Category Archives: Literature

Incredible Lightness of Quetzalcóatl

From the far distance sounded the muffled howling of a family of monkeys, monos gritones, passing the night in the crowns of the mighty trees. It echoed through the jungle like the roar of an angry mountain lion. Gruesome and terrifying, it seemed to tear the night apart, but it did not disturb the jungle. It sang and fiddled, chirped and whistled, whined and whimpered, rejoiced and lamented its ever-unchanging song with the constancy of the roaring sea.

B. Traven, “Trozas”

Note: This is part two in a series on Mexico and the passion and the glory of an American (me) rejiggering his relationship to finally yawn out of the swill of this sick North American consumer fiesta and move away. We’ll see how that unfolds, as I too am in the grip of viscous repeated battered country abuse syndrome!

*****

She holds onto her role as daughter in this patriarchal land — Mexico. Not sure how patriarchal it would have turned out if the Spanish sword, swine, syphilis, santos, holy see, germs had never set root in this New World.

She’s 52, unmarried, unable to birth progeny. She spent years in the USA to gain a stake so she might get a sliver of her father’s property for which to build a little casita.

Her brothers get the father’s and deceased mother’s land and small houses, small parcels. Claudia has a small school supply store in Axochiapan (her deceased mother’s for years) but she can’t make a living at it thanks to Sam’s Club, Target and Walmart and other box store cancers. She has her younger sister in Cuernavaca, and she works three jobs to barely survive with her technical degree in computer repair and IT. These two women — Claudia and Alejandra — have more “la capacidad” in their pinky fingers than all of America has in its jowls. Claudia was so broke she ended up buying 30 buenas noches (poinsettias for the Christmas time) to sell on the street in upscale neighborhoods in Cuernavaca. She made no sales as Land Rovers and Lexus coupes zoomed by.

The plague of propaganda, low prices, low quality, and brand loyalty has run rampant in this southern land, like dengue mosquitoes lighting upon the children while still in vitro.

Years ago, both Alejandra and Claudia spent time in a print plant in Gresham, Oregon, and most of their siblings had also thrown in around Portland, and many more hoofed it through the causeway to Minneapolis. Many made it to the El Norte without proper papers from the US Gestapo.

Claudia thinks sometime in 2020 she might be eligible to return to the USA. For Alejandra, that’s five years down the pike. We’ll vouch for and sponsor both of them.

Both are proud, smart, feminist, and self-determined. They are full of empathy, and would give the shirts off their backs to help friends, family, anyone in need.

They worked hard in El Norte, conjoined efforts, lived small, and saved money. Mexico was always in their dreams, and they were here to try and build something back home.

Back home, 90 years of bastard politicians in the two parties  — PAN and PRI —  literally have ripped off trillions from Mexico’s coffers;  and the bastards’ bastard, USA, El Yanqui, and the other financiers and the dirty industry honchos, all have a history of theft and murder, and are still readily staged to exploit, which is another word for steal.

Very little is allowed to be manufactured in Mexico — cars, buses, equipment, more. NAFTA allows for a pipeline of US-made and US-provisioned stuff that the Mexicans could easily produce. We all know what the NAFTA two-step American gut disease is.

Claudia’s hardy but sad, admitting to bouts of depression; and her friend, my spouse, came to see her for the very first time for a visit to Claudia’s homeland. To her small pueblo where cane fields, corn forests and a few cows populate the land. All of that, plus me, new in my spouse’s life with a trainload of history with Mexico, Latin America, La Raza, hatred of El Yanqui, created a unique mix of ingredients that bonded us quickly as we went through by car (a friend of Claudia’s rented a new KIA Sole to us cheap) and saw many parts of Morelos and Guerrero.

These are powerful rendezvouses you’ll never get from Holly-Dirt Netflix originals. This story is not closed, but it’s universal.

In the chaotic Stockholm Syndrome lives of North Americans, nothing about the struggle to overthrow the chains of Capitalism and crony corruption resonates since North America is one flagging mall-dragging country, where the population is compliant in the workplace, but mad as hell on the troll worlds of on-line “discourse.” Sort of the salt peter of revolution and real deterministic radical action — the world wide web; Holly-dirt; Youtube; the infantilism and Chlamydia of mainstream pop culture;  wacko political correctness; the four seasons of  24/7  violence for younger and younger males with their sweaty warped joysticks; the endless joke-joke of Americans relishing in their own stupidity and air power; the endless useless pedantics in academia, the courts, and the state department.

It is so real, how falsely revisionist the North American concept of history for this Turtle Island. Trump is the culmination of all of the superficiality, all the Ponzi schemes, all the bankruptcy courts, the insipid hubris of the stupid, all the PT Barnum hustle, all the smoke and mirrors, all the self-aggrandizement, all the narcissistic syndromes, all the puffed-up faux bravado of a man (and many MAGA men) who would last 10 seconds in a field with some of my former veterans who are mad as hell at the lies of empire, the lies at the top, the failure of ALL POTUS’s.

Not one has the capacity to understand “third” world people, or people in Mexico, or the races, the Indians, the tug of the white supremacists who launched their hairy bodies into Mesoamerica to play their swindle for King-Queen-Captain-Cardinal on a people who had pretty much figured out things for several millennia before the hordes of hustlers and rapists and murderers from Iberia and the Anglo lands penetrated their soil and jungles and bays.

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Cuernavaca

Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry was one of my top 100 books a while back. It shows the anachronistic debased values of a British envoy, drunkard, impotent, and the the emerging pathogen of Nazism embraced by the industrialists and that included some in Mexico. The Power and the Glory, too, by Graham Greene. The passion, impassioning, and possessiveness of men. Macario and Treasure of Sierra Madre (B. Traven and John Huston books and scripts respectively) and Night of the Iguana.

Contemporary writers in Mexico and some of their well-known titles also inspire:

In Search of Klingsor by Jorge Volpi.
The Body Where I Was Born by Guadalupe Nettel.
Diablo Guardián by Xavier Velasco.
Down The Rabbit Hole by Juan Pablo Villalobos.
The Uncomfortable Dead by Paco Ignacio Taibo II and Subcomandante Marcos.
Leaving Tabasco by Carmen Boullosa.

More here, Mexico’s Finest Contemporary Writers: Tracing a Cultural Renaissance

More authors I’ve danced with during mescal-induced jaguar nights: Luis Spota, Carlos Fuentes, Octavio Paz, Juan Rulfo, Jaime Sabines, Martin Luis Guzman, and Valeria Luiselli.

And the simple poetics of Mexicans who were determined to break the yoke of the oppressors:

My sole ambition is to rid Mexico of the class that has oppressed her and given the people a chance to know what real liberty means. And if I could bring that about today by giving up my life, I would do it gladly.

Pancho Villa

In that first blow to the deaf walls of those who have everything, the blood of our people, our blood, ran generously to wash away injustice. To live, we die. Our dead once again walked the way of truth. Our hope was fertilized with mud and blood.

Subcomandante Marcos

Like all of Latin America, Mexico after independence in 1821 turned its back on a triple heritage: on the Spanish heritage, because we were newly liberated colonies, and on our Indian and black heritages, because we considered them backward and barbaric. We looked towards France, England and the U.S., to become progressive democratic republics.

— Carlos Fuentes

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My good friend from Tucson, John, who became bi-lingual early in his life before his three years as an Army LT,  ended marrying a woman from Cuernavaca. I was at the wedding 33 years ago. He’s got three daughters, and he’s been divorced a while. She came from upper class environs, and he was a Navy commander’s son living in the desert. He and I like our motorcycles, and he is now a translator on the international market, from home, via Skype, phone, what have you. He’s single again, living the desert rat life of many a gringo who has gotten a taste of Mexico in their blood and entwined it into his children’s DNA.

He forewarned me to not head to Cuernavaca or the State of Guerrero or anywhere away from the quintessential tourist zones. He was citing US State Department provisos, whichever news feeds he reads, and the broken down minds of his fellow Arizonans.

Of course, he and the State Department are dead wrong, as was Reagan’s idiotic ambassador to Mexico, Gavin. But with Trump and idiotic millionaires like Maddow and the like, the USA is one starched up Marvel comic book world of good and bad, light and evil, where the highest thinkers (sic) are at least a couple of notches below Lex Luther’s mental prowess, for sure.

The result of this xenophobia is a large city, Cuernavaca, that in December had very non-Mexican few tourists. The city is looking tired and worn, as is most of Mexico, excluding the industrial complexes, mining operations, smelting outfits, et al.

The ebb of life, though, even in the threadbare places in Mexico, is compelling. Laughter and hands held. The peek-a-boo amazing sights, sounds, and smells around every corner and in every walkway.

Our second largest trading partner behind Canada, Mexico is a shell of a country in many ways. Ugly Botoxed white women and men on billboards, their green and blue eyes like a cold lizard’s, and on TV, in positions of power, while la gente is continually denigrated and spat upon by the elites.

Axe

We are hatchets of steel and fire.
We live to reap and illuminate.
With the metal,
we fell the trunk.
With the flame,
we illuminate the cut,
the felling of what we are.

Carmen Boullosa

 

Diego Rivera, Liberation of the Peon, B. Traven

Invasions

Trump told the previous president of Mexico that he would be sending in the American cavalry to take care of “those bad hombres.”

He accused Peña Nieto of harboring “a bunch of bad hombres down there” and warned:

You aren’t doing enough to stop them. I think your military is scared. Our military isn’t, so I just might send them down to take care of it.

But there is a history of US meddling, both through “diplomatic channels,” through the economic structural violence our hit men are known for, and with troops:

When Woodrow Wilson took office in 1913, he inherited a chaotic diplomatic relationship with Mexico. Two years earlier, the country’s longtime head of state, Porfirio Díaz, had been deposed. Over three decades in power, Díaz had been strongly aligned with American economic interests, which came to control 90 percent of Mexico’s mineral resources, its national railroad, its oil industry and, increasingly, its land. Resentful of the “peaceful invasion” from their northern neighbors, in 1911 middle-class and landless Mexicans overthrew Díaz and installed a noted public intellectual and reform champion, Francisco Madero, in the presidency. Not long after, the military, under the leadership of General Victoriano Huerta, deposed and executed Madero.

Displaying his deep piety and moral conviction, Wilson declared that he would never “recognize a government of butchers” and declared his intent to “teach” Mexico “a lesson by insisting on the removal of Huerta.” To that end, he sent two personal envoys to Mexico City to instruct the country’s political leaders—“for her own good”—to insist on Huerta’s resignation. The mission fared poorly. For one, the envoys—William Bayard Hale, a journalist, and John Lind, a local politician from Minnesota—spoke not a word of Spanish. Lind privately regarded Mexicans as “more like children than men” and conducted himself accordingly, to the detriment of the mission.

[…] At first, Villa sought to align himself with Wilson, but as his grasp on power became more tenuous, he sought to raise additional resources by taxing American corporations and through general banditry. He took matters a step too far when his forces confiscated the sprawling Mexican ranch of American publisher William Randolph Hearst and briefly invaded a New Mexico border town, crying “Viva Villa! Viva Mexico!”

Incensed, Wilson raised a “punitive expedition” of 10,000 soldiers under the direction of General John J. Pershing. Equipped with all the modern trappings of war—reconnaissance aircraft, Harley Davidson motorcycles—the invading army searched high and low for Villa. It was like finding “a needle in a haystack,” Pershing would soon complain. Though Villa’s forces continued to plunder and maraud, the Americans proved incapable of finding and capturing the rebel leader. When Villa surfaced briefly in Glenn Springs, Texas, with his troops, only to disappear soon thereafter, the Wilson administration was left mortified and bereft of an explanation.

American entry into the Great War allowed Wilson and Pershing to save face. In February 1917 the expedition returned to American soil. Within weeks, Pershing sailed for Europe to command the nation’s war effort.

Trump has now warned the new Mexican president that he will deem drug cartels as terrorist organizations, igniting the TNT of war and invasion. This was on all the people’s minds when I was traveling just days ago in Mexico; even in the conservative mass media. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) said:

But in these cases we have to act independently and according to our constitution, and in line with our tradition of independence and sovereignty.

War is irrational. We are for peace.

AMLO’s comments came after Trump fired off a series of tweets Tuesday morning offering Mexico “help in cleaning out these monsters.” Trump:

The great new President of Mexico has made this a big issue, but the cartels have become so large and powerful that you sometimes need an army to defeat an army!” Trump said. “This is the time for Mexico, with the help of the United States, to wage WAR on the drug cartels and wipe them off the face of the earth. We merely await a call from your great new president!

No matter how barbaric the cartels are, and how in bed they are with the police, army, government, the barbarism of the US is in line with the Spanish and Portuguese slave traders. Each and every weapon manufactured and sold in the USA that gets south of the border is part of that barbarism. Every line of coke and hit of Meth consumed by the great happy USA population is a bullet to the head of the innocents of Mexico.

Like Italy, Mexico is at the whim of the Church and Mafia. Like Western Culture, every blinking moment in every individual’s life is determined by the billionaires, their cabal of financial and retail felons. We are at the whim of the heads of Boeing, Exxon, Raytheon and any number of resource extractors and consumer bombers. Fortune magazine praises the millionaires and billionaires and their disruptive industries, technologies, financial instruments. All of it is still American sodomy of a race, a culture, a place, a land.

In Mexico, the juxtaposition of Nestle bottles everywhere or the VW’s and the Dodge’s is easily supplanted by the hard lives of Mexicans still eking out livings and conjugating their traditions, no matter how deeply Western Plastic Culture and Consumer Goods have infiltrated their land.

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Family Wedded to Culture, Land, History

Yanquis and Stars and Bars flag wavers are the sum total of their genocidal roots destroying First Nations’ peoples and the enslavement of Africans, but also the deep racism and bigotry perpetrated against not just Filipino and Chinese and Japanese, but against the Jew, Eastern European, German, Irish, Italian, et al.

Drowning women deemed witches, complete decimation of the grasslands, the wetlands, the bayous, the slaying of buffalo and wolf and grizzly, and the metal machines cutting into earth and stoking the flames and smoke of today’s generation of cancer-riddled people. I have these trolls attempting to harass me, trolls who listen to that ape of a man, Stephen King of Iowa, who drivels his white supremacist crap on how the white Christian lands/peoples have contributed 90 percent or more of the marvels of modern humanity — from the internet to microscopes, from splitting of the atom to cinema, from supersonic jets to soda pop. These pigs are on the airwaves, both of the Tucker Carson kind and the liberal Hollywood and media types continually showing the great boom of intelligence in the Western White World, or in many cases, the great achievements of the Judaeo-Christian.

“Shit-hole” country may have come out of the racist whites’ moldy mouths decades/centuries before Trump’s bloviating (how many US presidents have shown outright racism against  ALL nations of color?), but it’s in the minds of liberals, democrats, those so-called professional class, the college educated, and the journalists and diplomats. Most Americans see the words “backwards” or “not evolved enough” or “heathen” or “simpleton” when they see Mexico or Mexicans.

[link] The irony is that Trump’s own ancestors came from Africa, as did all mankind. In the book and documentary “The Journey of Man: A Genetic Odyssey,” the geneticist and anthropologist Spencer Wells traces the human migration out of Africa. He travelled the world for a decade to trace genetic markers by taking blood samples—from Bushmen in the sweltering Kalahari Desert and the Chukchi in icy Siberia to the Hopi in the American West—to prove the trail of the human migration. Wells concludes, “Old concepts of race are not only socially divisive but scientifically wrong.”

In the end we know which country is the shit-hole, the shitty one, and its collective stupidity and infantilism continues to lobotomize the masses. I teach k12, and the food these kids eat and then waste is criminal, but emblematic of the American project of exceptionalism and the right to pollute, throw away, discard, waste, over-consume. The youth have no culture, no art, no interest in anything but making a few dollars fast.

The reality is this throw-away society is right now generating, through this corrupt capitalism, more and more discarded peoples in this country and in other countries. The AI-Robot-GIG-Uber-ization-Amazon-ification-Economies of Scale-Centralization will again generate more and more disposed of humanity — in the USA, and elsewhere.

We know socialistic systems of organizing are the only way to stem this destruction. Read or watch  any number a a million essays, interviews, books on the subject.

What capitalism has done is gut Mexico, forcing families to break up sisters and brothers, sons and  daughters, uncles and aunts, grandkids and cousins, friends and lovers, husbands and wives to head to El Norte tob e exploited by capitalism on steroids and to weather the scourge of racist Americans, police, policies, bureaucracies, attitudes.

The amount of hate against Mexicans or Latino/a people is high in USA.

In their own country, the people of the land in Mexico are now sugar coated, eating crappy food, drinking soda, and hauling their bodies full of hormone disrupters, full of petro-chemicals, GMOs, nitrous oxide, and a million other particulates created by the full-scale NAFTA exploitation and the theft of their own culture, land, resources by the white devils in their own country — the elites educated in the Milton Friedman school of destruction.

Brotherhood

I am a man: little do I last
and the night is enormous.
But I look up:
the stars write.
Unknowing I understand:
I too am written,
and at this very moment
someone spells me out.

Netflix, The 43 — This docuseries with Paco Ignacio Taibo II in it, disputes the Mexican government’s account of how and why 43 students from Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College vanished in Iguala in 2014.

Paco Ignacio Taibo II—leader in the 1968 Mexican student strike, journalist, social activist, union organizer—is widely known for his crime novels, and is considered the founder of the neo-crime genre in Latin America. One of the most prolific writers in Mexico today, more than 500 editions of his 51 books have been published in over a dozen languages. Taibo has won many awards, including the Grijalbo, the Planeta/Joaquin Mortiz in 1992, and the Dashiell Hammett three times, for his crime novels. His biography, Guevara: Also Known as Che (St. Martin’s Press, 1996), has sold more than half a million copies around the world and won the 1998 Bancarella Book of the Year award in Italy. Taibo organizes the Semana Negra (Noir Week), a crime fiction festival held every year in Gijón, Spain.

Taibo: Yes. I wanted to destroy the old idea that history is science and fiction is fantasy. Everybody knows that is not true. It’s a game: Just Passing Through starts asking if it’s really a novel, if it’s rather a history book, because of this and this and this. And then, in the second paragraph, it says: this is a novel, this cannot be a history book, it’s full of fiction. Then, in the third paragraph, what the hell is a novel, what the hell is a history book? The game is trying to destroy this secure attitude of historians to history and this secure attitude of fiction writers about fiction. There’s nothing secure in history. I don’t like security. History shouldn’t be a secure space, a comfortable space. Comfortable for whom? Readers? Writers? It’s the opposite.

We’ll go deeper in this reclamation of what it means to be in, live in, be with, hold onto Mexico and Mexicans!

Lukacs’s Marxist Aesthetics

Lukács, 1913

György Lukács’s views on aesthetics will be found in one of his two major mature works, The Specificity of the Aesthetic, the other one being Towards an Ontology of Social Being. They both constitute huge treatises. The Specificity of the Aesthetic extends to approximately 1800 pages, its purpose being to clarify the categories of Marxist aesthetics and the nature of the aesthetic phenomenon. It was to be followed by two further sequences – The Work of Art and Aesthetic Behavior and Art as a Social-Historical Phenomenon – with the second revolving around the problems of structure and technique of artistic work and the third with the historical dimension of art. Towards an Ontology of Social Being, a work of approximately 1450 pages, attempts to highlight the ontological foundations of social being in labor, exploring the relationships between nature and society as well as the historical structuring of the social. It was to be followed by an Ethics, which, like the two sequels of The Specificity of the Aesthetic, was never written. Nevertheless, in both works we find several hints on issues that Lukacs would deal with in the parts he was unable to realize.

The great value of Lukacs’s last two works and their enormous importance for the further development of Marxism has been underlined by serious Marxist experts. P. Vranicki characteristically maintains that The Specificity of the Aesthetic “must be included among the most important conquests of the culture of our times.”1  St. Morawski, for his part, summarizes Lukacs’s contribution to Marxist aesthetics in the following terms:

One of Lukacs’s great merits is that he showed there is a Marxist aesthetics. At the same time, he undertook several analyses of changes within the Marxist doctrine (e.g., Mehring, Lenin). There is no doubt that no Marxist theorist has broadened the circle of aesthetic questions or analyzed and systemized them more deeply than Lukacs. Those who say that Lukacs provides the first Marxist system of aesthetics are not mistaken. There is no problem which he has not placed in a new light; no aesthetic question on which he has not shown that Marxism has its roots in the best European tradition. Always extremely sensitive to our cultural heritage, Lukacs still never fails to point out the revolutionary philosophical and aesthetic changes wrought by Marx… Marxist aesthetics can only be developed by incorporating his achievements and by learning from his mistakes. Only in this way will it be able to attain new horizons.2

The Specificity of the Aesthetic does indeed include multi-dimensional, original and in-depth analyzes of aesthetic problems, which methodologically derive from the best traditions of the materialistic assimilation of the Hegelian dialectic by the classics. It promotes thus decisively the understanding of art as a special form of reflection of reality, illuminating its relation to other areas of human action and clarifying its aesthetic basis.

As has been adequately demonstrated in Marxist literature, Marx’s analysis of capitalism in Grundrisse and Capital is strongly based on the Hegelian logic of the concept, with its three moments of universality, particularity, and singularity.3  Marx starts with capital in general to develop the fundamental categories of capitalist economy (value, surplus value), which operate in the sphere of production. Only after that he refers to individual capitals and their competition as the specific form that determines the distribution of surplus value in its various parts. In his Aesthetics, Lukacs follows the same logical scheme in his analysis of the fundamental for the theory of realism concept of the type. A type, he argues, embodies the moment of particularity, as an intermediary between the moments of universality and singularity. In it, the individual is combined with the general, to the extent that the subjectivity of the hero is freed from purely random individual traits and elevated to the general condition of the age.

Lukacs extensively refers to the Marxist dialectic of the universal and the particular, but he argues that the case with art is different. The scientific study of a field, typically Marx’s analysis of capitalism, follows a course from the universal to the individual or vice versa. Although real capital is a specific thing, a particular, yet scientific knowledge oscillates between the two ends of the abstraction, the universal and the singular, with the general representing the decisive moment. In art, by contrast, and this has to do with its anthropomorphic character, it is particularity that represents the fundamental moment around which the other two are ordered:

The specificity of the aesthetic sphere is that particularity does not only mediate between generality and singularity, but also acts as an organizational center. This means that the reflection movement does not go, as in knowledge, from generality to singularity and then vice versa (or in the other sense), but that particularity, as center or middle point, is the point of departure and arrival; that is, these movements, on the one hand, run through the way from particularity to generality and return, and on the other hand, act as a link between particularity and singularity. It is not therefore a transverse movement between the two extreme categories, but a movement between the center and the periphery.4

The realist writer can certainly emphasize more in one type the general or the individual, depending on the plot of the work, the development of a character, etc. The analysis of these moments and their composition in the particular, however, is not at all a sterile dialectical exercise or pedantry; on the contrary, it illuminates essential aspects. In Carpenter’s They Live, to limit ourselves to one example, Holly, if viewed from the standpoint of universality, embodies the American dream, the fulfillment which dominant values promise. As an individual, on the other hand, she is the rich human being, which in its spontaneous movement remains however directionless, passively adapting herself to the dominant impulses of the system; even if momentarily those who tend to overthrow it act on her, they do not change her internally. Her particularity, as a combination of these two moments, can only be the attitude she adopts at the end of the film, when she tries to prevent the hero from destroying the transmitter of the aliens with the words, “You cannot win”. The fact that Nada kills Holly and destroys the transmitter before being shot by aliens is the realistic climax of the film: on the one hand he gets rid of his illusions (expressed at the beginning of the movie in his own words, “I follow the rules and wait for my chance”); on the other hand, the great sacrifices the working class has to make in order to put an end to the system of exploitation are also clarified. The particular, as a concrete crystallization of individual and general impulses, is here the center for the realistic representation of the whole; any other outcome would mean a distortion of the real developmental trends.

The type represents thus the means of authentic (realistic) artistic creation, but there are two other important things in it: purpose and content. Its purpose is to achieve harmony through catharsis; its content, on the other hand, is mimesis, the peculiar artistic reflection of reality, without which art cannot accomplish its purpose.

Lukacs defines catharsis in accordance with Aristotle and Lessing, as “the transformation of passions into virtuous inclinations”. In this way art fulfills a defetishizing function, removing obstacles to practical action and making man receptive to the new. But while in Aristotle, catharsis refers mainly to tragedy and the feelings of fear and sympathy it mobilizes, Lukacs insists that it embraces all artistic realms. Even more: “The concept of catharsis is much broader. As with all major categories of aesthetics, we also find that catharsis has its primary origin is in life, not in art, to which it comes from life”.5  Catharsis, therefore, reflects the link of art with life, with human potentials and needs. In this connection, Lukacs refers to Hegel’s practically oriented aesthetics, in order to explore the historical genesis of the forms and types of artistic creation and to integrate aesthetical behavior into the totality of human activities.”6

Mimesis is the artistic representation of life in its particular expression that becomes the object of a work of art and is reproduced in it. Lukacs also uses the concepts of reflection and representation as equivalent with it. He also insists here that what is involved here is not a photographic representation, a snapshot, but a reproduction of the contradictory movement, of the correlation with the totality of the real:

Even those [arts] that reproduce the immediate objectivity of the external world with artistic immediacy do not originate –especially from the perspective of aesthetic realism– by a simple, much less photographic representation, but by the emergence of the coincidence of phenomenon and substance in the phenomenon that becomes thus both nearer and more distant from life… Even clearer is this relevance to the structure, to the nature of the content, presented by the particular totality of each work. Its realistic character is judged by how profoundly and aptly, how comprehensively and genuinely it is able to reproduce and raise the problems of the personal and historical moment of its creation from the perspective of their enduring importance to the evolution of humanity. 7

Lukacs extensively discusses the intellectual basis of mimesis, using the tools of Pavlovian psychology. According to Pavlov’s theory, man has two signal systems: Signal System 1 (the direct impressions of reality, this is also present in animals) and Signal System 2 (language, the signals of these first signals, words, generalizations, etc., this being specific to human beings). Lukacs interposes between them Signal System 1; i.e., imagination, which shares a number of common features with each one of the other two. The latter two systems emerge from work, in particular the need for humans to react effectively to new experiences, associating them with what is already known. Giving a more dialectical interpretation of the psychological response to Pavlovian stimuli, Lukacs emphasizes the crucial role of imagination in art and its inherent opposition to bourgeois ideological norms: bourgeois ideology tends to limit knowledge and communication to Signal System 1, emphasizing immediate, functional elements of behavior, while authentic art sheds light on its social bases, its motivation and its long-term effective directions.

Its character as a dialectical mimesis of reality lends a specific, objective content to the work of art. Lukacs rejects relativistic approaches, in the style of Adorno, according to which a multitude of interpretations of a work of art are possible, without any possibility or criteria of choice between them.8 A radical relativism and indeterminacy of this kind is typical of modernist tendencies; the realistic work of art, by contrast, brings to light the real connections, thereby leaving fewer ambiguities. This does not at all imply that different interpretations of a work cannot be offered or that content is given in a clear, unambiguous way; Lukacs criticizes naturalism and the panegyric Stalinist art for precisely this reason. In a realistic work of art ambiguity does have a place, but as a moment of a contradictory, transitional reality, which encompasses opposing aspects and possibilities; the latter, even if not fully clarified, come to a certain relation, the one towards which life itself is tending, and this allows us to distinguish between valid and false interpretations.

The key position Lukacs attributes to mimesis stimulates a comparison with the way Plekhanov conceived the issue, all the more so as Plekhanov was in many ways his forerunner, posing in an elementary way many problems of Marxist aesthetics and philosophy worked out by Lukacs in his mature work. Plekhanov recognizes the importance of mimesis in social and particularly in artistic development, but he assesses ​​it as a fundamentally conservative principle. Imitation is involved in every creation and social attitude that aims to reproduce already known practices, patterns of behavior, etc. But, Plekhanov argues, in social practice there is another aspect, i.e., contradiction (conflict), which being active is the most vital as it pushes change forward. In a lengthy argument, he criticizes the bourgeois thinkers’ formulation of the issue:

Tarde, who has written a very interesting essay on the laws of imitation, regards it as the soul of society as it were. As he defines it, every social group is an aggregation of beings who partly imitate one another at the present time, and partly imitated one and the same model in the past. That imitation has played a very big part in the history of all our ideas, tastes, fashions and customs is beyond the slightest doubt. Its immense importance was already emphasized by the materialists of the last century: man consists entirely of imitation, Helvetius said. But it is just as little to be doubted that Tarde based his investigation of the laws of imitation on a false premise. When the restoration of the Stuarts in Britain temporarily re-established the rule of the old nobility, the latter, far from betraying the slightest tendency to imitate the extreme representatives of the revolutionary petty bourgeoisie, the Puritans, evinced a very strong inclination for habits and tastes that were the very opposite of the Puritan rules of life. The strict morals of the Puritans gave way to the most incredible licentiousness. It became good form to like, and to do, the very things the Puritans forbade. The Puritans were very religious; high society at the time of the Restoration flaunted its impiety. The Puritans persecuted the theater and literature; their downfall was the signal for a new and powerful infatuation for the theater and literature… In a word, what operated here was not imitation, but contradiction, which evidently is likewise rooted in the properties of human nature… We may consequently say that though man undoubtedly has a strong tendency to imitation, it manifests itself only in definite social relations… In other social relations the tendency to imitation vanishes and gives place to its opposite, which for the present I shall call the tendency to contradiction.9

One could think that Plekhanov’s view, with its emphasis on contradiction, is more radical than that of Lukacs. Yet this is not true. In fact, Plekhanov’s view is dualistic, involving two principles, imitation and contradiction, that operate independently of one another. No matter how he tries further to correct it, noting that contradiction distinguished the nobles’ attitude towards their enemies, while between them unity prevailed, based on the imitation of their more advanced representatives by others, we finally get a simplistic picture: within one class there is imitation, between classes conflict. This view erases the complexity of evolution, overlooking in particular the contradictions between different parts of a class, which are often not negligible. Lukacs’s conception of mimesis, by contrast, precisely because it relates to the imitation of processes or evolving situations, embodies contradiction: artistic mimesis involves both resemblance and contrast to the original.

Lukacs emphasizes this point with regard to music, citing the example of Pindar’s ode to the lamentation of Medusa’s sister Evryali. The mimesis of the lament in the melody of the flute is alike and at the same time different from the lament; otherwise one could not explain how while the lament expresses a feeling of pain, its melodic transmutation can provide comfort and even enjoyment. Between feeling and artistic representation, he notes, there is a “qualitative leap”; art transcends human daily life, so that “whatever is bad or unpleasant in life mimetically can offer joy.”10

With his historical presentation of the mimetic phenomenon Lukacs establishes further the “in itself” being of art. Primitive art was so closely associated with religion and magic that it could not yet be called mimetic. Mimesis emerges when art becomes independent; it establishes a distance between representation and reality that does not exist in magical ceremonies. At the same time, the ensuing independence of the various spheres (science, religion, art), even if all of them refer to the social and human relationship with the world, gives to each one its own special character. In the natural sciences, “dehumanization” is predominant, what is represented there is the material world abstracting as much as possible from man. Religion refers to the subjective world, eliminating the natural and shifting the first to a beyond. In art, too, the subjective world predominates, but without eliminating the link to reality.

Mimetic ways vary in every art, in literature, music, sculpture, painting, architecture, the applied arts. But in various kinds of an art the focus of mimesis shifts too; in literature, for example, epic focuses on individuality and drama on universality. However, Lukacs insists, mimesis is a universal principle of art; it allows for a unified treatment of the artistic and aesthetic phenomenon, without canceling its differentiations.

This raises the question about the content of mimesis in each specific art and especially in arts without a direct reference to the real world. The representation of the real is evident in literature, painting, sculpture, but what does music represent? Lukacs replies that music represents the feelings and inner life of man. This may seem inconsistent with his general definition of mimesis, but he himself argues that these feelings are not purely subjective but typical feelings and mental states of people at a given stage of social development which are mobilized by external determinations. Of course, music can be combined with singing, as in opera, where its connection to social reality becomes explicit. However, its distinctive feature is melody and its particular stamp as an art is revealed there, not in the accompanying verses of a song. In this context, music is a double imitation or an imitation of imitation; an imitation of the inner human world which in turn imitates the outside world. The typical is detected in the degree of universality of emotions it mobilizes, the moment of the particular lies in its ability to elevate the individual feeling into the general feeling of the times.11

Some theorists such as St. Morawski argue that the introduction of psychological-intellectual elements into the process of mimesis destroys its meaning: “Mimesis,” he writes, “is supposed to concern the relation of art to a directly given outside reality. In the arguments focusing on music and architecture, however, the accent moves to psychological or psycho-social attitudes. If one were to posit the expression of definite psychic or psycho-social states as a constitutive element of mimesis, then the concept would be so altered that Lukacs’ entire thesis would become a truism. It would become an elastic statement – such as that art is always dependent on reality.12

It would indeed be arbitrary to argue that the artist directly expresses in mimesis the mental states caused by his experiences, the causes of his inspiration, and so on. Artistic creation does not revolve around the artist’s feelings, but around the source of those feelings, being an appropriation of the inner nature of the thing attracting his interest and attention. This does not negate the fact that the mental states he experiences, which are not self-existent but include pre-existing class, value, etc., determinations, act on the mode of appropriation and are thus incorporated into the artistic result. In this sense, Lukacs insists, mimesis cannot be separated from the artist’s inner process and the work of art is the unity of the two.13

In the part on cinema, while criticizing Benjamin, Lukacs offers some interesting insights into the relationship between cinema and theater. Benjamin had argued that cinema is an art form devoid of the aura of “unique character”, since the public does not come into direct contact with the actors as in theater, thereby narrowing its aesthetic impact. Lukacs accuses him of romantic anti-capitalism here, arguing that cinema actually opens wider aesthetic fields than theater does. While in theater the outside world is reduced to a scenery, in cinema we have a representation of the whole of life: both the actions of the protagonists and the social space in which they unfold are actively present, allowing a deeper exploration of their interrelations. With that in mind, Lukacs also traces in cinema a “double mimesis”, as in music, the difference being that in the latter we have a vertical, while in cinema a horizontal process of abstraction (instead of a chain external-internal-doubly internal, one form the external to the internal and to the concrete).14

The universality of cinema is also highlighted in another connection, that of the representational medium. Most arts mobilize a particular human sense in their own distinctive imitation process, vision, hearing, language, and so on. They thus abstract a particular aspect of the heterogeneity of life, which they mimic from a definite viewpoint, a situation Lukacs describes by introducing the notion of a homogeneous medium. In cinema, however, we do not have a homogeneous medium: what is represented is the heterogeneity of life itself in all its aspects. This does not mean that mimesis ceases to exist or that we have a mere return to the raw heterogeneity of direct experience. Heterogeneity is reproduced here from a specific point of view, stressing and highlighting certain specific aspects of it. In its presentation of the the outside and the inner world a movie inevitably selects, condenses and enhances some of its elements, creating a specific atmosphere that establishes its own unique homogeneity.15

Consequently, the broad popularity of cinema is not a sign of aesthetic deterioration. On the contrary, it is closely linked to its potential of expanding the representational field to the extent of becoming an authentic, great folk art. Of course, Lukacs points out that this potential is realized in comparatively few films that deeply touch the public, like the films of Eisenstein, Pudovkin and Chaplin.16

In the last parts of The Specificity of the Aesthetic, Lukacs discusses the separation of art and religion. Religion, he argues, is dominated by an individualistic perspective, the purpose of the religious person being his salvation as an individual; art, like science, elevates the individual to the general. Therefore, “in its objective intent, art is as hostile to religion as science is”. This is not to say that Lukacs excludes from the realm of authentic art religious works such as the Renaissance paintings or Bach’s Passions, but he argues that these are in fact secular works, even if under a religious cloak. Of course there is a religious art proper in which the allegorical, symbolic element plays a key role. It represents a lower level of artistic assimilation of reality, the origin of which Lukacs traces in the ornamental mode of representation, dominated by abstract structural elements such as rhythm, symmetry and proportion. Their absence of meaningful content creates a gap between reality and religious representation, which is covered by the allegorical invocation of the transcendent.17

  1. P. Vranicki, History of Marxism, Odysseas Editions, Athens 1976, vol. ΙΙ, p. 208.
  2. St. Morawski, “Mimesis – Lukacs’ universal principle”, Science and Society, 32 (1), 1968, p. 27, 38.
  3. See, e.g., F. Moseley, “The Universal and the Particulars in Hegel’s Logic and Marx’s Capital”, Universality refers to what is common in a group of objects, phenomena, etc., ignoring their differences. Singularity refers to the individual, taken separately from like and non-like phenomena or objects. Particularity is the concrete, the individual as a moment of the whole. For a discussion of the corresponding method of quantum mechanics in relation to microcosmic phenomena. See the chapter on R. Feynman in Chr. Kefalis, The Great Natural Scientists, Topos Editions, Athens 2015, p. 129 ff.
  4. G. Lukacs, La Peculiaridad de lo Estético, Editiones Grisalbo, Barcelona 1967, vol. 3, p. 213.
  5. G. Lukacs, ibid, vol. 2, p. 500.
  6. For a comprehensive discussion of this relationship see G. Oldrini, “Lukacs’s aesthetics in the light of its relation to Hegel’s aesthetics,” in Georg Lukacs. Interpretive Approaches, Alexandria Editions, Athens 2006, p. 295-328.
  7. G. Lukacs, Aesthetics of Music (the chapter on music of The Specificity of the Aesthetic), Topos Editions, Athens 2018, p. 129. There is no need to explain how far away is this formulation from the narrow-minded Stalinist notions of “socialist realism”.
  8. In this spirit, e.g., Adorno, responding without stating it explicitly, to Balzac’s appreciation of Lukacs as a realist, presents an interpretation of Balzac as the delusional inventor of a semi-paranoid system of social relations. For Adorno’s argument, see P. U. Hohendahl, “The theory of the novel and the concept of realism in Lukacs and Adorno”, in Georg Lukacs Reconsidered, Critical Essays in Politics, Philosophy and Aesthetics, Continuum, London 2011, p. 79-80.
  9. G. Plekhanov, “Unaddressed Letters,” in Selected Philosophical Works, Progress Publishers, Moscow 1981, vol. V, p. 274-275.
  10. G. Lukacs, Aesthetics of Music, p. 13-15.
  11. For the above, see G. Lukacs, Aesthetics of Music, especially p. 49 ff., 77 ff., 97 ff.
  12. St. Morawski, ibid, p. 36.
  13. Lukacs explicitly emphasizes this in one of his polemics against Brecht, who downplayed the role of psychological elements in artistic creation: “The content of a work of art –however intellectual– does not just consist in such a relationship to things in themselves, even though this may form an essential aspect of the work as a totality. It entails also a personal response to the factual complex it reflects and from which it is inseparable. Whether that response be one of tragic shock, optimistic acceptance or ironical criticism, etc., carries as much weight as the thought content itself. Nor does such a response abolish the work’s objectivity; it merely gives it new emphasis. What counts is the importance of both the content and the response it elicits for the development of mankind and the way in which both can become the property of humanity” (G. Lukacs, “On  Bertolt Brecht” ).
  14. J. Kelemen adequately analyses these connections: «It might not be accidental (and even supports the affinity of film and music) that terms of musical theory seem to be the most adequate to present montage structures of modern film art… An affinity of music and film has also been supported by the fact that music also constitutes a double reflection and its first level is not desanthropomorphic, either” (J. Kelemen, The Rationalism of Georg Lukacs, Palgrave Macmillan, New York 2014, p. 130).
  15. As Kelemen also notes, «atmosphere has constituted a central term of film aesthetics. Extending the concept of Georg Lukacs we may discover in atmospheric unity a functional analogy with the homogeneous medium characterizing other forms of art and expressions” (J. Kelemen, ibid, p. 130).
  16. See G. Lukacs, La Peculiaridad de lo Estético, vol. 4, p. 178-179, 189-190, etc.
  17. For a more detailed exposition of the above points, see G. Parkinson, Georg Lukacs, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London 1977, p. 140-142.

Still Waiting for (Lefty) Godot

Vladimir: Let us not waste time in idle discourse! Let us do something, while we have the chance! It is not every day that we are needed. Not indeed that we personally are needed. Others would meet the case equally well, if not better. To all mankind they were addressed, those cries for help still ringing in our ears! But at this place, at this moment of time, all mankind is us, whether we like it or not. Let us make the most of it, before it is too late!

— Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot

Agate Keller: Don’t Wait for Lefty! He might never come!

— Clifford Odets, Waiting for Lefty

Irish playwright Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (The Irish pronunciation is GOD-oh) is recognized as the most significant play of the 20th Century by the most influential playwright of the period. Beckett (1906-1989) wrote the play in 1948 and it’s still the most frequently produced drama around the world some 70 years after its premier in Paris in 1952. Likewise, a Google search reveals that critics remain engaged in the flourishing cottage industry of passionate debate over the play’s meaning. English language versions appeared in London in 1955 and on Broadway in 1956 and some of our greatest actors have performed it, including Patrick Stewart, Bill Irwin, Ian McKellan, E.G Marshall, F. Murray Abramson, Geoffrey Rush, Nathan Lane, Robin Williams and Steve Martin.

I first encountered the play in a first-year undergraduate course on Modern Drama (my minor) and if a liberal arts education is sometimes wasted on the young, I’m an example. I’d never heard of Beckett or Godot and even on a second reading I found the play opaque, totally incomprehensible. Unable to formulate a critical judgement, I remained silent and took notes on the teacher’s interpretation — in all likelihood a conventional Christian take as it was a very conservative Lutheran college. Further, and it’s strictly a guess, my professor and hence his students may have been influenced and delimited by New Criticism, a school of thought which dictated that only the text lent itself to interpretation and excluded the author’s background, context, possible intent and so forth.

This cringe-worthy memory was recently brought to mind by reading the Godot quote (above) in Benjamin Moser’s new biography of Susan Sontag where he describes how she staged Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo while it was under brutal attack by Serbian nationalists in 1993. That, in turn, prompted me to do some research and view an online version of the play in an attempt to further reduce another glaring deficit on my cultural capital ledger. My conceit is that what follows may be useful for others in rethinking both the play and its meaning for today.

Absent a plot, action and time, the play resists a tersely cogent summary but here’s my layperson’s idiosyncratic, some will say caricatured synopsis. After the opening line “Nothing to be done” the audience watches a tragicomedy in two acts about Vladimir and Estragon ( “Didi” and “Gogo” in the performed version), two bedraggled vagabonds waiting in the middle of nowhere for the mysterious Godot to save them. They occupy an almost barren landscape with a country road, single boulder, the sky and a leafless tree which sprouts a few leaves by Act II. To kill time they engage in broad slapstick humor, nostalgic rambling, juggling their bowler hats, halting speeches, and bickering. There are also glimpses of exquisite tenderness between Gogo and Didi, the childish nicknames the pair have adopted for one another.

In Act I, they’re paid an abbreviated visit by Pozzo, a local landowner and his slave, Lucky, who’s tethered to rope and whipped. His fate is to be sold at the fair. A boy appears with the message that Godot won’t be arriving that day “but surely tomorrow.” Didi and Gogo momentarily contemplate suicide by hanging themselves from the tree but decide to continue waiting. In Act II, a greatly diminished Pozzo (now blind) and Lucky (mute and dying) reappear and Didi cries out that they should help them. They do nothing. The boy returns with the same message, suicide is again put off and the wait continues. Spoiler: Godot never shows up. At that point, Vladimir says “Well, shall we go?” To which Estragon replies “Yes, let’s go,” but as the curtain falls, the friends remain stationary. As a reviewer in the Irish Times quipped in 1956, this is a play in which “Nothing happens, twice.”

Whereas Waiting for Lefty was praised by left reviewers, Beckett’s play was despised by many left critics as exhibiting a decadent lack of realism and furthering late modernist bourgeois ideology. Fellow Irish dramatist Sean O’Casey felt Beckett’s work portrayed “a lust for despair” while George Wentworth accused Beckett of being “a prophet of negation and sterility. He holds out no hope for humanity…” And George Lukács, the Marxist theorist spoke for many in claiming Beckett only displays “the utmost pathological human degradation.” If accurate, this interpretation reinforced the paralyzing despair felt by so many working class people at the time and doubly so in the United States today. It also plays into the hands of our rulers.

More mainstream reviews of Godot were peppered with phrases like desolate universe, paralyzing inertia, and unrelieved bleakness. And those were the critics who liked the play. They agreed Beckett was a prophet of inconsolable pessimism about the human condition but on a purely artistic level correctly predicted Godot was destined to be a minimalist theater masterpiece. Note: In response to my recent queries, several introspective friends confided that after watching Waiting for Godot, their strongest impressions ranged from “waiting for God” to “existential despair” and “being a play about nothing.”

During that same semester, but outside of class, I read another play that preceded Godot by some eighteen years and it was also about people waiting for an eponymous character who never shows up. This was the 1935 drama Waiting for Lefty, by celebrated American playwright Clifford Odets (1906-1963) and was nominally based on the famous 1934 strike by New York City cabdrivers at the height of the Great Depression. Odets, a Communist Party member, fashioned his drama on behalf of working class struggle and a hopeful vision of socialist revolution. He called the play “…a machine gun that could be deployed at any strike meeting or picket line.”

In a cabdriver’s union meeting hall, the strike committee is deciding whether to hit the pavement while a corrupt, red-baiting union boss tries to talk them out of it. His hectoring implicitly supports FDR’s effort to save capitalism from the pinkos. Before making a decision the cabbies want to hear from Lefty Costello, their pro-strike faction leader who is nowhere to be found. After more impassioned dialogue and more waiting (in one sequence a secretary voices kind words for The Communist Manifesto), an agitated member shouts “Don’t wait for Lefty! He might never come!” They continue waiting. Finally, a union member arrives with the news that Lefty has been found dead with a bullet in his head. Rather than giving in to despair they begin chanting “Strike, Strike, Strike…” break into a rousing version of “Solidarity Forever” and refusing to waiting for a messiah, commence acting on their own behalf.

The director Harold Thurman, a close friend of Odets, called the play “the birth cry of the 1930s” and said the playwright’s motive was to explain the plight of poor working class people, “to express his love, his fears, his hope for the world” and fervently wanted to make a connection between audience and actors. The play opened on Broadway on March 26, 1935 and the cast received 28 curtain calls.

As a “symbol of proletarian revolution,” it was then staged across the country before raucously favorable audiences albeit closed down in some cities because of its “subversive” content.1 It’s still performed at a smattering of colleges and community theater venues, including a recent four-night run at a 30-seat space in Philadelphia. It’s possible that audiences today find the play heavy-handed, soap-boxish and even quaint with its celebration of labor militancy, radical unions and class struggle but that only shows how successful neoliberal ideology has been in retarding class consciousness.

In any event, for me, Waiting for Lefty was hopeful agitprop theater, art as powerful social commentary that I could embrace for its contribution to my nascent radical political consciousness. The only parallel I detected between the two plays was the failure of the eponymous characters to appear. In retrospect, not only was I mistaken but Beckett’s work was in fact also profoundly political and remains even more relevant today.

Unlike Odets’ didactic left politics, Beckett was steadfastly reticent to explain his play’s meaning and when asked about Godot, he routinely responded that he had no idea of Godot’s identity and had he known would have spelled it out. Beyond that, Beckett maintained that the play was open to a variety of interpretations. Subsequently, a partial list was filled by Christian, Existentialist, Jungian Freudian, Sexual and Ethical. I’ve also read a few erudite Marxist interpretations that, while neither “wrong” nor implausible, felt shoehorned into rigid preexisting boxes in an attempt to appropriate the work. In any event and even if Beckett was being coy (which I doubt) every viewer is left with his or her interpretive freedom without fear of contradiction. As I argue later, that was an artistic and conscious political decision on Beckett’s part.

For me, the most compelling, if not definitive interpretation arises from Beckett’s active role in the French Resistance during World War II. The critic Hugh Kenner argued that virtually every aspect of Godot resembled France under Germany occupation “but no spectator ever thinks of it.”2

While not going that far, Beckett scholar Emilie Morin suggests there are many signs that Beckett’s “perceived his own identity through the lens of the French Revolution.”3

Beckett joined immediately after the German invasion of France in early 1940 even though as an Irish national he could have returned to Ireland or simply continued to enjoy his neutral status in France. Working for British Special Operations and given the pseudonym “l’Irlandis” (the Irishman), his secret Resistance cell Gloria SMH translated and smuggled intelligence reports on German troop movements to the Allies. It was extremely dangerous and twelve cell members were executed and some ninety others deported to Buchenwald, Mauthausen, and Ravensbruck.

By D-day, 30,000 Resistance members had been executed and of the 115,000 deported to concentration camps, only 35,000 returned. Several times over a two year period Beckett barely escaped the Gestapo, finally fleeing on foot and sleeping in ditches during a trek to the small, remote village of Roussilon some 400 miles south of Paris. While there he did some writing but also hid weaponry for the Resistance in his backyard. After the war, Beckett worked in an Irish Red Cross hospital in Saint-lo where he encountered first hand the devastation, cruelty and immense suffering from both the Allied and German bombing campaigns of 1944. After the war, Beckett received the Croix de Guerre and the Medaille de la Resistance from the French government.

In the decades that followed, ample public evidence exists of Beckett’s political sympathies. He supported the Spanish Republic, signed petitions against Jaruzelski’s detention of political dissenters and human rights violations in Pinochet’s Chile, wrote Catastrophe (1982) in support of imprisoned Václav Havel and registered his opposition to apartheid in South Africa. In 1963,when asked by South African activists to join Playwrights Against Apartheid, he signed their petition and sent along a handwritten note which read “I am in entire agreement with your views and prepared to refuse performances except before a non-segregated audience.” In the late 1960s, he donated a manuscript for auction to the African National Congress.

Godot was eventually performed in South Africa at an integrated theater with an-black cast. The director Benji Francis revealed that the play evaded the censor’s suspicion because so many people assumed it was “a play where nothing happens.” Francis drew attention to the forlorn tree’s radical political function because “when it sprouted leaves in act two, that sent a powerful message to oppressed people — it suggested new life and resolution, an image of hope against all desolation.”4 After winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969, Beckett gave the prize money to needy artists. Jack McGowran, one of his closest friends, recalled Beckett’s “deep compassion for mankind” that required “showing things as they are, as he sees them, to tell everything with compassion, always with humor.”5

In addition to the Sontag version, an all-black production of Godot was staged in South Africa in 1976 (blessed by Becket) and another in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina with the clear implication that Godot was FEMA. The play has been staged in prisons, including at San Quentin before some 1,400 inmates. Later, the prisoners formed the San Quentin Drama Workshop to organize and act in their own production. Beckett provided them with an annotated script and spent ten days helping supervise production, the only time he did so for his play in the United States.

The foregoing facts simply don’t support the widespread, cliched characterizations of Beckett’s world as only grim existential futility, of an apolitical and even nonpolitical writer whose thinking was disengaged from the real world and its tribulations. Here I’m indebted to noted Beckett scholar Emilie Morin’s recent book Beckett’s Political Imagination which now assumes the preeminent scholarly role of helping us understand Beckett’s politics.

Morin makes a compelling case for a more nuanced, less conventional view of politics at work. For example, when asked by Richard Stern in 1977, whether he was “ever political,” Beckett replied, “No, but I joined the Resistance.”6 And many years after the war, when queried why he joined the Resistance, Beckett responded somewhat uncomfortably, that “He simply couldn’t stand [by] with his arms folded.”7 Perhaps it’s coincidence but here’s a passage from Godot:

Vladimir: It is true that with folded arms we weigh the pros and cons we
Are no less a credit to our species…But this is not the question. What are
We doing here, that is the question.

And it’s not true that two vagrants are “doing nothing.” They are in fact doing something: They are waiting for the enigmatic Godot to interpret the world so they will know how to proceed. Beckett’s underlying message is they should stop waiting for something in the future. As Beckett biographer James Knowlson asserts, that waiting situation is “what happens when people have lost the awareness of their purpose in life.”8 At one point, Vladimir says:

Was I sleeping while others were suffering? Am I sleeping now?
At me too, someone is looking, of me too someone is saying he
Too is sleeping, he knows nothing, let him sleep.

It’s notable that this lost awareness, this alienated waiting, does not occur in solitude as the two longtime friends mirror the human condition of being thoroughly dependent upon one another. It would not be a stretch to characterize this as incipient solidarity.

Beckett never claimed to be a philosopher, only saying “One can only speak of what is front of him, and that is simply a mess.” And unlike Clifford Odetts, he was neither a Marxist, to my knowledge referenced Marxism in his work and doesn’t prescribe specific forms of action. But then again, neither did Marx who believed that when the time arrived people would know what to do. That is, when they “know,” they will know how to proceed, how “to go on.”

Again, Emilie Morin notes that “Thinking about the political questions raised by Beckett’s writing can— and should, I think —be uncomfortable; to put it simply, his work asks us whether or not we are willing to see what is in front of us. This is the uncomfortable political question that continues to resonate today.”9

My reading of Godot is that audience’s feelings of uncertainty, doubt and lack of closure reflects, not fatalistic despair but Beckett’s respect for people’s need to resolve matters on their own and his belief that only then can they decide on the most efficacious behavior consonant with what needs to be done. The one thing they can’t do is continue waiting. One thinks of Marx’s famous dictum that “Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways ; the point, however, is to change it.”

Finally, if it’s true as Morin concludes, that “The idea that even in the most oppressive and terrifying circumstances, something in the human spirit remains free and indomitable haunts many of Beckett’s later texts”10 this suggests that Beckett wants the reader/viewer to consummate the experience but only after some painful introspection. Thus his pessimism is for:

…an established cultural and societal structure which imposes its
Stultifying will upon otherwise hopeful individuals; it is the inherent
Optimism of the human condition, therefore, that is at tension with
The oppressive world.11

This is reminiscent of Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci’s decision to employ his “pessimism of the intellect” in assessing the world’s wretched reality and then choosing “optimism of the will” in order to move forward. We can hope there’s an aspiring playwright out there who can contextualize a modern day Lefty/Godot into our soul-enervating, neoliberal capitalist world and rewaken an emancipatory spirit that emerges not from outside but from within.

  1. Selena Voelker, “The Power of Art and the Fear of Labor: Seattle’s Production of Waiting for Lefty in 1936,” The Great Depression in Washington State Project.”
  2. Marjorie Perloff, quoted in Enter Godot: ACT Celebrates the 50th Anniversary of Beckett’s Existential Classic, 2003.
  3. Emilie Morin, Beckett’s Political Imagination (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017), p.139. The product of ten years of in-depth research, this pathbreaking study isn’t about Waiting for Godot per se but how power, race and colonies are ingrained in Beckett’s work.
  4. Benji Francis, as quoted by David Smith, Imogen Carter and Ally Carnwath, “In Godot We Trust,” Guardian, March 8, 2009.
  5. Deirdre Bair, Parisian Lives: Samuel Beckett, Simone De Beauvoir and Me: A Memoir (New York: Doubleday, 2019) p. 50.
  6. Morin, op.cit., p. 13.
  7. Ibid., p. 19.
  8. James Knowlson, Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett (London: Bloomsbury, 1966) p.638-39.
  9. Emilie Morin, “Beckett’s Political Imagination,” Fifteen Eight-Four, August 22, 2017.
  10. __________, “Beckett, War Memory, and the State of Exception,” Journal of Modern Literature, 42:4, Summer, 2019), p. 135.
  11. Authors at Wikipedia’s Selections for Schools, Samuel Beckett, McGill-CS, on DVD, 2007.

“Artistic-Humanistic” Creativity (1960-65)

Lately, in my ongoing exploration of the artistic movements of the American past, I’ve noticed that, in a mere half-decade (1960-65), creative achievements in the performing arts — music, drama, film — were so outstanding as to never to be equaled again (in my opinion).  What are my criteria for such “greatness” in these art-forms?  Basically, powerfully humanistic and vigorously executed creations, works that express — often subtly and with considerable nuance — ultimate human values.  Both rational and emotional, such a work must exhibit coherent, unified structure, as well as an authenticity of insight which transcends stale platitudes and hackneyed sentiments.  The viewer/listener is not only genuinely moved but also energized by the vigor and creative originality of the work.

If my thesis is justified, why did this short period exhibit such a creative-artistic efflorescence?  My impression is that, starting around 1960, a subjective feeling of a gradually expanding “liberation” was occurring.  As someone who still acknowledges the importance of such post-Freudians as Wilhelm Reich, I would insist that improved contraceptives (notably, “the pill”) was a key factor, as well as the gradually liberalizing norms regarding sexual behavior, divorce, and (a few years later) abortion.  But this feeling — a sense of a more humane, livable Zeitgeist emerging — was also mostly dramatically evidenced by the victories of the Civil Rights movement, victories which catalyzed a hopeful, guardedly optimistic vision of a freer-world-to-come.

Another factor was demographic: in 1960, 50% of Americans were under 18.  Such sheer numbers of young people, often disaffected and dissatisfied with the racist and blandly consumeristic status quo, pressed — with youthful vigor and idealistic enthusiasm — against the reactionary stagnation of their elders.  However, I’m more inclined to look to the 30-somethings of 1960-65: people already inclined to a more progressive-humanistic vision because of some first-hand experience of the Depression–or, at least, of its humane, artistic depiction (cf. Steinbeck, Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man,” etc.).

Who were these creators — to name a few, representative examples — and what did they create?  In drama, I’m thinking of Lorraine Hansberry’s Raisin in the Sun, a powerfully moving, convincing drama of one black family’s pain-and-struggle against segregation (far superior as drama, in my opinion, to the relentlessly over-hyped Death of a Salesman and adapted into a fine 1961 film).  In music: not only the boldly raw, vigorously impassioned hard bop jazz created by inner-city black musicians such as Lee Morgan and Miles Davis, but also the genre-transcending, freshly challenging jazz experiments of Dave Brubeck and others.  A key facilitating factor here was the existence of independent record companies and producers with a genuine interest in artistic innovation (Blue Note records, Columbia Records producer Teo Macero, etc.).  Even book publishers were, at that time, mostly small, independent firms (e.g., Knopf), still more interested in real quality than in maximizing sales (i.e., “the profit-margin”).

The film industry in the early Sixties?  Many talented writers — some newly-emerged from the HUAC blacklist — were unapologetically committed to some form of socialism or “social democracy,” a conviction which embraced human equality and dignity, and condemned exploitation of wage-laborers and racial/ethnic minorities.  I’m thinking in particular of the epic drama Spartacus (1960) — based on a novel by the Communist Howard Fast and scripted by ex-listed Dalton Trumbo — which earnestly and powerfully depicted the Roman Slave Revolt, ca. 71 B.C.  The synergy of talents exhibited in the film — writing, directing, acting, music — is probably unparalleled in the history of American film.  But, most importantly, the film was a powerfully dramatized treatment of an ultimate theme of human consequence: the value of the individual, free and undominated, as against the changing forms of historical tyranny and subjection.

The early Sixties also saw a burgeoning awareness of Freud’s often-disturbing insights into irrational, malignant human motivations.  Thus, for instance, the film adaptation of Melville’s Billy Budd (1962) unflinchingly probed the repressed Claggart’s sadistic intentions toward Billy.  In black-comedy — a subversive genre which came-of-age in this period — we see the paralyzed, impotent Dr. Strangelove rejoicing in a “cosmic orgasm” of global, nuclear armageddon (Stanley Kubrick’s 1963 film).

Nowadays, unfortunately, the enlightening perspectives of both Marxist and Freudian explanations have almost entirely disappeared — as what remains of an intelligent, searching public understanding is submerged ever-further into the confused blind-alley of “identity-politics.”  And, as for the often malignant motivations of many present-day filmmakers, I refer you to an earlier article, “Reviving Radical Populism in Films.”

Makwirituni erakuni: “I’d like to introduce you to my family”

Juan Garcia helps the family’s youngest, Jacob, 9 months, as he fusses during a recent mass at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Central Oregon, Madras, where the ecosystem looks like parts of New Mexico, Arizona, Chihuahua.

He introduces me and my colleague, Susy S. — both of us from Family Independence Initiative, a national non-profit now working in both Lincoln County and Jefferson County to engage families in a large social capital project – to his family and parishioners.

For Juan, who is a former Michoacán resident, family is everything to him. He tells me recently at the Madras Latino Festival that he and his wife Jaquilina are done growing their family.

He smiles proudly when rattling off his brood’s names and ages – Jose, 21, Julianna, 16, Jesse, 15, Juan Junior, 11, Javier, 9, Josefina, 5 and the infant, Jacobo.

Juan is proud that all of them are still at home, part of his philosophy of bearing the fruits of decent living and the proverbial golden rule.

“What I believe we have on earth is this ability to pass on good lessons and instruction to our children who have a chance to make this a better world,” he states as he preps the ground for the second annual Madras Latino Festival before the onslaught of people coming to Sahalee Park.

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Also deeply ingrained in this former undocumented immigrant is his religion, Catholicism, and his tolerance of other peoples. It’s fitting the Latino Festival – the second annual event Juan has had some hand in helping get off the ground with the Latino Community Association – is held at a park whose Chinook name translates to “high heavenly ground.”

Life before El Norte

We talk about his father’s roots in Michoacán – a tall, dark-skinned man who is part of the Purépecha people. The Nahuatl name for the Purépecha was “Michhuàquê” (“those who have fish”), for which the Mexican state of Michoacán was named.  His father was a metallurgy specialist working for a door frame and security bar factory near Zamora.

My father can trace his family tree back to Asia,” Juan, who is 41, states proudly. He is six foot two and very dark skinned, unlike Juan, who picked up many traits from his mother, a woman who traces her family line back to Portugal, Spain and Germany. I am what you call a Mestizo, a mix from my dad’s pure Indian line and my mother’s European side.

That tribe — Purépecha – only numbers in the tens of thousands, but more than 600 years from the present, it was considered a tribe of exceptional warriors,

Out of the hundreds of tribes in Mexico, most think of the Mayans, Aztecs and Toltecs. Well, the Purépecha was in the middle, one of the few non-conquered tribes during that era.

See the source image

For the young Juan and his two sisters, it was rough growing up in that community – the tribe didn’t accept his family because Juan’s mother was white, and the white community didn’t accept them because of the father’s tribal background.

His grandparents on his mother’s side were ranchers and agriculturalists with land and productive fields. For that, this story of a young Juan gets highly dramatic and dangerous.

“My dad ran into a lot of bad people because he was heading up safety and environmental plans,” Juan tells me. His father attempted to keep illegal loggers off tribal land, and for that, he was attacked and insulted by many poachers.

At seven years of age, the young Juan was kidnapped. The people who took him had other children, part of a human trafficking ring.

These criminals believed the Garcia clan was rich because of grandparents who had some land and farming interests three hours away.

Juan recalls many dismembered bodies being found around his community.

As I grew up in that community, I learned there is no difference between the races. We are all the same, all creatures of God.

His father inculcated the reverence for wildlife and nature, always going into the forest protecting the tribal land and cultural trust.

Juan said he escaped his captors with other children in tow.

Leaving Home, Searching for a Sister

I have been lucky to have lived in the Southwest of the USA and the northern parts of Mexico we call La Frontera. I have had many deep relationships with people who have roots in Mexico and Central America, who made the treacherous journey north as undocumented humans. A few of those people were my professors at UT-El Paso when I was a graduate student.

Juan’s journey at age 17 was one of desperation to help his family at home – mom, dad, sister, brothers – who were struggling financially. Another sister had married a man who ended up moving them both to the US. He wanted to find her.

It took more than two weeks to journey from his home state to Tecate in the state of Baja. Because his father left the family on many occasions to seek work far away, there were months on end when the family didn’t know if he was alive or deceased.

It was tough. In my own country I was discriminated against all different ways. So many people think they are superior, Juan recalls. Honestly, when I crossed the border, I didn’t know it was illegal to do so. I was not hurting anyone. I wasn’t trying to harm people or this country.

He recounts being harassed by Mexican federal police and coyotes. In the end, when he crossed the border, he found himself working as a “slave” in Los Angeles for the people that took his money to cross into the United States but exacted punishment for Juan’s lack of funds.

For two months, I was a slave. I worked 16 hours a day just to get a meal. I was in a house and the farthest I was allowed to go was from the building where I was making crafts to the trash can.

All Juan knew was he had a sister in Oregon, but with the help of a fellow traveler he met on the underground trail to the USA, they located his sister in Salem. She basically paid off his ransom, and soon the 17-year-old Juan ended up north, in Portland.

Other stories during that trip north:

• in Sinaloa and Sonora police and federales were going to kill him
• six men surrounded him and were ready to murder him
• Juan defended himself with words
• “You are supposed to be defending and supporting the people . . . you should be ashamed of yourselves.”
• “Throughout Mexico, people are just focused on greed . . . all about money and they don’t think about people.”

From that day forward, his ethos and principles have been galvanized to a simple belief:

What I do I do because I believe I can help change the world. Anyone is in the position to change the world, and we have to pass it on to our neighbors, friends and family.

Making Bucks and Hitting the Books Hard

So, he tells me how important school – education – is to him. The young Juan ended up in Woodburn, Oregon, and he had no idea how to enroll in high school. In Mexico, school costs money, and there are no free lunches, no free supplies.

When I tried to enroll, they asked for so many things. I reached out to a counselor, and told her, ‘All I want to do is go to school so why are you asking me so many questions. I didn’t come here to harm anyone.’

He survived rejection after rejection, but as a minor he ended up with a guardian, the principal, Mrs. Dallas, who Juan is still friends with to this day.

You know, when they asked me at the border if I was an American, of course, I said I was. In our schools in Mexico, they treat the entire continent — north, south, central and Mexico — as one America.

Luckily, he also had an uncle who left the tribe and ended up in Oregon, so Juan was set with two guardian angels, so to speak. He told me he ended up crying with tears of joy when he was told school and lunches were publicly-supported with no cost to students.

Mrs. Dallas challenged Juan to not let her down. “I told her that I didn’t think that was in my dictionary, letting people down.”
Juan has worked since age four or five in Mexico, and this journey was not without risks – he held down three jobs to help pay for the health care costs for one of his medically-compromised-and-fragile sisters in Mexico.

Everything went well, until three months later when I was told my parents did not have the money to pay the medical bills. I left school. I told Mrs. Dallas, ‘I’m sorry, but this is not about me anymore . . . my younger sister needs me.’

He ended up working in a pizzeria, for a nursery and a commercial tree grower. His brother-in-law had lost his job, and Juan’s married sister in Woodburn was also having surgeries for her medical issues.

The hard reality of exploitation hit the young Juan after he dropped out his junior year to support his family. The tree planter hired seasonal workers, mostly Latino migrants. Juan recalls how the boss restricted the amount of water the hard-working laborers could get.

“I told the boss that this is not humane. That he was treating us like criminals. We ended up drinking water from puddles.”

Enter the University of Oregon Ducks

Juan went back to his “guardian teacher” at Woodburn High School, and proposed to re-enroll with only a few weeks left of the school year. It just so happened that a teacher passing by heard the conversation and offered Juan a chance to enroll in an accelerated GED program that was being piloted at U of O.

What seems to be a truism in Juan Garcia’s life is, “good things come to people who wait, or good things come to good people.”

He was on a year waiting list, which Juan was okay with, but soon after applying, an opening popped up. He passed every single test necessary to get in.

Three months later after attending the intense Eugene-based program, he passed the test with a 99.9 percent grade. He also met his future wife there, Jackie, who was also in the program.

Juan loved attending other classes at the university, and he ended up staying after matriculating to assist and tutor those others who were struggling, fellow students from all over, including Idaho, Seattle, Teas, Washington, Oregon and other parts of the US.

He said he came to Madras the first time to ask her hand in marriage from her father. They were married in November 1999, and went back to Woodburn. He ended up interviewing with the Holiday Inn. “I interviewed for a supervisor position, but the general manager laughed, saying I was going to be sweeping and mopping floors. If that’s a reason, that I am Latino, then, well, I told him I was there to work.”

He worked hard to assist co-workers, and soon this Wilsonville Holiday Inn was being managed by Juan, and he was training workers, hiring others, and was offered to move up, out to other states, but he opted to be in Oregon, with his family.

Seven years later, he got an apology from the GM, telling Juan he was wrong to doubt his abilities based on racist perceptions about Latinos.

The problem I had there was I treated co-workers as family. I met their wives and kids. I was hiring people from different cultures – African Americans, Russians, Arabs, Asians.

Mind you, this was not his sole job – he was still working for the pizzeria and for Nike and a taco stand. When the Wilsonville Holiday Inn sold out to another company, Juan was asked to cut 50 employees.

I saw the numbers, the budget. I told the new manager that every single one of the workers is busy the entire shift. Every single one was giving 100 percent. I told them I wasn’t going to fire them.

Nike, Just Do It (unless you are a Latino)

He and Jackie at that point had two children. Juan went into an interview with Nike to get more income for the growing family. He was told that since he was a Latino, he couldn’t be trusted. So they put him in a department nobody liked. Juan thought cleaning restrooms was the bottom rung, but the interviewer laughed and told him the very worse department was receiving.

Juan recalls it was total chaos, and hard heavy lifting work. “I wanted to quit three hours in. But a fellow Latino employee advised him not to: “Juan, people don’t believe in us. You would be giving them an excuse if you quit.”

Even though Juan has worked his entire life, he felt this this place was treating them like animals.

He recalls praying, and remembers all the yelling he did to himself in the receiving department. “I was going crazy, I thought. But I got my own answer: ‘Fix it.’”

He realized that nobody was watching or cared about this department – seven of them: two African Americans, five Latinos, and one Chinese-American.

He asked the team if they could give him a few weeks to try and improve working conditions and turn things around.

That department went from the bottom of the heap to the best at Nike in six months. He was called to different departments to help those respective workplaces fix their inefficiencies and poor workplace productivity and conditions.

He quit Nike, because he wanted to go into the Army, and was still working three other jobs. He told me that he felt he was providing okay, and that his wife reaffirmed that he was a loving father of two children and caring husband. His wife told him, “But Juan, we hardly ever see you.”

Enter Madras, Oregon

The idea was to get closer to his wife’s family and to center in a small rural community from which to grow. The third child, Jesse, was on the way, born March 2006 in Madras.

His bosses understood his drive to be centered around family and wished him good luck after three years at Nike.

Currently, Juan works as systems maintenance technician for TDS Communications, a company out of Madison, Wisconsin that provides communication services like cellular, TV and phone service. This job for Juan Garcia is going on 14 years, and while Juan has a better work-life balance than his earlier years in Oregon, he still has a large service area, sometimes driving 300 to 500 miles in his vehicle in a day servicing customers in three counties.

He was just hired on as a part-time site director for Family Independence Initiative. The Madras Pioneer ran my article on the FII initiative September 11; however, in a nutshell this non-profit is partnered with the state of Oregon to get hundreds of households in both Lincoln and Jefferson counties to enroll in a social capital project.

Juan’s presence in Madras and Metolius is deep, and his commitment to coaching youth and helping youth have options rather than spiraling into drugs and delinquency is huge.

Juan’s job with FII is to recruit families, get them enrolled and assist them with their commitment of 12 months journaling (once a month updates) about their families’ progress and circumstances.

For the exchange of data FII collects, the family will receive a total of $800 for both the time and commitment.

Language is More than Meaning – It’s Culture, History

We talk about how many people over the last few months and years have sort of reacted negatively when seeing the Garcia family of nine out in public. Not ironically, what gives Juan hope is how the “world needs to have hope through the family, through children.”

His biggest fear is losing his family.

We talk about language extinction, and his own tribe’s language, which is called Tarascan or Tarasca.

“Every once in a while, I force my dad to talk to me in our language. But unfortunately, my kids aren’t learning it, and thus on my side, it will die out.”

We get to the basics – love is satichu in the native tongue. I ask him what community is in the language, and like many indigenous languages, the concept of community is expanded: “What brings you here” – natchiwantuterasini abeushaqi.

This proud man ran for mayor of Metolius and lost by one vote. He said it is a dream of his to become governor of Oregon. He is also enrolling at OSU-Bend to carry forth with his college education.

If he was mayor of Madras, Juan said he’d get an activities center building with a climbing wall, indoor soccer, a jumping house and other amenities to give families a place to recreate and bond.

This journey started in 1978, when he was born, and his life pathway, with seven children, in-laws, dozens of friends and neighbors, continues to find new and exciting trials and tribulations.

In 2005, he made the permanent move to Madras with his family, and he also became a naturalized citizen of the United States.

And yet, he easily recalls times when he was a child, high in the mountains in Michoacán, where the kids went out into the forest and gathered natural spoons from the palm trees so they could eat grandmother’s pozole: mashed hominy, with meat (typically pork), and seasoned and garnished with shredded lettuce or cabbage, manzana peppers, onion, garlic, and limes.

Note: for information about joining the Jefferson County FII project, contact Juan Garcia, FII, at, 541-630-2607; gro.iifnull@ofni

Orwell: Neocon Icon

How do you explain the fact that the John Birch Society used 1984 as its main office telephone number in the 1960s? Or that both Animal Farm and 1984, are force-fed to virtually the entire western world in people’s formative years in their teens, even as Big Brother jacks up repression and surveillance, and pursues ever more cruel and senseless wars?

A look at Orwell’s weaknesses reveals how Big Brother turn the tables on him, getting the last laugh.

Both Animal Farm (1945) and 1984 (1949) are listed on the Random House Modern Library 100 Best Novels of the 20th century (#31 and #13), and have been translated into more than 60 languages, more than any other novels. Orwell “helped prevent the realization of the totalitarian world he described”, according Jeffrey Meyers in Orwell: Wintry Conscience Of A Generation (2001). We are taught in school to revere his warnings against “Thought Police” and the supreme importance of individual rights and freedom of thought.

An antihero’s vaccine

On the surface, he looks oddly heroic—a scholarship to Eton, disdaining Cambridge to serve as a policeman in Burma; his gritty apprenticeship as a writer bumming around Paris and across Britain; escaping death by a whisker fighting fascism in Spain; writing his political allegories as he wasted away from the ‘poor writer’s disease’. The unrelenting pessimism of his work reflects his “inner need to sabotage his chance for a happy life”, observers Jeffrey Meyers in Orwell: Wintry Conscience Of A Generation (2001).

It is as if he wanted to suffer, and make his one love, his first wife Eileen, suffer along with him, first in an isolated, decrepit cottage in Wallington and then exposed to death in Barcelona. She predeceased him in a botched hysterectomy while he was reporting from liberated Germany in 1945, himself fatally ill. Within weeks of her sudden death, he was proposing to various women, but they rejected the clearly very ill Orwell, who insisted in living on a cold, rainy Hebrides island, Jura, miles from the nearest town, without electricity, in conditions guaranteed to kill him.

His identification with the poor and downtrodden, plus his sado-masochistic neurosis (colonial policeman, believer in the strap as teacher, willful destroyer of his own health, bungler in love) resulted in Animal Farm and 1984, which were immediately promoted by his own 1984 Oceania power zone—the US/British empire—as a powerful ideological weapon to fight the other zones—Eurasia (the Soviet Union and Europe, which Orwell assumed would be taken over in toto by a now-‘imperial’ USSR following the nuclear WWIII) and Eastasia (China and Japan).

In 1984, the ‘hero’ Winston Smith ends up an alcoholic, brainwashed into loving Big Brother. In our Oceania power zone, Orwell’s message is mangled, its dystopian reflection on modern society limited to the Soviet Union, which at the time was under Stalin’s harsh dictatorship. The novel was/is taught as a warning not about East and West, but only the East.

This is not what Orwell intended at all. 1984 was a parody of 1948 Labor Britain, now seen by Orwell as just another Soviet Union. Oceania ruled the world, and there was no hope left, East or West. There is no ‘happy ending’ in 1984.

So his message (a pox on both your houses) was lost, and the novel proved to be a devastating weapon only aimed at Oceania’s rivals, not at Oceania itself. Did Orwell help “prevent the realization of the totalitarian world”? Not by a long shot. Oceania is alive and well!

Even as schoolchildren are indoctrinated by Orwell’s gloomy social fables, “Newspeak” and “Thought Police” are more widespread than ever, and we remain under their control.

Orwellian indoctrination, using Orwell as a kind of vaccine, helped Oceania not only to defeat communism, but to move decisively against the remaining enemies after 2001, invading the disputed Middle East/ Central Asia, with nary a peep from the proles. It seems that rather than waking people up to their chains, Orwell’s novels, and their incorporation into mass commercial culture, have acted as a kind of inoculation, inuring people to the totalitarian ‘dis-ease’ even as it metastasizes. How did this remarkable psychosomatic phenomenon come about?

Arrested development

Penniless, scruffy Orwell, so adamantly devoted to (his) personal freedom, so disdainful of capitalism with its commodity fetishism. As he lay dying in an elite London hospital, he fumed against an ad for a sock suspender on the leg of a classical hero: “Physical beauty is a sacred thing and should be shielded from the vile devices of advertisers,” he lectured Malcom Muggerridge. He had witnessed friends like Cyril Connolly sell out to live a sybaritic lifestyle.

Yet he turned against the only group that stood firmly against capitalism, his communist acquaintances. On his deathbed, he married a cynical Connolly groupie, Sonya Brownell bequeathing her his new, very lucrative name. A lifelong republican, he embraced the monarchy. A lifelong atheist, he pleaded for a church funeral and burial. Where and how did the ascetic, working class hero lose it?

Orwell’s neurotic, depressive character, his outsized ego, his repressive public school upbringing and cold, almost fatherless family life, are all there in his writing. He was a loner, and could never work with anyone, let alone a movement, for long. He refused to join any political group, and as the communists rallied around the dictator Stalin in defense of ‘real existing socialism’, it became impossible for him to work with his natural allies against fascism.

In his occasional teaching jobs in the 1930s, he was remembered as ‘liberally’ using a switch to poke and punish students, sometimes on the slightest account. At the same time, he taught some how to make explosives. So he was alternately a dictator and a naughty teenage gang leader thumbing his nose at authority. No room here for a social movement to unite people to overthrow capitalism.

He was haunted by his father’s career as a supervisor in the Indian Opium Department, preparing the deadly narcotic for export to China, and yet stubbornly pursued a similar career, as a policeman in Burma in service to empire, instead of going to university in 1922. He was forced to search out and repress activists in the Burmese national liberation movement, and defend what he came to see as a massive protection racket, under the phony pretext of forcibly civilizing backward natives.

His strongly anti-imperialist Burma Days (1934) was banned there. He got this right, but his uneducated revulsion against capitalism/ imperialism ultimately led him to his simplistic depiction of the world in 1984 of supposedly interchangeable empires brainwashing their masses into subservience, using “doublethink” and Thought Police. But they were not really interchangeable. Orwell’s anti-imperialism was skin deep. ‘Our empire’ was good; theirs—bad.

Even worse, Orwell sketched a future where the perpetual war between the “super-states” was purely for propaganda purposes, ignoring the real post-WWII struggles for national liberation, supported by Orwell’s Eurasia/ Eastasia (Soviet Union/ China).

Most damnable of all, what can only be called Orwell’s vindictive hatred of communism led him down the slippery slope of McCarthyism, providing names to British intelligence of people he thought were communists, even as he protested their dismissal by the post-WWII Labour government, Washington’s willing servant.

Like Salvador Dali, he casually exposed communist friends. Dali did this thoughtlessly to Bunuel in his 1942 autobiography. Bunuel was immediately fired from the Museum of Modern Art in New York and deported at the very moment he was delicately trying to acquire US citizenship. Orwell enthusiastically joined in the witch hunt in his 1949 list of 35 cultural figures who he considered crypto-communists for the Foreign Office’s Information Research Department, people who Orwell felt “should not be trusted as propagandists”.

They included (with Orwell’s comments in brackets): Charlie Chaplin, Michael Redgrave, Orson Welles, Nancy Cunard (silly), Sean O’Casey (very stupid), Paul Robeson (very anti-white), John Steinbeck (spurious writer, pseudo-naïf) Shaw (reliably pro-Russian on all major issues), Kingsley Martin of the New Statesman (decayed liberal. very dishonest).

Can you believe this? Orwell playing the role of Big Brother’s Though Police. Biographer Myers uncomfortably excuses him, saying this was “necessary, even commendable”, and incongruously states that Orwell  “strongly supported civil rights”.

His analysis of the world was as simplistic, rudderless as that of his cardboard characters in 1984: Communism = Thoughtcrime.

Orwell, sex and perpetual wars

Winston, reacting against the Party’s desire to repress sex, mirrors Orwell’s own life, not the policy of either the capitalists, fascists or communists). He admires Julia’s promiscuity, the fact that she is not interested in loving one person but in freeing her animal instinct, liberating her “simple undifferentiated desire, the force that would tear the Party to pieces.”

It seems Orwell was actually embracing Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1931), where promiscuity reigns. 1984 does not allow pornography and prostitution, whereas Brave New World relies explicitly on sex and drugs to be manipulated and serve the status quo.

Orwell’s complaint to Malcolm Muggeridge about the sexy sock ad would have had greater resonance in his hated Soviet Union, where beauty was indeed considered sacred and where such ads did not exist. Soviet ‘ads’ exhorted workers to produce simple textiles cheaply and efficiently for mass consumption, without harnessing the proles’ sex instincts in the service of profit.

In Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (1985), Neil Postman argues in line with Huxley that our totalitarian social order doesn’t need to deny human rights like free speech, but rather conditions us not to use our rights, by filling our minds with commercial images and harnessing sexual desire to commodities.

The post-WWII wars were by the empire, Orwell’s Oceania, against communism (Orwell’s Eurasia and Eastasia) in competition for Africa, the Middle East, India and Indonesia. The war fever indeed was/is used to keep all the proles in line, but there were clear ideological differences: the wars were wars of liberation of Oceania’s colonies seeking freedom with the help of Eurasia (Soviet Union)/ Eastasia (China). Was this so difficult for Orwell, the anti-imperialist, to foresee?

What Orwell does best is intuit the logic of late capitalism, where war and war preparations by the military-industrial complex become the means to destroy the surplus produced by high tech industrial society, without allowing the proles to become too demanding and realizing that they don’t need a parasitic elite to control them. They are kept in poverty, producing military equipment which is never used.

In the long run, a hierarchical society was only possible on a basis of poverty and ignorance. A Floating Fortress has locked up in it the labour that would build several hundred cargo-ships. Ultimately it is scrapped as obsolete, never having brought any material benefit to anybody, and with further enormous labours another Floating Fortress is built. In principle the war effort is always so planned as to eat up any surplus that might exist after meeting the bare needs of the population.

Yes, ‘eat up any surplus’ but this is only the logic of Oceania. Orwell somehow forgot that the West was capitalist (based on surplus production and expropriation by the elite), and that the Soviet Union was not tied to this vicious circle of production/ destruction, that it was quite capable of distributing its surplus to its proles to improve their standard of living. 1984 posits three deformed ideologies (for Oceania, Ingsoc), where the proles inexplicably have to live forever in poverty. But the economic logic hered is capitalist, something that Orwell either overlooked or didn’t really understand.

This is unforgivable, as capitalism was alive and well as he wrote, and we expect Orwell to be our “wintry conscience”. America’s commercial culture, full of sexy ads, was apparent to Huxley in the 1930s—Marcuse’s repressive desublimation—the spider’s web to keep the proles captive. Couldn’t Orwell reflect on the sexy sock ad and put two and two together?

Hoisted with his own petard

Orwell’s Big Brother and Inner Party were made to order for Oceania after WWII, when the threat of revolution in western Europe was very real. A vaccine against communism was urgent. In our pseudo-reality, it’s okay to be cynical and critical about capitalism, as long as you don’t get infected with the socialist virus. The Thought Police used Orwell to vaccinate potential revolutionaries.

Late capitalism’s wars, while partly to keep the proles in line, do have other motives, primarily control of the world’s resource, which Orwell dismisses as passe. And the Cold War meant something very different to the Soviet ‘enemy’ and the struggling third world, who were fighting for their existence, not just as a whim of their “Inner Parties”.

Commodity fetishism (the real virus) and the ability of capitalism to manufacture desires (and sort-of satisfy them) eventually infected the Soviet Union and provided a powerful weapon to Oceania in its war to destroy Eurasia. Eastasia (China) abandoned its communist character before it could be destroyed, and has now swamped Oceania with commodities, threatening Oceania itself.

Orwell has come somewhat into his own only with the collapse of his hated Soviet Union and especially since 911 and the invasions of Afghanistan, Iraq, etc.

All that is needed is that a state of war should exist. … It is often necessary for a member of the Inner Party to know that this or that item of war news is untruthful, and he may often be aware that the entire war is spurious and … is being waged for purposes quite other than the declared ones: but such knowledge is easily neutralized by the technique of DOUBLETHINK.

Missing the point

That Orwell misread political developments is an understatement. He was politically tone deaf. After returning from Spain in 1937, he adhered to the Independent Labour Party’s pacifism, refusing to support efforts for a common front with the Soviet Union against fascism.

When the Soviet Union was finally a war ally, like the anti-communist Churchill et al, he was briefly pro-Soviet, while broadcasting pro-empire BBC propaganda to India (his first full-time job since he was a policeman in Burma) and writing his anti-communist screeds. His hatred of the Soviet Union now meant opposing the end of empire, as the colonies would turn to the Soviet Union as a model, and like Churchill, Orwell preferred they remain British colonies.

The staunch republican became a fervent monarchist, as protection against the possible rise of a dictator, fearing the totalitarian values of Hitler/ Stalin. But were these dictators the real problem? We can now see that these regimes, which relied overtly on terror, were not so sturdy as Orwell’s dystopia leads us to believe, that human values survive under fallible dictators. The real totalitarian threat was/is the rule of money and commodity fetishism.

Orwell failed to see that the final brick in totalitarianism’s wall was an ideology not of hate and fear, but of sexy legs and smiling models enticing prole-consumers into pursuing will-o-the-wisp happiness in endless consumption. Big Brother’s Victorian strictures are no match for repressive desublimation, especially when the proles are vaccinated by a healthy dose of Orwellian criticism. Orwell’s anti-communist ravings fit the post-WWII West to a T.

Orwell became a model for writers such as Ray Bradbury (Fahrenheit 451 (1953)), Angry-Young-Men John Osborne (Look Back in Anger (1957)) and Alan Sillitoe (The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1959)), Anthony Burgess (Clockwork Orange (1962)), Paul Theroux, John le Carre, and ex-communist Doris Lessing, all of whom had an Orwellian critical view of contemporary society where there is no exit, but—just as important—no alternative.

The perfect ‘free’ culture for capitalism, proudly secular, postmodern, but where TINA (there is no alternative) rules, as famously coined by Margaret Thatcher. Orwell’s legacy proved flexible enough to allow neoconservatives to cite him as they invade countries where dictators are called ‘totalitarian’, or for liberals and leftists to cite him to support their (bland and hopeless) struggles for ‘human rights’. Any evidence of Orwell’s socialism has long been swept under the carpet.

When 1984 hit the stands in 1949, I Anisimov wrote in Pravda of Orwell’s “contempt for the people, his aim of slandering man.” James Walsh in Marxist Quarterly criticized his “neurotic and depressing hatred of everything approaching progress.” Indeed, as Orwell depicts them, the various non-pig animals in Animal Farm and the proles in 1984 are easily misled and cannot be relied on. Only individuals, misfits like Winston/ Orwell can see through the cant, and the possibility of their prevailing is nil. They have no alternative.

As dystopian novels go, Aldus Huxley’s Brave New World (1932, Modern Library’s #5) wins hands down as relevant today, taking Wells’s insight that it’s unbridled technology under capitalism that drives dystopia, and capitalism would use sex as a means of social control. Rebels Lenina Crown and Bernard Marx, a psychologist, travel from the World State to see native Americans living at Savage Reservation, the last remnants of people unprogrammed in the World State, where people are kept under control by the drug soma.

Losing his way

Orwell, the literary traveler/ adventurer, liked to compare himself to DH Lawrence, who also died young of consumption after a repressive upbringing and an unhappy struggle as a writer, but he is in fact closer to TE Lawrence. Lawrence of Arabia and Orwell were both ambivalent towards imperialism, suffered from sado-masochistic neurosis due to their troubled upbringing, and were harnessed to the needs of empire.

DH Lawrence, at least, struggled to overcome his British stiff upper lip, anticipating hippiedom’s ‘free love’ of late capitalism. This is far from Orwell’s experience; he scorned the “bearded fruit-juice drinking sandal-wearers of the roll-in-the-dew-before-breakfast school.” The Arabian Lawrence, like Orwell, unwittingly supported empire and succumbed to self-destructive feelings of guilt and personal inadequacy, famously dying in a motorcycle accident in 1935, consumed by remorse for how his legacy was perverted by empire. Lawrence and Orwell were both 47 when they died.

Like Orwell, Koestler was an adventurer, promiscuous and a cold fish, who also turned against his erstwhile communist comrades and turned out a stream of pessimist screeds that the empire picked up and promoted in its post-WWII Great Game against communism and third world liberation. Koestler’s Darkness at Noon (1940, #6 on the Modern Library list) and “The Yogi and the Commissar” (1945), like Orwell’s 1984, effectively supported our own Big Brother, who really didn’t need their talents to prevail anyway. Koestler’s suicide pact with his wife in 1983 recapitulates the despairing end of both TE Lawrence and Orwell.

They all lost their way on the imperial map, unable to chart a new course, or better, to draw a new map free of the imperial boundaries. Orwell almost got it right in Burma, but stumbled on his own neurosis, his lack of a clear (Marxist) analytical framework. He rejected any “smelly little orthodoxy” and ended up with a half-baked analysis of a complex political reality.

1984 ‘bad’, Animal Farm ‘good’

Orwell got things horribly wrong in 1984. Stalinism withered and the Soviet Union embraced humanism by the mid-1950s. It was not some totalitarian monster at work, but capitalism, which took over the world, and became ever more poisonous, despite nice, but harmless, critics in the “Outer Party” like Winston/ Orwell (today, Zizek, Chomsky, et al). Capitalism is the real totalitarian genius, fusing political and economic mechanisms in a system where infinite power can be amassed via money, which penetrates all aspects of life including Orwell’s precious “undifferentiated desire”.

This is in contrast to (albeit, failed) communist ideology, which rejected money as the social foundation, and thus had only a limited control over people, never reaching the level of soul and the unconscious, as does the West’s market-driven consumerism. There was no effective Soviet vaccine against the dis-ease of capitalism.

Unlike 1984, Orwell’s Animal Farm has survived as a compelling critique of socialism/ communism. There, the ‘proles’ (animals) have a revolution against the capitalists (humans), and are briefly liberated. Yes, the pigs begin to ape the humans and are seen as no better. This eventually happened, the British Labour Party’s welfare socialism, and later, the communist elites in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe. But the ‘pigs’ (Labourites, communists) were overthrown, and the ‘humans’ (Thatcher, Russian oligarchs) took back the farm. A cautionary tale about ‘power corrupting’.

Israel Shamir takes Animal Farm to its post-communist logical conclusion. “Animal Farm revisited” documents how Stinky, the head pig, sells out the inefficient animal-run farm to a slick farmer bearing Marlboro cigarettes and nylons, and the “excess” animals are promptly carted off to the slaughter house. The few remaining escape to the woods and remember even their porcine tyranny fondly.

Shy and clumsy with people, Orwell was easily manipulated, didn’t really believe in ‘the people’, and never thought much about souls until the atheist panicked on his deathbed, calling for a Church of England funeral. His communist foes at least stuck to their belief in ‘the people’ as a force that would prevail. Oceania (the US) faces genuine countervailing powers (Russia, China, Iran, et al). The resurgence of Islam, and of socialism in the heart of the beast, are signs of a post-1984 alternative reality based on morality and social justice taking shape.

Romanticism and Literature: Serving Human Liberty?

Swift has sailed into his rest;
Savage indignation there
Cannot lacerate his breast.
Imitate him if you dare,
World-besotted traveller; he
Served human liberty.

— W. B. Yeats translation of Jonathan Swift’s Latin epitaph.

Introduction

In this continuing series on the effects of Romantic and Enlightenment ideas on modern culture, I have looked at the negative aspects of Romanticism on fine art, music, cinema and politics. In this article I will examine Romantic and Enlightenment ideas on literature from the eighteenth to the 21st century showing how from the earliest days literature has been a battleground for the future of culture itself. Enlightenment influences on literature led to the concept of progressive culture which took many forms through to today. From realism, social realism, the proletarian novel, socialist realism, concepts of progressive culture have constantly changed in opposition to Romantic ideas of ‘art for art’s sake’. Here we will look at these changes over time and and finish by examining suggested definitions of progressive literature for the future.

Romantic and Enlightenment literature

The Enlightenment was an intellectual movement during the eighteenth century in which philosophers and scientists spread their ideas through literary salons, coffeehouses and printed books, pamphlets and journals. It was a time of dramatically increasing literacy and a growing reading audience encouraged by cheaper printed material.

Reading habits changed from public reading of a few books, to extensive private reading as books got cheaper. The Enlightenment was a time for satirists and humorists attacking the conservative monarchical institutions of the eighteenth century. Writers such as Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope in Ireland and England and Voltaire in France blended criticism, satire and fiction into a new type of literature. While Enlightenment influences tended to be based on reason and science looking outwards, the Romantic reaction stressed “sensibility”, or feeling and tended towards human psychology and looking inwards.

The title page to Swift’s 1735 Works, depicting the author in the Dean’s chair, receiving the thanks of Ireland. The Horatian motto reads, Exegi Monumentum Ære perennius, “I have completed a monument more lasting than brass.” The ‘brass’ is a pun, for Wood’s halfpennies (alloyed with brass) lie scattered at his feet. Cherubim award Swift a poet’s laurel.

Romantic literature put more emphasis on themes of isolation, loneliness, tragic events and the power of nature. A heroic view of history and myth became the basis of much Romantic literature. The Scottish poet James Macpherson’s Ossian cycle of poems (published in 1762)  were a huge influence on Goethe and Walter Scott.  Ivanhoe, published in 1819, was Walter Scott’s most popular historic novel and reflected the Romantic interest in medievalism. In Germany, it was Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s novel The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774) that had the most influence on burgeoning German Romanticism. However, the introverted, fatalistic aspect of Young Werther was eventually rejected by Goethe himself who described the Romantic movement as “everything that is sick.”

Literary Realism

Enlightenment ideas took off in a different direction as the scientific method had its influence on literature in the form of the depiction of “objective reality”. Known as Literary Realism and beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, writers such as Stendhal in France and Alexander Pushkin in Russia led the realist movement with a view to representing “subject matter truthfully, without artificiality and avoiding artistic conventions, as well as implausible, exotic and supernatural elements.”

In this sense Realism opposed Romantic idealisation or dramatisation and focused on lower class society’s everyday activities and experiences in a more empirical way. This led to the the development of the social novel which can be seen as a “work of fiction in which a prevailing social problem, such as gender, race, or class prejudice, is dramatized through its effect on the characters of a novel” and covering topics such as “poverty, conditions in factories and mines, the plight of child labor, violence against women, rising criminality, and epidemics because of over-crowding, and poor sanitation in cities.”

Early examples of the social novel were Charles Kingsley’s Alton Locke (1849) and Elizabeth Gaskell’s first industrial novel Mary Barton (1848). However, it was Charles Dickens whose depictions of poverty and crime that shocked readers the most and even led Karl Marx to write that Dickens had “issued to the world more political and social truths than have been uttered by all the professional politicians, publicists and moralists put together”. Dickens novels Oliver Twist (1839) and Hard Times (1854) explored many important social questions relating to the negative aspects of the industrial revolution.

Illustration by Fred Bernard of Dickens at work in a shoe-blacking factory after his father had been sent to the Marshalsea, published in the 1892 edition of Forster’s Life of Dickens.

Around the same time in France, Victor Hugo published his historical novel Les Misérables (1862). The novel follows the lives of several characters and in particular the struggles of the an ex-convict Jean Valjean. Hugo uses the form to elaborate his ideas on many topics from the history of France to politics, justice, religion and even the architecture and urban design of Paris. He outlines his purpose in a famous Preface to Les Misérables in which he writes:

So long as there shall exist, by reason of law and custom, a social condemnation, which, in the face of civilization, artificially creates hells on earth, and complicates a destiny that is divine with human fatality; so long as the three problems of the age—the degradation of man by poverty, the ruin of women by starvation, and the dwarfing of childhood by physical and spiritual night—are not solved; so long as, in certain regions, social asphyxia shall be possible; in other words, and from a yet more extended point of view, so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, books like this cannot be useless.

The American journalist and novelist Upton Sinclair (1878–1968) put such ideas into practice when he spent seven weeks gathering information while working incognito in the meatpacking plants of the Chicago stockyards in 1904. This resulted in the 1906 novel, The Jungle, which exposed the harsh conditions, health violations, and unsanitary practices in the American meat packing industry of the time. The novel was hugely controversial at the time with publishers initially refusing to publish it but eventually the conditions described in the book led to public pressure to pass the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act.

The Jungle is a 1906 novel by the American journalist and novelist Upton Sinclair (1878–1968).

The proletarian novel

As the nineteenth century progressed enlightenment ideas were taken up by socialist movements and produced a new class-conscious proletarian literature created by working class writers. The proletarian novel is a political form of the social novel which comments on political events and was used to promote social reform or political revolution among the working classes.

The proletarian novel achieved significance in different countries in the early twentieth century. It came to prominence during a time of rising fascism during the 1930s when Nazi book burnings were being carried out in Germany and Austria. The political polarisation is evidenced by the writers meetings that took place at the time when the First American Writers Congress (1935) in the USA, the International Writers’ Congress for the Defence of Culture (1935) in France, and the First Congress of Soviet Writers (1934) in the Soviet Union were all held.

Progressive  literature emphasised social development and was part of the general progressive movement of those who wanted science and technology to lead the way for a better society for all. It was opposed to the content and values of regressive literature such as:

Despair, mysticism, the thought that man is helpless and incapable of building one’s own future complete degradation, sexual vagaries, respect for war and massacres, condescension to cultural values, faith in the evil of man and the disbelief in the generosity of mankind, hatred towards ideals, all of these are the main trends of regressive literature. Such regressive trends are advertised behind a veil of arguments which state that art does not have any other responsibility beyond that of being art in itself.

Such a description of regressive literature covers many aspects of Romantic ideas in culture too.

What is progressive culture today?

The multilingual Indian writer K. Damodaran (1912 – 1976) set out his beliefs on progressive literature as a literature in which the writer should adopt a scientific approach towards viewing things, try to eradicate superstitions and blind practices, and not isolate himself or herself from society. He also believed in literatures that preserved regional languages.

Romanticism and Literature: Serving Human Liberty?

Ngugi wa Thiong’o

His work includes novels, plays, short stories, and essays, ranging from literary and social criticism to children’s literature.  (not to mention Swiftian satire).

One writer who puts such ideas into action in both fiction and prose is the Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o. While there are many African writers writing social literature about the lives of African people today, Ngugi has been important for his emphasis on the formal qualities of language as well as the radical content of his novels. His use of his local Gikuyu language as the original language of his novels is an important anti-colonial aspect of his purpose for writing. As English moves from being the dominant hegemonic language of earlier colonised countries such as Ireland and Kenya to being super hegemonic globally due to the influence of satellite broadcasting and the internet, such linguistic strategies of Ngugi may become more significant when formally ‘major’ languages themselves also start to come under threat.

Conclusion

While there have been obvious influences of Romanticism on writers like Dickens, it could be argued that the realist impulse was a stronger drive and that Dickens knew and understood the poverty he described so well in his novels. This drive to incorporate and expose all forms of oppression in literary work could be described as one of the fundamentals that links the writers in the centuries old development of progressive literature. But, however progressive literature is defined into the future, it can be sure that its writers will not be appreciated for exposing the dark side of human oppression except by those whose voices too often remain unheard.

• All images in this article are from Wikimedia Commons

Caught in Their Fun House

America… just a nation of two hundred million used car salesmen with all the money we need to buy guns and no qualms about killing anybody else in the world who tries to make us uncomfortable.

Hunter S. Thompson

Now I think poetry will save nothing from oblivion, but I keep writing about the ordinary because for me it’s the home of the extraordinary, the only home.

— Phillip Levine

I’m digging the DV piece, “The Idiot” by Jason Holland, since in a critical mass sort of black hole kind of way, his main thesis is reflective of the experiences many of us in the bloody trenches of dying capitalism see/feel/believe minute by minute.

And after all our idiotic overcomplicated plots and schemes, they are but to mask simple truths the idiot facade tries so desperately to avoid; the inner torments of being afraid of not being good enough, not measuring up to our peers, not meeting arbitrary expectations we either accept from others or set for ourselves, or quite simply feeling like we are not worthy of love. So we play these pointless high stakes games which have a rewards as meaningless and worthless as a plastic trophy just to prove our worth. The idiot is a temporal state of being, although many are finer long term examples of displaying the behaviors of the idiot; however none of us are the perfect idiot. To avoid the affectations of being in an idiotic state it takes conscious effort to live our lives moment to moment with authenticity, to be in a state of awareness of our actions, to always be willing to suffer for something worthwhile and to be consistently well reasoned examiners of what constitutes something worthwhile.

That authenticity, moment to moment existence —  and it should be a reveling of life — is good, but there is a bifurcating of sorts when many of us are still subject to the masters of Big Brother and Big Business. We are suffering the dualism of the Century, and the more we know, the more we seek and the more we grapple, well, the more emancipated we are, but in that freedom comes some pretty harsh treatment by the masters and their sub-masters and all the Little Eichmann’s that keep the Capitalist’s trains moving like clockwork toward the global demise set in their plastic worlds!

And some of us think Dachau and Auschwitz were bad! We have already seen a hundred of them since 1945.

For me, I have the benefit of being a writer, and at this time, I have this new gig I created myself to bring to the Oregon Coast a sense of the people who are here living or who come here to set down their own stories . . . people who do things to make this world better and themselves better. Something in the draw that brings my subjects for my pieces here to the coast of Oregon. These are people, and they are not perfections or cut-outs or pulverized remnants of humanity that Capitalism mostly demands in it shark tank of inane media manipulation and marketing.

I crack open humanity and get people’s contexts — entire stories upon stories laid down, strata by strata, and cover their own formula for the art of living in harmony in a world of disharmony. Reading my stuff, I hope, will allow readers of this rag, Oregon Coast Today,  and its on-line version a better sense of authenticity via people they may or may not even run across in their own lives of being the consummate busy tourist and consumer.

A few of the pieces will be worthy of DV display, and I hope that my attempt at drilling down and “getting people” for who they are and how they got here will better the world, in some small shape. Really small, but small wonders sometimes are the ionic glue of a bettering world.

What is more compelling than the average person captured in a truthful narrative, as counterpoint to a society that delves into the celebrity, the spectacle, the idiocy as Jason puts forth in his piece, “The Idiot.”

In many ways, talking to people who have lived authentic (albeit struggle-prone) lives, or who are just embarking on a nascent stage of multiple iterations of living, I get my sense of grounding in a very flummoxed world of inanity and crass disassociation, as in the disease of pushing away humanity and pushing away the natural world to hitch oneself to the perversions of the billionaire class.

Time and time again, daily, my friends who are still in struggle — still trying to make sense of the perverted world of idiots controlling the message, the economy, the environment, the culture, and the mental-physical-spiritual health of the world, as if this is it, Trump 2.0 — give me news feed after news feed of the quickening of not only idiocy that capitalism and consumerism and war engender in our species, but also examples of the inhumanity driving the agendas of the Fortune 500 Class, the Davos crowd, the Aspen Institute gatherings, et al.

Yet, my friend, Joe the Farmer from Merced, hits the nail on the head by providing his own retort to example after example of the cruelty of capitalism and the US of I — United States of Idiots?

If this doesn’t slap the Hell out of you and rub your nose into the proverbial dog shit of what a criminally insane, inhumane, cruel and thuggish enterprise our government has become, then there is absolutely no hope for your soul. The truth tellers like Manning, Assange, Snowden and others, the brave young guys like Tim DeChristopher that monkey wrenched the sale of oil leases to public lands to try and protect the environment, this fellow that is showing his human side by providing water and aid for those dying in the desert sun, are all facing prison terms or maybe even the death penalty. Their crime? Being a compassionate human being.

What in the fuck is wrong with this country? The republicans enact cruel legislation to protect criminal enterprises, slash taxes for the obscenely rich, while removing any social or environmental protections for the population, (the Flint Michigan water system for example).

The republicans are ruthlessly attacking the environment and endangered species, turning their backs on infrastructure that is endangering peoples lives, while the spineless democrats sit idly by, wringing their hands. The democrats won’t take action against the most openly corrupt president we have ever had, that is daily destroying everything in this country as well as the rest of the world with his insane military budgets, trade wars and climate policies. The democrats response to Trump is to promote Joe Biden, a compilation of Bill and Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Strom Thurman and just about every other corporate whore they could steal parts off of to make their democratic very own version of Donald Trump.

Both the republicans and the democrats promote austerity for the working people and the poor, while stuffing the oligarchs pockets with gold. Both political Parties support endless war and war profiteers but slash budgets for schools, infrastructure, health care and the elderly. Both political Parties shower money on the police state and a corrupt system of justice and private prisons. Both political Parties are turning their heads to what the oil industry is doing to our water and air with fracking and are in fact have promoted legislation to let the oil industry off the hook when it causes unbelievable environmental damage. Both political Parties are doing nothing to check the nuclear industry that is a environmental time bomb waiting to go off and have promoted legislation to limit the industries liability when it does.

What is wrong with the American people that they sit on their collective asses and do nothing while all this is happening? Are they that fucking stupid? Are they that lacking in human decency? Are they that politically dumbed-down that they won’t even fight for their own interests?

The fact that this government corruption has been allowed to go on for years evidently proves that Americans are that stupid and lacking of compassion and politically dumbed-down. Thank God for guys like Dr. Warren the others that are trying to slap some sense into the American public to show us what courage and being humane is all about. Dr. Warren and company shouldn’t be put in jail but our so called leaders sure as Hell should be for their crimes against humanity.

He’s talking about a desert saint of sorts, Scott Warren, who has the power of his call to duty to give water in milk cartons to anyone crossing the Arizona desert. Now that is a hero, yet, he is facing decades in prison. America!

The charges against Warren “are an unjust criminalization of direct humanitarian assistance” and “appear to constitute a politically motivated violation of his protected rights as a Human Rights Defender,” states Amnesty International’s Americas regional director Erika Guevara-Rosas.

“Providing humanitarian aid is never a crime,” Guevara-Rosas added in a statement last week. “If Dr. Warren were convicted and imprisoned on these absurd charges, he would be a prisoner of conscience, detained for his volunteer activities motivated by humanitarian principles and his religious beliefs.”

Yet how many humans in this crime country even give a rat’s ass about one man who is doing the good that all men and women should be doing?

AJO, ARIZONA - MAY 10: Scott Warren, a volunteer for the humanitarian aid organization No More Deaths speaks with local residents during a community meeting to discuss federal charges against him for aiding undocumented immigrants on May 10, 2019 in Ajo, Arizona. Warren is scheduled to appear in court for felony charges on May 29 in Tucson, accused by the U.S. government on two counts of harboring and one count of conspiracy for providing food, water, and beds to two Central American immigrants in January, 2018. If found guilty Warren could face up to 20 years in prison. The trial is seen as a watershed case by the Trump Administration, as it pressures humanitarian organizations working to reduce suffering and deaths of immigrants along the border. The government says the aid encourages human smuggling. In a separate misdemeanor case, federal prosecutors have charged Warren with public littering, for distributing food and water along migrant trails. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

Read the great piece about these water bearers on the border at the Intercept by Ryan Devereaux.

flood-the-desert-1556916141

So, here, whatever will come of my new column, “Deep Dive: Go Below the Surface with Paul Haeder,” starting June 7, well, I hope people reading this rag — 18,000 and counting and as they are compelled to hit each longer version of each of my profiles on line, Oregon Coast Today — will understand that life is the sum total of one’s search for meaning and worthy work and community involvement.

Maybe this compulsion toward narrative has always been inside me during my early root setting  living in Canada, Maryland, Paris, Edinburgh, Arizona . . . then on that walkabout throughout Latin America, Europe, Vietnam, USA, Central America!

When times get tough, the storyteller gets writing. Ha. Believe you me, the stories we all have collected in this Marquis de Sade world of capital and artery-clogging entertainment and constant death spiral the elites have banked as their Appian Way to Complete Dominance, they make for so much more validation of humanity than anything Hollywood could make.

Point of fact — I attempted to watch the film, Vice, about Dick Cheney, his perverse family, the perversity of neocons fornicating with neoliberalism. It was one of Hollywood’s “cutting edge” dramas. Written and directed by a Saturday Night Live writer. All the usual suspects with Hollywood multi-millions stuffed in their jowls — Christian Bale, Amy Adams, et al.

It wasn’t that good, but I sensed that the filmmakers were all about trying to make something that was “different.” I didn’t nod off during the viewing. But, I unfortunately had the DVD so I went to the extras section, and then, the behind-the-scenes of the making of Vice. This is when things went south real quickly with neoliberal, Democrat-leaning Hollywood creeps. We get every goofy platitude about each and every department’s genius in making this film. Every actor fawns the other actor for his or her amazing performance.

Then the Limey, Christian Bale, yammers on and on about he was all about making Dick Cheney human, going into his good side, being cognizant of Cheney, the human. Rubbish and this is the quality of men, adults, in our society — multimillionaires with gobs of limelight and credit and awards and houses and yachts thrown at them, and they can’t even begin to attack the cause — capitalism, rampant competitiveness, droll I-got-mine-too-bad-you-can’t-get-yours thinking. Hollywood is the anti-culture, the flagging bumbling money changers, the money makers, the money grubbers, and well, everything is about the pockets and the suits and the “executive producers,” i.e. Bankers.

Oh god, what a trip going into these Hollywood people’s hot yoga, macrobiotic diet, four-hour-a-day workout minds. The director, McKay, actually thinks this drama — make-believe — has given the world new stuff, new insights, new news about the Cheney-Rumsfeld-Bush-Reagan-Bush world of prostitute politics.

As if there were no real journalists working on all the pre-September 11 illegalities of the republican party and then the post-September 11 evisceration of the few rights the people of the world and USA had before full spectrum war on our planet.

As if journalists hadn’t cracked open the Koch brothers, the fake think tanks, all the pre-Truman/post-Truman lies of empire, from Roy Cohen, through to the rigged systems of oppression. Way before any trivial Hollywood wannabe open her eyes.

Entertainment and a few laughs at the expense of millions of bombed-dead people, millions more suffering-a-lingering-death daily because of Hollywood and USA policies and the evangelicals and the Crypto-Christo-Zionists bombing “the other” back to the stone age. The movie, Vice.

Racists, misogynists, misanthropes, one and all. Yet, we gotta love these democrat-leaning guys and gals making films, having millions stuffed up every possible orifice until their brains gel.

Insight into the flippancy that is Hollywood the Power Broker! Watching people like Amy Adams and Steve Carell and Sam Rockwell play this soft-shoe goofball show, and then in the little “Making of the Movie Vice” documentary (sic-infomercial) blathering on and on about the greatness of the script and every cog of the machine that churns out this pabulum, well, it steels me to continue my small-time, no-fame, big-effing-deal gig writing people profiles to bring some sense to a world captured by capital . . . idiocy!

Oh, how we fall in line. Over at Counterpunch, that cloistered world of writers has the countdown for 2018 — Best Films of the Year, as in the most conscious, socially (give me a effing break!) that is. Nothing in American society once it floats on the offal barrel is sacred, socialist, communist.

Peak TV is creating more opportunities for independent film directors, and for new stories to be told. More films from around the world are released on streaming every day, and Netflix spent an estimated 13 billion dollars on content just this year. More cash available can sometimes mean more stories by and about communities of color, women, transgender and gender nonconforming people, and other communities Hollywood has long ignored. But the movie industry is still primarily about making profit, and it’s main business is reinforcing the status quo, including churning out films that glorify capitalism, war, and policing.

Below are 2018’s top ten conscious films that made it through these barriers, plus twenty more released this year that you may want to check out.

[…]

Hollywood doesn’t have a great record in covering presidential politics (remember Kevin Costner in Swing Vote?). Vice, comedy director Adam McKay’s follow up to The Big Short, explores the Bush/Cheney presidency, attempting to make history and polemic accessible to a wide audience. It’s not as effective as his previous film, but it’s a good history, especially for those less familiar with the ins and outs of the early 2000s corporate power grab.

Lighten up already, many a friend and acquaintance tell me. “You are going to burn out like one of the bulbs you use underwater to do your night dives. Way too much shining the hoary light onto the more hoary caverns of American society. Let things go.”

Ha, well, how can we? We are entertained to death, as Neil Postman states:

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy.

As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.” In 1984, Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we desire will ruin us.

This book [Amusing Ourselves to Death] is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.

And so it goes, as I trail the acrid dust devil of injustice — my own and the veterans’ and families’ I helped just months ago in Portland as a social worker for, drum roll, homeless veterans (and some came with families, including babies and service dogs).

I’ve written about it here and elsewhere — the Starvation Army. The deceitful, unethical, possibly murderous Starvation Army. You see, where I worked, I had these insane Nurse Ratched’s lording over grown men and women treating them like criminals, and infantiles, and the constant berating and recriminations. It was anything but social work 101. Anything but trauma-informed care. Anything  but caring people, enlightened helpers; instead, think mean, warped people who within their own broken self’s, do all the wrong things for veterans.

I decided to jump ship, and, alas, a few lawyers advised me I couldn’t get far with a hostile workplace complaint until I went through the state of Oregon’s, Bureau of Labor and Industries (BOLI) quasi-judicial pathway.

There was great harm put upon the veterans, great harm put upon the staff, because a director was all into herself and her self-described Jesus Saves bullshit, yammering on about her former  cocaine addiction and booze abuse and 350 pounds of flesh, as well as her own failings as a mother. This place has 100 people living in it temporarily, while Starvation Army receives taxpayer money, all part of the poverty pimping Starvation/Salvation Army’s SOP.

In the end, relying on idiots in any state bureaucracy to carry forth an investigation was not my idea of justice. I did my due diligence and filed grievances, first with the Starvation Army, and, then with BOLI. I contacted VA officials, state politicians, and the media. To no avail. They too are accomplices!

To make a long and stupid Byzantine story short, my prediction of zero assistance and zero admonishing from the state to the executive director and the higher ups of the Starvation Army played out. BOLI is a toothless and empty-hearted agency, staffed by soulless Little Eichmann’s counting their paychecks and amassing points to their state sourced pension fund.

I have moved on, as usual, and the injustice perpetrated upon me is minor in the scheme of things. The veterans, however, already foisted with trauma, PTSD, administrative rape, etc., are still vulnerable to the Nurse Ratched’s of the inhumane social services that serves (sic) non-profits and religious crime syndicates like the Starvation Army.

Here, “How the Salvation Army Lives Off (and thrives with) a Special Brand of Poverty Pimping”

Here, “Alcohol, Atheism, Anarchy: The Triple A Threat to the Pro-Capitalist Salvation Army”

Here, “Insanity of Social Work as Human Control”

I have since my departure been in contact with a few veterans, and talked a few off the proverbial ledge — several that wanted to off themselves because of the Nurse Ratched’s they encounter at the Starvation Army, in the VA, and in non-profits.  This is the reality, and it’s sick, in real perverted American time —  “Hundreds witness veteran shoot and kill himself in VA waiting room”

In December, Marine Col. Jim Turner, 55, put his service uniform on, drove to the Bay Pines Department of Veterans Affairs, and shot himself outside the medical center, leaving a note next to his body.

This is Trump, this is Biden, this is Clinton, this is the lot of them, callous and broken capitalists, who have sold their souls to the devil and brains to Jeff Bezos, et al.
And it ain’t going to get fixed until we cut away the cancer. Really cut away, daily, in small acts of defiance, great collective acts of beating the system.
Not sure what that great director Ava Duvernay says about more and more movies like her 13th or this new Netflix mini-series on the Central Park FiveWhen They See Us will do to eventually get enough Americans (70 percent are racist to the core) to demand change in the criminal injustice system of private prisons, Incarceration Complex, Profitable Prosecutions. That all those cops, dailies, elites, deplorables, Trumpies, and Trump said terrible terrible things about these 5 juveniles, calling them animals, or super predators like the Clinton Klan, well, imagine, an insane 2016 runner for the highest crime lord position of the land, POTUS, Donald Trump, after these five men were released after all the evidence found them innocent, sputtering with his big fat billionaire’s fourth grader’s words that the Central Park Five are guilty, guilty, guilty.

The press coverage was biased. There was a study done by Natalie Byfield, one of the journalists at the time for the New York papers who later wrote a book about covering the case, and it saw that a little more than 89 percent of the press coverage at the time didn’t use the word “alleged,” that we had irresponsibility in the press corps at the time not to ask second questions and literally take police and prosecutor talking points and turn those into articles that people read as fact, and proceeded to shape their opinions about this case that essentially spoils the jury pool, so that these boys were never given a chance.

Trump’s comments in his ads that he took out in 1989 were taken out just two weeks after the crime was announced—they hadn’t even gone to trial, so it was impossible for them to have an impartial jury pool. The printing of their names in the papers for minors, and where they lived, was a jaw-dropper. All of this was done by “reputable” papers in New York that we still read, so I’m curious how these papers take responsibility for their part in this, and also possibly use this to review the part they play in other cases that may not be as famous as this.

Thus, she makes my case — the callous and racist and sexist and xenophobic US Press, and here we are today, 2019, enter Amusing Ourselves to Death and a Brave New World.

The greatest triumphs of propaganda have been accomplished, not by doing something, but by refraining from doing. Great is truth, but still greater, from a practical point of view, is silence about truth.

— Aldous Huxley, Brave New World, “Preface”

Alas, though, we have to keep those words coming, even sent to the great gray hearts and souls populating those state agencies whose workers are supposed to investigate the workplace safety concerns of workers, and are supposed to prevent workplace harassment.

I write to break through the fog, and to envelop a new way of seeing my world, for me and for the few readers that dabble in even attempting to start, let alone finish, these missives.

Huxley was right — ” Words can be like X-rays if you use them properly — they’ll go through anything. You read and you’re pierced.” Brave New World, “Chapter 4”

Between Yes and No, Heaven and Earth with Albert Camus on a Spring Morning

To give up beauty and the sensual happiness that comes with it and devote one’s self exclusively to unhappiness requires a nobility I lack. However, after all, nothing is true that compels us to make it exclusive.  Isolated beauty ends in grimaces, solitary justice in oppression.  Anyone who seeks to serve the one to the exclusion of the other serves no one, not even himself, and in the end is doubly the servant of injustice.  A day comes when, because we have been inflexible, nothing amazes us anymore, everything is known, and our life is spent in starting again.  It is a time of exile, dry lives, dead souls.  To come back to life, we need grace, a homeland, or to forget ourselves.  On certain mornings, as we turn a corner, an exquisite dew falls on our heart and then vanishes.  But the freshness lingers, and this, always, is what the heart needs.  I had to come back once again.

— Albert Camus, Return to Tipasa, 1954

For a writer to fight injustice to the exclusion of creating beauty and living passionately contradicts the deepest desires of the human heart.  Albert Camus taught us this.  The love of life must inform the rebel’s resistance to injustice.  “It seems to me that the writer must be fully aware of the dramas of his time,” he writes, “and that he must take sides every time he can and knows how to do so.”  But his refusal, his no, does not imply a renunciation but an affirmation, a yes, to the joy and grandeur of life that is everyone’s birthright.

This is the difficult way of true art – the rebel writer’s way – the tension that the writer must live with as he shuttles back and forth between one’s heart’s desires and his commitment to resist evil.  What is the point of fighting for a better world if one does not live as if that world were here now, and one’s living and writing were the revelation of that reality.  Camus somewhere said something to the effect that it is not your writings that I like, it is your writing.  He knew that we are always on the way, and our wayfaring should prefigure the enigma of our arrivals.

It is spring as I write and I am thinking of Camus when that exquisite dew fell on his heart that early morning. No doubt Albert felt a bit of heaven.  I’m feeling it now.  Spring, the time of the resurrection of the living dead.  All around new life bursts and blooms in wild array. A mountain stream races down the hillside, shouting its joy that the earth’s new warmth has freed it at last from its frozen sleep.  In the trees all around the birds have returned and sing exultantly of their homecoming.  Almost before our eyes the flowers push their way up to the light.  They have had enough of the underground, hungrily seeking the sun.  It is a beautiful dawn, and I can smell it.  I feel as though I have awoken from a long and deep sleep.  The morning star welcomed me. The sun rose majestically. And across my window three early flies jitterbug in the first light.  The whole earth is conspiring to explode with life and it is asking for our assent.

But dare the living-dead awaken?  Shall we say yes to this paradise?

“This day you will be with me in paradise.”  That’s what a man, convicted of crimes against the state and dying fast, once said.  Like most memorable statements, it is open to various interpretations.  But suppose, instead of offering one, we assume the existence of paradise, and ask a question that lurks unspoken and forbidden in every heart.

For there are some questions so obvious that we refuse to ask them for fear of having to answer.  To be asked such questions seems an impertinence, an insult to our intelligence, and an assault on our integrity.   Don’t be ridiculous, we think, though we don’t laugh.  Isn’t it obvious, we vaguely mutter, secretly knowing it is nothing of the sort.  We are caught off-guard, something we don’t do to ourselves.  Even our dreams escape us.  We prefer to live in the clouds.

But let’s be daring for once.  Let’s put aside all our usual lies and evasions and not be afraid of the truth.  Let’s ask ourselves a few very simple and annoying questions, the kind children ask their tongue-tied parents, and let’s not squirm away from answering.

What images of death do we live with?

Or, to put it another way, if you believe in life after death, what image of heaven do you entertain?  Not what do you think heaven is, but what do you desire it to be?  If you object and say you don’t believe in life after death, the question is still valid.  For we are, of course , here playing a game of the imagination.  You need only make believe, for the hell of it, that there is life after death. Or life before.

What would you like it to be?  Imagine.  What would you like this life to be?  Maybe that’s the real question.

The trouble with being born, of course, is that we are guaranteed to die and be aware of it most of our lives.  When it comes to dying, we have no choice; death is our fate and against it freedom is a meaningless word.  Living is another matter, though it is not something we generally give much thought, for we can choose not to live when breath is still ours.  We are free to wait lovingly for annihilation by patiently enduring our lives, or we can commit quick suicide.

We don’t have to live, but we must die.  In our bitterness we may curse the fact that we find ourselves alive in the world; we didn’t ask for it.  This is obviously true and equally meaningless. Once we find ourselves alive, death is our destiny, like it or not.  Whether life is a living hell for us or just a dull plod through the years – a “hanging in there,” in those unconsciously evocative words – we hold in our hearts, however buried, images of what we would like life to be like if it were eternal.

That is, we all live with images of paradise, no matter how beclouded or unarticulated they may be.

Now, as I wander out in the early morning lulled by birdsong, I wonder what these images consist of.  What, in our hearts’ desires, do we yearn to become?  What heavens do we wish to inhabit?

For we are now in the school of imagination, what John Keats called the vale of soul-making, and must, like children everywhere, answer the following: Imagine paradise, on earth or in heaven, and describe it in as few or as many words as you wish.  For future reference, learn your answer by heart.

Camus wrote:

Yes, nothing prevents me from dreaming, in the very hour of exile, since at least I know this, with sure and certain knowledge: a man’s work is nothing but this slow trek to rediscover, through the details of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened.

Yes, to open our hearts.  It is naïve, but not stupid.  It is disturbing.  It is surely easy to hide behind the word mystery, or cynically to reply that the world is what it is, a far cry from paradise, nor will it ever be, here or in some supposed hereafter, any different.  The former is the believer’s dodge, the latter the skeptical “realist’s” way of begging the question.  Both are phony.

Only as we become as little children can we enter into the kingdom of heavenly imagination, and it is the fear of ridicule, our own and others,’ that bars the gate.  It is obvious that what happens after death is a mystery.  Why we come and why we go is something that we’ll never know, all beliefs to the contrary.  We live by pure faith, though, as Thoreau noted, we are determined not to live by faith if we can avoid it.  Which we can’t, ultimately.  Knowledge fails.  And anyway, what we know and what we want are not the same thing.  The images of paradise we hold don’t illuminate death in the slightest; they do, however, enlighten our lives.  After all, it is living that is within our power.  We live in possibility.  If we wish to pursue the ideal images of our heart’s desires, we must first make manifest what they are.

What do you want?  I know it is not easy living with a deep but dark longing.  Perhaps it is the fear of disappointment that keeps us in the dark.  Why, when the whole earth rises toward the light, do we shrink back in fear?  Does beauty crush us?

I remember leaving my mother’s house to go to the hospital where my dear father had just died. It was 5:30 AM on the first of May. Stepping outside, the birdsong and flowering bushes illuminated by the rising sun staggered me. How could this be: life and death in one hour, one moment.  Where now was my father as his son walked through a garden of delight?  Where was that man whom I had kissed a few hours before?

What do I want?

Albert, you wondered too when you created your alter-ego Jacques Cormery in your novel, The First Man, and placed him at his father’s grave site.  It was just a novel, as they say, but you were there and said:

All that was left was this anguished heart, eager to live, rebelling against the deadly order of the world that had been with him for forty years, and still struggling against the wall that separated him from the secret of all life, wanting to go farther, to go beyond, and to discover, discover before dying, discover at last in order to be, just once to be, for a single second, but forever.

Just once and one time only.  Isn’t that it?  No reruns.  No playbacks.  One life.  Eternal.

Then what?

Perhaps our greatest fear is to passionately want something from life and death, “to go beyond” with Albert, to ask for something independent of society’s and others’ wishes, and to dare intuit it into existence.  Society drones: Don’t dare feel it, don’t dare say it, don’t ask for too much.  Narrow it all down, life is much too much, narrow it all down.

Sometimes I think that because so many people have meekly accepted this dictum that they are unconsciously in love with death, assuming that all their problems and the anguish of being placed between yes and no, heaven and earth will then cease.  Oftentimes I think that we are living in the age of nihilism that Nietzsche predicted long ago, a time in which the will to nothingness is most clearly expressed in the sterile pursuit and embrace of things, a “paradise” of consumer goods at the expense of livingness.

“I cling like a miser to the freedom that disappears as soon as there is an excess of things,” writes Camus, grasping in a few words a key link between a just and unjust world where most people are subjected to violence and degradation at the hands of the wealthy and powerful who seek to devour the earth.

Ah, but here we are walking in the spring sunshine, the time for resurrection and for truth.  The whole earth is rising beneath our feet. We can feel it.  The trees are budding forth and leaving toward the stars.  We can see them. We can smell the earth warming in the rising sun.  Perhaps like Camus, the spring smells seize us by the throat, and we find ourselves delirious with love and desire as “the gods speak in the sun and the scent of absinthe leaves,” as we wander through a reborn world.

So why don’t we say what we truly want?  Can we even imagine it?  Or is what we want so pathetic – more things, more money, anything to boost our egos and impress others, improve our appearances, elevate our social standing – that to admit it reveals the hollowness of our lives?  Are our desires so vague and culturally constricted that they must be repressed lest they make us realize how spiritually dead we are when all around us resurrection calls us to awaken to new life?

Suppose rather than hiding behind the lies and evasions that we use to divorce ourselves from the tree of life, we dare to speak from the indivisible root of truth and desire, or true desire, the eternal tree.  For to live truly and to die is to create out of that planting a full flowering, an exposed existence rooted in the earth and reaching to the stars.  Then, heaven will be our destiny, for it will proceed from our passions and usher in a glorious spring.

And yet, as Camus knew, our little imaginary heavens can lull us to sleep when world events call to us to rise up and say no.  Yes, but no, too.  Desire needs will to renew the world.  The lover who luxuriates in the spring sap rising must be a rebel.  “But the true life is present in the heart of this dichotomy….Life is this dichotomy itself,” he tells us.

To live authentically is to live between yes and no.

Dostoevsky, who shared with Camus the belief that we must rebel to save the world, had Karamazov rightly say that if all are not saved, what good is the salvation of only one?

To which he added: “Life is a paradise and we are all in paradise, but we refuse to see it.”

So it seems on this morning in spring as resurrection fills the air.  And even though this feeling will fade, Camus is right that its freshness will linger, an exquisite reminder of why we must rebel joyously.

You are right, Albert, “We must simultaneously serve suffering and beauty.”

A World is Right When We Learn to Preserve and Embrace the Word Like a Poet

Special for Dissident Voice and LA Progressive, part of National Poetry Month, 2019

*****

I’m thinking a lot about creativity. About young people, 6 or 7 years of age, so ripe for learning and how we as mentors and teachers should not only respect how their inner voices count, but allow them that exploratory space.  Words as expressions of rebellion. Empathy. Rage. Regret. Laments.

Words, sold now as marketing tools, have less and less power as we have devolved into a country of business-speak, unheralded words of death-ray politicians, tweeting twats and Tweedledum’s and Tweedledee’s. Words even in creative writing programs are branded, marketed and sold as, hmm, a type of group think. MFA (masters of fine arts) programs are destructive to the outsider’s realm of seeing, hearing, touching and his or her own consciousness and subconsciousness.

Poetry, of all the practices, seems the least understood and many times destroyed the most by instructors and teachers attempting to over-analyze or over-classify what it is they think poetry – and a poet – is.

Here, early on, I’ll forward a big slash to the market of the MFA – creative writing programs, their in-house literary journals, and the bourgeoises siphoning off any remarkable revolutionary thought in creative writing.

Rebellion, and Nicaragua, and the Sandinistas fighting against the dirty and perverted capitalist dictator, Somoza. Here, first, revolutionary, Gioconda Belli.

What Are You, Nicaragua?

What are you—
a little triangle of earth
lost in the middle of the world?

What are you—
a flight of birds
guardabarrancos
cenzontles
hummingbirds?

What are you
a roar of rivers
bearing polished, shiny stones
leaving footprints of water in the mountains?

What are you—
A women’s breasts made of earth
Smooth, pointed and threatening?

What are you—
Singing of leaves in gigantic trees
Green, tangled and filled with doves?

What are you—
Pain and dust and screams in the afternoon
“screams like those of women giving birth”?

What are you—
Clenched fist and loaded gun?

What are you, Nicaragua
To cause me such pain?

Thinking like a kid is what the credo should be for adults, especially in this lobotomized world of consumption and endless war and digital dungeons. Dreaming like a child. Sketching worlds and fantastical dreams like a youth.

Instead, many MFA programs are like buttoned-down harbingers of the generalized professing: “Believe us professors and grad students as we are the key to creative writing, and do not stray, as we are the arbiters of fine arts, the word, poetry, life.”

John Steppling:

The practice of writing, the philosophy is, Firstly, a resistance to formulas and solutions. Writing and art pose questions, and if the mystery leaves the work, leaves the process, then usually, the work has died. Institutional forces demand standardized steps and conditions in their creative writing programs … because the institution knows, deep down, that art is there to destroy it. Even the word “creative” is probably suspect, but such are the conditions under which writing is taught. It is an intuitive and unconscious process, and even if done, for some film work, in partnership – it is still solitary.

One cannot write outlines and then follow them. This is what CPAs do, or insurance salesmen preparing their district conference sales quota speech. If one were to know where a narrative was going, one would have a stillborn project on one’s hands. The play or screenplay has within its narrative, an idea of itself. Narrative provides a space for character. The truth of a character is at once indelible and totally opaque. This idea is the reason, I suspect, we have art at all.

Art is not about communication, nor is it about moral instruction. It is about awakening. But it is also a discipline, and a practice. Those Neanderthal cave paintings, found in places where only one person might see them, at a time, is worth keeping in mind, at least when audience questions arise. You don’t write for an audience. Nor do you write for yourself. That is the paradox and the riddle.

Being able to recognize the truthful from kitsch is the basic foundation for starting on having a practice.

I’ve been a poet a long time, since, of course, virginal youth, and then into my teens, until death do me part. My journey has been, as Steppling states above (referencing story and play/screen writing), a series of awakenings.

The shadow of lamentations, too. Nothing heroic is happy and set upon a political or moral frame without first forcing us all to ask primal questions – questions about self in a world that’s insane. At least now, from pre-Industrial, or I imagine, starting with the ripping of tribal tides with so-called conquest societies, colonizers, we have to ask those age-old questions how to live through the mother and father haven been ripped up by superstitious and perverted religious and economic principles (sic). Insanity now, but our own relocation of the disconnected, by artists, is our sanity in an insane system, capitalism.

Words expressed – poetry – is the shaping of the amphora on the potter’s wheel. That wet healing clay, squished between fingers and synapses. The remarkable lifting of sediments from earth into the shape of creation, imagined first, then reimagined with each pump of the pedal of the wheel, each turning, each fingering and palming of clay into a work of art. Poetry.

National Poetry Month Poster 2019

This month, April, has been generally deemed as National Poetry Month. In the schools I’ve taught at. In some of the libraries I’ve perused, the posters and highlighted books are prominent. In many ways, pushing the word, and celebrating this form of creative expression is both herculean in the sense that almost everything in the USA has been co-opted by consumerism and blatant crass middling thinking and presentation; and it’s worthy of effort to have people leave the business world, the world of making money, into one of making stanzas. In addition, many slam poetry or spoken word events have been tied to the National Poetry Month, started almost a quarter of a century ago in the USA.

Here, National Academy of Poets has the month branded:

National Poetry Month each April is the largest literary celebration in the world, with tens of millions of readers, students, K-12 teachers, librarians, booksellers, literary events curators, publishers, bloggers, and, of course, poets marking poetry’s important place in our culture and our lives.

While we celebrate poets and poetry year-round, the Academy of American Poets was inspired by the successful celebrations of Black History Month (February) and Women’s History Month (March), and founded National Poetry Month in April 1996 with an aim to:

  • highlight the extraordinary legacy and ongoing achievement of American poets,
  • encourage the reading of poems,
  • assist teachers in bringing poetry into their classrooms,
  • increase the attention paid to poetry by national and local media,

I’ve had some good opportunities to be around poets and live with them and their words. Heck, just a few weeks ago, here I was, in the Central Oregon coast, with Oregon’s Poet Laureate, Kim Stafford, whose own skin is tattooed with the words of his famous poet father’s literary gravitas – William Stafford. Here, my piece in LA Progressive and elsewhere, including the literary journal, Cirque“A Poet, the Pacific Flyway, and a Sonora Flash Flood Memory.”  And my poem about reconnecting to Stafford’s son, Kim, here on the Oregon Coast, a new home for me: “Somewhere in a Writer’s Workshop He Learns the Lines from ‘Oregon Trail’

Over the years I have front and center cajoled with poets, seeing myself as one of their peers while living in precarity and calling forth lamentations as a poet. It started seriously when I was an 18-year-old in Tucson hanging out with poets and fiction writers, as part of the University of Arizona’s poets/writers series. I used to hang out at and take classes in rooms at the Poetry Center at the U of A. I’ve helped out poet Richard Shelton with his writer’s workshop at the Arizona State Prison, and he wrote a book about his big project that involved many different cohorts and writers with some tough-living inmates: Crossing the Yard: Thirty Years as a Prison Volunteer.

Here I was, still a youth in 1975, when Shelton taught me in poetry classes and started his trips up to death row at the Arizona State prison. I got to be a part of that, Richard’s prison workshops. Not so ironically, shortly after graduating and becoming a journalist and part-time college faculty, I started incorporating that “prison workshop” ethos in so many other of my writing gigs with my own students in a federal prison, La Tuna, NM. I’ve done writing workshops, including poetry, with gifted and talented students in Austin, TX, and with gang-influenced youth in Segundo Barrio, El Paso. I’ve carried through with writing workshops in a life-long learning program at the University of Texas—El Paso, where I had, as an example of some of my students’ histories,  survivors of Dachau write about their lives, and women who knew Pancho Villa, and other interesting older folk, write poems while we worked on their memoirs. Writing workshops for just-released inmates in a homeless program in Portland, and writing projects with homeless veterans and their families, and poetry workshops for fourth graders, and more, have cascaded into my life.

Poetry teaching was always the razor edge way to get people to open up that creative and deeply drawn area of their humanity that is more etched with meaning than their own epigenetics or more fluid of their self-worth than the corpuscles flowing inside– the embedded humanity and horror of being alone in this world. Poetry, as Sapphire shows, can be triumph, momentarily, over evil and the scars evil produce in us all.

Here, though, some quick turn of words to express what poetry is from poets themselves:

Poetry is not only dream and vision; it is the skeleton architecture of our lives. It lays the foundations for a future of change, a bridge across our fears of what has never been before. —Audre Lorde

I grew up in this town, my poetry was born between the hill and the river, it took its voice from the rain, and like the timber, it steeped itself in the forests. —Pablo Neruda

Poetry is the lifeblood of rebellion, revolution, and the raising of consciousness. —Alice Walker

Poetry is language at its most distilled and most powerful. –Rita Dove

As a direct line to human feeling, empathic experience, genuine language and detail, poetry is everything that headline news is not. It takes us inside situations, helps us imagine life from more than one perspective, honors imagery and metaphor – those great tools of thought – and deepens our confidence in a meaningful world. —Naomi Shihab Nye

Luckily, Angie with Dissident Voice and Dick with LA Progressive and Hollywood Progressive are opening up the digital venues for my limited standing column (in the month of April), as a format for some musings and personal and monumental ideas around the power of the word, poetry. Call it a cry out for something more real than the echo chambers of modern America.

More real than all the stuff I end up writing about in LA Progressive’s Terminal Velocity – Man Lost of Tribe or for Angie at DV which usually is tied to the politics of negotiating our own humanity and community and self inside the war that is killer capitalism. The most creative and psychologically real and satisfying things come to me as people I’ve touched and who have touched me, and, of course, learning to think like a mountain, as Aldo Leopold calls it in his Sand Country Almanac – imagine the poetry in this excerpt by Leopold, one of the fathers of conservation and environmental sanity:

We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes – something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.…I now suspect that just as a deer herd lives in mortal fear of its wolves, so does a mountain live in mortal fear of its deer. And perhaps with better cause, for while a buck pulled down by wolves can be replaced in two or three years, a range pulled down by too many deer may fail of replacement in as many decades. So also with cows. The cowman who cleans his range of wolves does not realize that he is taking over the wolf’s job of trimming the herd to fit the range. He has not learned to think like a mountain. Hence we have dustbowls, and rivers washing the future into the sea.

It’s not a quaint thing, this poetry. Actually, many people do write poems, and see themselves as poets. Really, not just MFA students or older ladies waxing religious rhymes, but plumbers, construction workers, nurses, bookkeepers, and every form of human life.

The poem is a distilled world, as Rita Dove says. Neruda also has it right – it’s where you are from, inside the body of the world, as in forests, oceans, inside rain: that’s the germination of a poem. And, poetry should be rebellious and about revolution as Alice Walker states, and lived, as she told me twice when I’ve been to her readings and workshops.  That poetry is a bridge over fears, as Lourde states, makes so much sense. Bridging humanity over the troubled waters of the inhumane.

The direct line to human feeling . . . . and making our lives deeper in confidence, so much so there is transformation, even for the oppressed and imprisoned, giving meaning in the world and life is meaningful, no matter the circumstance, as Shihab Nye states.

I remember talking with Czeslaw Milosz at a reading in Austin, Texas. I was trying to drill down what poetry was, how I could parachute into the lives of gang members, spooks (inhalers of volatile compounds like gasoline), homeless war vets, young adults with developmental disabilities, survivors of sexual assault and invoke some solid concepts on why the poem – no matter what form it takes – is what Naomi states: imaging life as it can or should be or is honoring the word and creative practice of language in the art of detailing.

He was near the end of his life when he told me, In reality, whatever the poet attempts to say, all words are a type of lamentation. Despair, maybe, colored by something else that pushes down the blackness of humanity in this age of destruction.  Something like that. He went deeper, though. As seen in this interview in the Paris Review:

Of course, it’s true that people talk too much and without restraint. But poetry imposes certain restraints. Nevertheless, there is always the feeling that you didn’t unveil yourself enough. A book is finished and appears and I feel, Well, next time I will unveil myself. And when the next book appears, I have the same feeling. And then your life ends, and that’s it.

Two poems by Czeslaw Milosz to start the month:

In Black Despair

In grayish doubt and black despair,
I drafted hymns to the earth and the air,
pretending to joy, although I lacked it.
The age had made lament redundant.

So here’s the question — who can answer it —
Was he a brave man or a hypocrite?

A Felicitous Life

His old age fell on years of abundant harvest.
There were no earthquakes, droughts or floods.
It seemed as if the turning of the seasons gained in constancy,
Stars waxed strong and the sun increased its might.
Even in remote provinces no war was waged.
Generations grew up friendly to fellow men.
The rational nature of man was not a subject of derision.
It was bitter to say farewell to the earth so renewed.
He was envious and ashamed of his doubt,
Content that his lacerated memory would vanish with him.

Two days after his death a hurricane razed the coasts.
Smoke came from volcanoes inactive for a hundred years.
Lava sprawled over forests, vineyards, and towns.
And war began with a battle on the islands.

Next: Poetry as environmental sanity and rebellion!