Day’s end

Who needs gods or heaven or moral philosophies?
Your body at rest on the hammock is worth
more than all the imaginary heavens
of all the religions
ever invented

more than all the first principles
of all philosophies. All you
need to do is look at it
and see. If you listen

closely

you can hear the birds singing

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At the mirador in Noria Alta

Dragons of the earth flashing
red and green and gold
once moved to the galaxies
above cry out, they rage
against fate and thrash
their tails in a glitter
of fiery stars.

Sirens of the ocean weaving
seaspawn and seawrack
removed to the same
night sky, they rage
against time and weep
for their watery home
in teardrop stars.

And we, what have we to do
with dragons, with sirens, we
who see only the stars, only
beauty, we who’ve lost the exquisite
pain of those elemental beings?

We have nothing to do but
await the next wound, await
being ripped aloft from the earth,
soothed for now in soft forgetfulness,
in the bare beauty of the night sky,
where sirens silently weep the more
because they cannot
weep for us.

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A brief narrative interlude

Who was I to be working on a trail?
I know nothing of trails. But
I do know one thing. Trees
have no hearts. But
there it was.

A deformity, a fleshy blotch, something
primeval, excessive, root and stem, something
ludicrous, abhorrent, something that shouldn’t be there.

Raging, I tore at the thing,
the thing that could not be a tree, a heart,
that could only be a ghost of a thing, a word,
a high-sounding phrase said and stupidly repeated

(to correct it, I had
no other intent).

My fury opened a thin purple line, a drip,
then a flow, pumping out a silk road
of opulent red, cambering down
the broken skin of bark.

It seemed a thousand years
swept by, countless passings of moon
and stars, blood and bone, in their great cycle.

And the thousand years filled with weird
dreams of life being lived, food trucks
and book shops and dancing under
the steady moon on a small plaza
up high, with lights of a village
below, then of doors opening
downward into something
bottomless deep, then
closing.

I grew thin, I aged as I watched
the slight silky line of red now
trickling across the earth,
now into the earth.

Then the parched earth cracked,
a pain long forgotten pushed
its wobbly head through,
unsure of whether
to lean this way
or that.

I went back to my work
changed and satisfied.

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Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

Thoughts on Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, by Dai Sijie

(h/t Zhiyu for picking out this book for me as we browsed the tiny book exchange)

No spoilers until the 2nd half (you’ll get a warning before spoilers)

This book hooked me with the descriptive writing on the first page – clean and simple but precise, expressive, humorous but ominous, with clouds of meaning hanging over the images and narrative movement. Here, on the first page, the setting is already pressing in – the environmental setting of the mountain village and the historical setting of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, as two middle-class city boys have been cut off from their families and sent to the country for re-education.

But here too on the first page, the vivid sense of the local and the ethnic is already paired with a sense of something universal and human. As the village elder inspects the strange object belonging to the boys (a violin), the boys are already struggling with a sense of how to fit in, how to be understood in a world of adults who just don’t get it. It’s the perfect setting for a coming-of-age tale, where the local coordinates frame the archetypal struggle of adolescents trying to navigate an adult world. The book’s critical view of the Cultural Revolution, expressed with humor and with poignancy, is never far away, but it is also a universal story of kids growing up, joking around but feeling the full emotional weight of adolescence.

The personal and cultural layers of the book are in fact explicitly linked. Discovering the beautiful little seamstress their own age parallels the discovery of forbidden books (e.g., by Balzac) from the West, books that explore precisely the personal aspects of the human experience – friendship, loyalty, first love, and possible betrayal, innocence thwarted and dreams forbidden – which take on a peculiar urgency for these boys, torn from their families and in constant danger of being denounced. The first-hand view of the Cultural Revolution being played out in the mountain villages of China is one thing, vivid and valuable in its own right, but it is the other thing, the personal thing, the intensely heart-felt connection between two young friends and the little Chinese seamstress in the next village – that’s the thing that really sticks with you after the book is done.

SPOILER SECTION BELOW

At first glance, the last sentence of the book is my least favorite. The little seamstress packs it up and leaves Luo (her lover) and the narrator (a dear friend to both, the one who took care of her in her darkest hour, secretly in love with her himself but true to his friend, Luo) to try her luck in the city. When asked why, she notes that “she had learnt one thing from Balzac: that a woman’s beauty is a treasure beyond price.”

A cursory glance at reviews suggests that many readers approve of her final choice as liberating, and perhaps they have a point. Maybe they are reading it with an eye on how to fit it to today’s political needs whereas I am reading it like a Romantic. In any event, like all great novels, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress opens multiple ways of reading. In my reading, for example, the final line is devastating. The idea that the little seamstress, artificially groomed and coiffed into something “modern-looking” and “stylish” with her “blue Mao jacket,” “bobbed hair,” and “white tennis shoes”– that she plans to leverage her “woman’s beauty” to stake her claim in the Mao-stifled city strikes me as rather a degradation of values than a liberation. The “lovely, unsophisticated mountain girl” somehow seemed more authentic.

But if we run with my reading, if we view the little seamstress’s flashy exit in the last sentence of the novel as demeaning, doesn’t this finale undermine the novel’s whole cultural trajectory? Where the body of the novel had suggested that the dehumanizing effects of the Cultural Revolution could be redeemed by the humanizing effects of Balzac and the other forbidden Western writers the teens discover, doesn’t the degradation in the last line suggest that those “humanizing” effects were not so humanizing? That the Western influences had merely introjected Western vanities into the heart of China, as represented by the little seamstress? And if the last line negates the cultural trajectory, the mirror-image trajectory of personal coming-of-age is also jeopardized. What if the ideals these teens had constructed about friendship and loyalty and love was no more than vanity – whimsical ideals to be tossed at the first chance of life in the city? Indeed, the coming-of-age archetype in literature often extends into a more cynical stage, the passage from innocence to experience, as the Romantic poets would have it. And the same deflated idealism hovers over that last line of Sijie’s novel.

But by the time I read the last line, I had become so emotionally invested in the characters, in their naïve teenage idealism, and in the beautiful China they were symbolically trying to shore up against the forces degrading it, that I was unwilling to let go that easily. What if the Chinese seamstress’s final comment does not negate the redemptive power of Balzac and all the spinoff values that Balzac represents in the novel? If my heart wants to argue this side, my head is not long in coming to its aid. After all, one cannot read this novel and conclude, no matter how one reads the last line, that the Western ideas of Balzac et al. were just a trick, a vanity, that Mao’s view of the Western ideal as a Trojan Horse was correct. No, too much of the book weighs against this reading.

The alternative reading is this. The last sentence, as much as it repulses my emotional registers, saves the book from a thematic malaise into which it might otherwise fall. The Western influence (or in this case the universal humanist influence, as channeled by the Western writers the kids discover) was essential to the coming-of-age transition, personal and cultural. But Balzac (symbol of that humanist influence pushing back against Mao) is not a magic bullet, not something you can simply overlay onto China. It is an instrument, not an end, in the boys’ coming of age; and it is an instrument, not an end, in China’s transition as re-envisioned in the symbolic structure of Sijie’s novel. Western culture is not a Trojan Horse to Chinese culture, but nor is the West to be fetishized. If you fetishize those hallmarks of Western culture as something more than they are, if you use them as a mere overlay, you get not the authentic universal human values they express, but you get Western vanity. You get the decision of the little seamstress. So Luo is right to burn the Western books – not because Mao is right about their worthlessness, but because they have completed their purpose in the coming-of-age transition; not because they would corrupt the spirit of China but because once they are read, it is time to move beyond those local Western expressions to the universal truths about the human spirit that lie behind them. The Western books were a ladder for the kids, but to bring something authentic to China, you need to climb the ladder and then throw it away and focus on more universal truths and beauties. If you get stuck on the ladder, if you get hung up on the West qua West, you get the vanity of the little seamstress.

So yes, Luo was right to burn the books. I understand that the conditions the seamstress and the boys found themselves in called for change. But at what cost in terms of one’s own identity? As I ponder that question, the final image of the little seamstress in her trendy new outfit heading for the city to see what she can get with her commodified beauty leaves me longing for the “lovely, unsophisticated mountain girl” of the earlier pages.

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Free love, free hippies

HIPPIES FREE this week. Download now.

4.2 stars on 50 Amazon ratings. Selected for Oregon community radio interview.

Follow Jazmine and Ziggy as they stumble through the sights, sounds, and ideals of the 1960s toward a dramatic personal climax.

Go ahead. Click it. Release your inner hippie.

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Read it. Share it. Drop a rating on Amazon.

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7 thoughts for a new radicalism

It’s time to move radicalism beyond the old, deadening left-right spectrum. If you’re on the left, you’re not radical. You’re as trapped in the old spectrum as the right. Here are my thoughts for a new radicalism, one that I hope disregards all current allegiances.

  1. Favor every form of “cultural appropriation” in every direction. Carry the integrationist torch to an extreme that would appall today’s progressives and conservatives equally. Bust open the cultural lockboxes and play with each other’s stuff, continually wear the other’s shoes – black, white, female, male, every ethnicity and sexual orientation – incorporate, collaborate, and share a laugh when cultural cross-pollination becomes clumsy, as it often will. Distrust any form of liberalism or conservatism that says we need to respect walls of separation. Better to throw open all the doors and windows than to build barricades around your turf.
  2. Never dissuade artists from representing characters and events outside of their own demographic. When creatively identifying with people from other races, genders, etc., becomes the #1 cultural sin, we have pretty much lost everything the Civil Rights movement fought for. Celebrate each other in every direction. Never stay in your lane.
  3. Go with Obama on free speech: “I believe in free speech, whether politically correct or politically incorrect.” This doesn’t mean infinitely free. Harassment laws have a place. But be prepared to engage dissent, not stifle it. As genetic variation pushes the species forward biologically, multiple voices at the table push us forward socially and culturally. Try to find the good in those with whom you disagree.
  4. Recognize continuing inequalities, racial and otherwise, and join hands across demographic lines to fix them, without regard to whether the hand in yours is white, black, or other, and whether that means flaws to be noted or sins to be expiated. Just join hands and cherish each other. Just say no to those who would play the old shame and division game.
  5. Take care of the environment. This is not a partisan issue.
  6. Forget everything you learned about politics, especially if you went to college. Throw it off like the dead snakeskin it is. Start over by engaging your neighbors near and far with the only tools left after those preconceptions are tossed – heart and imagination.
  7. Remember our shared humanness. We are all on spaceship Earth together and will flourish or crash together.

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Oregon Community Radio: Gary talks “Love’s Ragged Claws” and more

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Friends, lovers, vagabond spirits!

Below is last week’s interview for
Love’s Ragged Claws and my other novels on Eartheart Radio (Oregon Community Radio). Derek, Eartheart host and a good brother to all, has interviewed all manner of characters from Wavy Gravy and Squeaky Fromme to Bhagavan Das (Baba Ram Dass’s first guide in India, as chronicled in Be Here Now). You might want to follow Derek’s weekly Eartheart shows on KSKQ Oregon. Or at least show some love in clicks and comments below the YouTube post of the program.

For what it’s worth, I was paired for my segment with one of the principal deities in the Hindu pantheon, Lord Brahma.

Interview at 1:45-19:35 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r0UnCCmsJNA

(The audio connection wasn’t perfect, but the chat was full and friendly.)

Click HERE for Eartheart’s YouTube home.

Click the cover below to link to Love’s Ragged Claws (a 55-page novella).

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Shortlisted for the Faulkner-Wisdom Prize  
Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B08RSNTR2B/
Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/BooksByGaryGautier

Other fine books by Gary Gautier (clickable covers):
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Good free book

Goodbye, Maggie (shortlisted for the 2019 Faulkner-Wisdom Prize) is FREE this week on Amazon (Kindle).

(If you take a freebee, don’t forget to drop an honest Amazon review or rating. These help authors as well as prospective readers.)

Click the cover below to link through. (Read some excerpts below.)

Get your copy while it’s free. Or if you have a copy, gift a copy or two to friends. Just tell them to be polite and write a brief and honest Amazon review in return for the freebie 🙂

Phil’s life becomes a fiasco of misdirection when his charismatic brother, Magnus, shows up with the news that he has murdered someone and asks for sanctuary. Magnus then disappears – with Phil’s girlfriend, Hermia – and Phil lands on an uneasy road trip through small town Louisiana with Gus, another rival for Hermia’s attention. Phil and Gus, white and black, find racism, madness, and unlikely friendships as they roll through the bayous and into New Orleans.

Excerpts:

First page

Closer to the end

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Two takes on whiteness

Some decades ago on a daytime TV talk show – I’ll never find it – the African-American public intellectual, Cornel West, was seated next to some Ku Klux Klan members, and the host said something about the KKK representing white people. West gestured at the white supremacists next to him on the stage and replied, “These people don’t represent white people; they represent morons.” That encapsulated the norm in anti-racist discourse in the post-1960s trajectory (post-MLK/post-hippies). It was not black vs white but, as Dr. King called it, a “coalition of conscience” on one side and racists on the other, “for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny . . . that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom” (“I Have a Dream,” 1963).

How times have changed. Many in the (ironically named, some would say) “progressive” movement have swung around to suggest that the KKK, in effect, DOES represent white people, as the KKK expresses more overtly what is implicitly baked into white people. Whereas West’s witty remark of yore would marginalize racists and foreground Dr. King’s coalition of conscience, the most prominent voices among today’s anti-racists give the KKK center stage.

“All white people are invested in and collude with racism . . . The white collective fundamentally hates blackness” (Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility).

“The way in which people have constructed whiteness, and even their identity, or even the identity of white people, prevents them from seeing this white terrorist threat for what it is” (Ibram X. Kendi, interview 01/12/2021).

Though Kendi’s remarks are less demoralizing than DiAngelo’s, they still emphasize the battle lines between white and black – not anti-racism as a (rainbow) coalition of conscience against racists, but anti-racism as a battle against “whiteness.”

The two takes on whiteness, in any event, are clear. The post-1960s anti-racist angle was that whiteness was neither here nor there, not a blessing and not a scarlet letter. In the coalition of conscience, whites and blacks joined hands to combat racism and racial inequality, without probing into the color of the hand next to you and whether that color meant secret sins that needed to be called out. The post-woke angle, on the other hand, is that whiteness is indeed the problem. It comes dangerously close to recapitulating the old blackness vs. whiteness dichotomy favored by Bull Connor and the racist segregationists that liberals fought so hard against in the 1960s.

Some of you might find anti-racist inspiration in the woke discourse, and I suspect I might find some myself if I push into it harder, but the overall thrust is a hard sell for me. The idea of teaching children, black and white, the Robin DiAngelo quote above, and how that might affect them socially and psychologically, is frankly a little chilling. The other angle on whiteness, the angle that I have identified as post-1960s (as opposed to post-woke), the angle I associated with that decades-old quip of Cornel West (my more up-to-date readers can comment on whether his position has changed since then) – that’s the angle I like. It allows all people of all races to celebrate each other, to work hand-in-hand to fix continuing racial inequality, each able to express one’s own heart robustly, with full confidence in oneself and one’s fellows in the coalition, not cowering in self-doubt about one’s own goodness or casting suspicious eyes on those around you.

Best that each of us, black or white, express the power of beauty and goodness in the heart without impediment, in the brazen manner of William Blake, or better yet, Walt Whitman:

I celebrate myself, and sing myself…
My tongue, every atom of my blood…
Nature without check with original energy…
The smoke of my own breath…
Stout as a horse, affectionate, haughty, electrical,
I and this mystery here we stand.

I know I am solid and sound…
To me the converging objects of the universe perpetually flow…
I do not trouble my spirit to vindicate itself or be understood,
I exist as I am, that is enough,
If no other in the world be aware I sit content,
And if each and all be aware I sit content.

Unscrew the locks from the doors!
Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!

(Song of Myself)

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