Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 29, 2012

A Royal Enfield spotting

Filed under: motorcycles — louisproyect @ 6:57 pm

Parked in front of my building this morning

I was stunned this morning to see a Royal Enfield motorcycle in mint condition parked in front of my building, worthy of being displayed in a motorcycle museum.

When I was at Bard College in the early 60s, Japanese motorcycles were still a rarity. Friends owned a Matchless 500cc single scrambler, a Triumph Bonneville road bike, a Norton Dominator 750cc road racer, a BSA 250 cc road bike, and a BSA 650cc Lightning Rocket scrambler—all British bikes. I took the Lightning Rocket for a spin once and was amazed by its power. The friend who owned the BSA 250 sold it and bought a Ducati Diana 250 cc instead. The first Japanese bike was a Yamaha YDS3 that my friend Steve bought in 1965, our senior year. I took it for a spin once and found it much more to my liking than the scary BSA Lightning Rocket.

After doing a bit of research on the net, I discovered that the Royal-Enfield was not a restored model but something fairly new. Except for the Triumph, motorcycles are not being built in Britain any longer. It should be added that a new company that is committed to maintaining the quality of the original is making the Triumph of today. You can see them all around N.Y., rivaling the Ducati’s in sex appeal.

As it turns out, the Royal-Enfields are being made in Chennai, India today. The model I saw this morning (a Bullet 500 ES) is one of 11 models being sold. It has the same exact look as a vintage machine. This is not the first case of colonialism in reverse. In 2008 Tata Motors of India took over Jaguar and cars are now being made in Puna, India.

The Royal Enfield story is fairly paradigmatic of British industry. Enfield was an arms manufacturer. When they got involved with making motorcycles, they created a logo that featured a cannon and whose motto was “Made like a gun, goes like a bullet”. By contrast, Yamaha, which started out as a piano maker, developed a logo for its motorcycles of superimposed tuning forks.

I suppose there’s some moral to be drawn from the choice of logo’s but I’ll leave those of you disposed to cultural studies analysis to figure it out for yourself.

December 16, 2009

Frederick Seidel article now online

Filed under: motorcycles — louisproyect @ 2:46 pm

On October 22nd, I wrote about Frederick Seidel’s memoir on motorcycles that had appeared in Harper’s magazine which was behind a firewall at that time. You can now read it online at: http://www.harpers.org/archive/2009/11/0082723.

November 28, 2009

Big Sid’s Vincati

Filed under: Jewish question,literature,motorcycles — louisproyect @ 8:24 pm

Not long after I blogged about poet Frederick Seidel’s motorcycle memoir from Harper’s Magazine, an even more interesting denizen of this subculture showed up as a commenter. Matthew Biberman, a U. of Louisville literature professor, informed unrepentant Marxist readers about a memoir titled “Vincati”  that describes the project he carried out with his ailing father Sid to create a hybrid motorcycle based on a Ducati frame and a Vincent engine.

Even if you have never owned or driven a motorcycle, I strongly recommend this memoir that I finished recently as a sensitive study of father-son relations. It is interesting that Biberman tells us early on in the memoir that he had hopes at one point of becoming a novelist. This beautiful memoir is additional confirmation, as if any was needed, that the most interesting literature today uses this medium, just as the best films are documentaries rather than fiction. It would seem that true life, as long as it is described mercilessly but with compassion, is far more compelling than the best novel.

I had a particular affinity for this memoir as a one-time motorcycle owner, even if it was an underpowered Jawa motorcycle—more of a scooter than a real bike. I was green with envy as Matthew described his father giving him the present of a Matchless Motorcycle when he was just a teenager. Of course, that might be expected given Sid Biberman’s long-time involvement with motorcycles, both as a rider and as a motorcycle shop owner and master mechanic. When I bought my Jawa in 1965, my father only worried whether I would get killed or maimed in a highway accident, thus sacrificing the small fortune he had invested in my education. This was despite the fact that he rode a motorcycle himself during his years in the army.

Jack Proyect

Sid Biberman can best be described as a “tough Jew“, a type of anomalous character described by Rich Cohen in “Tough Jews : Fathers, Sons, and Gangster Dreams”. Despite having a father who was a butcher, closer in sociological terms to my fruit store owning dad, Sid Biberman became seduced by motorcycles at an early age and was drawn into a subculture we associate with tattooed “goyim”, or gentiles. Ironically, “Big Sid”, who could lift a motorcycle with his beefy arms when he was young, could pass for one of these characters but without the tattoos of course. As you probably know, a tattoo will keep you out of a Jewish cemetery.

One imagines that a very interesting panel discussion might be held with Rich Cohen and Matthew Biberman on Jewish identities, given Matthew’s other book titled Masculinity, Anti-semitism and Early Modern English Literature: From the Satanic to the Effeminate Jew, which one amazon.com review described as follows:

This is a remarkable book that tells a sad, tragic, and horrifying story. It tells that story powerfully, and deserves to be read, especially in the current post-9/11 cultural climate. Indeed, it is perhaps the most brilliant, original, challenging, and provocative book on the history of anti-Semitism to be published in many years. Biberman argues that a convergence of femininity and Judaism, anti-Semitism and anti-feminism emerged in the Renaissance and that the subsequent reification of this convergence in the nineteenth century developed into a kind of truth about Jewish Masculinity and the Jewish Male as effeminate.

Early on, Sid became an owner of a Vincent Rapide motorcycle. The Vincent motorcycles were made in Britain and at the top of the line were the Black Lightning and Black Shadow bikes. British folk-rocker Richard Thompson paid homage to the Vincents in a great song titled “1952 Vincent Black Lightning”;

Said Red Molly to James that’s a fine motorbike
A girl could feel special on any such like
Said James to Red Molly, well my hat’s off to you
It’s a Vincent Black Lightning, 1952
And I’ve seen you at the corners and cafes it seems
Red hair and black leather, my favorite color scheme
And he pulled her on behind
And down to Box Hill they did ride

Like just about every British motorcycle company, Vincent eventually went bankrupt. Today the few thousands of functioning Vincents are owned by passionate enthusiasts who rely on men like Sid Biberman, who know them from the inside out, to repair or improve them.

Vincent Black Lightning

Improvement hardly would describe a project to put a Vincent V-twin engine into a Ducati frame.  If you’ve read the Seidel memoir, you’ll know that the poet had the same kind of love for the sleek Italian machine that Sid Biberman had for the British bikes. As a still thriving manufacturer today, the Ducatis set the standard for beauty, handling and speed.  In 1998, the Guggenheim Museum in New York had a motorcycle show, with a Ducati 999 and other Ducatis drawing the most admiring gazes.

Putting a Vincent engine into a Ducati frame would prove daunting for any skilled mechanic, but when the Vincent engine was decades old, there would be additional complications. Once the two men went forward with their task, they had to contend with old engines that were in a state of disrepair.

In some ways, those engines were a metaphor for Sid Biberman himself who was stricken by a heart attack in the early pages of the memoir. In a state of depression in  a hospital bed, he wondered whether he would survive and—more ominously—whether life in such a weakened state would be worth living. He suffered from shoulder and knee ailments as well, making the mobility necessary to work on a motorcycle questionable. But when Matthew proposed doing a Vincati, Sid perked up and found a new lease on life.

In some ways, Sid’s courageous efforts to stay alive in order to bring this project to fruition will remind you of another inspiring tale of old age and motorcycles. I am referring to Bert Munro, an elderly man from New Zealand with heart and prostate troubles, among other ailments, who broke the land speed record with a highly modified Indian motorcycle, a classic V-twin like the Vincent. Munro’s feats are dramatized in the movie “The World’s Fastest Indian”, starring Anthony Hopkins as Munro, that I reviewed here.

The two eventually completed their project, which is described on http://www.bigsid.com/. I also recommend a video from Jay Leno’s website, where the talk show host, who owns a fleet of antique cars and motorcycles, discusses the Vincati with father and son.

In the conversation with Leno, the Biberman’s openly discuss the friction they experienced as father and son, which involves nearly universal issues (disapproval, remoteness, etc.). Unfortunately, my father died when he was in his fifties long before I had the opportunity to build emotional bridges with him of the kind that Matthew described in this touching memoir.

Finally, it must be acknowledged that the subtlety and insights found in “Vincati” are very likely attributable to a writer who has a background quite a bit different from the average motorcycle tuner and mechanic. Not only is Matthew Biberman a master of a legendary British motorcycle, he is also a master of British literature earning a PhD at Duke under the supervision of Frederick Jameson, a Marxist literary theorist of some renown. Indeed, Matthew Biberman’s bio at http://www.redroom.com/author/matthew-biberman/bio mentions that his favorite works of theory are: Jameson’s Political Unconscious, Lacan’s Ecrits, Stanley Fish’s essays, all Freud, Marx’s Grundrisse, Barthes, Foucault, Zizek, Zupancic.

That’s a hell of a reading list for a Vincent jockey!

October 22, 2009

Frederick Seidel

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

Frederick Seidel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(“Wanting to Live in Harlem”)

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

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

What thou lovest well remains,

the rest is dross

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

What thou lov’st well is thy true heritage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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