Sunday
Jun042017

Juan Goytisolo, 1931-2017

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Juan Goytisolo died this morning. He was 86 and had been ill for some time. It’s hard to begrudge him his rest, but I am sad nonetheless. One doesn’t get too many literary heroes per lifetime. Goytisolo wouldn’t have liked the word “pure” to be applied to his work in any sense, but I can’t think of a purer anti-authoritarianism than his. He had a keen nose for the violence concealed by every form of domination, linguistic and narrative as well as the more obvious types. His novels dug away at their own foundations, even and especially at his own authority over them. The idea was not to weave a careful and oh-so-pretty semiotic web that leads you if you’re clever to some determined point of emotional impact/edification, but to set you free to tear it all down, and to stand beside him in the intimate, layered, screaming silence that remains. I interviewed him once, over the phone from Marrakesh. “If there is no clear author then there is no authority,” he told me, “and you give the freedom to the reader. For me that was the most important thing, that the reader decide for himself what was the reality.” His antinomianism, his antagonism to the policing of borders of all sorts—to policing of all sorts—his embrace of polyphony, heresy, promiscuity, queerness, and the endless fertility of doubt was not an abstract avant-gardist stance. It formed a concrete politics of exile, the one by which he lived. In his memoirs he wrote of “an irreversible hatred for the monuments and symbols of an ever-cynical, cruel history, for those severe, threatening, official districts whose false grandeur and solemnity hide the original sin of their construction at the expense of humiliations, sufferings, and blood,” and of a corresponding “attraction towards those areas where life is spontaneous, dark, dense, and proliferating, in which the creative act can take root.” As much as anyone, maybe more than anyone, he taught me where the writer belongs: outside, always outside, far from the lights and fences, in the fecund, swirling, darkness, where it is possible to see.

It’s worth adding that Goytisolo understood decades ago that the urge to cleanse Europe of its Muslim past and present, to wall off some purified fictionalized West from the possibility of external contamination, is self-annihilating as well as genocidal.  “We would fight,” his narrator enthused in State of Siege, “against the enemy and his doctrine of borders traced in blood with the eternal and subtle weapon of the weak: the seminal dispersion of their voices, the infinite variants of the Word!” Let’s take him up on that. 

Wednesday
Feb152017

Love Apart


"Let's rest in the sunshine for a while. Maybe tonight they'll lock us up in the cellar of the Security building. Keep that in mind and you'll savour this sunshine all the more. I'm teaching you wisdom! One day you'll lie down on a cot in a disheartening darkness. Then remember the sunshine of this moment. The greatest joy on earth, love apart, is sunshine in your veins."

"And thought?" asked Rodion. "Thought?"

"Ah! Right now it's something of a midnight sun piercing the skull. Glacial. What's to be done if it's midnight in the century?"

"Midnight's where we have to live then," said Rodion with an odd elation. 

 

—Victor Serge, Midnight in the Century

Thursday
Jan192017

24 sublimations, a poem by Sesshu Foster #FightandWrite

 

Sesshu's website is suffering indigestion and tomorrow is kind of a big day what with the four horsemen riding in, so I'm posting this for him. 

 

 

24 sublimations

 

i am writing this postcard instead of that letter of recommendation for some student

i am taking this action instead of sitting around thinking (or vice versa)

i am writing a letter of protest or sending a check to an organization instead of calling people and organizing a meeting, instead of setting an agenda

i am fuming about my political isolation and mulling over theories of resistance instead of doing something about it or sometimes i am dreaming about my political isolation

i am talking to old friends instead of hanging out with someone new (it’s like cooking with old recipes instead of learning new ones)

i am going on a walk instead of feeling lame and sad about somebody dead (though sometimes i talk to them)

i am going to clean up this mess or wash the dishes instead of impulsively do something else (as i think about whatever)

i tried to encourage the photographer as we rode by talking about alcoholism in the back of the boat with the wake spraying outward, catching the light, but instead it made her cry (we didn’t talk again)

sometimes we are acting to avoid thinking and sometimes vice-versa

sometimes anything i do, such as read the newspaper or drive to the store, is so that i won’t start writing (if i don’t write the next thing, there’s no commitment)

i won’t think about the animals dying, i’ll just cook it up (i’ll try to make it taste good)

instead of mulling over the dead people, i’ll concern myself with people distant from me

i’ll wonder if my face isn’t programmed and fixed, and instead try to feel new feelings

instead of thinking about a dream, i’ll go upstairs and make coffee

instead of getting right to work, i’ll sit around drinking coffee

instead of dressing with intentions (“mindfulness”) i’ll just throw on what I wore yesterday (who cares)

instead of silence i’ll put on music that i barely listen to

instead of brushing off someone who comes up and makes random conversation, i’ll try to find interesting questions

  

new living writers instead of famous old dead writers

some new kid instead of old friends or family

some point of departure instead of an old entrance into the familiar

something local phenomenon that might be overlooked instead of larger commonly recognized figures of the general terrain

something in passing instead of the same old fixed idea

sometimes look at birds instead of sit inside reading (or looking at a screen)

Tuesday
Jan032017

RIP John Berger

From Hold Everything Dear: Dispatches on Survival and Resistance, Verso Books, 2008:

“… to engage today with the traditional vocabulary, as employed by the powerful and their media, only adds to the surrounding murkiness and devastation. This does not necessarily mean silence. It means choosing the voices one wishes to join.

The present period of history is one of the Wall. When the Berlin one fell, the prepared plans to build walls everywhere were unrolled. Concrete, bureaucratic, surveillance, security, racist walls. Everywhere the walls separate the desperate poor from those who hope against hope to stay relatively rich. The walls cross every sphere, from crop cultivation to health care. They exist too in the richest metropolises of the world. The Wall is the front line of what, long ago, was called the Class War.

On the one side: every armament conceivable, the dream of no-body-bag wars, the media, plenty, hygiene, many passwords to glamour. On the other: stones, short supplies, feuds, the violence of revenge, rampant illness, an acceptance of death and an ongoing preoccupation with surviving one more night – or perhaps one more week – together.

The choice of meaning in the world today is here between the two sides of the wall. The wall is also inside each one of us. Whatever our circumstances, we can choose within ourselves which side of the wall we are attuned to. …”

 

Saturday
Dec312016

Regarding the Sieve Maker of Tārāb

 

So I’ve been reading about the Mongols. Not for any particular reason. Mainly in a searching-for-perspective sort of way. The last thing I want is to suggest any direct analogy between the heirs of the mighty Ghengis Khan and the Rise of Trump and other petty ethno-nationalist forces across the globe. Whatever their shortcomings, the Mongols were a proud lot, possessed with an overabundance of vigor. By contrast, however febrile and giddy Trump and Co. may be at the moment, they are a frightened, resentful, and backwards-looking bunch. Even in victory, their voices shake.  

By that perhaps over-broad “Co.,” I mean the authoritarian ethno-religious chauvinism in vogue from Istanbul to East Anglia, Budapest to Jerusalem to Warsaw to Calais. And Manila and Moscow and New Delhi. Etc.

The Mongols made the earth shake. Their conquests, in a very few years, spread from the Central Asian steppe north to Siberia, south into India, west to Central Europe, and east to the Sea of Japan. They would quickly establish what remains the largest land empire in the history of humankind. One little side note: In January of 1260, two years after laying waste to Baghdad, then a city of unrivaled beauty, scholarship and artistry, the armies of Genghis Khan’s grandson Hulagu laid siege to Aleppo. Aided by Frankish and Armenian Christian forces eager to push the Muslim Ayyubids from the Levant, they leveled the already-ancient city, burned its great mosque, and enslaved those few of its inhabitants whom they did not slaughter. The mosque would be rebuilt by the Mamluks and would stand for another 700 years, until April of 2013.

I’m getting ahead of myself. In 1220, Ghengis Khan’s armies, “more numerous than ants or locusts,” arrived outside the gates of Bukhara, in what is now Uzbekistan and what was then one of the great centers of medieval Muslim learning. The city surrendered and the great Khan gathered its notables into the mosque and addressed them: “O people, know that you have committed great sins, and that the great ones among you have committed these sins. If you ask me what proof I have for these words, I say it is because I am the punishment of God. If you had not committed great sins, God would not have sent a punishment like me upon you.”

That, my friends, is a victory speech. Genghis Khan did not hunch over his iPhone at four a.m., oozing tweets like pus from an abscess.

In any case, he proceeded to burn the city. “And the people of Bukhara, because of the desolation, were scattered like the constellation of the Bear and departed into the villages, while the site of the town ‘became like a level plain.’”

But the point of all this comes on the next page of the Persian historian Atâ-Malek Juvaini’s History of a World Conqueror. Eight years after the sacking of Bukhara, writes Juvaini, “a sieve maker of Tārāb in the district of Bukhara rose up in rebellion in the dress of the people of rags, and the common people rallied to his standard.” Juvaini, who had ingratiated himself in the Mongol court, describes the rebel leader with undisguised contempt. Still, we learn from him that the poor came to Mahmud the sieve maker of Tārāb as they once did to Jesus of Galilee: to heal the sick and the paralyzed, to restore sight to the blind. He was said to converse with jinns, or spirits, who, “informed him of what was hidden.” When Mahmud the sieve maker of Tārāb entered the city of Bukhara, the alleys of the market were so crowded with people eager for his blessing that “there was not even room for a cat to pass.” He had in mind a more holistic sort of healing, and instructed the poor to arm themselves with whatever weapons they could find. “My army is partly visible, consisting of men,” he announced, “and partly invisible, consisting of the heavenly hosts, which fly in the air, and of the tribe of the jinns, which walk on the earth.” And so the poor of Bukhara soon took the town and plundered the houses of the wealthy.

Running for their lives, the city’s emirs and notables sought the assistance of the Mongols. They gathered an army, and marched to retake Bukhara. Surrounded by many thousands of his followers among “the people of rags,” Mahmud the sieve maker stood to meet the occupier’s armies without a weapon in his hand nd without armor to protect his body. “At this juncture a strong wind arose and the dust was stirred up to such an extent that they could not see one another.” Believing the storm a miracle, the Mongols and the armies of the wealthy fled. The people in the villages rose against them with spades and axes, slaughtering them as they ran: “… especially if he was a tax-gatherer or a landowner, they seized him and battered in his head.” Nearly ten thousand were slain in this way, Juvaini writes. But Mahmud was killed by an arrow and when the Mongol armies returned and his followers took to the field without him, again without armor, twenty thousand rebels met their deaths. The uprising was defeated.

And so, as we greet the new year, let us not fear, but remember that all mighty empires fall and that no matter who records the history, brave men and women invariably stand against them. And let us remember that even unarmed and outnumbered, we are protected by invisible armies and by the great and immortal tribe of the jinns, and that we sometimes, briefly, win.