Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, whose right to shoot him was protected by the second amendment, Colonel Aureliano Boone was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover books. At the time, America was a village of McMansions built on the bank of a river of polluted water that ran along a bed of stones polished to unearthly brilliance by chemical waste, petroleum fertilizers, and random sewerage, all of which made the children look like fat prehistoric eggs. The world was so recent that many things lacked names, for nothing lasted longer than the attention span of an 8-year old pointing his stubby, French Fry fingers at things he could not understand. Every year during the month of March a family of ragged right-wingers would set up their tents near the village, and with a great uproar of pipes and kettledrums they would create new radio shows. A heavy gypsy with an untamed ignorance and limp, fist-fucking hands, who introduced himself as Rush Limbaugh, put on a bold demonstration of what he himself called the eighth wonder of the learned alchemists of Kansas, where scientific knowledge had peaked around the time of the Scopes trial. He broadcast from house to house, his ideas attracting every angry white racist, bigot, gun owner, know-nothing dipshit, and ditto-headed idiot who had been lost for a long time, dragging along in turbulent confusion behind Rush Limbaugh’s magnetic charm. “Freedom has a life of its own,” the gypsy proclaimed with a nondescript Midwestern accent. “It’s simply a matter of waking up its soul.”
Susan Sontag famously wrote, “Interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art.” Those were fighting words in 1966, among a certain (probably not so large but then again much larger than it would be now) crowd. “Even more,” she continued, “It is the revenge of the intellect upon the world. To interpret is to impoverish, to deplete the world – in order to set up a shadow world of meanings.”
True enough, but what is the case when art itself becomes the revenge of the intellect upon . . . art?
Thus Origami Boulders, an experiment in creative expressionism that emphasizes the bridges between satire, infrarealism, hyper-realism, post-modernism, modernism, and plain old-fashioned mockery. It is not subtle. In an age when hyperbole has become truth and irony just means “bad luck,” Origami Boulders promises a return to simpler truths. What-you-see-is-what-you-get.
Fine enough, you might say, but where do you draw the line between “simpler truths” and fascism? This is a good question, since much of what is considered fascism is founded upon simple truth. At the same time however, it’s also true that only about ten percent of all simple truths are, in fact, fascistic. The problem is that that ten percent can foreseeably find the backing of an incredibly disproportionate amount of a country’s wealth and power. Here is the linkage between the artist, the slacker, the Tea Partier, and the hipster, “who in fact aligns himself both with the rebel subculture and with the dominant class, and thus opens up a poisonous conduit between the two.”
Dear heavens—but the Origami Boulders were meant, in fact, to smash the conveyors of convention, to drown the purveyors of propriety, and to derail the fornicators of formality. How is it that such a bold experiment could so quickly become turned upon itself until it was nothing more than the opposite of what it intended? Much less than a hollow statement of artistic meaning in an artless world, the Origami Boulders, it would appear to the untrained and unwashed, are little more than tools of their own opposition, indistinguishable in effect from the contemporary Democratic Party. As the man on Ellis Island said to my great-great-grandmother (not that) many years ago, “Welcome to America.”
Pray this shall not be the case and that the stony weight of the Origami Boulders will come crashing down to Earth on November 2, 2010, raining like meteorites and asteroids on the dinosaurs, bringing to an end the rule of claw-toed, semi-feathered metareptiles and giving way to the rise of little birds and all the brilliance of avian plumage and delicacy. Sigh.
America, it seems, has become the revenge of the anti-intellect on democracy. Can we throw more than paper boulders in our defense?
Notes and Credits
Photographs of origami boulders and the artistic process by the author. This work, like everything else in America, is for sale. Please email guidry_z [at] hotmail.com for a price schedule and list of options to tailor Origami Boulders to your specific needs. The fact that there is printing on one side of the sheet of paper used is indeed a meta-critique of Western Society itself, leaving no stone unturned in the artist’s quest for antihistorical self-actualization. I am grateful to Rob Vanderlan, fellow political science graduate student at the University of Michigan, for introducing me to the joys of origami boulder sculpture in 1989.
Susan Sontag’s famous quotation from Against Interpretation and Other Essays (1966). I tend to agree with her, so much so that I once paraphrased her statement in a cover letter for an academic position, alleging that social science is the revenge of the intellect on people. Needless to say (but I’ll say it anyway), I was never called back on that one. Then again, I also think that Origami Boulders so deeply challenges the very fundamentals of both Eastern and Western artistic traditions that Camille Paglia should invite me to her house for cocktails, though that would be too close to my heart. I’ll keep buying lottery tickets for the better odds. In retrospect, it seems like Sontag’s statement is oddly prescient of Fox News.
For three years, from 2007 to 2009, I was able to look out of my living room window every September 11 and see the Tribute in Light over downtown New York. Last year, I posted photos by my neighbor and myself. Then, on 9.27.09, I moved to this apartment. I can’t see downtown from there, though I can see the lights shooting up over the trees of Prospect Park, like strange sentinels of an Oz far away, beyond the woods. I know there were events—call them vigils, rallies, protests, or demonstrations—down at Ground Zero, but I wasn’t there. I was working all day at home, cataloging AIDS service organizations in the tri-state area for a research project.
This year, the arrival of 9.11 coincided with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and the end of Ramadan, the annual fast that is one of the five pillars of Islam. On Friday, 9.10, my son had the day off from school because of the Jewish holidays, and his friend G came over to visit. We played ball in the park and walked around the neighborhood to grab pizza at Bene’s and snacks at the grocery.
The Bangladeshis were all out on the street, families. The men wear white pants and tunics, with their small white caps that are often embroidered and appear delicate and firm and strong all at the same time. You see groups of men like this on the sidewalks of Coney Island Avenue on Friday evenings after mosque services. The women wear beautiful long patterned dresses and veils of vivid colors.
During Rosh Hashanah every year, Hasidic Jews—mainly the men, I think—come out on the streets of Park Slope and all around Prospect Park and try to reach other Jews to celebrate their heritage. Dressed in black suits with white shirts and black hats, they are polite and discreet as they ask everyone passing by a simple question, “Excuse me, are you Jewish?”
Friday, as I walked my son over to his mom’s house after G left, we passed several along the park’s sidewalks. They asked, and I think said, “No, not today” out of my habit with the usual assortment of canvassers for progressive causes who work the sidewalks of Park Slope. But I might have said, “No, sorry” (why “sorry” I don’t really know). My son asked why they were asking us, since we aren’t Jewish, and I explained what they were up to. In a couple days, on 9.12, we would be going up to St. John’s Episcopal Church in Park Slope to celebrate mass with its mixed WASP and Caribbean congregation that we have come to cherish.
Thus it was that on, 9.11.2010, as my son and I walked home from the grocery on MacDonald Avenue through this jigsaw puzzle of religions, races, languages, ethnicities, foods and their smells, I thought about my old apartment and the sight I would not be able to see from my living room window. I do not miss my old living room window. I prefer the street the way it was today. If there is anything that America has meant to me, it is this jigsaw that is not puzzling at all.
In a few weeks, the park will turn colors, and my walks over to pick up and deliver my son at his mom’s house will look like this. Olmsted and Vaux, known more designing Central Park than Prospect Park, considered the latter to be their masterpiece, a place of recreation designed as a “democratic space” that breathed the essence of Whitman’s poetry in the war-torn republic. And so it is.
Notes and Credits
I have my own opinions on the controversies brewing here in New York and around the country, along with my own doubts and fears about the future of the world, but that’s not what this posting is about. Taking a break from all that, it’s just an observation about my neighborhood and the relatively tranquil days we’ve had here this week, in spite of it all. Nothing more and nothing less.
Photograph of the Bangladeshi women, all clients of the Grameen Bank, by a UN staffer and posted on this site.
I regret that I have no photo of the Tribute in Light over Prospect Park. It’s moving in an entirely different way that the traditional photos of the lights over downtown are. The park just looks like a forest, especially at night. You really can’t see the city at all, especially if you can limit your view to the park itself. At night, it’s like this but moreso. The lights shoot up over the dark silhouette of treetops. They seem to come from nowhere to announce a mystery looming in the distance. Beacons, sentinels, signs of something distant and different.
This year, the lights had to be turned off a few times, because they attracted migrating birds, as Gizmodo reported:
According to John Rowden, citizen science director at the Audubon Society’s New York chapter, “it has only happened once before. It’s a confluence of circumstances that come together to cause this. Some of it has to do with meteorological conditions, and some with the phase of the moon.”
The images of the lights with the birds are some of the most beautiful photos I ever seen, reminding me of a stunning night in 1994 when I was walking along a road in Pretoria, South Africa, next to a ball park at dusk. There was no game in the park, but the lights were on and hundreds of bats were flitting about them, feasting I suppose on the bugs in the lights. Such was one theory of the birds in the Tribute in Light. According to commenter deciBels, “If you’ve ever worked night construction, you’ve seen this all the time. Those big bright lights bring out big dumb bugs. What are 2 creatures that LOVE eating bugs? Birds and bats.” See the incredible photos on the post, including this one from commenter, Baroness.
Our apartment building and this end of Prospect Park sit at the juncture of several neighborhoods. Sweeping around the clock, starting at 11 o’clock in Windsor Terrace, the neighborhood is something like this, based on less-than-scientific observations I have made around the area since moving here:
11 o’clock—Italians, Irish, and Latinos/Puerto Ricans in Windsor Terrace, along with some (mainly white) yuppies (my tribe) who want to be close to Park Slope—9 o’clock—Jews of all sorts, trending more traditional (Orthodox) as you move to 6 o’clock and Borough Park and Midwood, along with Russians, Poles, Albanians and Bulgarians (European Muslims), and as you get over to MacDonald Avenue, Bangladeshis—6 o’clock—Banglatown all the way down MacDonald Avenue and Coney Island Avenue, Arabic and Bengali (I think) on all the signs until you get to Borough Park and the Orthodox Jews—5 o’clock—giant Victorian houses in the late-19th century suburban experiment called Prospect Park South, a bit mixed but very much the province of nice white liberals and yuppies on the move from Park Slope to bigger houses and easier parking—4 o’clock—as you head down Flatbush Avenue it’s a mix of Black Caribbeans and African Americans—3 o’clock—Jamaicans and other West Indians—and finally, all around the clock, Mexicans—Sunset Park (just west of Kensington) has a large and growing Mexican population, but the presence of Mexican taco stands, restaurants, cantinas, and bodegas all around my neighborhood is marked, though you don’t see the Mexicans on the street walking around the same way you do the Bangladeshis and others.
Neylan McBaine is a Mormon woman who lives in Park Slope and wrote a wonderful article about the Hasidic Jews on the sidewalks of the neighborhood this time of year. See it here. Finally, while writing this posting, on 9.11, I remembered to send my brother an email, Happy Birthday, bro. Talk to you tomorrow.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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 Salonicawrites 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.
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.
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.