Archive for 2011

Langston Hughes, Joseph Stalin, Jesus … and a little bit of Mayakovsky, too

Friday, December 30th, 2011

Langston Hughes vs. ...

It’s the sixth day of Christmas, by my count, and my friend Elaine Ray has sent me a post from her blog, entitled “Langston Hughes, my father, Joseph Stalin and Jesus”, discussing a rather anti-Christmas poem by Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes, and a 1940 article objecting to the poem written by her own father, the New York Age columnist Ebenezer Ray. 

In an article in Poetry magazine, Hughes biographer Arnold Rampersad noted that during the most difficult days of the Great Depression, Hughes “had composed some of the harshest political verse ever penned by an American. These pieces include Good Morning Revolution and Columbia, but above all, Goodbye Christ. Here the speaker of the poem ridicules the legend of Jesus in favor of the radical reality of Marx, Lenin, ‘worker,’ ‘peasant,’ ‘me.’”

What struck me about the poem was … hadn’t I read this before?  It sounded awfully familiar.  My search for the poems Vladimir Mayakovsky, the gifted and misguided bard of the Bolshevik  Revolution, in my ancient edition published by the USSR’s Progress Books, led to an unsuccessful household excavation.

So I tried google instead.

My nose hadn’t led me astray.  In fact, Hughes translated Mayakovsky. The Communist writer Louis Aragon had offered his guidance to the American poet, and give an indication of how Hughes may have interpreted the Russian’s legacy.

From a paper by UCLA’s Ryan James Kernan:

Hughes’s choice of a literal translation for Mayakovsky was, in part, the result of his decision to heed Aragon on how to translate the peculiarities of the Russian master.

... Ebenezer Ray

Aragon most likely hand-delivered his advice for explicitly Western translators to Hughes when the two crossed paths in Paris.  His advice offers both a justification for Aragon’s own literal translation of Mayakovsky, and a prescription for future translators.  He urges that they forsake the reproduction of the formal elements of Russian poetry in the interest of preserving the totality of Mayakovsky’s revolutionary message and spirit for the purpose of its infusion into Western Europe:

Oui, le poèmes de Maiakovsky sont rimes. Mais allez comparer la rime française, et je ne dirais pas la rime russe, mais la soviétique! Tout un nouveau langage, le langage d’une nouvelle vie, des mots qui n’ont jamais été usés par les rabacheurs poétiques, jetés du jour au lendemain à la disposition du lyrisme. [….] De plus, la rime de Maiakovsky toujours imprévisible, souvent complex, faites de plusiers mots, tient peut-etre advantage du jeu de mots que de la rime.

Yes, Mayakovsky’s poetry rhymes. But let’s compare French rhyme, and not Russian rhyme, with Soviet rhyme. An entirely new language, the language of a new life, composed of words that were never used by old, tired poetics, which should not be thrown out because of a thirst for lyricism. [….] Moreover, Mayakovsky’s rhyme, always unexpected, often complex, is perhaps more concerned with word play than rhyme.

David Margolick: unforgettable photo, unforgettable story

Tuesday, December 27th, 2011

Everyone knows the famous 1957 photo, but few people knew what happened after it was snapped.  Now David Margolick has told the story in Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock.

The photo: During the historic 1957 desegregation of a Little Rock high school, a journalist Will Counts took a photograph that captured the moment – young black student Elizabeth Eckford headed for school, and her tormentor, Hazel Bryan.

David can’t recall how old he was when he first saw the iconic photograph.  “I could no more tell you than I could when I first saw the picture of the little boy in the Warsaw ghetto with his hands up. You just know you’re changed once you see it,” he told CNN. “These are images that haunt you for the rest of your life.”

David, actually, had his beginnings as a Michigan Daily photographer rather than a journalist, back in the days when I was a cub reporter (and before he went on to Stanford Law School). He was a gifted photographer himself, so it’s no surprise he was so deeply affected by the photo.  Then he saw another.

When he visited the Arkansas high school over a decade ago, he saw a picture of the two women reconciled.  “I realized this was the same Elizabeth and Hazel, only they were grown up and they were friendly. … I thought, as any journalist would, how did we get from the first picture to the second? And why didn’t I know anything about it? How had these two archetypal racial antagonists buried the hatchet? How could that be? So that’s what made me curious enough to start looking into it.”

The reconciliation between the women wasn’t permanent – they are no longer speaking – but  their complex bond endures.

Somehow on my travels I missed the launch of David’s book, so I’m coming a bit late on the scene. Of course I’d read his earlier story, “Through a Lens, Darkly,” which was published in Vanity Fair in 2007.

Giving the book a plug now is a bit like rolling a rock downhill.  When you’ve gotten blurbed Bill Clinton, you don’t need a boost from me:  “The iconic image of Elizabeth and Hazel at age fifteen showed us the terrible burden that nine young Americans had to shoulder to claim our nation”s promise of equal opportunity. The pain it caused was deeply personal. … We all need to know about Elizabeth and Hazel.”

So let me just excerpt a few words from the Vanity Fair Q&A:

There’s an idiom about how the first person through the wall always get hurt most. Does this kind of oversimplification help us understand Elizabeth Eckford?

I think she was the most vulnerable of the Nine [African-American students], and it is a great pity that she was the one who happened to show up there first. She had a certain predisposition, a certain kind of sensitivity, that some of the other of the Nine didn’t have. She’s an absolutely extraordinary woman, and her sensitivity is part of her extraordinariness.

Did it really take seven years for Hazel to even speak with you?

Hazel got bad vibrations from me that first time we met. She thought that I was paying more attention to Elizabeth than I was to her. And Hazel had read up on the history of the civil-rights movement, particularly the origins of the N.A.A.C.P., and she knew that historically Jews and blacks had been allies. From what I said and how I acted, she thought that Elizabeth and I would become natural partners at her expense. It had never occurred to me that Hazel might react this way. I had thought, quite naïvely, that the white woman would feel more comfortable with me than the black woman would.

Over those seven years, this was still becoming an article?

Yes. I made several more trips to Little Rock, realizing that Elizabeth’s story was plenty complex. When the story appeared on Vanity Fair’s Web site, in September 2007, to coincide with the 40th anniversary, Hazel read it and I think she was touched by some of the things Elizabeth said about her. And she could see that I wasn’t yet another writer who’d come along either to ignore her or trash her—that, even though she hadn’t cooperated with me, I still tried to be fair to her. From that moment on, Hazel made herself available to me.

That day in 1957 defined Elizabeth and Hazel in drastic ways. Which of these two women did it define more?

Hazel. I think that Elizabeth had a kind of stoicism, a kind of depression, a kind of sensitivity that was exacerbated by what happened to her. But Elizabeth’s life was going to be troubled no matter what. As I say in the book, that picture is really more of Hazel than it was of Elizabeth: she is the dominant figure in it, literally at its center. Hazel is the one who will go to the grave knowing that the image will be part of civilization as long as civilization endures. Hazel hasn’t gotten over the fact that, despite all the good deeds she has done, her plea for forgiveness wasn’t granted and her sincerity was doubted. Hazel got it from all sides. So she’s retreated, and it will be very hard to coax her out of her shell, though I hope that for her sake, and Elizabeth’s, it happens someday.

And from his interview on CNN this week:

People want so badly for this story to have something like a happy ending. What does it say about America that this happy ending never materialized?

I think it says something about American naïveté that we think it should have materialized, and about American impatience over the fact that it hadn’t. This would be a much bigger story, a more newsworthy story, if it had materialized. Then Oprah would be talking about it again. And the fact that it hasn’t yet makes it less interesting to people, when that fact is, it should make it more interesting to people because it’s real.

So it’s very stirring – movies get made of unrealistic, completely implausible situations like The Help, but not vexing real-world situations like this one. And that’s very sad. Revisionism is much more popular, much more marketable, than reality. You can walk out of the theater eating your popcorn and feeling happy. I wanted there to be a happy ending to this story, but I felt it wasn’t my role to stage manage a happy ending when there wasn’t. …

What did writing this book teach you about racism and race relations?

It just reminded me of how complex they are, I guess, and how heavy the hand of history is on us still, and how omnipresent America’s racial legacy remains. There’s no such thing as ‘post-racial,’ and all these problems are still lurking. They’ve just gone a bit beneath the surface. They’re not as bad as they once were, but there’s still a long way to go. I write all my books trying to figure out the kind of person I am, how I would behave in those circumstances and these books give me a chance to ponder that.

New poems, old stories: Robert Conquest balances “the inhuman reign of the lie” with naughty verse

Monday, December 26th, 2011

Conquest at work (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

When Christopher Hitchens died this month, I thought immediately of Robert Conquest and his wife, Elizabeth, who were close friends of the renowned journalist and author. Believe it or not, Hitchens used to spend a good deal of time in Palo Alto – his wife’s family, as I recall.

No, Bob did not have anything he wanted to share publicly in memoriam; he is not of the “sharing” generation who tweets his thoughts.  But there’s plenty else that is public.

Britain’s Standpoint is printing ten poems from Bob’s new book of light verse: Blokesongs and Blokelore from Old Fred, which will be out from the U.K.’s Waywiser Press in May.  You can read them here.

Here’s the nasty truth: I’ve never been attracted to “light verse.” Limericks are lost on me.  I’ve never, really, seen the point.  But Bob Conquest has devoted years to them, and it occurred to me that the silly poems are a necessary release from his groundbreaking historical work on the effects of Communism in Russia and Eastern Europe – the work that earned him an Order of Merit from Poland in 2009.

Maybe it’s not a coincidence that, at almost the same moment Standpoint published the new poems, the Daily Beast published Bob’s analysis of the current crisis with the Russian anti-Putin protests following the Dec. 4 elections.

The upshot of the article: “The present regime may have abandoned the compulsive economic ideologies of the Communist past, but it has not developed anything like an open society.”  It comes down to a peculiar relationship to truth:

Honored in 2009

After the disaster of collectivization [1929–33], the leadership had two options: either to admit failure and change policy—perhaps even to relinquish total power—or to pretend that success had been achieved. Falsification took place on a barely credible scale, in every sphere. Real facts, honest statistics, disappeared. History, especially that of the Communist Party, was rewritten. Unpersons vanished from the official record. A spurious past and a fictitious present were imposed on the captive minds of the Soviet people. To focus solely on the physical manifestations of the Communist terror—the killings, the deportations, the people who were driven to suicide—would be to overlook the larger context: what Boris Pasternak called “the inhuman reign of the lie.” Until Gorbachev came to power, the country lived a double existence—an official world of fantasy, grand achievements, wonderful statistics, liberty, democracy, all juxtaposed with a reality of gloom, suffering, terror, denunciation, and apparatchik degeneration.

When lies become part of the national fabric, the result was a thoroughly corrupted society:

Sakharov nailed it. (Photo: RIA Novosti)

Sakharov described the problem in the late 1970s: “A deeply cynical caste has come into being, one which I consider dangerous (to itself as well as to all mankind)—a sick society ruled by two principles: blat [a little slang word meaning ‘you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’], and the popular saw: ‘No use banging your head against the wall.’ But beneath the petrified surface of our society exist cruelty on a mass scale, lawlessness, the absence of civil rights protecting the average man against the authorities, and the latter’s total unaccountability toward their own people or the whole world.”

The Soviet bureaucracy’s reaction to the 1986 Chernobyl disaster demonstrated what Sakharov had been talking about. As David Remnick later noted in The New Yorker, it was typical of the regime that plant director Viktor Bryukhanov, on being told that the reactor’s radiation was millions of times higher than normal, replied that the meter was obviously defective and must be thrown away. Deputy Prime Minister Boris Shcherbina rejected a suggestion to order a mass evacuation. “Panic is worse than radiation,” he said.

So what’s changed in 2011?  As everywhere, technology makes certain lies untenable:

Russians are used to electoral fraud. There were never any expectations that the Dec. 4 elections would be carried out with complete honesty, any more than Russia’s past votes were. But this time, instances of ballot irregularity were recorded by mobile devices and then posted on the Internet, to which more than 40 percent of Russians now have access. Outrage—and calls to protest—flashed from computer to computer. Political discourse is thriving in blogs, tweets, posts to Facebook, uploads to YouTube—challenging the regime’s old-media monopoly on news and opinion.

Read it all here.


The sound of Christmas: Lost language in a little town

Sunday, December 25th, 2011
St. Maroun Church: A citadel for a lost language

In the far north of Israel, in a stone church tucked onto a remote hillside, Christmas Mass will be recited, as it is every year, in the language Jesus Christ spoke. Aramaic remains the liturgical language of the Maronite Christians in the Galilee, where Christ grew up and a resilient congregation struggles to revive the language in everyday life.

“Two thousand years ago it was very known,” says Father Bshara Suleiman, pastor of the St. Maroun Church, named for the 5th century monk who inspired the movement in the Aramean region in what is today Syria. By then Aramaic had been the lingua franca from Egypt to Afghanistan for perhaps 1,000 years, though few Americans had heard of it before The Passion of the Christ. The controversial 2004 feature directed by Mel Gibson was the top-grossing non-English film in history.

I spent some time in Los Angeles, oh, about eight years ago, trying to find William Fulco, the Loyola Marymount professor who translated Gibson’s script. I had in mind an article exploring the controversy surrounding the Aramaic used in the film – how much is guesswork, and how much of a dying, boutique language can be reasonably reconstructed.  Never found him, never happened.

Clearly, I was in the wrong place.  I should have headed for the town of Jish in Israel, where the language is still spoken.  I’m fascinated by these dead and dying languages – you might have guessed that from my post here from David Harrison‘s talk at the Modern Language Association convention in Scottsdale last fall – and Christmas brings thoughts of Aramaic, the tongue that first described it.

So read Karl Vick‘s Time Magazine article on the Aramaic here.

As for Gibson’s movie?  “It was very easy to understand, for me,” says Shadi Khalloul, who saw the movie in the U.S. and promotes Aramaic education at the Aramean Center in the town of Jish. “It was almost correct. They tried.”
(Over lunch in a private home, eight schoolchildren serenade visiting Time Magazine reporters. Sorry for the short commercial.)

Is it really a wonderful life? Hmmm…

Saturday, December 24th, 2011

Tonight, on Christmas Eve, the Stanford Theater on University Avenue is showing Frank Capra‘s It’s a Wonderful Life, as usual.

I will not be going.  You have to book ages in advance, long before you have sorted your plans out – or had any thoughts about Christmas at all – otherwise it is sold out before you arrive at the ticket counter.  After all, it is an annual ritual, a “heart-warming Christmas film,” “a sentimental favorite” … or is it?

I’m reminded of the New York Times article, by Wendell Jamieson, of a few years’ vintage:

A terrifying, asphyxiating story?

“It’s a Wonderful Life” is a terrifying, asphyxiating story about growing up and relinquishing your dreams, of seeing your father driven to the grave before his time, of living among bitter, small-minded people. It is a story of being trapped, of compromising, of watching others move ahead and away, of becoming so filled with rage that you verbally abuse your children, their teacher and your oppressively perfect wife. It is also a nightmare account of an endless home renovation.

Jamieson has it wrong on some points:  relinquishing dreams is an inevitable part of growing up.  You can’t be a brain surgeon, a stand-up comedian and a playboy with a yacht. You won’t be 6’4″ if you’re destined to be 5’5,” and you can’t marry all the handsome men who ask you out.  Making one choice necessarily means sacrificing others, and there are worse choices than George Bailey’s marrying a pretty, adoring girl, keeping his dad’s business going, and dutifully being a kind father and a good citizen.

Jamieson’s general theme seems to be catching on, however. In a critique of modern Christmas films, “Too Many Turkeys from Tinseltown,” Mike Shaw in London’s Independent also discusses  “the ‘feel-good family favourite’ and regular winner of polls to find the public’s favourite Christmas film”:

Picture the scene: It’s a wild and snowy night. A man stands on a bridge, staring into the icy river rushing below him and contemplating his life. We have already been witness to extortion, fraud and domestic abuse. Over the next hour, this man’s little brother will drown, and our character will plunge into depression, assault a police officer and crash his car while drunk. …

The fact that It’s a Wonderful Life is a tad downbeat is nothing new. For decades, the film has attracted as many humbugs as it has admirers, by virtue of it being “too depressing”. Love it or hate though, there is no denying that by the end of Frank Capra’s film that elusive warm fuzzy feeling is well and truly kindled.

"Business! Mankind was my business! Their common welfare was my business!"

However, if a good Christmas movie can be judged by how Christmassy it makes you feel (Christmassy being a complex scientific measurement best described to the layman as “happy, hopeful and harmonious with a slight tinge of sadness”), then modern festive films fail on almost every count, and I know why.

Simply put, they’re just not miserable enough. By playing it safe and desperately trying to not upset or offend anyone, Christmas films today miss the key element required for success: despair and salvation – the light at the end of the tunnel.

Maybe.  But this week’s Yahoo poll on the favorite Christmas film of all time has me questioning public taste. 137,444 voted, and came out with It’s a Wonderful Life pulling 44 percent of the votes, Miracle on 34th Street with 30 percent, and A Christmas Carol coming out with a mere 26 percent.  Perhaps no surprise, considering the crappy screen versions of the Charles Dickens classic.

For all-out scariness, I’ll still plump for A Christmas Carol, the (admittedly stagey) 1951 English version, with Alastair Sim as Scrooge and a very young Michael Hordern as a Marley.  Hordern’s eerie howling and chain-shaking will frighten the bejeebers out of any smarmy kid. And Sim is the best Scrooge yet.

Better yet, try the book.

Postscript:  CNN has an op-ed on the Capra film today, here.

The art of Christmas: “the voice of the people rather than the voice of the powerful”

Thursday, December 22nd, 2011

I remember reading about an university art student who, on a test, was asked to describe a painting of the Adoration of the Magi.  The painting, she replied, was of a mother and newborn child in an ancient era. The men are bringing gifts, because everyone is happy at the birth of a child.

Nothing to indicate that she recognized that this was a particular birth, and a particular child.

Archaeologist Patrick Hunt is out to change all that.  Last week at the Stanford Bookstore he gave a talk on his newly published Puer Natus Est: Art of Christmas, a book “deciphers the many layers of formula and accumulation of stories added to Christmas.”

“It doesn’t matter what one’s faith is – it’s a talk about art,” he told the group.  “It’s a religious story, but also a story about continuing life, great hope, and great expectations.  This story has something that we all need, regardless of our religion, something that is central to all human experience – hope.”

As he writes in his preface:

“Art is often the voice of the people rather than the voice of the powerful. Christmas art is no exception. Even if the subject of Christmas Art appears a sacred cow with a hands-off label, it is not above scrutiny. The life and death of Jesus continues to elicit deep and even explosive reaction—no matter how often it is reinterpreted by each generation, running the gamut from skeptical reflection and scorn to reverence and worship. What many call the greatest story ever told—always able to stir up emotions and controversy—has as much raw appeal in its beginning as in its ending. Dogma is not fond of real examination. But art can be looked at from almost an infinite variety of angles, and is in no way lessened by multiple reference points or interpretive approaches.”

Fra Angelico: "while magpies joke and peacocks preen"

According to Patrick, the texts of Luke and Matthew are merely starting points:

“Apocryphal texts added color and vigor, folklore, popular themes, puns, and sometimes magical details to the bare skeleton provided in the scriptures. Talking beasts; exotic and extravagant tapestries of costumes, crowns, and turbans; fragrant spices; and all the language of miracle and medieval allegories augment the text. Countless bright angels dressed in every silken damask and wing hue hang above frightened shepherds or rickety stable rafters to signal heaven and earth are momentarily one. Wicked, bloodthirsty tyrants like King Herod compete with Joseph’s peasant cunning. Bridled camels and pet leopards plod along in unusually mobile starlight while magpies joke and peacocks preen. Even humble plants like chamomile give off their allegorical fragrance, symbolic of Christ when trampled by all the retinue of this huge Christmas cast. … Yet, each participant in this Christmas pageant has at least one meaning to be fleshed out, and no symbol is too shadowy for the microscope and the zoom lens of this project.”

It all rather reminds me of the exchange between Charles Ryder and Sebastian Flyte in Evelyn Waugh‘s Brideshead Revisited:

“But, my dear Sebastian, you can’t seriously believe it all.”
“Can’t I?”
“I mean about Christmas and the star and the three kings and the ox and the ass.”
“Oh yes, I believe that. It’s a lovely idea.”
“But you can’t believe things because they’re a lovely idea.”
“But I do. That’s how I believe.”