Sunday, December 28

Istanbul lamp shop

It occurs to me that I only rarely, if ever, do not express great fondness for those photographs I post here. In that respect, this photo is no different, however, this time I have objective proof the shot is a good one. After it was published in Gonzaga's literary journal, Reflection, (which, unfortunately, has not yet been made available online), a fellow student with whom I had never before spoke sent me a Facebook message expressing their compliments. Their exact words were "love, love, love." Sounds like pretty definitive evidence of excellence to me.

But what makes this shot so spectacular? For me, it is the powerful sense that this was a moment which will never again occur. For only a fraction of second, the man stood like this, looking back. Then it was he gone. He left in the other direction. In that moment, though, there is energy. The opposition of his eyes and feet begs for release. Behind him stands an explosion of background. The sheer insanity of that clustered mass of hanging lamps in all their shapes, all their textures, all their designs, all their variety is so different from the clean and ordered aesthetics of a Wal-Mart or Pier 1 Imports. I will say this for Istanbul shops: they do one product and they do them well.

Of course, all this self-praise is not to say this photo does not bother me in some ways. Mostly, it's the composition. It's terrible, really. The man's eyes are near the center of the image, a dead-zone for energy and no-no taught at the beginning of every photography course. His entire body is just off from the center, unbalancing the entire visual weight in a bad weigh. The cropping the bodies on both sides feels sloppy. The whole image seems tilted, but that may just be the scan job.

Still, I like it. Probably one of my better ones. Which just goes to show how much farther I have to go.

Considering "The Gulag Archipelago"

I have never been much of one for Holocaust literature. Somehow I left high school without ever reading The Diary of Anne Frank, and I have never bothered to pick up Eli Wiesel's Night. I don't know why. I guess I have always figured that it is enough to understand that systematically murdering entire populations is bat insane and evil. The rest is merely details. Still, it is odd that my first taste of holocaust literature was Alexander Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago, possibly the most unreadable of the bunch. A friend's father suggested to me when I was still in high school and an active proponent of communism. I found my copy during a moving sale at a used bookstore two summers back. Solzhenitsyn's death this August and the accompanying accolades were the final push I needed to start it.

Solzhenitsyn's "experiment in literary investigation" yields three volumes (the first of which, and only one I read, running over 600 pages) of anecdotes and stories from him and hundreds of other prisoners and accounts from Soviet officials, on every aspect of the purges. Make no mistake. It may not have the capital 'H,' but this is holocaust literature, an account both personal and historical of the purges in the Soviet Union which left millions dead and sent millions more into prison and work camps for years. Entire chapters are devoted to methods of torture, means of transportation to the many prisons, the public sham trials and the inane laws under which the people were prosecuted. If mass deaths are not enough to convince you that these were messed up times, consider the following:
  • After a party meeting, the members broke out into applause for Stalin, but no one was willing to stop clapping first because that would demonstrate disrespect for the Dear Father, a sign of possible revolutionary tendencies. Eleven minutes later some guy finally quit and sat back down, and everyone was relieved to follow suit because that was a lot of clapping. That night the NKVD arrested him.
  • Section 6 of Article 58 permitted the arrest of those engaged in espionage. This did not have to be proven. Suspicion of such activities was enough an arrest. Furthermore, one could be arrested for having simply having contact with one of these people.
  • In 1922 V.V. Oldenborger, chief engineer of Moscow's water supply for 30 years, was prosecuted for wrecking the system. His manager hadn't allowed him to replace the wooden water holding tanks with concrete ones. Oldenborger committed suicide before the trial began, but the prosecution took place nonetheless.
  • To meet a prisoner quota of 200, an officer in Tashkent arrested all gypsy men who had arrived in the city earlier that day.
Every once and a while though, Solzhenitsyn takes a break from these encyclopediac accounts of evil and offers instead some insight into what made the purges all the worse and what made them tolerable. To do evil one needs justification, Solzhenitsyn wrote. "Ideology - that is what gives evildoing its long-sought justification and gives the evildoer the necessary steadfastness and determination. That is the social theory which helps to make his acts seem good instead of bad in his own and others' eyes, so that he won't hear reproaches and curses but will receive praise and honors."

Of the daily, 20-minute walks permitted to political prisoners, Solzhenitsyn wrote, "Spring promises everyone happiness - and tenfold to the prisoner. Oh, April sky! It didn't matter that I was in prison. Evidently, they were not going to shoot me. And in the end I would become wiser here. I would come to understand many things here, Heaven! I would correct my mistkes yet, O Heaven, not for them but for you, Heaven!"

Solzhenitsyn went through a lot to write this, to make sure these stories and memories gained a world-wide audience. In the mid-60's, the outspoken writer of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich became very interesting to the KGB, and he was forced to literally write Archipelago in parts. He would hide chapters in the homes of friends and could only work on them while visiting. When one of Solzhenitsyn's friends was terrorized into revealing the location of the manuscript in the Soviet Union (a microfilm copy had been delivered to the West years earlier), he had no choice but to publish. The friend hanged herself the next day. Solzhenitsyn himself was eventually exiled for his works.

In a letter sent to the Swedish Academy following their announcement of the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature Solzhenitsyn permitted his readers to some insight into what would lead a man to run such risks. Literature is the living memory of the nation, he wrote. It transcends borders and teaches the inexperienced the mistakes of those who have gone before. Literature stands against and makes clear the lies which make violence possible. Once literature and art destroy the falsehoods, violence will not be far behind.

It is a nice ideal, beautiful really. Whether it is true is another matter. Ivan Denisovich was published with Khruschev's approval and despite resounding success and popularity did nothing to alleviate authoritarian practices in the Soviet Union. By the time Archipelago was released, the Gulag had been dismantled as part of destalinisation. It is not just Solzhenitsyn and the Soviet Union either. Even the impact of George Orwell, the oft-quoted Brit who after 1936 wrote only against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, is questionable. Surveillance by both the government and private groups only increases, and Big Brother is more popular as a reality show than real political concern. Still, given the choice, I think I would prefer to follow Solzhenitsyn rather than one of the other celebrated writers who died this year, David Foster Wallace. "One word of truth shall outweigh the whole world" well before "The next real literary 'rebels' in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles."

If nothing else, Archipelago does put things into perspective while one is riding America's own train system. A train which arrives three hours late and loses another three en route does not seem nearly so bad when one reads about train booths built for four and stuffed with over 20 for multi-day journeys. The prisoners managed it by sliding a few of them on to the shelves meant for luggage. Those were the most desirable spots because on them one could actually sit.

Tuesday, December 23

Learning Argentine Tango: Astor Piazzolla's "Tango: Zero Hour"

Astor Piazzolla considered Tango: Zero Hour his finest work, according to The editor calls it the culmination of Piazzolla's career. Piazzolla transformed tango, pushed to it to its limits, introduced elements of jazz and classical. Listen to some of tango's early 20th-century staples like "La Cumparsita" and "Seguime, si podes," and then spend a few seconds with his most popular song "Libertango." That is what Piazzolla did to tango. An analysis and proper contextualization of this album is much better suited to a grad student at the very least, but please bear with me as I attempt to explain what Piazzolla's music means to this one.

This album struck me personally. It made me privy to someone else's feelings, normally hidden, and in them I found something not entirely unlike my own. There is no grand sweep of a Romantic orchestra, no dare to marvel in sublime nature. There are no Wagnerian gods and heroes. There is merely Piazzolla's Quinteto Tango Nuevo playing the sorrow and excitement of an unknown man, one unsure of the time, unsure of where he is in the city's back alleys where the fog obscures the coming corner. The longing spoken of by the violin and bandoneĆ³n is piercing in "Milonga del Angel," but it lacks the youthful exuberance behind that of a Romeo and Juilet. There is more than a hint of resignation behind it, too. The man took his shot at making the dream real and failed. The chance will never come again. Be it in love or some other aspiration, the feeling is not so far from what we have known.

Perhaps the strongest of the emotions present in Tango: Zero Hour, longing is hardly the only one. The excitement and anticipation, you can feel the man almost tripping over his own feet in his haste, in "Milonga Loca" counter the loss, offer hope. Some small contentment is found in "Contrabajissimo" after surviving another round of challenges and threats. It comes to a close with "Mumuki. The sadness for lost times and opportunities remains, but there is a growing strength there now, an acceptance that this feeling exists and will come again but that it will not dominate. The dreamlike sense which had permeated the songs before is lifting and the man must awaken, return to life.

My experiences with tango and even music is not enough to declare Tango: Zero Hour a masterpiece, but I will offer this: it is a beautiful work. Should you decide to put your good money toward the album's purchase or borrow it from a friend, do it the favor of not putting it on as background noise but give it your full attention. It deserves it.