HESO Magazine

Photography, Music, Film, Hitchhiking, Craft Beer – Cultural Pugilist

Category: Books (Page 2 of 3)

Billy & Caballo © Christopher McDougall

Born To Run

“Poetry, Music, Forests, Oceans, Solitude—They were what developed enormous personal strength. I came to realize that spirit, as much or more than physical conditioning, had to be stored up before a race.”

—Herb Elliot, Olympic Champion and World-Record Holder the Mile who trained in bare feet, wrote poetry and retired undefeated.

Rising up, a head out of water, steeped in porcelain, I need something. The steam coming off the surface of the cotton candy blue water, it’s too hot this time, I think, and raise my leg out to cool my foot. Here I find myself in the bath, yet again. But this is no idyllic cleansing at a wood and tile onsen in the foothills overlooking Kyoto. Not even a sauna at the local public bath to leech out last night’s over-indulgence in alcohol. I’m just hotel-tired and can’t shake the feeling of persistent boredom dogging me like the gaudy fleur-de-lit patterned carpet of this three-story inn on the northwestern shores of middle-of-no-goddamned-where Hokkaido. Despite being covered with water, beads of sweat form on my scalp and drip into my eyes. I want a disrobed woman to be slipping in over me, I want a Jameson on the rocks, or at least a chilly cerveza and lime. I want something, but nothing sounds good. I think of masturbating but that too does nothing to excite me. God I wish I still smoked. I spy the linoleum floor strewn with the strange library of books I packed: The Unknown Orwell, The Decline of the Hollywood Empire, Death in Venice, The Phantom Empire, The Rise & Fall of the British Empire, The Satanic Verses, and the slow realization that there is some kind of weird end-of-empire motif running through my current selections dawns on me, when finally my eyes rest on the bright blue cover of Christopher McDougall’s Born To Run, the lone American offering in the bunch. Sinking just below the waterline I blow air motorboat-style through my mouth sheeshing, “Who brings a book about running to an ice-covered island in the North Pacific?” Thumbing my chest, while little hairs dance like hula girls in the water, I answer myself, “Idiot, that’s who.”

Born To Run by Christopher McDougall (Knopf, 2009)

Born To Run by Christopher McDougall (Knopf, 2009)

I pick up Salman Rushdie’s acclaimed work and admonish myself for being twenty years late to the party and, wondering if the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini who ordered the 1989 Fatwā on Rushdie’s life (that had since been long ago rescinded) had actually read the book or had merely had his underlings skim its more lurid Mohammedan highlights, thumb through its first pages until the water goes lukewarm and I waste yet another few moments of my life contemplating angels and demons and death. That feeling in the bath, all hot and bothered about some intangible thing—wanting a woman, wanting a drink, wanting a song to agitate me back into order—that stuck with me. Day after day, and week after week of the same room in the same hotel, literally waiting for my ship to come in, the sense of being frozen alive, became an overarching motif in my life. I had felt the first twinges of it coming on like a leech probing its prongs for a fat vein while living in Tokyo—the largest agglomeration of people the world has ever seen—for more than three years. It could have been the isolated nature of the situation in which I had put myself or something larger and deeper—like the solitude of Tokyo—, more frightening to name, so I chose not to. Remembering that beautiful cliché uttered by Irvine Welsh’s debased character Renton in his classic Trainspotting, “Choose Life,” I smiled and tossed the Verses toward the toilet, grabbing for Born To Run with a wet hand, figuring I’ll only break the dry spell of languishing in want by doing something anti-empire, something against the plans of men in high towers, what I had turned to when living in the heart of Tokyo’s faceless skyscraper culture, something that Renton would do—I ran.

I love to run and have always love to do so. Though if my flat feet could talk, they might say that I am not very good at it. Actually I am execrable, my Nordic body designed more for brooding and drinking. In the irretrievable ten years of my youth that I played soccer (football, et al) I scored one goal. Two if you count the one I scored against my own team. My lack of efficiently-lengthened hamstrings notwithstanding I ran my flat-footed little heart out, all the way to the pizza party where I won multiple trophies for “A-1 Sportsmanship” and “Teamwork”. And while I cannot say that I possess any true passion for taking up bench-space for the baseball and basketball teams for which I paid to play (two years apiece, respectively), nor donating my body as a tackling dummy for the high school football team, I do admit to a love of that one facet that courses through most all sports: running. In almost every single sport, at some point, you have to run as if your goddamned life depended on it. In those notable that you don’t—martial arts, swimming, hockey—the taxation of the body is strenuous enough to demonstrate that the creators of these sports must have hated running to the nth degree.

Which probably explains why I had been carrying around McDougall’s book for more than six months. Never reading past page one, but like a good run, it was always within reach. The subtitle, which read A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen, mystified me so when I first read it perusing Powell’s online bookstore that I bought it straight away. I take pride in the fact that advertising generally does not work on me, but this time, it did. Now that’s powerful blurb-writing, I thought, so how can the guts be any less awesome? Exactly.

Read this:

In the end, I got my answer, but only after I found myself in the middle of the greatest race the world would never see: the Ultimate Fighting Competition of footraces,an underground showdown pitting some of the best ultradistance runners of our time against the best ultrarunners of all time, in a fifty-mile race on hidden trails only Tarahumara feet had ever touched. I’d be startled to discover that the ancient saying of the Tao Te Ching—“The best runner leaves no tracks”—wasn’t some gossamer koan, but real, concrete, how-to, training advice.

And all because in January 2001I asked my doctor this:
“How come my foot hurts?”

Arnulfo Quimare © Luis Escobar

Arnulfo Quimare © Luis Escobar

So just who are the Tarahumara, the so-called “best ultradistance runners of our time?” and how the hell did a semi-overweight American with foot problems get into the greatest race the world would never see? This description, by the way, is on page nine. Much like his eventual tale of said race, in no way in the ensuing apt and well-written 278 pages does McDougall’s stamina ever give out. He may stutter-step or falter a bit here and there, but shit, it is an ultradistance marathon the likes of which the world has never seen, so who wouldn’t stub their toe at least once on the rocky, trailless terrain the Tarahumara call home? Overall, he gains speed and loses those twenty pounds, both literal and prosaic, throughout the course of his search for Caballo Blanco, adventures with the Tarahumara and the binge-drinking, double-marathoning, multi-ethnic horde of super-athletes he meets along the way.

The Tarahumara are the natives made famous in Carlos Castaneda’s trilogy of books you found on your college girlfriend’s nightstand about Don Juan and the Yaqui brujos of northern Mexico. Castaneda lied about several things, but especially that his brujo mentor was a Yaqui rather than a Tarahumara, who had grown up so well-versed in running over vast distances of mostly impenetrable and trailless mountain climes, that whenever the obese Castaneda took Peyote, he appeared to fly and move like a wizard. Of course he did. The Tarahumara, who call themselves the Rarámuri—literally, the running people, managed to avoid the conquistadors of Spain by running away from them, into the Baranca del Cobre, one of central Mexico’s hottest and toughest places to survive. Set deep in the Copper Canyons where they have managed to hide themselves from the world, the Rarámuri have developed a moneyless economy based on favors and alcohol, where there is no war, theft and little of the disease that plagues modern society, where they barter goods based on goodwill and when the tension crests before a big run, they have an all-day-all-night drink-off of their favorite beverage, tesgüino—corn beer. Yet in the age of the internet, industrial development and Mexican narcotraficantes, could the Rarámuri avoid the media frenzy that awaited them if they truly were the world’s most advanced race? Only a writer—and runner—with McDougall’s temerity would venture down, and invite his crazy runner friends, to find out.

Running pits the two most awesome human emotions both against and for one another: fear and pleasure. When I played soccer, I was mostly afraid of getting anywhere near the ball, for fear of what to do with it when other people’s spasmodic children came chasing after it. Rather than remain inactive, I usually kicked it the wrong way, a very good reason I was placed on the defensive side of the pitch for the majority of my career. Yet there was one sunny Southern California day when, powered by orange slices and multiple Capri Sun, I achieved pleasure in running, made even sweeter by the knowledge that it was pure and unbridled fear that propelled me forward, this time in the right direction. It happened that a ball finally rebounded to me off the nearby goalpost (for no one actually passed it to me), and something awoke deep inside and I ran like I had never run before. In retrospect I swear that it was a smile that appeared on my face as I raced black-stallion-esque toward the opposite goalpost, but it may have been the sheer look of terror that everyone else described later that may have propelled me onward. It may have helped that I had a well-known history of never having done anything and therefore the other team had no expectations that I should actually do anything with the ball, other than flail about for a bit before kicking it out of bounds. So when I did manage to successfully run while kicking the ball just far enough ahead to time the preceding poke of my suddenly extremely athletic-seeming feet, it shocked the other team—as well as my own—into a dumb silence and inert awe the likes of which my ten-year-old brain would never forget. I ran like the wind that passed from my behind after eating the cardboard triangles of pepperoni and cheese-covered crust at the pizza party at Chuck E. Cheeses immediately following our surprise one-goal upset of the league powerhouse Blue Jays. Maneuvering my way around the frozen children in their short shorts with their eyes bugging out of their still-overly large heads, I heard the cries of their coaches in slow-motion sound, silent until then finally come to life, and confused by my moplike haircut, shouting, “Stop her, er him” and even began questioning myself if I hadn’t broken some obvious rule and the referee had yet to blow the inevitable whistle and forever halt my one chance at glory. I approached the opposing goal and kicked and the goalie, still too zombiefied to react within time of my lethargic kick, missed the ball and I was king for a day, lifted upon shoulders and ass-patted by one and all. I think my mother fainted and my step-father was looking away at the cooler full of chilled cans of Budweiser, a fact which emerged when he continuously denied the goal at said pizzeria, shoving a piece of pizza deep into his craw, saying it must have been a freak Santa Ana wind which blew it in. He may have been right, but the fact remains that for the first time in my life I was both exhilarated and terrified by the single, simple act of running, an act I have never been able to forget nor to improve on since that fated Southern California Saturday. It’s just that now when I run, I have no goal in mind at all.

The next season I suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in my right knee, caused by what—hubris, karma, or merely having worn out my joints at the tender age of ten? Having already gone myopic the year before I was learning early on what a cruel mistress life could be. Had I already peaked? This question remained unanswered, but another one would eventually occur to McDougall: was it the soccer career-ending knee injury or the expensive training shoes that came first? McDougall’s research showed him that up to eight out of every ten runners are injured every year and “no invention has been invented to slow the carnage…if anything, [the injury rate] has actually ebbed up; Achilles Tendon blowouts have actually seen a ten percent increase.” Why is that? Shouldn’t we be getting better results as technology improves? Isn’t Nike making our lives better? Why is the overwhelming opinion of the medical profession that running is bad for you? “Because it makes our feet hurt…” Why don’t gazelles and cheetahs and horses feet hurt? What happened to us along the way to modernity? Or had we always been voted least likely to run in the yearbook of life on earth? Figure out how to stop your feet from hurting and you could unlock the key to running. Are we actually born to run? This is McDougall’s quest.

Caballo Blanco Running With A Smile © Luis Escobar

Caballo Blanco Running With A Smile © Luis Escobar

McDougall soon finds out that the Rarámuri aren’t great runners, they’re great athletes. “Those two things are very different. Runners are assembly line workers; they become good at one thing…Athletes are Tarzans. Tarzan swims and wrestles and jumps and swings on vines. He’s strong and explosive. You never know what Tarzan will do next. Which is why he never gets hurt.” One other thing: Tarzan loves what he does. There is the sense of play at the heart of every action Tarzan makes. Same too with the Rarámuri, whose version of soccer, called rarájipari, is more like an exhilarating ball race over rough terrain that, more than the 90 minutes of our own modern game, can last for two days. These guys, pounding cups of corn mash mixed with chia seeds and smiling the whole time, are wearing homemade sandals and there is no halftime. At last count in 2006, there were anywhere from 50,000 to 70,000 Rarámuri living throughout the northwestern part of Mexico’s rugged Sierra Madre range which has caverns deeper than the Grand Canyon and altitudes that top 3000 meters (more than 9000 feet). How have these peaceful running people survived in an age when indigenous natives have been eradicated, assimilated and pushed to the brink of extinction?

An elder teaches a group of Rarámuri children. “You’re alive because your father can run down a deer. He’s alive because his father could outrun an Apache war pony.” Is it true? Can a man run down a deer and outrun a horse? Or is it more than tiring out your prey and outrunning your predators? Is it for the pure love of running that the ancient Rarámuri have thrived in their athletic way of life more than any other people since the Spartans? Is that why they do not war amongst fellow tribes and heart disease has no grip on their arteries, because instead of expecting miracles from technological innovations, they know the truth: that the greatest invention of all time is the human body.

Soaking up the invigorating injection of potential there in the tub, I read on. McDougall points out that “three times America has seen distance-running sky-rocket.” And it’s always in the midst of a national crisis: the Great Depression, Vietnam and 9/11. He goes on, “…maybe there’s a trigger in the human psyche, a coded response that activates our first and greatest survival skill when we sense the raptors approaching.” It dawned on me that back in Tokyo, I had began running in earnest after meeting with a priest from the local Zen Buddhist temple, whom I had approached to learn how to meditate in the traditional Zazen style. After undergoing several painful sessions of attempting to sit in the lotus position (unachievable due to my old soccer injury) while emptying my mind of all clutter, which is to say too many damn things, the rishi took me aside and, offering me green tea and strawberry cake, laughed, “Bald head, sitting toward wall, beaten with stick, eating rice gruel, begging for change…Zazen not for everyone. Ha ha.” He continued, laughing, cake crumbs falling from his fingertips, “ You find your Zazen. Maybe travel and writing haiku, like Bashō. Don’t think, just do…and smile.”

For me, I found my form of Zazen in running. Not waiting to finish the book, exploding out of the bath I threw on a thin, wicking long-sleeve, shorts and shoes and bounded out of the hotel room and onto the narrow paths next to the sea buffeted by a wall of frozen snow. Almost immediately lost, once again I experienced the blissed out emptiness of satori I knew in racing across Tokyo’s traffic-jammed cityscape to the peace of Yoyogi Park and Meiji Shrine, continuing past one, two, five, ten miles into a run I not only had no idea when would end, but the thought never occurred. Finally, mystically, making my way back to the hotel, rapturously tired, beatifically smiling, vacant of everything except glittery eyes and buzzing axons, a thought finally wheedled its way into my Zenned-out brain—that despite all the doctors telling me I was not made to run, like McDougall found out in the far and gone reaches of the Copper Canyon from an ancient people, I too, like you as well, was born to run.

Author’s Note: On March 27, 2012, Micah True, “Caballo Blanco”, left from the Gila Wilderness Lodge in New Mexico for a morning run, and never returned. On March 31, Micah’s body was found by the side of a stream, about a mile south east of the Gila Cliff Dwellings. He died as he lived: running. A series of Born To Run Ultra Marathons was held last week in which Caballo Blanco was listed an an entrant in the 100km. Here for more information.

Empire Folly

Empire Folly

“Who could conquer Tenochtitlan?

Who could shake the foundation of heaven…?”

 

It is the winter of 1519 and there is much ado in Old Worlds and New: the Roman Papacy, led by Leo X is doing its best to suppress a renegade heretic named Martin Luther from spreading his blasphemies; Ferdinand Magellan is outfitting a crew of sailors in Seville with plans to circumnavigate the world; Maximilian I, the Holy Roman Emperor has died, setting off arrangements to coronate his grandson, King Charles of Spain, as heir; meanwhile thousands of miles across the great seas, a little-known conquistador named Hernán Cortés lands in the Yucatan peninsula with eleven ships, 500 men, thirteen horses, and some cannon, dreaming of wealth and glory.

"Conquest: Montezuma, Cortés, and the Fall of Old Mexico" (Simon & Schuster, 1993) by Hugh Thomas

"Conquest: Montezuma, Cortés, and the Fall of Old Mexico" (Simon & Schuster, 1993) by Hugh Thomas

Hugh Thomas’ history of the adventures of Cortés, appropriately titled Conquest: Montezuma, Cortés, and the Fall of Old Mexico (Simon & Schuster, 1993) is an enormous undertaking. Thoroughly researched and meticulously told, as much biography as it is history, Thomas describes a force of personality so intelligent, cunning, and audacious, as to be a nearly mythical figure of history. It was one thing for the Europeans to dominate an archipelago of scattered, benign tribes— wholly another for them to subdue an enormous empire run with an efficiency as sophisticated as its cousin kingdoms on the European continent. Cortés succeeds by utilizing leadership, diplomacy, strength of character and some Machiavellian technique. But this is not a hagiography— contemporary historical hindsight does not take kindly to what in the end became wholesale destruction of a flourishing, vibrant culture.

Empire Folly

Conquest is a massive book difficult to summarize even in a long essay, so interesting and detailed is the story. At the back end more than 160 pages are devoted to chapter notes and sources, while the appendices include a glossary of the Nahuatl language, a summary of Montezuma’s tribute, Mexican calendars, a table of Spanish currency, a list of Cores’ mistresses, and genealogical diagrams of the emperors of Mexico, the Imperial Spanish family, Cortés’ ancestry, and the transformation of the post-conquest Mexican imperial family. This is preceded by well over six hundred pages of text that reads alternately academic and the best of adventure narrative.

The story begins in Tenochtitlan, where the Mexica (pronounced Mesheeka) ruled a vast empire (Thomas disavows the word “Aztec,” a malapropism popularized in the 18th century). They had a centralized government similar to feudal Europe. Also like Europe was Mexico’s pyramidal social structure, divided between nobles, craftsmen, peasants, and slaves. This was no garden of eden but a complex hierarchy uninterested in the issue of inequity. Priests, as ambassadors to the gods, were highly influential and whom emperors turned to for all divine guidance. Montezuma, the Mexican emperor in 1519, was particularly superstitious and susceptible to portents.

Because of elaborate pomp and ritual, the Mexica required enormous quantities of tribute from the provinces it ruled (some examples from the appendix: loads of lime: 16,800; gold-mounted crystal lip plugs: forty; live eagles: two). Tax collectors roamed the valleys to the coasts collecting for the emperor, causing considerable resentment among the smaller tribes. Moreover, the Mexica often staged phony wars with rivals in order to guarantee prisoners for human sacrifice.

Dressed in ostentatious costumes mimicking the wardrobe of gods and given peyote or mushrooms or even pulque (the mother of tequila) to quell anxieties, captives were led to the top of the great pyramids, where, “the normal procedure was for the victim to be held down on a stone block by four priests. His heart would be plucked out professionally by a chief priest or even the monarch…the heart would be burned in a brazier. The head would be cut off and held up. The limbs would be ritually eaten, with maize or chili, by noblemen…the torso would be thrown away, or given to animals in one of the zoos.”

It sounds gruesome but according to Mexican belief, death by “the obsidian knife” entailed a beautiful afterlife in “the paradise of the sun.” In the end, human sacrifice would be the most important argument for Spain’s superior civilization (never mind the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition!) But to the Mexica, if they did not sacrifice to Huitzilopochtili, the sun would not shine and if they did not give to Tlaloc, the rain would not come and maize, the staple of their diet, would not grow.

Montezuma, Cortes, Malinche Meeting in Tenochtitlan (Mexican National Archive)

Mural of Montezuma greeting Cortes upon his arrival to Tenochtitlan, with La Malinche acting as translator (Mexican National Archive)

Who were these Spanish adventurers confronting a society with such unpronounceable gods? Mostly they were men “of an experience as long as their reputation was dubious.” The first tide of explorers originally came to the New World with Columbus’ second expedition in 1493, a “company of gentlemen” descended from powerful Castilian families (the historian is forgiven for his occasionally tedious layouts of pedigree). They established great encomiendas (agricultural estates tended by Indian slaves) in Hispaniola, Cuba, and Jamaica. Explorations were privately funded, which meant they needed to return profit on their (costly) investment. They weren’t interested in Christianizing (and therefore humanizing) the natives, whom they needed as a labor force. The Spanish did not play fair: entering a new land and subduing resistance, the Requerimiento was read out in an unfamiliar language affirming that the territory was now in Royal Spanish hands. The tipping point for European arrogance was Alexander VI’s Papal Bull formally dividing the New World between the Spanish and Portuguese kingdoms, to which effrontery the Cenu Indians suggested, “The pope must be drunk.”

Once the first generation of settlers arrived, the Caribbean experienced a demographic crisis: there was no longer enough indigenous to operate the encomiendas since many had died from overwork looking for gold or malnutrition after the introduction of wild cattle devastated crop yield. Something had to be done about this labor shortage.

Enter Hernán Cortés. Like many conquistadores he came of age in a golden age of violence and glory. In the late 15th Century, the Moors were expelled from Spain and many Jews forced into conversion (and those that didn’t were handled by Torquemada and his inquisitors). Between religious cleansing, Columbus’ discoveries and the unification of the Spanish crown, much opportunity existed for ambitious, courageous men.

Cortés, of a minor noble family in Medellín, Extremadura, arrived in Cuba via Salamanca and Seville, when he was eighteen. Displaying wit, foresight, and intelligence, he became a favorite of Diego Velasquez, the governor of Cuba, working up the ranks as a notary, secretary, treasurer, and magistrate, then as an encomienda lord and mine baron. He could read and quote Latin as well as popular ballads. A physical, intellectual, and engaging presence, Cortés rose to power on the strength of his Renaissance Man qualities, which is why Governor Valesquez named him caudillo of a commercial expedition to the Yucatan.

But it quickly became clear to the Governor that the caudillo was exceeding his authority. In bringing horses and cannon it seemed to all Cortés had long-term plans to establish a colony. A messenger sent to relieve Cortés of authority was murdered en route and all of a certain port city’s meat taken by Cortés at gunpoint. This flagrant disrespect made a lifelong enemy out of Valesquez.

Cortés’ was the not first fleet captained to explore what was beginning to be called New Spain: Francisco Hernandez de Cordoba and Juan de Grijalva had made exploratory maneuvers the year before, antagonizing the Mayans, who now challenged Cortés upon arrival. Attack dogs and artillery took care of the first wave of Indians and cannon and horses (the Mayans mistook the equine for dragons) took care of the second. The Mayans were slaughtered because their swords were made from obsidian rather than metal—built to wound, not kill (the Mexica would have the same problem). The Spanish reliance on artillery was anathema to the Indians, who believed it dishonorable to strike from a distance. Thus both technology and the playbook were to the Spanish advantage.

Slowly, Cortés and his men moved up the coast, reading out the Requerimiento to perplexed audiences, building settlements and demanding gold (which they received when available in exchange for beads, looking glasses, pins, needles, and scissors— obviously the events at hand antecede the concept of fair trade).

Mexica Solar Calendar Circa15th century by Unknown Pre-Colombian Artists

Mexica Solar Calendar Circa15th century by Unknown Pre-Colombian Artists

Meanwhile, Cortés’ troublemaking was beginning to freak out the Mexican emperor, Montezuma. It was bad enough that this foreign army had cannon that “deafened the Indians and made trees vanish,” as well as “‘deer’ which bore the visitors on their backs” and dogs with “great hanging jowls and blazing yellow eyes.” The worst of it was the possibility the visitor might have been an “immortal… sent from heaven.” This foreign leader dressed in black resembled Quetzalcoatl, a bearded god, “the warrior of the dawn,” a morning star, the one deity philosophically opposed to human sacrifice. The fact that that year in the Mexican calendar, “I-Reed,” Quetzalcoatl was ascendant, suggested a very bad portent indeed.

Nevertheless, unlike many conquistadores, Cortés was not out for blood. War exhausted his men, caused casualties and desertions, and depleted his harquebusier’s gunpowder and his crossbow men’s arrows. Cortés preferred allies to enemies and was able to make friends via his interpreters (Geronimo de Aguilar, who had shipwrecked on the coast ten years earlier spoke Spanish and Mayan, while a concubine Cortés received in the victors’ spoils, La Malinche (who would be Cortés’ mistress and give birth to one of the first mestizos), spoke Mayan and Nahuatl, the lingua franca of the Valley of Mexico). Cortés learned early on that while his army intimidated the locals, they seemed to hate the Mexica more than the Spanish. The native kings fed Cortés’ men and, crucially, supplied him with porters and guides.

But not all Indians were so accommodating, as the journey to Tenochtitlan became a Spanish Heart of Darkness. Some testified later, “The Castilians perpetrated many unnecessary cruelties, such as cutting off noses, ears, arms, feet and testicles, as well as throwing priests down from the tops of the temples” and that “arms were weary from killing Indians.” Sixteenth century shock and awe entailed wholesale massacres and pillaging, tactics Cortés might have learned from previous pacification programs in Cuba.

In spite of a first encounter battle, the rogue kingdom of Tlaxcala offered hospitality to Cortés and his men. Later, the Tlaxcalans would prove more instrumental than any other tribe in defeating the hated Mexica and bringing down the traditional culture preceding Cortés’ invasion. They would even exceed the Castilians in their savage destruction of rivals, soon proving themselves “good vassals of King Charles” in a confrontation at the kingdom of Cholula, a tribe sympathetic to the Mexica and refusing hospitality to the Spanish. The slaughter was horrendous. The town was sacked with “much stabbing, slaying, and beating.” As was the pattern in the Caudillo’s conquests, temples were whitewashed and pagan idolatry was replaced with crosses and pictures of the Virgin.

Tailing the expedition now were emissaries from Montezuma, who were beginning to doubt that Cortés could be Quetzalcoatl— for one thing, Cholula was dedicated to this deity; for another, it was doubtful a god— any god— could be so murderous. The Mexican emissaries showered Cortés with many gifts, begging him not to come to Tenochtitlan. However, after the massacre at Cholula, Cortés and his forces were able to march into the capitol unopposed on November 9th.

This is an historic event of two powerful cultures coming into contact for the first time and should be described with some detail: “The Castilian expedition made an immense impression… the horses kept turning, moving back and forth, their riders looking at everything on every side with the greatest attention… great dogs ran ahead, panting… the standard-bearer walked by himself, waving his banner back and forth… The Mexica were much impressed by the steel swords and lances, both of which flashed brightly. The crossbowmen and harquebusiers were wielding their weapons and making as if to test them. Behind Cortés, the Indian allies made noises as if preparing for war, shrieking, hitting their mouths with their hands, whistling, and shouting…”

"Tenochtitlan" at the National Palace by Diego Rivera

"Tenochtitlan" at the National Palace by Diego Rivera

The Castilians were equally in awe, for at the time only Constantinople rivaled Tenochtitlan in size. The city of Tenochtitlan was on a lake connected by four causeways. Vast numbers of canoes made from hollowed tree trunks approached the Castilians to observe these strange white, dirty, bearded men from the water. The pyramids of the city emerged as “castellated fortresses, splendid monuments… glorious heights!” Happy to have arrived in the capitol without incident, the harquebusiers fired volleys into the air, the thunder of which astonished the Mexica.

Receiving an audience with Montezuma was just as dazzling: “None of the Castilians would have admired the polished stone labret with on it the blue figure of a humming bird which the Emperor wore on his lower lip. Nor would they have approved his large earplugs and turquoise nose-ornament. But they could not fail to have been awed by the fine feather headdresses which both the Emperor and the nobles wore, as by the jaguar costumes of the senior warriors, with the animals’ heads over their own.”

Montezuma and Cortés greeted each other with a hug and then Montezuma escorted the Castilians to their lodgings at the Palace of Axayacatl. What happened later that night set the tone for what Cortés believed became his legal authority over the Mexican people. Montezuma, as is custom with good hospitality, probably expressed his obedience to King Charles in meaningless but polite language germane to the formal occasion, which Cortés assumed to mean that Montezuma had ceded authority to the European monarch. This meant that any defiance on the part of the Mexica could now be construed as rebellion, a treason punishable by death.

It’s hard to know for certain what happened— his words were doubly translated, from Nahuatl to Mayan to Spanish— omissions and enhancements might have been made in the process and nuance lost. Montezuma was both intimidated and curious of the caudillo but it’s unlikely he could begin to contemplate the duplicity and avarice of European conquerors. Right away he was taken into “custody” by the Spanish, a strategic coup for Cortés , as it amounted to severing the head of a very hierarchical society.

At first, nothing much happened and life in Tenochtitlan went on as before. For the conquistadores, the marketplace was inevitably a place of fascination: “All goods were sold by number and size rather than weight—for weights were unknown in old Mexico: gold dust, for example, was sold in goose quills. Many sections of the market provided services, like haircutting. There was another department where slaves were sold, tied to poles by collars…prices varied: if the slave was not highly skilled as a dancer, his price was thirty large cloaks; but if he danced well his price was forty. Canoes full of human excrement were disposed of to tan skins. The market at Tlatelolco, like most great markets, was a haunt of prostitutes and gamblers.”

But as time passed and the Mexicans grew weary of feeding a motley crew of gold-diggers, Montezuma’s cooperative imprisonment was beginning to adversely affect the structure of Mexican life. The emperor was “the heart of the city,” whose words were “precious jades,” and who spoke on behalf of the gods, of whom he was “the seat, the flute, the jaws, the ears,” who not only governed Mexico but kept alive the universe itself. His helplessness was all the more magnified when Cortés took violent reprisals against rebels, executing them in an auto de fe. Montezuma was compelled to reaffirm his vassalage to King Charles, which he did, weeping. Of course, it wasn’t enough Cortés had Montezuma’s state— he had to have his soul too: “Believe in our God who made heaven and earth, and, by His works, you will know who the Master is.”

Meanwhile, conditions in the Caribbean had deteriorated the past year when a smallpox epidemic wiped out whatever Indians not yet fatally claimed from overwork. Governor Valesquez, incensed at the rumors of Cortés’ success, commissioned a large force, headed by Pánfilo de Narváez, who was charged with relieving Cortés of his command. But shortly after the flotilla arrived on the coast, Cortés, utilizing diplomacy, bribery, and a bold nighttime ambush, captured Narváez, put him in chains and conscripted Valesquez’ police force into his own ranks.

While Cortés was at the coast, in Tenochtitlan there was a festival with much music and dance. Dance, integral to Mexican spiritual culture, was not just amusement but a religious rite, a service of gods, “calling upon them with one’s whole body,” to provide with peace, children, health, and wisdom. In command of Tenochtitlan during Cortés’ absence, his favorite lieutenant, Pedro de Alvarado, exercised remarkably bad temper. Feeling threatened by the communality of the festival, Alvarado and his men slaughtered the participants in mid-celebration: “They surrounded those who danced… struck off the arms of the one who beat the drums… his neck and his head flew off… They pierced them all with their iron lances… Of some they slashed open the back and there their entrails fell out. Of some, they split the head, they hacked their heads to pieces…” And so on.

The Causeway across Lake Texcoco to Tenochtitlan

The Causeway across Lake Texcoco to Tenochtitlan

This bloodbath was the breaking point. When Cortés returned to Tenochtitlan he found it under siege. For all of Cortés’ shortcomings, he did not want a war. He ordered Montezuma to reestablish normalcy but by now Montezuma was a groveling wreck. It seems that he might have been a victim of Stockholm Syndrome. When an insurgency finally took shape under the leadership of his brother, Cuitlahuac, Montezuma pled with his countrymen to make peace with the occupiers. During one such overture to his subjects, he was assaulted with stones, dying from injuries shortly thereafter.

Montezuma’s disgrace in death is one of the great tragedies in a tale built with tears. Had he been more decisive, he might have defeated the Spanish. As stated before, an emperor’s leadership is everything, so his passiveness infected Mexican society, enabling the Castilians to gain the decisive upper hand.

However, at that point, nothing yet was inevitable. Now determined to fight, the Mexica cut off all access to food and water in the palace. Cortés decided to lead his men out of the city on the night of June 30th, remembered now as La Noche Triste (“The Night of Sorrows”). The Mexica overwhelmed the Castilians on the causeway— two thirds of Cortés’ men were lost as well as most of the horses and nearly all the gold. Many were captured, sacrificed and later eaten. Cortés retreated across the mountains to Tlaxcala where he was given sanctuary.

I should note that although this reader knew the outcome of this story, it was impossible not to root for the Mexica. The arrogance, avarice, prejudice, and ruthlessness of the Castilians was despicable. This is not 20/20 hindsight: many in Cortés’ time were horrified at the treatment of the Indians, including members of the Crown and the Church. Had the authorities understood the atrocities being perpetrated in their name, they would have been ashamed. Territory claimed and souls saved— the ends don’t always justify the means.

La Noche Triste was a turning point in the campaign. From then on the conflict became total war. Unfortunately for the Mexica, they were unable to secure any alliances. Either out of a desire for revenge, a fear of the Spanish, or sense that the empire was experiencing a paradigm shift, tens of thousands of natives allied themselves with the Spanish, feeding them, carrying their equipment, and killing for them. Those that didn’t fall in line were “pacified.” Worse, smallpox had arrived in New Spain with the Narváez expedition, decimating the indigenous population. Only the Spanish proved immune, further demoralizing the Mexica who interpreted the disease as divine punishment. There weren’t enough people to harvest and ground the maize. Famine ensued.

The situation for the Mexica continued to worsen. Spanish reinforcements with troops, horses, artillery and foodstuffs arrived from the coast. Cuitlahuac perished in the epidemic, succeeded by his cousin, Cuauhtémoc, Unfortunate for superstitious types, Cuauhtémoc’s name translated as “Setting Sun.”

Nothing so well demonstrates the different martial methodology of the two war parties than the weeks leading to the final confrontation. Cortés was preparing to siege Tenochtitlan by constructing thirteen brigantines that would give him control of the lake. Doing so, he could totally isolate the Mexica from access to food and water. While full-scale construction of the ships was underway, across the lake the Mexica were celebrating the festival of Etzalqualiztli. Priests would bathe continuously in the lake, the spiritual leader announcing: “This is the place of the serpents’ anger, the flight of the wild duck, the murmur of the white rushes.” Priests leapt, splashed and cavorted in the water mimicking birdsong: “some spoke like ducks babbling…some imitated water ravens… some like kingfishers.”

Nevertheless, when Cortés finally attacked, the Mexica gave everything they had to save their civilization. Though his brigantines and divisions cut off the Mexica at the causeways, in the war of attrition the Mexica fought bravely with obsidian knives and stones against artillery, crossbows, and Toledo steel. In spite of the superiority in technology and tactics, taking Tenochtitlan was a game of inches, not dissimilar to urban house-to-house fighting witnessed in Stalingrad in the last century. It had been Cortés’ desire to hand a jeweled city to his King but by the time the Spanish took the capitol it was a pile of smoking rubble. Cortés had won a pyrrhic victory.

Though Cortés had promised to treat the fallen monarch with dignity, Cuauhtémoc was tortured into providing the whereabouts of more gold. Natives throughout the land quickly learned they had made a deal with the devil once it became clear Spanish demands for tribute would exceed the Mexica. Whatever beautifully crafted work was recovered was burned down to make gold bars, the better for distribution. However, the conquistadores, who had suffered so many privations over the past two years, were astonished when Cortés paid them a pittance. They reacted to this injustice by perpetuating it on the natives in more expeditions to the frontier. Amazed by Spanish gold lust, the chief of the Tarascans concluded “they must eat it if they like it so much.” Inevitably most indigenous became human chattel in encomiendas partitioned by the new foreign government. Not long after, Franciscan and Dominican orders arrived, baptizing millions. The gods were the last to go of the old ways.

Portrait of Hernán Cortés

Portrait of Hernán Cortés

Cortés succeeded an improbable victory by improvising against numerous calamities. A creative leader, he’d organized a complex siege, inspired the brigantines, and forged a unique alliance with rival tribes. Against tens of thousands of Indians killed, he had experienced modest losses. The Crown eventually recognized him for his achievements, naming him Captain-General of New Spain. It was the apex of his career. Twenty years and some unsuccessful exploratory trips later he died in his homeland, in debt and disregarded by a new generation of forward-thinking adventurers.

Five centuries onward, we struggle for an appropriate moral for this story. We can draw some conclusions. It’s arguable that the Mexican empire fell to the Spanish not because of the latter’s edge in ruthlessness or aggression but because of these same faults in themselves. The other tribes in the Valley of Mexico should have sided against the Spanish: with the Mexica they shared the same language and religion, yet for all this shared culture, they committed their fate with the invaders— a caveat for contemporary empires who misappraise the extent of their power and influence.

It’s so easy to see inevitabilities when looking back at history. If not Cortés, then some other conquistador… But in disagreeing, the historian, Thomas, makes a fascinating assertion: “The conquest required Cortés’ capacity and determination to win over the Indians. Had it not been for their help, as porters, as quartermasters, and in providing a sanctuary, the expedition would have foundered. Had that occurred, who is to say that the Mexica under Cuauhtémoc might not have acquired the use of Spanish weapons, and perhaps learned to use horses? Even allowing for the onslaught of smallpox, they might have maintained a determined opposition until Spain became weary of conquering. Perhaps they would have embarked upon their own version of the Meiji era in Japan.”

Though there is a certain delight in revisionist speculation, that pleasure remains the property of fictionists. The historian’s role is to make sense of the past. Whether you respect or loathe his accomplishments, you must acknowledge Cortés is one of the godfathers of our modern world, begetting us his proselytizing spirit, adventurous bravery, and hypocritical violence. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Pass the Ayahuasca, Watson (HESO Magazine)

Pass The Ayahuasca, Watson…

“Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made…”

— [Genesis 3:1]

Pass the Ayahuasca, Watson (HESO Magazine)

Pass the Ayahuasca, Watson

Where does life come from? It’s a question that has plagued man since the first spark of consciousness emerged. To seek it, people have looked to the sky, opened up sacred books, peered through microscopes, ingested plants, starved and cut themselves, joined cults… Yet despite the disparities between the perspectives thrown up by such activities, there runs a thick seam of parallels. Perhaps the world is just inherently symbolic- or perhaps the structure of the human mind is such that everyone perceives and paints the world in similar colours. If so, it is possible that modern systems of knowledge are merely rediscovering what forgotten cultures knew long ago.

Take the snake, for example. A symbol of deception, trickery, poison, chicanery: he who betrayed us and banished us from the idyllic Eden. In the West, the snake is a tool of the devil, the ungrateful and nasty figure in European folk tales, the nefarious engine of Cleopatra’s suicide. Yet it also allowed mankind to reproduce, propagate and dominate; its role in the creation stories of countless cultures mean it is also seen as a symbol of renewal and rebirth.

But why should this limbless, slithering reptile represent the beginning of life? In Aborigine, Mayan, Egyptian, Aztec and several Amazonian cultures, serpents are often depicted as a pair, forming a double helix and signifying infinity. Spiralling ladders and twins have also been similarly employed in other cultural imaginings. The double helix structures, often a twisted rope, implies communication between the sky and the earth, and it is the means of transport used by the Gods to travel between the earth and the sky.

Banisteriopsis Caapi Vine © Rafael Guimarães dos Santos

Banisteriopsis Caapi Vine © Rafael Guimarães dos Santos

Curiously, these images bear a striking resemblance to what Crick, Watson and the underrated Rosemary unearthed in 1952: the DNA molecule. Despite the fact that they were lauded for their ‘discovery’, what if they had merely re-interpreted what others had known for millions of years, only in their own specific system of knowledge?

Enter Jeremy Narby: anthropologist by trade and ayahuascero by choice, he travelled to the Peruvian Amazon to write an ethnography about the Ashaninca people. What resulted, The Cosmic Serpent: DNA and the Origins of Knowledge, found that their creation myth was also based on a pair of spiralling snakes, and they explained to Narby that he would have to take ayahuasca in a shamanic ceremony in order to understand their perception and interpretation of the world.

Ayahuasca, Caapi or Yage to any beatniks still breathing, is a compound drug, formed of dimethyltryptamine, or DMT, from shrubs of the Psychotria genus (although the chemical is also present in human spinal fluid) and banisteriopsis caapi, a vine that grows around tree trunks in a spiral that resembles—yes—a double helix.

Narby’s subsequent experiences of ayahuasca ceremonies motivated him to reject the objectivity so beloved of anthropology and other sciences and embrace a more holistic theory of the synchronicities between modern Western science and ancient shamanic theories. He argued that both molecular biologists and shamans would concur on one point: that there is a hidden unity that underlies all forms of life, and it is only at this level that one can heal. However, his theory was heavily criticized, not least by mainstream science. In the West, scientists tend to fetishize absolutes and reject mysteries and uncertainty. Furthermore, archaic knowledge systems (or ‘shamanic flights of fancy’) are regarded as gloriously irrelevant and loopy as a Merry Prankster babbling gibberish in a bathtub high on acid.

This is for two reasons: firstly, Western science has tended to privilege visual or sensory phenomena above intuition or mere ‘feeling’. Secondly, even in those forms of science that admit that truth lies at a deeper level than what we can perceive, deductive logic reigns supreme. Most scientists, in an attempt to reject the ‘divine plan’ put forth by religions, subscribe to an idea of evolution as unconscious and arbitrary.

"The Cosmic Serpent: DNA and the Origins of Knowledge" Jeremy Narby (Georg, 1998)

"The Cosmic Serpent: DNA and the Origins of Knowledge" Jeremy Narby (Georg, 1998)

Yet, as Narby pointed out, DNA is problematic because it simultaneously represents mutation and continuity, transformations and transference. For example, enzymes edit the RNA transcript of the DNA script by sending a constant stream of messages to cells, between which they must choose: die, stay alive, divide, don’t divide. Given that the Latin word for intelligence, intelegere, means “to choose between”, the cells’ subsequent decisions actually represent a form of intelligence. Even if this intelligence is of an emergent rather than a top-down form, and evidences no ‘plan’ as such, it is right to say that we are formed of a living language, a code in constant flux.

What level could such structures be perceived at? As Western science tends to regard hallucinations as the product of a dysfunctional mind, rather than as an interpretation of reality in some form, it refuses to recognise shamanic visions as a form of knowledge. Yet in many cultures, hallucinatory trance is seen as a way of communing with the world, in which normally imperceptible information is transmitted. The claims of shamans that they are actually able to ‘see’ DNA seems preposterous to scientists, given that DNA is 120 times narrower than even the smallest wavelength of visible light.

But how, then, are there such synchronicities between the images of double helixes, chromosome shapes and splitting spirals in ancient Aborigine, Egyptian and Amazonian artworks, and the scientific depictions of DNA? Shamans claim that they are able to access a level of consciousness where they communicate with the ‘animate essences’ or ‘spirits’ of things, and they attribute their botanical and medical knowledge to the trances in which they do this. Narby investigated how this might be possible, and discovered that scientists in the 1980s found that all cells emit photons at a rate of 100 photons per second, per square centimetre, making it within the wavelength perceptible to human eyes. Naturally, those photons were emitted from DNA.

If the shamans are correct in saying that they actually communicate with DNA in trance states, it would account for the curious luminescence of hallucinatory visions; all living things are permeated with a bright light that comes directly from the DNA-emitted photons, allowing the shamans to ‘read’ the essences of plants and other living things. The shamans claims that as the form of the banisteria caapi mimics that of DNA itself, it opens up the consciousness of those who ingest it, allowing them to communicate with DNA itself. Absurd as the suggestion may sound, it is this that has allowed numerous cultures to perceive the essential unity the underlies all life forms, and depict it in the form of serpents or entwined ladders, or ropes. Even scientists themselves often describe the movement of the DNA molecule as ‘snakelike’, and are only gradually beginning to understanding the medical knowledge of the shamans in their own terms now. Narby thus arrived at the conclusion that one part of humanity had detached itself from the serpent life principle, in adopting an exclusively rational point of view. Ironically, that part of humanity which has detached itself from the serpent life principle managed to discover it in a laboratory three thousand years later. It seems the scientists can’t see the wood for their petri dishes.

About the Author

Sophie Knight is a writer based in Tokyo, Japan (Manny Santiago)

  • Sophie Knight is a writer based in Tokyo, Japan, who contributes regularly to HESO on a variety of subjects.

Copyright

Unless otherwise stated All images © HESO Magazine, 2011.

This work is distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike license. If you wish to use reproduce any of this context in a commercial context, explicit permission is required. Please contact me directly.

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He argued that both molecular biologists and shamans would concur on one point: that there is a hidden unity that underlies all forms of life, and it is only at this level that one can heal.

Day of the Locust

Day of the Locust

“Only those who still have hope can benefit from tears.”
― Nathanael West, The Day of the Locust

Day of the Locust

The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West

Of all the major metropolitan cities in America, none deserve the misanthrope’s fury more than Los Angeles. After all, what urban area better represents the false promises of contemporary American Dreams than the one that declares you’re special and deserve your own TV show, only to exchange that dangling carrot for a dishwasher’s rag or a chauffeur’s hat? Los Angeles is no stranger to national decay: poor infrastructure, class war, race ghettos, illegal immigration, and economic inequality are some of the more serious problems unlikely to be addressed by a recession-era government more sympathetic to austerity than investment measures. On the other hand, the winters are terrific and even you, you fat slob, can be a star too.

What’s amazing is that it has always been like this and when we think of golden era yesterdays, it’s probably because we haven’t read Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust. First published in 1939, the novel presents a world that seems to have changed little in seventy years: Prom Queens from Ohio slinging sex appeal at shitty Sunset Strip bars for tips and whose days’ highlight is some drunk with a money clip saying, “Hey, you look like that movie star…”

Day of the Locust

Nathahael West knew the type. He worked in Hollywood as a scenario writer on B-movie scripts because nobody would read his books (the 1930s was a golden era of literary luminaries slumming for the studios— among West’s drinking buddies were F. Scott Fitzgerald and William Faulkner). When a novelist makes ten times the money writing knucklehead dialogue than he is able to make with his personal work, it’s probably a given he might bite the hand that feeds him but in West’s case, he lunges for the groin and castrates the beast mercilessly.

The Day of the Locust is a story of outcasts, losers, and never-wills, centered generally on an apartment called the San Bernardino Arms, and specifically on a femme fatale blonde named Faye Greener, a wannabe starlet obsessed with fame, raised by a vaudevillian father. Members of her coterie include an Ivy League artist working as an illustrator for the studios named Tod Hackett, a profane dwarf named Abe Kusich, a taciturn rodeo cowboy named Earle Shoop, his Mexican sidekick, Miguel, and finally, Homer Simpson, a shy, feckless newcomer from small-town Iowa too innocent to survive a city as culturally psychotic as Los Angeles.

Day of the Locust (HESO Magazine)

Film still from "The Day of the Locust"

Because he is educated in arts and culture Tod Hackett can see through the social veneer. For all the sunshine and apparent opportunity, many of the people on the street “were savage and bitter, especially the middle-aged and the old, and had been made so by boredom and disappointment.” Tod is inspired by these failures that “had come to California to die.” To his studio peers he seems the mild-mannered type but he’s working secretly on his masterpiece, “The Burning of Los Angeles,” a large painting about an apocalyptic fire that consumes the city. Tod doesn’t have to travel very far in Hollywood to find ruined souls perfect as subject matter.

Meanwhile, he lusts madly for Faye. Although he understands what Faye is after and that she would sell her soul in a second for matinee idolatry, he obsesses over her nonetheless. Flirtatiously, she uses him when she needs him but never lets him through the threshold as “he had nothing to offer her, neither money nor looks, and she could only love a handsome man and would only let a wealthy man love her. Tod was a ‘good-hearted man,’ and she liked ‘good-hearted men,’ but only as friends.” But perhaps he’s not as “good-hearted” as she was led to believe because her games aggravate Tod so much he gets to the point that he wishes he “had the courage to wait for her some night and hit her with a bottle and rape her.” Disney fare, this ain’t.

The other major figure in Faye’s life is Homer, who takes care of her after her father dies. Homer is generous, ingenuous, stupid, empty: “whether he was happy or not is hard to say. Probably he was neither, just as a plant is neither.” Tod hates the way Faye uses him, spending his money and having him put up her lovers, Earl and Miguel and their cockfighting birds in the garage. But he doesn’t feel much sympathy for Homer, mostly because Hollywood life and all its artifice seems to have numbed his capacity for true human warmth.

Hollywood did not evolve into a superficial, hyperbolic hellhole then; it had been built that way. Progress is only technological—plastic surgery, paparazzi, and Perez Hilton blogging about the social vacuum of who’s doing whom. Click To Tweet

West’s Los Angeles is an artifice camouflaging a wasteland. A building is “a miniature Rhine castle with tarpaper turrets pierced for archers.” Another one is “a little highly colored shack with domes and minarets out of Arabian Nights.” On set actors eat “cardboard food in front of a cellophane waterfall.” In one humorous scene in which Tod traverses the studio looking for Faye, he crosses through great ersatz villages: “The only bit of shade he could find was under am ocean liner made of painted canvas with real life boats hanging from the davits. He stood in its narrow shadow for a while, then went on toward a great forty-foot papier-mâché sphinx that loomed up in the distance. He had to cross a desert to reach it, a desert that was continually being made larger by a fleet of trucks dumping white sand.”

It’s not just background that does not seem quite real. Mrs. Schwartzen, a woman at a party, “had a pretty eighteen-year-old face and a thirty-five-year old neck that was veined and sinewy.” West’s description of Harry Greener, Faye’s father, a lifelong entertainer, is particularly caustic: Harry “was almost all face, like a mask, with deep furrows between the eyes, across the forehead and on either side of the nose and mouth, plowed there by years of broad grinning and heavy frowning. Because of them, he could never express anything either subtly or exactly. They wouldn’t permit degrees of feeling, only the furthest degree.”

Hollywood did not evolve into a superficial, hyperbolic hellhole then; it had been built that way. Progress is only technological—plastic surgery, paparazzi, and Perez Hilton blogging about the social vacuum of who’s doing whom.

This is the hoi polloi, disenfranchised meatheads who have come to see stars because they don’t know what else to do with themselves. Click To Tweet

Day of the Locust (HESO Magazine)

Japanese version of The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West

“I’m going to be a star someday,” Faye tells Homer when she meets him. “If I’m not, I’ll commit suicide.” The character of Faye Greener is West’s caveat to all the pretty girls in the USA, the tens of thousands who come to Los Angeles every day with absurd celluloid hopes only to wind up financially destitute, physically compromised, spiritually null. The main problem with his warning, of course, is that nice, pretty girls don’t usually read Nathanael West.

If Faye is nuts then the city is an asylum and it’s very hard to tell the patients from the rest. And in modern times with Reality TV, tumblr, American Idol, among other narcissistic apotheoses it’s only getting worse. When West was fuming over the wannabe culture of 1930s Los Angeles, America was still a manufacturing economy rather than an information one. Nowadays, how can a person feel important when he or she does not have a personal wikipedia page explaining our accomplishments just so? Of course, a leisure society can only watch one channel at a time. Worse, fifteen minutes don’t go as long as they did in Andy Warhol’s time. And how are we to feel special in aftermath?

You know a story like The Day of the Locust can only end brutally. Those lacking the megalomaniacal mettle to make it are the story’s most tragic casualties. You know Faye Greener and Tod Hackett will come out of it all right because they’ve got their respective ambitions. Better, they understand that other people are tools that can be picked up, used, and discarded as needed. Someone like Homer Simpson from Iowa, unaccustomed to such cynical posturing, is doomed. Leaving Los Angeles is the only way he can save himself and when he finally attempts to do so, it’s the night of a large movie premier.

Day of the Locust (HESO Magazine)

A portrait of Nathanael West

By this time, Homer has become a pet project for Tod, desperate to do some good deed now that his own moral thread had unraveled. Tod is trying to help a dazed and confused Homer when the monstrous crowd around them surges violently. They are enveloped in its claustrophobic grip, pulled along much like a terrible wave drags the swimmer over gravel. This is the hoi polloi, disenfranchised meatheads who have come to see stars because they don’t know what else to do with themselves.

West captures the modern man then in crisp, horrific prose: “Every day of their lives they read the newspapers and went to the movies. Both fed them on lynchings, murder, sex crimes, explosions, wrecks, love nests, fires, miracles, revolutions, wars. This daily diet made sophisticates of them. The sun is a joke. Oranges can’t titillate their jaded palates. Nothing can ever be violent enough to make taut their slack minds and bodies. They have been cheated and betrayed. They have slaved and saved for nothing.”

The frightening question: From 1939 to 2011, what has really changed? This mob has burned Los Angeles twice, in 1965 and 1992. So long as man is not nourished and loved nor provided with something to nourish and love, he is liable to implode again. It’s not a great stretch. Consumers can only consume so much before they participate in a less constructive fashion.

You could say Nathanael West was a prophet. Or maybe he is one of those people who doesn’t need smoke to spot a fire.

2666 - Roberto Bolaño, FSG 2008 Cover Design by Charlotte Strick (HESO Magazine)

Lost Analogs A Critique of Global Capitalism in Roberto Bolaño’s 2666

“This is increasingly emerging as the central human right of advanced capitalist society: the right not to be ‘harassed’, that is, to be kept at a safe distance from others.”

— Slavoj Žižek, Against Human Rights


We can thank people like Bob Moog for his eponymous synthesizers, Tsutomu Katoh for his Korg brand of musical instruments, Gershon Kingsley for his musicianship, and all of them collectively for introducing our common musical associations with the term “analog” into our everyday vocabulary. When the word comes up, we can bring to mind music that is the soundtrack to an antique electronic future—one that rushed into our sensorium with the advent of the telephone, but whose sheen is still undiminished after all these years.

This musical context of the term refers to the production of media that is directly analogous to another condition or occurrence in the natural world, in this case the shaped production of a noise through the controlled interaction of electricity and set circuit paths. Digital technology differs from analog because it does not posses the same direct reversibility to an original set of conditions. Unlike analog, it is not traceable back to a necessary original condition. It exists without a negative. No matter how we may program digital to function in lieu of analog in our cameras, musical instruments, and tape machines, the important precondition necessary for digital

to function is only the identification of a need, even if that need is eventually not decided on by present actors but derived from the framework of the system itself.

Digital came to prominence because it was able to quickly and portably fill the needs formerly met and defined by analog technology. As such, it has become the go-to form of production and recording. A seamless integration of multi-track recording and electronic production on the home computer has been worked into almost every dilettante’s life, alongside going to the gym for mandated maintenance of the corpus and sending graphomaniacal solipsisms to one’s Twitter feed. The blueprint provided by the analog forebears to digital is now less necessary for the unique abilities of digital to shine in their own right. Enabling digital technology to organize and emulate our material lives has increased our insincerity regarding the conscionable 1:1 avowal of our actions and the outcomes of those actions. It is for this reason that the debate between the analog and the digital is a political debate more than a simple aesthetic debate. Digital encompasses the ability to propose a new, total, closed system of meaning that does not need to refer back to a standard origin.


Bob Moog, Tsutomu Katoh, Gershon Kingsley for Lost Analogs (HESO Magazine)

i

There are aesthetic differences to be drawn between the art that can be created by the two types of technology, but one must keep the political differences that can be discerned at the front of all arguments. This is because, more than affecting the production of individually separated works of art or culture or their qualitative appeal, the debate separating the merits of analog versus those of digital are conceptual, and their concepts affect every aspect of our lives in global society.

Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 is a work of fiction that tells the story of the 20th century, a century of people’s accelerating attempts to escape and obscure the lines binding them to analogy. It is a story that spans the globe, and one whose tendrils ensnare several different global class systems.

The 900-page novel is divided into 5 books: The Part about the Critics, The Part about Amalfitano, The Part about Fate, The Part about the Crimes, and The Part about Archimboldi. There are only two sections we need touch on to connect Bolaño’s book to the idea that the relationship between analog and digital is one of enabling the disavowal of consequence.

The Part about the Critics follows the escapades of a small society of academic specialists in the oeuvre of a Prussian who writes under the name Benno Von Archimboldi. The reader is taken through their bourgeois genteel Europe of personal achievement, petty academic intrigue, and tepid love affairs.

The Part about the Crimes is the story of a fictional town in the northern Mexican state of Sonora on the border with the United States. It contains the events that most of the book centers around—the serial murders of women living in and around the town of Santa Teresa, a town given over wholly to the activities of narcos and the massive ‘maquiladora’ factory parks.

Bolaño does not stop at describing the obvious interconnectedness of the lives of the characters, each of which traces a coincidental connection to the described lives and horrors in other parts of the world or in another epoch. He does not merely demonstrate a shared capability for violence in the first and second worlds by offering the professors’ beating of a foreign cab driver in contrast to the grim large-scale industry of poverty and murder in the Mexican factory town of Santa Teresa. Bolaño goes to great lengths to demonstrate that the characters’ lives are not connected to a shared tragedy by chance alone. The coincidence of chance connections are easily dismissed as novelty stories. Bolaño does the work to show that that which connects each disparate set of characters across social and economic borders is at the root of their respective societies.

Bolaño’s story demonstrates the point, similar to that made by philosopher and Lacanian scholar Slavoj Zizek in his book In Defense of Lost Causes, that both the first world of lettered achievement and the second world of tradition married to dehumanizing industry require one another to sustain global capitalism. The factory owner takes his profits from the information society denizen who buys his products. The first world consumer requires the cheap goods made “over there” to maintain her way of life. this connection is glossed over during the course of daily life in each separated arrondissement. It is the fact that the connection between each society becomes obscure that is important to bear in mind. Each culture perceives itself as the only legitimately mandated system. To each society the other, when conceived of at all, is perceived as a kind of anachronism strengthening the first society’s way of life before finally going away. As Zizek notes, capitalism functions in these gaps of understanding between each differing societal organization’s knowledge of the other one.

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The heart of Bolaño’s critique in 2666 is this: On all sides of the story, the reader is shown people who must step forward to recognize the origins of their way of life if the violence at its core is to be stopped. The diffuse, disparate, and desperate nature of global capitalism has a sheltering and obfuscating digital effect marked by the introduction of false analogs that prevent the acknowledgment of the origins, consequences, or resolutions of our plights. There is a voluntary excess inherent in the system that allows this gap in understanding, making these changes in perspective true only in its enactment. The enactment and making true of this excess is the expenditure that joins the world of global capital under a single system and enforces the separation of its disparate parts. The system of global capitalism requires the ignorance generated by the separation of its parts to maintain the frenzied, excessive activity of its cycle.

In an early passage in The Part about the Critics, Bolaño alludes to the nature of this excess at work. The literary critics are at table with a former rural cultural events promoter. The promoter relates a story of his face-to-face meeting with Archimboldi, the writer who is the object of the critics’ study. During that meeting, the cultural events promoter told the critics, another guest, a widowed baroness, had dominated the conversation with a story from her trip to Argentina where she and her husband had been the guests of a wealthy rancher. Because her husband had been a great cavalryman, a series of races was staged between the baron, the rancher’s son, and the gauchos of the estate. The result was that the baron won all three races. Afterwards, a gaucho boy had pulled the baroness aside and told her that, because the ranchers had known her husband would lose the first race, it had been arranged that the second and third would be secretly forfeited to him. Disbelieving the boy, the baroness asked him, if that were true, then why had her husband won all three races? Her question was met only with a murderous stare.

This conversation haunted the baroness for years after, and the encounter came to appear to her as a riddle. The riddle was this: If it really were true that the ranchers were such superior horsemen they had to arrange to throw the last two races to honor their guest, what did it mean that her husband had won all three races?

Archimboldi himself then provided the answer. At the last moment, the rancher’s son, in a fit of demonstrable luxurious excess and sacrifice, had decided to throw the first race in addition to the following two. The capital of his assured victory, of his demonstrable superiority on horseback, was squandered in secret. It was given away as a kind of unspoken sacrifice, a contract whose terms are known only to one, in order to bestow on the ranchers a sense of power and superiority over their guests that is hidden in magnanimity. It was a making real of their position of advantage over the Europeans, but it was done in the language of their vantage point’s interpretation of capital. What did they actually have in relation to the visiting Europeans but an excess of human life, of visceral skill, their own personal dignity, to expend on bettering their position? At that expenditure they not only gain a winking unity amongst themselves, but also the power of a secret and shared enmity. The problem with this brand of compensation is that it requires ever more sleight of hand to continue to make it appear self-sustaining and true, to make it culture.

Had the baroness stayed longer to speak to the boy, whom Bolaño described as having “the eyes of a bird of prey,” and “the eyes of a clumsy young butcher” any longer, that product of the injury of sacrifice that is enmity, Archimboldi pointed out, would have been expressed, literally and corporally, with an act of violent sacrifice even larger than the thrown horse races. It would have been one that, with the disposal of both the baroness’ and the boy’s lives would have both created and justified a state of honor. The boy was less sophisticated than his elders, and so certainly would have killed her.

Moving ahead to the present day of The Part about the Crimes, the author brings this idea of one-sided contracts and excess into the present day of the maquiladora, where the wasted excess made of human life is not, apparently, present enough in the poverty and working hours and conditions of the super-manufacturing facilities. In the story, the reduction of human life to an excess of industrial material must be even further realized in the apparently unstoppable serial murders of women in the maquiladora’s surrounds. That the excess that is being expended is through the murder of women, not men, goes a greater distance to enforce the truth of the system; along with time, and of course, the environment, what is being expended frivolously by industry, as though its presence is too copious to be necessary, is the very life that sustains it. The murders go on and on with the police unwilling or unable to end them. No one steps forward to volunteer what someone must know to ensure the killers are caught.

The police go as far as to arrest Klaus Haas, a cold, distant, immigrant psychopath (and computer programmer) and, in conjunction with the civic and business leaders in the community, present him as a scapegoat for the killings of women in the city of Santa Teresa. Nobody contests that he is a rapist and a murderer and obviously inhuman, but, incarcerated, he is also incapable of being responsible for the serial killings that go on and on without surcease in the outside world. He is the foil Bolaño uses to alert the reader metaphorically to the nature of this thing that resides in the engine room of capital. Bolaño chooses Haas to convey this message because he is a monster not bound by the accelerating story without continuity that is capital’s social narrative. Bolaño’s monster can see and tell us what others given wholly over to convention do not. That thing is this: He is a monster, but he is nowhere near as terrible as that blind, murderous excess which the maquiladora calls to itself.

In his moments of delusion after his arrest, Haas rants to the other prisoners:

“…a giant is coming and the giant is going to kill you. A giant? asked the rancher. You heard me right, motherfucker, said Haas. A giant. A big man, very big, and he’s going to kill you and everybody else. You crazy-ass gringo son of a bitch, said the rancher. For a moment no one said anything and the rancher seemed to fall asleep again. A little while later, however, Haas called out to say he heard footsteps. The giant was coming. He was covered in blood from head to toe and he was coming now.”

2666 - Roberto Bolaño, FSG 2008 Cover Design by Charlotte Strick (HESO Magazine)

2666 - Roberto Bolaño, FSG 2008 - Cover Design by Charlotte Strick

iii

To return to the discussion of analog versus digital, we have established that what is analog is built on the direct relationship of one condition to another. Digital technology required analog only to get its start, to provide the early templates of its behavior, but is not any longer bound to such a model.

Bolaño has written the necessarily long description in prose of the accelerating nature of the unpayable debts the human race took on in the 20th Century. It is his point that there is something to which we have lost the ability to directly relate in the present day. Our attitudes defining our relation to labor, to luxury, and to human life are informed by this divide. His critics live in the comfort of their critical pursuit of an elusive author, traveling freely across Europe with full access to the luxuries manufactured in border worlds like the maquiladora, places whose ruthlessness is exiled beyond accountability to the fringes of states.

The denizens of the border world Bolaño creates face a world literally and corporally defined by industry, where access to the goods and genteel stability manufactured there for use in other parts of the world is limited or somehow mitigated by the interference of sinecure, family, or fear. The commingled interests of narco-traffic and the manufacture of goods for the first world, the extortion involved in border crossings, and the murders of women loom collectively large as the hidden axle around which all life turns.

 

About the Author

Sean "Smiles" Lotman is a writer based in Kyoto, Japan (Manny Santiago)

  • Matthew Boyd is a musician and writer based in Seattle, Washington. His website is here.

Copyright

Unless otherwise stated All images © HESO Magazine, 2011.

This work is distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike license. If you wish to use reproduce any of this context in a commercial context, explicit permission is required. Please contact me directly.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.

The Kids Are Alright

The Kids Are All Right

“Everybody passing through here is somebody, if nobody in the outside world.”

                                                        — Patti Smith, Just Kids

In one of my favorite scenes in Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes, two disheveled old men raise their glasses for a toast. One says, “To Paris in the 20s.” the other pauses for a moment, considering his own heroes: “To New York in the 70s.” Both are wistful of generations mythologized and eulogized, beloved and altogether gone. They were societies where artistic impulses thrived over commercial ones and yet, ironically, because of their brilliance and decadent grandeur, these urban neighborhoods have become prohibitively expensive and are thus unlikely to spawn the kind of anarchic creativity that marked those cities in more carefree, dangerous days. For those of us who were never there, the closest we may come are paeans from persons who knew it best.

It’s no surprise therefore that Patti Smith’s Just Kids, a memoir of that heyday era should be a bestseller. New York in the 1970s: a crossroads of Avant-garde and street movements, hippies putting away tablas and sitars, giving way to a younger generation of punk kids turning on electric guitars and rage. Smith’s rise from a starving artist to household name straddles this evolution in taste and form, the arc from flower power giving way to the aesthetic fuck off. Those of us born in its aftermath can only YouTube those times with great envy, navigating our own generational malaise with characteristic longing. If that weren’t envy enough, Just Kids is a record of Smith’s “making it,” appreciated for her own peculiar hybrid of poetry, rock and roll, and shouting. Even if like me, you’re not a fan of her music, credit is due: rock stars aren’t born, they’re made and it takes time, luck, talent, and of course, the thing that counts most of all in the end, persistence.

The Kids Are All Right

Patti Smith Just Kids (HESO Magazine)

Patti Smith - Just Kids

Through it all, Smith had a friend in the battle, the late photographer, Robert Mapplethorpe, who was her closest friend and greatest confidante in those transformative years and for whose memory this memoir is indubitably dedicated. Smith writes tenderly of her memories of Mapplethorpe, the gay, pixie prince who became world famous for his Polaroids of S&M carnality and the censorious rebukes his work engendered. But in the Summer of 1967, they were ‘just kids,’ a couple of dreamers from the American suburbs. Smith left a factory job in Jersey to make it as a poet in New York (does that still happen anymore these days? the hungry poet in the big city?), sleeping in the park and taking day-old loaves from charitable bakers. In the beginning Smith had absolutely nothing to live on, save the faith she belonged somehow to New York and that it would be all right. We don’t know what might have happened otherwise, but it seems that her meeting Mapplethorpe might have saved her from danger or worse, the disaster of giving up and going back to where she came from, never to return.

It’s a love story between friends and to feel Smith tell it, those impoverished years when Mapplethorpe was her greatest companion is worth all the gold records on the wall. Click To Tweet

Mapplethorpe dresses the dandy–when she fell in love with him he was into beads and a sheepskin vest but he went through a sailor boy phase and Lizard King leather, among other personas attempted and discarded, “searching, consciously or unconsciously for himself.” In 1967 he didn’t own a camera– for him photography was getting your image snapped on the Coney Island boardwalk. A talented dilettante, he dabbled in jewelry design, collage art, drawing; he did not read, though he was Smith’s first audience when she recited her poetry.

A lapsed Catholic obsessed with good and evil, he flirts with Satanism, tarot cards and the occult. Smith recalls there was something indefatigably childlike about him. He drinks chocolate milk and loves grilled cheese sandwiches. He could not keep a job– Patti was the breadwinner (she’s an ace at uncovering rare first editions, Henry James, The Golden Bough, for instance, and unloading them on customers when she worked at Scribners). As long as he followed his artistic aspirations, she was happy to provide for the both of them.

The Kids Are Alright

The Kids Are Still Alright – Patti Smith live at Fujirock

Smith paints a picture of an enviably adorable couple: never mind they were among the beautiful people; they understood one another’s needs like few lovers could. That his homosexuality precluded longtime physical compatibility did not mean that their friendship could not thrive. Together they had their songs, signs, a coded language. Inspiration was the sustenance that they fed one another. Their mutual role-playing had always been founded on muse more than lover. Through it all, they are one both with and against the world: “Nobody sees things as we do, Patti,” Robert tells her.

In those days, an artist could catch a break or two that is difficult to contemplate happening today. Many struggling, broke, down-at-the-heels types stayed at the famous Chelsea Hotel. Some went delinquent on their bills, trading in their portfolios to management as collateral. When Smith and Mapplethorpe arrived there in 1969, sans a dime and Robert suffering an abscessed mouth and ailing wisdom teeth, they did just that, trading in their work to Mr. Bard, the manager and shouter extraordinaire, as most of the residents were lousy with jobs, rent and various real-life obligations. Robert and Patti rented a small room with neither windows nor physical space to set up their workstations. Nevertheless it was the very best thing that could have ever happened to them, for if the art world is a beast (and many will attest it is exactly that), then they had landed themselves in its belly. The Chelsea Hotel had dirty shared bathrooms, an irresponsible clientele, and brownish tap water but it was also was a community within a larger society.

Smith and Mapplethorpe made fast friends, eventually finding themselves regulars at Max’s Kansas City, with its rowdy transgenders and Factory crowd, enjoying the Velvet Underground, the occasional house band. This was more Robert’s thing as he idolized Andy Warhol. Smith and Mapplethorpe were more conspirators than lovers at this point and she drifted into friendships with scenester Bob Neuwirth and Todd Rundgren. She learns intimately from poet Jim Carroll and the playwright, Sam Shepherd. Patti is privy to Janis Joplin’s boy troubles and Jimi Hendrix tells her his dream of a new musical language.

Smith’s own language sometimes feels that she read On the Road at an impressionable age and never quite got over it. Her prose has some affectations: she calls fellow Chelsea Hotel residents, “inmates… guitar bums and stoned-out beauties in Victorian dresses.” Making art is “an unholy ritual.”

The Kids Are Alright

Patti Smith live at Fujirock

She has hippie-dippy superstitions; birthdays of famous poets are often propitious. Hipspeak colors her interactions (maybe this reviewer, with his allegiance to many formalities of language would be too “square” for the scene he idealizes) and she and Robert often speak of magic. So she may have had a beat fetish, I will grant her this: she was a friend to Burroughs, Ginsberg tried to pick her up (he mistook her for a ‘pretty boy’) and she loaned money to Corso to support his junk habit.

There are a lot of famous names in Just Kids, but Smith does not drop them to prove her worth–she seems as much at awe at her good fortune as we are. But for all their fame, the rock stars and celebrity artists are only background characters here. The story through it all belongs to the kids, Patti and Robert. The memoir begins and ends on a cold day in March 1989, when Robert dies of AIDS complications. By then, they’d drifted apart, Smith to a family and recording career in Detroit, Mapplethorpe to a stellar artistic career as a photographer. They reconnect because of his illness and once in touch, the old patterns return and they understand anew a quality of friendship that is uniquely theirs. It’s a love story between friends and to feel Smith tell it, those impoverished years when Mapplethorpe was her greatest companion is worth all the gold records on the wall. A trip to Coney Island in 1969 suggests the purity of this friendship beautifully: “We were just ourselves that day, without a care… Only weeks before we had been at the bottom, but our blue star, as Robert called it, was rising. We boarded the F train for the long ride back, returned to our little room, and cleared off the bed, happy to be together.”

So what is a kid in New York City with paint on his hands a tumblr site that no one visits is supposed to take home from all this? It could happen to you too and that might help a person navigate optimistically the next couple months as he struggles to pay his rent and make the time to create something that might find an audience, or better, a champion.

Patti Smith Live at Fujirock

Les Vengeances Tardives (Arnaud De Grave)

TARANTULA by Thierry Jonquet

“Du grand art dans la noirceur cauchemardesque.” *

— Michel Lebrun, on Thierry Jonquet’s work.

Throughout the millennia spiders have been represented in art as creative and cruel, perspicacious and pernicious. They can be as deceptive and deadly as they are delicate and demure. Tarantulas, basically bigger, hairier versions, belong to the same order–Araneae–as their little spider siblings. Ones which instill a much greater, and more illogical, fear into the reptile memory of much of the Primate order. Yes, like their arachnid cousin the scorpion, they are all venomous. And similarly the smaller the sting the more deadly the wound, and vice versa. Yet despite being the clumsy but lovable dumb oaf of a brother, what is the big deal about big spiders? Could it just be that, on the surface, with those massive fangs and spiky hairs, they appear more menacing? Which begs the question: what–and why–are we projecting onto them?

TARANTULA by Thierry Jonquet

The Skin I Live In - Almodovar

Pre-production Film Poster for "The Skin I Live In" - Pedro Almodovar, 2011

Tarantulas, like all other spineless creatures, rely upon an exoskeleton for musculature support. It is this external skeletal structure which literally holds them together and, without which, they would be utterly useless in maintaining a proper balance against their six-legged insect meal tickets. Thierry Jonquet tosses this metaphor grenade into his dark and menacing narrative world, where the skin in which we live is never our own choice and quite often becomes both a support system for enduring the arbitrary onslaught brought on by nature, as well as a web-like trap, self-spun and slowly separating us from the natural world outside to one of a burrowing internal horror, where life becomes so deranged that you are persuaded that in order to survive, you must devour yourself alive.

There are characters, to be sure: a plastic surgeon beset with grief and obsessed with his pet project. A woman complicit in her own detainment, torture and sexual exploitation. The self-mutilating daughter at the psychiatric institute. A deadly felon on the lam searching for his missing friend. What the connection is you will have to read–or see–for yourself.

Mygale [MIG-uh-lee] (Série Noire No 1949, 1984), the novela by Thierry Jonquet that spawned the new film from Pedro Almodóvar, La Piel Que Habito (The Skin I Live In, 2011), starring Antonio Banderas, is a tale that begins with seemingly disparate tendrils that all coalesce toward the tangled center of a violent reality by the end of the 124 pages, most of which you will get through in one sitting with a strong pot of coffee and perhaps a desire for your own protective exoskeleton, or maybe just some Scotch.

The biography of Jonquet (b. 1954, Paris) reads like a typical rap sheet for the confused and cynical post-post-modern writer–that his “crime novels and children’s books have garnered many literary prizes,” and goes on to add that his politically tinged hard-boiled style of crime noir is one of the most popular in France. He has written over 15 novels, 10 children’s books and since 2001 had begun collaborating on a series of graphic novels with Jean-Christophe Chauzy, before his death in 2009.

Being published in English as a part of City Lights Noir series in 2003, suddenly Jonquet moved from being a regional favorite of the French to a world-renown author with translations in multiple languages, to being adapted into not only the usual Almodóvar film focusing on desire and identity, but an Almodóvar horror film focusing on desire and identity, starring Antonio Banderas as the protagonist. Isn’t that a bit like Picasso doing political comics for the Wall Street Journal? Kubrick, Hitchcock and Friedkin proved that horror can be done well, but can the normally eccentric Spaniard do justice to the philosophical treatise Jonquet has written about victimhood and the ambiguous role of the monster in society, a work that the French journal 813 calls their 17th favorite noir classic novel…of all time?

The thing that Jonquet, Ferlinghetti, and Almodóvar saw in Mygale, Tarantula, La Piel Que Habito, The Skin I Live In–whatever language you use–is that the themes are universal. As crucial as the soundtrack has always been as a juxtaposition to the imagery in Almodóvar’s film work, are Jonquet’s interwoven leitmotifs of figurative depth transposed on to a bittingly straightforward literal–the profound dark below the gently shimmering surface–mixed with his treatment of the banality of evil inherent in all of us, resulting in your basic horrifically absurd masterpiece of literature.

The tendency since Poe, Conan Doyle, Hammett, Highsmith, Chandler and le Carré is that “crime fiction” is pop culture, like jazz and photography–lowbrow art for the uneducated masses. How could these authors speak so eloquently to the collective consciousness on fratricide as did Tolstoy, on the innocence of love like Proust, the chivalry of Cervante’s Quixote, and on the bittersweet melodrama of humanity so well as Shakespeare–Impossible! We have no more writers of this prodigious literary heft. Or at least we will not recognize them until long past the oceans rise to cover our rotting bones. For the time being we will have to make do with Umberto Eco’s historical fiction, Haruki Murakami’s existential everymanliness, Elmore Leonard’s glib and gritty prose, and Thomas Pynchon’s phantasmagoric tragicomedy, among others.

A few French expatriates working in the Institut Français in Copenhagen have decided to make a passion project of turning the perception of pop into art. Since Labyrint‘s inception in early 2008, their goal all of their publications, including their translation of MygaleSpindleren, their sixth novel–is to promote contemporary French literature in Denmark by translating French writers known for their stylistic qualities, their sociological sophistication and their allegiance to a genre which today has become significant in France, but even more so in Scandinavia: crime literature.

The bistrot bookstore Les Vengeances Tardives (a pun for those Francophiles out there…Guess correctly for some fun photographic prizes) in Lyon shares in Labyrint’s singular vision of the power of the French what if genre gaining ground across Europe, and the world. Coinciding with the recent release of the Danish edition, Labyrint book designer Arnaud De Grave, whose cover photography speaks of a France only glimpsed in dark Marseille alleys and in the faces of its people (see gallery below), will take part in a group exhibition based on Tarantula and the recently released (August, 17th) La Piel Que Habito at Cinema Comoedia (13 AVENUE BERTHELOT 69007 LYON) on Monday, September 5, 2011 (exhibition & music from 18:00, projection and performance from 20:00).

* High art in a dark nightmare.
— Michel Lebrun

Freedom Is Fun! Freedom Is Good! Freedom Is Sexy!

Freedom Is Fun! Freedom Is Good! Freedom Is Sexy!

Freedom A Novel by Jonathan Franzen

That Jonathan Franzen’s fourth novel, Freedom, debuted at #1 on the Fiction section of the New York Times Bestsellers List in September last year is one of those phenomenal outliers that defy the logic of free market capitalism. It’s not that it has no business being #1 when the spot is usually held by the likes of the latest Harry Potter and Danielle Steele—on occasion there are tremendous works of literature that manage to win public adulation (although it doesn’t happen anywhere near as much as it used to)—what makes Franzen’s sales trumping remarkable is that it is a case of dog biting the proverbial hand. Freedom is an angry work of literary activism that wholeheartedly skewers the celebrated virtues of capitalism—unrestricted growth, consumer branding, mass production—indicting nearly every American, who whether they feel guilty about it or not, enjoy unsustainable lifestyles that are a “cancer on the planet.” Freedom is a novel that Al Gore might have written had he the imagination to portray the extravagant waste of the Bush era as an American family in microcosm.

The family in Freedom is the Berglunds, Walter and Patty, who raised their son, Joey, and daughter, Jessica in St. Paul, Minnesota. On the surface, to neighbors for example, they are secular middle-class Democrats. But in literature, a character is rarely just a character; just as often it is a metaphor for an idea. Walter is an environmentalist with a Malthusian obsession of population growth, a “nice” guy who loves his wife in spite of her eccentricities and lingering depressiveness.

Because she was once a basketball “jock,” Patty has a very competitive spirit that shadows every decision she makes. She is a stay-at-home mother, an atheist, and an adulterer. The person she has a long-term affair with is Richard Katz, a moody, womanizing post-punk front man, and Walter’s long time best friend. This rather untenable and scandalous development is the personal drama of the novel. At its bones, Freedom is the story of a Midwestern family growing up and growing old, weathering the inevitable life crises that is the fate of all of us.

Freedom Is Fun! Freedom Is Good! Freedom Is Sexy!

At 562 pages, Freedom is quite a bit more than just a tricky love triangle. It’s not possible to describe the many subplots of the novel but suffice it to say, the political undercurrent begins in the novel’s first paragraph referencing an item in the New York Times about Walter making “quite a mess of his professional life out there in Washington… in trouble now for conniving with the coal industry and mistreating country people,” in methods described as “arrogant” and “ethically compromised.” How “nice” Walter got into so much trouble is a mystery that beguiles the reader to understand what might have developed.

But horses will be held: we’re almost 300 pages into the novel before Franzen lets us inside Walter’s life with the close third person. The novel, carved into jigsaw pieces that slowly fit together, begins in St. Paul, describing how the Berglunds had become the inspiration of playful, if sometimes malicious gossip, as conveyed in the tone of an omniscient scuttlebutt. Their next-door neighbor, Carol Monaghan, falls in love with a noisy, self-righteous Republican, Blake, while her daughter, Connie, seduces Patty and Walter’s son, Joey, who leaves his family to move in with the Monaghans, disappointing Walter and devastating Patty. It’s comic and sad and seems to suggest that American families, for all their secrets, can’t help exposing their dirty laundry.

We are better off with Jonathan Franzen than without him. We need more event books populated by rational environmentalists and selfish nihilists instead of teenaged vampires and boy magicians. Click To Tweet

The second section is a long “autobiography,” called “Mistakes Were Made,” written by Patty, a Babushka doll-like story within a story in which Patty writes about her social awkwardness, her rape experience, her desire to get away from her parents and “special” siblings. When she finishes high school in Westchester, New York, she attends the University of Minnesota, plays collegiate basketball, and falls in love with her best friend’s boyfriend, Richard Katz, who fronts a band called The Traumatics, singing derivative punk ditties like “I Hate Sunshine.” At a Traumatics show, she meets Walter, who comes from a rural dysfunctional family that doesn’t appreciate his intellectual curiosities and strong work ethic. Richard and Walter are challenging thinkers—they can recognize the bullshit of the Reagan-Thatcher era they’re entering—but diverge wildly with their attitudes toward women. Richard has the rock star’s gratuitous one-bite-and-throw-‘em-away appetite. Walter, sensitive beyond reason, falls in love with Patty, who has a thing for Richard, who doesn’t reciprocate her feelings but thinks she’s pretty unique for a jock. Patty is grateful for Walter’s many kindnesses though she’d throw it all away for a wild night with Richard. The triangle’s degrees thus first measured.

Patty, recognizing that by choosing one man she loses the other, hedges her bet, and marries Walter even though she’s not nor could ever be in love with him. But Walter is smitten and acquiesces to her bourgeois middle class desires—buying and renovating a house, finding a good-paying job and starting a family that she stays at home to raise even though he’s a Malthusian feminist, suggesting that for Patty’s sake he compromises on his ideal woman, that of the childless working professional.

Not all crushes go unrequited however and years later there is a short weekend with Richard, brisker yet much more intense than the average honeymoon. It’s a betrayal that’s horrible for the both of them—Richard and Patty are essentially competitive people whose touchstone for goodness is Walter. And for Patty their amorous aberration magnifies the emptiness in her life:

She had all day every day to figure out some decent and satisfying way to live, and yet all she ever seemed to get for all her choices and all her freedom was more miserable. The autobiographer is almost forced to the conclusion that she pitied herself for being so free.

Patty drifts into depression while Richard discovers enormous success. In his early forties now, he draws from their affair a mature, quiet, lyrical alt-country album that goes multi-platinum, turning him into a reluctant celebrity. It’s the kind of CD bought by people who like Norah Jones or the Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack: easy listening background music for people who don’t really have sensibility or taste, something Starbucks might promote as a tie-in, a stocking stuffer.

It’s so disheartening for Richard to become a profitable product for capitalists that he quits the industry altogether to go back to his day job of roofing. Having been spewed out by the star-making machine, he can only express his fall from artistic integrity in bitterly cynical terms:

“We in the Chiclet-manufacturing business are not about social justice, we’re not about accurate or objectively verifiable information, we’re not about meaningful labor, we’re not about a coherent set of national ideals, we’re not about wisdom. We’re about choosing what WE want to listen to and ignoring everyone else.”

An inevitability in American exceptionalism and the cultivating of online personas in which our tastes and predilections are catalogued and itemized on social networking sites, Richard is speaking for all of us in the iEverything generation, zoning out on iPods, tweeting on iPhones, watching downloaded vampire flicks on iPads—generally oblivious to the Big Picture, that of the world going to hell in a hand basket. People may give lip service to the environment but self-interest prevails in habit and identity.

Leisure Society on the Edge (© Sean Lotman)

Leisure Society on the Edge (© Sean Lotman)

(As an interesting aside, how much of Jonathan Franzen is in Richard Katz? Franzen is more famous for refusing Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club seal of approval when she praised his last novel, The Corrections, than he is for receiving the National Book Award for the effort. In a famous Harpers essay from 1996, Perchance to Dream, he claims he sought to follow the example of author William Gaddis, in that the novelist should get out of the way of the novel: “…no matter how attractively subversive self-promotion may seem in the short run, the artist who’s really serious about resisting a culture of inauthentic mass-marketed image must resist becoming an image himself, even at the price of certain obscurity.” Franzen doesn’t need to apologize his dissing Opraholic housewives who in his estimation didn’t have the necessary literary intelligence to understand The Corrections. Nor does he need to explain why such a contrarian viewpoint might be useful dramatic fodder.)

By this time, Walter and Patty have left St. Paul for D.C., where Walter has forged an unlikely working alliance with Vin Haven, a Texan multi-billionaire whose fortune was built on America’s limitless capacity for energy consumption.

For all his professional faults (he also hunts with Dick Cheney and is pals with Bush) Vin is a bit of a birder and wants to preserve some considerable land in coal-rich West Virginia where a certain songbird, a cerulean warbler, breeds in its annual migration to and from the South American tropics.

Of course, when you’re dealing with wealthy, ambitious Texans, it is good to beware of looking gift horses in the mouth: the devil in the deal is MTR—mountaintop removal—a term most familiar to coal companies and green activists, in which a mountain is blasted and pillaged of its minerals. But once plundered, it is the responsibility of the coal company for reclamation, that is, reforestation of the surface. Walter wants to be an insider, a voice of conscience ensuring that the coal companies keep their word and build a biodiverse forest that will serve as a sanctuary for the cerulean warbler and other migratory words. But the compromises are obvious—condoning mountaintop removal, coal extraction, and the eviction of local families with longtime ancestral roots.

But Walter is no starry-eyed college student mired in Manichean us-and-them trenches. It’s better than nothing and it gives him access to unprecedented capital for his more important project: putting population control on the mainstream activist agenda. The correlation between rising population levels and rising energy use is obvious. Walter believes it might be checked with responsible “breeding.” He wants to marginalize big families living in big houses with big lawns, which, though sensible of course, is like scribbling earnest agitprop over a picture postcard of the American Dream. In Walter’s own words: “We just want to make having babies more of an embarrassment. Like smoking’s an embarrassment. Like being obese is an embarrassment.”

In order to make it work, Walter has invited Richard to work with them on the message. He needs Richard because Richard is famous and cool and thus people want to follow his example: “Join rock legend Richard Katz in Washington this summer.” Richard, bitterly cynical yet generally apathetic, is more intrigued by Lalitha, Walter’s young, lovely, energetic Bengali-American personal assistant. It seems to Richard that Walter and Lalitha have, if not “a thing,” then some powerful chemistry going on and Lalitha has an obvious crush on Walter. She lives upstairs from Walter and Patty in D.C. So it seems to Richard that their triangle has expanded into a quadrangle. And we are then well into our characters’ midlife crises, from which personal catastrophes—the stuff of page-turning literature—is wrought.

*

Jonathan Franzen "Perchance To Dream" Harper's April 1996Nearly ten years after Franzen snubbed Oprah for recommending The Corrections, Oprah Winfrey came out last year with a ringing endorsement for Freedom. It is not surprising she would like the novel—Franzen has a gift of interweaving the micro and the macro, the family and the nation, that Leo Tolstoy was so tremendous at (Oprah is a big Tolstoy fan). But though I had posited some of Jonathan Franzen was in Richard Katz, it is likely that a lot more of Jonathan Franzen is in Walter Berglund. If Franzen wants his Cassandra calls for temperate energy use heeded, then he needs the largest possible audience and with Oprah comes her common touch, a medium that connects his ecological concerns to those millions of American housewives who might otherwise glance at his novel’s title and girth, shrugging, “Meh, too political.”

Franzen writes ‘social novels,’ a certain kind of fiction that holds a mirror up to the society that has produced the conditions that gives the social novel its raison d’etre. In this increasingly distracted media culture we’ve entered, it is becoming increasingly difficult to process the warning signs when we have the “democratic” options of channel changing and googling. With so many entertainment options, it becomes increasingly difficult to recognize our limitations—social, political, economic, special—much less care.

Walter puts it best while pitching his Free Space campaign to limit population growth to Richard:

“We can never sit down and have any kind of sustained conversation, it’s all just cheap trash and shitty development. All the real things, the authentic things, the honest things are dying off. Intellectually and culturally, we just bounce around like random billiard balls, reacting to the latest random stimuli.”

In that same Harper’s essay from 1996, Franzen wrote, “Expecting a novel to bear the weight of our whole disturbed society—to help solve our contemporary problems—seems to me a peculiarly American delusion.” It’s just a book and not only that but a work of fiction. But the purpose of art, unlike argument and documentary, is a transformative experience. Art affects the heart more than it does the head; more often it is emotion, rather than reason, that is the source of our convictions. And perhaps in literature a political message can become more palatable because in this forum ideas are explored rather than declared. Franzen, perhaps aware of the rare privilege bestowed upon him—a polemical artist with mainstream reach and generous publicity—is willing to challenge that delusion and like Walter Berglund, utilize his authorial star power to reach those normally impervious to such viewpoints.

The dollar is now the yardstick of cultural authority, and an organ like Time, which not long ago aspired to shape the national taste, now serves mainly to reflect it.' - Jonathan Franzen in Perchance To Dream Click To Tweet

But how successful can such ambitions be? It may very well depend on your existing political framework as well as preferential taste. Some critics believe that literature is blighted by politics, i.e. the world is already a bad place and we need not be reminded of it when our agenda is escapism. The Amazon.com page for Freedom is especially contentious. The book rates only three out of five stars; there are as many one star reviews as five. Not a few people hate Franzen, his ideas, and most especially, his books.

But should we take what Franzen said in 1996 at face value? That it is “delusional” that a novel could enter the national conversation as a voice of conscience counter-weighing our extravagance? Should we make allowances that the world has changed enough in the fifteen preceding years that artists have been politicized, embracing a sense of duty in spite of the accompanying baggage of delusions, hatred, and ridicule? To my mind, it’s worth it. We are better off with Jonathan Franzen than without him. We need more event books populated by rational environmentalists and selfish nihilists instead of teenage vampires and boy magicians.

Freedom defines a decade—it was the idea of ‘freedom’ that morally guaranteed our bombardment and, later, privatization of Iraq and it was ‘freedom’ behind the motivation of banks making questionable loans to people buying McMansions beyond their means to afford them. American freedom has hardly changed since we defeated the Soviets in the Cold War—that is, the freedom to buy whatever you want, whether its blue jeans or rock and roll LPs or Italian sports cars, the layman’s simple explanation why capitalism, perhaps imperfect, remains the world’s best economic model. Yet the correlation between freedom and purchasing power is so obvious it must confound the political philosopher that there is not more violence in the streets. When we say we want our MTV, we don’t mean we want to watch the cable network—we want lifestyle freedom, liberated from our economic limits.

When luxury becomes the end game of freedom (private jets and gated communications its apotheosis) getting there is going to be competitive. You could argue those who invested in defense and energy blue chips in the aftermath of 9/11 were vultures fattening on our freedom to bomb Islamic countries and pillage and pollute the earth, but you might also say such investments were exceptionally prescient (or pragmatic). Walter and Patty’s son, Joey, a burgeoning Republican, suffers a massive crush on Jenna, a high-maintenance rich girl who believes that “…the world wasn’t fair and was never going to be fair, that there would always be big winners and big losers, and that she personally, in the tragically finite life that she’d been given, preferred to be a winner and to surround herself with winners.”

Joey has his own interesting subplot. It involves pro-war Jewish American think tanks and parasitical war profiteers. Joey, who has an independent streak and a contentious relationship with both Walter and Patty, becomes immersed in a shady business deal (involving a company modeled on Halliburton) that would make him incredibly wealthy, but would almost certainly consequence in dead Americans overseas in Iraq. Herein lies the true freedom of a human being, that of trying to determine and act upon the right thing. With financial and personal needs, the answer is not always obvious:

“He didn’t know what to do, he didn’t know how to live. Each new thing he encountered in life impelled him in a direction that fully convinced him of its rightness, but then the next new thing loomed up and impelled him in the opposite direction, which also felt right.”

It’s not easy being free. Sometimes it takes an 18-years-old kid speaking off the cuff to frame the discussion perfectly:

“Isn’t that what freedom is for? The right to think whatever you want? I mean, I admit, it’s a pain in the ass sometimes.”

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