Charles River

Charles River
Upper Limit Cloud/Lower Limit Sail


"Messianicity is not messianism ... even though this distinction remains fragile and enigmatic." (Jacques Derrida)

Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Waterworks

The dog days are in full ascent here in Amherst. I feel overcome by a sweet inanition. Likewise, the blog is succumbing to drift. Behind the drift, I'm counting down the days till the semester shudders to life. So much to do! Class prep, that essay on Palmer. The MSA talk on Pound & Sobin. Etc. Still, this has been a very productive summer, and at the same time, a deeply relaxing one, the first in a long time.

Below is my review of E.L.Doctorow's The Waterworks. It originally ran in the now defunct LA View, in 1992, though I first read it in mss., with ELD's hand-written annotations in the margins, for Interscope Films. I fell in love with it and have taught it several times.


Like the moon, New York City holds one face to the light, the other in a perpetual umbra. In E. L. Doctorow’s eighth novel, The Waterworks, the hidden side of the city, its luna incognita, serves as both figure and ground in a dark moral fable about mortality, identity, hubris, and decay. Whether as a brooding meditation on the liquescent nature of history, with its endless shiftings and concealments, or as a modern valentine to New York City in the 1870s, The Waterworks complements Edith Wharton’s vision of the city in the same way that Blake’s Songs of Experience form a bitter refrain to his Songs of Innocence. This is the New York Garcia Lorca wrote about in 1929, a city in which the dawn has “four columns of mire and a hurricane of black pigeons,” where “furious swarming coins ...devour abandoned children.” Unleavened by Dickensian whimsy, it’s a harrowing trip through the sewers of Hell, lit by gas lamp.

Like Heinrich Schliemann excavating the successive layers of Troy’s ruins in search of Homer’s Ilium, Doctorow, beginning with Ragtime and continuing through World’s Fair and Billy Bathgate, has dug into the psychic strata of New York City to create a holographic portrait of American society that covers nearly 70 years. Only Gore Vidal has had the ambition to exceed that span of time in his series of novels chronicling the transition from Republic to Empire. But even Vidal, for all his prickly apostasy and intellectual acuity, can’t match Doctorow’s sheer lyrical largesse, which he lifts like a valedictory flare to illumine the names and faces of the past.

In his 1988 Paris Review interview, Doctorow described history not as “Newton’s perfect mechanical universe,” but as “constant sub-atomic chaos.” In such a state of turbulence causality breaks down. History is no longer a neatly condensed, monolithic tome, but a palimpsest scribbled over with innumerable, vying narratives, each underwritten by the protean stirrings of the unconscious self. The overweening assumption of modernity that is every civilization’s most “necessary illusion,” as Doctorow writes, melts down under such conditions, revealing “the skull beneath the skin.”

Early on in his career, Doctorow explored the use of the Western and science fiction genres in Welcome to Hard Times and Big As Life. Here he casts his story as a mystery, written in the ripping good-yarn style of Wilkie Collins and Robert Louis Stevenson. The effectiveness of this deliberately slight approach swiftly becomes apparent. Only a mystery could unravel the secret soul of the city. That soul, “roiling, twisting, turning over on itself, forming and reforming... like a blown cloud,” is the subject of the novel’s narrator-protagonist, a world-weary newspaper editor named Mcllvaine.

Six years after Appomattox, New York City is in the thrall of Boss Tweed and his venal ring of politicians, cops, and cronies. It’s an era, pointedly not unlike our own, of extraordinary avarice and brutality, of orphans and outcasts, ragpickers and street gangs, gamblers, grifters and bloodsuckers. Not a detail of this ghastly carnival goes unobserved by McIlvaine, who somehow retains an unsullied core of romantic idealism. The newsman’s all-inclusive eye is not as jocular, though, as that of Walt Whitman. In this New York, the Song of Myself has been drowned out by the infernal lament of the masses. In a twilit world where, “the air, in cinders, sifts through the filigree of fire escapes and telegraph wires,” the lonesome McIlvaine develops a paternal affection for one of his young, free-lance book critics, the moody and melodramatic Martin Pemberton.

Martin, who sees himself as a one-man bulwark against the swollen tide of Philistines overrunning the city, is the bitterly estranged son of the powerful Augustus Pemberton, a merchant who made his fortune in the illicit Caribbean slave trade. Not long after his father’s death, Martin bursts in on McIlvaine with the news that he has seen Augustus alive, being ferried about the city in a mysterious white coach. A week later, Martin disappears.

The hunt for his missing protégé leads McIlvaine from Martin’s self-possessed fiancé, Emily Tisdale, whose fetching combination of virtue and voluptuousness leave the veteran newsman smitten, to the more worldly sophistication of Augustus’s young widow, Sarah. But it’s finally with the help of Martin’s best friend, the quixotic painter Harry Wheelwright, whose Goyaesque portraits of mutilated Civil War veterans depict the dismemberment of the age, that McIlvaine and police detective Edmund Donne conduct a midnight exhumation of the older Pemberton’s grave. Its contents reveal the outlines of a monstrous conspiracy by which Augustus and his brilliant and amoral physician, Dr. Sartorius, have ensnared both Martin and the homeless children of the city.

Yet the psychic duel between the prodigal son and his sinister father occupies only the tale’s margins. At the center of the book’s superlative tension stands the conflict between Donne and Sartorius. Donne is the ratiocinative sleuth par excellence, a brother to Poe’s Auguste Dupin and a paragon of integrity; Sartorius, an arrogant and imposing medical genius after the manner of a Jules Verne villain, a man whose heinous scientific experiments foreshadow the Faustian acts of the Nazi death-camp doctors.

For McIlvaine, the scribe and witness, the pursuit is embodied in a haunting image out of a dream — a boy’s blue-skinned corpse, floating in the Croton Holding Reservoir at 42nd Street and 5th Avenue, the future site of the New York Central Library. In this drowned “ceremony of innocence” our cherished mantras about progress and civilization founder until we feel, like McIlvaine, “the oppression of a universe of water, inside and out, over the dead and the living.” The cultural foundations of our society, Doctorow seems to imply, are written on water. More than that, though, our mechanistic conception of the world, as espoused by Sartorius, has set into motion an irreconcilable duality that can only end only with our destruction.

Walter Benjamin once observed, “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” Doctorow’s triumph is that he embraces both of these themes without abandoning the hope for transcendence, however slight it may be. At once a chilling morality play and a rhapsodic elegy to a moribund culture, The Waterworks displays all the flux and panoply of 1870’s New York, in the words of its ardent narrator, “forever encased and frozen, aglitter and God-stunned.”

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Way Out West Part 4-The Wild Bunch

Like The Professionals, The Wild Bunch is driven by questions of loyalty, honor, the integrity of identity (both group and individual), and the ways in which the past mediates the present. The film revolves around an aging gang of outlaws who, after the fiasco of their latest robbery, attempt one last job before “retiring.” In the course of events, the Bunch aligns itself with a Mexican warlord, who forces them to choose between their own survival, or the betrayal of one of their own. Without any other organizing principle except the pact that binds them together, the Bunch choose to keep faith, a decision that sets in motion an apocalyptic shoot out as they take down a small army of corrupt Federales with them.

When the Wild Bunch first appear, they do so disguised as Army soldiers. The disguise acts as a sign of inverted identity, through which the prevailing cultural discourse of law and order is repudiated for the Bunch’s own internal code, as well as undermined for personal profit. Unlike the professionals, or Ben Trane, the Bunch do not see themselves belonging in any way to the larger discourse, nor are they concerned with re-affirming their identity by revisiting the sites of memory. As outlaws living on the margins, they have formed their own discourse, thriving on what their culture has excluded. More than Trane or Rico and Dolworth, the Bunch’s leader, the fiercely determined, yet melancholy, Pike Bishop (played by William Holden), registers the anxiety of this anchorless position when he remarks on the need to “think beyond our guns” since the days of the frontier are “closing fast.” This recognition carries an anxiety for him which no re-connection with the past can renew, as evidenced by this pointed exchange early on between Pike and his second, Dutch (Ernest Borgnine, who also appears in Vera Cruz):

Pike: “I just want to make one good score, then back off.”
Dutch: “Back off to what?”

The predicament of the Wild Bunch is that they are men without a past, outlaws whose lives have denied them even the de-ritualized sites of memory to which Pierre Nora refers. All they really share in common is the expansive anodyne of their laughter, which as a marker of the absurd hopelessness of their lives temporarily immunizes them from despair, permitting them to embrace their rootless situation. Laughter – crude, raucous, celebratory – as in the scene where the aging desperado Sykes mocks the Bunch after the loot from the payroll robbery turns out to be nothing but sacks full of metal washers – “here you are, with a handful of holes, a thumb up your ass, and a big grin to pass the time of day with” – laughter erupts as a singular gesture of defiance that is also the recognition of a life saturated by the melancholy of violence; a life that is nasty, brutish, and short, demanding a transgressive response that is a-historical. Laughter is the true site of memory for the exiled Bunch and while it is not enough to provide them with an enduring hedge against oblivion, it nevertheless stubbornly marks the boundary of the body inside a history that will not remember them.

Unlike the Professionals, the Bunch’s crossing the border carries no promise of hope, but rather is done disconsolately, after their disastrous shoot out in Starbuck. Surveying Mexico from the banks of the Rio Grande, Tector Gorch remarks that it “just looks like more of Texas.” To which Angel, the passionate idealist for whom Mexico is home (and thus, more than a site of memory, but a real, living place), retorts, “You have no eyes.” Later, when the pursuing bounty hunters, led by Pike’s betrayed companion, Deke (Robert Ryan, again intertextually cast as the hapless man of action), arrive at the river crossing, Deke asks, “What’s in Agua Verde?” (the nearest town), one of them derisively replies, “Mexicans. What else?” In The Wild Bunch, Mexico represents neither a site of memory for the central characters, Pike and Dutch, as it does in The Professionals, nor an opportunity for renewal as in Vera Cruz. Initially, it is merely a place for the Bunch to lay low, a region not of rebirth, but of derision and defeat.

This changes in the scene in which Angel takes the weary Bunch to his village. Here, they are feted in gala style by the friendly villagers. Even the fearsome Gorch Brothers frolic like children with a village maid who is the very picture of innocence. No longer a dusty watering hole, Agua Verde takes on the idyllic aspect of Paradise regained. As one of the village elders remarks to a bemused Pike, over the languid sounds of a guitar: “We all dream of being a child again, even the worst of us. Perhaps the worst most of all.” Fittingly, the dispossessed Bunch, who have nothing to “back off” to, find solace, however fleetingly, through a family of foreign strangers. This unabashed romanticism forms one strand for the film’s critique of the Western genre. Its brutal nihilism forms the other. By juxtaposing these strands, The Wild Bunch delivers a more complex and ambiguous reading of the possibility of renewal that is taken for granted in both Vera Cruz and The Professionals.

When Pike agrees to steal a shipment of Army rifles for the corrupt local tyrant Mapache, in exchange for the freedom of Angel, who has killed Mapache’s woman (Angel’s former lover), a chain of events is set into motion that irrevocably compromises the Bunch’s amoral spirit of anarchy with the idealism and honor of the impoverished rebel Mexicans. Though never explicitly suggested, the subtext of this arrangement seems to signify the formation and recognition of a familial bond between the dispossessed rebels and the equally dispossessed Bunch.

The story of the Bunch’s doom is in effect the story of their politicization. Dutch and Pike both state on several occasions their extreme dislike of Mapache’s bloodthirsty avarice and corruption, expressing a desire for a general uprising of the populace. When Pike initially suggests that Mapache’s simply another crook like themselves, operating on a larger scale, Dutch vociferously objects: “we don’t hang nobody!” Here, in its brutal kernel, is all we need to know about the code that bonds the Bunch together. Their politicizing – which is nothing more, really, than an uneasy, ad hoc alliance with the pueblo villagers (and by association, Pancho Villa, a distantly glimpsed presence in the background) who oppose Huerta and Mapache – remains in the end a deeply personal affair, one defined and motivated by their sense of loyalty (to Angel) and to their own honor.

Led by this code, then, the Bunch’s choice to join the cause of liberation is as close as the movie comes to attempting a resolution to the “crisis of memory” – the utter lack of any family or roots to which the Bunch can back off to. While little more than a pact for mutual survival, this code contains a kind of nascent social contract, one most forcefully expressed by Pike after the disastrous payroll heist in Starbuck, when the Bunch threatens to unravel. “When you side with a man you stay with him. If you can’t do that you’re like some animal. You’re finished. We’re finished. All of us.” Later on, Pike tells Angel, “If you ride with us, you don’t have a village.” These two statements form the moral underpinning of the film, and give rise to the final crisis for the Bunch.

In effect, the Bunch are their own village, and Pike’s struggle to give them some sense of identity, despite their inability to share in a site of memory, however debased, is one he cannot maintain for very long. In siding with Angel, the Bunch unknowingly take on Angel’s own fierce commitment, his deep sense of belonging, to the land and to his people. Without quite fully realizing it, they slide down the slippery slope of communal identity simply because it is the only thing, perhaps, that has ever resembled something in their lives to which they could “back off.” This is confirmed in the film’s final image of the border: the bridge over the Rio Grande which the Bunch destroy by dynamite after escaping over it with the stolen guns. The act of demolition, which symbolically bars them from returning to the United States, foreshadows the film’s bloody climax – a line which, once crossed over, permits no return.

The Wild Bunch, then, offers perhaps the ultimate expression of the logic of “regeneration through violence.” It is regeneration by violence carried to its final and lethally all-consuming endgame: apotheosis by apocalypse. More than that, though, the film demonstrates how the anxiety over the closing of the frontier – essentially, the foreclosure of the future – can collude with issues of collective memory, or its threatened erasure, in such a way as to create not redemption, as in the first two films, but nihilism and self-destruction. Ironically, it is The Bunch’s inability to ground themselves in a truly viable symbolic, as opposed to actual, past, as represented by sites of memory, that denies them access to an achievable future. For it is not only the frontier that is closing. It is memory itself – the localized, personally felt bond with a group or a region – that is being eradicated by the looming specter of history.

History, “analytical, critical, and secular,” is replacing the unstable text of memory, which Nora characterizes as existing in a state of “permanent evolution.” Like a new kind of cultural technology, history, which Nora observes is “perpetually suspicious of memory,” institutes a new mode of meaning production with which memory cannot compete. The Bunch’s separation from culture, then, is permanent and so, too, is their regression. Genuine regeneration, at least in the terms offered by the culture they have rejected, cannot occur. Engaged in what Richard Terdiman describes as “the intense struggle between repetition and innovation, between past and future,”the Bunch are destroyed because they do not possess a sufficient link to a past larger than themselves and therefore capable of funding a viable future.

Thus, the flashback montages of the Bunch’s raucous, life-affirming laughter, which director Peckinpah inserts at key moments in the narrative, do much more than serve as simple sentimental touchstones designed to cue a certain response from the viewer. They stand as pointed occasions for the force of living presence to spontaneously assert itself, reminding us that the fate of the Bunch is not simply that of outlaws living beyond the pale, but of humans who could not successfully negotiate the future because of their vexed relationship to the past. Nora notes that “memory is blind to all but the group it binds.” Simply put, the Wild Bunch are destroyed because they choose memory over history. In this sense, we are invited to compare their end to the tragic fate of similar marginalized groups, like the Mexicans peasants and native Americans who resisted assimilation into the cultural hegemony.

It is from out of this poignant framing of loss, I would suggest, that the film is able to generate such a tremendous attitude of warmth toward these savage and wayward men, paradoxically humanizing them at the point where, in another film, they would seem to be least human, namely, in the climactic bloodbath. As Pike says, “when you side with a man, you stay with him. If you can’t do that you’re like some animal.” It is precisely because this form of the social contract draws its power from memory, rather than history, that marks it as doomed.

Unlike the examples of psychological rebirth displayed in Vera Cruz and The Professionals, The Wild Bunch depicts a world in which Mexico can no longer function effectively as a trope for renewal. Instead, it offers a picture of the land south of the border as the place where the restorative powers of memory are chimerical, or bankrupt; where the past no longer has the power to mediate the present; and where anxiety for the future assumes its ultimate form: the last horizon, the final border, which is the crossing from life to death.

Though often referred to as both an elegy for the American West and for a certain style of more genteel filmmaking (after Peckinpah, the deluge), The Wild Bunch may also be read as a powerful elegy for memory itself. Its Götterdammerung-like staging of one last fatal border crossing sounds the knell not only for the frontier’s closing and the diminishment of local memory by absolutist history, but also for the kind of naive Western mythmaking by which Americans were able to reconcile themselves to the barbaric price they paid for their empire. With the eclipse of memory, the totalizing force of history becomes inescapable. More than that, though, the eclipse of memory marks a sea-change for the inner frontier where re-invention takes place, foreclosing the possibilities set in motion by desire, which is always exceeding itself, always yearning for what lies beyond its borders.

As Vera Cruz and The Professionals suggest, and The Wild Bunch powerfully enacts, the unstable logic of American nation-building, sutured together in the name of a dream of belonging, binds the drive to limitless expansion and aggrandizement on the one hand to the conserving movement toward stabilizing community on the other, only to fissure and split apart when followed to its inevitable and violent end.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Way Out West Part 3-The Professionals

With The Professionals, the Mexican foray takes on a decidedly more romantic posture. Superficially a captivity narrative of the kind first made popular by Mary Rowlandson in 1682, the story concerns four specialists who are hired by cattle and mining baron J. W. Grant to rescue his kidnapped Mexican wife from a Mexican rebel named Raza. It’s basically the Western as a caper movie. Lee Marvin as Rico is the group’s military expert and leader; Burt Lancaster’s Dolworth is the dynamite expert and philosophical jokester; Robert Ryan (Ehrengard), plays the empathetic horse master; and Woody Strode (Jake) the non pariel scout and tracker. These latter two characters are fairly marginal. Ryan acts as the designated innocent, constantly raising questions of a compassionate nature which experience gradually teaches him have no place in the world of the professionals. Within the group’s homosocial dynamic, he also functions as the non-combatant “wife,” whose chief duties revolve around healing and caretaking. As an African-American, Strode’s presence is an indicator of racial integration, albeit of a limited and rather patronizing variety. Given virtually no dialogue, he carries a bow and arrow for weapon: a sign that associates him with the savage.

The rescue mission is complicated by the fact that Rico and Dolworth once fought with Raza on behalf of the Revolution. It becomes more compromised still when they rescue Grant’s wife, Maria, only to find she is not a captive at all, but fervently in love with Jesus Raza (whose surname means “the people”) and a devout revolutionary herself. After numerous twists and turns, the professionals conclude that Grant himself is the real kidnapper. They return Maria to Raza and take up their old struggle once more.

As with Vera Cruz, Mexico in this scenario acts as a metaphor for rebirth, only much more emphatically since the movement of The Professionals depicts their journey south of the border as both a nostalgic and a literal journey into their own past. The first third of the film features numerous scenes in which Rico and Dolworth reminisce over obscure battles, fallen comrades, and lusty women. These almost idyllic scenes are accompanied by a jaunty cantina score which continually serves to remind us of the professionals’ passage not only through space, but time. Their journey into Mexico begins by offering the possibility of tapping into actual memories, but eventually they realize that history has overtaken these places and that the past is no longer available to them as it once was. As Nora notes, these sites come into being only because “of a memorial consciousness that has barely survived in a historical age that calls out for memory because it has abandoned it.”

When the professionals come upon an old graveyard, Dolworth ironically eulogizes it as “the cemetery of nameless men.” Nora observes that the “nostalgic dimension” of these sites “marks the rituals of a society without ritual.” And indeed, as Rico laments, he and Dolworth fought unnamed battles in Mexico which no one now remembers.

Although the anxiety about the past is muted by the veneer of macho bravado worn by the mercenaries, it suggests nonetheless “the crisis of memory” Richard Terdiman refers to in Present Past. For Terdiman, the “memory crisis” developed in post- revolutionary French culture during the early nineteenth-century as a result of “a sense that [the] past had somehow evaded memory, that recollection had ceased to integrate with consciousness. In this memory crisis the very coherence of time and subjectivity seemed disarticulated.” It is precisely this disarticulation, as it makes itself manifest in the two main professionals’ lives (we first see Rico as a lowly weapons trainer, while Dolworth is in jail for gambling debts) which their new sense of self-purpose seeks to amend. That they are able to do so completely is a mark of the film’s romanticism. (For as we shall see in the nihilistic The Wild Bunch, the logic of the border does not always permit such resolutions). The discovery of the truth about Maria’s allegiances, and of how Grant coerced her into marriage (staking a rapine claim on her analogous to America’s annexation of Mexican territory) allows the duo to reclaim their former allegiances from the grasp of disillusionment.

Maria (played with spitfire fervor by Claudia Cardinale) symbolizes Mexico itself, as well as the Revolution and the temps perdu of the professionals. Her erotic otherness (the Revolution as goddess, as Raza puts it, evoking a common trope) with its supercharged elan vital, functions as a sign of the professionals’ once ardent idealism. In recovering her, the middle-aged adventurers recover their youth, through a metaphor that equates eros with subversion and thanatos with the cultural status quo. This status quo is aptly embodied by the avuncular Ralph Bellamy, who as the soulless corporate nationalist Grant, resembles a de-whiskered Uncle Sam.

The real theme of The Professionals states itself in an exchange between Dolworth and Ehrengard:

Ehrengard: “What were Americans doing in a Mexican revolution anyway?”
Dolworth: “Maybe there’s only one revolution, since the beginning. The good guys against the bad guys. Question is, who are the good guys?”

This acknowledgment of moral ambiguity not only expresses the dilemma which the professionals must later face when they discover that Raza is the good guy and Grant the bad, but exemplifies Slotkin’s “looking glass” effect which Mexico as a mythic space engenders. To cross the border is to risk undermining one’s own values; it is to invite transformation on a radical scale. Of course, reading the subtext of The Professionals, we may surmise that this is precisely what the heroes unconsciously desire. For if the culture of Mexico – with its erotic playfulness, its boisterous communality and its thriving primitivism – represents the wellsprings of innocence, then the professionals, weighed down by the moral fatigue of bitter experience, long to be rejuvenated by those primal energies.

During the attack on Raza’s compound (a site, in the spirit of the 60s, that’s made to seem both squalid and joyous), the film deploys a number of racist images to suggest the innate superiority of the American aggressors. The professionals’ use of clocks to coordinate their assault is the primary image, imputing to them a degree of abstract thinking beyond the grasp of the childlike Mexicans, who carouse till all hours, seemingly oblivious to the passage of time. Another is the conventional Western trope of the friendly Mexican who initially aids the Americans, then betrays them as they make their escape. Once the escape is made good, the film reverts to a more sympathetic portrayal of Raza and his pursuing band.

But the image of the border dramatically shifts. Passing through it southwards, it was porous, welcoming. During the return journey, it takes on the attributes of something hostile and virtually unobtainable. “None of you will reach the border!” declares a truculent Maria. From its benign mode of promised rejuvesence, the border acquires the stature of a metaphysical divide between life and death. It begins to exact a price for what had appeared to be a sentimental journey to the professionals’ lost youth.

The climax of the film – the showdown between Raza and Dolworth, who is fighting a rearguard action as the others move to safety – occurs on the very edge of the border, in an anomalous zone that erases fealty. Differences between friend and foe are flattened out so that the questions of identity and personal loyalty become paramount. The border shifts again to become the line which either separates, or joins, love and duty. Dolworth experiences an epiphany, or as he puts it later to Rico: “I found out what makes a woman [i.e., an ideal] worth a hundred thousand bucks.” It is the same conclusion the doubting Rico had been moving toward himself.

For the professionals, whose technical skills had functioned as a denatured form of honor (here to be considered as a synonym for the integrity of identity), true honor becomes obtainable once more by a return to the ideals they had forsaken. Their passage through Mexico, with its concomitant stages of separation, regression, and regeneration through violence, permits them to attain a rebirth that is really a consummation of their original mythic values. Moreover, by rejecting American culture, which is perceived as corrupt and dishonest, for Mexican culture, they reassert their own identity by a direct reclamation of the past, which for them, in L. P. Hartley’s famous phrase, is literally “a foreign country.”

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Way Out West Part 2—Vera Cruz or, The Past Regained

In Vera Cruz, Mexico appears as a land of opportunity for mercenaries and professional soldiers displaced by the Civil War. Ex-Confederate Colonel Ben Trane (Gary Cooper) travels south of the border to sell his services to Napoleon III’s effete puppet dictator, the Habsburg Emperor Maximillian, who is desperately trying to suppress the rebellion of the Juaristas. Trane hopes to earn enough money to return to Louisiana and rebuild his ruined plantation, rejuvenating the lives of “the folks,” as he puts it, who are counting on him.

To offset the strong implications of paternalism associated with this endeavor, the film presents Trane as a good man who just happened to be on the wrong side of the fight. Contrasted to the noble Trane is Burt Lancaster’s Joe Erin, an amoral gunslinger who initially tries to dupe Trane, but comes to respect him for his martial prowess and eventually forms an alliance with him.

Together, the two gringo adventurers turn down a plea to aid the beleaguered Juaristas, selling their guns for Maximillian’s gold. However, Trane gradually comes to sympathize with the Juaristas and their struggle for freedom, which the film depicts an analogue to the Confederate secession. He betrays Maximillian in order to secure a shipment of gold for the rebels, killing Erin to do so. Through this denial of mere self-gratification, Trane affirms the idealism that the Civil War had shattered, though the film’s ambiguous ending leaves open the question of his return to Louisiana.

Vera Cruz is a film in which the metaphor of Mexico operates on a number of levels. The overall tone is grimly cynical about human motives, yet Mexico still functions as a place where rebirth is made possible because of a political state of confusion that verges on the inchoate. In this climate, where the woman Cooper eventually ends up with is presented, successively, as exotic seductress, untrustworthy thief, and finally, dedicated revolutionary, nothing is as it seems, and identity itself becomes fluid, questionable. These are the very conditions that make Ben Trane’s redemption possible. But to undergo this redemption, he must first separate himself from his own cultural matrix, making, as it were, an archetypal journey to the underworld.

Trane never quite regresses, though. He does not take on the attributes of savagery usually associated with regeneration through violence. The casting of Gary Cooper in this role is largely responsible for this, as Cooper’s iconic status as the American Everyman was not flexible enough to allow him to play against the grain. Instead, it is Burt Lancaster’s Joe Erin, with his almost prankish sense of eroticism and larceny, who enacts the regression. While presented fait accompli, Erin’s savagery may be understood as the id complementing Trane’s ego, the primitive energies necessary to enable Trane’s idealism. What Trane represses, Erin expresses: the two men form a psychological symbiote, in which the ego agrees to a partnership with its temporarily unrestrained lower self in order to accomplish a goal. By himself, Trane can’t steal the gold. Once the French troops guarding it have been killed, with the help of Erin and his gang, the partnership must end. The savagery necessary to attain the gold then becomes sublimated in the act of assisting the Juaristas, who never appear except en masse, representing the needs of the collective, which must take precedence over the desires of the individual.

Vera Cruz posits a Mexico populated by primitive, yet noble, peasants, and lorded over by European decadence in the person of the ineffectual Maximillian. Against this is set the implacable pragmatism of a dispossessed American, Ben Trane, seeking to re-enfranchise himself in the cultural status quo through calculated acts of deceit and violence. For Trane, as for the viewer, the idealism of the rebels whom he aids evokes a sense of nostalgia which looks back to the “lost cause” of the Confederacy – Trane’s “site of memory” – thereby allowing the present to redress the anxiety created by that loss. This anxiety is further assuaged by the signs that invoke “the otherness” of Mexico: its exotic women, its Aztec ruins, its festive music. In this equation, Mexico becomes the land of the psyche’s provenance, a kind of rough and tumble Eden where the re-invention of the self is always possible.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Way Out West Part 1-Border Crossings

As the defining marker of ideas about national space, the American West has unfolded in the cultural imaginary as both dawn and nocturne, embarkation point and final destination. The West is less place than it is the space between places, functioning as a free-floating zone of representational potentiality, a vast borderland where the anxiety of becoming is inextricably enmeshed with the deeper anxiety that is the threat of historical oblivion. This is one reason why the greatest of Western films are so frequently elegiac in tone. The Searchers, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and Shane, to name only the most prominent examples, attest to a way of life on the verge of vanishing, that crucial moment in which violence is recoded, deliberately revised and effectively subsumed under the name of the law.

To take place, to inhabit space, is also to make history and the making of history means the drawing of borders, the delimiting of space in order to map the coordinates of belonging. As constructed over several generations by Western filmmakers, the cinematic image of Mexico is a crucial part of this process: it plays host to the Other necessary for constructing an American expansionist identity. As such, it invariably conjures up a region of exotic cruelty and licentious abandon, a land where outlaws flee to escape justice and where the innocent are often taken hostage by the cunning. Historically, of course, Mexico as a nation has been dealt with by the United States with cynical opportunism. Sometimes enemy, sometimes ally, the U.S. has treated its southern neighbor with varying degrees of exploitation and paternalism. With the Mexican War of 1846-48, in which California, Arizona, and New Mexico were seized by the U.S. (and the independence of Texas reaffirmed), a precedent for aggression was established. This colonial attitude was eventually reflected in a number of Western movies.

Prominent among them are Robert Aldrich’s Vera Cruz (1954), Richard Brooks’ The Professionals (1966), and Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969), each of which frames Mexico as both a pastoral haven and a site of permanent exile. The Mexican/American border functions in them as a trope for psychological and spiritual rebirth, one that arose in response to the anxieties created by the closing of the frontier and the continuing cultural pressure to articulate a new site for redemption long after that closing. That all three are products of the Cold War, with the latter two made in the 1960s, after John F. Kennedy’s famous “New Frontier” speech, only underscores the extent to which the anxieties over “the frontier” are really the anxieties of empire. These films explore the crisis masculinity undergoes when its traditional field of cultural production is longer available. Ultimately, the questions raised by the closure of the frontier hinge on the problems of reconciling the excessive and restless character of desire with the need to set limits, to honor memory, and to build and maintain community.

In the cinematic grammar of the Western, Mexico provides one answer to this question. It not only figures as a refuge or place of exile for those living outside the hegemonic discourse, but it is the metaphorical membrane through which the hero of the Western seeks to work out his personal redemption, or in Richard Slotkin’s phrase, his “regeneration through violence.” This regeneration, writes Slotkin, is “the structuring metaphor for the American experience,” and is achieved through the hero’s separation from civilized society, his regression to a more primitive state, and finally, his redemption by the ideologically-sanctioned use of violence as a means of attaining synthesis.

If the Western prior to and immediately after World War II is concerned with staging narratives of ideological stability (the prime examples being John Ford’s cavalry trilogy: Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, and Rio Grande), the more subversive Westerns of the 1950s and 1960s focus on the gaps in that narrative, whether they deal with more realistic depictions of violence, as in Anthony Mann’s The Naked Spur, or in Ford’s own powerfully revisionary The Searchers. Westerns such as these, as well as the ones I will consider below in detail, conduct probing post-mortems on the closing of the frontier. The border, which hitherto had been presented as an uncomplicated pushing-outwards, returns in these films with all the vengeance of the repressed to haunt the dreams of the colonizers.

In the Western, the border functions as a zone of transition, populated by danger and uncertainty, a region which invites adventurism and exploitation, and not only by individuals living on the margins of the law, but by those forces which nominally support the status quo. Orson Welles’ late noir masterpiece, Touch of Evil, for instance, exploits this quality to brilliant effect, though it’s less sanguine about the possibilities for regeneration, detailing instead how the price of living at the border subjects the law to moral corrosion.

The meaning of the border depends largely on its context: it can be either a barrier or a gateway. This tension illustrates how borders police the terms of exclusion by which a culture insures itself as civilized. Walter Benjamin’s oft-quoted observation that “There is no document of civilization that is not at the same time a document of barbarism” succinctly sums up the vexed relationship between the binary structures which comprise the foundation of cultural identity. Borders in the Western make neat dividers, then, of such categories as civilized/primitive; rational/instinctual; noble/savage, and so forth. To go “south of the border” means to operate outside of the paradigmatic culture’s jurisdiction, venturing into a territory rife with ambiguity and dangerous possibility.

Mexico, then, functions symbolically as “the underneath,” an alterior region where the forbidden is permitted, a place in which the terms of discourse become inverted, and the possibilities for redemption by those whom the law has dispossessed are made tantalizingly available. In this sense, Mexico takes over the role once played by the western frontier, which was held by Frederick Jackson Turner to have “closed” in 1890. In The Professionals and The Wild Bunch, both set in the early years of this century, that frontier has already closed, while in Vera Cruz, which is set in the late 1860’s, the displacement and anxiety produced in the aftermath of the Civil War conflate excursions into Mexico with westward expansion and exploitation.

To transit the border is to shed one set of values and take up another. In Slotkin’s analogy, it is “to pass through the looking glass.” This passage allows the hero of the Western access to qualities, such as deception and savagery, which are excluded from the discourse of his own culture. He enters a mythic region, where the repressed energies of the psyche are made available to him once more, energies he presses into the service of his own regeneration. In both Vera Cruz and The Professionals, these energies are ultimately employed to affirm the values of the hero’s cultural matrix. In The Wild Bunch, they enact less stable results, though they unfold along structurally similar lines.

The border acts as a marker for locating memory. It situates both what is lost to civilization as well as antecedent to it. In the case of Mexico, the physical boundary counts for less than the temporal divide it represents. Crossing south of the border is a trope for recovering the availability of more primal modes of behavior that have been repressed, abandoned, or forgotten in the drive to achieve civilization. More than that, though, the Mexican border registers what has been erased from memory itself and subsumed into history-at-large. The border in the Western is not only both a bridge and a barrier between two different forms of cultural discourse, but a troubled conduit connecting and implicating two contesting structures of recollection and representation. In Pierre Nora’s phrase, it shifts from milieux de mémoire to lieux de mémoire, that is, from a “real environment of memory” to “sites of memory.” A site of memory, according to Nora, is “any significant object or place which by dint of custom, labor, or the passage of time has become a symbolic element of the memorial heritage of any community.”

These sites are configured at the juncture where personal, local memory is overwritten by larger, ideological concerns with preserving culturally sanctioned versions of events. They can be commemorative objects, rituals, or places, like museums or archives, where the anxiety created by the collective loss of memory is re-negotiated in such a way that the idea of continuity, rather than actual continuity, is maintained. In the case of the Western, the porous character of the Mexican border acts to negotiate the anxiety felt by the closing of the frontier. In each of the three films considered here, the border represents varying degrees of license, salvation, and nemesis.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Poetry Chronicles-Prospect of Release

From the dog days to the doldrums. In my last post I promised a trio of offerings on some classic Western films. Upon further review, I'm not really sure they're ready for sub-prime time. Besides which in the interim I fell quite ill with a vile sore throat. I'm almost all better now, which is good, since Julie Carr and her husband, Tim, are about to visit us and we shall go climb into a cool pond nearby.

Illness, as Woolf notes, is altered consciousness. A magnification of the microscopic. A weird humming along the fractal ley lines of the wounded body. But that was before antibiotics, ibuprofen, and TV, and in particular before the advent of Apple TV and streaming. Streaming is a glorious, obscene thing. Why obscene? Because it makes good on the promise of late capital to deliver us to our toxic desires. So I have immersed myself in unspeakable pleasures. Namely, superhero cartoons. This requires a deep blog post which right now I don't have the cognitive juice for. Suffice it to say that the two prime forces which shaped my early imagination were the Catholic Church and Marvel Comics. I'll leave it at that for now.

Below is my 1999 review of Tom Mandel's extraordinary Prospect of Release, which first appeared in Christopher Reiner's WITZ. I cherish this book, all the more so now that my own parents are gone.


The problem of transmission is fundamental to Judaism, indeed to the idea of culture itself. The anxieties of establishing continuity go to the very heart of what we mean by memory. How may the past be guaranteed to the future? How is culture carried over and mediated from one generation to the next? How is identity formed and re-formed in its endless conversations with the dead? And how do the dead speak to us? Charles Reznikoff opens his great poem, “By The Well of Living and Seeing” with these lines:

My grandfather died long before I was born,
died among strangers; and all the verse he wrote
was lost --
except for what still speaks through me
as mine.

Here, transmission is envisioned as something enacted with a degree of autonomy, not necessarily to be read as genetic, but rather, perhaps, as a set of codes perpetuated in and by language itself.

Tom Mandel’s haunting Prospect of Release undertakes the task of recovering the lost primary mode of transmission -- the death of a parent. In this intricate series of 50 sonnets written in elegy for his stepfather, Mandel articulates the iterations of sorrow with all the rue and gravity of rabbinical injunction. Austerity becomes the principle not of denudation but replenishment. To start at Aleph, the zero, the nadir -- the place of irremediable loss -- is simultaneously to engage the plenitude of language as response to the dead, to make from the bare ruined choir of an unrequited antiphonal longing the forms of solace, that are also the forms of inheritance, of transmission.

For Mandel, as for Jabes, to confront death means to confront the very nature of language itself. How do we mourn the loss of the Other, these poems ask, while knowing that the words we use to connect also betray us with every breath? The form of all our knowing is language -- "the King's highway" -- as Mandel calls it. How we travel on this road, and what congress it maintains between its own public discourse and our private soliloquies, is just one of the many themes this book so brilliantly engages, not so much through elegy as by the quest for -- and the questioning of -- elegy.

Long associated with Language Poetry, Mandel in his previous book, Letters of the Law, began an investigation of the relationship between language, consciousness and codification which drew deeply on the tradition of Jewish law and mysticism that has always made those concerns its own. Prospect of Release in many ways continues that investigation, but on a much more intimately modulated and poignant scale. The marvel of the book is that the poignancy is achieved through a stripped down diction that plays alertly and harmonically on key ideas and phrases, and by a subdued, formal rhythm perfectly consonant with the starkness of the poet’s grief, his sense of loss.

Loss here remains loss -- what cannot be replaced -- and yet: “Don’t lance his healed wounds,” the poet enjoins, following the steps of the ancient Judaic prescription for mourning, its stern psychology. Loss is also what enables transmission from one person to another to occur; it creates a “reverence modeled on absence.” The form of language -- “our rigorous oral tradition” -- encodes the way of compassionate living. “Not stasis, neither gnosis is your goal.” And even though, as the poet laments, “Grief’s code of desire cannot be read,” it is nevertheless through language that he is permitted entry to the ongoing engagement and renewal of the world, a process not to be confused with history, or even nature, both “idols formed from false propositions.” “Of the ten things made at twilight/the greatest was ‘speech-act.’” Therefore, “vowels, bring on morning. Consonants, cause the sun to set.” Through utterance, we embody a world.

In the Sefer Ta’amei ha-Mitsvoth, according to Gershom Scholem, souls cluster in communal groups and may return to aid the living during times of crisis. “For the dead of each and every family ... are like the roots of a tree, and its branches are the living, for the living exist by virtue of the merits of the dead.” Mandel’s poems seem to draw nourishment from this idea: “Like the living the dead are many,/connected in all traces to the common social order.” This affirmation of communality takes its strength from Judaic tradition, but also recalls Joyce’s “the cords of all link back: strandentwining cable of all flesh.” To link to the dead, for Mandel, is both the expression of grief and the nominalization of a self in opposition to an absence:

I speak to establish my
isolation from you, the object of
my address, whose silence unattainable

listens but cannot respond. Only tears
interrupt such words; tears are
a trope for the presence of the dead.

The motions of grief are one and the same with the motions of remembering. The conjuration of the dead, that is so necessary for establishing the sense of communal continuity, is performed not by some necromantic apostasy, but through the sanctifying figurations of the poem. That which is absent is again made present, if only at a distance, if only at that remove inaugurated and solemnized by the gestures of invocation. Seen this way, it is the living who endure an exile from the dead, one that is redeemed by the tropes of memory. Above all, this exile is redeemed by the highest of speech-acts, the poem.

In his essay on Judaism, “The Indestructible,” Maurice Blanchot writes that Judaism exists as a means to affirm the nomadic quality of being human: “through exile ... and exodus ... the experience of strangeness may affirm itself ... as an irreducible relation ... so that ... we might learn to speak.” The project of living, which is also the project of life’s relation to death, might be described in just the same way. By the death of He-Who-Is-Loved, the poet is compelled to express the exactness of that relation between the dead and the living, the fulcrum and the hinge from which depends the all-that-is-sayable:

Interrupting each other thus, we make
language whole, grounding in speech
both isolation and resolution. We give
exemplary articulation to life and death.

Forming one meta-sonnet, these poems sustain their meditation on death and the possibilities of language through a structure both hermetic and open, enacting a syntax of repetition which continually questions and re-affirms language’s power to transmit “our rigorous oral tradition.” Unlike traditional elegies, these poems don’t presume to circumscribe grief by leveraging memory into the recreation -- the buyout -- of the vanished Other through an accumulation of mundane detail. Rather, they subject the appeal to memory, and its assumptions, to what might be called a poetics of absence. By signifying absence -- the total evacuation of the self -- presence may actually stand out beyond itself, revealed in the aura of its unsignifying numinosum. Blanchot, again, from The Space of Literature:
the lack is the being that lies deep in the absence of being ... the lack is what still remains of being when there is nothing ... when everything has disappeared, there is still something: when everything lacks, lack makes the essence of being appear, and the essence of being is to be there still where it lacks, to be inasmuch as it is hidden (252-53).

Dwelling at the margins of the sayable, Prospect of Release rescues the relation with the Other from the totalizing gesture of language. This steady refusal to collapse difference, not to annul the anxiety it stands in through appeals to conventional sentiment, gives these elegies a uniquely ethical distinction. Mandel’s concerns are not unlike those of Emmanuel Levinas, who writes of the Other in his Totality and Infinity that: “The relation with the other does not nullify separation ... does not establish a totality, integrating me and the Other ... Rather ... the relation of me and the Other commences in the inequality of the terms.”

You are my second, one says to the other,
whom repetition changes and explains,
bearer of identity, yet other --
my stand-in and myself.

Identity is both the measure of the gap between selves and what passes over that gap via transmission, the utterance and re-utterance of words, instructions, even those tears that are “a trope for the dead.” On the King’s Highway, “repetition transforms our route.” Or as Mandel writes in another sonnet: “an ultimate letter/chants the text it changes ...” In this sense, all writing is an enacting of a colloquy with the dead, with what has already passed, figuring through the ancient and various tropes of emptiness and absence a presence, it may be, that is beyond presence.

Do not speak of these
words but repeat them, accompany me,
understand the strength of transmission,

the authority of the lonely in the meaning
of words

In the meaning of words, the authority of the lonely is that which insists on itself, which makes of its isolation a bride to a meaning that the dead once occupied, and once invested with their living. But even to say so is already to have moved on, to have passed, and in passing reject both history and nature, those “idols formed from false propositions.” Instead: “the answer is/to be what’s named, the category/of person ...” By the authority of the naming, the task of the living becomes the transmission of a new code, a re-naming and a re-drawing of the circle which embraces both the living and the dead. (“Es war ein Kreis,” Mandel quotes Celan in the book’s epigraph - “it was a circle” -- and indeed, the entire sequence of sonnets moves in a circularity whose action continually re-inscribes the relations between self and other, performing a shuttle between the question and the affirmation, the call and the response).

These profoundly moving poems are a speaking for the dead in which the dead continue to record their fevers: what they burned for when alive, and what still burns the living. But the dead are also the metaphor through which we try to speak the presentness of our living: the instantiating moment that both eludes and propels us -- the sense of our own otherness, in opposition to the non-being of the dead, as it comes to us through the medium of their unending transmissions. Prospect of Release not only performs a reinvigorated Kaddish, a new inscription and recuperation of the Book of Departure, it also recovers for us what might be called a Bardo for the living, a set of instructions from which we may learn how to endure and reconfigure the absent presence of the dead. “The story that prepared us,” the text of the father, “has died.” Yet the process of re-inscription is fructifying, as Mandel makes clear in his beautiful translation of Isaiah:

Like dew, rain and snow descending
to fructify earth, my word falls from my mouth
to do my will and does not return
unfulfilled but completes the task of my intentions.

To become an interlocutor with the dead, of the dead, for the dead, as Tom Mandel has done in these poems with such an extraordinary combination of tenderness and acuity, is still and always to assay mortal things -- to go up against the place where, as Derrida says, “limits tremble,” and the tongue breaks off. The elegy becomes nothing less than an effort to recover first things by naming last things. Negation, the erasure of self and of form, is transformed. The poem enacts the supreme moment of chiasmus, of the intersection between convergence and divergence, between embodying presence and self-empyting absence. Out of absence and silence, it re-constitutes a new form and continuity, here where we always are, at the horizon of speech.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

The Dog Days of Summer or, Time to Get Sirius

As the last few postings here have shown, a spirit of midsummer lassitude has pleasantly descended here at The Messianic. Fear not, behind the scenes I am scribbling away mightily. Here's what's in the works:

- The special feature I've been editing for Jacket 2, on the poetry of Rachel Blau DuPlessis, is nearly completed and should go online sometime in August. It will contain some remarkable essays and engagements with Drafts, a new poem by RBD -- "Draft 109: Wall Newspaper" -- and a collection of photos documenting various stages in her career. Aside from a feature that ran a few years ago in However 2, the web avatar of Kathleen Fraser's groundbreaking avant-feminist zine, How(ever), this will represent the most sustained consideration of her work to date.

- My review of Michael Palmer's Thread will also be appearing later this summer in J2, as soon, that is, as I finish it. I will just say this for now: it's his most exciting and powerful collection since 1988's At Passages.

- Each year in August, for some time now, Steve Evans has produced an annual round up of what people are reading for his Attention Span site. It's a great service to the experimental poetry scene, one I've been contributing to since 2008. Because of dissertation pressures, I've never been able to do more than compile a list of books accompanied by all too brief and downright hermetic blurbs. This year, anticipating Steve's request, I've put together something a little more substantive and considered. And if it doesn't run there, it will run here, reader. Some of the poets will be familiar to readers of this blog.

- I've spent the last two weeks performing a major overhaul/retrospective of virtually everything I've ever written. This has meant going back to 1975 or so. An archaeological undertaking like this can place considerable strain on one's emotional resources. Reader, I found many poems that were very, very bad. (Sifting through the strata, I once again was reminded how deeply Rilke left his mark on my impressionable psyche. But why oh why did I spend so much time reading Robert Bly?) The point of this exercise was to take stock; and to locate the poems that weren't so bad. Of these, I'm happy to say, there are quite a few.

- This overhaul has also included all the book and film reviews written for various publications since 1990, along with the surviving number of script coverages I wrote in the movie industry from 1990-1997, and the cream of graduate seminar essays worth saving, with a view toward revision and eventual publication.

- More crucially, I've revamped and continue to tinker with two poetry manuscripts that I've been working on for a few years now (and submitting to publishers for ever, it seems): SONG X and GNOSTIC ETUDES. A third ms., still in need of editing, is centered around what I like to call, in lieu of that hoary genre, the nature poem, "eco-locations." It's entitled GROUND MUSIC. A few of these will appear later this year in Interim and Colorado Review, thanks to the good office of Matthew Cooperman.

- Finally, in the spirit of fugitive postings of old material that I remain inordinately fond of, I will begin posting here later this week a four-part installment on three great Western movies -- Vera Cruz, The Professional, and The Wild Bunch. This material dates from 1997, I think, though it's been spruced up a bit. Sensibility-wise, it straddles the moment when I was shifting from movie work and free-lance reviewing to full-on scholarly pursuits. The closing of the frontier has always seemed to me a greater subject than its opening since it always concerned with loss.

So far, the dog days are actually turning out rather nicely this year.

Friday, July 1, 2011

The Pure Cinema of Michael Bay

The Transformer movies combine, however awkwardly, the powerful allure of fairy tale nostalgia, in the form of toys that come to life (and the struggle to control them), with the pleasures of seeing the human reduced in scale to the miniature. They display, in the most direct way, the promiscuity of technology: its shape-shifting perversity. The deeper satisfactions to be found, if I may venture such a notion, in these often incoherently plotted and farcically juvenile films are to be located in the theme of an alien cosmology and the return of strange gods. What is uncanny about the machines is not so much that they are giant dolls brought to life, but their status as displaced Gnostic angels. There’s more than a touch of Milton’s war in heaven to all the sturm and drang. Along this latter line, it almost goes without saying that Bay's idea of film is Riefenstahl meets DeMille: an unabashed spectacle of collectivist triumphalism.

Rachel Getting Married

An overrated, trumped up bit of late capitalist cultural hysteria posing as deep drama. The self-conscious posturing of this production, drowned in ecumenical good taste and multicultural sanctimoniousness, grates like sugar on a sore tooth. At its heart, it is a ghost story, animated by a central, invisible presence – the specter of the son who was killed – and by the living ghost whom the daughter has become. But this promising, if strained, gothic element, is overcome by the inanity of the wedding and its bourgeois triumphalism. In this sense, at least, the much more modest Last Chance Harvey gets it right: weddings are ceremonies built not on inclusion, but exclusion: on who gets left out or meanly demoted. What Rachel does convey, if one can get past the histrionics, is that the basic unit of family psychology is the secret