April 30, 2010
Judicial revolution in Pakistan?
Ejaz Haider provides a nice summary of recent developments in Indian Express:
Social science has recorded, and tried to understand, the incidence of transformative processes, including revolutions; scholars have sought to nuance the idea and differentiate between political and social revolutions. If the current high tide of judicialisation of politics in Pakistan is anything to go by, we might have to add another category to the literature on transformative processes — judicial revolution.
But let’s start with some facts.
After the February 2008 elections, there was an overall demand from all political parties to revisit the Constitution and cleanse it of the toxics put in it by military dictators. A committee was formed with representatives from almost all political parties. The debate was intensive, spanned some nine months and reviewed over 100 clauses of the Constitution. The result: the Eighteenth Amendment.
Has Ahmadinejad really crushed the Green Movement for good?
Abbas Milani in The New Republic:
The last few months have seen a disquieting lull in news of political dissent from Iran. On the surface, at least, Ahmadinejad’s government seems to have outlasted the furor that erupted in the wake of last June’s election. Does this mean that the Green Movement is dead?
Not necessarily. Given the sheer number of people who have been arrested and tortured (political inmates at Iran’s most notorious prison just sent an incredible letter to several grand ayatollahs, detailing sexual, physical, and mental torture), it would be understandable if the Green Movement’s leaders had fallen completely silent. But they have continued to speak out. Mir Hossein Mousavi, for one, has evinced no signs of buckling under to the regime. Ten days ago, he met with other Green Movement leaders and said that while the “path to victory” would be “long and arduous,” he encouraged everyone to persevere. Then, this past Sunday, while meeting with veterans of the Iran-Iraq war, he said that the country’s current rulers were in breach of both the constitution and the tenets of Islam. And he blasted those in the regime who dismiss all critics as lackeys of Zionism.
Meanwhile, Mousavi’s wife, Zahra Rahnavard, has recently become increasingly unabashed in her criticisms of the regime.
The Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg was named for the Empress Maria Alexandrovna, wife of Alexander II, and held its first performance in 1860. It was around this time that Fyodor Dostoevsky was hitting his stride. In 1864, his novel Notes from Underground was published; it is narrated by an unnamed retired civil servant living in St. Petersburg. Dostoevsky had noted the influence of the West on Russian culture: “Why, everything, unquestionably almost everything that we have — of development, science, art, civic-mindedness, humanity, everything, everything comes from there — from that same land of holy wonders!” Dostoevsky was worried that the Russian soul was being displaced by foreign content. His narrator is a spiteful bureaucrat who shares this view and warns that we can’t trust him to tell the truth; he doesn’t even trust himself. Notes from Underground has been called the first existential novel (by Sartre, no less), and it could serve as a guide to the several competitions to build a new Mariinsky Theatre.more from Don Gillmor at The Walrus here.
But what if we were to venture a different, more literal interpretation of this cultural symptom, which is after all only one of many signs that we are currently witnessing a zombie renaissance? Perhaps the zombie attack on Austen’s novel is telling us that the novel is neither alive nor dead but undead. We are living in a time when what counts as “life” is in significant scientific dispute, and in the heyday of zombie computers and zombie banks, zombie this and zombie that. Why wouldn’t we also be living in a time of zombie literary forms? Whatever their specific emphases and intricacies, all these zombies represent a plague of suspended agency, a sense that the human world is no longer (if it ever was) commanded by individuals making rational decisions. Instead we are witnessing a slow, compulsive, collective movement toward Malthusian self-destruction. Of course all monsters are projections of human fears, but only zombies make this fundamentally social and self-accusatory charge: we the people are the problem we cannot solve. We outnumber ourselves.more from Mark McGurl at n+1 here.
I think about joining the Seven Sisters
when I make
peanut butter and jelly
Tying shoes I wonder
planet doesn't stop spinning.
Dust bunnies are molecular chambers and
laundry is a colorful list of historical moments.
Standing around with other Moms
they seem content,
to stare at each other as they
discuss what was on television or
survival of children's phases
or avoiding cellulite and crow's feet.
I never saw any of them look up
so I hardly ever
The children rotate around these stars,
manicured and yoga calm.
I once said something about
having only one child, suddenly
this black hole developed
and the conversation formed
As if I was to be avoided or
studied from afar.
Maybe that's all I can give—
one supernova explosion
noted and charted in a
hospital on the outer nexus,
giving birth to a son.
Soon after I was noted
to collapse in on myself,
and the study of me
stoped with a note
of "high risk."
The question is, was I capable
all along to give new bodies
to the cosmos,
but I waited too long?
I will test my theories and
write grant letters until
by Jen D. Clark
from Astropoetica, 2010
La Santa Muerte, Holy Death
In Mexico, the harsh realities of daily life have elevated unholy saints, who now stand beside traditional icons.
Alma Guillermoprieto in National Geographic:
The inmate known as El Niño, or Little Boy, entered the Center for Enforcement of the Legal Consequences of Crime nine and a half years ago. Tall and gangly, with a goofy, childlike smile, he appears never to have grown up, though the memory of his deeds would make another man's hair go white. Abandoned by his father when he was seven years old and raised by his maternal grandparents, he was 20 when he committed the murder that landed him in this prison in the north of Mexico. His buddy Antonio, neatly dressed, alert, quick moving, and round eyed, was shoved into the same holding cell, charged with kidnapping. "We've been friends since then," one says, as the other agrees.
When he will leave prison is anyone's guess, but El Niño has reason to feel hopeful: He relies on a protector who, he believes, prevented jail wardens from discovering a couple of strictly forbidden objects in his possession that could have increased his punishment by decades. "The guards didn't see a thing, even though they were right there," he says. This supernatural being watches over him when his enemies circle around—and she is there, as Antonio says in support of his buddy's faith, after all the friends you thought you had have forgotten your very name, and you're left, as the Mexican saying goes, without even a dog to bark at you. This miracle worker, this guardian of the most defenseless and worst of sinners, is La Santa Muerte, Holy Death.
From The Washington Post:
I had to make a few formal apologies after I read this book. To a dear friend who, on a business trip to New York, rummaged through her carry-on bag and pulled out a 36-inch-long Japanese cucumber. "I brought this along for us just in case," she said. And to my sainted ex-husband, who some years ago came back from a beach run with a very large, dead fish. "We can have this for dinner," he said. "I'm sure it died of natural causes." And to a beloved relative who recently invited everyone over for Thanksgiving dinner. The floor was awash in newspapers, and the dining room table was stacked high with laundry, which we all had to fold before we could get to the business of the turkey. And finally, 200 pages into this amazing book, I remembered my first stepmother, who, in a quandary about what she called a "window treatment," acquired about 17 couches from thrift shops to possibly go with that "treatment" and then stored them out in the back yard. Being a rebellious teenager at the time, I moved out, but the couches lay there moldering until the lady herself finally sickened and died.
I apologized to all these people, in words and in prayers, as well as to a dozen others I had unwittingly written off as eccentric, or very sloppy, or bad house keepers, or all three. They were (and are) simply compulsive hoarders. It's a medical condition, and it needs to be not just "forgiven" but understood.
Technique triggers rapid regrowth in damaged bone
They stimulated the rapid bone growth by injecting a protein called Wnt known to be involved in the growth of many types of tissues in animals like salamanders, zebrafish and mice. The feat marks the first time that researchers have managed to package the Wnt protein in a form that could be used in humans, and opens the door to additional experiments to heal skin, muscle, brain and other tissue injuries.
“We believe our strategy has the therapeutic potential to accelerate and improve tissue healing in a variety of contexts,” said Jill Helms, DDS, PhD, professor of surgery. “There is an enormous amount of literature about the role of Wnt in tissue growth, but until now we’ve not been able to directly test whether Wnt proteins could aid regeneration in mammals.” It may also eventually provide a much needed alternative to currently available drugs based on bone morphogenetic proteins, or BMPs. BMPs have been approved for use in humans to speed bone growth in spinal fusions and long bone fractures, but they’ve become increasingly associated with a number of adverse side effects.
Debt: The first five thousand years
Throughout its 5000 year history, debt has always involved institutions – whether Mesopotamian sacred kingship, Mosaic jubilees, Sharia or Canon Law – that place controls on debt's potentially catastrophic social consequences. It is only in the current era that we have begun to see the creation of the first effective planetary administrative system largely in order to protect the interests of creditors.
David Graeber in Eurozine:
What follows is a fragment of a much larger project of research on debt and debt money in human history. The first and overwhelming conclusion of this project is that in studying economic history, we tend to systematically ignore the role of violence, the absolutely central role of war and slavery in creating and shaping the basic institutions of what we now call "the economy". What's more, origins matter. The violence may be invisible, but it remains inscribed in the very logic of our economic common sense, in the apparently self-evident nature of institutions that simply would never and could never exist outside of the monopoly of violence – but also, the systematic threat of violence – maintained by the contemporary state.
Let me start with the institution of slavery, whose role, I think, is key. In most times and places, slavery is seen as a consequence of war. Sometimes most slaves actually are war captives, sometimes they are not, but almost invariably, war is seen as the foundation and justification of the institution. If you surrender in war, what you surrender is your life; your conqueror has the right to kill you, and often will. If he chooses not to, you literally owe your life to him; a debt conceived as absolute, infinite, irredeemable. He can in principle extract anything he wants, and all debts – obligations – you may owe to others (your friends, family, former political allegiances), or that others owe you, are seen as being absolutely negated. Your debt to your owner is all that now exists.
This sort of logic has at least two very interesting consequences, though they might be said to pull in rather contrary directions.
More here. [Thanks to Kris Kotarski.]
April 29, 2010
Past ForwardPaul Hockenos in The Boston Review:
The end of the Cold War produced so much ostensible consensus—on democracy, on free-market economics, on liberal values—that one is struck by how little consensus there is, even twenty years later, on how and why the Cold War actually met that abrupt end.
The explanations for communism’s spectacular collapse fall into three basic camps. First, there are the conservatives, such as U.S. Republicans and European Christian Democrats, who champion Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II as communism’s noble slayers. It was their unstinting anti-communism, and Reagan’s full-throttle arms race, that undermined and bankrupted the Soviet bloc. Another camp, which includes historians Tony Judt and Timothy Garton Ash, credits above all the defiant, opposition-minded dissidents who challenged communist regimes in the name of human rights. It was they who initiated the nonviolent movements that swept their jailers onto the dust heap of history. And then there are the Gorbachev fans, who argue that the father of glasnost and perestroika was the prime mover of the transformative events of 1989 and 1990.
With the twentieth anniversary of the peaceful revolutions of 1989 just passed, a deluge of new books attempts to shed light on the forces that ultimately uprooted the East bloc’s dictatorships. While this may appear to Americans as an academic exercise, in Central Europe today, the competing narratives of “how” and “why” and “who” starkly delineate political fronts and still supply powerful election-time fodder.
In The Year That Changed the World, U.S. journalist Michael Meyer offers a somewhat new take on the spark that ignited communism’s implosion. Meyer, Newsweek’s Central Europe correspondent in the late ’80s and early ’90s, was on-the-spot at just about every twist and turn in this remarkable story: in East Berlin when the wall was breached, reporting from Bucharest as Romania’s dictator Nicolae Ceauseşcu was executed, at Prague’s Wenceslas Square when Vaclav Havel delivered his famous 1990 New Year’s address. Meyer’s literary flourishes are eloquent, and his vivid, gripping account of these events, and many others he witnessed first-hand, is a pleasure to read. Meyer has also kept up with the enormous outpouring of scholarship since then and conducted more on his own. This book is not a simple recounting of journalistic glories.
Yet the most novel—and problematic—aspect of Meyer’s book is his thesis that the real heroes of 1989 (Meyer’s “untold story”) were a handful of mild-mannered Hungarian communists.
Werner Herzog Reads Mike Mulligan And His Steam ShovelVia Andrew Sullivan:
For a long time people have been trying to define the American woman, mostly for the purpose of mocking, dismissing or putting her in her place. “There is no such thing as ‘the fast girl’ in America,” says one of Henry James’s Englishmen, meaning, of course, that all American girls are fast – and this is more or less the view of an ambitious new Costume Institute exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The show, American Woman: Fashioning National Identity, roams over various fantasies of the emancipated American woman from 1890 to 1940, and there is a current issue of American Vogue on the same theme. The exhibit is pleasingly broken down into seductive, if random-seeming archetypes: the heiress, the Gibson girl, the suffragette, the patriot, the bohemian, the flapper and the screen siren, all exquisitely decked out, all involved in breaking rules, defying the old order. The American woman emerging from this lush panorama of satins, linens and silks, is jaunty, slim-hipped, athletic, informal, independent, and free. Her clothes are the canvas for her modernity, says Andrew Bolton, the show’s curator, who was also responsible for the Met’s 2008 show, Superheroes. And yet, does she really exist?more from Katie Roiphe at FT here.
the guy who made fluffy DayGlo birds out of sequins while the revolution came and went
A few months ago, the artist Farhad Moshiri received a curious email. “Hello, Mr. Moshiri,” it read. “I wish that you would stop producing art.” A few weeks later, an article in a prominent online arts magazine derided a body of work he showed at the Frieze Art Fair as “toys for the anaesthetized new rich.” The author, a fellow artist and gallerist, declared the assembled pieces — a series of elaborately embroidered birds sparkling in DayGlo colors, titled Fluffy Friends — “an insult to all brave Iranians who have shed their blood for more freedom.” In a final scabrous blow — it was only a few months after the contested presidential elections of 2009 and all the bloodshed that ensued — the author wrote that the artist had “amputated his Iranian heart and replaced it with a cash register.” Moshiri, who lives and works in Tehran, was delighted. “I cherish these letters,” he told me. “They turn out to be like the diplomas people hang. I keep them close.”more from Negar Azimi at Bidoun here.
Nathalie Sarraute’s novel Les Fruits d’or (1963) was a satire, largely in dialogue, about the reception of a novel, greeted as a masterpiece and then shredded to mereness by the literary judiciary. Irène Némirovsky’s Suite française was written in 1941 and 1942; but the manuscript was not discovered, and published, until 2006. Since then, it has gone through a belittling mill similar to that of Sarraute’s fictional fiction. Hailed at first as a posthumous chef-d’oeuvre inconnu, it was talked down into a sort of documentary which did not – as prim critics so often say – “work” as a novel. It works fine, however, as a reminder of how, in May 1940, sauve qui peut became the French order of the day. Recollected in nothing like tranquillity in the early years of the Occupation, Suite française was composed by an author in increasing danger of deportation to – as her smart erstwhile friends pretended to believe – “work in the East”; in fact, to Auschwitz. While living in suspended animation in rural Issy-l’Évêque, in Saône-et-Loire, Némirovsky had time to recall, with implacable objectivity, the disintegration of Parisian society in flight from the advancing “Boches”. Fearful for her family, she drew with a steady hand a warty profile of the France which had become – in a phrase which Picasso applied to modern art – “a sum of destructions”.more from Frederic Raphael at the TLS here.
Derek Walcott, Man of Many Voices
Karl Kirchwey in the New York Times Book Review:
More than almost any other contemporary poet, Derek Walcott might seem to be fulfilling T. S. Eliot’s program for poetry. He has distinguished himself in all of what Eliot described as the “three voices of poetry”: the lyric, the narrative or epic, and the dramatic. Since at least his 1984 book “Midsummer,” Walcott has been publishing what might be described as concatenated lyrics, individual poems numbered consecutively and intended to form a conceptual whole. His long 1990 poem “Omeros” would be called canonical were that word not so problematic these days. And, like Eliot, Walcott is also a playwright. Through his long connection with the Trinidad Theater Workshop, he has amassed an impressive body of dramatic works, both in prose and in that tricky form called verse drama.
But the kinship with Eliot, for Walcott, extends beyond genre. In his essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (1919), Eliot opined that “the more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates.” Walcott has deliberately avoided the confessional path pioneered by his early friend and supporter Robert Lowell, choosing instead a post-Romantic voice, closely allied with landscape, in which the particulars of a life are incidental to a larger poetic vision, one in which the self is not the overt subject.
All the more striking, then, is Walcott’s new book, “White Egrets” — for it is both visionary, in the best sense of that word, and intensely personal, even autobiographical. It is an old man’s book, craving one more day of light and warmth; and it is a book of stoic reckoning.
End the Executions
The new new Nano reminds me of the old Volkswagen
Our own Morgan Meis in The Smart Set:
The Nano, made by Indian car manufacturer Tata, is billed as "the people's car." We've seen this sort of thing before. The first time was in Europe — Germany to be precise. The car was the Volkswagen, which means, quite literally, "The People's Car." It was Hitler's idea, more or less. He wanted to build a car for the common man. "A car for the people, an affordable Volkswagen, would bring great joy to the masses and the problems of building such a car must be faced with courage," he proclaimed at the 1934 Berlin Auto Show. It would be of simple design and able to carry two adults and three children at a speed of 100 kilometers per hour. Hitler asked Dr. Ferdinand Porsche to take up the job and he did. Hitler and Porsche started up a little company called Gesellschaft zur Vorbereitung des Deutschen Volkswagens mbH (Society for the Preparation of the German People's Car Co. Ltd.) Thus, Volkswagen was born, and you can still buy one today, though it no longer functions as a cheap and basic car affordable to all.
The VW was the result of mass production techniques from the age of the masses, the early 20th century. Really, it isn't so surprising that the Third Reich would be involved in the development of such a car. The whole idea of the VW was that centralized modes of production could provide the general population with cheap goods. And this was essentially the relationship between industry, the state, and the populace imagined by National Socialism. The people provide their "people-like goodness," and the state provides for those people, who then provide more people for the state, which then supports the people in being the pure and good people that they are, and so on for 3,000 years at least. Nobody was more committed to the idea of "the people," properly defined, than the Nazis. In the modern mass society of the 1930s as the Nazi state envisioned it, one of the things "the people" needed to do was to get around (attending, no doubt, mass rallies where they would better learn how to be "the people"). They needed to do so relatively cheaply.
The problem, from a design perspective, was how to make a car for next to nothing.
"Wisdom: From Philosophy to Neuroscience"
Is there such a thing as wisdom -- a thing, stuff, an abstract entity -- or are there only wise individuals and wise actions and attitudes, these latter not exclusively the possession of the individuals in question given that even fools can sometimes be wise?
This question is a significant one, because it bears on the enterprise of "wisdom studies," a parallel endeavour to the "happiness studies" now big in the neuropsychologically informed social sciences. (And there too the question has to be: Is there such a thing as happiness, or only happy individuals and happy times and experiences, the latter not the exclusive property of the individuals in question, given that even the gloomiest of us can occasionally be happy?) If you aim to study wisdom, or happiness, presumably in the hope of finding out how we can all be wiser and happier, you had better be clear about the object of study; and, as Stephen S. Hall's "Wisdom: From Philosophy to Neuroscience" shows, that is hard to do.
Water Ice Found on the Surface of an Asteroid
From Scientific American:
An asteroid circling the sun between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter has for the first time been shown to harbor water ice and organic compounds. Those traits had been associated with comets, which spring from colder, more distant reservoirs in the outer solar system, but not their asteroidal cousins. The finding supports the notion that asteroids could have provided early Earth with water for its oceans as well as some of the prebiotic compounds that allowed life to develop.
Two teams of researchers report complementary observations of the 200-kilometer-wide asteroid, known as 24 Themis, in the April 29 issue of Nature. (Scientific American is part of Nature Publishing Group.) Both analyses are based on spectroscopic observations from the NASA Infrared Telescope Facility atop Mauna Kea in Hawaii, which show absorption features that indicate the presence of water and unidentified organic compounds. The ice appears to coat the entire asteroid as a thin layer of frost. The evidence for water on 24 Themis had been presented at conferences by the two groups in 2008 and 2009 but is only now appearing in a peer-reviewed journal.
April 28, 2010
Gillo Pontecorvo’s “Kapo”Sean Axmaker over at his blog:
In an age where Holocaust dramas and fictional recreations of the concentration camp experience are perhaps too plentiful—how could a mere movie come close to communicating the inhumanity of such an event, even in microcosm?—Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1959 Kapò (Criterion: Essential Art House) is something of a revelation. It’s not the earliest concentration camp drama, though they were rare in the era (Alain Resnais’ discreet, poetic and haunting nonfiction meditation Night and Fog was only a few years earlier), but it is the earliest I’ve seen. Was the history still a fresh wound that needed time to, if not heal, at least scar over before gingerly exploring the tender area? Or was the horror just too great to even comprehend?
Gillo Pontecorvo, an Italian Jew with a commitment to tackling politically volatile issues head on, took the challenge with this harrowing drama of a teenage Parisian Jew (American actress Susan Strasberg) who is literally swept up off the streets and sent to Auschwitz within minutes of the opening. Pontecorvo doesn’t give us time to settle into the situation and it’s only as when we see SS uniforms on the street that we notice the yellow star on her coat. Edith is just a kid, a fourteen-year-old girl who hasn’t the self-preservation to run when she watches her parents herded into a truck outside her building. Even when separated in the camp, all she can think to do is look for her parents and look for a way out, a futile gesture that ultimately save her life. While the rest of the youngsters wait patiently, unaware that they are marked for the gas chambers, she sees the reality of the camp where prisoners are stacked in bunks and the bodies of the dead are stacked like cordwood everywhere else. She’s ushered out of the cold by a mercenary survivor (an uncharacteristically generous gesture on her part, but perhaps there’s a jab of maternal protectiveness in her) and into the office of the camp doctor, who takes her coat (with the Star of David brand of death) and gives her the identity of recently deceased thief. “You’re lucky,” he says. “If no one had died tonight, I wouldn’t be able to help you.” That’s what counts for luck here.
How do you say "realpolitik" in Klingon?Stephen Hawking suggests that if aliens do exist there are good reasons to avoid contact. "If aliens ever visit us, I think the outcome would be much as when Christopher Columbus first landed in America, which didn’t turn out very well for the Native Americans." Dan Drezner considers the question:
Stephen Walt on the issue here.
Hmmm... this is undeniably true, but dare I say that Hawking is being a bit simplistic? Oh, hell, who am I kidding, I'm a blogger. Of course I'll say that Hawking is being simplistic.
Critics might accuse me of being soft in the Theoretical War Against Aliens, embracing the mushy-headed liberalism of Contact over the hard-headed realpolitik of, say, Independence Day. And the risk-averse approach suggested by Hawking is certainly a viable policy option. But let's dig a bit deeper and consider four five thought-provoking questions from an interplanetary security perspective.
1) In space, does anybody understand the security dilemma? In international relations, there is at least full information about who the other actors are and where they are located. Clearly, we lack this kind of information about the known universe.
What Hawking is suggesting, however, is that efforts to collect such information would in and of themselves be dangerous, because they would announce our presence to others. He might be right. But shoiuldn't that risk be weighed against the cost of possessing a less robust early warning system? Isn't it in Earth's interests to enhance its intelligence-gathering activities?
2) Carried to its logical extreme, isn't Hawking making an argument for rapidly exhausting our natural resources? If Hawking is correct, then the sooner we run out of whatever might be valuable to aliens, the less interest we are to them. Of course, this does beg the question of which resources aliens would consider to be valuable. If aliens crave either sea water or bulls**t, then the human race as we know it is seriously screwed.
the posthuman debate
The posthuman worldview goes a step beyond demoting human begins in the hierarchy of value. It promotes other species, proposing that animals are more rational than we knew. We are forced to ask: If rationality is not our Imago Dei, what is? Will you say next that we don’t have souls? Well, unfortunately, yes. Not only does Wolfe say we need to move beyond anthropocentrism (thinking that humans are the center of the universe) and speciesism (prejudice based on our species – differences from “nonhuman animals”); his entire theory is anti-ontological, and also assumes we all gave up metaphysics a long time ago. It is thoroughly materialistic, the heir to a long line of thought that traces itself back through cybernetics and systems theory to Lacan, Foucault, and Derrida, then to Darwin, and thence to the most anti-religious minds of the Enlightenment. Although it resists reduction and terse definition, one major premise of Wolfe’s book is that the nature of thought must change (xvi): human beings are, in his construction, thinking themselves out of existence. One possible Christian reaction to posthumanism, then, might be vigorous and total rejection. We are certainly not about to think ourselves out of existence, nor out of our Lord’s care and regard. Nor are we about to share our place in the plan of salvation with spotted newts and thorny hedgehogs.more from Sørina Higgins at Curator Magazine here.
At the age of seventy, he remains a bit of a badass
In November, 1969, a group of radical young Dutch musicians ran amok at the Concertgebouw, the fabled Amsterdam concert hall. At the start of a performance by the Concertgebouw Orchestra, the troublemakers, who included the composers Louis Andriessen and Reinbert de Leeuw, began making noise with nutcrackers, rattles, bicycle horns, and other devices. They also distributed leaflets denouncing the orchestra as a “status symbol of the ruling élite.” The Netherlands being both a tradition-minded and a tolerant land, the Nutcracker Action, as it was called, elicited an ambivalent response: the provocateurs were summarily ejected from the hall, but their ideas prompted much serious discussion. Forty years on, the Nutcrackers have become eminences: Andriessen is the most influential of Dutch composers, and de Leeuw, who has focussed on conducting, has held posts from Tanglewood to Sydney. Yet they haven’t quite sold out. Although Andriessen occupies the Richard and Barbara Debs Composer’s Chair at Carnegie Hall—the kind of big-money post that his younger self might have mocked—Carnegie’s recent survey of Andriessen’s work and that of his colleagues and protégés, de Leeuw among them, has revealed an undiminished capacity for making mischief. The composer still resists Romantic trappings, favoring what he has called a “terrifying twenty-first-century orchestra” of electric guitar, keyboards and Hammond organ, saxophones, bongos, and other non-Wagnerian instruments. He likes amplified, pop-style voices better than pure-toned, vibrato-heavy ones. His pantheon of idols has Bach and Stravinsky at the center, but also makes room for Count Basie, Charlie Parker, and the Motown greats.more from Alex Ross at The New Yorker here. Train 2000
You are the train that leaves at zero hour
of the new year.
Again the same compartments, illuminated,
like smoke in the vast night.
The same passengers —masks on their faces,
loved, dear ones.
And vigorously clasped in the hand,
You are the train that will pour
burning wine on the skin,
so that it will blaze
So that among pillows and shelves,
slander and deception,
intrusive flocks of night romances
will come flying.
...You are the train, the murderer and the target,
the weakness of time;
the two thousandth railway abhorrence
of an old God.
But even in the pre-cancer fog,
in the foam of a stroke—
the soul, as if it was a candle on the table,
stands in a beam of light.
publisher: Krytyka, Kyiv, 1999
The Patience Stone
From The Guardian:
The freeing of women from Taliban rule became a belated war aim for US‑led troops in Afghanistan; this, despite western bolstering of the Taliban's precursors, the mujahideen, in their resistance to Soviet occupation during the cold war. The latest novel by writer and filmmaker Atiq Rahimi imagines what such liberation might entail, for both women and men. It also hints at how relations between the sexes in his country of birth have been deformed, not just by residual tradition, but by the political interventions of recent history. Women were off-stage in Earth and Ashes, Rahimi's powerful debut novella set after the Soviet invasion of 1979, which traced an almost mythic cycle of vengeance among generations of men. It was written in Dari (a form of Persian) in 1999, years after the author had fled the Soviet occupation to asylum in France. His film version won a prize at Cannes in 2004. The Patience Stone, awarded the prix Goncourt in 2008, is his first novel written in French. Like his previous novel, A Thousand Rooms of Dream and Fear, it adopts the viewpoint of women, for whom war can bring both suffering and a curious freedom.
Set "somewhere in Afghanistan or elsewhere" in the near-present, the action is confined to a room where a woman tends her comatose husband, shot weeks before in a trivial brawl over honour. War intrudes sporadically, with black-turbaned fighters and the acrid smoke of explosions, as she hides her patient from patrols and looters. Whereas Earth and Ashes revealed a clash between Soviet-trained workers and US-backed mujahideen, here the conflict has descended into meaningless fratricide, the woman's urban neighbourhood marked out as the next frontline between squabbling factions. As she tells her husband, his father "was proud of you when you were fighting for freedom . . . It was after freedom came that he started to hate you – you, and also your brothers, now that you were all fighting for nothing but power." Though the couple have been married for 10 years – the first three while he was away fighting – only his enforced silence frees her to speak. "Your breath hangs on the telling of my secrets," she says, savouring a reversal of power. "I can talk to you about anything, without being interrupted, or blamed!" The supine object of her dramatic monologue becomes her sang-e sabur, the patience stone of Persian lore to which "you confess everything in your heart, everything you don't dare tell anyone". The magic stone "listens, absorbing all your words, all your secrets, until one fine day it explodes . . . And on that day you are set free from all your pain, all your suffering."
Her unburdening grows into an outspoken riff on all that is wrong between the sexes, and the codes or prejudices that bar true intimacy. She has never understood "why, for you men, pride is so much linked to blood", or the myriad hypocrisies of virginity and virility, virtue and honour, pure and impure blood. Singled out for scorn is the new-found religious zealotry, commanded by mullahs she considers cowardly and sanctimonious. The husband she now tends was wont to order her to cover up by shouting, "hide your meat".
Farming Ants Update Their Crops
Approximately 50 million years ago, some Amazonian ant species discovered that raising fungi could provide a more stable food source than just foraging on the rainforest floor. Thus, they became farmers. Now, more than 200 species of New World ants cultivate crops, fastidiously fertilizing, cleaning, and weeding delicate white fungal filaments in their underground lairs. And, like human farmers who exchanged ancient emmer wheat for modern varieties, these ants have updated the crops they grow over time, according to new research.
In an attempt to reconstruct the ant's and fungi’s evolutionary history, evolutionary biologist Alexander Mikheyev of the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology in Japan and colleagues looked at molecular clocks—accumulations of mutations in short stretches of DNA that reveal when a species diverged from its ancestors—for both organisms. The team found that the fungi were evolving at vastly different times than the ants. For instance, leaf-cutter ants diverged from their ancestors 12 million years ago, but the fungus that they cultivate arose only 2 million to 3 million years ago. Rather than evolving in step, the ants must have domesticated a new fungal strain, which spread through the ants’ range and eliminated any trace of the previous cultivar, the researchers report in the June issue of The American Naturalist
A Middle East Peace That Could Happen (But Won't)
Noam Chomsky in TomDispatch.com:
The fact that the Israel-Palestine conflict grinds on without resolution might appear to be rather strange. For many of the world's conflicts, it is difficult even to conjure up a feasible settlement. In this case, it is not only possible, but there is near universal agreement on its basic contours: a two-state settlement along the internationally recognized (pre-June 1967) borders -- with "minor and mutual modifications," to adopt official U.S. terminology before Washington departed from the international community in the mid-1970s.
The basic principles have been accepted by virtually the entire world, including the Arab states (who go on to call for full normalization of relations), the Organization of Islamic States (including Iran), and relevant non-state actors (including Hamas). A settlement along these lines was first proposed at the U.N. Security Council in January 1976 by the major Arab states. Israel refused to attend the session. The U.S. vetoed the resolution, and did so again in 1980. The record at the General Assembly since is similar.
There was one important and revealing break in U.S.-Israeli rejectionism. After the failed Camp David agreements in 2000, President Clinton recognized that the terms he and Israel had proposed were unacceptable to any Palestinians. That December, he proposed his "parameters": imprecise, but more forthcoming. He then stated that both sides had accepted the parameters, while expressing reservations.
Israeli and Palestinian negotiators met in Taba, Egypt, in January 2001 to resolve the differences and were making considerable progress. In their final press conference, they reported that, with a little more time, they could probably have reached full agreement. Israel called off the negotiations prematurely, however, and official progress then terminated, though informal discussions at a high level continued leading to the Geneva Accord, rejected by Israel and ignored by the U.S.
A good deal has happened since, but a settlement along those lines is still not out of reach -- if, of course, Washington is once again willing to accept it. Unfortunately, there is little sign of that.
A Note on the Arizona Immigration Bill
Justin E. H. Smith in his eponymous blog:
For a classic example of misplaced journalistic balance, read this New York Times article on the immigration 'debate' in Arizona. See how level-headed and concerned the supporters of the bill are! They don't hate Mexicans, see, it's just that they don't want them to be there illegally.
The problem with this is that the American West was only able to appear as Anglo territory, for a spell, as a result of a relatively recent (late 19th century) and concerted campaign of ethnic cleansing. It is astounding to me that people have to be reminded of the historical fact that in order for the American West to become white, other people had to be displaced. To the extent that Americans recognize this at all, they tend to remember the displacement as targeting Native Americans, in contrast with 'Hispanics'. But what this distinction misses is that the population of Mexico is somewhere between 60 and 80% Mestizo, and that for them the line drawn by the Gadsden Purchase of 1853 reflects no natural or deep-seated historical boundary.
Consider this map of the pre-contact distribution of the Uto-Aztecan languages: the colored parts on the US side correspond roughly to that region of the US with a significant Latino population today.
Pakistani band, Overload
Confessions of a Poet Laureate
Charles Simic in the New York Review of Books:
It never crossed my mind that I would become the poet laureate of the United States. The day I received the call from the Library of Congress, I was carrying a bag of groceries from the car to the house when the phone rang. They didn’t beat around the bush, but told me straight out that this was an honor and not a job they were offering to me. Of course, I was stunned, and without letting the groceries out of my hand, told them that I needed to think about it for a while and that I would call them back tomorrow. My first thought was, who needs this?
I’d heard about the endless reading tours of previous laureates, the elaborate projects they had devised and administered to make poetry more popular in United States, and none of it appealed to me very much. There’s a good reason why I have lived in a small village in New Hampshire for the last thirty-seven years. I like to hear roosters crow in the morning and dogs bark at night. “No way,” I told my wife. I was going to call them back and politely decline. But to my surprise, speaking to my children, I changed my mind. My son and daughter told me, separately, that if I refused this great honor I would come to regret my decision some day. I knew right away that they were right. I thought some more about it, but I kept going back to what they said. So, I accepted.
April 27, 2010
Return with me now to the lusty days of yore, when engagé public intellectuals battled it out over Trotskyism, anarcho-syndicalism, and just who betrayed whom in the bloody streets of Catalonia during the Spanish Civil War—and later in the savage pages of The Partisan Review, where those battles were refought. Sometimes the intense seriousness of the intellectual combat can sound overstrained in retrospect (cf. the Woody Allen joke about Commentary and Dissent merging to form Dysentery). But in fact these were foundational postwar arguments, waged by some of the sharpest thinkers in print as they clashed over urgent questions about the future of totalitarianism and democracy. The Flight of the Intellectuals, Paul Berman's new 300-page polemic (to be published this spring), recalls these heady days in a book that is likely to provoke an intense controversy among public intellectuals. The most contentious assertion in Berman's book is that some of the most prominent of these—people who rushed to the defense of Salman Rushdie when he was threatened with death for a novel deemed blasphemously irreverent to Islam—have failed to offer wholehearted support to Muslim dissidents today, people such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born author and Muslim apostate, whose lives are similarly threatened. This failure, this "flight of the intellectuals," Berman argues, represents a deeply troubling abandonment of Enlightenment values in the face of recurrent threats to freedom of expression.more from Ron Rosenbaum at Slate here.
guru (1966-2010)i'm sad
If we could eat light, she says,
do you think it would all be spoiled by now?
Billions of years to reach us.
I squint into the night sky.
The stars could be blossoms,
unripe, white, months from harvest.
I know the ones that fall scatter pieces like petals,
but each piece is hard as seed.
What do you suppose they'd be
if they bloomed, she asks,
cherry or peach, death or immortality.
She snorts when I say, starfruit.
She's bloomed, my sister, lovely as lotus
floating on the water.
I dip my oar and push,
lift and try to read her future
in the pattern of salt and pyrite on wood.
It's not hard when we are all the people in the world,
two women on a slow boat to the end of time.
If you are what you eat, I say to make her smile,
would light make us stars?
Her eyes shine when she laughs,
more bracing than sea wind.
Here, she says, this one's ripe.
She reach up her hand to Venus,
plucks something from the sky.
She opens her fingers, petals around light,
offers me the first bite.
We share as sisters do,
by J.C. Runolfson
Volume 8.1, Spring 2010
Chimps face death in humanlike ways
From holding deathbed vigils to comforting the dying, chimpanzees face death in humanlike ways that indicate their awareness of death is probably much more developed than previously thought, suggest two new studies. The papers, both published in the journal Current Biology, provide rare, intimate glimpses of chimpanzees dealing with death. For the first study, scientists observed how three adult chimpanzees reacted when an elderly female, named Pansy, gradually passed away in an indoor enclosure at Blair Drummond Safari Park in Stirling, Scotland. The over 50-year-old Pansy had grown increasingly lethargic before lying down on the floor one day after eating.
"In the days before Pansy died, the others were notably attentive towards her, and they even altered their routine sleeping arrangements to remain by her, by sleeping on the floor in a room where they don't usually sleep," lead author James Anderson told Discovery News. Blossom, another elderly female, and Pansy's daughter, Rosie, both stroked and groomed the dying Pansy, and sometimes just sat, subdued, beside the elderly female. Blossom's son Chippy checked to see if Pansy was alive by manipulating her arms and trying to open her mouth.
All of the chimps tossed and turned at night, much more than normal, during the dying female's final few days.
The Search for Genes Leads to Unexpected Places
Carl Zimmer in The New York Times:
Edward M. Marcotte is looking for drugs that can kill tumors by stopping blood vessel growth, and he and his colleagues at the University of Texas at Austin recently found some good targets — five human genes that are essential for that growth. Now they’re hunting for drugs that can stop those genes from working. Strangely, though, Dr. Marcotte did not discover the new genes in the human genome, nor in lab mice or even fruit flies. He and his colleagues found the genes in yeast. “On the face of it, it’s just crazy,” Dr. Marcotte said. After all, these single-cell fungi don’t make blood vessels. They don’t even make blood. In yeast, it turns out, these five genes work together on a completely unrelated task: fixing cell walls. Crazier still, Dr. Marcotte and his colleagues have discovered hundreds of other genes involved in human disorders by looking at distantly related species. They have found genes associated with deafness in plants, for example, and genes associated with breast cancer in nematode worms. The researchers reported their results recently in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The scientists took advantage of a peculiar feature of our evolutionary history. In our distant, amoeba-like ancestors, clusters of genes were already forming to work together on building cell walls and on other very basic tasks essential to life. Many of those genes still work together in those same clusters, over a billion years later, but on different tasks in different organisms. Studies like this offer a new twist on Charles Darwin’s original ideas about evolution. Anatomists in the mid-1800s were fascinated by the underlying similarities of traits in different species — the fact that a bat’s wing, for example, has all the same parts as a human hand. Darwin argued that this kind of similarity — known as homology — was just a matter of genealogy. Bats and humans share a common ancestor, and thus they inherited limbs with five digits.
Maybe America doesn't want an immobilized judicial branch
Dahlia Lithwick in Slate:
The public conversation about the judiciary in recent decades has often conflated a broad fear of unelected judges with a clear definition of what judges should do. In the wake of the Jackson Pollock-style jurisprudence of the Warren Court, anxiety about overreaching judges morphed into a widespread sense that judges simply do too much. Conservative groups happily pushed the line that liberal judges were all merely unelected "activists" bent on "legislating from the bench." But this says little about how a judge should decide cases and much about our fear of the bench. Originalism and textualism aren't the only way to constrain judges, but they dovetail nicely with the idea that if you confine yourself to what the framers would want, you can't make as much of a mess with the yellow paint.
That's how judicial "activism"—a word we all should acknowledge is meaningless—turned into a catchall term for judges who did anything one didn't like. They were, after all, acting. It's only in recent years that we've discovered that the opposite of an "activist" judge is, in fact, a deceased one.
When John Roberts captured the hearts of America during his confirmation hearing, with his language of "minimalism" and "humility" and "restraint," he brilliantly reassured Americans that at his very best, he would do just about nothing from the bench.
The Pope, the Church, and skepticism
Phil Plait in Bad Astronomy:
Let me be as clear as I can here: if Pope Ratzinger in any way stalled or prevented an investigation, Church-based or otherwise, into any aspect of child molestation by priests, then he needs to be indicted and brought to trial; an international tribunal into all this is also necessary and should be demanded by every living human on the planet. Obviously, a very thorough and major investigation of the Catholic Church’s practices about this needs to be held. It is a rock solid fact that there are a lot of priests who have molested children, and it’s clear that the Church has engaged in diversionary tactics ever since this became public (like the abhorrent Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone who says homosexuality lies at the heart of this scandal).
The skeptic community has been up in arms about this, as one would expect, since organized religion is a major target of skeptical thinkers. There have been rumors and misinformation about all this, including a dumb article (one of Rupert Murdoch’s papers, natch) that said that Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens — both noted skeptics and atheists — were going to try to arrest the Pope if he visited England. This has been debunked by Dawkins himself.
But the idea of Dawkins swooping in to arrest the Pope got a lot of people fired up, notably in the skeptic community. A lot of folks have sounded off about what the skeptic community should do about this as individuals, as organized groups, and as a whole.
But the ideas being tossed around, to me, are a bit confused. The bottom line is, what role does the skeptic movement, such as it is, have in all this?
Stephen Hawking + Slow-Mo Camera = Pink Terror
At least we are not Dubai
George Fulton in The Express Tribune:
But at least we are not Dubai.
Fed up with loadshedding, bombs, and TV cynicism pervading Pakistan, I recently escaped to Dubai for a holiday. Big mistake. Huge. Ten days later I returned, gasping for Karachi’s polluted, but far sweeter, air. Dubai may have the world’s tallest building and the world’s largest shopping mall, but it also has the world’s tiniest soul. It’s a plastic city built in steel and glass.
It has imported all the worst aspects of western culture (excessive consumption, environmental defilement) without importing any of its benefits (democracy, art). This is a city designed for instant gratification a hedonistic paradise for gluttons to indulge in fast food, fast living and fast women. It’s Las Vegas in a dish dash. You want to eat a gold leaf date? Munch away.
You want to drink a Dhs 3,000 bottle of champagne? Bottoms up. You want a UN selection of hookers at your fingertips? Tres bien. Let’s start with the malls. These cathedrals of capitalism, these mosques of materialism are mausoleums of the living dead. Slack jawed zombies roam around consuming food, clothes and electronics in a desperate attempt to fill the emptiness of their existence.
More here. [Thanks to Ali Altaf.]
April 26, 2010
Great Contemporary Fiction: Why Jews are Hot
by Bliss Kern
Everyone knows that too many novels are published each year. I've read that one is released about every hour, which leaves even the fastest and most dedicated reader woefully unable to keep up with the market. One consequence of this deluge of words has been the development of a range of services targeted at letting each reader sift through the vast list of titles to find those must appreciated by others like them: Amazon comments; virtual, physical, and TV book clubs; Shelfari; endless new book review blogs, written by professionals and amateurs alike. By necessity, every reader has become an advocate, choosing novels we love and recommending them to others so that the stories that impressed us don't get lost in the textual flood. This constant need to listen to others to find our new favorites and to regularly champion them to others compels self-consciousness about our own literary tastes. I can now reel off a list of twelve of my favorite works of contemporary fiction without even thinking because their names are a cultural currency, invoked in all kinds of exchanges. I am of course not the only one. I recognize this habit in my friends and colleagues as well. While looking for common ground among us I have noticed an interesting phenomenon: a disproportionate number of the contemporary novelists about whom my demographic (urban, young thirties, educated) are excited are Jewish American. Is there some common thread among these texts that speaks to us? A new trend has developed in Jewish American fiction, one that holds out the universally tantalizing hope of integrating all of our complex cultural inputs into a single functional, even exciting, individual. Recent Jewish fiction has hit on the ability to describe exactly what it feels like to be that mythic creature: a modern American.
America has seen at least three prior waves of English language fiction written by Jewish Americans, each of which has been distinguished by relationship to a sub-culture rather than so-called mainstream culture. First, Jewish Americans addressed the realities of the immigrant experience alongside (among others) Polish, Irish, and Italian immigrants. Then, broadly speaking, there was a shift towards assimilationist fiction, which either thematized a cultural sense of marginalization and alienation or which implicitly denied that there need be any difference between fiction written by Jews and any other Americans. The diversity appreciation and identity theory of the eighties and nineties brought a new kind of literature to the fore, one which S. Lillian Kremer, a professor of Jewish American literature, describes as being defined by "Judaic affirmation, renewal, and redemption." Orthodox habits and midrashic literary devices came out on the page in full regalia to celebrate the differences between (some) Jewish Americans and the non-Jewish American majority. None of these periods can be perfectly defined, and they all overlap. In fact, the redemptive focus still appears in much new Jewish American fiction. Village Voice reviewer Alexander Nazaryan recently identified it in the novels of what he calls the "Jewish New Wave": "From the ashes of cultural unity has risen a new Jewish literature, propagated by young writers like Jonathan Safran Foer, his wife Nicole Krauss, and Gary Shteyngart …Less occupied with the anxieties of assimilation, these new Jewish novelists search through diaspora, immigration, and genocide for those precious strands of continuity that would make Jewish history their own." Those familiar with Safran Foer's Everything is Illuminated will immediately understand what Nazaryan references. In his debut novel, Safran Foer narrates a young man's return to his family's shtetl to thank the woman who saved his family from the Nazis and thereby allowed him to be. This protagonist's bildung requires that he connect with his past to appreciate his present and define his future.
For all the truth in Nazaryan's observation, he does suggest that their Jewish American identity, unmitigated, is what defines authors of the Jewish New Wave, thereby trapping Jewish American authors in the moment of identity celebration. Look at Safran Foer's second novel. The marvelous Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close continues the literary experimentation notable in Everything is Illuminated but has a very different cultural project for its protagonist. New fiction written by Jewish Americans takes as many forms as there are different conceptions of what it means to be Jewish in America today—or just American today. There are those novels that confront or embrace the constraints of Orthodoxy; those that suggest Jews are particularly suited to be private detectives; those that revise or protest the state of women; those that explore, reject, or uphold the role that Israel plays in the self-conception of modern Jews; those that do not thematize the author's cultural roots at all. Among the many is a trend that compels its readers, no matter what their own history, to strive for an identity that acknowledges the particularities of historical and genealogical pasts without allowing them to define the core of self.
The renaissance of the late eighties and nineties pitched Jewish American culture as one distinct and worthy of pride to an audience whose assimilationism meant they needed convincing. The present generation of Jewish American novelists, arising from a culture that has been convinced, demonstrates how identity is formed from the admixture of pride in heritage and the American tendency to reject the old and tried in favor of the new and unknown. These authors do not shy away from revealing underbellies and eccentricities of their cultural inheritance or from exploring the liberties or losses that would accompany discarding their roots; they reveal a collective weltanschauung that theirs is not a persecuted culture in a borrowed land, but a complex, loosely connected community in a land where they have a recognized stake. This stake means they can step out from behind any special status to be defined by other qualities, desires, and relationships. The new generation may seem more American that Jewish, but by right of a love of their heritage rather than the assimilationist denial of it.
Previous generations of Jewish American fiction depended upon recognizable cultural markers and stereotypes to mark themselves as artifacts deriving from and in conversation with a particular sub-culture. There were Bar Mitzvahs, mentions of goyim and Shabbos/Shabbat, and memorializing, discrete or direct, of ancestors lost in the Holocaust. Each description and elbow-nudge of the author crystallized a collective Jewish American identity that enjoyed exclusivity at the cost of alienation. Michael Chabon's afterward to Gentlemen of the Road (2007) presents these and similar markers as a force that shaped cultural artifacts for too long. His description of people's reaction (fictionalized, perhaps) to his working title Jews with Swords humorously draws out just how widespread certain internally created stereotypes are. Chabon writes that those who envisioned a Jew with a sword "saw…an unprepossessing little guy, with spectacles and a beard, brandishing a saber…They saw their uncle Manny, dirk between his teeth, slacks belted at the armpits," assaulting "nefarious auditors" (198). Chabon's adventuresome hero, Zelikman, stands in absolute contrast to the preconceptions we might have of uncle Manny or, say, the Coen's Larry Gopnik: he is neither high-belted nor engaged in a business requiring mathematical facility. Instead, he is a talented and principled con artist, well dressed (in fact a bit of a dandy) and competent with weapons.
By creating Zelikman as a Jewish hero wandering the world with a set of diverse and changeable companions, Chabon rewrites the common narrative of the Diaspora. The story is no longer one of forced exile, weakness, and collective vulnerability—which lead to Jews finding shelter but alienation in a new land—but an adventure with a strong and self-directed hero who chooses his own destinations. Zelikman is closer to Odysseus than Uncle Manny; he exhibits the competence and resources to best his enemies and lead others on a long journey to a successful conclusion. He is no more solely a "Jewish" hero than Odysseus is solely a "Greek" hero. But he is a Jew, and that, too features in story, for it is what defines him in his formative years. Zelikman, in his stark difference from the stable of Uncle Manny-like characters (and those others which have become equally recognizable) represents the trend towards a new vision of Jewish heroes who act more than react, who shape the world around them more than they are shaped by it.
While Chabon's generic choice required that he write his hero into the exotic world of 10th century Asia, other authors are creating homegrown American heroes who equally suggest that the Jewish narrative needs no longer be one of victimization and Diaspora. The Pigskin Rabbi (1999), by Willard Manus gives us the story of one Ezekiel "Ziggy" Cantor. The path Ziggy takes and the reward he receives are familiar tropes of American literature revitalized for the modern world and its conflicted ideas about self and society.
Ziggy, a graduate of Yeshiva and descendent of a long line of rabbis, has left the rabbinate in order to play professional football. A single question dogs Ziggy's career: should he follow his passion or the traditions of his orthodox community? In the end, he does both by rekindling his attachment to Judaism while his team makes a bid for the championships. Whether playing football on holy days, davening in the stadium, or learning that sex (even with a Shiksa) can be faith affirming, Ziggy makes his own choices, informed by, but not dependent upon, his heritage. In doing so, becomes a hero and revises his own and his rabbi's sense of the range of roles Jews play in the strange patchwork of American culture.
Manus emphasizes Ziggy's part in a new generation of young America Jews by writing him into a story that puts him in conflict with an older generation, represented by his father. Ziggy's intense individuality stands in relief against the communalism of his father, who puts history, tradition and collective wisdom first. Furious with Ziggy for not defending their "ways and traditions," he attacks him as the redemptive line of writing inherently critiques the assimilationist tradition, implying that he rejects his heritage out of shame and moral weakness. Ziggy's father goes so far as to compare him with the Jews that they would not flee Germany even when their lives obviously depended on doing so. Ziggy rejects the notion that all questions of modern Jewish faith and culture can productively be brought back to the Holocaust as the ultimate in shared experience. "That's not fair. This isn't Germany and we're not surrounded by Nazis" (172). Implied is his response is Ziggy's belief America is their home country, and that Nazi-types are hard to find. Ziggy's ability to think for himself, to resist seeing himself within a constantly replaying cycle of exile and persecution, and to block out his father's disapproval, result in an unbelievable field goal on the day when, according to Orthodox culture, he should least have been playing. Ziggy's "miraculous Yom Kippur Day field goal" presents an exaggerated reward for his individualism: "The ball not only carried to the goal posts [an impressive 61 yards] and cleared them, but went another ten yards" (145). Because of Ziggy, "Jewish was hot" (239); through following his own lead he creates a cultural context for Jews opposite to that of Nazi Germany. It is a result neither of assimilating nor of putting his cultural pride before other parts of a multifaceted identity. Pigskin Rabbi values an ability to negotiate the disparate claims of collective knowledge and individual inspiration, and to do so with a feeling of power and safety in a new cultural landscape.
Chabon and Manus both engage in narratives that celebrate Jewish individualists through genres steeped in wish fulfillment. Other contemporary Jewish American novelists, like Dara Horn, put emphasis on the importance of individualism while eliminating the sense of its magical glory. Horn's most recent novel All Other Nights (2009) makes a new tension explicit; it's anti-hero, Jacob Rappaport, makes decisions that, to him, seem to be about choosing between being an American or being part of a Jewish community. This personal journey takes place amidst the American Civil War. The larger context highlights the violent potential of strong and traditional ideas like slavery and religion to alienate people from groups and force them into taking stands for self-definition even while maintaining an affection or nostalgia in embryo for the scorned identity.
Horn's novel focuses on the birthing of "the Jacob Rappaport whom no one expected…the one who could prove beyond all doubt that his life was entirely his own" (9). To make his life his own requires divorcing his identity from that of his immigrant family, whose religion and provincialism embarrasses him at every turn. Through his uncle, he identifies the most shameful mark that his family and their culture have left on him, and therefore knows what he needs to accomplish to become an American. They have bequeathed him "the crippling need for the approval of others, the fear of freedom that placed even the smallest dream beyond [his] reach" (35). This is his heritage as a Jewish American, one unsatisfying for someone whose goal is to be "an American hero." Jacob kills his uncle, not for his role in a plot to assassinate Lincoln for which the Union has sent down to do it, but for his desire to wipe from his life the mirror of himself in which he sees what he considers Jewish weakness masquerading as political courage.
From the beginning of his pursuit of glory, Rappaport confronts his religious upbringing. He starts by rejecting his past out of hand, calmly breaking its taboos. He later allows it to reassert itself as a form of cultural currency that will buy him what he wants. His journey begins and ends with a visit to a cemetery, a place forbidden to him because of his status as a descendent from the biblical high priest. He steps away from familiar loyalties when he walks into a graveyard, where, "the entire edifice of law and custom dissolved before his eyes" (13). As he matures, he discovers that that edifice can serve his ends. In one instance of the young American confronting his past, Rappaport imagines that "the [kosher] law itself was in fact nothing but a magic spell, inscribed into the tradition of thousands of years ago for the sole purpose of being called up for duty…to bring him face to face with a woman who could raise the dead" (176). This woman "who could raise the dead" plays only a very small part in the epic confederate versus union spy plot of the novel; in fact, she is an erotic distraction. From where Jacob stands, it is perfectly reasonable to assume that the details of his religion have been created, believed, and passed on from generation to generation just to play a supporting role in his wartime romance. Jacob's sense of his people's past is just as shallow as his sense of his religion's roots. He revels in his belief that he is different, that his position has changed from that of his elders caught in the rage of the pogroms. He righteously thinks that unlike those old world victims, he and his wife "[a]ren't victims, but perpetrators" (87). Proud of his active role in the most deadly battle in his adopted country's history, he calculates that his murderous escapades are more valuable than the lives of ancestral sufferers. Jacob's status as anti-hero softens the force of his position, but the underlying myth he writes for himself is one familiar enough—he must define himself against the history of his people in order to be his own person. Once he has done so, his urge to be different subsides, and the end of the novel shows him, once again in a cemetery, choosing to live a standard domestic life with Jewish wife and child. The bright blaze of young adulthood convinces Jacob that he can rewrite myths of the past, can "prove beyond all doubt that his life [i]s entirely his own." Once he has done so, he can accept without rancor how much his past shaped even the trajectory of his rebellion against it.
Chabon, Manus, and Horn emerge from a complex tangle of historical, cultural, and literary circumstances to write in the vanguard of a literary trend that explores a new freedom in narrative horizons. New Jewish American authors find themselves free from the burden of identity politics and have space to allow the particularity of their characters and stories to emerge. The stories that have emerged so far have the power to speak to readers with little or no relationship to Judaism. The pages of these stories capture the unselfconscious attachment young Americans, raised to tell a story of being 1/4 this and 1/4 that, have for their mythic past. Their characters are familiar to all; like young Americans today, they must all refashion myths from the past to craft a sense of self and collective identity in which they can feel comfortable. Although a past story of exile and landlessness stands almost in direct opposition to the American story of patriotism and manifest destiny, the stakes of recognizing each as not the truth of the present do not.
Bliss is a reader errant with a language and information-input addiction. She also blogs about books (myshelfrunnethover.blogspot.com) and tries to teach students of a small college in New Jersey that words actually matter.
The Man in the BMW
By Namit Arora
(An excerpt from a longer work of fiction.)
On their way to China Town, they pass an area with red curtained massage parlors and hookers pacing the streets in tight clothes. They stop at a red light behind a BMW. A hooker approaches its curbside window, talks to the driver, and hops in. Ved notices Liz shaking her head in what appears to be disapproval.
‘Consenting adults!’ he provokes her.
‘You don’t need to tell me that,’ she says sharply.
‘Why the disapproval then?’
‘Because it is so sad. I just wish these women had other options.’
‘Maybe they do. I doubt they are doing this against their will, at least not in San Francisco.’
‘Just because they do this, quote-unquote, voluntarily, doesn’t mean they do it because they are happy to. It’s because they don’t recognize other options. Or they are addicted to abuse, or full of self-loathing and given to self-destruction.’ Her voice bristles. ‘It doesn’t mean they like it, or choose it with a healthy frame of mind.’
‘But if they do it voluntarily—so let’s exclude the drug addicts—can we say we know better? Who should be allowed to save people from themselves? So many others don’t like their jobs either, or choose them with a healthy frame of mind. I have met—’
She sighs. ‘I know that line of reasoning, but taking a job flipping burgers is not quite comparable to letting a horny customer finger your private parts.’
‘But many still choose the latter. They may not want to be saved, or pitied as victims of exploitation.’
‘Listen,’ she raises her voice. ‘I don’t know what the solution is,’ she throws her hands up. ‘I just wish things were different, OK? All I’m saying is that prostitution springs from socioeconomic disadvantage and serious emotional problems. And it exploits women weakened by their circumstances.’
‘Yes, but prostitution will be around whether or not we like it. All we can do is try to minimize the crime and abuse and diseases associated with it, and treat it like a regular services sector job, as they do in parts of Europe.’
‘Yes, I also believe in legalization. I think it’s better for the women.’ She resumes after a pause, her voice charged with emotion, ‘At the end of the day, I guess, for me it really comes down to how each of us projects our sexual power in the world, and the kind of world it creates. What bothers me most about prostitution, to put it bluntly, is the way men approach sex.’
He looks at her quizzically. She continues, ‘I might as well tell you right now that this is my hot-button issue—a personal hang-up—that sex ought to be shared respectfully. I think these women must die a little bit every day. Do you know what it is like dealing with foul manipulation, degrading language, being reduced to a mere sex toy by strangers, and even by men whom one has known and trusted? Do you know what it feels like to be used? Let me tell you: you don’t, you can’t, because you are a man.’
He wants to say: we all have different thresholds of desecration and violation, your own thresholds are not universal. You are rashly conflating paid sex with disrespect. Even in conventional unions—lovers, husbands and wives—payment for sexual favors, negotiated a lot less openly, occurs in other forms. At least this is more honest and clear-cut. But he remains silent. He cannot dispel the whiff of a loophole in his reasoning.
Without warning, she begins to sob. He is dismayed by this development. He wasn’t expecting tears on their second date. Who knows what history provokes this? He extends his right arm and gently squeezes her shoulder. ‘Come, come, that’s not allowed.’
‘I am sorry,’ she pulls a napkin from her bag, wipes her eyes, and then blows her nose into it. ‘With some men, even I have felt like I am beheld by eyes that belong to another kind of creature, who cannot see me in here. They only see what they want to see, which is not nearly who I am. I am a means to their sexual ends. Women have sexual needs too, you know, why can’t men control themselves like we do? Why do they have to be so cavalier, so …?’
Unthinking, preying, sordid … he silently shuffles the words. So true, and how curious that we once placed ourselves a step below the angels. He recently dwelled on the fact that each day so many men rape women, that one in six of all American women have been raped at least once. For the first time recently, this vividly at any rate, he tried to imagine himself inside the mind of a rapist, how it operated—creative empathy one might say. And it filled him with revulsion for his sex. Such cruelty lurking just beneath the skin of men.
He knows he has it in him to reduce women’s bodies to objects of pleasure, to see them as little more than three holes and two hands. Yes, yes, he knows that gaze. It’s rooted in a primeval force in him that he cannot wish away, only try to tame. Today’s popular porn, the so-called gonzo porn, thrives on it and even cultivates it. So many women now depend for their livelihood on men—fathers, neighbors, coworkers—exercising that gaze. How different is he from these men?
She resumes in the vicinity of China Town, ‘I don’t know how to defend this rationally, but I would feel emotionally unsafe with a lover who has frequented prostitutes. In a very personal, visceral way, I would feel hurt by the knowledge, somehow, knowing full well that it had nothing to do with me.’ When he glances at her she is quietly staring out the window.
‘I’m glad you’re not like that,’ she adds.
Not like what? Like the man in the BMW? He does not ask.
More writing by Namit Arora?
Inci Eviner. Untitled, 2009.
Acrylic and silk screen on canvas.
Unceasing fascination with Japan, immersion in literary culture and the pleasures and sorrows of the "thrown" life: Colin Marshall talks to writer, translator, filmmaker and teacher John Nathan
John Nathan is the Takashima Professor of Japanese Cultural Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Having relocated from the United States to Japan in the early 1960s to enroll as the first American regular student at the University of Tokyo, he became the translator of novels by such Japanese literary luminaries as Kenzaburo Oe and Yukio Mishima as well as a documentarian who revealed unseen corners of Japanese private life to America. He went on to write books on Mishima, the Sony corporation and Japan itself. His latest book is a memoir, Living Carelessly in Tokyo and Elsewhere. Colin Marshall originally conducted this conversation on the public radio program and podcast The Marketplace of Ideas. [MP3 part one] [MP3 part two] [iTunes link]
I was thinking about the idea of what I call "Japanophilia", the affinity for, the attraction to, things Japanese. It seems like more the rule than the exception with modern kids in America. When you got into Japan — this was the early sixties — how common was it?Not particularly. As a matter of fact, that's probably one of the reasons I was drawn to it so powerfully. It was really like, as I said in my book, having a pet monkey. Lots of kids studying Albert Camus, this, that and the other thing, Western philosophy and so on, but almost no one was studying or particularly interested in Japan in those days.
Was it that case that — you say this in your book — just seeing one character drawn was what led you into this whole life?
In an earlier draft of my memoir, I had written the truth about that: I set that story down with as much panache as I could manage, then I said, "Is that really what happened? I wonder if it is." I've told the story fifty times, and now that I actually write it on the page, I question it.
Like so much in a memoir — which is really not so much about memory as it is about persona, it turns out when you actually write one — I think that's what happened. But it may be embellishment, to be honest with you. Certainly these two characters I do remember being drawn for me on a napkin by a Japanese kid who had come to Harvard.
It was a very unusual word. This word in English is "whitlow," an infection beneath the finger- and toenails. I do think, at some point very early on, I stared at these two... pictures, basically, and thought to myself, "My god, these two things mean that? In that case, I want to learn more about this language." I think there's some truth in that. Whether that's the only thing that impelled me to go check out a Japanese language class I couldn't say. But you did check out Japanese language, and how did that draw you into the fold of —
It's just one of those things. I watched this professor who was very, very fluent talking about a Japanese writer and chalking these characters on a blackboard with tremendous energy and adroitness. Something just took me over. Of course, if that had been a Chinese teacher, I would have had a totally different life. It's the same Chinese characters, but if this had been a fellow teaching Chinese literature, I might well have signed up for Chinese studies. But it was a Japanese teacher, as it turned out.
I began taking the language, and I remember, having intended to be a Latinist and study Greek and Russian and a bunch of other things, I fell in love with this language very early on in my study of it. What's the explanation for that? I couldn't possibly tell you. But by the time I was through four years of school, I was fanatically committed to and submerged in the pursuit of this impossibly difficult language.
The phrase you use just now and in the book, "Japanese was my pet monkey" — what does that mean?
I remember that when I was a young man — when I was a boy, really — my father, who was a painter, rudely transplanted the family from very familiar New York to totally unfamiliar Tucson, Arizona, which was really a frontier, Twilight Zone-like environment. I felt very out of place in it. The only thing I knew how to do better than the other kids was to raise my hand first when a question was asked in class, which was exaclty the wrong thing to do.
I didn't know how to hunt, I didn't know how to kill wild boar with bows and arrows and so on. I remember feeling that I needed something to distinguish myself that would somehow protect me, and for some reason I thought I would love to have a pet monkey. No one else had a pet monkey, and that would make me special and maybe the object of admiration, or at least interest instead of derision, which was what I was feeling.
My parents didn't indulge me; I didn't end up with a pet monkey. But looking back on my career in Japan, I have to acknowledge, and did in this book, that there was at least an element about this choice of something so, at the time, arcane, exotic, unfamiliar to everyone that played into my attraction to the subject; it made me feel a little more confident than if I had tried to study Henry James and found myself in competition with the people around me who were these prep school boys who had done a lot of literature when I hadn't.
Would you have done the same had you been born in, say, 1980?
Not at all. Good question; I was about to say that. After 1980, this element of exoticism and unfamiliarity probably wouldn't have surrounded, as an aura, the choice of Japanese studies. I, in the same circumstances, would have had to do something else. I would have had to take Old Norse to feel that I was equally in an unfamiliar clime.
Learning Japanese, how long did it take you, as a Westerner, to get to the point where you could convincingly speak it to a native Japanese? Or do you ever get to that point?
Oh yeah, of course I did, but it took me a very long time. There are a few Westerners who have. Japanese is a very difficult language to learn to speak, for a variety of reasons I won't get into right now. I studied for three years at Harvard, and when I got to Tokyo, although I could read, with difficulty, modern stuff, I would ask a question and the answer would come back too fast.
It took me a long time to develop what I would call a fluency. It was three years at the University of Tokyo, as a regular student listening to lectures, that really helped me break through that initial wall and get to the place where I could handle the language. After that, I studied frantically, urgently, all the time, singlemindedly attempting to learn it well enough to that the Japanese would stop pointing fingers at me and saying, "Oh, isn't that charming; you're trying to speak our language."
It used to drive me crazy. I had that additional incentive, which people had in the sixties, even seventies, of being made to feel ridiculous for even attempting to break through into this culture by means of fluency in the language, which helped me somehow work even harder at it. Eventually, I became very fluent.
The classic story you hear from people who go to Japan is that, no matter how good a Westerner speaks it, you will always find people who pretend not understand you. Has that situation come along since you first went?
When I was first there, in the early sixties, that situation obtained dramatically, wherever you would go. You would get into a taxi cab and tell the fellow where to go in perfect Japanese, and he would turn to the Japanese companion and ask them, "Where do you wanna go?" Or you try and buy railroad tickets and people would wave their hands in front of their faces, which is the signal for "Can't understand, call for an interpreter," and so on.
That's changed a very considerable deal over the decades. I would have to say that the Japanese are still surprisingly parochial about their international understanding, that everybody can get by just fine in their culture as they can in ours, and I still encounter people who give you the standard "Do you use chopsticks? How amazing! Can you read the little phonetic scripts? How amazing! You don't read characters, I'm sure" and so on, and so forth. It's much, much better than it used to be.
What does that say about Japanese identity, about what they think about themselves, the fact that they assume foreigners shouldn't be able to grasp their language like they can?
What it says, in my own view, is that they are very uneasy about their own identities as Japanese, and there's a defensiveness which is put up between themselves and outsiders attempting to break through into some kind of par with them.
The French are very arrogant; you can never speak French well enough to satisfy a Frenchman. But that comes from a very different part of the brain, it seems to me, having to do with a certain kind of cultural arrogance, than the Japanese situation, where everything is kind of shaky, where identity itself, particularly in moments of crisis, is shaky.
How did you get to point where you were translating literature? I know that's a long story, but what brought you to that occupation
I always was in awe of writers, and of literature in general. The translator, in those days, seemed to me to be someone who — how can I put this? — was sort of in a halfway house between normalcy and the wild, absurd craziness of artistry, so to speak. I dreamed that it would be a wonderful thing to do, as a means of becoming a writer, a very challenging and worthwhile métier.
In my own case, I was very lucky. I saw the opportunity to do this in a bigtime way; it dropped into my lap. I had done a few stories and published them in a small quarterly publication called The Japan Quarterly when a fellow from Alfred A. Knopf named Harold Strauss came to Japan searching for a new translator for Yukio Mishima. Donald Keene, who had been his translator, was working on something else and had declined to do the next book. Knopf had a deadline and an obligation to Mishima to get a new book out, and Harold, who was the only person in American publishing in those days who knew any Japanese at all — there's a lot of controversy among us about he actually knew, but he pretended to know a lot — was in Japan searching around.
Someone said, "Well, there's this American guy who rides his motorcycle to the University of Tokyo every day. He seems to speak with rapid-fire, surprising fluency. You oughta meet him." So I got this phone call from Harold Strauss saying to me, "How would you like to meet Yukio Mishima?" Of course I was overwhelmed by that, and I did meet him, and one thing led to another and I became the translator of The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea when I was 23 as a result of this very good fortune.
Yukio Mishima, at least in this country, we think of as the guy who committed suicide after trying to rouse the Japanese army, but what sort of a guy did you know at that time? Of course, it was much earlier than when he had formed his own paramilitary outfit and all that.
Creepily, It wasn't that much earlier, believe it or not. I met Mishima in 1963, and he killed himself in 1970, so it was only seven years, an amazingly steep incline that he traversed between that moment and the final end, although there were many elements about him at the time that I didn't even know very well which were pointing in that direction.
The man that I met and knew was the most flamboyantly international Japanese artist, known around the world. He'd flown in a fighter plane, he'd conducted a symphony, he'd been to America and all around the world, he wore British suits, he lived a very gaudy, showy life. And of course he wrote prolifically, both popular potboiler novels and serious ones. By 1963, he'd already created some of his best works.
He was a flamboyant, famous personage on the Japanese scene who was very good at letting each person he was involved in see about him only that aspect that he wanted to reveal. Each person had a different sense of who Mishima was. Consequently, when he killed himself seven years later, there were lots of people, including me, who thought, "My god, I thought I knew this man, but look what he's gone and done. How can I possibly account for this?"
It's so interesting you say that he was international in that way, and yet is known now as the ultimate nationalist, in some ways.
Absolutely. Ultra-nationalist, really. There is, of course, a huge contradiction there, and there are complex reasons, some of which I understand and undoubtedly many which I don't, that drove him into this position. If I had to sum it up in a word, and I actually wrote a whole book about this particular conviction of mine, I would say that he had created for himself a situation in which he was able to feel that he was a warrior on a battlefield dying a martyr's death.
The only way he could do that in a "weak, piping time of peace," to quote Richard III, was to create a mini-insurrection and simulate a situation in which he could be a warrior killing himself, committing hara-kiri. That takes you in an ultra-nationalist direction, obviously, even though, up to the day before, he would have conversations with Donald Keene and many, many Westerners. He was not a xenophobe by any means at all, except in this guise and pose that he took onto himself.
To get off on a bit of a tangent, Japanese nationalism and death — why are they so intertwined?
When you look at bushido, the way of the samurai, the way of the Japanese warrior, you can say that it's one of the world's most highly embellished and complex death trips. The standard proprietary protocol book for the samurai, In the Shadow of the Fallen Leaves, Hagakure, which Mishima actually wrote a lot about, begins with a long section on the warrior's constant, day-to-day, hour-to-hour readiness to die, and to die nobly, bravely and heroically. They carry rouge in their little brocade bags so in case you're sliced, you won't look pale at the time of death and so forth.
Death in the cause, and the death of a martyr, particularly but not exclusively, had always been one of the principal goals and virtues in the way of the warrior. That's a — much too shallow, to be sure, but — schematic explanation of the connection between death and ultranationalism.
How did you approach the project of translating the Mishima novel? What did you think you were in for, versus what you actually found the task to entail?
That's a great question — this took place, you know, about 45 years ago, right? I was very excited, I know that. I went out and bought myself the same Mont Blanc pen that all the Japanese bigshots used. It cost about 200 bucks; my total pay on the Mishima job was 400, so I spent half of it on this fat, cigar-like fountain pen and a big notebook so I could feel just like Mishima. I worked at night. I have to say that I took to this very naturally from the very beginning. I read this material with excitement and some very considerable fluency, and then I began to transform it into English.
That process, from the beginning, particularly in Mishima's case, always felt very natural to me. I can't tell you a story about how I expected one thing and found the other to be the case; I didn't have expectations. I just had this experience which I thrived on and relished as I went along. Of course, it's much easier on some level to translate someone else's novel than it is to write one of your own, that's for sure. The fact of the matter is that just now, 45 years later, I'm finally writing a novel and beginning to consider that maybe I can be a novelist too, now that I've grown up. That shows you how much easier it is to do one that the other, in my case.
The job of translation — it's not something people generally know about the nuts and bolts of. I think there's a perception that the translator, being fluent in the original language, reads it. and then there's a line direct from their brain that translates it, and their hand just writes it out. I know it's not that simple, and you know it's not that simple. Why is it not that timple?
First of all, even in languages that are related to English — Romance languages, for example — there is an enormous chasm separating the mode of expression, the genius of expression, in, say, French or German, from the mode of expression in English, the intentionality to communicate in English. So it's not as though there's ever a simple one-to-one equivalency that the translator needs merely invoke and mechanically create.
When you're talking about moving across a gulf between a language like Japanese and a language, now we're talking about a stellar gulf, like the distance between the stars. Basically, you have to read. All translation begins with reading. Ideally, you would be the writer's best reader. Now, that's unlikely, but you should be able to read everything in the text, including things the writer didn't intend, so that it sings to you in exactly the kind of melody he was hearing himself as he wrote.
Then, there's what I've always thought of as a mystical transitional phase, the bridge phase where you allow this music to go through some kind of filter in your linguistic and creative self and begin to reformulate it in English, with equivalence and so on. The third part of this is that, ideally, the translator should be as good a writer in his own language as the original author is in his, which is of course very, very unlikely, if not impossible. I used to tell myself — for many, many years I nourished this fiction, a comforting fiction to me — that even if James Joyce had known Japanese as miraculously well as I did, he wouldn't be as good a translator, because I had a special translator's gift.
I must tell you that, quite a while ago, the magic of that incantation went away and I realized that was complete nonsense, and that in fact if James Joyce knew Japanese as well as I do, he would be a much better translator than I, of Kenzaburo Oe in this case, because he was a much better writer. But certainly, there's very little about it that is mechanical or automatic, that's for sure, which is why, sophisticated as the new computer technology for translation has become, I think it's ultimately very unlikely that you get great translations, for example, of great poetry, great fiction, great prose, processed by a machine.
I read a lot of Japanese literature, but I don't know Japanese, so I'm reading it in translation. I tend to follow the translators that I think do a good job, because maybe they'll do justice to an author. What do you think typically separates a good, serviceable translator of Japanese literature from a great one?
Good question. If I gave you volumes of fiction, one by Hemingway, one by Henry James, Joyce, Steinbeck or something, and you opened them in the middle of the books, you would immediately discern striking stylistic differences among them, You would see something like a voiceprint — that's called style.
If you open volumes of Japanese fiction, you would find the same thing: Tanizaki has an unmistakable style, as does Mishima, as does Oe. If I were to give you volumes of Japanese literature in English and ask you to open them, I dareday that you might be able to distinguish by theme: if what you saw was about feet, you'd say, "Oh, this is Tanizaki." If you saw someone being kissed which invoked images of death, you might say Mishima. But you would be at pains, you would be in a real fix, if you tried to see an absolutely unmistakable stylistic differentiation among these works.
That's where the crux of it comes. Recreating the author's voice is the ultimate task, in my own view, of the translator. How do you do that? Who knows? Can you do it? Yes, if you understand style and have style of your own. All I can say is that when you open something in English that's been translated from Japanese and get a sense that there is a real stylistic coherency and presence in when you're reading, then you can probably be sure that you're in the hands of a better translator.
You've translated Oe, you've translated Mishima. What were the biggest differences in those jobs?
Great question. Mishima is someone who had tremendous envy for, and a longing to belong at the center of, Japanese things. That is to say, he wanted to be part of a tradition of aristocracy and elegance that he actually wasn't by birthright. Therefore, his language was a kind of a model extraordinaire of Japanese operating at its most tradtional and appropriate brilliance. That means that when you translate Mishima, if you find the right little stone, you can put it into a mosaic and it will fit, it will click in, because he's doing to the Japanese language something which is brilliant but which is not violent.
Oe, like many people on the outside of things — he was reading Camus, for example — was at pains to destroy the Japanese language. As a matter of fact, he would write and then he would rewrite in such a way as to completely unpack and tear part, and then rebuild in rhythms and formats and syntaxes which were very, very unsuitable to, inappropriate for, the language. That's much, much harder to do, because when you try to recreate the voice of Oe in English, you have issues of piling syntax with these heaping things that will break the syntactical back of the English sentence. Mishima ultimately is much easier: if you're just patient and know some words, chances are you'll get a mosaic that looks like Mishima. With Oe, it's a very different matter.
Is it true, what I hear that, in Japanese, Oe writes "Western"?
Oe has been accused of "reeking of butter," which is a way of saying foreignness, from the moment he began to write as a junior in the University of Tokyo. And of course it's true that this is a man who was immensely, deeply read in Western languages: French, German, English, Italian, Greek, you name it. It's also true, as I mentioned to you, that he was trying to break down the Japanese language into something else. Tanizaki, when he read early Oe, said, "If this is Japanese, I'm putting my fountain pen away."
It's certainly true that Oe writes a Japanese language which is a brutalization, in some sense, but is that Western? I would say certainly not. It in fact is a language which incorporates rhythms and syntaxes that evoke Western structure, but it is entirely his own, and to call it just an imitation of Western language is nonsense.
Give me your impressions of the literary climate of sixties Japan, because it sounds like a wonderful scene to be in, and you were right there.
There's this Japanese word the bundan, which means the literary community. The bundan in the 1960s was in its heyday. You had all of the old great guys still around — Tanizaki, Kawabata, Mishima — and then you had a whole group of new postwar writers, younger guys, who were there and very exciting, and there really was a sense of fraternization, and an understanding of the difficult, lonely, challenging task that writing was.
When you were around these people, observing, submerged in, or at least having access to this community, it was a very exciting experience. Today, the bundan scarcely exists at all. Japanese writers may occasionally meet each other at parties, but there's no more brotherhood, no more community of creative writers. And of course, there aren't as many great writers anyway. The writing community was exciting. There were more talented people alive and at work in Japan together at that time than at any time before or since.
Do you think you could hazard a guess as to why that disintegration happened?
Some of it has to do with what we might just call zeitgeist. There are times in every literary history when you get more, greater and more important writers than at other times. Society, for complex reasons, nurtures them, gives them things to say, stimulates them, provokes them, whatever. It's hard for me to figure out why the sixties should have been as cohesively exciting as they in fact were, except, what I could say is that the war was a tremendous discontinuity and a tremendously frustrating impediment, jamming up, damming up of literary energy. That broke open in 1945, and it's possible to say that it took fifteen years for that unleashing of tremendous energy and vision, dedication and excitement, to reach maturation, which it did in the sixties. I'm just hazarding an explanation, but it seems to me not entirely implausible.
In your new book, you discuss your friendship with Kobo Abe and Oe, who were friends at that time. What was it like to be this third point of that triangle?
It was unforgettable and amazing. Oh boy, I mean — Abe was sort of like an elder brother figure, maybe ten years older than Oe. Abe would scold Oe and reproach him for being careless or whatever. Oe was actually in awe of Abe for much of that time. I met Abe the first time when Oe brought him to my house one day. There was a knock on my door, and I opened my door. There was Oe, and behind him was this Japanese. "I want you to meet Kobo Abe,"
This is an amazing time; when Kenzaburo Oe brings Kobo Abe to your house, that's far out. And Abe, who was always en Epicurean, showed up with this bottle of Bulgarian brandy, which he insisted was much better than French brandy. So we sat around and we talked about identity and Jewish identity. As you know, Abe grew up in Manchuria, was there at the end of the war when the Russian Cossacks rode their hordes through his house, and had a huge obsession with the nature of identity, which is a central theme of that he does.
They were as different as two people could be. Oe was kind of a country bumpkin, uptight, rigid in many ways, whereas Abe was as open and as loosey-goosey as you could imagine. This is a little contradictory, I realize, but Abe would put on his special imported Viennese leather driving gloves when he got into his BMW, which at the time was the only BMW in town. Oe was, of course, riding his son on his bicycle and looked at this with a combination of dismay and judgment.
In every way stylistically they were totally different guys, but they were very close, and of course they were very smart, and they loved to talk about literature. To be sitting around there as the youngster in the group — I was five years younger than Oe and maybe fifteen years younger than Abe — I was in my mid-twenties when this was going on, and I would go to their houses, and they would come, and the wives would be there and we'd just sit around and talk and I would do a lot of listening. I would also shoot my mouth off, which I'm very embarrassed about when I recall it now. But it was a great way to spend time, I can tell you.
What do you think they got from having a young Westerner — yourself — around?
I was translating Oe at the time. I never really translated Abe, even though he wanted me to. I did one short story. Something didn't draw me to his work, and it was a little bit awkward, actually, as the years went on, because a translator is very important to these guys, and there weren't that many good translators around. They knew I could translate, and that was maybe one of the sources, originally, of their interest.
We had a kind of sympathetic harmony: we would talk about things, we would resonate off each other. I wouldn't presume to put myself in their class, but in my own way, I guess I managed to hold up some kind of an end that they enjoyed being around. We just had a good time together, really.
How did you become a documentarian in Japan?
Film is another thing that I always knew, even though I had never done it, that I could do. Don't ask me why; I just knew. The first thing I did was a film called Full Moon Lunch, an hour-long documentary designed for PBS. I had this idea to do a trilogy of films that would take cameras into absolutely ordinary Japanese life more deeply than had ever been done before, and to try to create portraits that would take American audiences beyond cliché and caricature to the Japanese as just real people like ourselves: equally contradictory, equally wise, equally foolish, what have you. I just wanted to do this.
My film thing began before this. Oe had made me his agent for film scripts about his books in the United States. One day, when I was at Harvard the second time around, in the late sixties, in the society of fellows I was at the time, I was forwarded this script written by someone working for Burt Lancaster Productions, an American adaptation of A Personal Matter, a novel I had translated. I thought it was really lame, literal and plodding, so I said, "Okay, I'm in this marvelously enviable position. I have two years to do what I want. I can do better than this." So I scotched that project and began to write my own screenplay about A Personal Matter.
I worked on it for a long time, for about a year, and of course the society of fellows viewed this as a decadent digression or descent from the high level I was supposed to be operating on. I remember very clearly, this fellow named Wassily Leontief, a Nobel Prize-winning economist who was the chairman of the society in those days, came to me and said, in his heavy Slavic accent, "You know, Mr. Nathan, there is a Yale guy who's applied to get into the society who is also a screenwriter." I said, "Oh, that sounds wonderful. What are his chances?" He said, "He has no chances. First junior fellow, then butterfly. Never other way around." Which was Leontief's way of letting me know that he didn't think screenwriting was an avocation I should be pursuing.
In any event, I wrote this thing, took it to New York, and ended up with some agents who liked it and were going to get produced. I wanted to direct it. I just did. I was arrogant, I suppose. They said, "No, you can't direct it." I said, "What if I get Hiroshi Teshigahara involved and do it with him?" They said okay. We brought Teshigahara to this country and the project fell through. But as Teshigahara was leaving to return to Japan, I brought up the idea of making a film about American deserters from Vietnam in the Japanese underground. Four months later, he raised the money for that, and we made this film together called Summer Soldiers, which infected me with filmmaking. I guess that's how I should've begun.
Five years later, as a professor at Princeton, I thought, "I'd love to do some more stuff." I raised money to do this first documentary of mine called Full Moon Lunch, and went to Tokyo with some money, used the same crew we had with Summer Soldiers, and in the course of a summer found this marvelous family of caterers in downtown sort of Cockney Tokyo and shot, wrote and edited this film, which I took back and showed to PBS. They just said, "Wow. We'll put it on the air right now." It was broadcast nationally a few weeks later. In those days, I took those sort of things almost for granted. Now, I realize that's quite a nice thing to have happen. It got excellent reviews, and that's how I begin.
What impression of Japanese people existed among Americans that you wanted to either contradict with your movies or augment or somehow change?
I wanted — I shouldn't use the word "contradict" — to enlarge and complicate, deepen, the sort of clichéd version of the Japanese which had obtained since Pearl Harbor, which is, "Here you have an inscrutable, fox-like, dangerous, lethal, humorless little people who run around and smile at you while they're planning to bomb your harbor." Which is sort of the way the Japanese were held here. All the rest was left out in the process of caricaturizing.
There was a lot of work to do; it's not as though I had to make little corrections. It seemed to me, having lived there for many years at that time, loving the Japanese in many ways and obviously not loving them in others, that a great way to do that would be to show people how these Japanese really were, just in their daily lives. That's what I set out to do.
Were you surprised by anything you found there, or did you already know what you were going to get going in?
I ended up doing three of these things, and each one is sort of a portrait of an individual or a family. In each case, there were all kinds of levels of revelation that would surface in the process of making a documentary film. I certainly didn't know what I was going to get going in; I just knew what I hoped I would get, which would be an individual, fascinating, different from American yet undeniably human and in that sense familiar portrait of people who were different from ourselves, yet very like ourselves, as every man is like every other man.
The second in the series, Farm Song — what was your idea that led you to the farm?
I had been north in this particular part of Japan before. It always struck me as a very interesting region. This is in the snow country, to the north of Tokyo 300 or 400 miles and then a little bit inland from Sendai, for example. It's a rural area, and there's sort of a dark, laconic, uneasy feeling about it which attracted me, which appealed to me.
It's so different from the sort of Tokyo briskness and brittleness on the surface which my first family manifested in the film. The notion of "What is a Japanese farmer like?" — I thought, "Does someone in Nebraska who gets onto a combine and drives across hundreds of acres of wheat beneath these icy blue storms forming, could they possibly imagine this totally different world which is nonetheless a farm world?" That's why I wanted to do it.
Correct me if I'm wrong, but you got [Toru] Takemitsu, the great composer, to score that one, right?
Yes. That was wonderful. He was a friend, a very, very close friend of Oe's. He and Oe were really best friends, and I had known Toru for some time. I had known him in New York, and I had known him in Tokyo. He was a wonderful, wonderful man. One day we were working on the rough cut of this film, and I thought, "God..." I just called Toru and said, "I want you to come and see this. If you like this, would you do the score?" He came in, we showed him a two-hour version, and he said, "I'll do it." I thought, "Wow."
The real wow, of course, came about five weeks later. One doesn't — at least John Nathan didn't — tell Takemitsu what kind of music he wanted him to write for this movie. So he comes back with this amazing score for about eight instruments, including bass flutes and drums and all these other wonderful things. I think, by the way, that this is one of the greatest film scores Takemitsu ever wrote.
And the most amazing thing was his choices of where to put the music against the picture, which were not my choices. He would do these things which I would never have dreamed of doing, which just transformed these moments of the film. I remember the first time we actually put the music up against the picture, it was a breathtaking experience. What he had done was so amazing. We didn't have a lot of money, and Toru at that time was getting huge fees. He didn't take that much money for himself, and his instrumentation was relatively minimal. But it's just extraordinary.
He was scoring for Kurosawa and such at that time, wasn't he?
Oh, everybody, But more importantly than that, the New York Philharmonic was commissioning him. He was, at that point, a hugely-known international composer.
What are your impressions of Takemitsu the man?
Takemitsu was a tiny, frail man, very modest and retiring, with immense intelligence and creative power that would knock you across the room when you were around him. He was a philosopher; he wrote very complexly about music and other things. He loved movies.
You know, I used to go into movie theaters in Tokyo at one point — and a couple times in New York, even — in the middle of the day, which was something frowned on. There would be like three people in the theater, two perverts, and Takemitsu would be sitting there watching the film in the third row. I couldn't believe my eyes; I would sit there, and there would be Toru-san.
He was very warm. He was funny. He was an enchanted presence, enchanted and enchanting. Charmed. Strangely otherworldy, in a funny way, but very there at the same time. It's hard to describe him — I have difficulty doing it — but just a wonderful and gifted guy.
The third documentary in the "Japanese trilogy" — a fair departure from the first two in terms of the scale of subject. You move from these two families to Shintaro Katsu, the famed movie star, Zatoichi.
You're certainly right to say the Katsu film was very different from the other two. Japan has its own gangster, Frank Sinatra, Las Vegas mix of stuff. I thought to myself, "Who's the most virulent character that I know that crosses these world?" I came up, of course, with the most vulgar, the most violent — also talented, in his way, of course — and that's how I chose the movie start Shintaro Katsu.
I went to Kyoto to see him. He was directing himself in those days, in this ongoing series of movies about the blind swordsman. I went with a print of Full Moon Lunch, which he asked me to show him. I thought, "Oh my god, he's going to see this very banal — from his point of view — ordinary thing, and he won't like it," but in fact he did like it, so I made this movie.
It's in many ways the least good of the films, because I was not clear enough that I wanted to be like him, somehow, as I made the film. In fact, I did transform: my voice got deeper, I drank more heavily, I ordered people around. I emulated his style. There's not enough explanation or distance. There's too much homage and too little critical portraiture.
But my purpose was to shock American audiences into the realization that this aspect of Japanese life also existed. When I showed these films to one of my major benefactors in New York, the executive director of the Luce Foundation, she rose after about fifteen minutes into the Katsu film and walked out of the theater, which was very embarrassing and awkward.
What offended her about that?
Katsu has offended particularly female audiences; he's a very vulgar, rude, crude, violent guy, with some extremely refined elements as well underneath the surface. Many Japanese were offended. They would say, "How dare you title a trilogy 'The Japanese' and include a vulgarian like Katsu as though he's representative of the Japanese?", which is a point that I, today, of course understand. In those days, I was extremely defensive about that.
Was Katsu thought of in Japan as a vulgarian widely, or was that more of a revelation to Japanese audiences? Was he known as what you showed him as?
When you think of the Rat Pack, that's the way the Japanese related to Katsu, and that's the kind of image that he labored, very successfully, to convey and project.
I guess I should be clear on what the reaction was to your documentary. You describe a few negative reactions in the book, but you also describe the positive reactions as well. Who was it that liked it? Who was it that disliked it?
I don't really know much about "Japanese" reaction to the film, because these films have only been shown in a very limited way in Japan since they were made many years ago. Interestingly, as far as Katsu himself is concerned, I thought that Katsu liked this film. I remember him having said things like, "I've discovered myself in here, and I'm a pretty likable guy," My dear friend Donald Ritchie, in his memoir, describes sitting around talking to Katsu and saying, "I knew Katsu hated Nathan's film." I assume that was probably the truth, because it reveals aspects of himself that he didn't like, maybe, I don't know.
Here, the film was critically rather well received. I think the Christian Science Monitor called it "a ribald adventure in personality" and so on. There are some people who enjoyed it. I think it's not nearly as good a film as the other two. There's not enough explanation, and as I say, it's too identified with its subject. There were a lot of audiences, particularly in the academy, who were offended by this picture. It's not as though they had to insist that everything be the moon shining on the lake and cherry blossoms and so on, but this went too far.
I was reveling in how over-the-top it was at the time, with my necklace I wore and my three packs of cigarettes a day habit, my rough voice, my big hands, the whole thing. I thought that was just great and very groovy, but a lot of people didn't.
What was it like keeping up with Katsu's entourage when you had to film this thing?
It was murder. It was very hard. First of all, the crew that I was working with, with whom I was very close by this time because we'd already done two other films together, were terrified to be working in Kyoto. As they told me and as my production manager told me, the Kyoto filmmakers were gangsters themselves, and since we were going to be filming a film, if we got in their way... everybody was very uneasy.
As it turned out, nothing like that happened. Everything went fine. Katsu would go out all night and charter bars and geisha clubs and kick everybody out and party. He could do this day after day after day and go straight to the set, having consumed god knows how much vodka and brandy. Nobody else could do it. We had several people in the hospital in the course of the month we spent following him around. People were just dropping like flies.
We had to be on call for all of this, hoping as I did to capture some of this stuff. Nothing a filmmaker hates worse, a Japanese filmmaker in particular — at the end of the day, a Japanese filmmaker goes home, takes a hot bath, and sits there and plays mah-jongg with some cigarettes and some brandy and some whiskey. They do not like to stand around all night waiting to go out to a bar. I had a lot of difficulty managing my own crew.
You had this quote from him in the book. He says, "In Japan, you cannot win." What did he mean?
A lot of what Katsu said was spoken through a haze of alcohol and drug-induced delusion. It's a little hard for me to tell you exactly what he meant. He was just saying, I think, "You seem to be carrying on here as though you belonged, but no foreigner ever really belongs here." I took it in a very different way than that, but it hit me very hard.
My whispered answer to myself was, "I think he hit it right on the head. I'm outta here." Shortly after that, I did leave Japan for a number of years, looking to put it behind me because I felt that the pet monkey kind of attention that I was earning for myself wasn't genuine, and wasn't going to satisfy my insatiable desire to feel special.
What do you think was motivating him during his life? What was he going after?
This is a very complex guy. Remember that he was the eldest son of a great shamisen master who was the founder of his own shamisen school, so Katsu had been raised as a musician, and a very good one, on this instrument, and was expected by the family to take over this very lucrative, wealthy empire that his father had built. Interestingly, Teshigahara, the director, was in exactly the same place, except more even grandly, because his father was the head of the school, the Sogetsu Flower. For that reason, Katsu and Teshigahara had a very close bond.
He begins that way, and undoubtedly has some very inflated expectations about himself as an artist. Then he meets James Dean in America and decides — god knows why — "I want to be a movie star." So he tries that for a while, it doesn't work, then he becomes Zatoichi and becomes a bigshot and a super-duper movie star, but in a very limited sort of way.
You know, I would say that Katsu, who was very talented in many ways, was very lacking, ultimately, in clear, long-term vision. His indulgence in drugs and ad alcohol and everything else may have made it very difficult for him. I think he was very unmoored. My principal evidence is that he had an opportunity to star in a Kurosawa film, which would've been an amazingly wonderful thing for him. Kurosawa had actually cast him as the lead in The Shadow Warriors, as it's known in English. On the first day of the shoot, Katsu shows up on Kurosawa's set with his own documentary team. Kurosawa asks, "What's this?" He says, "Well, I'm going to make a film school, and I want to shoot myself working for you." Whereupon Kurosawa immediately fires him and hires [Tatsuya] Nakadai.
Now, any moron would have know that you do not go to Akira Kurosawa's set with your own film crew and tell him that you're going to do something. That's just not the way it works. This was the Emperor; he was known in Japan as "the Emperor." I think Katsu did himself a terrible, career-damaging disservice, because he was a good actor — at least, he might have been. In Kurosawa's hands, who knows what kind of a performance he might have given. After all, Toshiro Mifune is horrible in any movie but a Kurosawa movie. That's partial evidence that a great director really does control and create a great actor, to some extent.
If you'd asked Katsu — I mean, he had a very arrogant, inflated vision of himself, but ultimately he was a very sad man, and he met a very unfortunate end in bankruptcy and drug illness and all kinds of other stuff.
How did you run away from Japan when you decided it was time to disassociate yourself a little bit from the country that had been your thing?
What happened was, my film Summer Soldiers, the film I made with Teshigahara, opened in New York at the Lincoln Center film festival and did quite well critically but was a complete and total bust. It ran for like two and a half weeks at the 68th Street Playhouse and that was the end of it. One of the many things I regret about my life, if I'm in the regret mode, is that I hadn't stuck with it and gone to Hollywood at that point and tried to keep working. But in fact, I had been offered a job at Princeton, at that moment had two young kids, and thought, "You know, this film isn't gonna take me anywhere, so I'd better do something else."
I became a professor at Princeton, and I was there for seven years. At the end of the seven years, 1979 was the year, my wife, Mayumi Oda, who was a very well-known printmaker, among other things, had decided that she wanted to move to California. I decided that I would go with her, for various reasons, but one of the principal ones was that I wanted to feel like I was still the head of the household, that I would go and take her with me. In fact, that isn't want happened, really. I just resigned my Princeton full professorship at that moment, something Princeton took a while to forgive having done and which was sort of crazy.
That coincided with this sense of mine that the Japan thing had played out, and Katsu had given me his warning. I made that film in 1978, and this was the following year. I thought, "Okay, I'm gonna leave this whole deal, go to California and be a regular filmmaker and I'm not going to have anything to do with Japan." So I moved. I threw my credentials away, and it was pretty scary. I found myself living in Mill Valley, sitting at a typewriter, an IBM Selectric, like 800 million other guys, writing a screenplay. Who was I? I was nobody. Not that I'd been anybody before, but at least I had a Japanese job before. That's how that came about, and that went on for quite a long time. It took me into a whole new career of filmmaking and writing and so on that had nothing to do with Japan whatsoever, until the end of the eighties. I was away completely for more than ten years.
How would you characterize your experience in the American film industry, getting in and what you did there?
Disastrous. I was a bust. I wrote an original screenplay based loosely on my life in Arizona as a high school kid with a band of kids from the Arizona School for the Deaf and Blind. I had these wonderful jazz musicians that were blind, and I called this thing The Gentlemen of Rhythm. I took it to Hollywood, and the writing got me a bunch of jobs. Nobody wanted to produce the film, but I ended up writing television movies for NBC and for everybody, sort of. But only one or two rounds, and I got paid very well for that.
For the first six or eight months, I thought, "Wow, this is great." Then, of course, I wanted to do something of my own, and that's where I got in trouble. I couldn't really sell anything, and I couldn't write anything, and I got all tied up in knots about Hollywood and hated it and resented it. At that point, a business film came along, In Search of Excellence, and I took off on that tangent, began making these long business documentaries.
I had no reason to do that, and I shouldn't have done it, I suppose, but that's what I did. For ten years, that carried me in a totally different direction as a filmmaker. I ended up directing commercials for AT&T that ended up on the Super Bowl and stuff like that. It was all sort of exciting, but it never went anywhere. It was aimless, basically, sort of an aimless ten years of being in the film business.
During that stretch of time, I take it you weren't working toward any goals that you actually held. Or did you feel like you might have been at the time?
No, even at the time I knew that I was neither pursuing my interest in Japan — which I hadn't lost, really — or furthering my career as a filmmaker. I was doing all kinds of movies, but they were business movies and television commercials. It was not necessarily all junk, but it was stuff I had no particular urgency about doing. I didn't feel it was what I ought to be doing. That was a very, to me, lucrative and ungratifying ten years of my life which I wish I could have back.
Was the idea behind a lot of it to just see what you could be without Japan in the picture at all?
Originally, I think that was my incentive, to prove to myself that didn't need Japan, didn't need the exoticism of Japan, to excel. Some people would say, "Gee, John, it seems to me as though what you proved was that you did." I don't know if that's fair. By some lights, I suppose I was moderately successful in these other things as well — everybody doesn't get a commercial that he writes and directs on the Super Bowl — but I don't think the conclusion I came to was that I couldn't make it without Japan. Rather, what I was doing was taking me in the wrong direction.
During your time in the academy in America, how satisfying did you find that experience?
Apparently I didn't find it nearly as satisfying as I ought to, or I wouldn't have resigned! I subsequently regretted having resigned. After all, I was a full professor at Princeton in my low thirties. We had a beautiful place to live, and the students were wonderful.
Ultimately, I felt frustrated about being "only" a college professor. Now, there are many great teachers and great professors who are thrilled to be "only" college professors, and there are others who are thrilled to be a college professor some of the time, and something else some of the time. I suppose, ultimately, that's what I became: thrilled to be a college professor some of the time and hoping to be other things other times. That's how I describe myself now.
What brought you to make The Colonel Goes to Japan, the documentary on KFC and their campaigns in Japan?
That was another one of these things that just fell my way. There was a very powerful and successful Israeli television producer, who at the time — 1980, 1981 — was producing at WGBH Boston a very interesting series of half-hour programs called Enterprise. Each one was a business story with a real beginning, a real middle and a real end — documentary portraits, basically, of the business process. This was underwritten by Merill Lynch, doing very well.
Out of the blue he said, "I've seen your Japan movies, which I like very much. Would you be interested in making a business film for us in Japan?" I said, "Of course not. I hate business." Then I thought, "Wait a minute. That might be interesting." I went to Japan and found this marvelously funny story about this crazy guy who was running Kentucky Fried Chicken in Tokyo and made a noir portrait of his attempt to insinuate Kentucky Fried Chicken into the daily lives of the Japanese, which he did, very successfully and diabolocally.
How does one manage to do that? I don't picture KFC as something that — stereotyping, perhaps — a Japanese person would like.
That's a great question, because what determined me to do this particular program was an advertising session I was invited to observe in which the Japanese company McCann-Erickson Hakuhodo, which was a joint venture in Japan at the time, was pitching a new commercial campaign to this fellow who ran the American business there. The campaign was called "KFC as Traditional Southern Food".
They always start with a 60-second great big production number, and they had a storyboard. The story it tells was of the Colonel as a seven-year-old baking some rye bread, and then there's a dissolve. Twenty years later, the Colonel's traditional love for food and cuisine and the south transforms into Kentucky Fried Chicken. They're playing "Old Kentucky Home" and so on. The American guy says, "What? Who's gonna buy that?" They said, "Well, we've tested it."
It turned out to be the most successful food commercial campaign ever staged in Japan. They sold, Kentucky Fried Chicken as this traditional southern, aristocratic American food. At that time, the early eighties, this sort of mystique of the United States still obtained. That would never work today, although I must say that, not that long ago, about five years ago, a student of mine here at UCSB went to Tokyo and sent me back a menu which completely blew my mind: Kentucky Fried Chicken's Christmas announcement, in which they advertised that most American families celebrated Christmas day with a bucket of KFC and all the fixings. This became the greatest Christmas year gross for KFC in Japan. It still works! This was not so long ago; maybe six years ago. I couldn't believe my eyes when I received this menu. That was the story that I followed in that film.
What does it say about the Japanese consumer — there may be an analog in the American consumer somewhere — that they buy that particular way of framing the product, that this is an aristocratic southern thing — I guess the focus is tradition, that's what they're pushing.
If you track Japanese consumer patterns from 1945 to the nineties, you see this over and over and over again. When [Akio] Morita put out the Walkman, the first thing he did was to sell it in the United States. He didn't even release it in Japan. Then he brought it back, and this became known as the "boomerang effect": "If the Americans loved it, we love it too." This went on as a social phenomenon in Japan for a long, long, long, long time.
I think the bloom is very much coming off the rose at this point; it has been for some time. Who knows what they were thinking? Were they thinking about Gone with the Wind? It was sold as an American nourishment package. One of their campaigns said, "American mommies, when they pick their little kids up at preschool and early kindergarten, their first stop on the way home is KFC." So the Japanese began releasing these little packages, after-school packages. All the moms would go there and buy their kids this stuff. It's just absolutely amazing.
Especially for something that seems so far out of the Japanese culinary tradition — it couldn't be farther.
Absolutely right. It's true.
You came back to Japan to do this documentary. Did you find anything that made you say to yourself, "Why did I ever leave Japan?"
Yes, I must say I did, although the truth is, though I made that film, I went back and made a bunch of other Enterprises about American things. That didn't lead, at that point, to an extended engagement in Japan again.
I felt happy to be there and I felt nostalgic and even rueful about having left the thing behind. I felt this even more powerfully later, when I went back in the middle of this commercial career that I found myself in in the late eighties. The National Gallery of Washington asked me to go make a film about eighteenth-century Japanese art, which I did. At that point, when I began filming calligraphers, I thought, "Oh my god, why haven't I been doing more of this?" That let me in the direction that brought me here to UCSB in 1994, after about a fifteen-year hiatus from the academy.
This is probably something that I should bring up. It'll shed light on your relationship with Japan: what Saul Bellow called you.
That's a very painful story that I did include in the book. Bellow came to Tokyo in 1974. I happened to be there at the time. I was of course in awe of Saul Bellow then, and, as a writer, now. I thought that novelists were the coolest people in the world, and Saul Bellow was way up high on my coolest-people-in-the-world list.
I was in a position in those days that when someone like Bellow came, I was often asked to be his guide. I undertook to take Saul Bellow around in his Virgil in Japan for a couple of weeks, and he had a sort of rocky time. His ego was getting in his way a lot. We had a good time — I thought we did — I took him to my home, I did this, that and the other thing and got to know him quite well. The day before he left, he said to me, "John, you are the best squaw man I have ever met."
I didn't know what a squaw man was, and I said, "Saul, thank you. What is a squaw man?" He said, "Oh, a squaw man is a wealthy scion of an east coast American family who is suffering insecurity complex problems and who goes west and marries an Indian woman and sets up housekeeping with her in a tent on the reservation in a teepee, and that's his way of feeling special." I, of course, was married to Mayumi Oda in those days, so Bellow was telling me that I was living in a teepee with my Japanese wife in order to feel special, which felled me like a crowbar at the time. In combination with the subsequent Katsu remark about "you cannot win," that's when I added it up and said, "Okay, I'm outta here, I'm leaving my teepee."
Do you think Bellow meant to insult you, or was that just kind of a humorous jab? I can't imagine that being delivered in any way that makes it seem innocuous.
You know, it was very deliberate. All I can say is — and I certainly don't want to speak ill of the dead, also I think he was a great genius — that he was a very nasty fellow. I have lots of evidence for that. I don't know; he just indulged in a mean impulse of the moment.
Someone else listening to this would say, "Oh, Nathan can't even see that Bellow was right." Perhaps that's also true, but even if it was right, it was a very mean thing to say to somebody who had just spent two weeks doing everything to give hm a good time in Japan.
Speaking of Bellow and his type, a lot of very well-known people have walk-on roles in your memoir: there's Saul Bellow, there's Werner Herzog, Stewart Brand, Roy Scheider, Sandra Bernhard. There's so many that cross your path. I wonder what effect that had on you, your perception of celebrity culture, meeting all these people that didn't always show their most beautiful side to you.
I'm a pretty old guy. I've been around for quite a while, and so it's not surprising that I've met a lot of people. There are many people that I feel very fortunate to have not only encountered in a passing way but spent time with: people like Barney Rosset, for example, the great octogenarian publisher, founder of Grove Press.
The Hollywood bunch never stuck me as being that interesting, compared to the writers, whom I much prefer to spend time with. I do feel, looking back on my life, that I've been very fortunate. It's been a very rich experience for me. I've had a chance to meet a lot of wonderful people whom I look up to, who taught me a lot and who inspired me to behave in ways I might not have been able to think of doing otherwise.
The very title of your book, Living Carelessly in Tokyo and Elsewhere — "carelessly," that's no mistake that word is there. Why that one?
A friend of mine who just read this book and who knows me quite well but I haven't seen in a long time says he was struck by the melancholy irony that runs through it. There is a fair amount of rue in this book, which is what I feel about my life. I feel that I have lived carelessly, not meaning insouciantly, by the way, but meaning without paying appropriate attention to things that should have mattered more.
This is going to be a real problem in Japanese; it's very hard to translate this into a decent title. I'm going to have to use something else, as a matter of fact. I tried to tone down the mea culpa to the extent that I could; nobody wants to read somebody putting on a hair shirt and lacerating himself. But there is a lot of regret in that book, and when I say living carelessly, that's what I mean. I think I have lived carelessly.
You've lived carelessly to the extent that you focused on certain things despite what was more important at the time. What was it that would draw your attention away from the more important things?
In this case, I'm mostly talking about relationships. People that I didn't treat with appropriate respect or care, or relationships that I let come unstiched or undone. I could extend that, actually, without getting into some kind of a hugely self-abnegatory spasm.
I think my life has been more or less "thrown," which is a word I think Werner Herzog stole from Heidegger. It means not really planned. I have lacked a certain kind of continuity in my life, which I think has cost me a lot. I look at people I know who've been married for 45 years and lived in the same house in Cambridge or wherever. I and my family, we've moved maybe 40 times in that same period of time, between California and then Boston and then back and then here. Continuity is, I think, a valuable thing to have, something I did not obtain. Now, I value it perhaps much more than I ever did before, so that's good.
There's a phrase you use in the book that stuck with me. You talked about your "unceasing efforts to undermine" yourself. Is that literally true? Were you unceasingly undermining yourself in life?
Now we're starting to sound a little bit like an armchair psychiatric session. I don't think I've been aware of that, but I think recently, as I look back, I can in fact identify certain self-destructive tendencies of my own that kept me from achieving the kinds of levels in things that I would have liked to achieve.
Why is this the time to write a memoir? You've got books in you, you're working on books still, it's certainly not the end of a career.
I wrote it fairly quickly once I got it started, but it's been a good four years that I've been dealing with it and working on it. Why now? First of all, one feels one's own mortality closing oneself as you approach 70, which I'm doing. I've had some difficulties at home, with my kids and so on, that made me feel — I think this is actually a foolish thing to feel, now that I've done this, but — I want my kids to have some kind of a more positive sense of me than I felt they had as I began writing this book. It was kind of a gift from me to them.
I am still able to write. You say "Why now?" You get to be a certain age, you think, "Who knows next year whether I'll be able to write this or not?" It just felt like the time I wanted to do it. It wasn't like I should wait so I can do some more cool things that I could get in there. It seemed like now is the time to do it, and I'm very glad that I have done it.
You know, one of the things I'm most grateful about is that it has already served me as a kind of bridge across my past to reach out to people whose acquaintance I've let drop and want to renew. I can send this to people who would get a special pleasure out of it, and use that as an opportunity to reconnect with them. I'm very grateful to have it for that reason.
That's a theme of the book, letting connections lapse. Something we all do.
That's carelessness, you see. That's the carelessness in the title, letting connections lapse. Turns out the older you get, the more poignantly you understand that letting connections lapse is not a good idea.
Have you already got some people from your past back into your circle?
I have. In the early chapters of this book, a Japanese fellow named Kenj Naito appears, who's this wonderful young guy whom I first met at my post-Harvard job at Nomura Securities on Wall Street before I came to Tokyo. I hadn't seen him for — oh my goodness — thirty years. I went to Tokyo, and having written about him, I wanted to reach out to him. We became very close again. I sent him this book; he was very moved. That's an example. I could actually give you twenty examples of that.
On April Fool's Day, I'm going to be speaking about the book at Harvard, which is a place I always love to go back. The Reischauer Institute invited me to be there. That night, my wife and I and my daughter and son, my whole family, are going out for dinner with six other couples, all of whom were my former Harvard roommates. I haven't seen some of them in thirty years. Several of these guys are very illustrious guys now, and I was able to send this to them and say, "Here I am." It helped me un-stop whatever it was that had clogged these connections, and it's a great thing to have.
You write a book about Mishima or Japan, it's very different. This is a book about me. It's like showing someone a mirror or giving them a portrait. I don't know how to describe it, but it works very powerfully.
I talk to people about entering into creative endeavors, and they always say one of the main rewards is that the works will connect you with people. It sounds like this one has more of that going on than even your average — if you write a novel, you'll find some people, but if you write something about yourself, this is going to have those people in it, and that'll be another draw for them, won't it?
Exactly. On the downside of that is the people who are not in it. You know, I originally wrote this not even imagining it would be published, because I thought memoirs are hard and I'm not a famous guy, so... and I'm very, very thrilled that Simon and Schuster took this book. But when you write that way, you're not in consideration about anybody particularly. What comes out is what comes out.
I was conscious of people in my life. Some, I didn't know what to write about them. Now, of course, I realize there are people who are going to get this thing and go right to the index and find themselves not there or in a few lines and are going to feel neglected or overlooked — hurt, abandoned, angry, who knows. Not to mention the interesting aspect having to do with one's family and how you reveal the family and what the family feels. I've had already a lot of... stuff around that issue, having shown the family sections and seeing how it goes down with them and so on. It's a very sensitive thing.
It seems to me that a writer of any memoir — and some admit to this — would ask themselves, "What are people going to learn from my life?" Is that a question you asked yourself?
Honestly, the answer would be that, consciously, I don't think I asked myself that question. It's not so much a question as it is a conviction of some kind: there are things about my life which brought me pleasure or understanding or pathos which I've always wanted to share with others. My movies are all about that, and my books too, in some sense: my desire to bring out and give you something that I've had. Whether you're going to learn from it or not? Maybe. I don't know about that.
But I think if it moves you in some way, that would please me. What I asked myself is, "Are there things in my story which others will find moving?" Beyond just interesting. Is that the same as learning? I don't know if it is, but I don't frame the question quite that way. I frame it, rather, in some kind of an emotional way: "Is this something that will move them the way it moved me?" And I hope it does.
Now that you've had all these experiences in Japan... and elsewhere, how had your attitude toward Japan come along? There are times in the book that it seems like the best thing thing that happened to you. There are times it seems like the bane of your existence, that you're tied to it.
The last chapter of this thing is called something like "Disengagement", and I really say that I felt a considerable abatement inside me of the passion that I had felt in the past for Japanese studies and for Japan itself and for living in Japan. I feel a renewed interest in other parts of me that are undeveloped but that are part of my legacy, certainly.
The novel I'm writing now, hard, is about the lower east side of New York, which is where my roots are. I'm very interested in that world, for the first time in my life. I'm studying Yiddish for the first time in my life. I've swung into another place where I feel a real affinity. I was with my 20-year-old son this fall in Tokyo for three months; I was teaching at ICU and he was living with me and attending classes. He kept saying to me, "Hey dad, what is this place got to do with you?"
I said to him, "Toby, that's a really good and a really troubling question, and I don't have a great answer." I began talking about things which are real: their sensitivity, their delicacy, the beauty of the stories. But he would look at this enormous, hulking New York guy, and he was saying, "What is this all about? What are you doing here?" Sometimes, in recent years, I confess I've asked myself that question. "What am I doing here? What was I doing there?" I think I understand many things about why I was there. It's not clear to me that it's as imperative I be there now as once it was.
You're a teacher at UCSB. You teach classes pretty regularly and you have kids of several ages. You're seeing a generation that's very much into Japan. Being someone who was interested in Japan kind of on the vanguard of that in America, what do you think of the way Japan — Japanese culture, Japanese stuff — for some American kids, a refuge?
I'm not the best person to ask about that. You're talking, of course, about anime and manga and some design elements and stuff like that. That's what it's about. You're talking about the otaku movement. This year, at ICU, we had students from UC campuses, and a number of them — maybe there were thirty kids total — studying in this program in Tokyo. More than half of them were computer and game addicts and freaks whose principal interest in Japan was this.
I have a very strong negative reaction to that, and I conducted myself accordingly. I said, "Look, you guys want to study that, you study that. I'm going to teach you wonderful things about Japan that you don't have any idea about, many of which are the fundament on top of which all this other stuff that wows you stands." I don't know what to say about this. There's certainly a vitality in this kind of thing. I don't know whether these kids get as close as they might to the essence of what this is all about by approaching it through, say, manga or anime.
Do you ever meet kids you teach that are interested in Japan in the same way you were?
Good question. Yes, I do. Those are the students in whom I feel the most interest. They're sort of rare, I would say, but they're certainly there. Kids who are genuinely moved, in some ways they can't even express, by something they're feeling about Japanese sensibility, Japanese culture, Japanese achievement, who just want to pursue it because they feel as though they love it. Those are the kids I look for, and I do have them regularly, if in very small numbers.
What do you try to impress upon these kids? What do you want them to understand?
I don't expect them to understand this or that or anything else specific. I try to suggest to them that if they're feeling what they are, what they really need to do is pursue the essence of that by learning more and more, so they can get to a place where they understand what they feel and have reasons for feeling it. I want them to expand the focus of their interests, and I want them to deepen it. I want them to learn Japanese well, I want them to work hard, I want them to learn to read, to do all the things that I did in the process of rooting myself in this very foreign society and culture.
All feedback welcome at colinjmarshall at gmail.
My Life As A Crime Fighter: Absolute Prosecutorial Discretion – Part 2
Note: This narrative was created from three true stories. Each character is a combination of more than one real person. I changed names and story elements to preserve the privacy of individuals.
Part 1 of this story can be found HERE.
The story so far
My nephew, Samuel Anders, was arrested, at gun point, on a charge of domestic violence. His wife, Kara Thrace, called 911 after she was pushed by Samuel and fell over a chair. The 911 dispatcher asked if there was a firearm in the house. She answered, “Yes,” but didn't say that the pistol was hers, and that Samuel did not know where she hid it, under lock and key. The introduction of a firearm into this situation resulted in six police cars and a dozen officers surrounding the house and calling for Samuel to come out with his hands raised in the air.
Samuel was going to plead guilty, enroll in an anger management class, get counseling, be placed on probation for a year, and pay a fine. He called me to borrow $550 for his fine. When he described the events to me, it was clear he committed no crime. Kara overreacted to Samuel's leaving the house to avoid an argument with her. She ran up to him, blocked his exit, and thrust herself in his face while shouting insults. Samuel, reacting involuntarily and instinctively, threw up his hands. Kara was unhurt, locked herself in her bedroom, and called the police.
Following Samuel's release from jail, Kara went to the Assistant County Attorney, Cassandra Misandre, and asked that the charges be dropped. Kara explained she overreacted. She told of being emotionally distraught over her sister's death, she was depressed, and had been in severe pain from an anal fissure, for three weeks, at the time of the pushing incident. Misandre would not drop the charges.
I found a lawyer for Samuel and told him I would take care of all the legal bills. I retained Huntsville, Alabama attorney John Hunt “Thunderbolt” Morgan.
“The South Shall Rise Again!”
I flew to Huntsville and met Samuel and Kara at Thunderbolt's Law Office. His assistant seated us, and took orders for coffee. I stood to admire the wall of awards, and photographs. In the center was a daguerreotype photo of John Hunt “Thunderbolt” Morgan, a General for the Confederacy in the Civil War. He was a native of Huntsville, and famous as a cavalry officer. Samuel's attorney was a direct descendant of General Morgan.
The honorifics were a testimony to his role in the new South. He was acknowledged for service on an Inter-faith council, and there was a certificate of appreciation from the N.A.A.C.P. He was member of several committees for battered women, abused children, and foster care. Judging by the photographs, he knew every politician, police chief, and religious leader in Alabama. Soon the assistant beckoned, “Mr. Morgan will see you now,” and pointed to the door of Thunderbolt's office. We put down our coffee, filed in, and the assistant closed the door behind us.
Who Did What to Whom?
We quickly got down to business. Samuel told the whole story [Link here]. If he forgot an important detail, or I felt there was more to be learned, I would ask him a question, so he could elaborate. Kara sat a bit behind Samuel and me. She did not utter a single word from the time she greeted Thunderbolt until she gave a him a perfunctory “Good bye” upon leaving the office.
Thunderbolt did not say a word during Samuel's narrative. He took notes, but mostly he sat up with focused attention. Samuel finished his story. He broke down and cried. I reached for the tissue box on Thunderbolt's desk and handed it to him. Samuel was speaking to Thunderbolt through his tears. He said, “I just don't want my wife to have to go through any more trouble. She's had a lot to deal with this past year, and I don't want to make her suffer any more.” Samuel regained his composure.
Thunderbolt asked Kara if she wanted to add anything. I turned to see her head shake and her mouth form a muted “No.” At this point he focused solely on my nephew. He explained to Samuel that he did nothing wrong, and certainly did not commit a crime. He told Samuel that he was assaulted by Kara, and that pushing Kara was an involuntary, instinctive reaction of self defense. He said, “At the time, Kara was under an enormous amount of stress and in a great deal of pain. I understand. But her behavior led directly to your reaction which is not criminal, and not domestic violence.”
“Stop Breaking My Balls”
Thunderbolt picked up his phone, flicked his Rolodex, and dialed Assistant County Attorney Cassandra Misandre. “Cassey. Johnny Morgan here … I don't usually catch you in your office. What's the matter? They don't have enough work for you?” After a bit of repartee, he said, “Look, I'm representing Samuel Anders on a charge of domestic violence, and I'm letting you know we are pleading 'Not Guilty.'” He was about to continue, but Misandre grabbed the conversation and wouldn't let go. He surrendered, sat back in his chair, rolled his eyes, and waited patiently for her to run out of air.
“Cassey, there's no case here, and you know it. You …” Her coil spring had a very fast regenerative cycle. He surrendered again. He gave us a look that was a silent plea, asking us if we could believe this. He had less patience this time. “What the hell are you talking about? There's no case. Stop breaking my balls! You arrested the wrong person. He's the victim.” Thunderbolt was telling her that it's easier and less costly simply to drop the charges. I don't know how many times he said, “There's no case here.” When he hung up the phone he said to Samuel, “She's going to make you jump through all the hoops. So we will show up at the Courthouse and enter your plea.”
“What happens after that?” Samuel asked. “And if she doesn't drop the charges?”
“This is ridiculous. She should have dropped the charges. I will talk to her face-to-face at the Courthouse and see if she's in a better mood. “You still enter a plea, which gives us time to see what's going on in the County prosecutor's office. I just don't understand this.”
Thunderbolt and Samuel discussed various contingencies and options. We left the office with Thunderbolt giving Samuel reassurances, telling him not to worry, and that he should just go about his normal business. I said my “Goodbyes” to Samuel and Kara and left for the airport for my flight home.
I flew to Huntsville the following week and caught up with everyone at the Courthouse. Samuel and Kara were alone. Thunderbolt arrived a half-hour earlier to talk to Cassandra Misandre. I took a stroll down a couple of corridors, following the muffled sound of a heated conversation behind closed doors. Signs on the doors read, “Attorney Conference Room.” While I could not make out the conversation, I did recognize Thunderbolt's voice. In spite of heavy muffling, you can always make out the word, “fuck.”
I returned to Samuel and Kara, and Thunderbolt caught up with us. He explained the situation. Misandre was not going to drop the charges. Samuel was worried and had a lot of questions. Thunderbolt said we would meet at his office after the arraignment. He wanted to get the plea entered, then set a trial date that would give him plenty of time to prepare a case and try to get the charges dropped.
Kara and I sat in the back of the courtroom and watched the brief proceedings. Thunderbolt kept interrupting the proceedings to lambaste the prosecutor. I've watched enough TV episodes of “Law and Order” to know this is a totally useless gesture at an arraignment. I learned that he was setting the tone for his courtroom battle with Misandre. He was getting a head start on intimidating her. Also, he was trying to imprint the judge's mind with Samuel's case. You never know if this judge is going to be involved at a later time, or even be assigned as the trial judge.
The General Prepares the Field for Battle
We walked up the street to Thunderbolt's office and sat in his conference room. His assistant took sandwich orders for lunch. He excused himself to attend to messages and phone calls. We were just about finished when he returned. Thunderbolt was focused and all business. He gave us pens and legal pads.
He asked a lot of detailed questions and then handed out assignments to Samuel and Kara so they could begin to collect evidence and character witnesses. They had to sign about a dozen release forms for documents like medical records, insurance reimbursements, mental health counseling, and the police. He instructed Kara to write a time line of all the bad events in her life in the 12 months before the pushing incident. “I don't want to read about anything good than happened. I only want the things that caused you problems.” he told her. “Write down all your doctor appointments and the reason. List all your medications. For the 30 days prior to the incident, I want to know your daily medication regimen, down to the dosage and time of day. Do either one of you use illegal drugs or non-prescribed controlled substances?” They were on the verge of saying, “No,” when he held up his hand to stop them. “Now, I don't want any bullshit! You tell me the truth.” They fessed up to smoking grass on occasion.
He looked at each of them, held them with an intense gaze, and said, “Kara, I have no reason to suspect that Samuel has been unfaithful to you. What I want to know is if you suspected him of being unfaithful at the time of the pushing incident. Do not tell me anything about before the incident or after.”“No, not at all. Like I told the prosecutor and the police, Samuel's been a great husband and step-father.”
He asked Samuel the same question. He gave the answer that Thunderbolt expected.
“Alright.” The General's descendant gave Samuel his assignments. Among these was collecting statements from other couples with whom they socialize and attend church. “Make sure you get statements from all of them.”
It was my turn. “You write a truthful, heart warming, story about your relationship with Samuel – not about your relationship with Kara. Don't say anything from the day of the pushing incident, and afterward.
“You are not writing this as a psychologist. This is not a psychological evaluation. This is about you talking about Samuel. But, make sure you put in the fact that you are a psychologist and have a PhD. Got it?”
“Here Come Da Judge”
I flew to Huntsville for the pre-trial conference with the judge. I waited with Samuel and Kara in a conference room. Samuel was greatly stressed, and worried sick over what might happen. Kara was a bit glum and reticent, as usual. Samuel stopped his pacing and sat down next to Kara. They were looking straight ahead, out a window at the brick side of a commercial building. “You know, I wouldn't be here if you hadn't told them about your gun. Why did you tell them?”
“What was I supposed to do? They asked me if there was a gun in the house.”
“You could have told them it was your gun and that I didn't know where the fuck it was."
“They didn't ask me!”
“You could have told them!”
“What are you getting angry at me for. It's over and done, so stop crying over spilled milk.”
“Fucking spilled milk! I could end up in jail with a criminal record and you call it fucking spilled milk!"
“Watch it mister! You're already down one!”
The tension was broken when Thunderbolt came in the door. “We are going to trial. The prosecutor said she would rather lose at trial than drop the charges.”
“But what did the judge say?” Samuel was fit to be tied.
Thunderbolt quoted the judge, the Honorable Laura Roslin. “Look Johnny, I think Cassey's going to have a very tough time with a jury. But, she wants to go to trial. There's nothing more I can do.”
Samuel wanted to know how the prosecutor could go ahead with a trial. Can't she be stopped, couldn't they sue her, bring her up on charges, go to the newspapers, tell her boss? Thunderbolt told him the County Attorney, alone, has the power to decide who gets prosecuted. “Unless you can prove that the prosecutor is taking a bribe, or sleeping with the defendant's spouse, there is no impeachment of the prosecutor's decision. This is what is known as absolute prosecutorial discretion.”
“You do and I'll shove....” Kara caught herself muttering and stopped. Thunderbolt turned to ask if she had said something, but she deflected the question with a slight shaking of her head, “No.” The room fell silent. Thunderbolt walked over to the window, his hands in his pockets, and looked out. He was mulling over a problem, trying to find a solution.
“Pssssst, I Got a Plan!”
“I need to confer with my client. The two of you go across the street and get a cup of coffee. When you come back, wait outside in the hall.” This was not a request. It was an order. We took our coffee to go, returned, and nursed our coffee in the corridor. Eventually, Thunderbolt opened the door, and called to Kara. She went inside and he closed the door.
Kara and Samuel came out and lingered in the doorway. Samuel said to her, “Don't worry. Everything is going to be alright. I promise”
“Are you sure?”
It took a few repetitions of “Don't worry,” and “Are you sure?” before Kara said “Okay.” She turned and walked toward me. Samuel returned to the conference room and closed the door. Kara walked past me, saying she was going home. Minutes later, Thunderbolt and Samuel emerged.
“Norman, I need your help. Come with us, we're going to police department.” I asked no questions, and fell into lockstep behind Thunderbolt. The lobby of the police building was fortified against assault teams armed with automatic weapons, hand grenades, and rockets. This was serious security. Or so I thought.
Thunderbolt strode in like he owned the place, greeting every police officer by first name. He hardly broke his stride as locked doors buzzed open, as if by magic. Every police officer greeted him by his first name, and with a big smile. We made our way to an inside area of cubicles.
“Hey Bobby, how are you?”
“Great Johnny. What do hear?”
“Nothing but the rain.”
“Then grab your fishing pole and bring in the cat.”
Thunderbolt got down to business. The plan was to force Misandre's hand. Bobby helped them fill out a criminal complaint for assault, naming Kara as the offender. “I want you to give this a file number, but don't enter it in the computer. If you don't hear from me by 4:45 PM, then go ahead and enter it. Fax this over to Cassey's office now. Follow up with a phone call to her assistant and have it delivered to Cassey, immediately. She is sure to call you back right away. Tell her I asked you to fax it over. If she asks if it's in the computer, tell her I said to go ahead and enter it, if you don't hear from me by 4:45 PM. If she asks for me, tell her I returned to my office.”
“Not a problem.”
“This here is Norman Costa. He is not a party to this case. He's going to sit here and not bother anybody. After Cassey calls you to confirm everything, let Norman know and he'll go back to my office. If nothing happens by 4:45 PM, he will leave, and you can enter the file into the system.”
Thunderbolt and Samuel returned to his office. It wasn't 20 minutes before Bobby let me know that Misandre called and confirmed the particulars. I thanked him and left.
The Fall Out
Samuel was sobbing when I got back to Thunderbolt's office. Assistant prosecutor Misandre had dropped the charges, and said Kara would not be prosecuted. Thunderbolt asked his assistant to get a towel. He put his hands on Samuel's shoulders and said they were going to step out of the office to give him some privacy. “You did a great job today. When you feel up to it, Call Kara to give her the good news.”
A few months later, Assistant County Attorney Cassandra Misandre was transferred to the Civil Division. Thunderbolt spoke to a number of attorneys, and judges. Some of the defense attorneys in Huntsville had had serious problems with Misandre's prosecutions, resulting in unwarranted pleas to lesser charges. A retired judge was tapped to talk to the County Attorney. Her transfer would not be accompanied by any kind of discipline or documentation, and there would be no review of prior cases.In the following year I heard very little from Samuel. In the past three months it ceased all together. Samuel, Kara, and I were Facebook Friends. I checked my Friends list. I had been defriended.
Monday PoemSong Behind a Rear-Tined Tiller
They believed consciousness resided in the heart
Aristotle believed this, and the Egyptians
who scooped out dead Pharaoh's brain
through his nose with a spoon
and stuffed his skull with rags assuring
he would not be thinking in the other world
to which he'd travel by long boat
being wrapped in cloth, speechless, supine in gold,
embarked with a breathless retinue of slaves
through the hole at the end of the earth
to a place far in imagination
Here and now the sun climbs a trellis of trees
along a rail line on which, at irregular intervals,
a freight comes dragging coal behind three engines
or hauls ladened boxcars labeled J.B. Hunt,
or pulls chains of chemical tanks and steel containers
heavy with the inventions of consciousness
some inscribed with graffiti sprayed by
a deft hand in letters bold and color-nuanced
arranged with a master's touch
tuned to the songs of heart or brain
while the smell of blue-grey diesel
sparks a synapse between beats
and one step follows another
behind a rear-tined tiller
as I urge a throttle
Who knows who sings
through what instrument
by Jim Culleny, 4/22/10
By Maniza Naqvi
A puck planted on the right ear a pucch pressed in on the left. The sound still explosive in my head, I close my eyes as the full body search begins.
Arms stretched, legs apart, I assume the first step for the warrior pose. And now there lodged behind my eyes like an invisible stowaway Beyla’s kiss rings like a needling alarm, like a drill which draws a sharpened line, splitting my mind. Beyla’s bangles, white from wrist to shoulder, still jangle in my memory. I remember the sight of her skin cracked by searing sun as though it were ancient parchment covered in scripture and stretched over her bones: x-ray thin.
Stand still I am told. I shield myself inside that memory of bright sunlight, and shades of yellow, indigo, magenta and burnt earth. The kiss in my head undistilled, a discomfiting disturbance still. I think as I drift away: It’s a slim word. Still, a strong word. A good word. Even so. Even now. Quiet. Calm. Serene. Motion less. Breeze less. Yet. And so. Continuing. Continues.
Now, at the scanner machines I watch as the stuff sorter in a private security uniform wearing translucent disposable gloves, fishes out of my large handbag, a travel alarm clock, batteries, earphones tangled in so many keys— car, apartment and to the mailbox full of bills. An earring and a sheaf of papers appear next. A frangipani blossom, still moist, pressed inside a small black notebook flops out. There is a Spanish fan. She opens the fan, with both hands, unfurls it using her thumbs and sets it aside—painted geese against a dark blue sky—like the ones visiting Karachi from the frozen Siberia every winter. On the handle Espana painted in golden letters. A made in China, fan. I reach for the fan to show her how it’s done, the ratatat sudden sound of the unfurling, instant, with just one flick of my wrist—a trick I learned long ago in Manila, inflicts, in her, fear. Startled, she stops me—though I am done, “Don’t touch anything!” All I own—off limits to me, now weapons under her scrutiny and prying fingers—till she has judged them as benign; till her opinion has sterilized them; made them permissible to go on; all my stuff cleansed by a cleared and approved approver, till the next check point. She clucks her disapproval at the blossom—separates it out for disposal in a large trash bin which reminds me of the delete symbol on my email. In all this I give my head a vigorous shake, hoping to discard the ringing but it clings in there, undetected. She plucks up the imam zamin.
‘An imam zamin.”
A talisman, like a good luck charm, you know to keep me safe on my journey.”
She raises her eyebrows, “What’s inside this knot in the center?”
“Small change,” I reply, “Meant to be given to a poor person at my final destination.”
She unrolls the silk ribbon—
I say, That’s not supposed to be opened till I get to where I'm going.”
She undoes the knot. She plucks out the money.
I protest, in my own way, “To open it, here that way. That’s bad luck.”
“I don’t know,” I reply, “I guess we’ll see.”
She glances at me. Widening my eyes I stare back and shrug. Then I wait for her to say I can and only then I gather the stuff. Scattered on the stainless steel counter now under the bright lights of the airport each item separated and at a safe distance from the other, now changed now transformed now sanitized. Except for the kiss, its stays, unwanted, undetected.
“Please follow us to this room.”
Now made naked by a body scanner though here they say I am not I go through the motions again of arms up, legs apart. I keep my mind on Beyla in the desert in Badin. For whom, consumed with charity I had traveled long distances flown through several time zones, over an ocean, over whole mountain ranges covered in silvery snow, frozen lakes, atrophying rivers, blue gulfs, vast golden deserts, seas and countless wars. All that way and all that cost to come and verify Beyla for myself as a destitute. I meet her outside her mud hut. I step in to check whether in fact she has nothing. Inside her home, two rope beds, charpoys, with patchwork covers in red, black, orange, a clean dirt floor, a tin trunk under one bed, a plank running along the upper edge of the four walls—upon which are displayed shining tin plates, cups and pots. One wall is covered with posters of Benazir. Still. An airless, listless silence defined by the buzzing of flies, the slithering of geckos in the thatched roof overhead and her six children, gather around staring up at me. Five little thin girls, large eyes, two with runny noses, snot dribbling down to their chins, one with an infant brother straddling her boney hip.
My assessment complete, I step outside. Beyla has passed the test. She is indeed poor. I have decided I will approve the check. Do my bit.
The silence is interrupted from the wails of women somewhere nearby. I make polite inquiries about the provenance of the anguish. It is an ongoing funeral for someone killed while trespassing. A foreign oil drilling corporation in the area keeping everyone off and out of territory leased from the Government and shooting trespassers at sight --- Natives of Badin are stealing into their own land naturally then, shots will be fired and people will be killed. As I leave, the headman for the village, the Mukhi, comes forward and in deference to my power refers to me as Sir, offers me a gift of sweets. I imagine Beyla spitting in my direction behind my back. I think I hear her swear—Chutiya---The children giggle. Then just as I am about to step into the jeep, my head is grabbed, hands clapped on either side of it and Beyla turns me around to face her. She plants a kiss on this ear and that. A gigantic puck sound on the right pushes in air a thunderous pucch on the other pushes air out. She grins and says, ‘ Go safely.’ And the ringing begins.
Now cleansed now cleared, my departure gate within my sight, I wonder if here there is a difference between Beyla and I. Now returning home from home; now passed the check points; now through the club lounge; now boarded and seated; now, neither here nor there; now up in the air: I am again in that no man’s space of lonely, of revelation, called jetlag. And now the self interrogation begins. The tintinitus growing louder by the hour. Did Beyla swear at me? Or was it directed at the Mukhi? Or at both of us? Who did she think I was there to support?
Now, I watch white sand beaches on a video on the back of a seat on the plane. I check my emails to see if all is well. I sit strapped in; IPOD in hand. The sound from it I’m hoping will drive out the commotion inside my head. I sit watching the water move in and out. The sun shimmers over it. The colors change. This place must be heaven in which I sit at a tilt and just watch. This must be the reward: for doing nothing. This sun; this beach; those perfect skins, those perfect smiles and those perfect teeth. This velocity without my energy. This lack of action at high speed. This must be the place that people leave home in search of.
Quiet. Calm. Serene. Motion less. Breeze less. Yet. And so. Continuing. Continues. Even so. Even now. Ringing in me, still.
April 25, 2010
Iceland's Volcano Against the Amazing Backdrop of Northern LightsPictures in the Daily Mail (via Andrew Sullivan):
Anderson's Amphibologies: On Perry AndersonMark Mazower in The Nation:
As a student during the 1980s, I gave the "European Union" section in the library a wide berth. The pall of soporific technocracy that hung over it made the adjacent shelves of books on law and political science enticing by comparison. A lot more has been written on the EU since then, most of it perpetuating that same "mortal dullness," to borrow a phrase from the historian Perry Anderson. Dullness, on the other hand, is one charge no one has ever levied at Anderson, whose new book, The New Old World, is as insightful, combative and invigorating as its illustrious predecessors. Given Anderson's long and intimate engagement with Europe, both as an editor of the New Left Review and a regular contributor to the London Review of Books for the past two decades, one looks forward to what one gets--a bracing assault from somewhere on the left on the conventional Europieties, and new perspectives on the evolution, and likely future trajectory, of one of the most important political and cultural experiments of our time.
Anderson states the fundamental analytical difficulty of his project at the outset. Europe appears to be an "impossible object," constantly slipping among three quite distinct literatures. There are histories of the postwar continent, mostly written in the shadow of the cold war and paying little attention to the European Union; there is the vast outpouring of works, popular and scholarly, focusing not on Europe per se but on this or that European country. (The EU may be a polity of sorts, but the political and intellectual energies of most Europeans still flow at the national level.) Finally, there is what we might call professional EUrology: a series of interventions, chiefly by legal scholars and political scientists, on the technicalities of the integration process and its institutions. Given the amnesiac quality of much of this last in particular, Anderson's ability to move fluently among the three literatures, and above all to evaluate the EU as an ideology, is necessary and timely.
Anderson takes as his starting point a series of reflections on the work of the historian Alan Milward, who in The Reconstruction of Western Europe, 1945-51 (1984), The European Rescue of the Nation-State (1992) and The Frontiers of National Sovereignty (1993) demonstrated the degree to which the politics of the nation-state remained vital in explaining the postwar drive toward European integration.
Christopher Hitchens re-reads Animal FarmIn the Guardian:
Like much of his later work – most conspicuously the much grimmer Nineteen Eighty-Four – Animal Farm was the product of Orwell's engagement in the Spanish civil war. During the course of that conflict, in which he had fought on the anti-fascist side and been wounded and then chased out of Spain by supporters of Joseph Stalin, his experiences had persuaded him that the majority of "left" opinion was wrong, and that the Soviet Union was a new form of hell and not an emerging utopia. He described the genesis of the idea in one of his two introductions to the book:
. . . for the past ten years I have been convinced that the destruction of the Soviet myth was essential if we wanted a revival of the socialist movement. On my return from Spain I thought of exposing the Soviet myth in a story that could be easily understood by almost anyone . . . However, the actual details of the story did not come to me for some time until one day (I was then living in a small village) I saw a little boy, perhaps ten years old, driving a huge carthorse along a narrow path, whipping it whenever it tried to turn. It struck me that if only such animals became aware of their strength we should have no power over them, and that men exploit animals in much the same way as the rich exploit the proletariat.
I proceeded to analyse Marx's theory from the animals' point of view.
The simplicity of this notion is in many ways deceptive. By undertaking such a task, Orwell was choosing to involve himself in a complex and bitter argument about the Bolshevik revolution in Russia: then a far more controversial issue than it is today. Animal Farm can be better understood if it is approached under three different headings: its historical context; the struggle over its publication and its subsequent adoption as an important cultural weapon in the cold war; and its enduring relevance today.