R  A  L  P  H
  The Review of Arts, Literature, Philosophy and the Humanities 

Fall, 1999


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--- A. W. Allworthy,
Folio Editor
poo@cts.com

 

Presence in
The Flesh
The Body in Medicine
Katharine Young
(Harvard)
t's rare that we find an anthropological or sociological treatise so good that it sweeps us along like a dramatic novel --- a tale that you don't want to let go of. Presence in the Flesh is just such a work. And --- guaranteed --- after reading it, you'll never view doctors and nurses and the medical establishment the same way. She calls it "embodiment" and "disembodiment" --- or, how the body is transformed from a social subject into a medical object during an examination.

Young's work is divided into four parts:

  • internal medicine,
  • gynecology,
  • surgery, and
  • pathologywith appropriate introduction and conclusion. Here, the spotlight is on "normal" interactions between patient and doctor. For instance --- and let's go right to the heart of it (or, better, let's get to the bottom of it) --- the pelvic exam: what you and I (and the doctor) are doing during those most private of investigations:

      Physicians must...be concerned not to show too much attention to bodies as selves. Some parts of the body are incorrigibly symbolic, especially the sexual parts. Because sexual attentions to the body can also involve its disarticulation into parts, the examination of breasts, genitals, or buttocks is hedged with further evidential boundaries...

      Drapes, gloves, eye aversion, and leg position interpoise evidential boundaries between the physician and his perception of the patient. The intent of these arrangements appears to be to ensure that this, the touchiest of transactions, can transpire wholly within the reframe; the patient wholly object, silent and passive; the physician wholly operator, concentrated and active.

Remember --- the only strangers that can get us to take off all our clothes without protest are doctors and prostitutes (or, under protest, someone with a gun or a knife.) Lovers and morticians can get us to strip, too, but the former aren't strangers, and the latter get to our bodies when we are beyond caring.

Young is concerned with showing us the techniques that are used to keep the patient's dignity quiescent while he or she is being dehumanised in the physicians office. The writer is concerned, for example, with the structure of the clinic: cubicles, offices, desks (patient on one side, secretaries on the other --- desks which "guard" the entrance to the inner rooms.) And then there are the uniforms white jackets, or green or pink or black uniforms.

You and I will take off part or all of our clothes (often with the exception, she notes, of socks) while physicians will add a layer of clothing: a knee-length white coat. Listen to her observation on this discrepancy:

    The archeology of these artifacts is suggestive here: the layering of an outermost and predominant role over a complete social person as opposed to the reduction of a complete social person to a diminished role.

Further:

    Physicians make their initial appearance already in costume for their role, whereas patients change costume in the course of the performance.

§     §     §

One of the strengths of Presence in the Flesh is that the author uses exact transcripts --- with special markings for clarity --- made during routine medical examinations to show how the doctors (in their role) and the patients (in their roles) use words and gestures and other artifacts to establish and maintain what she calls "the presence of the self." There are dialogues given here which convey a rich sense of drama, security (and insecurity) --- words, too, created to deflect from the situation. This, from an actual pelvic exam:

    Dr C:   Let me check you below see how you feel.
    Ms J:   Something's hard right there occasionally.
    Dr. C:  Really?
    Ms J:  But I don't know what --- it goes away.
[Dr. C moves round to sit on his stool at the foot of the examination table and gloves himself. His nurse turns on the spotlight and aims it at the patient's vaginal opening]
    Ms. J:   It's not like it stays there and it's anything to worry about. Least I don't think so.
    Dr. C:  [As he touches her vulva] Still riding your horse?

The author continues:

    This remark uttered (at the moment the gynecologist touches the most intimate part of her body) splits the woman's attention off from her embodiment on the occasion of the examination and redirects it to her embodiment elsewhere....She is poised to tell stories, to recount a world in which she is sovereign even as she is perceptually bound to a world in which she is...abject.

Young goes on:

    Disembodiment supports the general medical project of objectification that is requisite for the specific gynecological attempt to insure propriety...Dr C, therefore, invokes this in Evie Jones at just the moment he touches her body. As he touches her breast, the doctor asks,
      
    "How's your legal battles?
    As he touches her vulva, another question:
      
    "Still riding your horse?"
    And as he inserts his hand into her vagina,
      
    "When were you in South Africa?"
    Thus, the gynecologist occasions the creative act by which the woman can reconsititute herself.

All this leads the authur to pertinent, and fascinating, discussions of the Descartian split on mind and body, and to other astute observations:

    Having or being a self is not a condition of life; it is a social accomplishment. The person and his body merely provide the peg on which something of a collaboratative manufacture will be hung for a time.

Young, being an anthropologist, can sometimes befuddle us with her words:

    Because the body as a locus of self is imaginary, the embodied person must be constantly reconstituted, reinvented, intended, to take up the phenomenological term...I am complicit in the invention of my own subjectivity.

But this confusion is rare. Ignore the $100 words like "ontological" and "reframe" and "ineluctable discontinuities." The story to be told here --- you and me and our very strange relationship with our doctor, accepted by all "civilized" persons --- is worth every moment you spend with it.

--- Lolita Lark


Warm Smiles from
Cold Mountain
Dharma Talks on
Zen Meditation

Reb Anderson
(Rodmell Press)
This Zen Buddhism is worse than a needle in the eye. They tell you that all of life is pain, and the way out of this pain is by sitting in pain with your legs crossed for an hour or so a day. As you do this, you are not to think, but if you blow it and do think, you are to merely "watch" your thoughts.

On special occasions, you are invited to join with other crazies in a mass sitting for ten or twelve (or fifteen) hours a day, for a couple of weeks. In the meantime, no Big Macs, no fries, no vanilla milkshakes, no frosty Coronas, no after-dinner Cointreau, no stupefying the mind with television, no hanky-panky between the sheets. Making paper birds or building rock gardens not only permitted but encouraged.

The reward: if you manage to shut up the babbling mind, and if you manage to suffer long enough in the lotus position, you "get it" --- and you are permitted to come back to earth again, albeit in a "higher" form. When, after six or eight hundred thousand lifetimes, you finally reach the ultimate nothing state, you can tell them to hell with it, tell them you'd rather not go back on the merry-go-round of life ever again. Unless, of course, you decide to forego the eternal of pleasureless pleasure until all sentient beings have reached the same level that you have, maybe in another six million journeys.

After all this, if you've decided that Zen is the one for you, then Warm Smiles from Cold Mountains will probably be your main tome. Eighteen different "darma talks" by one Reb Anderson given at various Zen retreats. You may have trouble, as I did, with following the thoughts:

    But when human beings accept a precept after hearing that this precept is not about past and future, then they have willingly accepted something that they do not understand.

Or:

    At the third level, this precept is not talking about killing and not killing. This precept is pointing out that either of those ways of looking at things is violating Buddha's mind. Thinking that you can kill is violating this precept. Thinking you can keep this precept in a conventional sense is also violating this precept. If you are afraid of being killed, it's because you think that you can kill someone. People who believe that they can kill need some way to stop themselves from acting on their belief...But to think of killing and to realize that it's not possible: that's not to think of killing.

I know, I know --- all these words form an extended koan, something paradoxically paradoxical to force us to reality --- T. S. Eliot for the Zen masses; psychological double-talk out of the pages of R. D. Laing, Milton Erickson, Gregory Bateson; studied confusion to make us sit up and think. (In fact, with all of them, the purpose is to make us sit up and not think.

Some initiates may not like the messages offered here, flying in the face of what we think of as freedom, such as,

    Everything you do in the world as an independent agent is going to cause problems for yourself and others.

On the other hand, Anderson's lessons on, say, suffering, are a perfect example of what we create by believing that we are free and independent,

    I feel bad about my suffering. I feel trapped by my suffering, and I feel entangled in my suffering, because I think that I can do something by myself. But when I no longer fall for that and I'm just suffering, then I realize that everybody is helping me, because I couldn't do this suffering by myself. When you realize that everybody is helping you suffer, that is the end of suffering. The expression of suffering doesn't necessarily go away, but you are liberated: you get the joke.

--- W. W. Webber


Letter from
Uppland

Dr. Phage
have before me the week's menu of specials at the Sven Duva Restaurant. For an experienced world-traveller like myself, with a smattering of several foreign languages and a sharp eye for English cognates, these exotic Swedish dishes hold no terrors. For example, Tonsfisksallad med Sardeller och Oliver is obviously tunafish salad with sardines and olives, unless reference is being made to someone named Oliver. Spansk Bondomelett is obviously Spanish omelette with Bondo. And Pelotas en Salsa Roja is without a doubt baseballs in red sauce, although I am at a loss to explain what it is doing on a Swedish menu.

A few cases present graver difficulties. What, for example, does one make of Farsfylld Rådjursbog med Sky och Höstpytt? Rendering it as Farfelled Roger's Bog with Sky and Hot Spit may be just a teeny bit off the mark. Then we have Ugnsstekt Afrikansk Mal, Tomat-och Spiskummin, which could mean Unstuck African Badness (as in mal de mer), Tomatoes and Spies Coming In, but that doesn't really help either. Ultimately, one must have recourse to the dictionary. In the present case, unfortunately, one discovers that mal in Swedish means moth, which does not make the Afrikansk dish sound a lot more tempting, to tell the truth. Then there is Helstekt Kalkonbröst med Råtgräddåss. The hell with it.

Trying to decode Swedish from English cognates works in many cases (my favorite being hackad biff, which is hamburger) but there are hidden pitfalls. For example, gris means not grease but pig, while pigg means not pig but the adjective brisk, and piggvar is a type of fish.

Cognate words sometimes reflect a twisted historical path. Svamp means mushroom in Swedish, reflecting, perhaps, the kind of ground you can find mushrooms in. The Swedish word for the Autumn season is höst, and that has its English cognate too, but it is not immediately obvious. In Scots dialect, the word for the same season is hairst, which makes the relationship a little clearer: harvest, what the farmer does at that time of year. Which brings us back to that dish above with höstpytt. Whatever it is, it includes some seasonal Autumn creature.

Probably potatoes, even if potatis is not named explicitly. Every second Swedish dish involves potatoes. And onions. And herring. There are dozens of dishes based on this mighty trio, differing only in the order in which they are assembled, and the time of day that one does it. These various dishes are all exactly alike, although my personal favorite is Janssons frestelse, because of its delicious name.

One cannot discuss Swedish cuisine without some mention of herring, which is the national bird. There is a particularly refined type in the Baltic called strömming, which swim in gymnasia rather than ordinary schools, and speak French among themselves. A special delicacy is created from these strömming by burying them in the backyard and allowing them to ferment. After a year or two, they are dug up to produce a fish sauce which was used as a secret weapon during the days when Sweden's army was the terror of Northern Europe.

The more common form of the noble herring is called sill in Swedish. It comes in six species called loek sill, inlagd sill, maatjes sill, sill med senapsås, and so on. Each one is better than the last. When I leave this country, I am going to make a profound, existentialist movie about a hitherto unknown species of herring and the meaning of life. It will be called "The Seventh Sill."

§     §     §

The historical Sweden or Sverige takes its name from the Svear, a tribe of foresters, miners, trolls, and Social Democrats whose origins are shrouded in mystery, except that most of them have cousins in Minnesota. They occupied the eastern middle part of the country, where Stockholm and the towns around Lake Maelaren lie today, and their kingdom spread north and northwest but only a little to the southwest. Most of modern southern Sweden, including its most fertile farming province, Skåne, remained an integral part of Denmark until well into the 17th century.

Lund, in Skåne, was the seat of the Archbishop of Denmark, and there is a magnificent 12th century Romanesque cathedral there to this day, as well as a jumble of indescribably picturesque medieval buildings. But in 1658, the treaty of Roskilde turned Skåne and the rest of the South over to the Swedish monarchy. In return, the Danes, were able to turn to the arts of peace, (after 200 years of intermittent war with Sweden), and in no time at all they invented the Leggo. The rest is history. Sweden gained the cows of Skåne, and the cows' owners, but lost the Leggo.

In fact, the Skånians were none too enthusiastic about joining Sweden. It wasn't nearly as picturesque as Denmark, or as Lund already was, it was inhabited by a gang of fur-hatted trolls with relatives in Minnesota, and the price of booze was so much higher than in Denmark. But the Swedish king, Gustav the Waterlogged, was determined to win the Skånians over. They want picturesque, I'll give them picturesque, he is reported to have said to a courtier. So he established a University in Lund, and built for it magnificent 17th century buildings, scattered amongst the jumble of medieval buildings already there. (Northern Europeans have long viewed the building of Universities as public improvement, much as Americans think of freeways or football stadiums.)

The result is a town which is almost unbearably quaint, a kind of architectural-historical Disneyland. Walking about in Lund, I almost longed to come across a tacky motel, a garish billboard, or a used-car lot. But nothing of the kind can be found. Even MacDonalds' and 7-11 (which have branches everywhere in Sweden) occupy buildings with cornices and pediments in Lund.

However, the more things change, the more they remain the same. I stepped into one magnificent 17th century University building, and noticed a magnificent wood-panelled dining room that was equipped as a bar. It was not in use yet, the hour being before 10 AM. In the corridor outside the bar, there was an UNmagnificent, coin-operated, self-service breathalyzer, something I had never seen before. It must be an important convenience, in a country where the maximum blood alcohol level permitted for legal operation of a car is 0.02%. I know people who spent years, decades, in a state that would not have permitted them to drive legally in Sweden ever, night or day. So booze may have become more costly in Lund after the Treaty of Roskilde, but it certainly didn't go out of use.

North and a little West of Lund lies Västkusten, Sweden's answer to Pismo Beach. This is the strip of western coastline opposite Denmark, along an arm of the North Sea. There are real, sandy beaches to be found along this coastline, and thousands of Swedes come here in the Summer. They frolic in the pallid Northern sun, swelter in temperatures that sometimes break 70, and some even go swimming in the frigid water of the North Sea. Perhaps, come to think of it, the breathalyzer in Lund can be used to determine a minimum for swimming as well as a maximum for driving.

It was on one of these sandy beaches on Sweden's West Coast that Ingmar Bergman shot his magnificent fable. I think I passed the very place on the train, somewhere between Helsingborg and Halmstad. As the train raced along, I saw the sandy beach and when I blinked, I seemed to see The Knight and Death sitting there on the beach, still deep in their game of chess. When a film-maker creates images of a certain power, they stay on the beach, or in the mind, and they never leave.


Memoirs of a
Shy Pornographer
Kenneth Patchen
(New Directions)
Is it fair to review a 250 page book after we find ourselves fagged out on page 60? Probably not. So here goes:

ven though it is considered to be an important literary artifact; even though it is a rare example of the Marx Brothers in print; even though the author has written some fine poetry and an even finer autobiography; even though Jonathan Williams has written a loving introduction to the volume (although stretching a bit to compare the author to composers Franz Josef Haydn and Carl Nielsen); even though this is being issued on the 50th anniversary of its original publication --- we still find Memoirs of a Shy Pornographer to be no more nor less than flapjaw mopery.

Yes, there are rare moments --- for example, this pun-filled lubricious take-off on detective fiction of the period,

    "Why don't you call a spade a spade?" the young woman demanded.

    Cigarette glanced over at another man.

    "You're archer than I thought," he said.

    His mouth was twisted in a wolfish grin and I knew that there must be pressure behind his eyeballs...

    Quickly he poured two straight ryes. One for himself --- and the other for the wolf.

    Fat man was still in his chair.

    And Gunsel had his 22:20-on-a-45.-frame levelled right at him.

    But just then Cigarette's eyeballs splugged out and nailed him to the wall.

Obviously Patchen was heavily influenced by The Dream Life of Balso Snell and the early essays of S. J. Perelman. Obviously, Memoirs of a Shy Pornographer sold because the title alone is a bit of haiku, a work of art. Obviously, the author should have consigned it to the East River, before this deformed bastard child ever saw the light of day.


--- A. W. Allworthy


The Ballad of
Hans and Jenny
Aquiles Nazoa
(Venezuela, 1920 - 1976)
ruly, never was love so pure as when Hans Christian Andersen loved Jenny Lind, The Nightingale of Sweden.

Hans and Jenny were dreamers, and they were beautiful, and their love divided itself like two schoolboys dividing up their almonds.

To love Jenny was like going around eating an apple in the rain. It was being in the fields and discovering that the cherries were ripening like the dawn.

Hans used to sing to her whimsical tales of the time when the icebergs were great bears in the sea. And when the spring came, he would hang her pigtails with wild coltsfoot.

The glance of Jenny peopled the landscape with Sunday colors. Jenny Lind could well have been born in a box of water colors.

Hans had a music box in his heart and a wine-cask of sea foam that Jenny had given him.

Sometimes, the two parted, travelled in different directions. But they kept on remembering each other through the small things of the earth.

For example, Hans knew and loved Jenny in the transparent mist of fountains and in the gaze of children and in the dry leaves.

Jenny knew and loved Hans in the beards of beggars, and in the perfume of fresh bread and in the most humble coins.

Because the love of Hans and Jenny was intimate and sweet, like the first day of school in winter.

Jenny sang ancient Nordic ballads with infinite sadness.

One time some American students heard her, and that night they cried tenderly over a map of Sweden.

And (I tell you) when Jenny sang, it was the love of Hans that sang inside of her.

One time Hans went on a long trip and it was five years before he returned.

And he went to see his Jenny and found her sitting, her hands together in the tranquil posture of a blind girl.

Jenny was married and had two children as beautiful as her.

But Hans continued loving her till his death, with the wine-cask of foam and through the coming of fall and in the color of raspberries.

And Jenny continued to love Hans in the eyes of the beggars and in the most humble coins.

Because, truly, never was love so pure as when Hans Christian Andersen loved Jenny Lind, The Nightingale of Sweden.

§     §     §

Balada de
Hans y Jenny

A María Teresa Castillo
Verdaderamente, nunca fue tan claro el amor como cuando Hans Christian Andersen amó a Jenny Lind, el Ruiseñor de Suecia.

Hans y Jenny eran soñadores y hermosos, y su amor compartían, como dos colegiales comparten sus almendras.

Amar a Jenny era como ir comiendose una manzana bajo la lluvia. Era estar en el campo y descubrir que hoy amanecieron maduras las cerezas.

Hans solía cantarle fantásticas historias del tiempo en que los tempanos eran los grandes osos del mar. Y cuando venía la primavera, él la cubría con silvestres tusílagos las trenzas.

La mirada de Jenny poblaba de dominicales colores el paisaje. Bien pudo Jenny Lind haber nacido en una caja de acuarelas.

Hans tenía una caja de música en el corazón, y una pipa de espuma de mar, que Jenny le diera.

A veces los dos salían de viaje por rumbos distintos. Pero seguían amándose en el encuentro de las cosas menudas de la tierra.

Por ejemplo, Hans reconocía y amaba a Jenny en la transparencia de las fuentes y en la mirada de los niños y en las hojas secas.

Jenny reconocía y amaba a Hans en las barbas de los mendigos, y en el perfume de pan tierno y en las más humildes monedas.

Porque el amor de Hans y Jenny era íntimo y dulce como el primer día de invierno en la escuela.

Jenny cantaba las antiguas baladas nórdicas con infinita tristeza.

Una vez la escucharon unos estudiantes americanos, y por la noche todos lloraron de ternura sobre un mapa de Suecia.

Y es que cuando Jenny cantaba, era el amor de Hans lo que cantaba ella.

Una vez hizo Hans un largo viaje y a los cinco años estuvo de vuelta.

Y fue a ver a su Jenny y la encontró sentada, juntas las manos, en la actitud tranquila de una muchacha ciega.

Jenny estaba casada y tenía dos niños sencillamente hermosos como ella.

Pero Hans siguió amándola hasta la muerte, en su pipa de espuma y en la llegada del otoño y en el color de las frambuesas.

Y siguió Jenny amando a Hans en los ojos de los mendigos y en las más humildes monedas.

Porque verdaderamente, nunca fue tan claro el amor como cuando Hans Christian Andersen amó a Jenny Lind, el Ruiseñor de Suecia.

--- Translated by Carlos Amantea


The Devil's Cup
Coffee, the Driving
Force in History

Stewart Lee Allen
(Soho Press)
hey think it started in Ethiopia where they took this ugly little seed and brewed it up to what we call coffee. That's where Stewart Lee Allen begins his journey.

It's a "Roots" for the lowly bean: where it came from, why we love it, and, incidentally, a search to find the best cup of coffee in the world. His journey takes him from Ethiopia to Brazil, including stop-overs in Yemen, India, Turkey, France, and finally, across the United States. Along the way, he samples every conceivable type of coffee: brewed, steamed, boiled, eaten raw, pressed, and --- god knows --- one that comes after passing beans through the digestive system of a cat. In the interim, he travels the way all curious and alive gringos should travel: by foot, boat, bus, airplane, cart, donkey, taxi, and truck.

In someone else's hands, this would be just another a canned tale --- one concocted by an agent to sell off a Feeble Travel Tale to a conglomerate publisher, to cater to the word addict, nodding off in his armchair. Instead, this has to be the cat's pajamas of all travel sagas. The author is the type of guy you and I have always wanted to travel with: resourceful, daring, silly, funny, patient, and true.

It is a rich picaresque adventure. He is forever and a day being hit up for money, offered drugs, asked to smuggle, almost stuck in jail, becalmed on alien seas, left to wander alone down vague roads to vague destinations. And all the while he's filled to overflowing with the joy of travelling, the amusement of life, the joy of his particular grail.

And he's a helluva writer, one who actually did his homework before sitting down to write The Devil's Cup. Listen to this thumbnail description of Muslims, and the Muslim religion --- a brief understated aside that speaks volumes:

    The generally accepted theory is that coffee came into use among the Arabs a few centuries after the birth of Islam. Most Westerners today associate Islam with terrorists, bearded fanatics, and a distressing lack of toilet paper. This, of course, is both silly and true. Islam is a beautiful religion. Of course it's not perfect --- any religion that insists half the species walk about with a bag over their head clearly has some issues to deal with --- but in its heyday it was the crowning glory of the human race. While the Christians in Europe were sunk in the Dark Ages, Muslims were studying Aristotle, inventing algebra, and generally creating one of the most elegant civilizations in history.

Or this, when an Indian in Calcutta comes up with an idea for the two of them to get rich:

    If I were willing to take some of his forged antique paintings to Paris "as presents" and then hand them over in time for the upcoming show, they would pay me three thousand dollars...I loved the concept of art smuggling and forgery, so pretty and tricky. I also quite liked the Rajasthani school of miniatures: jewel-like paintings incorporating gold leaf and fantastical animals. The catch was, I didn't believe a word Yangi said.

Here we have a sly sophisticate, a Philip Marlowe on odyssey, willing to indulge in a bit of cross-border hanky-panky for the sheer joy of it. But that's not all. While we are learning about coffee-growing countries and the roots of the world-wide coffee trade, we are getting some righteous history lessons. For example: Allen's theory is that the English are tea drinkers because so few of their colonial territories could be used for growing beans. Rather than trade with the Portuguese or French, they found it far more profitable to force the Chinese open their ports to illegal drugs, and feed (and increase) the opium addictions of the Orientals, in exchange for tea.

There is a subtle humor in this ostensible historical travel book. For instance, who is Allen travelling with? As an aside, on page 82: "Mysore proved to be a pleasantly cool city with wide, shady streets and not too much traffic. We loved it. (I say 'we' because I was travelling with my lover, Nina, who is too modest to appear on these pages.)" He's given us another understatement, with a hint of sadness, too.

The journey ends on the freeways of the United States, and a man who has put up with so much for so long (terrorists, unbearable heat, drug addicts, trains that stop and won't go, busses ditto, trucks ditto) is crossing the U.S. with --- if you will believe it --- his talisman, a vial of pure caffeine, and, naturally, he is stopped by the Tennessee Highway Patrol ("His name was Officer Hoppe, and I am sure the resemblance to Ken Starr was a coincidence.") He and his girlfriend are searched, questioned, their documents scrutinized, their car turned upside down in a search for drugs. This is a man who has floated like a cork across the troubles of the world (Ethiopia! Yemen! Calcutta!) --- now being humiliated by the American anti-drug crusade. The cops know he is lying (a stash of caffeine? That's a knee-slapper.) They force him to dump it out at the side of the road.

On The Road was a series of picaresque journeys across the United States, finally ending up in a paradise village in Mexico, with Kerouac and friends being handed, as a gift, the ultimate desideratum, a huge fat rolled joint.

The Devil's Cup is a similar joyous journey --- with this difference: at the end, on the road to Los Angeles, realizing that they are passing through a police-state (so much more grim than any "backwards" country), the Brave New World of such a destructive nature that, at the climax, stranded on the Los Angeles freeway, Allen turns and sees his sweet love "gone, too late; tears of laughter rolling down her face, lips curled back in a grin like an angry dog."


---Jorge Amado


Shadows,
Fire, Snow
The Life of
Tina Modotti

Patricia Albers
(Clarkson Potter)
I can't think of any book that has the potential to fascinate us more than this one. This is a story for you: an impoverished Italian girl who went to Hollywood at the early part of the century, became a star, went to Mexico with Edward Weston, hung out with Kahlo and Diego Rivera, Pablo Neruda, John Dos Passos, and Hemingway, went to Moscow, fought with the loyalists in the Spanish Civil War, and in 1942, died in Mexico City --- possibly, it is said, poisoned by the Stalin goon-squad.

It's a tale that should fascinate --- and yet Clarkson Potter has found a biographer who blows a good story right from the get-go. This is from page 1:

    Mostly seasoned European Communists exiled by fascism, they exhale streams of words with their long gray curls of cigarette smoke. Caught between rasping laughter and the low moan of the phonograph, voices wrangle over the fate of Hitler's armies....In one corner, several women thresh out final preparations for the next afternoon's fiesta where Spanish refugee children will squeal with delight at homemade toys....As the bubbly party babble eases, departing guests pull the door shut with a spate of hasta mañanas...

What is it that chilled us? It certainly wasn't the Trotsky ice-pick. Was it the "long gray curls of cigarette smoke?" Or "Caught between rasping laughter and the low moan of the phonograph?" No, let's give it to the "bubbly party babble." This is language as lunky as any written by a 9th grade juvenile delinquent in what you and I used to call "Bonehead English."

And if you think we are being hasty (or nasty) by pulling this from the very first page, this one comes from the middle of Shadows, Fire, Snow:

    Tina, ever thoughtful, showered her friend with attentions, from one of Vocio's handmade handkerchiefs to an ever-sympathetic ear.

You tell me whether being showered by handkerchief, much less an ear --- ever-sympathetic or no --- isn't a bit much?

Want one more --- again, picked at random?

    Her spirit shaded into weary but determined vigilance. After three days, she was put back on board, and, foam bursting from its sides, the Edam at last moaned and creaked toward the Atlantic.

How do you know, Ms. Albers, that her "spirit shaded into weary but determined vigilance?" How do you know that the Edam "moaned and creaked?" Maybe it whispered. Or wheezed. Or gabbled, gurgled, or babbled. Where in god's name do these people learn style --- much less facts? Bubbly party babble indeed!

They tell us in the poop sheet that Albers is a historian and writer. We might buy the former.


--- R. R. Doister


The
X-Rated
Videotape
Guide, VII
Patrick Riley
(Prometheus)
t's hard for some of us geezer Puritans to conceive of the fact that there are 6,000 new pornographic films that have come on the market in the last two years. What's even more confusing is that one person --- and we are assuming that Riley doesn't have a bevy of panting helpers --- has the time, stomach, and energy to go through and watch these things, find out the details of actors, directors, dates of production, distributors, and come up with a reasonable, literate description of the plot line. On top of that, he gives us ratings, and notes on the most apparent (or most appalling) facts about the actors. What hath god wrought?

In this case, God --- or her alter-ego --- has produced 751 pages of porn-facts, complete with titles such as The Older Women's Sperm Bank, Senior Squirters (#1-3), Obedient Slaves of the Wild West (#1 & 2), The Tool Box Abductions, Agony of Love, Lace & Lash, Tokyo Dreams #7 --- The Wet Panty Story, and my own personal favorite, presumably about one of our Chief Executives, Wee Willy's Winky.

In the wet world of porn there is not only an astounding quantity of flicks available, but an obscure and specific language that goes with the trade. Like any discipline (philosophy, law, medicine), pornography has specialty technical terms, like "God Botherer," "Morning Glory," and "Dutch Boy." Without too much imagination, one can decipher "squirting," "gang bang," "internals," and "double penetration" --- but we were baffled (until we waded through the glossary), with phrases like "Suitcase Pimp," "Shrimping" (has something to do with feet), "Reverse Cowgirl," (evidently a certain way of conjoining with the other party), "Pencil Test" (we won't tell you) and the omnipresent description of movies specifically for people almost too weird for the author to describe: "raincoaters."

The author has obvious affections along with his affectations. He seems smitten with a series called The Global Warming Debutantes, to which he dedicates several rambling descriptions, with especial passion for #12 ("MUST SEE"). He says it is "guaranteed erection causing fodder" and then goes into a long exegesis of the plot which is just as coherent as one could expect in movies that don't especially care about plot. By contrast, he tells us that Shooting Gallery is BAD.

    Its not BAD in the sense of a con job; it's just nauseating and disgusting and should be consigned to the dumpster (which appears in many of the scenes here) along with it's director...

Strange mainstream movies appear here and there, such as Tootsie ("No sex feature movie"). He also gives a fairly poor rating to the highly overrated Boogie Nights ("Simulated sex feature movie with girl/girl...") and because Riley is the expert, even identifies the porn movie that turns up in it --- the porn movie within the porn movie (it's something called Exhausted.)

In his introduction, Riley goes into a brief description of political correctness of the book, pointing out that The X-Rated Videotape Guide could not and never will be PC. He goes on to point out that there is a definite PC world in the porno movie biz: "Girls are never 'uggas:' either you don't say anything at all or they're 'cute.' Girls are not 'chickies' but paradoxically 'babes' is OK." Those of us who have never conceived of the word "uggas" will be suitably baffled or amused by this, depending on our own PC.

At times, Riley can be quite wry, as in this entry from the Glossary:

    WOOD: An erection. The inability to get wood is the bane of the porno stud. Contrary to the belief of many porn-viewing males, "can't hold back" is not generally the problem in making a sex scene. You try keeping an erection for two hours or so in front of a half a dozen bored and impatient strangers with a female who, despite her looks on video, is uninterested in have sex with you.

A "God-Botherer," by-the-bye, is defined as "An anti-sex religious fanatic," and a "Dutch Boy" is "A male who is obsessively attracted to lesbians." It has something to do with young men and ocean water-control facilities in Holland, but we didn't quite get it. Nor should you.

--- A. W. Allworthy

 
The Philosophy
Of Music
Theodor W. Adorno
(Stanford University Press)

ince music is my greatest passion these days, this book on Beethoven naturally floated to the top of the heterogeneous pile of review volumes that came to me from RALPH. I opened it speculatively to take a glance, with the idea of perhaps reading it, perhaps even reviewing it. The first passage my eye fell upon, at random, was the following:

In Beethoven's procedures the most profound features of Hegelian philosophy will be discerned, such as the twofold position of 'mind' in the Phenomenology as both subject and object. As the latter it is merely 'observed' in its movement; as the former, through observing, it brings the movement about. Something very similar can be seen in Beethoven's most authentic developments, as in the Appassionata and in the Ninth Symphony, and probably in the Waldstein Sonata as well. The theme of the development is mind, that is, the recognition of self in the other. The 'other', the theme, the inspired idea, is, to begin with, left to itself in these developments and observed; it moves in itself. Only later, with the forte entry, comes the intervention of the subject, as if anticipating an identity as yet unattained. It is only this intervention which creates the actual model of the development through a resolution, that is, only the subjective movement of spirit brings about its objective movement...

To tell the truth, this is the last I remember of the book. The medical team says that I was found twenty-six pages further along, with eyes glazed, shallow Cheyne-Stokes breathing, and blood pressure in negative numbers, indicating a state of full coma. Fortunately, they were able to revive me by administering several measures from the Scherzo movement of Beethoven's Ninth. Medical authorities advise using the book only with a physician in attendance, and the original German version should not even be opened except in hospital surroundings.

By a strange coincidence, I have just recently bought a toy cellular phone which plays the big theme from the last movement of Beethoven's Ninth when you press the # key. Pressing other keys generate rings, dings, beeps, assorted tones, and even a little gremlin voice which says "G'bye" and hangs up. I use my toy cellphone on the bus when all the other passengers receive calls on their real cellphones, probably from each other. My toy cellphone reassures me that I am in the swim of things, or almost. Especially when it plays Beethoven's Ninth to me, although I don't know what Hegel would say about that. He may have been trying to telephone me about it. Come to think of it, maybe he is the little Gremlin voice which says "G'bye".


--- Dr. Phage

RALPH'S TOP TEN BOOKS OF THE SEASON
  • The Woman of Rome, by Alberto Moravia (Steerforth Italia). A re-issue of the 1949 novel of the life in the streets of Rome. As in Memoirs of a Geisha one wonders how a man can penetrate, and penetrate so deeply, the heart of woman; and how he can measure out the story so that one never wants it to stop.

  • The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914 - 1991, by Eric Hobsbawm (Vintage). Hobsbawm has a clear view of recent history --- so clear that he, like Barbara Tuchman, can make it all like a wonderful, intricate Tolstoi novel.

  • The Social Origins of Islam: Mind, Economy, Discourse, by Mohammed A. Bamyer (University of Minnesota). It all came out of the desert --- the "Empty Quarter." (Bamyeh calls it the "Ideology of the Horizons.") In his hands what is scary and illogical about Islam becomes --- if not reasonable --- at least understandable.

  • Of Giants: Sex, Monsters, and The Middle Ages, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen. (University of Minnesota Press). Any academic who can write a book about medieval monsters, and, in the process, bring in the Jolly Green Giant, The Amazing Colossal Man, the Lincoln Memorial, The Texas Chainsaw Massacres, and King Kong --- while making Beowulf and The Canterbury Tales accessible --- has our undying love and devotion.

  • Nobody's Son: Notes from an American Life, by Luis Alberto Urrea. (University of Arizona Press). Urrea's writing is a combination of the best of Bukowski, Saroyan, Henry Miller, Rabelais, and The Beats; e.g., its funny, sad, wistful, mean, and on occasion, highly artful.

  • Mr. Dimock Explores The Mysteries Of the East: Journeys in India, by Edward Cameron Dimock (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill). Our reviewer said, "When I get through writing this review, I'm going to get in touch with Edward Cameron Dimock, tell him what a dandy writer he is, and mention that next year, if he is planning another journey to Calcutta, I might have some time off to go along with him."

  • Faking It: U. S. Hegemony In a "Post-Phallic" Era, by Cynthia Weber (University of Minnesota) The U. S. foreign policy in the Caribbean is here peppered with a touch of Jacques Lacan, and a most garish --- and fascinating --- sexuality.

  • When I Was A German: An English Woman Living in Nazi Germany by Christabel Bielenberg (Bison --- University of Nebraska) Bielenberg stayed in Germany until 1945, and her tale is that of a foreigner, trying to make sense of people enmeshed in a national political and social madness. It's her very logical, very English, sometimes dry way of presenting it that makes this so gripping.

  • Phèdre by Jean Racine. Translated by Ted Hughes. (Farrar Straus Giroux). It's very easy to poo-poo the late Ted Hughes --- his comet still seems a bit too bright at this moment --- but he does a bang-up good job of getting us into the heads of these characters, making out of them people we can recognize as us.

  • The Ogre, by Michel Tournier. Translated by Barbara Bray (Johns Hopkins). Says our reviewer, "We become experts on such unlikely subjects as homing pigeons, the antlers of stags, animal scat, Prussian mythology, the origin of the concept of phoric (to bear), St. Christopher, twins, Abel and Cain, and, finally, Nazism and the Hitler Youth.." Critics have compared it to The Tin Drum he concludes, "but that book of monsters was flat and myopic compared to the rich symphony of The Ogre."

 
 
 
 
 
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