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"There are things/We live among 'and to see them/Is to know ourselves.'" These three lines are among the most stirring written by George Oppen, a poet whose modesty and honesty permitted him to look for meaning only in the knowable. He was preoccupied with the world outside his window, and writing about it in a clear language was always a struggle: "say as much as I dare, as much as I can/sustain I don't know how to say it."
For all his commitment to clarity, there is much about Oppen himself that remains unknown. He was a Modernist, but unlike his mentors Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, he was not prolific. When he published his Collected Poems in 1975, he had written exactly one book review and one essay. No manifestoes, no dissertation, no autobiography. When he died in 1984, he had given only a handful of interviews. A Selected Letters was published in 1990, but its paper trail begins in 1958, the year Oppen and his wife, Mary, returned to the United States from political exile in Mexico. The Oppens had been members of the Communist Party in the 1930s, and they went into exile in 1950 to escape the dragnet of McCarthyism. Even George's FBI file, a crucial source of information about the Mexico years, is riddled with black-outs. To know Oppen one must live among his poems, a pleasure that has been greatly enhanced by the publication of George Oppen: New Collected Poems. Housing Oppen's seven full-length books, plus fifty-seven pages of previously uncollected poems, the volume is an astonishing record of the development of an indigenous American avant-garde style by a poet of great intelligence and humanity.
Discrete Series, Oppen's first book, was published in 1934. At first glance its thirty-one lyrics look like offshoots from Williams's Spring and All. Both Oppen and Williams favored spare, compressed lines divested of emotional subversions and devoted to sight and sound. But for all their quotidian scenes, Oppen's poems lack Williams's drama and localism. Instead, they are general, almost categorical, building a moment of perception from prepositions, generic nouns and pauses. "On the water, solid--/The singleness of a toy--//A tug with two barges.//O what O what will/Bring us back to/Shore,/the shore//Coiling a rope on the steel deck." What's equally notable about Discrete Series is that Oppen hewed to a Modernist style without endorsing Modernism's abiding themes; no blood-dimmed tides are loosed, no fragments shored against ruins. But Oppen didn't only defy Modernism. He joined the Communist Party in 1935, and instead of abiding by an orthodoxy that had corralled Pegasus and led it to the Socialist Realist glue factory, he stopped writing altogether. He was a left-wing thinker who did not believe that poetry had the same kind of efficacy as political action, a view that made him "A most inappropriate man/In a most unpropitious place," to borrow a few lines from Wallace Stevens's "Sailing After Lunch." Oppen did not write again until 1958.
What to make of Oppen's silence? Hugh Kenner called it a mere pause between poems; Charles Bernstein has wondered if it is the longest line break in Oppen's oeuvre. While it would be inaccurate to say that the hiatus did not cause Oppen any anxiety as a poet, it's certainly misleading to describe it as just another pregnant pause. Oppen did many things during those years; none were poetic, but all nourished his thinking as a poet. He and Mary organized a farmers' union milk strike in 1937; they became parents in 1939. George worked as a tool-and-die maker at Grumman Aircraft during the early years of World War II and then served as an infantryman in the US Army. He fought in the Battle of the Bulge in 1944; later, near Alsace, he suffered serious shrapnel wounds from German shellfire. After the war he built houses near Los Angeles.
"And Bronk said/Perhaps the world/Is horror," Oppen writes in "A Narrative." The poem is from This in Which (1965), and Oppen is most likely referring to a few lines from William Bronk's "The Nature of the Universe": "we/are the inner mirror of those stars, who find/only an ecstasy to outfeel/horror." When Oppen was writing in the 1960s, he returned over and over to the political and philosophical dimensions of horror. He was terrified and disgusted by the proliferation of nuclear weapons ("My love, my love,/We are endangered/Totally at last") and the escalation of the Vietnam War ("Now in the helicopters the casual will/Is atrocious"). Elsewhere he takes a longer view, wondering about "a lone universe that suffers time/Like stones in sun. For we do not." Oppen's struggles with horror and suffering, however, did not turn him into either a nihilist who sneered at a meaningless universe or an aesthete who walled off that universe with intricate formal masonry. "Survival: Infantry," from The Materials (1962), is an important poem for understanding why. Oppen returns to his wartime experience in Alsace, with memories of an artillery barrage--"Where did all the rocks come from?/And the smell of explosives"--mixed with memories of recovery:
We were ashamed of our half life and our misery: we saw
that everything had died.
And the letters came. People who addressed us thru our
They left us gasping. And in tears
In the same mud in the terrible ground
The crucial word is "addressed." Oppen does not say that people "wrote" to him; they addressed him, spoke to him, through their words and hence through his life. Those words in turn create an experience of awe ("They left us gasping"), and while they fail to deliver Oppen from a devastated world (he remains stuck in the "same mud"), they alleviate his despair.
The letters, in other words, gave Oppen a language of survival, and of his many attempts to create this language himself the richest is the serial poem "Of Being Numerous," which appeared in the 1968 Pulitzer Prize-winning book of the same title. "Urban art, art of the cities, art of the young in the cities--/The isolated man is dead, his world around him exhausted," Oppen writes, and he tries to understand and repair that failure through the very construction of "Of Being Numerous." Some of its poems begin with "Or," "So" or "Because" while others redact lines from Oppen's earlier poems, as if the poet was publishing excerpts from an endless conversation with himself. Yet "Of Being Numerous" is not Oppen's song of himself. Self-reflection is knitted into a larger conversation with friends, family members and other writers, whose words Oppen lifted from correspondence or essays and incorporated into his jagged little lyrics, sometimes in quotation marks, sometimes not. To write a language of survival is to be numerous, but to be numerous is not necessarily to contain multitudes. Rather, it is to startle the self into a meditative drama of reversal and qualification, interruption and invitation, of being pressed into dialogue with others.
Oppen's last book, Primitive, which appeared three years after the publication of his Collected Poems, is perhaps his most haunting vision of survival. Oppen wrote its thirteen poems under some duress; he was growing increasingly disoriented and forgetful, battling the Alzheimer's disease that went undiagnosed until 1982 and claimed his life two years later. Yet it is difficult to determine the impact of the disease on Oppen's poetry, since Primitive is the culmination of the vibrant, attenuated syntax that Oppen had introduced in Of Being Numerous and continued to hone in his next two books, Seascape: Needle's Eye and Myth of the Blaze. In poem nine of "Of Being Numerous," Oppen proposes an ideal: "To dream of that beach/For the sake of an instant in the eyes." Primitive is the dream of that beach, a linguistic "sea-surge," as Eliot Weinberger writes in his lucid preface to this volume, "of contradictory forces: assertions and their negations, declarations couched in double-negatives, questions without answers." The poems are the work of "a returned Crusoe," a poet entranced by mysterious images of war, water, light and rescue. From "The Poem":
in the room it was all
part of the wars
of things brilliance
in the appalling
lives and wakes us together
out of sleep the poem
opens its dazzling whispering hands
The inclusion of Primitive is not the only reason Michael Davidson's edition of Oppen's Collected Poems is "new." The volume also contains the twenty-nine poems that were published in magazines or anthologies but not collected during Oppen's lifetime, and sixty poems that were not published at all. Among the uncollected poems are some gems, including Oppen's last published verse and an epitaph for his close friend and fellow poet Charles Reznikoff. The unpublished poems are fascinating as well and of more than a scholarly interest; one can better appreciate Oppen's technique by considering what he chose to leave in the drawer. Some of the unpublished poems are derivative of Williams's work, relying too much on parochial images or idiomatic speech to convey an idea or emotion. Still others are a heap of images and phrases that Oppen had yet to refine into a few radiant and haunting parts of speech. "The New People," for instance, which dates from the late 1950s, opens with a description of a neighborhood's gentrification: "Crowding everywhere/Angrily perhaps/The world of stoops,/The new young people//With their new styles, the narrow trousers/Of the young men and the girls' bee hive/hair-do's this year they seem a horde." The scene is a messy version of the milieu portrayed in poem twenty-five in "Of Being Numerous": "Strange that the youngest people I know/Live in the oldest buildings//Scattered about the city/In the dark rooms/Of the past.... They are the children of the middle class.//'The pure products of America--'//Investing/The ancient buildings/Jostle each other." It's telling that like most of Oppen's unpublished poems, "The New People" lacks the generic adjectives and nouns that Oppen treasured: thin, strange, home, populace, little and, most important, small.
Davidson's arrangement of the uncollected and unpublished material is curious. Instead of organizing the entire volume chronologically, which would have involved interspersing the uncollected published poems between the contents of the seven published books and placing the unpublished poems (which are often difficult or impossible to date) at the end of the volume, Davidson has placed the uncollected and unpublished poems in a single annex following Primitive. If you want to compare published, uncollected or unpublished poems, which Davidson's editorial notes to individual poems often encourage, be prepared for some page-flipping between poem and poem and poem and note.
The notes themselves are usually informative, providing snippets of relevant biographical and bibliographical information. A few notes could stand to be more precise. The fifth poem in "Of Being Numerous" begins with one of Oppen's most famous images: "The great stone/Above the river/In the pylon of the bridge//'1875.'" Here is Davidson's gloss: "Probably a reference to the Brooklyn Bridge, which was built between 1869 and 1883, making 1875 a likely date for one of the pylons." A glimpse at any good history of the bridge's construction will reveal that its two granite pylons (or towers) were completed in 1875, and that on the eastern and western facades of the Manhattan pylon, centered between the apexes of its great gothic arches, is a stone engraved with the digits "1875." (The Brooklyn pylon is undated.) The engraved stone is easily seen from the pedestrian walkway that runs above the bridge's roadways.
Verifying the location of the engraved stone is important, and not merely for precision's sake. "The great stone" is a central poem of Oppen's canon because it symbolizes the poet's relationship to the visible world. He seizes on a public object--the engraved marker--as an image of consciousness: "Frozen in the moonlight/In the frozen air over the footpath, consciousness//Which has nothing to gain, which awaits nothing,/Which loves itself." Clarifying that Oppen is referring to the Brooklyn Bridge helps to underscore the unromantic nature of his aesthetic. Oppen's stance is the antithesis of Hart Crane's, who in the opening lyric of his long poem "The Bridge" pleads with the granite and cables to "lend a myth to God." In Oppen's poem, the bridge does not become heroic or mythical in the poet's eyes. And even though "1875" hovers at a height that, in the topography of Oppen's poetry, is usually cluttered by the absurd parapets of office buildings, the engraved stone is hardly above it all. Instead, both stone and poet remain public, functional and objective, firmly lodged within the bridge's design as well as the various streams and cycles of space and time churning below and above: the East River, automobile traffic, pedestrian traffic and the moon's orbit.
Oppen was well acquainted with the Brooklyn Bridge. It loomed over the building where he rented a workroom and was not far from the three different apartments in Brooklyn Heights where he and Mary lived at different times between 1960 and 1966. Brooklyn Heights occupies a bluff directly across the East River from lower Manhattan, and while walking around Oppen's old neighborhood it's impossible not to wonder what he would have thought about the devastation of September 11. One recalls an image of Manhattan in "Of Being Numerous":
A city of the corporations
Or a line Oppen used repeatedly in his correspondence, "the girder/Still itself among the rubble," which is a misquotation of a line from Reznikoff's Jerusalem the Golden ("Among the heaps of brick and plaster lies/a girder, still itself among the rubbish"). But these images, though provocative, are mere fragments, and Oppen's work is likely to disappoint someone who thinks that poems of the past can somehow divine the physical and emotional dimensions of the recent catastrophe. "The events of Sept. 11 nailed home many of my basic convictions," the poet Mary Karr explained recently in the New York Times, before describing her September 11 reading list, "including the notion that lyric poetry dispenses more relief--if not actual salvation--during catastrophic times than perhaps any other art form."
I can't imagine a sentiment more alien to Oppen's work. How peculiar to have one's aesthetic convictions "nailed home" by an act of mass murder, and how more peculiar still for Karr to proclaim, after having assimilated September 11 into poetic accounts of past disasters, "Here I stand, bat cocked, ready for whatever impossible pitch history flings." Oppen wrote often about disasters, but he never counseled a quick flight into culture as a remedy for them. His poems are as void of softball pitches as they are of similes. Things are not "like" other things; they appear and exist before your eyes. In this respect, Oppen's work offers no figurative or topical premonitions of what occurred on September 11; neither thing is like the other, which is precisely why his work remains remarkable and relevant. Hardly a self-contained world of words, the poetry of George Oppen is a place where words about the world must be earned--phrase by phrase, line by line, poem by poem.
It's official now: The United States has a policy on climate change. President Bush announced it on Valentine's Day at a government climate and oceans research center. "My approach recognizes that economic growth is the solution, not the problem," he said. Instead of requiring the nation to lower greenhouse gas emissions below 1990 levels, as called for in the Kyoto Protocol, the new policy is voluntary and aims only to slow the growth of emissions, not reduce them. The centerpiece of the new climate policy is a tiny little tax cut for any manufacturers who are interested.
Of course, it's not nearly as big as the tax cuts used for real national priorities like distributing income upward or starving civilian government of resources. It's just some walking-around money, less than $1 billion a year, for investors who voluntarily, now and then, feel like doing the right thing for the environment. The President would also like industries to report their own emissions levels voluntarily, which may earn them valuable credits in the future if an emissions trading scheme is implemented.
It takes a creative imagination to believe that this is an appropriate way for the world's largest economy (and producer of about 20 percent of the world's greenhouse emissions) to respond to a serious global crisis. If you believe, that is, that global warming is a crisis. George Bush and his friends keep hoping it's not, but the scientific consensus, not to mention world opinion, is absolutely clear on this point. At the request of the Bush Administration, the National Academy of Sciences re-examined the climate change issue last year and promptly concluded that the problem is every bit as important as previously reported. Finding a way to debunk all this annoying environmental science must be high on the White House wish list.
It almost looks like that wish has been granted. Bjørn Lomborg, a statistics professor at a Danish university and self-described "old left-wing Greenpeace member," says the story began when he got interested in the longstanding debate between environmentalist Paul Ehrlich and economist Julian Simon. Ehrlich claimed that shortages of many natural resources were imminent; Simon said they were not. A few years ago Lomborg started researching the facts in order, he says, to prove that Ehrlich was right. Instead he found to his surprise that Ehrlich was wrong--and indeed, environmentalists were wrong about many, many things.
Trapped by the "litany" of doom and gloom, environmental advocates have, according to Lomborg, missed the evidence that most of the problems they worry about are not so bad, and are not getting any worse. There are more acres of forests all the time, plenty of fish in the sea, no danger of acid rain, no threat of rapid extinction of species, no need to do much about global warming and no reason to worry about environmental causes of cancer. Everyone in the environmental world, his erstwhile comrades at Greenpeace included, has misunderstood the subtleties of statistics and overlooked the growing good news, as he graciously offers to explain.
Preposterous as it sounds (and, in fact, is), that's the message that Lomborg presents in The Skeptical Environmentalist. It received rave reviews in the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, The Economist and elsewhere, and it looks as if the Bush Administration has torn a few pages from it. Lomborg plausibly points out that the environmental litany of short-run crisis and impending doom is unrealistic, and sometimes based on statistical misunderstandings. If he had stopped there, he could have written a useful, brief article about how to think about short-run versus long-run problems and avoid exaggeration.
Unfortunately, Lomborg stretches his argument across 350 dense pages of text and 2,930 somewhat repetitive footnotes, claiming that the litany of doom has infected virtually everything written about the environment. As an alternative, he paints a relentlessly optimistic picture of dozens of topics about which he knows very little. Responses from researchers who are more familiar with many of his topics have started to appear, including rebuttals in the January issue of Scientific American, in a report from the Union of Concerned Scientists and on the website www.anti-lomborg.com.
On global warming, Lomborg believes that "the typical cure of early and radical fossil fuel cutbacks is way worse than the original affliction, and moreover [global warming's] total impact will not pose a devastating problem for our future." In support of this Bush-friendly thesis, Lomborg attempts to reinterpret all the massive research of recent years, including the carefully peer-reviewed Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports. But he is not up to the task. Discussing the standard graphs of average temperature over recent centuries, which most analysts use to highlight the exceptional recent increases, he offers pages of meandering speculation and concludes that "the impression of a dramatic divergence [in recent world average temperature] from previous centuries is almost surely misleading." Lomborg's own figures 134, 135 and 146 present strong visual evidence against his strange conclusion, showing average temperatures heading sharply and unprecedentedly upward in recent decades. He also finds it terribly significant that we do not know exactly how fast temperatures will change in the future, as greenhouse gases accumulate in the atmosphere; nonetheless, he accepts IPCC estimates that temperatures above the range of recent historical experience are essentially certain to occur.
When it comes to estimating the economic costs of greenhouse gas reduction, Lomborg's claim that all models produce "more or less the same results" is absurd. He has missed a valuable analysis from the World Resources Institute, by Robert Repetto and Duncan Austin (The Costs of Climate Protection: A Guide for the Perplexed), which describes and analyzes the huge range of sixteen major models' estimates of the costs of greenhouse gas reduction. Repetto and Austin attribute the divergent estimates to the models' differing assumptions about the pace of economic adjustment to future changes, the extent of international emissions trading and the uses the government will make of revenues from carbon taxes or similar measures, among other factors.
I turn out to have a small part in Lomborg's story, in a manner that does not increase my confidence in his research. My name appears in footnote 1,605 in his chapter on solid waste, where he cites in passing a three-page article based on my 1997 book on recycling but overlooks the book (Why Do We Recycle?) and the larger point that it makes. Lomborg's solid-waste chapter simply says that the United States is not running out of space for landfills. Echoing an example long favored by the most vehement critics of recycling, he calculates that a landfill big enough to hold all US solid waste for the next 100 years would be quite small compared with the country's land area. Nothing is said about other countries--Denmark, for example--where land might be a bit scarcer. Almost nothing is said about recycling, either, because it seems that it doesn't much matter: "We tend to believe that all recycling is good, both because it saves resources and because it avoids waste.... We may not necessarily need to worry so much about raw materials, especially common ones such as stone, sand and gravel, but neither should we worry about wood and paper, because both are renewable resources."
The United States is not running out of landfill space, but this does not invalidate concern about waste and recycling. Rather, it shows the error of collapsing our thinking about long-term problems into short-term crisis response.
Several life-cycle analyses of material production, use and disposal (none of which Lomborg refers to) have found that extraction and processing of virgin materials accounts for far more environmental damage than landfilling the same materials when they are discarded. The greatest benefit of recycling is not that it solves a nonexistent landfill crisis, or that it staves off any immediate scarcity of resources, but rather that it reduces pollution from mining, refining and manufacturing new materials.
There are similar shortcomings in many other areas of The Skeptical Environmentalist, of which I will mention just a few. Lomborg claims that there is little need to worry about trends in air pollution: "The achievement of dramatically decreasing concentrations of the major air pollutants in the Western world...is amazing by itself.... There is also good reason to believe that the developing world, following our pattern, in the long run likewise will bring down its air pollution." He endorses wholeheartedly the hypothesis that economic growth will first cause air pollution to get worse, but then later will lead to improvement. This controversial idea, the so-called environmental Kuznets curve (EKC), was more widely accepted in the mid-1990s, the period from which Lomborg's citations are taken. Recent research has cast doubt on this pattern, as he acknowledges in the second sentence of a footnote. Yet he has missed the most comprehensive critique of the EKC research, by David Stern ("Progress on the Environmental Kuznets Curve?," Environment and Development Economics, 1998). According to Stern, the EKC pattern can be clearly detected only for a few air pollutants, such as sulfur, and then only in developed countries.
Rushing to critique environmental views in one area after another, Lomborg may not have had time to read all his citations. In his introductory chapter he maintains that the collapse of the indigenous culture of Easter Island was based on factors unique to that island and does not suggest that an ecological crash caused by resource overuse could threaten other societies. But the only source he cites about Easter Island reached exactly the opposite conclusion, speculating that ecological problems could have caused the decline of such civilizations as the Maya, early Mesopotamia and the Anasazi in what is now the southwestern United States: "Easter Island may be only one case of many where unregulated resource use and Malthusian forces led to depletion of the resource base and social conflict," concluded James Brander and M. Scott Taylor in "The Simple Economics of Easter Island" (American Economic Review, March 1998).
In his concluding chapter, Lomborg relies heavily on studies by John Graham and Tammy Tengs. These studies purport to show vastly different costs per life saved, or per life-year saved, from different regulations. At one extreme, the federal law requiring home smoke detectors, flammability standards for children's sleepwear and the removal of lead from gasoline have economic benefits outweighing their costs. At the other extreme, controls on benzene, arsenic and radioactive emissions at various industrial facilities are said to cost from $50 million to $20 billion per life-year saved. The implication is that shifting resources from the more expensive to the cheaper proposals would be enormously beneficial--by one wild calculation (which Lomborg uncritically accepts) saving 60,000 lives annually: "And the Harvard study gives us an indication that, with greater concern for efficiency than with the Litany, we could save 60,000 more Americans each year--for free." Graham and Tengs follow closely in the footsteps of John Morrall, who made similar claims in a related, earlier study.
A widely cited article in the Yale Law Journal ("Regulatory Costs of Mythic Proportions," 1998) by Georgetown University law professor Lisa Heinzerling explains the fatal flaws in the Morrall study. This, too, escaped Lomborg's notice. Heinzerling demonstrates that Morrall's long list of allegedly expensive regulations includes numerous items that were never adopted and in many cases never even proposed. Moreover, many of the cheaper lifesaving measures--removing lead from gasoline, for example--have already been done and cannot be redone for additional savings. Thus the re-allocation of money that would putatively save thousands of lives would have to be from nonexistent expensive regulations to already completed cheaper rules. In more recent, forthcoming work, Heinzerling and I have found that the same fundamental errors occur throughout the Graham and Tengs studies, including "the Harvard study" that Lomborg likes so well.
Finally, Lomborg cannot be allowed to speak for "old left-wing Greenpeace members" in general. I personally remain happy to support Greenpeace because, among other reasons, I admire its courageous and imaginative confrontations with the likes of nuclear weapons testers, the whaling industry and oil companies drilling in ecologically fragile areas. I am of course disappointed, but hardly shaken in my worldview, to learn that Lomborg claims to have caught Greenpeace in a statistical error or two. Greenpeace doesn't rely on me to throw grappling hooks onto whaling ships, and I don't rely on it for quantitative research. On the strength of this book, I won't rely on Lomborg, either.
It's been three decades since President Richard M.
The birds stopped coming after the annuals died.
I didn't realize how much I missed them until the bluebird
Returned, lured by the burgundy haze of the fall pansies
Pouring from the window boxes. I was too slow finding
The camera and then I left the cap on. The bird rose
Into a cut of sky and I was left with a vision of blue--
His sapphire eye and marigold breast. Maybe it was you,
Released from your standing body--fingers fluid between
Tissue and organ--as you operate in the crowded surgical
Theatre, transformed to tell me autumn is here. I would not
Be surprised. This brief visit imitates your frequent calls
Between cases. After he flies, the room seems to hold you.
I see the white waves throwing themselves into the Cliffs
Of Moher, your eyes stealing blue from the sky.
Why, asked my friends and my baffled wife. Why, piped my son. Even the movie critics sitting next to me wanted to know: What perversity drove me to see Hart's War and Rollerball? Did I need to make February seem any longer?
Rollerball I can explain. The costumes looked nifty on the subway poster, LL Cool J makes me smile and Chris Klein, in Election, was an endearing goof. In other words, I'm a movie sucker. Besides, the original Norman Jewison film had represented capitalism (to use a big word) as a corrupt blood sport--and in the early weeks of the Enron scandal I felt like hearing a rant.
Would that I had listened to my colleagues, friends, soul mate and 3-year-old. Cinematically, the John McTiernan remake is a hodgepodge of jittery traveling shots that convey the excitement of blood sport by capturing whatever random objects passed before the lens. Since there were more floodlights on the set than anything else, the main thrill of Rollerball comes from learning how a police interrogation would feel if it were conducted on skateboard. The politics? Let me note that the action has been transferred to Central Asia, which offers three alien hordes for the price of one location. Mongols, Arabs and ex-Soviet miners threaten to engulf our beamish Klein, who dresses for the occasion in a red Statue of Liberty T-shirt.
As for Hart's War: When I signed up to watch Bruce Willis win World War II, I didn't know the movie's real lead would be some other actor, whom I wouldn't recognize again if he came to my place for Friday dinner and stayed the weekend. This young stick of furniture represents an untested lieutenant, who lands in a German POW camp. Willis, meanwhile, is the camp's ranking American officer, a role that he interprets as a test of endurance. He tries to get through the whole picture without once moving his face.
Mysteries lie within Hart's War. How did this setup give rise to a courtroom drama? Who decided this particular case was a good way to put American racism on trial? Why is the movie's most sensitive, complex figure a Nazi commandant? And if Bruce Willis shaves at the end of every third day, how come we never see his mug on days one or two? There must be answers to these questions, but they remain elusive, like my reasons for seeing the picture.
Actually, my reasons were all too simple. I wanted to watch something--and when I got to Monsoon Wedding, the new movie directed by Mira Nair, I at last found something good. I don't call it that just because I'd been worn down by Hart's War and Rollerball, or because (full disclosure) I'm acquainted with the co-producer. Shot in Delhi in what seems to have been a single great rush of energy, Monsoon Wedding is good because it spills over with color, music, dance, sex, rainwater, flowers, cell phones and popsicles. The actors' faces are all indelible; the characters' family dynamics, both impossible and too damned normal.
Written by Sabrina Dhawan, Monsoon Wedding is the story of four days in the family life of Lalit Verma (Naseeruddin Shah), a dyspeptic Delhi businessman whose nerves and bank account are being stretched thinner than usual by the impending marriage of his daughter Aditi (Vasundhara Das). She is about to wed Hemant (Parvin Dabas), a young engineer now living in Houston, who proves to be handsome, muscular and pleasant when he drives up the lane to the Verma house. "Hi," he says. "How are you?" Not the greeting a bride wants at her engagement party--but then, she and Hemant scarcely know each other. Amid clusters of video cameras, the arranged couple exchange rings and sweets. To answer the question: She isn't doing too well.
It seems she's in love with another man: a TV talk-show host, who's sleek and exceedingly married. But this, as it turns out, is the least of the film's concerns. Sweet-faced Aditi and easygoing Hemant function almost as the ingénues of Monsoon Wedding, occupying the middle distance with bland pleasantness while the rest of the frame fills up with the real characters.
There's a funny and touching couple, first of all: the Verma family's wistfully beautiful servant, Alice (Tilotama Shome), and the man in whom she dares to take a romantic interest, the comically energetic wedding planner P.K. Dubey. Played by Vijay Raaz, Dubey is the movie's most vivid figure, and a character who deserves a share of screen immortality. All ears, Adam's apple and polka-dot scarf--the sign of a fragile vanity--he starts out spouting double talk into his cell phone, proceeds in nervous animation to devour the wedding's decorative marigolds and never once slows his pace till Alice brings him down, bump, on his knees.
Next there's a steamy couple: cousin Ayesha (Neha Dubey), a teenage bump-and-grind expert in a tight blue dress, and Rahul (Randeep Hooda), a college student from Sydney, Australia. Called "bloody number-one most stupid duffer" by his own father, Rahul has shown up at the wedding with his broken hand in a cast, out of which sticks a painfully erect thumb. And yet, despite this obvious protrusion, Rahul waits almost till the last second to make his move on a more-than-willing Ayesha.
Finally, there's a tragic couple: Aditi's unmarried cousin Ria (Shefali Shetty), who wants to become a writer, and silver-haired Tej Puri (Rajat Kapoor), the de facto head of the family. Although the bitter history between these two must go undisclosed in this review, the audience will have no trouble guessing their secret. The important question is, What will Lalit do about this matter, once it's revealed to him?
Though dramatic in itself, Lalit's dilemma is all the more striking as the turning point of a movie about people we might lazily term Westernized. This big Punjabi family speaks English half the time and drives the same cars you might see in Connecticut. Aditi's lover, the TV host, appeals rhetorically to "our ancient culture," even while he's trashing it; Dubey's mother interrupts a twilight, touristic view of Delhi to chatter about the day's stock prices. But these characters are modern, not homogenized. Lalit's problem takes a specifically Indian form when he's forced to choose between two responsibilities: to Ria, who is wounded, and to his family, which must not suffer a rift. The young not-quite-lovers, Aditi and Hemant, confront a similar choice when they have to decide not just whether to go ahead with the wedding but also who should make the decision.
But enough of problems. Monsoon Wedding is more interested in unions: wet ones, and lots of them. From an opening scene played before a wilting, semicollapsed piece of lawn architecture, the movie bounces toward a conclusion in a tent, which holds up surprisingly well and has room for more revelers than expected. I think there's space for you, too.
Much admired by French critics and now opening in the United States, Esther Kahn is one of those movies you decode more than watch. Outwardly, it's a costume drama, set in London during the gaslight era, about a fiercely odd Jewish girl from the East End. Though her home is warm and convivial, Esther (Summer Phoenix) feels so estranged that her family sometimes looks transparent to her. A hard-core rejectionist from birth, she won't read, won't court properly with boys, won't earn her living normally. Her manner is blank, except for the occasional outburst of violence.
So she becomes an actress--which leads us to the inner story.
Destined for the theater but completely untutored, Esther comes under the protection of an older Jewish performer, Nathan (Ian Holm), who volunteers to teach her to act. In the most absorbing section of the film, we watch the wily Holm instruct Summer Phoenix in how to build a rapport with the audience by acknowledging their presence, feeding off the emotions that run across the footlights. This is, of course, exactly what a film actress cannot do.
It's a familiar game, this ploy of dramatizing the actress as she dramatizes the character; but Esther Kahn plays it to the limit, erecting the barrier of a movie screen between the two figures. Esther, a young woman who doesn't feel a part of life, becomes an allegory of Summer Phoenix, who really isn't in the room with us, though she soaks up our desires anyway.
The distinction comes up early: When Esther goes to a medical clinic for a checkup, a voiceover narrator recites a description of the character, while the camera provides us with our first series of close-ups of the actress who stands in for her.
Later, as if to extend the allegory, the movie has Esther apprentice herself in sex to a drama critic--a necessary step, according to the plot, since sex will supposedly fill her with the emotion she lacks. The instruction doesn't seem to work. Although Esther moves upward in her career, ultimately taking the lead in Hedda Gabler, Summer Phoenix goes on behaving like a blank, as befits a projected image.
Forgive me for foisting off so much interpretation. I do it only because Esther's success in the theater would be inexplicable at face value; from what we can see, she's as expressive in her roles as a pair of socks. (In fact, the movie refuses to let us see Esther act. Whenever she steps on stage, the sound drops out and the action goes into slow motion.) Nor is there any good reason why Esther could attract and hold the attention of the drama critic--except that he's played by Fabrice Desplechin and therefore serves as a stand-in for the director and co-writer of Esther Kahn, Arnaud Desplechin. The intangible shadow-woman on the screen is Desplechin's creation. He loves her, guides her and will ultimately abandon her. Or perhaps he'll be the one to be abandoned.
Maybe this sounds dry. It's not. Arnaud Desplechin finds startling beauty wherever he turns his camera: in the boarded-up windows of the East End (as closed to the world as Esther), in a framed view of a tree (an alien apparition in Esther's life), in the waves of the Thames as they carry Esther toward her future. The re-creation of the period is almost hypnotically vivid, and the large supporting cast (notably the actors who play the family) build up a wonderful sense of community, which Esther can't enter. Everything here is precise, intelligent and slightly maddening. You want to take Summer Phoenix by the shoulders and shake her, to make her act in this world.
But then, doing the job for you, she begins to strike her own face. It takes a long time before the allegory, and the actress, turn on themselves--but when it happens, Esther Kahn delivers an unforgettable, visceral blow.
Die Nigger Die!, the autobiographical political memoir by H. Rap Brown, is a vital American historical document--historical almost in the sense of a message found in a time capsule, a missive from another age. But it remains of considerable interest for what it tells us about social and political attitudes, behaviors and expectations of a time--so my students believe--long past. The time, in this case, being a discrete, relatively short period of domestic upheaval in this country during the late 1960s and early 1970s, a time of "revolutionary" black uprising in Northern ghettos following hard on the heels of the Southern, nonviolent, direct-action movement engineered by SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) and SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference), a movement usually associated with Martin Luther King Jr. Rap's book has an added dimension of sociological interest, being a voice from the frontlines, the personal and political testimony of a radically militant chairman of SNCC who came to symbolize the defiance of a generation of angry and militant black youth. A third, perhaps less compelling, area of interest is the personal: what the voice and language reveal about the character and personality, the sensibility, if you will, of the speaker. Who is this man, of whom McGeorge Bundy reportedly commented at the founding gathering of the National Urban Coalition, "Wouldn't you, wouldn't all of us, sleep much better tonight if we knew that H. Rap Brown...was somewhere quietly running his own little drugstore?"
Well, for one thing, the author, H. Rap Brown, is no longer among us. Nor has he really been since 1971, when, as a young man in his late twenties, he made his shahadah (the Muslim declaration of faith). During a period of incarceration by the State of New York, the black activist known to the media as H. Rap Brown converted to orthodox Islam and emerged as Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin, a Sunni Muslim. Brown went in and Al-Amin emerged. This change was by no means cosmetic or strategic.
By all accounts and the overwhelming preponderance of evidence over years, this was a genuine religious conversion, a classically "profound transformation of self." Al-Amin embarked on a life of rigorous study and spiritual and moral inquiry with the same single-minded intensity and uncompromising commitment Rap had brought to militant social struggle.
It is important to mention this because, as we know, not all conversions--religious or ideological--are equal. This was a time particularly famous for sudden, public and apparently infinitely reversible self-reinventions, two of the more dramatic being Jerry Rubin's conversion from the stridently countercultural Youth International Party leadership to Wall Street broker (from yippie to yuppie) and Eldridge Cleaver's from Black Panther Party revolutionary to born-again Christian.
Al-Amin's embrace of Islam, however, proved neither facile nor expedient, as his emergence as a bookish Muslim cleric and his years of work in faith-based social improvement have demonstrated. The fiery and impetuous young rebel who speaks out of the pages of Die Nigger Die! has long since evolved into an austere religious scholar, disciplined by faith and projecting the aura of a spiritually disposed ascetic.
After thirty years, Al-Amin has become, in many important ways, a vastly different person from the author of this book. A respected imam, he now sees--and for some time has seen--the world, his own role therein and the eventual liberation of his people in quite different terms: those of faith, self-discipline and spiritual development. This vision is reflected in both his demeanor and his language. Consequently he has, at this time, serious reservations about the appropriateness of reissuing a book of youthful struggle. It is not that he repudiates any aspect of the book--not the tone, the defiant struggle out of which it came or even the youthful persona of that text.
While he considers some of the language of the early work "unseemly," his reservation is more that he considers his later work, Revolution by the Book, far more relevant to his current concerns and the work of thirty years, as well as being more indicative of his present personal and professional style. No two books could be more different in style and subject, but what they share, apart from their common paternity, is that both are earnestly addressed to the same audience and purpose: the re-education of the African-American grassroots.
Revolution by the Book is not, as might be inferred from a casual glance at the cover, a handbook on guerrilla war. The revolution of the title refers very specifically to jihad in its classical Islamic meaning of the daily, internal struggle for self-mastery and moral discipline. The book begins with a collection of sermons, each explicating one of the foundations of Islam--shahadah (declaration of faith), tauheed (the Oneness and uniqueness of God), salaat (prayer and worship), zakaat (the redemptive value of charity) and saum (purification by fasting and abstinence)--and the expression of them in the hajj, or prescribed pilgrimage.
Liberally illustrated with quotations from the Koran, the Sunnah and other secondary Islamic texts, Al-Amin's tone is learned and reverent, exhortatory and precise. It is an eloquent articulation of the fundamental principles, values and practice of orthodox Islam, affecting every aspect of life, personal and social. The revolution it envisions is a moral one, which begins with the individual, stressing awareness of God and self through piety, study and self-discipline, and moves through family and out into the larger society.
The first responsibility of the Muslim is as teacher. That is his job, to teach. His first school, his first classroom is within the household. His first student is himself. He masters himself and then he begins to convey the knowledge that he has acquired to the family. The people who are closest to him.
To be successful in struggle requires remembrance of the Creator and the doing of good deeds. This is important because successful struggle demands that there be a kind of social consciousness. There has to be a social commitment, a social consciousness that joins men together. On the basis of their coming together, they do not transgress against themselves and they do not transgress against others.
On society and revolution:
When you understand your obligations to God then you can understand your obligations to society. Revolution comes when human beings set out to correct decadent institutions. We must understand how this society has fallen away from righteousness and begin to develop, Islamically, the alternative institutions to those that are in a state of decline around us. But we must first enjoin right and forbid wrong to ourselves. That is the first step in turning this thing around: turn your self around.
There is a directness and, if you will, a sincerity to this language, a sincerity that those who know the imam say has for thirty years been evident in his life and example. These qualities are said to have earned him a fierce loyalty and affection from the Muslim congregation to which he ministers in a working-class suburb of Atlanta, respect in the surrounding Christian neighborhood and a wider regard in the national Muslim-American community. This side of Al-Amin's vocational persona is one I had not been privileged to observe until 1998, at a farewell tribute to our brother Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael), who was stricken with terminal cancer and had been about to return to his home in Africa, there to die. Perhaps 2,000 people gathered in the banquet room of a Washington hotel: family, friends, admirers and supporters of Carmichael's, mostly movement faithful, veterans of the "heroic days."
It would have been a remarkable gathering in any place and any decade, though it could probably not have happened in the 1960s, when doctrinal and ideological disagreement had loomed so urgent and divisive. Even recently, perhaps only respect for Carmichael could have assembled such a gathering. Black nationalists next to Southern Baptists; pan-Africanists, native Africans, a few Sunni Muslims, and NAACP integrationists next to Nation of Islam separatists; former Black Panthers next to former Students for a Democratic Society activists; progressive intellectuals--writers and editors--socialists, Marxists, liberals, black and white, next to Black Arts Movement cultural nationalists; and John Lewis, the assistant minority whip of the House, cheek by jowl with Minister Louis Farrakhan, the ubiquitous leader of the Nation of Islam. It was a fitting tribute to the extraordinary range and reach of Carmichael/Ture's political and personal charisma and the affection he commanded across lines of ideology and identity.
Prominent at the speakers' table were the former chairmen of SNCC (Marion Barry, Chuck McDew, John Lewis, Jamil, and Phil Hutchens). The talk from the platform was, as might be expected, nostalgic, affectionate, political.
The only real departure, and my only surprise, came when Imam Al-Amin spoke. What he delivered in tribute to his old friend was a thoughtful, Islam-inflected reflection on the nature of oppression and the moral duty, the religious imperative, of the faithful to resist. Liberally adorned with Koranic quotations, it was, as I recall, an erudite, elegantly constructed, finely reasoned explication of the categories and nature of oppression, and the moral dimensions and complexities of struggle as expressed in the prophetic poetry of the Arabian desert some 1,400 years earlier. In any terms--culturally speaking--it was scholarly. I found it startling in a curious way: It did not quite fit either stylistically or culturally with what had gone before, yet was completely appropriate.
Its traditional opening in the resonant cadences of classic Arabic poetry seemed to me and others a voice and sensibility out of a different culture and another time. Its text, taken from Sura 42, verse 41 of the Holy Koran--"All those who fight when oppressed incur no guilt, but Allah shall surely punish the oppressor"--seemed appropriate as a personal credo for both the speaker and the life of struggle being recognized.
As he spoke, I remember thinking: Ah, so this is what a serious Islamic sermon sounds like, huh? Rap really takes this calling seriously. The brother is indeed an Islamic scholar, an imam. (I took in the hang-jawed look of astonishment and dawning professional respect that crossed Minister Farrakhan's face as he listened to be confirmation of my impression.)
I'd known the youthful Rap at Howard University as the younger brother of my friend Ed and, of course, later with SNCC in Mississippi and Alabama, before he erupted in the nation's headlines as the black militant from hell, the Negro America loved to hate. I remembered a laconic, rangy (six-foot-five), hawk-faced youth, mostly silent, a preternaturally watchful, almost brooding presence. Said to be an extraordinary athlete, he looked the part. "Yeah, the boy can play him some ball, bro. Everything from point guard to power forward and some quarterback too," his brother told me. "An' there ain't no dawg in mah boy either. He a competitor from his heart. No quit in him."
Given the times, it was natural that the movement would draw him away from the courts and any possibility of athletic scholarships. He listened to our endless debates, read voraciously, joined our demonstrations and volunteered for the Mississippi Summer Project of 1964.
In 1965 he was back in DC, where he became chairman of NAG (Nonviolent Action Group), the local SNCC affiliate. This led to the infamous White House confrontation with President Lyndon Johnson. I believe it was a Saturday morning a week following the vicious police riot known as "Bloody Sunday" on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. I was alone in the SNCC office when the telephone rang from the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. Responding to international outrage over the atrocity in Alabama, President Johnson had suddenly agreed to a meeting with the national civil rights leadership. However, the meeting was that afternoon, and the leadership was scattered all over the country. The Washington representatives would have to stand in. Would I be representing SNCC? Hell, no, I most certainly would not. Just then in strolls Rap, attired, as I recall, for athletic endeavor.
"Hey, aren't you the chairman of NAG? Feel like going to the White House this afternoon?" Rap considered it for several moments.
"Well," he drawled, "why not? I ain't really doing much this afternoon."
Later, when he gave his report, I remember his indignation and amazement at the fawning subservience toward the President displayed by a delegation ostensibly there to represent the urgency of our people's struggle, courtiers so effusively grateful for the privilege merely of being there and so anxious to preserve their access that none dared be forthright with the monarch. So it had fallen to him to raise the questions of presidential responsibility for federal inaction in protecting the rights of black citizens that the group was there to represent. He described the delegation's shuffling during the meeting and their not-very-subtle distancing of themselves from his intemperance, in some cases even going so far as to apologize for him. Yet once outside they effusively praised his courage for saying the things that "really needed to be said." Then, within the week, an insidious column in the Washington Post (by Evans and Novak) described how 'deeply embarrassed responsible civil rights leaders' were professing to be at the 'disrespect' shown the President by the young student.
Rap told me that LBJ had entered the meeting expressing his great displeasure at all-night demonstrations outside the White House, which were so noisy that "his little girls" had been unable to sleep. The courtiers each in their turn had expressed distress and apologies for this inconvenience to the presidential family. Rap, when his turn came, said that he too was real sad that for one night the presidential daughters' repose had been disturbed, but black people in the South had been unable to sleep in peace and security for a hundred years. What did the President plan to do about that? He had thought that this was what they were meeting to discuss. Which apparently so upset the President that the courtiers felt a need to run to the press later to put their disapproval on the public record. It must have been a generational thing.
When, in 1967 at the age of 23, Rap succeeded Carmichael as SNCC chairman, it was at a tense and desperate moment in the country. SNCC's call for Black Power, coupled with its stand against the Vietnam War, had isolated the organization and left it exposed. Deep fissures had appeared in the civil rights "coalition." The long-simmering anger of alienated black youth at racism and economic injustice in the ghettos was erupting into violent and destructive urban insurrections. In every case these "riots" were triggered by police brutality or misconduct, most usually the killing or brutalizing of an unarmed black man.
The black insurrections traumatized white America, which was further divided, usually along generational and class lines, by the Vietnam War. Suddenly, middle-class white youth--the ostensible beneficiaries of the system--were, to an unprecedented degree, also alienated from their government. The New Left, a generation of white student activists, was becoming increasingly strident in its denunciation of the American establishment and adopting an increasingly anticapitalist and anti-imperialist "revolutionary" rhetoric.
About this time, the Black Panther Party made its appearance in Oakland. A "revolutionary" organization of urban black youth, they had great style. A variation on gang colors, their black leather jackets, black berets and blue shirts--with firearms either visible or implied--were an expression of ghetto youth culture. Appearing as if on cue out of America's Third World, the Panthers were the New Left's homegrown surrogates for the Vietcong. Black, virile, menacing, hip guerrillas, the Panthers were--depending on one's orientation--the incarnation of white America's most primal fantasy or its worse nightmare: angry Negroes with guns.
Their leadership, with a well-developed sense of theater and an instinct for hustle, permitted the white New Left to declare them the revolutionary vanguard, with predictable results. Their members paid a terrible price: Some were killed and many are still in jail, often on very dubious charges.
All of which, in the media's dependably sensationalist presentation, contributed mightily to a pervasive mood of racial tension and impending doom across the nation. Wars (abroad) and rumors of (race) war at home--mere anarchy is loosed, the center cannot hold? Something like that.
Well, not by a long shot, pilgrim. The response of J. Edgar Hoover's Federal Bureau of Investigation, a "hard-hitting" national counterintelligence program (COINTELPRO), was of surpassing ruthlessness in its contempt for law and the civil rights of citizens. COINTELPRO cast a wide net covering the peace movement, the New Left, student activists, black militants ("black nationalist hate groups") and pacifist clergy, including even the very churchly Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Hoover's specific instructions were to use all necessary means to "expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit or otherwise neutralize...black nationalist hate type organizations [sic], their leadership, spokesmen, membership and supporters." Programs were designed to "convince them," Hoover instructed his agents, "that to be a black revolutionary is to be a dead revolutionary."
The bureau, taking him at his word, came up with a repertoire of dirty tricks--authorized by the director and usually illegal--ranging from character assassination, disinformation, false arrest on bogus charges, manufactured evidence, perjured testimony and cynical frame-ups to physical assassination by either uniformed officers or hired agents. All this has been documented by Congressional investigation, but none of the perpetrators--the so-called rogue agents--in the bureau have ever served a day of jail time.
This being the context in which H. Rap Brown undertook the SNCC chairmanship, it is therefore not surprising that his term of office, a succession of indictments and arrests, was spent mostly in court, out on bond or in jail. Some of this is recounted in Die Nigger Die!: It began in July 1967 after an appearance in Cambridge, Maryland, where he had given an "incendiary" and--in the presence of the media--politically ill-advised speech in which he urged black people to arm themselves, to be "ready to die" and to meet violence with violence. "This town is ready to explode.... if you don't have guns, don't be here.... you have to be prepared to die." This proved rather quickly prophetic: Immediately after the speech he and two companions were fired on from an ambush, and the community exploded.
After I spoke people were just milling around. A young lady who lived up towards Race Street where a bunch of white policemen were gathered asked for an escort home because she was afraid to walk by herself. Myself and two other people were walking her home and some dudes opened fire on us with shotguns from some bushes. We found out later they [the shooters] were black policemen. They were shooting at us a long time. I was hit, I dove to the ground, rolled into a ditch and made my way into someone's yard.
After the shooting there was a lot of commotion. People went into the street and just started tearing everything up. A few hours later they burned the school again. Two weeks earlier people had burned the black elementary school because it had been a rat infested, roach infested place. People were paying taxes and their children were forced to go to school in those conditions. It is these conditions which cause riots. Not anybody's rhetoric.
Shortly after this incident, Brown was charged by the State of Maryland with incitement to riot, beginning a succession of charges and protracted legal maneuvering drawn out over a two-year period.
I can remember following the process as it unfolded in almost Kafkaesque absurdity in the press. It seemed like every few months Brown would be hauled into court in a new jurisdiction on a different charge and held under an oppressively large bond. His attorney--the late William Kunstler--would struggle mightily to win a reduction. Rap would eventually come out and in a matter of days be reported somewhere else making even more "incendiary" utterances and be back in custody, there to begin the dismal cycle all over again. At least that's how it seemed to me. I can remember saying, "I guess you're right. Rap don't have no quit in him after all, but maybe he should." And Ed growling, "That boy hard-headed, bro. Jes' too damn stubborn."
Subsequently released FBI documents make it clear that this process of paralysis by indictment and legal intimidation was by no means limited to H. Rap Brown. It was a deliberate, across-the-board COINTELPRO strategy designed to cripple radical organizations by misusing the courts. First, there were arrests of targeted activists on serious charges carrying potentially long sentences. It was of little importance to the government whether it had a legitimate case, strong enough to secure a conviction. The point was to silence and immobilize leadership while forcing groups to redirect energy and resources into raising funds, organizing legal defenses and publicizing the cases. It was a government subversion of the American justice system resulting in drawn-out Soviet-style political show trials that became commonplace in the America of the 1970s: the Chicago Seven, the Panther Twenty-One, etc., etc.
Although the overwhelming majority of these cases did not result in convictions, government documents show that they were considered great tactical successes. They kept the movements off the streets and in the courts. However, a few convictions were attained, and it is clear that at least some activists who ended up serving long sentences--some of whom remain in jail to this day--were simply framed by the government. People were convicted on perjured testimony as witnesses were bribed or coerced into lying. Exculpatory evidence was withheld from the defense and made to "disappear."
As I write, Leonard Peltier of the American Indian Movement is still in jail. Elmer "Geronimo" Pratt of the California Panthers, a decorated Vietnam veteran, was recently released after spending nearly half his life in jail for a murder that the FBI had clear evidence he could not possibly have committed. Richard Moore (Dhoruba Al-Mujahid Bin Wahad), a New York Panther, has only recently been freed after a review of his case indicated similar government misconduct. Have you heard of the Angola Three?
These are two black men in the Louisiana State Penitentiary--Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox--who have been held in continuous solitary confinement for twenty-nine years. They, along with Robert King Wilkerson (who was freed in February 2001) are responsible for organizing a functional chapter of the Black Panther Party among the inmate population of Angola prison. In 1972 the men were convicted of the murder of a guard and have been held in isolation ever since (see www.prisonactivist.org/angola). These are only a few cases that have surfaced into public awareness. But there remain a great many such cases that seem irretrievably buried in the catacombs of legal bureaucracy. There are activists of that generation, in other words--fellow human beings and American citizens--who are in effect political prisoners, still serving time in an American gulag, often on very questionable evidence indeed.
Back to the Rap. In April 1970, after two years of tortuous legal jousting, he failed to appear in court for trial on the incitement charge and simply disappeared. For seventeen months, despite the best efforts of the FBI and an international dragnet, he appeared to have dropped from the face of the earth. To my knowledge he has never publicly discussed this period, so it remains something of a mystery. At the time, speculation was rife. None of our mutual movement friends seemed to know--or would admit to knowing--his whereabouts. He was variously rumored as being in Cuba, in Algeria, in West Africa or deceased. His brother Ed was "pretty sure" he was alive, but so completely incommunicado that even he had not a clue as to where Rap might be.
When he finally surfaced in late 1971 it was in truly astonishing circumstances and surprisingly close to home--Manhattan, in fact. His friends and supporters in the movement were stunned when large New York Times headlines proclaimed his capture, gut-shot and seriously wounded, following a running gun battle with police during "an attempted holdup" of a westside Manhattan bar. To us this made no sense. Armed robbery of a bar? C'mon, that was completely at odds with the political principles we considered ourselves to share with Rap. Indeed, had he not been in critical condition in a Harlem hospital, one would have been tempted to simply dismiss the entire story as false identification.
To many black Americans, this was an astonishing and dismaying development. The young SNCC chairman seemed to have crossed the line between militant political defiance and flat-out criminality. Much of the support he had enjoyed, both within the movement and in the general community, evaporated. But not all. According to a report from the Harlem street, "It was some black nurses who saved that boy's life. Them sisters made sure he got proper treatment in that hospital." Also, according to street lore, the bar holdup was really more of an ill-advised, armed sortie against reputed drug dealers and their police partners. After recovering from his injuries, Rap served five years in prison. Having theoretically discharged his debt to the law and re-emerged into society as Jamil Al-Amin, H. Rap Brown, for all intents and purposes, should have been history.
Jamil Al-Amin, after making the hajj to Mecca following his parole, settled in Atlanta, where his brother Ed was director of the Voter Education Project, and set out to construct a new life outside the glare of the media. The imam, peaceably studying his religion and building an Islamic congregation, became--not that McGeorge Bundy was prescient--the proprietor of a small community grocery store cum culture center in Atlanta's West End.
The next episode in this remarkable tale might be seen as that of two utterly incompatible and mutually exclusive stories. One is the narrative of H. Rap Brown, the armed militant, prone to violence--"revolutionary" or "criminal," depending on your take. This old narrative is preserved alive and well in the computerized memory banks of law enforcement and the film clips and soundbites of the media, a convenient ghost to be summoned up at will over the next thirty years.
"Y'know," his brother Ed explained, "something happens. Say the first attempt to bomb the Trade Center, right? They feed their infallible profile into their computer. Muslim...radical...violent...anti-American, whatever, who knows. Anyway, boom, out spits the names, H. Rap Brown prominent among them. Next thing the Feds come storming into the community and haul Jamil in. This actually happened. Of course it's stupid. And every time they have to let him go. But how do you stop it? A goddamn nightmare, they never quit."
Then there is a more contemporary contending narrative, that of the Imam Al-Amin--pious, ascetic scholar/teacher and community leader widely perceived to have renounced violence--only to have his hard-won peace plagued at regular intervals by the ghost of the past persona, conjured up to that end.
Or, some suggest, could not the narratives sometimes merge: with the clerical robes and books of the imam being occasionally discarded for the weapons and fatigues of the militant?
One person has no doubt. "No, bro. It was just continuous harassment, pure and simple," Ed Brown says. "Harassment, sometimes routine and petty, sometimes pretty serious. Just one damn thing after another. No matter how absurd. The police simply would not leave my brother alone...an ongoing police vendetta."
Out of this series of low-level annoyances two incidents stand out. Immediately after the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, Imam Al-Amin was arbitrarily hauled in, interrogated and released under heavy and continuous surveillance, all in the absence of any evidence at all connecting him to the bombing--at least none the authorities cared to disclose.
Another such incident took place in August 1995. A month after a local shooting, agents of the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms converged on Atlanta and arrested Imam Al-Amin as the shooter. At a press conference, they informed the press that the victim had identified the imam as his assailant. The charges were dropped when the victim--who subsequently joined the imam's mosque--told the press that he had not seen his assailant but had been threatened by the authorities with jail if he did not implicate Imam Al-Amin. He also told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the New York Times that it was the police who first presented him with the name and photograph of Imam Al-Amin. The whole thing stank of a setup and police impropriety. However, the mainstream civil liberties establishment was silent, so it was left to the national Islamic community to question the irregularities surrounding this incident.
On August 28, 1995, the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), joined by several other national Muslim organizations, held a press conference in which they called for a Justice Department investigation. The groups represented included the Islamic Society of North America, American Muslim Council, the Muslim Public Affairs Council and CAIR. Imam Al-Amin was also in attendance. The joint statement they released raises some interesting questions:
1) Why were agents of the FBI, the FBI's Counterterrorism Task Force and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms involved in a case that the police themselves described as a "routine aggravated assault"?
2) Why was the victim in this case, as he himself has stated and the Journal-Constitution reported, threatened with legal charges if he failed to identify Imam Al-Amin as his assailant? And why did authorities refuse to accept the victim's repeated statements that he did not see who the assailant was?
3) Why would the authorities in Atlanta wish to implicate Imam Al-Amin in this case?
4) Why was Imam Al-Amin arrested weeks after the alleged incident, even though he was easily accessible to law enforcement officials at his public place of business? Why was he arrested in his car and not called in for questioning at police facilities?
Good questions. I am not aware of a response from the Justice Department. Unfortunately, this is not where the story ends.
Five years later, on Thursday night, March 16, 2000, the troubled relationship between the brother and the various law enforcement agencies would escalate from farce to tragedy. As I write, Imam Al-Amin sits on trial on four felony murder charges, for which the state is seeking the death penalty. By the time you read this, part of the trial will have taken place, so we will have learned something of the quality and extent of the evidence the state has been able to produce in support of the thirteen charges it has brought. Here is the background--what we know of it at this time.
On the night of March 16, an exchange of gunfire between two Fulton County sheriff's deputies and persons unknown resulted in the death of Deputy Richard Kinchen and the serious injury of Deputy Aldranon English. The incident took place in the vicinity of the community mosque founded by Imam Al-Amin. According to the authorities, the deputies were attempting to serve an arrest warrant on Al-Amin, who had missed an earlier court appearance. (The charges--impersonating a police officer and receiving stolen property--while not insignificant, were relatively minor compared with the ones he now faces. Imam Al-Amin maintains that he never received notification of the court date, even though his residence and business address were well-known to authorities.)
In the immediate aftermath of the shootings, the Atlanta police released in rapid succession, and the media reported, four significantly different accounts of the incident. The precise location, the sequence of events, the description and even the number of assailants were all revised in these early accounts, the only constant being a "trail of blood." Deputy English was certain he'd seen, spoken to, shot and seriously wounded his attacker. The investigators reported following a "heavy trail" of blood up the steps and across the porch of an empty house. From photographs shown him, the wounded officer identified the shooter as Al-Amin, although there were discrepancies in his initial description. A regional manhunt was launched.
The local media had a field day with H. Rap Brown, whom they identified as a former Black Panther leader and all-around desperado. Apparently the most recent picture they could find was a police mug shot of a fierce-looking Black Power militant out of the 1960s. This image saturated all media (except radio) and is indicative of the general tone of the coverage. However, a few days after the shooting, when Al-Amin was arrested in Alabama, he was found to be completely free of physical injury. Subsequently very little was heard of the "wounded assailant" and the "trail of blood" motif, until it emerged in the first days of the trial.
There are other significant discrepancies between police and media reports and the known facts, but there is no need to recapitulate those here. They will come out in court, and I am no more the imam's lawyer than you are a jury of his peers. There is, however, one important dimension to this story that seems to have escaped the notice of the media.
Neither I nor the media commentators, having not been present, can say exactly what happened that night--who was present, or why and how things happened as they did. All that is indisputably clear is that an eminently avoidable human tragedy took place. One young black man was dead, another seriously injured. Somebody shot them. And a leader of the community is on trial for his life. Was this inevitable? Did any of it have to happen? Recall with me the prevailing context in which these events unfolded.
In March 2000, there was a particular mood in working-class African-American communities across the country. Our communities had been traumatized by a series of shootings of unarmed black men at the hands of police in urban centers, most of them innocent of any crime. In black Islamic communities in particular, feelings were extremely raw over the police shooting of a devout, law-abiding, unarmed young African Muslim named Amadou Diallo as he stood in the foyer of his apartment building in New York City. Although more than forty shots were fired at or into the young man, the four police perpetrators were found innocent of wrongdoing. The Diallo case was the subject of sermons in mosques across the nation, and the Atlanta mosque was no exception.
The Atlanta shootout took place within a month of the acquittal of the police officers in New York. One has to wonder, therefore, why, in the climate created by those events, the Atlanta authorities chose to act as they did. Why was it necessary to send into a Muslim community, under cover of darkness, heavily armed men wearing flak jackets to bring in a respected and beloved religious leader, a figure of fixed address and regular and predictable habits? And this in service of a warrant for charges they describe as relatively minor. Who authorized this action and in this manner? Was this abysmally poor judgment or deliberate provocation?
Al-Amin's neighbors also found it passing strange. "He understood the process, how City Hall works, how federal government works," one lady recalls. "So he was like a mayor to many people. Someone people could go to to make things happen." Another pointed out that "Jamil walked up and down the street all day, from the house to the shop to the mosque. So why would they wait till 10 o'clock at night? The man certainly wasn't hard to find."
There was a conference marking the foundation of SNCC a few months after the Atlanta shootings. The prisoner's colleagues from the movement said it well in a statement they issued there:
While we are deeply saddened by the bloodshed and loss of human life in this tragic and very avoidable incident, we are equally concerned by the presence in the record of a number of factors which threaten to compound tragedy with injustice. We refer to the number of glaring discrepancies in the official version of events and what appears to us as a precipitous and uncritical rush to judgment by the public media.
What further distresses us is that the facts as alleged are so completely out of character with the man we have come to know as Imam Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin. For twenty years, our brother has shown himself a serious student of religion, a devout spiritual teacher as well as a public spirited community leader.
We ourselves know him as a principled, compassionate, mature black man committed to justice for his people and the moral welfare of his community. These allegations are totally antithetical to the character of a man we greatly respect. We urge therefore a suspension of judgment pending a thorough investigation, not only of the tragic events of March 16, but of the chain of events preceding them.
Imam Al-Amin has been incarcerated since March 2000 under conditions that seem unnecessarily draconian. In solitary confinement, he was for a time deprived of his Holy Koran, and he has never been permitted to participate in weekly Jumu'ahservices with other members of his faith. He has been silenced by a court-imposed gag order. Before the order, however, he was able to make a personal statement. In the manner of his vocation and faith, the statement is issued in the name of his God, which inclines me to assume its sincerity. We should let him speak in his own voice, excerpted below:
My name is Imam Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin, the former H. Rap Brown. I am a devoted servant of Allah, and an unwavering devotee to His cause. For more than 30 years, I have been tormented and persecuted by my enemies for reasons of race and belief. I seek truth over a lie; I seek justice over injustice; I seek righteousness over the rewards of evildoers, and I love Allah more than I love the state.
On March 16, 2000, Fulton County Sheriff Deputy Ricky Kinchen was killed and Sheriff Aldranon English was shot and injured in the neighborhood where I have lived, worked, and prayed. Indeed, this tragedy occurred across the street from the Mosque I founded. I have been accused by the State of Georgia of having committed these crimes. Let me declare before the families of these men, before the state, and any who would dare to know the truth, that I neither shot nor killed anyone. I am innocent of the 13 charges that have been brought against me. Let me also declare that I am one with the grief of this mother and father at the loss of their son. I am joined at the heart with this widow and her children at the loss of a husband and a father. I drink from the same bitter cup of sorrow as the siblings at the loss of a beloved brother....
[The police] have sought to marginalize my humanity and humiliate my family. They have done their level best to reduce me to a one-dimensional monster.... I am no monster. I am a human being created by Allah and am an instrument of his purpose. I am entitled to every right and every consideration as every other human being including fairness, a fair trial and the presumption of innocence.
The trial currently under way may not prove particularly inspiring, but it will certainly be instructive. It doubtless can do little to resolve, or, in the fashion of the day, deconstruct, the prevailing paradox of the Brown/Al-Amin personas. Thus it will tell us less about the accused than about justice and the state of the nation in its present mood. Less about guilt or innocence than about respect for human rights.
For, as Jimmy Baldwin, our late Prophet, warned, "In the private chambers of the soul, the guilty party is identified and the accusing finger is not legend but consequence.... A people pay for what they do, and still more for what they allow themselves to become. And they pay for it simply by the life they lead."
It is now for the state and Al-Amin's fellow citizens to speak. In the national mood following the horrific events of September 11, it will be instructive to see what they say.
Johnny Temple plays bass guitar in the rock bands Girls Against Boys and New Wet Kojak and is the publisher of Akashic Books (www.akashicbooks.com).
I offer these brief remarks today as a prayer for our country, with love
of democracy, as a celebration of our country. With love for our country.
With hope for our country.
The legendary Surrealist exhibitions of the late 1930s and early 1940s were Surrealist in spirit and secondarily Surrealist in content. In 1942, for example, an exhibition called "The First Papers of Surrealism" was installed at the Whitelaw Reid mansion on Madison Avenue in New York, and those that attended it were far more likely to remember the show itself than any of the works on display. It was designed by Marcel Duchamp, using one mile of string to weave a sort of spider's web from floor to walls to ceiling, which visitors had to climb through to look at the art hung on temporary display panels. Moreover, they had to put up with a crowd of schoolchildren, boisterously playing ball or skipping rope or chasing one another through the show. The children were instructed to say that Mr. Duchamp said it was OK for them to play there, if anyone raised the question. It was an ideal way to subvert any propensity to seek a rich aesthetic experience in contemplating the art, and by indirection to demonstrate that it was not the point of Surrealist art to be an object of aesthetic contemplation in the first place. Duchamp disdained aesthetic response--"That retinal shudder!" as he dismissed it in a late interview.
Duchamp had also installed the legendary International Exposition of Surrealism at the Galerie Beaux-Arts in Paris four years earlier. There he arranged to have the ceiling hung with 1,200 coal sacks that, though empty, showered residual coal dust on the throngs below, who were supplied with flashlights to see the paintings hung in shadows. Upon entering the show, visitors encountered Rainy Taxi by Salvador Dali--an ancient taxicab on which water poured down from the ceiling. The driver and passenger were both mannequins, the former equipped with a shark's head and wearing goggles, the latter a frump covered with escargots, and both placed on a bed of lettuce.
These exhibitions achieved the same shock of incongruity that was intended to characterize what one might think of as Surrealist experience in general, as expressed in one of their favorite paradigms from a text by Isidore Ducasse, a k a le Comte de Lautréamont: "The chance meeting on a dissecting table of a sewing machine and an umbrella." There is a 1920 photograph by Man Ray of a mysterious object, wrapped in a heavy blanket and bound with rope. It was used as the frontispiece of the first issue of a magazine, La Révolution surréaliste, the readers of which would immediately have inferred from its title--"The Enigma of Isidore Ducasse"--that the wrapped object must be a sewing machine. Visitors to non-Surrealist exhibitions of Surrealist art--such as "Surrealism: Desire Unbound," on view at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art through May 12--might be let in on the secret by a wall label reading: "sewing machine, wood, fabric, card." But without knowing the identity of Ducasse or the text alluded to, the point of the work would be lost on them.
Surrealism was essentially a literary movement, whose primary products were books, magazines, poems, letters and manifestoes. These in fact form a considerable part of "Desire Unbound," which, together with the many aging snapshots of groups of smiling Surrealists, could with equal suitability have made up a show at the Morgan Library or some comparable venue. Art itself was largely peripheral to the movement, serving, like Man Ray's photograph, to illustrate the essentially philosophical ideas of the writers, who were chiefly poets and what one might term aesthetic ideologists, tirelessly taken up with defining what we might term "Surrealist correctness." At least in the early stages of the movement, one of their questions was whether painting was even a Surrealist possibility. Ironically, the writers have become the subject of scholarly specialization, while Surrealism itself is widely identified with a body of paintings, pre-eminently those of Dali--desert landscapes in acute perspective, on the floor of which various objects, often teeming with ants, cast sharp shadows. It was Dali who designed the dream sequence in Alfred Hitchcock's film Spellbound--and it is his idiom that has been universally appropriated for the representation of dreams.
It is with reference to dreams that Surrealism was initially formulated in André Breton's First Surrealist Manifesto of 1924. What excited Breton about dreams was the fact that what happens in them defies reason and certainly common sense. But for just the reason that dreams cannot be captured in the discourse we use in our waking lives, they were, until Freud, relegated to parentheses that we felt no need to incorporate into the narrative of our lives. Breton was convinced that this was, in effect, throwing away something of inestimable value, and in the Manifesto he described a method of writing that makes the dream accessible to our waking consciousness. This, in effect, is a kind of automatic writing--writing that as far as possible is uncontrolled by our critical faculties. The resulting pages will be impossible to appreciate in the ways in which ordinary writing is appreciated. "Poetically speaking," Breton says, "they are especially endowed with a high degree of immediate absurdity." Nevertheless, what we have done has somehow brought the dream before our conscious minds, and what we have is at once reality and dream, hence a kind of "absolute reality." Surrealism is then the method through which this absolute or "sur-" reality is made available to us as a resource to be used. Here is Breton's definition:
SURREALISM, noun, masc. Pure psychic automatism by which it is intended to express, either verbally or in writing, the true function of thought. Thought dictated in the absence of all control exerted by reason, and outside all aesthetic or moral preoccupations.
I have italicized "either verbally or in writing" to emphasize that Breton does not mention either singing or playing, or drawing or painting. There is little if any Surrealist music, though one might think that jazz would exemplify psychic automatism to perfection. Breton thought Surrealist music was impossible, probably because music lacks the dimension of realism that is a precondition for sur-realism--an objection that would be overcome in the case of opera, and indeed my musical informant, Lydia Goehr, has told me of a Surrealist opera, Julietta, by a Czech composer. Painting, on the other hand, met the criterion of realism, but as far as the Surrealists were concerned, it lacked the spontaneity of writing or speech. Dali painted like an old master, using perspective and chiaroscuro, building up glazes, creating illusions. There is no way it could have been done automatically, or without rational control. So by definition, his painting cannot be Surrealist. It would be like transcribing a dream in rhymed verse. The most that can be said is that he illustrates strange conjunctions and encounters, directed, as it were, by a strong artistic will.
One might say that the visual arts became admitted to Surrealism only when artists found ways of working more fluidly. Max Ernst's marvelous collage narratives, in which he clipped and pasted images from old engravings, recommended themselves to the Surrealists. Miró, who actually used writing in his paintings together with images, was also accepted. When Breton encountered the sculpture of Giacometti, it was as though he at last found someone who seemed to dream while awake, in the medium of clay and plaster.
In truth, it was mainly the painter Matta who found a way of drawing automatically and hence surrealistically. And Matta taught the New York painters--especially Pollock and Motherwell--how to do this. Psychic automatism evolved spectacularly into what we now think of as Abstract Expressionism, and it was through the chance encounter of Right Bank Poets and rednecks like Pollock on the dissecting table of Manhattan that American artists were able to produce work that Motherwell describes as "plastic, mysterious, and sublime"--adding that "no Parisian is a sublime painter, nor a monumental one, not even Miró." But Abstract Expression was never "Surrealist" in the sense in which Dali's images were. It was as though there were two dimensions to Surrealism--psychic automatism and absurdity. The latter does not figure in Breton's definition, but it certainly figures in what we might call Surrealist sensibility.
I learned a certain amount about what it would have been like to be a Surrealist from Robert Motherwell, who as a young artist in New York in the early 1940s became a kind of guide to Breton and a cadre of other Surrealists, then in exile in New York, where they endeavored so far as possible to re-create the form of life they'd lived in Paris. Twice a week they would gather for lunch at Larre's, an inexpensive French bistro on West 55th Street, and proceed afterward to Third Avenue, at that time lined with all sorts of secondhand stores and antiques shops. The activity for the afternoon was to decide which of the objects on display were Surrealist and which were not. It was a fairly serious matter to be wrong about this. Matta would have been disgraced when he misidentified as Surrealist a certain gargoyle head--until Duchamp intervened, saying that maybe he had a point. Duchamp, listed as Generateur-Arbitre (producer and arbitrator) in the catalogue for the 1938 exhibition, was not officially a Surrealist, but Breton regarded him as having perfect pitch when it came to what possessed surreality and what did not.
A famous such object was a curious wooden spoon Breton and Giacometti had found at the flea market in Paris. A little shoe was carved just under the spoon's handle. It struck Breton that the whole spoon could be seen as itself a shoe, with the little shoe as its heel. He then imagined the possibility that its heel was another shoe, with a heel of its own, which itself was a shoe...and that this could go on to infinity. The spoon he saw as an example of "convulsive beauty" in the sense that it revealed through its structure a state of mind, which consisted in a desire for love. There is a photograph, again by Man Ray, of this found object with the descriptive title "From the height of a little slipper making a body with it..." which was published in Breton's book L'Amour fou. There would be no way of telling from the photograph--or from the spoon itself--that it had convulsive beauty, or the evasive property of surreality. And I am uncertain whether it has either of these intrinsically, or only for the individual to whom it reveals, the way a verbal lapse does in Freud's The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, a state of mind that would otherwise have remained unconscious. At the very least, some fairly elaborate chain of interpretation--as again in the The Psychopathology of Everyday Life--has to be supplied. Surrealism was a taxing and fully absorbing form of mental activity.
In the First Surrealist Manifesto, Breton mentions having become aware of a certain "bizarre sentence" that came to him "bearing no trace of the events with which I was involved at the time." He was unable to remember the exact wording, but it generated the writing he subsequently identified as Surrealist. The little spoon, as it happens, helped unpack a different such phrase, one that had been obsessively running through his mind--"Cendrier-Cendrillon"--which means "Ashtray-Cinderella." Breton refused to learn English, not so much, I believe, out of the vanity that is threatened when we lose the fluency of our native tongue but because we dream in our own language. The terms "ashtray" and "Cinderella" have no obvious connection, but "cendrier" and "Cendrillon" have a common root--the French word for cinders or ashes, which enables them to be conjoined in free association. Breton went so far as to ask Giacometti to make an ashtray in the form of Cinderella's slipper. But he remained baffled by "Cendrier-Cendrillon," and somehow the slipper spoon helped clarify the emotional state that expressed itself through the conjunction. But you have to read L'amour fou to find out how.
L'amour fou brings us to "Desire Unbound"--since unbound desire is exactly what L'amour fou is. Desire--and in particular erotic desire--is the theme of the Metropolitan exhibition. With qualifications, everything in the show possesses surreality--or convulsive beauty--providing we understand how to unlock it. The most helpful thing to understand is that aesthetics was never a central Surrealist preoccupation, so looking for an aesthetic experience here will not get you to first base. You have to look at the exhibits the way those displaced Surrealists looked at the objects on view in shop windows sixty years ago, trying to decide which were the Surrealist objects. Motherwell told me that his problem in playing that game lay in the fact that he had been brought up to look at antiques aesthetically. His mother was an antiques collector. But he got a kind of education surréaliste in those afternoons spent peering through dusty shop windows, tutored by Breton and Duchamp. With a sigh of what I felt was despair, he said, on one occasion, that the whole world was beginning to look surrealistic to him. But that, as he of course knew very deeply, was a metaphorical truth. The world seemed pretty crazy when the International Exposition of Surrealism took place in Paris in 1938. France was falling apart, German planes were bombing Barcelona, Germany was poised for conquest. The Surrealists were not aiming for the kind of experience that could be had from reading the headlines.
But neither did they think that the creation of the surrealistic was their unique contribution to art. The surrealistic existed avant la lettre. The Surrealists found it present throughout the history of art--in Hieronymus Bosch and in Hans Baldung Grien for obvious reasons, in Seurat's La Grande Jatte for less obvious ones. The first gallery in the show is given over toGiorgio de Chirico, whom the Surrealists took as a predecessor, and the second one to Dada, many of whose members, especially Max Ernst and Marcel Duchamp, were to make substantial contributions to Surrealism when it emerged as a movement in the 1920s. But the first object one encounters in entering the show--Venus aux tiroirs, 1936--a plaster Venus in whose torso Dali had placed a number of small drawers, as in a jewelry case, each with a fur-covered knob--is self-consciously Surrealist. Fur seemed by itself to confer surreality when adjoined to any object, the use of which seemed to rule fur out as a material--like a teacup, for example. No survey of Surrealism would be complete without Meret Oppenheim's 1936 fur-lined teacup, which somehow is like a dream object rendered concrete. One can see why. The last thing one expects, lifting a teacup to take a sip, would be the feeling of fur on one's lips. It happens only in dreams, where it would seem to disguise an obvious reference and a no-less-obvious repressed wish. Oppenheim had a genius for finding ways to express genital references through everyday objects, and much of Surrealism was taken up with such disclosures. There is a photograph by Man Ray of an unidentified woman, her head thrown back so that we see the lines of her jaw from below. But then, with the irresistibility of an optical illusion, the neck convulses into the shaft of a thick penis, with the jaw becoming the glans--and the image looks like a huge penis coming out of a woman's shoulders. Surrealist objects are displacements of the objects of desire with which the world around and within us abounds--though a lot of good it does us so far as the gratification of desire is concerned. Perhaps that is why it seems to constitute the constant preoccupation of mental life, which surfaces distortedly in our dream life.
The great emblem of unfulfilled and perhaps unfulfillable desire is Duchamp's 1915 masterpiece The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, usually referred to as The Large Glass. A display case here holds notations and sketches for the work, and there is a painting of the bride in Duchamp's Cubist manner. The stripping has gone so far that the flesh has been taken away, and what we see looks like her reproductive system, including a schematized uterus. She is suspended in an upper chamber, separated by a glass shelf from her "bachelors"--a chorus of "malic forms" in the lower chamber. The two chambers are united and separated by an erotic desire that leaves everyone at once unsatisfied and inseparable. Duchamp, as is well-known, took a female identity for himself as Rrose Sélavy--Eros, c'est la vie--and was photographed wearing a woman's hat, makeup and furs by--who else?--Man Ray. In one of his most famous works--a postcard of the Mona Lisa on which he drew a mustache and goatee--Duchamp sought a reverse transgendrification. Magritte showed the female torso as a readymade pun on a male face, with the nipples as goggle eyes, and the pubis as beard. In Surrealist thought, male and female are often transcriptions of each other, as in the myth of Aristophanes that once upon a time we were a single being, male and female at once, and that ever since we have longed, in futility, for our other half. In Surrealism, though, the split was not clean--each of us bears something that belongs to our sexually opposite number.
The Surrealists did have robust love lives, and the heart of the show--no pun intended--exhibits the cat's cradle of their relationships: Gala with Paul Eluard, Man Ray and finally Dali; Max Ernst with Leonora Carrington and Dorothea Tanning; Eluard with Nusch; Man Ray with Meret Oppenheim and Lee Miller; Louis Aragon with Elsa Triolet; Breton with Nadja and Jacqueline Lamba. And there were plenty of secondary loves as well. Many of the women were artists in their own right, and it is a merit of the show that a lot of their work is shown. I'll end with one of my favorite lines from a Surrealist poet, Robert Desnos, bound to two women--Yvonne George and Youki Foujita--by l'amour fou: J'ai tant rêvé de toi que tu perds ta réalité. ("I have dreamt of you so much that you have lost your reality.") The line is logically equivalent to: "I have dreamt of you so much that you have gained surreality." The beauty of the objects of Surrealist desire became convulsive through dreams. May this become true for us all!
Pat Buchanan surely holds the record for the greatest impact on a presidential election with the fewest votes. With less than 0.43 percent of the tally nationally, he still managed to decide the 2000 election. But for the thousands of votes mistakenly cast for Buchanan in Palm Beach because of the infamously confusing "butterfly" ballot, Al Gore would be President today and George W. Bush would be the Republican Michael Dukakis.
Buchanan's pernicious influence, however, did not end with the 2000 election. He's now picking up where he left off with his infamous "cultural war" speech to the 1992 Republican convention, a speech, as Molly Ivins quipped, that "sounded better in the original German." Well, Buchanan's been translating from Deutsch again, this time with The Death of the West: How Dying Populations and Immigrant Invasions Imperil Our Country and Civilization, his new book. The Death of the West harks back to the xenophobic jeremiads of the early twentieth century, such as Madison Grant's The Passing of the Great Race, Lothrop Stoddard's The Rising Tide of Color, Houston Stewart Chamberlain's The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century and Oswald Spengler's The Decline of the West.
Indeed, enterprising journalists and historians looking to expose the next Stephen Ambrose or Doris Kearns Goodwin should consider comparing Buchanan's book side by side with these others. In addition to revising Spengler's title, Buchanan shares Stoddard's love of watery metaphors--both books gush with rising tides, surging oceans and flooding rivers of nonwhites, all of which push inexorably against the ever more precarious dams and dikes around the white world. The two authors also share a predilection for quoting Rudyard Kipling, the poet laureate of the "white man's burden."
Each of these earlier books shares the same simple theme: It's Us against Them, and with fewer and fewer of Us and more and more of Them, things look grim for Us. Buchanan readily accepts the "demography is destiny" argument: "As a growing population has long been a mark of healthy nations and rising civilizations, falling populations have been a sign of nations and civilizations in decline." Buchanan's data clearly put the West into the latter category. "In 1960, people of European ancestry were one-fourth of the world's population; in 2000, they were one-sixth, in 2050, they will be one-tenth. These are the statistics of a vanishing race."
And who's responsible for this disappearance? For Buchanan, women bear most of the blame. Liberated by technological and cultural changes, he argues, Western women have abandoned their true calling as designated racial breeders. "Only the mass reconversion of Western women to an idea that they seem to have given up--that the good life lies in bearing and raising children and sending them out into the world to continue the family and nation--can prevent the Death of the West."
Faced with declining birthrates, the only alternative available to Western nations if they wish to maintain themselves is massive immigration from the burgeoning populations of Asia, Africa and the Middle East. But for Buchanan, this medicine is worse than the disease, since immigration on this scale entails the introduction of too many nonwhite non-Christians. Regarding Europe, he writes: "And as the millions pour into Europe from North Africa and the Middle East, they will bring their Arab and Islamic culture, traditions, loyalties, and faith, and create replicas of their homelands in the heartland of the West. Will they assimilate, or will they endure as indigestible parts of Africa and Arabia in the base camp of what was once Christendom?" Clearly he thinks the latter. The United States faces a similar danger, he warns: "Uncontrolled immigration threatens to deconstruct the nation we grew up in and convert America into a conglomeration of peoples with almost nothing in common--not history, heroes, language, culture, faith, or ancestors. Balkanization beckons."
Buchanan must know that many have rung this tocsin before him, and each time it has been a false alarm. The West's population has probably declined relative to the rest of the world ever since the Western world defined itself as such. For example, when Stoddard wrote in 1922, he sounded the alarm because Western nations had declined to only one-third of the world's population. By 1960, as Buchanan points out, the Western share of the world's population had fallen to one-fourth. Despite this relative decline in population, he considers 1960 as the height of Western power and influence. Furthermore, most evidence suggests that Western nations are at least as powerful now as in 1960, even with the decline in population.
Buchanan's warnings about the United States ring just as hollow. Of the 30 million foreign-born residents, he claims, "Even the Great Wave of immigration from 1890 to 1920 was nothing like this." He's right--that wave surpassed the current one. Today, foreign-born residents make up about 11 percent of the US population, but from the 1870s to the 1920s, that number fluctuated between 13 percent and 15 percent.
Buchanan, however, also argues that today's immigrants are fundamentally different from earlier generations of newcomers; but again, there's no evidence for this. America was hardly more familiar to a Southern Italian peasant who came to New York City in 1900 than it is to an immigrant today from Nigeria or the Philippines. If anything, the spread of global markets and American popular culture has made recent immigrants more attuned to the ways of their new home than their predecessors of a century ago. Furthermore, the bulk of contemporary immigrants come from Latin America, and thus possess the Christian faith that Buchanan views as central to any definition of America. Indeed, the vast majority of Latin American immigrants share Buchanan's Catholicism. Nonetheless, these immigrants "not only come from another culture, but millions are of another race," making it difficult if not impossible for them to assimilate into US society. While Buchanan might consider Latinos as his brothers in Christ, he draws the line at having them as neighbors or fellow citizens.
September 11, Buchanan argues, painfully exposed the threat from contemporary immigrants: "Suddenly, we awoke to the realization that among our millions of foreign-born, a third are here illegally, tens of thousands are loyal to regimes with which we could be at war, and some are trained terrorists sent here to murder Americans." But the past is full of similar warnings about the enemy within. During World War II, anti-Japanese prejudices combined with national security concerns to result in the internment of thousands of US citizens. During World War I, "unhyphenated" Americans saw German-Americans as the Kaiser's minions, engaging in sedition and sabotage to aid the cause of the Fatherland. Yet as these instances demonstrate, the real threat, then as now, existed largely in fevered nativist minds.
This selective and myopic view of American nativism runs throughout The Death of the West. On the one hand, Buchanan refers to nativist statements by such people as Benjamin Franklin, Theodore Roosevelt and Calvin Coolidge to support his assertion that concerns over immigration are not un-American. On the other hand, while he is correct that nativism has always been one of America's multiple political traditions, Buchanan has nary a mention of how pervasive, inaccurate and pernicious such sentiments have been. Of the Know-Nothings, he knows nothing. He quotes Al Smith, the first Catholic nominated for the presidency by a major party, but includes no mention that anti-Catholic prejudices made a major contribution to his landslide defeat in the 1928 election, as he was vigorously opposed by Protestant leaders and groups such as the Ku Klux Klan. (After the election, the joke went, Smith sent a one-word telegram to the Pope: "Unpack.") To Buchanan, it seems, anti-Catholic sentiment is a recent development and limited to left-wing intellectuals. Overall, he chooses to ignore the fact that nearly every immigrant to this country confronted nativists who argued that their race, religion, ethnicity or culture made them unfit to become full American citizens. Furthermore, if these previous nativists had had their way, they would have excluded the ancestors of most current American citizens, including Buchanan's.
Buchanan recognizes that he's in a minefield with this subject, and he makes some efforts to tread lightly. To rebut accusations that he's an anti-Semite, he sheds crocodile tears over the danger to Israel from a growing Arab population and occasionally (but not consistently) refers to America's Judeo-Christian values. But like Dr. Strangelove's hand, Buchanan's anti-Semitism refuses to stay under control. As examples of conservative leaders who have failed to fight the culture wars with sufficient zeal, he singles out Irving Kristol, Gertrude Himmelfarb and Norman Podhoretz. One might well ask why these three when one could level similar charges against Jack Kemp, Bob Dole, John McCain and even George W. Bush.
By the end of the book Buchanan has dropped all pretenses, declaring America to be a Christian nation. His racism is equally apparent. For example, in addition to warning that many current immigrants are of a different--that is, nonwhite--race, he includes a lengthy discussion of black crime rates. Given that most blacks can trace their American ancestry back further than most white Americans, it's clear that Buchanan defines America not by "history, heroes, language, culture, faith, or ancestors" but by race.
If Buchanan's diagnosis of the problem is objectionable, his solution is even worse. For him, democracy, a shared culture and even a common race offer no defense against the West's impending doom. Rather, he argues, "If the West expects a long life, it had best recapture the fighting faith of its youth." And what were these youthful characteristics? "Protestant monarchs and Catholic kings alike did not flinch at burning heretics or drawing and quartering them at the Tyburn tree. The Christianity that conquered the world was not a milquetoast faith, and the custodians of that faith did not believe all religions were equal. One was true; all the rest were false." To believe otherwise invites disaster, "For it is in the nature of things that nations and religions rule or are ruled."
Buchanan's right-wing nativism is nothing new, so it might be tempting to dismiss him and his book as inconsequential. After all, didn't the 2000 election prove that Buchanan had only marginal electoral support and that even the Republican Party considers his views too extreme? But votes don't always measure influence, and The Death of the West has clearly struck a responsive chord. Not only does it stand near the top of the New York Times bestseller list, but its author remains a prominent fixture on the TV talk-show circuit. Indeed, it's interesting to contrast the reception of The Death of the West with that of Buchanan's previous book, A Republic, Not an Empire. The latter set off a firestorm of criticism, especially among Republicans and conservatives, when Buchanan argued that Hitler had not threatened the United States. If anything, The Death of the West is even worse, since Buchanan moves beyond minimizing the danger of Hitler to the open espousal of many of his doctrines. Yet this time around, the conservative commentators have not been nearly as critical. Then, of course, Buchanan was in the middle of bolting the GOP, potentially splitting the conservative vote and throwing the election to the Democrats. None of this came to pass, with Buchanan even helping Bush to win Florida. But the lesson seems clear: Conservatives are more than willing to tolerate Buchanan's racism and xenophobia, so long as he doesn't pose a direct threat to their political interests.
Even more disturbing than Buchanan's kid-gloves treatment by the media and the right is that the book's popularity stems from and seems likely to reinforce the upsurge in nativist sentiments after September 11. For many Americans, those tragic events gave even more reason to see the world in manichean terms and to divide Americans along lines of race, religion and ethnicity. Consequently, relatively open immigration policies came under attack. In Congress, a House caucus devoted to immigration restriction doubled in membership after September 11. Representative James Traficant, Democrat of Ohio, spoke for many of those members when he asked, "How do you defend your home if your front and back doors are unlocked? What do we stand for if we can't secure our borders? How many more Americans will die?... If 300,000 illegal immigrants can gain access to America every year, trying to find a better life, do not doubt for one moment that a larger contingent of people with evil intentions could gain entry into America and continue to kill American citizens."
Thankfully, such sentiments have not gained much headway in the ensuing months. Although the Bush Administration has backed off its proposal for granting amnesty to illegal immigrants from Mexico, it has shown few signs of embracing significant immigration restrictions in response to September 11 and has even agreed to restore food-stamp eligibility to legal immigrants. In Congress, immigration opponents have failed even to gain a formal hearing for their proposals. Yet the popularity of The Death of the West shows that nativist attitudes have not disappeared, and Buchanan's diatribe will undoubtedly help reinforce such views. Furthermore, both opponents and supporters of open immigration recognize that another incident of terrorism is perhaps all that is needed to turn The Death of the West from polemic to policy.