Monday, May 31, 2010

Seamus Heaney translates Robert Henryson's medieval Scots verse

A middle-aged man contemplates the aftermath of Chaucer's tragic Cresseid. Abandoned by Troilus after she dallied with Diomede, did she deserve the contempt with which she was treated in this tale from the Trojan war? Robert Henryson defends her, and his serious consideration attracts Heaney to revive from his "mid-Ulster" upbringing the speech rhythms shared with a "hidden Scotland" that he hears within this late fifteenth-century poem's elegant defense of a fallen woman, turned a leper.

Heaney, as with his translations of the medieval Irish tale of mad Sweeney and his version of "Beowulf," keeps his own direct, confident manner foremost. "Who's now to guide, accompany or stand by/Me, set at odds and made so odious/ To Diomede and noble Troilus?" is the translation of "Quha sall me gyde? Quha sall me convoy,/ Sen I fra Diomeid and nobill Troylus/ Am clene excludit, as abject odious?" (10-11) You can see here the balance of freedom and fidelity that characterizes Heaney's interpretation.

Henryson's also known for his versified fables, expanded into morality tales from Aesop and other written and oral sources. He combined the popular and learned cultures and is supposed to have been a schoolmaster. Heaney admires the Scots poet's range, similar to his own, and explains Henryson's modulation as an appealing reason for rendering his tales for a wider audience.

There's no notes beyond a few sentences setting the context for the fables, and the introduction I found suggestive rather than thorough; these remain minor shortcomings of this version. Yet Heaney points us to scholarly editions, as his emphasis here's on accessible, brisk, and sententious storylines that convey sympathy with human predicaments and moral quandries. "Hence the decision to translate the poems with rhyme and metre, to match as far as possible the rhetoric and the roguery of the originals, and in general 'keep the accent'." (xiv) These do demand to be heard aloud, and the origin of Heaney's notice of Henryson was "to translate some other narrative that could be performed by an actor" after his reading of "Beowulf." (xiii) While fewer than five thousand lines of Henryson exist, perhaps this collection of his verse will inspire such a recitation of it for us today. (Posted to Amazon US 12-13-09)

Saturday, May 29, 2010

William Powers' "Hamlet's Blackberry": Book Review

How can we balance staying "in touch" without being overwhelmed by never being out of touch? Moving between the "alpha" of "less crowded, more focused" inner-directed concentration or "flow" in the moment, and the "omega" of being wired, linked, virtual, Powers surveys seven thinkers who dealt with their era's equivalents of "screens," our "connective digital devices" of the past two decades.

Plato writes down "Phaedrus," Socrates' orally delivered dialogue addressing the new technology of the scroll. This allowed distance from the physical speaker, and recollection that eased memory and boosted recall, paradoxically. Seneca called for "inner space" to deal with the resulting paperwork and information overload the Romans faced four hundred years later. His Stoic philosophy countered the noise that Seneca lived among. He proves an ancient predecessor of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's "flow" concept of being in the moment, immersed in one's craft. Powers ingeniously ties this to his own need for a jazz video enjoyed on You Tube free of Net distractions on or off that site, so he opts for the full-screen experience.

Gutenberg, I never knew, invented mass production first of mirrors. In the pilgrimage town of Aachen, tiny mirrors reflected images of the miraculous relics as they were hoisted before the crowds to gaze upon. Gutenberg then took the method of pressing sheets and made not glass but paper with movable type impressed. Books then could be manufactured cheaply. Reading turned away from a word being preached in public to a private activity silently enjoyed, inwardly.

This balance between public interaction and solitary enrichment, Powers stresses, can be found in Hamlet's "table of memory." These devices in Shakespeare’s time were portable like an iPhone or BlackBerry, but used for what the writer wanted to record. Powers compares these coated parchments, inscribed with a stylus and erasable with a sponge, to the Moleskine notebooks which inspire doodlers and scribblers today. This continuity of a traditional item into a changing realm represents "old tools" which well used can "fight overload" by helping us control the information that we slowly filter, the better to process.

Ben Franklin's "positive rituals" of temperate self-control that he kept track of, Powers suggests, resemble today's "no E-mail Fridays" a few workplaces follow. They show how people can take back their quiet time, and get more productive tasks done, freed from the distraction that online multitasking does to erode our concentration and diminish our effectiveness.

For Walden, Thoreau's experiment in simplicity anticipates a zone of quiet that can resist the "digital domiciles" that threaten us in future homes, walled in by screens. (I thought of Fahrenheit 451; oddly, Powers did not.) "Crowd Zones" could allow a plugged-in area, and "Walden Zones" could allow a refuge for contemplation in the same hi-tech house, he posits. Walden Pond, after all, was just over a mile from Concord town, and within sight of the railroad. Thoreau predicted that the telegraph would bring us news of "Princess Adelaide" with the "whooping cough," and as Powers shows, our supposed headlines every day show this having come to pass with breathless celebrity tweets.

Marshall McLuhan for all his convoluted prose reacted well to how the global village would surround us. Powers urges resistance, as did McLuhan, to the “Narcissus trance “ of “Gadget Lover. “ The "only way to cultivate a happy inner life is to spend time there," free of the seemingly innate craving for connectivity that the media and corporations and inventors wish us, of course, to satisfy, but it's a desire that can never be satiated, Powers reflects.

Better to disconnect, at least for an "Internet Sabbath." If we can "lower our inner thermostat," we can cool down our heated up demand for always being tapped in to our screens, as you and I are now as we share in our interest of Powers' book. This is a fast-paced book; I noted he shares the same easygoing accumulation of knowledge casually shared that made his wife Martha Sherrill's "The Buddha from Brooklyn" so enjoyable (reviewed: my blog entry). A few connections could have been tightened, as in the aside to Robert Pirsig's "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" which appears long after the "Phaedrus" section where a parallel would have fit perfectly. Powers’ later chapters skirt the manner Facebook -- or for that matter PopMatters -- allows users to share information in the targeted ways among a small circle of friends which appear to meet his own needs for such a medium.

Subtitled "A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age," this does not call for renouncing these types of networks which we all benefit from. Still, Powers ends his brisk survey seeking a place inside where we can find retreat. He lives on Cape Cod, but his electronic leash can be as tight as any tying a Manhattanite to his or her half-dozen "screens." The only solution he has for escaping the constantly increased barrage of information we're tuned into? We have the power, Power reminds us, to turn it off for a while and recharge our soul. (Posted to Amazon US 5-29-10; submitted to

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Cyber-friends, Online Fences, Factory Schools

I hate talking on a phone. I'm getting tendonitis from using this keyboard. My work requires I log on 24/7 to teach my "blended learning" classes and my classrooms now mean I diminish my own inventiveness to teach to a top-down mandated lesson plan in the cause of "course consistency."

I accessed my course evaluations for the first stint under this new regime. Many of my students noted their unhappiness with what a Marxian might have reminded us, in the age of chalk unless you had a hip prof sitting on the edge of a desk flipping a coin, of the "school as factory" or "banking" models. Those tenured radicals of my college years might now wax nostalgic (as some Russians long for Stalin) for blue book exams, lined-up chairs bolted to tiny desks (none for you left-handers), seating charts. Bells, yells, drills.

Compared to what now? "Student-centered" approaches of peer groups (blind leading blind, contra Fanon & Friere; my last class in "advanced composition" featured one student (who happened to be my age) out of thirty as sufficiently literate. Many enrolled entered-- and a few I fear left nearly as-- worse than the remedial ("developmental") students I'd taught two terms earlier; two were my students in both classes. Their progress proved to have been minimal in the intervening class and term not taken with me for "basic composition."

So, as I look at my charges, with smartphones and laptops, arrayed more and more out of my line of sight, hiding in front of computer stations instead of those tiny wraparound desks, if sitting in equally uncomfortable chairs, I wonder. About their literacy, their ability to concentrate, their own carpal tunnel syndromes, their tiny fonts on tiny screens they thumb. I imagine them hunched and squinting, after thirty or forty years of peering into backlit pools of images, staring at glowing flat monitors. Or whatever holographs they conjure up circa my estimated funeral.

Where I teach, they can choose only technical and business majors. We don't teach for the joy of learning, but for the skills corporations demand. We churn degrees out in our mass production line, accelerated eight-week courses marketed towards turnaround in three-odd years, a relentless pace that takes its toll. Grim jokes about the only way out of where we clock in (and are monitored on-line now more than ever thanks to such electronic "platforms" to "deliver" material to "customers") appear to be by heart attacks abound. We faculty, untenured, underpaid, recall the jobs we hoped (alongside thousands who compete for the adjunct "freeway flyer" jobs I too started with Ph.D. in hand), had aimed for, and in this market never got. We're told implicitly every day now for the past few years we're lucky not to have been fired. At-will employees, half of our full-time colleagues were laid off in '07.

It's a labor-intensive Fordist workplace. I may romanticize a truer campus as
"field" compared to my office park oxymoron, freeway adjacent, airport bordered. I envy despite their own publish-or-perish entrapment our colleagues with their thirty weeks of classes, research grants (I hope given their straitened budgets; we who must teach rather than write books need some of our former grad school classmates and mentors to produce scholarship for the rest of us highly trained but overdriven drones to at least glance at enviously), and support (I hope!) for the life of the mind and not only the use of the classroom as career generator. Ok, I romanticize.

I've taught there going on fifteen years this autumn. I've taught a total of twenty-six years this fall. So, in my 3/5 curriculum vitae "running my life" at my walled-in, windowed-absent or at least sealed, glass lined, campus-as-parking lot institution, what the future holds-- for me who never thought I'd wind up in such an edifice for my treadmill teaching-- lies in the hands of those who direct my classes, who design my curricula, who select my textbooks (or e-Books as paper ones begin to vanish), and who assign my course load of about fifteen courses a year.

I started on campus with Microsoft 3.1, those red-blue-green overlaid templates with F-commands (which still as my older students note come in very handy in a pinch). Amber and green-lit monitors were only beginning to fade before Mosaic's browser brought us the GUI and a Web we could see. Kennys bookstore in Ireland was one of the first on-line sites I visited; the Medieval consortium at NYU reminded me the year I finished my arcane dissertation that I was the last year, almost precisely, to not use the Internet, 500 index cards of bibliographical sources. No "works cited" or "reference list" filled with http:// -- or at least ftp://.

Now, self-taught except for programs my workplace told me to learn, I nudge my way intuitively, with a bit of asking around now and then, around the keyboard, the Net, the virtual sites I must report into and figure out or at least wander around. I spent yesterday afternoon logging in for my annual "performance review" dozens of numbers to be crunched for my supervisor, for that alone determines my being kept on this job. What I manage to publish, how I connect with students, the letters of recommendation I prepare, the chats I have with them and colleagues about what to read or what to watch-- that may be filtered through such data. Or obscured; we humanists can't quantify our skills. I don't know.

My supervisor skimmed my list of what qualified me as a "Subject Matter Expert." Our school sells itself, literally, on hands-on experience from its faculty. When you're a humanist with a Ph.D. in English Lit, the chances for such daily immersion outside of the assumption "all we do is mark up papers for grammar" (which I do; if doubtful of the effect, it justifies my "SME" existence even if the eggheads in Composition Studies wonder at its practicality) seem scarce. My supervisors increasingly gain doctorates granted from solely or largely on-line institutions. Those of us with "traditional" educations from research universities, where we had to battle in seminars with world-class minds, feel antiquated already. We're the last heirs of medieval and sheepskinned customs. I watched as my boss flicked past the "SME" page of my drafted "performance review." He hurried on to where more numbers needed entry.

What he brushed aside were my essays, my book reviews, my conference papers, my daily effort to keep involved in giving back via the Net. I try to sustain the life of my mind, to enrich academia despite my teaching load. His reaction crushed me.

I know I will keep on investigating what I'm trained to do and what I want to. Yet, I've had to list-- returned to me to redo in bullet points-- for the boss of his boss the "advantages" to my employer of me begging for funds to attend a conference. I suppose one advantage of no tenure is nobody can fathom what I write anyway at my school. As an habitual outlier in the realm of scholarship, my marginal place makes me feel more grateful than ever for you who read and follow me here.

While some of my hi-tech students take toll roads to exurban McMansions, most of them follow me into the trafficked freeways and buses and gridlock. Virginia Heffernan with typical astuteness in "The Death of the Open Web" compares the "teeming commercial city" of the Web to our congested, unplanned, noisy, dirty burgs, full of bullies, trolls, and rabble.
But a kind of virtual redlining is now under way. The Webtropolis is being stratified. Even if, like most people, you still surf the Web on a desktop or laptop, you will have noticed pay walls, invitation-only clubs, subscription programs, privacy settings and other ways of creating tiers of access. All these things make spaces feel “safe” — not only from viruses, instability, unwanted light and sound, unrequested porn, sponsored links and pop-up ads, but also from crude design, wayward and unregistered commenters and the eccentric ­voices and images that make the Web constantly surprising, challenging and enlightening.

That reminds me of my own casual or intense interactions, some with people I have known in person from first meeting on-line, some vice-versa. Among them what one calls "egotistical academics"! What began as "wayward and unregistered commenters" turned first mutually "eccentric voices" and a few became my pals. In Irish I saw a coinage, "cibearchara," cyber-friend. I like that.

Last week I sent a link to my "Shake Your Earthquake Maker" by e-mail to one of the bloggers I had credited in my entry. I thought this person-- same age as many of my students but far smarter and spirited, now headed off to start a non-virtual doctorate-- would respond if with a quick nod to my polite note of solidarity.

A week's passed. No reply will fill my inbox. I felt hurt, for when readers of my blog or Amazon reviews peek in to say hi, I always drop them a word of appreciation. I wondered if I was too sensitive, too unreasonable in expecting every electronically transmitted gesture to generate its own response. After all, we hold doors open in real life for people to pass through and often they walk by us without a glance. Maybe as in at the non-virtual threshold, a web passerby brushes past me-- a graying owlish pale bookworm, nothing to take notice of. (Cue: tiny violins.)

On the other hand, the bat mitzvah friend about whom I wrote (and my wife) sent us a thank-you card for her gift yesterday. In the mail. Handwritten. Neatly. I was impressed. She is my age, I admit; I'm already at the age I look back as much as ahead. Doors held open. Greetings however "phatically" exchanged even by aloof me. Etiquette. We used to call these "bread-and-butter notes." I mused again on a custom perhaps flung the way for most younger folks tapping away to Evite the arc of a floppy disk.

Still, I did feel boosted within this finger-pecking medium a few days later. Dan Schlitz, whom I'd met when we studied in Donegal, posted my latest Irish-language entry, "An Aistear sa lá" on Facebook to promote my fumblingly bilingual efforts. Visit his own "Irish Milwaukee"circle of learners such as far-flung ourselves. As with Gaeilge, so this blog, so walks= my workouts.

Meanwhile, the enigmatic Éabha Rose at "Words Undone ™" sent her own cheer after my recent excursus into "Celtic Buddhism". Her own blog's where you can view Bataille & Foucault, Graves & Nin vividly transmuted into a fin-de-siècle aesthetic decidedly refined. If for the discreet.

I thought again of other favorite blogs you can find at my links listed if you scroll down my blog's right margin. Ben Howard's calm reflections on the practice of Zen in upstate New York; "Vilges Suola" at "Lathophobic Aphasia" with his unerring ear for how English is mangled by his own students, who have the excuse some of mine lack of not being natives; "Bo" at Cambridge with his paired blogs, one open and one closed, teaching me so much about wit, erudition, and wisdom.

Tony Bailie's "Ecopunks" full of the latest Russian metafiction, Spanish verse, haiku, or inevitably the same obscure Irish novel or CD I just finished; John W. Smart and "Tamerlane" who fight the good fight politically; and the too-rarely updated "Harper Berry Hollow" from my dear friends Chris & Bob up north, full of their insights.

Thanks to all of you for your tacit or vocal support. I send you mine, dear readers and friendly followers. I live in a real city, where as Heffernan puts it: "Its public spaces are mobbed, and signs of urban decay abound in broken links and abandoned projects." Unlike my loved-hated native First-turned-Third World megapolis, I hope we can huddle against "the online equivalent of white flight."

I have no idea how my students, overburdened with families, work, commutes, afford such technological gentrification. I guess my priorities make me their professor, not their IT go-to guy. Still, in this tougher economy I and they face, not all of us can afford Heffernan's penchant for the latest gadget, the shiniest app. Nor, I hazard, do all of us wish to profit from and lock up every open, free space online.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Alan Guthrie's "Slammer": Book Review

Down the rabbit hole, prison style. Scottish guard, seven weeks on the job, finds himself trapped by a nightmarish chain of compromises. I can't reveal anything that'd spoil the plot of this psychologically complex thriller. It moves as rapidly as an action film, largely in dialogue that does not pander to noir cliché or police conventions.

Guthrie keeps upping the ante. The novel convincingly takes you through a logical cause-and-effect scenario for two hundred pages. Then, he drops you in the last fifty pages off the deep end. You're left to figure it out, with some hints. Still, the final section does hold many surprises.

Parts reminded me of a Beckett story turned into Hitchcock mystery. Existential dread contends with brutal menace. Characters are relatively few and the plot stays streamlined to maximize tension. It's a satisfyingly disturbing entertainment, one you may be glad not to be experiencing except on the page. (Posted to Amazon 9-26-09)

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Stephen Mansfield's "The Search for God & Guinness": Book Review

How does beer express theology? How can brewers enhance goodness? What's moral about a corporation? An historian specializing in inspirational biographies and motivational works investigates Guinness, taking the example of Arthur G., whose signature graces every bottle, for his Christian self-help values inculcated for 250 years of the company.

Although Italian giant Diageo bought it out recently, Guinness with its harp symbol taken from Brian Boru's legendary instrument represents Irish pride. Less of its produced now in Dublin, contrary to lore, and although the water's not the Liffey but from the Wicklow mountains to the south, the associations with the island and city endure. This study, however, does not give as Mark Griffiths did a cultural overview in offbeat fashion, nor does it follow Bill Yenne's recent corporate history (published by Wiley). Mansfield brings his own admiration of Christian charity harnessing leaders to improve the lot of the poor and the laborer. It's a practical and philanthropic notion pioneered by Cadbury chocolate, Lever soap, and Guinness stout, even though the last named example for most people may be even far less known than the other two English counterparts.

Chapter 1 links Squanto's request for English beer, already his acquired taste, to the Pilgrims-- when they arrived to the medieval phrase "bridal ale" turned "bridal". He examines provocatively a theology of beer, from Sumerian and Egyptian times to medieval and Reformation leaders-- such as Luther and Wesley. Mansfield reminds us how it was very late, in the 19c temperance movement, before Protestantism became linked with abstinence. Before that, beer was a moderate indulgence, a necessary nutrient for young and old, and a healthful way to drink water after it had been safely boiled.

Dublin had in 1610 four thousand families but 1100 alehouses and 100 breweries and brewpubs. Everyone drank back then. As Chapters 2 and 3 show, Arthur Guinness later the next century came along to roast barley into a smooth, easily quaffed beverage. His sons followed his example, more or less, but transformed each generation the company into a larger one, as technology allowed production to increase and exports to soar along with profits. Many of these heirs grew wealthy, but many also channelled their privilege commendably back into helping the poor around the brewery.

The Guinness Trust funded their health. Education, welfare, and safety all became laudable priorities, in the view of Mansfield, who admires this example. Victorian devotion to craft, attention to detail for a job done right, and loyalty by bosses to workers and vice versa seem antiquated. Yet, Mansfield finds in the tale of this famous brewery dynasty many inspirational stories of missionaries, doctors, financiers, and benefactors who don't let their wealth go only to feathering their own soft nests.

It may be a bit hard to believe for us, used to sinister profiteers and uncaring employers. This short text focuses more on the past than the present; the corporate giant does seem to have today conquered the earnest reformer who once ran it. But, that tale's beyond the motivational direction of this tale. While I was not sure how the legacy of Guinness will fare under an Italian conglomerate aggressively marketing the Irishness of a product that to America comes from Canada these days despite the lore sold to us in the packaging, Mansfield does remind us that the historical maxims upheld by the family in their running of their business can guide us today, in his epilogue to a thoughtfully written, easily accessible, and briskly told family saga. (Posted to Amazon US 10-18-09)

Friday, May 21, 2010

An aistear sa lá

Bhuel, thiomaint Leon go dtí an diseart ard an lá eile. Iarr sé féin a cleachtadh ag scrudú. Mar sin, d'imigh muid ar turas ar an bóthar níos feadh chomh suas ansin.

Chuaigh muid ar dtuaisceart ar an bóthar mór tríd gCathair na hÁingeal ar dtús. Chuir sé tús maith ar an gnó. Shroic muid taobh an bhóthar níos ciúin an uair dar gcionn.

Chonaic muid bláthannaí leath bealaigh i gcoinne ansúid. Líon poipíní cluainte glas ag timpeall. Fuair muid lúipiní go socair ansin freisin ag imeall.

Mar sin féin, níor fanach bláthannaí léanaí níos fada. D'fhág muid dúiche fhiáin go tapaidh. I bhfaiteadh na súl, d'éirigh crainn na Iósua thart.

Go luath, tháinig muid go dtí an cathair Lanchain. D'ith ar bialann Indiach, "Draíocht Mhasala." D'aontaigh mo chlann go raibh suipéar níos blasta. Is bréa linnsa é, go cinnte.

Fhilleadh muid go cathair mór go sásta. Ar ndóigh, thiomaint mo bhean go ár bhaile anois. Léigh mé an leabhar nua faoi 'an éirí amach ar feadh Luan Cásca' le Fearghal Mag Fhearaigh sa idirlinn. Dhún an aístear sa lá go suaimhneas.

P.S. Bhí maith liom an radharc seo os cionn go leor nuair thiomáineadh sé triu. D'imiodh sé thart an luas. Tá sé in aice leis an sráidbhaile na Neenach i bPointí Triaracha. B'fhéidir, ar mbeadh go raibh ro-dhóchasach anois ag péinteailte suas ansin?

Grianghraf le "Underrated".

A daytime journey.

Well, Leo drove to the high desert the other day. He himself wanted to practice for the exam. Therefore, he went off on an outing on the emptier road as up there.

We went northwards on the highway through Los Angeles at the beginning. It put a good start to the business. We reached the side road quieter an hour after.

We saw flowers halfway up the slopes. Poppies filled green meadows around. We found lupines calmly surrounding there too.

All the same, wildflowers did not last for very long. We left untamed country quickly. All of a sudden, Joshua trees rose up all about.

Soon, we came to the city of Lancaster. We ate at an Indian restaurant, "Masala Magic." My family agreed that it was a very tasty supper. We ourselves loved it, for sure.

We returned to the big city satisfied. Of course, my wife drove to our home now. I read a new book meanwhile about the Easter Rising by Fearghal McGarry. We closed the outing that day peacefully.

P.S. I liked this sight a lot as Leo had driven by. He sped past it. It's near the village of Neenach in Three Points. Perhaps, it'd be too optimistic now as painted up there?

Photo by "Underrated".

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Shake Your Earthquake Maker?

Do you blame disaster on miniskirts? Not as fashion police, but as divine retribution? Arrested development in our moral evolution, this rankles cleric Kazem Sadighi. He blames God's temblors on hotties who make us tremble: "Iranian cleric defends earthquake-promiscuity link".

It's easy to mock this childish cause & effect. I wonder how the trilobytes and dinosaurs sinned to merit their Creator's anger, in primordial chaos over eons of floods and tectonics. But when you consider (as I was raised) how many of us today carry within our own psyches this fear of divine retribution no matter our dramatic or subtle secularization after the often youthful formative fact, it's less amusing. Dissidents face death under Islamic theocracies.

Persecution's documented by Maryam Namazie. Her site "Iran Solidarity" depressingly fills the screen with evidence. For example, in response to Sadighi-- who waffled that in fact a just Allah held back rather than accelerated the pace of seismic revenge so as to lull humans into complacency in which they'd commit more sins and merit hellfire all the more severely once the ground did open and fire did fall-- read: "I would be executed in Iran if I did this." This pronouncement against sodomitical Cities of the Plain led to what "Blag Hag" Jen McCreight promoted: "Why Boobquake Failed: God's relationship with mankind is passive-aggressive and abusive".

My wife and I recently discussed French proposals to ban the burka. I agreed and she disagreed. I asserted its patriarchal imposition and reminded her that earliest Islam did not require veiling. I argued that women did not ask for this restriction, but that it had been imposed by a chauvinistic dictate. She countered that freed of the male demands, draped women could find respite from the constant expectations placed upon them-- similar to other religions and cultures that gave women, as it were, a break from the miniskirt, or at least the make-up, the leers, the pawing, the "attention." I think she likes the idea of a mandated big dress covering up perceived flaws. Many females may agree, I reckon! We agreed to disagree.

I've been mulling over what I regard as our capitulation in the name of tolerance to an increasingly intolerant mindset determined to make us conform to it. And one refusing to allow infidels or even reformers (can Islam permit any not fundamentalists and literalists to speak on its behalf?) a voice. While this oppression is far more severe in Europe due to its proximity and ties with the Middle East, I fear that church-state separations between public standards and private behavior will erode as liberal Westerners are trapped in a surrender to the radical ideologies and oppressive regulations that some Islamists, taking advantage of our "diversity" and laxity, campaign to establish in Europe's "advanced" nations.

Robert Ferrigno's trilogy, "Prayers of the Assassin," "Sins of the Assassin," and "Heart of the Assassin" speculates on how a fictional takeover of Islam might happen globally. In my review of "Heart," I noted its "convincing backstory that shows how not violent jihad alone, but gradual conversion by celebrities, a disgust with decayed Christianity and secular capitalism, globalization and our current economic downturn all could be logically seen, in deadly hindsight, as leading to a possible future not so improbable after all."

When I was under the dome depicted above and discussed below, I wondered if (as it reminded me of the Hagia Sophia), this Jewish monument would be remodeled as, in another half-century, a mosque. A strange thought amidst a ritual commemorating survival and continuity. Ferrigno's trilogy starts when a series of "dirty bomb" attacks across the West are blamed on Israel. After the service, my friend asked me my thoughts on Israel vs. Iran and the next nuclear showdown. Not so fictional.

I recall Emil Fackenheim's comment that the Holocaust happened when antisemites harnessed mass machinery. My friend mentioned earlier shares concerns with Islam allied to oppression. She became enmeshed in her own struggle for free speech when she and her husband edited"The Blanket", alone in Irish publications daring to show readers what the Danish cartoons criticizing the Prophet's atavistic violence looked like-- recommended Ferrigno to me. Last summer, I read (and reviewed here and on Amazon US) his novels. Not my usual genre, but I cannot resist a theologically-tinged thriller detailing a future dystopia. A few chapters based in my own hometown heightened its appeal (imagine Disneyland's ruined "attractions" as harboring Catholic prostitutes hiding from the morals police), in a post-nuked, fanatically patrolled America. I found Ferrigno's scenarios entertaining and disturbing; they conflated how Bible Belt and Islamist dogmatism might reign as sectarian death cults posed as if militant enemies.

What ticks me off in our earnestly "multicultural" groupthink? We lack the gumption to call out idiocy when draped in ideology, whether cruelly intolerant of beliefs or weakly capitulating to regimentation. Neo-atheists who diminish selfless believers spending their lives in the service of others, humbly and quietly. Faith-based efforts cloaked in hypocrisy. You don't need me to weigh in on clerical scandals.

But what rankles us who both respect religion's contributions and criticize its distortions are the lack of integrity so many institutions, once they codify and perpetuate beliefs, fall into. Today I read in the Jewish national paper "The Forward" about a Chabad-connected defense for Sholom Rabashkin, accused of violations for his kosher meatpacking plants in Iowa. Professor Samuel Heilman, an expert on ultra-Orthodoxy, explains the type of warped justification that can emerge when one lives within a distorted commitment to one's Law.“A man who is an observant Jew, who is a Hasid, who is a good Lubavitcher, can’t possibly be someone who breaks the law, because he lives by the law,” Heilman said.

I know Chabad does good works too. Yet they depend upon an us vs. them attitude, at least for those once taken into their confidences. As a veteran of Belfast's own divisive shibboleths, my Irish friend's husband and I have discussed more than once his contention. He reckons that a lot more good works might have (and have) been done with less collateral or direct damage-- by non-believers. That is, those who seek justice and spread mercy freed from such a tribal, inbred, intolerant accrual of merit largely for themselves first and Gentiles, non-haredi, goyim, Jews, Prods, Brits, Taigs, deviants, gays, sinners, heretics, infidels, heathens, witches, pagans, fill in the ever-expanding blanks.

I discussed this separation of good works from in-group solidarity last night with a friend; he wondered if in Reform Judaism the need for a personal God had nudged aside social activism this past generation. He figured that the Christian model of a loving friend as Deity filtered into what many Jewish seekers want for their post-post Holocaust guide.

My wife and I mused with him whether Jews who wanted to improve the world more likely did not show up at shul. We talked this over at a temple celebration under that great dome for a friend. Raised "a secular Jew," she grew up distrusting this personal God. Now, at my age, she celebrated her long-delayed bat mitzvah after years of resisting what she spoke of eloquently as her Creator's entry into her own life after an illness twelve years ago. As one who respects faith as well one who analyzes it, I acknowledge the comfort of tradition. We witnessed eight adults affirming their Jewish life before the congregants; one's an 89-year-old survivor.

Betty Cohen was barely older than-- would have been-- Anne Frank. And "would have been" says it all. Also from Amsterdam, she was deported to the same Dutch camp as Anne did; Betty hid two years in an attic with nineteen family members. Three returned from Auschwitz: her fiance who had been taken in the same raid on his hiding place in Hilversum also survived. Her daughter also became bat mitzvah alongside her. The Cohens came to L.A. after the war, and for fifty years were members of the splendid Wilshire Boulevard Temple, after other synagogues, unbelievably, had turned the Cohen family away for lack of ability to pay the dues.

During the long Shavuot service I looked at Hugo Ballin's murals. They circle from right of the sanctuary to the left, all the way around beneath the immense dome. Some of my earliest memories, I learned after I got home, were seeing his friezes and paintings. Earlier than I remember, for one's at my natal hospital. A few years later, I lived across the street from the Burbank DWP building and over the bridge from City Hall, while my childhood trips to Griffith Park Observatory, as I correctly guessed, showed me his other scientific frescoes that richly adorn another rounded dome.

The Warner brothers commissioned the ones at the Temple. Right to left in Hebrew fashion, from the Patriarchs to the pogroms, the story of the tribe unfolds over 320 gilded feet, seven feet high. It ends with the Torahs being taken from a burning shetl to a blue-tinged shore over the sea. The temple opened in 1929. I wondered if the murals were painted, and the series ended, while Anne and Betty were happy children back in the Old Country.

The Shavuot service was old-fashioned, for Reform, lots of organ music and choral singing. Celebrating the giving of the Torah to the Jews at Sinai, its melodies were more robust, less plaintive, than the ones I'd known. Cadences seemed Protestant; I admit no expertise on post-Reformation denominational liturgies! I realized how little I have been exposed to this grand style of worship, coming up and out of and away from a post-Vatican II stripped-down guitar Mass upbringing that never appealed much; I preferred my folk and rock music far apart from drab happy-face churchgoing.

After the ceremony, we spoke of our children and their own drift from Judaism after their b'nai mitzvot, We surmised that they may find their own way to meaning within our own complicated barrage of influences-- as we all had, even if still doubting. That is, we shift into some mature adjustment of our own heritage with our own predilections in a very different age from shetl and parish. I hope our children find happiness in their own search.

The Dalai Lama spoke at that Temple in 1999, where in a typical Angeleno cross-cultural gesture he addressed the American Buddhist Congress. Via Facebook (and obvious translation and editing, considering his limited English!), he observed today:
I believe an important distinction can be made between religion and spirituality. Religion I take to be concerned with faith in the claims to salvation of one faith tradition or another. Spirituality I take to be concerned with qualities of the human spirit, love and compassion, patience, tolerance, forgiveness, contentment, a sense of responsibility, a sense of harmony, that bring happiness both to self and others.
I am not sure if the growing shift among many of my generation away from organizations to personally coherent melanges of practices and devotions will ease this tension between ecclesiastical monoliths and determined eclectics, but I do live in California, the historic heart of such syncretic searchers. Laughable or laudable, perhaps we are moving away from the grand structure to a humbler, less insistent interpretation.

We struggle to reconcile our spirits with our bodies, in the grooves worn down by millennia of our ancestral patterns of thought, behavior, and nurture. Betty Cohen's life ironically extended at the death camp as she was subjected to medical experiments by Dr. Mengele; she received more food and better shelter, if that ethical comfort can be imagined. Her fate reminds us-- and non-theists need to swear by this all the more-- that science devoid of morality, torn from culture, distorted by its own rationalizations, can bring down on us its own terrible fire from heaven.

We in an unstable city full of believers and doubters from every tribe gather under our domes. We fear earthquakes no matter how high we build our quake-reinforced towers. We may despite our skepticism learn to listen to my favorite line from Scripture, to the still small voice, heard after fire and rumble.

(Photo "Wilshire Boulevard Temple". Ballin's murals can be dimly seen; I could not find a decent reproduction of them on the web. Read my wife's take on the service at: "Choosing Choseness").

Monday, May 17, 2010

Dark Lord & Tattooed Goddess, ca. 5000 BCE

These figures startled me. I mistook them for modern art. They reminded me of strikingly cubist Cycladic flat idols, white marbled from 5500 years ago. "The Lost World of Old Europe: The Danube Valley 5000-3500 BCE" exhibits an eerie familiarity. Henry Moore, Jean Arp, and Constantin Brancusi's sculptures reminded 20c viewers of Neolithic or Early Bronze Age art, but the frenzy to unearth more of such figures from the Greek islands led to the destruction of their sites, just as tourists now erode the ecological health of these attractive if fragile retreats.

Brancusi, as a Romanian, might have liked this NYU exhibit (just ended) from his homeland that brings new finds that link our contemporary fascination with streamlined, oblique, evocative angular representations to ancient-- prehistoric in this case-- artifacts. Even gossip columnist Liz Smith covered it, a bit. Confirming another ancient paradigm-- chatty woman as oracular conduit. The Institute for the Study of the Ancient World captions female arguably better preserved even than Liz as its iconic representative, apropos, under the title "Did Women Rule?:

Female Figurine
Fired Clay
Cucuteni, Drăguşeni, 4050–3900 BC
Botoşani County Museum, Botoşani: 7558
Photo: Marius Amarie

Female figurines predominate in Old European material culture. They can be found represented individually as well as in large groups, and in contexts identified as domestic, ritual, religious, and funerary. The proliferation of female imagery throughout the fifth and fourth millennia BC has prompted some scholars to interpret Old European culture as a peaceful world where female-centered goddess worship prevailed. Males, according to this theory, played a largely secondary role in society. Some scholars, however, consider this argument idealized—in fact many villages were fortified, weapons were buried with men, and adult males had the richest graves in cemeteries.

Read more about this clay statue "in situ." See samples from the exhibition catalogue in the chapter "The Figurines of Old Europe". The term "Old Europe" comes from Marija Gimbutas ca. 1974. I glimpsed her once in her lab. I passed its open door as a UCLA grad student walking a florescent-lit institutional green corridor. This Lithuanian archeologist argued that a matriarchal culture flourished in Old Europe before the Iron Age brought sky-gods, male domination, and female suppression. Feminists understandably flocked to this theory as did pagans, but predictably, scholars since have challenged her model.

I obtained news of these images from a forwarded post by Irish pagans via "Celtic Buddhists." As I have noted two entries ago, my own research into the latter movement shows their wish to connect with this puzzling past. (Speaking of mystery, they linked Anu, the Indo-European mother deity, to Áine, but this as with Danu, as Mary Jones explains, may be linguistically a coincidence. Pagans debate this, so I invite clarification from at least three followers of my blog; comments welcome.)

Goddess of love, summer, wealth, and sovereignty Áine they commemorate at Bealtaine at Cnoc Áine, Knockainy in Co. Limerick the Celtic fire ceremony, When I stayed nearby, in Ballingarry, years ago, I looked up at that mountain myself. I wondered if pilgrims trekked up on festivals, and if its cairn and ring barrows survived on its gentle-- but rounded and prominent-- summit.

Such practitioners revive and revamp a more nurturing, nature-based, environmentally balanced and sexually receptive mindset. They seek a spiritual re-orientation to heal and direct those lost in our contemporary concrete cities. While my academic attempt to explain their invention and evolution of this ethos necessarily analyzes their efforts, their celebration of their appropriation and elaboration of our religious and rural heritages does attest to our own time's broken psyche, the urge to repair ourselves.

We may not know any more than fanciful Robert Graves the structural support or weakness for a reign of a White Goddess matriarchy. Archeologists, however, now can examine discoveries that romantic poets of the 1940s or fervent womyn's herstorians of the 70s could not know. The curator, David Anthony, of this ISAW exhibit's in fact a leading critic of Gimbutas' "Kurgan hypothesis" that claimed a warlike horse-dominated invasion bringing Indo-European "androcratic" elements westward that obliterated a "matristic" pacifist society.

From the shards we contemplate, we may learn what earlier antiquarians and autodidacts could not. For me, this figure brings power. But what that sunny side up/ down photo spread above does not show comes from this side view.

Her callipygian features certainly attract attention. I suppose this is what a fertility goddess, or perhaps an incentive to get yourself or somebody close to you pregnant, looks like. Before I settled down to write this, I found my teenaged son's bikini issue of "Sports Illustrated" while straightening up the house today.

For sober scholarship, I dutifully riffed through dozens of depictions of today's sun-burnished maternal idols for comparison. Tattoos might have hidden, maybe under bi- or monokinis or cupped palms, while proportions appear to have evened out slightly. Yet do we desire this shape, if more hourglass than bottom-heavy? A Facebook page boasts: "Curvy girls are sexier that skinny gals." A study of blind men found they too prefer the curvy classic waist-to-hip ratio that sighted men (and women?) label with their own commodified bias or male gaze-- if innate (so it seems, and not socially constructed as Foucault and feminists bicker?)-- preference for the childbearing, inviting, structural template that appears embedded in our hardwiring.

Here's the horned Dark Lord Donn. With some hesitation, I share one search result, from a "Hebrew-Celtic" connection blog entry trumpeting yet again, speaking of marginal autodidacts, the doughty British Israelite faction. Sticking to Indo-European verities, yes, in Irish, the cognate's for "donn'="dark" while we in English use "dun" as an archaic term for this shadowed shade. Locally as to this find, we get the names Danube, Don, Dneiper attesting to how primordially this term precedes cultural, military, political, religious, and linguistic upheaval within this region. Only after the fall of Communism could outside scholars enter the Lower Danube in Moldova, Bulgaria, and Romania to investigate, and I hope they share much more about these hierarchical farmers from a period still little understood.

"Don - Cucuteni, Romania (ca. 5200 BCE) orig. approx. 1 meter high, fired clay."

Saturday, May 15, 2010

"Beckett, Buddhism & the Void": my article

"Beckett, Buddhism & the Void": Horizon Review 4(2010). "Always the big questions," that writer sighed. Posed in front of Niagara Falls, as close to the abyss as I dared, my squinting self introduces this reflection on not only the great Irish writer, but scattered allusions (if not his!) to dharma, as well as 'brane' theory and cosmological speculations that hearken back-- before even the Big Bang. I try to tackle one Big Question, if in three thousand words, as edited in the Arts Section by Dr. Mark A. Williams of Cambridge (now at Oxford) for this fine production helmed by Jane Holland.

There's a lot more to educate and entertain. Here's issue four's Table of Contents. Roam freely on this Horizon into literary and artistic realms of poetry, translations, short stories, interviews, reviews, and essays. In her introduction to this "little magazine" in the spirit of Cyril Connolly's effort, Holland concludes:
I intend Horizon to be like that thin steely line of the literal horizon, a place of new exchanges and opportunities, occupying both sides of the argument, an alluring view of the future, where one thing is always ending and another just beginning, where anything could happen — and definitely will.

I'd concur that this enterprise sustains that elegant, refined, slightly chilled or gently acerbic register of good-natured, grousingly erudite British-style criticism. Not clotted with theoretical jargon or tarred by score setting. Please visit Horizon Review yourself. I'm happy to be among such distinguished peers.

P.S. As adapted to that article, I've reviewed Paul Foster's Beckett & Zen. My 2005 chapter (In: "Beckett, Joyce, and the Art of the Negative," European Joyce Studies 16, ed. Colleen Jaurretche. Amsterdam: Rodopi, pp. 109-24) on "Beckett's Purgatories" alluded therein can be linked to for $20 (royalties to not me, but publisher) via Ingenta or High Beam portals. Google Books previews/chops it. When I wrote this, I'd found its pdf online--I'll send it to you gratis--but no more when I checked in 2012 to update this footnote. You have to return and try, try again, fail, fail harder, as Beckett would phrase it. Somehow fitting, this repetition, this return to where we begin, and before it, and after.

Photo: Wild card image search result. Barbara Gosza's album titled "Beckett & Buddha." LastFM compares this Chicago-born singer-songwriter of Czech parentage "with plaintive but intense songs sung in a touchingly fragile luminous voice" to Rickie Lee Jones or Townes Van Zandt "whilst evoking a Germanic world-weary angst reminiscent of Marianne Faithfull." She reminds me of one of Kafka's lovers. Figured you'd rather look at her face than mine. Or the Void.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

"The Gundestrup Cauldron & 'Celtic Buddhism'": my article

"The Gundestrup Cauldron & 'Celtic Buddhism'", has been published in Epona: E-Journal of Ancient & Modern Celtic Studies 5 (2009): 1-29. (PDF). For you with short attention spans, here's an "abstract". (Via the "journal's homepage", click a Union Jack first for English-language text.)

I'm happy to have contributed. I started my investigations nearly two years ago while re-reading Michel Houllebecq's combative novel of ideas "The Elementary Particles" (=my review). A chance reference tied the "Book of Kells" illumination of St Matthew to a "mandala". My curiosity whether any Celtic-Buddhist transmissions could be proven led to this survey of the evidence, or lack of, as opposed to the invention of influences.

In its supersized format my survey comprises this article. A second piece, revised and updated, (if half the 15,000 word length of the "Epona" article) has been submitted (a few days ago) for publication in selected papers revised and expanded from the proceedings of the "Alternative Spiritualities in Ireland" conference held last Samhain at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth.

The reason my "Epona" article's so lengthy? I wanted to delve as deeply as I could into a topic in the backwaters of exploration. Luckily, this peer-edited journal welcomed my research, for as Dr. Emilia Szaffner explains in her "editorial introduction" to the "Epona" project:
The journal is named after the Celtic horse goddess Epona, who was also an incarnation of fertility. The worship of Epona was widespread, especially in the 1st–3rd centuries CE inside and also outside the Roman Empire, for instance in Pannonia and Transylvania. Among the Celtic gods it was Epona whose cult lasted probably the longest in the Carpathian Basin.

Yeats mused that until the Battle of the Boyne, Ireland belonged to Asia; for the far-westbound Magyar coming from above the Caspian Sea, they stopped only at the Danube. Before they arrived, Pannonia halted at that wide river. I recall crossing the bridge north of Budapest to see right by the roadside Roman ruins-- their military camps did not cross that riparian frontier, home to the untamed barbarians. And among these, perhaps contacts no book extant can account for once happened. What beliefs shared, surmises entertained?

The title of my paper, with the Gundestrup Cauldron, symbolizes one connection, however far-fetched or conjectural. So, the congruent, complimentary Central European-Celtic-and perhaps Buddhist (as mavericks may meditate) route of cultural influences beckoned me down my own Road of Great Events. Maybe not a Silk one, but a pilgrimage I've enjoyed.

It's led to a lot more reading than I'd expected into Buddhism itself, far deeper than shows in my scholarship I confess. It's helped me pursue an endeavor that reminds me of how closely intertwined the personal and the academic paths can tangle when one loves what one does. I let go now-- of retyping of MLA punctuation vs. Harvard Style documentation, refusals of copyright permission for image use, or reduction of amassed research to meet word count and deadline.

Photo: Visit the "Gundestrup Cauldron" entry on Wikipedia; this displays Plate "A" with the horned figure said by some to be Cernunnos the Celtic horned god-- and a few to be an antlered shaman as "yogic adept" clutching a Hindu "naga" snake.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Ag tiomaint leis Leon

Thiomáinfaidh muid go dtí an diseart an tseachtaine deireadh seo chugainn. Tá dúil againn ag feiceáil blathannaí leanaí go h-úr. B'fhéidir, breathnoídh muid bláthannaí scéine agus crainn na Iósua go leor ansúid.

Silim go mbeidh Leon ag tiomaint ansin. Cad chuige? Tá sé mar gheall a cleachtadh air. Iarr Leon ag éirí leis an triail thiomána.

Tá dóchas againn go mbeidh Leon ag éirí sa scrúdú Dé Céardaoin seo. Is maith linn má éiroidh leis. Caithfidh sé go maith leis féin.

Nílim neamhchinnte i dtaobh an ama atá lena air. Ar ndóigh, beidh Leon go himníoch anois agus ansin. Insionn muid air go bhfuil rud atá le céill.

Tá muid imní orainn faoi, mar sin féin. Measaim go mbeadh Leon faoi chearthaigh. Tá sé le céill go raibh sé chomh seo.

Ba mhór an gar dá ag baint amach bua go luath leis Leon. Thabharfainn rud math ar cluainte órga a fheicéail leis Leon, Léna agus Niall. Tá seans chomh óige sé féin. Mar sin, ní bhíonn tréan buan fada.

Driving with Leo.

We will drive to the desert this weekend. There's our desire to view the fresh wildflowers. Perhaps, we will look at many wildflowers and Joshua trees out there.

I think that Leo will drive there. Why's that? It's an account of practice for him. Leo seeks to pass his driving test.

It's likely for us that Leo will succeed on the exam this Wednesday. We'd be pleased if he'd pass. He will do himself proud.

I'm uncertain regarding the future of his success. Of course, Leo will be fearful now and then. We tell him that this is natural.

We have anxiety ourselves about this, all the same. I reckon that Leon should be in a nervous state. It's natural that we may be like this.

It's to be wished that Leo gets the triumph soon. I'd give something to see golden meadows with Leo, Layne, and Niall. It's a chance like youth itself. That is, it's too good [=intense] to last long.

Grianghraf le/Photo by QT Luong: Poppies/Poipíní.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Emma Larkin's "Everything is Broken": Book Review

Viewers of "Burma VJ," and readers of her "Finding George Orwell in Burma," (see my review) will learn about what's happened in Burma under the twin forces of military suppression of the 2007 demonstrations and Cyclone Nargis of 2008. Half a million (official toll's 138,000) may have been swept or battered to death during a 10-12 hour storm. Larkin compares a before-after aerial view of the Irrawaddy delta: "as if a bucket of water has been sloshed across an ink drawing; the carefully-marked lines had been erased and the paper beneath was buckled and distorted." (7)

Later, talking to survivors, she sees a ID-sized photo, all that a husband has of his dead wife. "A water stain had spread across his wife's broad cheekbones and the black-and-white image was already beginning to fade." (163) Memories and rumors, legends of surviving by hanging onto a python or clutching a crocodile spread. Under the total censorship, where complaining can land you life in prison, where the leaders of a police state fear their people and often meet violent ends while in power, the absence of comfort permeates this narrative.

It's in three parts: the storm, when Larkin sneaked in on a tourist visa for a month but, like all foreigners and aid workers and journalists and even many Rangoon folks wanting to help the survivors, she was limited in what she could learn. The second part investigates the regime, its xenophobic reaction to foreign intrusion, its crushing of the 2007 protests led by monks and students (see "Burma VJ"), and its strategic if extravagant relocation of its capital to a remote plot in the center of the country, far from a port or outside contamination as it were. Obscene profiteering, black magic-haunted dictators, astrology as domestic policy: these rule this corrupt satrap.

Finally, she returns a year after the storm to find some relief getting to perhaps half the survivors, but under a cruel regime, little progress as model camps for the press are dismantled, refugees are forced back to their vanished homes, and trauma, as over and over the people rise up and look for help only to be crushed as history is rewritten and memories are all these impoverished citizens of a vast open-air prison state have to endure, or be driven mad by.

What do you do when liberation keeps failing? Larkin often juxtaposes the propaganda of "New Light of Myanmar," the only sanctioned press mouthpiece, with the facts she witnesses and records. "In this Never-Never Land of the regime's imagination, survivors of the storm suffered no trauma and felt no grief at having lost family members, jobs, and livelihoods. Relieved to be so warmly looked after by their benevolent leaders, they sat smiling obediently amid mountains of mama noodles and brightly-colored plastic buckets." (72)

It's frustrating to read this book, and I closed it sadly. It feels incomplete, but this cannot be faulted on the author, who labors to evade the military, bureaucracy, and undercover police and who writes under an assumed name. There's a haunted quality to this tale, and even more when even the experts she cites often go nameless. One thinks of an ancient land where nothing but panic, rumors and fear stalk the dark fields where Death walks.

Larkin despite her clandestine investigations in a nation she knows well even fails to uncover as much as she or we'd wish, given the oppressive situation. But it's as close as Westerners will come, given the failure (as in Tibet, I thought) of the "moral high ground" to overthrow the "guns and brute force" of "the other side." (121) We are taught that goodness and morality will win, but when the junta prevents ships from delivering supplies or doctors from entering for fear that the natives will learn that the outside world is more generous than their own tyrants, one does despair for the Myanmar nightmare that had replaced free Burma. (Posted to Amazon US 5-9-10 & PopMatters 5-11-10)

Friday, May 7, 2010

Thomas Pynchon's "Against the Day": Book Review

It's set a hundred years ago but not much has changed. "This big parade of modern inventions, all spirited march tunes, public going ooh and aah, but someplace lurking just out of sight is always some lawyer or accountant, beating that 2/4 like clockwork and runnin the show." (33)

Investigating Anarchists in Chicago, Lew's "down in the deadfalls where the desperate malcontents convened, fingerless slaughterhouse veterans, irregulars in the army of sorrow, prophesiers who had seen America as it might be in visions America's wardens could not tolerate." (51) This novel fills with unease, unrest, and privation.

Modern chemistry replaces alchemy as capitalism "really gets going," true, as Merle says. But, Webb suggests: "Maybe 'capitalism' decided it didn't need the old magic anymore." He goes on: "Why bother? Had their own magic, doin just fine, thanks, instead of turning lead into gold, they could take poor people's sweat and turn it into greenbacks, and save that lead for enforcement purposes." (79) This tale pits the haves vs. the have-nots, relentlessly; both appear trapped by their ideology.

After their Arctic expedition by balloon, each of the Chums of Chance gaze "at the enigmatic miniature he had purchased, representing a faraway disposition of rocks he would probably never get to see, and try to glimpse, even at this degree of indirectness, some expression of truth beyond the secular." (126) The yearning for a higher meaning permeates this panoramic, unsettling, recondite, and arcane narrative.

It's as if a brane slithered next to our world for a slightly alternate history, a counternarrative full of what science fiction and adventure tales might have imagined for early 20c readers of pulps, westerns, and Oriental mystery. "Let us imagine a lateral world, set only infinitesimally to the side of the one we think we know, in which just this has come to pass." (230). The era described, at the end of the Victorian reign, sounds not much different than what transpired, in its "grim realities." Aging and Death are resisted, within "this all-enveloping pantomime" enacted by twin professors Renfrew and Werfner, England and Hanover, temporal flow of Time against sinister Power half-glimpsed.

This malevolent tension between those who favor the spirit and those who triumph by the sword permeates this plot. As with Asia, where "two distinct versions" endure: "one an object of political struggle among the Powers of the Earth-- the other a timeless faith by whose terms all such earthly struggle is illusion. Those whose enduring object is power in this world are only too happy to use without remorse the others, whose aim of course is to transcend all question of power. Each regards the other as a pack of deluded fools." (249)

Into this standoff, time-traveling agents enter. Mr. Ace: "Glossy black eyes, presented as weapons in a duel. The gently damaged, irrevocably educated eyes we associate with the visiting dead. When he smiled, or attempted to, it was not reassuring." (415) The trespassers back from the future do not bring solace.

Neither can science, even theories of higher mathematics where more than one character seeks answers. "Vectorism, in which Kit had once thought he had glimpsed transcendence, a co-existing world of imaginaries, the 'spirit realm' that Yale legend Lee De Forest once imagined he was journeying through, had not shown Kit, after all, a way to escape the world governed by real numbers." (675)

Meaning may beckon earthier pilgrims too. Shambhala in Central Asia possibly exists; the quest for a terrestrial paradise consumes the next chapters that particularly engrossed me. The Pure Land sought by Buddhists, the rebirth by penance, the advent of The Compassionate, Tibetan tales of wisdom all flicker as if in a comforting mirage, or fevered vision. But transcendence passes and again, war and murder stalk the Balkans and Venetian shores closer to the heart of a Europe to be torn by hatred and profited from by Capital.

Yashmeen leaves an Austrian passage as "she gazed backward at iron convergences and receding signal-lamps. Outward and visible metaphor, she thought, for the complete ensemble of 'free choices' that define the course of a human life. A new switching point every few seconds, sometimes seen, sometimes traveled over invisibly and irrevocably. From on board the train one can stand and look back, and watch it all flowing away, shining, as if always meant to be." (811) A very Buddhist concept, amid the chaos to be unleashed by spies and soldiers around her and her companions.

Contrast with Cyprian's filtered thoughts, from "this bottom dead center of the European Question, this bad daydream toward which all had been converging, murderous as a locomotive running without lights or signals, unsettling as points thrown at the last minute, awakened from because of some noise out in the larger world, some doorbell or discontented animal, that might remain forever unidentified." (845)

Later, out in Mexico during its revolutionary melee, Frank hears a 'brujo' muse about the destruction wrought by progress. He wonders: "who at some point hadn't come to hate the railroad? It penetrated, it broke apart cities and wild herds and watersheds, it created economic panics and armies of jobless men and women, and generations of hard, bleak city-dwellers with no principles who ruled with unchecked power, it took away everything indiscriminately, to be sold, to be slaughtered, to be led beyond the reach of love." (930)

Every few pages, no matter the convoluted plot or the erudite references, passages such as this leap out of the prose. This makes this book such a powerful read, a novel of ideas, yes, but one where-- and I differ a bit from conventional criticism of the book here-- you do care about the impact of lofty schemes upon little people. The characters do flit and pass and I wish I had a scorecard to keep track. The aims of this famously difficult author (thanks for those Wiki-linked annotations) may be ambitious as before, but there is an outrage at inhumanity which makes this much more than a parody of styles, a catalogue of registers. The Albanians watch the intruders from the West: "what were they doing out here this late in history?" (948) We, like them, wonder. Caught up as they all are in a geopolitical, intellectual, puzzling game, we have no clue either.

The Tree of Diana, in film-crazed Hollywood, will then blossom, silver amalgamated with quicksilver under a lens, nitric acid added to animate it. For this element too is alive: "Has its own forks in the road, choices to make just like the rest of us." (1060) Convergences and coincidences in a book begun and ended with the Chums of Chance fill this narrative. Even the natural world shares the patterns grooved deep.

It's a human book, for all its superhuman scale. Yashmeen's love for Cyprian, his for a higher calling, the familial ties that try to resist the juggernauts of death machines driven by Capital: touches of intimacy soften the epic, relentless, global scale of this ambitious novel. As with an epic, the individual struggles to stand out in a starring role. The cast threatens here to exceed thousands.

Pynchon attempts to straddle three decades of planetary chaos while focusing on a dozen or so people caught up in the whirlwind. The pace lags, as when the crew of the "Inconvenience" floats over the Great War and the refugees in its aftermath as if far too detached from the human suffering. I failed to feel as if I was in Mexico during the Revolution, or lost in the Balkans or studio-birthed L.A. except for momentary passages. The little men and women do get crushed, after all, on the other hand, and this plays into the difficulty readers may have in reconciling their humanist expectations for the novel to the pitiless, yet fitfully compassionate movements of this grand scheme. This telescopes and then draws back, over and over.

Years pass in a paragraph as the Soviets rise and the Tsar falls yet another paragraph is given over to a debate about potato salad among Iowan transplants to L.A. That paragraph, however, took place a mile from my house. So, I attest in the local geography back then applicable, the author got all his left turns right and knows to his dubious credit as we natives may that rats do nest up in palm trees.

In the end, as we know from the Colorado mines and Haymarket and the L.A. Times bombing all attributed to Anarchist terror rather than plutocratic suppression, the "commonwealth of the oppressed" succumbed. Scarsdale Vibe imagines above Denver where the strikers are to be mown down or driven off what may not be so much prescient ten decades ago as predictable: "Where alien muckers and jackers went creeping after their miserable communistic dreams, the good lowland townsfolk will come up by the netful into these hills, clean, industrious, Christian, while we, gazing out over their little vacation bungalows, will dwell in top-dollar palazzos befitting our station, which their mortgage monies will be paying to build for us." (1001)

Was it worth the dozens of hours? Yes, uneven as it was, it would not let go of my imagination. I'll take its ups and downs over smoother paths worn down by more timorous novelists and predictable thinkers anytime.

(Posted to Amazon US; cross-posted to "Not the L.A. Times Book Review" 4/24/10. P.S. On the current Tea Party resistance to Big Government and not Big Business, see Tamerlane's "A Thin & Weak Brew"-- and my comment re: this novel and anarchism.)

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Lionel Shriver's "The Bleeding Heart": Book Review

Can you like a novel about unlikeable characters? A "conflict junkie" meets a "professional victim" in Belfast, 1988. She's from Philadelphia, 32, veteran of many relationships and many jobs across the Third World and First, where she wanders after a year in Berlin, another in Manila, a third...? He's 43, a sour bomb-disposal specialist/ lapsed Catholic who hates his turf and all who squabble over "the North." Out of her own years there, American Lionel (born Margaret, ex-pat, long living in Belfast but now London-resident) Shriver dissects, at admittedly obsessive and wearying length befitting Estrin Lancaster's own tussle with Farrell O'Phelan, where personal wounds bleed into political stabs. Her sparring partner in and out of bed "hadn't a notion what to do with a woman once he'd got her besides break up," she muses. (246)

Estrin and her creator trap themselves into a stereotypical IRA-type thriller while they despise the reduction. Farrell late on looks at iconic Cave Hill and speaks for Shriver: "Too many writers had scribbled about these hillsides-- an unremarkable, wind-beaten land, exhausted by metaphor, every poet's bloody mother." (404)

Published in 1992 as "Ordinary Decent Criminals" in Britain, this name change from its 1990 U.S. printing (its own title equally well-chosen as a clichéd truth) tellingly illustrates how the jokes never get understood out of NI, as Farrell mopes in one of his many mopes. (For those needing the punchlines explained, "A Glossary of Troublesome Terms" appends Shriver's attempt at an Ambrose Bierce-type "Devil's Dictionary" in its mordant take on the Six Counties/ Ulster/ the North/ Northern Ireland.) Farrell's feral mood rarely changes: gloom permeates this unsparing depiction of a world where, at least back then, an aside that if Gerry Adams and Ian Paisley ever shared power, it'd be on another planet rings true.

When Estrin meets a fellow Yank, a grad student from Iowa bent on a thesis, she smirks: "No doubt he had Irish ancestors, and arrived with the usual prepared Republican sympathies, the whole tatty anti-imperialist Tinkertoy mock-up she got enough at the Green Door and could not abide in Americans--." (168) Still, she was taken in by the locals in West Belfast, and she relents, a bit, in turn. What proves unrelenting is the struggle to live normally in a war zone, full of "arrested adolescence" among its factions.

The impasse between Republicans and Unionists, Nationalists and Loyalists, grinds on twenty years into "the Troubles." Estrin mocks the visiting academics and peaceniks who treat her adopted city as a theme park of violence, but she knows as perhaps her creator that her stay there need never be permanent, that she can leave any time. "Perhaps the very definition of adulthood is a fascination with the middle parts of games." (56) Estrin muses how at how she cannot leave the place even as she remains rootless, childless, and bent on staying free of commitment's the theme of this novel, for both Estrin and her sometime lover Farrell.

Meanwhile, a subplot with Angus MacBride and his lover, poet Roisin St. Clair, she of the likes of the out-of-print "Bare Limbs on Basalt," complicates matters. He's a Protestant politician angling for a Nobel Peace Prize while somehow involved with Republican terror squads. "Someone should tip off the Catholics:" he thinks, "taking the blame never absolved anyone, or solved a woe." (136)

He does add gruffness to this often tetchy tale, but I wasn't convinced much by this storyline. Despite Angus's climactic role, despite a welcome lapse into humor when he surveys his paramour's almost-bare larder, these episodes helped drag this 426-page narrative far longer than necessary to delineate, say, Estrin's three-week sweets binge/ hunger strike over fifty-odd pages. I got the point, but Shriver lingers over the symbolic turned physical agonies endured willingly by so many who martyr themselves, in and out of prison.

The characters share their author's frustration with this convoluted fracas. "Farrell looked pained, for he liked to tell his stories systematically. Conversations with Estrin didn't work that way." (84) The plot thickens but does not always cohere. I doubt if the climactic scene would, in terms of diplomatic blowback, have been pulled off so neatly, and while the decision of a key character to shape up so he "economized on his character" and may turn out to do some good is heartening, the build-up to this in the last hundred pages often stayed limp and dull.

Still, Shriver shows in this early work signs of the success come her way for the more recent Orange Prize winning "We Need to Talk about Kevin," along with "So Much for That," and "The Post-Birthday World." As this is not my usual genre, I found her acerbic take on sexuality particularly engrossing, if far from titillating. Farrell inspired by his own grueling bouts with Estrin compares their couplings to those of his battered, spongey, bleary, sodden homeland, where "it took more and more stimulation for either partner to feel anything at all." (187)

Shriver seeks to shake off the label, as does Estrin, of feminine sensitivity, yet both author and protagonist cannot turn off their compassion despite their intelligent, wry, and bitter tirades against the maudlin mentality of the natives. They convey what very very few novels from "the Troubles" have: how women feel. Lots of vendettas, but no abortion. "Since in Northern Ireland you could blow eleven Prods in Enniskillen to kingdom come but you couldn't scrape a tadpole from between your legs." (358) On the next page, Estrin confides in the young barman about her predicament, and he immediately wonders if they're to be married. "Oh, Malcolm. All these guns and you people still live in Pooh Corner." (Posted to Amazon US 5-5-10)

Monday, May 3, 2010

The Rising: Ireland: Easter 1916 by Fearghal McGarry

On Easter Monday, April 24, 1916, thirty revolutionary socialists raided the heart of British imperialism, Dublin Castle. Seán Connolly, an amateur actor and a clerk over at City Hall, shot James O’Brien, unarmed and the only officer on duty, at point-blank range after O’Brien had held up his hand to stop the rebels from their first advance. Once inside the fortress manned by sentries without weapons, the insurgents wondered what to do next. Lacking clear plans, they were startled by the bang of a closed door.

They could have captured the headquarters of the Crown administration; instead, their heroic or tragicomic gestures came to naught, symbolizing the confusion of a subsequent six-day uprising that failed to take over the capital city during the Great War, capitalizing on “England’s difficulty.”

Professor McGarry, in his fourth book about Irish republicanism, uses recently released interviews with nearly 1,800 participants and eyewitnesses made by the Irish government’s Bureau of Military History in the 1950s. While acknowledging the risks of oral histories given the passage of time and the nature of their biases, McGarry succeeds in exposing what few histories of the Rising have done: how the ordinary men and women felt as their city fell around them, bursting into flame and assaulted by rebels and the counterattacks by British troops rushed in to crush the latest in a series of seemingly futile uprisings.

The first third of this readable study analyzes questions still debated almost a century later. How likely was victory? Did leaders act out of blood sacrifice and a desperate martyrdom—as has been alleged for Patrick Pearse? Or did those socialists in the Irish Citizen Army headed by James Connolly, the Marxist theorist, move the secretive cabal who directed the rebellion toward political radicalism in an early example of modern urban insurrection? How likely was a progressive Irish Republic, once proclaimed that Monday, to have been formed? And how did everyday Irish citizens, caught in the crossfire as their homes and workplaces exploded, react to the mobilization of their fellow Irishmen, both on the sides of the rebels and among those many soldiers who served in Irish regiments for Britain?

McGarry notes the common appeal of militarism. Within the Fenian tradition, a rebellion had to be made to save face every generation; its failure mattered less than its attempt. The civilian, nationalist Irish Volunteers—who regrouped after most of their ranks had joined the British call to fight in France—became hardened, vowing to resist imperial conscription. They radicalized, belatedly, a generation raised on demanding Home Rule for Ireland. This delayed success, McGarry argues, offsets the defeat of the actual Rising, for it led to guerrilla war that would soon bring to most of Ireland partial independence—and for the rest of the island a partition that already was a given by British geopolitics.

Rumors of German arms shipments and troops sent to Ireland recall the 1798 failure of the French to oust the British on behalf of Ireland. Before Easter Sunday, the arms had been intercepted and eight times the orders for the Volunteers to rise up were countermanded. Most, therefore, never responded to the call when the leaders summoned them that Monday to attempt the latest uprising. About two thousand took up arms in the city and another thousand elsewhere (far less studied and more rarely provoking fire), fought against the British. They hoped to gain some advantage to distract British forces from the European fronts, to demonstrate to Kaiser their desire to distract the King, and to perhaps even earn a seat at postwar peace talks for reparations. Their plans were confused and grand.

While secular and anticlerical critics of the Church numbered three on the Army Council that called for war, the spiritual posture of most rebels, overwhelmingly Catholic, colored memories and tinted propaganda, as the oral testimony shows. The radical nature of earlier republican ideology ebbed as the starving rebels were depicted as heroic martyrs. McGarry skillfully and fairly documents the range of actions witnessed that attest to the responses of clerics, which were as varied as those of the laity who watched as their streets were taken over first by a ragtag crew of their neighbors and then assaulted by another faction of their neighbors, mobilized in police and army uniforms and backed by naval artillery.

The ambiguous reactions to the Irish rebellion echo for a hundred years. Fear and ambivalence weakened many in the constabulary called out to fight against the rebels. This uneasy relationship would soon, after the Rising, work to the advantage of public opinion. The British, who relied more on a cowed populace than a willing one in Ireland, retreated themselves despite their military triumph, into a barricaded, defensive stance that the next republican army could manipulate, undermine, and dominate. Thus, as McGarry shows, the course of contemporary Irish history flowed from these attitudes formed during the spring of 1916. Families continued to divide over loyalty and defiance, stability or dissension, and the republican movement itself evolved with similar ambiguities as it first came to power and then was thrown from power by its own former neighbors and comrades.

Caused by a failed coup-d’état or a pious sacrifice, a stymied revolution or street theater, the effects conjured up by its enactors stun. Looting, summary executions, acts of mercy, terrified civilians, brave priests, jittery doctors, angry “separation women” enraged at the rebels who tore up their city while the women’s kin fought as Tommies overseas—all these everyday people are given a voice by Professor McGarry.

Its failure, the execution of its leaders, the shifts from outrage—by those who the rebels sought to inspire to fight alongside them—to gradual sympathy for the campaign for Irish independence: it is all here. This fluid narrative, footnoted and with a reading list that draws from trusted sources, should become the one volume any reader determined to figure out the events from those caught up in them rather than directing them, will learn from. The claims of insurgents, ideologies, and insurrection, as our headlines attest, reverberate and confound us too, in today’s cities and nations.

(Oxford UP, 2010: Reviewed for The New York Journal of Books, April 26, 2010. My short summary-- not excerpted from the above or the NYJB-- filed at Amazon US 4-27-10)

Saturday, May 1, 2010

"Burma VJ" & May Day

I’m sure everyone agrees that we need to overcome violence, but first we need to analyze whether it has any value. From a strictly practical perspective, we find that on certain occasions violence appears useful: one can solve a problem quickly with force. But this success is often at the expense of the rights and welfare of others. Although one problem has been solved, the seed of another has been planted.

The day after I read this quote from the Dalai Lama, I watched "Burma VJ," a documentary by Anders Ostergaard. Foreign reporters are banned; a free press is illegal. So, Ostergaard assembled handicam footage taken by video journalists from the Democratic Voice of Burma during the protests in September 2007 that started when fuel prices skyrocketed. Soon the monks led marches against the junta. As before in the dictatorship, hopes rose for victory.

But, when marchers took to Rangoon in earlier outrage, in 1988, three thousand were slain by the army. Aung San Suu Kyi, back then, looked like her election would propel her into a takeover of the regime and as in other regimes at that time, that it would lead to freedom from totalitarianism. The clandestine cameramen defiantly tried to document the demands made by unarmed, peaceful demonstrators even as (see the image above), plainclothes police sought to arrest the handicam holders. As you might expect, filming is illegal. They try to upload their footage to the Net or to smuggle it out, but the net, as in the PRC, can be suppressed and dissidents can be whisked off to prison and after that, who knows?

Still, buoyed by the hope the whole world was again watching, they decided to speak up. The silence of the past nine years under the cruel regime ended. For a few days, urged by the monks, people dared to come out and join the marches for reform.

Yet, as at Tiananmen Square a year after the earlier Burmese protests, glasnost and detente failed as power obliterated democracy. And in both cases, allies of the U.S. and foreign powers not to mention corporate energy providers (that is, oil barons), decided to ignore the demands for justice. Chanting monks bravely led early street demonstrations. They were arrested, beaten, and then they disappeared. The red robes that comprised the center of early marches dwindle and then, one day as seen on cameras, are no more.

Then the military crushed the students. One of the last scenes in the documentary takes place in a stairwell. The young men and women are trapped. The stairwell is being shot into. A voice rises. "Let us pray to conquer our fear of death."

Now, the DVB is scattered, its thirty secret filmmakers silenced. I will soon read the second book by Emma Larkin on Burma. Her first, "Finding George Orwell in Burma," chillingly retraced similarly secret events in this grim Big Brother society.

If we ignore human rights in little outposts such as East Timor, let alone the nearly seven million estimated to have died in the Congo, or the prisoners in China or the resistance among the Uighirs or Tibetans against the Communists, it seems that compared to the oil rich barons profiting off of "Myanmar," that the Burmese matter very very little except to provoke momentary discomfort. I posted the end of March on the U.S. Campaign for Burma and their publicity campaign "Arrest Yourself to Free Burma", all the same.

Power or money- which drives us more? This was my wife's question the morning after we watched this film. Later that day, we went off to see spring's wildflowers in the Antelope Valley and to let my older son practice on that rare open road for his test.

The afternoon my friend spoke to Radio Free Eireann at WBAI NYC, I was sitting in the passenger seat as my teenaged son drove the straight line of Highway 138 through what's left, for now, of rural Los Angeles County. The Antelope Valley stretched ahead into rolling orange and purple, poppy and lupine, filling a few slopes. Among them, Joshua trees stood, gradually reclaiming meadows and dales.

U2 came to America, once, in the midst of the Troubles, to speak out for peace. Their LP arguably made the Joshua Tree, heightened by Anton Corbijn's iconic photos, world famous more than either prophet or flora had. While the peace treaty did come to Ireland a decade and more later, the decade and more since the tellingly named Good Friday Agreement of '98 left many Irish republicans unhappy with, as my friend put it in her radio interview, not the peace itself but the way the peace was sold.

That is, the cause for which so many had sacrificed their youth, the safety of their families, the lives of their comrades and those of their foes, had been given up in a stroke of a pen and a photo op to the political necessity to broker a face-saving deal worse than the one proposed in 1975 to settle the Irish conflict. The armed struggle, at the hands of those feted on White House lawns and before Stormont's chambers, long before the second and final ceasefires had been proven a farce. Many had been sent out to kill or had been killed in the name of a strategy already years before determined to have been a failure. The leaders postured and assured their rank and file that the Republican Movement continued its commitment to the "physical-force tradition" while behind the scenes, the IRA volunteers had been already consigned to the past-date bin, the rummage sale, the leftovers of history.

This betrayal sparked the former Belfast Brigade and Long Kesh prison commander, Brendan "The Dark" Hughes to speak out against his friends, under whom and among whom he loyally served so long, to speak out. As with a few others at the online project run by my friends,"The Blanket," in the dozen years following the "peace process," for his dissension he was pilloried by those among whom he had fought and worked all of his life. Censorship and death threats came.

For his honesty, Brendan was blackballed from the building trades now controlled, post-GFA, by pro-Sinn Féin elements eager to undermine any opposition to the grant money, the gladhanding, and the corruption endemic to those who in the North went along with the leadership's acquiescence to the power and wealth that flowed towards those willing to compromise, to shut up, and to give in to the messages that a cowed and duplicitous leadership now in control of West Belfast transmitted to their party followers and fellow recipients of largess from the EEC and British and Irish-funded schemes awarded to the faithful. The party machine ruled as had the "lads": the same people, this being Ireland where everyone knows everyone, doing backroom business.

"The Dark" spoke to my friend's husband as part of interviews archived at Boston College; after Hughes' premature death two years ago the embargo was lifted on using his testimony and Ed Maloney then compiled the work that the interviewer had done. It has been published last month as part of a new book, "Voices Beyond the Grave." Because Brendan's accounts of IRA activity and his critiques of their current mindthink clash with conventional Sinn Féin-controlled versions of events, the interviewer, his wife tells the radio station, has received death threats.

All this leaves me despondent. The violence instigated by Irish republicans determined to lash out against injustice carries a bitter legacy that rankles their divided ranks today, forty years after the latest series of uprisings in the name of a democratic, secular, socialist Ireland that fails to be any of these three qualities.

My wife finished and now I've started a novel by an American who lived in Belfast to write about it longer than most did during the Troubles. Lionel Shriver's brief Wikipedia bio notes: "(she plans to will whatever assets remain at her death to the Belfast Library Board, out of whose libraries she checked so many books when she lived in Northern Ireland)." From her fifteen or so years, her 1990 "The Bleeding Heart" (published as "Ordinary Decent Criminals" in Britain) acerbically tells what transpired. She finds as does her protagonist, an Philly ex-pat in West Belfast, a state of "arrested adolescence" among both minorities, an insular groupthink that glorifies aspiration while delaying arrival. Begrudgers never want success to come.

It ends with a "Glossary of Troublesome Words" and that in turn concludes with "United Ireland:
a hypothetical nation in which there are no more problems and all the citizens thrive in peace and tranquillity. Metaphorically: happiness. Historically: what has never happened. Mythologically: at the end of the day, a phrase Northerners use compulsively, a time and a place where all conflict will be resolved and there will be no more armies, and therefore an eventuality that every faction in Northern Ireland has a vested interest in preventing at all costs. (426-7)

Like a lot of those involved in the Irish cause, I've evolved. In my younger days I backed the "physical force tradition." As I have noted here before, a few years ago I learned how my own great-grandfather, a Land League activist from Co. Roscommon, had died, "drowned in mysterious circumstances" in the Thames to where in 1898 he had been summoned for a meeting with the British. (He also had the same first nick/name as me, although given the marked lack of imagination inherent in my family tree as to nomenclature, this is not much of a coincidence.)

Certainly a telling legacy and an eerie lesson in the persistence, unbeknownst, of somehow nature as well as nurture. Now, I find myself giving up meat. I'm tender towards puppies. I don't enjoy war movies as I did as a kid. My younger son watches "The Pacific" about the brutal Marine landings in '44; I remind him as I pause (before leaving the room) of my uncle I'm named after who died on the shore of Saipan that "island hopping" campaign. I gave up long ago joining the Navy; my first year of college I filed as a "selective C.O.," not that it'd have stopped (if severely myopic?) me from being drafted as the first year to have to sign up for Selective Service under the new Persian Gulf Doctrine of '79. I take no comfort that many of my students undergo rehab at the V.A. Hospital after being wounded in Iraq.

Yet, I bristle at Islamic intolerance. I wonder how pacifists would have fared in the Shoah. I nod as Shriver compares the conflict in the North to some stale entrenched slump in the Great War. But I get as angry as the next guy at injustice, I root for underdogs, and I suspect in a previous life I was an anarchist malcontent somewhere in 1914 Europe. (Reading Thomas Pynchon's endless "Against the Day" can be blamed for that surmise.)

Today downtown L.A.'s jammed as protesters rally against Arizona's law to enforce immigration laws that apparently nobody enforces. I pass giant black pickups with large Mexican flags draped on their rear doors. The freeway's packed going downtown. An MSNBC headline this week:
"Arizona Law 'Makes it Crime to be Illegal Immigrant'."
A progressive's oxymoron. Those who wave flags in my hometown enjoy the protection of laws that enable them to protest the imposition of other laws. I wonder why May Day signals distress rather than some proletariat triumph. Still, the fact that my state allows millions to live here illegally says something about American tolerance and Angeleno attitudes. Or more than one thing.

Meanwhile, peaceful protests by monks in Tibet as in Burma have been wiped out. Those in the North of Ireland turned, the narrative has it, to violence only after the civil rights marchers of '67 & '68 were beaten. Their political demands ignored by police and politicians and militia all to eager to stomp out sit-downs. Much as the media lament crackdowns by law enforcement here, their impact certainly diminishes next to most other places.

The Dalai Lama's own nation and people seem nearly extinguished. Buddhists claim that aggression sows its own horrible harvest, karmic revenge as it were bearing poisonous fruit. Radicals assert that concerted guerrilla warfare can bring about structural change for the better of the working men and women in whose name the struggles are fought against imperialism and capitalism. Compromisers after these battles conclude that giving in and working it out makes better sense and that within the corporate, imperial, capitalist system one can slowly bring about a more lasting, if more subtle, degree of progress and a satisfying change. Power and money, intimidation and threats continue.

Do those who once urged violence upon others bring, in the Dalai Lama's calculus, an equivalent reaction upon themselves? The "Gaelic Irish" and their "Ulster British" foes in their paramilitary guises both identified not as conscripts or career soldiers but as Volunteers. The concept was that nobody forced you into the militia and no one stopped you from getting out. But just as my city's local gangs jump you in and jump you out, the impact of brutality hammers away at anyone trying to free him or herself from the crazy life. A pub-stool dissenter in Shriver's story reasons how regarding the I.R.A. "as an institution it is not in the long-term interests of the organization to meet its own goals: the lot would be out of a job." Two decades later, a dozen years after the GFA, the intimidation by those once socialist idealists continues, channeled into thuggery, blackmail, smuggling, and beatings.

Consider this excerpt under the subheading "Moral Questions" from Sarah Kershaw's "The Terrorist Mind: An Update" (NY Times, 1-10-10):

David C. Rapoport, professor emeritus of political science at the University of California, Los Angeles, and a longtime expert on terrorism and morality, said that the final common pathway is a moral calculus, driven by the conclusion that the terrorists’ enemies have “done something so bad, so terrible that they can’t get away with it.” Moral quandaries have often splintered groups, or caused them to disband.

If your objective is to create a world in which innocents (the members of your persecuted group) prevail, but you have to kill innocents to get there, you are in essence destroying your own dream, Dr. Rapoport said. Nevertheless, he said, many terrorists believe “the pathway to paradise is straight through hell." And to kill or in any way violate their own personal moral codes, many terrorists must believe they will achieve a higher moral condition for the group or society as a whole.

Faced with the predicament faced by my friends in Ireland I mull over my own discontent. I sympathize with the message of the Dalai Lama. Do we create a cycle of violence that consumes us? Can the veteran ever rest in peace once home? I teach vets who come back shattered physically and mentally. They sign up out of desperation to pay for college, to leave home, to follow a familial tradition, to get a fast track to citizenship. They come back well-honed to do well in college, but what a cost to pay-- to pay for their education. Trauma, stress, injury: other debts outweigh perhaps interest rates and government loans.

I still bridle against what seems to me the Dalai Lama's resignation for Tibet's impermanence. The genocide of an ancient tradition and a cultural patrimony continues, worse than ever after forty years. As in Ireland, committed by former idealists for a progressive and ameliorative cause, now hardened into thugs.

I bristle at the same old story of republicans in Ireland intimidated and stalked by their former allies willing now to do in those who stand up and assert their convictions. The obliterated Burmese protests discourage me. I lack the insight of a Tibetan lama. I wish I had more wisdom than I do, hearing the shouts of power drummed as always by the clout of money.

(The RFE radio show above on WBAI 4-24-2010 can be heard at that URL with my friend whose husband's life has been threatened. s It starts at 1:11 and her interview, interspersed with host Sandy Boyer, and activist Geraldine Taylor of RSF, ends around 1:24 on the download. Still image from "Burma VJ.")