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Credo of a Passionate Skeptic

Essay & Poems in Remembrance of Adrienne Rich

Our senses are currently whip-driven by a feverish new pace of technological change. The activities that mark us as human, though, don’t begin, exist in, or end by such a calculus. They pulse, fade out, and pulse again in human tissue, human nerves, and in the elemental humus of memory, dreams, and art, where there are no bygone eras. They are in us, they can speak to us, they can teach us if we desire it.… In fact, for Westerners to look back on 1900 is to come full face upon ourselves in 2000, still trying to grapple with the hectic power of capitalism and technology, the displacement of the social will into the accumulation of money and things. “Thus” (Karl Marx in 1844) “all physical and intellectual senses (are) replaced by the simple alienation of all these senses, the sense of having.” We have been here all along.… | more |

A Red Robin?

In his estimable Robin Hood: People’s Outlaw and Forest Hero, it is Paul Buhle’s contention that in the almost eight centuries of his legendary existence, Robin has had his time come periodically but seldom more than now. With barbarians, foreign and domestic, at the gates whenever they are not in the palaces, the need for heroes to rise from the ranks of the masses is at least as urgent as it was in Robin Hood’s day.… Buhle argues that the world needs Robin Hood now more than ever. “We need Robin because rebellion against deteriorating conditions is inevitable….”… | more |

Alfred Hitchcock Presents Class Struggle

Class struggle is the last thing most people would associate with Alfred Hitchcock, probably the most famous director of them all. But there is a connection, nevertheless. No one would call Hitchcock a socialist; he emphasized that all he wanted was to entertain people—not instruct them. He was proud of his commercial success (and so were the studios that employed him).… For many, it will sound absurd to claim that Hitchcock has anything to do with class struggle. It is an interesting reaction, because issues that are a function of class struggle are plainly on view in Hitchcock, even if they are ignored—or blocked out. Many of his movies are built around class-struggle issues: without them, there would be no movie. … | more |

Hans Fallada’s Anti-Fascist Fiction

In The Diary of a Young Girl—one of the most touching books ever written about life under fascism—Dutch teenager Anne Frank observed, “Extraordinary things happen to people who go into hiding.” Published in 1947 with an introduction by Eleanor Roosevelt, Frank’s diary awakened the world to the daily lives of Jews hoping to escape concentration camps and gas ovens. Frank’s story was sentimentalized on stage and in the Hollywood movie, but the book itself resonated—it still does—with gritty realism and the kinds of details that just will not die.… That same year, 1947, saw the publication of Every Man Dies Alone, the last novel to be written by Hans Fallada, the lost man of twentieth-century Germany literature. Like Frank’s Diary, Fallada’s Every Man alerted readers around the world to the corrosive force of fascism and the extraordinary things that happen to people in hiding. The main characters are not Jews; they are neither religious, nor do they spout Marx, Engels, or Rosa Luxemburg. Every Man presents a series of interwoven narratives about fascism that do not echo the dominant stories that have been told and retold since the end of the Second World War.… | more |

Robinson Crusoe and the Secret of Primitive Accumulation

The solitary and isolated figure of Robinson Crusoe is often taken as a starting point by economists, especially in their analysis of international trade. He is pictured as a rugged individual—diligent, intelligent, and above all frugal—who masters nature through reason. But the actual story of Robinson Crusoe, as told by Defoe, is also one of conquest, slavery, robbery, murder, and force. The contrast between the economists’ Robinson Crusoe and the genuine one mirrors the contrast between the mythical description of international trade found in economics textbooks and the actual facts of what happens in the international economy.… But international trade…is often based on a division between superior and subordinate rather than a division between equals; and it is anything but peaceful. It is trade between the center and the hinterland, the colonizers and the colonized, the masters and the servants…Because it is unequal in structure and reward it has to be established and maintained by force, whether it be the structural violence of poverty, the symbolic violence of socialization, or the physical violence of war and pacification.… | more |

Red Cop in Red China

Qiu Xiaolong’s Novels on the Cusp of Communism and Capitalism

The books reviewed here are Qiu Xiaolong, Death of a Red Heroine (2000), 464 pages, $14.00; A Loyal Character Dancer (2002), 360 pages, $14.00; When Red Is Black (2004), 320 pages, $13.00, all published in New York by Soho Crime; and A Case of Two Cities (2006), 320 pages, $13.95; Red Mandarin Dress (2007), 320 pages, $13.95; The Mao Case (2009), 304 pages, $13.99, all published in New York by Minotaur Books.

Qiu Xiaolong—the prolific Chinese novelist born 1953 in Shanghai and a resident of the United States since 1988—has made a fetish of the word and the color red, not surprisingly, since he writes about Red China. Three of his innovative novels include red in the title: Death of a Red Heroine (2000), When Red Is Black (2004), and Red Mandarin Dress (2007). In all three of these books, the main character is a sensitive, poetry loving, yet tough-minded police inspector who works for the Shanghai Police Bureau; he’s on the city payroll and doesn’t work as a free-lance private eye for hire… | more |

Against Literary Imperialism: Storming the Barricades of the Canon

My copy of The Mythology of Imperialism, the 1973 paperback that sold for $2.75, has lots of notes in the margins. They’re excited notes, not always comprehensible now, from the first course I ever taught, a small unofficial seminar on literature and imperialism. I’ve lost the syllabus, but I remember that we read Raskin’s books: Kipling, Conrad, Forster, and Orwell. I’m not sure I would have had the idea, or the courage, to follow that syllabus in my second or third year of graduate school teaching if The Mythology of Imperialism hadn’t made its miraculous, incandescent appearance. I certainly wouldn’t have known which writers to teach, or for that matter how to start talking about them. This was before Edward W. Said’s Orientalism appeared in 1978, before the academic field of postcolonial studies had been invented. There must have been more advanced people out there — it sometimes seemed to me that everybody at Harvard was more advanced than I was — but if they had figured out why and how imperialism mattered to us, they weren’t raising their hands and making speeches about it in any of the classes I took.… | more |

Mao Zedong: Chinese, Communist, Poet

Mao Zedong, The Poems of Mao Zedong, translations, introductions, and notes by Willis Barnstone (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008); 168 pages; $24.95 hardcover, $15.95 paperback.

What are we to think of Chairman Mao? A man of immense contradictions — a nationalist, communist, revolutionary, warrior, as well as the author of The Little Red Book, and the leader for decades of the Peoples’ Republic of China — he was also one of twentieth-century China’s best poets. A new translation of his work provides an opportunity to evaluate him as a writer and as an artist. A reviewer in The Washington Post called Mao’s poems “political documents,” but added, “it is as literature that they should be considered.” Separating the political from the literary, however, isn’t possible. “We woke a million workers and peasants,” Mao wrote in the First Siege, and though all his lines aren’t as explicit about the Chinese Revolution as it is, a great many of them are.… | more |

Slumlord Aesthetics and the Question of Indian Poverty

Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire (based on Indian diplomat Vikas Swaroop’s novel Q & A) takes the extremely potent idea of a Bombay slum boy tapping into his street knowledge to win a twenty-million-dollar reality quiz show, and turns it into a universal tale of love and human destiny. In the quiz, Jamal is unable to answer questions that test his nationalist knowledge but is surprisingly comfortable with those that mark his familiarity with international trivia. For instance, while he knows that Benjamin Franklin adorns the hundred dollar bill, he has no clue about who adorns the thousand rupee note. This is obviously meant to suggest the irrelevance of the nation to its most marginalized member, but less obviously, also indicates its redundancy under globalized neoliberalism.… | more |

Emergency Clinic

Adrienne Rich’s most recent book is Telephone Ringing in the Labyrinth: Poems 2004–2006. A selection of her essays, Arts of the Possible: Essays and Conversations, appeared in 2003. She edited Muriel Rukeyser’s Selected Poems for the Library of America. She is a recipient of the National Book Foundation’s 2006 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, among other awards.… | more |

The Iron Heel at 100: Jack London—The Artist as “Antenna of the Race”

Bad times inhibit good writers, but they also inspire them. Just look at the new and recent arrivals in bookstores and libraries. The double-barreled assault on civil liberties and human rights, by the administration of President George Walker Bush, has, if nothing else, spurred an outpouring of books, both fiction and nonfiction, condemning the erosion of American democracy and the perceived drift toward totalitarianism. Jack London—the best-selling twentieth-century American author, who was born in 1876, the year of the American Centenary, and who died in 1916, the year before the United States entered the First World War—would surely not be surprised. In fact, one might well anoint London the founding father of the contemporary body of literature about political repression, including Henry Giroux’s The Emerging Authoritarianism in the United States, Matthew Rothschild’s You Have No Rights, Chris Hedges’s American Fascists, Robert Kennedy Jr.’s Crimes Against Nature, and Philip Roth’s disquieting 2003 novel The Plot Against America. Of course, there are many others that cover much the same terrain.… | more |