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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sábado

Photography: Cristobal Hara

from Focus, Sept.-Oct. 2006

The trouble with photographing just about anything at all in Spain is that no matter how original, how visually striking or subtly thought-provoking the result may be, everyone will look at it and say "Right, another picture of Spain." The country that has it all -- light, color, contrast, and character pouring out of every human visage --  turns out to be a deal breaker for the photographer who reaches out too greedily to grasp it all. This is the dilemma faced by Cristobal Hara, as a Spanish photographer who specializes in Spanish subject matter. Many rate him as one of the best in the business, along with Cristina García Rodero, though in recent years, she appears to have her viewfinder locked onto the doings at the Burning Man whoopee fest.

Hara's end-run around the intractable problem involves making or allowing his pictures of Spanish reality seem as unreal as possible. The viewer's visual processing apparatus is obliged to churn out possible answers to the question "Wait a minute, is what I'm seeing here some kind of put-on?" and thus overrides the lower brain functions that would otherwise be classifying and filing the image under "Spanish".

It probably helps that Hara is himself a Spaniard, allowing his human subjects to be  somewhat less self-conscious when he aims his lens at them. Deep Spain, with its rural backwaters and dying villages that yield up their secrets to him, is not an easy place or state of mind for outsiders to penetrate. Anyway, Hara insists he is not particularly interested in the people he photographs, or in any of his other subjects, to get right down to cases. The only thing that concerns him is the photographic language in which the subject can be expressed


Hara's peculiar dialect relies on mystification and perversity. Mystification, in that no matter what the subject may be -- often some combination of people and animals, singly, one-on-one, or in groups,  whitewashed walls and building facades, the whistle stop rural bullfight circuit, stone foundations of buildings that long since crumbled away - he never really wants you to know what is going on. Here's a man sound asleep in bed with a sheep. A joke, right? Wait, it's obviously not posed or set up. Is there a backstory that makes this intelligible? If there is, Hara's not letting on.


Perversity: Hara is notorious for making every technical blunder in the book and appropriating them all for his signature style. An impenetrable shadow envelops his subject, a blur of sudden movement streaks into view or a huge extraneous object intrudes without warning into the frame, not only wrecking the composition (assuming there was one in the first place) but blotting out the subject as well. No big deal -- it merely  add a piquant note of immediacy, evoking the unique moment when the photographer has to act. His cavalier take on rule-breaking is doubtless one reason why they love his stuff in Germany, where several collections have appeared and more are on the way.

A word on the venue  The Sala del Canal de Isabel II is actually a turn-of-the-century water tower clad in neo-mudejar brickwork and one of Madrid's seldom examined examples of industrial architecture. Decades ago, the water utility people had the inspired notion of putting layers of scaffolding inside the obsolete, shuttlecock-shaped structure and have it serve as a year-round venue for photography-only exhibits, in which you take an elevator up to the top and stroll down, Guggenheim style, to see the pictures. Many of their shows have been world-class and not enough people who come to Madrid know about this place.

miércoles

Canadian Bacon

from New Partisan, Sept 11, 2004
When Robertson Davies died in December 1995, Canada’s state broadcasting corporation, the CBC, offered live radio coverage of his funeral. Unthinkable south of the border, but as last rites go, his were far less ostentatious than the televised send-off that other culturally self-aware Commonwealth country, Australia, gave to its antipodean Adonais, suicidal rocker Michael Hutchence. Could Canada have offered any lesser honors to its grand old man of letters?

Not only did Davies look every bit the part with his pentateuchal white beard, he conspicuously played it to the hilt, never turning away a fathead interviewer he could dazzle with his unflappable erudition, bespoke aphorisms and ready wit. So he was a borderline celebrity and a national literary hero. To their credit, though, a good many Canadians had actually read the novels penned by one of the century’s most beguiling and lucid writers.

Of course there was sniping from the sidelines as the cortege rumbled by. “He went to Oxford, you know,” sniffed a poet, “one of those colleges” — an unintentionally perfect Evelyn Waugh line if ever there was one. Another scoffer took Davies to task for his scant concern for “the unexamined privileges of color, class and gender”. Actually, much of this sort of thing had been said before, most famously in a 1978 piece by Joyce Carol Oates which is that much more effective on account of its relative restraint and grudging acknowledgement of Davies’ “charming” traits.

Yet Oates was reviewing not the novels but a collection of Davies’ essays, lectures and journalistic oddbins. Several such miscellanies appeared during Davies’ lifetime and two more after his death. In all of them, he remains charming but also waxes windy and repetitive as he hits the declamatory grace notes required to keep a gaggle of graduate students or an after-dinner audience from nodding off. Along with the two volumes of posthumously collected letters, these miscellanies are as balm for us Davies diehards but irrelevant to his achievement as a novelist. That so many such cullings were printed only attests to his thwarted vocation for the theater and the adrenaline rush of playing to an audience. No reason to be put off by just a lingering whiff of Canadian bacon (no offense intended — he loved, taught and knew everything there is to know about 19th century melodrama). But he was never, alas, as good an actor or a playwright as he had hoped to be.

Before arriving at that conclusion and moving on, he had been on the boards at Oxford, where he made a specialty of playing “pedants, idiots, old fathers, and drunkards” and of the Old Vic, where he first met Tyrone Guthrie, married his stage manager, and later became Guthrie’s chief-of-staff when the director came to Canada to get the Stratford festival off the ground. Davies’ dozen or so plays range from the negligible to the un-actable. Several were “about” the Canadian identity issue, which must have been a sure-fire way of getting them performed in the 1950s and 60s as well as helping focus his thoughts on something more successfully articulated in the novels.

There were, however, two more careers to be exhausted. The war drove him back to Canada, where he edited the newspaper owned by his father, a self-made immigrant who became a very rich man, and subsequently a senator who eventually returned to Wales and bought a castle to die in. Later Davies fils did a 20-year stint as the master of Massey College, a graduate school at the University of Toronto, and it was during this period, when he was exiting middle age and occupied with teaching, administering, thesis advising, and churning out preposterous ghost stories at Christmas, that he experienced his real flowering as a writer.

Three previous novels had been concocted out of daubs of Canadian local color, humor and a squaring of accounts with the constricted, self-regarding and bigoted world of the upper Ottawa Valley, finally getting up to cruising speed in A Mixture of Frailties. But there were deeper reserves of intellect and sensibility that remained untapped until Fifth Business came along in 1970, amazed reviewers, sold like crazy, was cited in sermons, translated and talked about, making a splash well beyond the frog pond of Canadian belles lettres. It’s still a good point of entry into the world of Robertson Davies.

That book and its two unforeseen sequels organized themselves into the first of his trademark trilogies after Davies found he wasn’t ready to let go of some of the characters he created or the predicaments he devised for them. That special Davies touch comes, however, in his exploration of the ongoing albeit subterranean roles of magic, myth, mystery, religious ritual and rank superstition in contemporary human affairs. How the author of World of Wonders would have relished the fact that nearly a decade after his death, Massey students have made a fixed good-luck ritual out of touching the nose on the bronze bust of Davies in the college library that bears his name before defending their dissertations. (Surely he would also have inquired dryly as to its effectiveness as fertility fetish). The authorial snout has become quite shiny, one hears.

“What I am really trying to do,” he once said, “and what I think a moralist generally does, is to point out patterns in human behavior which are inexorable; they are archetypes of behavior, and I’m not saying that they’re either good or bad. I am simply saying they are so.”

Well, actually not all that simply. Without getting into a list of heat-and-serve term paper topics, you start out with Davies’ understanding of Jung as a useful road map for exploring the human psyche or of comedy as way of illuminating the mysteries of selfhood, with excursions into eclectic sidelines such as scatology, hagiography, art forgery and opera production.

What Melville did for whalers, Davies does for obscure saints, actor-managers, defrocked monks, itinerant carnival hucksters, and Rabelais scholars. Often for the core narrative of “individuation” a spiritual father or mentor is required, but in a sense broad enough to encompass a pair of off-duty guardian angels, a frighteningly ugly woman with nymphonic tendencies, a Jesuit priest with a sweet tooth, the Limbo-locked spirit of E.T.A. Hoffman, or an Indian shaman (shawoman, actually). The narrator of Murther and Walking Spirits gets killed off in the book’s first sentence and discovers that death makes a wonderful shortcut on the path to self-knowledge.

As to my own take, then, as a Davies reader of long standing…

The Manticore makes the Deptford trilogy sag in the middle — not too much, but a little. What’s Bred in the Bone is best read apart from its flanking volumes — it really is on a different level than the goings-on at the extraordinary College of St. John and the Holy Ghost. Which is not to diminish its side-iron companions. Read sequentially, The Rebel Angels and The Lyre of Orpheus make a double-decker Victorian comic novel that leaves Thomas Love Peacock looking like Thomas Love Turkey. And if you really want to find out about Canadians' collective identity issues, hold off on the one that addresses the question directly, Murther and Walking Spirits until you’ve digested the supporting cast of Fifth Business and What’s Bred in the Bone, because just like Flaubert’s Homais, a “minor” character drawn with deadly accuracy can reveal all that needs be known about blighted and blinkered provincial life — and Davies churns them out a dozen a time.

The last trilogy was cut short at number two. Since he was in his eighties by then, sensibly enough, rather than waiting for the fraying pullcord to be severed, he rang the curtain down preemptively in The Cunning Man with a Prospero-like valedictory: “No, this is the Great Theatre of Life,” the character says. “Admission is free but the taxation is mortal. You come when you can, and leave when you must. The show is continuous. Good-night.”

Goodnight to you, too, up there in the firmament where your star shines as brightly as does your nose down here on the planet where, you’d no doubt be pleased to know, Penguin has been pretty good about not letting your books go out of print.

Paint It Blacker

from The National Ledger,  October 10, 2005

A country as arrogant as only a superpower can be, throwing its weight around at the whim of a God-obsessed dimwit leader. Its military gets bogged down in a futile attempt to impose incompatible values on a country it had no business occupying in the first place, while back home, brave Not-in-Our-Namers echo correct-thinking world punditry in denouncing their own country's criminal conceit. Come on, you knew all along it was Spain we were talking about, didn’t you? 

Spain, the original modern superpower. Around the year 1580, before the world was even completely mapped, that country’s King Philip II had become sole owner and operator of what some considered far too many of its important bits. Following Spain's annexation of Portugal and its colonial assets, all of Central and South America came under direct control of Madrid, along with chunks of Italy, the Netherlands, North America, Asia and Africa. 

That concentration of power spawned a backlash of resentment, wholesale libel, invective and vituperation that historians have dubbed “The Black Legend” and you know, it was a lot like what the United States gets these days from the left-leaning media that crack the dominatrix’s whip over public opinion in almost every Western European country – not least of all in Spain. 

Well, they ought to know. For centuries vilifying Spaniards as lustful, bloodthirsty and intolerant was all the rage. Basically, it was a vast Protestant conspiracy spearheaded by Holland, Britain, Germany and of course, France, where conventional wisdom preached that “Tyranny is as normal to the Spaniards as laughter is to a man.”

Spain had its Vietnam, a long and unsuccessful military entanglement in the Low Countries under  the Duke of Alba, who was blamed for a kind of Abu Ghraib avant la lettre, the torching of Antwerp in 1576. Long before the word genocide had been coined, booksellers in London and Geneva churned out best-selling exposés of Spanish iniquity such as the one promising ”a faithful narrative of the horrid and unexampled massacres, butcheries, and all manner of cruelties that hell and malice could invent” to liven up the extermination of millions of Indians.

The cheesy stereotype of the Latin lover is the after-image of the insatiable, moustache-twirling lecher of legend and if you think American perceptions of Spain weren’t affected by all this, give a thought to how the bad guys are depicted in Steven Spielberg’s Amistad. But why should Spaniards be hostile to the United States? Recall that America is the last foreign country Spaniards fought a war with, in 1898. Not only did Spain lose big-time; it had to watch helplessly as Washington stripped away its remaining colonies. No wonder it raises hackles to hear that American forces are in Iraq so the Middle East can be primed for democracy. Spaniards were told the same thing about Puerto Rico, Cuba and the Philippines.

So the Black Legend is making a comeback and this time Spaniards are helping it along I’d rather skip over the gratuitous offensiveness (to human intelligence as well as to Washington) that informs Socialist Prime Minister José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero’s foreign policy, which is small potatoes compared to the sticking power of a libel enshrined in a work of fiction. Thanks to the talents of Schiller and Verdi, Philip II stands forever and falsely accused of having ordered the execution of his own son, while Peter the Great of Russia, who actually did have his son killed and made no bones about it, is considered one of history’s good guys.

But I don’t think anyone is going to make an opera out of Pilar Urbano’s best-selling Jefe Atta. Concocted from a skein of urban legends and conspiracy theories, plus an expensively-researched “insider’s view” of the White House, Al Qaeda training camps and other places she has never been to and imaginary conversations (“Dick, I can’t allow a bunch of terrorists to scare the President of the United States away from Washington,” etc.) It may convince  her readers they are getting the inside dope about the Sept 11 attacks: namely, that the Pentagon fire was faked, scrambled F-16s shot down American Airlines Flight 77, and a cabal of Texan plutocrats made a killing selling short their holdings in airline, insurance and oil stocks as prelude and pretext for the invasion of Iraq and take-over of the world’s petroleum supply.  

Anti-war Americans are lavished with attention by the Spanish media. Not just Michael Moore, Noam Chomsky and the usual suspects. Try Gwyneth Paltrow. She’s guaranteed a good press because in her palmier days, she spent a year studying in Spain, living with a Spanish family and loving every minute of it. Spaniards love her back when she goes on about how she “simply can’t understand how 55 million people could vote for [George W Bush]. It used to be friends would say, how can you have a president like that, who’s done all this and that, who doesn’t want to abide by the Kyoto Treaty and sends soldiers to die in Iraq. At least then I could answer ‘Right, but he didn’t win legally [in 2000]’. Now, though, I just have to clench my teeth.” 

Clench away, Gwynnie. The funny thing is that the Spanish empire also had plenty of detractors from within whose dissenting views got avid play abroad. The liberal establishment of Hapsburg Spain was represented by Bartolomé de las Casas, the Dominican friar who dedicated his life to campaigning for better treatment of the Indians – please note I did not say “rights” as neither he nor his contemporaries would have understood what is meant by the modern sense of the word. A one-man NGO, Las Casas wrote an inflammatory book denouncing Spanish atrocities against the Indians that was reprinted over 140 times between 1552 and 1800, all but a handful of editions for circulation outside Spain. 

Like modern-day spinmeisters, Fray Bartolomé knew that a lie told in a good cause acquires enhanced credibility when cast in numbers. So he insisted 30 to 50 million Indians were wiped on the island of Hispaniola, as if somebody had actually counted them, but for there to have been room for that many they would have had to be stacked in layers. The combined present-day population of Haiti and the Dominican Republic is 16 million and even at that  it’s getting pretty crowded.  

Another area where role-reversal has taken place is religion. Despite the Inquisition, however, Spaniards are neither more or less intense in their religious beliefs and practices than other peoples of the Mediterranean Catholic world and their knee-jerk anti-clericalism has become a tributary trickling into the mainstream of European secularism. Like their counterparts in France or Italy, Spaniards look on with perplexed dismay at a country where the vast majority of people openly proclaim their belief in God, and a fair number even go to church, and not just to get married or buried or look at the pretty pictures. 

Still and all, at least Spanish anti-Americanism is not fuelled by resentment over being eclipsed as a political and cultural powerhouse. Despite the revenge-crazed, ruffle-necked Don Whozis of the Jacobean stage, anyone who knows the first thing about Spaniards cannot possibly imagine them trying to lynch Americans because they were beaten by them at rugby, as the French did during the 1924 Olympics. With national self-esteem not endangered, it should be easier for both sides to smooth out their disagreements.          

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Welcome Back, Kenner!

from the New York Press, 9 November 2005 

“Odd, dangerous speculations which no decent professor ought to propound,” was Anthony Burgess’s take on a book -- not this one -- by the late (d. 2003) Hugh Kenner. Let’s use it anyway as a fanfare riff heralding the autumn’s reissue of The Counterfeiters: An Historical Comedy from the Dalkey Archive. Funny, short, yet jaw-dropping in the scope of its subject matter, Kenner’s book originally appeared in 1968, and for some years thereafter drifted in and out of print without really finding the readers it deserved among English majors weaned, teethed and packed off to grad school under the influence of The Pound Era and Kenner’s other scholarly spadework into the rich loam of literary Modernism. Maybe this time around will be different.

If it is, it could be because enough time has gone by for us to realize how much the world we live has been conditioned by the phenomenon Kenner was alert enough to spot coiled up in the cultural crabgrass of the Vietnam era and poked at with his professorial pointer. Though his conclusions do not lend themselves to dogmatic reformulation or even paraphrase, they mainly have to do with the contention that, from the eighteenth century onwards, human artifacts loosely classified as works of art and literature are being created by their creators and contemplated and evaluated by their end-users “as stylish quotations, [so that] the environment they create is a cultural echo chamber, reverberant with scraps of dead languages. Things are utterances.”

His case histories include a good many “which the Dewey Decimal System (a Romantic artifact) prefers to keep in different parts of the building: the Enlightenment; Buster Keaton (stoic comedian); bad poetry, Albrecht Durer; Joyce, Swift, Pope; closed systems, mathematical and mechanical; Charles Babbage and his Calculating Engines…" They all illustrate of what happens when art becomes simulation (the posterization of Van Gogh’s sunflowers), impersonation (the memoirs of a non-existent Robinson Crusoe), satire, forgery or plagiarism (all of which involve appropriating a pre-existing creation or mannerism) reiteration (Duchamp's urinal transformed by curatorial label into a“fountain”), and allusion (Ulysses, of course, considered as a tapestry of allusion to Western culture).

Strange to think that Kenner was on to all this back in 1968, long before you could browse the Vatican Library on your computer screen, dial up one of the 30-odd Elvis impersonators working Vegas according to your“preferred incarnation” (Rockabilly Cat, 1968 Comeback Black Leathers, Majestic Vegas), or witness the ablation of critical values that allowed the Modernist masterworks Kenner examined with enthusiasm and insight to be trampled underfoot by tenured jackasses, or pick up a born-again alt weekly hyping a 40-year-old book under a heading that struggles to resonate with a long extinct eighties TV show.

In 1968, Andy Warhol was only just beginning to shed his reputation as a media zany and be taken seriously on the way to becoming --- as he must, with all due justice, be considered -- the most influential artist of the century. Kenner saw that it was not the soup cans silk-screened on canvas (imitation, representation) that would take Warhol far beyond famous. Nope, it was the soup cans he acquired for 17 cents at Safeway’s and resold for six bucks a pop after affixing his signature to them. As Kenner perceived, at that point the can ceased its existence as an object and became “a statement by Andy Warhol…transformed from a mere item of commerce into a slight but irreducible, complex, somewhat facetious utterance having to do with the status of the artist, the nature of art, the autism of a culture that buys what it eats unseen and then looks at nothing it buys, photolithographed abundance, conspicuous nonconsumption and the long history of artifact as counterfeit.“

Around that same time, in a book called Painting and Reality, Catholic intellectual Etienne Gilson was agonizing over the question of whether authenticity still had any residual meaning and Orson Welles, himself no stranger to connivance and duplicity, undertook an on-camera exploration of his lifelong fascination with the subversive potential of forgers, hoaxers, con artists, charlatans, quacks and shams. Though it could just as easily have been Kenner, it was Welles, in fact, who remarked in F for Fake that “Man cannot escape his destiny to create whatever it is we make -- jazz, a wooden spoon, or graffiti on the wall. All of these are expressions of man's creativity, proof that man has not yet been destroyed by technology. But are we making things for the people of our epoch or repeating what has been done before? And finally, is the question itself important?”

The same year Kenner’s book came out saw Charlton Heston don a loincloth (in Spanish known as a taparrabos, or weenie-wrapper) for his travels and adventures on the original, never-to-be forgotten Planet of the Apes. A liftetime or so later, the mailman delivers a lavish catalogue from an outfit known as Profiles in History that invites me to bid on a selection of prop house discards and high-end Hollywood collectibles including Dawn Wells’s (Mary Ann to you) hand-annotated scripts for Gilligan’s Island, but it is the Crucified Gorilla on Page 52 to which I am irresistibly drawn.

You know which one — in Beneath the Planet of the Apes, the primate crucified upside down in a vision induced by post-Apocalyptic mutants endowed with psychic mojo. This“beautifully-crafted” artefact lashed to crossed poles, is in near-mint condition. It languished in a Minnesota car dealership for 30 years, until it was recognized as a work of art and (we may hope) given a thorough vacuuming. Going by the estimates, it could have been yours (or mine) for about $12,000.

But if I were the lucky owner of the life-size crucified ape, what should I tell people when I had them over for cocktails? What they would be seeing depends, as Kenner says, on the statement being made and that would depend on the Certificate of Authenticity that the auctioneers promise to supply.

So it might very well indeed be a prop once featured in a 1970s sci-fi classic. But it just as easily could be a present from a well-wisher in the Indian state of Assam where, Sir James Frazer tells us, crucified primates (Entellus monkeys) were at one time used by the Garos tribe in “certain ceremonies which are observed once a year by a whole community or village, and are intended to safeguard its members from dangers of the forest, and from sickness and mishap during the coming twelve months.” Or it could it even be an original work by Monika Steinhoff, the Santa Fe, New Mexico artist who put her crucified gorilla in a painting entitled “And God Gave Dominion” which was refused by the local community college she wanted to donate it to. Now, there’s real art for you and probably a hell of a lot more affordable than an original Andrés Serrano.

Any one of these pedigrees could validate the inverted ape as a work of art, as well as a conversation piece, but as Hugh Kenner points out, without a statement of intent from the artist, or the ape itself making its own contextualizing utterance, it’s hard to say what the subject of the conversation would be. This, however, would not be a problem, if you go instead for Charlton Heston’s taparrabos.

###


martes

Happily Never After


###

jueves

The Barber Lady's Son

from New Partisan, May 9, 2005

What kind of people were they -- our parents, I mean; what sort of lives did they lead when not busily tending to the needs of oh-so important little you and me? The contrast between one reality and another generates dramatic tension, the stuff from which books are made, ranging from “as told to” celebrity ghost jobs to the happy discovery of an outstanding writer who just happens to have a parent worth reading about. The example that pops immediately to mind is Yael Dayan’s memoir of her father, the one-eyed Israeli general. A parent-child relationship may not be the only shortcut to biographical insight, but it sure doesn’t hurt: Samuel Johnson is obviously a surrogate father to Boswell; I think the two of them even comment on it at some point.

Familial biographies range from payback of the”Mommie, Dearest” variety, where the author does a Menendez brothers job on his or her progenitors, to sappy home movies in grainy 8mm. Somewhere in between comes the account written to “put the record straight.” One of the oddest I’ve read is Anthony West’s life of his father, H.G. Wells, which is really a point-by-point refutation of everything that his mother, Rebecca West,  said about him. (I find the son’s version convincing. Dame Rebecca ensured that her residual vindictiveness would be imprinted on the canon by American academics thrilled to death at being taken into the confidence of one of feminism’s founding mothers.)

Resolving a posthumous enigma is another off-the-shelf premise for parental portraits. Who was that girl in the frock and ringlets and why did Dad keep her picture stashed away all these years? Off we go on a quest in which the biographical narrative emerges as a function of the unraveling riddle, which is likely a secret, or even a surprise, only to the subject’s children.

There is, however, one book I know of that breaks with all of these conventions in making the leap from the biography shelf to Literature with a capital L. No quest, no revelations, no case to be made for the prosecution or the defense. A book in which a souped-up, custom-louvered version of the English language is needed to carry the high-voltage charge that comes from the fact that Edward Dahlberg was his mother’s son, which is the only thing, really, that Because I Was Flesh wants to tell us.
That book is currently out of print, though I suspect it may not be for much longer since novelist Jonathan Lethem has written it up in the trenchant lead essay of his new collection “The Disappointment Artist.” In the late 1960s, Lethem’s Aunt Billie wrote her fanily a series of letters detailing the abuse she and her fellow students were subjected to in the Kansas City creative writing class that provided the ogre-ish Dahlberg with more of a living than he ever made from literature.

Lethem predicts that Dahlberg will someday be remembered on the strength of  “the lasting beauty of one towering book.” That’s correct, I think. He opens grandly:
Kansas City is a vast inland city, and its marvelous river, the Missouri, heats the senses; the    maple, alder, elm and cherry trees with which the town abounds are songs of desire, and only the almonds of ancient Palestine can awaken the hungry pores more deeply. It is a wild, concupiscent city, and few there are troubled about death until they age or are sick. Only those who know the ocean ponder death as they behold it, whereas those bound closely to the ground are more sensual.
The pipe organ from which Dahlberg coaxes this high Baroque prose swells in the opening cadences introducing the reader to Lizzie, a woman whose life was spent trimming men’s hair and massaging their scalps in a business that could have been lucrative, though it never would have been considered respectable by polite KC society. Lizzie sidelined as a de facto madam and abortionist for her stable of lady barbers, who did not see themselves as whoring for their codger customers so much as offering them an upfront sample of what they would be delighted to deliver to anyone improvident enough to ask for their hand in marriage.  And if not, breach of promise suits were pretty common in that day and age.

Lizzie was just as luckless in her affections. Her penchant for worthless rats did not exhaust itself when the future author’s possible father decamped with their savings, the first of many chasers of chippies and four-flushers to whom she gave her heart. Fruit peddlers found she would much rather believe their solemn pledges of freshness than finger the squishy produce. Her girls knew that she knew that they were stealing from the cash register.  Lizzie was Jewish, no small deal for that time and place, and kept her “telltale nose” behind a barbering chair set far from the door.



She did not know what to do with her life or with her feelings. She toiled because she was afraid to starve and because she had nothing else to do, but her will was too sick to love the child of her lust. He was so skinny and yellow that his nose seemed to cover his face; and all the obduracy that was in her short, round neck had passed over to him. All that Lizzie could understand is that the child of her profligacy vomited and would grow up ugly.

When the son is eleven, he gets packed off to an orphanage in Cleveland at the insistence of Lizzie’s latest dirtbag paramour. The six years he languishes there battling the Irish Micks from Kinsman Road and the slums of Superior Avenue and eating green-pea hash on Thursdays are compressed into a single narrative stream, like Thoreau  in Walden,  without any wringing of the reader’s hanky to enhance its dramatic effect. When Dahlberg returns home, the character who until now has been written about in the third person as “Lizzie’s boy” or “the adhesive child” or just “the boy” has become a person, has become an “I.”
In the harrowing bits about the Jewish Orphan Asylum, the florid prose interspersed with Biblical tropes that Dahlberg slathers throughout the book is mostly kept to a trickle When it does leak out, it can stain a beautifully wrought paragraph like this:



They were a separate race of stunted children who were clad in famine. Swollen heads lay on top of ashy uniformed orphans. Some had oval or oblong skulls, others gigantic watery occiputs that resembled the Cynecephali described by Hesiod and Pliny. The palsied and the lame were cured in the pool of Bethesda, but who had enough human spittle to heal the orphans’ sore eyes and granulated lids? How little love, or hot sperm, had gone into the making of their gray-maimed bodies.

It would have meant a great deal to me if he could have done without the Cynecephali, but what can you expect from a writer who throws around words like “limbeck” and “lorn” to keep us on our toes. And how much of the erudition is for effect when he talks about a “kabbalistical staircase” and later a “kabbalistical black suit”? In what, if any, sense can they be said to be so? Still and all, I’ll go to bat for any writer who apostrophizes the city of Los Angeles as “the sewer of Sodom.”

By the way, the last of Lizzie’s great deceivers, Tobias Emeritch,  is  --  so go ahead, sue me, kill me, I’ll say it anyway  -- as good a Dickensian character as Dickens ever came up with. And all stylistic affectation is forgiven when you run into a passage that makes your hair stand on end, like this one about Lizzie sinking  into old age:

Despite her resolution to remain alive, every new day was a terror to her. By two o’clock in the afternoon she had gained part of her battle against the morning; then she would snatch the remnant of a petticoat from the floor of the clothes closet and wipe the scum of lotion from her cheeks, If she happened to step upon an old corset cover she would pick it up and clean her shoes with it. She could not part with anything; she hoarded buttons, a piece of chemise, a smutty chamois or powder puff, a hair switch, half a razorstrop. They represented her life, which was over.
Unevenness of accomplishment is the least of the sins that Dahlberg may be expunging in whichever afterlife he has been confined since 1977. Lethem got his Dahlberg horror stories from his aunt; I heard a couple of good ones in Mallorca, where Dahlberg he lived in the 1960s and left behind a blaze of stink in the memories of a not inconsiderable number of people living there. All accounts depict a ferocious hater of the human race who despised its attempts at writing literature,  a man seven times married who couldn’t stop ranting against the sexuality that enslaved him. Insofar as they were both brilliant misfits and incredible pains in the ass, Edward Dahlberg is a lot like Frederick Rolfe, a.k.a. Baron Corvo, who was granted posthumous absolution in a book that is still the gold standard for modern biography. If Dahlberg ever gets the biography he deserves, it will also be on the strength of a single book.
 
###







Photography: Vesselina Nikolaeva


"Coming of  Age in an Adolescent Society"
Museo Muncipal de Arte Contemporáneo de Madrid
June -July 2007


So how are things in Bulgaria these days? Not all that great, I guess, if we are to go by the teenage subjects of photographs taken by Vesselina Nikolaeva. They have just graduated from an elite high school in the capital, Sofia, where they had their little heads filled with all they supposedly need to know for that moment in time, now at hand, when the curtain goes up on Act II of what will be the rest of their lives and days. Funny, though, it doesn't look like they're too thrilled by the prospect.

So far, okay. This could be anywhere. A cross-section of affluent adolescents clearing out their desks in a deserted classroom, or preening for the senior prom. Easy to recognize sub-species like nerds and jocks, sluts and barbies, social climbers and social outcasts. All are being conveyed over the threshold of adulthood with the well-worn rites of passage: getting dressed up for the big dance, getting smashed at the graduation party, enjoying goodbye gropes at somebody's house where the parents have obligingly made themselves scarce.   

But the kids aren't all right. They are seventeen years old, which means they were born the same year their country put an end to one of  Eastern Europe's Looney Tune-class Communist dictatorships (the one that went in for murdering democratic dissidents with poison-tipped umbrellas) and dumped Fearless Leader who had ruled over them since the end of World War II.  The only reality their parents knew was everything that came before them; their only reality has nothing whatsoever in common with it. The state of mind and circumstantial dilemma that Nikolaeva brings to our attention is a problem foisted on them by history for which no one has any easy answers. "If the Old Generation was given identity by the political system, the New Generation is searching for one of its own," writes Nikolaeva in her introduction. "These fragile individuals have to transcend their material reality in order to find a passage from a world nonexistent to a world in the making."

Anywhere else on the planet, a bunch of pre-adults with well-to-do daddies in search of a) an identity b) a way to get people to stop calling them "fragile" c) a future or d) all of the above, would just be a tired cliché. Not here. These kids haven't even got a past. It was abolished the year they entered the world.

As to the photographs themselves, they are examples of the compelling power of straight-up documentary, in which the photographer lies in wait for and usually manages to bag the "telling moment". The camera is not used overtly as manipulating tool, except when the angle is slightly askew, suggesting that the world into which we  are given a privileged glance has gone out of kilter or awry. As well it might be said to be.

### 

lunes

International Regulations for Safety in Case of Forced Sea Landings

Herewith the verbatim text of the seat-pocket safety brochure from 1957 issued to passengers on Iberia Airlines’ then-fleet of  DC-3s. With only a minimum of “improvements” (who could resist?) and no condescension, Robert Graves used it as the basis for a comic sketch imagining the exchange between two office-bound Iberia employees given the job of drafting instructions for what to do in an emergency at sea, drawing on their command of English and assumed familiarity with the odd ways of British tourists. Although none of the characters in it says “Dash it all!” I’ve always read it as an affectionate homage to P.G. Wodehouse, who, as it turns out, was at school with Graves’ older brother. The story is called “Ditching in a Fishless Sea” and it can be found in the collection Majorca Observed. This is the original that inspired the short story, the authentic set of instructions Iberia issued to passengers on its mid-haul flights of the fifties.

(Does exhuming this strike anyone as a cheap shot at the resolutely Europeanized, educated, well-travelled Spaniards of the year 2012? Well, just last week, on the Calle Cádiz, in the raucous heart of Madrid’s tapa-rich quarter just off the Puerta del Sol (go see if I’m making this up) one celebrated bar
was trumpeting“calluses and beans” as  the plat du jour. The dictionary will confirm that callos refers to a common podiatric issue as well as to the tripe essential to that signature casserole dish, callos a la madrileña. But as any old Spain hand knows, once you get started on the subject, there is just no end to it.

INTERNATIONAL REGULATIONS FOR SAFETY IN CASE OF  FORCED SEA LANDINGS

Provision and an elementary knowledge of the ambient protect the man in his activities; ignorance, on the contrary, attacks, makes or increases danger inherent to all existing. In communities and regarding transportation, shows, sports, etc., rules leading to a better result are published by their respective organizations, always that these rules are kept wholly. To day this is a must in the air services.

In the most improbable case of ditching, passenger’s life depends on his conduct, as the crew knows quite well what they have to do in such cases not only for their own reputation but for the Company’s and in the first place for the life of the passenger.

Remember that with a few exceptions, there is time enough to get ready in case of ditching and that life waist coats figures 1 and 2A-1B and 1C may keep afloat any person without danger even in the state of unconsciousness and dingies are fit to hold the overweight as well; they are inflated with great rapidity, figure 6, and are revised carefully periodically,

In case of sinking passengers should know that the radio listening station on duty does not even miss the lack of reports and therefore the aid is immediate taking only a short time to come to the spot; furthermore the water the plane is flying over is not dangerous either by large fish or by extreme temperatures.

Therefore the passenger, if following the instructions below and those supplementary given him from the cockpit with order and confidence he will succeed in his own safety.

Should ditching have to be faced, the following instructions will be given to passengers:

Take off your spectacles

Loose your tie and collar as well as belts, braces, etc.

Empty your pockets of pointed articles as pens, pencils, etc.

Take off shoes.

Wear light clothes.

Put on the life waist coat as indicated in figures A1 to 7, B1 to 5 and C1 to 5.

Place the bulks under the legs and adopt the position according to figure A9 and the number of seat.

Fix up your belt.

Passengers before an imminent ditching should have to do the following:

To contract hardly their muscles.

To breathe deeply.

To keep motionless and quiet until the plane is absolutely stop still.

Soon after this, they will loose the belts and shoes to leave the plane by the nearest exit. When head and body have gone complete through the door or the window and according to figure A7, passengers will pull from the inflation string of the waist coast throwing themselves into the water without fear being sure they are safe.

Passengers should not worry if the transfer is difficult directly into the dingy because the string with reel will be thrown to take them on board as in figure 6, bearing in mind that this is an easy operation.

Do not desinflate your waist coat until you are on the boat that will take you to the harbour, passengers must avoid slippering on the stairs rubber or wet wood to prevent falling again into the water.

Children in their life waist coat should be left to persons keeping a better spirit and nearest the exit.

Fat persons as well as invalids should leave the plane by the main exit but always letting others to come out first.

It is very important to keep strict silence to facilitate the manoeuvres and commands.

Passengers should also know the material the dingies are made of and see that IBERIA, whose results without accidents per km. flown is so wonderful per year, is trying to better everything, regarding transportation and specially in connection with safety.

###

domingo

Photography: Edgar Martins

from Focus, Nov-Dec. 2007  

The Diminishing Present
Galeria La Caja Negra, Madrid
September- October, 2007

Moonless midnight on a deserted beach – deserted, but far from empty. Here, a tether-ball pole that looks like the ensign of a losing army once unfurled from it, intensifying the negative presence of thronging sunworshippers. Rows of thatched sunshades like magic toadstools sprung up under the light of the moon. But there is no moon. Where is it coming from, the light that illuminates the silent dunes so the objects scattered on them cast a suggestive shadow, and every squiggle, track and furrow left in the sand is highlighted like hieroglyphic graffitti?

No, it’s not computerized contrast enhancement – Portuguese-born, Macau-raised, London-residing photographer Edgar Martins never goes photoshopping; he claims that the only light he uses is what his subjects bring with them, though, as you can imagine, his exposures are really long. So what is it, then? Turns out that this particular beach (it’s in Portugal) is actually situated right next to a huge soccer stadium whose wasted wattage makes the sand glow, glow, glow, while the night sky retains its intense blackness.

Thou shalt not set up thy shot, is Martins’other procedural point of honor though it’s hard at first to believe that chance and luck alone placed the little old lady selling bunches of bright colored balloons in that particular time and place (but an out-of-frame stadium certainly improves the odds). Wooodplank-shuttered ice cream stands suggest the machine-gun bunkers that mowed down allied soldiers on the beaches of Normandy. Is this space or time we’re seeing, or the point where the two intersect? You have just crossed over into the twilight zone of “The Accidental Theorist”, Martins' title for this compelling, uncanny sequence of images.  

The other group is called “The Rehearsal of Space”. It’s about forests and trees, you think, photographed the way such things usually are, as arching verticals, contrasting textures and tones of green. But hold on, what is that blurry spot in the background? Morning mist rising in the rain forest, perhaps, with cute little monkeys chattering away? Guess again, it’s smoke. Lots and lots of smoke. Martins took these photographs from a few dozen yards ahead of a rolling wall of fire that devastated the old-growth forests of Portugal and northwestern Spain in summer 2005. So the trees you are seeing are only minutes away from being consumed and annihilated -- on one or two, you can see the bark charring before your eyes. What you don’t see, amazingly, is the fiery juggernaut itself, tongues of flame licking at its prey. (Well, okay, in a couple of them you do see it, but only a couple.) When that reality has been taken in, you can all but hear the screeching sirens and shouted orders. Awareness of the impending peril, real enough for Edgar Martins when he took the pictures, is as disquieting as the metaphysical tease in “The Accidental Theorist” but not less unnerving just because in this case, the scary bits happen to be for real. Did I mention that his photographs are extremely affordable? They won’t be for  much longer.

###

jueves

Forum the Bell Tolls

from New Partisan, June 26, 2004 

A potato omelet on a hard roll is the portable comfort food of choice for some 46 million Spaniards. But do they have the right to fry up their own, wrap it in aluminum foil and nibble at it wherever they damn well please? Or should they submit to fairground gougers and franchise-holders, especially if they are already shelling out bigtime for entrance to a purpose-built theme park where they are blitzed with exhibits, panel pow-wows and performances pushing an “agenda of principles and values” that includes multiculturalism, sustainable development, and immigration is good for you.

The ill feeling generated by the tempest in a tortilla pan has cast a pall over the first month of the Barcelona Forum, or Universal Forum of Cultures 2004, as it prefers to be known. It opened on May 9th in the Catalonian capital and was expected to draw five or six million attendees before it wraps on September 26th. They’ve been averaging 16,000 per day, about half the anticipated turnout, and so are bussing in school children to make up the difference. Paying customers, however, complained about not being allowed to bring in their own food and drink. Organizers hastily backed down and promised to compensate vendors. There were gripes, too, about a lack of shaded areas to stave off sunstroke, and what some consider an abusive ($25, adults) daily admission fee.

But the real grumbling is over the way the whole thing is being stage-managed by its hosts and sponsors, the municipal (Barcelona), regional (Catalonian) and national (Spanish) governments, and the cynicism with which they trumpet how the Forum will generate money and big-ticket infrastructure projects, invoking by way of precedent the wildly successful makeover that the city received for hosting the 1992 Olympic Games. 

We can cut to the payoff, then, since nobody is pretending there isn’t going to be one. It involves the transformation of the mouth of the Besòs river, where effluent is treated before its discharge into the sea, and garbage from a city of 2.1 million is incinerated. Not that these facilities are to be bulldozed off the map. They are to continue their malodorous but necessary functions under a thick overlay of new construction deployed along the rim of an open plaza covering 30 acres. Barcelona gets a much-needed convention center already booked through 2005, a 3,200-seat auditorium designed by Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, a yacht basin and other urban goodies. “If taking a sewage plant and transforming it for public use is not a cultural paradigm of the 21st century, then let’s have somebody come up here and explain to me what culture is all about,” says Barcelona Mayor Joan Clos.

The Forum is structured around 45 “dialogues”; panel talkabouts in which designated worthies muse on the issues of the day, including bio-diversity, cultural pluralism, Gandhian non-violence and other assets that constitute the “ethical wealth of nations”. In theory, anyone who can establish relevant credentials will be able to grab at the mike in the manner of espontáneos, the bullfighter wannabes who vault uninvited into the ring just to teach a thing or two to the clown with the cape.

UNESCO has granted its solemn seal of approval. Corporate sponsorship is coming from Spain’s big banks, its largest department store chain, and the utility companies that manage the nuclear plants that pump 28% of the energy in the Spanish grid and whom one would sooner expect to find pilloried as perpetrators of ecological outrages. Yes, Coca Cola is on the list, too. 

Odd to see their logos on the podiums on which some 1,500 speakers — some fresh from the anti-globalization clambake that wrapped in January in Bombay, India, such as economist Joseph Stiglitz — will trash everything their sponsors do and stand for. Since it takes two to make a dialogue, some high-end speakers have been signed, along with more sunfaded ex-somebodies including former UN boss Butrous Butrous-Ghali and European Union chief Jacques Delors. Other draws originally hyped in the press kits, namely, Bill Clinton, Helmut Kohl and Europe’s favorite communist curmudgeon, Nobel-winner José Saramago of Portugal, have had to, or seen fit to, send last-minute regrets.

Somebody thought it worth mentioning that the political correctness of “Water: A Strategic Resource” has been ratcheted up to “Water: A Resource for Life, Security and Peace”. Nor has it gone unnoticed that T-shirts worn by guides proclaim the wearer’s function in Catalan, Arabic, Russian, and Chinese — but not in English, the language of Bush and Blair, or Spanish, spoken by the peninsular neighbors the Catalonians affect to despise.

But you shouldn’t imagine that it all comes down to leveraging the leftovers of Porto Alegre. Barcelona is too cosmopolitan and fun-minded to embrace the dour earnestness of the anti-Davos crowd without lightening up the proceedings. There’s a pseudo-traditional Catalan “fire festival” on midsummer’s eve, including a center-court seat at an akelarre, “a traditional Basque coven of witches and sorcerers”. In charge of catering is superchef Ferrán Adriá, whose name on the check would make a meal for two exceed Botswana’s GDP. A sub-conclave exists to preview a new board game in which players counter ecological disasters and ethnic conflict through negotiation and mediation, and “if they don’t cooperate, there’s no winner at the end.”

All of this may sound dismally familiar to anyone who experienced Britain’s Millennium Dome a couple years back, and is prepared to admit to it. The Forum’s earnestness is in the direct line of descent from the solenoid-driven sentiment of the Kewpie dolls lip-synching “It’s a small world after all” with spring-loaded jaws, at the Disneyland of the 1960s.

It would, however, be misleading to trash the execution along with the pretense that drives it; there are indeed things well worth seeing at the Barcelona Forum. A handful of the famous Xi’an terra-cotta warriors on loan by the Chinese government are impressively displayed. A multi-media environment called Voices, about human communication, is very well done and to hear Rostropovich conducting Britten’s “War Requiem” is, of course, so much more than endorsing a political statement.

One can’t help wondering, though, if the good people of Barcelona are a mite over-confident about repeating the successes of 1992 with a new type of recyclable and renewable mega-event. They probably figure you can’t go wrong with “encounters in search of new ideas” though it remains to be seen if the crowd they’re hoping to attract are great believers in dialogue as a Good Thing. In Bombay, you had novelist Arundhati Ray coming out with “Debating imperialism is like debating the pros and cons of rape. What can we say? That we really miss it?” No wonder Clinton cancelled.

What are the chances it will all backfire and six million malcontents start tearing up the paving stones and torching all the double-parked BMWs? Given that the industrialization of early 20th-century Catalonia gave rise to one of Europe’s most violent anarchist movements, I think maybe it’s a case of better wait-and-see before making plans for a mid-summer stroll up the Rambla to the Boquería market to pick up some late strawberries and a bottle of sparkling cava to uncork on the grass in Antoni Gaudi’s great and goofy masterpiece, the Parque Guell. Spaniard may be almost a dirty word in Catalonia, but let’s face it, who else would go all out to throw a great party and not care all that much about who shows up?
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