Saturday, December 31, 2016

Books Read - 2016

As is the annual tradition, here is the final list of books I completed reading in 2016, in chronological order of completion. And as is the typical practice, I've provided links to posts I've written about those books. Annoyingly, continuing the recent downward trend, there were only four new posts this year. My plan-slash-hope had been to write something short about each book I read - inspired, so I thought, by our friend Clare, I was going to write 100 words about each book. Well, this didn't happen. There are many reasons, excuses, etc, but the fact is I just didn't write much. Some of them didn't inspire any ideas in me at all, but others did, and I simply did not take the time to explore them in writing. Other books I discussed with friends via email, and I didn't take the time to re-organize those thoughts into coherent essays.

In any case, following the list are comments and observations.

1. The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson
2. My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante (Ann Goldstein, trans.)
3. White Girls, Hilton Als
4. Otros Valles, Jamie Berrout
5. The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy, David Graeber
6. Counternarratives, John Keene
7. The Autobiography of Red, Anne Carson
8. Don't Let Me Be Lonely, Claudia Rankine (re-read)
9. Citizen, Claudia Rankine (re-read)
10. My Struggle, Book Four, Karl Ove Knausgaard (Don Bartlett, trans.)
11. Recurrence Plot (and Other Time Travel Tales), Rasheedah Phillips
12. Self-Portrait in Green, Marie NDiaye (Jordan Stump, trans.)
13. Faces in the Crowd, Valeria Luiselli (Christina MacSweeney, trans.)
14. The World Is Round, Gertrude Stein (Clement Hurd, illus.)
15. Sassafrass, Cypress, & Indigo, Ntozake Shange
16. Spurious, Lars Iyer (re-read)
17. Dogma, Lars Iyer (re-read)
18. Exodus, Lars Iyer (re-read)
19. Bluets, Maggie Nelson
20. Unto the Last and Other Writings, John Ruskin
21. The Last Samurai, Helen DeWitt (re-read)
22. Dhalgren, Samuel R. Delany
23. My Struggle, Book Five, Karl Ove Knausgaard (Don Bartlett, trans.)
24. Malone Dies, Samuel Beckett (re-read)
25. Signs Preceding the End of the World, Yuri Herrera (Lisa Dillman, trans.)
26. A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, Peter Handke (Ralph Manheim, trans.) (re-read)
27. Whiteout: The CIA, Drugs and the Press, Alexander Cockburn & Jeffrey St. Clair
28. Ladivine, Marie NDiaye (Jordan Stump, trans.)
29. What Is History?, E.H. Carr
30. No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame, Janet Lansbury

In the first eight years of this blog, I'd included in this space an increasingly detailed statistical breakdown of my year in books. I abandoned the practice last year and don't see any good reason to pick it up again this year. In the event, there's not much to breakdown. This year I read only 30 books, many fewer than in any year I can remember in my adult reading life (well, except for last year: it turns out the facts show I read only 33 last year). Again - a lot of reasons: declining commuting time and attention deficits produced by reduced sleep, children, television, and social media, chief among them.

Of the 30, eight were re-reads of very short books (one exception: The Last Samurai). Of the remaining 22, most were also very short, four were books of essays (one of which - David Graeber's - was half read last year, if memory serves), one was non-fiction proper, and one was a short book about parenting (which was pretty useful, actually). The rest was literature, in one form or another - a few were ostensibly poetry, or poetry/essays, such as Anne Carson, Claudia Rankine, Maggie Nelson, I suppose. A few were novels, or short stories, or literary memoir of sorts. Two were volumes of Knausgaard's My Struggle. One was Samuel R. Delany's Dhalgren.

A quick re-cap of the re-reads: Helen DeWitt's The Last Samurai remains a fantastic novel, just as good now as it was when I read it upon release 15 years ago. Still, I'd forgotten much about it. I'd recommended it happily to several people, some of whom read it and liked it, but when I re-read, I was struck by how little of the experience of it I had remembered, even while pushing it on people. Claudia Rankine's pair of books - Don't Let Me Be Lonely and the widely discussed Citizen - are very much worth reading and re-reading and writing about. I read them both just last year, and I would not be surprised to find myself re-reading them next year - if only because I want to write about them - which I do. Right now all I can think of to say, some months on, is that they are special books. You should read them.

I re-read Lars Iyer's Spurious trilogy because I was in the mood for something smart and funny and easy to read (no offense lol), and they do not disappoint. When I read them the first time, I remember thinking Exodus was a drop-off from the first two, but upon re-read I felt quite the opposite. (Devoted readers will of course recall that I previously wrote about the second book in the trilogy, Dogma.) Beckett's Malone Dies is an obvious classic. I'd re-read Molloy last year, and plan to re-read The Unnamable before too long, maybe this year, maybe not, plus I still have plenty of other Beckett to read for the first time. Anyway, god, Malone Dies is great. Just some amazing, marvelous pages, dammit. My decision to re-read Handke's memoir about his mother who had committed suicide, A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, was prompted by noticing a passing reference by someone on Twitter. I think about half of this book is a fascinating meditation on what it means to write about a life, especially someone else's life.

So much for the re-reads. And as a digression, often I include a list of books I read substantial portions of without being able to finish, for whatever reason. I won't do a full accounting this time, just some notes: this year I attempted a few different Henry Green novels - his style would take me for a few pages, but then I'd hit a wall and lose interest in the moment. I read fully 200 pages in Clarice Lispector's massive complete stories collection that New Directions published last year. The stories are easier going than her novels - speaking of which, I read and re-read several times over the first 10-15 pages in her The Passion According to G.H. - I enjoyed reading these pages, but they are difficult and I just could not get moving on the book. I picked up on a whim (at the World Bank bookshop, god help me) a Dalkey-published book called I, The Supreme, by Paraguayan writer Augusto Roa Bastos, which purports to be the writings of, and documents about, a 19th century Paraguayan despot. I read about 100 pages of it and got bogged down and frankly annoyed by the despot's referential and hyper-playful language.

Of the books that were new-to-me that I did finish reading... I loved loved loved Maggie Nelson's The Argonauts, and managed to write about it. Her Bluets was nice, but did not have quite the same impact. A re-read is in order - and I plan to read other Nelson books too. Carson's famous The Autobiography of Red had pages I loved and pages that baffled me. I'd need to re-visit it, as well, for its own sake, but especially if I wanted to say anything about it. David Graeber's The Utopia of Rules is by turns brilliant and, honestly, stupid, sometimes on the same page. Somehow the stupidity seems to make the brilliance possible. It's hard to figure. Rasheedah Phillips is part of the Metropolarity collective, and her Recurrence Plot collection was frequently invigorating, just the kind of science fiction I'm looking for and I think we need more of. Anything I might say about Ntozake Shange's Sassafrass, Cypress, & Indigo would likely be irrelevant or impertinent, but it's an interesting and unique novel, which is something. Signs Preceding the End of the World was getting a lot of hype, relatively speaking; I thought it was undeserving of it. With Faces in the Crowd, I've now read all three Valeria Luiselli books translated into English so far, and with all three there are pages I love, but I'm not sure they add up to much (again: re-reading may be in order). John Keene's Counternarratives, I felt, did deserve hype it has received, and I had some fleeting ideas for a post about it, yet nothing stuck. (Briefly: its stories each concern, in various different modes, slavery and its aftermath. They are never less than intriguing.)

I may still manage real posts about Dhalgren (nothing like what I expected, whatever that might have been; I'm very glad to finally have read it. I enjoyed the experience - it warrants a stellar reputation, but it seems to me that the content of its actual reputation is a mismatch for the real book), NDiaye's strange new novel Ladivine, and the John Ruskin Unto the Last collection, as well as a possible re-evaluation of Knausgaard's My Struggle project in light of reading the fourth and fifth books in the series (the fifth book has revived my flagging interest in the project; I liked it a lot more than the third and fourth installments).

If I had to name favorite books of the year - not counting re-reads, which are all great; I'd recommend each of them without reservation - I think it'd have to include:

The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson
Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany
Recurrence Plot by Rasheedah Phillips
Ladivine by Marie NDiaye
Whiteout: The CIA, Drugs and the Press, Alexander Cockburn & Jeffrey St. Clair

And putting Whiteout at the bottom allows me the opportunity to specifically recommend that book, uncharacteristically the only proper non-fiction book I read this year. It was published in 1998, begins by showing that Gary Webb's reporting about the CIA and drugs was accurate and unfairly attacked and maligned by the big mainstream media outlets - the Washington Post in particular. It's not great prose, but it's packed with a lot of information. And it remains relevant to us today, both by, a, outlining the history of the CIA and US military working with not only drug dealers (honestly, the idea that massive amounts of drugs enter the United States without the US Government specifically allowing it strikes me as silly now), but with literal Nazis after World War II, and, b, the often direct complicity in covering up such activity, or not reporting on it, by newspapers such as The Washington Post, L.A. Times, New York Times, etc. One does wonder how we got in our current mess, doesn't one?

Tuesday, October 04, 2016

Notes on The World Is Round by Gertrude Stein

The World Is Round is a children's book written by Gertrude Stein, published in 1938. The book was illustrated by Clement Hurd, who is best known as the illustrator for Margaret Wise Brown's children's classics The Runaway Bunny (1942) and, especially, Goodnight Moon (1947).

I've lately decided I am firmly pro-Gertrude Stein, but to date this is still just the third book I've read by her. I only recently learned of its existence, via Ethan's posts about it, and even then, I wasn't expecting to read it any time soon, except I came across the attractive 75th anniversary edition on display at the Children's Book Store here in Baltimore. This edition includes the original book - with its pink pages and blue text, as mandated by Stein - an afterword by Clement Hurd's wife, Edith Thacher Hurd (from 1986), and a new foreword by Thacher Hurd, their son (and incidentally a writer of children's books himself, including one of our old favorites, Art Dog). These two pieces, especially the afterword, tell the interesting story about the genesis of Stein's book and its production, in the context of the burgeoning and 'experimental' world of children's books in the 1920s and 1930s, including some letters between Stein and Hurd. Briefly, Margaret Wise Brown, a big admirer of Stein's, suggested to Young Scott Books that they invite literary authors to write children's books. Hemingway, Steinbeck, and Stein were asked; only Stein responded.

But never mind all that! How is the book? In many ways it makes perfect sense that Gertrude Stein wrote a children's book. Her vocabulary and her syntax tend to be simple. There's rhythm and repetition, like you'd find in many children's books.

[In my effort to include pictures from the book in this post - an Existence Machine first!! - I struggled mightily with formatting. I had wanted, e.g., pages 1 and 25 to be side-by-side, but it wasn't happening. So then I thought, well, ideally, I'd write something alongside each image, preferably something relevant and insightful or at least useful. Alas, no. At one point, I came back to this post, as it remained in draft status - where it remained for many months before being published, if we're honest, and we're nothing if not that - I stared at the blank space next to the page, and nothing was coming... I typed "what am I doing" - because honestly my god what am I doing.] [Incidental side note while we still have white space to fill: this book is one of the many places, but not the first, where the line "A Rose is a Rose is a Rose" appears.] [But anyway look at page 1! Isn't it lovely?]
It is in many ways delightful - in both classic children's book ways and Gertrude Stein ways. But I have to say: it's difficult to imagine many actual children reading the book or sitting still while it's read to them. The book concerns the adventures of Rose, and what she thinks and feels, her doubts and struggles, and among other things, her climb up a mountain with a chair, because why not. The language is simple, as one might expect from either Stein or a children's book. And it's repetitive in the way children's books often are, but especially the way Stein often is. [I know, I already more or less said that above. Pretend this is me being artfully repetitive like Gertrude Stein. Only pretend I'm using far fewer syllables.] Yet there is a lot of text, quite a lot for a children's picture book. Many pages are only text, and a lot of it, and one page in particular is essentially one paragraph, a wall of text. So you'd have to imagine either an especially precocious child, and/or an especially patient one. Still, it is frequently lovely, often funny, interesting, philosophical, occasionally bizarre, occasionally boring, and, again, it has a page that is a wall of text, much like you'd find in, like, The Making of Americans, or Kafka or Bernhard or something, not so much Goodnight, Moon. I love that page so much. Unfortunately, while many images from the book exist online, I could not find that one, so I took a photo of it myself. And here it is:

"Water yes and birds yes and rats yes and snakes yes and lizards yes and cats yes and cows yes, and trees yes and scratches yes, and sticks yes, and flies yes, and bees yes but not a Rose with a chair, all a Rose with a chair can dare is just not stare but keeping on going up there."


Notes on Self-Portrait In Green by Marie Ndiaye

Self-Portrait In Green came to my attention this Spring via a tweet from Aaron Bady, in which he linked to publisher Two Lines Press's special "Try Out Marie Ndiaye!" page. They described the book as "an utterly unclassifiable memoir that belongs on the shelf somewhere near Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, and Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red." As I had just gotten finished reading all three of those books, this seemed especially designed to attract me in particular. I had never heard of Ndiaye (who is apparently a big deal in France), but I loved those three books, to varying degrees, and it was cheap, so I ordered it.

In the event, having read the book twice, I'm not sure what to say about it. Granted, what do I ever know to say about a book anymore, right? When was the last time a blog post appeared here? Nearly seven months ago? Right. In that span, I've thought about writing about a number of things, planned several posts, opened drafts, written terrible sentences, but not found the time, or taken the time, or whatever, to do what it takes. But one common thread that has bugged me is the problem of expectations. I'm sort of obsessed with blurbs (can you be "sort of" obsessed with something?) - the work they do to manage and contain our reading experiences. Publishing copy, too: book flaps, webpages, ad copy, etc.

So, I began reading this book with incredibly high expectations - and it just doesn't measure up to them. In fact, it can't. "Measure up" is wrong - it just doesn't compare. It doesn't seem to be anything like those books, in any meaningful way. The comparisons are simply unfair, and in the end a bit annoying. And yet, they hooked me in, didn't they? - it was successful marketing! god help me - and I'm not at all sorry I read the book. But the whole enterprise rankles. And notice, too, that they call it an "unclassifiable memoir" - yet by the end of the page, have referred to it as a novel. Apparently, in this brave new post-James Frey (heh) literary (heh) world of the (relatively) massive successes of your Knausgaards and Ferrantes, there is simply no difference whatsoever between a memoir and a novel, a memoir and a fiction. For the record, Knausgaard's My Struggle books have always scanned to me as memoir, so naturally everyone calls them novels. Ferrante's Neapolitan series, meanwhile, scans as fiction, so naturally those books get taken as essentially memoir, to the point that it's apparently totally important that we know who she really is. In this case, I have gathered, from where I can no longer remember, that Ndiaye began writing Self-Portrait in Green as a memoir, and it became a fiction. A common enough occurrence, no doubt. So why not just call it both? Isn't that irritating? I think it's irritating.

(And yet, perhaps somewhat contradictorily, I do not have a problem with writing that is in fact unclassifiable. I call that, simply, writing - and it is in this sense that the commonality with Nelson, Rankine, and Carson, all three the real deal, as far as I'm concerned, is borne out.)

The book you say? How is the book? Hah, what an odd question. The book is pretty good, I think. I enjoyed it, rather a lot, on a sentence by sentence level. I enjoyed the texture of it, of those sentences (the term is borrowed from a friend). I'm not sure I understood the significance of all the green. There were women in green, throughout, and presumably the green meant something, but I couldn't tell you what it was. I'm not sure I care. Re-reading, I enjoyed the sentences even more—Ndiaye is a talented writer—but I remain more or less in the dark about the green. I'm ok with that.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Notes on Otros Valles by Jamie Berrout

I learned of Otros Valles from Ethan, who has posted some excerpts on his tumblr and in general praised it. The author describes herself as "a queer Mexican trans woman writer . . . from the South Texas border", which description fits the narrator as well, and as such, I feel it's not really for me, possibly not to read, but certainly not to discuss with any authority or attempt to explain, to write about at any length. But I wanted to mention it, and point interested readers in its direction. Here, I'll just say that, on the strength of the passages Ethan posted, I bought and read the self-published e-book, and I liked the experience of reading it. I appreciate that it is quiet and meditative. The narrator is concerned with being trans and Mexican and queer, and what that means, about family conflict and comfort, and friendship and loneliness, about intersectional oppressions and politics and history, and about writing. There isn't much in the way of plot or event, nor resolution. She might be interested in explaining things to herself, but she is not interested in explaining things to me.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Notes on White Girls by Hilton Als

Readers will remember my post on the 1992 essay collection Malcolm X: In Our Own Image, edited by the late Joe Wood, in which I reserved special praise for the entry by Hilton Als:
His essay is called "Philosopher or Dog?" and it begins in a manner that I initially found off-putting. But it finds a groove (or I found its groove) and by the end, I felt it was brilliant. It's a poetic meditation, if you will, on Malcolm X's mother, and the unfair uses he puts her to in his Autobiography. For example, he describes his mother, who was from Granada, as looking like a white woman, being more educated than his father, and even inviting occasional abuse for that reason. Als a) calls bullshit on all of that, but b) also tries to imagine her life, her politics. . . Among other things, it's a fascinating riff on the uses and distortions of autobiography and memoir.
Hilton Als was to that point unknown to me, though this may say more about my general tendency to ignore the New Yorker than anything else. In any case, I thought the essay was fascinating and knotty, and I was intrigued to learn that it was collected in Als' recent book of essays titled White Girls. What would it mean to collect an essay about Malcolm X, and his mother, in a book by that title? In the event, having now read the book, which includes essays ostensibly concerning Truman Capote, Flannery O'Connor, Michael Jackson, Eminem (and his mother), Louise Brooks, and Richard Pryor, among others, I don't really have a definitive answer, except that Louise Little was the white girl of Malcolm X's imagination. It remains a provocative question.

It could be said that the book's general over-arching subjects are race and gender and the construction of identity and self. And of micro-collectives - as in the long, sprawling, frequently beautiful first essay, which largely concerns a friendship evidently of central importance to the author (or narrator? later essays, in which Als writes first-person essays from the standpoint of identities not his own, retrospectively raise the question), a "we" to which he belongs, or belonged, the ways in which we each are part of numerous such entities known as a "we" - understood to those belonging to it, often obscure to those outside it. The Flannery O'Connor essay was personally gratifying - given my own blog post on her and on politics and racism some years ago (a piece long by blog standards, short for an essay in a book) - not that that's necessarily a good reason to appreciate writing, but in any case, I read it thinking yes, this is what O'Connor is doing in her fiction, and this is how to read her doing it.

Those two essays notwithstanding, about halfway through I was feeling somewhat adrift and disappointed in the book, despite liking much of what I had read to that point - but none of it, except perhaps that opening essay, or most of it anyway, seemed to be as effective or urgent as the Malcolm X piece - which incidentally holds up very well on re-reading. But the second half picks up considerably. In particular, two pieces dealing with Richard Pryor (one of which is in the voice of an imaginary sister of Pryor's) are very good and among my favorites in the book.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Notes on The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson

I thought I might try a new thing here: blogging. Possibly even about the books I read!

As of this moment, I've finished reading two books so far this year, both of which had figured to be the final book(s) of 2015, but were not, and only one of which will I write about here. (I saw a year-end post which said that any book worth reading is worth devoting 100 words to. Fair point. One hundred words isn't many; maybe I'll give it a try. Not that I expect to keep to it.) (Is this one hundred words yet?)

Maggie Nelson's The Argonauts. In short, I loved reading this book. But what is it? A very slim volume (which helps, no doubt). Inside flap says it's "Memoir/Criticism". Sales categories bug me, but Nelson does do those things here. She writes about her own life - her attempts to get pregnant, her pregnancy, her relationship with her partner Harry Dodge, to whom the book is frequently addressed and who is "fluidly gendered" (that phrasing is taken from the intro to this interview with Nelson; I use it rather than "trans" if only because she writes about that term some in the book) - she writes about her roles as mother and step-mother - the messiness and physicality of all of these things. She writes about feminism and queer theory and poetry and writing: and about the former being just as worthy of critical attention as the latter.

I'll just offer one example from the book. Nelson tells the story of a seminar she attended as a grad student, in 1998, in which Jane Gallop was to present new material, and Rosalind Krauss was to respond to it. (Neither name was familiar to me. Nelson describes Gallop's work as having "evidenced a deep investment in Lacanian thought without seeming to have drunk the Kool-Aid", as seeming "to be learning everything there was to know about the [philosophical] boiler room so that she could blow it up". Krauss's work she knew less well but "gathered that everyone was invested in her theories about the modernist grid".) Gallop's presentation was a slideshow of resolutely personal photographs, about her husband and son and their lives, and commentary about the subjective experience of being photographed, combined with her experience as a mother. Nelson: "I liked that Gallop was onto something and letting us in on it before she fully understood it. She was hanging her shit out to dry: a start." But Krauss goes on the attack, accusing Gallop of a disturbing "soft-mindedness", in sharp contrast to her important previous work. Nelson: "The room thickened with the sound of one keenly intelligent woman taking another down. ... the tacit undercurrent of her argument, as I felt it, was that Gallop's maternity had rotted her mind—besotted it with the narcissism that makes one think than an utterly ordinary experience shared by countless others is somehow unique, or uniquely interesting."

Nelson was at that time neither a mother nor had any expectations of becoming one, but her sympathies were with Gallop: "I was enough of a feminist to refuse any knee-jerk quarantining of the feminine or the maternal from the realm of intellectual profundity." In saying so, of course, Nelson is reminding us that such refusals have been a basic component of feminism, i.e., nothing new. However, the need to refuse such quarantining (and of not just "the feminine or the maternal", but also "the physical", "the medical", and any number of other "personal" categories people are encouraged to keep hidden, or told is outside the realm of thinking), and to assert its opposite, is perpetual. Maggie Nelson not only calls bullshit on such mindsets, but beautifully demonstrates throughout that it is bullshit.

I think The Argonauts is both important and beautiful. It is that elusive species, writing.

Tuesday, January 05, 2016

Books Read - 2015

As is the annual tradition, here is the final list of books I completed reading in 2015, in chronological order of completion. As usual, links are to posts in which I've either written about the book or the author, or posted excerpts. This year merely continued the recent trend of fewer and fewer new posts—there were only 9 new entries this year, down from 13 last year (and 25 the year before). Granted, there was an excellent reason for that: our son Malcolm was born smack in the middle of the year. Only two posts date since his birth, and the first of those was already in the works beforehand.

In any case, following the list are comments and observations.

1. The Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann (John E. Woods, trans.)
2. Capitalism & Slavery, Eric Williams  
3. Sidewalks, Valeria Luiselli (Christina MacSweeney, trans.)
4. Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson  
5. Wittgenstein Jr, Lars Iyer
6. A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History, Manuel De Landa
7. 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, Jonathan Crary
8. The Portable Malcolm X Reader, Manning Marable & Garrett Felber, eds. (also, also)
9. Malcolm X: In Our Own Image, Joe Wood, ed.
10. Lila, Marilynne Robinson
11. Closer to Freedom: Enslaved Women & Everyday Resistance in the Plantation South, Stephanie M. H. Camp
12. Citizen: An American Lyric, Claudia Rankine
13. Time Out of Mind: The Lives of Bob Dylan, Ian Bell
14. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce (re-read)
15. Don't Let Me Be Lonely, Claudia Rankine
16. Liberalism: A Counter-History, Domenico Losurdo (Gregory Elliott, trans.)
17. Extinction, Thomas Bernhard (David McLintock, trans.)
18. The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America, Gerald Horne
19. Seizing Freedom: Slave Emancipation and Liberty for All, David Roediger
20. The Death of the Novel and Other Stories, Ronald Sukenick
21. The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, Edward E. Baptist
22. Molloy, Samuel Beckett (re-read)
23. The Greatest Threat: The Black Panther Party and COINTELPRO, Eddie Conway
24. Benito Cereno, Herman Melville
25. The Motion of Light in Water: Sex and Science Fiction Writing in the East Village, 1957-1965, , Samuel R. Delaney
26. Patternmaster, Octavia Butler
27. Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self, Marilynne Robinson (re-read)
28. Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates
29. Bog-Trotter, Dory Previn
30. Mumbo Jumbo, Ishmael Reed
31. Miss MacIntosh, My Darling, volume one, Marguerite Young
32. The Story of My Teeth, Valeria Luiselli (Christina MacSweeney, trans.)
33. Hotel Andromeda, Gabriel Josipovici (re-read)

In the past, I've included in this space an increasingly detailed statistical breakdown of my year in books. This year, I find I just can't be bothered. I found those breakdowns alternately amusing, useful, and tedious—and this year, the prospect of assembling the data just filled me with dread, so fuck it.

That said, it remains important for me to keep in mind who writes the books I'm reading, and why. So the lack of stats this year should in no way be interpreted as my no longer caring about (some of) such statistical matters. Besides, not only were there fewer posts than ever, I read fewer books than at any time since I began reading in earnest (just over twenty years ago). This was also in part because the arrival of our son, an ankle injury I sustained three weeks after his birth, and an extended period of atypically extreme busy-ness at work all combined to mean I worked from home more often than not in the second half of 2015. That is to say, I no longer had my regular commute, also known as regular dedicated reading-time.

But still! I read some excellent books!

As the year began, I was wrapping up The Magic Mountain, and honestly it doesn't really fit here, the reading experience belongs more with 2014, but rules are rules. From there I moved right into Eric Williams classic study, the excellent Capitalism & Slavery, continuing my recent focus on American slavery and its aftermath. (Interestingly, it was only a little before reading his book that I learned that Williams had been a person of color. Which only goes to show you how difficult it can be to keep track of such matters.) Three more books explicitly about slavery were to come, ranging from a focus on day-to-day resistance (Stephanie Camp's Closer to Freedom), to a detailed history of what slavery was like and how it helped build American power and capital (Edward Baptist's deservedly widely read The Half Has Never Been Told), to a fascinating if knotty study about what the founders of the United States had really been concerned with in doing so (namely, preserving slavery) (Gerald Horne's The Counter-revolution of 1776; I'd begun reading this in 2014). I also read Seizing Freedom, David Roediger's provocative account, following on from Du Bois's insistence in Black Reconstruction that the enslaved freed themselves, of former slaves' ideas of jubilee in the wake of emancipation, what it meant for them, its influence on other movements (e.g., feminism) (which movements tended to abandon its wider implications), and how it was ultimately betrayed. In addition, Domenico Losurdo's Liberalism: A Counter-History, while not explicitly about slavery, by tracing what liberal ideas actually entailed ends up being very much about slavery indeed.

I also continued my reading in more modern and/or recent African American history and black political writing - which, of course, is also part of 'slavery's aftermath', broadly speaking. This included George Jackson's prison letters, which, while frequently fascinating, were in total disappointing. I wish I owned copies of Assata and Angela Davis' autobiography and read the library copy of Jackson's, rather than the other way around, but so it goes. (Though I certainly will be buying those two, to have more readily to hand.) Manning Marable's Malcolm X Reader and an essay collection about Malcolm X, edited by the late Joe Wood, from 20 years ago, were read in the wake of remembrances of his assassination. They are both worthy volumes. I'd half-expected to soon read Marable's biography, but it didn't come to pass, not yet. Eddie Conway's short volume about COINTELPRO and the Black Panther Party - published while he was still in prison - is a pretty good intro to the topics (we'd had the book for a while, but I only got to it this year, somehow; Conway is now out of prison, and semi-regularly attends our Quaker Meeting here in Baltimore). And then later in the year, I read Ta-Nehisi Coates' much-discussed, Between the World and Me. I realize lots of liberal white guy reviewers said it was really good and really important. So forgive me for thinking it excellent.

I read just three 'new' novels this year: Lars Iyer's Wittgenstein Jr (which maybe I didn't like as much as the Spurious threesome, but it's still plenty good enough), Marilynne Robinson's Lila (third book in the sort of trilogy that began with Gilead; I liked it very much, probably more than I did Home, the second book), and Valeria Luiselli's odd and entertaining, The Story of My Teeth.

The rest of the year's fiction reading, not counting three re-reads (Molloy - still great; Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man - still, uh, meh; and Hotel Andromeda - even better this time round!), and the library copy of Butler's Patternmaster (which I liked well enough, but was not overly thrilled by; this was the only science fiction of the year), was confined to the exciting category of Books I've Had On My Shelves For Years. This was partly because of available finances, and partly because - I mean, I've had these books for years, right? presumably some of them are worth reading? Actually, scanning the list, this didn't amount to too many different books. But, in this vein, I did finally read Bernhard's marvelous final novel, Extinction (leaving me with just one major prose work left, I think - The Lime Works? I'll have to check his bibliography), Ishmael Reed's fascinating and bizarre and confounding Mumbo Jumbo, and Melville's strange Benito Cereno (which dovetailed with the slavery theme). What started this practice off was finding Ronald Sukenik's overtly experimental story collection, The Death of the Novel, in a box in my basement. Totally meant to blog about it too. In any case, as often happens with such collections, it's interesting, entertaining, at times boring. Some of its incidental political content stuck out for me, as, if nothing else, just as suggestive of the creeping literary conservatism of the last 40+ years as the experimental nature of the stories themselves might.

In this last category, but really of necessity standing by itself, is volume one of Marguerite Young's huge novel, Miss MacIntosh, My Darling, the reading of which fairly dominated the second half of my year. It really is an amazing surfeit of words - a strange, frequently beautiful, often exasperating 600+ (so far) pages. I hope to have something more substantive to say about it in a separate post later on, but suffice it to say... haha, as if Young herself would ever have used the expression "suffice it to say".... never mind, then, for now.

That leaves miscellaneous not-fiction - essays (Luiselli's nice little Sidewalks - I mean no condescension at all, and a re-read of Robinson's Absence of Mind - I'd meant a post or two dealing with it and her and possibly some Josipovici compare/contrast, but though something like that may still come, I have to admit her much-shared NYRB conversation with Obama kind of left a bad taste in my mouth, so we'll see) and theory/philosophy (Crary's 24/7 and De Landa's Thousand Years of Nonlinear History - both fantastic books, honestly; the former author of no relation to myself, which makes the fact that he wrote a book I could absolutely see myself writing, were I the kind of person who wrote theory, or books, or ever, rather interesting indeed) (and it's been way too many months since I read the De Landa, but I frankly loved reading that book - it's such a wide-ranging, almost freewheeling, recontexualization of just tons of all kinds of familiar and unfamiliar historical material) and memoir (Delany's and Dory Previn's - both intriguing and excellent reading experiences, in entirely different ways) and biography (the late Ian Bell's completion of his two-volume bio of Dylan, not as good as the first but not bad), and Claudia Rankine's two superb books of... what? essay-poems? prose-poems? I don't know. Citizen is the big one from this year, and it's deserves to be read, but if anything, I think I liked the earlier Don't Let Me Be Lonely even more.

And there it is. Thank you for reading.

Monday, November 02, 2015

The silence that alone can rend them...

In his book Faux Pas (1943), Maurice Blanchot has an essay called "On Hindu Thought", in which he discusses studies of Hinduism intended for the Western reader. He writes:
…once this feeling of interest has been awakened, the same commentators risk distancing the minds, that bearing a more intense yearning, will see themselves threatened with being gratified too easily. For what have they shown? That Hindu spirituality has marvelously succeeded, that it succeeds at once by its extraordinary blossoming in all the people, and even more in the heart of each being, by the beatitude that it necessarily brings him at the end of long ordeals. After the commentators' explanations, we are forced to think that Hindu spirituality is a spirituality that succeeds too well, that is too satisfied with itself, that it promises and gives, reliably, by patience, knowledge, and technique, a definitive salvation. And the paradox that results from this is that the doctrine for which the soul has searched through thoroughly pessimistic questioning seems to end up in a strangely optimistic conception of spiritual life. The thought that constantly strove to place itself heroically before the Absolute now has for its ideal only a comfortable laying out of spirituality. Further, and this does appear in modern Hinduism, the clearest, purest religious devotion is finally destined to serve national and social claims, those that can best serve as an obstacle to that unity of life founded on a common awareness of profound existence. We repeat that those are the effects of an unfortunate exegesis and that it would be absurd to make the responsibility for it fall on the Vedanta or the Upanishads. But these judgments at least show that spiritual problems can only be approached with the greatest rigor and the most severe precautions. Westerners, who, like other people, are especially familiar with chatter and palaver, have the particular characteristic of talking nonsense and yet of believing in language. What words bring to them has a definite meaning that they recognize and that they then try to organize logically. Faced with any mystical teaching, they would do best to give up language and force themselves to the silence that alone can rend them. (translation from the French by Charlotte Mandell, 2001)
A few things come to mind reading this passage and the essay it comes from. Earlier this year, I took a meditation class; more specifically, a mindfulness meditation class. I am not what you'd call a spiritual person; god knows I'm not religious (ha! sorry), though I've certainly tried to distance myself from the stridency of my own youthful atheism, as well as the racist stupidity masquerading as intellect that is the wider, uh, movement of superior-than-thou atheist "writers" or "thinkers". The closest I've come to religious is semi-regularly attending a local Quaker meeting. Nor, for that matter, have I really investigated any of the Eastern religions.

[Incidentally, thinking I'd provide a link or two above to other semi-related posts here, I spent some time poring over some of my early blogging. It's interesting how concerned I was with explicating my thinking on matters concerning religion. A very early (2007!) post on how these new atheist types efface politics. And more: "some thoughts on reason", in which I riff off an interview with Steven Pinker and Rebecca Goldstein (2007); one taking aim at both tiresome participants in a debate between Sam Harris and Andrew Sullivan (again 2007); on "atheism and indifference" (2009); another one on faith and reason (2009); and then finally my lengthy review of Christopher Hitchens' extremely terrible "book", God is Not Great (2008). I'm linking to these posts here, in part because why not?, but also because I can't imagine devoting the time or space to such matters again. I'm not sorry to have done so - some of those pieces are pretty good, I think, for what they are - but the urgency has long since subsided. It's curious. But I digress.]

So I'm not really a religious or spiritual person. Yet I have relatively recently learned and accepted that there are benefits to a meditation practice, and that there are good scientific bases for believing so. Mindfulness in particular appealed to me as a way to, among other things, better manage my responses to parenting challenges. But, while I liked the idea of regular practice potentially opening onto a more spiritual existence, I wasn't primarily in it for that. I was essentially seeking to instrumentalize a traditional practice for my own ends. Some would call this appropriation. Perhaps. I'm not convinced that's always such a bad thing. In any case, I have zero patience for the kind of corporate mindfulness training that's become something of a cliche - business types helped to sleep better, as they ransack the earth. No.

Anyway, I took the class. I enjoyed it. It went well! The book we read was Mindfulness in Plain English by Bhante Henepola Gunaratana. Which brings me back to Blanchot and to my point. You might think that a book with such a title would be doing exactly what Blanchot seems to almost warn against: that it would seem to gratify the seeker too easily, that spiritual life is made comfortable, comforting, all too optimistic. In fact, however, despite, yes, the book being written in plain English - that is, it is seemingly easy to understand - its subject remains in some sense elusive. It lays out clearly enough various practical aspects for embarking on a practice. But it's almost too easy! For someone like myself - lacking, as we have established, a connection to spiritual life, and despite relatively recent personal philosophical moves against this tendency, still very much a person of the Anglo-American culture of scientistic practicality (say that five times fast) - for someone like myself, at times it was hard to settle on what exactly I was expected to take from it. Sit how? Breathe how? What does it mean to focus your attention? To not? What does it mean to acknowledge a distraction? To let it go? As might be expected, these things take, well, practice. You can't just read a book (or take a course) and have it. Interestingly, too, the instructor and the author both cautioned against even attempting certain more spiritual aspects of the practice in the beginning. The author seems to even suggest it might be dangerous.

The essay, then, also brings to mind two other Blanchot essays from the same book, "Kierkegaard's Journals" and "The Experience of Proust". This is perhaps not surprising, since they also appear in the same section of the book: "From Anguish to Language". For Kierkegaard, despite his voluminous writing, despite his extensive oeuvre, based substantially on his life, despite this journal, communication remains elusive, if not impossible, the fugitive self hidden from view. Proust, meanwhile, over the course of 3,000 or so pages, unfolds an interpretation of the experiences which necessitated his writing. Yet despite his attempts to explain, to interpret, to convert his experiences into knowledge, the experiences remain ultimately beyond reach, keeping "the quality of the secret by continuing . . . to seem always more mysterious than the work itself". Language fails us, can't but fail us, life, spirituality, experience, remain finally beyond the reach of words, words, so so many words.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Paradox Lost

On July 4th, I happened to read this article-review, by Paul Street, an excellent summary/overview of Gerald Horne's The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America. I'm going to cherry-pick this passage from the piece:
The “American paradox” (US historian Edmund Morgan’s term), whereby “the Age of Liberty” was also “the Age of Slavery,” was not limited to colonial North America and the United States. As the historian Greg Grandin reminds us, “the paradox can be applied to all of the Americas, North and South…What was true for Richmond [Virginia] was no less true for Buenos Aires and Lima – that what many meant by freedom was the freedom to buy and sell black people as property” (Greg Grandin, Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World, New York, 2014, emphasis added). But consider this: of the 10 to 16 million Africans who survived the brutal Middle Passage to the New World, two-thirds ended up in Brazil or the West Indies. But by 1860, approximately two thirds of all New World slaves lived in the US South. In the US alone among the new Western Hemisphere Republics of the 19th century, slavery flourished rather than faded – until its destruction in the Civil War.
Part of the explanation for that disjuncture is the natural reproduction of slaves under the “paternalist” regime of the US South. Another aspect is the remarkable expansion of cotton slavery across the US South in the first half of the 19th century, intimately related to the early industrial revolution in England and Europe. A final piece is the white settlers’/slaveholders’ Counter-Revolution of 1776. The break-off slayed the specter of British Abolition and opened up vast new swaths of land for genocidal theft from the continent’s original inhabitants and the deployment of new slave cash-crop production armies. [Paul Street, "The White United States’ Real Founding Father: Lord Dunmore", July 3, 2014, teleSUR]
I read Horne's Counter-Revolution of 1776 earlier this year, and while I found it occasionally rough-sledding as a reading experience (Horne's prose sometimes gets in the way of his presentation of what is after all either unfamiliar or re-contextualized information), at minimum it contains a wealth of material on what the colonists-slaveholders-proto-founders were concerned with - essentially, preserving the slave system and protecting their property rights and themselves from both insurrection from slaves and attack from Africans armed by either the Spanish or British, depending. Horne's book sketches, as Street concisely puts it, "a central, fundamentally counter-revolutionary motivation behind the fateful decision to break off from England: a sense that the slave system on which North American fortunes depended could not survive except through secession from the British Empire."

I read two other books this year, which can be read fruitfully alongside Horne's: Domenico Losurdo's Liberalism: A Counter-History (translated from the Italian by Gregory Elliott) and Edward E. Baptist's much-discussed The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. Among much else, in Liberalism Losurdo reveals anew that the "American paradox" is no paradox. That "the Age of Liberty" was also "the Age of Slavery" was no accident. Losurdo is fond of phrases like "the pathos of liberty" or, my favorite, "the self-congratulation of the community of the free", but ultimately, the point is that the articulated values of liberty and freedom, and the political rights developed to protect them, were based on the un-freedom of others, explicitly. Their liberty depended on the dispossession of the indigenous and the enslavement of Africans. There was no contradiction, no paradox, except insofar as we continue to read them in isolation, when they were meant in concert (the book is not only about American liberals, but that's what's relevant here). And then The Half Has Never Been Told narrates, in horrifying detail, the slave system as it changed and expanded after 1776, and especially after 1800. One considerable virtue of the book is that it recontextualizes information droned into us as school-children (along with, of course, tons of information we never encountered in school) such as the Louisiana Purchase, the various slavery "Compromises", the Mexican War, the cotton gin, and so on...

Friday, June 26, 2015

Knausgaard, Heidegger, and Literary Society

Another recent-ish Stephen Mitchelmore blog post lamented (albeit in very strong terms) the state of online literature writing, its diminishment in the face of concentration and generally dudely commentary. In the post, he reminds us of a passage from the second volume of Knausgaard's much bruited My Struggle books. Knausgaard reports having been unable to make poetry open up to him, how he felt like a fraud, judged. He goes on to present a litany of ways in which we could write about poetry in objective terms, for example about Hölderlin and his poetry.  But, "It was possible to do all of this without Hölderlin’s poems ever opening themselves up. The same could be done with all poets, and of course it has been. (Translated by Don Bartlett)".

Re-reading Knausgaard's words brought to mind for me Heidegger's essay (or series of lectures) called "The Nature of Language" (located in On the Way to Language), which somewhat randomly I had been reading at about the same time. There are numerous passages I could quote by way of illustration, but I'll go with this one:
But as for us, it must remain open whether we are capable of entering properly into this poetic experience. There is the danger that we will overstrain a poem such as this by thinking too much into it, and thereby debar ourselves from being moved by its poetry. Much greater of course--but who today would admit it?--is the danger that we will think too little, and reject the thought that the true experience with language can only be a thinking experience, all the more so because the lofty poetry of all great poetic work always vibrates within a realm of thinking. But if what matters first of all is a thinking experience with language, then why this stress on a poetic experience? Because thinking in turn goes its way in the neighborhood of poetry. It is well, therefore, to give thought to the neighbor, to him who dwells in the same neighborhood. Poetry and thought, each needs the other in its neighborhood, each in its fashion, when it comes to ultimates. In what region the neighborhood itself has its domain, each of them, thought and poetry, will define differently, but always so that they will find themselves within the same domain. But because we are caught in the prejudice nurtured through centuries that thinking is a matter of ratiocination, that is, of calculation in the widest sense, the mere talk of a neighborhood of thinking to poetry is suspect. (Translated by Peter D. Hertz)
I don't have a lot to add, beyond highlighting this convergence, in part because I'm still trying to get the Heidegger essay to open up to me. The previous sentence was written back in February when Stephen's post was still new, and in fact, I failed to finish the Heidegger essay (I'm not certain I've ever finished a Heidegger essay or chapter, come to think of it)... (and god what a portentous post-title! you should have seen what it was in the first place...)

. . . but I had wanted to say something seemingly unrelated, but which was originally prompted by this convergence. Knausgaard is interested in whether poems open themselves up to us, he is interested in ultimates, as it were, as Heidegger puts it, he is interested in the contrast between what is often said, in "objective" terms about a poem, or a poet, and what the writing actually does, or could do, to us were we awake to it. And yet Knausgaard has become a kind of literary celebrity, called on to write travelogues for the New York Times Magazine, to be a native informer in the pages of the New Yorker, to sit comfortably alongside Jonathan Franzen, happily domesticated for our consumption. I mention Franzen, because he is the quintessential literary celebrity, it seems to me, and I have frequently seen him and Knausgaard mentioned in the same breath, the same tweet, as though they were very much the same thing (highly praised white male authors who are perhaps not all that, being the general vibe). I find the yoking baffling and unpleasant and obfuscating, not least because as writers, I think they have little in common - and though I certainly much prefer Knausgaard, surely even whatever merit Franzen's writing has is utterly obscured by his weird celebrity? It pushes us away from the writing, does it not? Prevents us from allowing a work to open up to us? There is backlash: Knausgaard is dismissed, the praise is surely excessive, isn't it?, the celebrity off-putting, and what the fuck is up with that title anyway? (Though why Hitler should get to own forever two such useful words as "my struggle" is honestly beyond me. If we don't name our 3000-page pseudo-memoir-y novel series My Struggle, surely the terrorists win? Hello?) Even extra-literary criticism that I find potentially interesting and valid - would a woman writing something like My Struggle be taken so seriously? (So so seriously.) Indeed not; probably not. But even this question, just as it is (literary society is unquestionably sexist, as in fact Steve's post touches on), pushes away the writing, prevents it from opening up - we are suspicious. We are suspicious! But in such questions it is also assumed that if a woman wrote a long autobiographical novel-ish thing, that it would thereby be much like Knasugaard's, because in such terms our only mode of inquiry appears to be at the level of chatter and celebrity and ratios of recognition. The experience is placed at a distance, foreclosed. We are not open.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Short Remarks on Extinction

Having recently read Thomas Bernhard's final novel, Extinction, I was interested to read this account by Stephen Mitchelmore of the narrative in Jen Craig's novel, Panthers and the Museum of Fire:
Perhaps priority should be placed on the narrative itself, which would be convenient because writing is exactly what the dreamer regards as the breakthrough she had been seeking, now given so unexpectedly by Panthers and the Museum of Fire, a manuscript written by Sarah, an old school acquaintance, into whom the narrator had bumped on the street one day, leading to a series of events, including Sarah's death, possibly as an indirect result of her excessive weight, culminating in the supposed non-reading of the manuscript. Each event and the narrator's commentary is reported with reference to where she is on the walk between Glebe and the café on Crown Street, with the events that occur on that walk included too, and also with recollections of how she had related the events before the walk to her friend Raf at some point in the recent past, either at a gastropub in Potts Point, or over the preparation of prawns before a dinner back in Glebe, or over the phone to report the remarkable breakthrough she had experienced the night before. 
This made me think of how I'd try to explain what a Bernhard narrator is doing as he's narrating. Bernhard's books are frequently characterized as extended rants, which is strange if only because it's rare for his narrators to not reverse position and undermine, or at least mitigate, what seem to initially be very firmly held opinions. But such a blanket characterization also ignores that the narrator is typically expressing his opinions, or remembering having expressed them, to someone.

In any case, more so perhaps than with other Bernhard novels, I was very much taken with noticing such things as I was reading Extinction. This is the first sentence of the novel:
On the twenty-ninth, having returned from Wolfsegg, I met my pupil Gambetti on the Pincio to discuss arrangements for the lessons he was to receive in May, writes Franz-Josef Murau, and impressed once again by his high intelligence, I was so refreshed and exhilarated, so glad to be living in Rome and not in Austria, that instead of walking home along the Via Condotti, as I usually do, I crossed the Flaminia and the Piazza del Popolo and walked the whole length of the Corso before returning to my apartment in the Piazza Minerva, where at about two o'clock I received the telegram informing me that my parents and my brother, Johannes, had died.
This sentence has so much. For one thing, we see "writes Franz-Josef Murau", three words that are easy to forget over the next 300-plus pages (fairly long for a Bernhard novel!), as they're virtually never referred to again. So narrator is writing; the book in front of us is a document of some kind. He lives in Rome, and walks its streets, as indeed at various points in the narrative he recollects doing, recounting events, expressing opinions, recounting opinions expressed, remembering people he expressed them to. There's Wolfsegg, his childhood home. There's his pupil Gambetti - to whom he remembers having recounted so many of his opinions and ideas and memories. And finally, of course, there is the fateful telegram, the narrator's response to and meditations on the contents of which occupy the rest of the novel.

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Notes on Malcolm X: In Our Own Image

Recall that, in The Portable Malcolm X Reader, Manning Marable wrote that the 900-plus books written about Malcolm X, "with remarkably few exceptions, accepted as fact most if not all of the chronology of events and personal experiences depicted in the Autobiography's narrative." One book Marable mentioned positively is a short collection of essays titled Malcolm X: In Our Own Image, edited by Joe Wood, who had been a columnist for the Village Voice. (I'd not heard of Wood prior to reading the book, and only just looked him up as I began writing this post. He disappeared in 1999 hiking on Mt. Rainier and was never seen again. He was 34.)

It's on balance a good collection, certainly worth reading if you're especially interested either in Malcolm X or the black intellectual tradition, or, you know, what the fuck's the matter with this country. It was published in 1992, and appears to be out of print, though used and library copies are probably not hard to come by (if you're local, Enoch Pratt has several). The "our own image" of the title, it perhaps should be made clear, is that of black American writers. Several well known black writers have essays in the book, including Amiri Baraka, Angela Davis, Cornel West, Patricia Hill Collins, John Edgar Wideman, Greg Tate, Adolph Reed.

The various writers here are much concerned with the nature of Malcolm X's legacy and influence, and by no means is his Autobiography taken as anything like the last word. This, too, was the time of the proliferation of the X imagery and merchandise, and rappers, such as Public Enemy, explicitly invoking him as an icon, as well as the Spike Lee biopic, about which few who mention it have much nice to say. Published the same year was Bruce Perry's biography, Malcolm, which is frequently criticized in these pages for its psychoanalytical approach, in isolation of politics and historical events and forces. There's interesting stuff on Alex Haley and the Autobiography (Wideman), gender (Hill Collins), the effect of Malcolm's "zoot suit" years in shaping his later political outlook and style (Robin D. G. Kelley), and so on.

I'd like to briefly highlight two essays in particular. The first is by the poet Hilton Als, previously completely unknown to me. His essay is called "Philosopher or Dog?" and it begins in a manner that I initially found off-putting. But it finds a groove (or I found its groove) and by the end, I felt it was brilliant. It's a poetic meditation, if you will, on Malcolm X's mother, and the unfair uses he puts her to in his Autobiography. For example, he describes his mother, who was from Granada, as looking like a white woman, being more educated than his father, and even inviting occasional abuse for that reason. Als a) calls bullshit on all of that, but b) also tries to imagine her life, her politics. . . Among other things, it's a fascinating riff on the uses and distortions of autobiography and memoir. (Interestingly enough, the piece also appeared later in Als' book White Girls.)

The other essay I want to highlight is Adolph Reed's excellent and depressing "The Allure of Malcolm X and the Changing Character of Black Politics". Reed is critical of the continuing usefulness of Malcolm X as a political symbol, given the changed political circumstances. Then he describes what those changed circumstances are, by tracing the course of insider-oriented accommodationist politics that took hold after Malcolm's death, and especially after Black Power. This move, as Reed describes it, is less cynical than that short-hand makes it sounds, but just as defeatist. He's talking about a) people who are less radical anyway but who b) use the threat of 'deal with us or you'll have those scary radicals to deal with' - who are insider-oriented in that they believe incremental changes within the system are a better approach. But of course this threat only works if the possibility of mass revolt exists. Whereas this process ended up helping to demobilize the mass of black people, thus neutralizing the effectiveness of the threat. Though it worked well enough for their purposes through the 1970s, in the 1980s, Reagan called their bluff, and they were revealed as meaningless. Surprisingly left out of Reed's essay altogether are the drug war and mass incarceration, which at first glance appear to be a glaring oversights. Perhaps in 1992 those particular long-term trends there were not as obvious to everyone as they have since become, though they seem from this vantage point to be crucial neutralizing factors.

Monday, May 04, 2015

Noted: Thomas Bernhard

What's preventing me from starting right away? I asked Gambetti, though immediately I added, We think we can embark on such an undertaking, yet we can't. Everything's always against us, against such an undertaking, and so we put it off and never get around to it. In this way many works of the mind that ought to be written never see the light of day, but remain just so many drafts that we constantly carry around in our heads for years, for decades — in our heads. We adduce every possible excuse, we invoke all kinds of spirits — malign spirits, of course — in order not to have to start when we should. The tragedy of the would-be writer is that he continually resorts to anything  that will prevent him from writing. A tragedy, no doubt, but at the same time a comedy — a perfect, perfidious comedy. (Extinction, p.102; David McLintock, trans.)
I'm sure I have no idea what he's talking about.

Friday, May 01, 2015

Black Lives Matter

In March I posted an excerpt from James Baldwin's 1972 essay "Malcolm and Martin". At the time, I'd meant to add a little more from it, with some remarks of my own, but they didn't come together. And for a variety of reasons I hadn't been able to do it since. But events in the interim have done their damnedest to remind us of the total up-to-the minute relevance of essays and books written decades ago. At any given time, by "events" I could be talking about public outrage at one of dozens of cases from all over the United States. Michael Brown. Miriam Carey. Eric Garner. Rekia Boyd. Trayvon Martin. Renisha McBride. Walter Scott. Tamir Rice. John Crawford. That's just off the top of my head: black men and women and children murdered by police and by gun-happy police surrogates, and our uneven collective responses to it.

In fact, I'm talking about the police killing of Freddie Gray here in my hometown of Baltimore, the total lack of accountability, the subsequent protests, the horrifying police response, and parts of Baltimore erupting in outrage and chaos, more protests, more marches, more police and the National Guard, horrible media coverage, and so on. Nothing the police have done, are doing, will do, is new. (For that matter, I could be talking about Tyrone West, or Anthony Anderson, or ... any number of other black people killed or injured by Baltimore City Police.)

I've never been able to use this blog to effectively respond to news as it was happening, and by now it just seems pointless to even try, with Twitter providing a much more useful outlet for that anyway (follow me here, where I've been particularly busy, mainly re-tweeting). But I do want to say that I am proud of the people of Baltimore city, especially so of young black people. And, it should go without saying, absolutely disgusted by the police and politicians and the national media. We attended the protests this past Saturday, which were noisy and peaceful and fairly diverse and, in their way, a joy to be involved in, despite the horrible occasion. But I had to watch from my office in DC, and my train commute, via Twitter reports, the situation on Monday, when police, pretending to respond to some spurious threats, rolled into Mondawmin in riot gear, effectively kettling school children, now unable to get home, but told to disperse. . .

As justifiably pessimistic about white Americans as Baldwin is in that essay, linked above, there still seems a kind of muted optimism, as in this later passage from it:
            Since the American people cannot, even if they wished to, bring about black liberation, and since black people want their children to live, it is very clear that we must take our children out of the hands of this so-called majority and find some way to expose this majority as the minority which it actually is in the world. For this we will need, and we will get, the help of the suffering world which is prevented only by the labyrinthine stratagems of power from adding its testimony to ours.
            No one pretends that this will be easy, and I myself do not expect to live to see this day accomplished. What both Martin and Malcolm began to see was that the nature of the American hoax had to be revealed—not only to save black people but in order to change the world in which everyone, after all, has a right to live. One may say that the articulation of this necessity was the Word's first necessary step on its journey toward being made flesh. (pp.507-8; italics mine)
This was written after the assassinations and general turmoil of the 1960s, but before the onset of the drug war and mass incarceration, which I can't help but view as strategies for containing the black population, and before the neoliberal counter-revolution and austerity imposed on much of the post-colonial world, which have only strengthened those "labyrinthine stratagems of power". So it was still possible to hold onto some kind of optimism, again however muted (after all, in this passage Baldwin, as in the rest of the essay and elsewhere, remains not remotely optimistic about white Americans, nor about how long it would take to reveal "the American hoax"). It's enormously dispiriting to know what came next. I said something similar in connection to my readings of Angela Davis' autobiography, and James and Grace Lee Boggs' Revoluton and Evolution in America, both published in 1974, right on the cusp, as it were.

It's easy to be depressed by this, and I frequently am. Indeed, the situation described by Baldwin above has gotten much worse over the intervening decades. As I said, easy to be depressed about it - especially easy for a 45 year-old white guy to sit here and be depressed by it, to be nostalgic for an earlier period of social conflict. But people are out there fighting every day, young black people in particular, those whom this society beats down the most (and sometimes, there are small victories, as in the announcement, just today, of charges being filed against the six cops responsible for Freddie Gray's death). The situation for black Americans is in many ways objectively worse than it was 40 years ago, but that's no reason to give up. The struggle continues.

Friday, March 06, 2015

"Sub-zero weather in a very distant August"; or, "Our children need them, which is, indeed, the reason that they are not here"

The following is from James Baldwin's essay, "Malcolm and Martin", which originally appeared in Esquire in 1972, and can be found in The Portable Malcolm X Reader, which I wrote about yesterday:
            I don't think any black person can speak of Malcolm and Martin without wishing that they were here. It is not possible for me to speak of them without a sense of grief and rage; and with the sense, furthermore, of having been forced to undergo an unforgivable indignity, both personal and vast. Our children need them, which is, indeed, the reason that they are not here: and now we, the blacks, must make certain that our children never forget them. For the American republic has always done everything in its power to destroy our children's heroes, with the clear (and sometimes clearly stated) intention of destroying our children's hope. This endeavor has doomed the American nation: mark my words.
            Malcolm and Martin, beginning at what seemed to be very different points—for brevity's sake, we can say North and South, though, for Malcolm, South was south of the Canadian border—and espousing, or representing, very different philosophies, found that their common situation (south of the border!) so thoroughly devastated what had seemed to be mutually exclusive points of view that, by the time each met his death there was practically no difference between them. Before either had had time to think their new positions through, or, indeed, to do more than articulate them, they were murdered. Of the two, Malcolm moved swiftest (and was dead soonest), but the fates of both men were radically altered (I would say, frankly, sealed) the moment they attempted to release the black American struggle from the domestic context and relate it to the struggle of the poor and the nonwhite all over the world.
            To hold this view, it is not necessary to see C.I.A. infiltrators in, or under, every black or dissenting bed: one need merely consider what the successful promulgation of this point of view would mean for American authority in the world. Slaveholders do not allow their slaves to compare notes: American slavery, until this hour, prevents any meaningful dialogue between the poor white and the black, in order to prevent the poor white from recognizing that he, too, is a slave. The contempt with which American leaders treat American blacks is very obvious; what is not so obvious is that they treat the bulk of the American people with the very same contempt. But it will be sub-zero weather in a very distant August when the American people find the guts to recognize this fact. They will recognize it only when they have exhausted every conceivable means of avoiding it. (Reader pp. 505-6)

Thursday, March 05, 2015

Notes on The Portable Malcolm X Reader

Last month was the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Malcolm X. As I noticed people remarking on this, discussing the man and his words and legacy, I remembered that I own a copy of The Portable Malcolm X Reader, edited by Manning Marable and Garrett Felber; I pulled it down to examine its contents, and in relatively short order, ended up reading the whole thing. The following is little more than a report.

The Reader is intended as a companion to Marable's recent biography, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention. It's divided into three sections: Documents, Oral Histories, and Articles. Documents takes up the bulk of the book (around 400 pages worth), consists of newspaper articles, semi-redacted FBI and police reports, and speeches, and as such is at times repetitive, since Marable's brief introductions to each section often cover the main points any general reader would need or want to know from the subsequent documents, including key quotations. My feeling is less that the reader should just read these introductions, but rather that some of them unnecessarily 'spoil', as it were, the documents that follow, particularly since many events are covered by multiple newspaper accounts and an FBI report. As a resource it works fine, but one does skim. Interestingly, I found Malcolm X came off surprisingly poorly in the transcripts of some of his debates with more liberal Civil Rights leaders, during his Nation of Islam (NOI) period. Some of his rhetorical gambits read as weak on the page, which of course knows nothing of charisma and presence and inflection, and I could well imagine the exasperation of some of his interlocutors. As we get closer to his break with NOI, and especially in the period after the break, the speeches are more interesting as texts. This is not surprising. 

Oral Histories is the shortest section, at just over 80 pages, containing portions of just four interviews, but they are intriguing choices, including the cop - Gerry Fulcher - who'd been in charge of the illegal wire-tap of Malcolm X's room at the Hotel Theresa in the months leading up to the assassination, and who has a lot of interesting things to say about unorthodox police work surrounding the assassination. Another is with Abdullah Abdur-Razzaq (James 67X Shabazz), a close associate who'd pledged one year of his life to Malcolm X as they both left the NOI. He (in Marable's introductory words) "locates the source of tension between Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad in the 1962 shooting of Ronald Stokes by Los Angeles police. The lack of an aggressive response to the brutality of the LAPD chafed Malcolm, who had to bite his tongue and support Muhammad's stance of nonaggression." Perhaps the most interesting interview is with a man named Herman Ferguson, who had worked with Malcolm in the Organization for Afro-American Unity (OAAU). Among other things, Ferguson talks about some resentment from former NOI guys who'd followed Malcolm X to Muslim Mosque Inc, regarding the lack of discipline (from their point of view) of OAAU folks, and most intriguingly to me, the fact that women held certain important leadership positions within the OAAU.

The Articles section contains six pieces, including a simply great James Baldwin essay, "Malcolm and Martin", which originally appeared in Esquire in 1972, and very interesting essays by Robin D. G. Kelley (about Malcolm X's relationship with, and criticisms of, the Black bourgeoisie) and the previously unknown to me Farah Jasmine Griffin (whose essay critiques his views of women, and discusses the understandable reluctance with which many black women have criticized those views).

The final essay is by Marable himself and recounts some of his considerable challenges in researching and writing his biography. Of course, I'd read The Autobiography of Malcolm X many years ago, and though I'd occasionally wondered about the nature of Alex Haley's role in putting it together, and usually keep in mind the problems with autobiography and memoir when it comes to reliability, I realized recently that I'd more or less taken the book as accurate. I'd been inspired by the famous double-conversion narrative, but had never really considered the implications of things left out in Malcolm's self-presentation, or in that presentation having been framed by Haley, who I'd not realized was a much more conservative figure trying to produce Malcolm for a mainstream audience. As noted above, this Reader, then, is intended as a companion to Marable's biography, which was itself intended to be the first scholarly biography of Malcolm X, and to address many "basic questions about this dynamic yet ultimately elusive man that neither the Autobiography, nor the nine hundred-plus [! - ed.] books written about him had answered satisfactorily." For it turns out I was far from alone: "Nearly everyone writing about Malcolm X largely, with remarkably few exceptions, accepted as fact most if not all of the chronology of events and personal experiences depicted in the Autobiography's narrative." Taken as a whole, the Reader by itself renders such easy acceptance foolish, as might be expected, complicating our sense of Malcolm X considerably, and has made the prospect of reading Marable's biography enticing.