The Great Wall, by Eliot Weinberger

Richard Nixon, visiting the Great Wall of China in 1972, said: “I think you would have to conclude that this is a great wall.”

Ronald Reagan, visiting the Wall in 1984, said: “What can you say, except it’s awe-inspiring? It is one of the great wonders of the world.” Asked if he would like to build his own Great Wall, Reagan drew a circle in the air and replied: “Around the White House.”

Bill Clinton, visiting the Wall in 1998, said: “So if we had a couple of hours, we could walk ten kilometers, and we’d hit the steepest incline, and we’d all be in very good shape when we finished. Or we’d be finished. It was a great workout. It was great.”

George W. Bush, visiting the Wall in 2002, signed the guest book and said: “Let’s go home.” He made no other comments. 

Barack Obama, visiting the Wall in 2009, said: “It’s majestic. It’s magical. It reminds you of the sweep of history, and that our time here on Earth is not that long, so we better make the best of it.” During his visit, the Starbucks and KFC at the base of the Wall were closed.

Weinberger, Eliot. The Ghosts of Birds, New Directions Books, New York, 2016: 91.

the poet, pt. I

The poet is born in a house on a mountain. His father built the house just as his father built his house on the mountain, and his father built his, and so on. The poet’s young parents have two concerns: their community of like-minded people on the mountain and their only child, the poet. Neither parent knows their child is a poet.

The boy’s father is paid meagerly to dig graves for those who have died on the mountain. The mother looks after the house and watches over her son, the poet, though he doesn’t yet know he is a poet.

The poet lives on the mountain all his life but decides for his 18th year to live completely at sea, with just a few scattered days ashore for essentials. He vows this as a personal challenge despite his mother’s horror. She watches and waves from the dock as the small watercraft disappears from her.

Several times during the journey he considers abandoning it, returning to the mountain to forget the whole thing. Nausea, illness, cold, boredom—until he discovers he’s a poet.

He returns home forever changed. He carries a notebook and no longer wants to live on the mountain. He yearns to be close to the water. His mother watches and waves as her only child disappears from her again toward something unknown to her.

Apartments are expensive near the water. The poet quickly finds work but hates it, changes jobs, adds another. Soon another. It’s worth all the work to live here, he writes. He often falls asleep writing.

He refines the poems he’s written and sends them to an editor, who tells him to send them to an agent. Quickly and to the poet’s surprise a large collection is published (titled Announcement). It receives excellent reviews and three award nominations. The poet is suddenly attractive. He retreats to the water in a rented dinghy to disappear from himself, from the world. He writes his best work the further he travels from shore. 

He works three jobs and scribbles in his notebook. The poems are as scattered as the poet himself, who is compelled, after an indiscriminate period of time, to take the poems in the notebook and unify them, liquefy them, position and reposition them into a complete manuscript that will ultimately be published into a collection (titled Ascension), earning him accolades and the much-coveted assurance that his craft can now financially support him. The poet publishes two more collections in the next 18 months (Atlantis, Carnival), vaulting him to literary fame and prestige. On a private jet one afternoon from Europe to Manhattan he meets a famous Canadian actress and the two connect immediately. She’s read his poems, she says. I’ve seen your movies, he tell her. 

They marry within the year, an extravagant event in the Maldives in which global celebrities mingle with intellectuals and politicians. Everyone wants something from the poet. 

His sudden rise to fame leads him inland to readings and signings and speaking engagements across the globe but he yearns to be close to the water, on the water. He sells his beach house for a houseboat, a vessel for he and his wife to live on.

She is gone after just six months at sea, having disembarked in haste at San Francisco and looking like a madwoman in her tattered dress and swollen luggage. The poet tends to the boat by moonlight, he prepares food beneath the relentless sun, he fills notebooks with ease—flooded with inspiration. He regrets the wife’s departure, their sudden inexplicable violence toward one another. She’s gone and he’s never felt more alive. He returns ashore once again a man forever changed.

The next day his doctor finds a troubling mass on the poet’s neck during a routine appointment. More tests reveal a cancerous growth. The poet is told he has one year to live, his final year on Earth, in which he will visit the mountain of his youth one final time to say goodbye before living the remainder of his days and nights writing poems on an ocean of oblivion.

Gamboa on democracy

Why are the votes of those who don’t have standards or education or culture worth the same as the votes of people who do have them? Why is a vote obtained with a revolver to the head or by brainwashing people with advertising or buying them off with fifty thousand pesos worth the same as a vote expressed freely? Ask the defenders of democracy. That’s the great perversity, but we’re not allowed to say that. If everybody had education and the variations between high and low, in terms of culture, democracy would be universal and we’d be in Sweden, but that’s not the way it is. In Africa people vote for those in their own tribe and that’s why the party of the biggest tribe always wins, and you know the only way a tribe has to reduce the number of voters for another tribe? The machete. In many countries in Africa, it isn’t dictatorship that’s led to civil war, but democracy. The small tribes hate the system that gives power to the biggest clan, and what is power? The right to take control of a country. Here, it’s different because there are no tribes, but there are clans, and lately, tyrants. […] The [candidate] who wins has the most money, or the one who has the most arms and is stronger. The alpha male wins, because democracy, in terms of sexuality, is a masochistic relationship: power is given to the strong man so that he can exercise it over the weak man, who adopts an attitude of submission that consists of turning his back, lifting his hip, and offering his anus in order to avoid confrontation. 

Gamboa, Santiago. Night Prayersa novel. Translated by Howard Curtis, Europa Editions, 2016: 222–223.

Bolaño on working writers

No one forces you to write. The writer enters the labyrinth voluntarily—for many reasons, of course: because he doesn’t want to die, because he wants to be loved, etc.—but he isn’t forced into it. He’s no more forced than a politician is forced into politics or a lawyer is forced into law school. The great advantage for the writer is that the lawyer or the politician, outside his country of origin, tends to flounder like a fish out of water, at least for a while—whereas a writer outside his native country seems to grow wings. The same thing applies to other situations. What does a politician do in prison? What does a lawyer do in the hospital? Anything but work. What, on the other hand, does a writer do in prison or in the hospital? He works. Sometimes he works a lot (not to mention poets). Of course the claim can be made that in prison the libraries are no good and that in hospitals there often are no libraries. It can be argued that in most cases exile means the loss of the writer’s books, among other material losses, and in some cases even the loss of his papers, his unfinished manuscripts, projects, letters. It doesn’t matter. Better to lose manuscripts than lose your life. The point is that the writer works wherever he is, even while he sleeps, which isn’t true of those in other professions. Actors, it can be said, are always working, but it isn’t the same: the writer writes and is conscious of writing, whereas the actor, under great duress, only howls. Policemen are always policemen, but that isn’t the same either, because it’s one thing to be and another to work. The writer is and works in any situation. The policeman only is. And the same is true of the professional assassin, the soldier, the banker. Whores, perhaps, come closest in the exercise of their profession to the practice of literature.

Bolaño, Roberto. Between Parentheses: Essays, Articles, and Speeches, 1998–2003. Translated by Natasha Wimmer, New Directions Books, 2011: 57.

your books

The books you sent

lie on the shelf

I don’t read them

Austen and Maugham

books on old films

Nazi biographies

furry with dust

purposefully neglected

lies, all of it

histories of French kings

by church-going luminaries

not to be gifted or donated

sentenced to a life unread

books about

dandies and rich bitches

dogs in human form

Agatha Christie

biographies of propagandists

revered by some but

not me

books not worth the flame

not worth time

lying books to lie decoratively

(like all lies)

as long as I control

James Forman on cop gangs

 

[D.C. police] aggressiveness [in the 1990s] came at an appalling human and eventually financial cost. A 73-year-old retired postal worker was beaten after officers mistook him for a suspect; the man ended up with a broken arm. A 56-year-old-woman was beaten with a nightstick after challenging officers involved in an altercation with two of her children; another woman was cursed at, hit, and maced outside of the restaurant where she worked. Much like Staten Island’s Eric Garner, a 31-year-old deaf man named Frankie Murphy stopped breathing while an officer held him in a choke hold;  he died in police custody. After a dangerous ride in a police wagon–much like the one suffered by Freddie Gray in Baltimore–a 28-year-old former US Marine named James Cox won two separate lawsuits against the police. As a result of such incidents, D.C. paid out about $1 million per year to victims of police misconduct during the early 1990s. Yet the abuses continued.

At the same time, a culture of impunity flourished with regard to less violent but more common police intrusions into the daily lives of black citizens. Swearing and yelling, making belittling remarks, using illegitimate orders, conducting random and unwarranted searches, demanding that suspects “get up against the wall”–these behaviors rarely led to lawsuits or newspaper coverage. But for residents of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, especially young people, this treatment became part of the social contract, a tax paid in exchange for the right to move in public spaces. Police mistreatment became part of growing up.[1]

Whatever their individual intentions or motivations, officers were bound by a system that was the source of their orders, training, and beliefs. Their job was to make teeth rattle, “arrest those s.o.b.s,” and to prove that they were the biggest gang in town. In cities across America, they still do.[2]


[1]  Forman, Jr., James. Locking up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2017: 171.

[2] Ibid: 183-184.

Ta-Nehisi Coates on Black Bodies

Son … I write you in your fifteenth year. I’m writing you because this was the year you saw Eric Garner choked to death for selling cigarettes; because you know now that Renisha McBride was shot for seeking help, that John Crawford was shot down for browsing in a department store. And you have seen men in uniform drive by and murder Tamir Rice, a twelve-year-old child whom they were oath-bound to protect. And you have seen men in the same uniforms pummel Marlene Pinnock, someone’s grandmother, on the side of the road. And you know now, if you did not before, that the police departments of your country have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body. It does not matter if the destruction is the result of an unfortunate reaction. It does not matter if it originates in a misunderstanding. It does not matter if the destruction springs from a foolish policy. Sell cigarettes without the proper authority and your body can be destroyed. Resent the people trying to entrap your body and it can be destroyed. Turn into a dark stairwell and your body can be destroyed. The destroyers will rarely be held accountable. Mostly they will receive pensions. And destruction is merely the superlative form of a dominion whose prerogatives include friskings, detainings, beatings, and humiliations. All of this is common to black people. And all of this is old for black people. No one is held responsible. 

There is nothing uniquely evil in these destroyers or even in this moment. The destroyers are merely men enforcing the whims of our country, correctly interpreting its heritage and legacy. It is hard to face this. But all our phrasing—race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege and even white supremacy—serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth. You must never look away from this. You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.[1]

Here is what I would like for you to know: In America it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage. Enslavement was not merely the antiseptic borrowing of labor—it is not so easy to get a human being to commit their body against its own elemental interest. And so enslavement must be casual wrath and random manglings, the gashing of heads and brains blown out over the river as the body seeks to escape. It must be rape so regular as to be industrial. There is no uplifting way to say this. I have no praise anthems nor old Negro spirituals. The spirit and the soul are the body and brain, which are destructible—that is precisely why they are so precious. And the soul did not escape. The spirit did not steal away on gospel wings. The soul was the body that fed the tobacco and the spirit was the blood that watered the cotton, and these created the first fruits of the American garden. And the fruits were secured through the bashing of children with stovewood, through hot iron peeling skin away like husk from corn.[2]


[1] Coates, Ta-Nehisi. Between the World and Me, Spiegel & Grau, New York, 2015: 9-10.

[2] Ibid, 103-104. 

Teju Cole on American Racism

American racism has many moving parts and has had enough centuries in which to evolve an impressive camouflage. It can hoard its malice in great stillness for a long time, all the while pretending to look the other way. Like misogyny, it is atmospheric. You don’t see it at first. But understanding comes.

“People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster.” The news of the day (old news, but raw as a fresh wound) is that black American life is disposable from the point of view of policing, sentencing, economic policy, and countless terrifying forms of disregard. There is a vivid performance of innocence, but there’s no actual innocence left.

 

Cole, Teju. Known and Strange Things: Essays, Random House, New York, 2016: 15-16.