(This book review is the Litkicks debut of Tara Olmsted, who runs BookSexy Review, a blog with a special focus on international and translated literature.)
Attending college in New York City in the mid-1990’s left me with some distinct memories of the city. De La Vega chalk tags on the sidewalks of Broadway next to graffiti stencils that read “Free Mumbia”; the booksellers whose tables used to line St. Marks Place before they were kicked out; boys from Columbia going on (and on) about Ayn Rand and their counterparts from New York University in Che Guevara t-shirts.
Those t-shirts with their iconic image were my only connection to Guevara. Which is kinda’ sad. The man has been made into a symbol and used to market non-conformity, anti-establishment and revolution to a mostly compliant public. His silk-screened face has become one of the most recognizable and ubiquitous commercial images in the world.
So, unsurprisingly, images are what drew me to Remembering Che: My Life with Che Guevara, Aleida March’s memoir of her marriage to Ernesto Che Guevara. The book contains dozens of personal photographs, many published for the first time -- candid pictures of a charismatic and amazingly photogenic couple.
It’s not hard to understand how Che Guevera became the poster child for Latin American revolution. There’s an energy -- a directness -- in his eyes that’s hard to look away from. Even in his later years, when he frequently travelled in disguise and under aliases, that gaze is unmistakable. These photos will be the main draw for all but the hardcore Guevara fan. They, along with the couple’s personal correspondence, provide a definite sense of the man as his family and friends knew him.
I met Eliot Katz many years ago at St. Marks Poetry Project in New York City, back in a different era when several now legendary figures like Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Herbert Huncke, Tuli Kupferberg and Janine Pommy Vega were still alive and never missed a reading at St. Mark's Church.
I first encountered Eliot as part of the crowd that surrounded Allen Ginsberg -- his "entourage", basically -- but I also heard him read his own poems: moving, well-crafted verses with a humorous Ginsberg-ian self-questioning touch, often containing powerful messages about political activism, about life in New York City, about escapes into nature. Eliot was the co-editor with Allen Ginsberg and Andy Clausen of Poems for the Nation: A Collection of Contemporary Political Poems and also published two books of poetry, Love, War, Fire, Wind: Looking Out from North America's Skull and Unlocking the Exits.
When the Occupy Wall Street movement kicked off last September, I expected to see Eliot Katz around the scene, since I know he's an eager political activist who never turns down a good event. Unfortunately, I learned that Eliot has been slowed down by a bout with Lyme disease, and has been forced to participate in the Occupy movement more from the sidelines than he would have liked. However, the sidelines can offer a good perspective for observation. Eliot recently sent me some notes containing his thoughts about how the Occupy Wall Street movement can best position itself to succeed in the future, and I thought I'd give Eliot a chance to air his ideas out with an interview here. Eliot and I got a chance to talk about some more esoteric and poetic topics too. Thanks, Eliot, and I hope you'll be back in full health again soon.
Levi: In an article you recently wrote, you quoted Abbie Hoffman speaking in 1988 at Rutgers University (where you were a student) about one of the discouraging realities of protest movements:
Decision making has been a problem on the Left. In the sixties we always made decisions by consensus. By 1970, when you had 15 people show up and three were FBI agents and six were schizophrenics, universal agreement was getting to be a problem. I call it ‘The Curse of Consensus Decision Making,’ because in the end consensus decision making is rule of the minority: the easiest form to manipulate ... Trying to get everyone to agree takes forever. Usually the people are broke, without alternatives, with no new language, just competing to see who can burn the shit out of the other the most ... Most decisions are made by consensus, but there must also be a format whereby you can express your differences. The democratic parliamentary procedure—majority rule—is the toughest to stack, because in order to really get your point across you’ve got to get cooperation, and to go out and get more people to come in to have those votes the next time around.
Abbie was talking about the need for decision by majority vote within protest groups, and you quoted him to support your own suggestion that the Occupy Wall Street movement ought to create a leadership structure and begin making decisions by majority vote rather than consensus. But wouldn't that harm the essentially open character of the Occupy movement, and create a politicized infrastructure that would inevitably succumb to corruption, favoritism and personality politics? Wouldn't something great be lost if Occupy ceased to operate as a quasi-anarchist movement? Would it be worth trading this in for a more organized movement?
Somewhere just before the publication of the fourth book in Robert Caro's planned five-volume biography of Lyndon Baines Johnson, it became clear that Caro had emerged as the only superstar biographer in the world. The ecstatic level of anticipation, attention and appreciation for The Passage of Power was not grounded so much in fascination with Lyndon B. Johnson as in fascination with Robert A. Caro.
This is not because Lyndon B. Johnson was not fascinating; he is incredibly so. It's because we're all aware that we wouldn't know how fascinating Lyndon Johnson was if we hadn't read Caro's earlier volumes, The Path to Power, Means of Ascent, Master Of The Senate, three sharp works of analytic interpretation that transform biography into something new, a tour de force of structured political opinion writing.
The masterpiece of the bunch remains the third volume, Master of the Senate, the story of LBJ's engineering of the historic 1957 Civil Rights Bill, which broke a terrible political stalemate that had lingered since the American Civil War. The big breakthrough occurs at the end of the book, following a long beginning sequence about the United States Senate's history of domination by Confederate-state obstructionists. In the middle of the book, Lyndon Johnson is painted at his aggressive worst, sucking up shamelessly to older politicians and destroying the career of one earnest do-gooder whose plans to improve energy infrastructure in poor sections of the country disturbed the business prospects of Johnson's Texas sponsors. But this is all a wind-up to the book's glorious ending, in which Johnson manipulates every section of the US Senate for a goal that turned out, miraculously, to be close to his heart: breaking the South's stranglehold on civil rights legislation just enough to help usher in a new era of racial integration.
I can never guess which of my Philosophy Weekend blog posts will turn out to have legs.
Nine months ago, researching the origin of the word 'altruism', I learned that the term had been coined by Auguste Comte, a 19th Century French philosopher I had heard of but knew little about. Comte had developed a humane and optimistic system of political, ethical, scientific and metaphysical philosophy called Positivism, and during his lifetime Positivism was a gigantic sensation around the world. Intrigued, I wrote a blog post to wonder what it signified about our own culture that a major 19th Century philosopher with an ambitious platform of international peace, respect for human diversity and freethinking scientific rigor had fallen completely off the radar immediately after the disaster of the First World War.
What I didn't expect was that my blog post would start getting lots of hits from Google, and would become one of my more popular Philosophy Weekend posts (I do watch my traffic statistics, not to feed my ego but to discern trends in reader interest). Then, a mysterious late comment appeared on my Comte post that brought a big smile to my face. In response to my statement that Positivism was defunct today, and this commenter posted a single sentence reply:
Well, we are not quite that dead, are we?
This was accompanied by a link to Positivists.org, a well-designed website with an active Facebook page and a lively blog. The new web presence is apparently the work of an eager German philosopher named Olaf Simons who appears to have some clue how to use social media to spread a message. Positivism lives!
HHhH, a remarkable new historical novel by a young French author named Laurent Binet, has been getting a lot of attention. The book, a sly and woolly ponderance of the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovokia during World War II, is as good as all the hype suggests.
What makes HHhH stand out is the author's approach to his historical plot. Years ago, before he became a published author, he lived and taught in Slovokia and became possessed by the legend of the Nazi leader Reinhard Heydrich's assassination in Prague in 1942. He wanted to write a fictional treatment of the event, but he dreaded the banal literary conventions he'd have to grapple with if he wrote a classic work of historical fiction. He also felt overwhelmed by the moral gravity of the terrible story he wanted to tell, and he feared fumbling the fine line between truth and fiction.
So, to make his book possible, he opened up the toolkit known as metafiction. He wrote the story of himself writing this book, interweaving historical scenes with humorous skits about himself as bumbling author. The result is something like the history equivalent of Nicholson Baker's comically self-referential study of John Updike, U and I.
Exactly sixty years ago, in May 1952, 81-year-old Zen Buddhist scholar D. T. Suzuki began teaching a regular course at Columbia University. 39-year-old modernist composer John Cage attended a few of his lectures, and this is the electric point of contact that starts everything buzzing in Nothing and Everything - The Influence of Buddhism on the American Avant Garde: 1942 - 1962, a new book by Ellen Pearlman.
Both men were trailblazers. Suzuki is remembered today as a premier ambassador for Eastern religion in the West, and as the author of the influential books Introduction to Zen Buddhism and Essays in Zen Buddhism. But, Ellen Pearlman reveals in the first chapter of Nothing and Everything, Suzuki had not been considered a very "successful" Buddhist as a young Zen student in Japan. He found a far greater calling as a highly visible foreigner in the West than he could have ever found if he'd stayed in Japan, since his idiosyncratic personality rubbed many Zen masters the wrong way. It was Suzuki's ability to translate key Asian texts into English that gave him a foothold in the United States of America, and he eagerly grabbed the opportunity to pursue his own unique vision of a global Buddhist awakening.
John Cage had already earned a reputation as a rule-breaker in the field of avant-garde music by the time he attended the elderly Suzuki's lectures at Columbia, but it wasn't until after he was exposed to Zen Buddhism (from Suzuki and several other sources) that he was able to conceive of his signature work, 4'33, which thrilled and outraged the world of classical music with its unspeakable simplicity. The composition indicated that the performer should sit at a piano (or any other instrument) and maintain four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence.
It's impossible to encapsulate modern, avant-garde and experimental arts within any formula, but Nothing and Everything's purpose is to follow a single thread of excitement among several 20th century innovators within American art, music, theater and literary scenes that was caused by a rising awareness of traditional Buddhist religion and philosophy. The first to follow John Cage were the Dada-inspired innovators of the Fluxus movement in the early 1960s, Alison Knowles, Jackson Mac Low, Num June Paik, Toshi Ichiyanagi and Yoko Ono (who, beyond the scope of this book, would eventually collaborate with John Lennon to present crystalline expressions of Fluxus ideas to the entire world, and become its most famous practitioner).
"As a joke, Steffen introduced me as whomever occurred to him at the moment. I was an orphaned painter, an undercover Spartakist, a science protege on scholarship. Steffen introduced me, and then I had to keep up the lies -- that was the game. I was a saxophone player in Bix Biederbecke's band. I was a Swedish mesmerist. When I was asked about the leg, I talked about dogfights high above the Somme; when they wanted to hear my award-winning poetry, I said the poems were so Futuristic they hadn't been written yet. All it took was a straight face.
There was one lie that made me seem more interesting than all the others. Everyone wanted to drink with me, get high with me, and sleep with me when we told them I was a movie director. It was the lie that turned me into the center of attention and opened the tightest twat. One night over dinner, Joachim Ringelnatz -- the whimsical poet who wore a sailor's uniform wherever he went -- eyed me funny and asked if I wasn't a bit young to be working for the cinema, "fur's kino".
I had my mouth full of lamb's stew, so Steffen came to my defense. "Don't you read the papers? Klaus is a prodigy! The youngest director in Neubabelsberg!"
I put down my fork, swallowed, and pointed a finger. "Joachim," I said. "I don't work fur's Kino. I am Kino!"
Three years later, I was in charge of my own set in Neubabelsberg, the largest studio in Europe, making a movie that I had written. The producers, the stars, the cameramen and the newspapers all called me Kino, the name I had given myself over Horcher's lamb stew. I was a prodigy, the youngest director in Ufa's history. The lie had become truth."
What glorious chaos! Kino by Jurgen Fauth is the most enjoyable book I've read this year. It's a wild, caroming romp that crashes into German history, Nazi mind control, American pop culture decadence and modern cinema snobbery. The crazy plot soars from beginning to end.
The room in which the boys were fed, was a large stone hall, with a copper at one end: out of which the master, dressed in an apron for the purpose, and assisted by one or two women, ladled the gruel at mealtimes. Of this festive composition each boy had one porringer, and no more—except on occasions of great public rejoicing, when he had two ounces and a quarter of bread besides.
The bowls never wanted washing. The boys polished them with their spoons till they shone again; and when they had performed this operation (which never took very long, the spoons being nearly as large as the bowls), they would sit staring at the copper, with such eager eyes, as if they could have devoured the very bricks of which it was composed; employing themselves, meanwhile, in sucking their fingers most assiduously, with the view of catching up any stray splashes of gruel that might have been cast thereon. Boys have generally excellent appetites. Oliver Twist and his companions suffered the tortures of slow starvation for three months: at last they got so voracious and wild with hunger, that one boy, who was tall for his age, and hadn't been used to that sort of thing (for his father had kept a small cook-shop), hinted darkly to his companions, that unless he had another basin of gruel per diem, he was afraid he might some night happen to eat the boy who slept next him, who happened to be a weakly youth of tender age. He had a wild, hungry eye; and they implicitly believed him. A council was held; lots were cast who should walk up to the master after supper that evening, and ask for more; and it fell to Oliver Twist.
The evening arrived; the boys took their places. The master, in his cook's uniform, stationed himself at the copper; his pauper assistants ranged themselves behind him; the gruel was served out; and a long grace was said over the short commons. The gruel disappeared; the boys whispered each other, and winked at Oliver; while his next neighbors nudged him. Child as he was, he was desperate with hunger, and reckless with misery. He rose from the table; and advancing to the master, basin and spoon in hand, said: somewhat alarmed at his own temerity:
"Please, sir, I want some more."
This unforgettable scene from Oliver Twist, first serialized in Bentley's Miscellany -- where exactly in the imagination of Charles Dickens did it take place?
Ruth Richardson, a British historian and preservationist, stumbled upon an amazing answer to this question while advocating against the demolition of the Cleveland Street Workhouse, one of many extant London workhouses like the one described in Oliver Twist. This old building turned out to have a special significance, unknown at the time to the entire world. Charles Dickens, she discovered, had lived on the very same block during several of his turbulent childhood years.
(Thanks to Brain Pickings, 3 Quarks Daily, The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly and many others for noticing Mike Norris and David Richardson's "Beholding Holden" last month. The writer/artist team is back here today with a look at a famous transgressive French poet from half a millennium ago. -- Levi)
I can’t remember when exactly, in some long ago French class, that I first read a poem entitled “Ballade des Dames du Temps Jadis”. In English this translates as “Ballad of the Ladies of Times Gone By”.
This poem contains the haunting refrain: “mais où sont les neiges d'antan”. This was translated brilliantly by the poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti as “but where are the snows of yesteryear”. Rossetti coined the word "yesteryear", which is still in use today.
The ballade itself comes from a long poem called “The Testament”, written by a French poet of the 15th century: François Villon. In the middle ages, mock testaments, as in Last Will and Testament, were a common form of literary expression. These were satiric verses, often obscene, in which a dying person or more often, an animal, leaves parts of his body to different individuals. In one Testament, a dying pig leaves his bones to a gambler to be made into dice, and his penis to the priest.
Villon had written an earlier, shorter piece called “The Legacy”, in which he used the legal framework of the Last Will and Testament to leave comic bequests to his friends. These were often things which he didn’t own. He left well-known Paris taverns to his drinking buddies. To another friend he left a pair of pants to be redeemed for payment due.
“The Legacy” was written in 1456, upon the occasion of Villon leaving Paris for Angers. The invocation of death is used in a mocking tone, as he declares he has been martyred by his cruel mistress, and is thus bequeathing his earthly possessions while he becomes “one of the Saints of love”.
One reason Vanessa Veselka is just about my favorite emerging novelist is that she studies anarchism and counterculture from the inside, allowing her stories to venture into the murky, manic, comic realms of intense political ideology -- a dangerous territory that many novelists lack the courage or knowledge to enter. But Veselka doesn't write about the kind of politics that appears on TV or computer screens. She writes about the kind of politics that hits us hardest -- the kind that's personal.
Her novel Zazen, which was released a year ago, turned out to be well-timed for the tumultuous year of 2011. I recently had a chance to ask Vanessa Veselka for her perspective on all the political climate changes that have occurred since her novel hit the streets.
Levi: Vanessa, the timing of your novel Zazen was remarkable, in that the book's narrator Delia is obsessed with acts of self-immolation as political protest, while Mohamed Bouazizi's self-immolation in Tunisia, which took place in early 2011, just before your book started hitting the streets, has turned out to be "the self-immolation heard round the world". It kicked off the so-called Arab Spring protests in Egypt, Syria and Libya, and indirectly through this the Occupy Wall Street action in the USA. Time Magazine just announced "The Protester" as the Person of the Year, with a nod to Mohamed Bouazizi.
How have you been reacting to (and/or participating in) this wave of protest that has swept the world in the past year? Have you felt like a part of the Occupy movement? Do you feel hopeful about the nature of these protests?
Vanessa: I have a feeling you are going to regret asking me this. I’ll apologize to you and your readers in advance for wending on. Okay, here goes ...