Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Voltaire on Capitalism and Religion

Take a view of the Royal Exchange in London, a place more venerable than many courts of justice, where the representatives of all nations meet for the benefit of mankind. There the Jew, the Mahometan [Muslim], and the Christian transact together, as though they all professed the same religion, and give the name of infidel to none but bankrupts. There the Presbyterian confides in the Anabaptist, and the Churchman depends on the Quaker's word.

At the breaking up of this pacific and free assembly, some withdraw to the synagogue, and others to take a glass. This man goes and is baptized in a great tub, in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost: that man has his son's foreskin cut off, whilst a set of Hebrew words (quite unintelligible to him) are mumbled over his child. Others retire to their churches, and there wait for the inspiration of heaven with their hats on, and all are satisfied.

If one religion only were allowed in England, the Government would very possibly become arbitrary; if there were but two, the people would cut one another's throats; but as there are such a multitude, they all live happy and in peace.

- from "Letters on the English"

Monday, April 27, 2009

Elizabeth Bishop's Vision

"Off and on I have written out a poem called 'Grandmother's Glass Eye' which should be about the problem of writing poetry. The situation of my grandmother strikes me as rather like the situation of the poet: the difficulty of combining the real with the decidedly un-real; the natural with the unnatural; the curious effect a poem produces of being as normal as sight and yet as synthetic, as artificial, as a glass eye."

... thanks to the heroic Jeannie Vanasco for sending this.

The Third Coming of Ska

The Specials announce a reunion tour.

Our friend Whit Stillman has been preparing a film set in Jamaica in the early 1960s.

Something tells me we're about to witness the third coming of ska.

Until then I'll be watching The Ethiopians "At the Drugstore," HERE.

A Missive from Norman Berke

The Main Point recently received this missive from the admirable and starry-eyed nonagenarian pundit Norman Berke:

Socrates, in a session with his disciples, according to Plato, posed the following question. What policy should you adopt if your neighbors should turn belligerent and become your enemy. One disciple answered quickly, saying, we should attack them before they attack us. Socrates replied, in that case you will always have them as an enemy; wouldn't it be preferable to seek out the possibility of an amicable settlement. And thus was born the policy discussion of the relative merits of hard power vs. soft power, which is still very much with us today.

Down through the ages nation states and empires have debated this difference, tho mainly opting for hard power, and just as often regretting it. The Athenians didn't follow Socrates advice and lost their golden age trying to subdue the Spartans. Spain became a second rate power trying to hold onto the newly empowered Dutch throughout most of the 17th century. Napoleon didn't have to invade Russia to keep his empire. History is replete with such examples. The use of hard power, has, on occasion, been necessary and beneficial.

One such use would be World War11 in successfully defeating evil, although it was preceded by a disastrous attempt at soft power resulting in the agreement at Munich. It cannot be employed to cover up weakness. Another necessary use of hard power would have been the invasion of Afghanistan after 9/11 with its intent to hunt down the perpetrators while also freeing a nation under the yoke of the Taliban. However, a reversal of policy, resulting in the invasion of Iraq, became, instead, a disastrous use of hard power and a severe setback to the self interest of the United States.

The president of the US has recently completed a swing of eight days in Europe, Turkey, and Iraq, followed shortly thereafter with a swing through Latin America. To those who listened carefully, there was a consistent and powerfully expressed message. Back home, the pundits, while admiring the talk and the delivery, honed in on the limited accomplishments: Europe's refusal to stimulate, and reluctance to commit to more involvement in Afghanistan, all the while missing what was behind the words, a radically new and about face message to the world, that America would henceforth, in its own self interest and that of the world at large, commit itself to the active and unremitting use of soft power. Again, opponents at home picked up on going soft on Cuba, and daring to shake the hand of Chavez. What cannot be denied is that in such a short time there has been a remarkable change among the peoples of the world.

As I sit here, I cannot recall a comparable time in history where the world's leading military power held out the olive branch with an offer to lead the world in ameliorating suspicions, long harbored resentments, hatreds. Cuba, Iran, Russia, Syria, and others will be viewing a new and different America. In the course of this new era of foreign policy, there will be much criticism within, and suspicions without will die hard. It may not work, may well turn out a grand failure. Can you turn an adversary into a friend? It will be a fascinating time to watch and be a part of. As Secretary of State Clinton said, "let's put ideology aside; that is so yesterday"

Wednesday, April 22, 2009


... the April issue, on newsstands now, is one of its strongest. I particularly admired "Tariq Ali's Plan for Pakistan" by Denis MacShane, as well as Jonathan Foreman's "Blood on the Street," regarding the attempted beating of Christopher Hitchens on the streets of Beirut.

I've written about the later HERE.

Harold Brodkey - Be Patient with Him


What do you hold up as a literary ideal?


Ideals are for greeting cards. I am trying to change consciousness, change language in such a way that the modes of behavior I am opposed to become unpopular, absurd, unlikely. You try to work toward a culture that takes time and conscience seriously in a real way and not as part of a tidal flow of hype.


Is that really your belief?


Yes. Be patient with me. Most of the furniture in my house comes from a period in American history called The Era of Good Feeling....

Writing that is meant solely for the public forum is often less interesting than writing where the writer has invented the public space inside the text, in the tone of the address, in the tone of the language. Public language is never new. But in good writing there is something absolutely new in the tone of what I think of as the public space in which the narrator addresses the reader. In a piece of writing the language runs along on the page and in the mind of a reader; in that language there is no actual physical space, but the language should carry the implication of a physical-social location. If you've been to a large Edwardian house you may have seen a small room with a fireplace and a couch, and perhaps two chairs-not a formal, large room, but one where you can sit and talk, where you gossip. Henry James has a tone of address as if he's arrived at such a house, not his own, and he is seated by the fire; an invisible interlocutor or audience listens closely. Walt Whitman speaks outdoors, it seems to me. The space Whitman suggests is complex and American and I think beautiful and a completely new invention. One thing that is unique about it is that there's no tinge of social class in it whatsoever. Jane Austen's writing suggests a drawing-room sort of space; Hemingway's, on a barstool or in a club car; it changes: he's complicated. Emily Dickinson creates a marvelous public space, too, and one of the marvelous things about it is that it is so clearly an invention since it isn't based on being public; it is without a sense of the public. D. H. Lawrence is an absolutely amazing writer, with a fantastic sense of the language, but his sense of public space wavers, and sometimes a whole book or long story of his will collapse when he shifts the public space too drastically and becomes churchly-fascistic, or starts yelling as if in a corral, then muttering in a hallway—no order in it at all.

—from my interview with Harold Brodkey in the Winter 1991 Paris Review (Issue 121), The Art of Fiction, No. 126

Hat tip to Peter Mclachlin, on whose blog I re-encountered a portion of the interview I conducted. Mclachlin also posts HERE.

Unacknowledged Legislators

I'll soon again begin posting admired poems and thoughts about poetry at Unacknowledged Legislators. A hat-tip here to the heroic Jeannie Vanasco, who sends me most of the best that will be appearing.

A further thought on the subject from Charles Borgen:

"Literature, at its best, bridges gaps of experience and culture. It helps you stand in another’s shoes. If one of the things we, as international lawyers, care about is a just world then fostering an understanding of each other’s views is an important step in that direction, regardless as to whether we actually agree with those views. You cannot let rhetoric bury nuance, anger bury analysis. Anger can spur great literature and righteous anger can be the seed of political reform, but great literature and just policies are more than angry reactions. Writers (and international lawyers) are fortunately not the world’s legislators. But both can have a profound influence in how we understand and shape our world."

Thursday, April 16, 2009

My Last Poem by Manuel Bandeira

I would like my last poem thus

That it be gentle saying the simplest and least intended things
That it be ardent like a tearless sob
That it have the beauty of almost scentless flowers
The purity of the flame in which the most limpid diamonds are consumed
The passion of suicides who kill themselves without explanation.

- translation from the Portuguese by Elizabeth Bishop

Note: In 1951, poet Elizabeth Bishop received a $2,500 travel grant to circumnavigate Latin American. She landed in Santos, Brazil that fall, intending to stay two weeks, she lived there fifteen years.

Poem by Jeannie Vanasco

I want to be wrong in a beautiful way

like the stagehands who wheeled out the sun when the actor
was under the moon;
like the scientist who thought the seeds of trees
blown into the sea make birds—
“I have seen them fly from the waters,” he wrote;
like me saying my father died last night—
he died ten years ago;
like Newton dividing white light
into the seven colors of the spectrum for the seven notes
of the musical scale for any other way would break
the Pythagorean principle of harmony.

The Madness of Crowds

“Money ... has often been a cause of the delusion of multitudes. Sober nations have all at once become desperate gamblers, and risked almost their existence upon the turn of a piece of paper. To trace the history of the most prominent of these delusions is the object of the present pages. Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.”

- Charles Mackay in "Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds,” 1841