Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Variations

From Steve Mitchelmore:
Long ago VS Naipaul said it would be absurd for, say, a Papua New Guinean writer to produce novels like Middlemarch, and recently Jeanette Winterson said "We should read Victorian novels, but we shouldn't write them". Will the reasons for these statements ever trickle down or is nostalgia for a brief aberration in the history of the novel going to dominate English fiction for yet another generation?
From Myles na gCopaleen, aka Flann O'Brien, in his At War collection (quoted at Anecdotal Evidence):
One should remember that the great artistic feats accomplished in medieval times were carried out by people who conceived themselves to be decent workmen, people who simply did not know how to do a bad job. On Sundays they put on their best clothes and went to Church. Nowadays your 'artist' is a neurotic imbecile; he has the cheek to discern in his own dementia the pattern of a universal chaos and it is no coincidence that most of his books are dirty and have to be banned. Beware of 'culture,' reader; of 'art' and 'artists' be careful and apprehensive. Such things were very fine when they came out first, they were part of the commonplace shape of life and nobody could possibly take exception to them. But when isolated in our own day to become merely a self-conscious social cult, and excuse for all sorts of bad behaviour, a pretext for preciosity and worse – know then that words like 'culture' and 'art' do not mean what they meant.
From The Room Lit By Roses, by Carole Maso:
With every major decision there is regret, for the very act involves choosing one thing over another. I have always experienced a certain sorrow when any project I am working on begins to take a shape and becomes a stable, definitive text--because it excludes the thousand books it might have been. No matter how spacious, no matter how suggestive or fluid, I cannot help but feel the death of possibility all over again--the books that now would never be. I have never felt completely reconciled to that fact. This and not that.
From The Rings of Saturn, by W. G. Sebald:
Janine had taken an intense personal interest in the scruples which dogged Flaubert's writing, that fear of the false which, she said, sometimes kept him confined to his couch for weeks or months on end in the dread that he would never be able to write another word without compromising himself in the most grievous of ways. Moreover, Janine says, he was convinced that everything he had written hitherto consisted solely in a string of the most abysmal errors and lies, the consequences of which were immeasurable. Janine maintained that the source of Flaubert's scruples was to be found in the relentless spread of stupidity which he had observed everywhere, and which he believed had already invaded his own head.

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Thursday, June 21, 2007

Paris Hilton and Cars

Two things I don't care about in the least. Two things I would normally never post about.

First, Paris Hilton. I have little interest in her, but I tend to think that she's way too easy a target, that hatred of her does not reveal ourselves at our best and is all too often couched in transparently misogynist language, and that she's a symptom of much bigger social problems. Beyond that, I don't really give her much thought. But I was nevertheless interested to read this post at Voyou Desoeuvre, coming to her defense (along with this article at the World Socialist Web Site) on the grounds that (especially leftwing) criticism of her because of her idleness is misguided:
Hilton seems to get a lot of stick not just because she’s rich, but because she hasn’t either earned her wealth or used it in some kind of worthwhile way. To a communist, on the other hand, this is one of Hilton’s most positive qualities. Certainly, on any reasonably calibrated ethical scale, Paris Hilton is obviously superior to, say, Bill Gates or George Soros. There’s a name for the sort of argument involved in criticizing the “useless” Paris Hilton: productivism. The problem is that it completely misunderstands what’s wrong with capitalism. The Marxist theory of exploitation is not based on a distinction between those who are productive and those who are idle; note that the only way that such a distinction could be made is on the basis of a moralized notion of productivity which is itself the defining feature of capitalism.
I came to voyou's post via k-punk's reply, which says in part:
The truth is that Hilton is an object I am unable to cathect in any way whatsoever - in other words, she is boring. She is a symptom - of her class and background - but an uninteresting one. In fact, her utter lack of remarkable features, the so-formulaic-a-computer-program-could-have-predicted-it pattern of her dreary rich girl life, may be the only interesting thing about her - but you would have to the austere asceticism of a Warhol to maintain that position.

More than the dull reality of Hilton herself, it is the pro-Hilton posturing that is a serious symptom - of a suiciding of intelligence, of cultural bankruptcy and exhaustion. It is the logic of cultural depression, of gradually but implacably lowered expectations, that has produced the over-investment in Hilton; a logic of devaluation, not revaluation - a logic of betrayal, of a failure of fidelity to pop culture's great events.
I tend to be closer to k-punk's position on this, but I really like what voyou is saying about capitalism and productivism.

Finally, in the spirit of Ellis Sharp's semi-regular posts about the menace of cars and car culture and road safety and triumphalist media coverage of new models ("reviews"), I offer, from The Los Angeles Times, more or less without comment, excerpts opening and closing this staggeringly awesome review of a new Jeep (I saw a shortened version of it this morning in the crappy free Express tabloid thing The Washington Post publishes and couldn't believe it was for real):
WITH the 2007 Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon, Natty Bumppo has traded his buckskins for some designer jeans.

Yes, Natty Bumppo, hero of James Fenimore Cooper's "Leatherstocking Tales," the great woody prose of which has prompted many an undergraduate to throw themselves off a tall building. What would Cooper think if he met the Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon? Would he marvel that it, like his famed protagonist, embodies the dual nature of wilderness and civilization, the very essence of American individualism? Would he recognize that, like his famed Deerslayer, the Wrangler combines "the soul of a poet and the nature of a redneck." Or would Cooper just play with the windshield wipers like a doofus? We may never know.

[...]

If I had to pick one vehicle in which to ride out the End Times, it would have to be a Wrangler Rubicon. [...]

...the Wrangler Rubicon — two-door or four — is unquestionably the stoutest piece of off-road hardware you can buy off a showroom floor. True, it doesn't have quite the integrated design and packaging of the Nissan Xterra or Toyota FJ Cruiser; both of those vehicles were clean-sheet projects, while the Wrangler has a lot of legacy to cope with. Call it literary tradition, if you like. The Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon is more civilized than ever, but it's still a noble savage. Cooper would have been proud.
We may never know.

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Other People on Kafka

I haven't had much blogging time lately, but I'm ducking in here with a couple short posts noting what some other people have been saying.

I was tempted to write something myself about Lee Rourke's post from two weeks ago about the new Michael Hofman translations of Kafka, but I didn't get to it and others addressed it brilliantly. Rourke praised the translations generally and specifically agreed with Hofman's use of the word "cockroach" in "The Metamorphosis". His post led to an interesting discussion in the comments section about what makes a good translation, as well as fantastic posts from Steve Mitchelmore and Ellis Sharp on why the choice of "cockroach" is wrong. Steve and Ellis may agree that the word is wrong, but Ellis otherwise disagrees with Steve's interpretation.

From Steve's post:

As he must have known, Nabokov's zoological points are irrelevant [in the comments to Lee's post, someone quoted a passage which had immediately occurred to me from Nabokov's Lectures on Literature on this point]. One has to read the word as it is before our eyes: vague and open to interpretation. Openness is everything. There's no need to make these detours into etymology. Yes, Walter Sokol makes a good case for "cockroach" by highlighting how it is nauseating and parasitical yet also defenceless and pathetic - which is certainly how Gregor appears to everyone - but "insect", as the Muirs had it, does all that too and retains the vagueness of Kafka's word.

More to the point is Lee's assertion that "Kafka wanted to denote the marginalised, detested individual". The insect is both real and symbolic, unreal and unsymbolic. However, even if we knew Kafka had intended that, it wouldn't tell the whole story. Gregor is marginalised and detested not only because he has become an insect but also because he is no longer the reliable salesman keeping his family afloat. He has been transformed into a threat to the family's petit-bourgeois world. How terrible is the banging on his bedroom door when he fails to leave for work, how sickening when his boss visits the flat to investigate a single lost day? It is, as we know still today, a world of fierce taboos resisting the forces of change, of decay, illness and death. Gregor has, in effect, died but not left the building. His death stains the parents' starched clothing, stinks out the flat. This is how he might be read from a Marxist perspective: Gregor is the harbinger of the social problems inherent to early modern capitalism. But change also afflicts Marxists. The hope of political redemption is soon also faced by despair.

Steve goes on to invoke Blanchot and our inability to "choose between hope and despair". Ellis objects to this reading:

In ‘Metamorphosis’ concealment is of the essence. Compartmentalisation is involved – thematically and structurally. ‘Metamorphosis’ is not a single fast-flowing river of prose but, like the body of an insect, divided into segments – three chapters. Gregor dies on the stroke of three. There are three doors to Gregor’s room: three ways in, three ways out. Not one way. There is no single way in and out of this story. You cannot exclusively capture it for a metaphysical reading. It slips free. In its multiplicity – in its totality – it resists the net of exegesis. The jacket cover on my edition calls it a ‘haunting parable on human reaction to suffering and disease’ which is both true and horribly limiting.

The reaction of everyone in the story to Gregor’s transformation is, surely, the exact opposite to despair. There is no despair. On the contrary, the story gives us characters learning to cope with an extreme situation, as humans do. One or two of the characters shun Gregor and depart; most stay. Their responses range from disgust, fear and irritation to compassion, curiosity and breezy acceptance. Nobody finally gives up on Gregor; nobody sinks into paralysis. Everyone grudgingly accepts his presence. No one despairs, not even Gregor. Everyone bravely, absurdly, comically, maintains the rigmarole of everyday life.

This is great stuff. For me, this is what blogging about literature is all about and is the kind of thing I was hoping to find when I started looking on the web for literary discussion.

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Thursday, June 14, 2007

We may take comfort in this thought

Dusklands, J. M. Coetzee's first book, is hardly essential Coetzee fiction (that would be Disgrace and Elizabeth Costello to this reader), but it makes for some interesting reading. It's a short book, two novellas written in the early 1970s, published in South Africa in 1974 (not till 1982 in the UK and 1985 in the US). Both stories cover familiar Coetzee territory: madness, obsession, colonialism, imperialism. Both stories play with questions of reality and authorship, both purporting to be largely made up of official documents, and in both his own historical role is implicated.

The first novella is called "The Vietnam Project". The "narrator" is Eugene Dawn, and he is working on a revision to his "essay" on how the Americans should set about improving their propaganda techniques and psychological warfare against the Vietnamese. It's not entirely clear whether he is specifically a military man, or D.O.D., but the project is to be presented to the D.O.D. His supervisor is a man named "Coetzee". His report makes for some chilling reading and resembles the kinds of activities actually undertaken by the Americans (but, Eugene's general conclusion: the Americans have not been ruthless enough). Concurrent with his obsession with this propaganda project, he becomes increasingly distant from his wife and child, loses touch with reality, goes mad. I was reminded here, in a reverse sense, of Peter Dimock's odd, short novel, A Short Rhetoric for Leaving the Family, in which the narrator, over the course of several letters, urges his young nephew to have courage and to "leave the family"--the literal family, implicated at very high levels in the crimes of the American war against Vietnam, standing in for the United States itself. In that book, the narrator either goes mad, or is dismissed as mad (or both; he is institutionalized), in his attempts to speak the truth about what his family (biological and national) has been doing, perhaps an acknowledgment, in fiction, that those who speak the truth about American power are so far beyond the pale as to be incomprehensible (the "lunatic left"). In Coetzee's book, the ruthlessness of his character's "essay" is literarily linked with madness--except that in real life, of course, the acts he urges were in fact carried out with deliberation and intent by men who, while harboring all kinds of fantasies about the likelihood of success and nature of the enemy, and apparently unable to recognize or accept reality when faced with it, nevertheless were not literally "mad".

There was a moment in "The Vietnam Project" that particularly interested me. Eugene is describing various Vietnam-related pictures he carries around with him in the course of working on his project. Here is his description of one such item:
My third picture is a still of the tiger cages on Hon Tre Island (I have screened the entire Vietnam repertoire at Kennedy). Watching this film I applaud myself for having kept away from the physical Vietnam: the insolence of the people, the filth and flies and no doubt stench, the eyes of prisoners, whom I would no doubt have had to face, watching the camera with naive curiosity, too unconscious to see it as ruler of their destiny--these things belong to an irredeemable Vietnam in the world which only embarrasses and alienates me. But when in this film the camera passes through the gate of the walled prison courtyard and I see the rows of concrete pits with their mesh grates, it bursts upon me anew that the world still takes the trouble to expose itself to me in images, and I shake with fresh excitement.

An officer, the camp commander, walks into the field. With a cane he prods into the first cage. We come closer and peer in. "Bad man", he says in English, and the microphone picks it up, "Communist".
I found this interesting because it is clear that the commander is South Vietnamese and strongly implied that the Americans are fully aware what's going on here (the film comes from American archives); whereas, in the popular American imagination, through such cultural products as the film The Deer Hunter, the tiger cages are associated with the evil North Vietnamese, when in fact it was the Americans and especially the American proxy in Saigon (what the Americans called "South Vietnam") who were notorious for the systematic torturing of prisoners, using tiger cages specifically. (See H. Bruce Franklin's Vietnam and Other American Fantasies for extensive detail on the workings of this cultural reversal.) Recent debased debates about the current use of torture come to mind as well.

Noam Chomsky, of course, writes often about the sort of misrepresentation that feeds into such cultural ignorance and amnesia, his topic generally being more broadly about the subservience to the state of the mainstream media and scholarly intellectuals. And at least as early as 1973 he was already writing about concerted efforts by the United States government (Nixon/Kissinger) and the intelligentsia to rewrite the history of what was still an ongoing atrocity. More specifically relevant to this book, he has written about American/Saigon torture during the Vietnam War. Since I've been reading his Towards a New Cold War, let's see what he says there. In a 1973 essay titled "Indochina and the Fourth Estate", he writes:
To appreciate more fully the role of the mass media in the current orgy of mass hypocrisy over the POWs, one should recall their treatment of the detailed and extensive reports by veterans concerning the torture of Vietnamese prisoners by U.S. troops and the South Vietnamese to whom they were turned over by U.S. forces, reports that are far more horrendous than anything claimed by the POWs and surely no less credible--the veterans had nothing to gain by making public what they had done and seen. But this was not a fit topic for press or television. [...] To have informed the public of the fate of hundreds of thousands of political prisoners and "detainees," or the U.S. role in domestic repression in South Vietnam, would, clearly, have been inconsistent with the requirements of state propaganda at the moment. (p.136)
Chomsky contrasts this with reporting by the foreign press, for example, quoting the following from T.J.S. George in the Far Eastern Economic Review:
Interestingly, too, the men who talked of oriental tortures were all able to stand up and speak into microphones, showing scars here and there; none showed evidence of irreversible malnutrition. Another set of prisoners was not so lucky. These were the men and women released from South Vietnam's "tiger cages." Only a handful of them have been seen in public, and then briefly. They had been held in tiny cages for so long that they could no longer stand up; they had to shuffle about in crouching positions. They were all incurably crippled while prolonged malnutrition had turned them into grotesque parodies of humanity. (pp. 136-137)
Coetzee was writing in 1972-1973 and, as a South African, was considerably less susceptible to the state propaganda intended for consumption by the American public.

The second novella in Dusklands is like a story from Joseph Conrad (or perhaps Patrick White, a la Voss): colonial white man among the "savages". "The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee" purports to be the account of the title character's 1760 expedition to hunt elephants in the northern inland of South Africa, and his encounters with Hottentots and Bushmen along the way. The relationship with Hottentots is similar to that of the master-slave relationship; they are only worthwhile insofar as they are useful, as servants and guides, yet one of Jacobus Coetzee's party is a Hottentot named Klawer, who he essentially grew up with. The Bushman, on the other hand, is merely "a wild animal with an animal's soul". In one passage, Jacobus relates the experience frontiersmen have had with Bushman girls. As opposed to Dutch girls, with whom you "lose your freedom" because they are "first of all property themselves":
By connecting yourself to the girl you connect yourself to a system of property relationships. Whereas a wild Bushman girl is tied into nothing, literally nothing. She may be alive but she is as good as dead. She has seen you kill the men who represented power to her, she has seen them shot down like dogs. You have become Power itself now and she nothing, a rag you wipe yourself on and throw away. She is completely disposable. She is something for nothing, free. She can kick and scream but she knows she is lost. That is the freedom she offers, the freedom of the abandoned. She has no attachments, not even the wellknown attachment to life.
Having been abandoned by all but Klawer after a disastrous encounter with a distant inland people, he returns two years later to take his revenge. He explains:
I am an explorer. My essence is to open what is closed, to bring light to what is dark. If the Hottentots comprise an immense world of delight, it is an impenetrable world, impenetrable to men like me, who must either skirt it, which is to evade our mission, or clear it out of the way. As for my servants, rootless people lost forever to their own culture and dressed now in nothing but the rags of their masters, I know with certainty that their life held nothing but anxiety, resentment, and debauch. They died in a storm of terror, understanding nothing. They were people of limited intellect and people of limited being. They died the day I cast them out of my head.
As mentioned, "The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee" is presented as a translation of Jacobus' account, along with an Afterward that is said to have been written by J. M. Coetzee's father, Dr. S. J. Coetzee, at the time of the original publication in 1951. As such, Coetzee implicates himself, as a white South African of Dutch descent, in the crimes committed as the country was settled and ultimately dominated by whites. In the Afterward, the elder Coetzee sees Jacobus' account as heroic. Yet he looks on with "sorrow" at the Company's policy regarding white colonization, with "regret and puzzlement at the stasis of the Netherlands population during the eighteenth century", and
with wistful admiration at the growth of the United States, which in the same era increased its White population geometrically and checked its native population growth so effectively that by 1870 there were fewer Indians than ever before.
He offers the following, perfectly encapsulating much of the colonial mindset:
The Company was interested in easy profit. Van Ribeeck himself had sent expeditions inland in search of honey, wax, ostrich feathers, elephant tusks, silver, gold, pearls, tortoiseshell, musk, civet, amber, pelts, and anything else. These desirables were the objects of barter. In return the Company's agents gave commodities for which the White man's name was whispered all over Africa: tobacco, spiritous liquors, beads and other glass artefacts, metals, firearms, and powder. We will not indulge here in the easy sarcasm of commentators of our day about the trade. The tribes of the interior sold their herds and flocks for trash. This is the truth. It was a necessary loss of innocence. The herder who, waking from drunken stupor to the wailing of hungry children, beheld his pastures forever vacant, had learned the lesson of the Fall: one cannot live forever in Eden. The Company's men were only playing the role of the angel with the flaming sword in this drama of God's creation. The herder had evolved one sad step toward citizenship of the world. We may take comfort in this thought.
Indeed. Similar words can still be heard or read from commentators justifying current foreign adventures and imperial wars.

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Wednesday, June 13, 2007

States Continue to Matter

In a post titled "The errors of 'post-politics'", Jodi Dean takes issue with the notion of "post-politics", the idea, advanced by Ranciere and Zizek, that we are in a "post-political" period, given the facts of neoliberalism and the apparent subjection of political entities (states) to "the demands of corporations and the seemingly inevitable logic of the market", among other indicators. Jodi rejects that these facts, which she accepts, are indicators "of a post-political situation". She explains:

States continue to matter. More specifically, the different states of the US (and other countries, obviously, as well) and cities and various other regional political groupings continue to exercise authority and influence. Clearly they matter enough for some to spend a great deal of money in campaigns and contributions in order to influence or control them. The left-wing lament over post-politics overlooks this continued reality, ceding in advance a key terrain, as well as failing to analyse the situation.

I think she is right on here. I would go further: not only do states continue to matter, but, in fact, capitalism needs states.

I will have much more to say about this when time permits. In the meantime, it is always instructive to look again at Chomsky. I've been reading his book Towards a New Cold War, which collects essays written between 1973 and 1980. In an essay from 1977 called "American Foreign Policy in the Middle East", he writes the following:
The oil companies face local problems as a result of continued American barriers to a political settlement of the Arab-Israeli crisis in the only possible manner, that is, with a two-state settlement along roughly the 1967 borders. But the basic long-term interests of American capitalism have, so far, been adequately served by this policy. As noted before, this is not the first time that the oil companies, despite their power, have been subordinated to more general interests. After the CIA-backed coup that restored the Shah of Iran in 1953, the five major American oil companies were informed that the National Security Council had determined that it was "in the security interests of the United States that United States petroleum companies participate in an international consortium," replacing the former Anglo-Iranian Oil Company monopoly, in order to reactivate the petroleum industry, shut down by international boycott, and "to provide to the friendly government of Iran substantial revenues on terms which will protect the interests of the Western World in the petroleum resource of the Middle East". Anglo-Iranian was less than enthusiastic, preferring as the "ideal solution" that they "return to Persia alone"; and the American oil companies themselves were more concerned with short-term problems involving their production facilities elsewhere. But obeying the U.S. government directive, they accepted a 40 percent share in the new consortium, thus supporting the Shah and the "national interest," while incidentally displacing Britain from another part of its former empire. Not a great sacrifice to be sure [. . .], but an illustration of the role of the state in serving long-term economic interests ignored even by the companies directly involved.

American scholars typically take such incidents as support for the general doctrine that the government simply serves some abstract "national interest" and that policy is at best marginally influenced by the concerns of major corporations. Myra Wilkins, for example, notes that "the Truman Doctrine, for instance, committed the United States to defend Greece and Turkey against Communism, and in the process created security for corporate Middle Eastern oil investments; yet, Texaco's chairman of the board testified that the promulgation of the doctrine caught him by surprise," referring to Senate testimony. How literally one should take such testimony is an open question, but it may well be accurate. If so, the case simply illustrates a natural principle, quite well supported by such evidence as is available: Corporate executives are concerned with specific problems of maximizing profit, extending market control, and the like, while the state executive, largely staffed by representatives of corporate interests, is concerned with the long-term, enduring, and general interests of American capitalism. [. . . ] As long as the state uses its power to enhance "profits beyond the dreams of avarice," as in the case of the oil companies, and to secure the conditions for their enhancement, it is hardly necessary for those concerned more narrowly with business operations to intervene more directly in affairs of state. (pp. 333-334)

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Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist, Alexander Berkman

Alexander Berkman discovered firsthand the truth of the incomprehensibility to Americans of the act of political violence. In 1892, he attempted to assassinate Henry Clay Frick in response to Frick's role in the massacre of workers during the Homestead Strike. Berkman was young and Anarchist and believed in the "propaganda of the deed"--he had a grand idea that his action (which, in the event, failed) would incite the general public to revolution. No such luck. Upon arriving in jail, and later prison, where he spent 14 years, he discovered that no one understood why he had done it and didn't believe him when he told them his reasons. He had to have had a personal beef with Frick, other inmates assumed; any political intent of Berkman's was laughed away.

Berkman came to the United States from Tsarist Russia, where the form of oppression was a bit more obvious. Writing from prison soon after the assassination of President McKinley, he described the difference in a letter to Emma Goldman that appears late in his Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist:
In Russia, where political oppression is popularly felt, such a deed would be of great value. But the scheme of political subjection is more subtle in America. And though McKinley was the chief representative of our modern slavery, he could not be considered in the light of a direct and immediate enemy of the people; while in an absolutism, the autocrat is visible and tangible. The real despotism of republican institutions is far deeper, more insidious, because it rests on the popular delusion of self-government and independence. That is the subtle source of democratic tyranny, and, as such, it cannot be reached with a bullet. (p. 424)
Far from the people rising up in the wake of this assassination (or indeed Berkman's own attempt on Frick), instead, by the time Berkman emerged from prison, much had happened to solidify the power and reach of the enemy. With the Spanish-American War, the United States' role as an imperial country truly began. And there was the so-called "Progressive Era"--the beginnings of the regulatory apparatus and Theodore Roosevelt's much-ballyhooed (and widely misunderstood) "trust-busting". (This period is better seen, I think, as the "The Triumph of Conservatism", in Gabriel Kolko's phrase.)

Upon his release from prison, Berkman found that he did not know how to be with his comrades, feeling as if he no longer belonged in the struggle. He finally snapped out of it after learning of an Anarchist meeting that was broken up, with several people arrested, likely facing lengthy prison terms under the provisions of a new law. He realized anew that the struggle continues and that he had a job to do. Part of that job consisted of writing these Prison Memoirs.

Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist is divided into four sections. In the first section, Berkman recounts his decision to kill Frick, his train ride to Pittsburgh, the attempt itself, his arrest, jail-time, and trial. This section is often almost unreadable. Berkman's enthusiastic sloganeering is naive and hard to bear:
The time for speech was past. Throughout the land the toilers echoed the defiance of the men of Homestead. The steelworkers had rallied bravely to the defense; the murderous Pinkertons were driven from the city. But loudly called the blood of Mammon's victims on the banks of the Monongahela. Loudly it calls. It is the People calling. Ah, the People! The grand, mysterious, yet so near and real, People. . . . (p. 9)
But for Berkman at this point, "the People" were little more than an abstraction. Anyone who conflicted with his ideal notion of the noble worker was not worth thinking about. And his own personal needs, he argued, were nothing in the face of the Cause:
Could anything be nobler than to die for a grand, a sublime Cause? Why, the very life of a true revolutionist has no other purpose, no significance whatever, save to sacrifice it on the altar of the beloved People. And what could be higher in life than to be a true revolutionist? It is to be a man, a complete MAN. A being who has neither personal interests nor desires above the necessities of the Cause; one who has emancipated himself from being merely human, and has risen above that, even to the height of conviction which excludes all doubt, all regret; in short, one who in the very inmost of his soul feels himself revolutionist first, human afterwards. (p.11)
Unable or unwilling in his youthful fervor to admit the importance of his own humanity, it is not surprising that Berkman is unable, at first, to see beyond the abstraction of "the People" or grant the humanity of the "common criminal", who he sees as scum, not worthy of his attention or concern.

In this first section, there is a lot of such tiresome speechifying. Yet it is interesting to observe Berkman having to face that, as mentioned, his act is not understood, will not be understood. He sees it as self-evident that he was striking "at the many-headed hydra whose visible representative was Frick". But he is unable to make anyone understand. He plans to explain everything at his trial--to speak directly to "the People". But he is prevented from doing so (he is surprised!) and sentenced to 22 years in the Pennsylvania State Penitentiary.

Berkman's account of his time in the state penitentiary makes up the bulk of the book--nearly 400 pages--and it's worth reading. His prose, while still a bit overwritten, is much better, and largely free of the cant from the first section. As an avowed Anarchist, he is suspected of involvement in any number of "troubles" that occur; as a result, he spent the bulk of his time in solitary confinement. Even so, there are periods of relative freedom. Over time, he learns much about the running of the prison, the guards, the warden, the politics, the attempts to cover up unhealthy conditions. Here he describes the guards:
The personnel of the guards is of very inferior character. I find their average intelligence considerably lower than that of the inmates. Especially does the element recruited from the police and the detective service lack sympathy with the unfortunates in their charge. They are mostly men discharged from city employment because of habitual drunkenness, or flagrant brutality and corruption. Their attitude toward the prisoners is summed up in coercion and suppression. They look upon the men as will-less objects of iron-handed discipline, exact unquestioning obedience and absolute submissiveness to peremptory whims, and harbor personal animosity toward the less pliant. The more intelligent among the officers scorn inferior duties, and crave advancement. the authority and remuneration of a Deputy Wardenship is alluring to them, and every keeper considers himself the fittest for the vacancy. But the coveted prize is awarded to the guard most feared by the inmates, and most subservient to the Warden,--a direct incitement to brutality, on the one hand, to sycophancy, on the other. (pp. 270-271)
And the monotony:
Daily I behold the machinery at work, grinding and pulverizing, brutalizing the officers, dehumanizing the inmates. Far removed from the strife and struggle of the larger world, I yet witness its miniature replica, more agonizing and merciless within the walls. A perfected model it is, this prison life, with its apparent uniformity and dull passivity. (pp. 272-273)
As implied in this passage, Berkman begins to understand more, to realize the basic humanity of the "common criminal", just as he is witness to acts of depravity and occasional flashes of decency. The conditions in the prison are horrific. Inmates are withheld food and exercise, pressed into illegal slave labor, subjected to indifferent medical treatment or worse (at one point, the nurse on duty in the infirmary, a favorite of the warden's, was a convicted murderer), repeatedly beaten by guards, forced to withstand lengthy sessions of solitary confinement in the filthiest of conditions. He recounts the details of rousing political discussions, the subsequent creation of forbidden inmate magazines--the urgency of the written word. He relates the particulars of several friendships that develop, the unexpected intimacies.


After publishing Prison Memoirs, Berkman continued to be active politically, including being imprisoned multiple times for opposition to the First World War. Deported, along with Emma Goldman, to the Soviet Union, he was an early supporter of the Bolsheviks, before becoming quickly disillusioned. I have previously read his What Is Anarchism?, which is a short, excellent introduction to these ideas, as well as being a fascinating critique of the Russian Revolution, which he continued to see as having been betrayed by the repressive reality of the Soviet Union. Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist is more interesting for its vivid depiction of prison life (where it seems not much has changed in the last 100 years) than for any explication of radical thought, except for the extent to which Dostoevsky was right when he wrote: "The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons."

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Saturday, June 02, 2007

Recent Political Reads

At Insurgent American, Derrick Jensen figures out "Why People Hate Cops" (link via Stan Goff, which post includes some good responses to a former cop's comment).

Jensen writes often about civilization and deep ecology and is the author of Endgame: The Problem of Civilization, which is on my must-read list. He was recently interviewed on these topics at Dissident Voice (link via wood s lot).

At American Leftist, Richard Estes on the Democrats' continued funding of the occupation of Iraq, and an appreciation of Cindy Sheehan, in the wake of her disillusioned decision to retreat from activism.

At openDemocracy, Julia Buxton on "The deepening of Venezuela’s Bolivarian revolution: why most people don’t get it".

At Workers World, Sara Flounders on "Why the U.S. is targeting Iran"--putting things into historical context, including some interesting information on the accomplishments of the Islamic Revolution in 1979 (link via Left I on the News).

And finally, Lenin offers a comprehensive response to a critic of his earlier post about "What humanitarian intervention is for", which had discussed the calls for Western intervention in Darfur in the context of the War on Iraq.

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