Beliefs—Rigid and Lite

Yes, He Certainly Looks Rigid

What is C-3PO doing in this blog? I put his picture here because the actor who played the robot in all the Star Wars films was named Anthony Daniels, but he is not to be confused with the writer Anthony Daniels. I guess the confusion was so much for the latter that he now goes by the name Theodore Dalrymple.

By now, I have read quite a few books about Guatemala, my next trip destination, and he is the first writer who checked his beliefs at the door. At first glance, I thought his sympathies lay with the hounds, in this case the dictators/army generals who were responsible for some two hundred thousand deaths in the period of the Civil War, roughly 1960-1996. But then I saw that he was giving equal ink to both sides of the war and making cogent arguments that showed he was a good listener. He spent several days in Nicaragua talking to Sandinistas and Sandinista sympathizers. As both a travel writer and a physician, he even spent a couple weeks serving as a doctor on an isolated coffee finca that could be reached only by airplane.

At one point in Sweet Waist of America: Journeys Around Guatemala, Daniels (or Dalrymple) writes:

In fact, Guatemala is not a country for those who want the world to be neatly divisible into good and evil. Perhaps such countries do not exist. But to restore my confidence in my ability to recognize evil when I encountered it, I sought an interview with General Benedicto Lucas García. I had tried to contact his brother, General Romeo Lucas García [the worst of the recent Guatemalan dictators], but he was never at home….

He also interviewed General Efrain Ríos Montt, who was one of the worst recent rulers and who is now an evangelical preacher. Naturally, he did not fess up to having authorized any massacres.

Around this time, I started getting interested in Daniels/Dalrymple. On Wikipedia, there was an interesting summary of the recurring themes in his writing. These include:

  • The cause of much contemporary misery in Western countries – criminality,domestic violence, drug addiction, aggressive youths, hooliganism, broken families – is the nihilistic, decadent and/or self-destructive behaviour of people who do not know how to live. Both the smoothing over of this behaviour, and the medicalisation of the problems that emerge as a corollary of this behaviour, are forms of indifference. Someone has to tell those people, patiently and with understanding for the particulars of the case, that they have to live differently.
  • Poverty does not explain aggressive, criminal and self-destructive behaviour. In an African slum you will find among the very poor, living in dreadful circumstances, dignity and decency in abundance, which are painfully lacking in an average English suburb, although its inhabitants are much wealthier.
  • An attitude characterised by gratefulness and having obligations towards others has been replaced – with awful consequences – by an awareness of “rights” and a sense of entitlement, without responsibilities. This leads to resentment as the rights become violated by parents, authorities, bureaucracies and others in general.
  • One of the things that make Islam attractive to young westernised Muslim men is the opportunity it gives them to dominate women.
  • Technocratic or bureaucratic solutions to the problems of mankind produce disasters in cases where the nature of man is the root cause of those problems.
  • It is a myth, when going “cold turkey” from an opiate such as heroin, that the withdrawal symptoms are virtually unbearable; they are in fact hardly worse than flu. [Remember, Daniels is a physician.]

Anthony Daniels/Theodore Dalrymple

  • Criminality is much more often the cause of drug addiction than its consequence.
  • Sentimentality, which is becoming entrenched in British society, is “the progenitor, the godparent, the midwife of brutality.”
  • High culture and refined aesthetic tastes are worth defending, and despite the protestations of non-judgmentalists who say all expression is equal, they are superior to popular culture.
  • The ideology of the Welfare State is used to diminish personal responsibility. Erosion of personal responsibility makes people dependent on institutions and favours the existence of a threatening and vulnerable underclass.
  • Moral relativism can easily be a trick of an egotistical mind to silence the voice of conscience.
  • Multiculturalism and cultural relativism are at odds with common sense. [I don’t altogether agree with this one.]
  • The decline of civilised behaviour – self-restraint, modesty, zeal, humility, irony, detachment – ruins social and personal life.
  • The root cause of our contemporary cultural poverty is intellectual dishonesty. First, the intellectuals (more specifically, left-wing ones) have destroyed the foundation of culture, and second, they refuse to acknowledge it by resorting to the caves of political correctness.

Now this is a largely conservative set of beliefs that do not coincide with mine, but I like the man’s even-handedness, especially in his Guatemala book. The man makes me think, and it helps me to understand in some way the Trumpf revolution of 2016.


“The Peace of Wild Things”

Finding the Ultimate Peace

I was wondering what to write about today, when I saw this poem quoted on Facebook by my friend Lynette Cahill. At that point, I said to myself, “Yep, that’ll do it!” It is called “The Peace of Wild Things” and was composed by Wendell Berry.

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

My Best of 2017

German Author W. G. Sebald (1944-2001)

Below is a list of my favorite books from 2017. Most are fiction, with some occupying the in-between zone, and only two are outright non-fiction. The only name which is repeated from 2016 is that of Patrick Modiano, about whom I posted yesterday. The 14 books listed below are in alphabetic order by the names of their authors. This year, I have also included the country of origin.

  • Rudolfo Anaya, Bless Me, Ultima (US). I was tempted to also include The Milagro Beanfield War by John Nichols, but of the two New Mexico novels, I think Anaya’s is the better.
  • Teju Cole, Open City (US). Cole’s Nigerian-American viewpoint is incredible. I am keeping my eye on this writer.
  • Ry Cooder, Los Angeles Stories (US). Granted, Cooder is a great musician; but he’s also got the makings of a great writer. I would love to see more from him.
  • Antonio di Benedetto, Zama (Argentina). This New York Review title introduces a writer unknown to Americans, but well known to South Americans. A Spanish government official in Paraguay finds his ambition is constantly being thwarted.
  • Joan Didion, South and West, From a Notebook (US). This is an old title that is just now being released. Didion’s 40-year-old observations of Dixie are still relevant.
  • David Goodis, Dark Passage (US). A noir masterpiece, far better even than the Bogart movie based on it.
  • Indriðason, Arnaldur, Reykjavík Nights (Iceland). Indriðason is a world-class mystery writer, and he seems to be getting better and better.
  • Patrick Modiano, After the Circus (France). A young man falls for an older woman he first sees at a police interrogation.
  • Natsume Soseki, The Gate (Japan). A real find: This quiet writer is a deep one. Even if he died early in the 20th century, his books read as if they were written yesterday. (This writer is not outside of alphabetic order: Natsume is his family name)
  • Raymond Queneau, The Last Days (France). A coming-of-age story with seven characters set in the 1920s.
  • Jonathan Raban, Passage to Juneau: A Sea and Its Meanings (US). Ostensibly a travel book, but a great one. Real life intervenes twice in the author’s solo sailing voyage up Alaska’s Inside Passage.
  • W G Sebald, The Emigrants (Germany). A book about people who have for various reasons emigrated from their home countries (like Sebald himself), and find themselves in a strange in-between place.
  • Marina Tsvetaeva, Selected Poems (Russia). By far the best poems I have read last year.
  • John Williams, Stoner (US). No, nothing to do with drugs. Professor Stoner is an English instructor at a Midwestern college, and we see how his life plays out.


Serendipity: “A Pretty Girl with an Arid Heart”

Patrick Modiano in 1968, the Year His First Novel Was Published

I have just finished reading the book whose cover is shown above. It is an autobiographical essay by a Nobel-Prize-winning (2014) author that covers the years from his earliest childhood to the publication of his first book in 1968. I believe I have mentioned elsewhere that Patrick Modiano is by far my favorite living French author. He is approximately the same age as I am, and I feel a unique kinship with him and his work. So far I have read six books by him, and I am just getting started.

His autobiographical essay Pedigree: A Memoir is painful to read. The author was raised—or I should rather say neglected by—two parents who did not particularly care to see him and shunted him off to various boarding schools, the farther apart from Paris the better. Below is a savage description of his mother, who was a small-time actress:

She was a pretty girl with an arid heart. Her fiancé [after her divorce from Patrick’s father] had given her a chow-chow, but she didn’t take care of it and left it with various people, as she would later do with me. The chow-chow killed itself by leaping from a window. The dog appears in two or three photos, and I have to admit he touches me deeply and that I feel a great kinship with him.


Miguel Ángel Asturias

Grave of Miguel Ángel Asturias at Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris

It was almost twenty years ago that Martine and I were wandering through Paris’s gigantic Père Lachaise cemetery in the 20th Arrondissement. There were a number of surprises, one of which was the grave of Miguel Ángel Asturias, who died in 1974. Rising above a bronze funerary plaque is a Maya stela similar to the ones found at the ruins of Quiriguá in his native country. To this day, he is Central America’s lone winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, which was awarded to him in 1967.

I have been interested in visiting Guatemala for many years. During the time I was most available to go, Guatemala was in the middle of fighting an armed insurrection by a mostly Maya peasantry who were tired of being forced off their land, enslaved, or massacred. Between 1960 and 1966, some 200,000 Guatemalans died fighting, mostly Maya campesinos. I have just finished re-reading Asturias’s first major novel, El Señor Presidente, set during the presidency of Manuel Estrada Cabrera, who ruled from 1898 to 1920. I have been a big Asturias fan since 1975.

Miguel Ángel Asturias

Now that I am pretty much decided on Guatemala as my next vacation destination, I will add at least two or three more Asturias novels to the ones I have already read. To date, I have finished:

  • El Señor Presidente (1946), his most famous novel
  • Men of Maize (1949)
  • Strong Wind (1950), the first volume of the United Fruit Company trilogy
  • Mulata (1963)

I plan to finish the other two volumes in the trilogy—The Green Pope (1954) and The Eyes of the Interred (1960)—both of which were translated by Gregory Rabassa, one of my favorite translators from the Spanish.

Although Asturias is so identified with the Maya, it is interesting to note that he comes from a well-to-do Creole family that could trace its origins back to 1660.

Antigua Guatemala

Arco de Santa Catalina and Agua Volcano in Background

If asked what is the capital of Guatemala, it is best to turn your answer into another question: At what point in history? Today, Guatemala City is the capital of Guatemala. In 1524, Pedro de Alvarado founded the Ciudad de Santiago de los Caballeros de Goathemalon [sic], near the present town of Iximche. After a Kaqchikel Maya uprising in 1527, the capital was moved to Ciudad Vieja and retained the same name as the original. In 1541, that city was destroyed by a gigantic mudflow from the Volcano de Agua (illustrated above). Two years later, the capital was moved five miles to the Panchoy Valley to the present city of Antigua Guatemala.

In the 18th century, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions caused one final move, to the capital’s present location. That does not mean that the city of Antigua Guatemala, despite all the ruined churches, is not one of the most popular tourist destinations in the country. In fact, when I go to Guatemala for my vacation, I will take a shuttle directly from the airport to Antigua, about 45 minutes away.

Guatemala City has a reputation of being a big, ugly city with a couple of good museums, but otherwise devoid of major tourist attractions. So, I will base myself in Antigua.

Intact Façade of Nuestra Señora de Merced, Otherwise in Ruins

With Antigua serving as a kind of tourist ghetto, there are a multitude of private shuttles to major tourist destinations—all originating in Antigua. One can treat the town as if it were the capital except for one thing: The airport is in Guatemala City. As Guate, as it is called, is the largest city in Central America, I think it would be more restful to base myself in a well-connected town with a population of only about 50,000.


Tarsila do Amaral

Postcard View with Brazilian Scenery by Tarsila do Amarol (1886-1973)

As you may or may not know, I am fundamentally opposed to non-representational painting. Abstract expressionism leaves me cold and even slightly hostile. I don’t even like Pablo Picasso. When I was in Paris last time, I deliberately decided not to visit the Picasso Museum even though I was in the neighborhood between Les Halles and the Bastille, where it is located.

So when I heard of a Brazilian painter who has been called the Picasso of Brazil, I was less than impressed—until I saw some of her works. I was suddenly reminded of Xul Solar, the Argentinean painter whose work was much loved by Jorge Luis Borges (before he became blind, of course). Tarsila de Amaral calls herself simply Tarsila. There is a n exhibit of her works opening at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York City.

“Brazilian Religion” (1927)

If you want to see a representative selection of her paintings, click on WikiArt’s website about her. Included there is her self-portrait (see below). Tarsila becomes one of a select group of Latin American artists of the 20th century whose work I think ranks with the best of American painting during that period, and in many cases surpasses it: Fernando Botero of Colombia; Benito Quinquela Martin and Xul Solar of Argentina; and Frida Kahlo, José Clemente Orozco, Diego Rivera, and David Alfaro Siqueiros of Mexico.

“Self Portrait” (n.d.)