Category Archives: Writing

Marshall Berman: All That is Solid Melts Into Air

126985Marshall Berman ([1982] 1999)

I loved this book, loved Marshall Berman and his provocations on how capitalism and literature and our strivings in the world are intertwined, loved how a new dialectic is brought into Marxist thought and this is tied into our dreams for the future and our visions for a full life, loved that its is grounded in the pain, and yet excitement and vision too, of capitalist destruction. Entirely dialectical, restless, searching, wary of solutions and ‘end stages’ and static utopias. It is also entirely based on the voices of white men, frustrating, especially in the chapter on under-development. At the same time it manages to capture, I think, what is both great and what is terrifying about capitalism and its visions, and since these emerge from white men I forgive it this focus. I’m glad it’s done. I don’t think it needs to be done again.

It’s based around this wonderful quote from Marx:

To be modern is to live a life of paradox and contradiction. It is to be overpowered by the immense bureaucratic organizations that have the power to control and often to destroy all communities, value, lives; and yet to be undeterred in our determination to face those forces, to fight to change their world and make it our own. It is to be both revolutionary and conservative: alive to new possibilities (13) for experience and adventure, frightened by the nihilistic depths to which so many modern adventures lead, longing to create and to hold on to something even as everything melts (13-14).

What I love about Marx, this book, and this aspect of Modernism itself I suppose, is the understanding that the drive to profit through exploitation must be fought, yet that everything is flux and process and overwhelming odds and even so we must ‘be undeterred in our determination to face those forces, to fight to change the world and make it our own’. I agree in the feeling that this is something that has slipped away from many Marxists and many post-Modernists alike. Berman continues:

Meanwhile, social scientists, embarrassed by critical attacks on their techno-pastoral models, have fled from the task of building a model that might be truer to modern life. Instead, they have split modernity into a series of separate components – industrialization, state-building, urbanization, development of markets, elite formation – and resisted any attempt to integrate them into a whole. This has freed them from extravagant generalizations and vague totalities—but also from thought that might engage their own lives and works and their place in history (33-34)

He critiques the over-totalisation of Foucault as well, its all-encompassing microcosms of power without discussion of struggle against them, and this is where my own frustrations lie. I am all about how we fight I realise:

Foucault’s totalities swallow up every facet of modern life. He develops these themes with obsessive relentlessness and, indeed, with sadistic flourishes, clamping his ideas down on his readers like iron bars, twisting each dialectic into our flesh like the turn of the screw (34).

Berman has also convinced me to re-read Goethe. I was at most 17 when I last/first read it, and only remember it wasn’t the camp devil-meets-man-who-sells-his-soul I was expecting, so I am curious to see what I think now. Especially after Berman’s uncovering of so much of the soul of capitalist dreams here, their beauty along with their deadliness. This is such an amazing attempt to really grapple with the fascinations and promises of capitalism, so much a part of its longevity, surely one of its great supports alongside the misery and destitution and destruction it creates.

Faust begins in an epoch whose thought and sensibility are modern in a way that twentieth-century readers can recognize at once, but whose material and social conditions are still medieval; the work ends in the midst of the spiritual and material upheavals of an industrial revolution. It starts in an intellectual’s lonely room, in an abstracted and isolated realm of thought; it ends in the midst of a far-reaching realm of production and exchange, ruled by giant corporate bodies and complex organizations, which Faust’s thought is helping to create, and which are enabling him to create more (39).

This is an interesting insight as well, about how this process took place:

One of the most original and fruitful ideas in Goethe’s Faust is the idea of an affinity between the cultural ideal of self-development and the real social movement toward economic development (40).

There is a freedom for self-development promised by all of these vast and tumultuous changes capitalism was bringing to the landscape. I am sad that the only voice of women in here is via Goethe in the form of Faust’s love Gretchen, but Berman does draw out the tragedy of her situation and that of all women in the period bound up in strong webs of social rules and limits. She is a fairly flat and pathetic construction (I shake my fist at the sky), but embodies this process of modern times that is still happening today. I left home too, didn’t I:

Gretchen’s successors will get the point: where she stayed and died, they will leave and live. In the two centuries between Gretchen’s time and ours, thousands of “little worlds” will be emptied out, transformed into hollow shells, while their young people head for great cities, for open frontiers, for new nations, in search of freedom to think and love and grow…Unwilling or unable to develop along with its children, the closed town will become a ghost town. Its victims’ ghosts will be left with the last laugh (59).

Modernity contains this promise of self-fulfillment, that we can be

…like Faust himself, tätig-frei, free to act, freely active. They have come together to form a new kind of community: a community that thrives not on the repression of free individuality in order to maintain a closed social system, but on free constructive action in common to protect the collective resources that enable every individual to become tätig-frei (66).

Of course, this comes with huge cost. People stand in the way of progress, refuse to sell their land or give up their traditions. Two older people are murdered to pave the way for Faust’s plans, revealing that

It appears that the very process of development, even as it transforms a wasteland into a thriving physical and social space, recreates the wasteland inside the developer himself. This is how the tragedy of development works (68).

An interesting window opened up into why people do bad things, and how that stays within them. It is a personal choice, but also something larger:

But there is another motive for the murder that springs not merely from Faust’s personality, but from a collective, impersonal drive that seems to be endemic to modernization: the drive to create a homogenous environment, a totally modernized space, in which the look and feel of the old world have disappeared without a trace (68).

I love, too, the understanding that it is not just greed or self-interest driving Faust, but vision. This seems to me one of the most important insights Berman gives us, allowing us to understand not just the tragedy of capitalism, but also the tragedy of those initially socialist societies we have known in our times:

If we want to locate Faustian visions and designs in the aged Goethe’s time, the place to look is not in the economic and social realities of that age but in its radical and Utopian dreams; and, moreover, not in the capitalism of that age, but in its socialism (72).

He uses Saint-Simon as an example, with his ‘long-range development projects on an enormous scale’, and states:

It is only in the twentieth century that Faustian development has come into its own. In the capitalist world it has emerged most vividly in the proliferation of “public authorities” and superagencies designed to organize immense construction projects, especially in transportation and energy… (74)

The section ends with this, a sentence that challenges us to think about where we stand ourselves:

Faust’s unfinished construction site is the vibrant but shaky ground on which we must all stake out and build up our lives (86).

Then he turns to Marx in a most innovative and provocative way that I loved as much as his analysis of Goethe. A few choice quotes that turn around traditional understandings of Marxist thought:

We will soon see how the real force and originality of Marx’s “historical materialism” is the light it sheds on modern spiritual life (88).

Marx can shine new light…he can clarify the relationship between modernist culture and the bourgeois economy and society–the world of “modernization”–from which it has sprung (90).

Although Marx identifies himself as a materialist, he is not primarily interested in the things that the bourgeoisie creates. What matters to him is the processes, the powers, the expressions of human life and energy: men working, moving, cultivating, communicating, organizing and reworking nature and themselves–the new and endlessly renewed modes of activity that the bourgeoisie brings into being (93).

I think this is precisely the power of Marx’s thought. And I love where this insight takes us:

Alas to the bourgeois’ embarrassment, they cannot afford to look down the roads they have opened up: the great wide vistas may turn into abysses. They can go on playing their revolutionary role only by denying its full extent and depth. But radical thinkers and workers are free to see where the roads lead, and to take them. If the good life is a life of action, why should the range of human activities be limited to those that are profitable? And why should modern men, who have seen what men’s activity can bring about, passively accept the structure of their society as it is given? Since organized and concerted action can change the world in so many ways, why not organize and work together and fight to change it still more? (94).

Going back to the main quote about melting into air, I think this understanding of what we fight is pivotal, because change is intrinsic to capitalism which benefits from it, but as part of our own interior selves it must also be part of what we build to replace it:

Our lives are controlled by a ruling class with vested interests not merely in change but in crisis and chaos. “Uninterrupted disturbance, everlasting uncertainty and agitation,” instead of subverting the society, actually serve to strengthen it. Catastrophes are transformed into lucrative opportunities for redevelopment and renewal; disintegration works as a mobilizing and hence an integrating force (95).

If we look behind the sober scenes that the members of our bourgeoisie create, and see the way they really work and act, we see that these solid citizens would tear down the world if it paid (100).

Thus where Marx sees a stable communist, collective sharing society that needs to be formed, Berman argues that these dynamic forces within us will still work to destabilize any future solidity, and any attempts to hold and control this change will only serve to damage and ossify what we have won.

But the problem is that, given the nihilistic thrust of modern personal and social development, it is not at all clear what political bonds modern men can create. Thus the trouble in Marx’s thought turns out to be a trouble that runs through the whole structure of modern life itself (128).

Another key understanding is the way that capitalism changes and survives through incorporation and subsummation:

When Marx says that other values are “resolved into” exchange value, his point is that bourgeois society does not efface old structures of value but subsumes them. Old modes of honor and dignity do not die; instead, they get incorporated into the market, take on price tags, gain a new life as commodities. Thus, any imaginable mode of human conduct becomes morally permissible the moment it becomes economically possible, becomes “valuable”; anything goes if it pays. This is what modern nihilism is all about (111).

This is just a lovely quote that summarises modern society:

How Marx ‘develops the themes by which modernism will come to define itself: the glory of modern energy and dynamism, the ravages of modern disintegration and nihilism, the strange intimacy between them: the sense of being caught in a vortex where all facts and values are whirled, exploded, decomposed, recombined: a basic uncertainty about what is basic, what is valuable, even what is real; a flaring up of the most radical hopes in the midst of their radical negations (121).

Berman returns to literature specific to Paris as he examines Haussman and Baudelaire, the tensions between celebrating everyday life of the people, making the city better, redeveloping some things out of existence while creating the possibility for growth and positive change. This is from the poet Theodore de Banville’s tribute at Baudelaire’s grave:

He accepted modern man in his entirety, with his weakness, his aspirations and his despair. He had thus been able to give beauty to sights that did not possess beauty in themselves, not by making them romantically picturesque, but by bringing to light the portion of the human soul hidden in them; he had thus revealed the sad and often tragic heart of the modern city. That was why he haunted, and would always haunt, the minds of modern men, and move them when other artists left them cold (132).

On Haussman’s work in Paris:

…it opened up the whole of the city, for the first time in its history, to all its inhabitants. Now, at last, it was possible to move not only within neighborhoods, but through them. Now, after centuries of life as a cluster of isolated cells, Paris was becoming a unified physical and human space (151).

And it is here in Paris we meet the ‘modern man’ (and man it is), see the obsession with crowds, traffic, movement, change:

The archetypal modern man, as we see him here, is a pedestrian thrown into the maelstrom of modern city traffic, a man alone contending against an agglomeration of mass and energy that is heavy, fast and lethal. The burgeoning street and boulevard traffic knows no spatial or temporal bounds, spills over into every urban space, imposes its tempo on everybody’s time, transforms the whole modern environment into a “moving chaos.” The chaos here lies not in the movers themselves…but in their interaction, in the totality of their movements in a common space. This makes the boulevard a perfect symbol of capitalism’s inner contradictions: rationality in each capitalistic unit, leading to anarchic irrationality in the social system that brings all these units together (157).

This was so reminiscent of the film Cairo Drive it was a little spooky. This life and art to be found in traffic is such an interesting thing:

…poets will become more deeply and authentically poetic by becoming more like ordinary men. If he throws himself into the moving chaos of everyday life in the modern world — a life of which the new traffic is a primary symbol — he can appropriate this life for art (160).

And I love this way of thinking about streets, how they have changed, how they are defined by us and define us, how they make new ideas of collectivity possible:

For one luminous moment, the multitude of solitudes that make up the modern city come together in a new kind of encounter, to make a people. “The streets belong to the people”: they seize control of the city’s elemental matter and make it their own. For a little while the chaotic modernism of solitary brusque moves gives way to an ordered modernism of mass movement (164).

I like thinking about the shifts in how encounters take place in the street:

for most of our century, urban spaces have been systematically designed and organized to ensure that collisions and confrontations will not take place here. The distinctive sign of nineteenth-century urbanism was the boulevard, a medium for bringing explosive material and human forces together; the hallmark of twentieth-century urbanism has been the highway, a means for putting them asunder. We see a strange dialectic here, in which one mode of mdoernism both energizes and exhausts itself trying to annihilate another, all in modernism’s name (165).

And I really like what he likes about Baudelaire, though there is more to dislike:

a will to wrestle to the end of his energy with modern life’s complexities and contradictions, to find and create himself in the midst of the anguish and beauty of its moving chaos (170).

It is a desire to live openly with the split and unreconciled character of our lives, and to draw energy from our inner struggles, wherever they may lead us in the end. If we learned through modernism to construct halos around our spaces and ourselves, we can learn from another modernism — one of the oldest but also, we can see now, one of the newest — to lose our halos and find ourselves anew (171).

There’s a whole chapter on St Petersburg, which gave me a long list of Russian authors to read or revisit (you know I loved that), and was interesting but I didn’t feel it compared to the first two chapters. Perhaps because it is looking at those societies who haven’t gone through this upheaval, who are stuck or behind in terms of development. A good thing to do, but he tries to make the same kind of sweeping statements, using Russia to potentially understand the rest of the world which I think is a really bad idea. Really. Bad.I won’t go into vastly different histories of ‘discovery’, colonialism, slavery, genocide, centuries of outside exploitation, the solidifying of structural racism and etc.

That said, I was quite delighted to find a discussion of the impact that Crystal Palace, South London’s own Crystal Palace, had on some key Russian authors (why don’t I remember this from Dostoevsky?) and utopian thought. I’m looking forward to thinking more about that. There was also an amazing word brought from English into Russian:  infiltrazya – Soviet word expressing the fear of the ‘flow of new words and things from other shores’. Awesome.

Anyway, this comes back to its own when it comes back to NY and Marshall Berman’s beloved Bronx, destroyed through these very forces he is working to describe. He wrestles here with what made the destruction of his neighbourhood possible, and I haven’t really read people wrestling with this before though I think it is so vital:

It is easy to dwell endlessly on Moses’ personal power and style. But this emphasis tends to obscure one of the primary sources of his vast authority: his ability to convince a mass public that he was the vehicle of impersonal world-historical forces, the moving spirit of modernity (294).

And this spirit of modernity twisted in odd, and I think fairly terrible ways. Killing one of its sources:

the makers of the post-World War One “modern movement” in architecture and urbanism turned radically against this modern romance: they marched to Le Corbusier’s battle cry, “We must kill the street.” (317)

Le Corbusier is on my list, but I have read Jane Jacobs, I like what Berman finds of import in her writings:

Much of her intellectual authority springs from her perfect grasp of the structures and processes of everyday life. She makes her readers feel that women know what it is like to live in cities, street by street, day by day, far better than the men who plan and build them.

But our critique is much the same:

It seems to me that beneath her modernist text there is an anti-modernist subtext, a sort of undertow of nostalgia for a family and a neighborhood in which the self could be securely embedded, ein’feste Burg, a solid refuge against all the dangerous currents of freedom and ambiguity in which all modern men and women are caught up…

And really the problem?

…no blacks on her block. This is what makes her neighborhood vision seem pastoral: it is the city before the blacks got there. Her world ranges from solid working-class whites at the bottom to professional middle-class whites at the top… (324)

Ironically, one could say the same about Berman really.

Returning to what makes wholesale destruction of neighbourhoods possible, one of the things I loved most — and that must have been so hard to write — is the soul searching he does, wondering if his family would have voluntarily left the Bronx if they had not been evicted. If it had not been destroyed by Moses, would his family have followed the same path of white flight/ advancement with all of their neighbours? Would the Bronx have been destroyed through this flight of resources just as surely as other areas?

For the Bronx of my youth was possessed, inspired, by the great modern dream of mobility. To live well meant to move up socially, and this in turn meant to move out physically; to live one’s life close to home was not to be alive at all. Our parents, who had moved up and out from the Lower East Side, believed this just as devoutly as we did–even though their heart might break when we went. Not even the radicals of my youth disputed this dream…when you see life this way, no neighborhood or environment can be anything more than a stage along life’s way, a launching pad for higher flights and wider orbits than your own (326-327).

Rethinking this, better planning for it or I think better yet changing it, is something radicals certainly need to think through.

I leave you with the last sentence:

I believe that we and those who come after us will go on fighting to make ourselves at home in this world, even as the homes we have made, the modern street, the modern spirit, go on melting into air (348).

[For even more on Berman and the role of the intellectual, you can read here. Also I apologise for not having the willpower to go back over this blog post and removed the overabundance of love that it suffers from perhaps.]

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Ursula Le Guin on Writing and Imagining the Future

Everything I most love about SF and utopia and writing an alternative future, Ursula Le Guin captures something so important here in her speech at the National Book Awards. A lot has been blogged and written already about this. I have nothing to add really about the vile nature of much of the book trade or the inspiration that it still somehow manages to publish, as she says it so much better — I have always loved her, and daily love her more for encapsulating the multiple aspects of the battle we have on our hands and why we must keep on fighting:

Thank you Neil [Gaiman], and to the givers of this beautiful reward, my thanks from the heart. My family, my agent, editors, know that my being here is their doing as well as mine, and that the beautiful reward is theirs as much as mine. And I rejoice at accepting it for, and sharing it with, all the writers who were excluded from literature for so long, my fellow authors of fantasy and science fiction—writers of the imagination, who for the last 50 years watched the beautiful rewards go to the so-called realists.

I think hard times are coming when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom. Poets, visionaries—the realists of a larger reality.

Right now, I think we need writers who know the difference between the production of a market commodity and the practice of an art. Developing written material to suit sales strategies in order to maximize corporate profit and advertising revenue is not quite the same thing as responsible book publishing or authorship. (Thank you, brave applauders.)

Yet I see sales departments given control over editorial; I see my own publishers in a silly panic of ignorance and greed, charging public libraries for an ebook six or seven times more than they charge customers. We just saw a profiteer try to punish a publisher for disobedience and writers threatened by corporate fatwa, and I see a lot of us, the producers who write the books, and make the books, accepting this. Letting commodity profiteers sell us like deodorant, and tell us what to publish and what to write. (Well, I love you too, darling.)

Books, you know, they’re not just commodities. The profit motive often is in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art—the art of words.

I have had a long career and a good one. In good company. Now here, at the end of it, I really don’t want to watch American literature get sold down the river. We who live by writing and publishing want—and should demand—our fair share of the proceeds. But the name of our beautiful reward is not profit. Its name is freedom.

Thank you.

[This transcript is from Parker Higgins, who I thank from the bottom of my heart for transcribing and posting it]

New serial of L.A. life from Gary Phillips

Artist: Jeffrey K. Fisher
Artist: Jeffrey K. Fisher

“Best slow your roll, Al,” the one-handed bartender Pierre Gaston said languidly. He took hold of an empty glass between the pincers of his prosthesis. Behind him and above the bottles on a flat screen TV, played a near mute newscast about a truckers’ job action at the port.

That’s why I love Gary Phillips. He writes shit-talking dialogue like no one else, and there’s always a crazy character or two, like a one-handed bartender sitting in the Scorpion Tap. That’s right, the Scorpion Tap. Crazy as they are, they’re still true to the L.A. I know and love. And hate. But mostly love. Because this ain’t the L.A. of Hollywood glitz and glamour, or beaches and West-side wealth, this is where the heart and soul is at. South Central. At least that’s where we’re starting.

The story’s called The Dixon Chronicles, and Gary writes:

Embracing a populist literary tradition that reaches back to Charles Dickens, among others, whose examinations of class conflict in industrializing England were published serially in newspapers, yours truly humbly presents the first installment, chapter if you will in “The Dixon Family Chronicles” on the capitalandmain.com news site.

The webserial follows the interrelated and divergent lives of its three African American main characters. They are Henry “Uncle Hank” Dixon, a handyman living in South L.A.; his niece Jessica “Jess” Dixon, an Iraq war vet who now works in a fulfillment center in Riverside; and her brother, Joseph “Little Joe” Dixon, a one-time pro baller prospect who works as a youth athletic director in Oakland. As the characters deal with everyday life in the Golden State, issues surrounding wage inequality, gentrification, unionization, job insecurity, transportation, and food deserts are woven into their stories.

New chapters will appear each Wednesday at least through the end of this year.

Gary may sound nothing like Dickens, but you can bet I love this calling upon the populist tradition and examining of class (and race) conflict across time and space and vastly different experience. And just as Dickens belonged to London, so Gary belongs to L.A., and I’m looking forward to traveling its streets with him. He starts right in one of my old neighbourhoods, and dealing with the displacement and unemployment that comes with land speculation and that I fought every day of my working life for six years. Can’t wait until next Wednesday…

Of course, this isn’t the first time Gary has written stories in this kind of form — as a writer I’m a little in awe of it, mostly because I just don’t think I could ever manage it. But there’s the comic Bicycle Cop Dave over at fourstory.com, illustrated by Manoel Magalhães. And then there’s the set of stories that eventually became the caper story The Underbelly, that we published at PM Press. All I’m saying is that the man’s got skills, so check out his awesome website.

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Roque-Gageac, Beynac, Rouffignac

I woke up this morning to a brave calling of swallows echoing across the cliff face, greeting the dawn. It is the same cliff that forms one wall of my room, the other wall of pine sloping sharply up to meet it with a cross bracing of huge and ancient beams cut square. It is very cold. The swallows move in and out of crescendo and light comes in through the two small triangular windows.

Last night I was kept awake by the irony of a rock-pop festival in this tiny medieval village, and then I was kept awake by the cold. I wore my down vest under the covers for a while, then wrapped it around my feet. In between wakings I dreamed of James Crumley, big and shaggy and alcohol soaked, I dreamed he had hired my dad to rebuild and redecorate his record and auto-part store. I dreamed we walked in the desert and I tried to explain just how beautiful it was, just how much I loved it. But I almost never write about the desert, I don’t understand. But I suppose dreams aren’t for understanding.

Maybe it is just that I have found no inspiration beyond photos, I don’t find words hidden seamed up in time’s folds the way I do in London. So I shall work on my dissertation. It is ridiculously beautiful here of course, ancient villages of mellowed golden limestone and narrow winding roads. They are all fortified, on hilltops, castles crowning outcrops and defensible walls blocking cavern faces high up in the cliffs. It was on the edges of the hundred-years war with England, the castle of Beynac-et-cezenac in French hands, that of Castelnaud in English.

We went to see the grotte de Rouffignac yesterday as well. It is a huge cavern, huge. And regular the way most caves are not, carved out by an underground river through stone that must have been very regular. There are no stalactites and stalagmites, though my french did not quite reach to understanding why. The walls are mostly smooth, with a layer of what looks like a conglomerate just above the level of my head, strange rounded multi-armed shapes embedded whole into the walls, grey near the opening, stained a deep orange-red with iron ore deeper inside. You ride a small electric train very deep inside, following where ancient people walked with only torches. Large openings branch to either side, you wonder how they found their way. Past the hollows where ancient cave bears dug their holes to hibernate for the winter, into a rounded cavern where beautiful mammoths and bison were drawn across the roof, only a few feet from the floor, emerging from the deep hole of a cavern to the left that goes far beyond seeing…

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Bruno Shulz on reading swallows…

One thing must be avoided at all costs: narrow-mindedness, pedantry, dull pettiness. Mot things are interconnected, most threads lead to the same reel. Have you ever noticed swallows rising in flocks from between the lines of certain books, whole stanzas of quivering pointed swallows? One should read the flight of these birds…

Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass – Bruno Schulz

Bruno Schulz & Literary Pub Gossip

Reading The Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz, also known as Cinnamon Shops. It moves easily between one title and the other in my mind, whatever my book cover might say. Moves easily between putrid terror and the warmth and fragrance of home. And I rode the tube furious that anyone who could fling my heart up and down and side to side with his glorious words, should write of a mad girl ‘s libidinous passion and hideous unnatural fertility, of an aunt of

almost self propagating fertility, a femininity without rein, morbidly expansive.

it’s not the fury of blame, just the impotent tragedy of this ancient war of sexes that I cannot find myself in. You see, I can fling words too. And all men must surely cower before me, as Schulz illustrates over and over again.

As a woman I find horror in this. And irony. One Gestapo agent spared Schulz’s life because he liked his pictures…it was another Nazi who shot him dead in the street.

It is a used book I found in Kensington on Saturday, and between two of the pages I found a small pressed flower, translucent, ancient, fragile. Beautiful. I love finding such things. And I love entire pages of this book, the lyrical madness of it. The way its edges don’t quite fit though the center holds. Mervyn Peake must also have loved him, the father crouched on the pelmet (impossible!), flapping his wings sends me reeling Gormenghast way…

And I went to write in the Seven Stars, one of my favourite pubs, small, mostly silent, I sat in a hard wooden chair by the fake coal fire, stared at the Inns of Court. Wrote reams. But is it true as one pub stalwart claimed, that Dylan Thomas made an international reputation at the expense of the local people? Must I hold it against him that he did not actually speak Welsh? And it’s Burns night…must I despise Burns and Chaucer for working for Her Majesty’s Inland Revenue Service? Ruining peoples’ lives? I am undecided. My brother texted me “Wee, sleekit, cowrin, tim’rous beastie,” in honor, but I prefer this.

Let every kind, their pleasure find
The savage, and the tender
Some social join, for some leagues combine
Some solitary wander.
–Robbie Burns

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Wheech

wheech

A scottish word, wheech means to remove quickly or rapidly.

  • If you don’t gie me a puff oan that joint ah’ll just wheech it right aff yi.
  • The mugger just wheeched the old ladies pension book from her and ran away.
  • That guy is a real ladies man and loves nothing better than wheeching the knickers right off them.

Vertigo Crime and Comic Con day 1

Yesterday I headed down to San Diego for Comic Con…there is absolutely no rest for the wicked and it sometimes makes me sad! I drove down with my co-editor in crime on the Switchblade Imprint, the indescribable Gary Phillips. The coversation was smooth, and involved a lot of speculation on the extraordinary New Jersey corruption case that broke yesterday morning, involving the arrest of three mayors, multiple rabbis, and 2 state assemblymen on charges of bribery, money laundering, and even organ trafficking! I’m sure both of us were wishing we had written such a fucking great story, I certainly was…

Comic Con is just as immense, sprawling and overwhelming as ever, sprinkled with characters in amazing costume and an incredible diversity of nerdiness that I really love. But it makes you tired quickly, it is too much to take in. We wandered, talked to people, and then I sat in on Gary’s panel, Vertigo‘s announcement of the upcoming work for 2009 and 2010. And was amazed. I love the edginess of Vertigo, they have published Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore and Grant Morrison and…the list just goes on and on. And sitting and listening to all of the amazing stuff they have newly in the works was a joy. I’m just not sure how to fit the pleasurable reading of each of the new series into a life already crammed full with pleasures and much work. But I am sure I will find a way.

Karen Berger created the imprint within DC comics, which I hadn’t known until I met her briefly yesterday and Gary told me the story. To find a woman as the head of such an amazing dark and gritty series of crime, fantasy, and horror made me happy…funny how the genres I love most are very dominated by men. The broad preferences of different genders in reading and writing are patent, I shall save speculation on why and how that happens as I am still thinking through it. But in only the short time I have been working in publishing I have run into a couple of good ole boys and felt treated very much like a secretary rather than a creative partner. It was a bit shocking to me coming from my small world of organizing where such things were at least much more subtle, officially called out and censured. And I was always a force to be respected and feared. To discover it so blatantly in the literary world was much sadder than the shock of being talked down to and patronized when I worked in the bra shop two years ago now on my…er…sabbatical, I hated it as much, but everyone knows that shop ‘girls’ get disrespected all the time. I was somewhat prepared for that, though the fury it inspires was just as grand.

So cheers to Karen Berger.

And cheers to Vertigo Crime, announced at Comic Con last year and the fruits soon to be available in the first two black and white hardcover graphic novels, Brian Azzarello’s Filthy Rich and Ian Rankin’s Dark Entries. Gary is writing a graphic novel called Cowboys, which traces the collision of two very different men, it starts with them holding guns to one another’s heads and disbelieving each others’ claim that they are working undercover. We went out to dinner with a great group of writers, at my end of the table was Jason Aaron who writes Scalped, (which I sadly haven’t read but that should be recitified in the next few days), Jason Starr, author of a number of novels for Hard Case Crime, and Max Allen Collins, who wrote Road to Perdition amongst many another great book…they all have new stuff coming out soon, judging from the previews they should all be read as soon as they are released!

And just one of the interesting tid-bits of conversation that made me think…the claim, would anyone still read Dashiell Hammett if they hadn’t made the Maltese Falcon into a movie? James M. Cain without Double Indemnity? Chandler without the Big Sleep? Max always thought that Kiss Me Deadly was a great movie that kept the name of Micky Spillane alive to readers…an interesting thought and very possibly true, and something I instinctively rebel against, and yet…

SF and Politics at Think Galactic

It was my first time at Think Galactic. And I must admit, it was my first time at any SF con. And I must further admit that it was my first time really talking about the convergence of science fiction and politics in any real and sustained way. And my final admission is that the combination of these factors resulted in me actually talking very little (or at all) in the panels and discussions, though I certainly talked up a storm in smaller venues, between panels, over lunch and dinner and beers. I realized there is so much I haven’t read and need to read, so much I’ve only vaguely thought about, but never sharpened into real coherency by translating it into the concreteness of actual words.

And it was brilliant, of course.

I don’t think I’ve ever actually been in a room where everyone seems to have read and loved Octavia Butler and Ursula Le Guin. Where radical politics are related back to zombie wars and the struggle for life on Mars. I think I’ve been wanting a room like that for some time without consciously realizing it, much less looking for it. My own great loss. There are two things I love about…what should I even call it? Speculative fiction is the term  I think. I admit I have a wee bit more love for fantasy over straight sci fi, though I think much of the distinction between the two rather absurd. Still, I love those splendidly feral worlds of the imagination, rich tapestried language, monsters, magic, places where no one has the same rules, or they have invented new ways of breaking them. I’m the kid who heard fairies outside her window growing up, and hasn’t given up on them yet. And of course you have authors like William Gibson who take technology into places where my experience can’t follow, and it all comes back to what might as well be magic again (for me, I don’t mean to cause any controversy by labeling cyberpunk magical, which I know it’s really not!). Still, fantasy leans towards the callings of destiny, the great kings, the happiness that comes from feudalism…I don’t like that at all. But there are those novels like the Gormenghast trilogy that have brought so much wealth to my world through their very existence, and books by authors like M. John Harrison and China Mieville where I see some of my own politics echoed back at me, even amplified.

I love things like Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy too, but they don’t make me hold my breath until the page dims due to lack of oxygen.

For so many years I never consciously brought that together with my love of social justice and my struggle for a better world… as an organizer the books didn’t seem to have the same importance and I stopped reading so much. Of course, that wasn’t just true of speculative fiction, it was true of absolutely everything. Sleeping itself was cut down to below the minimum needed, much less literary exploration. It’s been nice to emerge from the fog of living emergency to emergency, political moment to political moment, meeting to meeting.

And what a joy to come back to these books, to re-read things in light of all I’ve learned, to hurl myself into the world as it was or could be or is now with some (monsterific) modifications, all through the words of some of the greatest writers bar none. At its best the genre allows so much scope for playing with ideas, for turning ideals and theory into things that are alive on the page. It is a genre for dreaming, for analyzing, for theorizing, for experimenting… all the things that turn me on the most when paired with imaginations that spark my own.

Friday night I saw Eleanor Arnason reading an exquisite little story about a silly king and a statue and the little hatmaker…I sadly missed the other reading as it was a long train ride home to the place I was staying. But Eleanor is a fascinating author dealing with so many issues of class, race and gender in her work, and always a pleasure to read. Even more of a pleasure to meet in person, we talked quite a bit over the course of two lunches, and I am proud to say that we at PM Press will be publishing one of her stories and an in depth interview with her next year, Mammoths of the Great Plains.

I also spent a great deal of time with Josh MacPhee, who brought a load of incredible prints and posters from Just Seeds. PM will also be publishing his next book Paper Politics, which is exciting. And it was nice to have someone else in the same boat more or less…the perilous dinghy of being a fan but much more of an activist, with little experience in combining the two. I think both of us felt we were in a little deep! But It was great to finally meet someone I’ve worked with and chatted with over email face to face…And there were so many more people I talked with, but I’ve limited mention to people who I know enough about to give a plug for and a nod to their work!

And the panels? Oh, they were great. They covered race, class and gender in the genre, looked at the future of food, the role of science and technology in the world we are building, the place of the superhero in comics…and so much more. Everything ran smoothly, the food was delicious, the stencil and print workshop was brilliant, the games mightily enjoyable…and Roosevelt University an incredible space. All in all I enjoyed myself immensely. Everyone there seemed amazing and I’m just sad it wasn’t longer, as there were a number of folks I didn’t talk to at all (I’m still a bit shy as well!). But what I have taken away is the compilation of a massive reading list, and the percolation of a million great ideas. The extraordinary women who put everything together deserve an immense amount of credit, and I definitely hope that it continues long into the future…

Chortling Chinchillas and Jabberwocks

So I was having a conversation with a friend about the word chortle, I really love this word… I would like to chortle, I think I might from time to time, but generally speaking it always seemed to me something that plump people do, a deep belly chuckle that involves a lot of happy stomach jiggling. Or babies who are always round and, well, rather fat, and do a good bit of chortling when not drooling or crying. Being tall and thin, it seemed rather beyond my abilities…though I swear I never giggle.

I was happy to find that apart from people with large bellies, chortling is also a technical term used to describe some of the communication between chinchillas. Just look at this:

I don’t know the genius who is responsible for this sign, nor quite how to explain the presence of chinchillas at San Francisco’s aquarium on the bay, but was very happy about both.

Still, the word chortle seemed to require a bit more investigation. So investigate I did. And was astounded and amazed to find that the word was actually invented by Lewis Carroll in the immortal poem Jabberwocky (at least, that’s what wiktionary says).

Now I have been in love with this poem ever since I first read it at a very tender age, it is perhaps my favourite poem of all time, though my love for it is slightly different then my love for the poetry of Akhmatova, Neruda, Heaney, and even Poe. And it’s a bit…well no, I am immensely excited and happy and well nigh overjoyed in the amazement to find it was first coined there in 1871

‘O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!’ He chortled in his joy.

I never knew. The Merriam-Webster dictionary says it can also mean to sing or chant exultantly, but I think they’re utterly wrong, and obviously not as in tune with the great Carrollian mind as I am…how could they say such a thing after writing that the etymology of the word is “probably a blend of chuckle and snort?”

But I think this much discussion calls for the complete poem

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!”

He took his vorpal sword in hand:
Long time the manxome foe he sought—
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
And stood awhile in thought.

And as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! and through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.

“And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”
He chortled in his joy.

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

And I am newly reminded about the importance of using frabjous much more regularly. Of whiffling and burbling and the sound of snicker-snack. I do often use galumph, having once had a cat who used that as his regular mode of transport. And I know this is an out and out nonsense poem that has since had reams of very learned sillyness written about it, but ’twas magical the world it created for me as a kid. And the doors it opened in language. And the frumious bandersnatch remains one of my favourite creatures ever…I’m still hoping to meet one, though not in a dark alley.

And it only adds to the happiness of chortling chinchillas.

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