Good editing separates a sage from a provocateur

I’ve seen some good stuff on the internet lately.  There are people who read this blog who won’t like some of it.

1. Kenan Malik writes:

One thing should be clear. The violence across the Muslim world in response to an American anti-Islamic film has nothing to do with that film. Yes, The Innocence of Muslims is a risibly crude diatribe against Islam. But this obscure film that barely anyone had seen till last week is no more the source of the current violence than God is the source of the Qur’an.

I don’t presume to know whether God is the source of the Qur’an, but Mr Malik is surely right to argue that these acts of violence spring from efforts by their perpetrators to present themselves as the champions of Islam.  As such, they are symptoms of the internal politics of the countries where they take place, politics which may well be shaped by military and other interventions from outside powers, but which must always be analyzed in terms of the interests and understandings of their actual participants.

2. An article about cartoonist R. Crumb in Vingt Paris Magazine lists many of Mr Crumb’s more unwholesome obsessions, then goes on:

I suppose the uncomfortable truth about Crumb’s reputation as a comic satirist is that he’s no good when he really needs to be. Unlike, say, Dick Gregory or even Randy Newman (whose song Rednecks is also written from a racist’s point of view), Crumb is too happy to wield irony like a sledgehammer when it comes to discussing race.

As a result of Mr Crumb’s lack of subtlety, his irony often collapses and his depictions of racist imagery are left without satiric point, as racism plain and simple.  Likewise, his sadomasochism-inspired sexual imagery rarely has much point beyond the confessional, and is merely disgusting.

Mr Crumb does not attempt to defend his work; last year, faced with the prospect of demonstrations against him, he canceled plans to appear at the Sydney Opera House, saying “‘I can’t explain why I drew all those crazy pictures’, he told the press. ‘I had to do it. Maybe I should have my pencils and pens taken away from me. I don’t know.'”  The author of the article mentions that Mr Crumb had given him the identical response when he’d asked him to justify his work some years previously, then remarks “It’s a stock response that’s so polished it shines. It makes you wonder if, one day, he might get bored of saying it and try for an answer instead.”

I would not defend the racial imagery in Mr Crumb’s work.  I still chuckle when I think of the moment in the 1994 documentary Crumb when one of his critics looks at a comic strip depicting the crudest possible African American stereotype and says “This is actually an attack on black people.”  What made me laugh then and now is the word “actually.”  As if it were apparently something else, but a close analysis by the most sophisticated methods available would show that it was actually an attack on black people.  It was so obviously an attack on black people that the existence of a debate about the question of whether it is such an attack is hilarious.

The article summarizes Mr Crumb’s attitude towards his subject matter thus:

Using racial stereotypes in his work is something that Crumb freely admits to, saying that ‘there’s a perverse part of me (that) likes to take the heat for all that stuff’. One of his most famous examples is here in the exhibition – a picture called Jive with Angel Food McSpade. It’s a drawing of a freakish, thick-lipped, bug-eyed woman, who seductively raises her leg and claims she was ‘Attacked in the mud because I was a SEXY TEASE’.

The arguments about drawings like Jive with Angel Food go like so: ‘He’s subverting those images and throwing our own racism back at us’. Or ‘he’s just trying to shock you, Liberal’. Or ‘he’s genuinely a racist. He’s not even being ironic’. And they play out like a game of rock, paper, scissors that nobody knows how to stop.

For his part, Crumb says the controversial stuff pours out of him because it’s wired into his brain, from all the pop-imagery he saw on television and in comics and magazines. He’s certainly not a racist, he says, but he’s even less of a censor – and if this kind of stuff is in there, then who is he to keep it in?

This strikes me as a fair statement, and a sad one.  At his best, as in his illustrated version of Genesis, Mr Crumb shows that the feverish, undigested contents of his psyche are unsettlingly similar to the feverish, undigested ideas at the heart of the most powerful ideologies in the modern world.  It is a shame that Mr Crumb has not been consistently subject to a stringent and demanding editor who fully understands his project and capabilities.  It is unreasonable to expect the same person to serve as author and editor of the same work; in that sense, Mr Crumb is quite right to ask “who is he to keep it in?”

3. Blogger Steve Sailer lists the following as the categories of Americans whose opinions about foreign policy are taken seriously in official Washington:

Today, the acceptable limits of foreign policy discourse in America are set by:
– The good old military-industrial complex
– Saudi bribery
– Liberal Democratic Zionists
– Right 2 Protect liberal crypto-imperialist/busybodies
– Angry Likudniks
– Quasi-CIA “democracy” endowments that organize color-coded revolutions
– Foreign policy thinktanks (who are more important the more activist the foreign policy)
– White guys who need to serve in the military so they can get affirmative action points to become firemen
– Yahoos who should be apprised that when football isn’t on TV, professional wrestling can always be found year-round, so there’s no need to watch the news
– Oil companies (who are left to quietly play the “Can’t we all just get along?” Rodney King role)
They are all overseen by a national media that sometimes seems most concerned about the looming threat that an isolationist Father Coughlin could arise again.
So, the only feasible foreign policy alternative to stake out is: “The President’s foreign policy isn’t quite crazed enough!”

When Mr Sailer expresses his right-wing opinions about race or sex or economics, I can usually find good reasons to disagree with him.  I wish I could disagree with him here as well.

4. Via Arts & Letters Daily, here’s a sensational little essay about Ezra Pound by Luciano Mangiafico at Open Letters Monthly.  Mr Mangiafico presents the following as an “excerpt from Canto 81”:

What thou lovest well remains,
the rest is dross
What thou lov’st well shall not be reft from thee
What thou lov’st well is thy true heritage…
Pull down thy vanity, it is not man
Made courage, or made order, or made grace,
Pull down thy vanity, I say pull down.
Learn of the green world what can be thy place…
Pull down thy vanity
How mean thy hates
Fostered in falsity,
Pull down thy vanity,
Rathe to destroy, niggard in charity,
Pull down thy vanity, I say pull down…

These lines do appear in Pound’s Canto 81, but Mr Mangiafico has edited them heavily.  Here is how of the ending of the poem looks in the edition of the Cantos I read (New Directions, 1996):

What thou lovest well remains,

the rest is dross

What thou lov’st well shall not be reft from thee

What thou lov’st well is thy true heritage

Whose world, or mine or theirs

or is it of none?

First came the seen, then thus the palpable

Elysium, though it were in the halls of hell,

What thou lovest well is thy true heritage

What thou lov’st well shall not be reft from thee

The ant’s a centaur in his dragon world.

Pull down thy vanity, it is not man

Made courage, or made order, or made grace,

Pull down thy vanity, I say pull down.

Learn of the green world what can be thy place

In scaled invention or true artistry,

Pull down thy vanity,

Paquin pull down!

The green casque has outdone your elegance.

“Master thyself, then others shall thee beare”-

Pull down thy vanity

Thou art a beaten dog beneath the hail,

A swollen magpie in a fitful sun,

Half black half white

Nor knowst’ou wing from tail

Pull down thy vanity

How mean thy hates

Fostered in falsity,

Pull down thy vanity,

Rathe to destroy, niggard in charity,

Pull down thy vanity,

I say pull down.

But to have done instead of not doing

This is not vanity

To have, with decency, knocked

That a Blunt should open

To have gathered from the air a live tradition

or from a fine old eye the unconquered flame

This is not vanity.

Here error is all in the not done,

all in the diffidence that faltered…

Last night I read Pound’s original aloud to Mrs Acilius; it is undeniably thrilling, but just as undeniably Mr Mangiafico’s redaction, spare and direct, takes on a splendor that fades in Pound’s profusion of images and references.  And the first half of the poem is Pound’s usual, barely tolerable, complete with quotations from Theocritus and John Adams.  I only wonder why he neglected to tattoo it with Chinese characters.

Pound, like Mr Crumb, reminds me of the old story about the town with only two barbers.  One barber is faultlessly shaven, with a perfectly presented head of hair; the other wears stubble on half his face, and a shapeless mop of hair.  The discerning customer goes to the slovenly barber, since he is the one who cut the well-coiffed one’s hair.  Likewise, as an editor of poetry Pound made inestimable contributions to the works of T. S. Eliot and other eminences of the High Modern; it is our great loss that Pound found no one to do for his work what he did for theirs.

The Nation magazine’s first issues of 2010

1 February: The first issue to go to press after the earthquake in Haiti includes some recommendations for those who would like to find a good relief organization to give money.  The first organization I looked up when I heard about the quake was one I’d first read of in the pages of The Nation, MADRE.  In her year-end lists of groups that deserve financial support and elsewhere, Nation columnist Katha Pollitt has made mention of this organization, which supports groups around the world.  Most of MADRE’s partner groups are initiatives in poor countries, started and led by citizens of those countries, that prioritize the needs of women and girls.  MADRE’s Haitian partner is Partners in Health, which runs a network of clinics called Zanmi Lasante; they’re on the list.  The magazine’s website includes several more pleas for Haiti; see here and here

In the same issue, Robin Einhorn attacks Gordon Wood’s recent book about the early federal period of the United States, arguing that Wood shows a “remarkably naive sense of politics” that allows him to keep the South at the margins of his story and free white male Northerners at the center of it.  Even as he puts the focus on a rapidly industrializing region, Einhorn argues, Wood shows an uncritical admiration on for the agrarian politics of Thomas Jefferson and his party.  Einhorn grants that Wood’s chapter on the politics of slavery is excellent, but says that confining the topic to a single chapter, quarantined from the rest of the book, is profoundly misleading.  In the end, Einhorn declares that Wood has succeeded in thinking like Thomas Jefferson, but that this is no unmixed virtue:

If Jefferson had known nearly as much about his society as Wood does, Empire of Liberty is the book he would have written. It is no coincidence that the title is Jefferson’s, a phrase encapsulating his brand of velvet-gloved imperialism. Wood seems to know that there was an iron fist lurking inside, but he identifies with an audience that treasures the national fantasy of egalitarian triumph that Jefferson represents. Like Jefferson, Wood nods to the evil of slavery and the violence of westward expansion. Unlike Jefferson, he realizes that there was something undesirable about the way men treated women. But Wood’s focus remains squarely on the subculture of white men–especially in the North–who energetically pursued their liberty and happiness in the “republicanized” world of postrevolutionary America. 

25 January: Alexander Cockburn is disappointed with R. Crumb’s version of the Book of Genesis.  In Cockburn’s view, Crumb does not thoroughly deflate monotheism, but produces a more or less reverent text.  “If a conclusive disresepcting of Genesis was required, wouldn’t you think R. Crumb was the man for the job?… But the overall effect is more solemn than satirical.”  Cockburn is also disappointed that Crumb depicts the characters of the book as recognizably Jewish (in fact stereotypically Jewish, “hairy” and “with big noses,”) missing an opportunity to make the point that “There never was a Jewish people, only a Jewish religion” (a line Cockburn quotes from Israeli journalist Tom Segev) and that Zionism is therefore an illegitimate enterprise.  Indeed at one point Cockburn claims to have “wondered whether Crumb, a Catholic long ago, had converted to Zionism.” 

I agree with Cockburn about a lot of things, but when he turns to Judaism and the Jews I sometimes suspect him of being a bit cracked.  Not that I want to wave the flag for Zionism, but it doesn’t seem especially reasonable to expect a graphic novel, even when that graphic novel is R. Crumb’s adaptation of Genesis, to achieve everything he demanded of it.   

11 January: A piece about the Polaroid camera and the pictures it took includes this:

Polaroid’s “now” having been driven into the past, it has become ripe for nostalgia. Found Magazine, launched in 2001, was well ahead of the Polaroid nostalgia wave and spun off a whole book of Found Polaroids in 2006, when the end of the road was already in sight. But for its author, Jason Bitner, the medium had always been “instant nostalgia–framed and faded, a picture that already looked decades old.”

The same issue includes an essay about Thelonious Monk that ends with this anecdote:

Monk liked to wear a formidable ring bearing his name when he played, an encumbrance that no pianist in his right mind would want to burden a hand with. While he was flashing his ring for the world to see, from his own perspective he saw something else. “KNOW” said the ring, more or less, to the audience. “MONK” was the reply when he saw it himself.

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