Saturday, May 12, 2012

Week 16, Wole Soyinka's Death and the King's Horseman

Notes on Wole Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman
This play deals in part with the inability or refusal of one culture to understand another that it has subordinated, but more importantly it deals with the reflection of a culture on its own traditions and values at a moment of crisis.

Briefly, we should note the joyous quality of this scene, the celebratory and processional quality of it.  This is what Eleshin has lived for: this day.  He and others around him know the significance of the day, and rejoice in the experience and understanding of it.  It’s reaffirmative of life and their entire culture, reaffirmative of the continuity between the living and the dead, and it will keep the world centered. 

3036-43. Sgt. Amusa is horrified when he sees Pilkings wearing a Yoruba mask. Amusa is supposed to have converted to Islam, but he is still astonished to see Pilkings disrespecting the culture from which he comes. It's obvious that the mask retains its power for him: "Sir, it is a matter of death. How can man talk against death to person in uniform of death? Is like talking against government to person in uniform of police." Much of this scene consists of Pilkings showing just how uncomprehending and insensitive he is regarding his colonial subjects. Amusa has collaborated in the repression of his people by helping to stamp out their customs, and Pilkings insults the man nonetheless. He also insults Joseph the servant, who is a Christian, on 3038. And on 3039, it seems that Joseph is the one who makes it clear precisely what may be going on in the Yoruba town: "You mean the chief who is going to kill himself?" This is news to Jane and Simon Pilkings. On 3041, Pilkings reveal something I find interesting about his attitude, and strangely, it turns out later that it would probably have been better for him to follow his own instincts rather than try to stop what's going on. He says, "I don't have to stop anything. If they want to throw themselves off the top of a cliff or poison themselves with the sake of some barbaric custom what is that to me? If it were ritual murder or something like that I'd be duty bound to do something." He sees the King and is Chieftain-servant as nuisances and doesn't really care what happens to them. All the while, the Brits are preparing for the evening's entertainment – a ceremonial ball in honor of his Royal Highness, who is visiting the colony.


3043-47. The first half of the scene is devoted to something like a ritual humiliation of Amusa, who is clearly doing the bidding of his Imperial superiors. It is he who has tipped off the Europeans about what is happening here in the market. The women make potent jokes about his manhood or lack thereof, and it stings him to the quick. We notice that under stress, his speech alters markedly from the limited but standard British that he must speak around his employers to the mixed dialect of his own people. The little girls in particular are fun to listen to while they parody the British manner of talking and acting. That is on 3045-46. The older women rejoice in this little performance, seeing in it a great deal of strength and intelligence.

3047-51. This half of the scene, by contrast to what has gone before, is a celebration of Eleshin's masculinity as he prepares for his end. He performs the act of generation with his bride, and then begins to dance and go into a trance with the assistance of the Praise-Singer. There is a question and answer session between those two as the women dance around them. This session seems to be meant to explain the true nature of what is happening and about to happen, and it attests to the readiness of Eleshin to carry out his final action. It is not difficult to catch the sense of connection between the members of this world and the next: the Praise-Singer's words about those who inhabit the other realm do not simply exalt them, but instead an implicit demand is made that they should treat Eleshin with honor.


3051-53. This scene opens with some British ceremony to contrast with the ritual preparation we have encountered in the first three scenes. The Resident shows himself to be a man of very little comprehension regarding Yoruba culture, even as an air of emergency is struck up at the very outset of the scene. All he can do is prattle on about how the natives like bright colors and hats.

3054-55. More interesting is the conversation between Jane Pilkings and Olunde, which is both painful and illuminating: Jane thinks that going to Oxbridge must by now have dashed out all of the ancient culture in this young Nigerian man, but it quickly becomes clear that she is mistaken. Olunde asks, "And that is the good cause for which you desecrate an ancestral mask?" And he goes on to say "I discovered that you have no respect for what you do not understand." This is on page 3054. This mask is itself an emblem for the power of the ancestors and the importance of a meaningful death in this culture. It is a culture in which the dead are not finally dead and their spirits may even be alive in the bodies of their descendents. The death mask is not a trivial cover for pleasantries but rather a conduit that links the living to the dead. Furthermore, when Jane tells him about the British man who blew himself up going down with the ship in the harbor, the anecdote only serves to show how differently the two cultures regard death. Olunde thinks the British Capt.'s actions were justified, but Jane is horrified by them. Much of this Jane seems to regard as arrogance, which is a typical charge leveled by colonial masters against their subjects.

3056-57. Olunde tries to explain what he has learned in Great Britain and from his own reflections as he matures. He tries to explain that his father Eleshin is "protected" by his own traditions and by what has already passed in the mind's eye. Apparently this is an important concept in Yoruba culture: Eleshin has already seen himself going through the ritual action he must perform; in his own eyes and in the eyes of others, he is already a dead man or rather he has passed on to another realm. He does not need protection from European authorities. Olunde's next point on 3056 is that what the white races are good at is survival, pure and simple. In other words, they can talk all they want about commerce, Christianity and civilization as did Dr. Livingston, but they are simply using others to survive. And a lot of their energy, he goes on to explain, is thrown into covering up this fundamental truth. White culture is a culture that thrives upon lying to itself about what it is up to. Olunde has learned the truth about European war from those who suffered through it in his studies as a medical student. We see that Olunde does not accept Europe's right to define his people in comparison to what the West offers as its own story.

3058-59. Olunde reveals that he himself thinks as his father does. He says to Jane, "and anyway, my father has been dead in my mind for nearly a month. Ever since I learnt of the King's death. I've lived with my bereavement so long now that I cannot think of him alive. On that journey on the boat, I kept my mind on my duties as the one who must perform the rites over his body. I went through it all again and again in my mind as he himself had taught me." What the both of them need to do goes beyond individual human will or weakness or grief – it is, as he says, an action to be taken for the welfare of his people.

3060-61. The confrontation between Olunde and his disgraced father is wrenching to contemplate. Olunde says only, "I have no father, eater of left-overs." The man he sees before him does not match the man he has come to contemplate and accept in his mind's eye. Neither does Eleshin think any better of himself. He has failed in what he has spent his entire life preparing to do, and that's all that matters to him now. Jane is at least sympathetic, though I don't think she really understands what's going on. This scene, which began with British pomp and pleasantry, now shows no trace of ceremony at all – just the stark confrontation between father and son.


3061-65. Eleshin tries to explain to Pilkings exactly what he has done by preventing the ritual sacrifice. It is not merely a personal tragedy, but the world is no longer able to sleep, it is not at peace. Eleshin says that there was a particular moment related to the location of the moon that was to be his sign to move on to the next realm. The spirits had given him notice to prepare and be on his way. Yoruba religion is not particularly hierarchical, with a transcendent God or set of gods, but instead relations between this world and the other are transactional and constant. In other words, the two realms communicate. I think that's the case with a lot of cultures – it certainly would be a good description of the way the Greeks regarded the realm of Hades, this world, and Mount Olympus above. Each realm has its own prerogatives but is in communication with the others. There is no more center or security now: Eleshin says, "The world is set adrift and its inhabitants are lost. Around them, there is nothing but emptiness." He sees Olunde as his avenger – the young man has learned the white man's ways, and will find some means to make things, if not right, then at least not so unbearable. On 3063, Pilkings attempts to wield Yoruba sayings against Eleshin, but fails.

3164-65. Even so, as Eleshin explains to his own bride, there is a sting in what Pilkings had said. He tells his bride, "You were the final gift of the living to their emissary to the land of the ancestors, and perhaps your warmth and youth brought new insights of this world to me and turned my feet leaden on this side of the abyss. For I confess to you, daughter, my weakness came not merely from the abomination of the white man who came violently into my fading presence, there was also a weight of longing on my earth-held limbs. This is something like a Garden of Gethsemane moment, wherein Jesus was tempted to let the cup pass, tempted to avoid the sacrifice he knew in his heart must be made. Except that Jesus passed that test – his humanity did not keep him from accepting the heroic burden. Eleshin is very hard on himself; he feels that he has utterly failed in his duty towards his people and his king. He does not use the white man Pilkings as a means of escaping this disgrace. On 3065, Iyaloja is allowed into Eleshin's presence, and humiliates him but at the same time explains accurately the consequences of his failure.

3066-67. Iyaloja insists that Eleshin has revoked his own heroic status, and become a coward and slave to the European colonists. His life had been spent preparing for this moment of following the King as his loyal horseman, and because that was so he was treated royally, eating the best food, dressing in great style, and garnering tremendous respect from everyone around him. His whole life was a celebration in preparation for ceremonial death. He has now rendered his life meaningless. At the bottom of 3066, Eleshin again explains what he thinks is the source of the weakness that struck him down: "It is when the alien hand pollutes the source of will, when a stranger's force of violence shatters the mind's calm resolution, this is when a man is made to commit the awful treachery of relief, commit in his thought the unspeakable blasphemy of seeing the hand of the gods in this alien rupture of his world." He almost saw the intrusion of Pilkings as divine intervention. The question that Iyaloja asks Eleshin is filled with terrible import to him: "Whose trunk withers to give sap to the other? The parent shoot or the younger?" Iyaloja knows that Olunde will sacrifice himself because Eleshin has failed to do his duty. The younger man must lose his vigor and even his life to make up for what the father has done.

3068-71. The only thing left is for the death of Olunde to be attested. His body is the burden of which Iyaloja had spoken rather cryptically moments before. Eleshin must impart a secret message to the body of his son. There is no comfort for Eleshin in any of this, I suppose, for Iyaloja says to him, "The son has proved the father Eleshin, and there is nothing left in your mouth to gnash but infant gums." As Iyaloja explains directly after Eleshin strangles himself before anyone can stop him, even in the other realm, he will be treated as a lesser man than his son. There is no final redemption, no real relief at the point of death for this unhappy man. He has become the emblem of a disrespected culture. In the end, I believe Wole Soyinka is not writing only to protest imperial domination of his homeland, though that would by no means be an illegitimate thing to do. The tragedy that Eleshin suffers is indeed related to that domination, but it is not simply caused by it. His suffering and disgrace also have to do with Yoruba culture itself, for it is first and foremost within that culture that he has failed. And the weakness he describes is, I think it's fair to say, universal in its nature. It is the stuff that led Nikos Kazantzakis to write The Last Temptation of Christ. And what is that last temptation? Simply the desire to live one's life, not to be a hero, to give in to the attractions of this world. This is a harsh burden that many cultures, perhaps all of them, would impose upon the distinguished.

Week 15, Dadaists, Kafka, Borowski

Dadaism Notes
Tristan Tzara
Perhaps I should not reduce what Tzara says to something that makes sense too easily, but here goes anyway: abolition of everything that has gone before, including logic, reason, order.  It isn’t difficult to see how this movement can be distinguished from modernism –when the author calls for the “abolition of the prophets,” he is suggesting that spontaneity is far more important than knowing the future.  The point is that a prophetic speaker speaks from profound understanding of the past and is making a prediction about the future; this kind of speaker would have a firm grip on reality, one that reaffirms reality.  That is not what our author here is advocating.  There is also something of an attack upon meaning itself; perhaps we can generalize the author’s phrase “lively satisfaction of knowing that it doesn’t matter” to cover just about everything he says.  We might at first suppose that writing a manifesto of this sort and rejecting the past strips the present of any chance to become authentic, grounded on something stable, but that seems to be precisely the point.  Dadaism talks a lot about spontaneity, and in a sense it is an attack upon the very concept of “meaning.” it is not trying to establish a new set of permanent conventions, a new and stable order of representation.  Refer to Tristan Tzara’s “Proclamation Without Pretension”: he uses the word “BEAUTIFUL” to signify such a stable order.  It also seems that he keeps multiplying his definitions of Dadaism – that makes sense because simple new definitions must not emerge.

On the eve of the Second World War, Walter Benjamin wrote something in “The Work Of Art In The Age Of Mechanical Reproduction” that may be appropriate here: Benjamin was interested in the potential of modern technology to liberate art and its audiences from the shackles of the past.  Benjamin saw the problem with conventional museum art being that it tended to support the values of the period in which it was produced.  Conventional art is inherently conservative.  It ratifies the reality of which it speaks or that it presents visually.

When Dadaists conjure reality, they tend to use shocking images and dream sequences –there is a pronounced Freudian tendency in Tristan Tzara’s work and in Dadaism generally.  Liberation is to be achieved from anything that ties us to the given order of things and to the given ways of doing things.  Including art itself, which takes as its goal permanent defamiliarization.  In that sense, Dadaism is revolutionary: consider Leon Trotsky’s notion of permanent revolution rather than a one-time event.

Kurt Schwitters
In “Anna Blume,” the author plays with pronouns in an unconventional way to suggest something like union with the beloved, but the effect is whimsical rather than solemn as in more conventional poetry.  He makes an intimate association between the lady’s name and her qualities.  This poem is on the one hand sensuous and sensual and yet it refuses easy definition, makes it impossible to get an ordinary realistic sense of what the lady looks like: how else are we to understand a line such as “Blue is the color of your yellow hair”?  The poet does not want to capture his love object conceptually so that she is reduced to something ordinary and predictable, just another traditional, conventional Petrarchan lady.  This woman’s very name “drips like softest tallow,” which suggests on the poet’s part a desire to refuse even the conventional signification implied by a name.
Paul Élouard
I like “The Mirror Of A Moment” because it suggests something like what I was saying when addressing Tristan Tzara’s manifesto: I mean that it emphasizes the present but not in a way that allows it to become solid.  What do mirrors do?  Mirrors present or represent reality to us without alteration, seemingly fixing it in stone.  The point is to experience the present but not to solidify it and make it available for the future in some stale manner.  All descriptions, all definitions, in the Dadaist context –pardon the phrase –must be self-confounding.

André Breton
“Free Union.”  This is a descriptive and erotic poem that illustrates very well what I was just saying about Tzara’s manifesto and the brief poem by Élouard –we get a series of very descriptive and overlapping images, but those images do not add up to a coherent picture of the beloved.  They are not supposed to.  The body of the lover is generative rather than reducible to a solid set of qualities or shapes.

“Vigilance.” This poem has something like a narrative.  It suggests that the poet is on a quest of some sort involving reduction by fire, or purification, and then entering a ship of infinite possibilities.  Humanity is torn, unwoven, and everything is reduced to “a shell of lace in the perfect shape of a breast.”

Aimé Césaire
I gather from his selections a sense of the effect of wild nature on language and logic – it’s very much like automatic writing, as the Norton editors suggested.

Joyce Mansour
Counter-reduction might be the goal here – is often said that man objectify women, reduce them to what they want them to be.  Mansour does something like that to her imagined male object as well.

Notes on Franz Kafka

MetamorphosisThere is no shortage in literary history of strange transformations.  There is The Metamorphosis by Roman poet Ovid, and there is The Golden Ass by another Roman poet, Apuleius.  But in those texts, the strange transformations didn’t happen without a reason that the poet cared to explain –magic was involved, or the transformed person had been trying to escape from someone pursuing him or her, or was being punished for something done.  That is not the case with Kafka.  His protagonist has nothing but a disorderly dream as warning for his transformation.  The story, as the Norton editors point out, is not allegorical – it is not a tale in which we are to translate the concrete, material image of a creature into some abstract quality, as when we say a lion stands for courage, and so forth.  It is tempting to turn the entire story into an allegory that way, into a story that involves the coming-to-consciousness of the protagonist to his previous situation.  But the problem with doing that is that Kafka focuses so intently upon the present situation.  We are less concerned about the old person than we are about the current insect.  I am not even sure that this “insect” is allowed to reflect a great deal on the changes that come over the members of his family as they gradually reject him.  He does have powers of reflection, but obviously this is not a narrative from which he is going to emerge alive and a wiser man, or even a wiser insect.  The transformation creates an impossible situation which turns fatal, as we might have expected.

Tadeusz Borowski

“Ladies and Gentlemen, to the Gas”

The worst thing about what the author describes is that it all points towards an “order of things,” not simple chaos or wild accident.  People do terrible things, crimes of passion and greed are committed, and so forth, but here in the Nazi death camps we have a well-machined, competently staffed system for dehumanizing people and destroying them in the most efficient manner.  And while the narrator mentions “pity” as a reason for trying to deceive the victims into thinking that they’re only going to be entering a new life instead of being marched to their deaths, I think that motive applies only to the prisoner-guards, not to the Nazis themselves: their inhumanity shows that their immediate motive for deception would have been crowd control.  They wanted doomed people to do as they were told, so they needed to convince those people that things were somehow on the path to normalcy.  Otherwise, chaos and unruly violence could have broken out.  But it gets worse – there are unmistakable signs of a diabolical “theater of cruelty” in the behavior and language of the Nazi Offiziere and Soldaten: they take sadistic delight in using the language and gestures of civility and then lashing out with barbarous vigor at their victims.  Why did they do that?  Well, at one level it may have been a desperate, successful attempt on their part to maintain distance from what they were doing: turn it into a highly efficient, often repeated bit of theater, and you’re just playing a role again and again, a role that doesn’t touch you.  Partly such theater seems intended to justify what’s being done, as when the Nazis invoked medical and legal language and procedure to condemn people and perform outrageous experiments on them – a show trial or a doctor’s stamp of approval allowed them to do anything they wanted.  Or maybe it’s still worse in the current case, in the camps and on the loading platforms – making “theater” of the whole affair might be said to deepen or heighten its reality: the stage has that effect, you know.  Children play-act to prolong the satisfaction of the     game, and adults sometimes do the same.  Borowski describes well how the guards banter pleasantly with one another even as they prepare to brutalize the poor souls who roll in with each train – you’d think they were on a picnic, the way they carry on amongst their peers.  Try watching The Wannsee Conference, a film that chronicles the matter-of-fact way in which key Nazi officials decided on the nuts and bolts details of the Endlösung der Judenfrage  (“Final Solution of the Jewish Question”) we know as the Shoah or Holocaust.

It isn’t hard to see the relevance of Kafka’s body of work here: we have an unapproachable order like the ones in his novels – an irrational and yet very efficiently managed bureaucracy against which a lone individual (or even a large group of individuals) is entirely powerless.  We also confront the issue of guilt, of complicity in one’s own oppression and the oppression of others: everything comes to resemble a human food chain, with each person doing what is necessary to survive.  What the Nazis announced in bold black and red was the death of the human spirit itself, or at least the death of all parts of it except what allows for the most sadistic and depraved acts imaginable. 

A number of representative acts are crammed into Borowski’s brief account about being a prisoner tasked with unloading and processing the human “cargo” that came rolling in on the railroad tracks regularly to be exploited and destroyed immediately or after an agonizing stint as industrial or agricultural slaves.  Guards tossing live disabled children onto a heap of corpses for immediate burning; mothers driven to abandon their children and then reproached for their “unnaturalness” in wanting to survive; crowds confined in cattle cars, gasping for air and crying for water.  It’s a hellish vision created entirely by Germans who have stomped the humanity out of themselves with their own jackboots, and forcibly perpetuated in the actions of some of their prisoners, who do what they must to survive.

Week 14, Garcia Lorca, Borges, Neruda

Notes on Federio Garcia Lorca
Lorca was a tragic figure – a Spanish Andalusian poet who was executed by General Francisco Franco's fascist squads at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War in 1936 (when Lorca was 38 years old), a war that Hitler used as a trial run for further violence, a training ground for his own army.  Franco put down the leftists in Spain and continued until the early 1970s as Spain's dictatorial ruler.  Truth and art are often casualties of war, and Garcia Lorca's bitter end proves it.

Still, he left behind a lot of writing, and what's included in our anthology is the "Lament for ISM."  Mejias was not only a bullfighter but a Renaissance man, learned and cultured.  That's the capacity in which FGL knew and mourned him.  A traditional elegy laments and memorializes a beloved person – consider Milton's "Lycidas" for his Cambridge University friend Edward King, or Tennyson's In Memoriam AHH for Arthur Henry Hallam, or Shelley's "Adonais," an elegy for John Keats.

Structurally, the poem is interesting, with its deep-song refrain of "at five o'clock in the afternoon."  That time is the point at which ISM's whole life comes together and ends.  He was gored by a bull and it took a while for him to die.  Gangrene was involved.  The first section concerns the events leading up to "five" when ISM passes away from his wounds.

In translation as in the original, there's a mixed quality to the poem.  The images are both starkly material and beautiful – the processes that lead to death aren't pretty, and FGL confronts that fact.  To get any lasting value from his friend's death, and properly pay his respects, he must regard death as a brute fact and acknowledging the dissolution of the body is part of that.  Near the poem's beginning, FGL covers the things one does in Spanish culture when a person is about to die.  A lot of what's recounted in this vein is not aesthetically pleasing, of course: death lays eggs in the wound, gangrene sets in, and so forth.  There is an element of realism here not entirely unlike Flaubert's description of Emma Bovary's death by arsenic poisoning.

In the second section, which begins with the speaker's perspective – "I will not see it" – we come to an attitude of defiant refusal, or denial.  He hasn't yet accepted the fact that ISM is dead; he must accept this w/o flowery rhetoric eventually.  At line 78, we get a sense of the perspective of ISM himself; that perspective is confusing, rendered in alienation: "he sought for his beautiful body and encountered his open wound."  He looks for what he was, but he has already been transfigured.  The body and its processes begin to open out into death itself, blood spurting on the ground and everywhere. 

Blood is mentioned often, and it spills out into the natural environs.  Natural dissolution has begun and must take its course.  See line 124: "Now he sleeps without end …. now his blood comes out singing …."  The second section ends with such references, and still the speaker says, "I will not see it."  Blood is life's source, but here exsanguination connects the human body with the natural environment.  Perhaps the need here is to face up to the stark reality, the eternity, of death itself.  Blood may connect us, but to say that isn't to say that the conscious self or ego survives the dissolution of the body.  Consciousness seems here to be extinguished utterly: ISM "sleeps without end" ().  Admitting this will be the precondition for paying a worthy tribute to the bullfighter. 

So if consciousness doesn't last, what does?  Sections 3 and 4 seem like they're going to continue the theme of dissolution: "We are here …" and "All is finished," etc.  But they are moving us forward along with the poet.  One of the striking things about confronting the body of a beloved person is that the body becomes stone-like in its coldness, a dead person becomes like stone.  ISM lies upon the stone as if he becomes one with it – the opposite of a soft, living body.  But the stone won't dissolve anytime soon, while the body will quickly perish and decay. 

In the last few sections, it's revealed that much of what we try to do by way of memorializing the dead winds up instead paying tribute to the obliteration of the beloved.  An old gravestone becomes a marker of forgetting rather than remembrance.  In ancient cemeteries, they used to dig up the bodies buried long before to make way for the newly dead.  Hamlet is a fine example of that: the sexton is digging up an already-occupied space (Yorick, among others) to make way for the body of Ophelia. 

In the last part of the poem, we are told that "the bull does not know you …" and that ISM has "died forever," which becomes the refrain.  But FGL sings of him and his great qualities, among them the willingness to confront the prospect of death.  "No te conosce nadie, pero yo te canto."  What is known, then, what is being sung?  Not you but about you.  FGL apparently agrees with the traditional claim that poetry can do something stone can't.  See Shakespeare's Sonnet 55 to the fair young man, which begins

Not marble, nor the gilded monuments
Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme;
But you shall shine more bright in these contents
Than unswept stone besmear'd with sluttish time.

It isn't Mejias the bullfighter but an archetype of excellence that will be sung and that will survive.  But the poet only gets to that point by admitting that the living, breathing person is in fact gone.  Once that's achieved, he comes round to the task of properly memorializing him as an archetype of grace, excellence and courage.  Death is the absolute limit that must be confronted, which on the poet's part entails a rejection of sentimentality or flowery rhyme.

Notes on Jorge Luis Borges
Borges was Argentinian born, and spent much time in Europe.  He fared badly during the regime of Juan Peron since Borges was more closely allied with the Left than the Peronistas were willing to tolerate.  See page 2412: "In 1946 the Peron regime removed him from the librarian's post" and moved him over to the job of "chicken inspector."  Buck buck buck!!  But later on he fared much better.  In each life some chickens will cluck.  His amanuensis in later years, by the way, was Alberto Manguel, who wrote an interesting book called A History of Reading. 

Borges is the antithesis of a realist, though the present story reads clearly enough, and is rather like detective fiction: here's the official account, and here's the truth about how the info was obtained to bomb this little town.  He rejects the idea that art must copy life, must tie itself to a realistic representation of life in all its banality and ideological pushiness.  He's more of a philosophical artist, a postmodernist of sorts.  A realistic author like Jane Austen or Gustave Flaubert, after all, writes in the basic belief that life is intelligible and unified and that one can, therefore, represent it coherently and accurately, more or less in linear fashion, well-sketched and consistent characters, etc.  But maybe that's too tidy and excludes everything that doesn't add to the unity-and-coherence effect.  One ideological reason for this is that such an author may not really want things to change, though that's not entirely fair since you could say that first you have to recognize how things are in the first place.  Still, it's at least arguable that the realistic agenda ties one to or makes one complicit in the perpetuation of what is represented.  Borges as a man of the Left is interested in social and political change. 

Borges isn't describing a reality but many, but inventing new worlds upon worlds, promoting the free play of imagination.  That is a Surrealist thing to advocate in the name of change, and of course we often say that Borges inspired a great deal of Latin America's magical realism, itself a species of literary surrealism relying on the juxtaposition of alternate realities.  History, myth, any source of insight will be placed on the same level – a fact I believe the Norton editors refer to.  The productions of imagination are granted their own reality, probably because doing that encourages a brand of literature less tied to the way things supposedly "just are" and more allied with possibilities.

The story itself begins by referring to actual textbook history: "You will read that an attack … had to be postponed …"  But let Borges' narrator tell us what really happened.  This something that really happened sounds like it's scripted by the Freudian Unheimlich, the shock of recognition of something mysterious.  His own past is what causes this shock  -- his grandfather was writing a book about the constitution of time and eventuality.  He becomes a character in that book, at least by projection, as if the present had already been predicted.  Yu Tsun had no idea that he was going to find out about this secret of his ancestral past, but he finds out all the same.  He was in Staffordshire with Rudeberg and they are caught, pursued by the Irishman Madden, a detective who has been seeking them out.  Why has he done what he's done, acting as a spy?  "I wanted to prove to him that a yellow man could save his armies" (2415).  He possesses the name of the town that the Germans must bomb because it has an artillery park is Albert.  The only way to convey it is to kill a man named Stephen Albert since his last name matches.  Madden is looking for him, and Tsun knows he'll eventually be caught.  Can he get to Stephen Albert first?  That's the thing.  But Albert happens to be a sinologist.  Tsun can only get to the house by means of a maze, which is uncanny because that's what his grandfather's book was about.  Uncanny, and it all keeps coming back to the protagonists personally and to their own history, these great events of history.  See 2416 bottom.

What will we learn?  Well, we will learn why Tsun's grandfather wrote the book, why he made such a project of time.  The story's burden is to explain the alternate conception of reality and time that Tsun's grandfather had come up with.  It's Stephen Albert who enlightens Tsun about his own past.  I suppose the both of them are living out one version of reality.  The grandfather had, after all, been killed by the hand of another, just as Stephen Albert will be.  As it turns out, the book and the labyrinth are the same thing, and Albert has figured it out: an entirely different way of dealing with temporality, with narrative.  The garden was the "chaotic novel" (2419).  Well, as Yogi Berra says, "When you come to a fork in the road, take it."  In Borges-world, you can hardly do otherwise!  Or how about, "That place isn't popular anymore – everybody goes there"?  Many futures, infinite possibilities, and they all happen.  It's almost as if what the old man Pen' was on to was something like today's "string theory," which tries to bring together quantum mechanics and general relativity.

Notes on Pablo Neruda
As for politics, well, Neruda’s a Chilean.  As I’ve probably mentioned, America has a long and troubled history in central and south American politics.  We have generally supported the business and military interests that suit us, not necessarily the ones that would improve life for people in Chile, or Peru, or Costa Rica, or wherever in Latin America.  United Fruit was huge in central America, and in Chile, for instance, you had to reckon with Anaconda and its mining interests.  Such multinationals aren’t interested in nation-states except as a hindrance to the flow of capital where they – the companies – want it to go, a hindrance to how they want to deal with labor arrangements and standards, and so forth.  When Chile got its independence from Spain in the 1820’s, things may have looked promising, but then the Brits stepped in and got control of many of Chile’s resources, and of course the USA had interests of its own, so we tried to foil the Brits.  Anyway, it gets ugly and complicated, and the worst of it is probably our campaign to discredit Salvador Allende, Chile’s socialist but legitimately elected president, in 1973.  After that, Augusto Pinochet established a military dictatorship.  I don’t know that the CIA planned the coup itself, but it’s obvious that the US benefited from the change and that the militarists were encouraged by the money and effort we put into destabilizing Allende’s presidency.

Neruda became very much a “poet of the people.”  But that title seems to come in the course of his political development towards leftism.  He starts off as a love & nature poet, moves on to the impure/pure poetry debate, with the “impurists” being something like advocates for surrealist description of objects, not “ego-centered.”  That’s not the same thing as realism, of course: the point is rather, I think, to embrace the fully human and reject the too-well-arranged and centered self of the bourgeois ideologue, and to embrace heterogeneity of the object world.  See “Walking Around” for this influence (2443-44).  In André Breton’s 1924 Surrealist Manifesto, dreams and free imagination take precedence over waking, orderly reality and its prim associations between one thing and another.  In the visual arts, think Salvador Dalí.  Openness to contradiction is vital.  Neruda writes, 

"Let that be the poetry we search for: worn with the hand's obligations, as by acids, steeped in sweat and in smoke, smelling of lilies and urine, spattered diversely by the trades that we live by, inside the law or beyond it.

A poetry impure as the clothing we wear, or our bodies, soup-stained, soiled with our shameful behavior, our wrinkles and vigils and dreams, observations and prophesies, declarations of loathing and love, idylls and beasts, the shocks of encounter, political loyalties, denials and doubts, affirmations and taxes.

The holy canons of madrigal, the mandates of touch, smell, taste, sight, hearing, the passion for justice, sexual desire, the sea sounding, willfully rejecting and accepting nothing: the deep penetration of things in the transports of love, a consummate poetry soiled by the pigeon's claw, ice-marked and tooth-marked, bitten delicately with our sweatdrops and usage, perhaps. Till the instrument so restlessly played yields us the comfort of its surfaces, and the woods show the knottiest suavities shaped by the pride of the tool. Blossom and water and wheat kernel share one precious consistency: the sumptuous appeal of the tactile.

Source: "Toward an Impure Poetry,"  [date 1935] in Pablo Neruda, Five Decades: A Selection ( Poems: 1925-1970), translated by Ben Belitt (New York, Grove Press, 1974), pp. xxi-xxii.

But as he develops, Neruda’s belief in the material-reality-rendering possibilities of language really comes into full play: see “I’m explaining a few things” (2445-46).  Why is he rejecting flowery erotic or pastoral poesy?  Well, “Come and see the blood in the streets” of Spain during the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39.  That’s the imperative – to bring together the ordinary people against a fascist such as General Franco, whose rule, unfortunately, outlasted his allies Hitler and Mussolini right on through the early 1970s.

In the portion of Canto General that we have, the great Andes mountain, Macchu Picchu, at once seems to swallow up humanity and to become the symbol of its permanence, the permanence of Peruvian and indeed Latin American culture, in spite of what the Spaniards did to the Incas, Maya, Aztecs and other early civilizations.  “The Heights” and its imagery, as the editors point out, works against pure linearity as a principle of understanding history; the technique is instead to amalgamate or fuse many memories, many images, many periods into something like a unified vision founded on hope for the future.  This is a mainstay of Latin American literature, with its emphasis on what’s often called “magical realism.”  The past is never entirely lost; it haunts the present but also affords vision and opportunity to those who are willing to confront and embrace it rather than deny it.  All you need do is read Marquez’s Cento Años de Soledad to realize that.

Week 13, Kawabata Yasunari

I haven't found the time to type up my notes for a blog entry on this author.  I may do so in future.