25 November 2010


One of the most exciting new developments of the past few decades is the revival of indigenous cultures and languages, and the struggles for community and political rights.

This is happening even where the indigenous communities barely survived the conquest, as in the United States, where the pre-contact population of perhaps seven million or more was reduced to a few hundred thousand by 1900.

My own department at MIT has played a significant role in the revival, thanks to the extraordinary work of the late Kenneth Hale. Apart from working on human rights issues for indigenous populations in the Americas and Australia, and fundamental contributions to the study of their languages and to linguistic theory, he also brought people from reservations who had had few educational opportunities and devoted great effort to helping them gain doctoral degrees in a very demanding program, with dissertations on their own languages that surpassed anything in the literature in depth and sophistication. They returned to their homes, and have established educational and cultural programs, several of which have flourished, revitalizing marginalized communities and helping them to gain broader rights.

I will mention only one really spectacular achievement. One of the major languages of New England before the conquest was Wampanoag. The people themselves were mostly expelled or murdered, with a bounty offered for their heads, while those who surrendered and did not want to fight were sold into slavery--men, women, and children--by the early English colonists. The last known speaker died a century ago. Hale and some of his students were able to reconstruct the language from textual and comparative evidence. Hale's primary collaborator was a Wampanoag woman, Jesse Little Doe, who helped reconstruct the language and then learned it. At a memorial for Hale, she paid her tribute to him in fluent Wampanoag, and also brought her two-year-old daughter, the first native speaker of the language in a century. There is a good chance that the culture and community will flourish and find a proper place in the larger society, a model for what might be achieved elsewhere.

Noam Chomsky, Hopes and Prospects, pp.5-6

23 November 2010

"By and By"

Avis left the unfinished sketch or painting patiently. She said, "By and by. After a while. I must wait a little." She was still able to allure herself with the melody of this refrain, to which so many hundreds of women's lips have shaped themselves trembling; while the ears of a departing hope or a struggling purpose were bent to hear. Life had become a succession of expectancies....

Women understand--only women altogether--what a dreary will-o'-the-wisp is this old, common, I had almost said commonplace, experience, "When the fall sewing is done," "When the baby can walk," "When house-cleaning is over," "When the company has gone," "When we have got through with the whooping-cough," "When I am a little stronger," then I will write the poem, or learn the language, or study the great charity, or master the symphony; then I will act, dare, dream, become.

Elizabeth Stuart Lyon Phelps, Story of Avis
(quoted in Tillie Olsen, Silences, p.208)

Rebecca Harding Davis

Landmarks, unless they loom large in landscapes often visited, tend to become weed-grown tombstones over the forgotten dead, noticed only by accident.

Even the sense of landmark has been obliterated. Rebecca Harding Davis is a name known today only to a handful of American Studies people and literary historians. Few have read any of her work; fewer still teach any of it.

Myriads of human beings--those who did the necessary industrial work in the last century--lived and died and little remains from which to reconstruct their perished (vanished) lives. About them as about so much else, literature was largely silent, and the charge can be levied: Nowhere am I in it.

"No picture, poem, statement, passing them to the future
Unlimn'd, they disappear."

To those of us, descendants of their class, hungry for any rendering of what our vanished people were like, of how they lived, Rebecca Harding Davis's Life in the Iron Mills is immeasurably valuable. Details, questions, Vision, found nowhere else--dignified into literature.

Tillie Olsen, Silences, pp.113-114
(the quotation is from Walt Whitman's "Yonnondio")

16 September 2010

Broken-Face Gargoyles

All I can give you is broken-face gargoyles.
It is too early to sing and dance at funerals,
Though I can whisper to you I am looking for an undertaker humming
a lullaby and throwing his feet in a swift and mystic buck-and-wing,
now you see it and now you don't.

Fish to swim a pool in your garden flashing a speckled silver,
A basket of wine-saps filling your room with flame-dark for your eyes
and the tang of valley orchards for your nose,
Such a beautiful pail of fish, such a beautiful peck of apples, I cannot
bring you now.
It is too early and I am not footloose yet.

I shall come in the night when I come with a hammer and saw.
I shall come near your window, where you look out when your eyes
open in the morning,
And there I shall slam together bird-houses and bird-baths
for wing-loose wrens and hummers to live in, birds with yellow
wing tips to blur and buzz soft all summer,
So I shall make little fool homes with doors, always open doors for all
and each to run away when they want to.
I shall come just like that even though now it is early and I am not yet
Even though I am still looking for an undertaker with a raw,
wind-bitten face and a dance in his feet.
I make a date with you (put it down) for six o'clock in the evening
a thousand years from now.

All I can give you now is broken-face gargoyles.
All I can give you now is a double gorilla head with two fish mouths
and four eagle eyes hooked on a street wall, spouting water
and looking two ways to the ends of the street for the new people,
the young strangers, coming, coming, always coming.

It is early.
I shall yet be footloose.

Carl Sandburg, "Broken-Face Gargoyles" (in Smoke and Steel )

23 August 2010

Noam Chomsky on Ronald Reagan

Another stunning illustration of the success of propaganda, which has considerable import for the future, is the cult of the great killer and torturer Ronald Reagan, one of the grand criminals of the modern era, who also had an unerring instinct for favoring the most brutal terrorists and murderers around the world, from Zia-ul-Haq and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar in what’s now called AfPak to the most dedicated killers in Central America to the South African racists who killed an estimated 1.5 million people in the Reagan years and had to be supported because they were under attack by Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress, one of “more notorious terrorist groups” in the world, the Reaganites determined in 1988. And on and on, with remarkable consistency.

Now, his grisly record has been quickly expunged in favor of mythic constructions that would have impressed Kim Il-sung. Among other feats, he has been anointed as the apostle of free markets, while raising protectionist barriers more than probably all other postwar presidents combined and implementing massive government intervention in the economy. He was a great exponent of law and order, while he informed the business world that labor laws would not be enforced, so that illegal firing of union organizers tripled under his supervision. His hatred of working people was exceeded perhaps only by his contempt for the rich black women driving their limousines to collect their welfare checks.

Well, there should be no need to continue with the record, but the outcome tells us quite a lot about the intellectual and moral culture in which we live. For President Obama, this monstrous creature was a “transformative figure.” If you go over to Stanford University’s prestigious Hoover Institute, he’s a colossus—I’m quoting—whose “spirit seems to stride the country, watching us like a warm and friendly ghost.” Well, painfully to record, many of the people whose lives he was ruining join in the adulation, and hasten to shelter under the umbrella of the power and the violence that he symbolized.

from an address to the Left Forum, New York City
(broadcast on the May 31st, 2010 edition of Democracy Now!)

20 August 2010

Keith Richards at Nellcôte

Keith needed heroin. Tony Sanchez described one way they got it. He and Keith ran into Count Jean de Breteuil, who introduced himself as a friend of William Burroughs. De Breteuil's fashion signature was red suspenders, leading Keith and Sanchez to refer to him as Johnny Braces. Learning that Keith was looking for a connection, de Breteuil returned, at the wheel of a Bentley, with heroin that Sanchez describes as looking and smelling "like pink talcum powder. Pure Thai heroin."

Impressed with the quality of the goods, Keith expressed interest in a steady supply. When de Breteuil got back to London he called his dealer, a Corsican based in Marseilles, and asked him to arrange regular deliveries to Nellcôte. Tony Sanchez describes the arrival of the first batch: "They were two burly Corsicans, perspiring heavily in their Daks lightweight suits and carrying identical black fiberglass executive attaché cases. After a brief exchange of pleasantries the stouter of the two clicked open his case to reveal a polyethylene bag approximately as large as a two-pound sack of sugar....Keith cautiously snorted the mixture and after a few minutes lapsed into unconsciousness. When he came to, he said, 'Okay, I'll take the lot.'"

David Meyer, Twenty Thousand Roads: The Ballad of Gram Parsons and His Cosmic American Music, p.348

12 July 2010

Piera Valtorskar

When she left her father Piera put on her coat and went outside into the early dark, the cold and starlight of winter night. She could not stay shut in the warmth indoors. The sky was hard and the stars bright, small, multitudinous. The lake lay black. There was the queer snapping silence of frost, and the air bit throat and lungs as if instead of breathing one were drinking ice-cold water. Piera walked down to the shore and stood there under the pines looking out to the lake and the height of the winter sky. Orion hung there, the belt and sword of stars, the bright dog at heel. Piera stood still, her bare hands thrust deep into the sleeves of her coat, shivering now and then from head to foot, and in that hour she came into her inheritance. She knew the great hour as it passed. She accepted without reservation what it brought her: the passion of her generation; the end of her childhood.

If this was her world, she was strong enough to live in it. She was a woman, not trained for any public act, not trained to defiance, brought up to the woman's part: waiting. So she would wait. For any act done consciously may be defiant, may be independent, may change life utterly.

But one can act thus only if one knows there is no safety. So she thought, that Epiphany night, looking up at Orion and the other stars. One must wait outside. There is no hiding away from storm, waste, injustice, death. There is no shelter, no stopping, only a pretense, a mean, stupid pretense of being safe and letting time and evil pass by outside. But we are all outside, Piera thought, and all defenseless. There is no safe house but death. Nothing of our own building will protect us, not the jails, nor the palaces, nor the comfortable houses. But the grandeur of knowing that, the pride and grandeur of being on one's own at last, alone, under the enormous and indifferent sky, unhoused and unprotected! To be nothing, a girl, confused, grieved, frightened, foolish, shivering in the January frost, all that, yes, but also to learn at last the stature of her spirit: to come into her inheritance.

Ursula LeGuin, Malafrena, pp.242-243

Romantic Friendship

In the Victorian age, romantic friendships existed....These romantic friendships lacked sexual engagement but were rich in erotic passion. Nonsexual erotic passion has little meaning in today's world. Nowadays the assumption is that something is wrong if an individual feels intense erotic connection with someone and does not allow that eros to lead him or her to sexual intercourse. Romantic friendships differ from other forms of friendships precisely because the parties involved acknowledge both that there is an erotic dimension to their passionate bond and that it acts as an energetic force, enhancing and deepening ties.

bell hooks, Communion: The Female Search for Love, pp.207-208

The Power of Patriarchy

The power of patriarchy has been to make maleness feared and to make men feel that it is better to be feared than loved.

bell hooks, The Will To Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love, p.120