Archives for the month of: October, 2012

Eric Hobsbawm, by Karen Robinson for the Guardian.

I was having dinner recently with the assistant to the Macondo state historian, a man of the people, who was the first in his family to have attended college. I brought up the name of Marx, about whom I’ve been thinking for a couple of years as part of my sense that the epochal occurences of the 19th century, and its thinkers, have yet to be dealt with. The 20th century cataclysms, perhaps a result of the 19th century ones, interrupted our taking in of the 19th century.

This feisty self-made PhD. snorted, and said, “Marx is passe.”

Perhaps. Perhaps in the office of the state historian here in Macondo.

But nowhere else, as even I know, I who don’t really believe in history except the way Marxists write it, about women, minorities, children, jazz, material culture, subalterns, Mafiosi, slaves, lives of the obscure, post-colonials, criminals, food, peasant and popular culture, back channel economies, mental illness, Muslims, Cambodians, peasant resistance, labor, prostitutes, modernity, survivors of genocide — people who lived outside of “history”, the tale of 300 white boys in Paris.

Eric Hobsbawm, perhaps the premier Marxist historian,  has died, aged 95, having lived through most of the 20th century, from his birth in the year of the Russian revolution through the 2008 implosion of capitalism.

Some people think he even invented the idea of popular culture.

More than 50 years ago, a bunch of dissident Oxbridge-educated academic historians changed the way the British saw culture. They understood, long before anyone else, that culture is what shapes the world. They also saw that culture is totally democratic and comes from the people. While the official guardians of the arts, such as Kenneth Clark, were praising the “civilisation” of the elite on television and in print, Hobsbawm and co were resurrecting the lost cultures of Luddites, the masked poachers and anyonymous letter writers, of William Blake and John Milton. They discovered and popularised the value of popular culture – something so integral to our lives today it seems bizarre it was ever denigrated.

He taught all his life at a working mens’ college in London, of which he became president, and defended Marxism through its darkest hours. He joined the Communist party in 1936 at Cambridge, along with the intellectual arbiters society, the Apostles. He let his CP membership lapse in the 21st century, and said it had been his life.

“I didn’t want to break with the tradition that was my life and with what I thought when I first got into it,” he told The New York Times in 2003. “I still think it was a great cause, the emancipation of humanity. Maybe we got into it the wrong way, maybe we backed the wrong horse, but you have to be in that race, or else human life isn’t worth living.”

It cost him, though how much only the old atheist could know. During World War II he volunteered to be a spy, as all his Cambridge contemporaries did, but his party affiliation excluded him. He spent the years 1939-1945 building worthless fortifications in East Anglia, making common cause with his working class colleagues. “I did nothing of significance in it,” he wrote of the war, “and was not asked to.” Of his colleagues in the 560 Field Company, he said, “There was something sublime about them and about Britain at that time. That wartime experience converted me to the British working class. They were not very clever, except for the Scots and Welsh, but they were very, very good people.”

If Communism kept him from fighting the war against fascism, it also kept him from writing about the tumultuous 20th century through whose greater part he lived. Only after he was well into his 80s, finally writing his history of the 20th century in The Age of Extremes, did Hobsbawm feel he could write about his own times, “given the strong official Party and Soviet views about the 20th century, one could not write about anything later than 1917 without the strong likelihood of being denounced as a political heretic.”

He wrote, lectured, entertained the chattering classes at tea in Hampstead, and starred as a public intellectual almost until the end. Tony Blair, acknowledging Hobsbawm’s intellectual contributions to Britain’s Labour Party, got him a medal from the Queen in 1998. He always did think of himself as a “Tory communist,” not much admiring the free love communalism of the 1960s.

At the end of his life, he stunned people who think of old men as heroes by defending Stalin’s mass killings.

“Historical understanding is what I’m after, not agreement, approval, or sympathy,” he wrote in his memoir.

In 1994, he shocked viewers when, in an interview with Michael Ignatieff on the BBC, he said that the deaths of millions of Soviet citizens under Stalin would have been worth it if a genuine Communist society had been the result.

Not to fight fascism, not to write about the 20th century, to defend Stalin’s genocides, seems a high price to pay for loyalty. But Hobsbawm paid it. His work on the rise of capitalism made him Britain’s most respected historian, and he died active, thoughtful, well-loved. And writing.

In honor of the death of New Orleans’ venerable newspaper, The Times Picayune, I am republishing the essay I wrote for the city after Katrina, on Sept. 9, 2005.

The passenger pigeon, the last of whom died in 1914, by Audubon.

I know a little more about the shady side of New Orleans than someone who has never been there should.

Someone I know grew up near there in a little Southern town run by her grandfather. She and her mother lived in his house, her father having been run off by the tyrannies Big Daddy inflicted on his daughter and grand-daughter. After years of hearing about what a hero Bog Daddy [legit typo] was, my friend showed me a photograph of him and I gasped.

The evil light gleamed from his eyes, made them look bright and moist, young and completely malicious, in the face of a too-vigorous middle-aged man. He had held her mother by her ankle over the toilet when she was a child, telling her revealed child underpants that he would flush her all the way to China.

Sexually stunted, she left her husband, whom she disdained as not being of her own class, and fled home to Papa. Papa held my friend over the toilet by her ankle, and told her revealed child underpants that he would flush her all the way to China.

And that, and the stories my friend tells about all her chic boarding school friends in New Orleans, is New Orleans, about Mardi Gras and blighted women’s lives and drunkenness far beyond any I’d ever heard before. I had never heard the phrase she used as repartee: “knee-walkin’, snot-slingin’ drunk.” Hahahahahaha.

That story never broke my heart, though, because I am the survivor of a most unusual Southern family my ownself – one of my names is for the Lesbian aunt who shot herself in grandpa’s library — and it wasn’t about the city of my dreams. My heart is broken now though, and I’ve been at pains to understand why.

My dream of New Orleans is partly based on a family water color, now gone with the wind, I suppose, that some artistic lady ancestor had painted on heavy, ribbed midnight blue artistic lady paper. It was of a swamp, with a mangrove tree, Spanish moss, waters, an egret. There were stained Audubon prints at home of all kinds of swamp and marsh birds. To me, home means blue herons and egrets and long-legged, long-beaked stalkers on the wall.

Great blue heron, by Audubon

Then there’s “Blue Bayou,” the old Roy Orbison song, which I like for itself but whose aesthetic I always wanted, one day, to create a house to live in.

A piazza. A dark old wide-planked floor. Shells. Mosquito nets. Cisterns, tree frogs. It is my first memory, lying in my mother’s arms, looking out the window as she rocks in her rocking chair in Puerto Rico. The stars are twinkling, the tree frogs are singing. My first thought on this planet is that the singing of the coquis is the music the twinkling of the stars makes. New Orleans is my latitude, the only one I’ve ever felt at home in; the sight of a palm frond and the scent of wood smoke, fresh-roasted coffee beans, and red earth makes me know I have, once again, despite everything, come home. Havana and New Orleans are the capitals of my latitude, and Havana — Arab, and run down, like Granada, or Alexandria — is the most beautiful city I’ve ever been to.

Baseball in Old Havana.
By Claudia Daut for Reuters/Corbis.

I’ve always been deeply touched by the idea of the swamp that underlay Washington, D. C., where I live. The Capitol is built over Tiber Creek. There are about three acres of the original swamp left; the geese and herons, with their six-foot white wingspreads, pick their way among the plastic gallon milk jugs which wind up the Anacostia River to their graves in the smooth, black mudflats. Standing on the observation platform behind the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens – founded as a water-lily farm years ago by an African-American, in a now-forgotten neighborhood – the swamp is lovely, dark and deep. It looks like what was here before any of the rest of this mess arrived. You can catch a glimpse through the old scrub trees of some kind of gigantic satellite disk or tracking device which marks the fact the swamp is surrounded by a federal city built on what was once a swamp.

Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, the last remnant of D.C.’s primordial swamp.

I knew too much ever really to want to go to Mardi Gras; my strange Southern family belongs to similarly exclusive and arcane – and much older – genealogical societies, so snotty they’d never think of marching in a parade. Indeed, the debutante party for which the Saint Snotty Society exists is so old-fashioned, in a kind of nearly Muslim way, that the orchestra hired for the ball is hidden behind a screen of green leaves. Can’t have the hired help ogling owah wimmin. They still call eggplant guinea squash, and what they call musicians like Peter Duchin you don’t want to know.

So to belong to the krewes and get snot-slangin’ drunk with horrible old Big Daddy at Galatoire’s was not the draw. It was, I think, the Frenchness and the Africanness. Black people named Jean-Baptist; the Creole, Cajun Napoleonic Code mix, mixed with prosperity and culture. There’s always been money in New Orleans, and even the poor people could enjoy some of the benefits.

It was the cosmopolitan aspect without the New York neurosis or the LA narcissism. It was the South. As with my deeply racist, deeply civilized Saint Snotty Society cousins, everybody, black and white, gets into a boat at least a dozen times a year and fishes and shoots. You eat what you catch and clean it too, and then return to the hierarchies of workaday life. People aren’t afraid of the natural world, including sex of all kinds, and death at the hands of the most appalling fates.

The attitude in New Orleans was real. The sweetness. The music. The food.

And now it gives me a little comfort to think of the empty city, Saint Louis cathedral, and all the old Frenchmen who paddled up and down the Mississippi and gave French names to tiny heartland American towns, unbelievably tough French trappers and hustlers in Indian clothes, St Louis sitting there now under blue skies, baking in the sun, with nobody to see it. Marie LeVeau’s own marriage certificate was kept at Saint Louis’, and I think of the completely empty city and hope halfway that Big Daddy and the Mardi Gras girls gone wild never come back again, that George Bush and his goons abandon their idea of Epcot New Orleans and let the marsh come back, slowly up from the Gulf, so the reeds and the grasses and the trees can spread and grow up and out through the windows of St Louis, where the clock has stopped, and the birds can come back, the herons, and the tree frogs, and the Spanish moss, and the passenger pigeons, too, as Audubon, a French Creole his own self, saw them at the turn of the 18th century. The blue sky over New Orleans dark with passenger pigeons. My dream come true. On blue bayou.

The Banquet of Herod, in which di Panicale invents perspective.

Handsome as a movie star, Wade Guyton hails from Tennessee, can’t draw and had trouble getting NYC art fellowships. Got his start in NYC as a security guard at Dia.
Now his computer generated “paintings”, which he designs using images he scans from books designed by other graphics artists, get a prestigious “mid career” retrospective at the Whitney.

Wade Guyton, by Karsten Moran for the New York Times.

This is the one graf in the whole story which makes me stop screaming ART SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL.

By Daniel Clowes, from his comic book Eightball.

“I would drag Web pages over other printed materials,” he explained. “What I realized is that Microsoft Word has a structure to it. It has a language and margins. It has functions and a default size and a default color, which is black. And all those presets I decided to use as the structure for making drawings.”
Interesting. Ish. The problem is that the template is Bill Gates’, who will

Unaesthetic doesn’t begin to describe Guyton’s medium. Recent stories about Gates’ anti-innovation business model underline the point.

Jeez, is everything bullshit?
*Welcome to Soweto, white boy:
Gates looks back with some amusement at his belated realization that access to technological information might not be the answer to the world’s most serious problems. Microsoft was donating computers to poor communities in Africa in the mid-90’s, and during a visit to Johannesburg, Gates went to Soweto where he was proudly shown the town’s single computer. As he took in his surroundings, he recalls, he said to himself: ”Hey, wait a minute — there’s only one electrical outlet in this whole place.’ And yup, they had plugged in that computer, and when I was there, man, that thing was running and everybody was very thankful. But I looked around and thought, Hmm, computers may not be the highest priority in this particular place. I wondered, Who the heck is going to be really using this thing?”
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