Wednesday, December 14, 2005
from pen america:
As you probably already know, House and Senate negotiators reached an agreement on the USA PATRIOT Act's extension last week. The agreement would extend for four years Section 215, which permits secret warrants for books, records, and other items from businesses, hospitals, and organizations such as libraries. No changes were made to the standards for obtaining these orders, nor for those for obtaining National Security Letters (NSLs). Section 505 of the PATRIOT Act, authorizing NSLs, still has no sunset.
While we do appreciate that the conference report now sunsets Section 215 in four years instead of seven, this change is not sufficient to protect the privacy of library users from fishing expeditions by the FBI.
As the reauthorization approaches its 12/31 deadline, the White House is pressuring Congress to pass the inadequate "compromise" reauthorization bill. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has stated his support for a bipartisan filibuster in the Senate.
NOW is the time to call your senators! Please call your senators' Washington offices to ask them to:
1) Vote NO on cloture and SUPPORT a filibuster.
2) Vote YES for a three-month continuing resolution.
3) Vote NO on the conference report (if it comes to a vote).
We are particularly eager to generate calls to the following senators who have not indicated how they will vote:
Alaska: Ted Stevens (202) 224-3004
Arkansas: Blanche Lincoln (202) 224-4843 and Mark Pryor (202) 224-2353
Connecticut: Joseph Lieberman (202) 224-4041
Delaware: Thomas Carper (202) 224-2441
Florida: Bill Nelson (202) 224-5274
Idaho: Mike Crapo (202) 224-6142
Indiana: Evan Bayh (202) 224-5623 and Richard Lugar (202) 224-4814
Kansas: Sam Brownback (202) 224-6521
Louisiana: Mary Landrieu (202) 224-5824
Maine: Susan Collins (202) 224-2523 and Olympia Snowe (202) 224-5344
Montana: Conrad Burns (202) 224-2644 and Max Baucus (202) 224-2651
North Dakota: Kent Conrad (202) 224-2043 and Byron Dorgan (202) 224-2551
Nebraska: Ben Nelson (202) 224-6551 and Chuck Hagel (202) 224-4224
New York: Charles Schumer (202) 224-6542 and Hillary Clinton (202) 224-4451
Ohio: Michael DeWine (202) 224-2315 and George Voinovich (202) 224-3353
Oklahoma: Tom Coburn (202) 224-5754
Oregon: Gordon Smith (202) 224-3753
Rhode Island: Lincoln Chafee (202) 224-2921
South Dakota: Tim Johnson (202) 224-5842
Virginia: George Allen (202) 224-4024
West Virginia: Robert Byrd (202) 224-3954
Please also call the following senators to thank them for leading the fight against conference report:
Alaska: Lisa Murkowski (202) 224-6665
Colorado: Ken Salazar (202) 224-5852
Florida: Mel Martinez (202) 224-3041
Idaho: Larry Craig (202) 224-2752
Illinois: Dick Durbin (202) 224-2152
Massachusetts: Edward Kennedy (202) 224-4543
Michigan: Carl Levin (202) 224-6221
Nevada: Harry Reid (202) 224-3542
New Hampshire: John Sununu (202) 224-2841
Vermont: Patrick Leahy (202) 224-4242
West Virginia: Jay Rockefeller (202) 224-6472
Wisconsin: Russ Feingold (202) 224-5323
Thank you for your support!
Monday, November 28, 2005
Sunday, November 20, 2005
for Library Journal
David Levens’ latest book delivers exactly what it advertises: basic chess. Suitable only for novices, the work presents the fundamentals in the trademark bright tones that characterize the booming instructional book market. While his work proves somewhat thin on tactical practice opportunities, Levens lays out the game and its basic principles, moving into essential knowledge such as standard openings; piece strengths, weaknesses, and movement; pins, forks, and skewers; or common mating patterns. The surface gloss of chessic history, including the obligatory hat tip to famous players (Dickens, Nabakov, Duchamp, Amis, et al), adds little to the text. The pages would have been better allotted to more exercises, the key to improving any beginner’s games. Advanced beginners hoping for a new collection of tough puzzles or reviews of sophisticated lines of play would be better served by standbys like the lively Pandolfini’s Ultimate Guide to Chess or the lesser-known 303 Perplexing Chess Puzzles by Fred Wilson and Bruce Albertson. Additionally, nearly all the information in this book is available on the Internet. Not recommended.—Elizabeth Kennedy, Oakland, CA
Thursday, November 10, 2005
Tuesday, November 01, 2005
i am given pictures.
i write 'catchy' phrases.
these pix generally depict sporty spice in various degrees of impractical fauxthleticism.
example one: crunchy gal in yummy fern-hued vest strolling toward big moody mountains. i write: storm warming.
example two: studly strongwoman wearing bright orange eye-assaulting shirt and playing ball with dog riverside. i write: fetching tops.
example three: holiday product shot of two fuzzy pullovers with scarves flung over them all carefree-like. i write: give fleece a chance.
and so on.
and all i really want to write -- all i really ever want to say these days -- to everyone who crosses my path all day long is: you are fucking doomed. the planet is self-destructing. and not only china. that's just easier to report than the fuck-all we're annihilating.
and it's your fault for buying that take-out ...
or yours -- see on your desk, that little plastic buddha? producing that required we release all sorts hideous VOCs into the air and leachate into the earth your very buddha sat his ass on ...
or yours for doing your nails in that ridiculous pink color and killing all the fish with the runoff going from the mississippi straight into the ocean and choking off all other flora with red algae and starving the fish and driving sharks inland to eat us ...
doomed. i mean you.
by W. S. Merwin
You spend so much of your time
expecting to become
who will be different
someone to whom a moment
whatever moment it may be
at last has come
and who has been
met and transformed
into no longer being you
and so has forgotten you
meanwhile in your life
you hardly notice
the world around you
sirens dying along the buildings
your eyes intent
on a sight you do not see yet
not yet there
as long as you
are only yourself
with whom as you
recall you were
to be left along for long
Friday, October 28, 2005
Read the indictments here.
Monday, October 24, 2005
Sunday, October 23, 2005
Saturday, October 01, 2005
A Supermarket in California
What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whitman, for
I walked down the sidestreets under the trees with a headache
self-conscious looking at the full moon.
In my hungry fatigue, and shopping for images, I went
into the neon fruit supermarket, dreaming of your enumerations!
What peaches and what penumbras! Whole families
shopping at night! Aisles full of husbands! Wives in the
avocados, babies in the tomatoes!--and you, Garcia Lorca, what
were you doing down by the watermelons?
I saw you, Walt Whitman, childless, lonely old grubber,
poking among the meats in the refrigerator and eyeing the grocery
I heard you asking questions of each: Who killed the
pork chops? What price bananas? Are you my Angel?
I wandered in and out of the brilliant stacks of cans
following you, and followed in my imagination by the store
We strode down the open corridors together in our
solitary fancy tasting artichokes, possessing every frozen
delicacy, and never passing the cashier.
Where are we going, Walt Whitman? The doors close in
an hour. Which way does your beard point tonight?
(I touch your book and dream of our odyssey in the
supermarket and feel absurd.)
Will we walk all night through solitary streets? The
trees add shade to shade, lights out in the houses, we'll both be
Will we stroll dreaming of the lost America of love
past blue automobiles in driveways, home to our silent cottage?
Ah, dear father, graybeard, lonely old courage-teacher,
what America did you have when Charon quit poling his ferry and
you got out on a smoking bank and stood watching the boat
disappear on the black waters of Lethe?
from the Nation 8/29:
Less than a month after Cadbury Schweppes, the candy and soda company, gave a multimillion dollar grant to the American Diabetes Association, the association’s chief medical and scientific officer claimed that sugar has nothing to do with diabetes, or with weight.
Thursday, September 29, 2005
Friday, September 23, 2005
I recently read a blog that suggested the best thing we can do in response to Katrina & Rita is keep living our happy lives. Really, is that the best thing we can do? I don't know. How about reducing the amount of gadgets we buy, so we contribute less to the oceanic warming that spurred the tropical storms in the first place? Volunteering to rescue the survivors among 90,000 animals left behind? Determining to live with more grace, mindfulness, and action? We are mistaken to shrug shoulders at this natural disaster (made in the USA) and say, ‘Ah, the show must go on’ with a bittersweet glaze over our eyes.
Friday, September 16, 2005
for Prairie Schooner
By Wittgenstein’s watch, our eldest poets circle back to the theme of homecoming as inevitably as they age. Artists, the old fools, can only retire into the cult of yesteryear. The theory would have us believe what Philip Larkin wrote: those who dwell in memory’s "lighted rooms" must be hoping to screen out signs of the blank last "days of thin, continuous dreaming." Jack Gilbert, often retrospective in his slim fifth book Refusing Heaven (Knopf, 2005), may play into this proposition, but the work remains—provocatively—just beyond its ambit.
A master among us at seventy nine years old, Gilbert locates much of his new work in old haunts—Italy, the Greek islands, the lost hotels of Paris. With that in mind, we scan the subject matter—bridges made by memory, gazes held and broken, lives lived, loves lost, the incantatory effect of hard-won solitude—as just the airy nostalgia that might have raised the philosopher’s hackles. "But it’s the having / not the keeping that is the treasure," counters Gilbert. The close attention Gilbert lavishes on his slow, simple life resets the pace at which most of us might otherwise read, in effect doubling our return on his remembrance. Memory and the present state of mind work inextricably, the poems insist. Gilbert is chary of underestimating this link; he takes pain to trace it strictly, as if pressed to run live wire through dry brush. Having the Having begins with the principal metaphor for remembering, knots in string, but moves immediately into a catalog of what the knots cannot quite connote:
I tie knots in the strings of my spirit
to remember. They are not pictures
of what was. Not accounts of dusk
amid the olive trees and that odor.
Memories are not the pictures, not the trees, not the indeterminate odor. Gilbert continues: memories are not a woman’s body, not her memorable mouth, but at least they provide the imperfect means to it all:
They cannot describe, but they
can prevent remembering it wrong.
Where another poet might strain a single metaphor to bear a stock of memories (Jarold Ramsey’s The Tally Stick: "I have carved our lives in secret on this stick / of mountain mahogany the length of your arms"), Gilbert applies no such pressure, fires no false glaze to bond what Ramsey calls a life’s "lengthening runes." Gilbert’s figures for memory—knots, pictures, paths, blazons, bells—change over the course of the poem, an admission of the trouble we have tagging and retrieving what has mattered to us. We can’t help but strip memories with the sands of time. The final lines mimic the touch-and-go flux of the mind, returning to the metaphor with which the poem began:
Two more knots
This end of the line—three stressed syllables— is a small rhythmic swell. Then the simple fragment of held memory slides out of consciousness, felt in the words themselves as the slip of triple consonance falls loose below the last knot—at the end of just and then at the beginning of straight and string:
and then just straight string.
Burning (Andante Non Troppo) begins as elegantly as Having the Having ends. The title sets the pace, with the heat generated by burning tempered by the Italian andante non troppo, a participial phrase for moderate musical tempo. Gilbert scrambles haptic and auditory cues to slow us down; the poet writes against rapidity. To ignore Gilbert’s parenthetical counsel is to burn through the work and pillage for profundity. Trained as mercenaries after meaning, we still fall prey. Most reviews of Refusing Heaven to date carve out the same powerful passage, significance come by easily: "It is the pace of our living / that makes the world available."
Pulled from the poem, each neat phrase tastes good, keeps its own octosyllabic time, perhaps by design. Restored to their context, however, the complete lines vary, eleven and twelve syllables each, and fulfill a greater purpose—transitioning from brief abstraction into slightly longer lines that continue figuratively:
the body’s lion-wrath or forest waiting,
it is always brash self-sabotage that holds off "what the mystery of us knows," always "our gait of being that decides / how much is seen." Our drives and desires can obscure insight, as Gilbert emphasizes in an unexpected contrast between the architecture of old Italian churches and that of modern buildings:
The grand Italian churches are
covered with detail which is visible at the pace
people walk by. The great modern buildings are
blank because there is no time to see from the car.
The passive verbs in this passage lay us bare, demonstrate our complicity to development, our disregard for what we work so hard to build. Slowing down, Gilbert suggests, is an evolutionary precept antedating us by millennia, as old as the river rocks of Kyoto:
A thousand years ago when they built the gardens
of Kyoto, the stones were set in the stream askew.
Whoever went quickly would fall in.
Gilbert has a way of chiding us for forgetting: it is called a leisurely pace for a reason. The pleasure of pacing shapes the poem itself, with stacks of fricatives kept close together—stones, set, stream, askew—but the poet shuffles them mischievously, only hinting at an alliterative pattern (st-vowel, s-vowel-t, st-consonant, vowel-sk-vowel). He sets sounds as close and crooked as the rocks themselves.
Gilbert makes this kind of merry in his poems alone. His meditations draw their strength from the solitary surroundings, remote provinces from which stars can be spied, where nuthatches, finches, and chickadees constitute good company, and thoughts have room to be met and mastered. Wherever it is situated, each poem resounds with the "quiet that is the music of that place, / which is the difference between silence and windlessness." In such stillness, the poet does equal justice to both lost companions and the soul in solitude, but rarely addresses the living. We imagine Gilbert read Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet early on, that he may have marked up the passage, "If you can bear it so, be dead among the dead. The dead are occupied." Gilbert, in fact, responded to Rilke ninety three years after the fact in a poem called "Guilty" from his 1996 collection, The Great Fires: "I’m already one of the dead among the dead."
What results from such a stance is a collection that, even when doing the work of tender elegy for beloved dead, carries a sense of striking isolation. Gilbert’s linguistic restraint startles our social sensibilities, starkness magnified when we compare his work to that of his contemporaries. Here is the second stanza from Seamus Heaney’s Personal Helicon, in which the poet remembers peering into a favorite well:
One, in a brickyard, with a rotted top.
I savoured the rich crash when a bucket
Plummeted down at the end of the rope.
So deep you saw no reflection in it.
While the well’s depth initially fails to reflect back what the poet hopes to see, we still feel the lush satisfaction in the child’s play. Elsewhere, Heaney alludes to anonymous elders who would keep him from the wells; he fringes the sites with ferns and foxgloves, waterweed, fungus, even a rat that slaps across his reflection; he slides in time to differentiate the young boy from the mild adult author he has become. Heaney populates his five stanzas to achieve a happy chaos against which we can fully see the "big-eyed Narcissus," the spell of his own image. Gilbert’s poem shares no such fascination with the self. It is five lines long, not five stanzas. It telescopes neither forward nor backward in time, but hovers over one well in a silent, isolated moment. A bucket is lowered, but we get none of the rich and rackety plummeting Heaney recalls. The Abandoned Valley asks only that we appreciate the desperation for contact that we must assume will be made:
Can you understand being alone so long
you would go out in the middle of the night
and put a bucket into the well
so you could feel something down there
tug at the other end of the rope?
Gilbert’s collection echoes with this relentless spirit of inquiry. In the title poem, Gilbert goes so far as to contest mortality if it means we must surrender all we have lived. The narrator chooses "against the Lord. He will not abandon his life." He remembers the mills "where he became a young man as he worked" and regrets:
The mills are eaten away, and eaten
again by the sun and its rusting. He needs them
even though they are gone, to measure against.
If we must submit to death, we will at least pack our memories with us. Such loyalty to this life seems only sensible, yet by Gilbert’s design the logic quickly fails. The poet measures his life against structures twice worn away, mills long gone. The narrator collapses into abstraction:
He is like an old ferry dragged on to the shore,
a home in its smashed grandeur, with the giant beams
and joists ...
From these figures of destroyed glory and retired utility, Gilbert veers into some of his most spectacular language, images that sink brightly into the surreal. After dedicating much of the book to the treasures of having, the sacred remembered, the lost recalled, Refusing Heaven draws the eye to the illusion of thought and the unreliability of all we romanticize with our meager memorials. We cannot stop time. We cannot live in the now. We cannot refuse heaven, nor can we embrace life. The man’s interests in this poem are as impossible and absurd as:
… a wooden ocean out of control.
A beached heart. A cauldron of cooling melt.
Here is where the poem ends. Yet, if we return to the first piece in the collection, A Brief for the Defense, we remember what Gilbert said to begin with. We might be forgiven for permitting ourselves the brave little luxury of hope:
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world.
Delight in the midst of hell on earth, despite fading memories, over rocky ground—Gilbert does not shy from the clichés that furnish memory’s rooms. It is the acoustics he alters in the rooms that, as Pound urged they must, make it new. Love, longing, loneliness—Gilbert’s is a common vernacular. But the poet arranges the mental venue to access what, after we have heard it, seems the only sustainable song, the "music despite everything."
Friday, September 02, 2005
Katrina coverage reminds me of the Keep America Beautiful campaign, when we spent millions guilting individuals into putting litter “in its place” rather than allocating that money to proper industry reform we knew we needed. Journalists today buy into this slogan of individual shame and syndicate that meme without reflecting on the implications. It is like antimuckraking, papering over an era of institutional negligence that led up to the catastrophe in the first place. Is it too complicated, too much legislative tedium to cover?
At least not for Paul Krugman. His op-ed trains the focus back where it should be, on George W. Bush—not during the crisis, but long before, when he unmanned the floodgates of an avertable, imminent disaster. Don’t we recall from September 11th that FEMA gave Conde a list? We knew from this list that the three most likely catastrophes threatening our country were a terrorist attack on New York, another major earthquake in San Francisco, and the third--and most deadly--a hurricane in New Orleans. So what did Bush do? He absorbed FEMA into HSA and reappropriated the budget (meant to repair the now broken levees) to general counterterrorism initiatives. Sometimes I wonder if he really cannot read. This is the only explanation for such blatant strategic ineptitude.
So, yeah there's crushing shame to be borne in our complicity, but the legitimate cause for shame is having elected Bush in the first place. He has now proven beyond a reasonable doubt that is ill-equipped for the job.
Wednesday, August 31, 2005
ambient wallpaper for the indoor day:
Bar Code 3:53 White Mud Free Way
Nothing Gold Can Stay 0:36 Robert Frost
A Song in the Front Yard 1:01 Gwendolyn Brooks
Paperweight 3:40 Eszter Balint
This Bouquet 2:28 Ani DiFranco
Speaking in Tongues 2:49 Eagles of Death Metal
...and Carrot Rope 3:52 Pavement
A Minha Menina 2:48 Band of Bees
Haiti 4:07 The Arcade Fire
War In Iraq 3:37 George W. Bush Singers
Conservative, Christian, Right-Wing Republican, Straight, White, American Males 3:17 Todd Snider
Absence of God 3:56 Rilo Kiley
Those To Come 4:24 The Shins
A Supermarket in California 2:17 Allen Ginsberg
The Secret 1:08 Denise Levertov
She Moves She 4:41 Four-tet
Monday, August 29, 2005
for Library Journal
Female Chauvinist Pigs (FCPs), according to New York magazine columnist Ariel Levy, come in two species: the woman “open to a certain sort of attention” and her foul-mouthed female fan willing and able to objectify “like a man.” Levy rigorously argues that women not only participate in, but also perpetuate, today’s oversexed raunch culture. Levy challenges Christie Hefner, Sheila Nevins, and Jennifer Heftler, for example, as they position their brands—Playboy, HBO, and The Man Show, respectively—as the fun, ironic realization of post-feminist liberation. Community anecdotes abound, with butches and bois in the lesbian community disparaging their femme girlfriends and the straight dupes of the Girls Gone Wild juggernaut flashing for a branded hat. Levy views the drive to pole dance and dress in tiny, glittery swatches of fabric as a fear of being labeled uptight; she suggests the bad rap of early anti-porn feminists like Dworkin and MacKinnon precipitated a reactionary spring into exhibitionism. Insightful interviews in which preteens fail to distinguish between the desire for attention and sexual attraction reinforce Levy’s argument for comprehensive federal sex-ed programs. Recommended for all public libraries.—Elizabeth Kennedy, Oakland, CA
Tuesday, August 23, 2005
Afterword on this one: The Kid was a hilarious book. Smart and sensitive, informative, real.
Monday, August 22, 2005
Well! After so many years, I’ve finally found a new addition to this very brief list: Puffy de Rumba. I discovered it on LinkTV, Music Video Block #161 for the ambitiously interested. A stationary set of Jpop stars gaze into the camera and synchronously swing their left arms (only) as their stock back-up tribe does same. They don't so much sing as dully intone, yet the rhumba makes it hypnotic. Meanwhile, the camera cuts to Jimi Hendrix, who stumbles through a Magic Garden-variety set and eats some glazed-looking, '70s-era, red-capped mushroom. He falls in a Wonka chocolate river. The dewy-eyed pretties discover him waterside. And that's not all. Find it, watch it. You will become problematically attached.
Friday, August 12, 2005
Cindy Sheehan's son died last year in Iraq after unidentified militants attacked his unit with rocket-propelled grenades. Ms. Sheehan apparently hiked into the Prairie Chapel Ranch because she sought an explanation, a specific identification of the "noble cause" for which her son is said to have died. The President proved unable - or unwilling - to provide one. Odd to understand that recognizing her request would send the wrong message.
Crazies who decide they're against the war after all, Bush might attempt to articulate, will come out of the woodwork, hopping barbed wire, digging tunnels, flying in on their home-hammered tinfoil saucers. The strategy, instead of facing up to Sheehan, was to briefly acknowledge her freedom of speech and then hand it all over, have his publicists announce that the best aides could offer was a commitment to "pass her message along to the President." Her message remains the same.
"If he doesn't come out to talk to me in Crawford, I'll follow him to D.C., and I'll camp out on his lawn. I'll go to prison. I don't want to live in a country where people are treated this way ... I want to tell him that the only way to honor my son's sacrifice is to bring the troops home now."
Friday, July 15, 2005
for Library Journal
A two-time American Women’s Chess Champion introduces the elite female masters by surveying their feminist beliefs. This curious angle strains to integrate chessic history, unsophisticated feminist theory, and tales from today’s tournament frontlines. The flood of names, ranks, and ratings flows in a disorganized stream-of-consciousness. One brief chapter catalogs disparate players from Iran, India, Ecuador, Vietnam, and Zambia. The exposé dwells on skittles room gossip, revealing sensational anecdotes like masters who moonlight as models or strippers. Surprising dives into vulgar diction eliminate the book’s ideal audience, young girls in search of inspiring mentors. Shahade’s outmoded conceptions of feminine beauty and style may also deter serious feminists. Glimpses of professionals in action—a day in the life of the Polgar sisters, the Menchik-Graf rivalry, Chinese women’s invasion of the Chess Olympiads in the late '90s—and an appendix of over fifty games in notation prove worthwhile. Readers seeking a learned feminist history of chess (with an emphasis on the queen’s role) might turn their attention to Marilyn Yalom’s Birth of the Chess Queen (HarperCollins, 2004). Not recommended.—Elizabeth Kennedy, Oakland, CA
Saturday, June 25, 2005
presented as part of Bennington College MFA lecture series, June 2005
After you add up the awe and deduct the shock, what legacy has Saul Bellow left to American letters? One reader’s attempt to balance brilliant prose with provincial politics.
Only a critic who intends to give a lecture about Saul Bellow wonders if enough has been said. We can hardly round a library stack without eyeing spines on one of Bellow’s five marriages or fourteen novels, about his Pulitzer Prize, the Nobel speech of 1976, his moral might and spiritual inquiries, his prose style, or now, about the legacy he left American letters. It sometimes seems everyone has, at one point or another, surveyed Bellow’s domain: James Wood and Sven Birkerts. Martin Amis, Margaret Drabble. Christopher Hitchens, Stanley Crouch, James Atlas, to name just a few. But then Bellow is, according to many critics, second only to Henry James or to William Faulkner in the pantheon of great American stylists; Bellow even topped one discerning critic’s list for his then-new tricks with diction, stacking major philosophical facecards in the decks of smack-talking Chicago jokers … and still managing to walk away with winning stories.
Yes, however we may rank Bellow’s game, the response to his death at the age of 89 this last fifth of April proved his place, as a standing-room-only crush of admirers materialized instantly in the quarterly pages, recognitions bursting like the glitter of fireworks just above our heads, much of it familiar: all our love for his prolix plotlessness, the epic mental quests, the style and speed of narrative, the inwardness of it all, and the glorious words themselves. But in magazines & on the Web, in review after review, in the biographies, the critical collections, and the memoirs of jilted intimates, we note one conspicuous absence. Would no one provide more than a gloss of a key factor of Bellow’s uncommon variety of realism—the offense of it all?
It is ever-present in Bellow’s books, as it is in interviews, his essays, his shorter works, the loose language thrust between such lofty thoughts—Henderson and his “savages,” the “cunts” in Humboldt’s Gift, and the “queer antics and faggot behavior” in a book like Ravelstein. These words bind together to form stories populated not only by the predominantly male Jewish protagonists modeled in part after the author himself, but a squad of stock characters, as well—Rinaldo Cantabile, the wanna-be Italian don; the violently anti-Semitic Ukranian gardener who once guarded a concentration camp; Sono, the sexy Japanese lover; King Dahfu, the sabre-rattling, superstitious African tribal leader; and of course, the inevitable and always heart-rending Irish drunks, like Mr. McKern, who without even managing to attain consciousness plays a pivotal role in the story “Something to Remember Me By.”
So this is serious. Yet we still struggle to find even a passing reference to such matters in reviews. Maybe we’re too tidy, neatly depositing politics outside the door of literary analysis. Or perhaps it’s just no fun; critiquing Bellow is too grand an opportunity to meditate on all that, like describing the ocean to one who’s never been—aren’t we more inclined to begin with the scale and the shimmer, the motion and the way it gently plays up light before getting into the treachery of riptides, the sharks at the fathomless depths?
We stubbornly resist; after all, there is so much more to say about one of literature’s most lauded than how he has failed us. And I agree. In part. Bellow’s language calls for commendation. The Economist obituary captured what I think best defines him—the rangy, raucous diction. They called it “colloquial and mandarin, lofty, streetwise and intimate.” The entire spectrum from high formality to the vulgar vernacular provides Bellow’s work its popular accessibility; the stories are so dense and full of possibility that they literally seem to morph into new material for each critic. Sometimes to such an extreme that we wonder if we’ve read the same book. Lorin Stein’s essay reprinted in Salon upon Bellow’s death, for example, compares Bellow’s characters not to those created by the usual all-male team, the endurance athletes of storytelling—Melville, Joyce, James, Proust, Cervantes, Flaubert—but to the men of Almodóvar and John Waters, and then to the mustachioed undercover agents in the Beastie Boys video, Sabotage. Ardent MCA devotee that I am, this likening remains an impenetrable mystery to me.
Still, Stein’s assessment is important, not only because it shows how literature can be of, by, and for many minds at once, but also because Stein is one of the first I found who ventures beyond the mere mention of the biases, so often cited by what seems like obligation, and into the messy task of charting the racial territory herself; she suggests that Mr. Sammler’s Planet, a novel that in part takes black-Jewish tension as its difficult premise, is “about blackness as fantasy, whiteness as the badge of the solipsist.”
Now, this presents some problems. It affords Bellow much more credit as a political polemicist than he would ever even accept. Bellow’s protagonist, Mr. Arthur Sammler, is a Holocaust survivor deeply disturbed by his surroundings, the new world order of stinky bohemians, distracted women, and daft proletarians. His fate and outlook both shift as he watches a crime unfold; “Sammler, feeling his head small, shrunk with strain, the teeth tensed, still was looking at the patent-leather bag riding, picked, on the woman’s hip, finding that he was irritated with her. That she felt nothing. What an idiot!”
In outrage, Sammler sets out on a quest to pursue the man of color who picked the pocketbook. The character and situation exist to give Sammler a platform from which to entertain his conflicted views on, among other issues, the romantic appeal of outlaws, the establishment’s vulnerability to subversion, and the greater state of the Union. “Mr. Sammler had to admit that once he had seen the pickpocket at work,” Bellow wrote, “he wanted very much to see the thing again. He didn’t know why.”
If we were to meditate on this passage as Stein’s arranged it (blackness, fantasy; whiteness, solipsism), would we not find ourselves with whiteness as the deepest realizable reality and blackness a chimerical plaything? It is dead wrong to read Sammler as any attempt to posture a critical commentary on race relations. No such superstructure exists; spying on a petty thief along the same daily bus route is a diversionary tactic that speeds plot development. It is the grounding reality that opens the story up to the lucid dreaming of the protagonist. Bellow always gives us this basic tension to occupy our practical interests as he does his best work, what he called in an interview with Sven in AGNI online, the “chronicling of the inner life.”
So this much is clear: skin color and racial origins are never leveraged for symbolic appeal in Sammler. Race and ethnicity are coarse, contentious constants for Bellow, articles of genuine antagonism in which he very much believes and which he exploits for dramatic effect. I offer no congratulations for such dependencies, nor do I feel the need to develop heady symbolism that prettifies a book that depicts an “African prince” stealing from innocent white elders, describing him as looming like a “puma,” staring with the “effrontery of a big animal,” and presenting like “a great black beast.”
Affronted by the crass racial caricatures, we may be tempted to second Stein’s decision to sweep Bellow’s words under the rug, saying “none of [his] novels has aged gracefully.” But is that where our conversation ends? Considering it was written in 1970, I’m frankly not sure the book ever knew an era that considered such offensive language graceful. And furthermore, surely we can find a way to discuss Bellow comprehensively, noting that an author can be in possession of both narrow views and broad talents and still produce brilliant storylines.
I remember having “end of an era” thoughts when I first learned Bellow had died, but then I had to ask myself to what era Bellow actually belonged? He rejected the idea that history could direct one’s life and art and insisted that true art tends to nothing but what he called our “phenomenal surroundings.” It all sounded so easy as to come off a little grand, if not downright smug. But when I read a tribute in The New Yorker, written—unexpectedly—by Joan Acocella, their long-time ballet critic, proof of Bellow’s earnest convictions somehow clicked into place.
Acocella veered within a metaphorical inch of the Bellovian province I’m after here today. She wrote of Bellow’s “long, baroque, history-swallowing sentences,” “sentences [that] occur on almost every page. They are like hall closets,” she wrote. “You open them and everything falls out.”
We leap back from the figurative gesture here, not only because we respond to the comic tumble of mops and lampshades, of snowboards and tennis rackets, but also because we know well that every closet contains splintered skeletons, each an ugly artifact of our haunted, stunted minds. Everyone, especially he who claims to be free of clutter, stows away prejudices somewhere.
So for days after I read Acocella’s review, the closet kept creaking ajar and calling me in. I kept coming back to it, visions of Bellow hunched there, perspiring by the harsh light of his creative industry. I watched Bellow in my mind, reaching into the metaphorical dark without trepidation, flinging every last item of his overstocked closet backwards over his shoulder and hard, far, fast, all of it, everything, with the utmost abandon. Martin Amis wrote that “Bellow sees more than we see—sees, hears, smells, tastes, touches. Compared with him, the rest of us are only fitfully sentient.” So Acocella got it right; Sammler is but one of many Bellovian protagonists who sort their mental chaos on the page; Bellow depicts it with what James Wood called his “hilarious pathos,” with his reckless stylings, unrelenting curiosity, and unqualified openness. He is a rarity in that he inventories every disgrace, spares us none of it, not the high-flying philosophy crammed with mythic references and intensely opinionated interpretations, nor the grim proofs of what I believe are his often low, shameful, elitist views.
One of Bellow’s best and most important books, Humboldt’s Gift, is the one that, unjustifiably, takes the toughest blows of all for its portraiture. It is, even more than Bellow’s other works, many novels all at once, centering on a successful author named Charlie Citrine whose personal and professional prospects hang in the balance.
Citrine feels his way through the beginnings, ends, and aftershocks of his disastrous relationships with four different women, loses his religion, resists the Freudian fixations of the day, comically embroils himself in Mafioso intrigue, and spends the rest of his time sorting the diminished memories and oddball legacies of his literary mentor, Humboldt Von Fleisher, based on the poet Delmore Schwartz.
In her incredibly hard-hitting Village Voice article entitled Why Do These Men Hate Women?, Vivian Gornick dressed Bellow down for the book, along with Henry Miller, Norman Mailer, and Philip Roth. “One wants to weep with shame over the shabbiness and emotional cowardice of the best American writers,” she wrote.
“The self-absorption of an arrested psyche, the sullen vanities of disappointed men, the forfeited talents of writers” could all be reduced to “blood-congested urgencies” and a “dreadful fear of mortality.” The work of the great prose artists ultimately failed “to mature, to say something valuable to us about our world.”
Humboldt’s Gift is an eloquent indictment of the traditional American enterprise of destroying its artists Citrine reflects lengthily on Schwartz, but also on Edgar Allan Poe, Hart Crane, Randall Jarrell, and John Berryman. We might add Sara Teasdale, Sylvia Plath, Lucy Grealy, and Reetika Vazirani. Citrine takes a hard, unforgiving look at our culture when he acidly states, “poets are loved, but loved because they just can’t make it here. They exist to light up the enormity of the awful tangle and justify the cynicism of those who say, ‘If I were not such a corrupt, unfeeling bastard, creep, thief, and vulture, I couldn’t get through this either.” If we fail to feel the critical—forgive me the word—message in such a voice, to hear “something valuable in it,” we must admit the resistance amounts to our own cynical corruption, our own awfully ironic intolerance.
On several levels, Gornick is undeniably correct. The guys in Humboldt’s Gift, at too many turns, portray women as mere pull-string dolls. She critiques, “The wife figure flashes: Touch me, I will evoke for you everything in life that is perpetually doing you in. The mistress figure flashes. Touch me. I will evoke for you everything in life that is perpetually holding out on you.” But these are the willfully electrified lines of tension that exist between Citrine and his ex-wife Denise, between Citrine and his lover Renata. Gornick writes that Bellow is “isolated from our life, and [he] know[s] it.” I cannot say what life this is. I am well over a half-century younger than Bellow and I see evidence of his types everywhere I turn, in both genders. In fact, when Citrine and Denise argue over his obsessive lament for Humboldt, Denise asks, “So you feel bad about your pal Humboldt! But how come you haven’t looked him up?” Citrine thinks to himself, “These were hard questions, very intelligent. She didn’t let me get away with a thing.” At that instant, I did not even need a physical description of the scene, nor was one offered up, because Bellow recreates the sensate hover in our every interaction; he probes the human emotions we feel to the nervy roots of our teeth. We have watched men and women stand before us, how they think these thoughts, show their analysis in their expressions. Bellow allows us to feel it all right alongside Denise. No derivative emotion or mealy-mouthed exposition, just the necessary action.
But then, I neither expect nor desire humanist portraiture from my literature. I do not hope that Denise will become a model of my own life somehow improved, nor the promise of a sisterhood glorified. I am a fiercely committed feminist, and pugnacious when I need to be, but I’d side first with JFK when he says, “Let us welcome controversial books” (though I would add only if well-written, please). And let me also be clear (and perhaps, defensive) when I assert that I do believe in the change a book can inspire; I carry Sam Hamill’s collection Poets Against the War around with me. And I admire Jose Saramago, Antonio Tabucchi, Wislawa Szymborska, Elfriede Jelinek, Salman Rushdie, and Gunter Grass for writing literature that fights causes, that makes statements our leaders desperately need to hear; and we must have more of it.
But reading Marx’s proposal that books are “the basis of all social progress,” we would be incautious and incorrect to assume he means only a vision of where we might arrive as we improve. Books are just as valuable for the sorry articulation of where we are right now. In offering us the very real, erratic, awful, narcissistic, and often enormously offensive vitality of characters, wholly drawn, Bellow instructs. We need the uncompromised antagonism of his own mind in the world, the desperate efforts of his backwards people to live at full tilt, guiding their way by the light of the “moronic inferno.”
And besides, though the bimbo Polly, the castrating ex-wife Denise, and the busty, “deliciously damp” Renata disappoint and distract with the simplicity of their construction, we would be remiss to overlook characters like Demmie Vonghel, an early love interest of Citrine’s in Humboldt’s Gift.
Once we shoulder past the typical Bellovian physical review—Demmie had, by the way, hair like the “curtains of a neat house,” blue eyes with clean whites, a confrontational upturned nose, teeth that forced her mouth open, and a face “like you might have seen in a Conestoga wagon a century ago”—we find she also studied classics at Bryn Mawr and taught Latin, she knew over three thousand Bible verses, was expertly familiar with all kinds of pharmaceuticals. Sure, she was blessed with beautiful legs, but she also possessed what Citrine identified as “strength of soul.” She talked trash when she played cards. She bragged a rap sheet for hot wiring cars. Except that she later dies in a plane crash, as such ideal characters are wont to do, can you tell me what the problem is with this woman? I, for one, would be pleased to find myself seated beside her in a bar.
Her problems, like anyone’s in Bellow’s work, serve a purpose. Demmie informs the protagonist’s developing perspective in essential ways, just as past loves do in our own lives, revealing what James Wood beautifully called Bellow’s “coiled ironies.” It is this woman, after all, sitting with Citrine’s manuscript in her lap and hurtling to her doom on a plane bound back to earth, whose theme in life is “the miraculous survival of goodness.” Bellow is sensitive to the flimsiness of our optimistic appraisals and has created a character to embody it. Each character’s exaggerated identity distorts in this way, like a Hirschfield portrait. No, not exactly complimentary, but altered intentionally to provoke feelings, frustrate expectation, surprise assumption, and, yes, maybe even offend convention. Is this not what strongest fiction does? We’ve had a stretch of nearly three decades since Gornick’s piece was published in the Village Voice and all our various feminisms have gone their separate ways, but I wonder today whether a response is even more dearly needed now than it was then. Are we losing the capability, as we so clearly have with Hollywood celebrities and their public performances, to distinguish quite literally between fact and fiction?
I’ll approach the inherent value of flawed characters this way: which would we prefer from our art, to be offended or bored? Citrine says, in a moment when I strongly suspect the author’s voice intrudes, “some people are so actual that they beat down my critical powers. Once they’re there—inarguable, incontestable—nothing can be done about them. Their reality matters more than my practical interests. Beyond a certain point of vividness I become passionately attached.” I’m sure we all but a few of us congratulate ourselves here today, and challenge the novelists, bring that actual, attach me to your passions! Offend me! Dare me. But the numbers tell a different story, one of appetites for blander stuff. The American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom tells us that over the last decade, out of twenty different requests to remove books from our library shelves, offensive language was among the top three complaints, occupying 16% of all national challenges.
Paradoxically, our sensitivities increase as the input multiplies, and the flow of critical thought is being ruinously routed by mandated lines of thought. Though the numbers fluctuate from year to year and the ALA claims for every request to ban a book that at least five go unreported, requests submitted to libraries for the banning of offensive books increased by 255% from 1990 to 2004. The most recent numbers show requests increased 21% from 2003 to 2004. From the last year of Clinton’s presidency to the first of Dubya’s moralizing platform of intolerance began, requests increased by 37%, the largest increase in over a decade.
So let’s all catch our breath. Salman Rushdie recently wrote in an LA Times op-ed piece that “we love relatively few books in our lives, and those books become part of the way we see our lives; we read our lives through them, and their descriptions of the inner and outer worlds become mixed up with ours—they become ours. Love does this, hate does not.” But this is not so. Do we not best remember what we hate and pity the most? Well I know, whatever it says about me, I do: I think of Joseph, the diarist of Bellow’s first published book, Dangling Man. It is, as with most offense in Bellow, his flip assertions that trouble most. He employs terms like ‘darky entertainers,’ welters endlessly in feminine pheromones, lengthily observing every stretched neck that crosses his view, all the wanton eyes, the large bosoms, and the apparently omnipresent plump bottoms. Yet I attend to this character. I take in his fictional life. Why? Because however rank his rotten lust, he still challenges me and every reader if not only to consider the alternatives he overlooks when he thinks, “I would rather die in the war than consume its benefits.”
Such thoughts stop us cold and force reflection. The ugly depths are not a domain exclusive to Bellow, of course. In other works, we remember the difficult characters because they strut and fret in our minds well beyond their hour upon the page: Humbert Humbert, Raskalnikov, Coetzee’s Magistrate, or King Lear and the “ruinous disorders [that] follow us disquietly to our graves.” Characters that offend me, however frustrated it leaves me, remain—like the nasty, vengeful Robert Wilson in Hemingway’s The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber. And I think I will live my life with the horrific last scene of Elfriede Jelinek’s Wonderful Wonderful Times wedged whole at the forefront of my mind. This is what happens when a character in text transitions to a memorable personality. However loathe we may be to admit it, if we have read them, we know Bellow’s people by heart in this awful way.
In Herzog, a Bellow novel I love, a man named Moses Herzog writes a hurried series of letters, attacking everyone and forgiving no one as he comes hysterically unhinged. The narration reads, “Moses refused to know evil. But he could not refuse to experience it.” We have the luxury of refusing neither the knowledge nor the experience of evil ourselves. Bellow gave us everything he had—what he loved and believed, everyone he needed and wanted and argued with and discarded, all that he endured. He also reported with precision how the frost looked frozen on sills, what he could read of the newspapers blurring by in the subway, what he imagined of Africa, all he regretted having done to his family, how deeply he feared for the culture he loved, all the lives he vetted and the prejudices he affirmed, everything deferred and accepted, all of it.
Cornel West insists we must be “charitable and compassionate toward any political perspective from which we can gain insight and wisdom to empower us." It is not my business as a critic to defend or deride another author’s private bigotries. I’d not think to do it and, besides, I’ve read enough interviews with Bellow to know how loathe I’d be to convey what I encountered. The text, however, is our territory; it belongs to us as readers as much to Bellow as a writer. Vivian Gornick is free to have her read of Bellow and I am free to respond. To wit, we are not only free, but obliged to rise to such discourse. Perhaps this is the most vital lesson Bellow has unknowingly bestowed upon us.
In the same AGNI interview, Bellow remembered Depression-era Chicago, the days when “libraries were full of people trying to keep warm, and they were reading all kinds of books … you’d see groups of people actually arguing about ideas.” If a novel can capture this spirit, the hushed debates in the library carrels or just as well the throw-down in the town piazza, it has done its work, regardless of the contents of the conversation. Askold reminded us last term that “a great style … bring[s] us back to our bodies by identifying sensations or intimations we’ve had … without knowing how to name them, so that against the violent backdrop of the world … we can at least begin to understand a part of why we have lived as we have.” I believe with all of me that Bellow achieves this, and that he is equally committed to that violent backdrop and those who stand before it as he is to our role in painting the backdrop with our apathies, our distortions, our dysfunctions. Prose is, by my light, nothing if not an explicit effort to name all the human qualities as we come to them, the range of sensations, the hints and allegations of commonality, both becoming and brutal. Humanity thrives best when we dispense with the Manichean duality of good and evil and just admit it: each of us harbors a world of love and hate within. After all, aren’t shock and awe similar spiritual disturbances?
When we have done the moral work of tending to our own offenses, we more fully feel the revelations. Shortly after I finished a second reading of Humboldt’s Gift, which ends with Charlie Citrine discovering a small yellow crocus growing at the side of a mass grave, I happened to visit the blog of a friend of mine here at Bennington, one with whom I’ll soon part ways. I scrolled through the pictures, until I came to this.
And I ask you, is there nothing that makes all the work of the original Bellovian cast worth it, that might restore childlike wonder to a jaded adult than having known our own violence and destruction, attended to our own hatred and intolerance, to the spectacular sadness of our lives, than returning to these small and fleeting moments of grace and synchronicity, of having weathered—and yes, maybe forgiven—our differences and our offenses and having felt an astonished commonality in what still grows? If this is not artistry worth inheriting, I simply cannot say what is.