Tag Archives: Argentine Dirty War

Vision of the Children of Evil: poetic prose from the shadow of Argentina’s “dirty war”

9781947918023Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence. / From these contraries spring what the religious call Good & Evil. Good is the passive that obeys Reason. Evil is the active springing from Energy. / Good is Heaven. Evil is Hell.

William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

As I contemplate Lucina Schell’s scintillating new translation of the Argentine symbolist-poet Miguel Ángel Bustos’s Vision of the Children of Evil (2018. Normal, IL: co•im•press. 304 pages), I find myself thinking of the late-eighteenth, early-nineteenth-century artist and poet William Blake.

Not that there is any direct connection between the two poets. Bustos’s particular muses are the French poètes maudit – in particular Antonin Artaud and Gérard de Nerval, whom he specifically honors with epigraphs, and Arthur Rimbaud (not to mention Edgar Allan Poe, who by means of Baudelaire’s French translation is similarly honored).

Still. Blake was himself, after all, something of a cursed or damned poet, working against the grain of his society’s version of social and religious respectability. I am making note, merely, of a correlation. My tendency, as a reader, is always toward synthesis, toward a recognition of likenesses and even a reconciling of contraries. And that – the reconciling of the sacred and the profane, for example – is what Blake is struggling toward even in his more palatable and popular Songs of Innocence and Experience (“Tyger Tyger burning bright …”), though most vividly in his strangest and most obscure work like the The Marriage of Heaven and Hell and Visions of the Daughters of Albion.

Speaking of the Daughters of Albion, one more thing: another correlation, if you will. I am quoting from the editors’ introduction to the poem, as I encounter it in their anthology of Blake’s artistic and poetic work:

Although Visions is primarily a critique of constraints on love and sexuality, it also denounces the enslavement of Africans and laboring children; and insofar as Oothoon is ‘the soft soul of America,’ it symbolically condemns exploitation of the unspoiled American land, its resources, and – by implication – its native people. […] Oothoon comes to recognize oppression as an interlocking system of the sort that the Chimney Sweeper of Experience identifies as ‘God & his Priest & King.’ Liberty, by contrast, is absolute: there is no such thing as freedom for only certain people, like white men.i

Serie foto carnet 1

Miguel Angel Bustos

That is Miguel Ángel Bustos’s project, precisely. As Schell writes in the translator’s note following the bilingual text, the two books contained in this new volume – Fantastical Fragments(1965) and Vision of the Children of Evil (1967) – “represent the same grand project”:

a sweeping critique of colonialism and the horror of the postcolonial political and social situation in Latin America through the motif of divine descent. […] Bustos’s critique reverberates throughout the Americas – certainly into the United States, with our own parallel history of indigenous genocide. Innocence becomes the underlying subject of these books: repurposing biblical rhetoric, Bustos compares the conquest of the Americas to our own paradise lost. His is a quest to recuperate innocence, but also an interrogation of the false innocence implied by national mythologies of countries like Argentina and the United States that define their culture as white European and Christian – mythologies that are currently experiencing an ascendance like that in Bustos’s time. (pp. 284-85)

And part and parcel to this anti-colonialist project, Schell explains, is the poet’s linguistic task, in which he

takes up Rimbaud’s quest to discover a universal, synesthetic language. “All language being idea,” said Rimbaud, “the day of the universal language will come… This language, the new or universal, will speak from soul to soul, resuming all perfumes, sounds, colors, linking together all thought.” Bustos is aware of the violence of language as a colonial tool – but also the rich possibility of interlinguistic encounter. Like Rimbaud, Bustos is a symbolist poet, but his symbols – metals, moon, sun, night, heart, soul, earth, water, and biblical verses such as the repeated, “Why have you forsaken me” – take on different inflections in his postcolonial context. This linguistic in(ter)vention – and its underlying politics – make Bustos a very exciting poet to translate, and also extremely challenging. Across both books, Bustos experiments with different forms and voices, mixing the conversational and cutting edge with the hyperbatonii of Golden Age Spanish poetry and the high rhetoric of religion. Bustos unmakes the inherent power structures of language to create a supremely powerful language of his own. (pp. 288-89)

An important figure in the Argentine Generation of 1960, Bustos was also a literary and cultural critic and a talented illustrator, as is evident in the darkly luminous art that decorates the covers of this volume. But then, in 1976, within the first months of the existence of Jorge Rafael Videla’s military junta, he was “disappeared” and promptly executed. “His physical disappearance,” as Schell writes, “was followed by a symbolic disappearance; his work was suppressed, his name erased” (p. 284).

Only in 2008 was that work fully restored, when his son, the poet Emiliano Bustos, who was only four years old at the time of his father’s disappearance, published his collected poetry. And now, thanks to Schell’s translation – she discovered the work in 2010 while studying in Córdoba, Argentina – we have in one volume (for the first time in English) both portions of this “grand project” of poetic interrogation of our imperial myths.

Bustos’s form is the prose poem. It may read sometimes like flash fiction, but its principal device is what Schell calls “the broken logic of fragment” (p. 291). Sometimes it might drift into a sort of verse: a verse constructed, nonetheless, on a scaffolding of fractured speech, never far divorced from some sliver of narrative. Other times it might lurch from thought to thought, bedeviled by that inverted syntax of Spain’s Golden Age of poetry and a more modern absence of punctuation, landing in the oddest and most unsettling paradoxes. Or its story may flow along smoothly, in perfect sentences and paragraphs, occasionally even going on for pages. But even so all the parts fit together imperfectly, like pieces of a puzzle that can never be completely solved: a riddle wrapped up in an enigma.

Such a book – even more so than a book of poems by Robert Frost or Emily Dickinson, which invite slow reading and thoughtful reflection – is not an easy read, but is at once challenging, exciting, and rewarding. It invites more than one reading. In my case, on the first time through, I would read whole passages and sequences in both languages, then go back to make careful comparisons of the original and the translation. I might suggest a similar strategy to the English-language reader: read through the whole segment or section or chapter to get the feel for the whole, then go back to puzzle out the smaller details.

Lucina Schell photo_Paul Crisanti

Lucina Schell

However you approach it, in any case, Lucina Schell is an able and perceptive guide through those subtleties and nuances. And in her translator’s note, she elaborates at considerable length on the linguistic challenges that she faced in bringing Bustos’s language through the necessary transformations into an English that can still do justice to the juxtaposition and reconciliation of Old World and Bustos’s “new and universal” language in Spanish.

As to the “divine descent” of Miguel Ángel Bustos’s children of evil, it occurs to me that all of us who have ever benefited from regimes of purported good foisted upon those who call them evil – beneficiaries, say, of White North America’s manifest destiny upon the children of African slaves and still-oppressed First Nations; or those of Milton Friedmanian economics on the willingly socialistic political children of Allende in Chile or Chávez in Venezuela; or of the Israeli State’s ongoing genocide against Arab Palestinians imprisoned in the bloody Gaza, against all pretense of international law or the morality of Hebrew prophets – it occurs to me that those children of evil are really angels of the purest light. Like mischeivous devils in the false dualism of Blakeian Heaven/Hell, angels of light whose demented blasphemies – wielded once more against all the religious and political pieties of our benighted national mythologies of conquest and subjugation – illuminate this ascendant darkness a full half century after the initial publication of these luminous books. Which, along with their author, in the shadow of Argentina’s own “dirty war,” were almost disappeared from human memory.

iBlake’s Poetry and Design, selected and edited by Mary Lynn Johnson and John E. Grant. 2008, 1979. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. A Norton Critical Edition (Second Edition), p. 55.

iiHyperbaton: “A figure of speech […] using deviation from normal or logical word order to produce an effect,” from The American Heritage Dictionary. 2000. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company (Fourth Edition), p. 863.

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Reconciling Contraries

Revista Letra Urbana #33

Mural art: cover of Revista Letra Urbana, #33

With some excitement I announce the appearance, in Revista Letra Urbana, an online Spanish-language journal based in Miami (“a digital magazine of culture, science, and thought”), my first essay written for publication in Spanish. Undoubtedly the kind editors helped me to knock off a few rough edges, but on the whole it was a stimulating and enjoyable process and flowed rather more smoothly than I had anticipated. The essay, “Sobre la reconciliación de contrarios,” pays homage to the lives of three great literary artists on this 400th (or 30th) anniversary of their deaths: Cervantes and Shakespeare (d. 1616) and Borges (d. 1986) while addressing, through their literary work, what I believe to be a single literary/rhetorical project that they all shared in common: the reconciling of contraries.

Another invited essay, forthcoming in Hourglass Literary Magazine (which will appear in my original English and translated into the common language of Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia, and Montenegro), speaks to the same concern in a different and more personal way. Also, recently published in the local Perry County News, is a more strictly political attempt to counter Candidate Trump’s divisive rhetoric and to rehabilitate Hillary Clinton as not quite the rabid, corrupt liar as her enemies—and her own foibles—have made her, in the perception of so many voters.

Early responses, from the usual local suspects, have been predictably hostile, but one must accept that some opinions have already been etched in stone and will not be moved. I was directing myself to those whose views still might. The entire comment, in any case, published under the heading “Presidential Politics and Donald Trump,” can be read here:

http://www.perrycountynews.com/content/presidential-politics-and-donald-trump.

The core of my argument, as expressed in the second-to-last paragraph of the newspaper column, goes as follows:

What this country needs is not to move toward an empty, depraved rhetoric of raw force and bluster. It is to move, instead, even if we never fully attain it, toward what one practical philosopher has called a “rhetoric of assent”; by which he means, not the empty eloquence of deceivers, but a kind of humane politics by which people of competing ideas and beliefs—deliberately and in cooperation with each other—seek a more complete understanding of the issues that face us; and labor, then, toward reasonable (if imperfect) solutions that move us as far as immediately possible in that direction.

From the Hourglass essay, “Small Graces,” I draw this brief provocation to thought:

 What might happen, if in our civic conversation, we were actually to explore the unspoken nuance that hangs between our competing arguments? Might extended dialogue of this sort actually bring people of good will on either side of an argument to a new consciousness of what we do or might come to agree on?

Cervantes

Cervantes

And from Letra Urbana—hastily translated, excerpted, and recombined from the Spanish—the following, in the context of a proposed rhetoric of the subjunctive mood (what otherwise might be called “the Quixotic principle”):

 

an attitude and a rhetoric that considers, with a certain humility, the possibility of multiple realities or perspectives. It is to be hoped that this concept, this attitude of the subjunctive, might come to be a new rhetoric for all people, whose world is at risk of disintegrating by means of the collision of absolutes charged with so much violence: destructive illusions on the planes of politics, religion, and everything else. The antidote that I propose to those apocalyptic ideologies is the perspectivism, the subtle and majestic Quixotism, of Cervantes.

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My recent reading has included two books that, along with my recently completed translation of María Rosa Lojo’s novel Todos éramos hijos (All of Us Were Children), could contribute a great deal to the discussion of what the United States under an authoritarian leader like Donald Trump might look like. Certainly it would have a different face and a divergent reality from those of Argentina’s “dirty war” and Franco’s post-Civil War Spain. Yet, as the Bible tells us, in a sense there is nothing new under the sun; so any valid comparison could be, for any of us, words to the wise.

In my search for an English-language publisher for María Rosa’s novel—about Argentina in the first half of the 1970s, through the eyes of a group of young adults on the brink of an uncertain future—I have come on these two recent translations from the Canadian press Biblioasis: The End of the Story, by Liliana Heker, translated by Andrea G. Labinger; and Black Bread, by Emili Teixidor, translated from the Catalán by Peter Bush.

Liliana Heker

Liliana Heker

The End of the Story is a complex and disorienting book, as must have been the experience of being alive in Buenos Aires at the time, while some beloved other or others have been “disappeared” without a trace; but, bit by bit, the pieces of the life of the young revolutionary woman whose life the narrator is struggling to evoke are revealed more clearly. Though to say that, in the end, the novel achieves a perfect clarity would be to ignore the unknowable, the unanswerable, within the narrative itself and in the existential questions that are left provocatively hanging.

But if what we seek is the illusion of unambiguous, absolute certitude within a world of competing absolutes, we can only end up with something resembling (or approaching) the torturer’s logic in Heker’s novel, here compressed from a longer tirade (warning: this passage does include a lightning bolt of upsetting images, though with no gruesome elaboration of them):

 “There’s only one truth. What happens is that some people don’t even realize that they’re wrong. We have to wipe them out anyway; we have to wipe out all the garbage that piled up in Argentina as soon as possible, so it’ll go back to what it was. It’s like a serious illness: you have to operate, with or without anesthesia, in order to save the organism. I’m not about to put up with disrespect from some Commie traitor to the Fatherland. But I don’t do it for pleasure; I do it out of duty. I tell myself, this is a mission you have to fulfill, Sharkey, this vagina, these nipples, are your target; you have to rip these nails off because if you don’t, the Fatherland will fall into foreign hands. Those are the real enemies, because those people think they own the truth. You’ve got to eliminate them without being disgusted. And without hatred. This isn’t pleasant work. Necessary, yes, but not pleasant” (pp. 122-123).

The End of the Story, Biblioasis edition

El fin de la historia, Biblioasis International Translation Series edition

I will leave the reader to contemplate the speaker’s unintended ironies and faulty reasoning. True logic, in any case, as Heker writes, is not “applicable in times of official lunacy” (p. 70); in this official absence of reason we come up with formulations like this: “[The poem] talks about torture. Spells it right out: t-o-r-t-u-r-e. It’s forbidden to write about, understand. It’s immoral. It’s subversive” (p. 103)—but of course, by inference, it is neither immoral nor subversive to inflict it on our perceived enemy; let’s not get carried away with ourselves, fellow bleeding-hearts!

But perhaps most chilling, if we cannot conceive of this happening to ourselves, good and law-abiding citizens such as we are, is what happens to the ordinary man or woman who, looking out of a café window (for instance) and then rushing out to greet someone in the street—without paying, though with notebook and purse still on the table—might lead so perilously close to the torture chamber (as a random traffic stop, to a law-abiding and courteous black man in the U.S., is many times more likely to end in death than for a white man in a comparable position):

“This is what’s changed, she thinks as she leaves: death lying in wait, floating over the minutiae of daily life. To unravel the meaning of these trivial, apparently unhistorical, actions, which nonetheless intercept History, diverting its course in unforeseeable ways” (p. 57); and, reflecting further on the same instance: “Civilized people. And yet one suspicious move on her part would be enough to make the man point her out with his finger” (p. 65).

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Emili Teixidor

Emili Teixidor

Black Bread, which has been made into an Oscar-nominated film from Spain, reminded me of another film, Pan’s Labyrinth, which I have particularly loved. The common bond is the emotionally sustaining bread of imagination and of lush fantasy—in the former, the source is the grandmother’s store of fancy and lore, which must be suppressed if our boy protagonist is to make it in the cruel adult world he is to be educated for; and likewise, in the latter, the fairy tales that the mother (widow of one of the Civil War’s losers; now consigned to a loveless marriage with a cruel, misogynistic military victor) no longer wants the girl protagonist to read or to believe in, if she too is going to survive the new enforced reality.

In Teixidor’s novel, his more traditional narrative with its peaceful pastoral setting—not exempt, nonetheless, from the violent inroads made by the victors in their campaign to purify the land of any trace of liberal ideas—is an easier read than Heker’s; which is not to say that its secrets are any more easily obtained.

It is narrated, presumably, by an adult Andreu looking back on the effective end of that childhood, though entirely through the more ingenuous eyes of that younger Andreu’s at the time. This is a perceptive boy in his evolving notions of the adult world he cannot avoid entering, though continually perplexed by its secrets that he and his younger cousin, Núria (or Cry-Baby) must unlock on their own.

The hardest chapters for me to read, the hardest to emotionally bear up under, involve the boy’s journey with his mother to visit his ailing father in one of Franco’s prisons—a hellhole if ever there was one; and a testament to human cruelty and indifference to the sufferings of real or perceived enemies and their families—and, then, after the father’s death, the mother’s emotional breakdown and confrontation with the local leaders who could hardly be bothered to let her bury her husband.

Still, I would not give up the experience of having read them; for, of what worth is the literature of suffering that does not, in some degree, break our hearts?

This is not just a sad book, in any case, but a sad book laced with moments of intense joy and grace, of life and of beauty that are no less overwhelming than the horror of human violence and malice. In Andreu’s grandmother’s storytelling, for instance, hid a power “that could transform cruelty into happiness, laughter and hope. Death, into life” (p. 233)—which is undoubtedly true of the folk tales or fairytales recorded by the Brothers Grimm, or the literary folk- (or fairy-) tales of Hans Christian Andersen; and all the more so in their unsanitized originals, from which (perhaps unwisely) we try to shield our children.

As for the vitality of that fantasy world as developed so richly in Black Bread (likewise in Pan’s Labyrinth), it is not nor has it ever been enough for the world’s realists to pronounce that realm superfluous to the merely visible one we inhabit. For we must account for the world of beauty, of mystery, of imagination that sustains us and makes our spirits soar—and is the source of the slow advances and refinements that do take place, from time to time, even in the harsh yet necessary political realm.

Andreu suggests something of this, I think, in the following passage, which proceeds from a critique of the Church—religious leaders in league with the military occupiers—and the absence, within that victorious society that the Church implicitly blessed, of any thread of mercy or forgiveness:

[The adults] all knew mercy and forgiveness didn’t exist in this world and that everything priests said was like Grandmother’s fireside fairytales, pleasant, cheery chatter to pass the time, entertainment for our leisure time, but not totally nonexistent.

In fact, that was the source of the intangible beauty and virtue of Grandmother’s imaginary characters that were as evanescent as a dream (p. 227).

Pa Negre, Biblioasis International Translation Series edition

Pa Negre, Biblioasis International Translation Series edition

The personal and collective tragedy, within the thematic structure of Teixidor’s novel, is in the child’s anguished understanding that, in order to survive in the world of these conquerors, he will have to become a little more like them and live strictly in that real world, a world destructive of any true spiritual dimension that might come to us through worlds of imagination and tolerance; or, by a logical extension, through the risk involved in loving and confiding in any one person or relationship. Because, as Grandma Mercè puts it in one of her darker moments:

“War rots everything, that’s what Father Tafalla says, and he’s right. Blasted war spares nothing, saves nobody, simply kills…and…everbody scattered to the four corners…brother and sisters, sons and daughters, grandchildren…flung all over the shop, like thunder, lightning and hail that leaves not one plant standing” (p. 321).

A parallel tragedy, however, in pursuit of those spiritual intangibles that offer us sustenance, is a descent into the false certitudes of absolutist doctrines both political and religious, which are a frightful aspect of the false security of authoritarian regimes like those of the generals in Argentina and Franco’s decades-long Spanish reign.

We must become more comfortable as a people, it seems to me, with the inescapable facts of uncertainty, of difference, of ambiguity, of perpetual change that inevitably exists in any world we might inhabit. For, that golden age we hearken back to while latching onto slogans like “Make America Great Again” was never as golden as nostalgia paints it for us. And certainly not for the invisible sufferings of all those whom the relatively comfortable have almost always failed to take into account.

It is the search for absolute certitude and security, in other words, not the imaginative embrace of mystery and ambiguity or liberality, that leads almost inevitably to the destruction of all we hold dear.

And the politics or religion that cannot allow contraries (people or ideas) to live in harmony and tolerance—whether it be radical Islam or radical Christianity; the most extreme expressions of reactionary American Republicanism or of the radical Liberal or Progressive, or Democrat, or Socialist—is a politics or a religion necessarily at odds with an ever-evolving, flexible Constitution that seeks to reconcile the secular with the religious so that no individual or group be subject to “the tyranny of the majority”—a phrase variously attributed to Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and John Adams; and made popular by Alexis de Toqueville in Democracy in America.

Lord Acton offers this clarifying definition of the term: “The one pervading evil of democracy is the tyranny of the majority, or rather, of that party, not always the majority, that succeeds by force or fraud, in carrying elections.”

The problem, then, a thorough discussion of which I must put aside for another occasion, is how to discern among competing claims on the status of most-tyrannized. And that is just one of the prickly subjects of contention that will have to be surmounted, if we are ever to truly be a nation of engaged citizens whose members can take part in civil discourse with each other.

Who can participate, in other words, in an ever-ongoing national reconciliation of contraries.

Fabula Press’s premiere anthology and the power of imagination

Front-Cover-final-231x300[1]A few months ago I announced that I would be a judge for the Aestas 2014 literary competition (aestas is Latin for summer), hosted by what once was the e-zine Quill & Ink and now is reborn in the guise of Fabula Press. The judging of the summer contest has been complete for some time and the print anthology is finally available for purchase at amazon.com. It contains the ten long-listed submissions and a “bonus story” by yours truly. The beautiful art by Anisha Bhaduri and design by lead editor Anirban Ray Choudhury make it a pleasure just to hold in your hands, though undoubtedly you will want to look inside at the varied content.

The stories were selected by the editors and then evaluated, according to criteria stated in the guidelines, by the four judges, who did not know the identity of the writers while reading. Each of these stories brings something unique to the table and merits inclusion, though naturally each reader will have particular favorites. I was personally blown away by Arizonian writer Wilson Engel III’s “The Wasps,” which to my mind is a perfectly-crafted tale with rich human and environmental implications, and by the young Australian Oliver Snelgrove’s sad, evocative tale of adolescent angst called “The Picture on the News”; I also particularly admire British writer Alison Miller’s “The Reckoning,” with its carefully crafted narrative of a troubled but probably salvageable marriage, and feel especially fond of the understated characterization of the immediately likable female protagonist in Floridian Katie Avagliano’s “The Pied-Pipers’ Song.”

This anthology is an international effort, which to me makes it all the more appealing. Directed from India and Hong Kong, as is stated on the book’s back cover, it assembles a cast of writers from Canada, Sweden, England, Greece, the U.S., France, Australia, and Ireland. This internationalism, representative of what some of us like to think of as a global village, is one thing that I particularly enjoyed about the Quill & Ink. For this project, which continues now with the winter-themed anthology Nivalis 2015 (the Latin nivalis evokes snow in all its various contexts, literal and metaphorical), I hope to see an even broader cast of writers and protagonists with scenes and narratives from Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America, not to mention a more varied racial mix from the United States and Europe.

As for my story, “Tribunal,” I am grateful to editor Anirban Choudhury, who published it online in the Quill & Ink in 2006 and now brings it to a wider audience in print. His enthusiasm for this story is encouraging and validating in a profession of literature which is otherwise mostly filled with rejection. I have lost track of how many drafts this one went through to reach its present state, with which I am finally well pleased. An earlier draft was read by my son, almost (or recently) graduated from high school at the time, and without my knowledge by a friend of his who found it convincing in its portrayal of the secretive and often cruel world that children inhabit. In that context I must warn the reader that, while the story involves grade-school children, it is most definitely not a story for young children to read. Be warned, likewise, that if your reading tastes are especially delicate it might not be for you, either. Otherwise, I hope you will have a chance to interact with it. I would certainly welcome your responses.

For official rules for the Nivalis contest, go to the Fabula Press website at this address: http://www.fabulapress.com/the-contest/. You may purchase the book, for yourself or for literary-minded family or friends, at http://www.amazon.com/Aestas-2014-Miscellaneous-authors/dp/1503233790/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1418429933&sr=1-1&keywords=Aestas+2014. The deadline for the current contest is February 28, and anyone at least 18 years old is eligible to enter; authors’ identities will again be hidden from the judges, so there should be no conflict of interests. In any case, please share this information with anyone you think might be interested in entering: the more entries, the merrier.

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On the subject of internationalism (and multiculturalism), I can’t help thinking that the single human quality most absent in today’s resurgence of racial conflict in the United States – not to mention countless other conflicts worldwide – is a sad lack of imagination, which is surely a crucial element of what enables us to imagine the world from others’ viewpoints and thus check our most dangerous assumptions.

Hence one facet of the importance of literature and the other rhetorical and fine arts, including music and dance.

This is one thing that terrifies me about the general thrust of educational reform these days, so narrowly focused as it has been on the hard sciences, mathematics, and most apparent and immediate needs of industry. Not that I have anything against those things, but I do object to the sidelining of the “softer” subjects without which we lose the most essential tools for evaluating, for instance, the ethics of business practice, economic and social policy, and the uses of science.

In a Mother Jones investigative report of the Common Core movement, journalist Tim Murphy engages the efforts of a couple of men you may never have heard of to make it official policy: David Coleman and Jason Zimba. Murphy writes:

“‘The standards must be made significantly fewer in number, significantly clearer in their meaning and relevance for college and work, and significantly higher in terms of mastery,’ they wrote. In reading, for example, they said schools should deemphasize literature and rely more on ‘informational texts’ – speeches, magazine articles, government reports. As Coleman would later put it, ‘It is rare in a working environment that someone says, “Johnson, I need a market anylysis by Friday, but before that, I need a compelling account of your childhood”’” (September/October, p. 38).

I am not necessarily opposed to the imposition of a well-conceived and perhaps limited national common core; nor do I object to using the sort of texts Coleman and Zimba mention as an important part of students’ broad education; certainly that is better than the stereotypical first-day assignment of “How I Spent My Summer.” But I do object to the truncation, the cutting-off and narrowing, of the curriculum suggested by Coleman’s glib and uncomprehending dismissal of anything literary. I would venture to say that market analysis will not have much to say about how to live peacefully with people who are (or appear to be) substantially different from us.

Jorge Luis Borges, the great Argentine literary stylist of the past century, liked to think of himself as a citizen of the world, not just of Argentina. Which is not to say that his literature was not profoundly Argentine. His nation’s history and the nuances of the different streets and neighborhoods of Buenos Aires run through all of his prose and poetry, but no more so than did the literatures and philosophical traditions of England and Germany, as well as of Sheherezade’s Arabian Nights and what we used to call the Orient. Likewise, while my own writing is infused with Argentina and Cervantes’s Spain, among other influences, it is ultimately grounded in these United States where I was born and grew up – and in my own state of Indiana.

I have been blessed, to a greater extent than some and a lesser extent than others, to visit other places and rub shoulders with different people. But how many people have traveled just as richly, through literature and the other arts, without ever moving from the soil where they were born? This is a supremely practical value whose place in local or national curricula we eliminate or reduce at our own peril.

Saint Paul, in the first book of Corinthians, I believe it is, speaks of the various gifts of the spirit, one of which is charity, which is of course closely linked to empathy, to human sympathy, to imagination sufficient to walk the proverbial mile in another’s shoes. And as represented by Jesus in his parable about the culturally despised and hated Samaritan – who nonetheless had greater sympathy for his supposed enemy than the “righteous” man or priest who passed by on the other side of the street – even those we have been taught to fear and hate.

Some ground has been made recently, in this respect, in our society’s general acceptance of gays and lesbians, among other to-some-still-scary folk. But we seem to be slipping backward (not just here but in Europe and other places) in our tolerance of racial or national strangers among us: the marginal, the alien, the “illegal.” Granted, there is such a thing as an incorrigible terrorist or murderer, but we have them among ourselves and we should perhaps make as great an effort to understand them as to destroy or irradicate them. We can’t do that without an honest discussion of our own national misdeeds, a conversation that is neither treasonous nor unpatriotic in any true sense.

If our object is to protect American lives, including soldiers’, then we owe it to ourselves and those soldiers to not continue down the same paths that have fed our enemies’ hatred. We like to think of ourselves as an exceptional and an inherently good people, but in fact our exceptionality is contingent on our goodness and we are, otherwise, just human like all other peoples: an unstable hodgepodge of good and bad impulses. We don’t like to think of ourselves as a bloodthirsty and vengeful people, for example, but if such we are, it would be useful information.

15332407623_d711d2d97c[1]I have been struggling with this theme since before I wrote my last essay-blog in September. Since then I have been reading Taylor Branch’s magisterial three-volume history of America in the Martin Luther King years, and I remain deeply troubled by certain parallels between then and now: from the now more veiled efforts to prevent scary black and brown folk from voting, to some white folks’ defensiveness in the face of almost daily police or vigilante shootings of African American males.

Granted that white police officers are people just like all of us, white and brown and black, and we must try to understand their motivations and their humanity. Granted, also, that we are all partly responsible for these incidents by the ease with which politicians and demagogues have consistently managed to stir us up, from time to time, to an irrational and excessive thirst for law, order, and vengeance – human and Constitutional rights be damned. I suspect that, to some extent, the present crisis has as much to do with power as with prejudice, though at the same time we must every one of us examine the conscious and unconscious assumptions that feed the prejudices, also conscious and unconscious, that to varying degrees we all possess.

Imagination, human sympathy, tolerance: these are all human qualities that can be cultivated if we open ourselves up to them. Not all of us will, there are always the hard cases who will refuse to be moved, but surely a working majority of us could pull it off if we really wanted to. It could do us a great good, individually and collectively, if we would consciously give ourselves over to the stories, the narratives, the songs and artistic expression, of the people we most fear in the wide world and at home. But with an open heart instead of an ideological checklist of why to not be “taken in” by them.

But we have an immediate problem of evident police brutality that, along with our unresolved issues with “race” (a concept that biologists will tell us has no real validity), threaten to tear us further apart and to set us against each other.

Some ten years ago, on a short journey back to Argentina which I first visited about a quarter of a century earlier, I spoke with María Rosa Lojo, the author of a couple of books that I have translated. She commented on movie and TV police dramas in which police are the good guys. In Argentina, she said, with their history of corrupt and militarized policing, and the generals’ not-so-distant “dirty war” against the country’s own people (more than 10,000 “disappeared” in the late 1970s and 80s, some of their bodies dropped from planes into the ocean), no such drama would sell for the simple reason that no one would believe it. Their antipathy is also rooted in 19th-century Argentine literature, in particular to a literary gaucho, one Martín Fierro, and other renegades whom the people would give shelter on the assumption that bad and oppressive governance had driven them to their transgressions.

I fear that we may be heading for such a fate in the United States. In some African American communities, perhaps we are already there or already arriving. I have seen enough outrageous videos lately to make me seriously question, at the very least, if all of my countrymen and women can really expect justice from their local police force. Can we act for substantive change while it’s not too late to reverse things? Both reality and perception?

I’m not sure, but we must hope. And both our hope and our knowledge must inform our actions.