wrote the novel to discredit the Cuban government:

In the context of a plot that revisits the grim mockery of Stalin’s show trials, these acts of compulsive self-incrimination are not only loaded with significance but are also — given that Mr. Padura is a Cuban author writing in Cuba — charged with an additional layer of meaning.

Fidel Castro’s most scandalous show trial was not mounted against a political figure but against a writer: Heberto Padilla. In 1971, after 38 days of detention, Mr. Padilla was forced to “confess” at the Cuban writers’ union to the charges of “subversive activities.” He had published a book of poems faintly critical of the regime.

I don’t know if all this self-incrimination is part of the novel because Mr. Padura wants to make the point that in Cuba, writing is an activity fraught with fear, or because it is the involuntary reflex of someone who has awaited the day of his own political trial. In any case, it stands as a clear register of the author’s circumstance: Cuba may be the last place in the Americas where being a writer means living in terror.

As it turns out, the Times assigned one Álvaro Enrique to review Padura’s book. Enrique is a Mexican novelist who perhaps does not consider journalists to be writers. If he did, he surely must be aware that a hundred reporters have been murdered in Mexico since 2000, with most of the cases being unsolved.

One should certainly not prejudge Padura’s novel based on the use that Enrique is making of it since the wiki on Enrique states:

Padura’s novel El hombre que amaba a los perros (The Man Who Loved Dogs) deals with the murder of Leon Trotsky and the man who assassinated him, Ramon Mercader. At almost 600 pages, it is his most accomplished work and the result of more than five years of meticulous historical research. The novel, published in September 2009, attracted a lot of publicity mainly because of its political theme. The main argument of the author seems to be that Joseph Stalin betrayed socialism and destroyed the hope of creating a utopian society in the 20th century.[citation needed] It leaves open the possibility that such a society might still be possible in the 21st.

The novel that I am looking forward to reading the most, however, is John P. Davidson’s “The Obedient Assassin”. I had the great pleasure of experiencing his writing in a long article that appeared in the January 2014 Harper’s titled “You Rang: mastering the art of serving the rich” that chronicled his experience at butler school! It is exceedingly witty and socially aware:

Getting the details right was especially important when there were several houses, so that consistency could be maintained from property to property in the remotes for television sets, the controls for lighting and security systems, the organization of kitchen and bathroom cupboards. Principals did not want to fumble around, lost in their own houses. Ms. Fowler used Excel spreadsheets to stock refrigerators with soft drinks, then lined up and photographed the contents so that a glance would tell what needed replenishment. She religiously checked the expiration dates on cans of soda: if you own seven houses and each has as many as six refrigerators — two in the kitchen, one in the garage or storeroom, one in the pool house, one in the master suite, one in the screening room — for a total of forty-two refrigerators, it’s possible that years could pass before a can of soda is opened.

One hopes that Mr. Davidson has found better uses of his talents than checking on soft drink expiration dates, such as his new novel. On his website he describes how became interested in the Trotsky assassination:

My decision to write the novel came gradually, starting on a visit in 2001 to the Trotsky Museum in Coyoacán. As I walked through the Trotsky compound, I sensed an old turmoil, a kind of narrative static electricity. Trotsky’s life in Mexico was so unexpectedly romantic, and the assassination so dramatic, I didn’t understand how it could be that I didn’t know the story.

Or rather, I didn’t understand how I had forgotten the story, because I had been to the museum on earlier visits to Mexico, walked through the rooms, read the documents, and looked at the old black-and-white photographs of the Trotskys with Frida Kahlo, Diego River and André Breton.

I wondered if decades of anti-Soviet propaganda had kept me from grasping Trotsky’s humanity. Or perhaps my perspective had been changed by 9/11 and my own maturity. But whatever the cause, I was certain there must be a compelling book about Trotsky’s exile and the assassination. I began to search for that book but found nothing that was accessible or in print.

In the chapter that I have reproduced below, Davidson describes the encounter between Trotsky’s assassin and Joe Hansen, Trotsky’s chief bodyguard. I only knew Hansen well enough to say hello after joining the Socialist Workers Party in 1967 but I was much closer to George Novack who spent a lot of time in Coyoacan and was one of the main organizers of the Leon Trotsky Commission of Inquiry chaired by John Dewey.

Hansen was 57 when I joined the SWP and still quite vigorous. Despite the fact that I was not that familiar with him personally, his approach to political problems was a great influence on me. To this day, I have Hansen’s methodology in the back of my mind when I am writing about some vexing problem in the class struggle such as how to figure out what is going on in Ukraine and Thailand where class lines are not sharply delineated.

I have only browsed through “The Obedient Assassin” to this point but what I have seen impresses me a great deal. Davidson’s background is as a journalist and this probably accounts for the lean but compelling character of his prose.

The other day Stephen Colbert interviewed novelist Michael Chabon about Ernest Hemingway in a show devoted to the novelist Chabon regarded as always sounding fresh. Although Chabon did not mention it, I think a lot of what we like about Hemingway can be attributed to his training as a journalist. With so many novelists today writing 800 page novels trying to capture What Life is Like Today, it is refreshing to read prose that is focused mainly on capturing human drama in a pellucid style such as how Davidson writes:

Row after row, eight abreast, thousands of Mexicans marched down Reforma. Many looked Aztec or Mayan, with straight black hair and sharply sculptured features. Plumbers, carpenters, electricians, painters, the rank and file of the Communist Party in Mexico, they carried cardboard placards demanding that Trotsky get out of the country. Afuera Trotsky! Trotsky, get out! They walked silently, their faces so impassive, it might have been a funeral procession but for the trucks with loudspeakers that passed at regular intervals bearing large pictures of Trotsky looking satanic with his white goatee, eyes glaring intensely through his spectacles, a harsh metallic voice ringing from big cone-shaped speakers. “Trotsky is a traitor and terrorist!” the voices would cry from the distance, grow painfully loud, then fade away as the trucks moved on. All the while, the shuffling of the workers’ feet on pavement remained soft and constant.

To the casual observer, the May Day parade was a stunning turn-around. Trotsky had been a hero to peasants and workers when he arrived in Mexico, and now he was an archvillain. To Jacques, the parade was a demonstration of Eitingon and Caridad’s prowess They had brought the power of the Kremlin and Comintern to bear upon the Communist Party of Mexico. Moving behind the scenes never showing their hand, they purged the Communist newspapers in Mexico, replacing the editors and writers who had accepted the presence of Trotsky. Brought to heel, the Communist press mounted a campaign against Trotsky, all but calling for blood. Trotsky was not a friend of the worker. He was a terrorist and a Fascist.

Eitingon and Caridad had applied the same sort of pressure to the largest and most powerful labor unions in Mexico, which were Communist-run. Union bosses had turned out twenty thousand Mexicans to protest against Trotsky. Eitingon and Caridad had their kinds on the levers of power and were pulling all of the elements of their plan into alignment. Everything was running according to schedule. The attack on Trotsky would take place soon. It was the first of May; Hitler’s troops had invaded Denmark and Norway. France, the Netherlands, and Belgium were next. The free world would watch in horror as a Fascist dictator marched through West-ern Europe. Hitler would provide all the cover needed for Stalin to settle an old score.

After the parade finally passed, Jacques got in his car and started for Coyoacan. He would have preferred not going on that particular day, but Marguerite had asked him, and he feared it would look strange if he didn’t appear.

As Jacques pulled up in front of the house, lightning flickered in the dark clouds clustered against the volcanoes. He recognized Julia and Ana, the women Siqueiros had hired to spy on the house. Dressed like peasant girls, they were flirting with the policemen in front of their hut. They had rented cheap flats on the next street, where they entertained the police, pumping them for every last detail about their post.

Jacques waved to Jake Cooper in the machine-gun turret, then heard the electric lock snap open as he approached the reinforced door. The heavy metal bar scraped against cement; Sheldon opened lie door, stepping aside, his eyes wide in the dim light of the garage.

“What are you doing, letting me in like that?” Jacques asked in a low voice.

“I heard your car. I knew it was you.”

“You have to be careful.”

“Marguerite had to go out, but Hansen wants to see you.”

“Me? Why does he want to see me?”

“I don’t know, but he said to send you in. He’s in the library.”

Walking up the flagstone path, Jacques felt as if some great gravitational force were taking hold of him, a strong ocean current that would drag him out to sea. The doors to the library stood open a waiting trap. As he stepped beneath the bower of bougainvillea he removed his dark glasses, his eyes and mind working rapidly, taking notes for Siqueiros. The room resembled a battlefield command station, spartan, improvised, orderly with unfinished plank floors thick adobe walls plastered a deep mustard color, bare lightbulb hanging on long cords from the rafters of the ceiling. There were two desks and a worktable, two big black typewriters, filing cabinets, a telephone, a map of Europe, and a small bookshelf filled with volumes of an encyclopedia.

Jacques had imagined the room so often, assembling a picture from bits and pieces of information. He was surprised to find it empty, except for Joe Hansen, who sat at the desk toward the back of the library. He gazed up from a typed document, studied Jacque, for a moment, then got to his feet. Wiry and of moderate height Hansen was like a character from the Wild West, his dark blond hair cut badly by a Mexican barber, pale blue eyes, and a prominent Adam’s apple riding above the knot of his tie and the frayed collar a holstered pistol hanging from a wide leather belt.

“Marguerite asked me to give you this,” he said, handing Jacque, an envelope.

“I’ve seen you outside. I don’t think we’ve met.”

“Yes, I know who you are.”

“The Old Man wanted me to talk to you. He keeps hearing abo you and has begun to wonder what it is you’re doing here.”

Jacques felt his mouth go dry. “I’m in Mexico on business. M wife, Sylvia, introduced me to the Rosmers.”

Hansen frowned. “What about this false passport?”

“Yes, I had to buy a Canadian passport in Paris. I’m Belgian but couldn’t get a passport there.”

“Why was that?” Hansen asked, crossing his arms.

“A problem with my family, a legal difficulty.”

“By legal, do you mean criminal?”

“No.” Jacques recoiled a bit as if offended. “I don’t believe this is your business, but I was commissioned as an officer in the army. Later, after I was discharged, my family pulled strings to have me lecalled so I wouldn’t leave the country. I was eventually cleared hut with the war and all, my visa was tied up in red tape. Buying a passport was a matter of convenience, nothing more.”

Hansen chewed on that for a moment, nodding. “The Old Man also wants to know about your politics.”

“I stay clear of politics.” Hansen gave a slight shrug. “Well, I’ll let you get on your way.”

Leaving, Jacques found Sheldon waiting in the garage. Thunder rumbled in the distance. The tin roof above ticked as the afternoon sun abated. The area smelled of dust and oil and tires and grease. A straight-back chair, a clipboard, and a stack of old magazines sug-gested the monotony of waiting.

“What did he want?” “Nothing. He had a note from Marguerite for me.”

“Why didn’t he give it to me?”

“I don’t know.” Jacques took out his cigarette case, offered one to Sheldon, and took another for himself. As he lit their cigarettes, he observed the young man’s hand tremble slightly. Jacques put a hand on his shoulder and gave it a reassuring squeeze. “Can you get away tonight?”

He nodded. Yes. “Come to the Shirley Courts. I’ll bring you home.”

“When should I come? Is seven too early?”

“No, that’s good. Now, you’d better let me out.”

He watched Sheldon move the heavy iron aside. The door opened to the smell of rain coming across the valley.

“The Obedient Assassin” can now be ordered from Amazon.com (http://www.amazon.com/The-Obedient-Assassin-A-Novel/dp/1883285585).

January 15, 2014

My favorite poet’s new book

Filed under: literature — louisproyect @ 12:57 am


Saturday, January 11, 2014

New Orleans Variations & Paris Ouroboros by Paul Pines
(Dos Madres, Loveland, OH, 2013)

“Roland insists history
doesn’t live in people but

in stones.”
–from “Light Changes”

With his latest, Paul Pines reveals himself to be at the peak of his poetic powers.  Except that, ever since I started reading him a few of his books ago, I also noticed that he gets better and better.  So, may he keep peaking!

Two general things I want to say about Pines’ New Orleans Variations and Paris Ouroboros.  First, the movements across and between a multiplicity of references is just fabulous jazz.  Second, the collection is a wonderful manifestation of something he quotes by Homer: “We leave home to find ourselves.”

The poet left home to travel to two cities the subject of this book: New Orleans and Paris.  Many of these poems charm, and I want to focus on the charming — and witty, wise, moving (Section 3 from “Silences” is a treasure), aware — poems.  That could be all of them.  So let me share a sample from the New Orleans section, Section 3 from “Hello From Nola”:


a party awash in rice and beans
Popeye’s fried chicken
and biscuits
chorizos and King Cake
with the baby
still in it

served by Sor Juana
still in her escudo
I enter in jeans and a t-shirt
no longer recognizable
to those who sit
around a larger table
until my hostess
introduces me
as the man who was Jesus
at which there are random
nods of recognition

I’m asked
from time to time
to perform an intervention
as when the dog
leaps up to a low lying
bowl and devours
the sausage
or a reveler
spills her rum and coke
on the sofa but nothing
approaching a miracle
though I tell them
I can turn wine
into urine

a Mad Hatter
challenges me
to make it through the airport
dressed as our Savior

says it would be a spectacle
to watch them scan my robes
divest me of my hair and beard
conduct a cavity search
a veritable security

a new wrinkle
on the Grand Inquisitor
I appear before a southern judge
who finds me guilty of
inciting to riot
disrupting the status quo
a warning to Terrorists
a Republican trope

one can’t be
too careful when
the Prince of Peace
might be just another

who just last week
danced without incident
in the second line
all the way to
Canal St.

“[T]urn urine into wine” — that’s just deft, Dude.  And a killer ending…

And here’s a sample poem from the Paris section


At fourteen her blue eyes
hedged by dark lashes

Mathilde prepares three plates
of pate and goat cheese

served with white beans
bread and wine then confides

that her English teacher
encourages students to learn

Chinese German Russian
any other tongue but English

Her father Roland points out
the French threw Tom Paine

in the Bastille for objecting
to the wholesale execution

of aristocrats but mark the spot
with a silver plaque where

Hemingway drank himself silly
At La Closerie de Lilas

Americans in paris are always
lost (he says) but no worse

than Germans or Spaniards
Once a group from Munich

asked him where he’d learned
to speak their tongue so well

to which Roland replied

I can’t resist the appeal of these poems; here’s another astounding Paris poem (that hearkens, too, my theme in my engagement with Leonard Gontarek’s two books in this issue):


can only be grasped if we understand
the meaning of chaos as

a gap

between objects
or conditions

the space

Hermes’ wind
nourished in the belly
of the earth

where God
becomes conscious
of Himself

Last but not least, this collection is hugely entertaining—and I don’t say that about most poetry books!  Do give yourself a treat and read these poems!


Eileen Tabios does not let her books be reviewed by Galatea Resurrects because she’s its editor. But she is also pleased to point you elsewhere to recent reviews of her books.  Her 2013 book, THE AWAKENING was reviewed by Aileen Ibardaloza at OurOwnVoice; and her 2004 book MENAGE A TROIS IN THE 21ST CENTURY, was reviewed (along with Joi Barrios’ poetry) through the essay “The Self Revolution of Radical Love–Externalizing Internal Worlds of Freedon in Filipina Poetry” by Michaela Spangenburg at OurOwnVoice.  Eileen invites you to her new blog, EILEEN VERBS BOOKS; poets are invited to participate in three of its features: “Poetry and Money,” “What Are You Reading?” and “What Do You Re-Read?

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:


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!

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