The Concept of Other in Latin American Liberation: Fusing Emancipatory Thought and Social Revolt, by Eugene Gogol December 31, 2008Posted by rogerhollander in Concept of Other in Latin American Liberation.
Tags: bartra, capitalism, chiapas, CONAIE, dussel roig, Ecuador, eugene gogol, hegel, Latin America, liberation, lucio gutierrez, mariategui, marx, marxism, Marxist Humanism, paz, quijano, revolt, revolution, roger hollander, salazar, semo, Zapatistas, zea
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(This book review was published in the August-September 2003 of “News & Letters,” the bi-monthly publication of the U.S. Marxist Humanist organization of the same name)
Anyone who has lived and/or followed the Latin American experience/reality in the post-World War II era will have experienced a Sisyphean frustration with respect to the rise and fall of liberation movements and the hope for new human relations to which they aspire. In the eight years I have lived in Ecuador I have witnessed two successful “leftist” coup d’etat that have resulted in absolutely no fundamental social, political, or economic change whatsoever – to the contrary, the economic/political crisis deepens.
In Ecuador, the 1980s saw intense grassroots organization within the indigenous community that culminated in the formation of a national indigenous organization, CONAIE, whose power was expressed in the 1990s through massive protests against oil exploitation in the Amazon rainforest, privatization of social security, and reactionary agricultural laws.
The indigenous revolt of 2000, its contradictions and the reasons for its ultimate failure is taken up in The Concept of Other in Latin American Liberation (Lexington Books, 20002). Gogol points out the contradictions within the leadership of the indigenous movement between those who relied on the creativity of the masses and those who allied themselves with government power. This has come to a tragic fruition with the Gutiérrez government, causing disunity within the indigenous movement that may take decades to repair. These events in Ecuador are in a sense a paradigm of the failures encountered in post-World War II Latin America.
In the first section of the book, Gogol argues that the Hegelian-Marxian dialectic is a sine qua non of truly liberatory revolutionary activity that intersects most dramatically with Latin American historical reality. To those who dismiss Hegel, Gogol shows that they do so at the peril of sacrificing the methodology that can keep revolutionary thought and revolutionary activity dynamic and in sync with social reality.
He takes us upon a philosophical journey touching upon the concept of Other and consideration of the dialectic in the writings of Latin American thinkers including Octavio Paz, Leopoldo Zea, Augusto Salazar Bondy, Anibal Quijano, Enrique Dussel, and Arturo Andrés Roig. He outlines the unique, important and positive contributions made by each, but concludes that in each one encounters an inability or unwillingness to delve deeply into Hegel’s “voyage of discovery.”
In the second section – “Imprisonment of the Other: the Logic of Capital on Latin American Soil” – we find a review of major Latin American thinkers of the 20th century–like José Carlos Mariátegui, Enrique Semo and Roger Bartra. Again, we encounter a richness in thought and analysis of capital’s stranglehold on the masses, showing us that the work of Marx as well as Hegel has taken root in Latin American soil. But we do not yet see the Other unbound. What we find again is the failure to recognize the second negation, the positive in the negative, the pathway to genuine liberation.
In discussing liberation theology’s inability to sustain its momentum in the face of the changing realities and setbacks of movements in Nicaragua, Guatemala and El Salvador, Gogol asks: “If one develops a concept of social change, without such a theoretical labor flowing from a fullness of philosophy of revolution, then what happens to one’s theory when the social movement, the historic moment, has changed?” (p. 115).
Referring to Marx’s economics, not as economic determinism, but rather as a “unity of humanism and philosophy;” not a mere sociology but as a philosophy of liberation. Gogol demonstrates how one expression of revolutionary subjectivity after another has fallen prey to the dead end of state-capitalism or reformist accommodation with different forms of capitalism.
The third section of the work is a journey through selected contemporary liberation movements in Latin America. From the Rio Grande to Tierra del Fuego, we see different forms of revolutionary subjectivity in action: urban, rural, indigenous, women, workers, students, and others. In each of these, be it the tin miners in Bolivia, campesinos in Guatemala, labor organizers in Bolivia, labor organizers in Mexico’s maquiladoras, the Madres de la Plaza of Argentina, or the Landless Workers’ Movement in Brazil, Gogol shows us how self-liberation re-creates itself in its own social environment, creating new pathways towards liberation.
In the Zapatistas of Chiapas, he finds the freshest and most innovative expression of revolutionary subjectivity. In their rejection of focoism, and in aiming not to take state power for themselves but rather to unify the various expressions of Other in Mexico, the Zapatistas broke new ground. Instead of adopting the dead-end, vanguardist “dictatorship of the proletariat” strategies and philosophies which the original urban radicals had brought to Chiapas, what emerged was a re-creation of the principles of collectivity in decision making, that were already inherent and deeply seated in the ways of the indigenous peoples of Chiapas.
As one concerned with understanding and changing Latin America, I see this work as of supreme importance. Although there are a few omissions (the most glaring being a failure to discuss the Colombian situation), the work is comprehensive and probing.
The book concludes with a discussion of philosophy and organization, noting, “It is the theoretician-philosopher(s) who catches the mass self-activity from below, and labors to give it meaning by rooting it within the Marxist-Hegelian philosophic expression…Marx was not afraid to speak of ‘our party’ even in the times when it was only he and Engels” (p. 343).
As one who lives and observes on a daily basis both the ravages of globalized capitalism and the frustration of liberation movements in Ecuador, I can attest to the urgent need for new beginnings in Latin America. And in the light of the Bush doctrine of permanent war and his plans to augment existing U.S. military force in Ecuador, Colombia, Peru, Aruba, Puerto Rico, Cuba and Honduras, and with new bases in the Galápagos, Brazil, El Salvador and Argentina, the Marxist-Humanist primary task takes on renewed urgency: “To the barbarism of war we pose the new society.”
The Power and Cost of Fame December 31, 2008Posted by rogerhollander in The Power and Cost of Fame.
Tags: anna freud, biography, chaplin, erik erickson, fame, jfk, olivier, psychoanalysis, psychology, roger hollander, sue erikson boland
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Sue Erikson Boland, daughter of the eminent psychoanalyst and author, Erik Erikson, struggled through most of her life to reconcile the larger than life image of her famous father with the fragile and insecure man she knew him to be. As a result, she believes that she has “come to understand something general about the nature of fame,” which she outlines in an essay entitled “Fame: the Power and Cost of a Fantasy,” published in “The Atlantic Monthly,” (November 1999).
Although she has enormous respect for her father’s brilliance and his accomplishments, she believes that his strong need to strive to be famous and enjoy the fruits of such fame had its origin in a deeply felt sense of “personal inadequacy” and “punishing self-doubt.” She has come to the conclusion that it is “shame,” which she defines as “a sense that the self is deeply flawed or deficient,” that “lies behind an exaggerated public image of strength, confidence, well-being, or benevolence” that characterizes famous individuals; and that what lies behind the powerful drive for fame is “an early experience of shame so overwhelming to the sense of self that to become someone extraordinary seems the only way to defend against it.”
In discussing the life of her father and other famous individuals, Boland shows how “abandonment or harsh emotional rejection by one or both parents, which leaves a child feeling deeply defective and unlovable,” and parents whose own narcissistic needs overpower the needs of their children, can be the source for the drive to achieve fame.
In the case of her father, Erik Erikson, he was raised by a step-father and a mother who refused to tell who is real father was. Because of the shame and scandal of having a child out of wedlock and being abandoned by its father, Erikson’s mother she needed from her son “emotional comfort,” and “help in restoring her lost pride.” She needed him to “ennoble her situation with his special gifts,” and she encouraged his pursuit of intellectual interests at an early age. Boland concludes that “my father was well trained as a small child to deny his own feelings … but he learned to use his intellect to connect with her … and to gratify her needs.”
Boland also discusses the early experiences of Laurence Olivier, whose father was extremely disapproving; Charlie Chaplin, who was abandoned by his father at a young age; and JFK, whose mother, Rose Kennedy, was “cold and unnurturing” and a “management executive rather than a mother,” and whose father, who had been thwarted in his own political ambition, was determined that one of his sons should become President.
She concludes: “This kind of childhood experience can easily give rise to the belief (part conscious, part unconscious) that in order to secure the love and loyalty of important others, the rejected child must be or do something very special … Thus is charisma born. Becoming someone special – being charming, talented … magnetic – becomes the vehicle for a desperate pursuit of emotional nourishment.” And she adds: “When a parent’s feelings of self-worth depend on the accomplishments of a child, this reinforces the child’s belief that only his exceptional abilities can be relied on to secure the love of someone important to his survival.”
Boland’s fundamental thesis is that the achievement of fame proves to be a hollow victory. In the case of her father, she goes into detail to describe the depression and anxiety he suffered when he was out of the spotlight and how he never felt satisfied with his achievements. In spite of a house full of honorary degrees and awards, including a Pulitzer Prize, he agonized over the fact that he failed to win the Nobel!
She states: “Behind the performance of the gifted child – no matter how successful … – the original narcissistic wound remains unhealed … Fame is not a successful defense against feelings of inadequacy. It only appears to be. This is where the greatest distortion lies in our idealization of the famous.”
Boland even suggests that her father’s own brief personal analysis, with Anna Freud, which was cut short by his departure from Vienna, was inadequate for the needs of a leader in his field. She claims that he never again sought “emotional relief” or “clarification of his feelings” from any other analyst. The price paid for this was not only Erikson’s own “fear of knowing himself … his limited understanding of his closest relationships and the sources of his own deepest pain.” It rendered him, according to his daughter, incapable of meeting her emotional needs in adolescence. His fame also made it necessary for her and her mother to avoid seeking help for him or themselves in order to protect his sacred image.
Boland suggests that the idealization of famous people is inevitable, given human insecurity and the sure knowledge of death. While it does help to make us feel safe in an unsafe universe, yielding power and authority to idealized individuals can lead to dangerous self limitation and even authoritarian dictatorship.
For Boland, true self esteem is achieved where the true self is revealed and not concealed behind an idealized image. “The real cure for shame is a gradual willingness to expose to others what you are most ashamed of, and the discovery that you will not be cast out …that you are acceptable for who you are.”
And from what we have learned about the real Erik Erikson from his own
daughter, one is reminded of the classic refrain: “Physician, heal thyself.”
Mrs. de Sade: What about Her? December 31, 2008Posted by rogerhollander in Mrs. de Sade: What About Her?.
Tags: biography, francine du plessis gray, french literature, louis xvi, marquis de sade, marquise renee-pelagie de montreuil, roger hollander
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(I cannot remember why I wrote this review. It may have been for a journalist at one of Guayaquil’s dailies, who suggested I submit some reviews for publication. Since I have no copy of this work in Spanish, I assume that just reading the article and putting my thoughts to paper was enough for me.)
We know much – some would say too much – about the scandalous life and work of the Marquis de Sade, but little attention has been paid to his wife, the Marquise Rénee-Pélagie de Montreuil. Francine du Plessis Gray gives us the beginning of a picture of her in an article entitled “At Home with the Marquis de Sade,” published in the October 12, 1998 edition of “The New Yorker” magazine.
He was twenty two, she twenty one, when they tied the knot in Paris on May 17, 1763. It was an arranged marriage of convenience. Her nouveau riche bourgeois family sought royal respectability; his “noble” family was short of cash. Contrary to expectations, the couple fell deeply in love.
During the first five years of their marriage, the Marquise’s mother-in-law, Mme. de Montreuil, conspired with de Sade to keep his escapades, “his peccadilloes and his rambunctious liaisons … his innumerable exploits with actresses, courtesans, and whores of all varieties,” hidden from his wife, whom du Plessis Gray describes as “a prim decorous woman … neither beautiful nor cultivated … (but) what she lacked in polish she redeemed in strength of character and robust independence.” When he was jailed in the autumn of 1763, for example, for “acts of blasphemy and sacrilege,” she was led to believe that it had to do with unpaid debts.
However, in the spring of 1768, the Marquis’ shenanigans had gotten out of hand, and he was busted for alleged physical abuse of a beggar woman whom he had picked up, and was again imprisoned, this time for six months. Judging that the scandal would be too big to hide, he confessed all to the Marquise, who from that time forward replaced her mother as his protector. “Pelagie, far from being alienated by the heinousness of her husband’s crimes, found her passion for him intensified. To restore his freedom and protect him from increasingly vigilant captors became her goal in life, and she brought to that mission the sort of dedication that the most inspired priests or nuns bring to their vocation.”
What the two had in common was “solitary, affection starved childhoods, and both had remained loners,” who “for much of their married life … clung to each other like two neglected orphans …” The Marquise shared with her husband his disdain for “the adult world of sycophancy, social clambering, and material gain.” She once described French high society as “a bunch of riffraff, the most successful of whom are the most fraudulent.” Although she was in many ways his opposite, she was by no means a prude. She certainly witnessed and may have taken part in his famous orgies.
Their affection for one another is well documented in their letters. He referred to her as “star of Venus … my baby … violet of the garden of Eden … celestial kitten.” She most often called him “my good little boy.”
Their marriage was able to withstand, perhaps was even strengthen by the constant scandal and the pressure of police harassment, and was not even threatened by the Marquis seducing and having an extended affair, while living in exile, with Pelagie’s beautiful sister, ten years her younger, who had left her convent to visit them. However, this event turned the Marquis’ mother-in-law into his bitter enemy, and eventually she was able to trick him into returning to Paris, where she had been able to obtain from King Louis XVI an “arbitrary order of arrest” that lead to his imprisonment for thirteen years beginning in 1777.
This proved to be the beginning of the end of the marriage. Although Pelagie continued to be one hundred percent loyal and lived in poverty and gave up the custody of their three children in order to be able to supply him with what he needed to be comfortable and well fed in prison, de Sade came to distrust and harass his wife. In 1781 she was allowed her first visit, and he absurdly accused her of infidelity, of having an affair with one of his former secretaries and with her own female cousin.
He ordered her to live in a convent, and she complied by entering a religious community at Saint-Aure, where she was not required to take any vows but to otherwise participate fully in the religious life of the order. Ironically, it may have been de Sade’s own tyrannical jealousy that contributed to her gradual transition to religious devotion and piety. “I consign you to your room,” he commanded, “and, through all the authority that a husband has over a wife, forbid you to leave it, for whatever pretext.” de Sade criticized her newly formed piety and was further enraged when she gradually made peace with her mother.
During his thirteen year internment, de Sade came into his own as a writer, and produced his major works. His wife disagreed with the cynicism and materialism of his writing and warned him that they would anger the government authorities and postpone his release. By the time he was finally released in the spring of 1790, the Marquise had decided she wanted a separation and divorce.
From that time their only communication was to quarrel over financial matters. She lived out the rest of her life in seclusion at her parents’ estate near Paris, and died at the age of sixty eight in 1810.
du Plessis Gray speculates on the possible cause of her disillusion with her notorious husband whom she had nevertheless always been supremely devoted: “Was Pelagie, quite simply exhausted, after struggling for a quarter of a century against her husband’s rages and gargantuan demands, society’s scorn, the blackmail of prostitutes, the rigor of government and prison bureaucracies, her mother’s fury, and creditors everywhere?”
As was their marriage, their eventual estrangement was an enigma. It would seem that the truth of her initial undying love and the reasons for her eventual alienation she took with her to the grave.
Zora Neale Hurston: No Shrill Revolutionary Voice August 26, 2008Posted by rogerhollander in Literary Essays (Roger), Zora Neale Hurston.
Tags: Afro-American History and Literature, afro-american literature, black feminist literature, Black Voices, black writers, Black Writers and Literature, Civil Rights, eisenhower, feminist literature, haarlem, haarlen renaissance, henry louis gates, langston hughes, republican, richard wright, roger hollander, rosa parks, U.S. imperialism, United States Foreign Policy, Zora Neale Hurston
(Zora Neale Hurston is one of my two favorite Republicans. The other is Dwight D. Eisenhower (“ I Like Ike!”), who may have spent most of his eight year presidency on the golf course, and he twice knocked off my first political hero, Adlai Stevenson; but … he did two things that really turn me on. One, in his farewell address, he warned the nation about the growing “military industrial complex, and that turned out to be quite the prophecy for the late 1950s. Secondly, when his hawkish Secretary of State, the notorious John Foster Dulles, was ready to nuke the Vietnamese when they had the French army surrounded at Dien Bien Phu, in what turned out the be the final defeat for French imperial rule in Vietnam, Ike put the kibosh on the idea. I was just a kid during Ike’s reign, and he was grandfatherly, so that may have something to do with my feelings as well.
But this is about Hurston, and I highly recommend her fiction. Her work was almost entirely forgotten until she was “rediscovered” by Alice Walker, who searched for and found her burial site, and who launched a Hurston revival by publishing her “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston” in Ms. Magazine in 1975.)
The massive outpouring of mourning over the death of Civil Rights legend, Rosa Parks, has reminded America that the struggle for freedom has relevance beyond Black History Month.
African-American voices, however, have traditionally gone beyond calls for Black liberation. From W.E.B. Dubois to Paul Robson to Martin Luther King to Malcolm X, they have been in the vanguard of criticism of America’s imperialist adventures.
Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960) was no shrill revolutionary voice. Born into poverty in South Florida, she rose to become a prominent Black academic and writer in the era before, during, and just after World War II. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. describes her as “a novelist, folklorist, and anthropologist whose fictional and factual accounts of black heritage are unparalleled.” But she vigorously eschewed the role of Black liberationist. Serving as a counterpoint to Black radicals of the Harlem Renaissance such as Langston Hughes and Richard Wright, she railed against those who made a liberatory category out of Race, claiming that individual talent, ability and ambition were the paths to success. Nonetheless, her groundbreaking novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) was the first to acknowledge and celebrate the role and struggle of Negro women, and it is considered a classic of Black feminist literature.
Yet, Zora Neale Hurston was no shrill revolutionary voice. She was the recipient of two Guggenheim fellowships and several honorary degrees. For popular publications such as the Saturday Evening Post, she wrote articles with titles like: “Crazy for This Democracy,” “Why the Negro Won’t Buy Communism,” and “A Negro Voter Sizes up Taft.” She was above all, a patriot. She was a small “c” conservative in her political outlook. She was a Republican!
In 1942, J. B. Lippincott published her autobiography, “Dust Tracks on a Road.” Most of the manuscript had been written prior to Pearl Harbor, and the editors at Lippincott saw fit to expunge an entire chapter on the grounds that her international opinions were “irrelevant” to her autobiography. I will leave it to you to guess at their real motives.
Here is a chunk of that red penciled chapter. Don’t forget, Zora Neale Hurston was no shrill revolutionary voice:
Already it has been agreed that the name of slavery is very bad. No civilized nation will use such a term any more. Neither will they keep the business around the home. Life will be on a loftier level by operating at a distance and calling it acquiring sources of raw material, and keeping the market open. It has been decided, also, that it is not cricket to enslave one’s own kind. That is unspeakable tyranny. (Italics added)
But must a nation suffer from lack of prosperity and expansion by lofty concepts? Not at all! If a ruler can find a place way off where the people do not like him, kill enough of them to convince the rest that they ought to support him with their lives and labor, that ruler is hailed as a great conqueror, and people build monuments to him. The very weapons he used are also honored. They picture him in unforgetting stone with the sacred tool of conquest in his hand. Democracy, like religion, never was designed to make our profits less. (Italics added)
Now, for instance, if the English people were to quarter troops in France, and force the French to work for them for forty-eight cents a week while they took more than a billion dollars a year out of France, the English would be Occidentally execrated. But actually, the British Government does just that in India, to the glory of the democratic way. They are hailed as not only great Empire builders, the English are extolled as leaders of civilization. And the very people who claim that is a noble thing to die for freedom and democracy cry out in horror when they hear tell of a “revolt” in India. They even wax frothy if anyone points out the inconsistency of their morals. So this life as we know it is a great thing. It would have to be, to justify certain things.
I do not mean to single England out as something strange and different in the world. We, too, have our Marines in China. We, too, consider machine gun bullets good laxatives for heathens who get constipated with toxic ideas about a country of their own. If the patient dies from the treatment, it was not because the medicine was not good. We are positive of that. We have seen it work on other patients twice before it killed them and three times after. Then, too, no matter what the outcome, you have to give the doctor credit for trying. (Italics added)
The United States being the giant of the Western World, we have our responsibilities. The little Latin brother south of the border has been a trifle trying at times. Nobody doubts that he means to be a good neighbor. We know that his intentions are the best. It is only that he is so gay and fiesta-minded that he is liable to make arrangements that benefit nobody but himself. Not a selfish bone in his body, you know. Just too full of rumba. So it is our big brotherly duty to teach him right from wrong. He must be taught to share with big brother before big brother comes down and kicks his teeth in. A big good neighbor is a lovely thing to have. We are far too moral a people to allow poor Latin judgment to hinder good works. (Italics in original)
But there is a geographical boundary to our principles. They are not to leave the United States unless we take them ourselves. Japan’s application of our principles to Asia is never to be sufficiently deplored …
Our indignation is more than justified. We Westerners composed that piece about trading in China with gunboats and cannons long ago. Japan is now plagiarizing in the most flagrant manner. We also wrote that song about keeping a whole hemisphere under your wing. Now the Nipponese are singing our song all over Asia. They are full of stuff and need a good working out. The only hold-back to the thing is that they have copied our medicine chest. They are stocked up with the same steel pills and cannon plasters that Doctor Occident prescribes … (Italics added)
All around me, bitter tears are being shed over the fate of Holland, Belgium, France and England. I must confess to being a little dry around the eyes. I hear people shaking with shudders at the thought of Germany collecting taxes in Holland. I have not heard a word against Holland collecting one-twelfth of poor people’s wages in Asia. Hitler’s crime is that he is actually doing a thing like that to his own kind. That is international cannibalism and should be stopped. He is a bandit. That is true, but that is not what is held against him. He is muscling in on well-established mobs. Give him credit. He cased some joints way off in Africa and Asia, but the big mobs already had them paying protection money and warned him to stay away. The only way he can climb out of the punk class is to high-jack the load and that is just what he is doing. President Roosevelt could extend his four freedoms to some people right here in America before he takes it all aboard, and, no doubt, he would do it too, if it would bring in the same amount of glory. I am not bitter, but I see what I see. He can call names across the ocean, but he evidently has not the courage to speak even softly at home. Take away the ocean and he simmers right down. I wish that I could say differently, but I cannot. I will fight for my country, but I will not lie for her. Our country is so busy playing “fence” to the mobsters that the cost in human suffering cannot be considered yet. We can take that up in the next depression. (Italics added)
As I see it, the doctrines of democracy deal with the aspirations of men’s soul, but the application deals with things [Karl Marx wrote that under capitalism persons are treated like things and things like persons. Nora was no shrill revolutionary voice, but she could sure imitate it when she wanted to!]. One hand in somebody else’s pocket and one on your gun, and you are highly civilized. Your heart is where it belongs – in your pocketbook. Put it in your bosom and you are backward. Desire enough for your own use only, and you are a heathen. Civilized people have things to show their neighbors …
I think it would be a good thing for the Anglo-Saxon to get the idea out of his head that everybody else owes him something just for being blonde. I am forced to the conclusion that two-thirds of them do hold that view. The idea of human slavery is so deeply ground in that the pink-toes can’t get is out of their system. It has just been decided to move the slave quarters farther away from the house …
To mention the hundred years of the Anglo-Saxon in China alone is proof enough of the evils of this view point. The millions of Chinese who have died for our prestige and profit! They are still dying for it. Justify it with all the proud and pretty phrases you please, but if we think our policy is right, you just let the Chinese move a gunboat onto the Hudson to drum up trade with us. The scream of outrage would wake up the saints in the backrooms of Heaven …
“Appendix: Seeing the World as It Is,” in “Dust Tracks on a Road,” Zora Neale Hurston, Harper Perennial edition, 1991, pages 248-252.
Remember, these words were penned in 1939 and 1940, just prior to the U.S. entry into the Second World War. This was long before the United States’ post-war interventions in Latin America (Guatemala, Bolivia, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Chile, Nicaragua, Panama, El Salvador, Haiti, Brazil, Venezuela, Grenada and Colombia), not to mention Vietnam and today’s imperial adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq. She was certainly prescient. If anyone doubts that the present United States regime has globalized the Monroe Doctrine, I urge them to read President George W. Bush’s National Security Strategy, published in September of 2002 (it’s on the Internet).
Zora Neale Hurston was no shrill revolutionary voice. She was considered timid, if not reactionary, when it came to the Black struggle in America. But, when it came to an understanding of United States imperialism, she told it like it is. And like Dwight D. Eisenhower, the last and only president to warn his country of the dangers of the military industrial complex, Zora Neale Hurston was a Republican. And did I mention, no shrill revolutionary voice?
Playas, November 2005
Tags: art critism, death, diego rivera, french impressionism, Frida Kahlo, Literary criticism, mexican art, montmarte, moulin rouge, pain, roger hollander, Toulouse Lautrec
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Toulouse Lautrec and Frida Kahlo: Women, Pain, Death and Joie de Vivre
(Paper given in Spanish at the II Symposium in Celebration of International Women’s Day, March 12, 1999, Guayaquil, Ecuador)
The subject is broad and the time is short. Frida Kahlo and Henri Toulouse Lautrec, their lives and their art, and their relation to the themes of women, pain, death and joie de vivre. I am an expert in none of these areas. I simply wish to share with you some of what I have learned in my investigations, based largely upon two excellent biographies, Frida, by Hayden Herrera; and Toulouse Lautrec by Henri Perruchot.
I will begin and end with Frida. An inventory of her suffering over a life that lasted only forty seven years is enough to numb the mind. As a child of six she suffered from polio and was confined to her room for nine months. It left one leg crippled for life and made her the object of teasing by other children. At the age of eighteen she suffered an accident in which the bus that she was riding was rammed by a trolley and a metal bar literally impaled her. Her spine was fractured in three places, her pelvis was crushed, her collarbone and two ribs were broken and her right leg and foot were dislocated and crushed. The fact that she survived is a miracle in itself. They say that the scream that came out of her when they pulled out the metal bar drowned out the noise of the ambulance’s siren. A friend said: “they had to put her back together like a photomontage.”
Frida also suffered from congenital scoliosis of the spine, and later developed osteomyelitis, an inflammation of the bone marrow that causes degeneration of the bones. Toward the end of her life she developed gangrene of the foot and eventually had to have her leg amputated.
The suffering that resulted from her accident became a daily reality for her. She lived with pain and the constant threat of illness. She underwent 40 surgeries, miscarriages and at least three therapeutic abortions. In an attempt to alleviate her pain she endured 25 different corsets, made of leather, steel or plaster, which she referred to as “torture devises.” From her operations she suffered infected wounds, paralyzed intestines, and a fungus infection from a bone graft. At one time she spent three months in a vertical position, hung from steel rings, with sacks of sand tied to her feet, in an attempt to straighten her spine.
One major operation, a spinal fusion caused her two weeks of excruciating pain and screaming and eight months in a steel corset when it was discovered that they had fused the wrong vertebrae and they had to operate again to remove the metal from the first operation and do a bone graft. This led to drug addiction on morphine and hallucinations. In 1950 she spent an entire year in the hospital.
I hear you begging. Enough! There is more, but I think you see the picture.
Frida’s father was a photographer, and the family was economically stable, although much of that was upset by the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1920. Frida was born in 1907, but she liked to give 1910 as her birthday, the year of the revolution. She attended the elite National Preparatory School, was one of 35 women in a student body of 2000.
Henri Toulouse Lautrec was born in 1864 to a Count and Countess whose pedigree went back to the early Middle Ages. He thereby had an income for life. His father was an eccentric sportsman who lived for the hunt and the outdoor life, and Henri was to follow in his footsteps. But Henri was a frail child, suffered broken legs that would not heal properly, and suffered from a bone growth disease that left him looking like a grotesque dwarf. He had a normal torso but his limbs did not grow, he had swollen lips, a broad nose, a lisp and a drool. Because of this he was unable to take advantage of his heritage and enjoy the easy life of the sportsman. Rather, he was ridiculed and laughed at when he simply appeared in public. More important, and for him more tragic, because of his appearance, he was repulsive to women and never knew female love.
It is hard to imagine two human beings cursed with a more cruel fortune than Frida Kahlo and Henri Toulouse Lautrec. Both seemed to be destined to lives of uselessness and self pity.
Instead, two of the greatest painters of modern history emerged. Their story is one of courage and heroism.
Both eschewed self-pity and were determined not to live the life of a cripple. Both developed gigantic personalities, lived lives in the fast lane, died young, and left a heritage of some of the finest works of art in human history.
Frida, of course, married a man who was already a legend in his time, the great muralist, Diego Rivera. They were the Anthony and Cleopatra of their era, an epic love story, one filled with rancor and tragedy. Frida used to say, “I had two accidents in my life, one was with a trolley car. The other was Diego.” There is no time to go into the depth of the love they had for one another, a love that survived despite the constant philandering on the part of Diego, Frida’s clandestine affairs and a divorce and re-marriage.
I’ll just give you two quotes.
Diego: “If I had died without knowing her, I would have died without knowing what a real woman was.”
Frida: “I take care of him the best I can from a distance, and I will love him all my life even is he wouldn’t want me to.”
Lautrec in his youth agonized over passions that could not be realized because of his ugliness. Finally, a friend arranged for him to spend a night with a young woman who had a taste for the unusual. With his name, ancestry and fortune of little use to him, Lautrec took up art as a career, initially with the approval of his family. He studied rigorously at the Ecole de Beaux Arts and under recognized masters. However, although he was schooled in the orthodox classics, he was influenced by the revolutionary impressionism of his time and eventually created his own iconoclastic style. Rather than accept his aristocratic station in life, perhaps because he knew what it felt like to be an outcast, he immersed himself in the burgeoning night life that was developing in the Montemarte district of Paris. He came to live in and paint: cabarets, dance halls, brothels, opera, theatre, ballet, and costume balls in neighborhoods that were populated by prostitutes, rogues, outcasts, unemployed, failed poets, anarchists, art students and models. He would sit at a table in one of Montemarte’s night spots with a drink in one hand and his sketch book in the other, observing each and every detail: provocative gestures, deal making, decadence and sophistication, dancers high kicking, lacy underclothes, pimps, and the police guarding the limits of “decency.” The names “Moulin Rouge” and “Toulouse Lautrec” have come to be almost synonymous.
Frida Kahlo was encouraged to paint by her father. After her accident it became an obsession with her. “I only know,” she said, “that I paint because I need to, and I paint whatever passes through my head without any other consideration.” As opposed to Diego’s huge public murals depicting life and history, Frida painted small cuadros, and her primary subject was herself. “I paint myself,” she said, “because I am so often alone, and I am the subject I know best.”
But it wasn’t until later in life that her work as a painter became recognized. Apart from her art, to compensate for her physical pain, the heart-rending tragedy of her inability to have children, and the loneliness of the wife of a man who was both notoriously famous and unfaithful, she developed a stunning personality. Here is a brief picture of Frida Kahlo:
Piercing eyes, a hoarse (bronca) voice, a laugh full of carcajadas, sensuous, flirtatious, seductive, audacious. As part of the revolutionary generation reacting against the European influence of the 34 year Diaz dictatorship, she loved to dress in Mexican peasant costume, which became an integral part of her self and public image. She spent hours arranging her clothing, her jewelry, her hairdo. It was almost as if she painted a portrait of herself every day. She was fluent in both written and spoken English, and she loved to use slang freely in both languages. “Hijo de chingada madre” was a favorite of hers. Picture a gutter vocabulary emanating from a feminine looking creature who held her head high on a long neck, like a queen.
She once took the North American art historian, Parker Lesley, to a dance performance. Here is his account: “No one paid any attention to the dance performance … everyone stared at Frida, who wore her Tehuana dress and all Diego’s gold jewelry. She wore gold caps with rose diamonds on her front teeth so that her smile really sparkled. During intermission, she led me to the bar. The crowd parted before us as if she were a queen.”
In her visits to San Francisco, Detroit, and New York, children followed her as she walked down the street. “The circus is coming,” they shouted.
Apart from her paintings, the most amazing thing about Frida was the spirit of joy she projected in spite of a lifetime of intense pain and suffering, both emotional and physical. She literally spent years of her life in the hospital, where she always painted. A friend who came to visit her describes this scene: “I was horrified. She was hanging by steel rings, had her easel in front of her, and she was painting and telling jokes and funny stories.”
Frida clung to the sense of the ridiculous. In the hospital, on days when the pain was not insupportable, she designed a stage from metal that kept her legs raised, and she did a puppet show with her feet.
A student of hers described her as being so full of alegria that she makes a party around her. People who came to visit her in the hospital came away comforted and morally fortified. Another visitor said this of her: “she did not concentrate on herself. One did not feel her miseries when with her. She was full of interest for others; she even worried herself sick about the well-being of the other patients in the hospital. It was as if she herself was on a vacation.”
She drank too much and freely admitted it. “I drink to drown my sorrows,” she said, “but the damned things learned to swim.”
Lautrec as well developed a magical personality. He was passionate, interested in everything and everyone, he won friends with kindness, sympathy, intelligence and wit. He laughed at his own misfortune: “I am half a bottle,” he said. When someone commented to him, “you have a beautiful wit, Monsieur Toulouse Lautrec,” he answered: “my family has done nothing for centuries. Without it I’d be a total fool.” About the cruel fate of his crippled body, he commented with characteristic humor and irony: “To think that if my legs had been a bit longer,” he said, “I never would have taken up painting.”
Once, at the Moulin Rouge, two women were arguing about the pedigree of a dog. One woman said, “Impossible, look at its crooked paws.” The woman said, “no matter, of course it’s a pedigree,” and she turned to Lautrec, “Am I not correct, Monsieur, in saying that a dog may be ugly and yet have a good pedigree?” Lautrec rose to his feet, gave a military salute, and said:” Madame, you are talking to the right man.”
As with Lautrec, Frida too developed the strategy of making fun of her pain. Speaking of her accident and the metal bar that entered her from the hip and exited through her vagina, she quipped: “I lost my virginity.” She also boasted proudly, “I hold the record for operations.” She was full of mischief. To Henry Ford, a known anti-Semitic, she asked: “Mr. Ford, are you Jewish?” and she spoke to America’s foremost capitalist about nothing but communism. At his parties she used vulgar English, pretending not to know what it means. “Shit on you,” she told a guest with an innocent smile on her face.
“Nothing is worth more than laughter,” she said, “it is strength to laugh and to abandon one’s self, to be light. Tragedy is most ridiculous.”
What Frida put up with from Diego, no modern feminist woman would likely tolerate. For Diego art came first and Frida second; for Frida it was the reverse. Diego lived the classical male double standard, justifying his own sexual adventures, but becoming murderously jealous of Frida’s. He once confessed: “If I love a woman, the more I love her the more I wanted to hurt her. Frida was the most obvious victim of this disgusting trait.”
However, in every other respect, Frida was a paragon of independent feminism. Her favorite Mexican costume was that of the Tehuantepec, whose women were famous for being stately, brave, strong, intelligent, sensuous and beautiful. A present day Mexican artist summarized Frida’s effect: “She embodied the whole notion of culture for Chicano women. She inspired us. Her works didn’t have self pity, they had strength.”
Frida, who later rejected the categorization, was baptized a surrealist by the “Pope” of surrealism, Andre Breton. Here is what he said of her work: “There is no art more exclusively feminine in the sense that in order to be as seductive as possible, it plays alternatively at being absolutely pure and absolutely destructive. The art of Frida Kahlo is a ribbon wrapped around a bomb.”
As a woman, Frida was strong, independent and iconoclastic, brazenly defying the moral standards of her age and culture. She gradually broke away from playing the traditional role of wife to Diego, and after their second marriage virtually lived independently and self-sufficiently. In this, the last years of her life, she came into her own, both as a woman and an artist. She finally had her work exhibited, won prizes and scholarships, obtained a teaching position, and was the first Mexican artist to have a work acquired by the Louvre. She was bi-sexual, and had numerous affairs, not of the casual and promiscuous nature as Diego, but serious and intense. In her lifetime she knew and befriended some of the most interesting and important historical figures of her day: Andre Breton, Sergei Eisenstein, Henry Ford, Nelson Rockefeller, Delores Del Rio, Maria Felix, and of course, Leon Trotsky.
Her work was admired by Miró, Kadinsky, and Picasso.
Lautrec found his refuge in the most unlikely of places, the bordello. Rejected and despised himself, he went to women who were rejected and despised. From sporadic visits, he eventually came to make whore houses his home away from home. He would “disappear” for several days at a time. He eventually brought his easel and materials with him and set up his workshop there. Brothels are accustomed to the bizarre and not impressed by social status. He did not stand out. He was accepted for his kindness and generosity.
Prostitutes were the only women who brought a little tenderness into his life, which he referred to as “a sweet that cannot be bought.” He brought gifts, played cards, listened to confidences, drafted their letters, consoled, and remembered birthdays. And of course, he observed and painted. He was charmed by the almost bourgeois calm and family atmosphere once the doors closed for business. He found prostitutes to be the perfect models; accustomed to being nude, they posed naturally and without pretensions. He painted them dressing, bathing, in their sleep, in the medical inspection line-up, with and without make-up, and in sexual activity. He painted not only their defects, but also their freshness and innocence. He was particularly touched by their lesbian love for one another. “No one could be more loving,” he said, “they’re like two birds burying themselves in each other’s feathers.” Of one of his paintings that show two women dancing, he commented: “Look at them gazing into each other’s eyes, even when they’re closed.”
Of the brothels he said: “I don’t feel at home anywhere else. At last I’ve found women who suit me.”
An art critic suggested that his paintings of prostitutes sadly gave the impression that many of these women with ingenuous faces might have lived happy regular simple lives, and that he expressed this with such clarity and bitterness.
Both Frida and Lautrec, in rebellion against their family tradition and the accepted social mores of their societies, were avowed anti-Catholics. Hence their outlook on death was to accept it as a natural phenomenon rather than a transcendental event. For both of them their “strategy” in the face of the inevitability of death was to mock it by living life to the fullest.
Lautrec joked, “I am doomed, I may as well enjoy life.” He rejected his parents’ constant urgings to lead a religious life and he laughingly told his friends: “my mother has a nun employed full-time praying for the salvation of my soul, so that makes me free to do anything I want!” Perhaps Lautrec had absorbed the philosophy of his contemporary, Vincent Van Gogh, who had once cited St. Paul’s admonishment to live “as being sorrowful yet always rejoicing.”
For Frida, suffering and death played a central part in her painting, where death often was a palpable presence. She symbolized death with skulls and skeletons, as in the Mexican tradition. The poet Sylvia Plath remarked about death that the ego is symbolized in reflections (mirrors and water), shadows, twins – dividing off and becoming and enemy or omen of death … or a means by which one denies the power of death by creating the idea of the soul as the deathless double of the immortal body.” Compare this to a friend’s statement about Frida: “She was the only painter who gave birth to herself. She did not die during the accident. The struggle of the two Fridas (the name of perhaps her most well-know painting) was in her always, the struggle between the dead Frida and one Frida that was alive. After the accident came a re-birth, her love for nature and beauty was renewed.”
Frida herself said: “I tease and laugh at death so that it won’t get the better or me.” She once painted a child who had died because he had been attended by a witch doctor and not a medical doctor. She was the child’s madrina (godmother), and the painting was entitled “El Difunto Dimas.” The painting expresses fatalistic sorrow rather than shock or sentimental passion. When she exhibited it in New York she gave it the ironic title: Dressed for Paradise. Both Frida and Toulouse Lautrec faced death stoically and without the assurance of religious faith. The poet Wallace Stevens said: “Death is the mother of beauty, hence from her, alone, shall come fulfillment to our dreams and our desires.” Freud said: “The aim of all life is death.” Frida said: “we look for a calm or peace because we anticipate death, since we die every moment.” Both artists mocked death, laughed in its face, and as an antidote to death lived full and joyous lives and produced lasting works of art.
You will notice that I have spoken a great deal about the lives of my two subject artists and much less about their work. This is partly due to the limits of time but also because I would rather you see for yourself than listen to the opinions of art critics or of myself. I will limit my remarks to the following:
Lautrec was known for his lucidity. He painted what he saw without imposing his own opinion. “I paint realistically not idealistically, I have no mercy on warts,” he said. He broke away from natural laws of perspective and went beyond impressionism. He was influenced by the graceful brush strokes of Japanese art. He invented new ways of rendering movement by the rhythm of his lines, which, like his colors, he reduced to essentials. Although he acknowledged the excellence of their technique, he rejected the classic masterpieces with their historical personages congealed in conventional pomp, with their angels, sirens, and satyrs. For him outward appearances were shallow, and art was of no use except to give expression to psychological truth and the life of the city.
Of Frida, many considered her a better painter than Diego, including Diego himself. Her style was primitive in conformity with Mexican indigenous culture, that is, festive, alegria, theatrical and bloody. “I paint things as I see them and nothing more.” Her subject was herself and her own notion of psychological truth. In her paintings she performed a form of surgery on herself, probing deeply. She painted herself bleeding, cracked open, weeping, and being born. She painted with a kind of defiance of suffering and death, she didn’t beseech heaven for solace; tears dot her cheeks but she refuses to cry.
After a miscarriage in Detroit, according to Diego Rivera, “Frida began work on a series of masterpieces which had no precedent in the history of art – paintings which exalted the feminine qualities of endurance, truth, reality, cruelty and suffering. Never before had a woman put such agonized poetry on canvass as Frida did at this time in Detroit.”
As artists, of both Frida and Toulouse Lautrec the words of Diego Rivera apply: “I am not merely an artist, but a man performing his biological function of producing paintings, just as a tree produces flowers and fruit.”
It would not be fair, in any discussion of Frida Kahlo, to omit mention of her political beliefs, which formed a central part in her life. The subject is too complex to go into here; I will only mention that she was a passionate Mexican nationalist and a lifelong believer in communist revolution. She said, “I want my work to be a contribution to the struggle of the people for peace and liberty.” She and Diego were instrumental in bringing to Mexico the exiled Trotsky, who was later murdered by an agent of Stalin, and whom Frida and Diego later renounced.
I wish to conclude this presentation with some comments on meaning in art. The British novelist Iris Murdoch has complained that the two main views of human nature as expressed in by logical positivists and existentialists (and I note that she was speaking before the advent of post-modernism) are shallow and flimsy. They assume, she asserts, that humans are solitary and totally free and the fundamental virtue is sincerity, or self-consistency, or being true to one’s self. To what she referred to as the “facile ideal of sincerity” she suggests that what we need is “the hard idea of truth.”
The Russian novelist, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who spent eleven years in prison for his opposition to Stalinism in the Soviet Union, has said: “In battle with the lie, art has always been victorious, always wins out, visibly, incontrovertibly, for all. The lie can stand against much in this world – but not against art…”
Henri Toulouse Lautrec and Frida Kahlo, for me embody, both in their lives and in their work, these ideals of truth and art.
I said I would give the final word to Frida – and, by the way, she was always referred to simply as “Frida,” which I have done throughout this talk. The last words in her diary were: “I hope the exit is joyful – and I hope never to come back.”
But, let’s not end there. Let’s instead look at her very last painting, a still life (In Spanish still life painting is referred to as vida muerte, which literally means “dead life.” Frida, however, always referred to them as “vida viva” or “life alive”). This painting pictured a watermelon, the most beloved Mexican fruit. The painting shows none of the degeneration of style that had appeared in her later work due to the effects of pain and drugs. It is signed eight days before her death with her name, date, and the name of her lifelong pueblo, Coyocán. Then in large capital letters she wrote her final salute to life: VIVA LA VIDA.
Moby A-Dick-ted August 26, 2008Posted by rogerhollander in Literary Essays (Roger), Moby A-Dick-ted?.
Tags: 19th century novel, american literature, american novel, book review, captain ahab, classic novel, great american novel, Herman Melville, leviathan, Literary criticism, literature, Moby Dick review, nantucket, roger hollander, sea novel, Starbucks, whales, whaling, whaling novel, white whale
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(A blasphemous review)
“Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord.” Isaiah
There comes a time in one’s life when one must face up to the shameful fact. Although I consider myself a literate person, I nevertheless have never attempted, much less finished, a reading of Moby Dick. Now, having crossed the threshold of my sixth decade, how can I continue to look in the mirror and abide the visage of such an imposter, the reflection of virgin landlubber eyes that have yet to navigate the oceanic pages of what is by near unanimous consent … The Great American Novel?
So, when, whilst perusing the bins at my local [Reseda, California] library’s annual used book sale, a Signet Classic paperback version of Herman Melville’s 19th century masterpiece leaped up and harpooned my conscience, there was naught left for me but to dig fathoms deep into my pocket and deposit my ten cents, one thin dime; and I couldn’t help thinking about how many times I had been told that “a ship cannot turn on a dime;” I said to myself, “could than ship not have been the Pequod herself?”
I confess that I have anticipated visits to the dentist for a root canal with less trepidation than I approached the opening pages of Moby Dick. But, with the determination and patience of a Nantucket whalesman, that valiant sojourner, who, when he signed on, bargained for nothing less than a three year voyage around the globe without once touching land, I took the plunge.
And I must tell you, dear reader, it has been a thousand times worse than I thought it would be.
I sailed past the first section, whose title is “ETYMOLOGY (Supplied by a Late Consumptive Usher to a Grammar School),” and which contains spelling of the word “whale” in thirteen different languages, including “Fegee” and “Erromangoan.” Then I tacked into a trade wind consisting of eleven pages of “Extracts (Supplied by a Sub-Sub-Librarian),” which contained illuminating quotations, such as:
“This whale’s liver was two cart-loads” – Stowe’s Annals
“What spermaceti is, men might justly doubt, since the learned Hosmannus in his work of thirty years, saith plainly, Nescio quid si”’ – Sir T. Browne, of Sperma Ceti and the Sperma Ceti Whale. Vide His V.E.
“The aorta of a whale is larger in the bore than the main pipe of the water-works at London Bridge, and the water roaring in its passage through that pipe is inferior in impetus and velocity to the blood gushing from the whale’s heart.” – Paley’s Theology
Well, I thought, having made it out past the breakers, perhaps I am at least gaining my sea legs, and I hoped and prayed that the beginning of the actual story might make for smoother sailing.
Call me a big sissy, Ishmael, but you had me treading water for untold hours waiting for something to happen. One hundred and eleven pages before you even set foot on the big ship. Oh yes, intrepid Narrator, you can spin a tale when you want to, I will give you that. Reading your account of your of meeting up with, sharing a bed and getting physically intimate [it’s not what you might think, reader, this was the 19th century, after all] with Noble Savage Cannibal Harpooner, Queequeg; I thought to myself, “well, this might not be so bad after all.” That was before you decided to interrupt yourself and pepper throughout the next four hundred odd pages, everything anyone could ever want to know about whales and 19th century whaling but was smart enough not to ask. “Am I reading a novel,” I asked myself, “or an outdated manual on the whaling industry?”
We’re talking entire chapters on the paraphernalia used in hunting the Leviathan. An example from Chapter 60, “The Line:”
“The line originally used in the fishery was of the best hemp, slightly vapored with tar, not impregnated with it [thank God!] as in the case of ordinary ropes; for while tar, as ordinarily used, makes the hemp more pliable to the rope-maker, and also renders the rope itself more convenient to the sailor for common ship use; yet, not only would the ordinary quantity too much stiffen the whale-line for the close coiling to which it must be subjected; but as most seamen are beginning to learn, tar in general by no means adds to the rope’s durability or strength, however much it may give it compactness and gloss.”
You will notice that this vital information is put forward in a single sentence, containing no less than twelve clauses, six commas and three semi-colons. And it is one of the shorter ones.
Other chapters on whaling technique tell us all about “The Dart,” “The Crotch [not what you think],” “Cutting In [has nothing to do with dancing],” “The Blanket,” “The Monkey-Rope,” and if I were to go on you might think my own literary style was turning Melvillean.
And have you ever wondered about the anatomy of the Sperm Whale? If so, you are in for some delightful chapter-long descriptions of its “Head” (with a corresponding chapter on the head of the Right Whale, to give you a point of comparison), “The Battering Ram,” “The Nut (brain),” “The Prairie (brow),” “The Fountain (the spout),” “The Tail,” etcetera, etcetera. Entire chapters. Our narrator, as erudite on cetology as he is on the Old Testament, Shakespeare and Greek Mythology, shares with us some interesting 19th century science. The whale is a fish, not a mammal. It makes no sound. Porpoises are a species of whale. St. George’s dragon was really a whale. I’m not making this up.
Now I know that everyone has her or his own tastes when it comes to character versus plot. I am a plot man myself, but I also thoroughly enjoy good characterization. Nevertheless, I believe that any novel worth its salt water should not be too overly balanced towards one or the other. Captain Ahab, our valiant protagonist (if you don’t count the whale), finally shows up on page 128, nearly a quarter of the way through the novel. In Moby Dick, we navigate choppy waters with absolutely no advancement of the plot (in my Signet Classic paperback edition, from page 111, when Ishmael and Queequeg board the Pequod, to page 510, when they finally spot the White Monster, and the denouement at long last begins). By this time I am beginning to root for the whale.
And what does the ship’s mess offer up during this interminable voyage as an antidote to literary scurvy? There are occasional skirmishes with various “rascally Asiatics” (so now we know Elmer Fudd was derivative). Indeed, there are some gems of prose as the secondary characters take shape – Ahab’s Parsee stowaway, First Mate Starbuck and the second and third mates, the three pagan harpooners – but all this lost in a sea of some of the boringest chapters on whaling, mentioned above, that you will ever want to cast off upon. This seasick wayfarer longed in vain for some plot. Four hundred pages. That’s a ship load of filler. Was it Melville’s intention to give his readers the dubious pleasure of experiencing the ennui of three years at sea?
Now I think that many of us have had the following experience. We have netted all we can from the encyclopedia for that high school science project assignment, and we cast sad eyes upon our three or four anemic typewritten pages – wide margined, double spaced. So what do we do? We go whaling for maps, charts, photos, drawings, news clippings, anything we can find, however tangential to our subject, to give our project bulk, to turn those three or four pathetic pages of research into an impressive half inch of whale blubber. I am not suggesting this was Melville’s motivation; and I am not comparing a typical high school student’s limited imagination with Melville’s incomparable literary genius. I am just empathizing with how I think my science teacher might have had to deconstruct the mounds of data thrown at him, how he might have needed to separate mountains of chaff to get at those few grains of wheat (if you will pardon just this once a non seaworthy metaphor).
Let’s talk about what meager plot there is. Big White Whale (whole chapter on significance of whale whiteness) chews off captain’s leg (you’ll have to wait for the “prequel” to read about the actual chewing); captain not too happy about that, is obsessed with getting even; wanders endlessly in search of said leg-chewing fish (we moderns know it’s really a mammal); finally meets up with him (her?). I will not spoil it for the reader by revealing the ending. Let’s just say that it leaves one with a sinking feeling.
O.K., it’s not much of a plot, but as well written and erudite as it is when it wants to be, I am sure it would have made an extraordinary short story or novella. However, it’s the drawn out wandering endlessly that had this reader longing for that soothing sound of the dentist’s drill. Melville uses these four hundred in-between pages to give the Narrator his big chance to show off knowledge, some of it actually scientifically accurate, of whales and whaling; and to try to convince us of the nobility of massacring, for profit, one of nature’s most noble wild creatures – I was particularly enchanted, for example (page 372) when they harpooned a mother whale while in the process of giving birth, and the harpoon line got tangled with the umbilical.
From one perspective, Melville could have ended it all right after page 167, where he has the Pequod’s First Mate, Starbuck (immortalized all over again in the 20th century in his reincarnation as the world’s largest retail coffee monopoly), question Captain Ahab’s obsession:
“Vengeance on a dumb brute!” cried Starbuck, “that simply smote thee from blindest instinct! Madness! To be enraged with a dumb thing, Captain Ahab, seems blasphemous.”
If I were Herman Melville, I would have had Ahab say to his first mate at that very moment, “Lord praise thee, Starbuck, if thou doest not cast a hitherto unthought-of perspective on a matter that long hast troubled this seafaring vagrant. Coming to put mind and greater sensibilities upon the question, thou mightest have thee in thy craw the tapered end of a dart, to wit, a point.” He would then have ordered the Pequod to turn around (on a dime!), and, after making a couple of stops in Brazil and Columbia where they would fill the Pequod’s hold with those aromatic caffeine saturated beans, head back to home port for a grand opening of the first Starbuck’s. In Nantucket, of course. I know, I know, it might not be easy to picture those hard nosed sea salts sipping their lattes and munching on a cranberry oatmeal muffin, but by God, reader, this is literature, use your imagination.
O.K. So what about it? Are we talking the Great American Novel or not? Maybe in its time. It certainly is a grand and epic work, and a fine example of the naturalism that began to emerge in the 19th century American novel. But does it stand up today? Setting aside the fact that there is no accepted criteria for measuring the greatness of a novel, and certainly not for singling out one novel as the greatest of all time; I have to say that, regardless of what genius it does contain – and some of the prose is stunningly brilliant – because so much of the novel is irrelevant to anyone other than an archeologist of 19th century whaling, its value to the contemporary reader is likely to be little more than it was to me, to wit, the satisfaction of having finally read it.
Of course we can have some fun with the question of whether the novel is just a picturesque story, or a metaphor carrying deeper meanings. Was the whale, for example, as it was for Starbuck, just a big dumb animal? Or does it represent through its grace and whiteness the purity of nature, while at the same time through its destructive powers, the amoral and potentially deadly forces of nature? Is the novel a metaphor for America? Its indomitable spirit of adventure in the face of overwhelming adversity? The passion and hubris of Manifest Destiny?
Now, if you want to give Melville credit for being really prescient, you could take up the question of whale oil. The entire purpose of whaling at that time was to cut up the whale’s blubber and render it into what in its day was the highest quality of lamp oil available. It was used throughout the globe to lighten the night-time darkness (‘Twas Thomas Edison who put an end to all that, and there is not a whale alive today who doesn’t thank him for it). Was Melville perhaps foreshadowing the invention of the internal combustion engine and industrial capitalism’s dependence on Middle East oil reserves? Was Ahab Rockefeller? Starbuck the Sherman Anti-Trust Act? Queequeg (noble savage, yet savage harpooner) Israel?
Or should we cast about for a more modern metaphor for America? Is not W.P. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe (the movie Field of Dreams), for example, a better candidate for The Great American Novel? What could be a more apt metaphor for America than a bunch of grown adults chasing a small spherical projectile with a tapered wooden club and earning in the tens of millions of dollars? And Shoeless Joe doesn’t bore us to death with four hundred pages explaining everything from how the Louisville Slugger is manufactured to the geometry of the pitcher’s mound to what Umpires do in their spare time (come to think of it, what those spoiled millionaire gold-chains-around-the-neck-steroid-saturated athletes do with their spare time might indeed make for interesting reading, but I digress).
I have my own metaphorical interpretation of Moby Dick. Starbuck is Colin Powell. The honest and loyal soldier. The follower of his Commander-in-Chief’s orders, even if he thinks they are apt to lead to disaster. I cannot bring myself to say that Ahab is George W. Bush, since the former was a literate genius, a master of iridescent and philosophic prose; the latter one step, if that, above Moby Dick himself in intelligence. But I will take literary license and let Ahab represent all the perverse and satanic intelligence of Dubya’s nominal subalterns (the Cheneys, Wolfowitzs, Rumsfelds, Rices, etc.).
Starbuck is characterized over and again by Melville as honest and clear headed. Ahab single minded, dogmatic and tyrannical. Time and time again Starbuck beseeches Ahab to call off his mad project that was bound to end in the destruction of them all. At one point even (Chapter 123, “The Musket”) he has Starbuck consider a pre-emptive strike against Ahab. Upon encountering Ahab asleep in his cabin and noticing his loaded muskets in their rack, Starbuck for an instant considers the unthinkable:
“Starbuck was an honest, upright man; but out of Starbuck’s heart, at that instant when he saw the muskets, there strangely evolved an evil thought …” To wit, “Aye and he would fain kill all his crew … But shall this crazed old man be tamely suffered to drag a whole ship’s company down with him? – Yes, it would make him the willful murderer of thirty men and more, if this ship comes to any deadly harm; and come to deadly harm my soul swears this ship will, if Ahab has his way. If, then, he were this instant, put aside …” (pages 482,483)
Yes, Starbuck, muskets loaded and ready to go, Ahab peacefully asleep in his hammock, does actually consider for a brief moment preventive warfare against Saddam, excuse me, Ahab. O.K., I am taking even more literary license, I realize. I now have Starbuck considering the Bush Doctrine of preemptive war (if you ever have trouble staying up at night, read the “2002 National Security Strategy of the United States of America” issued by George W. Bush, and I guarantee you will not sleep for weeks). For a moment, Starbuck is Bush, Ahab is Saddam Hussein, the muskets are the unparalleled military might of the United States of America. But Starbuck is “an honest, upright man.” He soon reverts to his true self – the United Nations, the world community – and rejects the idea. I admit that I’m playing fast and loose with my metaphors. Saddam never did have weapons of mass destruction. Ahab did. Bush does.
Ahab unfortunately chooses to stay the course. Like Bush and company, he will brook no self criticism, nor admit to any mistakes. It is full sail ahead into the madness of mass destruction. And like Bush, Ahab, speaking to Starbuck, justifies his madness in the name of God: “But in this matter of the whale … Ahab [speaking of himself] is forever Ahab, man. This whole act’s immutably decreed. ‘Twas rehearsed by thee and me a billion years before this ocean rolled … I am the Fates’ lieutenant.” (my emphasis)
Reader. Read Moby Dick for yourself. I dare you. Slog through the muck, mire and glory of 19th century whaling for five hundred and thirty six pages, and reward yourself with your own metaphorical interpretation. As for me, I shall move on. I have learned my lesson. I am thinking of the next classic I need to approach. It should be something more of a page turner. Something perhaps a little more accessible to the Stephen King narcotized modern reader. Yes, I have always thought I really should one day read James Joyce. Now where did I put that paperback of “Ulysses” I’ve been meaning to start for some time?