Letting Go

Philip Roth is dead.  He was old, and it wasn’t exactly sad, and he wasn’t writing fiction anymore, so what did we get from him anyway?  Just two days ago I reread an interview he did with the Times by email in January, and his mind was sharp as ever, his writing lucid, interesting, striking, stentorian, rabbinical, secular, inescapable.

On growing old and staying alive (a condition which no longer exists), he said this:

It’s something like playing a game, day in and day out, a high-stakes game that for now, even against the odds, I just keep winning. We will see how long my luck holds out

He was got after all and eventually.  I read Portnoy’s Complaint first of course, like most people, then over the years The Plot Against America, which introduced me to another hero of mine, I.F. Stone, and I skipped around from the whackjob nutty like The Great American Novel to the lump throated transcendant like I Married a Communist and American Pastoral.  Novels like Nemesis evoked such a place in time and a feeling of low grade terror that it was like you lived the epidemic in Newark.

Growing up outside of New York City, there was always the added pleasure of knowing where Roth was talking about, but not knowing a lot.  Weequahic, Newark, Essex County, the New Jersey suburbs.  The tristate familiarity hit home often in his more “serious” novels.  Mind benders like Operation Shylock were unmitigated triumphs, giving me over to writing about a writer with a pretentious phrase like that, they whipped you around and drove you nuts, and the detail with which Roth had investigated Holocaust denial!  It was detail like that, present in all his books, which he churned out lapidary over the course of his life that was part of what made him really a genius.

There’s a million lines from books of his that I’d love to share, but I’ve only got one notebook of mine on me, and so here’s this from the latest one of his that I read, The Human Stain:

“That’s what comes of being hand-raised,” said Faunia.  “That’s what comes of hanging around all his life with people like us.  The human stain,” she said, and without revulsion or contempt of condemnation.  Not even with sadness.  That’s how it is– in her own dry way, that is all Faunia was telling the girl feeding the snake: we leave a stain, we leave a trail, we leave our imprint.  Impurity, cruelty, abuse, error, excrement, semen – there’s no other way to be here.  Nothing to do with disobedience.  Nothing to do with grace or salvation or redemption.  It’s in everyone.  Indwelling.  Inherent.  Defining.  The stain that is there before its mark.  Without the sign it is there.  The stain so intrinsic it doesn’t require a mark.  The stain that precedes disobedience, that encompasses disobedience and perplexes all explanation and understanding.  It’s why all the cleansing is a joke.  A barbaric joke at that.  What is the quest to purify, if not more impurity?  All she was saying about the stain was that it’s inescapable.

-pg 242

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Burgess of the Bilabial Fricative

The Doctor is SickAnthony Burgess, 1960

“‘You’ve got this obsession, haven’t you?’ said Dr. Railton. ‘With words, I mean.’”

Dr. Edwin Spindrift does. He’s a philologist, a linguist with an obsession with the bilabial fricative, “sound, etymology and lexical definition.” While teaching in Moulmein he collapses and is shipped back to London for medical treatment, where he inhabits a ward that he wants to leave, and has his head shaved for a surgery he’d rather avoid. His wife Sheila is sleeping around, bouncing around the pubs, and not visiting him enough. Part of the reason for his collapse is linked to his impotence, and his impotence is linked to part of why Shelia’s sleeping around.

Rather than continue visiting him she starts sending over as proxies characters from the pub she frequents, the Anchor.

They include a man called Les, who works in the opera house building and striking sets, and a painter called Nigel with a beard who she also shacks up with:

“‘Nothing’s easy to paint,’ said the painter. He had a gobbly kind of voice. ‘Take my word for it, painting is absolute hell. That’s why I keep on with it.’”

He escapes from the hospital and embarks on a oneiric tour of shabby characters and shady locales. There’s the Stone twins, who own a dilapidated club and run a thousand hustles. One of these becomes the throughline of the book, which is getting Edwin to a bald man competition where they augur him winning a hundred pounds and a movie star screen test. Edwin bumbles along throughout all this madness, his head jammed with linguistic pun and observation that not exactly everyone else appreciates.

“He was pleased with his pun, but nobody seemed edified or amused.”

He’s also set out to find his wife, along with the two months pay that she has and he needs at least some of to buy even a simple hat (he’s stuck wearing pajamas under his jacket). But when she’s gone from the hotel she was supposed to be at, he’s plunged into cockeyed venture one after the other, renting stolen hats for a nicker or two, careening throughout the streets of a wild nutty London. Eventually, “Edwin felt the defeat and self-pity of the lost traveller who feels night not as a cloak but as hands waiting to strangle.”

Those from the pub come through for him on all different occasions and in all different ways though. Les the opera set dresser gets him in on a part in a crowd scene at the opera, and there he steals wigs and hats and clothing to pawn quick as he can. An observation on the newer operas from the lady who helps fit him out with a wig is quintessential Burgess high/low culture doggerel:

“‘Mark my words,’ said the old woman, ‘the rot set in with them Germans — Andel and Waggoner and such. Sweet old airs there was before, as none of them nowadays could go nowhere near.’”

Slipping out of the theater loaded with vestments to sell, another figure from the Stone nightclub takes him on another turn, old Bob Courage, of the constant remarks on how kinky he is. He fair well abducts Spindrift (“Weak as kittens and water Edwin let himself be led to the car”), and brings him to his filthy degenerate apartment to involve him in his perversities.

“Edwin chose a whip with a stout short stump and a long lash. He cracked it in the air and then on Bob’s back. An angry photograph of the lash appeared across the tortured puckered skin. ‘Harder, harder,’ moaned Bob. Edwin felt the joy of the sadist arising in his loins. This would not do at all.”

Part of the fun of the book is Burgess’ frequent turn to linguistic fireworks and doggerel, which require frequent reference to a dictionary and a search engine to decipher the slabs of jargon and technical description. One such display comes when Spindrift makes the crucial realization about his lot (“Words, he realized, words, words, words. He had lived too much with words and not what the words stood for”). And then immediately:

“Apart from its accidents of sound, etymology and lexical definition, did he really know the meaning of any one word? Love, for instance. Interesting, that collocation of sounds: the clear allophone of the voiced divided phoneme gliding to that newest of all English vowels which Shakespeare, for instance, did not know, ending with the soft bite of the voiced labiodental. And its origin? Edwin saw the word tumble back to Anglo-Saxon and beyond, and its cognate Teutonic forms tumbling back too, so that all forms ultimately melted in the prehistoric primitive Germanic mother. Fascinating.”

The book does get muddled. Spindrift bounces through so many wild turns that you feel at times like he does upon waking up once after another wild sort of night: “He called in the dispersed fragments of the night and roughly pieced them together, like a torn document.” And the book often invokes another observation of the Doctor’s, but about itself: “Edwin was now convinced that everybody except himself was mad, but it afforded him little comfort.”

Eventually he does make it to the bald man contest that the Stones so want him to win, and it’s another nutty display of high madness, with teenage screams and orgasmic cries at the teen idols crooning, and raucous laughter at an adenoidal emcee, such that “the audience micturated in mirth.” He does win, but finds himself unloading into the microphone that goes out to millions of television viewers a condemnation of the vulgarity of the contest, and a profanity. Dr. Railton, the specialist from whose hospital he’s escaped, is the trumpet player at the show, and Edwin is committed against his will to another ward.

He escapes again, and ends up observing his wife and a lover in the sexual act, whereupon he passes out and, after another entirely nutty dream, (“‘We turn now,’ said Edwin, ‘from matters of homophones to the whole collection of love, love being the hardest collocation of phonemes ever bored by questing squirrel’”) wakes determined to leave his wife. Too many questions asked to other members of the ward has him sedated and unable to see his wife the first evening though, and when he wakes again he’s determined to forgive her.

But when his wife comes to see him, she tells him that it’s she who will leave him. So that’s that. Edwin won’t lay about waiting to recover. Instead, “he crept out of bed so softly and slowly — smoothly as the tongue gliding from one phonemic area to another — that the keen-eared sister could not possibly hear,” steals himself a well fitted out suit of clothes, and heads out into the London night to find an old school friend of his that he encountered on his travels, and who might be able to offer him a job.

The book isn’t incredible. It’s at times tedious in its whackball inanity, and filled with the dated racial outlook that Burgess often displays as a Tony British writer, despite how he feels about not being British but European. The linguistic fireworks make up for it though, and despite wading through some atrocious rendering of Jewish patois, some of his dialect is very good and in tune. And enough of the book is in tune too to make it worth the trip.

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Today is Victory in Europe Day

And in commemoration of that momentous occasion, the great radio dramatist Norman Corwin wrote a radio program called “On A Note of Triumph,” that told the story of the war and reflected on the promise of a world where fascism looked like it was defeated.  And though it wasn’t, the promise of that moment resounds still and inspires.  The prayer below (“not a formal prayer, not a down-on-your-knees prayer,” Corwin said in a 2001 interview with Tony Kahn) invokes some of that promise in beautiful language.  And as beautiful as the words are, they’re best listened to in the context of the great radio program (which is referenced plenty in Philip Roth’s I Married a Communist, where I first heard of Corwin and “On a Note of Triumph” from).  The poem brings to mind Anna Louise Strong’s words from Soviets Expected It, written before the war had ended:

“Act swiftly!  History never gave man such a threat and such a chance!”

The world’s in a not dissimilar place and only through the fulfillment of Corwin’s secular sacrament can it pull back from it.

Poem from “On a Note of Triumph”

Lord God of trajectory and blast
Whose terrible sword has laid open the serpent
So it withers in the sun for the just to see,
Sheathe now the swift avenging blade with the names
of nations writ on it,
And assist in the preparation of the ploughshare.

Lord God of fresh bread and tranquil mornings,
Who walks in the circuit of heaven among the worthy,
Deliver notice to the fallen young men
That tokens of orange juice and a whole egg appear
now before the hungry children;

That night again falls cooling on the earth as quietly
as when it leaves your hand;

That Freedom has withstood the tyrant
like a Malta in a hostile sea,
And that the soul of man is surely a Sevastopol
which goes down hard and leaps from ruin quickly.

Lord God of the topcoat and the living wage
Who has furred the fox against the time of winter
And stored provender of bees in summer’s brightest
Do bring sweet influences to bear upon the assembly
Accept the smoke of the milltown among the accredited
clouds of the sky:
Fend from the wind with a house and hedge, him
whom you made in your image,
And permit him to pick of the tree and the flock
That he may eat today without fear of tomorrow
And clothe himself with dignity in December.

Lord God of test-tube and blueprint
Who jointed molecules of dust and shook them till
their name was Adam,
Who taught worms and stars how they could live together,
Appear now among the parliaments of conquerors
and give instruction to their schemes:
Measure out new liberties so none shall suffer
for his father’s color or the credo of his choice:
Post proofs that brotherhood is not so wild a dream as
those who profit by postponing it pretend:
Sit at the treaty table and convoy the hopes of the little
peoples through expected straits,
And press into the final seal a sign that peace will
come for longer than posterities can see ahead,
That man unto his fellow man shall be a friend forever.

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      Jacques Lacan & Jean-Luc Mélenchon look very similar.

 Jacques Lacan         Jacques Lacan Melenchon.png

L’objet petit a pour Monsieur Mélenchon?  C’est la degagisme, non?  Et pour Lacan, mais, c’est difficile de comprendre.  Alors, j’essai encore et retourne dans quelques années pour expliquer.


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What of the lowly page number?

Check out a story I wrote about page numbers in The Outline: https://theoutline.com/post/4257/what-of-the-lowly-page-number

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Stalingrad Forever

On the 75th anniversary of the triumph of one of the greatest and most terrible chapters in history, a grueling forever battle where 1,129,619 Soviets died in life or death defense of not only their city but the civilized world itself, and killed 627,899 fascists, I want to share a beautiful sculpture and some beautiful words.

“Not a few married women in Stalingrad, including mothers of large families, joined the fighting armies, sometimes with rifles and hand-grenades, sometimes only as nurses, stretcher-bearers – or as ‘mothers’…

“These Stalingrad mothers only added to the drama and the heroism of the city. Defying machine-gun fire and bombs, they crawled through deep trenches and shattered walls to some ruin of a building or to a bomb-blown crater with thermos bottles of hot soup and other food for Russian soldiers…Not always did they reach their destination. Something often hit them on the way and they were heard of no more. The others carried on by day and night…They washed and mended clothes for their ‘sons.’ They cooked and baked for them. They listened to their tales of battle and cheered them with motherly blessings. They read the letters from the real mothers or wives, and again and again, when a son went off to fight and never returned, they wrote to these mothers or wives words of solace and courage and of undying faith in eventual triumph over the ‘cannibal enemy.’ Great will be the tributes that will some day find their way into poems, plays and novels to the Stalingrad mothers.”

-Mother Russia, Maurice Hindus, pg 147

Stalingrad mother

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A Dynamic World

Red Mars Kim Stanley Robinson

Red Mars is, quite simply, a perfect novel. It combines the thrilling driving intensity of a compelling plot with the capability for insight and introspection and revealing observation. Its descriptions of the fourth planet, Earth’s neighbor Mars, are stunning and beautiful, a combination of the author’s great labors in research and his astounding imagination.

This same skill in description applies to his treatment of the cabinet full of characters, charming and attractive and unpleasant and fascinating and throbbing full of life as they are.

It starts on the ship Ares, hurtling away from a Terran bubbling with trouble and strife, with a crew of 100 scientists and engineers at the top of their fields, chosen through a rigorous psychological examination and testing period itself led by the psychologist accompanying them, a Frenchman named Michel. Of course they have all lied and hidden their true selves to get there, the psychologist included.

They’re not the first people to set foot on Mars; a previous American crew of 4 had done so six years before, in 2020. One member of that crew, and the first man ever to step upon the red planet, John Boone is with them. This mission is led by, on the American side, Frank Chalmers, and acidulous, cynical, and brilliant, leader. The Russian half is led by the longtime cosmonaut Maya Toitovna, a Russian archetype of a woman: beautiful, passionate, clever.

There is also Arkady Bogdanov, fiery haired and Russian himself, and a left wing political radical with a different view of the future of Mars than the straightforward science mission, to be followed by transnational exploitation, envisioned by the United Nations Office of Martian Affairs. And then Sax, with ambitious dreams for the grand terraforming of the planet, and Ann Chalmers, who wants nothing on the planet to change because even before she the opportunity ever arose of heading to the planet she fell in love with it and wants to study every inch of it. Then also Nadia, short, sturdy, in contrast to her friend Maya of no great looks, but dependable and industrious, and a genius in the construction of the habitats and stations they set up upon landing.

Maya is variously in love with John Boone and Frank Chalmers, starting in the weightlessness of the Ares and continuing stormily on the Martian surface. All sorts of romances and dalliances spring up on board the ship, and Robinson doesn’t shy away from them. Hiroko Ai, the brilliant botanist who will be in charge of conjuring crops enough to make the colonists self-sufficient is whispered to be leading mystic orgies with the rest of the botanists.

At one point Maya thinks she sees a stowaway.

Down on the planet at the first settlement, Underhill, the rudiments of civilization spring up with the aid of robot builders and the industry of the settlers. Chief among these is Nadia, who is very sympathetic in her firm commitment to working, improving, fixing building. Her single minded purpose in doing all the work she can do, helping whoever she can, her detachment from the wider struggles and thought around her in the pursuit of the task at hand, sets her out from the other characters Robinson sets his focus on throughout the novel.

John and Frank and Maya play politics and squabble among each other in their triangle, John Boone determined to use his status as the First Man on Mars to forge a new Martian Society, all while Frank cynically manages things. Arkady has radical, anarchistic goals for the new world they will build, Sax throws himself into his own radical terraforming project, and meanwhile Ann, disgruntled and upset by the changes she sees being foisted upon her beloved red planet, focuses her attention on studying the it, finding answers to the questions about it she wants answered before the landscape and geology is changed irrevocably.

Robinson’s descriptions of the Martian landscape are breathtaking; a trip to the Northern polar ice cap affords a sunset scene that moves Nadia deeply and opens her eyes to the singularity of the planet she’s on.

Arkady and Nadia take a blimp to drop off small nuclear windmills all across the face of the planet as part of Sax’s plan to raise the temperature in the quest to construct an atmosphere capable of sustaining life. While the windmills actually turn out to be an unauthorized lichen seeding project, the trip with the laughing, passionate Arkady and the more introverted Nadia takes an expected turn that’s nevertheless genuinely thrilling, exciting and pleasant. They make love and fall in love and this turn of events is so appealing and perfect, and made me very happy. Happy for Nadia mostly, that Arkady could make her so happy, and that she could be so happy. The descriptions of the turn from unspoken intimacy to intimacy expressed and maintained left me grinning like a fool; recalling it now I’m doing so again.

Not long after the second batch of settlers arrive, and with it rapid change. A group of the First One Hundred, led by Hiroko and including the psychologist Michel, who’s dreadfully, terribly homesick, steals away from the settlement and melt into the Martian landscape to construct their own unique society away from the strictures of the UNOMA.

Time passes fast from here. We join John Boone again around a decade after Hiroko’s disappearance, with settlements speckling out over the planet, mushrooming up from all parts of the world. There is a campaign of sabotage throughout the nascent mining communities and expanding towns. John has a similar view of what Mars needs to Arkady, though not quite as radical or concrete. Where Arkady spurns Nadia’s practical minded liberalism by telling her that “Earth is a perfectly liberal world. But half of it is starving, and always has been and always will be…very liberally,” John’s prognosis is less certain. Still, he knows that the Martian society will have to be different. Ruminating, he observes that “societies without a plan, that was history so far; but history so far had been a nightmare, a huge compendium of examples to be avoided.”

His investigation has him traverse the globe in his rover, on and off again with Maya, meeting with myriad groups of new settlers, and being caught up in familiar and old aspects of human society: espionage, subterfuge, the unceasing battle between capitalism and democracy, the interests of profit asserting themselves in deadly and near deadly ways.

Part and parcel with these wanderings is a sort of spiritual and political journey for John. The Swiss he meets inspire him with their adaptability and his study of their constitution. He meets and travels with a Sufi caravan, a group he greatly admires. Before either of them he observes, in the vivid scientific referential language Robinson wields so well, that “consciousness was just a thin lithosphere over a big hot core, after all.” The core comes to the fore when John dances with the Sufis on a fervent night, chanting the names of Mars in different tongues, and spinning with them until he becomes disoriented and sick.

An old Sufi woman, helping him after he throws up, comforts him with a short evocative sort of aphorism: “The King asked his wise men for some single thing that would make him happy when he was sad, but sad when he was happy. They consulted and came back with a ring engraved with the message ‘This Too Will Pass…”

John’s investigation bumps into the ascendant presence of the transnationals and the reach of ever expanding government power. He’s targeted, assaulted, he’s almost framed for murder. Frank Chalmers eventually participates in the assassination of John, though not before the construction of a mighty space elevator and the tentative temporary return into the fray of the First One Hundred of Hiroko.

And so, This Too Will Pass. The murder of John Boone takes the book into a darker place, more time passes and the world, both worlds even, are thrown into malign chaos. Gerontological treatment extending lives indeterminately longer (perhaps more accurately: that reverse and arrest aging) radically overhauls the social fabric of the red and blue planets. Immigration soars to Mars, the old problems are exported, the transnationals look only to profit from it all.

Arkady is leading a movement, as are groups all over the planet. Settlers slip away and disappear, joining Hiroko perhaps, escaping the proscriptions of old commerce and government. But UNOMA, along with the transnationals, start preventing this. Anger from crime, extortion by the neglectful protection companies, as well as the romance of disappearance lead to the nascent idea of revolt. Frank Chalmers, old and acidulous as ever, tries to mediate this, defuse it, direct it. In the renegotiation of the Mars treaty he had tried to limit immigration to take pressure off the mounting cooker.

“They were so ignorant!” he thinks after addressing a crowd of striking American workers. “Young men and women, educated very carefully to be apolitical, to be technicians who thought they disliked politics, making them putty in the hands of their rulers, just like always.”

But even as he tries to tamp down the coming revolt he encounters those who already compare their current situations to the rebellions of the past.

“I suppose the real question…” one says, “[is] will we have a Lincoln?”

“‘Lincoln is dead,’ Frank snapped. ‘And historical analogy is the last refuge of people who can’t grasp the current situation.’”

When the revolution comes, it’s catastrophic, a huge compendium of examples to be avoided. The fighting is brutal, the “tents” that enclose human settlements are cracked open like balloons by missiles from above, hundreds, thousands asphyxiated, frozen to death, burned in explosions. Arkady is one of these, bursting into flame just moments after cheerily dictating to himself the happy similarities between his current revolutionary situation and that of Catalonia’s in the Civil War.

Aquifers are cracked open in explosions, sending absolutely massive flows of water coursing across the Martian terrain, filling Hellas Planitia, smashing settlements in their paths. The rebels bring down the space elevator, and the 37,000 kilometer wire smashes down into the planet two times over, a glowing diamond whip, slicing into the earth, killing, devastating the landscape and changing it forever.

Reading it brings to mind a sensation described earlier in a different context by Robinson: “his blood burned in his throat.”

Nadia and some of her confederates hop around the wracked world in planes, avoiding the strikes of the authorities, rebuilding and repairing wherever they go. What’s left of The One Hundred come to realize that they’re being targeted by the authorities who believe it’s them who are behind the uprising. Meanwhile on Earth desperate war itself rages.

Cornered by an invasion force at Cairo in the East, Nadia uses an old rigged system of Arkday’s to bring down Phobos itself, resulting in still further marsshaking transformation of the planet. A band of the original One Hundred escape with the help of Michel, come from Hiroko’s group to help them get out just as the troops break through.

A grasping devastating voyage dodging the destruction left by the flooding being caused by the impact of Phobos follows. At first the dust thrown up by that impact means they can travel in the special stealth rovers designed by Hiroko’s group during the day, but when the dust recedes and they encounter debris and disorder on the journey to possible safety with Hiroko near the Southern ice cap, the going get slow, and dangerous, and near interminable. During this epic voyage Frank Chalmers is killed, but Ann, depressed in the thought that her son Peter died in the collapse of the space elevator also has a revelation while the survivors eat dinner in the rover.

“It came to her that the pleasure and stability of dining rooms had always occurred against such a backdrop, against the catastrophic background of universal chaos; such moments of calm were things as fragile and transitory as soap bubbles, destined to burst almost as soon as they blew into existence. Groups of friends, rooms, streets, years, none of them would last. The illusion of stability was created by a concerted effort to ignore the chaos they were embedded in. And so they ate, and talked, and enjoyed each other’s company; this was the way it had been in the caves, on the Savannah, in the tenements and the trenches and the cities huddling under bombardment.”

They make it to Hiroko’s after near disaster for them all. Peter is there. The face of Mars has been transformed astoundingly since they arrived, further than Sax’s wildest dreams. At the end of this world bending chronicle, they are poised to once again rebuild their lives in an alien environment. There are two more books to come.

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