An Update on King Leopold’s Ghost, Unpleasant Facets of Humanity, and the Importance of Reading

I could rave about Adam Hochschild’s book, King Leopold’s Ghost in many ways. Most of those ravings are summed up by the numerous congratulatory remarks decking its front and back covers as well as its entirely full “Praise” page. I’ll let you, dear readers, discover those comments for yourself.

Hochschild lays out the stunningly brutal conduct of King Leopold’s regime in a concise and efficacious manner. He employs vivid characterizations of key players, renders scene with a sense of life almost unbelievable in historically precise nonfiction, and lends a voice to an area of history that is often neglected by the general public, simply because the majority of the history that we have was transcribed by the oppressors of peoples who utilized the oral tradition over the written.

I could go on, but then again, my goal here is not to summarize or characterize the book. That is a task left to the reader. What I would like to do is draw attention to areas that I found to be quite interesting.

Mark Twain is mentioned quite frequently, as he was one of the primary activists representing the plight of the native Congolese to the American public. He wrote a pamphlet in 1905 entitled King Leopold’s Soliloquy, which paints a less than attractive (and justly so) portrait of King Leopold of Belgium.  One of the more interesting points made in the pamphlet, which is primarily an energetic recitation of previously published criticism pouring murderously from King Leopold’s own mouth, is made in the closing element.

Leopold reads from unknown author’s material: “We see this awful king, this pitiless and blood-drenched king, this money-crazy king towering toward the sky in a world-solitude of sordid crime…but we do not wish to look; for he is a king, and it hurts us, it troubles us, by ancient and inherited instinct it shames us to see a king degraded to this aspect, and we shrink from hearing the particulars of howit happened. We shudder and turn away when we come upon them in print.”

Leopold then responds to his own recitation: “Why, certainly — THAT IS MY PROTECTION.. And you will continue to do it. I know the human race”.

This is the truth of the matter.  We have the material now to understand what happened in the Congo, but the people of that time had the material as well.  And for some reason, this happens over and over and over again.  “Some reason” is a semi idiotic way of putting it.  We look aside for every reason, for every reason we can possibly think of.  I, as writer, can’t claim moral superiority by saying I exclude myself from that practice.  I know it all too well.  It is an ingrained part of our human structure: the impulse to preserve the idea of the world in which we imagine we live by refusing to accept new information as true.  We are prisoners of our own minds.  I could tell you, dear reader, to wake up.  I could tell myself the same thing.  But we are functioning in abstractions here.

The only solid conclusion I can make from this information is that that practice of absorbing information, whether that is through YouTube videos, online news channels, or books, is the most effective means of generating awareness.  Lack of education, or interest in self-education, creates a sense of apathy that may be comfortable, but that is ultimately destructive on an individual and community level.

I urge you to read shit.

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Art Needs More than Art

In my last post, I gave the rundown of my reading list.  One work I forgot to include there is a collection entitled “American Artists on Art: From 1940 – 1980”, by Ellen H. Johnson.  One of the opening voices in the book is that of Jackson Pollock, who is heard through his interview with William Wright.  The interview itself is too long to include, although I do recommend reading it.  The most interesting statement Pollock makes reads as follows:

W.W: Mr. Pollock, the classical artists had a world to express and they did so by representing the objects in that world. Why doesn’t the modern artist do the same thing?

J. P: …The modern artist is living in a mechanical age and we have a mechanical means of representing objects in nature… [the modern artist] is working and expressing an inner world…expressing the energy, the motion, and other inner form.

The idea that somehow we have moved past simply expressing the physical countenance of an object or event, and on to expressing its energy, gives more meaning to the world of modern art.  Without understanding the psychic nature of many modern art pieces, the viewer has virtually no ability to connect to the work.

Of course, simply understanding that the painting, or art object, is trying to communicate an idea won’t necessarily allow the viewer to receive that idea with understanding or appreciation.  One of the largest complaints I have heard regarding modern art is that it has no significance, it’s hard to understand, or that it looks like a child could have done it.  These responses all stem from a frustration with the aforementioned psychic qualities of these art pieces.

Jackson Pollock, according to Helen A. Harrison (Director of the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center) was “reluctant to translate his message into the more familiar language of written or spoken words”.  In fact, Pollock himself said that “any attempt on my part to say something about it, to attempt explanation of the inexplicable, could only destroy it”.  Harrison called this arrogance (if you’d like to read her commentary in full, purchase The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry and turn to page 80).  I’m not enough of a Pollock scholar to label it as such, but I can say with certainty that it is an inadequate statement.  Without some sort of verbal or literary guidance, without conversation, art is reduced to an object.  Yes, it has the latent power to create transcendent experiences within the mind of its viewer, however, without language, the power of art is just that: latent.

Art requires context.  Luckily, Pollock wrote a brief note, possibly in preparation for his interview with Wright, that provides incredibly valuable context.  The note appears in The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry on page 81, directly following Helen A. Harrison’s “On Pollock”.  The note itself is poetic and moving, and deserves recognition as an art piece in its own right.  I agree with Harrison when she says, of Pollocks art, that “his words amplify its meanings”.

Untitled

Technic is the result of a need ____________

new needs demand new technics_______________________

total control__________denial of

the accident_______________________

States of order________

organic intensity_________

energy and motion

made visible______________

memories arrested in space,

human needs and motives_________________

acceptance____________

Reading

I don’t have internet or television in my apartment, and thus I am uniquely situated to use my free time for other, more productive, endeavors.  Well, endeavor.  This is the one scenario in which being unable to pay bills actually pays off.  I used to read constantly, as a kid, that is.  Fantasy Fiction, namely anything by Tamora Pierce, C. S. Lewis, Edgar Eager, or Roald Dahl, was my genre of choice.  My tastes have changed slightly, although I would probably drop any of these for a thick book about dragons.  I would unashamedly reread the “Inheritance Cycle” quartet by Christopher Paolini if I could get my hands on them.  Regardless of magical dragon fantasies, what follows are the current contents of my bedside table.

Leopold’s Ghost, by Adam Hochschild

This is a beautifully written and wonderfully detailed account of King Leopold II’s involvement in the Congo region.  I am currently working with a Burlington based artist, Jean Luc Dushime, who is a Rwandan Refugee.  Since I am not overly familiar with the social and political tensions behind the 1994 genocide, I thought I would start at the beginning.  Well, at least at the beginning of written history in the area.  King Leopold II of Belgium privately owned the colony that was known as the Congo Free State.  Until he was forced to give up the colony to the Belgian government, Leopold brutalized and exploited the native populated for his own financial gain, all while passing his efforts of as “philanthropic” to the greater European community.  One of the more interesting ideas I have come across in my research, which I hope this book will clarify, is that European colonizers played a large role in the reinforcement of ethnic identity in the region, and perhaps laid the groundwork for the ethnic and political tensions that caused the genocide.

Soul on Ice, by Eldridge Cleaver

I’ve been hanging on to this one for a while, and just recently delved into it.  Soul on Ice is a collection of essays, originally published individually, while Cleaver was in prison.  Cleaver was a rapist at one point in his life, and cites political, not sexual, reasons for his actions.  After prison, Cleaver went on to become a member of the Black Panthers.  His essays and opinions on the black power movement were incredibly influential.

Robert Frost: A Life, by Jay Parini

My Dad recommended this biography to me.  I began reading it a while ago, but was so overcome by the urge to slit my wrists and bleed out all over Frost’s eminence that I had to put it down.  I was under the impression that because my life path differed from his I would never become a great poet.  It was an irrational and poorly constructed thought pattern.  I took a rest, got over it, and came back, this time with greater ease and reward.  What I have gathered so far is a portrait of a strictly intelligent man who experienced some social and emotional difficulties.  There will be more to come on this front, I am sure, since the coverage of Frost’s life is extensive, and I’m only into his mid twenties.

The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry, by Alan Kaufman

I picked up this bad boy (get it…bad boy…outlaw…) from Barnes & Noble a couple weeks ago (gasp! I don’t always shop at local bookstores!). The anthology is an incredible compilation of Beat poets and their subsequent rule breakers, party makers, and socially progressive taste changers.  I was first introduced to Beat poetry by a beautiful little Russian boy and his Bukowski/Hemingway/Burroughs doppleganger of a friend.  At first contact, I was in love (both with the Beats and these two boys).  The forms of expression were so explosive and fluid, it was beautiful.  However, after reading Junky, and delving further into Bukowski and other Beats, I became disenchanted, or at least slightly so.  Here was the picture, I was seeing it, but I wasn’t seeing the reason for the reasons, the summation, the next destination.  I believe at one point I said I regarded Beat poets as “wallowers”.  After a wise logic professor introduced me to Ferlinghetti, I changed my mind.  Ever since, I have pushed forward in my consumption of Beat and contemporary poets.  How could I not?  To dismiss a genre that is so influential on the poetry produced today, even my own poetry, would be idiotic.

I believe that’s enough for now, although it’s hard not to add books to the list.  I’ve got way too many to keep them all sitting still.  Of course jumping from a psychotic, obsessive, murderer King to a an incredibly intelligent, racist, rapist, or from a decided poetic genius to the mouthful’s of empty beer cans and heroin tales that are Beat poetry, can make the air quite heavy.  I’ll probably inject some dose of levity with The Swiss Family Robinson, which I just picked up for 10 cents from a thrift store, or The Electric Acid Kool-aid Test, which has been begging to be finished for months.  Of course, my Mom did get me a dictionary for Christmas.  That could always be fun.

The Woman at the Washington Zoo

I was introduced to this poem by the man who introduced me to the majority of the poems that I love, the wise and admirable Scott Ward.  I’m not quite sure what prompted him to acquaint me with Jarrell, although I assume it comes from the desire of the professor (when the professor is wise and admirable and full of good intent) to bestow upon his or her students those ideas that he or she thinks would benefit them both at that moment and in the future.

Irregardless of my ramblings, Jarrel’s poem continues to affect me now, perhaps even more than when I was first introduced to it.  It could be the way the persona’s introspection is so heavily tied to the mystical, to a world outside of her own body yet somehow embodied fully in her mind.  Look at the way the “saris [that] go by me at the embassy” are not from Mozambique or Kenya, but are “cloth from the moon”, “cloth from another planet”.  This says so much more about the persona than it does the people wearing the saris, showing us how far she sees herself from this exotica, so different from her “dull null navy”.  This mystical introspection is probably best heard in the final stanza, when the persona so clearly recognizes the latent power of what she was; a creature tied more to “the wild brother at whose feet the white wolves fawn” than the person she is, with her body “withering among columns”.

“You know what I was,/You see what I am: Change me, change me!”.  What could be more moving than this plea for change? Whether that change comes as death, as the vulture may suggest, or in some other form, the fervent tone has always rung intensely within my mind.  Jarrell creates a compelling human argument, woven from elements of mysticism and tragedy, that speaks to the desire for transformation from the stagnant remains of a society devoid of life and color to a more powerful, vital, and intense version of humanity. I speculate that this version of humanity exists only in a dream, but the reality it creates within the mind of its viewer is no less compelling for its phantasmic origins.

The Woman at the Washington Zoo

By Randall Jarrell

The saris go by me from the embassies.
Cloth from the moon. Cloth from another planet.
They look back at the leopard like the leopard.
And I….
               this print of mine, that has kept its color
Alive through so many cleanings; this dull null
Navy I wear to work, and wear from work, and so
To my bed, so to my grave, with no
Complaints, no comment: neither from my chief,
The Deputy Chief Assistant, nor his chief—
Only I complain…. this serviceable
Body that no sunlight dyes, no hand suffuses
But, dome-shadowed, withering among columns,
Wavy beneath fountains—small, far-off, shining
In the eyes of animals, these beings trapped
As I am trapped but not, themselves, the trap,
Aging, but without knowledge of their age,
Kept safe here, knowing not of death, for death—
Oh, bars of my own body, open, open!
The world goes by my cage and never sees me.
And there come not to me, as come to these,
The wild beasts, sparrows pecking the llamas’ grain,
Pigeons settling on the bears’ bread, buzzards
Tearing the meat the flies have clouded….
                                                                Vulture,
When you come for the white rat that the foxes left,
Take off the red helmet of your head, the black
Wings that have shadowed me, and step to me as man:
The wild brother at whose feet the white wolves fawn,
To whose hand of power the great lioness
Stalks, purring….
                              You know what I was,
You see what I am: change me, change me!