Monday, January 18, 2016

A Subversive Activity - reading

In an earlier post I mentioned that I had, via Christopher Hitchens' essays And Yet..., discovered Henrich Heine (whom I had never heard of) and Edmund Wilson (actually I had been aware of him thru Gore Vidal so re-discovered)... well, I have now spent more time with HH and can report that that guy (1797-1856) was a cinematic writer, one who in turns can inspire one to pen and to despair (at one's own feeble efforts). We have the handy word master to apply to folks like that. Florentine Nights, I'd heard of it only vaguely. The narrator returns again and again to visit a dying young woman, pale, bed-ridden and delicate. To persuade her to follow doctor's orders to ly as still as possible, he tells her stories which he presents as from his own life. This is the device he uses to ty the tales together in what might otherwise be a collection of short stories. In another, Ideas – Book Le Grand, he addresses the reader as Madame at the beginning of each chapter, as if talking with or writing to a friend. It eventually evolves to an homage to Napoleon which, like Beethoven's Emporer's Concerto, he came later to repent.

    Heine was famous in his time and quite successful. As I've found reading early writers like Dickens, Rousseau, Voltaire, I'm amazed at how unexpectedly modern they seem. And how so many phrases and sayings I took to be of recent vintage either originated with these writers or were commonplace in their time. I picture the life around them, what was going on: in the U.S., relations with Native Americans were approaching genocide, slavery was perfectly legal, the barbarity in the western U.S. toward animal, vegetable and mineral was pretty much unlimited, women couldn't vote, petty and not so petty wars raged between the great European powers, England, France, Germany... the French Revolution, Napoleon's megalomania (and forced spreading of egalite and liberte). The ruthless cruelty of colonialism was in full swing and... well, plumbing was pretty primitive. But on the other hand there was Handel, Beethoven, Mozart, Ingres, David, Gros, Delecroix, Manet, Goya, Darwin,... and Morse Code, Electricity,... and Heine, who has been compared to the literary giant Goethe whose book
Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship was listed by Schopenhauer as one of the four greatest novels ever written, high praise indeed and heady company. BTW claims for the greatest novel have also been made for George Eliot's, Middlemarch. I've only tasted it but can vouch for the superb writing. But back to Heine – what attracted me was Hitchens describing him as a wit. I was in the mood for some laughs. A chuckle is a healthy thing for the ol' bod. Well, that was there all right, a bit Mark Twain-ish maybe. It could be that it doesn't translate well but I found David Sedaris a lot funnier, and Twain of course is the master.

    Edmund Wilson's,
To the Finland Station, is a survey, from 1930, of left thinking up to that time, from Michelet to Marx and Lenin. The hysteria conducted by the 1% toward this view, threatened as they were by its call for sharing, attempts to make damned sure that the average person won't go there in their reading or thinking. But Wilson is a remarkable intellectual so fears not thought. You don't have to agree with every paragraph but this is a good place to explore the seriousness of that historical movement.
Axel's Castle explores imaginative literature from 1870 – 1930, Yeats, Paul Valery, T.S. Eliot, Proust, Joyce (Ulysses was Joyce's latest book, Finnegan's Wake not yet published), Gertrude Stein and Rimbaud. It is probably my own defect but Yeats bored me silly, I skipped Valery and most of T.S. Eliot, pausing at The Waste Land (odd for a songwriter and poet to say but poetry tends to not entertain me). My interest in the book was primarily Proust and Joyce who Wilson seems to think have written the most momentous fiction. I read a lot of crime fiction. It fits nicely with my energy level when I get around to books late in the night. But when I have dipped into Proust, and Dickens for that matter, I've been rewarded with some spectaculor writing (and now Heine added to that list). Joyce is all right but doesn't knock my socks off. I find in Wilson's analysis that Ulysses was written to parallel the Illiad, a structural device which even Wilson admits is sometimes a cumbersome stretch.

    My own experience reading
Finnegan's Wake reminded me of improvised Jazz. I'd read somewhere that the book was filled with references to Greek mythology and cross-cultural references to befuddle even the most extreme cross-word puzzle enthusiasts but, since this doesn't describe me, I found that by thinking of it as improvised jazz and letting it wash over me as I read, it made a kind of sense – a non-literal sense, like the musical idiom where rhythmic riffs are what are important. I must admit to a limited reading (like with the prolific John Foster Wallace I can only take so much in a sitting) but I intend to re-visit some day.
    Joyce's disciple and secretary (I guess that means assistant, typer... whatever) was the subsequently famous fellow Irish-er, Samuel Becket. I spent some time in Paris (1970) and after some battering experiences trying to speak French to Parisians I retreated to reading it, translating Becket to English. Anyway, I then got interested in Becket and read his
Murphy, Mallone, The Unnameable, Watt and saw some of his plays performed in Atlanta by the great Del Hamilton.... I was much more taken with him, for a time, than Joyce.
    Interesting that Wilson disses the only woman in his list, more or less claiming that Stein burned herself out after a couple early books. I was curious about Gertrude, supporter of Picasso and Hemingway, as to how she survived, as a Jew in occupied France. I found that the wealthy U.S. citizen retreated to her country place in Vichy. But the question remains, why wasn't she sent to the camps? Or why didn't she, of means, flee? Turns out she was under the protection of an influencial Nazi officer who checked in regularly to make sure she was not rounded up. But that says little about her writing. She interested me as a cultural influence but her writing did not grab me. Like why does one piano player enchant while another, also impressively skilled, leave you cold? I dunno.

    Dylan mentions in his song,
Tangled Up in Blue, the subject of Wilson's last portrait, the gifted iconoclast Authur Rimbaud. He's almost as famous as Dylan himself but all his poetry was written in a brief three years after which he abandoned the effort and chased money and, more importantly I guess, experience. I can appreciate the contemplation of being that poetry generally pursues but I find in Dylan, relflecting here my philistinism once again, all the poetry I need (aside from my own, and maybe Robert Bly and Joe Ruesing). This would earn me the mockery of Gore Vidal I know but what can I say, it just doesn't do it for me. My own reflections don't seem to do it for others either so it isn't like this is an egotistic stance. As John Lennon said, Whatever gets you through the night, is alright. And, in further self-defense, quoting the great Popeye, I yam what I yam. I didn't even know what a literary critic was until 1974. Edmund Wilson is one of the stand-outs in that arena, his writing and insights a reward, even after all these years, for the lover of intellect.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

An Outsider in the (White) House, Bernie Sanders with Huck Gutman

Outsider reviews the various campaigns Bernie Sanders has been involved in, those he overwhelmingly, sometimes unexpectedly, won and those he dismally lost. Interestingly he uses his 1997 reelection campaign as something he is “currently” working, to which he returns again and again from excursions off into earlier campaigns. He obviously won the 1997 campaign but the details and outcome are used in the book to build a sort of advancing suspense, interspersed with the other campaigns. He certainly uses the form to lay out his political philosophy. The “White” is added to the title, for the book was originally published in 1997 and is updated to 2015 for his presidential run.
        What stands out is that Bernie has been preaching the same pro-democracy point of view (real democracy, not the corporate-manipulated exercises that impersonate it) from day one. Candidate Clinton obviously tries to capture citizens attracted to Bernie by appropriating some of his rhetoric but her friendship with Henry Kissinger, vote to back the Bush/Cheney illegal invasion of Iraq and support for the Honduran coup create a high bar of suspicion that she is not likely to clear, not when you throw her corporate campaign contributors into the mix. And though it's a long way back, there's a telling double photo drifting around facebook that shows Hillary and Bernie in 1964, what they were doing – Hillary working for the election of Barry Goldwater and Bernie working for the civil rights movement in Chicago. People grow and change but Bernie has been consistent. He's not playing to the base, he's with, and always has been with, the base, the people. This is why Vermonters trust him.

     Bernie offers up programs that would serve the general population rather than the usual 1% - single payer health care, debt-free college, public financing of elections (so that the public rather than the corporations and wealthy
own the candidates), infrastructure repair, mass transit, minimum wage increase, environmental remediation, anti-corporate trade deals; He lists current wasteful priorities that could be curtailed or cut and those funds transferred to his (our) projects. Among them is ending new nuclear weapons development, which would make us safer and also fulfill obligations the U.S. has under the Non-Proliferation Treaty. This particular item is refreshing. Nuclear weapons could end our civilization in an afternoon through an accidental launch of warheads now kept on hair-trigger alert, an outrageous lauch-on-warning policy remaining from the insane cold war. Despite this serious threat the pundits peppering the candidates with questions in the debate go no where near this one, support for Chomsky's notion that the so-called watchdog media are actually lapdogs in the service of power.
     Many programs and policies have been put in place by corruption, that is, in exchange for campaign contributions congress and administration have channeled taxpayer monies into corporate hands. Hand-outs like the regulations that allow mining companies to extract resources from public (and private) land with little compensation to the owners nor the public. Subsidies for fossil fuel companies already awash in profits, and dangerous, uncompetitive nuclear energy which no insurance company will touch,

    Past Sanders' opponents have often relied on the time-tested smear, hurling the scary word communist or socialist, words the 1% have worked diligently over the years, quite successfully, to demonize. They've even made politicians nervous of the word Liberal. But a cheery exception: Sanders won by 70% in a Republican state, with a Republican opponent spending millions of dollars on the usual attack ads. Name-calling doesn't work when the object of your smear has gained the trust of the electorate. We can hope that he might pull this off on a national level though of course the difficulty is not slight, the opposition's tactics predictable and formidable in terms of resources and the electorate predisposed to manipulation – the 1% will not meekly relinquish its power, profits and privilege. It will fight tooth and saber the faintest wiff of curtailment, the meekest request for sharing. Its ownership of the major media give them a huge leg up. Yet, the stakes now are very high. This may be the last opportunity to begin the necessary protection and repairs to the life system on which we all depend. Half measures will not cut it.