Sunday, December 8, 2019

A Talking Bird is a Most Natural Thing

The Works of Edgar Allan Poe (April 1896)

It is nearly fifty years since the death of Edgar Allan Poe, and his writings are now for the first time gathered together with an attempt at accuracy and completeness. The alleged reason for this indifference to the claims of a writer who has received almost universal recognition is that the literary executors of Dr. Rufus B. Griswold, Poe's first editor, held until recently the copyright to his works. But in reading the various memoirs of which, at one time or another, Poe has been the subject, it appears that other causes have been at work. One and all, even the most flattering estimates of Poe's genius, are pervaded by a curious antipathy to him as a man, and this prejudice, no doubt, has been largely responsible for the absence of any serious demand on the part of the public for a fair representation of the author in his works. A part of the disfavor with which Poe is regarded is due to Dr. Griswold's biography; for of all men Poe had best reason to pray that he might be delivered from the hands of his friends. But still more is chargeable to the extraordinary confusion of the man with his work--of the ethical with the purely literary aspect--which is so characteristic of literary judgments in this country.

This puritanical tang is to be detected even in a study so conscientious as the Memoir by Professor Woodberry, which occupies the opening pages of the first volume of the new edition. However, unlike his predecessor, Professor Woodberry has not allowed his lack of sympathy with his subject to interfere with the precision of his editing. Every care has been given to the preparation of the text and the notes. Whenever obtainable, the exact date of publication of the various papers has been ascertained, as well as other facts of interest regarding them, although no new light is thrown upon the source of Poe's inspiration.

Benjamin Lacombre

Besides the Memoir by Professor Woodberry, the Tales, Criticisms, and Poems are severally preceded by a critical introduction by Mr. E.C. Stedman. These essays are distinguished by a very just appreciation of the merits and demerits of Poe as a writer. In effect, Mr. Stedman pronounces him a critic of exceptional ability, and agrees with the opinion of Mr. James Russell Lowell that Poe's more dispassionate judgments have all been justified by time. As a story-writer, Mr. Stedman considers that Poe's achievement fell short of his possibilities; he lacked the faculty of observation of real life, a defect for which his unique imaginative power in part compensated, but which will prevent his being classed among the greatest writers of fiction of his century. These qualities, however, appear in their proper aspect when he is regarded as a poet; they then fall into their right relation to his work, and are seen to have made him what he was, a master in his chosen field.

The imaginative illustrations have scarcely the quality of Poe's own creative genius, but the edition is well supplied with portraits of Poe, his wife, and his mother, as well as interesting views of places with which Poe's name is associated.

This edition is supposed to include all of Poe's writings which are of value. The Elk is here reprinted for the first time, while The Landscape Garden and The Pinakidia, a collection of quotations which struck Poe as important or suggestive, are omitted. Whatever may be thought of the omission of the first paper, that of the second is surely an error. It is conceded that not more than a half dozen of the tales, less than that number of the critical essays, and not all of the poems are of interest to the public at large. The sole reason, therefore, for publishing a complete edition of the works of Poe, as of any other writer, must be to increase the facilities for the student of the particular period in which he lived. To exclude writings in which an author has recorded the influences, however slight, which have moulded his thought is plainly to eliminate the chief reason for the compilation of such an edition. In this case, it amounts to an assumption on the part of editors and publishers alike that the last word in regard to Poe has been said. But as yet we have had no critical history of the intellectual development in this country during the past century. There remains, therefore, for the student of Poe's life and times, a field of research practically unexplored; and as long as this is the case it is impossible to form any conclusions in regard to him which can be considered final.

For Poe was essentially the product of his time. The intellectual activity which characterized the educated class in this country before 1860 was no sporadic instance, but the logical result of influences which belong to universal history. For example, when Goethe made his discovery of the unity of structure in organic life, it gave to the philosophers a physiological argument for the suppression of tyrants, and put the whole of creation on an equal footing. The French Revolution pointed the moral most effectually, and to the dullest mind brought a host of new deductions. These deductions necessarily involved a realization of the dignity and value of the individual, whether man or beast, and presented life in an entirely new aspect.

To us Americans these ideas came filtered through the mind of Coleridge, vivified by his enthusiasm. They found a fertile soil, and resulted in a growth of new ideas so vigorous and rapid that a kind of explosion of righteousness took place, which effectually and permanently upset some ancient and picturesque notions of might and right.

The so-called Transcendentalists of New England were the most conspicuous result of this new enthusiasm for the individual. In spite of his scorn for their pretensions, Edgar Allan Poe, in his way, was as deeply affected by the enthusiasm as the most radical among them. He was not, indeed, a reformer in the ordinary sense; he remained always, so to speak, just within the outer fringe of this new humanist movement. Its effect upon him was purely psychologic and the human mind became, in his estimation, a treasure-house of undreamed-of possibilities, which was but the poet's version of the value of the individual. Yet he was no more conscious of this than he was that Goethe's researches in natural history actuated him when, in imitation of Coleridge, he humanized his redoubtable raven. His mind was like a mirror in the precision with which it reflected the prevailing tendencies of his time, and with no more intention. The effect of Coleridge's influence on Poe has never been properly estimated. Professor Woodberry, it is true, accuses him of "parroting Coleridge," while Mr. James Russell Lowell also pointed out Poe's great indebtedness to him. Both critics, however, failed to appreciate the extent of this indebtedness. Not only did Coleridge exert a general influence, which Poe shared with every other man of letters in this country, but he transmitted a special and unique influence to him alone. This had already made of Coleridge a great poet, while to it Poe owes the tardy measure of fame which has been accorded him.

One aspect of the general influence which Coleridge exerted upon Poe is curiously exemplified in his poems from the time that he began to write. Coleridge was among the first to humanize nature. It was a fashion of the day, and a part of those tendencies of thought already briefly indicated. It arose, probably, from a haziness as to the limitations of self-consciousness. But whatever its cause, the idea strongly affected the poets, and animals, birds, plants, and insects were given human attributes, or were made to symbolize all kinds of abstractions. "Christabel," "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," and many of the political poems, such as "The Destiny of Nations"and "The Raven," are evidence of the attraction this notion possessed for Coleridge.

It apparently suited as well Poe's mystical turn of mind. "The Raven" is, of course, the most conspicuous instance, and in the Philosophy of Composition Poe assumes that a talking bird is the most natural thing in the world. In his so-called Juvenile Poems, printed about 1831, thirteen years before "The Raven" was published, he already makes use of birds as symbols of Nemesis or Destiny, and many of the passages are nearly identical in thought with some of Coleridge's lines. That Poe was familiar with the writings of Coleridge at that time is shown by his eulogistic reference to him in the preface to this early edition of his poems. The special influence which Coleridge had upon Poe relates to the development of his own poetical genius, and, to be understood, requires a short digression from the main subject.

About 1773, Gottfried August Bürger, a poor student at Göttingen, wrote a ballad under the title of "Lenore." The composition of this ballad was due to Herder's famous appeal to the poets of Germany for the development of a national spirit in poetry. "Lenore"was modeled upon the ancient ballad forms as Bürger found them in the collections of Bishop Percy, Motherwell, and Ossian. From these and other relics of folk-songs, as well as from the study of Shakespeare, he evolved a theory as to the requirements of a poem which should endure,--a poem, in short, which should possess a universal, and therefore a national interest. The ballad was written in strict accord with the theory, and its success justified its author's conclusions. It was sung and recited by all classes throughout Germany, and its author, according to Madame de Staël, was more famous than Goethe. The poem was translated into nearly every language. In England it had seven different translators, among them Sir Walter Scott and Pye the poet laureate. It was set to music in many forms, and is said to have inspired The Erl King of Schubert. To the artists it was equally suggestive. Ary Scheffer and Horace Vernet both painted pictures which had for their subjects some episode in the poem, while two of the greatest illustrators of the day, Maclise and Bartolozzi, found it worthy of their best efforts.

Nor did the poets escape its influence. In England, Keats, Shelley, Southey, Coleridge, and Wordsworth either imitated or were inspired by it. Coleridge and Wordsworth were of all most deeply affected by its influence. From the evidence at hand it is apparent that the two poets based their famous new departure in poetry upon Bürger's poetic theory, which had been formulated in the preface to the second edition of his volume containing Lenore; also, that Coleridge's greatest poems, including "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" and "Christabel," were its direct result. It is this theory which is the foundation of Poe's Philosophy of Composition, and Poe was the third poet to be made famous by the careful application of it to his work. It is a striking confirmation of these facts that the productions in which Poe most faithfully conformed to the rules laid down by Burger are of all his writings those which have been considered by the critics as best worth preserving.

The famous theory whose effects have been so far-reaching is extremely simple. It is based upon a fundamental principle of aesthetics, that art, to endure, must deal with experiences common to all men. Simplicity of phrase, the narrative form, the refrain, and particularly the use of the supernatural are the ancient and essential means for the accomplishment of this end.

Bürger's poems were well known in this country before 1840, but Poe undoubtedly received his knowledge of the theory from Madame de Staël and from The Lyrical Ballads. This, it will be remembered, is the volume of poems whose publication in 1798 marked the apostasy of Wordsworth and Coleridge from the classic models. In the appendix to the second edition their reasons are set forth at length, and Bürger's ideas are referred to with enthusiasm. It is this explanation which Poe quotes in the introduction to his Juvenile Poems. The succession therefore, is uninterrupted: Bürger formulated his theory in the essay prefixed to the edition of his poems published in 1778; Coleridge and Wordsworth applied it and quoted it in The Lyrical Ballads in 1800; while Poe, in his turn quoted it, as adopted by Wordsworth and Coleridge, in the preface to the edition of his poems in 1831, and finally by its complete application made the chief success of his life.

It is clear from this that Poe was far from being the literary mountebank he is generally pictured. From his earliest youth he seems to have been actuated by a unity of purpose, an unswerving application of proven means to a desired end, which indicates in him the possession of qualities that are even Philistine, so respectable are they. As for Poe's weaknesses, some day, perhaps, they may find a critic such as François Villon found in Stevenson, and Coleridge in Walter Pater, who will judge them together with his genius as alike the expression of a nature too keenly responsive to the exigencies of life.

In the mean time, satisfactory as the new edition of Poe's works undoubtedly is to the general reader, we shall hope it may some day be supplemented by the republication of the papers now omitted, with the suggestion of new light to be thrown upon the tendencies of the period in which Poe lived.

Credits: This article first appear in The Atlantic Monthly.

Monday, November 18, 2019

The Diary of a Mad Dancer: Nijinsky in Praise of Mistakes

Adam Phillips

Psychiatry has been so demeaning when it has sought to classify those people who have suffered most acutely throughout their lives from spurious classification: At its best, it misrecognizes those who have the most to tell us about misrecognition. If Joan Acocella, in her useful introduction to this extraordinary book, can agree unreservedly with psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler’s description of Vaslav Nijinsky–”confused schizophrenic with mild manic excitement”–it may be partly because we still can’t find good enough analogies for what the people who disturb us most are like. To treat the so-called mad as oracles is as diminishing in its own way as scapegoating them.

Now that the agony and the tedium of “madness” are evident, now that its waste is recognized as often being in excess of its revelations, it may be just the right time for this first, and excellent, translation of Nijinsky’s complete diary. Where previously we had his wife’s understandably expurgated edition, here we have Nijinsky with his shames intact, as it were. “Nijinsky,” Ms. Acocella remarks, “has become one of the most famous men of the century, but never was so much artistic fame based on so little artistic evidence: one 11-minute ballet, The Afternoon of a Faun , plus some photographs.” The erotic mystique of choreography–moving and placing bodies, relinquishing words as the medium of contact–combined with Nijinsky’s inspired instincts as a dancer, made him instantly fascinating to people. But as the Diary poignantly shows, this very fascination also made people inattentive to him. As a dancer he was famous for his jumps, those long pauses that seemed to defy gravity (in both senses); his “madness” at 30 seemed of a piece: Such daring and poise could never be sustained.

The consoling myth of genius–fantasies of hubris and punishment that make us lump together the inspiringly mad (Friedrich Nietzsche, Antonin Artaud, etc.) because their extreme singularity, their extreme worldliness stuns us–the myth is usefully exploded by even the most cursory reading of the Diary. The jumps in Nijinsky’s writing, the mixed magic of transitions, the way he moves the reader through to a climax of nonsense, are themselves a subtle commentary on the forces of progress (and profit) that had driven Europe into the devastations of the First World War. The Diary, that is to say, is not in any puerile sense a case history; begun in the immediate aftermath of the war and recording Nijinsky’s spiral into 30 years of invalidism, it is rather a dramatic monologue of a remarkable man devastated by his world. It often sounds like "The Wasteland" but written by Feodor Dostoevsky.

The Diary is at once insistently tedious in its obsessions and endlessly fascinating in the cunning of its artfulness. Nijinsky intrigues us and puts us off–indeed, he intrigues us by putting us off, as though all the time he were daring the reader to be sufficiently interested in him, to find out what will happen if we follow him. The Diary, in other words, is clearly written by someone who knows that those around him–mostly his wife and her parents, his daughter and his doctor–are beginning to think of him as mad. It is the text of a terminally scrutinized man, a man adored as a great dancer who is gradually becoming the object of a different kind of concerned attention. So it is perhaps not surprising, given the glare of specialness he has lived under, that the abiding preoccupation of the Diary is what people want from him. He is writing about the paradoxes of perfectionism.

It is a book by a perfectionist, in praise of mistakes. “When everything I am now writing is published, with its mistakes, I will correct it all. I wanted it to have mistakes and therefore put them in on purpose.” It is part of the wonderful logic of this that he can have it both ways by acknowledging that he can’t have it both ways. He tells us he believes in his mistakes, but he will eventually correct them–without telling us what they are.

There is a terrifying shrewdness about his logic. He writes like a man who has understood his audience so well that he can no longer perform for them. As though what they want from him reveals something impossible about wanting. “I like mistakes,” he writes in one of the letters that the Diary turns into, “because I want people to understand me. If I write without mistakes, people will think that I am a madman.” What people “understand” is imperfection, vulnerability; and yet now he must calculate his mistakes to assure people that he is not mad. In this self-protective second-guessing of the audience, he is no longer free to make genuine mistakes. If you don’t make mistakes, people give up on trying to understand you, so you are mad. “I am,” he writes, “a Napoleon who forgives mistakes.” This is the ordinary megalomania of so-called madness, but of an unusual subtlety.

When Nijinsky is God in this Diary , as he is all too often (“I am God. I am the spirit. I am everything”)–it is always nuanced by his interest in error, by his sense that perfectionism is a form of hatred. If God, by definition, doesn’t make mistakes, then He is mad. “I like perfecting things,” Nijinsky writes as a virtual God, “I do not like things.”

If you like perfecting things, it means you don’t like them. Nijinsky’s life seems to have been a chronicle of people–from his mother to Sergei Diaghilev to his wife–who urged him on to perfection. Dance was the only place, apart from this Diary , in which he could explore the terrible nature of their demand. It is not, therefore, incidental that this unexpurgated translation of the Diary reveals Nijinsky’s seemingly compulsive and (to him) shameful obsession with prostitutes (an obsession his wife air-brushed out of the version she published).

Having once felt like Diaghilev’s tart and having sought out prostitutes when he was touring in Paris with the Ballets Russes, the prospect of being sent to Zurich by his wife for psychiatric treatment brings one thing, above all, to mind: “I will not be writing in Zurich,” he writes, “because I am very interested in that town. I will go to a brothel because I want to have an intuitive understanding of tarts. I have forgotten tarts. I want to understand the psychology of a tart.” Nijinsky knew that what he needed to understand–or rather, to remind himself of–was the psychology of the prostitute. And he knew that this was the key to understanding not merely his own predicament, but also the mad “materialism” of prewar and postwar Europe that he so despises in the Diary . It was as though Nijinsky somehow realized that the response to him as a dancer was itself a symptom of something larger and more daunting. And once he could no longer use dancing to explore the problem his dancing had exposed, he had two options: conversion to a then fashionable Tolstoyism (spiritual vegetarian pacifism) or the (almost) muted violence of madness. His devout Tolstoyism couldn’t stanch the wound created by the image everywhere of the exploited body. The Diary becomes a last eloquent rant of the once-poised body finally humiliated.

“I am,” Nijinsky writes, “a simple feeling that everyone has.” Read for the unadorned poignancy of his predicament, or for the intricate canniness of his “mad” logic, the Diary is an extraordinary work, like a novel by Thomas Bernhard. The rhythm of its obsessions is integral to its power–it is, again, a dramatic monologue and could easily be performed as such.

The struggle to articulate is always a kind of madness. Nijinsky may have had to actually go mad because there was no one in the vicinity who could even acknowledge that fact. “The man who is right,” Nijinsky wrote, “is the one who feels but does not understand.” Music and dance make one believe this to be true; but the fascism that followed on from the war made that kind of truth horrifying. Nothing could be at once more belated, or more timely than this remarkable Diary.

Credits:  This book review of The Diary of Vaslav Nijinsky, unexpurgated edition translated from the Russian by Kyril Fitzlyon, edited by Joan Acocella (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) was originally published in Observer in 1999.

Monday, November 4, 2019

‘She was right to regard me with contempt’

Richard Pithouse

Pablo Neruda wrote in green ink, usually on a rough-hewn wooden table. From unremarkable provincial origins in Temuco, “the farthest outpost of Chilean life in the southern territories … where the rain fell, like long needles of glass snapping off on the roofs”, a tall, shy boy wrote himself, Chile and Latin America into the world.

Rodolfo Opazo

In 1924, at the age of 19 Neruda had written what is now the most popular volume of poems yet published in Spanish — Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair. The 1994 film Il Postino made it hugely popular in English translation and launched a relentless avalanche of attempts at seduction involving reference to “sad nets” cast into “oceanic eyes”, and break-up emails with the subject line “Tonight I can write the saddest lines”.

Gabriel García Márquez affirmed Neruda as “the greatest poet of the 20th century in any language”. Neruda’s weight as a writer is such that one doesn’t have to set out to read Neruda to encounter him. Neruda is the Poet in Isabel Allende’s House of Spirits.
His influence can be heard in the lyrics of the debut Juluka album, Universal Men, first released in 1979. In The Simpsons Lisa quotes Neruda, reads Jean-Paul Sartre and listens to Miles Davis.

Neruda had a portrait of Walt Whitman hung in each of his three homes in Chile. In his home in the village of Isla Negra, above the Pacific, he kept three photographs on a table set against a window — Whitman as a young man, Whitman as a greybeard and Arthur Rimbaud at 17, a picture taken seven months after the slaughter of the Communards in Paris.

Neruda bought every copy of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass that he came across, and owned a first edition from 1855. He sought to do for the South what Whitman had done for the North. He wrote Latin America into the world with an extraordinary sense of the marvellous, an emerald perspective of buried jaguars, subjugated snows, torrents of sunbursts, and an abundance of roots and moons — the moon scarred, quartz, crystal, hot, cool, white, red and moist. Neruda wrote beyond his home, his name and his language, and into “the oneness of the ocean, a generous, vast wholeness, a crackling, living fragrance”. He wrote to give dignity to the ordinary — to the tomato, the lemon, salt, a rooster, a large tuna in the market, the light on the sea, a gentle bricklayer, a woman gardening and an aged poet.

Neruda read in factories and, from Santiago to Sao Paulo, in stadiums. In 1971 he was awarded the Nobel prize for ‘”a poetry that with the action of an elemental force brings alive a continent’s destiny and dreams”. In his acceptance speech he affirmed his affiliation to Rimbaud’s vision: “In the dawn, armed with a burning patience, we shall enter the splendid Cities”. He declared that his “duties as a poet involve friendship not only with the rose and with symmetry, with exalted love and endless longing”, but also a “taking sides” with the “organised masses of the people” in struggle against the “condemnation of centuries” and for “justice and dignity”.

Neruda’s political commitment had begun to cohere during the Spanish Civil War. Before the war he lived, as a diplomat, in Madrid, in a suburb “with bells, and clocks and trees” in a house with ‘”dogs and children”, a house “called the house of flowers, because in every cranny geraniums burst”. He shared friendships with Federico García Lorca and César Vallejo. The war brought “dead houses”, “blood in the streets” and a “proletariat of petals and bullets, alone alive, somnolent, resounding’”. The execution of Lorca by the fascists in 1936 pushed him into open support for the Republic. In 1945 he joined the Communist Party.

Alain Badiou, the French philosopher, understands the poem “as diction of being”, or “the song of thought”. He observes that “some truly great poets ... have been Communists” and offers the example of Neruda along with Nâzim Hikmet in Turkey, Rafael Alberti in Spain, Edoardo Sanguineti in Italy, Yannis Ritsos in Greece, Ai Qing in China, Mahmoud Darwish in Palestine, César Vallejo in Peru and Bertolt Brecht in Germany.Badiou offers no explanation for providing a list made up exclusively of men, or, even on those terms, the striking omission of Aimé Césaire in Martinique.

Badiou affirms “an essential link between poetry and communism, if we understand ‘communism’ closely in its primary sense: the concern for what is common to all”. In the work of the great communist poets he discerns “the poetic desire that the things of life would be like the sky and the earth, like the water of the oceans and the brush fires on a summer night — that is to say, would belong by right to the whole world”. This formulation sits very well with much of Neruda’s work.

Many militants have taken the poem into struggle, and life around struggle. Che Guevara read Neruda to his first lover, at 17, and, throughout his life, often carried Neruda’s works, and gave copies of them as gifts. During the guerrilla war in the Sierra Maestra Guevara read from Canto General, Neruda’s 10th collection of poems, and arguably his most ambitious, to his soldiers in the evenings. Before he left for Bolivia in 1966 Guevara recorded a spoken selection of love poems, mostly from Neruda, on to a tape recorder for his wife.

It is just over half a century since Guevara was wounded, and then captured, in the potato patch of a tiny Bolivian village. The next morning he was executed on the orders of the CIA. After a little less than a year in the mountains Guevara’s small group of guerrillas were not in a good state. When Guevara was captured the record of the contents of his backpack was brief — some film, a broken radio, a few maps, two diaries and a green notebook.

Guevara had bought the notebook when he was in Dar es Salaam in late 1966, to meet with Frelimo. In the notebook, transcribed in Guevara’s hand, were 69 poems by four poets. They included Nicolás Guillén, César Vallejo, and León Felipe, but the bulk of the poems were by Pablo Neruda. The CIA initially assumed that the poems must have been some sort of code. But, after frantic efforts to decode the notebook failed, they eventually concluded that there was no deeper meaning to be discerned in the green notebook beyond the fact that Guevara was the kind of man who takes poems into battle.

Neruda’s political commitments brought him into a decisive confrontation with history in 1970 when Salvadore Allende, a democratic socialist, won the presidency in Chile. On September 11 1973 a United States-backed military coup ended this experiment in democratic socialism, and Allende’s life. Neruda’s home was desecrated by the military, and 12 days after the coup, and Allende’s death, Neruda himself was dead. It is now thought that he may have been poisoned. His funeral became the last open demonstration in support of the deposed government.

In what has been speculated to be his last poem, published after his death, he wrote that his country was “on the naked edge of her knife”, enduring a time when “heroes hop around like toads”. His “last call” was “to the garden, comrade, to the pale lily,/ to the apple tree, to the intransigent carnation, to the fragrance of lemon blossoms,/ and then to the ultimatums of war”.

In life and in death Neruda has, like Pablo Picasso, been held to account for his support for Joseph Stalin. When Stalin died in 1953 Neruda wrote an execrable poem in his honour. Lines like “Stalin is the noon, the maturity of man and the peoples. Stalinists, Let us bear this title with pride” have been excoriated for what they are, doggerel written in service of an authoritarian counterrevolution.

But it is only since 2011 that, generally in entirely marginal spaces, Neruda has begun to be understood in terms of his own account of a rape he committed when he was a diplomat in what was then Ceylon in 1928. For almost 40 years the rape was simultaneously in plain sight and ignored as if it were of no consequence. Neruda gives an account of it in his memoirs, which were published after his death in Spanish in 1974, and translated into English in 1977.

He describes the woman who came to clean out his toilet each morning with all the rhetorical excesses of the most baroque Orientalism — she is simultaneously presented as a goddess and a wild animal, a being from “another existence, a separate world”. He writes that: “One morning, I decided to go for all, and grabbed her by the wrist ... The encounter was like that of a man and a statue. She kept her eyes open throughout, unmoved. She was right to regard me with contempt.”

As a growing global movement serves notice on the ubiquity of predatory forms of sexuality we must take full measure of the weight of the fact, a fact that an incoming tide of feminist courage has placed on the other side of silence and in plain sight, that no space or project is immune to its ravages.

The family, the church, the university, the arts, and many forms of real commitment to urgent dimensions of emancipation, offer no guarantee of sanctuary. For Frantz Fanon, a prospect “is human because conscious and sovereign persons dwell therein”. That always has to mean, without exception, women and men, and it always has to include, again without exception, public life and private intimacies.

Credits:  This article was originally published in 2017 in Mail&Guardian.  

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Natasha Wimmer's "On Manuel Puig"

     Manuel Puig occupies a curious place in Latin American literature. Chronologically, he should be a member of the Boom generation, but he’s rarely included in the usual catalog of Boom writers (Gabriel García Márquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, Carlos Fuentes). This is not because he was less prominent, though since the 1980s his reputation has faded a little. His novels—especially Kiss of the Spider Woman (1976)—were internationally acclaimed and widely read. He was a genuinely popular writer while at the same time a radical innovator, with a subversive take on sexual and domestic affairs. Kiss of the Spider Woman was notorious for its frank depiction of a love affair between two prisoners; Betrayed by Rita Hayworth (1968) and Heartbreak Tango (1969), his first two novels, are kitschy tributes to the Argentina of his youth; his third, The Buenos Aires Affair (1973), is a frothy, Freudian noir.

     From the perspective of some critics, the trouble with Puig wasn’t that he wrote about homosexuals and housewives. It was that he didn’t write about them seriously. His protagonists weren’t so much persecuted heroes or twisted victims (though they were that, too) as they were creatures of sentiment—and, often, figures of fun. What disqualified Puig (implicitly) as a member of the Boom was his lack of gravitas, both in fiction and in life. In a New York Times review of Suzanne Jill Levine’s highly entertaining and essential biography, Manuel Puig and the Spider Woman: His Life and Fictions (2000), Vargas Llosa writes disapprovingly about what he sees as Puig’s lack of dedication to the world of books: “Of all the writers I have known, the one who seemed least interested in literature was Manuel Puig (1932–90). He never talked about authors or books, and when a literary topic came up in conversation he would look bored and change the subject.” As Francisco Goldman points out in his excellent introduction to Heartbreak Tango, one of three Puig novels recently reissued by Dalkey Archive, this was unfair and ungenerous. Of all the writers of the Boom, Vargas Llosa might have been expected to understand and appreciate Puig, because he too has occasionally embraced what might be called the literature of cursi.
     Cursi is possibly my favorite word in Spanish, and one of the most difficult to translate. Depending on the context, it might mean sentimental or prissy or precious or affected. It is the polar opposite of macho, which is the more familiar strain (at least abroad) of Spanish and Latin American culture. And yet cursi has a substantial history in Spanish-language fiction and poetry. The nineteenth century was its heyday, with novels like the tragic idyll María by the Colombian writer Jorge Isaacs and verse by the arch-cursi Spanish poet Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer. Not coincidentally, Puig refers to Isaacs and Bécquer in Betrayed by Rita Hayworth and The Buenos Aires Affair, respectively, the other two novels republished by Dalkey Archive. The literature of cursi blossomed again in the twentieth century, with Puig’s novels and work by writers like Alfredo Bryce Echenique, the delicious Jaime Bayly (as yet untranslated; for those who read Spanish, Yo amo a mi mami is the one to start with) and—yes—Vargas Llosa (Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, most felicitously, but also the more recent The Bad Girl).
     As Levine’s biography demonstrates, Vargas Llosa’s claim that Puig was uninterested in literature is untrue. As a boy in General Villegas, a backwater town on the Argentine pampa, Puig read the European novelists of alienation then in vogue (Hesse, Huxley, Sartre, etc.); while writing his first novel, he immersed himself in Argentine literature (much of which he characterized as “pretentious crap”) and the Modernist Hispanic poets. His literary ambitions are plain in his elaborately structured novels; the books are not, as Vargas Llosa claimed, “light literature [with] no other purpose than to entertain.” And yet there is something to Vargas Llosa’s assertion that Puig didn’t care about literature. He never relished reading in the way that he relished the movies. As Levine describes his library in later life, “the only…books he collected were biographies of producers and actresses—and most of the shelf space in the apartment was devoted to his growing videoteca.”
     Puig learned to love the movies at the theater in General Villegas, which he visited almost every evening with his mother. The movies he saw were the classics of the 1930s and ’40s, especially the melodramas; his favorite actresses were Luise Rainer, Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford and Greer Garson. He didn’t like Rita Hayworth at first, finding her “beautiful, but not trustworthy,” according to Levine. But later he learned to appreciate her, and even to identify with her, torn as she was between Hollywood and her Hispanic roots. For the rest of his life, he would view everything through the filter of the celluloid screen. It’s hard to overstate how thoroughly his life was suffused with the lore of classic Hollywood. Acquaintances were assigned actress alter egos (Puig was Sally, after Sally Bowles from Cabaret, and later—naturally—Rita); arguments over performances could ruin old friendships (“he was allowed to berate his ladies, but no one else could,” Levine writes). His novels are drenched in references to films, and they make constant use of movie-script pacing, Hollywood stage-setting and cinematic imagery.
     Until he was 30, Puig planned to make a career for himself in the movies as a director or screenwriter. He won a scholarship to study film in Rome, but he was discouraged by the crushing dominance of neorealist filmmaking. Still, he didn’t give up. For years he labored over screenplays, translating subtitles and taking odd jobs to make a living. Though his film career eventually fizzled, his sojourn in Rome was the beginning of a globe-trotting existence that would take him to London and then to New York, where he found a day job that suited him nicely: as an Air France desk clerk at Idlewild, where he could chat with starlets and rack up free flights. Air travel was as glamorous as the movies in those days, but the job would eventually provide the literary establishment with another excuse to sneer at Puig. Somehow, nothing could seem further from the center of the Boom than a small apartment in Kew Gardens, Queens.
     Sometime in 1962, one of the screenplays Puig was working on turned into a novel. The catalyst was a voice—that of Puig’s aunt, gossiping in the laundry room. The words just kept coming until they had filled nearly thirty pages. “By the second day it was clearly a novel…. I needed to explain my childhood and why I was in Rome, thirty years old, without a career, without money and discovering that the vocation of my life—movies—had been a mistake.” This was the genesis of Betrayed by Rita Hayworth, which is the most autobiographical of Puig’s novels. It found its first champions in France, where the Cuban writer Severo Sarduy helped get it published; but it encountered more hurdles in Argentina, where it appeared to little fanfare in 1968. Heartbreak Tango, however, was a bestseller there, and Betrayed by Rita Hayworth soon followed suit. The Buenos Aires Affair came out three years later, in 1973, but was censored on the eve of military dictatorship in Argentina.
* * *
     One day, while writing this review, I was distracted in a café by a conversation about a woman engaged to be married. “I don’t know much about him,” said one gossiper about the woman’s fiancé, “but what I do know is all bad.” “Maybe happiness isn’t her main priority,” replied the other. “She’d rather have nice things.” “She knows that she’s making a mistake, but she doesn’t care.” Before five minutes had gone by, a novel (even a Puig novel!) was taking shape.
     For many people—and certainly for Puig as a boy in small-town Argentina—the first and most absorbing form of storytelling is gossip: tales (almost always told by women) about romances and breakups, scandals and humiliations. There is an endless fascination in parsing other people’s lives, comparing them to ours, rendering judgment and imagining how our own lives might be judged. In Betrayed by Rita Hayworth, Puig captures the human inclination to peer and weigh and compare, while taking advantage of that same inclination in his readers. The novel revolves around Toto Casals, the pampered son of a relatively prosperous family in a town like General Villegas, but it is told mostly in the voices of those around him: Toto’s nursemaid, Felisa; his mother, Mita; his cousin Teté; and his piano teacher, Herminia, among others. By narrating in the form of conversations, letters and monologues, Puig turns the reader into an eavesdropper, a recipient of confidences.
     The novel shows an instinctive sympathy for those who are playing a part or searching for the proper trappings for the lives they hope to lead. Nearly all the characters shift back and forth between reality and a fantasy existence that unspools simultaneously, playing out on an inner screen. This fantasy existence may be just a notch above reality (Delia, a penny-pinching Casals family friend, visualizes cannelloni stuffed with “expensive really expensive meat”) or dizzyingly Hollywoodesque (9-year-old Toto fantasizes about life with a friend’s handsome uncle and Luise Rainer in a cabin in a snowy forest). Esther, one of Toto’s schoolmates, bitterly abandons dreams of jazz clubs and mink muffs for a more utilitarian Peronist vision of becoming a “little lady doctor.” Despite all the fantasies (or as a result of them), a recurring theme is resignation. Character after character comes to terms with a disappointing fate, as Puig was coming to terms with the failure of his movie career.
     Betrayed by Rita Hayworth is perhaps Puig’s most lyrical novel, with its series of interior monologues. Because Puig’s writing (here and elsewhere) relies so heavily on voice, it presents serious difficulties for the translator. Puig recognized as much when he had to deal with the translation of Kiss of the Spider Woman into English: “The kitsch aspect of Molina’s voice doesn’t come out in direct translation, it has to be completely re-created…. There’s so much to rethink in English it gives me mental cramps.” For his first three novels, he worked closely with Levine, who does an exemplary job (it helps that she and Puig share a gleeful love of wordplay and innuendo). Still, there’s no denying that the literature of cursi, light and delicate as a soufflé and just as sensitive to jiggling, suffers more in translation than more ponderous fiction.
     One of the first sections of Betrayed by Rita Hayworth takes the form of a one-sided telephone conversation, in which the reader must guess at what her interlocutor is saying. This is a typical Puig device, in which he uses his natural talent for ventriloquism to draw us in while artfully deploying a series of ellipses to keep us guessing. There’s something flirtatious about this technique, and it isn’t surprising to learn that he arrived at it through insecurity. As Levine explains in the biography, Puig was afraid that he would make mistakes or sound silly if he wrote in a standard third person, so he channeled his writing through the voices of the people he knew growing up, writing in “voice-over,” as he put it. Especially early in his career, he seems to have been uncomfortably conscious of playing the role of “author,” as if it were just another fantasy existence he was trying on for size.
     Heartbreak Tango is also elaborately structured, this time in “episodes,” like a radio serial, though they may be styled as letters, police reports or conversations. All of this scaffolding supports a tale of unrequited love—or several of them, all centered on an unworthy love object: lazy, shallow Juan Carlos Etchepare, who is slowly wasting away from tuberculosis. Juan Carlos’s most sincere pursuer is Nené Fernández de Massa, a packer at the general store. She is interesting by virtue of her sheer ordinariness, which Puig conveys with poignance and delicacy. His moment-by-moment chronicle of her thoughts is perfectly banal, and yet it absorbs us in the same way that we are absorbed by our own thoughts.
     What elevates Nené is the intensity of her longing for Juan Carlos, which persists for ten years after their unhappy parting. When she receives news of his death, she begins a correspondence with his mother, confiding in her all the disappointments of married life (because Nené, in the end, settles for a man she doesn’t love). Throughout his fiction, Puig is fascinated by the divide between those who pair off and embark on a life of domesticity and those who choose (or are fated) to remain alone. Nené is perhaps his most fully imagined exemplar of the domestic life, the path Puig never chose, though he did fret about ending up an “old maid.”
     Nené aside, the other characters in Heartbreak Tango are somewhat cartoonish: consumptive layabout Juan Carlos; his broad-shouldered working-class friend Pancho; spiteful spinster Mabel; wide-assed, mulish maid Fanny. “Cartoonish” is a complicated label to apply to Puig, because his real-life persona was even more extravagant than his fictional creations. One of the lessons to be learned from reading Puig is that gushy sentiment can also be genuine sentiment, and that currents of real longing can be hidden behind showy displays of emotion. Then again, sometimes a performance is just that. Kitschy posturing gives way to real poignance in a late chapter, when Mabel comes to visit Nené in Buenos Aires. Both women were once in love with Juan Carlos; Nené is now married with two small children and Mabel is engaged. Nené lives in an ordinary middle-class apartment and her children are “a bit homely,” by Nené’s own admission. Mabel has settled for marriage to a man she doesn’t care about in order to escape spinsterhood. Puig ends the chapter with a crude joke, making a mockery of Nené’s adoration of Juan Carlos; but her love nonetheless burns pure in the novel, not spoiled by her marriage of convenience but rather enshrined and gradually replaced by a more ordinary love of family.
     Love—and particularly love in the form of longing—is a dramatic mainstay of Puig’s fiction, but the gravitational force of his novels is companionship. Even when Mabel and Nené are trading barbs couched in the form of polite conversation (“With profound satisfaction Nené confirmed that they were talking from one humbug to another”), the reader settles happily into their comfortable back-and-forth. Conversation is the most convincing representation of affection in the novels. Their most memorable scenes are all scenes of conversation: the lengthy prison exchanges between Molina, a homosexual convicted on morals charges, and Valentín, a leftist revolutionary, in Kiss of the Spider Woman; the gently bitchy back-and-forth between two elderly sisters in Puig’s last novel, Tropical Night Falling; the conversation at the start of Betrayed by Rita Hayworth around Toto’s grandmother’s table.
* * *
     If Heartbreak Tango is a study of domestic life, The Buenos Aires Affair is an exploration of the fate of loners. Gladys Hebe D’Onofrio, a complex-ridden 35-year-old sculptor living with her mother, becomes involved with Leo Druscovich, an art critic afflicted by outbursts of sadistic rage. Each character’s story is presented in the form of a case study, punctuated by new iterations of Puig’s familiar devices: interviews, phone conversations, newspaper excerpts. Vargas Llosa judges this to be the best of Puig’s novels, and it is especially polished and structurally complex. It is also Puig’s most intellectually ambitious novel, with its explorations of politics (Peronism) and psychology (Freudianism).
     There’s a scene from the novel that gives a good sense of Puig’s particular brand of audacity. In it, Gladys masturbates while running through a fifteen-page series of fantasies—from visions of a bricklayer moonlighting as a nude model to images of a janitor hauling boxes—complete with running footnotes on her progress toward orgasm (“Gladys again introduces a finger into her sex organ”). Scenes of men masturbating have plenty of comic currency, but scenes of women masturbating are still rare, even nearly forty years after the publication of The Buenos Aires Affair. Here and elsewhere, Puig has a knack for demurely courting scandal. His success at this has to do with his blend of sentimentalism and clinical detachment, which gives a prickly edge even to tame scenes.
     Leo’s story reads a bit like a Freudian primer: his inability to climax sexually except in situations where violence is threatened is explored at length. (Puig was very interested in psychoanalytic explanations of human behavior: a number of readers urged him to cut his lengthy scholarly footnotes to Kiss of the Spider Woman, but he was adamant about educating the public.) Gladys, too, is frustrated by a lack of sexual fulfillment. Puig details her less-than-satisfactory relations with six men in the United States (“Gladys had sexual intercourse with six men in the following order…”), where she goes on scholarship; her romantic failures lead to a breakdown and subsequent return to Argentina. It doesn’t help that she’s attacked and loses an eye in the United States (her eye patch gives her a camp allure). Naturally, sadistic Leo and masochistic Gladys embark on a doomed romance.
     Puig’s pseudo-scientific yet sympathetic portrayal of characters with marked vulnerabilities and pathologies finds an echo in novels by younger writers (notably Roberto Bolaño, especially in Nazi Literature in the Americas, and David Foster Wallace, who was a confirmed admirer of Puig). Gladys and Leo are hardly likable characters, and their unpleasant quirks and failures are satisfyingly unromanticized. This doesn’t mean that they’re exactly realistic. Gladys may be a thoroughly modern creation, as evidenced by her search for meaning in a series of emphatically untranscendent sexual encounters, but she also inhabits a Hollywood fantasy world, especially in the scenes set at the Argentine beach house from which Leo abducts her. Puig’s rolling pan through spaces and rooms described like static stage sets give the novel a weird, unsettling air.
* * *
     As Puig got older, his life revolved more and more around movies. In her biography, Levine amusingly chronicles his eager early adoption of the VCR. From his apartment in Brazil, where he moved in 1980, he set up a worldwide network of friends (his esclavitas, or little slaves) willing to record televised movies for him. Often, he accepted speaking gigs only because they coincided with video conventions. His videoteca, while extensive, was far from archival quality: he liked to fill every cassette completely, frequently recording two movies and part of a third on one tape. These assiduously collected films were viewed at his apartment, where he presided over a “cine club” for family and friends.
     At some point in my reading of Puig, I began to wonder what these movies looked like to him. Clearly he saw the artifice and appreciated it as such, but his beloved Hollywood productions were also more real to him than life itself. They weren’t realistic, but at the same time they contained moments (Hedy Lamarr adjusting her hat, for example) that encapsulated a reality more intense than anything one could possibly experience in daily life. Movies weren’t a model for living. They were too perfect for that. The only way for a human to approach their heightened reality was to talk about them, and the purest form of talking about them was simply to retell them. It’s no accident that Kiss of the Spider Woman, which is almost entirely a series of retellings of movies (real and invented) is also—paradoxically—Puig’s most realistic novel.
     Those Hollywood movies were fundamentally cursi, of course. Actresses flounced and glared and tossed their hair. Actors smoldered and cursed and bantered. Puig borrowed from their ranks to assemble a giddy MGM lineup of Boom writers for his friend the Cuban writer Guillermo Cabrera Infante. Cortázar was Hedy Lamarr (“Beautiful but icy and remote”); Fuentes was Ava Gardner (“Glamour surrounds her but can she act?”); García Márquez was Liz Taylor (“Beautiful face but such short legs”); Vargas Llosa was Esther Williams (“Oh so disciplined (and boring)”). He included himself, as Julie Christie: “A great actress, but since she has found the right man for her (Warren Beatty) she doesn’t act anymore. Her luck in love matters is the envy of all the other MGM stars.”
     This fluff has bite, and the same can be said about Puig’s novels. The cursi literature of Latin America (with Manuel as one of its matriarchs) will strike readers who’ve only read the more familiar contemporary Latin American classics as bracingly new but also familiar—even homey. Its strangeness lies in the details of life as lived by others who greatly resemble ourselves but whose assumptions (personal and cultural) are ever so slightly different. It is as startling as a conversation overheard that at once confirms and adjusts our perception of ourselves.
Credits:  This article was first published in The Nation in 2011.

Thursday, September 26, 2019

How George Orwell Predicted the Challenge of Writing Today

Masha Gessen

Some essays are letters into the future. “The Prevention of Literature” is one such essay, and today I’d like to respond to it from 2018.

Orwell argues that totalitarianism makes literature impossible. By literature, he means all kinds of writing in prose, from imaginative fiction to political journalism; he suggests that verse might slip through the cracks. He writes, too, that there is such a thing as “groups of people who have adopted a totalitarian outlook”—single-truth communities of sorts, not just totalitarian regimes or entire countries. These are deadly to literature as well.

Orwell was writing in 1946, five or seven years before scholarly works by Hannah Arendt, on the one hand, and Karl Friedrich, on the other, provided the definitions of totalitarianism that are still in use today. Orwell’s own “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” which provides the visceral understanding of totalitarianism that we still conjure up today, was a couple of years away. Orwell was in the process of imagining totalitarianism—he had, of course, never lived in a totalitarian society.

He imagined two major traits of totalitarian societies: one is lying, and the other is what he called schizophrenia. He wrote, “The organized lying practiced by totalitarian states is not, as it is sometimes claimed, a temporary expedient of the same nature as military deception. It is something integral to totalitarianism, something that would still continue even if concentration camps and secret police forces had ceased to be necessary.” The lying entailed constantly rewriting the past to accommodate the present. “This kind of thing happens everywhere,” he wrote, “but is clearly likelier to lead to outright falsification in societies where only one opinion is permissible at any given moment. Totalitarianism demands, in fact, the continuous alteration of the past, and in the long run probably demands a disbelief in the very existence of objective truth.”

He goes on to imagine that “a totalitarian society which succeeded in perpetuating itself would probably set up a schizophrenic system of thought, in which the laws of common sense held good in everyday life and in certain exact sciences, but could be disregarded by the politician, the historian, and the sociologist.”

Orwell was right. The totalitarian regime rests on lies because they are lies. The subject of the totalitarian regime must accept them not as truth—must not, in fact, believe them—but accept them both as lies and as the only available reality. She must believe nothing. Just as Orwell predicted, over time the totalitarian regime destroys the very concept, the very possibility of truth. Hannah Arendt identified this as one of the effects of totalitarian propaganda: it makes everything conceivable because “nothing is true.”

As for what he called “schizophrenia,” this, too, has been borne out. In 1989, as the longest-running totalitarian experiment in the world, the U.S.S.R., neared what then appeared to have been its demise, a great sociologist named Yuri Levada and his team undertook a large study of Soviet society. He concluded that the Soviet person’s very self-concept depended on a constant negotiation of mutually exclusive perceptions: the Soviet person identified strongly with the great Soviet state and its grand experiment, and yet felt himself to be insignificant; he worshipped at the altar of modernity and progress, and yet lived in conditions of enforced poverty, often deprived of modern conveniences that even the poor in the West had come to take for granted; he believed in egalitarianism and resented evident inequality, yet accepted the extreme hierarchical order and rigid class structure of Soviet society. To live in his world—simply to function day to day, balancing between contradictory perceptions—the Soviet person had to engage in constant negotiations. In “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” Orwell predicted this negotiation, and named it doublethink. You will recall that “even to understand the word doublethink involved the use of doublethink.” Doublethink destroyed the mind and crushed the soul, and yet it was essential for survival. It killed as it saved, and that, too, is doublethink.

But perhaps Orwell’s most valuable observation in this essay concerns instability. “What is new in totalitarianism,” he wrote, “is that its doctrines are not only unchallengeable but also unstable. They have to be accepted on the pain of damnation, but on the other hand, they are always liable to be altered on a moment’s notice.” Orwell had observed the disfavor and disappearance of prominent Bolsheviks and the resulting adjustments to the official narratives of the Revolution—the endlessly changing and vanishing commissars. Arendt argued that the instability was, in fact, the point and purpose of the purges: the power of the regime depended not so much on eliminating particular men at particular moments but on the ability to eliminate any man at any moment. Survival depended on one’s sensitivity to the ever-changing stories and one’s ability to mold oneself to them.

Sergie Tchoban

But why, exactly, did Orwell think all this was so destructive to literature? He defined literature as a sort of conversation—“an attempt to influence the viewpoint of one’s contemporaries by recording experience.” He added that “there is no such thing as a genuinely non-political literature, and least of all in an age like our own, when fears, hatreds, and loyalties of a directly political kind are near the surface of everyone’s consciousness. Even a single taboo can have an all-round crippling effect upon the mind, because there is always the danger that any thought which is freely followed up may lead to the forbidden thought. It follows that the atmosphere of totalitarianism is deadly to any kind of prose writer.” Note that he is once again talking about the atmosphere of totalitarianism: the lived experience rather than the mechanics of it. It would follow that, as with the perpetual lie, this literature-deadening effect can outlast state terror. Of course, taboos exist everywhere. But Orwell notes that “literature has sometimes flourished under despotic regimes.” It is having to cater to the instability imposed by totalitarianism—having to constantly adjust one’s world view—that is murderous to the writer, or at least to the writing.

Orwell’s assessment is based on his own intuition but also on the observation that little literature of note came out of Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia. One might reasonably suspect, though, that censorship and fear were to blame, that better writing existed but had to be hidden. Certainly, Orwell could not have been aware of Anna Akhmatova’s “Requiem,” a short cycle of poems about her son’s confinement to the Gulag. Or of Vasily Grossman’s Second World War novel “Life and Fate,” whose existence wasn’t exposed until the nineteen-seventies. There was, indeed, a literature in hiding then, including poems whose manuscripts were destroyed almost as soon as they were written, committed to memory until a time when they could be made public.

Some of this work is great, and this greatness might seem, at first glance, to undermine Orwell’s point. But great works of literature are always a miracle, and they are usually dissonant with their environment, which might be what allows them to transcend time and, in translation, space. But I would venture that Orwell is not talking about the unpredictable business of producing masterpieces. What is lost under totalitarianism is good and even good-enough literature. These are the books that may be popular and even win awards before they are quickly forgotten. These are the books that pad the best-seller lists. The books that will seem quaint, outdated, or, at best, like curious documents of a bygone era in just a few decades. These are also the very books that facilitate conversation, that create mental public space, that influence the viewpoint of one’s contemporaries. Without these books, politics—the discussion of how we inhabit a city or a country or a planet together—is impossible.

Orwell suggests one more way in which totalitarianism kills writing. “Serious prose,” he writes, “has to be composed in solitude.” Totalitarianism, as Arendt famously wrote, eliminates the space between humans, turning them into One Man of gigantic proportions. Separately, she spoke about the peculiar illusion of warmth and closeness that totalitarianism engenders. Totalitarian societies mobilize everyone. Supporters of the regime may be gathered in the big square, chanting their support for the leader, but opponents band together in tiny clumps that are always under siege, always in struggle to hold on to a patch of knowable truth. This is an honorable effort, but it is as far from an imaginative exercise as anything can be. No one can imagine the future—or, for that matter, the present or the past—with their teeth clenched and their minds in singular focus. This leads me to the best-known line from this Orwell essay: “imagination, like certain wild animals, will not breed in captivity.”

I want to zoom out a little to provide context for that famous phrase:

“Literature is doomed if liberty of thought perishes. Not only is it doomed in any country which retains a totalitarian structure; but any writer who adopts the totalitarian outlook, who finds excuses for persecution and the falsification of reality, thereby destroys himself as a writer…. Unless spontaneity enters at some point or another, literary creation is impossible, and language itself becomes something totally different from what it is now, we may learn to separate literary creation from intellectual honesty. At present we know only that the imagination, like certain wild animals, will not breed in captivity.”

It's remarkable that Orwell ends the essay on a note of some uncertainty. His lament for the possible—probable—loss of the imagination is itself an exercise in the imagination. That is what makes this essay both a work of literature and a political work.

We live in a time when intentional, systematic, destabilizing lying—totalitarian lying for the sake of lying, lying as a way to assert or capture political power—has become the dominant factor in public life in Russia, the United States, Great Britain, and many other countries in the world. When we engage with the lies—and engaging with these lies is unavoidable and even necessary—we forfeit the imagination. But the imagination is where democracy lives. We imagine the present and the past, and then we imagine the future.

When the values, institutions, and most of what we hold dear about politics is under attack—which it most certainly is—we find ourselves fighting the good fight to preserve things just as they are. This is the opposite of imagination, the opposite of literature, and, I suspect, the opposite of democracy. Fighting to preserve things as they are inevitably becomes a battle to think and speak of things in certain ways, either defensively or preemptively. In trying to salvage the meaning of words as they pertain to the present, we keep words and concepts from evolving. Salvaged words quickly dry up and crack. Then they fail. We face the future empty-handed, language-wise; we are dumb in the face of the future.

I have been struggling with this in my own work. Last week, reporting in Detroit, I found myself looking at an architectural model of an urban farm. The perimeter of the model was made up of large, symbolically windowless gray buildings. These were the blocks that planners assumed would be bought, as so much of Detroit has been, and developed speculatively into faceless buildings that could be anywhere and belong nowhere. I know how to describe those buildings, and I have the language to describe what’s happening in Detroit. I can write about the collapse of government and the vanishing of faith in democracy. I can write about the disenfranchisement of the African-American residents, who make up eighty-six per cent of the city. I can write about the homogenization and privatization of public space, complete with a private security force that has supplanted police in the neighborhoods of so-called revival, and about the private tram line for the gainfully employed residents of Detroit, who happen to be mostly white. I can even write about what’s not there: houses that used to belong to families, schools, shops, music venues, the landscape of the life that used to be. I can write about the business of buying up and securing ruins, turning even unoccupied space into private space, preemptively. And I can write about a middle-aged African-American man who was wandering the streets of an apparently unfamiliar neighborhood, most of which was no longer there, looking for the building he was supposed to be guarding; it was his second day on the job at a private security firm.

But how do I describe what was in the center of the architectural model? It was translucent, illuminated in pink here and there, light but not quite ephemeral. Made of plexiglass, this part of the model contained houses, trees, greenhouses, and other structures. Some of what was here was already there, in the actual physical space depicted. Some was not. It was functioning the way literature works: by depicting and augmenting, illuminating and imagining. But what was I looking at?

I was looking at a kind of community, a sort of kinship, and a mode of coöperation. I was looking at economic arrangements that do not involve—or involve very little—wage labor. I was looking at an alternative to private property. For some of the participants, it was an alternative to the nuclear family. I was looking at something that appeared to exist parallel to capitalism. But I still had no words to describe what it was. All my words belonged to the world of the gray monoliths around the perimeter. Of the thing itself, I could say only what it was not.

And yet I think this is the job of writers right now: to describe what we do not yet see, or what we see but cannot yet describe, which is a condition almost indistinguishable from not seeing.

I want to find a way to describe a world in which people are valued not for what they produce but for who they are—in which dignity is not a precarious state.

I want to find a way to describe economic and social equality as a central value—a world in which inequality is, therefore, shrinking.

I want to find a way to describe prosperity that is not linked to the accumulation of capital.

Find a way to describe happiness as a public good, and the current pervasive crisis of mental health in a way that doesn’t involve the frames of norms and pathology, or the language of “fixing” people.

Find a way to describe a world without borders as we have known them—a world in which nation-states are not prized or assumed.

Find a way to describe learning that does not involve the warehousing and disciplining of children.

Find a way to describe justice whose objective is not retribution but restoration.

Find a way to describe politics that are genuinely participatory, that reflect the complexity and diversity of human experience, that avoid arbitrary divisions along party lines and emphasize cooperation around common goals.

Find an ever more complicated and evolving way to write about gender.

Find ways to describe kinship that is not the nuclear family or framed by the nuclear family. Find ways to tell the stories of friendship and community.

Find ways to describe a humanity that protects its planet, itself, and other creatures that inhabit the earth with us. Find words for reasonable and responsible cooperation.

Find a way to describe public space that is genuinely public and accessible, and include in this the virtual space of social networks and other media.

Above all, find a way to describe a world in which the way things are is not the way things have always been and will always be, in which imagination is not only opperant but prized and nurtured.

And find a way to describe many other things that are true but not seen, seen but not spoken, and things that are not but could be. Orwell wrote that, for the fiction writer, subjective feelings were facts; being compelled to falsify those feelings in a “totalitarian atmosphere” amounted to the “prevention of literature.” Orwell’s perceptions of totalitarianism formed the basis for his novels, which, in turn, shaped much of our current understanding of totalitarianism. I am proposing that subjective hopes are also, for the purposes of writing, facts. These are the facts endangered by the fear and despair prevalent in our current politics. If one insists on writing the truth of those hopes—or, rather, if many writers do this—the result may not be great literature, which is always a miracle, but it will exercise the imagination. If it is good, or good enough, it will fuel conversation. And may it be half as prescient as “Nineteen Eighty-Four.”

Credits:  This essay originally appeared in 2018 in The New Yorker.

Monday, August 19, 2019

Connections; Plagiarism that doesn't add up

Edward Rothstein

In the 1950's, the waggish mathematician-balladeer Tom Lehrer paid mischievous tribute to the 19th-century Russian mathematician Nicolai Ivanovich Lobachevsky, who was thought to be an inveterate plagiarist. Mr. Lehrer imagined an unscrupulous acolyte following in Lobachevsky's footsteps by writing a math book in which every chapter is stolen from somewhere else and the index is copied from an ''old Vladivostok telephone directory.''

''Plagiarize, plagiarize, plagiarize,'' Mr. Lehrer sang. ''Only be sure always to call it please -- 'research.' ''

Lobachevsky was actually cleared of all wrongdoing -- similar ideas developed simultaneously in different countries -- but plagiarism lives on. It has reared its head in recent discoveries about the ''research'' of the historians Stephen E. Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin. It recurs regularly in the literary world. And it has been so rampant at universities that software has been developed to scan the Internet and test for unusual resemblances.

Joan Miró

Mathematics has been relatively immune. Yet now, Mr. Lehrer's Lobachevsky lyrics have become relevant on their home turf, in the exposition of mathematical ideas, if not their discovery. The ramifications may not be large, but the incident is unusual. John L. Casti, a science writer who teaches at the Technical University of Vienna and at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico, has been accused of lifting a substantial number of extended passages from other sources in his latest book, ''Mathematical Mountaintops: The Five Most Famous Problems of All Time'' (Oxford, 2001). Mr. Casti's book, written for the lay reader, describes mathematicians' explorations of complicated ideas involving maps, numbers and spaces. But along the way Mr. Casti's research apparently got a bit out of hand.

The mathematical expositor Barry Cipra, who writes for publications like Science and the journal of the American Mathematical Society, found over two dozen echoes and excerpts from his own work along with barely modified excerpts from the writings of over a dozen colleagues. The sources include such books as ''Journey Through Genius'' by William Dunham, ''Fermat's Enigma'' by Simon Singh and Science. Mr. Cipra circulated extensive comparisons in an e-mail message to several other mathematicians.

It turned out that one of these mathematicians, Thomas C. Hales, had already corresponded with Mr. Casti last fall, expressing ''outrage'' at the lifting of his own writing; Mr. Casti responded with an apology for his ''inexcusable behavior'' and promised both the apology and a correction in the next printing of the book. But when Mr. Hales discovered the widespread extent of the problem, he rejected the proposal. Since some of the unattributed passages also come from journals of the American Mathematical Society and the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics, the executive directors of these organizations protested to Oxford University Press, asking, on Feb. 8, that Oxford ''immediately cease offering the Casti book for sale in all outlets.''

On Thursday, in a letter to the two mathematical societies, Laura N. Brown, the president of Oxford University Press, said that because of ''unattributed passages'' the book would be recalled. A full accounting of the passages plagiarized is being done. No questions have been raised about Mr. Casti's other books.

Mr. Casti, in a telephone interview on Thursday, acknowledged that there were problems with ''some level of copying that went on either consciously or unconsciously'' and that Oxford Press had made a ''good decision.''

''I feel very badly about the whole business,'' he said, and mourned ''having a career and reputation built up over years wiped out.'' He wishes, he said, he could meet privately with every injured author.

Many of the passages being questioned vary in only minor details from their sources. For example, while Mr. Casti writes: ''The problem with the proof lay in the construction of a complicated mathematical object called an Euler system,'' the original text, according to the two societies, differs only in using the word ''structure'' rather than ''object.'' In another passage, Mr. Casti writes: ''If you place a loop on the surface of a soccer ball, as it shrinks it will always shrivel up into a point.'' Mr. Cipra reports the unacknowledged source to be a report from Science, which varies only in preferring basketball to soccer. These examples, like many others, are parts of longer paragraphs that vary only slightly from their sources. Even illustrations are taken without credit from other publications.

Part of the reason for the plagiarism, perhaps, is that in mathematics a theorem will often allow little paraphrase. How many ways, for example, can one refer to a technical object like ''an elliptic curve that violates the Taniyama-Weil conjecture''? Even in the exposition of mathematics, analogies and clarifications can be so powerful and become so familiar that they may eventually seem to have no provenance.

But Mr. Casti's case, which Mr. Cipra calls Casti-gate, obviously goes much further. One of the extraordinarily odd things about it, though, is that Mr. Casti is otherwise so generous in his credits and compliments. Some sources are actually listed in an appendix of ''Suggested Readings,'' complete with page numbers and praise (without noting the lifted passages). Mr. Hales even appears in a photograph and is given credit for his discoveries, if not his prose.

Mr. Casti's rampant plagiarism is still more peculiar because mathematically it is so insignificant. It is not an attempt to steal credit for original discovery, but to steal prose that explains original discovery. But far from clarifying this knotty material with crystalline elucidation, much of that prose will be unintelligible without college-level mathematics. So this case is strange indeed: credit is generously given and scandalously denied; the stakes are, in mathematical terms, unusually small; and the plagiarism is both unnecessary and unsuccessful.

The motivation would be far more comprehensible if this were an attempt to claim mathematical immortality with an absconded discovery (even though examples of such plagiarism are almost nonexistent). There are some cases in which a mathematician's ideas are so elegant that they are adopted unawares, and others in which a mathematician suspects unacknowledged influence. But the intellectual lineage of mathematical ideas is usually well known and the intellectual watermarks of their creators obvious.

The most famous accusation of mathematical plagiarism may have been leveled against Leibniz, the 17th-century philosopher, for supposedly stealing Newton's ideas and claiming to have invented the calculus; this possibility particularly galled Newtonian loyalists because Leibniz's version of the theory came into common use. But it is now believed that Leibniz never engaged in the actions of Mr. Lehrer's Lobachevsky. Instead, his work, like the writings of the historical Lobachevsky, provides evidence of how, often, brilliant minds facing similar problems develop similar ideas at similar times. It is a defense unavailable to Mr. Casti, who has, unfortunately, engaged in an activity as rare in mathematics as it has become common in other arenas.

Credits:  This article was originally published in The New York Times (2002). 

Thursday, August 1, 2019

There are no Great Men: A Review of Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace

Kathryn A. Kopple

Famously, Henry James detested historical novels. At best, he regarded them as derivative.  At worst, he thought them cheap.  The historical novel appropriates materials from sources far removed from first-hand experience. The historical novel works not with character, which is for James the novel’s true subject, but types. The authors of historical novels never know when to quit and instead produce cumbersome narratives better used as doorstops. He spared no one his withering appraisal of historical fiction. Leo Tolstoy—to whom the word genius is ascribed with such regularity it begins to feel as if it were part of his name (the Genius Leo Tolstoy)—did not escape James’ cudgel. For James, Tolstoy was guilty on all charges. He also committed one other unpardonable error. He allowed himself as a writer to be constrained by a concern peculiar to historical novels: fidelity to his sources. Historical realism, for James, is the enemy of artistic freedom.

This is not a mere quarrel over two different approaches to literature. Tolstoy is a writer who does not allow himself the luxury of imagining that freedom exists in an essentially un-free society. Individuals may enjoy greater or lesser privileges, but privilege is not freedom. On the contrary, privilege is exhibit A in demonstrating the extent to which individuals are not the masters of their own existence. In his major works—War and Peace and Anna Karenina—Tolstoy does not deviate from his worldview. Even the most influential men—those who appear to wield absolute power over the fate of nations—are not free. In War and Peace, Tolstoy takes it upon himself to demonstrate how no-one escapes this rule, not even legendary figures such as Napoleon Bonaparte.

In the 19th century, Napoleon Bonaparte survived the maelstrom that followed the aftermath of the French Revolution, seized power, and declared himself the emancipator of his country—and then of Europe. Of course, he had his enemies. But, he had far more supporters. The conclusion drawn by historians goes something like this: Napoleon was a great hero. He did what great heroes do: change history. He could do all this because he was exceptional, and only the most exceptional persons know what to do with power. Use it. Tolstoy understood how such conclusions could be arrived at: unchecked power is freedom at its absolute limit. But, Tolstoy would have none of it. He understood freedom defined in terms of absolute power as abhorrent, as well as false. He thought it the baldest lie.

Napoleon had been dead less than a decade when Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy was born in 1828. By the time Tolstoy publishes War and Peace (1869), he was an aristocrat in his mid-thirties, married, who had put behind him, by all accounts, a colorful and checkered youth. He had fought in both the Chechen and Crimean wars. His writings about his war experiences, together with other works, earned Tolstoy the reputation of being one of Russia’s most gifted writers.

It is in War and Peace that Tolstoy offers up a portrait of Napolean that is contrary to the legend of the great man. For Tolstoy, there are no great men. And not simply because great men, like all humans, have flaws, but because historians are either enthralled or duped by the very idea of greatness. When Tolstoy attacks Napoleon, he does not do so out of a particular disdain for the man (although, certainly Tolstoy had no love for him). He seeks to exorcise the spirit of Romanticism that deifies people to the detriment of all rational thought.

But, there is a long process of initiation before readers of War and Peace can appreciate the extent to which Tolstoy struggled with the concept of freedom. The author lived during times of reform and repression. Serfdom had not yet been ended but there were attempts, not to mention significant setbacks, to reform. Reformists from the upper-classes fought for greater liberty and were put down by the Tsar. Traditional institutions—marriage, for example—were riven by hypocrisy and void of virtues. And then there was the Church, with its self-proclaimed power over heaven and earth, which instilled superstition in the masses while doing very little to improve the conditions of poor. Everywhere Tolstoy looked, people were punished for thinking for themselves. War and Peace addresses this dilemma on a scale that can only be described as epic.

Tolstoy is such a good writer at creating convincing characters and story lines—extraordinarily good—that it can be tempting to become irritated with his habit of inserting exposition where the reader expects the narrative to chug along on its tracks, as if prose were a well-oiled machine. And important authors have criticized him for his digressions, sermonizing, and belief system. There is a temptation to skip the boring parts of War and Peace, as they say, and get on with the story. But, at a price. War and Peace takes the reader through the military campaigns beginning with the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805 and eventually France’s invasion of Russia in 1812. The war ends with the French army’s retreat after the Battle of Borodino, where according to sources 70,000 or more lives are lost. The French had arrived in Moscow to chaos—much of the city was in flames. The exposition makes it possible for the reader to understand why the beautiful city had to be destroyed in the most objective manner possible. For this task, Tolstoy settles on a detailed description of a dying beehive—and it is but one example of how the author asks us to consider the true complexities of historical events, so much so that the instigator of Moscow's destruction can never be named.

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