Tag Archives: communism

Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man

I wonder if teenagers who are assigned to read Ralph Ellison’s (1952) Invisible Man or who pick it up on their own (as I did when I was a teenager) have the experience necessary to “get it.” There is the exhilarating language, which I know I appreciated when I first read the book long ago, and enough happens to keep the pages turning… And even on rereading I remain unsure what happened at the end of the narrator’s employment at the paint factory, so longer life experience does not make everything in the book clear…

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Besides being certified (immediately) as one of the greatest 20th-century American novel (it received a National Book Award and has appeared high on every list of the canon of 20th-century literature written in English), Invisible Man is a particularly good choice as an object of contemplation for Black History Month, because it was a historical novel even when Ellison began to write it, during World War II. I don’t mean to say that it fails to deal with timeless themes of alienation, self discovery, discovery of the duplicity of others, racisms (black and white), etc. But the events in the novel occur before World War II and the multiple social effects on the United States and, especially, on its South related to the mobilization to fight fascism(s). The particular forms of racism portrayed in the book are hard to imagine occurring now. Moreover, the fall of Soviet communism has made the sustained portrayal of the American Communist Party (“the Brotherhood” in the novel) and its zigzag lurches following changes in policies and alliances commanded by Stalin’s politburo a matter of historical interest, whereas American communists dabbling with encouraging and discouraging black rage was a “current event” when Ellison was writing the book.

During the 1930s (the era of the Harlem portion of Invisible Man), no group other than the communists was pressing for equal rights for what were then politely known as “colored people” (as in the name NAACP). “Equal rights” is an overstatement of what the CPUSA was pressing. Before anything like equal access to public accommodations, efforts were made to enact anti-lynching laws and end kangaroo court proceedings against colored defendants. A major cause célèbre was the mockery of a trial of the “Scottsboro boys” for alleged rape of white prostitutes.

In the North, the avant-garde of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” sought to include Negroes (as they were increasingly frequently called) in nonmenial jobs, often in the face of bitter opposition from white unionized workers. The issue the never-named narrator of Invisible Man happens upon is eviction of aged Negroes from white-owned Harlem tenements. It is an ad hoc speech by the narrator (henceforth designated as Y) that attracts the attention of a communist official looking for Harlem organizers. The narrator is groomed for leadership, but when he takes initiative is slapped down (subjected to “party discipline”), told that he was not hired to think and put in his inferior place, just as he was for trying to please patronizing whites in the South (first in being added to the blindfolded “boxing” mêlée staged for businessmen of his native town, then in showing a Northern patron of the thinly fictionalized Tuskeegee Institute some of the underbelly of Southern black life).

Presumably at start of the Popular Front era (though possibly as late as the notorious Hitler-Stalin non-aggression pact), Y is supposed to channel the rage he has been mobilizing away from racial issues to neighborhood beautification (prefiguring Giuliani?). Those whom Y has helped to stir up turn to his black nationalist enemy, Ras, in a race riot. The immediate historical point here, is that in such riots, imaginary or momentary gains, including looting, were followed by real losses, including the loss of homes and personal property of those in the tenements set afire. The wider historical point is that the CPUSA was not committed to equal rights for Negroes (or, for that matter, for the “universal class,” the proletariat) but used and dropped mobilization of black disaffections as they suited Stalin’s jockeying for position in the world.

Everyone whom Y trusts, even conditionally, uses and betrays him, including his role model, Dr. Bledsoe who has succeeded The Founder (Booker T. Washington) at Tuskeegee, and his “brothers” (Clifton, who is black, and Jack, the one-eyed white brother who is the local commissar and more equal than others). Well, not quite everyone: there is the maternal Harlem landlady who shelters Y after his industrial adventures and the elderly “brother” who entrusts the shackle from his chain gang days. Still, betrayal and abuse comes from blacks as well as whites, until the Candide-like Y tumbles down a hole and makes it his home there. Like his forerunner, Dosteovesky’s The Man Who Lived Underground who deliberately collides with others in the street, Y continues to have near-violent collisions above ground (in the novel’s prologue).

There is considerable latitude for interpreting how much of Y’s alienation comes from his experiences of racism in America, how much from the experiences of an initially trusting (and almost unbelievably naive) youth in the harsh world of postagrarian anomie, how much is the existential condition of human beings. In addition to Dosteovesky’s underground man, Richard Wright, who encouraged Ellison’s vocation as a writer, had published a novella “The Man Who Lived Underground” in 1944… and existentialism was very much in vogue in Francophile American literary circles after the Second World War.

Wright had also written about communism as a “God that failed” black liberation (and Wright) in the second half of the memoir he completed in 1943, a much-edited version of which what was published in 1944 as Black Boy (and not published as he wrote it until 1977, as American Hunger), “I Tried to be a Communist” (1944), etc. Chester Himes (who was encouraged by Wright and by Ellison) sketched the duplicity of Communist championing of black workers in If He Hollers, Let Him Go (1945) and made it central in his 1948 novel The Lonely Crusade.

Invisible Man is a peak in a chain of novels about black alienation from its communist would-be tutors in the science of history (the functionaries who believe that “the trick is to take advantage of them [the masses] in their own interest”). Invisible Man is not an isolated outcropping, rising from a plain (like Mount Lassen or Devil’s Tower). Similarly, it is the highest peak in a chain of novels about the absurdities faced by black males trying to survive amidst the fantasies and fears of black virility that haunt many white men and women (including the businessmen watching the Battle Royale and the drunken white woman who wants to be violently taken by Y) and to survive the complex strategies of black entrepreneurs like Dr. Bledsoe and Rinehart to get and stay ahead, often by exploiting other blacks.

Invisible Man is a long book (568+xx pages in the Vintage edition), and there is a lot going on in it. I suspect that I understood little of the political context when I read the book as a high school student, and I had not read related work by Wright and Himes.

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There is much to admire in Ellison’s creation of characters and milieux and in his often exhilarating language and shifting style. (Ellison himself characterized it as moving from naturalism (à la Richard Wright) to expressionism to surrealism — though the Battle Royale seems already quite surrealist/absurdist to me.) I don’t question that it is a great book, but great books (e.g., Moby Dick, The Charterhouse of Parma) are often not perfectly crafted books. I’ve already suggested that Y is a little too naive to have survived to junior year in college, so that there is some sense in Dr. Bledsoe’s shock and irritation at having to tell Y

You let the white folk worry about pride and dignity—you learn where you are and get yourself power, influence, contacts with powerful and influential people—then stay in the dark and use it.,,, Play the game but don’t believe in it—that much you owe yourself.

Ther novel contains too many long speeches (in particular, I’d cut the blind speaker at a Founder’s Day assembly) and Y seems to lack any sexual desire of any sort. Defining himself as “invisible” seems a dead end (although many is the life that goes into a dead end), and Ellison himself seems not to have known where to go after Y embraces his condition (which he considers externally imposed, but which has to be to some extent a choice as existence becomes essence).

In focusing on the political context of communist Negro-mobilizing, what I’ve written gives little indication of the pleasures of the text. I think that rather a lot of the book is intended as satire, like much in the fiction of Chester Himes (and not nearly enough in the fiction of James Baldwin…) and in Soviet writers in the Bulgakov tradition. For a work of High Modernism, Invisible Man is more fun to read than might be imagined from what I (or many others) have written about it.

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After the acclaim for Invisible Man

There was a successor “Work in Progress” that was overdue before the grandchildren of Ras (black nationalists of the 1960s) attacked Ellison. I have my doubts of how finished a project the manuscript that was lost in a fire was. Ellison only somewhat pulled together the strands of Invisible Man, and it’s easy to extrapolate that he would have had problems bringing together the strands of a more epic project than the story of one disillusioned Southern black boy gone north to new confusions. Ellison worked on it for forty years (he died in 1994). Part of it was assembled posthumously by John F. Callahan as Juneteenth and there is also a posthumous collection of interesting and mostly accomplished short fiction written between 1937 and 1954, Flying Home and Other Stories and the collection of pithy essays Ellison published, Shadow and Act (incorporated into the Modern Library’s Collected Essays). Still, Ellison was something of a “one-hit wonder,” like Lorraine Hansberry and Eric Waldron.

©2003, Stephen O. Murray

 

 

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“The White-Boned Demon: Madame Mao”

I was fascinated by Ross Terrill’s Madame Mao: The White-Boned Demon, the revised and expanded 1999 version of the 1984 The White-Boned Demon: Madame Mao. Her first given name was Shumeng (Pure and Simple). The historical name of the wife of Mao, would-be empress during and after the Cultural Revolution, and the defiant leftist who refused to confess as good communists always had at show trials, was Jiang Qing (Green River).

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Her childhood was so terrible that the reader has to feel sympathy for her clawing her way into drama school (fixated on Nora in “The Doll’s House,” and restive in the 1950s when she was reduced to being a housewife of the promiscuous Mao) and manipulating men to get into movies in Shanghai (her stage name was Lan Ping).

It remains mysterious to me how she captivated Mao. None of the photos makes her seem beautiful or glamorous to me, but she played the part of a revolutionary while remaining an individualist, a very opportunistic one. And outlasted Lin Biao, Luis Shaoqi, and Zhou Enlai. She was allied to the first and last of these, and for a time had Den Xiaoping not only demoted but nearly expelled from the Chinese Communist Party. She defended herself as “Chairman Mao’s dog. I bit whomever he asked me to bite,” and bemoaned that “Chairman Mao exterminated Liu Shaoqi, but not Deng, and the result of this omission is that unending evils have been unleashed on the Chinese people and nation.”

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(at her trial)

She lacked knowledge of economics and statecraft, and failed to become empress, one of the many would-be successors to Mao who fell. She had been vindictive toward many who disappointed her and was plenty delusional, but stood up to the absurdities of her show trial, and hung herself only when convinced she would be imprisoned for life.

I think that Terrill pounds away a bit to much at the influence of Nora and the Tang Dynasty Empress Wu (624-705) too much, and there is a large cast of characters, including Mao’s children by four wives, including the daughter by her. The case shows how important personal relationships (not least grudges) were in Mao’s China.

 

©2018, Stephen O. Murray

The Gorilla Bathes at Noon

“The gorilla bathes at noon” (Gorila se kupa u podne,1993) is not set in Africa. It has a stubborn non-conformist whose verities have banished at its center. A Soviet major, Victor Borisovich, who had been hospitalized (like the devoutly communist mother in “Goodbye, Lenin”) finds that his army has deserted him in Berlin. He remains in dress uniform and he remains loyal to Lenin, not only cleaning a gigantic statue of Lenin, but dreaming of his sort-of-girlfriend in Lenin drag. (There is footage of a Lenin statue being decapitated and the head trucked away. There is also footage of Stalin visiting Berlin recently conquered by the Red Army and other footage from the 1949 Soviet propaganda film/documentary “The Fall of Berlin.”

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The major has access to the Berlin Zoo, steals food intended for the animals, and considers (dreams?) of feeding himself to his compatriots, the zoo’s Siberian tigers, except that neither tiger had ever been in Siberia: one was born in Stüttgart, the other in Budapest.

The sex and the music are muted in contrast to Makavejev’s Yugoslavian films (back when he was allowed to make them). There’s still plenty of comedy of the absurd in “Gorilla.”

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In the other communist founding father veneration film (Tito and Me), I don’t know if the family is Serbian or Croatian. I suspect that instead of speaking Russian, the actors in “Gorilla” are speaking Serbo-Croatian. The abandoned  major is played by “Yugoslav stage actor Svetozar Cvetkovic”) and the film is directed by Dusan Makavejev (director of “WR: Mysteries of the Organism” and “Montenegro”), who may now be German, but was Yugoslav before that was a code word for Serbian. (He was born in Belgrade in 1932.)

©2011, Stephen O. Murray

Dusan Makavejev’s feature-film debut: “Man Is Not a Bird”

“Covek nije tica” (Man Is Not a Bird, 1965) is the first feature film of writer-director Dusan Makavejev (1932-), who is most (in)famous for the X-rated “WR: Mystery of the Orgasm” (1971). It is also the best of the three early Makavejev movies in the Criterion Eclipse (without bonus features) set “Dusan Makavejev: Free Radical.”

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The movie begins with a lecture on hypnosis (delivered by hypnotist (Roko Cirkovic) and ends with a demonstration of a hypnotist making hypnotized Yugoslavian men laughing stocks for an audience, foreshadowing the lectures by a sexologist and by a criminologist in “Ljubavni slucaj ili tragedija sluzbenice P.T.T.” (Love Affair, (1967). There is also a very provincial circus foreshadowing the focus on strongman/acrobat turned filmmaker Dragoljub Aleksic in “Nevinost bez zastite” (Innocence Unprotected, 1968). And a 3-4 minute performance of the Beethoven 9th Symphony (foreshadowing “Clockwork Orange”?)

There is a bit of a plot, involving a middle-aged expert from Slovenia, Jan Rudinski (Janez Vrhovec) who is in a copper-mining town on the border between Serbia and Bosnia (all three parts of Yugoslavia at the time) to supervise assembly of some turbo that will speed production and reduce electricity usage in copper smelting.

When first seen, Jan is having his hair cut by a youngish blonde Rajka (Milena Dravic). He asks her if she knows of anyone with a room to rent for his stay in town. She leads him home and becomes his landlady… and more. She pretty much throws herself at him. At the very least, she seduces him without his making any moves to seduce her.

Rajka has a more ardent, younger and very persistent admirer, a truck driver Vozac (Boris Dvornik, who bears some resemblance to Omar Sharif of the same time).

The movie also shows workers pilfering (including rolling a sort of girdle of copper wiring), corrupt managers, and workers expressing dissatisfaction with communism. It is surprising that these were not censored, especially in that the movie is a quasi-documentary about communist industrialization. The only nudity is a brief scene of some men in a shower. The sex scenes are discreet — well, if a sexual congress with the “Freedom!” part of Beethoven’s 9th can be considered discreet. None of the Yugoslavians are free, they cannot fly, are not birds (as the title emphasizes). They can, however, have sexual dalliances.

There’s also a drunkard, Barbulović (Stole Arandelovic), who gives his mistress three of his wife’s best dresses, outraging the wife, but this subplot is left unresolved. (Though, the end of that story may have been shown early on.)

There are some impressive compositions of the land scarred by mining operations and of the operating factory.

I don’t think it would be plot spoiling to report that the turbo gets installed and Jan is awarded a medal and a banquet (I’m not sure whether a cash bonus for getting the work done ahead of schedule is awarded, though I think it was approved by an official who did not think a medal was sufficient recompense.)

The mix of satire, documentary, and sex comedy runs only 78 minutes. It is not as wild or as chaotic as Makavejev’s later movies (the other two in the “Free Radical” set are far more disjointed). The images are not sharp, which I think was probably not a result of the movie’s age but of inferior film stock being used in the first place.

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The sly use of documentary style has been said to be “a cornerstone of Eastern European cinema.” It preceded the films of the Prague Spring, though Milos Forman’s “Loves of a Blonde” also dates from 1965 and Jirí Menzel’s film “Closely Watched Trains” (adapted from his own novel by Bohumil Hrabal, released in 1966) was probably already in production by the time “Man Is Not a Bird” came out. And I don’t think that the later two movies in “Free Radical” mark any advance on the sex plus mockumentary format. The sex got more explicit though.

 

©2010, Stephen O. Murray

A “hero of labor” unraveling

The 1977 “Czlowiek z marmuru” (Man of Marble), directed by Andrzej Wajda’s (1926-2016) concerns the vagaries of adulation and debasement of a socialist hero, a “lead worker,” Mateusz Birkut (Jerzy Radziwilowicz), who was eager to build a modern, industrial Poland and World War II. Being very photogenic, he was filmed smashing the record for bricklaying (the team he led laid more than 30,000 in a shift) and then went around the country showing others (many of them not at all keen to learn) how to increase productivity.

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In addition to being filmed in many newsreels, Birkut also posed for a heroic statue in the socialist realist style—hence the “man of marble.” After being used by the party, he was discarded and disgraced. Those who had besmirched his teammate, Wincenty Witek (Michal Tarkowski) fell from power and were themselves condemned, so that Birkut and Witek were rehabilitated. Witek was prepared to play the games of gaining power in the shifting currents of party dogma. Birkut was fed up and disappeared from public view, taking a new name.

His story is pierced together, “Citizen Kane” style, by a lanky blonde young film-maker, Agnieszka (Krystyna Janda). Her project makes everyone uneasy—not only those who knew Birkut but those running the government-owned and -controlled film industry. At first, she seems an intrepid Searcher After Truth. I guess that she remains that, but her ruthlessness in stalking people, using hidden cameras and microphones, persisting in interrogating Hanka (Krystyna Zachwatowicz), a sports star who left Birkut after he was arrested, etc. make me come to regard her as more than a little of a monster. She is ready to use her beauty to get an interview with a film director and to counterfeit female solidarity and sympathy to cajole Hanka into talking to her (while covertly recording the conversation).

There is no “Rosebud” moment, and the ending is IMHO unnecessarily equivocal for viewers who have invested 160 minutes in watching Agnieszka’s hunt for Birkut. That cost the film a star in my rating. The deconstruction of how the regime built up and tore down proletarian heroes is, nonetheless, brilliant. Since the regime the cynicism of which was shown in Wadja’s film (and in Agnieska’s) was still very much in power, I am astonished that it was made and released.

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Krystyna Janda and Jerzy Radziwilowicz delivered genuinely great performances of considerable complexity. Zdzislaw Kozien is delightful as Agnieszka’s father, getting her off the couch when she has despaired, and Michal Tarkowski provides able support (in a character whose actions and motivations remain obscure).

The mixture of pseudo-archival black-and-white propaganda films and hard-edged 1970s desaturated color cinematography of Edward Klosinsk (who also shot the moody period piece “Gloomy Sunday”) also deserves special praise. The tracking shots through long corridors fits the American paranoid thriller style of the day quite remarkably.

©2007, 2018, Stephen O. Murray

Poland after the Nazi surrender

Andrzej Wajda’s famous 1958 film “Ashes and Diamonds” (Popiól i diament) looks striking (très noir) but is very confusing. The intentions of the killings at the start become clear, but I don’t know why the assassin who no one knows is one runs and is shot near the end (other than to provide a photogenic ten-minute dance of death). In between the shootings is a lot of talk, though it does not clarify the politics. The whole movie puzzles me in that I thought Soviet control was established quickly and the movie is set after the fall of Berlin to the Red Army and at the time of the German surrender. With the kitsch Hitler portrait, the anti-Soviet plotters come across as leftover Nazis, rather than as fighters for Polish independence. I guess that must have been a necessary accommodation to the regime that allowed the movie to be made. (Non-Nazi opponents of the communist probably could not be shown.)

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At the time, Zbigniew Cybulski may have seemed to be “the Polish James Dean.” From a later perspective, his womanizing and arrogance (and destruction) seem much more like the young Warren Beatty (in movies made after 1958).

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And the middle adumbrates “The Fireman’s Ball,” not one of my favorite movies, but hailed for showing aspects of Soviet bloc society that were already on display a decade earlier in this Polish film.

Wajda’s trilogy is available from Criterion as “War Movies by Andrzej Wajda” with “A Generation” and “Kanal,” neither of which is as perplexing as “Ashes and Diamonds” is. (BTW, I’s have labeled the three as “End of the War Films by Andrzej Wajda). The great director, who was born in 1926,  died in 2016.

 

©2004, 2018, Stephen O. Murray

 

Macedonian stories

Though a great admirer of the Macedonian film “Before the Rain,” I have to say that I had never given even a passing thought to Macdonian literature until I picked up Faceless Men and Other Macedonian Stories by Meto Jovanovksi (1928-2016. The collection of English translations of a dozen Jovanovski was published in 1992, before the implosion of Yugoslavia. Indeed, the stories must have been written in a Yugoslavia that was communist.

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(Bitola, the closest city to Jovanovski’s home village of Braychino; photo by Dars, CC)

The story most explicit about the old communist regime is “The President of the Central Committee.” The titular character is obsessing about a case of a minor crime, while his insides are rotting.

“A Completely Loyal Citizen” is set in a system of acute irrationality, not specifically named as communism. What happens in it is likely to appall most tender-hearted western readers. Memorable, it certainly is.

The longest story, “The Balkans are an Ocean” is a picaresque tale of two Macedonians and various armies during the First World War. It prefigures his picaresque novel (available in English) Cousins, about the misadventures of a pair of cousins through various warring Balkan countries.

“Faceless Men” is a horror story that did nothing to interest me. For me “A Completely Loyal Citizen” is also a horror story, one that made me wince.

There are two stories with folklore resonances: “Flight to Eternity” and “Tote’s Finest Story.” “Marriage is a Need for a Man” is very rooted in the traditional Balkan rural mindset.

The first and the last stories in the collection, “The Man in the Blue Suit” and “The Red Bus” both involve busses during communist times. Both have mysterious well-dressed strangers disrupting everyday life (milling while waiting for the bus, and the strict hierarchy of seating that the stranger upends on the red bus. (The settings of these two stories are more urban than those of many of the others.)

Jovanovski was exploring the notion of Macedonia as a country with its own culture. He said he was influenced by American writers, specifically Hemingway, Faulkner and [Erskine] Caldwell.

Jeffrey Folks, who translated ten of the twelve stories, wrote in his introduction:

“Jovanovski likes in Skopje [the capital city] for much of the year, retreating to his ancestral village of Braychino in the summer monts. As with many Macednonians of his generation, he retains memories of the village life, and his moral vision is shapted to some extent by a traditionalism based on village mores [especially in “Marriage is a Need for a Man, the title of which is axiomatic there]. There is a dissatisfaction with the direction of ‘modern’ life and a longing to return to more meaningful relationships based on community and family.”

 

©2017, Stephen O. Murray