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.


Yin and Yang: Attack and counterattack.

It’s a part of the human condition to get things wrong, especially in the moment. We sometimes get things right after the fact, when it’s too late. As simple as that. It’s too late. It’s also a part of the human condition to want to wrap things up, organize, reduce, simplify. Artists are needed to do this in a way that resonates, inspires and provokes.

Sometimes, there is meta beyond that. Sometimes it takes a further step of removal to organize what the artists have done on their own.

So I was thinking: Attack, response, regret. In song. Aggression, a kind of passionate passive-aggression, then a nostalgic humbling. In song. The Faces and Janis Joplin, followed by Rod Stewart . . . who was lead singer for the Faces, and then he wasn’t.


So, she responds to him, to his cocky, over-confident swagger, as she sees it, and let’s him know it. Both songs have among the best intro movements in all of Rock, so they both take their time to make their case, and that case is strong on both sides of the divide . . . but I think I give Round One to Janis:


Which forces a newly single Rod Stewart to do some major introspection. A different, perhaps wiser man, or just another aspect of this same man’s human condition:



The Motels: Only the Lonely

The Motels were a part of the 1980s New Wave invasion, even though they were mostly from LA. It seemed foreign, that invasion, homegrown or not. The catalyst for most of the musical change seemed to come from Britain, at least in my memory, and with it a sophisticated, romantic, almost dapper shift in Rock. Instead of the long hair and torn jeans of the 1970s, beloved by the too-late generation coming of age in those years, we had young men with short hair, citified clothes, often a suit and tie, and young women with an equally cosmopolitan, generally urban appearance.

Of course, there was no right way to look, and the New Wave invasion was plenty diverse, without orthodoxies, so there were offshoots, outliers, misfits and so on. And Punk Rock was a major influence in general, redirected, masked at times, but still the biggest undercurrent overall. In general, however, the 1980s brought us a different kind of rebellion through song and dress, one that seemed, on the surface at least, to be less outwardly anti-establishment — cleverly so, in most cases. Artists, often taking their cue from David Bowie and Roxy Music, might dress for a corporate interview in concert, but their music and stage presence told a different story, one that probably was quite scandalous to the old silent majority.

The Motels, especially in songs like “Only the Lonely (1982),” built a bridge between Film Noir, romantic girl groups of the 1950s, 1970s punk and the space-themed electronica of bands like Missing Persons. When I hear Martha Davis, the band’s lead singer, I flow back in time — three decades, four, five . . .

With or without knowledge of her own tragic story, there’s more to their music than first meets the ear.


Apollinaire: The Poet and the Bridge

Muse Inspiring the Poet, by Henri Rousseau. 1908.

Born in Rome, in 1880, Wilhelm Albert Włodzimierz Apolinary Kostrowicki became one of the most important figures in the history of modernism, likely coining the terms Surrealism and Orphism along the way. Apollinaire, the name he adopted when he moved to France, was a tireless champion of the avant-garde, especially when it came to the cubist movement, painters, poets, composers and writers in general. His own production of poetry, novels and plays was prodigious, though there is still debate as to where he ranks in the pantheon of French modernism.


There can’t be any doubt, however, that he was a central figure and helped propel the modernist stream forward, as he set the table for Dada, Surrealism and a few other isms before his short life was over.

I first encountered Apollinaire’s work via The Random House Book of Twentieth Century French Poetry. An exceptional, bilingual anthology, its editor, Paul Auster, chose translations from poets who were great in their own right. An example is Samuel Beckett’s translation of “Zone,” from Apollinaire’s collection, Alcools. An excerpt:

 In the end you are weary of this ancient world

 This morning the bridges are bleating Eiffel Tower oh herd

 Weary of living in Roman antiquity and Greek

 Here even the motor-cars look antique
Religion alone has stayed young religion
Has stayed simple like the hangars at Port Aviation

 You alone in Europe Christianity are not ancient
The more modern European is you Pope Pius X
And you whom the windows watch shame restrains
From entering a church this morning and confessing your sins
You read the handbills the catalogues the singing posters
So much for poetry this morning and the prose is in the papers
Special editions full of crimes
Celebrities and other attractions for 25 centimes


 You can read translations of Apollinaire at the Poetry Foundation’s website. It includes a solid, but brief biography. And over at Penn Sound, they have audio of Apollinaire reading his own poetry. In French, of course:


Jorge Luis Borges: The Norton Lectures, 1967-68

Borges in 1951, by Grete Stern

Borges in 1951, by Grete Stern

 I recently stumbled upon these recordings, and wanted to share them with our readers.

Borges was a master, and easily one of the most voracious readers of the 20th century, despite the obvious impediment of his eyes. As mentioned in the intro, at the time of these lectures, he was almost completely blind, and relied on memory and the help of various persons in his life, especially his mother, until her death at age 99.

From the amazing UbuWeb sound page for Jorge Luis Borges:

“The central fact of my life has been the existence of words and the possibility of weaving those words into poetry.”
— Jorge Luis Borges, This Craft of Verse

These are the six Norton Lectures that Jorge Luis Borges delivered at Harvard University in the fall of 1967 and spring of 1968. The recordings, only lately discovered in the Harvard University Archives, uniquely capture the cadences, candor, wit, and remarkable erudition of one of the most extraordinary and enduring literary voices of our age. Through a twist of fate that the author of Labyrinths himself would have relished, the lost lectures return to us now in Borges’ own voice.

The third lecture, Telling the Tale. You can listen to all six at the UbuWeb page linked to above:


What Maisie Knew

Based on the Henry James novel (1897), “What Daisy Knew” is a remarkable film about parental dysfunction, relationships gone bad, and a precocious, wonderful child who sees through it all.


The directors, Scot McGehee and David Siegel, update and alter the novel somewhat and set it in present day New York. They change the vocations of the parents, played by Julianne Moore and Steve Coogan, respectively, and compress the time frame for the story. But it works. Its tight construction and effortless flow make it work, subtly, without calling attention to itself.

Maisie, played by Onata Aprile, in a performance that is stunning for its naturalness and understated quality, must navigate through the labyrinth of divorce, betrayal and negligence, as she is shuffled off between parents and their new love interests. A child of six, she adapts, grows wiser, seemingly wiser than her parents or the two younger, far more responsible substitutes. Her mother, a rock star with an erratic work schedule, sets up a marriage of convenience with a bartender friend, played by Alexander Skarsgard, and Maisie falls for him. Her father, an art dealer with an erratic schedule, marries the nanny (played by Joanna Vanderham) for undefined reasons. We don’t know if they’re romantically involved, and subsequent events cast doubt on that possibility. Maisie loves her as well, despite the confusion.

A key moment for me is when her mother returns unexpectedly from her music tour, in the middle of the night, and wants Maisie to get on the bus with her right away. Maisie is staying with the nanny and the bartender at the beach, who now have their own budding romance, and is excited about going on a boat on the morrow. The mother doesn’t understand the import of this and says she can always go on a boat at another time. The film doesn’t tell us how to see this moment, but it shows us through Maisie’s eyes, and then the eyes of her mom. To a child of six, every adventure is incredibly important. They haven’t built up enough experiences to see any of them as easily postponed. They all loom large in a child’s mind, and they lack the jaded notion that it’s no big deal what we do. We can always do it some other time.

Of course, as adults, we tell ourselves this and we seldom make good on our promises of make-ups and rain checks. That trip we promised ourselves and had to postpone just never happens. Children don’t understand the concept, as they live far more in the moment, with each moment being a really big deal. When we lose that sense, we lose a big, essential chunk of our lives.

Maisie, and the actress who plays her, seem to know this. The directors (and Mr. James) apparently do as well.