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The truth and progress, 2: Santa Teresa

Cruces_Lomas_del_Poleo

This is the second reflection on ideas about “progress” and change through novels that explore the consequences of progress for ordinary people and their everyday live.  The first considered  Patrick Chamioseau’s Texaco, and here the conversation turns to Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives and 2666.

The secret story is the one we’ll never know, although we’re living it from day to day, thinking we’re alive, thinking we’ve got it all under control and the stuff we overlook doesn’t matter. But every damn thing matters! It’s just that we don’t realize. We tell ourselves that art runs on one track and life, our lives, on another, we don’t even realize that’s a lie.
―Roberto Bolaño, Last Evenings on Earth

Cesárea

The Savage Detectives and 2666 are monumental novels about a search for literary ghosts in the cities and towns of northern Mexico’s Sonoran Desert. They were written by Roberto Bolaño, a Chilean who lived much of his life in exile, in Mexico and Spain, searching for ways to make words reconcile the world that is with the world of his own experience and imagination.

In The Savage Detectives, Bolaño assumes a pose akin to Chamoiseau’s in Texaco, as a thinly disguised self called Arturo Belano, whose poetic vocation reflects his directionless quest for authenticity and escape from the Latin American “Boom” generation—those writers like Octavio Paz, Garcia Marquez, Vargas Llosa, & etc. whose work won four Nobel Prizes and utterly defined the “Latin American” voice. Their monumental dominance is for Belano and his generation a straight-jacket of Latin exoticism that is nothing like the world they grew up in. Belano/Bolaño’s world is one in which global currents are washing over Latin America, wearing away what the Boom Generation created.

Sion

Cesárea Tinojero’s only known poem, “Sión”

The Savage Detectives follows Belano’s group of poets—the “Visceral Realists”—from an early adventure in the mid-1970s to find an obscure 1930s Mexican poet, Cesárea Tinajero. In the 30s, she worked for one of the generals leading the Mexican Revolution, which began in 1910 and only wound down by the 1930s. The Mexican Revolution itself was the constituting event in Latin American history that drew a line between the United States and everything south of the Rio Grande. It made the Boom Generation possible.

By the late 1970s, long after her general died, Cesárea is presumed living in somewhere in Sonora not far from Santa Teresa, itself a thinly disguised version of Mexico’s border boomtown, Ciudad Juarez, just across the Rio Grande from El Paso. After rambling through the desert, they finally find her, aged and alone, in a small room in Santa Teresa. Through a local teacher who had befriended Cesárea, they learn that she had lived a very lonely, impoverished life, lately having taken to scribbling visions of the future, afraid of persecution and even death, in a scene that appears to foreshadow 2666 without being specific enough to say anything at all.

“… Cesárea spoke of times to come and the teacher, to change the subject, asked her what times she meant and when they would be. And Cesárea named a date, sometime around the year 2600. Two thousand six hundred and something. And then, when the teacher couldn’t help but laugh at such a random date, a smothered little laugh that could scarcely be heard, Cesárea laughed again, although this time the thunder of her laughter remained within the confines of her own room.” (The Savage Detectives, p. 634)

Belano and his cohorts will meet Cesárea herself, but before anything much happens her end meets the end of the Visceral Realists in a thudding anticlimax that explains the preceding 400 pages chronicling the group’s dissolution and dispersal around the world.

Archimboldi

2666 isn’t a sequel to The Savage Detectives, but in important ways it picks up where the earlier left off, with a crew of literary critics searching for Benno von Archimboldi, a German author whose Pynchonian mantle of self-imposed obscurity only heightens the reverence of his followers. As with Cesárea Tinojero’s oblique reference to the year 2600, Archimboldi is also referenced in The Savage Detectives, as “J.M.G. Arcimboldi,” credited for the Archimboldi of 2666‘s early novel, The Endless Rose. By the time of 2666, set around the turn of the millenium, Archimboldi has had a 40-year  career in which he has published 21 novels and is mentioned frequently as a short-list candidate for the Nobel Prize. Like most of their colleagues, Archimboldi scholars are a fanatical lot and would go to the ends of the earth to find their master—which leads them to Santa Teresa a quarter-century after Arturo Belano and the Visceral Realists arrived there to find their master.

What is different between the two novels is the Mexico they depict. Where The Savage Detectives chronicles a generation’s futile struggle against the grandiose and Nobel-studded world of their literary forbears, 2666 completes that story by portraying a Mexico that is at once devouring itself with it’s own misogyny and violence while at the same time it is irretrievably caught in a tide of globalization, which abets the local violence and even explains it as its own pathology. Like Texaco, 2666 is a novel about a city that stands for a larger story about the price of progress.

If the apogee of the Mexican revolution, in literary terms, is Octavio Paz’s Nobel Prize, then the nadir, in human terms, is the killing of up to 400 young women—femicidios—in Ciudad Juarez between 1993 and 2004. These murders are historical core of 2666, just like slavery and urban modernization are the historical core of Texaco. Thumbnail sketches of the murders in the fictionalized Juarez of Santa Teresa, hundreds of them, are meted out in clinical detail for over 280 pages in the longest of the novel’s five sections, “The Part About the Crimes.” Plot points filter in and out of an utter fog of forensic reportage like familiar faces wandering into a dream, trying desperately to drag it into the waking world. The scourge of violence becomes banal and then fades into normalcy. “The Part About the Crimes” is the reader’s own exile from everything she knows, the reader as Aeneas in Hades seeing a prophetic vision of dystopian globalization that reverses the familiar story of progress, replacing civil society and the rule of law with a world descending into inexplicable, and inexplicably unjust, viciousness.

cjuarez_airshot

In the last section of the book, “The Part About Archimboldi,” we finally learn who this writer is in an epic tale spanning the Russian Revolution, World War II, the Cold War, the emergence of computer technology, and the femicidios of Santa Teresa. In the end, it’s the story of how the twentieth century gave way to the twenty-first, a Latin American novel that was written in Spain and unmoored itself from Mexico with a cast of characters from the United States, Spain, England, France, Germany, Russia, Chile, Romania, Italy, Mexico, and other places. Set on the border between the U.S. and Mexico, in an international metropolis that reflects the two countries’ grand fraternal struggle for coexistence, 2666 continuously finds its border-crushing narrative crashing against the invisible wall between these two countries. Like Chamoiseau, Bolaño in The Savage Detectives and 2666 reimagines the world he has lived in and feeds it back to us in overlapping waves of murder mysteries, vision quests, and pilgrimmages. These books are the chronicle of Bolaño’s life swept up by the grand rip currents of history.

Notes and Credits

Photographs and images:  The first photo is of crosses placed on Lomas del Poleo Planta Alta, Ciudad Juárez, in the place where the bodies of eight murdered women were discovered in 1996. It is from the Wikimedia Commons. The photocopy of Cesárea Tinajero’s poem, “Sión,” from p. 398 of The Savage Detectives, is a photocopy taken by Tom Sparks and posted on his blog, WFTM.  The air photo of Ciudad Juarez’s sprawl across the countryside up to the mountains was taken from an article in El País online, ¿Porqué Ciudad Juárez?

Five Latin American writers would win the Nobel Prize between 1945 and 2010:  Gabriela Mistral (Chile, 1945), Pablo Neruda (Chile, 1971), Miguel Ángel Asturias (Guatemala, 1967), Gabriel García Márquez (Colombia, 1982), Octavio Paz (Mexico, 1990), and Mario Vargas Llosa (Peru, 2010). These writers and many others equally as notable, including Jorge Luis Borges, Júlio Cortázar, and Carlos Fuentes, to name a few, not only created a globally recognized “Latin American Literaure” but they also exercised a palpable influence on post-World War II literature in general.  García Márquez’s novel One Hundred Years of Solitude is recognized as the overarching masterwork of the era, bringing the notion of “magical realism” to fore in world literature, while Cortázar’s Rayuela has become a post-modern touchstone that has far eclipsed the Boom Generation.

From 1993 onward, around 400 women have been killed in Ciudad Juarez, a city of about 1.5 million people just across the Rio Grande from El Paso. Most of the victims of the femicidios were young and suffered violent deaths that included rape and torture.  Few of the murders were solved.  Those who could fled the violence (an estimated 700,000 people leaving the area in the late 1990s-early 2000s) while those who couldn’t continued to work in the maquiladora factories created to supply U.S. companies with cheap production based almost entirely on the miserly wages paid to the Mexican workers—mainly women—who have flocked to the border for work.  The violence has ebbed and flowed, but it nonetheless continues to the present day and has spawned movements and organized reactions.

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The truth and narrative, 2: my life with Julio Cortázar

In the midst of my Greenean visions, fueled from the outset by Pulling’s trip from Buenos Aires to Asunción, I picked up a novel called The Winners at my local bookstore.  I was still in college, and I hadn’t met R in Mexico City yet.

I was possibly still reading One Hundred Years of Solitude or soon to do so. This would have been immediately after exams, either in December or May, when I went to the book store to find novels to fill my holidays away from studies and those other books that gave me purpose without vision.

The Winners had a thick grey paperback cover with a waxy finish.  The design appealed to me, and I can say honestly that book design is an art I admire and cherish and that does indeed achieve its purpose of inviting me to open the book.  It was published by Pantheon, an imprint I always looked for because their titles were leftist and internationalist, like an American Verso.  The novelist was Julio Cortázar, an Argentine writer who was new to me at the time.

It was a narrative of people thrown together by chance.  They’d all won a cruise trip in a local lottery, but once out to sea it became clear that something was wrong.  They were prohibited from going certain places on the boat. There seemed to be a disease somewhere, but there was little information on what was happening and how it might end.  They created alliances and enemies and friends, like Lord of the Flies but not really.  Perhaps more like an inverted episode of Doctor Who, the British inter-galactic time and space traveler who would alight in different worlds and plunge head-first into local controversies and disputes—only in the case of The Winners, it was like a Doctor Who-less Doctor Who with Lord of the Flies-like consequences.

The Winners reflected the real world I knew at the time, in which people become intimately concerned with each other when circumstances gave them common stakes in something.  The something could be anything and was often potentially dreadful, but I was an existentialist.  Cortázar wasn’t my first attempt at anti-narrative or pre-postmodernity.  I’d just come off reading Ulysses and Gravity’s Rainbow in the same term. The difference between Pynchon and Cortázar was that I chose Cortázar, and next I read Hopscotch (Rayuela).  The die was cast.

My copy of Hopscotch was from the same grey-covered series on Pantheon.  I was captivated by the photograph of the thin strawberry-blonde woman on the cover, blouse off her right shoulder, looking down or away, smoke from her cigarette trailing upwards, obscuring her face.  The book came with “instructions” for reading—in linear form, in the order of my choosing, or Cortázar’s indications at the end of each chapter pointing the reader through the book in a semi-random way.  I chose the last alternative, which however random-seeming hung together around a life-time of doing what R and I did in Mexico City for the summer of 1984.

A few years later, in 1987, Sérgio talked about Cortázar as we drank chopp in the sidewalk cafes on Avenida Atlântica in Rio de Janeiro.  Sérgio was the 40-something son of Dona Nazaré, a nice woman in her 60s who rented her rooms as something of a cottage bed-and-breakfast business on Rua Duviver in Copacabana, one block from one of the most famous beaches in the world.  Sérgio was writer; he stood at a podium every day typing while standing, in an odd bedroom or in Nazaré’s kitchen, adding more words and pages to his self-described Kafkaesque stories about life in mid-twentieth century Brazil.  He would publish them on his own, but he had no grand ideas about how many copies they would sell.  For money, he had a state pension (disability after being sacked from a state job and tortured by the military regime), his mother, and the sales of his uncle’s paintings, which he hawked on weekends Copacabana and Leblón.  In whatever combination, it was enough.

Sérgio himself had walked off the pages of Hopscotch.  I liked him, in spite of his off-putting arrogance, and I added many like him to my cast of friends and supporters around Rio.  As we sat there under the umbrellas on Avenida Atlântica, Sérgio named the working girls, many of whom were friends of his and more than few of which, he made of point of mentioning, were not girls in the genetic sense of the word in spite of all (quite convincing I should add) evidence to the contrary.  Avenida Atlântica was his world, and for a while it became mine.  With Sérgio, I read Cortázar and heard a calling.

Notes and Credits

The opening photo is of a volume that R gave me when I visited her in Mexico City in the summer of 1986, Nicaragua tan Violentamente Dulce.  In the background, Gary Fuss’s photo of Chapter 7 of Hopscotch sits at the opening of an earlier version of this post.  Gary was kind of enough to allow me to use his photo, which can be found on his Flickr page here, along with many other interesting photos of Chicago and elsewhere.

The photos of Copacabana Beach and Cortázar’s grave site were both taken by the author, in 1987 and 2002, respectively.  This was the view of Copacabana from across Avenida Atlântica, where Sérgio and I would sit, talking and drinking chopp in the sidewalk restaurants.

My volumes of The Winners and Hopscotch have been lost, sold to the Dawn Treader bookstore along with 40 shelf-feet of books that I liquidated when I left Ann Arbor in the early 1990s.  This sale involved nearly every single book I had ever owned in my 28 years up to that point.  It was a literary purging.  I saved some (like my Pynchon) and would have thought Cortázar’s among them, but no.  To this day I can no longer find The Winners or Hopscotch (Rayuela) among my holdings.  Along they went with the lot, over $400 of books at about 50 cents per book.  At that point in my life, it was half a month’s salary.

It was a lot of books for anyone, 28 or 82, but books were where I lived to that point, in my head and in the imaginations of my writers.  For a while, I entered Dawn Treader lore, and a photograph taken from one of my books went on the store’s bulletin board with other artifacts retrieved likewise over the years.  I know that the photo stayed there for some time, a few years it seems.  I remember the woman reviewing my books for purchase was struck by the notes my father wrote on the cover page of every single he’d ever given me.  Perhaps there are still books of mine on the shelves.

In Brazil in 1987, I was fortunate to have brought Kafka’s The Castle.  It kept me company after Sergio’s lectures.  At home in the mid-1980s, I had Doctor Who—the Tom Baker version who with the lovely Romana took me all the other places literature and social science couldn’t.

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The truth and narrative, 1: my life with Graham Greene

This is the first of three posts on writers whose work has influenced the course of my own life.  The writers are Graham Greene, Julio Cortázar and Roberto Bolaño.  In these writers I have seen myself in futures, presents, and pasts.

Travels with My Aunt

It started when I saw glimpses of the film, Travels with My Aunt, late at night on television.  I was doing homework or something.  What I noted then, and what I remember now, is the face of a very young Cindy Williams on a train with Alec McGowen as Henry Pulling.

I was in college already, but still living at home with my parents.  I had these vague ideas of wanting to explore the world, do something exciting, see places no one in my family ever had seen.  Later, I noticed the book on a shelf in the house and read it.  What I remember best from the book is Pulling’s trip by boat up the Rio Paraguay, from Buenos Aires to Asunción.  I knew then what I wanted to do with my life.

My mother, it turned out, was quite fond of Graham Greene.  She was fluent in Spanish for reasons she never told me, though I cannot recall whether she declined to say or I simply failed to ask.  As a college student in Pennsylvania, she had gone to Mexico City one summer to study abroad, a trip that led her to New Orleans and Loyola University, where she met my father in 1960.  At Loyola, she paid her bills in college by teaching Spanish at Mercy Academy, a Catholic girls’ prep school next to the campus.  She told me Travels with My Aunt was a frivolous book and that the really good Green was in The Power and the Glory, his novel of a “whiskey priest” trying to escape persecution during the Mexican Revolution and its aftermath.  I read the book and though I agreed with my mother, I never stopped thinking about Asunción.

Mexico City

In the summer of 1984 it was my turn, and I went off to Mexico City in the very same program my mother had gone on 25 years earlier.  My Dutch friend was on the Mexico trip the year before, and he gave me the names of two girls, R and E, and told me to look them up.  He’d had a crush on E, who worked in the big bus station and lived in a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of Mexico City, where 2-room cinder block houses crept up the hillsides surrounding the city.  E was indeed the prettier of the two, but I fell in love with R.

She was older than I was by about seven years, which at the time seemed like a lot.  She took me to Coyoacan, where we sat on park benches until three in the morning kissing and talking under the stars, which we could not see but knew were there above the constant soup of Mexico City smog.  We talked about Frida Kahlo and listened to jazz.  We drank tequila over art and philosophy and revolution with her friends.  During the days, in between classes in US-Mexican Diplomatic History and Spanish, I took Graham Greene novels from the library and devoured them.  The End of the Affair, The Comedians, The Human Factor, and others.  I marveled at the stories he told, so strong and bold and confident.  I read Greene and knew what I wanted to do with my life.

Rio de Janeiro and Asunción

I imagined I was reading biographies of the lives I wanted to lead, perhaps without the Russian Roulette but nonetheless in that Greenean world of strained romance and moral decay.  By the time I was 23 I was on my way to Asunción, albeit over land by bus from Rio de Janeiro, where I had just spent 6 weeks interviewing people in favelas during the day.  Favelas were the infamous slums that clung to the mountainsides of Rio and lined the bottoms of its swamps.  In the favelas, marginal people lived on the extremes of the most spectacular scenery on earth.  By night I played music with my friend Rogerio do Maranhão, who had standing gigs at Maria Maria in Bota Fogo and a pasta house in Copacabana.  We sang for food, beer and women.

... portrait of the author as a young musician

In Asunción, I stayed with the family Weiss, who were hosting Brother Alexis Gonzales, a theatre director from Loyola, mom’s and my old alma mater.  One night, after hanging out with the actors past curfew—these were Stroessner’s last days—I came home to find everyone on the street in their night clothes.  Minutes earlier, some Colorados drove by and shot up the house. They didn’t like Alexis’s production of Princípios, a play about censorship in Latin America. We pulled bullets from the walls and kept them as souvenirs.

Along the way, Greene stayed with me.  He wrote at a disciplined clip of five hundred words per day and produced almost a novel a year for forty years. His stories played on the compromised decisions of flawed men in decadent contexts.  With le Carré, Greene was the ultimate Cold War novelist, the two of them forming bookends around the era’s great struggles and grand themes, le Carré in Europe and its near environs, Greene everywhere else, across Latin America, Africa, and Asia.  They were our literary secret agents, searching for (and finding) the same themes every where they looked, morphing effortlessly into the same man with a different name everywhere they went.

Greene wrote about people and places that were not his native contexts, though when he did touch his own world, as in The End of the Affair, the results were breathtaking.  I was drawn most to his wanderlust and his ability to create compelling stories in so many different places.  Still I wondered—why did Greene make such sense to me?  Was it because I, too, was an outsider, a privileged white thrill-seeker in worlds brown and black and poor and altogether far away from the places I knew?

Yet critical post-colonial narrative was not something I could sustain for very long.  I was too good-humored and guileless.  This was a chicken and egg story that after a while could be anything and nothing at all.  Like all narratives it was mostly about justification and never really got to the heart of the matter.  Disciplined writing in an inevitably tainted world of compromised good and stilted vengeance was, on the other hand, a narrative I could understand.

Notes and Credits

I was inspired to go up the hills by my advisor at Tulane and by a book called The Myth of Marginality by Janice Perlman.  Perlman went to the favelas and lived there and worked with the residents even as the military government at the time was razing their neighborhoods and resettling the residents in modern slums further from the center of town.  I called Perlman from S’s dorm room at Louisiana State University one Sunday morning as the fog of a hangover left me, to ask Perlman about doing this kind of work.  “Go, do it,” she said, without specifying anything more specific about how to do it or whom to ask for help.  I didn’t speak to her again until 2006, almost 20 years later, and in 2007 I was able to contract her to evaluate the program I ran at the New York Academy of Medicine.  In 2010, she published a sequel to Myth of Marginality called Favela, in which she revisits the favelas and favelados she wrote about n the early 1970s.  She was able to find the children and grandchildren of her original subjects and the new book is a compelling story of coming full circle, as all narratives eventually do.

Cover photograph of Travels with My Aunt from the Wikipedia article about the novel, found here and used under fair use principles.   The photograph of Greene’s gravesite is also from Wikimedia and is used under the Creative Commons license.

Photograph of the author from his personal collection, no doubt to be sold one day for millions (in Monopoly money?) on E-Bay.  I cannot recall the name of the restaurant in Copacabana where we used to play, but here’s another of my friend Rogerio, from the same time.

Rogerio do Maranhão

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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, 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.

Brazil-16-map

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.

lery

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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