About Robert Birnbaum

6 Nov

Homepage image Ladybower Reservoir Derbyshire England [photo]

Our Man in Boston continues the musings and ruminations on books and assorted contiguous  subjects that I, Robert Birnbaum,began at The Morning News in 80 plus columns from May 2008  until September 2010 —which in turn was a  mutation  of the  weekly Book Digest that began on February 28 2006 http://birnbaum.themorningnews.org/100/ I wrote then and it still seems true now that: 1) There are far too many books and writers deserving of the meager attention doled our by America’s mainstream literary press; 2) I am not at all constrained by whatever Byzantine code or principles book editors use in their choices for review coverage; 3) So-called “book notices” are preferable to an excess of mucked-up verbiage and veiled tendentious agendas (either the reviewer’s or the editor’s); and finally, 4) The ever-growing population of readers and book lovers who deserve a wide snapshot of what’s available in print without having to resort to the expensive and sometimes stultifying study of book-industry trade magazines.

Robert Birnbaum (photo Lydia Panas)

Robert Birnbaum (photo Lydia Panas)

Here’s an “interview” with me.

If you would,please keep in mind that my modest efforts at observation and ideation come to you at no monetary cost (to you). That being the case, I will not regale you with pitiful pleas for money to enable me to feed my poor dog or for the vital dental work I have been unable to obtain. No, if you feel the slightest twinge of obligation to compensate this (virtual) ink stained scribbler, a (thoughtful) comment left in the appropriate place in this outpost of distraction will suffice. Thank you.

Free Huey

The Reigning Queen Of Soul

6 Nov

That great musicians don’t necessarily have lives that can support full-bodied biographies should be obvious. And that being an admirer doesn’t qualify a writer for the arduous task of being a biographer. So it is, that though I love music of all sorts and stripes, I haven’t found many musicians’s biographies worth reading. There are a handful, Peter Guralnick’s Sam Cooke, David Hadju’s Billy Strayhorn, Leonard Cohen’s bio by Liel Leibovitz (more about that later),
Crystal Zevon’s oral biography of her ex-husband Warren Zevon, to mention a few of those few.

Aretha Franklin, in addition to being a magnificent talent, rose from a Detroit gospel world lorded over by her Baptist preacher father, C.L. Franklin(this at a time when being a preacher wielded significant influence) and found success with the expanding dominion of Atlantic records and the skillful hit-making producer Jerry Wexler. And for nearly fifty years
Aretha has made soulful music, won awards and prevailed over personal tragedy, alcoholism,depression and ill health.

Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin, is David Ritz’s ( ghostwriter for Hound Dog:The Leiber & Stoller, Autobiography Divided Soul: The Life of Marvin Gaye, Smokey:Inside My Life)second attempt at telling Aretha’s story, having collaborated on her 1999 autobiography, From These Roots.That book left him unsatisfied, falling short of his usual criterion for emotional honesty. “I left her the way I found her,” he writes in the introduction to “Respect,” explaining his decision to retell Ms. Franklin’s story.Franklin as one might suspect In a recent New York Times piece Ritz observes, “I’ve had a number of books where I could not attain the intimacy that I needed and it showed in the book. All the good books are by people who open their hearts. Because, in turn, that touches the hearts of readers.”

While Ms Franklin who are given to understand is not particularly forthcoming, intimates such as her now disceased sisters Carolyn and Erma* booking agent, Ruth Bowen; her producers, Clyde Otis, Jerry Wexler and Luther Vandross and friends like Carmen McRae fill in Aretha’s story.

David Ritz, has also did helped with Wexler’s autobiography, Rhythm and The Blues, and as seen below, declaims a heartfelt eulogy at Jerry’s memorial in October 2009.

*Erma Franklin was first to record the song Piece of My Heart that 60’s icon Janis Joplin made a hit. I leave to you to judge which is better.

Currently reading Loitering by Charles D’Ambrosia (Tin House Books)


6 Nov

Me and George. Talking.

5 Nov

In the new issue of the Baffler (Issue #26)writer,editor, critic George Scialabba’s forty year mental health records are presented in an abridged and annotated form with evocative illustrations by Brad Holland. Scialabba has, over the years ,suffered from severe bouts of depression and has searched for relief from this debilitating ‘disease’. Despite this burden George has published a number of essay collections—The Divided Mind, What are Intellectual Good For?, The Modern Predicament and recently For The Republic and countless articles for a wide swath of smart periodicals.

This conversation took place at Mt Auburn Cemetery on a crisp early September Sunday at the promonotory where the Washington Tower is located and that overlooks Boston looking to the east ( the name of person’s gravesite we settled at escapes me).George and I talked about his reason(s) for allowing the Baffler to publish his records and how they were edited and presented and his battle with depression. We also talked about the health care system, DH Lawrence,19th century Utopians, his religious upbringing, the state of American culture, not reading Tolstoy, some of his favorite recent reads, his ambitions and more…

George Scialabba [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

George Scialabba [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

I spent nine years in an insane asylum and never had a thought of suicide, except that every morning after my conversation with the psychiatrist, I wanted either to hang myself or to cut his throat— Antonin Artaud

RB: Say something (testing sound level).

GS: Four score and seven…

RB: The Baffler [Issue # 26] is publishing an edited version of your medical records of over forty years.

GS: My mental health records. There are no mentions of my toenail fungus.

RB: You have toenail fungus?

GS: I’m afraid so.

RB: What moved you to publish and publicize those records?

GS: Not what, who: the editor-in-chief, John Summers. Two years ago I had an episode of major depression. John and I were very good friends by then, so he offered to help—to come with me to doctors when necessary, shop for me, visit, and so on. At one point he thought it might be useful if we got my medical records. So I requested them—nowadays there is no problem getting them. We both only glanced at them back then and put them aside. Earlier this year he came across them, while he was conceiving the next issue of The Baffler, about health and the medical care system. and thought they might make an interesting document. I was … dubious, but he’s a persuasive guy and a very accomplished editor, so I said go ahead, see what you can turn them into. And he produced an excerpt that reads well and has, I think, a certain dramatic interest. He found some excellent art to illustrate it, and with a bit of commentary by me before and after, it fits into the tapestry of the issue. I don’t make great claims for it. I don’t think he does either. But because it’s the most widespread illness in the world, and there’s a lot of secrecy, of furtiveness, about it, it seemed to us that it might be worthwhile to offer this glimpse from another angle into the culture of health and sickness, which the whole issue is meant to represent

Fakes edited by David Shields and Matthew Volmer

Fakes edited by David Shields and Matthew Volmer

RB: My first reaction to this piece was to recall an anthology entitled Fakes [An Anthology of Pseudo-Interviews, Faux-Lectures, Quasi-Letters, “Found” Texts, and Other Fraudulent Artifacts by David Shields], which collects a variety of texts that turn out to also stand as literary items—written items that have narrative resonance. This iteration of your mental health records seems to suggest a new literary genre.

GS: I’ll have to take your word for it.

RB: How much material did John start with?

GS: About 40,000 words.

RB: That doesn’t seem like a lot for forty years, does it?

GS: There’s some stuff from the byways of my therapeutic history that I didn’t collect. But this is most of it.

RB: Is your mental health history cumulative? Does each provider pass on his or her notes upward?

GS: No, they were in three or four places.

RB: At some point, perhaps in the last ten years, did they become part of one file?

GS: No, I asked each of the three or four places where I had been seen for any length of time for their records. As far as I know, they’re still not gathered in any one place.

For the Republic by George Scialabba

For the Republic by George

RB: I was thinking that since medical records are being digitalized, eventually there should be one file.

GS: There are intake processes where they ask about your medications and hospitalizations.

RB: The patient is assumed to be a reliable narrator?

GS: If they think they’re looking at a potentially critical or terribly complicated case, then they will ask for the previous records. It took me a while to get mine, but the hospitals have courier service back and forth, so it’s faster for them. None of the institutions I did intake interviews with, seemed to want to see my previous records.

RB: There was a set of notes where the practitioner insisted on using the word ‘deny’—“denies suicidal ideation”, “denies whatever”—

GS: More than one.

RB: Is that standard medical jargon? There are verbs other than ‘deny’.

GS: I guess, as with so many other things in medicine, they’re being self-protective. If they had said, “the patient appears free of suicidal intent,” and then the patient committed suicide, they might be called on the carpet.

RB: That puts the onus on the patient and reveals an attitude by the practitioner toward the patient.

GS: That was my first reaction.

RB: You have denied suicidal ideation in each intake interview. In the commonplace book on your website there is a citation from Artaud:

“I spent nine years in an insane asylum and never had a thought of suicide, except that every morning after my conversation with the psychiatrist, I wanted either to hang myself or to cut his throat.”

Is there more history available to you? There are big gaps.

GS: There are gaps—some of the time I was out of therapy. There is one large episode of therapy for which I couldn’t get the therapist to give up her notes.

RB: Her notes of your treatment are available at her discretion?

GS: No, I’m legally entitled to them. But I didn’t want to fight about it.

RB: Were you tempted to annotate these records more extensively?

GS: John has a notion that the longer transcript can be made into a small book, in which case I’d have to do much more work.

RB: I second that idea. Its seems strange to say this – bordering on crass – but you have Brad Holland providing wonderful illustrations …

GS: I wasn’t truly sold on the whole idea until I saw both his illustrations and the other, smaller ones in the margin. Then I knew it had to be.

RB: I’ve read a number of novels lately – Francine Prose, Amy Bloom, Anthony Doerr – where part of the story is told through letters. Prose even uses excerpts from published books to advance the narrative. So writers are using different devices—

GS: I think there’s something new in the degree to which people are incorporating little shots of non-direct narrative. I’m not sure what it means; maybe it’s just …

RB: … the last gasp. I find I like to write notes —to service providers, my doctor, my son’s guidance counselor – and in so doing I attempt to make the epistles somewhat interesting and attractive to read. Possibly many people are also intent on avoiding cliché.

GS: That may be true, but I suspect you’ll agree it isn’t true of psychotherapists. They seem to have the opposite motive —to make the sessions sound less interesting. You don’t really get a sense, I think, of an individual personality, an individual voice, an individual sensibility, on either end. I mean, there are flashes of idiosyncratic perception on the part of therapists. And there are occasions when my own voice comes through. At one point, one of my therapists says, “He’s concerned about the beginnings of gray hair, or forehead receding” and then in parenthesis (He thinks very highly of his hair).” (laughs). And it’s true, I remember I was bragging about it. But touches like that, individuating touches, there are not many of them throughout the whole record— either in what was included or in what wasn’t. And the reason for that, I have discovered since talking to my current therapist about this project, is that there are very rigorous standard procedures for writing case notes.

George Sciallabba [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

George Sciallabba [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

RB: Does anyone read R. D Laing anymore? Did they ever?

GS: Laing is an object lesson…

RB: I am at a loss here— I think so much of psychotherapy and especially psychopharmacology is voodoo, but I have myself benefited from it. I have had therapists who have been useful in navigating the wild world. But I really don’t quite know what the diagnosis of depression means anymore. I have noted that the WHO claims depression is the world’s most widespread disease, but I wonder if people understand what that means.

GS: I wish I could explain it to you.

RB: I understand your symptoms —there are times when I have no energy or very low energy but it’s not sustained for more than a day or two. And there is no correlation to anything I can observe. I find myself taking great joy in a lot of things and being interested, being semi-productive. I would like to be more productive. But I am also trying figure out what to expect of myself at this point in my life.

What Are Intellectuals Good For? by  George Sciallabba

What Are Intellectuals Good For? by George Sciallabba

GS: Great joy pretty much disqualifies you from a diagnosis of depression.

RB: Exactly. A friend of mine from high school recently visited me and we were chatting and he, seemingly out of nowhere, asked me if we were ever asked whether we were happy when we were kids? It was never an issue.

GS: Yeah, not in my youth, either.

RB: Today, kids are always being asked and are really expected to say. A negative means bring in the psych HAZMAT team. It seems to me to be a phony issue.

GS: Well yeah, the phoniness is the critical part, I guess. Obviously, parents during our youth at least occasionally wondered or worried whether we were happy, and they wanted us to be happy. It just wasn’t thought necessary to be hovering or solicitous. Whereas now it is. Maybe it is for the wrong reasons. Maybe it’s because we have a social work bureaucracy, a medical bureaucracy, which is a level of authority laid over the parents to which the parents are now in a sense accountable. And they tell the parents they ought to regularly diagnose their child’s mental health and ask if they are happy. I am not a parent so I don’t know, but I suspect it has something to do with the general bureaucratization of medicine and family life and intimacy. So yes, it’s good now as it was then to care that your kids are happy, but how you go about manifesting it and seeing to it has changed. D. H. Lawrence, my personal guru, has an essay about child-rearing called “Education of the People”,(1) which would absolutely cause the AMA and the American Psychiatric Association to blow a collective gasket. His three cardinal rules: “1) Leave them [i.e., children] alone. 2) Leave them alone. 3) Leave them alone.”

RB: What was the response when it was published?

GS: It wasn’t published. It was found in his papers.

RB: Has it been published now?

GS: It’s in that two-volume collection, Phoenix.

RB: It’s curious – you admire and are interested in a lot of classical writers, while I rarely read anything written before 1980 and have developed a certain impatience with certain kinds of scholarship, which I respect but can’t get interested in, such as literary theory. I barely know the names of its professors.

GS: Well. I have just a very passing acquaintance with literary theory, and not much interest. It’s a matter of personal history; I guess. I got my moral education from George Eliot, Conrad, Henry James. And to some extent from 17th-century and Romantic poetry.

RB: Not the Enlightenment?

GS: Pre- and post-Enlightenment. (both laugh)

RB: Where is your Catholicism in this? Did that moral education conflict with your Catholicism?

GS: Yes, it did. And Catholicism lost out.

RB: Had you not gone to college, would you have retained your faith?

GS: Well, it’s possible. I once thought I’d go straight into the seminary after grade school. Then I decided to go to a regular high school but to the seminary after that. I think I would have become a very undistinguished, moderately unhappy Catholic priest. Probably a Franciscan.

RB: Franciscans are monks? Do they wear robes?

GS: Not monks, but they do wear brown robes. They take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.

RB: In your notes you said you could no longer reconcile taking seriously something that didn’t allow investigation and questioning. High school didn’t move you to curiosity and skepticism but college did?

GS: Well, it was a decent average high-school education. I had a few good teachers —the whole thing managed to avoid killing any interest in literature, history or philosophy, which often happens to less fortunate kinds.

RB: But it must have stimulated you sufficiently to apply to Harvard…

GS: That wasn’t my idea. This was 1964 – the beginning of affirmative action.

RB: You’re an African-American lesbian?

GS: No, but the Ivy League colleges really were, back then, WASP strongholds. In the early ‘60’s, around 1964 in fact, Kingman Brewster and Yale spearheaded affirmative action and Harvard jumped on the bandwagon. The Ivy Schools decided that they ought to open wide their gates.

RB: What deprived and marginalized category did you represent?

GS: It was just that no one from my high school had ever gone to Harvard. It was a working-class Catholic high school. If there was an affirmative action category I fit in, it was probably grease balls—they didn’t have a lot of grease balls.

RB: Oh, wops and greasers. Dagos. I believe my moral education came from Nelson Algren. [Algren’s “three rules of life”: “Never play cards with a man called Doc. Never eat at a place called Mom’s. Never sleep with a woman whose troubles are worse than your own.”] I do find it hard to believe, though, that you stressed yourself and worried yourself about religious issues. I understand that millions of people do, but it’s so foreign to me.

GS: Well, after I left I wondered too. And I had hoped that therapy would show me what in my psychic constitution and character that having attached myself to religion so fiercely as a boy stood for—what to make of it in terms or my psychic structure. It didn’t. I never did solve that problem in therapy.

RB: How many therapists have you gone to/through over forty years?

GS: Maybe nine or ten.

RB: What was the duration of the longest therapeutic relationship?

GS: Five or six years

RB: Why did it end?

GS: It was a psychoanalyst and insurance doesn’t pay for psychoanalysis, so I couldn’t afford to see her anymore. I would have somehow found the money if it were clearly useful, but I wasn’t sure that it was.

RB: Karl Krause’s quip on psychoanalysis comes to mind [Psychoanalysis is that mental illness for which it regards itself as therapy.] I find dealing with medical institutions and bureaucracies depressing and stressful—it’s like dealing with a foreign country. I wonder if all the effort is worth it. I find the intake process off-putting and insensitive

GS: And this in a context that’s supposed to be about empathy and concern for you. It’s a little bit like the grimace I often can’t suppress when I hear about somebody retiring from the Senate after a long career of “public service.” Well, you know, service my ass! (laughs). He’s leaving to become a lobbyist and cash in. I haven’t read this book by the philosopher Harry Frankfort called Bullshit. But if it’s the book I hope it is, it looks at just this kind of thing: the way you can’t say what you actually think, on pain of being sued or being some kind of social outcast. A therapist has to —there has to be this presumption of medical care but it often feels like medical processing.

RB: Finding a simpatico therapist is like playing roulette. That’s an ingredient that plays in a lot of situations and it’s almost a miracle to come across it. I just watched The Constant Gardener again and was impressed by how the diplomat and his activist wife formed a strong bond. And in the book it is quite vivid—two people talking the same language.

GS: I am going to write myself a reminder to look at that book.

[ Irrelevant exchange about Le Carre & Fatwa]

GS: (is looking for a pen)

RB: I don’t have a pen either—should we be embarrassed —two writers without pens?

GS: (chuckles)

RB:I noticed in these therapy notes there are a couple of places where you exclaim, “I am overqualified for this job”—in one place it was in quotation marks, almost as if it was in bold type. Is that something you actually said?

GS: No, it didn’t come across quite like that. I mean I had always assumed I would go to college, go to graduate school, and then teach at a college. Not become a great scholar, but I liked being a student and thought I’d be a good teacher. But instead I had this nervous breakdown in graduate school after leaving Opus Dei. And then what I did was become a cab driver and a welfare department social worker and then a receptionist and building manager. The thought of ever going back to graduate school gave me a swarm of butterflies in my stomach.

RB: Why did you go to New York for graduate school?

GS: Well, I got into Columbia and didn’t get into Harvard.

RB: Did you have any thoughts about how different New York would be from Cambridge? Did being in New York affect you?

GS: It rattled me a bit. I just applied to a few graduate schools and Columbia was the best one I got into.

RB: Did you have friends in New York?

GS: No, but there was an Opus Dei in New York.

RB: Hadn’t you quit Opus Dei?

GS: I had quit the summer before but then for the first month or so [of graduate school] I lived in the residence. It was not only for members—it was a residence for students as well. And thenI moved out. New York’s strangeness and intensity was just a small wrinkle in a very big strange force field that I was entering.

RB: When you wake up every day, what is sense of it—what’s the music playing in the opening scenes? You open your eyes and you sit up and then —what?

GS: Um, from 20 to 45 the first thing most males are conscious of when waking is an erection, usually. When you get to your mid-60’s as I have and you have been taking an SSRI for twenty years or more, you are usually all too conscious of the lack of an erection. (Both chuckle, sheepishly.)

[Brief discussion about full bladders and sleep apnea.]

RB: I have in the past two or three had years a few [minor] medical problems, which just took forever to resolve. Have you experienced the glacial tempo of the medical bureaucracy?

GS: I blame capitalism.

RB: Why is there resistance to universal health care?

GS: Well I have a hobbyhorse theory about it. It’s because there is a generalized and really superstitious distrust of government, earnestly and assiduously and cunningly cultivated by all the people who stand to profit from it. Among others, the insurance industry and the processed food industry. It’s no accident that all those people out there think government can’t do anything good. Remember what one of them said at a political rally, ”Keep your government hands off my Social Security!”

RB: Might it be something more basic that elicits this pretzel logic on all sorts of issues? And there is this real belief that the current right agenda is based on some demonstrable rationale.

GS: I’m from a working-class family, and they really do have these stubborn anti-government attitudes that very few of us enlightened people in the Cambridge-Boston area have.

RB: Reagan Democrats.

GS: Exactly.

RB: Why don’t people just admit they are racist, Judeophobic, homophobic? These seem to be regnant in the USA. We live in a funhouse. I wonder why in a world that seems to have so many problems and crises, there isn’t a greater audience for publications like The Baffler, In These Times, Truthdig, even the New York Review, which can be very insightful. What aren’t people searching for a critique?

GS: That’s the revolutionary question.

RB: Is it Marcuse’s notion that there is a moronizing process?

GS: There’s a lot to that. Life in contemporary capitalist culture is a continuous stream of disconnected stimulants. Distractions.

RB: There is a connection but it’s not apparent to the audience—it’s all about consuming.

GS: It’s not coordinated, but it works together to this one purpose.

RB: We don’t want to say, to make people stupid. Desensitizing them?

GS: Yeah, we must find a good phrase. (Both laugh.) Impoverishing their critical faculties.

RB: Growing up under the old regime of literacy and hard copy [real] books and certain kinds of narrative, you may fall prey to anxieties about new technology. And thus we may be somewhat impaired in assessing new media. Is Facebook snake oil—it seems to work for some people?

GS: Well, I suppose that nothing that either lasts a long time or engages a lot of people—

RB: What’s a long time? What’s the life expectancy of some of this new technology? What is the phrase I noted in The Baffler— “Innovation without progress”?

GS: I was thinking of a line from Durkheim, which explained conservatives to me in a lightening flash when I came across it. “No tradition or institution lasted for hundreds of year can be entirely without merit or substance.”

RB: Meaning?

GS: That the good and the bad are jumbled together. That Facebook, though I think on the whole it is an enormous waste of time and basically an infantilizing influence, nonetheless has its uses and (almost) redeeming features. And the same with television. I don’t read as many books as I used to, and it’s because once when I was badly depressed, my brother gave me a television set—“Maybe this will help take your mind off your troubles.” And it did. But , alas, I couldn’t stop watching it when I got better.

RB: I agree, but then there are shows like The Wire.

GS: TV is such a vast phenomenon that even if a minority of shows are inspired, it’s practically impossible to keep up with them.

RB: As distracting and procrastination-inducing as they are, streaming media (Netflix, Spotify) are amazing things. Access to a very wide [in the case of Spotify almost unlimited] selection of music and film is grand.

GS: There is a well-known media theorist named Clay Shirky, who made a passing remark on his blog to the effect that “nobody I know reads Tolstoy any more. And that makes perfect sense to me: War and Peace is so long and kind of boring.” Shirky’s a decent guy and not himself illiterate, but Jesus, if the young are not reading Tolstoy, then what about 16th- and 17th- century English lyric poetry – the marrow, the distillation, the flower of the language. Do they even know it exists?

RB: We do have these, for lack of a better word, controversies in literature. Ian McEwan recently asserted (2) that most long novels today don’t justify their length. Tim Parks in the New York Review also wrote about reading long works.(3)

GS: There are people like Donna Tartt that the argument probably applies to. I suppose Shirky’s point was: “My God, there’s so much. It’s hard just to keep up with good blogs. Who has time for Tolstoy?” You can spend all your time in front of a screen and increasingly that seems like a sensible thing for people to do. Those of us who grew up with in a hard-copy world can see what’s being lost as well as what’s being gained. But the people who are growing up in the new world can’t see what’s being lost. And so it gives an edge of desperation, an edge of Luddism, to those of us who are trying to keep those treasures from being lost. If the young want to choose not to read Tolstoy and Donne and George Herbert, ok. But they have to at least know what they’re giving up.

The Baffler Issue #26 Cover art- Ruth Marten

The Baffler Issue #26
Cover art- Ruth Marten

RB: It can be an amusing pastime to consider what will be read a hundred years hence. Philip Kerr told me he thought John LeCarre would be the guy. Which at the time surprised me. But I have this theory that there is a fixed finite number of readers in the world—like the ever-present twelve honest men. There will always be 400,000 readers who will be reading 17th-century poetry and the great Russians and the epochal Germans.

GS: (laughs)

RB: So we ought to set aside these declinist and worrisome thoughts about the disappearance of literature, which really is about the disappointment that more people are not making use of the great literary wellspring that is available. There are kids out there reading—they just don’t make much noise.

GS: Maybe that’s true. But there is this dream of a humanist Utopia that the Enlightenment philosophers had—Condorcet, Godwin, later Utopians William Morris and John Ruskin and Matthew Arnold, that the best that has been thought and said could become a common property of humankind. Probably there will always be many millions or billions who find enough beauty in growing a garden or swimming—nonverbal things. And that’s fine. But many, many, more than 400,000 people, many more than the elite of their time in 18th-century France or 19th-century Britain could have kindled to the books we hold dear.

RB: It would seem that lots of people seem to want to remain ignorant of the pressing issues of our time — climate change, the failure of the Western model of development in the so-called Third World. I think back on novels like Nevil Chute’s On the Beach, which portrayed a nuclear apocalypse, and there was a Ban the Bomb movement. If you read LeCarre, you can get a clear idea of the corrupted and degraded state of Western post-industrial nations. I don’t know that utopian ideals have any place in the thinking of people in the short term —the next twenty or thirty years.

GS: We all have a moral imagination.

RB: You think?

GS: Anybody who does have a moral imagination or a political imagination can’t help occasionally finding inspiration in an ideal that he/she hopes can be achieved.

RB: Do you see any examples of that in life today, around the world? Lives and institutions guided by a basic sense of decency and fairness?

GS: No group examples, but individuals. No, no communities.

RB: Whom do you see aspiring to make the world a better place?

George Scialabba [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

George Scialabba [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

GS: Well, there’s probably 400, 000 people. (Both laugh.)

RB: In reading this Baffler article, it is not apparent that you ever give yourself credit for doing good and useful work. Your writing has been recognized by smart people. Didn’t that make you feel better?

GS: Eventually, it did. Saved my life, really. But it took a long while.

RB: Why?

GS: (long pause) Because there were lots of people my age doing what I was doing, a lot more successfully than me.

RB: Well, what was your criterion of success?

GS: I suppose quantity and visibility. I would see Sven Birkerts $4) or Paul Berman or Ellen Willis appearing in the New Yorker, the New Republic or the NYRB, or publishing a book, and I hadn’t done any of those things and probably never will.

RB: But you were published—how did that happen?

GS: It started with hearing Noam Chomsky on the radio – I felt the scales fall from my eyes. At the end, the interviewer mentioned that Chomsky had a new book coming out in a few months. I thought, “Wow, this is great. This will make the scales fall from everybody’s eyes.”

RB: (laughs)

GS: So I got the new book when it came out and I waited for the reviews and for American politics and culture to be turned upside down. And nothing happened. It was published by small radical press.

RB: As is his latest opus, by Haymarket Books.

GS: I was incredulous and dismayed. I wrote a 3000-word letter in the form of a review to Elliot Fremont-Smith of the Village Voice and said this is a great book and nobody has said a word about it, and this is what it’s about. How about getting some writer to review it? So he called me back and said he would publish me and I should send something else.
RB: How do you think other writers started out?

GS: I may not have been as hopeless a case as I thought I was, but I really was very isolated.

RB: It does seem to be the case that being a good and original writer is not sufficient to launch a career. It takes luck or a real careerist bent. If you are not going to toot your own horn, then you need an agent, yes?

GS: Yes, but an agent looks for writers who are going to sell books.

RB: Some do.

GS: They have to, that’s how they make a living.

RB: There are some that don’t, people like Rachel Cohen (5) who wrote a wonderful book entitled A Chance Meeting or Edward P. Jones,(6) who spent 12 years writing The Known World are represented by super agent. Or Eduardo Galeano’s (7)agent, who also represented Latino women writers. But who am I to give career advice? What are your ambitions at this point in your life?

The Modern Predicament by George Scialabba

The Modern Predicament by George Scialabba

GS: (long pause) They mostly involve reading. No, nothing I really feel passionate about. John is trying to interest somebody in a Selected Scialabba book. I’m fairly pessimistic about it.

RB: How far have you gotten into turning the mental health records into a book?

GS: It’s basically John’s project, so I don’t know. I think he has a strong and detailed vision.

RB: So what do you look forward to reading— just more or specific books?

GS: Just big piles of books on the floor that have been accumulating over the last decades. All kind of things—

RB: How does something get drawn out of the piles?

GS: It depends on when the next deadline is.

RB: Deadline for who or what?

GS: I hope to write more for The Baffler.

RB: That’s a three-times-a-year publication.

GS: Well, I’m running out of gas. I like Raritan(8)—I have a good relationship with them. And Commonweal. I also wrote a couple of things for Virginia Quarterly Review

RB: Does reaching out to publications take a large effort for you?

GS: I’m not sure why. I usually have enough on my plate. You were talking before about that little spark of ambition you need. My spark flickers.

RB: Would you like to accomplish more?

GS: I’d like to do less,really.

RB: (laughs)

GS: I wish the world were a much more sensible place

RB: You see your writing as a corrective or an attempt to be…?

GS: Yeah. Yeah. Yes, I don’t make beautiful things with words, at least that’s not my [intention]. I am not a poet or a storyteller. I am kind of a preacher, and I wish there were less to preach about.

George Sciallabba [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

George Sciallabba [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

RB: You are frequently expressive about the beauty of language and what that may do.

GS: Yeah, but so do James Wood and Sven Birkerts. And I love being instructed by them. But I don’t feel I can instruct other people about language and literature, whereas inequality, American foreign policy—there’s just so much unnecessary suffering in the world.

RB: You wrote about Chomsky thirty years ago and not much has changed about Chomsky and the issues he focuses on. Americans still don’t pay attention to him. Or he is a buzzword for the evil left wing.

GS: He has been very effectively marginalized in America, but internationally it’s a different story.

RB: Name a book or a movie that has given you a charge. Uplifted you.

GS: A novel from last year by Anthony Marra, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. (9)

RB: A wonderful novel, and the title, taken from a Russian medical dictionary as the definition of life, is thought provoking.

GS: Another novel that knocked my socks off was Bob Schacochis’s (10) The Woman Who Lost Her Soul.

RB: Indeed. In the literary beauty contest of the National Book Awards, it lost out to Donna Tartt’s book?

GS: Yes.

RB: Anything else?

GS: A new book by William Deresiewicz [EXCELLENT SHEEP The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life]. It’s not the best written book but it says all the right things and it’s getting a lot of flak

RB: I read a piece by Stephen Pinker in the New Republic, which wasn’t positive. Why the negative response?

GS: Partly because Deresiewicz is an amateur. He’s a literary critic and not a VSP [Very Serious Person]

RB: Doesn’t he teach?

GS: He taught English at Yale.

RB: Doesn’t that give him some qualification?

GS: Sure. But he’s a radical and doesn’t have social-scientific credentials. And there is something preachy about the book, something amateurish. It’s not a Christopher Jencks or Nicholas Lehmann—not one of these carefully hedged, data-heavy books. It’s somewhat impressionistic and a bit sweeping. That appeals to me, but it annoys people like Pinker and Harry Lewis, a Harvard dean. And Deresiewicz traces higher education’s problems to capitalism, another reason why he’s not taken very seriously.

RB: From what I read, it reminds of a John Summers piece (11) for the Chronicle of Higher Education

GS: It’s in that vein.

RB: It seems there is a shortage of intellectual honesty. There’s too much intellectual hucksterism.

GS: Yes. A subject for another interview.

RB: Exactly.

GS: The other two books I’m excited about are Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which I just read for the first time …

RB: Wasn’t that written in the 19th century?

GS: Yes (laughs). And The Return of the Native.

RB: Geez, where do you find these books? (Laughs)

GS: Especially Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

RB: Whatever its literary merit, I suppose it’s a very important book in American history.

GS: I was prepared for a slog. But it’s a really good book. She’s the George Eliot of slavery.

RB: I can’t read those books. I wonder what it says that a reader like me doesn’t read the canon – what it says about their durability? You bemoan the fact that Tolstoy and others are not being read…

GS: Well, I take comfort in the thought of the 400,000.

RB: I see.

GS: A useful remnant.

RB: A useful myth.

GS: Yes, as we enter our Dark Years.

RB: The Dark Years—a good place to end. (Both laugh) Well, George, it’s been a real pleasure. Thank you.


1. David Shields- Conversation at Los Angeles Review of Books
2.D H Lawrence citation “The Education of the People” (1919), in Phoenix: The Posthumous Papers of D.H. Lawrence, pp. 659-661. from George Scialabba’s Commonplace Book
3.Ian McEwan from Guardian article
4.Tim Parks from New York Review of Books blog, “Reading The Struggle
5. Sven Birkets Conversation at The Morning News
6. Rachel Cohen Conversation at The Morning News
7. Edward P Jones Conversation at Identitytheory
8. Eduardo Galeano Conversation at Identitytheory
9. Raritan
10. Anthony Marra Conversation at Our Man in Boston
11.Bob Schaccochis Conversation at The Los Angeles Review of Books
11. John Summers Conversation at Identitytheory

Currently reading Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit (Haymarket books)

12 Postscript

Ostensive Definition of Greatness

26 Oct


Currently reading The Best American Essays  2014 ed by John  Jeremiah Sullivan (HMH)

Addendum #67

22 Oct


In my haste to fulminate on the quasi-criminality of celebrating Columbus Day, I omitted to reference one very clever and useful book, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz(Beacon Press). MS. Dunbar-Ortiz does ground-breaking work in the burgeoning focus on “bottom-up peoples’” histories with the first history of USA told from the perspective of indigenous peoples (of which there are currently more than five hundred federally recognized Indigenous nations). When the Europeans arrived in now what is known as the United States (of America), there were fifteen million living and thriving Native people. After 400 years of regnant genocidal characters from Columbus and his ilk to Andrew Jackson and G.A. Custer there are 3 million descendants.An Indigenous Peoples’ History gives vivid snapshots of some of dark and shameful episodes of the US’s past.

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz elucidates:

The charge of genocide, once unacceptable by establishment academic and political classes when applied to the United States, has gained currency as evidence of it has mounted , but it is too often accompanied an assumption of disappearance> So I realized it was crucial to make the reality and significance of Indigenous people’s survival clear throughout the book Indigenous survival as peoples is due to centuries of resistance and storytelling passed through the generations, and I sought to demonstrate that this survival is dynamic, not passive.Surviving genocide, by whatever means is resistance: non Indians must know this in order to more accurately understand the history of the United States.

Currently reading Something Rich and Strange by Ron Rash (ECCO)

Speaking to Myself # 4174

21 Oct
The Double directed by Michael Brandt

The Double directed by Michael Brandt

Something possessed me to watch a putative thriller with Richard Gere as a retired CIA agent called back to track down the deadly killer that the agency believed was dead. Gere has a young striving FBI agent assigned to work with him. After the agent's initiation into dealing with a crusty, veteran agent who has been convinced to comeback for a career encore, he invites said loner agent to have dinner and to meet his wife.

Said wife—chirpy and bubbly greets Gere and FBI hubby on the walkway to
their doorstep. Introductions are made.

The wife says, "Welcome to our humble commode"

Our Man in Havana directed by Sir Carol Reed

Our Man in Havana directed by Sir Carol Reed

Now it must be said that I am forever searching for another Our Man in Havana. Or Spy Games or Safe House. Or the Constant Gardener. The Double is not one of those

Currently reading A History of Cuban Baseball,1864-2006 by Peter Bjarkman (McFarland & Co.)

Who Doesn’t Love Francis McDormand?

20 Oct

I suspect it would be unfair to extoll in detail the Frances McDormand /Lisa Cholodenko / Jane Anderson realization of Elizabeth Strout’s fine award-winning novel Olive Kitteridge two weeks before its HBO debut. But having now seen the complete four episodes of the mini-series, let me tickle your interest

Additionally there is a fine profile of MS McDormand in a recent New York Times:

During the production of “Olive,” she found herself more comfortable being wizened and grayed for the sequences when the Kitteridges are in their 70s than being blurred and buffed for when they’re in their 40s. To play those younger years, Mr. Jenkins, who is 67, was given tape to tighten loose skin below his jawline. She wasn’t, not at first.

Francis McDormand [photo: Alison Cohen Rosa for The New York Times]

Francis McDormand [photo:
Alison Cohen Rosa for The New York Times]

Then one day, after a camera test, Ms. Cholodenko pulled her aside and, as Ms. McDormand recalls it, nervously asked, “Did you ever read Nora Ephron’s essay about her neck?”
“Yes,” Ms. McDormand answered. “Give me the tape.”

“Then you know what I’m talking about?” Ms. Cholodenko said, relieved.

Ms. McDormand smiled as she remembered the exchange, explaining, “She thought she was going to have to give me this whole speech about how she was sorry I wasn’t looking young enough.”

Elizabeth Strout [photo:Robert Birnbaum]

Elizabeth Strout [photo:Robert Birnbaum]

On the other hand, it can not be said too often what a fine novel MS.Strout’s Olive Kitteridge is. Here’s a chat I had with her a while back

Here’s a fragment of our conversation:

RB: So inhabiting a character’s life for an extended period, it’s not a haunting experience?

ES: Well it is a haunting experience. It’s a strange experience. And I’ve though about this with each of my books, because they, in a huge way, do occupy me [within] my mind, and when I’m not writing about them I’m mulling over who they are and what they might do. And I live with them and love them for long periods of time and then they’re done, and I sort of can’t imagine they ever will be done, but then they are. And so far, luckily, there’s been another emergence of something else.

Currently reading The Rules of Wolfe by James Carlos Blake (The Mysterious Press)

Prince of Gadflies

15 Oct
Mather HS /Chicago- my alma mater

Mather HS /Chicago- my alma mater

Looking back at my education in the 60’s era Chicago public schools, I am struck by how little I learned (although because of certain teen age biological imperatives regarding my long-legged history teacher, I can still identify the British monarchy’s succession from the Stuart’s on up.)Now this ought not be taken as a condemnation of that system as clearly multitudes have benefited from their school experiences. But it does speak to my process of edification sans erudition. Not a bad way to go.

Patty Hearst & The Twinkie Murders by Paul Krassner

Patty Hearst & The Twinkie Murders by Paul Krassner

Given the scarcity of gadflies,contrarians, truth tellers, iconoclasts and such—dare I call them prophets (maybe wise men and women works better), I hold the few that I have come across in very high regard. I am tempted to offer that conversing with that small but persistent cadre as a necessity of a well lived and mindful life but I suspect that may fall on the deaf ears of the new and mobile media transfixed of my fellow citizens,

Paul Krassner a patriarch of the radical “new journalism” of the 1960s is one of those wise people. I first ran in to him at a University of Illinois (Chicago)lecture and there after became an appreciative reader of his incendiary and satirical magazine, The Realist. And that discovery was at a moment when having your “mind blown” was still a novelty.

The Realist Issue No. 44 - Lenny Bruce arrested (1963)

The Realist Issue No. 44 – Lenny Bruce arrested (1963)

The second time I ran into Krassner was at the legendary Alternative Media Conference in 1971. Somewhere I have a photo of he and poet and Fugs member Tuli Kupferberg sitting on a park BMW motorcycle.Twenty something years passed and Paul Krassner came to Boston for the publication of publication an anthology of Krassner’s writing, The Winner of the Slow Bicycle Race

We had a nice chat. Here’s sampling

RB: What would Lenny Bruce have gone on to become? If he had reached a ripe age of even fifty, what do you think he would have…?

PK: I think he would have continued to evolve as an icon. When I first interviewed him and asked him what’s the role a comedian and he gave a very formal answer: “To get a laugh every 15 to 25 seconds.” And then as he got more and more involved in the world, he would get more serious sometimes in his performances. Instead of yelling out, “Lenny, you’re funny,” people would say, “Lenny, you’re honest.” And I said to him, “You remember you said the role of a comedian is to get a laugh every 15 to 25 seconds? That’s not happening now.” And he says, “Well, I’m changing.” I said, “What do you mean?” He says, “Well, I’m not a comedian; I’m Lenny Bruce.” So he knew that he had become a symbol, and I think he would have continued in that vein. He would have spoken out.

Here’s kindred spirit, Kurt Vonnegut on Krassner:

I told Krassner one time that his writings made me hopeful. He found this an odd compliment to offer a satirist. I explained that he made supposedly serious matters seem ridiculous, and that this inspired many of his readers to decide for themselves what was ridiculous and what was not. Knowing that there were people doing that, better late than never, made me optimistic.

So, Paul Krassner has a new book Patty Hearst & The Twinkie Murders: A Tale of Two Trials (courtesy of the fine people at PM Press) contains his acute absurdist understanding of two odd headline events of the late 20th century the kidnapping of heiress Patty Hearst by the Symbionese Liberation Army and assassination of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and gay leader Harvey Milk. There are a couple of other tidbits in this book including an Outspoken Interview with Krassner

Paul Krassner [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Paul Krassner [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Currently reading Let Me Be Frank With You by Richard Ford (ECCO)

When the Trouble Began

14 Oct
Columbus With Tainos

Columbus With Tainos

Hats off to the city of Seattle. Exchanging a celebration of Indigenous Peoples for what ought to be a national day of shame, is an inspiring act of much needed revisionism. The American Exceptionalism, which if I recall correctly, was originally a scholarly term of approbation has now been embraced as
by neoliberal mandarins (not the least of whom is our current president)as great positive attribute.


Utopian as this notion might seem, I would offer that instead of the mania for for the so-called Core and the misguided emphasis on Algebra ought to be supplanted or at least balanced by an American History that reflects the actual events that occurred —warts and all. Certainly the introduction into the educational conversation of Howard Zinn‘s “People’s History” is a good step (this despite the efforts of states like Indiana to ban all Zinn’s works from being taught in that state’s public schools).Maybe someone can show me what the harm is in filling in the details of Columbus and his comrades’s expropriation of already settled lands. Or a slavery hating American icon breeding with his slaves. Or the great Tennessee populist joyfully exterminating various indigenous tribes. And what about the land grab for Mexico’s territories and the self serving mandate of manifest destiny which when there was no more land to “acquire” led to USA’s crusades in Cuba and the Philippines. Setting aside the depredations of US presence in Central America and the rest of the world it might be helpful to the current generations of students to have a coherent presentation on the US adventure in Vietnam.

Looking for photo credit

Looking for photo credit

As I see it, the greatest distortion of American culture is the both the recollections of the Civil Rights Era and the feel good notion that we have come a long way in the march to civil equality (for which the events of Ferguson, Missouri are a vivid countervailing example).

I was watching the documentary The 50 Year Argument and there was a riveting snippet by the great black writer James Baldwin*:

We haven’t invented the nigger. I didn’t invent him. White people invented him. I have always known—I had to know by the time I was 17 years old— what you were describing was not me… what you were afraid of was not me, it had to be somebody else. So it had to be something you were afraid of that you invested me with. I learned this because I had to learn it But you still think, I gather, that the nigger is still necessary. Well, its not necessary to me. It must be necessary to you. I give you you problem back. You’re the nigger, baby, it isn’t me.

Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties

Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties

If you need a refresher or an introduction to that roiling and volatile period (“Burn, baby, burn”) in the not so far back past, the monograph, Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties, created by the Brooklyn Museum for its exhibition including over a 100 artists response to the 1960s Civil Rights Movement.The exhibition honoring the fiftieth anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 consists of works by Romare Bearden, Elizabeth Catlett, David Hammons,Melvin Edwards,Richard Avedon, Bruce Davidson, Andy Warhol, Robert Indiana, and Philip Gusto.

Freedom: Now Forgotten Photographs by Martin Berger

Freedom: Now Forgotten Photographs by Martin Berger

And as police dogs, high pressure fire hoses,burned out churches, maimed and murdered Emmett Till and truncheon wielding police are part of the American history, Freedom Now!: Forgotten Photographs of the Civil Rights Struggle edited by Martin Berger, stands as testimony of the barely acknowledged story of depredations suffered by American blacks.Bob Adelman, Fredrick Baldwin, Dr Doris Derby, Benedict Fernandez,Bob Fitch, Matt Herron. Bill Hudson, Danny Lyon. Charles Moore and Chamian Reading

Copyright Bill Hudson

Copyright Bill Hudson

Berger curatorial vision includes and goes beyond the handful of iconic photographs that have some currency in the popular contemporary history. As the book’s’ title suggests goes beyond the accepted record. As the publisher notes,

Martin Berger presents a collection of forgotten photographs that illustrate the action, heroism, and strength of black activists in driving social and legislative change. Freedom Now! highlights the power wielded by black men, women, and children in courthouses, community centers, department stores, political conventions, schools, and streets.

Lunch Counter Protest in Raleigh North Carolina by Unidentified photographer

Lunch Counter Protest in Raleigh North Carolina by Unidentified photographer

A People's History by Howard Zinn

A People’s History by Howard Zinn

Perhaps citizens of the USA ought take a page from the Jews (as unlikely as that maybe) and designate one day a year as a day of atonement—I know the day I would choose.

* Baldwin begins his soliloquy at 11:22 of The 50 Year Argument

Currently reading The Zone of Interest by Martin Amis (Knopf)


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