Category Archives: failure

E/F – The glass of oil

There are jobs, and then there are jobs.

We built our world on petroleum, especially in the state I come from, Louisiana.  We power our cars and computers and houses with petrol and its funky little brother, natural gas.  Over the course of the long twentieth century, the automobile fueled explosive growth in the American economy and allowed people to spread out in endless suburbs that offered relief and tranquility compared with the noise and chaos of urban life.

Along the Gulf Coast and elsewhere, countless thousands of jobs are devoted to the exploration, drilling, refining, distributing, selling, purchasing, and using of petrol in its many forms.  We create our food with petrochemical fertilizers that rely on the abundant natural gas deposits found deep in the Gulf of Mexico along with oil.  The plastic bags we carry our food in are made of petroleum.  Cosmetics and personal lubricants are made of petrol.

Oil and other fossil fuels have made everything we know possible, from the things we use to the lifestyle of abundance that for some seems an American birthright.  We Americans are the people of the tar.

We eat the oil, and the oil eats us

Back in the 1970s, when gas prices shot through the roof because of the Arab Oil Embargo, the rest of the country went into a tailspin while Louisiana thrived on oil.  The construction of the New Orleans Superdome, opened in 1975, started a downtown building boom in New Orleans that reshaped the city before my eyes as I grew up. Then in the early 1980s, when oil prices fell as the country’s economy recovered, New Orleans and Louisiana went into a tailspin.  The oil companies moved their offices to Houston and drilling shut down as oil fell below $15 a barrel, the price at which it was no longer economical to produce oil in Louisiana.  As the oil money left, people lost jobs all over the state and everyone suffered.

Now, as the Deepwater Horizon blowout has become the world’s worst man-made environmental disaster, Americans face an impasse.  Do we follow Louisiana’s own politicians and call for more drilling?  These are the same politicians who along with other (mainly Republican) politicians around the country created an environment of contempt for business regulation that fueled a lawless world in the boardroom, on the factory floor, and in the marshes and mountains and wildlife prerserves.  Corporate lobbyists wrote environmental and workplace protection laws.  Our social world—our values and the values reflected by our government—made it the casual business of the day to celebrate the sub-prime mortgage market, overlook safety in coal mines, and build drilling rigs without proper blowout protection.  It was the time of our life and there wasn’t an American alive—left, right, or independent—who didn’t just love their IRAs, home equity, air conditioning, and cheap gas.

Un-natural disasters

Deepwater Horizon comes almost 5 years after the “natural” disaster of Hurricane Katrina, which continues to show us what can happen when the government abandons its people.  The Katrina disaster was neither inevitable nor natural.  It was a man-made disaster of the first degree, founded upon the same neglect and abdication of social responsibility that are at the core of America’s post-Reagan social contract.

Our world will change as the oil runs out, which it will do one day, sooner rather than later by current predictions.  How many disasters do we need to learn that all of us are made better by a government that provides social protections and guarantees against exploitation—of people, environments, and resources?  The BP oil disaster is our opportunity now for the national courage to get off oil.  Such a matter of fundamental change could be achieved only by a massive state-led effort akin to the New Deal.

For comparison’s sake, here’s The Deal We Got:  oil will kill us, either way.  It’s already started.  If it doesn’t kill us now, it will kill our children or grandchildren.  There’s no going back now on the damage oil has done and will do to Louisiana and the Gulf Coast at large.  Add one hurricane to it this year and it’s over.

Imagine

Can we just think about ending oil?  It doesn’t matter how realistic it seems.  It will hurt.  It hurts to stop any self-destructive addiction.  Yet while it’s going to hurt one way or another, it doesn’t hurt to dream a little.  Ask any hurting person.  Or these pelicans.  Why not …

… deploy the government’s resources to bail out the regular people of Louisiana who will lose their jobs in this tragedy? If it’s good enough for Goldman Sachs it’s good enough for the Bayou State.

… put the Army Corps of Engineers to work creating a levee system that channels the immense force of the Mississippi River to the restoration of the coast? The same government agency that corralled the river in the first place ought to be able to set it free.  Indeed, by cutting off the annual flood, the levees have helped erode the Louisiana wetlands at the rate of one acre per hour. Restoring the annual flood just might be the best way to combat the effects of the oil spill.

… cut our addiction to automobiles and airplanes by building railways—high speed and local—that can rely on wind, hydro, and other safer energy sources? Start with rails in Louisiana so that people there don’t have to buy gas and can still get to work. Put these guys to work at home and let them become a corps of railroad builders who can teach the rest of the nation how it’s done.

Imagine a permanent, federally funded project of restoring and then maintaining one of the world’s most vital and richest wetlands.  Call it real conservation and tip your hat to Teddy Roosevelt (the ex-Republican Bull Moose).  The point is that this is not just an oil spill.  It’s the big one, the wake-up call.  If the fear of losing jobs is what keeps people in Louisiana under the thumb of big oil, then let’s find them other jobs.  Are we slaves?

This isn’t rocket science.  It’s a matter of will.  We are the richest country on Earth, and we can do this if we want to.  While we’re at it, we can finally clean up the mess and set things to right from Katrina.  What America does shows the world—and more importantly, ourselves—what we really want and what we really care about.   What shall we do this time?

The glass

The glass is a champagne flute from Williams Sonoma.  I photographed it on the southern edge of the pond in Prospect Park, Brooklyn.  The pond is home to a lot of turtles.  Fish are stocked and then fished out by the people who live in the neighborhood.  Macy’s sponsors an annual fishing tournament in the park.  Swans, geese, ducks and other birds make the pond home, for at least part of the year.  Of late, there has been a series of mysterious animal deaths in the park, prompting outrage and concern by folks all over the city.  Comprehensive coverage of what started with an injury to John Boy the Swan, which later resulted in his death, can be found in Gothamist and in the Brooklyn Paper.  Video of John Boy can be found here.

Notes and Credits

All photographs are by the author, unless otherwise noted.

On the petrochemical sources of our food, no one has written more eloquently than Michael Pollan.  In his book, Omnivore’s Dilemma, he provides an accounting of the carbon footprint beneath the food we buy so cheaply in the supermarket, as well as the government policies that prop up the union of agribusiness and petroleum.

The sub-title, “We eat the oil and the oil eats us,” paraphrases the title of June Nash’s classic book about Bolivian tin miners, We Eat the Mines and the Mines Eat Us.  The book’s title comes from the way the miners talked about their relationship to the mines, mining, the mountains, and the tin companies that exploited them so ruthlessly.  Louisiana is like that, a place being eaten up by big companies who could care less about the local people apart from their willingness to work for low wages without union representation.  When I was a kid, we sometimes called New Orleans “The Tegucigalpa of the North.” It was sort of joke, just sort of.

On levees and their importance—I grew up about a half mile from the levee.  I used to play behind the levee every day in the batture, the swampy land between the levee and the river itself.  We played army and pirates behind the levee when we were little.  Then we smoked pot and made out.  When I was in college at Loyola University in New Orleans, I used to ride my bike from home (commuter student) to the college on the levee.  I wrote one of my best songs, “Down By the River,” about falling in love with a brown-eyed girl who gave me my first kiss on the levee.  It’s a bluegrass tune.

I took the satellite image of Hurricane Katrina from weather.com a few days before it made landfall.  I was holed up in Dallas, Texas, at my mother-in-law’s.  I happened to be there visiting, for reasons that had nothing at all to do with the storm.  My parents went to my brother’s place in Nacogdoches, Texas—now they were storm refugees and only went home at the end of October, after 2 months in Texas.  I kept that image of Katrina.  In my anger over the storm and the abandonment of New Orleans, I made it the wallpaper of my computer desktop, not changing it for a couple of years.

The battered house is where my father grew up in the 1940s and 50s.  It was on the corner of Lafaye and Frankfort Streets, which was in a new subdivision being made up near the shore of Lake Ponchatrain, where the Air Force had major installations during World War II.  My grandparents moved there after the war, once my grandfather— “Grumpy” as we called him—got home from the Pacific and took a job with the Postal Service, where he would work until his retirement.  I remember that house in the 1960s and early 70s.  I was all of 5 and everything was happy there.  Grumpy made ice cream in the back yard and told us funny stories.  He let us grandkids take a turn or two each on the hand-crank.  It was good ice cream.  The house is no longer there.

Environmental Impact Statement

None of the fish, turtles, geese, ducks, or swans that call Prospect Park home were endangered in any way by this photo shoot.  In place of oil, I used all-natural, unsulphered molasses, which has the look of oil but is quite sticky and tastes much better.

Molasses is a rather suitable substitute for oil in other ways as well, since it’s a Louisiana product that probably does much less damage than oil.  My grandparents grew up on sugar plantations up the river from New Orleans.  Grumpy used to tell us how they refined sugar from cane, every single step, including molasses.  He knew sugar.  Granny used molasses to sweeten the pecan pies she made every year with the nuts she gathered from the tree in her own backyard.  Molasses has been around for a long time without causing the epidemic of obesity that can be traced to high fructose corn syrup, which in turn can be traced be to the agricultural policies of the Nixon administration (will we ever run out Republicans in this story?), which in turn can be traced to petrochemical fertlizers and in the end:  oil, oil, oil.

The use of the first-person, plural possessive—we—in this essay is intentional.  We all own the oil spill.  The politicians who created the culture of disregard for public safety and environmental sustainability in business and corporate life are there because they received enough votes to win office.  The people who voted them in office did so for various reasons that Thomas Frank documents pretty well in What’s the Matter with Kansas and which for Louisiana are intricately related to the famed “Southern Strategy” that the Republican party adopted with Richard Nixon’s successful presidential campaign in 1968.  The race politics that underlay all of this are a tangled (yet quite simple) web that deserve another essay in their own right.  This is how America is, for whatever it’s worth.  Those of us who didn’t vote for these politicians, we’re also complicit.  We use the energy that comes from petrol.  We might want to laugh at Sarah Palin’s convoluted explanation of how environmentalists are really responsible for the Deepwater Horizon tragedy, but it’s our culture and we’ll keep driving to work every day, even if on a bus powered by gasoline or its funky little brother, “natural” gas.

We are the people of the tar.

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E/F – The glass of writing

“… let no mournful yesterdays
disturb thy peaceful heart.”

Ellen M. Huntington Gates, “Sleep Sweet”

“Of the making of many books there is no end,
and in much study there is weariness for the flesh.”

Ecclesiastes 12:12

When the glass is empty the writer searches, at times desperately, for some truth or experience to put on the page.  The writer writes to make life real.  It is an alchemy that turns nothing into something.  Without writing, the writer is hollow, small, almost nothing.

When the glass is full the writer becomes like a god, though not so much a god of creation as one who reorders worlds that already exist.  The writer recreates what he or she has known in order to say something about it.  At the end of the day, it is a gratifying act.

Reverie

In 1967, Gloria Steinem interviewed Truman Capote for an article that was published in McCall’s.  It was a candid interview.  She asked him how he would like to be described as a writer and as a person—adding “without false modesty,” just in case.  Capote replied with grace and clarity.

“As a writer, that I’m a good artist, a serious craftsman; that my writing gives pleasure in itself, regardless of what I’m writing about.  I spend a great deal of time with that object in mind.  Because to me, the greatest pleasure of writing is not what it’s about, but the inner music that words make.”

Early in his career, Capote was praised for the beauty of his sentences.  His prose was impeccable and his writing almost alone brought him into social circumstances the likes of which he never could have dreamed as the model for Dill in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, a lonely child of divorce in a small Alabama town.

But Capote flew too close to sun.  In a terrific irony—the exception that proves the rule, it seems—Capote’s downfall came when he tried to write what he (thought he) knew.  The serialized chapters of his long-awaited novel, Answered Prayers, hewed too closely to the real lives of his New York socialite crowd.  Scandalized, Capote’s supposed friends abandoned him and he learned how far, indeed, Monroeville, Alabama, was from New York’s Upper East Side.

Capote had abandoned the “inner music” of his words for a cloying attempt that was less writing what he knew than writing what he both coveted and hated.  Such is vanity.

Vanity

To write is to be like a god, one of those fundamental acts of hubris that always results in a fall, whether in the Garden of Eden or Greek mythology.  The “inner music” of Capotean reverie was to Franz Kafka a siren call to vanity and self-worship through the admiration of others.  To his close friend and ally, Max Brod, Kafka wrote in 1922—

“Writing is a sweet and wonderful reward, but a reward for what?  Last night it was as clear to me as the catechism learned in childhood that it is a reward for devil worship. This descent to the powers of darkness, the dubious embraces, and all the other things that doubtless occur down below and which we know nothing about up here when we write our stories in the sunshine.  Perhaps there are other kinds of writing, this is only one I know…”

The writer was oblivious to this affliction, mindlessly scribbling away beneath a penumbra of vanity that surrounded the sun itself.  Like sex, writing was at once a sensual and gratifying pact with the devil that was utterly essential to living experience—and at the same time, an act that obscured and defamed the very essence of love itself.

“It is the vanity and the hedonism, which flutter around and around either one’s own or another’s form in a ceaseless search for pleasure until in the end, by this constant repetition, a whole planetary system of vanity is created.”

Kafka’s life was filled with deep and vital relationships, with both women and men.  His Madonna-whore complex notwithstanding, he knew how to connect with others, recoiling only from those women he thought of marrying.  Writing was Kafka’s only salvation, the only thing that made him seem real to himself.

As a writer, however, Kafka was a failure in his own estimation.  His work remains for us mainly because his close friend and literary executor, Max Brod, famously chose to ignore to Kafka’s request to destroy all the remaining manuscripts, which included his novels The Trial, The Castle, and Amerika.

Prayer, a writerly cup

The photo of the cup of tea at the beginning of this post was given to me by a friend, Maghan Lusk.  She is from South Carolina.  In 2008-09, she wrote a blog called “[a creative writer’s] life, uncensored.”  On the blog, she wrote about writing, managing seamlessly to intersperse her own experiences with topical matter.  Her writing and point of view suggested a very thoughtful person who took the time to understand why people were doing what they did, rather than judging them and tossing off opinions.

In 2009, she shut down her blog to work on her first novel, which she has now completed.  Of her desk and cup she wrote—

“When I sit down to write, I make a pot of Ceylon orange pekoe (2 tbsp of loose tea, 1 tbsp of lemon curd, 1 tbsp of honey).  And I warm the pot before I add the boiling water – it’s a highly methodical process.  I like the color, so I always drink from a glass tea cup.  The pot in the back belonged to my mom before she married my dad (27 years ago).”

Before Maghan turned the pot to the support of her writer’s craft, her mother used it to warm the water she soaked her feet with.  Behind the pot, on the edge of the chest-of-drawers, is a framed poem, “Sleep Sweet,” by Ellen M. Huntington Gates.

The desk itself is piled high with the artifacts of Maghan’s life and work.  In the stack of books are admired pieces, atop which sits Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, the much-celebrated novel set in Iowa, in which the Rev. John Ames writes out a family history for his young son.  The Reverend’s wife calculated that all the sermons he had written across his life of preaching would come to 67,500 pages of prose, or 225 books by the Rev.’s own calculation, “which puts me up there with Augustine and Calvin for quantity.”  In Robinson’s prose, Rev. Ames takes us to a place in writing so much finer and wonderful than Kafka’s, less self-involved than Capote’s, more human and more in touch with the real reasons we write—to reach out to someone else.

“For me writing has always felt like praying, even when I wasn’t writing prayers, as I was often enough.  You feel that you are with someone.  I feel that I am with you now, whatever that can mean …”

Feeding the Wolves

There is a famous Cherokee fable that goes like this.

An elder Cherokee was teaching his grandchildren about life. He said to them, “A fight is going on inside me. It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves.  One wolf represents fear, anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.  The other stands for joy, peace, love, hope, sharing, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, friendship, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. This same fight is going on inside you, and inside every other person, too.”

The children thought about it for a minute and then one child asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”

The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”

Capote fed both wolves, with his life and with his words.  He was as destroyed by writing as he was acclaimed for it.  The same thing happened to Hemingway.  Kafka—and possibly Faulkner—fed the wolves with words alone, leaving their lives to become shambles of unrequited desire.

Sylvia Plath fed both wolves.  She fed them with her words and her flesh.  She married a man, Ted Hughes, who believed that a writer had the duty to live beyond all morality, to use his or her own life to build the experiences that would come to life in words.

To be an artist is a dangerous thing.  It is a special role, a special calling that cannot be resisted.  From the beginning of time—Lascaux to the Bible to Pynchon and Picasso and Joe Strummer—artists have helped us know who we are and how we live.  Some of them handle the role better than others.

Notes and Credits

I owe thanks to Maghan Lusk for sharing her photos and story for this posting, as well as for insightful correspondence over issues of writing, spirituality, and living in the Deep South over the last year or so.

Capote’s interview was by Gloria Steinem, “‘Go Right Ahead and Ask Me Anything.’  (And So She Did) An Interview with Truman Capote.”  McCall’s 95 (November 1967), 76-77, 148-52, 154.

Kafka from: Letter to Max Brod, July 5, 1922, in Franz Kafka, I Am a Memory Come Alive:  Autobiographical Writings, ed. N Glatzer (New York:  Schocken, 1974), p. 223.  An interesting source for Kafka information (though not the only one I used, of course) and condominiums in Miami can be found here.

Gilead quotation:  p. 19 of the Picador, 2004, edition.

The Cherokee fable of the two wolves is widely known.  The version posted here was taken from a website called “First People, The Legends.”  The story is the much the same in its various posting around the Web.

The photographs of books were taken by the author, on his own desk.  Disclosure:  I have not read Gilead, but I will do so shortly.  I have not read In Cold Blood, but I saw the movie with Robert Blake a long time ago on late-night tv.  I have not seen the movies of Capote’s life, neither Toby Jones’s nor Philip Seymour Hoffman’s.  The copy of In Cold Blood in the photograph was found on the sidewalk in Park Slope one day.  I have read much of Kafka’s writing—novels, stories, and letters, and I saw the movie.

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The truth and Brasília, 2: Torsos of Steel

brasilia-trespoderes

The Dream

From 1956 to 1960, Brazilian architects, engineers and peasant laborers called candangos built a new capital, Brasília.  This was the realization of a dream first voiced in 1827, just 5 years after the country became independent, when an advisor to Emporer Pedro I suggested that he move the capital from the colonial city of Rio de Janeiro, on the coast, to a new city in the interior.

Brasília, as it eventually came to be called, was a Brazilian version of Luso-Manifest Destiny.  The new city was built on the legacy of the Bandeirantes, slave hunters and prospectors whose journeys into the South American interior in the 16th and 17th centuries extended Portuguese holdings – Brasil – at the expense of the Spanish crown.

President Juscelino Kubitschek asked Oscar Niemeyer to head up the team that would create the new capital.   A native of Rio de Janeiro, Niemeyer was already an internationally renowned architect, his design for the United Nations Head Quarters in New York an immediate icon of post-war modernism.  His designs for Brasília’s government buildings, plazas, monuments, and National Cathedral created something of a modernist theme park in Brasília, and in 1987 the city was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

For Brasília, Niemeyer collaborated with another celebrated Brazilian designer, Lucio Costa, whose plans for the city took the national dream into the air itself – from above, Brasília’s layout looks like a giant bow, loaded and aimed at the heart of the continent.  Costa’s Brasília conformed to the modernist Athens Charter of 1933 almost to the letter, creating a city of functionalism and (for many) modern alienation.  Landscaping was done by Roberto Burle Marx, another of the generation of Brazilian modernists whose work defined an era in South American history.

In the Plaza of the Three Powers, Bruno Giorgi’s sculpture, Os Candangos, memorialized the northeastern Brazilians who built the capital.  In the national discourse of the time, these impoverished peasants were living symbols of Brazil’s colonial and agrarian past.  By coming to Brasília and building the city, they were transformed into new pioneers who would settle the vast empty spaces of the country’s interior, from the dry plains of Brasília through the vast green desert of the Amazon.  Unlike the North American slaves who built the White House and the U.S. Captiol buildings, the candangos were memorialized as part and parcel of Brasília’s futurist vision.

The architect must think that the world has to be a better place, that we can end poverty . . . . it is important that the architect think not only of architecture but of how architecture can solve the problems of the world . . . The architect has to always be political.

—Oscar Niemeyer, 2009

Hard Winter

Meanwhile, in London, Sylvia Plath was pregnant again.  Her husband, Ted Hughes, was having an affair with another woman, and they were destined to separate soon after the birth of their son, Nicholas.  In the 13 months after Nick’s birth, Plath wrote most of the poems in her second collection, Ariel, and published her autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar.  Then on February 11, 1963, Plath left her children sleeping in their room, sealed the door with wet towels, and committed suicide with oven gas in the kitchen.

Among the poems she wrote in this period was Brasilia, which was not published in Ariel.  Like Zweig, Plath was thinking about the past and the future and the trouble with seeing it through.

Will they occur,
These people with torso of steel
Winged elbows and eyeholes

Awaiting masses
Of cloud to give them expression,
These super-people! –
And my baby a nail
Driven, driven in.
He shrieks in his grease

Bones nosing for distance.
And I, nearly extinct,
His three teeth cutting

Themselves on my thumb –
And the star,
The old story.

In the lane I meet sheep and wagons,
Red earth, motherly blood.
O You who eat

People like light rays, leave
This one
Mirror safe, unredeemed

By the dove’s annihilation,
The glory
The power, the glory.

It was one of the coldest winters on record in England, and Sylvia Plath’s life was falling apart even as she was bringing new life on.  How long she had intended to take leave of this life is not something we can know.  She had attempted suicide before, and she was troubled by deep emotional struggles that went back to childhood.  Her relationship with Hughes held some high points in her life, but now he had left her for another woman.  What is clear, however, is that once she made her decision, she executed it with consummate intentionality.  She meticulously protected her children as she took her own life.

Like Zweig, she left two works for posthumous publication, one pointing backwards, one pointing forward.  The Bell Jar was on its way to publication; in this, her semi-autobiographical novel, she exposed a world she knew in the past, a world she tried to leave once before.  As she died, the manuscript for Ariel and Other Poems, her masterwork, lay on the desk, each poem typed and left in the precise order she wanted for the book.  The first word of the first poem, “Morning Song,” was “love.”  The last word of the last poem, “Wintering,” was “spring.”

Like Zweig, Plath thought she left a book pointing to a better future, but that wasn’t to be.  The Ariel that was published under Ted Hughes’s editorial guidance was not the same book.  The poems were reordered, others added, and a few, like Brasilia, removed.  This Ariel was darker, seeming to foreshadow Plath’s end, but whatever the critics of Hughes’s intentions, this Ariel made Plath who she is today.

Cold War

On March 31, 1964, the Brazilian military overthrew the democratically elected government.  As the military took control, they created the model for the “bureaucratic authoritarian state” in the developing world.  Niemeyer and Costa’s modernist visions were perverted into symbols of Latin America’s dark period, the capital’s bland functionality and order representing the kind of control that the military celebrated in its culture, the kind of functionality they wished to instill in the rest of the country.

Behind the gleaming white façades of Brasília’s futuristic vision, the Brazilian military contributed to the “dirty wars” against the left in Brazil, Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay.  These regimes took the lives of tens of thousands of people who dreamed of a different kind of democracy than the region had known.  Beyond those killed, many more were tortured, and hundreds of thousands were forced into exile.  Niemeyer, a Communist and therefore enemy of the state, went into exile in Europe.

When the opposition movements eventually took power in the late 1980s and 1990s, the world was a very different place.  Brasília was a bigger city, showing some age, surrounded by “satellite cities” and large favelas – the squatter settlements that the military tried to eradicate in Rio de Janeiro with less than efficient results.  Costa’s rationally designed city had its flaws, its ups and downs, and its critics.  For some, it seemed as if Brazil, and Brasília, had turned Zweig’s book into a joke:  Brazil is the country of the future, and it always will be.

The future that Brasília promised, that Plath saw in her mind and in her children, didn’t work out according to the original plans.  Yet life goes on.  I will continue these themes in the next posting on the The truth and Brasília, 3:  Faroeste Caboclo.

plath-tat

Notes and Credits

The critics of Brasília’s ambitious design and lofty principles are many.  I am not one of them.  I am writing to explore what Brasília means, not its shortcomings, and my approach should indicate that I believe the city’s meaning far outshines any of its shortcomings.

Lauro Cavalcanti provides a beautiful guide to Brazil’s modernist architecture that places Brasília in perspective.  In Brasília, the government sought to “turn the state into a spectacle,” and Brasília is indeed the enactment of a dream.  If you can’t go to Brasília but can find your way to New York, go to Lincoln Center, and you can witness Neimeyer and Brasília’s influence on one of the great cultural centers of the world.

Photo of the Praça dos Três Poderes, with the statue of Os Candangos, is 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.

The candangos are publicly memorialized in Brazil, in marked contrast to the North American squelching of the slave labor employed to build our own White House.  Without suggesting that Brazil is any less racist than the U.S., or that either country has a better social model for dealing with its racial legacy, I point this out as a matter of historical interest.  The reader may regard these facts as he or she wishes.

Niemeyer and Costa’s designs were political statements.  They expressed political beliefs in modernity, order, and democracy in the layout of the city.  Niemeyer himself was a Communist, whose architeture reflected his beliefs in a world of collective and individual democracy, the triumph of working people over the old regime and the capitalist governing class.

Oscar Niemeyer is 101 years old, and he is still working.  The quotation in this posting is taken from an interview he did with Santiago Fernandez-Stelley for Vice magazine online, at some point in 2009.  The interview can be seen on video at VBS.TV.  The video of the interview is simply inspirational.

The photo of the Sylvia Plath tattoo is from a photobucket listing from PaperCuttt.  I found it first on this site for literary tattoos.  You can also find material from the same person at another livejournal channel.  She notes that she altered the original slightly (“As I listened to the old bray of my heart….I am. I am. I am.”) but that it contains the same spirit.

I have long been greatly motivated by the poetry and writing of Sylvia Plath.  As I mentioned in the introduction to this series of posts, her Collected Poems was one of two English language books I brought to Brazil in 1992 for my year of doctoral reserach in Belém.  Over my life I have read many books on her and her life.  These resources include:  the poems themselves. Anne Stevenson, Bitter Fame; Jacqueline Rose, The Haunting of Sylvia Plath; Linda Wagner, Critical Essays on Sylvia Plath; and Erica Wagner, Ariel’s Gift.  I’ve tried to read as much as possible, and to work through the thicket of political controversy around her work and life.  I also read Ted Hughes’ Birthday Letters and have some to a deeper appreciation of how Sylvia Plath affected all those around her.  The tragedy of her son’s suicide last year brought me a several days of stark reflection on emotions, depression, and the struggle of human consiousness and life against itself.

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The truth and Brasília, 1: Land of the Future

zweig

This series of posts springs from three sources.  First, my research for “The truth and change,” recalled the poem Brasília, by Sylvia Plath.  Second, I have lived in Brazil for long periods of time and consider Belém, the “cidade das mangueiras” at the mouth of the Amazon River, as my second home town.  Third, The Collected Poems of Sylvia Plath was one of two English-language books I brought with me to Belém in 1992, as I began a year-long stay for my doctoral research.

These are stories of exile, suicide and hope in a world caught just between a despair-ridden past and an open-ended, possibly bright future.  They are stories of writers and writing.  They are stories close to my heart and deeply tied to my own passions.  The first is that of Stefan Zweig’s tragic love affair with Brazil.  The exiled Austrian Jew will give his story to Sylvia Plath, the expatriate American poet of Autsrian extraction writing of a metphor sprung from a city she never visited.  Like Zweig, she died by her own hand in a foreign land.  Finally, Renato Russo brings us back to his Brasília, in an epic poem that marries the cinematic Western to the story of his own country.

These are stories of gifted storytellers whose lives were dealt a blow by the hubris of others.  Their achievements in the face of all this are a thing of drastic beauty and desperate truth.  Life is hard, a friend of mine once said, and it is.  But worth every ounce of the struggle, no matter how it ends.

The truth and Brasília, 1:  Land of the future

In 1942, Stefan Zweig and his wife, Lotte, commited double suicide in Petrópolis, Brazil.  Ever the writer – one of the world’s best known, at the time – Zweig left a note to explain why.

Zweig stated that his decision was “of my free will and in my right mind,” and he told the world why he chose to leave this life.  In the dozen years up to this point, Zweig went from being the world’s most-translated author to literary refugee, fleeing his native Vienna for Britain in 1934, then the United States, and finally Brazil in 1941.  By this time he was morally and spiritually homeless, “my own language having disappeared from me and my spiritual home, Europe, having destroyed itself.”

No mention is made of Lotte in the letter, so her role, contribution, or support in the decision is only as clear as the fact that she was there on the bed with Zweig at the end of it all, free of struggle, her body like his finally free of the life within it.

Had Zweig the wherewithal to hold out a few years, so the critics say, he might have been able to reinvigorate his spirits – but such conjecture is pointless.  Europe in the late 1940s was no picnic, either, and the onset of the Cold War was for many simply a continuation of Europe’s long demise.

For Zweig, the tragedy of Europe was deeply important.  He was a stalwart of the pacifist movement, going back to the early years of the century, and he was a famous champion of European integration.  A secular Jew from Vienna, he was of the great class of pan-European intellectuals whose history and inclinations drove them to think of a larger cultural world of ideas and human progress.  To see that dream dashed so spectacularly by fascism was indeed, I imagine, a tragic, numbing blow to the soul.

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Zweig wrote two books in the final years of life that spell his struggle in simple letters.  In 1941, he published Brazil:  Land of the Future, a love letter to his newly adopted country.  On the day before he committed suicide in 1942, Zweig mailed another manuscript to his publisher:  The World of Yesterday, an autobiography.  Zweig’s European world was on the brink of genocidal horror, and it was killing him.  In Brazil, he was trying, heroically perhaps, to follow the European tradition of celebrating all that was American as a new world, a blank slate, a place of abundance unsullied by the tragic history of European struggle, war, and religious strife.  He tried, but as he says in the suicide note, he was simply too old to keep on.

. . . after one’s sixtieth year unusual powers are needed in order to make another wholly new beginning. Those that I possess have been exhausted by long years of homeless wandering. So I think it better to conclude in good time and in erect bearing a life in which intellectual labor meant the purest joy and personal freedom the highest good on earth.

Even as Zweig lived and wrote and died, young Brazilian idealists like Lúcio Costa and Oscar Niemeyer were establishing themselves as world class designers and architects.  After World War II, Niemeyer’s design for the United Nations in New York placed his ideas on the world’s stage – a House of Tomorrow for the hopes and dreams that Zweig himself had given up on.

Costa and Niemeyer would go on to design Brazil’s city of the future, Brasília, its capital of the future, a gleaming, white, rational city reflecting their beliefs in a truly democratic world that would work for everyone, regardless of class or any other distinction that made life difficult in the old world they inherited.  Like Zweig, they looked to a land of the future that was their own Brazil.

Notes and Credits

Cidade das mangueiras = city of mango trees.  It’s the local nickname for Belém, where the avenues are lined with mango trees.  Every November, when the fruit falls, children scurry into the streets, dodging busses and cars (and sometimes horses) to pick up a free snack.

There are a number of wonderful blog sites, radio interviews, and other web resources available to learn about Stefan Zweig.  My source for Zweig’s suicide note is Artopia:  John Perreault’s Art Diary.  WNYC’s Leonard Lopate did a radio show on August 13, 2007, for which he interviewed George Prochnik, who was working on a book about Stefan and Lotte Zweig.  Monica Carter of Salonica writes of Zweig’s Amok and Other Stories,

Three out of the four stories in this collection put us in the hearts of those suffering from unrequited love. Zweig’s style is so elegant and descriptive, the purity of this love scares and engages us. The last story draws us in to man who cannot find his way home, due to the war. This is the story I found most tragic because of its autobiographical slant. Zweig and his wife committed suicide because the home that they knew, was one they could never get to again. These stories are so worthwhile and if there is any credence to the adage ‘write what you know’ then Zweig was a man who wrote about loss and love with equal knowledge.

Zweig’s reputation in Brazil is uneven.  As journalist Carlos Haag reported in 2006, Brazilians have discounted the authenticity and sincerity of Zweig’s book, from the 1940s onwards.  The book was rumoured to be a quid pro quo with the Brazilian dictator at the time, Getúlio Vargas, who allegedly granted the famous exiles, Zweig and Lotte, permanent residency in exchange for the writer’s services.  Brazil was to be the land of Zweig’s future, and perhaps nothing more than that.

The photograph of the colonial map of Brazil can be found in the Wikimedia Commons at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Brazil-16-map.jpg.  The photograph is in the public domain.

I first heard of Zweig’s book while living in Brazil.  The book has been appropriated for an insider joke about eternal contrast between Brazil’s riches and potential for greatness with its ever-present reality of income disparity, poverty, and crime.  The joke plays on Zweig’s book title and figures in the second of these postings:  Brazil is the country of future, and it always will be.

The statement, “In Brazil, [Zweig] followed the grand European tradition of celebrating all that was American as a new world, a blank slate, and a place of abundance unsullied by the tragic history of European struggle,” is a standard of European history.  The notion of a “new world” was the result of Columbus’s discovery of a place that no one in Europe or Asia ever knew existed. John Locke backs up his understanding of the “blank slate” of human history and his state of nature theory with unrelenting references to the Native American societies who demonstrate his point.

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Jean De Lery, a French doctor and Huguenot minister who travelled to the original French Colony of Rio de Janeiro (that’s right, it was a French town at he beginning), wrote a brilliant polemic, History of a Voyage to the Land of Brazil, aimed at demonstrating that the Tupi natives were more fully civilized than French Catholics, even if the Tupi had integrated cannibalistic rituals into their warfare.  As Lery wrote, the French Catholic monarchy was persecuting the Huguenots and massacring them en masse.

Finally, the Founding Fathers of the United States were themselves European intellectuals in the Enlightenment tradition, who sought to enshrine their country’s ahistorical legacy into the very structure of governance.  Article I, Section 9 of the U.S. Constitution abolished nobility and privileged relationships with nobles (who could only be from Europe); and the First Amendment’s protection of freedoms to religion, speech, press, assembly, and petition is itself a rejection of the entire course of European political struggle since the Reformation began in 1517.

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The truth and set theory: more on Mr. McNamara

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Robert S. McNamara struggled with his own humanity in the face of all he had done.  His faith in statistics, systems theory, and science was equaled by his seeming allergy to human emotion, in spite of a life lived full of emotion.  Whether his sense of duty was a righteous sham or a noble straightjacket cannot be answered now, but we do know that his sense of duty prevented him from acting on his beliefs.  In not acting – not speaking out against the war and Johnson’s stubborn pursuit of it – McNamara’s misdeeds became the emblem of his life.

My perspective on McNamara is a luxury of history.  In 1984, when I was working for the Mondale campaign as a College Democrat, we looked back on the 1960s with dim and misplaced nostalgia for something we didn’t understand.  When we drew up our marches and rallies against the U.S. role in Central America, we wondered what had been lost since 1968.

With this in mind, I wrote my friend, Peter, who was there in 1968. I asked him to read the post and address one question:  “[D]o you think I let him off too easily?”

He wrote me the following, which he allowed me to post here without editing:

McNamara remains something of an enigma to me.  He was definitely my enemy back in the 1960s when I was going to school in Ann Arbor.  I recently relived those days with one of my old friends.  I was attending a conference in Dearborn and made a trip to AA on a beautiful spring day, and my buddy (I hadn’t seen him since 1984) drove in from western Michigan.  We recalled the bombing of the ROTC building, the bombing of the CIA office hidden somewhere in downtown AA, various demonstrations we took part in, our first and subsequent encounters with teargas, etc., our first trip to DC to take part in an antiwar march, etc.  (we didn’t leave out drugs and rock and roll in our tour of memory lane).

You are quite right about McNamara’s capacity for self-reflection and his—you don’t use these terms— almost theological understanding of what Paul Ricoeur would call “fallible man.”  And of course this is what makes him so very different from the motherfuckers of recent vintage who got us into unnecessary wars.  Not only will they never be described as the “best and the brightest,” but they provide ample evidence of a total incapacity for self-reflection and self-doubt.  All this being said, one of the things that “The Fog of War” revealed was that there were definitely limits to McNamara’s willingness or ability to plunge into his psychic depths.  I have a sense that he got near the heart of the matter, but perhaps because of what psychoanalysts call (or at least used to call) resistance, never quite managed to truly come to terms with the reasons for and consequences of his actions.

Errol Morris’s reflections came out in the New York Times yesterday, “McNamara in Context.”  Morris points out that as McNamara saw it, his job was to keep us out of nuclear war, which he succeeded in doing even as he failed so spectacularly in other important ways.  So much of his life’s work, including at the World Bank, created unintended consequences that were not good at all.  Robert S. McNamara was one singularly influential person, a Robert Moses of death and destruction, who had it in his power to do so many things at the flick of a finger.

Like my friend Peter, Morris notes that McNamara never fully accounted for his individual role in the Vietnam War and the unnecessary death it caused, noting that he always used the first person plural when speaking of it.  “We were wrong.”  For Morris this is part of a greater conundrum: “… how do you say you’re sorry for history?”  That kind of accountability is bigger than the individual who, if responsible for some large part of the problem, was surely not alone in it.  McNamara was in over his head.  He had no mind for the ideas and emotions that would have addressed the situation he was in.

We see now how Dick Cheney is living with his failures.  It’s not likely his obituary will state that in his later years “he wore the expression of a haunted man. He could be seen in the streets of Washington — stooped, his shirttail flapping in the wind — walking to and from his office a few blocks from the White House, wearing frayed running shoes and a thousand-yard stare.”

That image, by Tim Weiner in the New York Times obituary of McNamara, recalled for me another fallen genius of the same era:  John Nash and his haunting of Princeton in his illness, prior to his resurfacing and recognition with the Nobel Prize in Economics.  Both men were gripped by insanity at the height of their powers, only McNamara’s was an historical psychosis that had sanction and authority, while Nash’s was a bitterly lonely, neurological defect.

What is the line between the righteous pursuit of the good, however one conceives it, and real evil?  Between clarity of vision and madness?  Or perhaps more aptly stated:  Who draws that line?  The righteous believe they know, and that it’s a simple issue.  But it’s not.  Maybe there is no line at all, or maybe it gets dim or disappears from time to time.  An unwelcome thought indeed, but in math, the empty set is always a subset of any set. ∀A: ∅ ⊆ A  So it is with life.

This is not the same as saying there is no good or evil – for there is – only that in some situations truth and rocket science place us at a disadvantage, in a fog of righteousness and knowledge.  McNamara was an outlier in the same population of which we are all members, and when we really look at outliers, we simply see ourselves, or at least parts of ourselves, magnified.

Notes

The mathematical notation ∀A: ∅ ⊆ A means that “for all sets A, the empty set (∅) is a subset of A.”

Robert Moses was the most powerful figure shaping the urban geography of the New York City metropolitan area.  From the 1920s to the 1970s, he created park systems, highways, bridges, tunnels, and public housing that, taken together, are fundamental elements of any picture of 20th and 21st century New York.  While few dispute the benefits of the parks, beaches, and swimming pools Moses created, his highways destroyed neighborhoods and isolated populations from each other.  Along with the system of public housing he created, Moses is partly responsible for the patterns of racial segregation in New York, and according to Robert Caro’s Pulitzer Prize winning 1974 biography, The Power Broker:  Robert Moses and the Fall of New York (Knopf), this was intentional.  By the 1960s, Moses’s star began to wane, and he lost several public battles over new projects. One of Moses’s most influential critics was Jane Jacobs, whose The Death and Life of Great American Cities is considered a classic urban geography and community theory.  Jacobs led the fight against Moses’s Lower Manhattan Expressway, which was never built.  Like McNamara, Moses was an appointed official.

For six months in 2004, I lived on the Red Hook side of “the trench,” a stretch of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (a Moses project) that, along with the Gowanus Expressway (Moses) and Battery Tunnel (Moses), cuts off Red Hook from nearby Carroll Gardens. Red Hook’s public housing development (Moses, again) is one of the largest in New York, and its residents are largely non-white.  Carroll Gardens is an old Italian neighborhood that has retained its character, though they had to fight make sure the BQE didn’t demolish their church.  In the last few years, Red Hook is undergoing new change, as people from all over the city flock to the giant swimming pool in the park there (Moses), along with one of the newest, and largest IKEA stores (not Moses) in the metropolitan area.  Another major (decidedly un-Moses) attraction to Red Hook today are the tacos, whose vendors recently won a touchy battle with the city in order to keep plying their delights for summer soccer fans.  It was a struggle Jane Jacobs might have appreciated, as chronicled in part in the Brooklyn Paper.

I have not read Gladwell’s book, Outliers.  I’ve read two of his other books and enjoyed them.  In my own work as a social scientist, I’ve spent the last 20 years looking at the differences between outliers the rest of us.  Not a fan of essentialisms, yet without denying the possibility of essential differences among some people, I tend to view difference as a matter of degrees and context.  (see The truth and us).

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