Tag Archives: Noam Chomsky

#174 517 * Part II

4 Jan
THE COMPLETE works of Primo LEvi

THE COMPLETE works of Primo Levi

Ok, so I was able impose on some friends to do some heavy lifting…see previous post. However I could not leave this dustbin of history without a few digressive remarks, putatively about words and literature and my current existential crisis.

The Noam Chomsky Collection (Haymarket Books)

The Noam Chomsky Collection (Haymarket Books)

But before I get to my own favorites of the past year, I want to give notice and recognition  to The Complete Works of Primo Levi, Haymarket Books’s Chomsky Collection, Greg Grandin’s In the Shadow of Kissinger and Red Rosa: A Graphic Biography of Rosa Luxemburg by Kate Evans, edited by Paul Buhle. While I have long held that using the superlative ‘best’ as well as a number of other puerile superlatives (hottest, must read, coolest.most excellent), I have no problem assigning the rubric ‘important’ to a book. And the four titles mentioned above are prime examples of the tomes that must be considered important books among those that were published last year.

Primo Levi in the house of the maternal family( Luzzati family), photo by Giorgio Miserendino

Primo Levi in the house of the maternal family( Luzzati family), photo by Giorgio Miserendino

Better minds and more rigorous writers (like James Wood) have exposited on Levi:

Primo Levi did not consider it heroic to have survived eleven months in Auschwitz. Like other witnesses of the concentration camps, he lamented that the best had perished and the worst had survived. But we who have survived relatively little find it hard to believe him. How could it be anything but heroic to have entered Hell and not been swallowed up? To have witnessed it with such delicate lucidity, such reserves of irony and even equanimity? Our incomprehension and our admiration combine to simplify the writer into a needily sincere amalgam: hero, saint, witness, redeemer. Thus his account of life in Auschwitz, “If This Is a Man” (1947), whose title is deliberately tentative and tremulous, was rewrapped, by his American publisher, in the heartier, how-to-ish banner “Survival in Auschwitz: The Nazi Assault on Humanity.” That edition praises the text as “a lasting testament to the indestructibility of the human spirit,” though Levi often emphasized how quickly and efficiently the camps could destroy the human spirit. Another survivor, the writer Jean Améry, mistaking comprehension for concession, disapprovingly called Levi “the pardoner,” though Levi repeatedly argued that he was interested in justice, not in indiscriminate forgiveness. A German official who had encountered Levi in the camp laboratory found in “If This Is a Man” an “overcoming of Judaism, a fulfillment of the Christian precept to love one’s enemies, and a testimony of faith in Man.” And when Levi committed suicide, on April 11, 1987, many seemed to feel that the writer had somehow reneged on his own heroism.

If only the lamentations of the left leaning and socially progressive spent more (some) time paying to the crystalline observations of Noam Chomsky.

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From Red Rosa

Red Rosa by Kate Evans, edited by Paul Buhle

Red Rosa by Kate Evans, edited by Paul Buhle

If I recall correctly German socialist thought dancing was as important as revolution. Kudos to Verso,Evans and Buhle for recognizing that attention must be paid…

 In the Shadow of Kissinger by Greg Grandin

In the Shadow of Kissinger by Greg Grandin

There has never been a time when so many publicly(indicted and) recognized war criminals have pranced around the United States with impunity. The most evil of these criminals is Henry (“Dr. Strangelove”)Kissinger. The late lamented Christopher Hitchens amused with his rhetorical flourish The Trial of Henry Kissinger:

His own lonely impunity is rank: it smells to heaven. If it is allowed to persist then we shall shamefully vindicate the ancient philosopher Anacharsis, who maintained that laws were like cobwebs: strong enough to detain only the weak, and too weak to hold the strong. In the name of innumerable victims, known and unknown, it is time for justice to take a hand. (p. XI)

My 2001 conversation with Hitchens here yielded this

Robert Birnbaum: The Trial of Henry Kissinger originated with two serialized articles that appeared in Harper’s Magazine. Did your writing the pieces on Kissinger originate with you looking for a place to publish them or with Lewis Lapham [Harper’s editor] encouraging you to write them?

Christopher Hitchens: Well, I have been, for more than two decades, determined to write a book about Henry Kissinger, and I chose to start doing it properly last year…to collect all the material I already had, in one place and work it up. Because of the Pinochet trial and because of the Milosevic warrant, I thought that this changed the context. The first person to whom I mentioned this project was Lewis Lapham at Harper’s Magazine, who said, “Do it now. We’ll print it.” I barely had time to say, “Are you serious?” He said, “Get on with, too. It’s high time.” So, I knew I had a receptive editor, and I suspected I could probably expand it into a book as well. I wrote it for Harper’s, and then I updated it a bit, added a certain amount, and then it was published by Verso. I’m very much in Lewis Lapham’s debt because it’s the first time Harper’s has ever, he tells me, run two successive issues.

RB: Barbara Ehrenreich says when she had a discussion with Lapham about the article(s) that led to Nickel and Dimed, “an insane little smile” came across his face when the question of who would do them [came up] and he said, “You.” When you were having the conversation, did something like that happen?

CH: No, it was more like a peremptory gesture saying, “Why haven’t you done it already? Do it now, we’ll print it.” Then it was followed by a number of nudging calls to say, “Have you done it yet?” keeping me up to the mark. It’s nice to know that you have demand in that way. I’ll tell you something interesting. Neither he nor Rick MacArthur, the publisher, who jointly took the decision to put it two months running on the front page and promote it and so on, imagined that it would sell at all. They thought they ought to do it. They thought it was high time someone did do it. But they didn’t think of it as a commercial proposition. As it happens, the magazine almost sold out of the newsstands both times. Which is quite rare for a monthly.

Greg Grandin’s indictment of Herr Professor Kissinger has the force of rigorous attention to the documentary record (some of you will recognize this as what used to be called ‘history’)

From The People’s Obituary of Henry Kissinger—Before His Death (catchy headline, no?)

Far from the calculating practitioner of Realpolitik that even his most ardent detractors tend to imagine, the Kissinger that emerges from Grandin’s book is compulsively drawn towards action for its own sake. Over the course of his career as national security advisor, secretary of state, and, later, elite global consultant, Kissinger “institutionalized a self-fulfilling logic of intervention” and established a working “template for how to justify tomorrow’s action while ignoring yesterday’s catastrophe.”

“At every single one of America’s postwar turning points,” writes Grandin, “moments of crisis when men of goodwill began to express doubts about American power, Kissinger broke in the opposite direction.” America almost invariably broke with him.

So here are my favorite real paper and ink books of the last 300 or so days…

 House of the Rising Sun: A Novel by James Lee Burke

House of the Rising Sun: A Novel by James Lee Burke

House of the Rising Sun: A Novel by James Lee Burke

Crow Fair: Stories by  Thomas McGuane

Crow Fair: Stories by Thomas McGuane

Crow Fair: Stories by Thomas McGuane

Sweet Caress  by William Boyd

Sweet Caress by William Boyd

Sweet Caress by William Boyd

City on Fire: A novel  by Garth Risk Hallberg

City on Fire: A novel by Garth Risk Hallberg

City on Fire: A novel by Garth Risk Hallberg

A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me: Stories and a novella   by David Gates

A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me: Stories and a novella by David Gates

A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me: Stories and a novella by David Gates

Finale: A Novel of the Reagan Years   by Thomas Mallon

Finale: A Novel of the Reagan Years by Thomas Mallon

Finale: A Novel of the Reagan Years– by Thomas Mallon

The Lower Quarter: A Novel  by Elise Blackwell

The Lower Quarter: A Novel by Elise Blackwell

 

The Lower Quarter: A Novel by Elise Blackwell

 

 No God But Gain: The Untold Story of Cuban Slavery, the Monroe Doctrine, and the Making of the United States   by Stephen Chambers

No God But Gain: The Untold Story of Cuban Slavery, the Monroe Doctrine, and the Making of the United States
by Stephen Chambers

No God But Gain: The Untold Story of Cuban Slavery, the Monroe Doctrine, and the Making of the United States
by Stephen Chambers

 Disposable Futures: Violence in the Age of the Spectacle HENRY GIROUX (Co-authored with Brad Evans).

Disposable Futures: Violence in the Age of the Spectacle HENRY GIROUX (Co-authored with Brad Evans).

Disposable Futures: Violence in the Age of the Spectacle HENRY GIROUX (Co-authored with Brad Evans).

Above the Water fall: A Novel  by Ron Rash

Above the Water fall: A Novel by Ron Rash

Above the Water fall: A Novel by Ron Rash

 A Free State: A Novel  by Tom Piazza

A Free State: A Novel by Tom Piazza

A Free State: A Novel by Tom Piazza

 American Meteor  by Norman Lock

American Meteor by Norman Lock

American Meteor by Norman Lock

The Cartel by Don WInslow

The Cartel by Don WInslow

The Cartel: A novel by Don Winslow

 Gutshot: Stories by Amelia Gray

Gutshot: Stories by Amelia Gray

Gutshot by Amelia Gray

 The Kind Worth Killing: A Novel  by Peter Swanson

The Kind Worth Killing: A Novel by Peter Swanson

The Kind Worth Killing: A Novel by Peter Swanson

 The Whites: A Novel by Richard Price , Harry Brandt

The Whites: A Novel by Richard Price , Harry Brandt

The Whites: A Novel by Richard Price , Harry Brandt

 The Small Backs of Children: A Novel  by Lidia Yuknavitch

The Small Backs of Children: A Novel by Lidia Yuknavitch

The Small Backs of Children: A Novel by Lidia Yuknavitch

  A Spool of Blue Thread: A novel  by Anne Tyler

A Spool of Blue Thread: A novel by Anne Tyler

A Spool of Blue Thread: A novel by Anne Tyler

  The Lady from Zagreb   by Philip Kerr


The Lady from Zagreb by Philip Kerr

The Lady from Zagreb (A Bernie Gunther Novel) by Philip Kerr

 Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America by  Jill Leovy

Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America by Jill Leovy

Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America by Jill Leovy

 In the Shadow of Kissinger by Greg Grandin

In the Shadow of Kissinger by Greg Grandin

Kissinger’s Shadow: The Long Reach of America’s Most Controversial Statesman by Greg Grandin

 Mislaid  by Nell Zink

Mislaid by Nell Zink

Mislaid by Nell Zink

*Of course this number has deep significance…

Chomsky’s 13th 

9 Nov
Noam Chomsky [photo: Oliver Abraham]

Noam Chomsky [photo: Oliver Abraham]

I recently made mention of the Haymarket Books Noam Chomsky collection (12 titles) and it makes sense to acknowledge a recent volume published in City Lights Open Media series, Because We Say So . Its the third in that series by Chomsky, collecting thirty short pieces written between 2011 and 2015 for the New York Times Syndicate and News Service, on such pressing subjects as climate change, Edward Snowden, nuclear politics, cyberwar, terrorism and the Obama Doctrine.Naturally no U.S. papers publish Chomsky’s reports.

Because We Say So by Noam Chomsky

Because We Say So by Noam Chomsky

The inestimable dissident scholar Henry Giroux introduce this volume

Chomsky incessantly exposes the gap between the reality and the promise of a radical democracy, particularly in the United States, though he often provides detailed analysis of how the deformation of democracy works in a number of countries that hide their diverse modes of oppression behind the false claims of democratization…
…Chomsky has been relentless in reminding society that power takes many forms and that the production of ignorance is not merely about the crisis of test scores or a natural state of affairs, but about how ignorance is often produced in the service of power… he points to the efforts of the financial elite and their marketing machines to atomize people so they will be complicit in the destruction of the commons. Drawing on his expansive understanding of history, Chomsky cites the political economist Thorstein Veblen’s emphasis on “fabricating wants” in order to not only manufacture ignorance but also define consumption as the major force in shaping their needs…. Chomsky has been telling us for over 50 years: Resistance demands a combination of hope, vision, courage and a will- ingness to make power accountable, all the while connecting with the desires, aspirations and dreams of those whose suf- fering is both structurally imposed and thus preventable…Throughout his commentaries, he demonstrates that it is not only democracy and human decency that are at risk, but survival itself. In do- ing so, Chomsky makes clear that the urgency of the times demands understanding and action, critique and hope. This is a book that should and must be read, given the dire times in which we live. For Chomsky, history is open and the time has come to reclaim the promise of a democracy in which justice, liberty, equality and the common good still matter.

wearemany

Noam Chomsky will be a participant in Building Sustainable Security,A One-Day Conference on Saturday, November 21, 2015. This conference will explore three pillars of sustainable national and world security:

• A fairly-shared global prosperity based on economic, social, and racial justice
• Emergency action to address climate change and build a new, fossil-fuel-free energy system
• A Foreign Policy for All based on even-handed diplomacy, ending our disastrous military interventions, abolition of nuclear weapons, and reclaiming war resources for the urgent needs that face our world

The Noam Chomsky Dozen

6 Nov
The Noam Chomsky Collection (Haymarket Books)

The Noam Chomsky Collection (Haymarket Books)

In some way, everyday is like that so-called Christian holiday which drives the consumer economy to new heights of frenzied greed and status-seeking and is marked by the ominous sounding Black Friday (which as a godless Jew, I don’t celebrate).Parcels arrive daily with rich fruits from domestic publishers and, occasionally, from far flung places. This long winded lead-in is for me to glory in the great pleasure and privilege of having received Haymarket Books’s “Noam Chomsky Collection,” updated editions of twelve of his classic books”:

Rogue States

The Washington Connection and Third World Fascism

On Power and Ideology

After the Cataclysm

The Fateful Triangle

Year 501

Turning the Tide

Pirates and Emperors, Old and New

Propaganda and the Public Mind

Rethinking Camelot

Culture of Terrorism

Powers and Prospects

NOAM CHOMSKY,MIT linguist and progressive critic of, among other things, US foreign policy, along with his compatriot Howard Zinn, has long been a whipping boy of US reactionaries. And they have labored to marginalize him, tarring him as a disloyal and wild-eyed radical. Clearly, a good number of Americans and the rest of the world do not agree. The International Encyclopedia of Revolution and Protest (2009) observes:

For the past five decades, Chomsky has offered a searing critical indictment of US foreign policy and its many military interventions across the globe, pointing out that the US’s continued support for undemocratic regimes, and hostility to popular or democratic movements, is at odds with its professed claim to be spreading democracy and freedom and support for tendencies aiming toward that end. Indeed, as Chomsky argues, the current concern from Washington with so-called “Rogue States,” as much as the stated goal of aiding democratic movements in other countries, is not supported by successive administrations’ support (either direct or indirect) for political and military dictatorships across Latin America, the Middle East, and Asia. As Chomsky stated: “As the most powerful state, the US makes its own laws, using force and conducting economic warfare at will.” It also threatens sanctions against countries that do not abide by its conveniently flexible notions of “free trade.”

Here’s an interview with C.J. Polychroniou a political economist/political scientist just published. From that interview:

Some have argued that Obama’s wars are quite different in both style and essence from those of his predecessor, George W. Bush. Is there any validity behind these claims?

Bush relied on shock-and-awe military violence, which proved disastrous for the victims and led to serious defeats for the US. Obama is relying on different tactics, primarily the drone global assassination campaign, which breaks new records in international terrorism, and Special Forces operations, by now over much of the globe. Nick Turse, the leading researcher on the topic, recently reported that US elite forces are “deployed to a record-shattering 147 Countries in 2015.”

Destabilization and what I call the “creation of black holes” is the principal aim of the Empire of Chaos in the Middle East and elsewhere, but it is also clear that the US is sailing in a turbulent sea with no sense of direction and is, in fact, quite clueless in terms of what needs to be done once the task of destruction has been completed. How much of this is due to the decline of the US as a global hegemon?

The chaos and destabilization are real, but I don’t think that’s the aim. Rather, it is a consequence of hitting fragile systems that one does not understand with the sledgehammer that is the main tool, as in Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and elsewhere. As for the continuing decline of US hegemonic power (actually, from 1945, with some ups and downs), there are consequences in the current world scene. Take, for example, the fate of Edward Snowden. Four Latin American countries are reported to have offered him asylum, no longer fearing the lash of Washington. Not a single European power is willing to face US anger. That is a consequence of very significant decline of US power in the Western hemisphere.

However, I doubt that the chaos in the Middle East traces substantially to this factor. One consequence of the US invasion of Iraq was to incite sectarian conflicts that are destroying Iraq and are now tearing the region to shreds. The Europe-initiated bombing of Libya created a disaster there, which has spread far beyond with weapons flow and stimulation of jihadi crimes. And there are many other effects of foreign violence. There are also many internal factors. I think that Middle East correspondent Patrick Cockburn is correct in his observation that the Wahhabization of Sunni Islam is one of the most dangerous developments of the modern era. By now many of the most horrible problems look virtually insoluble, like the Syrian catastrophe, where the only slim hopes lie in some kind of negotiated settlement towards which the powers involved seem to be slowly inching.

And if you prefer to watch here’s recent talk by Noam Chomsky at New School

Dictionary of Modern American Philosophers, 1860-1960 on Chomsky’s work in linguistics

Notes on Henry Giroux: # 2

3 Jan
The Violence of Organized Forgetting by Henry Giroux

The Violence of Organized Forgetting by Henry Giroux

Radical critic Henry Giroux and scholar has been on my radar for a number of years. With Barbara Ehrenreich, the late Joe Bageant, Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky he has formed a part of a useful palliative for my fears that advocates for social justice were sinking into predictable and useless sloganeering.Giroux’s new book,The Violence of Organized Forgetting (City lights)should with any winds blowing in a favorable direction, garner him some new readers. Bill Moyers, no raving radical,opines, “Giroux refuses to give in or give up. The Violence of Organized Forgetting is a clarion call to imagine a different America–just, fair, and caring–and then to struggle for it.” Here is a citation from the last chapter, “Hope in Time of Permanent War”, of Giroux’s new opus, which after the events of the past few months resonates loudly…

Democratic hope is a subversive, defiant practice that makes power visible and interrogates and resists those events, social relations, and ideas that threaten democracy and the public spheres necessary to practice it. Hope at its best pro- vides a link, however transient, provisional, and contextual, between passion, vision, and critique, on the one hand, and engagement and transformation on the other. But for such a notion of hope to be consequential it has to be grounded in a pedagogical project that has some hold on the present. Hope becomes meaningful to the degree that it identifies agencies and processes, offers alternatives to an age of profound pes- simism, reclaims an ethic of compassion and justice, and struggles for those institutions in which equality, freedom, and justice flourish as part of the ongoing networks, strug- gles, and solidarities for democracy everywhere.

Yet such hopes do not materialize out of thin air. They have to be nourished, developed, debated, examined, and acted upon to become meaningful. And this takes time and demands what might be called an “impatient patience.” When outrage and conscience are rendered silent, crippling the mind, imagination, spirit, and collective will, it becomes almost impossible to fight the galloping forces
of authoritarianism that beset the United States and many other countries. But one cannot dismiss as impossible what is simply difficult, even if such difficulty defies hope itself. Bauman is right, once again, in arguing that “as to our hopes: hope is one human quality we are bound never to lose without losing our humanity. But we may be similarly certain that a safe haven in which to drop its anchor will take a very long time to be found.”26 The future of American society lies in opposition to the surveillance state at home and its seamless connection to waging constant war and acts of aggression abroad.

Here’s a illuminating conversation between Giroux and Bill Moyers:

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
Scialabba

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.

Footnotes

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

Girls in Trouble

16 Sep
The Untold by Courtney Collins

The Untold by Courtney Collins

As frequently happens, to my great pleasure, I picked up a book of which I had no knowledge and within a paragraph or two I was fully transported. The most recent case of this was The Untold by Australian Courtney Collins that employs an unusual narrative device that lights the novel’s stage with a peculiar kind of light. It seems that a certain theme seems to capture my interest— especially in light of the current focus on domestic violence. In this case, Collins turns legendary Australian outlaw Jessie Hickman in to a fictional character.Set in early 20th century Australia, Jessie (she is a talented equestrian) is sold to a traveling circus at the age of twelve by her mother and ends up horse rustling which lands her in prison. She is “paroled” to a brutal man whom she endures, until she can’t. She kills him and in the process loses the child with which she is pregnant. Her journey to escape her pursuers and the character studies her two main pursuers drives this emotional resonant story set against the brutal and unforgiving Australian Outback.

Once Upon A River by Bonnie Jo Campbell

Once Upon A River by Bonnie Jo Campbell

Bonnie Jo Campbell’s fiction set in rural Michigan is part of a wave of novels that represent what I term ‘American Grit’— a wider geography than what some people are calling ‘Grit Lit‘—Frank Bill, Don Ray Pollack, Philip Meyer’s American Rust, Smith Henderson and Katherine Faw Morris.

Grit Lit by Tom Franklin & Brian Carpenter

Grit Lit by Tom Franklin & Brian Carpenter

“Once Upon a River,” Campbell’s second novel, leaves off where her first “Q Road” began — prequeling the story of Margo Crane, who is 15 when the novel opens in the late 1970s. Nicknames Sprite, she is adept outdoorswoman—expert shot and oarswoman. And to her great misfortune she is a beauty —she has been raped by an uncle (retaliating with a just and unlikely rifle shot)and thereafter is pursued by sexually aggressive relatives and neighbors and by the law.Jane Smiley contests the rubric under which I place Campbell:

The damaged world she lives in remains an ecosystem in which animals and humans, field and stream, purity and pollution, love and hate are tightly interconnected. It would be too bad if, because of Campbell’s realistic style and ferocious attention to her setting, “Once Upon a River” were discounted as merely a fine example of American regionalism. It is, rather, an excellent American parable about the consequences of our favorite ideal, freedom.

The Outlander by Gil Adamson

The Outlander by Gil Adamson

Gil Adamson‘s award winning novel(in Canada)The Outlander is set in rural Canada, at the turn of the 20th century and features Mary a 19 year old widow, apparently “widowed by her own hand”. Her pursuit by her husband’s brutish twin brothers drives this narrative. And flight from them and her own roiling consciousness is a powerful story played out against a terrain that Adamson skillfully makes palpable with spot on olfactory cues.

Burning Marguerite by Elizabeth Iness Brown

Burning Marguerite by Elizabeth Iness Brown


For the hell of it might I mention another on of my favorite novels Burning Marguerite by Elizabeth Inness-Brown She and I have a chance to converse:

RB:… Is there a specific regional kind of writing that understands this locale, understands how to talk about it?

EIB: The thing that made me able to write this book was growing up in Upstate New York. I didn’t realize this until after the book was pretty much done. I grew up on the Canadian border in St. Lawrence County. Even though the island stuff is much more based on where I live now, the culture in this book comes just as much from that county. It’s the poorest county in New York state. There’s a lot of French Canadian influence there, a lot of native Americans. Like where I live now. A lot of that stuff which came to me intuitively as I was developing this story came from my own childhood and from growing up there. All this images and words — when I started writing this — before Marguerite had a name she was ‘tantee’. I was saying “tantay” in my mind, and I knew that wasn’t right. Finally during the revision process (that’s when I do all my research, after the fact) I contacted this woman who teaches at my college who focuses on French Canadians. I said, “Can you help me? I’m calling her “tant-ay” and that’s not right.” She said that French Canadians often say “tantee” they combine tante and auntie. And that’s where it came from. For me, it must have come from something I experienced as a child because I had no conscious memory of learning that. It must be something I had heard. I think a lot of it came from that experience. Whether or not somebody else could have written this book…I think it does have a specific regional quality. It’s really about that netherworld, where it’s not quite the United States and not quite Canada and there are a lot of people there and a lot of native Americans there and the culture has it’s own subtle but clear mix.

Currently reading Masters of Mankind: Essays and Lectures 1964 -2013 by Noam Chomsky (Haymarket Books)

The Baffler: The Blunted Cutting Edge

8 Sep

One of life’s mysteries that evades my understanding is why magazines which give thoughtful analysis and critique to the avalanching dysfunction of modern civilization (especially as exhibited by the most powerful nation in the known world) do not have greater followings and readership. Not least on my list of under-appreciated publications is the Baffler

The Baffler  covers

The Baffler covers

Given the  dissatisfaction, all too frequently misdirected, that citizens and other residents of the US of A we are told, frequently express in opinion polls, you’d think there would be a rising movement to seek out answers in other than the unusual places , from other thah the usual commentators. Another one of the great mysteries I contemplate is how persistent foreign policy critic Noam Chomsky has been effectively marginalized by a huge chorus of apologists and publicists for the regnant “enlightened states” foreign policies.But that is the subject for another time.

 No Future For You: Salvos from The Baffler by editors John Summers, Chris Lehmann, Thomas Frank anthologizes 19 essays and articles from the recently resurrected issues The Baffler website explains:

There’s never been a better time to be outside the consensus — and if you don’t believe it, then peer into these genre-defining essays from The Baffler, the magazine that’s been blunting the cutting edge of American culture and politics for a quarter of a century. Here’s Thomas Frank on the upward-falling cult of expertise in Washington, D.C., where belonging means getting the major events of our era wrong. Here’s Rick Perlstein on direct mail scams, multilevel marketing, and the roots of right-wing lying. Here’s John Summers on the illiberal uses of innovation in liberal Cambridge, Massachusetts. And here’s David Graeber sensing our disappointment in new technology. (We expected teleportation pods, antigravity sleds, and immortality drugs. We got LinkedIn, which, as Ann Friedman writes here, is an Escher staircase masquerading as a career ladder.)

 

No Future for You:  by John Summers  , Chris Lehmann , Thomas Frank

No Future for You:
by John Summers , Chris Lehmann , Thomas Frank

Packed with hilarious, scabrous, up to-the-minute criticism of the American comedy, No Future for Youdebunks “positive thinking” bromides and business idols. Susan Faludi debunks Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg’s phony feminist handbook, Lean In. Evgeny Morozov wrestles “open source” and “Web 2.0” and other pseudorevolutionary meme-making down to the ground. Chris Lehmann writes the obituary of the Washington Post, Barbara Ehrenreich goes searching for the ungood God in Ridley Scott’s film Prometheus, Heather Havrilesky reads Fifty Shades of Grey, and Jim Newell investigates the strange and typical case of Adam Wheeler, the student fraud who fooled Harvard and, unlike the real culprits, went to jail.

The anthology’s preface provides some background:

The Baffler born in ye olde 1988 was present at the uncreative destruction of American thought and culture.We declined back then to bow before the golden calves of the one and only future, freshly polished and hosannahed by the cyber prophets and generally greeted the messaging campaign of the boom years with a chorus of derisive horse laughs.And when the gilded swindle finally collapsed from the weight of its own sleaziness and the country embarked on its present course of jobless recovery, progress free innovation and unparalleled corporate profits we heard the call. Consensus -makers form both parties woke up in 2008 long enough to rescue the perpetrators of the fraud, then promptly fell asleep while the banks went back to business and we began writing the  salvos you now have lodged between your eyeballs.

Michael Patrick Brady opines in his Boston Globe review

“No Future for You” is by no means a light read — it’s a litany of dark, downcast diatribes that assumes its readers already know that our “postindustrial” society is in the throes of “late capitalism.” But beyond the rhetorical theatrics, the collection serves as a powerful summation of the systemic challenges we face as a nation, and a welcome reminder that we need strong, dissenting voices like The Baffler more than ever.

Of the numerous offerings ( also placed under the rubric of salvos defined as sudden, vigorous, or aggressive act or series of acts) I particularly want to point out John Summers’s The People’s Republic of Zukerstan</em> his articulate unpacking of the realities of the so-called Innovation Economy. Here’s a sample:

And so we arrive at the ultimate contradiction of the Innovation Economy’s mode of development. As we have observed, this new republic depends on reengineering the cultural environment. For the market’s winnings, a frame of acceptance must be created to justify the community’s losses. Irony must erode, so that corporate entrepreneurs can be presented as nonconformists; nonprofits must absorb surplus profit, so that hundreds of millions of dollars in government payments, grants, and contracts, along with tax incentives, subsidies, and exemptions, can be banked for subsequent transfer to the market; even the old method of “clustering” must sound futuristic, so that its actual origins in socialist redoubts like New York’s Greenwich Village (today an innovation hub, naturally) can be forgotten.

The Innovation Economy necessitates such cultural changes, but it offers no independent argument for freely choosing them. Instead, the manifest destiny of business touts innovation as if it were synonymous with progress, rather than one among its many necessary qualities, and leaves it at that.

So you can be sure the next time a wealthy college dropout like Mark Zuckerberg filches a banal idea from a couple of wealthier classmates and wants to beat them to midmarket, he need not ride the golden carpet to Silicon Valley and let Stanford or Cal Tech garner all the credit and cash. In Cambridge, teams of elites will regulate the general production from startup to corporate behemoth and make it easy for him to optimize the same thing today that he optimized yesterday. The new man of the Innovation Ideology will be free to code in the morning, head to the laboratory in the afternoon, and brag after dinner, without ever having to read books.

Innovation for what else? Not for art, literature, music, history, dance, sculpture, painting, philosophy, religion, poetry, or drama, the traditional means by which a diverse community grows conscious and formulates its standards of value. The governor of Massachusetts won’t be stopping by your office to encourage you in your efforts at moral reasoning about philanthropy, the state legislature won’t be allocating millions of dollars in matching grants for your next novel about how the homeless live, and the websites that have replaced the newspapers won’t report on your subway concert. And there is no good reason for this, except this is how business wants it.

Here’s an 2012 conversation with editor-in-chief John Summers:

John Summers [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

John Summers [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

PS: Another salvo

Currently reading The Human Age: The World Shaped By Us by Diane Ackerman (WW Norton)

Eyeless in Gaza

25 Aug

The pseudo excuse of “compassion” or “disaster” fatigue doesn’t explain the lack of sympathy and outpouring of outrage about the treatment of Palestinians, Central Americans, Amazonian Indians and other oppressed minorities.What then? Might it be ignorance. In the case of the plight of Palestine and currently Gaza, there are easily accessible sources of information:

Activist intellectual Noam Chomsky comments on Israel’s 29-day offensive in Gaza that has killed over 2,000 people (516 children)and left close to 10,000 wounded..

It’s a hideous atrocity, sadistic, vicious, murderous, totally without any credible pretext. It’s another one of the periodic Israeli exercises in what they delicately call “mowing the lawn.” That means shooting fish in the pond, to make sure that the animals stay quiet in the cage that you’ve constructed for them…

Gaza In Crisis by Noam Chomsky  & Illan Pape

Gaza In Crisis by Noam Chomsky & Illan Pape

Chomsky, no newcomer to the Palestinian conflict and American foreign policy, has weighed in with Gaza in Crisis: Reflections on Israel’s War Against the Palestinians (Haymarket)with Israeli historian and socialist activist Ilan Pappé(The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine). The book recounts Israel’s 2008 Operation Cast Lead also known as The Gaza Massacre, against the context of overall hostilities. Is this a partisan take on the Israeli Palestine conflict or a clear eyed and accurate presentation of the facts? It strikes me that everyone’s view is partisan—most of the all the combatants. Which luckily leaves us with observers such as Chomsky and Pape.

And you can have a look at Saira Shah/James Miller’s(an effort which cost Miller his life) 2004 documentary Death in Gaza.

Gaza: A History  Jean Pierre Filiu

Gaza: A History Jean Pierre Filiu

Professor of Middle East Studies Jean-Pierre Filiu argues for a two state solution in his comprehensive Gaza: A History (Oxford University Press).Filiu traces the history of the 140 square miles situated between two deserts (Negev and Sinai) and the Mediterranean, from 18th century BC through 1948 when it was engulfed by 200,000 refugees, up to the current strife.

Genesis by John B Judis

Genesis by John B Judis

John B. Judis’s Genesis: Truman, American Jews, and the Origins of the Arab/Israeli Conflict (WW Norton)focuses on the origins of failed(U.S.) policies that have cont-ributed to the sixty year Middle East debacle. Judis argues that ill conceived decisions made during the Truman administration(1945-1949) led to the ongoing Israeli-Arab discord. With a historian’s faith that an understanding of the origins of this deadlock may lead to viable approaches to ending it,Judis reviews George W. Bush’s ill-conceived efforts and Barack Obama’s failed attempts at resolution.

Palestine   by Joe Sacco

Palestine by Joe Sacco

Footnotes in Gaza by Joe Sacco

Footnotes in Gaza by Joe Sacco

Comic book journalist Joe Sacco’s (The Great War has spent serious time researching and traveling to Palestine and Gaza, conducting hundreds of interviews to createPalestine (Fantagraphics) and Footnotes in Gaza: A Graphic Novel (Metropolitan Books). Palestine which won an American Book Award in 1996 includes an introduction by historian Edward Said. For Footnotes in Gaza published in 2010, Sacco spends time in Rafah, a town at the bottommost tip of the Gaza Strip,and uncovers the 1956 massacre of 111 Palestinians by Israeli soldiers. Sacco uses that discovery as a lens with which to view the subsequent half century of a desperate and intractable struggle. The black and white illustrations are indelible images of misery and violence and Joe Sacco, a master of visual narrative, tells a powerful story.

The Battle for Justice in Palestine  by Ali Abunimah

The Battle for Justice in Palestine by Ali Abunimah

Chicago based journalist Ali Abunimah(One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli Palestinian Impasse), recipient of the recipient of a 2013 Lannan Cultural Freedom Fellowship,co-founder and director of The Electronic Intifada articulates the case for the Palestine solidarity movement in The Battle for Justice in Palestine (Haymarket Books)

Much traveled journalist Nathan Deuel and his NPR correspondent spouse Kelly McEvers spent time reporting from and starting a family in Saudi Arabia and Beirut. In Friday Was the Bomb: Five Years in the Middle East (Dzanc) collects some essays on his experiences from 2013 until he and his family moved to Los Angeles last year.Poet Nick Flynn opines :

Nathan Deuel is alive to the myriad contradictions of being a sentient being at this moment in history—the painful, necessary awareness that ones presence carries an entire empire in its shadow. Friday was the Bomb is about the tension between how much we want and how small we are—some will make war, the world will makes storm, and the rest of us will try to hold onto some fragile connection with each other. This is a book for the rest of us.

Currently reading The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell (Random House)
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Notes on Henry Giroux: # 1

12 Aug
The Violence of Organized Forgetting by Henry Giroux

The Violence of Organized Forgetting by Henry Giroux

Radical critic Henry Giroux and scholar has been on my radar for a number of years. With Barbara Ehrenreich the late Joe Bageant, Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky he formed a part of a useful palliative for my fears that advocates for social justice were sinking into predictable and useless sloganeering.Giroux has a new book,The Violence of Organized Forgetting (City lights) which should with any winds blowing in the right direction garner him some new enthusiasts. Bill Moyers, no raving radical,opines, “Giroux refuses to give in or give up. The Violence of Organized Forgetting is a clarion call to imagine a different America–just, fair, and caring–and then to struggle for it.” Setting aside his quoting* James Baldwin in 2014 (James who?), here’s the opening to Chapter One

America—a country in which forms of historical, political, and moral forgetting are not only willfully practiced, but celebrated—has become amnesiac. The United States has degenerated into a social order that views critical thought
as both a liability and a threat. Not only is this obvious in
the proliferation of a vapid culture of celebrity, but it is
also present in the prevailing discourses and policies of a
range of politicians and anti-public intellectuals who believe
that the legacy of the Enlightenment needs to be reversed. Politicians such as Michelle Bachmann, Rick Santorum, and Newt Gingrich along with talking heads such as Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck, and Anne Coulter are not the problem. They are merely symptomatic of a much more disturb-ing assault on critical thought, if not rational thinking itself. The notion that education is central to producing a critically literate citizenry, which is indispensable to a democracy, is viewed in some conservative quarters as dangerous, if not treasonous. Under a neoliberal regime, the language of authority, power, and command is divorced from ethics, social responsibility, critical analysis, and social costs.

My kind of talk. More to come.

 JAMES BALDWIN  circa 1958 (photo Mottke Weisman)


JAMES BALDWIN circa 1958 (photo Mottke Weisman)

*People who remember court madness through pain, the pain
of the perpetually recurring death of their innocence; people
who forget court another kind of madness, the madness of
the denial of pain and the hatred of innocence.

Currently reading The People in the Trees
by Hanya Yanagihara (Anchor)

The Thrill Is Gone

8 Jul
Chandler wrote thrillers?

Chandler wrote thrillers?

The term ‘thriller’ was no doubt coined to describe a certain kind of genre fiction when car chases, high body counts and unlikely crimes and perpetrators were the stuff of ‘whodunits’. Roller coaster rides may be thrilling. Fireworks may be thrilling. And there are many pleasures to be derived from reading, thrills are not some that I can identify.’Thriller’ has become a term of art that, it seems to me, has outlived its usefulness.

There is a territory of the fiction landscape that deals with espionage, so-called ‘black ops’ (when did we realize that there were such things?) and cloakroom politics that has given good reason to remove it from under the implicitly deprecating rubric, ‘genre fiction’. No doubt commercial considerations influence the perpetuation of these categories (where, for instance, various titles are displayed at your small but mighty local bookstore) — but no one should be misled about the serious import and value of these narratives.

Our Man In  Havana by Graham Greene

Our Man In Havana by Graham Greene

The Manchurian Candidate by Richard Condon (movie directed by John Franken- heimer)

The Manchurian Candidate by Richard Condon (movie directed by John Franken- heimer)

Graham Greene (Our Man in Havana and The Comedians) was my first inkling that fiction revealed real truths about the real/practical world. But I came upon his novels after I had been fed a diet of Richard Condon (The Manchurian Candidate) and Fletcher Knebel (Seven Days in May) and the Terry Southern classic, Dr Strangelove. So the various plot twists and exigent conditions (the US Army drugging its men with hallucinogenics) of these ‘thrillers were improbable fictions.

Harlot's Ghost by Norman Mailer

Harlot’s Ghost by Norman Mailer


Years later when reading Norman Mailer’s Harlot’s Ghost, Mailer used some purported CIA espionage gambits in his narrative—in Berlin where the US dug a tunnel attempting to intercept Soviet communiques and in Miami where all manner of tricks and games were employed in the US’s anti -Castro vendetta. These things (exploding fountain pens, CIA/Mob collaborations) no longer seemed far fetched.

Our Tailor in Panama by John  le Carre

Our Tailor in Panama by John le Carre

John Le Carre’s Our Tailor in Panama was my introduction to this master novelist (Philip Kerr avers that Le Carre is the one author guaranteed immortality based on his accurate depiction of the dark and spooky world of security and spying agencies). That book is clearly an homage to Greene’s Cuban adventure and it reifies the deluded and self perpetuating nature of the world’s secret services.And it served to change my perspective of some fictional worlds( just as I began to see Gore Vidal’s Empire series as more descriptive of American history than any history texts I had read.)

SHELLEY'S HEART BY  Charles McCarry

SHELLEY’S HEART BY Charles McCarry

Charles McCarry‘s Paul Christopher series and his stand alone Shelley’s Heart (which uncannily portends the debacle of the 2000 presidential election) depicts the tools and strategies of spy-craft as well as highlighting the amorality of spooks of all stripes. I chatted with McCarry ( A former CIA agent) a few years ago:

RB: There is a sense, and it is reiterated in your novels, that the Cold War struggle against the Russians and Communists was very affirmative for the intelligence community and that there was an absolute faith they were on the right side. And after the Soviet Union collapsed there was great self-congratulation. Somewhere in Old Boys you write, “They did a lot of good in the world, little of it except through stupidity and inadvertence.”

CM: I don’t remember saying that. Some of it by inadvertence at least. I never met a stupid person in the agency. Or an assassin. Or a Republican.

RB: No Republicans? [laughs] Are you serious?

CM: I’m serious. They were, at least in the operations side where I was, there were wall-to-wall knee-jerk liberals. And they were befuddled that the left outside the agency regarded them as some sort of right-wing threat. Because they were the absolute opposite, in their own politics.

RB: Isn’t there something about a secret police that is inconsistent with our notions of democracy?

CM: To begin with, they are not secret police.

RB: That’s the perception.

CM: They have no police powers. They can’t arrest anybody. They can’t kidnap people.

RB: They have no domestic jurisdiction.

CM: That’s right. Except in the case of Operation Chaos, which was presidentially mandated, I doubt we have very much unless they were chasing Russians or Chinese. But, of course, the thing that drives our society and has for a long time is a kind of paranoia that everything is a conspiracy. These guys were all nice boys who went to Yale and wouldn’t hurt a fly—in their own view.

RB: Those were not Republicans?

CM: No. I tell you I literally never met a Republican in the CIA.

The Power of The Dog by Don Winslow

The Power of The Dog by Don Winslow

As a culminating moment in my awakening Don Winslow’s magnum opus The Power of The Dog a well wrought tale of the drug war(s) and the complicity of government agencies, the Vatican, multi national corporations, South American revolutionaries in corrupt and illegal practices removed any doubts I had that there were many innocent players in world’s geo political grand opera (except, of course, the People)

So now we are inundated with dramas (Homeland, House of Cards, West Wing, 24 Hours) that simulate perpetual war/security state world. And, if you haven’t seen the excellent BBC 7 episode The State Within you will find a “fictional” treatment of vested interests contriving to bring the USA to war with
Kyrgyzstan in manner closely resembling the Iraq Debacle.

No Place to Hide by Glenn Greenwald

No Place to Hide by Glenn Greenwald

Of course there are also books being written, some published, that investigate and explicate the shabby nature of American Exceptionalism. Greenwald’s account of the Snowden case i sone an there is also Jeremy Scahill’s Dirty Wars

Dirty Wars by Jeremy Scahill

Dirty Wars by Jeremy Scahill

There is also a documentary of the same name that is raises important and legitimate questions to which few journalists are pursuing the answers.

Noam Chomsky, steadfast critic of the American Security State, has the last word here in an essay published at TomsDispatch

… What about the security of the population? It is easy to demonstrate that this is a marginal concern of policy planners. Take two prominent current examples, global warming and nuclear weapons. As any literate person is doubtless aware, these are dire threats to the security of the population. Turning to state policy, we find that it is committed to accelerating each of those threats — in the interests of the primary concerns, protection of state power and of the concentrated private power that largely determines state policy.

Consider global warming. There is now much exuberance in the United States about “100 years of energy independence” as we become “the Saudi Arabia of the next century” — perhaps the final century of human civilization if current policies persist.

That illustrates very clearly the nature of the concern for security, certainly not for the population. It also illustrates the moral calculus of contemporary Anglo-American state capitalism: the fate of our grandchildren counts as nothing when compared with the imperative of higher profits tomorrow.

These conclusions are fortified by a closer look at the propaganda system. There is a huge public relations campaign in the U.S., organized quite openly by Big Energy and the business world, to try to convince the public that global warming is either unreal or not a result of human activity. And it has had some impact. The U.S. ranks lower than other countries in public concern about global warming and the results are stratified: among Republicans, the party more fully dedicated to the interests of wealth and corporate power, it ranks far lower than the global norm

Currently reading Station Eleven by Emma St John Mandel (Knopf)