domingo

Lost Horizons

 from New Partisan, 2006
Pari passus stopped me dead in my tracks the other day. When was the last time I saw that in  print, and was I kidding myself to think I remembered — more or less — what it meant? The context was an essay by the economist John Kenneth Galbraith on the life, times and ideas of his great 18th-century predecessor, Adam Smith. Though intended for the non-specialist but culturally literate layman, so unapologetically “elitist” a locution could only have surfaced 35 years ago in a magazine called Horizon, and Lord, how I wish something like it existed today.
No, I don’t mean Cyril Connolly’s intellectually supercharged periodical out of wartime London in which the classic George Orwell essays first appeared. Mine was the hardbound coffee table quarterly from the same outfit that brought out American Heritage and pitched it to a similarly profiled readership: a subset of American suburbia educated enough to have acquired a nodding acquaintance with the world’s cultures, desirous of learning more about the same, and receptive to richly anecdotal history and low-jargon criticism and essays on contemporary trends arranged in debate format.
It sounds, and it was, very “midcult,” to use the term invented around that same time by Dwight Macdonald and used here in its taxonomic rather than derisory sense. It is a category in which I am happy to include myself because I found I could read Horizon with pleasure and learn a few things in the process. Others must have, too; the magazine had a fair run through the 1960s, fizzling out of existence some time after Watergate.
Thumbing though a half-dozen sun-faded issues salvaged from a library sell-off, the implicit mindset connecting the magazine’s readers and writers comes across as unlike most anything going down today, notwithstanding such occasional bylines as art critic Robert Hughes and the late science maven Stephen Jay Gould’s early excursions in print.
In Horizon, you’d get a tour of the past by mandarin Oxbridge historians H.R. Trevor Roper and J.H. Plumb, or a vivid evocation of high times in ancient Athens by Gilbert Highet. A personal favorite: Morris Bishop, a legendary professor of romance languages at Cornell, who turned out many witty, knowledgeable words on any subject that engaged his first-class mind: female pirates, the cynicism of La Rouchefoucauld or the world into which St. Francis of Assisi was born. Saul Bellow’s piece on filmmaker Luis Buñuel certainly deserves reprinting — and I want the record to show that Stanley Kauffmann, moonlighting from his then-day job at the New York Times, could clean Pauline Kael’s critical clock, as it were, so far as cinema is concerned.
Horizon managed to be topical without pushing political agendas. At the height of the Vietnam mess, its editors put together a primer of Indochinese history, but object lessons, if any, were for the reader to draw. Nor could its editors stand accused of the heinous crime of Eurocentricity. To this day it shames me to admit that blissed-out Buddhas and shimmying Shivas in the basement "grotto" of the Norton Simon Museum only bring out my inner Homer Simpson, but after re-reading Edmund White or William K. Zinsser on the arts and civilizations of Asia, I am encouraged to give it another dutiful shot.
The timeframe in which Horizon flourished was also that of Leonard Bernstein and his Young People’s Concerts and Kenneth Clark’s guided tour of capital-C Civilization, while universities offered “appreciation” courses to non-majors in the belief that certain cultural artifacts were entitled to it. But no patronizing footnotes of the Van Gogh who-he? variety or atrocious “study guides”. Most amazing of all was the editors’ underlying assumption that there really were enough readers out there who knew some of the basics about, say, the Opium War or Baroque chamber music, and wanted to be taken some distance beyond them, without being snowed under with technicalities and academic game playing.
And I was not too surprised to note that in the same issue (Summer 1971) as the Galbraith piece, Stanley Kauffmann lets drop the word “footling” during a scene-by-scene dissection of Bergman’s Persona, as if to say “it won’t kill you if you go look it up, you know”. So okay, I did look it up and can report that my self-esteem suffered no bruising as a result. I also learned something, pari passus, from an extinct magazine that did its readers a huge favor by never assuming there were pre-set limitations on their cultural and intellectual horizons.



sábado

Heaven Can Wait

Lookout,  April, 1992

       Topping everybody's required reading list for the hectic year ahead should be a book called 1492 and All That. The only problem is that it hasn't quite been written yet, but when Spain finally does get round to producing a double-barreled send-up of its appalling history and the equally appalling textbooks in which it has been perpetuated, it will doubtless have to start off something like this:

     "Queen Isabel married Fernando and got Columbus on his way sailing the ocean blue, and, after they chucked out the Jews, who were unpopular, and the Moors, who objected to being reconquered, they got the Spaniards who were left over to live together for awhile in the same country without killing each other; she was thus a good queen."

     And one feisty lady, to be sure. But a saint, now? Quite a few people in Spain  think she deserves nothing less than a halo to complement the crown that suited her so well during her lifetime. And quite a few others seem to feel that's maybe stretching matters a bit, or more than just a bit. The Pope, who knows a political hot potato when it lands in his cassock, is taking no chances.

     "Some of Isabel's deeds were contrary to the teachings of the Church, especially with regard to freedom of conscience." That was the cautious verdict of Msgr. Jean Marie Lustiger, the Cardinal Archbishop of Paris and trusted pontifical adviser. So after decades of work and the mustering of 27,000 pages of documentation, the Vatican's canonization committe decided last March to simply shelve the matter.

      Now the Church is at pains to emphasize that it doesn't churn out saints to order; it merely tries to recognize the "heroic virtues" that qualify them for a spot on the calendar. It has to be admitted that in the case of Isabel the Catholic Queen, the virtuous bit has been laid on a mite too thick both by her contemporaries as well as by posterity. 

      Still, can the laudatory overkill be any worse than the put-downs Spaniards have been getting from a legion of lick-spittle "intellectuals" who make a lucrative living flogging their opinions to the press barons of Madrid? Like this one from a trendy Catalan theologian writing in El País: "Everything about Isabel la Católica was negative," he grumbles. "She had no respect for the cultue and religious practices of the Indians. She set up the Inquisition. She persecuted Judaism, Islam, Protestantism and progressive Catholicism."  

      Very nasty of her indeed, especially as Protestantism wasn't even invented during her lifetime. And true, she couldn't have been all that keen on mass human sacrifice and other alternative religious practices of the Indians. Yet Isabel-bashing remains all the rage, partly as a spin-off from the loathing being lumped on her protegé, that nasty genocidal imperialist, Columbus .
 
       In Spain, moreover, some people who grew up under the Franco regime may recall  Isabel's  presence in the political icongraphy of the times in which  the founder of the Spanish state and pre-eminent symbol of national unity and squeaky-tight central government control was exulted.

      But let's pass on the posthumous company she never solicited and consider strictly what Isabel did or did not do. For one thing, she did not, repeat not, pawn her jewels to scrounge up venture capital for Columbus, though she may have threatened something of the sort by way of pressuring her husband to dig a bit deeper in his pockets. She did, however, raise money from the royal baubles when the Granada campaign was running low on funds. The business about her vowing never to change her shift until Granada was in Christian hands also turns out to be as unfounded as it is out of character. 

      If a witness for the prosecution is needed, we might call Carlos Benarroch, a 76-year-old resident of Barcelona, to the stand. Sr. Benarroch has three times served as head of the Council of Jewish Communities of Spain and isby far the most comprehensive in enumerating what he considers to be  instances of Isabel's unsaintly behavior, starting with the alleged usurpation of her crown. "This she did, possibly by poisoning her immediate family and certainly by shoving aside the rightful heir," he charges.

      Why is it that the most distinguished female rulers in European history tend to be the ones who were never supposed to have reigned in the first place? The infanta of Castile was very much minor royalty, never closer than third in line for the top spot nor destined to be more than bait in a dreary but diplomatically opportune marriage. 

    Her father the king had married twice, giving her one full and one half-brother. Unfortunately it was the latter who inherited, and he grew into a most unpleasant character known to his  history as Enrique IV and to his scornful subjects as Enrique the Impotent.  Enrique the Pervert would perhaps have been a tad more accurate, but what really had Castilians worried was the politically explosive break in the dynastic chain.

     As with Britain's roster of royal deviates,  Enrique was putty in the hands of one faction of nobles and anathema for the others. Still, after his first wife died, there was some lingering hope that he might yet deliver the goods. 

     When the new consort, Queen Juana of Portugal, finally did give birth after a six-year interval, there were only two drawbacks. First, that it was a daughter. Second, that it was said, rumored, broadcast, and all but proclaimed on high that paternal honors belonged to a nobleman named Don Beltrán de la Cueva who was carrying on fairly openly with the Queen. The daughter was thus known to all and sundry as "La Beltraneja" practically from the moment she was born.   

    Does that mean Sr. Benarroch is right in maintaining that the rightful heir was displaced by a libel "invented by Isabel and her propagandists"? Not at all. For one thing, the story was making the rounds when Isabel was just 10 years old, and of no particular interest to anyone at all since her father had providentially managed to provide an alternate male heir.

     That was Isabel's younger brother, Alfonso, who died  suddenly of "fevers" when he was just 15 years old. There is a whole school of dedicated conspiracy theorists who insist that he was "more than likely poisoned" by his sister's henchmen, who later on did for Enrique as well. This is pernicious poppycock. Not even Isabel's most implacable enemies ever suggested such a thing.

      Up to the time tragedy shoved Isabel back into the dynastic limelight, aged 17, most of her life had been spent in the chilly town of Arévalo, north of Segovia, in a gloomy castle where Enrique kept her and her brother under a kind of unacknowledged house arrest along with their mother, who was gradually going mad all the while.

     Anecodotes are hard to come by, and it is not easy to get an idea of the woman she was and the queen she was to be by squinting at a handful of old portraits. Although true to specification, showing her as tallish, with fair skin and hair, penetrating blue eyes and a saggy underchin, they are really renderings of the qualities of piety and determination, rather than the likeness of a living person.

      It takes an effort to imagine Isabella Rosellini wearing  the crown of Castile, or Kathleen Turner or even Glenn Close, but rumor (as of this writing) has any two of the above three short-listed for the rival Columbus films due in 92. Thirty years ago, big-budget mogul Sam Bronston went all out trying to raise money  for an epic on Isabel of Spain, in which Columbus would have been the walk-on part. That film never got made, and we never got to see what an actress like Glenda Jackson might have done with the role.

     Like another royal mite a few centuries down the line, you can almost hear Isabel saying "I will be good." And in that particular time and place, that could only mean being a strict, 100% by-the-book Roman Catholic, thinking, living and carrying out the duties that correspond to one's station in life in strict accordance with the teachings of the Church.

     No one doubts she was brave.  There once was a minor but nasty uprising in Segovia. The Royal Guard had to hole up in that city's Alcázar along with the Queen's first-born, a daughter also named Isabel. She she galloped like mad from Tordesillas, and demanded icily that the gates of the city be opened to her.

     She rode right up to the edge of the moat and allowed the the dangeroulsy sullen mob close in before she let them have it. "Tell me, what is your grievance, my loyal vassals, for whatever your will is, so must also be mine." Taken aback, the ringleaders began stammering complaints, starting with a call for the destitution of the city's loyalist governor. 

     Before they could get in another word, she cut them short with "Then it shall be done, for your remedy will likewise be mine." A second later they were cheering her like mad. She understood how to play to the galley and she also knew the prerogatives of princes were not to be lightly yielded,  for as soon as the city was completely under control, she reinstated the governor as if nothing had happened.

      Unyielding and self-righteous, yes. Imperious and intolerant -- certainly. Tolerance was not then on anyone's list of virtues. But she was a stickler for justice as well as frugal and austere. Two things, they said, the Queen would never do was drink wine or break her word.  For British history buffs, it might be possible to get some insight into that now-extinct mindset from all that has been written about Isabel's daughter, the unfortunate Catherine of Aragón, and her grand-daughter, "Bloody" Mary Tudor.

     While the Renaissance was just starting to percolate through Europe and suggest less rigid moral frameworks for human behavior, that was hppening a long way from the chilly hinterland of Castile. Where it did make an impact, however, was in the adjacent kingdom of Aragón, which had extensive entanglements  with France and Italy. It certainly influenced Isabel's future husband, Fernando, and decisively shaped the consummate politician he eventually was to become.

     Talk about a marriage of opposites. She was the living essence of the moral absolutism of Middle Ages, putting matters of principle and religious rectitude ahead of all, including interests of state. But of course, to her way of seeing the world, there could be no contradiction possible. Then her husband, learned, canny, ambitious, and in essence a bit of a bastard. For Machiavelli, who marvelled at how he seemed to get his way through "cunning and good luck, rather than superior wisdom," Fernando of Aragón was the embodiment of the self-interested statesman, deft master of political one-upmanship and the protoype Renaissance prince. 

       The courtship of these two teenage second cousins makes for an interesting prologue to their 30-year reign, since it provoked the nobility of Castile, who by then had Enrique conniving to marry off Isabel to the elderly King of Portugal. Legend tells of Fernando slipping incognito across the border disguised as a servant, and Isabel vowing that if she was had to be married to anyone, it would be to this good-looking charmer two years her junior who made a most dashing figure when decked out in armor for the jousting tournaments he inevitably won.

      The open defiance of the pro-Portugal faction triggered a persistent but low intensity civil war in Castile, one that was only temporarily called off in 1468 when Enrique, then on a losing streak, finally proclaimed Isabel his succesor and expresly denied paternity of La Beltraneja. Isabel and Fernando were married a few months later, just as soon as the bridegroom could wrangle a loan from Jewish financiers to pay for the wedding.

       The dynastic dispute flared up again, and Enrique --or rather the alliance of nobles, scheming prelates and the knights of Calatrava who were pulling the strings -- again tried to reinstate La Beltraneja, whom they were now trying to marry off to the Portuguese king. But by the time Enrique finally died in 1474, nobody was fighting terribly hard on behalf the princess who may or may not have been his daughter. Another two years of skirmishes saw Isabel secure on her throne but with her most difficult days still ahead of her.

       The reason was simply that her stepbrother and their father before him had left the kingdom in a huge mess. She immediately set about balancing the books, restoring law and order and cracking down hard on clans of grandees. "Although her word was law, she governed in such a manner that it might appear the joint action of both Fernando and herself," one chronicler noted.

      And governed extremely well, from all accounts. Crown  firmly on brow, embroidery hoop in her lap and surrounded by a an inner circle of shrewd prelates, she also created a civil service staffed strictly on the basis of personal merit and honesty. Nowadays, such a revolutionary undertaking by any Spanish leader would rate as a self-evident miracle and guarantee automatic elevation to the sainthood.  

       What sort of marriage did Isabel and Fernando have? As royal pairings go, one would have to rate it a fair success, backed up with more geniune affection and mutual respect than most. But the initial passion and long-term devotion were surely the contribution of Isabel, who was left to fret and forgive as Fernando fathered five illegtimate children in the course of his extra-matrimonial dalliances.

     Despite the melding of motifs on the royal coat of arms, their matrimony-based alliance did not  automatically bring about the unification of Spain. Officially, each was no more than the consort in the other's kingdom, but everyone knew that their heir would have unquestionable claim to the thrones of both Aragón and Castile. It therefore seems reasonable to suppose that unity was taken for granted by their subjects, as it certainly was abroad.  

       Partly as a result of their dual duties, both Isabel  and Fernando kept constantly on the move. Harried ambassadors grumbled it was hard to keep up with a queen who spent more time in the saddle than on the throne and who oversaw the affairs of her realm from a tent for long stretches at a time. For Fernando's other strong suit was aggresive military adventures at home and abroad. Curiously, the people who best served his designs, including the warrior prelate Cardinal Mendoza  and Gonzalo de Córdoba, were all Isabel's hand-picked people -- her special gift was for selecting subordinates and keeping them on their toes. Even the mighty Gonzalo was not exempt from her scathing reprimands. "Stop squandering all the honor you got through your victories by misgoverning now that you are in charge," she once had to scold him.

     When hostilities finally reopened with the Moorish kingdom of Granada, they were, of course, fueled by Isabel's dream of bringing the entire peninsula (but not necessarily, at that point, its inhabitants) into the fold of the Church. But the more pressing reasons, for Fernando, had to do with the border becoming dangerously unstable and a new ruler in Granada who had overplayed his hand.

      The decade that it took to bring the Moorish stronghold to its knees saw its share of brutal skirmishes and extended sieges, but there were also occasional flashes of deering-do on both sides to underscore that this was last major European campaign fought according to the rules and conventions of medieval chivalry, which the Moors were also very big on. It ended with just the right flourish. After gallantly refusing to accept the homage of the defeated Boabdil, Fernando straightaway handed over the keys of the conquered city to Isabel. She had been there with him at the front for months at a time.

      Looking on from the sidelines was a persistent, shabby Italian seaman, his six years of soft soap and determination now within a few months of payoff. It is clear Columbus was entirely Isabel's pet project. Fernando had his eyes on new Italian conquests and old scores to settle with France; subsequently, he became Columbus's nemesis. But the disgraced admiral never blamed Isabel for his run of misfortunes, and when she died, he entreated his son Diego to remember her in his prayers.

     Isabel's boosters argue that the conversion of an entire continent to Christianity gives ample grounds for their cause and meets the requirement that two miracles be confirmed for any would-be saint. "What could be more miraculous than bringing the Gospel to America, and all the saints that continent has given us since then?" argues Msgr. Luis Aponte, the Cardinal Archbishop of Puerto Rico.

     But Sr.Benarroch has a come-back. "If America became Christian, it wasn't because the Queen wanted it, but because the Pope insisted and made Columbus take along a priest on his second voyage over. On the first trip there was no priest, not even one to attend to the spiritual needs of his own sailors."    

     Another very opinionated and very Jewish scoffer, Simon Wiesenthal, has more cold water to throw on that argument, insisting that Colombus may have been looking for a safe haven for the Jews of Spain, himself maybe included, who just three months before he set sail had been booted out of their millenial homeland. The 83-year old veteran Nazi hunter alternatively maintains that Columbus reneged on his promise of rewarding the first man to spot land because the sailor who did so happened to be a Jew, as was about a third of the  crew. 

      "Spain will celebrate in a big way but the discovery brought extermination that is still going on in the rain forests of Brazil," glowers Wiesenthal. "The only difference is that Hitler had the technology to carry out his dream of mass genocide."

         But the record makes it clear that in March, 1493, when Columbus returned from his first voyage, his patroness was extremely annoyed when he tried to make her a present of a couple of Indians he abducted casually along the way. "What right does the Admiral have to dispose of my vassals according to his will?" Isabel said, and made the Indians her royal pages, the same honor that was bestowed on Columbus's two sons.

      The explorer was given written notice "to abstain from all manner of harassment and to treat (the New World natives) well and lovingly, speak frankly and familiarly with them and render them all the kind services in his power, distribute such presents as their Royal Highnesses have caused to be embarked on the fleet for that purpose, and to punish in the most exemplary manner all those who should offer them the least molestation". The same instructions went into her deathbed-dictated testament. 

     If, indeed, Isabel the Queen was touchingly concerned for the welfare of her newest vassals, the same can hardly be said for the way she treated her some of her oldest, the half-million Spanish Jews, who on March 31, 1492 were summarily told to convert or start packing. The Inquisition, which the Catholic monarchs had been instrumental in reviving a dozen years earlier, had already moved into high gear under the infamous Torquemada. 

     And this is where we must listen carefully to Sr. Benarroch and his many partisans. "Any desire to include this queen in the list of saints shows a lack of respect for her victims and a lamentable absence of sensitvity to the feelings of the modern Jewish community in Spain," he says, and it is not easy to refute him on that. 

     The onus of the expulsion falls exclusively on Isabel, and it is clear that Fernando, whose maternal grandmother was born Jewish, and who moreover thought the whole idea was just plain bad policy, as indeed it turned out to be, was badgered into compliance. The Inquisition, however, was a different matter. He made sure that confiscated properties from convicted apostates ended up in the royal treasury. Indifferent to its excesses, he got to control the doings of the Holy Office in his home territory of Aragón, and turned a nice profit on the suffering it inflicted.

     But what compelled Isabel to do it? What would now be called plain bigotry seems not to have been at issue. She had valued the Jews she placed in the top echelons of government, including her finance ministers, Abraham Seneor and Isaac Abravanel, and rewarded converts who stood loyally by her, including Andrés Cabrera, the governor-general of Segovia, who had married her childhood confidante, Beatriz de Bobadilla.

       There is no easy explanation for her decision. To say that both the expulsion and the Inquisition came about because she wanted to "purify" her realm lis probably as close to the truth as we can get. Five centuries ago, purifying a realm would not have been a big deal  Even then, however, some of the queen's most trusted counselors were dead against the whole idea,  including her confessor, Hernando de Talavera, who branded the expulsion "a sin and an act of infamy".

       To argue, as some have done, that she was simply doing what her subjects demanded of her is likewise ingenuous, though the rising tide of anti-Semitism that began sweeping over Spain a century before was getting out of hand and doubtless would have led to new pogroms and civil disorders. But the line taken by Fr. Anastasio Gutiérrez, the official postulant of her sainthood campaign, that Isabel "only wanted to help the Jews flee from Spain when the people would have readily exterminated them all" is unconvincing to say the least.

     They are on somewhat firmer ground who say that in ordering the Jews never to set foot in her realm under penalty of death, she simply was doing what any other sovereign of the age had a perfect right to do and often enough did, such as England's own Edward I in 1290.

     A recent biographer, Fernando Vizcaino Casas, had a point worth making when he observed  that "You can't go around taking moral measurements of what was going on in 1492 with the yardsticks of 1992." Others have drawn parallels with the demands of modern Israeli extremists for the mass expulsion of  Palestinians from their historical homeland.

     In the event, the dozen years of future that remained to Isabel were in the personal sphere bleak enough to suggest some measure of divine retribution at work. The much-beloved son and heir, Prince Juan, took after his father and died young. Of their four daughters, one died in childbirth, another became the queen of Portugal, while poor Catharine of Aragón was swallowed up whole by English history.

     That left  poor Juana who as a young girl had shown all the symptoms of a textbook-case manic depressive like her grandmother. By the time she was married off to that spoiled brat of an Austrian princeling, Felipe el Hermoso (Phillip the Fair)  Juana was well on her way to becoming a full-fledged schizophrenic, even without the promptings of her uncaring and unfaithful husband whose death sent her completley round the bend.

     Whatever second thoughts she may have had, whatever deep heartsickness she must have felt, Isabel the Catholic Queen was not one to let on. Let us concede that her good intentions outweighed even her acccomplishments, and those were numerous enough. A balance-sheet that any politician could be proud of. But perhaps it's best to hang on to that halo, because it was never the road to heaven that was supposed to be paved with good intentions.     
    




 





The Nymphet and the Granny

Culture Wars, March 2008
      All right: Dolly Haze was a victim — orphaned, abducted, sexually abused for months on end and deprived of her adolescence. Most of all, though, she was a victim of bad timing, having lived, suffered and died before it was commonplace to cash in on personal ordeals with ghostwritten memoirs plugged by Oprah and resold to Hollywood. Being a fictional creation of Vladimir Nabokov wouldn’t have disqualified her. Publishers have learned from Holocaust survivors who aren’t Jews, gay teen hustlers who aren’t even male, that first-person narratives from non-existent characters are interchangeable with, and sometimes preferable to, true-life trauma.
       Yet fierce competition for the empathetic gasps of the credulous has brought about a kind of grade inflation for child molestees. Poor, unreal Lolita never had to be suckled by she-wolves or infected with AIDS, as is now de rigueur for aspiring victims. She only had to submit to a guilt and lust-crazed middle-aged academic who is a more interesting and sympathetic character than she could ever have grown up to be.
       It is the searing, self-serving voice of the victimiser that moves us, because what drives him is unquestionably a kind of love. Lolita’s memorable introductory riffs are the opening stanzas of a lyric only partly buried under the heaps of self-condemning excuses and justifications that serve as the poem’s commentaire de text. After all, Humbert was a lycée professor as well as a deeply deviant, duplicitous old-school perv, but his tears are the ‘hot, opalescent, thick tears that poets and lovers shed’.
       Ditto the tears of his real-life counterpart, the Romantic composer Héctor Berlioz. What, Berlioz a child molester! No, certainly not, but you could say he stopped just short of becoming a senior citizen molester. Both HH and HB were obsessively fixated on a childhood crush that never went away, ‘a petrified paroxysm of desire’ (Humbert calls it) for a girl child pure, incomparable, innocent. A few months later and she is dead of typhus, leaving behind the memory of ‘a perfection that must remain incomprehensible to the matter-of-fact, crude, standard-brained youngsters of today. Long after her death I felt her thoughts floating through mine. Long before we met, we had had the same dreams’.
     That doesn’t stop HH from using her as his preemptive expiation for the crimes he was to commit, of course.
     Now here is Berlioz in his sixties, writing in his Mémoires (as translated by David Cairns) about a visit to his grandfather’s house at Meylan, near Grenoble, when he was 12 years old. Enter the (yes, literally) girl next door.
      "The moment I beheld her I was conscious of an electric shock. I loved her. From then on I  lived   in a daze, I hoped for nothing, I knew nothing and yet my heart felt weighed down by an immense sadness. I lay awake whole nights disconsolate. By day I hid myself in the maize fields, in the secret corners of my grandfather’s orchard, like a wounded bird, mute, suffering."
      Who doesn’t know the feeling? Estelle Duboeuf was 18 and no doubt a quite nicely turned out piece of provincial young womanhood. If she noticed her pipsqueak admirer’s mooning, she would have been too well-bred to let on, too self-possessed to be more than momentarily taken aback by his ardour. Summer idylls end with the end of summer. Not for HB:
      "I was thirteen when I ceased to see her. I was thirty when I returned from Italy across the Alps and saw Saint-Eynard and the little white house and the old tower through a mist of tears. On reaching home, I learnt that she was married—and all that follows, and it did not cure me."
      Years go by. Berlioz composes his music; travels to Russia, Germany and Italy. From his box seat at the Odéon, he falls madly in love with Irish actress Harriet Smithson and externalises his fatal attraction in the Symphonie Fantastique. She can neither understand nor resist his gushes of amorous overkill. If her French had been better, someone might have taken her aside and informed her that Berlioz had already come close to shooting the first girl he actually slept with, the dauguerrotypically dishy but two-timing Camille Moke.
      After they marry, Harriet’s career tanks. They have a son, quarrel and separate; he has affairs; she drinks, becomes a reclusive invalid, keeps on drinking and finally dies. Still, Harriet gets a better posthumous write-up than the possessive, clinging Marie Recio, who was promoted from mistress to second wife on Harriet’s death - ‘it was my duty’ - but who is not even mentioned by name in the Mémoires.
      We all know what happened to Humbert, one of the silenoi, or silens, the pot-bellied, white-haired satyrs whose ‘comical and crude’ attempts to get it on with wood nymphs were a common motif on Greek pottery.
     "The haze of stars, the tingle, the flame, the honeydew, and the ache remained with me, and that little girl with her seaside limbs and ardent tongue haunted me ever since—until at last, twenty-four years later, I broke her spell by incarnating her in another."
      With Berlioz, it was closer to half a century, and how he would have snorted at the idea of love incarnated by a sexual stunt double! In 1864 he made his first epistolary approaches to the woman who had a long time since become Mme Fournier, the respectable widow of a provincial magistrate, and received a wary assent to his proposal to call on her. He was 61, she was 70. Two of her six children had died by then, and she was now a grandmother.
      A photograph of the elderly Estelle is reproduced in most editions of the Mémoires. We scrutinise the features of this big-bonneted old lady trying to spot the loveliness that time has not withered nor custom staled. 
      "God! How her face had changed—her complexion darkened, her hair growing grey. Yet my heart did not waver for an instant. My soul leapt out to its idol the moment I saw her, as if she had still been in the splendour of her beauty."
       When Humbert catches up with his Lo a mere three years after she escaped from him, he, too, takes due notes of time’s ravages and is just as quick in dismissing them.
       "No matter, even if those eyes of hers would fade to myopic fish, and her nipples swell and crack, and her lovely young velvety delicate delta be tainted and torn -even then I would go mad with tenderness at the mere sight of your dear wan face, at the mere sound of your raucous young voice, my Lolita."
       Berlioz tries to finesse a second, unscheduled meeting and is not rebuffed; but it is a strain to keep a conversation going. He pleads by letter:"Think! For forty-nine years I have loved you. I have gone on loving you ever since I was a child, through all the ravages of a tempestuous life. The proof is the depth of my feelings today, they could never have revived now in these circumstances, if they had ceased to exist even for a day."
      Sensible Mme Fournier is touched and flattered, but knows when to put her foot down. ‘There are illusions, dreams one must learn to give up when grey hairs come’, she writes back, ‘and, with them, the end of all desire for new emotions, even for the emotions of friendship, for they can possess attraction only when they are born of a close and intimate acquaintance, and in the happy days of one’s youth. To my mind, the time to begin on a relationship is not when one already feels the weight of years and has had one’s fill of life’s disappointments’.
      In a letter of April 27, 1865, HB announces that the Mémoires are at the printer’s. His only purpose in getting his life’s story down on paper is so that she will come to know him better.
      At the very least, you will find it curious to follow the luminous traces that you have left in my existence…you, Stella, whom I adore on my knees, Stella the silent (forgive me for using the Latin translation of your lovely name) I have taken that liberty often in the book. I call you equally in Latin, Stella Montis (star of the mountain) or Italian (stella del monte). That is because for so many years you have been the star that shines in the forefront of my heaven.
      (Yes, and Lolita is Lolita to HH and no-one else, the creator executing his prerogative to name his creation.)
       HB and his Stella met perhaps half a dozen times, the last encounter taking place six months before Berlioz’s death in 1869. Who can blame her for welcoming, though never encouraging, the kind of external attention and affection that is not easy to come by when you are old and grey and full of sleep. The correspondence on the same note as it began: HB declaring his passionate devotion, Estelle reprimanding him gently: ’You are very young at heart. With me, it is not so’.
       Humbert also found that cold embers resist rekindling.
      "In her washed-out gray eyes, strangely spectacled, our poor romance was for a moment reflected, pondered upon, and dismissed like a dull party, like a rainy picnic to which only the dullest bores had come, like a humdrum exercise, like a bit of dry mud caking her childhood."
       Indispensible as both books are, they have quite another effect when read in parallel, the resonances from each forming interesting interference patterns inside the reader’s head. In their obsessive overlap, unavailing devotion appears almost lubricious, while greedy carnality is validated as a kind of love.

viernes

Photography: "Humanism in China"

Culture Wars,  2 March 2007
    After drawing favorable comment and respectable crowds in Frankfurt and Stuttgart, the first stopovers on an all-German roadshow now midway through its two-year run, this exhibition is on its way to Munich's Pinakothek der Moderne, where it will be back before the public eye as from mid-July.
'Humanism in China' seems an odd title to slap on a show that offers quantities of images as vast as its ambition to composite them all into a mosaic of ordinary people going about their business and living their lives. Remember The Family of Man? This time one-fifth of the human race is represented in 601 photographs, as they eat, yell, seek amusement, worship, interact with the opposite sex, work the land (still and for a long time to come, the default way of life in that part of the world), urinate, doze off, cry, build things, jaywalk, complain or wait around for something to happen.
Oh, right, got it: A Day in the Life of China. No, that's not exactly it, either. For one thing, in that series, journalists familiar with the terrain did extensive recon work to line up photogenic sites, situations and set-ups before the photographers -- mostly non-natives having no prior acquaintance with the country -- arrived to make the final determination of the right places and right times to be in them. Nowadays that would be considered exploitative, patronising, and (get ready for the Vulcan death grip of PC vituperation) inauthentic. Here, though, you will find photos taken of the Chinese people, by the Chinese people and for the Chinese people, who will keep them on permanent display at the Guangdong Museum of Art in Guangzhou when their current two-year tour of Germany wraps.
The good news is that they were not produced by any old Chinese people, but taken by one set of accomplished photographers and curated by another, so quality is high, apart from their documentary interest. Moreover, this is not simply a cascade of images wrung from a single moment in time, though all but a few were taken after 1979, that is, after China had put the Cultural Revolution, Great Leap Forwards and Chairman Mao's 'thought' behind it, and something like ordinary life again became possible. The closer to the present, of course, the more photographs there are. But what's humanism got to do with it?
'In China, the fundamental question 'What is a human being?' can be posed in a manner entirely different from that of Western tradition,' a wall inscription informs us. 'The Unity of Heaven, Earth, the human being, all creatures and things is more important to the Chinese than the formation of a hierarchy among the elements. In this respect, the cultures differ.' You bet they differ, but that statement can mean anything you want it to, including nothing at all. However, it's clear that 'humanism' with its connotations of rationalism, democracy, and rule of law, is wide of the translator's mark.
It turns out the character signifying 'human being' or 'being human' overlaps differently-nuanced words in European languages relating to 'fundamentals, basics, capital, origins'. But the idea conveyed is that of human beings considered as individuals. Until not that long ago, individualism was a dirty word, the opposite of collectivism and the ultimate thought crime. Just by its title, this show appears to be making an implicit political statement: that it's definitely OK to be an individual, with a private life and money to spend, and what's more, individuals are now a valued resource of the state. In photographic language, the message is made explicit in terms of crusty old People's Army veterans whooping it up and showing off their decorations, or by a gaping hole over a gate where a Mao portrait has been removed.
 In one unforgettable image, an elderly man in Tiananmen Square holds up a picture of his wife, while far in the background, the face of Chairman Mao Zedong dangles complacently over the Gate of Heavenly Peace. Is the widowed husband on the big city trip that the couple always dreamed of making together? The implication might be that in the new China, Mao is still present, but has yielded the foreground to ordinary people and their personal affairs.
One of the most powerful photos in the show is the one by Liu Jun, of an elderly peasant circa 1985, who has just been savagely beaten by the local party official or cadre, sobbing on the ground as his fellow villagers cradle and comfort him. It's a remarkable composition, evoking Benjamin West's painting of 'The Death of Wolfe', and the expressions and gestures - especially the woman who can't resist looking up and into the camera - would not be out of place in a 'Descent from the Cross' by Mantegna or some other Renaissance master.
Now this, too, is political, but in a very specific way. The toxic levels of systemic corruption and abuse of power that are especially prevalent in the countryside are no secret. You can denounce abuses like this one, but not the system that allows them to take place. Feeling indignation and seeking redress is fine, though. A different sort of message is conveyed by the inclusion of photographs of Tibet, which China invaded and annexed. Sorry, folks, no shiny-head monks or prayer wheels. It's China you're seeing and you better not forget it. (Likewise, if you were looking for a well-known image of a lone, tiny figure standing in front of a row of lined-up tanks, you just needn't bother.)
Sociology as much as ideology writes the narrative of contemporary China, where millions say bye-bye to the boonies and migrate to the big cities hoping to find work in the factories that fill the shelves and bins of the world's Wal-Marts. The contrasts engendered by that Grapes of Wrath scenario and its potential for situations of pathos and ironic juxtaposition results in pictures like the slew of Santa Clauses marching through Beijing, or the two schoolgirls in pinafore uniforms staring innocently at a beggar girl just slightly older than they are, like she was an animal at the zoo.
No surprise that many photos evoke China's embrace of capitalism without irony, subtlety or even commentary. The one of the beaming fellow carrying an armful of money fresh from the mint made for a great poster, and scenes of investors' imminent anxiety attacks at the stock exchange give another glimpse at the 'new China'.
China's future depends on how it finesses the transition from a superpopulated, low-on-basics agrarian society to a superpopulated, superpolluted urban one. My feeling was that urban China was depicted more often and more positively than it possibly deserves. Not exactly sugar-coated, but the people with lampshades on their heads who stayed home to feed the oxen resonate more deeply with Walker Evans' sharecroppers than they do with their urban hustler cousins, despite their both being 100% Chinese. As you work your way through, the preachy subtext gets more explicit, as when every tolerated religious denomination gets its turn at bat, or street vendors of steamed sweet potatoes are identified as high school dropouts (now you get busy on your homework right now, junior!). Retinal fatigue may be to blame, but I can't recall seeing any with people gambling. I mean, c'mon, really - these are Chinese, right?
But that may just be beyond my ability to comprehend because I am not Chinese, and have to take someone else's word - it's there in the wall text - that only through pre-packaged vistas like this will I be vouchsafed 'deeper understanding of the Chinese culture and the mentality of its people'. But why should that be the case? When the show was at Frankfurt's Museum of Modern Art last year, some critics were dismayed that curators assembled a satellite exhibition of pictures taken on a 1985 visit to China by Barbara Klemm, a press photographer for the Frankfurter Allegemeine Zeitung. Ask around - she's one of the best in the business (you may recall a disconcerting shot of Soviet honcho Leonid Brezhnev French-kissing his East German counterpart, Erich Honecker).
Yet critics claim her photographs of China are inappropriate in this context because she's not Chinese. Haven't we been through this already, with Madame Bovary not being written by a woman, nor Moby Dick by a whale? Certainly there are differences. Klemm has a stronger sense of drama, of the story-telling potenial of her images. You have a fair idea not only of what is happening in them, but also what led up to it and what's probably going to happen next. They seem more densely packed with content. Look at her other photos from Soweto or Romania to see how they dovetail with the Chinese scenes. The vision and viewpoint are those of an outsider, but one who definitely knows how to take a picture. Dismiss them if you dare.
Maybe I'm a sucker for clichés, but I'd almost go so far as to say that six hundred authentically Chinese photographs make for a fine feast, but an hour later…. I said almost. Yes, by all means, go see this showfor a privileged inside view of a fascinating society. Sometimes, though, you get a truer view of things if you stay on the outside, peering through the keyhole to see what's really going on.
xxx

domingo

Citizens of Limbo

from New Partisan, April 11, 2006
The Donald Richie Reader (ed. Arturo Silva) Stone Bridge Press
The Japan Journals 1947-2004 (ed. Leza Lowitz) Stone Bridge Press

Except for maybe sitting through hundreds of movies with a soundtrack in Japanese, patronizing the male-only bathhouses of Tokyo’s sleaze-zone sidestreets or affixing my byline to a couple of brilliant books; except for these, my experience of living outside the United States for most of one’s entire adult existence is not altogether different from what the expatriate’s expatriate, Donald Richie, distills from his 50 plus years as a foreigner in Japan.

Seguing in with a quote from Alastair Reid that all expatriates are “curable romantics” Richie elaborates on how that trope gives the game away:

They retain an illusion from childhood that there might be someplace into which they can finally sink to rest, some magic land, some golden age, some significantly other self. Yet his own oddness keeps the foreigner separate from every encounter. Unless he regards this as something fruitful, he cannot be considered cured.

This is the great lesson of expatriation. In Japan, I sit on the lonely heights of my own peculiarities and gaze back at the flat plains of Ohio, whose quaint folkways no longer have any power over me. And then turn and gaze at the islands of Japan, whose folkways are equally powerless in that the folk insist I am no part of them. This I regard as the best seat in the house, because from here I can compare, and comparison is the first step toward understanding.

Trust me, the man has got it right. But it’s not a job description and not a boldface sidebar from the Self-Exile for Dummies manual. No matter how many carloads of Montaigne-class understanding it may precipitate, there’s no getting away from the downside of committing to live in a country that never asked you to come calling in the first place, much less insert yourself surreptitiously, like a virus, into its social and economic bloodstream. Still, opportunities for acquiring understanding will certainly arise, especially if you go the Richie route and choose a place where foreigners are fated by the host culture’s exclusionary fiats to remain foreign forever, no matter how determinedly they might attempt to “go native”, or merely “fit in”.

Richie never tried to. Hence his staying power – with a decade-long accumulation of time outs, from New Year’s Day 1947 to Right This Very Moment, when he’s coming up on 82. Early on he found out that it was possible to engage with an unfamiliar culture without having to recalibrate a value system or personal idiosyncrasies previously acquired via birthright or affinity. “I may have rejected the USA where I was born, but I did not decide to be Japanese,” he writes. “That is an impossible decision, since the Japanese prevent it. Rather, I decided to decorate Limbo and become a citizen of this most attractive, intensely democratic republic.”

In the photographic cull of those six decades, Richie always appears in suit and tie, his gawky Midwestern face bobbing up in a group of kimono-clad contemporaries; here seen schmoozing with Yukio Mishima, there in a two-shot with one of directors whose films he made accessible to Western viewers by contextualizing their culture-specific signifiers. No doubt had Richie never set foot in the country he could have written just as brilliantly about Bresson and film aesthetics in general, but without the jolt from Japanese cinema’s unfamiliar conventions for perceiving and representing, I suspect he might have never hit on his vocation.

Apart from cinema, Richie knows just about everything a Westerner is ever going to know about Japan, or want to, and put the best of it into a classic book, The Inland Sea. He doesn’t try to explain the inexplicable, but holds it up in the light of his own, inescapably alien sensibility so we can at least see its outlines clearly and make of it what we will. I wonder, though, if the Japan that engages him most deeply exists only in the films of Mizoguichi, Kurosawa and Ozu. Outside the movies, Richie is appreciative that his adopted country took his homosexuality with a shrug of indifference and gave him seemingly unlimited opportunities for indulging it. (He characterizes himself as a “sex addict” but the diary’s juicy bits have been hived off, apparently for separate publication).

Sexual opportunism is actually fairly common as a determinant in the expatriate game. Not only did Richie find more tolerance than he could have expected from the folks back home in Lima, Ohio, I suspect the built-in cultural abyss reinforced the emotional distance he prefers in his relationships, and a power dynamic – he talks about it in the diaries — in which each participant exerts a different kind of leverage over the other, mainly because of the difference in age. Bowles in Morocco, Isherwood in Berlin and California; I wonder why homos so seldom look homeward. Then there’s Gauguin and all that nut-brown Polynesian jailbait.

So how, exactly, did Richie end up where he did? Or me? Or anyone? In Richie’s case, the bottom line might be that he just isn’t into body hair. I’ve seen odder specimens, with odder reasons for being where they are, drift in and out the slipstream in the course of 30 plus years of slogging it out in Spain: alcoholics, remittance men, second-home owners, English teachers (hey—if it was good enough for James Joyce….) Vietnam draft dodgers gone potbellied and gray, people who get on and off yachts, Army brats and many, many lost souls with too much money or with no money at all.

But I also know my own unsettled scores with Tonawanda, New York, got left behind when I went away to college, that exceedingly banal but effective cure for hometown malaise as borne out in narratives by everyone from Thomas Wolfe to Terry Teachout. Going the distance, short or long, is not the only way to acquire your get-me-the-hell-out-of-here-free card. For the Brando character in "The Wild One", all it took was a leather jacket, attitude and a chopper to achieve otherness, for Richie, a ticket to smoldering, bomb-devastated Tokyo. Go figure.

The template for changing countries out of contrariness was set by Robert Graves in 1929, in his autobiographical Goodbye To All That. It was written as a searing indictment of the world into which he was born and hoped to put forever behind him by moving to the then-remote and exotic island of Mallorca. So it was phooey and so long to Edwardian hypocrisy, mother’s stern religiosity, British public schools, the enduring horrors of trench warfare and a decade of refusal to make compromises with the society he had come to despise.

Actually, Graves’ classic kvetch was a cover story for his walking out on his family and decamping to Spain with Laura Riding, his poetic mentor, sometimes lover and personal divinity. Like other self-displaced persons, Graves carried his own private England with him during the four decades he lived outside it. He used to laugh when tourists filched fruit from his orchard — they were in a for a surprise from the only bitter oranges on the island, planted by himself so as not to have to go without that most ur-British of breakfast marmalades.

Also in Spain during roughly the same period was Gerald Brenan, junior adjunct of the Bloomsbury set who burrowed into an impossibly remote Andalusian village a decade before Graves. Brenan went there with 2000 books because he could just get by on an allowance from Dad and his Army pension, making him a forerunner of the Americans who, a generation later, would be wafted to postwar Paris on the wings of the GI Bill. Caught in its perennial economic (not to mention social and political) time warp, Spain remained a honey-trap for professional “remittance men” especially alcoholically-inclined Brits, until 1986, when it got into the soon-to-be European Union and the good old days of living on the cheap came to an abrupt and painful end.

Because Brenan wrote with surpassing insight on his adopted country, Spaniards always assumed he was an infatuated Hispanophile, and that explained his presence among them. Read the biography, though, and it’s clear that Spain was merely the whetstone on which he honed the skills of observing and elucidating he hoped to apply to the novels he was trying to write. And sometimes just a backdrop of color and noise that he responded to with indifference or annoyance. Yet he stayed on until his heart gave out at age 92, mainly because it allowed him to overcome, after a fashion, his early-onset impotence issues by getting it on with illiterate servant girls. Once he had diluted his hang-ups in the solvent of squalor, Brenan managed to father a daughter and write a couple of the most fascinating, though not necessarily reliable, books ever written about Spain by an outsider, but his personal feelings about the country remained ambiguous to the end, as witness this unpublished fragment quoted by his biographer:

We in England measure out our egoism and altruism to suit the occasion. We have a measure appropriate to every situation, and if we haven’t one, we pretend we have. The Spanish nature is to move in one step from one extreme to another. When we are feeling horrified by Spanish insensitivity, Spanish negativenes or Spanish egotism, we come across some act of generosity and sheer goodness of heart such as one could scacrely find in any other nation.

That, by the way, is exactly true, exactly on the mark. Here is an equivalent aperçu from Richie about the Japanese that I’m more than willing to take on faith:

The Japanese is all Japanese and he must be seen in his own context because his mountains, his forest, his seas are also him. It is not that he does not have individuality, he has his context – and he has never been taught to foster a strong personality, has never been told that each and every person must be somehow, different, unique, only himself.

If that seems like Richie is down on the country he admits has made him “more or less happy,” you ought to see me when I’m in the mood. I am asked: Didn’t you implicitly renounce the right to grouse and gripe about the place when you voluntarily elected to live in it? Like hell I did. I tell them that on a good day, Spain is like Mayberry, USA, and that on a not so good day it is like Dogpatch. I tell them there are fundamental elements of the Spanish mindset I will never be comfortable with, such as the imperative to quedar bien, make a good impression, avoid anything that might be interpreted as conflictive or disappointing, that overrides any hope of getting a straight answer, an honest opinion, or a shared intimacy from the people you are closest to. The bottom line is that the retrograde, agrarian and above all interesting country I decided to try on for size in the mid-1970s is gone, and it sure ain’t coming back. Forgotten, despised and subverted, just like Richie’s Japan.

What has gone missing? One, and of course it’s irretrievable, is the beauty of the country. It was the most beautiful country I’d ever seen in my life and now it’s just about the ugliest. That and an attitude toward nature which was based upon penury. If you don’t have furniture, then you pay a lot of attention to empty space. And if you have only mud, you pay a lot of attention to pottery.

[elsewhere] And now I look around. In fifty years, it has changed, materialistic, peacetime Japan, 1992, where all that counts is how much you make and what you can buy. I read Main Street and Babbit back then and determined never to stay. It is now full circle; the Japanese are the new-rich Babbits in the true American mold. And Tokyo is the new Main Street.

Replace Japan with Spain and I’ll sign and have it notarized. Of course, nobody should complain about being bushwhacked by one’s own expectations and by assuming that the inevitable would obligingly wait for us to die off first. The circular nature of time brings the expatriate’s bitter comeuppance: elsewhere turns into the place he was trying to get away from. For consolation, I turn to Richard Ford, author of the 19th century classic, Gatherings from Spain, a book in many ways comparable in its fiercely critical take on the country being scrutinized to one that Richie knows well. Japan: An Attempt at Interpretation shows that even for Lafcadio Hearn, a century earlier, Japanese life is not a bowl of cherry blossoms.

Ford makes up for his irascibility with his eye for the telling detail and by the regret with which he took note of the fact that most everything good about Spain was – in 1845, mind you – on the way out, ground under the unstoppable wheels of “the Lutheran locomotive”. Much as he was irritated by its barbers, bullfighters and bandits, it still made him wince to witness how “the European intellect is crushing many a wild flower” in Spain’s garden of earthly delights. His rants – so curiously like my own on the subject of government functionaries — didn’t do any good then, so what purpose would be served by my updating and elaborating on them now?

But I still haven’t answered my own question. If not acute birthplace disaffection, the joys of sexpatriation, draft dodging, cheap booze, and so forth, then what brought me here? What kept me here? There’s only possible answer to the question and everyone’s already heard it. “I came to Casablanca to take the waters.” Let that stand as mine, too, since it can’t be bettered. And was I misinformed? Only in the sense that nobody told me I would still be a stranger so long after the strange land lost its strangeness. I can live with it, though, and Richie can, too.

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