28 August 2018

This is it!

In the Author’s Note for her novel A Place of Greater Safety, Hilary Mantel avows that “almost all the characters in it are real people and it is closely tied to historical facts—as far as those facts are agreed, which isn’t really very far.” Facts are always subject to interpretation and therefore, not really an expression of reality. In this novel of the French Revolution, a subject that has long intrigued me, the array of characters is vast, and all of them I have found to have existed much as Mantel has depicted them. The politics is complicated and vicious and there is an accuracy to this novel that intrigues me. I am respectful of Mantel’s research.
     And then . . . two thirds of the way into the novel Danton’s wife Gabrielle dies in childbirth. Following her funeral, there is a brief recounting of some of her effects. We read that “the maid found a handkerchief under the bed where Gabrielle had died; a tradesman delivered fabric that she had ordered just weeks before her death.” And her husband, George-Jacques Danton “found a novel, with her place marked.” Following this brief recounting, Mantel adds this sentence: “And this is it.” On the one hand, this suggests that Mantel has situated the composition of her novel as having occurred prior to and during the French Revolution. Gabrielle Danton has been reading that novel in which she has played a significant role when she dies. Mantel does not offer any clue concerning what page Gabrielle had reached at the time of her death.
     Reading A Place of Greater Safety Gabrielle Danton has been reading (in part) an interpretation of her life and of the events in which she is both an observer and a participant. But she does not survive to the end of the novel she is reading. She does not learn how it all turns out. Well, who ever does? I am thinking that that is exactly what life must be like: I participate, and I observe. As in a novel I read for plot and character, even my own, and I make interpretations as I proceed. Sometimes I feel that I understand what’s going on--the characters and events--and at other times I remain somewhat baffled. I maintain some control over my reading, my life, and at other times I recognize my powerlessness and confusion. I go on regardless. There is a narrative that I both observe and construct as my life, and I keep reading to learn its trajectory, but really, I am always in the middle of that novel. And at the end of the day I place my bookmark on the pages where I have stopped reading, close the book and anticipate engaging tomorrow with the book and my life.
     But, I never do get to the end of my novel. Events continue even if I do not, and the future is never known to me. I would like to know what comes next, to follow this or that thread that has begun to its end, to remain immersed in the beauty and complexity of the woven environment, but finally that is not possible. At the end of the day I have to close the book and go to sleep. And someone else will read the novel. 

23 August 2018

Murder most foul

Fox News, Jason Lewis, running for reelection to Congress from the 2ndcongressional district in Minnesota, and the White House focused today, August 22, on the murder of Mollie Tibbetts rather than on the guilty verdict of Paul Manafort and the guilty plea and alarming revelations from Trump’s lawyer and fixer, Michael Cohen, that concerned Trump’s alleged approval of the use of campaign funds to silence two accusations of sexual congress outside of his marriage to Melania Trump, thereby implicating Trump in indictable criminal acts.
     This from the White House: “The loss of Mollie Tibbetts is a devastating reminder that we must urgently fix our broken immigration laws.” This from Jason Lewis,: “The unconscionable murder of Iowa college student Mollie Tibbetts at the hands of an illegal alien should NOT be happening in America. This is an outrage that demands action at our border.” This from Fox News: Tomi Lahren said “the murder of Iowa college student Mollie Tibbetts should be a wake-up call on illegal immigration. Cristhian Rivera, a 24-year-old illegal immigrant from Mexico, has been charged with first-degree murder in the death of the 20-year-old Tibbetts, who was reported missing more than a month ago. On "Fox & Friends" on Wednesday, Lahren said Americans are starting to see that border control and immigration enforcement affect the entire country, not just border states. Fox News, The White House, Jason Lewis (and other craven Congresspersons) missed this in the news: “A Utah man upset by complaints about the condition of his property summoned a code enforcement officer to his home on Aug. 9, only to fatally shoot her in the head and light her body on fire, according to an arrest document filed in Salt Lake City on Tuesday.” This man was a citizen of the United States. They also made no reference to this: Christopher Lee Watts, a Colorado man, “faces five counts of first-degree murder, one count of unlawful termination of pregnancy and two counts of tampering with a deceased human body.” He was a citizen of the United States. In Dallas, Texas, “A father was charged with capital murder Tuesday after police said he stabbed his 16-month-old son at a Dallas-area apartment complex.” The father was a citizen of the United States. Nary a word from Fox News, Jason Lewis or the White House decrying any of these or similar recent acts of murder. Indeed, as we know from Charlottesville, white citizen nationalists can kill with approval.
     Why the silence? Because there is no political gain to be had from any condemnation of these white, male United States citizens. The murder of Mollie Tibbetts, like the murder of the Watts family, the 16-month-old child, or the violent death of the enforcement officer are all heart-rending events of equal import, but only the murder of Mollie Tibbetts serves the ugly, self-serving motives of the white White House or its white co-conspirators in the media and in Congress. To raise the tragic events in Iowa to set an already racist national initiative is a horrible abuse of the life and death of Mollie Tibbetts and a denigration of the lives of other victims of violent crimes, sometimes by other white citizens of the United States. Sandy Hook. Charlottesville. Las Vegas. Stoneman Douglas. The list goes on and on. If there is a conscience left in the government, let them begin impeachment proceedings. If there is a conscience left in the United States, let them vote the bums out of office.

22 August 2018

Too dangerous for farce

Hilary Mantel says that in her novel of the French Revolution, A Place of Greater Safety,she has “as far as possible” used the real words of the characters—from their recorded speeches or preserved writings. Her central protagonists are George Danton, Camille Desmoulins, and Maximilien Robespierre, architects of the Revolution, from whose words and works she draws considerably. I have been long interested in the French Revolution, an interest derived I suppose from the occurrence of the Reign of Terror (which from Mantel’s novel shows to be how the leaders developed and referred to these events); my reading of Edmund Burke during college courses in 18thcentury literature, and my reading in the 9thgrade of Dickens’s Tale of Two Cities.
But I read this in Mantel’s novel:

From the private notebooks of Maximilien Robespierre:
What is our aim?
The use of the constitution for the benefit of the people.
Who are like to oppose us?
The rich and corrupt.
What methods will they employ?
Slander and hypocrisy.
What factors will encourage the use of such means?
The ignorance of the ordinary people.
When will the people be educated?
When they have enough to eat, and when the rich and the government stop bribing treacherous tongues and pens to deceive them; when their interests are identified with those of the people.
When will that be?
My word, this sounds threateningly familiar, because this represents the situation that exists now under the reign of Donald Trump who would be King. To refer to the press as the enemy of the people is the strategy he deploys to deceive because this accusation leaves his words as the sole source of truth. Whoever oppose him promulgates what he calls ‘fake news.’ But the press and his critics are deemed such because they call to account the words and deeds of his administration that promulgate lies and deceptions as its modus operandi. Of course, Trump is a liar, and the press has not failed to call him on his lies even as they number them into the thousands. That he might be a criminal has now been revealed by the guilty plea of Michael Cohen. Investigative journalism, the kind that in my lifetime discovered the crimes of Richard Nixon, lies at the heart of democracy, and to undermine the credibility of the free press protects the President from whatever the press discovers. And Trump is very selective about what press he defiles: he is an avid fan of Fox News and the National Enquirer. He is not very bright: he claims not to read very much! 
     And what protects Trump and his terrified lackeys is the ignorance of the people to their own interests. And these demagogues are protected from discovery by their control of the educational system, represented in this administration in the person of Betty DeVos. They all work to maintain the ignorance of the people. In the form of the catechism, Robespierre asks, What factors will encourage the use of such means as slander and hypocrisy? and he answers, “The ignorance of the people.”  I despair for our children and for the future of democracy in the United States.
     The administration works to protect their deceitful and criminal acts by attacking all who speak in opposition to them. This is exactly the nature of progress of the French Revolution: anyone who spoke against the Convention or Committee of Public Safety was declared a traitor to the Revolution and sent to the guillotine.
     We are living through a very dangerous moment in our history. Trump and his enablers threaten the very nature of our democracy, and those who object to his policies, his tactics, his vile rhetoric are deemed traitors. 

16 August 2018

Another Birthday, thankfully

I will turn 71 years old this week. Last year I turned 70 and next year I will be 72. I can count. I am about eight months into retirement. I am finding my way and drinking single-malt scotch from the Highland region of Scotland.
     Somewhere in Terry Eagleton’s early memoir, The Gatekeeper, he talks about his love of writing. When the publisher asks when the next book might be expected, Eagleton sheepishly acknowledges that the book is already complete. Perhaps his writing enacts Eagleton thinking. Often it is confusion and laziness that keeps me from writing and thinking.
     I read. But I don’t take enough notes and I forget. This is more than a problem of age; indeed, I have a very excellent memory, sometimes astonishingly so. Nevertheless, there are so many books on my physical and mental shelves that I know have somehow influenced my thinking, but I often cannot remember what I read in them. Only that I did read these books and that I know that I speak from their influence every day. But then suddenly, lying in bed at night too far from sleep, a sentence or idea flashes like a neon sign crackling somewhat feebly alight. But I can’t recall from where that reference derives; or if I remember from which book or article the thought derives, I don’t know how to find the exact reference except by studying, even rereading the entire text to find it again. And this assumption posits that the passage is somehow noticeably marked and highlighted. And even if I had once taken notes from the texts, these notes are in notebooks uncategorized, unclassified, archived and gone. I wish I were (had been) a more assiduous scholar. But I suspect now that not much will change: indeed, I have frustratingly spent the past 15 minutes looking for a post-it note on which I had placed a thought I wished to remember. I can’t find the note and cannot remember what book I placed it in. Certainly I can’t remember the thought or why I wanted to remember it.
     However . . . while I was looking for that note in some books I came upon this idea that I had earlier marked. It gave me pause. In a fragment D.W. Winnicott refers to confusion as an organized defense. Winnicott says that this confusion “must be analyzed if the patient is to get to that which is always at the centre of the individual, a primary chaos, out of which samples of individual self-expression organize themselves.”  I am not quite certain that I fully understand Winnicott’s statement, but it does offer me something about which to think. I have always thought of confusion as a state out of which one must move towards comprehension. I have argued that to students for almost fifty years: I may have been misinformed. That belief would entail a rationality which might be already a defense from anxieties and doubts. Similarly, I suppose that I could use confusion as a way to defend me from the arduous work that would be required to achieve understanding. Which strategy I suspect might already be a defense.
     More positively, perhaps when I say “I am confused” I could be asking for support: confusion demands that the confused one be held. Winnicott even links this state of confusion to that of depression and says that in this circumstance depression implies hope. While confused, the depressed individual is trying to sort out or tidy up the inner subjective world: the anxiety, the guilt and the instinctual experiences. To deal with it. It is not necessarily a pretty picture, but it is an authentic one. Tolstoy said, “If we allow that human life can be governed by reason, the possibility of life is annihilated.” Confusion as a defense might be the experience of anxiety, guilt and instinctual experience and the refusal to acknowledge ownership of these feelings. I think of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Chased by the posse viewed in the recurring and closing distance, Butch wonders aloud, “Who are those guys? They’re good.” But they have to keep running away from them in order to survive. Those guys in the end must be accepted and dealt with.
     An odd birthday posting. And I am relieved that during the day I did find the note for which I was looking and that began this writing. I’ve enjoyed the process. And I enjoy this birthday that I will celebrate. 

07 August 2018

Carey, Get Out Your Cane

I think a lot about Carey. I’ve been listening to Joni Mitchell’s song, “Carey,” for almost fifty years and I never seem to tire of it. There are several others that sit high on my replay list—Dylan’s “Absolutely Sweet Marie,” for example-- but the lively jauntiness of “Carey” always seems to cheer me regardless of the mood just prior. Just yesterday on my walk I reran it three times.
     “Carey” concerns levels of comfort. There is the comfort of home—drinking my fresh brewed Costa Rican beans purchased regularly my favorite coffee house in my favorite coffee mug that was gifted years ago by my daughter. There is the familiarity of home—the clean white linen and my book-filled shelves—and the layers of sweetness with which we anoint ourselves to raise us, well, above the malodorous and offensive smell, grit and dirt of the street. What the narrator of “Carey” misses is the trappings of her culture that arises out of the basis of her familiar civilization. To talk about culture is to talk about civilization. Terry Eagleton asserts that culture is the product of the civilization that requires some “spiritual foundation.” Culture is the practices and beliefs to which a civilization deems acceptable and to which it attaches significance. I appreciate Eagleton’s characterization of culture as the social unconscious, “the vast repository of instincts, prejudices, pieties, sentiments, half-formed opinions and spontaneous assumptions which underpins our everyday activity, and which we rarely call into question.” Culture in Western civilization is the practice of eating with utensils except when we dine at an Ethiopian restaurant or when we indulge in a slice of pizza from our local pizzeria or a hot dog with all the fixings and a slew of napkins from the local food truck! Culture is farting when alone, even walking down the street, but not under the covers when accompanied there. This social unconscious, not dissimilar from Raymond Williams’ structure of feeling, is prelinguistic: it exists as the sense of reality of the everyday life that we hold without thought.
     A culture legitimizes a civilization. Culture arises out of a civilization and a civilization is defined by the culture it fosters. At any one time there may exist a multitude of cultures arising out of a single civilization. We might even say that there might exist multiple civilizations in any one place and certainly in many locations.
     Comfort derives from the relationship one has to the culture of a civilization. Comfort is about becoming acclimated to the luxuries that we can take for granted.  “My fingernails are filthy, I got beach tar on my feet/And I miss my clean white linen and my fancy French cologne.” But before I choose to return to that comfort, Carey, get out your cane! And for the moment we’ll “laugh and toast to nothing” with freaks, soldiers and friends. One grows accustomed to comfort, to a room in Amsterdam or Rome, to the grand piano and the roses about the room. but sometimes the appeal of the grunge feels comfortable as long, I suppose, as one understands that it is a choice and that leaving it is an option. Tonight, Carey, we’ll celebrate the immersion into the carefree, even untroubled life—the life that becomes defined by that other life of culture—of clean linen and finger nails, and fancy French cologne. But for now, the night is a starry dome, and there is the Matala Moon and some scratchy rock n’ roll playing somewhere, and let’s celebrate whoever is here-- even that bright red devil that fixes me here now. It is sometimes good for just a while to forget culture and enjoy dirty fingernails and suffer beach tar on the feet. As long as there is some clean white linen I can return to. 

03 August 2018

No sympathy here, not now, now ever

I am having a great deal of difficulty feeling any sympathy whatsoever for Sarah Huckabee Sanders after her more recent vitriolic press session this past Thursday. Jim Acosta asked her to disown Trump’s description of journalists and the press as the enemy of the people. She refused, instead blaming the press for what she called “lower[ing] the level of conversation in this country.” Now, I do read the newspapers, and except as the press refers to Trump as a liar as often as he lies (4,229 times in the past six months), I am not certain to what she refers. The press reports the news but does not invent it: what the press calls news (the Times claims to report “all the news that’s fit to print) may vary according to what the particular journalist and/or media institution declares news, but the press doesn’t invent anything or maliciously falsify what it discovers. The same cannot be said for Trump or Sanders.
     As for the level of discourse Sanders decries and blames on the press: Since the campaign Trump has spewed personal invective on an almost daily basis. He once claimed that he could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot someone and still get elected; he has insulted anyone who disagrees with him with ugly descriptions and denigrating epithets. He has spoken mistruths with glee and then blamed the press as selling fake news for calling him out on it. He is more than an autocrat: Trump is a would-be tyrant and the press stands as a bulwark against his encroaching tyranny.
     And so, Sanders’ plaint that he and she have been abused by what they refer to as the fake news press is so laughably false that I grow more concerned that our democracy is endangered and that those who are sworn to uphold it are destroying it beyond recovery. Trump and his fawning lackeys call to the baser elements in our nation—yes, what Hillary Clinton referred to as the deplorables. Just watch the faces of the attendees at any of Trump’s rallies and be afraid! Watch the faces that listened to the hate-filled speeches in Nazi Germany. This is an administration that thrives on hatred and duplicities; that acts with imperious malice; and that fosters an environment that supports an environment that encourages expressions and actions that promote racism and misogyny, anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim sentiments and focused acts of violence; that callously separates families, sometimes irretrievably;  that destroys international relations that have been built up over seventy years; that thrives on a rejection of established science and international policy concerning the dangers to the environment; and endangered the future out of a personal animus that avoids any attention to the care of the public sphere. The nation is being run by Tony Sopranos
     So, no, I have nothing but contempt for Sanders’ whine, and hold nothing but contempt for her service to our would-be-tyrant. 

01 August 2018

An Earlier Prophet

Those occasions still inform against me: I’ve returned to my rant! 
On July 4, 1834, Orestes Brownson, at the time a Unitarian minister, delivered an address at Dedham, Massachusetts on the Fifty-Eighth Anniversary of American Independence. He spoke in advocacy of a democracy he feared endangered. He warned “There is a worm gnawing into the very heart of that tree of liberty which our fathers have planted.” Brownson spoke on that Independence Day about the danger to American democracy that had arisen when “a large portion of our community lies at the mercy of any political demagogue who knows how to veil his liberticide designs under a pretended love of the dear people?” He had never met Trump and his Republican lackeys but he certainly seemed to know them! Brownson decried the growing inequality that had arisen in the United States from the consolidation of wealth by the few­—the recent proposal to increase the tax advantage to the billionaires who corrupt our society only the most recent example of their insensitive greed--and to the economic and political oppression suffered by the majority of ordinary citizens. In the address he urges the citizens to grab for that democracy they have envisioned “but have not yet created.” 
     Ironically, however, even as he exhorted the populace to make such a democracy, he despaired of the willingness and capacity of the people to effect such creation. Brownson said, “We sometimes express fears for our government, we sometimes fear that our free institutions may become a prey to some aspiring demagogue who will succeed in erecting a throne of despotism on the ruins of our temple of liberty. It may be so.” Such is the conversation now swirling in the public spheres today regarding the demagoguery of the present despicably indifferent, incompetent and corrupt administration. If I didn’t know that Brownson was speaking in the early decades of the 19thcentury I would say he was our contemporary speaking about our present government. How prescient he seems to me. How sad that we have come to this.
     But Brownson lays the blame finally where it belongs: on the nation’s everyday citizens. Our democracy may be endangered by such aspiring demagogues. But it will not be because he (oh, it is only Trump here) is so talented or powerful or even wicked, “but because the people will have become corrupt, because liberty will no longer be written in their hearts and because they will have ceased to have any freedom in their souls.” I watch the attendees at the Trump rallies and I am appalled by the repulsive behaviors of Trump’s enthusiasts: their revealed cruelties; explosions of violent and offensive vulgar languages; and willing displays of ignorance and acceptances of lies and distortions. If I didn’t know that Brownson was speaking in the early decades of the 19thcentury I would say he was our contemporary speaking about the current horde of Trump supporters.
     Remarkable then is Brownson’s call for the means to introduce equality and moral and social reform—EDUCATIONBrownson speaks of education as the formation of character, which shall “accustom the child from the first to see things valued according to their worth—not in the market—but in themselves; an education which shall raise our children above the factitious distinctions of society, which now pervert our judgments, and which shall teach them to value every man according to his intrinsic worth . . .” The present government prepares for an educational system that teaches our children to covet wealth and social distinctions.”  If I didn’t know that Brownson was speaking in the early decades of the 19thcentury I would say he was our contemporary speaking about the current management of our educational system by such sinister likes as Betty DeVos and the accountability movement.