Sean D. Kelly wrote a column for The Stone, the New York Times' series by modern philosophers recently called "Navigating Past Nihilism." It was the first time I'd heard of Kelly who is the chair of the philosophy department at Harvard and the first time I'd read anything he'd written. He is engaged in a most important journey of exploration, I think. He is moving past conventional religion, past Enlightenment scientific approaches, past the battering wars of atheists vs. more traditional types, past the emptiness of our modern culture to bring us into touch with the mysterious and sacred in existence by moving us outside our current ruts and well-worn paths which often seem to lead to dead ends. He has a blog here. He is a guiding light and a current in my own recent forays into trying to come to terms with my existence (and existence in general). Weirdly and wonderfully, he has a background in a number of modern fields which give him a big palette to work with. With Hubert Dreyfus, he has written a book, All Things Shining, which is due out in January of 2011. I am looking forward to it and hope it is on Kindle!
Along the iron fence enclosing the grounds of the Museo de Antropología de Xalapa hang sixty posters in an exhibit called 30x30.
Below is the curator's statement, my translation:
30x30: An Opportunity for Reflexion
[The statement opens with the following quote:]
"The circus is on fire and the owner, instead of rescuing the midgets sells tickets for the next performance."
-- Jacobo Jabludovsky [Very little is simple or exactly as it appears in Mexico. This incredible quote which seems to summarize perfectly both the events of the Bicentennial and the Centennial was made by a Mexican journalist who himself was long a mouthpiece for the PRI, the Partido Revolucionario Institucional, and a corrupter of the news on the party's behalf. He is more than that, and not all of it bad, but a lot of it quite confusing to me as a foreigner.]
This year of 2010 we Mexicans are witness to two historic events important in the life of the country: the Bicentennial of Independence and the Centennial of the Revolution. For those who are lovers of opportunism, this will provide an excuse for vulgar extravaganzas rich in advertising but poor in ideas. For the rest of us, all the way to the farthest corner of the country, these events will provide a great opportunity to indulge in ardent and sincere patriotic fervor. However, the economic crisis (more than fifty million Mexicans live in poverty), the millions of unemployed, the insecurity, the violence, the corruption, the impunity and the discrediting of authorities oblige and will continue to oblige our collective imagination to reflect and to reconsider what should be celebrated, what should be commemorated.
The poster, the thermometer of society historically has been a presence and a comrade -- an accomplice at times in social struggles and demands.[Mexico has a rich history of political art: posters, cartoons, paintings, music.] For this reason, and to mark these days, the Instituto de Artes Plásticas de la Universidad Veracruzana brought together 60 graphic designers to express their ideas, their points of view, their feelings, through this medium. Thirty of the posters are dedicated to the theme of Mexican independene and thirty to the theme of the Mexican Revolution. This is how the exposition got its name, 30-30 which also alludes in passing to that short-barreled rifle better known as the carbine..... [Carbines and other guns made by Remington started arriving in Mexico in the second half of the nineteenth century. I'm taking a wild guess here that carbines were the signature guns of Pancho Villa's crowd and maybe others during the Revolution.]
Jose Morelos, Curator
Jim and I had parked across the street from the museum and had no idea these posters were on the fence. We'd come to see something else entirely. We realized later we missed all the posters addressing Independence and saw only those marking the Mexican Revolution.
Below is a sampling of those latter posters. They are wonderful and surprising. And disturbing and moving and sometimes funny. As people like to say, there is no cause for optimism, but hope remains.
The poster above says: Revolution 1910, Regression 2010.
Celebrating with the loot from their conquests
Energy resources - lands - public education - workers' rights
The structure in this poster is the enormous Monument to the Revolution. I don't know the signifiance of BIBI in BIBICentenario, but under that it says suckling public funds.
The legend of the beginning of Mexico is that the people who were to become the Aztecs were poor wanderers making their way south. They would know they had reached the place they were meant to settle when they saw an eagle on a cactus with a serpent in his beak. This poster is a play on that legend and that image which is seen all over in a more benign form. Here you can see the implication that modern Mexico has been built with weapons and blood. The quote is from a poem by Ramón López Velarde, now considered one of Mexico's greatest and most characteristic poets. Called "Suave Patria", or in the translation I use, Sweet Country, it is a poem celebrating Mexico's blessings and condemning its sins.
In the translation written in 1921 by Margaret Sayers Peden. the verse says:
Patria, I give the key to happiness:
be faithful forever to your likeness:
fifty repeats of the Ave are carved
on the beads of the rosary, and it is
more fortunate than you, Patria suave.
When I was taking my Diplomado en Estudios Mexicanos at the school for foreign students of UNAM, I wrote a paper about López Velarde. He was from the state of Zacatecas and educated in the north of the country. We visited his childhood home in Jerez, near the city of Zacatecas, where unfortunately in the past year or so narcos shot each other up in the streets. Lopez Velarde was involved in the writing of the Plan of San Luis Potosí in which Madero, the leader of the revolutionaries in 1910 called for the government to be overthrown. I just have to mention that some of that revolutionary work and writing was done in San Antonio, Texas.
López Velarde made his way to Mexico City to write and to involve himself with the very active circle of intellectuals there. Although after he died, his talent and contributions to Mexican letters were recognized, while he was alive and trying to make it in Mexico City, he was sometimes looked down on and considered a provincial. He also remained a strong practicing Catholic which the intellectuals who were involved in other philosophical movements derided.
Anyway, I don't entirely understand the verse above, either in Spanish or in English, except that along with much other literature and art in Mexico, it acknowledges that the beautiful and blessed land of Mexico is also cursed, at least at times, by the deeds and greed of its own leaders.
The Mexican Revolution overthrew Porfirio Diaz who started out a progressive leader and turned into a dictator. The Revolution itself lasted for at least ten years and devolved into a civil war. The victorious PRI -- Institutional Revolutionary Party -- became a group dictatorship that lasted seventy years, some of them better than others.
Below are two humorous posters with which I will close this post.
It has to be love, it has to be the Revolution. It's the same story.
A frente frio, a cold front, is scheduled to slide across our area today. This one is to be fairly gentle with little rain and temperatures in the fifties and sixties. The rough one is not due till Sunday, the Feast Day of Our Virgen de Guadalupe. When I came out of the bedroom early this morning, Acamalín, the little mountain directly across from our house was enshrouded in fog, invisible. The sky towards the east was a deep rose color. The fog has pulled away, but has left a shawl of puffy gray around the mountain’s midsection. Even as I write, it, too, is vanishing, the rose has paled to pink washed with white and now to white stippled with gray.
In our Colonia, this is a mysterious, noisy, and for me, edgy time of year when reality seems to let in strange drifts from uncommon realms. The nights and sometimes the days are filled with the boom, the blast of cohetes, rockets, going off in spurts and clusters, in cadenced cycles and at random. There is sometimes sense to when they are set off. Sometimes they announce that people are to gather, for instance to leave for the Shrine of La Virgen in Mexico City to gather holy flame for our own Capilla; sometimes a burst of noise marks the time they return. Some call people to gather to construct the arcos which will be borne in processions to the entrances of our main church and our capilla of the Virgen tomorrow night.
As night falls, processions begin. There are some with people dressed as old men, sometimes they are old men. They jump and dance strange, twisting steps pulling their knees high. They gird their waists with cowbells which clank with their movements. In others, young men and boys dressed in elaborate clown costumes stomp and turn down the streets, the bells on their ankles jingling rhythmically. Neighbors sometimes join in. Strings and clusters of explosions accompany the processions, sometimes exloding en masse from carts people pull alongside. The big rockets, when they fly up near our house, and sometimes they do right outside our wall, terrify me. How can we not be under attack?. The dogs and Louie the cat and I huddle together in bed. Tomorrow will be the big procession of the arcos. My friend Tere will let us know when to be ready. I will try hard to get up my nerve to go out among my friends and neighbors and the strange, fearsome fireworks.
The other afternoon, two boys, maybe eight years old, came by with a nice dog which looked like a golden retriever mix, on a piece of thin rope. They were looking for a home for the dog. I couldn’t bring myself to ask any more questions because I have to keep myself from adopting more dogs. It seemed unlikely they'd find a home.It was a biggish dog, and biggish dogs are too expensive for mos tpeople these days.We already have four adopted dogs, two directly from the street, one from a neighbor who had too many and one from a friend who’d rescued the dog from the street in San Antonio, Texas where perhaps 40,000 abandoned and otherwise homeless dogs are put to sleep by animal authorities a year, out of sight of most San Antonians.
I still have a hard time moderating my sadness response when I see dogs and kids and young mothers and babies who are struggling mightily and sick fathers and very old people in dire straits. I tell myself that my being so sad doesn't help anyone, so why can't I just have a less-sad response? In the days after we first moved here I thought maybe I wouldn’t be able to stay because of it. I convinced myself not to run away back to the US by reminding myself that to run away from the sadness was merely escapism because the triggers for sadness exist in vast quantity all over the world whether I see them or not.. Obviously we've stayed and I'm very glad we did. The longer we are here, the more I care about where we live, and weirdly, the more content I feel even though I still find myself pierced by sadness.
It is harder to run away from seeing pain here than it is for most middle-class people in the US, unless the pain is personal. This is not simply because there are fewer distractions from electronic devices and because so many ugly things are swept away from view and because it is easy to live isolated in one's house in one's gated community. It's harder to avoid the sad and painful and harsh because people here, not just in our colonia but pretty generally tend to be polite and friendly and they do not shout or yell much either to get your attention or to show anger or to bully. So I can’t blind myself to the ugliness inflicted on people’s lives by fate, the government, whatever, with my annoyance at threatening or hostile or obnoxious behavior.
I have come to realize that here the sad things don’t generally wash over the good with a pall of darkness. More or less, sad and difficult and painful coexist with happy and funny and loving. My sadness response isn't even, I’ve learned, so uniquely strong. Here it is one that most people learn to live with. "Ésta es la vida," people say. If you say I hope you get better soon, instead of saying something cheery in response people might say, “Si Díos quiere” – If God wants it. Sometimes if you say you are sorry something bad has befallen someone, that person will respond, “ni modo”. Lots of USAers say “ni modo” for small things like spilling a glass of water. They mean, “No big deal.” In our colonia, it isn’t used often, but when it is, it seems to be used for serious things, for instance if someone gets very sick: "Ni modo." “What can you do?” or “It can’t be helped.”
Before we lived in Mexico, we often heard that Mexicans were fatalistic. Well, one has to be because life isn’t smooth and easy, and one can’t hide from suffering in our colonia. It seems to me that being fatalistic is being realistic. It is being fully aware that today might be good but tomorrow any number of things could go wrong, and sometimes very wrong. You still have dreams and hopes, but you don’t assume any kind of right to them. You work hard, but you don’t assume you’ll get any kind of special reward for it or that you deserve anything more than the next person. Most people have to work hard just to get by.
Here is something else that happened recently. One day a couple of weeks ago when we were on our run along the road outside the colonia, we saw a smallish black dog, pretty well-fed, standing in the middle of it. He was dazed and seemed unable to decide what to do. He also was drooling white foam. People here go way out of their way not to hit dogs in the street, so he was still there when we ran back in spite of the cars that sped past. I thought, we should take him to the vet. Then I thought, no, he will just be put to sleep and the car ride will be no fun for him. Later, he wasn’t on the road, he was lying dead along side of it. Already his carcass was partly eaten. And that was a good thing, we thought. At least other living things were (we hoped) benefitting. A couple of days ago, all you could see was a jaw bone, and then just a piece of it. I think people here abandon very sick animals sometimes because there is nothing they can do for them and because it makes them very sad, too, to have them around. I think of Eskimos leaving their sick old people on chunks of ice. Sometimes I think I’d rather be abandoned here somewhere on a hillside where I could die amidst the plants and animals than to be in a hospital tied to tubes and machines. Really, is the latter much better? Maybe a little morphine to keep with me.
So I find myself realizing stuff I must have realized a hundred times before. That all of us living creatures are made from dead things. That all of us living creatures will soon be dead things ourselves. As Jim and I go on our runs, the blooming flowers change from day to day, old ones falling into the decaying matter that becomes soil, new ones stretching ever so briefly to the sun. And insects, each in their season, work their way across the surfaces of leaves and down the stalks of plants, and then, one day, they fail, too. Perhaps spiders catch them in webs or wasps sting them and eat them or maybe some creature lays its eggs in them. Or perhaps a few of them just run out of life. All the beauty around us here: sometimes people, Gringos, are fond of saying this is paradise. But it is a very mortal paradise, dependent on death and dying as well as sunshine and rain for its existence. We are all leaves, briefly hanging from a branch made of family and friends and the residue of how we spend our time. Then one day, we have to let go. It’s more complicated than that, because frightening as the brevity of our moments is, as the pain we and most living things endure at times are, there is still the vibrance of being alive, at least If we can share it with the world around us: the people, especially the people, and plants and animals in it. And if we can do less harm than good.
Note: The edition I did the index for is available for preorder at Amazon. I did not do the index for the currently available edition.
I had meant to retire from indexing. I stopped looking for work. Then a book came along that was really tempting, so I did it. And then some more. So I am still indexing. I have just finished three books that were very time-consuming, so I haven’t blogged for a while. I’d like to mention the last one. It is a Western Civilization text book called just that: Western Civilization. Originally two volumes, it has been condensed to one, and that’s what I indexed. The author is Jackson J. Spielvogel. I had not heard of him, but I sure wanted to find out about him after I started reading. He is now an emeritus professor at Penn State where he has won great renown as an outstanding teacher and textbook writer.
The book Western Civilizaton is extraordinary for a number of reasons. Spielvogel writes about all kinds of people, not just kings and queens and presidents. He often reminds us that throughout history, most people have been ordinary people: not rich, not fancy, not influential in the world, but nonetheless they have been by far the largest number of people, and their fates have often lain outside their own hands: they’ve had to serve in armies, they’ve been victims of disease, they’ve been slaughtered and brutalized and made serfs and enslaved. More or less chronological, the narration nonetheless does not provide a long list of dates to remember. Rather, Spielvogel provides glimpses across the years of a century, say, of the effects events and people had on each other: religion on rulers, loss of meaning on art, the Black Death on people’s attitudes towards being alive. There are few heroes. There is no underlying belief in progress or a happy ending. Rather, currents ebb and flow. Capitalism is not the salvation of man, nor is the Enlightenment idea of progress. In fact, the Enlightenment itself, at this point such an unexamined foundation of much US and western culture is presented as more or less as one of many systems of thought and belief which were efforts to give sense and order to life. That’s not quite fair. Spielvogel addresses the very real achievements of science and art, among other things. But he certainly doesn’t consider Enlightenment thought the path to salvation. I will just stick in here the fact that in Spain at least, the Enlightenment, contrary to its influence in England and France, was used to justify the inequality of human beings: to explain to the peasants and the merchants and the servants that hierarchy was the natural order of things, and they were on the bottom rungs. Groups that receive short shrift in other texts, or at least the ones I know of (and I am WAY out of date) are here in sympathetic detail: Jews, women, prostitutes, for instance. Gays. When he discusses art and music and literature, he introduces people I’d never heard of but who nonetheless in some significant way personified their eras or changed them. Art and music and literature are not apart from history but woven right into its tapestry. It’s a wonderfully readable book. If you want to once again after many years dig into Western Civ, do it with this book. It was so readable I spent too much time reading it and ended up probably giving the index short shrift.