There is no long run. This short note from the Fed suggests that the failure of output to return to its earlier trend following the Great Recession is not an anomaly; historically, recessions normally involve permanent output losses. This working paper by Lawrence Summers and Lant Pritchett argues that it is very hard to find persistent growth differences between countries. From opposite directions, these results suggest that there is no reason to think that supposedly “slow” variables are more stable than “fast” ones; in other words, there is no economically meaningful long run.
Here’s my brother on MSNBC talking about Ferguson. He makes an important point: In the vast majority of police shootings a grand jury is never even convened. We can recognize the gross injustice of the non-indictments there and in Staten Island, and still remember that even the minimal steps toward accountability in these cases would never have happened without people in the streets.
A couple of years ago, I saw a performance of Coriolanus on the Boston Common. It was that rare experience of seeing a great Shakespeare play with no prior knowledge. I had only the vaguest idea of what the play was about, and didn’t know a single line from it. This is, to say the least, not the way we usually encounter Shakespeare.
You don’t appreciate this play until you see it performed. It is fast-paced, genuinely exciting, and often funny — qualities that do not come out on page. Some forgotten Shakespeare plays are forgotten for a reason. But this one, you have to wonder why it isn’t up there in the canon with Macbeth and Othello and Lear. Maybe because it lacks show-stopping monologues (something you miss less on the stage.) More likely because the central character is such a cipher.
So who is Coriolanus? He turns out to be, essentially, John Galt — or Mitt Romney, or Leung Chun-Ying. Which means that this is a play that speaks to our current condition. The connection was obvious when I saw the play, less than a year after the end of Occupy (which this staging clearly referenced) and a few months before the 2012 elections. I meant to write something about it then. But I got distracted with other things, and after Mitt Romney left the big stage it seemed less relevant. But as Paul Krugman reminds us, Coriolanuses still walk among us. So I’ll belatedly set down my thoughts now.
The play opens with a riot, by the plebians of Rome against the patricians. The rioters are surprisingly articulate. Far more so than urban rioters in similar contemporary stories (like the plain people of Gotham in the Dark Knight Rises.)
FIRST CITIZEN. We are accounted poor citizens, the patricians good. What authority surfeits on would relieve us; if they would yield us but the superfluity… the leanness that afflicts us, the object of our misery, is as an inventory of their abundance; our suffering is gain to them. Let us revenge this with our pikes … the gods know I speak this in hunger for bread, not in thirst for revenge.
Note that their demand — repeated a couple times over the play — is to have wheat from the storehouses sold at a fair price. This demand that “engrossers” be required to disgorge their stores was, I beleive, a common demand in urban riots — indeed, traditional English law required it. The patricians in Coriolanus often speak as though giving in to the rioters would imply a complete social breakdown — but when Shakespeare has the plebians themselves speak, this is what they call for, not aimless destruction.
To mollify the mob, the patrician Menenius explains to them that if they are the arms and legs of Rome, the nobility is the stomach. This metaphor might read differently then (like a fire that gives light vs. heat, a line that is always quoted backwards today) but it’s hard not see it as a sly acknowledgement that the mob is right.
MENENIUS. There was a time when all the body’s members
Rebell’d against the belly; thus accus’d it:–
That only like a gulf it did remain
In the midst o’ the body, idle and unactive,
Still cupboarding the viand, never bearing’
Like labour with the rest … it tauntingly replied
… I am the storehouse and the shop
Of the whole body…
The strongest nerves and small inferior veins
From me receive that natural competency
Whereby they live …
Menenius is a bit of a clown, a kind of Polonius figure. It’s Coriolanus himself who gets the best songs from the conservative hymnal — that the common people are under the control of their appetites, they are capricious, that they can’t govern themselves, they are liable to turn on each other without an authority over them.
CORIOLANUS: … your affections are
A sick man’s appetite, who desires most that
Which would increase his evil. He that depends
Upon your favours swims with fins of lead,
And hews down oaks with rushes. Hang ye! Trust ye!
With every minute you do change a mind
And call him noble that was now your hate,
Him vile that was your garland. What’s the matter,
That in these several places of the city
You cry against the noble senate, who,
Under the gods, keep you in awe, which else
Would feed on one another?
This is a central theme of conservative and reactionary politics — that ordinary people, left to ourselves, would be unable to solve our coordination problems, would fall into a war of all against all. This is always the story we’re told about urban riots, it’s the story that the purpose of Occupy was, in a sense, to challenge. We heard Coriolanus’s voice most clearly after Hurricane Katrina, when the reality of violence by the authorities and of mutual aid in New Orleans were transformed in the popular imagination (with help of some vile propaganda) into fantasies of anarchic violence by the people trapped in the city. Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell is a good corrective to this myth.
To be fair, some of the common people in the play seem to accept this account of themselves:
FIRST CITIZEN. … once we stood up about the corn, he himself stuck not to call us the many-headed multitude.
THIRD CITIZEN. We have been called so of many; not that our heads are some brown, some black, some auburn, some bald, but that our wits are so diversely coloured; and truly I think if all our wits were to issue out of one skull, they would fly east, west, north, south; and their consent of one direct way should be at once to all the points o’ the compass.
But then that is how ideology works — to foreclose the possibility of alternative forms of coordination.
Meanwhile the patricians are discussing the situation. Coriolanus asks Menenius what it is, exactly, that the common people want.
MENENIUS. For corn at their own rates; whereof they say
The city is well stor’d.
CORIOLANUS. Hang ’em!
They say! They’ll sit by th’ fire and presume to know
What’s done i’ the Capitol; who’s like to rise,
Who thrives and who declines; side factions, and give out
Conjectural marriages; making parties strong,
And feebling such as stand not in their liking
Below their cobbled shoes. They say there’s grain enough!
Would the nobility lay aside their ruth
And let me use my sword, I’d make a quarry
With thousands of these quarter’d slaves, as high
As I could pick my lance. …
They said they were an-hungry; sigh’d forth proverbs,–
That hunger broke stone walls, that dogs must eat,
That meat was made for mouths, that the gods sent not
Corn for the rich men only:–with these shreds
They vented their complainings…
Even in Coriolanus’ hostile summary, the mob sounds kind of reasonable, no? Note that he doesn’t deny that the city’s storehouses have enough grain to feed the populace. (And it soon becomes clear they do.) Rather, he is outraged by the idea that ordinary people have any opinion on these questions at all. The violence of his response is remarkable — he’d like to slaughter thousands of Roman citizens — especially considering he is the notional hero of the play. But then indiscriminate violence is often the response when the social hierarchy is seriously threatened — consider the 20-30,000 Parisians killed in the ten days following the fall of the Paris Commune.
The concilatory faction among the nobility wins out, and tribunes are appointed to represent the plebians in government. In the production I saw, the tribunes really stole the show. Even if the text itself presents the tribunes mostly as half clowns, half villains, you have to love a play with a couple of communist agitators as central characters. Their costumes brought this out in the Boston Commons production, but it’s right there in the text.
Before the social conflict can continue, however, it’s cut short by war on Rome’s borders. Coriolanus is given command of some of the Roman troops fighting against the Volscian invaders. Not surprisingly, he regards his rank and file soldiers about as favorably as he does ordinary Roman citizens.
You shames of Rome! … You souls of geese
That bear the shapes of men, how have you run
From slaves that apes would beat! Pluto and hell!
… by the fires of heaven, I’ll leave the foe
And make my wars on you
Nonetheless, the Volscians are defeated; and after his wartime success, Coriolanus is a natural choice for consul. His fellow patricians urge him to accept the office. The catch is that Roman law requires the populace to approve new consuls. It’s just a formality, but one that — with the recent unrest — can’t be safely dispensed with. Coriolanus wants the job but refuses to ask for it. His pride is expressed in a refusal to do anything that would seem to be asking for acknowledgement or reward. This comes out specifically in the question of whether he will display his battle wounds to the public, apparently a relaible way of winning their admiration. He expresses unwillingness:
CORIOLANUS: I have some wounds upon me, and they smart
To hear themselves remember’d.
The funny thing is, no one has mentioned his wounds until now! Throughout the play, Coriolanus is a master of this sort of humblebragging.
Don’t worry, the other patricians tell Coriolanus, just show up and talk about your victories, and the people will approve you. They are weak-willed and easily swayed. But Coriolanus refuses. He hates more than anything else having to ask the masses for approval. Even if they’d give it, no problem, it infuriates him that they even get a say over their natural superiors like him. On behalf of the patrician class, Menenius begs him to suck up his pride and pretend, just for a moment, to want the people’s approval.
CORIOLANUS. Are these your herd?
Must these have voices, that can yield them now,
And straight disclaim their tongues?
What are your offices?
You being their mouths, why rule you not their teeth?
Have you not set them on?
MENENIUS. Be calm, be calm.
CORIOLANUS. It is a purpos’d thing, and grows by plot,
To curb the will of the nobility: Suffer’t, and live with such as cannot rule,
Nor ever will be rul’d. …
In soothing them we nourish ‘gainst our senate
The cockle of rebellion, insolence, sedition,
Which we ourselves have plough’d for, sow’d, and scatter’d,
By mingling them with us, the honour’d number
Of course, he isn’t wrong. Granting even symbolic authority to the plebs calls into question the inevitbility of the authority of their superiors. The greatest strength of the rule of a small elite is that no other possibility is even thinkable. So any symbol that renders it thinkable, is threatening.
Recall the judgement of Charles LeClerc, the general sent to reconquer Haiti for Napoleon: “We must exterminate all the blacks in the mountains, women as well as men… wipe out half the population of the lowlands, and not leave in the entire colony a single black who has ever warn an epaulette.” If it is possible for blacks to be officers, LeClerc reasoned, it is impossible for blacks to be slaves. There were similar reactions in the Confederacy to proposals to use blacks as soldiers.
Coriolanus thinks like LeClerc. And anyway, he personally is unwilling to acknowledge any dependence, even symbolic, on his inferiors. He will be consul only thanks to his own natural superiority, not thanks to any kind of public approval.
Menenius begs him to reconsider:
MENENIUS. You’ll mar all: I’ll leave you.
Pray you speak to ’em, I pray you,
In wholesome manner.
CORIOLANUS. Bid them wash their faces
And keep their teeth clean.
So, here comes a brace:
[Re-enter two citizens.]
You know the cause, sirs, of my standing here.
FIRST CITIZEN. We do, sir; tell us what hath brought you to’t.
CORIOLANUS. Mine own desert.
SECOND CITIZEN. Your own desert?
CORIOLANUS. Ay, not mine own desire.
FIRST CITIZEN. How! not your own desire!
CORIOLANUS. No, sir, ’twas never my desire yet to trouble the poor with begging.
CORIOLANUS. Better it is to die, better to starve,
Than crave the hire which first we do deserve.
Why in this wolvish toge should I stand here,
To beg of Hob and Dick that do appear,
Their needless vouches?
When I saw the play in the fall of 2012, the parallel with the “you didn’t build it” pseudo-controversy was glaring. (It’s interesting also that Coriolanus refers to common people as “trades.”) The idea that the occupants of high positions might owe any of their success to those beneath them, is anathema. As Coriolianus warns his fellow patricians, hierarchy and democracy are an unstable mix:
You are plebeians,
If they be senators: and they are no less
When .. they choose their magistrates
How shall this multitude digest
The senate’s courtesy? Let deeds express
What’s like to be their words:–‘We did request it;
We are the greater poll, and in true fear
They gave us our demands:’– Thus we debase
The nature of our seats, and make the rabble
Call our cares fears; which will in time
Break ope the locks o’ the senate and bring in
The crows to peck the eagles.
The tribunes, though they often come across as clownish, clearly understand what’s at stake as well as Corolianus does. Here’s one of the tribunes:
BRUTUS: So it must fall out
To him or our authorities. For an end,
We must suggest the people in what hatred
He still hath held them; that to’s power he would
Have made them mules, silenc’d their pleaders, and
Dispropertied their freedoms; holding them,
In human action and capacity,
Of no more soul nor fitness for the world
Than camels in their war; who have their provand
Only for bearing burdens, and sore blows
For sinking under them.
In general, the tribunes’ line against Coriolanus is that he is proud, that he is using his (unquestionably genuine) accomplishments and virtues to set himself up above the people. This kind of jealousy and suspicion of successful war leaders seems to be a central theme of human egalitarianism, going back to the paleolithic.
It’s striking what tribune Brutus says to Coriolanus when he confronts him directly:
BRUTUS. You speak o’ the people
As if you were a god, to punish, not
A man of their infirmity.
Here is the central theme of the play: the idea of “superior” people that they are somehow outside of society, outside the common condition of humanity, versus the reality that they are as dependent, as infirm, as the rest of us.
Coriolanus also hates his opposite number, the Volscian general Aufidius. (I have no idea who if anyone this represents historically.) But there’s a difference in the quality of hatred for an equal as against a social inferior. Here, Coriolanus asks a Roman diplomat about Aufidius.
CORIOLANUS. Spoke he of me?
LARTIUS. He did, my lord.
CORIOLANUS. How? What?
LARTIUS. How often he had met you, sword to sword;
That of all things upon the earth he hated
Your person most; that he would pawn his fortunes
To hopeless restitution, so he might
Be call’d your vanquisher.
CORIOLANUS. At Antium lives he?
LARTIUS. At Antium.
CORIOLANUS. I wish I had a cause to seek him there,
To oppose his hatred fully.
[Enter SICINIUS and BRUTUS.]
Behold! these are the tribunes of the people;
The tongues o’ the common mouth. I do despise them,
For they do prank them in authority,
Against all noble sufferance.
The one hatred involves a kind of admiration and attraction (“I wish I had cause to seek him there”); the other only contempt. Even opposing elites are closer to each other than to the people they rule.
The combination of his visible contempt and the tribunes’ urging the people not to acclaim him unless he shows some respect, result in Coriolanus being denied the consulship, and then accused of treason and exiled from the city. As he puts it, “the beast with many heads butts me away.” It’s interesting how often the play uses this kind of language for the common people; it brings to mind Linebaugh’s Many-Headed Hydra. Linebaugh himself suggests that Shakespeare wrote the play in response to the Midlands revolt of 1607, a mass uprising against enclosures that, apparently, was the first appearance of “Levellers” in England. What’s interesting about the play as a whole is that it faces forward to this kind of class politics, rather than backward, like the history plays, to the older world of dynastic, feudal politics. It might be the only Shakespeare play that George Scialabba would approve. (It was also the only Shakespeare play that interested Brecht.)
After leaving Rome, Coriolanus seeks out his old enemy Aufidius and pledges his service to him and the Volscians if they will make a new war on Rome. Like Rand’s D’Anconia, he imagines he’ll leave Rome as he found it. (So maybe the tribunes’ accusations of treason were on the mark?) Aufidius, an aristocrat himself, is buying what Coriolanus is selling:
AUFIDIUS. … the nobility of Rome are his;
The senators and patricians love him too:
The tribunes are no soldiers; and their people
Will be as rash in the repeal as hasty
To expel him thence. I think he’ll be to Rome
As is the osprey to the fish, who takes it
By sovereignty of nature.
With Coriolanus and Aufidius sharing command, the Volscian army reverses its defeats and advances to the gates of Rome. The tribunes want to raise a new army (this is only mentioned in passing, but I thought it was an interesting detail). Meanwhile, the patricians send emissaries out, who know Coriolanus and perhaps can convince him to spare the city. But Coriolanus turns them all away, even Menenius who, he says, was like a father to him:
CORIOLANUS. This last old man,
Whom with crack’d heart I have sent to Rome,
Lov’d me above the measure of a father;
Nay, godded me indeed. Their latest refuge
Was to send him…
… I’ll never
Be such a gosling to obey instinct; but stand,
As if a man were author of himself,
And knew no other kin.
Coriolanus imagines himself as, precisely, a self-made man. But as Professor T. says, nobody is: The thing that libertarians always forget or ignore is the biological dependence everyone experiences, not least as children. It’s only possible to imagine yourself as an autonomous monad, author to yourself, if family life is rigidly walled off from civil society and, in general, if women are kept out of sight.
You think I’m reading that into the play? No no, Coriolanus says it himself:
Not of a woman’s tenderness to be,
Requires nor child nor woman’s face to see.
And that’s his downfall. Once Menenius returns in defeat, the Romans have one more trump to play. They send Coriolanus’ mother, wife and son to plead with him. (It’s a funny, proto-feminist touch that Menenius himself scoffs at this last attempt. If he, Coriolanus’ mentor, failed, how could these women and children have a chance?) Coriolanus tries to convince himself to ignore even these most primal ties:
the honour’d mould
Wherein this trunk was framed, and in her hand
The grandchild to her blood. But, out, affection!
All bond and privilege of nature, break!
Let it be virtuous to be obstinate.
But he can’t do it. The bond and privilege of nature wins out, and he refuses to continue with the attack. Alas for all our would-be Coriolanuses, everyone has a mother. Or as the defrocked priest warns Captain Bednar in the climactic scene of The Man with the Golden Arm, “we are all members of one another.” (I only discovered writing this post that it’s a bible quote, from Romans.)
And that’s it. Coriolanus returns in disgrace to the Volscian capital, where his former allies murder him, and then — guiltily and a bit incongruously — offer him a stately funeral, declaring that his is
…the most noble corpse that ever herald
Did follow to his urn.
(I read somewhere that the reason so many Shakespeare plays end with these funeral marches is that, since theaters of the time did not have curtains, some device was needed to get the “dead” actors off the stage.)
So what are we supposed to think about this person? The play is a bit ambiguous. Structurally, Coriolanus is the hero. But he hardly comes across as admirable. On the other hand, he is the object of various “most noble Roman” orations, right up to Aufidius’ closing lines. So maybe he is intended as a tragic hero? You might think so … except for one remarkable scene in the middle of the play (cut unfortunately from the movie version), where Shakespeare tips his hand.
Here, Coriolanus has just won a major battle against the Volscians, and captured one of their cities, which is being sacked by the Roman troops. Cominius, the overall Roman commander, offers Coriolanus his share of the loot:
COMINIUS: … Of all the horses,
Whereof we have ta’en good and good store, of all
The treasure in this field achieved and city,
We render you the tenth, to be ta’en forth,
Before the common distribution, at
Your only choice.
CORIOLANUS: I thank you, general;
But cannot make my heart consent to take
A bribe to pay my sword: I do refuse it;
And stand upon my common part with those
That have beheld the doing.
That’s our boy, no loot for him. He’s too good for all that. But it turns out, he does have one favor to ask from the commander:
CORIOLANUS: The gods begin to mock me. I, that now
Refused most princely gifts, am bound to beg
Of my lord general.
COMINIUS: Take’t; ’tis yours. What is’t?
CORIOLANUS: I sometime lay here in Corioli
At a poor man’s house; he used me kindly:
He cried to me; I saw him prisoner;
But then Aufidius was with in my view,
And wrath o’erwhelm’d my pity: I request you
To give my poor host freedom.
COMINIUS: O, well begg’d!
Were he the butcher of my son, he should
Be free as is the wind. Deliver him, Titus.
LARTIUS: Marcius, his name?
CORIOLANUS: By Jupiter! forgot.
I am weary; yea, my memory is tired.
Have we no wine here?
COMINIUS: Go we to our tent:
The blood upon your visage dries; ’tis time
It should be look’d to: come.
And, scene! Nothing more is heard of the old man.
It’s an amazing scene. I couldn’t believe it when I saw it. This is black humor worthy of Joseph Heller. Here’s the noble Roman, making a noble request after his great victory: He doesn’t want gold or women, only mercy for an old man who treated him kindly when he was in need. Oh how noble! Except … he can’t remember the fellow’s name. Oh well. He was just a nobody anyway. Let’s go have some wine.
It’s tempting to call the play surprisingly modern. But the truth is, even in the 21st century it’s hard to find such an unflinching portrait of an overdog. Here is someone whose only idea of morality is an image of himself. He’s not interested in the effects of his actions on other people; the common people only matter to him as a backdrop for the stage on which he plays the hero. It must have been a type that Shakespeare knew well.
UPDATE: In comments, MisterMR supplies the historical context, from Livy.
Some things worth reading:
Since the late 1970s, “developing and emerging economies” (DEEs) have experienced boom-bust cycles of private capital flows… The latest boom began in the aftermath of the 2008 U.S. financial crisis, fed by the quantitative easing policies of the Federal Reserve and the European Central Bank (ECB). Much of Fed’s injections of credit into the system ended up in the stock markets of advanced economies and even more in the DEEs.
This latest wave of capital flows into DEEs led to currency appreciations, growing current account deficits, credit expansions and asset bubbles. …
Turkey is a case in point. While in the last decade it gained praise for its strong growth performance, now it is considered to be among the “fragile five”, together with Brazil, India, Indonesia, and South Africa. The biggest concern is the large current account deficit (reaching as much as 7.5 percent of the GDP by the end of November 2013) that is being financed mostly by short-term volatile capital inflows. …
Starting right after the Fed’s announcement in May 2013, the Turkish lira began losing its value. … From May to the beginning of this week, the lira lost about 30 percent of its value, forcing the Central Bank, which so far has been resistant to increasing interest rates, to sharply increase interest rates at midnight after an emergency meeting on January 28.
What is next? While the Central Bank’s sharp interest rate hike has, at least for now, stopped the free fall of the lira, the future does not seem very rosy… the depreciation of the lira will create serious problems for the firms that have borrowed in foreign currencies. … This is likely to lead to, at the very least, payment problems; and most probably to many bankruptcies…
In July 2011, the stock of FX reserves was around U$ 52 billions. The exchange rate was 4.1 pesos per dollar… In August 2011 —three months before the presidential election— the Central Bank started losing reserves. In November 2011, just a few weeks after Cristina Kirchner was re-elected, FX reserves were U$ 46 billions. Since the depletion of FX reserves showed no sign of stopping, the authorities started to implement a series of measures to limit the demand for foreign currency. The controls triggered the blossoming of black markets. FX reserves kept falling, very rapidly since early 2013. In November 2013, after a poor mid-term election, the president fired the governor of the Central Bank and put in charge a new economic team. FX reserves were U$ 33 billions and the exchange rate had reached 6 pesos per dollar…. a week ago, the price of US dollar jumped to 8 pesos. FX reserves are now close to U$ 28 billions. The Central Bank has managed to keep the exchange rate at 8 pesos at the cost of loosing U$ 150/200 millions of reserves per day. There are still widespread expectations of further devaluation and few believe that authorities can sustain the exchange rate at the new level, especially because the rate of inflation has accelerated above 30% annually. In short, FX reserves have so far fallen by 46% and the exchange rate has risen by 95%. If it looks like a dog, walks like a dog and barks like a dog, then… it’s probably a balance of payments crisis.
Brooklyn nostalgia has done more than sell hot dogs and baseball memorabilia. … in the early 1960s a flourishing literature of … “urban pastoralism” challenged developers and urban renewal through nostalgic appeals to the authenticity of “urban villages” and daily street life. These writings by artists, activists, and academics, most famously Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities, inspired and shaped the views of “brownstoners,” homeowners who sought to resist the tide of suburbanization and white flight. But by the 1970s, … coalitions between brownstoners and low-income residents had unraveled; Democratic New York City mayor Ed Koch turned this politics toward conservative ends. Koch “reveled in ethnic kitsch and cultivated a folksy image of a neighborhood New Yorker” while complaining about “poverty pimps.” It was the Southern strategy with an outer-borough accent.
More than thirty years later, the crush of development marches forward. Brooklyn is a global brand: overpriced trinkets to be sold at Brooklyn Pizza in Manila, Brooklyn Coffeeshop in Curitiba, Brazil, or one of the other global Brooklyns featured in New York magazine’s retrospective of the Bloomberg era. But hip culture in the United States has long had a deep romantic and nostalgic streak, and the hipster’s most recent incarnation, central to the current branding of Brooklyn, has been no exception.
The role of artists and hipsters in gentrification — specifically, their degree of complicity in the resulting displacement of low-income residents — has been endlessly debated. Were they the developers’ dupes, their victims, or their willing accomplices? Less often commented upon is the implicit equation behind these questions: associating artists with gentrification suggests that an artist has to be white. This is a particularly bitter irony for a borough and a city that has historically been and remains home to some of the most important African-American artists, musicians, filmmakers, writers, and intellectuals in the country. Looking at hipster culture in relationship to their work offers alternative ways of thinking about how the city changes, how we remember it, and what it might mean to oppose the march of neoliberal development without relying on a nostalgia that reflects our memories and desires more than our actual history.
Never Come Morning is my favorite American novel, full stop. But this here is a remarkably bitchy memoir/parody.
Mailer as Norman Manlifellow, “the boyish author of The Elk Paddock or Look Ma, My Fly Is Open? Ok, heavy-handed but ok. Alfred Paperfish must be Edmund Wilson, and his wife with “just time for a quickie” is Mary McCarthy. Leon Urine, author of The Whole World Looks Jewish When You’re in Love, Roth maybe? Ginny Ginstruck? I don’t know, an editor or agent, a woman anyway, certainly someone he didn’t like. But Baldwin as Giovanni Johnson, lisping in cliche Gay and singing Dis train don’t carry no gamblers, that’s not funny, sorry, no. The parts that are genuinely respectful only make the nasty bits nastier. And a speech about how Negroes have been “‘knocked down, strung up, run over, banjaxed, castrated, jillflirted, stomped, harassed, jeered at, vilified, despised, warped’ — he paused to change fingers, as he tires easily…” No, again not funny. Black men really were castrated. It isn’t funny even if you juxtapose it with a couple nonsense words.
Algren, beautiful writer, bitter man.
At the bar the other night, they had The Walking Dead on. We do seem to be in a zombie moment right now. One can’t but wonder what it means. I hadn’t seen the show before, but I did read the comic books it’s based on. (Whatever; I like comics.) The comic version is notable for having the least threatening zombies around; in one scene, a normal guy is trapped overnight in a room with dozens of zombies, and kills them all. With his bare hands. Sure, you don’t want them to bite you, but that goes for bedbugs too. (It’s also notable for its exceptionally blatant ripoffs of other zombie stories, like the opening lifted straight from 28 Days Later. But maybe that sort of borrowing is the sign of a vital popular form?) More to the point, it, even more than the run of post-apocalypse survival tales, valorizes traditional, masculine authority. Not for nothing it’s set in the South, and the main character is a cop; that’s a departure from most of these stories, which get their juice precisely from the ordinariness of their protagonists. My friend Ben makes the interesting observation that a very large proportion of horror movies are set in decaying industrial landscapes. But that’s not the case with The Walking Dead. There, the spaces the human characters defend against the zombies are iconic enclaves of order: a gated subdivision, a prison. Their central challenge, literal and metaphorical, is to keep the fences in place. And on the other side of the fences, the zombies. The specific characteristic of the zombie, as opposed to other horror genre monsters, is their lack of individuality. They look human but have no minds, souls or personalities. Their behavior is mechanical, and they only ever appear in groups. The classic vampire story is of the monster stealthily infiltrating our society. You can’t tell that story about zombies; they have to be everywhere. Nor can you deter them or manage them, they don’t follow the various rules vampires are supposed to. All you can do, is kill them. Indeed, one of the themes of the comic-book Walking Dead is the danger of empathizing with the zombies. In one plot arc, a group of farmers are keeping their zombified relatives and neighbors locked in a barn (again, these are some seriously wimpy zombies) in the hope that they’re somehow recoverable. The heroes, naturally, put aside sentimentality and exterminate them. They may look human, is the point, but they’re really just part of the formless, threatening mass. The idea of a small group of civilized people holding some redoubt against a human-looking but impersonal mass is a familiar one in the culture, from Fort Apache to Fort Apache in the Bronx. (My father used to point out that the trope of the small band of white settlers facing a mass of Indians stretching the horizon reversed the historical situation almost exactly.) In this sense zombies slot neatly into some important political myths as well. It’s not a coincidence that in Max Brooks’ World War Z, the most mainstream recent zombie book, the two countries that are best prepared to deal with the worldwide zombie plague are Israel and South Africa, the latter explicitly thanks to apartheid-era plans for defense of the white minority against the African hordes. In terms of the logic of zombie stories, Brooks made a good choice. The idea of a small group of fully-human individuals defending themselves against a faceless, anonymous mass has deep roots, but it comes most clearly to the surface in settler societies. Here is Mario Vargas Llosa, for example, on the original confrontation between his Spanish ancestors and the ancestors of the Indian and mestizo poor all around him:
Men like Father Bartolome de Las Casas came to America with the conquistadores and abandoned the ranks in order to collaborate with the vanquished… This self-determination could not have been possible among the Incas or any of the other pre-Hispanic cultures. In these cultures, as in the other great civilizations of history foreign to the West, the individual could not morally question the social organism of which he was a part, because he existed only as an integral atom of that organism and because for him the dictates of the state could not be separated from morality.
It seems to me useless to ask … whether it would have been better for humanity if the individual had never been born and the tradition of the antlike societies had continued forever.
There’s the settler creed, with unusual frankness. We are capable of moral choices; they — that is, everyone “foreign to the West” — have no individual existence, but are only parts of a larger organism. We can sympathize with them; they can’t even sympathize with themselves. We are human; they are “antlike.” Or zombielike. But why now? Well, of course the entertainment industry needs new material; vampires are mostly played out and werewolves don’t seem to touch any commercially viable anxieties. (Maybe this one will do better.) James Frey is betting on aliens; we’ll see. But there might be a deeper reason. Look at that picture above, of the zombies pressing up against the fence. It doesn’t take a degree in semiology to see what that represents. But it’s not just the border. My friend Christian, who is finishing a book on the politics of global warming, describes one of the main forms of adaptation in the rich countries as the armed lifeboat. It’s adaptation to climate change as exclusion and repression, and that’s much easier if you can imagine the excluded as faceless ant people. If we don’t find a better way to translate climate change into a political vision that can mobilize people, then the white policeman with the gun, ruthlessly exterminating the masses outside the lager and strictly maintaining order inside it, is an idea we may be increasingly asked to become comfortable with. If so, one could read zombie tales like The Walking Dead as a warning — or, less charitably, as helping to prepare the way.
Audubon perfected a new way of drawing birds that he called his.
On the bottom of each watercolor he put “drawn from nature”
which meant he shot the birds
and took them home to stuff and paint them.
Because he hated the unvarying shapes
of traditional taxidermy
he built flexible armatures of bent wire and wood
on which he arranged bird skin and feathers–
whole eviscerated birds–
in animated poses.
Not only his wiring but his lighting was new.
Audubon colors dive in through your retina
like a searchlight
roving shadowlessly up and down the brain
until you turn away.
And you do turn away.
There is nothing to see.
You can look at these true shapes all day and not see the bird.
Audubon understands light as an absence of darkness,
truth as an absence of unknowing.
It is the opposite of a peaceful day in Hokusai.
Imagine if Hokusai had shot and wired 219 lions
and then forbade his brush to paint shadow.
“We are what we make ourselves,” Audubon told his wife
when they were courting.
In the salons of Paris and Edinburgh
where he went to sell his new style
this Haitian-born Frenchman
as a noble rustic American
wired in the cloudless poses of the Great Naturalist.
They loved him
for the “frenzy and ecstasy”
of true American facts, especially
in the second (more affordable) octavo edition (Birds of America, 1844).
[From Men in Off Hours.]
(Critics seem to object that Carson’s poems read like essays, which are what she used to write. OK. But as an admirer of Brecht and Pound and Larkin, I have to ask: Why shouldn’t the essay aspire to the condition of a poem, and vice versa?)
Quote of the day: “Robert and Frank were like two peas in a pod — only they were like the peas in Mendel’s genetic crosses , one smooth and one wrinkled.” From an LRB review of a new biography of Frank Oppenheimer, brother of Robert, CP member, experimental (rather than theoretical) physicist, and — I had not known this; I have fond memories of my visit there when I was 12 or 13 — founder of the Exploratorium.
The reviewer was presumably thinking of Genesis 27 as well as Mendel. Certainly there’s something biblical about the Oppenheimer brothers. At Trinity, Robert famously quoted, or anyway later recalled or imagined quoting, the Upanishads: “I am become death, destroyer of worlds.” Frank recalled it differently: “I think we just said: ‘It worked.'”
Liberal : theoretical : classicist :: communist : experimental : pragmatist. Doesn’t one major axis of the 20th century lie right down that line? Frank described his job on the Manhattan Project as “training people to fix what broke, redesigning things when necessary, and ensuring that no one slacked off on the job.” Mutatis mutandis, wouldn’t most communists have described their work the same?
I’ve had only had one job that paid minimum wage (or minimum plus 50 cents, as I recall.) That was as a bookstore clerk at Shakespeare & Company on the Upper West Side in the mid-90s.
The 85th St. bookstore was the flagship of the Shakespeare operation, which at that time included four Shakespeare and Co stores, two or three Murder Inks, and I think one or two other literary bookstores. It was generously, maybe from a strict business standpoint, overgenerously, staffed. We did spend a lot of time reshelving.
What’s memorable about the place is how everybody there was a book person. Some of us wanted to write fiction, some essays, some plays (that was kind of the store’s thing). Some wanted to work at publishers, some — for serious — were into the printing and bookbinding side of things. Most of of us wanted to write book reviews; some — well me, at least — left to edit the book review section of a marginal left-wing magazine. The book culture of the place was smoothly continuous from those of us behind the registers to the buyers to the mysterious owners upstairs. When publishers’ representatives came by we all met them, as a matter of course: they were selling to the store. I remember one of them spinning out this mystery novel she was going to write about a serial killer knocking off Granta‘s best young American novelists one by one; it seemed like a pretty good joke.
They used to have contests, beginning of the week, pick a book, whoever sells the most of it wins, well, I don’t remember what the prize was. Anyway I took it seriously; books I thought people ought to read. Oh hey, you’re interested in history, do you know Eric Hobsbawm? Oh, Jared Diamond, sure, but you know Plagues and Peoples covered a lot of that same ground? It was a point of pride.
And we hated shoplifters. There was one fellow who was a regular — he was obviously getting instructions on what specific resaleable books to steal. One time we’d had enough — it so depressing when two hours before closing there’s no one in the store except the professional shoplifters — and when he made his run for it we didn’t just accept the alarm-went-off;-oh-well as always. We took off after him. Why? it wasn’t our money. But we did: we caught him: or rather, like a lizard’s tail, we caught his bag, full of stolen books and hypodermics.
I first encountered the word “snarky” working at that bookstore. It was in a New York Magazine article about what was wrong with us, what was wrong with independent bookstores in general, why chains were the future. People wanted an antiseptic book purchasing environment, not all those book people telling them what to read. Whatever, we thought, all separately wondering how to incorporate “snark” into our new novel. But we should have seen the writing on the wall.
When the Barnes & Noble opened at 66th St., that was bad. When the next one opened at 82nd and Broadway, that was the end. This was not long after I started; surrendering, they had a going-out-of-business sale. And that was even worse. There was a brief false summer as the locals — our former customers! — picked over the stock that was suddenly attractive at 40% off; but as soon as the owners unwisely tried to reopen at full price those same customers tripped over each other rushing back to the lattes at Barnes & Nobles.
For the record, I suspect that if the Shakespeare & Co. guys could have competed with Barnes and Nobles at their scale, they would happily have done so. They weren’t doing it for the sake of small. Still, what matters is that you can get the books you want, and there it’s all progress, right? From your point of view as a consumer, probably, sure. I’m prepared to argue that you lose something when there are no more bookstore clerks like me, trying to sell you on William H. McNeill. On the scale of things it’s a small loss, but it’s a retreat from the world as it should be.
I don’t know if Shakespeare hired us because no one but book people would work for what they would pay, or because they had some vague idea that their clerks would rise to manage their little empire or simply because they were book people themselves. But hire book people they did. Within their world, you could imagine that it was a natural progression from clerking at a bookstore, to buying for a bookstore, to editing novels, to writing novels. As in a civilized world it will be.
Which is all to say: Fuck you, Barnes & Noble. I hope all of your stores close.
I know nothing about visual art. So all I can do, when I find myself in a museum, is to walk briskly from room to room — ah, Miro! ah, Johns! ah, Giacometti, the world’s most expensive sculpture! — until I find something that speaks to me. As today in LA’s Museum of Contemporary Art, walking briskly, until-
What spoke to me today, was half a dozen large canvasses by Franz Kline, who I don’t believe I’d heard of before. I walked through the whole gallery three or four times, each time more convinced that these were the only things there really worth looking at. Black and white abstract geometric paintings. The whole style inspired by the guy’s visit to de Kooning’s studio with some representational pencil drawings, which the master encouraged him to blow up to extreme magnification. An ah ha moment for Kline apparently. From then on these black and white paintings that could be a zeroed-in-on detail from a pencil drawing.
What you learn, when you are beginning to paint or draw, is that you have to stop seeing the thing in front of you as a familiar abstraction — a chair, a woman, an elephant — and learn instead to see what you see: the contour, the shadow, the volume, the tone. This is what Kline’s paintings do. Without representing, necessarily, any particular object, they use the language of representation. You see the process of looking without ever seeing the thing being looked at.
What I mean is there’s a visual vocabulary we use to depict three dimensional objects and spaces on a flat surface. And Kline — not uniquely, but more than most abstract expressionists — knows how to use that vocabulary even without any specific referent. So you have the sense of looking at a thing — an object, a building, a place — without the image ever resolving into anything in particular. (Like a constellation.) It challenges you, is there something in this farmhouse in the snow, in this knife or bridge or flower, that affects you visually directly, without some sentimental association? If there is, whatever there is, that’s what these paintings contain.