Pomp and Intertext

Cultural Commentary by Erica Eller

Forms of Megalomania: A Short List (Blog Post Marathon: 7)

According to Merriam-Webster, this is the definition of Megalomania:

Full Definition of MEGALOMANIA

  1. a mania for great or grandiose performance
  2. a delusional mental disorder that is marked by feelings of personal omnipotence and grandeur

The topic of megalomania seems particularly relevant at this point in history considering the histrionics of a certain presidential candidate.

Trump

Some scholars have gone great lengths to list out and analyze the important megalomaniacs of our time. Yet, some of these so-called “megalomaniacs” seem rather innocuous (Anais Nin), considering the others who loom large (the Koch Brothers, Rupert Murdoch). Here are a few categories that I have brainstormed to help analyze the irrational influence of “power,” for lack of a better word, in our time.

I’m like Jesus
The first of our short list is known as the “Jesus Complex” on the streets, but otherwise called the Messiah Complex by the psychological community (to accommodate a more broad interpretation). Jesus complex is often paired with notions of salvation, suggesting that the actions of one individual will literally save all people from the wraths of our day.

Too Rich to Fail
The second runner up pertains to the 1%, whose wacky bubble society has led to a special form of Wall Street inspired megalomania. Paul Krugman writes about this in his NY Times Op-Ed piece entitled “Paranoia of Plutocrats.”

Rhetorical-Hype
Third on my list is megalomania that appears in the odd distortions of political rhetoric. More often than not, conservative, charismatic leaders are particularly susceptible to this form of megalomania. Sarah Palin is perhaps most notorious for this in the United States, but she is certainly not alone. Apart from these politicians whose rhetorical nonsense reveals a form of megalomania, we should also consider the severe damage such megalomania imprints on contemporary policy through instances of the damaging effects of outright denial of proven fact. Writers and political pundits who denounce climate change fall into this category, as the scientific community has openly embraced and warned against the factual, observable consequences of climate change.

High and Mighty
It is also suggested that drugs can be a contributing factor to delusions of grandeur. See this article highlighting one form of such psychosis that the author refers to as “cocainomania.”

Taking it Out on Others
With the rise in police violence, mass shootings, and acts of terrorism, one can’t help but wonder if having the means for violent acts, such as weapons, induces some people into a violent form of megalomania. Rather than submitting to a social contract, these acts of violence default to a more base form of rule: might over right. The application of this logic is disturbingly capricious. This is a contemporary dilemma that needs to be redressed.

Of course communities of color have challenged the usefulness of calling racially biased police violence a form of madness, since we should name it at face-value, whether it is racism or a crime against humanity. On the other hand, I find the belief that one can take another’s life without consequence to be a kind of unnatural delusion based on a sense of overweening power.

All in all, this megalomaniac power-frenzy is worth questioning and I encourage you to acknowledge the myriad of ways that gluttony for power distorts society. In short, let’s try to curb megalomania and its negative influence upon our lives.

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Madame Bovary’s Afterlife: Lily Bart

“The House of Mirth” published in 1905 by Edith Wharton is a character driven novel that effectively results in a resuscitation of Flaubert’s dead heroine, Madame Bovary. This time, she comes in the form of the extravagant Lily Bart. Ms. Bovary is brought back to life by translation. Fluent in French, Edith Wharton’s francophilia delivers the pre-conceived warning to American young beauties about the French curse of debt induced suicide. Revitalizing the dead society culture of American high society of her time, Edith Wharton’s love of France and all things French (including Flaubert’s aristocratic critique of bourgeois fallacies) enables the esteemed realistic creature, Madame Bovary, to enter into a hyperrealistic duplication in the form of Lily Bart. Rarely is a copy more compelling than the original, but for many book lovers, this is the case when asked about their preference between Bovary and Bart. Why is Flaubert’s Madame Bovary trumped by her rebirth in the form of Lily Bart? Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that Lily’s translation is closer in time and space to the contemporary capital of the 20th century, New York City.

Provocatively, Walter Benjamin poses the question, “Is a translation meant for readers who do not understand the original?” Certainly, the linguistic elitism implied by that question, serves to suggest that we need to and should understand “the original.” Under this aegis, Edith Wharton likewise preserves her authorial claim to originality. Perhaps not having enough of a literate audience to compare the continental canon, she was able to shock and stun her own bourgeois readership of their own frightening entanglement in capitalism. Furthermore, Benjamin claims that translations cannot transmit what is essential about literary works. Therefore, translation is merely a testament to the translatability of the original. In medical terms, we might consider what is translatable to be the “viral,” contagious spread of disease. We are overcome with a work by virtue of our need to share it.

Thus, the afterlife of Madame Bovary spreads the disease of debt and its crippling effects once again in an updated American version. It proves that there may be nothing more stunning than to witness the fall of the most beautiful, effortless, weightless, and superficial members of elite society even though Lily Bart is proven to have more wit and more gumption than Madame Bovary could ever manage. Therefore, she is prepped for a more hungry audience. They liked what they saw, and the virus had taken hold. Each era has the potential to reframe the translatable figure of Madame Bovary as long as her archetype remains fixed, and as long as we continue to fear the threshold of death that looms at the edge of a fall in status. But is that kind of decadence exactly what Edith Wharton had in mind? And why do mostly high-society writers(Edith Wharton was a kin of the elite) latch onto this particular translatable text? Why is it somehow satisfying to kill off a member of their own in fiction?

Let’s recall the novel’s “non-essential” (non-literary) information:

Lily Bart is a beautiful high society lady living with her wealthy aunt in New York City. She earns a stipend from her aunt for her expenses that accrue as she mingles among wealthy social circles by adorning parties with her exceptional beauty and grace. Her lifestyle could only respectably end in marriage. Lily Bart, however, defies this “natural” trajectory by gambling her money away at bridge and eluding her suitors. When she becomes financially entangled with married suitor who seeks to adopt her as his mistress, she realizes she must repay him to quell rumors that will inevitably spread. When her aunt learns of her niece Lily Bart’s defamatory endeavors, unbeknownst to Lily Bart, she adjusts her will to restrict Lily Bart’s inheritance and award the bulk of her wealth to Lily’s previously less-admired cousin. As far as her aunt is concerned, Lily Bart has wasted her beauty and upbringing on frivolous, selfish pursuits. Ultimately, what Lily inherits is just enough to cover the cost of her debts. Lily Bart’s downfall results in her confiding to various suitors of her situation. One of them offers her a loan to cover her debt to the original suitor and restore her reputation in a plan that involves an eventual marriage and return to her customary status. However, by this time, she  is working to earn her living as a hat maker for which she has no skill and she is living in a boarding house. By the time she finally receives her inheritance, she realizes its full amount is almost entirely accounted for. Unable to revoke her lifestyle of excess and materialism, or to give up her independence, or to see the virtues of her less materialistic friends, she overdoses while thinking of her hopeless circumstances.

Lily Bart is a direct translation of the character Madame Bovary into a different nation and culture, which offers Edith Wharton the opportunity to provide a critique of American society. Let us recall that Madame Bovary was absorbed in a quest of freedom as a natural exponent of true love. Along the way, her savings succumbed to her dreams as she lavishly adorned the romantic setting where she met her lover to the point of suicide-inducing debt. Lily Bart, however, appears to despise the concept of marriage and dreams instead of remaining free to carouse the tightly-knit circles of society with equal dress and esteem as if she were attached to a partner, but without the trappings of closure and limitation that marriage might impose on her power to allure. Unable to find a suitable partner, she prefers to gamble and dream of the virtues of financial independence.

Edith Wharton’s francophile approach to writing results in an uncanny doppelgänger effect when one reads “Madame Bovary” and “The House of Mirth” in sequence. Edith Wharton’s admiration for French culture is vividly transparent in the near duplication of themes and motivations. Just as Flaubert wished to critique the romantic delusions of the French bourgeois class, Edith Wharton directs her critique at her own materialistic, inbred society of New York where all of the members of the elite merely wish to escape to the superior “culture” of Europe.

What is brilliant about Edith Wharton’s translation of Madame Bovary into a new work is that it reflects her simultaneous desire to adopt French culture as a corrective to her own. Edith Wharton was fluent in French and she died in France at the age of 75. With “The House of Mirth,” she infuses a French classic text into the American imagination because of her profound belief in the superiority of Europe and its aristocratic class to her own. Edith Wharton’s “The House of Mirth” represents not only a heroine’s escape from her troubles, but a writer’s escape from her own environment, by embracing another culture.

The relationship between Madame Bovary and Lily Bart is not about female empowerment, but rather a dissolution into the borderless confines of identity captured by the figure of the flaneur. Lily lands at the cusp of such a wandering phenomena by traversing high and low culture, maneuvering in and out of Europe and America, while also floating in the in between space of decisive suicide and accidental death. This indeterminable half-life, can no longer can be reigned in by patriarchy. Lily Bart instead leads towards an atrophy of self in which the only vague sense of certainty befalls her upon her death. Unlike Bovary’s lust for a transcendence from her strict realism in the form of eternal love, Lily Bart chooses not to choose, and falters over her identity as a relinquishment of willpower. She settles with powerless ease into the systemic demise that awaits her. Lily Bart, trumped by capitalism, represents a more clearly etched indecision that Madame Bovary inspired and transmitted. Eloquently prim in their lack of resistance to the capitalism that rules supreme in these representations, Flaubert and Wharton alike simply give in to the notion that women, left to their own devices, are no match for the death-seeking downward spiral of debt that is induced by a capitalist society. Thus, Benjamin continues to hold the key, by claiming that Paris was the “capital” of the 19th century, proving the most hallucinatory generator of phantasmic images of ghosts, untimely deaths of beautiful women, and the machinery of the resulting continuation of such an epidemic. Cast aside and forgotten, in the story of Lily Bart, the dance of excess carries on long after her death. Lily Bart ushers in the new era of an American translation of such liberal freedoms.

Je Suis Madame Bovary

Waiver: This blog post has absolutely nothing to do with Charlie Hedbo (at least not explicitly).

Getting back to the original intent of this blog, I now return to literary commentary.

Today’s post is the first on a series about fictional suicidal heroines.

I’m afraid to admit it, but I only just recently read Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert for the first time. While it has been touted by all sorts of Francophiles for its literary merits, I was more interested in reading it through a narcissistic lens.

Recap: “Madame Bovary” as you probably know, is story of a famous, lovely, young French woman who marries Charles Bovary. She soon feels bored by married life and turns to extra-marital romantic affairs. The first of these ends because her lover is distracted and ultimately refuses to commit and run away with her. The second leads to more heartbreak and dire fiscal consequences. Once she falls too deep into debt, she gets hold of some cyanide and ends her life when she courageously swallows away her debt, dreams, and doldrum. The death leaves a stain on her community, especially on the psyche of her forlorn husband.

With so many fallen dreams crumbling throughout the book, any empathy you start to feel for the characters is tainted by the overbearing notoriety of the author himself. After all, he wrote this book to satisfy his urge to critique the French bourgeois society of his era. We learn a compelling moral that unsatisfiable emotional needs, paired with the influence of several favorite bourgeois pastimes: reading and shopping and fantasizing, lead to one woman’s fatal downfall in the form of suicide. Her urge to “opt out” is compounded by the male constituents of the community who offer the option of support through sexual trade. At every corner, she faces the risk of losing her status, which is her most prized possession. This, in fact, proves to be worth more than her life to her. It is ultimately more “affordable” to expend her own life, than to risk losing her social status.

However, the novel’s particular focus on the fatal attraction of debt-inducing behavior was particularly poignant for me. Parallels between the risks associated with a female livelihood in this novel and my own life lead me to believe that beyond the book’s superficial warning against frivolity, there is another more compelling historical relationship between her (Madame Bovary) and me (Je Suis). Not only do Madame Bovary’s material demands lead to her downfall, there is a more sardonic depiction of female psychology at play. Her love of fiction, her fancy, her imagination and her wish to transcend “daily life” are actually what cause her demise and mobilize her debt. “Daily life,” after all, lacks passion. It lacks the extremes of emotion and it continues onward in a highly predictable manner. Flaubert is taunting us by drawing the line and reminding us that actually, the only people who are free from the risks that debauchery entails are privileged male artists like himself.

From a writerly perspective, the style of Madame Bovary has been cited for establishing what we now call “realism.” I was particularly entranced with the descriptions that gave such a compelling illusion of truth. The thick residue of time and space melted away so that I really sympathized with Madame Bovary, reading this book. This story led to profound self-evaluation on my part. This novel of female escapism and its hazards parallels the framework supporting my writing endeavors.

A brief summary is as follows: inspired by novels I read, I decided that I should become a creative writer. There was no financial goal in mind, just an urge to devour life for all of its myriad flavors. So, for a few years that comprised the latter half of my twenties, I earned two self-defining Master’s degrees in which I entertained dreams of both madness and greatness. Out of these endeavors, I produced very little actual readable work of any quality. I was “experimenting.” After a several-month-long trip to South America to learn Spanish, a class in Marxism at Berkeley, a year-long avant-garde poetry thesis, a several-month long-trip to Germany, and a visit to Turkey later; I landed in Istanbul as a SAT instructor and university application counselor for wealthy private Turkish students. Not to mention, all of my escapades have been extra-marital, but of a different kind than those of Madame Bovary. Mine are not dependent on any particular lover’s participation (for better or worse). Now that I am some 40K in debt (no, I am not a Columbia graduate, otherwise those figures would be into the triple-digits), I am still compelled to write. But more and more, I understand the difficult-to-face reality that my writing is actually a fatal, fruitless task. Little by little, I am crawling my way out of financial risk. The main difference between me and my mirror (Madame B.) is that I am still blind to how my romantic adventures have lead to any social downfall. Perhaps that’s why I’m still alive. My status as one among billions in this digital-era, leaves me thankfully anonymous. Therefore, I think my adventures have had very little effect upon my status, which started rather low to begin with. I have successfully escaped the Bovary effect: “Pardon me, but do you happen to have any… ahem… cyanide?”

Purportedly, Madame Bovary dispels the false, romantic illusions of the bourgeois class. In that regard, I have interpreted it as a stark, but brilliant portrayal of someone like me. At the same time, it allures us with the beauty of the senses, the decadence of extreme emotional range, and Ms. Bovary’s courage to singlehandedly take down an entire provincial, sexist community of men with a defiantly independent form of female nihilism. Perhaps, most of all, it is this that captures my imagination. I love Madame Bovary for her defiance and her reckless approach to what is ultimately the destruction of personhood by way of ruining her own body’s material value in a patriarchal society. She explodes out of its confines with her own death. This leaves the question, was Madame Bovary ruined by a toxic frivolity that led to her eventual demise, or did she succeed as the ultimate heroine of material escape?

Concluding thoughts:

Madame Bovary reminds us that we live in and come from a society that drives women towards debt through various factors including:

1. The urge to stay materially equal or superior to our peers in fashionable appearance, dress and lifestyle.

2. The combined disincentive to work that the traditional conceptions of marriage and motherhood imposes on women. This leads to our economic disadvantage. Of course, this is less prominent in this era, but many women must still contemplate this dilemma.

3. The romantic ideals of true love, emotional freedom and creativity that are often achieved in some part through material acquisition. This means that the life of an imaginative, artistic young woman is inherently conducive to financial traps designed specifically for our social economic “class.”

The Madame Bovary Antidote:

The greater the imagination, the greater our chance to escape this “horror.” 

“The Horror! The Horror!”

Yes, this is the colonization of women’s freedom of body and mind by the advertising, fashion, and the capitalist machinery that urges us to achieve ultimate material dependence under the guise of expressive independence. Ok, perhaps this has turned into a platitudinous post, so I shall…

end…

its…

life.

Up next on the suicidal heroine blog-post docket:

Commentary about Lily Bart in “The House of Mirth” by Edith Wharton

Charlie Hedbo and the Martyrdom of Western Values

While the absurdity of the violence upon Charlie Hedbo is shocking and calls for a period of mourning, the resulting public statements from various news outlets on this incident leave me in a state of dissatisfaction. Let’s face it, the “Western” value of “freedom of speech” chooses its martyrs carefully; it was a much more equivocal phrase in the news coverage on Bradley Manning. What I mean is that the resulting defense of the “Western” freedom of speech suggests that the press can and should practice religious mockery, but when it comes to upholding political transparency, that value becomes much more ambiguous. The polarizing effect of this event in the media has resulted in two main interpretive variants: the hypocritical ideological defense of Western values and speculation about an islamophobic backlash. Certainly many non-western people likewise support the freedom of speech, and for that matter, they support it under much more repressive regimes than France and Germany, for example. Terrorists and governments alike disenfranchise journalists, so it shouldn’t become a diplomatic ploy for the West to claim Charlie Hedbo as a martyr, which will have no effect whatsoever on realistically supporting the freedom of speech. I’m still waiting for new sides to emerge. After all what actually did happen?

Did Islamist extremists murder innocent defenders of free speech? or…

Did marginal terrorists target a provocative racist cartoon magazine? or…

Did pretend-Islamic extremists create martyrs to exacerbate islamophobia? or…

Did barbarians inflict carnage in a popularly beloved French-Western cultural institution? or…

Did anti-humorists kill adamant satirists? or…

Was this a case of iconoclasm for an era in which the icons poke fun at religious figures, thereby upholding the oppressive power of secularism? or…

Was this a successful slaughter of working journalist-artist-satirists who should have respected their own lives rather than their ideology, which was what exactly? or…

Was this the strength of real violence punishing weak creators of provocative imagery? or…

Who were these ideological masterminds who used weapons to raise such thought-provoking, boundary-defining questions? Who staged this polarizing media ploy? What do they want to prove with their violence? The imbalance and non-equivalence of opposing sides makes the incident as perplexing as it is sad.

Here are a few other (conflicting) responses:

“On Charlie Hedbo” published in Jacobin

“The Attack on Charlie Hedbo” published in The New Yorker

“Paris Attack is Europe’s 9/11” published in The Hurriyet Daily News

“The Guardian View of Charlie Hedbo: Those Guns were Trained on Free Speech” published in The Guardian

“Humorists react to Charlie Hedbo Attack” published in Aljazeera

 Here’s one that I particularly agree with:

“Unmournable Bodies” published in The New Yorker

2015 New Year’s Resolutions

Here are my New Year’s resolutions, what are yours? Once again, getting married and starting a family still didn’t make the list. Neither did losing weight or winning the lottery. My hopes are rather minor and highly personal. Most of them involve continuing the same things I was already doing at the end of 2014.

a. Pay off some debt.

b. Aspire towards fluency in one or all of the following languages: Turkish, German, Spanish

c. Find more editing and writing gigs in addition to my regular work (time permitting).

d. Finish reading all of the books that I buy and sell the ones I’m not referencing when I’m done with them.

e. Use less plastic packaging and create less waste.

f. Take a more journalistic approach to my life by documenting my travels and do so in ways other than online social-media photography, namely: writing, drawing in my sketch journal, and recording sounds with my handheld recorder. Compile these creations in some format other than marginalia scattered throughout my notes and papers and digital files.

g. Travel more (so far I have plans to visit San Francisco, home, and Amsterdam in February)

h. Critically approach the suicidal-heroine genre of writing in a project (a thought inspired by recently reading Madame Bovary by Flaubert, The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, and Veronica Decides to Die by Paul Coehlo)

i. Get back to my historical writing project on Francis Fuller Victor and Hubert Howe Bancroft and the Pacific Northwest.

j. Plant some bamboo or other plants in the back yard (will it grow in Istanbul?)

k. Stay healthy, run, relax, drink chai and play tavla and chess.

l. Buy an accordion and learn some polka tunes.

m. Do some form of environmental activism.

n. Try my best to stay in touch with my friends and family.

o. Collaborate with others.

Notes on being a Digital Stranger

Sometimes I feel like an outsider in the digital world. For example, I rarely take selfies. One of the reasons is that when I reach to take a photo, my phone battery usually dies. This happened just this morning. I thought it would be interesting to take a selfie of me just out of the shower, because my hair was starting to form the spiral curls that make it distinct. I wanted to capture this magical moment on camera. Just as I turned on my phone camera and saw my own wet hair and blotchy face through the lens, the screen went blank. I sincerely doubt that any profound or even mundane significance was lost with this missed opportunity.

I’m lazy about charging my phone and since its an Iphone 4 the pictures turn out grainy. I also think that all of my photos need to be photoshopped, but they never turn out right. My pale skin makes the contrast function turn me into a ghost and my pink undertones makes any other function turn me into a devil. This is compounded by the fact that my pale blue eyes turn into red lasers if the flash setting is on. My idea of the selfie is that it should capture a certain attitude. I feel silly capturing a mood featuring myself on camera. My mood is often a mystery to me, so the photos turn out similarly indecisive. This ambiguity doesn’t translate well in a world ruled by marketing tactics of users instant identification with a style, concept, brand, etc. I cannot really be marketed except as a ‘nobody.’ As a nobody, I feel very comfortable; you could say “content” even. The best way to capture this mood is by not taking selfies. I don’t deny the fact that I enjoy looking at other people’s photos, but mostly as an outsider. I think: how interestingly unfamiliar.

There is a word for people like me in Turkish. It is “yabancı” pronounced “yah-bahn-juh” (more or less) and it is applied to any foreigner who comes to Turkey, marked by their different looks and their inability to speak Turkish. When the Turks say this word, it also gives you a sense that you are not just innocently “outside” of their world, but criminally so. You feel like an intruder, especially in this current era power-shifts. This is also how I feel in the digital age. I intrude on the social media and blogosphere worlds as an inept and external interloper. The feeling is heightened now that I am living in Istanbul.

One of the most scenic cities of the world, Istanbul is boldly photogenic. It remains so, in spite of efforts by developers to eradicate all plant-life and areas designated as “green” spaces. The contemporary preference is for stone and concrete, which still hasn’t dismantled the charm of the many street cats that lace every ancient architectural wonder. Or the vibrant colors of hanging laundry with the backdrop of the Bosphorus. Or faded the sunset skyline of the Golden Horn with its striking silhouettes of minarets and domes that outline each mosque. I love the look and the feel of the city both surrounding me and with its contours under my feet. However, I have no means of expressing my delight on camera, since first of all, I feel burdened by the extra luggage of a photo-taking device. It is not its weight or size, which is minimal, but the interruption each photo makes and the alternate perspective it demands of my consciousness. I not only have to be ready to take a photo at any moment, but I also have to look for things that I should photograph. Otherwise, I come up blank.

My Instagram ineptitude is a result of coming up blank. I have an account, but as I mentioned I don’t have a good phone camera. What exacerbates this problem more is my apathy towards buying a new phone. This is a result of my resistance to the constant flood of new models marketed to consumers. The rate of change is faster than my ability to digest the possibilities that each new model presents. I am not a digital warrior, but a digital meddler, as I said. Furthermore, my camera broke. It was kind of an accident, because the final blow was when I accidentally dropped it out of my pocket, but it also kind of wasn’t. I had gone for months with the device being tossed around in my purse, bombarded by books, keys, and other conflicting gadgetry. After being tousled, poked and prodded, it was gradually losing its luster. Its lens was scratched because the lens cover stopped closing all of the way. When I dropped it, it felt like shooting a wounded horse. Somethings are beyond repair.

This decadent feeling is how I would describe my attitude towards photo-taking in social media. I occasionally breathe the fresh air of inspiration and take a sudden outburst of photos and then post them online, but I usually regret it later. The inner critic sets in and the photos start to give me proof of my insignificance in the scheme of things. Then I realize that this feeling of being “nobody” actually is better represented by a lack of photos, rather than a sudden outburst of them. Along with Melville’s esteemed anti-hero, Bartleby, I concur: “I would prefer not to.”

A mis-translation of lines from Interstellar

With so much huffing and puffing against the ideological underpinnings of of director Christopher Nolan’s 2014 movie Interstellar from some of my favorite sources of critique, I thought I would try my own hand at understanding its flaws through this simple effort at mis-translation. I considered the famous lines that cause us all to stir at their sudden clichéd arrogance and thought about the associations they triggered for me. Granted, my associations are perhaps “hyperbolic” and based on a lot of ideological residue accumulated from the overall dismay I feel towards Hollywood. Nevertheless, I simply re-worked these associations into a series of mis-translations:

Interstellar script: “We are explorers, pioneers, not caretakers … We’re not meant to save the world. We’re meant to leave it.”

Translation 1 anti-feminism: “We are assholes, rapists not honorable human beings … We’re not meant to love women. We’re meant to leave them.”

Translation 2 neo-liberalism: “We favor expansion, colonization, not domestic resolution … We’re not meant to allocate tax money to social programs. We’re meant to steal and profit.

Translation 3 anti-environmentalism: “We are bio-geneticists, astro-physicists, not permaculturists … We’re not meant to understand ecology. We’re meant to deny it.”

Translation 4 ahistoricism: “We are explorers, pioneers, not caretakers. We’re not meant to honor our agreements with the natives. We’re meant to commit genocide.”

Translation 5 aristocratic romanticism: “We are dreamers, visionaries, not pragmatists … We’re not meant to save the animals from extinction, the women from committing suicide, or the lower classes from poverty. We’re meant to miss them when they’re dead.”

Translation 6 derivative art: “We are enthusiasts, plagiarizers not artistic innovators … We’re not meant to enhance film as an art form. We’re meant to copy Stanley Kubrick.”

Notes toward a reconsideration of Scalping

The relic of a scalp procured through scalping is a particularly fraught image of violence that should represent, most of all, a symptom of cultural forgetting. The conception that this practice originated as a native invention reflects a peculiarly conspicuous symptom of the myth of savagism. Savagism was and is not only a racist ideology that places the European as the leader of civilization and the indigenous culture as inferior through anachronistic propaganda as Anibal Quijano has pointed out, but it is also about attributing violence during a process of mystifying the actual cultural phenomena that perpetuates violence. By merely attributing this form of violence to natives and all of the horror and shock that comes with it, the myth of savagism bypasses the commodity structure built into the proliferation of scalping during colonial wars of expansion and it discounts the reality that most all war-faring factions in North America participated in scalping (including the French, English, Americans, and Natives). 

The practice of providing bounties for scalps during the French and Indian War, meant that natives were encouraged to enter into a war effort by enabling them to profit through commerce. Murder was a paid-for service when interested European warfaring parties were furnished with the proof of a scalp. The labor of producing a scalp, however, has been exaggerated by romanticized imagery that fosters an ideology of savagism. Images depicting native warriors raising their tomahawks and pulling the hair of frightened settlers exclude from their frames the backdrop of the interested parties that were securing money for this service. We should remember that any act of scalping became a form of labor that produced a wage. The capitalistic system of providing incentives for war efforts lurks behind the exaggerated imagery of scalp removal that we know from those romanticized frontier narrative images.

Of course, anyone could get payment for a scalp and natives were by no means the only ones to participate in the trade. Author Philip Martin reminds people that Europeans may or may not have invented the practice that was largely attributed to natives. Either way, scalping is only a more refined version of beheading, which was the less idiosyncratic version of furnishing proof for murder during warfare in England. Like decapitation, scalping played a score-keeping function for the European warmongers, who kept track of murdered individuals.

The base reality of the genocidal warfare inflicted against natives is epitomized by a practice that has an almost synecdochic resemblance in relation to scalping. This was the practice of the genital mutilation of innocent women murdered in Sand Creek, CO. Genital mutilation occurred when the particularly violent commander J.M. Chivington’s soldiers descended upon Sand Creek as a so-called act of redemption, an interpretation I will disagree with shortly. The soldiers’ actions included the morally depraved act of killing innocent women, removing their genitals, and then preparing the flesh to be worn as a symbol of their achievement. The soldiers, a group of largely untrained men, would stretch the flesh over their saddles and later adorn their hats with the dried relic, a true expression of human barbarism. Like the process of preparing a scalp for being returned for the bounty reward, this process of genital mutilation involved stretching and drying the human flesh to produce a symbolic fetish that represents the total embrace of senseless violence. 

Like other similar incidents that incited revenge for white settlers as justification for war crimes such as the Whitman Massacre, the war effort at Sand Creek is always depicted as a response to a massacre of white missionaries by natives. These isolated events of massacre are often depicted in history books as triggers for wars that happened to also support expansion efforts. But these “triggers” were also prefaced with epidemics of European diseases that were wiping out native populations, as well as over zealous and destructive fur trade practices that had decimated the natural stores of the natives’ food sources. While a reaction certainly took place to the Sand Creek Massacre by the Europeans, it was an opportunistic form of advance that in its vindictiveness cast boulders in response to stone throwing. The white war effort at Sand Creek should therefore only be understood as a offensive escalation of violence rather than an act of redemption.

Questions remain about scalping since not many historical resources are devoted to the topic. For example, when did the State of New York ban payment for scalps in return for legally sanctioned bounty money? When did scalping end? What were the stories of scalping survivors? (It is true that not all victims of scalping actually died as a result.) Most importantly what can we understand about racism and its links to justifying warfare today as it is an aspect of the myth of savagism. Furthermore, what does this complex form of attributing the imagery of violence to the disenfranchised racial group in history reveal about the reification of warfare as a mechanism that ungirds capitalism. 

Sources used for this article: 

http://www.earlyamerica.com/review/1998/scalping.html

http://www.hawthorneinsalem.org/ScholarsForum/MMD2263.html

http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/two-hundred-year-old-scalp-law-still-on-books-in-nova-scotia-1.230906

http://www.manataka.org/page1438.html

Quijano, Anibal. 2000b. Colonialidad del Poder y Clasificacion Social. Trans. María Lugones In Festschrift for Immanuel Wallerstein. Special issue, Journal of World Systems Research 5, no. 2 (summer/fall).

Gibbs, Jules. “In the Beautiful, Violent Swirl of America.” The American Poetry Review: Jul/Aug 2012; 41, 4; Alt-Press Watch, pg 35. 

Impertinent Impressions of Istanbul (part one?)

Having stumbled upon Istanbul as blindly as one can this June and having stayed here since, I came with less than an ounce knowledge of the language, culture or politics in a country that has so much well-trodden history and so much political hype in international news since last year. I fully realize there is a thread of impertinence that runs through this post. I have been merely struggling to come up for air when I speak to Turkish people, hoping they might offer their thoughts about what matters most in this place. For me, the streets are chaos and every single person is involved in a game of rushing down a river towards a waterfall of days in motion filled with coffee, tea, breakfast, complaints, speculation, gossip, joking, admonitions… These are the things I don’t have much access to with the stuffy English cloud that protects me from sinking in. Therefore I do my best to absorb any imprint at all of this city built on quicksand, with its passages and stairways lifting up from the mire. This quicksand, is of course the material of my imagination’s invention, rather than the universal experience of the people here. For them, it is easy to cross the street in oncoming traffic whose drivers aim headlong at one another from five different opposing directions. They swim through it. In my blindness towards reality here, what I am able to see clearly are our bestial counterparts: the itinerant sea gulls and the local alley cats. These are the creatures whose presence offers such an accurate surface impression of this city, that it might even capture something of the truth…

Istanbul is a city of itinerant sea gulls and local alley cats. These two types make up the bulk of its inhabitants, save the humans, who come with a whole different set of problems. The primary problem for the sea gulls and the alley cats is to find a food source. Of course, there is plenty to go around, with one of the main sources being the production of human food waste. Otherwise, there are also rats, lizards, fish, bugs, etc. – all of the dross of nature. However, the assortment of food found in the human trash supply is far more popular than nature’s bounty. After all, human filth is much more variegated. Humans show their generosity in strange ways by leaving so much wealth to plunder in the trash. I once saw a butcher shoe the cat away from its door by tossing a fresh piece of raw meat out into the street for it to chase after.

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The alley cat of each narrow passage must stake out a claim to their domain of trash and patronage from shop owners. They must defend their region of cobblestone in the night against the other cats. Istanbul is actually owned by cats who seem to adhere to the same principles as the Occupy Movement. They roost in public and non-public spaces alike. In fact, the city is so filled with alley cats that they no longer pander to humans, but fight amongst themselves. The night air is filled with more cats hissing and yowling at one another than it ever is with meowing and purring. In Istanbul, cats are predators and I saw one perched atop the gate to the Swedish embassy the other day, surveying the ground for food, unmoved by the swells of humans that ebbed and flowed underneath its gaze. Not one fine-dining establishment with an open air terrace would ever quarantine itself off from the cats. Humans admiringly laugh and coo at these locals, but the cats are mostly indifferent to such self-indulgent forms of praise. While the humans reach dumbly with naked fingers to touch the rich velvety pelt worn by a cat, the cats themselves are mostly proud of their fangs and their dagger-like claws.

IstanbulYDSCN1171_20The itinerant seagulls are in constant motion here. They swirl through the air making so much racket they outdo the cats with their propensity for noise, if not the humans, too. They soar and drop guano wherever they please. It lands in the lower territories of the cats. They proceed to land on rooftops and balcony ledges, the most prized places of the cats, but they never heed the rewarding heights with any seriousness. They roam from tower to terrace, never quite settling. They are an odd bunch of dissatisfied dreamers that never absorb more than a surface impression of any one place, since they only see with a bird’s eye view. And they are greedy, too. They take what they want and gulp it up with the jutting motion of their necks to hide whatever treasure they can away in their gullets. These birds have no real home and they have no real loyalty to any one place. They just circle through the air giving the impression that they hold an interest, but every place they land is only for a temporary stay. Indecision casts them up against the wind upon any slight disturbance. These whimsical creatures are hated by cats and humans alike.

(Meanwhile, an imaginary tourist pretends to think deep thoughts.) Fine, salient sea dust coats the marble balustrades whose flat surfaces are etched with the hieroglyphic traces of seagull talons. From the lobby of the hotel, I walked out to the rail to light a cigarette and visualize solutions to my life’s problems in the face of the vanishing point of the Bosphorus. Naturally, I would come to a point of recognition just when the wind would blow my cigarette out and I’d have to start all over again by relighting, revising, and re-realizing.

Blog Hop: A Writing Q&A

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How many blogs can a blog hop hop? I was invited by a talented writer named Ben Black to participate in a “Blog Hop” by taking a moment to write about my writing. I must say that I was hesitant to participate because my creative writing has been on hiatus for some time. Ultimately, I came up with some notes that serve as answers to a few questions about my writing habits.

At the end of the post, I have linked to several other authors’ sites (Xanath Caraza, Maisha Z. Johnson, and Fernando Pujals). Look for their posts next week, since they’ll also participate in the blog hop.

What am I working on?

I am working on research for a novella about Francis Fuller Victor, the only female historian who contributed to Hubert Howe Bancroft’s subscription-based history of the West in the latter half of the 19th century. This history was published under his name, and though many other contributors worked on the book, he does not credit those who worked within his “Literary Industry.” Victor contributed histories of Oregon, Washington, and Idaho – places that I have a personal affinity to, since this region was where I grew up. She is also a fascinating character in her own right. Her strong, progressive opinions on issues such as the Whitman Massacre and women’s rights led to divided sentiments about her historical work and career in the region. Bancroft believed that in the future, the writing of history would come to be developed out of an efficient factory-model of production similar to the one he used to write his history, that involved low-paid wage-based writers. In contrast, Victor saw the importance of taking time to gather the nuanced, multifaceted face of history that is cultivated through the careful collection of personally imparted stories as well as extensive research. Therefore, I’m interested in how Bancroft and Victor came together through their set of related, misguided dreams. Victor was failed poet who succeeded at becoming a highly skilled historian, and Bancroft was a successful businessman who dreamed of being remembered as the great historian of the west, but lost his reputation for exploiting his contributors. My research on this novella is merely in the formative stages.

How is my work different than others in its genre?

While this current novella-length project involves a lot of historical research, part of the research process involves developing an imbedded critique about regional history and historiography in the United States. This critical inquiry will likely shape the form that I work with and guide me towards alternative, creative means to interrogate the notion of provincialism.

My other past work has fallen into different generic definitions and therefore is not really relevant to a question of genre when considered as a whole.

Why do I write what I do?

I’d like to know the roots of my regional language identity better, specifically in relation to the cultural development of the rural, inland northwest. I read from a historian named Hazel E. White that some European immigrants in Oregon were once ridiculed by savvy Californian business men for their web-feet during the gold rush era, which they had supposedly developed in the heavy rain on the Oregon coast. The Oregonians were considered lazy at business and inferior for remaining passive towards the war efforts against the Native Americans. I write to chase a faint glimmer of hope that in the “Wild West” some people merely wanted to harvest crops on their farms rather than to force history. I also have a sense of familiarity towards these people. I feel like I have heard their daily chattering, quibbling, tinkering, and puttering voices. I want to write to dream about them.

I find myself embellishing in the strangest of places in a story, and later, catastrophically, remembering it as truth. Each made-up world is evidence of something. In every project, I’m not only researching the subject itself, but also trying to collect enough evidence to identify the origins of my own delusions. I always suspect I’ve inherited them from some cultural condition that frames our own time. I search for this specific frame. I feel that writing about history must involve healthy doses of embellished dreaming into the past as well as a critical inquiry towards the present.

How does my writing process work?

I take a lot of notes, I read, and I collect anecdotes. I search for hidden scenes, vocabularies, and personages that I would like to embrace in my work. These become the massive dream-network that underlies the scant lines to which I must commit. My writing occurs at the sacrifice of many undefined impressions, moods, and apprehensions. This commitment has increasingly become a burden for me, so I simply take my writing one word at a time. One scene, one phrase, one conversation: sometimes this is all it takes to have the courage to settle into the English language, a formidable place to call home.


Xánath Caraza is a traveler, educator, poet and short story writer.  She is the 2014 recipient of the Beca Nebrija para creadores.  Caraza is an Award Winning Finalist in the ‘Fiction: Multicultural’ category of the 2013 International Book Awards.  Her book Conjuro was awarded second place in the ‘Best Poetry Book in Spanish’ category and received honorable mention in the ‘Best First Book in Spanish, Mariposa Award’ category of the 2013 International Latino Book Awards.  She was named number one of the 2013 Top Ten “New” Latino Authors to Watch (and Read) by LatinoStories.com. She has been nominated for the 2013 Pushcart Prize for short fiction.  Caraza is the author of Noche deColibríesEkphrastic Poems,  Lo que trae la marea/What the Tide Br ngs,Conjuro and Corazón PintadoEkphrastic PoemsHer upcoming book is Sílabas de viento/Syllables of Wind.  Caraza writes for La BlogaUS Latino Poets en español and Revista Zona de Ocio. 

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Xanath Caraza


Maisha Z. Johnson is a writer, an activist, and a troublemaker of Trinidadian descent. She has an MFA in Poetry from Pacific University, and she studied creative writing at San Francisco State University. Through writing and workshops, Maisha lifts up voices of those who are often silenced, including LGBTQ people, people of color, and survivors of violence. Her work has been published in numerous journals and nominated twice for a Pushcart Prize.  She explores the relationship between art and social change on her blog, atwww.maishazjohnson.com.

Maisha

Maisha Z. Johnson


Fernando Pujals lives and writes in San Francisco where he handles the BS, or brand story, at the historic Fly Trap Restaurant (www.flytrapsf.com).  He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University.8title.com, or Infinite Title, showcases his personal writing pursuits. Subjects are as varied as form. From personal essay to fiction fragment, oral history to RAP, the titles are infinite.

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Fernando Pujals


Ben Blacks work has appeared in Harpur Palate, New American Writing, The Los Angeles Review, and Smokelong Quarterly. He recently completed his MFA at San Francisco State University, where he also teaches. His stories have been finalists for the Omnidawn Fabulist Fiction Chapbook Contest and the Calvino Award. Find out more at benpblack.com.

Ben Black

Ben Black