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.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Books Read - 2014

As is the annual tradition, here is the final list of books I completed reading in 2014, 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—though this year there were very few of either. The whole year featured just 13 posts overall prior to this one (down from only 25 from last year), several of which are only excerpts, or don't reference current reading at all. So it was an exceedingly slow year blogging-wise.

Following the list are comments and observations, plus the always all-important statistical breakdown.

1. The Meaning of Freedom, Angelia Y. Davis
2. Want to Start a Revolution? Radical Women in the Black Freedom Struggle, Dayo F. Gore, Jeanne Theoharis, & Komozi Woodard, eds.
3. Bob Dylan: Behind the Shades Revisited, Clinton Heylin
4. Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom, Catherine Clinton
5. Either/Or, Part I, Søren Kierkegaard (Howard V. Hong & Edna H. Hong, trans.)
6. Glass, Irony & God, Anne Carson
7. The Black Woman: An Anthology, Toni Cade Bambara, ed.
8. Men In The Off Hours, Anne Carson
9. Plainwater, Anne Carson
10. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Harriet Jacobs
11. The Beauty of the Husband, Anne Carson
12. The Silent Crossing, Pascal Quignard (Chris Turner, trans.)
13. Highway 61 Revisited, Mark Polizzotti
14. Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880, W.E.B. Du Bois
15. The Hamlet, William Faulkner
16. The Wave, Evelyn Scott
17. On Strike Against God, Joanna Russ
18. Once Upon A Time: The Lives of Bob Dylan, Ian Bell
19. Gargantua & Pantagruel, Rabelais (J.M. Cohen, trans.)
20. The Childhood of Jesus, J.M. Coetzee
21. Odd Number, Gilbert Sorrentino
22. Blues People, LeRoi Jones
23. The Angela Y. Davis Reader, Joy James, ed.
24. The Einstein Intersection, Samuel R. Delany
25. My Struggle, Book Three, Karl Ove Knausgaard (Don Bartlett, trans.)
26. Prisoner of Love, Jean Genet (Barbara Bray, trans.)
27. "Worse Than Slavery": Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice, David M. Oshinsky
28. Generosity, Richard Powers
29. Black Feminist Thought (Updated 2nd Edition), Patricia Hill Collins
30. Strangers in the Universe, Clifford D. Simak
31. Annihilation, Jeff VanderMeer
32. Authority, Jeff VanderMeer
33. Hotel Andromeda, Gabriel Josipovici
34. Understanding Waldorf Education, Jack Petrash
35. Like A Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads, Greil Marcus
36. Wars I Have Seen, Gertrude Stein
37. Report From Part One, Gwendolyn Brooks
38. Civil Wars, June Jordan
39. Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston
40. Percival Everett by Virgil Russell, Percival Everett
41. American Desert, Percival Everett
42. Acceptance, Jeff VanderMeer
43. Trouble on Triton, Samuel R. Delany
44. Technical Difficulties: African-American Notes on the State of the Union, June Jordan
45. Notes of a Native Son, James Baldwin
46. Maud Martha, Gwendolyn Brooks (re-read)
47. Soldier: A Poet's Childhood, June Jordan
48. Dust Tracks on a Road, Zora Neale Hurston
49. Erasure, Percival Everett
50. The Letters of Samuel Beckett, 1941-1956
(George Craig, Martha Dow Fehsenfeld, Dan Gunn and Lois More Overbeck, eds.)
51. The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin
52. Gilead, Marilynne Robinson (re-read)
53. Home, Marilynne Robinson (re-read)
54. What Ever Happened To Modernism?, Gabriel Josipovici (re-read)
55. The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. LeGuin
56. The Drama of the Gifted Child, Alice Miller (Ruth Ward, trans.)

Some statistics
Number of which substantial portions were read last year: 3
Number that are re-reads: 4
Number of books that were borrowed from the library: 22
Number of books that were borrowed from friends: 7
Number of books read on the Kindle: 1 (Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl)
Number of books written by men: 31
Number of different men represented: 24
Number of books written by women: 25
Number of different women represented: 16 (Note: two books, Want to Start a Revolution? & The Black Woman, are multi-author collections; the former is primarily woman writers, the latter entirely woman writers)
Number of books by American authors: 40
Number of American authors: 25
Number of books by black American authors: 22
Number of black American authors: 13
Number of black American women: 8 (13 books)
Number of black American men: 5 (9 books)
Number of books by non-American, English-language authors: 9
Number of non-American, English-language authors: 4
Number of non-American, English-language authors of color: 0
Number of books in translation: 7 (including Beckett's Letters)
Number of authors of books in translation: 7
Number of translated books by woman authors: 1 (Miller)
Number of foreign languages represented in translation: 4 (German, French, Norwegian, Danish)
Most represented foreign language: French (4: Rabelais, Quignard, Genet, Beckett)
Number of Nobel Prize-winners:3 (Beckett, Coetzee, Faulkner)
Number of books which were acquired via the Big Dalkey Get: 1 (Sorrentino's Odd Number is contained in Pack of Lies)
Number of other Dalkey books: 0

Number of novels: 22
Number of collections of short stories: 1 (Simak)
Number of books of poetry: 4 (to the extent that Carson's books can so easily be thus categorized)
Number that are plays or written for stage: 0
Number that could be categorized as science fiction: 7
Number of science fiction books written by women: 1

Number that are biographies or letters or memoirs: 10
Number that are philosophy or about philosophy: 1
Number that are books of criticism or essays: 6
Number that are about politics or economics or history: 18
Number about pop music: 4
Number about Bob Dylan: 4
Number about science: 0
Number explicitly feminist or about feminism: 3
Number about parenting or education: 2
Number that are anthropology: 0

Number of books from before 1800: 1 (Rabelais!)
Number of books from 1800 to 1899: 2 (Jacobs, Kierkegaard)
Number of books from 1900 to 1914: 0
Number of books from 1915 to 1940: 4 (Scott, DuBois, Hurston's Their Eyes, Faulkner)
Number of books from 1941 to 1950: 2 (Hurston's Dirt Tracks, Stein)
Number of books from 1951 to 1960: 3
Number of books from 1961 to 1970: 5
Number of books from 1971 to 1980: 4
Number of books from 1981 to 1990: 4
Number of books from 1991 to 1999: 5
Number of books from 2000 to 2010: 16
Number of books from 2011 to 2014: 10 

Comments & Observations:
I began this year in media res with two books, Angela Davis' The Meaning of Freedom and the multi-author essay collection, Want to Start a Revolution? The latter I managed to write about, at least a little bit, but I was remiss in not writing about the former, as I was in not writing about so much of my reading this year. Davis' book, which as a collection of speeches and other talks might seem minor when compared to her Autobiography or Women, Race, and Class, is in fact very much worth reading. Some of the questions she raises in her talks, some of the links made, as for example between prisons and slavery, led to my decision to make (American) slavery and its aftermath and legacy (some admittedly very broad ideas that I mean very broadly) a special focus in my reading going forward. In this, history, memoir, slave narrative, biography, and so on, served (and will serve) as my intentional reading choices.

I'd long felt I wanted to, but several of Davis' remarks led me to actually take the time to read DuBois' long but simply essential history, Black Reconstruction. I had so much I thought I'd wanted to say about that book, but never could bring myself to begin a real essay. Suffice it to say here that the current American political situation makes a lot more depressing sense after reading Black Reconstruction than it did before. Alongside this, I was also reading the Davis Reader, which has many excellent essays. Fascinated by what she said in one of them about the convict lease system (and the failure of Frederick Douglass and, to a lesser extent DuBois, to say anything about this post-Reconstruction atrocity), I read David Oshinsky's "Worse Than Slavery". This is a pretty good book, but the title is misleading and I have to think intentionally provocative. The title references what someone said about the convict lease system, but the book itself is not primarily about the convict lease system, rather the convict lease system is one element on the way to what is really the main topic, the Parchman Farm prison labor system (still important and very bad, but no one seemed to confuse it with slavery). Also, the book focuses a little too much on 'colorful characters', and as such gives off a whiff of 'narrative non-fiction', a book written by someone who flits from topic to topic, writing well-written books. Whereas something like the convict lease system, and prison labor in general, I think, would benefit greatly from both the urgency and theoretical base someone like Davis would bring to it.

Beyond Du Bois' history, I read Catherine Clinton's useful biography of Harriet Tubman and, finally, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs. The death of Amiri Baraka, embarrassingly, led me to finally read the excellent Blues People (published when he was known as LeRoi Jones, and which I've owned a copy of for probably 20 years without reading), which also dovetailed nicely with one of the Davis Reader essays. This made me want to read more Jones/Baraka, which led me to look for the Reader I thought I had, but I fear that this was one of the books I discarded in my big purge. One of the few regrets on that front, but a regret it is. A reference by Davis to Jean Genet's comments about the Black Panthers in his Prisoner of Love had me digging that book out, not least because I had no memory of the Black Panthers having been in it when I'd read the first half of Prisoner of Love about ten years ago. I'd thought the memoir excellent at that time, yet still never returned to its second half. What I did this time was look up all references to the Black Panthers, read those, then read the rest of the book from where I'd left off. [Relevant update: I should definitely say here that the book is a primarily a memoir of Genet's time spent with Palestinian rebels in the early 1970s.]

Patricia Hill Collins' Black Feminist Thought was unfortunately a bit of a slog for me, which is too bad because I think it's an important book. After that, I read multiple books each by Gwendolyn Brooks, June Jordan, and Zora Neale Hurston. Highlights in this group were Brooks' intriguing sort of memoir Report From Part One, Jordan's fantastic essay collection Civil Wars, and Hurston's classic novel Their Eyes Were Watching God (it deserves its reputation) and fascinating autobiography Dust Tracks on a Road. And I finally had some success with James Baldwin's essays, reading both Notes of a Native Son and The Fire Next Time. About half of Notes, especially, is composed of utterly crucial essays that really every American should read.

Their Eyes Were Watching God is the first fiction I've mentioned in these notes, perhaps surprisingly. In fact, it took four months before I read any fiction at all this year, so it's fitting. While in the midst of Black Reconstruction, I was packing books for a move, and came across Faulkner's The Hamlet, the only Faulkner book I own that I had not yet read. I set it aside to read once I'd finished the Du Bois. Same was true of Evelyn Scott's The Wave. Interestingly, The Hamlet concerns poor whites in Reconstruction Mississippi (or probably just post-Reconstruction), and The Wave is Scott's big 'modernist' (so the back copy says) Civil War novel - and it's in many ways quite brilliant. Reading at that time two novels by Southern white writers about the Civil War period and its aftermath is not how I would have designed it, honestly; this was one of those accidents of history, as it were: I had them on hand, so they moved to the top of the pile.

Prior to said move in April, I'd noticed our then-housemate's copy of Anne Carson's Glass, Irony & God and quickly read it. I loved it. This led to a brief Carson focus, in which I read four of her poetry-cum-essay collections. I'd've read more, probably, but ran through my friend's copies, moved, then got re-focused on other things. I expect to return to Carson at some point, perhaps soon. That was about the only 'poetry' I read in 2014, though as usual, I did sample stray pages from the likes of Wallace Stevens, Rimbaud, T. S. Eliot, etc. This doesn't really belong here, but here it goes: I read another Gertrude Stein book, her strange and wonderful World War II memoir, Wars I Have Seen. Ditto Pascal Quignard's again more or less uncategorizable book The Silent Crossing - uncategorizable except that it's much like his other book, The Roving Shadows, which readers will recall that I read last year. After fully embracing the latter when I read it, I had many reservations about The Silent Crossing. I'd hoped to pull them together for a blog post, and may still. But in brief, I had several problems with the general theme this time round.

Brief interlude to include a list of books I read substantial portions of - or at least began in earnest - without yet completing by the year's end:

The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America, Gerald Horne
Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth Century America, Saidiya Hartman
Not In My Neighborhood: How Bigotry Shaped a Great American City, Antero Pietila
The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Max Weber
The Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann (this one just missed the cutoff, alas, and will in short-order be the first book completed for 2015)

Books I'd read substantial portions of in 2013 and had fully expected to return to in 2014 but in fact never did: 

Feminisms, Warhol and Price Herndl, editors
Direct Action: An Ethnography, David Graeber
Praeterita, John Ruskin
Selected Prose, 1909-1965, Ezra Pound

Back to fiction, I again read a clutch of science fiction novels, including Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness, which I liked, two more knotty books from Samuel R. Delany, and Jeff VanderMeer's much ballyhooed 2014 Southern Reach trilogy (Ethan more or less captured how I felt about the latter, despite being generally entertained). Off science fiction, I returned to old friend Gilbert Sorrentino, for his novel Odd Number, the first of what is now the Pack of Lies pseudo-trilogy. I tried to dive right into the second novel, Rose Theatre, but found it more or less unreadable at the time. Coetzee's The Childhood of Jesus was a strange experience, seeming weirdly inconsequential when placed aside his recent books. A trip to the library for another purpose had me picking up Richard Powers' Generosity. Powers was once my favorite novelist, which seems odd saying now. I used to snap his novels up immediately upon publication, but I'd passed on this one (as well as his new one, Orfeo, as yet). It was an enjoyable read. I'd had some interesting thoughts about it at the time, which have all more or less dissipated. At a separate library visit, my eye caught a recent novel by Percival Everett, a writer I'd long been curious about, but for some reason been somewhat skeptical of. I ended up reading three of his novels, beginning with the one that caught my eye. This one, Percival Everett by Virgil Russell, I thought was excellent, so I immediately and eagerly dove into American Desert from 2004, which was quite the opposite. Though it's not without its entertaining moments, I frankly disliked it; it seemed utterly pointless, and the prose perfunctory. It was then with less enthusiasm that I later tried the novel he's best known for, Erasure, but thankfully this one is much better. Moving along, readers will remember my re-reads of Marilynne Robinson's excellent novels Gilead and Home, both of which I managed to blog about.

I shouldn't forget that I finished Gargantua & Pantagruel and read Part I of Either/Or. Thoughts perhaps worthy of sharing on each remain as yet languishing in sketchy draft form. And since Rabelais and Kierkegaard are both at least in part associated in my mind with this blog's patron saint, Gabriel Josipovici, now seems a good place to mention that I read his latest novel Hotel Andromeda, which was up to his usual high standards, and re-read his wonderful What Ever Happened to Modernism? And there was volume III of Knausgaard's My Struggle, known elsewhere as "Boyhood Island". As with the first two volumes, I fairly consumed it, reading it very quickly, and found much to appreciate, but the urgency of the first volume seems to be gone.

Finally, I read four books about the music and/or life of Bob Dylan. First came Clinton Heylin's very informative, and for that useful and interesting, but often obnoxious and overall ploddingly written biography, Behind the Shades Revisited. Mark Polizzotti's enjoyable entry in the 33 1/3 series, about the great album Highway 61 Revisited, is much better. As was the first part of Ian Bell's two-part biography, Once Upon a Time: The Lives of Bob Dylan. Bell can be repetitive, but his approach is much more exploratory and curious than Heylin's, and his ideas more interesting, which makes for a more enjoyable reading experience no less than does his superior prose. All of this, and my ongoing full-blown Dylan obsession, led me to read a book I'd honestly mocked the existence of when it was first published, Greil Marcus' Like a Rolling Stone, which in the event I found to be very much a typical good Greil Marcus book, which is to say generally enjoyable, and by turns fascinating and ridiculous.

[Update: I realized, after posting this earlier, that I didn't really characterize my reading year, nor name specific favorites. I don't need to do either, of course, but I felt I wanted to. If I had to name, say, five favorite books of the year (not including re-reads), I think I'd go with Black ReconstructionGlass, Irony & God; Civil Wars; The Meaning of Freedom; and about half of Notes of a Native Son (that is, the good stuff in it is so good as to completely outweigh the not as good stuff). Overall it was a bit of a strange year. Looking back, it feels very choppy. I felt primarily focused on black writers and black history and experience, yet the stats don't bear that out. Or at least not in any straightforward way. Throughout the year, there were many marvelous pages in books that were frequently slogs. Not to mention that I was often wading through books in tired circumstances. This is not new either. Or books I found fascinating, or wholly engaging, but that I would have a hard time claiming as personal favorites. I don't know. This paragraph is pointless.]

And with that, I'll close here. Thanks for sticking with me, and thanks for reading. See you next year.


Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Notes on re-reading Home

After re-reading Marilynne Robinson's novel Gilead, I have meanwhile also re-read her Home, the second novel of what has, with the publication this year of Lila, turned out to be a trilogy of sorts. And I'm reminded of a few other points. First, before even beginning to re-read Home, I remembered the sinking feeling I'd had when I began reading it the first time. Gilead, as noted, takes the form of an elderly preacher's notebook, intended to be read by his now seven year-old son when he is an adult; thus it is a document that as such seems to justify its own existence. Home, on the other hand, is a third person narrative primarily from the point of view of one of the barely mentioned characters in Gilead. Gilead is open, whereas Home appeared at first glance to be . . . just another novel. Having now finished my re-read of it as well, the novel definitely overcomes my initial apprehension, though I can see how it would be taken, still, for just another novel, albeit a very good one. But I think it's more than that.

Though I don't plan a major treatment here, I find it useful to think of these books in the terms used by Josipovici in his essay "The Bible Open and Closed", which can be found in his collection, The Singer on the Shore (and which I previously wrote about here). He says in that essay that
we in our culture have a problem with narrative. What does it mean? we ask. What is the guy trying to say? And if the book in question is a sacred text the problems grow even more acute. For then it is even more important to understand clearly what it is saying, since our very lives may depend upon it. We need to feel we are dealing with a text that is closed, in the sense that its meaning can be clearly understood and translated into other terms; yet the Bible, like all narratives, but, as I hope to show, even more than most, is open, that is, it resists translation into other terms and asks not so much to be understood as lived with, however puzzling and ambiguous it may seem.
It is perhaps fortuitous for my purposes here that Robinson's novels are deeply concerned with religious life and even the Bible (which facts seem to put too many people off of reading, or appreciating, them), so we might well ask, what is she trying to say, what does it all mean? While Home might come across as a conventional "realist" novel, it seems to me that the narrative remains very much open. It occurs to me that this is a milder version of the argument advanced by Ethan in his recent post, discussing Agota Kristof's great sequence of novels alongside Jeff VanderMeer's Southern Reach trilogy. The first books in each of those trilogies (The Notebook and Annihilation, respectively) are
both open wounds. But though both trilogies depart from their notebooks for a kind of "broader view" once the first volume is done with, they do so in dramatically different ways; and where in the remainder of her trilogy Kristof insists on keeping the wound open (not least by bringing out the implications of the verb "present" in my previous sentence), VanderMeer seems almost frantic in his rush to patch the wound up — without regard for what "the condition for a cure" might be.
I'm not sure it would have occurred to me to use the word wound to describe Gilead, but certainly it is open. And with Home, at any rate, Robinson does not seem to be "frantically rushing to patch the wound up" (not least because her books have appeared over the course of ten years, rather than all in the same year, as with VanderMeer's), or to especially be filling in the blanks of that openness. Home intersects with Gilead at an angle, and remains off-kilter from it, as far as our childish desire to have more information about certain events goes. Or maybe I'm just trying to rationalize liking a novel that is really more conservative than I want to admit.


Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Short Note on Re-reading Gilead

This week I have re-read Marilynne Robinson's novel, Gilead, in part in anticipation of reading her recently published new novel, and also just because. It's a great book. Of course, I'm hardly alone in saying this. It did, after all, win the Pulitzer Prize, and was, I gather, fairly widely read, for a literary novel. And yet it strikes me that the book is under-appreciated. I suspect that the religious content throws many readers. (The book takes the form of an elderly preacher writing to his now seven year-old son, words he expects the boy to read when he is an adult.) Certainly I have encountered numerous bewildered responses to the novel, readers simply unable or unwilling to process the religious material, who somehow seem to read it as some kind of tract. This is unfortunate, and baffling. Readers of this blog know that I am not a religious person, yet I have had no trouble with the religious nature of this novel. Indeed, I name it among the more important novels I have read, and I am actually saddened by the capacity people have to misread the book. It is, in many ways, what used to be called "wisdom literature", yet it is also a marvelous, and subtle, literary performance. And, it seems to me, a wholly appropriate literary response to our current situation, in the sense in which I have here attempted to channel or expand on Josipovici and others.


Sunday, September 07, 2014

Noted: June Jordan

In Civil Wars, her incredible book of essays published in 1981, June Jordan wrote this in the preface contextualizing her 1978 essay, "In the Valley of the Shadow of Death", otherwise offered without comment, in light of the police murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and countless other recent and ongoing police/white atrocities:
            It seems to me that my whole life has been regularized by the apparently normal events of white/police violence against the Black community. Over and over and over again a child is killed by police because he is a Black boy. Sometimes it gets to the point that, when my son is around the house and I leave on an errand by myself, when I come back the first thing I do is to call, “Christopher?” I have to know: Is he all right?
            One year after the police murder of Arthur Miller [“a highly respected, Black civic leader of Bedford-Stuyvesant”] and the Hassidic assault upon Victor Rhodes [in Crown Heights, 30 to 50 Hassidic “patrols” attacked Rhodes, who was walking his girlfriend home from a party], I got the chance, through a fellowship to Yaddo, to write a full-length drama, The Issue, about freedom, police violence, and Black life. Early on, the hero of this play, Lloyd Wilson, makes this statement:
They want to keep score! (Furious and slow and clear). Look at this garbage. All the way back to 1964. Then it was that pig, in Manhattan, Lieutenant Gilligan. Shot the kid who was fooling around with a water gun. And there was Newark: Did you ever see the cover of Life magazine: Black boy bleeding to death on the street. Cops shot him through the back of the head. The kid was running with a six-pack. Of beer. Every mothafucking year they do this, three/four times, at a minimum. All you got to do is let it be Christmas or Thanksgiving or spring or summer or Monday or Sunday and they act like killers on the loose, complete with license. But we! We getting good at funerals/funeral oratory. Good at rallies. Good at speeches and quotes for the press. It’s a ritual: They murder our children. And what do we do about it? We cry real hard real loud. Then it’s over: That’s that. If I was a pig, behind all of that crying for all of that dying, I would blow away a nigga a day. Why the hell not.
            I wrote this play in June and July, 1979. In August, Brooklyn police murdered Luis Baez, shooting him sixteen times. My friends, Alexis DeVeaux and Gwendolyn
Hardwick, and I went to a Brooklyn rally held to protest the killings. After the rally, approximately one thousand demonstrators followed Reverend Herbert Daughtry on a peaceful march through the streets, chanting a people united can never be defeated. The police rioted, driving police cars into the crowds and chasing unarmed demonstrators with drawn guns. We literally crawled across the concrete sidewalks to safety
            One year later, 1980, the courts ruled that no indictment of the Hassidic suspects was possible due to “insufficient identification.” No police were indicted in the murder of Arthur Miller.
            Two months later, Miami police beat Arthur MacDuffie to death, for a traffic violation. The media seem surprised by the violence of the response of the Black community in Miami.
            Do not be surprised.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Noted: Gertrude Stein

From Wars I Have Seen (1945):
The thing that is most interesting about government servants is that they believe what they are supposed to believe, they really do believe what they are supposed to believe, which has a great deal to do with wars and wars being what they are. It really has.
I once asked some one who should know why public servants in the army in every branch of government service did not seem to have the kind of judgment that the man in the street any man or any woman has about what is happening. Oh he answered the reason is simple, they are specialists, and to a specialist his specialty is the whole of everything and if his specialty is in good order and it generally is then everything must be succeeding. (pp. 52-53)

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Fragment of a thought on the trouble with writing about Blanchot

Whenever I have attempted to write about Maurice Blanchot, I've felt the need to admit to a struggle, to confess that I'm not sure I quite understood the essay in question. I've been annoyed by this - perhaps you have too, you who have read - though maybe I should not. Part of the problem is that the very nature of Blanchot's inquiry does not allow for summary. The tendency when reading is to summarize - is it not? - to try to reduce the points to a manageable size? But Blanchot writes against reduction. He refuses reduction. He examines a text, or a figure, or a tradition, exploring it from many possible angles, rarely, it seems, settling on a particular interpretation. And his essays speak to each other, and to and with the philosophical and literary traditions, with great erudition, so that by beginning one essay, one enters into the flow of a tributary of thought, though one that doesn't necessarily lead one to any specific conclusion. But how to write about what I find there? Excerpts can be misleading, and anyway difficult to isolate.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Noted: Jean Genet

From Prisoner of Love (1986), Genet's memoir of his time spent with the Palestinians in the early 1970s (translation by Barbara Bray):
I'm not at all sure that when the Congress at Basle, after considering Argentina and Uganda, finally decided that the Jews should settle in Palestine, the choice was divinely inspired. After all, what the Jews call the Promised Land was promised first of all to one vagabond who'd walked all the way from Chaldea and another who'd come from Egypt. But the country known as the Holy Land is famous because of the events recorded in the New Testament. The Jews ought to hate it rather than love it. It gave birth to those who became their worst enemies, starting with St. Paul. Without him and Jesus, who would remember Jerusalem, Nazareth and the carpenter, Bethlehem or the Sea of  Galilee? The Gospels are full of them.
"The English Protestants knew the place from the Old Testament too."
"Have you ever had a good look at stuffed animals? The geography of the Old Testament is stuffed. Nature plays hardly any part in Jewish history. Except for the bits about the exiles. They mention Ninevah and Ur, Egypt and Sinai. But they never come alive like the Sea of Galilee, or even Golgotha." (p.282)

Friday, June 20, 2014

But you must write

Is it possible to be a writer and yet not write? Not writing, continually not writing, wouldn't you eventually have to accept that you are not a writer? Does it matter? The fact of it? Or the label? Surely not the label.

I've been quiet, for long stretches, and longer. I've had good reasons; I've had bad reasons. It bothers me. Why does it bother me, the silence? Presumably I feel some need? Some need not being met? Some need I am not meeting?
But then why do you write? -- A: I am not one of those who think with a wet quill in hand; much less one of those who abandon themselves to their passions before the open inkwell, sitting on their chair and staring at the paper. I am annoyed and ashamed of all writing; to me, writing is nature's call -- to speak of it even in simile is repugnant to me. B: But why, then, do you write? -- A: Well, my friend, I say this in confidence: until now, I have found no other means of getting rid of my thoughts. -- B: And why do you want to get rid of them? -- A: Why do I want to? Do I want to? I have to. -- B: Enough! Enough! (The Gay Science, Book II, section 93)  (Taken from Being In Lieu.)
I do feel this weird need to get rid of the thoughts I have, weird, I think, because I all too often don't do it anyway... and also obscurely feel that the project I've supposedly and half-assedly taken on here is somehow socially important.... why do I feel that? What do I mean by it? It bothers me even more that I'm not getting the thoughts out there, as if I'm letting them down, or time is running out on them, the ideas... why? it's not as though I feel like what I'd write could change anything of any size, expand any wider conversation, so what is it? just the need for the subjects to be taken up generally with any seriousness? As if I could impact that? Or is it not just that? It's not: they are personally important to me. The subjects matter, the writing matters. Yet the silence persists.

Last year I read volume two of Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle. Among other things, this volume covers his move to Sweden, falling in love and having children with his partner Linda, and the writing of his astonishing second novel, A Time for Everything. He writes about taking care of the children so Linda could attend classes. He admits to some bitterness - and it is in some of these passages that the first real whiff of misogyny creeps in. Yet he is devoted to his children, or so it seems. He writes:
. . . He looked at me and said with the natural authority that was typical of him: "But you must write, Karl Ove!"
     And when push came to shove, when a knife was at my throat, this was what mattered most.
     But why?
     Children were life, and who would turn their back on life?
     And writing, what else was it but death? Letters, what else were they but bones in a cemetery?
Who would turn their back on life? The history of writing has, in many ways, been a part of the history of men off doing things while women maintain life, and children in particular. Writing is a solitary activity. It suffers from distraction. Children are distracting! Women who have tried to write have grappled with this problem, given that they are still expected to attend to life. My attention, here at the blog, has been trained not only on certain literary matters, but on socio-political matters. I am overtly feminist in my outlook and have written about that too. I have sought to connect these matters, but have rarely been capable of much more than gestures in that direction. My sense is that they are connected anyway.

Who would turn their back on life? This question nags at me, suggests things. Not writing is not a new problem for me, nor, to be sure, is it a new subject for a post - the linked post is from 2007, folks, so I'm not trying to blame my not writing on the responsibilities of life. Far from it, in fact; it runs deeper. Yet the question still presents itself. So consider it presented.

Given that, a possible thread for future posts: consider questions of trust and play, as found in Josipovici's fiction and literary criticism, and discuss with, or alongside, storytelling and play as producing meaning for children.

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

"What do we want? That our children may dwell in peace."

[I read Assata Shakur's excellent autobiography, Assata, in the Spring of last year (2013). This post was begun soon thereafter, but I never got around to finishing it.]

Until very recently, I knew next to nothing about Assata Shakur. She was only brought to my attention when the FBI recently increased its bounty (from $1 million to $2 million) for her capture, and placed her on its "most wanted" list. This prompted lots of discussion online; among other things, in response to this move, an Assata Teach-In was organized (see also this one page comic, which summarizes things nicely, and this two-part - one, two - interview with her regarding her treatment upon her original capture, courtesy of the utterly essential Prison Culture blog—you should follow her on Twitter at @prisonculture for daily awesomeness). This was how I ended up reading her autobiography, Assata.   

The book begins with her account of the events leading to her arrest, and from there alternates between chapters about her childhood and youth, and chapters about her prison experience and legal defense. In that way it is structurally not unlike Angela Davis' own autobiography. There is indeed much that could be said about Assata, but I want to talk about one aspect in particular. 

This passage appears toward the end of the book:
My mother brings my daughter to see me at the clinton correctional facility for women in new jersey, where i had been sent from alderson. I am delirious. She looks so tall. I run up to kiss her. She barely responds. She is distant and stand-offish. Pangs of guilt and sorrow fill my chest. I can see that my child is suffering. It is stupid to ask what is wrong. She is four years old, and except for these pitiful little visits—although my mother has brought her to see me every week, wherever I am, with the exception of the time I was in alderson—she has never been with her mother. I can feel something welling up in my baby. I look at my mother, my face a question mark. My mother is suffering too. I try to play. I make my arms into an elephant's trunk stalking around the visiting room jungle. It does not work. My daughter refuses to play baby elephant, or tiger, or anything. She looks at me like i am the buffoon I must look like. I try the choo-choo train routine and la, la, la song, but she is not amused. I try talking to her, but she is puffed up and sullen.

I go over and try to hug her. In a hot second she is all over me. All i can feel are these little four-year-old fists banging away at me. Every bit of her force is in those punches, they really hurt. I let her hit me until she is tired. "It's all right, " i tell her. "Let it all out." She is standing in front of me, her face contorted with anger, looking spent. She backs away and leans against the wall. "It's okay," i tell her. "Mommy understands." "You're not my mother," she screams, the tears rolling down her face. "You're not my mother and I hate you." I feel like crying too. I know she is confused about who i am. She calls me Mommy Assata and she calls my mother Mommy.

I try to pick her up. She knocks my hand away. "You can get out of here, if you want to," she screams. "You just don't want to." "No, i can't," I say weakly. "Yes you can," she accuses. "You just don't want to."

I look helplessly at my mother. Her face is choked with pain. "Tell her to try to open the bars," she says in a whisper.

"I can't open the door," i tell my daughter. "I can't get through the bars. You try and open the bars."

My daughter goes over to the barred door that leads to the visiting room. She pulls and she pushes. She yanks and she hits and she kicks the bars until she falls on the floor, a heap of exhaustion. I go over and pick her up. I hold and rock and kiss her. There is a look of resignation on her face that i can't stand. We spend the rest of the visit talking and playing quietly on the floor. When the guard says the visit is over, i cling to her for dear life. She holds her head high, and her back straight as she walks out of the prison. She waves good-bye to me, her face clouded and worried, looking like a little adult. I go back to my cage and cry until i vomit. I decide that it is time to leave.
My reaction to this passage was visceral—anger, deep sadness, despair, all of it. And having written most of the above last year, I couldn't decide what to do with it. I didn't just want to post the excerpt by itself, but I wasn't - and am still not - prepared to write at length about my reaction and the kinds of connections the passage brings to mind.

But the anger... it should be simple, but the ongoing history of white supremacy in this country makes nothing simple. That Assata Shakur's daughter should ever have been separated from her mother, that she should have believed that her mother did not want to be out of prison: these are great crimes, inexcusable crimes, all too common crimes. There has been much talk in recent weeks of reparations for slavery. It's not clear to me how a debt like that could ever be repaid. How even individual crimes, like those against Assata Shakur and her daughter, could ever be adequately atoned for.

Unsure how else to proceed, allow me to close with a quotation from Shirley Graham Du Bois, which I came across in an essay about her, by Gerald Horne and Margaret Stevens, featured in the Want to Start a Revolution? collection:

"I am only one Negro mother who has seen the doors of a great hospital closed against her dying son. . . . What do we want? That our children may dwell in peace."

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Not All Men

In the spirit of the Not *All* Men tumblr, I present this passage from Joanna Russ' excellent, and uncategorizable, On Strike Against God (1980):
God, had I been a liar when I'd said we ought to judge people as individuals? Of course not! I'd had a bad analyst—well, there's no guarantee. I'd had a nice, crazy, bruised husband. Well, he'd had a bad family. There's no reason to spend time with people you don't like. [...] I said to my demon that there are, after all, nice people and nasty people, and the art of life is to cultivate the former and avoid the latter. That not all men are piggy, only some; that not all men belittle me, only some; that not all men get mad if you won't let them play Chivalry, only some; that not all men write books in which women are idiots, only most; that not all men pull rank on me, only some; that not all men pinch their secretaries' asses, only some; that not all men make obscene remarks to me in the street, only some; that not all men make more money than I do, only some; that not all men make more money than all women, only most; that not all men are rapists, only some; that not all men are promiscuous killers, only some; that not all men control Congress, the Presidency, the police, the army, industry, agriculture, law, science, medicine, architecture, and local government, only some.


Thursday, March 27, 2014

Noted: W.E.B. Du Bois

From Du Bois' monumental and essential Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880:
The discussion which has raged round the Reconstruction legislation is of the same metaphysical stripe characterizing all fetich-worship of the Constitution. If one means by "constitutional" something provided for in that instrument or foreseen by its authors or reasonably implicit in its words, then the Reconstruction Acts were undoubtedly unconstitutional; and so, for that matter, was the Civil War. In fact, the main measure of government during 1861-1870 were "unconstitutional." The only action possibly contemplated by the authors of the Constitution was secession; that action, the constitutional fathers feared and deprecated, but their instrument did not forbid it and distinctly implied the legality of a state withdrawing from the "more perfect union."

Certainly no one could argue that the founders contemplated civil war to preserve the Union or that the Constitution was a pro-slavery document. Yet, unconstitutionally, the South made it a pro-slavery document and unconstitutionally the North prevented the destruction of the Union on account of slavery; and after the war revolutionary measures rebuilt what revolution had disrupted, and formed a new United States on a basis broader than the old Constitution and different from its original conception.

And why not? No more idiotic program could be laid down than to require a people to follow a written rule of government 90 years old, if that rule had been definitely broken in order to preserve the unity of government and to destroy an economic anachronism. In such a crisis legalists may insist that consistency with precedent is more important than firm and far-sighted rebuilding. But manifestly, it is not.