Timbuktu. 2014

Timbuktu. 2014

One of the best films of the past year is Timbuktu, directed by Abderrahmene Sissako. Understated, beautifully shot and composed, it tells the story of a village, a people, caught in the arbitrary and repressive grip of a Jihadist takeover. The focus of the film, but never at the cost of the village’s story itself, is a small family on the outskirts of Timbuktu, making a life on the dunes. Kidane, the father, Satima, the mother, their daughter Toya, and the young shepherd, Issan. Perhaps because of their existence on the periphery, this small family had managed to avoid most of the cultural and social repression being arbitrarily imposed on those in the village, but a tragic accident changes all of that.

I was struck by the images, again and again. The incredible beauty of the desert, the dunes, the motion of people crossing them, running on the sand. But, especially, the scene of a soccer game, which is one of the most beautiful in any film in recent memory. The jihadists had just handed down yet another absurd and meaningless edict, this time outlawing soccer (football for them). But this didn’t stop the youth of this village from playing the game without an actual ball. The flow, the joyful resistance to arbitrary, ridiculous power, along with the expressiveness of the camera work, make for a classic scene worth the price of admission all by itself.

And then there was music, which had also been banned. Resistance lives within music as well. Primarily led by the women of the village, we see people risking their lives for that part of life that gives it meaning, sustains them, brings them closer together in memory and song. One woman is whipped for being caught singing the blues (in a gorgeous and moving performance), and her extreme bravery continues as she sings under the lash.

These are a people with tremendous courage and resilience, and the movie never shows them breaking or collaborating with the authorities. But it also hints that there is no way out and that this is just the beginning of the repression. This is just the beginning of a return to primitive visions of “justice,” where people accused of adultery are stoned to death.

Why do we believe in fictions that crush life? Why do we accept the word of those who say they speak for divine power? Of course, once we accept the fiction that divine power exists in the first place, we are all too susceptible to that. But it’s not inevitable that we would hand over our personal autonomy to other humans, just because they claim to speak for those fictions. Even believers should demand they prove their legitimacy, prove they can justify what they ask of us, at least within the context of that fiction. All too often, however, fundamentalists in all the major religions pull nonsense out of thin air, and can’t show that even the founders of those religions ever paid the slightest attention to their particular obsessions. Soccer? Music? Dancing? And, of course, Christian fundamentalists have their own list of totally arbitrary, puritanical obsessions never mentioned by their Christ. To me, if a religion does not affirm life and bring joy into the world, it has no purpose.

Life is tough enough all by itself. To add more chains is nothing less than insane.


Welcome to Spinozablue!

Joan Miró's Birth of the World. 1925

Joan Miró’s Birth of the World. 1925

The work is done. Rebirth is here. We’re ready, finally, to start adding again to this fine collection of poetry, fiction, reviews, art, photography and film.

Six years of excellent contributions. Then a pause. But that pause has been lifted.

If you’d like to contribute, please click on the submissions page and follow the directions therein. No previous publishing experience is required. All that matters is the quality of the work itself.

Spinozablue promotes an internationalism of the arts and knows no geographical boundaries. Actually, we’re not all that impressed with the idea of boundaries in general. When it comes to the Republic of the Arts, the world is one. We’re open to all of it.

A few notes about the relaunch:

Unlike the first incarnation of Spinozablue, we won’t have comments turned on underneath the articles, though a separate forums section is a likely addition in the future. Technical obstacles in the recovery period and overall site speed were major considerations, so we decided to keep them off for now. This doesn’t mean we don’t want to hear from our readers. We definitely do. Please use the contact form in the “contact us” or “about” pages and let us know what’s on your mind.

Okay. So enough of that. Read. Enjoy. And, if you’re so inclined, send us the best expressions of your own voice and aesthetic.


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Update from 8-9-15: Spinozablue uses https encryption tech, so it’s better to go to https://spinozablue.com and bookmark that, instead of just spinozablue.com. This is especially the case for Mobile viewing. At present, it doesn’t always render images correctly if you land on the site via http. Also, as you may have noticed, the old addresses for individual posts have changed. We updated the links to better conform with the latest recommendations for speed and ease of use. The post titles are now a part of the URL, instead of the old post numbers, along with year and month.

I know, I know. Your eyes are glazing over and getting sleepy. So enough of that, too.


Necessary Fictions, Their Sources and Utility

The Ghost of Vermeer of Delft Which can be Used as a Table, Salvador Dali. 1934.

The Ghost of Vermeer of Delft Which can be Used as a Table. Salvador Dali. 1934.

Stumbled upon a fascinating TED talk this morning, by Yuval Noah Harari, entitled What explains the rise of humans? In a nutshell, his thesis is that we alone, among all the species on earth, are capable of flexible cooperation in large numbers, and that the chief galvanizing force behind this is our ability to create and believe in fictions. 

His recent book is now on my must-read list: Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. From the author’s website:

Homo sapiens rules the world because it is the only animal that can believe in things that exist purely in its own imagination, such as gods, states, money and human rights.

Starting from this provocative idea, Sapiens goes on to retell the history of our species from a completely fresh perspective. It explains that money is the most pluralistic system of mutual trust ever devised; that capitalism is the most successful religion ever invented; that the treatment of animals in modern agriculture is probably the worst crime in history; and that even though we are far more powerful than our ancient ancestors, we aren’t much happier.

In a recent post, I talked about the Paris Commune (1871) and how the early Russian evolutionists had a different view of things than Western Darwinists in that era. Harari’s talk doesn’t deal with that historical period directly, but I thought it fit overall. Under the rubric of our created and creative fictions, we’ve been led to believe that life is struggle, that competition, not cooperation, drives us, and that we survive because we see this. Ironically, it takes cooperation to maintain this particular fiction — both between rulers and the ruled, and among the ruled. It takes cooperation for us to settle upon unifying fictions, good, bad and indifferent. Without that cooperation the fictions die. Harari’s thesis is that we’re the only species which creates them in the first place, and our ability to flexibly believe in things that don’t exist defines us and our dominance. It makes sense that this flexibility is a major strength, especially if we’re able to see through those fictions, but a major curse if we can’t, if we hold onto them beyond their expiry date.

Fictions that once held millions together have vanished. Belief in old gods, old visions of the world, of empires, of the heavens, of the centrality of earth and human life, have faded away or disappeared entirely. But the creation of new fictions follows immediately upon the heels of the vanished, and all too often we actually believe our new fictions are factual and a major leap forward on the road to aletheia. Unlike those poor sods who believed in gods and goddesses, or the divine right of kings, we finally have it right — with our one god, our money, our nation-states, our conception of “democracy.” While there are certainly major benefits to cooperative, flexible belief, this can and often does lead to untold hubris and arrogance as well.

It also strikes me as ironic that we recognize novels, movies, TV shows and so on as “fiction,” and can laugh at our fellow humans who get too caught up in them, to the point where they seem to believe they’re real. Meanwhile, the same people who can see that a novel is a novel is a novel, can’t see that our religions, economic systems, nation-states and “natural rights” are also all works of fiction, for good or ill. Harari in his talk likes to contrast us with chimpanzees, and he would say of the above that chimps wouldn’t be able to understand the difference between our art and the rest. To the chimp, none of it would be “reality.” None of it would be concrete.

My favorite American poet, Wallace Stevens, had many things to say on the subject of truth:

   “Reality is a cliché from which we escape by metaphor.”
    “Death is the mother of beauty. Only the perishable can be beautiful, which is why we are unmoved by artificial flowers.”

    “I do not know which to prefer,
    The beauty of inflections
    Or the beauty of innuendos
    The blackbird whistling
    Or just after.”

    “The final belief is to believe in a fiction, which you know to be a fiction, there being nothing else. The exquisite truth is to know that it is a fiction and that you believe in it willingly.”

    “The reader became the book; and summer night
    Was like the conscious being of the book.”


As an artist and writer, I (obviously) love that we create and keep creating. But I long for the day when humans recognize all of their fictional production for what it is, and that we can narrow down the list. As life gets more and more complex, it seems our production of necessary fictions grows along with it. For us to become far less dangerous to each other and the planet, we’re going to need to radically reduce them.


Dawn Powell’s Turn, Magic Wheel

Dawn Powell

Dawn Powell

 Recently finished a truly excellent novel, Turn, Magic Wheel (1936), by Dawn Powell. A formerly neglected master, she was “rediscovered” in the 1990s, thanks to the efforts of critics and writers like Gore Vidal and Tim Page. Today, she is seen by some as at least the equal, if not the superior, to Dorothy Parker as satirist of the first rank — especially of the New York literary scene. That scene is the main subject matter for the novel in question, and it struck this reader as dead on, with elements of post-modernism thrown in, before it supposedly existed.

Post-modern in the sense of it self-referentiality, its meta context, its story within a story and mirrors facing one another. In the following excerpt, Dennis Orphen, a young writer, imagines writing about the people and surroundings in his immediate path and circle, and one can’t help but think this is likely Dawn Powell’s meta commentary about the process she goes through as well. To step further back, Orphen has carved fiction out of “fact” within the context of Powell’s novel, penning The Hunter’s Wife, a scathing satire of another writer, one Andrew Callingham. Callingham was once married to Orphen’s best friend, Effie Callingham, but left her for a younger woman:

Some fine day I’ll have to pay, Dennis thought, you can’t sacrifice everything in life to curiosity. For that was the demon behind his every deed, the reason for his kindness to beggars, organ-grinders, old ladies, and little children, his urgent need to know what they were knowing, see, hear, feel what they were sensing, for a brief moment to be them. It was the motivating vice of his career, the whole horrid reason for his writing, and some day he warned himself he must pay for this barter in souls.

Always as he emerged late in the afternoon from a long siege of writing, depressed by fatigue, he was accustomed to flagellate himself with reproaches and self-inquiry. Why had he come to New York, why had he chosen this career? though to tell the truth he could not remember having made any choice, he just seemed to have written. But if a Muse he must have, he reflected, why not the Muse of Military Life, or better the Muse of Advertising? . . . Actually I should have gone out to South Bend, he decided, into my uncle’s shoe factory and made a big name for myself in the local lodges; but there again was the drawback. Did my uncle invite me? No. He said, “You’d be no good in my business, Denny. Here’s a hundred dollars to go some place way off.”

Curiosity. A young writer’s vice and the motivation for so much of what he or she does. Curiosity about people and places, about the dynamic between them, what makes them tick. One of the things Dawn Powell does so well in this novel is to show how, despite their best efforts, the observer can never remain just that. He or she must eventually upset the delusion of objectivity and disrupt the lives being watched:

The answer to this query was not gratifying for his speculations on Effie, her emotions, her past, her future, had resulted in his latest book, so that if this was loyalty it worked hand in glove with his major vice. Face it, then, curiosity was the basis for the compulsion to write, this burning obsession to know and tell the things other people are knowing. Unbearable not to know the answers.

So Orphen’s book causes a stir, affects actual human beings, friends and foes. There are real costs involved, and Powell details them all with chiseled, economical prose and a great sense of wit, just screaming for a movie to be made in its honor. Her last name reminds me of an actor, in fact, who would have been perfect for the role of Orphen: William Powell, especially in his The Thin Man movies. That’s who I heard when I heard Orphen speak, though William Powell’s Nick Charles would have been at least a decade too old.

But back to the novel about stories within stories. Reading the work, I couldn’t help but wonder about the source material for her satire. Who was Andrew Callingham based upon, for instance? In the novel, he’s considered among the great American writers of his generation, but Powell suggests that generation hit their stride near the end of WWI, and that Hemingway and company followed it. Some have postulated that he is based upon Hemingway, but if that’s the case, then Powell must have purposely played fast and loose with chronology. It does fit in other ways. Hemingway married several times, and was unfaithful all too often. Powell makes infidelity a central trope of Turn, Magic Wheel, but she’s more than even-handed with the subject, as men and women both share the vice. It’s not just Callingham. Living in a glass house of his own, Orphen carries on an affair with a married woman, while his spirit is torn and confused by his feelings for Effie.

Through it all, Powell brings us closer to her two leads, primarily via a kind of stream of consciousness. We learn the most about Effie and Dennis this way, and then step back again to see their entire circle in action.

Her ability to construct fully fleshed out personal psychologies is among the best I’ve encountered, and is rare among satirists. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of her books in the first of two Library of America collections.


Mama Knows

I love seeing and hearing a big old blues voice emerging from unexpected faces. Sister Sparrow and the Dirty Birds, a New York-based, seven-piece band, gives us that and more. The lead singer, Arleigh Kincheloe, looks anything but the vessel for the raspy, gutsy, powerful voice we encounter, and defying stereotypes seems a regular part of the band’s art. 

The video below was released earlier this year, and demonstrates Kicheloe’s unique combination of grit and emotional power. Looking forward to the continuing evolution of this band and its lead singer/songwriter.



The Consent of the Governed

Communal Luxury: The Political Imaginary of the Paris Commune by Kristin Ross

Communal Luxury: The Political Imaginary of the Paris Commune
by Kristin Ross

Kristin Ross’s excellent, but all too short Communal Luxury is a much needed refresher course on the tragedy that was the Paris Commune of 1871. In a very short space, she supplies the essential philosophical antecedents and tells of the key personnel involved in its formation and ex-pat extension after the slaughter. Along the way, the reader can’t help but be reminded of recent political formations such as Occupy, and to note the same patterns of popular rebellions met with overwhelming force by various ruling classes. Running alongside that overwhelming force, establishment propaganda is generally successful in limiting the story to its own version of events, which seldom comes close to the truth.

Ross concentrates the most on three figures: William Morris, Élisée Reclus and Petr Kropotkin, spending most of her time on their works and thoughts after the Paris Commune. In previous books she has spent time on others who were a part of the events, like Rimbaud, but in this short book she concentrates on these three.

While they differed on many things, they all were strongly influenced by the idea that humans naturally aid one another, can and will work with one another, cooperate with one another, and that society should be built on that premise, rather than on the idea that we are meant to always be at war. It’s interesting to note that Russian evolutionary thinking in that century, the 19th, tended to see human evolution as, at least in part, dependent on mutual aid in the face of a harsh and unyielding environment, which was different than the West’s view in general. It struck this reader how much influence the prevailing capitalist economic system must have had on Darwin and his progeny, likely without their knowing it. That he and they, to one degree or another, saw the “survival of the fittest” like the battle between competing business interests and “the markets” in general. The Russians had a different view at the time, one that came out of a different context: humans, working together, giving mutual aid in order to survive against the elements.

Which made me think: the West has a history of assuming its take on things is “objective” and rises above its context into the universal — or forgets context altogether. It doesn’t take much digging to realize that there are many different viewpoints we overlook, or refuse to acknowledge, and these, ironically, “compete” with our own. Western Art, fortunately, especially from the Modernist period on, provides an antidote to this narrow vision. One of its chief gifts to the world is the embrace of multiple perspectives, simultaneously, democratically. Multiplicity in general. No one view is privileged — or should be.

Thanks to her book, William Morris is now someone I especially want to explore further, and Ross’s work suggests several possible

Trellis, 1862. By William Morris.

Trellis, 1862. By William Morris.

directions. All three men thought Art was essential to any healthy society, to its well-being, and to the creation of fully developed individuals who achieve as much of their potential as possible. But Morris spent much of his adult life organizing to make this a reality, to make Art, and Arts and Crafts in particular, an essential birthright for every citizen. Universal access. No one left out. Will write more about Communal Luxury in the near future.



It’s Their Turn

In the last several years, there has been a long over due spate of films with women as heroes. Two recent movies have told the tale of women, based on their memoirs, testing themselves against the harshest of elements, against nature, striving to go beyond their previously known levels of endurance. This has long been the staple of hero stories for men. But it seems that finally women are getting a chance to show what they can do, what they’ve always been able to do. Tracks, a fine film, directed by John Curran and starring Mia Wasikowska, tells the true story of Robyn Davidson’s (1977) journey, 1700 miles across Australian deserts, with camels and a dog, to reach the Indian Ocean.

This is no Hallmark movie, with the usual pre-packaged displays of all too conventional wisdom and supposed discoveries of inner truth. Wasikowska’s Davidson is far too understated for that, and she probably likes her dog and her camels more than being with other people. Whatever profundities one gains from watching the movie are pretty much all up to the viewer, who must piece together the beauty of the land, contemplate the sometimes death-defying battle with nature, and make their own call. In short, the director, the writers, the actors, and no doubt Ms. Davidson herself would rather treat us all as intelligent adults, than as consumers of short-cuts to “a better you.”

Wild is also based on a true story, directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, from a memoir by Cheryl Strayed, portrayed by Reese Witherspoon in an Oscar-worthy performance. Like Tracks, it tells of a solo journey of a very determined hiker, this time one who begins in Southern California, crosses the Mohave Desert, and winds up at the Bridge of the Gods in Oregon. While Tracks had its share of flashbacks and connections with the heroine’s past, Wild weaves those moments in and out more frequently. Cheryl’s mother, played by Laura Dern, becomes her inner touchstone, her rock, and is possibly the main reason for the trek in the first place. Along with crucial help along the way from assorted hikers and a farmer, it is the spirit of the mother that helps push Cheryl on and prevents her from giving up.

Unlike Wasikowska’s Davidson, Reese Witherspoon is constantly inside her own tortured head and going deeper into her psyche as her travels drag on. But like Tracks, it is largely the physical challenge and struggle with the elements that makes this confrontation with the self possible. We just see more stream of consciousness in Wild, learn more about the protagonist’s past, her family history and her battle with addiction and its effects. Strayed’s past indicates no reluctance to engage in human contact, unlike Davidson’s preference for being alone, but at times it may have been better off if she had chosen dogs and camels instead.

Watching these two excellent films without too much separation in time strengthens both and helps prevent cookie-cutter responses to the travails of both hikers. I recommend checking out both movies together.