Saturday, January 28, 2012
Caravaggio was kept busy by other commissions as well as by the demands of the Mattei family during the first three years of the century. Early in 1602, several months before painting The Betrayal of Christ, he had learned that he was required once more at the church of San Luigi dei Francesi. Although more than a year had passed since Caravaggio had finished the lateral canvasses for the Contarelli Chapel , the completion of the whole decorative scheme had been delayed by the prevarications of Jacob Cobaert. At the end of January 1602 the tardy Flemish sculptor finally delivered his marble altarpiece of Mathew and the angel, still partially incomplete. It was instantly rejected by the increasingly irritable and fractious coalition of Mathieu Cointrel’s executors. Just eight days later Caravaggio was asked to replace the sculpted altarpiece with a painting of the same subject. Mathew was to be shown writing his gospel. The contract specified that he must be depicted taking dictation from an angel; those were the only two figures required. It was a clear brief, but its execution would prove to be far from straightforward and Caravaggio would end up having to paint two visions of the picture. The root of the problem would be his depiction of the saint’s feet.
Caravaggio’s first Mathew and the Angel for the Contarwelli Chapel eventually passed to the Kaiser-Friedrich Museum in Berlin. Like the lost portrait of Fillide, it was destroyed by fire during the Second World War, but a record of its appearance is preserved in black-and-white photographs. The painter created a powerfully sculptural composition. Mathew and his attendant angel, a tender winged boy who guides the saint’s writing hand, form a single monumental group. The evangelist sits with his body twisted effortfully around the great book in his lap. His shoulders are hunched, his neck arched forward so that he can peer at the text. The gleaming white pages of the book and the dark jerkin that he wears obscure and interrupt much of his anatomy. His body is reduced to its component elements: balding, bearded head on a bull neck; gnarled hands and forearm; bare legs and heavy feet; toes thrust almost into the viewers face. His Mathew in an aggressively inelegant, proletarian figure, conceived along the lines of St. Peter in the Cerasi Chapel and very different from the pale-skinned tax-gatherer or the heroic fallen priest depicted in Caravaggio’s earlier pictures for the chapel. The suggestion is that he is both writing and reading for the first time, like a peasant made suddenly and miraculously literate.
Because Mathew has just started writing his gospel, the painter shows its opening lines: “The book of the generation of Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” Mathew, aided by the angel, is about to finish the next phrase, ‘Abraham begat’, which marks the start of the gospel’s tracing of the lineage of Christ. As the bloodline leading to the salvation of mankind is announced, Mathew stares in wonder… a wizened, sunburned figure receives the very first divinely inspired Christian text, Mathew is bathed in light. Through him the whole world will be illuminated.
As so often during this phase of his career, Caravaggio defines his own art by contrast with that of Michelangelo. Once more, he has the Sistine Chapel in mind, specifically the vast, sculptural figures of the prophets who sit enthroned at the level of the pendentive arches. Michelangelo’s monumental figures, like Caravaggio’s Mathew, are shown in the spasms of divine revelation, reading or writing the prophesies vouchsafed to them by God. Also like Carrivaggio’s Mathew, they are barefoot, and often accompanied by inspiring angelic figures.
Caravaggio’s St Mathew, however, perfectly reverses all the properties of the Michelangelesque figure of the prophet. Michelangelo’s prophets are nobly idealized figures, decorously draped, but Caravaggio’s Mathew is an ordinary, imperfect human being in working clothes that leave his arms and legs bare. Michelangelo depicts troubled intellectuals, straining to grasp God’s veiled meanings, but Caravaggio’s sainted peasant is a simple man stunned by the directness of his revelation. Whereas Michelangelo’s prophets sit on carved thrones of marble, Caravaggio’s apostle sits on a simple wooden chair, the same savonarola chair already used for the Calling of Mathew and the Supper at Emmaus.
Perhaps the most touching aspect of the painting is the intimacy of the relationship between the stooped saint and the tender young angel, whose wings enfolds the whole scene in a hushed embrace. The angel is God’s messenger but also the embodiment of Christian love – a love so generous it encompasses even those as ragged and gnarled as the cross-legged, doltish St. Mathew. The contrast between the two figures is the contrast between extreme youth and encroaching old age. Frailty is being overcome, an old man is being made young by the teachings of a child, which are the teachings of Christ himself, and the writing of the first word of the gospel marks the very instant when the Old Testament is being replaced by the New.
Despite or more likely because of its brusque singularity Caravaggio’s picture ‘pleased nobody’, according to Baglione. The St Mathew was rejected as soon as it was delivered. Bellori gave the fullest account of events: ‘Here something happened that greatly upset Caravaggio with respect to his reputation. After he had finished the central picture of St Mathew and installed on the altar, the priests took it down, saying that the figure with its legs crossed and its feet rudely exposed to the public had neither decorum nor the appearance of a saint.’ That was, of course, precisely Caravaggio’s point: Christ and his followers looked a lot more like beggars than cardinals. But the decision of Mathieu Cointrel’s executors was final. Saving Caravaggio’s blushes, Vincenzo Giustiniani took the painting of St Mathew for his own collection and then prevailed upon the congregation to allow the painter to try again.
The resulting picture, the second version of St Mathew and the Angel was accepted without demur. It remains on the altar of the chapel. Mathew the shockingly illiterate peasant has suddenly been turned into Mathew the dignified, grey-haired sage. The a scholar-saint kneels at his desk, quill pen at the ready. He is draped in red robes and has been equipped with an expression of dignified attentiveness. Rather than guiding his uncertain hand, the angel now counts off the verses as he dictates them. The pages of the book are no longer visible, but since the angel has got to the index finger of his left hand – number two, in the gestural rhetoric of the time, since Italians counted the number one with their thumbs- it seems that he has once more got to the start of the second verse, and Abraham’s begetting of Christ’s lineage. The angel’s airborne arrival from behind Mathew closely echoes the composition of Tintoretto’s Virgin Appearing to St Jerome, which Caravaggio may have seen in Venice. There is no suggestion of intimacy here. A message is not vouchsafed tenderly as an act of love, but handed down from on high as an emanation of divine authority.
Caravaggio’s second St Mathew and the Angel is a much diluted, dutifully toned-down version of his original idea. Mathew’s poverty and humility are not rudely proclaimed, but politely whispered. The most tellingly emphatic of the painter’s several adjustments relate to the apostle’s feet. They are shown in profile rather than thrust towards the viewer, still bare but unlikely to offend anybody.
For the first but not the last time, Caravaggio’s work has been censored. His sin when painting the first St Mathew had been to make holy poverty and humility unpalatably real. On this occasion his embarrassment was spared by Vincenzo Giustiniani, but Giustiniani’s purchase itself created a paradox. A work of art expressly designed to articulate ideals of popular piety to appeal to the broadest possible audience*, had been deemed unsuitable for mass consumption. Instead, the picture had found a home in the collection of a noted connoisseur. The implication was that there was something dangerous, even seditious, about Caravaggio’s emphatically humble vision of the origins of Christianity. In a prominent church, such an intoxicatingly powerful painting might serve as a rallying cry. It might have an influence. Its visual language might help shape the visual language of the Counter-Reformation Catholic Church. But confined to the collection of a rich man, it became something much less potent: an interesting work of art, an experiment in a new style, but altogether too strange and adventurous for anyone but a sophisticate and his friends to appreciate
*following the important influence of Milan’s Cardinal Borromeo on Caravaggio’s early development.
Caravaggio; A Life Sacred and Profane by Andrew Graham-Dixon; W.W. Norton &Co.; New York, 2010
Tuesday, January 24, 2012
Ever since Obama emerged as a serious contender for the presidency, he has had to contend with racially inflected insinuations questioning his Americanism and patriotism. He has responded by stressing his “normalcy”. Like his predecessor, Obama repeats time worn versions of the American narrative –celebratory stories that venerate the Founding Fathers ( despite their slave-holding), laud the pioneers who “won” the West (despite their participation in the ethnic cleansing of the Native Americans), and applaud America’s soldiers (despite their involvement, often as draftees, in imperialistic or otherwise misguided ventures.) Like his predecessors, Obama sends flowers to commemorate the Confederate dead* . Like his predecessors, Obama expresses belief in the divinely ordained superiority of the United States. Like his predecessors, Obama proclaims loudly, unreservedly, and often that he loves his country.
There is, however, an alternative opinion that African- Americans ought not to love the United States. Holders of this view see African-American patriotism as a pathology akin to “love” that exploited wives feel towards their battering husbands or that mistreated children feel towards their abusive parents. Often ignored, this tradition attracted a bit of attention during the frenzied controversy over Obama’s association with Reverend Jeremiah Wright. I know this tradition well. My father espoused it. His view of the United States was more unforgiving than that voiced by Reverend Wright. Some will think that my father, too, was “crazy.” They are wrong. He was an intelligent, thoughtful, loving man, who, tragically, had good reason to doubt his government’s allegiance to blacks, and thus to himself.
My father, Henry Harold Kennedy, Sr., never forgave America for its racist mistreatment of him and those he most loved. Born in 1917 in Covington, Louisiana, my father attended segregated schools, came to learn painfully that because of his race certain options were foreclosed to him despite his intelligence, industry, and ambition, and witnessed countless incidents in which blacks were terrorized and humiliated by whites without any hint of disapproval from public authorities. He bore a special grudge against police, all police, because, in his experience, a central function of police was to keep blacks in their “place”.
I saw with my own eyes why he developed such a loathing. On several occasions in the 1960s when he drove his family from Washington, D.C., to my mother’s ancestral home, Columbia, South Carolina, my father was pulled over by police officers not because he had committed any legal infraction but simply because he was a black man driving a nice car. I am not making an inference here. This is what the police openly said. And then, noting his Washington, D.C. driver’s license, they would go on to say that things were different in the South than up North, and that my father should take care to behave himself. “Okay, boy?” Then there would be a pause. It seemed as though the policeman was waiting to see how my father would respond. My dad reacted in a way calculated to provide maximum safety to himself and his family: “Yassuh,” he would say with an extra dollop of deference.
Incidents of this sort profoundly alienated my father. In his view, they justified his refusal to view the United States as “his country”. He felt neither that he belonged to it nor that it belonged to him. He attempted to make the best of his situation and, in the view of many, succeeded admirably. A post- office clerk married to a schoolteacher, he was often happy, had many friends, was widely respected in his neighborhood and church, and owned a home. He sent each of his children to Princeton University, and lived to see them all become lawyers (one is a federal judge). It could be argued that my father’s life is a vivid embodiment of the American Dream. But my father did not see it that way. Like Malcolm X, he believed himself to be the victim of a terrible and ongoing injustice that white America refused to acknowledge satisfactorily.
My father echewed any sentimental bond with the American government or the American nation. He rejected patriotism. I once asked him why he enlisted in the Army during the 1940s. His response? “I joined in order to eat” He offered no talk about wanting to serve his country. Rather, he candidly declared that the only attraction he saw in military service was refuge from want. Years later, during the Vietnam War, he maintained that any black man drafted by the United States government should go to Canada rather than risk his life for a nation that, out of racial prejudice, continued to subordinate black folk. He relished Muhammad Ali’s quip that the Vietcong had never called him “nigger”.
My father’s alienation was such that in virtually any conflict between the United States and some other country, especially any Third World country, he sided presumptively with America’s foe. In the 1980s, when American officials railed against the Ugandan head of state Idi Amin, my father defended the dictator, reasoning that any black man who got white folks that mad had to be doing something right. In the 1990s, during the first Gulf War, my father hoped for America’s defeat:
“You don’t see Bush pulling out the stops for black folks catching hell right here, do you? You don’t see him going the extra mile to get straight with black folks after having vetoed the civil rights bill or having helped that racist Jesse Helms, do you?...These white people here had to be positively shamed into doing anything, even the least little thing, against the South African government. And when those damn South Africans whipped up on poor Angola and Mozambique, all that white officials over here could do was try to figure out how to join in… And just watch what happens after the war in Kuwait. Bush will talk about helping Kuwaitis rebuild their country, while black communities here starve for attention…And watch what happens to the black soldiers coming home. Do you think they will get and special hand for “serving their country.” Hell, no! They will probably get kicked in the butt like I was…They’ll be told they don’t qualify for this and they don’t qualify for that. They’ll be told in so many words that all they’re good for is cannon fodder, and that if they don’t like it they can get in line for prison where there are already enough black veterans of Vietnam to outfit a good-sized army… Boy, you just don’t know how evil and nasty these white folks can be.”
There was is much that was objectionable in in the statements in Reverend Wright’s various statements publicized during the presidential contest in 2008. His suggestion that a government plot is behind the AIDS catastrophe is a baseless and destructive canard. His unqualified praise for Louis Farrakan offered support to a figure whose record includes forays into anti-white racism, anti-Jewish bigotry, and intraracial intimidation. Reverend Wright’s critique of American racism, moreover, is all too one-sided and static – as if the struggles of the Civil Rights Revolution have failed to bring about dramatic and positive changes in race relations even amid the stubborn and frustrating continuation of racial injustice.
But there is also much that is deserving of criticism in the negative reaction to Rev. Wright. First, the air of outraged wonderment that suffused many responses reflected a notable ignorance of the spectrum of belief one encounters in the black community. As journalist Gary Kamiya noted, “the great shock so many people claim to be feeling over Wright’s sermons in preposterous. Anyone who is surprised and horrified that some black people feel anger at white people, and America, is living in a racial never-never land.”
And it is notable that candidate Obama, too, expressed shock in some of his varied responses to the Reverend Wright imbroglio. It is hard to believe, though, that he was truly unaware of the sentiment and rhetoric that generated the uproar.
The fact is that much of what Reverend Wright voiced strikes a chord with many black people; his anger at American unwillingness to face squarely the two great social crimes that haunt United State’s history – the removal of the Indians and the enslavement of the Africans; his suspicion that white America fears the emergence of strong, autonomous racial-minority communities. This is not to say that blacks uniformly or even predominantly embraced the particulars of his message. Many of Reverend Wright’s black congregation understood him to be engaged in a performance that makes liberal use of exaggeration and parody. Moreover, some of those who clapped and shouted appreciably were expressing approval of what they saw as his courageous articulation of figurative, as opposed to literal, truths.
The great mass of politically involved blacks regretted that Reverend Wright’s sermons redounded to the detriment of Obama’s candidacy. And most turned against Reverend Wright when he insisted on defending himself in a fashion that seemed, at best, indifferent to the Obama campaign. But there was no groundswell in black America to repudiate the basic message of the remarks that so infuriated white America.
Second, many observers abjured Wright simply for daring to denounce the United States at all –as if that is, in and of itself, illicit- as if the governing authorities of the United States have never done anything that could possibly justify someone calling for divine retribution ( though such calls were made in the past by both Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln!). Reverend Wright’s signature declaration –“God Damn America”- was part of a sermon in which he criticized various social problems; baleful developments like massive increases in rates of incarceration that are so shameful in their production of avoidable pain that they do constitute a moral atrocity warranting God’s damnation!
The other statement by Reverend Wright that led to the ideological quarantine put upon him came in the sermon he delivered soon after the destruction of the Twin Towers in New York City on September 11, 2001. In “The Day of Jerusalem’s Fall” Wright offered a variety of criticisms of American political culture. Presciently anticipating the military interventions to come , especially the war in Iraq, Wright complained that “far too many people of faith in 2001 A.D…have moved from the hatred of armed enemies to the hatred of unarmed innocents. We want revenge. We want paybacks, and we don’t care who gets hurt in the process.” He went on to chastise Americans for assuming what he saw as a false posture of innocence. After all, he declared, Americans have unleashed violence to accomplish their ends all over the world. “The stuff we have done overseas,” he said, “has now been brought home to roost! Violence begets violence. Hatred begets hatred and terrorism begets terrorism.”
Many people, including Barak Obama, have fulminated against Wright’s statement. Yet it contains a useful message that was especially important to articulate after the 9/11 attack. His message was that the United States is also tainted by worldly sin – its imperialism, its dispossession of the Indians, its subordination of blacks, its use of atomic weapons, its misadventures in Vietnam, Chile and Nicaragua; and still other misdeeds about which too many Americans are ignorant or indifferent. How could anyone, especially an American, say what he said about the United States, especially in the those of grief immediately following 9/11? In the eyes of many he was stepping over the line of political incorrectness- the intolerant, parochial conformism of the patriotism line.
Yes, Reverend right’s remarks were marred by hyperbole, one-sidedness, and an irresponsible willingness to perpetrate erroneous folktales. Worse, however, is the complacent smugness from which arose the feverish anger that Wright provoked and that temporarily posed a threat to Obama’s presidency. Neither of these alternatives is inevitable. Both should be abjured. If pushed to choose, however, between Wright’s excessive denigration of America and the excessive exaltation epitomized by his most severe detractors, I’ll take the former. Its consequences tend to be less lethal.
* Obama was, however, the first president to send a wreath to the D.C. memorial that honors African-American veterans of the Civil War
Randall Kennedy is the Michael R. Klein Professor of Law at Harvard Law School. He received his undergraduate degree from Princeton, and his law degree from Yale. He attended Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar and is a former clerk to Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.
Monday, January 23, 2012
Was the American girl, the star of the trial, guilty as charged or culpable in some other way? Amanda’s behavior looked suspicious, even though the police were not able to pull together convincing material evidence. She was unable to show sorrow after the murder, and in many instances afterward, when she might have shown empathy for her dead friend, she did not. Listening to her make gurgling death sounds during her trial testimony was chilling. At that moment, it was easy to see what the colpevolisti (those who side with the prosecution) saw behind the pretty blue eyes.
British psychoanalyst Coline Covington, writing after the conviction on the U.K. news aggregator called The First Post, diagnosed Amanda as psychopathic:
“Our deepest fear is that the ‘girl next door,’ whom we trust and see as innocent and loving, turns out to be a vampire or a murderer. This is the stuff of horror movies and we all want to believe that in real life these horrors don’t occur. We also want to believe that we are not capable of doing evil deeds. Evil is something done by others – not one of us. Knox’s narcissistic pleasure at catching the eye of the media and her apparent nonchalant attitude during most of the proceedings show signs of a psychopathic personality. Her behavior is hauntingly reminiscent of Eichmann’s arrogance during his trial for war crimes in Jerusalem in 1961 and most recently Karadzic’s preening before the International Criminal Court at the Hague.”
A girl monster of that stature is truly something to behold, and – contrary to Covington’s assessment – people do want to believe that in real life ‘these horrors’ walk among us. In fact, so many people wanted to believe that Amanda was one of “these horrors” that many spectators and investigators in the Kercher murder refused to believe it wasn’t so, even when presented with convincing evidence…
The Meredith Kercher murder hooked into the global psyche because the story is filled with ancient female archetypes – rewarded good girls, punished evil girls, virgins and whores, the monster of insatiable female sexual desire – that people across many cultures instantly recognize. Amanda Knox inadvertently fed these archetypes by the ways she behaved in public, and advertised herself on the web, and, eventually, in her own compulsive writings from prison. Despite her short lifetime of writing exercises, and her outwardly confident mien, she didn’t possess the language, the words, the maturity, the style, the true self-confidence that comes from being emotionally whole, to define, let alone defend herself. Meanwhile, others – stronger, smarter, older, more eloquent – were eager to define her. Locked up, she might have all the pencils and notebooks she wanted and still not match the authority of other people’s words.
The Perugians didn’t know what to make of this unusual, slightly damaged girl with the inappropriate emotional responses, whose overconfident exterior masked a person with a deep aversion to conflict. Needing to solve the high-profile crime, they made a deduction about her and extracted a statement that put her at the scene. Everything in the investigation evolved from that, including the subjective calls on low-copy-number DNA.
Then, the whole world was watching.
To admit they’d been wrong was not an option. “The imperative which they implicitly obey in all their decisions,” wrote Barzini, of his fellow countrymen, is non farsi far fesso – not to be made a fool of. “To be fesso is the ultimate ignominy, as credulity is the unmentionable sin. The fesso is betrayed by his wife…falls for deceptions and intrigues. The fesso, incidentally, also obeys the laws, pays the taxes, believes what he reads in the papers, keeps his promises and generally does his duty.”
The fesso might be fooled by a pretty American girl who is, in fact, a murderess.
Those who recognized the mistake responded by circling the wagon. Other persisted in the belief and blustered on.
All the fraudulent embellishments that were never proven nor officially corrected but which so captured the media and public mind –sex game, googling bleach, the mop and bucket, “mixed blood DNA,” Raffaele supposedly deviously calling police after police arrived, Amanda’s bare footprints supposedly being made in blood – were elements of an injustice, of a sort of sadly not uncommon in courts and police departments in the United States, only more fascinating because this one involved women, beauty, and sex in the Anglo-Saxon playpen called Italy.
By filing slander suits against not only Amanda Knox but also her parents ( for testifying that the police slapped her in the back of the head during interrogation), by kicking them while down (after her conviction) the Perugians reminded the world that vendetta is in fact an Italian word.
The spired settlement on the hill has been under siege countless times before. As it has for millennia, the walled city will hold out.
Saturday, January 21, 2012
Bismarck, the living human being; Bismarck, the genius-statesman: Bismarck the Iron Chancellor as icon, make up a complex legacy. Patriotic biographers left out the uncomfortable aspects of his actual life and the editors of documents omitted or censored them. A generation of conservative German historians exalted the wisdom, moderation, and vision of the statesman; the public and propagandists exalted the strong man, the essential German. The real Bismarck, violent, intemperate, hypochondriac, and misogynist, only appeared in biographies late in the twentieth century. What the three Bismarck images have in common as phenomena is the absence of redeeming human virtues: kindness, generosity, compassion, humility, abstinence, patience, liberality, and tolerance. Bismarck the man, Bismarck the statesman, Bismarck the icon embodied none of those virtues.
There are deep ironies in the career of Otto von Bismarck: the civilian always in uniform, the hysterical hypochondriac as the symbol of iron consistency, the successes which become failures, the achievement of supreme power in a state too modern and too complex for him to run, the achievement of greater success than anybody in modern history which turned out to be a Faustian bargain. For twenty-eight years he crushed the opposition, cowed cabinets, poured hatred, scorn, and anger on political opponents in public and private. It required courage of a high order to resist the Chancellor. Almost nobody did. He smashed the possibility of responsible parliaments in 1878 when he used two attempts to assassinate the Kaiser to destroy moderate bourgeois liberalism. He persecuted Catholics and Socialists. He respected no law and tolerated no opposition. His legacy in culture was literally nothing. He had no interest in the arts, never went to a museum, only read lyric poetry from his youth or escapist literature. He paid no attention to scientists or historians unless he could enlist them like Treitschke. He was the most supple political practicioner of the nineteenth century but his skill had no purpose other than to prop up an antiquated royal semi-absolutism – and to satisfy himself. The means were Olympian, the ends tawdry and pathetic. All that fuss to give Kaiser William II the ability to dislocate rational government and cause international unrest. Sir Edward Grey compared Germany to a huge battleship without a rudder. Bismarck arranged it that way; only he could steer it. He gave the German workers social security but refused them the protection of the state. He preferred to shoot workers rather than to listen to their com[plaints. He made his Junker friends into enemies and then ridiculed them. He mocked their Christian belief and offended their faith and values.
In “Parliament and Government in the new order in Germany” (1918) Max Weber asked ‘what was the legacy of Bismarck?’
“He left a nation totally without political education…totally bereft of political will accustomed to expect that the great man at the top would provide their politics for them. And further as a result of his improper exploitation of monarchial sentiment to conceal his own power politics in party battles, it had grown accustomed to submit patiently and fatalistically to whatever was decided for it in the name of ‘monarchial government’”.
Bismarck saw politics as a struggle but when he talked about politics as the ‘art of the possible’, he meant that in a limited sense. He never considered compromise a satisfactory outcome. He had to win an destroy his opponents or lose and be destroyed himself. Whoever has power in a normal political system may win a round but then must continue the struggle to reach consensus. That was not Bismarck’s way. He set out to ‘beat them all’ and he did. In a political system where principle stood at the center of political activity, he had none but the naked exercise of his own power and the preservation of royal absolutism on which that power rested. If politics according to Bismarck were ‘the art of the possible’, but without compromise, what sort of art or craft was it? And to what end?
The Gerlachs were not wrong that principles matter in politics. Neither reality nor power has unequivocal or objective meanings. Human beings have values, faiths of various kinds, and preferences. The Bismarckian assumption that a master player can ‘game’ the system worked only to a point at which irrational emotions, violence, confusion, incompetence, began top mix themselves up with his plans. What is the purpose of the art of politics if not to serve some cause, to improve the conditions under which people have to live, to make societies freer, more just and more humane or, with the Gerlachs more Christian? Bismarck practiced his wizardry to preserved a semi-absolute monarchy and, when it suited him, he would preserve the rights of a narrow, frugal, fiercely reactionary Junker class, who hated all progress, liberalism, Jews, socialists, Catholics, democrats, and bankers. He differed from them only in his ruthlessness.
Bismarck; A Life by Jonathan Steinberg; Oxford University Press, 2011. Mr. Steinberg is the Annenberg Professor of Modern European History at the University of Pennsylvania and Emeritus Fellow, Trinity Hall, Cambridge.
Saturday, January 14, 2012
The Queens (N.Y.) Supreme Courthouse was built in 1960 and is an example of the civic architecture of the period, whose pointless ugliness cannot wither, and whose entrance lobby was rendered a complete aesthetic catastrophe by the post – 9/11 array of security equipment brutishly installed across its width. I had been coming to the courthouse for weeks before I noticed the mosaic that covers the space over the entrance leading to the elevators and the adjacent walls. The mosaic is a wondrous sight, but, as people hurry through the security barrier towards the elevators, they do not take it in. I noticed it only because one day, during a long recess, I was walking around the courthouse looking for things to notice.
It is a work of the most extreme complexity and strangeness. Its creator was the artist and sculptor Eugene Francis Savage ( 1883-1978), who did murals for the W.P.A. and for Yale, Columbia, and Purdue universities, and designed the Baily Fountain at Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn. The piece is a sort of mad allegory illustrating concepts – spelled out along its bottom – that relate to a court of law: Correction, Exoneration, Rehabilitation, Security, Plea, Inquiry, Evidence, Error, and Transgression, along with the deadly sins of Vanity, Envy, Hate, Lust, Sloth, Perdition, and Avarice.
Over “Correction” stands a grim man with lightening coming out of one wrist; “Avarice” is represented by an ugly old woman wearing a blue dress and pearl necklace and bent over a box of money and jewels. Near the grim man, a small mean-looking fellow crouches at the entrance to a tunnel out of which another unpleasant person, carrying tools, crawls. A hooded figure with arms out-stretched, holding a golden tape measure, a naked guy with a bow and arrow, a bare-chested man kneeing near a pile of books on top of which there is a hammer and sickle, a woman with nice breasts, a hideously grimacing black man – these are some of the other figures, set in a sinister landscape crowded with waterwheels and mountains and roads and rainbows and blue bowls filled with gold. The eye doesn’t know where to rest. A vertiginously tipped scale of justice hovers over the allegory, one of its golden pans poised high in the air and the other swinging close to the ground.
Oddly, the pan poised high in the air holds a book with the word LAW on its cover, while the pan low to the ground holds nothing but a sort of peach pit. Is this a comment on the weightlessness of the law? Or is it just Savage exercising his gravity-defying artist’s imagination- secure in the knowledge that the fate of public art is to be invisible to the public that never ordered it?
Iphigenia in Forest Hills; Anatomy of a Murder Trial by Janet Malcolm; Yale University Press, New Haven; 2011
No photo of “Jurisprudence” available.
Friday, January 13, 2012
Stieg Larson was a generous man, loyal, warmhearted, and fundamentally kind. But he could also be completely the opposite. Whenever someone treated him or anyone close to him badly, it was “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” He never forgave such an affront, and made no bones about it. “To exact revenge for yourself or your friends,” he used to say, “is not only a right, it’s an absolute duty.” Even if he sometimes had to wait for years, Stieg always paid people back.
In the first volume of the trilogy, Henrik Vanger speaks for Stieg when he tells Mikael Blomkvast, “I’ve always had many enemies over the years. If there is one thing I’ve learned, it’s never get in a fight you’re sure to lose. On the other hand, never let anyone who has insulted you get away with it. Bide your time and strike back when you’re in a position of strength – even if you no longer need to strike back.” In the third book, The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest , Mikael explains to Anders Jonasson, the doctor who takes care of Lisbeth Salander, that he must help his young patient even if it’s illegal to do so, because he may in good conscience break the law to obey a higher morality. For Stieg, Lisbeth was the ideal incarnation of the code of ethics that requires us to act according to our convictions. She is a kind of biblical archangel, the instrument of The Vengeance of God, the working title of the fourth volume of The Millennium Trilogy.
When he was a boy in Umea, Stieg got into fights everywhere and often. One day a boy broke one of his front teeth, so Stieg had to have a gold false tooth implanted in his jaw. Long afterward, he lay in wait for his attacker one night and took him by surprise. Stieg never had another problem with him – or anybody else. Yes, revenge is indeed a dish best eaten cold.
FIAT JUSTITIA, pereat mundus. Let justice be done, though all the world perish.
This dilemma between morality and action is in fact what drives the plot in The Millennium Trilogy. Individuals change the world and their fellow human beings for better or for worse, but each of us acts according to his or her own sense of morality, which is why everything comes down in the end to personal responsibility.
The trilogy allowed Stieg to denounce everyone he loathed for their cowardice, their irresponsibility, and their opportunism: couch-potato activists, sunny-day warriors, fair- weather skippers who pick and choose their cause; false friends who used him to advance their own careers; unscrupulous company heads and shareholders who wangle themselves huge bonuses… Seen in this light, Stieg couldn’t have had any better therapy for what ailed his soul than writing his novels.
“There Are Things I Want You To Know About Stieg Larsson And Me” by Eva Gabrielsson with Marie- Francoise Colombani; Seven Stories Press, N.Y., 2011
Wednesday, January 11, 2012
“It may even be that the final judgment on his work may come to the notion that what he failed to do was tragic, but what he accomplished was heroic, for it is possible he carried a weight of anxiety within him from day to day which would have suffocated any man smaller than himself.” – Norman Mailer
Most of the talk was in Stein’s suite at the Algonquin Hotel, although some of it took place while they were out marching on Madison Avenue. The “conversation” as the piece was titled when it appeared in print several months later, was about the terrible thing that happens to American writers: how they feel they must create a new literature; how they get to be thirty-five or forty and the juices dry up, and then what happens? They stop writing altogether or they begin to repeat themselves formulaically. It was all so sad and tragic.
You could almost hear what was coming next. “What about Hemingway?” the interviewer asks, venturing his own opinion that Hemingway was good merely until after A Farewell to Arms – say, into the first years of the 1930s.
Oh no, Stein says, he wasn’t really any good after 1925. In the early short stories, he had it, but then he betrayed himself. You see, she said,
When I first met Hemingway he had a truly sensitive capacity for emotion, and that was the stuff of his first stories; but he was shy of himself and began to develop, as a shield, a big Kansas City – boy brutality about it, and so he was “tough” because he was really sensitive and ashamed that he was. Then it happened. I saw it happening and tried to save what was fine there, but it was too late. He went the way so many other Americans have gone before, they way they are still going. He became obsessed by sex and violent death.
She elaborated, testing a stubby finger in Manhattan hotel-room air.
It wasn’t just to find out what these things were; it was the disguise for the thing that was really gentle and fine in him, and then his agonizing shyness escaped into brutality. No, now wait – not real brutality, because the truly brutal man wants something more than bullfighting and deep-sea fishing and elephant killing or whatever it is now, and perhaps if Hemingway were truly brutal he could make a real literature out of those things; but he is not, and I doubt if he will ever again write truly about anything. He is skillful, yes, but that is the writer; the other half is the man.
Obsessed by violence and sex. Developing a shield, your big Kansas City-boy brutality, because your sensitivity to life deeply shames you. A mask for the thing in you that’s really gentle and fine.
I’ve always wondered if at least part of the reason that Ernest Hemingway so grew to revile Gertrude Stein was because he understood how close to the bone he could scrape. A writer and Hemingway friend named Prudencio de Pereda once used a baseball analogy to describe some of the better psychological tries by Hemingway’s detractors: the ball looks beautiful from the instant it leaves the bat, seemingly headed straight for the upper deck, clear homer, only to veer off in the last seconds to just this side of the foul pole. It ends up another strike on the batter, but, damn, wasn’t it fine watching that thing fly?
Appreciating the uncelebrated life of Walter Houk has helped me to appreciate all over again and in new ways the myth-swallowing life of Ernest Hemingway. It’s as if he’s single-handedly brought him back around – the goodness, in and amid all the squalor. In astronomy there’s a technique known as “averted vision.” The idea is that sometimes you can see the essence of a thing more clearly if you’re not looking at it directly. It’s as if what you’re really after is sitting at the periphery rather than at the center of your gaze. Something of this same hope and principle was at work in telling Arnold Samuelson’s story. But the “Maestro’s” life was a mirror opposite.
Walter Houk is in his mid-eighties, as I write. He is a small, trim, learned, meticulous, and sometimes fussy and nitpicky man, a widower, an accomplished former journalist, a failed painter, an ex-outdoorsman and naturalist, an ex-Foreign Service officer, a once-long-ago midshipman, who lives alone, has long lived alone, quietly, unobtrusively, a little sadly, in a comfortable house, on an ordinary street, in a tucked-away corner of greater Los Angeles. That house, which is kept as tidy as the officers’ quarters on a submarine, is full of old Hemingway photographs, nautical charts, unpublished book-lengthy Houk manuscripts, Esso highway maps of Cuba in the 1950s, Havana bar menus, Christmas cards with Hemingway’s greetings on them – and a lot more. Entering his house is like walking into a hidden Hemingway museum.
Walter Houk, who keeps insisting he won’t be around too much longer, has set down his pencil. His own words have tripped something in him. He is growing weary and needs to nap. At dinner tonight, stoked with a vodka martini and a glass of wine, he’ll say:
You see, for a long time in my life, I avoided a consideration of all the negatives about Hemingway. It was just so politically correct to dislike the man. I didn’t know what to argue against, or where to start arguing. I didn’t want to be bothered. It wasn’t going to change anything I knew. My whole experience with Ernest Hemingway is the conventional diswisdom. He didn’t wreck my life. It was a hugely positive experience to be around him, for those several years in the fifties, getting to go out on the boat and all the rest. I was half his age. He treated me kindly. He treated my wife, Nita, kindly. It was as if we were sort of kids around the place, and I think he liked that, because his own kids so often weren’t there, and he missed them. He wanted to help us with our lives. The vultures have long ago gathered around the Hemingway corpse and rendered their judgment. But their judgment’s wrong; at least its incomplete. I don’t think the terrible vile side defines him. It was a facet of his character. He was a great man with great faults. We should not allow the faults to overshadow the accomplishments. He said in a letter once – I think it was to one of his children – that ‘a happy country has no history.’ I’m paraphrasing, but that was his point. You could say a happy man has no biography – who’d want to read it? I think of him as a Beethoven, for the way he changed the language. He’s a Gulliver surrounded by the Lilliputians. He threatens all the little academics sitting at their computers. Somehow or other you’ve got to try to help rescue him from all that.”
In all his fiction Hemingway made up things from what he knew, telling terrific lies about real people; conflating, rearranging, conjoining and transposing different characters and events from his life so what he made up was somehow truer than if it had actually happened. Lies built on deeper truths.
The great literary historian Malcolm Crowley once wrote that cable-ese for Hemingway “was an exercise in omitting everything that can be taken for granted,” another way to understand how he arrived at his literary method, an attempt to relay as much information as possible in as few words as possible.
“Tell all the truth but tell it slant” (Emily Dickinson) is another approach to understanding Hemingway’s (symbolist) method.
In all of Hemingway’s work, you end up feeling more than you necessarily understand: another core Hemingway writing value.
If Walloon doesn’t often appear by name, lakes are nonetheless present in some of Hemingway’s finest Michigan stories. Sometimes their presence is ghostly, and at other times you can smell the dried fish guts and smeared nightcrawlers wedged down into the floorboards of a rowboat- oars creaking and groaning in their locks – making its way across the unnamed water.
Sunny arrived in the summer of 1910, when Hemingway turned eleven. She was an eighteen-footer in a dory style, meaning that she had a flat bottom and fairly high sides and a sharp bow. She was powered by a sputtery Gray Marine inboard motor that was perpetually hard to start and leaked rainbows of oil on the surface of the lake, which made the head of the family sputter mild oaths like “Oh rats.”
Tuesday, January 10, 2012
Walter Houk (the only friend Hemingway had who is still alive) was born to working-class folk in Mission Hospital, on June 14, 1925, in a little nondescript community on the eastern edge of Los Angeles called Walnut Park. That was the summer of The Sun Also Rises – its seemingly miraculous, falling-out-whole, first draft, which in effect was the final draft. Another story of that summer, not nearly so well known, might be thought of as the first node of connection between someone destined to be very famous and someone who’d achieve a startling lot in his life, even if none of it was destined for the front page, which is only the story of the rest of us.
Two days before Walter Hauk was born, and half a world away, on the Left Bank of Paris, twenty-five- year- old Ernest Hemingway and thirty-three year old Hadley Hemingway, who live so reputedly broke and happy with their baby boy above the high whine of a sawmill, had gotten into their gladdest glad rags and gone to a major art opening. It was the first one-man show at the Galerie Pierre for the Spanish Catalan surrealist painter Joan Miro. Hemingway got seized that evening to own a canvas called La Ferme (The Farm). For some months he’d glimpsed the painting as a work in progress in the artist’s studio. The next day, saying that he wished it as a birthday present for his wife, he put a five-hundred-franc note as a down payment, with the balance due in the fall.
A small complication was that the gallery owner had already promised the painting to Hemingway’s friend Evan Shipman, the sometime American poet and lover of the horses at Longchamp and Auteuil. The day after that, at Shipman’s urging, the two nonheeled writers decided to do the sporting thing and roll the dice. Biographers would disagree on whether the painting’s full price was thirty-five or five thousand francs ($175 or $250), but either figure would have represented something mountainous to Hemingway ( the big canvass now hangs in the National Gallery of Art, its value in the millions).
In another two weeks, Hemingway and his wife would leave for Spain and the festival at Pamplona, and within little more than a year he’d no longer be poor or unknown or living with Hadley – one of the self-admitted biggest mistakes of his life. But the connecting point here is that he’d thrown the dice and held his breath and won his Miro on the same day Walter was born – and twenty-five years later, in an impromptu tour of his home, Hemingway would be showing off the painting to Walter, whom he’d met about twenty minutes before. And who, in his own way, would feel transfixed by The Farm, as he’d be struck by the other modernist oils hanging casually throughout the house: the Paul Klee, the Juan Gris, the Georges Braque, the Andre Massons. But most especially the Miro, hanging on the south wall of the dining room,. “You see,” Walter once said, knowing nothing of the dice story, “I’d never met anyone before who owned paintings of this quality. And since I was a painter myself, doing it in my spare time, trying to put together a show at a small gallery in Havana, this was eye-opening. Looking at those paintings with him that first day, listening to him talk about them with such pride, especially the Miro, with its technical precision, may have been my first clue that there was some other kind of man here.”
“Gallantry of An Aging Machine”; Hemingway’s Boat by Paul Hendrickson
Sunday, January 8, 2012
Entirely absurd and ill-fitting to Green Hills of Africa itself, the sentence begins five lines down on manuscript page 223 and isn’t over until the third line of sheet 228. Immediately before, the author is talking about trying to make yourself responsible only to yourself, and the feeling that comes of that when you’re an author. He starts out arrogantly and defensively but along the way seems to catch up with himself to say what he really wants to say. Was he even fully aware of what he was doing, or, as with the best of all writing, had his subconscious done its work in his sleep, so that in the actual writing a kind of auto-didacticism, a sort of trancelike state, had taken over?
Ostensibly, The Sentence, which has very few cross-outs and revisions, is about the Gulf Stream, that mythic warm current named by Ben Franklin two centuries ago, deep as the bottom itself in places, sixty to eighty nautical miles in places, which forms in the Western Caribbean Sea, flows into the Gulf of Mexico, courses through the Straits of Florida, hooks left, and moves up the southern coast of America to Cape Hatteras, before switching directions again, to the northeast, and breaking up into several other currents and crosscurrents of the Atlantic system.
He starts out so calmly, in the middle of a paragraph with the words “That something.”
That something I cannot yet define completely but the feeling comes when you write well and truly of something and know impersonally you have written in that way and those who are paid to read it and report on it do not like the subject so they all say it is a fake, yet you know its value absolutely; or when you do something which people do not consider a serious occupation and yet you know, truly, that it is important and has always been as important as all the things that are in fashion, and when, on the sea, you are alone with it and know that this Gulf Stream you are living with, knowing, learning about, and loving, has moved, as it moves, since before man and that it has gone by the shoreline of that long, beautiful, unhappy island since before Columbus sighted it and that the things you find out about it, and those that have always lived in it are permanent and of value because that stream, will flow, as it has flowed, after the Indians, after the Spaniards, after the British, after the Americans and after all the Cubans and all the systems of governments, the richness, the poverty, the martyrdom, the sacrifice and the venality and the cruelty are all gone as the high-piled scow of garbage, bright-colored, white-flecked, ill-smelling, now tilted on its side, spills off its load into the blue water, turning it pale green to a depth of four or five fathoms as the load spreads across the surface, the sinkable parts going down and the flotsam of palm fronds, corks, bottles, and used electric light globes, seasoned with the occasional condom or a deep floating corset, the torn leaves of a student’s exercise book, a well-inflated dog, the occasional rat, the no-longer-distinguished cat; well shepherded by the boats of garbage pickers who pluck their prizes with long poles, as interested, as intelligent, and as accurate as historians; they have the viewpoint; the stream, with no visible flow, takes five loads of this a day when things are going well in La Habana and in the ten miles along the coast it is clear and blue and unimpressed as it was ever before the tug hauled out the scow; and the palm fronds of our victories, the worn light bulbs of our discoveries and the empty condoms of our great loves float with no significance against one single, lasting thing – the stream.
Hemingway’s Boat; Everything He Loved in Life, and Lost, 1934 – 1961 by Paul Hendrickson; Knopf, 2011
Tuesday, January 3, 2012
On June 21, 2008, lightning strikes from one end of drought-dry California to the other ignited more than two thousand wildfires that stretched from the Trinity Alps in the north to Santa Barbara in the south. One of the blazes turned toward Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, in the Ventana Wilderness near Big Sur. For weeks the resident monks prepared for the fire’s arrival, committed to staying to defend the monastery despite repeated orders to leave.
If you lived on the West Coast, you knew about the fires. If you lived in California, you smelled the smoke. The situation at Tassaraja was featured in the national news. Connections to the monastery, famous for its hot springs, food, and peaceful environs, extended around the world. Even those who’d never been to Tassajara or heard of it before were intrigued by the seemingly paradoxical image of a fire monk. Suddenly, people who ordinarily spent a good deal of time sitting cross-legged in front of a wall faced a situation that required decisive action. What did that look like? How could sitting still and doping nothing prepare you top act, and to act fast?
As a Zen student and regular visitor to Tassajara over the past ten years, I followed the fire closely. As soon as I read Tassajara director David Zimmerman’s account of the fire’s arrival, I wanted to tell this story – from as close as possible but also with a wide lens. What was it like to meet a wildfire with minimal training in firefighting but years of Zen practice to guide you? I believed others might benefit from knowing, the fire being a perfect metaphor for anything that comes uninvited and threatens to hurt us or the people and places we love.
Thursday, July 10, 2008, one p.m.
Nothing Mako had read when she was fire marshal at Tassajara prepared her for the actual experience of witnessing an advancing fire front. “It had this feeling of being ferocious and unrelenting and aggressive and just, you know, consuming,” she told me later, making explosive gestures with her hands. The entire sky boiled above her head, a canopy of fire. Thirty-foot flames tore down the mountains into Tassajara. Holy crap, she thought, I’m going to die.
A wildfire has a head, a tail and flanks. The fire blasting over Flag Rock, Hawk Mountain, and the Overlook ridge seemed to have two or three heads, maybe more. But then this head met the moisture hanging in the air from Dharma Rain and transformed into fingers of flame before their eyes.
[Dharma Rain was a system of sprinklers fed by water from the brook and the pool through a system of pumps and standing pipes, mounted on the roofs the the main buildings]
Maybe they didn’t have to hunker down in the stone office after all. Maybe Tassaraja wasn’t going to burst into flame at once, so that only the Buddha would be left, buried in a moonscape of blackened tree trunks and soot-smudged rocks. Maybe they could do something.
The five monks remaining at Tassajara didn’t have much experience as trained firefighters and were in violation of some of the established guidelines for staying safe in the field – what are known as the Ten Standard Orders and Eighteen Watch-Out Situations, or more simply, “The Ten and Eighteen”. They didn’t post a lookout. They didn’t have a plan or clear assignments. No one was in charge. But they’d mastered one order: “Be alert. Keep calm. Think clearly. Act decisively.” And they had two essential safety tools in abundance – readiness and attention. “We didn’t set up a command structure,” Abbot Steve told me later. “We set up a communications structure.”
Each of the five carried a small two-way Motorola walkie-talkie. They used them through-out the day to check in with one another, to announce their whereabouts, and to ask for help when they needed it. But they were in a Watch-Out Situation- they couldn’t see the main fire and weren’t in contact with someone who could.
Some fire managers insist that the Ten Standard Orders are fundamentally non-negotiable, never to be broken. Ted Putnam, wildland fire investigator and longtime meditator, disagrees. “You only think you can follow them if you have never observed your own mind in meditation.” In On The Fireline: Living and Dying with Wildland Firefighters, one former seasonal firefighter wrote that the Ten and Eighteen “are too much to ask of ground-pounding crew members engaged in the controlled chaos that is firefighting. These rules are “ideally possible but practically unattainable.”
Ideally possible but practically unattainable sounds a lot like the vow to save all beings that residents at Tassajara (and Buddhists everywhere) make on a daily basis. That the vow cannot be upheld does not mean its not worth making. The five at Tassaraja may not have been trained in the Ten and Eighteen, but they knew intimately the importance of having signs on the path that point the way towards what is often called “right effort”. And they also knew you shouldn’t hold on to any rule too tightly. Reality doesn’t follow directions. The fire you want or expect will not be the fire you get!
Friday, July 11…
The day after the fire, felt to the five like the day after a marathon. “I was so dehydrated, I don’t think I peed for a couple of days,” Colin told me. The smoke gave them headaches. The by-products of exertion and adrenaline pooled in their muscles, sapping their energy. They were used to going without sleep and enduring pain during long stretches of meditation, but this was different. “It was something deeper in the bones than normal sleep deprivation”, Mako said but the road was still closed. The mountains around them smoldered. Despite their exhaustion they needed to stay active and alert.
Abbot Steve’s dawn patrol doubled as a post-fire inspection. A few buildings would need to be entirely replaced: the pool bathhouse, the woodshed at the flats, the birdhouse cabin and the compost shed. Many structures and some of Tassajara’s infrastructure would need repairs: sections of fence, the bathhouse, front gate and garden, some decking at the pool, wooden steps at the yurt and the trail to the solar array, the lumber truck windshield, the radio phone, and the spring box – the source of Tassajara’s drinking water.
But the center of Tassajara was untouched. The grass glistened a deep green on the stone office lawn. The wisteria-draped trellis shaded the gravel walkway, as it had for decades. A cluster of tall sycamores fanned the bocce ball court. The creek continued to flow down the length of Tassajara, continuous, selfless, ever-present. If you blocked out the periphery and the hoses strewn about, you could imagine there hadn’t been any fire. But lift your eyes a little and you saw the blackened hearth the fire had made of the mountains, the remains of the buildings the fire had consumed. Life and death, right next to each other, braided together, as they always were.
Colleen Morton Busch’s nonfiction, poetry and fiction have appeared in a wide range of publications from literary magazines to the San Francisco Chronicle, Tricycle, and Yoga Journal, where she was senior editor.
Monday, January 2, 2012
Once in the Jurassic about 150 million years ago, the Great Sun Buddha in this corner of the Infinite Void gave a discourse to all the assembled elements and energies: to the standing beings, the walking beings, the flying beings, and the sitting beings--even the grasses, to the number of thirteen billion, each one born from a seed, assembled there: a Discourse concerning Enlightenment on the planet Earth.
"In some future time, there will be a continent called America. It will have great centers of power called such as Pyramid Lake, Walden Pond, Mt. Rainier, Big Sur, Everglades, and so forth; and powerful nerves and channels such as Columbia River, Mississippi River, and Grand Canyon. The human race in that era will get into troubles all over its head, and practically wreck everything in spite of its own strong intelligent Buddha-nature."
"The twisting strata of the great mountains and the pulsings of volcanoes are my love burning deep in the earth. My obstinate compassion is schist and basalt and granite, to be mountains, to bring down the rain. In that future American Era I shall enter a new form; to cure the world of loveless knowledge that seeks with blind hunger: and mindless rage eating food that will not fill it."
And he showed himself in his true form of
SMOKEY THE BEAR
A handsome smokey-colored brown bear standing on his hind legs, showing that he is aroused and watchful.
Bearing in his right paw the Shovel that digs to the truth beneath appearances; cuts the roots of useless attachments, and flings damp sand on the fires of greed and war;
His left paw in the mudra of Comradely Display--indicating that all creatures have the full right to live to their limits and that of deer, rabbits, chipmunks, snakes, dandelions, and lizards all grow in the realm of the Dharma;
Wearing the blue work overalls symbolic of slaves and laborers, the countless men oppressed by a civilization that claims to save but often destroys;
Wearing the broad-brimmed hat of the west, symbolic of the forces that guard the wilderness, which is the Natural State of the Dharma and the true path of man on Earth:
all true paths lead through mountains--
With a halo of smoke and flame behind, the forest fires of the kali-yuga, fires caused by the stupidity of those who think things can be gained and lost whereas in truth all is contained vast and free in the Blue Sky and Green Earth of One Mind;
Round-bellied to show his kind nature and that the great earth has food enough for everyone who loves her and trusts her;
Trampling underfoot wasteful freeways and needless suburbs, smashing the worms of capitalism and totalitarianism;
Indicating the task: his followers, becoming free of cars, houses, canned foods, universities, and shoes, master the Three Mysteries of their own Body, Speech, and Mind; and fearlessly chop down the rotten trees and prune out the sick limbs of this country America and then burn the leftover trash.
Wrathful but calm. Austere but Comic. Smokey the Bear will Illuminate those who would help him; but for those who would hinder or slander him...
HE WILL PUT THEM OUT.
Thus his great Mantra:
Namah samanta vajranam chanda maharoshana Sphataya hum traka ham mam
"I DEDICATE MYSELF TO THE UNIVERSAL DIAMOND BE THIS RAGING FURY BE DESTROYED"
And he will protect those who love the woods and rivers, Gods and animals, hobos and madmen, prisoners and sick people, musicians, playful women, and hopeful children:
And if anyone is threatened by advertising, air pollution, television, or the police, they should chant SMOKEY THE BEAR'S WAR SPELL:
DROWN THEIR BUTTS
CRUSH THEIR BUTTS
DROWN THEIR BUTTS
CRUSH THEIR BUTTS
And SMOKEY THE BEAR will surely appear to put the enemy out with his vajra-shovel.
Now those who recite this Sutra and then try to put it in practice will accumulate merit as countless as the sands of Arizona and Nevada.
Will help save the planet Earth from total oil slick.
Will enter the age of harmony of man and nature.
Will win the tender love and caresses of men, women, and beasts.
Will always have ripened blackberries to eat and a sunny spot under a pine tree to sit at.
AND IN THE END WILL WIN HIGHEST PERFECT ENLIGHTENMENT
...thus we have heard...
(may be reproduced free forever)
Sunday, January 1, 2012
I used to support the death penalty. I changed my mind when I learned how lawless the system is. If you have reservations about supporting a racist, classist, unprincipled regime, a regime where white skin is valued far more highly than dark, where prosecutors hide evidence and policemen routinely lie, where judges decide what justice requires by consulting the most recent Gallop poll, where rich people sometimes get away with murder and never end up on death row, then the death-penalty system we have here in America will embarrass you to no end.
I don’t mean any disrespect by this, but police officers are some of the best liars in the world. Their philosophy seems to be, so far as I can tell, that they are the good guys fighting the forces of death and darkness and that entitles them to break the rules when they think they need to and lie about it later when they deem it necessary. Some would swear a lie on their dead mother’s grave if he they thought it would help convict someone they were certain was guilty. If I know anything, I know that. But knowing means nothing. Proof is what matters. Every second I spend fantasizing that some cop is going to confess to lying in court was just another second I might as well spend in prayer, for all the good it would do my client.
In the beginning of my career as a death-penalty lawyer my focus was on the law, on why some legal rule or principle meant that my client should get a new trial. The problem with this lawyerly approach is that nobody cares about rules or principles when they are dealing with a murderer. The lawyer says that the Constitution was violated every which way, and the judge days, Yeah, but your client killed somebody, right? The problem for the death-penalty lawyer is that in jurisdictions such as Texas the courts consist of judges who are utterly unprincipled and hostile to the rule of law. They look for ways to uphold death sentences even where constitutional violations are egregious.
In recent years an appeals court upheld a death sentence of a black inmate who was sentenced to death by an all-white jury after prosecutors systematically removed every potential juror of color from serving. It upheld the death sentence of a mentally retarded inmate after his lawyer, who was afflicted with Parkinson’s disease, neglected to point out the inmate’s IQ score. It upheld the death sentence of an inmate who was probably innocent on the ground that his lawyers had waited too long to identify proof of innocence. It upheld the death sentence of an inmate whose lawyer had literally slept through the trial. These judges get to be judges not because they are wise, but because they are friends with their U.S. Senator, or a friend of a friend. They are smart, however. That means they are very good at hiding their lawlessness inside of recondite-sounding legalese. They look for reasons to ensure that a death row inmate will get executed, and they usually find one. And not very many people care. Do you care that the rights of some murderer was violated? Most people say that the murder got treated better than his victim, and that pretty much sums up the attitude of the judges on the court of appeals too.
Justices on the Supreme Court are slightly better. They could hardly be worse. But the big problem with counting on winning a victory in the Supreme Court is that the justices are so inundated with cases that they don’t have time to be sticklers for principle, even when they are so inclined.
For all our so-called progress, the tribal vengefulness that we think of as limited to some backward countries is still how our legal system works. Deuteronomy trumps the Sixth Amendment every time. Prosecutors and judges kowtow to family members of murder victims who demand an eye for an eye, and the lonely lawyer declaiming about proper procedure is a shouting lunatic whom people look at curiously and then walk by.
This is the reality: when you know that you are not going to succeed, and that your client is going to die no matter what you do, and that it does not matter a whit whether the facts and the law are on your side, you can either do nothing and accept defeat, or modify your definition of success, but what you also have to realize is that even if you choose the latter route and opt to redefine the meaning of winning, and therefore count it as a small victory (for example) when you don’t sit quietly by while a district attorney puts on his black face and carries on for the cameras with a egregious display of overt racism, your client is still going to get escorted into the execution chamber, strapped down to the gurney, and put to death.
There are some philosophers who say that we create the world we live in with our language. I am sorry to say that this is not how it works. Reality is a relentless and crushing force, and it cannot be thwarted or outrun with a lawyer’s effete semantics.
I understand death-penalty supporters. I used to be one. I can relate to the retributive impulse. I know people I want to kill. I’ve tried my hardest to save all my clients, but some executions don’t make me cry. There are people who commit acts of cruelty so monstrous you have to barricade your senses from contemplating them because if you don’t their images will ruin every pleasure you know. When you are petting your dog, hugging your son, kissing your wife, they will slither in between you and the object of your affection and make you ashamed to be human. That’s why I shower when I get home from the prison and wash my clothes in a load of their own. I have friends who quit doing this work because they couldn’t keep the images from burrowing deep down into their consciousness and stealing all their joy.
I doubt the evil men I know were born that way, but maybe some were. Nobody really knows. But I’ll tell you this: Even the worse people I’ve ever known are sympathetic strapped to a gurney. They’re no longer cruel or evil. Some are repentant, some aren’t. What they all are, at that moment, are helpless, deeply broken men. Often my job is just to listen, send the condemned inmate some books or magazines and to fight for him no matter how difficult or impossible it is to win, so as to be sure he does not have to face death alone. My goal is to save my clients, but that objective is beyond my control. All I can control is whether I abandon them or not.
David R. Dow is the University Distinguished Professor at the University of Houston Law Center and litigation director at the Texas Defender Service, a non-profit legal aid corporation that represents death-row inmates.