I have been thinking a lot about violence, it is one of the great contradictions of our humanity I think, and Patricia Hill Collins doesn’t shy away. Seems a good subject for the day of Trump’s inauguration, which feels like an act of violence in itself. His comments on (and actions towards) women, on the disabled, on the poor, on people of colour, I can’t even…
Interesting that unpicking the violence of US society makes sense of it all in a way that many liberals haven’t quite grasped I don’t think.
Understanding how an ethos of violence constitutes a deep structural root of U.S. society requires viewing violence as a necessary and ever-present feature of oppression. (189)
Because this society was founded on oppression, violence has been central to this country’s founding through conquest and slavery, as well as being found in the intimate spaces of our relationships. It has always been present, and yet
Given it’s socially constructed nature, surprisingly little attention has been focused on how power relations shape definitions of violence.
Instead there is a focus on its most simple aspect, as seen in the Oxford English Dictionary:
the exercise of physical force so as to inflict injury on, or cause damage to persons or property; action or conduct characterized by this treatment or usage tending to cause bodily injury or forcibly interfering with personal freedom.
Everyday understandings of violence see it as being an intentional act of causing physical pain or injury to another person (189).
But violence works in and through power relations, it is both visceral and structural.
Definitions of violence that take power relations into account refute these formal, abstract definitions. Racism, sexism, class exploitation, heterosexism, age and citizenship status each have distinctive organizational patterns across their domains of power whereby violence takes a specific form. For example, the gendered violence that women encounter takes the form of rape and sexual assault…The violence associated with class exploitation … is more likely to be within public policies that contribute to differential rates of infant mortality or that send poor and working-class kids off to war. (189)
The further I read in ‘The Ethos of Violence’ the more I see the distorted faces and even more distorted words of those who supported Trump’s rise to power:
Violence can be better imagined as a more dynamic concept whose complexity lies not just in its socially embedded nature in contemporary power relations but also in its ability to shape those same power relations. Violence may be such a naturalized or taken-for-granted dimension of U.S. society that it operates as a saturated site of intersectionality. In other words, violence operates as a form of conceptual glue that enables racism, sexism, class exploitation, and heterosexism to function as they do. Thinking about violence within the context of intersecting power relations suggest three distinguishing features of violence that might help us develop a more nuanced and contextualized definition: (1) the power to define violence; (2) the symbiotic relationship between violent acts and speech; and (3) the routine nature of violence. (190)
To look into each of these three definitions:
The power to define violence
First, the interpretation of any given act as “violent” lies not within the act itself but in how powerful groups conceptualize it.(190)
She looks at the Rodney King beating, differences between protection of women as rape victims, Mumia…today we still have the daily murders of Black men, women and children to show just how true this is. It is the power of definition that allows a public discourse and policy regime to continue as if this did not matter. Because they have defined it not to matter.
Social institutions regulate behavior via sanction and censure and also advance interpretive frames for analysing it. These frameworks encourage the public to interpret violence in ways that support the vested interests of more powerful groups. In other words, these frames help the public interpret what often is identical behavior different, depending on who is engaging in it. (191)
The symbiotic relationship between violent acts and speech
The division between speech and actions is also part of the ethos violence.
The use of words to humiliate, threaten, harass, belittle, destroy generally fall outside of the definition of violence and are often protected . Prejudice is not seen as violence. Discrimination is not seen as violence. Representation is not seen as violence.
Trumps’ speech is so vile, yet for those maintaining this separation, it is not seen as violent.
I myself can experience it in no other way, I am bewildered by this disconnect.
Violence as routine
Violence is seen in the daily micro-assaults on the basis of race, racial profiling, how women avoid certain spaces at all times or certain times of day…it is ubiquitous, shaping our lives in myriad, countless ways. And we are so used to it, we don’t see it for what it is.
America has long declared war on the least powerful people within its borders. This state of ‘normalized war’ predicated on the acceptability of violence targeted toward select groups remains unrecognized because it too is routine. (196)
This, all of this. How is it taking us so long to unravel, understand, and demolish violence? Again, this is all about power and intersectionality, how it affects who is heard and who is believed. How it benefits a group of people to shut their ears and eyes to reality and drag a country off down a terrifying road…
The Spirit Level marshals all the evidence — for those who needed such evidence — that inequality has a huge negative impact on everyone in a society, the rich as well as the poor. But especially the poor. There is of course, a minimum level of security and income which human beings require. Many do not enjoy such a level. But for those who do, it still isn’t enough to guarantee a full and happy life:
Economic growth, for so long the great engine of progress, has, in the rich counties, largely finished its work. Not only have measures of wellbeing and happiness ceased to rise with economic growth but, as affluent societies have grown richer, there have been long-term rises in rates of anxiety, depression and numerous other social problems. (5-6)
This is good book full of evidence that it is the degree of equality in a country which leads to longer, happier lives and a stronger society.
Poverty itself is a bit of a slippery concept if you think too hard, I liked this quote from Marshall Sahlins:
Poverty is not a certain small amount of goods, nor is it just a relation between means and ends; above all it is a relation between people. Poverty is a social status . . . It has grown . . . as an invidious distinction between class . . . (Stone Age Economics, quoted p 15)
Poverty as a relationship — it makes sense that this relationship is what matters above the bare minimum required for life.
Their graphs are simple, direct — only as good as their data of course, but that is well documented…This one is from p 20 and p 174, so good they showed it twice!
The best indicator for the whole gamut of health and social problems in rich countries is not poverty, but the difference between rich and poor. Reduce inequality, and you should see marked improvements in all of them.
How Inequality Gets Under the Skin
I read this over the summer, but it’s weird going back over my notes after Trump’s victory, especially reading things like this:
The growing rates of anxiety in the U.S. are very depressing indeed, yet they correlate to more aggressive declarations of self worth.
The answer turns out to be a picture of increasing anxieties about how we are seen and what others think of us which has, in turn, produced a kind of self-promoting, insecure egotism which is easily mistaken for high self esteem (36).
I’m always a little skeptical how we ascertain how society is changing us more broadly, but this rings true. Still, it is hard to analyze the water in which you’ve grown up in. They connect these kinds of psychological anxieties with inequality, and then tend to almost conflate the two in trying to explain the correlation between inequality and many of the social ills and illnesses examined as the multiple indicators of health and wellbeing.
Part 2 — The Costs of Inequality:
So for the great list of indicators:
Mental health and drug use
One of the things they cite is Oliver James on the
‘affluenza’ virus…is a “set of values which increase out vulnerability to emotional distress”, which he believes is more common in affluent societies. It entails placing a high value on acquiring money and possessions, looking good in the eyes of others and wanting to be famous. (69)
Interesting, depressing, you can see how hard this would be to live up to.
Physical Health and life expectancy
They cite more than 40 papers on the links between health and social capital have now been published. (See M.K. Islam, J. Merlo, I Kawachi, M. Lindstrom and U.G. Gerdtham, ‘Social Capital and health: does egalitarianism matter? A literature review’, International Journal for Equity in Health (2006) 5:3.)
Increasing social capital and reducing inequality improve health across the society, just throwing more money at it doesn’t. Probably because most of that money doesn’t actually go towards health, as in the US, but towards corporate profits, but that’s another story I suppose. Looking at this chart and realising that of all these countries the US is the one that doesn’t actually provide universal healthcare despite the obscene of money going into healthcare makes some sense of the outcomes, and makes you feel sick at the same time. Sadly, there’s no cure for that other than some serious structural changes. Like all of this really.
Obesity: Wider income gaps, wider waists — correlates to inequality.
Educational performance — correlates to inequality.
Teenage births: recycling deprivation — correlates to inequality.
Violence: gaining respect — correlates to inequality.
They note that inequality is ‘structural’ violence, and statistically it matches up with…inequality. Again, they connect this inequality with the anxieties that emerge from our unequal society:
…increased inequality ups the stakes in the competition for status: status matters even more. The impact of inequality on violence is even better established and accepted than the other effects of inequality. (134)
Imprisonment and punishment — inequality
I’ve read lots about the crazy amounts of incarceration in the US, The New Jim Crow is miles and away better than this summary. But one fun fact
In California in 2004, there were 360 people serving life sentences for shoplifting. (147)
Jesus wept. And of course, there is this on p 148:
I have to note that in many of these charts I couldn’t initially find the US because it is so often alone up at the top…This chart makes me sick too.
Another brief note they make, there is so much to dig into here but it’s interesting:
In societies with greater inequality, where the social distances between people are greater, where attitudes of ‘us and them’ are more entrenched and where lack of trust and fear of crime are rife, public and policy makers alike are more willing to imprison people and adopt punitive attitudes… (155)
Social mobility: unequal opportunities — inequality
This is so geared towards statistics and policies, digging through data more than into experience, but every now and then they drop into higher theory, like Bourdieu writing about ‘the actions by which the elite maintain their distinction symbolic violence…’ (164) I had forgotten he wrote about this, this book underlined for me the very strong connection between inequality and violence, inequality as violence, and how that underpins everything else.
Part 3 — a better society
I appreciated that they ended The Spirit Level with some thoughts bringing everything back together, and from there thinking through what change is possible. There was some interesting things on the racial divides in the US, and again and again this book underlines that while the poor suffer from inequality most, really it is everyone who suffers. Maybe that will have some impact? Though it doesn’t seem to have had yet…
in the USA, state income equality is closely related to the proportion of African-Americasn in the state’s population. The states with wider income differences tende to be those with larger African American populations. The same states also tend to have worse outcomes…among both the black and the white population. The ethnic divide increases prejudice and so widens income differences. the result is that both communities suffer…
So the answer to the question as to whether what appear to be the effects of inequality may actually be the result of ethnic divisions is that the two involve most of the same processes and should not be seen a alternative explanations. The prejudice which often attaches to ethnic divisions may increase inequality and its effects. Where ethnic differences have become strongly associated with social status divisions, ethnic divisions may provide almost as good an indicator of the scale of social status differentiation as income inequality. (179)
It is interesting to look at how the numbers brought Pickett and Wilkinson to these findings that are more often found elsewhere. Again and again the message — inequality hurts the poorest most, but it negatively impacts everyone. Reducing inequality benefits everyone. Evidence also suggests it should make rich countries care more about reducing the terrible inequalities between countries — little sign of that despite how desperately — perhaps even more desperately — that is needing recognition, but the more arguments made the better. This is just a building block in working towards ensuring equality remains on the agenda.
There’s a whole section on ‘can this be done?’, can we create more equal societies, but honestly. They themselves make the point that some countries have done it already.
systems of material or economic relations are systems of social relations. (199)
So what is their solution? They look to worker owned business, cooperatives, give example of Tower Colliery, where miners successfully took over pit operation, combining redundancy money to buy the pit in 1995, for 15 years until seam was mined out. They also, in the bigger picture, argue for what they call a steadd health: does egalitarianism d by economist Herman Daly. (220) I’ll have to look more into this and always prefer to start with the source, so to just finish up with some of their final findings.
Evaluations of even some of the most important services, such as police and medical care, suggest that they are not among the most powerful determinants of crime levels or standards of population health. Other services, such as social work or drug rehabilitation, exist to treat — or process — their various client groups, rather than to diminish the prevalence of social problems. (233)
even more damning, this is my personal favourite sentence:
Rather than reducing inequality itself, the initiatives aimed at tackling health or social problems are nearly always attempts to break the links between socio-economic disadvantage and the problems it produces. The unstated hope is that people — particularly the poor — can carry on in the same circumstances, but will somehow no longer succumb to mental illness, teenage pregnancy, educational failure, obesity or drugs. (234)
So really this is an economic and a political problem, they write
The historical evidence confirms the primacy of political will. (238)
Behind this lack of political will? Multiple reasons of course, one being the decline of the trade unions — their decline in power has itself made possible a great deal of this growing inequality. There’s also the fact that many corporations have bigger economies than many a nation state. They quote the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD):
Twenty-nine of the world’s 100 largest economic entities are transnational corporations (TNCs)… On the 200 TNCs with the highest assets abroad in 2000, Exxon is the biggest in terms of value added ($63 billion). It ranks 45th on the new list, making it comparable in economic size to the economies of Chile or Pakistan. Nigeria comes in just between DaimlerChrylser and General Electric, while Philip Morris is on a par with Tunisia, Slovakia and Guatemala. (244)
Small wonder they walk with such big sticks. Small wonder higher levels of equality should be so hard to achieve, despite the improvements it makes to everyone’s quality of life.
Paolo Freire refers to Erich Fromm’s The Heart of Man a number of times in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, how could I not read it? He wrote it while teaching at UNAM in Mexico City. I remember too, the only time I have heard a living person refer to him spontaneously it was walking through a London night with my friend Demetrio, as he exhorted me to read him on ethics, on good and evil. Fromm was the favourite philosopher of Demetrio’s grandfather, himself a philosopher in Reggio, who had helped raise him. His grandfather was one of the best men in the world, he said. Given the kind of person Demetrio has turned out to be, he is undoubtedly right.
I read this over the summer…I think my next few posts will either be yay Malta or the oh.my.god kind of struggling to come to terms with the election. This is in the second category, a look at good and evil via Freud and Marx seems appropriate, especially when focused on human liberation in a way that I really wish postcolonial and critical thought had taken up. Rather than Freud via Lacan.
From the preface:
I try to show that love of life, independence, and the overcoming of narcissism form a “syndrome of growth” as against the “syndrome of decay” formed by love of death, incestuous symbiosis, and malignant narcissism. (13)
I: Man — Wolf or Sheep?
That is a question/ statement I have often heard in various forms. We are both, neither, really we can choose to move towards growth or decay, life or death. This is always the great choice we make, the great distinction in our actions and our pathologies. Towards life or towards death… So this does not shy away from any of the darkness inside, rather tries to grapple with its nature, and the springs of violence within us.
II: Forms of Violence
Fromm distinguishes between violences, they sit along a spectrum.
playful violence …. those forms in which violence is exercised in the pursuit of displaying skill, not in the pursuit of destruction, not motivated by hate or destructiveness. (24)
reactive violence … that violence which is employed in the defense of life, freedom, dignity, property — one’s own or that of others. It is rooted in fear, and for this reason it is probably the most frequent form of violence… This type of violence is in service of life, not death; its aim is preservation, not destruction. (25)
frustration, envy and jealousy are aspects of this, and while it can be twisted, ultimately it still is towards life.
revengeful violence … the injury has already been done, and hence the violence has no function of defense (27) … all these forms of violence are still in the service of life realistically, magically, or at least as a the result of damage to or disappointment in life… (30)
On to the violence in service of death….
compensatory violence … violence as a substitute for productive activity occurring in an impotent person. (30) … If, for reason of weakness, anxiety, incompetence, etc., man is not able to act, if he is impotent, he suffers …
how is this overcome? In rather frightening ways:
One way is to submit to and identify with a person or group having power … The other way … is man’s power to destroy. (31)
Reading this is seems so simple, yet terrifying.
To create life requires certain qualities which the impotent person lacks. To destroy life requires only one quality — the use of force. (31)
This is also present in all of us:
Only if one has fully experienced the intensity and frequency of destructive and sadistic violence in individuals and in masses can one understand that compensatory violence is not something superficial, the result of evil influences, bad habits, and so on. It is a power in man as intense and strong as his wish to live. It is so strong precisely because it constitutes the revolt of life against its being crippled; man has a potential for destructive and sadistic violence because he is human, because he is not a thing, and because he must try to destroy life if he cannot create it. (32)
Always through my life I have been haunted by such destructive, sadistic violence, brought alive through my relationships with survivors of civil war, kidnapping, rape, torture…and the occasional encounters with torturers themselves. These occasional encounters that were harder to understand than anything else. But this book makes more sense of them than anything else I have yet read, and I don’t think that’s just because I seek for hope…
Compensatory violence … indicates the crippling and emptiness of life. But in its very negation of life it still demonstrates man’s need to be alive and not to be a cripple. (33)
This in fact makes sense of so much. I love Fromm in that he does not just focus on the violence, but on its opposite — the kind of person we can strive to be as opposed to the kind of person who lives in fear, who wants to shut things down, the fear in people I have tried and failed to work with, the fear I see splashed across the news.
But I thought perhaps in this post I would focus on violence and evil, because there is too much here. So in the next post I look at biophilia, and the material conditions that make it possible (as a good Marxist should). Also like a good Marxist, the ways in which Fromm argues that a wish for life and for death are always in relationship to each other, a contradiction that is not resolved:
The contradiction between Eros and destruction, between the affinity to life and the affinity to death is, indeed, the most fundamental contradiction which exists in man. This duality, however, is not one of two biologically inherent instincts, relatively constant and always battling with each other until the final victory of the death instinct, but it is one between the primary and most fundamental tendency of life–to persevere in life–and its contradiction, which comes into being when man fails in this goal. (50)
One example — and I like how Fromm anchors these more abstract explorations of the mind to that which makes no sense in the world yet that could destroy us all. Fromm asks, for example, how can we understand the lack of more widespread protest of nuclear weapons?
There are many answers; yet none of them gives a satisfactory explanation unless we include the following: that people are not afraid of total destruction because they do not love life; or because they are indifferent to life, or even because many are attracted to death. (56)
III – Individual and Social Narcissism
One of the most fruitful and far-reaching of Freud’s discoveries is his concept of narcissism. (62)
Fromm further develops this concept to understand violence and war — to do so he removes it from where Freud has ‘forced his concept into the frame of his libido theory.’ (62) Instead, Fromm argues the concept comes ‘to its full fruition…if one uses a concept of psychic energy which is not identical with the energy of the sexual drive’ (64), as described by Jung (and Freud moved towards this in his later years). It is an energy that Fromm argues
binds, unifies, and holds together the individual within himself as well as the individual in his relationship to the world outside. (64)
All of us have a degree of narcissism, it helps us survive and so again, there are a spectrum of behaviours (and a curious list of behaviour that offer clues to the narcissistic individual, one that delights me as a novelist) explored by Fromm. These range from the simply self-preoccupied with the self, to the narcissism focused on ones children, to the psychopath.
Narcissism is a passion the intensity of which in many individuals can only be compared with sexual desire and the desire to stay alive. In fact, many times it proves to be stronger than either. (72)
The essential point…is that the narcissistic person cannot perceive the reality within another person as distinct from his own. (68)
In a different form:
The most dangerous result of narcissistic attachment is the distortion of rational judgement… He and his are overevaluated. Everything outside is underevaluated. …
An ever more dangerous pathological element in narcissism is the emotional reaction to any criticism…(73-74)
Both explosive anger or depression are reactions — a depression often deflected by turning on purpose to anger. A third reaction? The attempt to make reality itself conform to a narcissistic image of self or the loved one. Hitler being the best example of such a course. There is the extreme narcissism of the infant, and of the insane. And then the particular instance of narcissism on the borderline between sanity and insanity — Ceasers, Borgias, Hitler, Stalin:
They have attained absolute power; their word is the ultimate judgment of everything, including life and death; there seems to be no limit to their capacity to do what they want. They are gods, limited only by illness, age and death. (66)
It only occurred to me reading this that these are the beliefs of insane people, and yet for this small group such beliefs actually were true in reality. This made them even more isolated, their feelings of paranoia buttressed by people actually trying to kill them, all of which ensured they remained borderline sane — they had not actually lost all touch with reality, whereas
Psychosis is a state of absolute narcissism, one in which the person has broken all connection with reality outside, and has made his own person the substitute for reality. (166)
It becomes clear how this could be the root of so much evil. From individual cases, Fromm moves on to look at group narcissism, primarily racial narcissism as seen in the American South and Hitler’s Germany, and Jesus does this ring true in thinking both about the recent US election and Brexit:
In both instances the core of the racial superiority was, and still is, the lower middle class; this backward class; which in Germany as well as in the American South has been economically and culturally deprived, without any realistic hope of changing its situation… has only one satisfaction: the inflated image of itself as the most admirable group in the world, and of being superior to another racial group that is singled out as inferior.
Group narcissism is less easy to recognize than individual narcissism. (79)
Side note in parentheses here
(What the majority of people consider to be “reasonable” is that about which there is agreement, if not among all, at least among a substantial number of people: “reasonable,” for most people, has nothing to do with reason, but with consensus.) (79-80)
God, narcissism explains so much, and most of the world’s religions and philosophies actually work to curb narcissism in multiple ways — Fromm sees it as the goal of (hu)man to overcome narcissism, but more on that next post.
There is another chapter on incestuous ties…which did not speak to me, but the more postcolonial theory I am reading the more I wish I had paid more attention here, grappled with Fromm to counter Lacan. So I may come back to this. Later. For now I will end on Fromm’s own summation of evil, before going on to look at how he thinks we should fight for good:
1. Evilness is a specifically human phenomenon. It is the attempt to regress to the pre-human state and to eliminate that which is specifically human: reason, love, freedom. …. Evil isman’s loss of himself in the tragic attempt to escape the burden of his humanity. And the potential of evil is all the greater because man is endowed with an imagination that enables him to imagine all the possibilities for evil and thus to desire and act on them… (148)
2. The degrees of evilness are at the same time the degrees of regression. The greatest evil is those strivings which are most directed against life; the love for death, the incestuous-symbiotic striving to return to the womb, to the soil, to the inorganic; the narcissistic self-immolation which makes a man an enemy of life, precisely because he can’t leave the prison of his own ego.
3. There is lesser evil, according to the lesser degree of regression. There is lack of love, lack of reason, lack of interest, lack of courage.
4. Man is inclined to regress and to move forward; this is another way of saying he is inclined to good and to evil.
5. Man is responsible up to the point where he is free to (149) choose for his own action [and see the next post on the material constraints on freedom, which are vital to remember here]. But responsibility is nothing but an ethical postulate… Precisely because evil is human…it is inside every one of us. The more we are aware of it, the less are we able to set ourselves up as judges of others.
6. Man’s heart can harden; it can become inhuman, yet never nonhuman. … We must not rely on anyone’s saving us, but be very aware that wrong choices make us incapable of saving ourselves. (150)
I rather like this description of evil, I think it is something we must think about but in the West, liberal academia is a little too removed from their own wars and the death and destruction and torture and poverty that surround them to find this an important subject. But look at our world. What else should we be talking about, and in what other way than one well-grounded both in our psyche and the material conditions in which we live and struggle?
[Fromm, Erich (1964) The Heart of Man: Its Genius for Good and Evil. NY: Harper & Row.]
Caravaggio had, at Graham-Dixon’s guess, set his eyes on rehabilitation and a return to Rome in triumph through a rather curious route — becoming a Knight (read part one of this post on Caravaggio here). Whether this was his goal at the start or not, he was soon on his way after his exile and time in Naples, and through the help of his oldest patron, Costanza Colonna. The process for getting to Malta has changed just a bit since his day:
Malta was not, however, a place where someone could simply turn up unannounced. The whole island was a fortress, and security was tight. No one was allowed in from the mainland without a passport and papers prepared by the order’s network of receivers.
Permission was granted only by the approval of the Grand Master of the Hospitallers himself. The Colonna’ had to have brokered this for Caravaggio, fleeing justice as he was.
A description of the Valleta that Caravaggio approached:
An entirely new city, built of honey-coloured limestone that glowed pink in the sun. Valletta had been constructed at breakneck speed in just forty years. After the turmoil of the Great Siege [by the Turks], the knights realized that they had to fortify the narrow headland known as the Xiberras Promontory, which connected the island’s two principal harbours. The construction of the new capital by an army of slaves, on the steepest incline of the headland had been an immense undertaking… It was named in honour of Jean de la Valette, Grand Master during the siege. The pope’s best military engineer, Francesco Laparelli, was responsible for the plan. The sheer stone fortifications of the citadel rose directly from the craggy outcrop of the island itself…
An army of slaves. They remain otherwise invisible to us, but I had no idea Valletta was built in only forty years, a planned city.
Within its walls, Valletta was laid out on the Renaissance model of the ideal city. The principal architect responsible for the buildings was Girolamo Cassar, who was from Malta but had studied in Rome. His palaces and churches were designed to reflect the knights’ ideals of Christian sobriety and military discipline, with long, sever facades of rusticated stone. The streets were laid out in a grid, with nine thoroughfares running across the peninsula and twelve running from top to bottom. Their strict geometry was softened by gardens and fountains.
It was a steep slog from the harbour to the centre — and everywhere in between. Graham-Dixon notes Byron’s farewell to Malta:
adieu, ye cursed streets of stairs.
I am quoting prolific about the city, but I find this heady stuff…
Approaching Malta for the first time, Caravaggio was surrounded by symbols of the island’s fierce rule of law. On the first promontory on the left of the harbour was the forbidding spectacle of a gallows. Within the harbour itself, prominent on the left-hand side, was the Castel Sant’Angelo, where many of the most famous events of the siege had taken place… it had become a prison for disorderly knights.
At the end of the the sixteenth century, a visitor, Hieronymus Megiser, noted gore still visible on some of the rocks and pointed out by his guides.
A ‘remote and harsh place, rocky and sun-parched’, yet famed for the sweetness of its honey, quantity of almonds, olives, figs, dates, the quality of its cotton. Cicero had his clothes made there.
I have failed to find English translations of Hieronymus Megiser’s descriptions of Malta, so shall quote what Graham-Dixon has gleaned from them.
As Megiser notes, the island encompassed two utterly distinct societies. ‘Malta Africana’ and ‘Malta Europeana’. The world of the indigenous islanders had remained unchanged for centuries. Its people were dark-skinned, spoke a language incomprehensible to Europeans and lived in humble settlements much like the tribal villages of nearby coastal Africa. Cosmopolitan Valletta was utterly different, a flammable blend of extreme Christian piety, simmering military aggression and barely contained sexual dissipation.
I am fascinated by this duality, but there is no more to be found here about it. George Sandys was an English traveler — quoted liberally throughout the volume, and his descriptions of Malta are fascinating. But I have found those, and will read them as they look amazing.
It is not known where Caravaggio lived during his time on the island. Prospective knights on their first tours of duty were given accommodation in the auberge belonging to their particular Langue, or country. Altogether there were eight Langues, of Italy, Provence, Auvergne, England, France, Aragon, Castille and Germany.
Langue meaning language more like? Because Italy was not yet a country, nor was France or Germany in the shape we know them.But Caravaggio probably lodged with the Colonnas anyway, they were the only one’s who knew he was there and of his plans to become a knight — this was not brokered until the winter of 1607.
To become a knight he painted… there is the incredible Beheading of St John
I get to see this. So exciting, Caravaggio’s largest altar-piece still sitting in the place for which it was painted.
The novices of the Order of St John [of whom Caravaggio was one] listened to sermons and received instruction in the oratory for which Caravaggio’s painting was destined. The place was both a school for the martyrs of the future and a burial ground for the martyrs of the past — the bones of the knights who had died at the Great Siege were interred beneath its stone-flagged floor. … Caravaggio’s altarpiece was designed to make sure that they [the novices] could be under no illusions about what that might mean.
Not that I am at all keen on martyrs, particularly not crusaders. But nor, I think, was Caravaggio. He did, however, paint a wonderful portrait of Alof da Wignacourt (c1607-1608), the Master of the Knights. Caravaggio was pretty determined to get a knighthood, and this was a man of fairly absolute power.
And yet Caravaggio still ensures that his page rather steals the show. He still rebels I think.
While there he became friends (if that is possible to guess at) with WIgnacourt’s secretary Francesco Dell’Antella. Graham-Dixon notes he was a gifted draughtsman and produced a detailed drawing of Valletta — which I have found. This is the ‘Map of the medieval town of Valletta, with Senglea and Vitoriosa at the Great Port. Map of Malta and Gozo’ from [BOISSAT, Pierre de / BOSIO, Giacomo]. Histoire des Chevaliers de l’Orde de S. Jean de Hierusalem, contenant leur admirable Institution & Police…, Paris, Jacques d’Allin, MDCLIX [=1659].
To return to Caravaggio. Alof de Wignacourt loved his paintings to such a degree he gave him (and this is Graham-Dixon quoting Bellori)
as a reward, besides the honour of the Cross, the Grand Master put a gold chain around Caravaggio’s neck and made him a gift of two slaves…
‘Finally,’ Graham-Dixon writes, ‘Caravaggio had got his own gold chain.’ I forgot to mention the animosity raised in Rome when a rival received such a chain — the one about whom the scurrilous verses had been written.
There is no context given for the slaves. Slavery remains only part of the background throughout, which kills me.
Still, Caravaggio got his Knighthood, with approval of the Pope. He was thus above the law for the murder he had committed, could return to Rome with new rank. Graham-Dixon notes that in this whole scheme to elevate himself, perhaps Caravaggio had not realised that as a knight, he had to have Wignacourt’s permission to leave Malta. A permission unlikely to be granted for some time, if ever — in Wignacourt’s petition to the Pope to be allowed to confer the knighthood, he noted the purpose of it was ‘to keep’ Caravaggio. Ominous.
Graham-Dixon argues the dawning realisation that he was trapped, as much as his unruly habits, explains the end of Caravaggio’s time on Malta.
The ceremony on the ‘feast of the Decollato’ where the unveiling of The Beheading of St John was to take place was a complete disaster — Caravaggio was not present. He was in prison for kicking down the door of the church’s organist, Fra Prospero Coppini, with several others, leaving the organist severely wounded. On top of that
The musicians were unhappy about their pay and most of them went on strike, so that on the feast day itself neither Vespers nor the solemn Mass was sung in the oratory before Caravaggio’s picture.
I confess, of everything that went wrong, only the strike was unexpected to me. I confess I find the existence of musicians willing to strike in Valletta absolutely extraordinary — and a happy fact. The rest though…
Carvaggio escaped from prison. Fled Malta. Was stripped of his knighthood in December of 1608. Graham-Dixon gives an illustration from Wolfgang Kilian of the mid-seventeenth century as an example of what this ceremony might have looked like in the very same oratory of St John where his painting sat (look, you can see it there in the background!):
This happened in Caravaggio’s absence of course.
He, in the meanwhile, had fled to Sicily, meeting up with an old friend and painter Mario Minnitti (also the model for Boy Bitten by a Lizard and others) and traveling through Southern Italy. Caravaggio believed he was being followed, and that his life was in danger. His routes were most circuitous.
In 1608 he painted the Burial of St Lucy in Syracuse
And the Raising of St Lazarus in Messina. Graham-Dixon notes that the Lazzari family had originally wanted a picture whose proposed title would have been ‘The Madonna, St John the Baptist and Other Saints, but Caravaggio negotiated with them to paint this instead.
In Rome at the height of the Renaissance it had not been unknown for a famous artist to alter the terms of a commission. Michelangelo had famously plucked up the courage … But in the provincial artistic milieu of Messina, Caravaggio’s assertion of independence was still being talked about a hundred years later.
In 1609, also in Messina, the wonderful Adoration of the Shepards.
By September of 1609 he had returned to Naples, and the protection once again of the Colonnas, both Bellori and Baglione mention the enemies chasing him. Graham-Dixon argues that this return to the Colonna fold means that both his patrons had forgiven him for his escapades on Malta, but also that they had negotiated a truce with the knights there.
His fear was well-founded, he was severely wounded in an attempt on his life as he emerged from the Cerriglio — a rather famous brothel, his face disfigured — sfregiato, an injury inflicted to avenge an insult to reputation. Probably by Rodomonte Roero, the Conte della Vezza, who had indeed, almost certainly, been tracking him.
Caravaggio never really recovered. In Naples he painted the Martyrdom of St Ursula (1610), thought to be his last picture.
He traveled to Rome, with either a pardon in hand or on its way, and the lack of clarity surrounding his death seems characteristic of most of his life. He was arrested when he disembarked from his boat at Palo, a fort manned by the Spanish. Something went wrong and he was arrested, thus his belongings and the three paintings he had brought with him made the rest of the boat’s journey to the Porto Ecole. Bellori has him running from Palo to Porto Ecole and dying on his arrival from heat and exhaustion — but it was days on foot between the two.
He did die in Porto Ecole, however, of fever, in July of 1610. Then the feeding frenzy was on over the paintings he had left behind him.
This is one, an uncommissioned painting of melancholy treating a subject he had painted several times before. To me it embodies both his queerness (which I know I don’t look at enough here) and his regret and suffering.
A life that as I say, troubles me and sits with me.
Writing this I found that there is a show on at The National Gallery, Beyond Caravaggio, and I am looking forward to seeing it immensely. Graham-Dixon notes only a few of his influences — Ribera and Zurbaran in particular, through his work in Naples. Another wonderful story about the Madonna of the Rosary, which was brought to Antwerp through a joint effort spearheaded by Rubens, and involving Bruegel, Van Bael and Cooymans. But of course, I will be seeing more about this…
Andrew Graham-Dixon’s biography Caravaggio (1571-1610) is very good, very long, full of wonderful detail about everyday life and a great deal of analysis of Caravaggio’s work which I found interesting, without agreeing with all of his interpretations.
It still sits with me days after finishing it, the life of Caravaggio. The explosive talent. The extreme physical violence of his life in a society permissive of extreme violence, winking at it when patronage was high and powerful enough. The violence of poverty, and the violence of painting only by commission rather than by desire, to please and to flatter the rich. To be paid only if they approved of your work — and a number of Caravaggio’s patrons refused his work. To be constantly judged by criteria you do not believe in.
A quote to set the scene in terms of sources:
Much of what is known about him has been discovered in the criminal archives of his time. The majority of his recorded acts — apart from those involved in painting — are crimes and misdemeanors.
He always looks troubled and angry, but in some ways the extent to which he was allowed to explore his own art was only possible because of his time’s changing social ideas of it. Graham-Dixon describes these changes occurring only a generation before Caravaggio’s:
Previously the profession of art had been ranked low because it involved work with the hands and was therefore classed as a form of manual labour, a craft rather than a liberal art.
This changed to a view of greatest artists as ‘men of true genius’ — though men still much at the mercy of their patrons — through Giorgio Vasari’s anthology of artist biographies The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects (1550). Caravaggio would not prove to be a prodigy from an early age, like most. But like other artists he would leave home (he is actually one Michelangelo Merisi of Caravaggio — but the town he was born in has become the name he was, and is, known by) for Milan, and then Rome.
As Florence had been during the fifteenth century, and as Paris would be at the peak of Louis XIV’s power, Rome under Clement VIII was the artistic capital of Europe.
Graham-Dixon notes the slightly more fluid medieval aristocratic structures in Italy as compared to Northern Europe, as well as the idea that ‘an increasingly urbanized society … led to the blurring of social distinctions.’ There is so much fascinating detail in here on life in Rome itself in here, and given my interests, what I most enjoyed apart from the art itself. An early version of the surveillance state, for example. I don’t know why this surprised me so much, but it did:
Religious observance was not a matter of choice. At Easter everyone living in Rome was obliged to take communion and procure a ticket of evidence from the priest who administered the sacrament. Procuring the ticket — proof of orthodoxy, and necessary to pass muster with the police — was itself part of a system of surveillance and involved a separate visit to the priest, who was obliged to write down the name and address of each communicant. But he also had to write down other details…
Another fun fact about the Rome of this time was the way in which the discovery of the Christian catacombs (the ones I thought everyone in Rome had surely always known about — how were they forgotten?) under Rome led to ‘a boom in the field of what might be called sacred archaeology.’ In the late 15 and early 1600s. I hope to read some of these — I quite love archaeology and am rather fascinated by such a ‘discovery’ but to return to art.
After several years of apprenticeships and poverty, Caravaggio won the patronage of Cardinal Del Monte, a man of learning with a love of the arts, apart from having his own pharmaceutical distillery (a fad of the time), he was also a patron of music (the first opera was written in 1600 by a friend, Emilio de’ Cavalieri). Slowly through the book you watch Caravaggio’s characteristic style develop.
One of Caravaggio’s early, extraordinary paintings, Boy Bitten By a Lizard (c1596)
It is quite wonderful to make this journey through his work, just as it is to note the small touches — like the fact that the music in The Rest on the Flight To Egypt is identifiable, the four-voiced Quam Pulchra es et quam decora, by Noel Bauldewyn (c1480-1520) — hear it. I love the internet, imagine being able to listen to this today as you stare at the painting itself.
More descriptions of Caravaggio, dark hair, dark eyes, great dark brows, disorderly, Bellori (one of his biographer’s) writes:
We cannot fail to mention his behaviour and his choice of clothes, since he wore only the finest materials and princely velvets; but once he put on a suit of clothes he changed only when it had fallen to rags.
Little could tell you more about someone in a way, and I love that clothing in various states of disrepair is to be found everywhere in his paintings. The poverty of his models and subjects is never hidden. Nor is his own suffering, in 1596 he painted this shield to be held and passed around, a portrait of medusa as a gift for the Medici using his own face as the model, distorted in a round mirror that appears in others paintings as well.
A shocking image of himself. A note on materials, on toxicity and poison like that of the serpents in Medusa’s coils:
Some ascribed the fiery temperament of painters to the toxic qualities of the materials that they used. Lead white and vermilion were particularly poisonous. The mere touch or smell of either might cause a variety of symptoms including depression, anxiety, and increased aggressiveness. Those suffering from ‘Painter’s Colic’, as it was called, also tended to drink heavily.
Not vermilion! What a word, what a color. There seems to be a great deal in Caravaggio’s work, one great red sheet of fabric that wraps saints round being the most obvious one. I like to think it is always the same one. Returning to his style, Bellori writes
The painters then in Rome were greatly taken by this novelty, and the young ones particularly gathered around him, praised him as the unique imitator of nature and look on his work as miracles.
Evidence of its development can be seen in Martha and Mary Magdalen (c. 1598) — and also here is to be seen Fillide Melandroni, a famous courtesan in several of Caravaggio’s paintings.
Here she is again as St Catharine of Alexandria (c. 1598)– I wish I had seen this earlier, when I worked at the Foundation. More shadows.
There is the story of Fillide’s arrest for threatening another woman, testimony of her screaming out ‘I want to cut her face!’ The ultimate insult. Graham-Dixon notes that the world of painters and poets is also that of prostitutes and pimps, and the probability of Caravaggio’s being a pimp — controlling women for both modelling and for incomes, explains the many times he is arrested late at night or early in the morning, much of the violence, the carrying of an illegal sword and dagger under the protection of powerful patronage, and the source of the long-running conflict that would eventually lead to the murder of Tomassoni for which he was exiled.
Violence fills his paintings, Judith Behading Holofernes (c. 1598), David with the head of Goliath (1599). I am not so enamoured of these, though they are powerful and skillful. Artemisia Gentileschi, of course, also painted Judith holding the head of a Holofornes based on the face of her rapist — she was the daughter of a friend of Caravaggio’s and a most wonderful painter in much the same style. But I am looking forward to exploring her life and art separately, yet her story cannot be forgotten in this accounting of the terrible violence inflicted on women in this period more broadly.
This painting I love, the Calling of St Matthew (1600):
Another one — The Crucifixion of St Peter (1601)
Graham-Dixon writes that:
The presence of these coarsely posed, unmistakably low-brow figures underscored Caravaggio’s total rejection of High Renaissance and Mannerist elegance.
The fact that everyone in his paintings has bare feet has great meaning, and in fact Caragvaggio becoming famous as the painter of feet — Graham-Dixon quotes Niccolo Lorini del Monte:
In sum, feet may be taken by the holy Church as symbolising the poor and the humble.
Many among the upper classes hated their appearance in his paintings, along with the poor and humble subjects in their everyday torn clothes and positions of work and suffering. Graham-Dixon persuasively argues that this was closely tied with the counter-reformation leanings of the pauperist wing of the Catholic church, and the preaching exactly along these lines of the famous Borromeo, Archbishop of Milan, whose words Caravaggio would have grown up with. This also helps define Caravaggio’s focus on Christ and the martyr’s intimate and personal suffering that was praised as a subject for religious meditation. There is also an argument for some form of class identification, some anger over poverty and privilege, although clearly nothing about Caravaggio is straightforward and he exploited his own privileges fairly ruthlessly.
When Caravaggio painted the saints and martyrs with bare feet, he was firmly allying himself with pauperist wing of the Catholic Church. Not only was he explicitly welcoming the poor into his pictures, making them feel part of the same impoverished family as that of Christ and his followers, he was also implicitly calling on the rich to follow the example of those such as St Francis … The message would not always be well received.
It was very different from the rising countercurrent of
a newly triumphalist Church… It did not welcome the poor and the meek or make them feel that they, ultimately, were the inheritors of the earth. It was there to awe, daunt, and stupefy them, to impress them with visions of a force so powerful it could not be resisted — and must, therefore, be obeyed.
Graham-Dixon describes this is as a new Baroque sensibility — one with no room for Caravaggio. It seems to me that all these paintings of the poor might also be a kind of revenge against the rich to whom Caravaggio must look for all things — money for paints and canvasses, clothes, a roof over his head. He was one of the few to try to renegotiate commissions (more on that later)… this world seems so distant from my modern sensibilities, yet it seems so clear how galling this system of patronage was to Caravaggio, if only through the amount of time he spent doing what he could to sabotage it all through gambling, drink, brawling, prostitutes and constant rumours of boys. Graham-Dixon notes his probable relationship with Cecco, his servant and model, but there is little deeper exploration of what his queerness might mean (and some of these paintings are ridiculously queer).
Caravaggio leaves the house of Cardinal de Monte for that of Cardinal Girolamo Mattei. Again, the connections between time, money and influence, and the city form is brought to the fore:
They lived in a honeycomb complex of houses and palaces built over the ruins of the Ancient Roman Teatro di Balbo… The adjoining residence of the various branches of the family formed an entire block, known as the Isola dei Mattei.
It is a whole network of palaces and residences, worthy of Kafka. Yet another protector was Vincenzo Giustiani. It is probably he who ensured that Caravaggio was allowed a second attempt at fulfilling his commission for a painting of St Matthew as the altarpiece of the Contarelli Chapel. When the first was rejected scornfully, Giustiani bought it for himself.
Why rejected? Because Matthew is represented as too unlearned, too peasant-like. Barefoot. An old man painfully scribing, and needing help in it. I love this picture.
WWII bombs destroyed it in Berlin.
The second painting was accepted and still rests in the chapel, a capitulation to be sure, but a rather fine one, and Caravaggio insists on the bare feet:
His work continues to be extraordinary. Here, a picture of The Incredulity of Saint Thomas (c. 1602), testing grotesquely Christ’s wound, experiencing in full Christ’s suffering (familiar old men as well…).
And always, always, this work sits alongside an incredible violence in the dark streets of Rome. There is the verbal/written kind — the tradition in Rome of insult, connected to a statue in the corner of Palazzo Braschi to the western side of Piazza Novena, known as the Pasquino.
It had long been the custom to attach squibs, scurrilous pieces of grafitti and outbursts of defamatory rage to the wall next to the statue, under the cover of darkness. There was a collective noun for these libeles: pasquinate…
That sounds rather safe, a rather curious and interesting method of venting anger in a unique city space, until you read the contents. Caravaggio and his friends posted their defamatory verses about Baglione here, with much use of words like cock and fucking…juvenile, nasty. There were arrests, trials. Caravaggio’s testimony is sullen, stupid. For all that, I rather like the concept of the valent’huomo, in Caravaggio’s words (Graham-Dixon notes that to be considered a valent’huomo both in society and the art-world was always Caravaggio’s possibly fugutive goal):
By the term ‘valent’huomo’ I mean he who knows how to do well, that is, he who knows how to do his art well.
Most of the testimony, however, is a bunch of lies to praise artists in official favour and distance himself from friends involved and pretend utmost ignorance so they can all get off free. They do. Probably through patronage. Everything runs on it.
On 24 April 1604 Caravaggio got into an argument with a waiter at one of his local restaurants, the Osteria del Moro, or ‘Tavern of the Blackamoor’. In the course of an altercation concerning artichokes, he smashed a plate against the man’s face.
The tavern of the Blackamoor (interesting the number of references to slaves). I laughed at the artichokes, but it’s not really funny. This arrest is one of series. In his testimony Caravaggio claims the policeman has a grudge against him, in Graham-Dixon’s description:
The policeman was hostile and insulting whenever he bumped into him… but he stoutly denied having called the arresting officer a ‘cocksucker’ on the night in question.
That, actually, was just funny.
More on the particularities of the papal state.
Rome was a turbulent city at the best of times, but it was doubly unstable whenever the papal throne was empty. During this interregnum, normal government was effectively suspended. According to long tradition, a blanket amnesty was given to the inmates of the city’s jails.
Blanket amnesty! Returning to the thin line between curious and awful…there is this:
There was a crime of deturpatio portae, or defacing doors for which Caravaggio was charged by a mother and daughter. … a specific legal term that can be translated as ‘house-scorning’. …
Amazing you think. House-scorning. But read on:
Housescorners generally operated in the dead of night,,, They often made a lot of noise, shouting insults or singing lewd songs as a prelude to the vengeful assault itself. Then they would throw stones, damaging shutters and blinds.
They threw ink, blood, excrement, drew cocks. Most often, houses were scorned by a man when a woman had refused his advances, or perhaps somehow insulted him. It loses all hilarity.
It becomes the dirty behaviour of a pimp. An abuser. Who still paints…look, just look at what he paints.
This depicts so beautifully the crazy story of The Madonna of Loreto (1604), the miraculous event in which the house of Mary and Joseph flew (flew?) from Nazareth to Italy in the middle ages. Crikey, best myth ever. It’s quite a house as Caravaggio imagines it, but I love that the pilgrims are poor who have summoned the virgin to the door through their faith, their feet dirty and tired.
No other artist had ever given such prominence, in a major religious altarpiece, to two such nakedly proletarian figures as the pair of kneeling figures.
Caravaggio inserted no patrons into his paintings, but the poor, the courtesan, the servant, and every now and then himself. Despite this, his paintings were in ever greater demand. One of my favourite threads that runs through much of Caravaggio’s story is that:
…his movements were being carefully tracked by Fabio Masetti, an agent in Rome working for Cesare d’Este, Duke of Modena.
Masetti gives Caravaggio money, on more than one occasion, but no painting is produced. Masetti tracks him for years, like a faithful shadow. We will meet him again.
And still Caravaggio is brawling, cutting people, getting arrested. He is forced to apologise to one of his victims to get a pardon from the governor — for coming up a clerk of the Vicar’s court named Messer Mariano late one night and striking him, scarring his face. Like the house-scorning, this is a public insult. The apology is hilarious, like one of those forced things a mother exhorts from her son (well, like my mum exacted from my brother Chewy) expurgated of all loopholes:
I am very sorry for what I did, and if I had not done it yet, I would not do it.
He continues to say that Mariano is worthy of facing in the daylight in a duel. It is a return of honor to him.
It feels like the violence is escalating, though in the book it is oddly sandwiched between paintings and their analyses. Graham-Dixon notes that thus seemed Caravaggio’s life, intense periods of work surrounded by growing periods of nightwalking and brawling and thuggery. Pimping. This brings us to the moment of murder, in what was almost certainly a duel between Caravaggio and Ranuccio Tomassoni, between whom there had long existed violence and accusation — Tomassoni was the pimp of Fillide, and if Caravaggio were also a pimp (who had clearly stolen Fillide) this makes more sense of much of his behaviour.
Initial reports, though, seemed to describe this as an accidental brawl over a late-night game of tennis. That was rather funny.
Mesetti the agent reported hopefully back to d’Este after the incident that Caravaggio had fled Rome badly wounded and was heading to Florence — which meant he might well swing through Modena and paint as he had promised.
This really is the beginning of the end for Caravaggio. His sentence:
…indefinite exile from Rome, he was condemned as a murderer and made subject to a bando capitale, a ‘capital sentence’. This meant that anyone in the papal states had the right to kill him with impunity; indeed there was a bounty for anyone who did so.
A brilliant drawing from a policeman’s report drawing the offending weapons that Caravaggio carried in defiance of the law.
And so Caravaggio flees. First to Naples, a centre of trade of goods and people. He also notes the many communities there, Pisans, Catalands, Ragusans… Ragusans? Once the Republic of Ragusa, now known as Dubrovnik.
Once arrived in Naples, Caravaggio was deluged with work. He receives a commission from the Pio Monte della Misericordia, probably led by Giovanni Battista Manso (who was a friend of Galileo, who hosted Milton — it is hard to imagine them all contemporaries). Caravaggio painted the Seven Acts of Mercy for them. Not my favourite. But then there was The Flagellation:
Pictures such as the Seven Acts and TheFlagellation were greeted with stunned admiration, bordering on bewilderment. They created a sensation and transformed Neopolitan painting virtually overnight. Caravaggio’s extreme chiaroscuro and his brutal sense of reality were the catalyst for a new school of tenebristic painting in Naples. And through this city at the crossroad between Italian and Spanish art, Caravaggoio’s starkly powerful new style was transmitted to Spain Itself.
But Caravaggio had bigger plans, which would soon send him to Malta — which is in part why I have read this, because I love Caravaggio’s art but also, guess what you guys? I am going to Malta! So more on Malta in a separate post. This one is enormous, and I give you my apologies.
George Perec is an author whose work fills me with delight, Species of Space and the other pieces found in this collection are wonderful. Insightful. Playful. Everyday. Extraordinary. Not least because he loves lists as much as I do, more perhaps. I read his piece on the Place Sans-Sulpice, and meant to read this too before going to Paris. So now it calls me back.
I particularly love how Perec is obsessed with space, but approaches it completely differently than would a planner, an architect, an urbanist. He approaches it from multiple directions, but almost none of them overlap with such work. The whole of Species of Space is to be found in this compilation, and excerpts from a few other works. I am almost annoyed at this stolen peek at them, because I loved this so much I shall have to go back and read all the rest.
Species of Space
It opens with this:
In short order you have a wonderful definition of our experience of space.
In short, spaces have multiplied, been broken up and have diversified. There are spaces today of every kind and every size, for every use and every function. To live is to pass from one space to another, while doing your very best not to bump yourself. (6)
There are poems from Paul Eluard, playful drippings of words and letters across the page, plenty of empty white space between black typography.
This is how space begins, with words only, signs traced on the blank page. To describe space: to name it, to trace it, like those portolano-makers who saturated the coastlines with the names of harbours…
Space as inventory, space as invention. Space begins with that model map in the old editions of the Petit Larousse Illustre, which used to represent something like 65 geographical terms in 60 sq, cm., miraculously brought together, deliberately abstract. (13)
I remember my own childhood pouring over something like the English equivalent of such a book, full of maps and descriptions and magic. A memory of being inordinately proud of a map of South America I drew. I feel as though that memory is housed in the trailer, which means I was not more than five.
Perec gives us this, a gift:
Sitting deep in thought at their tables, writers are forming lines of words.
An idealized scene. Space as reassurance. (15)
Is this partly what I love about writing?
From here he starts on the spaces of lived experience. He starts from the inside out so to speak, with the bed itself. An interesting choice, I feel a good one. Each thing he describes, he begins with the most banal and simple of descriptions, but it serves to take something familiar and make it suddenly unfamiliar — and because the time and space between us, what is familiar to Perec is in fact not always familiar to me.
4. A few other banalities:
We spend more than a third of our lives in bed. (19)
Moves on to the bedroom, notes the curious fact that he can visually reconstruct every room he’s ever slept in. A few observations:
What does it mean, to live in a room? Is to live in a place to take possession of it? …
4. Placid small thought no 1
Any cat-owner will rightly tell you that cats inhabit houses much better than people do. Even in the most dreadfully square spaces, they know how to find favourable corners. (24)
That is honestly one of the most insightful things I have ever read … because of course cats do. The question is, how?
From there to the apartment.
I don’t know, and don’t want to know, where functionality begins or ends. It seems to me, in any case, that in the ideal dividing-up of today’s apartments functionality functions in accordance with a procedure that is unequivocal, sequential and nycthemeral. (28)
The footnote? ‘This is the best phrase in the whole book!’
I might agree. I had to look up nycthemeral:
Adjective — Designating or characterized by a variation that occurs in a period of twenty-four hours, especially corresponding to the contrast between day and night. (Oxford Dictionary)
From here he proceeds to give an outline in three columns — time | activity | room. Again, the taken-for-granted of French housewife– working husband–child in school becomes estranged, and for me now so removed from such a life, really quite interesting.
The final section:
We don’t think enough about staircases.
Nothing was more beautiful in old houses than the staircases. Nothing is uglier, colder, more hostile, meaner, in today’s apartment buildings.(38)
I suddenly thought what a difference it would make to give modern apartment buildings wonderful, beautiful staircases.
We move on to the apartment building. Then to the Street.
The buildings stand one beside the other. They form a straight line. They are expected to form a line, and it’s a serious defect in them when they don’t do so. They are then said to be ‘subject to alignment’, meaning that they can by rights be demolished, so as to be rebuilt in a straight line with the others. (46)
I can’t believe this is a thing everywhere, it definitely was in LA.
He looks at ‘practical exercises’ for understanding the street —
Until the scene becomes improbable.
until you have the impression, for the briefest of moments, that you are in a strange town or, better still, until you can no longer understand what is happening or is not happening, until the whole place becomes strange, and you no longer even know that this is what is called a town, a street, buildings, pavement… (53)
On to the neighbourhood.
Death of a Neighbourhood
What I miss above all is the neighbourhood cinema, with its ghastly advertisements for the dry cleaner’s on the corner. (58)
A curious question, a provoking question that immediately raises in me a great rushing of answers:
Why not set a higher value on dispersal? Instead of living in just one place, and trying in vain to gather yourself together there, why not have fix or six rooms dotted about Paris? (59)
On to the Town. On to the countryside.
I don’t have a lot to say concerning the country: the country doesn’t exist. It’s an illusion.
For most people of my kind, the country is a decorative space surrounding their second home…(68)
That I find rather hilarious. As I do the whole section on the ‘Village Utopia’ (70), where you know everyone, live happily, recognize all the birds. It kind of reminds me of the Stuart Lee sketch about the family who leave London for the country and start by praising the pony and end begging for him to visit and to bring cocaine. This is not nearly as obvious, however. The next section is on the ‘Nostalgic (and false) alternative’ (71) — between putting down roots or living completely rootless. They are interesting posed this way.
On to the country. Europe. Old Continent. New Continent. The World.
In getting to know a few square meters, Perec writes
And with these, the sense of the world’s concreteness, irreducible, immediate, tangible, of something clear and closer to us: of the world, no longer as a journey having constantly to be remade, not as a race without end, a challenge having constantly to be met, not as the one pretext for a despairing acquisitiveness, nor as the illusion of a conquest, but as the rediscovery of a meaning, the perceiving that the earth is a form of writing, a geography of which we had forgotten that we ourselves are the authors. (79)
And on to space. A quote from Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics. I don’t really like Italo Calvino, but I love Lawrence Stern’s Tristram Shandy, which Perec seems to love as much as I do and quotes from often and at length.
Then there is this extraordinary list, already pulled out and set in a blog alone because I treasure it, but repeated again in its context, where perhaps it sits a bit differently:
The uninhabitable: Seas used as a dump, coastlines bristling with barbed wire, earth bare of vegetation, mass graves, piles of carcasses, boggy rivers, towns that smell bad
The uninhabitable: The architecture of contempt or display, the vainglorious mediocrity of tower blocks, thousands of rabbit hutches piled one above the other, the cutprice ostentation of company headquarters
The uninhabitable: the skimped, the airless, the small, the mean, the shrunken, the very precisely calculated
The uninhabitable: the confined, the out-of-bounds, the encaged, the bolted, walls jagged with broken glass, judas windows, reinforced doors
The uninhabitable: shanty towns, townships
The hostile, the grey, the anonymous, the ugly, the corridors of the Metro, public baths, hangars, car parks, marshalling yards, ticket windows, hotel bedrooms
factories, barracks, prisons, asylums, old people’s homes, lycees, law courts, school playgrounds (89-90)
Followed by another disquieting paragraph
Such places don’t exist, and it’s because they don’t exist that space becomes a question, ceases to be self-evident, ceases to be incorporated, ceases to be appropriated. Space is a doubt: I have constantly to mark it, to designate it. It’s never mine, never given to me, I have to conquer it. (91)
Species of Space closes with the best index I have ever seen.
Penser / Classer (1985)
In ‘Notes on What I’m Looking For’, Perec describes four modes of his work, and this makes great sense of Species of Space and the other things I have read — and have yet to read. They are
‘sociological’: how to look at the everyday.
an autobiographical order (141)
The third is ludic and relates to my liking for constraints, for feats of skill, for ‘playing scales’….
the fictive, the liking for stories and adventures, the wish to write the sort of books that are devoured lying face down on your bed. (142)
Then there is ‘Notes Concerning the Objects that are on my Work Table’, a list, a thinking through of all the ways to arrange a desk (he has an ammonite in his desk!). There is ‘Brief Notes on the Art and Manner of Arranging One’s Books. The stacks of books to read, half read, to be shelved…the constant rearranging by theme, by author. It is such an intimate look at a life so like mine it is uncanny, a friendship across years and miles.
A little later on you discover in ‘Reading: A Socio-physiological Outline’ that when Perec visits a friends house he raids their bookshelves for all the things he has long wanted to read, then retreats with a stack of them to his room to read through the night.
From ‘Approaches to What’, one of my very favourite quotes from the book, one that unexpectedly captures as well as Rob Nixon’s concept of ‘slow violence’ the difference between the spectacular and the everyday:
In our haste to measure the historic, significant and revelatory, let’s not leave aside the essential: the truly intolerable, the truly inadmissible. What is scandalous isn’t the pit explosion, it’s working in coalmines. ‘Social problems’ aren’t ‘a matter of concern’ when there’s a strike, they are intolerable twenty-four hours out of twenty-four, three hundred and sixty-five days a year. (209)
He perhaps captures even better at the level of the individual why these kind of problems are not better understood, better struggled against.
To question the habitual. But that’s just it, we’re habituated to it. We don’t question it, it doesn’t question us, it doesn’t seem to pose a problem, we live it without thinking, as if carried within neither questions nor answers … This is no longer even conditioning, it’s anaesthesia. We sleep through our lives in a dreamless sleep. But where is our life? Where is our body? Where is our space? (210)
A final, brilliant admonition that shall remain with me forever in the daily rituals of life.
Question your tea spoons. (210)
He wrote an amazing piece on the Rue Vilin — where I am headed next time I am in Paris. The street his family lived on, where he lived until he was five. He returns and describes it shop by shop, building by building, sign by sign, at different times of day (all noted of course) in February 1969, June 1970, January 1971, November 1972, November 1974, November 1975. We witness the death of the street as it was. It is poignant, extraordinary, while it never rises above concrete description.
A collection of postcard messages rendered extraordinary by being grouped together. A puzzle, recurring styles, so many good meals and sunburns.
A list of everything Perec has ‘ingurgitated’ over the whole of 1974. What struck me most? He gives years for each of the wines.
All together, as I say, this was a book combining delight and insight. I also loved that this ended with some of Perec’s (impossible, also slightly problematic) word games constructed for his friends, and a few from the translator.
I will now go read everything else he has written. Except maybe the novel without the letter e.
[Perec, Georges (1997) Species of Space and Other Pieces, edited & translated by John Sturrock. London: Penguin Books.]
A new story, ‘Stars Falling,’ is out in the world today! Always feels good to have a new story out. A nice surprise to find an acceptance not a rejection. A surprise that really did me good.
I know they say writing is mostly about rejection, but that doesn’t make it easier really.
So, I am so happy to have a story out. And sad at the same time, because this story makes me damn sad. I am not entirely sure where this story comes from — other than being spewed out by a whole mess of memories and feelings that never usually see the light of day. Mostly from growing up in Tucson, from LA. Mostly of that world where women blame each other for the things men do. That world where they stay with the men who beat them. Maybe this story is a twisted feminist take on domestic violence, but I worry it is not feminist enough. I don’t feel feminism has equipped me very well to deal with the memory of junior high when one girl curled her hands in another girls hair and beat her head into the concrete and there was blood everywhere. The memory of women who thought love was violent passion and jealousy and fighting and making up — and the memory of myself not totally rejecting that idea — despite the amazing model I so luckily had in my parents. It didn’t equip me very well to deal with such contradiction, or the phone call I picked up to hear ‘Bitch, who is this? Bitch, what are you doing at my man’s house? I’m going to come over there and kill you.’
I was pretty sure it was a wrong number. But not entirely. Not after being hit in the face by another ex for stealing her man, even though she was already married again with two kids. I know I gave up on feminism way too early, I didn’t even know about the waves when I gave up. I been writing it, and coming back to it theoretically in various guises, with the help of bell hooks and Patricia Hill Collins among others. All of these things being the reason, of course, why feminism is so desperately important.
This story is still back dealing with the part of the world I tried to leave behind, but if life teaches you anything it’s that you can’t really do that. Not that any of this was conscious while I was writing, it’s not how my writing works. Nothing in this is based on anything real except the L.A. bar with its velvet green curtains, pricey martinis and the god-awful band. I had a good night too, with Larry and his friends, and wrote some notes down on a napkin. Like a real writer does. But I look at this thing now I’ve written it and see it as a kind of reworking of these memories, and a channel for the anger that I still carry from years helping women and children get their papers under the Violence Against Women Act, then encountering so many more women going through his — or coming out of this — through tenant work. Most of my anger is for the men, but there is some emerging from the helplessness I felt as women I loved tried to leave and went back, tried to leave and went back, tried to leave and went back. I know the cycle of violence, know how hard it is, I hate that part of me is still angry at them.
I worked on an asylum case for a man, once, who had been horribly tortured for his work in the community in El Salvador. Good work, important work. Turns out after that he started doing unspeakable things to his wife. Violence to violence, you see. I didn’t know who to be angry at then.
I have said the words ‘you have to leave him or one day he will kill you’, I have said them many times. There’s something else here too, in my mind, which is that I can’t find the right words to describe the strangeness of knowing that of all the women I have known, the woman he did kill was my friend from college who never heard those words from me. White, middle-class, not just crazy smart but also well-able to take care of herself. Esther. She was New York cool, knew arthouse movies and visited galleries and talked nonchalantly about directors and writers and artists — I had never encountered someone my age (well, one year older, all of 18) before. She helped me move into my first apartment. She was so self-possessed, and so impossibly far from the violence of my own world.
I still haven’t been able to come to terms with her death, have started writing things and stopped, started and stopped. I knew domestic violence was as prevalent among rich families as among poor from counselors and therapists I have worked with. I don’t think I could have believed it deep down. It took my partner to remind me that you never really know the demons people are facing. That leave you stabbed and bleeding, dying on the floor.
I have left a prevalence of certain attitudes behind, perhaps, but never violence.
Of all the strong and beautiful women I have known who have lived with fear of death at the hands of their partner, Esther was the best situated to get out. She was the one who did not. Esther still brings tears to my eyes and a riot of feelings I can’t sort out. Except the clarity of missing her and the guilt for not keeping in touch.
Anyway, all of this leaves me a bit ambivalent about ‘Stars Falling’. But I am rather proud it’s the only woman’s voice in this issue, flawed as it may be as a story. I write noir, and love it as a genre, because it grapples with this darkness within us and around us. It grapples in flawed ways, because how else can we try to do it, and don’t we have to try? But noir is also generally so damn male. A little in love with its own violence. A little over fond of violent women stereotypes. These other stories sharing the issue with me are good and tight and I enjoyed them, but they fit in that mold. So it almost feels the wrong company. But I hope in a challenging kind of way, so I am still glad it’s there.
Luckily the other stories I’m currently flogging have nothing like this kind of baggage attached to them.
This was a liberal, journalistic account of one of the most horrifying years in U.S. history. It didn’t feel wholly situated in a much longer history of racism, white mobs, black struggle, anti-lynching struggle, neither in the history that came before or what has come since. Ida B. Wells had long been fighting on every front to document these same atrocities across the South. But it gives a solidly documented introduction to a year too much forgotten.
Because look at what a year it was, even as whites were celebrating the end of the ‘war to end all wars’:
Here is an awesome quote from Du Bois on the possibility that Blacks once saw for this year, for the end of WWI:
“By the God of Heaven, we are cowards and jackasses if now that the war is over, we do not marshal every ounce of our brain and brawn to fight a sterner, longer, more unbending battle against the forces of hell in our own land.” “Returning Soldiers, Crisis May 1919
Another from black war veteran, Paul Filton, to a Brooklyn newspaper, exposing the intricacies of race and racial hierarchies:
‘We are not ‘wards’ of this nation, as are the Indians. We are component parts of this body politic. We have helped to gain the Victory for Democracy and we must share the fruits. (50)
But the year didn’t work out the way people hoped, neither for the African American freedom struggle nor any other radical struggle for meaningful change. Why did I not know (or not remember?) that attorney general A. Mitchell Palmer’s house was actually bombed in June of 1919? FDR was living across the street. Carlo Valdinoci, the Italian anarchist bomber, was blown to pieces with it.
I suppose this helps explain, then, why Palmer should get together with the ‘ambitious young bureaucrat J. Edgar Hoover’ to stamp out radicalism.
Palmer and his agents came to believe blacks were susceptible to Communists and anarchists because of their subservient status, so they set out to prove that revolutionaries were recruiting blacks. Palmer defined radicalism broadly, and would include the legitimate political efforts of black activists. (56)
There’s President Woodrow Wilson — I had forgotten what a racist bastard that man was. A good quote from him: “Black American soldiers were being treated as equals by the French, and it has gone to their heads.” (56)
An interesting aside from the book — that this was not just happening in the US, and that there were also riots in London, Liverpool, Cardiff in 1919:
As many as 2,000 ex-soldiers and ex-sailors armed with guns, razors, sticks, and stones paraded in the streets, smashing windows and attacking blacks and Arabs. Two blacks died. By month’s end, Cardiff officials ‘raptariated’ more than 150 blacks to colonies. (74)
But on to the long list of U.S.-grown horror. Starting with the lynching of John Hartfield in Ellisville, Mississippi.
Lynchers cut off Hartfield’s fingers. They let him dangle from a branch, then they shot him. They burned the corpse. The extrajudicial killing took place promptly at 5 p.m., as was publicized in advance in publications from New Orleans to New York. (68)
This shit was publicized.
In Bisbee, so close to home — Black Buffalo soldiers arrived to march in the 4th of July parade, they were there to guard border from Pancho Villa — and inroads from the Mexican revolution. Yet the night of 3rd of July ended in battle through Brewery Gulch, 4 black soldiers killed, 2 beaten, dozens in custody.
Above all, however, given the numbers of returning soldiers from WWI, more and more blacks were set to fight back. In Washington D.C., white mobs inspired the gathering of many armed black men. From a letter from Neval Thomas to Archibald Grimké:
There were at least 2000 Negroes, many with pistols showing, declaring their purpose to die for their race, and defy the white move, which was announced as coming to colored sections. (105)
Blacks set up a rough perimeter at the entrance to their area, just northwest of downtown. They shot out streetlights and overturned a gravel truck to strengthen their defensive position. (177)
The violence–complete with drunken whites destroying a county jail, ransacking the sheriff’s home, and looting downtown businesses–exploded southerners’ smug view that they only lynched guilty individuals, whereas northerners attacked blacks solely because of their skin color. (181)
Did they really hold that smug view? They must have held some kind of view justifying such violence.
In Elaine in Phillips County, turns out no one knows how many killed. White authorities claimed 24, James Weldon Johnson, head of NAACP between 200 and 400. White Arkansas journalist L. Sharpe Dunaway claimed 856.
It all started with Blacks organizing themselves to get better prices for their cotton. A quasi-secret dues joint stock society started up called the Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America. Robert Hill, returned vet from WWI helped start one up in Phillips County. One of their meetings was shot up by whites. Yet as whites rampaged and murdered Black people, this is the telegram sent by governor Charles Hillman Brough:
RACE RIOT AT ELAINE PHILLIPS COUNTY THIS STATE FOUR WHITE SAID TO BE KILLED NEGROES SAID TO BE MASSING FOR ATTACK REQUEST COMMANDING GENERAL CAMP PIKE BE AUTHORIZED TO SEND SUCH UNITED STATES TROOPS AS MAY BE NECESSARY. (219)
Another map, showing the best guesses for lynchings in this area from the New York Times:
A whole lot of lynchings. Hundreds of them in 1919.
This is a quote from a circular ‘to the Negroes of Phillips County’ from the white ‘Committee of Seven’ set up to control the situation:
STAY AT HOME
GO TO WORK
DON’T WORRY (224)
At the end of all this? A grand jury indicted 122 blacks ‘on charges relating to the ‘insurrection’, 73 of them with murder.’ (226)
Something else I didn’t know about the report Palmer and Hoover cooked up to justify the raids, more money for the department, and Palmer’s potential run for president on the democratic ticket. It was 186 pages long, the first 101 on foreign radicals (this is when Emma Goldman and everyone else was deported after all), but the remaining pages were all devoted to a ‘collection of quotations from black publications about resisting white violence.’ (240)
I am going to have to read that.
This perhaps helps explain why the NAACP played along with red baiting to such a large extent. At their convention against lynching they tried to use ‘spectres of subversives’ to their advantage, warning that without justice blacks would turn to the IWW or communists. (79)
Interesting also that even then, Southern delegates were the ones most determined to fight for the right to the ballot — foreshadowing the SCLC and SNCC’s citizenship work, and emphasising to me at least, that this was never a top-down or purely strategic kind of campaign.
In Bogalusa a bit of good — unionizing the lumber yards, whites still had blacks set up their own separate union when they were brought in to break the white union. But they did manage to work together, and white union members defended black union members against a mob, giving up their lives. I can see why McWhirter ended on this, as a bit of a high note after such a catalogue of death. Most of the stories aren’t even in this blog, it is battering.
But in the end, what this really doesn’t manage to deal with, is why, how. Liberals always fall short on that. I stared at the pictures found together in a familiar insert in the middle of the book and was reminded of Hilton Als being asked to write a piece on lynching. Thinking about the fear in the eyes of whites when he came near, but really, it is whites who should engender fear. So much reading, research, and this violence seeps in. I am afraid of white people, though I am one. At least these men would have killed me for my beliefs, not just for the colour of my skin. I stare at them and do not understand…but surely this is where the fear in their own eyes comes from.
I love how Danielle McGuire has put women’s struggle against sexual violence and rape front and center of the freedom struggle. Where it always was, though never enough acknowledged. She says it more eloquently than I could:
The real story–that the civil rights movement is also rooted in African-American women’s long struggle against sexual violence–has never before been written. The stories of black women who fought for bodily integrity and personal dignity hold profound truths about the sexualized violence that marked racial politics and African American lives during the modern civil rights movement. If we understand the role rape and sexual violence played in African Americans’ daily lives and within the larger freedom struggle, we have to reinterpret, if not rewrite, the history of the civil rights movement. At the End of the Street does both. (xx)
I have been reading and reading and reading…so much reading. And yet Danielle McGuire has brought together so much I didn’t know. Through Septima Clark and Ella Baker I’ve come to know Rosa Parks a little better, but I never knew that as part of her work for the NAACP she was sent to investigate reports of rape. On a trip to Abbeville, her hometown, she helped document and fight with Recy Taylor — kidnapped at gunpoint as she walked home with her family, and raped by all four men before being left in the woods.
My heart, oh my heart broke to read so many stories of white men openly kidnapping black women to rape them, and even on the rare occasions it came to trial, no one was ever sentenced. Still. Rosa Parks helped set up the Committee for Equal Justice, a network of groups started up in support of Recy Taylor’s case. It built on some of the frameworks established to help the defense of the Scottsboro Boys. The National Negro Congress held a mass meeting in Harlem to discuss the case — and my own well-studied and well-loved California Eagle was there among multiple other black-owned papers. I’m sure it was Charlotta Bass herself, I need to look through her autobiography to see if she mentions it.
Of course, despite (actually, probably because) it was white men raping black women with impunity, it was the reverse scenario that invoked terror:
Unsubstantiated rumors of black men attacking innocent white women sparked almost 50 percent of all race riots in the United States between Reconstruction and World War II. In 1943 alone there were 242 violent interracial clashes in forty-seven cities. (26)
Then back we come to the importance of this in understanding the civil rights movement:
Only by understanding the long and relatively hidden history of sexualized violence in Montgomery, Alabama, and African Americans’ efforts to protect black womanhood, can we see that the Montgomery Bus Boycott was more than a movement for civil rights. It was also a women’s movement for dignity, respect and bodily integrity. (51)
Just as the more background to this, there’s the case of Willie McGee in Laurel, Mississippi, his white employer sleeping with him telling him if he didn’t — and if her ever broke it off — she would cry rape. There’s his wife’s resignation to the situation, because what power did they have in such a situation? He was executed by the state after his employer did in fact call rape — sentenced in 1945, all appeals lost by 1951. There’s Maceo Snipes killed for being the only black man to vote in Georgia, on 17th July 1946. In Montgomery itself, in 1949 there was Gertrude Perkins picked up by two police officers at the bus stop, driven out of town, raped, returned to the bus stop.
But Montgomery was well organised. McGuire describes Rufus A. Lewis — WWII vet and football coach at Alabama State University, member of church and multiple association, owner of largest Black funeral home:
he was financially independent and not easily intimidated by white economic reprisals. Lewis parlayed his social and economic wealth into a spacious brick clubhouse, named the Citizens Club. It functioned as the headquarters for many of the city’s community organizations. Here Lewis taught veterans and others the ins and outs of voter registration and created a safe space where African Americans could “come and socialize” and, in the process, get politicized. (70)
In every book about movement, spaces like this seem to be so important.
Then there was the Women’s Political Council, founded by Mary Fair Burks, working with Rufus Lewis’s veterans group as well as E.D. Nixon’s Progressive Democrats, who registered voters and ran classes. Jo Ann Robinson became its head, began to focus on the buses.
They were connected to the group ‘Sojourners for Truth and Justice’, a short-lived but important organization formed by Louise Thomspon Patterson and Beulah Richardson issuing a call to women to convene in D.C. in support of Du Bois in 1951. They highlighted Rosa Lee Ingram’s case, a single mother and sharecropper in Georgia. In 1947, a white man attempted to rape her while her two sons were present, and in the struggle the attacker was killed. All three were sentenced to death. They were paroled in 1959.
Because of the work the Women’s Political Council had already done on the buses, they were all ready to go when Rosa Parks made her stand. After hearing about her arrest they immediately called for a bus boycott for the following Monday, over the weekend they bundled, mimeographed and cut 52,500 flyers (holy jesus!) and distributed them. These women were awesome. The day-long boycott was a huge success, taking place the same day as Rosa appeared in court.
I love this phrase, called out during the court hearing and taken up as a chant: ‘they’ve messed with the wrong one now’. Almost immediately, however, the women were pushed out of leadership. Neither Rosa nor Jo Ann Robinson was allowed to be present at the meeting to form the Montgomery Improvement Association nor invited to be part of the leadership. At the 1st mass meeting Rosa Parks was seen but not heard, turned into a quiet respectable lady for the press, and removed from her activist past. McGuire writes:
As long as WPC members handled the day-to-day business of the boycott, Jo Ann Robinson did not challenge the MIA’s male leadership. “We felt it would be better,” Robinson said, “if the ministers held the most visible leadership positions.” (108)
But look at this picture
A large bulk of the funds were raised by Mrs. Georgia Gilmore, who formed a club called the Club from Nowhere to make food, sell it and donate the proceeds to the boycott, in Gilmore’s words:
When we’d raise as much as three hundred dollars for a Monday night rally, then we knowed we was on our way for five hundred on Thursday night. (118)
Whites directed violence at the walkers, most of the women — pelting them from their cars with water balloons, containers of urine, rotten eggs, potatoes, apples. Jo Ann Robinson had a brick thrown through her window, acid poured all over her car. Police did mass ticketing of anyone black driving over the period — Robinson alone received over 30 tickets. On January 30 whites bombed King’s house, two days later E.D. Nixon’s, everyone was provided with armed guards.
Arrests were used in a political attempt to stop the bus boycott. The Grand Jury indicted eight-nine people as being behind an illegal boycott — all of them came to court to turn themselves in. An amazing series of mug shots resulted — a hall of fame really. Look at these amazing women:
They all knew this boycott had changed things.
Watching the crowd mock the police, Jo Ann Robinson realized the world she had always known had somehow changed. The fear that had held black people down had began to evaporate. “If there was any nervousness or uneasiness,” she argued, “it was on the part of the whites.” (126)
Still, official tellings fell so very short. Danielle McGuire notes how FOR’s retelling of the story in their comic book showed Rosa Parks as just a tired woman. It shows ministers coming to her rescue and themselves calling for the boycott, describes an anguished Martin Luther King muttering ‘something ought to be done’, and then himself mimeographing 500 leaflets (131). It beggars belief really. And then there’s the fact that the court cases actually ending segregation on public transportation were Claudette Colvin, Mary Louise Smith, Mrs. Aurelia Browder, and Mrs Susie McDonald. (132) Why streamline a movement and a heroism that belongs to so many people? This post is a little too listy because all these things happened that I had either not read about or simply not registered — though I am not listing everything either.
There’s a mention of Daisy Bates, who with husband L.C. Bates owned the Arkansas State Press — another African-American press woman and newspaper owner! I thought Charlotta Bass the only one in these years. I hope to read more of her, but part of what drove her forward — her own mother was raped and murdered by three white men when Daisy Bates was seven.
1959 — Betty Jean Owens is kidnapped at gunpoint by four men, driven off and raped in Florida.
Fanny Lou Hamer went to hospital for removal of small cyst, and they removed her whole uterus without her consent. This was a common occurrence. This was before she ever started protesting.
In June 1963 Hamer and other SNCC volunteers were arrested in Winona, Mississippi for sitting at the lunch counter in the bus terminal. Women one by one were stripped, beaten, sexually humiliated. Prisoners regularly ‘herded into exam room with cattle prods’, stripped and searched, women underwent “rough, painful vaginal searches’, in Parchman penitentiary, all of this with gloves dipped in lysol. (196)
Such physical assaults connect, of course, to a huge amount of white anxiety about sex, about miscegenation (that they do not initiate and control), and the use of rumours and lies to stir up fear and hate. Freedom summer itself was portrayed as an attempt to miscegenate, with young students described as sex-crazed ‘beatniks’ and black rapists brought in to attack white women (206). McGuire quotes Karl Flemming of Newsweek:
That is what it was all about, all the time, everywhere. It was the great underpinning of the whole damn thing–just pure sexual fear. (207)
Sally Belfrage, in her book Freedom Summer, writes that they
knew that whites overblown orations about interracial sex masked an all-out effort to defend their position atop the political, economic, and social hierarchy. (208)
She also described the hypocrisy of what they called ‘nighttime integration’ as white men raped black women, but refused ever to acknowledge the consequences in the form of their light-skinned children.
On March 25, 1965, as marchers arrived in Montgomery from Selma, downtown was empty. Governor George Wallace had declared a “danger holiday for female state employees.” (212) An Alabama congressman stated that all the volunteers who had poured into Selma for the march had been hired, given free room and board and promised free sex (219). He hired Albert C. Persons to investigate, and he came up with Sex and Civil Rights: The True Selma Story, full of doctored photographs. Much of this was recycled in Jim Clark’s book I Saw Selma Raped: The Jim Clark Story.
McGuire quotes Virginia Durr from her autobiography Outside the Magic Circle (1987, p 175)
All of the cesspool of sickness connected with sex guilt comes from the fact that white men of the South had had so many sexual affairs with black women. And they just turned it around. It’s the only thing I can figure out that made them so crazy on the subject. (222)
There’s the murder of Viola Liuzzo, white Detroit housewife, driving people home after the Montgomery march, shot dead by a car full of the KKK and an FBI agent along for the ride. Hoover immediately went into action to smear her character as race traitor, prostitute and bad mother and deflect attention onto anything but the FBI’s role. (225)
Not until 1967’s Loving v Virginia were laws against interracial marriage finally struck down.
McGuire ends with the 1974 Joan Little case, “Power to the Ice Pick”, who used his own weapon against the white prison guard attempting to rape her before fleeing prison. The campaign to defend her from execution was an historic one, but not in the ways it is traditionally argued. The NAACP continued to make their distinctions between cases worth taking to push equality forward, as it
‘maintained its historic reluctance to embrace “sex cases” and did not get involved; however, local chapters helped raise money. (261)
And here McGuire challenges the other assumptions about this case:
The Free Joan Little campaign is often portrayed as the product of second-wave feminism, which finally enable women to break the code of silence surrounding sexual violence and “speak out” against rape. While this may be true for white, middle-class feminists who became active in the antirape movement in the early 1970s, African-American women had been speaking out and organizing politically against sexual violence and rape for more than a century. (277)
[McGuire, Danielle L. (2010) At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance–A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power. New York: Vintage Books.]
It was quite amazing to sit and read through this tremendous book… a little a day, a little at a time. You know. Immense as it is, I think what surprised me most was just how much couldn’t be packed in here, so much that was missing despite over 700 pages, but that is no critique. I loved it for the broad sense it gave of movement, for giving a more settled sense of what happened when, how things developed. I can fit everything else I’ve been reading into that. Though it’s not the same as living through it, it’s as close as I can get. Its focus is mostly on the South, with a little from Chicago and Detroit and Oakland, so you can easily guess where it’s strengths lie. I still haven’t watched the 14 hours of documentary it serves as a companion to.
This is a whirlwind tour, a potpourri of insights and quotations. My favourite things at this moment in time. I’m still not quite sure why it seemed a good idea to read it cover to cover, but I’m glad I did.
I really loved the framing of it from Vincent Harding’s prologue: We the People. Here are some quotes from that, starting with Harding’s view on the importance of institutions (interesting thinking about social movement theory, so much of which frustrates me exceedingly for not quite thinking about things like this for the most part):
One of the most fascinating element of the post-Reconstruction black movement toward new freedom and extended equality was the continuing work of creating independent and semi-independent black institutions. Without them the black community would have been lost. In addition to the central institution of the family, they included schools at every level, churches and other religious institutions, newspapers and other journals, fraternal and sororal organizations, mutual aid societies, women’s clubs, banks, insurance companies, unions, farmers’ alliances, and emancipation societies.
These were only a portion of the internal, self-claiming self-defining work that was constantly re-creating the black community. (9)
This white privileged attitude hasn’t changed enough either, I am sorry to say:
Almost without exception, the critical issues–sometimes issues of life and death–centered on the willingness of white people to treat black women and men as allies and equals, rather than as wards, pawns, or tools… (9)
On the transformation of self as well as the transformation of society, so key to the work of Horton, Freire, Nyerere…
Perhaps all of this was really the willingness of black and white justice-seekers to recognize their own need to become new people in order to create a new society. (10)
the central tasks of the twentieth century black freedom movement were defined at their best not only as the achievement of rights and justice, but also as transformation of the spirit, consciousness, and heart of a people who had been developed and nurtured on the poisons of white supremacist politics, social philosophy, theology and history.
I also like this formulation of what the struggle has been for — Fighting for the ‘Six Claims’, this is to think more about as well:
Claiming the right to the land, to full unhindered participation in the life of the nation and in the reshaping of that life
Claiming the right and responsibility to speak the truth from black perspectives and to insist that those truths become part of a new American reality
Claiming the right to possess themselves, their heritage, their Africanness, their souls
Claiming the necessity of building black institutions, as ends in themselves, and as bases for the creation of the women and men who would eventually join others to develop a more perfect union in America
Claiming the right of self-defense against the intrusive and arrogantly destructive forces of white power
Claiming the same right of principled emigration to Africa or elsewhere that brought the pilgrims and subsequent generations of immigrants to these shores
But one thing is clear. It happened with such momentum because a people had kept their eyes on the prize, had persisted in a vision of a more perfect union, had waded through rivers of blood to keep promises to their foreparents and to their children. Such unyielding commitment and action eventually builds its own momentum, creates new, surprising realities, beginning deep within individual lives, opening up to the re-creation of a society. (34)
It’s divided up into chapters, themed but also chronological — I can’t even imagine the difficulties of creating such divisions that are bound to be somewhat arbitrary. They work fairly well. Each is introduced, with solid text painting the broader picture. But from here I’ll just focus on these amazing source documents. One of the most devastating and powerful was from Anne Moody’s autobiography. At 14 she was already a servant in a white woman’s house:
For the first time out of all her trying, Mrs. Burke had made me feel like rotten garbage. Many times she had tried to instill fear within me and subdue me and had given up. But when she talked about Emmett Till there was something in her voice that sent chills and fear all over me.
Before Emmett Till’s murder, I had known the dear of hunger, hell, and the Devil. But now there was a new fear known to me–the fear of being killed just because I was black. (43)
More connections in here I didn’t know — Martin Luther King, describing in Stride Towards Freedom how Rev. Glenn Smiley of FOR (the Fellowship of Reconciliation) worked with them through the Montgomery Bus Boycott to write Suggestions for Integrating Buses.
From the 1954 Opinion in Brown v Board:
Today, education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments. Compulsory school attendance laws and the great expenditures for education both demonstrate our recognition of the importance of education to our democratic society. It is required in the performance of our most basic public responsibilities, even service in the armed forces. It is the very foundation of good citizenship. Today it is a principal instrument in awakening the child to cultural values, in preparing him for later professional training, and in helping him to adjust normally to his environment. In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms. (71)
Ah, the ideals of education. My cynical self disbelieves it was ever quite like this or ever will be, but good to hear it from the Supreme Court. I looked more in depth at the violence of the white reaction/freak out here. And now we jump ahead a few years to the beginning of the sit-ins.
From Franklin McCain, who was part of sit-in in Greensboro, South Carolina on 1 February 1960, an excerpt from interview in My Soul is Rested by Howell Raines:
If it’s possible to know what it means to have your soul cleansed–I felt pretty clean at that time. I probably felt better on that day than I’ve ever felt in my life. Seems like a lot of feelings of guilt or what-have-you suddenly left me, and I felt as though I had gained my manhood, so to speak, and not only gained it, but had developed quite a lot of respect for it. Not Franklin McCain only as an individual, but I felt as though the manhood of a number of other black persons had been restored and had gotten some respect from just that one day. (115)
We are back to the ways that this struggle transformed people from the inside out.
From SNCC’s Statement of purpose, drafted by Rev James Lawson on May 14, 1960 after the founding conference in April at Shaw University (connecting this up to Ella Baker of course, who made that conference happen. One of her pieces is in here, ‘Bigger than a Hamburger’ but despite how that quote caught on, it isn’t my favourite piece from her):
We affirm the philosophical or religious ideal of nonviolence as the foundation of our purpose, the pre-supposition of our faith, and the manner of our action. Nonviolence as it grows from Judaic-Christian tradition seeks a social order of justice permeated by love. Integration of human endeavor represents the crucial first step towards such a society.
Through nonviolence, courage displaces fear; love transforms hate. Acceptance dissipates prejudice; hope ends despair. Peace dominates war; faith reconciles doubt. Mutual regard cancels enmity. Justice for all overthrows injustice. The redemptive community supersedes systems of gross social immorality.
Love is the central motif of nonviolence. Love is the force by which God binds man to himself and man to man. Such love goes to the extreme; it remains loving and forgiving even in the midst of hostility. It matches the capacity of evil to inflict suffering with an even more enduring capacity to absorb evil, all the while persisting in love.
By appealing to conscience and standing on the moral nature of human existence, nonviolence nurtures the atmosphere in which reconciliation and justice become actual possibilities. (119-120)
From Birmingham: People in Motion (the whole pamphlet can be found here, and it is pretty awesome):
In May, 1956 Alabama politicians “stood on the beach of history and tried to hold back the tide.” They outlawed the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, in a desperate attempt to halt the movement for Negro equality. But their action had precisely the opposite effect. For almost immediately the Negroes of Birmingham came together to form a movement which during the last ten years has transformed life in Birmingham — which has shaken America.
“They could outlaw an organization, but they couldn’t outlaw the movement of a people determined to be free,” said the Rev. Fred L. Shuttlesworth, president of the new group. And at a mass meeting called by a committee of Negro ministers, the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR) was born. Many Negroes in “the Johannesburg of North America “were afraid to join. But many others echoed the sentiments of Mrs. Rosa Walker, one of the first members: “I was frightened , but I figured we needed help to get us more jobs and better education. And we had the man here to help us.” (147)
In its first year, the movement also filed suit in federal court on behalf of a Milwaukee couple arrested because they sat in the “white” waiting room in the city’s railway station. Both these actions followed the pattern of court action established by the NAACP, and in deed, suits have always been one of the ACMHR’s most effective weapons. But in December 1956 the movement entered a new phase, and took on the character it was to retain– of a movement of people putting their bodies into a challenge to the system. (148)
There is Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham City Jail — such a powerful thing, one I have written about before here.
Here is Bob Moses on Freedom Schools — there is an hour long interview with him you can listen to here:
We finally decided to set make-shift classes for them. We opened up Nonviolent High in McComb.That was pretty funny. We had about fifty to seventy-five kids in a large room trying to break them down with the elements of algebra and geometry, a little English, and even a little French, a little history, I think Deon taught physics and chemistry, and [Charles] McDrew took charge of history, and I did something with math . . . (175)
Of course we have Fannie Lou Hamer — here is an excerpt from her 1967 autobiography. It was taped and edited by Julius Lester (dude who wrote about how Whitey, Black Power’s gonna get yo mamma) and Maria Varela of SNCC. That alone makes me happy.
I guess if I’d had any sense I’d a been a little scared, but what was the point of being scared? the only thing they could do to me was kill me and it seemed like they’d been trying to do that a little bit at a time ever since I could remember. (177)
There are quotes from SNCC trip to Guinea, following in Malcolm X’s footsteps, and being told Malcolm had a lot more resonance there — though they had to explain the multiple viewpoints between King and Malcolm. Quotes from local histories show earlier efforts toward full freedom that I had never heard of — 1920s saw formation of the Dallas County Voters’ League to win right of Blacks to vote. The 1920s. In Dallas. Shit.
A quote from Martin Luther King’s speech ‘Our God is Marching On!’, given 25th March, 1965 at the conclusion of the Selma to Montgomery march, after bloody Sunday:
They segregated southern money from the poor whites; they segregated southern mores from the rich whites; they segregated southern churches from Christianity; they segregated southern minds from honest thinking; and they segregated the Negro from everything. (225-226)
A quote from Malcolm X’s speech ‘Message to the Grassroots’, from 10th November, 1963. The whole thing can be read here:
The only revolution based on loving your enemy is the Negro revolution. The only revolution in which the goal is a desegregated lunch counter, a desegregated theater, a desegregated park, and a desegregated public toilet; you can sit down next to white folks on the toilet. That’s no revolution. Revolution is based on land. Land is the basis of all independence. Land is the basis of freedom, justice, and equality.
The white man knows what a revolution is. He knows that the black revolution is world-wide in scope and in nature. The black revolution is sweeping Asia, sweeping Africa, is rearing its head in Latin America. The Cuban Revolution — that’s a revolution. They overturned the system. Revolution is in Asia. Revolution is in Africa. And the white man is screaming because he sees revolution in Latin America. How do you think he’ll react to you when you learn what a real revolution is? You don’t know what a revolution is. If you did, you wouldn’t use that word. (253)
A lot from Lowndes Country, struggling with political process, role of patronage and taking care of their own.
From Stokely Carmichael — excerpts from ‘What We Want’ (full article here) and building power across class and race:
SNCC has tried several times to organize poor whites; we are trying again now, with an initial training program in Tennessee. It is purely academic today to talk about bringing poor blacks and whites together, but the job of creating a poor-white power bloc must be attempted.
Between 1965-1968, SCLC started moving away from single-issue campaigns, started to tie everything together. ‘A proposal by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference for the Development of a Nonviolent Action Movement for the Greater Chicago Area’ from 5 January, 1966 is covered in its own post.
This is also the period of urban uprisings — there is this, from the Report of the National Advsiory Commission on Civil Disorders, or the Kerner Comission, on Detroit:
During five days in the city, 2,700 Army troops expended only 201 rounds of ammunition, almost all during teh first few hours, after which even stricter fire discipline was enforced. (In contrast, New Jersey National Guardsmen and State police expended 13,326 rounds of ammunition in three days in Newark.) . . . (321)
Another powerful account of uprising from Roger Wilkins, director of the U.S.Justice Department’s Community Relations Service. This is an excerpt from his autobiography:
“What is it that they want?”
I looked at her for a long time. This was the kind of middle-class Negro that I’d been running from all my life….
“Jobs and dignity, I guess,” I replied.
“Well, there’s not much dignity in burning and looting,” she replied haughtily. I closed my eyes. I had to go through this with white people all the time.
“No, I suppose not,” I said without opening my eyes, “but I guess there’s also not much dignity in sitting there quietly while the society chokes the life out of you and your children.” (332)
There was an equally powerful piece called ‘Death Watch’ by Marvin Dunn on the 1980 riots in Miami, a history of Liberty City and the changes in the city and the black community. There is a growing northern ‘urban’ focus — it is interesting to me that the struggle in Birmingham, in Montgomery and other places aren’t really thought of as ‘urban’. To be explored later. Here’s Bobby Seale, from Seize the Time on the writing of the executive mandate of the Black Panthers:
Eldridge and Huey and all of us sat down, and it didn’t take us long. We weren’t jiving. No time at all, not like some of the intellectuals and punks that have to take ten days before they can write an executive mandate to put things together. I don’t think it was fifteen minutes before we whipped that executive mandate out… (349-350)
As long as it takes me to write articles, I have surely joined the intellectuals and punks.
There are a whole slew of documents on the controversy over Ocean Hill-Brownsville demonstration school district, and the fight for community control over public education along with a new kind of teaching. This was all new to me, I learned much.
From “A Time to Break Silence”, Martin Luther King on 4 April 1967 in NY’s Riverside Church, his famous anti-war speech:
–what about Vietnam? They asked if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its own problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that i could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today–my own government (389)
An awesome section written by Mohammed Ali on refusing to go fight in Vietnam. Students organizing at Howard — the umbrella organization for their student activist groups called Ujamaa. Women fighting old ideals of straight hair and beauty. More on Fred Hampton and the growth of the Black Panthers and their destruction, Cointelpro, Angela Davis’s autobiography, George Jackson’s letter, Attica. Increasing efforts in electoral politics.
So a section on new Black mayors — like Mayor Maynard Jackson of Atlanta, inaugurated January 1974:
So, we must be a City of love and our definition of love must be a definition of action. Love must be strong economic growth and prosperity for
Love must be giving the young a voice in City Government and restoring their faith in the electoral process. Love must be concern for the welfare of our senior citizens and a renewed commitment to make their years productive and rewarding for all of us. Love must be a balanced diet for all of our children. Love must be decent, safe and sanitary housing for all Atlantans. Love must be working to rid a community of the rats that attack babies while they sleep. Love must be a good education available to all who wish to learn. Love must be an open door to opportunity instead of a closed door of despair. Love must be good jobs, equal treatment and fair wages for all working people. Love must be safe streets and homes where our families can be secure from the threat of violence. Love must be a decision to care for the sick, the infirm and the handicapped. Love must be a city filled with people working together to improve the quality of all our lives. Love must be the absence of racism and sexism. Love must be a chance for everybody to be somebody.
To insure a clear reflection of this essential ethic, this administration must place priority upon serving the needs of the masses as well as the classes. The pending reorganization of our City Government will be designed to open wide the doors of City Hall to all Atlantans and make our City Government more responsive to “people needs” and “people problems.” (615)
One hell of an elected representative, right? That is a high, then off to the low of the battles against Affirmative Action and the Bakke case.
This really is a potpourri and probably won’t make much sense to anyone else, but what else do you do with such a book? I’m not quite sure why I tried, but it seemed worthwhile. I’ll end with Harold Washington’s inaugural speech on becoming mayor of Chicago, 12 April, 1983 (and what a poem on his death from Gwendolyn Brooks, but I won’t quote that here)
Most of our problems can be solved. Some of them will take brains and some of them will take patience, but all of them will have to be wrestled with like an alligator in the swamp. (701)
Just communities. Just cities. Just connections between country and city. Also, the weird and wonderful.