Richard Wright, “Native Son”

1940

In Native Son, Richard Wright suggests an inevitable fate for Bigger Thomas. He works for the Daltons, driving Mary and her communist boyfriend Jan around. Mary gets drunk and as Bigger puts her to bed, he suffocates her for fear that she will betray him when Mrs. Dalton enters the room. She goes away, but Mary is dead. He cuts her up and burns her in the furnace. Bigger discovers during the ensuing chaos that Dalton owns the filthy flat where his family lives. Bigger is asked to clean the furnace. Mary’s bones and earring are discovered in the ashes as Bigger stirs them into a cloud. He writes a false kidnap note for money and he and Bessie try to run away. The kidnap note is most interesting in its invisibility to the whites – “do what this letter say,” it reads, and is signed “red.” It is a color deterrent whose own diction, in the form of a missing letter, should give itself away, but somehow does not. No one in the house sees him as clever enough to write it – or to write anything, to be a man of letters, as it were. Bessie is paralyzed with fear, so Bigger beats her to death with a brick. The only money he has is from her pocket. He is captured by the police. Jan hires him a communist lawyer, Max.

Biblical allusions to Job abound in the novel, but are delivered with an ironic tone, since Bigger must answer to himself in the end, not God. Max is just “the man who had lured him on a quest toward a dim hope” 352. His moment of “I-I” in the final pages of the novel is both self-articulation and split consciousness. He has been abandoned by language itself, and has no recourse to art to comfort him: “Distractedly, he gazed about the cell, trying to remember where he had heard words that would help him. He could recall none. He had lived outside of the lives of men. Their modes of communication, their symbols and images, had been denied him” 353. It is almost as though Wright suggests that if he did have aesthetics, he could have been saved. What he realizes is that “Max is not a friend” either, and that “anger was useless” 353. What is left with Max is the memory of the night of questioning: “You asked me questions nobody ever asked me before. You knew that I was a murderer two times over, but you treated me like a man” 354. Max ends up spewing some Communist stuff about how belief and fear hold up the material world of men: “Die free… Every time you try to find a way to live, your own mind stands in the way… because others have said you were bad and they made you live in bad conditions” 357.

Bigger’s self-realization is not exactly what Max was hoping for: “They wouldn’t let me live and I killed… what I killed for, I am! It must’ve been pretty deep in me to make me kill!… What I killed for must’ve been good!… I didn’t know I was really alive in this world until I felt things hard enough to kill for ’em” 359. Max is horrified, but Bigger ends with a wry smile.

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Walter Benjamin, “The Arcades Project”

1940

A massive, incomplete work also called Paris – Capital of the Nineteenth Century, which Benjamin worked on from 1927 until his death in 1940. I’d like to think of this text as the closest possible example we might hold up to Deleuze & Guattari’s model of the rhizome. It has many nodes and is made up of a number of points joined by innumerable, non-directive lines of connection. There is no linear order or structure to it, and the leaps the reader must make across facets and across sections are part of the interest of the work. Benjamin moves between historical facts, contemporary observations, quotations, references, interpretations, philosophical treatises, and so on. In “Fashion,” a typical juxtaposition:

“In fetishism, sex does away with the boundaries separating the organic world from the inorganic. Clothing and jewelry are its allies… Hair is a frontier region lying between the two kingdoms of sexus…

A caricaturist – circa 1867 – represents the frame of a hoop skirt as a cage in which a girl imprisons hens and a parrot…

Fashion consists only in extremes. Inasmuch as it seeks the extremes by nature, there remains for it nothing more, when it has abandoned some particular form, than to give itself to the opposite form. 70 Jahre deutsche Mode (1925), p. 51. Its uttermost extremes: frivolity and death.”

It would be interesting to compare Benjamin’s salient image of the arcade – a glass and steel wonder with many entrances and exits that you can see into and out of – to Jameson’s ideas about the Westin Bonaventure hotel in Los Angeles. The arcades provide the “dialectical fairytale” image most central to the project, and Benjamin ties them to utopian socialist Charles Fourier. Benjamin performs a dialectical engagement of “then” and “now” as history – understanding history through the lens of his current experience of Paris (I’d like to think about how Pynchon and others do this – not dialectically, but more rhizomically). For Benjamin, capitalist modernity is “a crisis of experience,” and “in classically ‘modern’ terms, the present is defined as a time of crisis and transition, and philosophical experience (truth) is associated with the glimpse within the present, via the past, of a utopian political future that would bring history to an end” (SEP).

A 2010 meditation on the “Flaneur” convolute in conversation with a number of other texts as an example for the readership the text invites:

Barthes sets up a contrast between the Nautilus and the Drunken Boat that encapsulates Benjamin’s relation of the flaneur to the rider of public transport:

–       The Nautilus – an enclosed space that yet has a destination in mind as it moves, Barthes posits it as a snug place, the fantasy of travel.

–       the Nautilus is therefore like public transport, especially modern forms that don’t have you in/just above/ in contact with crowd like a horse-drawn omnibus where you get rained on, but instead SEPARATE you from the street, place you in a crowded, protected, static moment, crushed in a compact space against strangers, but all moving toward a common goal.

–       This is like the bus driver in Gig, who is then also meant to not just drive, but operate, and in fact order, this moving space.

–       On the other hand, in Barthes, you have the Drunken Boat, which is unmanned, wild, and wandering, its very apellative suggesting the kind of intoxication, the dizzying, opiate-like high of the wandering gesture of flanerie.

–       Silliman’s poem, Skies has this element of linguistic flanerie here, wandering the city, looking at crowds of clouds, writing one sentence each day for a year (he said in an interview), the poem is a kind of flanerie in that it takes right and left turns, but has no particular trajectory or destination.

Thrilled at the convolute’s focus on London – as a city that industrialized earlier and grew faster than Paris, and one that was never Haussmannized – perfect both for explorations of flanerie and public transport – nowhere is there a greater number of wandering, tiny streets OR a bigger, more packed public transport system characterized by a stiff and gracious ignorance of others in crowded spaces than in London.

The conflict between organic and schematized motion, between nature and urbanity, is summed up in Pound’s famous “In a Station of the Metro” – “the apparition of these faces in the crowd; petals on a wet, black bough.”

Pound’s look at the urban landscape, as embodied by the metro, works also through ideas of mapping. When you walk through a city, you confront its topography organically; when you travel through it on something like the tube, you not only can’t see where you are, but the schematic map given to you is utterly distortional, because schematic: Tube map now // Original London // Harry Beck 1918-1922 // modern organic map.

This also hits on the ideas of landscape that surface in both Benjamin and Lefebvre, and ties in with the presence of Native Americans in the reading, which is another topic I’m really interested in.

The sort of fresh, virgin, colonial space of Native America is fetishized as both space of noble hunter in the land of plenty and home of the violent savage – thanks James Fenimore Cooper.

This gets linked a lot in the Benjamin to the urban space and its dangers, but this is problematized by the fact that you cannot wander aimlessly in the woods and know you can go home. The delirious high of walking in the city as flaneur IS akin to the rush of the unknown in the wilderness in the sensation of a thrilling LOSS of control.

But o n page 453 of the Benjamin, he says the basis of flanerie is that the “fruits of idleness more precious than fruits of labor” 453 – this is the luxurious assertion of modernity and urbanity. So in claiming that the flaneur is exposed to dangers – it’s true, but to pretend they are totally comparable is romanticizing. The flaneur feels thrilled because he has had to exert effort to lose that control; it is a cultivated rush because he is choosing the concept of adventure, but he knows that he can wander because he can return to a home, whereas the hunter has to walk with the purpose of hunting, of feeding and clothing himself.

On 447, Benjamin says that “There is an effort to master the new experiences of the city within the framework of the old traditional experiences of nature.” But then you also have the guy in Benjamin who addresses the holy architecture of the mountains.

So you have this mutual exchange of fetishization, whereby the wilderness is cathedral for in America and the avenue is a wilderness in Paris, what Lefebvre calls the imago mundi, where “urban space is reflected in the rural space that it possesses and indeed in a sense contains,” for the town “comtemplates itself in the countryside that it has shaped.” 235.

Love the idea that America is always deeply affected, then by the presence of the Indian – Benjamin 440 – “endurance, tenacity, concentration” all come from the tradition of that hunter (“the reader is the hunter in the forest of the text,” writes Benjamin).

You can see this in Gig, in the language of the Traveling Salesman is like the ruthless hunter, the man of the crowd who moves through it with direction and purpose, the game he pursues is unpredictable – thousands of dollars one day, a hundred the next, he is nomadic, in his travels through the countryside, and though Benjamin links the sandwich man is compared to the flaneur, this guy is more like the sandwich man – because they both have a distinct purpose in mind.

We might also look at this language in Silliman. The Native American language comes out in images of clouds as  “herds of wild stratus” and the black smoke signals of structural fires, gunmetal sky, white valleys in which a large cloud is the “mother of the sky,” a matrilineal observation in contrast with what Lefebvre points out is the ordering, imposing, constructive-destructive force of  patriarchal architecture.

So if Trace is the appearance of a nearness, however far removed – that’s what’s being searched for in the wilderness in the city. In America, however it’s Aura – the appearance of a distance, however close the thing – NA memory.

Lefebvre kind of explains this on 229-231 by saying that “In space, what came earlier continues to underpin what follows” so that space, for Lefebvre, is “qualified” by “sediments left behind by history,” this “repose{s} upon specific spatial bases (site, church, temple, fortress, etc.) without which they would have disappeared – and the ultimate root of this is Nature (230-1).

Because the Native Americans were pushed into reservations, otherwise unpopulated territories, and because they left behind, at least in North America, very few actual monuments, it is the natural landscape itself and the NAMES it has been given which manifest these spatial bases, so that America accesses Nature as a root in a special way:

The temples formed by the mountains and the sacred, auratic quality of their fetishized Native American nomenclature preserve the Hudson River ideal of Nature as temple.

So when we name lakes like Sunapee, Winnipesaukee, Minnetonka, place names for the Dakotas, Manhattan, Milwaukee, Michigan, Texas, Wyoming, everyday language takes on a mantric and auratic recitation of the loss, mourning, and survival of that space.

I’m using haunted in the sense Lefebvre uses it – if a cemetery is absolute space of “formal beauty and terrifying content,” “haunted places, places peopled by the living dead,” then surely the cemetery of the American landscape has this quality.

SO then Native Americans DO affect the American consciousness, or ARE maybe reflected in the land, in our values – how we float this notion of a kind of nobility over the map of America to conceal a genocide (Thanksgiving, Sacajaweia, Pocahontas, etc.).  Lends a kind of nobility to the American intrepidity and exploration w/o acknowledging the violation.

Silko and Alexie play with this. As much as maps schematize things, cover topography, erase Native American history, they also kind of can’t help but preserve it, and there are a number of Native American writers, like Leslie Marmon Silko, who are interested in reinscribing their presence on the maps of the Americas, or Sherman Alexie, who want to kind of play with the use/abuse of benevolent or malevolent stereotyping of NAs, or throw the city/ capitalism back onto a lost Native American wilderness to reapprop. it.

Which is all a really long way of getting to these questions: How is the American landscape is a sort of repository for the mythic? How do remaining open, natural spaces though the original inhabitants have been killed or removed, still hold a sacrosanct presence in the auratic and linguistic qualities of that landscape? How much have we “schematized the map” like the London tube map, and how much does the true, organic form of the land still HAVE A VOICE AND SPEAK? And therefore, is American culture’s speaking history fundamentally different from that of a European city?