Jul 31

Distant Star

Distant Star
by Roberto Bolaño, Chris Andrews (translator)
Paperback, 150 pages
Published December 17th 2004 by New Directions (first published November 1996)
original title Estrella distante
ISBN 0811215865 (ISBN13: 9780811215862)

The key to what this book is about is the following paragraph, from Between Parentheses, although it appeared in slightly different form in a novel– perhaps Amulet.

‘And last of all, a true story. I repeat: this isn’t fiction, it’s real, it happened in Chile during the Pinochet dictatorship and more or less everybody (the small and remote “everybody” that is Chile) knows it. A right-wing young woman sets up house with a right-wing American, or marries him. The two of them aren’t just young, they’re good-looking and proud. He’s a DINA (National Intelligence Directorate) agent, possibly also a CIA agent. She loves literature and loves her man. They rent or buy a big house in the suburbs of Santiago. In the cellars of this house the American interrogates and tortures political prisoners who are later moved on to other detention centers or added to the list of the disappeared. She writes, and she attends writing workshops. In those days, I suppose, there weren’t as many workshops as there are today, but there were some. In Santiago people have grown accustomed to the curfew. At night there aren’t many places to go for fun, and the winters are long. So every weekend or every few nights she has a group of writers over to her house. It isn’t a set group. The guests vary. Some come only once, others several times. At the house there’s always whiskey, good wine, and sometimes the gatherings turn into dinners. One night a guest goes looking for the bathroom and gets lost. Probably he’s a bit tipsy or maybe he’s already lost in the alcoholic haze of the weekend. In any case, instead of turning right he turns left and then he goes down a flight of stairs that he shouldn’t have gone down, and he opens a door at the end of a long hallway, long like Chile. The room is dark but even so he can make out a bound figure, in pain or possibly drugged. He knows what he’s seeing. He closes the door and returns to the party. He isn’t drunk anymore. He’s terrified, but he doesn’t say anything. “Surely the people who attended those post-coup, culturally stilted soirees will remember the annoyance of the flickering current that made lamps blink and music stop, interrupting the dancing. Just as surely, they knew nothing about another parallel dance, in which the jab of the prod tensed the tortured back of the knee in a voltaic arc. They might not have heard the cries over the blare of disco, which was all the rage back then,” says Pedro Lemebel. Whatever the case, the writers leave. But they come back for the next party. She, the hostess, even wins a short story or poetry prize from the only literary journal still in existence back then, a left-wing journal.’

’And this is how the literature of every country is built.’

When I was a freshman student in the BFA program of University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, I tried to make a similar point in an assignment for a 2-D Design class. Maybe it’d be more accurate to say it was a parallel point. Saying it was similar is slightly pretentious on my part– I didn’t really know anything then, and what’s worse, thought I did. The scary thing is that the adjunct teacher who taught the class was taken enough with the results of my labors that she gave me an A for the class; a grade I surely did not deserve since I spent the majority of the semester making sure everyone knew just how much better than them I considered myself. Better than them, better than the stupid 2-D assignments, better than the whole world, I’m sure. That poor teacher must have had tremendously dull groups of students year in and year out to find anything interesting in my assignment.

My project consisted of some kind of comic, although I knew just as little about comics as anything else then, so it wasn’t much of a comic, more like a story told in pictures. I remember I got one of those sketchbooks with the pages already colored with swirls, for some reason. The story, which I thought up on the spot, was about a kid who sits around drawing and talking with friends at a coffee shop, mostly about art. Thats what I spent my time doing then, or wanted to think I did. Then he’s walking home one night and gets robbed by a bunch of other kids. While rummaging through his bag, one of the robbers says, “Hey, check out this kid’s drawings,” before they run off without looking. The last scene was of the boy sitting alone at the same coffeeshop, with thought bubbles saying “art” with a question mark (in the previous coffeeshop scene they said “art” “art” “art,” like to show that’s what they’re talking about). The end. I think I was trying to say that art is fine and all, until life makes a mockery of your creativity and makes you feel stupid for even thinking about it.

The difference is (one of the many differences is…), Bolano is really good at what he does, meaning that as his books make the point that art and fascism are not as opposed as one might be inclined to think, his genius with his chosen medium makes the exact opposite point. Reading Distant Star the second time really brought this out; the tension between the book’s message and execution, content and form, is one reason I rate it so highly.

I gather the job of an artist who would create original art is infinitely harder today than it was a hundred or two hundred years ago, but I wouldn’t have known this to be the case if not for people like Bolano. That is, reading Bolano makes clear to me just how hackneyed all the other writers are; what I don’t understand exactly is why i had to read this book twice to even appreciate it fully– although I gladly re-read Dostoyevsky, Bulgakov, etc., their books are fully accessible to me upon the first reading. Maybe it’s the Borges influence.

I have much more to say about this book, and Bolano, and maybe I will. Things like, this is a book about SOMETHING. As in, it is neither pretending that a writer’s work concerns pretty prose, content be damned, as if the two have ever been separate; nor is it a cliche created to sell copies to people for whom reading is a comfort activity.

Jul 27

The Master and Margarita

The Master and Margarita
by Mikhail Bulgakov
Originally published 1966,
written 1940

The Master and Margarita is about the modern world: boring, sterile, mercantile, evil; and the eternal world of goodness and generosity, imagination and freedom which opposes the other, sometimes just barely.

M&M is a to a large extent a morality tale. The baddie in the novel is the modern world, the world of Stalin’s Russia most immediately, but not exclusively. Bulgakov was not unaware of the world outside of the U.S.S.R., and although foreign lands or characters do not appear in M&M, the interwoven narrative of Jesus’ last day and crucifixion makes it clear that Soviet hypocrisy is not the sole target of scorn– rather it is the entirety of our bureaucratic, joyless world. The good side is embodied in the usual suspects– Jesus, the generous and the kind, the creative, the honest, the brave. Satan, in another slight twist, is also on the side of the good as an agent of Christ on earth (towards the end, Matthew asks for Satan to arrange perpetual peace for Margarita and her lover– apparently God is incapable of acting directly on earth).

Bulgakov hates modernity, the city, and everything that comes with it (“What a mess!” says Margarita as she flies her broomstick over a crowd of busy shoppers). Satan hates electric light. It is telling that the only time any piece of modern technology– a car– is mentioned in a non-negative context is when Margarita is getting into one on her way to do her penance at Satan’s ball, a decidedly worldly affair. The most joyful scene of the book is Margarita’s flight from Moscow on a broomstick, en route to Satan’s ball, and passing over Siberia, a vast wilderness populated only by mythical creatures. “Listen and drink in that, which you’ve been denied in life– silence,” says Margarita to the Master as they are about to finally reap their eternal reward: a country home illuminated by candlelight, where the Master can spend his evenings writing with a goose quill and listen to Schubert with everyone that matters to him.

Soviet literature and the organizations representing writers are the subject of equal or greater scorn, as the two jokers from Woland’s (Satan’s) entourage make clear when sarcastically predicting the emergence of the next Gogol, Tolstoy, or Dostoyevsky from the bureaucratic literature association.

But all the sarcasm and irony in the world wouldn’t make Master and Margarita what it is without the joy offered in contrast to the terror and boredom of business as usual. The joy rises out of the dread in normal life, and feels so authentic for that reason. First situated in the bleak emotionally draining world of modernity which is all too familiar, the reader is then taken on a ride where the bores, the tyrants, and cheats are punished, and the good have lots of fun, and eventually get rewarded.

I suppose I am revealing more about my own prejudices than the book when I say that this is art at its best: yes, it is a thrill to read (literally, for much of the book– you could do worse than learning Russian just so you could read this in original). But it leaves you uplifted long after you’ve put the book down: it gives hope to those who are crushed by the sick logic of our modern world. Joy is the currency of life, and one can spin an entire philosophy beginning with this idea alone. That the worlds of 1st century Palestine, 1920s Moscow, and 2010s US are as similar as they are in their intent to rob their citizens of joy in whatever way possible is for some reason the ultimate leap of faith for most people, writers included.

Perhaps among the lesser appeals of the book is the story-within-the-story of Jesus’ last days. I don’t know whether this is an original invention on Bulgakov’s part, but the weaving in of a novel by a character into the novel at large is a device that has been adopted with relish by many since, at times to the extent that the interweaving of multiple levels of (fictional) reality seems to be the whole point of a work, such as Charlie Kaufman’s “Synecdoche.” I suppose that what is a creative plot device in Bulgakov and a metaphor in Borges becomes like a cancer that eats itself when made into self-referential behemoths by others of the “post-modern” persuasion.

Lately it seems to me that all the best books are in various ways aware of Baudelaire’s words, “An oasis of horror in a desert of boredom,” this one being no exception. In describing Stalin’s Russia, Bulgakov managed to leave a picture which is universal in its depiction of our lives. Americans like to believe that they are a chosen race; M&M makes clear the similar conceit held by the Russians of 1930, different as it was in its’ exact manner of expression. As we lead our (mostly) terrible lives, the Master and Margarita is more than relief from the tedium and the brutality, it is a protest and a challenge of incendiary scope, if only anyone would notice.

A good essay about M&M which makes some of the points I’ve tried to make, but competently (there’s two pages to the essay):

http://www.masterandmargarita.eu/en/02themas/pevear.html

Jul 26

Ibn Battuta in Black Africa

Ibn Battuta in Black Africa
by Said Hamdun (Editor), Noel King
Published March 10th 2005 by Markus Wiener Publishers (first published January 28th 1995)
ISBN 1558763368 (ISBN13: 9781558763364)

The Muslim world of the 14th century, like the Roman world of the 2nd century AD or the world of the Fertile Crescent Civilizations 3000-1000 BC, was pretty much just like ours in the ways that count.

The realm of Islam covered much of the known world in the 14th century. Some people traveled around it just for the sake of experience and such, like this guy. He was from Morocco, and made it as far as China, Europe, and Sub-Saharan Africa, this last one being the journey chronicled in this book. Africa had large, rich, and stable kingdoms along the coasts, which grew prosperous by mediating trade between the people living in the interior and traders from far away, Muslims, Europeans and others. Ibn Battuta’s account makes it clear that there was no racism of the kind we in the West have come to know so well back then, although there was plenty of pettiness and accusations of provincialism leveled at anyplace that was not Mecca or Medina. There was certainly slavery, but crucially, it was not identified with race.

Ibn Battuta himself is a braggart and a sleaze, his account reliable as often as not. Yet, this is one of less than a handful of accounts of Sub-Saharan Africa in the middle ages, so you simply can’t get this information anywhere else. After a while, Battuta’s boasting becomes endearing.

Pretty interesting book to read, since it is so easy to see oneself as living in those times. I feel like anything that can shake us out of our lazy, complacent ethnocentrism and superior attitudes can only be a good thing. Revealing the past for what it is– the present of people who lived before– can only make us aware of our own mortality, fallibility, and profound unremarkable-ness. Our present will be judged by the people who come after us, and have no doubt, they will not think us brilliant for spending all our time figuring out how to “make the economy grow” while destroying the planet that sustains us all at an ever increasing rate. If we don’t fuck up so bad there is no “intelligent” life to judge us at all, that is.

On a totally unrelated note: there are color photos of Russia from over 100 years ago that are a life-changing experience, something that will play with your head and leave you unable to think of the past as “The Past” ever again. A number of them are here:

http://www.boston.com/bigpicture/2010/08/russia_in_color_a_century_ago.html

while the Library of Congress has the collection in its entirety, thousands of pictures and negatives.

Jul 25

Requiem For A Species: Why We Resist The Truth About Climate Change

Requiem For A Species: Why We Resist The Truth About Climate Change
by Clive Hamilton
Published April 7th 2010 by Earthscan Publications (first published January 1st 2010)
ISBN 1849710813 (ISBN13: 9781849710817)

It ought to be clear to everyone by now that modern humans’ main characteristic is hubris: the manner in which we (will) have exhausted our environment’s resources is exactly the same as the manner in which a horde of rabbits or rats would if introduced to a new place, i.e. Australia. We creatures reproduce and devour until there is nothing left to devour, then die off en masse to a more sustainable level– although this is something yet to be seen in the case of the human species as our environmental depletion is somewhat deeper and more complex than in the case of rabbits. Neither having big brains, nor consciences, has made an iota of difference in the population trajectory of our species, leaving one to reconsider the question of what it is, if anything, that separates humans from other creatures. Could it be that, objectively, there is nothing that gives us the right to claim the status of top dog in the critter hierarchy? After all, there are many animals which thrive, but only one which seems hell-bent on driving not just its own kind to extinction, but most other creatures as well.

But I am being facetious, here, because I don’t believe for a second that it is really human nature to behave as we have been behaving now for some time, with well known consequences. Not any more than masochism is in the nature of dogs trained to attack bears, or suicide is in the nature of rats kept in solitary cages with nothing to do but push a button releasing intravenous morphine into their bloodstream until they keel over. These are all, clearly, aberrant scenarios. Let us not forget that people are equally related to bonobos as to chimps, meaning that we are at least as likely to cooperate and play, help each other and explore each other, as we are to devour each others’ young. I suggest that the dominance of competitive behaviors versus cooperative ones is determined by the environment we find ourselves in.

But it is all a moot point, it seems: not only are we going to destroy the planet which has nurtured our kind and those of all others for millennia, but we won’t even enjoy ourselves in the process. Unfortunately, it’s just not fun to live in a dog-eat-dog world of the sort we’ve had created for us, not even in the unlikely case you happen to be the top dog.

Jul 22

Escape from Freedom

Escape from Freedom
by Erich Fromm
Published September 15th 1994 by Holt Paperbacks (first published 1941)
original title
The Fear of Freedom
ISBN
0805031499 (ISBN13: 9780805031492)

 

Amazing book, so good one wonders how it ever got published. Surely only because back in 1940 people still thought of civilization as responsible for the realization of human potential, collectively and individually. How much has changed.

Fromm makes sense of Freud in just a few straightforward pages: to simplify, Freud saw people as governed by innate drives seated deep in their sub-conscious. Fromm sees people as governed by social forces. The change in focus takes much of the absurdity out of Freud’s thought, and has immense explanatory potential. For example, Fromm’s emphasis explains why certain character traits are shared by entire socio-economic groups, i.e. anal personality in the middle class of his day.

But it’s mostly the realism of Fromm’s world-view that makes him so valuable. The freedom we “gained” as a result of the Enlightenment is a double-edged sword: as it individuates us and makes it possible for men to conceive of concepts like self-realization, it severs us from the comfort of established social relationships and age-old ways of life. As a result, people are isolated and without identity or support even as they are ever aware that the world is theirs for taking, should they rise up to the challenge. This is a terrifying condition to endure for most people, who turn to any number of substitute behaviors and ideologies as a kind of “security blanket,” things like nationalism and xenophobia all the way to autistic disorders, I suppose. This trend is exacerbated in times of greater social stress, like economic depression. I think this explanation rings very true in a general sense.

In an even broader sense, this book is about the way modern society is anti-human, insofar as it makes it impossible for people to grow as human beings, instead harnessing their anxiety into various kinds of despotic projects. Fromm says as much– I don’t have the book in front of me and can’t quote it, but I am not making it up: elsewhere, Fromm says that the majority of people in western society today live (and are) as automatons. He does not mince his words. Yet, as seems common, he does not follow his own thoughts to their conclusions. He thinks that since modern society has the technological means to make the realization of human potential a possibility for all people, this is a worthy goal to pursue (technology is not a tool to be used in a disinterested way, it creates its own social conditions and eventually entire world-views. See Zerzan, Mumford, all the way to Marx).

Fromm realizes that the Humanist freedom is not all positive, that it involves the giving up of security enjoyed by people in older societies. But I wonder if the positive freedom as formulated by Fromm, the freedom to seek and fulfill self-realization, is not a hoax, leaving us with nothing but the loss of our place in the world, and nothing to compensate for the loss. As Kurt Vonnegut said (I think he said it), the jury is still out on whether big brains give their bearers an evolutionary advantage or not. The jury is still out, as far as I’m concerned, on whether consciousness is anything but a hindrance, and if it is not, that it is not best in small doses, like so many things.

Jul 05

Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland

Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland
by Christopher R. Browning
Paperback, 271 pages
Published April 24th 1998 by Harper Perennial (first published January 1st 1992)
original title
Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland
ISBN
0060995068 (ISBN13: 9780060995065)

 

It takes a lot of effort to introduce previously non-existent or at least marginal or submerged norms and idealogies into the minds of people, but once you’ve gotten them in there, they are in there for good– at least until an equal amount of effort knocks them back out.

Hitler and the National Socialist Party very deliberately and conscientiously showered the minds of Germans with propaganda about the supremacy of the German race, the need to bury one’s individualism for the sake of goals held in common by the nation, and the inferiority and evil of Commies, Jews, Gypsies, Slavs, etc. The propaganda was self-contradictory and incoherent upon anything past a cursory examination, yet it was no less effective for that. Once the ideas of the Nazis became accepted as the norm, common, average Germans could be gotten to perform tasks in direct conflict with more basic forms of morality, things such as shooting unarmed women and children.

This seems to be how people work. When utterly implausible, self-contradictory, and hate-filled crap spewed forth by half-wits like Rush Limbaurgh is adopted by millions of educated first-world citizens as their personal ideology, we see that this is still how people work. Barrack Obama has rescinded the rule of law and institutionalized actions taken previously to create a surveillance state where anything goes in the name of national security– but no one even noticed, thanks to the decades-old propaganda campaign to destroy the notion that we the people are the owners of our government, which works for us. What came to replace this notion? The propaganda has it that we are consumers, not citizens, that anything remotely resembling compassion for others is socialism (what’s that? don’t ask, its just evil), and that we live in the greatest nation on earth because… freedom/capitalism/something, IDK. The free market is a magical thing that will solve all our/mankind’s problems, if only it were allowed to work its magic. Science is not to be questioned– it will lead us to a techno-utopia soon. New is always better. Economies/businesses have to grow or they will die. Nature is separate from men, and in a subservient role– there for us to exploit as we see fit. etc. etc.

It took a long time and effort to get people to accept these ideas as gospel, and it took a lot of time and effort for people in 1930s Germany to accept that Jews are sub-human creatures which need to be destroyed fro Germany to prosper. This book shows this process a little bit in the latter case. There are many works which do a similar service for the contemporary version– John Kenneth Galbraith, Erich Fromm, C. Wright Mills, Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein are all writers who have dedicated a large or sizable part of their career about showing the way our society actually works. Adam Curtis of the BBC has been making documentaries for decades which show among many other things the way public opinion is created and molded, such as The Century of the Self, a film I highly recommend to everyone.

The pervasiveness of this propaganda is what makes it so hard for us to understand what is going on in the world and in ourselves. Once you get it, there is nothing very complex about the way the world works, yet getting there is a nightmare since for every notion, someone has created a counter-notion to discredit it, and five more notions as alternatives just to confuse the issue. Naturally, this is doubly true for issues which are threatening to power. Yet, getting to the bottom of the confusing mess is essential, since as this book clearly shows, what is at stake is not just ideas but flesh and blood beings.