Friday, September 26, 2008

Thursday, September 25, 2008

A sad city's sad love

We never sat at the sea's edge or
under a bridge or in a park on benches.
yes, we saw the river, the declining river, brown with bad fate
and thought it too far away.
we knew the lake was receding into the silence of memories
and the bridges were falling down.
we never had a sea to begin with and our meeting places
had no benches for beggars or lovers.

We saw the leaves fall, the river die, the crust on our masks
get strong. Our love was neither strong nor wise.
and yet, we loved, inspite of the river dying and the lake forgetting.
Our love was sad without the moon and the rustling of leaves,
fallen leaves.
Our love song forgotten thus in the dust of the river,
we said hurried goodbyes, glad it was over.

There are still no benches for lovers and beggars. The lake has
jumped into the mountains, a mystery for those who care. And the
river, defining our love, has found the sea, gone.
And you and me, unwise, linger in the shadow of words spoken
with disdain, forgotten with a pain hidden from each other.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Intellectual Vocation and Comprador Intellectuals

If intellectuals occupy a niche in society, and by virtue of their activity demand a space and a place where we listen, think about what is said and then try to understand the lives around us against the plethora of their voices, then indeed it is an important space to occupy. I always thought, in this context, that an intellectual must defy and naturally stay in opposition, not only to the established mores but to his/her own laziness and not only preach from a public pulpit but take on the pulpit itself, to stop all screeching noises from making a mess of the public sphere. I do not intend to stay that an intellectual must always oppose but that an intellectual must stay in opposition.

In one of his great essays, called On defiance and taking positions, Edward Said laments over the role of intellectuals, who having hogged the limelight, strayed into rhetorical defeat, obeying the diktat of one establishment doctrine after the other. Said had a public spat with many of his contemporary "thinkers" but if looked at retrospectively, most of those people have turned out to be rhetoricians, able enough to teach at humanities departments but unable to become luminosities because their flaws are not in their method but in their thinking, which breeds on ethnic, religious, class, colour and other primordial paranoid baggage. On say the issues regarding intellectuals in the Middle East, in an interview, Said says:

"The united states has internalized imperial rule. That sets intellectuals above such issues, perhaps because of a general sense of helplessness and impotence and fragmentation due to specialization. The intellectual community doesn't operate according to principles, and doesn't consider itself bound by responsibilities toward the common weal. Or doesn't feel responsible for the behaviour of the United States internationally."

However, back to the original point which refers to "intellectual vocation''. Said refers to "critical awareness, skepticism and an ability for irony". "The intellectual", he points out, "is not simply a professor, not simply a professional, wrapped in the mantle of authority and special language and special training.........the intellectuals role is as an opponent of consensus and orthodoxy. His role is not to consolidate authority but to speak truth to power. The intellectual vocation must be to alleviate human suffering and not celebrate what in effect does not need celebrating. To enter into the public sphere means not to be afraid of controversy or taking positions". Said also goes on to say that 'the intellectual must act as a kind of public memory; to recall what is forgotten or ignored; to connect and contextualize and to generalize from what appear to be fixed truths............"

In context of the above, I have been thinking of the role of what Dabashi, the Iranian critical theorist calls the Comprador intellectuals, an entity that has abounded of late, a group of people whose farcical and incredibly ugly positions have not only dominated sound bytes but newspapers, Internet spaces, public discussion fora and the space in the universities. And unfortunately, these intellectuals have been employed by US and other western powers to speak on behalf of the Muslim populations under siege, especially after terrorist outrages in Britain, Spain and the US. By Comprador is meant definition wise a person who "is a native of a colonised country who acts as the agent of the coloniser", for various interests, be it commercial or other imperial reasons. Dabashi cites various examples, especially the ones of Vali Nasr( he has written a book on Shia revival in the Middle East and goes on to effectively prove the usefulness of an order in the Middle East whereby the Shiites and the Americans can together balkanize the area, sharing oil, technology, shield Israel and destroy in spirit at least the common enemy, that is orthodox Islam) or Fouad Ajami ( Arab Shia academic who for ages wrote tome upon tome, seeking American adventures in Iraq, leading to the present situation).

Dabashi's analysis of Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran however is more acute and in the literary genre as it allows the reader to actually understand the Comprador way. I, unfortunately haven't read Nafisi's Reading Lolita but if I allow myself to trust Dabashi, which I am willing to do, Dabashi says in the passages quoted below:

"Reading Lolita in Teheran is the locus classicus of the ideological foregrounding of the US imperial domination at home and abroad in three simultaneous moves: (1) it banks on a collective amnesia of historical facts surrounding successive US imperial moves for global domination--for paramount in Reading Lolita in Tehran is a conspicuous absence of the historical and a blatant whitewashing of the literary; (2) it exemplifies the systematic abuse of legitimate causes (in this case the unconscionable oppression of women living under Muslim laws) for illegitimate purposes; and (3) through the instrumentality of English literature, recycled and articulated by an "Oriental" woman who deliberately casts herself as a contemporary Scheherazade, it seeks to provoke the darkest corners of the Euro-American Oriental fantasies and thus neutralise competing sites of cultural resistance to the US imperial designs both at home and abroad, while ipso facto denigrating the long and noble struggle of women all over the colonised world to ascertain their rights against both domestic patriarchy and colonial domination. In the latter case, the project of Reading Lolita in Tehran is just on the surface limited to denigrating Iranian and by extension Islamic literary cultures and feminist movements; its equally important target is to dismiss and disparage competing non-white cultures of the immigrant communities, ranging from African-American, to Asian-American, to Latino-American, and other racialised minorities.

Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran has a very simple plot. A female professor of English literature at an Iranian university, having been born to a privileged family and thus educated in Europe and the United States, is finally fed up with the atrocious limitations of an Islamic republic, resigns her post, goes home, collects seven of her brightest female students and they get together and read some of the masterpieces of "Western literature," while connecting the characters and incidents of the novels they thus read to their daily predicaments in an ungodly Islamic republic. The plot, factual or manufactured or a combination of both, provides an occasion for the narrator to give a sweeping condemnation of not just the Islamic revolution but with it in fact the entire nation, the poor and the disenfranchised, that has given rise to it--for which she has absolutely nothing but visceral contempt. To connect this simple plot and its extended services to the US imperial operations at home and abroad, we need a larger theoretical frame of reference in comparative literary studies.

By far the most immediate and intriguing aspect of Reading Lolita in Tehran is its cover, which shows two female teenagers bending their heads forward in an obvious gesture of reading something. What exactly is it they are reading, we do not see or know. Over their heads we read "Reading Lolita in Tehran." The immediate suggestion is very simple. The subject of the book purports to be reading Vladimir Nabokov's "Lolita" in Tehran, and here are two Iranian-looking teenagers in their headscarves reading (one thing or another). The two young women appear happily engaged with what they are reading, and they do so in such an endearing way that solicits sympathy, and even evokes complicity. What better picture to represent the idea--leaving it to the imagination of the observer that they are indeed reading Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita ? Right? Wrong.

The denoted message here seems quite obvious: these two young women are reading "Lolita" in Tehran--they are reading ("Lolita"), and they are in Tehran (they look Iranian and they have scarves on their head). The connoted message is equally self-evident: Imagine that--illicit sex with teenagers in an Islamic Republic! How about that, the cover suggestively proposes and asks, can you imagine reading Lolita in Tehran ? Look at these two Oriental Lolitas! The racist implication of the suggestion--as with astonishment asking, "can you even imagine reading that novel in that country?"--competes with its overtly Orientalised pedophilia and confounds the transparency of a marketing strategy that appeals to the most deranged Oriental fantasies of a nation already petrified out of its wits by a ferocious war waged against a phantasmagoric Arab/Muslim male potency that has just castrated the two totem poles of the US empire in New York".

Dabashi writes a masterly critique of this book, tracing its reading against the reading and reception of the original Lolita and in the process of its reading, now in a remote Tehran, the very act of reading becomes a counter subversive act, distorting not only Iranian culture and history but similar cultures and histories. The full text of this essay here.

The above example merely illustrates the sad situation of the intellectuals today, those that are serving empires and personal ideologies, obeying one or another internal distortion, deliberately ignorant of Hamlet's soliloquies or Ozymandias' statue. Said's intellectual vocation or even Gramsci's more studied definition of an intellectual lies shattered. The success or failure of America's designs in Iraq are questions that can be answered only if the questions are asked in the spirit of a pure intellectual vocation. We must not forget the role that an intellectual can adopt unknowingly, giving in to the Gramscian concepts of hegemony wherein the intellectual resumes the role of the oppressor, cosying in to a space now provided by late capitalism. On most questions these days, from extraordinary rendition to Guantanamo, from Abu Ghraib ( barring some futile Lacanian observations by Zizek) to Afghanistan, there is a void, a sensational absence of space devoted to debate, to skeptical questioning, to asking for answers, for alleviation, for justice.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Junot Diaz

Last year Junot Diaz's novel, The brief wondrous life of Oscar Wao won numerous prizes, including America's top literary honours, the prize for the best novel ( critics) and so on. It won over another novel called The Savage Detectives.
I have started reading Oscar Wao and it promises to be quite good. A link to a longish extract from this novel here. There are numerous extracts and abstracts here, which give us a flavour of his earlier writings. His first collection of short stories is called Drown.

Diaz is a sci-fi lover and his fiction abounds in references to this genre. Alok mentioned Foster Wallace on his blog and there are supposed to be influences from the latter on Diaz's style. "Mario Vargas Llosa meets “Star Trek” meets David Foster Wallace meets Kanye West", NY times' Kakutani wrote about Diaz. A good collection of articles in NY Times.

I will write a post on Oscar Wao when I finish it, hopefully.

Reading woes

Picking up a book by an unknown writer ( for myself) is not without hazards. The expectations are as vague as the feelings of expectancy. Behind the written words, we want the un-nameable, the most perfect of lines, the point of return, fiction showing us its way to what we can name, touch and feel. Below is a numerical catalogue of my reading woes.

The number of unread books is increasing. The rate at which I buy them is a bit manic too. Just started reading The Second Book by Muharem Bazdulj, a Bosnian writer. Have finished reading some 20 odd pages. The style is influenced by Kundera. Let's see.
Reminds me of the mess of unfinished, half-read and nearly read books. This year has been a slow reading one, with my mind fixing on how to read, questioning the very concept of reading and thinking of that novel read.

Waiting for Bolano's 2666 and his Romantic Dogs. Have also started reading Junot Diaz's The Brief wondrous life of Oscar Wao. Now, here is a note of caution. Don't always trust your instincts. Should have read it last year. It was compared to The Savage Detectives, which I, foolishly, took as a personal insult. The novel rocks!( What an expression, let it stay) Then there is his Drown, but I haven't bought it yet. But aim to, soon. And bought Cortazar's Autonauts of the cosmoroute.( What a name!) And his Final Exam.

Now, for Eastern European fiction, my reading has been limited to Kundera ( even the most un-read people have read Kundera and Marquez).
I have been reading Danilo Kis, with stuttering starts. But, I think I will like his novel A tomb for Boris Davidovich. I have liked his Encyclopedia of the Dead. My personal favourite is Gombrowicz of course, and his Cosmos and Pornographia are quite good. Nobody seems to be bothered about his Possessed, which I think is first rate. On ghosts, I am reading Henry James' Ghost Stories, which are very unsatisfactory, even as psychological parables. However, I will begin reading his The wings of the Dove soon, I hope.

Have left Cendrars' on the shelf. Intention is to read his novels with attention. Surrealism bothers me. How will I finish Antonin Artaud' Selected Writings? It might not allow me to read anything afterwards. Also unfinished is Doblin's, Berlin Alexanderplatz.

I have also bought Alain Robbe-Grillet's novels, Djinn, Jealousy and In the labyrinth. I intend to read Djinn first. Next to these lies Five Women by Musil ( I have never written about Musil, there is no need, to write about him would be an affront to his genius).

Books that I bought recently and am not likely to begin reading soon are:
Victor Pelevin, 4 and Omon Ra ( Marta recommended him)
Pasolini's Petrolio
Sorrentino's Aberration of starlight ( My first American fiction in years)

The book that has bothered me the most this year is Dostoevsky's Diary. He is a modern neo-conservative, and the diary is written in the style of a new-labour pamphleteer, his opinions worrying. Why did he have to write his brilliant novels, and how did he? ( with so much hate inside him, against everyone, including Muslims and Jews and all things Eastern). But I intend to finish it. And then read Bakhtin carefully.

The above mess does not include Political or Philosophical books bought recently. However, I do declare that I intend to read at least a few volumes of Al-Ghazali's Revival of religious sciences (40 volumes), and have acquired 3.
This post thus gets listed amongst disquiet thoughts.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Senselessness' narrator

What does the narrator of Horacio Moya's Senselessness actually mean when he begins by saying that he is incomplete in the mind ? And why do we have to constantly feel the urgency of his thoughts? That he is a scared person is quite obvious, that he lapses into paranoia is the question. The un-named narrator, who is quite a skilled one at that, who can distinguish between dull prose and melancholic poetry remains un-named throughout. We know that he is in exile, scared, running away from something. He is in hiding, he hides something but that is besides the point. What matter most are the internal changes taking inside the narrator.

I wrote a post on Senselessness here, which now seems quite unsatisfactory. ( Alok's post) Whilst reading the testimonies of survivors and (here I am not getting into the procedural aspects that these have entailed in many places, the problems that eventually result from such post-mortems etc), the narrator finds the testimonies growing on him, each sentence and each word becomes heavy, a thing not just to imagine but to feel. Everything is in the feeling. He feels the poetry, he makes a note of lines that are the most poetic, for what? later reference? and then he repeats them to himself. In this repetition is a kind of catharsis ( a wrong word, concept, I know it means and does nothing to the victims) and whilst this goes on, he becomes exceedingly paranoid.

And while his paranoia grows, we are privy to his outer thoughts, his preoccupation with sex, one night stands, his libido etc ( treated in the most masterly comic fashion by Moya). He is, as the Americans might say, a kind of a regular guy. Being employed by the Catholic Church in a country with varying power structures, not peculiar I think to just Latin America, he fears everyone, including his employers, the victims of his passion, his shadow, his mentors. The witch hunt of the victims he reads about, their tortures and suffering is real to him as it translates into his fear, as to what might happen in case he has understood more than he possibly could have.

But again, this is not satisfactory enough for me. In the end, he is in good exile, in civilized Spain, he has escaped, and we are told that it was quite wise, otherwise he w'd have got killed too. Was he paranoid all along, was it just nerves, a question of sensitivity? If he was in danger, then he took the right steps. If not, then is he messing with his readers?

The actions that we as readers of senselessness might think of are important after reading this novel. What then has it meant for us, this novella, albeit exquisitely written?( it is quite brilliant) We have added this to the list of novels read, words consumed, some noted in our diaries, melancholy felt, night lived. The history it charts, the blood it sprouts, the heads that roll down, body parts dismembered, where do those things exist, if at all? Why does the narrator flee, why does he grow heavy with pain, why is his mind incomplete? And I, why do I think that just reading this novel is an act of infidelity to the story inside it, that reading is as important as writing such a tract, that more important is to speak about something, even if it does not result in anything at all?

Should then, there be a natural discrepancy between the artist's own life and the fiction he writes and the reader's life and the fiction he/she reads? And should we be always reconciled to such acts?

Thursday, September 11, 2008


One of the most soul destroying events in human history, one that does not allow its victims to even speak about its soul destroying effects is nakba, the events that resulted in the destruction of historical Palestine and the creation of Israel. We are not speaking of semantics alone but the essential experiences that it entails and signifies. It is generally agreed by Arabic speakers who also know English that the description catastrophe is not enough to describe what nakba means. Obviously English and Arabic are estranged from each other but the sufferers of nakba, called mankubin in Arabic would effectively translate as catastrophed in English. But semantics is not enough.

If nakba were to result in geographical erasure alone, or if it meant colonization or simply occupation, then the barbarity of such an enterprise could be understood. But what it essentially means is a memory erasure of Palestine, an amnesic death, a barbaric boundary that does not allow the mention of Palestine, of its lands, its towns, its villages, its olives. What Zionism and its benefactors have done is to effectively cross over Palestine to a new country, without a historical past in its real citizenry but resurrected, out of delusional promises by a sympathetic and one sided god, an oasis of cruelty. The use of the word Palestine and by its extension Palestinian is an anathema for the tyrannical powers that are shaping the destiny of this people.

nakba means annihilation, the betrayal of memory, the closure of doors, the siege of hearts, and as Darwish once wrote, "a tyrant's fear of songs". nakba means not death but endless dying without the right to see this insistent, merciless and pitiless death, of not just memory but the desire for this memory. The political ramifications of nakba are obvious to everyone. the events that consequently happen, from when Israel was created to the present day, the death of innocent people on both sides is not the purpose of this post. The intention is to speak about the arrogant cruelty of nakba, the mind numbing silence of most liberated minds, of those that are considered intellectual, great and genuine.

nakba is an affront to intelligence and sensitivity. The events of the preceding Jewish holocaust should be a source of outrage for all just minds. That the shoah is remembered is only right. That it has spawned literature and departments of studies around the world, that it excites interest in those who are interested in such events and that there are books that detail such a planned and outrageous event in human history is understandable. That the nakba, the erasure of Palestine is hardly mentioned by the same people is stupefying. This smacks of intellectual poverty and blatant hypocrisy, a crassness of minds, an unacceptable prejudice against the Palestinians, for contrary to what we are told, they do exist.

Colonialism would mean taking what is not yours from those it belongs to. nakba means more than that. It means not allowing people to remember, to steal their memories and the desire for remembering. To forget the nakba is to betray humanity. To do it with easy arrogance is to continue further nakba's.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

From Dead Souls

A great passage from Dead Souls (one of my favourite books) in which Gogol compares two different types of writers. The second type, I think, is Gogol himself.

"Happy the writer who, after ignoring characters that are boring, repulsive, astounding in their sad actuality, gravitates towards characters that manifest the high dignity of man, who, out of the great maelstrom of images that whirl about him daily, has chosen only the few exceptions, who at once has altered the elevated pitch of his lyre, has not descended from his height to the level of his poor, insignificant brethren, and, without touching the earth, has given himself, all of him, over to his own images, which are exalted and removed far from it. Twice enviable is his splendid lot:he stands among them as if in his own family, and meanwhile, his fame spreads wide and clamorous. He has beclouded people's eyes with intoxicating incense, he has flattered them wondrously, concealing what is sad in life, showing them man in all his splendour. All clap their hands and hasten after him, and rush to follow his triumphal chariot. A great universal poet they dub him, one who soares above all the other geniuses of the world as an eagle soars above other high-flying birds. At the mere mention of his name, ardent young hearts are seized with trembling, responsive tears glisten in every eye. For strength has no equal- he is a god! But such is not the lot, and different is the fate of the writer who has made bold to summon forth everything that at every moment lies before the eyes and is not perceived by indifferent eyes, all the dreadful, appalling morass of trifles that mires our lives, all that lies deep inside the cold, fragmented, quotidian characters with which our earthly, at times bitter and tedious, path swarms, and who with the robust strength of an implacable chisel has made bold to set them forth in full and bright relief for all the people to see! It is not for him to reap the plaudits of all the people, not for him to behold the grateful tears and unanimous enthusiasm of the souls that have been stirred by him; it is not him that a sixteen-year-old girl will fly, head awhirl and hero-worshipful; not for him to lose himself in the sweet enchantment of sounds plucked forth by him alone; not; in fine for him to escape the judgement of the time, the false unfeeling judgement of the time, which will brand as worthless and base the creations cherished by him, will assign him as an ignoble corner in the ranks of those writers who offend humanity, will attach to him the qualities of the heroes depicted by none but himself, will take from his heart and soul and the divine flame of talent. For the judgement of the time does not acknowledge that equally wondrous are the lenses that survey suns and those that convey the movements of imperceptible insects; for the judgement of time does not acknowledge that much spiritual depth is needed to illumine a picture drawn from ignoble life and elevate it into a pearl of creation; for the judgement of the time does not acknowledge that lofty enraptured laughter is worthy of taking its place beside the lofty lyrical impulse and that a whole abyss lies between it and the posturings of a clown in a fair- booth! This judgement of the time does not acknowledge, and will turn it all to the reproach and ridicule of the unacknowledged writer; without due portion, without response, without sympathy, like a homeless wayfarer, he will remain alone in mid-road. Harsh is his chosen course, and bitterly will he feel his solitude".

Nikolai Gogol, Dead Souls
Part One, Chapter 7

The Worm

Roberto Bolano's Romantic Dogs comes out in November and there is a list of planned publications including his novels and essays here. The poem below, called The Worm is copied from there too.

Let us give thanks for our poverty, said the guy dressed in rags.
I saw him with my own eyes: drifting through a town of houses in ruin,
built of brick and mortar, between United States and Mexico.
Let us give thanks for our violence, he said, even if it’s futile
like a ghost, even if it leads to nothing,
just as these roads lead nowhere.
I saw him with my own eyes: gesturing over a rosy background
that resisted the black, ah, twilight on the border,
glimpsed and lost forever.
Twilights that enveloped Lisa’s father
at the beginning of the fifties.
Twilights that gave witness to Mario Santiago,
up and down, frozen stiff, in the backseat
of a contrabandist’s car. Twilights
of infinite white and infinite black.

I saw him with my own eyes: he looked like a worm with a straw hat
and an assassin’s glare
and he traveled through the towns of northern Mexico
as if wandering lost, evicted from the mind,
evicted from the grand dream, the dream of all,
and his words were, madre mía, terrifying.

He looked like a worm with a straw hat,
white clothes
and an assassin’s glare.
And he traveled like a fool
through the towns of northern Mexico
without daring to yield,
without choosing
to go down to the D.F.
I saw him with my own eyes
coming and going
with traveling vendors and drunks,
shouting his promises through streets
lined with adobes.
He looked like a white worm
with a Bali between his lips
or an unfiltered Delicados.
And he traveled, from one side to the other
of dreams,
just like an earthworm,
dragging his desperation,
devouring it.

A white worm with a straw hat
under the northern Mexican sun,
in soils watered with blood and the mendacious words
of the frontier, the gateway to the Body seen by Sam Peckinpah,
the gateway to the evicted Mind, the pure little
whip, and the damned white worm was right there,
with his straw hat and cigarette hanging
from his lower lip, and he had the same assassin’s
glare, as always.

I saw him and told him I have three lumps on my head
and science can no longer do a thing for me.
I saw him and told him get out of my tracks, you blowhard,
poetry is braver than anyone,
the soils watered with blood can jerk me off, the evicted Mind
hardly rattles my senses.
From these nightmares I’ll retain only
these poor houses,
these wind-swept streets
and not your assassin’s glare.

He looked like a white worm with his straw hat
and handgun under his shirt
and he never stopped talking to himself or with whomever
about a village
at least two- or three-thousand years old,
up there in the north, next to the border
with the United States,
a place that still existed,
only forty houses,
two cantinas,
and a grocery store to speak of,
a town of vigilantes and assassins
like he himself,
adobe houses and cement patios
where one’s eyes were forever hitched
to the horizon
(that flesh-colored horizon
like a dying man’s back).
And what did they hope to see appear there? I asked.
The wind and dust, maybe.
A minimal dream
but one on which they staked
all their stubbornness, all their will.
He looked like a white worm with a straw hat and a Delicados
hanging from his lower lip.
He looked like a twenty-two year-old Chilean walking into Café la Habana
and checking out a blonde girl
seated in the back,
in the evicted Mind.
They looked like the midnight walks
of Mario Santiago.
In the evicted Mind.
In the enchanted mirrors.
In the hurricane of Mexico City.
The severed fingers were growing back
with surprising speed.
Severed fingers,
in the air of Mexico City.

Roberto Bolano

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

The Intellectuals

"All men are intellectuals, one could therefore say: but not all men have in society the function of intellectuals.

When one distinguishes between intellectuals and non-intellectuals, one is referring in reality only to the immediate social function of the professional category of intellectuals, that is one has in mind the direction in which other specific professional activity is weighed, whether towards intellectual elaboration or towards muscular-nervous effort. This means that, although one can speak of intellectuals, one cannot speak of non-intellectuals, because non-intellectuals do not exist. But even the relationship between efforts of intellectual-cerebral elaboration and muscular nervous effort is not always the same, so that there are varying degrees of specific intellectual activity. There is no human activity from which every form of intellectual participation can be excluded: homo faber cannot be separated from homo sapiens. Each man, finally, outside his professional activity, carries on some form of intellectual activity, that is, he is a philosopher, an artist, a man of taste, he participates in a particular conception of the world, has a conscious line of moral conduct, and therefore contributes to sustain a conception of the world or to modify it, that is, to bring into being new modes of thought".

Antonio Gramsci, Selections from Prison Notebooks

Monday, September 08, 2008

04. Ye Tumhari Meri Baatein - Dominique Cerejo


She never smoked but carried matches -
to meet interesting people, she said,
by which she meant
interesting men.

'Got a light, darling?'
She always had a light
for anyone.

I married her in a bright January.
She grew bold, approached
strangers in the street, non-smokers.
They understood the itch and scratch,
the flame glistening in her cheeks.

March, I took up the habit,
coughed my way through
a packet of twenty. She gifted me
a lighter.

April, she moved out.

What does a man do when love
isn't enough, when little by little
it burns to a butt-end
and drops to a car wheel?

I bought a pipe, packed it
with the finest tobacco,
spent years of evenings waiting
at the corner of our street.

Rob A Mackenzie

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Requiem for Fanny Goldmann

This short novella that immediately follows Franza's Book is perhaps Ingeborg Bachmann's most simple narrative, for it follows a straightforward narration without the excessive use of allusions, symbols or other devices which are generally difficult for the uninitiated reader. Considered as a part of the Todesarten novels, Fanny Goldmann represents that particular concern fully which is generally considered to be at the heart of the Bachmann oeuvre.

Fascism in politics is a known concern in her fiction especially after the inheritance of the post world war residues; inherent to her motives as a writer is to make the reader realize the absolute fascism that exists between people at interpersonal levels. This essentially translates as the destruction that is brought on by one person on another and in the world of her novels between men and women or men and one woman. Fundamentally in the Bachmann scheme of things, a woman is not just exploited but destroyed by men and the choice that she makes or choices that she has are inherently fraught with roads that lead to destruction. Todesarten signifies ways of dying and we get to understand how relationships, the pursuit of happiness or love or a relationship leads to annihilation.

It is essential however to understand and this is quite difficult to realize when reading her for the first time, that, the choices that her women make are not because of a lack of will or resources but a reaction to the unchangeable absolutism of relationships that exist in society. Therefore, right from the beginning, from paternal induced destruction to later more personal ties, the choices that are made cannot be different for women because the status quo cannot be changed. It is a given condition of the social contract. When in Malina, she disappears into a crack in the wall, it is the only refuge for her.

Fanny Goldmann dies of pneumonia after drinking excessively? I w'd say no. She dies because she has been used, betrayed, left and jilted by her husband, betrayed by her younger and newer lover, who has sold her trust to become famous and written her story in his novel, who has left Fanny for another woman. Fanny Goldmann is thus not just another woman for these are common things that happen. She is quite independent and to boot beautiful, and yet, yet, she succumbs to the fascism of the relationships that she has got intertwined in, that everybody gets fixed in. There being no hope, there being spectres of incest, power struggles yield corpses and she is dead.

The important question that Bachmann asks is how could this society have suddenly changed after the spectre of the Nazi times? How is it suddenly possible, after seven or such years for people to roll back their fascist sleeves, say yes, that was a nightmare, we are sorry, sanity is restored anew. The seeds of fascism that lie inherent in every society filter into the domestic arena too and it is this, this mind bending destruction that people engage in, that captures the reader as Goldmann drinks towards her death. My only critique is that women are as cruel to men as men are generally supposed to be and this prejudice must be recognized too. Inherent in relationships is the desire to dominate and these are the seeds that lead to death. Such deaths are not physical generally but crush a person's soul. And since there are different persona's, thus different deaths, and different ways of dying.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

She calls someone

These women are not of this world. They have been left behind by a horde that has passed into unmemorable oblivion. What seems like a great flood, a catastrophe, a raging seething disease, a visitation from the skies itself, a never ending night of death and destruction, something like all of these has left the visible valley. The valley's ache has returned. These women are not going anywhere.

The woman in the middle has not stretched her arms in defiance. They have been raised to invoke the mercy and pity of an inscrutable God. She stands, hands in supplication, dour acceptance. She is praying I think, praying for mercy, to a dome that she thinks must not now remain silent and hesitant. The woman on her left is looking at her with a mixture of awe and expectation, as if the God that has abandoned all of everything has taken residence in the tall, sturdy and somewhat defiant figure of this women. She offers her hope but also causes a tremor of terror. Who knows who she is, the meek little woman thinks, as she sits next to her son, the only sign of her world. He is shaded by his mother, I hope his mother.

The two other women, wearing cloaks or burqas are willing to believe again, trust again at that distant sign of hope, of God and all his promises. The one who is sitting is tired and not so sure, the standing one has a purpose and is willing to begin again.

I do not want to believe that they are just beggars, who after a day's begging have petered into dull unease. They are the real victims of oppression, of wars and destruction, widowed, fatherless, their sons have been killed, their husbands missing in action or just reported as disappeared. The landscape that they face is familiar to them, it is theirs. The clouds are not courting the mountains but haunting them. The unease of everything is personified not only in the valley shown but in the very isolation of these figures. These people have been left behind, they are alone, no one will comfort them.

The woman in the middle causes the valley around her to listen to her cry. She has come from many worlds and has seen the rainbow split. Beneath her feet have rained little pools of blood, of little rivulets that later dig deep tunnels underneath. In one of those graves, dark and endless lies the son she loved most. Were she to turn her face towards us, I expect a gnarled lined face, desolation and hopeless eyes and just the hint of an inscrutable smile.

(The photo above is by the famed Henri Cartier-Bresson. I have only tried to see the photo. There are surely other stories.)

Monday, September 01, 2008

Dabashi : American Empire

We live in the age of the most modern of empires, one that does not however call itself so. We also need to be reminded of it and sometimes the haze and mist that liberal democracies carry mists popular perception. The realm of opposition to this vulgarity resides mostly inside academia and that too of a particular kind for in its very nature and becoming, the modern American led liberal empire is insidious and subverts logical approaches towards understanding it. The American led invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, its pursuit of Iran and Syria and to some extent Pakistan and its strangle on Middle Eastern dictatorships and its single minded protection of Israel makes one ask as to the nature and design of this imperial project. The cost of human life that Afghanistan in particular is suffering, especially its children and women are things that mainstream media here in Europe and elsewhere do not even allow to be a topic of discussion.

Hamid Dabashi's recent write up on this issue, called Triumph of triumphalism is worth considering in this regard. ( I have sketched a few lines about Dabashi in my previous post) Dabashi begins by drawing our attention to the "xenophobic provincialism" of current US politics, especially with the film star Hollywood style nature of its presidential election pomp and fanfare but against the background of a rising tide of greed amongst its politicians and the sea of "christian zionism", as Dabashi has it, in alliance with Jewish Israel, a distant ally with Hindu fundamentalist India against a belligerent Islamic republic. ( I presume that by belligerent, Dabashi only means Iran.)

The wave after wave of belligerence in the Middle East led by America resulting in untold miseries is the result of what Dabashi terms as "chronic attention deficit disorder". The current imperial project is not new and any attempt to link all and sundry to the events of 2001 must be resisted, he warns. The militant adventurers responsible for those events and the lack of a structural link between Afghanistan and Iraq baulks the mind. Dabashi then points out the theory of a just war, promoted for Afghanistan, where war then takes on a moral and religious dimension. Calling this whole set of thinking as "historical amnesia", Dabashi then tells us the all too familiar story of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and its ensuing results and the American attempts to stop the revolution from Iran spilling elsewhere. The consequences later on resulted in Iran becoming a strict theocracy and Afghanistan spiralling into further violence.

It is clear, while reading this essay the influence that Negri and Hardt have on Dabashi for he quotes and accepts that freely. In Empire, Negri and Hardt argued that the present American empire is without a definite ideology, it is an empire without being an empire and that its main ideology is globalization. They dismiss the theories of Fukuyama and Huntington which Dabashi labels as parochial and banal and "smacking of intellectual poverty and too much protest". However, Hardt & Negri wrote Empire before the Iraq war and thus the dimension of ideology cannot be ignored. He then goes on to reflect on the notion of empire according to the conservative writer Niall Ferguson who laments at America's not declaring itself as an empire for empires, according to Ferguson are beneficial.

The reasons behind America's reticent celebration of its one sided domination of the world and its relentless wars lie, Dabashi thinks, in its protestant asceticism and in its "Calvinist predilection to avoid admission of wealth", the lack of Soviet style military parades being evidence. America is an empire without imperialism, thinks Dabashi though it no longer seems so. The tactics of the US army in Iraq are likened by Dabashi to how America plays soccer in comparison to football, where small bits of territory are fought over for domination in contrast to the US way where vast swathes in between conquered area lie without control. Dabashi then seeks to draw insights from John Ford's movies where the nature of empire is considered civilizing, for the betterment of natives and for progress in comparison to David Lean's British way of looking at empire, which is lost and pathological as in The passage to India.

I was surprised at Dabashi's comparison of the last 8 years of the Bush era to Nazi Germany and what he calls a fascist America, though he is not surprised at the readers surprise. He exhorts the reader to read the theories of Leo Strauss and his cabalistic neo-con sway over academia or to understand fascist America better, to read Naomi Wolf and her essay on this spiral towards fascism or Earl Shorris's Ignoble liars. Dabashi has elsewhere spoken of Comprador intellectuals who were employed by the US administration to prepare public opinion for the Iraq war and the names he quotes are those that are familiar.....Vali Nasr, Fouad Ajami, Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Azar Nafisi amongst others, examples of psy-op scholarship and embedded writers fomenting theory after theory.

Dabashi then goes on to talk about John Hagee, a person I had never heard of before. It transpires that Hagee, who is has in his recent book Jerusalem Countdown: a warning to the world warned of an impending apocalyptic invasion of America by Arabs and Russians, culminating in the decisive battle between the East and the West. The same Hagee had earlier attributed hurricane Katrina to the sins committed by the people of New Orleans with reference to a "homosexual parade". It seems Hagee is one of the many such Protestant warners, speaking of the second coming of Christ, which this group feels is impending. The apocalyptic nightmares that this breeds only hurtles the US towards fascism, Dabashi warns. He says again that the Republican part has become the first religious party in the US.
Dabashi quotes the Italian philosopher Agamben who called the Nazi state as an exception, an exception where reason fades away and humankind dwindles into bestiality. The same rules apply when one thinks of states of exception, of Camp X-ray, of Abu Ghraib, the massacres of Haditha and the tortures of Bagram.

It is quite evident that Dabashi's manner of exposition, his way of writing are influenced by Said, that may be, but the immediacy of his arguments must not be ignored. There are waves after waves of conspiracy theories but the threat to loss of innocent life through terrorism is a real one. That should never be ignored but simultaneously, the theoreticians of empire, their influences on the minds of politicians, the nexus of empire and oil and fanaticism ( consider There will be blood ), the overpowering disparity between countries, the lack of sympathy for the innocents bombed daily in Afghanistan, the inhuman cult of Zionism, this strange nexus between the Christian right and Jewish Zionism and its reactionary mirror in Islamic fundamentalism are echoes of each other. This is the conclusion one draws after reading this highly well written and erudite essay. However, Dabashi has not spoken about the same messianic image of the Mahdi for the Shias of Iran, with its own eschatology and doomsday victory for Shias alone. The cult of the Mahdi, an army named after him in Iraq at present should have deserved equal notice.

It is interesting to know the space in which the writings of people like Hagee lie though evangelical puritanism is not knew to any one culture. Even in India, for example, one hears of the invasion of Christian missionaries converting gullible Hindus, but the causes are usually laid aside. Millenial eschatological fury, second comings, Mahdist states are not new. People in Sudan have gone through the convulsions of a Mahdist state and during Ottoman times, people have waited for doomsday. The dangers lie if the establishment, those that call themselves liberal and reasonable endorse these threatening and alarmist views of history and religion. If wars are now fought only on the basis of religious ideology, either state induced or terrorist groups led ones, the world will be a poorer place. However, the resistance for land, for dignity and honour and for genuine needs must not be identified with a particular religion only.

He ends by saying,
"the Christian fundamentalism at the heart of American imperialism echoes and corroborates the identically ferocious tribalism at the heart of a Jewish state, an Islamic republic and a Hindu fundamentalism, which have all gathered their storms to divide humanity at large along their basest tribal fears.
Opening the windows of fresh air and for bright light, letting the cultivated cosmopolitanism of all cultures and climes, of all peoples and nations, override religious fanaticism of one denomination over another is the sustained course of action that can put up a global resistance to this globalized terrorism.....imperial or nativist. People's faith in an overriding metaphysics of purpose might be integral to their humanity but can never be definitive to it nor are institutional religions to cultures they inform but can never categorically claim".