ahorbinski: Emma Goldman, anarchist (play the red queen's game)
Partnoy, Alicia. The Little School. Trans. Alicia Partnoy with Lois Athey and Sandra Braunstein. San Francisco, CA: Midnight Editions, 1998.

The class I'm teaching for is also listed under Letters & Sciences, which allows us to go beyond strictly historical materials in the syllabus. The Little School is a fictionalization of the author's experiences after her arrest and "disappearance" by the Argentinian military junta in early 1977 in the torture installation known as "the little school" after its previous use as an actual educational facility. Many of the poems and stories here were smuggled out of prison after Partnoy was reappeared and transferred to a de rigeur prison. In 1979 she was granted a U.S. visa and released into exile, joining her husband (who was also arrested and tortured in her presence at the little school) and daughter in the United States, where she still resides. Partnoy has testified about her experiences in multiple fora.

This edition of The Little School is introduced by Julia Alvarez, whose novel about the Trujillo dictatorship, In the Time of the Butterflies, I read for a class on the literature of political power and oppression in high school. The Little School is perhaps less literary but a much better historical text than Alvarez', simply because Partnoy lived her experiences. In her introduction Alvarez argued that "the impact of Partnoy's message springs solely from the details of the story, in much the same way that the news of Imelda's eight hundred pairs of shoes brought home to many the corruption of the Marcos regime. This is how the best writing--and the best political writing--work" (9). I'm not sure I agree fully with that statement, but it's certainly true that the details in Partnoy's account are telling and poignant, and that my students, appropriately, fixated on them and their larger meanings in discussion.

The role of women in contemporary human rights and democratic expansion is surely both central and understudied: the Mothers of the Plaza del Mayo were instrumental in placing pressure on the Argentinian junta, women were instrumental in ending the Liberian civil war (for which 2/3 of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize were awarded), and the other third of this year's Prize went to Tawakel Karman, the "Iron Woman" who has been called the "Mother of the Revolution" in Yemen. Partnoy's story is part of that story, and wrenching in its own right. The book finally speaks, as so many of these sorts of narratives do, to the commonalities of humanity, even in a place where humanity is what those in power are attempting to stamp out.

I embed the U2 song "Mothers of the Disappeared," inspired by the work of the Mothers of the Plaza del Mayo (and which I now understand much better): 
ahorbinski: A snakes & ladders board.  (struggle & stagger)
Koestler, Arthur. Darkness at Noon. Trans. Daphne Hardy. New York: Scribner, 1941.

This is another book that I read in order to teach human rights, which I confess at first blush I found to be something of an…interesting choice for our class. Still, having now both read and taught it, it makes a lot of sense as a prime example of both what it is to live under a regime that is not just indifferent to, but outright anti-human rights, and an example of just how far off the rails the nightmare of the Enlightenment could get when it was given free rein under Stalinism. (The Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia, of course, remains the true limit case in that respect.)

Arthur Koestler, like many of the famous dissidents in the USSR in the 1970s and 1980s, was a former committed communist turned disillusioned excommunicant when he wrote this book with the Nazi advance across western Europe hot on his heels--the original German manuscript was lost in his flight from the continent, and the version that remains is the one that was translated by his then-lover Daphne Hardy into English en route.

The book follows one Rubashov, one of the last of the so-called "Old Bolsheviks" who is arrested during the Stalinist purges and show trials of the late 1930s, in which over a million people were either executed or disappeared into the gulag. The novel follows Rubashov's mental processes in the course of his imprisonment, interrogation, and eventual execution, as he comes to question his commitment to the Party and the vision of History it preaches, and eventually finds within himself a certain inner individualism, the 'grammatical fiction' that the Party had taught him to always deny.

In retrospect, the grammatical fiction and Rubashov's solace and strength in it are directly anticipatory of what Vaclav Havel talked about in "The Power of the Powerless," in which he wrote that in the face of a post-totalitarian state that controls everything so thoroughly that people don't even realize they are living a lie day in and day out (which has direct parallels to the Party's ability to turn even Rubashov's reluctant resistance towards its own propaganda goals), the only way to resist is to go inward and to start "living in truth," both within and without. Like Havel, Koestler spent time in prison himself, and that harrowing experience shows in his recounting of the details of prison life, of the strange fellowship among the inmates, the systems of communication and, if not resistance, at least not total compliance.

My students and I all noted that Darkness at Noon reads like the more plausible, and in some ways more terrifying, version of Orwell's 1984, which is both absolutely true and very telling. Both books remain trenchant critiques as well as warnings, and absolutely vital.
ahorbinski: A picture of Charles Darwin captioned "very gradual change" in the style of the Obama 'Hope' poster.  (Darwin is still the man.)
Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. London: Blackwood, 1902.

I read this book (novella, technically) for the first time in nearly a decade as part of teaching for human rights, and it was a very interesting lens through which to view a text that is fascinatingly positioned, both in history and in literature. Unlike a lot of my students, I didn't read Heart of Darkness as an assignment in high school; I read it on my own, decided I loved Conrad, and made my way through a substantial chunk of his oeuvre independently. This time around, I was expecting to have a much more nuanced reaction to the text than I did a decade ago, and I did. I still like the book more than I thought I would after rereading it, though that doesn't preclude me from saying that from a contemporary perspective it is highly problematic.

Heart of Darkness is of course Conrad's fictionalization (via the literal mouthpiece of his stand-in Marlow) of his experiences as a steamboat captain in the Congo Free State in 1890-91, published in book form in 1902 as part of the international humanitarian effort to force King Leopold II to relinquish his personal dominion over the Congo, which had become the abattoir of Africa: historians estimate that at least ten million and as many as twenty million people may have died in the Congo Free State in the nearly three decades of Leopold's personal rule there, out of an entire continent's population of somewhere between 90 and 130 million people.

As a modern human rights novel, Heart of Darkness is frustratingly oblique. In a text that's all about hearing, and being unable to see, Conrad gives precisely one African character direct dialogue (and this the chief of the cannibals Marlow hires on to the steamer for recondite purposes), and very few African people are even described individually. We as readers see people dying en masse in port under a tree, and then hear them or their drums from the riverbanks and see them massed at Kurtz's hut at the end, but almost no one stands out, and neither does the crushing experience of living amidst mass death. The only African Marlow seems to care about directly is the helmsman of his steamer, whose death provides the single most concrete episode in the tale. Rather, the primary focus of the story is of course Kurtz the flower of Europe, his voice and Marlow's obsession with them both, culminating in Kurtz's famous last words ("The horror! The horror!") and Marlow's bitter certainty that Kurtz's story will never be forgotten--which of course it won't be, because Conrad wrote it in this book.

One of my students pointed out that Marlow in some senses is an excellent example of the sort of decent person who's just sort of swept along into atrocities, anticipating in some respects the experience of ordinary people in Nazi Germany, or any of the other killing fields of the 20th and 21st centuries. It's certainly true that Marlow (crucially, unlike Conrad) is in some senses the ideal imperial subject, a staunchly British middle-middle class man who clearly knows his history and his Shakespeare and has his sympathies in the right place (with the red splotches on the map), but who also isn't so indecent as to condone Kurtz's fevered solution to the problem of Africa: "Exterminate all the brutes!" Indeed, Marlow's primary problem with the way things fell out in the Congo seems to me to be that in some senses Leopold and his henchmen were letting the (white, European) side down. Doubtless Her Majesty's subjects would have done it better.

Someone asked whether we should talk about the "revisionist reading" of Heart of Darkness as a racist text. I can't even begin to understand how there's anything at all revisionist about that reading; the racism is right there on the page, in even more ways than I realized in high school. And it's not pleasant, by any means, but it is part and parcel of what makes Heart of Darkness prime historical material.
ahorbinski: My Marxist-feminist dialectic brings all the boys to the yard.  (marxism + feminism --> posthumanism)
Nagatsuka Takashi. Tsuchi | The Soil: A Portrait of Rural Life in Meiji Japan. Trans. Ann Waswo. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.

Natsume Sôseki hated this novel. I wish I could say that I loved it, but it's simply too grim and depressing, because more or less completely true, though it does make a nice change from the navel-gazing of urban strivers that makes up the bulk of modern Japanese literature.

Nagatsuka Takashi completed the novel shortly before he died of tuberculosis; he was the son of the most well-off family in his village (called East Neighbor in the novel), and the story he tells is largely based on the lives of actual people in his village, most of whom outlived him. We read this book for my "work in Japan, 1600-now" class as an example of the so-called 'losers' in Japan's modernization/industrialization: at the time of the novel (roughly 1903-1910), well over 75% of the country's population was still rural and agrarian, but the resources of the countryside were being ruthlessly extracted by the government and used to fuel the country's industrial transformation and urbanization. The horrible thing (well, one of many horrible things) reading this novel is the knowledge that as badly off as the people it depicts are, things are far worse in other parts of the country, particularly Tôhoku, and that in another ten or twenty years, after the Depression and the collapse in silk and rice prices, things will be far, far worse for everyone.

The one person in the novel for whom I felt any personal sympathy--though I had, how to put it, systemic sympathy for just about everyone--was Otsugi, the daughter and oldest child of the family depicted in the novel who is forced to grow up quickly after her mother dies of a self-administered abortion. I particularly loathed her younger brother Yokichi, whom she brings up spoiled as all Japanese men and who eventually pays back his family's care of him by thoughtlessly burning down their house. It's an interesting choice on Nagatsuka's part, as we discussed in class, to portray the life of rural Japan largely through its women--Otsugi, her dead mother Oshina, and East Neighbor's wife Okami-san structure the novel and in many ways the possibilities and experience of the male characters such as Kanji and Uhei. Prof. Barshay also suggested,vis-a-vis the way East Neighbor is nameless and faceless in and literally absent from the novel, that there's at least some incipient Marxism in Nagatsuka's views, and that this is as far as he felt that he could go. I think that's certainly plausible.

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ahorbinski: shelves stuffed with books (Default)
Andrea J. Horbinski

May 2016

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