Flying in a Dream

December 1, 2010

flying-dream

I began to walk down a steep path, winding like a serpent amidst the forest: at first in a light, elastic step; later, passing into a brisk, happy run which became gradually faster, until it resembled a gliding descent on skis.  I could regulate my speed at will and change course by light movements of my body.

This passage is from the end of a chapter called “Cinnamon Shops” in a book of fiction by Bruno Schulz called The Street of Crocodiles.  (Originally, it was titled, Cinnamon Shops).  I have this dream sometimes, and it’s always very pleasant and positive.  I don’t think I’ve ever read a description that so well captures the feeling and nature of my imaginary whooshing down the street.

Labels such as surrealist, magic realist, symbolist, etc. don’t do justice to the depth of feeling, the poetic atmosphere, and the richness of imagery and situation that Schulz creates in his stories.   His father gives a metaphysical exposition of the significance of tailors’ dummies; he keeps an aviary in an attic room, and believes he can fly with the birds; a puppy named Nimrod; a glimpse of Pan incarnated in the person of a homeless wonderer surprised in an overgrown garden… I read on.

I don’t know how I found out about Bruno Schulz, or how I missed him all these years.  I may have first seen one of his prints – made on scratched glass – from his suite called Idolatry.

  

Here is an excerpt from the conclusion of a chapter called The Gale.  Father is lost in the storm.  Two men go out to get him, but don’t get far.  An aunt visits, has an altercation with a fowl, and shrinks to nothing!

Wrapped in great bearskins, they weighted their pockets with flat-irons and kitchen mortars for ballast, to prevent them from being swept away by the gale.  Cautiously, the door was opened, leading into the night.  Barely had the shop assistant and my brother taken their first step into the darkness, their overcoats swelling, when the night swallowed them whole on the threshold of the house.  The gale washed away all trace of their departure in an instant.  Even the lanterns they had taken with them were nowhere to be seen through the window. 

Once it had engulfed them, the gale abated for a moment.  Adela and Mother tried again to light a fire in the range.  Ash and soot blew out through the tiny door, and their matches were extinguished.  We stood by the entrance and listened, seeming to hear amid the gale’s laments all manner of voices, persuasions, exhortations and gossip.  We thought we could hear Father, astray in the gale, calling for help, or my brother and Teodor chatting lightheartedly, just outside the door.  So convincing were the gale’s deceptions that Adela flung the door open–and in fact we did catch sight of Teodor and my brother, struggling into view out of the gale, in which they were immersed shoulder high.

They fell breathless into the hallway, struggling to fasten the door behind them.  For a moment it was all they could do to press themselves against the door, so powerfully was the gale assaulting the entrance.  But at last the bolt was shot home, and the wind hastened away. 

They spoke incoherently about the night and the gale.  Their furs, impregnated by the wind, now smelt of air.  They fluttered their eyelids in the brightness, and their eyes, still full of the night, bled darkness with every beat of their lids.  They had not been able to reach the shop.  They had lost their way, and barely managed to find their way back.  The town had been unrecognisable, so disarranged were all the streets.

Mother suspected that they were lying.  That whole scene, in fact, gave the impression that throughout that whole quarter of an hour they had been standing by the window, and gone nowhere at all.  Or perhaps there really was no town or market square any more, and the night and the gale had merely surrounded our house with dark coulisses, full of howling, whistling and groans.  Perhaps there were no such enormous and doleful expanses as the gale had suggested to us.  Perhaps there were no such lamentable labyrinths, such many-windowed passageways and corridors, played by the gale like long, black flutes.  We became increasingly convinced that the whole storm was merely the quixotism of the night, imitating tragical immensities in the narrower space of coulisses, acting out the cosmic homelessness and orphanhood of a gale. 

More and more often now, the door to our hallway was opened to admit guests, grey and muffled in cloaks.  A breathless neighbour or acquaintance would struggle out of his scarf and overcoat and exclaim in gasps, in a breathless voice, discontinuous, incoherent and fantastically magnified words which unreliably exaggerated the immensity of the night outside.  We all sat in the brightly lit kitchen.  Beyond the hearth of the range, beyond the wide black hood of the chimney, a few steps led to the attic door. 

On those stairs sat Teodor, the elder shop assistant, listening intently as the attic rang throughout with the gale.  He could hear in the gale’s pauses how the bellows of the attic’s ribs arranged themselves into folds, how the roof grew limp, and sagged like enormous lungs whose breath has escaped them, and how it drew breath once more, rising up into palisades of rafters, growing like a Gothic vault, spreading out into a forest of beams, filled with a hundredfold echo, how it reverberated like the box of an enormous double bass.  But later, we forgot about the gale.  Adela was pounding cinnamon in a chiming mortar.  Aunt Perazja had come to visit.  Small, mobile and thrifty, the lace of her black shawl tied around her head, she began to bustle about the kitchen, lending a hand to Adela, who had plucked a cockerel.  Aunt Perazja lit a handful of papers under the hood of the chimney, and broad sheets of flame rose up from them, into the air, into the black abyss.  Adela, holding the cockerel by its neck, lifted it over the flames in order to burn off its few remaining feathers.  Suddenly, the cockerel beat its wings in the fire, crowed, and was consumed.  Aunt Perazja began to shake, to curse and shout abuses.  Shaking with vexation, she shook her fists at Adela and Mother.  I had no idea what had so upset her, but she worked herself up in her anger into an ever rising state of frenzy–she became one great cluster of gesticulations and execrations.  It seemed that she would gesticulate herself to pieces in that paroxysm of vexation, divide, and disperse in all directions, into a hundred spiders, and branch out across the floor in a black, twinkling burst like the paths of crazy cockroaches.  But instead, she began to grow rapidly smaller, to contract, trembling more and more and pouring out profanities.  Suddenly hunched and small, she tottered to the corner of the kitchen where the firewood was stacked.  Cursing and coughing, she began to rummage fervidly among the resounding wood, until she found two thin yellow splinters.  She seized them, her hands fluttering with agitation, and measured them against her legs.  She mounted them like stilts, and proceeded to walk around on those yellow crutches, clattering over the floorboards, running faster and faster, back and forth in an oblique line across the floor.  Then she ran up onto a pine bench, hobbling along its clattering planks, and from there onto a shelf of plates, a resounding wooden shelf running the whole length of the kitchen wall.  She ran along it, her knees propelling her stiltlike crutches, finally–somewhere in the corner, growing smaller and smaller–to blacken and curl up like shrivelled, charred paper, smouldering into a flake of ash, crumbling into dust and nothingness. 

We all stood helpless before that raging fury of vexation that had consumed and digested itself.  We looked with sympathy on the sad course of that paroxysm, and returned to our everyday tasks somewhat relieved when that woeful process had come to its natural end. 

Adela once more clattered her mortar, pounding the cinnamon, whilst Mother continued her interrupted conversation, and Teodor, the elder shop assistant, listening to the attic’s prophesies, pulled comical grimaces, raising high his eyebrows and chuckling to himself. 

Translated by John Curran Davis – Draft of September 2010 www.schulzian.net

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Mao & Political purges: theory and practice

May 19, 2010

The Long March is over, but I am only half through Phillip Short’s engrossing biography of Mao Zedong.  To escape encirclement by Chiang kai-shek’s GDP armies, vastly outnumbering the communists, Mao led the Red forces on a trek thousands of miles long to the northern desert wastes where they were able to establish a base and rebuild their strength.  The march was an incredible feat of stamina, daring, brilliant strategy, and a bit of luck.  It was in their secure retreat at the end of it that Edgar Snow interviewed Mao for his book, Red Star Over China.

As I try to fathom the last member of the the 20th century’s triple crown of evil, Hitler, Stalin, and Mao, I am struck by Mao’s differences from Stalin as portrayed respectively by Short and Montefiore (The Court of the Red Tsar, Young Stalin).  Mao was not a paranoid mental case as Stalin appears to have been.  Like Stalin, he had a classical education.  Unlike Stalin, he was not enthusiastic about violence right from the start.  Joe seems to have relished the chaotic and violent life of a revolutionary outlaw bandit ‘expropriating’ bank funds for the Bolsheviks and organizing terrorist attacks; Mao, at first, was drawn to anarchism and communitarianism, and was repelled by ‘needless’ violence.  Mao was incredibly self-confident about his abilities as a military commander and politician, apparently with good reason.  Stalin was a bumbler as generalissimo, and always felt insecure around intellectuals.

A major difference between Russia’s revolution and China’s was that the Soviet state was founded by a military coup that was followed by a brutal civil war lasting a few years.  China’s ‘revolution’ was, in fact, a twenty-year civil war that ranged across the nation, and was fought with terrifying brutality, including frequent use of scorched-earth tactics by Chiang.  Mao rose to prominence, with frequent setbacks and dismissals by the central administration, while Stalin quietly and steadily homed in on supreme power.  Mao was so outspoken about his views, often directly in conflict with the center and with the USSR, that he was often reprimanded, accused of various political heresies, e.g. ‘right opportunism,’ ‘flightism,’ and ‘high flown-ism.’  He was adept at retiring from the fray at the right moment and waiting, sometimes in desparation, until the Party begged him to return and save their butts from disaster.

Eventually, his military strategy, and his insistence that the Chinese peasants must be at the heart of the revolution, despite the orthodox communist view that industrial workers and tradesmen must lead it, was accepted.    There’s no question:  his astute views, rooted in his deep knowledge of China – he produced several landmark studies of the peasantry, remarkable for their detail and understanding – were behind his role as the unifier and liberator of China.

One could take him for an Abe Lincoln or George Washington figure, which is the criticism made of Snow’s book.  Before the Long March, the dark side of Mao’s future was also apparent.  In Futian, during one of the GDP’s encirclement campaigns, the first big purges broke out among the communists.  They were massive, bloody, and indescriminate.  Short attributes them to the insanity-producing conditions of living in fear of the GDP, soldiers fearing destruction of their families by the GDP, the meddling Stalinist influence of the Soviet advisors, and the fact that most of the men were uneducated and illiterate.  Not to mention that Chinese history is filled with bloody and manic purges, so there was a tradition to uphold.

Just as in Russia, the purges were self-destructive, carrying off many needed, capable, and loyal party members, but these purges were before those of Stalin!  They seem to have risen from the grass roots upwards, rather than being concocted completely at the top and forced downward on everybody.  According to Short, Mao at first believed them to be justified, and then felt they had gone too far.  After that, he took a pragmatic and self-serving view.  Such ‘excesses’ were inevitable in brutal class war.  They helped enforce party discipline.  The cost of opposing them might be too high.  The man who had urged Red Army recruits to pay peasants for their food, always be polite, never strike a civilian, and who had urged good treatment of prisoners, including freeing them with the offer to join up with the cause, became comfortable with mass murder as a political tool.  The origin of the purges in the mind-numbing horror of the flight from the GDP foretells the insanity of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, barely remaining human under the onslaught of bombing by American B-52s at the tail end of the Vietnam War.

This raised a question in my mind about that other dictator/mass murder, Hitler.  Holocaust scholars debate the nature and ‘function’ of his campaign against the Jews, but did he have purges?  Other than the famous Night of the Long Knives, admired by Stalin, which was a calculated move to consolidate power over the Nazi party, I haven’t heard of any.  Perhaps the attempt to exterminate the Jews, despite the diversion of resources and the other practical problems it raised, was simply one long and very successful purge.  And it performed the same salutory function for the state:  maintenance of a state of terror and abject discipline.  Without the Jews, the Nazis might have turned on themselves repeatedly.  If the Jews hadn’t existed, it would have been necessary to invent them…


Chosen few

October 4, 2009

Onan - Genesis 33:8

The Bible, the Book of Genesis in particular, has been coming up in my daily rounds, lately.  I’ve been on a Bible binge of late:  read the King James Five Books of Moses, got the Wolverton illustrated version, and was just looking at some nice linoleum prints of the text in my local library.

And…R. Crumb’s long-anticipated illustrated version of the first book of the Bible, “All 50 chapters!  Nothing left out!” has arrived at last.  For devotees of Crumb or the good book, it’s a happy day.  Crumb has played it straight, so if you are hoping that he has turned the stories into an excuse for weirding us out, you will be disappointed.  If you doubt it, look at his representation of Onan in the leading image of this post:  Who would have thought that coitus interruptus would be treated with such discretion by the creator of the Snoid, Mr. Natural, Fritz the Cat, and innumerable other phallic maniacs? Eve and the Serpent

He stays very close to the text, although the words are not my favorites, but a modern translation, and he’s done a lot of research.  He did take a liberty with the serpent – showing him as an upright lizard with legs rather than a snake – or did he?  In his notes, he gives a convincing justification for his change from tradition.

Abraham is the patriarch to whom God makes an offer that he cannot refuse.  He really can’t – Sacrifice of Isaacdeclining an offer from Yahweh is not an option.  Somehow, I feel that the story of Abraham and Isaac is the center of the whole convenant thing between Jehovah and the Jews.  Was it really such a good deal for the Jews to be the Chosen People?  It had advantages, but oy!, in the long-term?  There really wasn’t a choice in the matter, maybe that’s the ultimate lesson of the story.

Which brings us up to the present time:  Marek Edelman was remembered in an obituary in the New York Times yesterday.  Edelman was the last survivor of the Jewish uprising – he didn’t think that word was appropriate – against the Nazis as they moved to destroy the Warsaw ghetto and murder all of its inhabitants…liquidate is the word that everyone uses.  Apparently, he was prone to speaking inconvenient truths, are at least, truths as he saw them.  He dismissed the word “uprising” saying it was simply the desperate attempt by a couple of hundred people to determine when they would die and how.  There was not question of success.  He was not keen on Israel or Zionism.  He decided to remain in Poland all his life, a fact which drove some Jewish scholars of the Holocaust batty.  He ridiculed the notions of heroism that people retroactively assigned to some peoples’ actions, while others, those who went quietly to their deaths, were categorized as passive.  He said they only did what they could to maintain their dignity, to comfort their families for whom there was no hope at all of rescue.

For some Jews, the question of the nature of the deal they got from God rankles.  “If we are the Chosen People, how could you let this happen?”  Which brings up the question – Chosen for what?

For a depressing sample of scholarly venom deployed against Edelman, read these letters in Commentary from the 1980s regarding an article on Poles and Jews.  Commentary is a creature of the Podhoretz gang, a bunch of Jewish former leftists who “got religion” and turned hard right.  The original neo-cons.


Life and Fate

May 18, 2008

I feel comfortable calling this novel, Life and Fate, one of the greatest ever – certainly of all I’ve read.  For years, I had heard of this book, and finally I am reading it.  All 850 pages of it.  It is a monument to the disaster of the twentieth century, the century of mass murder, totalitarian rule, and ideological dementia.

That’s Vassily Grossman up there, the loyal communist who served as a war correspondent on the front lines with the Soviet Army and who wrote the first journalistic accounts – he was an eyewitness – of the liberation of the Nazi death camps.  He must have seen too much, learned too much.  His novel was written in secret, published outside of the USSR – he was hounded, his typwriter and its RIBBONS confiscated.  He died not knowing if his work would see the light of day.  When he wrote this book, he had come to believe that Nazism and Stalin’s Communism were different only in name – not an idea that you could hold comfortably if you were living in Russia.

He wrote of Stalingrad – the mind boggling six month battle that broke the German war machine and sent them reeling back to Berlin.  (Here in the USA, we think of D-Day as the “mother of all battles,” but on the eastern front, they had a D-Day practically every week.)  He wrote of the civilians on their way to the gas chambers.  He wrote of decent men and women trying to serve their country and rid it of the Nazi murderers, but having to always look over their shoulder in case the NKVD was listening in on them.  That joke you told…that song you were singing..was it in the Bolshevik spirit?  You say you held off thirty German attacks here?  Then why haven’t you filed your reports?  Are you taking care to inculcate the proper class-spirit with your men?… He wrote of intellectuals trying to deal with the horror of the purges of the 1930s and of the Ukranian famine – all directed by the Supremo, Comarade Stalin.  He wrote of the Gulag.  And he wrote of the disease of anti-semitism, in Germany and in the USSR.

The title of the book echoes Tolstoy’s War and Peace for obvious reasons.  Recently, I gave up reading Gravity’s Rainbow, which I read twice many years ago.  That book, similarly ambitious in scope, seems like a trivial joke next to Grossman’s work.  The same for Vollman’s Europe Central.  Grossman uses no clever tricks, no post-modern jive, no meta-ironies…none of that.  He has a style though.  He knows exactly what he is doing:  hitting you over the head with a gigantic brick so you will know a little bit of what he saw.