Commentaries - November 2007

Okay, I want to understand this picture.

A nation commemorates the pre-terrorist attack capture of a guy who long ago wanted to blow up the building where the leaders of the government were meeting. And to celebrate this event the people of this nation go a little hog-wild: bonfires that rage out of control (and in the morning sometimes animal bones are found in the ashes), fireworks that sometimes blow people's hands off, general unsafe craziness. Fair enough. It's somewhat like the various topsy-turvy carnivalesque celebrations that occur throughout Europe (e.g. in France). The day, it could be said, marks the moment when in England values such as Reason, Order, Lawfulness — emergent modern democratic values — won and the Unreason of terrorism lost. Except that of course the reasonable leaders of the nation, having protected themselves successfully through good advance-warning intelligence, deemed it certainly okay to torture the captured man, before executing him. All very public.

Nothing really odd about Guy Fawkes Day. What's odd, to me, today, is that the New York Times would run one of his mildly condescending oh, those silly foreigner "Journal" pieces on all this. You know the column: a little bit of quaint something going on elsewhere around the world, dubbed a "Journal" to suggest that it's all by the way — not really of or in the news, but somewhat beside the point.

Today's piece, "York Journal" by Sarah Lyall, finds it mildly amusing that the English are having trouble working through some contradictions in how they feel about Guy Fawkes Day. On one hand, the local folks, loving the annual wildness, would like to celebrate it as always. On the other hand, England is the very "Nanny State" that several of the American Republican candidates for President claim the U.S. is becoming, at least the U.S. that their coddling, liberal, Democratic opponents would like to create. This is the England of a myriad government regulations on what people can and can't do. England has gone all security- and safety-conscious. So for instance no bonfires. How can one celebrate the capture and torture of the great historical terrorist without a bonfire? Well, see the photo atop this entry — which ran along with the story in today's paper: some members of the Devon rugby club, watching a film on a giant screen that shows a bonfire that had been held and videotaped from a previous celebration.

That photo is remarkable, really. These young English rugby toughs, standing there, on Guy Fawkes Night, staring at the big screen, video representation of a wild bonfire.

The implication of the Times story (from its tone and also by way of what it doesn't mention) is that the Brits, with all their regulation, have caught themselves in a cultural paradox — one that can be observed with some dispassion from the paper of record on this side of the Atlantic. The celebration of the capture of the terrorist has always about it a joy over his craziness and daring. The glee about his torture is matched but not negated by the relief that modern democratic England was spared.

No mention here of 9/11, which is all over the background. Nor any reference to the current relevant discussion of torture and when it's permitted, for the sake of a nation's security, to use it against those who would imminently destroy our government. I'll bet anything that if we go back to American commentary about Guy Fawkes Day in the years 1948 through 1954 we would see all kinds of references to communists and the threat they pose and joy over their capture (e.g. about the snagging of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg). But no such cognizance of the American relevance here, perhaps because on both sides of the ideological aisle we don't want to admit that we will never have a Nanny State, and perhaps too because we so no similar contradiction for ourselves.

I'm not especially a fan of Norman Mailer's sentences - and not too much more, of his books on the whole. But Miami and the Siege of Chicago is in all respects a beautiful book.The writing of it and in it is, by far, I think, the finest and most interesting of all Mailer. Wow, these sentences. This writer was chugging in '68.

In the first half of the book--the section about the Republican national conventional in Miami, at which Nixon easily put down Rockefeller and the Nixonite GOP rolled over all opposition with smiling faces and louder-than-thou celebrating on the convention floor--Mailer finds himself heading for the bar, and then, typically, back to the hall to drink in the scene. Mailer noticed that Nixon had not won over the Goldwater Right even at the same time that he believed he had. Here are two paragraphs, and please notice that the second of the two is fabulously gonzo, drunken language:

Nixon might have his dream to unify the land, but he would yet to have to stare, face to face, into the powre of his own Right Wing, soon to rise on the wave of these beer-hall blasts, the worst of the Wasp, all bull in his muscles, all murder in his neck - would Nixon have the stance to meet them? Or would he fall captive to the madmen in the pits of his own party, those madmen absent from Miami, those madmen concealed this week? The convention had been peaceful, too peaceful by far.

At large on the ocean, would people yet pray for Nixon and wish him strength as once they had wished strength to old Hindenburg and Dollfus and Schuschnigg and Von Papen? Oom-pah went the tuba, starts! went the horn. Blood and shit might soon be flying like the red and brown of a verboten flag. It had had black in it as well. For death, perhaps. They always did. And shave the shorn. God give strength to Richard Nixon, and a nose for the real news. Oom-pah went the tuba, farts went the horn.

That's the late Terrence Des Pres, once my teacher, intermittently my mentor, brilliant and complex and probably tragic. When I teach my Holocaust course, it's largely based on his - which was, so far as we know, the first literature course on the Holocaust ever taught at a college or university (this was the mid-1970s). Terrence wrote an op-ed Times piece about the second running of this course: find it here. Of course my students read his brilliant (but, in the end, probably wrong) book The Survivor.

Terrence Des Pres was nearly the first person whose photograph I thought of to add to "Al's pantheon," an album in my new Picasa picture site. As of this writing, the others in the pantheon are my father, Bud Cox, Bob Lucid, Halbe Brown, Dave King, and John Giannotti.

Below you see a tag cloud generated by TagCrowd is a web application for visualizing word frequencies in any user-supplied text by creating what is popularly known as a tag cloud or text cloud. I created a tag clowd by using as sourcetext the typescript of the first chapter of my new book. I've set it here to create an image of words based on frequency of use, asking it to choose only the top 50. I don't know where "oj" and such "words" came from, but "ltr" I know is the abbreviation for "letter" (as in an archival letter) used in the footnotes. And "Mac" is the first half of the surname "Mac Low" which the machine reads as a separate term because of the space. Thank goodness I've used "poetry" more often than "communist"!

created at

"TagCrowd is being used far beyond the online realm: as topic summaries for speeches and written works; as visual summaries for survey data mining; as name tags for conferences, cocktail parties or wherever new collaborations start; as resumes in a single glance; as visual poetry."

Visual poetry. That I can see.

Okay, then. Now I'm creating a tag cloud without the frequency numbers from the text of a magazine article about Gertrude Stein, a review by Philip Hensher of Janet Malcolm's new book about Gertrude and Alice. Here goes:

created at

Finally let's try a poem itself as the sourcetext. I use William Carlos Williams's "The Rose Is Obsolete" from Spring and All and here is the result:

created at

The original poem is here.

A transcript of Gil Ott's interview with Jackson Mac Low, done in 1979, has been made available by the PhillySound blog folks. Mac Low talks about a particular development of his procedure that dates to early 1961. What does George Washington's camel have to do with anything? Well, go here please and find out.

Above: sketch by Mimi Gross that is part of a series linked to EPC.