The Electrician

He travelled the paths of the papa by bicycle, with a ladder on his back. Bautista Riolfo was an electrician and a handyman, a Mister Fix-It who repaired tractors, watches, grinding mills, radios, rifles. The hump on his back came from stooping over sockets, gearboxes, and other rarities.
    René Favorolo, the only doctor around, was also a handyman. With the few instruments in his satchel and the medicines  at hand he filled the role of cardiologist, surgeon, midwife, psychiatrist, and all-round specialist in whatever needed fixing.
    One fine day, René went to Bahía Blanca and brought home an instrument never before seen in those solitudes inhabited only by the wind and the dust.
    The record players had its quirks. After a couple of months it stopped working.
    Along came Bautista on his bicycle. He sat on the ground, scratched his chin, poked around, soldered a few wires, tightened a few screws and nuts. “Give it a try,” he said.
    René chose a recording of Beethoven’s Ninth and placed the needle on his favourite part.
    Music filled the house, spilling through the open window into the deserted night, and it lived on in the air after the record stopped spinning.
    René said something or asked something, but Bautista didn’t answer.
    Bautista had his face buried in his hands.
    A long moment passed before the electrician was able top say, “Pardon me, Don René, but I never heard anything like that. I didn’t know there was such … electricity in this world.”

Eduardo Galeano, Voices of Time. Metropolitan Books, 2006 (2004)

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Secret Boxes

A belt buckle sent from a stranger in Santa Barbara, some campaign medals, an old passport, badges, magazine clippings in a scrapbook, film reels, an excruciatingly bad poem, handcuffs without keys, a birth certificate.Mere things that will one day be put out with the trash, or perhaps burned. Much more than things.

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The Voyage

Finding wonder in the work of a writer I’ve not read before is not dissimilar to the early days of a romance. Those early weeks and months of enchantment are enlivening, energizing, as I go through the joyful immersion in their work. In that first flush, I allow the thrill of enchantment to have its way, knowing that more  level-headed scrutiny will have its day.

The wellspring of enchantment is capricious and very personal. This year has been rich with the discovery of the work of Ágota Kristóf, Denton Welch and lately Eduardo Galeano. They have delighted whilst the work of Barbara Pym and Jens Bjørneboe has left me untouched.

After Mirrors, I couldn’t resist more Galeano. While I await delivery of his Memory of Fire trilogy, I found today a nice edition of Voices in Time.

Orion Vall, who works with newborns at a hospital in Barcelona, says that the first human gesture is the embrace. After coming into the world, at the beginning of their days, babies wave their arms as if seeking someone.
Other doctors, who work with people who have already lived their lives, say that the aged, at the end of their days, die trying to raise their arms.
And that’s it, that’s all, no matter how hard we strive or how many words we pile on. Everything comes down to this: between two flutterings, with no more explanation, the voyage occurs.

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Eduardo Galeano’s Mirrors: Stories of Almost Everyone

Whereas in Borges’s The Book of Sand, the characters are terrified by the infinite book, in the case of Eduardo Galeano’s Mirrors: Stories of Almost Everyone, I wished never to finish this book for, in a sense, like the sand, it has neither beginning nor end.

Galeano’s six hundred stories are a portrayal of the world in its totality, a maddeningly finite book with an infinite meaning. Such a book is, of course, an unsettling prospect for a reader. Each of the stories stand alone but the book’s rhythmic intensity is established by the juxtaposition of the stories, which use anticipation and omission to carry a reader along.

There is a hypnotic quality to the succession of stories, so beautifully told that I wished for their infinite replenishment, but it is also a book of deep and infinite sadness, an indictment of the shameful history of the state, most particularly the relentless of European and American tyrannization.

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Origins of Modern Art

West African sculptors have always sung while they worked. And they do not stop singing until their sculptures are finished. That way the music gets inside the carvings and keeps on singing.
    In 1910, Leo Frobenius found ancient sculptures on the Slave Coast that made his eyes bulge.
    Their beauty was such that the German explorer believed they were Greek, brought from Athens, or perhaps from the lost Atlantis. His colleagues agreed: Africa, daughter of scorn, mother of slaves, could not have produced such marvels.
    It did though. Those music-filled effigies had been sculpted a few centuries previously in the belly button of the world, in Ife, the sacred place where Yoruba gods gave birth to women and men.
    Africa turned out to be an unending wellspring of art worth celebrating. And worth stealing.
    It seems Paul Gaugin, a rather absent-minded fellow, put his name on a couple of sculptures from the Congo. The error was contagious. From then on Picasso, Modigliani, Klee, Giacometti, Ernst, Moore, and many other European artists made the same mistake, and did so with alarming frequency.
    Pillaged by its colonial masters, Africa would never know how responsible it was for the most astonishing achievements in twentieth-century European painting and sculpture.

Eduardo Galeano, Mirrors. Portobello Books, 2009 (2008).

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At the end on the 1920’s, advertising beat the drum to spread marvellous news: “Fly, don’t ride.” Leaded gasoline made you go faster, and going faster meant getting ahead in life. The ads showed a car going at a snail’s pace, and the embarrassed child inside: “Gee, Pop, they’re all passing you!”
    Gasoline with lead additives was invented in the United States, and from the United States a barrage of advertising imposed it on the the world. In 1986, when the U.S. government finally decided to outlaw it, the number of victims of lead poisoning around the world was incalculable. It was known all along that leaded gasoline was killing adults in the United States at a rate of five thousand a year, and causing irreparable damage to the nervous systems and mental development of millions of children.
    The principle authors of this crime were two executives from General Motors, Charles Kettering and Alfred Sloan. They have gone down in history as generous benefactors of humanity. They founded a hospital.

Eduardo Galeano, Mirrors. Portobello Books, 2009 (2008)

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Ten Stories of Beethoven’s Ninth

  1. Adorno thought that Beethoven had gone too far with his Ninth Symphony, that he had made the work all too intelligible.
  2. Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is woven into the fabric of life in Japan with the finale available as a karaoke disc.
  3. The demonic composer Leverkühn in Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus aspires only to unwrite Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.
  4. Speaking about the nature of evil, Anthony Burgess said that evil is tantamount to farting during a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.
  5. Twenty-one year old contralto Carolina Unger, who sang the contralto part at the first performance of this first major symphony to use voice, is credited with turning Beethoven to face his applauding audience.
  6. In Stanley Kubrick’s interpretation of A Clockwork Orange, Mr Alexander plays Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony repeatedly in the hope of driving Alex De Large to suicide.
  7. In The Lost Steps, Alejo Carpentier replaces a madeleine with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony as the trigger for a memory of his father that sends the narrator-protagonist on a quest to war-torn Europe.
  8. It is little known today that the source of the ‘Turkish music’ (seventh variation) of the ‘Ode to Joy’ theme of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was not Turkish drummers, but more likely the ‘African drum corps’, who were highly popular and active in European military and court bands in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
  9. In Adrienne Rich’s poem The Ninth Symphony of Beethoven Understood at last as a Sexual Message, Rich attributes to the symphony the rage of sexual impotence.
  10. On Joseph Goebbel’s initiative, Hitler’s birthday in 1937 was celebrated with a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, a performance repeated in 1942 when Hitler assumed command of the Wehrmacht on the Eastern front.
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On his deathbed, Copernicus published the book that founded modern astronomy.
   Three centuries before, Arab scientists Mu’ayyad al-Din al-‘Urdi and Nasir al-Din Tusi had come up with the theorems crucial to that development. Copernicus used their theorems but did not cite the source.
   Europe looked in the mirror and saw the world.
   Beyond that lay nothing.
   The three inventions that made the Renaissance possible, the compass, gunpowder, and the printing press, came from China. The Babylonians scooped Pythagoras by fifteen hundred years. Long before anyone else, the Indians knew the world was round and had calculated its age. And better than anyone else, the Mayans knew the stars, eyes of the night, and the mysteries of time.
   Such details were not worthy of Europe’s attention.

Eduardo Galeano, Mirrors. Portobello Books, 2009 (2008).

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Entering The Labyrinth

To think is not to exit the cave, nor to replace the uncertainty of the shadows with the clear-cut contours of the things themselves, the flickering light of a flame with the light of the true Sun. It is to enter the Labyrinthe, or more exactly make the Labyrinthe be and appear whereas we could have stayed ‘on our backs, among the flowers, facing the sun’.
  To think is the lose oneself in the galleries that exist only because they are relentlessly excavated by us; it is to move around in circles at the end of a dead-end gallery where the entrance has closed behind us – until this circular movement inexplicably opens cracks in the walls that we can use.
  The myth definitely wanted to tell us something important, when it presented the Labyrinth as the work of Daedelus, a man.

Cornelius Castoriadis, Crossroads in the Labyrinth (1987)

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Art and Entertainment

Yet in many cultural loci these days we are asked to read and write easier, more naively, less rigorously. We are asked to understand by not taking the time and energy to understand. One difference between art and entertainment has to do with the speed of perception. Art deliberately slows and complicates reading, hearing, and/or viewing so that we are challenged to re-think and re-feel form and experience. Entertainment deliberately accelerates and simplifies them so we don’t have to think about or feel very much of anything at all, except, maybe, the adrenalin rush before spectacle.

Lance Olsen, Architectures of Possibility. Guide Dog Books, 2012

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