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Author Archives: brettalansandersImage
I have been reading, on and off for most of the summer, a book that I bought used in Buenos Aires when I was down that way in 2005: Ortiz: Reportaje a la Argentina Opulenta [Reporting on Opulent Argentina], by Félix Luna. I picked it up now, in my lingering post-Inaugural funk, in search of some insight—some mirrored reflection, perhaps, from WWII-era Argentina’s oligarchic society and presidential politics—into our parallel, if by no means identical, predicament in the latter years of this 21st century’s second decade.
Who knew that, at the book’s most climactic and poignant moment, I would happen upon an answer to conservative columnist George Will’s recent complaint in the National Review (in the context of the current president’s intention of fulfilling the long-nurtured dream of certain Republicans of eliminating all funding for the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities) about the stubborn undefinability and dubious practicality of those suspect domains?
This from Ted Genoway’s “Mixed Media” report in the September/October issue of Mother Jones: “‘We subsidize soybean production,’ [Will] wrote, ‘but at least we can say what soybeans are. Are NEA enthusiasts serene about government stipulating, as it must, art’s public purposes that justify public funding?’” In a passage that might shed some light on the psychology behind Wills’s complaint, Genoway also cites novelist Marie Myung-Ok Lee’s statement about the president’s motives: “‘The NEA and NEH are in Trump’s sights because they promote the expression of the messy, complex American spirit,’ she wrote for Quartz. ‘Art is not tractable, containable, or even easily defined. That makes it the very opposite of what autocrats want: propaganda.’”
Be that as it may, last night, as I finished reading the suspect pages in Félix Luna’s artful and innovative 1978 history of the brief, tragic presidency of Roberto M. Ortiz, I knew that I had the material for today’s essay.
A little background before I cut to the nitty-gritty:
I knew nothing of Ortiz when I stumbled on the brittle paperback. I had forgotten the little that I had read about him, decades ago, in Robert Crassweller’s Perón and the Enigmas of Argentina (1987), which consisted of little more than the fact that his strong-arm predecessor, Agustín P. Justo, who had assured Ortiz’s victory in the ridiculously fraudulent 1937 elections, “was doubtless surprised when Ortiz emerged as a throwback to Roque Sáenz Peña [famous for his electoral reforms of 1912] and established his administration squarely on the base of honest elections. But fate took a hand, and not for the better. Ortiz had advanced diabetes when he came to office and soon became almost blind. By 1940 he had to step aside while the vice-president took over in all but name.”
The mostly loose pages of my brittle copy of Ortiz, in any case, after having suffered the tender abuse of my scribbled marginalia and a spilled glass of water, have lost their spine and are held together by a rubber band. What drew me to the book was the author’s name. Félix Luna (1925-2009), a journalist, historian, and poet, was known to me as lyricist to a song that was the original inspiration for my novella, A Bride Called Freedom, and which I knew from the great folk singer Mercedes Sosa’s rendition of it.Luna also wrote the very useful A Short History of the Argentinians, which I purchased in its English translation during that same trip twelve years ago, and in whose pages I had also read (and then forgot) that particular man, Ortiz, who did not immediately stand out among the parade of more broadly known and less ephemeral characters.
Another point of reference is to María Rosa Lojo’s novel Las libres del Sur [Free Women of the South], with its allusion to the name of its subject, Victoria Ocampo’s famed literary magazine Sur [South], which, aside from the Ocampo sisters, Victoria and Silvina, and essayist and fiction writer María Rosa Oliver, boasted such male luminaries as the Argentine stylist, Jorge Luis Borges; the Spaniards, José Ortega y Gasset and Federico García Lorca; and, among many others, the North American Waldo Frank, author of the Ortiz book’s suspect passage with its prescient answer to George Will’s question about the definition and worth of the arts and humanities.
Of equal pertinence, if less directly, is Lojo’s latest novel, Todos éramos hijos [in my yet-unpublished translation: All of Us Were Children], which focuses on Argentina of the early-to-mid 70’s, in another parallel historical moment before, during, and immediately after Juan Perón’s brief return, after nearly two decades in exile, to the nation’s presidency.
In all three of these parallel universes—Argentina, on the verge of Perón’s first decade in power; and again, three decades later, on the verge of the generals’ infamous and brutal dictatorship, with its tens of thousands of murdered and “disappeared” citizens; and our own America of the Obama-Trump era—lies the specter of a rising authoritarianism that either is itself or closely resembles fascism. If any proofs of that association remain necessary, after the recent spectacle of enraged white-supremacist nationalism in Charlottesville, I recall the witness (reported by some media sources during the run-up to the 2016 election) of one or two Holocaust survivors, elderly women who said that the present mood in the United States was eerily reminiscent of Germany’s in the 1930’s. I would think that, if anyone knew, it would be they who had been present.
But, back to Luna’s Ortiz. Its subject, if I may elaborate a bit on the above-cited sentences from Crassweller’s book, was the son of Spanish immigrants, born in Buenos Aires, who, with a combination of political acumen and a reputation for knowledgeable, intelligent accomplishment and what we would call bipartisanship, became the compromise candidate for the winning coalition of conservative and associated parties in the 1937 election. His presidential inauguration in February 1938 came at a time—after the 1930 coup that had ended a decades-long period of constitutional governance and orderly elections—of blatant electoral fraud and political violence. The outgoing strong-arm president, who by law could serve more than one term, but not consecutively, fully expected that Ortiz would carry on with the old program and turn the reins over to him again in six years.
But Ortiz, hardly a fiery revolutionary but a convinced and genuine small-d democrat, located on a scale somewhere around Aristotle’s “golden mean,” instead began a determined campaign of electoral reform and accountability that quickly won him a strong popular support and love that would in little time, after his inevitable downfall, be transferred to the only-superficially democratic Perón (or “democratic” by a more authoritarian definition) and his charismatic wife, Evita. Aside from that, given the remarkable political skills that made him so resilient to all the dirty tricks his opposition threw at him, for a brief moment he seemed almost invincible.
By the climactic moment in this virtually Shakespearean tragedy—all that remains, after last night’s reading, is Ortiz’s resignation and immediate death and Luna’s closing synthesis of elements and conclusions—Ortiz is functionally blind and hoping for a surgical fix that might restore enough vision so that he could return to office. Meanwhile, in a pattern eerily similar to our current president’s feverish dismantling of Barack Obama’s nominally progressive legacy, the vice-president whom political expediency had forced on Ortiz has been busy dismantling all of his strategic victories. While in his personal life, aside from the political and medical travails that dogged him, and the dark, menacing backdrop of the European war that conspired against the whole democratic program, Ortiz was overwhelmed with grief over the unexpected death of his beloved wife, constant companion and confidante.
It was as if the painstakingly constructed walls of his public and private existence were falling in around him. Only an unwavering faith in that grand civic project and an indomitable commitment to carrying out, to the best of his ability, the people’s business, could have sustained him through the sinsabores, as he reportedly confided to a friend after abandoning the presidential abode for good: “Ay, Miguel! The presidency has given me many satisfactions, to be sure, but … so many tribulations!”
Finally, at the climactic moment of this tale of a virtuous power exercised and brought to ruin, after the tardy revelation by a visiting surgeon of the irremediable severity of his condition, feeling betrayed, then, by the local doctors to whom he had entrusted the honest accounting that, for whatever reasons, they withheld from him, Ortiz immediately steps down on the basis of this new clarity. He turns the reins over to his political successor with a quiet dignity and without drama. He takes his farewell from an adoring public with frankness and sorrow, but without a hint of self-pity or incrimination. So that for him, as Luna writes, “the episode is finished. More than finished. Because now, indeed, everything had collapsed around him.”
So it is here that I must pause on a note about the poet-historian’s narrative style. This has to do with the “disconnected, even absurd” fragments—actual texts from the national media of the day: newspapers and magazines, radio broadcasts, and so forth; the crass ingenuousness of its advertisements, the pretentiousness of its society pages, the celebrity gossip and reviews of theater and cinema, the spectacles of sports, crime, politics, science—that he inserted at the end of each chapter.
“The explanation,” Luna writes, “is that I have not found another artifice more capable of carrying the reader, intuitively, with the magical contact of flower against skin, to the surface of Ortiz’s country, of that Argentina still innocent, sentimental, and credulous, attached to conventionalities, words, and rites” from a traditional, local society on the verge of international significance and transformation. It is a literary device designed to give a more complete picture, than the personal and political drama itself can deliver, of this newly prosperous Argentina in transition, this nation with its increasingly confident working class and a critically dysfunctional political class (with its “miopic, egotistical leaders” who, out of pride and the love of power, would not make a single concession to the people’s apparent will and Ortiz’s visionary reform) and the oligarchy it represents.
Each selection—and, together they serve as a sort of mirror held up to a whole society—is neatly designed to complement the political story that has been unwinding in the preceding pages. And it is thus that we come to the following “suspect” passage, the literary portrait that perfectly accentuates the pathos and the tragedy of this singular politician in his moment of overwhelming defeat (and which must be understood, in this context, along with the more brief transcriptions from the Spanish above, as merely the rough draft of a potential translation):
“SUR turns ten years old. The new barbarians, provisioned with technologies that they have inherited from European culture, are destroying Europe’s freedom and, as these lines are being written, hurling tons of explosives on the English populace, while all the world’s material resources and many of its intellectual resources are being employed on the perfecting of the means of destruction.
“I just wrote two sentences: one brief and the other long,” the essayist continues….
I wish to demonstrate that they are related. SUR represents a creative effort of the human spirit: it is a cultural organ in which all Americans should take legitimate pride, since it directs and projects the traditions of literature and art toward the needs and experiences of the present. Its origin is the great tradition of the Western world that began in the Mediterranean, and its life bears our dreams and our plans, our love, toward the future. The disastrous fact that I have consigned to my second sentence—the new barbarians’ war against the human spirit—also has an origin in the Western world’s past. It is not a coincidental horror. It is an inevitable fruit of the errors and immaturity of that world, in the same way that SUR is a consequence of the more-or-less fulfilled aspirations and endeavors of that world.
The springs, today, are more tense than ever. Paris, beneath Hitler’s obscene boot; London, a solitary battle field; Madrid, prisoner of the betrayers of Spain and of Jesus. It is difficult to continue thinking that we face a crisis of truth [or: true crisis?] and not a result of what has for ages been the world’s typical condition. But that knowledge is essential if we are to transcend said typical condition. And there lies SUR’s function. An entity like SUR never openly governs: it does its work secretively and obliquely in the hearts of men. But its work is the Word of human freedom and dignity.
There is no other literary organ in the Americas today whose devotion to these values is more intelligent than that of SUR. And Europe’s twilight confers on SUR a worldwide preeminence. Therefore, SUR is not a simple local celebration; it has worldwide importance in the vast American world to which history provides, in this moment, a decisive hour.
Waldo Frank, in Sur, Year X, December 1940.
Leaving aside any modernist or romantic excess of the impassioned chronicler—we may, after all, learn as much or more about humane and democratic living from the Indigenous peoples of the earth, whom we have tended to rather thoughtlessly dismiss as barbarians or savages—the statement is good in its articulation of a practical and moral justification of the literary and other arts as they exist alongside governance and commerce.
What good are the arts and humanities, our civilization’s resurgent barbarians want to know? Oh, nothing much: it is just, given their origins within the spiritual aspirations and nascent religions, philosophies, and sciences of our species, that they are the basis of our humanity, the formation and nourishment of our conscience; in the eloquently utilitarian words of 20th-century rhetorician Kenneth Burke, “equipment for living”; they do not dictate, they do not propagandize (except, as Burke has also pointed out, in the pure sense of reasoned and impassioned persuasion), but reveal in all their nuance the complex and ambiguous realities that face us, from a virtually limitless variety of perspectives, in our own voices and in the voices of others, through our own eyes and through the eyes of others; so that, standing against the peddlers of division and fear, of hatred and endless warfare, we may learn the arts of tolerance and a common citizenship, even a universal citizenship (citizens of the world, as Borges would say)—maybe even in time to save ourselves and a livable habitat from the false determinism of a nature exclusively red in tooth and claw.
But there I go again, tilting at windmills like Luna’s poor, noble, pathetic Roberto Ortiz, like Cervantes’s idealistic and lucid lunatic, Don Quixote, dreaming “impossible dreams” that might or might never be realized.
And yet, don’t those humane visions nourish our spirits much more than the deadly, broken logic of warmongers and the punitive masters of fear and austerity? Doesn’t noble Don Quixote—sprung from Cervantes’s imagination like Athena from Zeus’s head—still live in the human heart with the clarity of humankind’s most obstinate, enduring hopes? Doesn’t Ortiz’s failed but virtuous quest inspire beyond the apparent futility of death—and bear fruit in the labor of later generations?
Other dawns have followed other dusks, in Argentine as well as American history. Surely it is never too late to appeal to the better angels of our human nature. And even though we fail, who knows what bedraggled, wised-up phoenix might still be born from the ashes of our faith, our folly, and our love in action? For perhaps the coming apocalypse, if not wholly averted, might preserve a remnant capable of imagining a better civilization than this primitive one we left in tatters.
First, the latest news—truthful and unlovely as it is—from Indian Country:
Documents leaked to The Intercept’s investigative team of Alleen Brown, Will Parrish, and Alice Speri reveal how the company charged with building the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) colluded with mercenaries from the War on Terror to surveil and suppress the Standing Rock Sioux water protectors and their friends in their lawful struggle against ecological degradation.
As you may know, since the new Administration’s cancellation of environmental review and its re-authorization of construction, the pipeline struck its first leak while still barely operational. No surprise for anyone who has paid even passing attention to the abominable environmental record of the extractive industry and its infrastructure. Once again, the prophetic fears of Indigenous peoples have been confirmed. The cynical assurances of Energy Transfer Partners and their governmental and corporate enablers, given the lie.
And now, fresh from Iraq and Afghanistan, the TigerSwan security agency—in collusion with the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Justice, the Marshals Service, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and state and local police in five states (forgive me if I have left anyone out!)—have brought the battlefield home. This is the reality that we saw live on our computer screens last fall: a brutal, militarized, domestic law-enforcement regime reminiscent of the occupying force that greeted protesters in Ferguson, Missouri. Which only added legitimacy and momentum to the nascent and unduly maligned Black Lives Matter movement.
Yet we are expected to swallow the propaganda, as the President and others have conveyed it to us, that the protesters in North Dakota were “very bad people” and their oppressors, in their figurative white hats, pure and good. And that the victims and activists against police misconduct in Black communities across the nation are the moral equivalent of rioters, cop-killers, and terrorists.
This in the fabled “land of the free and home of the brave,” where hysterical public officials, politicians, and white supremacists feel newly emboldened to assault journalists (“enemies of the people,” as we are told) and where state and national legislators feel empowered to criminalize our First Amendment rights to peaceful assembly and protest.
While I have not dug into the multiple files of evidentiary documents, I have read in its entirety The Intercept’s extremely thorough (and unsensational) reportage. Those of us who value our own and our fellow citizens’ civil liberties—even theirs with whom we most vigorously disagree—have more than ample reason to feel incensed by the story it brings to light.
Consider these few passages that I scribbled in my notepad; I don’t know how to interpret them without feeling the encroachment of George Orwell’s permanent Police State:
Passage 1: “TigerSwan’s relationship with public police agencies was not always harmonious,” we read fairly deep into the article. “The situation reports describe TigerSwan’s frustration with the amount of leeway some law enforcement gave protesters in Iowa and the company’s efforts to convince officers to use more punitive tactics.”
Passage 2: “Perhaps one of the most striking revelations of the documents is the level of hostility displayed by TigerSwan toward the camp protectors. TigerSwan consistently describes their peaceful demonstrators using military and tactical language more appropriate for counterterrorism operations in an armed conflict zone. At times, the military language verges on parody. More often, however, the way TigerSwan discusses protesters as ‘terrorists,’ their direct actions as ‘attacks,’ and their camps as a ‘battlefield’ reveals how the protesters’ dissent was not only criminalized but treated as a national security threat.”
Passage 3: “In one internal report, a TigerSwan operative describes an effort to amass digital and ground intelligence that would allow the company to ‘find, fix, and eliminate’ threats to the pipeline—an eerie echo of ‘find, fix, finish,’ a military term used by special forces in the U.S. government’s assassination campaign against terrorist targets.”
(Here I pass over some particularly chilling accounts of close surveillance and dangerously fanciful, paranoid, entirely unexamined, and freely disseminated assumptions about the most innocuous subjects of scrutiny. It’s like reading 1984, coming to the fateful hour of Winston’s and Julia’s arrests, and thinking: My God! There really is nowhere to hide! Big Brother and his Thought Police are everywhere! So that you catch yourself looking over your shoulder for the hidden drone with its precision camera.)
Passage 4: “In recent weeks, the company’s role has expanded to include surveillance of activist networks marginally related to the pipeline, with TigerSwan agents monitoring ‘anti-Trump’ protesters from Chicago to Washington, D.C., as well as warning its client of growing dissent around other pipelines across the country.”
Passage 5: “In a March 24 report, TigerSwan writes, ‘Much like Afghanistan and Iraq, the ‘Fighting Season’ will soon be here with the coming warming temperatures.”
America’s economic empire—increasingly enforced by military might—has come home to roost, it would seem. Protecting the investments of our perpetual-war profiteers all around the globe: the art of the deal, and the privileging of property and profits over the moral needs of regular people, represent the prevailing socioeconomic and political ideology, after all. Which, with the unregulated exploitation of our planet’s natural resources, is the logical end-place of unrestrained capitalist greed.
But why are we surprised? The primary business of the American people, as Calvin Coolidge told us, and since the days of the recently lionized and celebrated Alexander Hamilton, has been business. And President Eisenhower warned us, when he left office in 1960, of the rapacious appetite of our military-industrial complex; which the brilliant and indomitable Canadian journalist Naomi Klein has more recently metamorphosed into the neoliberal regime of disaster capitalism.
Is this the promise of peace and prosperity that we all voted for? Winners and losers, both, in the past election?
Now, my patient readers, let me make a rhetorical turn to a more particularly literary terrain. Perhaps, in the end, the twain shall meet and lead us toward the seat of wisdom.
Reading, recently, Ilan Stavans’s charming book Quixote: The Novel and the World, I came upon an allusion to the 19th-century Ecuadorian writer Juan Montalvo’s posthumous novel Capítulos que se le olvidaron a Cervantes (Chapters that Slipped Cervantes’s Mind—or, Memory). “It imagines,” Stavans writes, “a continuation of Don Quixote and Sancho’s third outing. An independent-minded anti-clerical thinker, Montalvo had a remarkable ability to mimic Cervantes’s style and content. His narrative is the closest I know to a sequel that feels authentic.”
I don’t recall how, more than a decade past, I came upon it myself, but doing so I translated the episode in which Don Quixote, were it not already taken by another knight, might have acquired a new title: The Knight of the Forest. The excerpted arboreal narrative, taken from chapter 16 and the beginning of chapter 17 of Montalvo’s work, I offer here in the spirit of the Standing Rock Sioux and their sacred waters. The translation first appeared online in The Quill & Ink, whose Indian editor, Anirban Choudhury, now resident in Hong Kong, was a consultant to Bosnian editor Voki Erceg’s Hourglass Literary Magazine—about which, a brief note further on.
Don Quixote on the Ecology
As Don Quixote was saying this, he cast a glance to one side of the road and saw a man, rather well on in years, who was having two beautiful cypresses hewn down from a group that offered dark, fresh shade for a good distance around. He stopped and asked him why he was having such beautiful trees demolished, in an instant destroying the work for which nature had required so many years.
“I’m demolishing them,” the old man responded, “because they produce nothing and pointlessly occupy the estate. These and the rest, which are no fewer than fourteen, I’m bringing down.”
“Might there be a way,” Don Quixote replied, “to avoid this slaughter? If the value of these cypresses incites you, I’ll pay you for them. Then they may remain standing.”
“That would go part and parcel with selling the land, which isn’t what I have in mind,” the owner said. “Rather, I am clearing it. Not so much to take advantage of these trees, which aren’t worth a great deal, as to give the land over itself to farming.”
“Cut, they are worth nothing,” the knight replied. “Alive and beautiful as they are, they are worth more than the pyramids of Egypt. And thus I entreat and strongly urge you to consider whether it’s not better for you to change your resolution and make a gift to Mother Nature, who takes pleasure in her children’s shade.”
“All shade is harmful,” the bloodthirsty old man argued. “Shade gives me nothing. Rather it takes from me what this estate could yield. Today I’m leaving it as bare as the palm of my hand. I’ll plow it right away, I’ll sow lettuce and cabbage. And from now, just as soon as you return this way, Your Worship is invited to the banquet.”
“Cease all jesting, since that’s not why I’ve come,” Don Quixote said. “For the last time, I express and ask for what is already expressed and asked for. And take your lettuce somewhere else.”
“Elegant performance,” the man responded. And despite his age, because in his day he had been something of a roughneck; or perhaps because Don Quixote’s figure, along with his pretensions, moved him to make himself ridiculous: “Elegant notification. And in the event that I don’t go along with that, does Your Worship plan to threaten me with your lance?”
“In your own words!” Don Quixote replied, charging then at the old man. Who by way of defense let himself fall, feet up, from the stone on which he was seated. “Concur,” the knight shouted, holding him in check with his lance, “that these trees remain uninjured. Offer, promise, and even swear not to touch them nor a hair of their beards.”
“I submit to however much Your Worship should command,” the wag responded, seeing that menacing point glisten. “Come on, friends! Leave me those trees standing. And don’t offend them with another blow of the ax, since that’s this good knight’s will.”
There was nothing more urgent than to save his life, and afterwards establish what amends should be made. But the knight-errant spurred on his steed and took off without adding a word. While at the same time the vanquished was sluggishly picking himself up, hurling epithets against the madman who had put him in that position. Then Don Quixote returned and said: “Those grooves or wounds in the cypresses can be fatal to them. Fill them at once with wax, and spread a layer of moist soil over it so that there won’t be any risk of their withering and dying.”
At that time two horsemen were arriving on either side of a carriage pulled by four proud mules richly harnessed and wearing very tall plumes on their headstalls. It was not possible for someone like Don Quixote to allow anyone to continue on their way without some inquiry, much less a procession that smelled so much like an adventure. “Good man, stop and respond point by point. Who are these who are coming this way? From where are they coming? To where and to what purpose are they going?”
“It is the Most Illustrious Bishop of Jaén,” the postillion responded. “He is coming from Madrid and going to his diocese.”
“Welcome,” the knight responded. “Now advise the Most Illustrious Bishop of Jaén that Don Quixote of La Mancha wishes to take with him some of his episcopal blessings.”
“Who is it?” they asked from within the carriage.
“The knight Don Quixote of La Mancha, who wishes to greet the Lord Bishop,” responded one of the men on horse.
“Don Quixote of La Mancha? I know him. The famous knight whose history travels all over the world. Well, I would be glad to see him. Tell him, if he please, that he approach the carriage door.”
Don Quixote dismounted then and did what the prelate wished, greeting him with a bow.
“Is Your Worship, Sir Knight, the same Don Quixote of La Mancha whose deeds the historian Cid Hamete Benengeli has praised to the clouds?”
“I doubt there be two knights of that name,” Don Quixote responded with great assurance. “As for he who dared assert to me that he had conquered a certain Don Quixote in singular battle, I already proved to him that he was deceived, not to say lying.”
“That audacious individual was the Knight of the Forest,” said the Bishop. “What is Your Worship doing in these environs? We thought you to be in Trebizond, and have even heard that you had crossed over to the island of Lipadusa to engage in combat with whomever might possess the sword Durindana.”
“Should I have notice of that famous sword,” Don Quixote responded, “I will cross over, not only to Lapidusa, but to Estotilán and Norumbeca. And to win it I will go arm in arm with King Gradasso, and even with that bewitched Don Orlando.”
“Once that bewitched Don Orlando is subdued by Your Worship,” said the Bishop in his turn, “what obstacle will there be to your taking from him, not only his sword, but also his lady? In this way, Angelica the Fair will come as it were to supplant Dulcinea.”
“No, Sir,” Don Quixote responded. “Durindana and nothing else will I take from him. Nor what should I do with that affected, fickle damsel? Who takes off when it catches her fancy with some Moorish jackanapes, as inexperienced in war as in love? In speaking so, Your Most Illustrious Grace, you sully the reputations of champions like Orlando the Bewitched and Rinaldo of Montalbán.”
“If it doesn’t anger Your Worship,” the Bishop answered, “I repeat my question. What business brings Your Worship through these environs?”
“I am going about in search of adventures,” Don Quixote responded. “If chance hadn’t guided me this way, just now a deed would have been done that no knight-errant would tolerate. Your Most Illustrious Lordship should leave his gig. Come see with your own eyes whether my profession matters to the world. And whether those of us who follow it lose our time and win our fame at little cost.”
The Bishop got out, considering whether some crime might really have been attempted there, and whether even now it was possible to prevent some misfortune.
“Does Your Most Illustrious Grace behold this small forest whose dark green trees rise in the shape of pyramids and spread forth over the ground this dense, inviting shade? In truth I tell you that there was not going to remain branch on branch, because if I had not arrived to save them from the destroying ax, this inhuman being would have cut them all to earth.”
The Biblical form of speech used by Don Quixote seemed good to the Bishop. Understanding the situation perfectly, and to humor the knight, he expressed that such an outrage greatly displeased him. And he joined him in extolling the inhumanity of one who had thus wanted to kill those beautiful giants of creation. Perhaps the prelate was speaking in good faith, too, since every heart where noble sentiments dwell has hidden connections with nature.
A tree that has lingeringly received the mysterious virtue of the centuries, along with the recondite essence of the earth, is an object that instills an almost religious respect and love. Yet there are those who in an instant destroy the work of two hundred years to take advantage of the puny circumference that a tree makes useless with its shade. To greed nothing is sacred. If the Phoenix bird were to fall into his hands, he would eat it or sell it. What does not produce, the speculator does not want. To the miserly soul, beauty is a chimera. A fool with neither light in his mind nor music in his heart does not attain the ability to enjoy it, nor does his soul possess the requisites that are needed in order for the wonders of the universe to make an impression on it. Only the thoughtful man whose deity has him continually aware, marveling at the Omnipotent’s works and becoming mad about Nature’s graces, ever kneels before the Parnassus.
Whether for fear of the one or respect for the other, the old man apologized as best he could and confirmed his promise to not carry forward a work that he had in no way considered to merit censure.
“And why wouldn’t it?” said the Bishop. “If you didn’t have an imperative need, it wasn’t at all Christian to thus destroy, purely for the sake of it, such a beautiful effect of our Mother Earth’s virtue.”
“It seems to me,” Don Quixote said in his turn, “that the Gentiles were on many occasions more pious than we. That veneration of theirs for the sacred forests reveals a whole world of religion in their soul. The woods of Delphi, the forest of Dodona, were temples for them.”
“Your Worship shouldn’t claim authority for the Gentiles,” said the Bishop in his turn. “The patriarchs of ancient law rendered almost divine honors to trees. Abraham planted a cypress, a cedar, and a pine, which by the work of Heaven became a single tree. Consequently that tree was looked upon as a wonder and a thing truly destined for the Divinity. Therefore it was cut down for Solomon’s temple. And what does Your Worship say about the famous oak beneath whose shade that very patriarch of whom I’ve just spoken pitched his campaign tents? The people bowed before it, and they made pilgrimage to the plains of Mamre to see that witness of such great things.”
“I have read,” responded Don Quixote, “that the Japanese, despite being barbarians, respect trees as much as their gods. They plant them everywhere and with them give shade to the roads. Because of that it’s a pleasure to stroll, beneath those regions’ blazing sun, along those fresh, green routes.”
“Among some peoples,” the Bishop said, “those who destroy certain birds are rigorously punished. As in England where no one can kill eagle, crane, nor raven. Small wonder if the Japanese punish the killer of a tree.”
“If it’s not permitted to kill ravens in England,” Don Quixote answered fervently, “it’s not out of respect for that animal but so as not, through wounding one of them, to injure King Arthur, who now moves through the world under a spell put upon him by his sister, the enchantress Morgan le Fay, and who in due time must return to his real shape and rule over the English. For it was never her intention, when she put the spell on him, to annihilate so great a king and valorous a knight, but perhaps to free him from some danger, and make the days race past him until the time should be accomplished for returning him to his own being and person. Your Lordship knows that this can be done without difficulty, or time can do nothing against those who are under enchantment. A thousand years pass, and still they emerge with not a white hair nor wrinkle more than when the enchantment was worked upon them.”
Postscript: I will forego my translator’s note on names to mention, finally, the happy news of the previously promised publication, in the little country of Bosnia, of Hourglass Literary Magazine. A copy of this in-every-sense weighty book came to me some few weeks ago with, toward the back of it, my own essay called “Small Graces.” It is followed by its translation into the language formerly known as Serbo-Croatian and now, in the reconstituted reality of four nations, at once Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian, and Montenegrin.
Those of you who have ever seen your own literary work rendered in a language you cannot read will understand the level of my excitement. And, while publication was delayed for some months (as is not uncommon, given the vicissitudes of modestly and irregularly financed literary journals), its material remains immediate to the concerns we face a year after my writing. And not just my essay, but everything I have so far encountered in the magazine. I continue to make my way through the rest of its excellent content.
As for “Small Graces,” should you have a chance to read it, rest assured that its musings of a political nature are surpassed by the most judicious and personal consideration of the liberal arts and human graces that become even more vital than ever in times such as ours.
We may be trapped in a world of cutthroat business and corporate practice, conscienceless deal-making and opportunistic politicos, but only through art, music, literature, and all the other liberal or humane arts do we learn how to live and conduct ourselves in the shadow of the valley of the imperial doctrine of Might-Makes-Right.
The eloquent and honest wielding of letters, after all, or of the poetry and rhetoric of literature, is arguably no less necessary than the most righteously activist tilting at the windmills of extreme inequality, injustice, and ecological ruin. Perhaps even more so, we can only hope, than Don Quixote’s soldierly exercise of arms in the age of potential nuclear and climate apocalypse.
In an essay still forthcoming in Hourglass Literary Magazine (see 8/17/16 blog), I speak of certain “small graces” that help us wade through whatever intervening darkness might otherwise engulf and drag us down in life. Indeed, for those readers accustomed to these occasional scribblings of mine, it will come as no surprise that the electoral results of November 8 did send me into one of those spirals toward the Land of Despond, although my intuition had been warning me all along that it might well happen. When it did, I was more disheartened than really surprised.
So I ask those of my readers who might have voted for Herr Trump—for whatever variety of motives; with hopeful heart or held nose—to indulge me any signs of that honest discontent while I give thanks for the small graces that do continue appearing to me. Which give me reason, as well as strength, to struggle on.
First, to those closest to me who were my initial support:
- Anita, near tears of her own and startled by mine, who hurried to notify our daughters and son that their father needed comforting (I had been trying to express in words the sadness I felt for all the children who were already so fearful of the wall that might soon separate them from their parents—all the more since watching Jorge Ramos’s documentary, Hate Rising, on my computer the previous night: his interview with a classroom of those children, in particular; and also with some white supremacists just up the road from me inPaoli, Indiana—the virulence and unreason of their hatred, pre-existent but newly vindicated by authoritarian demagoguery, so overwhelming);
- My daughters, both of whom answered, for my sake, their mother’s call to share a dinner out with us the following evening: Stephanie, conscientious and empathetic social-work therapist, who also cried that night thinking of her own unorthodox family (two wives/mothers, one teenage son), the struggling people she counsels, and so many others, known to her and unknown; and her sister, Nadina, who marveled at the ubiquitous and vindictive Facebook rants of otherwise kind, generous, loving, even upright and church-going people;
- Their brother, Jonathan, who called me on the phone from his home three hours north in Indianapolis; and who sent a card bearing a message about love—received a couple of days later—from that radical dreamer John Lennon;
- My vivacious and good-hearted cousin, Jeri Lynn, to whom Jonathan had confided on Facebook that I was feeling low, who also sent me a card with her own personal sentiments of shared commiseration and condolence; as well as the women of the Southern Indiana Writers group who, whatever the content of their individual perspectives and politics, lifted my spirits at our weekly Thursday-evening meeting—
But then, on November 29, the event I have been leading up to: on a stage on the Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis campus (IUPUI)—I, American-Argentine poet Luis Alberto Ambroggio, and fellow translator Ana Ona—in front of an auditorium full of almost two hundred people, mostly students, where we discussed and read from two of Ambroggio’s recent books; as my readers may know, the one that I translated for him (who I met that evening in person for the first time) is Todos somos Whitman/We Are All Whitman, his Latin American response to the “Song of Myself” and tribute to that Great Bearded Bard, published this year by Arte Público Press in Houston, Texas.
I had been to the Lilly Auditorium before, visiting it about five years ago with Buenos Aires writer María Rosa Lojo to discuss and read from both versions of her novel La pasión de los nómades, or Passionate Nomads (Aliform Publications, 2011). And now, for this second time, I was invited by Professor Rosa Tezanos-Pinto, whose published work includes a separate anthology of literary criticism about each of those writers’ work; and who also edited an impressively thick volume of roughly thirty years of Ambroggio’s poetic production.
To say that this was a moment of no small grace for me is perhaps an understatement. I would say, in fact, that no single book event that I have participated in has been a bigger one.
Why? For the gracious enthusiasm of this group of students, for one thing, several of whom shook my hand and thanked me effusively for my contribution and for even being there; and who later, after the meal that they had prepared in honor of the three of us (each dish representing the country of their families’ origins), were among those purchasing the Whitman book and asking for mine and Luis Alberto’s autographs.
And then—not to mention the usual graciousness of Dr. Tezanos-Pinto and her husband, José Vargas-Vila—there was Liz Goodfellow, friendly university employee (and non-Spanish speaker) who had arranged our hotel accommodations; and who also asked me, with credible signs of having been touched by my translations, if I wouldn’t also sign her copy.
So with all of that, in particular hers and others’ repeated and insistent praises, like Don Quixote after an unexpected victory I may have gotten a slightly inflated head. But not to worry: it was only a mildly intoxicating feeling, not on the whole unhealthy and, if I may say so, quite delightful. When I fell asleep a short time later in its fragrant mists, just imagine that it was into the most pleasant dreams of literary glory; and which appear, after all, to have done me no lasting harm.
Speaking of unlikely Quixotic victories, can it be possible that, as I was composing the rough draft of these words last night, the Standing Rock Sioux scored at least a temporary victory against my good knight’s evil magicians and the determined capitalists and enforcers of the Dakota Access Pipeline? Who had so lately taken to showering them—water protectors, or agitators, or “bad, bad people,” as I seem to recall our triumphant president-elect having characteristically dismissed them—with blasts of icy water in already sub-freezing temperatures? Blowing off an arm, here, with a concussion grenade, and taking out an eye, there, with a rubber bullet, for good measure?
To protect them from the ravages of hypothermia, I suppose; so that now, to prevent that from happening to them (or for whatever official reasons or unofficial intentions), the Army Corps of Engineers decides to call for the environmental study that may or may not force the “big snake” of the oil barons to direct its path around Native lands—as it had already been re-routed before from Bismarck, with far less spectacle and show of force, when the good and respectably white residents of that city had previously petitioned.
For such graces large and small, in any case, let us rejoice! And lay praises on the brave community of nonviolent resisters who fought on in the great tradition of their ancestors—as well as of Henry David Thoreau, the Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr.
And, from however near or far they came, those others from the populous and diverse United States of America and beyond, including those who just sent money, made phone calls, or wrote letters; but none more so than the courageous American veterans of foreign wars, whether of Native or Immigrant stock, who came this time by the thousands to really defend the freedoms (for perhaps their first time) of the American people.
So let’s not allow the dividers to divide us, my good neighbors and kith and kin, from those who might become our faithful allies. Together with whom, if we dare imagine it, through whatever darkness may lie ahead, we might still become the more united … mutually reliant and peaceable … and truly democratic people that our better angels would have us be.
Blessèd, as scripture says, be the uniters and the peacemakers!
The Southern Indiana Writers, which I joined while the previous book was being readied for publication, has just come out with the 20th volume in their Indian Creek Anthology series. To commemorate the occasion we decided to name it XX: SIW Goes Platinum, with the work that appears in it to be arranged broadly around that theme: “Twenty, platinum, X, XX, cross, double-cross….” as editor Marian Allen summarizes in her short foreword.
Since I had nineteen volumes of lost time and space to make up for, I muscled my way into this one with a single longer story and a series of four short-shorts. The first and longest, actually, “Brotherhood of Man and Beast,” some of my readers may recall my having spoken of in a couple of earlier postings. Added to the mix rather late in the process, the story itself seemed to fit the mold while, at the same time, the SIW anthology and small publisher Per Bastet answered my need with an immediate and fitting Kentuckiana-centric (but non-exclusive!) audience.
“Brotherhood,” in any case, is a serious-minded comedy with a light touch and an odd coupling of protagonists: a high-school English teacher who, in the context of a unit on argument and persuasion, decides to introduce Darwin into his curriculum; and the country preacher who learns of the scheme and inserts himself, at first adversarially, into the process. However unlikely the friendship and dialogue that ensue, I believe the story is credibly imagined and, therefore, hardly inconceivable; it is my hope that, beginning with a small segment of Middle-American society, it might provoke a spirited and civil conversation that extends itself outward in a gradually expanding circle of readers.
The series of shorter “Madcap Midwestern Mythologies” (united under that title and dispersed, with their own subtitles, among the anthology’s other offerings) attempts to bring hearers and readers alike, with whatever “thread of sanity” we retain possession of, pleasurably into a safe, reflective place beyond the clutches of “this infernal Funny Farm we call the civilized world.” While “Brotherhood” could take place here or in just about any state roundabout, these tall tales do originate precisely in a southern Indiana county much like the one I inhabit—in a country village not unlike Tobinsport, the “wide spot in the road” where my father grew up.
With more than a bit of a magical-realist flair, our young narrator Madeline (“Maddie”) S. Polk, “village fabulist and yarn-spinner extraordinaire,” enriches the local folklore with improbable accounts interwoven with elements ranging from frontier America and ancient Mexico or Guatemala to the Spain of Miguel Cervantes and, of course, ancient Greece—fabricated, as we intuit by the end of the fourth story, in the context of a classroom assignment.
The Napoleon Bonaparte Sanders who appears in a couple of these stories is born of foggy memories of decades-old conversations about my even-more shadowy great-great grandfather who (I kid you not!) bore that name. While the particulars of his legend are strictly invented, I like to think that they fit very nicely with the spirit of his character as it came down to me; and am pleased to recognize Maddie Sanders Polk as a precocious forerunner of her distant cousin, the literary translator and writer of slight renown who has composed these words.
Other writers whose work appears in the volume are Brenda Drexler, T. Lee Harris, Andrea Gilbey, Bonnie Abraham, Ginny Fleming, Janet Wolanin Alexander, Marian Allen, and Michele Hubler.
Copies of XX: SIW Goes Platinum may be purchased for Kindle or in paperback from https://www.amazon.com/XX-Platinum-Indian-Creek-Anthology/dp/1942166184. (For others of Per Bastet’s offerings—including volume 19 of the anthology series: The Worst Book in the Universe, the latest sensation among middle-grade readers; along with a growing selection of speculative fiction including fantasy, science fiction, paranormal, mystery, and even the struggle of a recently-dead woman to escape from Hades and a gritty crime-drama with a vampiric narrator-protagonist—visit their site at www.perbastetpublicatons.com.)