Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

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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May 14, 2016

Art, Literature and Culture From a Marxist Perspective

Filed under: art,literature — louisproyect @ 8:19 pm

If you look at the table of contents of Tony McKenna’s brilliant collection of articles titled “Art, Literature and Culture from a Marxist Perspective”, you will be struck immediately by the seemingly eclectic combination of high and popular culture with Vincent Van Gogh sitting cheek by jowl next to Tupac Shakur. This, of course, leads to an interesting question as to the merits of such a distinction. Keep in mind that Charles Dickens was basically the Stephen King of his day. Also, keep in mind that English literature only began being taught in the British university as a substitute for religion. Until then, students read Shakespeare or Henry Fielding only for entertainment as Terry Eagleton pointed out in “Literary Theory, An Introduction”:

If one were asked to provide a single explanation for the growth of English studies in the later nineteenth century, one could do worse than reply: ‘the failure of religion’. By the mid- Victorian period, this traditionally reliable, immensely powerful ideological form was in deep trouble. It was no longer winning the hearts and minds of the masses, and under the twin impacts of scientific discovery and social change its previous unquestioned dominance was in danger of evaporating. This was particularly worrying for the Victorian ruling class, because religion is for all kinds of reasons an extremely effective form of ideological control…

Fortunately, however, another, remarkably similar discourse lay to hand: English literature. George Gordon, early Professor of English Literature at Oxford, commented in his inaugural lecture that ‘England is sick, and . . . English literature must save it. The Churches (as I understand) having failed, and social remedies being slow, English literature has now a triple function: still, I suppose, to delight and instruct us, but also, and above all, to save our souls and heal the State.’ Gordon’s words were spoken in our own century, but they find a resonance everywhere in Victorian England. It is a striking thought that had it not been for this dramatic crisis in mid-nineteenth- century ideology, we might not today have such a plentiful supply of Jane Austen casebooks and bluffer’s guides to Pound.

What is striking about Tony McKenna’s approach to both high and “low” culture is the rigor and subtlety—all conveyed within the context of Marxist dialectics. Although every article expresses this, probably the most sublime application is the final article on a comedian I had never given much thought to, especially now since he has begun doing commercials for Verizon: Ricky Gervais. The title of the article is “From Tragedy to Farce: The Comedy of Ricky Gervais as Capitalist Critique” and it is a pip. As is the case with a number of the articles in the collection, I became highly motivated to have a look at the works examined that were unknown to me, starting with “The Office” and “Extras”. In probing such works and giving them the respect they deserve, McKenna implicitly makes the case that they are the equal to most socially aware fiction being written today if not their superior.

In “The Office”, Gervais plays a character that will be familiar to you if you’ve ever worked in an office as I had for over 40 years until my retirement in 2012. As David Brent, Gervais is always spouting buzzwords like being proactive and performance orientated. I remember the first time I heard the phrase “grow the firm” back in 1981 when I was a consultant at Mobil Oil. Grow the firm? Since when does an object get attached to the verb ‘to grow’? I got used to it in the other offices I worked in over the years but remained jarred every time I saw a leftist talking about “growing the party”.

Brent uses his authority to make his underlings a captive audience for his amateur stand-up comedy, something that symbolizes “all the falseness and alienation of the corporate logic that they are subjected to on a day-to-day basis.” After Brent gets axed by the firm, a paper company called Wernham Hogg, he returns for a reunion at the office and once again does a comedy routine. For the first time, the workers laugh from the heart. (Season One of “The Office” can be seen on Amazon.com.)

I recall watching a few minutes of “Extras” on HBO but never got hooked. After reading McKenna’s analysis, I can’t wait to watch the first season on Amazon streaming (the complete series is available on DVD for $14.95). As the title implies, this is a comedy about the film and TV industries’ lower-tier. Gervais plays a character named Andy Millman who doesn’t care for his job and hopes to make it as a scriptwriter for a series he has been presenting to television executives without much success. In the same way that David Brent lords it over his subordinates, the A-Team actors Millman cohabits with are “surreal, bizarre, and sometimes even tyrannical”.

Referring to Karl Marx’s Capital, McKenna distinguishes between Millman trying to navigate between use values and commodities. The scripts represent use value to him even though he is marketing them to men who view them exclusively as commodities. Meanwhile, his crappy job as an extra represents the commodification of labor. As Marx wrote in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, “…the worker feels himself only when he is not working; when he is working, he does not feel himself. He is at home when he is not working, and not at home when he is working.”

Once Millman’s script is bought by the BBC, the tensions between use and exchange value become unbearable. The production team is intent on making the story more commercially viable and “audience friendly”. (One imagines that this was the kind of metamorphosis that “The Office” went through after being adopted by NBC with Steve Carrell standing in for Gervais.)

Growing more and more frustrated with the surgery being performed on his script, Millman resorts to a desperate action. At a rehearsal buffet table, Millman runs into an actor named Williamson who had been terminated from a TV show for refusing to dumb down his character. He then decides to follow his example since he was at least able to “retain his integrity”.

Once the rehearsal is ready to start again, Millman confronts the producers and insists on the show being done his way or the highway. As he is making his demands upon them, they are all startled by the sounds of a sudden loud noise near the buffet table. The now unemployed but integrity-retaining actor has attempted to stuff his jacket with food items that have just tumbled to the ground. Starkly confronted by the fate that awaits him, Millman “makes a cringing come-down and offers to meet any of his producer’s demands”. McKenna’s shrewd commentary on this scene is one that is bred by an engagement with Marxism and having endured working class realities, including years spent working as a cashier in Tesco’s, England’s Walmart.

Now, the scene is great because it does exactly what it should: it makes you snort laughter through your nose. But at the same time, it exhibits a more general truth – the power of the imperatives of exchange at the level of the modern-day writer’s or artist’s social existence and the way in which more abstract and high-minded moral principles easily evaporate in the face of those realities.

The scene with Williamson marks a turning point in the series because it is then when Millman abandons his fight for the integrity of his script and takes solace in the comforts which are provided by the commercial success of the sitcom – the wealth and fame it cultivates. But in abandoning the script’s use value to the prerogatives of exchange, Millman has in effect lost the semblance of himself – for the script was a product of his own essential nature; the void that opens in the aftermath is one he seeks to mask with the palliative of his celebrity status. This too has profound consequences for his existence in that his celebrity is something illusory, forever threatening to vanish, and the compulsion to assure it is driven by the need to make sure that he is always moving in the highest social circles, that he is forever in the papers, that he is seen at all the right restaurants and clubs.

One cannot say whether McKenna came to insights such as these if he hadn’t experienced working-class life. Too much of cultural and artistic analysis is burdened by academic baggage of the sort that you might hear at an ALA conference and—even worse—a vulgar Marxism that uses mutually exclusive ratings such as “revolutionary” or “reactionary” in the same way that film reviewers such as myself are forced to choose between “fresh” and “rotten” at the film review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes. At its worst, you end up with something like the atrocious Jacobin article on the recently deceased Merle Haggard that described him as “a hippie-hating hawk in the sixties and seventies, a dutiful Reaganite in the eighties, and a petulant chest-pounder during the first Gulf War, when he broke a mid-career spell of semi-obscurity with a song criticizing antiwar protesters.” This, of course, is the sort of thing you could have read in the Communist Party’s press in the 1930s when “Socialist Realism” reigned supreme.

As a sign of McKenna’s ability to see art and culture dialectically, he has an article on a Russian émigré author named Andrei Makine I am totally unfamiliar with. He focuses on a novel titled Brief Loves that Last Forever whose main character is obviously based on Makine himself. He is haunted by the crimes of Stalinism but has become too cynical to pin his hopes on the small and scattered Russian left that hopes to lead a new revolution that will restore the lost values of 1917. His treatment of these young people are fairly one-dimensional and the results of a rigid ideology that is widespread among an earlier generation of Soviet dissidents. While critical of the politics of the novel, McKenna embraces the psychological and dramatic qualities that are essential to all great literature just as we approach the novels of Solzhenitsyn.

Although a committed socialist, McKenna can empathize with Makine having his own bad reaction to a British leftist who told him that he was a “counter-revolutionary” at a meeting. Apparently he had run into someone who was the counterpart of the Haggard-hater at Jacobin. Ultimately, there is a relationship between the inability to understand Merle Haggard or Andrei Makine and that of failing to break out of the comfortable sect existence of most of the British and American left. It is an ability to think dialectically that not only clouds one’s vision of art and culture but to see how Syrian rebels have a just cause even if some right-winger writing for the Murdoch press praises them as well. Being able to see politics as a contradictory phenomenon in which a higher level of both theory and practice involves resolution at a higher level is a challenge that the left must meet in order to effectively fight for socialism. My strongest recommendation is to read Tony McKenna’s book as an exercise in Marxist dialectics. Not only will it help you to understand Tupac Shakur and Vincent Van Gogh better; it will arm you for the big battles we face down the road.

Like all hardcover books nowadays from commercial publishers such as Palgrave/Macmillan, Tony McKenna’s comes at a steep price. Don’t let that dissuade you. Have a visit to your local library and take out a copy. If you are in a small town where pulp fiction prevails, put in an Interlibrary Loan Request. Go ahead, if you aren’t up to that task, then you aren’t open to making a revolution which will be a lot more onerous.

 

April 25, 2016

The Star-Nosed Mole

Filed under: literature — louisproyect @ 5:50 pm

Star-Nosed Mole

by Anne Sexton

Mole, angel-dog of the pit,
digging six miles a night,
what’s up with you in your sooty suit,
where’s your kitchen at?
I find you at the edge of our pond,
drowned, numb drainer of weeds,
insects floating in your belly,
grubs like little fetuses bobbing
and your dear face with its fifth hand,
doesn’t it know it’s the end of the war?
It’s all over, no need to go deep into ponds,
no fires, no cripples left.
Mole dog,
I wish your mother would wake you up
and you wouldn’t lie there like the Pieta
wearing your cross on your nose.

December 23, 2015

Far From the Madding Crowd

Filed under: Film,literature — louisproyect @ 5:07 pm

If I were to second-guess myself, I’d say that my high regard for this year’s “Far From the Madding Crowd” was inextricably linked to my love of Thomas Hardy’s “Tess of the D’Ubervilles”. While there certainly was “value added” by director Thomas Vinterberg’s 2015 adaptation (the screenplay was written by David Nicholls, who adapted “Tess of the D’Ubervilles” for BBC), it was the underlying written work that would have perhaps salvaged an attempt by Michael Bay to make a film based on Hardy’s breakthrough novel. Of course, the source is often no guarantee of success, as the dreary version of “Macbeth” starring Michael Fassbender would indicate.

In 1979 I began a systematic study of the world’s greatest fiction in order to prepare me to write the Great American Novel. Nothing much came out of that project except some enormous reading pleasure particularly from the 19th century British novel that I had neglected during a misspent youth trying to overthrow American capitalism with the bluntest of all instruments, the SWP.

If Vinterberg’s “Far From the Madding Crowd” does nothing except to whet the appetite of the audience for a relatively neglected author, he deserves an award far greater than any Oscar. While Hardy’s novels have elements that lend themselves to cinema, as I shall point out momentarily it is his language that soars above plot and character development. Considered by some to be a better poet than novelist, there are passages in “Far From the Madding Crowd” that can rival the greatest poetry. If you go to Project Gutenberg, you can turn to practically any page and read something like this, a description of the farmhouse of Bathsheba Everdene, the novel’s lead female character: “Fluted pilasters, worked from the solid stone, decorated its front, and above the roof the chimneys were panelled or columnar, some coped gables with finials and like features still retaining traces of their Gothic extraction. Soft brown mosses, like faded velveteen, formed cushions upon the stone tiling, and tufts of the houseleek or sengreen sprouted from the eaves of the low surrounding buildings.”

Some critics find Hardy’s language overstuffed and archaic, not to speak of the archness of the names such as Bathsheba Everdene that obviously reflect Dickens’s influence, but in my view it is one of the main drawing points just as it is in Dickens. Speaking of which, Everdene is beloved by Gabriel Oak whose name suggests exactly who he is as a character—a stalwart country yeoman who is as dependable as he is prosaic.

She is also beloved by William Boldwood, an older and prosperous farmer who despite having everything going for him cannot inspire Everdene’s affection. Spurning Oak and Boldwood—a tandem united by their lumbering names and personalities—she falls for a dashing scoundrel named Sergeant Frank Troy who she first spots leading a cavalry regiment bedecked in red near her farm. It was the classic case of falling in love with the uniform rather than the man. Hardy has lots to say about the character but probably nothing more telling than this:

He had been known to observe casually that in dealing with womankind the only alternative to flattery was cursing and swearing. There was no third method. “Treat them fairly, and you are a lost man.” he would say.

In essence “Far From the Madding Crowd” is a love story in the same vein as the Bronte sisters with the heroine finally connecting with the right man all along after a many obstacles put in her way, especially her own bad decision.

It is also a study of class relations in the British countryside in the 1860s when the enclosure acts had finally succeeded in wiping out the small farmer and rendering class relations into a close approximation of what existed in the factory system. After Bathsheba Everdene inherits her uncle’s estate, she joins the rural bourgeoisie. The class differences between her and Gabriel Oak are one of the stumbling blocks in consummating a relationship that would have been the best possible outcome. Through thick and thin, Oak sticks with her as bailiff (a kind of foreman) on her farm even though he bitterly resents Frank Troy’s presence in her bedroom.

In his chapter on Thomas Hardy in “The English Novel”, Terry Eagleton reflects on the anxiety of the middle-class in this period as it is being squeezed into the rural proletariat:

England had long been a capitalist, market-oriented enterprise based largely upon landowners, tenant farmers and landless labourers. There was thus no sharp social divide between country and city, since the social relations which ‘prevailed in the latter were equally dominant in the former. There was also a rural lower middle class of dealers, craftsmen, shopkeepers, traders, artisans, schoolteachers, cottagers, small employers and the like, with whom Hardy, as an offspring of that class himself, especially identified. It was this class, not the ‘peasantry’, which he saw as preserving the cultural continuities of the countryside; and its steep social decline in his own day meant the catastrophic loss of that precious heritage. As with most of the classic English nineteenth-century novelists, then, Hardy’s allegiances lay neither with the governing classes nor with the plebeian masses. Instead, he draws many of his major protagonists from the mobile, unstable lower middle class — one trapped between aspiration and anxiety, and therefore typical of some of the central contradictions of the age. In this sense, Hardy could attend to the plight of this obscure social grouping without losing a grip on broader issues. Gabriel Oak of Far From The Madding Crowd starts off as a hired labourer before graduating to become an independent farmer and then a bailiff.

Turning now to Vinterberg’s film treatment, we should first note that he hardly seemed like the sort of director who would be drawn to such material since he was a founding member of Dogme 95, the film group that can best be described as minimalist. Given the lush cinematography of his latest film, it would seem that he has gone mainstream. If so, that is a recommendation for not allowing dogma (dogme?) to trump sound cinematic judgment.

There are some scenes in his film that are totally riveting, among them one that pitted Oak’s reliability against Troy’s wastrel ways. On the night of a celebration of the autumn harvest, Troy leads the farm hands in a drunken debauchery that leaves them all barely capable of protecting the harvest in the face of a violent storm let alone standing on their feet. Oak, who has remained sober, climbs to the top of the haystacks to lay a canvas atop them despite the howling winds. It is filmmaking of the highest order.

In an interview with Comingsoon.net, Vinterberg shows that he came to this project with exactly the right frame of mind. Asked why he chose to make a film about Victorian England when most of his films deal with contemporary ills (such as the superlative “The Hunt” that dealt with false accusations of sexual abuse of a child), he described himself as a fan—just like me:

ComingSoon.net: This is a really interesting movie for you after “The Hunt.” I feel that in general you’ve been doing very modern films about modern society so to go back in time to direct a Thomas Hardy adaptation seems like quite a leap. Can you talk about that decision to go in this direction?

Thomas Vinterberg: Well, first of all, I like to change. I hate repeating myself, and here was a considerable change, both in genre but also in gender in the sense that my latest movies had been very full of testosterone and this was an exploration of being a woman that I found incredibly modern actually, and visionary. The first thing that has to happen to me when I do a film is unexplainable thing where you sort of fall in love with something. I read this and these characters moved me, the way that Thomas Hardy plays with fate moved me. I was to some degree overwhelmed by it and humbled by it, and it couldn’t go away. And that’s where I decide to make a movie. It’s not, “Now I think this will be right for my career.” And then I felt a certain relief and lightness of doing something I hadn’t been writing. Normally, I invent the movie from the get-go, from the white paper, to the end, like the auteur genre of Europe. This was something different. It’s a collective effort. I’m not the writer. It’s as much a Thomas Hardy movie as a Thomas Vinterberg movie and I felt relief and a sense of playfulness about that.

Although it is not available in streaming, I recommend the John Schlesinger’s 1967 adaptation that starred Julie Christie as Bathsheba Everdeen, Alan Bates as Gabriel Oak and Terrence Stamp as Frank Troy. I bought the DVD from Amazon for $13.49 and it was worth every penny.

Schlesinger’s film was 171 minutes compared to Vinterberg’s 119 and as such could furnish plot continuity that made the film a lot more congruent with the novel. I found, for example, the rivalry between Boldwood and Troy far more developed in Schlesinger.

The studio intended that the film be marketed like other lengthy and ambitious “classy” films of the period such as “Doctor Zhivago” and “Lawrence of Arabia”. It comes with an overture and an intermission.

Like Vinterberg, Schlesinger would not appear at first blush to be a director eager to adapt Hardy since he emerged as a maker of “angry young man” films such as “Billy Liar” that were in their way defied conventional filmmaking esthetics like Dogme 95 did.

However, for Paul J. Niemeyer, the author of “Seeing Hardy: Film and Television Adaptations of the Fiction of Thomas Hardy”, there is an affinity:

That Schlesinger should favor a realist approach is only appropriate, since he is largely a product of the social realist movement in British cinema; and in 1967, he was still very much under its sway. Social realism, of course, gave us the “Angry Young Man” whom the Welfare state had educated out of the working class, but who had not succeeded in breaking down the class and economic barriers to greater prosperity. Such films as Room at the Top (Jack Clayton, 1958), Look Back in Anger (Tony Richardson, 1959), and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (Karel Reisz, 1960) were marked by familiar elements like a working-class antihero who usually expressed his disaffection through sneering wit, aggressive sexuality, and chauvinism often bordering on misogyny; harsh, unsentimental depictions of bleak northern cities and landscapes, usually with a focus on the effects of industrialism on the land; and—most importantly—authentic regional dialects.

Suffice it to say that “the sneering wit, aggressive sexuality, and chauvinism often bordering on misogyny” are all embodied in Frank Troy while they were not found in Gabriel Oak, the character who had most in common with the angry young men of the early 60s. If you are at all susceptible to novels and films with likable major characters, you will probably be as seduced by “Far From the Madding Crowd” as I was.

 

November 19, 2015

Two new poetry books

Filed under: literature — louisproyect @ 3:21 pm

For those who have been reading this blog over the years, you’ll probably be aware of my past references to Paul Pines, a Bard College classmate from the early 60s who I regard as one of America’s finest poets. Paul has a new book out that contains all the pleasures of his past work, especially the ability of his poems to tell a tale in striking language. Or as Ezra Pound once put it: “‘Great literature is simply language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree.’” Here is a selection from the new book, a collection of poems inspired by his beautiful daughter I had the good fortune to meet a few years ago:

DOMESTICITY
Zorro by the door chews his bone
Ben Webster on NPR
plays Making Whoopee
my wife in the bedroom
talks on the phone

I recall other lives
on the lower East Side
in Cholon
nights in smoky clubs
listening to Eddie Jefferson
wandering Belizean bush
over empires buried
under half an inch
of earth…

until my daughter
wonders what I’m doing
alone in the dark
asks, Daddy, are you all right?

Sure, I say
knowing she’s afraid
I’ve gone too far away
and might never
come back

Like Paul Pines, who has an affinity with indigenous peoples as might be evident by his reference to “empires buried” in Belize above, John Kaniecki writes about native Americans in a number of poems in his “Poet to the Poor: Poetry for the Bottom One Percent”.

The publisher has some biographical information about John:

John Kaniecki is a member of the Revolutionary Poet’s Brigade and Secretary for Rhyming Poet’s International. John volunteers as a missionary in the inner city of Newark , New Jersey, for the Church of Christ at Chancellor Avenue. John is active in the antiwar movement. In particular, John is a strong advocate of the rights of indigenous people.

This poem expresses his advocacy. (Chief Joseph was the leader of the Nez Perce who led an armed struggle against forced removal from their homeland in Oregon.)

Chief Joseph’s Bones

I cried out calling for Chief Joseph’s bones
I could not be heard
Not a solitary word
Amongst the lonely cries and bitter moans
Chief Joseph where do you dwell
They have deformed paradise
And concocted a concrete hell
If only they heeded your advice
If they would but listen
The sky would be clear and the blue lakes glisten
We would live off of the bounty of the land
And God’s deepest secrets understand
Instead our heaven is a sickly gray
Waters poisoned the soil spoiled

Who can really say
For what we have laboriously toiled
Chief Joseph your wisdom was profound
Truly Mother Earth none can own
If they had only known
A better world for all we would have found
All the money of every nation, of every style
Is a pile of paper sick and vile
Give me the cool summer breeze
And a life for God to please
I seek not kingdoms with golden thrones
My deepest desire is to find
A brave man gentle and kind
A man who walks no more
Who kept his spirit pure
Chief Joseph’s bones

May 15, 2015

The Life, Loves, Wars and Foibles of Edward Abbey

Filed under: anarchism,Counterpunch,Ecology,Film,literature — louisproyect @ 12:56 pm
Monkeywrenching the Machine

The Life, Loves, Wars and Foibles of Edward Abbey

by LOUIS PROYECT

Fifty-three years ago, long before I had heard of Edward Abbey and Abraham Polonsky, I saw a film titled “Lonely are the Brave” that was based on Polonsky’s adaptation of Abbey’s novel “The Brave Cowboy”. The film remains one of my favorites of all time with Kirk Douglas’s performance as a fugitive on horseback trying to elude a sheriff played by Walter Matthau permanently etched into my memory.

Many years later I would have the pleasure of hearing Abraham Polonsky speak at Lincoln Center at a screening for “Odds Against Tomorrow”, a film for which he wrote the screenplay three years before “Lonely are the Brave” but for which he did not receive credit. Using a “front” of the sort Woody Allen played in Walter Bernstein’s very fine movie about the witch-hunt, Polonsky was taking a first step toward reestablishing himself as a screenwriter.

In the panel discussion following the screening, Polonsky was asked whether he had problems writing a script with criminals as central characters when he spent so many years in the Communist Party and still retained progressive politics even after his resignation. He replied that American society itself was criminal and that the film’s characters were just trapped within the system.

“Lonely are the Brave” was by contrast a film with a most sympathetic character, a cowboy named Jack Burns who provokes a bar fight just to land in jail to help break out his old friend, a sheep rancher who has been arrested for sheltering undocumented workers from Mexico. I had no idea at the time how radical the film was, an obvious result of Edward Abbey’s ability to make such an outlaw look like a saint compared to the corporate malefactors that were destroying America’s greatest asset: its wilderness.

The very fine new documentary “Wrenched” that is available from Bullfrog Films is a loving tribute to Edward Abbey’s life as an artist and activist as well as a very astute assessment of Earth First!, the radical environmentalist group that was inspired by Abbey’s writings. Directed by ML Lincoln, a young female director and activist since her teens, it is a follow-up to her first film “Drowning River” that recounts the struggle against the Glen Canyon Dam in Arizona that found a fictional counterpart in Abbey’s most famous novel “The Monkey Wrench Gang”, from which her new film derived its title.

We learn that Abbey, who was born in 1927, became drawn to anarchism at a very early age under the tutelage of his aptly named father Paul Revere Abbey who was both a socialist and an anarchist—and obviously from a different ideological tradition than the one to which Abraham Polonsky belonged. As he matured and began to develop his own worldview, the son obviously aligned completely with anarchism, a result of his commitment to preserving wilderness—a goal unfortunately that has not been fully appreciated by Marxists, as I will explain later on.

Read full article

May 8, 2015

Message from the Memoirist

Filed under: bard college,literature — louisproyect @ 8:03 pm
Saying No to a System That Would Crush Us

The Poems of Paul Pines

by LOUIS PROYECT

Fifty-four years ago when I was a freshman at Bard College, the Beat Generation was still a presence in our lives. In dorm rooms you could spot copies of Donald Allen’s “The New American Poetry” on the bookshelves of the “hippest” students, back when the term referred to the bohemian underground rather than the sort of clothing you wore (not that black turtleneck shirts were not de rigueur.)

Two years earlier I had read about Jack Kerouac in Time Magazine and had decided to join the Beats even if its energies were largely spent. Kerouac’s odysseys continued to inspire some Bardians to take a year off and ship out on freighters or to hitchhike across the U.S. as I did shortly after graduating.

Despite the school’s bohemian reputation, Robert Kelly was the only faculty member who had any kind of connection to the Beat subculture. In 1961 I was able to attend poetry readings organized by Kelly that featured writers in Donald Allen’s anthology, including LeRoi Jones who co-edited Fubbalo with Kelly, a poetry magazine out of the U. of Buffalo where the two men taught before Kelly came to Bard. Jones, of course, transformed himself into Amiri Baraka later on. You got an inkling of where he was going from what he read at Bard, “The System of Dante’s Hell”, a novel about Newark that revealed to me the depth of Black anger about American society.

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March 27, 2015

My Secret Fascination with Michel Houellebecq

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,literature — louisproyect @ 1:06 pm

A Quixotic Longing for a Benign Authority

My Secret Fascination with Michel Houellebecq

by LOUIS PROYECT

I attended the press screening for “The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq” with the expectation that I would learn something about the controversial novelist whose name has become synonymous with Islamophobia. Fully expecting his character (he plays himself) to be a cross between Pamela Geller and Salman Rushdie, I was surprised—if not shocked—to see him rendered as a genial, self-deprecating and altogether likeable individual who wins over his kidnappers in the course of the film. Since the film is fiction, it was up to writer/director Guillaume Nicloux to imagine a writer who met his own ideals—and implicitly that of Houellebecq as well. So instead of imagining the kidnappers as jihadists anxious to take vengeance on a writer who has insulted Islam, they are instead three apolitical but physically intimidating men hired by an unidentified party on a contract basis.

Luc the ringleader is a longhaired Roma with the body of a sumo wrestler who tells Houellebecq that he trained Israeli soldiers in the martial arts including the technique needed to rip off an enemy’s ear, not the sort of person you would want to trifle with. But in a scene that epitomizes the film’s off-kilter comic sense, the tensest moment between captors and captive is over some detail in Houellebecq’s first book—a biography of the Gothic novelist H.P. Lovecraft. Luc insists that the book describes Houellebecq purloining a sweat-stained cushion that belonged to Lovecraft from some museum, which he denies is in the book. As Luc grows increasingly angry at Houellebecq’s denial, the author follows the Falstaffian principle that discretion is the better part of valor and states that he might have forgotten what he wrote after all. Since Houellebecq has the appearance of a Bowery flophouse resident and drinks glass after glass of wine throughout the film (one suspects that it was not grape juice), we suspect that Luc had it right all along.

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March 25, 2015

The Chimpanzee and the Storks: an excerpt from Michel Houellebecq’s “Whatever”

Filed under: literature — louisproyect @ 8:08 pm

Celine has entered great literature as others enter their homes.

–Leon Trotsky

An excerpt from Michel Houellebecq’s “Whatever”:

Friday and Saturday I didn’t do much; let’s say I meditated, if you can all it that I remember having thought of suicide, of its paradoxical usefulness. Let’s put a chimpanzee in a tiny cage fronted by concrete barn. The animal would go berserk, throw itself against the walls, rip out its hair, inflict cruel bites on itself, and in 73% of cases will actually end up killing itself. Let’s now make a breach in one of the walls, which we will place right next to a bottomless precipice. Our friendly sample quadrumane will approach the edge, he’ll look down, remain at the edge for ages, return there time and again, but generally he won’t teeter over the brink; and in all events his nervous state will be radically assuaged.

My meditation on chimpanzees prolonged late into the night of Saturday and Sunday, and I finished up laying the foundations for an animal story called Dialogues Between a Chimpanzee and a Stork, which in fact constituted a political pamphlet of rare violence. Taken prisoner by a tribe of storks, the chimpanzee was at first self-preoccupied, his thoughts fur away. One morning, summoning up his courage, he demanded to see the eldest of the storks. Immediately brought before the bird, he raised his arms dramatically to the sky before pronouncing this despairing discourse:

Of all economic and social systems, capitalism is unquestionably the most natural. This already suffices to show that it is bound to be the worst. Once this conclusion is drawn it only remains to develop a workable and consistent set of concepts, that is, one whose mechanical functioning will permit, proceeding from facts introduced by chalice, the generation of multiple proofs which reinforce the predetermined judgment, the way that bars of graphite can reinforce the structure of a nuclear reactor. That in a simple task, worthy of a very young monkey; however I would like to disregard it.

During the migration of the spermatic flood towards the neck of the uterus, an imposing phenomenon, completely respectable and absolutely essential for the reproduction of species, one sometimes observes the aberrant comportment of certain spermatozoa. They look ahead, they look behind, they sometimes even swim against the current for a few brief seconds, and the accelerated wriggling of their tail now seems to translate as the revising of an ontological decision. If they do not compensate for this surprising indecision by a given velocity they generally arrive too late, and consequently rarely participate at the grand festival of genetic recombination. And so it was in August 1793 that Maximilien Robespierre was carried along by the movement of history like a crystal of chalcedony caught in a distant avalanche, or better still like a young stork with still too feeble wings, born by unhappy chance just before the approach of winter, and which suffers considerable difficulty — the thing is understandable — in maintaining a correct course during the crossing of jet-streams. Now jet streams are, as we know, particularly violent on the approaches of Africa. Rut I shall refine my thinking once more.

On the day of his execution Maximilien Robespierre had a broken jaw. It was held together by a bandage. Just before placing his head under the blade the executioner wrenched off his bandage; Robespierre let out a scream of pain, torrents of blood spurted from his wound, his broken teeth spilled forth on the ground. Then the executioner blandished the bandage at the end of his arm like a trophy, showing it to the crowd massed mound the scaffold. People were laughing, jeering. At this point the chroniclers generally add: “The Revolution was over.” This is rigorously exact. ‘At the very moment the executioner brandished his disgusting blood soaked bandage to the acclaim of the crowd, I like to think that in the mind of Robespierre there was something other than suffering. Something apart from the feeling of failure. A hope? Or doubtless the feeling that he’d done what he had to do, Maximilien Robespierre, I love you.

The eldest stork replied simply, in a slow and terrible voice: Tat twam asi. [LP: this is Sanskrit for “That thou art”, words found in the Rig Veda to indicate one’s connection to the Infinite] Shortly afterwards the chimpanzee was executed by the tribe of storks; he died in atrocious pain, transpierced and emasculated by their pointed beaks. For having questioned the order of the world the chimpanzee had to perish; in fact one could understand it; really, that’s how it was.

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