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Thursday, October 30, 2003

It seems to me that this piece, by Tish Durkin, is exemplary. And it gets right to the heart of things:

As it happened, Mr. Al-Shikhly fit right into the piece that I was typing away at when the bomb went off. (Although more than two miles away, it was so loud that it sounded to be right outside; I actually started a little.) The piece proposed itself to me over the weekend, when I flicked on BBC World coverage of the antiwar protests going on in the United States and then, on Sunday morning, of the six missiles that hit the al-Rashid Hotel when Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz was in it. My piece was about the total disconnect between what matters to most of the people in Iraq and what seems to matter to most of the people elsewhere who are upset about Iraq. Or, as a young Iraqi friend said to me right after I arrived at the end of August: "Everybody in the world is so obsessed with weapons of mass destruction. Nobody in Iraq gives a shit."

Most of the people outside Iraq seem to be obsessed with giving the Bush administration what they think it deserves. Most of the people inside Iraq—i.e., the Iraqis—are fixated on getting what they think they deserve. For all too many champions as well as critics of U.S. policy, this is all about American vindication versus American mortification, and Iraq is a car to be stripped down for its rhetorical parts. Some parts make the Americans look good, so the White House and company take those and wave them around. Other parts make the Americans look bad, so the antiwar crowd takes those and waves them around. Still other parts—most of the car, of course—are harder to classify, or are subject to change from one week to the next. These pretty much get junked.

For the Iraqis, who tend to view this as a place and themselves as people, both sets of analysts are transparent opportunists. Nonetheless, from here, it is disturbing to note the momentum that seems to be gathering behind those who are back home chanting for the U.S. to get out now. It is scarcely less disturbing to contemplate the belief of some leading American politicians that they can go halfsies: keep funding Iraqi reconstruction, for instance, but put the funding in the form of a loan. (Whoever thought of that probably had a cash bar at his wedding.) This is not because the occupation is some sort of triumph. But if this is about the Iraqis, it simply doesn’t matter whether it is in the context of American glory, American gloom or something in between that these people finally get a decent shot at a decent life. It only matters that they do get it, and the only question is how.

And this one, by Johann Hari, complements it nicely. Here are the last three paragraphs:
Yet Iraq has become a magnet for international jihadists who venture across the world, from Afghanistan to Chechnya to Palestine. The notion of an Arab country moving towards the depravity of democracy (as opposed to rule by the Word of God) horrifies them. They care nothing for hospitals or schools. I have interviewed jihadists in both London and the Occupied Territories, and they believe - like old-style Marxist revolutionaries - that it is a good thing if material conditions get far, far worse under the corrupt current system, because this will precipitate a revolution. With these people prepared to make conditions far worse for the Iraqi people, a massive amount of disruption can be achieved with minimal man-power - a few thousand jihadists in a country of 23 million.

These attacks are calculated to undermine our will to carry out a proper transition to Iraqi self-rule, along the path that has already been travelled by the Kurds in the North. A hasty withdrawal would give Islamic theocrats or recidivist Baathists a far better chance of seizing power than free elections. All decent people - including those who opposed the war - must now work to establish a consensus in Britain and the US behind the path that Iraqis, in every single poll of their opinion, are begging us to take: stay for a few years to ensure a transition to democracy, resist the fascistic bombers attacking those who have come to help, and gradually accord more and more power to the Governing Council in advance of elections.

A bomb will always get bigger headlines than a slowly refilling marsh or a burgeoning school, but we must keep focusing on the big picture. Nobody wants the occupation to continue indefinitely. Iraqi democracy is getting closer every day. We must keep siding with the Iraqi people, not the bombers who want to drive away their doctors and peacekeepers.



Wednesday, October 29, 2003

And now, a descent into territory more typical for discussions of world politics. James Atlas looks at a batch of intellectuals:

Whether or not the comparison proves valid, there is another historical parallel to the Vietnam War, one that involves a group of intellectuals responsible for articulating the rationale for the Iraq war. Among the enduring legacies of the earlier era was the split between liberals who opposed the war and the small splinter group that would become known as the neoconservatives. The group's decision to support the Vietnam War--or at least to oppose those who opposed it--was a shift that would lead them to a new level of power and influence.

The war in Iraq has shown signs of a similar split: a pro-war faction of the liberal intelligentsia has rejected a reflexive antiwar stance to form a movement of its own. The influence of these voices isn't to be underestimated. The marginality of intellectuals is a myth; even in the resolutely hermetic world of Washington, their voices are heard.

For the liberal intellectuals of this generation, the war in Iraq has required nuanced positions. Michael Ignatieff, director of the Carr Center at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and a self-styled "liberal centrist," focused on the human rights issue: if liberating Iraq from the tyranny of Saddam Hussein saved opponents of the regime from torture or death, that in itself justified the war.

The political philosopher Michael Walzer, the editor of Dissent magazine, was ambivalent, but directed much of his anger at the rigid politics of the anti-interventionist left in the face of Sept. 11.

Christopher Hitchens, a columnist for Vanity Fair who had disapproved of United States intervention in the first Persian Gulf war, was excited about Americanization as a revolutionary force. Calling himself a "Paine-ite," he saw the new war as an uprising against an illegitimate state.

The writer Paul Berman forcefully expressed the opinion that not only was President Bush justified in his prosecution of the war but that he had dragged his feet. Terrorism, Mr. Berman wrote in his book "Terror and Liberalism," is a form of totalitarianism; the war in the Middle East is a war to defend liberal civilization.

He asks them where they're at these days before concluding with this:
This generation of liberal intellectuals, like its precursors, prefers to see itself less as a political coalition than as an assemblage of writers with diverse views--which of course it is. Ideological labels are always provisional. Yet however much their attitudes toward the war in Iraq differ from those of such contemporary neoconservatives as William Kristol and Robert Kagan, they are heirs of the same intellectual tradition. Given this, can they still be classified as liberals? Or could it be that they've become . . . neoconservatives?

Josh Cherniss comments (scroll down to Monday, October 20, 2003):
The reporting seems fair enough; it's good to see that the two Michaels remain their sane selves, even if Ignatieff's comments are a bit more simplistic than I'd expect or like -- there's still a good deal to them. Berman's resolute anti-totalitarian Leftism remains as endearingly quixotic as ever. As for Hitchens, after being a contrarian for so long, he seems to be relishing being able to chain his cart to the course of events for a change. His statements seem one-sided to me (not a surprise), and over-exuberant. But after advocating humanitarian intervention in Bosnia and Rwanda and having to seethe on the sidelines as the US did nothing, perhaps he's entitled to revel in the novel experience, however dubious, of 'humanitarian occupation.'

Unfortunately, Atlas doesn't leave it there. He suggests that the support of these intellectuals for the war parallels that of the liberals-turned-neo-conservatives for Vietnam, and that they therefore are members of the same intellectual family as present day neo-cons such as Kagan and Kristol -- and indeed may best be called neo-cons themselves. Several points:

1) Of the 4 pro-war intellectuals he profiles, one, Michael Walzer, wasn't pro-war.

2) Though now noted mainly for their foreign policy stances, the neo-cons were always about more than that; they were also defined by their stance on domestic policy, mainly their critique of the welfare state. Of the four supposed neo-neocons, two, Berman and Walzer, continue to identify as socialists, I believe; I'm not sure about Hitchens; and Ignatieff I assume remains a centrist on domestic as well as foreign policy

3) Atlas fails to note that one of the original neo-cons he cites -- Dan Bell -- no longer considers himself a neo-con. The affinity between him and people like Walzer, Ignatieff and Berman I can buy; Irving Kristol is a harder case to make.

4) Speaking of which: aside from a shared anti-Communism and commitment to democracy (the former still at times a bit quirky on Hitchens' part), it doesn't seem to me that the four profiled inhabit the same intellectual geneology or position as those now called neo-cons. Ignatieff and Walzer, at least, inhabit a more skeptical, tragic, pluralistic world, one in which US power is viewed, not as necessarily evil, but as not necessarily good or without price either. (Ignatieff is the biographer and disciple of Isaiah Berlin, Walzer, as discussed here recently, an important pluralist and social-democratic philosopher in his own right; I don't know as much about what philosophical ppositions Berman and Hitchens currently occupy, though last I checked Hitchens' intellectual heroes were still Rosa Luxembourg and George Orwell, and Berman identified with the tradition of leftist anti-Communism and, to some extent, nouveaux philosophes such as Andre Glucksmann; this is a different mental world than that occupied by the neo-cons. Or at least I think so, since it's pretty much the mental world I occupy, and I find the ways of thinking of people like the Kristols and Kagan, while not incomprehensible or wholly unsympathetic, pretty foreign)

5) Liberals have always been divided over foreign policy, and there's a healthy tradition of liberals supporting humanitarian intervention and a resolute defense of democracy (contra Ann Coulter); one doesn't need to go neo-con to support freedom or human rights. In fact, some of us think that -- combined with a commitment to moderation and respect for process -- is what liberalism is all about.

6) Atlas offers the following attempt, I guess, at an aphorism: "A neoconservative, it might be postulated, is one who read and repudiated Marx; a conservative, one who read and embraced Hume, Locke and Hobbes" Now, first, let's say this is true. Of those he sites, I don't think Ignatieff was ever a Marxist, though he did have a somewhat Foucauldian phase at one point I believe. And I don't know if you can say that Hitchens has repudiated Marx (as opposed to Communism) -- or indeed Walzer, who's not a Marxist, but offers a surprisingly sympathetic and attractive reading of Marx in some of his work. So this would seem to undercut Atlas's own characterization of these men as neo-cons, if its true. However, I don't think it necessarily is. After all, most contemporary neo-cons are second generation neo-cons who never believed in Marx. As for the conservative reading list, last I checked Locke was a liberal, and Hume and Hobbes were disputable cases. And what happened to Burke? (Even if we're using conservative and liberal in the American senses of the words, Locke remains common property -- and there are even left-liberal attempts to draw on the insights of Hobbes (as Judith Shklar sometimes sought to do, and Stephen Holmes seems to me to be trying to do. And that emblematic liberal intellectual, Isaiah Berlin -- still despised, so far as I know, by Hitchens -- was, in some ways and for better or worse, one of the most Humean of twentieth century political thinkers)

So, I don't think the thesis of this article holds up very well.
Which is too bad, because if it had just dispensed with the thesis, which isn't really necessary, it'd be a pretty good piece on some very admirable and attractive voices -- voices whose sanity and decency all too often get drowned out in contemporary debates.

There's an update where Josh links to the reactions of some other bloggers, and comments on the commentary. I thought these two paragraphs were especially striking:
Kamm makes a similar point to the one above, though in greater detail, about the oddity of including Dan Bell on the list of neo-cons. He also notes that Paul Berman's anti-Bush rhetoric is a bit, um, strong. I think this is fair, but I also think that liberals and leftists who supported the war on Iraq and other of Bush's foreign policy initiatives, but who don't actually have to live in the US with the political culture that Bush has done so much to create and with his disastrous domestic programs, and who are surrounded by facile and knee-jerk anti-Bushism, tend to give Bush too much of a break. Certainly, whenever I'm away from the US long enough Bush starts to seem, not great, but not SO bad -- and then I return to the US and am reminded both of how much I loathe the man and his policies, and how much that loathing is deserved, and not restricted to me or, indeed, to liberals. I think Bush looks better from a geographical distance; and while Oliver Kamm certainly seems to be very well-informed about US politics -- perhaps better informed than I! -- I get the impression from his blog, which I haven't read as regularly in the past as I shall do in the future, that he views Bush through British eyes.

As for Oliver Kamm's suggestion that we call the position he and other liberal supporters of the overthrow of Saddam Hussein embrace 'militant democracy', this would certainly make my OxBlog buddies happy, and it certainly characterizes Berman and Hitchens' positions well. I myself -- and here I think I again find myself in the same boat as Walzer, and perhaps Ignatieff, though I'm not quite sure about the latter -- tend to be wary of the calling myself a militant anything. And I think that any militancy on behalf of democracy, human rights, etc., needs to be balanced by an awareness of the difficulty, complexity, and often inescapable tragedy of most things in human affairs, at least at a global level, and a consequent, due caution and moderation.

He pursues the theme of the tragedy in human affairs in a subsequent post, WWIBD (What Would Isaiah Berlin Do).

For another angle, try Orwell's "Reflections on Ghandi."

And here's Lord Buckley's rendition of "an incident from the life of the precious Mahatma Ghandi."

So, there they are, all 17 of them. But perhaps there should be a postscript or two. Here's a poem:
THERE WILL BE NO PEACE

Though mild clear weather
Smile again on the shire of your esteem
And its colors come back, the storm has changed you:
You will not forget, ever,
The darkness blotting out hope, the gale
Prophesying your downfall.

You must live with your knowledge.
Way back, beyond, outside of you are others,
In moonless absences you never heard of,
Who have certainly heard of you,
Beings of unknown number and gender:
And they do not like you.

What have you done to them?
Nothing? Nothing is not an answer;
You will come to believe - how can you help it? -
That you did, you did do something;
You will find yourself wishing you could make them laugh,
You will long for their friendship.

There will be no peace.
Fight back, then, with such courage as you have
And every unchivalrous dodge you know of,
Clear in your conscience on this:
Their cause, if they had one, is nothing to them now;
They hate for hate's sake.

- by W. H. Auden, 1956

Here's how it was introduced where I found it:
W.H. Auden's least-liked poem, "There Will Be No Peace," is making a quiet comeback: Many of its new readers are finding an entirely unexpected meaning in the work in their reaction to terrorist mass murder.

Auden wrote the poem in 1956 as a personal work, indeed he called it "one of the most purely personal poems I have ever written." It was his emotional reaction to the intense animosity he encountered at Oxford when he returned to Britain late in his life.

But as James Fenton wrote in The New York Review of Books in April 2000, "there seems to me to be something universally appreciable" in the work. That universally appreciable something has since emerged.

Saturday, October 25, 2003

Element #17 comes from this article.

Glucksmann believes that the only worthwhile “political” project is the constant, unrelenting, and most probably futile amelioration of obvious suffering. “It’s very odd that the idea of the doctor, and of medicine, predates by thousands of years the actual ability of doctors to help anyone in more than small ways. Why should it be?” he said once in a conversation. “Well, it’s because we recognize the presence of evil as being stronger than the promise of a cure. The simple Hippocratic oath, ‘First, do no harm,’ is a far, far more radical sentence in the history of thought than it seems. It recognizes the existence of evil—illness—that is in many ways beyond our control. It is the opposite of magical thinking, witch-doctor think, which promises to make well, to cure. ‘Do no harm’ is the truly radical sentence; ‘Cultivate your garden’ the unforgivable one.”

Above all, literature is for him the natural model of thought: he sees history through the lens of Chekhov and Dostoyevsky and Aristophanes.


Here's a bit of the oath itself:

I will follow that system of regimen which, according to my ability and judgment, I consider for the benefit of my patients, and abstain from whatever is deleterious and mischievous. I will give no deadly medicine to any one if asked, nor suggest any such counsel...

Element #16 is "An Art Apart," Nelson Ascher's translation of part of the foreword he wrote for Poesia Alheia, a 1998 book of his translations of poetry into Portuguese. Scroll down to September 1, 2003, nearly at the bottom of the page.

This isn't why I chose it (in other words, read the whole thing), but I liked the way this is built up:
What poets usually say is basically the following: you are young and beautiful and I love you, or you are old and ugly and I don't love you; my son or daughter or father or mother is a wonder or a disgrace; the cat (or the dog, the horse, the lion, the tiger etc.) is mysterious and unfriendly (or faithful, swift, proud, ferocious etc.); life (that may or may not be a dream) is good and short and I am afraid of dying, or life is bad and long and I am tired of it; my village (or city, region, country) is the most lovely of all and I miss it so much, or it is hateful and I want to leave it and never return; Jehovah or Zeus or Allah is good and we should respect him, or is cruel and bad to us, or simply doesn't exist; how competent, honest, just and kind, or incompetent, corrupt, overbearing and sadistic, our king or ruler or leader is; nothing is better (or worse) than war; everything changes in the world, or there is nothing new under the sun. Longer and/or complex poems habitually combine and recombine in various ways those cliches in order to arrive to other, larger ones such as: you are beautiful and I love you, but you are coy as [sic] and don't love me; because of this, life seems bad and long to me, and, being proud as a lion, I am leaving my village, the loveliest of villages, and will go to the war, because it is the best of things; remember, however, that you will soon be old and ugly and nobody will love you anymore.

Element #15: a few paragraphs from Joseph Addison's essay in The Spectator, No. 10, Monday, March 12, 1711, on the aims of The Spectator.

I would therefore in a very particular manner recommend these my speculations to all well-regulated families that set apart an hour in every morning for tea and bread and butter; and would earnestly advise them for their good to order this paper to be punctually served up, and to be looked upon as a part of the tea equipage.
 
Sir Francis Bacon observes that a well-written book, compared with its rivals and antagonists, is like Moses’s serpent, that immediately swallowed up and devoured those of the Egyptians.  I shall not be so vain as to think that where The Spectator appears the other public prints will vanish; but shall leave it to my reader’s consideration whether it is not much better to be let into the knowledge of one’s self, than to hear what passes in Muscovy or Poland; and to amuse ourselves with such writings as tend to the wearing out of ignorance, passion, and prejudice, than such as naturally conduce to inflame hatreds, and make enmities irreconcilable?
 
In the next place, I would recommend this paper to the daily perusal of those gentlement whom I cannot but consider as my good brothers and allies, I mean the fraternity of spectators who live in the world without having anything to do in it; and either by the affluence of their fortunes or laziness of their dispositions have no other business with the rest of mankind but to look upon them.  Under this class of men are comprehended all contemplative tradesmen, titular physicians, fellows of the Royal Society, Templars that are not given to be contentious, and statesmen that are out of business; in short, everyone that considers the world as a theater, and desires to form a right judgment of those who are the actors on it.
 
There is another set of men that I must likewise lay a claim to, whom I have lately called the blanks of society, as being altogether unfurnished with ideas, till the business and conversation of the day has supplied them.  I have often considered these poor souls with an eye of great commiseration, when I have heard them asking the first man they have met with, whether there was any news stirring? and by that means gathering together materials for thinking.  These needy persons do not know what to talk of till about twelve o’clock in the morning; for by that time they are pretty good judges of the weather, know which way the wind sits, and whether the Dutch mail be come in.  As they like at the mercy of the first man they meet, and are grave or impertinent all the day long, according to the notions which they have imbibed in the morning, I would earnestly entreat them not to stir out of their chambers till they have read this paper, and do promise them that I will daily instil into them such sound and wholesome sentiments as shall have a good effect on their conversation for the ensuing twelve hours.
 
But there are none to whom this paper will be more useful than to the female world.  I have often thought there has not been sufficient pains taken in finding out proper employments and diversions for the fair ones.  Their amusements seem contrived for them, rather as they are women, than as they are reasonable creatures; and are more adapted to the sex than to the species.  The toilet is their great scene of business, and the right adjusting of their hair is the principal employment of their lives.  The sorting of a suit of ribbons is reckoned a very good morning’s work; and if they make an excursion to a mercer’s or a toyshop, so great a fatigue makes them unfit for anything else all the day after.  Their more serious occupations are sewing and embroidery, and their greatest drudgery the preparation of jellies and sweetmeats.  This, I say, is the state of ordinary women; though I know there are multitudes of those of a more elevated life and conversation, that move in an exalted sphere of knowledge and virtue, that join all the beauties of the mind to the ornaments of dress, and inspire a kind of awe and respect, as well as love, into their male beholders.  I hope to increase the number of these by publishing this daily paper, which I shall always endeavor to make an innocent if not improving entertainment, and by that means at least divert the minds of my female readers from greater trifles.  At the same time, as I would fain give some finishing touches to those which are already the most beautiful pieces in human nature, I shall endeavor to point all those imperfections that are the blemishes, as well as those virtues which are the embellishments, of the sex.  In the meanwhile I hope these my gentle readers, who have so much time on their hands, will not grudge throwing away a quarter of an hour in a day on this paper, since they may do it without any hindrance to business.



Element #14 comes from Jacques Barzun's From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Present (pp. 581-3).


The first thing to know about him is how to pronounce his name.  It is Badjet.  And the next is that his singular genius derives from his double vision.  In any conflict of persons or of ideas he was always able to see that neither side was perverse or stupid, but had reasons for militancy; and he entered not only into these reasons but also into the feelings attached.  This is a rare talent, especially when it does not lead to shilly-shallying in the double-viewer’s own course of action.  Bagehot could always state the reasons for his choices with the utmost clarity.
 
In 1851, he was in Paris as the special correspondent of an English periodical and he told its readers that after the disorder of the Republic’s last days a strong executive was unavoidable: trade had stopped, life and property were insecure, Paris and the big cities could not stand it any longer.  But while justifying the move toward dictatorship, Bagehot was expressing his private preference by helping the last republicans to build their barricades.  Ten years later, reviewing the course of events in France, Bagehot concluded (before the empire’s collapse) that Caesarism is a remedy for the short term and a calamity when prolonged.  As things turned out, the Second French Empire saw an increase in manufacture and trade and a beginning of social welfare.  But a dangerous foreign policy was required by the regime’s shaky foundation, and this need of vainglory finally brought it down.  The new upper crust at the court and in town was showy rather than elegant and intellect was at a discount.  The atmosphere is well captured in the excellent comic operas of Offenbach—parodies of the classics in the mood of rather vulgar gaiety.
 
Bagehot’s due fame has been hampered by his dying too soon—at 51—and even more by the variety of his writings.  In each of his domains he is highly prized, but versatility looks like a division, not an addition of powers.  He was a political journalist, succeeding as editor of The Economist his father-in-law, who had founded it.  For 17 years Bagehot commented on the political and economic affairs of the week.  One outcome of this close study was a pair of classic works: Lombard Street, which is a description of the British financial system; and The English Constitution [it is the book to read], which describes in short compass the social and psychological reasons for the successful working of the induplicable English Parliament.
 
These works alone would justify ranking Bagehot among the original thinkers of the 19C.  But every one of the 12 volumes of his writings offers additional proof: the essays on past and present English statemen show the consummate political historian; another collection of articles on particular situations in trade and finance show the economist; the dozen more on literary figures and topics reveal a literary critic, while his reflections on philosophy and religion throw a light on his time not to be had from any other source.  To G.M. Young, the master historian of the Victorian age, Bagehot was “the wisest of his generation.”
 
Bagehot’s ability to make ideas live appears on every page he wrote.  A student in an American business school once found in its library a slim volume entitled The Love Letters of Walter Bagehot.  It proved to be, once more, the carrier of a double message: sprightly missives to the author’s fiancée interspersed with comments on the current state of certain firms and the stock exchange that would be sure to interest the fiancée’s father.  Both recipients were doubtless entertained.  Bagehot’s prose is rapid and enveloping, somewhat in the manner of Bernard Shaw; it leaves no uncertainties as it voices also what the opponent or the reader is no doubt thinking.  It is humorous and sad, because Bagehot, though an expert in business and politics, never feels his mind-and-heart fulfilled by them.  When he says: “Unfortunately mysticism is true,” he means that it is too bad for the man always after the main chance; for himself, Realism is not enough.  Bagehot’s gift of double-mindedness appears strikingly in his short work Physics and Politics, which William James called a “golden little book.”  It undertakes to apply Darwin to politics, but Bagehot is no Social Darwinist.  He begins indeed by showing “Natural Selection” in the early states of the march of civilization—the better organized, more cooperative groups conquer the less unified.  But then more and more other qualities, initiatives, and ideas—liberty, free discussion, written law, habits of calm reflection, of tolerance and generosity—conduce to survival, because they make for an ever higher degree of cohesion.  These virtues are the strength of the national state, whose power a less developed people cannot successfully withstand.  In such a struggle, conquest makes at least possible the enlargement of civilization.
 
But the New Imperialism of the 19C worked neither all for civilizing nor all for mercenary ends.  It civilized by side effect.  Missionaries did not merely bring “moral pocket handkerchiefs,” as Dickens scoffed; they were often doctors of the body as well as disturbers of the soul.  Colonial officials introduced goods, means of transport, and control of nature; they kept the peace and abolished inhuman rites.  Still, it was the application of force, not freedom, which is extremely difficult to restore, and after its installation, to manage.  At the same time, the second 19C expansion of Europe took thousands of its natives to the other continents, bringing about a continuous mixing of cultures and a larger scale than before.  Language, customs, diet, art, the conception of man and of life—all were modified.  Within Europe itself, more people were incited to travel abroad, and this to such an extent that Thomas Cook immortalized his name by inventing the guided tour and bringing to birth that feral creature, the tourist.  Lastly, the wide world beckoned directly or by marital connection to a special group, whose public presence changed an eccentricity into a vocation...

Here's a sentence quoted from a letter Bagehot wrote to his fiancée:

"I get tired of either sense or nonsense if I am kept very continuously to either and like my mind to undulate between the two as it likes best."


Friday, October 24, 2003

Like Element #2, Element #13 is from Richard Wright's Black Boy (pp. 60-62).


My mother and Aunt Maggie cooked in the kitchens of white folks and my brother and I were free to wander where we pleased during their working hours.  Each day we were left a dime apiece to spend for lunch and all morning we would dream and discuss what we would buy.  At ten or eleven o'clock we would go to the corner grocery--owned by a Jew--and buy a nickel's worth of ginger snaps and a bottle of Coca-Cola; that was lunch as we understood it.
 
I had never seen a Jew before and the proprietor of the corner grocery was a strange thing in my life.  Until that time I had never heard a foreign language spoken and I used to linger at the door of the corner grocery to hear the odd sounds that Jews made when they talked.  All of us black people who lived in the neighborhood hated Jews, not because they exploited us, but because we had been taught at home and in Sunday school that Jews were "Christ killers."  With the Jews thus singled out for us, we made them fair game for ridicule.
 
We black children--seven, eight, and nine years of age--used to run to the Jew's store and shout:
 
                        Jew, Jew, Jew
                        What do you chew?

 
Or we would form a long line and weave back and forth in front of the door, singing:
 
                        Jew, Jew,
                        Two for five
                        That's what keeps
                        Jew alive

 
Or we would chant:
 
                        Bloody Christ killers
                        Never trust a Jew
                        Bloody Christ killers
                        What won't a Jew do?

 
To one of the redheaded Jewish boys we sang:
 
                        Red head
                        Jewish bread
                        Five cents
                        A Jewish head.

 
To the fat Jewish woman we sneered:
 
                        Red, white, and blue
                        Your pa was a Jew
                        Your ma a dirty Dago
                        What the hell is you?

 
And when the baldheaded proprietor would pass by, we black children, poor, half-starved, ignorant, victims of racial prejudice, would sing with a proud lilt:
 
                        A rotten egg
                        Never fries
                        A cheating dog
                        Never thrives.

 
There were many more folk ditties, some mean, others filthy, all of them cruel.  No one ever thought of questioning our right to do this; our mothers and parents generally approved, either actively or passively.  To hold an attitude of antagonism or distrust toward Jews was bred in us from childhood; it was not merely racial prejudice, it was a part of our cultural heritage.


For element #12, I clipped the comments under one of Cinderella Bloggerfeller's postings. Scroll down to Tuesday, August 26, 2003. There are a few more comments there now on the word listopad and its meanings in Polish, Czech, Ukrainian, and Russian.

====================================================

 

Lévy and Glucksmann, the New Philosophers, are now talking about Civilization vs. Nihilism? Amazing -- weren't they once sworn enemies of all hierarchies and thus nihilists par excellence? Granted, they did it in an anti-Communist context, but their denial extended to all forms of "oppression".

I also wonder which Dostoyevskian killers Glucksmann is talking about. I can remember at least three. Raskolnikov was definitely not an evil man; Smerdyakov was quite an ugly type but note that Dostoyevsky endowed him with a mentality of a European bourgeois, so he doesn't quite fit into this picture. The good folks from The Demons would be the best candidates.


Alex(ei) | Email | Homepage | 08.26.03 - 9:35 pm | #
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I've not read "Dostoyevsky in Manhattan" but I read a fairly lengthy review of it by Mario Vargas Llosa last year. The Dostoyevskians in question are indeed Verkhovensky, Stavrogin et al. I suppose "The Demons", along with Conrad's "Secret Agent", is still the best novel for understanding the terrorist mentality.


C. Bloggerfeller | Email | Homepage | 08.26.03 - 9:57 pm | #
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"The Demons" is an insight into the minds and souls of certain -- but far from all types of terrorists. In fact, it's also a cruel caricature of the whole Russian revolutionary movement. I don't think it offers a hint at the reasons why, say, Zasulich shot at Trepov or Kalyaev threw a bomb into Prince Sergei Alexandrovich's carriage. Note also that Dostoyevsky depicted Westernized liberals like Verkhovensky Sr. with inimitable contempt. His political views sometimes did show in his fiction.


Alex(ei) | Email | Homepage | 08.26.03 - 11:28 pm | #
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what do you make of this Slate reviewer who says the use of Conrad's "Secret Agent" is misconstrued as a model for understanding terrorists?
http://slate.msn.com/id/116220/


Dennis | Email | 08.27.03 - 4:39 am | #
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Unfortunately, I have not read "Secret Agent" so I'd rather stay quiet. Early Russian terrorists (Narodnaya Volya, Zemlya i Volya, Socialist Revolutionaries) typically targeted individual government officials who were believed to be personally responsible for various ugly (and bloody) acts (e.g., brutally suppressing peasant unrest). When the SRs condemned terror in parliamentary countries; Kalyaev disagreed saying he would never throw a bomb into a café but he is not in a position to judge those who do. Obviously, there are major differences between those people and contemporary terrorists who specifically target civilians.


Alex(ei) | Email | Homepage | 08.27.03 - 8:43 am | #
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I think Verkhovensky Jr., the terrorist leader in "The Demons", was based on Nechayev, a considerably more unscrupulous figure, who murdered one his followers, Ivanov, for disagreeing with him, and who really did believe "the end justfies the means".

As for the article on "The Secret Agent", I see the writer's point that the terrorists are really tricked into their action, but that doesn't take anything away from Conrad's analysis of what is going on in their minds, particularly the "human bomb", the Professor. I also think Conrad preferred liberal democracies to the other forms of government on offer, their flaw was they were too naive and trusting.


C. Bloggerfeller | Email | Homepage | 08.27.03 - 10:53 am | #
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The circumstances of Shatov's murder resemble the Ivanov case very closely indeed; Dostoyevsky did have Nechayev in mind as a prototype for Verkhovensky (and even called him Nechayev in a draft), but it was only after the death of both that some crucial details of Nechayev's life and personality came to light. I would say Verkhovensky was only one side of Nechaev; the other, deeper and darker side is embodied in Stavrogin and perhaps some other characters. (Someone remarked Petr Verkhovensky must have looked pretty much like the young Lenin.) The real Nechaev was quite a major figure and deserves much more attention in connection with modern terrorists. An admirer of the Jesuits and Machiavelli and a student of the Paraguay experiment, Nechayev himself was both resented and admired by revolutionaries.

By the way, Daniel Pipes' father, Richard Pipes, wrote a short book on another Russian terrorist (who was also an agent provocateur), Sergey Degayev (Pipes spells Degaev). I haven't read it -- the story must be new only to Western historians who got access to Russian archives in the 1990s -- but I bet it's a good read. The Soviet/Russian writer Yuri Davydov (http://www.penrussia.org/a-m/yu_dav.htm) has produced, since the 1960s, a number of semi-fiction novels on Russian revolutionaries, some of which I would highly recommend ("March" and "Glukhaya pora listopada" -- don't know how this Pasternak line should properly translate -- "The dead season of leaf-fall" or something).


Alex(ei) | Email | Homepage | 08.27.03 - 12:56 pm | #
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I remember Nechayev from Camus' L'Homme Révolté. He sounds like he was ahead of his time from a political and ethical viewpoint (unfortunately for the twentieth century). Shigalyov in The Demons struck me as a precursor of Pol Pot (also a mild-mannered school teacher by profession).

BTW "Listopad" is the Polish word for November.


C. Bloggerfeller | Email | Homepage | 08.27.03 - 2:58 pm | #

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Element #11 is Matt Welch's gestalt-switching prescription: Optimists and Pessimists: Switch Sides!

Element #10: a poem by Wallace Stevens.


THIRTEEN WAYS OF LOOKING AT A BLACKBIRD

                        I
Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.
 
                        II
I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.
 
                        III
The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.
It was a small part of the pantomime.
 
                        IV
A man and a woman
Are one.
A man and a woman and a blackbird
Are one.
 
                        V
I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.
 
                        VI
Icicles filled the long window
With barbaric glass.
The shadow of the blackbird
Crossed it, to and fro.
The mood
Traced in the shadow
An indecipherable cause.
 
                        VII
O thin men of Haddam,
Why do you imagine golden birds?
Do you not see how the blackbird
Walks around the feet
Of the women about you?
 
                        VIII
I know noble accents
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;
But I know, too,
That the blackbird is involved
In what I know.
 
                        IX
When the blackbird flew out of sight,
It marked the edge
Of one of many circles.
 
                        X
At the sight of blackbirds
Flying in a green light,
Even the bawds of euphony
Would cry out sharply.
 
                        XI
He rode over Connecticut
In a glass coach.
Once, a fear pierced him,
In that he mistook
The shadow of his equipage
For blackbirds.
 
                        XII
The river is moving.
The blackbird must be flying.
 
                        XIII
It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing
And it was going to snow.
The blackbird sat
In the cedar-limbs.

Element #9: some Duck-Rabbits join the party.

Element #8: the elephant goes to America.

In element #7, the elephant is globalized into Islamic thought.

Element #6 is John D. Ireland's translation of the Tittha Sutta. If you'd like to read more of the Udana, try this page.

Element #5 is Thanissaro Bhikku's translation of the Tittha Sutta (Udana VI.4), from the Pali. The elephant is in the house.


Element #4 is taken from Book Two of this edition of Aristotle's Ethics, 1108a10-1109b26.

The mean is often nearer to one extreme than to the other, or seems nearer because of our natural tendencies

 
viii.    Thus there are three dispositions, two of them vicious (one by way of excess, the other of deficiency), and one good, the mean. They are all in some way opposed to one another: the extremes are contrary both to the mean and to each other, and the mean to the extremes. For just as the equal is greater compared with the less, and less compared with the greater, so the mean states (in both feelings and actions) are excessive compared with the deficient and deficient compared with the excessive. A brave man appears rash compared with a coward, and cowardly compared with a rash man; similarly a temperate man appears licentious compared with an insensible one and insensible compared with a licentious one, and a liberal man prodigal compared with an illiberal one and illiberal compared with a prodigal one. This is the reason why each extreme type tries to push the mean nearer to the other: the coward calls the brave man rash, the rash man calls him a coward; and similarly in all other cases. But while all these dispositions are opposed to one another in this way, the greatest degree of contrariety is that which is found between the two extremes. For they are separated by a greater interval from one another than from the mean, just as the great is further from the small, and the small from the great, than either is from the equal. Again, some extremes seem to bear a resemblance to a mean; e.g. rashness seems like courage, and prodigality like liberality; but between the extremes there is always the maximum dissimilarity. Now contraries are by definition as far distant as possible from one another; hence the further apart things are, the more contrary they will be. In some cases it is the deficiency, in others the excess, that is more opposed to the mean; for instance, the more direct opposite of courage is not the excess, rashness, but the deficiency cowardice; and that of temperance is not the deficiency, insensibility, but the excess, licentiousness. This result is due to two causes. One lies in the nature of the thing itself. When one extreme has a closer affinity and resemblance to the mean, we tend to oppose to the mean not that extreme but the other. For instance, since rashness is held to be nearer to courage and more like it than cowardice is, it is cowardice that we tend to oppose to courage, because the extremes that are further from the mean are thought to be more opposed to it. This is one cause, the one that lies in the thing. The other lies in ourselves. It is the things towards which we have the stronger natural inclination that seem to us more opposed to the mean. For example, we are naturally more inclined towards pleasures, and this makes us more prone towards licentiousness than towards temperence; so we describe as more contrary to the mean those things towards which we have the stronger tendency. This is why licentiousness, the excess, is more contrary to temperance.
 
 
Summing up of the foregoing discussion, together with three practical rules for good conduct

 
ix.    We have now said enough to show that moral virtue is a mean, and in what sense it is so: that it is a mean between two vices, one of excess and the other of deficiency, and that it is such because it aims at hitting the mean point in feelings and actions. For this reason it is a difficult business to be good; because in any given case it is difficult to find the mid-point—for instance, not everyone can find the centre of a circle; only the man who knows how. So too it is easy to get angry—anyone can do that—or to give and spend money; but to feel or act towards the right person to the right extent at the right time for the right reason in the right way—that is not easy, and it is not everyone that can do it. Hence to do these things well is a rare, laudable and fine achievement.
 
For this reason anyone who is aiming at the mean should (1) keep away from that extreme which is more contrary to the mean, just as Calypso advises:
 
Far from this surf and surge keep thou thy ship.

For one of the extremes is always more erroneous than the other; and since it is extremely difficult to hit the mean, we must take the next best course, as they say, and choose the lesser of the evils; and this will be most readily done in the way that we are suggesting. (2) We must notice the errors into which we ourselves are liable to fall (because we all have different natural tendencies—we shall find out what ours are from the pleasure and pain that they give us), and we must drag ourselves in the contrary direction; for we shall arrive at the mean by pressing well away from our failing—just like somebody straightening a warped piece of wood. (3) In every situation one must guard especially against pleasure and pleasant things, because we are not impartial judges of pleasure. So we should adopt the same attitude towards it as the Trojan elders did towards Helen, and constantly repeat their pronouncement; because if in this way we relieve ourselves of the attraction, we shall be less likely to go wrong.
 
To sum up: by following these rules we shall have the best chance of hitting the mean. But this is presumably difficult, especially in particular cases; because it is not easy to determine what is the right way to be angry, and with whom, and on what grounds, and for how long. Indeed we sometimes praise those who show deficiency, and call them patient, and sometimes those who display temper, calling them manly. However, the man who deviates only a little from the right degree, either in excess or in deficiency, is not censured—only the one who goes too far, because he is noticeable. Yet it is not easy to define by rule for how long, and how much, a man may go wrong before he incurs blame; no easier than it is to define any other object of perception. Such questions of degree occur in particular cases, and the decision lies with our perception.
 
This much, then, is clear: in all our conduct it is the mean that is to be commended. But one should incline sometimes towards excess and sometimes towards deficiency, because in this way we shall most easily hit upon the mean, that is, the right course.



Element #3 is a poem by Jorie Graham, from The Dream of the Unified Field.

THE WAY THINGS WORK

is by admitting
or opening away.
This is the simplest form
of current: Blue
moving through blue;
blue through purple;
the objects of desire
opening upon themselves
without us;
the objects of faith.
The way things work
is by solution,
resistance lessened or
increased and taken
advantage of.
The way things work
is that we finally believe
they are there,
common and able
to illustrate themselves.
Wheel, kinetic flow,
rising and falling water,
ingots, levers and keys,
I believe in you,
cylinder lock, pully,
lifting tackle and
crane lift your small head—
I believe in you—
your head is the horizon to
my hand.  I believe
forever in the hooks.
They way things work
is that eventually
something catches.

Element #2 is taken from Black Boy, Richard Wright's autobiography (pp. 246-253).


That afternoon I addressed myself to forging a note. Now, what were the names of books written by H. L. Mencken? I did not know any of them. I finally wrote what I thought would be a fool-proof note: Dear Madam: Will you please let this nigger boy--I used the word "nigger" to make the librarian feel that I could not possibly be the author of the note--have some books by H. L. Mencken? I forged the white man's name.

I entered the library as I had always done when on errands for whites, but I felt that I would somehow slip up and betray myself. I doffed my hat, stood a respectful distance from the desk, looked as unbookish as possible, and waited for the white patrons to be taken care of. When the desk was clear of people, I still waited. The white librarian looked at me.

"What do you want, boy?"

As though I did not possess the power of speech, I stepped forward and simply handed her the forged note, not parting my lips.

"What books by Mencken does he want?" she asked.

"I don't know, ma'am," I said, avoiding her eyes.

"Who gave you this card?"

"Mr. Falk," I said.

"Where is he?"

"He's at work, at the M--- Optical Company," I said. "I've been in here for him before."

"I remember," the woman said. "But he never wrote notes like this."

Oh, God, she's suspicious. Perhaps she would not let me have the books? If she had turned her back at that moment, I would have ducked out the door and never gone back. Then I thought of a bold idea.

"You can call him up, ma'am," I said, my heart pounding.

"You're not using these books, are you?" she asked pointedly.

"Oh, no, ma'am. I can't read."

"I don't know what he wants by Mencken," she said under her breath.

I knew now that I had won; she was thinking of other things and the race qustion had gone out of her mind. She went to the shelves. Once or twice she looked over her shoulder at me, as though she was still doubtful. Finally she came forward with two books in her hand.

"I'm sending him two books," she said. "But tell Mr. Falk to come in next time, or send me the names of the books he wants. I don't know what he wants to read."

I said nothing. She stamped the card and handed me the books. Not daring to glance at them, I went out of the library, fearing that the woman would call me back for further questioning. A block away from the library I opened one of the books and read a title: A Book of Prefaces. I was nearing my nineteenth birthday and I did not know how to pronounce the word "preface." I thumbed the pages and saw strange words and strange names. I shook my head, disappointed. I looked at the other book; it was called Prejudices. I knew what that word meant; I had heard it all my life. And right off I was on guard against Mencken's books. Why would a man want to call a book Prejudices? The word was so stained with all my memories of racial hate that I could not conceive of anybody using it for a title. Perhaps I had made a mistake about Mencken? A man who had prejudices must be wrong.

When I showed the books to Mr. Falk, he looked at me and frowned.

"That librarian might telephone you,"? I warned him.

"That's all right,"? he said. "But when you're through reading those books, I want you to tell me what you get out of them."

That night in my rented room, while letting the hot water run over my can of pork and beans in the sink, I opened A Book of Prefaces and began to read. I was jarred and shocked by the style, the clear, clean, sweeping sentences. Why did he write like that? And how did one write like that? I pictured the man as a raging demon, slashing with his pen, consumed with hate, denouncing everything American, extolling everything European or German, laughing at the weaknesses of people, mocking God, authority. What was this? I stood up, trying to realize what reality lay behind the meaning of the words . . . Yes, this man was fighting, fighting with words. He was using words as a weapon, using them as one would use a club. Could words be weapons? Well, yes, for here they were. Then, maybe, perhaps, I could use them as a weapon? No. It frightened me. I read on and what amazed me was not what he said, but how on earth anybody had the courage to say it.

Occasionally I glanced up to reassure myself that I was alone in the room. Who were these men about whom Mencken was talking so passionately? Who was Anatole France? Joseph Conrad? Sinclair Lewis, Sherwood Anderson, Dostoevski, George Moore, Gustave Flaubert, Maupassant, Tolstoy, Frank Harris, Mark Twain, Thomas Hardy, Arnold Bennett, Stephen Crane, Zola, Norris, Gorky, Bergson, Ibsen, Balzac, Bernard Shaw, Dumas, Poe, Thomas Mann, O. Henry, Dreiser, H. G. Wells, Gogol, T. S. Eliot, Gide, Baudelaire, Edgar Lee Masters, Stendhal, Turgenev, Huneker, Nietzsche, and scores of others? Were these men real? Did they exist or had they existed? And how did one pronounce their names?

I ran across many words whose meanings I did not know, and I either looked them up in a dictionary or, before I had a chance to do that, encountered the word in a context that made its meaning clear. But what strange world was this? I concluded the book with the conviction that I had somehow overlooked something terribly important in life. I had once tried to write, had once reveled in feeling, had let my crude imagination roam, but the impulse to dream had been slowly beaten out of me by experience. Now it surged up again and I hungered for books, new ways of looking and seeing. It was not a matter of believing or disbelieving what I read, but of feeling something new, of being affected by something that made the look of the world different.

As dawn broke I ate my pork and beans, feeling dopey, sleepy. I went to work, but the mood of the book would not die; it lingered, coloring everything I saw, heard, did. I now felt that I knew what the white men were feeling. Merely because I had read a book that had spoken of how they lived and thought, I identified myself with that book. I felt vaguely guilty. Would I, filled with bookish notions, act in a manner that would make the whites dislike me?

I forged more notes and my trips to the library became frequent. Reading grew into a passion. My first serious novel was Sinclair Lewis's Main Street. It made me see my boss, Mr. Gerald, and identify him as an American type. I would smile when I saw him lugging his golf bags into the office. I had always felt a vast distance separating me from the boss, and now I felt closer to him, though still distant. I felt now that I knew him, that I could feel the very limits of his narrow life. And this had happened because I had read a novel about a mythical man called George F. Babbitt.

The plots and stories in the novels did not interest me so much as the point of view revealed. I gave myself over to each novel without reserve, without trying to criticize it; it was enough for me to see and feel something different. And for me, everything was something different. Reading was like a drug, a dope. The novels created moods in which I lived for days. But I could not conquer my sense of guilt, my feeling that the white men around me knew that I was changing, that I had begun to regard them differently.

Whenever I brought a book to the job, I wrapped it in newspaper--a habit that was to persist for years in other cities and under other circumstances. But some of the white men pried into my packages when I was absent and they questioned me.

"Boy, what are you reading those books for?"

"Oh, I don't know, sir."

"That's deep stuff you're reading, boy."

"I'm just killing time, sir."

"You'll addle your brains if you don't watch out."

I read Dreiser's Jennie Gerhardt and Sister Carrie and they revived in me a vivid sense of my mother's suffering; I was overwhelmed. I grew silent, wondering about the life around me. It would have been impossible for me to have told anyone what I derived from these novels, for it was nothing less than a sense of life itself. All my life had shaped me for the realism, the naturalism of the modern novel, and I could not read enough of them.

Steeped in new moods and ideas, I bought a ream of paper and tried to write; but nothing would come, or what did come was flat beyond telling. I discovered that more than desire and feeling were necessary to write and I dropped the idea. Yet I still wondered how it was possible to know people sufficiently to write about them? Could I ever learn about life and people? To me, with my vast ignorance, my Jim Crow station in life, it seemed a task impossible of achievement. I now knew what being a Negro meant. I could endure the hunger. I had learned to live with hate. But to feel that there were feelings denied me, that the very breath of life itself was beyond my reach, that more than anything else hurt, wounded me. I had a new hunger.

In buoying me up, reading also cast me down, made me see what was possible, what I had missed. My tension returned, new, terrible, bitter, surging, almost too great to be contained. I no longer felt that the world about me was hostile, killing; I knew it. A million times I asked myself what I could do to save myself, and there were no answers. I seemed forever condemned, ringed by walls.

I did not discuss my reading with Mr. Falk, who had lent me his library card; it would have meant talking about myself and that would have been too painful. I smiled each day, fighting desperately to maintain my old behavior, to keep my disposition seemingly sunny. But some of the white men discerned that I had begun to brood.

"Wake up there, boy!" Mr. Olin said one day.

"Sir!" I answered for the lack of a better word.

"You act like you've stolen something," he said.

I laughed in the way I knew he expected me to laugh, but I resolved to be more conscious of myself, to watch my every act, to guard and hide the new knowledge that was dawning within me.

If I went north, would it be possible for me to build a new life then? But how could a man build a life upon vague, unformed yearnings? I wanted to write and I did not even know the English language. I bought English grammars and found them dull. I felt that I was getting a better sense of the language from novels than from grammars. I read hard, discarding a writer as soon as I felt that I had grasped his point of view. At night the printed page stood before my eyes in sleep.

Mrs. Moss, my landlady, asked me one Sunday morning:

"Son, what is this you keep on reading?"

"Oh, nothing. Just novels."

"What you get out of 'em?"

"I'm just killing time," I said.

"I hope you know your own mind," she said in a tone which implied that she doubted if I had a mind.

I knew of no Negroes who read the books I liked and I wondered if any Negroes ever thought of them. I knew that there were Negro doctors, lawyers, newspapermen, but I never saw any of them. When I read a Negro newspaper I never caught the faintest echo of my preoccupation in its pages. I felt trapped and occasionally, for a few days, I would stop reading. But a vague hunger would come over me for books, books that opened up new avenues of feeling and seeing, and again I would forge another note to the white librarian. Again I would read and wonder, feeling that I carried a secret, criminal burden about with me each day.

That winter my mother and brother came and we set up housekeeping, buying furniture on the installment plan, being cheated and yet knowing no way to avoid it. I began to eat warm food and to my surprise found that regular meals enabled me to read faster. I may have lived through many illnesses and survived them, never suspecting that I was ill. My brother obtained a job and we began to save toward the trip north, plotting our time, setting tentative dates for departure. I told none of the white men on the job that I was planning to go north; I knew that the moment they felt I was thinking of the North they would change toward me. It would have made them feel that I did not like the life I was living, and because my life was completely conditioned by what they said or did, it would have been tantamount to challenging them.

I could calculate my chances for life in the South as a Negro fairly clearly now.

I could fight the southern whites by organizing with other Negroes, as my grandfather had done. But I knew that I could never win that way; there were many whites and there were but few blacks. They were strong and we were weak. Outright black rebellion could never win. If I fought openly I would die and I did not want to die. News of lynchings were frequent.

I could submit and live the life of a genial slave, but that was impossible. All of my life had shaped me to live by my own feelings and thoughts. I could make up to Bess and marry her and inherit the house. But that, too, would be the life of a slave; if I did that, I would crush to death something within me, and I would hate myself as much as I knew the whites already hated those who had submitted. Neither could I ever willingly present myself to be kicked, as Shorty had done. I would rather have died than do that.

I could drain off my restlessness by fighting with Shorty and Harrison. I had seen many Negroes solve the problem of being black by transferring their hatred of themselves to others with a black skin and fighting them. I would have to be cold to do that, and I was not cold and I could never be.

I could, of course, forget what I had read, thrust the whites out of my mind, forget them; and find release from anxiety and longing in sex and alcohol. But the memory of how my father had conducted himself made that course repugnant. If I did not want others to violate my life, how could I voluntarily violate it myself?

I had no hope whatever of being a professional man. Not only had I been so conditioned that I did not desire it, but the fulfillment of such an ambition was beyond my capabilities. Well-to-do Negroes lived in a world that was almost as alien to me as the world inhabited by whites.

What, then, was there? I held my life in my mind, in my consciousness each day, feeling at times that I would stumble and drop it, spill it forever. My reading had created a vast sense of distance between me and the world in which I lived and tried to make a living, and that sense of distance was increasing each day. My days and nights were one long, quiet, continuously contained dream of terror, tension, and anxiety. I wondered how long I could bear it.


Element #1 comes from Cinderella Bloggerfeller. Scroll down to "LITERATURE AND POLITICS." Here's the bit of the interview of Yugoslavian writer Danilo Kis that Cinderella quotes. It's at the Center for Book Culture.


BL: Boris Davidovich is very explicitly concerned with political questions. Do politics still attract you as a writer?

DK: I've always been obsessed with politics. But I've been making a great effort the last two or three years to get rid of them in my work. I finally understood the futility of such work. Because of my political obsessions I lost much time, many words; and I gained many enemies.

BL: In France? In Yugoslavia

DK: In both. I finally realized that I'm not the sort of French writer who can make politics a part of his literature and that my political opinions are deadly for my literature. Absolutely deadly.

BL: Were you a political activist in France?

DK: No, never. I was never left wing. It's the French left that made me disgusted with politics.

BL: Were you in France for the "events" of 1968?

DK: Yes. I was an instructor of Serbo-Croatian in Bordeaux at the time. Both in print and in conversation I was opposed to all the protest movements. I finally decided: you're either engaged in political struggle or you're a writer. I don't think the two go together. The literary careers of many French writers ended at the very moment they were being hailed as political thinkers. I'm thinking of Sartre as well as Aragon. In Yugoslavia if you don't act within the framework of the Party, your political opinions are worthless.

BL: Do you return to Yugoslavia often?

DK: I go back regularly. I'm tired of political action there; it doesn't seem to lead anywhere. For years, I've tried to find political solutions, and I'm slowly starting to get rid of the need for that. Nabokov helped me here. I greatly admire his comportment as a writer. He understood: either literature, or. . . . He frequented that circle of Russian emigres and he saw how much intellectual waste it produced, how many people lost their literary or cultural lives in quarrels that ended nowhere. [Kis pulls his book Homo Politicus from the shelf, opens it, and reads one of the introductory citations from Nabokov's story "Spring in Fialta"]: "Now, frankly speaking, I have always been irritated by the complacent conviction that a ripple of stream of consciousness, a few healthy obscenities, and a dash of communism in any old slop pail will alchemically and automatically produce ultramodern literature; and I will contend until I am shot that art as soon as it is brought into contact with politics inevitably sinks to the level of any ideological trash." [Kis then translates from Serbo-Croatian the other citation, from Orwell's essay "Why I Write"]: "And looking back through my work, I see that it is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives, and humbug generally."

BL: Evidently you now feel closer to Nabokov [...]


Study for a Portrait of an Elephantrabbit

Slightly edited, here's what I sent out a few weeks ago with the title "contest, contest, contest. PRIZES PRIZES PRIZES."


Over the past few weeks, since switching to this account with the silly name, I've sent out a number of items.  In fulfillment of Thomas Pynchon's assertion that "everything is connected," each has been bound to all of the others in certain ways.
 
So the contest is for you is to work up an explanation for all of these pieces.  Presumably this will be in discursive prose, but if you want to make a play out of it, or the script for a television ad, or an epic drama, it's all good.
 
There's a prize available for each person who makes this attempt.  But there's an extra prize available for the first one I receive, and also the one that I judge to be best.  My criteria for which is best will be subjective and post hoc.  It needn't be the closest one to what I was thinking when I made my selections.  If the one most different from what I had in mind is also the most interesting or the cleverest, that's the one I'll probably choose.
 
Please indicate whether or not it's okay for me to send your story back out to everybody else, and if so whether you wish to remain anonymous or whether it's okay to include your name.
 
Here's the list:


#1: Orwell, Kis Nabokov

#2: a sense of life itself

#3: THE WAY THINGS WORK
 
#4: straightening a woody
 
#5: Udana VI.4 (Tittha Sutta). Trans. Thanissaro Bhikkhu
 
#6: Udana VI.4 (Tittha Sutta), Trans. John D. Ireland
 
#7: The Blind Men and the Elephant in Islamic thought
 
#8: The Blind Men and the Elephant
 
#9: Duck-Rabbits
 
#10: THIRTEEN WAYS OF LOOKING AT A BLACKBIRD
 
#11: Optimists and Pessimists: Switch Sides!
 
#12: Dostoyevsky, Conrad, Camus
 
#13: A rotten egg / Never fries
 
#14: the gift of double-mindedness
 
#15: spectators and speculations
 
#16: An Art Apart
 
#17: Hippocratic radicalism


I'll start by posting the series I sent out earlier to the elephantrabbits mailing list.





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