Thaddeus, Then and Now…

October 10, 2013

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I was surprised to see that D. W. Griffith’s cinematic masterpiece, Birth of a Nation (1914) begins with a peek at Thaddeus Stevens, one of my American heroes.  He is called “Stoneman” in the film, and is something of a villain, until he is redeemed at the end by revealing his deep hypocrisy about race, to wit, when it comes down to it, he would never allow his daughter (played by Lillian Gish) marry a mulatto.

It’s interesting to note the difference that 100 years makes:  in Spielberg’s Lincoln (2012), Stevens is a hero, a foresighted champion of racial equality and justice.  Was Speilberg purposely making his Stevens look similar to Griffith’s Stoneman?  And yes, it is true, Stevens wore an outrageous wig, having lost all of his hair during an illness when he was young.

I knew that Birth of a Nation was racist propaganda for the Southern view of Reconstruction, but still, I was not prepared for just how vicious it is.  As one reviewer said, watching the film is “a torment,” similar to watching Nazi propaganda films, including the justly famous Triumph of the Will.  The southerners are gallant Christians, defending their women like chivalric knights of old, and everyone, north and south, despises the negroes.  The film is, despite itself, amazingly realistic at times, using African-Americans for bit roles and background extras, while white actors in blackface take the major “negro roles”:  realistic in its depiction of the culture of slavery and Jim Crow, and I don’t mean in a favorable way.  As Roger Ebert points out in his excellent review, this is only so because Griffith was so totally convinced of the rightness of his views – the gentle South, happy slaves, etc. – that it would never have occurred to him that his imagery implied their contradiction.

The print that I watched on Netflix includes a brief interview between Walter Huston and Griffith, both decked out in formal evening wear, in which Huston lobs softball questions to Griffith:

Was the Klan necessary at that time?”

“Yes, Walter, it was necessary, at that time.”

There you have it.  The freeing of the slaves, untutored and unready for civilization, unleashed upon the traumatized South a tyranny, egged on by unscrupulous Northern carpetbaggers who manipulated the negroes to their ends.  The Klan had to step in to restore civilization.  Thus, Reconstruction ended, and Jim Crow began.  In Griffith’s mythology, even Stevens sees the wisdom of it, returning to a policy that Griffith is convinced Lincoln would have favored.

There is a lot of high-toned stuff in this film too:  several anti-war pleas, including an image of Christ at the end, and a denunciation of artistic censorship.  Yes, if only the war had been averted.  Perhaps the South would still be carrying on with its slaves!  And yes, censorship is bad, The film was instantly immensely controversial, and the NAACP in some cities did call for censorship of the most racially offensive scenes.  I say, let it all hang out.  The NAACP has had the last laugh on D.W.

Did I say that the film is fantastic?  It is.  It is gripping, a wonder of cinema so great, I found it hard to believe it was from 1914 it seems so contemporary in many respects.  The battle scenes are stunning; the acting, though melodramatic, is nevertheless powerful.  Gish gushes beautifully.  It is one of the most innovative and influential films ever made, and the reasons why are obvious if you watch any other film from 1914.  Some scenes:

The very first sequence.  With the introduction of black slavery, the seeds of disunion were sown.  Only the Civil War produced a truly united nation.  True enough, but somehow it seems here that it is the fault of the Africans!  As Melville put it in Benito Cereno:

“You are saved, Don Benito,” cried Captain Delano, more and more astonished and pained;

“You are saved; what has cast such a shadow upon you?”

“The Negro.” There was silence, while the moody man sat, slowly and unconsciously gathering his mantle about him, as if it were a pall.

It’s all the curse of the negro…

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The first part of the film is about the run-up to the Civil War and the actual conflict.  The real story is Part II, Reconstruction.  Stoneman/Stevens has a mulatto mistress, his housekeeper, an historical fact.  She manipulates him (lust seems to be a big motivation) to take a hard and brutal policy position towards the defeated South, hoping to revenge her people.  Stoneman’s right-hand man, another mulatto, is going to be made puppet governor of South Carolina in order to better implement the destruction of the Old South.

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A black Union soldier chases a white woman who, fearing for her honor, leaps to her death from a precipice.  The Klan organizes to capture the man, otherwise protected by Stoneman’s puppet.  They give him a “trial.”

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The Birth of a Nation (1915)

The scene of the KKK dumping his body at the governor’s office is, I think, supposed to be taken as a brilliant example of justice delivered, but in one of those inadvertent truth-telling images, it is a brutal image of the Klan’s racial tyranny.

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To finish off the local white gentry, the savage negroes are let loose to pillage and rapine in the town.  The Klan rides in, just like the cavalry, to save the day.  Of course, the actual events were more like the reverse, i.e., sustained campaigns of racial cleansing by organized whites to rid entire regions of black farmers who owned land.

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The blacks are vicious and terrifying, without regard to sex, of the victim or the perpetrator.  Here is Lillian Gish being threatened by a former servant.

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One of the local gentry kills a black man in an altercation while he was being arrested for harboring Klan members.  He manages to escape with the assistance of his loyal former house-slaves, and flees with his daughter and some friends to a remote cabin where he wants to wait for things to call down.  The cabin is inhabited by two white former Union soldiers.  Racial solidarity prevails.  It would take a few more years for the word “Aryan” to fall into disrepute.

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In a climactic scene, the father grabs the hair of his daughter, preparing to shoot her, rather than have her be captured alive and be despoiled by the black troops attacking his cabin hideout.

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All’s well that ends well.  Hero and heroine reunited at last.

Gish KKK  images

Order is restored, and the next time there is an election, the Klan is on hand to make sure that the Negroes vote properly.  Yet another image that surely was not intended to seem as it now does to us.

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Pym

June 17, 2012

In Pym, Mat Johnson has created a wildly satirical novel that takes a tremendous bite right into the heart of American civilization – slavery and its racial aftermath.  You don’t have to be a fan of Edgar Allan Poe, or have read The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, Nantucketer to like this book, but it does add another delicious dollop of cultural allusion and dissection to it.  The book stands on its own as the very darkly hilarious (Any metaphorical use of light/white and dark/black have to be tentative in discussing this book, lest one become part of its subject!) riff on Poe’s only novel-length work, American history, and race, not to mention contemporary American taste as exemplified by The Painter of Light.

The narrator of the tale is Chris Jaynes, an African-American scholar of American Literature, who can’t hack it in the tenure track of Academe.  He confronts the president of the small college that has canned him in a very funny scene, only to retreat, humbled, after ripping off the man’s bow-tie. It’s a clip-on job:  appearances, appearances.  Obsessed by Poe’s tale of Pym and his perilous adventures in Antarctica,  and convinced it has a profound racial subtext, he strikes pay dirt when he comes into possession of an authentic manuscript written by one of the tale’s characters.  It isn’t fiction, it’s fact!  What a scoop!  He manages to scrape together the funds for an expedition to Antarctica to get to the bottom of it all.

The story of Arthur Gordon Pym involves cannibalism, and the drawing of straws to determine the victim, strange, gigantic figures of perfect white, devilish black natives of a strangely warm land in the antarctic, known as Tsalal, who fiendishly dispose of most of the white visitors, and it is enigmatically broken off at the end.  Pym cleverly mimics and inverts much of the narrative, substituting street-wise jive for Poe’s absurdly melodramatic prose.  It also displays much wonderful deadpan humor: In this passage, the narrator, having discovered the real Arthur Pym, miraculously still alive after more than a century, tries to talk to him:

“I’m a Natucketer,” he replied.

“Well, are your family landowners?”  At this, the supposed Nantucketer shook his head with enthusiasm and then annoyance that I would even question that fact.

“Well, you’ve been gone awhile, things have gone up in value,” Nathaniel followed, and this time Pym deigned to hear him directly.  “Land in Nantucket sells for about two million, two hundred thousand an acre on today’s market.  You probably have quite an estate to attend to.”  Already growing a bit more alert, at the sound of the figure Pym’s eyes seemed to gain a greater level of consciousness.  The ghost of a man leaned in toward me.

“Is this true?” he muttered.

“Yes, it is,” I told him, relieved that we finally seemed to be getting closer to an actual conversation.

“In a world where people would pay so much for sand,” Pym started, clearly awed by the thought of this, “how much did these niggers cost you?”

Pym, who is a caricature of Poe himself, in this story at least, generates a lot of humor by saying in a completely nonchalant way things that are, today, completely outrageous – but they weren’t in the ante bellum USA.  And among some people today, they probably are not yet.  The characters on the expedition, all black, are thrown up against their own notions of race and class, and their status as free men and women when they are taken on as slaves by a race of giant, antarctican white hairy ape creatures.  And then there is that painter who has created his own pleasure dome down there, but who becomes part of the conflict.  It all gets pretty crazy:  it’s reminiscent of the best parts of The Planet of the Apes.

Well, race, and slavery based on race, is a crazy idea, but as we like to forget, it is what the Hispanic and Anglo empires built North American civilization with.  And though it ended with the Civil War (not really with the Emancipation Proclamation, but with the abolition of slavery by individual states, starting with, of all places, Texas, as commemorated this week with Juneteenth), Reconstruction saw to it that much of its cultural apparatus remained intact for another hundred years.  And what was it all based on?

As the narrator of Pym reflects on the One Drop Rule at several points, it is clear that it is based on power pure and simple.  What can you make of a rule that says that a person is “black” if they have one drop of black blood in them, no matter how white they look?  Logical, in a sick way, on the face of it, but why does it run only in one direction?  In today’s NYTimes, there was an article about Michelle Obama’s ancestor in the ante bellum South, a woman slave who had a child by the son of her owner.  So, why isn’t Michelle Obama white by a One Drop Rule?

Weelll…the One Drop Rule only goes one way, except, perhaps, in a society where everyone is black…like Tsalal, for example.  Which is where the expeditionary crew in Pym ends up, with predictable consequences for Arthur Gordon Pym.  It’s the ultimate literary irony of the book.  And just how did the writer ever get his manuscript to print, anyway..?


Pudd’nhead Wilson

September 26, 2011

I owe a note of thanks to the Argumentative Old Git for his comment that led me to Pudd’nhead Wilson, a rather neglected work by Mark Twain.  This very funny, very darkly humorous and ironic tale is a twist on the Prince and the Pauper and all those switched-at-birth fables and comedies – this time, with a slave and a slave owner as the subjects.

The title character is not really the main character, nor is he the fool (puddinghead) that everyone takes him for on the basis of one offhand remark he made twenty years before the main action of the novel in Dawson’s Landing, Missouri.  Of course, the slave woman Roxy doesn’t seem to be what she is, because she is white to the eye, but a certified, bought and sold negro.  So too with her son, Valet de Chambers.  She cares for him, and The Master’s son, Tom, whom her own child resembles.  As with all slaves, Roxy lives in fear of being ‘sold down the river’ to hard servitude in the deep South, but she fears even more for her son:  What might happen if her good and kind master dies and his heir or creditors are hard hearted?  She resolves to protect the future of her son by switching him with Tom, and Tom’s rather negligent father is none the wiser.

Her son, now Tom, grows up to be an arrogant, profligate, disreputable gambler, while the real Tom grows into a typically obsequious house slave.  So much for blood telling all.  There are some Italian twins who visit, a murder, a trial, and a thrilling resolution by Wilson, a frustrated lawyer who finally gets his chance to show his wits in court, saving the falsely accused twins with his fingerprint collection, a hobby he has pursued for years.  Of course, these same prints reveal the secret about Tom and Chambers, and their situations are set right, in traditional comedic fashion.  Of course, the story was originally called The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson because things don’t turn out so well, when people are restored to their proper places within the social system.

Twain is savaging just about everything in this short novel.  The reader has the sense that he was throwing up his hands with disgust at the fatuousness and cruelty of the human race.  You can read the entire text of this strange work, and view some fascinating illustrations and associated materials at this excellent website.


Life Among the Lowly

September 20, 2011

Uncle Tom’s Cabin or, Life Among the Lowly by Harriet Beecher Stowe is one of those tremendously important novels that I never wanted to read.  Yes, Lincoln greeted Stowe with the remark, “Here is the little lady who made this great war,” and it incited the howling protest of the south (as well as scores of ‘rebuttals’), but I expected a melodramatic and not very satisfying literary experience.  I was wrong.  The book is suspenseful, direct, and extremely powerful.  As an American, that is a person who lives with the political and social legacy of centuries of slavery and Jim Crow all around me, it is at times, a harrowing read.

In American English, an Uncle Tom is a black man who is compliant and subservient to his masters, often in an obsequious and fawning manner – that’s the cliché.  The character of Tom in the novel, however, is not like this at all.  In the introduction to my edition, and this NYTimes piece on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the book, the writers account for this contradiction by pointing out that the novel, which was incredibly popular, was immediately copied, parodied, adapted to the stage, and eventually found its way into, of all things, Minstrel Shows.  Along the way, a novelistic broadside against racism and slavery became a comedic entertainment perpetuating racist stereotypes.  Such is the wending path of culture.

The book is sentimental at times, particularly in two areas:  the description of the slaves; and the treatment of religion.  Stowe portrays the slaves almost always a fine souls, at the worst, a little ridiculous:  not genuine people who will be good, bad, or indifferent.  They are filled with noble sentiments, and their faults are only the product of their degraded state in life.  They are described often as having the positive attributes of childhood:  sincerity, directness, empathy.  Whether this was Stowe’s actual view or a means to make her characters more attractive to her readers I do not know. As the editor remarks in the introduction, this sentimentality has a radical element in that directing such feelings toward African slaves involved contradicting their status as chattel, often regarded as members of a non-human or sub-human species. 

The treatment of religion, especially in the depiction of the death of the little angel, Eva, is a fine example of Victorian religious sentimentality, and might bring to mind Oscar Wilde’s quip about Dickens:  One would have to have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without dissolving into tears…of laughter.   But it is sincere nevertheless:  Stowe was serious in her belief that adherence to Christian teaching would make the institution of slavery impossible.

Abolitionists, of which Stowe was one, sometimes criticized Uncle Tom for being too light in its criticism of slavery.  This may have to do with the fact that the slaves are, for the most part, house servants and higher level members of the plantation staff, and have relatively good masters.  Perhaps Stowe felt she could not write convincingly of the thoughts and feelings of workers spending their days toiling in sugar cane and the like, and in this, she followed an important writers’ guideline:  write what you know.  By focusing on the hardships of slaves under benign masters, who nevertheless face servitude and the potential breakup of their families, she opens, but leaves unanswered the question, how much worse would it be for those with hard masters?  The slaves live in fear of “being sold down the river,” (I never knew the origin of that phrase!)  i.e. shipped off to plantations further south where the hard labor kills them off quickly.  Then she brings that about for Tom, who is sold to the vile Simon Legree.

Stowe is not the least sentimental when she skewers the hypocrisy, intellectual, theological, and political, that surrounds the peculiar institution.  A lengthy section in which Tom is owned by Augustine, a jaded and refined member of the plantation élite, provides a stage to walk on and dismantle all sorts of notions that were argued about slavery in the pre-Civil War days.  Augustine knows all the arguments, and dismisses them all as humbug.  He knows it’s wrong, and that slavery is based on nothing but might and self-interest, but he does nothing about it – does not free his slaves – because he claims to be lazy and indifferent, but he is kind and thoughtful to his human property.  His cynicism masks the corruption and despair of a soul polluted by the institution that makes his leisured affluence possible.  His wife, a clear ancestor of Tennessee Williams’ neurotic belle, Blanche Dubois, spends her days in bed with headaches and complaints, and has nothing but contempt for her servants.  Augustine is also an atheist, which Stowe sees as the cause of his moral inertia, but with the death of his daughter, he is shaken loose of his torpor, but too late.

Augustine, a typical Victorian ideal figure – he has a Grecian profile, alabaster skin, golden curls, and a noble temperament – may represent the class of people Stowe was trying to influence.  Certainly the grim and vulgar Simon Legree is a species of the white trash, in the North and South, with whom she would not bother.  Ophelia, Augustine’s Yankee cousin who comes to stay with him, represents a properly religious northerner.  Although she is abolitionist to the core, she is stung when Augustine truthfully points out to her that she is disgusted by the Africans in her midst.  As always, the southerners claim that you northerners don’t know how to treat our negroes.  Ophelia, in touch with her Christian faith, changes however, and repents of her moral error.

Very often, Stowe points out with brutal clarity how what would be considered immoral and intolerable among whites is considered perfectly normal for whites to inflict on the slaves:  breaking up families and selling them off like horses at auction, for example.  In one stunning passage, she explicitly compares an escaped slave, George, who holds off his pursuers with a rifle, to Hungarian freedom fighters opposing Austrian oppression, a cause supported by many Americans.  What is the difference, she asks, other than color?  So much for sentimentality.

In many passages of the novel, Stowe references the sexual degradation that awaits pretty girls sold to less than humane masters, something which brought to my mind the statue The Greek Slave Girl by Hiram Powers, one of the most popular pieces of art in the 19th century.  Copies were made and widely distributed, and crowds lined up to see it.  The press did not often make the connection between Greeks sold into slavery by Turks and American enslavement of Africans, but some people did.  Moreover, literary accounts of ‘white’ girls, i.e. women who were legally black although of very light skin and hair, and were sold as slaves, were sometimes a sensation:  perhaps a truly white girl could, by mistake, find herself enslaved?  The knot of social/sexual issues surrounding all this is so huge, how can one hope to cut through it?  It is just this sort of mental/moral frisson, if not outrage, that Stowe calculated on producing in her readers.  Her armory was large:  if expositions of intellectual hypocrisy don’t convince try religion; If appeals to religious truth and values doesn’t work, try sex and violence; If that doesn’t work, try the sentimental.  They all lead to the same place – abolitionism.

I’m nearly through with the book, and I still don’t know why it’s called Uncle Tom’s Cabin…


Our Civil War

April 13, 2011

This week is the 150th anniversary of the start of the American Civil War.  Also known as:  The War Between the States; The War of Succession; War of Southern/Northern Agression; and The War for Southern Independence, among others things.   I prefer The War of Southern Rebellion or The Slave Society Rebellion Against the Union.  No matter how you spin it, and the spins are mighty, the cause of the war was slavery.

The South was a society built on slavery, and it could not coexist with the industrializing North.  The southerners rebelled to preserve their way of life, a plantation economy ruled by an elite of large slave owners, and a rabble of whites (antecedents of the storied “white trash“)  who at least weren’t black slaves.  After the war smashed the South, the former slaves enjoyed a brief period of freedom during Reconstruction, but the North made a deal that allowed it to reap the benefits of the South’s resources of agriculture and cheap labor, and left the African-Americans to fend for themselves in the neo-slavery of Jim Crow.  Slavery was done, and that was enough for most in the North.

Not everyone felt this way.  Thaddeus Stevens and his fellows understood that the South had rebelled, and left the Union.  He wanted the leaders of the Confederacy rounded up and shot, or at least imprisoned.  He wanted the plantations confiscated and parceled out to the former slaves, and used to compensate Union veterans.  He wanted the rebel states to be denied congressional representation until they could demonstrate that they deserved it yet again.  His view did not prevail, and the torrent of self-serving, sentimentalizing, dishonest, distorted and reactionary narratives began to pour forth from the North and South.  Today, the Confederate flag flies proudly in many locales – it’s just a cultural thing.  Yep, and I’m sure there are some old Germans who would like to display the swastika and SS skulls, just to preserve that culture…

You cannot understand American culture and politics today if you don’t contemplate the Civil War and its aftermath.


Accept all changes in document…

January 7, 2011

US Constitution Manuscript - Preamble and Article I

I was tickled to hear that the Constitution was being read in the House under the Republican’s leadership, a nod to their Tea Party backers.  Great, let’s get back to sources!  And who would read Article I, Section 2, and how would it be read?  I’ve bold faced the really interesting part.

Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.

There it is in black and white, the counting of slaves as 3/5 of a person, part of the Great Compromise that brought the slave states on board to ratify the Constitution and balanced the power of the states with a bicameral legislature, not to mention the fact that it was at the root of cataclysmic events in U.S. history. 

Well, according to the NYTimes article, an edited version was read that removed all text that was invalidated by later amendments, as well as the amendments themselves!  How’s that for history down the Memory Hole!  I guess that the congressmen and women are so used to tracking changes in documents with word processors – add edits and accept all changes, show Final without markup – that it makes sense to them.


Sweet Dreams of a Slaver

November 11, 2010

From Eugene Sue’s novel, Atar-Gull:  The Slave’s Revenge -

THE MYSTERY.

Brulart had carefully closed, bolted, padlocked, the door of his cabin. Without, not the slightest sound was to be heard, except at times the whisper of the breeze among the rigging, the rustling of the sails, and the murmur of the waves as they beat gently against the vessel’s poop, and opened in her wake into a long furrow of phosphorescent light; no more.

Again he listened; again gazed eagerly to see that no one was watching his movements. Then he advanced toward his great chest and opened it.

At first, you would have thought that the old hutch contained nothing; but, on examining it attentively, you would have discovered that it had a false bottom.

He raised the false bottom, and from one corner of that secret place drew out a little coffer covered with Russia leather.

That small casket, which was richly ornamented, bore a handsomely-emblazoned escutcheon. . ‘ It was, perhaps, Brulart^ coat armorial.

Brulart hermetically closed the curtains of the cabin window, and placed the precious casket upon his foul and greasy table, which he drew up toward the cot .

He stretched himself out in a half-reclining posture, after having disdainfully cast away the hat, the crown, the vest, and the trousers, of the late M. Benoit. Then he lifted the lid of the casket, and his eyes gleamed with a singular fire.

His face, ordinarily rude and savage, seemed to clear itself of its coarse and thick mask, and his powerfully-marked features appeared really handsome, so sudden and inimitable an expression of sweetness was displayed on them. He shook his thick hair, as a lion who scatters his mane from his eyes, parted the long, wild locks, and drew forth from the casket a little flask of crystal beautifully cut, and almost entirely concealed under the gold and jewels which adorned it.

Then he placed that marvellous toy close to the smoky and ill-savored lamp, and by its ruddy light observed its contents.

It was a thick, viscous, dark-colored liquid, at once deeper hued and more brilliant than coffee. It would seem that to him it was almost above price, for his eyes beamed with a sort of celestial joy, when he perceived that the precious flask was still nearly three quarters full.

He kissed it with unction, almost with affection, as one would kiss the hand of a virgin, and eet it down, not on his filthy table, — O, not so!— but on a little cushion of black velvet, all embroidered with pearls and with silver.

He also drew out from the same casket a little cup of gold, and a large flask of the same metal.

But during all these operations, there was on the face of Brulart as much reverence and adoration as there is on the face of a priest who is producing the sacrificial chalice from the tabernacle.

And delicately opening the little phial, he passed out drop by drop the seductive liquor, which fell in gouts brilliant as rubies.

Of these he counted twenty. Then he filled the cup with another liquor, as limpid and as clear as crystal, which thereupon assumed a ruddy, golden tint.

And he raised the cup to his greedy lips, drank it off slowly, with his eyes closed and his broad hand pressed upon his bosom. After this was done, he again locked up the cup and flask in the small casket, and the small casket in the chest, with the same reverence, the same care, the same adoration.

And when he arose, you would almost have lowered your eyes before his glance of inspiration, which seemed to dim the lustre of his lamp. He was handsome, magnificent, nay, admirable. His rags, his long beard, all were forgotten, all seemed to disappear before the incredible consciousness of bliss, which glowed over that brow, of late so dark and frowning, now smooth and pure as that of a young maiden.

“Farewell earth! now come heaven!” Such were his words, as he cast himself into bed.

Within ten minutes he was buried in deep sleep.

He had just taken his nightly dose of opium.

Now, by a singular phantasy, which can, however, readily be explained by custom and the continued practice of taking that drug, Brulart had come at last to take the factitious existence which he procured to himself by means of opium, with all its marvellous poetical creations, all its delirious imaginations, all its ravishing visions, for his true and actual life, the vague and confused memory of which seemed to glitter at moments through his spirit, in the daytime, amid the frightful scenes which were the usage of his days, even as the consciousness of some day of happiness will at times cause our hearts to expand even in the midst of some horrid dream. While, at the same time, he regarded his real life, — the life which he spent in the midst of his brigands, of robbery, and of murder, — almost as a dream, as a hideous night-mare, into which he allowed himself to be carelessly inveigled, and which he mechanically urged onward into the darkest horrors, according to the impulse, the whim of the moment, without reflection, without remorse, nay, even with a sort of secret enjoyment, like that of those persons who say to themselves vaguely, in the midst of some hideous dream, ” What matters it to me ? I shall awake, and all will bo well.”

In one word, it was a life reversed.

The fantastical had taken the place of the positive.

A dream had taken the place of reality.

It is difficult to believe,I know it. But try opium, madam, and you will believe me.

Moreover, it is well to put some confidence in a man of experience.


Fully Slaved

November 11, 2010

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Reading Marcus Rediker’s book, The Slave Ship: A Human History, I learned of the Liverpool Seamen’s Revolt of 1775.  The slave ship owners decided to seriously cut the wages of the crews, and the sailors responded with a labor rebellion.  They cut down the rigging from the ships, looted the homes of the rich slavers, commandeered canon and bombarded the Exchange, headquarters of the city elite.  It was noted that the rebels, violent and destructive as they were, treated most people decently, reserving their rage for the directors of the slave trade.  They were finally put down by the military after a few days. They were protesting against their awful treatment by the controllers of the slave trade, not the trade itself.

The term “fully slaved,” refers to a slave ship (slaver) that has its full complement of human cargo and is ready to sail for the Americas.  The process of acquiring slaves took months, and the toll on the captives waiting below deck, as well as the sailing crew subject to sickness, was terrible.  Rediker’s book details all aspects of life aboard a slaver and the economic and political web that surrounded them.  It makes for horrifying reading – the first time I delved into this subject in detail.  It also adds a lot to my reading of Melville’s Benito Cereno and Eugene Sue’s Atar Gull. The book is quite repetitive, and not too well-organized, but the depth of scholarship is amazing.

In the course of his narrative, Rediker touches at length on John Newton, the author of  the hymn “Amazing Grace.”  He points out that Newton did not speak out against slavery until nearly thirty years had passed after he left the trade.  Moreover, his famous conversion to evangelical religion took place while he worked the trade, and did not prevent him from continuing profitably in it, believing he was following God’s path.

Better late than never.

The images below are of an old movie theatre in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, that startled me the first time I drove by it years ago.


Voodoo Science

January 18, 2010

London, January 9 : Rajendra Pachauri, the chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), has described the Indian government report that criticized the claim by IPCC over the faster than expected melting of Himalayan glaciers, as “voodoo science“.

Voodoo economics [G. Bush on Reagan], “…Do do that voodoo, that you do so well..[Cole Porter]“, Voodoo Child [Hendrix]… 

the Haitian religion of Vodou has long been a cliche for superstion and black magic in American culture.  Maybe, with attention focused on the catastrophe facing Haiti, it’s time to think of it with a bit more sensitivity.  It’s just a hemispheric religon (Haiti, Brazil, Puerto Rico…etc.) going by different names, and with differing forms everywhere, that has its roots in the mixing of the beliefs of the African slaves dragged over here and the Christianity imposed on them.  It has its weird, vulgar, and nasty side – the pin-sticking dolls and curses – but what religion doesn’t?  Christianity??

That’s why I cringe a bit at Pachauri’s characterization of the inconvenient views of a glaciologist as “voodoo science.”  How about Catholic science?  He’s full of himself, anyway…

Just add it to the pile of  ethnic and racial slurs that give color to our language:

“He gyped me.”  Can’t trust a gypsy.
“He jewed me down to a lower price.”  Pretty obvious.
“She’s an Indian-giver.”  Yep, those redskins really screwed over the white people!

You can add your own.


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