Author Archives: brettalansanders

On the definition, worth, and “public purposes” of the arts and humanities

Roberto M. Ortiz

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.’”

Félix Luna

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.

Mercedes Sosa with composer, Ariel Ramírez, at the piano, and lyricist, Félix Luna, at work on their album Mujeres Argentinas [Argentine Women]. Among its songs was “Dorotea, la cautiva” [Dorotea, the Captive], which inspired the novella A Bride Called Freedom.

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.

Spanish original of Luna’s Short History of the Argentinians

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.

Waldo Frank, mentioned above as a contributor to the literary journal Sur, is an important figure in this “novel about Victoria Ocampo.”

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.

Picasso’s Guernica was inspired by the bombing by General Franco’s forces, during the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), of the town by that name in Spain’s northern Basque region.

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.

Don Quixote, Sancho Panza, windmillBut 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.

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On viewing “The Handmaid’s Tale” with My Daughter

Note: What follows (with the aim of getting it out quickly, without the usual belabored perfectionism, a little rough around the edges) is adapted from this morning’s handwritten journal entry. As with the disclaimer attached to the TV series: Mature audiences only; readers’ discretion advised.

Invited over to youngest daughter Stephanie’s last night to watch the first three episodes of Hulu’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. I had read the novel years ago, introduced it, I think, to her and Nadina. I remembered the dystopian premise and mood without a great deal of meaningful detail. Some details, now, have been updated to make it resonate all the more explicitly with our historical moment, but without harm to the story’s integrity. The author (Stephanie pointed out to me, she and Rachel having already seen the whole series) was allowed a role in the script: she stepped forward and slapped the face of the lead protagonist and handmaid-in-training—played by Elisabeth Moss—for not taking her cues with sufficient show of hatefulness.

So many disturbing scenes in these first segments, there’s no point in enumerating them. The ritualized sexual intercourse of the “commander” and handmaid could not be more antiseptic or less erotic. His zipper is open, instrument properly inserted (one presumes, for sake of the narrative) at the precise and proper point of access, but otherwise both of them are covered in all modesty; her head cradled by the barren wife whose legs might someday again be symbolically spread for the ritualized act of childbirth by proxy. The ritual is only sensual to the degree that a bowel movement is sensual—from her standpoint, at least, who perhaps derives more satisfaction from the latter, while the man in his procreative labor does enjoy some rudimentary orgasm.

But the sequence that finally brought me past moral disgust to the verge of tears is the execution of another handmaid’s judgment of “redemption” from the crime of “gender treason” (read: lesbianism), played by the actor (Alexis Bledel) formerly known as Rory on The Gilmore Girls TV show that Anita and I used to watch with our daughters.

The closing scene in that segment is sickening enough: when that redeemed captive of Biblical sin awakens in a sterile white room to discover that she has been surgically (and genitally) mutilated; so that, as the hateful matron puts it to her, while she can still experience the great joy of impregnation and giving birth to someone else’s child, she will no longer be tempted by physical desire for what she cannot have. But the really gut-wrenching scene, the one that had already devastated the father (and father-in-law) of Stephanie and Rachel, occurs just previous to that: the woman’s abbreviated last parting from her lover, cuffed hands clutched in the back of the penal van until the beloved one is ripped from her and she left screaming at the spectacle of rope being placed around loved one’s neck, her body lifted into the air by a construction crane.

Atwood with actors Elisabeth Moss and Samira Wiley

Now, let’s be clear: whatever not-so-distant dystopia might actually threaten us, if the retrograde would-be theocrats and other powermongers of the moment get their way, it is unlikely that it will exactly resemble this one of Margaret Atwood’s imagination. But the defunding of Planned Parenthood; a return to back-alley abortions and increased maternal deaths (already the United States has greater child mortality—more in some states than others—than any other “advanced” Western nation); opposition, even, to the very concepts of contraception and family planning, unless for the wealthy and hypocritical and privileged; well, we already see how easily something like that might happen, and to no small degree already has happened to those women and families least equipped for survival in this country. However much American women might remain, superficially, free, they might be forgiven for feeling so perilously close to becoming—body and soul—tied to the will of the men who rule the roost at home or who pull the legislative and judicial strings in Washington D.C. and/or their state capitals.

But the real take-home here, from last night’s viewing, is the degree to which some women will stand against other women for their own security within an essentially and abusively patriarchal order. Not just the obvious fanatics like the hate-filled doctrinaire matron who seethes at the very thought of lesbianism, and enjoys the infliction of pain on other women with repeated, violent thrusts of a sort of electrical taser-stick to neck or shoulder or face. Nor just the genuinely religious women of our Heartland who, beaten down by economic and other exigencies, are persuaded to see the source of their problems in the liberal or culturally depraved other. But also the privileged wife (like the mafia wife on The Sopranos, who tries not to think about the murderous activity that underwrites her privilege) who is so pleased to flourish tender care on her husband’s almost subhuman sex slave so long as she might be going to bear her a child. How oblivious she is to the handmaid’s very human feelings as she listens to her mistress exclaim at how God-blessed she is to have her there to bear the child that, as soon as she’s done nursing it, will be ripped from her arms forever without a thought! And then, when it turns out that our protagonist is really not pregnant after all, how swiftly cooing wife turns into vicious hellcat, dragging the presumed tramp upstairs to her attic bedroom and throwing her on the floor, hissing: Things can get so much worse for you here!, or words to that effect.

Similar phenomena that continue to occur in the real world we inhabit include Blacks and other racial minorities who align themselves, however consciously or unconsciously, with the party or class of privilege. I suspect, too, that it is manifest, however precariously, in working- and lower-middle class individuals who still dream of winning the lottery or of acquiring celebrity status by means of reality TV. If we can still get rich, too, or can talk ourselves into still believing in that possibility, then what social or economic ill might we not tolerate in the spirit of selfish self-interest?

All of which brings me back to Orlando Patterson’s argument in his history of the making of the idea of freedom in Western civilization, which emerges from and is defined by its relationship to slavery. Numerous other writers and activists have made the point: that the relative prosperity that we defend was built on the backs of indentured servants and slaves. What has lately been unveiled (though not for the first time) as “America’s original sin,” which we continue to ignore at our own peril. The tragic secret of our history that resurgent voices of white supremacy—however rabid or muted the assumption of racial or cultural or class superiority might be, however conscious or unconscious.

This hearkens back to Jay-Z’s 2010 interview with Terry Gross, which I heard the other day on Fresh Air after he became the first rapper to be inducted into the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame; and what he said about his hip-hop version of “It’s a Hard-knock Life” from the Broadway musical Annie—and of why, despite the complaints of offended white pride by some detractors, there is nothing more natural than an African American Annie, given Black experience in the era between the post-Civil War overthrow of Reconstruction and the present era of police shootings of unarmed Black men and BLM.

The Handmaid’s Tale, in any case, is just one manifestation of humanity’s original sin of power and privilege built on the backs of others. And it is true original sin, if we may set aside the religious-mythological model that paints the woman as eternal temptress and authorizes condescending patriarchy to act on womankind’s behalf and for her good as established by the male to whom she is a help meet and proper. Take the issue of race and extend it universally, and we are likewise faced with our national sins of territorial and economic imperialism. The ecological sinning against Nature and against poor nations and Indigenous peoples whose mineral wealth we have robbed and will hold onto until it is pried (like Charlton Heston’s guns) from our cold, dead hands. The sin is original and sticks to us all to the extent that we stubbornly refuse to see that we are not a truly “exceptional” nation or “self-made” success story whose wealth and privilege do not depend to any appreciable degree on the labor and the exploitation of our fellow (and presumed lesser) humans.

This is the hard truth behind the increasingly—and inhumanely—punitive state in which our increasingly undemocratic handlers continue to sustain a perpetual-war economy by sending bombs to Saudi Arabia and by locking up the malcontents in our country, warehousing them in prisons rather than grant them the dignity of “socialized” healthcare and food and shelter for all. Even the squatters—“unworthy” poor, we are supposed to believe—who encamp in the house next door, with its overgrowth of grass and weeds, with its electricity and water cut until the state can finally evict them. If it were a national priority—if we were really pro-life instead of merely pro-birth, as the radical Catholic nun Sister Joan Chittister has put it—we could guarantee a dignified life for all our citizens. And might be surprised at how many hopeless bums become respectable neighbors. It has been demonstrated, after all, even in this land of hard-wired libertarianism, that given their dignity, seeing to their basic human needs and giving them a hand up, without drowning them in punitive bureaucratic regulations aimed at reducing or withdrawing those benefits, the members of that potential community will make it a functioning and mutually-reliant, democratically-run space.

Even in conservative Republican Utah, in Salt Lake City, and outside of the theocratic strictures of traditionalist “United Orders,” it has recently been proved that, if you give the homeless a home and a social system to help them get on their feet, they will become grateful and responsible neighbors and citizens. Give them their dignity first, without strings attached, without punitive regimes—African Americans, Latinos, the Native or Indigenous communities, downtrodden and homeless, even poor and struggling Caucasians everywhere—and we might become a healed and sustaining community. But as long as we insist on separation, on greed and war and death, on law and order, shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later, on the punitive economic regime of privilege for the few on the backs of the many, we will continue to unravel as a civilization and as a coherent, once-relatively-functional society.

All things are related. We sink or swim together. The power of the oligarchs and the militarists will have to be overthrown, since entrenched power will not give itself up easily. One hopes that it might be done nonviolently, by means of firm and multiplying resistance to the wreakers of under-acknowledged violence who are amassed against would be, small-d democrats. The odds are against us, and pessimism may be the most sane and realistic attitude to have in the face of potential nuclear and climate catastrophe. Especially if that realism awakens us to the critical nature of the struggle we face. But if we leaven that natural pessimism with a modicum of hope joined to enlightened, collective action of the many, then Naomi Klein (with her call to action against the multiple shocks that the world’s political and economic powers continually unleash on us) is right, and our future might indeed still be redeemable.

Otherwise, it seems to me that we are royally screwed. If I may say so, not only bluntly, but in the most polite manner possible, under the circumstances.

Standing Rock, the Police State, and a Forgotten Quixotic Adventure

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:

TigerSwan Website Image

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?

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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.”

Juan Montalvo

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.

Don Quixote and his good squire, Sancho,                  who is not present for this adventure.

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.”

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Anonymous reader of first volume of                Hourglass Literary Magazine

 

 

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.

Don Quixote, Sancho Panza, windmill

Impossible dreamer Don Quixote,
tilting at windmills

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.

Fast-Fish and Loose-Fish, Bound and Free

images02r1k9dfThree decades after reading, in the original English, Herman Melville’s famous novel about Captain Ahab’s mad quest for a Great White Whale (and about so much else besides!), I have lately been enjoying the exercise of re-reading it in José María Valverde’s Spanish-language translation. I had chanced on the paperback some time ago at some library book sale or other—who can remember how many years ago? Or perhaps it was in Bloomington at Caveat Emptor, my favorite used-book store? I picked it up, anyway, and said to myself something like, Why not? And much more recently, with no less randomness, casting about for something new to read in my second language and stumbling on this long-neglected treasure, I said something like, Why not NOW?

So here we are. I turn to the English text as retrieved from Wikisource, to an extended passage from chapter 89 of Melville’s classic—a pause in the narrative cycle so that our encyclopedian Ishmael can elaborate on maritime legal concepts regarding the capture and possession of whales or other large, fishy creatures.

The established legal principle was this: “‘a fast-fish belongs to the party fast to it’”; and, “‘a loose fish is fair game for anybody who can soonest catch it.’” The question, then, comes down to the difference of definition between a “fast-fish” and a “loose-fish” (pez sujeto and pez libre, in the Spanish, which might also be rendered captured, bound, or subjugated fish and free, escaped, or fleeing fish). The reader can imagine how interpretation and application might vary in the mind of plaintiff, defendant, or judge—and by means of the socioeconomic and political lenses of the interpreter.

images9w3sincy“First: What is a Fast-Fish?” Ishmael / Melville asks? “Alive or dead,” they answer, “a fish is technically fast, when it is connected with an occupied ship or boat, by any medium at all controllable by the occupant or occupants,—a mast, an oar, a nine-inch cable, a telegraph wire, or a strand of cobweb, it is all the same.” Or, technically speaking, it remains captured or subjugated as long as it bears some “recognized symbol of possession” and the party fishing or pursuing it is in a position and showing intention to take a more permanent hold of it.

Ishmael then relates a judicial case (some fifty years old at the time of telling, he parenthesizes) of aggrieved whalers who, having first succeeded in harpooning their prey, “were at last, through peril of their lives, obliged to forsake not only their lines, but their boat itself”; and of another ship’s crew who took it out from under them and, on top of that, at once taunted them and kept their “line, harpoons, and boat, which had remained attached to the whale at the time of the seizure.”

Which leads to a highly questionable, even regrettable analogy that places a husband in the position of accusing whalers and his divorced wife in that of their escaped fish; and, though the comparison be obnoxious in the highest degree, let’s put aside our twenty-first century moral disgust at the chauvinist’s choice of words and image (and such arguments as Mary Wollstonecraft might have made, at that crossroads between eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, in vindication of the insulted woman’s dignity) in order to get at the substance of the argument itself.

images423fso9xIt seems that a “gentleman,” in the defense attorney’s analogy, “after in vain trying to bridle his wife’s viciousness” (ungovernableness, perhaps? unruliness or independent-mindedness?) “had at last abandoned her upon the seas of life”; but afterwards, “repenting of that step, he instituted an action to recover possession of her”; all well and good, the lawyer argued, the gentleman having abandoned her only under great stress and because of her own nastiness, as Candidate Trump might have had in mind when he insulted Candidate Hillary (the two terms, viciousness and nastiness, oddly connected, in etymological terms)—all good and well, the lawyer said, “yet abandon her he did, so that she became a loose-fish; and therefore when a subsequent gentleman re-harpooned her, the lady then became that subsequent gentleman’s property, along with whatever harpoon might have been found sticking in her.”

Again, setting aside the unpleasantness of both thought and image, let’s move on to the judge who has clearly taken the point “that the examples of the whale and the lady were reciprocally illustrative of each other.” In which case he felt compelled to lay out these terms: “to wit,—That as for the boat, he awarded it to the plaintiffs, because they had merely abandoned it to save their lives; but that with regard to the controverted whale, harpoons, and line, they belonged to the defendants; the whale, because it was a Loose-Fish at the time of the final capture; and the harpoons and line because when the fish made off with them, it (the fish) acquired a property in those articles; and hence anybody who afterwards took the fish had a right to them. Now the defendants afterwards took the fish; ergo, the aforesaid articles were theirs.”

While a reasonable man might disagree with both sexist analogy and esteemed judge’s ruling, Ishmael contends that in these two laws “will on reflection, be found the fundamentals of all human jurisprudence”; and he proceeds from there to the heart of the matter, which is the commentary that justifies the original digression from Melville’s principal fictive narration:

images6“Is it not a saying in everyone’s mouth,” Ishmael asks, verily dripping with Melville’s intentional ironies, that

Possession is half the law: that is, regardless of how the thing came into possession? But often possession is the whole law. What are the sinews and souls of Russian serfs and Republican slaves but Fast-Fish, whereof possession is the whole of the law? What to the rapacious landlord is the widow’s last mite but a Fast-Fish?  […] What is the ruinous discount which Mordecai, the broker, gets from the poor Woebegone, the bankrupt, on a loan to keep Woebegone’s family from starvation; what is that ruinous discount but a Fast-Fish? What is the Archbishop of Savesoul’s income of 100,000 pounds seized from the scant bread and cheese of hundreds of thousands of broken-backed laborers (all sure of heaven without any of Savesoul’s help) what is that globular 100,000 but a Fast-Fish?  […] And concerning all these, is not Possession the whole of the law?

But if the doctrine of Fast-Fish be pretty generally applicable, the kindred doctrine of Loose-Fish is still more widely so. That is internationally and universally applicable.

What was America in 1492 but a Loose-Fish, in which Columbus struck the Spanish standard by way of wailing it for his royal master and mistress? What was Poland to the Czar? What Greece to the Turk? What India to England? What at last will Mexico be to the United States? All Loose-Fish.

What are the Rights of Man and the Liberties of the World but Loose-Fish? What all men’s minds and opinions but Loose-Fish? What is the principle of religious belief in them but a Loose-Fish? What to the ostentatious smuggling verbalists are the thoughts of thinkers but Loose-Fish? What is the great globe itself but a Loose-Fish?  And what are you, reader, but a Loose-Fish and a Fast-Fish, too?

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images2gobz36vArriving again at these last and cogent lines—such fitting interrogative and exclamation points at the end of Melville’s chapter—I do so with a strong impression of having just dreamt them. For here we all stand, bewildered and divided citizens and humanity after the first month since the inauguration of an American President whose election I lamented at last writing for this blog. For, while history does not precisely repeat itself, its echoes and reiterated patterns are always present, instructive like the parables of Jesus to those with ears to hear.

I do not want to belabor the issue; you, my readers, can make your own associations between the biting sarcasm of Herman Melville’s literary critique of the predatory nature of human history from whose nightmare James Joyce’s young artist, Stephen Dedalus, so famously was trying to awake.

As for myself, in these times of dark national affliction, I have been unable to pass a day without a piercing and sorrowful consciousness of some of the fast and at least temporarily loose fish within the aim of the new president’s or any one of his harpoonists’ aim. And trying to strike the right balance between political resistance and activism and the more particular labors of my literary profession.

Primarily, I have been writing a monthly column for the new Hoosier newsletter Progressive Indiana; and, more irregularly, my letters or commentary might appear in Evansville, Indiana’s daily Courier & Press or, more frequently, in the twice-weekly local Perry County News. These things, accomplished not without some creative and emotional anguish, are natural enough to my twin vocations of writing and teaching; and, I consider, a part of my civic responsibility. Likewise with these essays and others, as well as my fiction and literary translations which inevitably bear a moral or ethical or social and political texture.

Dust Bowl migrant with children

Dust Bowl migrant with children

Originally I thought of my literary intention as a priestly vocation, though by now only in a metaphorical sense, unbound by creed or doctrine but planted within a common terrestrial soil that contains both the gritty reality of Darwinian evolution and the more transcendent and mysterious realities of humanity’s more religious or spiritual (or philosophical or ethical) aspirations. Perhaps a better word—and more flexible than priestly—might be prophetic, which can be applied as comfortably to fantasy or science fiction that allows us to see true patterns of what has been in the world and what might yet come to be. Sometimes, in fact, the most prophetic work is what has the potential (for those with ears to hear) to reveal what we as a people are, by the reflection of what humanity has already been or might yet become.

This may be true of any artistic form, though I speak here in terms of the written and spoken word. In the realm of political and social resistance, which is also Constitutionally protected speech, certainly the ideal is to meet each other in a state of shared inquiry and dialogue that is at once civil and civic.

Louis Menand, in the excellent historical narrative and analysis in his book The Metaphysical Club, writes about the American Pragmatists (not metaphysicians at all, really, the title deliberately ironic, though William James did write with particular intelligence of religious experience) who, after the horror and bloodshed of the Civil War, sought a philosophy that would help us transcend the dangers of absolute certitude that lend no space to such civic virtues as tolerance and compromise. They had lost confidence in the American Transcendentalism of their most immediate philosophical forebears, most famously Emerson and Thoreau, who were so drawn to the radical abolitionist and religious fervor of John Brown of the bloody rebellion against that “peculiar institution” of Southern slavery. The novelist Marilynne Robinson, particularly in the first two volumes of her Gilead trilogy, deals elegantly and perceptively with that history of Bleeding Kansas and its aftermath in the Civil Rights era of the Fifties and Sixties.

Mediterranean boat refugees

Mediterranean boat refugees

Should the Civil War have not been fought, then? The lessons of history are nothing if not ambiguous and contradictory. “Do I contradict myself?” the Transcendentalist poet Walt Whitman asks? “Very well then I contradict myself. (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” Emerson himself concurred: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.”

Thoreau himself, for all his praise of John Brown of the raid on Harper’s Ferry, was no friend of war; the Henry David Thoreau who went to jail rather than pay his war tax in protest of the United States’s imperialist Mexican War—which led to his essay (“On the Duty of Civil Disobedience”) that inspired the Mahatma Gandhi’s nonviolent protests that ended up defeating the British Empire, and which in turn inspired the transcendent campaigns and rhetoric of Martin Luther King, Jr. Melville, too, who in the above-cited passage alludes to that campaign to seize Mexican territory in the name of Manifest Destiny, was heavily influenced by Emerson’s Transcendentalism; and in Moby Dick, with his (or Ishmael’s) investigation of the darkness as well as the light within the human soul, may have arrived closer than Emerson could to the Pragmatists’ loathing of that dark underside of the soul, which has led humanity to the fratricidal bloodshed of un-civil war from ours a century and a half ago to Syria’s today.

Whitman, too, who in the course of his war poems in Drum-Taps (included in the ever-expanding volume Leaves of Grass) loses, over the grinding dreary crush of Lincoln’s war, much of his initially fervent idealism at the great cause. Among the hymns to heroic Lincoln that follow, I have loved “O Captain! My Captain!” and taught it with some success to elucidate the concept of the paradox: the nation’s simultaneous relief at war’s end and grief at the loss of their beloved president.

imagesDE5PBV63Contradiction and ambiguity, then: paradox. To the momentous and haunting question posed above, there are no simple answers; the only thing we know for sure is the weight of the suffering on both sides. It is harder to determine whether the Emancipation was worth the price of so much misery, but then, how does one measure the weight of two centuries of suffering beneath the whips of oppression and four years of travail in order to end that particular evil? And yet, even so, the freedom won was as quickly lost to the tyranny of Jim Crow. The wounds that too many of us thought healed with the signing of the Voting Rights Act—for all the apparent progress made—still lie open, festering beneath the perceived permission of white supremacists both Southern and Northern to rise up again in defense of their racial and historical privilege. Here we are half a century later, re-visiting the same battles.

Whatever imperfection, then, that may exist in the Pragmatists’ philosophy of conciliation and reasoned agreement, they were certainly prophetic in terms of the apocalyptic choices that are thrust on us today by the hawks, both Republican and Democratic, who continue to stir up seemingly endless war—if not with ISIS or Al-Qaeda, then with Iran or Russia or China, as if the option of diplomacy and peacemaking were not even remotely (or even humanly) possible. So for every dollar spent for growing the already bloated war machine, we’ll cut two from the arts and humanities; just as two regulations for every new one, for every billion dollars added, two cut—from climate science, from guaranteed healthcare and other social programs, from everything, in short, that might really make the homeland more secure, less paranoid, and even bequeath to our own and future generations a livable planet.

Moors' (North African Muslims') expulsion from 15th-century Spain

Moors’ (North African Muslims’) expulsion from 15th-century Spain

Without belaboring the point and while acknowledging that the present Administration is only the culmination of a process that has been underway for decades, aided by a rising and un-compromising Republican extremism and abetted by a Democratic establishment that has thrown little more than hollow symbolism at their popular base, I cannot escape the nightmare image of all the fast and loose fish at the mercy of a terrifying, merciless, punitive regime that to my mind promises only heartbreak and sorrow. So I am heartened by the continual resistance, which will do all it can to deny the president and his self-acknowledged wrecking crew the chance to disassemble the basic structure of our democratic republic.

What I was coming to, anyway, before drifting into this by no means impertinent digression, was my personal struggle to achieve a workable balance between the urge to be a part of that resistance and the calling that I have always felt is mine: the literary vocation. As the former concern begins to swallow the latter, which if I am not careful seems likely to drown itself in the continually escalating series of political shocks, news, and analysis to be processed and devoured, it occurs to me that my contributions as a writer, literary translator, and occasional editorialist—however obscure and invisible—really are the central task that I must attend to. My enjoyment and production of literature has always been, after all, my strength and my resistance against the madness that I continue to encounter in this world.

First Olympic team of refugees, in Brazil 2016

First Olympic team of refugees, in Brazil 2016

By the way, if anyone reading this is interested in receiving free copies of the monthly Progressive Indiana, let me know or contact the editor at guy@guytownsend.net or at 9609 Wolf Creek Dr., Lexington, IN, 47138. The project exists primarily to facilitate the coming together in the state of the various segments of an already emerging progressivist movement, with the purpose of establishing among us—and, we hope, with honest-minded neighbors of all political orientations—the conversation and collaboration that might end up saving the very fabric of civil society.

Small Graces in the Valley of the Shadow of Trump (with malice for none, if you’ll pardon the pun)

"We won't be silenced."--Jorge Ramos, Univision journalist and newscaster

“We won’t be silenced.”–Jorge Ramos, Univision journalist and newscaster

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.

Trump to Ramos as he signals to his people to have him removed from the premises

Trump to Ramos as he signals to his people to have him removed from the premises

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);images2T8B1O1V
  • 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—
L to R: Brett Alan Sanders, Luis Alberto Ambroggio, Ana Ona

L to R: Brett Alan Sanders, Luis Alberto Ambroggio, Ana Ona

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.

Dr. Rosa Tezanos-Pinto (front, in dark suit); Dr. Ambroggio, (behind her), and students

Dr. Rosa Tezanos-Pinto (front, in dark suit); Dr. Ambroggio, (behind her), and students

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.

Ambroggio and Sanders, the Whitman reading

Ambroggio and Sanders, the Whitman reading

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.

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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?

Militarized police drenching peaceful water protectors in freezing weather, during a protest against plans to pass the Dakota Access pipeline near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, near Cannon Ball, North Dakota, U.S. November 20, 2016. REUTERS/Stephanie Keith

Militarized police drenching peaceful water protectors in freezing weather, during a protest against plans to pass the Dakota Access pipeline near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, near Cannon Ball, North Dakota, U.S. November 20, 2016. REUTERS/Stephanie Keith

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.

Palestinian support for Standing Rock Sioux protesting DAPL.

Palestinian support for Standing Rock Sioux protesting DAPL.

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!

"Vict'ry?" said Don Quixote to Sancho Panza. "Vict'ry!"

“Vict’ry?” said Don Quixote to Sancho Panza. “Vict’ry!”

On men, beasts, madding mythologies, and so much more: Southern Indiana Writers anthology

41x2q4x2c9l-_sx331_bo1204203200_1The 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.

worstbook2c1Copies 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.)

 

Citizen Kaepernick, Patriotism, and the Duty of Civil Dissent

Colin Kaepernick

Colin Kaepernick

I wrote the following commentary several weeks ago for the Perry County News where it appeared shortly thereafter–here where I reside in Tell City, Indiana, along the Ohio River. I send it out to you, now, as a complement to last week’s blog-essay on the Native Lives Matter movement and the events in North Dakota:

I have been interested by the flurry of highly emotional and outraged responses to Colin Kaepernick’s decision not to stand for the national anthem. And while at one time I might have agreed with the News’s editorial on the subject (“National anthem not the time to stage protests,” 9/12/16), at this time I find it necessary to explain why I no longer do.

For one thing, let’s establish a not-sufficiently-noted truth about patriotism: the outward show of it (saluting the flag; wearing a flag pin on one’s lapel; standing for the national anthem or the pledge of allegiance; even voting, if unaccompanied by other forms of civic engagement) is not equivalent to a true possession of it.

Why? Because the outward display, at least by itself, is shallow, superficial, easy to come by—and, at its worst, a danger to any form of government that depends, such as ours, on the free and reasoned exchange of ideas and the art of sensible compromise.

Absolutism leads inevitably to violence. Absolutisms of any sort are the device of demagogues and would-be Bosses of every stripe. It is neither security nor greatness that they offer us.

While, on the other hand, the true possession of a reasonable and balanced patriotism requires depth, patient and shared inquiry, and thoughtful consideration; an understanding built on an ever-evolving awareness of the lessons of our past and the contingencies of the moment we live in; as well as an honest appraisal of future challenges and the range of possible responses.

Any scoundrel can wrap himself in the appearance of patriotism while, in truth, hating the democratic privilege of “We the people” and working covertly against it. Sometimes it is the one speaking the loudest on behalf of “real Americans” who is hardest at work eroding the democratic principle itself.

Most popular and effective among the strategies employed by those eroders of democracy is to divide and conquer. Because by doing so it becomes easier to disassemble the House United in Diversity (or in a “more perfect union”) to which our better nature aspires.

And such “anti-patriots” do exist. I use that term for those who place their own accumulation of wealth and power above the basic needs and dignity of the nation and its people—never mind how vigorously they celebrate our national symbols and send our children to fight for them.

imagesb90nic58Though we should be extremely careful about attributing that label to those who may simply and honestly disagree with us. The problem is the unbending ideologues who, rather than hear reason, will stick their fingers in their ears and refuse to listen.

It is my considered opinion, based on a conscientious and continuing examination of both emotional and rational evidence, that Kaepernick, by daring to criticize the nation he loves for its persistent contradictions and forgetfulness of its most sacred ideals, is in fact a truer patriot than those whose instinct is to suppress all dissent and divest it of Constitutional protections.

In any case, it is the real possibility of that greater unity that gives the lie to the ugly phrase (real Americans) that threatens to bring the whole house crashing down; with its hateful implication that some of us—some shadowy and always suspect “Other”—do not really belong here; by virtue of race, immigration status, or political or religious affiliation, among other things.

It is in this context that Kaepernick’s civic engagement—in this case, his act of protest—must be considered. And to simply dismiss that protest as somehow inappropriate to place or time is to ignore a deep strain of the practice and theory of American independence, which at its best is reflected in the American Transcendentalist philosophy of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.

Emerson, certainly one of our nation’s two or three great native philosophers, believed that in order to be a truly independent and self-reliant citizen—morally and intellectually, in the first place—one must be, not an automatic follower of the herd, but an original thinker and a nonconformist. He was the teacher who inspired Thoreau, in his personal protest against President Polk’s morally questionable war with Mexico, to write his great essay on “The Duty of Civil Disobedience.”

Thoreau’s first method of protest was his famous refusal to pay his war tax, which landed him in the local jailhouse. The story is that when Emerson asked him what the devil he was doing behind bars, Thoreau turned the question back on his mentor with a pointed rebuke for not joining him there.

To the extent that significant social change only takes place when compelled by social activism and protest—backed up, ideally, by constructive rhetoric, argument, and conversation—it strikes me as natural that Kaepernick’s civic engagement, in this instance, has taken the form of quiet but public protest. And it hardly constitutes an act of protest if it can only be performed at designated times and places—which is to say, wherever and whenever it will attract the least attention and cause the least disruption.

Given the vitriolic response from some quarters, if Kaepernick’s object is to bring white Americans to reflect more deeply on issues of a persistent (and resurgent) racial bias in our country, then it appears that he has chosen precisely the right venue for his protest.

As to the other options that the editors prescribe, they have all been tried before and often. Still, we white Americans (for the most part) have shown ourselves particularly stubborn in our refusal to fully and honestly engage with the real and continuing effects of our shared history of racial animus and of judicial and socioeconomic inequality.

imagesj6sjbru6If roles were reversed, and they were white mothers who lived in constant fear of deadly prejudice against their sons or daughters, our perception of the problem would change completely. And if the slogan were White Lives Matter instead of Black, we would not blame those protesters for inciting violence by simply calling attention to an obvious reality: that some lives have always mattered more, in our imperfect union, than others.

Consider the aptness of this Biblical verse to Kaepernick’s real message to his nation and ours: “… for ye are like unto whited sepulchers, which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness” (Matt. 23:27).

I believe that we would do well to consider why Kaepernick or any other black man or woman in America today might consider our routine and exuberant patriotism little more than a tomb freshly covered with layers of white paint, but at its core essentially hollow.

The question, ultimately, is whether we are even willing to entertain such thoughts, much less to know them. Or if we prefer the bliss of willful ignorance, as James Baldwin accused white America in 1963:

“… and this is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen, and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed or are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it.”