Blue in the Face: Born in Leipzig in 1884, schooled in Weimar and Paris, fleeing the Nazis for Holland and arriving in New York in 1949, one morning in late December 1950 Max Beckmann set out across Central Park to see his “Self-Portrait in Blue,” painted earlier that year and already on display in the Metropolitan Museum. He made it as far as 69th Street and Central Park West, where he suffered a fatal heart attack. With this rather morbid point of departure, the Met’s new exhibition, Max Beckmann in New York, running through February 20, culls 14 paintings created in that brief New York sojourn and 25 works from other U.S. collections, including, above: “Carnival Mask, Green, Violet, and Pink (Columbine),” 1950. Oil on canvas, 53 3/8 × 39 9/16 inches or 135.5 × 100.5 cm. (Framed: 61 3/8 × 47 3/4 × 1 3/4 inches or 155.9 × 121.3 × 4.4 cm.) Saint Louis Art Museum, Bequest of Morton D. May. SL.9.2016.24.2. Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Among the paintings, prints, and sculptures exhibited at Paris’s Musée de la Vie Romantique for L’oeil de Baudelaire (see below the next story for details and more images), running through January 20, is, above, the poet-critic’s Self-Portrait from 1848, the epoch when Charles Baudelaire (1821 – 1867) was hanging out with Theophile Gauthier on the Il St. Louis and experimenting with hashish. (See “Les Paradis artificiels,” 1860.) Watercolor and graphite. Paris, Cite de l’architecture. Courtesy Musée de la Vie Romantique.
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The Great Gatsby”
“He’s here again: The man with the child in his eyes.” – Kate Bush
By & Copyright 2016 Paul Ben-Itzak
(Like what you’re reading? Please support the Arts Voyager by donating through PayPal, designating your payment to firstname.lastname@example.org, or write us at that address if you prefer to pay by check or in Euros. Based in the Dordogne and Paris, the Arts Voyager is also currently looking for lodging in Paris. Paul is also available for translating, editing, Djing, and webmastering assignments.)
In an old house in Paris, les paradises reel
“She loves books,” I insisted, struggling to get Pierre’s attention. “She’s serious. She’s got eyes to die for. She appreciates that I’m a writer.”
Briskly shelving cellophane-sealed histories of art and philosophy, squeezing dust-covered profiles of anarchist agitators and existential theorists in between musty biographies of Belle Epoch clowns and Front Populaire officials, carrying whole rows of obscure scientific revues from the balustrade overlooking the Seine lapping at the banks of the Ile St. Louis across the way — where Gauthier and Baudelaire once threw lavish hashish parties and Camille Claudel plummeted into “the years of darkness” — to his three bruised dark green metal stalls, occasionally brushing his long stringy pony-tailed graying brown hair away from his John Lennon glasses or flicking the soot off the sleeves of his Tang-colored jumpsuit, not even taking time to glance at the fathomless river rippling under the reflections of the crepuscular Sun, Pierre didn’t seem to be listening to my rapturous account of my first dinner date with Emilie, who I’d met at his 40th birthday fete near the Place Edith Piaf.
In Henry James’s “The Ambassadors,” Lambert Strether takes a break from trying to rescue a friend’s errant son from the jaws of a man-eating Parisienne to troll for literary treasures in the bookstands lining both banks of the Seine, finally scoring a complete volume of the works of Victor Hugo, poet-champion of les miserables and exiled political opponent of Napoleon III whose anguished militating against the death penalty from an island in the English Channel stretched even across the Atlantic to plead mercy for the abolitionist John Brown. If it’s true that, as pointed out by Robert Badinter – who as Mitterand’s attorney general would fulfill Hugo’s dream of decapitating the guillotine a century after his death – France is not so much the country of the Rights of Man as the country which declared the Rights of Man, it was Hugo picking up the mantle of Voltaire before passing it on to Zola who would try to ford the abyss between the declarations and the deeds. The gap between the piss-poor metier of bouquiniste – Pierre’s — and that of published author, by contrast, had frequently been bridged. Michel Ragon, the most cultivated man alive in France today (as of this writing, in late 2016), got his start as a bouquiniste before becoming the country’s premiere critic of art and architecture in the second half of the 20th century, as a side oeuvre keeping a log of proletarian movements that culminated in “La Memoir des Vaincus” (the memoir of the vanquished) the loosely fictional biography of a sort of Zelig among the anarchists or, more specifically, anarcho-syndicalists (anarchist labor organizers). (There’s a strain of anarchism in even the most encadred of French souls; as I write this, French policemen and women – the very embodiment of State order — are defying both their government and their unions by marching for more modern means and the right to shoot in self-defense.) Léo Malet – who was baptized by the anarchists and accompanied the surrealists before inventing Nestor Burma, the down-at-the-mouth French answer to Philip Marlowe, a poor man’s Maigret unafraid to dive into the muck of the Seine to catch a bad guy, whose rich vernacular and poetic vocabulary make Simenon look like Hergé and who left a trail of bodies in each of the 15 arrondissements in which his New Mysteries of Paris were set — was rewarded for this fidelity to the city with a bouquiniste’s concession, only to give it up after a few months because “I preferred reading the books to selling them.” And when another Léo, Carax – the bad boy of French cinema – wanted to demonstrate how far off the deep end the hero of his 1986 “Mauvaise Sang” had plunged after agreeing to steal a sample of HIV-contaminated blood with Juliette Binoche and Michel Piccoli, he had him break into a bouquiniste’s box after roaming the fog-addled bridges of the Seine in a midnight delirium. It was about the most fragile target one could pick; Pierre supported his metier de coeur by working part-time as a museum security guard, further trimming his expenses by jumping Metro turn styles.
So when I bought my first art book from Pierre, a tome on Impressionism published in the 1950s (the ideal epoch for the quality of the reproductions) with a portrait of Berthe Morisot as painted by her brother-in-law Manet on the cover, it was as if I had procured a part of Paris history directly from one of its guardians, another way to insert myself into the city’s lore.
Finally padlocking the last of the rusty boxes and starting off at a clipped pace for “Le chope des compagnons,” the bar across the street from his stand and the Hotel de la Ville, where he’d promised to introduce me to an Italian mason who specialized in tombstones (my dance magazine wanted to restore what at that juncture we still believed was the ballerina Taglioni’s dilapidated grave in the Montmartre cemetery, only to learn later from Edgar Allen Poe that the mother of pointe was actually buried in the Pere Lachaise sepulcher of the Bonapartiste ex-husband who’d barred her from the domicile congugale when she refused to stop dancing), Pierre scoffed, “Ecoute, it’s not you she’s interested in. She’s a little girl from the provinces set loose in Paris. For her you’re the American — you’re exotique. If it doesn’t cost you anything, pourquoi pas? Mais fait gaffe: Already she’s taking advantage of Marcel.” Marcel was the fellow bouquiniste who’d been putting Emilie up since she’d debarqued from Toulouse. “She was supposed to stay for a week-end, already she’s been there for three weeks. He has a thing for her, and she’s abusing his kindness.” As with his attempts to debunk the authenticity of Sarah Bernhardt’s ornate personal mirror, which I’d recently purchased from a Bohemian couple at a Montmartre garage sale, Pierre seemed bent on denying the legitimacy of my burgeoning French connections, be they anchored in the past or present. For me however it was clear that his skepticism derived from too many years of seeing tourists leaf through his precious books – the cellophane wrappers were meant to discourage such marauding — without buying anything, while he paid his rent watching the same Philistines photograph themselves in front of the museum masterpieces he guarded.
“She’s pretty helpless, Pierre. She needs a friend. And as for taking advantage of Marcel, it’s not her fault if she can’t find work. She’s a social worker with ado’s at a time when the government has just cut 8,000 aide jobs from the schools.”
“Okay, Candide! Fait comme tu veut. Just don’t come crying to me afterwards. The problem with you Americans is you’re too romantic about France. You think every waif you encounter wandering the quays has just stepped out of the pages of Les Miserables, is harboring the soul of Piaf, and is looking for a Marcel Cedran to protect her. And you don’t even like boxing.”
“Dans une vieux maison a Paree
Ont vecu 12 petites filles
dans deux etroite files.”
“Filles,” (sniff), “doesn’t rhyme with files,” Emilie pointed out with nasally muted contentiousness before taking a sip of chicken soup with approximated matzo balls. Unable to find Manischevitz, I’d bought a box of matzo crackers (or pain d’azyme) imported from Oran — the Algerian city on a hill in which Camus had set “The Plague,” which hosted a large Jewish colony — and pulverized them to compose the body of the balls, pulling out the major gourmet artillery to lure Emilie to my petite coin de Paradis on the rue de Paradis when she’d wanted to cancel our rendez-vous, pleading an incipient cold. “I’ll make you a big pot of hot chicken soup with matzo balls.”
“Qu’est-ce que c’est?”
“It’s like Jewish penicillin.”
“You see? It’s like I told you, your Jewish genes are trés important to you.”
“It has nothing to do with my Jewish genes,” I insisted. “It’s my California roots. My father built one of the first Nouveau California Cuisine restaurants in San Francisco, and my mother did the cooking. The only difference is her matzo balls were made of whole wheat.”
“Pourquoi pas tofu?”
“She was Old School Nouveau California Cuisine.”
“If I drink the soup, it will make me Jewish?” French humour often being more refined than American, I never knew whether Emilie was kidding.
“It won’t make you Jewish, but it might make you less blueish.” Getting no response – the “Yellow Submarine” film reference escaping her, or maybe she just didn’t get my own sense of humour – I added, “It might help your cold.”
Emilie was now perched primly on the futon with her delicate fingers clasped between her knees, looking thinner in a somber brown skirt over black tights, a light-weight tan pullover not helping her ghostly, wan pallor. In an effort to rally her spirits – the soup had only increased the sniffling, and I was having trouble charming her — I’d pulled out my Madeline omnibus. Ludwig Bemelmans’s Madeline – the hero of a series of children’s stories set in Paris which no one in France has ever heard of, just as many have never heard of “The Red Balloon” — had been the obsession of Mimi Kitagawa, my childhood best friend who’d turned over in her crib on Liberty Street in San Francisco in 1964 at the age of three and a half and breathed her last breath. During a desperate late-night passage in Greenwich Village in 1997, reeling from a push-and-pull, now I love you, now I don’t relationship with an exotic modern dancer-contortionist and meandering up Broadway in search of salvation, I’d ended up at the Strand (“8 miles of books, millions of bargains”), where a copy of the Madeline collection had beckoned to me from a display shelf near the ceiling, which I took as a hail-Mary from Mimi, by then my guardian angel. Later, whenever the ameritune of past experience threatened to blind me to present possibilities, I’d try to let Mimi become the child taking over my perspective (in Californese: “I’d channel her”), and remind myself that I had a responsibility to live my life for two.
I was now (we’re back on the rue de Paradis, in October 2004) attempting to translate the first Madeline tale into French to make it legible for Emilie, or at least get a rise out of her with my maladroit bungling.
“Filles,” Emilie was pointing out, “Is pronounced ‘fee’; files,” French for ‘lines,’ “is pronounced ‘feeel.’ So in fact, Monsieur Paul” – she looked up from the book to emphasize the point with her eyes – “they do not rhyme.” Seeing my deflated disappointment – and realizing I was doing my valiant best to distract her from the cold — she added, this time with a slight upturn to her lips and an accompanying humour in her eyes to indicate she was being ironic, “Et pour ma part, je commence a perdre le file,” the latter phrase meaning ‘lose the thread.’
“Dans deux FEEEEEEEEEEEL etroites donc, ils ont coupé leur pain,” or broke their bread, I continued, “et ont lavé leurs teeth,” which I emphasized by pointing to Bemelmans’s simple sketch of the 12 girls aligned on either side of the orphanage dinner table brushing their teeth, “avant de se mis au LITH,” I concluded, adding the lisp to “lit,” the French word for ‘bed,’ to get the rhyme with ‘teeth.’
Turning the page to a double-spread demonstrating the girls’ attitudes towards, respectively, the forces of good and those of evil, I translated “They smiled before the good” as “Devant le bon, ils se sont rejoui” to get the rhyme with my translation of “and frowned on the bad“: “Tandis que devant le mal, ils aviez que du mepris.”
“Pas mal,” Emilie admitted, finally smiling through the sniffles. “But I don’t understand why for the good he draws a picture of a rich woman feeding a carousel horse in front of les Invalides – “
“Maybe it’s Napoleon’s horse?” I offered feebly, Bonaparte’s ashes being stored at the army museum.
“And maybe you lead me to Waterloo! Et apres?”
I continued reading and translating until the page on which Madeline, after an emergency appendectomy, wakes up in a hospital room full of flowers.
Putting her thin fore-finger on one of the pictured vases, Emilie complained, “She gets all those flowers for her appendix, and you have nothing for me?”
“Au contraire! So, my belle-mere has a boutique in San Francisco where she sells exotic soaps, shampoos, bubble-baths, and body oils. It’s actually how she and my father met; her store was across the street from his restaurant.”
“Ah bon?” This had spiked her interest, as I’d cleverly maneuvered food, perfume, and romantic rendez-vous into the same sentence.
“My step-mom – er, belle-mere – actually has a French last name. So you could say I’m part French.”
She smiled, if just with her eyes.
“Anyway, I have something she sent me that I want to give you.” Even though I’d asked my step-mom to send me the wild rose body oil specifically for such an occasion, I was trying to casualize the gift so as to not scare Emilie away. Normally I’d pretend to pull such small packages out of my victim’s ear, but the last time I’d tried that trick (inherited from my grandpa in Miami Beach, a liquor salesman, who used to do it with pennies or his wide gold ring with the oval black stone), the recipient had shrieked, thinking I was plucking a bee out of her bonnet, dissipating the ambiance. So this time I merely pulled the present, enveloped in bubble-wrap, out of my pocket.
“It’s very sweet of you,” Emilie said after twisting the cap off the miniscule glass tube and taking a whiff, patting and looking down at my hand to avoid looking me in the eyes. “If you don’t mind I will save it for later, because it could make me sick if I put it on now with my cold.”
“Speaking of roses,” I said, jumping to the stereo to cue “La Vie en Rose,” “Would Mademoiselle care to dance?” Looking up noncommittally at my offered hand, which at that moment felt to me like a gorilla’s, she tentatively placed her downy palm in mine and rose with an effort. In theory, waltzing with a French girl to Piaf singing “La Vie en Rose” in my own Paris apartment on the rue de Paradis across the street from where Pissarro and Morisot learned to paint from Corot should have felt like a dream fulfilled, but my predominant sensation as I strained my back over Emilie’s doll-like hunched shoulders was the memory of dancing with Jocelyn Benford at the Lowell High School 1976 sophomore dance (“I need someone to ride the bus home with,” Jocelyn had explained, counting on my junior high crush still lingering), our ersatz silk shirts sticking sweatily together, broken up only by the ridged outline of Jocelyn’s bra, as we rotated to Earth Wind & Fire singing “Reasons.” As this French girl and I spun slowly on Paradis, the rose light-bulb I’d switched on coronating the reflection of our faces in Sarah Bernhardt’s abalone encrusted beveled mirror with a velvet aureole, Emilie felt even more fragile and fleeting in my American grizzly-bear grasp than that long ago 14-year-old.
Basé en Dordogne, Paul Ben-Itzak, le redacteur / journaliste / animateur de l’Arts Voyager, francaisanglaistraduction, et Dance Insider, cherche un logement a Paris. (Location, sous-location, co-location, ou echange pour services — traduction/ redaction, DJ, cuisine, website development, etc.) Merci de me contacter a email@example.com. (Il faut copier cette addresse mail a votre messagerie.) Avec moi j’ai une petite chatte blanche, trés propre.
These days, clever curatorial concepts too often serve as just re-packaging to assemble a top 40 of art history or re-package an artist who’s already been over-played, to the detriment of lesser-known, often forgotten figures. (I, for one, would rather see the Modern Art Museum of the City of Paris haul out its 100+ trove of the erotic, industrial, pastoral, and war-themed paintings, lithographs, and prints of Marcel Gromaire than, yawn, the exhibition it’s currently presenting on the one-dimensional Bernard Buffet.) But Robert Kopp, Charlotte Manzini, and Jerome Farigoule take the assignment of “L’oeil de Baudelaire,” or “Baudelaire’s Eye,” their exhibition running through January 20 at the Musée de la Vie Romantique in Paris, seriously. The paintings, prints, and sculptures on view, including work from Camille Corot, Delacroix, Ingres, and Daumier, aren’t just presented as stuff that Charles Baudelaire liked, but are paired with his published critical commentaries of the work in question. And these essays often illuminate the vital role the critic can play in countering sanctioned opinion and encouraging under-appreciated artists. For example, the current exhibition features just a morsel (above), “Cleopatra (Servant),” of Théodore Chasseriau’s “Cleopatra committing suicide,” the 26-year-old artist having mutilated the painting after it was refused by the Salon of 1845. (Chasseriau died in 1856 at the age of 37.) The rejection didn’t stop Baudelaire from writing of Chasseriau, in his book on the salon, “The position that he wants to create between Ingres, of whom he is the pupil, and Delacroix, who he wants to dethrone, presents an image that is somewhat equivocal for the public and somewhat embarassing for him. That M. Chasseriau finds his wealth in Delacroix, fine; but that, despite all the talent and the precocious experience he’s acquired, he makes it so obvious — therein lies the problem…. But with his distinguished tastes and active spirit, all the signs are there to hope that he’ll become a painter — and an eminent one.” Chasseriau’s work did, indeed, continue to evolve, particularly after a voyage to Algeria in 1846. Through commissioned work at the Saint-Merri church and the Cour des Comptes (so says my “Petit Robert”), he contributed to the renewal of the art of mural painting. Successors such as Gustave Moreau and Puvis de Chavannes were influenced by him. Image of oil on canvas from the Musee des Beaux-Arts in Marseille courtesy Musée de la Vie Romantique. — Paul Ben-Itzak
Basé en Dordogne, Paul Ben-Itzak, le redacteur / journaliste / animateur de l’Arts Voyager, francaisanglaistraduction, et Dance Insider, cherche un logement a Paris. (Location, sous-location, co-location, ou echange pour services — traduction/ redaction, DJ, cuisine, website development, etc.) Merci de me contacter a firstname.lastname@example.org. (Il faut copier cette addresse mail a votre messagerie.) Avec moi j’ai une petite chatte blanche, trés propre.
By Harold Pinter
© The Nobel Foundation 2005
(The following address was first given December 7, 2005 at the Swedish Academy in Stockholm by the British playwright as his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize for Literature. The lecture can also be read, and viewed on video, by visiting the Nobel Prize website.)
In 1958 I wrote the following:
‘There are no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal, nor between what is true and what is false. A thing is not necessarily either true or false; it can be both true and false.’
I believe that these assertions still make sense and do still apply to the exploration of reality through art. So as a writer I stand by them but as a citizen I cannot. As a citizen I must ask: What is true? What is false?
Truth in drama is forever elusive. You never quite find it but the search for it is compulsive. The search is clearly what drives the endeavour. The search is your task. More often than not you stumble upon the truth in the dark, colliding with it or just glimpsing an image or a shape which seems to correspond to the truth, often without realising that you have done so. But the real truth is that there never is any such thing as one truth to be found in dramatic art. There are many. These truths challenge each other, recoil from each other, reflect each other, ignore each other, tease each other, are blind to each other. Sometimes you feel you have the truth of a moment in your hand, then it slips through your fingers and is lost.
I have often been asked how my plays come about. I cannot say. Nor can I ever sum up my plays, except to say that this is what happened. That is what they said. That is what they did.
Most of the plays are engendered by a line, a word or an image. The given word is often shortly followed by the image. I shall give two examples of two lines which came right out of the blue into my head, followed by an image, followed by me.
The plays are The Homecoming and Old Times. The first line of The Homecoming is ‘What have you done with the scissors?’ The first line of Old Times is ‘Dark.’
In each case I had no further information.
In the first case someone was obviously looking for a pair of scissors and was demanding their whereabouts of someone else he suspected had probably stolen them. But I somehow knew that the person addressed didn’t give a damn about the scissors or about the questioner either, for that matter.
‘Dark’ I took to be a description of someone’s hair, the hair of a woman, and was the answer to a question. In each case I found myself compelled to pursue the matter. This happened visually, a very slow fade, through shadow into light.
I always start a play by calling the characters A, B and C.
In the play that became The Homecoming I saw a man enter a stark room and ask his question of a younger man sitting on an ugly sofa reading a racing paper. I somehow suspected that A was a father and that B was his son, but I had no proof. This was however confirmed a short time later when B (later to become Lenny) says to A (later to become Max), ‘Dad, do you mind if I change the subject? I want to ask you something. The dinner we had before, what was the name of it? What do you call it? Why don’t you buy a dog? You’re a dog cook. Honest. You think you’re cooking for a lot of dogs.’ So since B calls A ‘Dad’ it seemed to me reasonable to assume that they were father and son. A was also clearly the cook and his cooking did not seem to be held in high regard. Did this mean that there was no mother? I didn’t know. But, as I told myself at the time, our beginnings never know our ends.
‘Dark.’ A large window. Evening sky. A man, A (later to become Deeley), and a woman, B (later to become Kate), sitting with drinks. ‘Fat or thin?’ the man asks. Who are they talking about? But I then see, standing at the window, a woman, C (later to become Anna), in another condition of light, her back to them, her hair dark.
It’s a strange moment, the moment of creating characters who up to that moment have had no existence. What follows is fitful, uncertain, even hallucinatory, although sometimes it can be an unstoppable avalanche. The author’s position is an odd one. In a sense he is not welcomed by the characters. The characters resist him, they are not easy to live with, they are impossible to define. You certainly can’t dictate to them. To a certain extent you play a never-ending game with them, cat and mouse, blind man’s buff, hide and seek. But finally you find that you have people of flesh and blood on your hands, people with will and an individual sensibility of their own, made out of component parts you are unable to change, manipulate or distort.
So language in art remains a highly ambiguous transaction, a quicksand, a trampoline, a frozen pool which might give way under you, the author, at any time.
But as I have said, the search for the truth can never stop. It cannot be adjourned, it cannot be postponed. It has to be faced, right there, on the spot.
Political theatre presents an entirely different set of problems. Sermonising has to be avoided at all cost. Objectivity is essential. The characters must be allowed to breathe their own air. The author cannot confine and constrict them to satisfy his own taste or disposition or prejudice. He must be prepared to approach them from a variety of angles, from a full and uninhibited range of perspectives, take them by surprise, perhaps, occasionally, but nevertheless give them the freedom to go which way they will. This does not always work. And political satire, of course, adheres to none of these precepts, in fact does precisely the opposite, which is its proper function.
In my play The Birthday Party I think I allow a whole range of options to operate in a dense forest of possibility before finally focussing on an act of subjugation.
Mountain Language pretends to no such range of operation. It remains brutal, short and ugly. But the soldiers in the play do get some fun out of it. One sometimes forgets that torturers become easily bored. They need a bit of a laugh to keep their spirits up. This has been confirmed of course by the events at Abu Ghraib in Baghdad. Mountain Language lasts only 20 minutes, but it could go on for hour after hour, on and on and on, the same pattern repeated over and over again, on and on, hour after hour.
Ashes to Ashes, on the other hand, seems to me to be taking place under water. A drowning woman, her hand reaching up through the waves, dropping down out of sight, reaching for others, but finding nobody there, either above or under the water, finding only shadows, reflections, floating; the woman a lost figure in a drowning landscape, a woman unable to escape the doom that seemed to belong only to others.
But as they died, she must die too.
Political language, as used by politicians, does not venture into any of this territory since the majority of politicians, on the evidence available to us, are interested not in truth but in power and in the maintenance of that power. To maintain that power it is essential that people remain in ignorance, that they live in ignorance of the truth, even the truth of their own lives. What surrounds us therefore is a vast tapestry of lies, upon which we feed.
As every single person here knows, the justification for the invasion of Iraq was that Saddam Hussein possessed a highly dangerous body of weapons of mass destruction, some of which could be fired in 45 minutes, bringing about appalling devastation. We were assured that was true. It was not true. We were told that Iraq had a relationship with Al Quaeda and shared responsibility for the atrocity in New York of September 11th 2001. We were assured that this was true. It was not true. We were told that Iraq threatened the security of the world. We were assured it was true. It was not true.
The truth is something entirely different. The truth is to do with how the United States understands its role in the world and how it chooses to embody it.
But before I come back to the present I would like to look at the recent past, by which I mean United States foreign policy since the end of the Second World War. I believe it is obligatory upon us to subject this period to at least some kind of even limited scrutiny, which is all that time will allow here.
Everyone knows what happened in the Soviet Union and throughout Eastern Europe during the post-war period: the systematic brutality, the widespread atrocities, the ruthless suppression of independent thought. All this has been fully documented and verified.
But my contention here is that the US crimes in the same period have only been superficially recorded, let alone documented, let alone acknowledged, let alone recognised as crimes at all. I believe this must be addressed and that the truth has considerable bearing on where the world stands now. Although constrained, to a certain extent, by the existence of the Soviet Union, the United States’s actions throughout the world made it clear that it had concluded it had carte blanche to do what it liked.
Direct invasion of a sovereign state has never in fact been America’s favoured method. In the main, it has preferred what it has described as ‘low intensity conflict.’ Low intensity conflict means that thousands of people die but slower than if you dropped a bomb on them in one fell swoop. It means that you infect the heart of the country, that you establish a malignant growth and watch the gangrene bloom. When the populace has been subdued — or beaten to death — the same thing — and your own friends, the military and the great corporations, sit comfortably in power, you go before the camera and say that democracy has prevailed. This was a commonplace in US foreign policy in the years to which I refer.
The tragedy of Nicaragua was a highly significant case. I choose to offer it here as a potent example of America’s view of its role in the world, both then and now.
I was present at a meeting at the US embassy in London in the late 1980s.
The United States Congress was about to decide whether to give more money to the Contras in their campaign against the state of Nicaragua. I was a member of a delegation speaking on behalf of Nicaragua but the most important member of this delegation was a Father John Metcalf. The leader of the US body was Raymond Seitz (then number two to the ambassador, later ambassador himself). Father Metcalf said: ‘Sir, I am in charge of a parish in the north of Nicaragua. My parishioners built a school, a health centre, a cultural centre. We have lived in peace. A few months ago a Contra force attacked the parish. They destroyed everything: the school, the health centre, the cultural centre. They raped nurses and teachers, slaughtered doctors, in the most brutal manner. They behaved like savages. Please demand that the US government withdraw its support from this shocking terrorist activity.’
Raymond Seitz had a very good reputation as a rational, responsible and highly sophisticated man. He was greatly respected in diplomatic circles. He listened, paused and then spoke with some gravity. ‘Father,’ he said, ‘let me tell you something. In war, innocent people always suffer.’ There was a frozen silence. We stared at him. He did not flinch.
Innocent people, indeed, always suffer.
Finally somebody said: ‘But in this case “innocent people” were the victims of a gruesome atrocity subsidised by your government, one among many. If Congress allows the Contras more money further atrocities of this kind will take place. Is this not the case? Is your government not therefore guilty of supporting acts of murder and destruction upon the citizens of a sovereign state?’
Seitz was imperturbable. ‘I don’t agree that the facts as presented support your assertions,’ he said.
As we were leaving the Embassy a US aide told me that he enjoyed my plays. I did not reply.
I should remind you that at the time President Reagan made the following statement: ‘The Contras are the moral equivalent of our Founding Fathers.’
The United States supported the brutal Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua for over 40 years. The Nicaraguan people, led by the Sandinistas, overthrew this regime in 1979, a breathtaking popular revolution.
The Sandinistas weren’t perfect. They possessed their fair share of arrogance and their political philosophy contained a number of contradictory elements. But they were intelligent, rational and civilised. They set out to establish a stable, decent, pluralistic society. The death penalty was abolished. Hundreds of thousands of poverty-stricken peasants were brought back from the dead. Over 100,000 families were given title to land. Two thousand schools were built. A quite remarkable literacy campaign reduced illiteracy in the country to less than one seventh. Free education was established and a free health service. Infant mortality was reduced by a third. Polio was eradicated. The United States denounced these achievements as Marxist/Leninist subversion. In the view of the US government, a dangerous example was being set. If Nicaragua was allowed to establish basic norms of social and economic justice, if it was allowed to raise the standards of health care and education and achieve social unity and national self respect, neighbouring countries would ask the same questions and do the same things. There was of course at the time fierce resistance to the status quo in El Salvador.
I spoke earlier about ‘a tapestry of lies’ which surrounds us. President Reagan commonly described Nicaragua as a ‘totalitarian dungeon’. This was taken generally by the media, and certainly by the British government, as accurate and fair comment. But there was in fact no record of death squads under the Sandinista government. There was no record of torture. There was no record of systematic or official military brutality. No priests were ever murdered in Nicaragua. There were in fact three priests in the government, two Jesuits and a Maryknoll missionary. The totalitarian dungeons were actually next door, in El Salvador and Guatemala. The United States had brought down the democratically elected government of Guatemala in 1954 and it is estimated that over 200,000 people had been victims of successive military dictatorships.
Six of the most distinguished Jesuits in the world were viciously murdered at the Central American University in San Salvador in 1989 by a battalion of the Alcatl regiment trained at Fort Benning, Georgia, USA. That extremely brave man Archbishop Romero was assassinated while saying mass. It is estimated that 75,000 people died. Why were they killed? They were killed because they believed a better life was possible and should be achieved. That belief immediately qualified them as communists. They died because they dared to question the status quo, the endless plateau of poverty, disease, degradation and oppression, which had been their birthright.
The United States finally brought down the Sandinista government. It took some years and considerable resistance but relentless economic persecution and 30,000 dead finally undermined the spirit of the Nicaraguan people. They were exhausted and poverty stricken once again. The casinos moved back into the country. Free health and free education were over. Big business returned with a vengeance. ‘Democracy’ had prevailed.
But this ‘policy’ was by no means restricted to Central America. It was conducted throughout the world. It was never-ending. And it is as if it never happened.
The United States supported and in many cases engendered every right wing military dictatorship in the world after the end of the Second World War. I refer to Indonesia, Greece, Uruguay, Brazil, Paraguay, Haiti, Turkey, the Philippines, Guatemala, El Salvador, and, of course, Chile. The horror the United States inflicted upon Chile in 1973 can never be purged and can never be forgiven.
Hundreds of thousands of deaths took place throughout these countries. Did they take place? And are they in all cases attributable to US foreign policy? The answer is yes they did take place and they are attributable to American foreign policy. But you wouldn’t know it.
It never happened. Nothing ever happened. Even while it was happening it wasn’t happening. It didn’t matter. It was of no interest. The crimes of the United States have been systematic, constant, vicious, remorseless, but very few people have actually talked about them. You have to hand it to America. It has exercised a quite clinical manipulation of power worldwide while masquerading as a force for universal good. It’s a brilliant, even witty, highly successful act of hypnosis.
I put to you that the United States is without doubt the greatest show on the road. Brutal, indifferent, scornful and ruthless it may be but it is also very clever. As a salesman it is out on its own and its most saleable commodity is self love. It’s a winner. Listen to all American presidents on television say the words, ‘the American people’, as in the sentence, ‘I say to the American people it is time to pray and to defend the rights of the American people and I ask the American people to trust their president in the action he is about to take on behalf of the American people.’
It’s a scintillating stratagem. Language is actually employed to keep thought at bay. The words ‘the American people’ provide a truly voluptuous cushion of reassurance. You don’t need to think. Just lie back on the cushion. The cushion may be suffocating your intelligence and your critical faculties but it’s very comfortable. This does not apply of course to the 40 million people living below the poverty line and the 2 million men and women imprisoned in the vast gulag of prisons, which extends across the US.
The United States no longer bothers about low intensity conflict. It no longer sees any point in being reticent or even devious. It puts its cards on the table without fear or favour. It quite simply doesn’t give a damn about the United Nations, international law or critical dissent, which it regards as impotent and irrelevant. It also has its own bleating little lamb tagging behind it on a lead, the pathetic and supine Great Britain.
What has happened to our moral sensibility? Did we ever have any? What do these words mean? Do they refer to a term very rarely employed these days — conscience? A conscience to do not only with our own acts but to do with our shared responsibility in the acts of others? Is all this dead? Look at Guantanamo Bay. Hundreds of people detained without charge for over three years, with no legal representation or due process, technically detained forever. This totally illegitimate structure is maintained in defiance of the Geneva Convention. It is not only tolerated but hardly thought about by what’s called the ‘international community.’ This criminal outrage is being committed by a country which declares itself to be ‘the leader of the free world.’ Do we think about the inhabitants of Guantanamo Bay? What does the media say about them? They pop up occasionally — a small item on page six. They have been consigned to a no man’s land from which indeed they may never return. At present many are on hunger strike, being force-fed, including British residents. No niceties in these force-feeding procedures. No sedative or anaesthetic. Just a tube stuck up your nose and into your throat. You vomit blood. This is torture. What has the British Foreign Secretary said about this? Nothing. What has the British Prime Minister said about this? Nothing. Why not? Because the United States has said: to criticise our conduct in Guantanamo Bay constitutes an unfriendly act. You’re either with us or against us. So Blair shuts up.
The invasion of Iraq was a bandit act, an act of blatant state terrorism, demonstrating absolute contempt for the concept of international law. The invasion was an arbitrary military action inspired by a series of lies upon lies and gross manipulation of the media and therefore of the public; an act intended to consolidate American military and economic control of the Middle East masquerading — as a last resort — all other justifications having failed to justify themselves — as liberation. A formidable assertion of military force responsible for the death and mutilation of thousands and thousands of innocent people.
We have brought torture, cluster bombs, depleted uranium, innumerable acts of random murder, misery, degradation and death to the Iraqi people and call it ‘bringing freedom and democracy to the Middle East.’
How many people do you have to kill before you qualify to be described as a mass murderer and a war criminal? One hundred thousand? More than enough, I would have thought. Therefore it is just that Bush and Blair be arraigned before the International Criminal Court of Justice. But Bush has been clever. He has not ratified the International Criminal Court of Justice. Therefore if any American soldier or for that matter politician finds himself in the dock Bush has warned that he will send in the marines. But Tony Blair has ratified the Court and is therefore available for prosecution. We can let the Court have his address if they’re interested. It is Number 10, Downing Street, London.
Death in this context is irrelevant. Both Bush and Blair place death well away on the back burner. At least 100,000 Iraqis were killed by American bombs and missiles before the Iraq insurgency began. These people are of no moment. Their deaths don’t exist. They are blank. They are not even recorded as being dead. ‘We don’t do body counts,’ said the American general Tommy Franks.
Early in the invasion there was a photograph published on the front page of British newspapers of Tony Blair kissing the cheek of a little Iraqi boy. ‘A grateful child,’ said the caption. A few days later there was a story and photograph, on an inside page, of another four-year-old boy with no arms. His family had been blown up by a missile. He was the only survivor. ‘When do I get my arms back?’ he asked. The story was dropped. Well, Tony Blair wasn’t holding him in his arms, nor the body of any other mutilated child, nor the body of any bloody corpse. Blood is dirty. It dirties your shirt and tie when you’re making a sincere speech on television.
The 2,000 American dead are an embarrassment. They are transported to their graves in the dark. Funerals are unobtrusive, out of harm’s way. The mutilated rot in their beds, some for the rest of their lives. So the dead and the mutilated both rot, in different kinds of graves.
Here is an extract from a poem by Pablo Neruda, ‘I’m Explaining a Few Things’:
And one morning all that was burning,
one morning the bonfires
leapt out of the earth
devouring human beings
and from then on fire,
gunpowder from then on,
and from then on blood.
Bandits with planes and Moors,
bandits with finger-rings and duchesses,
bandits with black friars spattering blessings
came through the sky to kill children
and the blood of children ran through the streets
without fuss, like children’s blood.
Jackals that the jackals would despise
stones that the dry thistle would bite on and spit out,
vipers that the vipers would abominate.
Face to face with you I have seen the blood
of Spain tower like a tide
to drown you in one wave
of pride and knives.
see my dead house,
look at broken Spain:
from every house burning metal flows
instead of flowers
from every socket of Spain
and from every dead child a rifle with eyes
and from every crime bullets are born
which will one day find
the bull’s eye of your hearts.
And you will ask: why doesn’t his poetry
speak of dreams and leaves
and the great volcanoes of his native land.
Come and see the blood in the streets.
Come and see
the blood in the streets.
Come and see the blood
in the streets!*
Let me make it quite clear that in quoting from Neruda’s poem I am in no way comparing Republican Spain to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. I quote Neruda because nowhere in contemporary poetry have I read such a powerful visceral description of the bombing of civilians.
I have said earlier that the United States is now totally frank about putting its cards on the table. That is the case. Its official declared policy is now defined as ‘full spectrum dominance.’ That is not my term, it is theirs. ‘Full spectrum dominance’ means control of land, sea, air and space and all attendant resources.
The United States now occupies 702 military installations throughout the world in 132 countries, with the honourable exception of Sweden, of course. We don’t quite know how they got there but they are there all right.
The United States possesses 8,000 active and operational nuclear warheads. Two thousand are on hair trigger alert, ready to be launched with 15 minutes warning. It is developing new systems of nuclear force, known as bunker busters. The British, ever cooperative, are intending to replace their own nuclear missile, Trident. Who, I wonder, are they aiming at? Osama bin Laden? You? Me? Joe Dokes? China? Paris? Who knows? What we do know is that this infantile insanity — the possession and threatened use of nuclear weapons — is at the heart of present American political philosophy. We must remind ourselves that the United States is on a permanent military footing and shows no sign of relaxing it.
Many thousands, if not millions, of people in the United States itself are demonstrably sickened, shamed and angered by their government’s actions, but as things stand they are not a coherent political force — yet. But the anxiety, uncertainty and fear which we can see growing daily in the United States is unlikely to diminish.
I know that President Bush has many extremely competent speech writers but I would like to volunteer for the job myself. I propose the following short address which he can make on television to the nation. I see him grave, hair carefully combed, serious, winning, sincere, often beguiling, sometimes employing a wry smile, curiously attractive, a man’s man.
‘God is good. God is great. God is good. My God is good. Bin Laden’s God is bad. His is a bad God. Saddam’s God was bad, except he didn’t have one. He was a barbarian. We are not barbarians. We don’t chop people’s heads off. We believe in freedom. So does God. I am not a barbarian. I am the democratically elected leader of a freedom-loving democracy. We are a compassionate society. We give compassionate electrocution and compassionate lethal injection. We are a great nation. I am not a dictator. He is. I am not a barbarian. He is. And he is. They all are. I possess moral authority. You see this fist? This is my moral authority. And don’t you forget it.’
A writer’s life is a highly vulnerable, almost naked activity. We don’t have to weep about that. The writer makes his choice and is stuck with it. But it is true to say that you are open to all the winds, some of them icy indeed. You are out on your own, out on a limb. You find no shelter, no protection — unless you lie — in which case of course you have constructed your own protection and, it could be argued, become a politician.
I have referred to death quite a few times this evening. I shall now quote a poem of my own called ‘Death’.
Where was the dead body found?
Who found the dead body?
Was the dead body dead when found?
How was the dead body found?
Who was the dead body?
Who was the father or daughter or brother
Or uncle or sister or mother or son
Of the dead and abandoned body?
Was the body dead when abandoned?
Was the body abandoned?
By whom had it been abandoned?
Was the dead body naked or dressed for a journey?
What made you declare the dead body dead?
Did you declare the dead body dead?
How well did you know the dead body?
How did you know the dead body was dead?
Did you wash the dead body
Did you close both its eyes
Did you bury the body
Did you leave it abandoned
Did you kiss the dead body
When we look into a mirror we think the image that confronts us is accurate. But move a millimetre and the image changes. We are actually looking at a never-ending range of reflections. But sometimes a writer has to smash the mirror — for it is on the other side of that mirror that the truth stares at us.
I believe that despite the enormous odds which exist, unflinching, unswerving, fierce intellectual determination, as citizens, to define the real truth of our lives and our societies is a crucial obligation which devolves upon us all. It is in fact mandatory.
If such a determination is not embodied in our political vision we have no hope of restoring what is so nearly lost to us — the dignity of man.
*Extract from “I’m Explaining a Few Things” translated by Nathaniel Tarn, from Pablo Neruda: Selected Poems, published by Jonathan Cape, London 1970. Used by permission of The Random House Group Limited.
For the Save and Project film festival, running November 2 -23 the Museum of Modern Art presents dozens of newly preserved and restored films from around the world, many receiving their first U.S. screening since being restored. Above: GW Pabst’s “Kamaradschaft” (Comradeship). 1931. Germany/France. Directed by G. W. Pabst. Courtesy Deutsche Kinemathek – Museum für Film und Fernsehen.