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.
For a while I thought about designing a flag. Something bigger, blurrier than "nation." I imagined a hovering planet on a field of blue, and "United We Stand" could be written under that--which felt good. I mentioned my idea to a few visual artists, who smiled and said I know what you mean, though some felt the American flag was fine and did stand for "something." Though no one could say what that something was, except maybe a desire to feel safe, together. Nonetheless, it kept happening. The war got sold on TV right in front of us. First, "Attack on America," then "America Strikes Back," then "America at War." It felt like a gradual poem coming across the TV screen in the same way a news story keeps adding one tiny little detail every hour on the hour. A poetry of repetition, so very American. We do understand the selling of a thing. Patriotism is, of course, a language system; a reality is getting constructed, just like "sobriety" exists as it does because of AA and the success of its endless repetitions ("it works if you work it!"), because, as Fredric Jameson says, conviction is related to the amount of redundancy in the message. But what about a flag for that other us? If there is another country, or many of them, in North America, or even in the world, how shall we know ourselves? Or shall we just darkly slide into the abyss under Gertrude Stein's ominous words: "Each civilization insisted in its own way, until it went away."
Long before September 11, I received countless e-mail petitions, still do, concerning the inhumane treatment of women in Afghanistan, though at dinner parties one hears the "good news" about the war--that windows in Afghanistan have been flung open, TV stations are coming back on and women are abandoning their burqas, going back to work. Suddenly, the US military has become the liberator of Afghan women. Yet this cheeriness is complicated by the story of Lieut. Col. Martha McSally, the highest-ranking female jet pilot in the Air Force, stationed in Saudi Arabia, who was, until recently, bizarrely forced to wear restrictive clothing--a black head-to-foot robe called an abaya, female Muslim attire, for her own protection whenever she was off base. Also, she was required to sit in the back seat of the car, as Saudi women do. (The Pentagon recently declared the black head-to-toe robe is now "not mandatory but strongly recommended" as off-base dress code. And McSally was reassigned to Arizona in what didn't sound like a promotion.) So while women were being liberated in Afghanistan, McSally's experience seemed like a recapitulation of the same oppression in mini-form, as if Muslim culture and the entire incident afforded the US military an opportunity to restrain women within its own ranks--obviously a goal. Because no one would ever suggest that a man in the military wear a dress for any reason. It would get him thrown out--so the masculine "out" is the feminine "in." Clearly, the patriotic have lots of work to do to change this pattern. Perhaps the war is "our" opportunity. We really need a flag.
In recent months I've read some radically female books that use poetics to promote a sexy and beguiling peace. Lisa Robertson, a Canadian writer, has written a small but epochal collection of poemlike prose passages and intermittent poems called The Weather. Once you crack the cover of this incidentally stunning-looking book--three floating white spheres in an azure sky--a folded turquoise sheet tumbles out, a press release it seems, from "The Office for Soft Architecture." It pronounces in boldface, "We think of the design and construction of these weather descriptions as important decorative work," and it wonders grandly, "How should we adorn mortality now?" This is a serious political question, since, it explains, "sincerity's eroticism is different from wit's." I suspect "sincerity's eroticism" is the condition of that "other America" that put Colonel McSally in an abaya. Lisa Robertson embarked on The Weather during a residency at the University of Cambridge, where she began an intense yet eccentric research in the "rhetorical structure in English meteorological descriptions." Referring to these weather descriptions, the Office for Soft Architecture temptingly promises, "They sculpt what rhythmed peace could be." The Office for Soft Architecture is a poet's fiction, a poet's dream--utopia, what used to be called a manifesto. Robertson's trope is exactly what we need to see whapping in the air, and, as the vastness of her international conceit reminds us, it is the air. In this so-often-impersonal book (which is no small crime for a female writer) she lets the landscape narrate, and from this newly constructed body politic, a collective tells the tale. The writing of the weather descriptions (which, I must admit, instantly changed mine) is incantatory. The Weather is a work of dazzling surface divided up into the days of the week, each "day" being rhythmic prose with a pendant poem at its end.
"Sunday" opens like a stick being thrust in the ground. "About here. All along here. All along here...." Later on it grows more dramatic: "Here a streak of light, here and there a house...." She continues: "Here is a system. Time pours from its mouth. We design it a flickering. Here is its desolation. Here it crosses. Here it falls at last...." The perspective is so deliberately precise and unclear, and so lovingly guided, that we follow it like a beautiful film, one quivering between art and politics, and the classic calm of her narration slides us over to a meditation on the State. Her text is a Virgil who would lead us humming through our mutating atmosphere. "Monday" begins with this suggestion: "First all belief is paradise." She shifts readily into the philosophic realm because she was never absent from it, and as the payoff for her constant mutation--just as swiftly she shifts out. The flickering ground of her book is all exits.
"Wednesday" is, among other things, a litany of female saints. She plops them into her landscape like paratroopers. These are military girls, leaders. "Days heap upon us. Where is our anger. And the shades darker than the plain part and darker at the top than the bottom. But darker at bottom than top. Days heap upon us. Where is Ti-Grace. But darker at the bottom than the top. Days heap upon us. Where is Valerie. Pulling the hard air into her lung." The effect of her naming and moving over the schematic, flickering landscapes is a cumulatively emotional one. "Days heap upon us. Where is Olympe. Going without rest. The polis crumbles open." When she quickens the pace of her unfolding, by shifting the scale, drawing her terms closer to one another, it sexualizes: "When monogamous, besieged. When no perception, doing warning. When none would, a pip of wet, stillness, a runnel." As each sentence opens with a poised "when," and as the gaps shorten, the field is suddenly jarring, exciting: "When the plan, a purse, optical." The rhythm of the collapse is a way of focusing, containing, then pulling back. This single practice, this excision of space and time, becomes a manner of speech itself. If all is weather dividing into week, week made of days, days of moments and letters, then the whole is a reference to a continuous surface of enlightenment in language, in being. It's exalted, even patriotic to me. We see the words that remain, and our selves reflected in it. In this fragment, the poem after "Friday," her work almost done, she speaks keenly of her utopia:
I make a little muscle
to disallow each part; a collar clamped against the cold, a nail against the rock. Sometimes, just what I praise, I believe.
Dodie Bellamy in Cunt-Ups uses overtly sexual texts, her own and ones written by others. She arranged her pages whole cloth, cut 'em into quarters and re-arranged them like tiles. She smoothed the resulting page out till it seemed right. The "cunt-ups" of the title refer to William Burroughs's famed cut-up technique. I think there's a deliberate air of domesticity (like working-class moms making dresses from patterns) to how she describes her project--this female riffing on the historic practice of the quintessential "outsider" man. Especially when I think of Burroughs's prophetic railing against the corporate monstrosity, while taking into account the irony of his being the scion of a huge corporate family; and when I recall how much Burroughs hated women, calling them (us) "two-holed monsters," and how he shot his wife (allegedly a lifelong sorrow for Burroughs, yet still how much worse for her!). There's something horribly fitting that Dodie Bellamy, who incidentally comes from a Midwestern, no-privilege background, would construct a small book of endless romps like:
I contact either myself or you, I recall being involved at this time when I moved our hand across my body and I felt like I had one of those small water pistols. You were dripping instead of shooting your victims, you were living in your stomach penis and balls. I fuck you in a garage, I fuck you as if you'll be recovered like a sledgehammer in a garage, like you'll eat my brains. I get all stirred up, I was still half asleep and started flopping about, I was shown to have my right hand cupped around the sledgehammer's base, I used to break up the bones to reach your balls, kneeling before you, here, a sledgehammer will be placed on inventory, your cunt is comfortable, that and your tits, orgasm, after orgasm, but I can't shake wanting to plant myself inside you, gray handle, my hips spreading across the chair, feeling me over. I just want to suck on your nipples.
In a way Burroughs could say anything--he couldn't be thrown out of anything, could he?--being a man, being on a small trust fund, living at the end of the world. Already killed his wife. What's to lose? I think about how Bellamy's appropriation of his method is not unlike Kathy Acker's, but Kathy was also a trust-fund kid, and was personally safer being bad--because the upper classes are entitled to transgress for us all. I applaud this dedicated act of replacement, the joyfully willful construction of a Frankenstein text, one where the genitals are all confused in a timeless flow--all present, as a particularly ballsy female accomplishment. Going one further than Bill, the avant-garde's Dubelyew, in taking this sublime stab at pleasure, the rearrangement of hundreds of cunts and clits and dicks and pussies: The exhausted "I just want to suck on your nipples" has tremendous immanence, all gesture, a mad kind of one-time power.
Honor Moore's Darling is in many ways the most ambivalent creature of the lot. Its cover is a photo that looks like a painting; the whole question of artifice abounds in this book. It's conventionally poetic in some ways, but the ground is unstable, the largest tease in Darling being its title. A female nude leans into her position, gazing at flowers, and so many of the poems in the book are about love; sometimes the lovers are female, sometimes male. It's truly a midlife book about love and relationships, but the "Darling" of the title is not the woman gazing on the cover or one of the lovers or all of them. Instead, there's a dream of a funeral in an eponymous poem toward the end of the book; it's a family funeral, I guess. And there the dream's narrator saw her first gay man kiss another. After which he calls him "Darling." It puts a spin on all the poems, making this trickster aspect of love be the star. Which love? The woman on the cover thinks: Hell, what's he gonna do now. Love is unfathomable, this poet knows.
Stylistically, Moore does not speak in excision. It's an older ear. I'm thinking that a material everything hovers in her view, and the poems feel selected from that. We're moving through the fullness of a world, and memory. The surprises, the replacements, are conducted almost by sleight of hand. Like Bellamy's, this is also a poetry of class. I mean, what poetry isn't, but here I'm thinking upper class, and the poems are full of the aches of privacy; figuratively it starts in the dark and it returns. In the book's first poem, "Bucharest, 1989," a painter yearns for white, but the color is unavailable. The whole of this book is richly dark. It's hard to imagine most readers not approaching this world without a certain covetousness. In the same way that the name Robert Lowell was part of that poet's poetry, so is "Honor Moore." Her name approaches allegory, and even when you know she's being daily, it's a rarefied daily and it sings differently. A poem called "In the Dark," however, approaches a Djuna Barnes or a Hart Crane wildness: "A goat strays/through my dreams, Doctor, a crazy dove,/and from Pontormo, a woman struck/blind, her arms raised against the stranger." It's a medallion of chaos, but emotionally it's as stamped as a coin, like an old dream that clangs long after its images are gone. I'm glad for the mystery here. The house of the book is huge, and it sheds light on the unknown. History is a place, after all, a very real and glamorous one, where strange things occur. In "Citizenship" she states: "I wake to cars raging north up a rise, a truck/banging south." There's a loneliness to the notation.
My sense of the real time of the book comes out of these matter-of-fact lines. The poet wakes up and you feel she is ready to move, while still swarming with dreams. You feel the pause before the gesture, and the effect is quietly awesome. In "Undertow" a woman is described: "She liked to wear bright/colors, used the word 'sweetie,'" then a line later you realize it's the poet's mother. There's a movie star quality to the description: "I'm tiny in her arms, as if/flat against a steep mountain." Even as we read the lines, the poet is fading into the distance--no one is bred for this experience. The poet endures her own pathos: "Understand, I don't/believe this will ever change." "Hollow Hill" is a swatch of prose that is not a "prose poem" but a tiny memoir of a child in a big house, where people have "old rooms," as in "my father's old room." On a planet where many people spend their lives moving constantly, on "Hollow Hill" not only is the poet's own childhood stable but her father's is too. Her parents sleep in "the Modern Room." The reality of this family life is uncanny, museumlike, and the child iterates herself theatrically: "They don't let me keep the doll. I gallop back...but I will never undress her or untie the red ribbons under her chin." How I understand this book has to do with what seems disallowed in this very ornate, very conditioned reality. So much undoing is not visibly possible. I understand, for instance, how our sense of the Gothic springs out of exactly this imaginary of old, dark ancestral houses, even beautiful places where things don't change much. Just deepen.
To be alive in these places one would become a reader of codes and elsewhere seek one's own undoing. That "undoing" being passion, which is the subject of this book. Passion being, I hate to say, so poetically, the most necessary flag. Lines slap us in the face, almost jumping out of the poems that hold them: "Nothing heals/like that hand," she utters in "Resonance," which I think is the finest poem in Darling. The moment of the line is followed by a sort of rejection: "We don't have a life/together," she says, "face toward/the child, window, the child running...." It's a heartbreaking reply, yet the power of the moment remains with the narrator. It resounds with a very female frankness that cuts across class in terms of knowing what one has made, has done.
Perhaps he's right about the cup.
You dig the clay or purchase it.
You cover it, keep it wet. One day
The clay calls you to model the cup
And what you've lived, every cup
To your lips, moves through your hands.
As a reader these new books make me feel that so much good is already on its way to us. Like Lisa Robertson says: First of all belief is paradise. The right to assemble a moment of presence--a poem, this flickering banner of passion is ours.
A historian questions whether he led a slave revolt, but his heroism still stands.
It's one thing to have Somali groups protesting Black Hawk Down for what they say is an inaccurate and racist portrayal of Somalis.
It's the largest profession in healthcare. It's the largest female profession in America. But despite its tremendous importance and impact, most people know very little about contemporary nursing. Public ignorance of the present-day profession, however, pales in comparison with ignorance of nursing's history. How many of us know that the development of nursing as the first secular profession for respectable women was a major feminist achievement? Or that Florence Nightingale was not, in fact, the "founder" of modern nursing? Or that nurses played a key role in developing the American hospital system, as nursing historian Sioban Nelson has documented in her recent book Say Little, Do Much? How many of us know about the role of nursing in the development of public health and care of the chronically ill and poor? Most important, how many of us recognize that society's persistent devaluation of nursing--reflected today in the prejudices of many newly liberated female physicians, health policy experts and journalists--is a legacy of longstanding, socially enforced subordination to medicine?
Katrin Schultheiss, an assistant professor of history and women's studies at the University of Illinois, Chicago, is one of a handful of non-nurses who understand what the profession has to teach us about the complex process of female emancipation, as well as about the development of modern healthcare systems. She recounts the tortuous history of how the "professionalization" of nursing in France coincided with anticlericalism and the secularization of the field. Although her story focuses on the forty-year period from 1880 to 1922 and takes place in one country, the gender dilemmas Schultheiss explores have hampered nurses' ability to care for patients in healthcare systems around the globe, including in the United States.
Her tale begins with the advent of France's Third Republic and follows political reformers who attacked clerical authority as they tried to modernize the healthcare system. Until that time, nursing outside the home was typically provided by convent-trained nuns. Modern hospital reformers recognized that nursing required more nurses with more systematic education, but therein lay the problem. Since knowledge is power, the acquisition of knowledge was inevitably a challenge to authority.
Physicians, as men, did not welcome women on their terrain. As members of a developing profession--one that did not then command the prestige it enjoys today--doctors were also adamant about defending their field "from irregular or illegal practitioners."
Even doctors who recognized the need for a more educated nursing work force and who wanted to laicize the care of the sick would not countenance the education of nurses if, in the process, nurses attained the kind of knowledge and stature that would allow them to demand greater authority and autonomy in both the workplace and society. So even lay nursing had to be constructed in altruistic terms that stressed not nurses' knowledge but their virtue. As Schultheiss writes, "As long as nursing was clearly understood to be a custodial, maternal, or charitable occupation, and as long as nurses were regarded as the social, economic, and educational peers of the patients, rather than the doctors, there would be no ambiguity about who held medical authority within the hospital."
In Paris, nursing nuns, while obedient and devoted, presented a problem to medical reformers. "The very existence of an autonomous community of women called into question the hierarchy of power within municipal institutions," Schultheiss notes. Happily, secular authorities found lay nurses, as one reformer commented, to be "infinitely more subordinate than the religious nurses and more scrupulous in the strict execution of doctors' orders."
While anticlerical reformers touted the benefit of lay nurses, the French public was attached to the nuns who had provided what out-of-home nursing care had existed since the seventeenth century, and even before. Of course, Schultheiss points out, even support for religious nurses was cast in gendered terms. Proponents of the nuns insisted that nursing should be left to a special group of religious women because it would corrupt lay women for their real work--which was mothering. "A woman is either a bad mother or a bad nurse," was their motto. To convince the public to support secularization, reformers had to "feminize nursing--to turn nursing into a general feminine virtue that all women could possess."
Schultheiss's story also introduces us to a peculiar hybrid form of religious nurse--the "hospitalières" of the Hospices Civils of Lyons. These women were secular nuns, congregationist sisters "who undertook a lifelong commitment to serve the sick and poor under harsh physical conditions and with virtually no monetary compensation, but who remained under the direct authority of the secular administration." According to Schultheiss, laicizers supported them because they were easily controllable and because their sense of devotion was easily manipulated by civil administrators who didn't want to pay the real cost of nursing care.
In this section of the book, class also enters the story: If civil administrators were to get nursing care for little or nothing, women's educational standards--and thus their salaries--had to be low. Whether they were secularizers or not, reformers recognized that more highly educated women of a better class would eventually demand more pay, and more say.
Finally, Schultheiss takes us to Bordeaux, where we meet Anna Hamilton, a reformer and devotee of Florence Nightingale. With connections to the international nursing reform movement, Hamilton wanted to open a nursing school that would produce a "new nurse," recruited from the so-called better classes. This new nurse, she insisted, would deliver better patient care than nursing nuns. Hamilton's critique of the nuns, Schultheiss explains, was not based on anticlericalism. Rather, Hamilton argued that the nuns had "distanced themselves from direct patient care" while creating obstacles to the creation of "a single medical hierarchy grounded on universal principles of hygiene and scientific health care."
Hamilton was able to gain support for her project from Paul-Louis Lande, a physician who became mayor of Bordeaux, because she firmly linked the "professionalization and feminization of nursing." Doctors in Bordeaux, Schultheiss writes, recognized "the need for improving the training of hospital nurses, but rejected all aspects of reform that expanded the nurses' autonomy or authority beyond the narrowest limits."
Hamilton accepted these limits, asserting that "it is extremely ridiculous for a nurse who possesses neither the knowledge nor the rights nor the sex of the doctor to try to imitate his way of interacting with the patient and to try to use his language." Thus, in France, as in England and the United States, the nurse-doctor game began with the acceptance of the notion that nurses could not--or should not--possess medical knowledge and that they therefore could not--and should not--use medical language.
Schultheiss ends her story after the First World War. The war produced such a huge need for nurses that the debate over the virtues of lay versus religious nurses effectively ended. When more than 100,000 nurses culled from every social class enlisted to serve "la Patrie," this "demonstrated that women's special aptitudes could be attached fruitfully to the state." However, even during this period and afterward, nursing was valued not for its knowledge but for its virtue. It had become, the author concludes, "a twentieth-century version of republican motherhood."
French nursing carries that legacy to this day. Last year, when I was strolling down the Boulevard St. Germaine in Paris, a book displayed in the window of a children's bookstore caught my eye. It was called Je Sais Qui Me Soigne ("I Know Who Takes Care of Me") and is part of a series on citizenship and the professions. Nurses make a brief appearance in the book--as doctors' servants who have, as the text reads, "just enough schooling to follow doctors' orders."
For nurses struggling to put their education to use for patients, rather than for physicians, the ability to escape, at least temporarily, medical domination has always made home care attractive. Which brings us to Karen Buhler-Wilkerson's part of the story. In No Place Like Home, Buhler-Wilkerson, a professor of community health and director of the Center for the Study of the History of Nursing at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing, traces the development of home care from the opening of the first US home-care agency--the Ladies Benevolent Society, founded in 1813 in Charleston, South Carolina--through the present.
In Charleston, as elsewhere, respectable society ladies started home-care agencies because they felt "obligated to improve the conditions of and provide for the comfort of the poor," who were, in turn, "expected to manifest their gratitude to the rich," who established these agencies. But they did not deliver the care. Nurses did.
No Place Like Home does a great service to these ordinary nurses who are often dismissed as know-nothings by some nursing elites today. Buhler-Wilkerson details the complexity of caring for victims of tuberculosis or managing patients during typhoid epidemics. She also documents the persistence of the issues with which home-care agencies still struggle today: how to navigate doctor-nurse relationships; how to choose appropriate patients for home-care services; how to deal with gender, race and class prejudice; and how to secure long-term services for the chronically ill.
From the early days of home care, doctors were concerned about nurses invading their territory. In Boston, for example, doctors "confided to lady managers that 'the constant danger with trained nurses is that they shall usurp the doctors' position and prescribe for patients.'"
At the turn of the twentieth century, with the founding of the Henry Street Settlement on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Lillian Wald and her colleagues developed public health nursing--"to improve standards of living" of the poor. One of the great innovations of the Henry Street Settlement was the establishment of a "First Aid Room." This was a kind of community clinic where immigrants could gain easy access to nursing care for routine health problems. Doctors, however, soon complained that "nurses were carrying ointments and even giving pills outside the strict control of physicians." Even outspoken nurses like Wald's colleague, socialist Lavinia Dock, feared a confrontation with powerful physicians. By 1911 questionable cases were no longer treated in the First Aid Room. "Later publications," Buhler-Wilkerson writes, assured the public that "the real Henry Street Settlement nurse will make the doctor feel that she is exerting every effort to have his treatment, not hers, intelligently followed."
An equally fascinating subject tackled by Buhler-Wilkerson is the impact of racial prejudice on nurse-patient and nurse-doctor relationships. In both the North and the South, lady managers as well as nurses fretted about whether it was appropriate for white nurses to care for black patients or black nurses for white patients. When insurers, notably Metropolitan Life, entered the field at the turn of the last century, managers considered the same imponderables. Race invariably trumped the needs of care and even of doctor domination of the nurse-physician relationship. For example, Buhler-Wilkerson tells us that the respectable ladies of Richmond, Virginia, who ran home care in that city, decided it was "'eminently' satisfactory for white nurses to care for black patients on the 'same footing' as white patients--but drew the line at white nurses 'taking orders from colored physicians.'"
The advent of health insurance also had a critical impact on the home-care agencies. Wald convinced Metropolitan Life to cover home-care services in 1909. Met Life wanted to reduce the high mortality rate of black life insurance subscribers--thus delaying payments on their life insurance policies. Home-care nursing's preventive approach initially seemed to make good business sense. By the 1950s, public health nursing and medical advances had paid off: Fewer people were dying of infectious diseases, and more acute illnesses were treated in the hospital. This meant that the bulk of home-care patients were chronically ill. To reward public health nursing for its success, Met Life curtailed its home-care program. "Providing care for those who failed to recover quickly was, from an insurance perspective, a poor investment," Buhler-Wilkerson states bluntly.
Since the fate of nursing is tied to the fate of the patients nurses serve, the situation has not improved much, as first Medicare and Medicaid and now managed care have "rediscovered" home care. Indeed, today the promise of the home as a place where nurses and their patients can escape the negative consequences of medical paternalism and give or receive higher-quality care has remained largely unfulfilled.
In Devices & Desires, Margarete Sandelowski uses a different lens--the world of medical technology--to explore the issue of gender and nursing. This brilliant book shows just how much the "charitable, devotional and altruistic" image of the nurse conceals. From the discovery of the thermometer to the development of intensive heart and fetal monitoring, Sandelowski documents doctors' dependence on nurses for their reputation for scientific and technical mastery. As Sandelowski shows, nurses have been critical in administering medical technology, monitoring the information it provides and interpreting that information to physicians, not to mention "educating patients about new devices, getting patients to accept and comply with their use, and alleviating patients' fears about them."
An eye-opening segment describes the use of the first thermometer, rather than the hand, as a diagnostic tool in the mid-nineteenth century. In it, we learn that the thermometer we take for granted today was originally an unwieldy, dangerous instrument that had to be carefully manipulated so as not to injure the patient. Because diagnosis and treatment involved taking the patient's temperature numerous times a day, busy physicians assigned the task to nurses. This involved, however, far more than simply recording data. The nurse, Sandelowski writes, "had to know what caused various temperatures to occur and the nursing measures that would lower or raise temperature to normal levels."
While physicians were the ones to insert the first unwieldy and equally dangerous intravenous devices, nurses were the ones to make sure the patient's arm remained immobile and that the patient could tolerate the discomfort of IV therapy. Nurses are the ones who developed the intensive-care unit--to provide intensive nursing care--and who track and interpret data from fetal monitors. As the primary users of much medical machinery, nurses are often more knowledgeable about equipment than doctors. Indeed, "the benefits of machine monitoring could not be fully harnessed without nurses who understood and could act immediately on the information monitors generated." While the public does not recognize this fact, the author tells us that medical equipment manufacturers certainly do. This is why nurses continually work with physicians and manufacturers to create design improvements and to insure that "expensive machinery [is] fully utilized."
What is amazing about this story is how little nurses have benefited from their technological mastery. Sandelowski shrewdly diagnoses a classic Catch-22. While it is true that nurses' status is somewhat enhanced by their technical proficiency, the recognition they receive does not match their actual accomplishments. That's because physicians quickly label the technical activities nurses engage in as "simple enough" for a nurse to perform.
No matter how much nurses participate in the diagnostic process, of course, physicians have maintained a legal and linguistic stranglehold on "medical" diagnosis. Even as "physicians were increasingly expecting them to perform de facto acts of diagnosis," Sandelowski writes, "nurses were in the bizarre position of having to be mindful of symptoms without speaking their mind about them."
Nurses were supposed to be able to distinguish between normal and abnormal conditions and to look for reasons for any abnormal findings. But nurses were never to use the words "normal" or "abnormal" in reporting or recording patient conditions, and they were to refrain from offering their opinions on etiology or diagnosis.... Nurses were to say (report and record) only what they saw, unlike physicians, who maintained the right to say what they knew.
This has produced the peculiar phenomenon--even today--of the nurse who recognizes that a cancer patient has diarrhea or a mentally ill patient is hallucinating, but who is not allowed to use the actual medical word because that would suggest that she, or he, is making a "medical diagnosis."
As she describes these phenomena, Sandelowski never paints nurses as innocent victims of nasty, overbearing physicians. In their perennial attempt to find "a socially valued place and distinctive identity," Sandelowski argues, many members of the profession have, albeit unwittingly, adopted common gender stereotypes that perpetuate the oppression of nurses.
One segment of the profession, Sandelowski contends, has bought into the notion that the complex practical, technical work that ordinary nurses perform is indeed simple and know-nothing.
Typically conceived of as nothing more than the physician's hand, and persistently caught in the Western cultural dichotomy between merely manual and highly prized mental, or intellectual, work, nurses have struggled to show that nursing is largely brain work. In the process, however, they have inadvertently complied with the prevailing cultural practice of denigrating the very "body-knowledge" that is the forte of the nurse.
This is particularly evident in the nurse-practitioner movement, which so many elite nurses now promote. "The key factor differentiating nurse practitioners from other nurses," she writes, "is both the use of medical instruments and the use of instruments in ways previously denied nurses." But, she points out, in our bottom-line-driven healthcare system "the role emerges as largely economically and 'medically-driven'.... The traditional image is maintained of nurses as the extra hands and eyes of physicians willingly and cheaply filling voids and bridging gaps in health care."
Other segments of the profession, Sandelowski argues, have opposed nurses' emotional and social work to their technological activities, arguing that technology is somehow an inauthentic nursing activity, while "caring" is both authentic and an essential "antidote to technology." Sandelowski shrewdly insists that in opposing "nursing/touch and technology," the profession has been "identified both with and against technology and thus, in an ironic way, with and against itself."
While it is not the purpose of these books to offer advice about dealing with the many problems nursing confronts, they implicitly point to one incontrovertible solution: We can appreciate what nurses do in the present only if we understand how their work has been constructed in the past and what they have contributed--and can contribute--to our healthcare system.
Understanding and analyzing nursing's decades-long struggle for "a socially valued place and distinctive identity" is not an academic exercise. It is central to reversing the chronic underfunding of the nursing services most of us will eventually depend on in hospitals and other healthcare institutions, and also the undereducation of the nursing work force at almost all levels of practice. And it is critical to any solution to the severe nursing shortage, which, if not quickly and effectively addressed, will have disastrous consequences as the population grows older and sicker.