Confronting the Minotaur in Manhattan during Sandy

Mark Dendy: Labyrinth

Mark Dendy, Stephen Donovan, Matthew Hardy (l to r) and Heather Christian in Mark Dendy: Labyrinth.

Mark Dendy, Stephen Donovan, Matthew Hardy (l to r) and Heather Christian in Mark Dendy: Labyrinth.

The next two weeks will close out the premiere run of Mark Dendy: Labyrinth at the Abrons Arts Center’s Underground Theater in Manhattan. Those interested in post-modern, multimedia experimental theater are well advised to attend this event in the intimate venue at the Henry Street Settlement.

The performance is part stand-up confessional, part dance, part cabaret with skits. It is the semi-fictionalized autobiography of Mark Dendy or at least the story of how artistic dread over selling out by choreographing the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall together with an overdose of anti-psychotic pills and absinthe landed him at Bellevue where he worked out his past demons (one in particular) during the ravages of Hurricane Sandy. Dendy (in “real life,” as they say) is an OBIE and Bessie Award-winning choreographer, and I suspect this play itself is further penance for the Rockettes gig, but it is highly entertaining and not a little profound.

Mark Dendy (Publicity photo).

Mark Dendy (Publicity photo).

The story is told loosely within and regularly referring to the classical story of Athens’ founder Theseus, who, if you know anything at all about him, you know this one thing: he was forced to enter King Minos’s fearful labyrinth, where none ever emerged because the journey was too complicated for the human mind and in any event lead to a ferocious demon, the bull-god Minotaur. Theseus was given a string to allow him to re-navigate the journey and once confronted with the demon used his strength and will to destroy it. And that is the journey, refashioned into a psychological journey undertaken by Dendy, who begins talking directly to the audience, telling us that he is from Athens … Georgia. The conceit, stated starkly, sounds somewhat pretentious to postmodern sensibilities so it is appropriately given a thoroughly postmodern treatment.

Matthew Hardy in rehearsal for the number "Me and My Shadow." (Photo: Marisa @RockPaper.)

Matthew Hardy in rehearsal for the number “Me and My Shadow.” (Photo: Marisa @RockPaper.)

Denby (who plays himself as Theseus) begins his journey confronting the usual irritations one encounters just walking down the street in Manhattan. With him is his superego (the “Shadow,” played by Stephen Donovan), who spews forth the hateful thoughts that goes through his mind when he sees black males, Muslims, the homeless, theater professionals that Dendy does not respect. Dendy tries to repress the thoughts and consciously repudiates them but cannot rid himself of this aspect (among others) of the demon that haunts him. Consciously Dendy tries to justify his career trajectory by acknowledging the competitive and business realities of art in corporatized New York, especially after the financial crash. But he is unconvinced himself. Dendy and his companion are occasionally joined by The Dark Companion (played and danced by Matthew Hardy), who stands in for the unknowable, variously explained as the dark matter which holds the universe together while it is flying apart or what was before the Big Bang and other unknowables. But this presence is not entirely lugubrious, as shown by the dance that introduces him—a clever duet of sorts between Handy and the shadow on the wall created by a horizontal floodlight to the Tin Pan Alley favorite “Me and My Shadow.”

Heather Christian and Stephen Donovan (Photo Marisa @RockPaper.)

Heather Christian and Stephen Donovan (Photo Marisa @RockPaper.)

In lieu of a Greek chorus is the Still Small Voice, sung by Heather Christian, who wrote the original music, sings the commentary and plays other roles, notably the therapist who tries to focus Denby on his past to root out the cause of his “psychosis.” Along the way, Dendy himself play among others a Times Square prostitute who overdoses on cocaine, his own grandmother and his father. Dendy as Theseus/himself also experiences an overdose which lands him in Bellevue. There he is administered therapy he believes he doesn’t need because as an artist he has already thoroughly examined his past and his own family and even exhibited it on stage. Meanwhile, alone he is wracked by guilt, among other things, for not dying during the 1980s AIDS crisis (although he had engaged in numerous unprotected anonymous couplings) and especially for not mourning those who did.

The therapy is somewhat ham-fisted. Rather than pursue something of a break through, the therapist adheres to her schedule and instead gives Dendy a form to fill out. The form is designed to discover how psychotic the patient is, but the questions are such that they would elicit mostly solid affirmations by any New Yorker, such as “I try very hard to please other people in order to avoid conflict, confrontation or rejection” or “Equality doesn’t exist so it’s better to be superior to other people.” (The audience is given the questionnaire in their programs.) But with the crisis of Sandy bearing down on the city and Dendy/Theseus trapped in Bellevue, he is forced to set off alone (with only the therapist’s little string) into the Labyrinth. The journey is into his past, where he again meets the grandmother who raised him, the right-wing antisemitic grandfather Baptist minister married to her and eventually his own Daddy. The trip is not altogether grim, especially because the grandmother is appealingly quirky and discloses truths ironically. The older Theseus visiting her in her mental decline discovers that she really hates green jello with marshmallows. She warns him of the dangers of lying: She has been forced to eat this for 37 years because she once utter the white lie of saying how delicious it was. Imagine, she says, what a great lie could do. But Theseus has discovered her great lie and it eventually leads him to his own Minotaur, his father.

The cast in some of their costumes. (Photos by Marisa @RockPaper.)

The cast in some of their costumes. (Photos by Marisa @RockPaper.)

Dendy’s characters are quite engaging, the scenes are brief and intercut with movement and cabaret songs and rap. Heather Christian is a quite talented theater singer. He voice is a pure soprano but capable of carrying styles from r&b to rap to “classical” commentary on Debussy and Schubert. The musical selections are one of engines that propel the piece. The other is the movements designed by Dendy as choreographer. Never lasting long enough to become cloying, they illustrate with belaboring such things as erotic writhing, psychotic despair, childhood terror.

The climax takes play as the storm (internal as well as external) reaches its crisis. But true to the postmodern sensibility it ends with a rousing finale. There may be no new truths in postmodernism but as this performance shows old truths can be repackaged in original and captivating ways. And perhaps that’s all we are left with anyway nowadays.


Asturias, October 1934

This week marks the 80th anniversary of the miners’ strike in the northern Spanish province of Asturias, which represeented the first attempt to resist fascism in Spain specifically and in Europe generally. The incident played out in miniature themes that would be played over and over in Spain and elsewhere in Europe as reactionary forces used much the same script and the response of the Left followed a predictably tragic pattern.

Popular acclaim in Madrid as the Republic was proclaimed on April 14, 1931.

Popular acclaim in Madrid as the Republic was proclaimed on April 14, 1931.

Briefly stated, in April 1931 the profoundly conservative country of Spain woke up a republic after King Alfonso XIII fled the country following municipal elections that returned a wave of republican candidates to office. The election was a sharp rebuke to the seven-year rule of military dictator Miguel Primo de Rivera. The Depression had proved beyond Primo de Rivera’s ability to manage: Much of the country was in the midst of crushing poverty, but the conservatives blamed the government for too much spending on infrastructure and condemned the budget deficits that resulted. Student uprisings portrayed Alfonso as Primo de Rivera’s lap dog. Shocked, the king began distancing himself from the dictator. What caused the latter’s resignation, however, was the military’s loss of confidence in him. Primo de Rivera had been manipulating promotions in a way that alienated key blocks. In January 1930 the army signaled its lack of support, and Primo de Rivera resigned. Rather than placate the population, the resignation galvanized the anti-monarchical sentiment. Even Alfonso could not deny after the April 4, 1931 election that the worm had turned against him. Great popular demonstrations celebrating the landslide in favor of the republican coalition greeted the event. On April 14, the Second Spanish Republic was proclaimed.

One of the churches set ablaze on May 11, 1931 in response to the Church's support of the departed King and in defense of its political privileges.

One of the churches set ablaze on May 11, 1931 in response to the Church’s support of the departed King and in defense of its political privileges.

Rightly fearing that its favored position was about to be undermined, the Church signaled its disapproval of events. In May Bishop Gomá of the archdiocese of Tarragona, a right-wing proponent of the “Confessional State” (who would later be rewarded with the office Cardinal for his work in defending the establishment of the Church) issued a pastoral letter condemning the republic and avowing outright monarchical principles. Public outrage led to a rash of church burnings in Madrid, Andalusia and Valencia. Although the Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (“CNT”), the most radical of the union organizations, advised against violence, it remained on guard of the possible co-option of government by conservative forces. An interim government was formed, which set elections for June for a constitutional assembly. By December a new constitution was framed. The Constitution established a variety of liberal principles including freedom of speech and assembly. It responded to popular discontent over the Church’s entrenched and reactionary role in public life by disestablishing it and barring its role in public education. Resistance by the Church resulted in predictable public reaction, and churches were set aflame from time to time over the next several years. Nonetheless, the political party that represented the Church, the Acción Nacional, later renamed the Acción Popular, remained overtly anti-republican, expressly sought a return to the monarchy and aligned itself with the most notoriously right-wing political elements of Spain.

From the English languag anti-Fascist pamphlet Spain October 1934 a Spanish farm worker, who was one of "thousands" who lived in "holes in the ground."

From the English languag anti-Fascist pamphlet Spain, October 1934 a Spanish farm worker, who was one of “thousands” who lived in “holes in the ground.”

Great public expectations were invested in the Republic. In addition to a religious establishment, Spain still retained feudal privileges for the aristocracy. Monopolies prevailed. Wealth was highly concentrated. Over half of land was held by 0.2% of the population, while most farm workers (a group representing about 20% of the population) lived in dire poverty. Large fortunes were controlled by old nobles and new industrialists, the former seen as debauched leeches and the latter as rapacious predators by the popular parties. For the first two years the Congress of Deputies (the new unicameral legislature) enacted liberal social and political reforms: women were granted the suffrage, divorce was legalized, the army was reduced and even a mild agrarian land reform law was enacted. But although the constitution provided means by which certain monopolies could be nationalized (banks, railroads and the like), no such steps were taken. Prime Minister Manuel Azaña cashiered the worst of the Catholic army officers and expanded secular schools but temporized on any fundamental reforms. CNT distrust of the liberal parties proved well-founded when the center right parties came to power in 1933.

Characiture of Alejandro Lerroux on cover of Gracia y Justicia (1931) by  Areuger (Wikipedia).

Characiture of Alejandro Lerroux on cover of Gracia y Justicia (1931) by Areuger (Wikipedia).

Although the Radical Party had once been anti-monarchical and indeed originally part of the coalition to overturn the monarchy and although it participated in the interim government following Alfonso’s escape from Spain, in the Congress of Deputies it proved to be a center-right party. Even though Manuel Azaña was at best mildly republican, the Radical Party became government’s chief opposition party. In the 1933 elections (one seen as corrupt by the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations) a coalition of conservatives won the largest number of seats and the Radical Party was given the right to attempt to form a government, but it had no majority. It tried three times: in November 1933, April 1934 and October 1934. All of which failed.

The Radical Party was founded in 1909 and still led in 1933 by Alejandro Lerroux, who was a man of no fixed principles. As the centrist Foreign Affairs noted in January 1935, Lerroux was “dominated by senile vanity and ambition” and “it was all the same whether it was a republic or a more or less disguised monarchy, provided only he were in power.” After three governments were rejected by the Congress (in one of which he himself was proposed as the prime minister), Lerroux decided to reach out to a coalition partner that everyone knew was toxic—the Acción Popular.

Gil Robles: "Society has only one enemy ... Marxism. Only when the conservative classes seize the opportunity will a better day dawn." (From  by Henri Barbusse (Paris: S.R.I.: 1934).

Gil-Robles: “Society has only one enemy … Marxism. Only when the conservative classes seize the opportunity will a better day dawn.” From by Henri Barbusse,  Spain, October 1934 (Paris: S.R.I.: 1934).

The Acción Popular Party was led by reactionary ideologue and ardent fundamentalist Catholic Gil-Robles. Gil-Robles was secretary of the Catholic-Agrarian National Confederation during the dictatorship of Primo Rivera. He joined the writing council of El Debate, a very conservative clerical journal, which was conducted in a modern, racy, popular style. (It was the first Spanish newspaper with a sports section, for example.) From the very beginning of the Second Republic Acción Popular (under its original name Acción Nacional ) (and El Debate as its mouth-piece) made no attempt to disguise its anti-Republican programme. It represented the interests of the Spanish church and was funded by the right-wing money. In 1931 it voted against the adoption of the Constitution and made no bones about accommodating republicanism. It represented everything that liberals and leftist groups feared: naked, iron-fisted reaction. And 1934 was a year in which liberals and leftists had good reason to fear the forces of reaction. In Austria, for example, the fascist government, long in alliance with Mussolini, began a crack-down on the Social Democratic Party and suspended basic civil liberties and created a one-party state by a new constitution.

Acción Popular election poster 1933.

Acción Popular election poster 1933: “Socialism destroys our economy. Vote for the Right. Vote against Marxism.”

Before the 1933 elections Gil-Robles formed the Confederación Española de Derechas Autónomas (the Spanish Confederation of the Autonomous Right “CEDA”) as something of an umbrella group for conservative, right-wing and anti-republican interests. The coalition gained a plurality of votes, but President Alcalá-Zamora hesitated to give Gil-Robles the chance to form a coalition. Alcalá-Zamora himself was a lawyer and conservative. He was profoundly Catholic and had no great attachment to republicanism. But he knew that the country was a tinder box and Gil-Robles was a match. So the task was given to Lerroux. By summer 1934 Lerroux was so frustrated that he decided to do what no other republican party would consider—make Acción Popular a coalition partner. He obtained a vow from Gil-Robles to respect the republican constitution, probably a fig demanded by Alcalá-Zamora, and then agreed to give three portfolios to Acción Popular members. Gil-Robles had undoubtedly persuaded Lerroux that the threat of Socialists in Congress (that such action would result in a national uprising) was a bluff or at least would result in at most a transitory protest and then everyone would accept the inevitable. El Debate said so in an editorial on October 3. Even Alcalá-Zamora was convinced. When a banker warned against allowing Acción Popular participation because of the threat of an uprising, Alcalá-Zamora said: “Who will call it? The Socialists? They never make revolutions.” So the deed was done on October 4.

The President proved prophetic. None of the national republican parties lifted a finger, other than distancing themselves from government. The matter was left to a coalition of local radical working class groups.

Poster appealing for proletariat solidarity with the uprising in Asturias.

Poster appealing for proletariat solidarity with the uprising in Asturias.

Back in March 1934, as a result of the election of right-wingers in the November polls, a Workers’ Alliance was formed. The two labor groups, the CNT (largely anarcho-syndicalists) and the Unión General de Trabajadores (“UGT,” the trade unionists), had long concluded that radical action was necessary. After the November election even the socialists, the Partido Socialista Obrero Español (“PSOE”), were talking about insurrection, although as it later turned out, this talk was largely a sop to their constituents. On March 28, 1934, despite the wariness of the CNT, a Workers’ Alliance was formed among these three parties and the Bloc Obrer i Camperol (BOC). The Federación Anarquista Ibérica (“FAI,” the Iberian Anarchist Federation), however, refused to join, not believing that any of the parties would follow through on their commitments. The concept behind the alliance was to organize local revolutionary committees, which would retain independence but coordinate with the national groups. The hope was to initiate strikes and other insurrections much like the successful ones called by FAI in 1933. In December 1933 the CNT had also called a strike which resulted in attacks on right-wing forces around the country. In response Acción Popular held a rally in Covadonga, the place sacred to Catholic reactionaries because it was where the expulsion of the Moors was first begun. The Acción Popular rally was the beginning of its organizing of paramilitary groups.

Protestors violently dispersed in Madrid after the State of Siege was proclaimed. From Spain October 1934.

Protestors violently dispersed in Madrid after the State of Siege was proclaimed. From Spain, October 1934.

When the coalition with Acción Popular was announced on October 4, the PSOE, with the rest of the organized Left, considered it a “fascist coup.” It was now time to decide. Largo-Caballero, the head of the socialist PSOE, was far from a revolutionary. During the Primo Rivera dictatorship he came to an entente with government which permitted the UGT to exist (but not strike), and he was not constitutionally a decisive man. Nevertheless, in the crisis, according to vice secretary of the PSOE Juan Simeón Vidarte, although he was pale, his voice was steady: the comité insurreccional of the PSOE would unleash civil war.

At the same time in Catalonia, the local government used the event to pull the trigger on its long planned goal of declaring independence. In Madrid, the government was more interested in responding to the workers. Under the prodding of Gil-Robles, the Guardia civil was brought out to break the strike, and the government declared a state of siege. In Madrid, the police fired on protesters, and the streets were filled with uniformed men. In the face of violent repression most of the actions melted away. But in Asturias in Northern Spain the workers had prepared themselves for a real, rather than imagined, insurrection.

Asturian miners in the trenches in October 1934. (Photographer unknown.)

Asturian miners in the trenches in October 1934. (Photographer unknown.)

The miners of Asturias were the only ideologically disciplined group, and their sympathizers were a large segment of the population. Moreover, they had firmly united with the UGT, which was whole-heartedly behind insurrection rather than “reform.” When the event came, the FAI and eventually the small group of local communists joined the uprising.

On October 5, the barracks of the Guardia civil throughout the villages of Asturias were approached, and the workers demanded that they surrender. When they balked, the workers attacked and subdued them. Revolutionary groups were set up, and an attack on Olviedo, the provincial capital, was planned. On October 6, Olviedo was taken, the “Model Prison” there was opened, but although it contained a cache of weapons, it had no ammunition.

Olviedo after the Moors, October 14, 1934. (Printed card. Photographer unknown.)

Olviedo after the Moors, October 14, 1934. (Printed card. Photographer unknown.)

The general government on the recommendation of  Gil-Robles, sought the advice of Generals Manuel Goded and Francisco Franco, both of whom were experienced in brutal counterinsurgency: Goded had fought in the Rif War against the Morocco insurgents and Franco had put down a strike in Asturias in 1917. Both agreed that the regular army was unreliable. They recommended a combination of the Guardia civil, the Spanish foreign legion, and colonial troops of Morocco. Ironically, the right wing movement which celebrated the Expulsion at Covadonga would now depend on the Moors and mercenaries to save  Christendom. The 25,000 foreign troops were soon landed and their ferocity, legendary in Africa, was unleashed. I won’t go into detail on individual battles, except for two observations. First, the efficiency of the Guardia civil was debunked. Workers had taken them on and won. Second, the CNT fear of bourgeois liberal parties in the crunch proved true. When workers in Catalan supported the declaration of independence (evidently thinking it would bring revolutionary improvement in its wake) the Catalan government balked at arming them and the “Catalonia Republic” collapsed in 10 hours. It didn’t take resort to Engels (who had shown how German liberals acted in similar circumstances in 1849), because Foreign Affairs saw the historical verity plainly:

“What history has frequently demonstrated was proved once again, namely, that a petty bourgeois party, placed between the power of the upper middle classes who control the state, and the mass of the class-conscious workers, is ineffective in revolution and always surrenders to the strongest side.”

Women and children driven from their homes by the troops under General Ochoa. From Spain October 1934.

Women and children driven from their homes by the troops under General Ochoa. From Spain, October 1934.

In the end the miners and civilians suffered at least 3,100 casualties including 1,100 dead. The government took between 30,000 and 45,000 prisoners, including Largo Caballero (who from the experience would gain the prestige that would allow him to become Prime Minister in the crucial years of 1936-37). There would be large-scale dislocations of insurgent families and sympathizers. And while some pockets held out for several months, ultimately the insurrections was snuffed out.

Franco of course benefitted by having a dry run for the maneuver he would use two years later to roll up the entire country. Then it would be the Spanish Government itself that sought assistance from bourgeois governments on the plea that republicanism was facing down fascism. Once again liberal bourgeois democracy turned a deaf ear. Throughout Europe, the Popular Front would replay the same sad denouement that the Workers’ Alliance did in Spain. You can develop your own analogies to other aspects of this story for our own time.

Despite the brutal defeat and repression, workers took heart from the event. They were not crushed by valor or by conviction, but only by lack of preparation and matériel. Next time it would be different. They all knew this.

For those interested in hearing from participants (or closely interested contemporaries), the following documents are available:

  • La Revolución de Octubre 1934 by anarchist and journalist José Muñoz Congost was last month digitized by ting Cultural de Estudios Sociales de Melbourne y Acracia Publications, a group related to Spanish emigrants to Australia, and is available as a PDF here.
  • A fascinating collection of contemporary English trade union documents (pamphlets, correspondence and reports) in the collection of University of Warwick have been digitized and can be seen here.
  • The text of the Workers’ Alliance can be found here.
  • An interesting Spanish TV documentary entitled “Asturias, La Ultima Revolución Obrera” can be viewed on Youtube here.



Basie, the Sophisticate

Although Count Basie came from New Jersey, he came to prominence as the pianist of Bennie Moten’s Kansas City band. And so, when he took over that band, and for many years after, he was not considered in the league of eastern bands, like Ellington’s or Fletcher Henerson’s, because the swing of the American midwest was not considered either original, like the stultified stuff then coming from New Orleans, or new enough, like the music then played by the musical diaspora in Chicago, or sophisticated enough, like the bands in New York.

None of this seemed to rile Basie, or his new champion John Hammond, the A&R savior of Columbia records, who brought Basie’s band to New York City.

But Basie proved more resilient than an ordinary regional novelty. Basie proved as sophisticated as the New Yorkers. He commissioned arrangements and took aim at the smartest Tin Pan Alley favorites. And so with a chart written by Jimmy Mundy, Basie recorded Cole Porter’s “My Heart Belongs to Daddy” with Helen Humes (and a beguiling muted solo by Buck Clayton), not for Columbia, but for Decca on January 5, 1939:

Note the witty bass comments before and during the vocals. Unfortunately, the ending was poorly conceived and abrupt. Perhaps that could be explained by the technological limitations of recordings of the time. Whatever the explanation, in the next decade (and more) that problem would be fixed.

Stoner by Williams and Children of the World by Stephens

Two American novels of the second half of the twentieth century reveal startling truths about the existential aloneness at the heart of the American middle class family. Although they were written about a generation apart, they form something of a complementary set and are the perfect antidote for those who made the mistake of spending their summer with books foisted on us by the entertainment complex as “beach reads.” These novels are: Stoner by John Williams (NY: Viking Press: 1965; reprinted NY: New York Review Books: [2006]) and Children of the World by Martha Stephens (Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press: © 1994).

stonerThe novels can be read together because they share similar themes and shine lights on the same dark places, although in many ways, particularly structure and technique, each is the converse of the other. The central character in each book is part of a destructive marriage that consumes their energy and thwarts their aspirations (especially the ones they never admitted to themselves), although Stoner is about the husband and Children of the World about the wife. The central pain of their relationships radiates through all other aspects of their lives threatening to overwhelm everything else. How they cope is the mystery each tries to discover, although the method of detection is different.

Stoner is the story of William Stoner, an English professor who never rose above assistant professor and at the end was barely remembered by his colleagues and not at all by his students. So we learn at the beginning of this austerely written novel. The novel then proceeds in a chronological way from about the time Stone unexpectedly finds himself on his way to college. Stoner was not destined to be a teacher; in fact, his destiny, to work the dirt farm of his parents, was deflected only because the county agent suggested to his father that at the College of Agriculture he might learn techniques to assist on the farm, which even the father conceded “[s]eems like the land gets drier and harder to work every year …”

When Stoner first sees the University his feelings of intimidation and awe are much like of Jude when he first saw the lights of Christminster in the distance. (It would be interesting to list the other parallel’s with Hardy’s novel.) But Stoner soon settles in and treats his school work with the same plodding duty that he had applied to his chores at home and the farming duties he has in Columbia to pay for his room and board at his mother’s cousins’. All of this changed when he took Sophomore Survey of English Literature and had a sudden dumbfounding and overwhelming experience when he was asked what Shakespeare’s 73rd sonnet meant. He was transfixed with a feeling that made everything else unreal. And from the experience the next semester he took more English courses, interrupting the sequence necessary for a degree in Agricultural Sciences. When his adviser reviewed his record near the end of his senior year, he was surprised that Stoner had mostly literature courses and that he had done well in all of them. He reveals to Stoner what happened to him; namely, that he had fallen in love and that therefore he was destined to become a teacher. This love would not remain white hot all his life, but at least literature was the one thing he found that never betrayed him. The adviser set Stoner on his way to becoming a teacher at that same school.  It would be where he spent the rest of his life. And all the drama of this book takes place there.

The heroine of Children of the World, Margaret (Stovall) Barker, never even reached the status of assistant professor; in fact, it would never have occurred to her to aspire to it. At the time we meet her, she is a widow, with three grown (and departed) children, and she is about to go to her job as a secretary/administrative assistant of a juvenile court in Waycross, Georgia. The entire novel takes place in two days of “real” time (on a Friday and Saturday in August  1979), but it is really the story of Margaret’s entire life, and her quest for meaning throughout, rendered in the form of recalled memories, which are triggered by the events of those two days.

The book is nearly entirely an interior monologue. But it is not the kind of stream-of-consciousness that Joyce or Broch practiced. Despite Margaret’s constant worry that she “was prey to galloping thoughts of every kind,” her memories are articulately expressed, directly relate to what she sees about her and eventually form the argument—provide the verbal directions—to the “answer,” or at least the heart of the problem of where we are going and why. Margaret’s interior monologue is too self-conscious to be stream-of-consciousness. She fears the apparent chaos of her thoughts almost as much as she dreads disorder, however trivial, in her surroundings. But in fact her interior monologue (or the sets of them, for they are occasionally interrupted by events taking place in August 1979) proceed almost musically, with the first chapter providing the motifs that are developed one by one and then intertwined with each other.

Martha Stephens (Photo by Steven M. Herppich, 2002 (?). Cincinnati Enquirer.)

Although the resulting structure is far from chronological (even when treating specific period’s of her life), Margaret’s life unfolds in layers and we learn her history almost intuitively. It doesn’t take long to discovery the outlines of her life: Margaret was born in 1918 and raised in Jacksonville, Florida. She was the first child, and the darling of her father, who let her buy her dresses at a shop with “plump, friendly, cheerful clerks who always made a little to-do about things …” Her father would sit contentedly, cigar in hand, trouser legs hiked up and would wait for the clerks to display her again in a new dress. The experience went beyond the need to buy a dress. And it remained with Margaret even in her 60s.

Her parents would have three other children: Riley, Barba and George. All of them severely developmentally disabled. And the strain was too much. When she was 12, her Jacksonville world broke up, and her father attempted to save Margaret from the squalor and delivered her to her (maternal) grandmother, who owned a dairy farm in Waycross, Georgia. Although this was the first year of the Great Depression, there was no signed of economic hardship in her life there; quite the contrary. To Margaret the dairy was an entrance to a new world, one where “symmetry and order” predominated. She says that she would not have been surprised if someone had told her: “This is heaven and you are an angel.”

That heaven, however, was dominated by a malignant deity. Margaret was reluctant to consider her grandmother in an unfavorable light. But many sessions with her aunt Nora (her mother’s sister-in-law), which took place when she was escaping from her abusive husband, caused her to reflect on the self-centered, despotic and heartless actions taken by the woman who, at the same time, opened up a world to Margaret she otherwise would not have known. Nora was abandoned herself by Granny Culp’s son, and she is left on the dairy as a hand, with no affection from her mother-in-law. The conclusion she earned: “Families are not something I care for … I think the whole idea of family life is this: ‘Let’s all face along together, but if one of us falls down—too bad. …. I don’t think families have that much to give, real help is not something they think they can spare each other, although they might feel they can spare a little advice. And you know what that would be: don’t fall.'”

Margaret never subscribed to this philosophy, but another evidence for it came when with her own marriage. She married Leonard Barker in her teens, and he took her into his own family. Here Margaret sees the effects of the Depression first hand. The Barker family had been thoroughly broken. Leonard’s father, Will Barker, once had a successful dry goods store. But it was lost in the downturn and boarded up, and Will Barker was now reduced to selling ice from a little shack that he sat in front of. But their real tragedy pre-dated that, and accustomed them to tragedy. Their youngest daughter died at the age of 10 of Bright’s Disease. Will Barker took to drink; Leonard’s mother took to exposing her grief to strangers. All of this made them “sad and woeful people,” in Margaret’s mind. “Their feelings had stuck out all over them and they were not even ashamed of them.”

Margaret attributes Leonard’s “cringing cowardice and fear” to his parent’s lack of fortitude, and in this she has taken on some of the character of her grandmother. But she later recognizes that it was the financial collapse, and its but for cause, debt that paralyzed him. “[O]h she hated to remember the debts creeping back, Leonard’s fear of ruin growing on him again, so that even the smallest debt, the most obviously manageable debt, tormented him, frightened him to death, as if it might of itself grow and destroy them.” Sometimes the terror would grip him when he saw groceries brought into the house. But the uncontrollable rage and mindless fury was unleashed on three occasions that defined the prison that remained their marriage. One was when he discovered that Margaret was sending her mother $5 a month. A second occasion, when Leonard discovered that his wife had been investigating the purchase of a house so they could move from their parents. But the ultimate explosion came in 1953 when Margaret decided to get a job to help pay for their first daughter’s college tuition. This event not only triggered the desperation that spending money always caused but also utterly emasculated him. Thinking of the humiliation, he conjured up fantasies of people gossiping about his inability to provide for his family and his menial salary. The fantasy took over him and caused an abusive outbreak that became a violent scene never to again be equaled and which caused their children to resent him for the rest of their lives.

Martha Stephens. (Photo by David Logan and Dale Hodges. From Children of the World.)

Martha Stephens. (Photo by David Logan and Dale Hodges. From Children of the World.)

And yet, despite his threats and violence, Margaret got the job at the small law firm (mainly because the young lawyers had so little work that they did not need much stenographic or clerical help), and eventually followed one of the partners to the family court where he pursued the business of runaways and minor juvenile misdemeanors. Her three children (Ruth, Laney, Richard) all went to college, and all went their ways without any damage by her. She assures herself at the beginning of the “wonderful truth” that “all her children had loved her and they were all lovable children.” After the abusive blowup in 1953, she seems to have developed a détente with Leonard, who in any event died in 1978. And she had to admit to herself that materially she was well off, better than she ever expected to be, indeed, like “an immaculate Granny.” Her daughter Ruth assured her that without the constant torment and retirement only a few years away (when she could more frequently visit her children and grandchildren) “Mother, you are better now … I believe you can be happy now.”

But Margaret had so little experience in that and she could never come down on one side or the other on such things. She couldn’t admit that a woman who killed her own infant was entirely evil. She could see the point of view of an old couple who had shot themselves, simply out of boredom. She couldn’t even come to a conclusion about the significance of her husband’s last words, at a time he knew he was dying: “Remember. I love you.”

And so here is Margaret Barker, who admits that she ought to be happy, perhaps, constantly on edge, depressive, so much so that “some days she had to take fifty milligrams of Sinequan and twenty of something else, sometimes a sleeping pill besides that, and many shots of B-12 … and still suffer days in bed when she could not move her neck … still have to endure bizarre reactions to things she read in the newspapers.” In this state, in the “real time” of the novel, on a Friday in August 1979, Margaret finds a telephone message at work that a woman from Jacksonville called and promised to call again. The message is what causes her to relive all the memories she has for years (perhaps since her mother died in 1961) repressed. All of those memories are permeated with shame. Shame over the life-style of her former family, their treatment by her grandmother, the betrayal of her father, her hatred of him and even her inability to love her mother and siblings with simplicity. She is, however, forced to confront all these feelings as she responds to the call in the next two days. (I will not describe what happens because the narrative’s pace depends on the uncovering of the repressed memories.)

All of this is propelled by a rich ensemble of characters of her past (and some in the present), which are delineated with fine detail (most of which I have not touched on or touched on with adequate detail here). Although the novel is driven by Margaret’s interior equivocation, it nonetheless provide a full portrait of the woman, and women much like her, of a generation or two ago, who grew up in the Depression and found their roles, although not necessarily their inner life, circumscribed. The mental journal Margaret makes is to test whether her vague belief is true: “We are all sliding. Sliding towards death and no one can help anybody else, all we can do is to hold together as we go.” And while Margaret was never educated in Great Thoughts, her reflections and self-examinations are nearly lyrical and always piercing and ultimately universal.

John Williams (date and photographer unknown; from The New York Review of Books.

John Williams (date and photographer unknown; from The New York Review of Books).

Martha Stephens and John Williams taught literature at universities. (Stephens taught at the University of Cincinnati; Williams at University of Denver.) Stephens wrote of an uneducated woman in a nontraditional narrative style. Williams, however, writes of an educated man, in fact a professor (at the school Williams himself obtained his Ph. D. from) in a seemingly straight-forward, omniscient third-person narrative style. The style is not really as artless as all that, however. In fact, its hard, cold, affectless manner reflects the life Stoner came from and the only way he could see others. Stoner’s parents were dirt farmers who expended themselves to acquire the little they had (and that little itself getting less). They were not used to communicating subtle ideas. The hardness of life made the few choices that presented easy enough. Young William never had need to expect much from life, never had to make any choices and so learned to accept what was set before him. The first and probably hardest choice he ever saw made was his father’s decision to send him to college. The terse dialogue written by Williams expresses not only the simplicity of this family, not only how deeply sad separation was to them, but also, and especially, how they carried on stoically under all sadness, because, they knew, it was their lot in life.

William Stoner was raised to expect hard, dull work as his lot. When he discovered literature, he must have regarded it as something forbidden, or at least as an indulgence above his station. That explains why he never told his parents that he was neglecting his agricultural program, and why he waited until it was no longer possible to deny it to inform them of his decision to go to graduate school rather than return to the farm. His parents came by horse and buggy to see his graduation and bring him back to the farm. But he had to inform them that he was not returning and instead would go to graduate school. His parents did not flinch but agreed with his decision. But the scene is rendered with such spare precision that we know that his father is deeply pained and only agrees (without opposition) because all terrible fates must be accepted without cavil, because that is how he understood life.

The scene leaves an indelible imprint on the reader not just because of the spare language, but also by reason of the selection of details. Williams never tries to give a brightly lit photograph of a scene, instead it as if every memorable scene is in black and white, with the characters illuminated by only a light from one source on the side. This approach gives only a particular perspective of a person in action, but it is nevertheless a three-dimensional portrait, shadows of various tints make out the contours of the physical and emotional makeup of the character.

Stoner does not directly examine the inner life of William Stoner and is not filled with interior monologue as Children of the World is. Williams almost never tells us the emotions of Stoner and never explains the words that go through his head. And when he says anything about the emotional or intellectual life of his hero, it’s in a brief conclusory way, as though it were necessary for reasons of transitions or to set up the context of a scene. And Stoner is a novel made up of scenes rather than narrative or even character. Given the “monochromatic” style of Williams, characters on first view seem merely types. Stoner’s wife, Edith, is self-centered, shallow and cruelly, abruptly assured. Even less ground is given by the narrator of Stoner to see some redeeming feature in Edith than Margaret’s memories allow her to see in Leonard. But neither one is a melodramatic stereotype, because in each case the implacable cruelty of the spouse is not shown by th feelings of the central character but by the actions of the spouse, which are what convinces the reader. Edith, for example is doted on by her father who provides her with all the frills that a St. Louis society girl should have to allow her to become an ornament. We assume that she adores him for his generosity. But after his death she returns to St. Louis, locks herself in her room, gathers all the toys and letters and memorabilia of her life there, and burns them. Nothing more is needed to be said about her implacable resentment, and we can foresee how her life with William will play out.

Stoner’s life with his wife from the start was suffocating.  Though Stoner tried to sublimate through his scholarship, he was only able to produce a mediocre book from his Ph.D. thesis, even though he put himself wholly behind the work. Edith hampered his efforts by turning his home office into a room for herself. Soon the difficulty of working at home caused him to lose interest in further publication.

John Williams served as sergeant in the U.S. Air Force in Asia during World War II.

John Williams served as sergeant in the U.S. Air Force in Asia during World War II.

One benefit was produced by his marriage—his daughter Grace. She was the result of a seeming impulsive decision by Edith and the only intimacy of their marriage. But Edith soon abandoned the family on the death of her father and stayed for a considerable time with her mother in St. Louis. Stoner took care of Grace himself and they developed a bond as he did his work from home and she from a little desk by his side. Grace played while Stoner worked and a quiet sympathy and happiness grew up between them. This was not disturbed when Edith returned for she still had no interest in raising Grace and threw herself into a local theatre group. But her interest in that flagged as well, and eventually she returned to the house full-time and flung herself into Grace’s upbringing. Her first decision was to impulsively remove her from her father’s office on the ground that she needed to develop friends her own age. Edith herself cultivated the mothers of Grace’s age peers. At one get together at the Stoner house, Stoner overheard her tell the other mothers how her father did not have enough time for Grace. I’ll quote the scene at some length because it shows how Williams can depict strong emotion by only describing action.

“No Edith’s visitors were neighborhood mothers. Thy came in the mornings and drank coffee and talked while their children were in school; in the afternoons they brought their children with them and watched them playing games in the large living room and talked aimlessly above the noise of games and running.

“On these afternoons Stoner was usually in his study and could hear what the mothers said as they spoke loudly across the room, above the children’s voices.

“Once, when there was a lull in the noise, he heard Edith say, ‘Poor Grace. She’s so fond of hr father, but he has so little time to devote to her. His work, you know; and he has started a new book …’

“Curiously, almost detachedly, he watched his hands, which had been holding a book, begin to shake. They shook for several moments before he brought them under control by jamming them deep in his pockets, clenching them, and holding them there.”

The scene ends there but there is no doubt of Stoner’s emotional reaction. Williams goes on to show how Edith continues her campaign to separate Grace from Stoner:

“He saw his daughter seldom now The three of them took their meals together, but on these occasions he hardly dared to speak to her, for when he did, and when Grace answered him, Edith soon found something wanting in Grace’s table manners or in the way she sat in her chair, and she spoke so sharply that her daughter remained silent and downcast through the rest of the meal.”

And thus economically Williams portrays the icy stratagems of Edith to  cut him out of the family. These seeds would pay handsomely later.

Stoner makes two other attempts to make some other existential meaning for his life. The first was a rededication to teaching, especially of his graduate students. This gives him a genuine sense of purpose and satisfaction. But as it begins taking his profession seriously, treating it as a calling, he runs up against his other great opponent, the English Department’s new head, Hollis Lomax. Lomax is drawn in silhouette; we see only so much of him as relates to Stoner, and so superficially, he seems another “type”—the pretentious academic turf battler, who sees his own importance in the submission of others. But we see enough to know that the battle between Stoner and Lomax, which is joined over an issue of admission to the graduate program of a protégé of Lomax, was not a battle that either Lomax or Stoner should have made into one of principle. But Stoner takes his position so dispassionately, so deliberately, so uncharacteristically that he can’t be faulted. Nevertheless, he eventually loses the point and is ultimately punished far beyond any affront Lomax could reasonably believe he suffered.

At the same time Stoner finds himself in an affair with a graduate student. The relationship is intense and tender. But they could not keep the matter secret and the threat of scandal causes Stoner to lose the last thing that means anything to him. His eventual ruin is sealed. This does not come as a surprised, we are advised of it at the beginning. The needless suffering (from out perspective) meted out by small time autocrats makes the ruin pitiable. But through it all Stoner maintains his dignity and his unwillingness to verbalize a protest. This ultimate gift, or curse, from his parents makes his life seem worthwhile, perhaps noble, even if no one will ever know it.

Stoner and Children of the World end ambiguously. But of course given the questions they pose, they could end no other way. But each suggest a certain importance in lives that are “well spent.” The best literature makes an argument about the meaning of life that can’t be made by the tools of philosophy. We understand the argument through stories (which is way they have been told throughout history). These two novels each leave the reader with an inarticulable sense of the human worth, especially when the individual makes the effort to get it right, despite all the evidence to the contrary.




Jodorowsky’s Dance of Reality

Publicity photo of director Alejandro Jodoworsky with Jeremias Herskovits, who plays his doppelgänger as a young boy. Actress Pamela Flores, who plays Jodowrsky's mother, is obscured behind them.

Publicity photo of director Alejandro Jodoworsky with Jeremias Herskovits, who plays his doppelgänger as a young boy. Actress Pamela Flores, who plays Jodowrsky’s mother, is obscured behind them.

Trinity College’s Cinestudio tonight showed Alejandro Jodorowsky’s latest film La danza de la realidad (“Dance of Reality”). This film. made last year, is the 83-year-old director’s first film in 23 years (The Rainbow Thief (1990), which was only theatrically released in France (in 1994)). The current film is based on (the first part of) his self-described “psycho-magical” autobiography of the same name. With all of this going for it, it is no wonder that critics hailed its emergence. After all, who wouldn’t want a triumphant Schwanengesang?

After 2 hours and 10 minutes of running time, my two physical states were exhaustion and astonishment. The astonishment was that the film so under-delivered on the considerable hype that I wondered whether I missed some (very) secret hidden message or technique. The exhaustion resulted from watching a series of scenes, painfully drawn out, that seemed to have no other purpose than to demonstrate so sort of cinematic magic, without the foundation necessary for successful magic—offering a reason that the audience wants to believe.

The family reunited: Herskovits, Flores, Brontis Jodorowsky. Still from the film.

The family reunited: Herskovits, Flores, Brontis Jodorowsky. Still from the film.

The movie is such a self-indulgent chaos that the charitable thing to do would be to pass over it in silence. Of course all attempts at autobiography is self-indulgence as a matter of definition. To sell an autobiographical project, it is necessary to offer the audience a reason to forgive the self-indulgence—for example, to gain an insight into the mind of a thinker, to find a new way of thinking, to understand the historical context of the author, for examples. None of these are readily evident here, particularly because this autobiography is “magical” rather than factual. It’s not that it takes liberties with past events; it is a wholesale invention of the past. Jodorowsky has said in connection with this film that the past can be changed. And indeed it can. If it is drastically changed, it is not normally packaged as autobiography, however magical.

They came as though it were the "Night of the Living Dead" except there was no explanation, except later. Why the umbrellas? It's all a magical mystery.

They came as though it were the “Night of the Living Dead” except there was no explanation, except later. Why the umbrellas? It’s all a magical mystery.

All of this would be a mere quibble if the film (I have not read the book) made some sort of point, whether moral, historical, aesthetic or otherwise. As far as I can tell (and I watched it a second time to make sure), it does not. In fact, it seems to supply the definition of something I have long tried to understand: post-modernism, which seems to be unstructured rejection of modernist (or any other movement’s) principles, without supplying anything in return other than self-promotion (where the “genius” really centers). Indeed, this film offers bits of modernism without any sort of unifying theme or vision. It seems nothing more than a pastiche, or perhaps a series of pastiches not connected even by an underlying motif. Narrator Jodoworsky tells us early on his relationship with his younger (movie) self: “All you are going to be, you already are. What you are looking for, is already in you.” This would be a more compelling philosophy if there were more devotion to literal truth to prove it. Instead Jodoworsky uses clichés and references (visual and musical) to other film makers and artists to make a point that he himself doesn’t even attempt to make in this film. I’ll return to the derivative nature of the parts in a moment. But I’ve put off explaining what the film does do long enough.

Fellini anyone? Except in pastel and never part of the fabric of the film.

Fellini anyone? Except in pastel and never part of the fabric of the film.

The film is evidently the current Jodowrsky’s vision of what his childhood would have been like, if he could have devised it himself right now. Not to make it better, certainly. But to explain his current philosophy, which is a jumble of mysticism, judgmental apolitical jargons and above all the belief that his creation of “magic” can cover the t deficiencies. He tells of is coming of age in the small coastal town of Tocopilla, Chile, the son of Ukrainian Jewish emigrants. His father (played by Jodorowsky’s son, Brontis Jodorowsky) is an authoritarian Communist, who runs a small dry goods store, Casa Ukraine. He has no sympathy for the proletarian rejects of the copper mines, the men who owing to mining accidents lose their limbs and their livelihood. He is, really, a petit bourgeoise, who looks to Stalin as a model, not so much for his desire to advance the dictatorship of the proletariat, but simply for his status qua dictator. Unless we miss this point, at the end of the film his wife (played by Pamela Flores) shows him blown up pictures of Stalin, Carlos Ibáñez del Campo (Chile’s fascist dictator) and Jaime Jodowrsky. Jaime shoots his own portrait and all three pictures catch fire. This is not a “spoiler.” Did anyone not see this ending coming?

The movie begins as a coming of age story, where Jodoworsky must endure the abusive rearing of a father, who believes he must make a man of his son. I am not trying to shoehorn this part of the movie into some “genre.” The film itself does the shoehorning. It is so filled with cliches in this regard that it could have been made in Hollywood. But then it veers off into a spiritual/political journey of Jaime himself. That journey is remarkably unconvincing. He begins as a brutal husband, with a Fellini-esque prostitute/mistress. Meanwhile the wife/mother has spent (and will continue throughout the film) singing her part. This is inexplicable, unless we have seen some of the commercial material that comes with the movie. It turns out that Jodoworsky’s mother was a frustrated opera singer. So maybe reality is supposed to supplement this magical autobiography? And maybe postmodern art is not self-contained; it requires the commercial apparatus to explain it. But the father’s quest continues. For reasons that are not explained, Jaime decides to aid a group of poverty-stricken plague victims by providing them water. (We know only of this group because them come en masse from the desert. When he delivers the water they demand (his firefighters are too cowardly to do so), the victims rip his donkeys apart for meat. When all of this is over, Jaime contracts the plague. On his return home, everyone shuns him, except his (abused) wife, who cures him, by (I kid you not) urinating on him and invoking God in the process.

Now cured, Jaime decides to assassinate fascist Ibáñez. I won’t go into this. If you are still paying attention at this point, you will see an unbelievable story about a partisan’s dedication to deliver his country from fascism. It doesn’t work, of course. For reasons that are equally unbelievable. And so Jaime must bear the burden of being a Stalinist unable to pull the trigger on a fascist. But after a religious pilgrimage (of sorts) Jaime gets to make atonement by being tortured by the fascists. And we get to see it: Jaime has his testicles shocked (with a close-up) until the partisans release him as a hero and take him home.

In any Christian parable there must be a widow figure who just needs a good man, no matter how deformed.

In any Christian parable there must be a widow figure who just needs a good man, no matter how deformed.

While Jaime is having his adventure, little Jodorowsky actually worries that his father has forgotten him. There is no psychological reality in this film, perhaps because it is “magical.” But that’s a hard debate to undertake on the basis of a movie. What is not disputable is that this film is made up of derivative parts of other movies. The early scene with the seagulls attacking young Jodorowsky is only one example. The music is an easier example (for me).

The film opens with Louis Prima’s “Sing, Sing, Sing.” (It sounds to me like Benny Goodman’s Carnegie Hall version.) The auteur equates money with life, then with Christ, then with Buddha. And then Jodoworsky himself (as narrator) equates money with conscience and conscience with death. And so you would be excused for thinking that there would be some point about money that might be made in this movie. You would be wrong.

It's hard to understand how this happened. But the petit bourgeoise Stalinist was  circus performer in the past.  When, where, why? It is a metaphor I guess.

It’s hard to understand how this happened. But the petit bourgeoise Stalinist was a circus performer in the past. When, where, why? It is a metaphor I guess.

But the big problem of the movie is that it looks like a bad copy of Fellini. The music, the tropes (massed groups, parades, the “freaks”). You would be excused for wondering why the amputees had a brawl, if you never saw a Fellini movie. But the difference is that Fellini had a consistent point of view in each movie. Plus Fellini had a joie de vivre that Jodorowsky eschews for other music: Bach, Strauss, even Irving Berlin. It’s all a big pastiche, governed by promotion.

See it for yourself. You might lose patience (around the one hour mark). But however much you want it to be a good movie (and I did), it won’t happen. It is all self-promotion. Maybe that is all art is in our time. I am still optimistic that that is not the case. But this is not evidence in my favor.

I see your face in every flower

A genius once wrote:

If I could write the beauty of your eyes,
And in fresh numbers number all your graces,
The age to come would say, “This poet lies,
Such heavenly touches ne’er touch’d earthly faces.”

Isn’t it more economical to just sing?:

Billie Holiday (vocal), Buck Clayton (trumpet), Dicky Wells (trombone), Lester Young (tenor saxophone, clarinet), Margaret Johnson (piano), Freddie Green (guitar), Walter Page (bass), Jo Jones (drums). September 15, 1938.

Dicky Wells’s trombone solo is almost as reverential as the President’s clarinet.

Softly as in a Morning Sunrise

Yes, I am ignoring Furguson, the border crisis (children being returned from asylum), Gaza, and many more.

There comes a time, however, when it is necessary to figure out what makes us human, among those who deny it.

My current answer is Sonny Rollins. Occasionally,  it’s worth contemplating the sunrise:




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