Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 2, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paul Pines website

January 14, 2018

Trolling with the Fisher King

Filed under: literature — louisproyect @ 8:17 pm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


October 8, 2017

Gathering Sparks

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

July 20, 2017

Clancy Sigal (1926-2017)

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

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

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

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

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

The screenwriter was Clancy Sigal.

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October 28, 2016

Finding Babel

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

The Outsider-Insider: Isaac Babel’s Big Mistake

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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