CLAUDIA RANKINE: CITIZEN: An American Lyric. Poet of a people


CLAUDIA RANKINE’S EXTRAORDINARY book of poetry, “Citizen. An American Lyric” is a prose/poetry meditation on the state of modern American race relations in seven chapters. There are traces of Robert Lowell’s confessional style…but in a form that’s an exciting structural rethink on the nature of poetry; essentially each ‘stanza’ is a series of short prose paragraphs… anecdotes or a train of thought of events that took place…or could have; and the poet/persona’s accompanying ‘explanations’. They’re anecdotes that offer a perspective on the all-encompassing insidiousness of (American…but also quite easily English) race relations. And they communicate not only how black people are perceived by the white society (where, at its extremes, you’re either invisible or a proto criminal) but how this perception shapes the black person’s sense of self and identity…the sense of anger, outrage and personal inadequacy.

Rankine (or the poet persona of the book) is light-skinned enough to ‘pass for white’. She’s a chameleon, a camouflaged spy in enemy territory. But these aren’t poems of protest; while they principally focus on the dark nature of living in an indifferent, often unconsciously racist society, their insights into how memory, the past and perception shape your response to the world are human in color, not just black or white.

Invisibility or overt bias are easy enough to identify.
In the first poem/chapter, she recalls her younger self in one Sister Evelyn’s class:

        …and the girl sitting in the seat behind asks you to lean on the right during exams so she can copy what you have                           written…The girl is Catholic with waist-length brown hair…you never really speak except for the time…she tells you…you have features more like a white person. You assume… she feels better cheating from a white person”

We know the little girl in the seat behind (the poet can’t remember her name) is white from the description of her hair. And hair, is as much (more so?) a signifier of ethnicity as is skin color. This first visualization of the poet is via how she is perceived (features more like a white person). Neither of these two, presumably innocent, little kids make any effort to see beyond skin color. It’s as though from the get-go, black/white relationships have been poisoned. To the poet, her recognition as a person (not just a racial entity) is further compromised by the teacher, God’s representative, this Sister Evelyn:

       Sister Evelyn must think these two girls think a lot alike or she cares less about cheating and more about humiliation or she never actually saw you sitting there

Race as an unwanted cloak of invisibility!

In another poem, a man knocks over her son in the subway. He does not stop. It’s as though… [he] did not see him, has never seen him, has perhaps never seen anyone who is not a reflection of himself. Or as she adds in another poem, …no amount of visibility will alter the ways in which one is perceived” (President Obama will for a third of Americans always be perceived as some unwelcome African born interloper)

She quotes James Baldwin: Baldwin says skin color cannot be more important than the human being. Alas, not so in this lyric. So much for recognition…acknowledgement as a person.

Many of the stories she tells us are presented as distant memories, the poet having given herself the permission to … linger in a past stacked among your pillows
These are the multiple memories, multiple incidents, that shape her – one’s – public sense of self, her idea of how she is seen by her society. Perception is all.

She narrates one incident in which she has asked a friend to babysit her child while she’s out with another friend. Her neighbor calls in alarm. He’s watching…

         a menacing black guy casing both your homes. The guy…seems disturbed”. He reassures her that the guy is not her friend who he’s met, “…that nice young man. Anyway he wants you to know, he’s called the police… you hear the sirens…

Even to a ‘friendly’ neighbor, to eyes that view the world through the lenses of race, you’re either invisible (probably all races are guilty of this…it’s the “all Chinese look alike” syndrome) or a potential menace (only white people view non-white people like this).

As the poems (and her thinking) evolve, she is more than invisible, which at least results in a kind if passive indifference. Rather she, the black person, is what she terms “hypervisible”…which makes the invisibility ‘your’ fault:

       When a woman you work with calls you by the name of another woman you work with, it is too much of a cliché not to laugh out loud with the friend beside you who says, oh no she didn’t. Still, in the end, so what, who cares? She had a fifty- fifty chance of getting it right.
Yes, and in your mail the apology note appears referring to “our mistake”. Apparently, your own invisibility is the real problem causing her confusion…

 But, the poem shows, there is another, perhaps more pernicious layer of the racial perspective. It’s not the obvious one where the wrong words enter your day like a bad egg in your mouth.
Rather there is a layer of the racial perspective that shades into racism. It is often hidden behind walls of decorum, often unintended, and can slip suddenly, unbidden into sight. This may be racism at its most most hurtful, most revealing of its author who remains ever blissfully unaware that he or she is being racist:

       You are in the dark, in the car, watching the black-tarred street being swallowed by speed; he tells you his dean is making him hire a person of color when there are so many great writers out there

And:

       A woman you do not know wants to join you for lunch. You are visiting her campus…she immediately points out that she, her father, her grandfather, and you, all attended the same college. She wanted her son to go there as well, but because of affirmative action or minority something- she is not sure what they’re calling it these days and weren’t they supposed to get rid of it? – her son wasn’t accepted…The exchange, in effect, ends your lunch. The salads arrive

The poet tries to rationalize and find a reasonable framework for these experiences; she quotes…

        A friend who argues that Americans battle between the ‘historical self’ and the ‘self self’… you mostly interact as friends with mutual interest and, for the most part, compatible personalities; however, sometimes your historical selves, her white self and your black self…arrive with the full force of your American positioning. Then you are standing face-to-face in seconds that wipe the affable smiles right from your mouths…And though your joined personal histories are supposed to save you from misunderstandings, they usually cause you to understand all too well what is meant

 These so effortlessly narrated anecdotes are all remembrances of things past. And therein lie their sting. That past stacked among your pillows carries its dangers. She speaks of her fears that all these little incidents become locked in and coded on a cellular level. For …The past is a life sentence, a blunt instrument aimed at tomorrow. These little incidents all add up. You cannot …learn to absorb the world…you can’t put the past behind you. It’s buried in you. The memories  add up to an angst, an anger.

       …the anger built up through experience and the quotidian struggles against dehumanization every brown or black person lives simply because of skin color.

The flash point of these quotidian struggles against dehumanizations are given full vent in a vituperative poem centered on Serena Williams:

        Neither her father nor her mother nor her sister nor Jehovah her God nor NIKE camp could shield her ultimately from people who felt her black body didn’t belong on their court, in their world.”

 The poem documents with almost legal precision the deliberate bad calls from multiple umpires; one of whom, Mariana Alves, had to be

        …excused from officiating any more matches…after she made five bad calls against Serena” because “Serena’s black body…was getting in the way of Alves’s sight line.

Yes, the poet concludes, …the body has a memory…The body is a threshold across which each objectionable call passes into consciousness.

Until all these bad calls, these coded expressions of the racist objection to this black woman in this white world, are unleashed into occasional vents of well-documented Serena fury. But the white world remains relentless in its refusal to comprehend the source of the anger. When, having learned how to contain or at least channel this anger, she won every match she played between the US Open and the year-end 2012 championship tournament, the media suggests

       She has grown up…as if responding to the injustice of racism is childish and her previous demonstration of emotion was  free-floating and detached from any external actions by others.

There’s a willful blindness to the way the white society, as if needing to shield itself from ‘anguish’ or guilt, responds to its own actions. In a poem about Mark Dugan, the innocent black youth gunned down by the police (and the catalyst for days of rioting that followed), Rankine observes:

       As the rioting and looting continued, government officials labeled the violent outbreak “opportunism” and “sheer                       criminality”, and the media picked up this language. Whatever the reason for the riots, images of the looters’ continued rampage eventually displaced the fact that an unarmed man was shot to death

At the center point of the book, the voice changes. The easy flow of bitter anecdotes morphs into a more troubled, almost arrhythmic syntax (…because words hang in the air like pollen, the throat closes). It’s as if these memories, these years of encrusted slights, rejections, dismissals can no longer be contained in the shaping form of narrative. The poetry becomes more abstract, darker, as if pushing itself deeper into the poet’s consciousness. Here is a nocturnal encounter with the police:

       In the darkened moment a body given blue light, a flashlight, enters with levity, with or without assumptions, with desire, the beating heart, disappointment, with desires –

        Stand where you are.

The vignette suggests the synapse between the action (the police car with its blue light) and the emotional codification of the action (the beating heart, disappointment, with desires). The need to contain the emotion, as Serena occasionally fails to do, is almost mandatory. For these emotions are the carriers of memory…and not just the memories of yesterday’s slights…darker historical memories which have shaped the racial consciousness. The poem ends with a dark reverie

       No, it’s a strange beach; each body is a strange beach, and if you let in the excess emotion you will recall the Atlantic Ocean breaking on our heads”

This is the memory of slavery, of the Atlantic crossing.

The second half of the book shifts from the itemisation of the mannered slights and dismissals to vignettes of physical violence. Centuries of aggression finally explode. A short poem that begins in a spirit of a Romantic idyll of a young boy walking in his school playground:

       As he walked across grass still green from summer walking out of the rain a step beyond into a piece of sky all day for him in this moment a shelter as he sat beneath the overhanging branches of the “white tree”…

But the grass still green soon becomes

       a darkening wave…a dawn sun punching through the blackness…” and the sheltering tree becomes a limb for a noose…” the rope looped around the overhanging branches of their tree.

The dawn sun turns into

       a fist punching through the blackness…forming knuckles as they pummeled the body being kicked and beaten until knocked          unconscious…

The violence so easily meted out is (like Mark Dugan) easily excused…

        boys will be boys being boys feeling their capacity…righting their wrongs in the violence of aggravated adolescence…”

The invisibility with which the book began when you were either not seen or seen merely as a color, now takes a turn for the worst. The refusal to see beyond race is also a refusal to differentiate. Black is simply black.

She describes one of the many meaningless arrests…
       

       Get on the ground. Get on the ground now. Then I just knew.

And you are not the guy and still you fit the description because there is only one guy who is always the guy fitting the                   description”

The need is not simply to arrest, but to humiliate:

       The charge the officer decided on was exhibition of speed. I was told, after the fingerprinting, to stand naked. I stood naked.  It was only then I was instructed to dress, to leave, to walk all those miles back home

So where does this all end? These centuries of hurt, these needs that branch accommodation with anger? How does the scarred body of one race find benediction, if that is what it seeks, in the uncomprehending gaze of the other? The American lyric can only shift from its rhythm of blues to a song of joy through

       …a share of all remembering… when …a measure of all memory is breath and to breathe you have to create a truce-

       a truce with the patience of a stethoscope

DEREK WALCOTT 1930-2017. The Master Remembered


DEREK WALCOTT: Poet of the exiles

London; and as I shelter from the not unusual rain, a stray image from Derek Walcott’s poetry drifts into focus. It comes from “In a Green Night”

 

Imprisoned within these wires of rain, I watch

This village stricken with a single street

(“Return to D’Ennery, Rain”, In A Green Night)

 

The rain that’s falling here is cold, dark and soundless…just a grey, unfriendly drizzle that carries no showers of blessing. And yet, my memory fabricates the sound no doubt many of us West Indians abroad can recall from the past when…

 

…branching light startles the hair of coconuts,                                  

and on the villas’ asphalt roofs, rain

resonates like pebbles in a pan

(“Hurucan”, The Fortunate Traveller)

 

Just as it’s likely that the poetry of Robert Burns holds an added layer of meaning to a Scottish reader, in the same way that Whitman’s songs of America may speak more profoundly to Americans (or at least those conscious of history) there is a different relationship between readers from the Caribbean and the poetry of Derek Walcott (who has just released another massive anthology of his work: The Poetry of Derek Walcott, 1948-2013). Familiarity adds edge

This essay seeks to re-introduce Walcott’s poetry through this lens of its enhanced emotional relevance to West Indians, particularly the large community living away from home. And though this ‘lens’ is by its nature a limiting profile of a poet, whose range is so vast, nevertheless, it may be interesting to re-evaluate his work from the viewpoint of how it has helped shape, codify and interpret for many of us, the experience of being West Indian on foreign shores..

For many of us who grew up around the same time as Walcott, his experiences paralleled ours: the need to escape and enter a life of voluntary exile, a sort of pilgrimage to the First World – driven by both a longing to be a part of the bigger world as well as a need to be free from the confines, the pettiness, the often squalid reality of small islands. But escape is also loss. The exile, the wanderer must find ways of accommodating both the excitement of discovery as well as the hostility of his new worlds all the while managing the nostalgia of absence. With time, the émigré learns to distil memory and experience into a sense of identity and which can shift from alienation to that of a fortunate traveller. This reader’s personal odyssey – not particularly distinct from that of the hundreds of thousands of other displaced West Indians – is reflected in the arc of the poet’s narrative over the sixty-five years he’s been revealing to us the world we live in.

Reading his first book, In A Green Night, when it was originally published, ushered many of us into a special club of readers. For the poet seemed to have pin-pointed with eerie precision our adolescents’ needs to leave (“imprisoned within…”) the limiting scope of the islands. At that age, there were worlds yet to be conquered:

I, with legs crossed along the daylight, watch

The variegated fists of clouds that gather over

The uncouth features of this, my prone island.

(“Prelude”, In A Green Night)

Then in “The Castaway”, the book that follows, the real outward momentum gathers force and we joined him in the urge for whatever ‘nourishment’ we were starving for that was ‘out there’ beyond the horizon:

The starved eye devours the seascape for the morsel

Of a sail.

The horizon threads it infinitely.

 

Action breeds frenzy. I lie

Sailing the ribbed shadow of a palm,

(“The Castaway”,The Castaway)

Though these lands held all that was dear to us, out there on that existential horizon was the challenge that didn’t exist in our limiting shores. ‘Out there’ was the future, the destination where our parents expected us to grow educationally and where we could learn to measure up to ‘the big boys’, the white boys:

I had nothing against which

to notch the growth of my work

but the horizon, no language

but the shallows in my long walk

 

home, so I shook all the help

my young right hand could use

from the sand-crusted kelp

of distant literatures

(“A Latin Primer”, The Arkansas Testament)

We were buoyed by the energy of exile with its romantic promises of freedom and intellectual fulfilment. But exile was also flight…flight from a West Indies that had already begun to disintegrate. In Tiepolo’s Hound, the protagonist, Pissarro, relives the spirit of The Castaway in his need to find some sort of salvation on a distant shore and flee what he sees as a crumbling hometown:

…abandoned forts

and ruined windmills and postage-stamp parks…

Perhaps he saw their emptiness in terror

of what provided nothing for his skill

 

until his very birthplace was an error

that only flight might change, and exile kill.

(“Chapter One”, Tiepolo’s Hound)

Walcott redefined how we viewed our drab, everyday surroundings, trapped as we were by “[its] ordinariness,/…the inertia that fills its exiles with horror” (“Port of Spain”, The Fortunate Traveller).

For indeed, we were not only journeying north to engage in the larger world but travelling away from a place of “urine stunted trees…” and “malarial light” (“Tales of the Islands, Chapter VII”, In A Green Night) with its “male, malodorous sea” (“Castialiane”, In A Green Night)

No matter the sordid reality, the exuberance of departure was always coloured by the romanticism of what was being left behind. With departure came the quiet potency of our collective sense of the homeland(s) that we, the young exiles, the second generation of the diaspora, would hold dear. The further we drifted away from its shores, the more magical appeared the place(s) we left behind; the reality of the “urine stunted trees” paled when compared with the remembered beauty of home:

This island is heaven – away from the dustblown blood of cities;

See the curve of the bay, watch the straggling flower, pretty is

The wing’d sound of trees, the sparse-powdered sky…

(“As John To Patmos”, In A Green Night)

 

The places even sounded magical:

Anguilla, Adina

Antigua, Cannelles,

Andreuille, all the l’s

Voyelles, of the liquid Antilles,

The names tremble like needles

Of anchored frigates,

Yachts tranquil as lilies,

In ports of calm coral

(“A Sea-Chantey”, In A Green Night)

 

As the poet begins his own journey and lifts away from home, he looks back and down from his ascending aircraft and sees the island grow small, literally and metaphorically. However, this is not Naipaul’s embittered escape from what he saw as the flotsam and jetsam of mimic-men cultures.

In a poem dedicated to “the exiled novelists” – guess who? – Walcott rails:

You spit on your people,

your people applaud,

your former oppressors

laurel you.

The thorns biting your forehead

are contempt

disguised as concern,

(“At Last”, Sea Grapes)

 

Rather, Walcott’s view is ennobled with sadness and a sense of imminent loss, even though he heads for his (true?) north

I watched the island narrowing the fine

writing of foam around the precipices then

the roads as small and casual as twine

thrown on its mountains; I watched till the plane

turned to the final north…

(“Chapter X; Tales of The Islands”, In A Green Night)

 

The image is repeated several years later, when this entire stanza is reprised as he reminisces in Another Life.

This dichotomy – of (positive) exile v (negative) escape, departure v flight, adventurer v refugee, the squalid v the magical – is a tension that dominates his early works…as much as it dominated the lives of us abroad, in our stiff clothes and cold confines. The urge to leave, to ship out, to board the schooner on the horizon was always balanced by that longing to stay, was always tempered by the anchor of home, even with the increasing realization that there was not much there worth staying for.

The initial image of the infinite horizon is one that is repeated in many guises throughout the poems. It is a horizon toward which we metaphorically shipped out and is highlighted by a series of boats, from anonymous schooners and distant sails to the aptly named schooner Flight to Achille’s fishing canoe in Omeros, In God We Troust (“Leave it! Is God’s spelling and mine”) to the ambiguous Bounty. This is the poet’s flotilla of signposts, each one signifying a stage in his circuitous odyssey, from flight to homecoming.

However, as departure hardened into exile, the seduction of the islands and the pull of home shrivelled, the euphoria of independence having coarsened into “the curse of government by race” fattened by corruption and politicians “Drained/of every sense but retching indignation” (“Party Night at the Hilton” Sea Grapes). We were also now bent on escaping the islands’ new cultural norm: of endemic, cynical kleptocracy. This was Walcott’s ironically named Star-Apple Kingdom, where:

One morning the Caribbean was cut up

by seven prime ministers who bought the sea in bolts –

one thousand miles of aquamarine with lace trimmings…

who sold it at a markup to the conglomerates,

…the rest was offered on trays to white cruise ships

taller than a post office

(“The Star-Apple Kingdom”, The Star Apple Kingdom)

 

No wonder…

…Our emerald sands

are stained with sewage from each tin-shacked Rome;

corruption, censorship, and arrogance

make exile seem a happier thought than home

(“The Hotel Normandy Pool”, The Fortunate Traveller)

 

The beauty he had so eulogized and celebrated was now overgrown by a tawdry, squalid modern Caribbean:

Year round, year round, we’ll ride

this treadmill whose frayed tide

fretted with mud

 

leaves our suburban shoreline littered

with rainbow muck, the afterbirth

of industry…

(“Ebb”, The Gulf)

The Gulf is poetry of a harder edge; it expresses the rage we all felt as the green night slipped away into crassness, where for those many who stayed behind there was often another kind of escape: an escape into narcotizing pretence: the life of masquerade. Walcott howls at the flippancy of the new identity being created, epitomized by the revelry of Carnival (“…a noise that fears everything” What The Twilight Says):

‘Join us’ they shout, ‘O God, child, you can’t dance?’

but somewhere in that whirlwind’s radiance

a child, rigged like a bat, collapses, sobbing…

 

Upon your penitential morning,

some skull must rub its memory with ashes,

some hand must crawl and recollect your rubbish,

someone must write your poems

 

And:

…After a while, this whole,

slow grinding circus doesn’t give a fuck.

There is nowhere to go. You’d better go.

(“Miramar”, The Gulf)

 

Thank God we’d left. But the thrill of escape and the excitement of arrival soon peeled back the darker reality of diaspora: the loneliness, the sense and shock of loss:

…the train

soon changed its poetry to the prose

of narrowing, pinched eyes you could not enter,

to the gas-ring, the ringing Students’ Centre,

to the soiled, icy sheet

(“Exile”, The Gulf)

 

For exile can sound more romantic than its reality. Arrival at any new destination shocks the spirit; and certainly for the warm-weather islander, what first shocks the body is the cold. Winters were long; summers never seemed to come. But somehow the misery was made not simply bearable, but almost heroic as we suffered with Walcott:

Through the wide, grey loft window,

I watched that winter morning, my first snow

crusting the sill, puzzle the black,

nuzzling Tom. Behind my back

a rime of crud glazed my cracked coffee-cup

(“A Village Life”, The Castaway)

 

Familiarity however does not breed acceptance. No matter how many years the exile spends away, no matter how in love with the adopted homeland, all this enduring wetness and cold is anathema to one’s sense of identity. In a much later book, Walcott writes:

…my soles stiffen with ice

Even through woolen socks; in the fenced back yard,

trees with clenched teeth endure the wind of February

(“North and South”, The Fortunate Traveller)

 

Even worse than the expected culture shock of the cold, alienating city, was the sudden, deeper shock of racism. London, Toronto, New York in the late 60’s took care of that:

…and when

I collect my change from a small-town pharmacy,

the cashier’s fingers still wince from my hand

as if it would singe hers – well, yes, je suis un singe,

(“North and South”, The Fortunate Traveller)

 

The personal experience he suffers is a microcosm of the broader xenophobia and distrust of the other, of those dark skins “taking our jobs”, “threatening our ways of life”. In “Midsummer, England” the poem shifts from a perspective of quintessential Englishness -“the sky-blue striped pavilions” of Henley and “fields trimmed by centuries of reticence”- to a more threatening one:

…the fear of darkness entering England’s vein,

the noble monuments pissed on by rain,

the imperial blood corrupted, the dark tide.

(“Midsummer, England”, Sea Grapes)

 

Add to this the reality of distance and time and suddenly you discover that the cold anomie of the big city has forced a kind of amnesia about what we’d left behind. Somehow, the longer we spent away, the less urgent was the angst of what was happening back home. For always there was the nostalgia for home, for the familiar, no matter how compromised it was by bad politics and corruption:

Better a jungle in the head

than rootless concrete.

Better to stand bewildered

by the fireflies’ crooked street;

 

winter lamps do not show

where the sidewalk is lost

not can these tongues of snow

speak for the Holy Ghost:

(“Pentecost”, The Arkansas Testament)

 

And yet, despite it all, accommodation followed. Absence may make the heart grow fonder, but it also leads the heart to surrender to the pull of adopted cultures:

...you had not come

to England; you were home.

 

Even her wretched weather

was poetry…

(“Exile”, The Gulf)

 

Eventually, what to us was initially exotic – winters, night without power-cuts, water that always flowed out of the tap, bookshops, art galleries – faded into the customary; the mark of foreign-ness softened enough to allow you to blend in and feel comfortable in dual cultures. Long years in New York, London, Toronto yielded passports and new shapes to identity. In one of his more autobiographical books, The Prodigal, Walcott explores the redefinition of his divided self

I lived in two villages: Greenwich and Gros Islet,

and loved both almost equally. One had the sea,

grey morning light along the waking water,

the other a great river, and if they asked

what country I was from I’d say, “The light

of that tree-lined sunrise down the Via Venetto”

(“Chapter 4”, The Prodigal)

 

It is impossible to love two cultures without being changed. Even if the heart of identity is essentially Trinidadian/West Indian, the embrace of ‘the other’ recalibrates – perhaps irrevocably – your sensibility, your reference points, your language:

And what was altered was something more profound

than geography, it was the self. It was vocabulary.

Now it was time for the white poem of winter,

when icicles lock the great bronze horse’s teeth.

(“Chapter 2”, The Prodigal)

 

It was at moments like this when these foreign shores grew welcoming and began to feel like a new home that you accepted the fact that home was no longer bound within a geography. Identity was where you found it.

The issue of identity and belonging is central to Derek Walcott’s poetry. But in this fractious flotilla of islands, from the strident and proud Jamaicans and Barbadians to the smug Trinidadians, and where so many either have, or long for that escape route of an American green card, not to mention passport, what really does ‘identity’ mean? As the poet asks…

What was the Caribbean? A green mantling

behind the Great House columns of Whitehall,

behind the Greek facades of Washington,

with bloated frogs squatting on lily pads

like islands, islands that coupled as sadly as turtles

engendering islets…

(“The Star-Apple Kingdom”, The Star-Apple Kingdom)

 

The nature of identity in his poetry realizes itself through a sense of race, history, language and landscape. Unlike some of his poet peers and the politics of race that often dominate the local conversation, Walcott eschews the claim to African-ness as a simplistic misstep. “What else was he,” he asks in Another Life, “ but a divided child?”

…they yearned for Africa,

they were lemmings drawn by magnetic memory

to an older death, to broader beaches

where the coughing of lions was dumbed by breakers.

(“The Star-Apple Kingdom”, The Star-Apple Kingdom)

 

“Once we have lost our wish to be white,” he writes in What The Twilight Says, his book of essays, “we develop a longing to be black, and those two may be different, but are still careers”. Race in the West Indies is a deeply complex matter: the easy certainty of black v white that still divides a ‘united’ States and lessens a ‘great’ Britain does not operate there. “Blackness” goes from ‘midnight’ through myriad colour nuances from high brown to (Walcott’s) red nigger through dougla (African and Indian), haquai (Chinese and African) to high brown, near white French creole, and for some of us, “Chinee Chinee never die, flat nose and chinky eye”.

It’s a matter to which Walcott returns time and again. In a duet of early poems, which sounds reminiscent of early Joyce, he notes:

I who am poisoned with the blood of both,

Where shall I turn, divided to the vein?

I who have cursed

The drunken officer of British rule, how choose

Between this Africa and the English tongue I love?

Betray them both, or give back what they give?

(“A Far Cry From Africa”, In A Green Night)

 

and also

My eyes burned from the ashen prose of Donne

 

Ablaze with rage, I thought

Some slave is rotting in this manorial lake,

And still the coal of my compassion fought:

That Albion too, was once

A colony like ours…

(“Ruins of a Great House”, In A Green Night)

 

But the ‘wrong race’ can also be a passport locally to exclusion and we are back to the feeling of being a castaway:

I had no nation now but the imagination.

After the white man, the niggers didn’t want me

when the power swing to their side

they first chain my hands and apologize, “History”;

they next said I wasn’t black enough for their pride

(“The Schooner, Flight”, The Star-Apple Kingdom)

 

And what of ‘history’? As the West Indian puzzles past race toward this locus of identity, the weights of myth-creating, self-enhancing history are not obviously there in what Walcott describes as these “history-orphaned islands” to anchor one in a sense of self. Where are the identity-defining battles? Where are the landmark achievements? We didn’t fight for independence – it was granted by a regime financially drained by war and exhausted of empires:

There’s nothing here

this early;

cold sand

cold churning ocean, the Atlantic,

no visible history

(“The Almond Trees”, The Castaway)

 

For most big city residents, history is all around – particularly in cities such as London, where you can’t help but be immersed in it. The link with the past is tangibly there, from the buildings and parks, to the commemorative statues and plaques that remind you of the many who shaped the texture of the country and the meaning of being British. But for the West Indian, the physical presence of history, of a past, is largely absent. There, many (most?) of the more beautiful, old edifices have long been torn down through our indifference, only to be replaced by crude, ugly concrete structures; and those few that remain, decaying and abandoned, are redolent of the smell of slavery, colonialism and white domination.

…The abandoned road runs

past huge rusting cauldrons, vats for boiling the sugar,

 

and blackened pillars. These are the only ruins

left here by history. If history is what they are.

(“Chapter IV”, Omeros)

Even the region’s early art, dominated by the etchings and water-colours of genteel artists such as Cazabon, is an art of the gracefully pastoral; one that veers away from harsher, less scenic realities. The real presence of the past simply hovers at the edges:

…in snaps

of fine old colonial families, curled at the edge

not from age or from fire or the chemicals, no, not at all,

but because, off at its edges, innocently excluded

stood the groom, the cattle boy, the housemaid, the gardeners,

the tenants, the good Negroes down in the village,

their mouths in the locked jaw of a silent scream

(“The Star-Apple Kingdom”, The Star-Apple Kingdom)

 

So, most of us grew up without the presence of history that many people simply take for granted. How do you feel a sense of identity with a country whose heroes are largely unknown and, unless they serve a clear political purpose, mainly uncelebrated; whose touch with the past stretches no further than a generation at most? We had journeyed to countries with a clear sense of a past, having left ones that exist only in a continuous present.

To many of us, the only ‘history’ that we knew starting in school was of Empire:

…think of the width its power could encompass:

“one-seventh of the globe”, we learned in class.

Its promontories, docks, its towers and minarets,

with the power that vanished as dew does from the grass

in the rising dawn of a sun that never sets

(“The Spectre of Empire”, White Egrets)

 

Although about fifty years ago, England had begun to shed itself of the costly burden of empire:

…All history

in a dusty Beefeater’s gin. We helped ourselves

to these green islands like olives from a saucer,

 

munched on the pith, then spat their sucked stones on a plate

(“Chapter V”, Omeros)

 

Yet its colonial dregs – the headmasters and civil servants – clutching their gins and gentility and the last remnants of power, still lingered around the pools of once exclusive clubs, wary of the nearing shadows of dark-skinned Independence. Their shrinking world struggled to stay time and fend off the future. And we, young masters of the as –yet- unsullied new West Indies looked upon these ghosts of empire with a mixture of awe and humour.

…Every one of them a liar

dyeing his roots, their irrepressible Cockney,

overdoing impatience. Clods from Lancashire

 

surprised by servants, outpricing their own value

and their red- kneed wives with accents like cutlery

spilled from a drawer.

(“Chapter V”, Omeros)

 

But this is no politician’s scorn. Even as he offers us this less than flattering image, the poet recognizes that what the colonial bureaucrats offered was a kind of commitment that would soon be lost

One day the Mafia

will spin these islands round like roulette. What use is

Dennis’ own devotion when their own ministers

 

cash in on casinos…

(“Chapter V”, Omeros)

 

We witnessed history give way to tourism

…I watched the doomed acres

where yet another luxury hotel will be built

with ordinary people fenced out. The new makers

of our history profit without guilt

… these new plantations

by the sea: a slavery without chains, with no blood spilt

(“The Acacia Trees”, White Egrets)

 

Perhaps because the West Indians’ sense of history lacked the public iconography of older cultures (after all slavery ended less than two hundred years ago and our memory of the pre-colonial Spaniards lives on only in the sometimes Hispanic, patois syntax of our dialect) we’ve come to depend more and be knitted together more by the private history of shared memories. In a very personal poem, Walcott describes a scene that, for people of a certain age, is one we all share. And, really, this shared past provides a more unifying perspective than any schoolboy’s learning of the Emancipation Act:

That evening I had walked the streets of the town

where I was born and grew up…

…I had peered into parlours

with half-closed jalousies, at the dim furniture,

Morris chairs, a center table with wax flowers

and the lithograph of Christ of the Sacred Heart

vendors still selling to the empty streets-

sweets, nuts, sodden chocolates, nut cakes, mints.

(“The Light of the World”, The Arkansas Testament)
History was rooted in growing up with the same stories. In a trio of poems from The Arkansas Testament, Walcott conjures up the folk imagination where “Every ceremony commenced/in the troughs, in the middens, at the daybreak and the daydark funerals/attended by crabs…” (“Gros-Ilet”). Here, he pulls out of our collective memory the stories we all grew up with and feared in the dark:

The gens-gangée kicks off her wrinkled skin.

Clap her soul in a jar! The half-man wolf

Can trot with bending elbows, rise and grin

In lockjawed lycantropia.

(“White Magic”, The Arkansas testament)

 

History lies also in our language. The (British) West Indian oral tradition is a weave of epochs: it combines, as noted above, the syntax and patois of the long past, pre-Colonial Spanish occupation; the tense structures and vocabulary the slaves brought with them from West Africa; and words and phrases from the waves of Indian immigration – all grafted into an English that seemed stuck in the eighteenth century. This was the palette the poet found as he sought to find a unique idiom, informed by the lineage of the ‘mother tongue’ but seasoned in the rhythms of the place. More so than most of his peers, Walcott is intensely self- conscious about his search for the kinds of words and cadences that can accurately reflect the integrity of his artistic voyage. You often sense that he feels the responsibility of developing a style that can articulate the West Indian experience, and that his search is not only for himself but for us all. He is giving us a voice:

My race began as the sea began,

with no nouns and with no horizon,

with pebbles under my tongue…

(“Names”, Sea Grapes)

 

In some of his earlier work (mainly In A Green Night), the language sometimes sounds arch, overly poetic. This quickly dissipates as, with The Castaway, he settles into a style that becomes distinct to him and the sensitivity he offers us. It was a long cry from the early West Indian poets, struggling to shake off the weight of the English rhyming poetry we were taught at school and seek some sort of authenticity. The first break with the English tradition (around the 1920’s) had come via experimentations with dialect by a Barbadian policeman, Edward Cordle, who started publishing poetry in the local newspaper. This was quite a revolution; not only were his stories stridently relevant (he wrote of poverty and suffering), but also the idea of writing in the –debased- idiom of everyday life was shocking. Most poetry written in the West Indies at the time was in a voice that smelt of Wordsworth and the Romantics and bore no relevance to the life lived; more the black man’s yearning for white colonial acceptance.

Walcott’s search for his authentic idiom had to find the balance between the potentially dead end of dialect and a language that could contain the complexity of his consciousness and could ‘feel right’. His own shift into dialect is occasional, judicious and precise: it is the style he used for drama and, often, irony.

His initial attempts at dialect feel indulgent and false, as if he felt pushed by the intellectual politics at the time to experiment in this idiom:

Man, I suck me tooth when I hear

How dem croptime fiddlers lie,

And de wailing, kiss-me-arse flutes

That bring water to me eye!

(“Parang”, In A Green Night)

 

But he’s ever wary of the politicization of style. In “What the Twilight Says” he notes, “…Carnival was as meaningless as the art of the actor confined to mimicry. And now the intellectuals, courting and fearing the mass, found values in it that they had formerly despised. The apotheosized the folk form, insisting that calypsos were poems.” And again, “Our bodies think in one language and move in another, yet it should have become clear, even to our newest hybrid, the black critic who accuse poets of betraying dialect, that the language of exigesis is English, that the manic absurdity would be to give up thought because it was white.”

As the poetry evolves, his dialect weans away these distractions and its use becomes occasional, judicious and precise: it is the style he used for drama and, often, irony. He begins to use the oral tradition very much as the –often oracular- voice of a number of ‘characters’. The personae of his few dialect poems are careful constructs, such as the mordant observer of “The Spoiler’s Return” masking his anger with the wit of Calypso ‘picong’:

Is Carnival, straight Carnival that’s all,

the beat is base, the melody bohbol,

all Port of Spain is a twelve-thirty show,

some playing Kojak, some Fidel Castro…

 

all Frederick Street stinking like a closed drain

Hell is a city much like Port of Spain

(“The Spoiler’s Return”, The Fortunate Traveller)

 

The list of dramatis personae in his works is long and multiple characters emerge (Walcott the poet and Walcott the dramatist often shade one into the other). And, true to the dramatist’s craft, he gives them all quite distinct, authentic voices. But their concerns and the issues they wrestle with are, for the poet, familiar tropes. Shabine, the exile, the outsider, the street-wise intellectual is the embodiment of all the resentments, anger and frustrations of a generation: poor, black and ignored by the curve of history bent on ostracizing its citizens. For Shabine, the ex-colonial, to make sense of his world, of a place in history (“I met History one, but he ain’t recognize me”) he must find the right words (“that’s all them bastards have left us: words”):

…we live like our names and you would have

to be colonial to know the difference,

to know the pain of history words contain,

to love those trees with an inferior love,

and to believe: “Those casuarinas bend

like cypresses, their hair hangs down in rain

like sailors’ wives. They’re classic trees, and we,

if we live like the names our masters please,

by careful mimicry might become men”

(“The Schooner Flight”, The Star Apple Kingdom)

 

Shabine’s heroism lies in his recognition of this (we young colonials knew Wordsworth and Keats; but no West Indian poetry found its way into our English curriculum) and the need to find and forge a language that can frame a perspective:

…When I write

this poem, each phrase go be soaked in salt;

I go draw and knot each line as tight

as ropes in the rigging; in simple speech

my common language go be the wind,

my pages the sails of the schooner Flight

(“The Schooner Flight”, The Star-Apple Kingdom)

 

Walcott’s self-conscious search for words was not merely a literary exercise. The exile soon finds that, even when the vocabulary and sentence construction of his birth are hidden away, his accent is pigeon-holed. It’s exotic, possibly difficult to understand, connotative of leisure and indolence; not so much ode to a skylark as ode to skylarking. And as the years draw on, from life as a student to life as an adult, the voice becomes ever-shifting: a voice for home, a voice for ‘back home’ and a voice to be understood and taken seriously:

I must put the cold small pebbles from the spring

upon my tongue to learn her language,

to talk like birch or aspen confidently.

(“Upstate”, The Fortunate Traveller)

 

The fortunate traveller is one iteration of the poet as discoverer – the modern Crusoe, forging a language to suit the place:

Like those plain iron tools he salvages

                  from shipwreck, hewing a prose

as odorous as raw wood to the adze

                  out of such timbers

came our first book, our profane Genesis

(”Crusoe’s Journal”, The Castaway)

 

In the autobiographical Another Life, he draws our attention to the moment of recognition when he had finally pushed himself toward a language that sparkled with the accuracy he sought:

I watched the vowels curl from the tongue of the carpenter’s plane:

resinous, fragrant,

labials of our forests

over the plain wood

(“Chapter 12”, Another Life)

 

For the poet, authenticity is all. And Walcott weaves together a sense of celebratory elation and a sense of place with its articulation:

A panel of sunrise

on a hillside shop

gave these stanzas

their stilted shape.

 

If my craft is blest;

If this hand is as

accurate, as honest

as their carpenter’s.

 

every frame, intent

on its angles, would

echo this settlement

of unpainted wood

(“Cul de Sac Valley”, The Arkansas Testament)

 

Indeed, it is within this (mythic) landscape that fragments of our sense of identity lie. Simon Schama’s Landscape and Memory looks at the role of our surroundings as a fundamental cultural factor in the creation of myth. Indeed, landscape is memory and Walcott’s summoning of the landscape not only brings we exiles closer to the home we left, but underlines the power of the physicality of the place – just one thread in the weave of elements that knit the patterns of cultural identity.

By and large, Walcott’s poetry is structured around repeated patterns: they begin with clear precise images whose philosophical meaning flowers as the poem meanders through its field of stanzas. The result is that there emerges from the range of his works a very tangible sense of the landscapes of the Caribbean. There’s almost a slide-show that transports the reader from the sea where “eels sign their names along the clear bottomed sand” to the “moonlit sickle shore[s]” to the rainforests of “garrulous waterfalls” and “blue, tacit mountains” over the “pastures of bananas” to the hot cities. We experience the key duality of the West Indian climate – hot sun and drenching rain.

For unlike the sweet summers of London or New York, so eagerly anticipated and enjoyed in people-watching outdoor cafes and shady gardens, the sun in the West Indies strikes a different pose:

The feel of the village in the afternoon heat, a torpor

that stuns chickens, that makes stones wish they could hide

from the sun at two, when to cross from door to door

is an expedition, when palm trees and almond hang their head

in dusty weariness…

(“Chapter 12; Part Two”, The Bounty)

 

Even the smells are there to startle the memory:

 

Night, our black summer simplifies her smells

into a village; she assumes the impenetrable

 

musk of the Negro, grows secret as sweat,

her alleys odorous with shucked oyster shells,

(“Nights in the Gardens of Port of Spain”, The Castaway)

 

For the reader as exile, here is poetry that re-crystallizes memories long fragmented, lost to time, ennobled now within the framework of the poet’s visual elation (“One the desperate memory fastens on” The Bounty.)

And so, vague memories of walking through the bush and hearing birdsong is transformed to “[walking] through a thickness pinned with birds” (“II. The Bush” The Gulf) and (from “The Walk” ,The Gulf), I can hear the rain as it cools a parched earth:

….a clump of bamboos whose clenched

fist loosens its flowers, a track

that hisses through the rain drenched

grove…

 

In the end, the exile, though ever-conscious of the rot that’s set in back home, somehow has to have the heart to find his way back to the qualities that made him who he is. In the end, the reasons for escape cannot sunder the love of the place of birth, whose hold is part of one’s sense of self. Walcott captures this longing in his later books, which can be seen as a poetry of homecoming. This is “Odysseus/home-bound on the Aegean” (“Sea Grapes”, Sea Grapes):

…Watch how spray will burst

like a cat scrambling up the side of a wall,

gripping, sliding, surrendering: how, at first,

its claws hook then slip with a quickening fall

to the lace-rocked foam. That is the heart, coming home,

trying to fasten on everything it moved from,

how salted things only increase its thirst.

(“Chapter Two”, White Egrets)

 

We see the change most clearly in The Bounty, his book of memories that marks the turning point in his journey. From this point, Odysseus returns home. The wandering exile feels reclaimed by the land. His life away becomes “the pain of exile”. And, as his heart continues to force him back, his life in a foreign country loses the light of its promise. The exile simply becomes the stranger; the displaced man:

…this was not his climate or people, no season

as depleting as this, and beyond this there was the sea

and the unrelenting mercy of light, a window in the prison

his mind had become;

(“Six Fictions”, The Bounty)

 

In “Christmas Eve”, that time when the pull of home is strongest, the poet gives in to forces he claims not to understand. As ever in his poetry, we experience the contradiction between what propels him and keeps him away and the stronger gravitational pull bearing him back South:

Can you genuinely claim these, and do they reclaim you

from your possible margin of disdain, of occasional escape:

the dusk in the orange yard of the shacks, the waxen blue-

green of breadfruit leaves, the first bulb in the kitchens – shape

and shadows so familiar…

Yes they reclaim you in a way you need not understand

(“Christmas Eve”, The Bounty)

 

Even to the many of us who never made that returning, re-immigrating journey, the pull is the same:

…the frogs croak

behind fences, the dogs bark at ghosts, and certainties

settle in the sky, the stars that are no longer questions.

Yes, they reclaim you in a way you need not understand:

candles that never gutter and go out in the breeze

(“Parang”, The Bounty)

 

(One wonders whether Walcott’s image of the endurance of love : “candles that never gutter…” is a deliberate pop reference to Elton John’s “candle in the wind”)

Odysseus, after all those years of wandering is borne back by the tide of sentiment deeper than all the concerns that keep us – the exiles – away. The liberating horizon with its promise of freedoms becomes simply “the edge of the sea”. The schooner Flight may bear us away, but the ties, the ties, they keep us there; they bring the benedictions of acceptance:

The sea-canes by the cliff flash green and silver

they were the seraph lances of my faith

but out of what is lost grows something stronger

 

that has the rational radiance of stone,

enduring moonlight, further than despair,

strong as the wind, that through dividing canes

 

brings those we love before us, as they were,

with faults and all, not nobler, just there.

(“Sea Canes”, Sea Grapes)

 

The sense of homecoming – either physical (Walcott has indeed returned home to live in St Lucia) or (for those of us the permanent exiles) spiritual – brings with it a kind of optimism. But returning is not a recapture of some lost magic. The poet is quite straightforward that the return to the country is no amnesiac retreat to a glorified past.

The house where we used to live,

its vine-twisted verandah gone,

is a printery now; not a leaf

will curl from its pillars again

(“The Lighthouse”, In A Green Night)

 

Not only that, but after these years of travel, the identity of the returning prodigal now embraces more than his Caribbean roots. So too do we of the diaspora add another meaning to the divided self, for like the poet, after long years in the embrace of another culture, the tendrils of roots burrow into another homeland. The horizon changes. The starved eye no longer sits sailing the ribbed shadow of a palm:

Perhaps it exists on only one horizon –

one with windmills and belfries with questioning cranes,

meadows with chattering aspens, a temperate zone,

equestrian statues and water-braiding fountains

This is poetry’s weather, this is its true home,

Not where palms applaud themselves and sails dance

In mindless delight and gulls race the foam.

(“Chapter 11”, White Egrets)

 

This is part – half- of the picture: the prodigal’s accommodating heart has not opted out for the distant homeland. The love of the adopted place is real and sound but can never replace or compromise where the heart was raised. There may have been exile and flight, but the anchor of the islands can never loosen:

…This small place produces

nothing but beauty: the wind-warped trees, the breakers

on the Dennery cliffs, and the wild light that loosens

a galloping mare on the plain of Vieuxfort make us

merely receiving vessels of each day’s grace,

light simplifies us whatever our race or gifts.

I’m content as Kavanagh with his few acres:

for my heart to be torn to shreds like the sea’s lace,

to see how its wings catch colour when a gull lifts.

(”The Lost Empire”, White Egrets)

 

 

 

THE SHIPWRECKED MIND AND THE AGE OF ANGER: AN INTELLECTUAL FRAMEWORK OF ‘NOW’


anger shipwreck

IS THERE A link between the rise of Trump (“making America great again”), Brexit (“taking back control”), the resurgence of the European right wing…and ISIS? Two recently published books suggest perspectives from which to view and understand these world-defining trends…this new populist zeitgeist. American intellectual Mark Lilla (“The Shipwrecked Mind”) and Anglo-Indian scholar Pankash Mishra (“The Age of Anger”) both seek to offer up interesting – and interlinked – frameworks that chart the arc of history that have led us to where we are now. Lilla examines the phenomenon from the perspective of the thinkers who underpin the intellectual framework of these new nativist Right Wing movements; while Mishra’s approach examines the mindset of the people…from the enfranchised, disenchanted public who voted against the status quo (of Clinton and Cameron) to the disenfranchised youth radicalized by millennial dreams of the Caliphate.

Lilla’s proposal is that what we’re experiencing by the tactics of these newly popular autocrats is a rise not in conservatism, but in reactionary aggression (“Reactionaries are not conservatives”, he writes. “Millennial expectations of a redemptive new social order and rejuvenated human beings inspire the revolutionary; apocalyptic fears of entering a new dark age haunt the reactionary”. Or to put it another way; it’s a comparison between Obama’s Hope and Merkel’s EU visions for that “redemptive new order” v Trump’s and Le Pen’s followers’ apocalyptic fears of Mexicans, Muslims, and the jihadist Barbarians at the gate).

What with these reactionary fears of “the other” leading to an acceptable demonization of multiple religions and peoples, what with its open racism, xenophobia and social media-fuelled misogyny, we’re living, Mishra concludes, in an age of anger. His interpretation identifies what, quoting Nietzsche, he calls ressentiment (the wild anger arising from feelings of humiliation, powerlessness and invisibility).

The world we live in is one of fear and panic, where anything can happen to anyone, anywhere anytime; add climate change to this, and this age of anger is being lived out in a world which, to many, is spinning out of control.

Reactionary leaders feed off their publics’ ressentiments in a world these publics no longer understand.

Lilla explains the underlying narrative to the reactionary world-view: There was once a pre-lapsarian well-ordered state, when a clear moral imperative and a sense or hierarchical order existed. All then was bliss. Alien ideas (say the acceptability of homosexuality or interracial marriage) were introduced by intellectuals, artists and writers (always the first group to be demonized…think of Trump’s recent tweet about Meryl Streep and his virulent opposition to the media). What followed was the abandonment of the status quo by the elites (the second group to be demonized). These new liberal ideas led to a false consciousness (such as the acceptance of “diversity” as the norm, the demands of gender equality, or for the French alt-right, banning smoking and accepting halal in schools etc.), and the imminent collapse of social cohesion. Only those with the preserved memories of the old (It’s no coincidence that the Tea Party fanatics frame their cult around an historical event) can provide the appropriate resistance or the reactionary energy necessary to regain and rebuild the society as it once was…whether this be an all White America of white picket fences where women (“pampered by modern ideas” as Nietzsche wrote) and Blacks knew their places and America was great, or a Britain still emboldened by a memory of the Empire and a sense of its imperial role in the world, when it had control; or an ideal of an Islamic Caliphate when the destruction of the Crusades can simply be imagined away.

For these thinkers, the present, not the past is a foreign country.

The deepest need (the revolutionary nostalgia) is to shake us from the stupor of our despair and take revenge on the beast that sundered this glorious past from our inglorious present. To do that, we can either build a new future, as Hitler sought to do (you’ll note the strong emotional empathy of so many of the Far Right with Hitler and Nazi glories) or return more directly to the past (as, say the American Cubans’ ideal of a Miami without Castro, or Putin’s desire to resurrect the USSR, or Hinduism’s need through Modi to rediscover its lost glories or, as one journalist wrote recently, British PM Theresa May’s mission to build a bridge to a better yesterday).

This “militant nostalgia” is a force more powerful than hope: “Hopes can be disappointed. Nostalgia is irrefutable”

(And the nostalgia can certainly be evidenced in the UK where, it seems, whole segments of pop –TV-culture, from “Endeavour”, a 50’s police drama, to the multiple war-themed shows, are dedicated to reminding audiences of the time “when we were great”).

For Mishra, this paradise lost was no mere mythic place. The traditional ties of the past, the well honed structures of church, family and community with “…their assurances about a person’s self-worth and identity” (de Tocqueville) or what Rousseau saw as the “restraining traditions of a virtuous society” were shock absorbers that protected the individual in the face of wars, hunger, poverty etc. These traditional bonds gave meaning to life…engendered strong social ties and the self-worth of being part of a greater whole

In their drive to regain this lost collective sense of order and moral clarity, the reactionaries co-opted the ideas of a number of –often quite obscure – thinkers to legitimize their tactics. One of these was Eric Vogelin, a prolific Austrian scholar in the 40’s/50’s who, in a pamphlet called “The Political Religions” blamed the modern secular West for the rise of Nazism.

Vogelin noted that post-Augustinian Christianity (St Augustine’s “City of God” – his philosophical interpretation of Christ’s “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; render unto God the things that are God’s” – became the foundation stone of Catholic thinking) made it the first religion to separate divinity from governance…revelation from reason. This meant that man could govern himself, run his own affairs, liberated from the word of God. In Vogelin’s words, Christianity “decapitated God”. Thus liberated from God, as reason increasingly held sway over revelation (from the Reformation and the Enlightenment on), man began to conceive of himself in divine terms…as a Prometheus capable of anything. Mikhail Bakunin, the Russian anarchist noted, “The awakened intellect, freed from the swaddling clothes of authority, was no longer willing to accept anything on faith…”. Voltaire sought to crush that ‘infamous thing’ (the Catholic chirch). God, Vogelin noted was replaced by the new political religions of Marxism, Fascism, Capitalism, nationalism etc. “When you abandon the Lord, it’s only a matter of time before you start worshipping a Furhrer” [or Trump or Putin for that matter]

Lilla points out that another thinker, Leo Strauss, a student of Martin Heidegger, was also a key person whose writings shaped the thinking of many of today’s Right wing think tanks and media foundations. Strauss’ views of history were co-opted by them to show that America had been slipping into nihilism since the 1960’s; and that there was the need for the collusion between right-wing populism and religious fundamentalism (the desired reunision between reason and revelation…or the birth of the theoconservative) to help the nation recover its basic sense of right and wrong.

Because (the thinking is) the demonstrable fuzziness between right and wrong in this modern, lapsed world has resulted in what the polemicist Brad Gregory (“The Unintended Reformation”) calls the advent of Wal-Mart Capitalism: ideological correctness and cultural relativism. The historical paradigm he mapped out suggests that the fundamental goodness and sacraments of the church (the foundation of ancient shared values and ambitions) were corrupted – historically- by the excesses of the church itself, resulting in Luther’s conservative rebellion. But this rebellion itself got out of hand by groups of “spiritual Jacobins” (or simply intellectuals and artists…Mishra also notes that “intellectuals and artists rose as a class for the first time to lend a hand in the making of history, and locate the meaning of life in politics and art rather than traditional religion”) and resulted in a kind of corrosive pluralism, where, without a clear set of moral and theological doctrines, any and everyone felt that they could become their own St Paul (and just how many sects and churches are there now in the US?).

The conflicts that naturally arose from this chaos, along with what Gregory calls the “ossification of Catholic dogma” resulted in the institutionalization of toleration as the highest moral virtue…leaving “the rest of us to sink ever deeper into the confusing, unsatisfying, hyper-pluralistic, consumer-driven, dogmatically relativistic world of today”. A “today” when everything is relative: you may or may not accept homosexuality as ‘deviant’; you may or may not accept the need for gender and racial equality…you may or may not accept the ethics of abortion…morality becomes fluid and plural.

This mythos of the earthly God-fearing paradise leading to its fall and corruption through alien ideas and leading to the need to steer away from moral relativism and regain the paradise led by the righteous few (Remember George W Bush and his messianic leanings?) is mirrored in fundamentalist Islam.

Before the days of the prophet, it is suggested, there was an age of ignorance and pagan immorality (jahiliyya). Mohammed, the vessel of God’s revelation, led to the formation of a new society based on divine law (no separation between revelation and reason here). But success led to luxury, decadence and stagnation; and the will to impose God’s sovereignty died. The crusades only added insult to injury, forcing increasing secularism and a new jahiliyya. The aim of the new jihadists is the defeat jahiliyya and the regaining of the purity of Mohammed…the new caliphate. Inshallah.

As we noted, Mishra’s emphasis is less on the intellectual framework that describes our age of anger, but on the events that led to this angst…from the ordinary unemployed youth who feels that his only hope is to take up arms in Syria to the underemployed white American who feels bypassed by generations of self serving politicians and who turns in desperation to a racist demagogue for help.

At the heart of this rise in anger, the ressentiment is a relatively modern phenomenon: the evolutional of the person as an individual. Mishra notes that there has been a massive shift worldwide: people see themselves in public life primarily as individuals, freed from the old hierarchies of class and caste (and gender and race), longing for wealth, status and empowerment. The desire for self-expansion via material success, he suggests, directly replaces spiritual ideas of traditional religions and cultures; with (as a result) a heightened sense of social discrimination and gender inequality. To this you can probably add Lilla’s insight into “plural moralities”, effectively alienating the modern individual from those cushioning cultural anchors.

The problem is that growing inequality – the unequal distribution of wealth and power – political dysfunction and for many, economic stagnation (with the realization that there really is no better tomorrow) has created what Hannah Arendt calls “negative solidarity”. The promise of individual freedom therefore remains a promise that will forever be unfulfilled, resulting in “an existential resentment of other people’s being”…an intense mix of envy, humiliation and powerlessness (the recipe for ressentment).

The only out, the only catharsis for the anger lies either in fantasies of revenge (the proto jihadist) or, and here he quotes both de Tocqueville, “…a desperate longing for a master” and Max Weber “…the modern world is an iron cage from which only a charismatic leader [Trump, Putin. Ben Laden, Modi, le Pen etc] offers escape”

Lilla’s book is a far more balanced, academic study of these philosophical strands that web and suffocate the modern far right thinking; Mishra’s book, though endlessly interesting, menders here and there with the often glib flabbiness of a pop journalist. The focus of neither of them replaces the endless navel gazing into the immediacy of “what happened in the election?, the role of fake news, the reasons for the failure of globalism etc. But their value lie in the broad historical perspectives they offer; that endless savannah of philosophical insights that underline so much of the gestalt of our lives

 

AND THE LOSERS ARE…


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EVERYONE LOVES A list; and as we head into Oscar season, I too would like to throw in my top ten movie faves that I’d love to see short listed for 2016 movie accolades. Alas. Compared with those movie-mad capitols of the world, London remains resolutely parochial. Two of the year’s best: the brilliant, “I, Daniel Blake” and “Julieta”, which were only recently launched in New York, were aired here as far back as August. But we’re yet to get “La La Land” and “Manchester by the Sea”(mid January); “Jacky” isn’t due out until the end of the month; and “Fences” doesn’t show up until mid February (a tinge of racial invisibility here?). So it makes no sense to offer up a Top Ten list with these glaring omissions.

Instead I’ll suggest those movies which made me regret I’d lost two or more hours, when I could have been doing so many more interesting things…like sleeping or sharing a dry Martini.

Here’s my 2016 Low Water Mark

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CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR

This one promised well, with respected critic, Peter Bradshaw of the Guardian giving it four stars. And the premise was interesting: after an Avengers’ assault on some bad guys, the World has had enough of all the destruction that accompanies the battles of these super heroes. Is collateral damage just a small price to pay in the battle against terrorism? Or is collateral damage a manifestation of uncaring recklessness? What a premise! What thought-provoking questions! What a story waiting to be told!
It was all a sucker punch.
Having gotten the heavy philosophical lifting out of the way in the first fifteen minutes, the next six hours (what it felt like) mashed up multiple silly plot lines about Tony Stark’s murdered parents etc as an excuse for what was essentially a slug-fest between an invincible Iron Man and an unstoppable Captain America. They bash, smash, crash and make an unsightly hash of each other as they destroy an entire airport and fleets of aircraft. Pretty much the same plot actually as that other super-hero dud, “Batman v Superman”

Exhausting. Give me back my time!

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NICE GUYS

This had all the fingerprints of a movie shaped by focus group research and a squadron of script-writers. In it, two separate and not very interesting or funny characters (Russell Crowe hoping to redeem his reputation through the appearance of humor and Ryan Gosling showing that he can take a joke) happen to share a story. Said story’s no more than a series of brain-storm vignettes in search of an idea and patched together by an accountant. Bad guys arrive and shoot people from time to time; we trail through a boobs-dense Playboy type pool party (this replaces the usual boobs-dense stripper joint); bodies turn up in unexpected places and Kim Bassinger steps in as a crooked Head of the Department of Justice.

Sigh. Time was not on my side.

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GHOSTBUSTERS

Another comedy without a funny bone!
The cast certainly tried hard enough. They ground away with exaggerated enthusiasm through all the set-piece scenes as they battled against both an uprising of the dead and the refusal of a terrified government (hammily personified by Amy Garcia as the Mayor) to acknowledge the existence of whispy, malignant, slime-vomiting ghouls. SNL’s Leslie Jones, the token Black Person, exuding Black Folksiness seemed to be the only one who felt comfortable in her role. But the inventiveness of four women taking on the living and the dead (not to mention all that SNL talent) was never unleashed. The exuberant Melissa McCarthy remained strait-jacketed and unsure whether to go for the big gesture or contain herself; Kristen Wiig (SNL) was the mousy scientist with a lust for more than science who was transformed into… a mousy scientist with a lust for more than science (funny?). And fellow SNL alumni, Kate McKinnon, tried to channel the eye-popping zaniness of Christopher Lloyd from Back to The Future. Poorly.

I’d have the original again. Please

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JASON BOURNE

Not a trace of humour here in this flavorless (money-grubbing?) reboot of a leaden-scripted version of the Bourne franchise. Director Paul Greengrass’ decision to go for a revisited Bourne that was bigger, louder and more effects laden than past Bourne’s resulted in something fast and furious without a trace of finesse.
Gone was Jason’s simpático angst and the movies’ clever plot lines. This new Bourne was simply a blunt instrument, a mere action hero; one who you never felt was ever in danger.

We fans deserved a lot better. I intend to return to a time before this farrago was made and fondly keep to my memories of the first three

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THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN

Director Antoine Fuqua managed to transform the joyful excitement of the original The Magnificent Seven into a dull, leaden, sourpuss movie. Unlike the exciting original, with its glittering cast of characters, Fuqua’s … Magnificent Seven offered up a mainly charm-free bunch of heroes (less characters in their own right, more symbols of American history) that go through the motions, energized only by the studio’s payroll and by no discernible sparks of motivation. Only Chris Platt managed to add much needed swagger and roguish dynamism into this shoot ‘em up by numbers (and there are thousands of them) gang.
Fuqua’s one level The Magnificent Seven was all dehumanized metaphor without insight, fun or freshness, energized by an idea of leaden triteness.

Like Ghostbusters, or Jason Bourne, or Captain America, it was just another dud remake

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JACK REACHER: NEVER GO BACK

Tom Cruise at his most robotic. Now that’s saying a lot. The plot centered around Jack’s attempt to date someone he’d never met but whose voice he liked (aural sex?). But said voice turned out to be someone who “knew too much” and needed Jack’s lean, mean fighting machine skills; all running, jumping, shooting and kicking. Once Jack’s neurons had been activated, there was no turning them off until all perceived threat has been terminated.

Someone should terminate Cruise’s legal hold on future Jack Reacher stories

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THE ACCOUNTANT

The premise of the movie centered around an autistic Maths genius (Ben Affleck); a CPA working for the underworld, and also a lethal weapon thanks to his dad’s vigilance against childhood bullies. He was your typical autistic Maths genius hit man (who only killed bad guys, because he was a softie at heart). Very little made any sense in this tedious tale. He may have been a brilliant accountant, but in “The Accountant”, nothing really added up

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THE NEON DEMON

I saved the worst for last.
The highly stylized movie (every scene precisely and numbingly art directed) about our obsession over appearances, over the ideal of perfection and the predatory lusts they engender followed the life of Jesse (Elle Fanning) newly arrived in LA in search of a job as a model.

We met her initially as a corpse, blood gushing from her throat…all in the duty of art or photography or something. The story progressed via cannibalism, an eye being vomited up, Sapphic necrophilia, a snarling mountain lion trapped in a motel room, and as if that weren’t bad enough, Keanu Reeves.

Neon Demon had more symbols in the movie than a Robert Langdon symbology hunt…but without the silliness.

 

That’s my walk of shame. And there are sooo many I avoided, like Will Smith’s latest (I am told) schmaltz-fest, “Collateral Beauty”. At least I managed to hang on to my two hours there.

Happy New Year

 

 

 

 

SNOWDEN**** Quick Unplug. Hide. They’re watching you


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Oliver Stone’s Snowden (his best in years) is a movie with a mission: to remove the stock-villain obscurantism that the US Government has wrapped around whistleblower Edward Snowden and humanize him. His Snowden is really a combination of a coming of age and a love story. We follow the life of his protagonist (played earnestly and carefully by Joseph Gordon-Levitt ) as it evolves and metastasizes from the easy patriotism of gung-ho, unquestioning all-American innocence to the difficult patriotism of the questioning  and informed citizen.

Stone has structured the movie into two narrative time frames: in one of them we’re with Snowden, now a fugitive, hidden away in a hotel room in Hong Kong with documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo of The Big Short), Glen Greenwald (a bristling performance of restrained anger from Zachary Quinto) and Ewan MacAskill from The Guardian (Tom Wilkinson). There, racing against the immanence of capture, they craft the public revelations of his pilfered security documents. But the main body of the narrative follows Snowden’s life from his earliest days with the CIA, as it seeks to answer the dual questions: what happened to turn this hand-on-heart believer of American exceptionalism into a ‘traitor’? How did it come to this? And, the bigger question: what is the meaning of patriotism?

To answer this, Snowden unfolds along the criss-crossing paths of Edward’s private and professional life. In his private life, he falls in love with Lindsay Mills, a pretty, liberal, photographer, (Shailene Woodley of  The Fault in Our Stars and  Allegiant in a role that finally matches her talent) even as, in his professional life, as a highly valued intelligence analyst, he’s falling in love with his other ‘lover’, Corbin O-Brian (a menacing performance from Rhys Ifans), his boss and mentor at the CIA. It is this boss who explains the big picture of the job to him: it’s not about uncovering jihadi plots and, as he notes, “Standard Oil plans for stealing the oil supplies” but about the Russians and the Chinese.

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But as Snowden rises in the ranks, privy to more and more of the dark web of professional secrets and deceits (and as a result more and more disturbed by what he knows), the toll on his private life becomes acute. The innocent joire de vivre of his love is slowly transformed into a life of bickering, and distrust. It is as though his increasing experience as a spy, a professional liar, poisons the relationship.

The professional and the private merge in two crisis, ah-ha moments. The first is when he, and a group of his young colleagues (under the leadership of a character played by Scott Eastwood, Clint’s son) realize that the government is spying twice as much on US (and German and ‘friendly allies’) citizens than on the Russians and Chinese. And the second is when he’s reassured by his mentor Corbin that his fears about Lindsay’s fidelity are unfounded. Snowden is just another citizen whose e-mails, and social media conversations and privacy have been hacked and is under the daily remorseless surveillance of Big Brother.

For, to the government, privacy means secrecy; spying is snooping; its surveillance extends to everyone everywhere anytime. And the secret service is only too happy to lie to the government’s elected officials about it all.

It is the totality of this deception, the limitlessness of the snooping and the callous disregard for the individual citizens’ constitutional rights that drive Snowden over the top…and that redefines his own self-harming expression of patriotism.

The journey from innocence to experience finally ends in the hero’s exile, first in a lonely room in an airport and finally somewhere in Russia. Throughout the movie, Stone is at pains to remind us that this is all ‘real’; and the movie ends with a ‘real-life’ interview between the actual Edward Snowden and Alan Rusbridger, the editor of The Guardian (who had the balls to break the story). This Greek tragedy is of course still being played out. But there’s little doubt that the honour, nobility and selfless integrity of this one wandering Odysseus will win out against the patience and implacable amorality of the omniscient State.

Stone’s thesis suggests that once belief in the moral rectitude of said State (the world view of the young Snowden as CIA recruit) disappears, we disabused citizens, become as isolated and exiled as this lonely young man. No more “I am…Spartacus”; to most of the increasingly embattled liberal world, “I am…Snowden”

(Apart from the strong performance of Shailene Woodley, there was another – surprising – strong cameo from Nicolas Cage, as a washed up, embittered operative; a man who’d seen too much for too long.  Snowden  is also a movie whose gripping story-telling was well crafted by its editors, Alex Marquez and Lee Percy)

 

SNOWDEN. Dir: Oliver Stone. With: Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Shailene Woodley. Melissa Leo. Zachary Quinto. Rhys Ifans. Nicolas Cage. Writers: Kieran Fitzgerald and Oliver Stone from the books by Anatoly Kuchera and Luke Harding. Editors: Alex Marquez and Lee Percy

 

 

THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN** Seven, Yes. Magnificent, No


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ANTOINE FUQUA (Southpaw, The Equalizer, Training Day) HAS managed to transform the joyful excitement of The Magnificent Seven into a dull, leaden, sourpuss movie. Unlike the exciting original, with its glittering cast of characters (Yul Brynner going toe to toe with Steve McQueen. Imagine! And backing them up, Robert Vaughn, Charles Bronson, Eli Wallach and James Coburn among others) Fuqua’s … Magnificent Seven offers up a mainly charm-free bunch of heroes that go through the motions, energized only by Fuqua’s payroll and by no discernible motivation for their selflessness. Only Chris Platt manages to add much needed swagger and roguish dynamism into this shoot ‘em up by numbers (and there are thousands of them) gang.

The (well-known) story centres around the struggle of a small town, bent under the heel of a land-grabbing, money hungry baron, that appeals to a stranger for help. These simple townsfolk are cowed by the cartoonishly evil Bartholomew Brogue (Peter Sarsgaard, almost twirling his moustachioes in full pantomime villain style), whose henchmen kill at will. One person they kill is the husband of feisty homesteader Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett, who also appeared with Denzel Washington in Fuqua’s last outing, “The Equalizer”). Her search for help leads her to Chisolm, a fast-shooting traveling lawman (A bored looking Denzel Washington whose career seems to be trapped in B movie hell). In the best line of the movie, she says she’s seeking righteousness, “…but revenge will do”

Chisolm rounds up his crew of action heroes (motivated by the money? Some existential need to do the right thing? Perhaps some deep-seated grudge against Brogue? His moustachioes perhaps? Who knows?) And then, having set a few traps, the action begins. It finally ends after, it seems, most of the villains on the Eastern seaboard have been blown up, axed, stabbed or shot.

Fuqua, seeking some sort of gravitas opts for ‘meaning’ in place of either verisimilitude or fun. The magnificent seven we meet are a typical group of nineteenth century Cowboys: a perfectly harmonious mix of Mexican (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), Comanche (played by Alaskan Martin Sensmeier) Chinese (played by Korean Byung-hun-Lee) and White gunslingers (including Fuqua regular and absolutely lost in a fog of despair, Ethan Hawke) lead by a Black man. Unlike the original, where the round-up introduced us (with great wit and charm) to the characters…as people; here we’re introduced to the characters as symbols of American history: the Mexican and the Indian representing, like Emma Cullen and her lot, people whose land was stolen by a more powerful force. The Chinese man, his back crisis-crossed with knives and swords, like a cowpoke Sheera, is, like Chisolm, a part of the unvalued working man who won the West…now being leveled by the democracy of the gun.

The all round bad robber baron is exploitative capitalism, ever greedily seeking to rip off the country, which has finally found the leadership to take back what’s rightfully theirs under the leadership of an incorruptible Black Man (Obama?)
There’s not a lot of ambiguity at play here

Westerns have always been parables for grand ideas…and in the right hands, like all good movies, they’ve operated on multiple levels: the credibly human and the insightfully metaphorical; all driven by some powerful governing idea. Fuqua’s one level The Magnificent Seven is all dehumanized metaphor without insight, energized by an idea of leaden triteness. And what a drag that is.

It’s not been a great year for reboots: Ghostbusters and Jason Bourne were both tiresome copies, shorn of the original magic. Fuqua’s The Magnificent Seven” joins the list. The lightness and sparkle of the John Sturges’ original have gone AWOL. Even Elmer Bernstein’s magnificent music has been relegated to the credits at the end; a mere afterthought and a reminder of all that we’ve missed

 

The Magnificent Seven. Dir: Antoine Fuqua. With: denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio, Byung-hun-Lee, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Martin Sensmeier, Haley Bennett. Screenplay: Richard Wenk (The Equalizer) and Nic Pizzolatto (True Detective episodes). Composer: Simon Franglen and James Horner (Southpaw)

 

JULIETA**** Buenissima


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PEDRO ALMODÓVAR, AFTER after a messy side trip into comedy (I’m so Excited) is back in fine form with Julieta, a top-notch, if flawed, tale of guilt, passion and solipsism. Julieta is brilliantly portrayed by two actors: Adriana Ugarte as the young Julieta, and Emma Suarez as her older self.

We first get to know Julieta as a young woman teaching The Odyssey – the archetypal journey – to groups of adoring students. The story, that unfolds through a series of mirroring tales, is Julieta’s own odyssey…her life’s journey from a young carefree woman who falls in love with a fisherman, Xoan (Daniel Grao) to an older version of herself burdened by the guilt and despair caused by the self exile of Antia, her daughter (Priscilla Delgado). (Though Almodovar wickedly inverts the story and it is Julieta who becomes the Odysseus with her two partners mere pining Penelope’s).

The story begins with a chance encounter between the older Julieta and a woman who was once a friend of her daughter. The woman has herself unexpectedly re-encountered her estranged friend, who, she tells Julieta, is now married with three kids. This memory of her daughter, which Julieta has been trying to exorcize and escape for the last twelve years, forces her to re-examine her past, which re-examination – in the form of a letter/memoir Julieta writes to her daughter – energizes the arc of the meticulously structured movie.

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Told through flashback, this is her attempt to understand and come to terms with the nature of her daughter’s flight. Antia was eighteen when, erroneously blaming her mother as the cause of a terrible family tragedy, she fled from everyone…from one life to another…simply disappeared.

A heart-broken Julieta is too self- absorbed to see the parallels in her own story, which is itself a series of flights, or escapes from her own feelings of guilt…her inability to deal with things.

Perhaps, Almodóvar seems to be saying, as Julieta journeys from place to place…from life to life, every journey is a kind of escape

And these escapes are as much sexual as they are geographical.  Both her father and her husband mirror escapes from the despair of ailing wives into the waiting pleasures of others. Indeed, sex is something you either escape to, or like her daughter (who, it is implied, had a lesbian fling) something you escape from. Julieta’s escape is a much deeper, more damaging one. She retreats into a kind of selfishness that locks her away from an ability to empathize with the people she loves: husband, father, daughter, friend.

This is a Southern Gothic/Carsons McCullers tragedy by way of Spain.

The movie’s weakness is that Almodóvar is too often willing to sacrifice his characters’ emotional truths for the thematic truths of the narrative; and at times, his people do things that that simply feel out of character… leaves you nonplussed

No matter. He manages to pull of a marvelous balancing act: in spite of the gloominess of the tale, and the hurtful self-centeredness of his characters, they all remain compellingly engaging. (OK, they’re also compellingly good looking. But that’s not the point.) Almodóvar has a light touch that veers toward life’s absurdities rather than its gloom. So much so, that when the movie ended on a note of ambiguous optimism, with Julieta once again on a journey, now away from escapism to discovery, from despair to hope, I myself had hoped for a few more hours in their delightful company.

Perhaps I’ll just go see it again

 

Julieta. Dir/writer: Pedro Almodóvar. With Adriana Ugarte, Rossy de Palma, Emma Suárez, Inma Cuesta, Daniel Grao. Cinematographer: Jean-Claude Larrieu. Production Designer: Antxón Gómez