Some revolutionary history: Chicago, 1960s and on

Thanks to my friend Tony Báez for forwarding this article — a much more detailed report on a Chicago-based movement that I discussed briefly in my book Hispanic Nation. And I send saludos to Omar López and ChaCha Jiménez, whom I haven't seen now for many years but who are still active raising Cain and consciousness.

 Newspapers of the Young Lords Organization, by Michael Gonzales.


Return to the ´60s

If at all possible, you must see this exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum: Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties
 Or if you can't get to Brooklyn, at least check out the website and the catalogue. But it's not the same as seeing the vibrant, sometimes chilling, often enraged, and at times oddly distant — a protective distance, the artist's self-shielding from painful emotion — of that terrible, sometimes joyous, often heart-breaking period of struggles for simple human dignity. Among the highlights: Romare Bearden's collages, a video of Nina Simone singing with full emotion "Mississippi Godam", a collage-construction by artist Jack Whitten called simply Birmingham : a newspaper photo from the bombing of the black Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama,  in September 1963, which killed four girls, at the center of an explosion of aluminum foil, stocking mesh, plywood and paint.
We revisited that era yesterday at the Museum, with the added joy of performance and talk by Sonia Sanchez, Bernice Reagon, and Bernice's musician daughter Toshi. They reminded us of the hope that survived, and the victories — never complete, but still significant — in those years of nonviolent struggle. Nonviolent on one side, that is.


Why a novel about the Paris Commune

Why write about events so long ago, specifically the late 19th century? Because it's terribly exciting, and because it can tell us a lot of how and why things got to be the way they are today. This was a period of very rapid changes, all of which contributed to and their effects magnified by the tumultuous 2-month life of the Paris Commune (18 March - 24 May 1871):
  • the linking of distant places by the railways, facilitating not only commerce and diplomacy, but also labor organizing nationally and even internationally; 
  • the invention of mass journalism, spreading ideas and also creating a new class of intellectual workers — and stimulating (by reporting, diatribes, proposals) all of the other many changes;
  • mechanization of industries such as textile, mining, chemicals, printing and others, bringing with it the creation of an industrial proletariat and the marginalization of specialized crafts workers, all of them anxious to defend or improve their lot as the terrain shifted from under them;
  • revolutionary movements of many forms and ideals — utopian Fourerists, anarchists around Bakunin, and socialists and communists, some more or less influenced by Marx;
  • international wars — France and Prussia, most immediately — suddenly changed the relations of forces among countries, industries, and regions,
  • and great production and innovation in literature, painting and sculpture as artists, jolted by all these events, sought new ways to respond. 
I hope only to suggest some of this. It's keeping me busy.


Remembering Pete Seeger

It must have been at the concert he gave at Harvard on May 18, 1961 that I first saw and heard Pete Seeger in person. It was so long ago, and my memories so imprecise, I had to search the Harvard Crimson to be sure of the date. What I remember clearly is that the event was more than musical, that I and many of us at Harvard (I was a junior) knew that his appearance at that time, and our support, was a strong political statement, our protest against the suppression of critical speech (and song) that was orchestrated by the right-wing press and business interests and their men in Congress. Seeger had a "contempt of Congress" conviction, carrying a one-year jail sentence, pending against him (he had refused to name names) and on that pretext, Harvard had initially banned the concert. But there was sufficient pro-free speech sentiment at Harvard, including not just among us students but even on the law faculty, to make the university president relent. And as I recall, the house was packed. I don't remember what he sang, but I remember him as tall, dignified, and weary. He was under tremendous pressure. And grateful for our presence, as we were delighted by his. See this May 8, 1961, article in the Crimson.


Point of view, time, place and story

99 Ways to Tell a Story: Exercises in Style99 Ways to Tell a Story: Exercises in Style by Matt Madden
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a lot of fun, especially for fans (like me) of comic book art. Madden has a skillful pen (and brush and photographer's eye, because he uses various media), and is good at imitating the styles of other cartoonists he admires. The question he poses (as did Raymond Queneau, whose 1947 book Exercices de style inspired this one) is whether, by changing point of view, tense and tone, we are really telling the same story.

Like Queneau, he begins with a very simple (rather silly) anecdote: comic artist (Madden) gets up from his desk to go to the refrigerator, is interrupted by his partner's question about the time, and forgets what it was he was looking for in the refrigerator. That seems to be a story about forgetfulness. But when the point of view is that of the refrigerator, it's about the ridiculous and confused meddling of human beings with the calm mechanical life enjoyed by the 'fridge. Or if the p.o.v. is of the lady friend who asks the time, it's about the unreliability of her partner. And if it's set in the future on a space ship, it may be about the bewilderment caused by supersonic travel. And so on.

No, it no longer is the same story if, for example, the Odyssey is told from the point of view of Leopold Bloom in Dublin in 1904, instead of the weary, crafty warrior Ulysses on the sea in the far more distant past.

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Blood stained humor

L'Insurge (French Edition)L'Insurgé by Jules Vallès
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Jules Vallès was a central figure in the Paris Commune of March-May 1871: popular orator, creator and editor of the most-read newspaper, Le Cri du Peuple, elected deputy and even an elected battalion commander. He remained at the barricades throughout the "Week of Blood", la Semaine Sanglante of annihilation, but survived — through a combination of lucky breaks, discreet risk-taking friends, and clever improvisations — to tell the tale. In 1886, the year of his death, he told this part of it in this fictional autobiography, published posthumously and narrated by his alter-ego "Jacques Vingtras".
We can't know how much of it he fictionalized — very little, apparently, except that "Jacques Vingtras" focuses especially on the comic and self-deprecating details, careful not to attribute to himself anything like heroism, a notion he distrusts. Thus we see "Jacques" as a battalion commander with no military aptitude or tactical sense who issues contradictory and at times nonsensical orders, a loudmouth so brash he enrages people who should be allies, and so much in a hurry all the time that he can't get his official deputy's sash on straight. In the context of an immense tragedy he describes other moments not comical but so strange that I'm sure he didn't make them up: For example, when a handful of National Guards (the Commune's defenders) are running for their lives under a fierce cannonade, they pass an old, blind beggar still begging at his accustomed spot before a now-destroyed church, and — they stop to give him coins! The old urban habits of those men survived even under such enormous stress. It is the attention to such minute detail, in the context of broad involvement in all the politics of the Commune, that makes this book invaluable for feeling and reliving the immense drama. And because Vallès/Vingtras is so unpretentious, he's good company, even if his shorthand phrases and extensive use of slang sometimes make him hard to follow.

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A context for literature

Making the News: Modernity and the Mass Press in Nineteenth-Century FranceMaking the News: Modernity and the Mass Press in Nineteenth-Century France by Jeannene M. Przyblyski
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

These ten essays tell not only about how the modern "news" paper came to be, but also how it shaped the conditions for the creation of the vast and expanding literature of 19th century France. Émile de Girardin (1802-1881) had a lot to do with both phenomena: he created the first paper which claimed to be nonpartisan (and thus called simply "La Presse"), cut the price in half (to the outrage of his competitors, one of whom challenged him to a duel for disloyal competition), and financed the publication mainly by filling the pages with advertising; he thus expanded circulation far beyond the privileged, monied élite, and gained the revenue to pay writers including Balzac, Sue, Gautier and a great many others.
Besides Girardin, a reader can learn here about Daumier's battles (through his caricatures) with Louis-Philippe and Louis Napoléon, and about such colorful journalists as Émile Pouget (1860-1931), who employed deliberately obscene and comical working-class vernacular to attack everybody in power.
What I missed was any discussion of the press during the Paris Commune (March-May, 1871), when over a score of new papers with enormous circulation flourished briefly, with editors including Jules Vallès (Le Cri du Peuple), Maxime Vuillaumine (Le Père Duchene) and Prosper-Olivier Lissagaray (author of the monumental Histoire de la Commune). There is however an essay by Przyblyski on the post-Commune manipulation of photographs and documents by Eugène Appert to contribute to the myth of the "pétroleuses", the crazed women incendiaries who supposedly created most of the destruction of Paris in the last days of the Commune — and who, if they existed at all, must have been very rare.

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A frightening thought experiment

Lord Of The FliesLord Of The Flies by William Golding
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

An unknown number of British boys, none older than 12 and others half that age, are marooned on an otherwise uninhabited Pacific island, with no adults, and after some childish attempts to reproduce civilized order, turn into murderous savages. This is a powerful thought experiment, terrifying because it is so believable — as Stephen King also says, in his graceful and convincing prologue to this edition. If we could turn loose a lot of boys this young, with enough food and water to survive but no adult supervision, something like this would be bound to happen in only a few weeks time, or less. All of us who have been 12-year-old boys can remember those inchoate feelings, those moments of exultation at being free of supervision, and other moments of unbridled rage when we felt capable of any violence, and our feeling that we had to be part of some group, either as leaders or followers.

No need to say more — reviews and detailed discussions of every aspect of this book, and of the films made from it, are readily available on the 'Net. What is especially frightening is knowing that not only children can turn so cruel, but that we adults are susceptible to similar mass behavior with even more violent consequences (in "The Lord of the Flies" only two children are killed, stupidly and frantically by a crazed mob, and another "littlun" with a birthmark is lost; imagine if these painted young savages had access to landmines, rockets and suicide belts). In fact (a point made by many readers), Ralph, Piggy, Jack Meridew and the other boys on the island are replicating in childish form the behaviors of the real adults on Pitcairn Island. I don't think anyone who has read this book will be able to forget it, because it reminds us of too many terrors in our real pasts.

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Big Pharma is out to get you

The Constant GardenerThe Constant Gardener by John le Carré
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

John LeCarré here sets in motion a dozen or more morally and psychologically complex characters in many directions at once, leading into three major stories and at least a half a dozen lesser ones. The framing story is about Big Pharma, the enormously wealthy multinational pharmaceutical companies which can cure you or kill you to make a profit, and the people who try to be sure they do mostly good things and curb its corrupt tendencies. The second is an adventure story of a lone man, the "constant gardener"of the title, using his wits against an enormous conspiracy with deadly power — much like LeCarré's famous intelligence operative George Smiley, but here the enemy is not Iron Curtain spy rings but Big Pharma, which has killed his wife. Finally, and here the subtlety and complexity of LeCarré's imagination is best displayed, there is the story of divided loyalties, virtue and weakness and ultimately self-betrayal, exhibited to some degree by several characters but especially by the gifted, deeply religious and morally confused Markus Lorbeer.
LeCarré's fictional DKV, with enormous financial resources and political influence, hopes to make millions from an anti-TB drug created by a smaller partner based in Kenya, and is willing to bribe or otherwise pressure doctors, scientific journals, hospitals and regulators to get it approved and paid for with public money; meanwhile the operation in Kenya is testing the drug on Kenya's poor, not necessarily a bad thing if there are adequate safeguards. But there are not: with the complicity of government officials and common thugs, the companies suppress information about the drug's sometimes lethal side-effects and even go to the extreme of murdering those who are about to expose their practice.
Besides the psychologically complex characterizations, LeCarré offers vivid descriptions of both social and physical settings in Kenya, London, Elba and even Winnipeg. The book is seldom boring. But there are too many implied stories left unresolved, the "constant gardener" who occupies most of the story, Justin Quayle, seems far less interesting than many of the minor characters whom we glimpse too briefly (including Markus Lorbeer) or never see at all because they are dead before the story begins (Quayle's wife Tessa and the good doctor Arnold Bluhm), and the central story — the denunciation of bad practices of some pharmaceutical companies — is hardly news.

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Wien, auf wiedersehen

An intimate chamber marvelous acoustics.
We're about to leave Vienna, after 5 cold days of discovery. Most of what we saw, I had read about, but I had to be actually walking through those narrow streets, staring up at enormous baroque vaults, tromping through the kilometer-long courtyard of the immense Karl-Marx Hof, sitting in the tiny vaulted chamber where Mozart and friends played quartets and watching and listening as four young musicians played Mozart, Haydn and Dvorak, for these spaces and that history to come alive for me. More later.