Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 31, 2020

Queens Noir

Filed under: Counterpunch,literature — louisproyect @ 2:59 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, JULY 31, 2020

As a long-time fan of Nordic Noir detective stories, I never expected to see a home-grown version. You might call Michael Elias’s “You Can Go Home Now” Queens Noir since it is set mostly in that dreary stretch of two-story houses and strip malls that will be familiar to anybody who has left Manhattan on their way to the airport. I confess never having stepped foot in this wasteland and only know it as the place that Archie Bunker personified in the 1960s and 70s. I even wonder if Elias knows this area except as a background for his breakthrough novel. To render it accurately might have taken the same kind of dedication that would go into a story about a serial killer in the French Riviera, except with a lot less opportunity to savor local restaurants. For some of the characters in “You Can Go Home Now”, McDonald’s is a night on the town.

Written in the first person singular, “You Can Go Home Now” tells the story of Nina Karim, a cop working in the Long Island City police department. Like just about every cop featured in a Nordic Noir novel or a TV series based on one, Karim is not typical. She reads the refined short stories of V.S. Pritchett rather than the pulp fiction of V.C. Andrews that is ubiquitous to airport bookstores. After Andrews died, a novelist named Andrew Neiderman became her ghostwriter and a very successful one at that. I should add that Neiderman and Elias were a few classes ahead of mine in Fallsburg Central High school in upstate New York.

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May 20, 2020

A Child’s Christmas in Woodridge

Filed under: Catskills,literature — louisproyect @ 11:10 pm

No matter how old I get, I’ll always have vivid memories of being a small boy in Woodridge, NY and doing all the things small kids do. Like walking in the woods, swimming in the ponds and rivers, riding my bike, flipping baseball cards, and playing ringolevio.

But winter had its special pleasures. Back then, the snowstorms were long before greenhouse gases tamed mother nature. After a big snowfall, we’d build forts in downtown Woodridge and throw snowballs at each other. We’d also have free rein sledding on the village’s hills, with no worries about cars since the roads were barely passable.

In this chapter from Robert C. Harris’s 2008 “Collection of Autobiographical Stories”, you’ll get a good taste of the excitement of wintertime. Robert’s mother Eleanor and mine were very close. Eleanor wrote a column called Woodridge Whirl for the local paper and my mother took it over after the Harrises moved to Florida.

Half of Robert’s book deals with his misadventures in the US army during the Vietnam war. The other half is reminiscences of being a young boy in Woodridge. I enjoy every chapter but this one about sleigh-riding the most. If you’ve read (or better yet, heard the author recite) Dylan Thomas’s “A Child’s Christmas in Wales”, you’ll appreciate Robert’s ability to render a long-ago experience. I imagine he wrote this primarily in the same way I have blogged about Woodridge, to recapture my past—sort of an amateur version of Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past”. Woodridgites will probably enjoy this more than the average person but I am sure that it will bring back your own favorite memories of playing in the snow, an experience that future generations will never enjoy as much as us—largely because of climate change. This year in New York City, there was virtually no snow at all.

And, going one step further, the conditions that created climate change are largely responsible for the pandemic that keeps us house-bound today.

Chapter 9

The happiest time in any man’s life is the time before he becomes a man. Now take me. Today I am a man and when I see Woodridge as it is today, I am not giddy with joy, but giddy with souped-up memories. Back then, to my childish and fun-loving libido, I saw Woodridge as the fairyland playground of the nation, Disney Lands notwithstanding, and we kids didn’t even have to pay to get in. Like commercial playgrounds everywhere, each season offered its special attractions.

In the spring, sweaters and jackets strewn along the grounds, we boys ran rampant among the rocks and crevices of Dead Man’s Canyon, our pop guns cocked for action. In the summer, there was Kaplan’s Lake. The cowboys and Indians of the spring were now deep sea divers in the four to six feet of water, splashing, dunking and grabbing ankles or higher. Girls were now a part of the summer attraction and their squeals from our underwater attacks gave meaning to the summer. In the autumn, we boys became habitués of the Ford Dealership yard, racing across imaginary tapes and then moving across to The Tree where, in the bracing air, we were defending Fort Germac from the invaders with our BB guns and apple grenades ready for action.

But it was winter that gave meaning to the winter wonderland songs I remember. Even if one shivered in the cold, nature’s artwork was awesome. The scraggly trees of autumn were now covered in white and adorned with sparkly icicles hanging from the branches like so many fashionably gowned and jewelled women at the Oscar Awards waiting to be admired. But to us, the three Fox boys, Bobby Ritter, David and Paul Kaplan, Ivan Katz, Stuey Novack, Steve and Bobby Wasserman, Steve Gerson, Jay Weinstein and the Sapersteins and every kid still breathing, it was the blinding snow and biting cold that activated our adrenalin. We would embark on a mass exodus from our homes to slosh through the snow, the deeper and wetter the more exciting. Our mittens and gloves were soaked through within minutes as we hurled snowballs at each other and anything else that moved, mostly girls. With our noses running before us and our sleds trailing behind us, we made our way to the slopes. We had two unforgettable hills in Woodridge which nature undeniably devised for exuberant and risk-taking kids. As we trudged uphill, pulling our sleds, one of us was sure to yell ‘up yours’ or some such local witticism, about snow and the upper crust of the down-hillers. Fickle nature. It lures us out of our homes with promises of adventure and then slaps us in the face with icy pellets. But we didn’t care, we had two of the greatest hills in the world. The one at the Alamac Hotel was the smaller of the two. The other, aptly names Little Mt. Everest, was located on acreage behind the Kaplan properties. Subsequently, this property was developed into spacious, expensive single family homes. But at this time in my youth it was the longest, widest, steepest mountain on the planet. Woodridge’s challenge to the Alpine peaks.

It was easier to use the Alamac hill because the hotel was closed for the winter and there was no one to yell at us. It was located just across from Barry Saperstein’s house and it took no more than a fifteen or twenty second zoom to the bottom of the hill. The idea was to grab the tree at the bottom of the hill or risk bouncing across the street to be hit by an oncoming car or, as an alternative, crashing into the Saperstein porch. We kids were lucky, none of us were killed. But sometimes, less lethal but awfully insulting, an irate driver would question the functionality of our brain matter by screeching to a stop and yelling, “What the hell’s the matter with you? You kids nuts or something?”

Most of us were good at grabbing the tree for braking but it was my brother, Walter, who excelled at dreaming up schemes for stunt riding, urged and seconded by Carl Novick and Steve Wasserman. Stunt riding as defined by our group was anything that would scare the hell out of our parents and medical advisors. One of the milder stunts was to stand up on the sled, rope in one hand for stability, while hurtling down the slope waving the other hand and yelling, “Hi ho Silver!” Or, cross one sled with another to resemble an airplane with one kid sitting in the middle steering with his feet, rope in hand, while two more boys stood on each of the ‘wings’ for balance. The goal was to make it to the bottom of the hill without crashing and with all three intact, which never happened—except that one time. On New Year’s Day our snow plane went into action. Our three made it to the bottom, in one piece and in perfect formation. The sled followed sometime later. There we were, the three of us, Steve Gerson, Barry Saperstein and me, lying splayed in the snow in perfect formation, with everyone whooping and cheering around us as if we just won the World Series.

But the greater adventure, the most Evel Kneivelish daring-do was on the slopes of Little Mt. Everest. Gliding down this mountain (to our unformed, ungeological minds this was truly a mountain) was the ultimate test of courage. In our little town, comprised mainly of Jewish families, the villagers naively believed a boy became a man at his Bar Mitzvah. We kids knew better. A boy became a man on the ride down Little Mt. Everest. Unlike the twenty second downhill zoom of the Alamac, downhill on the Everest was an endless, death-defying, marathon race that only the hardy need attempt. We were all hardy.

Racing down hill was the number one game. With at least ten sleds tearing down the long, interminable slope at any one time, it was not so much a race to the finish as a finish to the racer. Sleds crashed into each other, kids went flying, bloodied but unbowed; some actually un-bowelled, as it scared the crap out of us. But we carried on and once in a great while we were carried off.

Then there was our two-man sled exchange. Picture it, Stevie Gerson is lying face down on the sled and Jay Weinstein is kneeling on Stevie’s back. Stevie’s lying down because he has to steer; this was how the expression “Get off my back” entered the English language. Anyway, on the way down, in mid-ride, Jay would jump up into the air and onto a companion sled which was being operated by Ivan Katz. With arms flailing and feet moving wildly, similar to that portrayed in cartoon movies where the guy absent mindedly walks off a cliff and keeps walking in space, the sled exchange occurred. It was risky stuff. There was always the possibility that one might break the neck of the driver—in such cases it was better to jump to the ground for then one was likely to suffer only from snow burn—or slightly worse, loss of face if not of blood.

But we kids were adept at timing our jumps. Snow burns, bruises and other injuries were as natural to our age group as acne would some day be to our aging group. As to the one whose back was used as a springboard, well, what’s an aching spine when one is contributing so much to cultural achievement?

The excitement created by Little Mt. Everest was in its width, its clear course going all the way down without obstacles aside from a few dips and bumps. It was the stone wall at the bottom of the hill that gave meaning to the expression that death is always a surprise. On the same line with the stone wall, near its end, was a mammoth Coca-Cola sign, once impressive in its prime but now bent at a 45 degree angle obscuring its message of promised refreshment. The tin back of the sign made a dandy landing-strip for us when we steered towards it and used our feet as brakes. When this worked, as it normally did, we kids found it as refreshing as promised. Although we were adept at this foot-dragging-braking method, we decided to build snow barriers as an extra precaution to ensure we stopped successfully on our tin landing strip and didn’t go bounding off into the next county. To this end the snow barriers were built just beyond the wall and the sign; the ice on the tin was covered with stones and whatever sharp, jutting material we could find. I notice that building contractors today lack the gusto and ingenuity our team exhibited. Our bulldozer was us. Man, we dug, we tossed, we slid. We froze. All this before we climbed to the top. We kids had it together in the 5os. Energy, sleds, running noses and frozen feet—and an occasional enthusiast with wet pants.

On one beautiful, clear day following the Christmas holidays, we were out in full force, many of us with newer and more powerful sleds, some even with skis. We were racing down Everest, about nine sleds, towards the finish line. It was a close race with Walter in the lead. As we began to slow down near the finish line, the Coca-Cola landing strip, Walter decided to keep going. He had this determined look on his face, not unlike the look of someone daring to go where no man has dared to go. While the rest of us came to a stop, he kept going—over the snow barrier, over the sign, over the wall. As we turned our startled gazes upon Walter, it was like a slow motion movie with Walter hovering in space about forty feet above the ground, holding on to his inverted sled, which had done a complete turn in mid-air. All sound ceased as we witnessed this bizarre scene—Walter hanging on to his upside-down sled with his back towards the ground. Suddenly the reel sped up and down he hurtled into the snow below. The dreamlike sequence was over as everyone realized what had happened and rushed down to the road. My heart was in my mouth. My big brother was not supposed to get hurt; I was.

We had to run about 200 yards down to the street next to the hill, then climb through a barbed wire fence that was located in the back yard of the Kaplan property as a barrier between their yard and the hill. Then we had to step through snow that was about four feet deep. After what seemed like a deathly ten minutes, we located the sled. All we saw protruding from the pile of snow were the rudders but no sign of Walter. Frightened, we all tugged the sled free—and

there lay Walter, still holding on to his sleigh with that glazed, disbelieving look in his eye.

He stared at all of us and with his eleven year old face lit up with a strange and abstracted smile he announced: “I was flying! I was actually flying!”

May 7, 2020

Maj Sjowall, Marxist author of detective stories, dies at 84

Filed under: literature,Sweden — louisproyect @ 12:20 am

In September 2014, I wrote a review for CounterPunch titled “Sweden and the Renaissance of Marxist Crime Stories” that referred to the writing team of Per Wahloo and Maj Sjowall. Today I read an obituary for her in the NY Times that I reproduce below to get past the paywall. While my review covered a range of Swedish Marxist crime novelists, I will quote the passage that dealt with Wahloo and Sjowall who were not only great writers but smart enough to see through the notion of the “Swedish model”:

In 1965 the husband and wife writing team of Per Wahlöö and Maj Sjöwall published their first novel “Roseanna” that introduced Stockholm Chief Inspector Martin Beck to the world. Both were committed Marxists and hoped, in Wahlöö’s words, to “rip open the belly of an ideologically impoverished society”.

Like the “Wallander” series reviewed below, the Swedish television series titled “Beck” should probably be described as “inspired” by the novels rather than a direct treatment that was faithful to the authors’ radical vision of Swedish society. That being said, “Beck” retains the noirish sensibility of the original and can be relied upon to hold the dark side of Swedish society to scrutiny as well as being first-rate television drama.

In the premiere episode of season one that aired in 1997, two teen-age immigrant male prostitutes have turned up dead. The first reaction of Beck and his fellow cops is to wonder if another “laser killer” was on the loose again, a reference that would be obscure to most non-Swedish viewers but key to understanding the preoccupations of the writers.

From August 1991 to January 1992 John Ausonius shot 11 people in Sweden, most of whom were immigrants, using a rifle equipped with a laser sight—hence his nickname. The shootings occurred when the New Democracy was on the rise in Sweden, a party that had much in common with Golden Dawn and other fascist parties throughout Europe.

Not long into the investigation, Martin Beck refocuses it on a search for a homicidal pederast. Like Bjurman, the social worker who preys on Lisbeth Salander in “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”, the killer is a respectable member of Swedish society. This is the most common element of all the television series reviewed here: the moral rot of the people at the top.

As Beck and his team make their rounds interrogating suspects in the dark of night, Stockholm is recast as a noir landscape under dark clouds and rain. This is not a city of strapping male and female blondes preparing for a weekend skiing trip but of junkies and prostitutes who belong in William S. Burroughs’s “Naked Lunch”.

Nobody could ever confuse Beck with the Aryan ideal. With his thinning hair, homely face and flabby body, the fifty-something cop played by Peter Haber, who resembles Karl Malden, looks more like an accountant or a middle manager than someone heading up a homicide investigation—or at least what American television would put forward for such a role. Nor is Beck particularly assertive in his relations with people outside his department. After he refuses to co-sign a loan his daughter needs to move into an apartment obtained illegally (likely violating Sweden’s strict housing codes), she bawls him out in a crowded restaurant as if he were an errant child.

In the first episode, we meet two of the characters with major roles in “Beck”, his subordinate Gunvald Larsson who is constantly bending or breaking rules in Dirty Harry fashion and Lena Klingström, a cyber-cop who spends her working day on the Internet looking for clues rather than going out and busting heads like Larsson. In this first episode, bending rules and trawling the Internet both produce results.

Comic relief occurs in every episode when the divorcee Beck returns home each night to his lonely apartment. Like clockwork, he runs into his unnamed sixtyish neighbor who has hennaed hair and a neck-brace that is never explained. Played by veteran actor Ingvar Hirdwall, he is always musing on the decline and fall of everything, a perfect Greek chorus of one to accompany some classic crime stories.

“Beck”, seasons one through three, can be seen on Amazon streaming.


Maj Sjowall, Godmother of Nordic Noir, Dies at 84

With her companion, Per Wahloo, Ms. Sjowall wrote 10 books starring Martin Beck, a laconic, flawed Swedish detective.

Maj Sjowall, the Swedish crime author, in 2015. “I never thought the books would last all my life,” she said.
Credit…Tt News Agency/via Reuters

Maj Sjowall, a Swedish novelist who collaborated with her companion on a series of celebrated police procedurals that heralded the crime-fiction genre of Nordic Noir (including the wildly successful books of Stieg Larsson), died on Wednesday in a hospital in Landskrona, Sweden. She was 84.

The cause was chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, said Ann-Marie Skarp, chief executive of Piratforlaget, the books’ Swedish publisher. In recent years Ms. Sjowall lived on Ven, a small island off the southwestern coast of Sweden.

With their first novel, “Roseanna” (1965), about the strangling death of a young tourist, Ms. Sjowall and Per Wahloo, her writing and domestic partner, introduced Martin Beck, an indefatigable, taciturn homicide detective in Stockholm.

“He is not a heroic person,” Ms. Sjowall (pronounced SHO-vall) told the British newspaper The Telegraph in 2015. “He is like James Stewart in some American films, just a nice guy trying to do his job.”

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In terse, fast-moving prose, the couple wrote nine more Beck books, including “The Laughing Policeman,” which won the Edgar Award in 1971 for best mystery novel and was made into a film in 1973 starring Walter Matthau, with its setting moved from Stockholm to San Francisco. Several Swedish movies and a TV series, “Beck,” have been made based on the novels.

Mr. Wahloo died shortly before their 10th Beck mystery, “The Terrorists,” was published in 1975, and Ms. Sjowall never revisited the detective again.

As a team, they helped redefine crime fiction with Beck’s flawed, laconic and empathetic character — an acclaimed addition to the pantheon of literary gumshoes like Georges Simenon’s Maigret and Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade.

Ms. Sjowall with Per Wahloo, her writing and domestic partner, in an undated photograph. They wrote 10 Martin Beck crime novels that heralded a genre called Nordic Noir. 
Credit…Associated Press

Wendy Lesser, the author of “Scandinavian Noir: In Search of a Mystery” (2020), said in an email that Ms. Sjowall and Mr. Wahloo’s novels “had a direct or indirect influence on every subsequent mystery writer in Scandinavia,” among them Henning Mankel and Jo Nesbo, as well as on American crime writers like Michael Connelly.

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Mr. Larsson’s posthumously-published trilogy of Millennium novels — including “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” — “are highly derivative of all previous-to-him Scandinavian thriller writers,” Ms. Lesser added.

Mr. Nesbo, in the introduction to a 2009 English-language reissue of his third Blake mystery, “The Man on the Balcony,” wrote: “Sjowall and Wahloo have shoulders that can accommodate all of today’s crime writers. And we are all there.”

Maj Sjowall was born on Sept. 25, 1935, in Stockholm, where she grew up on the top floor of one of the hotels her father managed. She recalled an unhappy, unloved childhood.

She was a single mother at 21 — her boyfriend had left her before her daughter, Lena Sjowall, was born — then married and divorced two older men by the time she met Mr. Wahloo, a left-wing journalist and novelist, in about 1962.

Ms. Sjowall was a magazine art director, and the two worked for different publications owned by the same publisher. They fell in love discussing a crime series that would focus on a single detective. They also wanted their books to reflect their Marxist views.

“We wanted to show where Sweden was heading: towards a capitalistic, cold and inhuman society where the rich got richer, the poor got poorer,” Ms. Sjowall said in an interview with The Guardian in 2009.

From the beginning, they planned 10 books, which they wrote at night while her daughter and their sons, Jens and Tetz Sjowall Wahloo, slept. Facing each other across a table, they wrote alternate chapters in longhand. The next night, they edited and typed the other’s work, mindful of finding a style that appealed to a broad audience.

“We never talked about the story when we were writing it,” she said to The Telegraph. “The only things we said were, ‘Pass me the cigarettes,’ or, ‘It’s your turn to make some more tea.’”

 

“Roseanna” was inspired by an American woman whom Ms. Sjowall and Mr. Wahloo saw standing alone on a ferry to Gothenburg.

They got the idea behind “Roseanna” as they watched an American woman standing alone on a ferry trip from Stockholm to Gothenburg. “I caught Per looking at her,” she told The Guardian, and she asked, “Why don’t we start the book by killing this woman?”

In their description of the fictionalized woman’s body being dredged out of a canal, they wrote: “A group of amazed people gathered around and stared at her. Some of them were children and shouldn’t have been there but not one thought to send them away. But all of them had one thing in common: they would never forget how she looked.”

After Mr. Wahloo’s death (the two never married), her literary output slowed. She collaborated with Tomas Ross, a Dutch writer, on the crime novel “The Woman Who Resembled Greta Garbo” (1990) and translated some of Robert B. Parker’s Spenser detective novels into Swedish.

Ms. Sjowall is survived by her three children and five grandchildren.

The last Martin Beck book was published 45 years ago, and Ms. Sjowall remained surprised that the stories continued to resonate with readers and fans of the Swedish TV series.

“This is a part of my life that I didn’t expect,” she told The Guardian. “I never thought the books would last all my life, or that I’d still be thinking about them after all this time.”

 

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.

 

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