News and Features
Mahmoud Darwish burst on the Arab poetic scene in the mid-1960s with the publication in Beirut of poems written while he was living in Haifa, Israel, and working as a translator and editor for the Israeli Communist Party, Rakah. As Munir Akash points out in his introduction to this volume of selections from Darwish's recent work, with their fiery intensity and assuredness, the early poems touched a raw nerve in Arab readers. In a matter of a few years Darwish had become the most vocal and eloquent poetic spokesman of the Palestinians, and the foremost practitioner of what had come to be known as "the poetry of resistance."
Among poets writing in Arabic today, in fact, Darwish is the most widely translated. His work has made a home for itself in more than twenty-two languages, the bulk of it in some twenty books in French, which are bestsellers. By contrast, English has so far been less receptive to Darwish's poetry, except for a handful of volumes mostly out of print and a number of individual poems published in English-language literary magazines and anthologies. The Adam of Two Edens is only the second book-length volume of translations into English currently available to readers in the United States. Adam invites into our midst a deeply lyrical, sorrowful and unforgettable poetic voice.
The selections in The Adam of Two Edens are from Darwish's later works, mainly Ahad Ashar Kawkaban (Eleven Planets, 1992) and Limatha Tarakta al-Hissana Waheedan (Why Have You Left the Horse Alone?, 1995). Both collections were occasioned by a constellation of historic and personal events, at the center of which was the flawed Oslo Declaration of Principles in 1993. That year Darwish resigned from the PLO Executive Committee in protest and returned to the Middle East after an eleven-year exile in Paris. He settled first in Amman, the Jordanian capital, and then in the Palestinian town of Ramallah, where he also edits the Modernist Arabic literary journal al-Karmel, which he founded in 1981 in Beirut and continued editing in France.
Akash notes that the differences between Darwish's early, more declarative "poems of resistance" and the later works are striking--in thematic complexity and expressive sophistication. The curve of Darwish's poetic progress is little short of staggering--not only in the volume of his writerly and editorial output but also in the ways in which his writing has enlarged itself, consciously and systematically. For more than a decade now, the poet has slowly steered toward more open spaces and brought into his poetic sphere voices from other literary traditions and grafted their symbols, concerns and directions onto the trunk of Arabic poetry. His aim has been to create a poetic community of cultures, especially those that have been obliterated or are threatened with erasure--from the Native American to the Andalusian to the Palestinian and beyond.
Paradoxically, the expansion has also made Darwish's poetry more interior and personal. In this newly crafted lyrical space, atop the Palestinian soil, the experience of migration and the longing for solidarity with those who have embarked on the same trail have found an enduring anchor:
In migration we remember shirt buttons we lost,
forget the glittering crowns of our days,
recall the scent of apricot sweat,
forget the dancing horses on our wedding nights.
("In the Great Migration, I Love You More")
But even in its most intimate moments, his lyrical voice is often tempered with irony and seasoned with the salt of many departures. The intensity is always held in check, somewhat distanced and detached. Like the birds that inhabit Darwish's Mediterranean sky, his poems often flutter between poetic assertion and its difficulty in the face of the Palestinian national narrative of the nakba (catastrophe) of 1948:
I illuminate tomorrow's present in the moment.
Time separates me from my place.
My place separates me from my time.
All the prophets are my kin.
But heaven is still far from its earth
and I am still far from my words.
("On a Canaanite Stone at the Dead Sea")
The distance and separation are geographical, historical and personal. The Edenic title of the collection reverberates from poem to poem, as Darwish weaves symbolic nets that connect the biblical expulsion with the expulsion of the Arabs from Andalusia in "Ruba'yat":
I've seen all I want to see of the sea:
gulls flying through sunset.
I close my eyes:
this loss leads to Andalusia--
this sail is doves' prayers
pouring down on me.
And centuries later, with the migration of the poet from his native village of Birweh in the Upper Galilee, which the Israelis set ablaze and razed in 1948:
Do you remember our migration route to Lebanon?
Where you forgot me in a sack of bread
(it was wheat bread).
I kept quiet so as not to wake the guards.
The scent of morning dew lifted me onto your shoulders.
The metaphor of migration wanders the entire universe of Darwish's poetry. It crosses cities, cultures, regions, landscapes and historic periods, reproducing itself in an abundance of doubles and ironic twists to finally return home to the most bitter and prophetic irony of all: Home is another form of occupation, which robs people of their ability to dream of paradise. In a poem in 1982, Darwish asked, "Where should we go after the last frontiers?" In the poems of this collection, he tries to describe that rudderless, shadowy territory where everything has been co-opted by the mirage and rhetoric of peace.
Still, in these later works Darwish knows that the best the poet can do is populate these shadowy territories with the products of the only tools he has at his disposal--imagination and language:
My mother illuminates Canaan's last stars
around my mirror
and throws her shawl across my last poem.
In a poem dedicated to an Iraqi poet, he writes:
I'll remove the fingers of my dead from your body,
the buttons of their shirts and their birth certificates.
You'll take the letters of your dead to Jerusalem.
We'll wipe the blood from our glasses, my friend,
and reread our Kafka,
and open two windows onto a street of shadows.
("A Horse for the Stranger")
The image of two Arab poets rereading Kafka against the open window of uncertainty is a telling example of the kind of grafting that is common in Darwish's poetry: The poetic voice is also a communal voice--of García Lorca and Yeats, Homer and the bards of ancient cultures.
But these alliances, which Darwish weaves so masterfully, are also emblematic of the direction of his more recent poetry. Borrowing Adorno's term, Edward Said has noted that Darwish's "late style" opens onto a realm of irresolution and fracture, where poetry itself becomes the tenuous terrain of a lost homeland and an imagined community. Evoking the Arab expulsion from Granada in 1492, Darwish writes:
One day I'll pass by her moons and
scent my desires with lemon.
Embrace me, so I can be reborn
from aromas, from sunlight, from the river
thrown over your shoulders.
From two feet scratching the twilight
to make it weep milk tears
for a night of poetry!
("One Day I'll Sit on the Sidewalk")
In the end, what remains, what is permanent and real, is something as fleeting as a night of poetry whose fragile shoulders must carry not only the poet's longing for return but also the load of history, the long trail of expulsion and migration. In these dark, plaintive poems, though, poetry performs its essential task:
I'll shed my skin and from my language
words of love
will filter down through the poetry of García Lorca
who'll dwell in my bedroom
and see what I've seen of the bedouin moon.
("A sky Beyond sky for Me")
As an introduction to Darwish's later poetry, The Adam of Two Edens is an indispensable source. Akash's introduction --part memoir, part tribute, part analysis, part historical context--is both moving and effective in bringing Darwish and his poetry to life for American readers. Even those who have never read Darwish will know that they are in the company of a great poet whose imagined worlds are informed by great erudition, mythic sweep and meticulous lyricism.
Despite its noble aims, The Adam of Two Edens is limited in one key area. It lacks the translator's deliberate self-consciousness about the project at hand. We are told that several writers who are themselves versed in Arabic and English translated the individual poems, which were later "polished" by the American poet Daniel Moore to make them "harmonious in a single voice." But a translation's primary aim is to recast the music of the original in a wholly new expressive context, and to do so in bold ways. The collection would have benefited immensely from a discussion of the issues that the translators and Moore faced in this passage from Arabic to English, and how these issues were resolved, dodged or reframed.
Every translation renews the language of the original as well as the adopted language. So, too, with every poem. Darwish is well versed not only in Arabic and Hebrew poetry but also poetry written in English and French. The range of his poetic concerns is evident in a groundbreaking book of conversations with Arab and Israeli interviewers, La Palestine comme métaphore (Palestine as Metaphor, 1997; alas, not available in English). Part argument, part meditation, part analysis, it outlines not only Darwish's literary biography and the ways in which Palestinian and Israeli literatures have shaped his writing but also his efforts at forging an alliance between his native Arabic poetic tradition and the currents of Modernist poetry. But the introduction of The Adam of Two Edens merely notes that Darwish's "sense of cadence is symphonically structured," which, says Akash, has few equivalents in American poetry. That begs the question: What are the hurdles that a translator of Darwish's poetry faces in executing a translation into a poetic tradition and idiom that seems to lack what is so essential in the original?
Darwish's poetry, for example, sometimes displays instances where a line or a phrase or a word is repeated, and language seems to fold in on itself. This kind of creasing, which has its sources in the classical Arabic tradition of recitation, is a very effective device in giving the writing a pause, a suspended quality. A poetry reading by Darwish is always a huge cultural event in the Arab world, and this attribute places him in a line of poets who were also great reciters of their poetry--with Yeats, Ginsberg, Voznesensky, Dylan Thomas and others. But Darwish's Modernist impulses subvert the traditional comforts of this kind of creasing, turning this poetic device of classical Arabic into a source of both pleasure and anxiety. English, by contrast, does not tolerate repetition as well as Arabic does, and the translator has a huge problem in reinventing the original. It may be that with the best of intentions, the translators of the present volume have ended up being too loyal to the original, too willing to assume that there is a natural congruity between Arabic and English poetic cultures. The result is that sometimes the creases and folds seem clunky and pull the poem down.
The cadence of Darwish's Arabic sometimes has an eerie, miragelike feel to it, as if the lines were about to go into nothingness. Often the progress of the poetic line is musical; it seems to hover at the edge of something unknown, at the point where it can quickly become other than itself--a whisper, a silence, perhaps even a muffled sob. Darwish has argued at some length for the fraternity of music and poetry in the Arabic poetic tradition, even describing himself as something of a "reactionary," who, unlike some of his Arab contemporaries, has neither destroyed the poetic meter nor chosen prose over poetry. In the translations of The Adam of Two Edens we often do not have this sense of impending loss; the lines sometimes have a prosaic security that is at odds with the fragility of Darwish's poetry--reading it, writing it, listening to it.
In 1945 Czeslaw Milosz asked:
What is poetry which does not save
Nations or people?
Against hope, Darwish's poetry still speaks of coexistence and a shared culture:
Stranger, hang your weapons in our palm tree
and let me plant my wheat in Canaan's sacred soil.
("On a Canaanite Stone at the Dead Sea")
His vision of peace is the poet's prerogative, of course, but it may, in the end, be the only one that stands a chance--if not of saving nations, then at least of perspective and moderation:
All I want of love is a beginning.
Doves flew above the roof of the last sky,
flew off and kept flying...
After we're gone there'll be plenty of wine in the jars.
A little land is land enough for us for a place to meet,
enough for peace to descend...
("All I Want of Love is a Beginning")
In this most emotionally charged of times, I think that many of the moral issues we face are overlaid by an oft-expressed tension between the need for security and the full protections of human rights. It is always expressed as a tension, freedom as opposed to security. It is a false dichotomy but understandable, given how afraid we all are. And so we limit our sights to the need for good policy, good intelligence and strong, democratically inclined, diplomatically gifted leaders.
But I am also a lawyer, and a child of the civil rights era, which was, a bit like these times, a dangerous time, troubled by terrorizing outlaw behavior, a violent time. Yet what guided us, black and white, men and women, minority and majority, through that time was a determined appeal and, ultimately, adherence to principles of morality, justice and law. Dr. King's appeal to a transformative progressive society, to what he referred to as The Beloved Community, was of course an overtly theological argument, grounded in a love of all humanity. But it was also a metaphor, and that metaphor was grounded in a legal case, in a series of legal cases that held steadfastly to notions of fairness, equality and due process of law. The legal and political triumphs of the civil rights era remain a monument to America's best ideals.
Those times too were fraught with passion and grief. There were those who thought that Dr. King's work for racial equality was too radical, too deeply subversive, or unpatriotic. There were those who thought his opposition to American policy in Vietnam merited the response Love it or leave it. Similarly, there are those who have taken George W. Bush's oft-repeated statement--originally a warning to Iraq, as I recall--of "you're either with us or against us" and applied it broadly and inappropriately to men and women of conscience who express their concern that international conventions and norms of human rights be scrupulously applied in the battle against Al Qaeda.
Trust, don't ask, some have said. Say something positive or shut up. I worry a lot about the predominance of flat "either-or" dualisms that by their very syntax eliminate the middle ground so necessary to political debate. Love it or leave it. But Dr. King loved his country, and there was no "or" about it. He did not leave America but worked to impart a legacy that changed it and the world for the better. He appealed to a society that is committed to unity and yet vaunts individual freedom, including the freedom to dissent.
These tensions are often placed like roadblocks: security versus freedom, community versus dissent. That pervasive sense of opposition was a challenge for Americans in Dr. King's time, and it is a challenge for Americans now. And because the United States is a model others copy as well as a global force to be reckoned with, the citizens of the world are, one by one, having to resolve these tensions as well. As Dr. King said, "Civil rights"--or human rights I think he would add in today's global context--"civil rights is an eternal moral issue..."
Whatever the issue, whatever the time, we must resist a mindset that defines those who are "with us" as those who accept all policies as untouchable, all military action as automatically legitimate, all criticism as giving aid and comfort to the enemy. Otherwise we consign people who are engaged in the essence of democratic debate to the conceptual dustbin of those who are "against us." You're either on board as a team player or (according to the last few days of the New York Post alone) you're a brainless, overintellectualizing, group-thinking, anarchist, socialist, communist, stalinist, nihilistic, solipsistic, atheistic, politically correct, race-card-playing feminazi crackpot.
I sometimes wonder if we've forgotten who the enemy is.
But it is not unpatriotic to question and argue about our public policy; it's a duty of citizenship. It is not disrespectful to the Republic to ask, when our Defense Secretary says the men held in Guantánamo Bay are receiving better treatment than the Taliban ever gave their prisoners, what that means precisely. That they have not yet been beheaded? Or that the norms of the Geneva Convention and the Constitution are being rigorously observed?
I worry too about the degree to which we keep referring to these enemies as The Evil Ones or The Bad Guys--such odd terms, as though our leaders were speaking to very young children. By this, Al Qaeda is placed in an almost biblical narrative, ready to be smote and cast out. In this model, giving The Evil Ones so mundane a forum as a trial is literally "courting" the devil. While this sort of embedded language has certainly galvanized the people in a time of great crisis, I don't believe it's a useful long-term model for a democratic secular government trying to fight real political foes, particularly stateless enemies who are religious zealots in their own right. This sort of narrative obscures the adult reality that they are enemies, not viruses. They are humans, not demons. They are criminals, not satanic extraterrestrials. They may indeed be our New Age Goebbelses and Goerings, but we did not put Nazi war criminals in cages. We brought them to justice.
Given all this we will need all the thoughtful voices we can get to help our beleaguered leaders figure out a world that is growing more mobile, more diasporic, more riven by racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism (and I mean anti-Semitism in the broad sense of prejudice against all Semitic peoples, including Jews, Arabs and some Asians), religious intolerance, economic disparity and struggles for land. Indeed, recent tensions are such that some are calling this a "clash of civilizations." This too is something we should be wary of. Organized crime syndicates--whether the Ku Klux Klan in the civil rights era or Al Qaeda now--do not a civilization make.
As we move into Black History Month, it is good to remember that Dr. King's message was far more complex than the naïve rosiness to which he's often reduced. He insisted on equal protection even for those we do not like. He insisted on due process of law even for those whom we have reason to fear. And he demanded that we respect the humanity even of those we despise.
As the chairman of Artemis Records, the company that released Cornel West's CD, Sketches of My Culture, I considered criticizing Cornel for his association with Lawrence Summers, president of Harvard. Without ever listening to it, Summers attacked West merely for having released a CD, dismissing the entire universe of recorded music as being "unworthy of a Harvard professor." But like most record executives, I'm more tolerant of unorthodox associations than Summers, so I'll continue to judge West by his work and the inspiration it provides.
Among the flurry of press reports sparked by the controversy--most of which alluded to the alleged "rap CD"--quite a few couldn't get the facts straight. The New Republic claimed that West "has spent more time recording a rap CD and stumping for Al Sharpton than doing academic work." In fact, West has canceled only one class in twenty-six years of teaching, and that was several years ago, to deliver a lecture in Ethiopia. West recorded the CD during a leave--a long-established privilege in academia. (Summers himself took a leave from a professorship at Harvard to work for the World Bank.)
A Summers aide has said that the confrontation with West was a "terrible misunderstanding," but it's possible that Summers knew exactly what he was doing, using West the way Bill Clinton used Sister Souljah: to placate conservative elements of his constituency. Not only did Summers harshly criticize West's published work, he acknowledged that he had not read any of it or listened to the CD. Moreover, it's obvious that what disturbs Summers is not the notion of a Harvard professor engaging in political activity but West's particular beliefs: He criticized West's involvement with Bill Bradley, Ralph Nader and Al Sharpton, but Summers himself supported Al Gore (as did West's friend and supporter Henry Louis Gates Jr., head of the Afro-American studies department). Summers has been silent as his supporters have misrepresented West's record and called him names. Two examples: The National Review's Rod Dreher referred to West as a "clownish minstrel" and the New York Daily News's Zev Chafetz called him "a self-promoting lightweight with a militant head of hair."
West's decision to record a CD is in keeping with a commitment to spread his ideals and ideas as far and wide as possible. His book Race Matters has sold more than 350,000 copies and is one of the most influential books on race of the past couple of decades. His other works are used as texts in college classes around the world. There is no other public figure who is welcome in academia, in the media, in both conventional and activist politics and in the religious world.
By the way, Sketches of My Culture is not a "rap" CD. West, like most contemporary music critics, acknowledges that hip-hop is a vital cultural language. But Sketches itself is a concept album that is predominantly spoken word surrounded by r&b music, a montage that includes limited and focused uses of hip-hop language. Like any work of art, it's open to legitimate criticism, but it is clearly a serious attempt to use a modern art form to grapple with the themes that have animated West's career: black history, spirituality and political morality. There is not a word of profanity on it.
The indefatigable West has reached out to poor communities, moderating the crucial final panel at a recent "Rap Summit" and appearing on urban radio shows that had never been graced by the presence of an academic. I have seen the faces of young people inspired by West's linking of their own aspirations to the civil rights struggle and to the great philosophical and religious traditions. He urges them to live up to those examples. It has said something to the broader American community about Harvard that Cornel West is a professor there, and it will say something about Harvard if he is not.
A review of Tony Kushner's Homebody/Kabul.
Zero built a nest
In my navel. Incurable
Longing. Blood too--
From violent actions
It's a nest belonging to one
But zero uses it
And its pleasure is its own.
(from The Quietist)
The limits have wintered me
as if white trees were there to be written on.
It must be purgatory
there are so many letters and things.
Faith, hope and charity rise in the night
like the stations of an accountant.
And I remember my office, sufficiency.
The stains of blackberries near Marx's grave
do to color what eyes do to everything.
Help me survive my own presence, open to the elements.
Fog mist palloring greens, no demarcations,
but communitarian gravestones.
Celts lost to Anglo Saxons who endlessly defended marks.
Guerrilla war, terror:
the tactics for landless neo-realists.
When The Majestic was about to be released--it's the movie, you will recall, in which Jim Carrey plays a blacklisted screenwriter who suffers from amnesia--someone asked me to tote up the other films that touch on the Hollywood inquisition. I eliminated the allegories, such as Johnny Guitar, and the pictures that deal with other branches of show business (the music industry in Sweet Smell of Success, television in A King in New York and The Front) and calculated that all of two features--The Way We Were and Guilty by Suspicion--pay attention to the blacklist.
The number is also two with The Majestic included.
Talk about suffering from amnesia! Of course the movie industry feigned ignorance when the witch hunt was on--among its other unmentionable traits, the blacklist was illegal--and you can see how a certain forgetfulness was convenient afterward. But as Hollywood moved into the 1970s and '80s, with new corporate masters taking over the studios and old decision-makers dying off, the subject of the blacklist might have seemed ripe for exploiting. The industry has always loved to dramatize itself; and here, lying unexplored, was an episode that had convulsed all of Hollywood, and much of America with it.
Two films--if you feel generous toward Carrey, three. But now the count has risen significantly with One of the Hollywood Ten, the most honest movie of its very small group and arguably the best. It is not, however, an American picture. To our shame, it has taken a Welsh writer-director, Karl Francis, and producers based in Britain and Spain to film the true story of a blacklisted couple, Herbert Biberman and Gale Sondergaard, and their making of that remarkable movie, Salt of the Earth.
Since even Nation readers might be unaware of these events--and since truthfulness is a large part of Francis's merit--here's a quick synopsis:
Biberman was called before HUAC in 1947, among the committee's first group of unfriendly witnesses. Until that time his work as a writer and director had been so sparse, and so lackluster, that no one could have rationally accused him of transmitting ideology through the movies. That he had an ideology was unquestionable; Biberman was a committed Communist. But his greatest distinction was his marriage to Sondergaard, a hard-working, Oscar-winning actress.
Citing his First Amendment rights, Biberman refused to testify before HUAC, whereupon he was charged with contempt of Congress and sent to prison. When Sondergaard insisted on standing by him, she too was blacklisted. She found herself, upon his release, running a household of the dual unemployed.
It was at this point that their friends and fellow blacklistees Michael Wilson and Paul Jarrico came up with the idea of making an independent film about a labor uprising in New Mexico. The members of Local 890 of the Mine-Mill Workers, most of them Mexican-American, had gone on strike against Empire Zinc, demanding the same pay and conditions as Anglo workers received. The company's response was to get an injunction against the union, forbidding the miners from picketing. But the injunction said nothing about the miners' wives. In a brave and ingenious improvisation, the women came forward to walk the line, and did it so effectively that Empire Zinc finally settled.
Wilson turned this episode into the screenplay for Salt of the Earth. Jarrico took on the producer's duties, and Biberman signed on as director. Sondergaard had expected to play the lead--she was the cooperative's only bankable property--but at Biberman's request she stepped aside in favor of a Mexican actress, Rosaura Revueltas. Most of the other parts, including the male lead, were also cast with an eye for authenticity (and budgetary restraint), with the people of Local 890 playing themselves.
I said that One of the Hollywood Ten is a rare movie. Salt of the Earth is unique. It would have stood alone in its era just for having been made by movie industry veterans, but shot on location and acted by a largely nonprofessional cast. But, even more extraordinary, Salt of the Earth was a story about the problems of Mexican-American workers, as told by a Mexican-American woman. You'd have trouble finding such a movie today, when independent filmmaking is well established in America. Salt of the Earth was released in 1954.
Of course, neither unique nor pioneering is a synonym for good. And though the filmmakers faced extraordinary hardships, those, too, must remain external to any judgment of Salt of the Earth. The government deported Rosaura Revueltas in the midst of production, discouraged labs from processing the film, accused the crew of wanting to spy on atomic secrets at Los Alamos, kept theaters from booking the completed Salt of the Earth and warned projectionists away from showing it. This was an impressive show of force to mount against one little movie; but the harassment, in itself, doesn't justify what you see on the screen.
Biberman and his many collaborators justified Salt of the Earth. They managed to imbue the film with the feelings of a living community: at house parties and on picket lines, in the saloon and the church. Scenes percolate with the natural interplay of friends and neighbors, giving rise to a barely suppressed boisterousness. (The ruckus breaks into the open after the women are arrested for picketing. They mount a protest in their cell, with undisguised glee.) The ease of the group interaction makes up for the occasional awkwardness in individual performances--an awkwardness that at any rate has its own charm. And no excuses are needed for Revueltas, with her finely nuanced movements toward self-assertion; for the pace of the film, which keeps building and building; or for Biberman's eye, which seems to have been delighted with every face, landscape feature and stick of furniture in New Mexico.
To the eyes of present-day viewers, who may be accustomed to strains of neorealism developed everywhere from Italy to Iran, Salt of the Earth looks surprisingly good. It is not a based-on-a-true-story movie but something more valuable: the chief American prototype for those films that are simultaneously fiction and documentary. As for the virtue of its uniqueness: Doesn't a special honor accrue to the one film to have done something that was well worth doing?
I believe One of the Hollywood Ten has earned a similar distinction--though its internal, cinematic merits are entirely different. That's as it should be. The two films take entirely different approaches to their medium.
Biberman and his partners made a movie that barely acknowledges the existence of the entertainment business; the only evidence of pop culture in Salt of the Earth is a radio, bought on the installment plan. One of the Hollywood Ten, by contrast, reminds you at every turn that you're watching a movie, and that movies are (among other things) a business and a site of ideological contest. Francis opens his film with a prologue set in 1937, in which he tosses up two opposing forms of movie politics: the opening in New York City of Triumph of the Will, and the announcement by Gale Sondergaard (in the midst of the Academy Awards broadcast) of the formation of the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League. Once Francis jumps into 1947, he continues this theme, showing the HUAC hearings as newsreel fodder (which they were). Everybody in One of the Hollywood Ten is playing for the camera and the microphone.
It's fitting, then, that Francis's movie should feature three star performances. The biggest of them is Jeff Goldblum's, as Biberman. Much of the usual Goldblum shtick is in evidence: the talking with dark eyes unfocused, the bursting forth of little phrases after unpredictable, Miles Davis pauses. But, also as usual, Goldblum feels his way deep into the character. He shows us Biberman as a chronic empathizer, someone who's always draping his big hands reassuringly over anyone he talks to. The voice is low, patient, thoughtful; and then, when Biberman doesn't get his way, he jumps without transition to a full bellow.
Greta Scacchi, as Gale Sondergaard, makes good use of a certain brittleness in her screen personality. Here she's playing a Hollywood star of the old school--a woman with perfectly groomed vowels, who keeps her well-powdered face turned toward the key light in any room--which allows her to find authentic feeling, even gutsiness, within her pose. But the movie's biggest star turn, the one that steals One of the Hollywood Ten, is Angela Molina's performance as Rosaura Revueltas. Molina looks older than Revueltas did in Salt of the Earth; whereas Revueltas had smooth, freckled features, Molina's face is lined and sunken. When Molina begins to play Esperanza, the central character in Salt of the Earth, her eyes take on the outsize look of hunger. And the voice! Molina puts a weariness, and a wariness, all her own into Esperanza's lines, using intonations that cut into your bones.
One of the Hollywood Ten thrives on these performances, and on Francis's fascination with movies themselves--how they're made, how they work on their audiences. (In one of the picture's truest moments, Biberman bubbles over with enthusiasm at his own cleverness, talking about the best way to shoot and edit Salt of the Earth.) Where the movie strays from these strengths, it also falters. Among its several glaring faults, One of the Hollywood Ten gives us an FBI agent who is so monotonally nasty that he seems to have strayed in from a bus-and-truck tour of Les Miz, and a Gale Sondergaard who is indomitably firm, except when she's not. When her husband tells her she won't play the lead in Salt of the Earth--her husband, who wouldn't have gotten to direct the picture without her intervention--she needs only a brief walk on the beach to calm her down. And, of course, there's music on the beach. There's music everywhere in One of the Hollywood Ten, poured out of a can of creamed corn.
This is merely to say that no one has yet made a masterpiece about the Hollywood blacklist. Karl Francis has made a good, intelligent movie about the subject, and a largely truthful one. Let's see somebody try to top him.
One of the Hollywood Ten has just been shown in the New York Jewish Film Festival, presented by The Jewish Museum and the Film Society of Lincoln Center.
The Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize of $10,000, awarded annually for the most outstanding book of poems published in the United States by an American, is administered mutually by the Academy of American Poets and The Nation. In the past decade, winners have been David Ferry (2000), Wanda Coleman (1999), Mark Jarman (1998), Robert Pinsky (1997), Charles Wright (1996), Marilyn Hacker (1995), W.S. Merwin (1994), Thom Gunn (1993), Adrienne Rich (1992), John Haines (1991) and Michael Ryan (1990). This year the award goes to Fanny Howe for her Selected Poems. Jurors were Elaine Equi, Bob Perelman and Ann Lauterbach, who contributed the following essay. Other finalists for the award were Your Name Here, by John Ashbery (Farrar, Straus & Giroux); Republics of Reality 1975-1995, by Charles Bernstein (Sun & Moon); Atmosphere Conditions, by Ed Roberson (Sun & Moon); Plasticville, by David Trinidad (Turtle Point); and The Annotated 'Here' and Selected Poems, by Marjorie Welish (Coffee House).
In the days and weeks following the events of September 11, one poet, one poem by one poet, seemed to come into circulation: W.H. Auden's searing "September 1st, 1939." Set in New York, the poem's narrator, chastened by events into chill eloquence, speaks in slow rhymes, as formally reassuring as they are devastating in content. Like other Modernists, Auden cultivated a poetics of narrative statement that gave public voice to private perception. It is a voice that turned the unruly emotions of sorrow, fear and rage into ideas of order. But just as hot war tactics and cold war rhetoric feel outdated and dangerous in our terrible new world, the pacifying sonorities of Auden seem strangely out of tune.
On the evening of September 10, my colleagues and co-judges, Elaine Equi and Bob Perelman, and I met at my loft on Duane Street in TriBeCa to converse about our choices for finalists for the Lenore Marshall Prize. Over the summer, we had each read more than 200 books, some, but by no means all, of the collections of poetry published in 2000. These books were written by poets of national stature and poets of only local repute; they included hefty life-works and first slim volumes. It was a daunting task, by turns exhilarating and infuriating. To choose from among them the "most outstanding" tested not only our individual judgments but our shared belief in a poetics responsive to the contemporary moment.
The six finalists, John Ashbery, Charles Bernstein, Fanny Howe, Ed Roberson, David Trinidad and Marjorie Welish, are remarkable writers. Together, they have contributed immeasurably to contemporary poetry in America: expanding formal range, resisting reductive subjectivity and its narrative claims, attending to the exigencies of both language and world. To chose one from among them seems arbitrary, but there is only one prize to give. We have awarded the Lenore Marshall Prize for the most outstanding book of 2000 to Fanny Howe for her Selected Poems.
Fanny Howe is the author of more than twenty books (poetry and fiction) published by some of the most adventurous and enduring small presses in America. This beautifully designed and produced book is the third in a series called New California Poetry from the University of California Press, edited by Robert Hass, Calvin Bedient and Brenda Hillman. Until recently, Howe was professor of American writing and American literature at the University of California, San Diego. She has now retired to her native New England.
Howe works in sequences of poems made of minimally punctuated short lines. The individual poems are untitled. This notational, almost diaristic format gives the impression of a seamless intimacy and urgency, as if the reader were present at the act of writing. A spare tonality moves against the density and complexity of her vision, where a classical lyric voice is annealed to a spiritual quest buffeted and embattled by resisting political and social realities. This tension is what gives the poems their power.
Small birds puff their chests and feathers
With the pleasure that they know better
High morning clouds unload themselves
On the world. Blue peeps through
Sunny boys have spacious souls but killers
Build war zones in the sky where they go to die
Blue poems. Blue ozone. A V-sign
Sails into the elements: an old ship
Named Obsolete though Lovely is easier to see
Now visualize heaven as everything around it
(from Introduction to the World)
Howe's diction is not conventionally poetic, not dressed up, not avuncular, not pretty. It is peculiar, compelling and provocative, with moments of absolute clarity adjacent to moments of mere glimpse. This quixotic, pulsating quality lends a sensuous mystery and scale to the landscape of her work, as if the lines were emanating from a lighthouse whose signal is intensely bright one moment and scanning the horizon at the next. There is an asymmetrical oddness and frailty to her cadence that contributes to the dissonance between private and public event:
If goals create content stealth creates form
The air force hits space
with the velocity of a satanic wrist
How to give birth to children under these conditions
Favor the ghost over the father, maternalist
Howe stitches into a single poem materials from diverse, often divergent, experience. Affective language is laid beside statement but is not subsumed by it. The voice is personal, but there are no invitations here to bear witness to the concrete details of a life; or rather, that life's details are drawn through the poem as a thread in a variegated fabric. In a world strewn with bare facts, Howe's reflective meditative lines are consoling, not for their content, which is as charged with pessimism as Auden's, but because they invite us, or remind us, to attend. The poems act on us like pilot lights, igniting the receptive synapse of language. Like all true poetry, her work is difficult to excerpt, impossible to paraphrase. Howe is compelled by the distinction between, and proximity of, History and story; her work brings us to the threshold of accountability.
Laughter--or slaughter--outside the door
And inside she was dying
To join in. So she had to go out
--a physical body
With subjective needs
Wing with the post-Christians. Her brow a headline
Reporting news of weather & mood
From masters of the military & amorous arts
Hide in her little close
Off the runway, or step into their story
(from The Quietist)
On the dust jacket, one person compares Fanny Howe to Emily Dickinson, a comparison all too easily invoked for writings by women. But in this case, there is justification. Like Dickinson, Fanny Howe animates her work with an austere logic, in which aspects of a unique response, spiritual, emotional and intellectual, are held in an uneasy, necessary relation. She makes demands on her readers. If those demands are met, the rewards are as inestimable as they are real.
Just a few return from dust, disguised as roses.
What hopes the earth forever covers, what faces?
I too could recall moonlit roofs, those nights of wine--
But Time has shelved them now in Memory's dimmed places.
She has left forever, let blood flow from my eyes
till my eyes are lamps lit for love's darkest places.
All is his--Sleep, Peace, Night--when on his arm your hair
shines to make him the god whom nothing effaces.
With wine, the palm's lines, believe me, rush to Life's stream--
Look, here's my hand, and here the red glass it raises.
See me! Beaten by sorrow, man is numbed to pain.
Grief has become the pain only pain erases.
World, should Ghalib keep weeping you will see a flood
drown your terraced cities, your marble palaces.
The first Arabic music I heard was in its native habitat, while riding on gaudily painted buses through Turkey, Morocco and Syria in the 1960s. Before the drivers thrashed their busted-out transmissions into second gear, they were popping in cassettes of Lebanon-born Fairouz or Egypt's Oum Khalsoum, the sirens who serenaded the entire Arab world.
The propulsive beat went with the bad roads, wild driving and free-form mix of human and animal passengers. Even the chickens, tied together at the feet, seemed to sway in time. The singing was rich and highly emotive, but what really captured me was the hypnotic pulse of the oud, the Arabic lute. With its short neck and deep body, the ten-to-twelve-string, plucked oud looks like a sawed-off, overweight guitar, but its beginnings--it might have originally been Sumerian, Egyptian, Persian or even Jewish--are shrouded in mystery.
It was certainly Arabs who popularized the oud and placed it front and center in a musical tradition that was, until recently, best appreciated in America as the soundtrack to belly dancing. But its potential for crossover appeal was soon apparent in the West. Like rock, Middle Eastern music--in infinite variations ranging from exuberant Algerian räi (a rough-hewn, boisterous and often-topical street music) and Egyptian shabbi (meaning "people," an irreverent, rhythmic folk music with working- class origins) to meditative qawwali (the devotional Sufi music of India and Pakistan, exemplified by the late singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan)--had a good beat and you could dance to it. In Arabic, the word tarab means state of ecstasy or enchantment, and it's what the best musicians try to capture. Small wonder, then, that LP copies of Port Said: Exotic Rhythms of the Middle East Captured in High Fidelity, Music on the Desert Road and The Seventh Veil brightened the otherwise drab scenery in many a 1950s suburban rec room.
A decade later, John Berberian, an accomplished Armenian oud player from New York, helped penetrate the consciousness of the Woodstock generation with Middle Eastern Rock, a 1969 fusion album that included studio pro Joe Beck on amplified rock guitar and fuzz. But Berberian was thirty years ahead of his time.
Peter Gabriel's World of Music, Arts and Dance (WOMAD) tours, launched in 1982, also helped make Arabic music "cool" in the West, particularly by presenting young artists like the London-based Transglobal Underground, which mixes dance beats, tape loops and samples into a world music stew. Also helping the crossover and performing on WOMAD was the onetime Top of the Pops performer Natacha Atlas, a self-described "human Gaza strip" of a singer and belly dancer who is half English, half Sephardic Jew and was raised in a Moroccan community in Brussels.
It is, arguably, sad that Arabic music has to be adulterated with pop influences to be palatable to Western audiences, but the artists themselves--many of whom live in France or the United States--are enthusiastic participants. Khaled, the Algerian räi singer who is among the most popular Arabic performers in the United States, rocks it up with production help from British progressive rocker Steve Hillage. Cheb Mami, another räi star, goes into the studio with producer Nile Rodgers to record "Le Räi C'est Chic."
Aside from Peter Gabriel, the rocker with the biggest influence in promoting Arabic music has been Sting, who was introduced to räi by his manager, Miles Copeland. In 2000, Sting recorded the song "Desert Rose" as a duet with Cheb Mami, and toured with him. The song, which even made it into a Jaguar commercial, was a huge hit, and the collaborations continued. That's Sting singing backup on "Le Räi C'est Chic," and the rocker's endorsement is stickered on many a current Arabic music album.
Just a few months ago, there was considerable optimism that Arabic music would "cross over" in a big way, like Latin pop, country, cajun or any number of other styles. As producer and kanun player Ara Topouzian points out, movie soundtracks--from The Crow and Dead Man Walking to Gladiator--use the duduk, an Armenian wooden flute, for a taste of the exotic, and pop stars from Gloria Estefan to the Colombian singer Shakira give Joe Zeytoonian a call when they want some oud on their records.
But then September 11 happened.
Dawn Elder, vice president of Miles Copeland's label, Ark 21/Mondo Melodia, was in Egypt, on her way to the airport with eighteen musicians "about to embark on an almost sold-out ten-city US tour with Khaled and Hakim, who's known as the Sheik of Egyptian shabbi," she says. "It was stunning, surreal. Obviously, the tour had to be canceled." Simon Shaheen, who lives in Brooklyn and is one of the world's foremost oud players, troubled over going on with a September 22 performance at the Chicago World Music Festival. In his case, the show went on, to standing ovations; but Shaheen, born in Galilee and educated in Jerusalem, says many of the musicians he has worked with regularly have had trouble getting visas since September. "This horrible event has nothing to do with Arabic music or musicians," he says. The Taliban, of course, banned all music, even though Shaheen points out that the Koran calls music "the light for the heart."
Shaheen, who was nominated for no less than eleven first-ballot Grammies for his album Blue Flame, went on Politically Incorrect to, as he puts it, "talk about American foreign policy. I think the United States needs to put pressure on the repressive Arab regimes it supports. These countries have to let the people breathe and express themselves."
Many Middle Eastern musicians are Armenian or Lebanese Christians, or non-Arab Turkish Muslims, or even Greek. The problem, of course, is that Americans have trouble telling Arabs from Sikhs, so they're unlikely to appreciate fine political distinctions of the type Shaheen makes. Arabic music can sound like an ecstatic expression of deep humanism or it can be perceived as the soundtrack to terrorism. Fears of the latter led to cancellation of many bookings at the club level. Live Arab music almost disappeared from New York. (Sadly enough, the club scene in Dearborn and Detroit, home to the largest Arab population outside the Middle East, died out long before September.) According to deejay Addis Pace, some New York clubs that had featured Arabic dance music simply stopped spinning it after the World Trade Center attacks.
Moroccan oud player Brahim Fribgane now lives in Arizona, but as of September he was part of Boston's tight-knit Arab music community. A regular with Hassan Hakmoun's ensemble who has toured with Peter Gabriel and recorded with Morphine, Fribgane was numbed by the attacks. "For the first few days, I couldn't play at all," he says. "I had to break through this idea that I couldn't play music because I'm an Arab. But on September 14, I had a gig in Boston with Atlas Soul, a UN-type of North African funk band with a Jewish-French sax player, a German drummer and an American bass player, and I found I could perform again." Fribgane is a regular at Jewish weddings and bar mitzvahs, and loathes the idea that Arab music could in any way be associated with hate or terrorism. He hopes that it can be seen as a healing force instead. "Music is about love and peace, right?" he says.
That view is common among Middle Eastern musicians and producers. Dawn Elder calls September 11 "a setback, a step backward" for Arabic music, particularly after there had been an August 11 cover story in Billboard ("Arabic Music Moves West") and big spreads in the Los Angeles Times and Rhythm. "We were waylaid. But this awful time has also reinspired me to spread the word about this music," she says. "It's not just about having a good time or a great cultural experience. It's truly a much-needed healing force."
Oud player Shaheen expresses the hope that Americans will want to learn more about Middle Eastern culture "because of this event that happened." Shaheen is himself an educator, lecturing regularly about the music at colleges and workshops. He is also the founder of the Arab American Arts Institute, which organizes an annual Arabic Music Retreat at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. Kay Campbell, banker by day and oud player by night, helps administer the retreat, which brings together amateur and professional musicians from around the world. Campbell says she could sense "a door opening" before September 11, that "people from all over were getting into the groove of Arab music. The attacks were, obviously, devastating to the progress we were making. There is seething and justifiable anger. But this is also an opportunity to educate people about this culture that has fabulous music, great food, wonderful poetry and true joie de vivre."
Reports of the death of Arabic music in America would be premature, however, despite the sense of setback. Deejay Addis Pace, who doubles as the head world-music buyer at a major New York record chain, says, "This has been a very robust year for Arab music, and we were very worried about a backlash after the attacks. But it hasn't happened. Sales have maintained. Four of our top five world-music sellers right now have a connection to the Middle East. I guess people want to understand that part of the world."
Fabian Alsultany, manager of the Moroccan gnawa virtuoso Hassan Hakmoun, says the the cross-pollination among world performers has opened arms wide to Arabic music. Alsultany is himself half Iraqi and half Cuban, so crossing over between cultures is natural to him. Alsultany also deejays in New York, and he says people are still asking for Natacha Atlas and such unique fusions as MoMo, an electronic band from Morocco, and Badawi, Israeli desert music with a reggae dub overlay.
The crossover music is so strong, and so popular, that it threatens to swamp the modest movement that is attempting to preserve traditional Arabic performers. The Egyptian classical composer Mohamed Abd el-Wahaab, who died in 1991, viewed the western pop influences in shabbi and räi as a distressing development. "The new wave singers have damaged the music scene with their songs," he said. "In Europe, they are not attempting to replace the 'old with the new,' or classical with modern, as is happening now in Egypt."
But purity is hard to find in any musical tradition. Perhaps surprisingly, John Berberian, despite his having given birth to the first Middle Eastern fusion album, is frequently cited by traditionalists as the oud player with the truest sense of kef, or Armenian soul. Berberian, now living in Massachusetts after many years in New York and New Jersey, is still doing what he has always done, playing ethnic club dates, performing at Armenian and Greek dances, parties, weddings and anniversaries. "I'm still working," he says. "One club where I play, the Middle East in Cambridge, suspended operation for a couple of weeks. The name above the door was not very attractive for a while. But they're back in commission." Most Middle Eastern musicians are hoping that they'll have a similar experience. A pause to reflect and heal, then back to the seriously peaceful business of making music that is "the light for the heart."
Earthsea, Ursula Le Guin's magical world of islands and archipelagoes, is going through a period of intense, uncomfortable social change. The old ways no longer work and the new ones are not yet clear. At last there is a central government, though its young head of state is still establishing his authority, and it's bumpy going in the wild Kargish lands, where the religion, language and ethnicity are different and the women wear burqas. He has also encountered some resistance from the college of wizards at Roke, a theocratic caste that has ruled for centuries and become rather stiff and doctrinaire, as well as hateful toward women. Now Earthsea has suddenly been plunged into turmoil by two simultaneous assaults. One is an invasion of the collective unconscious by the voices and images of the dead, who beg to be set free from the dry land behind the wall of stones where they are confined. The other comes in fire from the skies, as dragons zoom in from the west to attack farm and forest. What is the reason for these threats? Are they connected? And does this society have what it takes to meet them?
Such are the themes of Ursula Le Guin's two new Earthsea books: Tales From Earthsea and The Other Wind: the boundary between life and death, terror from the sky and how hard it is for male-dominant societies to listen to women. Timely themes, from an acknowledged master not only of fantasy but of science fiction as well, a feminist, anarchist and Green whose books are taught in universities, and who has won many literary prizes (five Nebulas, five Hugos, the National Book Award for children's literature, a Newbery silver medal, Horn book award). In a country that valued wisdom and symbolic thinking, these two books would have been met with hosannas from coast to coast.
Does it matter that they weren't? I think so. To me, Le Guin is not only one of the purest stylists writing in English but the most transcendently truthful of writers. The books she writes are not true in the way facts are true; they speak to a different kind of truth and satisfy a desire for narrative that is so fundamental it must be in our cells. As she puts it:
The great fantasies, myths, and tales are indeed like dreams: they speak from the unconscious to the unconscious, in the language of the unconscious--symbol and archetype. Though they use words, they work the way music does: they short-circuit verbal reasoning, and go straight to the thoughts that lie too deep to utter. They cannot be translated fully into the language of reason, but only a Logical Positivist, who also finds Beethoven's Ninth Symphony meaningless, would claim that they are therefore meaningless. They are profoundly meaningful, and usable--practical--in terms of ethics; of insight; of growth.
"The Child and the Shadow" (1975), in The Language of the Night
Le Guin wrote the first three Earthsea books thirty years ago. A Wizard of Earthsea (1968) is the coming-of-age story of the boy Ged, who meddles in forbidden lore and summons up a rough, bearlike Shadow, who attacks and nearly kills him. The rest of the book concerns Ged's struggle to understand this Shadow, so strong it could bring destruction to the world unless he can defeat it. What is this rough beast? Why does it increasingly resemble him?
The second Earthsea book, The Tombs of Atuan (1970) takes place in the Kargish lands, which are separate from and more primitive than the rest of Earthsea. It is the story of Tenar, who as a small child became Arha, the Eaten One, priestess of the tombs of Atuan, ruled by the old earth powers of death, blood and brooding revenge. Into this dark underground labyrinth comes Ged, looking for the ring of Erreth-Akbe, which bears a lost rune of peace that can bring about a new era. Injured, starving, trapped, he is not strong enough to fight the old earth powers and escape unless Tenar helps him. Her entire upbringing urges her to kill him, but he is the first man she has ever seen as well as the first wizard, and she is tempted. In the end, she chooses life and escape, seeing that, by freeing him, she can also free herself. But then what? Where can she go once she is free?
Although Le Guin has been heavily influenced by Tolkien, her cosmology differed from his from the beginning. While both write of lands ruled by magic, Tolkien's Middle Earth has states and civil society; Earthsea has principalities but is more or less ruled by a caste of celibate priest-wizards centered on the Island of Roke, whose inborn mastery has been schooled at the college. In Earthsea, power of this kind is based on the Language of the Making which is also the language of dragons, only they are born knowing it; men have to learn it. Names in the Language of the Making are the thing, and knowledge of them confers power, over nature and over other people. A wizard who knows someone's true name can control him. But mature wizards do not use their power any more than they have to, for the ruling principle of Le Guin's world is not Tolkien's struggle between good and evil, but equilibrium, balance. Earthsea is a Taoist world (Le Guin has actually translated the Tao Te Ching), where light and dark, life and death are yin and yang, intertwined rather than opposed. The world gets out of balance when one side of an opposition gets too strong: light, wizardry, men. When men of power use their knowledge to fence themselves off from the dailiness of ordinary life--farming, mending, giving birth, and women--trouble is coming. Such hubris can lead to denial of death itself. It does in the third book, The Farthest Shore (1972).
The Farthest Shore begins with the inexplicable: magic, the organizing principle of Earthsea, is failing and no one knows why. Gradually it becomes clear that a destroyer has arisen, a terribly powerful wizard, Cob, who awakens the terror of death while promising immortality to any who will follow him. His followers drift in dumb despair, work ceases and meaning drains out of the world. Ged, now Archmage (head of the wizard's council), and his young disciple Lebannen, destined to be the long-awaited king, must trace this peril to its source and defeat it. To do so, they must cross the wall of stones into the dry land, the land of death, where no wind blows, no sun shines, and people, still trapped in the prison of their names, wander forever, unable even to recognize those they once loved.
Through many perils Ged and Lebannen seek the physical entrance to the dry land but can only find it when aided by dragons. The plague of despair has affected the dragons too; their young are killing one another and drowning themselves in the sea, and even the wisest are in danger of losing their language and themselves. After a hard pursuit and struggle in the dry land, Lebannen and Ged together defeat Cob and Ged reseals the gap between life and death. But in doing so, he drains his own power; he is no longer a wizard, no longer strong enough even to walk. Lebannen must carry him over the Mountain of Pain, which is the only exit from the dry land, to the beach, where the dragon Kalessin, the eldest, awaits them. Now that Ged has lost his power, he can no longer be Archmage; Kalessin flies him on past Roke to his home island of Gont. But Lebannen will be crowned king and bring about a new era under the rune of peace that Ged and Tenar brought from underground so many years before.
So ends Le Guin's third Earthsea book. She thought it was the last. Then, twenty years later, she suddenly wrote a sequel, Tehanu (1990). I interviewed her at that time and asked her why. She said she had to tell what happened to Tenar. She had tried to earlier but couldn't; she was too caught in the tradition of heroic male fantasy to be able to figure out what would happen to a woman in a Tolkien world. "That is why I had to write this fourth volume, because I changed. I had to show the other side."
But what is the other side of heroic male fantasy? The answer is not as simple as flipping a coin with King Arthur on one side, Britomart on the other. Traditionally there are only four possible roles for women in this sort of book: absent beloved, evil witch, damsel in distress and girl warrior. Can one make room for real women without undermining the fundamental premises of the genre?
From Le Guin's practice, it would appear not. Tenar became a farmer's wife because...what else can she do on Gont? This is farm country, after all, and while she has some kind of power, it is not the kind of power of which wizards are made. Even if it were, they would never train her on Roke, where the wizards have the kind of attitude toward women one tends to find in celibate priesthoods. A widow now, Tenar has adopted Therru, a little girl who was beaten and raped and almost burned up in a fire by her parents, so that one of her arms is withered and one whole side of her face is a hardened shell of scars. Therru too has some kind of power but nobody knows what it is. Tehanu begins where The Farthest Shore ends, as the dragon Kalessin delivers Ged into Tenar's care. Tenar has always loved him, and the two finally get together, overcoming his lifelong celibacy and his shame at having lost his power. But peril persists from those who followed the destroyer and, at the end, they can be saved only by the little burnt girl Therru, who calls the dragon back in the Language of the Making, a language she has never been taught. "Tehanu," he names the child, and calls her daughter. We are left wondering, how can this damaged, tormented little girl also be a dragon?
After eleven more years, Le Guin answered that question with Tales From Earthsea and The Other Wind, which do more than undermine the conventions of heroic male fantasy; they retrospectively transform the very history she created in the first three Earthsea books. There are five stories in Tales From Earthsea, but the central one is "Dragonfly." Dragonfly is a big, ungainly country girl, whose real name is Irian. Like Tenar and Tehanu, she has some kind of power nobody can exactly name. She knows she isn't like other people and wants to find out what she is. Finally she encounters somebody willing to take her to Roke to find out. But when she gets there, she comes up against a wall. In the absence of an Archmage, Roke has become factionalized. Thorion, the Summoner, had followed Ged and Lebannen into the dry land. He stayed there too long and was thought dead; now he has somehow returned to life, by the power of his will, and seeks to rule, to become Archmage and preserve the old ways. He says no woman can be admitted into the school on Roke; Irian must leave the island. The wizards are divided; the Master Patterner, Azver, lets her stay with him in the Immanent Grove, and begins to love her. Yet he, like the few others who are willing to deal with her, seems paralyzed; none of them have the strength to stand against the dead man, Thorion, and those who follow him. So when Thorion finally comes to throw Irian off the island, she must defend herself. She challenges Thorion to meet her on Roke Knoll, the hill where things can only be what they truly are:
The air was darkening around them. The west was only a dull red line, the eastern sky was shadowy above the sea.
The Summoner looked up at Irian. Slowly he raised his arms and the white staff in the invocation of a spell, speaking in the tongue that all the wizards and mages of Roke had learned, the language of their art, the Language of the Making: "Irian, by your name I summon you and bind you to obey me!"
She hesitated, seeming for a moment to yield, to come to him, and then cried out, "I am not only Irian."
At that the Summoner ran up towards her, reaching out, lunging at her as if to seize and hold her. They were both on the hill now. She towered above him impossibly, fire breaking forth between them, a flare of red flame in the dusk air, a gleam of red-gold scales, of vast wings--then that was gone, and there was nothing there but the woman standing on the hill path and the tall man bowing down before her, bowing slowly down to earth, and lying on it.
When the others come up to him, he is only "a huddle of clothes and dry bones and a broken staff." Aghast, they ask Irian who she is. She says she does not know. "She spoke...as she had spoken to the Summoner, in the Language of the Making, the tongue the dragons speak." She says goodbye to Azver, whom she loves, touching his hand and burning him in the process, then goes up the hill.
As she went farther from them they saw her, all of them, the great gold-mailed flanks, the spiked, coiling tail, the talons, the breath that was bright fire. On the crest of the knoll she paused a while, her long head turning to look slowly round the Isle of Roke, gazing longest at the Grove, only a blur of darkness in darkness now. Then with a rattle like the shaking of sheets of brass the wide, vaned wings opened and the dragon sprang up into the air, circled Roke Knoll once, and flew.
The Other Wind continues this theme of women who are also dragons, and plays it off against another central theme of these books, the relationship between life and death. For the terrible breach between life and death made by Cob continues. Now the dead have started appearing to the living in dreams, coming to the stone wall at the dry hill, begging to be set free, as if death were a prison. And at the same time, wild dragons have come to take back the land from men; they have come even to Havnor, where the young king, Lebannen, holds court under the rune of peace. All the patterns, clues and oppositions, set up over thirty years in five other books, come to fruition and are worked out in The Other Wind, but the book is so dependent on what came before, so complex, it is impossible to explicate here. It must be read--after the others--then thought on long and hard, for its meanings are not immediately manifest.
Long after reading, certain images stay in the mind. One is the dry land, this prison of death, and its relationship to immortality through the mastery of naming, of language. Another is women who are also dragons, who can find no place here on earth but must fly off beyond the west, on the other wind. Irian, excluded by the men of power, with only a few defenders, who are outnumbered and outweighed by the dead hand--there's plenty of resonance here for any woman who ever found herself a little bit too far ahead of the affirmative-action curve. As far as gender goes, these books seem to me a true symbolic picture of where we are now, with no untainted source of male power, no mature authoritative leadership of any kind, caught midway in our evolution as social beings, still trying to struggle up out of the ooze onto the land, no longer tadpoles and not yet frogs.
Science fiction and heroic fantasy began as the province of men, and the gradual entry of women into these genres has not necessarily produced more psychological depth overall. The best writers (including Octavia Butler, Samuel Delany, Neil Gaiman, Kim Stanley Robinson, Joanna Russ and Le Guin herself) have given us complex re-visionings of gender and power relations. But most writers have ambitions no higher than those of their counterparts who write in other commercial genres like espionage, crime or romance.
That is why Tales From Earthsea and The Other Wind are cause for celebration: they are books by a master stylist writing at the height of her powers. Although plenty of mass market fantasy is written in extremely pedestrian prose, style is key in fantasy, as in poetry. For fantasy is a pure creation of the imagination, summoned unto existence by the language of the making. Le Guin's style is as spare, plain, American and transparent as a northern lake: no tricks, no razzle-dazzle, no lists. "Why," she asks in an early essay, "is style of such fundamental significance in fantasy?"
because in fantasy there is nothing but the writer's vision of the world. There is no borrowed reality of history, or current events, or just plain folks.... There is no comfortable matrix of the commonplace to substitute for the imagination, to provide ready-made emotional response, and to disguise flaws and failures of creation. There is only a construct built in a void, with every joint and seam and nail exposed. To create what Tolkien calls "a secondary universe" is to make a new world. A world where no voice has ever spoken before; where the act of speech is the act of creation. The only voice that speaks there is the creator's voice. And every word counts.
From Elfland to Poughkeepsie, (1973)
If Le Guin is such a master and these books are so good, why have they been smuggled into the bookstore, largely unnoticed except in the professional reviewing periodicals? To understand the answer to this question, one must look at how genre is viewed in America and at the tyranny of contemporary realism in literary fiction.
Until the triumph of capitalism in the nineteenth century, the source of literature was thought to be the imagination, and the realistic novel was considered an inferior form, earthbound, compared to poetry, drama and the epic. In Shakespeare, Spenser and Milton, and even in the later, more contested work of the Brontës, Hawthorne and Melville, psychological realism exists in happy symbiosis with ghosts, fairies, demons and supernatural whales. With the triumph of capital and its handmaidens, science and rationalism, came a changed aesthetic. By the mid-twentieth century, the realistic novel of contemporary life had become so much the norm for serious fiction, at least in the United States, that anything else was trivialized or confined to a genre ghetto. We are, after all, a country run by hardheaded men who know the value of a dollar and who want no truck with moonshine. Many boast that they never read fiction. In such a culture, "magic realism" was acceptable only because it was imported; exceptions are always allowed for foreign luxury goods.
So strong was the idea that serious fiction must be a realistic picture of the present time that in the 1960s, when American novels began to combine some aspects of contemporary realism with monsters, ghosts, bodily organs run amok and other wild fancies (Ellison, Heller, Pynchon, Roth, Morrison), the writers were still considered realists or else given special dispensation as African-Americans, who, like foreigners, could be allowed their own cultural traditions because they were too marginal to threaten the mainstream aesthetic and politics. Living writers whose work was not grounded in a realistic, contemporary premise were relegated to the nursery or confined to special ghettos in the bookstore (historical fiction, science fiction, romance, fantasy), as though disqualified by genre from being shelved with "literature."
But surely this does not apply anymore; isn't this the Age of Harry Potter, when fantasy is king? Not exactly. It depends what sort of fantasy, and why. How different are the Harry Potter books really, in style and substance, from contemporary realism? Are they not parodies of same, combining realistic conventions with magical appliances and the war between good and evil? Is this parodic incongruity not, in fact, the reason they are so much fun? From the pinstriped cloak worn by the Minister of Magic to the disgusting variety of Bertie Botts Every Flavored Beans, the culture of the Harry Potter books is a faithful reflection of English schoolboy culture, including the cliques and teasing of the boarding school books that have molded generations.
And have they been treated seriously, as literature, or as a marketing phenomenon?
I would guess 90 percent of the articles I have read about J.K. Rowling deal with her not as a writer but as the commercial equivalent of a comet whizzing into the atmosphere from out of nowhere, a poor single mum writing her first book in a Scottish cafe. It's a great story, but you can only be a nine days' wonder once. After the novelty wears off, the commercial pressure remains; you are expected to do the same thing again and again and again, varying it no more than one flavor of yogurt varies from another. Every successful writer is faced with this choice: Do you stay faithful to the inner voice or turn yourself into a marketable commodity, producing a new product of the same kind every year or two? There are great social and economic rewards for the commodity production of the self.
Ursula Le Guin is doing something different. She has gone her own way, written forty books, not one of them either predictable or commercially motivated. She probably drives the industry crazy; it doesn't even know whether to classify the Earthsea books as children's literature or adult. In her foreword to Tales From Earthsea, she has some interesting things to say about commodification and why we read fantasy:
All times are changing times, but ours is one of massive, rapid moral and mental transformation.... It's unsettling. For all our delight in the impermanent, the entrancing flicker of electronics, we also long for the unalterable.... So people turn to the realms of fantasy for stability, ancient truths, immutable simplicities.
And the mills of capitalism provide them. Supply meets demand. Fantasy becomes a commodity, an industry.
Commodified fantasy takes no risks; it invents nothing, but imitates and trivializes. It proceeds by depriving the old stories of their intellectual and ethical complexity, turning their action to violence, their actors to dolls, and their truth-telling to sentimental platitude. Heroes brandish their swords, lasers, wands, as mechanically as combine harvesters, reaping profits. Profoundly disturbing moral choices are sanitized, made cute, made safe. The passionately conceived ideas of the great story-tellers are copied...advertised, sold, broken, junked, replaceable, interchangeable.
Le Guin's writing is on the edge, which is perhaps the same as the margins: idiosyncratic and hard to pin down. She is the kind of writer businessmen hate most, producing challenging, unpredictable books whose meanings are too elusive to be easily controlled. I can almost hear them saying, "No Earthsea books since 1990 and now two books in the same year? Hasn't she heard of regular marketing intervals?"
Unlike Le Guin's science fiction, her fantasies are not overtly political. The two genres have become almost interchangeable at the mass market level, but have different parents: science fiction derives from Victorian scientific speculation by writers like Conan Doyle and H.G. Wells, while fantasy grew out of myth. Le Guin's science fiction is about social and political life; some reads like ethnographies of imaginary societies, some deals with revolution. Because of its social themes, it appears more political than her fantasies, which deal with the inner life.
Nonetheless, the Earthsea books are profoundly radical because they lead one to think and feel outside of regular realistic patterns and the details of everyday life, laying depth charges that bring up long-forgotten reveries of childhood, unrecognized forms of heroism, secret challenges to power. Softly, elusively, they tear away at the wall of stones that keeps us in the dry land, the arid land of adulthood, the land of death-in-life, where so many of us spend so much of our time; they let the wind into our imaginations, and help to set us free.
Facebook Like Box