Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 8, 2019

Thomas Cole, William Cullen Bryant, and the American Indian

Filed under: art,indigenous,literature — louisproyect @ 6:41 pm

In the past couple of months, I have begun to work intensively on a film titled “Utopia in the Catskills” that is inspired by an article in the leftist PM newspaper from 1947 with the same title. It celebrated Woodridge, NY, my hometown that had a thriving co-op movement inspired by the Rochdale principles and a Communist Party cadre that was based in the poultry farms in the next village.

Originally, I had intended only to focus on the southern Catskills that was the home of Woodridge and the mostly Jewish resort industry. I decided to include some material on the northern Catskills in order to put Woodridge into context but soon figured out that the Utopia theme was just as appropriate to the northern Catskills, where the mountains can actually be found. By the time you get to Woodridge, the only mountains to be seen are those of the Shawangunk Ridge that is connected to a range in Pennsylvania.

The segment on the northern Catskills will deal with the mountain lions and their extinction since the question of species extinction looms so large today. It was the mountain lion that the Catskills are named for, after all. The word for cats in Dutch is Kaaters and for river is Kill. When Henry Hudson’s crew explored the mountains when the Half Moon was docked near Bard College, my alma mater, they saw mountain lions in profusion. By 1900, they had been hunted to extinction. It will also deal with the ethnic cleansing of the Lenape Indians who made the Catskills their home—the Mohicans and the Munsees.

I also decided to include something about the Hudson River School artists since I had fond memories of Olana, the castle at the top of the mountain overlooking the Rip Van Winkle Bridge that I visited in 1962 with a classmate. About 5 minutes after walking around, we were approached by a caretaker who asked us politely to leave since uninvited visitors upset Mrs. Church. This was Frederick Church’s daughter-in-law who still lived in Olana and was in her 90s by then.

Somewhere along the line, I discovered that Thomas Cole, the founder of the Hudson River School, was a better match to the theme of Utopia since he was an early 19th century Romantic who believed that wilderness was the salvation of the world. Now that de-growth has become a major issue dividing the left, it made sense to see Cole in the same terms as re-wilding the Catskills, a project that would re-introduce the mountain lion.

In the course of researching Cole, I discovered that his best friend was William Cullen Bryant, a poet, journalist and a key figure in the Democratic Party that first came to power with the Andrew Jackson presidency between 1829-1837. Both Bryant and Cole were preoccupied by the major changes in American society under Jackson. They were ambivalent about the growing commercialization of the country that threatened the wilderness depicted in Cole’s paintings. To give you an idea of his work, compare his painting of Kaaterskill Falls with the drone video immediately beneath it.

Born in Lancashire, England, Cole developed a great animus toward the industrial revolution for what it was doing to traditional life and to nature. He read poetry in great depth and identified with Oliver Goldsmith whose “The Deserted Village” that contained the lines “But a bold peasantry, their country’s pride, When once destroyed, can never be supplied.” He also loved Wordsworth who had the same love of nature and hostility toward a “progress” that was turning England into a collection of “satanic mills”, to use William  Blake’s immortal words.

In his “Essay on American Scenery”, Cole expressed his unease with the direction the USA had taken:

It was my intention to attempt a description of several districts remarkable for their picturesqueness and truly American character; but I fear to trespass longer on your time and patience. Yet I cannot but express my sorrow that the beauty of such landscapes are quickly passing away–the ravages of the axe are daily increasing–the most noble scenes are made desolate, and oftentimes with a wantonness and barbarism scarcely credible in a civilized nation. The wayside is becoming shadeless, and another generation will behold spots, now rife with beauty, desecrated by what is called improvement; which, as yet, generally destroys Nature’s beauty without substituting that of Art. This is a regret rather than a complaint; such is the road society has to travel; it may lead to refinement in the end, but the traveller who sees the place of rest close at hand, dislikes the road that has so many unnecessary windings.

In the same essay, Cole celebrates “primitive” nature but shows a certain wariness about the primitive peoples who called it home:

A very few generations have passed away since this vast tract of the American continent, now the United States, rested in the shadow of primeval forests, whose gloom was peopled by savage beasts, and scarcely less savage men; or lay in those wide grassy plains called prairies.

At the time, there was widespread support for imposing “civilization” on the wilderness. As a leading Democrat, William Cullen Bryant gave his support for Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal policy that forced the Cherokees to embark on a “Trail of Tears”. Despite both Bryant and Cole’s adaptation to the colonizing system, they still admired the American Indian to a large extent because their Romantic aesthetic and ethical values made them partial to the “Noble Savage” mythology that can be found in the novels of James Fenimore Cooper who loved the Catskills as much as them.

Cole was an admirer of Cooper’s novels, so much so that he drew upon “Last of the Mohicans” for several of his paintings. Below is “Landscape Scene From the Last of the Mohicans; The Death of Cora”:

In keeping with the sense of inexorability of Indian decline that prevailed under Jackson’s exterminationist presidency, “Last of the Mohicans” ends with these words:

Chingachgook grasped the hand that, in the warmth of feeling, the scout had stretched across the fresh earth, and in an attitude of friendship these two sturdy and intrepid woodsmen bowed their heads together, while scalding tears fell to their feet, watering the grave of Uncas like drops of falling rain.

In the midst of the awful stillness with which such a burst of feeling, coming as it did, from the two most renowned warriors of that region, was received, Tamenund lifted his voice to disperse the multitude.

“It is enough,” he said. “Go, children of the Lenape, the anger of the Manitou is not done. Why should Tamenund stay? The pale faces are masters of the earth, and the time of the red men has not yet come again. My day has been too long. In the morning I saw the sons of Unamis happy and strong; and yet, before the night has come, have I lived to see the last warrior of the wise race of the Mohicans.”

You get the same sense of the inevitability of Indian removal in William Cullen Bryant’s “The Prairies”, written in 1832:

The red man came—
The roaming hunter tribes, warlike and fierce,
And the mound-builders vanished from the earth.
The solitude of centuries untold
Has settled where they dwelt.

A decade later, Bryant wrote “The Fountain” that seems to approve Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act even though it contains lines that are consistent with the “Noble Savage” stereotype found in Cooper as well as many other 19th century authors:

I look again–a hunter’s lodge is built,
With poles and boughs, beside thy crystal well,
While the meek autumn stains the woods with gold,
And sheds his golden sunshine. To the door
The red man slowly drags the enormous bear
Slain in the chestnut thicket, or flings down
The deer from his strong shoulders. Shaggy fells
Of wolf and cougar hang upon the walls,
And loud the black-eyed Indian maidens laugh,
That gather, from the rustling heaps of leaves,
The hickory’s white nuts, and the dark fruit
That falls from the gray butternut’s long boughs.

But this hunting and gathering society is soon leapfrogged by the more productive farmers that conquered the Catskills and the prairies:

So centuries passed by, and still the woods
Blossomed in spring, and reddened when the year
Grew chill, and glistened in the frozen rains
Of winter, till the white man swung the axe
Beside thee–signal of a mighty change.
Then all around was heard the crash of trees,
Trembling awhile and rushing to the ground,
The low of ox, and shouts of men who fired
The brushwood, or who tore the earth with ploughs.
The grain sprang thick and tall, and hid in green
The blackened hill-side; ranks of spiky maize
Rose like a host embattled; the buckwheat
Whitened broad acres, sweetening with its flowers
The August wind. White cottages were seen
With rose-trees at the windows; barns from which
Came loud and shrill the crowing of the cock;
Pastures where rolled and neighed the lordly horse,
And white flocks browsed and bleated. A rich turf
Of grasses brought from far o’ercrept thy bank,
Spotted with the white clover. Blue-eyed girls
Brought pails, and dipped them in thy crystal pool;
And children, ruddy-cheeked and flaxen-haired,
Gathered the glistening cowslip from thy edge.

However, this is not the final verdict of history. Growing alienated from the mammon-worshipping Jacksonian presidency that had cost the lives of countless Cherokees and encouraged the expansion of slavery that would convince Bryant to join Lincoln’s party, he ends “The Fountain” with a rueful note:

Is there no other change for thee, that lurks
Among the future ages? Will not man
Seek out strange arts to wither and deform
The pleasant landscape which thou makest green?
Or shall the veins that feed thy constant stream
Be choked in middle earth, and flow no more
For ever, that the water-plants along
Thy channel perish, and the bird in vain
Alight to drink? Haply shall these green hills
Sink, with the lapse of years, into the gulf
Of ocean waters, and thy source be lost
Amidst the bitter brine? Or shall they rise,
Upheaved in broken cliffs and airy peaks,
Haunts of the eagle and the snake, and thou
Gush midway from the bare and barren steep?

Will not man seek out strange arts to wither and deform the pleasant landscape which thou makest green? That’s a question his best friend answered in the affirmative when he painted “River in the Catskills” a year after “The Fountain” was written.

 

It is the first landscape that depicts a railroad train. If  you look carefully,  you will spot it just above the man in the red coat. While not exactly agitprop, the painting was a commentary on the threat to the Catskills posed by capitalist development, especially the tanning and lumber industries that were the counterpart of Bolsonaro’s declaration of an open season on the Amazon rainforest for ranchers and miners.

As editor of the New York Evening Post, the newspaper founded by Alexander Hamilton and now a propaganda outlet for Rupert Murdoch, Bryant defended the values that most of us associate with the American Revolution until we had a chance to read Howard Zinn. Growing increasingly disgusted with the direction the country had taken, Bryant wrote an essay in 1837 that warned against the annexation of Texas—and implicitly slavery:

The question how long an empire so widely extended as ours  can be kept together by means of our form of government is  yet to be decided. That this form of government is admirably  calculated for a large territory and a numerous population we  have no doubt, but there is a probable limit to this advantage.  Extended beyond a certain distance, and a certain number of  states it would become inconvenient and undesirable, and a  tendency would be felt to break up into smaller nations. If the  Union of these states is destined to be broken by such a  cause, the annexation of Texas to the Union would precipitate  the event, perhaps, by a whole century. It is better to carry out  the experiment with the territory we now possess.

We don’t know exactly what Thomas Cole thought of Bryant’s poem but it moved him sufficiently to make a sketch that would be part of a series of paintings based on “The Fountain”. I tend to agree with the blurb that the Metropolitan Museum attached to a page on the sketch:

The poem evokes several eras of American civilization through incidents that occur at a forest stream. In this scene, a wounded brave (modeled after the Hellenistic sculpture known as the “Dying Gaul,” which Cole had seen in Rome) symbolizes the plight of many American Indians in an era of forced relocation.

 

May 3, 2019

Angels and Demons

Filed under: art,Counterpunch,literature — louisproyect @ 3:15 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, MAY 3, 2019

Newly released by Zero Books, Tony McKenna’s aptly titled “Angels and Demons” is a collection of profiles of some very good and some very bad people in the past and present. It is the kind of book that is hard to find nowadays and a throwback in some ways to Lytton Strachey’s “Eminent Victorians” or Edmund Wilson’s “Axel’s Castle”. Like Strachey and Wilson, he evaluates prominent individuals against their social backdrop and from a decidedly radical perspective. It is a book that has the author’s customary psychological insight and literary grace. As we shall see, it demonstrates a remarkable breadth of knowledge about disparate cultural, political and intellectual strands that is seldom seen today in an age of specialization.

Your natural tendency is to think of human nature when people are categorized as either angels like Jeremy Corbyn or demons like Donald Trump. However, it is instead powerful historical forces that act on individuals and bring out their worst and their best, especially during periods of acute class tensions. In today’s polarized world, it is easy to understand why we end up with either a Corbyn or a Trump. As William Butler Yeats put it, the center cannot hold.

Continue reading

October 22, 2018

The Unknown Citizen

Filed under: literature — louisproyect @ 7:49 pm

W.H. Auden

W.H. Auden is my favorite poet. Unfortunately, Poem Hunter only has one of his poems online, obviously dictated by copyright laws. The other major poetry database, Poetry Foundation, only has a handful. This motivated me to buy a used copy of the Collected Poems, a 915 page Vintage paperback for only $14.99. I turned through the pages a few minutes ago and picked out this quintessential 1939 poem that reflects his political sensibility–so far from the “proletarian” dictates of the Communist Party. There is no need to puzzle over its meaning. It speaks for itself.

When he was at Oxford, became part of the “Oxford Group” that was also called the “Auden Generation.” Stephen Spender, another favorite of mine, C. Day Lewis, and Louis MacNeice were also members. The Oxford Group was influenced by Marxism but as should be obvious from the poem below, with a distinctly Brechtian sardonic outlook.

The Unknown Citizen

(To JS/o7/M/378 This Marble Monument Is Erected by the State)

He was found by the Bureau of Statistics to be
One against whom there was no official complaint,
And all the reports on his conduct agree
That, in the modern sense of an old-fashioned word, he was a saint
For in everything he did he served the Greater Community.
Except for the War till the day he retired
He worked in a factory and never got fired,
But satisfied his employers, Fudge Motors Inc.
Yet he wasn’t a scab or odd in his views,
For his Union reports that he paid his dues,
(Our report on his Union shows it was sound)
And our Social Psychology workers found
That he was popular with his mates and liked a drink.
The Press are convinced that he bought a paper every day
And that his reactions to advertisements were normal in every way.
Policies taken out in his name prove that he was fully insured,
And his Health-card shows he was once in hospital but left it cured.
Both Producers Research and High-Grade Living declare
He was fully sensible to the advantages of the Instalment Plan
And had everything necessary to the Modern Man,
A phonograph, a radio, a car and a frigidaire.
Our researchers into Public Opinion are content
That he held the proper opinions for the time of year;
When there was peace, he was for peace; when there was war, he went.
He was married and added five children to the population,
Which our Eugenist says was the right number for a parent of his generation,
And our teachers report that he never interfered with their education.
Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:
Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.

October 8, 2018

Deborah Eisenberg: short stories with a superiority complex

Filed under: literature — louisproyect @ 9:42 pm

Deborah Eisenberg

You couldn’t miss the arrival of Deborah Eisenberg’s latest short story collection titled “Your Duck is My Duck” if you are into socially aware, well-written fiction. The NY Times review of September 25th stated:

In a classic Deborah Eisenberg short story, “Holy Week,” a travel writer visiting an unnamed country in Central America complacently compiles adjectives as he reviews a restaurant: “relaxed,” “intimate,” “romantic.”

This being Eisenberg, things take a turn. A very different set of words are required to actually summon the day; let’s say, “anxiety,” “empire” and “guns.” These might be the same words we would compile to describe a visit to the world of Eisenberg.

Apparently, the new collection is not quite as explicitly political as those in “Under the 82nd Airborne”, a 1989 collection that referenced the wars in Central America. In the new collection, she remains political but more obliquely so. Once again from the review:

The later work is about emerging from isolation and complacency, about larger questions of what it means to live an ethical life — and, as Eisenberg has said, whether such a thing is even possible for an American. These stories emerge from the ashes of the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, out of despoliation and environmental plunder.

Eisenberg was in the back of my mind when I came across a long and fawning profile of her in yesterday’s Times magazine section titled “Deborah Eisenberg, Chronicler of American Insanity”. It turns out that she has been living with Wallace Shawn for forty years. Shawn is the son of William Shawn, the long-time editor of The New Yorker Magazine under whose stewardship veered left on a fairly consistent basis. After his departure, it shifted to the right although you can find an occasionally trenchant analysis amidst the liberal dross.

I don’t want to call this nepotism but Eisenberg first got published in The New Yorker. I suspect that her writing was publishable even if the reviews over the years would have you believe that she is the second coming of Anton Chekhov.

The magazine profile describes the couple as elderly radicals just like me but certainly without a Trotskyist past. When he isn’t acting in Hollywood movies as an impish figure such as Vizzini in “The Princess Bride”, Shawn is mounting off-off-Broadway productions of his leftist plays. The 1996 “Designated Mourner” depicts, according to Wikipedia, “an unnamed Western country that is undergoing political conflict similar to what occurred in many Latin American countries during the Cold War: a ruling oligarchy with fascist tendencies, threatened by a communist guerrilla movement based in the lower class, is imprisoning and executing anyone suspected of subversion, including writers and intellectuals who have no direct connection to the guerrillas.” I refrained from spending $40 for a ticket to see the play since it was too close to my lived experience.

Reading the magazine section profile on Eisenberg left me with the impression that the couple was like many in Manhattan’s bourgeois (I use the word advisedly), bohemian left. The second sentence: “She works at a desk overlooking the gently curving stairwell in her spacious, light-soaked Chelsea apartment.” In case you aren’t up on New York real estate, this is the most expensive neighborhood in the city.

Wallace Shawn’s plays are distinguished by their hectoring tone. Americans are beasts who are responsible for the country’s ills. In “Aunt Dan and Lemon”, a play with two female characters, Lemon comes to the realization at the play’s end that ordinary people owe killers like Hitler and Kissinger a debt of gratitude for making their self-deceit possible. Was Shawn connected to the SDS Weathermen? Not as far as I know but the ideological affinities are obvious.

After visiting Central America in the 1980s, the two got into the habit of guilt-baiting those liberals who enjoy the same kind of privileges. The Times reports:

Back in New York, Eisenberg and Shawn had trouble persuading people of the full extent of what they’d seen. “There was no faster way to shut down a dinner party,” she told me.

Out of curiosity, I decided to have a look at the short story “Under the 82nd Airborne” that provides the title for her 1989 collection. I generally don’t spend much time reading fiction because I have my hands filled reading history and political analysis but reading Eisenberg’s short story was useful since it gave me insights into the mindset of a high-profile and acclaimed writer of the American left, who like her counterparts would never dream of writing anything so gauche as “Grapes of Wrath” or “Bread and Wine”. Oh, did I mention that gauche is the French word for left?

The first two sentences are not very auspicious from a stylistic perspective:

Two pallid eggs, possibly the final effort of some local chicken, quivered on the plate as the waitress set it in front of Caitlin. The waitress raised her canted black eyes, and behind her. Caitlin saw Holly entering at the far end of the room, flanked by two men.

I could probably write five hundred words about the clumsiness of this prose but will let this suffice. What is a “pallid” egg? If the eggs were scrambled, they’d be yellow. If they were sunny side up, they’d be white circles with a smaller yellow circle in the middle. Pallid leaves the reader questioning what kind of egg that would be unless Caitlin ordered fried egg whites as part of a health-conscious diet. As for the “final effort of some local chicken”, did the dying chicken lead to the “pallid” egg because it had chicken leukemia or something? And how does an egg sitting on a plate “quiver” unless it was an egg Jell-O omelet? As for “canted” black eyes, I felt put off by having to consult an online dictionary to understand what this means? Okay, let me look it up. I have nothing else better to do. So, it turns out that canted means at an angle. What are angled eyes? Is that a less racist way of saying “slant-eyed”? Was the waitress Asian? What was Eisenberg trying to say? The hell if I know.

Okay, enough about style. Let me turn to the politics.

Caitlin is a stage actress in her forties who is having trouble getting a part. Holly is her daughter who absolutely hates her. When Caitlin gives her a phone call, Holly asks, “Did someone just dump you, Mama? Is that it?” Holly was the result of a one-night stand with a fellow actor named Todd. Not long after Holly was born, the couple split up.

Anxious to see a daughter who obviously can’t stand her, Caitlin invites her to come to New York so they can hang out. Holly replies that she can’t make it because she is going on a business trip with her fiancé Brandon. The engagement was news to her mother, another sign of their distance. Showing an uncanny inability to pick up on her daughter’s cues to get lost, Caitlin invites herself along on the business trip, which turns out to be to Honduras just before the arrival of paratroopers intervening on behalf of Ronald Reagan and the contras.

This allows Eisenberg to tell a familiar story about an innocent American plunged into a hellish landscape. Done right, as in the travelogues of Paul Theroux and the novels of Graham Greene, this can make for compelling literature. In Eisenberg’s clumsy hands, however, the results are anything but. Every paragraph screams at the reader that Honduras is hot, ugly and poor. Not a single Honduran character appears in the story except a street vendor who is there as a symbol of the country’s Third World grubbiness:

She joined the grimy crowd and saw at its center a man sitting on a blanket, surrounded by small heaps of dried plants, a large trunk, and jars of smoky liquid, inside of which indistinct shapes floated. Of course, Caitlin couldn’t understand what he was saying, but his voice rose and fell, full of crescendos and exquisitely disturbing pauses, and his eyes glittered with irony as he gathered up all the vitality that had dissipated from his dusty audience and their torpor burned off in the air crackling around him.

The women in the crowd giggled and tilted their heads against one another’s shoulders; the men squirmed and smiled sheepishly. Suddenly the man on the blanket went still. He stared, then lifted his arms high and plunged them into the trunk, from which he raised, as the women screamed and scattered, a great snake that seethed luxuriantly in his hands. Caitlin found herself clinging to a barefoot woman, who smiled to excuse herself, and then, as the crowd drew together again, the man on the blanket placed the twisting snake around his shoulders and reached into the trunk for a second time. This time what he drew forth was a small white waxy-looking block. The crowd peered and craned. The man looked sternly back and silence fell. He passed his hand across the block, and as the crowd sighed like a flock of doves rising from a tree, the block began to foam.

The great snake seethed luxuriantly in his hands? How did it seethe? Like King Lear in Act Five? And why use a puzzling adverb like luxuriantly, one that might more appropriately be used to describe the life style of a Saudi prince? The New Yorker magazine became notorious for its minimalist short stories under William Shawn’s reign. Perhaps he decided to publish Eisenberg to give purple prose equal time.

As the story unfolds, Caitlin keeps running into the kind of characters found in Graham Greene’s “The Quiet American”. Either they are CIA agents or people operating in Honduras to make a fast buck like Brandon, her future son-in-law who pilots a plane delivering war material to an American base.

A man named Lewis, who is pals with Brandon, is predictably evil. He tells Caitlin: “Oh, we all know each other down here. Not like Guatemala. Here, everything’s under control. A place for everyone, everyone in his place. Small operation, enough pie to go around; smoothly functioning system of checks and balances”.

While not so nearly as compromised as Wallace Shawn’s Aunt Dan and Lemon, Caitlin can’t seem to grasp what is going on all around her. Her wandering about Tegucigalpa has led her to a hotel filled with spooks, including a man who informs her that “The White House has announced that Nicaragua has invaded Honduras last night”. She responds cluelessly:

“Oh, that’s what it is,” Caitlin said, trying to remember. “Honduras and Nicaragua are at war—”

In a Brooklyn Rail article on Eisenberg, Andrea Scrima writes: “Eisenberg’s characters frequently possess no more than a faulty understanding of current events. She shows Americans as they all too often appear: lacking a basic grasp of political context and without a working knowledge of the cultures and histories of even the countries closest to them.”

That might be the case but any of them unfortunate enough to stumble across an Eisenberg short story in a copy of The New Yorker in the reception area of a dentist’s office will likely have even less of a working knowledge after reading it.

July 13, 2018

The Dying Light

Filed under: Counterpunch,literature — louisproyect @ 1:28 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, JULY 13, 2018

The name Tony McKenna might ring a bell with CounterPunch readers since he has written a number of very informative articles here over the years, the most recent being one on “Trump, Obama and the Nature of Fascism”. When I learned that he had written a novel titled “The Dying Light”, I requested a review copy since I was curious to see if his fiction chops were as strong as his nonfiction’s.

Speaking for myself, I entertained hopes of writing fiction after I left the Trotskyist movement in 1978. It was only after reading the chapter in Saul Bellow’s “Herzog”, where he describes the bathroom toiletries of Herzog’s former lover in intimate detail as a way of casting light on her psychologically, that I decided to stick to politics. If I lived to a thousand, I could not write as brilliantly as Bellow. By the same token, if he could have lived to a thousand, he would not be able to write anything but trash when it came to politics.

On one level, “The Dying Light” might be described as a historical novel since it is based on a little-known aspect of life in London in 1940, when many of its citizens began living in abandoned subway stations, or what they call the Tube, to protect themselves from German bombs. In a nod to the “Newsreels” of John Dos Passos’s great U.S.A. trilogy, McKenna includes an editorial from a faux newspaper called the Birchington Gazette:

During the Blitz, when the bombing was at its most intense, hundreds of thousands of Londoners took shelter in the Underground. First realised as a temporary spontaneous measure, it was initially opposed by government who used the police to lock down tube stations. Nevertheless, large crowds pushed their w through, winning the right to occupy London subterranean levels.

The occupation, however, swiftly grew something more than a temporary means of escaping bombs. Rather, it became a way of life. People set up home in the spaces beneath the city. The social research organisation Mass Observation describes how “for the first time in many hundreds of years…civilized families conducted the whole of their leisure and domestic lives in full view of each other. Most of these people were not merely sheltering in the tubes; they were living there.

Using this premise, McKenna tells the story of children who have taken over an abandoned station that a child named Georgie calls Ruritania. He has a very active imagination just like the author.

Continue reading

July 2, 2018

Paul Pines (1941-2018): the death of a poet and a friend

Filed under: literature,obituary,Paul Pines — louisproyect @ 6:37 pm

Yesterday I was saddened to learn that Paul Pines died after a two-year struggle to fight off lung cancer, including the use of immunotherapy that can have painful side-effects. He was 77 years old and determined to return to a normal life, including a visit to New York for a poetry reading.

I considered Paul to be one of America’s most outstanding poets as well as a friend. He was one of the few whose roots were in the great new poetry of the Beat Generation and San Francisco Renaissance that played an important part in the lives of young people in the late 50s and early 60s. Like Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder and any number of other new poets who eschewed the academy, Paul’s work came out of his lived experience as a fisherman, jazz club owner, merchant seaman and teenage juvenile delinquent.

I met Paul in 1961 when I was a puerile 16-year old freshman at Bard College. Paul was self-assured and relaxed, having transferred to Bard from some other school that was less congenial to a rebel like him. I have vivid memories playing ping-pong with Paul and Chevy Chase, who along with their good friend Kenny Shapiro of Groove Tube fame, were the best players on campus.

Paul struck quite an image on campus with a hairdo like those worn by the cast of “Grease”, well-developed biceps, tight black t-shirts, black motorcycle boots, and an unfiltered cigarette in the corner of his mouth. (I can’t help but think his chain smoking might have sealed his fate many years later.) I was always a little bit intimidated by Paul even though his general manner was at odds with his tough guy appearance. In fact, beneath the appearance was just another young person trying to develop a more spiritual side in a period when materialism was in the driver’s seat. The best thing you could have said about Bard College back then was its providing a nurturing environment for future poets and even a Marxist like me.

A year after Paul arrived, his brother Claude transferred to Bard as well. I couldn’t characterize my relationship with Paul back then as much more than an acquaintance but from the minute I met Claude, I knew that this was someone I really wanted to bond with. Claude was gentle, self-effacing, and wise beyond his years. After having lost touch with just about all my classmates, I tried to use the Internet to see if I could find any traces.

Some time in the early 2000s, I learned that Claude had been stricken with schizophrenia relatively late in life and was living in upstate New York, not far from where Paul was working as a psychotherapist and conducting writers workshops at a local college. I thought long and hard about getting in touch with Claude but lost my nerve after realizing that it would be a strain on me emotionally since my own brother had committed suicide after a psychotic break in the early 70s.

I continued to keep track of Claude through Internet searches until I was stunned to discover that he died of leukemia in 2006. After writing a tribute to him on my blog, Paul showed up to offer a comment:

Touching piece, Louis. Your observations are deceptively political in the fundamental meaning of that word as Aristotle meant it when he called man a “political animal.” By which I understand an animal connected to others of his kind by common interests and experiences that sometimes rises to the level of sympathy, the ability to feel with another. Your reflections on what mental illness can do, and does to many who a moment ago felt they had a unique destiny is in this sense profoundly political. In Claude’s case, his suffering was punctuated by laughter, and the wisdom that blossomed from his struggle with a mind that he found he could not trust. He learned, instead, to trust his heart. I also very much liked your piece on Barney Ross.

This comment, like everything Paul ever wrote, was suffused with a kind of humanism that has largely vanished from our world today. That led to a friendship with Paul that like many in recent years was mostly sustained in cyberspace. While staying in touch with Paul was a way for me to remember his younger brother, it also led to an ongoing commitment to tell my readers about each new book he wrote, including a powerful memoir titled “My Brother’s Madness”.

Just by coincidence, Paul was putting the final touches on the book when his brother died. It is a wonderful book that touches upon his struggles to provide emotional support for Claude as well as the world they lived in growing up in Brooklyn. When I came across the following paragraph, I got a better idea of how he developed his “look”:

Growing up a few blocks from Ebbets Field, Paul Pines was a true child of the 1950s, which was much more about looking tough than sensitive. This was especially true when you had to fend off rival gangs of Irish or Italian youths. As a perpetual truant and an unsuccessful car thief, Paul fit right into the neighborhood as this encounter with his high school principal would indicate:

We sit in straight back chairs. Bullethead [a nickname for the principal] tells us that he has been a cop and a trolley-car conductor and understands boys in motorcycle boots with ducks-ass hair welded in place by Dixie Peach. There are quite a few of us walking up Flatbush to Church Avenue every morning to the walled fortress spanning several blocks. Erasmus boils over with students in two overlapping sessions, out of which a small stream of elite students are siphoned off from the raging river of Irish Lords, Pig Town Tigers, Gremlins, and Chaplains into the top tier. I fall into the lower one, a Blackboard Jungle minus Glenn Ford and Sidney Poitier. Three days a week I take in the triple-feature cowboy movies at the Majestic Theater on Fulton Street instead of going to school.

Paul thought of himself as a budding gangster, fed by fantasies inspired by the pulp fiction of Mickey Spillane and Harold Robbins. After his father sent him off to Cherry Lawn, a progressive private school in Connecticut, he still saw himself as a rebel without a cause, but one with roots in Lord Byron as well as the mean streets of Brooklyn. After reading Freud, he discovers that being able to use his mind fills him with elation. “I am a wet chick burst from its shell.”

Besides our email exchanges, I always took advantage of Paul’s occasional poetry readings in New York to chat with him and his beautiful and brainy wife. I also met their talented and beautiful daughter at a gallery exhibit for the photography of Josephine Sacabo, the wife of Dalt Wonk. Josephine and Dalt were very close to Paul and I am sure that they are grieving his death as if he was a family member. In our in-person chats, Paul always expressed a joie de vivre that was nourished by his family ties and the confidence that his poetry was written for the ages and would certainly outlive him.

I have tagged my five reviews of Paul’s books here. I invite you to read them and better yet to buy his books since you will not find better poetry being written today.

Paul Pines website

January 14, 2018

Trolling with the Fisher King

Filed under: literature — louisproyect @ 8:17 pm

Paul Pines’s “Trolling with the Fisher King: Reimagining the Wound” is a work of staggering erudition and deep spiritual insights. This twilight memoir incorporates a lifetime of engagement with a wide variety of thought and deeds. Terrence’s words kept occurring to me as I read it: “I am human, and I think nothing that is human is alien to me.” Paul (I will use his first name since he is a friend as well as a writer under purview) weaves together many elements from sports fishing to quantum mechanics as if the performance by a master conductor.

The legend of Parsifal, and particularly the version known as Parzival written by Wolfram von Eschenbach over 700 years ago, informs this book. The eponymous Fisher King is Anfortas, who was charged with the duty of preserving the Holy Grail. Known also as the wounded king for a wound in his groin that defied a cure, he became a symbol of the damaged psyche of a humanity taking many forms for Paul, including the post-traumatic stress of Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans.

As just one example of Paul’s expansive reach, he starts with a meditation on this ancient tale and then connects it with the 1991 film “The Fisher King” starring Jeff Bridges as a radio shock jock who has become suicidally despondent after one of his on-air comments leads to a listener killing himself. One night, he is rescued from suicide himself by a homeless man played by Robin Williams who is on a deluded mission to discover the Holy Grail.

The Holy Grail, sometimes conflated with the Holy Chalice that Christ drank from at the Last Supper, is supposed to provide happiness. As a psychotherapist (a day job for Paul that clearly reinforces his writing unlike Wallace Stevens working for an insurance company), this Arthurian tale is something that obviously resonates with Paul and that serves as a leitmotif throughout the memoir. Like the various knights who come to cure Anfortas of his incurable wound, Paul  has spent a lifetime working, if not to provide happiness, to at least convert hysterical misery into ordinary unhappiness—as Freud once put it.

Paul’s approach to psychotherapy is influenced by Carl Jung, whose theory of the collective unconscious meshes with Paul’s life-long fascination with the Parsifal tale. King Arthur’s court is a virtual treasure-chest of archetypal themes that can be the foundation for poems written in any age, from the 13th century to the twenty-first. Discussing some of his patients, he finds the fisher king a useful periscope into their subconscious.

One patient named Perry complains about feeling empty. Nothing seems to last. Nothing of value. Since Perry is a real estate broker, one can certainly understand how such feelings can overcome him especially when he goes to a workshop led by a famous motivational speaker who asks the gathering how they would see themselves at the height of their success and what they would do with their money. In the age of Donald Trump, one can understand how any person in the field endowed with a soul would feel empty. Listening to Perry made Paul reflect “I hear Parzival suddenly aware that he exists in a Wasteland”.

Hovering over the entire book is the presence of Charles Olson, the dean of Black Mountain College and the founder of the new poetry associated with the school, including Robert Creeley and Paul Blackburn. When I was a freshman at Bard in 1961, I became obsessed with their work and those of the other streams that converged in the mighty river known as the New American Poetry. In addition to the Black Mountain poets, there was the San Francisco Renaissance led by Lawrence Ferlinghetti and the Beats championed by Allen Ginsberg. All of them were collected in Donald Allen’s book of the same name that could be spotted on many bookshelves in Bard College dorm rooms next to Albert Camus’s “The Rebel” and James Frazier’s “The Golden Bough”.

The connection to Olson is made through his landmark poem “The Kingfishers”, whose first two sections are included in the appendix to “Trolling the Fisher King”. The first line is referred to throughout the book, serving once again as a kind of leitmotif as in Wagner’s “Parsifal”: What does not change/is the will to change. Did Charles Olson have the psychotherapeutic search for happiness in mind when he wrote these words? We do know that he, like Paul, was influenced by Jung. After reading Jung and Carl Kerenyi’s “Essays on a Science of Mythology”, Olson became convinced that mythology could become a science and was not dissuaded by Robert Creeley describing the phrase “science of mythology” in a letter to Olson as “crap”.

I suppose Olson is as important to Paul as Leon Trotsky was to me when I was developing intellectually as a young man. There certainly was enough of an affinity for Olson when I was young to have made him number one for me as well. When I went out to San Francisco in the summer of 1965, my intention was to be a poet not a revolutionary politician and programmer. It was best for me and the world that if noting else the war in Vietnam put an end to my literary aspirations (pretensions, really) since it would have taken me 10,000 years to become half the writer Paul Pines is. It is no exaggeration to say that if he is not the sole surviving practitioner of the New American Poetry, he certainly is the best.

Besides the shared affinity for Charles Olson, Paul’s book is filled with lovely recollections of a life spent as a sports fisherman. As someone who enjoyed ecstatic moments fishing in Sullivan County’s freshwater ponds and the Neversink River that flowed through it when I was young, I was returned to those days by reading Paul’s recollections:

In my Fisher King dream I’m using my childhood rig. Not the earliest one, a stick with a line and a hook, but a small fiberglass rod and spool reel. In those days I dug up night crawlers for bait in a section of Prospect Park where the earth was always damp. I later learned to handle a spinning reel, set the drag and cast and drop lures attached to a float. It was the middle rig I used in my dream, the one on which I hooked crappies (small sunfish) in Prospect Park Lake at the end of Harry S. Truman’s second term.

Just a few years after Paul was trolling Prospect Park, I was fishing alongside my father at Silver Lake in Woodridge, New York for what we called “sunnies”, another name for crappies, as well as bigger fish like the ferocious pickerel. I will never forget the day that my father took me to his secret worm-gathering cache, which was on the side of the road leaving Woodridge toward the Neversink River. He brought along a shovel and I toddled after him. Into a copse of trees, he began digging and quickly discovered pay dirt. He picked up a clump of very moist and very dark loam that was suffused with night-crawlers. He smiled and said, “We will fish with this”. For me, that was a Holy Grail of happiness that occurred only that once. It was too bad that his own Anfortas type psychic wounds suffered in the Battle of the Bulge prevented us from ever bonding like this again.

“Trolling with the Fisher King” can be purchased online from Chiron Publications.

 

October 8, 2017

Gathering Sparks

Filed under: literature,Paul Pines — louisproyect @ 10:08 pm

Titled “Gathering Sparks”, Paul Pines’s latest collection of poetry convinces me that he is one of the U.S.’s finest poets. Since most of you are aware that I shy away from reviewer hyperbole, my recommendation is one that you can bank on. Now in his mid-70s, Paul is arguably the last poet working in the grand tradition of the new American poetry that emerged in the late 1940s and that is sometimes referred to as the product of the beat generation. But the poetry renaissance that was taking place in New York and San Francisco, as well as at places like Black Mountain College, had deep roots in the American cultural traditions going back to Walt Whitman. This was a literature that was deeply spiritual without being religious in the conventional sense and that was a cry in the wilderness against Mammon. In many ways, the changes that have transformed this country as the benign result of the Cold War winding down are as much cultural as political. People like Lawrence Ferlinghetti (still alive and kicking), Denise Levertov and Allen Ginsberg were its prophets. When Percy Shelley, a political as well as a cultural radical, wrote that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world”, he had such people in mind. In this review, I hope to acknowledge Paul Pines as the latest such legislator.

Although a poem might consist of about as many words as you will find in the page of a novel, its value is not based on quantity alone. There are poems that you will read a thousand times and that will keep coming back to because they are like epiphanies. You know how a novel ends but there is no ending to a poem. Reading a great poem is like looking at a Van Gogh painting. You will never get enough of it.

“Civilization” is one of those poems. I have read it 5 times already and will likely return to it another 50 times before the year is up:

Civilization

The naked mole-rats
at the Philadelphia zoo
run blindly through their tunnels
with no imperial ambition to dominate any other colony
of their hairless kind
though they have a queen and are very ugly
they delight in feats of engineering
and their underground design

Not long ago, I told my wife that although old age has its drawbacks, particularly dealing with the typical medical complications of aging such as glaucoma, there is one asset that makes it all worthwhile. A lifetime of political experience and reading gives me a perspective that would have been impossible when I was an impetuous 25-year old. In tribal societies, the village elder had the respect of everyone. He or she had insights that were key to the survival of the community. I doubt that anybody would consider me anything except an old fool but I am sure that some young radicals will give me credit for saving them the trouble I went through when I was young and foolish myself.

What about poets? Paul Pines’s poetry is suffused with a lifetime of experience that never would have been known to someone who learned their craft at the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop. He grew up in Brooklyn near Ebbet’s Field and passed the early 1960s on the Lower East Side of New York. He shipped out as a Merchant Seaman, spending August 1965 to February 1966 in Vietnam.  In 1973, he opened the Tin Palace, a jazz club on the corner of 2nd Street and Bowery-which provided the setting for his novel, The Tin Angel.

Every single word of a Paul Pines poem has the authenticity of having been written by someone who has lived life to the fullest. Forsaking the false complexity of most academic poets, Paul’s language is conversational—like listening to an old friend. A poem on the “Death of Carlos Castaneda” begins:

Seated at the window of the Kiev
surrounded by NYU film students
post-modern kids with ontological tattoos
rite-of-passage piercings

I spot ghosts on 2nd Avenue
Adam Purple who peddled through the 60’s
still on his bicycle (no longer in purple)
a new girlfriend in the wake
of his white beard

Like the other unacknowledged legislators, Paul’s antennae are finely attuned to the madness of our epoch. Drawing upon erudition gained from a lifetime of reading religious and philosophical classics, he takes on a prophetic tone writing about the terrible waste of life and treasure in the Middle East in the opening stanzas of a poem titled “Redness Remembered”:

Cardinals in the back yard
bring their redness to bare limbs
in a time of war when we are bombing Ur
from which Abraham
rose with his household gods
and left the flaming ziggurats
temple whores
that terrible lust
for death and renewal
their redness
after a long winter in the north
we can hear their song
before sunrise
whistling fills our ears
while elsewhere
missiles explode over the Tigris

Much of “Gathering Sparks” has an autumnal quality as questions of aging and mortality loom large. To some extent, this is to be expected from an author who is facing major health issues currently. But there is nothing morbid about these poems. They are a celebration of a life well spent and a testament to the nourishing spirit of the written word, both to those who hear them and those who write them.

My advice is to buy the collection from the publisher. If there’s anything that can be viewed as the total antithesis to Jeff Bezos’s Amazon, it is the world of small presses that make the invaluable work of a Paul Pines possible.

July 20, 2017

Clancy Sigal (1926-2017)

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,literature,obituary — louisproyect @ 1:28 pm

I just learned on Facebook from Clancy Sigal’s wife Janice that he has died. Born in 1926, he was an important voice of the left and well known to CounterPunch readers for his many contributions over the years.

Although I never met Clancy in person and regret not having done so, I considered him a real friend like others I have met and communicated with through email and Facebook. It was Clancy who initiated contact with me 14 years ago over a cringe-worthy matter. I had written a hatchet job on a film titled “Frida” about the artist Frida Kahlo that must have gotten under the screenwriter’s skin:

When I write film reviews, I try to apply the dictum of my late father who used to say, “If you can’t say something good about a person, say nothing at all.” I made an exception last week for “The Quiet American”, which I regarded as a disappointment both in terms as an adaptation of Greene’s novel and the novel itself.

Now I turn to an all-out disaster, although like “The Quiet American” it received rather favorable reviews when it came out. “Frida” is a really stupid biopic based on the life of Frida Kahlo, the Mexican artist and feminist icon who was married to Diego Rivera, the famed muralist. Since it touches on modern art and includes Leon Trotsky as a character, two subjects close to my heart, it is necessary for me to address the profound injustice done to them and to the rather interesting personality of Kahlo herself, who is reduced in this film to a cursing, drinking and brawling eccentric whose motivations seem driven more by her sexual/reproductive organs than her brain.

The screenwriter was Clancy Sigal.

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October 28, 2016

Finding Babel

Filed under: Film,literature,Stalinism — louisproyect @ 3:04 pm

The Outsider-Insider: Isaac Babel’s Big Mistake

Responding to an aggrieved muzhik (peasant), Dyakov, the eponymous Reserve Cavalry Commander who was a former circus rider described by Babel as “red-faced with a gray mustache, a black cape, and wide red Tatar trousers with silver stripes”, promised that he could make this “lively little mare spring to her feet again”. The idea that the horse splayed out on the ground could be described as “lively” was almost an insult. The muzhik cried out, “Lord in Heaven and Mother of God. How is this poor thing supposed to get up? It’s on its last legs!”:

Dyakov’s ability to bring the horse back on its feet was like Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead but all the more miraculous since it likely occurred. Most of Babel’s short stories were based on his experience as a war correspondent. He wrote:

“You are insulting this horse, my dear fellow!” Dyakov answered with fierce conviction. “Pure blasphemy, my dear fellow!” And he deftly swung his athlete’s body out of his saddle. Splendid and deft as if in the circus ring, he stretched his magnificent legs, his trousers girded by cords around the knees, and walked up to the dying animal. She peered at him dolefully with a severe, penetrating eye, licked some invisible command from his crimson palm, and immediately the feeble mare felt bracing power flow from this sprightly, gray, blossoming Romeo. Her muzzle lolling, her legs skidding under her, feeling the whip tickling her stomach with imperious impatience, the mare slowly and deliberate1y rose onto her legs. And then we all saw Dyakov’s slender hand with its fluttering sleeve run through her dirty mane, and his whining whip swatting her bleeding ranks. Her whole body shivering, the mare stood on four legs without moving her timid, doglike, lovestruck eyes from Dyakov.

“So you see-this is a horse,” Dyakov said to the muzhik, and added softly, “and you were complaining, my dearest of friends!”

Throwing his reins to his orderly, the commander of the Reserve Cavalry jumped the four stairs in a single leap and, swirling off his operatic cloak, disappeared into the headquarters.

Today, reading this story once again for the first time in fifty-four years, I am reminded of how important Babel was to me at the time. Like Ezra Pound, James Joyce and Thomas Mann, he was a portal into the world of modernist literature that still had an immense attraction for young bohemians in the early 60s. I never thought once about who Babel was or anything about the social reality he was trying to depict. All that mattered to me was Babel’s prose that could evoke the mysterious power of a Cossack resurrecting a dying horse.

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