2003/05/10

Who's you?
Every year I get a mailing from Marquis Who's Who asking me if I want to update my biography. Since I haven't had a new book published since 1997, I never do, but what puzzles me is why they keep me in at all. I think I know why they invited me (and everybody else) in the first place: they figure we're all suckers for glory, and enough of us will buy their volume of bios at, currently, $300 -- members only, advance payment price. The rest of the nobodies who weren't even famous enough to be invited to this scam have to pay $749 so you can read about us. And that's the plain edition. Leather-bound deluxe will cost you $790. Meanwhile, you could go to your public library, click on Google and find out almost anything you want to know about anybody you've ever heard of, free. So how does Marquis Who's Who stay in business? Not with my help; since I never buy their book, why do they keep me in at all?

2003/05/08

2003/05/07

Cities and civilization

I've just finished reading Inga Clendinnen (1991), Aztecs: An Interpretation. Cambridge UK, Cambridge University Press. The book is only 387 pages long, including bibliography, but it took me many days to get through it. This is not because Clendinnen (possibly Australia's best-known historian) is a difficult writer. On the contrary, she writes clearly, simply and beautifully about matters that are murky, complex and terrifying. Her chapter on "Victims" -- those ceremoniously slaughtered on the killing stone after exhaustive and exhausting performances -- is so vivid it may make you wake up in the night screaming. No; what took me so long to get through it was not any trouble deciphering her prose, but rather that these strange and yet culturally coherent practices kept making me stop to think. About what? Why and how people could behave in these ways? What those actions meant to those involved? Yes, all that, and also in what ways -- just precisely how, and if the distance was as great as they imagined -- their culture differed from that of their conquerors, the little band of conquistadores (as they styled themselves after they had won) led by that clever liar, Hernán Cortés. But that's not what I want to talk to you about today (it will be in our book). The other thing that greatly impressed me was how centrally Aztec, or Mexica (as they called themselves), civilization and power were bound up with their great city, Tenochtitlan.

It was a great city, which "sustained a population of more than two hundred thousand people," whereas "Seville, the largest city in Spain, and the last European town most of the Spaniards had seen, numbered about sixty to seventy thousand people in 1500, and by 1588 only one hundred and fifty thousand." (p. 18) Yet it functioned in ways so different from cities in Europe that some urbanologists are reluctant to call it a "city." It was not a fortress, and didn't even contain a citadel, nor was it primarily a place for exchange of goods -- although it did have very active markets. It was a newer thing than Seville, having been constructed only over the previous century, as a celebration of Mexica power over the varied peoples of the Valley of Mexico. (Seville, which had been in the hands of the Moors and then "reconquered" by Christian Spaniards, had been settling into place for centuries, its mansions and mosques-converted-to-churches imbued with the deepest memories). Tenochtitlan was Mexica power, in somewhat the way that in a much earlier epoch Roma, the city, was the font and symbol of Roman Power, or Constantinople (which had grown on top of a village once called Byzantion) was the font and symbol of the entire Eastern Roman Empire, what later historians (in deference to the centrality of its city) now call "Byzantine."

The relation of a great city and its subcities and hinterlands can vary widely, though. I don't think Englishmen from Cornwall or the North Country ever all thought of themselves as belonging to London, the way a Roman citizen who had never left North Africa might think of himself as belonging to Rome. And this despite the fact that London at one time ruled the world, or seemed to. Here in the US, most Americans seem to regard our greatest city as something alien. New York is where cosmopolitanism rules, where people or all sorts mix, where new ideas (some of them loopy, some of them brilliant) burst into flower and gather enthusiasts to make them grow. For much of America, it is exciting, dangerous, and suspiciously not quite American. And when it is in trouble, as it is right now, the instinct in our state legislature in Albany (especially the Governor's mansion) and in the towns that depend on us to make their citizens rich is not to give us anything, but to extract. They haven't yet managed to cripple the great energy of New York, but it is a wounded city, and if they do kill its energy, there may be glee in Mudtown for a night or two, but they will have killed a great source of energy for America. And beyond.

2003/05/06

2003/05/04

This just in!
Status: U
X-MindSpring-Loop: postmaster@geoffreyfox.com
From: Copperfieldrev@aol.com
Date: Sat, 3 May 2003 20:33:33 EDT
Subject: submission
To: gf@geoffreyfox.com
CC: info@copperfieldreview.com

Hello:

We will be publishing your novel excerpt in the Spring, 2003 edition of The Copperfield Review. The new edition will go online Monday, May 5.

Sincerely,
Meredith Allard
The Copperfield Review
www.copperfieldreview.com

Cuba: Saramago, Galeano and human rights, cont.

I did not mean to give the impression that either José Saramago or Eduardo Galeano had signed the letter of the self-styled "intellectuals, artists and politicians of the democratic world" making demands of (presumably undemocratic) Cuba (see link below) -- even though whoever posted the letter quoted them. I don't think either of them would or could. They are both articulate and savvy and neither needs me to defend him. Saramago's letter was quite brief and very narrowly focused, and the link below gives it in full. Galeano, a Latin American and therefore a man with a very different experience of the world, and with a longer and more intimate relationship with Cuba, actually said much more, and much more nuanced, than what the letter-signers chose to quote. His article, which appeared in the Mexican daily (pardon the redundancy) Jornada, is worth reading in full: Cuba duele.

Galeano writes of his enormous sadness that such a little country, which has so valiantly resisted the foreign boot and has achieved so much for its people, still lacks essential freedoms -- but this does not mean that he turns away from all that it has won. My friend Mark Fried is Galeano's preferred translator to English, and has done wonderful renditions of some of his recent books, but Mark probably has not got to this yet, so if you don't read Spanish, you'll just have to do with my version of Galeano's closing and crucial paragraph:

"It has to be the Cubans, and only the Cubans, who with no interference from anybody outside, open new democratic spaces and conquer the freedoms that are lacking, within the revolution that they made and from the deepest spirit of their land, which is the most solidary that I know of."
A second addendum to my earlier note: I said Cuba was defending "the most fundamental human rights of all: health, housing and education." I've done a little Google research just to make sure. On health, Cuba is doing spectacularly well. Infant mortality is lower and life expectancy (both male and female) indices are not only far, far better than those of any other Latin American country, they are better than any country in the hemisphere except Canada. Just plug in "health" and "Cuba" in Google and see for yourself. Here's a stunning example from World Health Organization. Education in that little country (check on "literacy statistics," for example) is also just fine compared to almost any country on the planet. But on housing -- well, I overstated the case. They haven't solved that problem yet. (Nobody else has, either, especially not in my hometown of New York, but that's no excuse; we expect revolutionaries to be better, but sometimes, as Galeano sadly notes, they are just more bureaucratic.) But Susana and I will have much more to say about that. It's part of what our next book will be about.