Thursday, June 30, 2005

Walking on Eggshells

I took bodies in my truck to Urus-Martanm to the Terek, to be identified by their relatives. I happened to find the remains of people I'd known, sometimes for years or all my life. We'd gone to school together or met while raising our children. I began to understand that war isn't always brought to us from the outside. War, death, ruin – these horrors are right under our feet, so close to us that a man can sink into the abyss at any time. The very foundation of human life is insecure. We all tread on a thin crust, as it were, and might at any moment plunge through into the depths. The bodies I hauled had quite recently been live people who had loved, hoped, trusted. Then the crust cracked under their feet, and they fell into the pit.

Said M., from “Chechnya: Life in a War Torn Society” by Valery Tishkov

This book, primarily about Chechnya but with implications for all wars, goes beyond the “this side is good and this side is bad” kind of history. Instead, it shows that there are interests on both sides of this conflict (and probably every other) that stand to gain from the pain and destruction of war. This excerpt struck me because I have thought about this before, especially when I am in public and I see people being rude to each other. Next time you are somewhere where there are a lot of people, just think about how easy it is to convince large groups of people to do horrible things to each other.

People like to bring up the Nazi's a lot for many reasons, but I think one of them is to feel a moral superiority, like “If I had lived back then I would not have participated in any of that.” Statistically, you probably would have. We as human beings, are biologically no different than the people who perpetrated the inquisition or any of the genocides (there was more than one) the earth has seen over the past few thousand years.

10 Things Guys Want in a Girl

My wife received a subscription offer from a women’s magazine with this enticing statement:

“So don’t wait another minute or you could miss an issue. Maybe just the issue that contains a tip, an exercise, a recipe or a bit of information or inspiration that could make a big difference in your life.”

This may seem a little ridiculous, but I can personally vouch for the life changing effects of a carb free oatmeal cookie recipe, or the difference an article entitled "10 Things You Can Do To Make Your Life Better," with insights such as "don't eat a lot of bad food," can make.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Lack of Sunshine

Lately, probably because of my living situation, my thirst for light has been unquenchable. I guess this guy feels the same:

"Have you been to the Orangerie? There's a painting by Matisse there called The Boudoir, a room that has seen lots of sunshine so that everything looks very bleached, faded: only a few rose, yellow, and pale blue lines. I would gladly be one of those in that picture, either one."
-Tonu Onnepalu "Border State" p10


One of the things I look for most in literature is unique and original observations about the world that stir my latent thoughts, memories, and ideas:

He used to say, I know, that fast girls had slow minds, and that there could be nothing duller than a pretty woman who likes fun.

-Vladimir Nabokov “The Real Life of Sebastian Knight” p149

Most people live through the day with this or that part of their mind in a happy state of somnolence: a hungry man eating his steak is interested in his food and not say, in the memory of a dream about angels wearing top hats which he happened to see seven years ago: but in my case all the shutters and lids and doors of the mind would be open at once at all times of the day[...]Every ordinary act[...]took on such a complicated appearance, provoked such a multitude of associative ideas in my mind, and these associations were so tricky and obscure, so utterly useless for practical application that I would either shirk the business at hand or make a mess of it out of sheer nervousness.

Ibid p.87

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Langston Hughes Testimony (Senate Committee on Government Operations) March 24, 1953

ROY COHN: Do you remember writing this: "Good-morning, Revolution: You're the very best friend I ever had. We gonna pal around together from now on"?

LANGSTON HUGHES: Yes, sir, I wrote that.

COHN: Did you write this, "Put one more 'S' in the USA to make it Soviet. The USA when we take control will be the USSA then"?

HUGHES: Yes, sir, I wrote that.

COHN: Were you kidding when you wrote those things? What did you mean by those?

HUGHES: Would you like me to give you an interpretation of that?

COHN: I would be most interested.

HUGHES: Very well. Will you permit me to give a full interpretation of it?

COHN: Surely.

HUGHES: All right, sir. To give a full interpretation of any piece of literary work one has to consider not only when and how it was written but what brought it into being, the emotional and physical background that brought it into being. I, sir, was born in Joplin, Missouri. I was born a Negro. From my very earliest childhood memories, I have encountered very serious and very hurtful problems. One of my earliest childhood memories was going to the movies in Lawrence, Kansas, where we lived, and there was one motion picture theater, and I went every afternoon. It was a nickelodeon, and I had a nickel to go. One afternoon I put my nickel down and the woman pushed it back and she pointed to a sign. I was about seven years old.

COHN: I do not want to interrupt you. I do want to say this. I want to save time here. I want to concede very fully that you encountered oppression and denial of civil rights. Let us assume that, because I assume that will be the substance of what you are about to say. To save us time, what we are interested in determining for our purpose is this: Was the solution to which you turned that of the Soviet form of government?

HUGHES: Sir, you said you would permit me to give a full explanation.

COHN: I was wondering if we could not save a little time, because I want to concede the background which you wrote it from was the background you wanted to describe.

HUGHES: I would much rather preserve my reputation and freedom than to save time.

COHN: Take as long as you want.

HUGHES: The woman pushed my nickel back and pointed to a sign beside the box office, and the sign said "Colored not admitted." It was my first revelation of the division between the American citizens. My playmates who were white and lived next door to me could go to that motion picture and I could not. I could never see a film in Lawrence again.

When I went to school, in the first grade, my mother moved to Topeka for a time, and my mother worked for a lawyer, and she lived in the downtown area, and being a working woman naturally she wanted to send me to the nearest school. But they would not let me go to the school. There were no Negro children there. My mother had to take days off from her work, had to appeal to her employer, had to go to the school board, and finally after the school year had been open for some time, she got me into the school.

I had been there only a few days when the teacher made unpleasant and derogatory remarks about Negroes and specifically seemingly pointed at myself. Some of my schoolmates stoned me on the way home from school. One of my schoolmates (and there were no other Negro children in the school), a little white boy, protected me, and I have never in all my writing career or speech career as far as I know said anything to create a division among humans, or between whites or Negroes, because I have never forgotten this kid standing up for me against these other first graders who were throwing stones at me. I have always felt from that time on that there are white people in America who can be your friend, and will be your friend, and who do not believe in the kind of things that almost every Negro who has lived in our country has experienced.

I do not want to take forever to tell you these things, but I must tell you that they have very deep emotional roots in one's childhood and one's beginnings, as I am sure any psychologist or teacher of English or student of poetry will say about any creative work.

My father and my mother were not together. When I got old enough to learn why they were not together, again it was the same thing. My father as a young man, shortly after I was born, had studied law by correspondence. He applied for permission to take the bar examination in the state of Oklahoma, where he lived, and they would not permit him. A Negro evidently could not take the examination. You could not be a lawyer at that time in the state of Oklahoma. You know that has continued right up to recent years; we had to go all the way to the Supreme Court a few years ago to get Negroes into the law school.

Those things affected my childhood very much and very deeply. I missed my father. I learned he had gone away to another country because of prejudice here. When I finally met my father, at the age of seventeen, he said, "Never go back to the United States. Negroes are fools to live there." I didn't believe that. I loved the country I had grown up in. I was concerned with the problems, and I came back here. My father wanted me to live in Mexico or Europe. I did not. And my whole career has been built here.

When I grew older, I went to high school in Cleveland. I went to a high school in a very poor neighborhood, and we were very poor people. My friends and associates were very poor children, and many of them were of European parentage (some of them had been brought here in steerage themselves from Europe) and many of these students--and this story is told, sir, parts of it, not as fully as I want to tell you some things, in my autobiography, The Big Sea--many of these pupils began to tell me about Eugene Debs, and about the new nation and the new republic. I became interested in whatever I could read that Debs had written or spoken about. I never read the theoretical books of socialism or communism or the Democratic or Republican parties for that matter, and so my interest in whatever may be considered political has been non-theoretical, non-sectarian, and largely emotional and born out of my own need to find some way of thinking about this whole problem of myself, segregated, poor, colored, and how to adjust to this whole problem of helping to build America when sometimes I cannot even get into a school or a lecture or a concert or, in the South, go to the library and get a book out. So that has been a very large portion of the emotional background of my work, which I think is essential to one's understanding.

When I graduated from high school, I went to live with my father for a time in Mexico, and in my father I encountered the kind of bitterness, the kind of utter psychiatric frustration that has been expressed in some Negro novels--not in those I have written myself, I don't believe. A man who was rabidly anti-American, anti-United States. I did not sympathize with that viewpoint on the part of my own father. My feeling was: this is my country, I want to live here. I want to come back here. I want to make my country as beautiful as I can, as wonderful a country as I can, because I love it myself. So I went back after a year in Mexico, and I went to Columbia.

At Columbia University in New York City, where I had never been before, but where I heard there was practically no prejudice, by that time wanting to be a writer and having published some papers in Negro magazines, I applied for a position on the staff of the Spectator newspaper. I was the only Negro in the group. I cannot help but think that it was due to prejudice that of all the assignments--and there were various assignments: sports, theater, classroom activities, debating--of all the various assignments, they assigned me to cover society news. They very well knew that I could not go to dances and parties, being colored, and therefore I could bring no news, and after a short period, I was counted out of the Spectator group.

When I went into the dormitory my first day there, I had a reservation for a room. It had been paid for. I was not given the room. They could not find the reservation. I had to take all of that day and a large portion of the next one to get into the dormitory. I was told later I was the first to achieve that. In other words, to simple little things like getting a room in a university, one has to devote extraordinary methods even to this day in some parts of our country

I am thinking of the early 1920s. I did not stay at Columbia longer than a year due in part to the various kinds of racial prejudices that I encountered.

SENATOR EVERETT DIRKSEN: I think, Mr. Hughes, that would be adequate emotional background.

HUGHES: No, sir, that would not explain it all, how I arrive at the point that Mr. Cohn, I believe, has asked me about.

COHN: Could you make it briefer, please?

SENATOR DIRKSEN: Do you think we need more background to tell what you meant by USSA?

HUGHES: I think you do, sir. Because a critical work has a very deep background; it does not come in a moment. I am perfectly willing to come back and give it to you later, if you are tired.

COHN: No, we will sit here as long as you want to go on. But you are missing the point completely. What we want to determine is whether or not you meant those words when you said them.

HUGHES: Sir, whether or not I meant them depends on what they came from and out of.

COHN: Did you desire to make the United States Soviet, put one more "S" in the USA to make it Soviet? "The USA, when we take control, will be the USSA."

HUGHES: When I left Columbia, I had no money. I had $13.

COHN: Did you mean those words when you spoke them? We know the background. I want to know now, did you mean the words when you spoke them? I am not saying you should not have meant them. I am asking you--

HUGHES: Yes, sir, and you gave me the permission to give the background.

SENATOR DIRKSEN: That answers the question.

HUGHES: I did not say "Yes" to your question. I said you gave me the chance to give you the background.

SENATOR DIRKSEN: We have had enough background.

Let's Buy Stuff!!!

The next J-Crew catalog will illustrate the errors of this misleading passage:

"You are much too exacting and hungry for this simple, easygoing and easily contented world of today. You have a dimension too many. Whoever wants to live and enjoy his life today must not be like you and me. Whoever wants music instead of noise, joy instead of pleasure, soul instead of gold, creative work instead of business, passion instead of foolery, finds no home in this trivial world of ours."

“Is it only so in our day, or was it always so?”

“I don’t know. For the honor of the world I will suppose it to be in our time only – a disease, a momentary misfortune. Our leaders strain every nerve, and with success, to get the next war going, while the rest of us dance, earn money, and eat chocolate”

Hermann Hesse - “Steppenwolf” p173