Tag Archives: history

Aberystwyth Castle, Sunset

Built as a diamond-shaped, concentric fortress, this stone piled up by Edward I to maintain control over the Welsh now stands ruined, almost impossible to imagine it as it once was. What better fate for monuments to war and occupation, and yet… my deep love for these bloodied stone skeletons shames me. The original castle on this particular spot was built by Llywelyn the Great (c1172-1240). He built a chain of castles from Tegeingl to Meirionydd — it paralleled the English chain from Cardigan to Montgomery. After initiating his campaign to subdue the Welsh, in 1277 Edward ordered his power solidified and embodied and exerted through architecture–updated to withstand all the new technologies of war–in 1277. But not the pounding of the waves. It was already falling down when turned against the English for a time by Owain Glyndwr in 1404. Cromwell completed the task, pounding the Roundheads within.

The townsfolk very sensibly used the stones to help build their town.

It was chance that brought us here at dusk, with a fierce wind that chased everyone else away. Strange to be so alone in this place huddled up to homes and buildings, open to the public to clamber and crawl. I loved that what remains of this place is so open to all, a breath of history knitted into the town itself in the way it is placed. Only the photographer in me cursed the many welcoming benches. In one hidden corner sat a cluster of teenage girls listening to the radio and laughing, the great stone walls sheltering them from the wind.

I did not mind one three-sided room we could not explore.

I wondered where you could see these same stones made humble and domestic in the town’s architecture, still ringing to the sound of Welsh you hear everywhere here.

Aberystwth Castle

Everything else stopped for a while as we looked up towards Pen Dinas where the Iron Age hill fort stood, and along the coast in either direction until the sea swallowed up the sun.

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John Berger on Ways of Seeing

John Berger Ways of SeeingWays of Seeing by John Berger is a most wonderful wonderful book. Told both in words and pictures, what follows is a lopsided collection of sentences that does some violence to the whole I confess. I was particularly interested in photography, but found myself swept away into other places and didn’t mind at all. It is a book I look forward to reading many more times — and hunting down the series as well. I so wish I had been lucky enough to have been given this to read in the high school Art History class that has remained with me all through my years. Better late than never.

It is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding world; we explain that world with words, but words can never undo the fact that we are surrounded by it. The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled. (7)

Nothing is ever settled. I love this unsettling. Love this sense of history:

The past is never there waiting to be discovered, to be recognized for exactly what it is. History always constitutes the relation between a present and its past. Consequently, fear of the present leads to mystification of the past. The past is not for living in; it is a well of conclusions from which we draw in order to act. (11)

Just a sentence and then off he goes in another direction. I want to think more about this alongside Trouillot and the erasings and the silences, but later perhaps.

Because we are off to Frans Hals, always one of my favourites:

Hals was the first portraitist to pain the new characters and expressions created by capitalism. He did in pictorial terms what Balzac did two centuries later in literature. (16)

The regentesses of Haarlem’s almshouse, such an unforgettable picture but never had I thought of it this way:

Frans Hals — Portrait of The Regentesses of the Old Men’s Almshouse Haarlem, 1640s?

And this, my favourite statement of the power that images hold, the potential they carry, a statement that makes me think of things quite differently though I have for a long time been thinking about this — like the wonderful obsessions of Otto Neurath and his isotypes:

If the new language of images were used differently, it would, through its use, confer a new kind of power. Within it we could begin to define our experiences more precisely in areas where words are inadequate. (Seeing comes before words.) Not only personal experience, but also the essential historical experience of our relation to the past: that is to say the experience of seeking to give meaning to our lives, of trying to understand the history of which we can become the active agents.

The art of the past no longer exists as it once did. Its authority is lost. In its place there is a language of images. What matters now is who uses that language for what purpose. (33)

I don’t know why Berger’s passages on oil painting struck me as they did, I think because they represent what a profoundly different way this is of understanding painting as it sits within its context — I love it.

Oil painting did to appearances what capital did to social relations. It reduced everything to the equality of objects. Everything became exchangeable because everything became a commodity. All reality was mechanically measured by its materiality. … Oil painting conveyed a feeling of total exteriority. (87)

I can see this exteriority, feel the velvets and silks under my fingers in these paintings. That always struck me, the incredible details. I think there was such a love of these sumptuous textures in themselves, but yes, also this:

Works of art in earlier traditions celebrated wealth. But wealth was then a symbol of a fixed social or divine order. Oil painting celebrated a new kind of wealth — which was dynamic and which found its only sanction in the supreme buying power of money. Thus painting itself had to be able to demonstrate the desirability of what money could buy. (90)

And then there is the section on advertising, the co-optation of art (not that that was anything new, as can be seen in the quote above) and this unapologetic reading that made me happy:

The pursuit of individual happiness has been acknowledged as a universal right. Yet the existing social conditions make the individual feel powerless. He lives in the contradiction between what he is and what he would like to be. Either he then becomes fully conscious of the contradiction and its causes, and so joins the political struggle for a full democracy which entails, among other things, the overthrow of capitalism; or else he lives, continually subject to an envy which, compounded with his sense of powerlessness, dissolves into recurrent day dreams. (148)

So to end with photography, which sent me here in the first place and of which I found but little, though I did not care in the slightest.

First, something that seems so simple, and yet… before thinking about it I might have said as a reflex that photography was somehow more ‘objective’, I might still lapse into that feeling. But really,

The photographer’s way of seeing is reflected in his choice of subject.  (10)

On the other hand, I had not before thought through how the camera changes our perspective, how it differs from painting, how it decentres us from time and space:

The camera isolated momentary appearances and in so doing destroyed the idea that images were timeless. Or, to put it another way, the camera showed that the notion of time passing was inseparable from the experience of the visual (except in paintings)….

This is not to say that before the invention of the camera men believed everyone could see everything. But perspective organized the visual field as though that were indeed the ideal. Every drawing or painting that used perspective proposed to the spectator that he was the unique centre of the world. The camera — and more particularly the movie camera — demonstrated that there was no centre.

The invention of the camera changed the way that we saw. The invisible came to mean something different to them. This was immediately reflected in painting. (18)

This is something I need to think much more about. It’s interesting how this is one of the major differences between Western and non-Western art, it doesn’t surprise me at all that it is Western art of a certain period that put human beings always at the centre. It must be a good thing to destabilise that, but I’m not sure I entirely grasp how photography and film do that. Our own private viewings into the world of others.

But there is so much joy in art and pleasure in thinking about it here…

Smith: LA’s African American Renaissance of the 1940s

RJ Smith The Great Black WayI enjoyed The Great Black Way, and LA really was amazing in the 1940s. Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean the awesomeness of the Harlem Renaissance was any less, so my only quibbles are with the taste of implied rivalry. One of the opening sentences of the book that sets the scene:

Walled off by segregation and custom, black L.A. built an infinitely rich world. Once upon a time, black L.A. was a stand-alone city within a city, and the more I understood that, the more artificial it seems to spear ate music from the rest of people’s lives. Once upon a time, everything was connected: the civil rights leader Clayton Russell was good friends with the R&B artists. He appears fictionalized in one of the early L.A. books of black novelist Chester Himes. On Central Avenue the jazz musicians were civil rights champions; the actors were tied to the gangsters; the gangsters court the crusading newspaper editor, who was allied with the Communist Party; the renegade communist was a member of the gay subculture… (x)

I loved how this connected a lot of the dots for me, because these artists, writers and activists are all people I love, but hadn’t really understood in their full context of place, friendships, connections. The interviews are pretty amazing, and beautifully full of a whole lot of knowledge and pride. I loved too that they understood the privilege they were bestowing on the author — he notes that a number of the people he interviewed gave him a caution in referencing Carl Van Vechten, white patron of the Harlem Renaissance who would end up writing a book called Nigger Heaven. That’s some betrayal of trust.  Smith seems to have taken the point.

Did I say there are some really good quotes in here?

“Anything the power structure wanted to know about blacks in Los Angeles,” said Gilbert Lindsay, “they would say ‘Call L.G.’ Now, this is a janitor. And he was the power for the whole Negro community of Los Angeles! . . . L.G. Robinson spoke for the Negroes.” (4)

another on the role of Central Avenue:

“Central was like a river,” recalled musician Clifford Solomon. “A mighty river like the Amazon or the Nile, or in this case the Congo. And all the streets were tributaries that branched off from this great river.” (4)

There are some great passages really evoking the feel of Central Avenue, an imagined tour heading south past all of the many sights to be seen.

Herb Jeffries bankrolling the Bronze Recording Studios, and the Flash Electronic Laboratories — where ‘engineers strive to perfect their ‘color organ,’ an instrument that can take sound from a radio and translate it into visual energy. Sound is seen; the invisible becomes indigo in your living room. (13)

Before it runs into the white wall…

Though Negroes have moved south to the neighborhood around Vernon and Central, all motion stops here. Mister Jones heard the Klan claimed Slauson and everything below; Lady Creswell heard about the kids put in the county hospital after the police caught them playing on the swings south of the line. Everybody’s got a tale of what happens to those detained in this white man’s land, and enough of it is true that the street has acquired a supernatural power. You and I will acquire a seat on the streetcar. (14)

Later on there’s a note about how the song ‘Open the Door, Richard’ became a catchphrase for ending segregation.

You have to jump that to continue on down south to other great centre of culture, though of a very different kind:

Head down to Watts, from jazz to blues, world of T-Bone Walker who can ‘lift a chair, put it in his mouth, and balance it on end as he plays a frenetic shuffle.’ (15)

Chapter 1 is written about John Kinloch, nephew of Charlotta Bass who is such an inspiration, and such a central figure in the black community here as the owner and editor of The California Eagle. I recognised Kinloch’s name from many of the articles, knew he had gone to fight in WWII and died there. He called Charlotta ‘Madame’, she was his mother’s sister. His mother lived back in Harlem — I didn’t know that. I think this gets Charlotta Bass a little wrong — one central factual error is that her husband Joe Bass was not a founder of the Eagle, rather she inherited it from its founder and hired Joe on. They were partners in life and activism, but he was never more than editor. Still, it’s cool to hear a little more of her from Kinloch’s letters, and the have more life breathed into Kinloch as well. A few other facts about people I’ve written about — Leon Washington was Loren Miller’s cousin.

There are lots of little snippets, fascinating facts. There are paragraphs like this one:

The Harlem Renaissance was cracking up on Central Avenue, its one time elitists dropping by to cash a Hollywood check. Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Huston, Arna Bontemps, Countee Cullen and Wallace Thurman had all been on its periphery between the early 1930s and the early 1940s as they performed lucrative, if fruitless writing tasks for the picture business. (29)

Some of my favourite writers, some of this made me a little defensive of them I confess, but there you are.

ellington-jump-for-joyMaybe the best thing to come out of reading this book — along with a new unfulfilled and unrequited desire so rare in this modern age —  is finding out about Duke Ellington’s Jump For Joy musical revue. Langston Hughes wrote a sketch for it. It featured Big Joe Turner and Dorothy Dandridge. It proudly proclaimed Black civil rights through songs like “I’ve got a Passport from Georgia (and I’m going to the U.S.A.)”, and “Uncle Tom’s Cabin Is a Drive-In Now.” It played at the Mayan — where I have danced the night away or watched Lucha — and received death threats from white supremacists. Never filmed, most of these songs have not been recorded. A fucking loss to humanity.

A few more stories, like the one from Howard McGhee of the Charlie Barnet Band, who told the board he refused the draft, refused to fight, refused to go to jail…they sent him to the psychiatrist:

I said, “Well, man, why should I fight? I ain’t mad at nobody over there.” … I said, “Shit, I’ll shoot any son of a bitch that’s white that comes up in front of me.” And they said, “No, we can’t use you.” (38)

Another story about how back in 1919 there was a celebratory banquet at Patriotic Hall for black Angelenos returning from the war, with a mass assembly and parade and military band. I think I remember reading about that, but don’t remember it being mentioned that film of it was used in a film titled Injustice. I’m trying to find it, it sounds awesome and I do believe Joe Bass of the California Eagle is the J. B. Bass who is named as an actor in it. Imagine seeing him walking down the street…

There are more stories about the People’s Independent Church of Christ — I know that church down on 18th and Paloma. Hattie McDaniels celebrated her Oscar there, Jackie Robinson got married there, Adam Clayton Powell Jr preached there…as did Clayton Russell. how did I never know any of that?

There is a rather fascinating comment on noir, which the more I think about it the more it makes sense and is perhaps best exemplified by Chester Himes:

In white noir the hero blinks for a moment, gives in to a single weak impulse, and his life is over. Order shatters around his ankles and we are supposed to realize how much darkness lurks beneath the surface of things when good intentions make way for bad. The moral universe of black noir is different; it’s about realizing good intentions don’t matter any more than bad ones in a world run by white folks. All intentions are equal and equally pointless. All choices in the end amount to one, have the same value — a value determined by people who think you are less than human. (114)

He talks about Bronzeville a little, the short term flowering of Black life, music, culture, bars in Little Tokyo after everyone of Japanese heritage was taken away to the camps. It is one of those more complicated moments of LA history, because while most of the African American said little at the time, there was by the end of the war a recognition of the injustice of it, and some coalition made. But histories of this time and place are made even more complex by things like this that I had never heard of:

By the Fall of 1945, within weeks of the atom bomb falling on Hiroshima and the Nagasaki, the always-looking-for-an-angle club owners of Bronzeville were on the case. Pianist Eddie Heywood was promptly billed as “atomic action manifest” for his stint at Shepp’s Playhouse. The band of Sammy Franklin had abruptly changed it s name to the Atomics, there was a spot called the Atomic Cafe, and you could get your laundry done at the Atomic Cleaners. At the Samba Club, patrons could hear a singer named Francis “The Atomic Bomb” Gray and drink something called an atomic cocktail. (155)

All I could think was damn. That is fucked up.

A little more on geography, and the earliest community in LA:

At the onset of the twentieth century, Azusa Street was an unpaved byway, basically an alley, which dead-ended into the Los Angeles River. It was also said to be the first all-black street in L.A. (160)

William J. Seymour builds his Pentecostal church — the Azusa Street Revival — on the site of first AME church. After the AME church had moved, the land had been used as a tombstone shop then stables.  All of it was built on this land formerly owned by Biddy Mason, once a slave, later a large landowner. These roots run deep.

I’ll end on a song, and a fascinating but not very good one. Still, it’s a symbol of how much changed during the 40s, as well as some of the ways people fought to change it back.

“Shipyard Woman” by Jim Wynn

They said the war is over
And peace is here to stay
You shipyard-working women
Sure did have your way
But it’s all over babe
Now you girls have got to pay (212)

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Caravaggio in Rome: Violence, Art, Dirty Feet

caravaggio-life-sacred-and-profaneAndrew Graham-Dixon’s biography Caravaggio (1571-1610) is very good, very long, full of wonderful detail about everyday life and a great deal of analysis of Caravaggio’s work which I found interesting, without agreeing with all of his interpretations.

It still sits with me days after finishing it, the life of Caravaggio. The explosive talent. The extreme physical violence of his life in a society permissive of extreme violence, winking at it when patronage was high and powerful enough. The violence of poverty, and the violence of painting only by commission rather than by desire, to please and to flatter the rich. To be paid only if they approved of your work — and a number of Caravaggio’s patrons refused his work. To be constantly judged by criteria you do not believe in.

A quote to set the scene in terms of sources:

Much of what is known about him has been discovered in the criminal archives of his time. The majority of his recorded acts — apart from those involved in painting — are crimes and misdemeanors.

Ottavia Leoni, 'Drawing of the Portrait of Caravaggio' Florence, Biblioteca Marucelliana © Photo Scala, Florence
Ottavia Leoni, ‘Drawing of the Portrait of Caravaggio’ Florence, Biblioteca Marucelliana
© Photo Scala, Florence

He always looks troubled and angry, but in some ways the extent to which he was allowed to explore his own art was only possible because of his time’s changing social ideas of it. Graham-Dixon describes these changes occurring only a generation before Caravaggio’s:

Previously the profession of art had been ranked low because it involved work with the hands and was therefore classed as a form of manual labour, a craft rather than a liberal art.

This changed to a view of greatest artists as ‘men of true genius’ — though men still much at the mercy of their patrons — through Giorgio Vasari’s anthology of artist biographies The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects (1550). Caravaggio would not prove to be a prodigy from an early age, like most. But like other artists he would leave home (he is actually one Michelangelo Merisi of Caravaggio — but the town he was born in has become the name he was, and is, known by) for Milan, and then Rome.

As Florence had been during the fifteenth century, and as Paris would be at the peak of Louis XIV’s power, Rome under Clement VIII was the artistic capital of Europe.

Graham-Dixon notes the slightly more fluid medieval aristocratic structures in Italy as compared to Northern Europe, as well as the idea that  ‘an increasingly urbanized society … led to the blurring of social distinctions.’ There is so much fascinating detail in here on life in Rome itself in here, and given my interests, what I most enjoyed apart from the art itself. An early version of the surveillance state, for example. I don’t know why this surprised me so much, but it did:

Religious observance was not a matter of choice. At Easter everyone living in Rome was obliged to take communion and procure a ticket of evidence from the priest who administered the sacrament. Procuring the ticket — proof of orthodoxy, and necessary to pass muster with the police — was itself part of a system of surveillance and involved a separate visit to the priest, who was obliged to write down the name and address of each communicant. But he also had to write down other details…

Another fun fact about the Rome of this time was the way in which the discovery of the Christian catacombs (the ones I thought everyone in Rome had surely always known about — how were they forgotten?) under Rome led to ‘a boom in the field of what might be called sacred archaeology.’ In the late 15 and early 1600s. I hope to read some of these — I quite love archaeology and am rather fascinated by such a ‘discovery’ but to return to art.

After several years of apprenticeships and poverty, Caravaggio won the patronage of Cardinal Del Monte, a man of learning with a love of the arts,  apart from having his own pharmaceutical distillery (a fad of the time), he was also a patron of music (the first opera was written in 1600 by a friend, Emilio de’ Cavalieri). Slowly through the book you watch Caravaggio’s characteristic style develop.

One of Caravaggio’s early, extraordinary paintings, Boy Bitten By a Lizard (c1596)

Caravaggio - The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH.
Caravaggio – The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH.

It is quite wonderful to make this journey through his work, just as it is to note the small touches —  like the fact that the music in The Rest on the Flight To Egypt is identifiable, the four-voiced Quam Pulchra es et quam decora, by Noel Bauldewyn (c1480-1520) — hear it. I love the internet, imagine being able to listen to this today as you stare at the painting itself.

More descriptions of Caravaggio, dark hair, dark eyes, great dark brows, disorderly, Bellori (one of his biographer’s) writes:

We cannot fail to mention his behaviour and his choice of clothes, since he wore only the finest materials and princely velvets; but once he put on a suit of clothes he changed only when it had fallen to rags.

Little could tell you more about someone in a way, and I love that clothing in various states of disrepair is to be found everywhere in his paintings. The poverty of his models and subjects is never hidden. Nor is his own suffering, in 1596 he painted this shield to be held and passed around, a portrait of medusa as a gift for the Medici using his own face as the model, distorted in a round mirror that appears in others paintings as well.

600px-medusa_by_caravaggio_2

A shocking image of himself. A note on materials, on toxicity and poison like that of the serpents in Medusa’s coils:

Some ascribed the fiery temperament of painters to the toxic qualities of the materials that they used. Lead white and vermilion were particularly poisonous. The mere touch or smell of either might cause a variety of symptoms including depression, anxiety, and increased aggressiveness. Those suffering from ‘Painter’s Colic’, as it was called, also tended to drink heavily.

Not vermilion! What a word, what a color. There seems to be a great deal in Caravaggio’s work, one great red sheet of fabric that wraps saints round being the most obvious one. I like to think it is always the same one. Returning to his style, Bellori writes

The painters then in Rome were greatly taken by this novelty, and the young ones particularly gathered around him, praised him as the unique imitator of nature and look on his work as miracles.

Evidence of its development can be seen in Martha and Mary Magdalen (c. 1598) — and also here is to be seen Fillide Melandroni, a famous courtesan in several of Caravaggio’s paintings.

michelangelo_caravaggio_51_martha_and_mary_magdaleneHere she is again as St Catharine  of Alexandria (c. 1598)– I wish I had seen this earlier, when I worked at the Foundation. More shadows.

michelangelo_caravaggio_060There is the story of Fillide’s arrest for threatening another woman, testimony of her screaming out ‘I want to cut her face!’ The ultimate insult. Graham-Dixon notes that the world of painters and poets is also that of prostitutes and pimps, and the probability of Caravaggio’s being a pimp — controlling women for both modelling and for incomes, explains the many times he is arrested late at night or early in the morning, much of the violence, the carrying of an illegal sword and dagger under the protection of powerful patronage, and the source of the long-running conflict that would eventually lead to the murder of Tomassoni for which he was exiled.

Violence fills his paintings, Judith Behading Holofernes (c. 1598), David with the head of Goliath (1599). I am not so enamoured of these, though they are powerful and skillful. Artemisia Gentileschi, of course, also painted Judith holding the head of a Holofornes based on the face of her rapist — she was the daughter of a friend of Caravaggio’s and a most wonderful painter in much the same style. But I am looking forward to exploring her life and art separately, yet her story cannot be forgotten in this accounting of the terrible violence inflicted on women in this period more broadly.

This painting I love, the Calling of St Matthew (1600):

1280px-caravaggio_-_la_vocazione_di_san_matteoAnother one — The Crucifixion of St Peter (1601)

8064-the-crucifixion-of-saint-peter-caravaggioGraham-Dixon writes that:

The presence of these coarsely posed, unmistakably low-brow figures underscored Caravaggio’s total rejection of High Renaissance and Mannerist elegance.

The fact that everyone in his paintings has bare feet has great meaning, and in fact Caragvaggio becoming famous as the painter of feet — Graham-Dixon quotes Niccolo Lorini del Monte:

In sum, feet may be taken by the holy Church as symbolising the poor and the humble.

Many among the upper classes hated their appearance in his paintings, along with the poor and humble subjects in their everyday torn clothes and positions of work and suffering. Graham-Dixon persuasively argues that this was closely tied with the counter-reformation leanings of the pauperist wing of the Catholic church, and the preaching exactly along these lines of the famous Borromeo, Archbishop of Milan, whose words Caravaggio would have grown up with. This also helps define Caravaggio’s focus on Christ and the martyr’s intimate and personal suffering that was praised as a subject for religious meditation. There is also an argument for some form of class identification, some anger over poverty and privilege, although clearly nothing about Caravaggio is straightforward and he exploited his own privileges fairly ruthlessly.

When Caravaggio painted the saints and martyrs with bare feet, he was firmly allying himself with pauperist wing of the Catholic Church. Not only was he explicitly welcoming the poor into his pictures, making them feel part of the same impoverished family as that of Christ and his followers, he was also implicitly calling on the rich to follow the example of those such as St Francis … The message would not always be well received.

It was very different from the rising countercurrent of

a newly triumphalist Church… It did not welcome the poor and the meek or make them feel that they, ultimately, were the inheritors of the earth. It was there to awe, daunt, and stupefy them, to impress them with visions of a force so powerful it could not be resisted — and must, therefore, be obeyed.

Graham-Dixon describes this is as a new Baroque sensibility — one with no room for Caravaggio. It seems to me that all these paintings of the poor might also be a kind of revenge against the rich to whom Caravaggio must look for all things — money for paints and canvasses, clothes, a roof over his head. He was one of the few to try to renegotiate commissions (more on that later)… this world seems so distant from my modern sensibilities, yet it seems so clear how galling this system of patronage was to Caravaggio, if only through the amount of time he spent doing what he could to sabotage it all through gambling, drink, brawling, prostitutes and constant rumours of boys. Graham-Dixon notes his probable relationship with Cecco, his servant and model, but there is little deeper exploration of what his queerness might mean (and some of these paintings are ridiculously queer).

Caravaggio leaves the house of Cardinal de Monte for that of Cardinal Girolamo Mattei. Again, the connections between time, money and influence, and the city form is brought to the fore:

They lived in a honeycomb complex of houses and palaces built over the ruins of the Ancient Roman Teatro di Balbo… The adjoining residence of the various branches of the family formed an entire block, known as the Isola dei Mattei.

It is a whole network of palaces and residences, worthy of Kafka. Yet another protector was Vincenzo Giustiani. It is probably he who ensured that Caravaggio was allowed a second attempt at fulfilling his commission for a painting of St Matthew as the altarpiece of the Contarelli Chapel. When the first was rejected scornfully, Giustiani bought it for himself.

Why rejected? Because Matthew is represented as too unlearned, too peasant-like. Barefoot. An old man painfully scribing, and needing help in it. I love this picture.

600px-caravaggio_matthewandtheangel_bymikeyangelsWWII bombs destroyed it in Berlin.

The second painting was accepted and still rests in the chapel, a capitulation to be sure, but a rather fine one, and Caravaggio insists on the bare feet:

san-matteo-e-langelo-1

His work continues to be extraordinary. Here, a picture of The Incredulity of Saint Thomas (c. 1602), testing grotesquely Christ’s wound, experiencing in full Christ’s suffering (familiar old men as well…).

incredulity-of-saint-thomas-1602And always, always, this work sits alongside an incredible violence in the dark streets of Rome. There is the verbal/written kind — the tradition in Rome of insult, connected to a statue in the corner of Palazzo Braschi to the western side of Piazza Novena, known as the Pasquino.

It had long been the custom to attach squibs, scurrilous pieces of grafitti and outbursts of defamatory rage to the wall next to the statue, under the cover of darkness. There was a collective noun for these libeles: pasquinate

That sounds rather safe, a rather curious and interesting method of venting anger in a unique city space, until you read the contents. Caravaggio and his friends posted their defamatory verses about Baglione here, with much use of words like cock and fucking…juvenile, nasty. There were arrests, trials. Caravaggio’s testimony is sullen, stupid. For all that, I rather like the concept of the valent’huomo, in Caravaggio’s words (Graham-Dixon notes that to be considered a valent’huomo both in society and the art-world was always Caravaggio’s possibly fugutive goal):

By the term ‘valent’huomo’ I mean he who knows how to do well, that is, he who knows how to do his art well.

Most of the testimony, however, is a bunch of lies to praise artists in official favour and distance himself from friends involved and pretend utmost ignorance so they can all get off free. They do. Probably through patronage. Everything runs on it.

On 24 April 1604 Caravaggio got into an argument with a waiter at one of his local restaurants, the Osteria del Moro, or ‘Tavern of the Blackamoor’. In the course of an altercation concerning artichokes, he smashed a plate against the man’s face.

The tavern of the Blackamoor (interesting the number of references to slaves). I laughed at the artichokes, but it’s not really funny. This arrest is one of  series. In his testimony Caravaggio claims the policeman has a grudge against him, in Graham-Dixon’s description:

The policeman was hostile and insulting whenever he bumped into him… but he stoutly denied having called the arresting officer a ‘cocksucker’ on the night in question.

That, actually, was just funny.

More on the particularities of the papal state.

Rome was a turbulent city at the best of times, but it was doubly unstable whenever the papal throne was empty. During this interregnum, normal government was effectively suspended. According to long tradition, a blanket amnesty was given to the inmates of the city’s jails.

Blanket amnesty! Returning to the thin line between curious and awful…there is this:

There was a crime of deturpatio portae, or defacing doors for which Caravaggio was charged by a mother and daughter. … a specific legal term that can  be translated as ‘house-scorning’. …

Amazing you think. House-scorning. But read on:

Housescorners generally operated in the dead of night,,, They often made a lot of noise, shouting insults or singing lewd songs as a prelude to the vengeful assault itself. Then they would throw stones, damaging shutters and blinds.

They threw ink, blood, excrement, drew cocks. Most often, houses were scorned by a man when a woman had refused his advances, or perhaps somehow insulted him. It loses all hilarity.

It becomes the dirty behaviour of a pimp. An abuser. Who still paints…look, just look at what he paints. Caravaggio madonna of loretto

This depicts so beautifully the crazy story of The Madonna of Loreto (1604), the miraculous event in which the house of Mary and Joseph flew (flew?) from Nazareth to Italy in the middle ages. Crikey, best myth ever. It’s quite a house as Caravaggio imagines it, but I love that the pilgrims are poor who have summoned the virgin to the door through their faith, their feet dirty and tired.

Graham-Dixon writes:

No other artist had ever given such prominence, in a major religious altarpiece, to two such nakedly proletarian figures as the pair of kneeling figures.

Caravaggio inserted no patrons into his paintings, but the poor, the courtesan, the servant, and every now and then himself. Despite this, his paintings were in ever greater demand. One of my favourite threads that runs through much of Caravaggio’s story is that:

…his movements were being carefully tracked by Fabio Masetti, an agent in Rome working for Cesare d’Este, Duke of Modena.

Masetti gives Caravaggio money, on more than one occasion, but no painting is produced. Masetti tracks him for years, like a faithful shadow. We will meet him again.

And still Caravaggio is brawling, cutting people, getting arrested. He is forced to apologise to one of his victims to get a pardon from the governor — for coming up a clerk of the Vicar’s court named Messer Mariano late one night and striking him, scarring his face. Like the house-scorning, this is a public insult. The apology is hilarious, like one of those forced things a mother exhorts from her son (well, like my mum exacted from my brother Chewy) expurgated of all loopholes:

I am very sorry for what I did, and if I had not done it yet, I would not do it.

He continues to say that Mariano is worthy of facing in the daylight in a duel. It is a return of honor to him.

It feels like the violence is escalating, though in the book it is oddly sandwiched between paintings and their analyses. Graham-Dixon notes that thus seemed Caravaggio’s life, intense periods of work surrounded by growing periods of nightwalking and brawling and thuggery. Pimping. This brings us to the moment of murder, in what was almost certainly a duel between Caravaggio and Ranuccio Tomassoni, between whom there had long existed violence and accusation — Tomassoni was the pimp of Fillide, and if Caravaggio were also a pimp (who had clearly stolen Fillide) this makes more sense of much of his behaviour.

Initial reports, though, seemed to describe this as an accidental brawl over a late-night game of tennis. That was rather funny.

Mesetti the agent reported hopefully back to d’Este after the incident that Caravaggio had fled Rome badly wounded and was heading to Florence — which meant he might well swing through Modena and paint as he had promised.

He didn’t.

This really is the beginning of the end for Caravaggio. His sentence:

…indefinite exile from Rome, he was condemned as a murderer and made subject to a bando capitale, a ‘capital sentence’. This meant that anyone in the papal states had the right to kill him with impunity; indeed there was a bounty for anyone who did so.

A brilliant drawing from a policeman’s report drawing the offending weapons that Caravaggio carried in defiance of the law.

sword-dagger-caravaggio

And so Caravaggio flees. First to Naples, a centre of trade of goods and people. He also notes the many communities there, Pisans, Catalands, Ragusans… Ragusans? Once the Republic of Ragusa, now known as Dubrovnik.

Once arrived in Naples, Caravaggio was deluged with work. He receives a commission from the Pio Monte della Misericordia, probably led by Giovanni Battista Manso (who was a friend of Galileo, who hosted Milton — it is hard to imagine them all contemporaries). Caravaggio painted the Seven Acts of Mercy for them. Not my favourite. But then there was The Flagellation:

300px-caravaggio_-_la_flagellazione_di_cristoPictures such as the Seven Acts and The Flagellation were greeted with stunned admiration, bordering on bewilderment. They created a sensation and transformed Neopolitan painting virtually overnight. Caravaggio’s extreme chiaroscuro and his brutal sense of reality were the catalyst for a new school of tenebristic painting in Naples. And through this city at the crossroad between Italian and Spanish art, Caravaggoio’s starkly powerful new style was transmitted to Spain Itself.

But Caravaggio had bigger plans, which would soon send him to Malta — which is in part why I have read this, because I love Caravaggio’s art but also, guess what you guys? I am going to Malta! So more on Malta in a separate post. This one is enormous, and I give you my apologies.

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Walter Rodney: Imperialism’s interconnected racisms

Walter RodneyPart 1 looks at the broader argument around the dialectic of development and underdevelopment found in Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. So much of my work focuses on racism in the US though, and Rodney mentions the US often. It became an Imperialist power par excellence after all, after WWII. But first, to return to the connections between capitalism and racism (later explored around the same time by Cedric Robinson, later by Roediger, Marable and others)

Capitalism has created its own irrationalities such as a vicious white racism, the tremendous waste associated with advertising, and the irrationality of incredible poverty in the midst of wealth and wastage even inside the biggest capitalist economies, such as that of the U.S.A. (10)

There are some telling facts here on the early connections between slavery and capitalism. For instance J.S. Mill, as spokesman for British capitalism, said that as far as England was concerned, ‘the trade of the West Indies is hardly to be considered as external trade, but more resembles the traffic between town and country.’ (82)

The whole town and country — that’s a metaphor (or a reality, or some twisted kind of whitewashing) that needs some following up.

Marx noted the connection:

‘the discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the turning of Africa into a commercial warren for the hunting of black skins signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production’. (83)

This is telling too, those visions of dashing buccaneers braving the seas and the Spanish? Not so true:

John Hawkins made three trips to West Africa in the 1560s, and stole Africans whom he sold to the Spanish in America. On returning to England after the first trip, his profit was so handsome that Queen Elizabeth I became interested in directly participating in his next venture; and she provided for that purpose a ship named the Jesus. Hawkins left with the Jesus to steal some more Africans, and he returned to England with such dividends that Queen Elizabeth made him a knight. Hawkins chose as his coat of arms the representation of an African in chains. (83)

The origins of a version of English money in the name of the Guinea Coast:

The Encyclopaedia Britannica explains that the guinea was ‘a gold coin at one time current in the United Kingdom. It was first coined in 1663, in the reign of Charles II, from gold imported from the Guinea Coast of West Africa by a company of merchants trading under charter from the British crown — hence the name.’ (84)

The rise of cities and their connections with the industrial revolution (though those cities mostly pretend it didn’t happen, or like Bristol focus on a heritage of abolition)

The most spectacular feature in Europe which was connected with African trade was the rise of sea-port towns — – notably Bristol, Liverpool, Nantes, Bordeaux and Seville. Directly or indirectly connected to those ports, there often emerged the manufacturing centres which gave rise to the ‘industrial revolution’. (85)

Then this revolting fact:

David and Alexander Barclay, who were engaging in slave trade in 1756 and who later used the loot to set up Barclays’ Bank. (85)

I knew I didn’t like them.

Racism shaped and has continued not just the physical underdevelopment of Africa, but how it is understood and discussed. This shouldn’t be rocket science, but how much have I read recently that completely fails to acknowledge, much less interrogate this?

It would be much too sweeping a statement to say that all racial and colour prejudice in Europe derived from the enslavement of Africans and the exploitation of non-white peoples in the early centuries of international trade. … However, it can be affirmed without reservations that the white racism which came to pervade the world was an integral part of the capitalist mode of production. Nor was it merely a question of how the individual white person treated a black person. The racism of Europe was a set of generalisations and assumptions, which had no scientific basis, but were rationalised in every sphere from theology to biology. (88)

These rationalisations were in service of exploitation.

The interpretation that underdevelopment is somehow ordained by God is emphasized because of the racist trend in European scholarship. It is in line with racist prejudice to say openly or to imply that their countries are more developed because their people are innately superior, and that the responsibility for the economic backwardness of Africa lies in the generic backwardness of the race of black Africans. An even bigger problem is that the people of Africa and other parts of the colonised world have gone through a cultural and psychological crisis and have accepted at least partially the European version of things. (20)

But in the move from ‘spheres of influence’ to direct colonisation in Africa unlike most other continents, the existence of racism played a key role:

In addition to the factors that caused the chain-reaction of the Scramble as described above, Europeans were also racially motivated to seek political domination over Africa. Thee 19th century was one in which white racism was most violently and openly expressed in capitalist societies, with the U.S.A. as a focal point, and with Britain taking the lead among the Western European capitalist nations. Britain accepted granting dominion status to its old colonies of white settlers in Canada, Australia and New Zealand; but it withdrew self-government from the West Indies when the white planters were ousted from the legislative assemblies by black (or brown) people. As far as Africa is concerned, Englishmen violently opposed black self-government such as the Fante Confederation on the Gold Coast in the 1860s. They also tried to erode the authority of black Creoles in Sierra Leone. In 1874, when Fourah Bay College sought and obtained affiliation with Durham University, the Times newspaper declared that Durham should next affiliate with the London Zoo! Pervasive and vicious racism was present in imperialism as a variant independent of the economic rationality that initially gave birth to racism. It was economics that determined that Europe should invest in Africa and control the continent’s raw materials and labour. It was racism which confirmed the decision that the form of control should be direct colonial rule. (140-141)

He looks at the content of racism:

Sometimes, white racism was vicious and at other times it was paternalist. Nor did it necessarily reflect Europe’s desire to exploit Africans economically. In Southern Rhodesia, racial discrimination was very much tied up with the white settlers maintaining their jobs and the stolen land; but when some semi-literate white inspector insulted an educated Sierra Leonean that may be referred to as ‘gratuitous’. Racism in such a context actually jeopardised economic exploitation, and it was merely the manifestation of prejudices that had grown over the centuries.

To me a key point — that racist ideologies took on lives of their own, themselves began to articulate with the economics and politics of the situation (drawing on Hall here who looks at this explicitly, but the seeds are all here in Rodney):

by the 19th century white racism had become so institutionalised in the capitalist world (and notably in the U.S.A.) that it sometimes ranked above the maximisation of profit as a motive for oppressing black people. … There was always a contradiction between the elaboration of democratic ideas inside Europe and the elaboration of authoritarian and thuggish practices by Europeans with respect to Africans. (89)

This is so clearly visible in the history of the U.S. An early aside from Rodney (who has some wonderfully sarcastic lines that made me laugh out loud a couple of times):

Actually, if ‘underdevelopment’ were related to anything other than comparing economies, then the most underdeveloped country in the world would be the U.S.A, which practices external oppression on a massive scale, while internally there is a blend of exploitation, brutality, and psychiatric disorder. (14)

Walter Rodney makes clear the connection between the violence of slavery and colonialism in Africa, and how they connect to slavery, genocide and the violence found throughout US society:

In the first place, profits from the slave activities went into the coffers of political parties, and even more important the African stimulation and black labour played a vital role in extending European control over the present territory of the U.S.A. — notably in the South, but including also the so-called ‘Wild West’ where black cowboys were active. (87)

Connects these too to Vietnam, to the My Lai massacre and if he were alive now, would see it in the continuing murders of Black men and women being called out by #BlackLivesMatter:

But the fact of the matter is that the My Lais began with the enslavement of Africans and American Indians. Racism, violence and brutality were the concomitants of the capitalist system when it extended itself abroad in the early centuries of international trade. (90)

Of course, the US had a much more direct connection that most people (I include myself in that) ever realise:

During the colonial era, Liberia was supposedly independent; but to all intents and purposes, it was a colony of the U.S.A. In 1926, the Firestone Rubber Company of the U.S.A. was able to acquire one million acres of forest land in Liberia at a cost of 6 cents per acre and 1% of the value of the exported rubber. Because of the demand for and the strategic importance of rubber, Firestone’s profits from Liberia’s land and labour carried them to 25th position among the giant companies of the U.S.A. (154)

But to return to the connection between imperialism, exploitation and racism, Rodney argues this violence also sits at the root of fascism:

Fascism is a deformity of capitalism. It heightens the imperialist tendency towards domination which is inherent in capitalism, and it safeguards the principle of private property. At the same time, fascism immeasurably strengthens the institutional racism already bred by capitalism, whether it be against Jews (as in Hitler’s case) or against African peoples (as in the ideology of Portugal’s Salazar and the leaders of South Africa). (196)

Fascism was a monster born of capitalist parents. Fascism came as the end-product of centuries of capitalist bestiality, exploitation, domination and racism-mainly exercised outside of Europe. It is highly significant that many settlers and colonial officials displayed a leaning towards fascism. (200)

These connections were hardly invisible, and helped form the basis for organising the Pan-African movement, for this vibrant and vital strain of scholarship and activism that Walter Rodney himself embodies.

The racial contradiction extended far beyond the shores of Africa, because of the historical antecedence of the slave trade. It is not in the least surprising that Pan-African ideas should have been most forcefully expressed by West Indians like Garvey and Padmore and North Americans like W.E.B. Dubois and Alpheus Hunton. Those individuals had all been educated within the international capitalist structure of exploitation on the basis of class and race. Having realised that their inferior status in the societies of America was conditioned by the fact of being black and the weakness of Africa, the Pan-Africanists were forced to deal with the central problem of Europe’s exploitation and oppression of the African continent. Needless to say, the metropolitan powers could never have foreseen that their humiliation of millions of Africans in the New World would ultimately rebound and help Africa to emancipate itself. (277)

Another fascinating insight to be followed up — and one that Rodney brings forward but then doesn’t much explore, is based on a quote from Albert Memmi (I love Albert Memmi), who writes:

The most serious blow suffered by the colonised is being removed from history and from the community. Colonisation usurps any free role in either war or peace, every decision contributing to his destiny and that of the world, and all cultural and social responsibility.

Rodney continues:

Sweeping as that statement may initially appear, it is entirely true. The removal from history follows logically from the loss of power which colonialism represented. The power to act independently is the guarantee to participate actively and consciously in history. To be colonised is to be removed from history, except in the most passive sense. A striking illustration of the fact that colonial Africa was a passive object is seen in its attraction for white anthropologists, who came to study ‘primitive society’. (225)

This idea of being removed from history resonates so strongly with Trouillot’s work on Haiti, with the experience of all oppressed peoples, and is something I’d like to follow up. Part of this is memory of collective ways of being, acting in the world. This, too needs more thought:

In the final analysis, perhaps the most important principle of colonial education was that of capitalist individualism… However, the capitalist system then went on to champion and protect the rights of the individual property owners against the rights of the mass of exploited workers and peasants. When capitalism had its impact on Africa in the colonial period, the idea of individualism was already in its reactionary phase. It was no longer serving to liberate the majority but rather to enslave the majority for the benefit of a few. (254)

There is so much here.

For more on race and empire…

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Ta-Nehisi Coates – Between the World and Me

Ta-Nehisi Coates - Between the World and MeI loved this book, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me is definitely what I will be giving people for Christmas to help them understand #BlackLivesMatter and the experiences of those Americans labeled as such, as well as an understanding of America as it has rarely been taught, but which continues to shape our ongoing tragedy and all the hatred that exists.

…the host wished to know why I felt that white America’s progress, or rather the progress of those Americans who believe that they are white, was built on looting and violence. Hearing this, I felt an old and indistinct sadness well up in me. The answer to this question is the record of the believers themselves. The answer is American history.

Once you cross the line to really feel this history in your stomach, it is hard to work through it patiently and rationally with others who aren’t there yet, especially if they really don’t want to see it. Because this is terrifyingly true:

But all our phrasing–race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy — serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, break teeth. You must never look away from this. You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.

And at the base of all of it? White Americans have always had a narrow and limited view of who other ‘Americans’ were, when they said ‘we the people’ they did not ever actually mean all the people. My thesis worked this out at length, but here it is short and eloquent:

The question is…what our country has, throughout its history, taken the political term “people” to actually mean. In 1863 it did not mean your mother or your grandmother, and it did not mean you and me. Thus America’s problem is not its betrayal of “government of the people,” but the means by which “the people” acquired their names.

Our race is culturally constructed to be white or black, despite how deeply intertwined we two are. And white has been constructed to be “the people,” to take the land, to run the country, to benefit from all it can offer.

“White America” is a syndicate arrayed to protect its exclusive powers to dominate and control our bodies. Sometimes this power is direct (lynching), and sometimes it is insidious (redlining). But however it appears, the power of domination and exclusion is central to the belief in being white, and without it, “white people” would cease to exist for want of reasons.

And on the other side of this privileged identity? There is so much in here that is deeply personal, deeply particular to a place and time, yet that rings true beyond it.

To be black in the Baltimore of my youth was to be naked before the elements of the world, before all the guns, fists, knives, crack, rape, and disease. The nakedness is not an error, nor pathology. The nakedness is the correct and intended result of policy, the predictable upshot of people forced for centuries to live under fear.

***

When our elders presented school to us, they did not present it as a place of learning but as a means of escape from death and penal warehousing. Full 60 percent of all young black men who drop out of high school will go to jail. This should disgrace the country. But it does not…

These Baltimore neighbourhoods, and neighbourhoods across the country, are part of the same process, formed and structured by the same forces of racism over many decades

And I knew that there were children born into these same caged neighborhoods on the Westside, these ghettos, each of which was as planned as any subdivision. They are an elegant act of racism, killing fields authored by federal policies, where we are, all again, plundered of our dignity, or our families, of our wealth, and of our lives. … A legacy of plunder, a network of laws and tradition, a heritage, a Dream, murdered Prince Jones as sure as it murders black people in North Lawndale with frightening regularity. “Black-on-black crime” is jargon, violence to language, which vanishes the men who engineered the covenants, who fixed the loans, who planned the projects, who built the streets and sold red ink by the barrel.

And always the blame to be pushed away from policies and police, and onto Black people themselves:

Not all of us can always be Jackie Robinson–not even Jackie Robinson was always Jackie Robinson. But the price of error is higher for you than it is fro you countrymen, and so that America might justify itself, the story of a black body’s destruction must always begin with his or her error, real or imagined–with Eric Garner’s anger, with Trayvon Martin’s mythical words…and Sean Bell’s mistake of running with the wrong crowd…

Away from whiteness, and all of its privilege, because this is a truth and a seeing that threaten:

This is the foundation of the Dream–its adherents must not just believe in it but believe that it is just, believe that their possession of the Dream is the natural result of grit, honour, and good works…This is the practiced habit of jabbing out one’s eyes and forgetting the work of one’s hands. To acknowledge these horrors means turning away from the brightly rendered version of your country as it has always declared itself and turning toward something murkier and unknown.

This isn’t a particularly hopeful book, but there are ways forward. I loved this, the heart of politicization and popular education:

My mother and father were always pushing me away from secondhand answers–even the answers they themselves believed. I don’t know that I have ever found any satisfactory answers of my own. But every time I ask it, the question is refined. that is the best of what the old heads meant when they spoke of being “politically conscious”–as much a series of actions as a state of being, a constant questioning, questioning as ritual, questioning as exploration rather than the search for certainty.

This is the way forward, but also means there is no one answer, no one way:

I had come looking for a parade, for a military review of champions marching in ranks. Instead I was left with a brawl of ancestors, a herd of dissenters, sometimes marching together but just as often marching away from each other.

There are lists of writers, lists of artists — I love lists:

List of writers: Larry Neal, Eric Williams, George Padmore, Sonia Sanchez, Stanley Crouch, Harold Cruse, Manning Marable, Addison Gayle, Carolyn Rodgers, Etheridge Knight, Sterling Brown.  Later on Thavolia Glymph.

List of artists: Bubber Miley, Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, C.K. Williams, Carolyn Forche, Ethelbert Miller, Kenneth Carroll, Brian Gilmore, Robert Hayden.

And reading through them comes this realisation, which I too have felt with immense force though in a very different way. Here is the role of the activist intellectual: to face everything full on, no shrinking, no comfortable truths:

It began to strike me that the point of my education was a kind of discomfort, was the process that would not award me my own especial Dream but would break all the dreams, all the comforting myths of Africa, of America, and everywhere, and would leave me only with humanity in all its terribleness. And there was so much terrible out there, even among us. You must understand this.

***

My great error was not that I had accepted someone else’s dream but that I had accepted the fact of dreams, the need for escape, and the invention of racecraft.

A round up of a few of the other small things that I loved here — with many others left out in a short(ish) blog.

The riposte by Ralph Wiley to Saul Bellow after he described a Black writer as the Tolstoy of the Zulus:

“Tolstoy is the Tolstoy of the Zulus, unless you find a profit in fencing off universal properties of mankind into exclusive tribal ownership.”

That is such an obvious thing that someone else needed to say it I think, for me to see clearly.

It was also strange reading this written by someone my own age, someone who shared the same music and wider context, and whose fear of physical violence from others I also shared. These things show how connected class and geography are to race, and thus aspects of life are often shared more widely. He wrote:

This was the era of Bad Boy and Biggie. “One More Chance” and “Hypnotize”.

I have never seen those words on paper anywhere. And this too struck me:

I found that people would tell me things, that the same softness that once made me a target now compelled people to trust me with their stories. This was incredible.

I know too much about being a target, though never one at the other end of a gun. But likewise people have told me their stories. I am grateful for my growing up, for how it has given me that. But those still aren’t pretty scars.

I also loved the acknowledgment not just of the material foundations of pain and violence in segregation and policy, but the global context in which struggle happens, the larger forces beyond our control that help movements to victory or defeat. This is a key lesson I too stumbled across through reading, and it requires an adjustment in your driving forces.

You cannot disconnect our emancipation in the Northern colonies from the blood spilled in the Revolutionary War, any more than you can disconnect our emancipation from slavery in the South from the charnel houses of the Civil War, any more than you can disconnect our emancipation from Jim Crow from the genocides of the Second World War. History is not solely in our hands. And still you are called to struggle, not because it assures you of victory but because it assures you an honorable and sane life.

There is this on the one hand, faced full on:

And I have no God to hold me up. And I believe that when they shatter the body they shatter everything, and I know that all of us–Christians, Muslims, atheists–lived in this fear of this truth.

But I loved too the gentleness and the celebration of what is best in us, the rich cultures, the layered knowledges, the complexity of our world whose beauty we all can share

And looking out, I had friends who too were part of other worlds–the world of Jews or New Yorkers, the world of Southerners or gay men, of immigrants, of Californians, of Native Americans, or a combination of any of these, worlds stitched together into worlds like tapestry. And though I could never, myself, be a native of any of these worlds, I knew that nothing so essentialist as race stood between us. I had read too much by then.

An uncompromising look at where we are, and the strength and beauty of those who have come before us and who fight alongside us to build the kind of world we want to see — this is where we need to start. Because our country must change inside and out, rather than continue to plunder the world and export its fears and horrors.

Joan Didion on a bleached California

where-i-was-from-didion-joan-paperback-cover-artIt’s impenetrably white, her world, which to me explains this sentence:

Yet California has remained in some way impenetrable to me, a wearying enigma, as it has to many of us who are from there. We worry it, correct and revise it, try and fail to define our relationship to it and its relationship to the rest of the country. (38)

I don’t have a long and tortured history of wagon trains and leading pioneer families in my relationship to California of course. No grandmothers telling me what life is about in quite that way, no artifacts of long journeys. Some of this history, and its residues in these younger generations, was pretty damn interesting. I suppose it is also pretty damn interesting as a residue of homegrown philosophy amongst ‘us’ Californians, the ones who were white:

Stressing as it did an extreme if ungrounded individualism, this was not an ambiance that tended towards a view of life as defined or limited or controlled, or even in any way affected, by the social and economic structures of the larger world. To be a Californian was to see oneself…as affected only by “nature,” which in turn was seen to exist simultaneously as a source of inspiration or renewal…and as the ultimate brute reckoning, the force that by guaranteeing destruction gave the place its perilous beauty. (66)

Perhaps there were brief flashes when such optimism might have been shared by African Americans — a couple of decades before WWI but after that time white congressmen tried to pass legislation banning all black folks from the state entirely. Before the Klan got quite so popular in the mid 20s.

The genocide of Native Americans was quicker and more complete in California than in many another state, so I doubt their survivors ever felt this to be true.

There’s the difficult relationship with the aristocratic ‘Californios’ who had once themselves owned the land and enslaved indigenous peoples, and then there’s all of the mostly darker skinned ‘Mexicans’ (amongst other uglier names) who worked for them, many of whom had lived there for generations. The other Mexicans who came up for the agricultural and seasonal work and still come up. But now they stay, along with a whole lot more compañer@s because that border and NAFTA is no joke.

We shouldn’t forget the Asian workers brought in to build railroads and pick oranges and grow crops, massacred in L.A., stripped of any ability to own land or become citizens until 1942. The Japanese thrown into concentration camps up and down the state in WWII. California’s history is not at all pretty, and it never was.

White pioneers did not just wrestle climate and geography and dangerous beasts, they came in (to varying extents) as conquerors and oppressors, which is precisely why they could say things like:

…We believed in fresh starts. We believed in good luck. We believed in the miner who scratched together one last stake…We believed in the wildcatter…Put out your campfire, kill the rattlesnake and watch the money flow in.  (128)

and on the same page, why some Californians might be in it all together (against the rest):

I asked my mother to what “class” we belonged.

“It’s not a word we use,” she said, “It’s not the way we think.” (128)

Because of course, there were a whole lot of Californians below class. Ah, the intersections of race and privilege.

I think it’s this foundation of violent privilege that California is built on that helps explain some of the other things Joan Didion wrestles with, like the 1990s point system for sexual conquests used in Lakewood High School, carried out by boys who called themselves the Spur Posse. It was exposed by a number of girls raped and sexually harassed who came forward. Brave of them, and horrifying the community response, and it’s the kind of thing that needs all kinds of light shining down on it. Light so bright you no longer get parents like Donald Belman, defending their child by describing how the D.A. “questioned all these kids, she found out these girls weren’t the victims they were made out to be. One of these girls had tattoos for chrissake.” (124)

I wish we could talk about reactions like that in the past tense.

I also liked that Didion touches on the shift in California away from free education for all (though she can’t really tell you why) and the real change that took place in the 1980s:

CA no longer feels ‘rich enough to adequately fund its education system.’ the second: ‘many towns in California…so impoverished in spirit as well as in fact that the way their citizens could think to reverse their fortunes was by getting themselves a state prison.”

She sees this is nothing new, just another ‘version of making our deal with the Southern Pacific…making our bed with the federal government.” (183)

I like that she sees that. The contrast between a state that thinks it made itself rich when in fact it took lots of government money, always did and still is. I hate she doesn’t deal with who makes up the majority of those imprisoned, and how they might have arrived there.

I also learned a bit about California’s treatment of mental illness, something I might follow up. Joan Didion cites Richard W. Fox’s study So Far Disordered in Mind: Insanity in California 1870-1930, which found that ‘California had a higher rate of commitment for insanity than any other state in the nation…’ (193)

That’s crazy (unless again, you think about the violence and the ongoing non-acknowledgment of violence). This is also crazy.

‘By the end of 1920, of the 3,233 sterilizations for insanity or feeblemindedness performed to that date throughout the United States, 2,258, or seventy-nine percent, had taken place in California. (195)

Like the prisons, they filled up to and beyond capacity in asylums. California was always big on putting people away apparently, even before three strikes.

This is an interesting book, beautifully written, but deeply infuriating in its blindness to certain things — interesting in itself, but I fear the propagation of such blindnesses.

[Didion, Joan (2004) Where I Was From: A Memoir. London: Harper Perennial.]

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