27 May 2011

"The duty of the right eye is to plunge into the telescope, whereas the left eye interrogates the microscope."
-Leonora Carrington (1916-2011)

A little quibble: (note: after I contacted the Daily Telegraph, they corrected the obit. Email me if you require a copy of the rant.)

Also, speaking of the lost loves of Loplop, the red knots will be in Delaware Bay feasting on horseshoe crab eggs for another week or so, and can be seen on the Jersey side here (where I saw them) or here or on the Delaware side. Since horseshoe crabs are 250 million years old and have existed in other forms for another 200 million years, and birds predate the dinosaurs, this has been going on for a very long time, but the number of red knots migrating to the Arctic Circle from Tierra del Fuego to mate is only a quarter of what it was thirty years ago. (PBS special) They're lighter than an apple but their tendency to fly in groups of 100 or so, provoked at a moment's notice (such as if you step within 40 feet of them) which can commence a week in the air, never gets tiresome.

21 May 2011

Only a week after Mexican poet Javier Sicilia's son - declared innocent by police - died as a result of the drug war in Cuernavaca, he had organized marches in 16 Mexican cities. The poetry of Sicilia, who writes political columns for Proceso, reads like spiritual preparation for life's trials, in which he consults Catholic saints, world religions, Mexican modernism, Rilke's meditations and Cavafy's nostalgic sensualism. The pain felt sets in motion a vision of "a world not worthy of words" from where he shared with his lost son in what he called his final poem "the silence of the righteous," after which he organized a silent march of 20,000 people from Cuernavaca to Mexico City.

In Sicilia's "Meister Eckhart," about the theologian whose doctrine of "disinterestedness" has been compared to Buddhism: "the meditation of naked gaze/ went beyond silence," Silicia goes on to describe how the silence and absence was greeted with divine presence. "Vigil," a sonnet for the composer Manuel Ponce, refers to no sound other than "the murmur under the aurora." Octavio Paz noted how Mexican rituals recover time and memory: "The fiesta occurs in an enchanted world: time is transformed to a mythical past or a total present." (Labyrinth of Solitude 50) "(The fiesta) is a break in the sequence of time and the irruption of a present which periodically returns without yesterday or tomorrow. Each poem is a Fiesta, a precipitate of pure time." (Paz, Mexican Poetry 41) In such a land of ritual, eternal themes are passed on from place to place and person to person, so the story of Thérèse of Lisieux - who influenced Bergson, Kerouac, and Merton, in Alfonso Reyes' hands is a Cubist "being beside me," is in Sicilia's a testament of sacrifice, in which the poet is absent and his commentary is minimal. Reyes (right) instilled in Mexicans a belief that "literature was more than a vocation or a profession, it was a religion.. the writer's first obligation is fidelity to his language. The writer has no other instrument but words." (Labyrinth 163-4)

Mexican poetry went through a period at the beginning of the 20th Century when it imitated the Parnassans, until Enrique González Martínez (left) decided to "wring the swan's neck." The erroneous belief that this was a reference to the Nicaraguan Rubén Darío underscored how this poem set forth what would define Mexican modernism in relation to other traditions. Where Darío would give way in Nicaragua to Ernesto Cardinal's Liberation Theology and political testimony, González Martínez' spiritual imagery, written by a traditional politician opposed to Madero's revolution, was kept separate from the political, setting the standard for Mexican modernism and thereafter. "Grace" is found in "interpretation" rather than appearances, the signified and not the signifier:

Wring the swan's neck who with deceiving plumage
inscribes his whiteness on the azure stream:
he merely vaunts his grace and nothing feels
of nature's voice or the soul of things.

Every form eschew and every language
whose processes with deep life's inner rhythm
are out of harmony... and greatly worship
life, and let life understand your homage.

See the sapient owl who from Olympus
spreads his wings, leaving Athene's lap,
and stays his silent flight on yonder tree.

His grace is not the swan's, but his unquiet
pupil, boring into the gloom, interprets
the secret book of the nocturnal spill.

(tr: Samuel Beckett)

Paz wrote in Labyrinth of Solitude "At the beginning of his eighth Duino Elegy, Rilke says that the "creature," in his condition of animal innocence, "beholds the open"... unlike ourselves, who never look forward, toward the absolute. Fear makes us turn our backs on death, and by refusing to contemplate it we shut ourselves off from life, which is a totality that includes it. The "open" is where contraries are reconciled, where light and shadow are fused. This conception restores death's original meaning: death and life are opposites that compliment each other. Both are halves of a sphere that we, subjects of time and space, can only glimpse.. This recognition can only take place through detachment: he must renounce his temporal life and his nostalgia for limbo, for the animal world. He must open himself out to death if he wishes to open himself out to life. Then he will be 'like the angels."(61) Sicilia's poem "The Open" distills in his own mind Rilke's imagery, referencing in Jen Hofer's translation "the animal advancing low to the earth toward the Open, a back and a forward in the occurrence of the infinite" the angel "suspended in the eternal" concluding with a utilization of Rilke's "is it different for lovers?" finding in their embrace "a faint crack/ in the porcelain dawn of the Open."

In a best-selling - though not translated into English - book published by Random House, Anabel Hernandez (above) accuses Mexican President Felipe Calderón and Gerardo García Luna, Secretary of Public Security, of having made a pact with Joaquín "Chapo" Guzmán (on book cover) and the Sinaloa Cartel, and last month filed an official complaint of death threats against her made by García Luna. On December 15, 2010, Gerardo Fernandez Jose Noronha distributed 300 copies of one of Hernandez' books at the end of a parliamentary session as a Christmas gift, asking for the resignation of Calderón and his government. Says Hernandez, "I think it is not a failed war but a phony war." Journalist Diego Enrique Osorno has published a book making similar allegations.

In 2006, several marches on behalf of former Mexico City mayor and presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador in the capitol's Zocalo, alleging that Calderón's victory was a result of electoral fraud, attracted more than a million Mexicans, (below) with tent cities set up to accommodate the protesters from day to day. Over 800,000 ballots were added and over 700,000 were missing, 60% of the ballot stations had inaccurate counts. With a one term presidential limit, electoral fraud is a way for past presidents to hold onto power, and both Carlos Salinas and Vincente Fox were actively involved in rigging the election.

Upon taking office, Calderón immediately declared his war on drugs, leading to the death of almost 40,000 people, about which Charles Bowden says "the Mexican government has announced they’ve made 53,000 drug arrests since they started this war. Less than two percent are the Sinaloa Cartel, the biggest one. I guess they haven’t had time." Congressman Manuel Clouthier, a member of Calderon's party, says "The Calderon government has been fighting organized crime in many parts of the republic, but has not touched Sinaloa.'" Policeman Luis Arturo Perez Torres says "I work in the police and because of this I know the government is protecting Chapo Guzman. It's hitting all the cartels but Chapo." Many of the protestors this weekend called for Calderón's resignation. After the protests, Calderón made a supposedly high profile bust of a Sinoloa operative. Also last month, legendary Gambino family attorney George Santangelo filed a two page motion in US federal court on behalf of Sinaloa kingpin Vicente “El Vicentillo” Zambada alleging "the FBI, the DEA and various Dept. of Homeland Security agents in Mexico were actually working with Zambada for more than five years." The US provides $1.3 billion annually to Mexico for military and juridical aid.

Sicilia, a self-described anarchist, has called for García Luna's resignation and drug legalization but is not endorsing a political party and spreads the blame around: "The political parties, the PAN, the PRI, the PRD, the PT, Convergencia, Nueva Alianza, the Panal, and the Verde have become a “partyacracy” from whose ranks emerge the nation’s leaders. In all of them there are links to crime and the mafias across the entire nation. With out a real cleaning up of their ranks and a total commitment to an ethics policy the public will have to ask ourselves in the next elections, 'For what cartel and for what power will we have to vote?”

In 2006, the PAN party had very low approval ratings, but Calderón's approval rating was high enough for him to run close enough to López Obrador to steal the election. After Calderón's highly unpopular drug war, those not in the higher echelons of the Sinoloa cartel or money laundering for US banks have a low opinion of PAN while its candidate, perhaps Calderón's campaign manager Josefina Vasquez Mota, will likely face off against López Obrador again next year. López Obrador said "the ones who defame, slander, and accuse me are those that think they are the lords and masters of Mexico. They are the ones who want to privatize the oil and electric industries.." CSIS, a US thinktank seeking to privatize Mexican oil, reported this month (pdf) that "although López Obrador himself contemplated a role for the private sector in oil production prior to the election of 2006, he has since moved firmly away from that position" that "A PAN president would likely try again to get far-reaching reform of the oil sector" and the old guard PRI "is once again the most intriguing of the three options.. it is the most likely to control Congress, yet.. has hard-line groups within it who continue to resist (oil privatization)."

Reformist president Lazaro Cárdenas expropriated Mexican oil in 1938, which had the effect of wiping out the prosperity of boom towns like Tampico. But of course, once private companies take over the oil, they take over the government. Would the politicians and media rush to war in Iraq if the US's oil was publicly owned?

Bowden, when asked if anything gave him hope, replied: "Certainly. To start with, the war on drugs has to end. We can’t build any more prisons. Second, the endurance of the Mexican people." Bingo.

13 May 2011

The Program Strikes Back

I remember a period leading up to three years ago when I would think "why is Dickinson College organizing readings that are relevant?," that surprise and bewilderment being its own phenomenon, not feeling the need to investigate the matter further. Then the fluke was eliminated: I found out that a psychology professor with literary taste, Richard Abrams, had been organizing the readings, that no member of the English department attended them, and that Abrams, despite a top score on RateMyProfessor.com, had been denied tenure - as a psych professor - at the insistence of a coterie of English professors who were in opposition to the readings. Though Dickinson doesn't have an MFA program, both the unusual nature of the readings and the actions taken against the professor of good taste provide a window into to what, precisely, is the source of the "mediocrity" that could "make all writers sound alike" which Mark McGurl finds alleged in the "numerous.." "broadsides" on the subject of MFAs.

That's the first thing I think about when McGurl starts to speculate about how the intervention of the workshop could have improved modernism, citing the example of Thomas Wolfe, who was actually the only modernist of his caliber to get a graduate degree, but despite the Harvard MA, his being critically slammed coincidentally the same year the Iowa workshop opened suggests for McGurl what could have been. I had a rebellious, suburban-dwelling writer tell me one evening that Thomas Wolfe was his favorite writer, and my conditioned response was something along the lines of "he's out of style, his form has its problems," causing him to be annoyed and discouraged at my reflex to affect adapted cultivation. I'm not going to contemplate what effect hanging around school and that era's publishing world had on Wolfe's narrative form, but McGurl's tactic of cherry picking Wolfe as one example of the workshop potentially "improving" a modernist begs the question: what if the MFA programs told him he has to soften or hybridize his view of Asheville, or else!, and his status as a junior functionary in a bureaucracy caused him to squelch what courage he could muster to ruffle the feathers he ruffled in his novels? Who would read him then?

But of course the cadre of post-WW2 writers that did or didn't officially Master their Fine Art, listed by McGurl in his recent interview, perhaps out of a perceived need to improve upon the New Yorker list, is compared to that sole practitioner Wolfe, representing Modernism, out of McGurl's desire to game the contest. Comparing the merit of modernism in fiction to workshop post-modernism is too one-sided to occupy my time or yours, as well as the question of whether Joyce, Dos Passos, Hemingway, Stein, Beckett, Woolf, Faulkner, etc. (this being a Program discussion, we consider only the Anglo-Americans) would have been "improved" upon if they had to get permission for their literary impulses from those that upheld the prevailing fashions of the local literary bureaucracy. Nor is it worthwhile to discuss in depth how McGurl ignores all of Elif Batuman's useful points, including her citation of some of the aspects of "novelistic alienation" that Cervantes' formed for what "hasn’t yet been fully described," and focuses instead on attacking her perceived privilege and "elitism," then affecting a socio-economic-political hybridization by playing off straw men such as the "Deranged" and that prefabricated and discredited spokesman for a majority of the global population "Comrade Dour the Maoist," to whom he reports that this isn't "after the revolution" when "tuition will only be 95 cents".. "literary production cannot realistically be shared with the masses in any world we are ever likely to see... We need them working at the register." Considering the increasing numbers of non-Harvard grads (and some Harvard grads) falling below the poverty level as he writes these words, more African-Americans behind bars than were slaves at the onset of the Civil War, maybe we've reached the point where McGurl has outlived his use as apologist for the Program Era, as the extent to which he truly reflects the Era, which is, in fact, only the Program Era to the self-important, jingoistic myopia of some within the program, would inspire a tedious and nebulous debate. My own internet discussions on this topic have not so much centered around the logistics of providing everyone with an MFA, but of the practice of some in the Program culture actively attempting to devalue the literary merit of the people who haven't, over the years, bought in to the program and submitted their work to those "with the requisite leisure to cultivate themselves," including the work of many authors who couldn't afford to get a BA.

Joyce appropriated many aspects of Rabelais in especially his later works, but perhaps the most important borrowing was the dismissal of the assumptions of genre, which Rabelais was free to do because, as Bakhtin indicated "his place in the hierarchy of genres.. was the lowest of all... the appraisal of Rabelais as a merely amusing and gay author was already beginning to take shape. Such was also, as we know, the fate of Cervantes, whose Don Quixote was listed for a long time amongst the amusing books of light literature," citing the slightly younger Montaigne's characterization of Rabelais' and Boccaccio's "amusing works.. worthy to divert us." We see repeatedly in national traditions the invention that occurs before the perceived laws of the novel are a known entity: Lermontov, from whom Tolstoy borrowed and refined, both Sterne and as Batuman cites, Austin, occurring at the beginnings of the British novel. When Shakespeare and Marlowe wrote their plays, they had no idea what the laws governing their genre were, but now we know clearly what a play is and isn't because the drama schools tell us. Dante and the troubadours, Homer, etc etc. We in The Program Era now know what a novel is and isn't, what a poem is and isn't, and if a psych professor in Pennsylvania has a less fixed view of what makes a poem, he may have to start looking for other employment.

Cheers to all from here, where I know less about genre every day!

10 May 2011

I had been meaning to update my Top 30 Films of the Decade to include films that I hadn't seen by January 2010, uninterested in debating when decades begin and end. I don't generally change much on old posts but I snuck Cristian Nemescu's California Dreamin' onto the original list and deleted a film that I saw on a particularly romantic evening when anything with a working projector would have made the list.

16a La Virgin de la Lujuria (2002) d: Arturo Ripstein. It would have been hard for me to have sought out the films that Ripstein, a Buñuel friend and collaborator, made with his wife, screenwriter Paz Alicia Garciadiego, until recent dvd releases, and I suppose it would have been good to have seen them earlier but it's been fun to save 'em for when I got to them. Garciadiego's scripts are arguably the best in the hemisphere, though they're best appreciated by Mexiphiles that like Beckett and Genet and can be tedious for others. La Perdicion de los Hombres is particularly claustrophobic and tedious, but that's sort of the point... a truly inspired script. Such is Life can hang with Pasolini's or Von Trier's Medea. Hard to choose one, but La Virgin is the most over the top and has apparently the biggest budget. Crazy Carnival.
16b California Dreamin' (2007) d: Cristian Nemescu. Armand Assante, Jamie Elman, Răzvan Vasilescu, Maria Dinulescu. Also called Endless (Nesfârșit), some of the scenes seem a bit endless because they were shot and assembled for coverage, and then the 27-year-old director died tragically in a car crash. In some scenes you find yourself saying, "OK, I get the joke/point" and it could/would have been halved in the editing room. Subversive political comedy of the age of NATO peacekeeping written by Nemescu, Tudor Voican, and Catherine Linstrum and a promising directorial career cut short. Marilena from P7.
21a Alamar (2009) d: Pedro González-Rubio. Natan Machado Palombini, Jorge Machado. A family film on my list.
21b Spoken Word (2009) d: Victor Nunez. Kuno Becker, Ruben Blades. Could have been below on my Films About Writers list but it's easier to put it here. Nunez operates the 16mm camera on all his films. Coastlines.
21c 35 Shots of Rum (2008) d: Claire Denis. Mati Diop, Alex Descas. Variety calls the classroom discussion referencing Frantz Fanon and Joseph Stiglitz "unnecessarily pedantic." White Material, The Intruder.
21d The Yacoubian Building (2006) d: Marwan Hamed. Adel Imam, Nour El Sharif. Alaa Al Aswany's novel marked a new era in Egyptian fiction and this sprawling 165-minute adaptation added to its cultural significance. Al Aswany was very active in the protests that toppled Hosni Mubarak and historians will assess what effect the novel and film had on them.
22b The Wedding Director (2006) d: Marco Bellocchio. Sergio Castellitto, Donatella Finocchiaro. Godard liked Bellocchio's early work and I swear by some of it - I like to sit back and feel like the director's a master and Bellocchio is one of the few that can deliver that. Film references, others may not like this one. My Mother's Smile.

Also, prompted by the folks at HTML Giant, my top 15 films about writers, in chronological order, not including writer-films that made my Top 15 like The Lady from Shanghai, The World of Apu, Stalker, Edvard Munch, and Alphaville:

Orpheus (1949, Jean Cocteau),The River (1951, Jean Renoir), La Notte (1961, Michelangelo Antonioni), Through a Glass Darkly (1961, Ingmar Bergman), Contempt (1963, Jean-Luc Godard), The Lonely Wife (1964, Satyajit Ray), Hunger (1966, Henning Carlsen), Claire's Knee (1970, Eric Rohmer), Adrift on the Nile (1971, Hussein Kamal), Christ Stopped at Eboli (1979, Francesco Rosi), The Singing Detective (1986, Jon Amiel), 36 Fillette (1988, Catherine Briellat), Uranus (1990, Claude Berri), The Dark Side of the Heart (Part 1, 1992; Part 2, 1992, Eliseo Subiela), Late August, Early September (1998, Olivier Assayas).

Update 5-11: I forgot about Resnais' 1977 film Providence, that inspirator for bipartite David Lynch story lines which is a no-brainer for the writer-film list but which I haven't seen in a while as it's not on dvd... but alas it's on Youtube, in, of course, that crazy language called English, scripted by David Mercer. I've surely forgotten something else as well. Update: Strick's Ulysses. Update 5-12: Sant Takuram, The Third Man, Madame Bovary (1949), Lawrence of Arabia, Zorba the Greek, I The Worst of All, The End of the Affair, Wojazek, The Farewell, La Petite Lili, Reprise.