You may find reading Akhil Sharma's debut novel akin to having your head held underwater. Attendant with feelings of a relentless, choking panic, though, will be an almost preternatural awareness of the details suffusing the experience.
In Sharma's An Obedient Father, a stunning work that is both personal and political, you hear a man say, "Misery often makes me want to look away from the present and leads me to nostalgia." The misery of the present is born out of the political trials of India in the early eighties. The escape that the narrator wishes for is driven by yearning for a rural past: "As I swallowed my heart medicine in the blue dark of the common room, I imagined walking through Beri's sugarcane fields and sitting beneath a mango tree. I wanted to be a child again, with the future a wide, still river in the afternoon." What makes this nostalgia for an unsullied past both poignant and problematic is that it is the desire of a man who cannot escape the memory of the newspapers soaking up the blood beneath his daughter's thighs each night after he has raped her.
The protagonist, Ram Karan, is a corrupt official in the Education Department in Delhi. He is a widower living with his newly widowed daughter, Anita, and his young granddaughter. Anita is the child he raped repeatedly twenty years earlier. Most of the book is in Karan's voice.
The experience of an intimacy so often violent, of being a witness to what is routinely hidden but is here plainly visible, is a result of the quality of the narrator's voice. Lucid and perverse, like the solipsistic narrator of Nabokov's Lolita, the confessions of Sharma's antihero are sharp, even empathetic, and loathsome. (Recall Nabokov's H.H.: "I had possessed her--and she never knew it. All right. But would it not tell sometime later? Had I not tampered with her fate by involving her image in my voluptas? Oh, it was, and remains, a source of great and terrible wonder.")
The social backdrop of the novel is also enriched by the tussle for the Delhi seat between a dying Congress Party and an emergent, right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party. Karan is the money man, the bribe-collector, for one of the candidates in the parliamentary election. The petty political intrigues and their murderous fallouts provide a distraction from the less public drama that is played out inside the three-member Karan home.
It is to Sharma's great credit as a novelist that I was as often horrified by Karan's abuses and compulsive degradations as I was held captive by his pellucid dissection of shame that exposes a geography of self-delusion and national wrongdoing. There can be no doubt that Ram Karan is evil, but because he almost always is given voice, he also remains in some measure human.
This is the book's most disturbing feature but also its most powerful triumph. As a result, An Obedient Father poses a serious challenge to a reviewer who is tempted to take refuge in the easiest, moralizing dismissal of this unusual novel. There is reason to be dismayed by its brutality, and not everyone can savor its black humor; but it cannot be denied that the maddening narrative voice is as darkly hypnotic as those found in the pages of Dostoyevsky.
Sharma also pulls off the trick of showing that a collective political degradation is intertwined seamlessly with personal turpitude. Indira Gandhi's dictatorial "emergency," imposed twenty-five years ago, suspended civil rights and gave a free hand to an inner circle of politicos in Delhi. The emergency didn't tamper only with democratic institutions; its depredations made more base our responses to those weaker than we are. Sharma's novel bears the scars of that trauma and its aftermath on Karan, but also on his daughter: "Money would make everything negotiable.... The more years Indira Gandhi spent in office, the more my income grew, for more and more things fell under the government's aegis and we civil servants were the gatekeepers. I bought a toaster, a blender, a refrigerator, and a television. Anita went through higher secondary and into college. She grew up shy and easily panicked, but there was nothing that marked her as damaged."
If Kafka's K. located power in the distant castle, Sharma shows us mercilessly that such castles are our homes, so to speak, in our bedrooms. In fact, when you overhear Ram Karan's confessions about his political sins to his daughter each evening after the English news, you also realize that the political is a deflection from the interrogation of the personal. Karan understands this well: "I thought that providing her with something to rage about openly would be a way to keep us from the topic of what I had done to her."
Incest has enjoyed a popular run in Indian fiction recently. An Obedient Father is perhaps the novel that, some might say, Arundhati Roy had wanted to write when she wrote The God of Small Things. It is certainly the novel that Raj Kamal Jha came close to writing when in The Blue Bedspread he plumbed the dark ambiguities of abuse and incest. Sharma's novel is part of a brilliant coming of age in Indian fiction.
The dust jacket of the book informs us that its author is an investment banker who lives in Manhattan. He was born in India but grew up in Edison, New Jersey, studied at Princeton and later Stanford. He has won two O. Henry awards for his short fiction and worked as a scriptwriter for Steven Spielberg.What is most remarkable about this profile is not the youth (he's 29) or even the impressive array of accomplishments; rather, it is the fact that a writer who has lived most of his life outside India is able to write about life in Delhi with such sensitivity and flair. The brothels of Delhi's GB Road, the roads and shops of Kamla Nagar, the alleys of Old Delhi, in the changing light and temperature of the seasons, all come alive in this book's pages. Even the evocation of Karan's childhood in a village before India's independence is exact and intriguing:
I remembered that when my mother and I waited by the side of the road for a bus, I would tell my mother to move back, not because I was worried about her safety, but because this was one of the few ways I had to show my love.... Violence was common. Grown men used to rub kerosene on a bitch's nipples and watch it bite itself to death.
Does this sharpness of outline in the book, its confidence in its own voice and descriptions, put an end to the debate about the authenticity of Indian expatriate writers? An Obedient Father demonstrates that magical realism à la Salman Rushdie is not the indispensable tool of the Indian writer living abroad and, second, that unmagical realism à la Rohinton Mistry is insignificant if it does not scratch away at wounds that are covered over by the scabs of silence.
Unlike Rushdie and Mistry, both of whom have written about Indira Gandhi's emergency, Sharma produces nothing that could have been culled from the pages of a newspaper. Neither magical nor dull, his writing transgresses the borders of earlier, celebrated fictions, and he makes connections that are both vivid and dislocating: "Every night I had dreams of humiliation, of people catching me with Anita. When I saw a rooster picking at a pile of dung, I wondered what he was eating. Around this time I also began imagining sucking the penises of powerful men."
We learn early about Karan's death, but there is little consolation in this. The ironies of the victimizer becoming a victim, at the novel's end, are plainly discernible. Yet such ironies are overshadowed by the more gloomy evidence of damaged lives and their unsettled grief. And after Karan's death, I missed his eye for detail. I could not let go of the thought that of all the people in the room when Anita informs her extended family of what happened in her past, Karan is the only one who notices that everyone, in their desire to help, had ignored Anita's own desires. (Nabokov's H.H. was similarly cognizant of deeper absences: "I stood listening to that musical vibration from my lofty slope, to those flashes of separate cries with a kind of demure murmur for background, and then I knew that the hopelessly poignant thing was not Lolita's absence from my side, but the absence of her voice from that concord.")
I tried to think again about one of Karan's earlier statements: "All the things that might mark me as unusual and explain what I did to Anita were present in other people." Did I not see the signs in my own life?
I was returning to college one summer from my hometown in Bihar, India. The train stopped at Aligarh. We were running late and it was hot outside. I looked up from my reading when an old man appeared and began to claim in a loud voice that he was Jawaharlal Nehru. The train began to move. There were many new passengers, daily commuters with their bags and their loads of merchandise. Some of them began joking with the old man. The Aligarh passengers, all men, settled down to a game of cards. They asked the old man a question or two and then teased him. Like many others in the compartment, I was amused by this teasing.
The old man, sensing that he was being mocked, shouted louder; one of the men slapped him from the upper berth and told him to be quiet. The old man was wearing a white cotton cap, as Nehru did in photographs. The cap had been knocked down. The old man picked it up and turned on the others with filthy abuses.
This was all the provocation the men needed. All down the narrow pathway between the berths, violent blows rained on the old man, who swore and spat viciously. His head began to bleed. One man gave his rubber slipper to the old man and asked him to use it to sweep the floor. "Do that, Jawaharlal," he said. When the old man tried to use the slipper to hit back, the man pulled his dhoti, leaving the old man naked from the waist down.
My fellow passengers, many of whom had been sitting till then, crowded around the old man and tore off his shirt. They kicked his genitals. Someone on a nearby berth asked that this be stopped, but this appeal had no effect.
There was a stink coming from the corner in which the old man had been pushed. As I said, it was very hot outside, and it was hot in the compartment too. I did not want to move. I thought of the old man when I got to my hostel and was preparing to sleep, but I don't think I've thought of him for any length of time ever again till I was reading An Obedient Father. That memory of derangement and violence was evoked by the book, no doubt, but also evoked was the claustrophobia of our closed lives, our bitterness and the collective nakedness ringing with abuse.
Poor Anthony Summers--he writes a 600-page book on Nixon based on massive and exhaustive research, including interviews with a thousand people and 120 pages of documentation--and all the media care about are the couple of pages he devotes to pill-popping and wife-beating. The same thing happened with his J. Edgar Hoover bio, which is remembered mostly for that unforgettable cross-dressing story.
But The Arrogance of Power has historical significance. It shows definitively that during the last weeks of the 1968 election campaign--when Nixon was challenging Vice President Hubert Humphrey--Nixon secretly sabotaged peace talks that might have ended the war at that point. Nixon went on to win one of the closest elections in history, after which he kept the fighting going another five years, during which more than 20,000 Americans and perhaps a million Vietnamese were killed.
The general outlines of the situation were well-known at the time: On October 31, just a week before Election Day, Johnson ordered the bombing halt that the North Vietnamese had said was a prerequisite to their entering into peace talks. Nixon had been eight points ahead in the Gallup poll, but two days after the bombing halt, his lead had fallen to two points. One poll even had Humphrey pulling ahead of Nixon then.
But the talks did not begin, because two days after the bombing halt South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu refused to participate. He had good reasons to prefer a Nixon victory--Thieu's regime was kept alive only by Washington, and Humphrey had told him that prolonged US aid was "not in the cards." Observers at the time, and historians subsequently, have speculated about whether Nixon conveyed private assurances to Thieu in those crucial two days. Of course Nixon denied it, and LBJ's memoirs, published three years later, declared that he had "no reason to think" that Nixon "was himself involved in this maneuvering, but a few individuals active in his campaign were." Among historians, Stephen Ambrose has been the most explicit in making the case, along with Clark Clifford, Defense Secretary for LBJ at the time, in his 1991 memoirs.
But no one had the smoking gun--not until Summers. His chapter on Nixon's maneuver provides a fine example of historical detective work. The key messenger, he argues, was Anna Chennault--the Chinese-born widow of an American World War II hero, 43 years old at the time, a prominent Washington hostess and vice chairwoman of the Republican National Finance Committee and co-chairwoman of Women for Nixon-Agnew. She also had connections to Southeast Asian leaders like Chiang Kai-shek and Ferdinand Marcos, as well as those in Saigon. In interviews with Summers, she said she met with Nixon and his campaign manager (and future Attorney General), John Mitchell, who told her to inform Saigon that if Nixon won the election, South Vietnam would get "a better deal."
Meanwhile, President Johnson deployed the full resources of US intelligence to see whether Nixon was telling Thieu not to go to the peace talks. The CIA had a bug in Thieu's Saigon office, the National Security Agency was intercepting South Vietnamese diplomatic cables and the FBI had wiretaps and physical surveillance at the South Vietnamese Embassy.
It's certainly possible that Anna Chennault was exaggerating her historical importance when she told Summers (and hinted to others earlier) about her role. But here's where the smoking gun appears: Summers reproduces an FBI memo he obtained in 1999 under the Freedom of Information Act. It's dated November 2, and it reports on the results of a wiretap on the phone of the South Vietnamese ambassador: Chennault had contacted the ambassador and "advised him that she had received a message from her boss"--who was described in the memo as "not further identified." The message was "hold on, we are gonna win." Then follows the most tantalizing line: "She advised that her boss had just called from New Mexico." With a little more work, Summers sealed his case: Spiro Agnew made a campaign stop in Albuquerque that day, and the times match. Summers points out that Agnew could not have taken such a crucial step without explicit instructions from Nixon himself.
Summers found that he was not the first to piece this evidence together: Deep in the LBJ Library he found an "eyes only" memo to LBJ showing that national security assistant Walt Rostow had used the same sources to come to the same conclusions. Outraged, Johnson shared Rostow's insight with candidate Humphrey, but they decided not to go public with it in the last days before the election. (They may not have thought the documentation convincing enough and worried that it was too late to have an effect, regardless.) After Election Day, they apparently believed it would be too disruptive of the US political system to reveal what they knew about how the new President had helped himself win.
Wisely, Summers does not argue that his evidence proves Nixon prolonged the war--although he points out that more than a third of all US casualties during the war occurred during Nixon's presidency--a total of 20,763 Americans killed. That was also the period when the most intense bombing occurred, resulting in the deaths of perhaps a million or more Vietnamese. Summers acknowledges that Thieu "very probably" would have balked at peace talks even without prodding from Nixon. However, he argues forcefully and persuasively that it was wrong for a private citizen to interfere with a major diplomatic peace effort for his own political advantage.
Nixon's actions just before the election prolonged the war in a different way: Thieu took credit for Nixon's victory. Thus when Nixon reversed course and tried to push Thieu to the peace table on the eve of the 1972 election, Thieu stalled at the critical moment, arguing that Nixon was in his debt.
The rest of the book amounts to a series of investigations into other suspected crimes or offenses of Nixon's. Here Summers is equally energetic in his research, but with uneven results. For perspective on Nixon's Vietnam policy, the best new analysis is not Summers but rather Jeffrey Kimball's prizewinning book Nixon's Vietnam War, which presents compelling evidence that up to 1971, Nixon and Kissinger believed the war was winnable. Summers's Watergate chapter doesn't add anything of significance to Stanley Kutler's work, and his effort to show that Nixon had a Swiss account linked to a criminal bank in the Bahamas isn't convincing.
The Alger Hiss case was Nixon's first foray into national politics, as a member of HUAC in 1948; it gets a thorough examination by Summers. John Dean, who reviewed the Summers book in the Chicago Tribune, found this section especially noteworthy. Dean occupies a small but significant place in Hiss history for reporting that White House aide Charles Colson remarked that Nixon had told him, "The typewriters are always the key. We built one in the Hiss case"--which, if true, meant Hiss was framed by the FBI, since the crucial physical evidence that he had been a spy came from documents typed on what the prosecution said was Hiss's typewriter. Summers devotes five pages to the forgery-by-typewriter theory; Dean concludes that Summers has "reopened the debate on whether Hiss was framed."
The book has also made news for its reports that Nixon was seen by a psychotherapist while he was President. However, the media excitement over this has missed the more significant story about a President's search for help. The men around Nixon, Summers shows, were alarmed by Nixon's mental condition, especially when he was deciding to invade Cambodia. After meeting with Nixon to discuss a possible invasion, Henry Kissinger told an aide, "Our peerless leader has flipped out." There were disturbing reports of Nixon drinking heavily during these days. And after a Pentagon briefing on the first day of the invasion, Army Chief of Staff Gen. William Westmoreland commented obliquely that "the president's unbridled ebullience...required some adjustment to reality."
It was at this point that Nixon called Dr. Arnold Hutschnecker, a psychotherapist who had treated him during the fifties. Nixon had read Hutschnecker's bestseller, The Will to Live, written for people "in the grips of acute conflict." Since Nixon had become President, Hutschnecker had seen him only once, and then to discuss Hutschnecker's views of crime and world peace. Hutschnecker's 1970 White House visit was kept secret, but when the two met, the doctor did not realize that Nixon was seeking treatment. So Hutschnecker started pitching his world peace plans, and Nixon abruptly dismissed him. The President knew he needed help--but didn't get it.
Two days later, with protests engulfing the country, Kissinger worried that the President was "on the edge of a nervous breakdown." This is the point at which the pill-popping story becomes significant. Jack Dreyfus, a Nixon friend and supporter (and founder of the Dreyfus mutual funds), had given Nixon a bottle of a thousand Dilantins--an anticonvulsant Dreyfus claimed helped overcome anxiety and depression. Dreyfus said he told Nixon they should be prescribed by a doctor, but Nixon replied, "To heck with the doctor."
Dilantin had been approved by the FDA, but for the treatment of epileptic seizures. Documented side effects include "slurred speech...mental confusion, dizziness, insomnia, transient nervousness." Instead of getting treatment from the one therapist he trusted, Nixon apparently took the Dilantin Dreyfus had given him. He later asked Dreyfus for--and received--another bottle of a thousand 100-milligram tablets.
Dilantin didn't help: Summers reports that concern about Nixon's mental state in 1974 led Defense Secretary James Schlesinger to order military units not to react to orders from the White House unless they were cleared with him or the Secretary of State.
Ever since Ronald Reagan showed how right-wing a Republican President could be, Nixon-haters have been reconsidering their position. Under Nixon the Environmental Protection Agency and OSHA were created, Social Security payments went up and funding was increased for education, health and the arts. On the welfare issue, Nixon proposed a guaranteed annual family income--far to the left of all his successors, Democratic as well as Republican. And, of course, Nixon ended two decades of official hostility toward China and brought about détente with the Soviet Union. To understand why Nixon took these positions it would be necessary to look beyond Nixon himself to the larger social and political context of the late sixties and early seventies. Summers's narrow focus prevents this kind of broader understanding.
The sound of Wrecking Ball (Elektra), Emmylou Harris's 1995 album produced by former Brian Eno/Neville Brothers associate Daniel Lanois, drew me back toward her. But it was her fiercely energetic if unevenly recorded live disc, 1998's Spyboy (Eminent), and the tour that followed with her postpsychedelic power trio that made me want more for the first time since Harris started singing trios with Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt in 1987. I went back and listened to Elite Hotel and Pieces of the Sky (Reprise) and Luxury Liner (Warner Bros.), her early country rock-outs with the Hot Band, which she mostly inherited from the late Gram Parsons (who'd mostly stolen it from Elvis Presley). And even 1972's GP and 1973's Grievous Angel (both Reprise), the two albums on which she duetted with Parsons. Parsons, of course, is the man who turned the Byrds (and subsequently all of Los Angeles) toward what became country-rock, founded the Flying Burrito Brothers, partied (and co-wrote songs) with the Rolling Stones, elevated Harris to national attention and in 1973 was found dead (of coroner-ruled "natural causes") in a motel in Joshua Tree, California. Friends stole his body and burned it in the Joshua Tree National Monument.
How rock and roll can you get? Parsons, never widely famous, became a cult figure. Harris went on to conquer Nashville, continuing the vector Parsons had sketched in his crossover country lilts like "Hickory Wind," "Wheels" and "Sin City" ("On the 31st floor/A gold-plated door/Won't keep out the Lord's burning rain"), all of which became minor classics. She went deep into it, performing at the Ryman Auditorium and so on. Her pretty, soulful, folky voice with the surprisingly resilient country-meets-blues cri de coeur got under my skin less as it settled into Nashville's more predictable contours. I was waiting for the shakeup, for the rock in country-rock to re-emerge and maybe even, with luck, take over.
That's what happened on Wrecking Ball and Spyboy. Fired first by Lanois's Eno-inspired wall-of-sound approach, then by her interracial power trio (guitar whiz Buddy Miller, bass monster Daryl Johnson, agile drummer Brady Blade), Harris didn't so much tear up her country roots as reinfuse them with another set of musical ideas. It was the sound of a perceptual door opening.
And now there's Harris's first studio disc since Wrecking Ball, this time via arty Nonesuch Records, home of the sleeper hit Buena Vista Social Club. Yeah, there may be ironic hay to be made by somebody (not me) out of the fact that Nonesuch has made its bucks as the trendy yuppie label of the eighties and nineties, marketing leather-and-lace Eurotrash hits like the Gypsy Kings. The label's stock in trade is (justly) its critically ratified, near-automatic intellectual heft and its consequent ability to target boomers who scan the Sunday Times each week for what to absorb.
They could do a lot worse than Harris's Red Dirt Girl, most of which--rarely, for her--she wrote herself.
It's a cliché that most people in America want someone else's life. Ever since the Gold Rush was augmented by Hollywood and John Steinbeck's Depression, California has been the golden wet dream for Americans' imaginings of new identities, the place where you could retool yourself and ditch the nasty nagging past you might someday have to answer for--or to.
Yet Harris has been a kind of bellwether of pop music's directions partly because she's so rooted in her past; she's aware of where changes of direction are likely to blow in from. When she started singing with Parsons, country and rock hated each other; over the past decade, as her boomer generation has settled comfortably into middle age, country stars have sounded like the Eagles, who were glossing pages from Parsons's book. Before the current refashionability of bluegrass and that already gone moment of alt-country, Harris was there. On Red Dirt Girl, she connects the dots between the sixties, Springsteen and the post-Hendrix production style that Lanois has refined.
You could argue that Red Dirt Girl updates Hendrix by way of electronica, but with a (relatively) conservative ear cocked backward, for the boomer audience's sake. The entire album is a potpourri of styles, somehow overstuffed and lavish and rippling with suggestive overtones even when it's spare. On the title track, for instance, wisps of overdriven guitar leak almost discreetly into the corners of the soundstage, a sympathetic echo of successive dislocations in the lyrics. Multiple basses rumble and snort through "I Don't Wanna Talk About It Now," reflecting the disoriented but overwhelming focus shaping the singer's emotions. Every cut finds sounds spurting, drifting, poking or sizzling into the deeply textured stereo image, with unexpected and sometimes unsettling results: bits of shock, humor, recognition. Repeatedly, jigs and reels, the staples of Appalachian-descended country, get bushwacked and overlaid or saturated with fuzz and wah-wah washes and distant, jangly electric piano and guitars--of course, always guitars, of every aural hue and cry.
The guitar, rock and roll's conceptual anchor, is the symbol that links Harris and Springsteen. Consider her in-concert staple, "Born to Run": Not Springsteen's song, it takes an angle on male-female relationships that puts the woman in the rock-and-roll driver's seat. In fact, the title track of Red Dirt Girl is a very Boss-like tale of doppelgängers, one of whom gets stuck in the old hometown:
Nobody knows when she started her skid
She was only 27 and she had five kids
Coulda been the whiskey, coulda been the pills
Coulda been the dreams she was tryin' to kill
But there won't be a mention in the News of The World
About the life and the death of a Red Dirt Girl
Who never got any further across the line than Meridian.
Like Springsteen and Tom Waits, Harris often imagines the characters in her songs as people (or aspects of herself) she's left behind. But in contrast to America's standard-issue California dreamin', she doesn't want to erase her past or disappear beneath each new persona. Which is one of several reasons Gram Parsons hovers, never far, from her music.
"Michelangelo," the CD's second cut, is yet another in a long line of Harris tunes that invoke his ghost, the tragic figure of the flawed genius surrounded by his past choices, via a melody that could have come out of Leonard Cohen and a spare but textured aural background speckled with rumbling bass and acoustic guitar strums and jet-stream wisps of overdriven feedback. "Tragedy" sets its tensions between industrial drumming, a clutch of guitars (including a floating pedal steel) and Springsteen and wife Patti Scialfa on backup Everly-Brothers-go-rhythm-and-blues-flavored vocals after the Boss-ish opening: "Some say it's destiny/Whether triumph or tragedy/But I believe we cast our nets out on the sea/And nothing we gather comes for free."
That sense of responsibility is why Harris doesn't erase history, no matter how she may recast it in literary or imaginative terms. ("Bang the Drum Slowly," a eulogy for her father co-written with Guy Clark, is unabashedly sentimental and biblical, for instance, with an e-bow winding through it like a church organ.) It's also why, along with the likes of Springsteen and Waits, she has struggled with the theme of redemption time after time, whether singing refurbished old hymns in her soaring vibrato or switching to more profane journeys taken from her own and others' searching. Understanding, guilt, salvation and love are bound together in lines like these from "The Pearl": "Like falling stars from the universe we are hurled/Down through the long loneliness of the world/Until we behold the pain become the pearl."
It's a story older than that of Piers Plowman, but it may seem quaint in a day when the word "character" has been vastly reduced in meaning, when the world seems like a welter of wannabe victims lining up for a camera shot. The process of living leaves us scarred, as it did Michelangelo, but that's the price. Cameos come relatively cheap. On the other hand, there's always the twilight solace of Prozac Nation.
Startlingly produced by Malcolm Burn (who engineered and mixed Wrecking Ball), featuring a dozen or so musicians (also including Dave Matthews and Jill Cunniff), Red Dirt Girl is roughly two-thirds dynamite, one-third breathing space. Sonically, it never stops pushing into those post-Hendrix wah-wah soundscapes, including telephone rings and background conversations, tunes starting with the whirr of a tape machine being turned on--a deliberate carelessness of sonic references from outside the soundstage that paradoxically underscore that stage's fierce integrity. Conceptually, the album does what the best country music (which it only vaguely is) has always done: tells us stories about where we come from and warns us to look twice about where we're going.
For Harris never forgets for long our only inevitable destination--which is one big reason you might call this music for grown-ups. Sure, it's boomer music, so there's inevitably some nostalgia, but in Harris's capable, determined, ironic hands, the disc raises more questions than it settles neatly down to bed. And you can hum nearly all of it through the jabs at the job and downers from your parents and/or kids and adrenaline rushes of joy and outbreaks of road rage and those late, ominously clear and sparkling nights when everyone else is finally out cold and you're rhapsodically wishing you had a telescope.
Harris is on tour now. Don't miss her.
It offers a blatant apologia for economic inequality--but few question the faith.
Now that Karyn Kusama's much-heralded Girlfight has opened, I figure it's time to catch up with the 1999 releases and review On the Ropes. And since I've been so slow to write about this documentary, which has long since vanished from theaters, the first thing to say is that you shouldn't hesitate to watch it on video. That's how On the Ropes was shot, by Nanette Burstein and Brett Morgen: with a handheld Sony, which the filmmakers carried through the streets and courtrooms of Brooklyn and into the New Bed-Stuy Gym, where a deeply impressive man named Harry Keitt was devoting himself to training amateur boxers.
The second thing you should know about On the Ropes is that these boxers were not living the easy life. One of them in particular, a young woman named Tyrene Manson, was destroyed right in front of Burstein and Morgen's camera, not by a ring opponent but by the police and the court system. Since Manson is real--whereas the young Brooklyn boxer who is the heroine of Girlfight springs from Kusama's imagination--let me explain the case in some detail.
Manson, a tough and wiry piece of work, was training at the time for the Golden Gloves, and going at it with extraordinary good cheer, considering her less-than-ideal circumstances. When not sparring or doing roadwork, she was busy caring for two young nieces, since her crackhead uncle couldn't be bothered. Unfortunately, Manson had no place to live except in this same uncle's house. Credible evidence suggested that she'd been trying to relocate herself and the girls; but there she was when the cops broke in. As expected, they found illegal drugs lying about, along with any number of Uncle Randy's friends and colleagues. And so, on the grounds that she'd been breathing the same air as these people, Tyrene Manson was arrested for possession with intent to sell. A few shufflings of paper by a court-appointed lawyer, a grunt or two from the judge, and off she went to prison, on the very day she'd been scheduled to fight in the Golden Gloves. Watch On the Ropes and see it happen.
It's certainly possible for fiction to convey the horror of such a situation--the messiness, the outrage, even the element of self-undoing. (Much to Manson's detriment, the controlled aggression she used in the ring became flailing belligerence in court.) For an example, I turn to the opening chapters of Tolstoy's Resurrection. But I don't think of Girlfight, a well-acted and well-directed feature with a screenplay written on tissue paper. Dab your eyes with it, if you will; but blow your nose with caution.
The one substantial element of Girlfight is its lead actress, newcomer Michelle Rodriguez, who grabs your attention and holds it from the minute she comes onscreen. She's first seen in an effective dolly shot, as she leans against a locker in a busy high school corridor. As the other kids go by, crossing left and right, the camera pulls closer and closer to the immobile Rodriguez, whose head is lowered but whose attitude is plain to read in the combat fatigues she's wearing. At last, when she's in close-up, she lifts her face and glares straight into the camera, her eyes steady and dangerous beneath the parapet of her brow. The expression is reminiscent of the young Muhammad Ali; and the framing of the shot, from chin to forehead, brings out the resemblance between one pretty, round-faced, pouty-lipped fighter and another.
Rodriguez is here to play Diana Guzman, a young woman who's about to be kicked out of school for throwing too many punches at her classmates. Chronically enraged by her beer-guzzling father, chronically furious at the world's flouncy women, Diana doesn't need the Board of Regents curriculum. What she wants is a school for her anger--and she finds one at last when an errand takes her to a local gym, where Hector (Jaime Tirelli) trains young men to box. Will he train her? Ten dollars an hour, growls the stubbled, straw-hatted Hector, with a gruffness that will grow avuncular over the next 90 minutes, just as surely as Diana's talents will prove to be natural.
The liveliest moments that follow are those in which you see Diana training. Kusama has a sure instinct in these scenes for camera placement and editing--in that sense, she's a natural--and she knows she's got two great subjects in the craft of boxing and Rodriguez, whose every movement seems powered from the pit of her stomach. When Rodriguez is called upon to get gooey with a fellow boxer (Santiago Douglas), she's convincing; but she's fascinating when she bobs and weaves, works the speed bag, practices her combinations or walks into the room with an insolent roll to her left.
All this makes Girlfight a thoroughly watchable picture, right up till the closing shot, in which Diana, who is taking comfort in an embrace, is photographed so the calluses stand out on her knuckles. A nice touch; I just wish the screenplay had a few calluses of its own.
I didn't expect Kusama to make Hector as sorrowful, patient and determined as Harry Keitt, the trainer in On the Ropes; I didn't think she'd make Diana as compelling and doomed as Tyrene Manson. But does a boxing picture--especially one that's focused on a woman--really need to tie itself up in a pink bow? All of the viewer's presumed wishes are fulfilled: Diana gets to be a warrior, her brother Tiny gets to be an artist, the brutal father gets his comeuppance and the sensitive hunk gets to prove himself a better kind of man. Had Kusama done any more to flatter a liberal audience, Girlfight would have ended with a November victory rally for Nader.
I wish Kusama well; with a lot of toughening, she might be a contender. But on my scorecard, I give the decision to On the Ropes. Reality wins every round.
And now, for a different kind of girlfight:
Jeff Bridges and Gary Oldman have so much fun with their roles in The Contender, a new inside-the-Beltway movie, that I sometimes imagined I was having a good time, too. Bridges, playing President Jackson Evans, uses his biggest, most blustering manner to give the character the sort of person-to-person skills for which Lyndon Johnson was famous. When dashing another politician's career hopes, President Evans signals his indifference by idly lighting a cigarette and blowing smoke rings. When staging a sensitive meeting, held in the White House bowling alley, he tests his guests' mettle by giving his shoes a sniff. Such is the liberal Democratic hero of The Contender. The conservative Republican villain is Representative Shelly Runyon of Illinois--in Oldman's interpretation, a small, nervous, owl-eyed man with a sparse fringe of curly hair. Runyon looks like a desiccated Roberto Benigni, talks in hiccups and grins like Fred Leuchter, the engineer of execution machinery who was the focus of Errol Morris's Mr. Death.
But as it happens, neither of the big guys is meant to carry The Contender. That unhappy task falls to Joan Allen, in the role of Laine Hanson: a Democratic (formerly Republican) senator from Ohio who has been nominated to replace the recently deceased Vice President. Runyon, catching a whiff of affirmative action in this nomination, commandeers the confirmation hearings, vowing to do everything possible to stop Hanson. Everything, in this case, includes an Internet-launched smear campaign, accusing the nominee of having courted popularity in college by accepting the sexual advances of an entire fraternity. When shown the photos, Joan Allen compresses her lips and says she won't dignify these accusations with a response. And that's the end of the fun, for her. Allen spends the rest of the picture with her spine frozen and her mouth locked in frostbite.
A strange torture for the filmmaker to impose--to constrain the lead actress's every move, while letting the men run free--when the ostensible purpose of The Contender is to advocate greater career opportunities for women. But then, muddle-headedness seems to be the very method of this picture. The smallest exchange of dialogue yields confusion. (According to one of Runyon's aides, "We have to gut the bitch in the belly." Where else would you gut her? In the foot?) The longest speeches may cause headache, dizziness and fatigue, and should not be listened to while operating heavy machinery. There are two of these doozies--one apiece for Hanson and Evans--each accompanied by a swell of patriotic music; and if you can make sense of the political program they announce, in ringing Capra-corn fashion, then you might be the right therapist for Al Gore's multiple-personality disorder.
Of course, the grandest muddle of all is the premise. First The Contender tries to whip up some topical interest by evoking the richly pornographic impeachment proceedings against Bill Clinton. Then the movie asserts that Laine Hanson's ordeal is unique, because sexual smears aren't used against men.
Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe you can gut a woman in the foot.
The Contender was written and directed by Rod Lurie, who used to be a film critic. I don't know what this means to you; but for me, it's a lesson in humility.
Ruy Teixeira and Joel Rogers's America's Forgotten Majority has been credited with convincing Al Gore last summer to adopt a populist campaign strategy built around "working families" and the mantra, "They're for the powerful, we're for the people." Republicans immediately accused the Vice President of "class warfare," and Business Week worried that Gore's rhetoric was tapping into a broad "anti-business" public mood. Pundits thought (or hoped) there would be a backlash among "suburban independents," but thus far none is visible.
Though Gore is a highly ambiguous class warrior and has skillfully targeted only the most egregious (and unpopular) corporate powers, this is a bold and welcome turn toward class politics in the United States. And though Ralph Nader and the revitalized political operations of the AFL-CIO undoubtedly deserve some credit too, there's a chance that Teixeira and Rogers have helped do for the Democrats what Kevin Phillips's "Southern strategy" did for the Republicans in 1968 and beyond.
What have they done? Simply pointed out what Michael Zweig calls "America's Best Kept Secret"--that the majority of Americans are "working class," not "middle class," and that failing to realize that simple fact leads to a cascade of illusions, both political and otherwise. This is the larger point that will endure, regardless of how Gore's populist strategy works in November (if, indeed, he sustains it until then). We cannot get our politics right, or our economics and culture, for that matter, until we have a better, more consistent grasp of the vagaries of class in our society. America's Forgotten Majority: Why the White Working Class Still Matters and The Working Class Majority: America's Best Kept Secret, each very different in its concepts and details, lay a strong social-scientific foundation for bringing social class out of the closet and making it a permanent part of our public discourse.
Teixeira and Rogers's contribution lies most completely in their political arithmetic, which emphasizes the importance of class and unionism as well as race and gender. When they extend from that, their sense of what they call core working-class values is thinner and less accurate, in my view, and their policy prescriptions are too narrowly focused on this year's election and contain what would be a crucial strategic error if put into practice. But their arithmetic is clear and compelling, and Zweig complements and strengthens their analysis in the other areas.
The arithmetic begins by dividing voters into a "middle class" and a "working class," based on one clear and simple characteristic--the possession or lack of a bachelor's degree. About 30 percent of voters have one, while the vast majority (the working class) do not. Teixeira and Rogers understand that both income and occupation are also relevant to understanding class dynamics, but information on them is not consistently available in the voting data, and, besides, there is such a strong correlation between college education, occupation and income that it doesn't matter much for their purposes. "Managerial and professional workers," for example, are much more likely to have bachelor's degrees and are paid from 34 percent to 140 percent better than other workers; they, like the "college-educated," with whom they overlap so strongly, are about 30 percent of the labor force.
Teixeira and Rogers next divide voters into the Democratic base (union households, blacks and Hispanics) and, by implication, the Republican base (nonunion whites). In 1996 the Democratic base constituted one-third of voters, while nonunion whites made up the other two-thirds of the electorate; the base voted 66 percent Democratic, while the much larger group of nonunion whites gave Democrats about 40 percent of their vote. This combination was enough for Clinton to win without a majority, but the basic arithmetic condemns Democrats to a hard struggle to get from marginality to deadlock, at best, until they can win at least half of the white, nonunion working-class vote. Thus, the subtitle "Why the White Working Class Still Matters," to which should have been added "Particularly the Nonunion Part."
This calculus gets trickier and trickier, but the payoff is worth it. When Zweig speaks of a "working-class majority" based on occupation, he includes white, black and Hispanic, both union and nonunion. Teixeira and Rogers emphasize this same overwhelming working-class majority, but what they most often refer to as "the Forgotten Majority" is not truly one: Once all blacks, Hispanics and union whites (groups that contain large working-class majorities) have been set aside as part of the Democratic base, this Forgotten Majority--white nonunion workers without a bachelor's degree--is actually only 45 percent. But this does make them the single largest group in the electorate, and, what's more, they are the real swing vote in US politics today. Using 1996 figures, Teixeira and Rogers's map of the electorate looks like this:
This breakdown of the electorate is the single most valuable aspect of America's Forgotten Majority. The nonunion white working class is such an enormous part of the voting populace that, though an important part of the Republican base, it produced more Democratic votes than any other group of voters. Gaining a percentage point among the Forgotten Majority, then, is worth more, numerically, than two or three points among any other voter group. (In a tactic that has helped win them mainstream attention, Teixeira and Rogers laboriously show how the Republican, Reform and Green parties might win the Forgotten Majority, but their main analytical effort is directed at Democrats.)
Teixeira and Rogers are primarily geared to argue against the New Democrat notion of suburban "soccer moms" and "wired workers" as the crucial swing vote in US politics. They show conclusively that this group (the college-educated) is simply too small and not volatile enough to constitute the key "suburban independent." White, nonunion, college-educated men are, in fact, the immovable base of the GOP, nearly as solidly and consistently Republican for the past half-century as black voters have been for the Democrats. White, nonunion, college-educated women represent more appealing ground--indeed, they've been an important part of what's kept the Democrats competitive for the past twenty years--but Teixeira and Rogers see little room for growth there. Conversely, the nonunion white working class is the true "suburban independent," constituting three-fifths of suburban voters. What's more, these voters "were far and away the most volatile segment of the electorate...the real 'swing voter'" of the nineties. They're the ones searching for a new politics because, until the past few years, their median family income was stagnating and their average real wage was declining.
Within this group, Teixeira and Rogers pay special attention to nonunion working-class white men, partly because the Democrats have more room to grow among them than with Forgotten Majority women, and partly because they have been particularly fickle at the polls over the past decade. Even more important, however, is that this particular working-class group--not protected by a union, a bachelor's degree or affirmative action--has lost much ground in wages and benefits over the past quarter-century, while often being culturally and politically lumped into the "white male" power structure with whom they share little but the color of their genitalia.
In fact, nonunion white working-class men constitute a large group that is politically open to having its existence remembered and appealed to. Teixeira and Rogers point out that this group of white men is nearly twice as numerous as the New Democrats' "soccer moms" and that "simply breaking even among these forgotten majority men would be equivalent to achieving landslides among...college-educated white women."
The Teixeira-Rogers analysis contains bad news for progressive Democrats as well--those who, like me, thought that registering and turning out more blacks, Hispanics and union households could lead to a majority. A great deal of effort has gone into this strategy, and it has by no means been in vain. Blacks, particularly in the South, and Hispanics, particularly in California, are a stronger presence in the electorate, and the difference between the union household vote at 19 percent of voters (as it was in 1994) or at 25 percent (the AFL-CIO goal this year) would have meant the difference between Newt Gingrich and Dick Gephardt. But for the Democrats to achieve a ruling majority (the White House plus large majorities in both the House and Senate), a mobilized class-based appeal to the nonunion white working class would be necessary.
Teixeira and Rogers are somewhat less convincing in arguing against a gender-gap strategy targeted on nonunion white working-class women, who by themselves make up more than a quarter of all voters. It's hard to rule out efforts that would bring nonunion working-class white women into a broad coalition with blacks, Hispanics and union households. But how could Democrats do that without a class-based appeal that would attract Forgotten Majority men as well as Forgotten Majority women?
Affirmative action and the right to choose, both of which are usually cast in terms most appealing to college-educated women, have probably gained Democrats just about all they can among working-class women. Thus, Teixeira and Rogers argue, "the best approach to mobilizing the forgotten majority lies in universalist, transracial issues that should have substantial appeal to the Democratic base as well." These include issues like universal healthcare, starting with children; saving the Social Security guarantee without cutting benefits or increasing payroll taxes while adding a government subsidy to encourage wage workers to save (and invest); increasing the earned-income and childcare tax credits and expanding family and medical leave; and reducing school class size while increasing construction and teacher salaries. Also important are tight labor markets and strengthened worker rights, things that could make organizing a union less formidable while tending to increase wages and job security in the meantime.
This, of course, is pretty much the Gore-Lieberman program, as prefigured in Clinton's last two State of the Union speeches, though Teixeira and Rogers would do it all at a much greater magnitude. Where they disagree with Clinton-Gore-Lieberman--on affirmative action--they are wrong. But here's where Michael Zweig's broader economic-class analysis can lend a hand.
Zweig argues for a class-based politics as well and is equally compelling in pointing out the limitations of racial and gender-identity politics. But he wants to complicate and supplement identity politics, not eliminate it. Zweig is very clear that any working-class agenda that implicitly denies the continuing importance of racial and sexual injustice is doomed to fail for the most traditional of reasons: It divides the working class precisely along lines where it is most easily divisible. Though Zweig is open to the possibility of a class-based affirmative action supplementing the existing, racially based kind, he's opposed to any further relaxation of the current affirmative action regime--which has already taken a beating nationally in both jurisprudence and legislation.
Teixeira and Rogers make a huge mistake, in my opinion, when they advocate the replacement of race-based affirmative action with a class-based version. (They say nothing about gender-based affirmative action, which affects a majority of voters, but presumably it would disappear as well.) Their intention is to unify people around class interests, but the predictable impact would be exactly the opposite. Few issues in US politics play so differently at the symbolic level versus the level of actual details. There are many legitimate issues to discuss about particular programs in higher education and for specific work categories like police, fire and construction, but the issue of fairness in the details is never as simple as the widespread but false assumption that there exists some kind of sweeping government-ordered quota system based on nationally legislated group rights. President Clinton's phrase "mend it, don't end it" defended affirmative action (and thereby the continuing problem of racism and sexism) at the symbolic level while legitimizing discussion of the details. Challenging that Clintonian consensus by reopening the symbolic debate is not a winning political strategy, precisely because it forces people to choose between their race or gender interests and those of their class. If your goal is to split the Democratic base from the Forgotten Majority, this is exactly how to do it.
The larger point is one that Zweig makes particularly well. Class in America deserves special attention right now because it has been so thoroughly neglected for so long; but a class-based politics needs to be built on and around the achievements of the civil rights and women's movements, not counterposed to and made competitive with them. The whole point of "universalistic, transracial" political programs is to convince white working-class men that they can advance their interests better by adding key government assistance to all workers, not by subtracting it from blacks and women. The progress of working-class blacks and women, on the other hand, is currently stymied by the absence of a class politics that can complement (and maybe even revitalize) the fight for racial and sexual equality.
Zweig's investigation of politics goes beyond the electoral, focusing instead on how a broad working-class social movement (often in alliance with segments of the professional middle class) could reshape workplace and community power relations as well as national politics. He sees labor unions playing a central role in such a movement and is particularly enthusiastic about the AFL-CIO's "organizing for change, changing to organize" strategy.
A plain-spoken economist, rigorous thinker and clear writer, Zweig defines the American class structure basically by occupations and the amount and kind of power people have in the workplace. In this schema, there are three classes: a "capitalist class," defined by ownership and control of giant profit-making enterprises; a "working class," defined by a lack of power at work and in society at large; and a "middle class" of managers, professionals and small-business owners who have a degree of autonomy and influence at work that makes them different from the working class but nowhere near as powerful as the capitalists.
If this sounds like classic Marxism (capital, labor and the petty bourgeoisie), don't let that distract you. Zweig never mentions "relations of production" or any of the other key Marxian concepts that have been transformed into mind-numbing sectarian jargon over the past half-century. The Working-Class Majority is, in fact, a refreshing restatement of the classical Marxist view, but it is updated by its delicate analysis of occupations in the United States today and by its post-cold war refusal to call for the elimination of the capitalist class. Rather, Zweig charts a politics based on the understanding that over the past two or three decades the capitalist class has again achieved the kind of overweening power, both nationally and internationally, that was once at least partially checked by strong labor movements and progressive governments. Unchecked, the capitalist class, often despite its best intentions, will systematically make life worse for workers and eventually even undermine capitalism's splendid (but ultimately unsustainable) ability to create wealth.
No one has claimed that Al Gore's campaign theme "They're for the powerful, we're for the people" was influenced by Zweig's analysis, but Gore's rhetorical emphasis on the power of "the few" is consistent with the kind of politics Zweig is after. In the end, the current Democratic policy package, though a minimalist version, moves exactly in the direction Zweig and Teixeira and Rogers want. The difference is that their complementary class analyses offer a much more expansive sense of possibility for US politics and, taken together, a wider range of options, in both thought and action, for achieving that possibility. They are also part of a larger trend in academic thought (much of it organized around the Center for Working-Class Studies at Youngstown State University) struggling toward a fresh framework for consistently remembering the working-class majority.
Both books suffer from their lack of attention to the professional middle class (which includes all three of them, as well as me and most of the readers of this review), the real cultural power we have as a class and the differences between us and the working class. Teixeira and Rogers's "core working-class values," with their emphasis on "individual achievement," sound suspiciously middle class to me, and this both oversimplifies and distorts their analysis. Likewise, Zweig's principled refusal to discuss incomes grossly underestimates the power of money in a capitalist society. "Rich" and "poor" are key terms in the vernacular sense of class because everybody realizes that the size of your income makes a huge difference in the kind of life and prospects you have.
Neither of these books adequately links its social-scientific terms and statistics with the common conception of class in America. It's also a bit embarrassing to praise two books for calling attention to a "working class" they define so differently. But each, in richly textured detail, systematically destroys the debilitating vernacular notion that almost everybody (all those who are neither "rich" nor "poor") is "middle class." This notion is so spectacularly false that precise definitions don't matter. What's important to understand is that there is a college-educated professional and managerial "middle class," and we have been doing quite well for the past two decades, whether we're white, black or other; and there is a much larger "working class" (of various races, genders, incomes and occupations, union and largely nonunion) that has been struggling and, for the most part, losing ground for most of that time. The problem with lumping all of us together into a ubiquitous "middle class" is that they tend to disappear, and we tend to think that their experience, interests and values are just like ours.
The connotations of "middle class" in the US vernacular almost always include "college educated" and "comfortable standard of living." Thus, the totemic "soccer mom" is regularly envisioned as a computer support specialist married to a systems analyst (two of our fastest-growing occupations), with a minivan and a family income approaching $100,000. She's actually much more likely to be a clerical worker married to a retail salesman (two occupations growing even faster), with a family income of $42,000 and a six-year-old Chevy Cavalier. A politics that does not recognize and speak to the real soccer moms is doomed to confusion and failure. One that consistently does, on the other hand, has many more possibilities for progressive change than is dreamt of in the dominant philosophies.
However varied their styles, poets writing in English today still rely on the early-twentieth-century Imagist principles of clarity, directness, presentative imagery and rhythm based on cadences. Although Imagism, revolutionary in its time, gathered force from several classical traditions, Chinese poetry was at the forefront.
Now, Crossing the Yellow River shows anew the vitality of classic Chinese poetry. Sam Hamill's collected translations contains beautiful versions by more than sixty poets, from the Shih Ching, or "Classic of Poetry" (10th century-600 BCE) through the eighth-century masters, Tu Fu, Li Po and Wang Wei, to the sixteenth-century poet Wang Yang-ming.
As W.S. Merwin writes in his elegant introduction, Hamill's translations stand in a long tradition of modern versions of classic Chinese poetry, notably Arthur Waley's 170 Chinese Poems of 1918. Merwin adds: "Sam Hamill's work, like Waley's, represents a lifetime's devotion to the classic originals, which survived in a long, subtle, intricate current."
Earlier than Waley's work, Ezra Pound's slim book Cathay (1915) was a landmark in poetry as well as in translation from the Chinese. Pound's contemporaries valued the tactile images and the musical freedom based on the concurrence of sounds rather than on rhyme and fixed stress counts. Still, his versions were marred by inaccuracies (such as referring to the "River Kiang" as though the river had a name, when actually the word kiang means river). "The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry," an essay written by Ernest Fenollossa and edited by Pound, introduced a new poetic method in which clusters of images and ideas (similar to what is conveyed in Chinese written characters) would take the place of the old logic and sequence of European poetics.
Following Pound's directness and musical freedom, Hamill returns to form, but in a far more natural way than did Pound's Georgian predecessors. For example, in translating the work of Tu Fu (712-770) Hamill observes the couplet that follows syntactical parallelism, as in "The palace walls will divide us/and clouds will bury the hills" ("Taking Leave of Two Officials"). Rightly the tone supersedes regularity of meter and rhyme, but in his
approximation of original forms he uses assonance, consonance and near-rhyme. (Caveat: I can compare English versions but since I do not read Chinese, I must rely on intuition, as well as the work of scholars elsewhere.)
The poems are radiant. "Taking Leave of a Friend," by Li Po (701-762), reads in its entirety:
Green mountains rise to the north;
white water rolls past the eastern city.
Once it has been uprooted,
the tumbleweed travels forever.
Drifting clouds like a wanderer's mind;
sunset, like the heart of your old friend.
We turn, pause, look back and wave.
Even our ponies look back and whine.
Li Po evokes the torment of emotional ambivalence with startling truth. The first two couplets contain natural images in motion, capturing the wanderer's intention: mountains that rise, water that rolls, tumbleweed that travels. The second set of couplets present images of fixity that also imply mortality. He is compelled to roam and he is attached--as are we all.
Here is the title poem of this collection, "Crossing the Yellow River," by Wang Wei (701-761):
A little boat on the great river
whose waves reach the end of the sky--
suddenly a great city, ten thousand
houses dividing sky from wave.
Between the towns there are
hemp and mulberry trees in the wilds.
Look back on the old country:
wide waters; clouds; and rising mist.
The metaphor, crossing the river, implies boundaries between present and past, change and habit, youth and the sense of aging (the latter prevalent in this anthology). By and large, the poets here attempt not the big emotion, which by itself can be intimidating, but the smaller fissures of that emotion. They deal with innuendoes, with truth relayed as it is in common speech, through bits of information, through sudden juxtapositions, through offhand observations of nature. From T.S. Eliot and Marianne Moore down to the present, this kind of emotional accounting prevails: I think immediately of poems such as Moore's "The Paper Nautilus," Eliot's "Preludes," Philip Levine's "Milkweed" and Karl Kirchwey's "In Transit," among others.
Li Ch'ing-chao (1084-1151), is one of the book's few poets known to be a woman. Hamill notes that she was one of China's greatest and also "one of the most influential critics of her age." "To the Tune: Boat of Stars" brings back to me Ezra Pound's remarkable adaptation of Li Po's "The River Merchant's Wife." Her poem begins:
Spring after spring, I sat before my mirror.
Now I tire of braiding plum buds in my hair.
I've gone another year without you,
shuddering with each letter--
I'm intrigued, too, by the work of an earlier poet, Tzu Yeh (fourth century). Like the speakers of the early Anglo-Saxon poems, such as "Wulf and Eadwacer" and "The Wife's Lament," the personae often are of women, but the author is unknown. The poems are brief, even slight, but their wit leaves room for growth in the reader's mind. Here, for instance, is "A Smile":
In this house without walls on a hill,
the four winds touch our faces.
If they blow open your robe of gauze,
I'll try to hide my smile.
Hamill's revised translation of Lu Chi's Wen Fu: The Art of Writing, a third-century ars poetica, reveals practices that are valuable for our time. More than a handbook, it counsels the mind and the spirit, which are all of a piece with style in Confucian Chinese thought. From Lu Chi's poetic treatise come these important maxims:
As infinite as space, good work
joins earth to heaven
Although each form is different,
each opposes evil:
none grants a writer license.
Language must speak from its essence
to articulate reason:
verbosity indicates lack of virtue.
Some of Lu Chi's injunctions are familiar ground rules:
Only through writing and then revising
may one gain the necessary insight.
Others are subtle but immensely meaningful:
Past and present commingle:
in the single blink of an eye!
Emotion and reason are not two:
every shift in feeling must be read.
The wen of Wen Fu means literary arts. In Confucian China, Hamill tells us, writing was inseparable from morality in that truth meant naming things. The fu is the form, whose syntactic parallelism strikes this listener as having affinities with passages in the Hebrew Bible, notably the Song of Songs.
As in the poetry anthology, Hamill's ease conveys profound ideas and intricate images with simplicity, naturalness and directness. The Wen Fu has appeared in other translations. When I was a teenager trying to write poetry, a family friend gave me for my birthday a desk dictionary and the Bollingen edition of E.R. Hughes's Lu Chi's Wen Fu, AD 302, which includes the document's history as well as a translation. I read it, but not happily, for the writing is ponderous. On the other hand, Hamill's prose is a fresh breeze.
Hamill is founding editor of Copper Canyon Press and a prolific author--the latest and best of his own poetry collections is Gratitude (1998). In "Discovering the Artist Within," he tells a disconcerting but lifting story of how he came to poetry. Orphaned at the age of 2, adopted, later beaten and sexually molested, he grew up to commit unlawful acts. Throughout his difficult early adulthood, though, he held to his literary talent as to a life raft. Among the contemporary poets whose work saved him and his writing were the Beat poets, Gary Snyder and especially Kenneth Rexroth, whose One Hundred Poems From the Chinese Hamill thanks in his new volume. It was from Rexroth he learned the discipline that poetry required. Three years in Japan--two in the Marines and one on a fellowship--added to his expertise as an Asian linguist as well as to his Zen practice.
Devotion aside, these books will endure. Their tone is a combination of zest, generosity and humility. "We are fortunate to live during the greatest time for poetry since the T'ang Dynasty," Hamill writes in his introduction to Crossing the Yellow River, aware that the classic Chinese poems capture the essence of today's practice. His humility is apparent from the last sentence of his introduction, an impassioned stance for our casual age: "I sit at the feet of the great old masters of my tradition not only to be in a position to pass on their many wonderful gifts, but to pay homage while in the very act of nourishing, sustaining and enhancing my own life."
Certainly...get him hanged! Why not? Anything--anything can be done
in this country. --Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
So here we are, barely into the next century, and the indications
couldn't be better. Peace and prosperity rule. Forget World Wars I and
II, the Nazi death camps, the gulag, Hiroshima, even Vietnam. Forget
that whole last benighted century of ours, that charnel house of
darkness in the heart of the West, or the Free World as we called it,
until, ever so recently, the whole world was freed. That's old news. It
was old even before the "short Twentieth Century," which began amid
nationalist cheers in August 1914, ended early as that wall in Berlin
came down. It's hard to believe now that in 1945, after Europe's second
Thirty Years' War, the civilization that had experienced a proud peace,
while dominating two-thirds of the planet, lay in ruins; that it had
become a site of genocide, its cities reduced to rubble, its fields laid
waste, its lands littered with civilian dead, its streets flooded by
refugees: a description that today would be recognizable only of a place
like Kosovo, Chechnya or Sierra Leone.
What a relief, when you think about it; more so if you don't: Mass death,
massacre (every acre of it), the cleansing of civilian populations, the
whole bloody business has finally been handed back to the savages in
countries nobody who counts really gives a damn about anyway. After all
these years, we face a world in which genocide happens in Rwanda or East
Timor, slaughter and mass rape in the cesspool of the Balkans, which
hardly qualifies as Europe anyway, or in African countries like
Congo--and most important of all, they're doing it to one another. Even
when it comes to nuclear matters, the MAD policies of the two
superpowers have been deposited in the ever-fuller dustbin of history
(though most of the weapons linger by the thousands in the same hands),
and the second team, the subs, have been called in. Now, Indians and
Pakistanis have an equal-opportunity chance to Hiroshimate each other
without (at least initially) involving us at all.
We always knew that violence was the natural state of life out there;
that left to their own devices they would dismember one another without
pity. We've more or less washed our hands of mass death, the only
remaining question being: If they slaughter each other for too long (or
too many gruesome images appear on our TVs), do we have a moral
obligation to intervene for their own good?
With history largely relegated to the History Channel and hosannas to
the Greatest Generation, the disconnect between the exterminatory
devastation of 1945 and our postmillennial world of prosperity seems
complete. So it's hard to know whether to respond with a spark of
elation or with pity on discovering that a few intrepid writers--Mark
Cocker, Adam Hochschild, Jonathan Schell and Sven Lindqvist--have begun
an important remapping of the exterminatory landscape of the last
centuries. (As an editor, I should add, I have been associated with
Hochschild and Schell.) Interestingly, none of them are professional
historians; and I hesitate to call them a grouping, for they seem
largely ignorant of one another's work. Yet their solitary efforts have
much in common.
They have taken remarkably complementary journeys into the West's now
largely forgotten colonial past. Considered as a whole, their work
represents a rudimentary act of reconstructive surgery on our collective
near-unconscious. They are attempting to re-suture the history of the
West to that of the Third World--especially to Africa, that continent
where for so long whites knew that "anything" could be done with
impunity, and where much of the horror later to be visited upon Europe
might have been previewed.
Worried by present exterminatory possibilities, each of these writers
has been driven back to stories once told but now largely ignored. Three
of the four returned to a specific figure, a Polish
seaman-turned-novelist who, as a steamboat pilot in the Congo, witnessed
one exterminatory moment in Africa and on the eve of a new century
published a short novel, Heart of Darkness, based on it. Of the
four, only Hochschild has done original historical research. But that,
in a way, is the point. They are not telling us new stories but
reclaiming older ones that have dropped from sight, and so
re-establishing a paper trail on extermination without which our modern
moment conveniently makes no sense.
I have two films to tell you about in this column, one of which I recommend to your attention because it's beautiful, absorbing, touching and droll. It will involve you in the choices its characters make, and it will probably make you think about how you live, too. I'm speaking about Yi Yi (also known as A One and a Two), written and directed by Edward Yang. As for the other film--Dancer in the Dark by Lars von Trier--I had to watch the thing, and now you're damn well going to read about it.
While you're getting braced, I will point out that I'm not the first to link these pictures. This past spring, at the Cannes festival, Dancer in the Dark won the top prize, while Yi Yi earned Edward Yang the award for best director. Now it's autumn, and the New York Film Festival is launching both movies in the United States. You might say the festival is showing us two major possibilities for film. You might also say that Martin Luther King Jr. and Huey Long represent two options in politics.
Of course, to some eyes, Yi Yi appears soft and safe--as does Dr. King, to people who don't look beyond that nice, chubby man who talked about dreams. I can understand the criticism. Yang has put a wedding at the beginning of Yi Yi, a funeral at the end and a birth right in the middle. That's enough in itself to set off a life-affirmation warning--and the alarm really starts to clang once you realize that the main characters, members of a single middle-class family in Taipei, span the ages from childhood through senescence.
Before you bolt, though, I'd like to mention the seating arrangement at that concluding funeral, where characters who ought to clump together prefer to be separated by a few crucial inches. Look from one side of the aisle to the other, and you understand that for all its buoyancy, Yi Yi dramatizes the breakup of a family and the withering of illusions, as experienced in a society where everyone's supposed to be rich and everybody's going broke.
At the film's heart is the paterfamilias, known as NJ (Wu Nienjen), a partner in a rapidly failing computer company. A slight man with the solemn, baggy look of a Taiwanese Buster Keaton, NJ quietly accepts every duty that arises, retreats into music when he can (using the portable disc player that's his favorite possession) and stares deadpan into the face of a hundred indignities. These begin at the wedding of his brother-in-law (Chen Xisheng), where the bride's advanced state of pregnancy is only the first of many breaches of decorum and escalating disasters. Among the others: NJ's first love, Sherry (Ke Suyun), suddenly materializes in the hotel lobby, after thirty years' absence; and his mother-in-law (Tang Ruyun) is rushed to the hospital in a coma. "Don't worry," cries the newlywed brother-in-law, arriving at the hospital roaring drunk. "Today is the luckiest day in the year. Nothing bad can happen."
But for NJ, a lot has happened. It's only a matter of time before he gives Sherry a late-night phone call from his darkened office--an innocent call, of course (she lives in Chicago), made just as a gesture of reconciliation, just to feel the thrill of connection. Then it's back to his highrise apartment, full of new life, to find his wife, Min-Min (Elaine Jin), weeping in the bedroom. She's been trying to speak to her comatose mother, as the doctors recommend, and has found she has nothing to say. Every day is the same; every day is nothing. "How can I have so little?" Min-Min sobs, opening and closing her hands as if her life had flown out of them. NJ shuts the door--he doesn't want to wake the children--and then makes a practical, well-meaning, thoroughly off-the-mark response: Hire a nurse, who will read the newspaper to Mother.
With that, the camera retreats to the balcony, to view NJ and Min-Min through a sheet of glass that's frantic with reflections from a nearby expressway. Lights skitter over the dumbstruck couple. From the next apartment come hideous shrieks and curses: the new neighbor, fighting with one of
Not every sequence in Yi Yi is similarly wrenching; but each has this startling degree of emotional and cinematic fluidity, which I thoroughly fail to convey. Scenes that focus on the 8-year-old son (Jonathan Chang) tend to serve as comic relief; but they also sketch out a kind of artist's manifesto, expressed in terms of a kid's candor and curiosity. Scenes centered on the teenage daughter (Kelly Lee) tend to be darker, since she blames herself for her grandmother's illness; but they also draw her into a romantic triangle of which she, quite miraculously, turns out to be the strongest leg.
I have heard a few people complain that Yi Yi is long. So it is; it runs almost three hours. And for me, those were three hours of deep pleasure: more time to watch a large and brilliant ensemble live and breathe on screen; more time to follow the intricate rhythms of a faultlessly constructed story. "I want to show people things they haven't seen," says the young son, as the tale comes to its inconclusive and satisfying close. I take that to be a statement of artistic purpose--though not, perhaps, of Yang's. The glory of what he's achieved in Yi Yi is to show us things that we've all seen, many times, and to make us feel how extraordinary they are.
Lars von Trier pretends to be interested in the everyday, particularly in its struggle with the visionary. So, to take pretense at face value, I will initially describe Dancer in the Dark as the story of Selma (played by the Icelandic pop star Björk), a single mother who works in a factory and is losing her sight. A Czech immigrant to the United States, Selma labors tirelessly for the sake of her young son, accepts her trials with sweet resignation and finds strength in imagination. A passionate fan of musicals, she makes up songs based on the rhythms and events of her life and visualizes them as big dance numbers. From time to time, life's muted colors intensify, the shooting style changes from hand-held tracking to quick montage and one of Selma's inner movies erupts before us on the screen.
Now, to take a second run at the description: Dancer in the Dark takes place in 1964 in Washington State, a heavily wooded area of Sweden populated by Scandinavian performers and Catherine Deneuve. As the film begins, the pop star Björk is pretending to be incompetent at singing and dancing, in the hope of fitting into a community-theater production of The Sound of Music. The seriously overqualified community-theater director Vincent Paterson (fresh from choreographing dance routines for Madonna and Michael Jackson) pretends not to notice that this young woman is awful--or that she's Björk, I'm not sure which--and casts her anyway. Then Björk and her best friend, Catherine Deneuve, go to work in a factory, where they break into a number presumably inspired by the 1997 documentary East Side Story, Dana Ranga's delightful compilation film about Soviet-bloc musicals.
But I'm forgetting about the blind shtick. It seems that Björk has passed on a degenerative eye condition to her son, who will surely lose his sight unless Udo Kier operates on him before the age of 13. That's why she's such a Stakhanovite (unless it's the influence of all those Soviet-bloc musicals). When the local American sheriff tries to steal her money--just like an American!--she sweetly and innocently shoots him dead, then insists on being hanged to death for the big finale.
Real life? No. Lars von Trier is interested in the preposterous--or rather in seeing how much of the preposterous he can get you to swallow without gagging. He admitted as much in The Idiots, a film that might be said to serve as his self-portrait. That picture was about a kind of avant-garde theater director, who goes about mocking people by feigning simplicity. In Dancer in the Dark (as in Breaking the Waves), it's the heroine who is simple and vulnerable (and long-suffering and self-sacrificing), and you, as viewer, are the one who is mocked.
Do you believe you're in the midst of reality, when the camera is darting back and forth and poking actors in the face? Then von Trier has the laugh on you. He's persuaded you to ignore his very obvious jump-cuts and swift changes of point-of-view, visible evidence that the scene was assembled from multiple takes. And are you a filmoid, eagerly following the doings of today's star directors? You will surely be grateful for von Trier's publicity machine, which has put out the claim that he shot his musical numbers using 100 digital video cameras. What a magical figure--100! Repeat it to yourself, and you can almost forget that von Trier's pop montage is outdone ten times each hour on MTV.
For what it's worth, Björk is a truly remarkable performer--if "remarkable" is the right word for a woman in her mid-30s who can make herself seem like a teenager, bubbling over with naïve, sexless joy. Call it fun, if you like. But when I think about the overture to Dancer in the Dark--a long sequence in which colored patterns dissolve into one another, to the accompaniment of a slow, rising brass chorale--the name of Wagner comes to mind, and I think of what's behind that show of vulnerable simplicity. This film is about power, and its victim is meant to be you.
To watch the pair of house finches
that frequent the neighbor's feeder,
I leave the charcoal blinds pulled up.
The berry-splashed chest of the male--
each morning--makes me pause.
He flits away when full, or troubled
by the cat behind the window pane.
But he's back again within the hour.
Evenings, we owe our different debts
to the woman who fills the feeder tray,
who also chooses open blinds
and wanders room to room, past
the long blue light of the aquarium.
(She caught me watching yesterday.)
The fish, from here, are almost still,
a drifting string of colored lights.
Her boyfriend's echoes of her name
reverberate and scare the cat;
bird seed scatters with the flight
of startled finches. Sunflower seeds,
far from the flower they once composed,
lie like black collapsed stars.