Category Archives: danger

Tamba-Tajá, 3

Nego and his little brother outside the family’s house in Moju.  This the final installment of Tamba-Tajá, the story of a trip to rural Amazonia in 1993.  Double-click the photos to see them in original size.

______________________________________________________

We ate our fill at Nego’s uncle’s place.  It was nice, after a long morning of travelling on a hangover.  We had a lot of things to carry, bags of food and drinks, some clothes, and things from the city that Aluízio brought for the people we’d see on the way.  All fed, we started down the path single file, away from the road, the little house, the clearing, and into the woods.  We were carrying a lot, but behind us we left some sacks of food and other things – we’d be back to get them.

The family farm was a couple more kilometers through the woods.  The trees were tall and lush and green.  Leaves littered the forest floor off the path, which began to turn and then turn back again, as if cutting back to go up a steep hill or mountain, only the land was flat.  Flat and densely covered with trees and shrubs.

After a good bit of walking, we came to a creek – igarapé – that had cut a gorge about 6 feet deep and maybe 20 feet across.  It wasn’t terribly deep, but it was enough to slow us down a bit.  Another 20 or 30 minutes and we arrived at the house, which was surrounded by fruit trees of all sorts.  Huge limes hung from one, and we’d use those limes later to bathe in the igarapé behind the house.  The house was shingled on one side, straight boards on another, with windows open to the air and what seemed like a lot of space as we approached.  You could see through the spaces between the boards.  There was no electricity.  The water came from a well drawn by a hand crank, up to a thousand-liter tank 10 meters up atop a scaffold.  PVC piping brought the water down from the tank and into the house.

On the other side of the path, in front of the house, there were fields of manioc and pepper plants.  Pepper was supposed to the salvation of Amazonian smallholders, a marketable crop easy to grow in the climate and soil conditions.  Some folks made money on it, but few were truly saved.

The women settled into the house.   They wiped the dust from the tables and chairs.  They opened the hammocks we would sleep in and hung them from the house’s frame.  They began cooking.  The man who took care of the place while the family was in Belém came round with the horse, and we took the charrette back to the road to fetch sacks of food and other things needed for the next few days.

Cajú

Later, I went off with the men into the forest.  Aluízio wanted to show me his Amazonia.  We brought a bottle of cachaça (ka-SHA-sa), a clear, potent cane liquor, and we walked along pulling cajú from the trees.  The cajú grows as a fruity, pulpy bulb with a nut, the cashew, hanging from its end.  After a slug of cachaça, you suck on the juice from the cajú to dissipate the burning sensation of alcohol on your tongue.  We did this for an hour, stopping from time to time for Aluízio to show me the plants near the ground and explain each one’s medicinal purpose.

After a bit, we reached the virgin rainforest.  The trees were as large around as any I’d ever seen, taking three or four men to encircle a trunk, hand to hand. They grew high in their struggle for sunlight, competing with each other as they threw up ever larger leaves, leaving very little light to filter down to the forest floor, were it was damp and cool.  In the forest, you feel a chill even as you sweat under the leaves.

Vines hung everywhere and swayed with the gentle breeze that ran through the trees.  Bird sounds came from every direction, a dense concert in the round of cackling and crowing, the flapping of wings and stirring of leaves.  Echoing caws of differing pitch and resonance shot through the distance from near and far.  This was the sound of the forest breathing.

We took a twisted path through the woods and then headed back to more settled places.  We stopped to visit neighbors who lived further from the beaten path, in houses of wattled clay daubed onto wood frames made of sapling branches and topped with palm fronds.  The clay dried hard as bricks, but I thought it must take a beating in the rain.

One man was making birdcages from reeds and bamboo, fine little pieces fitted together.  He caught forest birds and sold them to another man, who took the birds in their hand-made cages to Belém, where he sold them to another man, who in turn sold them on the streets of the city to visitors and local people alike.  Of the three men involved, the one in the middle made the most money.

The farmers were talking about the price of pepper and whether or not they’d make any money this year.  Then the conversation turned to the price of lumber, and Aluízio asked one farmer if he was going to cut the madeira nobre – the valuable wood, like mahogany – on his land.  Some of it might wind up going into beautiful headboards and armoires for sale at specialty importers in Chicago.  Some would wind up as yet another wall for yet another room on yet another house in Jurunas.

Back at the farm, darkness began to close in as the women put out the food for dinner.  Beans with chicken and meat, rice, fruit, bread, crackers, coffee and farinha, the raw manioc flour grown right there.  We mixed the farinha into everything. Farinha de manioc isn’t much to speak of in taste or nutrition, but it stretches the food on your plate and lets you “fool the stomach” into thinking you’ve eaten much more than you have.  It tastes good with the beans and brings a crunchy texture to the soupy froth.

By dark, the house was lit with a couple of kerosene lamps not larger than Bunsen burners.  A soft light, it brought out the curves and contrasts in everyone’s faces as we talked about life, the weather, the family.  OOOOOO-go!, the boy’s mother rang out time and again as the he ran about making noise, upsetting things carefully stowed and stacked and, in general, being a boy.  Nego took out his guitar, and we all went outside to sit under the trees and sing.  Nego played.  His brother played.  I played.  We shared our stories and ideas and adventures.

Between songs and laughter, the forest told its own stories as the birds calmed and other noises came.  Nego told of the time he spent a week at the house by himself.  The forest noises scared him so much he would never do it again.  Aluízio told older stories about jaguars and snakes and mythical creatures who came out of the forest at night and are sometimes men in appearance.  Legend had it that the boto, the pink freshwater dolphin found in the Amazon, would turn into a tall white man in a white hat and white suit, showing up at the village dance to sweep a young girl off her feet and take her back to the enchanted city under the river, where the boto made her his queen.

We became tired and went inside.  I crawled into my hammock and pulled up the sheet under a chill.  I listened to the night forest and fell asleep to the sounds of snoring and swaying hammocks.

Crossing the Moju River, Aluízio, Dona Maria, and Nego (Augusto)

Notes and Credits

The photos for this installment of Tamba-Tajá are all from my 1993 trips to the farm with Nego, except for the photo of the cajú, which is from Wikipedia Commons.  The Tamba-Tajá closed by 1995.  Nego got married and moved to a small town in the interior of Pará, a town much like Moju, where he became a school teacher – music of course.  The small town life in Amazônia is what suited him, so I imagined he was, and still is, happy there.

Writing this post has taken me on an interesting journey through my old photos and Brazilian research material, in search of journals and photographs, things to help jog my memory about certain events.  I know I have a journal entry somewhere on this trip, but I can’t find it.  It’s probably on an old 3.5″ floppy disk somewhere in a box under my son’s bed.  I looked through those boxes just now.  Among other things, I found the daily calendar I kept in 1993, showing the dates of the trip recounted in this story:  I arrived at the Tamba-Tajá around 10 p.m. on Friday, January 8 and came back on Tuesday, January 12.  It was the first of a couple more trips, including Holy Week and Easter, April 8-11.  One day I will find the journal entries and figure out how well my memory has recounted these events so many years later.

The land issues encountered by the smallholders who Aluízio talked with in this story are quite difficult.  I deleted a couple paragraphs from an earlier version of the story that got into those issues; they didn’t work for the story I wrote.  But they are real.  The further south you go from Belém, the more dangerous it gets, southern Pará being rife with more land conflict than any other place in Brazil during the 1990s.  Church people and unionists tried to organize the small farmers and ranch hands, but they were constantly harassed by the big farmers and their henchmen, who as often as not were also the local police.

A good up-to-date article on land issues in Amazônia appears here, by Paulo Cabral for the BBC.  The murder of Sr. Dorothy Stang, of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, an international Catholic religious order that works for social justice and human rights, was a major issue in Brazil and internationally.  A lot more could be written and said about these issues, and I’m working on writing something that was inspired by Rosa Marga Rothe and the Book of Daniel.  Coming soon …

For now, I’d like to leave this story with a photo I took of Rosa Marga and Iza that I took in 1998, not too long before Iza passed away.  They started this story, and so they should end it.

Marga and Iza, Belém 1998

2 Comments

Filed under beauty, brasil, Brazil, danger, food, life, truth

The truth and Brasília, 3: Faroeste Caboclo

Brasília, Metropolitan Cathedral

Brasília, Catedral Metropolitana Nossa Senhora Aparecida

Brazil is a country of inspired appropriation.  Its peoples, cultures, sounds, and visions grind against each other.  They rise up and smash together like tectonic plates.  In the collision of Brazil and Brasília, the city of candangos gave the country Renato Russo.

No “torso of steel,” no “[w]inged elbows and eyeholes,” but like Zweig and Plath a literary mind and poet, Russo’s voice became his generation’s.  In his epic song, “Faroeste Caboclo,” Russo tells the story of a poor kid’s migration to Brasília across 159 lines of free verse, punk sensibilities, and an affecting melody that calls to mind the traditional country music of Brazil’s Northeast.  Faroeste is what they call a “Western movie” in Brazil, and caboclo refers to the Brazilian mestiço everyman, a mixture of races and cultures, poor, seeking his or her fortune in some faraway place.  Faroeste Caboclo is Walt Whitman, rogue-Gary Cooper and Joe Strummer together in Niemeyer’s white palace.

The hero is João de Santo Cristo, from Brazil’s Northeastern “backlands.”  Brazilians call this region the Sertão, a rural, agrarian, drought-afflicted area that is the poorest place in the country and carries the deepest currents of Brazil’s premodern past.  João robs the poor box from the church.  He goes after the girls in the town.  People don’t trust him.  He feels the effect his skin color has on others who are lighter, more well-to-do.  He’s arrested and goes to reform school, where he is raped and degraded.  He is filled with hatred.

When a man on his way to Brasília decides not to go and gives his bus ticket to João, he becomes an accidental candango, leaving his past for the “beautiful city” where everything will be different.  He works as a carpenter’s apprentice, but he can’t make ends meet and becomes a drug trafficker.

After some time in the criminal world, he tries to go straight when he falls in love Maria Lúcia, but eventually the drug trade pulls him back in.  João’s enemy, Jeremias, steals Maria Lúcia and they have a child together.  João challenges Jeremias to a duel, which is covered in the press and shocks the city’s elite but makes João a hero to the people.  In the duel, Jeremias shoots João in the back and wounds him fatally.  Maria Lúcia rushes to her first love and gives João a gun.  He challeges Jeremias to die like a man and shoots him.  In the end, Maria Lúcia and João die together in each other’s arms.

The people declared that João de Santo Cristo
Was a saint because he knew how to die
And the bourgeoisie of the city didn’t believe the story
That they saw on TV

And João didn’t accomplish what he desired like the devil
When he came to Brasília
What he wanted was to speak to the president
To help all the people that

Suffer

Russo and his bandmates in Legião Urbana (Urban Legion) grew up in Brasília in the late 1970s.  Their songs of protest, love, and everyday struggles became the nation’s soundtrack to the last years of the military dictatorship and the re-emergence democracy in the 1980s.

“Será,” a love song with an anthemic refrain, could be heard blaring from sound trucks at the massive marches and rallies of the caras-pintadas (“painted faces”) in 1992, as they challenged the nation to bring down Fernando Collor, Brazil’s first democratically elected president since 1960.

So called because they painted their faces in the Brazilian national colors, green and yellow, the caras-pintadas had grown up under the military regime and saw their hopes threatened by Collor’s massively corrupt regime.  They led the way for the whole country, which stopped each day at 7:00 for the allegorical soap opera, Deus Nos Acuda (God Help Us), a comedy in which the angel Celestina tries to save Brasil from the excesses of its social and political elite.  In the show’s opening, the rich are smothered in mud and flushed down a whirlpool shaped like the country itself.

Collor was impeached and left office by the end of 1992.

Russo died on October 11, 1996, of AIDS-related illnesses.  Russo’s wishes were to have his ashes spread over the gardens of Brazilian landscape artist Roberto Burle Marx, returning him to Brasília and its modernist vision.

In 2006, Fernando Collor was elected Senator for his home state, Alagoas, for an 8 year term (2007-2015).  Brazil has absorbed Brasília.

Notes and Credits

Photo:  interior of the Brasília Metropolitan Cathedral.  As with the previous post, the photo is taken from the Flickr site of Shelley Bernstein, aur2899.  She works at the Brooklyn Museum (according to the Flickr “about”) and has a lot of pictures from Brasília and elsewhere.  Her Brooklyn Museum blog posts are here.

Renato Russo was born Renato Manfredi, Jr., in Rio de Janeiro.  He moved to Brasília in 1973 at the age of 13 and became a songwriter and musician.  He renamed himself after the philosophers Rousseau and Bertrand Russell, and the painter Henri Rousseau.

Faroeste Caboclo plays on the iconic stories of migration from the Brazilian backlands, the sertão, to cities in search of a better life – one of the central storylines of Brazilian history.  It’s a story of spiritual depth and apocalyptic reach, most famously told in Euclides da Cunha’s Os Sertões.  Da Cunha’s book, published in 1903, tells of the Brazilian military’s destruction of the city of Canudos in the 1890s.

Canudos was a city that grew up around the milennial teachings of a folk preacher, Antonio Conselheiro, bringing tens of thousands of poor Brazilians together in a sertanejo enclave to await the last days.  The Brazilian government saw the city as a grave threat to its own project of bringing Brazil into the community of modern republics while still maintaining the class and racial divisions of its colonial and plantation (slavery) past.  Canudos was utterly destroyed by the military, and its inhabitants were massacred.

The destruction of Canudos removed one “sore” from the Brazilian body politic, but in the predictable irony of history and unintended consequences, Canudos gave birth to the next social threat.  Soldiers from the campaign, unable to find work on retrn to civilian life, migrated south from the Northeast to Rio de Janeiro and built their own squatter colony on a hill.  Thus was born the first favela, later to become the 21st century dystopian Canudos that continues to challenges the Brazilian modernizing project.

During 1992 and 1993, I lived in Belém and accompanied the protest marches through the city.  I was officially a researcher, but I was also 28 years old, not much older than the caras-pintadas who I spoke to.  Just a few years earlier, as a college student in New Orleans in the mid-1980s, I used to grab the New York Times every day to read up on the military’s exit from power in 1985.  In 1992-93, like everyone else in Brazil, I was glued to the television every day for Deus Nos Acuda.

Another song that rang out from the sound trucks and radios everywhere was the first Legião Urbana hit, “Tempo Perdido,” with the echoing call of the refrain, selvagem, meaning wild, untamed. It was a song about love and not losing the time at hand, but it was also about the passion for breaking free of repression that made this song the “anthem of an entire generation” (O hino de toda uma geração), according to Alexandre Inagaki.  In the video the band pays homage to all their forebears in rock and roll.

“Tempo Perdido” follows in the footsteps, or looking down from the shoulders of Raul Seixas and “Maluco Beleza.”  Raul Seixas was Brazil’s Elvis (his idol), Jim Morrison, and John Lennon rolled into one.  He “was not just a musician, but a philosopher of life …” (Raul não era apenas música, Raul era uma filosofia de vida), “Always Ahead of his Time.”  See Jesse’s portrait of Raul on her blog, Mundo de Jesse.   “Maluco Beleza” (“Crazy Beauty”) is for many the epic statement of individuality and creativity from the central icon of Brazilian rock.

Senhor Hype reports that the Brazilian RockWalk is in development, creating a walk of fame that will include both national artists as well as some international artists like the Scorpions.

For an English translation of “Faroeste Caboclo” along with the music, go here.  The translation of the ending of the song above is taken from this video, and credit goes to Alexandre Mello and Andrea Hilland.

3 Comments

Filed under art, Brasília, brasil, Brazil, danger, death, freedom, individuality, legiao urbana, life, love, myth, politics

Another year, and we remember

IMG_1220

This is the view from the window next to my desk.  From that window, I took the photo that was the first masthead for this blog (it’s in the page on “the blog” if you want to take a look).

This was the view last night, from the ground, at the corner of 6th Avenue and Union Street in Brooklyn.

911-sarah-alt

My downstairs neighbor, Sarah, took that photo, and I saw it on her Flickr.

For the last three years, I have engaged a small ritual on or about September 11, when I can see the beams of light from Ground Zero over downtown from this window.

I turn out the lights.  I sit for a few minutes, 10 minutes or so.  My son is asleep in the next room, or maybe he’s at his mom’s apartment, just a few blocks away in the neighborhood.  Either way, he’s safe, while I gaze at the lights.  Irony is not the word for this.

I know my fate.  One day my name will be associated with a memory of something tremendous—a crisis without equal on earth, the most profound collision of conscience, conjured up against everything that had been believed, demanded, hallowed so far … Where you see ideals, I see what is human, alas, all too human.

Nietzsche’s words stream through my mind as I look at the beams and write my friends—

The clouds have cleared now and I have turned off the lights.  I just want to look out at the beams of light streaming up to the heavens.  So strange to think of the world before that day, and the world we have now.  And it made me feel like reaching out to a few people who matter to me.  I hope you’re all well.

As it happens, I never have taken a photo of the 9.11 beams from this window.  Tonight I will try, but I fear it’s going to be cloudy.  That’s unfortunate, because over the last couple of years, the view was so spectacular, iconic – and this year, 2009, will be my last at this window.  I will be moving at the end of September, to a new apartment in “Prospect Park South” which is the trendy name for what has often been called “Kensington” or simply “Flatbush” in the local dialect.

As all things happen, however, Providence gives us what we need, and Sarah’s photo from last night is such a gift.  So:  Thank you much to Sarah for this photo.  To all those who have touched my life, or whom I have touched in any way however small, I say this,

Be well and cherish those whose love you share.  We have no way to change what was, and our attempts to shape what will be never have their intended effect.  Where we are absolute, however, is the moment at hand.  Let us live that moment well, with love, and with all the peace that the world so deeply needs.  Only then do we stand a chance against the forces of darkness.  Strange as it may seem, those are pretty good odds.

Notes and Credits

Sarah’s photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/37558372@N03/3908398726/

The precise address of our building is 211 Sixth Avenue.  Or the Union Market, at 754 Union Street, Brooklyn.  11215.

The quote from Nietzsche was taken from the opening of the BBC documentary of him, which can be seen here.  See also this and this.

My own quoted email was what I sent in 2007, the first year I sat at this window.  I cannot find last year’s email, which was a little more focused.  My three years of having this view have been important to me, because this window was a starting-over in many ways.  I will miss the view – but mostly I will hold dear the fact that I have the chance to have this view for a little while.  I only hope that the folks who come next to this little apartment are able to appreciate it as well.

Personal Note

I moved to New York in May of 2004.  In 2001, I was in Rock Island, Illinois, teaching at Augustana College.  On that particular day, I was in my office early.  Jane, who was the secretary for the departments of History and Political Science, came running down the long hallway to my office – we might have been the only two people on the floor.  She told me that I needed to come to the television and see what happened.  Her husband had called and said that a plane crashed into the World Trade Center.  Jane and I watched the rest of it happen, in a conference room on the campus of Augustana College which from its own window had a wonderful view of the Mississippi River and America’s own “heartland” on the border of Illinois and Iowa.  We saw the second plane crash into the other tower, and we saw the buildings fall to the ground, all live.  In my office, I heard about the plane crashing into the Pentagon, live.  I was very afraid.  My wife was out of town, and she was very possibly pregnant with our child (we had this confirmed just weeks after 9.11).  My country was under attack.

I don’t know if folks in New York know what it was like to experience 9.11 outside of this city.  It was pretty dreadful.   Nothing like here, of course, but awful nonetheless.  For a little while, we had no idea where this would lead, and everyone feared bombs and flames and explosions.

A few weeks later, November 10-12, 2001, we were in New York.  My wife had some meetings and I was along for the ride and the visit.  We knew then that our child would be expected some time in May or June.  I had some good runs in the city, in Central Park, along the avenues, but not on the West Side Highway.  It was blocked, for security reasons.  As we prepared to leave on the 12th, we heard odd news suddenly:  all the bridges and tunnels were closed, and so were the airports.  A plane had crashed in Queens.

Downstairs, we spoke to the hotel personnel.  The looks on their faces and the emotions in the air are emblazoned on my mind, in a way that makes me think of my parents’ generation when they talk about what they were doing when Kennedy was assassinated.  I won’t forget that.

6 Comments

Filed under danger, death, existentialism, ideas, philosophy, politics, truth, Uncategorized, war

The truth and change, 2: Technoredemption Goes Pro

house-of-tomorrow

The House of Tomorrow, 1933, Indiana version

In the first installment of The truth and change, I wrote about how the Enlightenment gave us a new kind of science and social discourse that pictured a perfectible mankind, which would be the basis of real democracy and freedom in the future.  Yet it was really a Greek tragedy.

Jefferson snubbed the ancients by declaring that there will be something new under the sun, and a hundred years later the world embarked on a century that would witness versions of apocalypse previously imaginable only in epics and divine texts.  Everything that the Enlightenment made it possible to imagine, it also made it possible to destroy.  That was the dilemma of my generation . . .

Technoredemption Goes Pro

The 1933 Chicago World’s Fair gave us the “House of Tomorrow,” which still stands in Indiana and at 78 years old combines the future and past in one space.  Like most dream houses created since the 1930s, it has a double garage, with a twist – one for an automobile and one for the airplane that “World’s Fair optimists assumed every future family would own …”

One can only imagine how this garage has played out of time – rumpus room, game room, massive mud room, cluttered workshop where grandpa used to build boats in bottles, and now the place where mom and dad surf the internet when the other isn’t looking.

The House of Tomorrow held out a vision of the future at odds with much of what was going on around it.  A few years earlier, World War I gave people a glimpse of the horror to be wrought by chemical warfare and bombs.  In 1933, faith in individual action and the capitalist economy was well under seige.  On February 27 of that year, Hitler burned the Reichstag and The Third Reich began.  World War II, with its multiple Holocausts of genocide, firebombing, and nuclear warfare would be soon upon us.

The House of Tomorrow, 1933, Berlin version

The House of Tomorrow, 1933, Berlin version

Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (published in 1973) portayed this entire destructive arc of the twentieth century.  Science fuelled a spiral of violence, which unleashed and unbound human emotions both zany and horrific.  Pynchon captured this most vividly in Brigadier Pudding’s humiliation scene, a Pavlovian experiment in the malleability/perfectibility of mankind that was a living annihilation at the border between the past and our future in which Pudding relived and relieved himself of the filth of Ypres and Passechendaele over and over again.  The ritual became the center of his being.

Brigadier Pudding on the border between past and future.

Zak Smith: Brigadier Pudding, p. 236

Still, annihilation and holocaust were not the only ideas on the table. The playfulness of Pynchon’s novel and its main character, Tyrone Slothrop, held out the competing narratives of innocence and technologial redemption, impulses ironically (and perhaps hypocritcally) present in Robert Moses’s 1964 New York World’s Fair.  This was the year of my birth and the year in which Stanley Kubrik gave us Dr. Strangelove.  At the Fair, GM’s “Tomorrow Land” provided a delightful tour of the wonders yet to be bestowed on us by reinforced concrete, steel, and plastic.  Tomorrow Land was a glimpse into the world that could be, minus the evils of nuclear war, poverty, and exploitation.

At the Fair’s Pepsi Pavilion, “Children of the World” used mechanized dolls and music to showcase a world of hope and diversity.  This became Disney’s “It’s a Small World,” leading to the installation of its relentlessly saccharine theme song in the minds of millions of people every year, some of whom must wish that Slim Pickins would ride a missile into Orlando and put an end to the little dolls and gadgets just so they could get that song out of their heads.

The world we inherited in the Reagan years was reeling between the Jetsons and Dr. Strangelove as Paul Westerberg wrote “we’ll inherit the earth, but we don’t want it.”  If we were finally, really going to do it, to blow it up, I’d at least try to spend my last years thinking of other things.

TRS80mod3

The Mighty "Trash-80"

In 1981, I bought a TRS-80, Model III.  I was 17 and had saved up the money from my job at the pizza parlor down the street.  I read Alvin Toffler’s The Third Wave and John Nesbitt’s Megatrends.  A future of progress was much more appealing future than the one forecast by the “Doomsday Clock” on the cover of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.  Such was the future according to Generation X, as we stumbled between slackerism and technoredemption.

In 1989, I remember being in my kitchen, washing dishes and listening to NPR when they announced that people had climbed over the Berlin Wall and were taking it apart.  In my own mind, I replaced The Day After with Blondie and hummed “Atomic” over and over again as I felt relief wash over me.

Then in the mid-1990s, Newt Gingrich started invoking Alvin Toffler at every opportunity.  1984 and Y2K came and went with neither Orwellian nor apocalyptic futures taking hold.  The most prescient glimpse of the future provided in my entire lifetime was not Space 1999 but Prince’s 1999, which accurately forecast exactly what I, and countless others around the world, were doing in 1999.  Whatever the future would be, it would be weird, and once Tim Berners Lee put the World Wide Web up, Gen X went online and, as if following Hunter S. Thompson’s consultation to our parents, we went pro.

Technoredemption provided a kind of cure-all for anxiety about the future.  Today it feeds the relentlessly positive assessments of Twitter’s contribution to revolution and freedom around the world.  Yet the same technology can bring us back to Huxley or Orwell, and we know it.  Evgeny Morozov writes that even as “activists and NGOs are turning to crowdsourcing to analyze data, map human rights violations, scrutinize the voting records of their MPs, and even track illegal logging in the Amazon”, ” governments are also relying on crowdsourcing to identify dissenters and muzzle free speech.

Technoredemption remains as much a promise now as it was in 1776, 1933, 1964, or 1989.  Rousseau’s famous line from the opening of On the Social Contract – “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains” – strikes me as quite true today, in the same sense that Rousseau meant it, and with the same consequences.

Notes and Credits

The photograph of the House of Tomorrow, Indiana version, was found on Wikipedia, in the commons at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:571531cv.jpg.  The House of Tomorrow, Berlin version, is in the Wikimedia commons at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Reichstagsbrand.jpg.

We didn’t need nuclear bombs alone to create armageddons of pain and horror.  Madhukar Shukla writes “The Firebombing of Tokyo was as devasting as the nuclear, Hidden in the history of that time, is an unnoticed footnote – the ‘Tokyo Fire-Bombing,’ which the Western press would not touch, and the Japanese survivors would not like to dwell upon [was an] event which happened months before the atom-bombs and with far more lethal consequences.”  Shukla’s blog is called “Alternative Perspective” and his homepage is here.

The illustration of Brig. Pudding is by Zak Smith, from his work Pictures Showing What Happens on Each Page of Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. Much thanks to Zak for granting me permission to use the image.  The series of illustrations was featured in the 2004 Whitney Biennial (agh, just before I arrived in New York!) and is now part of the permanent collection at the Walker in Minneapolis.  In the episode referenced above, Brig. Pudding must undergo a scatological humiliation scene with Domina Nocturna as part of his atonement for his role in Ypres and Passechendaele, a scene occupying pp. 232-36 of the book (Viking Press, 1973).  Click on the image and you will be taken to a website featuring all of the illustrations.

Among Pynchon’s themes we count the Europeans’ damning of the world to endure the repetitive future of their own racist, colonial past, which sits perversely at the heart of American innocence and condemns America (white America, especially) to this struggle between technoredemption, dystopia, and annihilation.  Like Rousseau, Pynchon sees the chains that reason has placed on mankind.  He continues to explore that theme in his writing, with impressive intensity in Mason and Dixon, in which the two famous astronomers are contracted to create an artificial boundary between two artificial entites (Pennsylvania and Maryland) that have been imposed on something like a state of nature.

Pynchon’s new novel, Inherent Vice, goes into the territory of detective fiction and film noir, two of my favorite genres.  I am giddy and cannot wait to read this book.  Expect more posts related to TP.

On August 31, 2006, Douglas Coupland posted a wonderfully ironic vision of the future as past and present on his New York Times blog.  At that point he boldly foresaw the Kindle-future, as he predicted that books will “cease to exist” and become “extinct.”  Looking at his old novels and thinking of insects, he began to think about how wasps made paper from wood, and then he used his own mouth to pulp his novels and make nests from them.  The resulting photos are quite beautiful, and the blog posting shows what Generation X looks like as a nest.

The photograph of the TRS-80 Model III comes from Stan Veit’s website, PC-History, based on his famous book, Stan Veit’s History of the Personal Computer.

I learned about Evgeny Morozov’s blog post in a Tweet from Cause Global’s Marcia Stepanek.

The ice age is coming, the sun’s zooming in
Engines stop running, the wheat is growing thin
A nuclear error, but I have no fear
Cause London is drowning and I, I live by the river

6 Comments

Filed under danger, death, freedom, ideas, politics, truth, Uncategorized, war

The truth and change, 1: From Perfection to Dystopia

The House of Tomorrow, 1776

The House of Tomorrow, 1776

For as long as I can remember, people have been trumpeting the big changes that were supposed to occur in my lifetime.  In this span of years, roughly the 1960s-forward, change was the key ingredient of the future, which amounted to three alternatives:  progress, dystopia, or annihilation.  Looking back on the future of the last 45 years, however, it turns out that these aren’t mutually exclusive alternatives.

Einstein observed that the experience of an event is subject to relational factors like who’s observing it, where, and under what conditions.  So it is with the future.  It may not be the world itself that changes, but rather how we experience it, a future that happens inside our bodies to make the world look, sound, feel, taste, and smell different.  The House of Tomorrow may well be the house of yesterday, but it won’t feel that way.

This is the first of three posts on The truth and change.  The series will look at how tangled, ironic, and weird (to invoke a favorite category of Hunter S. Thompson’s) the future will be, if it’s not that already.  The exercise in lateral thinking takes us from perfection to dystopia, annihilation, technoredemption, slacker paradise, Qoheleth, Big Pharma, and cyberchange.

From perfection to dystopia

The future, change, and progress are products of The Enlightenment.  For millennia, people were assumed to be what they were.  Thinkers in the West and the East had explored all sorts of ideas about how to create good societies, find peace, and achieve enlightenment (The Buddha’s kind) – but there was no belief in a “future” that would be different from the past.  Differences in politics, spirituality, or technology were seen as superficial, and the great wheel of history rolled along.

Vanity of vanities, says Qoheleth, vanity of vanities! All things are vanity! …
One generation passes and another comes, but the world forever stays …
What has been, that will be; what has been done, that will be done.
Nothing is new under the sun.  [Eccl. 1: 2, 4, 9]

Then in the eighteenth century the philosophes in France and other spots around Europe started to think about the life we could have on Earth through science, reason, and (in one form or another) “democracy.”  The twin notions of change and the future became tangible, captured in a repurposing of the word “progress.”  In The Invention of Air, Stephen Johnson shows how these ideas were tied together across science, politics, and religion.  Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and Joseph Priestly (the nominal subject of Johnson’s book) were scientists and radicals who imprinted the American Revolution with the Enlightenment’s vision of the future.

As Jefferson wrote to Priestly after the presidential inauguration in 1800, “We can no longer say there is nothing new under the sun.  For this whole chapter in the history of man is new.”  In another context, Jefferson famously quipped, “Every generation needs a new revolution.”  Compromised as Jefferson’s revolution was, eventually even the enslaved and formerly enslaved African Americans, written out at the beginning, would build their own revolution to insist on (some of) Jefferson’s ideals, among others.  The times, they would be a-changing, and the early Abolition movement itself was a part of the Enlightenment’s vision of change.

New industries and the “New World” conjured an image of humankind’s infinite malleability – we were blank slates on which a better world would be drawn.  People were, in a word, perfectible.  Yet perfection was a contestable quality, and disagreements over perfectibility would draw the lines of ideological battles that lasted from 1776 to 1989.  One of the central lines in the struggle over change was who would make change happen best — freely acting individuals, private corporate entities, or the state.

These conflicts underlay Adam Smith’s own writings.  He placed great faith in individuals and very little in either the state or corporations.  In Smith’s ideal world, we were a self-correcting society of individuals guided “by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of [their] intention.”  In other words, people following purely individual motives could create social good, almost accidentally.

Smith applied his faith in individuals to economic life, but he saw a conflict between the capacity of individual action to create a moral world and the effects of capitalism’s main motor for change, the division of labor.  Far from perfecting mankind, the nature of industrial production (and with it, the creation of wealth) would render the bulk of people ever more ignorant even as democracy expanded their ability to affect their world:

The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects too are, perhaps, always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding, or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur.  He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human to creature to become.  The torpor of his mind renders him, not only incapable of relishing or bearing part in any rational conversation, but of conceiving any generous, noble, or tender sentiment … Of the great and extensive interests of his country, he is altogether incapable of judging …

This would be the product of capitalism, said Smith, “unless government takes some pains to prevent it.”  Smith never resolved this conflict in his understanding of change, and his fans have ignored it and instead dwelled on the “invisible hand” alone, taking this half-premise to logical extremes.

In Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand made a grand dystopian plea for her version of capitalist utopia that in general (if less radical) terms is part of everyday political discourse in the United States, where faith in powerful, dynamic individuals is strong.  The fear of the state is great, and the relation to mass politics is complicated.  The masses are fickle and in general not to be trusted (even by the masses).  To wit:  In the wake of the economic collapse of 2008, “going John Galt” has become the calling card of dissident financiers holding out against the reactions of the federal government and the populist fervor aimed at them, though this fervor was short-lived and now is turned against the government and health care reform.

Over time, dystopia transcended the narrow limitations of the conflicts between capitalism and socialism, seeing in both a massification of industrial society that used technology to dampen the very urges toward freedom and expression unleashed by the forces that Jefferson and Priestly heralded with such optimism.  Yevgeny Zamyatin’s novel We combined his experiences in the Russian Revolution and in the British factories of World War I to describe a true dystopia that was the forerunner of Orwell’s 1984.  Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World concentrated our gaze on the manufacture of pleasure as a way of breeding conformity and social order from the “torpor of mind” that Smith lamented in 1776.

Yet numbing sameness wasn’t the only threat to Jefferson and Priestly’s House of Tomorrow.  The rocket scientists who stood on their shoulders (among so many others) eventually helped us create weapons of unparalleled destruction that could end all life as we know it.  Beyond dystopia, the future created by reason might actually annihilate us all.  These were our choices by the time I was growing up:  Smith, Marx, Rand, Huxley, Orwell, Dr. Strangelove, or Charlton Heston on a beach some time in the distant future.

The Apes were able to perfect themselves greatly with people out of the way.  The surviving humans, able to carry on through accidents of history and rocket science, became vermin and slaves until the moment in which Taylor and Nova became a new Adam and Eve under the ruins of the Statue of Liberty, now a fallen, man-made Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  If you look hard enough, you can see in the background the shadows of Priestly, Paine, Jefferson, Franklin, Einstein, Oppenheimer, and Teller.  Thoreau and Whitman are nowhere to be found.  They were buried by the knowledge of good and evil.

Notes and Credits

The quotation from the opening of Ecclesiastes is taken from the New American Bible, Eccl. 1: 2, 4, 9.

Jefferson’s statement setting aside Qoheleth is cited by Stephen Johnson in The Invention of Air:  A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America (New York:  Riverhead Books, 2008), p. 199.  Overall, this book is a real treat that shows a rare and impressive achievement of lateral thinking.  To extend your thinking, visit Johnson’s blog, where he is further ruminating on ecosystems, technology, and change.

My quotations from Adam Smith are taken from The Essential Adam Smith, ed. Robert L. Heilbronner (New York:  W. W. Norton, 1986), pp. 265 and 302.  Read this book, which includes abridged versions of both the Theory of the Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations.  They are indispensable critiques of the world that Smith’s fans seem to adore.

1 Comment

Filed under Albert Einstein, danger, death, freedom, ideas, individuality, philosophy, politics, revolution, Uncategorized, war

The truth and chickens, coda: The Road

chicken-red

The following five questions and topics address a very old issue involving a chicken and a road.  In spite of many hours given to thinking about this topic, by myself and legions of others, many issues are unresolved even as we speak (or write).  One brave chicken, one empty road, and a million synapses firing all at once all lead us to this juncture.  Follow the links and then contribute something to help finish the story:

Twitter your immediate thoughts and include #chickenroad in your Tweet …

Leave a comment if there’s something you want to highlight for readers, or warn them about …

Write a story that addresses the following points and/or questions and send it to jguidry.7@gmail.com.  We’ll talk about it, but mainly I’ll be looking to repost your story here.

Now … here we go.

First:  Which of the following roads (paths, lanes, etc.) was the chicken trying to cross, and in what way did it matter?  Each link takes you to the appropriate song (or book).

•    the road less travelled
•    the hillbilly highway
•    the long and winding road
•    the path of least resistance
•    the lost highway
•    the road to nowhere
•    highway 61 revisited

Second:  When the bear went over the mountain, he saw the other side of the mountain, to be sure, but winding through the valley below was one of the aforementioned roads (paths, lanes, etc.).  Alongside the road was a chicken.  Note:  the bear was hungry.

Third:  In the middle of the road is Paul McCartney.  Do they do it in the road?  Or not? And what is “it,” specifically?

Fourth:  As the bear reaches the road in the valley below, along with the chicken and Paul McCartney, “she” is coming round the mountain, when she comes, when she comes, driving eight white horses, and etc.  What happened next?  Who is “she?” And why were the horses white?

Fifth:  Should any character in your story “live happily ever after,” please explain how, and why, in precise terms.

Notes and Credits

Photograph of chicken in the road:  Ian Britton, August 29, 2004.

The drawings in the Bob Dylan video for Highway 61 Revisited are by a man named Giovanni Rabuffetti.  I can’t find a home page for him or a Wiki entry, but I found this entry on him on a blog called White Rabbit by a guy named Andrew Keogh.  I think it’s beautiful art, and there’s a lot of hits for drawings by Rabuffetti if you google him, including this video with animation by Rabuffetti for “All Along the Watchtower.”

One of the featured videos here is from The Beatelles, an all female Beatles tribute band from Liverpool.  You can learn a lot more about them here and here.  And if you like this, see The Beladies, who were the first all-woman Beatles band, hailing from Buenos Argentina.

And considering the road and highway theme of this posting, I can’t resist the temptation to post another favorite highway song by a favorite songwriter, Steve Earle, “The Long Lonesome Highway Blues.”  Enjoy.


5 Comments

Filed under danger, risk, truth, Uncategorized

The truth and Mr. McNamara

things that get destroyed by war, Ann Arbor, January-February 1991

things that get destroyed in war, Ann Arbor, January-February 1991

“Every quantitative measurement we have shows we’re winning this war …” Robert S. McNamara, 1962

Few people with the power to make change have placed so much faith in science as a force for public good.  Few have wreaked so much havoc and destroyed so many lives with their belief in science.  Many fewer still are those who have tried to grapple publicly with the damage they did.

These were thoughts that occurred to me as I read the obituaries of Robert S. McNamara yesterday morning.  It brought me back to Errol Morris’s The Fog of War, which I recently spent three days watching, over and over, for a different project.

In Morris’s film, McNamara narrates his life around 11 “principles” that he learned from his involvement with war, both the Second World War and Vietnam.  The first is “empathize with your enemy,” and this is the vantage from which I prefer to think about McNamara himself.  Rhetorically speaking, this makes him my enemy, which I know he is not, but like any enemy he is the object of my perplexed and sometimes angry thoughts, a person I likely would have “opposed” had I been of an age to do so.

To the extent that McNamara is an object of anyone’s judgment, however, empathy is the perhaps the best way one might understand how a person as remarkable as McNamara could also be, as David Halberstam put it, “a fool.”  Yet to remember McNamara only in anger or glib, anti-intellectual sniping at the fact that brilliance is no guarantee against foolishness gains nothing for the world.  Most brilliant fools will never, in the manner of Mr. McNamara, admit and more importantly explore their mistakes for the good of the public.

McNamara’s reckoning with his own illusions of scientific truth led him to conclude, among other things, that “rationality will not save us,” that “belief and seeing are often both wrong,” and that one should “be prepared to reexamine your reasoning.”  These are his lessons from war, but they would serve us well in ordinary life, too.

From the mid-1990s forward, McNamara became immersed in debating the issues around nuclear war, as well as Vietnam, and the documentary he made with Errol Morris was released right about the time the Bush administration began the invasion of Iraq in 2003.  McNamara’s ultimate conclusion from a life of war and science was this:

“What ‘the fog of war’ means is: war is so complex it’s beyond the ability of the human mind to comprehend all the variables. Our judgment, our understanding, are not adequate. And we kill people unnecessarily.”

In his dreams and goals and desires, in his patriotism and sense of duty, McNamara was no different than most people.  His own peculiar acumen, however, put him in an extraordinary position to affect the lives of others.  The hubris of his belief in science was perhaps no more or less than Richard Dawkins’s own arrogance, but circumstance and ambition have placed Dawkins in a relatively benign position that mainly involves preaching to his own choir of fellow travelers.

We might serve Mr. McNamara, and ourselves, best – whether from the view that he was an inhuman monster or the more reflective position that he seemed to wish we would have – by listening to the things he had to say during the last 15 years of his life, from the time of his autobiography, In Retrospect (1995), forward.

Late or not – 27 years elapsed between the end of McNamara’s tenure as Secretary of Defense and his autobiography – McNamara at least tried to help the world understand what he did, without making excuses for himself or (for the most part) fudging the facts in a self-serving way.

One could only wish that other powerful true believers would do the same, but the likelihood is that Alan Greenspan, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld won’t go where Mr. McNamara finally chose to go.

Personal disclosure

I was not yet born when Robert McNamara assumed the post of Secretary of Defense.  My first memories of television, however, are of war reporting.  I recall a picture of an empty field, with the rat-a-tatt-tatt of machine guns firing in the distance and the gravelly voice of a war correspondent trying to explain what we weren’t seeing.

The first time I went to Washington DC was in 1990 or 1991, quite possibly for the Washington Mall protest against the Persian Gulf War, part 1 (Desert Storm), though I don’t recall.  There was a wedding I went to around that time, which might have been the first trip to DC.

What I do remember is this:  As we drove from Michigan to Washington, we listened to the 10,000 Maniacs album Blind Man’s Zoo.  “The Long Parade,” a song about watching people pass along the Vietnam Memorial, stuck in my head.  By the time I reached the end of my own walk along the wall, I was in tears, as much for the tragedy spelled out in the 50,000+ names on the wall as for the one name I knew was not there.

My own father served in the US Army from 1962 to 1967.  He wasn’t sent to Vietnam, though he trained soldiers who went there from the place of my birth, Fort Hood, Texas.  Later, he was sent to West Germany where, for a couple of years, he stood with the first line of defense in the event of Soviet invasion.

Notes and Credits

These are the obituaries I read in preparation for this posting:  Thomas Lippman in the Washington Post, Tim Weiner in the New York Times, and Fred Kaplan in Slate.com.

The photograph at the head of this post is of a wall that I helped to build in Ann Arbor at the beginning of Operation Desert Storm, the First Persian Gulf War, in 1991.  The idea for this piece of public art was Jeffrey Levy-Hinte’s.  At the time, Jeff and I were both graduate students in political science at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.  A group of us built the wall and attached to it all of the things that get destroyed in war.  It was located on the central lawn of the Ann Arbor campus, the “Diag” as we called it, for the the diagonal pathways that cross the lawn to connect the buildings.

things that get destoyed in war, close up

things that get destoyed in war, close up

The wall stayed up for only a few days, being torn down by ROTC members on the one night that people didn’t camp out there to protect it – at the time, it was terrifically cold, in the single digits every night.

The university, however, didn’t clean it up, and it remained for another few weeks.  As a pile of rubble it actually accomplished its goal even more effectively.  During this time, no one crossed the Diag without stopping to talk about the war.

Richard Dawkins is among the best and brightest evolutionary scientists of his generation.  I’ve read some of his books and have enjoyed them – The Selfish Gene, The Ancestor’s Tale – but I have found his unoriginal assessments of religion and the stupidity of people who choose to believe in God (even if they also believe in evolution) to be, at the most generous, tiresome.  For an example of hollow, rude intellectual badgering, see his video on Google.  It’s like a supernerd bully picking on crippled jock bullies and, frankly, I found the original much more entertaining.

1 Comment

Filed under art, danger, death, politics, risk

The truth and Twitter, part 1: The Mix Tape

twitter-iran1

The truth will be digitized.

Last week, I went to the 140 Characters Conference here in New York.  There, hundreds of people met to explore how Twitter, new media, and micro-blogging are disrupting life these days.  People were asking important questions of all this new technology:  What do we get out of it? Is it changing anything that matters in any interesting way?  Where’s it going?  What does it mean?

The conference couldn’t have been more timely, though this was completely an accident of fate:  On the very days of the meeting, June 16 and 17, the Iranian people were using Twitter, cell phones, and other inventions to coordinate and narrate a national uprising to protest the (allegedly) fraudulent results of the recent presidential elections.  The story is available only over the internet, because Iranian control of the press and media have made it impossible for regular journalists to cover the events on the ground.  Thus we turn to Twitter and bloggers to understand what’s going onHuffington Post’s Nico Pitney is singularly inserting himself into the moment by providing the only comprehensive, live blog of the event.

These are the largest and most disruptive public demonstrations since the Iranian Revolution of 1979, when masses of Iranians overthrew the US-backed Shah of Iran.  The Iranian Revolution was one of the few documented true revolutions (to use a political science term!), in which the structure of society itself, and not merely the regime, was changed in a rapid convulsion of political will.

Something similar might be happening today.

The events of 1979 have an interesting parallel to the present, for the earlier Revolution was spurred along by the innovative application of a radical new technology that not only subverted the regime but also fit neatly into the lifestyles and habits of regular Iranians.  The new technology was accessible to everyone, regardless of education, age, gender, or geographical location.  I am referring, of course, to cassette tape recordings, which in the 1970s took the entire world on a quantum leap of do-it-yourself cultural production, re-production, and mashing-up.

In the West, this took the form of the mix tape.  We used the songs of our favorite bands to declare love or war, to apologize for insensitivity, to make a stand, break up, explain any of the preceding, or simply state the case for plain, animal lust.   The truly radical could even place Yes, The Clash, and Air Supply on the same tape, just to make a point.  The mix tape reached its all-time high with Nick Hornby’s novel, High Fidelity, in the mid-1990s, which was later immortalized on the silver screen with John Cusak at the very moment in time when the cassette tape itself was tossed into the dustbin of history by the arrival mix-CDs, MP3 playlists, and (a few years later) the iPod.

At the same time that mix tapes reshaped the possibilities for personal expression in the West, Iranians were gathering in private, often hidden, rooms to listen to cassette tapes of sermons by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, a prominent religious leader who was exiled from Iran in 1964.  Khomeini took refuge first in Iraq, which has a large (majority) population of Shiite Muslims, and later in France.  His sermons were smuggled into Iran, where they met a large audience, hungry for his words.

Khomeini’s message was both religious and social.  He married basic Islamic piety to a consciousness of poverty, economic injustice, and outrage at the atrocities of the Shah’s violently repressive state.  The Iranian Revolution of 1979 was deeply tied to Islam’s notions of charity and essential human equality (not the same as “freedom” in any Western sense), tenets of belief that the Shah’s regime violated so openly and egregiously. Cassette recordings overcame the literacy barrier and brought this message to wide audiences that might have missed him had he been restricted to paper texts and photocopies.  Cassette tapes were the samizdat of the Islamic world in the 1970s.  Anyone could listen.

Cassette tapes allowed the Iranian opposition to gather, communicate, and plan for a better day.  When that day came, in the heady rebellion of 1978-79, it seemed as if the world exploded, just like it did this week as Iran commanded center stage everywhere.  It’s no small coincidence, it might be added, that some of the chief protagonists of the present turmoil – Ayatollah MontazeriMir Hossein Mousavi, and Hashemi Rafsanhani were there in 1979, in similar roles, only as much younger people.

So Twitter brings us full circle, from cyber space and cell phones – whose ubiquitous flip-top form bears more than a passing resemblance to the original Star Trek Communicator – back to cassette tapes.  Déjà vu all over again, as Yogi Berra once noted.

Today, Twitter and cell phone videos are our cassette tapes of Iranian change, bringing us the haunting images of people shouting Allahu Akbar from the rooftops at night, just like they did in 1979.  Then, as now, regular people sang the traditional Muslim declaration, “God is great,” to indict the regime in power.

That’s the original cultural source of change in Iran.

Note

This is the first of 3 postings on “The truth and Twitter.”  More to come…

Credits

Opening photo:  www.life.com/image/ugc1002722/in-gallery/28782/eyewitness-from-tehrans-streets.  LIFE has several dramatic series of photographs from the current events; other photographs are here. Looking at these photos, I can feel, in my bones, what “history” means.

2 Comments

Filed under danger, freedom, ideas, politics, revolution

The truth and unicorns, part 2

The Maiden Captures the Unicorn

The Maiden Captures the Unicorn

The Cloisters is the Medieval branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.  If you’re not in New York, drag your mouse here.  When you get there, you will find a large room, like the banquet hall of a castle, complete with a large, carved stone fireplace.  There is no table in the middle, and you will see hanging from the walls seven tapestries that date from the turn of sixteenth century (1495-1505).

They were woven in Brussels of wool, silk, silver, and gilt wefts by deft hands. Hanging twelve feet from ceiling-to-floor, the tapestries tell the story of a unicorn hunt, a standard Medieval myth, set against mille-fleurs backgrounds that show over one hundred species of plants. A group of well-armed nobles and knights search the countryside for a unicorn, but they can capture it only with the help of a Maiden, a virgin. They stab and gore the unicorn and set their dogs on it. Custom would have the capture killed on the spot – but the unicorn lives again in the final tapestry, The Unicorn in Captivity, which shows it tied to a pomegranate tree, surrounded by a low fence.  It is an allegory of the passion of Christ, or the cruelty of mankind, the rape of nature, the fierceness of men, the innocence of virgins, sexuality itself.

If you have the chance to visit the exhibit, read aloud Rainer Maria Rilke’s sonnet to the unicorn.  The echo in the room takes you out of time and space and into the sensual experience of near-fantasy.

O this is the beast who does not exist.
They didn’t know that, and in any case
– with its stance, its arched neck and easy grace,
the light of its limpid gaze – they could not resist

but loved it though, indeed, it was not. Yet since
they always gave it room, the pure beast persisted.
And in that loving space, clear and unfenced,
reared its head freely and hardly needed

to exist. They fed it not with grain nor chaff
but fortified and nourished it solely with
the notion that it might yet come to pass,

so that, at length, it grew a single shaft
upon its brow and to a virgin came
and dwelled in her and in her silvered glass.

Or see the following video (best when set to full screen, though the quality of photos suffers a little):

Rilke follows the Medieval European unicorn myth as it lived in the space between paganism and Gothic Christianity. The unicorn was brought into being by human desire, yet represented innocence. For this reason, it could be captured only by a Maiden, and not by men, as the tapestries illustrate so beautifully. Eros and Thanatos are deeply entwined in this story.

The contradictory portrayal of sexual desire and the crushing forces of denial are all on display:  Does the unicorn’s story celebrate the feminine or banish it to a world of fantasy and lost innocence that only serve the interests of men? How far do we have to go from the Maiden and the unicorn to witches and witch-hunts?  Is this story a well-dressed window of oppression, the Maidens who become women chained to the pomegranate tree and fenced in like the unicorn of the seventh tapestry? Is the unicorn Jesus, loved by women and destroyed by the cruelty and hubris of men? Does it show the men for the hypocrites they are, able for all their weaponry and warmongering to capture the unicorn only with the aid of the Maiden?

It makes me think of my trip to the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa. To get to the room with Da Vinci’s masterpiece, you must walk through long hallways of religious paintings that depict, over and over, the Christian martyrs, the Crusades, and scenes of religious violence reminiscent more of Sam Peckinpah than St. Francis. There were at least 2 Sebastians, pierced by dozens of arrows, bleeding on the stake.  There were 3 heads of John the Baptist brought to Salome. Countless crucifixions. Nothing but destruction, over and over. Visitors weren’t lingering. They were on their way to the Mona Lisa. The ropes begin well down the hallway from her painting, to order the crowd into a manageable queue.

I had expected to be underwhelmed, but that’s not what happened. Mona Lisa’s room was packed. We were all struck, in awe of how she followed us wth her eyes, the way her smile seemed to change as we moved. It was a magical moment, unicorn-worthy and lovely.

Steve Earle, one of my great songwriting heroes, wrote a song called “The Kind,” which is on his CD Jerusalem, dedicated to themes inspired by 9/11, the War on Terror, and the build-up to the Iraq War.  In this song he sings of a soldier who “wins the prize and gets the girl,” of a “cowboy with an achin’ heart,” and finally, of a “girl with a secret smile.”

Paint me a picture of a girl with a secret smile
Lookin’ back at ya ‘cross the years through ancient eyes
You’re standin’ there like an open door
‘Cause she’s seen it all before
That’s the kind of picture I like

The kind that makes you sigh

In spite of all the art devoted to destruction and terror, we were all there just to see the painting of this girl who smiles.  In that moment, as in the story of the unicorn, truth.

Note

“The truth and unicorns, part 3” is in preparation and will round out the unicorn series for now.  After the credits I include all 7 unicorn tapestries, in order.

Credits

Unicorn Sonnet:  Rainer Maria Rilke, Sonnets To Orpheus, Pt. 2, No. 4, trans Robert Hunter. Hulogosi Communications Inc., November 1993.

“The Kind,” by Steve Earle.  Included on the CD Jerusalem, 2002.

Photos of The Hunt: http://www.geocities.com/area51/corridor/5177/hunt.html.  I cannot figure out who is responsible for the site, but it lists an email address, amulet@geocities.com.  These photos are a bit darker than the tapestries; the photos on the Met’s Unicorn Tapestries site are much clearer and show the the color much better (but they cannot be dowloaded and are protected by copyright).  Here are the photos, in order.

The start of the hunt

The start of the hunt

The unicorn is found

The unicorn is found

The unicorn at bay

The unicorn at bay

The unicorn leaps from the stream

The unicorn leaps from the stream

The Maiden captures the unicorn

The Maiden captures the unicorn

The unicorn is killed and brought to the castle

The unicorn is killed and brought to the castle

The unicorn in captivity

The unicorn in captivity

3 Comments

Filed under art, beauty, danger, death, love, myth

The truth and chickens

chicken

Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

Why did the chicken cross the road?

The first question is impossible to answer according to the ordinary laws of humanly observable nature.  This makes the second question all the more difficult, since we cannot answer it unless we discern whether it was the chicken, or the egg, that crossed the road in the first place.

Like Kafka, chickens have provoked controversies over some very important issues.  And, as with Kafka, the answers to these questions become harder and harder to find the deeper we get into the mundane circumstances of the chicken’s world.  Their lives are a maze of small doors and windows followed by a short plunk on the head in the service of something they will never understand.  They know not who their warders are, and their warders won’t even call the chickens (or the eggs) by name.

Note:  Cage-free chickens, their owners, and their consumers comfort themselves in the thought that these “free” chickens have been spared the Kafkaesque world of their cousins, but they haven’t – and you don’t need to be Sartre to see through this fowl illusion.  Their maze is just bigger and harder to see.  This will become apparent when free chickens reach a road.

The explanation provided by quantum mechanics is mathematically elegant and scientifically consistent, even if it’s at odds with the observable universe:  The superpositioned chicken and egg coexist in perfect harmony until the very moment you attempt to answer the question.  Then you have trouble, because the question forces you to put one thing before the other when in fact their natural state is to coexist in perfect, yet completely reasonable, contradiction.  The superpositioned chicken is both egg and chicken, and it is on both sides of the road at the same time.

This is the paradox of Schrödinger’s chicken.

__________

Credit: http://animalphotos.info/a/, photo of chicken crossing road with Schrödinger, or possibly Kafka, disguised as a dog, watching in the background.

Inspiration:  http://maghanlusk.com/category/exploration/, “Are You and Antiterminalist?”

See also:  “Schrödinger’s cat”

2 Comments

Filed under danger, Erwin Schrödinger, existentialism, Franz Kafka, freedom, Jean-Paul Sartre, superposition