Thursday, November 02, 2006

Amiri Baraka: "History is What Hurts!"

It is sometimes difficult to access this blog and there are many attempts to alter these essays. Hackers like to delete letters from words, which is the most meaningful response that my adversaries are capable of providing to my criticisms: 36 intrusion attempts are recorded by "Norton Security" from November 1-3. Hence, I will shift from these blogs to my MSN group "Critique" on a regular basis, while running daily scans on my computer. Tampering with and altering my writing in this blog must be expected. My image posting feature is disabled. The goal is to produce enough frustrations so that I will stop writing. I do not believe that these tactics will succeed. I am sure that they will have the opposite effect, even if continuing psychological harm from these and other tactics is unavoidable. "I have reason to believe" that several computers from which "attacks" originate are located in New Jersey's government and judiciary offices. I wonder why? Ethics? Do you speak to me of "ethics," Mr. Rabner? ("No More Cover-Ups and Lies, Chief Justice Rabner!")

Amiri Baraka's "A Poem for Deep Thinkers" is a complete history and commentary on Western philosophy. It is a powerful deconstructive critique of the intellectual project of the West, in its imperialist mode, as well as a celebration of philosophy's and literature's self-reflective and critical enterprise. This poem is paradoxical and linear, inward- and outward-turning, it is Derrida, Foucault, West and Guevara placed on a cookie, just for you. This is what poetic genius looks like:

Skymen coming down out the clouds land
and then walking onto society try to find out
what's happening -- "what's happening," they be saying
look at it, where they been, dabbling in mist, appearing &
disappearing, now there's a real world breathing -- inhaling
exhaling concrete & sand, and they want to know what's happening.
What's happening is life itself "onward & upward,"
the spirals of fireconflict clash of opposing forces, the dialogue of
yea and no, showed itself in stabbed children in the hallways of
schools, old men strangling bankguards, a hard puertorican inmate's
tears
exchanging goodbyes in the prison doorway, armies sweeping
wave after wave to contest the ancient rule of the minority.
What draws them down, their blood entangled with humans,
their memories, perhaps, of the earth, and what they thought it
could be. But blinded by the sun, and their own images of things,
rather than things as they actually are, they wobble, they
stumble, sometimes, and people they be cheering alot, cause
they think the skymen dancing ...

The poet establishes a relationship with literature and our philosophical tradition, which he recognizes for its greatness and also as his inheritance (and yours), even as he reacts in anger against what is excluded and destroyed by an excessively rigid understanding of tradition. Himself and yourself is what's destroyed. In Philip Larkin's echoing voice, the beauty that this poet sees exists only for "one man once, and that man dying." This man dying is not dying without a struggle and protest -- "You've got to rage against the dying of the light." Dylan Thomas and W.H. Auden, Langston Hughes and Shakespeare have all influenced Baraka's rythms. This poem is read by me today for Mumia Abu-Jamal.

Baraka turns the weapon of dialectic ("yea and no") against dialectics, dialectically. Baraka presents us with an African-American postmodernist skat and manifesto directed against the philosophers "blinded" by the sun. Plato is on the corner with Amiri Baraka; but then, so are Hegel and Nietzsche. Baraka got the boys together to do some rapping, and that's when the women roll by, smiling and walking, all sassy, hands on hips ... They got things to say. Philosophers must reenter the cave.

and the skymen stumbling, till they get the sun out
they eyes, and integrate the inhead movie show, with the material reality that exists with and without them.

Marx showed up. Look out. "How you been, man?"

There are
tragedies, tho, a buncha skies brought the loopdieloop program
from the elegant babble of the ancient minorities. Which is
where they loopidieloop in the sky right on just
loopdieloop
in fantastic meaningless curlicues which delight the thin gallery

Nothing is more in keeping with Western philosophy (philosophy is nothing but "fantastic meaningless curlicues") than trashing philosophy. Baraka does this trashing, making him a philosopher. The poet seeks to build again from new foundations. Hence, the reference to dialectics. Professor Rick Roderick says: "Philosophy is like housework." As soon as you tidy up your philosophical essays, you have to do your conceptual analysis all over again.

"I am dynamite," Nietzsche says. Baraka responds: "Been there, done that. Not in my neighborhood, Nietzsche."

Baraka is philosopher as well as artist in this poem. He is suggesting to his brothers and sisters (that's all of us) that culture and literature are not things in a museum, under glass. They are what you make when you SING -- what other people made before you came along, a long time ago, and left here for you to pick up and play. The glories of Western -- and now global -- civilization are yours because they always were, in great part, African and Mediterranean. He is saying: "Use Shakespeare, if you want to. Make his verse yours. Shakespeare wants you to do that."

Some of Baraka's young brothers and sisters are doing exactly that by asking -- "Which version of Western civilization do we celebrate? Mine or yours? Mine and yours?" A poet identified as "Blue" sings to his love with a lyricism worthy of the great English Romantics, while gesturing at the Sonnets of the Stratford poet, who is just as much his literary father as he is yours, also at Baraka, because Baraka is a mirror image for him -- and me too:

You're more precious to me than a rose
Because that kind of beauty will fade with time
On a scale from one to ten
You'll always be my dime
You're my queen
You're my hopes and my dreams
You're my angel and my dove
You're my true symbol of love.

Blue's father/brother sang of love -- and also sang for Blue a long time ago. So Blue is coming right back at 'em. Here is what Blue heard:

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date.
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed;
And every fair from fair sometimes declines,
By chance, or nature's changing course, untrimmed;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow'st,
Nor shall Death brag thou wand'rst in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow'st.
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

We will not find Blue in The New Yorker. Amiri Baraka -- certainly one of our greatest American poets -- will not be recognized with a National Book Award this year. The New York Times Book Review will not feature a retrospective on Baraka this week because somebody who went to Smith college and attended a "Bread Loaf" conference in the heartland last year has written a memoir at twenty-three. Well, duh. Is my speaking these truths one reason why this essay has been defaced numeorus times? Perhaps. ("Give Us Free!" and "So Black and So Blue in Prison.")

I know a man named "James." He lives in my neighborhood. James is sometimes homeless. He asks for spare change. I stop and we talk. We shoot the shit about what's up with the world and women. Women drive us crazy. James is in mortal agony. Me too. James is a proud, wounded, African-American man, who believed at some point what his society -- and yours -- tells him that he must believe and be, which is "not to be." Hamlet saw it all.

James is strong, intelligent, creative, affectionate. But his pain wearies him beyond endurance, so he must numb the pain -- which is greatest when James looks at his children and grandchildren. Like Blue, James would need to publish his own poetry -- and he has deeply poetic and true things to say about America -- because he did not attend Smith College or a "Bread Loaf" conference in Iowa.

James is carrying 400 years of suffering on his back. James was lynched. James was whipped. James was denied an education. James was 3/5 of a human being. James had his skull measured to see how close to a "normal person" he might be. James was that young skinny kid walking into Auschwitz. James will get the death penalty in America. James is you. James is Christ. Christ is James. I am James.

I love James. I want you to love him too. I love James because he finds a way to get up in the morning and to smile through broken lips. James loves me because I take the time to see him. He taught my daughter about basketball. James was a basketball star once. We shake our heads about the Knicks. I got him into following the Liberty games. James tells me what's in the paper and how to avoid a cold. He knows because he is on the street a lot. He sometimes reads paperback books that he finds. When James is tired or very cold -- around Christmas sometimes -- he cringes, bunches up his shoulders, bobs and weaves. "It is always the fifteenth round." James has been taking punishment for a long time. Me too. James and me ... we can take a lot punishment. We always come back the next round.

James is not human to many of the people walking past him, inflicting that punishment. So it is O.K. to laugh or ignore him, to cause him pain. If James were writing a blog, then it would be O.K. to try to destroy it. James won't have anything important to say. He can't write. How many Nobel prizes does James have? Just as many as you. James didn't go to Smith college. James doesn't matter. James doesn't make campaign contributions. James doesn't "pay off" politicians in New Jersey, not even the ones in judicial robes. ("America's Holocaust.")

James might be interesting to psychologists. They might increase the stress and frustration James experiences or monitor his progress through incarceration or his "coping mechanisms in seeking employment" in order to "determine social adjustment levels." We shake our heads. It is even more interesting if they can separate James from his family or a woman he loves, so as to observe his sexual practices, then study the role of sexuality in the "urban male repertoire of defense mechanisms."

Starvation and cold are "interesting" for James to experience. They do this torturing "for his own good" and to make money, after they get tenure. Maybe they will videotape James. Maybe they will use hypnosis or drugs, then question him, film the process so they can show it to students at a profit, experiment on James. Nobody will ask James permission to do this. It may even be fun to rape him and cover him in shit, then to take a picture of him like that -- "for his own good." ("Terry Tuchin, Diana Lisa Riccioli, and New Jersey's Agency of Torture" and "What is it like to be tortured?" then "What is it like to be plagiarized?" and "'Brideshead Revisited': A Movie Review.")

"We can learn from you," they say.

No one wants to paint James. No one wants to know what James thinks about George W. Bush or John Kerry. No one wishes to have him come over for a wine and cheese bash to celebrate a new book published by The Nation. (I am experiencing spyware and other computer attacks at this moment, as I write these words.)

James is to be indulged, given a quarter, instructed about what he should think and the real reasons for his troubles. Don't get too close. He might smell funny, but he could never stink as bad as New Jersey's Supreme Court and politics stinks -- nor could he smell as awful as many of the people found in both government and law in the Garden State.

"On the one hand, but on the other hand ..." Right, Mr. Wallace?

Cornel West's analysis of Frederic Jameson's Marxist -- and, I think, Hegelian -- critique of late capitalist or postmodernist society focuses on the observation:

History is what hurts, it is what refuses desire and sets its inexorable limits to individual and collective praxis, which its ruses turn into grisly and ironic reversals of their overt intention. But this history can be apprehended only through its effects, and never directly as some reified force. This is indeed the ultimate sense in which History as ground and untranscendable horizon needs no particular justification: we may be sure that its alienating necessities will not forget us, however much we might prefer to ignore them.

West explains:

This conception of history and texts as a "synchronic unity of structurally contradictory or heterogeneous elements, genetic patterns, and discourses" allows Jameson to identify and isolate particular aspects of the past as preconditions for the elaboration of reifying elements in the present.

"If there were no racism," Professor West asks, "then why are these people singing the blues?"

Why is James singing the blues? James sings because he is that paradoxical creature that has both nature and history. James is "Spirit coming to know himself as Spirit." Quentin Lauer will explain it to you.

James is singing the blues because you must understand him. James is singing the blues because, if he did not, there would be nothing left of him to get up in the morning and make it to that street corner. James is singing the blues for his grandchildren; for the men and women who ignore him as they head into the subway because he is their pain -- pain which they do not wish to see. Amiri Baraka explains in the film Bulworth:
'The Spirit will not descend without song,'

The message of the fim is intended for the viewer: "... You've got to sing, fool ..."

I am singing the blues with James to entertain and amuse people leaving idiotic and insulting comments in response to what I write here. We are singing for the people who wish to explain to us all about social injustice and politics right before they go home to Westchester. We are singing for the people sending me e-mails pretending to be publishers, altering my texts, changing the number of visitors to my blog and book in the mornings to convey the message that I am "shit and my book is shit."

We, James and I, are singing the blues to people who do not want our books published; our songs heard; our canvases in galleries and museums; our films made. They talk to us about "ethics." Whose ethics? Crime? Whose crimes? Murder? Whose murders? (Again: "America's Holocaust" and "What is it like to be plagiarized?" then "So Black and So Blue in Prison.")

James does not have a soiled bedsheet to place in a canvas. He has a broken life to display to those who broke it for him by leaving him with few options in a concentration camp, as a slave in a torture chamber, even as they smile at him and tell him who to vote for this November "for his own good." Singing and dreaming together is how we -- James and me, James and I, me and James, people like us -- struggle and live in the real world. Baraka spells it out for the morons:

Such intellectuals as we is baby, we need to deal in the real
world, and be be in the real world. We need to use, to use, all
the all the skills all the spills and thrills that we conjure, that we
construct, that we lay out and put together, to create life as
beautiful as we thought it could be, as we dreamed it could be,
as we desired it to be, as we knew it could be, before we took off, before we split for the sky side, not to settle for endless meaningless circles of celebration of this madness, these yoyos
yoyos of the ancient minorities. Its all for real, everythings for real, song for the skytribe walking the earth, faint
smiles to open roars of joy, meet you on the battlefield they say,
they be humming, hop, then stride, faint smile to roars of open joy, hey my man, what's happening, meet you on the
battlefield

Wait a second, here comes James Baldwin stepping on to the battlefield:

... we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it. For this is your home, my friend, do not be driven from it; great men [and women] have done great things here, and will again, and we can make America what America must become. It will be hard, James, but you come from sturdy, peasant stock, men who picked cotton and dammed rivers and built railroads, and, in the teeth of the most terrifying odds, achieved an unassailable and monumental dignity. You come from a long line of great poets, some of the greatest poets since Homer. One of them said, "The very time I thought I was lost, My dungeon shook and my chains fell off."

If you want to read more:

James Baldwin, The Price of the Ticket: Collected Non-Fiction 1948-1985 (New York: St. Martin's, 1985), p. 336.
Amiri Baraka, The Leroy Jones/Amiri Baraka Reader (New York: Thunder's Mouth Press, 2000), William J. Harris, ed., at pp. 260-261.
Blue, Corner Stores in the Middle of the Block: The Urban Look (New York: The Great Persuader, 2001), p. 59.
T.H. Green, "Hume and Locke," in Thomas Hill Green's Hume and Locke (New York: Apollo, 1968), p. 323. ("vice is selfishness")
G.W.F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975), pp. 267-290. ("Spirit")
Quentin Lauer, S.J., A Reading of Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit (New York: Fordham University Press, 1976), pp. 20-21: "Human self-knowing -- and, therefore, knowing at all -- is defined by divine self-knowing." Soul. ("Spirit coming to know itself as Spirit.")
Frank M. Kirkland, "Social Policy, Ethical Life, and the Urban Underclass," in Bill E. Lawson, ed., The Underclass Question (Philadelphia: Temple University, 1992), pp. 152-183.
William Shakespeare, "Sonnet 18," in Sonnets (New York: St. Martin's, 1980).
Muzammil H. Siddiqui, "Global Ethics and Dialogue Among World Religions: An Islamic Viewpoint," in Joseph Runzo, ed., Ethics, Religion, and the Good Society: New Directions in a Pluralistic World (Kentucky: John Knox Press, 1992), pp. 178-183.

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