Garcia Marquez, RIP

Somebody — Pablo Neruda? — observed that the late Garcia Marquez was the most influential Spanish writer since Cervantes. Startling, but probably true.

Magical realism was such a great idea that it promptly got overdone. It’s potentially a rather serious matter to have encouraged the likes of Salman Rushdie, and our man will probably face some questioning on the subject at the Pearly Gates. But a guy is not responsible for his imitators, and St Peter will certainly clear him of all charges.

I have no idea whom G M admired among English writers, but it’s easy to imagine him striking up a very good friendship, on the further shore, with Lawrence Sterne.

His death evoked comments from at least three Presidents. Those of Colombia and Mexico were not especially original, but struck a suitable note. Here, however, is Unspeakable Bill Clinton:

“I was saddened to learn of the passing of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. From the time I read ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ more than 40 years ago, I was always amazed by his unique gifts of imagination, clarity of thought, and emotional honesty. He captured the pain and joy of our common humanity in settings both real and magical. I was honored to be his friend and to know his great heart and brilliant mind for more than 20 years. My thoughts are with Mercedes and his family, and with his friends and admirers in Colombia and around the world.”

Exactly one hundred words, five of them being first person singular pronouns.

But of course our responses to books always are personal, if they’re real at all. Clinton’s observations are couched in such dull, banal terms that it’s difficult to believe he has any real love for stories and storytellers, or has given much thought to how one is different from another; but perhaps the stump-speech manner has just taken him over.

Perhaps there was a greener day for him, when a book could stir something more in his mind than a little rustling dust-devil of dry phrases, whirled up for a moment like leaves in Vallombrosa. Perhaps he remembered the day he read that wonderful opening(*). Was he really in love with Hillary then? She, with him? Did they still believe, in those days, that the world held better things in store for them than bombing Serbia, and carrying water for Israel, and electrocuting retarded people?

But return, Alpheus: the dread voice is past.

It was Comrade Paine, actually, who suggested 100 Years to me, and I read it on an overnight train, from Chicago to New York. Macondo will always be strangely mixed up, for me, with the little towns of the Hudson Valley, in the gray of dawn, after the kind of sleepless night that leaves you hearing bits of imaginary song in your ears.

(*) “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. At that time Macondo was a village of 20 adobe houses built on the bank of a river of clear water that ran along a bed of polished stones, which were white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs. The world was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point.”

A bas le beret


I blame Mattress Jack Kennedy for these stupid berets. He introduced them for elite troops, if memory serves, and now that all troops are elite troops and heroes by definition, they all have to wear berets. Of course the berets in question are all folded and creased and flopped according to regs, now. The full-face version, as a result, is even sillier than the profile shot above:

Poor devil looks like a stillborn basset hound landed on his head.

Of course, the beret can be worn with style:


NOT an April Fool item


Post on one of my Lefty lists:

I have just ordered Trotsky in Norway, published by Northern Illinois University Press. According to the ad it is “a very significant contribution to the biography of Trotsky” as well as “an important contribution to Norwegian political history in the 1930′s.”

Now I yield to no one in fondness for esoteric topics, but this title made me smile. I couldn’t help imagining it as a musical, or perhaps a ballet.

Maybe I’ll order the book, if only in the hope that it will have a picture of Trotsky on skis.

Where’er the Merkin eagle flies


More Albert Speer architecture envisioned for the Nineleven(tm) memorial. This particular exercise in brutalism will conceal a branch office of the New York medical examiner’s office, where various scraps of human corpses will be kept — frozen, I presume — pending “identification”.

There will be a ‘viewing room’ for the families, who, we are assured, will not be charged admission. The families apparently also have a viewing site of their own over the whole Nineleven theme park — a sort of skybox, I suppose.

The combination of ghoulishness, sentimentality, and grievance privilege exhibited here seems very, very American.

You can see in the picture above that there is to be an inscription on the wall, picked out in — what else? — letters of steel, salvaged from the skeletons of Nelson and David(*).

The inscription is a rather pedestrian translation from Aeneid IX. The poet is addressing the shades of Nisus and Euryalus, two terrorists from Aeneas’ band of settler-colonialist invaders, who embarked on an errand of nocturnal assassination against the native resistance movement led by Comrade Turnus. After slaughtering a number of natives in their sleep, Nisus and Euryalus got their well-deserved comeuppance.

Virgil, of course, knows how to put a good face on this sort of thing:

Fortunati ambo! Siquid mea carmina possunt,
nulla dies umquam memori vos eximet aevo,
dum domus Aeneae Capitoli immobile saxum
accolet imperiumque pater Romanus habebit.

Nicely Englished by my man Dryden:

O happy friends! for, if my verse can give
Immortal life, your fame shall ever live,
Fix’d as the Capitol’s foundation lies,
And spread, where’er the Roman eagle flies!

– though Dryden rather softens Virgil’s bluntness; the last two lines translate literally: “While the house of Aeneas occupies the immovable Capitoline rock and the great Roman father holds his empire.”

“Erase”, I must say, is a rather odd choice of words for ‘eximet’, which doesn’t mean anything quite so graphic; it’s just unemphatic ‘take away’. But ‘memori aevo’ is a lot better than the lame ‘memory of time’; it means something like ‘the remembering age’.

Unlike Nisus and Euryalus, the dead of Nineleven didn’t deserve their fate. Apart from that, there is a certain appropriateness, intended or not, in the choice of quote.

(Mutatis mutandis, as the Romans say.)

The gory tale of Nisus and Euryalus, in Virgil’s genuinely sublime and incomparable imperialist tract, takes its place among the uncompromisingly violent and unapologetically thuggish foundational narratives of Rome. Virgil wants it there; his exegi-monumentum poetic confidence tells him he can place it there; and he makes it stick. We remember Nisus and Euryalus because Virgil raised them a monument more lasting than bronze.

What the dullard plodders contriving Ninelevenland have in common with Virgil is the shared program of legitimating empire. Virgil does it by showing Nisus and Euryalus as bold impulsive gallant fellows — and ardent lovers as well. Irresistible, eh?

But the soul-engineers of Ninelevenland don’t really have this option as regards their Immortals (and probably couldn’t handle it if they did). What they have to fall back on is the rhetoric of American victimhood: poor us. So ill-used; so misunderstood.

Somehow I don’t think that a monument more lasting than bronze can be erected on this basis.

Update: Apparently the compromising context of the original has been pointed out to somebody in the theme park’s management cadre. The response? Drop the word ‘Aeneid’ from the attribution. Hey, if we do that, people will think it’s from the Georgics!

(*) As the two boxy towers were unaffectionately known in some circles — the reference being to the two Rockefeller brothers who ran, respectively, the state of New York and the Chase Manhattan Bank.

Victoria’s secret


For years and years and years, I was desperately attracted, in the sickest possible way, to Hillary Clinton. It’s the same kittenish-dominatrix thing that enslaved Comrade Paine to Margaret Thatcher.

But Victoria has broken the Hillary spell. ‘Fuck the EU!’ Oh Victoria! Say it again. Say it right in my ear, in that silky mezzo register so uniquely your own.

You stinking traitor


Like many Americans, I have occasionally found myself somewhat embarrassed by credit-card debt. Such was my situation last month, after a spell of unemployment. It wasn’t a huge amount of money, but it was keeping me awake at night. I could just hear the usurious interest tick-tick-ticking up.

Finally I borrowed the amount again a weensy, I might even say derisory, pension account I have, at a rate of interest much more favorable to me, and paid down the entire account.

You would have thought the heavens had fallen. The credit card people promptly canceled the card. The phone was ringing off the hook. Fraud alert!

But hope springs eternal. They sent me another card. I went to energize it on the phone, and an extraordinary rigmarole ensued. Was I a US citizen?

Now I’m sure there’s some more or less ineffectual scheme to prevent money laundering — or rather, unauthorized money laundering — behind this craziness. But the unintended message is awfully clear: You’re not paying 17% interest on a loan, and you call yourself an American?!?!

The master of smarm


It’s been almost a century since the first phase of the 31 Years’ War slaughtered sixteen or so million people. You might think it would be possible, at this distance in history, to back quietly off from some of the spreadeagle propaganda which justified the bloodbath at the time.

Not if Obie has anything to say about it. And he did have a good deal to say about it, during a visit to an American military cemetery in Belgium recently:

As His Majesty and the Prime Minister mentioned, we just spent some quiet moments among the final resting places of young men who fell nearly a century ago. And it is impossible not to be awed by the profound sacrifice they made so that we might stand here today. In this place, we remember the courage of “Brave Little Belgium.”

We talked about how many of the Americans who fought on Belgian soil during the Great War did so under the command of His Majesty’s great-grandfather, King Albert. And while they didn’t always share a common heritage or even a common language, the soldiers who manned the trenches were united by something larger — a willingness to fight, and die, for the freedom that we enjoy as their heirs.

Pardon me while I visit the vomitorium(*). — There, that’s better.

Obie, I feel sure, is not a stupid, or an ignorant man. So it baffles me how he can utter words like these with a straight face. Electoral politics must have a more deeply corrosive effect on the soul than even I would have thought.

The only freedom for which World War I was fought was the freedom to plunder. ‘Brave little Belgium’, though not the greatest of the colonial powers, was arguably the worst. The King Albert to whom Obie alludes, above, was the nephew and successor of vile King Leopold, the butcher of the Belgian Congo. After the hiatus of hostilities in 1918, brave little Albert continued to preside over the Belgian empire in Africa until he fell off a mountain and broke his unspeakable neck in 1934.

Every child knows these things. Maybe Obie had to visit, and maybe he had to say something, but surely he could have found something to say that wouldn’t have been yet another cynical mockery of all those poor sods under the sod. Wilfred Owen called bullshit on that dulce-et-decorum stuff pretty much as it was happening. You have to be a real dog-faced brass-balled Heepish liar — a liar who enjoys lying — to insist on that “old lie”, as Owen called it, a hundred years down the road.

How’s the stomach? Feel like another shot of Obiean emetic?

Belgians and Americans have stood shoulder-to-shoulder with our European allies in World War II and through a long Cold War, then from Afghanistan to Libya.

I’d also note that the lessons of that war speak to us still. Our nations are part of the international effort to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons…

And so this visit, this hallowed ground, reminds us that we must never, ever take our progress for granted.

Well, the nauseating pottle wouldn’t have been complete, would it, without a dash of ‘progress’?

Perhaps the contemporary references explain Obie’s otherwise inexplicable insistence on the “old lie”. I’m reminded, not for the first time, that in some ways very little has changed in the last hundred years, or hundred fifty. It’s still all about the Freedom To Plunder, and contention among the plunderers.

(*) I know, I know, ‘vomitorium’ doesn’t really mean that. But it should. Every public building should have a convenient vomitorium — perhaps one on every floor — for use after seeing the various inscriptions scattered about the place, and the allegorical statuary. It’s a public health measure. Progress demands it.

This day in history

NPG 3953,Henry John Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston,by Francis Cruikshank

March 28, 1854, 160 years ago: Britain and France declare war on Russia, initiating the most intensive phase of the Crimean War. Plus ca change, eh?

But in fact things have changed. In spite of all the hot air emanating from ‘Europe’, that mythical place, and the White House, that all-too-real one, I would bet the farm that there will be no new Crimean War. In fact even if Putin gives the Ukraine a well-deserved spanky, hot air, I bet, will continue to be the most lethal weapon deployed by ‘The West’ — the not-so-wild West, these days, thank God.

Talking to my well-informed, well-intentioned Upper West Side friends, though, I’m amazed at how effective the anti-Russian propaganda campaign has been. “Their economy depends on exporting gas!” one friend of mine trumpeted(*). “That’s not sustainable!”

(Of course, leaving aside the fact that with tar sands and so on, the US also seems poised to become a net exporter of carbon-based fuel, one might also ask whether being a net importer of fossil carbon — like, oh, Japan, or ‘Europe’ — is sustainable either. Surely the one implies the other?)

This, depressingly, is the part that hasn’t changed. The image of ogreish, backward Russia helped schnooker the Socialists of Germany into supporting war in 1914 — not quite 100 years ago, but just a few months away. (Mark your calendars: August 4. Let’s have a commemorative picnic on the Old Mole’s one-time tumulus.) It seems to be working equally well with nice thoughtful Upper West Side liberals today.

(*) To paraphrase Dr Johnson: I hate to speak ill of anyone, but I do believe the gentleman had been reading Thomas Friedman. A plea of temporary insanity will therefore be entertained by the Court.

A slightly unlikely heroine…


… to wit, Diane Ravitch, who shares with St Paul the distinction of a Road To Damascus experience. In her case, the topic of conversion was, among other things, charter schools.

An old comrade passed along this rather nice piece, in which Diane quite rightly excoriates that empty suit, Bill De Blasio, the current inhabitant of Gracie Mansion, for rolling over and playing dead — surprise, surprise — against the onslaught of the charter chargers, after having rather tentatively intimated, during his campaign, that charter schools might not be altogether a Good Thing.

Well, Democrats, you know. Party motto: Promise ‘em anything and give ‘em Bloomberg.

I have a question: Why exactly do hedgies and people like Bill Gates(*) support charter schools so strongly? Of course the whole market-model meritocratic message is just catnip to them; but beyond a general ideological affinity, why do they give a shit about how public education is carried on? Their children don’t need to go to public schools, charter or otherwise. And yet a good many of these unspeakable creeps seem to be quite passionate about it.

Is there that much money to be made in the credentialling sector, even if its enterprises get to leech off public bricks-and-mortar?

I can’t believe these people really have any long-term plans for the world, extending past their own golden years — golden, of course, in more than one sense of the word.

Somebody enlighten me here.

(*) How many people like Bill Gates are there, anyway, you ask? Answer: Too many, even if there’s only one.

The death of Little Nell, times 300 or so


As usual, I find myself indulging a cold, heartless, over-intellectualized response to the story of the moment — which ought to have, and is meant to have, every human heart on the globe beating in sympathy. At the moment, the story of the moment, buttonholing us like the Ancient Mariner and demanding our tears or else, is the missing Malaysian airplane.

Sorrow for the passengers — undoubtedly all dead, one way or another, by now — and their families, will be well, and extensively, and facilely handled by the official organs of opinion and manufacturers of mass sentiment. This is a relief; the job is in excellent professional hands, far more skilled than mine, and I can leave it to them with a clear conscience.

The murderous modern world at least gave the passengers on that unlucky flight a relatively quick quietus, or so we can reasonably hope. This sometimes seems like a not-bad alternative to other ways of extinction on the carte du jour — like, say, freezing to death in a cobbled-together cardboard shelter on the steps of the local public library or parish church, which is a fairly common and unremarkable event in my town.

Peace to their ashes. As if it weren’t bad enough to be alive on an airplane, these poor devils had to die on one. Quick, okay, but who wants to die in the kind of company you find on an airplane?

What interests me, of course — being, as I am, a cold, heartless fellow, and so on — is the cultural response to this latest aircraft horror. Conventional tropes have been deployed, but there are a few new wrinkles.

Anything involving airplanes touches us to the quick, doesn’t it? At least half the horror of Nineleven(tm) lies in the fact that it was done with airplanes. The very emblems of our globe-straddling ‘civilization’ were turned against us.

This goes back a ways. I’m old enough to remember when airplane hijackings first became a fad — though aircraft have been hijacked as long as there have been aircraft. The history of aircraft hijackings is fascinating, and well worth reading.

Though the history is so old, moral panic on the subject is more recent. The first few times I ever boarded an aircraft, nobody searched me, or put me through a metal detector, or asked me for ID. Then came the metal detectors, then the X-ray machines, and finally the ID obsession — which I always thought was promoted by the airlines themselves, in order to kibosh the secondary market in airplane tickets. The ID craze started some years before Nineleven(tm); and of course all the Nineleven hijackers had perfectly good ID.

Nowadays you have to take off your belt, and your shoes, and empty your pockets, and submit to some perv’s nude-photography kink, before you can take your seat on an airplane. (I love the nude-photography thing, by the way; I figure that a glimpse of my nude physique would cure any voyeur, if anything could.)

Surely it’s clear that this is all liturgy, apotropaic magic, a series of rites meant to preserve the Holy of Holies from contamination?

More than anything else, air travel makes us feel that we have slipped the surly bonds of earth(*). We can get on an airplane, and within hours — having propitiated the Airplane Gods with the usual self-abasements — we can be at dying Granny’s bedside, or in bed with a lissome Thai girl. Air travel makes us feel in control, and for just that reason — I think — arouses an old and well-founded fear of hubris. The hijacker, actual or potential, takes shape in our imagination as the personification of Nemesis, a venerable ancient goddess whose sway we all acknowledge, consciously or not. The suety TSA junk-groper, in his ugly ill-fitting uniform and latex gloves, is the priest who absolves us from our presumption and sends us sinless on our way.

Prominent among the official responses to the disappearance of flight 370 was a complaint that our world isn’t controlled and surveilled enough. How, we ask, can an airplane just disappear? That isn’t supposed to happen. All those satellites, all that radar — isn’t that supposed to eliminate the realm of the unknown?

Personally, I’m rather glad there are still uncharted seas, and places where something as big as an airplane might simply disappear. I have a notion that I might like to disappear myself someday.

No doubt few of the passengers on Flight 370 had disappearance in mind; but if you have to disappear, there’s a certain grandeur in disappearing without a trace.

(*) From one of the worst poems ever, even if an Irishman did write it. Quite suitably cited by that drooling old fool, Ronald Reagan, with his repertoire of two second-rate actor’s tics, and his confectionery hairdo, and his ruined rouged cheeks, on the occasion of another spectacular failure of instrumental rationality and technological presumption: