Photos from Denver

I'm here at an academic conference, the details of which I won't bore you with. I have found some time to take a couple of photos, though. First, a building in downtown Denver:

Cube-Shaped Building in Downtown Denver

Which reminded me of the 'Palace of Civilization', located in EUR, the suburb of Rome that was designed under Mussolini and intended to celebrate twenty years of fascism at its formal grand opening in 1942:

Eur view of square colosseum 

I seem to have stumbled upon a product of Denver's brief but regrettable Monumental Fascist period.

Lonestar European...

Lonestar EUROPEAN… what?

And finally, this is in honor of the 'Guest Services and Loss Prevention Manager' at the hotel where I'm staying, whose name is actually Sugar Pride:

Little Debbie Spirit of America Snack Cakes

‘Apocrypha’ by János Pilinszky

János Pilinszky was an odd figure: a twentieth-century Roman Catholic Hungarian poet whose work hovers on the precipice of despair, probably because he spent time as a prisoner of war during World War Two, and remained in Hungary during the almost impossibly sordid and brutal post-war years.

There's very little English-language information about Pilinszky to be had. There appears to be no English biography, but Pilinszky apparently wrote a very odd book about his conversations with a black American actress which contains some autobiographical details about his later life. About the best online source is this fine appreciation by Ted Hughes, who was so taken by Pilinszky's poetry that he spent much effort translating it.

The only translation I could find online of 'Apocrypha', one of Pilinszky's most weirdly compelling works, is merely serviceable. So here is Hughes' version, which I find much better:



Everything will be forsaken then.

The silence of the heavens will be set apart
and forever apart
the broken-down fields of the finished world,
and apart
the silence of dog-kennels.
In the air a fleeing host of birds.
And we shall see the rising sun
dumb as a demented eye-pupil
and calm as a watching beast.

But keeping vigil in banishment
because that night
I cannot sleep I toss
as the tree with its thousand leaves
and at dead of night I speak as the tree:

Do you know the drifting of the years
the years over the crumpled fields?
Do you understand the wrinkle
of transience? Do you comprehend
my care-gnarled hands? Do you know
the name of the orphanage? Do you know

what pain treads the unlifting darkness
with cleft hooves, with webbed feet?
The night, the cold, the pit. Do you know
the convict's head twisted askew?
Do you know the caked troughs, the tortures
of the abyss?

The sun rose. Sticks of trees blackening
the infra-red of the wrathful sky.
So I depart. Facing devastation
a man is walking, without a word.
He has nothing. He has his shadow.
And his stick. And his prison garb.


And this is why I learned to walk! For these
belated bitter steps.

Evening will come, and night will petrify
above me with its mud. Beneath closed eyelids
I do not cease to guard this procession
these fevered shrubs, their tiny twigs.
Leaf by leaf, the glowing little wood.
Once Paradise stood here.
In half-sleep, the renewal of pain:
to hear its gigantic trees.

Home – I wanted finally to get home –
to arrive as he in the Bible arrived.
My ghastly shadow in the courtyard.
Crushed silence, aged parents in the house.
And already they are coming, they are calling me,
my poor ones, and already crying,
and embracing me, stumbling –
the ancient order opens to readmit me.
I lean out on the windy stars.

If only for this once I could speak with you
whom I loved so much. Year after year
yet I never tired of saying over
what a small child sobs
into the gap between the palings,
the almost choking hope
that I come back and find you.
Your nearness throbs in my throat.
I am agitated as a wild beast.

I do not speak your words
the human speech. There are birds alive
who flee now heart-broken
under the sky, under the fiery sky.
Forlorn poles stuck in a glowing field,
and immovably burning cages.
I do not speak your language.
My voice is more homeless than the word!
I have no words.
           Its horrible burden
tumbles down through the air –
a tower's body emits sounds.
You are nowhere. How empty the world is.
A garden chair, and a deckchair left outside.
Among sharp stones my clangorous shadow.
I am tired. I jut out from the earth.


God sees that I stand in the sun.
He sees my shadow on stone and on fence.
He sees my shadow standing
without a breath in the airless press.

By then I am already like the stone;
a dead fold, a drawing of a thousand grooves,
a good handful of rubble
is by then the creature's face.

And instead of tears, the wrinkles on the faces
trickling, the empty ditch trickles down.

[translated by Ted Hughes & János Csokits]

Source: The Lost Rider: A Bilingual Anthology (George Szirtes, ed., 1997), pp. 413-417

Saturday Music Blogging: Ruy Grudi’s ‘Amor’

It's always a gamble to visit the countries where the 80% or so of the human race that doesn't have white skin lives. Because of the risk of musical disappointment, that is.

Living in a place like Germany, you're used to the musical exports from these countries: the sophisticated, syncretistic 'world-music' that catches the attention of listeners worldwide. When you actually visit the countries in question, you realize that real people in the country you're visiting almost never listen to this music. The acts from country X that get heard abroad is just the tip of a very large Country-X iceberg whose base reaches far into the chill depths of musical mediocrity.

Yes, there's no sugarcoating it: the sort of music average citizens of country X really listen to is screechy, repetitive, and clumsily produced. Further, it's hopelessly formulaic. According to my careful prosthesis, 90% of the lyrics of all the music produced in the entire world fall into one of these categories:

  1. The rugged beauty of Mountainous/Seacoast/Plains Region where the singer comes from.
  2. The rugged beauty of girls that come from Mountainous Region.
  3. The unusual qualities of Mountainous Region's local liquor.
  4. Simple country boys from Mountainous Region who fall in love. 
  5. Simple country boys from Mountainous Region who move to the big city and fail to find work, and pine for the simple life in Mountainous Region.
  6. Folk festivals celebrated in Mountainous Region, and the singer's plans to dance/get drunk/score with a ruggedly beautiful girl at said festival.
  7. Adultery, including hiding from spouse/being caught in the act and killed.
  8. The heroism of local independence fighters who fought off the British/French/Spanish colonists.

What's worse, you're usually introduced to this music by hearing it through decaying loudspeakers in passing cars, or in markets where the locals buy the ingredients of their harrowing cuisine. Negotiating the price of a cheap duffel bag is hard enough; doing it while hearing 'Chee Funga Doop Gloy' by the Neerungathan Boychockno All-Stars — blasting through a visibly blown 1970-vintage AR-5 speaker dangling 5 inches from your head – is barely survivable. Which is probably exactly why the music is played; Rich Westerner will happily leave an extra $5 on the table just to escape the speaker's fateful sonic penumbra.

Which brings us to today's music video. Brazil is, I would say, one of the only exceptions to the above rule. Pretty much all music Brazilians make is listenable, and much of it is enchanting. Such as this clip from Ruy Grudi, the "Apache of the Northeast," who comes from Pernambuco, in arid Northeast Brazil [H/t JR]. If this don't turn you on, as Wayne Newton was fond of saying, you ain't got no switches: 

In fact, Brazilian music gets progressively worse the more local performers try to ape non-Brazilian genres (stadium rock, soft jazz, etc.). As we see in this video from 'McGill in Brazil', which shows us that Ruy's still at it, and is now (unfortunately) singing in a form of English:

Living Abroad Enhances Creativity

Living abroad makes you more creative, according to this study, summarized by the Economist:

Anecdotal evidence has long held that creativity in artists and writers can be associated with living in foreign parts. Rudyard Kipling, Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, Paul Gauguin, Samuel Beckett and others spent years dwelling abroad.

Now a pair of psychologists has proved that there is indeed a link. As they report in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, William Maddux of INSEAD, a business school in Fontainebleau, France, and Adam Galinsky, of the Kellogg School of Management in Chicago, presented 155 American business students and 55 foreign ones studying in America with a test used by psychologists as a measure of creativity. Given a candle, some matches and a box of drawing pins, the students were asked to attach the candle to a cardboard wall so that no wax would drip on the floor when the candle was lit. (The solution is to use the box as a candleholder and fix it to the wall with the pins.) They found 60% of students who were either living abroad or had spent some time doing so, solved the problem, whereas only 42% of those who had not lived abroad did so.

To check that they had not merely discovered that creative people are more likely to choose to live abroad, Dr Maddux and Dr Galinsky identified and measured personality traits, such as openness to new experiences, that are known to predict creativity. They then used statistical controls to filter out such factors. Even after that had been done, the statistical relationship between living abroad and creativity remained, indicating that it is something from the experience of living in foreign parts that helps foster creativity.

German Publishing: The Psychedelic Years

Right now I'm translating a document containing a bunch of boring legalese. But I could have it much, much worse. Back in the 1970s, somebody had to translate the poetry (temptation to use scare quotes barely resisted) of Gary Snyder:

Reihe Hanser Gary Snyder Gedichte

OK, I take that back. Snyder's poetry actually isn't all that regrettable, although lots of his poems smell faintly of patchouli oil

But the main focus of this post is the giant batch of Reihe Hanser books that my local antiquarian bookstore just received. The covers take passers-by on a trip back to the early 1970s, when all books were expected to be groovy, even biology textbooks. As you can see, the Reihe Hanser was basically dedicated to New Left social critique and mind-breaking textperiments — and if the titles ('Mutant Milieu', '3:00 Fear', 'Farabeuf, or the Chronicle of a Moment', 'a-b Glow in the Clover: Psychopathological Texts') didn't tip you off to what was inside, then the book covers surely would. Many more below the fold:

More Reihe Hanser Book Covers 2

More Reihe Hanser Book Covers 3

Reihe Hanser Book Covers 4

Reihe Hanser Book Covers 5

Rage Against Die Maschine

Graffiti on the side of the slowly-decaying WestLB Bank building in Duesseldorf, which is set to be torn down in 2010 (g):

It's in Liechtenstein!

And here, a T-shirt worn by a dainty redhead. The front side reads: "I get enough sex…" and the back side (apologies for blurry cellphone photo) "…because life f**ks me every day." Typisch Deutsch!

The bandage on the left arm really ties the ensemble together...

See My Speech to the West Gelsenkirchen Accountants Society – Online!

German politicians, says Heribert Seifert, are trying to imitate Barack Obama's use of the Internet to raise funds and craft his message, with predictably unconvincing results (translation courtesy of Sign and Sight):

Heribert Seifert assesses the German online election campaign. And what does he find? Films of party conferences and public appearances by politicians. But a dialogue with the citizens? No chance. "The marginal role played Web 2.0 in the political race is a result of politicians' ineptitude and lack of familiarity with net-specific communication forms. The 'transparent strategy and amalgamation of communication, development and organisation' that the Internet magazine Telepolis described as the feature of Obama's online campaign, is nowhere to be seen. German parties and politicians seldom or never manage to get the right mixture of authenticity and informal address that is required online."

Seifert finds — surprise! — that most of the websites run by German politicians and parties are boring, rarely-updated, and one-way. The party hacks tell the public what they're doing or thinking, and hope someone out there cares. The politicians have heard that they are supposed to have some kind of 'online presence', but aren't exactly sure what that means. Their habits and attitudes remain trapped in ruts of convention. They're sort of like South Sea Islanders who have carefully crafted a painstaking wooden likeness of shipwrecked Captain Obama's musket, but just cannot get it to spit fire like his does.

Let's hope they don't decide to boil him alive.

The Enemy of My Enemy is Now My Enemy

Hungarian Guard

Recently, several Americans have been jumping off the 'anti-jihadist' bandwagon, as it veers into the reeking back-courtyards of the European nativist right. Here is Bruce Bawer, as quoted on Little Green Footballs:

Recently, Andrew Sullivan posted a link to an article about Charles Johnson, the celebrated blogger who has distanced himself from many other anti-jihadists and called them “a bunch of kooks.” Though it grieves me to say so, and though I’ve hoped that things would somehow turn around, Charles is, alas, not whistling Dixie: I can testify that in the last couple of years some significant, and lamentable, shifts have taken place on the anti-jihad front. Writers and bloggers whom, not very long ago, I would unhesitatingly have described as staunch defenders of liberal values against Islamofascist intolerance have more recently said and done things that have dismayed me, and that, in many cases, have compelled me to re-examine my view of them.

Once upon a time, these people made a point of distancing themselves from far-right European parties such as Belgium’s Vlaams Belang – whose most prominent Internet voice, Paul Belien, has declared himself to be fighting for “Judeo-Christian morality” not only against jihadist Islam but also against “secular humanism.” Belien has made no secret of his contempt for gay people and for the idea that they deserve human rights as much as anyone else. Now, however, many of the anti-jihadist writers who once firmly rejected Vlaams Belang have come to embrace it wholeheartedly. In fact, for reasons unknown to me, this regional party in one of Europe’s smallest countries appears to have become, for a number of anti-jihadist writers on both sides of the Atlantic, nothing short of a litmus test: in their eyes, it seems, if you’re not willing to genuflect to VB, you’re not a real anti-jihadist.

In a sense, this break-up was inevitable. European parties such as Vlaams Belang embody a style of politics that most Americans are likely to find foreign and distasteful.* Of course, European immigration policy leaves a lot to be desired. However, I personally would put it far from the top of the most pressing problems Europe faces. In my experience, Europeans who think poorly-integrated immigrant minorities are the most pressing issue facing Europe today and who put it at the center of their world-view (which would describe most Vlaams Belang members) often turn out to have unpleasant hidden agendas. Get a few beers into a Vlaams Belang supporter (and give them a little sympathetic feedback to convince them you're on their side), and you'll generally start hearing things that will have you saying 'check please'.

I'm not accusing everyone who's concerned about immigration of being racists or nativists — only the people whose world-view is dominated by this one concern. But in many European countries, that's 20-30% of the population, and those people have their own political parties. When Americans begin engaging with the sort of people who run Vlaams Belang and its sister parties, conflicting world-views come into play quickly. Here are a few particular points of conflict I've noticed. Note that I'm not necessarily always saying that the American world-view is the right one, just that it's likely to be very different from the nativist European's take:

  • We rock because we're Flemish. Vlaams Belang, like all European nativist parties, draws most of its support from the working and lower-middle classes. Lots of these people are unemployed, or they may have boring, stressful, low-status jobs. That is, they don't have many sources from which to draw self-worth, so they tend to resort to bare ethnicity or cultural affiliation. "I'm proud to be Flemish," they'll say, and then list Flemish artists, sports heroes, or generals. The proud Flemish (or Austrian or Hungarian) nationalist may sit in some reeking bar most of the day, but by God, at least they're doing it while being Flemish. Their ancestors, after all, built this damn country, and their taxes (if they were paying any) now go to support these shiftless, lazy…you get the picture. Americans are acculturated to pride themselves on their own individual achievements. A claim for respect and recognition based on bare cultural affiliation seems cheap and lazy, and forming a political party (more or less explicitly) based on ethnic origin seems primitive and tribal.
  • Ancient Historical Grudges. Talk to a European long enough, and you'll start hearing about things that happened long ago. They've got thousands of years of history, after all. The nativists tend to focus on ancient historical grudges that explain their current prejudices: 'They tried to take us over once, during the days of the Ottoman empire, and they got to the very gates of Vienna! Now they're trying to do it again!' The first instinct of most Americans is to ask who 'they' is supposed to be. All the people involved in the Battle of Vienna have been dead for 275 years. What on earth does some ancient conflict have to do with modern-day problems?
  • Why are you so worked up? For every legitimate concern of the anti-immigrant crowd, there are many others which will seem overblown to a typical American.  
    • Islamic women may wear headscarves. So what? If that's their choice, based on their interpretation of their religion, then so be it. Perhaps some of them wear headscarves because of strong social expectation or even threats, but there's not much we can do about that without invading the family's private sphere or monitoring religious beliefs, which are two things the state should refrain from.
    • They don't accept the values embodied in our Constitution or our 'social order.' First, who defines those values? There are ferocious debates on what defines 'Germany' or 'Europe' going on every single day among the majority population, and most European countries modify their Constitutions every few years. And even if you can actually agree on some consensus values, and prove that some immigrants don't share them, so what? It's not the State's business to police thoughts. As long as these misfits aren't committing any crimes, let them believe what they want. If they do commit crimes based on those beliefs, well, that's what we have a criminal justice system for. If  the criminal justice system doesn't work, that's another problem.
    • They commit crimes at disproportionate rates, and their children do worse in school. This is true and unfortunate, but visible minorities are outsiders in every society. And for that matter, discrimination against immigrants by the majority community is surely one cause of the social problems in immigrant communities — but parties such as Vlaams Belang are not interested in doing anything about that. To put it very mildly. And in any case, the situation is not catastrophic. The statistics for Turks in Germany or Arabs in France or Africans in Belgium don't look very different from the statistics for blacks in America. Individualistic Americans, for better or worse, have learned to live with large disparities in health and social achievement in their own society, and don't tend to think they represent a crisis.
    • Honor killings! Yes, they're unsettling, and we should be trying to prevent them, where possible. And, in fact, there's alread a name for those who commit honor killings: murderers. It's not as if they're allowed to get away with it. Besides, it's likely that for every immigrant killed in an honor killing, there are probably ten German women killed by German husbands in a jealous rage. Europeans obsess over honor killings because they're driven by motives alien to mainstream European culture. But isn't drunken jealousy the more important problem, judging by sheer numbers? 

Once again, the difference here is a matter of degree. It's not that the American doesn't think that these problems are problems — they clearly are. But the American is likely to see them as manageable. Americans come from a country that has integrated millions of immigrants without too much difficulty, so they tend to think any cultural misunderstandings will likely fade with time. The American is likely to find the obsessive focus on a minority of "poorly integrated" immigrants as overblown and perhaps suspicious. Once again, I'm not saying the American view is the right one. A European, for example, might claim with some justification that (1) Europe's immigrant problem is much tougher to solve than America's, and therefore worthy of all the attention it gets; and (2) Americans, ever the optimists, tend to avert their attention from the serious social problems in their own society.

* The conservative-on-conservative misunderstanding goes both ways, of course — a moderate American Republican politician would be seen as freakishly anti-government and slavishly pro-business by Tories, European Christian Democrats, and even European far-right parties, who appeal to their working-class clientele by stressing their 'social' credentials.

[Photo of Hungarian Guard members marching in Budapest in March 2009, from here (g)]

Bye Bye, Luebben City, Hello Blues


I browsed the "Mixed Goods and Revolution Accessories" store in the Manteuffel Strasse in Berlin a couple of weeks ago. An inspiring joint! The entire interior is encrusted with thousands of items: black parkas, sweaters and jackets hang from the ceiling like cloth stalactites, stands holding revolutionary propaganda are tucked into the chaos at seemingly random intervals, and the proper shelves host haphazard piles of books in many different languages. One of them was Bye bye, Luebben City: Bluesfreaks, Tramps und Hippies in der DDR. DDR = East Germany, otherwise the title is helpfully already in English for you.

I came very close to buying the book, but opted instead for a grimy pamphlet entitled Kommunistische Erziehung (Communist education), stapled together in the 1970s by some sort of collective of West Berlinbourgeois radicals. I figured it might, er, have historical value one day. Although judging by the fact that it only cost 4 euros 30 years after its original publication, that theory may need a little re-working. At any rate, I'll be posting translated excerpts of it soon.

Perhaps feeling pangs of guilt for not having bought the book, I decided to buy the accompanying CD, which features 16 crucial cuts from the 1970s/80s East German rock/blues underground. The only group I'd ever heard of before was the Klaus Renft Combo (mainly on the strength of Anna Funder's unforgettable evocation of Herr Renft in Stasiland (g)). Most of cuts are pretty good. You can tell that lots of the musicians benefited from thorough German musical education, which can sometimes be a handicap, but isn't here. The various bands turn in entirely respectable blue-collar rock anthems, blues, power ballads, as well as the odd mildly psychedelic navel-gazer. The Renft Combo's Caesar's Blues is scorching. But the standout has to be the track "Blues" by Panta Rhei ("everything flows" in Greek). Download it here (large .mp3). The owner of that awesomely smoldering, sultry alt (like Dusty Springfield, but somehow more authentic) is Veronika Fischer (g) one of the icons of the East German rock scene. Known affection as Vroni, she's released 20 albums in her own name, and is still on tour (g). Apparently she turned toward straightforward, bouncy pop sometime in the late '70s. You can see plenty of YouTube samples of the latter here. Not really my sort of thing, but pleasant enough as it goes.

Anyone want to let me know which records by her are worth checking out?