Sunday, February 1, 2015


[In harmony with today's Google doodle, we repost this.]

“Our problems in America are very much like yours,” I told the Africans, “especially in the South.  I am a Negro, too.”
But they only laughed at me and shook their heads and said:  “You, white man!  You, white man!”
-- Langston Hughes,  The Big Sea (1940)

[Unusual first-name, common surname;  cf. Malcolm.]

I have lately been reading widely in European cultural history of the 1920s and 30s, and in that context, re-reading the second volume of Langston Hughes’ autobiography, I Wonder as I Wander (published  1956).   It is one of the best books I have ever read.  And it is far more gentle and ironic and humorous, more universal in appeal, than the impression you would get from the Wiki article on Hughes (which does not even discuss the book),  which pretty much sees him in the lens of identity-politics.   
In that memoir, largely concerned with European travels, his 1932 trajectory improbably intersects that of another of my favorite writers, Arthur Koestler:  and it is fascinating to read of their stay in Turkmenistan, first from Hughes’ perspective here, and then from Koestler’s (in Koestler’s own memoirs, and in the fine biography by Michael Scammell).   Their compresence on this outpost of the world-historical stage, at that fraught time, is impossible to summarize or even allude to in any illuminating way, absent the necessary background in the Zeitgeist of the time.  (Read The Invisible Writing; read Out of the Night; read Memoirs of Montparnasse ; read Mémoirs d’un revolutionnaire …)

I tend not to be drawn to books with titles like A Negro Looks at Soviet Central Asia (1934) (which title was quite possibly imposed on Hughes by his Bolshevik publishers), or Famous American Negroes (1954), since I am not a Negro.(**)  On the other hand, I am not an Englishman either, and I love Dickens.  It all depends on whether you are in the hands of a great writer.  And in some of his books, Langston Hughes is that.  -- Further, though a widely-traveled man of eclectic culture, he was very, very American.   Henry James, T.S. Elliot -- Europe can have ‘em.  Langston we keep.

(** : By contrast, the title of his story collection, The Ways of White Folks, is very appealing indeed, for I am fascinated by the ways of white folks, some of whom I number among my best friends.)


We have commented elsewhere on the current overpuffing of the literary merits (properly nugatory) of certain currently coddled groups (which both decorum and due discretion  bid leave unnamed) -- based largely, one imagines, on the profiles of who-all happens to work at the literary media these days.    Black men, by contrast, have been relatively quiet this past decade;  if one gets the red-carpet treatment in the news, when not for some notable recent achievement, it is likely not for being black, but for (something else).  But there are treasures, not much trumpeted.

Langston Hughes shares some traits with another noted American writer of mixed race, Barack Obama.   (Yes, I know, he became President;  but prior to that, his excellent autobiography qualified him as, indeed, a writer.)   Both had a virile, absent father, admired diffidently from a distance;  both spent a fair number of years, as children or young men, outside an English-speaking country;  both were well aware of their marginal status -- marginal with respect to just about any gestalt you could name.  (Langston may actually have been marginal in a further respect not shared by Obama;  don’t know, not important here.)   And both turned this predicament to ultimate good advantage.
There is nothing wrong, of course, from being a comfortable member of the dominant community (ethnic or religious or what have you) in your home country;  but that background does not, by itself, lead on to philosophy.   The minority, by contrast, cannot help confronting such matters.  If the confrontation collapses into futility, you wind up with Identity Politics.  If it serves as a path to insight, you get the world’s great literary observers.


One of the books I enjoyed during the years in Berkeley after I had dropped out of graduate school for lack of the wherewithal to pay the tuition, and lived (richly!) on literature  rather than food, was Langston’s The Best of Simple.  ‘Simple’ (or Semple, to the registrar) was, as the vernacular version of his surname might suggest, a Naturkind, an ingénu, a naïf :  and though this personality is archetypically American, the European designations (for which I cannot, at present, think of a good English equivalent), are in point, for I Wonder as I Wander provides a surprising hint at the genesis of this character:

I have an affinity for Latin Americans, and the Spanish language I have always loved. One of the first things I did when I got to Mexico City  was to get a tutor, and began to read Don Quixote in the original, a great reading experience  that possibly helped me to develop, many years later, in my own books, a character called Simple

-- a kind of blend, as it were, of Sancho Panza and the Quixote.

Another surprising detail from his Mexico days (since American literati of the ‘20s and ‘30s were not generally a devout bunch):

I went to vespers every night  in the old church just across the street, lighted by tall candles  and smelling of incense.  Sometimes I even got up early in the morning to attend mass.

(Laus deô.)

By a biographical accident, it was the work of Langston Hughes that first introduced me to poetry (beyond “Twinkle twinkle little star” -- not that there is anything wrong with that poem, either, in its place).  My parents were not bookish;  yet somehow, on their scantly-populated shelves, stood a “slender volume of verse” (in the classic phrase of the time), its rich yellow hardcovers  together actually thicker than the text in-between, called:

The Weary Blues
by Langston Hughes

(Itself already a kind of monostich, I noted with astonishment.)

One I recall from memory:

Bring me all of your dreams,   you dreamers.
Bring me all your heart-melodies,
that I may wrap them   in a blue cloud-cloth,
away from the too-rough fingers  of the world.

I hesitate even to quote this, for the very reason the poet cites:  the too-rough fingers of the world.  It needs to nestle in its octavo yellow covers,  being gently handled by my own slim fingers, aged nine.    (It is not, in itself, on the level of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”;  but remember:  Up to that time, I had met nothing much beyond the level of the Alphabet Song.)

Anyhow, here is a picture of the man, one that warms my heart.  I could easily have selected one less contentious;  but Langston liked his liquor, and his jazz, and the sweet feel of a woman -- and yes, he sometimes enjoyed a smoke.    He was never one to kowtow to pieties (not even those of the Left).   

Here's looking at you, kid.

Dr Teisingumo Pausalio

Blogstats reveal that some Internauts from Lithuania  are presently perusing this site, which they are consulting in their own tongue, under the denomination above-inscribed.  Lithuanian being a highly inflected language (preserving, for its age, more of the original Indo-European inflection  than any other contemporary tongue -- a matter of some pride to the scholars of Baltic hamlets), the site-title come out  quite round and sounding.

And thus does Dr Teisingumo send his warmest welcome, from across the frigid seas.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Tales of Winter, in Rootabaga Country

One winter back then, it got so cold, all the snowmen froze to death;  and the moon  stuck to the sky.

‘Nother time, Time froze, so it looked like we’d have winter forever.
But then the Blind Man had a good idea.  He broke out the firewater, and soon all was well.

There’s another story somewhere but I can’t tell it cos I can’t thaw it.


So those are the tales they tell, out in Rootabaga Country.
Folks around here  believes them all;  so I reckon they must be true.

Words from the Smithy: “Islamist(ic(al))”

In an earlier post (“Dominionism”),  we discussed the terminological distinction between Islamic and Islamist (the latter being a professorial confection, which latter events propelled onto the Public Square), along with a proposed newer word, Christianist.   But the battle-lines have hardened since then, with Islamist becoming ever more consistently pejorative, by now so overflowing with negativity that some of it splashes over onto its blamesless paronym, Islamic.    So, we need some semantic clarification, and lexicographic legislation.  The point here is not to argue one politico-theological position or another, but simply to provide writers with a clean, precise set of tools.
So let it be written, so let it be said:

Islam (Islamic) : one of the Abrahamic faiths. (Cf. Judaism, Christianity.)

Islamism  (Islamist) :  theologically, a distilled and stiffened variety of the above (cf. Orthodox flavors of Judaism and Christianity), but with a dominionist addition (cf. Muslim Brotherhood;  aspects of ancient and of modern Israel;  Caesaropapism).

A Muslim (anyhow on Fridays),
but i’ faith, no Islamist.

To these we add coinages of our own, for yet finer semantic distinctions:

Islamistic :  exaggeratedly Islamist.  (Cf. Fundamentalism.  ISIL probably fits in here.)

Islamistical : exaggeratedly Islamistic. (Cf. Branch Dravidians, Boko Haram.)

Islamisticaloidal : a to-tall-ly over-the-top wacko distortion of Islam (Cf. the medieval Persian cult of the Assassins, and (for Christianity) the contemporary Lord’s Resistance Army, of central Africa.)

Islamisticaloidaliferous :   ? -- No, sorry, that one’s just plain silly.


Thursday, January 29, 2015

Mélanges géopolitiques (neu bearbeitet)

Some recent essays of sociopolitical interest:

To update Marx:   History happens, first as tragedy, then as farce; then as slapstick re-runs on cable channels.

Even the principles did not realize for some time that it was leading to a World War.
Yet it marked a powerful and permanent turn, of the groaning millwheel of History;  and on that day, Clio laid aside her pen, and wept.

Lacrimae rerum

"The cabinet noir  introduced, in a curious way, the Open Diplomacy  advocated by the enthusiasts of the League of Nations."

The hyperconservatives’ public rhetoric may in many cases be simply ad usum minus habentium.

الدولة الاسلامية في العراق والشام

There is no more a logical contradiction between someone born by surrogacy  coming (upon mature reflection) to condemn the practice, than in the analogous case of someone born by rape, or prostitution, or incest, or bigamy, or A.I.D., or fructification by Zeus in the form of a swan, objecting to (as a general practice) rape, or prostitution, or incest, or bigamy, or A.I.D., or extra-Olympian dalliances by randy deities sub specie cygni.

Trigger warning:  This philological note may contain some very, very bad words.  You must be over 21 to read this.  No, make that 31.   91.   In fact -- Don’t read it at all.

As a native who returned, Thomas Frank combines, to advantage, the insights of the Visiting Martian (Toqueville, Dickens, Chesterton …) with those of the indigene.  And in richness of description, his book recalls that never-equaled masterpiece, John Gunther’s Inside USA.

Incredible though it may appear, the students at UC Santa Barbara face more deadly perils than the lapses from correctitude in The Great Gatsby:

A word on that fixed phrase, “rape or incest”, inscribed in stone like “peanut-butter and jelly” or “Laurel and Hardy”.   Sociologically, morally, the collocation makes perfect sense.  But practically, there is a certain redundancy …

The 1996 book It Takes a Village, by Barbara Feinman (writing as “Hillary Clinton”), was meant -- commendably -- to point to the need (which in practice, in America, had never been denied, until recently) for community involvement in child-rearing, beyond the autarky of the nuclear family.  Such was the unquestioned state of affairs during my own childhood…

A mittel-europäischer rationalist recalls “those golden, and, all in all very peaceful final decades of the colonial system”,  and adverts ad the hermeneuts …

An Irishman, a person of unrecorded nationality, and an individual from a nation we dare not name, walk into a bar …

Striking a blow  for freedom of adultery,
and the muzzling of the press.

If the geopolitical playing-field were momentarily tilted slightly differently, you’d have Congressmen standing on their chairs shouting for the inalienable rights of the freedom-loving Crimean People to determine their self-determination themselves.

But now a wildcard pops up out of the deck.   The current Justice Department, the one in office at this particular instant (and again, possibly after a wild night of ibogaine abuse, that part is unclear), lets it be known that it would prefer to stay in bed rather than defend the government’s side of the case, on this issue.   At which point a voice (of uncertain origin) bellows from the wings, that in that case, the Supreme Court lacks jurisdiction! Which means, the original litigant wins by default, just as though it were a Little League game where the Wellfleet Woodchucks failed to appear.

There is another, subtler layer to the story, namely that the ever-oily, ever-ingratiating Hollande -- who is by no means accustomed to laying bald facts out plain -- was, in this case, actually attempting, in his ham-handed way, to be politically-correct :  only, within a certain sociopolitical microclimate …

While France is absorbed in such insipid distractions as the latest entry in the palmarès of “The Wit and Wisdom of François Hollande”, some genuine events are unfolding in Françafrique, following in the wake of much bloodshed, and heralding more bloodshed to come

This item will sell like hot falafel!  Bulk-order Ur copies now !!!

It is depressing even to have to think about North Korea, the geopolitical equivalent of anal warts.

France’s practice of repeatedly doling out ransoms, while denying that it does so, has planted a tree with poison roots.  Here, perhaps, are some of its fruits.

Glurge alert!  The French President  goes groveling  before the fratricidal chaos of Africa.   If he needs a good whipping, why can't he go get it at Madame Sévère’s Bondage Basement, instead of dragging all France into his fantasies?

Mister Pecksniff  and Ted Cruz -- separated at birth?

Outsource the police state to charity:  The Swiss NGO Terre des Hommes lays a honey-trap…

“I don’t know which Mafia I dislike the most.  I’m leaning toward liking the Italian Mafia  because they are just immoral  and still believe in mother and child.  But the Art Mafia is immoral and, from what I can tell, they’ve stopped procreating.”

Tom announces on national television that he intends to kill John.   Then Tom is charged with murder, because, though his intended victim is still among the living, what Tom did was “just as bad”.  And if you imply otherwise, you are insulting the murder-victims community.

Wie eine Kultur  sich selbst auffrißt



Bedtime for Bunnies

deep within the eve-ning-
time’s  the time for slee-ping.
lots of bunnies  brea-thing
in their burrow,  drea-ming

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Case of Greece

Greece has been in the headlines du jour -- in Europe, at any rate -- over what, on the surface, is a complex economic matter, a re-run of what we have seen before, involving  the IMF and a potential rééchelonnement of sovereign debt tranches …..
(ZZZzzzzzzzzzz …. Oh, have I lost you?)
What deeper waters this narrative might tap into, I have little idea, since I do not follow Greece;  taceo igitur;  the point here being merely to notice the oddly canted perceptual stance of Americans in regard to Greece, victims of distance and history.

What occasioned this reflection are the final chatpers of Robert D. Kaplan’s outstanding travelogue/history, Balkan Ghosts (1993).
In this slender book, he quite consciously follows in the steps of Rebecca West (“Dame Rebecca”, as he gallantly denotes her), whose massive memoir of a trip to Yugoslavia on the eve of World War II, Black Lamb & Grey Falcon (published 1941) is among the truly great works of the twentieth century.   Knowing that he could not hope to outdo her magisterial historical survey, he treads more lightly but more widely, his final footsteps reaching as far as Greece, where he resided, with his wife, for seven years, during the reign (for “reign” it was) of a very strange figure indeed, Andreas Papandreou. 

The first thing you notice is the very presence of Greece in a book about the Balkans.  Granted -- once you come to think of it -- that country is indisputably geographically a part of the Balkan Peninsula;  Kaplan’s point is that it belongs with the other, Slavic or semi-Slavic countries of the region, spiritually and sociologically as well.
Very few Americans think of Greece in those terms, nor indeed in any terms at all except what we half-remember from school, limited to the Athenian Golden Age, several centuries B.C.  It is as though you were to try to conceive Germany in terms of what had been going on in the primeval forests of that time -- or America, as were it a continuation of its own prehistory of open plains, speckled here and there with miscellaneous blemmyes and buffalo, and otherwise largely empty.

It’s strange how little I knew of the tale that Kaplan tells.  It’s not as though I hadn’t yet come of age during the 1980s;  I did read newspapers.   But perhaps the reason for this ignorance had partly to do with the Western press, which had assimilated just one new Greek stereotype since the Age of Socrates:  the Medi-hippie world of “Never on Sunday” and “Zorba the Greek”.   Indeed, the English Wikipedia entry is astonishingly airbrushed:

I had to blink, to ascertain that this wasn’t an account of his more conventional father George.  (Someone seems to be curating his memory.)

Andreas knew well how to exploit the “Never on Sunday” sort of nonsense.  He appointed its star, Melina Mercouri (who played, one might say, a ταίρα  both onscreen and on the political stage) to his cabinet -- and re-appointed her again and again, while other underlings came and went.  It was a true Société du spectacle: 

In Papandreou’s name, Culture Minister Mercouri organized “human peace chains” around the Acropolis, even as Greek state companies were selling arms to both sides in the Iran-Iraq war, and to the two warring African states of Rwanda and Burundi.
-- Robert D. Kaplan, Balkan Ghosts (1993), p. 269

Likewise an eye-opener were Papandreou’s ties to a raft of morally quite unanchored chevaliers of terror:  PASOK and the November 17th Movement;  Abu-Nidal; Qaddafi’s hit-men, and on.  These, like such later ultraviolent inscrutable groups as Boko Haram and the central African Lord’s Resistance Army, cannot be understood terms of determinate ideology or even calculated, cynical self-interest;  it is not as though they have well-defined ends (whether good or bad) and merely overdo the means.   It seems to be more a matter of the morbido, and of metastatic narcissism.

None of this is part of the general American understanding of Greece.  “Cradle of Democracy” it must be for ever and aye.  For, our brains have only so much bandwidth.  Even in cases where party or interest do not preclude comprehension, we are apt, by acedia, to sink back into the Lay-Z-Boy of our early training and first impressions.  Cognitively, we settle for very little.