An Impassioned Plea for Freedom

Gulag Prisoners in Siberia

Gulag Prisoners in Siberia

Fyodor M. Dostoyevsky could hardly believe his eyes. He had spent four years in a Siberian prison camp and six years in the Russian military in Siberia. His first published works after returning to St. Petersburg were comedies: Uncle’s Dream and The Village of Stepanchikovo. Now he wrote two short pieces for publication about his experience in the camp. The first was approved by the Tsarist censors; the second, rejected—because it was thought that Dostoyevsky was saying that life in the Gulags was actually quite appealing.

That could not be allowed to stand. Dostoyevsky immediately penned a supplement to that piece, which included the following:

What is bread? They [the convicts] eat bread to live, but they have no life! The genuine, the real, the most important is lacking, and the convict knows he will never have it; or he will have it, if you like, but when? … It’s as if the promise is made only as a joke.

Try an experiment and build a palace. Fit it out with marble, pictures, gold, birds of paradise, hanging gardens, all sorts of things…. And step inside. Well, it may be that you would never wish to leave. Perhaps, in actual fact, you would never leave. Everything is there! “Let well enough alone!” But suddenly—a trifle! Your castle is surrounded by walls, and you are told: “Everything is yours! Enjoy yourself! Only, don’t take a step outside!” And believe me, in that instant you will wish to quit your paradise and step over the wall. Even more! All this luxury, all this plenitude, will only sharpen your suffering. You will even feel insulted as a result of all this luxury…. Yes, only one thing is missing: a bit of liberty! a bit of liberty and a bit of freedom!

This impassioned plea is perhaps the germ of Dostoyevsky’s great works which were to follow: Notes from the Underground, Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, The Possessed, and The Brothers Karamazov.

Favorite Films: Stagecoach (1939)

The First Shot of John Wayne in John Ford’s Stagecoach

The First Shot of John Wayne as the Ringo Kid in John Ford’s Stagecoach

Until John Ford filmed Stagecoach in 1939, the Western was in sad shape as a genre. There was a lot of galloping horses chasing other galloping horses. In one fell swoop, Ford opened up the Western. For starters, it was the first Western to take advantage of the stunning scenery of Monument Valley on the Arizona/Utah border. The Indians in the picture were real Indians—even if they were Navahos playing Chiricahua Apaches.

Although it was John Wayne’s first major release, it was by no means a John Wayne vehicle: Rather, it was an an ensemble production (see poster below) in which Claire Trevor received top billing as a prostitute driven out of the town of Tonto by the forces of morality. At roughly equial billing were Thomas Mitchell as a boozy physician; George Bancroft as a sheriff; Andy Devine as the stagecoach driver; John Carradine as the gambler Hatfield; Louise Lasser as the pregnant wife of a U.S. Cavalry officer; Berton Churchill as an obnoxious banker; and Donald Meek as a, well, meek whisky salesman.

Stagecoach is a film that is always in motion, even when the scene moves indoors. Ford plays one character off against the other. Their stage ride to Lordsburg takes them through an area where Geronimo, having broken out of the reservation, is attacking ranches and preventing the stagecoach from having a reliable Cavalry escort.

Poster Emphasizing the Ensemble Acting in Stagecoach

Poster Emphasizing the Ensemble Acting in Stagecoach

The Apache attack on the stagecoach contains some of the most outstanding (and dangerous) stunt work to appear in a Western. At one point, stuntman Yakima Canutt, dressed as an Indian, jumps on the lead horse of the coach’s team, is shot by John Wayne, and falls under the team and under the wheels of the coach, being dragged by the lead horse for several feet before letting go. The chances for such a shot to end in tragedy are almost overwhelming.

In the end, the film leaves me with the impression of all the legendary elements of the Western in a single film: Cavalry, Indians, gunfights, thieves, Mexicans, and—above all—the wide-open spaces of Monument Valley.

This is a great film; John Ford is a great (if not the greatest) film director; and, together with Samurai films, Westerns are my favorite film genre. That’s a pretty formidable combo.

Geronimo!

Chiricahua Medicine Man and War Chief Geronimo of the Chirciahua Apaches

Chiricahua Apache Medicine Man and War Chief Geronimo

Why does the name Geronimo spring to mind when thinking of an Indian warrior chief? Probably because he was not only the most successful opponent of the U.S. Cavalry between 1876 and 1886, when he surrendered; and he was the subject of so many articles in the press of that time that he was therefore widely known among the American people around the turn of the century.

Curiously, Geronimo was never really a chief. The chiefs of the Chiricahuas included Mangas Coloradas (“Red Sleeves”), Cochise, Juh, and finally Cochise’s son Naiche. Rather, he was a famed medicine man and military tactician. Although he owed fealty to the chiefs of the Chiricahuas, he was the military genius behind most of the raiding that was done on both sides of the U.S./Mexico border, where he successfully evaded the military of both nations.

I have just finished reading Robert M. Utley’s Geronimo (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012). Now retired (but still writing), Utley is former chief historian of the National Park Service, for whom he worked for many years. If you are interested in the history of the American West, I recommend you check out his website.

To a newspaperman who interviewed him in captivity at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, Geronimo once said, “The run rises and shines for a time, and then it goes down, sinking out of sight and is lost. So it will be with the Indians.”

The Resistance Emerges

Dump Trump!

Dumpf Trumpf!

A Resistance Movement to Trump has emerged from a highly unlikely location: From inside the White House! You can see their website, which is entitled The Official White House Resistance Operation. It’s almost too good to be true. But then, Trumpf has been complaining about leaks from the White House, suggesting that even his employees dislike what he is doing with the office of POTUS.

However much he tries to insist on slavish loyalty to his prezidenchuleering, Trumpf will always generate protest from voters whose needs are being ignored by the new racist, ultra-conservative regime. He cannot ignore these protests, because they clearly represent the majority of the population. The people who support him the most are (1) his billionaire friends and (2) ignorant Confederates who have been “left behind.”

 

Itchy Eyelids of Death

It’s A Horrible Feeling!

It’s A Horrible Feeling!

Every once in a while, I get this allergic condition where my eyelids get inflamed and itch like the devil. The temptation is to rub them. That’s works for a few nanoseconds, but the itching and tearing come back with redoubled force. The only thing that seems to work is a prescription drug called Pred-Forte, which is a steroid that my ophthalmologist is reluctant to prescribe to me because … because … well I practically live on steroids.

I have no pituitary gland (I’ll tell you more about that some day), and therefore I must take all my hormones—which are normally controlled by the pituitary—externally. And, well, taking too many steroids long term has numerous baleful effects, some of which I’ve already experienced: osteoarthritis leading to a hip replacement, cataracts, and thinning of the skin—to name just a few.

Today, I went to the free weekly Mindful Meditation session at the Los Angeles Central Library. What I concentrated on was my eyelids. That worked for a while, then on the way back from downtown, in a moment of forgetfulness, I rubbed my eyes. Damn!

During these sieges, I wake up with my eyelids stuck together; and I have to pry them open with the help of my fingers.

This condition has a lot to do with the frequent atmospheric changes caused by the series of rainstorms we have had over the past few months. It won’t last forever, but while it lasts it will be a major annoyance.

 

North America’s Own Lourdes

The Church at Chimayo, New Mexico

The Church at Chimayó, New Mexico

France has Lourdes; Portugal has Fatima; Argentina has Luján; Mexico has Guadalupe; and the United States has the Santuario de Nuestro Señor de Esquipulas, commonly known as El Santuario de Chimayó near Santa Fe, New Mexico. The little church is only 60 feet (18 meters) long and 24 feet (7.3 meters) wide. Yet, especially during Holy Week, some 30,000 pilgrims are in attendance.

The dirt floor has been known to have miraculous properties. Visiting pilgrims take some of the dirt for themselves or friends and relatives who are unable to visit. The church replaces the dirt, to the tune of 20 or 30 tons a year, from neighboring hillsides. The Catholic Church makes no claim as to the miraculous properties of the so-called sacred dirt.

Martine and I plan to visit Chimayo during our upcoming trip to Mexico. Maybe the sacred dirt will cure my diabetes. Or not.

“Bound for Hell”

Poet Marina Tsvetaeva (1892-1941)

Poet Marina Tsvetaeva (1892-1941)

Yesterday, I posted an incident from Marina Tsvetaeva’s diary of how she was robbed in the streets of Moscow by a young Red Army soldier. Today, I would like to give you one of her most famous poems:

Bound for Hell

Hell, my ardent sisters, be assured,
Is where we’re bound; we’ll drink the pitch of hell—
We, who have sung the praises of the lord
With every fiber in us, every cell.

We, who did not manage to devote
Our nights to spinning, did not bend and sway
Above a cradle—in a flimsy boat,
Wrapped in a mantle, we’re now borne away.

Every morning, every day, we’d rise
And have the finest Chinese silks to wear;
And we’d strike up the songs of paradise
Around the campfire of a robbers’ lair,

We, careless seamstresses (our seams all ran,
Whether we sewed or not)—yet we have been
Such dancers, we have played the pipes of Pan:
The world was ours, each one of us a queen.

First, scarcely draped in tatters, and disheveled,
Then plaited with a starry diadem;
We’ve been in jails, at banquets we have reveled:
But the rewards of heaven, we’re lost to them,

Lost in nights of starlight, in the garden
Where apple trees from paradise are found.
No, be assured, my gentle girls, my ardent
And lovely sisters, hell is where we’re bound.

I’m still not finished writing about this incredible poet. Look for another post about her within a few days.