Category Archives: myth

The truth and storms – Irene, Goodnight, 2011

Irene wasn’t really a hurricane when she finally reached New York after some 18 hours of waiting, waiting, waiting.  By 6:00 am on Sunday, August 27, 2011 Irene was a tropical storm.  The most horrifying aspect of the storm for us in Brooklyn was the waiting.  It was like being stuck behind a slow walker or a tourist or a sudden-stopper on the sidewalk.  Horribly aggravating, enough-so to ruin a day, or at least a morning.

I live across the street from the Prospect Park Parade Grounds.  A number of photographs featured on this blog have come from this very street, Caton Ave, some even from the same dining room window from which these two Irene videos.  From this vantage point I was able to record the storm safely.  By 10 am on Sunday, the storm was largely over.

Finally, by the early afternoon I was ready to go find brunch.  After being cooped up in the house for 24 hours, my son and I were eager to get into the fresh air.  On our way, we documented our journey to the Windsor Cafe, just across Prospect Park from here.

Notes and Credits

These videos were taken with my new Canon Powershot SX20 IS.  It’s a baby camera, a point-and-shoot, but it’s a good camera for me.  These videos and hundreds of photos I have taken since buying the camera have convinced me of its fit with my needs.  Ironically, I decided to buy the camera to document my vacation in Nova Scotia with my father and son.  The vacation was set to begin Saturday morning, August 26.  Then my father abruptly canceled, claiming that Hurricane Irene posed too great a danger to travel.  On my end, I though the trip to Nova Scotia would be the perfect hurricane evacuation, which it would have been.  My view, however, was not the majority view, and I lost.  So for Irene, my son and I spent Friday night through Sunday afternoon preparing and enduring the storm.  Ugh.  It was so good to get outside and take these pictures!

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Filed under danger, life, myth, superposition

The truth and money

The truth is that money is often a divisive influence in our lives.  We keep our bank balances secret because we worry that being candid about our finances will expose us to judgment or ridicule—or worse, to accusations of greed or immorality.  And this worry is not unfounded.

Jenny Offill and Elissa Schappell, Money Changes Everything (New York:  Doubleday, 2007), p. xi

Brooklyn Reading Works:
The Truth and Money

On April 15, 2010, the Brooklyn Reading Works will present its monthly writers’ program on “tax day.”  This happy accident, observed last summer in a casual conversation over coffee with Louise Crawford, resulted in the idea for a panel called “The Truth and Money,” a reading and Q & A with three authors whose work has taken on money in some significant way.

Our three panelists are:

Elissa Schappell, a Park Slope writer, the editor of “Hot Type” (the books column) for Vanity Fair, and Editor-at-large of the literary magazine Tin House. With Jenny Offill, Schappell edited Money Changes Everything, in which twenty-two writers reflect on the troublesome and joyful things that go along with acquiring, having, spending, and lacking money.

Jennifer Michael Hecht, a best-selling writer and poet whose work crosses fields of history, philosophy, and religious studies.  In The Happiness Myth, she looks at what’s not making us happy today, why we thought it would, and what these things really do for us instead.  Money—like so many things, it turns out—solves one problem only to beget others, to the extent that we spend a great deal of money today trying to replace the things that, in Hecht’s formulation, “money stole from us.”

Jason Kersten, a Park Slope writer who lives 200 feet from our venue and whose award-winning journalism has appeared in Rolling Stone, Men’s Journal, and Maxim.  In The Art of Making Money, Kersten traces the riveting, rollicking, roller coaster journey of a young man from Chicago who escaped poverty, for a while at least, after being apprenticed into counterfeiting by an Old World Master.

Please join us for the event at 8:00 p.m. on Thursday, April 15, 2010, at the Old Stone House in Washington Park, which is located on 5th Avenue in Park Slope, between 3rd and 4th Streets, behind the playground.

Read about all the Brooklyn Reading Works events at Only the Blog Knows Brooklyn and the BRW website.  For info on the Old Stone House and its role in the Battle of Brooklyn (1776) and contemporary life in Park Slope, go here.

Many thanks from all of us at Truth and Rocket Science to Louise Crawford, of Only the Blog Knows Brooklyn, for making this possible.

Money, It’s a Gas

The subtitle on the cover of Elissa Schappell’s book says everything you need to know about the stories within:  Twenty-two writers tackle the last taboo with tales of sudden windfalls, staggering debts, and other surprising turns of fortune. “The last taboo” is how Schappell and her co-editor, Jenny Offill, characterize our behavior when it comes to money, because nobody really wants to talk about it.

People are secretive and embarrassed—for having too little, or too much, or something to hide about the reasons either way.  In a country where everyone seems to have a story of how they, or their parents or grandparents, used to be poor, any personal narrative but “hard work” is out of the question.  Even hardened criminals revel in detailing the blood, sweat, and tears that go into their “work.”  No one, it seems, can sit back and say with no embellishment or apology, “I got lucky, that’s all.”  Money is the measure of what we deserve, and in our society what we deserve is in some sense who we are.

In The Happiness Myth, Jennifer Michael Hecht seeks to disentangle why things that are supposed to make us happy frequently don’t.  To the notion that “money doesn’t buy happiness,” she shows that it does, to an extent.  For most of human history (and pre-history), people have lived in conditions of terrible, frightening, life-threatening scarcity that money in no small part has eradicated for all but a very small fraction of Americans.  (In line with Schappell’s notion of money-taboo, I now feel the urge to apologize and state something statistical about hardship and inequality in America, but I won’t.  We deserve ourselves and all of our money issues.)  Hecht writes,

“We need to remember that most people through history have been racked by work that was bloody-knuckled drudgery, the periodic desperate hunger of their children, and for all but the wealthiest, the additional threat of violent animals.  Nowadays a lot of what we use money for is a symbolic acting-out of these triumphs.”

Once out of poverty, in other words, what we do with money—or more precisely the things we feel when using money—have a lot to do with ancient urges and inner conflicts that endure in our minds, bodies, and culture across time and without, so it seems, our self-conscious awareness of them.  Money does buy happiness, up to the point we’re out of poverty, and then the real problems begin.

Like the craving for fat and things that are sweet, the urges we satisfy with money are deeply embedded in our being, fundamental to the way we evolved in the most far-away places and times.  It’s all fine and easy to understand or forgive, but we all know what happens when you eat too many doughnuts.

Doughnuts to Dollars

Yet money is not like a doughnut.  This we all know—money isn’t some thing, it’s just some non-thing you use to get doughnuts or whatever else you think you need.  The economists’ word for this quality is fungible.  Adam Smith introduced money in his great book on wealth by reviewing the things that societies have used for exchange measures over time, including cattle, sheep, salt, shells, leather hides, dried codfish, tobacco, sugar, and even “nails” in a village in Scotland that Smith knew of.  All this was terribly inconvenient, and Smith noted that the use of precious metal as a stand-in for things of value constituted a considerable advance—

“If, on the contrary, instead of sheep or oxen, he had metals to give in exchange for it, he could easily proportion the quantity of the metal to the precise quantity of the commodity which he had immediate occasion for.”

Money in this sense becomes nothing but a means of measurement, and it would be perfect indeed if money’s effects on the world ended there, but we all know that they don’t.

Money—as Elissa Schappell and Jenny Offill, Cyndi Lauper and conventional wisdom tell us—changes everything.  Money’s magical qualities go well beyond simple notions like greed.  Money’s powers are existential, transformative, and really weird.  Money makes us into things we are not.  Karl Marx was pretty blunt about this—

“Money’s properties are my properties and essential powers … what I am and am capable of is by no means determined by my individuality.  I am ugly, but I can buy for myself the most beautiful of women.  Therefore I am not ugly, for the effect of ugliness—its deterrent power—is nullified by money.  I, in my character as an individual, am lame, but money furnishes me with twenty-four feet.  Therefore I am not lame.  I am bad, dishonest, unscrupulous, stupid; but money is honored, and therefore so is its possessor.  Money is the supreme good, therefore its possessor is good.  Money, besides, saves me the trouble of being dishonest:  I am therefore presumed honest.  I am stupid, but money is the real mind of all things and how then should its possessor be stupid?”

Marx may have fallen short as an economist, but then again so do most official economists.  In terms of money’s most basic ontological properties, however, it’s worth noting that he got money right.

The Glow

In the story of master counterfeiter Art Williams, Jason Kersten tells one such story of how money changes people, their values, and the truths that bind them together.  Art’s counterfeit was of an extraordinarily high quality, and its effect on people was fascinating to behold.  Art called it The Glow—“They would get this look on their face … a look of wonder, almost like they were on drugs.  It was like they were imagining the possibilities of what it could do for them, and they wanted more.”

Like the anonymous subjects of history in Hecht’s writing (note:  that’s us), Art wanted something that money, or the lack of it, had apparently stolen from his life.  Art’s “pursuit had very little to do with money, and the roots of his downfall lay in something impossible to replicate or put a value on.  As he would say himself, ‘I never got caught because of money.  I got caught because of love.’”

So where does money get us?  It’s easy to tell stories of money and doom, but we all know that without enough of it we’d be unable to do anything we need to do, let alone the supposedly unnecessary things that seem to make up for the drudgery of a life built upon doing the things we need to do.  Is the grubbiness of money as it comes off in the Pink Floyd song all there is to it?  Or is there more?

Join us on April 15, after affirming the give-away of twenty-eight percent (for most of us) of your annual harvest.

Questions:  jguidry.7@gmail.com or 212.729.7209.

Credits and Notes

Many thanks to Louise Crawford for inviting me to curate the Tax Day BRW panel, through the Truth and Rocket Science blog.  A sincere debt of gratitude, not to mention late fees, is owed to the Brooklyn Public Library, for enabling my research and inquiry into this topic.  The BPL’s copies are indeed those photographed on my dining room table to lead the blog post.

Jenny Offill and Elissa Schappell, Money Changes Everything (New York:  Doubleday, 2007).

Jennifer Michael Hecht, The Happiness Myth (New York:  Harper One, 2007), p. 129.

Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, in Robert L. Heilbroner, ed., The Essential Adam Smith (New York:  W. W. Norton, 1986), p. 173.

Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, in Robert C. Tucker, editor, The Marx-Engels Reader, 2nd ed. (New York:  W. W. Norton, 1978), p. 103.

Jason Kersten, The Art of Making Money (New York:  Gotham Books, 2009), p. 152 (first quotation) and p. 4 (second quotation).

Photo Karl Marx’s grave, Highgate Cemetary, London, taken by the author in January, 1994, while on layover on the way to South Africa and its historical elections later that year.

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Filed under Adam Smith, art, beauty, body, freedom, ideas, individuality, love, money, myth, philosophy, riches, truth, vanity

Tamba-Tajá, 2

This post continues the story of my trip to rural Moju in 1993.  Double-click the photos to see them in original size.  One more installment of the story is left…

______________________________________________________

Rosângela was Nego’s aunt, and it turned out he and I knew all the same people, so I went home at 3 in the morning to collect my things and meet him back at the Tamba-Tajá.  I brought my toothbrush, a blank notebook and a couple changes of clothes to last me through Tuesday.  Back at his parents’ house, Nego and I got a couple hours’ semi-drunken sleep before we set off for the docks in Cidade Velha, Belém’s old quarter, from which you can get local boats for just about anywhere in the Amazon.

Everyone laughed at Nego and me in our hangovers.  Aluízio, the patriarch, had seen this before.  Nego’s twin brother ribbed us through our headaches.  Nego’s mom just shook her head, while his sister chased after her 4 year old son, Hugo – her yelps of “ooooo-go!” “ooooo-go!” (in Portuguese the “H” in Hugo is silent) echoing throughout the trip as she tracked after the boy to keep him from falling off the boat, pull him away from knives, or just quiet him for a few minutes so we could rest our ears.  Oscar, Hugo’s dad, hung with Aluízio and Nego’s mom, who made sure I was comfortable and happy as we set off.

This was my first boat trip in Amazonia, crossing the Baía de Guajurá to the bus stop at Barcarena.  As the boat backed away from the dock, we watched the city recede into a collection of smaller houses and palm trees, behind which rose a massive skyline of highrise apartment buildings.  A lot of women from Jurunas live in those highrise apartments, in the maid’s quarters, next to ironing boards and sewing machines, just off the kitchen.

Belém, from the Baía de Guajurá

It took an hour to cross the bay, where we waited for the bus in a parking lot.  Used to be you went everywhere by boat, Nego told me, and then it took a full 24 hours to get to their little farm in Moju.  With the roads and busses the trip shrunk to about 5 hours, quite an advance from the past.  The bus ride itself was broken into a couple of parts, because you had to cross the Moju River and then change busses in the town.  At the river, everyone got out the bus and ran down to water, where dozens of men and boys waited to ferry people across in small, open, wooden boats, a few cruzeiros for each person.  About 20 minutes later, we were on the other side, in Moju town.

Moju was a typical Amazon river-town – a collection of dusty buildings and streets, a trading post, some government buildings.  In the center of town were the older houses, stuccoed and whitewashed, with Portuguese-blue lintels and trim.  The further you went out from the center, the houses turned to wood and occasionally brick, getting smaller and more rustic.  Nego had some relatives in Moju, one of whom was a political official of some sort.

Marajó 1998

Nego’s own family was from Marajó, the large island in the mouth of the Amazon, to the northwest of Belém.  There, Aluízio had been a mayor in some small town at one time or another.  He was a staunch member of the “PMDB” – Party of the Brazilian Democratic Movement – which was the official opposition party during the military regime in the 1970s and 1980s.  By the 1990s, the PMDB was the official party of the state governor, Jader Barbalho, who rode the opposition wave to wealth and finally condemnation as one of Brazil’s most corrupt politicians.  Aluízio complained that all his children were “petistas” – for the party initials “PT,” the Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers Party), which was the main left-wing party that had emerged in 79 as a more radical alternative to the Aluízio’s own PMDB.  Nego laughs when Aluízio says these things.

From Moju, we took the road again.  It started out paved and but wound up in the same red clay as the streets of Jurunas.  Thick rainforest alternated with cattle pastures.  Charred stumps poked out the ground amid sparse tufts of long grass that would grow on the land for a couple of years, until the topsoil becomes barren and can support vegetation no more.  All the life in Amazonia is in the trees and bushes, and the soil they sit on is barren.  Charred stumps and lumps of clay.  Loam.  Shrublike bushes.  Not too many cows out there, but it sure was hot.

So we barreled on down the road toward some place I’d never seen.  By early afternoon we stopped and got off the bus in front of a small wooden shack by the side of the road.  A smaller path left the roadside and disappeared into forest behind the house.  A man greeted us and we went inside to eat, have a drink of water, and talk about the latest events in the area.  This man was Nego’s uncle.  He has a small farm next to the road and lived there with his daughter.  Fruit was everywhere, hanging from the trees and on a plate before us.  Mangos, caju, goiaba, pineapple, coconut.  There were rice and beans, chicken.  Good food and a lot of it, for we still had a few kilometers to walk through the forest.

The forest around Moju, 1993

Notes and Credits

The photographs in this posting are all my own, taken on various trips to Belém and environs in the 1990s.

Right now the rainforest and Amazonian issues are stirring up heat at the COP-15 summit, and as someone who has lived a significant portion of my adult life in Belém and has traveled all over Amazônia, I am hoping that some good things might come of this.  The ties between deforestation and cows and greenhouse gasses are tight, though as Brazilian researcher and advocate João Meirelles Filho notes, cows are a bigger problem than Brazil or the Amazon.  I don’t hold out that much hope from politicians, however, but I do find a lot to inspire in guys like Doug, whose Amazon Pilgrim blog recounts his journey across the Amazon, from Belém to Peru, by bicycle.

You can find out more about Doug and his adventures at Green Upgrader, where he’s an editor.

And of course, we can always find inspiration with one of the most popular foreign rock bands in Brasil, or anywhere else, for that matter, outside of their home Germany – and I am speaking of course of The Scorpions, whose concerts in Manaus have been sold out for the good of Greenpeace and the rainforest.  For a different kind of concert in Manaus by foreign travelers, check out “Our Jungle Journey,” a blog by a North American couple who moved to Manaus to play in the symphony orchestra and other music groups there.  They’re enjoying the splendid, world famous Manaus Opera House, one of the true gems of the Amazon’s belle epoque during the rubber boom (1880s through 1920s).

One of the most interesting groups working in Amazonia on building sustainable lifestyles for the forest and the people who live there is IMAZON, Instituto do Homem e Meio-Ambiente da Amazônia (Institute for Man and the Environment in Amazonia), which was founded in the 1980s by a team of Brazilian and North American researchers.  I’ve visited there several times in the 1990s and 2000, and they do great work.

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Tamba-Tajá, 1

Santa Maria de Belém do Grão-Pará

I’d been introduced to the Tamba-Tajá by Marga, who was a Lutheran minister, human rights activist, and liberation theologist.  The bar’s owners were her friends, Iza and Rosângela, who were related by marriage.  Iza had been a revolutionary and women’s rights activist in Brazil for many years, including the worst years of the military dictatorship in the 1960s and 1970s.  Rosângela was raising her children and grandchildren while selling apartment leases in Belém and generally dabbling in real estate.

They named their bar for a plant of local legend, called Tamba-Tajá by Amazonian natives, known as the Elephant Ear plant to others, which people grew in their yards.  The Tamba-Tajá can tell if there is much love in the house, very little, or if one of the spouses is cheating.  A friend of mine in Belém made a point of telling me that a smart woman always plants one in her yard.

The bar called Tamba-Tajá was a family affair in the working class neighborhood of Jurunas.  In January, during the height of the rainy season, the streets of Jurunas are deep with a mud of dark, red clay which can also be home to ferocious tribes of fire ants out in the countryside. People debate which is better, the mud during rainfall or the fine red dust kicked into the air when the streets are dry.  The dust gets in your nostrils and mouth, leaving the taste of clay on your tongue.  They say the dust causes the “gripe,” colds and fevers everyone lives with and no one likes.

A street in Jurunas, 1993

The Tamba-Tajá opened right on to the unpaved street.  It was in the bottom floor of the house where Iza’s estranged and still quite revolutionary husband lived.  He was a poet of some local fame.  The bar was completely open to the outside, inside and outside having little meaning in a place where inside is often outside, defined less by bricks or wood than by the way people inhabit those spaces.  In the front, palm trees shade the patio and keep the rain off people as they eat and dance and drink.

The windows are open to the outside air, too, as there are no screens in Belém, except on Marga’s house, perhaps because she was descended from Germans.  In the streets and through the windows of the Tamba-Tajá you can see dark silhouettes of palm trees swaying in the breeze over Jurunas and its little, wooden houses, home to too many people with too little money, though they always seem to have enough to stop by the Tamba-Tajá and the other housefront bars in the neighborhood on a Friday night. Cold beer beats the heat in Belém.

There’s a group of reggae musicians who hang out at the Tamba-Tajá, along with political dreamers and the friends and family of Iza and Rosângela.  These musicians spin records on some nights and everyone dances.  The sweat soaks your body as you twist and find a place in the scratchy rhythms booming from the old, battered speakers Ivan dragged to the bar on the back of his bicycle. Over crackling, jerry-rigged wires and pounding drums, Bob Marley lived for a while at the Tamba-Tajá.

The first time I went there was to meet Marga and celebrate Iza’s birthday.  They had me play for them.  The stereo wires were re-rigged to a microphone that had seen much better days many years ago, and they gave me a guitar that made the microphone look like a piece of new equipment.  I didn’t know any Brazilian songs, but that’s not what they wanted to hear from me.  “Let It Be” always brings down the house in Brazil.  And it did again, that night at the Tamba-Tajá.

Rua Tupinambás

Now Iza’s birthday had passed, and it was a Friday night.  I hadn’t been over to Tamba-Tajá for a while, and with no plans to speak of I headed for Jurunas, a slow walk about 10 blocks down Rua Tupinambás, like “Jurunas” the name of one of Brazil’s original, native peoples.

It had been a long day for me, with much work to do, and the rain storms were particularly hard.  In Belém, the blue skies of morning typically give way to clouds and showers by mid-afternoon.  From January to May the rain can start in the afternoon and not stop til near daylight.  It washes the city and cleanses its ills and keeps the equatorial sun from burning everyone and everything to a crisp.  In all, about 86 inches of rain falls in Belém each year, a little over 7 feet.

The rain leaves the air smelling fresh with the breeze off the giant Guarajá Bay, which brings the ocean to into the mouths of the three rivers that surround Belém:  the Amazon, Toncantins and Guamá.  The ocean tides are sometimes so strong that they send waves up the rivers, so that they seem to flow backwards for a while.  Pororoca, they call it.  All this water gives life to the land and its people.

As I walked down Tupinambás, I looked to the sky for signs of rain, letting my eyes graze the cloud bottoms and measure how far or close they might be.  The city lights bounced back from the clouds, and the clouds glowed orange in the distance, a false sunset that lasts all night long until the clouds dissipate in the coolness of dawn and the new day.

Tonight at the Tamba-Tajá there was no one I knew, save for Rosângela.  I greeted her, got a frosty Kaiser, and sat down at a table of strangers, just listening to the conversation.  A man was speaking to a boy.  The man held his right arm across his chest.  He held his right arm with his left hand, as he would the neck of a guitar.  The boy did the same.

So we began to speak about music.  The man called himself “Nego,” which is a common nickname meaning “black dude.”  The boy I recognized from reggae nights at the Tamba-Tajá.  He had wide, brown eyes that spoke of youth.  Nego had curly black hair thick atop his head, a round face and full lips like my own. His smile and manner drew me in.  He asked me questions, about music, my life, why I was sitting in the Tamba-Tajá and what I was doing.  We talked for a long time, over a few more Kaisers.  The others round us had their own conversations, and we had ours.

Nego wanted to know if I’d ever been out of the city to see the forest.  I hadn’t.  He asked me if I’d like to go with his family to a farm they have in the middle of the forest, a day away from Belém in Moju.  I said, “sure, Id love that.”

“We’ll leave in a couple hours,” he said.

Notes and Credits

This story, Tamba-Tajá, will be told in 3 parts on truth and rocket science.  It recounts a visit I took to the bar on a Friday night in 1993, during my year of doctoral research on Belém.  There I met a young man who became a close friend for most of 1993, and he invited me out to his family’s farm in the rainforest.  I returned home on Tuesday.

I took the photo of Belém’s docks in the “Cidade Velha” in April 1993, as the boat left Belém for the journey that is recounted in this story.  “Cidade Velha” means “old city” and refers to the original colonial settlement of Belém that was established in 1616 to consolidate Portugal’s claims over the Amazon.  The other photos of Jurunas were taken around the same time by me, except for the photo of Rua Tupinambas.  That photo comes form the site Skyscraper City, which contains a great number of photos of Belem.  Very nice collection!

For more on my friend, Rosa Marga Rothe, see her Wikipedia page.  Her daughter, Iva Rothe, is a accomplished musician.

The picture of the Tamba-Tajá plant in the text is from the website, “Pasarela Cultural,” which goes on to discuss the legend of the Tamba-Tajá.

The legend of the Tamba-Tajá can be found all over the Web.  Silvana Nunes’s fotolog has a great photo of the plant and a simple text of the myth, which I have translated.  Nunes, a teacher and photographer, has another blog called “Foi desse jeito que eu ouvi dizer…” (this is how I heard it…).

In the Macuxi tribe there was a very strong and intelligent Indian.  One day, he fell in love with a beautiful Indian woman from his village.  They were married a little later, and they were very happy, until one day the woman became very ill and was paralyzed.

So that he wouldn’t be separated from his love, the Macuxi man made a sling to carry the woman on his back, taking her everywhere he went.  One day, however, the man noticed that his cargo was heavier than normal.  When he untied the sling, he found that his beloved wife was dead.

The man went into the forest and dug a hole on the edge of a creek.  He buried himself together with his wife, for there was no reason for him to continue living.  Some time passed until a full moon appeared in the same place where they were buried, and a gracious plant unknown to the Macuxis began to grow there.

The plant was the Tamba-Tajá, with dark green triangular leaves, which have on their backside another, smaller leaf which appears similar to the female gentialia.  Together, the two leaves symbolize the great love that the Macuxi couple had.

Amazonian caboclos grow the plant near their houses and attribute mystical powers to it.  If, for example, the plant grows well with exuberant, lush leaves, it’s a sign that there is much love in that house.  But if the larger leaves don’t have the smaller ones on their backs, there is no love in the house.  If there is more than one smaller leaf on the backside of the larger one, one of the spouses if unfaithful.

The photo of the Tamba-Tajá plant in the story’s text shows the “small leaf” or flower on the backside of the Elephant Ear quite well.  Without that flower, love ain’t going right in the house.

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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.

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The truth and unicorns, part 3

The Narwhal, Sea-unicorn of the Arctic

The Narwhal, Sea-unicorn of the Arctic

Unicorns weren’t always mythical creatures.

The Greeks classified them among natural animals, with rhinos and other one-horned beasts.  Vikings traded Narwhal tusks to Medieval Europeans, who believed they were unicorn horns and paid dearly to possess them and their magical powers.  Marco Polo recorded his encounter with the Javan rhinoceros as the discovery of a unicorn.

No one knows exactly what the Narwhal’s tusk is for, though it is found only on males and therefore probably has a sexual function not unlike the extravagant feathers of the male peacock, or the electric guitar.  Yet while narwhal tusks and peacock feathers work as sexual aids for narwhals and peacocks, legend has it that the rhino’s tusk is coveted by humans as a sexual talisman.

This is disputed, however, and there are other medicinal applications of rhinoceros tusks in Chinese traditional medicine, for fevers and convulsions.  Either way, humankind’s uses for rhinoceros tusks are threatening the mega-mammal’s very existence, and it may soon vanish into the same ethereal space where its cousin, the unicorn, lives.  Climate change may well send the narwhal there, too, to dwell with vanishing hitchhikers, organ-jackers, and people who make phone calls that come from inside the house.

In the Charlie the Unicorn cartoons, myths and legends pile up on one another into what is among the most popular videos of all time on Youtube, collectively scoring close to 50 million views for 3 episodes.  In the first, Charlie is prodded by two smaller unicorns to come visit “Candy Mountain,” a place immortalized in the hobo fantasy song,

Where the handouts grow on bushes and you sleep out every night
Where the boxcars are all empty and the sun shines every day
On the birds and the bees and the cigarette trees

Along the way, they meet a Liopleurodon, a real-world creature of fossilized myth that is quite in dispute in contemporary America, who will help guide them to Candy Mountain.  As they move on, Charlie prods them, “Alright guys, you do know that there’s no actual candy mountain, right?”  They reply, “Shun the nonbeliever.”

When they reach the actual Candy Mountain, Charlie recognizes the error of his earlier belief, and walks into a cave in the mountainside, where he’s shut in and abandoned.  He awakens in a meadow with a large scar over his lower abdomen.  “They took my freakin’ kidney!”

In the second episode, our hero is lounging in the meadow on his nice carpet, watching a big screen TV.  Suddenly, his tormenting pals appear to him from an imaginary coral reef awash in “poisonous fugu fish” (puffer fish), which according to ethnobotanist Wade Davis are the source of the poison that produces the near-death experience resulting in zombification in Haiti.  It’s in a book Davis wrote, The Serpent and the Rainbow.  Legendary horror director Wes Craven made the book into a movie with Bill Pullman playing the real-world Indiana Jones down in the Caribbean.  Unicorns can lead you anywhere.  Maybe they’ll make Charlie into a zombie.  How many degrees can Charlie be from Kevin Bacon?

Again, they journey.  Along the way, there’s a magical amulet and a Banana King, whose temple looks like an Egyptian pyramid with an insignia of the “hammer and banana” fashioned like the “hammer and sickle” of Communist symbolism.  As Charlie is proclaimed the banana king, his friends abandon him and he falls from grace, literally.  When he reaches his original meadow clearing, he finds that his things are gone – “Aw you gotta be – great – they robbed me!”

In the third episode, his friends appear from the future with an apocalyptic message:  “The end is nigh.”  As they ride a large duck down a mythical stream in the future, Charlie’s friends taunt him with calls of “ring, ring – hello” over and over again, reminding one of the phone calls urban legend.  They confront shadowy narwhals that threaten to kill them.  Then they are on the floor of an ocean in a Greek ruins, Atlantis anyone?  Charlie’s friends abandon him and he succumbs to sleeping gas, only to awaken in a frigid landscape where he finally encounters the snowman, who has cut off Charlie’s horn and uses it as his snowman nose, and of course you know what they say about a snowman’s nose and its correlates.  There’s a large scar on the snowman’s lower abdomen.  “Aw look, it’s my kidney.”  A jolly, happy soul, as the song goes, indeed.

Note

The horse, which provides its body to the unicorn of myth, is quite closely related to rhinoceroses.  They are both perissodactyls, otherwise known as “odd-toed ungulates.” Along with narwhals, swordfish also have pointy appendages sprouting from their heads, too.

Credits

Narwahl photo: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Narwhalsk.jpg.

Big Rock Candy Mountain, Harry McClintock, 1928.  http://www.bluegrasslyrics.com/all_song.cfm-recordID=s29253.htm

Charlie the Unicorn:  Jeff Steele, Filmcow.com.  http://www.youtube.com/user/SecretAgentBob, http://www.filmcow.com/.

For a nice collection of issues related to Darwin and debates about evolution and creationism, see this page at the the New York Times.

Bonus

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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

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