Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘politics’

06 AUGUST, 2013

Italo Calvino on America

By:

“America … is the land of the richness of life, of the fullness of every hour in the day, the country which gives you the sense of carrying out a huge amount of activity, even though in fact you achieve very little, the country where solitude is impossible.”

In late 1959, 36-year-old Italo Calvino received “one of these marvelous grants” from the Ford Foundation and left Italy to travel around America for six months, “without any obligations whatsoever,” as one of seven young writers from seven different countries. (Whatever happened to those “marvelous grants” in our day?)

From Italo Calvino: Letters, 1941-1985 (public library) — which also gave us the beloved author’s timeless wisdom on writing, his prescient meditation on abortion and the meaning of life, and his poetic “CV” — comes his remarkably dimensional portrait of his experience of America.

He begins with a fine addition to literary history’s greatest private recollections of Gotham:

New York has swallowed me up like a carnivorous plant swallowing a fly, I have been living a breathless life for fifty days now, here life consists of a series of appointments made a week or a fortnight in advance: lunch, cocktail party, dinner, evening party, these make up the various stages of the day which allow you constantly to meet new people, to make arrangements for other lunches, other dinners, other parties and so on ad infinitum. America (or rather New York, which is something quite separate) is not the land of the unforeseen, but it is the land of the richness of life, of the fullness of every hour in the day, the country which gives you the sense of carrying out a huge amount of activity, even though in fact you achieve very little, the country where solitude is impossible (I must have spent maybe just one evening on my own out of the fifty I have spent here, and that was because my date with the girl that I had arranged for that evening fell through: here you have to order everything in advance, they are buying theater tickets for March now, and a girl, even if she happens to be your girl at present, has to know a week in advance the evenings she is going out with you otherwise she goes out with someone else).

Visiting Harvard, Calvino paints elite universities as a kind of isolated utopia:

Even though Harvard is not America, but a kind of Olympus containing the intellectual cream from all over the world, you would have the chance to see a bit of America traveling around. And one should not let slip any chances of “talking” to the Americans, of doing something to bridge this abyss which divides us, and it really is an abyss: this is a different world, as far from Europe and our problems as the Moon. And the universities are a kind of earthly paradise, so much so that they get on your nerves. Seeing such an abundance of resources for research, and a life so free from any difficulty in these garden cities, can only make us think: but might it not be that the price for all this is the death of the soul?

He is equally skeptical of California’s model-set of artificial bliss, contrasting it with the vibrant highs and lows scattered across the rest of the country:

Fortunately America is not all an artificial-natural paradise like California here. A quarter of America is a dramatic, tense, violent country, exploding with contradictions, full of brutal, physiological vitality, and that is the America that I have really loved and love. But a good half of it is a country of boredom, emptiness, monotony, brainless production, and brainless consumption, and this is the American inferno.

In a letter to another friend, he notes America’s literary groupthink:

That is just what America is like: for two months in New York I heard people talk only about Norman Mailer, for or against. If you are not either with the beatniks or with Saul Bellow’s group, nobody talks about you.

Calvino had intended to turn his travels into a book, but poignantly recognized that “to create ideas is a gift, but to choose wisely is a skill” and creativity means selecting, rather than merely generating, ideas:

Recently I have been frittering away my time a lot. The feeling that I am drowning in a sea of pointless activities is grabbing me by the throat. But these are times when what you don’t write counts for more than what you do write. I have destroyed that book on America, on which I had worked for many months. It hadn’t turned out badly, but for me to go down the road taken by travel writers was opting for an easy way out.

Three years after his American journey, Calvino received a letter from an Italian in New York named Mateo Lettunich, who asked the author to summarize his impressions of the country. Calvino responded:

What a question! The United States are a world. A world of which we in the Continent know everything that it is possible to learn from books, and our first visit is just to get a confirmation or a denial of our previous opinions. What I can say is that in the United States I didn’t feel alone in the Lonely Crowd, wasn’t persuaded by the Hidden Persuaders, would have liked to organize the Organization Men, found that the Ugly American does not mean the American. So I actually discovered what I was expecting to discover.

I can say that I haven’t wasted my time in your country: being completely free I’ve seen more America than any American (I’m not boasting) and, at the same time, I don’t know any country better than yours, my own included. Of course, now, this direct experience of the United States makes me able to participate with more feeling of reality to the everyday European discussion: the good and the evil of “Americanization.”

He adds a note on influence:

Since my visit, I gave interviews about my American impressions to the main Italian weeklies, wrote a series of about twenty articles for a weekly, and some for quarterlies and monthly magazines. My American experience is often recorded in my lectures. As for my editorial work, my knowledge of today’s American literature and my contacts with the American literary world are of course enormously improved. And as for my personal creative work, may I talk of any influence? Not yet; that takes much more time.

But Calvino’s impression of America formed long before his visit. In a letter to literary critic Mario Motta from January of 1950, Calvino begins with a meditation on Hemingway, the author who most influenced his early work, which unfolds into a strikingly insightful political analysis of post-war dynamics, and, in the process, teases apart the meaning of Americanism:

It’s a serious business; I’ve not got my ideas clear yet. I think I’ll have to start first with an exhaustive account of the meaning of America for anti-Fascist intellectuals who grew up under Fascism. I’ve been thinking a bit about these things, about America, about “that” America… This is perhaps something that would deserve a separate essay, to explain so many things… The Russian-American alliance was the fundamental condition for the “communistization” of Italian intellectuals in the avant-garde, and the end of that alliance has also counted for a lot. Now both “Russia” and “America” represented a collection of Italian data and aspirations, they were two utopian countries, two incomplete and complementary utopias, and the sum “Russia” + “America” (“that” Russia + “that” America) added up to the great country of utopia that was, I believe, for many people, and certainly not solely intellectuals, the true objective of the Resistance. (Was that a phenomenon that was an end in itself, or did it contain a historical truth which we must continue to take account of?)

He returns to Hemingway as the epitome of the American spirit, exploring his signature writing style as a vehicle for both America’s cultural sensibility and its greatest failings:

In [Hemingway] one finds almost all of what was meant by America. The virginity of its history, its technique (knowing how to do things), freedom and fullness of love, the open air, a direct democracy in human relations, courage. And, as writing, one finds in it the maximum help for developing one’s technique: [Hemingway]’s language is technical and functional, in which there is nothing that is without immediate, rational utilization, there is no abstraction, solipsism or fanciness (as had previously been the case in the great but obscure Faulkner). But [Hemingway] is an “America” that fails to find its “Russia.” It finds instead (and the problem is it goes looking for it) its “Europe.” This is [Hemingway]’s decadentism. And he finds it on the basis (and as a diversion and explanation) of the elements from the worst side of America (which is as real as the other side) that are in him: alcoholism, ignorance, emptiness. And, as a barbarian, he has highly refined intuitions regarding European barbarism-civilization; he enters the Olympus of our most refined irrationalism, he the “technical” writer: but what is that to us now? We could have sent any old Montherlant to see bullfights. It was something else we wanted from him, something else now that what comes back more and more to our eyes — to the point of covering the aspects we sought and loved in him and still seek and love in him — now that what comes back, as I was saying, are the other aspects… These matter to us less and less now, so it is something else, then, something that is now beyond him (A Farewell to Hemingway), beyond him (where?) that we are looking for now.

(Fittingly, George Saunders recently argued that “what separated [Hemingway] from greater writers (like Chekhov, say) was a certain failing of kindness or compassion or gentleness — an interest in the little guy, i.e., the nonglamorous little guy, a willingness and ability to look at all of their characters with love.”)

Calvino concludes the letter with a thoughtful and necessary disclaimer, reminding us that our ideas — like our whole selves — are in constant flux:

As you can see, these are very difficult ideas to express. And note that these things came to my mind as I was writing, and every time I’ve begun writing about this damned man what came to mind were different things, and certainly when I come to write this article I’ll write things that are different again, and now I need to keep the rough copy of this letter otherwise I’ll forget everything.

Italo Calvino: Letters, 1941-1985 is revelational in its entirety — a treasure trove of brilliant insights on literature and life, from the subtle to the pointedly opinionated, laced with invaluable wisdom on politics, education, and human nature.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

02 AUGUST, 2013

Frida Kahlo’s Politics

By:

“I am only a cell in the complex revolutionary mechanism of the peoples for peace in the new nations … united in blood to me.”

Though Mexican painter and reconstructionist Frida Kahlo was born on July 6, 1907, she insisted on listing July 7, 1910, as her birth date — the start of the Mexican revolution — so that her life would parallel the birth of modern Mexico. But how, exactly, did the iconic artist arrive at her strong political convictions? The Diary of Frida Kahlo: An Intimate Self-Portrait (public library) — the same magnificent volume that gave us her passionate hand-written love letters to Diego Rivera and her poignant meditation on how we are all connected in our pain — offers a fascinating glimpse of the evolution of Kahlo’s political beliefs, which were heavily inspired by Marxist ideology but still reflective of the underlying ethos of her art, a profound celebration of our shared existence and the connectedness of the universe.

1st. I’m convinced of my disagreement with the counterrevolution — imperialism — fascism — religions — stupidity — capitalism — and the whole gamut of bourgeois tricks — I wish to cooperate with the Revolution in transforming the world into a class-less one so that we can attain a better rhythm for the oppressed classes

2nd. a timely moment to clarify who are the allies of the Revolution

Read Lenin — Stalin — Learn that I am nothing but a “small damned” part of a revolutionary movement.

Always revolutionary, never dead, never useless

From a handful of pages dated 1950–1951, which follow a lapse in her diary after seven grueling surgeries on her spinal column, and open with her gratitude for Doctor Farill, the surgeon whom Kahlo believes saved her, she offers this meditation on the urgency she feels to find a political utility for her art:

A despair which no words can describe. I’m still eager to live. I’ve started to paint again. A little picture to give to Dr Farill on which I’m working with all my love.

I feel uneasy about my painting. Above all I want to transform it into something useful for the Communist revolutionary movement, since up to now I have only painted the earnest portrayal of myself, but I’m very far from work that could serve the Party. I have to fight with all my strength to contribute the few positive things my health allows me to the revolution. The only true reason to live for.

Frida Kahlo, reconstructionist

A five-page entry dated November 4, 1952, marks a turning point for Kahlo’s work as she begins to see her painting not merely as the subjective, inward-turned reflection on her inner world but as a Marxist interpretation of reality, which she terms “Revolutionary Realism”:

Today I’m in better company than for 20 years) I am a self and a Communist.

I know
I have read methodically
that the main origins are wrapped in ancient roots. I have read the History of my country and of nearly all nations. I know their class struggles and their economic conflicts. I understand quite clearly the dialectical materialism of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin and Mao Tse. I love them as pillars of the new Communist world. Since Trotsky came to Mexico I have understood his error. I was never a Trotskyist. But in those days 1940 — my only alliance was with Diego (personally)

Political fervor. But one has to make allowances for the fact that I had been sick since I was six years old and for really very short periods of my life have I enjoyed truly good HEALTH and I was of no use to the Party. Now in 1953. After 22 surgical interventions I feel better and now and then I will be able to help my Communist Party. Although I’m not a worker, but a craftswoman — And an unconditional ally of the Communist revolutionary movement.

For the first time in my life my painting is trying to help in the line set down by the Party: REVOLUTIONARY REALISM

Before it was my earliest experience — I am only a cell in the complex revolutionary mechanism of the peoples for peace in the new nations, Soviets — Chinese — Czechoslovakians — Poles — united in blood to me. And to the Mexican Indian. Among those great multitudes of Asian people there will always be the faces of my own — Mexicans — with dark skin and beautiful form, with limitless grace. The black people would also be freed, so beautiful and so brave. (Mexicans and negroes are subjugated for now by capitalist countries above all North America — U.S. and England.) xxxxxxxxxxxx

Illustration by Lisa Congdon for The Reconstructionists project

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

31 JULY, 2013

How to Block a Surveillance Camera: A DIY Art Tutorial from Ai Weiwei

By:

A wine opener usage George Orwell would approve of.

“When things get tough,” Neil Gaiman advised on in his fantastic commencement address on the creative life, “this is what you should do: Make good art. I’m serious. Husband runs off with a politician — make good art. Leg crushed and then eaten by a mutated boa constrictor — make good art. IRS on your trail — make good art. Cat exploded — make good art.” One could easily extrapolate, “Big Brother on your ass — make good art.” Amidst recent outcries against the present-day surveillance state we live in, what else is there to do but make good art? Cue in celebrated Chinese artist, provocateur, and human rights champion Ai Weiwei. From Do It: The Compendium (public library) — the fantastic collection of famous artists’ wide-ranging instructionals for art anyone can make based on 20 years of legendary curator and provocateur Hans Ulrich Obrist’s project of the same title, which also gave us David Lynch’s tutorial on how to make a Ricky Board — comes this antiauthoritarian creative project from Ai Weiwei, a DIY way to stick it — spray it, rather — to Big Brother:

CCTV SPRAY

How to make a spray device to block a surveillance camera:

Do you feel uncomfortable, confused, disgusted, or even irate because of a surveillance camera fixed at the wrong place? To block its view, spray-painting would be the best choice. It is highly accessible, inexpensive, and effective. Moreover, it is a perfect gesture in presenting street culture.

It is difficult to spray on a surveillance camera at a high place directly by hand. Instead of carrying a ladder on the streets, it is more practical to make an adjustable, easy-to-carry, and low-cost spray device.

It is best to use materials easily found from daily life to create this tool.

He goes on to list the materials needed — a spray bottle, a wine bottle opener, a bike bottle cage, a bike brake bar, a screw, and a stick — with the instruction to “choose materials that are as practical and reliable as possible” and are also “cheap and easy to obtain.” He then moves on to the step-by-step “Production Procedure”:

First find a long stick of suitable height. Considering portability, a collapsible tree pruner is recommended. Then select a stable frame that can secure a bottle or a can. For example, a bottle cage for bicycles would be a good fit. After that, find a trigger and fix it at the top of the stick. A wine bottle opener is a good choice, because its flexible lever structure can reduce the force and distance needed to press the spray nozzle.

We also need a linkage device to control the wine bottle opener at the top. A bicycle brake bar is an excellent choice.

Finally, prepare screws and nylon ropes as needed.

Under “Usage,” he instructs:

First fix the wine bottle opener at the top of the tree pruner (a.01).
Then set the spray can into the bottle cage. Make sure the handle of the bottle opener is affixed to the right position, where it gives easiest nozzle control. Use screws to secure the bottle cage (a.02). Fix the brake bar at the other end of the tree pruner (a.03).
Secure the spray paint can and use a nylon rope to fasten the flexible shaft (a.04).
Adjust the height of the stick. Then connect the handle of the bottle opener to the shaft of the brake (a.05–a.06).

The homemade adjustable spray device is now complete.

Complement this exercise in creative civic disobedience with BBC’s excellent Ai Weiwei: Without Fear or Favour.

Do It: The Compendium is superb in its entirety, brimming with similar irreverent gems by some of the world’s most acclaimed contemporary artists. Sample it here.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.