Tag Archives: A Bride Called Freedom

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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Attractions of Barbarity: New/Forthcoming Publications and an Award

Old Palermo, Buenos Aires, 2015

Old Palermo, Buenos Aires, 2005

Update: the new issue of JewishFiction.net is up! (9/2/15, 3:00 Central)

When Roderick Clark phoned me up this afternoon, he told me that he had some good news and some bad news. Rod is the editor of Rosebud (“The Biggest Little Magazine in the World”), and while we have developed a warm professional relationship over the years, we had previously only spoken by phone when he wanted to publish one of my translations. So I suspected that the news couldn’t be so bad; and almost certainly had something to do with the essay I had sent in a while back for the X. J. Kennedy Award for Non-Fiction.

And indeed, the bad news was that I didn’t win the top prize, but on the other hand (good news!) it might have been a really close call: it was, if not “the winner,” one of five finalists (out of hundreds of submissions) and as such still worthy of a modest cash award and publication. It will appear, with the other runners-up and winner, in issue #60 which is due out by the end of the year.

Naturally, I felt rather satisfied with that mixed report, which was essentially music to my ears. Sure, to win the top prize and the extra cash would have been fabulous, but what are the odds of that? When I put the essay in the mail I did believe that, at the least, it was not un-deserving of an award, perhaps even the first. But such competitions are inevitably tough, extremely tough, so I can only be immensely pleased with this result. And to think I almost hadn’t entered!

Lucio V. Mansilla as a young man

Lucio V. Mansilla as a young man

“Attractions of Barbarity” is the essay’s title, anyway. It relates the central narrative of my yet unpublished book-length memoir Journeys and Digressions and is based on my 2005 return trip to Argentina. I was invited, specifically, to read from the Spanish-language translation of my historical/literary novella A Bride Called Freedom (2003) at a conference on the historical figures of Eduarda and her brother Lucio Mansilla. Lucio is a character in my novella, and at the time I was also working on the translation of a novel by María Rosa Lojo (Passionate Nomads, 2011) in which – escaped from a questionable Paradise and transported to 1990s-era Buenos Aires – he is the star. Readers of Rosebud may remember Mansilla as “The Gentleman in the Willow” (issue #51), a short excerpt from that novel.

Mansilla’s primary claim to fame is having written a seminal account of his 1870 excursion into the lands of the Ranquel Indians, with the ostensible purpose of achieving a treaty between those Indians and the Argentine government. But the book became much more than a frontier military commander’s report and travelogue. Its lasting value, aside from the writing itself, lies in the remarkably comprehensive and comprehending view he brought us of those people, whom nearly everyone else dismissed as savages. Mansilla, instead, turns the whole concept of civilization and barbarity on its head, revealing to us the humanity of a people who, like our own Indians up here in the North, were being hounded into near extinction.

images[6]The immediate impetus for this long-contemplated essay, the turn of fate that compelled me at last to get to it, was a chance mass mailing from editor Clark reminding contributors and subscribers like me of the contest deadline and encouraging further submissions. What I had to do, then, was extract from the larger memoir the parts that spoke most directly to the particular literary journey at center and re-mold them into a more compressed format. Then trim it down to size; and while doing so preserve the most significant and memorable evidences of the original’s deceptively simple, leisurely, digressive style – which deliberately reflects Mansilla’s own epistolary style.

I owe some thanks to my friends from the Southern Indiana Writers – I am a recent new member of the group – for helpful criticism and suggestions after a read-through of the first draft.

A reminder, too, for those who may be interested: excerpts from both A Bride Called Freedom and Passionate Nomads can be found on this Website under Publishing History.

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In other news, a couple of recent publications and one forthcoming:

1) In the Spring 2015 edition of the Cosumnes River Journal (Vol. 9), a single prose poem/mini-fiction from María Rosa’s Stories from Heaven, as yet unpublished in English translation. This modest but attractive journal from Cosumnes River College (part of the Los Rios Community College District) in Sacramento, California offers a nice range of writing and art from the undergraduate level to professional work by the likes of American Book Award winner Maria Espinosa.

2) A set of poems from that same collection in The Cincinnati Review’s incredible Summer 2015 edition. Thanks to an NEA grant, the editors have been able to concentrate on longer forms of fiction and poetry as well as additional translation. In this case that translates to more than 300 pages of remarkable fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. Regular features include a selection of work (in color) by an artist, a short music feature (a previous contributor’s poetry set to music), and book reviews. In an original twist, one book (This Is the Water, by Yannick Murphy) is reviewed, from different angles, by three separate reviewers.

Tenement house, or conventillo, in early 20th century Buenos Aires

Tenement house, or conventillo, in early 20th century Buenos Aires

3) And finally, forthcoming at almost any moment online at JewishFiction.net, a somewhat abbreviated version of my translation of María Gabriela Mizraje’s rich, multi-layered story “Land of Promise.” Set primarily in the years between the two world wars, it is the generally upbeat story of a Turkish-immigrant family in a poor working-class neighborhood of Buenos Aires. In particular it chronicles the relationship between the charming and hardworking patriarch, Narciso, a shoemender by trade and a champion swimmer in the Old World, and his son, Elías, who works in his father’s shop, plays the piano, and loves to swim through the air (as a parachutist) more than water. As abridged, we do have Elías dreaming of flight, while his father introduces him to the river, but we lose the longer stream-of-consciousness account of his actual jump from a plane. The primary story is there, however, and well worth the read. If you are up for a beautifully nuanced tale, as universal as any of our own American immigration stories, I urge you to visit the site. (I’ll plan to add an update when it’s up.)

Report from Schweitzer Fest

DoroteaAt the end of my last posting I announced that I would be at the market place at the Schweitzer Fest in Tell City selling and signing books. I am pleased to report that I did sell several copies of my Young Adult novella A Bride Called Freedom and of my translation of María Rosa Lojo’s amazing historical-fantasy novel Passionate Nomads. I also sold or gave away (with other purchases) a few copies of my Passionate Nomadschapbook Quixotics (pronounce: Quick-SOT-ics) with my poetic paragraphs on the subject of Cervantes’s masterpiece and my favorite book Don Quixote. Thanks to all who visited, even if only to converse or carry off a business card. I hope you enjoy the site. By the way, there are samples of each of the above-mentioned works under “Publishing History” and of Nomads in an earlier blog posting.

Following are some of my personal highlights of the festival:

 On the first evening I learned that a fellow teacher and writer – Eddie Price, from just across the Ohio River in Hawesville, Kentucky – was also present selling his historical novel Widder’s Landing. A novel of life in Kentucky around the time of the War of 1812, it comes in an attractive hardcover edition from the Acclaim Press in Missouri (www.acclaimpress.com). Anyway, I left my daughter Stephanie in charge of my booth for a few moments and walked down the row of vendors to introduce myself and propose a trade. The author is an amiable fellow and award-winning teacher who formerly taught history to Stephanie’s wife Rachel at Hancock County High School just outside of Hawesville. We did make a trade and I look forward to reading his novel, though I may be kept from it for awhile by other projects. It looks interesting, anyway, and I have a feeling that it may do as much for Kentucky as Carol Buchanan’s extremely adept historical novel God’s Thunderbolt did for Montana – I had the privilege of working with Carol on a related project during my brief stint as managing editor at New Works Review.

The author at Schweitzer Fest 2013

The author at Schweitzer Fest 2013

Another acquaintance happily made was with a bright young eighth-grader named Inca and both of her parents, who hail from The Farm in Summertown, Tennessee and were neighbor vendors of mine. It was from them that I bought the new floppy hat (similar to the kind of hat I used to wear in my distant youth) in which I am pictured here in the photo my son Jonathan shot. Among the subjects of my conversation with Inca, as she examined a copy of Nomads with a particularly wistful expression, was the dullness of standard textbooks and how a book such as she was holding would enliven the study of history. And with her mother, Amy, the desperate need in our American culture for a broadening of perspective such as might be acquired from the reading of more literature in translation from other languages and countries.

 Amy took away an extra of my cards to pass on to her friends at The Book Publishing Company at The Farm (https://bookpubco.com/), some of whose publishing interests might overlap with some of my own. My perusal of their site today reveals, also, a strong emphasis on healthy-living topics which might be of particular interest to some of my readers. But I was especially drawn to their Native Voices series for young readers and in particular a title (which I ordered) called Deer Dancer: Yaqui Legends of Life, by Stan Padilla. My interest in that title, and in the beautiful cover illustration of a Yaqui deer dancer, stems from the fact that the Young Adult novel I am presently writing contains a first chapter that is called “Deer Dancer” and is inspired by a Mexican Folkloric Ballet presentation of that beautiful dance-as-ritual (or ritual-as-dance?).

HT-cover-Psalm-147-3[1] The other highlight I will mention is my conversation with Rhonda Patterson of the organization Hearts for Africa (www.hearts4africa.us), whose aim is to draw attention to the problem of human trafficking – about 80% of which involves sexual exploitation, in particular, of young women. It should be noted that this is hardly just a Third World problem but one that affects a startling number of girls in the United States – and not just runaways, as is sometimes reported, but often perfectly well-adjusted and academically successful young women whose greatest error is naively trusting the smooth-talking individuals (including women) who befriend and gradually lure them into the situations that end in their being enslaved for purposes of the creation of pornography or prostitution.

 In the group’s efforts to raise awareness among those who might become targets of such abuse, as well as to aid those who have been victimized and rescued, Hearts for Africa is selling some very nice jewelry, bags, and clothing that is obtained from the organization Fair Trade or made by former victims of this devastating modern form of slavery. Anyone interested in learning more about the organization’s educational services or in helping out in any way should certainly visit their very attractive website.

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I should also mention the hard work of Anita, my lovely wife, in raising funds again for the Alzheimer’s Association. The group she has led for the past few years is named Kroessman’s Krusaders for my grandmother Mary Kroessman who suffered from Alzheimer’s. Thanks also to the local artists who contributed original work to help in that effort.

Language and Propaganda

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Some time ago I read a novel by German writer Günter Grass called (in translation) Crabwalk. Without going into any more detail than the present point requires, it is concerned with historical resentments still present beneath the surface of German society decades after World War II. Part of Grass’s rhetorical point is that when we suppress such resentments they don’t just go away. And if the circumstances that feed the resentments aren’t openly discussed and dealt with, they do more than just not go away – as evident in the resurgence of racist and xenophobic ideology associated with Naziism.

At the risk of over-generalization, I think it fair to say that we have a similar problem in the United States with racial resentments stemming at least indirectly from the Civil War – perhaps more directly from the Civil Rights Era, whose great achievement in the Voting Rights Act of 1965 is presently under assault by what I consider a highly regrettable Supreme Court decision and the subsequent frenzy of efforts by state legislatures to press forward in recent efforts (exhaustively well-documented in relation to at least the past two Presidential election cycles) to suppress the minority vote.

Now before I go further in this direction let me just point out, as seems appropriate enough in an essay (as my title suggests) on language and propaganda, that already I have revealed a propagandistic bent to today’s writing. In my defense, before the potentially antagonistic reader jumps ship, let me cite a couple of authorities on the subject of language and rhetoric.

First Richard Weaver, who argues that “language is intended to be sermonic. Because of its nature and its intimacy with our feelings, it is always preaching” (from his essay “The Cultural Role of Rhetoric,” in Professing the New Rhetorics: A Sourcebook, 1994, edited by Theresa Enos and Stuart C. Brown).

And then Kenneth Burke, who writing (in 1926 in The Southern Review) of the proletarian strand in early 20th-century American literature speaks favorably of the sort of propaganda that neither preaches to the choir nor cynically manipulates the reader but instead attempts – “with the more ambiguous talents of the diplomat” – to persuade the reader toward a broader perspective or attitude.

He makes this point in relation to Robert Cantwell’s short story “Hills Around Centralia,” which he offers as “a good example of a crucial propaganda situation embodied imaginatively.” The story, Burke writes, “is based upon the poignancy of the Crucifixion theme (the ‘benefactor’ persecuted as ‘malefactor’). Irony of clashing moralities. The author ‘weights’ his material propagandistically by showing us, first, the morality of the vigilantes in action, and then slowly widening our conception of the total scene by a sympathetic portrait of the strikers. Tactfully, he permits us to see how the interests of the vigilantes have led them to misinterpret the nature of a riot, while their grip upon the channels of education and publicity serves to shape ‘neutral’ opinions in their favor. The opposing worlds (of vigilantes and strikers) are eventually ‘synthetized’ by a bridge device, being brought together when some impressionable boys, who had been bewilderedly subjected to the vigilante view, come upon two strikers hiding in the woods (overtones of the ‘little child shall lead them’ theme). The author’s choice of sides is made atop the ironic, the relativistic – hence, ‘propaganda’ in the fullest sense, because [it is] profoundly humane. Strict ‘proletarian’ morality could not be so ‘shifty.’ It would be pitted squarely against the enemy. But the farthest-reaching propaganda (as a device for appealing to the enemy, and not merely organizing his opposition by the goads of absolute antithesis) requires the more ambiguous talents of the diplomant (who talks to an alien camp in behalf of his own camp.)” (from his review “Symbolic War,” in Equipment for Living: The Literary Reviews of Kenneth Burke, 2010, edited by Nathaniel A. Rivers and Ryan P. Weber).

To return to my earlier point, the fact that I would “propagandize” about the issue of civil rights and the recent Supreme Court decision does not automatically suggest something ham-fisted or nefarious. We all propagandize, or “sermonize,” whenever we address matters of any emotional significance to us and to those we address.

Race in America

Race in America

I come to these thoughts, anyway, in the broader context of my recent comment on the Trayvon Martin verdict (and a subsequent exchange of emails with an old friend and reader). And more immediately in the context of an article from yesterday’s Evansville Courier & Press and an editorial from my local Perry County News – each one of which has some bearing on these particular issues.

The headline of the AP report in the Courier & Press reads: “4 out of 5 adults struggle in poverty”; and the subtitle: “Hardships soar in whites.” The editorial in the local paper addresses the “controversy” over a Cheerios commercial featuring a biracial family.

Within the AP report itself comes the clarification that these four-fifths of U.S. adults “struggle with joblessness, near-poverty or reliance on welfare for at least parts of their lives” (italics mine), which still is evidence of increasing economic insecurity, the erosion of the American dream, and the ever-growing gap between rich and poor in this nation. But it also speaks, I think, to the relationship between economic insecurity and the incidence of racial animus and tensions. Because I can’t help but think that the two phenomena are to some degree connected.

It is a curious paradox that in this supposedly “post-racial” era of the Obama Presidency we have experienced such an upsurge in the incidence of white supremacist and other hate groups. And even among the vast majority of generally peaceable Americans there arises a sort of passively violent undercurrent to the emotionality of our response to someone’s pointing out the constant spector of racial profiling that people of color face, and which only exacerbates the perception of a judicial system that is weighted against them – even despite all the obvious gains that have been made since 1965 (though the Supreme Court decision reminds us of how easily even the most dramatic of those gains can be eroded).

A truly Burkean response in fiction to all the partisan feeling of those on the Zimmerman side of the Trayvon Martin debate – a response that is propagandistic in the fullest and most humane sense as Burke defines it – would have to somehow get beneath the layers of fact and (mis)perception to reveal the complexities and the humanity beneath the headlines of black-on-black violence and the much-touted decay of the black American family which are inevitably trotted out as at least partial justification for the reckless behavior that led to that tragic shooting.

As to what shape such a story might take, I can’t really say. Though I have, over the years, made some attempts of the sort. The closest to the present theme is a story called “Little White Sambo,” which after countless drafts and re-drafts ended up very obscurely published in an online venue called River Walk Journal. Though from a perspective necessarily outside that of the black community itself, and only tangentially related to the present circumstance, it does have something of the “little child shall lead them” theme that Burke mentioned. It is a not-too-loosely autobiographical account of my own fairly parochial experience of growing racial awareness.

In the opening sequence I play off an early childhood memory of fever dreams in which I am eternally chased by a tiger which I am certain is going to eat me. That experience is clearly enough connected, in real life as in fiction, to the parallel experiences of being read the Black Sambo story as a child and of eating (this being the early Sixties) at a restaurant called Sambo’s.

In the central sequence my fictional counterpart has moved on from kindergarten to fourth grade and spends a year in a Southern state. At his new school he makes a “best friend” of a black classmate and then naively invites him to spend the night at his house. But is is told that such things are not done there; and in the next scene, surrounded on the schoolbus by threatening white kids “who have been unfavorably noticing this unusual relationship,” he begins to understand why.

In the third and final sequence my only slightly less naive protagonist is in junior high and back in the North where he has been warned away – by a distinctly less friendly black boy – from daring show his face at the basketball game that evening (“Stay home, Little White Sambo, Melvin practically says to him, or I’ll eat you right up”). Stubbornly he goes anyway and the kid keeps his promise and beats him up. But vengeful thoughts are themselves beaten off – as befits my propagandistic need of the moment to transcend that very real violence – by a hallucinatory vision (of the absent boy’s face interposed on the antagonist’s) that descends on him just before and then during the actual beating:

“But it’s as if everything is happening far away from Joey. For this moment it seems that  the anger and fear is all slipping away from him as he has been starting to think it never would. He imagines a soothing presence. The touch of his mother’s hand against his face. His friend Clarence’s voice. He allows himself to believe that the throbbing he’s just now feeling is what’s really being dreamed. That in the morning, after they’re finally done with him, everything will be safe and fine. But of course he’ll have come back to himself long before then.”

By that final sentence, with its apparent negation of the happy vision of peace and harmony, I acknowledge the story’s (and life’s) hard physical reality without denying the idealized hope for transcendence.

imagesCAL06F4WPerhaps someone else can come up with an example more adequate than my poor effort to the present circumstance. But in any case the challenge remains of putting it in the hands of those of the “enemy” camp who might still be persuaded by our literary rhetorics. As polarized as our national dialogue has become, the conjuring of such a persuadable audience often seems more fantastic than Joey’s hallucination.

But try we must. Strive on …

***

By the way, anyone of my readers who might happen to be in the area of Tell City, Indiana between Wednesday, August 7 and Saturday, August 10 are invited to look for me at the Schweitzer Fest flea market on Town Hall square where I will have copies of my published books (my original historical novella – A Bride Called Freedom – and two works of literary translation) for purchase and signing. I look forward to seeing old friends and making new acquaintances.