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.