Fragments Written While Unemployed

How to explain the nothing feeling
of early morning drive to school?

Still dark in the sky
the boy takes a stand on Hawking’s particle (the elder)
and how all black holes are doomed to evaporate.

The other one — the younger — silent throughout
the arrival . . .

Sweet hugs and waves goodbye.

***

Old Argos
dying on a heap of dung
your nose once aflame for prey

Odysseus has returned at last
from twenty years away

***

Allen took a trip down South
hoping for shamans/ god-death visions
—the expansion of his mind

But found instead . . . an anteater
nosing the wall, its enclosure
—Santiago Zoo

***

two woodpeckers and a hawk
six turtles lazing in the sun

tacos and tap water from the market we passed along the way

I see transparent minnows
swimming against the current
and a lost pencil — ( how here? ) —
babbling down the rocks . . .

minnows don’t care
woodpeckers and hawk don’t care
turtles at rest in the sun

the elder and the younger off for more
tacos down Copperfield trail —

***

cold morning/ central Texas
snow now melting
a likelihood of summer
by end of day

***

FINIS


(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) 2020 Micah Robbins

Black Austin Rally and March for Black Lives

Black Austin Rally and March for Black Lives, Austin, TX, June 7, 2020

Two weeks to the day since police officer Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd, an African American man, in the streets of Minneapolis, and after massive nation-wide protests, rioting, hideously aggressive police tactics, and the deployment of the National Guard in more than twenty states, protests against police brutality and in defense of Black lives continue across America and around the world. Here in Austin, Texas, protesters have been in the streets since late May, targeting the Capitol building, the Austin Police Department HQ, and the highly-trafficked Interstate Highway 35, which cuts directly through the center of the city. There has been violence, most notably by police who have critically injured several people,1 yet there has also been a tremendous display of nonviolent outrage against the over-policing of Black communities and the white supremacy that justifies this system.

The largest protest occurred Sunday afternoon, when the Austin Justice Coalition held a nonviolent march from Huston-Tillotson University, Austin’s only HBCU, to the Austin State Capitol, which is currently occupied by the Texas Army National Guard. Billed as the Black Austin Rally and March for Black Lives, this Black centered yet multiracial event drew thousands to the streets to demand justice for victims of police brutality and the end of systemic racism, especially as it operates in the criminal justice system. I was humbled to march with them, and I came away from the protest deeply moved by what I saw and heard there.

The first thing I should note is that the sheer size of the protest was astonishing. It is difficult to estimate how many people were in attendance, but on two occasions I climbed up small embankments along the side of the road, and I was unable to see the end of the crowd as it stretched both before and behind me. I know crowd sizes can be deceiving when so many people are gathered in such close proximity, and being in the middle of a mass of people makes estimating its size all the more difficult, but my impression was that many thousands were in the streets. After so many days of protests, a crowd of this size is impressive and suggests that this movement has real staying power. I was also encouraged by the demographic makeup of the protest. There were a large number of African American Austinites in attendance, and they took the lead in speaking and marching to the Capitol (as was appropriate), but the crowd was very diverse, both in terms of race/ethnicity and age. It was heartening to see such a diverse cross section of the Austin community come together to demand justice for victims of police brutality and the end of racist police practices.

I should also note that the crowd’s mood was both solemn and positive, odd as that mix may seem. The solemnity came from listening to members of the African American community speak about the pain of living in a racist society, but also from hearing them call on white people to do the hard work of dismantling racism within their own hearts, as well as within the larger culture. It was also difficult to listen to Brenda Ramos, mother of Mike Ramos, who was Black and Latinx, speak about her unarmed son being shot to death by the Austin police.2 Yet despite these heavier moments, people seemed energized and positive—sharing water and snacks, distributing masks and hand sanitizer, playing drums and chanting together—and there was a palpable sense of solidarity as we marched to the Capitol.

But what touched me most deeply about the day’s events were the comments delivered by Chas Moore, founder of Austin Justice Coalition, at Huston-Tillotson University before the march officially began. He spoke directly to Black people, affirming their value and reminding them that they are not the problem. But he also spoke directly to white people such as myself, challenging us to look deep within our hearts and ask: What are we willing to sacrifice in order to achieve racial justice in America? Are we willing to be honest with ourselves and recognize that we are the ones who have built and maintained a system of white supremacy that is designed to benefit us while causing so much harm to our neighbors? Do we have the courage to fight from within ourselves and our communities to dismantle this system, even if that means relinquishing power? These are challenging questions that penetrate directly to the root of the problem, questions that carry with them the clear moral imperative to act against racial injustice.  

Moore is right when he says that marching for racial justice means very little if we are unwilling to first transform ourselves and then fight for practical measures that will lead to true equality. Better than marching is demanding just redistributive measures, even if those measures come at your own expense. Better than chanting slogans is supporting affordable housing, even if doing so depresses your own property value. Better than posting a black square to Instagram is sending your children to public schools, even if you have the means to pay tuition at a fancy private school. (And perhaps those of us with PhDs who are struggling with the current academic job market should be getting certified to teach in the public schools rather than looking to private academies as an alternative to colleges and universities.) I wish I felt more confident that a majority of white Americans have the courage and love of justice to do these things–and much, much more–but listening to Moore call for such courage was deeply stirring nonetheless.

***

FINIS


(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) 2020 Micah Robbins

“says he’s isolated & wants to destroy the world of Injustice”

Poets Nicanor Parra, Miguel Grinberg, and Allen Ginsberg, with Casa de las Américas director María Rosa Almendra (Cuba, 1965)

I finished reading the “Cuba” section of Allen Ginsberg’s Iron Curtain Journals this morning, which is one of the most interesting first-person accounts of life during the Cold War I have ever encountered. The whole thing reads like an intellectual spy thriller, complete with nuclear tensions, a Marxist-Leninist police state, undercover informants, illicit sex, and a queer literary underground. I can hardly believe that Ginsberg (or the Ginsberg estate) never published his account of mid-1960s Cuba as a stand-alone book — a hybrid travel narrative / nonfiction novel. It is an extraordinary document.

One of the things I found most compelling about this section of Ginsberg’s journals is how it captures his interactions with significant historical figures, including the Chilean poet Nicanor Parra, the Cuban revolutionary Haydée Santamaría, and the African American civil rights icon Robert F. Williams, among others. Ginsberg had briefly stayed as a guest in Parra’s home in 1960 when he attended a poetry conference in Chili, and both poets were happy to reunite in Cuba, where they were serving as guest judges for a poetry contest run by Casa de las Américas. It was through this important cultural organization that Ginsberg came to meet Santamaría (its founder) and Williams.

I have had an interest in Williams for some time. I’ve read a good deal of his writing, including Negroes with Guns, which he published while in Cuba, and I wrote a short paper about his use of epideictic rhetoric in The Crusader, the scruffy newsletter he edited from Monroe, N.C., and then from exile in Cuba and China, which I presented at the 2016 meeting of the Conference on College Composition and Communication in Houston, Texas. Every now and then I see Williams’s name mentioned in relation to the Civil Right Movement, but almost never in relation to American Literature (the notable exception being Amiri Baraka’s autobiography, which praises Williams’s heroism), so when I saw him mentioned in Ginsberg’s journals, I was both surprised and excited.

Ginsberg first mentions Williams in his entry from January 31, 1965, where he writes:

Found note from Robert Williams & called he said he’d be at hotel this evening, we talk,—I remember story of Leroi Jones, him confronting the U S Consul Havana with a pistol demanding protection for his family threatened in (Monroe?—)—and by phone consul calling U S A & getting protection. Also had seen biographical account of his Cuban antiwhite antiyankee propaganda in NY Times, which painted fair tho smug picture of his ideas but completely left out ignored  or eluded his early terror-suffering experiments in his home town which drove him to total & rational distrust of local & Federal authority in that area, to take up arms to protect himself & his group from white anarchy—” (65).

These lines were written sometime in the early morning hours. Later that day, Ginsberg met Williams in the lobby of his hotel, where they had a face-to-face conversation. Ginsberg’s account of their meeting is brief:

Left & ate & met Robert Williams in the Hotel Lobby—Conversation on couch with him, he’s insane, I think, says he’s isolated & wants to destroy world of Injustice even if it means starting over a la Chinois with radioactive universe. But he was open to my white shit & we argued & made date late for later. I told him about Marc & Leroi activities plays in NY—he seemed impressed by Marijuana Legislation Campaign” (67).

I’m not sure if Ginsberg and Williams met again before Ginsberg was expelled from the country, but they did have at least one additional conversation by telephone. Ginsberg reports:

Robt Williams on phone said heard Cuban radio talking how friendly and happy Famous Beatnik Poet is with friendly Cuban citizens literary scene. Castrated propaganda not news” (88).

Ginsberg was not, in fact, happy in Cuba, largely because he was repeatedly censored and his movements and interactions with younger Cuban poets were closely monitored by the police. The local poets with whom Ginsberg associated experienced much more intense forms of harassment, including arrest and detainment. Ginsberg was eventually deported for reasons that were not initially made explicit, though his journals strongly suggest that it was due to his outspoken positions on marijuana and homosexuality. (The Cuban newspaper eventually reported that he had been expelled for distributing marijuana, which is patently untrue.) Williams wasn’t long for Cuba either. He too felt unduly constrained by Cuba, and within a year of his meeting Ginsberg, he had relocated to China, where he bore witnessed to the Chinese Cultural Revolution. He would eventually repatriate to the United States.

I don’t believe that Ginsberg and Williams ever met again. A basic Google search doesn’t turn up anything useful, and Williams is not mentioned in Michael Schumacher’s Ginsberg biography, Dharma Lion, though to be fair, Schumacher’s account largely neglects Ginsberg’s African American friends, including Amiri Baraka and Bob Kaufman, which is a shame. It is likely that Ginsberg’s brief meeting with Williams in early 1965 was the lone encounter between these two Americans, and the account in Ginsberg’s journals may very well be the only surviving evidence of the meeting. And that’s okay, I suppose. It is enough for me to know that Ginsberg and Williams met to exchanged ideas… and a bit of friendly gossip too.

Sources:

Baraka, Imamu Amiri. The Autobiography of Leroi Jones. Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 1997.

Ginsberg, Allen. Iron Curtain Journals: January-May 1965. Edited by Michael Schumacher. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 2018.

Schumacher, Michael. Dharma Lion: A Biography of Allen Ginsberg. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016.

Williams, Robert F. Negroes with Guns. 1962. Mansfield Centre, CT: Martino Publishing, 2013

(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) 2020 Micah Robbins

“But then my Servant who I had intended to take down with me, deceiv’d me.”

Reading Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year is a depressing experience, even under the best of circumstances. But read under quarantine, with healthcare and economic systems in collapse and hundreds of thousands of deaths expected by summer, the novel assumes a degree of realism that feels positively oppressive.1 Perhaps this feeling is rooted in a desire to interpret COVID-19 through Defoe’s text, with similarities between the coronavirus pandemic and the bubonic plague seeming to appear at every narrative turn. I suppose one can’t help but project a little. But issues of projection or confirmation bias aside, there are real similarities between what Defoe describes in A Journal of the Plague Year and what we are currently experiencing, and it seems to me that these similarities offer valuable lessons not only about how contagion spreads, but also about how to navigate the social fissures that appear at times of public health and economic crisis.

That A Journal of the Plague Year, published in 1722 and focused on the Great Plague of 1665, should map so precisely onto the coronavirus pandemic is a grim reminder that humanity remains bound by perennial failings of character, both individual and social. The fundamental meanness with which Defoe’s Londoners manage the plague is not incommensurate with some elements of the global response to COVID-19.2 This meanness is expressed most pointedly in the “shutting up of houses,” i.e., the strict quarantining of the sick, together with their families, in their homes. This policy not only violated the rights of the sick, but it also forced large numbers of healthy people to remain cloistered with their contagious housemates, thus dramatically increasing the likelihood that they too would contract the plague. At the same time, Defoe describes the widespread refusal of the sick to remain in their homes, even when they knew that breaking quarantine was likely to further spread the disease throughout the city. He even goes so far as to voice the suspicion that those with the plague willfully infected their neighbors, writing, “the People broke out, whether by Force or by Strategem, even almost as often as they pleas’d: And . . . those that did thus break out, were generally People infected, who in their Desperation, running about from one Place to another, valued not who they injur’d, and which perhaps, as I have said, might give Birth to Report, that it was natural to the infected People to desire to infect others.”3 Though ultimately dismissed as rumor, this account nonetheless suggests that a pervasive sense of suspicion and hostility, along with a disturbing disregard for the lives of one’s neighbors, accompanied the plague.4

The spectre of people intentionally infecting their neighbors is one of several sensationalist ideas developed in A Journal of the Plague Year, but the bulk of the novel focuses on the many mundane ways that people failed to contain the spread of the plague. One example comes when the novel’s narrator, H.F., follows a grieving husband who has become distraught after witnessing a group of “Buryers” unceremoniously dump the bodies of his deceased wife and children into a mass grave.5 Traumatized by this grizzly sight, the man retreats to a local tavern, which is owned by family friends to whom he turns for solace. Although the tavern runs a clear public health risk by continuing to operate, H.F. expresses sympathy toward its owners, stating that they are “civil” and “mannerly” people, and that they did not operate their tavern “so very publickly as formerly” (56). However, within the tavern is a group of patrons who are not so mannerly, a “dreadful Set of Fellows” who are undeterred by the panic that has gripped the city. These men “behaved with all the Revelling and roaring extravagances, as is usual for such People to do at other Times.” They drink late into the night and mock those who “call upon God to have Mercy upon them, as many would do at those Times in their ordinary passing along the Streets” (56). Not surprisingly, the men soon contract the plague and die a painful death, taking with them an unknown number of people they may have infected along the way.

H.F. openly rebukes these plague-time revelers for their atheism, which he sees as at least partially responsible for their ultimate demise, thus leading to a verbal confrontation that Defoe uses to introduce the regrettable argument that the plague is the “Hand of God” sent to punish a wicked people (57). We have heard enough such claims in our own time to render H.F. himself a suitable representative of the perennial failings of character I mentioned earlier.6 However, despite his religious bigotry, H.F. clearly recognizes the irresponsible behavior that is taking place in the tavern—both on the part of the tavern’s patrons and its keepers. While his contempt for the “dreadful Set of Fellows” is explicit, it is also “with Regret” that he mentions the owners of the tavern who have insisted on keeping their establishment open, even as the dead carts were wheeled by their doors each evening (56). Reading this section of the novel, it is tempting to draw a direct parallel to similarly irresponsible incidents that have made their way into the media over the past month or so. For example, are Defoe’s revelers really so different from the many spring breakers who defied urgent coronavirus warnings in order to travel to popular party destinations in Florida and Mexico? According to one New York Times report, approximately seventy students from the University of Texas traveled to Cabo San Lucas for Spring Break on March 14, despite the fact that the university cancelled classes on March 13 due to coronavirus concerns. As of April 1, forty-four of those students had tested positive for COVID-19.7 Those students are now back in Austin, my hometown, where the number of positive cases have increased dramatically from three to nearly eight hundred since spring break.8

Scenarios such as these obviously occur within the realm of the social, but they are, at a more fundamental level, driven by the irrational decisions of individuals who feel emboldened by a mix of arrogance and self-centered denialism to defy even the most urgent, well-founded public health warnings. Those who go partying during a pandemic (or a plague) are exercising willful ignorance, not acting according to a clear sense of socioeconomic necessity, or even according to a clear sense of class privilege. While the willfully ignorant are in the minority in A Journal of the Plague Year, as I would argue they are now as well, both the novel and our contemporary moment are filled with clear examples of social failings and fissures. In other words, it is at the level of the social, and not the individual, that Defoe assigns the most blame for the spread of the plague, and it is at the level of the social that we too should turn our attention when considering the causes and potentially catastrophic effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

One of the remarkable qualities of A Journal of the Plague Year is the amount of attention the narrative pays to matters of economic and social stratification. Because Defoe uses H.F.’s restless wanderings to document where and how the plague spread through London, he is compelled to address in detail how the particular social inequalities that existed in seventeenth-century England contributed to the disproportionate infection and impoverishment of certain classes of people over others. For example, he makes clear that the moneyed class, to which H.F. belongs, has largely abandoned London for the countryside, estimating that as many as 200,000 people fled the city during the plague.9 And those property owners who chose to remain in the city depended on servants to run errands, do the shopping, procure medicine, etc. in order to spare themselves from the dangers they were sure to encounter when walking the streets. Or so went the logic. The fact is that this practice did little to mitigate the risk of infection. Defoe writes that the plague “generally came into the Houses of the Citizens, by the Means of their Servants . . . who going necessarily thro’ the Streets into Shops, Markets, and the like, it was impossible, but that they should one way or other, meet with distempered people, who conveyed the fatal Breath into them, and they brought it Home to the Families, to which they belonged” (63). What is clear throughout the novel is that the servant class was expected to risk direct and regular exposure to the plague in order to satisfy the needs of their employers. This class-based practice not only subjected the most vulnerable to disproportionate risk of infection, but it also—in an ironic feedback loop—carried the plague directly into the homes of the privileged classes.

There is a marked ambivalence in the way Defoe represents these class tensions. For example, he clearly pities the poor and laboring classes, recognizing that they are the most vulnerable to infectious disease precisely because they lack the material resources to remain in quarantine. He explains that “that the Poor cou’d not lay up Provisions, and there was a necessity, that they must go to Market to buy,” and that this necessity “brought abundance of unsound People to the Markets, and a great many that went thither Sound, brought Death Home with them” (67). Similarly, he notes that the laboring classes continued to work during the plague with “a Sort of Brutal Courage.” Driven by necessity, they “ran into any Business, which they could get Employment in, tho’ it was the most hazardous,” and it was due to this necessity that “the Plague was chiefly among the Poor” (75). That people should be driven by such necessity is repeatedly condemned in the novel. Indeed, one of Defoe’s goals in writing A Journal of the Plague Year was to educate his readers about how to more efficiently contain the spread of future plagues, and he repeatedly suggests that public assistance to the poor is one way to mitigate the spread of epidemics.10

Yet at the same time, Defoe expresses contempt for the poor, repeatedly asserting that the desperation of the lower classes threatened to devolve into pillage and rioting. The fear of mob action becomes something of a recurring motif as the narrative progresses, and it ultimately strips away any pretension of authentic sympathy for the poor. Defoe goes so far as to suggest that the death of 40,000 poor people was a “Deliverance” for London, as higher rates of survival among the poor “would certainly have been an unsufferable Burden, by their Poverty, that is to say, the whole City could not have supported the Expence of them, or have provided Food for them; and they would in Time have been even driven to the Necessity of plundering either the City it self, or the Country adjacent to have subsisted themselves” (81-82). So while Defoe understands full well that the lower classes are most vulnerable to the plague, and while he uses his novel to encourage both governmental and philanthropic aid to the poor, his ultimate social calculus is clear: better the poor should die than public resources be strained to their limits. The role of class in this calculus couldn’t be clearer.

Defoe’s ambivalence toward the poor and laboring classes is not surprising considering that both he and his narrator belong to the propertied class.11 We learn early in the novel that H.F. is a “Sadler” who operates a thriving business exporting goods to the American colonies.12 He commands a fair deal of capital and is anxious about how to secure his possessions during the plague. At the outset of the novel, he says, “I was a single man ’tis true, but I had a Family of Servants, who I kept at my Business, had a House, Shop, and Ware-houses fill’d with Goods; and in short, to leave them all as things in such a Case must be left, that is to say, without any Overseer or Person fit to be trusted with them, had been to hazard the Loss not only of my Trade, but of my Goods, and indeed of all I had in the World” (11-12). The way he characterizes his servants is revealing here. He introduces them as a proxy “Family” that substitutes for his being unmarried, yet they are also listed among his other property as “Goods” that cannot be left without a proper “Overseer.”13 He clearly feels a sense of responsibility toward his servants, but this feeling of responsibility is embedded within a larger context that ranks the servant class among the possessions of the propertied class.

The stark class divisions represented in the novel may be depressing, but they are also useful in terms of understanding the social fissures that appear during times of crisis. One of the great services A Journal of the Plague Year performs for contemporary readers, especially during a time of global pandemic, is that it lays bare the reality of how class antagonisms structure how public health crises are thought about and managed. Class antagonisms manifest themselves in many different ways throughout the narrative, but their most extreme expression comes with H.F.’s assertion that the death of 40,000 poor people was a “Deliverance” for London. While he attempts to qualify his relief as a righteous concern for the common good, the fact is that he places the lives of the poor within a contest between life and property, with property taking priority. This is ideology pure and simple, and it illustrates how easily a social situation that subjects the most vulnerable to the most severe suffering can be justified as a necessary evil.

At the same time, A Journal of the Plague Year dramatizes many acts of resistance against the ruling class. This is not because Defoe endorses such resistance, but rather because he has no choice but to represent these acts as a matter of verisimilitude. If he is to craft a novel that accurately represents the Great Plague of 1665, he must account for the fact that the poor and laboring classes carried within themselves the potential to revolt against a system that ranked them among goods and property. An excellent example of this impulse comes early in the novel, when H.F.’s plan to escape London for the countryside is stymied by the preemptive flight of his most favored servant. No sooner does H.F. decide to travel from the city on foot, with a single servant to aid him on his journey, then his plans are subverted: “But then my Servant who I had intended to take down with me, deceiv’d me; and being frightened at the Encrease of the Distemper, and not knowing when I should go, he took other Measures, and left me” (13). The result is that H.F. is left to look after himself, while his servant is liberated from the responsibility of putting his own life in jeopardy to ensure the health and safety of his employer. That the servant took “other Measures” thus becomes a point of departure from which readers can imagine a host of similar measures that the poor and laboring classes can take to liberate themselves from a system of social subordinating that always extracts the highest cost from those who have the least.

We never learn what became of this servant. He simply vanishes from the text. This disappearance can be interpreted in a number of ways. For example, one may reasonably conclude that the servant, like so many other poor Londoners, struggled mightily—and perhaps even died—during the plague. However, one may just as reasonably conclude that the servant successfully escaped the mortal danger that he most surely would have encountered if he had remained in H.F.’s employment. While Defoe spends a fair deal of time late in the novel illustrating the challenges that those who fled the city encountered, and while he makes the case that most people who fled the city ended up returning to their homes a short time later, he also details a series of successful strategies for surviving the plague while in exile. Indeed, the most detailed anecdote in the novel focuses on the successful escape from the city of three working-class men—a baker, a sail maker, and a joiner—who survive their ordeal through a mix of practical skills and wit. They also survive because they exhibit a strong sense of solidarity with other working-class people they meet during their travels.14 Considered in this context, the story of the escaped servant takes on a utopian dimension, especially when we consider that the servant never returns. His escape, though left to the reader’s imagination, is permanent.

These stories suggest that the poor and laboring classes can fend for themselves, that they can survive free from the domination of capital, and that they are sensitive to the fissures that appear during moments of public crisis—fissures that present avenues of liberation that remain obscured under ordinary circumstances. This is not to suggest that the coronavirus pandemic represents a class victory. It doesn’t. The fact is that people are suffering and dying, and those who carry the greatest burden of suffering are the least advantaged among us.15 However, times of social crisis do tend to expose the tensions and contradictions that are all too often obscured by the routines of everyday life, and we would do well to learn from the coronavirus pandemic in order to build a better future. Reading A Journal of the Plague Year during this pandemic has helped me perceive some of these contradictions and opportunities more precisely than I otherwise may have. One of my takeaways after reading the novel comes from the relatively minor detail of the subversive servant. Perhaps there is something to be learned from his recognition that the plague presents a unique opportunity to reject subordination. Perhaps all of us can pursue “other Measures,” and not only in this time of crisis, but in everyday life as well.

***

FINIS


© 2020 Micah Robbins

Fragments Written While Unemployed

Game day. Cool. Blues sky.
A headline in the New York Times

“For better or worse, Trump will get his favorite things on Super Bowl Sunday”

***

Christmas on Earth 1963

when music was good
people fucked in full
body pain & top hats

***

At home with the boy yesterday
the elder
sick

Such comfort — under the blanket
cartoons on the television

a parent close at hand

***

Dirty dishes and drums roll
through brass & keys

Books lie waiting . . .

Faucet dripping thoughts
of sunflowers and California markets — decades gone

“Hopelessly hoping hopefully”

***

House of the Lord
in stone-clad storefront

flecked skin of industry
bleeding bacterial
growth of unified floor plans

***

FINIS


(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) 2020 Micah Robbins

Good Morning, Sunshine, It’s Minority Rule! (DNI Edition)

February 20, 2020

***

FINIS


(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) 2020 Micah Robbins

Your Subjects May Be More Adaptable Than You Realize

I’ve always thought William S. Burroughs’s novels would make brilliant illustrated texts, but illustrators have largely overlooked his work. The one notable exception is Malcolm McNeill, a British artist who collaborated with Burroughs in the early 1970s on a project called The Unspeakable Mr. Hart. They published excerpts of their collaboration in the first four issues of the underground comix periodical Cyclops. They also planned a book-length graphic narrative tentatively titled Ah Pook Is Here, though they never completed the project, or at least not in the form initially intended. Burroughs published the stand-alone text with Viking in 1979, and it wasn’t until Fantagraphics Books published Observed While Falling and  The Lost Art of Ah Pook Is Here, both in 2012, that the illustrations were made available to readers.

Yet scattered gems remain throughout the archive. For example, I recently came across this image by artist Paul Mavrides, co-creator of The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers. It accompanies an excerpt of Burroughs’s unpublished novella The Revised Boyscout Manual in the 1982 issue of RE/Search, which was dedicated to the work of Burroughs, Brion Gysin, and the punk band Throbbing Gristle. Burroughs originally conceived of The Revised Boyscout Manual as a part of his novel The Wild Boys, but he eventually decided to revise it into a stand-alone narrative. It’s not as aggressively bizarre as many of his other fictions, but it’s still an interesting, highly political work that provides an important context for his other fictions of the period.

Paul Mavrides, Untitled Illustration

I like Mavrides’s illustration. The appalling hybrid human/insect face framed by anemone-like tentacles captures something of Burroughs’s interest in the human as biological organism, an animal species prone to viruses and caught in the flux of evolution. It is appropriately uncanny and leaves me wishing Mavrides had illustrated more of Burroughs’s work. Unfortunately, this is the only example I’m aware of, though I’m hopeful there are similar works I haven’t yet discovered.

If you know of any other illustrations of Burroughs’s writing, whether by Mavrides or anyone else, please share in the comments thread. Potential leads will be much appreciated.

Note:

The title of the post is taken from William S. Burroughs, “From The Revised Boyscout Manual,” RE/Search, vol. 4/5, 1982, p. 8.

Image:

Mavrides, Paul. Untitled Illustration. RE/Search, vol. 4/5,  1982, p. 7.

(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) 2017 Micah Robbins

The Survivors Will Envy the Dead

The escalating nuclear tensions between the United States and North Korea have me thinking of the 1965 film The War Game, a mock-documentary that dramatizes a thermonuclear attack on a small British city. The film, directed by Peter Watkins, won an Academy Award for best documentary, and this despite the fact that it is a work of fiction and was ultimately denied airtime by the BBC because of its graphically violent content. The experience of watching the film is disturbing, not only because it recalls how deeply the threat of nuclear war had penetrated global consciousness during the Cold War, but also because it draws attention to how disconnected the cultural sphere has become regarding the species-level threat of nuclear war. The War Game not only illustrates the danger of nuclear proliferation, but it also serves as a reminder that the international community has failed to address the danger of existing nuclear arms.

There are many aspects of The War Game that remain relevant to our contemporary moment. For example, the nuclear strike depicted in the film is provoked by a conflict between the United States and China over the United States’ military involvement in South Vietnam. The United States threatens to strike the Chinese military with tactical nuclear missiles, which in turn provokes the Soviet Union to assist the East Germans in unifying Berlin under the Communist regime. In an effort to defend Berlin from Communist aggression, the United States and Britain strike Soviet forces with a nuclear missile, thus initiating a full-scale thermonuclear conflict. This was a likely enough scenario when the film was released, and it should give us pause regarding how easily the threat of a nuclear confrontation between the United States and North Korea can explode into a larger conflict between any number of nuclear powers.

The War Game is also concerned with the potential of a nuclear war to undo the democratic institutions that protect individual rights and civil liberties. As the threat of nuclear warfare becomes increasingly immanent early in the film, the British government suspends its democratic system and institutes an authoritarian government headed by a special council of fifteen officials. These bureaucrats proceed to force evacuations and civilian billeting, institute food rationing, and establish explicit classes of people who will receive wildly divergent qualities of treatment in case of a nuclear attack. Those of the lowest class will receive no treatment at all, but will be “put out of their misery” by the police. Unsurprisingly, these mandates give way to social discord. The suspension of democratic law leads to military officers shooting enlisted men for refusing orders, and domestic police summarily execute citizens for civic unrest. The War Game is being lucid here. It is not naïve to think that the world’s democracies will suspend their constitutions under the pressures of nuclear war.

One potential argument against The War Game is that the film is overly speculative, and that an actual nuclear crisis will not necessarily end world war and the undoing of western democracy. Watkins answers such objections by contextualizing the film’s nuclear crisis in relation to actual historical events. For example, The War Game makes regular and convincing comparisons between the atrocity suffered by the fictitious British city and the actual atrocities that occurred at Dresden and Hiroshima & Nagasaki. The comparisons are convincing because the filmmakers place the British citizens in situations modeled on actual reactions to these WWII-era bombings. So when the film’s British police collect, loot, and burn the bodies of thousands of dead citizens in the streets, they mimic the actions of German police in the wake of the Dresden bombings. Similarly, when the film’s British survivors seem to regress into a state of apathy, filth, and disease, they repeat patterns observed among the Japanese survivors of America’s atom bombs. These examples suggest that the suffering of the past may very well slip into the future so long as nuclear stockpiles remain intact.

It is important to recognize that the human condition would never be the same after a nuclear war. The human psyche would suffer such a horrendous blow that many would no doubt envy the dead. Just imagine the consequences of an entire nation suffering from severe Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The future would be grim indeed. But perhaps we’ve already been acclimating ourselves to precisely such a future. It does seem that many people have already accepted the threat of nuclear war as an unlikely but ultimately justifiable reaction to hostile nations. I’m profoundly uncomfortable with this blasé attitude toward such a future. A nuclear strike by any nation under any circumstance would be an outright assault on the most basic elements of human dignity. We’re fortunate to have organizations like the Ploughshares Fund that have remained diligent in resisting the irrationality of nuclear weapons. We need them to remind us of the very real dangers these weapons pose to the human species. But we also need old films like The War Game to remind us of how close we’ve actually come to destroying ourselves, for that is exactly what we threaten to do every time a nation produces and/or enhances a nuclear weapon, and every time a national leader threatens a member of the international community with annihilation.

I encourage you to watch The War Game, which I’ve embedded below.

Source:

The War Game, directed by Peter Watkins, performances by Michael Aspel, Peter Graham, and Kathy Staff, British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), 1965.

(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) 2017 Micah Robbins