Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Tuesday Stew

ToibinA few posts back I reported on the Vatican's anti-gay witchhunt, which continues. The most recent policy involves preventing gay men--that is men with a "deep-seated tendency," or in other words, men whose sexual orientation probably is on the far end of the Kinsey scale--from serving as heads of seminaries. Since there probably are gay men now serving as seminary leaders, this makes me wonder if the Vatican is going to start actively rooting these men out or just rely on time and attrition? Will they employ spies? Send subscriptions to Titanmen or Enriquecruz.com to the seminary directors, or truck in hot applicants, or mail out invitations to the next Black and Blue Party or maybe just a Dignity gathering, and see how they respond? (All of these presume we're talking about gay and bisexual men, and not the pedophiles and ephebophiles that have been the agents of the abuse and the source of the scandals.)

At any rate, the award-winning Irish writer Colm Toibín (at right, photo by Bruce Weber) in his London Review of Books writeup of a new book on the priest sex scandals in Ireland, The Ferns Report, describes his experiences "At St. Peters," an Irish Catholic boys' school, during the 1970s. It turns out that a lot more was going on than Toibín, at the time a young man growing increasingly aware of his (homo)sexuality, fathomed. In fact, one of the coolest priests he came across turned out later to have been a...monster. But it wasn' t only the boys these men of the church had their eyes on; another priest rubbed his face against young girls' jaws and groped their thighs... But I'll let you read Toibín's account, which is most damning of the Irish Catholic Church hierarchy. As was the case here, they turned their heads or closed their eyes or took perfunctory measures, and let the abuse rage on. A quote:

When the Ferns Report came out, I was eager to read it because I had known these three men. I had believed that the problem lay in their becoming priests. If they had gone to Holland or San Francisco, I believed, they would now be happily married to their boyfriends. But as I read the report, I began to think that this was hardly the issue. Instead, the level of abuse in Ferns and the Church’s way of handling it seemed an almost intrinsic part of the Church’s search for power. It is as though when its real authority began to wane in Ireland in the 1960s, the sexual abuse of those under its control and the urge to keep that abuse secret and the efforts to keep abusers safe from the civil law became some of its new tools.


Les BanlieuesIn the same issue of the London Review of Books, writer Jeremy Harding, in his "Diary from Paris," discusses the recent uprisings in France. He begins by noting a linguistic curiosity, which was that the verb used in graffiti to provoke the rioters, "Riot" or "Stir yourself up"--"Émeute-toi!"--was reflexive, which marked a change from earlier uses of the word "émeute," such as "faire une émeute" or "émeuter." Obscure as this sounds, Harding goes on to link this to the main point of his article, which is that the main beneficiary of the uprisings has been Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, not the rioters (who've only received the usual lip service), and that the empowered Sarkozy will view his increased popularity as capital to enact his ultimate aim, which is to impose a kind of "Anglo-American" neoliberalism on France, at grave cost to the society. A quote:

The riots may make the country readier to face the fact that it is ‘multiple’, even if the idea is disagreeable. In that much, the rioters will have achieved something, even for their own. But the episode will do more, I guess, for Sarkozy. He’s made his position clear about the rabble, and cleaning out the bad guys from the estates with a power hose – and most recently about the vices of polygamy among the Africans in France – and altogether he’s caused a stir. But his most significant point was apparently rather mild by comparison, and nothing much has been made of it. He was appearing on a TV programme about a week and a half into the riots, and remarked that the problem with the underprivileged suburbs was that they’d always been approached within the framework of ‘social policy’ – benefits and patch-up funds of various sorts – when really it was a ‘jobs policy’ (‘politique du travail’) that would revive them.

PamukThe recent issue of The Nation features excerpts (translated by Maureen Freely) of the speech that Turkey's greatest living writers, Orhan Pamuk (at left, gave after receiving the Peace Prize from the German Book Trade Association. The piece is entitled "In Kars and Frankfurt." Pamuk, the author of Snow, The Black Book, and other novels, is on trial in Turkey for "insulting Turkish national identity" because of his comments detailing the Turkish genocide against Kurds and Armenians and other ethnic minorities. Pamuk discusses the relationship between Turkey and the EU, which has become fraught as some European nations have hedged on admitting to their union a nation whose historical and cultural links to them extend back millennia, yet whose contemporary religious, political, economic, and social character in many presents a sharp contrast. One quote:

Having grown up in a Westernized secular family in the European part of Istanbul, it is not at all difficult for me--or people like me--to believe in the European Union. Don't forget, since childhood my football team, Fenerbahçe, has been playing in the European Cup. There are millions of Turks like me, who believe heart and soul in the European Union. But what is more important is that most of today's conservative and Muslim Turks, and with them their political representatives, want to see Turkey in the European Union, help to plan Europe's future, dreaming it into being and helping to build it. Coming as it does after centuries of war and conflict, this gesture of friendship cannot be taken lightly, and to reject it outright would be cause for huge regret. Just as I cannot imagine a Turkey without a European prospect, I cannot believe in a Europe without a Turkish prospect.


LudacrisIt's been a good while since I've watched a music awards show. I used to like catching them when I was younger, because I was actively following the various major entertainers and R&B, hiphop and rock groups that were on the scene and enjoyed the spectacles, the minstrelsy, the musical performances, the gaffes, the cognitive disruptions, even the basic dish of who was seated next to whom, who was making clear they had beef, and so on. Nowadays I still do listen to a lot of current music, especially hiphop and rock, but I long ago gave up on the awards shows, since they are basically stuck in the same groove they've been in for a while, and to tell the truth, there're just too many of them for their own good. Music awards, in my opinion, really have no meaning anymore (certainly they have nothing to do with aesthetic quality, even under the broadest understanding of that term) except as means of validating the mass consumerist spectacle and commodity machine these folks are contributing mightily to. (And in this they're quite in line with most folks in our society.)

So I missed the Vibe awards, which both Knightbird and Clay Cane blogged about. But I have kept coming back to the photo at right, of Ludacris clad in Confederate symbols, as the face of Martin Luther King, Jr. (and Malcolm X, according to Knightbird) looms in the background. Talk about cognitive and visual dissonance! Supposedly he was rapping about Georgia, to add insult to injury. But then, even if there weren't a Black face in the background and even if he weren't rapping about Georgia, the very fact that Ludacris would clad himself in the very symbols and iconography of a sign system whose reason for being was to ensure the enslavement and domination and murder of Black bodies, Black people, Black men like him, just boggles my mind. Perhaps he is or was unaware of the history of the Confederacy, its brutal approach to free Black people or Black Union soldiers or Black fugitive slaves, or of its enduring power for Southern (and American in general) racism and white supremacy, or even of the more recent battles to remove the Confederate flag and other symbols of that system--because it wasn't just a culture or a nation in rebellion, but an entire system of thought and way of life, realized in political and social terms. Perhaps he really is just that ignorant, or indifferent.

Either way, seeing this image turned my stomach because of the sheer power of its assault. The Ku Klux Klan, the Southern League, the White Citizens' Councils, any of those groups could easily have devised this image. I understand the concepts of appropriate, reappropriation, irony, détournement, and so forth, but I seriously doubt that Ludacris was taking any of these into account. As Knightbird wrote, "I said during the performance that we need to get colored folk off TV, if this is the shit they are going provide to our community. It is getting so painful to watch black folk on this anymore, but I swear this Confederate Flag wearing brotha just blew my mind." Clay wrote,"I guess this docile negro dwarf thought he was representing the ATL, but no one educated him that the people that support the Confederate wouldn't have his colored ass on TV!"

I totally agree. I also think about all the young people who saw this and thought, Oh, the Confederate Flag really isn't so bad, because Ludacris had it on, and he's Black and a rapper, and if he's wearing it, it's nothing more than a fashion statement. Yeah, right. I hope that someone spoke to Ludacris about his free and very offensive ad. Rap on, Deluded-crous...


Lastly, here's another kind of spectacle. I haven't watched Trading Spouses or any shows like it in quite a while, but this Crooks and Liars clip from a recent episode has to be seen to be believed. It's so outrageous--well, I won't say any more, but definitely watch it to the end. The screeching behemoth, a "warrior" for Christ, decides that she's willing to compromise her "faith" after all. Gastrointestinal bypasses, for the righteous or unrighteous, don't come cheaply! (The direct QT link is here.)


  1. "[...] the EU, which has become fraught at some European nations have hedged on admitting to their union a nation whose cultural links to them extend back millennia [...]"

    This statement is entirely false. It is true that the indigenous inhabitants of Asia Minor were linguistically and culturally Western in every way that mattered. However, the modern inhabitants of that land, i.e. the Turks, are the descendants of Siberian nomads who invaded Asia Minor in 1071 AD and proceeded to do the natives what the British, Franch, Portuguese and Spaniards did to the natives in the so-called "New World" - mass slaughter followed by settlement.

    It would make as much sense to consider modern America to be the logical spiritual successor of the Sioux and the Comanche. And it would be just as morally offensive as well.

  2. I love reading your blog. I have a question for you that is rather off topic, but would love your opinion. You mentioned Colm Toibin in today's entry, and I've always loved his writing. Last year's winner of the Pulitzer was Hollingshurst, as you know, and while I think his prose is brilliant--none better--I personally thought that "The Master" was an incomparably more affecting, "deeper" book, if you will, than Hollingshurst's novel (the name of which escapes me at the moment). Have you read Toibin? What do you think of their respective work?

    Kai in NYC

  3. Donald, you're so right about his name, which I believe he chose without irony....

    Sephiroth, your comparison between the US and Turkey is incommensurate. In fact, Greeks and other European groups remain in Turkey, and have intermingled since 1075 AD with the current inhabitants, with more than traces of the prior cultures remaining and elements of Turkish culture having spread, through the Ottoman Empire, into Europe and across the Middle East. The result is that the current inhabitants of Turkey are linked by history and tradition to Western Europe. I'd said nothing about "spiritual succession"--that appears to be your issue. As to how Turkey's historical and cultural links to Europe are "morally offensive" might be something you want to explore in another forum.

    Kai, thanks so much for reading! I haven't read "The Master" yet, though I have read several other of Toibín's works. I think Hollinghurst has greater linguistic facility, but writes some version of the same book over and over, whereas Toibín's range, in terms of content, is broader. Both are fascinating and very talented writers by any measure!

  4. I think you are badly misinformed. There are only 3000 Greeks left in Constantinople, almost all of them elderly, and only 18000 Armenians left. The vast bulk of Turkey's population are the descendants of the Seljuk invaders (65%), the remaining being Kurds (30%), Arabs (3%), Laz (1.5%), with vestigal communities of Greeks, Armenians, Assyrians and Sephardis (0.5%)

    Anyways, it should be fairly obvious to anyone that the vast bulk of modern Turkey's cultural and psychological makeup derives not from Western culture but instead from Islam and the folkways of Central Asia. Certainly one could find sociocultural practices that are borrowed from Hellenic or Armenian peoples, but then again one could also find a not small number of Indian or Aborginal traditions in the US or AU.

    Culture aside, Turkey's slaughter of its Kurds (unpunished by the West), its illegal occupation and ethnic cleansing of Cyprus (again unpunished by the West), its sickening denial of the Armenian Holocaust (ditto), and its murderous starvation blockade of the Armenian Republic (again) are what motivates most opponents of Turkey's EU ambitions, such as myself.

  5. Thanks for replying, and, if you would allow me to continue the discussion . . . What's at heart for me, especially in the case of "The Line of Beauty" winning the Booker over "The Master" is whether greater linguistic facility does (in the common understanding) or ought triumph over deeper work (deeper in the sense of a wider ranging imagination, and emotional and sociological nuance). The prose of "A Line of Beauty" is, sentence by sentence, so beautiful, so superb; and yet, at the end, I sort of yawned and closed the book. "The Master" moved me to tears, and was so subtle and exquisite--at least in its efforts, if not entirely in its accomplishments. When you, John, judge or compare two books, do you find yourself more concerned with which more profoundly delves into the themes being treat, or which displays the greater linguistic facility? I'm really so curious, because it seems I hold very much a minority opinion.

  6. Sephiroth, you appear to have more statistics at hand than I do, so I'll concede that part of the argument. Although Turkey is more than Istanbul (that is the capital's current name, correct?), and although Greeks, Armenians (yes, I know they were subjected to a genocide by Turkey), Kurds, Sephardim, Arabs, Assyrians, and others do live in other parts of the country than Istanbul, including in some regions like Anatolia, Izmir and Erzurum, you are probably right on the exact figures. (BTW, you might want to contact the CIA Factbook people, who give out different figures, which I am not going to assume are correct, given their track record with info on other areas--but they do conflict with yours.)

    Again, you're overreaching in what I wrote. Try reading it again. I didn't say that "the vast bulk of modern Turkey's cultural and psychological makeup" derived from Western culture, which appears to be your fixation. I wrote that Western Europe and Turkey shared historical and cultural links. YOU are the one who keeps inferring things that aren't there.

    But your comparison of Native cultures remains incommensurate. Numerous US place names, aspects of US social and political organization, geographical bounderies, and so on show the profound influence of the Native presence in the Americas, not just in the US, but across two continents. It's of course more evident in those places (Mexico, Peru, etc.) where the Native American populations were not completely politically and socially isolated, marginalized, or worst, wiped out. Still the links are there, and if you're at all cognizant of contemporary American studies, American literary studies, and Native American studies discussions concerning the circulation and production of US cultural and history, you'd know that your characterization no longer holds much sway.

    Nevertheless, the real issue appears to be your marked dislike of Turkey. If we were to be ticking off crimes against humanity, then Germany and Austria ought to remain international pariahs rather than the economic anchors of the EU. While most people would agree that Germany's loss in the Second World War, the destruction of its cities and the Nuremberg Trials constituted sufficient punishment, the fact remains that numerous members of the Nazi Party were allowed to resume positions of influence just a decade after the end of the war, and the country itself quickly ceased to be an international pariah. Austria has never sufficiently apologized for its role in the Holocaust, going so far as to elect a Nazi War criminal as its leader at one point, and electing Haider's right-wing pro-Nazi party just a few years ago. Its citizens and troops eagerly welcomed Hitler, a native Austrian, and it played a key role in the machinery of slaughter. France, Spain, Britain, Portugal and the Netherlands, etc. have never apologized for the widespread destruction adn devastation they caused in Africa, the Caribbea and Latin America, and have fought any real discussion of reparations despite the fact all grew fabulously rich off of the material wealth and human exertions of millions of people, black and brown. When they do sufficiently address their history, do let me know.

    In terms of Turkey's various crimes, I agree that they have gone without punishment though not without overt criticism by the West. These are issues that the EU should take up with Turkey if the union is seriously considering admitting Turkey.

    My original point was to highlight the words of Orhan Pamuk, whose appeal was addressed directly to Europe. Perhaps Europeans bedeviled by Turkey's execrable record could speak directly to Turkey's intellectuals, like Pamuk, as well as to its rulers, and seek answers and a change of course, at least in terms of the ongoing mistreatment of the Kurdish minority and of Armenia (which as I gather has been engaged in an ongoing struggle with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabak, correct?).

  7. Kai (right)?

    I definitely appreciate the exchange!

    Let's see. I wouldn put only so much value in literary (or other) awards, because the truth is that while they occasionally do honor the best achievements, often they are riven by political and other considerations and end up being awarded for something other than what they're supposed to do.

    One frequent consideration for prize committees, it seems, is whether an author who should have won for an earlier book was denied, passed over or missed, so that she or he will be rewarded for a work that perhaps isn't as strong, etc. For example, this year's winner of the National Book Award for Poetry was the elderly, heavily belauded writer W.S. Merwin (who already has received the Pulitzer Prize, the Yale Younger Poet's Prize and almost every other American poetic honor). Merwin had been passed over several times for the National Book Award, so this year it seems like the judges went out of their way to credit him, though there were far better books--better by multiple aesthetic criteria--that Merwin's volume.

    In other cases, it could be not only the judges' aesthetic affinity for or conflicts with a given writer, but personal issues as well. Then there are moral and ideological issues that might arise.

    In general I tend to value books that are more daring in their conception and aims, that risk everything, over books that are conventual and more formally polished, though as a writer and artist, I never cease to hold awe for writers and works that gleam with linguistic genius and stylistic facility. There is something to be said for putting all the pieces into place beautifully. Yet some of the greatest works don't do this--at least not fully. There is HAMLET and there is MACBETH. There is JULIUS CAESAR and there is OTHELLO. Does MOBY DICK? Does THE MASTER AND MARGARITA? Does BELOVED? Does COUNT JULIAN? Does HOPSCOTCH? Does DISGRACE? Does ELIZABETH COSTELLO? But really, I would rather read Whitman's poetry over Emerson's, or Dickinson's over Wordsworth's; or John Ashbery and Gwendolyn Brooks rather than Robert Lowell or Richard Wilbur; or Amiri Baraka or any number of poets who can put together a perfect sonnet. I feel the same way about fiction--but I also feel that formal and stylistic polish deserve praise as well, and most of the greatest writers achieve both, at least most of the time.

    Prize committees usually go with what's safest, or with an author they know over someone they don't. Not always, but often. This is why it took William Faulkner, one of the greatest fiction writers ever to appear in America, till his late career to win the Pulitzer Prize--none of his greatest works, all of which are widely acknowledged as masterpieces--The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, Absalom, Absalom, and Light in August--were passed over, to give one example.

    Judges and prize committees often honor formal polish (and innovation, within conventions) over a work that may be rougher but more profound. So it very well may have been the case that Hollinghurst's novel, which I have read and which is pristine, garnered the Man Booker over Toibín's, though really the important thing is not which book wins the prize, since Toibín is highly regarded and well known in the literary world and to many readers, but what moves any given reader and what endures. Perhaps Toibín's book, with its exploration of one of the great literary figures, its emotional and psychological depths, its richer human portrait--of its protagonist, as opposed to the broader canvas of society, which often is Hollinghurst's forte, will be the work that lasts. Perhaps both will. We may not know. It is usually the case, though, that formally experimental, innovative or revelatory works that connect with readers--more than a handful, that is-- inspire readers and imitators well into the future; writers and readers inspired by the likes of Pindar, Virgil, Dante, George Herbert, John Donne, John Milton, John Keats, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Laurence Sterne, W.B. Yeats, Gertrude Stein, Pablo Neruda, José Lezama Lima, Jorge Luis Borges, Ishael Reed, Samuel Delany, Jay Wright, etc.

    Shakespeare's well, of course, is inexhaustible.