Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Rain (Pessoa and Vallejo)

It rains and keeps raining. My soul is wet from hearing it. So much rain. . .
— Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet

I will die in Paris in the rain
on a day I already remember
I will die in Paris — I won't deny it —
maybe on a Thursday, like today, in autumn
— César Vallejo, from "Black Stone on a White Stone"

This afternoon it is raining, as never before; and I
have no desire to live, my heart.

This afternoon is sweet. Why shouldn't it be?
Dressed in grace and pain; dressed like a woman.

This afternoon in Lima it is raining. And I recall
the cruel caverns of my ingratitude;
my block of ice over her poppy,
stronger than her “Don’t be like that!”
— César Vallejo, from "Dregs"

It's hailing so hard, as if to make me remember
and augment the pearls
that I've recovered from the very snout
of every storm.

Don't let this rain dry up.
Not unless it's given to me
to fall now into it, or to be buried
drenched in the water
that wells up from every fire.

How far will this rain reach in me?
I'm afraid I'll be left with one side dry;
I'm afraid it will cease, without having tasted me
in the droughts of incredible vocal cords,
through which
to make harmony,
one must always rise, never descend!
Don't we in fact rise by descending?

Sing, rain, on the still-sealess coast!
— César Vallejo, Trilce, lxxvii

The Pessoa translation is by Richard Zenith; the first Vallejo translation is a mash-up of several versions and the second is by Clayton Eshleman but with modifications. The translation from Trilce is mine, but with borrowings from the versions of David Smith (Grossman, 1973) and Clayton Eshleman. The image is a detail from a photograph of César Vallejo by Juan Domingo Córdoba.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Hour of lead (2)

Citing no evidence, our president-elect — and how ashamed, how defiled one feels, personally and as a citizen, having to call him that — has proclaimed himself the legitimate winner of the 2016 popular vote, alleging that millions of votes for his opponent were fraudulently cast. That no one worthy of respect takes his claim seriously makes no difference; we're in a post-truth condition and it suffices to merely make an assertion, no matter how implausible. Those who believe him can fall back on a simple syllogism: America is a country of and for white Christians, the Republican candidate positioned himself as the candidate of that country, therefore he must have won the popular vote. Being non-white, or non-Christian, and calling oneself an American, is, so the logic goes, itself fraudulent, so the technicalities of whether there was actually any significant voter fraud (there wasn't) are quite beside the point. Those with a vested interest in believing this argument — or pretending to — will be untroubled by doubt.

It's going to be a long four years.

Previous post:
Hour of lead

Image: Jasper Johns.

Monday, November 21, 2016

The One Thing We Must Keep Alive

This rousing song by Los Lobos has been one of my favorites for more than thirty years. The video for it has a corny '80s feel to it now (not to mention the poor digital transfer), but it's worth a look if only for the footage of David Hidalgo and the rest of the band. In three verses and a bridge "Will the Wolf Survive?" manages to be about a lot of different things: wolves (at least as a metaphor), migrant workers and their families, cultural survival, and the truth: "something they must keep alive." (Of all of those things, wolves would now appear to be the least endangered.)

Los Lobos are still very much active, in a line-up that is unchanged except for the addition of a young and very able drummer; I saw them last night on a double-bill with the great Mavis Staples (who was in very fine form). They didn't play this song, nor did I catch any overt allusions in their music to recent political developments, but their presence itself was a reminder that there's more than one way to be American. The band switches comfortably from English to Spanish in their songs and they're perfectly capable of playing traditional norteño styles of music, but they identify as "a band from East L.A.," and they happen to be one of the great rock and blues bands of the last forty years.

Saturday, November 19, 2016


Goya's great series of prints Los desastres de la guerra (The Disasters of War) is renowned for its depiction of the horrors of the Peninsular War, but many of the later prints in the series in fact capture the postwar chill that set in with the restoration of Fernando VII, who threw out the relatively enlightened Spanish constitution that had been promulgated in 1812 and began a wholesale persecution of liberals and the press. (Like the rest of Los desastres, these images remained unpublished during Goya's lifetime.)

The print at the top of the page is captioned simply "The Results"; Robert Hughes, in his book on the artist, glosses it thus: "a flock of Goya's nightmare bats, the lay and Church parasites that accompany Fernando, is descending on prostrate Spain." The one below bears the inscription "Against the Common Good."

According to Michael Armstrong Roche, in Goya and the Spirit of Enlightenment,
With his left hand the cleric writes something contra el bien general, while with his right he points up, signifying he acts in the name of God... "Common good" is an expression rooted in the Liberal political tradition; the cleric may therefore be drafting laws restoring Old Regime privileges on Fernando VII's return to power in 1814.
The third print is captioned "Truth Died," and is interpreted as representing the burial of the 1812 Constitution.

The final image asks, of the same allegorical figure, "Will She Rise Again?"

Here's Hughes:
Lovely bare-breasted Truth begins to shine again, to move, while those who would bury her recoil in confusion, clutching their shovels and books. A feverish and tentative hope is reborn in Goya's darkness.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Planxty in their prime

Universal Music Ireland has released a modestly-priced CD & DVD package devoted to my favorite Irish trad band, Planxty. Entitled Between the Jigs and the Reels: A Retrospective, it doesn't appear to be officially available in the US thus far, but it can be obtained from Ireland or the UK without much difficulty if you look around. As far as I can tell, all of the tracks on the CD have been released previously (though a couple were new to me), but it's nice to have them together. The DVD is a different story: it's more than two hours and forty minutes of wonderful archival footage of the band during its heyday (the footage spans the years 1972 to 1982), and although some of it has been out there in one form or another much of it I had never seen. (A disclaimer warns that some of the archival material may have imperfections because of the quality of the source material, but I didn't find that to be an issue at all.)

Planxty last reunited for a series of concerts in 2005, and word is that it's unlikely that they will do so again, although all of the original members — Christy Moore, Andy Irvine, Dónal Lunny, and Liam O'Flynn — are still around and performing, sometimes in various combinations with each other. If their work together has run its course then this retrospective is a nice summing-up.

Below: Planxty from 1973 performing "Raggle Taggle Gypsy," with the famous transition into "Tabhair dom do lámh." Leagues O'Toole describes this arrangement as "possibly the first ever attempt to play a folk song straight into a traditional tune by an ensemble of Irish musicians."

Sunday, November 13, 2016

On Horned Beasts, and Dilemmas

Teju Cole:
Evil settles into everyday life when people are unable or unwilling to recognize it. It makes its home among us when we are keen to minimize it or describe it as something else. This is not a process that began a week or month or year ago. It did not begin with drone assassinations, or with the war on Iraq. Evil has always been here. But now it has taken on a totalitarian tone.
"A Time for Refusal," The New York Times, November 11, 2016


Teju Cole's essay on the recent election, Eugène Ionesco's Rhinoceros, and the dangers of accommodating oneself to evil seems to me both brilliantly framed and right on the money, but if the new president-elect has even heard of the late Romanian-born French playwright he certainly doesn't care about him (or about Teju Cole), and the same is undoubtedly true of the bulk of his supporters. So in a sense this will no doubt be viewed as just one more laughable example of the cluelessness of the intellectual elite, who amuse themselves with literary allusions while middle-class Americans seek to lift the stone off their backs (or at least, shift it to the other side).

It raises, though, the more general question of what the response of artists and intellectuals should be to these events, and how we need to "frame our discourse" (to fall once more into the alienating jargon) to reach beyond our own rarefied sphere. What is our responsibility in the face of a state of emergency? Do we politicize art and inquiry, perhaps channel it into digestible mass-propaganda, or do we insist on the inviolability of our domains, on the pursuit of art for art's sake? (And let's not forget that those who are likely to be seizing the reins in Washington have little use for art or education at all, except of the most banal kind.)

It seems inescapable to me that we are going to have to live with the tension between the two impulses. We cannot blind ourselves to what is happening and to our responsibilities, but neither can we debase our work. We shouldn't be arrogant about what we've studied or created, but we also shouldn't be apologetic for it. (Nor should we make the all-too-frequent mistake of assuming that blue-collar Americans, or people who don't have college diplomas, are necessarily unsophisticated or incapable of originality and insight.) We will need new energies and new ideas; we can't afford to be complacent.


Attempting to maintain that this past election wasn't in part about race and other cultural issues strikes me as inadequate as attempting to maintain that it was only about those factors. History doesn't come packaged in neat little narratives to suit our need for self-justification. Political scientists will and should, of course, sift through the results to try to determine what really happened and why, but public life isn't a controlled experiment, nor is there any way to easily disentangle the complex influences of the past on our present ideologies and behavior. It seems to me, nevertheless, entirely defensible to reserve some of the focus for what might be called either the moral or the individual level, that is, to examine the ways in which individuals both prominent and ordinary have spoken and acted in bad faith (not just in one party or faction, to be sure). Given that the president-elect largely owes his entry into politics to a lie — the suggestion, eagerly embraced by those who view America as a country fundamentally for and of white people, that Barack Obama wasn't eligible to serve as president at all — there seems to be much to consider in this light. Since I'm neither an organizer nor a street-fighter it's an avenue of particular interest to me.


Also from the Times this week is an article by Kirk Semple, entitled "Fleeing Gangs, Central American Families Surge Toward U.S.," about the reasons that have led not just individuals but entire families to leave their native countries and head north. One wonders if those — and they are many — who will show little sympathy for the plight of these refugees would have been equally indifferent to those who fled for their lives from Russian pogroms or famine in Ireland in the past. But no, one doesn't wonder; of course they would have.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Notes for a commonplace book (19)

Chalmers Johnson:
As a goddess, Nemesis represents a warning that neither men nor women nor countries can indefinitely ignore the demands of reciprocal justice and honesty. She is the spirit of retribution, a corrective to the greed and stupidity that sometimes governs relations among people. America's most famous interpreter of ancient Greek culture, Edith Hamilton, tells us that Nemesis stands for "righteous anger." If that is the case, we should welcome her arrival. For if we do not awaken soon to the wholesale betrayal of our basic political values and offer our own expression of righteous anger, the American republic will be as doomed as the Roman Republic was after the Ides of March that spring of 44 BC.
Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic (2007)

Friday, November 11, 2016

City of Dreams

I would have preferred to write about Tyler Anbinder's superb new book about "immigrant New York" under happier circumstances, and view it as a measured celebration of the way the city has been shaped and enriched (though not without controversy) by successive waves of migrants, but as things stand it may read more like an elegy. But on second hand, I suspect not; whatever the stupidity and vindictiveness of the politics favored by our appalling president-elect and his legions, New York City will no more cease to draw migrants — legal or otherwise — than water will cease to flow downhill.

I don't want to be unfair to Anbinder and suggest that his book is a political tract. In fact, except for a few pages at the end (which strike me as well-reasoned and fair-minded), he doesn't really wade into questions of what US policy towards migrants ought to be. Instead he has done something far more important: he has written a thorough, authoritative, balanced, and readable narrative account of immigration to New York, giving some attention to the circumstances that led people to emigrate from their native countries, but far more to how they lived and how their presence made the city what it was and is, for better and (occasionally, at least) perhaps for worse. I'm sure exception will be taken to some parts of his account, especially by people with a vested interest in denying the truth about the country's past, but I think his accomplishment will stand along side books like Burrows and Wallace's Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 (which it supplements and in some ways extends, since the promised sequel to the latter has not appeared).

One of Anbinder's key points is that nativism is nothing new; many of the same anti-immigrant arguments used today were trotted out against Irish Catholics, Eastern European Jews, Italian-Americans, and other now-established groups. Nor was it without its ironies: some of the most principled opponents of slavery were unrelenting anti-Catholic bigots, while immigrants made up much of the violent rabble responsible for the infamous Draft Riots of 1863. Then as now, immigration has been surrounded by controversy, exploitation, and sporadic violence.

Immigration to New York, largely unrestricted for much of the 19th century, dropped sharply in the 1920s due to developments on the national political scene; the evidence seems to suggest that the city suffered as a result of that curtailment. Today the city is vibrant and prosperous (if markedly unequal), in part as a result of new blood. What will happen in the years to come is uncertain, but I suspect that if the city staves off decline it will do so in large measure due to newcomers.

Tyler Anbinder is the author of two previous books, a fine one on New York's much-maligned Five Points neighborhood, and a study (which I plan to read) of the nativist Know Nothing Party of the 1850s.

The Tower of Steel

Pharaoh he sits in his tower of steel
The dogs of money all at his heel
Magicians cry "Oh truth! Oh real!"
We're all working for the Pharaoh

A thousand eyes, a thousand ears
He feeds us all, he feeds our fears
Don't stir in your sleep tonight, my dears
We're all working for the Pharaoh

It's Egypt land, Egypt land
We're all living in Egypt land
Tell me, brother, don't you understand
We're all working for the Pharaoh

Hidden from the eye of chance
The men of shadow dance a dance
We're all struck into a trance
We're all working for the Pharaoh

The idols rise into the sky
Pyramids soar, Sphinxes lie
Head of dog, Osiris eye
We're all working for the Pharaoh

And it's Egypt land, Egypt land
We're all living in Egypt land
Tell me, brother, don't you understand
We're all working for the Pharaoh

I dig a ditch, I shape a stone
Another battlement for his throne
Another day on earth is flown
We're all working for the Pharaoh

Call it England, you call it Spain
Egypt rules with a whip and chain
Moses free my people again
We're all working for the Pharaoh

And it's Egypt land, Egypt land
We're all living in Egypt land
Tell me, brother, don't you understand
We're all working for the Pharaoh

Pharaoh he sits in his tower of steel
Around his feet the princes kneel
Far beneath we shoulder the wheel
We're all working for the Pharaoh

Richard Thompson

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Hour of lead

From the New York Times:
[Expletive deleted] said he would quickly cancel a program Mr. Obama put in place by executive action that gave protection from deportation and work permits to about 800,000 undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children. They will lose jobs and scholarships that allowed many to attend college and start careers, and they will become vulnerable to deportation.
One of the things that we're going to have to come to terms with in the near future, in addition to understandable concern about our individual and collective well-being, is the feeling of shame for being in some way collectively responsible for this kind of cruelty (proposed, we should note, by a man who, among countless other examples, openly mocks disabled people), in the sense that we all implicitly agree to abide by the same social and political compact that makes such things possible. One of the other things we're going to have to come to terms with, of course, is that millions of our fellow citizens won't be troubled by this in the least.

Image: Jasper Johns.
Title: Emily Dickinson

Deferred Action (DACA)
New York Immigration Coalition

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

Good people (repost)

I first posted the following two years ago, in the wake of another electoral disaster. Everything in it still stands. I'm updating it to add a new link at the bottom to a list compiled by jezebel.com.

After the scarcely mitigated hell of the recently concluded election cycle, nothing would be easier (or, it would seem, more defensible) than to simply throw up one's hands and walk away in despair. And maybe we all do need to walk away, for a moment, just for the sake our mental health.

But on reflection, what really has changed? It's never been easy to change anything for the better in the US, and that will still be the case two years or ten years or twenty years in the future. We are what we are and that's the territory. Take a few deep breaths, then remind yourself that what you learned to be true and right when you first became of an age to understand these things is probably still true and right. We all learn from experience (or ought to) but the fundamentals are eternal: compassion is still better than cruelty and pettiness, truth and understanding are better than lies and ignorance, and extending one's horizons and empathy to encompass others and our own future is better than short-sightedness, greed, and xenophobia. End of sermon.

Below are links to three organizations that are directly involved in improving the lives of some of our most vulnerable citizens (and non-citizens). None of their activities ought to be regarded as controversial (though to varying degrees no doubt they will be so regarded by some) and none of them are political in the sense of affiliating themselves with parties or candidates, but each of these organizations works, on a more-or-less modest scale and in its own way, to make a concrete and positive difference in people's lives. Check them out, or find one of your own.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (Immokalee, FL)
Neighbors Link (Mt. Kisco, NY)
Workers Defense Project (Austin, TX)

A List of Pro-Women, Pro-Immigrant, Pro-Earth, Anti-Bigotry Organizations That Need Your Support

Bad Faith Blues

Well that’s that. We've succumbed to the attractions of someone who was not only a transparent con artist and buffoon but who chose to position himself as little short of an actual fascist, a man who was willing to throw open the doors and invite it all in, the bigotry, the misogyny, the hatred, the violence, all the swirling dark matter of our “civilization,” all for a taste of power. It would be nice to believe that the American people have simply lost touch with reality, but I'm afraid that's too charitable. We knew what we were doing. Any illusion that we the people are now somehow different from — more enlightened than — our predecessors who seized a continent and put millions to suffer and die as slaves for their own material gain is dispelled, for once and for all. We are the bullwhip, the noose, waterboard. I could say that I’m ashamed to be a white man, but that’s letting those responsible off way too easy. Race and gender are not destiny — specific individuals chose to do this, and I was not one of them.

I have zero patience for what-ifs and should-have-dones. In the end, we had a sufficiently clear choice — even if for many it was an unappetizing one — and we made it. And I frankly don’t give half a fuck about what political scientists, historians, and biographers may have to say about how what got us to this pass and what it all means, which I’m sure will all make fascinating reading for future generations when we’re safely dead. My only interest is a moral one. What does this election, in both senses of the word, say about us, about how we square our consciences with what we do?

Of course if free choice is just an illusion or democracy is just a charade then none of this matters. Turn the page, shoot up, and move on. But that’s a cop-out and I don’t buy it. If the human spirit means anything at all — and hey, maybe it just doesn’t — then it includes the ability to formulate and act upon moral obligations, however they are arrived at (and of course they will be arrived at differently by people depending on their circumstances and backgrounds), and to do so even — perhaps especially — in the face of great difficulty. I’m convinced that at the heart of our failure to do what is right, in this instance as in others, is a fundamental question of bad faith. We hide our own vested interests and guilty consciences, we mold evidence to our preconceptions, we ignore plain facts, because it suits us to do so. It suits us, always, to believe that other people are the problem. No one is willing to admit that the problem is us, that we act as we do because we benefit, unjustly, from our actions or our failure to act. And our lack of curiosity, our impatience with complex issues that require serious and nuanced consideration, our inability to see beyond our own limited frames of experience, these failures of imagination are, I’m convinced, also profound moral failures, because imagination is not simply a native faculty but also an act of will. We can’t imagine other possibilities because we aren’t telling the truth, either to others or to ourselves, about our real motives.

So why say any of this? (Who, in any case, listens to me?) And who am I to preach? What do I do that gives me the right to lecture others on their moral obligations, other than trot down to the polls every few years like a good boy and shoot my mouth off on extremely rare occasions? Is it somehow more morally admirable to recognize what is right and fail to act on it in any serious way than it is not to recognize what is right at all? The truth is that I consider myself morally utterly ordinary — perhaps not the worst, but definitely no saint — except in this one regard: that I refuse to “praise what is no good.” (The phrase is Paul Goodman’s, who also talked — and this was fifty years ago, before much else would happen — about how the United States was “like a conquered province,” except that we ourselves were responsible for the actions of the conquerors.) What has happened here is not right.

End of screed. Take it as you will.

Friday, November 04, 2016