Monday, May 05, 2014

Aimé Césaire’s non-notebook

Some books inscribe themselves on your bones.

The minute I felt the caustic spray of the first lines of John Berger and Anna Bostock’s 45-year-old rendition of Aimé Césaire’s Return to My Native Land, just reissued by Archipelago Books (‘At the end of the small hours…Get away, I said, you bastard of a cop, swine get away.’), I was in its thrall. This translation burns with fresh and righteous acid.

It’s far from a literal version—a fact you can judge from the cover. Cahier d’un retour au pays natal means ‘Notebook of a return to the birth land.’ Berger and Bostock’s tummy tuck on the title seems a sacrilege, but it eats away the pretense that it’s just a miscellany of journal jottings: this poem seethes with raw facts and fancies about servitude, forced migration, colonization, and slavery. It shines an unsparing dry-ice spotlight on our complicity. It’s not a notebook; it’s an indictment.

Return to my Native Land is verbal napalm. Césaire’s words molest your complacency, Molotov your privilege, blowtorch your preconceptions and, generously, just when you’re near death, anneal your already-burnt body and conjure a hard new seed of consciousness. This is poetry both of scorched earth and the phoenix.

Reading this translation, I understood for the first time Cesaire’s complicated feelings about his heritage—the forced journey from Africa to Martinique—and his new journey to Europe, to the motherland of his colonizers, all compressed in a line documenting his “leap across the sweet greenish fluid of the waters of shame.” And, with renewed respect, I perceived his complicated, wishful and ultimately unrequited relationship with the West, summed up in the immortal line, “I have come to the wrong witch-doctor.”

With Berger and Bostock as my guides, I discovered Aimé Césaire as the Walt Whitman of the Americas. Born just 21 years after the Brooklyn and Camden master died, Césaire (1913-2008) is the avenging Whitman, the blaming bard, the wordsmith of coruscating hate and transformative self-loathing—a stance Whitman (“I do not decline to be the poet of wickedness”) would have understood and admired. I have no idea if Césaire ever read Song of Myself, but compare:


C:
knowing my tyrannical love you know
it is not by hatred of other races that I prosecute for mine.

W:
encompass worlds, but never try to emcompass me,
I crowd your sleekest and best by simply looking toward you.


C:
My name is Bordeaux and Nantes and Liverpool and New York and San Francisco
Not a corner of the world but carried my thumb-print
and my heel-mark on the backs of skyscrapers and my dirt in the glitter of jewels.

W:
Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff. I give them the
same, I receive them the same.


C:
Accommodate yourself to me, I won’t
accommodate myself to you!

W:
I celebrate myself, and sing myself
and what I assume you shall assume,
for every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.


Césaire published Return in 1939, when he was an angry young man, and reissued it, revised, in 1947, and again, more completely bowdlerized, in 1957, when he was a middle-aged politician. By then he was mayor of Fort-de-France (serving from 1945 to 2001 with just two years--1983 and 1984--out of office) and a member of France's National Assembly (from 1946 to 1956 and 1958 to 1993.) Perhaps he deemed the overt and violent sexuality unfitting and unflattering for a public figure. Perhaps he wanted a more didactic and predictable tone. B and B translated Césaire’s authorized version—the shrunken ’57 edition. But no matter. Their English is packed with passion and shot-through with sexuality.

Return ends with a contaminated and corrosive plea for peace:

Dove
Rise
Rise
Rise
It is you I follow, follow
stamped on my eye’s ancestral white cornea
Rise licker of the sky
and the great black
hole where I wished to drown myself by another moon.
it is there that I would fish
for the night’s evil tongue in its seized swirl!


Césaire doesn’t let anyone off the hook. And why should he? We are all equally implicated, the same peaceful patterns stamped on our corneas, the same death-wish moons drowning our hopes, the same descent into defeat, as we are licked and ultimately suffocated by our dense planet’s evil tongue.

Just being able to say this is a victory, a bold statement of life.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Has Don Rumsfeld done Est?

That was my first reaction when I heard Donald Rumsfeld's "known knowns" and "unknown unknowns" press conference. And it's my reaction now to Errol Morris's analyses on nytimes.com.

That's because, what seems like several lifetimes ago, a former girlfriend took me to a very special guest seminar at Avery Fisher Hall for students of EST-the Forum-Landmark Education. I remember it well because the audience was a bit more devout than the last time I was there for a non-classical event--a massively loud and massively stoned Mahavishnu Orchestra concert. This one was a packed house, too--because the big kahuna himself, Werner Erhard, was in the house.

Using a dry-erase board, Erhard analyzed human experience in a four-part matrix:

Erhard put a big circle around that category at the bottom right and declared that that's where his work worked its magic -- on the unknown unknowns.

So, does anyone know if Don Rumsfeld has done Est?

PS: I'm not the first to suggest this: see lgattruth

Friday, February 21, 2014

The Mayor Skedaddled

It was his first big chance to differentiate himself from Mike Bloomberg, and Bill de Blasio blew it.

Last week, Mayor de Blasio had a chance to show voters that he was, despite his new Upper East Side digs, the same man they voted for. He could have, in one statement, restored our sense that he was, despite his vague and malleable positions on many crucial issues, one of us.

Instead he ran from the conflict.

If you follow the taboids and TV, you know the story: late one night early in the week, Mayor de Blasio picked up the phone to call police officials to find out what was going on with Bishop Orlando Findlayter, a key campaign supporter, who had been pulled over in his car for making a turn without signaling. Then, when records showed several open warrants (apparently for symbolic arrests at protest demonstrations), the clergyman was hauled off to his local precinct. Since he was arrested at almost midnight, he was probably destined to spend the night and the following day, and perhaps even the following evening, at central booking going through the cumbersome and nasty arrest-to-arraignment process.

When the press queried the Mayor about the ethics of pushing for special treatment for a crony, de Blasio defended his phone call by terming Findlayter’s case “unusual.” Then he clammed up, cancelling a press appearance and vanishing from the public eye. He might as well have flown to Bermuda.

Sadly, though, in that one word the Mayor did say about the issue, he misspoke. What happened to Bishop Findlayter was many things—but it was not unusual. Arrests for things that don’t merit arrest happen all the time in New York City. The only two unusual things here are that it happened to an FoB—a friend of Bill—and that it’s being talked about in the press.

Sure it was boneheaded for the Mayor to phone the police and even appear to interfere on behalf of a friend and supporter. But let’s be honest: during the Bloomberg years, it became alarmingly common for New Yorkers to be given tickets, and even to be arrested, for amazingly petty things. Think veering out of a bike lane to avoid a truck that was illegally double-parked. Think walking your dog in a park after dark. Think being accosted by the cops (stop & frisk, anyone?) and not having an ID with you. Think minor automotive things like the Bishop’s supposed infraction (in some circles, that’s called DWB, driving while black.)

This is exactly the tale of two cities that Mayor de Blasio decried in his campaign—that well-connected people like the Bishop get to walk from the precinct, while everyone else is being processed and prosecuted and treated as if they were a violent criminal in punishment for stupid petty violations.

Sorry, Mr. Mayor: if it’s wrong for the bishop, it’s wrong for everyone, and you ought to say so. Arresting people on silly charges like this is a waste of police time, a waste of court time, a waste of the people’s time. And it does nothing to prevent crime. Indeed, it stigmatizes a whole generation—because a kid who finds himself in this situation (you can relate: think of your son, Dante, who featured so mightily in your campaign) might find that that arrest follows him in his computerized records for the rest of his life, potentially blocking him from getting an education or a job.

The Mayor had a chance to be our true elected representative. He had a chance to speak truth to power. He had a chance to say something meaningful: that he had strong reservations about a criminal justice system that would, even temporarily, incarcerate a person—anyone, not just a Bishop and campaign supporter—for spurious and ridiculous violations like making a turn without signaling and getting arrested at demonstrations for engaging in acts of free speech.

And the Mayor ran away.

Monday, February 03, 2014

the last word on art & politics

Art, if you want a definition of it, is criminal action. It conforms to no rules. Not even its own. Anyone who experiences a work of art is as guilty as the artist. It is not a question of sharing the guilt. Each one of us gets all of it.
--John Cage

Thursday, January 30, 2014

new yorker style

History is important. Here are the first paragraphs of the 3 main features in the Feb. 3, 2014 issue of The New Yorker:

1. In 1994, Harry Huang and his wife, Zhang Li, were running Lily Burger, a tiny backpacker restaurant on the banks of the Jen River, in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province.

2. In May of 1990, several hundred physicians gathered in a conference hall at an Atlanta hotel, as uniformed guards stood at the door.

3. In the spring of 2000, Reed Hastings, the C.E.O. of Netflix, hired a private plane and flew from San Jose to Dallas for a summit meeting with Blockbuster, the video-rental giant that had seventy-seven hundred stores worldwide handling mostly VCR tapes.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

John Cage, futurist

We are getting rid of ownership, substituting use.

My idea was that if they wanted to fight (human nature and all that), they should do it in the Antarctic, rest of us gambling on daily outcome: proceeds for world welfare.

Society's changing. Relevant information's hard to come by. Soon it'll be everywhere, unnoticed.

War will not be group conflict: it'll be murder, pure and simple, individually conceived.

Treat redwoods, for instance, as entitles that have at least a chance to win.

Fusion of credit card with passport.

Effect of videophone on travel? That we'll stay home, settling like gods for impressions we'll give of being everywhere at once.

Everywhere where economics and politics obtain (everywhere?), policy is dog eat dog.

The truth is that everything causes everything else.

Heaven's no longer paved with gold (changes in church architecture). Heaven's a motel.

Utopia? Self-knowledge. Some will make it, with or without LSD. The others? Pray for acts of God, crises, power failures, no water to drink.
--from Diary: How to improve the world (you will only make matters worse) 1965



The question is not: How much are you going to get out of it? Nor is it: How much are you going to put into it? But rather: How immediately are you going to say Yes to no matter what unpredictability, even when what happens seems to have no relation to what one thought was one's commitment?
--from Lecture on Commitment, 1961

Friday, January 10, 2014

I like a country where it's nobody's damn business ...

I like a country where it's nobody's damn business what magazines anyone reads, what he thinks, whom he has cocktails with. I like a country where we do not have to stuff the chimney against listening ears and where what we say does not go into the FBI files along with a note from S-17 that I may have another wife in California. I like a country where no college-trained flatfeet collect memoranda about us and ask judicial protection for them, a country where when someone makes statements about us to officials he can be held to account. We had that kind of country only a little while ago and I'm for getting it back. It was a lot less scared than the one we've got now. It slept sound no matter how many people joined communist reading circles and it put common scolds to the ducking stool.
That's Bernard de Voto from "Due Notice to the FBI," in Harper's Magazine, October 1949. Fighting surveillance six and a half decades ago. Swap in contemporary references and it's strikingly fresh.