Tag Archives: violence

Robert F. Williams on White Racism

While the bulk of Negroes With Guns deals with self-defense and the story of trying to organise for political, racial and economic equality in Monroe, North Carolina, Robert F. Williams also gives some real thought to the problem of white racism. Know your enemy. He writes:

What has happened and continues to happen in Monroe,
N.C., illustrates an old truth: that words used in common
by all men do not always have a meaning common to
all men. Men have engaged in life-or-death struggles because
of differences of meaning in a commonly-used word. The
white racist believes in “freedom,” he believes in “fair trial,”
he believes in “justice.” He sincerely believes in these words
and can use them with great emotion because to the white
racist they mean his freedom to deprive Negroes of their
basic human rights and his courts where a “fair trial” is that
procedure and “justice” that decision which upholds the
racist’s mad ideal of white supremacy. On many desperate
occasions when our constitutional rights were denied and
our lives were in danger, we called on the Justice Department
and the FBI to investigate the Monroe situation, to protect
our lives and to restore our constitutional rights-in
other words, to administer justice. And they always refused
our request. (54)

It can still shock me, I realise, to read those words written decades ago and realise how true they still are. These words still ring with emotion in the mouths of Trump supporters, don’t they. Without understanding this dissonance, there is no other way to explain patriotic white discourse around ‘rights’ and ‘freedoms’ and ‘justice’, when at the same time children are being shot dead and nothing happens to their uniformed (or even non-uniformed) killers. When the NRA can defend to the death the right to carry any kind of arms whatsoever with no controls at all ever. Unless you are Black.

An aside to say that Robert F. Williams actually formed a chapter of the NRA while they were training with guns. That has a sweet taste to it, though some bitterness too.

I appreciate a section with the title:

Minds Warped by Racism

Because you can see it, and it is not pretty. Williams continues:

We have come to comprehend the nature of racism. It is a mass psychosis. When I have described racial conditions in the United States to audiences of foreign newsmen, Cubans and other Latin Americans, they have been shocked to learn of the depths of American race hatred. (72)

I, too, am still continuously shocked. Stretching from the hatred directed at Sandra Bland or Trayvon Martin to those gloating white faces over bodies that had been lynched and burned, it can only be a kind of psychosis. That is too easy a word really, it needs more unpacking from the likes of Fromm and others. But it begs the question of an adequate strategy in its murderous face. Williams asks:

Why do the white liberals ask us to be non-violent? We are not the aggressors; we have been victimized for over 300 years! Yet nobody spends money to go into the South and ask the racists to be martyrs or pacifists. But they always come to the downtrodden Negroes, who are already oppressed and too submissive as a group, and ask them not to fight back. There seems to be a pattern of some sort of strange coincidence of interest when whites preach a special doctrine to Negroes. Like the choice of theology when the plantation-owners saw to the Christianization of the slaves. Instead of the doctrines which produced the rugged aggressively independent and justice-seeking spirit that we associate with Colonial America as the New England Conscience, the slaves were indoctrinated in the most submissive “trust-your-master,” “pie-in-the-sky after-you-die” form of Christianity. (75)

Even Martin Luther King would tire of this liberal refrain. Nor did he have an entirely easy relationship to strict non-violence. The very real threat of violence meant that many communities he visited armed themselves and sat watch to protect him, as they did for the youth of CORE and SNCC — Cobb writes of this across the South. Williams was not alone in his assessment of white violence, and the means to prevent it.

This is one of the more eloquent statements on self-defense, and the challenge even this poses to white liberals, that I have read:

This fear of extermination is a myth which we have exposed in Monroe. We did this because we came to an active understanding of the racist system and grasped the relationship between violence and racism. The existence of violence is at the very heart of a racist system. The Afro-American militant is a “militant” because he defends himself, his family, his home and his dignity. He does not introduce violence into a racist social system-the violence is already there and has always been there. It is precisely this unchallenged violence that allows a racist social system to perpetuate itself. When people say that they are opposed to Negroes “resorting to violence” what they really mean is that they are opposed to Negroes defending themselves and challenging the exclusive monopoly of violence practiced by white racists. We have shown in Monroe that with violence working both ways constituted law will be more inclined to keep the peace. (76)

I put my favourite part in bold, but I like all of it. I like the acknowledgment that it is through lack of challenge that the system perpetuates itself, which means all of it needs to be challenged. I like the questions this raises for piecemeal change — not that we don’t need small steps to move forward, but that we should understand that they are steps. I feel that he understood both the potential and the limits of the Montgomery bus boycott before most commentators and civil rights leaders did (Ella Baker is one clear exception to this of course, I know there were others):

The Montgomery bus boycott was a victory-but it was limited. It did not raise the Negro standard of living. It did not mean better education for Negro children, it did not mean economic advances. Just what was the issue at hand for the white racists? What sacrifice? Remember that in Montgomery most white Americans have automobiles and are not dependent on the buses. It is just like our own experience in Monroe when we integrated the library. I called the chairman of the board in my county. I told him that I represented the NAACP, that we wanted to integrate the library, and that our own library had burned down. And he said, “Well, I don’t see any reason why you can’t use the same library that our people use. It won’t make any difference. After all, I don’t read anyway.” Now, this is the attitude of a lot of white Southerners about the Montgomery bus boycott. The white people who control the city didn’t ride the buses anyway. They had their own private cars, so it didn’t make any difference to them. But when Afro-Americans get into the struggle for the right to live as human beings and the right to earn the same amount of money, then they’ll meet the greatest amount of resistance, and out of it will come police-condoned or inspired violence. (77-78)

The limits came from how little it challenged the true structures of Black oppression — though it is terrifying really, even now, just how hard they had to fight for such a small change.

An inspirational chapter title:

“The Future Belongs to Today’s Oppressed”

And finally, the fact that Williams never did give up on the struggle, nor on white people. His theory, that they needed an honest look at themselves:

Whenever I speak on the English-language radio station in Havana (which broadcasts for an audience in the United States) I hope in some way to penetrate the mental barriers and introduce new disturbing elements into the consciousness of white America. I hope to make them aware of the monstrous evil that they are party to by oppressing the Negro. Somehow, I must manage to clearly reflect the image of evil that is inherent in a racist society so that white Americans will be able to honestly and fully see themselves as they really are. To see themselves with the same clarity as foreigners see them and to recognize that they are not champions of democracy. To understand that today they do not really even believe in democracy. To understand that the world is changing regardless of whether they think they like it or not. For I know that if they had a glimpse of their own reality the shock would be of great therapeutic value. (85)

An honest look is still what is needed. Wendell Berry too talks about the need for a double consciousness required from this level of injustice inflicted on another groups of human beings, the illusion-building needed and the distortions that it has caused. But instead of taking a hard look, those who most need it have elected, and continue to support a president handing out nothing but lies.

Not that we all don’t need a good long look in the mirror on a regular basis.


Negroes with Guns: Robert F. Williams and the Freedom Struggle

Negroes With Guns by Robert F Williams is really something — as if the name of it didn’t give that away. After Philando Castile, after the shootings that keep happening and happening with impunity this felt so good to read. We watched Fred Williamson stand up to white violence in the N**ger Charlie trio of films over the past few weekends too — such brilliant Westerns in their Blaxploitation way, I can’t believe they’re not available in better quality film. Even if us white folks can never ask for them by name. All of it has been cathartic in the face of despair, though much of that despair grows out of police impunity, and this is probably not the right strategy to end that. I wish I knew what was.

Negroes With Guns sounds badass, and it is, but not in that way that men get when they try and out-badass each other without actually managing true badassness. These are wise and well-considered, well-defended, and well-grounded words from a man who puts most of those others to shame. No wonder it inspired the Black Panthers so much (and I imagine Blaxploitation films just like the one above), if only they’d stuck to a committed revolutionary ethos just a little more…

The book was written in Cuba, which welcomed so many Black exiles of the revolution, and opens:

Why do I speak to you from exile?

Because a Negro community in the South took up guns in self-defense against racist violence-and used them. (3)

I quote his summation of his philosophy at length:

Because there has been much distortion of my position, I wish to make it clear that I do not advocate violence for its own sake or for the sake of reprisals against whites. Nor am I against the passive resistance advocated by the Reverend Martin Luther King and others. My only difference with Dr. King is that I believe in flexibility in the freedom struggle. This means that I believe in non-violent tactics where feasible; the mere fact that I have a Sit-In case pending before the U.S. Supreme Court bears this out. Massive civil disobedience is a powerful weapon under civilized conditions where the law safeguards the citizens’ right of peaceful demonstrations. In civilized society the law serves as a deterrent against lawless forces that would destroy the democratic process. But where there is a breakdown of the law, the individual citizen has a right to protect his person, his family, his home and his property. To me this is so simple and proper that it is self-evident.

When an oppressed people show a willingness to defend themselves, the enemy, who is a moral weakling and coward, is more willing to grant concessions and work for a respectable compromise. Psychologically, moreover, racists consider themselves superior beings and are not willing to exchange their superior lives for our inferior ones. They are most vicious and violent when they can practice violence with impunity. This we have shown in Monroe. Moreover, when because of our self-defense there is a danger that the blood of whites may be spilled, the local authorities in the South suddenly enforce law and order when previously they had been complacent toward lawless, racist violence. This too we have proven in Monroe. It is remarkable how easily and quickly state and local police control and disperse law-less mobs when the Negro is ready to defend himself with arms. (4-5)

Nothing could be more clear than that, nor, I think, much more reasonable. Especially after hearing his story. He was a WWII veteran and served in the Marines where he was trained to fight, trained to respect himself — Monroe, North Carolina demanded he do neither. He joined the NAACP on his return there at a time when it was under fierce attack from white supremacists (as all NAACP chapters were after Brown v Board). He writes:

When I joined the local chapter of the NAACP it was going down in membership, and when it was down to six, the leadership proposed dissolving it. When I objected, I was elected president and they withdrew, except for Dr. Albert E. Perry. … I tried to get former members back without success and finally I realized that I would have to work without the social leaders of the community.

So he drew on previous life experience — and that was of northern unions, even though he had not joined he had learned. A lesson in that I think, both in what the union missed, but also in the ripples it set in motion…

At this time I was inexperienced. Before going into the
Marines I had left Monroe for a time and worked in an aircraft
factory in New Jersey and an auto factory in Detroit. Without knowing it, I had picked up some ideas of organizing from the activities around me … So one day I walked into a Negro poolroom in our town, interrupted a game by putting NAACP literature on the table and made a pitch. I recruited half of those present…. We ended up with a chapter that was unique in the whole NAACP because of working class composition and a leadership that was not middle class. Most important, we had a strong representation of returned veterans who were very militant (14)

Williams continues:

In the summer of 1957 they made one big attempt to stop us. An armed motorcade attacked Dr. Perry’s house, which is situated on the outskirts of the colored community. We shot it out with the Klan and repelled their attack and the Klan didn’t have any more stomach for this type of fight. They stopped raiding our community. After this clash the same city officials who said the Klan had a constitutional right to organize met in an emergency session and passed a city ordinance banning the Klan from Monroe without a special permit from the police chief. (19)

Some pictures.

Self defense worked. To the extent that armed raids of the KKK wouldn’t be happening any more, which was no small thing. It didn’t do anything to integrate the community, make individuals going about their daily business much safer, or improve conditions, but it made a space possible for work to happen to try and do all of these.

I love that Robert Williams wanted to do all of it. Everything.

I was more convinced than ever that one of our greatest and most immediate needs was better communication within the race. The real Afro-American struggle was merely a disjointed network of pockets of resistance and the shameful thing about it was that Negroes were relying upon the white man’s inaccurate reports as their sources of information about these isolated struggles. I went home and concentrated all of my efforts into developing a newsletter … (29)

Robert Williams thought big, his branch of the NAACP would become so inspirational in the way it tried to moved beyond racial integration to the deeper causes:

In our branch of the NAACP there was a general feeling that we were in a deep and bitter struggle against racists and that we needed to involve as many Negroes as possible and to make the struggle as meaningful as possible. … what we needed was a broad program with special attention to jobs, welfare, and other economic needs.

I think this was an important step forward. The struggles of the Freedom Riders and the Sit-In Movements have concentrated on a single goal: the right to eat at a lunch counter, the right to sit anywhere on a bus. These are important rights because their denial is a direct personal assault on a Negro’s dignity. … By debasing and demoralizing the black man in small personal matters, the system eats away the sense of dignity and pride which are necessary to challenge a racist system. But the fundamental core of racism is more than atmosphere-it can be measured in dollars and cents… (38)

They had their own 10-point platform — I think I knew that Huey Newton and Bobby Seale had read this and done their own ten point platform accordingly, but I’m not sure I did. Such a platform is such a good way to inspire people to join in struggle and to know in broad terms what it is you struggle for:

On Aug. 15, 196 1 , on behalf of our Chapter I presented to the Monroe Board of Aldermen a ten point program that read as follows:
We, the undersigned citizens of Monroe, petition the City
Board of Aldermen to use its influence to endeavor to:

  1. Induce factories in this county to hire without discrimination.
  2. Induce the local employment agency to grant non-whites the same privileges given to whites.
  3. Instruct the Welfare Agency that non-whites are entitled to the same privileges, courtesies and consideration given to whites.
  4. Construct a swimming pool in the Winchester Avenue area of Monroe.
  5. Remove all signs in the city of Monroe designating one area for colored and another for whites.
  6. Instruct the Superintendent of Schools that he must prepare to desegregate the city school no later than 1962.
  7. Provide adequate trasportation for all school children.
  8. Formally request the State Medical Board to permit Dr. Albert E. Perry, Jr., to practice medicine in Monroe and Union County.
  9. Employ Negroes in skilled or supervisory capacities in the City Government.
  10. ACT IMMEDIATELY on all of these proposals and inform the committee and the public of your actions.

Robert F. Williams
Albert E. Perry, Jr. , M.D.
John W. McDow (39)

They emphasise always the economic dimensions of oppression as they connect to racial ones:

we believe that the basic ill is an economic ill, our being denied the right to have a decent standard of living. (40)

Such a difference from the national NAACP office is clearly due both to the character of Williams, Perry and McDow, but also the melting away of the professionals from the Monroe branch of the NAACP under threat of violence, and the recruitment of a working class base. This positionality gave a very different understanding of goals and strategy than those embraced by much of the Civil Rights Movement. Williams writes:

On these peripheral matters, leaders of the Sit-In Movements can meet with city and state officials and win concessions. I believe this is an important part of the overall Negro struggle. But when these concessions are used for propaganda by Negro “leaders” as examples of the marvelous progress the Afro-American is supposedly making, thereby shifting attention from the basic evils, such victories cease to be even peripheral and become self-defeating. When we tackle basic evils, however, the racists won’t give an inch.

He continues — this is not just ideological but practical:

This, I think, is why the Freedom Riders who came to Monroe met with such naked violence and brutality. That and the pledge of non-violence. (41)

He writes quite compellingly about white racism, that will be blog number two on this book. I’ll just end with a little more on how Williams saw Black struggle. First, the chapter title that gives a truth that has bedeviled every movement in the US for the past hundred years:

“Every Freedom Movement in the U.S.A. Is Labeled ‘Communist’ ” (79)

And his final words on self-defense — they echoed something Ella Baker said actually, and made me laugh.

We know that the average Afro-American is not a pacifist. He is not a pacifist and he has never been a pacifist and he is not made of the type of material that would make a good pacifist. Those who doubt that the great majority of Negroes are not pacifists, just let them slap one. Pick any Negro on any street corner in the U.S.A. and they will find out how much he believes in turning the other cheek. All those who dare to attack are going to learn the hard way that the Afro-American is not a pacifist, that he cannot forever be counted on not to defend himself. Those who attack him brutally and ruthlessly can no longer expect to attack him with impunity.

The Afro-American cannot forget that his enslavement in this country did not pass because of pacifist moral force or noble appeals to the Christian conscience of the slaveholders. (83)

Williams quotes Thoreau writing in praise of John Brown, and the need for violence at that point in time — almost makes me want to go read Thoreau again.

And finally, on global solidarity. I love how he broadens out of the civil rights movement, it feels so rare until you get to SNCC, and the drive of the youth to connect to anti-Colonial struggle. His travels meant Williams could flee to Cuba when he realised the nature of the trumped up charges against him from that fateful night (a full account is found in the book,I won’t repeat it here), and the threat his life was under. I am still so furious that he should have had to spend his days in exile though I know charges were later dropped…

In discussion of the global struggle in his newsletter, he writes:

It was clear from the first days that Afro-Cubans were part of the Cuban revolution on a basis of complete equality and my trips confirmed this fact. A Negro, for example, was head of the Cuban armed forces and no one could hide that fact from us here in America. To me this revolution was a real thing, not one of those phony South American palace revolutions. There was a real drive to bring social justice to all the Cubans, including the black ones. (31-32)

And later:

My cause is the same as the Asians against the imperialist. It is the same as the African against the white savage. It is the same as Cuba against the white supremacist imperialist. When I become a part of the mainstream of American life, based on universal justice, then and then only can I see a possible mutual cause for unity against outside interference.” (35)

To end…Robert Williams in Cuba:

And I can’t resist a last look at The Legend of N**ger Charlie. Blaxploitation film isn’t my area of expertise at all nor do I enjoy many of them, but these Westerns were fantastic, sexy, fierce. They embodied much of what Robert Williams wrote. A pride in self against a world of disrespect and violence, and  recognition of the need to fight which was so taken for granted in those times when it seemed perhaps everything might change. Over and over again that fight ends in tragedy, but Charlie keeps fighting. As did Williams, as  must we. If only we could all be that damn fine while doing it.









Summer Solstice

I hated summer today. Sunburns everywhere like bruises. So hot, but unlike lazy Tucson days it felt as though here someone had picked the town up and shaken it so everyone clinging by threads or riding along any kind of edge had fallen out twitching and needing a fix. Men wandered the streets whip thin, shirts off and ribs sticking through badly tattooed skin. Excited with an edge of anger, voices raised even when they were just talking about haircuts, bicycles. Nowhere lives and early deaths marking their gaunt stubbled faces. Visible addiction here belongs only to them. Mass unemployment here now for a good few generations, the closing of pits and factories. My heart hurt and I wanted a drink, still, I wouldn’t be going round the Wetherspoons today. It opened at 8 am. It snapped and snarled and soppily swore at full capacity and anything could have kicked off.

Instead I felt like spending the cool of the evening going to throw rocks at the original captain-of-industry’s ‘castle’, raging against the violence of this wealth extraction and abandonment — its chemical decimation of generations and its blight upon the earth.

Tomorrow I get to go home.

Violence, Coercion and Struggle in Mills’ Racial Contract

Charles Mills the Racial ContractA final post on Charles W. Mills’ The Racial Contract (here you can find posts one and two, though I warn you they are hell of long). Because a third strand of my work on race and space is also on violence and hegemony’s uneasy balance between coercion and consent, I was pretty enthusiastic about these sections. Mills doesn’t really use the language of Gramsci, but he explores this area with great insight that parallels one of my favourite thinkers:

In seeking first to establish and later to reproduce itself, the racial state employs the two traditional weapons of coercion: physical violence and ideological conditioning. (83)

You wield these weapons in the context of white supremacy, and of course you get a prominence of domination against nonwhites:

The coercive arms of the state, then–the police, the penal system, the army–need to be seen as in part the enforcers of the Racial Contract, working both to keep the peace and prevent crime among the white citizens, and to maintain the racial order and detect and destroy challenges to it, so that across the white settler states nonwhites are incarcerated at differential rates and for longer terms. (84)

Of course this is part of the consent-building process of whites. Thus (many, but not all) whites (because here is where class really becomes a bitch) see police as their protectors, but for others?

There is a well-known perception in the black community that the police–particularly in the jim crow days of segregation and largely white police forces–were basically an “army of occupation.” (85)

This may have been more prevalent back in the day, but you will hear it plenty now, and you can see it too. But violence never was restricted to the police, and it never occurred to me to trace white mob violence, vigilante violence all the way back this, but it makes sense…

But official state violence is not the only sanction of the Racial Contract. In the Lockean state of nature, in the absence of a constituted juridical and penal authority, natural law permits individuals themselves to punish wrongdoers. (86)

That feels so innately American somehow, this tangled question of justice the subject of 90 percent of the Westerns I’ve ever seen. Maybe deep down they weren’t about cattle rustling at all, but lynching. I loved this sentence:

Patterns of systematic massacres when there have been shakes to the system of white supremacy, causing an ontological shudder, calling forth white terror… (86)

Thinking of the massacres, especially that red summer of 1919 and those pictures of whites smiling over tortured bodies of black men still smoking. Unrecognizable. This terror combined with a sliver of carrot, in a system that

Attempts not just to shape the ‘white citizen’ but also, in James Baldwin’s words, ‘only the Negro they wished to see.” (88)

There is a world of tragedy in the ways that even for nonwhites, this system can be internalised, come to be seen as ‘consensual’.

It is a powerful system of collective consent, one that works to maintain privilege through a particular exercise of morality. Mills describes how

the Racial Contract creates a racialized moral psychology. Whites will then act in racist ways while thinking of themselves as acting morally. In other words, they will experience genuine cognitive difficulties in recognizing certain behaviour patterns as racist… the Racial Contract prescribes, as a condition for membership in the polity, an epistemology of ignorance. (93)

This explains so much, why it just keeps going on and on…This explains, but is miles away from excusing, the absence of rigour in interrogating the dominant social and political systems.

By their failure to denounce the great crimes inseparable from the European conquest, or by the halfheartedness of their condemnation, or by the actual endorsement of it in some cases, most of the leading European ethical theorists reveal their complicity in the Racial Contract. (94)

He also talks about the ways that this continues to deform theory, particularly any with pretence to liberation if they don’t root out these structures from the beginning:

The actual details of the basic values of the particular normative theory (property rights, personhood and respect, welfare) are not important, since all theories can be appropriately adjusted internally to bring about the desired outcome: what is crucial is the theorist’s adherence to the Racial Contract.  (96)

Yep. I won’t go into Kant again, but damn. So ultimately this system has shaped the broad white experience in incredibly damaging ways. It has ensured that they:

a) take for granted the appropriateness of concepts legitimizing the racial order, privileging them as the master race… and later the appropriateness of concepts that derace the polity, denying its actual racial structuring.

b) Because of the reciprocally dependent definitions of superior whiteness and inferior nonwhiteness, whites may consciously or unconsciously assess how they’re doing by a scale that depends in part on how nonwhites are doing

c) because the Racial Contract requires the exploitation of nonwhites, it requires in whites the cultivation of patterns of affect and empathy that are only weakly, if at all, influenced by nonwhite suffering.  (95)

It is this that I find hardest to understand, the white inability to see anything but thugs when the pictures of children shot by police or vigilantes are set in front of them. I can’t understand their inability to mourn these deaths, demand change. But, like Wendell Berry’s writing I think, this helps explain just how the mind and heart could become so twisted. Mills writes of  ‘partitioned moral concern’, and ‘moralities of exclusion’. Segregation lies at the heart of empathy and rationality, not just between homes and lived realities. But to believe yourself moral, while at the same time living a life that is deeply unjust because of its structural  foundations, well, that takes some work.

Evasion and self-deception thus become the epistemic norm. (97)

Just to deal with the horrors of conquest, slavery, ongoing massacres, the white life has to be placed higher and the nonwhite life devalued. So what is left as a way forward? First and foremost:

There is a choice for whites — to speak out and to struggle with its terms…

Second, understanding the importance of positionality:

The term “standpoint theory” is now routinely used to signify the notion that in understanding the workings of a system of oppression, a perspective from the bottom up is more likely to be be accurate than one from the top down. What is involved here, then, is a “racial” version … a perspectival cognitive advantage (109)

Third? Embracing this, furthering our understanding of this so that it can be dismantled. To speak in cliche, becoming part of the solution.

There is obviously all the difference in the world between saying the system is basically sound despite some unfortunate racist deviations, and saying that the polity is racially structured, the state white-supremacist, and races themselves significant existents that an adequate political ontology needs to accommodate. So the dispute would be not merely about the facts but about why these facts have gone so long unapprehended and untheorized in white moral/political theory.

By its crucial silence on race and the corresponding capacities of its conventional conceptual array, the raceless social contracts and the raceless world of contemporary moral and political theory render mysterious the actual political issues and concerns that have historically preoccupied a large section of the world’s population. (124)

We have a choice.



Ta-Nehisi Coates on the Knowledge and the Struggle

I loved Ta-Nehisi Coates’ The Beautiful Struggle almost as much as Between the World and Me. Because the writing is so beautiful — you know, all those days he spent filling notebook pages full of words paid off. This is an incredible window into the struggle of a father, a mother, and all the woke people in a community to save their youth from catastrophe that rode through the neighbourhood like a whirlwind. That peak of violence and despair in our cities that emerged from structural violence and disinvestment and crack. It is the kind of voice I never hear in the pages of best-selling books, and I am so goddamn glad to hear it here.

I loved it for talking about the Knowledge. How much more important this book must be for those who were immersed body and soul in it, whether they liked it or not. It meant much to me, just having been on the weak wanna-be fringes of it. From somewhere that wanted so much to be hard like some big city, from among kids who saw themselves in movies and imagined themselves in rap lyrics and defended their territory and their honour. Kids who still had guns in their glovebox, and a hitch in their walk just looking for a reason to show how bad they were.

‘You looking at me?’ The phrase that haunted my nightmares. The phrase I never understood.

Later I’d understand that the subaudible beat was the Knowledge, that it kept you ready, prepared for anyone to start swinging, to start shooting. Back then, I had no context, no great wall against the fear. I felt it but couldn’t say it. (37)

‘School girl’ was the other phrase. A prelude to shame and fear and freezing in place like a goddamn rabbit. I never did hit back. I did my best to sound like everyone else if I absolutely had to speak, and to blend into every wall.

My style was to talk and duck. It was an animal tactic, playing dead in hopes that the predators would move on to an actual fight. It was the mark of unKnowledge, a basic misreading of nature and humanity. (47)

Yep. I read that so wrong too. it wasn’t life and death with me though. I am lucky, especially in the way I had it easy, getting on my school bus, living out in the desert. Most of  my abuse was verbal. Still hurts. But it’s easier being younger, dorkier, non-threatening, no one anyone’s boyfriend would look twice at. Only at risk as the nerdy weird kid. Only had those corridors to fear, and home room when the teacher left. When I went to work in LA I was old enough (21, so old) that my white skin in a place no one knew me put me forever outside all of that.

But now I knew that this was not chaos, that the streets were a country and like all others, the streets had anthems, culture, and law. (115)

Wish I’d figured that out a little earlier, before skin privilege kicked me out. And this:

That was how I came to understand, how I came to know why all these brothers wrote and talked so big. Even the Knowledge feared the streets. But the rhyme pad was a spell book — it summoned asphalt elementals, elder gods, and weeping ancestors, all of who had your back. (111)

Everyone was afraid. I had a different kind of spell book, but a spell book all the same.

Baltimore though. Baltimore comes through clear here, and maybe a few more unlikely hearts will break at the knowledge of what we have done to our cities, how  many kids we have lost.

We went to watch Moonlight on Saturday, with the same kind of unlikely audience I am sure were there on their Oscar rounds. It is another meditation on this subject, in this context, where being gay piles on even more risk, puts you even more in flight from yourself and others. I loved that it showed this enclosed world (and didn’t bother to reach out to audiences by having a saviour or a sidekick). Showed the way the violence of it twists and shapes and beats into shape and uses a knife or a bullet to cut short potential. Yet it showed too that the potential remains and there is something never fully beaten. But god does the world try, surely we must do better than this. I cried like a fucking baby.

I did laugh at least once, however, when Juan tells Little he should never sit with his back to the door. I laughed because I still can’t sit with my back to the door. I remember when I first realised that my general watchfulness came from an assumption that any stranger around me could attack me at any time, either physically or verbally. I am still aware of my surroundings in terms of who might be a danger. Still see people who walk while reading or wander around looking lost as stupid in the way they mark themselves as targets. I am still likely to be hit with Adrenalin if someone comes up behind me and tries to do something stupid like cover my eyes. I don’t even quite know where all these things came from, nor why they still linger now I have removed myself from anywhere such vigilance might still be required.  I am also well aware that this is an experience I share with many of my class, but probably not so many of my skin colour.

I still remember the amazement of bumping into someone and having them apologise. I was ready to run, you know?

Anyway. How did it come to this? How did a community, how did a beautiful collective struggle for civil rights and a fullness of life end in this?

The story began in our glory years with the banishing of Bull Conner and all his backward dragons. Never had the mountaintop seemed so close at hand. But marching from victory we stumbled into a void. And now we were here in the pit, clawing out one another’s eyes. We were all — even me — so angry. We could not comprehend how it came to this. (105)

I am still not sure. I hope we have emerged, to never go so far back. But the courage of those who fought to save young men and women at the receiving end of all this — inspiring.

But in the midst of Reconstruction’s second collapse, Lemmel fought back. The headmasters arranged their students into teams, and named each one after the Saints — Douglass, Tubman, Woodson, King. (23)

And I loved reading about Howard, the Mecca.

but somehow they were changed there, and left possessed by the spirit of Howard’s legendary professoriat, of Eric Williams and E. Franklin Frazier, and they fled South to be flogged by sheriffs and Klansmen. (26)

The struggle remains a beautiful one, a shifting one, but full justice and equality fought for in mutual respect and love for one another is the only key to living well in this world I think. So no more kids have to grow up with promise and potential cut short, snuffed out.





Patricia Hill Collins: The Ethos of Violence

I have been thinking a lot about violence, it is one of the great contradictions of our humanity I think, and Patricia Hill Collins doesn’t shy away. Seems a good subject for the day of Trump’s inauguration, which feels like an act of violence in itself. His comments on (and actions towards) women, on the disabled, on the poor, on people of colour, I can’t even…

Interesting that unpicking the violence of US society makes sense of it all in a way that many liberals haven’t quite grasped I don’t think.

Understanding how an ethos of violence constitutes a deep structural root of U.S. society requires viewing violence as a necessary and ever-present feature of oppression. (189)

Because this society was founded on oppression,  violence has been central to this country’s founding through conquest and slavery, as well as being found in the intimate spaces of our relationships. It has always been present, and yet

Given it’s socially constructed nature, surprisingly little attention has been focused on how power relations shape definitions of violence.

Instead there is a focus on its most simple aspect, as seen in the Oxford English Dictionary:

the exercise of physical force so as to inflict injury on, or cause damage to persons or property; action or conduct characterized by this treatment or usage tending to cause bodily injury or forcibly interfering with personal freedom.

Everyday understandings of violence see it as being an intentional act of causing physical pain or injury to another person (189).

But violence works in and through power relations, it is both visceral and structural.

Definitions of violence that take power relations into account refute these formal, abstract definitions. Racism, sexism, class exploitation, heterosexism, age and citizenship status each have distinctive organizational patterns across their domains of power whereby violence takes a specific form. For example, the gendered violence that women encounter takes the form of rape and sexual assault…The violence associated with class exploitation … is more likely to be within public policies that contribute to differential rates of infant mortality or that send poor and working-class kids off to war. (189)

The further I read in ‘The Ethos of Violence’ the more I see the distorted faces and even more distorted words of those who supported Trump’s rise to power:

Violence can be better imagined as a more dynamic concept whose complexity lies not just in its socially embedded nature in contemporary power relations but also in its ability to shape those same power relations. Violence may be such a naturalized or taken-for-granted dimension of U.S. society that it operates as a saturated site of intersectionality. In other words, violence operates as a form of conceptual glue that enables racism, sexism, class exploitation, and heterosexism to function as they do. Thinking about violence within the context of intersecting power relations suggest three distinguishing features of violence that might help us develop a more nuanced and contextualized definition: (1) the power to define violence; (2) the symbiotic relationship between violent acts and speech; and (3) the routine nature of violence. (190)

To look into each of these three definitions:

The power to define violence

First, the interpretation of any given act as “violent” lies not within the act itself but in how powerful groups conceptualize it.(190)

She looks at the Rodney King beating, differences between protection of women as rape victims, Mumia…today we still have the daily murders of Black men, women and children to show just how true this is. It is the power of definition that allows a public discourse and policy regime to continue as if this did not matter. Because they have defined it not to matter.

Social institutions regulate behavior via sanction and censure and also advance interpretive frames for analysing it. These frameworks encourage the public to interpret violence in ways that support the vested interests of more powerful groups. In other words, these frames help the public interpret what often is identical behavior different, depending on who is engaging in it. (191)

The symbiotic relationship between violent acts and speech

The division between speech and actions is also part of the ethos violence.

The use of words to humiliate, threaten, harass, belittle, destroy generally fall outside of the definition of violence and are often protected . Prejudice is not seen as violence. Discrimination is not seen as violence. Representation is not seen as violence.

Trumps’ speech is so vile, yet for those maintaining this separation, it is not seen as violent.

I myself can experience it in no other way, I am bewildered by this disconnect.

Violence as routine

Violence is seen in the daily micro-assaults on the basis of race, racial profiling, how women avoid certain spaces at all times or certain times of day…it is ubiquitous, shaping our lives in myriad, countless ways. And we are so used to it, we don’t see it for what it is.

America has long declared war on the least powerful people within its borders. This state of ‘normalized war’ predicated on the acceptability of violence targeted toward select groups remains unrecognized because it too is routine. (196)

This, all of this. How is it taking us so long to unravel, understand, and demolish violence? Again, this is all about power and intersectionality, how it affects  who  is heard and who is believed. How it benefits a group of people to shut their ears and eyes to reality and drag a country off down a terrifying road…

The Spirit Level — Can we just get on with greater equality already?

The Spirit LevelThe Spirit Level marshals all the evidence — for those who needed such evidence — that inequality has a huge negative impact on everyone in a society, the rich as well as the poor. But especially the poor.  There is of course, a minimum level of security and income which human beings require. Many do not enjoy such a level. But for those who do, it still isn’t enough to guarantee a full and happy life:

Economic growth, for so long the great engine of progress, has, in the rich counties, largely finished its work. Not only have measures of wellbeing and happiness ceased to rise with economic growth but, as affluent societies have grown richer, there have been long-term rises in rates of anxiety, depression and numerous other social problems. (5-6)

This is good book full of evidence that it is the degree of equality in a  country which leads to longer, happier lives and a stronger society.

Poverty itself is a bit of a slippery concept if you think too hard, I liked this quote from Marshall Sahlins:

Poverty is not a certain small amount of goods, nor is it just a relation between means and ends; above all it is a relation between people. Poverty is a social status . . . It has grown . . . as an invidious distinction between class . . . (Stone Age Economics, quoted p 15)

Poverty as a relationship — it makes sense that this relationship is what matters above the bare minimum required for life.

Their graphs are simple, direct — only as good as their data of course, but that is well documented…This one is from p 20 and p 174, so good they showed it twice!


The best indicator for the whole gamut of health and social problems in rich countries is not poverty, but the difference between rich and poor. Reduce inequality, and you should see marked improvements in all of them.

How Inequality Gets Under the Skin

I read this over the summer, but it’s weird going back over my notes after Trump’s victory, especially reading things like this:

The growing rates of anxiety in the U.S. are very depressing indeed, yet they correlate to more aggressive declarations of self worth.

The answer turns out to be a picture of increasing anxieties about how we are seen and what others think of us which has, in turn, produced a kind of self-promoting, insecure egotism which is easily mistaken for high self esteem (36).

I’m always a little skeptical how we ascertain how society is changing us more broadly, but this rings true. Still, it is hard to analyze the water in which you’ve grown up in. They connect these kinds of psychological anxieties with inequality, and then tend to almost conflate the two in trying to explain the correlation between inequality and many of the social ills and illnesses examined as the multiple indicators of health and wellbeing.

Part 2 — The Costs of Inequality:

So for the great list of indicators:

  • Mental health and drug use
p 67. reproduced at http://thestandard.org.nz/wp-content/uploads/2010/09/spirit-level-5-620x465.jpg
p 67. reproduced at http://thestandard.org.nz/wp-content/uploads/2010/09/spirit-level-5-620×465.jpg

One of the things they cite is Oliver James on the

‘affluenza’ virus…is a “set of values which increase out vulnerability to emotional distress”, which he believes is more common in affluent societies. It entails placing a high value on acquiring money and possessions, looking good in the eyes of others and wanting to be famous. (69)

Interesting, depressing, you can see how hard this would be to live up to.

  • Physical Health and life expectancy

They cite more than 40 papers on the links between health and social capital have now been published. (See M.K. Islam, J. Merlo, I Kawachi, M. Lindstrom and U.G. Gerdtham, ‘Social Capital and health: does egalitarianism matter? A literature review’, International Journal for Equity in Health (2006) 5:3.)

Increasing social capital and reducing inequality improve health across the society, just throwing more money at it doesn’t. Probably because most of that money doesn’t actually go towards health, as in the US, but towards corporate profits, but that’s another story I suppose. Looking at this chart and realising that of all these countries the US is the one that doesn’t actually provide universal healthcare despite the obscene of money going into healthcare makes some sense of the outcomes, and makes you feel sick at the same time. Sadly, there’s no cure for that other than some serious structural changes. Like all of this really.


  • Obesity: Wider income gaps, wider waists — correlates to inequality.
  • Educational performance — correlates to inequality.
  • Teenage births: recycling deprivation — correlates to inequality.
  • Violence: gaining respect — correlates to inequality.

They note that inequality is ‘structural’ violence, and statistically it matches up with…inequality. Again, they connect this inequality with the anxieties that emerge from our unequal society:

…increased inequality ups the stakes in the competition for status: status matters even more. The impact of inequality on violence is even better established and accepted than the other effects of inequality. (134)

  • Imprisonment and punishment — inequality

I’ve read lots about the crazy amounts of incarceration in the US, The New Jim Crow is miles and away better than this summary. But one fun fact

In California in 2004, there were 360 people serving life sentences for shoplifting. (147)

Jesus wept. And of course, there is this on p 148:


I have to note that in many of these charts I couldn’t initially find the US because it is so often alone up at the top…This chart makes me sick too.

Another brief note they make, there is so much to dig into here but it’s interesting:

In societies with greater inequality, where the social distances between people are greater, where attitudes of ‘us and them’ are more entrenched and where lack of trust and fear of crime are rife, public and policy makers alike are more willing to imprison people and adopt punitive attitudes… (155)

  • Social mobility: unequal opportunities — inequality

This is so geared towards statistics and policies, digging through data more than into experience, but every now and then they drop into higher theory, like Bourdieu writing about ‘the actions by which the elite maintain their distinction symbolic violence…’ (164) I had forgotten he wrote about this, this book underlined for me the very strong connection between inequality and violence, inequality as violence, and how that underpins everything else.

Part 3 — a better society

I appreciated that they ended The Spirit Level with some thoughts bringing everything back together, and from there thinking through what change is possible. There was some interesting things on the racial divides in the US, and again and again this book underlines that while the poor suffer from inequality most, really it is everyone who suffers. Maybe that will have some impact? Though it doesn’t seem to have had yet…

in the USA, state income equality is closely related to the proportion of African-Americasn in the state’s population. The states with wider income differences tende to be those with larger African American populations. The same states also tend to have worse outcomes…among both the black and the white population. The ethnic divide increases prejudice and so widens income differences. the result is that both communities suffer…

So the answer to the question as to whether what appear to be the effects of inequality may actually be the result of ethnic divisions is that the two involve most of the same processes and should not be seen a alternative explanations. The prejudice which often attaches to ethnic divisions may increase inequality and its effects. Where ethnic differences have become strongly associated with social status divisions, ethnic divisions may provide almost as good an indicator of the scale of social status differentiation as income inequality. (179)

It is interesting to look at how the numbers brought Pickett and Wilkinson to these findings that are more often found elsewhere. Again and again the message — inequality hurts the poorest most, but it negatively impacts everyone. Reducing inequality benefits everyone. Evidence also suggests it should make rich countries care more about reducing the terrible inequalities between countries — little sign of that despite how desperately — perhaps even more desperately — that is needing recognition, but the more arguments made the better. This is just a building block in working towards ensuring equality remains on the agenda.


There’s a whole section on ‘can this be done?’, can we create more equal societies, but honestly. They themselves make the point that some countries have done it already.

Another truth;

systems of material or economic relations are systems of social relations. (199)

So what is their solution? They look to worker owned business, cooperatives, give example of Tower Colliery, where miners successfully took over pit operation, combining redundancy money to buy the pit in 1995, for 15 years until seam was mined out. They also, in the bigger picture, argue for what they call a steadd health: does egalitarianism d by economist Herman Daly. (220) I’ll have to look more into this and always prefer to start with the source, so to just finish up with some of their final findings.

Evaluations of even some of the most important services, such as police and medical care, suggest that they are not among the most powerful determinants of crime levels or standards of population health. Other services, such as social work or drug rehabilitation, exist to treat — or process — their various client groups, rather than to diminish the prevalence of social problems. (233)

even more damning, this is my personal favourite sentence:

Rather than reducing inequality itself, the initiatives aimed at tackling health or social problems are nearly always attempts to break the links between socio-economic disadvantage and the problems it produces. The unstated hope is that people — particularly the poor — can carry on in the same circumstances, but will somehow no longer succumb to mental illness, teenage pregnancy, educational failure, obesity or drugs. (234)

So really this is an economic and a political problem, they write

The historical evidence confirms the primacy of political will. (238)

Behind this lack of political will? Multiple reasons of course, one being the decline of the trade unions — their decline in power has itself made possible a great deal of this growing inequality. There’s also the fact that many corporations have bigger economies than many a nation state. They quote the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD):

Twenty-nine of the world’s 100 largest economic entities are transnational corporations (TNCs)… On the 200 TNCs with the highest assets abroad in 2000, Exxon is the biggest in terms of value added ($63 billion). It ranks 45th on the new list, making it comparable in economic size to the economies of Chile or Pakistan. Nigeria comes in just between DaimlerChrylser and General Electric, while Philip Morris is on a par with Tunisia, Slovakia and Guatemala. (244)

Small wonder they walk with such big sticks. Small wonder higher levels of equality should be so hard to achieve, despite the improvements it makes to everyone’s quality of life.





Erich Fromm: Evil in the Heart of Man

8860483Paolo Freire refers to Erich Fromm’s The Heart of Man a number of times in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, how could I not read it? He wrote it while teaching at UNAM in Mexico City. I remember too, the only time I have heard a living person refer to him spontaneously it was walking through a London night with my friend Demetrio, as he exhorted me to read him on ethics, on good and evil. Fromm was the favourite philosopher of Demetrio’s grandfather, himself a philosopher in Reggio, who had helped raise him. His grandfather was one of the best men in the world, he said. Given the kind of person Demetrio has turned out to be, he is undoubtedly right.

I read this over the summer…I think my next few posts will either be yay Malta or the oh.my.god kind of struggling to come to terms with the election. This is in the second category, a look at good and evil via Freud and Marx seems appropriate, especially when focused on human liberation in a way that I really wish postcolonial and critical thought had taken up. Rather than Freud via Lacan.

From the preface:

I try to show that love of life, independence, and the overcoming of narcissism form a “syndrome of growth” as against the “syndrome of decay” formed by love of death, incestuous symbiosis, and malignant narcissism. (13)

I: Man — Wolf or Sheep?

That is a question/ statement I have often heard in various forms. We are both, neither, really we can choose to move towards growth or decay, life or death. This is always the great choice we make, the great distinction in our actions and our pathologies. Towards life or towards death… So this does not shy away from any of the darkness inside, rather tries to grapple with its nature, and the springs of violence within us.

II: Forms of Violence

Fromm distinguishes between violences, they sit along a spectrum.

playful violence …. those forms in which violence is exercised in the pursuit of displaying skill, not in the pursuit of destruction, not motivated by hate or destructiveness. (24)

reactive violence … that violence which is employed in the defense of life, freedom, dignity, property — one’s own or that of others. It is rooted in fear, and for this reason it is probably the most frequent form of violence… This type of violence is in service of life, not death; its aim is preservation, not destruction. (25)

frustration, envy and jealousy are aspects of this, and while it can be twisted, ultimately it still is towards life.

revengeful violence … the injury has already been done, and hence the violence has no function of defense  (27) … all these forms of violence are still in the service of life realistically, magically, or at least as a the result of damage to or disappointment in life… (30)

On to the violence in service of death….

compensatory violence … violence as a substitute for productive activity occurring in an impotent person. (30) … If, for reason of weakness, anxiety, incompetence, etc., man is not able to act, if he is impotent, he suffers …

how is this overcome? In rather frightening ways:

One way is to submit to and identify with a person or group having power … The other way … is man’s power to destroy. (31)

Reading this is seems so simple, yet terrifying.

To create life requires certain qualities which the impotent person lacks. To destroy life requires only one quality — the use of force. (31)

This is also present in all of us:

Only if one has fully experienced the intensity and frequency of destructive and sadistic violence in individuals and in masses can one understand that compensatory violence is not something superficial, the result of evil influences, bad habits, and so on. It is a power in man as intense and strong as his wish to live. It is so strong precisely because it constitutes the revolt of life against its being crippled; man has a potential for destructive and sadistic violence  because he is human, because he is not a thing, and because he must try to destroy life if he cannot create it. (32)

Always through my life I have been haunted by such destructive, sadistic violence, brought alive through my relationships with survivors of civil war, kidnapping, rape, torture…and the occasional encounters with torturers themselves. These occasional encounters that were harder to understand than anything else. But this book makes more sense of them than anything else I have yet read, and I don’t think that’s just because I seek for hope…

Compensatory violence … indicates the crippling and emptiness of life. But in its very negation of life it still demonstrates man’s need to be alive and not to be a cripple. (33)

This in fact makes sense of so much. I love Fromm in that he does not just focus on the violence, but on its opposite — the kind of person we can strive to be as opposed to the kind of person who lives in fear, who wants to shut things down, the fear in people I have tried and failed to work with, the fear I see splashed across the news.

But I thought perhaps in this post I would focus on violence and evil, because there is too much here. So in the next post I look at biophilia, and the material conditions that make it possible (as a good Marxist should). Also like a good Marxist, the ways in which Fromm argues that a wish for life and for death are always in relationship to each other, a contradiction that is not resolved:

The contradiction between Eros and destruction, between the affinity to life and the affinity to death is, indeed, the most fundamental contradiction which exists in man. This duality, however, is not one of two biologically inherent instincts, relatively constant and always battling with each other until the final victory of the death instinct, but it is one between the primary and most fundamental tendency of life–to persevere in life–and its contradiction, which comes into being when man fails in this goal. (50)

One example — and I like how Fromm anchors these more abstract explorations of the mind to that which makes no sense in the world yet that could destroy us all. Fromm asks, for example, how can we understand the lack of more widespread protest of nuclear weapons?

There are many answers; yet none of them gives a satisfactory explanation unless we include the following: that people are not afraid of total destruction because they do not love life; or because they are indifferent to life, or even because many are attracted to death. (56)

III – Individual and Social Narcissism

Fromm writes:

One of the most fruitful and far-reaching of Freud’s discoveries is his concept of narcissism. (62)

Fromm further develops this concept to understand violence and war — to do so he removes it from where Freud has ‘forced his concept into the frame of his libido theory.’ (62) Instead, Fromm argues the concept comes ‘to its full fruition…if one uses a concept of psychic energy which is not identical with the energy of the sexual drive’ (64), as described by Jung (and Freud moved towards this in his later years). It is an energy that Fromm argues

binds, unifies, and holds together the individual within himself as well as the individual in his relationship to the world outside. (64)

All of us have a degree of narcissism, it helps us survive and so again, there are a spectrum of behaviours (and a curious list of behaviour that offer clues to the narcissistic individual, one that delights me as a novelist) explored by Fromm. These range from the simply self-preoccupied with the self, to the narcissism focused on ones children, to the psychopath.

Narcissism is a passion the intensity of which in many individuals can only be compared with sexual desire and the desire to stay alive. In fact, many times it proves to be stronger than either. (72)

It’s dangers:

The essential point…is that the narcissistic person cannot perceive the reality within another person as distinct from his own. (68)

In a different form:

The most dangerous result of narcissistic attachment is the distortion of rational judgement… He and his are overevaluated. Everything outside is underevaluated. …

An ever more dangerous pathological element in narcissism is the emotional reaction to any criticism…(73-74)

Both explosive anger or depression are reactions — a depression often deflected by turning on purpose to anger. A third reaction? The attempt to make reality itself conform to a narcissistic image of self or the loved one. Hitler being the best example of such a course. There is the extreme narcissism of the infant, and of the insane. And then the particular instance of narcissism on the borderline between sanity and insanity — Ceasers, Borgias, Hitler, Stalin:

They have attained absolute power; their word is the ultimate judgment of everything, including life and death; there seems to be no limit to their capacity to do what they want. They are gods, limited only by illness, age and death.  (66)

It only occurred to me reading this that these are the beliefs of insane people, and yet for this small group such beliefs actually were true in reality. This made them even more isolated, their feelings of paranoia buttressed by people actually trying to kill them, all of which ensured they remained borderline sane — they had not actually lost all touch with reality, whereas

Psychosis is a state of absolute narcissism, one in which the person has broken all connection with reality outside, and has made his own person the substitute for reality.  (166)

It becomes clear how this could be the root of so much evil. From individual cases, Fromm moves on to look at group narcissism, primarily racial narcissism as seen in the American South and Hitler’s Germany, and Jesus does this ring true in thinking both about the recent US election and Brexit:

In both instances the core of the racial superiority was, and still is, the lower middle class; this backward class; which in Germany as well as in the American South has been economically and culturally deprived, without any realistic hope of changing its situation… has only one satisfaction: the inflated image of itself as the most admirable group in the world, and of being superior to another racial group that is singled out as inferior.

Group narcissism is less easy to recognize than individual narcissism. (79)

Side note in parentheses here

(What the majority of people consider to be “reasonable” is that about which there is agreement, if not among all, at least among a substantial number of people: “reasonable,” for most people, has nothing to do with reason, but with consensus.) (79-80)

God, narcissism explains so much, and most of the world’s religions and philosophies actually work to curb narcissism in multiple ways — Fromm sees it as the goal of (hu)man to overcome narcissism, but more on that next post.

The rest…

There is another chapter on incestuous ties…which did not speak to me, but the more postcolonial theory I am reading the more I wish I had paid more attention here, grappled with Fromm to counter Lacan. So I may come back to this. Later. For now I will end on Fromm’s own summation of evil, before going on to look at how he thinks we should fight for good:

1. Evilness is a specifically human phenomenon. It is the attempt to regress to the pre-human state and to eliminate that which is specifically human: reason, love, freedom. …. Evil is man’s loss of himself in the tragic attempt to escape the burden of his humanity. And the potential of evil is all the greater because man is endowed with an imagination that enables him to imagine all the possibilities for evil and thus to desire and act on them… (148)

2. The degrees of evilness are at the same time the degrees of regression. The greatest evil is those strivings which are most directed against life; the love for death, the incestuous-symbiotic striving to return to the womb, to the soil, to the inorganic; the narcissistic self-immolation which makes a man an enemy of life, precisely because he can’t leave the prison of his own ego.

3. There is lesser evil, according to the lesser degree of regression. There is lack of love, lack of reason, lack of interest, lack of courage.

4. Man is inclined to regress and to move forward; this is another way of saying he is inclined to good and to evil.

5. Man is responsible up to the point where he is free to (149) choose for his own action [and see the next post on the material constraints on freedom, which are vital to remember here]. But responsibility is nothing but an ethical postulate… Precisely because evil is human…it is inside every one of us. The more we are aware of it, the less are we able to set ourselves up as judges of others.

6. Man’s heart can harden; it can become inhuman, yet never nonhuman. … We must not rely on anyone’s saving us, but be very aware that wrong choices make us incapable of saving ourselves. (150)

I rather like this description of evil, I think it is something we must think about but in the West, liberal academia is a little too removed from their own wars and the death and destruction and torture and poverty that surround them to find this an important subject. But look at our world. What else should we be talking about, and in what other way than one well-grounded both in our psyche and the material conditions in which we live and struggle?

[Fromm, Erich (1964) The Heart of Man: Its Genius for Good and Evil. NY: Harper & Row.]




Caravaggio in Malta and Sicily

caravaggio-life-sacred-and-profaneCaravaggio had, at Graham-Dixon’s guess, set his eyes on rehabilitation and a return to Rome in triumph through a rather curious route — becoming a Knight (read part one of this post on Caravaggio here). Whether this was his goal at the start or not, he was soon on his way after his exile and time in Naples, and through the help of his oldest patron, Costanza Colonna. The process for getting to Malta has changed just a bit since his day:

Malta was not, however, a place where someone could simply turn up unannounced. The whole island was a fortress, and security was tight. No one was allowed in from the mainland without a passport and papers prepared by the order’s network of receivers.

Permission was granted only by the approval of the Grand Master of the Hospitallers himself. The Colonna’ had to have brokered this for Caravaggio, fleeing justice as he was.

A description of the Valleta that Caravaggio approached:

An entirely new city, built of honey-coloured limestone that glowed pink in the sun. Valletta had been constructed at breakneck speed in just forty years. After the turmoil of the Great Siege [by the Turks], the knights realized that they had to fortify the narrow headland known as the Xiberras Promontory, which connected the island’s two principal harbours. The construction of the new capital by an army of slaves, on the steepest incline of the headland had been an immense undertaking… It was named in honour of Jean de la Valette, Grand Master during the siege. The pope’s best military engineer, Francesco Laparelli, was responsible for the plan. The sheer stone fortifications of the citadel rose directly from the craggy outcrop of the island itself…

An army of slaves. They remain otherwise invisible to us, but I had no idea Valletta was built in only forty years, a planned city.

Within its walls, Valletta was laid out on the Renaissance model of the ideal city. The principal architect responsible for the buildings was Girolamo Cassar, who was from Malta but had studied in Rome. His palaces and churches were designed to reflect the knights’ ideals of Christian sobriety and military discipline, with long, sever facades of rusticated stone. The streets were laid out in a grid, with nine thoroughfares running across the peninsula and twelve running from top to bottom. Their strict geometry was softened by gardens and fountains.

It was a steep slog from the harbour to the centre — and everywhere in between. Graham-Dixon notes Byron’s farewell to Malta:

adieu, ye cursed streets of stairs.

I am quoting prolific about the city, but I find this heady stuff…

Approaching Malta for the first time, Caravaggio was surrounded by symbols of the island’s fierce rule of law. On the first promontory on the left of the harbour was the forbidding spectacle of a gallows. Within the harbour itself, prominent on the left-hand side, was the Castel Sant’Angelo, where many of the most famous events of the siege had taken place… it had become a prison for disorderly knights.

At the end of the the sixteenth century, a visitor, Hieronymus Megiser, noted gore still visible on some of the rocks and pointed out by his guides.

A ‘remote and harsh place, rocky and sun-parched’, yet famed for the sweetness of its honey, quantity of almonds, olives, figs, dates, the quality of its cotton. Cicero had his clothes made there.

I have failed to find English translations of Hieronymus Megiser’s descriptions of Malta, so shall quote what Graham-Dixon has gleaned from them.

As Megiser notes, the island encompassed two utterly distinct societies. ‘Malta Africana’ and ‘Malta Europeana’. The world of the indigenous islanders had remained unchanged for centuries. Its people were dark-skinned, spoke a language incomprehensible to Europeans and lived in humble settlements much like the tribal villages of nearby coastal Africa. Cosmopolitan Valletta was utterly different, a flammable blend of extreme Christian piety, simmering military aggression and barely contained sexual dissipation.

I am fascinated by this duality, but there is no more to be found here about it. George Sandys was an English traveler — quoted liberally throughout the volume, and his descriptions of Malta are fascinating. But I have found those, and will read them as they look amazing.

Graham-Dixon continues

It is not known where Caravaggio lived during his time on the island. Prospective knights on their first tours of duty were given accommodation in the auberge belonging to their particular Langue, or country. Altogether there were eight Langues, of Italy, Provence, Auvergne, England, France, Aragon, Castille and Germany.

Langue meaning language more like? Because Italy was not yet a country, nor was France or Germany in the shape we know them.But Caravaggio probably lodged with the Colonnas anyway, they were the only one’s who knew he was there and of his plans to become a knight — this was not brokered until the winter of 1607.

To become a knight he painted… there is the incredible Beheading of St John

beheading-of-saint-john-the-baptist- CaravaggioI get to see this. So exciting, Caravaggio’s largest altar-piece still sitting in the place for which it was painted.

The novices of the Order of St John [of whom Caravaggio was one] listened to sermons and received instruction in the oratory for which Caravaggio’s painting was destined. The place was both a school for the martyrs of the future and a burial ground for the martyrs of the past — the bones of the knights who had died at the Great Siege were interred beneath its stone-flagged floor. … Caravaggio’s altarpiece was designed to make sure that they [the novices] could be under no illusions about what that might mean.

Not that I am at all keen on martyrs, particularly not crusaders. But nor, I think, was Caravaggio. He did, however, paint a wonderful portrait of Alof da Wignacourt (c1607-1608), the Master of the Knights. Caravaggio was pretty determined to get a knighthood, and this was a man of fairly absolute power.

michelangelo_merisi_da_caravaggio_-_portrait_of_alof_de_wignacourt_-_wga04184And yet Caravaggio still ensures that his page rather steals the show. He still rebels I think.

While there he became friends (if that is possible to guess at) with WIgnacourt’s secretary Francesco Dell’Antella. Graham-Dixon notes he was a gifted draughtsman and produced a detailed drawing of Valletta — which I have found. This is the ‘Map of the medieval town of Valletta, with Senglea and Vitoriosa at the Great Port. Map of Malta and Gozo’ from [BOISSAT, Pierre de / BOSIO, Giacomo]. Histoire des Chevaliers de l’Orde de S. Jean de Hierusalem, contenant leur admirable Institution & Police…, Paris, Jacques d’Allin, MDCLIX [=1659].

Valletta --

VallettaSo wonderful.

To return to Caravaggio. Alof de Wignacourt loved his paintings to such a degree he gave him (and this is Graham-Dixon quoting Bellori)

as a reward, besides the honour of the Cross, the Grand Master put a gold chain around Caravaggio’s neck and made him a gift of two slaves…

‘Finally,’ Graham-Dixon writes, ‘Caravaggio had got his own gold chain.’ I forgot to mention the animosity raised in Rome when a rival received such a chain — the one about whom the scurrilous verses had been written.

There is no context given for the slaves. Slavery remains only part of the background throughout, which kills me.

Still, Caravaggio got his Knighthood, with approval of the Pope. He was thus above the law for the murder he had committed, could return to Rome with new rank. Graham-Dixon notes that in this whole scheme to elevate himself, perhaps Caravaggio had not realised that as a knight, he had to have Wignacourt’s permission to leave Malta. A permission unlikely to be granted for some time, if ever — in Wignacourt’s petition to the Pope to be allowed to confer the knighthood, he noted the purpose of it was ‘to keep’ Caravaggio. Ominous.

Graham-Dixon argues the dawning realisation that he was trapped, as much as his unruly habits, explains the end of Caravaggio’s time on Malta.

The ceremony on the ‘feast of the Decollato’ where the unveiling of The Beheading of St John was to take place was a complete disaster — Caravaggio was not present. He was in prison for kicking down the door of the church’s organist, Fra Prospero Coppini, with several others, leaving the organist severely wounded. On top of that

The musicians were unhappy about their pay and most of them went on strike, so that on the feast day itself neither Vespers nor the solemn Mass was sung in the oratory before Caravaggio’s picture.

I confess, of everything that went wrong, only the strike was unexpected to me. I confess I find the existence of musicians willing to strike in Valletta absolutely extraordinary — and a happy fact. The rest though…

Carvaggio escaped from prison. Fled Malta. Was stripped of his knighthood in December of 1608. Graham-Dixon gives an illustration from Wolfgang Kilian of the mid-seventeenth century as an example of what this ceremony might have looked like in the very same oratory of St John where his painting sat (look, you can see it there in the background!):

Wolfgang Kilian - Knight of Malta Defrocked

This happened in Caravaggio’s absence of course.

He, in the meanwhile, had fled to Sicily, meeting up with an old friend and painter Mario Minnitti (also the model for Boy Bitten by a Lizard and others) and traveling through Southern Italy. Caravaggio believed he was being followed, and that his life was in danger. His routes were most circuitous.

In 1608 he painted the Burial of St Lucy in Syracuse


And the Raising of St Lazarus in Messina. Graham-Dixon notes that the Lazzari family had originally wanted a picture whose proposed title would have been ‘The Madonna, St John the Baptist and Other Saintsbut Caravaggio negotiated with them to paint this instead.

In Rome at the height of the Renaissance it had not been unknown for a famous artist to alter the terms of a commission. Michelangelo had famously plucked up the courage … But in the provincial artistic milieu of Messina, Caravaggio’s assertion of independence was still being talked about a hundred years later.


In 1609, also in Messina, the wonderful Adoration of the Shepards.

800px-caravaggio_-_adorazione_dei_pastoriBy September of 1609 he had returned to Naples, and the protection once again of the Colonnas, both Bellori and Baglione mention the enemies chasing him. Graham-Dixon argues that this return to the Colonna fold means that both his patrons had forgiven him for his escapades on Malta, but also that they had negotiated a truce with the knights there.

His fear was well-founded, he was severely wounded in an attempt on his life as he emerged from the Cerriglio — a rather famous brothel, his face disfigured — sfregiato, an injury inflicted to avenge an insult to reputation. Probably by Rodomonte Roero, the Conte della Vezza, who had indeed, almost certainly, been tracking him.

Caravaggio never really recovered. In Naples he painted the Martyrdom of St Ursula (1610), thought to be his last picture.

martyrdom_of_st_ursula1609-10oilcanbanca_intesa_coll_naples_-_version_2He traveled to Rome, with either a pardon in hand or on its way, and the lack of clarity surrounding his death seems characteristic of most of his life. He was arrested when he disembarked from his boat at Palo, a fort manned by the Spanish. Something went wrong and he was arrested, thus his belongings and the three paintings he had brought with him made the rest of the boat’s journey to the Porto Ecole. Bellori has him running from Palo to Porto Ecole and dying on his arrival from heat and exhaustion — but it was days on foot between the two.

He did die in Porto Ecole, however, of fever, in July of 1610. Then the feeding frenzy was on over the paintings he had left behind him.

This is one, an uncommissioned painting of melancholy treating a subject he had painted several times before. To me it embodies both his queerness (which I know I don’t look at enough here) and his regret and suffering.

st-john-the-baptist-iii-michelangelo-merisi-da-caravaggioA life that as I say, troubles me and sits with me.

Writing this I found that there is a show on at The National Gallery, Beyond Caravaggio, and I am looking forward to seeing it immensely. Graham-Dixon notes only a few of his influences — Ribera and Zurbaran in particular, through his work in Naples. Another wonderful story about the Madonna of the Rosary, which was brought to Antwerp through a joint effort spearheaded by Rubens, and involving Bruegel, Van Bael and Cooymans. But of course, I will be seeing more about this…


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.


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:


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.


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.