Friday, June 26, 2009

The Greatest Living American Film Director

I have always thought that, for any fledgling American film director with enough talent and brains, the horizons must seem limitless. On film, the country and its history are virtually unexplored in any imaginative sense, and abstracting from the American experience some semblance of life as it is lived has hardly even been tried, let alone achieved. What few authentic depictions of the American scene that have made it to film are, sadly, almost invariably about criminals. And while there will always be an attraction to the people who break laws and - another American fixation - who get away with it, there is a filmmaker who has chosen to explore the other side. Not just crime, but its consequences, the thankless and too often fruitless pursuit of justice, when it can be found, by people accustomed to seeing justice cheated or perverted.

For more than twenty years a consensus has been building among film critics regarding the position of Martin Scorsese atop the always very short list of great American film directors. But, for me, Scorsese will always be the second best American film director as long as Sidney Lumet is alive and kicking.

After working in television, much of it live, from 1951, Lumet, who turns 85 today, made his feature debut with 12 Angry Men in 1957. It had all of the ingredients of his later work: a controversial subject handled fearlessly, telling people truths they didn't want to hear; powerful acting, this time from a once in a lifetime ensemble cast, and confidence in a less than happy ending. Lumet's theme was the fragility of justice, over prejudice, stereotypes, and all short cuts to the truth about human beings who are poor, underprivileged, and Puerto Rican - the ethnicity of ethics, long before To Kill a Mockingbird made a big deal out of it.

From the beginning he was distinguished as an actors' director. His work, for example, with Sean Connery definitely demonstrated that he was too good to be wasted on James Bond.(1) He proved that Sharon Stone could be a genuine actress when she felt like it in Gloria (1999). And as recently as 2006 he proved that he could make a slab of meat, Vin Diesel, act, in Find Me Guilty. But the films for which Lumet will be remembered are all about crime and punishment: Serpico (1973), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Prince of the City (1981), The Verdict (1982), and Q & A (1990). The first, third, and last of these films form a kind of trilogy on a favorite theme of Lumet's: policing the police. In all three a young, principled cop struggles against his corrupt fellow cops, in Serpico and Prince of the City, and against one powerful, dirty cop in Q & A.

Lumet never, thank goodness, developed a "style" that he imposed on all of his material. For this he doesn't get high marks from the auteurists. But what makes so much of his work truly distinctive is how it always manages to rise above genre. Even his whodunits are paradigms: Murder on the Orient Express (1974) is easily the best film based on Agatha Christie, even if Peter Ustinov was a better Poirot than Albert Finney. Lumet made the most of Paddy Chayefsky's overblown script for Network (1976). And he even managed to make his film of Equus (1977), Peter Shaffer's preposterous love letter to insanity, as good as it could've been.

Of course, the fate of a commercial film director who is as versatile as Lumet is to occasionally find himself marking time with material that is beneath him. And in a career spanning five decades and nearly fifty films, Lumet might well have balked at certain projects. Fail-Safe (1964) was intended to be an intelligent look at the nightmare of nuclear war, but it was completely overshadowed by Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove, released earlier the same year and with which it bears an uncanny resemblance. Luckily, Last of the Mobile Hot Shots (1970) has been forgotten, since it was based on one of Tennessee Williams' terrible late plays. I don't suppose anyone short of Rene Clair in his prime could've redeemed The Wiz (1978) from being moribund.

Besides returning to TV for awhile in 2001, Lumet has directed two more feature films, is in production with another, tentatively titled Getting Out, and, as I write this, has another film "in development". I see from his credits at the Internet Movie Database (2) that Martin Scorsese isn't slowing down either. Scorsese's finally winning an Oscar for Best Director for his overrated The Departed (2006) has perhaps given him some kind of vindication. Lumet was nominated four times, but never won. He was given one of those odious "honorary"Oscars in 2005, which is usually a kiss of death (Robert Altman). But Scorsese had better not plan on retiring any time soon. Lumet obviously won't.

(1) In The Hill (1965), The Anderson Tapes (1971), The Offense (1972), Murder on the Orient Express (1974), Family Business (1989)

Monday, June 22, 2009

Neruda in Burma

[In his memoir, Isla Negra: A Notebook, Pablo Neruda wrote about how he came to be appointed a consular official in Burma, his long sea voyage there, and his first impressions of what he saw - a man of the people confronted by what he called a "hapless human family". Incidentally, this passage from Isla Negra comes just before Neruda's account of his unhappy affair with his "Burmese panther", Josie Bliss, which became the inspiration for his poem "Widower's Tango".]


A literary prize at school, some popularity my new books enjoyed, and my notorious cape had given me a small aura of respectability beyond artistic circles. But in the twenties, cultural life in our countries depended exclusively on Europe, with a few rare and heroic exceptions. A cosmopolitan elite was active in each of our republics, and the writers who belonged to the ruling class lived in Paris. Our great poet Vicente Huidobro not only wrote in French but even changed his name, making it Vincent instead of Vicente.

In fact, as soon as I had the first little bit of youthful fame, people in the street started asking me: "Well, what are you doing here? You must go to Paris."

A friend spoke to the head of a department in the Foreign Ministry on my behalf, and he saw me right away. He knew my poems.

"I also know your aspirations. Sit down in that comfortable armchair. From here you have a good view of the square, of the carnival in the square. Look at those cars. All is vanity. You are a fortunate young poet. Do you see that palace? It belonged to my family once. And here I am now, in this cubbyhole, up to my neck in bureaucracy. When the things of the spirit are all that matter. Do you like Tchaikovsky?"

Giving me a parting handshake, after an hour-long conversation about the arts, he told me not to worry about a thing, he was the head of the consular service. "You may now consider yourself virtually appointed to a post abroad."

For two years I visited, from time to time, the office of the diplomatic department head, who was more obsequious each time. The moment he saw me appear, he would glumly call one of his secretaries and, arching his brows, would say, "I'm not in for anyone. I want to forget everyday prose. The only spiritual thing about this ministry is this poet's visit. I hope he never forsakes us."

I am sure he spoke with sincerity. Right after that, he would talk without respite about thoroughbred dogs. "Anyone who doesn't love dogs doesn't love children." He would go on to the English novel, then jump to anthropology and spiritism, and end up with questions of heraldry and genealogy. When I took leave of him, he would repeat once more, as if it were a terrifying little secret between the two of us, that my post abroad was guaranteed. Although I didn't have enough money to eat, I would leave in the evening breathing like a diplomat. And when my friends asked me what I was up to, I put on important airs and said, "I'm working on my trip to Europe."

This lasted until I ran into my friend Bianchi. The Bianchi family of Chile is a noble clan. Painters and popular musicians, jurists and writers, explorers and climbers of the Andes give all those with the Bianchi name an aura of restlessness and sharp intelligence. Ny friend, who had been an ambassador and knew the ins and outs of the ministries, asked me: "Hasn't your appointment come through yet?"

"I'll get it any moment now, I've been assured of it by a high patron of the arts in the Ministry."
He grinned and said: "Let's go see the Minister."

He took me by the arm and we went up the marble steps. Orderlies and employees scurried out of our way. I was dumbstruck. I was about to see my first Foreign Minister. He was quite short, and to disguise this, he swung himself up and sat on his desk. My friend mentioned how much I wanted to leave Chile. The Minister pressed one of his many buzzers, and to top off my confusion, my spiritual protector suddenly appeared.

"What posts are available in the service?" the Minister asked him.

The elegant functionary, who would not bring up Tchaikovsky now, listed various countries scattered over the world, but I managed to catch only one name, which I had never heard or read before: Rangoon.

"Where do you want to go, Pablo?" the Minister said to me.

"To Rangoon," I answered without hesitating.

"Give him the appointment," the Minister ordered my protector, who hustled out and came back in nothing flat with the official order.

There was a globe in the Minister's office. My friend Bianchi and I looked for the unknown city of Rangoon. The old map had a deep dent in a region of Asia and it was in this depression that we discovered it. "Rangoon. Here's Rangoon."

But when I met my poet friends some hours later and they decided to celebrate my appointment, I had completely forgotten the city's name. Bubbling over with joy, I could only explain that I had been named consul to the fabulous Orient and that the place I was being sent to was in a little hole in the map.


One day in June 1927 we set out for faraway regions. In Buenos Aires we turned in my first-class for two third-class fares and sailed on the Baden. This German ship supposedly had just one class, but that must have been fifth class. There were two sittings for meals: one to serve the Portuguese and Spanish immigrants as fast as possible, and another for the remaining sundry passengers, particularly the Germans, who were returning from the mines and factories of Latin America. Alvaro, my companion, immediately classified the female passengers. He was a very active lady-killer. He divided women into two groups: those who prey on man and those who obey the whip. These distinctions did not always apply. He had a whole bag of tricks for winning the affection of the ladies. Whenever a pair of these interesting passengers appeared on deck, he would quickly grab one of mt hands and pretend to read my palm, with mysterious looks and gestures. The second time around, the strollers would stop and beg him to read their future. He would take their hands at once, stroking them far too much, and the future he read always indicated a visit to our cabin.

But the voyage soon took a different turn for me and I stopped seeing the passengers, who grumbled noisily about the eternal fare of Kartoffeln; I stopped seeing the world and the monotonous Atlantic to feast my eyes only on the enormous dark eyes of a Brazilian, an ever so Brazilian girl, who boarded the ship in Rio de Janeiro with her parents and two brothers.

The carefree Lisbon of those years, with fishermen in the streets and without Salazar on the throne, filled me with wonder. The food at our small hotel was delicious. Huge trays of fruit crowned the table. Houses of various colors; old palaces with arched doorways; cathedrals like monstrous vaults, which God would have abandoned centuries ago to go live elsewhere; gambling casinos in former palaces; the crowds on the avenues with their child-like curiosity; the Duchess of Braganza, out of her mind, walking solemnly down a cobbled street, trailed by a hundred awe-struck street urchins - this was my entry into Europe.

And then Madrid with its crowded cafes; hail-fellow Primo de Rivera teaching the first lesson in tyranny to a country that would later learn all the rest. The first poems of my Residencia en la tierra, which the Spaniards were slow to understand and would only understand later, when the generation of Alberti, Lorca, Aleixandre, and Diego appeared. And for me Spain was also the interminable train and the sorriest third-class coach in the world, taking us to Paris.

We disappeared into Montparnasse's swarming crowds, among Argentinians, Brazilians, Chileans, Venezuelans, still buried away under Gomez's reign, did not yet dream of coming. And, over there, the first Hindus in their full-length robes. And my neighbor at the next table, with her tiny snake coiled around her neck, drinking a cafe creme with melancholy languor. Our South American colony drank cognac and danced the tango, waiting for the slightest chance to start a battle royal and take on half the world.

Paris, France, Europe, for us small-town Bohemians from South America, consisted of a stretch of two hundred meters and a couple of street corners: Montparnasse, La Rotonde, Le Dome, La Coupole, and three or four other cafes. Boites with black singers and musicians were just beginning to become popular. The Argentinians were the most numerous of the South Americans, the first to pick a fight, and the richest. Hell could break loose at any time and an Argentine would be lifted up by four waiters, and would pass, in the air, over the tables, to be summarily deposited right out in the street. Our cousins from Buenos Aires did not care at all for this rough handling that wrinkled their trousers and, worse still, mussed up their hair. In those days, pomade was an essential part of Argentine culture.

Actually, in those first days in Paris, whose hours flitted past, I did not meet a single Frenchman, a single European, a single Asian, much less anyone from Africa or Oceania. Spanish-speaking Americans, from the Mexicans dow to the Patagonians, went about in cliques, picking on one another. A Guatemalan prefers the company of a Paraguayan bum, with whom he can idle the time away exquisitely, to that of a Pasteur.

Around this time I met Cesar Vellejo, the great cholo; a poet whose poetry had a rough surface, as rugged to the touch as a wild animal's skin, but it was magnificent poetry with extraordinary power.

Incidentally, we had a little run-in right after we met. It was in La Rotonde. We were introduced, and in his precise Peruvian accent, he greeted me with: "You are the greatest of all our poets. Only Ruben Dario can compare with you."

"Vallejo," I said, "if you want us to be friends, don't ever say anything like that to me again. I don't know where we'd end up if we started treating each other like writers."


Statues of Buddha everywhere, of Lord Buddha . . . The severe, upright, worm-eaten statues, with a golden patina like an animal's sheen, deteriorating as if the air were wearing them away . . . In their cheeks, in the folds of their tunics, at elbows and navel and mouth and smile, tiny blemishes: fungi, pockmarks, traces of jungle excrement . . . Or the recumbent, the immense, recumbent statues, forty meters of stone, of sand granite, pale, stretched out among the rustling fronds, emerging suddenly from some corner of the jungle, from its surrounding site . . . Asleep or not asleep, they have been there a hundred years, a thousand, one thousand times a thousand years . . . Yet there is something soft about them and they are known for an other-worldly air of indecisions, longing to stay or go away . . . And that very soft stone smile, that imponderable majesty which is nevertheless made of hard, everlasting stone - at whom, at how many, on the bloodstained planet are they smiling . . . ? The fleeing peasant women passed, the men from the fire, the visored warriors, the false high priests, the tourists who devour everything . . . And the statue remained in place, the immense stone with knees, inhuman and also in some way human, in some form or contradiction a statue, god and not god, stone and not stone, under the screeching of black birds, surrounded by the wingbeats of red birds, of the birds of the forest . . . We are reminded of the terrible Spanish Christs we inherited wounds and all, pustules and all, scars and all, with that odor given off by churches, of wax candles, of mustiness, of a closed room . . . Those Christs had second thoughts about being men or gods . . . To make them human beings, to bring them closer to those who suffer, midwives and beheaded men, cripples and avaricious men, the inner circles of churches and those outside the churches, to make them human, the sculptors gave them the most gruesome wounds, and all this ended up as the religion of suffering, as sin and you'll suffer, don't sin and you'll suffer, live and you'll suffer, leaving you no possible way out . . . Not here, here the stone found peace . . . The sculptors rebelled against the canons of pain, and these colossal Buddhas, with the feet of giant gods, have a smile on their stone faces that is beatifically human, without all that pain . . . And they give off an odor, not of a dead room, not of sacristies and cobwebs, but an odor of vegetable space, of sudden gusts of wind swooping down in wild swirls of feathers, leaves, pollen from the infinite forest . . .


In several essays on my poetry I have read that my stay in the Far East influenced it in some ways, especially Residencia en la tierra. As it happens, the poems of Residencia en la tierra are the only ones I wrote at that time, but without going so far as to defend my statement categorically, I say that this business of influence is mistaken.

All the esoteric philosophy of the oriental countries, when confronted with real life, turned out to be a by-product of the anxiety, neurosis, confusion, and opportunism of the West; that is, of the crisis in the guiding principles of capitalism. In the India of those years there was little room for deep contemplation of one's navel. An existence that made brutal physical demands, a colonial position based on the most cold-blooded degradation, thousands dying every day of cholera, smallpox, fever, and hunger, a feudal society thrown into chaos by India's immense population and industrial poverty, stamped such great ferocity on life that all semblance of mysticism disappeared.

The theosophic centers were generally run by adventurers from the West, including North and South Americans. Of course, there were people among them who acted in good faith, but the majority exploited a cheap market where exotic amulets and fetishes wrapped in metaphysical sales talk were sold wholesale. These people were always spouting Dharma and Yoga. They reveled in religious acrobatics, all empty show and high-sounding words.

For these reasons, the Orient struck me as a large hapless human family, leaving no room in my conscience for its rites and gods. I don't believe, then, that my poetry during this period reflected anything but the loneliness of an outsider transplanted to a violent, alien world.

The caste system had the Indian people arranged like an amphitheater of parallelpiped galleries superimposed one above the other, with the gods sitting at the top. The English, in turn, maintained their own caste system, starting with the small shop clerks, going on to professionals and intellectuals, then to exporters, and culminating on the system's garden roof, where the aristocrats of the Civil Service and the bankers of the Empire lounged in comfort.

These two worlds never touched. The natives were not allowed in the places reserved for the English and the English lived away from the throbbing pulse of the country. This situation created problems for me. My British friends saw me in a gharry, a little horse-drawn cab used mainly for ephemeral trysts in transit, and offered me the kindly advice that a consul should never use these vehicles for any purpose. They also suggested that I should not frequent a lively Persian restaurant, where I drank the best tea in the world in little translucent cups. These were final warnings. After that, they stopped greeting me.

This boycott couldn't have pleased me more. Those indolent Europeans were not really interesting, and after all, I had not come to the Orient to spend my life with transient colonizers but with the ancient spirit of that world, with that large hapless human family.

-from Isla Negra: A Notebook, by Pablo Neruda, (Alastair Reid and Enrico Santi, trans.)

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Tropical Depression

For Americans, Hurricane Katrina in 2005 was a national disaster whose reverberations one can still detect in some of the unlikeliest places across the country. The scale of the physical destruction was daunting enough, with shoddy levees failing in New Orleans, putting the Ninth Ward of the city under so much water that the few residents who wouldn't, or couldn't, evacuate had to clamber onto their rooftops to escape it. The natural disaster was accompanied by human blunders, like the plodding response of FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency), which exacerbated the damage and the suffering, and called into question the philosophy of a federal government that refused to accept responsibility when nobody else would.

On the morning of June 20, 2008, the passenger ferry Princess of the Stars sailed out of Manila bound for Cebu on what was expected to be just another routine trip. Such ferries sail back and forth between the Philippine islands carrying passengers who cannot reach Manila by bus. On the ferry there is leisure to walk the decks, take in the scenery of passing islands and islets and the placid tropical sea. Except that on the morning of June 20, Typhoon Frank was bearing down on eastern Samar on a course that would place the Princess of the Stars directly in its path. The ship capsized in relatively shallow waters just off the island of Romblon.

Tropical cyclones (called typhoons rather than hurricanes here in Asia) the size of Katrina are rare, but the effects of much smaller cyclones wreak havoc in the Philippines on such a routine basis that it makes one wonder why governments aren't toppled and radical reforms implemented as a result. That fact that nothing happens is just another sad commentary on the fatalism of the Filipino and his failure to understand what government is supposed to do for him, not to mention the cynicism and indifference of those in power.

I was living in the Philippine central Visayas region a year ago when typhoon Frank struck. The power failed in the entire region at about 10 AM on June 20, and it wasn't restored to my remote barangay until the afternoon of the 29th. I didn't hear about the ferry disaster until I managed to go online and check my email, when I learned how worried my sister was that I may have been one of the passengers aboard the Princess of the Stars.

Some of the worst maritime disasters in history have occurred in the Philippines. If you look at the latest list of the top ten for the last twenty years (1), the Dona Paz disaster heads the list, with 4,375 casualties. The Princess of the Stars would rank 6th on the list, with 694 casualties.(2) Whomever it was who decided that it should sail (the captain, who was one of the casualties, was held liable by the official inquiry), there was clearly no oversight authority to stop her. To have been so utterly oblivious of such an enormous storm, or to have accepted the risk of sailing straight into its maw with 862 people aboard shows, if nothing else, a total disregard for the rules of seafaring. Of course, it emerged upon inspection that the wreck was carrying an undisclosed cargo: ten metric tons of the pesticide endosulfan. It suggested a possible reason for the ship's sailing in such haste.

For a race of islanders, Filipinos have a strange, suspicious and mistrustful relationship with the sea. Only a minority, apparently, can swim. There are frequent "accidental" downings reported in the news, such as when poor children scale the walls around a private pool and are discovered floating face down the next morning. Growing up so close to an ocean as warm as bathwater would've been a dream for me as a boy, but I never see Filipino children swimming, except when they are involved in some capacity with fishing. Watching children play where I live, within a few hundred yards of the Pacific Ocean, they might just as well be in Kansas.

How I managed to maintain my sanity during those nine days without power and no contact with the world beyond my occluded horizon would, now that a year has passed, require an act of imagination. I spent the daylight hours reading and writing, and the dark nights defending my house against invading vermin while here was no light to scare them away. The darkness also emboldened some of my more desperate neighbors to try and get their hands on the stacks of cash that they were all told we foreigners have lying around the house. And there were nights when, my doors barricaded with furniture, I slept uneasily. Then there was the night, with a piece of my bathroom (called a CR or "comfort room" here) roof missing - the piece right over the toilet - and rain coming down, when I had to open an umbrella to stay dry while I did my business.

But I will never forget the elation I felt when I saw the light bulb over my sala first flicker with life and then shine brightly at about 4:30 PM on the ninth day. It was like emerging from a long escape tunnel beyond the wire, with the unmistakable smell of freedom in the air. But then the first thing the neighbors decided to do was crank up their karaoke microphones and engage in the socialized screaming that has become such a ubiquitous tradition here. I wonder, if they had the chance, how many of the lost on the Princess of the Stars would be doing the same?

(1) See̢۪s-10-worst-maritime-disasters-in-the-last-20-years/
(2) The official numbers are : 751 passengers, 111 crew, with 57 survivors.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

A Brief Vacation

I have seen one of the films Jacques Tati appeared in prior to Jour de Fete (1949), which launched, if that is the word, his career as a filmmaker. It was Autant-Lara's charming romance, Sylvie et le fantome (1946). Tati played a romantic ghost, which prevented him from having to speak but which also made it necessary to use double-exposure in all his scenes, which made his performance somewhat insubstantial. But it showed me that Tati had been a character player, as did Jour de Fete, in which he played a village postman.

In 1953, a the ripe age of 46, he introduced the character he would play in three more feature films, known only by his last name, Hulot. Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot (Mr Hulot's Holiday) is, by most estimates (which have never been that enthusiastic), his best film. I have read just one brief review of the film, in Georges Sadoul's Dictionary of Films. It wasn't a rave by any means, but, strangely, Tati would get a great deal more critical attention as his films grew worse, through 1958's Mon Oncle, 1967's Play Time, and 1971's Trafic. In all those films, emboldened to be philosophical, Tati tried to satirize life in the modern world. He was much better just looking at people and finding some of the absurd things they do funny, as in Mr. Hulot's Holiday.

People act silly when they travel and are in unfamiliar surroundings. It exaggerates their idiosyncrasies, and Tati observes these well. But as a film comedy that some people have compared to the best of Chaplin, Mr. Hulot's Holiday has long stretches that can only be called dull. As a filmmaker, Tati's framing and directing are good, but his pacing is bad. When Hulot in onscreen, things are much more interesting, because Tati was a gifted clown. For instance, thee is an earlier scene in the hotel dining room in which Tati is on the right of the frame and does practically nothing, while the maitre d' and the waiter go in and out of a swinging door. We are supposed to be watching them, but it is impossible to take one's eyes off Tati. This is as clear as any an example of Tati's miscalculation. I'd have watched ninety minutes of Tati just sitting there in character, rather than than have to bother about all those, to me extraneous details. (Try and imagine a ninety-minute film of buster Keaton sitting at a table.) Tati fancied he was such a brilliant observer of human nature (he wasn't) that he deprived us of himself.

Also, the film doesn't hold up well on subsequent viewings. Maybe I've seen it too many times, but I have seen Chaplin's The Gold Rush (1925) probably a dozen times over the years, and I look forward to seeing it again. The same goes for Keaton's The General (1926). There isn't a thing I don't know about either film, so I cannot say that they give me something new each time I see them. So why do I bother watching them so many times? I do it to renew my sense of what a film comedy should be, and to relive, however imperfectly, some of the wonder I felt on seeing them for the first time.

I get nothing like the same feeling with Mr. Hulot's Holiday, and I don't believe I'm being unfair to Tati by comparing him to Chaplin and Keaton. I'm only making the comparison because everyone else does, for reasons I can never understand. I know how much the auteur critics love him, and why - without, of course, agreeing with anything they say. Tati was an excellent clown, but he was simply not a very good filmmaker. Overlooking his very real talent by praising his imaginary genius is the real reason why Tati hasn't worn well in fifty years.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009


“Silence, rooster. In the name of the Idea of your Genus, nature commands that you be quiet!”
-St. Augustine, Socrates' Rooster

In an interview with Dick Cavett in the 1970s, Len Deighton, historian and author of the Harry Palmer series of spy stories,* was asked why he refused to own a telephone. He explained that he would rather not have a bell in his house that anyone with spare change could ring.** In the Philippines, they need neither bells nor coins to pervade the country with what is easily the most common, and commonly annoying, noise that can be heard from just before dawn until dusk - and now and then in the middle of the night - in every city and province, every poor barangay and even some of the most exclusive subdivisions. Thanks to the Philippine national sport, the noise is made by the tandang, the male manok in Tagalog, or the common rooster. This concerted but cacophonous daily routine, like John Cage at his worst (or worse, his best), is an assault on unaccustomed ears. Amazingly, however, Filipinos don't even seem to notice it. Inured to the noise by a lifetime of exposure, it is no more noticeable to them than the sound of waves to a fisherman or hammers to a carpenter.

One of the simplest but most direct examples of this forbearance is the sheer number of roosters that Filipino men seem to spend half their time feeding, grooming, and pampering. While hens and their chicks range freely throughout the rural barangays, the cocks are tethered and cooped - separately of course. They are objects of pride to their owners, and in my barangay just about every household owns at least one. They attract mates by crowing. And as anyone who has ever lived on a farm can tell you, they don't just crow at dawn.

From my own observation, a well-developed cock can crow every ten to fifteen seconds, and it will go on crowing as long as any other rooster within earshot crows back. At dusk, like most other birds, they sleep. But their sleep is often interrupted by the false dawn of an electric light, and, like the old saying, "when one dog barks at a shadow, five more make it into a reality," one cock will crow at a spark of light and five more turn it into the dawn. (Chickens, you may have guessed by now, are rather stupid animals.)

On Saturdays and Sundays, the Bulang takes place at a koral (that's right, from the Spanish "corral") or alad, where the care and attention the birds have enjoyed all their short lives pays off. The matches themselves are typical of all such contests, with competitors paired off by their owners, who ante up a winning pot. And there is a great deal of side-betting among the spectators. All that's left is for the cocks to fulfill their function and eviscerate one another. But there will always be plenty more from whence they came. As much as I am against such barbarity in principle, the thought of all those beaks being shut forever one after another - Death in the Afternoon Filipino style - gives me unspeakable pleasure.

*Of course, he was called just Palmer in the stories. He got the name Harry only when Michael Caine played him in the movies.
**Today, of course, people put that bell into their pockets without a thought.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Romance of Exile

[While gathering material for one of my posts-in-progress, I dug up an essay by one of my favorite travel writers, Ian Buruma, first published in 2001. As I have learned, exile is something that many intellectuals do as a matter of course - the act of alienating ourselves from the world is a necessary function of the intellect. Separating ourselves from others is, in fact, what learning does. It is the ultimate exile, presuming above our stations, making ourselves more than what others are satisfied to remain. But there is always a pull in the opposite direction. The lure that left-wing politics has for too many intellectuals is one of rediscovering the importance of belonging - to a family, to a tribe, to a race. I realized in my military service that I was replaceable, that the notion of service "above and beyond the call of duty" was nonsense because it destroyed the very uniformity that the military breaks men's backs (and hearts) to achieve every day. Some people found such a faceless, nameless life eminently inviting. There must have been something to it for me, since I endured more than ten years of it. Somewhere (I can no longer find the source), the Irish writer Sean O'Faolain wrote that "the heart is always exiling itself". Then there was Kipling, who wrote (glibly as usual): "Breathes there a man with soul so dead/Who to himself hath never said/This is my own, my native land?" Kipling's "native land" was India.]

The Romance of Exile

by Ian Buruma


Exile is in fashion. Once it was consumption--pale, sunken cheeks, spatters of blood on a white linen handkerchief, and so on--that suggested an artistic sensibility and a poetic soul. Now it is exile that evokes the sensitive intellectual, the critical spirit operating alone on the margins of society, a traveler, rootless and yet at home in every metropolis, a tireless wanderer from academic conference to academic conference, a thinker in several languages, an eloquent advocate for ethnic and sexual minorities--in short, a romantic outsider living on the edge of the bourgeois world. This may sound frivolous. For exile is surely no fun. There is nothing glamorous about the poor, shivering Tamil, sleeping on a cold plastic bench at the Frankfurt railway station; or the Iraqi, fleeing from Saddam's butchers, afraid of walking the streets of Dover, lest he be attacked by British skinheads; or the young woman from Eritrea, standing along a minor road to Milan, picking up truck drivers so that she can feed her baby. These are not fashionable figures, they are genuine outcasts; and they have nothing in common with the multicultural intellectuals whom we honor as the poets of postcolonial discourse.

I have in front of me an interesting little book called Letters of Transit: Reflections on Exile, Identity, Language and Loss. It is a collection of lectures given at the New York Public Library by five well-known writers "in exile." Edward Said is introduced as a Palestinian in exile, Eva Hoffman as a Pole in exile, Bharati Mukherjee as a Bengali in exile, Charles Simic as a Yugoslav in exile, and Andre Aciman, the editor of the book, as an exile from Alexandria. The lectures are, on the whole, unexceptionable. The curious thing is that, of the five witnesses to exile, only two were forced to leave their country of origin: Aciman, whose family was kicked out of Egypt, and Simic, whose parents could not live under communism. Said, who grew up in Cairo, was sent to a private boarding school in the United States, not as a consequence of any force majeure, but because his father, an American citizen, believed that an American education offered better prospects for a bright young man. He was quite right, of course; and Said repaid his father's confidence by having a very successful American career. Bharati Mukherjee, born into a wealthy Calcutta family, married a Canadian writer, moved to North America, and has no desire to return to India, except, as she puts it, for "relaxed vacations."

Why, then, this invocation of "exile"? Why the conscious identification with banishment, with the outcasts of the world? In her measured contribution, Eva Hoffman comes up with a plausible explanation. Exile, in her view, "involves dislocation, disorientation, self-division. But today, at least within the framework of postmodern theory, we have come to value exactly those qualities of experience that exile demands--uncertainty, displacement, the fragmented identity. Within this conceptual framework, exile becomes, well, sexy, glamorous, interesting." In literary and academic circles, then, exile has acquired a theoretical quality, something far removed from those cold plastic benches at Frankfurt station, the skinheads of Dover, or the truck drivers stopping for quick relief along the b-routes to Milan.

What we have here, in other words, is exile as metaphor, to use Said's phrase: exile as the typical condition of the modern intellectual--indeed, as the only condition that should command our respect. This is not an original thesis. Said's hero, the German philosopher Theodor Adorno, who was for a time a real exile, claimed that a sense of alienation, of not feeling at home even in your own home, was the only correct moral attitude for an intellectual to adopt. Adorno was in this respect heir to a German romantic tradition, according to which intellectuals form a secular clerisy guarding the moral and intellectual health of the nation. (Gunter Grass is an example of a modern writer who still takes this line.)

Exile as metaphor is not a new idea, either. In the Jewish tradition, for example, a symbolic meaning has been attached to exile for a very long time. The last words of the Passover seder, "Next year in Jerusalem," express a pious wish that is, for most of those who voice it, an abstraction. For Orthodox Jews, it is only time to return to Jerusalem once the Messiah has come and the temple has been restored to its former glory. Jerusalem, in this sense, is less a real place than a religious vision. It would indeed be a form of blasphemy, for most of the Orthodox tradition, to turn the vision into a political reality. Thus the idea of doing just that--of returning the Jews to their ancient land and making Israel again into the homeland of the Jews--had to be a secular enterprise, started by non-Orthodox, often socialist Jews. Theodor Herzl was a Viennese intellectual who had no time for religious metaphors. He had purely practical reasons for liberating Jews from exile: millions lived under the constant threat of poverty and violence.

The Israeli writer A.B. Yehoshua calls Jewish exile, the golah, a "neurotic condition." It is neurotic to express a longing for something without actually wishing to attain it. In Yehoshua's view, the longing to return to Jerusalem is no more than a neurotic form of nostalgia--a not uncommon condition, by the way, among certain literary exiles, too. But Yehoshua goes further, and touches on the contemporary romance of exile: he thinks that Jews are victims of their own delusion of having been chosen by God. For the idea of Jewish exceptionalism is hard to maintain at home, in a largely Jewish nation, with its own government, army, political parties, showbiz celebrities, scandals, gangsters, movie stars, and the rest. The self-flattering as well as fatal notion of being chosen, of being different from the others, is easier to maintain in exile, where one's special status can be confirmed almost daily by instances, imagined or real, of discrimination. The Holocaust came as the final proof that this was not a sensible recipe for a quiet life. Yehoshua is a Zionist, in the secular tradition of Herzl, because he wants Jews to live as a normal people, neither exiled nor persecuted nor privileged by God.

The choice to live in a metaphorical exile is in fact already a form of privilege, something only people who face no real danger can afford. Herzl, who felt at ease with the higher goyim of Europe, understood this perfectly well. The return to the holy land was not to help himself, but to help other Jews who were not in a position to enjoy their special status as the chosen ones. But Herzl, so far as I know, had the honesty never to use the word "exile" to describe his own condition.


Exile as a metaphor did not begin with the Jewish diaspora. The first story of exile in our tradition is the story of Adam and Eve. No matter how we interpret the story of their expulsion from the Garden of Eden--original sin or not--we may be certain of one thing: there is no way back to paradise. After that fatal bite of the apple, the return to pure innocence was cut off forever. The exile of Adam and Eve is the mark of maturity, the consequence of growing up. An adult can only recall the state of childlike innocence in his imagination; and from this kind of exile a great deal of literature has emerged. The sign of this literature is the melancholy knowledge that we can never return to Eden, however much we stuff ourselves with our particular madeleines.

The landscape of Eden, shown in countless paintings and prints, is a luxuriant, watery place crawling with life, like a tropical jungle, filled with lakes and green forests, insects, birds, and other animals. Places of exile in literature, from the Bible to Ovid's Tristia and the Chinese poets, are empty, barren, lifeless, hot and dry, or swept by icy winds: exile as a kind of death. Banished by his emperor to a backwater on the Black Sea, Ovid writes about his "lonely exile, stretching out in time as bleak as the terrain itself, as vast, as empty..." And Tomis, his place of exile, is described as "that huddle of mean hovels in the chill wind that blows off the dark Euxine..." The Roman hedonist, banished for writing his erotic poems (this, at any rate, was the official explanation), dies "of thirst for the liquid flow of good talk and laughter." Liquidity is clearly important (and a common symbol of matriarchy).

There is a rich literature of empire written by people, often English or Dutch, who were born in tropical colonies and later sent to homelands that they had never seen. Their earliest memories evoke a tropical landscape, full of lakes, rivers, and lush gardens, where they roam as nature's children, nurtured by local nannies. To be banished from this paradise and sent to school "back home" was a great shock, but there is no way back to the tropical Eden of a colonial childhood. For that place no longer exists, metaphorically or in actual fact. The colonies must indeed have been like paradise for many northern European children. Innocence was given an Arcadian landscape and climate. Malay, or Urdu, spoken by the local nannies, was the language of childhood purity. The landscape of the adult world of good and evil, by contrast, was northern, cold and bleak; and English or Dutch were the harsh languages of fathers and tyrannical boarding schools.

This is a caricature, to be sure. And it is one that leaves out all the dark aspects of colonialism. But it is a caricature that, through peculiar historical circumstances, gives shape to something that all of us can feel, even if we never left home. The transition from childhood innocence, and the security of the maternal embrace, to the hard world of maturity, can indeed seem like a form of exile for most of us. In his memoir Out of Time, Edward Said describes his arrival from Cairo in 1951, to go to school in America. The worst wrench was to leave his mother, who never ceased to remind her son how "unnatural" it was to be living apart. He can still feel the loss today, "the sense that I'd rather be somewhere else--defined as closer to her, authorized by her, enveloped in her special maternal love, infinitely forgiving, sacrificing, giving---because being here was not being where I/we had wanted to be, here being defined as a place of exile..."

We all know the feeling, the Wordsworthian feeling, even though we may not express it quite so tearfully. Ovid certainly felt it, but he recognized also the need to overcome it: "There's no end to the business of learning how not to be a child, tired, hungry, cold, and calling for his mama. Not to call ... that is the beginning of courage." Exile from Eden is simply a part of life. In this sense, it is common to all of us, and so it cannot be adequately described as an experience of victimization. Some exiles from the bliss of childhood never look back; some never get over it, and look for the maternal embrace in the beds of many women; some turn it into art. This explains the universal fascination with exile in literature. The voice of Ovid, Li Po, and Joseph Roth appeal to us not least because their banishments, which were not imaginary, also contained a deeper, metaphorical meaning.


There are different circumstances in which the childhood Edens cease to exist. A society, a culture, even a people can disappear. Czeslaw Milosz, born as a Pole in Lithuania, has described what it is like to look back now, as an American in California, to his youth in Vilna. He still writes in Polish about people and ways of life that are no longer there. All things change everywhere, of course; but some places are more stable than others. In the case of Milosz, and also of Isaac Bashevis Singer, the worlds that they describe exist only in their books.

The same was true for Joseph Roth, one of my favorite writers. He lived in exile twice over, for he grew up in the Austro-Hungarian empire of Franz-Joseph, which ceased to exist in 1918, and died as an exile in Paris in 1939, one year after Austria was swallowed up by Hitler's Third Reich. His most gripping novels, The Radetzky March (1932) and its sequel The Emperor's Tomb (1938), are together a requiem for the Hapsburg empire, which wrapped the minorities in its royal embrace. Both novels trace the fortunes of the Trotta family, whose original home was in the border regions, where Roth himself was born. At the Battle of Solferino in 1859, grandfather Trotta saved his emperor's life by shielding him from a bullet. He received a fine title for his heroism. But after that things begin to slide for the Trottas, and for the empire too. Carl Joseph, the grandson of the hero of Solferino, dies amidst the general slaughter of World War I. The emperor dies in that same year, and two years later so does the empire.

Roth, who spent much of the 1930s in exile, working and drinking in cafes and hotels, wrote that his "strongest experience was the war and the fall of my fatherland, the only one I ever had: the Austro-Hungarian monarchy." He was banished from an empire that continued to exist only in his imagination. But there is another form of banishment, which snuffs out the possibility of return to the old country, but not because the place of origin has ceased to exist. Perhaps this is the hardest kind to bear. After a life in exile, it is often too late to go back. Too much has happened while you were away. You have become a stranger. The country that you remember is no longer the country that you left.

This feeling of loss, the sense that it is too late, that you have lost your place, was beautifully expressed more than two thousand years ago by Chinese poets. One example should be enough to show that emotions of this kind have no borders. It was written by Li Ling, who lived in exile in the bleak desert north of the Great Wall. His only Chinese companion in the land of the Huns was a friend samed Su Wu. After nineteen years, Su was told he could return to the hearth of Chinese civilization. Li Ling decided not to go with him. Instead he began to dance in the wilderness and to sing a song:

I came ten thousand leagues
Across sandy deserts
In the service of my Prince
To break the Hun tribes.
My way was blocked and barred,
My arrows and sword broken.
My armies had faded away,
My reputation had gone.
My old mother is long dead. Although I
want to requite my Prince
How can I return?

Ulysses, one of the most remarkable exiles in Western literature, was not really banished, in the sense that he was driven from his home; but his return from Troy was blocked for ten years, and so he was an exile after all. Ulysses pined for Ithaca, the land of his ancestors, where his house was, and his family, and his wife Penelope. He was lord of Ithaca: that was his place in the order of things. A man who has lost his house, his wife, or his position is not a proper man, but a beggar, a vagabond, half dead in the land of the living. A vagabond is sterile; he does not produce a family; he leaves nothing behind; his life has no meaning. Only at home, with a solid reputation, can a man lead an honorable life. The Odyssey is the story of a man who must regain his position in the order of things. Some gods, especially Athena, are of help to him; others, notably Poseidon, the god of the oceans, try to hinder him in his task.

Like those Teutonic knights in search of some holy grail or other, Ulysses is tested before he can return to his family. It is as though time is arrested during his trials, as if the natural life cycle of the hero is frozen. In the land of Circe, where Ulysses sleeps with the dangerous and seductive goddess, and his men spend their time feasting, it is hard to measure time in days and nights. It feels like a timeless existence, and like a baby in the mother's womb, the hero is in the power of his woman--a power that he has to overcome in order to live.

Yet the Odyssey is not only about the trials of Ulysses. Equally important is the story of Penelope, who has to protect the status quo in Ithaca, and fend off the advances of her husband's rivals. Without her fidelity, the hero's attempts to regain his honor and position would come to nothing. Homer, in other words, was as sensitive as the ancient Chinese poet to the problems of living abroad for too long. Things change in your absence. How do you find your way back? How do you find yourself again?

When Ulysses finally wakes up on the beach of his native Ithaca, he does not recognize where he is at first. "Man of misery, whose land have I lit on now? What are they here--violent, savage, lawless? Or friendly to strangers, god-fearing men?" Nor can the hero simply turn up at his old house. He must disguise himself as a beggar. Now it is the turn of others to be tested, to show whether they will still serve him loyally. The shrewd Ulysses always was a bit of a practical joker. There is something sinister about the trickster, who manipulates the fate of others for the godlike pleasure of watching their helplessness. The joker is omniscient, his victims are blind, like those hapless people in candid-camera programs. What the gods did to him, Ulysses now does to his old servants, to his wife, and, of course, to his rivals.

It is impossible to know precisely what Homer meant to convey in his epic story; but he was certainly dealing with the tension between human autonomy and fate. A grown person has to feel responsible for his or her life. This is to assume that we have some degree of control over life. But the Odyssey shows that man is also a plaything of the gods--and this has something to do with exile, too. Anyone who has wandered alone in foreign countries, often without knowing the local language or customs, knows how helpless--indeed, how childlike--this can can make you feel. Your fate really does appear to be in the hands of others, government officials, hotel managers, policemen, or even (who knows) the gods. And if a privileged European such as myself can feel this way, how about that poor Tamil sleeping rough at the Frankfurt railway station? Only after his return to Ithaca can Ulysses wake up as a grown man who knows his way around.


There are many ways to interpret the Odyssey. Dante, himself an exile from Florence, believed that the hero never really wanted to remain at home. Dante's Ulysses was a kind of eternal student who loathed the idea of domesticity, with a wife and children and a nice little dog. Who needed that kind of responsibility? It was all too boring. First he would "win experience of the world"--hitchhike to India, as it were--and have many women and, above all, gather knowledge. Just as Eve could not resist that bite of the apple in Eden, Dante's hero thirsts for knowledge, with the risk of getting burnt, like Icarus. Ulysses returns to Ithaca, just as he does in Homer's tale, but then he takes off again, and ends up entering the infernal gates.

Dante lived in the late Middle Ages, but he was touched already by the spirit of Renaissance curiosity. He admired the hero's wish for knowledge: it cannot be a coincidence that Ulysses's patroness was the goddess of knowledge and wisdom. Yet Dante's Ulysses dies as a result of his quest. Bernard Knox denies that Homer had anything like this in mind; but that does not make Dante's reading of the hero-exile any less interesting. His Ulysses is really the harbinger of the intellectual as a romantic exile. Banishment is his fate by choice. He was almost a man of our time.

And this tradition leads straight to Heinrich Heine, who was already a man of our time. A romantic, a poet, a revolutionary, and an intellectual outsider, Heine felt deep nostalgia for his native land, but he preferred to live in Paris. Germany, he said, kept him awake at night. Heine was an outsider as a Jew in Germany. He found it impossible to get an official position, even after he converted--without any conviction--to the Christian faith. He felt like an outsider, too, because he was a free-thinker who could not stand the stuffy authoritarianism of the German states. Heine loved Germany, but at a distance. He would have liked to have died in Germany, but politics and illness prevented his return, and so (like Marlene Dietrich, another ambivalent wanderer from German lands) he died in Paris, which might have been just as well.

Heine was in many ways a typical example of the modern literary exile. The borderline between banishment and emigration was fuzzy. He was, more precisely, an expatriate, someone who has chosen to live his life away from his native country. Expatriates rarely get involved in the politics of their homelands. Their aim is more to find a place among strangers where they are free to do and think as they please. Many expatriates are writers or artists, and often homosexuals, too.
Heine was involved in politics, but not specifically the politics of his homeland. His politics were more a kind of heroic idealism. He was less a democrat than a man who thirsted for action, against the clerisy and the aristocracy. Freedom was a kind of religion for him; Saint-Simon was his hero for a while. He wrote that "freedom is a new religion ... the religion of our times.... It is the French, however, who are the Chosen People of the new religion, the first gospels and dogmas were recorded in their language."

During the last 200 years, often in the name of socialism or communism, freedom was the typical religion of outsiders in exile. For obvious reasons, Jews found it a particularly attractive creed. The idea of the French as the chosen ones, as though they were the descendants of the Jews, was typical of Heine's brand of Francophilia. But Heine rarely wrote anything without irony. However much he felt the pull of revolutionary action, he was too much of a skeptic to get totally carried away by political passions. Heine remained an outsider, even in revolutionary circles, whose gaze was never uncritical. The German revolt against the monarchy in 1848 left him on the sidelines, following events from a distance, without committing himself one way or the other.

But there is something else that marks Heine as a man of our time: the location of his estrangement. The typical place of exile has shifted, from the desert and the cold, windswept plains beyond the borders of civilization, to the metropolitan centers of the West: London, Paris, Berlin, New York. And political action, plotted in cafes and public libraries, would play an increasingly important role in the life of exiles. Exile from Rome, in the age of Augustus, or from Florence, in Dante's time, meant the loss of liberty, the civil rights of a metropolitan citizen. The modern exiles in our great cities, however poor or lonely, almost invariably enjoy more freedom than the citizens of the countries that they left behind. Marx could rant as much as he wanted against the British philistines, who were too stupid to revolt, despite the sage's predictions; but he stayed in London because he was at liberty to design his proletarian utopia.

London was a center of European revolutionary activities after the disasters of 1848, just as London is a center today for Arab or African politics, or New York for the Chinese diaspora. It is not an easy life, in this twilight world of emigre journals, shabby apartments, and personal feuds, fed endlessly by old animosities and political frustrations. Time, in this kind of exile, often appears to have frozen. People live only for the future, and once it finally dawns on them that the desired future will never come, they live only in the past. I have seen many examples: Chinese intellectuals, who once advised government leaders in Beijing, subsisting in rented rooms in Queens, in a mess of old newspapers and magazines which almost nobody reads. Since exile was supposed to be temporary, these fallen men never bothered to learn English or read an American paper. Before they know it, it is too late to return; they are stranded, their place gone, their way back cut off forever. They might as well be dead.

It does not have to be this way. Sometimes an exile will go home as a revolutionary hero. But the point is that exile has become a phenomenon of the free, big city-- like alienation, existentialism, postmodernism, and multiculturalism. The outsider--romantic, sexual, ethnic, whatever--is described and often celebrated in our metropoles, and the key word is often "exile". Christopher Isherwood's English novels came from the homosexual world of Berlin in the 1930s. Joyce wrote about Dublin in Trieste and Paris. Burroughs brooded on his American sexual delirium in a hotel room in Tangiers. Salman Rushdie wrote in London about his fantasies of Bombay. What started with Heine became almost mainstream in the twentieth century.

Again, I do not wish to appear frivolous. Writers and other exiles did not always move abroad for fun. Joyce chose to live abroad, so he was in fact an expatriate. But Roth, Feuchtwanger, Zweig, Schoenberg, Weill, and many others had to flee for their lives. Still, long before the 1930s, the difference between self-imposed exile and banishment had become vague, or ceased to exist altogether. By the end of the nineteenth century, exile had became an attitude, a literary and intellectual way of observing the world. Baudelaire saw the writer as a detached flaneur, a mocking dandy in the big-city crowd, alienated, isolated, anonymous, aristocratic, melancholic. For Joyce--and not just for him--isolation and detachment were necessary conditions for writing literature. "Silence, exile and cunning" was his prescription, or at least that of Stephen Dedalus, his literary alter ego.

A writer has to operate alone, as a stranger among strangers. Joseph Brodsky, whose departure from the Soviet Union was hardly voluntary, wrote that being a writer in exile "is like being a dog or a man hurtled into outer space in a capsule (more like a dog, of course, than a man, because they will never retrieve you). And your capsule is your language." Like Joyce, he believed that exile was good for a writer; you were alone with your language. Exile provided distance, the same distance that Heine needed in order to think about Germany in the night. Exile, in this sense, is not so much metaphorical as metaphysical; it gives meaning to a way of life.

Many were forced into exile before and after World War II. But the middle decades of the last century also saw exile and the outsider, or the outlaw, emerge as the main subjects of European literature. Camus wrote about little else. (His Eden was in North Africa.) But you did not actually have to leave home to be able to identify with l'etranger. Everyone is, in a sense, a stranger. The 1930s were also a golden age for English travel literature, written by romantic wanderers who chose to flee from the grimy industrial cities of modern England, often heading for places of older banishments, where contemporary Europeans were real strangers: hot deserts, uninhabited plains, exotic islands, many miles away from Western civilization. (And speaking of Brodsky's space capsule, it is remarkable how often the figure of the pilot, floating high above the world, blissfully alone in his cockpit, appears in poetry and fiction between the world wars; this was the time of Saint-Exupery, and of Auden's poems about the pilot. And as a variation on the pilot theme we have the secret agent, moving anonymously among the city crowds, like a Baudelarian flaneur.)

It is quite possible to see the detachment and the weightlessness extolled by Joyce and others as qualities shared by Ulysses (in Dante's version of him, of course). The adventurer, the eternal student, even the criminal, would rather do anything than settle down. Detachment as an ideal held a particular attraction for homosexuals, but also for straight Don Juans. Genet was an extreme example: gay, criminal, without a permanent home. Isherwood, in Berlin and Los Angeles, was a less extreme case. And leaving aside the quality of their prose, about which we might differ, we should consider also Henry Miller, an American in Paris, and Lawrence Durrell, an Englishman in Egypt.


And yet detachment, like everything, has its limits. Joyce might have seen distance and isolation as necessary conditions for writing his masterpieces, but the loneliness of the modern etranger, and the absurdity of a weightless, unbounded existence, made others thirst for engagement, a kind of solidarity--if not with a particular nation or people, then with humanity in general, or at least with that part of humanity living in what came to be called the Third World. This is how a fashion for Maoism, the most extreme revolt against individualism, could follow from a fashion for alienation.

But extreme nationalism has also cast its spells. A number of Japanese artists and writers moved to Europe at the beginning of the last century, to find a refuge from the narrow provincialism of Japan. There they were, living in exile, as it were, mostly in Paris, gathering knowledge, searching for love, painting pictures, writing poems, and seeking the key to their innermost souls in the anonymity of a foreign crowd. And it was precisely these same people who often returned home in the 1930s, with a sigh of relief, to bask in the motherly embrace of the Japanese nation, which was being whipped just then into a mood of xenophobic hysteria. Scorched by their lonely travels, some became the fiercest war propagandists once they got home.

My intention, in citing these examples, is not to plead against the spirit of adventure, promiscuity, curiosity, or freedom abroad. On the contrary. I am no stranger to wanderlust myself. What I am trying to get at, rather, is the tension between political engagement and intellectual independence. Said has written about this, without quite resolving the problem. He has made great claims, for independence as well as engagement. His argument is that an intellectual should always stand up for the poor, the weak, and the disadvantaged. The free thinker should resist the dominant powers, which means, in his case, Israel and the United States. But, while going about his acts of resistance, he should also guard his independence. The question is whether this is always possible. Can you be a spokesman for a political movement--as Said was for many years a spokesman for the PLO--and remain independent? I am not so sure.
One solution to this dilemma is to plump for an offshore kind of engagement--a detached involvement, so to speak. The intellectual abroad, a Sikh in Toronto, say, or a Palestinian in New York, or a Jew in Washington, calls for action, sometimes violent action, to be carried out thousands of miles from his home, the consequences of which he will not have to bear. Engagement of this kind can easily become a politics without responsibility. This type of politics, like modern literary exile, might be metaphorical for the "exile" in New York, Paris, or Toronto, but not for those living in India, Jerusalem, or Gaza. Said called his stone-throwing stunt on the Lebanese border a "symbolic gesture," a metaphorical throw of a metaphorical stone. But stones in the Middle East are seldom metaphorical. They hurt; they result in greater violence. People die when they are cast.

Political engagement can be essential. But too often it results from intellectual frustration. Intellectuals do not have much power outside the universities, nor much influence in modern democracies. This is because Western intellectuals, since the Enlightenment, have managed to gain their independence. They have fought themselves free. Unlike in China, where the notion of the independent intellectual barely exists, Western intellectuals represent nothing but their own ideas. They are not, or they should not be, a band of scribes who guard the dogmas that justify the powers that be. Instead they are obliged to take their ideas to the marketplace, and that is the way it should be. For intellectual independence is quickly sacrificed once ideas are made to serve a political organization, or a government. (Even this might be essential, on occasion; but one should be clear about the sacrifice involved.)

Many intellectuals would like to represent more than themselves. The Republic of Letters is puffed up with political ambition. The great revolutionary ideals, which intellectuals once served as secular priests, are out of fashion for the moment; but the multicultural society in which we live, if we live in the great cities of the Western world, offers new opportunities for intellectuals to play a public role. Especially in the United States, the identity politics of minorities have become increasingly significant, and the identities to be promoted are often based, partly owing to a lack of historical or cultural knowledge, on a sentimental sense of collective victimhood.
In such a setting, the shrewd thing for a politically ambitious intellectual to do is to act as the spokesman for such feelings. By identifying himself with the plight of more or less discriminated against minorities or other forms of collective suffering, the lonely intellectual manages not only to escape from his isolation, he also becomes a symbol of that suffering himself, and so obtains all the perquisites and privileges that go with it. In this way, the ideas of these self-appointed spokesmen become sacrosanct; and challenges to them are quickly seen as bigoted attacks on the minorities themselves.

My point is certainly not that intellectuals should not stand up for society's victims. They can and they should. But they must not do this by pretending to be victims themselves. For that is a false identification. To don the bloody mantle of real victims is not just in bad taste, it also trivializes actual suffering. It transforms victimhood into a fashion accessory. The soi-disant exile status might attach a certain glamour to the writer in London or New York, but it does nothing for the poor Tamil trying to get some sleep in Frankfurt station.

The cult of victimhood, marginality, and exile has also had a paralyzing influence on the academy, where literature, anthropology, and even history are difficult to discuss anymore without being cuffed in the fetters of postcolonial discourse. The notion of exile, especially from the Third World, has given post-colonial intellectuals the sacred task of attacking the "cultural imperialism" of the Western metropole. Imperialism is the Great Satan, and intellectuals compete to become the new priests of the post-colonial dogma. One of the main dogmas is that "hybrid," "marginal," and "post-colonial" writing should undermine the imperialist, even racist propaganda of the European literary canon.

There is something to be said for this. Any culture or tradition is bound to be rejuvenated by outside influences. And the idea that the Western canon should be surrounded by some culturally impregnable moat is silly. Yet this so-called marginality is often a form of intellectual self-celebration, for the new influences rarely penetrate from anywhere outside the Western world. Glamorous exile, the "hybridity" of literary style, the attack on cultural imperialism of the metropole are in fact products of that same metropole, and have become part of a dogma which is exported to the rest of the world. Bookstores in Beijing or Bombay are full of books that evangelize the postcolonial, multi-cultural, anti-imperialist gospel; and the authors of these gospels live in New York, London, or Cambridge. They live in a closed world of theory, in metaphorical exile, far from the problems of real victims, of people who are forced to live in real exile. Worse than that, multi-cultural theory has led to ethnic and sexual divisions of labor in intellectual life: more and more, women write about women, gays about gays, blacks about blacks, and so on. This is not hybridity or marginality in a positive sense. It is merely a new form of discrimination.

One way of creating more clarity in these matters is to separate metaphor from reality, or what Confucius called "the rectification of names." We need to agree that the word "exile" means banishment, not loneliness. A writer or an intellectual might operate in the margins of a modern, democratic society, without political authority, but that does not make him an outlaw or an exile. And surely it is time to cast aside the assumed badges of victimhood. For then we would be better able to recognize the real victims, as well as maintain our intellectual independence. As for those who find an intellectual odyssey too burdensome, they are best advised to seek another occupation.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Stocks and Bonds

I am not a fan, but I have seen all but the last two of the James Bond films. I shall probably get around to seeing them soon, since even here in the Philippines they are hard to avoid.* For a critic, they are very low on the scale of films that warrant attention. but they are always there, like an old neighbor who is so trapped in acquisitiveness that he can never resist buying all the latest, "cutting edge," noisy and useless gadgets that wake you up too early on Sunday mornings but always draw the attention of the pretty girls on the block.

There are six Bonds. The five former Bonds are still around, but only one of them has outlasted and outshone the role: the man who created the role on film; the man who is still the original Bond; the one who first uttered the words "My name is Bond. James Bond" before they became the running gag they have long since become; the man to whom the other five Bonds are mere imitations. I mean Sean Connery,of course. Some have argued that Bond must always be reinvented for new eras and new generations, that there was a Bond for the 1960s, for the '70s and '80s, for the '90s, and now one for the new millennium. But you cannot reinvent something that is patented. And James Bond was patented in his first five films: all the characters, the formulae, the gadgets, the cars, the villains, and the girls. Everything since is simply unoriginal and exist only for the sake of the franchise.

The Bond patent was so successful that when parodies began to appear in the '60s, it was difficult to tell precisely what was being parodied and who was parodying whom.** Those first five Bond films (Dr. No, From Russia With Love, Goldfinger, Thunderball, and You Only Live Twice) contain all the ideas that the series was capable of expressing. After them, new faces and ever-flashier and redundant representations of violence exposed an obvious battle fatigue that has made whatever effectiveness they may have been reaching for moot. Since the mid-1970s, the films didn't even have to be entertaining. They are like post-John Belushi SNL. Whenever I watch SNL today, and groan, I console myself with the knowledge that it doesn't have to be funny any more. But It will still be there ten years from now. SNL and the Bond films are just further proof that our culture is sold on the childish notion that all good things must . . . go on forever.

(Some Bond trivia: the perfect Englishman, whom Ian Fleming modeled on himself, has been played by only two actual Englishmen, Roger Moore and Daniel Craig. The others were Scots [Connery], Australian [George Lazenby], Welsh [Timothy Dalton], and Irish [Pierce Brosnan]. Hooray for the United Kingdom?)

* I passed a teacher's house last week here in my barangay, fighting off all the stares and the mutterings of "'Cano" and "hey Joe", when a voice from the past drifted by me. It was the unmistakable voice of Sean Connery. As I was walking past an open door (all doors are open during the day), I glimpsed a TV screen on which Thunderball was playing, with Adolfo Celi walking onto a yacht and Sean Connery right behind him.

** The best of them were the two Flint films, with James Coburn.

Friday, June 5, 2009

These Colors Don't Run

My last unit in the U.S. Army was the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment at Fort Carson, Colorado. Fort Carson happens to be one of the few attractive army posts in the country. Situated in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, in the shadow of Cheyenne Mountain, where NORAD lies, I served out the last year and a half of my military service there. In early 2000, my unit was deployed to Bosnia for six months, which meant that, since the Bosnia mission was an international affair, every one of us in the unit had to have a small American flag patch sewn on the right shoulder of our BDUs.

On examining these patches, many of us wondered why the flag was backwards. When it is normally represented in two dimensions, the flag is supposed to look like it is flying from a pole on the left, with the stars in the upper left corner. On our uniforms, the flag was represented the opposite way, with the stars on the upper right. It was explained to us that if the flag were made the usual way, it would make us appear to be moving backwards, i.e., retreating. Since the U.S. Army never retreats, the patches were designed to show that we were always advancing.

Except, of course, when we were lying down, either on our backs or our stomachs, in which case we would appear from the flag's attitude to be ascending into the air or burrowing into the ground. And even in the impossible actuality of our retreating, or making what is now known as a strategic withdrawal, the flag would still make us look as if we were advancing - but to the rear.

As most Americans already know, the flag must be destroyed, according to tradition, if it touches the ground or is otherwise defiled in some way. I had always understood that the manner of its destruction was supposed to be fire, but since burning the flag has long since become a statement of protest and a deliberate provocation*, the official ritual of flag destruction has taken on rather elaborate and methodical details. (I was told these details by an Army reservist I met in Iowa, who had himself performed the ritual.) The flag must first be disassembled: the thirteen stripes and fifty stars must be removed one by one. When finished, the flag has been reduced to its component parts - seven red stripes, six white stripes, a blue field with fifty holes, and fifty individual white stars - and it is ready to be burned. Not all at once, in a pile, but one piece of cloth at a time.

Early one morning in May 1988, on the parade ground at RTC Orlando (long since closed), I had my first opportunity to salute the flag. We recruits were being instructed in drill and ceremony, when a bugle call was sounded over the loudspeakers on the base, giving everyone who is out-of-doors a few moments to face the site where the flag is being raised. Our company commander brought all eighty of us to attention and turned us around so that we were facing a small building behind which a tall flagpole was standing. And when the national anthem started blaring from the loudspeakers, he ordered us all to salute. As the national anthem played, I felt like I was at the Olympics and had won a gold medal, since only the gold medal winner's national anthem is played. It was an indescribable mixture of pride and what I can only call glory. It was probably the most emotional salute of my life, except for the one I gave to another flag, three months later, that was being folded over my father's remains on Fort Jackson, South Carolina.

*What anti-U.S. protesters around the world never seem to realize is that a piece of cloth painted to look like an American flag - is not an American flag. So burning it has nothing more than symbolic value.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Butt-Pirates of the Caribbean

As if we needed it, here is yet another chapter in the seemingly endless annals of withering estimates of male sexuality, which is quite plainly predatory and opportunistic. James Hamilton-Paterson (not to be confused with the best-selling mediocrity James Patterson) seems to suggest, in this excerpt from his beautiful book The Great Deep: The Sea and its Thresholds, that piracy - particularly the extreme variety that flourished in 17th-century West Indies - was a consequence of a lack of women.

"A good example of a highly specialized social group living in extreme circumstances is that of seventeenth-century English pirates in the Caribbean. It was described recently [1983] by a scholar who, in default of extensive documentation (for they were not great diarists) elegantly deduced by a series of negative proofs how their lives had to have been. His thesis is that these buccaneers were practically all homosexual and that their piratical activities were sustained by their sexual relationships, much as the Spartans' valor was. He cites as determining factors the generally lenient prevailing attitudes to homosexuality in England at the time and the way in which apprentices were drawn or press ganged extensively from the bands of boy vagrants ('great flockes of Chyldren') who roamed the country and whose group identification, for their own protection, was exclusive. Furthermore, the population of the British West Indian islands was then almost entirely male, an imbalance enhanced by transportation. 'The single certainty is that the only nonsolitary sexual activities available to buccaneers for most of the years they spent in the Caribbean and almost all of the time they were aboard ship were homosexual.' (1) Very few pirates ever married, it seems, and those who did were uniformly unlucky with their women (and vice versa, one would imagine). Blackbeard, William Dampier, Bartholomew Sharp and other pirate captains jealously guarded their favorite boys, while all aboard took advantage of a form of male bonding discreetly named matelotage. It is a great pity there is such a dearth of contemporary documents, although vivid details do emerge. Captain John Avery was known as Long Ben, 'not because of his height.' Add to all this the occasional bouts of derring do and the frequent orgies of drinking when every soul aboard from captain to ten-year-old powder monkey was stone drunk, and by contrast to the solidarity of outlaw life afloat, that of 'straight' life (in both senses) ashore would have seemed dreary indeed. It is strange to think that, but for the lack of a few hundred women in the West Indies, piracy might have assumed quite different patterns or even have been suppressed entirely by privateers."

Strange indeed! Anyone still smiling at Johnny Depp's Keith Richards turn as the pirate Jack Sparrow in the dreadful Disney Pirates of the Caribbean movies might now be wondering what plumbing Keira Knightley was hiding under that dress. But maritime history is rich in such anecdotes. Richard Hough suggested in his great book Captain Bligh and Mister Christian that one possible explanation for Fletcher Christian's decision to lead the crew of the HMS Bounty in mutiny was Bligh's unwelcome homosexual advances during the homeward voyage from Tahiti. And it was Winston Churchill who was supposed to have said, "Don't talk to me about naval tradition. It's nothing but run, sodomy and the lash."

Hamilton-Paterson should've read a review that George Orwell wrote of a book called Walls Have Mouths by W.F.R. Macarthey: "The most dreadful chapter in this book is the one entitled 'Notes on Prison Sex Life'. It gave me such a shock when I read it, for it suddenly revealed to me the meaning of a conversation of years earlier. I once asked a Burmese criminal why he disliked going to jail. He answered with a look of disgust and the single word, 'Sodomy'. I thought then that he merely meant that among the convicts there were a few homosexuals who pestered the others, but what Mr. Macarthey makes clear is that in prison, after a few years, almost every man becomes homosexual, in spite of putting up a fight against it. He gives a horrible account of the way in which homosexuality gradually overwhelmed himself, first of all through the medium of his dreams."

I think Orwell, who was a terrible homophobe, got it wrong. It is not that all men are inherently gay, and that only the right (or wrong) circumstances will bring it out. It is not even that all men are bi. Freud may have (famously) pointed out that there is only one libido that serves both men and women, but the message is painfully clear to me: for men, anyone may serve as a sex-object, any orifice may be enlisted to satisfy the libido - depending entirely on the degree of their personal delicacy. This is a far more chilling estimate of male sexuality than either Hamilton-Paterson or Orwell imagined.

(1) B.R. Burg, Sodomy and the Perception of Evil. English Sea-Rovers in the Seventeenth Century Caribbean (1983)