Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

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:

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


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.

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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


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


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.

February 15, 2015

Behind every great fortune there is a crime

Filed under: capitalist pig,crime,literature,Russia — louisproyect @ 10:37 pm

The title of this article stems from Honoré de Balzac’s “Père Goriot”. Often seen erroneously (including by me) as the novel’s epigraph, it is actually words spoken by a scheming, malevolent character named Vautrin: “The secret of a great success for which you are at a loss to account is a crime that has never been discovered, because it was properly executed.”

Whatever the exact words, the Balzacian worldview came to mind after reading the NY Times series of articles on the filthy rich and mostly criminal owners of the city’s most expensive condos. They sank in further after watching an episode on “Sixty Minutes” about HSBC, a Swiss bank that facilitated tax evasion and worse.

I suppose that I should have long been inured to the criminality of the super-rich but for some reason I always stop dead in my tracks when I encounter it anew on such a grand scale. I end up feeling like Joe Buck, the Texas hustler who has come to NY to make it as a professional gigolo in “Midnight Cowboy”, standing over a man sprawled out unconscious on the sidewalk as people pass him by with barely a glance. Unlike the rest of humanity, Buck tells himself that something is wrong.

Karl Marx was a big fan of Balzac and even intended to write a study of “The Human Comedy”, a massive collection of novels, short stories and articles about the greed, corruption and power of the bourgeoisie but hardly a paean to the common man. Keep in mind that Balzac was a royalist and hardly a purveyor of “socialist realism”. Engels, another fan of Balzac, told London radical Margaret Harkness in 1888 that his politics were less important than his ability to tell the truth about bourgeois society:

The more the opinions of the author remain hidden, the better for the work of art. The realism I allude to may crop out even in spite of the author’s opinions. Let me refer to an example. Balzac, whom I consider a far greater master of realism than all the Zolas passés, présents et a venir [past, present and future], in “La Comédie humaine” gives us a most wonderfully realistic history of French ‘Society’, especially of le monde parisien [the Parisian social world], describing, chronicle-fashion, almost year by year from 1816 to 1848 the progressive inroads of the rising bourgeoisie upon the society of nobles, that reconstituted itself after 1815 and that set up again, as far as it could, the standard of la viellie politesse française [French refinement]. He describes how the last remnants of this, to him, model society gradually succumbed before the intrusion of the vulgar monied upstart, or were corrupted by him; how the grand dame whose conjugal infidelities were but a mode of asserting herself in perfect accordance with the way she had been disposed of in marriage, gave way to the bourgeoisie, who horned her husband for cash or cashmere; and around this central picture he groups a complete history of French Society from which, even in economic details (for instance the rearrangement of real and personal property after the Revolution) I have learned more than from all the professed historians, economists, and statisticians of the period together.

Monied upstarts pretty much describes the billionaires who bought Manhattan apartments through shell corporations that concealed their identities. The article that introduces the series describes the affinity between NY’s one percent and the human detritus that is artificially inflating an already out-of-reach real estate market:

The high-end real estate market has become less and less transparent — and more alluring for those abroad with assets they wish to keep anonymous — even as the United States pushes other nations to help stanch the flow of American money leaving the country to avoid taxes. Yet for all the concerns of law enforcement officials that shell companies can hide illicit gains, regulatory efforts to require more openness from these companies have failed.

“We like the money,” said Raymond Baker, the president of Global Financial Integrity, a Washington nonprofit that tracks the illicit flow of money. “It’s that simple. We like the money that comes into our accounts, and we are not nearly as judgmental about it as we should be.”

In some ways, officials are clamoring for the foreign wealthy. In New York, tax breaks for condominium developments benefit owners looking for a second, or third, residence in one of Manhattan’s premier buildings. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said on his weekly radio program in 2013, shortly before leaving office: “If we could get every billionaire around the world to move here, it would be a godsend.”

In fact the invasion of oligarchs and crooks has been the opposite of a godsend. These condominiums enjoy tax breaks originally intended to stimulate the construction of middle-class housing but real estate developers obviously find it more profitable to build high-rises like the Time-Warner Center that is profiled in the articles. Built shortly after September 11, 2001, the ultra-luxury building was advertised as a fortress for the super-rich that had more to fear from the workers and peasants they were screwing than Islamic radicals.


Here is an idea of the kind of scum that inhabits the Time-Warner Center:

Units 72B and 51E are owned by the Amantea Corporation, which The Times traced to a mining magnate named Anil Agarwal. His company was fined for polluting a major river near a copper mine in Zambia, which sickened nearby residents. And judicial committees in his native India determined that his company had violated the land rights of an indigenous tribe near a proposed mine.

Perhaps the most eye-opening example of how larceny and power politics commingle is found in part five in the series titled “At the Time Warner Center, an Enclave of Powerful Russians”. If you, like me, place little credence in the notion of the Kremlin and its retinue of connected oligarchs as some kind of anti-imperialist vanguard, this profile of Andrey Vavilov is a must read.

Vavilov was Boris Yeltsin’s deputy finance minister and like many of his top officials cultivated ties with American inside-the-beltway policy wonks and power brokers at places like the Brookings Institution. Vavilov was one of the key architects who advised Yeltsin on turning state-owned industry, particularly in the energy sphere, into get-rich-quick bonanzas for the managers benefiting from privatization including himself. Cashing in on a sale of a oil company being sold back to the state under Putin to the tune of $600 million, he was not put off by the price tag of $37.5 million for an 8,275 square foot penthouse in the Time Warner Center. In addition to this penthouse, Vavilov owns an Airbus jet, apartments in Monaco and Beverly Hills, and recently purchased two diamonds for his wife (55 and 59.5 carats) worth a cool $60 million.

He is also a visiting professor of economics at Penn State, where he must be educating a new generation of economists on how to game the system for Wall Street hedge funds and the like.

Like many on Wall Street, Vavilov has managed to avoid a prison cell despite the serious allegations made against him over the years, including the mishandling of nearly a quarter-billion dollars in proceeds from the sale of MIG’s to India. Just around the time the law was breathing down his neck in 2007, he was elected senator to the Russian parliament, which gave him immunity. The case was dropped a year later because the statue of limitations had expired.

Most interestingly, despite Vavilov’s close association to Yeltsin and Putin’s reputation for cleaning up Yeltsin’s privatization mess, he managed to endear himself to the fearless anti-imperialist leader:

Despite Mr. Vavilov’s close association with the Yeltsin administration, much of his wealth was acquired later, as Mr. Putin’s government was consolidating the nation’s oil industry in one state-affiliated super company, Rosneft.

In 2000, Mr. Vavilov had acquired a small oil company, Severnaya Neft, or Northern Oil, for $25 million. When Rosneft purchased Severnaya Neft in 2003 for $600 million, the deal was widely criticized as having been larded with kickbacks for Kremlin insiders.

In a now-legendary confrontation at the Kremlin, Mikhail B. Khodorkovsky, chairman of the oil giant Yukos, challenged Mr. Putin about the purchase. Many people believed that it was Mr. Putin’s anger over the very public encounter that sparked his campaign against Mr. Khodorkovsky, who would be stripped of his company, prosecuted and imprisoned.

For most of the left, particularly those people who remain impressed by NYU professor emeritus Stephen F. Cohen who has the same relationship to Putin that Anna Louise Strong had to Mao Zedong, there’s very little understanding of how Putin continues Yeltsin’s policies rather than breaks with them. In fact, there is an analogy with how Cohen’s wife’s vanity publication, ie. The Nation Magazine, fails to appreciate how much Obama is a continuation of George W. Bush.

For the best analysis of the Yeltsin-Putin continuity, I recommend a Tony Wood review of three recent books on Putin that is unfortunately behind a paywall (contact me if you’d like a copy) but this is the takeaway:

New Year’s Eve 1999 – when Yeltsin appeared on Russian TV screens to announce his resignation as president in favour of Putin – is often taken to mark a major turning point, from the ‘fevered 1990s’ to the stability of the ‘Zero Years’, as the 2000s are known, the moment when Yeltsin’s erratic improvisation gave way to the cold calculation personified in Putin. Economically, the prolonged post-Soviet collapse was followed by recovery after the 1998 ruble crash and then an oil-fuelled boom, while in the media a boisterous incoherent pluralism was replaced by deadening consensus. But there were deeper continuities in the system both men commanded.

Politically, the ‘managed democracy’ of the 2000s was not a perversion of Yeltsinism but its maturation. Faced with a fractious legislature – the Congress of People’s Deputies elected in 1990 – Yeltsin bombed it into submission in October 1993 and then rewrote the constitution along hyper-presidential lines, getting it approved by a rigged referendum that December. Even before that, he had sidestepped democratic accountability by implementing much of the key legislation that shaped the post-Soviet economy through a series of decrees – some of them, notably on privatisation, drafted by Western advisers. Thanks to the notorious ‘loans for shares’ deals of 1995-96, a handful of oligarchs obtained vast holdings in oil and metals companies in exchange for flooding the media outlets they owned with anti-Communist propaganda – a vital contribution to prolonging Yeltsin’s grip on power, though generous financial assistance from the West and electoral violations also played their part. In Chechnya, Yeltsin moved to crush local aspirations to sovereignty, unleashing total war against the civilian population in 1994, though the Russian army had been fought to a standstill by 1996.

On each of these fronts, Putin continued what Yeltsin began, starting in the North Caucasus in September 1999, when he launched a vicious counterinsurgency – officially labelled an ‘anti-terrorist operation’ – to destroy any idea of Chechen independence, eventually imposing a tyrant of his own choosing. Once installed as president, he made use of the autocratic set-up he inherited to reassert central authority, reining in regional elites by appointing plenipotentiaries to head seven new federal superdistricts, okruga; five of the first levy were former military men, underlining their disciplinary function (his first envoy to the Southern Federal District, Viktor Kazantsev, had commanded Russian forces in the North Caucasus). Fiscal reforms increased the federal centre’s tax take at the expense of the regions, with Moscow’s share rising from 50 per cent in 2001 to 70 per cent in 2008. In 2004 Putin further restricted their autonomy, abolishing elections for governors and mayors (though these were partially reintroduced in 2012). The national legislature had been put in its place by Yeltsin, though it showed signs of rebellion in 1998, in the wake of the ruble crisis; Putin brought it firmly to heel, streamlining the party system so that by 2007 there were only four to manage, two of them, United Russia and A Just Russia, the Kremlin’s own creations, while the Communist Party and LDPR (the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia) hardly constituted an opposition. In December 2003, Boris Gryzlov, the Duma chairman, summed up its negligible role by declaring that ‘parliament is no place for political battles.’

I suppose there is very little expectation that Swiss Banks are up to anything except abetting criminals but the segment on Sixty Minutes last Sunday about HSBC was enough to bring out the Joe Buck in me. You can watch the entire thing here.

Bill Whitaker interviews attorney Jack Blum, who was graduating the year I entered Bard College. Blum is a capable investigator whose best-known efforts on behalf of the public interest was an aide to John Kerry in his investigation of the Nicaraguan contra-cocaine connection back in 1986 when he still had a shred of integrity. I never had any contact with Blum but he was a fairly typical young Democrat type of student who at least had the good sense to stay clear of electoral politics.

Jack Blum

Here’s the beginning of the transcript from the “Sixty Minutes” piece:

HIGHLIGHT: The largest and most damaging Swiss bank heist in history doesn`t involve stolen money but stolen computer files with more than one hundred thousand names tied to Swiss bank accounts at HSBC, the second largest commercial bank in the world. A thirty-seven-year-old computer security specialist named Herve Falciani stole the huge cache of data in 2007 and gave it to the French government.

BILL WHITAKER: The largest and most damaging Swiss bank heist in history doesn`t involve stolen money but stolen computer files with more than one hundred thousand names tied to Swiss bank accounts at HSBC, the second largest commercial bank in the world. A thirty-seven-year-old computer security specialist named Herve Falciani stole the huge cache of data in 2007 and gave it to the French government. It`s now being used to go after tax cheats all over the world. 60 MINUTES, working with a group called the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, obtained the leaked files. They show the bank did business with a collection of international outlaws: Tax dodgers, arms dealers and drug smugglers–offering a rare glimpse into the highly secretive world of Swiss banking.

BILL WHITAKER (voiceover): This is the stolen data that`s shaking the Swiss banking world to its core. It contains names, nationalities, account information, deposit amounts–but most remarkable are these detailed notes revealing the private dealings between HSBC and its clients.

JACK BLUM: Well, the amount of information here that has come public is extraordinary. Absolutely extraordinary.

BILL WHITAKER (voiceover): Few people know more about money laundering and tax evasion by banks than Jack Blum.

JACK BLUM: You have a very serious problem.

BILL WHITAKER (voiceover): He`s a former U.S. Senate staff investigator. We asked him to analyze the files for us.

JACK BLUM: If you read these notes, what you understand is the bank is trying to accommodate the secrecy needs of the client. And that`s the first concern.

BILL WHITAKER (voiceover): Take the case of British citizen Emmanuel Shallop. He was convicted for selling blood diamonds, those illegal gems used to finance conflicts in Africa. The documents show in 2005 HSBC knew Shallop was under investigation, yet helped hide his assets. “We have opened a company account for him based in Dubai…” one entry read, “The client is very cautious currently, because he is under pressure from Belgian tax authorities, who are investigating his activities in the area of diamond tax fraud.”

JACK BLUM: You get into the notes and you find that they offer various products: shell corporations, trusts, various ways of concealing the ownership of the account. They offer products that they`re going to give to the customer that will help with a concealment.

BILL WHITAKER (voiceover): Concealment is what Irish businessman John Cashell got from HSBC. His file contained these notes by a bank employee: Cashell`s “…pre-occupation is with the risk of disclosure to the Irish authorities.” The employee went on, “…I endeavored to reassure him that there is no risk of that happening.” Cashell was later convicted of tax evasion.

The bank files we examined contained more than four thousand names of people with connections to the U.S., holding more than thirteen billion in HSBC accounts. One was a New Jersey realtor. The notes in her file reveal that she and her family wanted assurance that her assets would be well hidden from U.S. tax collectors.

JACK BLUM: And she expresses concerns to the bank, which in turn reassure her that they will find ways to keep her name out of the sights of IRS.

BILL WHITAKER: There seems to be evidence of the bank actively helping clients evade, if not cheat.

JACK BLUM: Of course.

It has been at least 35 years since I read “Père Goriot”. I barely have time nowadays to read the political stuff that is my daily bread but I would like to find the time to read it again before I die since it was a book that gave me deep pleasure. Balzac was a master of rendering character, particularly in the depths of their depravity. His introduction to the novel’s main character will give you an idea of the moral rot that underpins bourgeois society. From the sound of this, Père Goriot would have found the road to riches in Yeltsin and Putin’s Russia or a job with HSBC:

In the days before the Revolution, Jean-Joachim Goriot was simply a workman in the employ of a vermicelli maker. He was a skilful, thrifty workman, sufficiently enterprising to buy his master’s business when the latter fell a chance victim to the disturbances of 1789. Goriot established himself in the Rue de la Jussienne, close to the Corn Exchange. His plain good sense led him to accept the position of President of the Section, so as to secure for his business the protection of those in power at that dangerous epoch. This prudent step had led to success; the foundations of his fortune were laid in the time of the Scarcity (real or artificial), when the price of grain of all kinds rose enormously in Paris. People used to fight for bread at the bakers’ doors; while other persons went to the grocers’ shops and bought Italian paste foods without brawling over it. It was during this year that Goriot made the money, which, at a later time, was to give him all the advantage of the great capitalist over the small buyer; he had, moreover, the usual luck of average ability; his mediocrity was the salvation of him. He excited no one’s envy, it was not even suspected that he was rich till the peril of being rich was over, and all his intelligence was concentrated, not on political, but on commercial speculations. Goriot was an authority second to none on all questions relating to corn, flour, and “middlings”; and the production, storage, and quality of grain. He could estimate the yield of the harvest, and foresee market prices; he bought his cereals in Sicily, and imported Russian wheat. Any one who had heard him hold forth on the regulations that control the importation and exportation of grain, who had seen his grasp of the subject, his clear insight into the principles involved, his appreciation of weak points in the way that the system worked, would have thought that here was the stuff of which a minister is made. Patient, active, and persevering, energetic and prompt in action, he surveyed his business horizon with an eagle eye. Nothing there took him by surprise; he foresaw all things, knew all that was happening, and kept his own counsel; he was a diplomatist in his quick comprehension of a situation; and in the routine of business he was as patient and plodding as a soldier on the march. But beyond this business horizon he could not see. He used to spend his hours of leisure on the threshold of his shop, leaning against the framework of the door. Take him from his dark little counting-house, and he became once more the rough, slow-witted workman, a man who cannot understand a piece of reasoning, who is indifferent to all intellectual pleasures, and falls asleep at the play, a Parisian Dolibom in short, against whose stupidity other minds are powerless.

January 17, 2015

The motorcycle looks somewhat dated but is indisputably an angel

Filed under: literature,motorcycles — louisproyect @ 2:00 pm

(From the latest London Review of Books)

Claudio Castiglione and Massimo Tamburini

by Frederick Seidel

The motorcycle looks somewhat dated but is indisputably an angel.
Like an electric chair before the current goes on.
Like an electric chair before the switch is thrown.
You’ve eaten your last meal, the priest has left the room.
The motorcycle between your legs is an angel
Revving its desmodromic basso profondo into a scream.
It’s Massimo Tamburini’s great 1994 Ducati 916 design, the Nine Sixteen!
Massimo’s soul in metal, slender as a child,
Glory whose maybe slightly dated beauty sings eternal.
Claudio Castiglione, who owned Cagiva, which owned Ducati, was the Medici
Who underwrote the considerable development cost of this piece of sculpture.
Time, space,
Neither life nor death is the answer.
And of man seeking good,
Doing evil,
Here was an exception.

Speed is the demon. Speed is not!
Speed is the big white breast
That arouses Italian men enough to get them finally to leave the nest –
Finally! – though they still love mommy’s breast the best.
Up the autostrada we sped,
Claudio behind the wheel,
Chatting when Claudio wasn’t taking and making many Massimo calls
On the car’s speaker phone – a toy at the time only James Bond had.
On our way to his house on the Italian Riviera,
In a dove-gray, conservative businessman’s
Stealth four-door Alfa Romeo sedan
(Claudio also owned a Ferrari P-2),
I glanced over at the speedometer but didn’t want to stare,
And saw we were casually going 240 kilometers an hour,
And wide-eyed,
Felt a swoon of pride.

Italy is despicable and ridiculous
And bad and sad
And full of as many flavors of cancer as Leopardi said.
It once was great.
It has cancer of the state.
Is there anything one can accomplish before it is too late?
At Rodrigo in Bologna one can eat bottarga.
One can take a taxi out to the Ducati factory in Borgo Panigale
And say hello to Paolo Ciabatti.
One can reread Montale and remember Aldo Moro.
The tentacles of the octopus ripple like boiling ribbons of pasta
And the suckers attach to buildings and the buildings goose-step
Underwater up and down the Arno.
The semi-tropical trees on Bellosguardo recite their satanic vows.
The cities are for sale.
Men, seeking good, doing evil, buy them.

Audi, part of the Volkswagen Group,
Through its Italian subsidiary Lamborghini
Has bought tiny, mighty Ducati!
The CEO of Ducati is Claudio Domenicali, brains and huge ears,
Who ran Ducati Corse (the racing department) during the fecund years.
Volkswagen’s Chairman, the engineer and business magnate Ferdinand Piëch,
The grandson of Ferdinand Porsche,
Has always been a vehement Viennese Ducati enthusiast,
Though these days Ducati Corse keeps losing in MotoGP,
The summit of motorcycle racing and publicity, motorcycling’s Formula 1.
Domenicali has to fix that or that will be that.
It costs almost as much as the war in Iraq
For a factory team to compete. And then, on top of that, to lose!
Circuit after circuit falls to the Sunni extremists, Honda and Yamaha,
As they rave their way south toward Baghdad,
Beheading Shia for the sheer bliss of it.

Castiglione and Tamburini have died,
And without them Italy is stupid –
First one and then the other,
Both of course of cancer.
It appears Europe will fail,
The euro and immigration.
Germany’s Chancellor, Angela Merkel,
Is the only man among them.
Nothing is more beautiful than her political will,
But stupidity and cupidity will probably prevail.
Cancer, cancer, everywhere,
And cocaine sunshine in the Botticelli air.
The exotic Ducati Superleggera crackles
As it warms up to commit parricide.
The power of the new machine
Will devour the 916.

Dante and his friend and mentor Guido Cavalcanti
Are taking the museum tour at the Ducati factory.
Here they can see everything that is beautiful.
The motorcycles are displayed along the walls.
The motorcycles are as beautiful as Merkel’s political will.
The visitors are contemplating the spirit of Love.
They might as well be gazing up at night at the stars.
So many motorcycles will lead to great poetry surely.
Guido is instructing Dante in the use of the spoken Tuscan language
And the guidance the love of women gives,
When they are joined by Fellini and behind him Puccini
And behind Puccini Guido’s father, Cavalcante de’ Cavalcanti.
The motorcycles around them look like birdsong sounds in spring
And everything speaks Italian like a river flows.
There is no sign of any fascists
And we believe in God, even if we are atheists.

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