Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Heteronyms, some hetero, some not

Some thirty years ago I began to edit and publish a small scholarly quarterly. As we were just getting started, I had few submissions to chose from, so I wrote much of the material myself. Since I wanted to avoid the impression that it was a one-man band, I assigned some of my productions to pseudonymous alter egos. Among these surrogates, my favorite was Vladimir Cervantes, ostensibly the offspring of an international encounter during the Spanish Civil War (possibly reflecting an unpublished chapter of For Whom the Bell Tolls).

The most extraordinary case known to me of this phenomenon of authorship dispersal is that of the great Portuguese modernist poet Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935). According to his editor Teresa Rita Lopes, Pessoa invented at least seventy alternative identities, or “heteronyms” as he preferred to call them. Heteronyms differ from mere pen names (or noms de plume) in that the latter are simply false names generally chosen for some expedient reason. In Pessoa’s conception the heteronyms are characters having their own supposed physiques, biographies, and writing styles. Some of them know each other, criticizing and translating each other's works. As one who dabbled in astrology, Pessoa cast horoscopes for some of them.

Pessoa's best-known heteronyms are the poets Alberto Caeiro, Ricardo Reis, and Álvaro de Campos, each with a substantial oeuvre; the latter two consider the former their master. There are also two significant prose writers, Bernardo Soares and the Baron of Teive. All of these wrote in Portuguese; however, some of the others wrote in English and French. Finally, there is an “orthonym”: Fernando Pessoa, the namesake of the author, who also regards Caeiro as his master.

Why did Fernando Pessoa undertake this extraordinary enterprise of self-fragmentation? The most obvious explanation is that he wrote in various styles, which he wished to keep separate. After a time, though, he seemed simply to revel in the game for its own sake. There may have been deeper reasons. Having been educated as a child in South Africa, Pessoa was bilingual in English and Portuguese, so that early on he experienced a sense of divided consciousness. It is generally thought that he was a closeted homosexual, and may have cultivated the arts of concealment for this reason. Finally, since he had occult interests, he may have been acquainted with the Buddhist doctrine of the dispersal of the personality. In this view we have no core personality, but simply manage as best we can with an aggregate of island-like centers which are loosely connected.

In a previous posting I wrote about the art historian and connoisseur Giovanni Morelli (1816-1891). Even today the adjective “Morellian” honors the distinctive method of art analysis he pioneered.

Educated mainly in Swiss and German schools, Morelli preferred to write in the German language.
For a time, Morelli was active in Italian politics, urging reform in the administration of the fine arts. Eventually he headed a commission to bring under government control all works of art which could be considered public property. He appointed as his secretary G. B. Cavalcaselle, who was then engaged in collecting materials for a work on Italian art.

Morelli’s next move in the realm of the fine arts was produce a series of articles in German, which he subsequently gathered into books. His first contributions, a cluster of articles on the Borghese Gallery in Rome, were published in Lützow's Zeitschrift für bildende Kunst, 1874-76. Posing as an art-loving Russian, he adopted the pseudonym "Ivan Lermolieff." The surname is an anagram of his own family name with a Russian suffix, while Ivan corresponds to Giovanni. Further complicating matters, the essays were purportedly translated by Johannes Schwarze, another ruse (Moro = Schwarze). Why Morelli should adopt these devices has not been explained. It may be, as some have speculated, because he was a closeted homosexual, who had become accustomed to habits of secrecy and disguise.

In earlier times the sense of connection between literary works and personality ("authorship") was less firmly established than it is today. This was particularly true with religious writers. Thus the lengthy Hellenistic Jewish text known as the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs purports to be a set of writings left behind by those worthies. “Dionysius the Areopagite” was an anonymous Syrian Christian writing about 500 CE who chose a convert of St. Paul for his pen name.

Recent years have witnessed a somewhat similar, though less holy version of this practice. The contemporary economic journalist Adam Smith has chosen to write under the name of his great 18th-century predecessor. And the pop singer Engelbert Humperdinck has adopted the name of the composer of Hansel and Gretel.

At a more serious level, leaders of insurgent political movements have found the use of pseudonyms expedient. Take late Tsarist Russia, for example, where Joseph Stalin was born Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili. Stalin’s great adversary Leon Trotsky had been born Lev Davidovich Bronstein. The use of these pseudonyms continued into the Soviet era, though the practice seems uncommon in Russia today. In Vietnam, the person behind the revolutionary Ho Chi Minh was Nguyễn Sinh Cung. So Ho Chi Minh City, the major center of southern Vietnam, is actually named after a pseudonym.

In my own small way, I employed this strategy as a teenager. Not wishing to get my parents in trouble when I sent away for some subversive pamphlets as a teenager, I used the pseudonym of J. Wolfgang Bizoler (presumably a German immigrant). In fact the name combined the monikers of two of my idols at the time, J. Wolfgang von Goethe and Hector Berlioz.

Some early leaders of the gay movement found it necessary to resort to pseudonyms. These figures include Karl Hermann Ulrichs, who wrote the first truly scholarly studies of homosexuality under the name of Numa Numantius. The distinguished classical scholar Paul Brandt published his fundamental studies of Greek homosexuality under the nom de plume of Hans Licht. However, the greatest leader of the German movement, Magnus Hirschfeld, usually employed his own real name.

As the modern American gay movement got started after World War II some of the pioneers used pseudonyms. In 1947 Edythe Eyde launched her short-lived periodical “Vice Versa” under the name of Lisa Ben (an anagram of “lesbian”). Three years later Harry Hay, the founder of the American movement, produced his seminal “Preliminary Concepts” for a group called Bachelors Anonymous, “a service and welfare organization devoted to the protection and improvement of Society’s Androgynous Minority” (July 7, 1950), This manifesto, a typescript for private circulation, was signed by “Eann MacDonald,” a pseudonym Hay dropped soon after.

Another early pioneer was William Lambert, a professor of architecture who abandoned this career to run the gay rights organization ONE, which he dominated from its inception in 1952 until his death in 1994. Lambert was almost always known as W. Dorr Legg, a composite he made up of some old family names.

Legg's contemporary Jim Kepner used a variety of pen names, including Frank Golovitz, J. K. Long, Lyn Pedersen, J. K. Symes-Horvath, and the satirical Dr. Fécal de Chevaux. His purpose seems to have been not so much concealment, but as a vehicle for his prolific journalistic activity.

This last instance shows that the motives for such disguises can be various, and were not always (as some have alleged) simply because homophobic pressures required strategies for concealment.


Thursday, June 17, 2010

Christopher Hitchens, disintegrat i n g

Hitch-22, Christopher Hitchens’ new memoir, has elicited some rave reviews. All the same, more candid assessments have made me disinclined to buy and read it. To be sure, Hitchens can be an amusing writer who often scores debating points against his opponents. Eventually, though, the endless display of the tribal habits of the Oxford Union becomes tiresome.

The memoir’s main theme seems to be name-dropping--a kind of high-brow version of Perez Hilton, if you will. As one Amazon reviewer notes, “there is nary a paragraph in the entire thing that does not contain one or more names of famous and not so famous people. Along with the 'names' are quote after quote, seemingly to support his position on a thing, but never stating it in his own words at all.” That sounds like the scissors-and-paste technique.

Another issue, it seems, is his preoccupation with homosexuality and an obsessive compulsion to identify the sexual orientation of those whose names he keeps dropping. Hitchen’s own experience with same-sex behavior was limited, we are assured, to two minor incidents in college. Whew! That’s a relief.

Like Irving Kristol and a number of other prominent US neoconservatives, Hitchens started out as a Trotskyite. Like them, he has evolved into being an ornament--of a special, baroque kind--of the right.

That he is capable of changing his opinions is, in principle, admirable. However, as I noted in a recent blustery interview on the Chris Matthews show, he is obtusely unable to seeing anything wrong with his cheerleading for Bush’s disastrous invasion and occupation of Iraq.

With little real knowledge of the history of Islam or (apparently) even the history of fascism, he has been busily promoting “Islamofascism,” a portmanteau neologism. There is much that is deplorable about both Islamism and fascism, to be sure, but they are totally dissimilar. It is a little like speaking of “Pukoembezzlement” or “Philateloidiocy.”

On another front, Hitchens, in full rhetorical mode, entered the lists of the New Atheism. His book “God Is Not Great” has garnered a good deal of attention, even though he was preceded by the more substantial efforts of Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris. His intervention in this discourse is pure opportunism.

Afflicted with various problems, one of which seems to be alcoholism, Hitchens has been disintegrating for the last ten years. It is time that his admirers recognized the reality of the decline of this mammal (one of HItch's favorite terms of abuse).


Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Don't betray us, Petraeus!

News reports today indicate that after giving support for our Afghanistan policy before the Senate, General David Petraeus fainted. As well he might. For those who hold that gestures and tics reveal when a person is lying, this would be more than enough proof.

Another report indicates that the intelligence service of our "ally" Pakistan has been propping up the Taliban in Afghanistan. Karzai is giving up on us.

It is high time that we got out of that country, and Iraq as well.


Saturday, June 12, 2010


The other night I was privileged to attend a gala performance of the rock musical "Hair," marking the 500th performance of its current Broadway incarnation. It was an elaborate production in a vast theater, very colorful with almost ear-splitting sound, and with lots of enthusiastic audience participation.

In recent theater history “Hair” ranks as the foundational work of the rock musical, a genre that continues to flourish. A case in point is the rollicking “Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson” which I saw not long ago at the Public Theater in New York. It says something of the vagaries of my musical taste that I generally prefer rock musicals to the old-fashioned sort along the lines of “Oklahoma” and “South Pacific,” those cherished cherished heirlooms of my generation.

I first saw "Hair" in the early seventies.  Actually, it dates from 1967, just one year before the uprisings in France and at Columbia University, and two years before the Stonewall Rebellion in Greenwich Village.  A celebration of hippiedom, “Hair” brought together a number of themes of the period, ranging from antiwar activity and narcotics to the love ethic and the exaltation of blue jeans. Some hold that rock represents a return to the Romantic Movement, with its preference for intuition and emotion over abstract reason. Possibly. Still, embodying as it did a kind of pansexual outlook, the musical was incredibly prefigurative.

What bliss it was to be alive in those days! Facing disaster in Southeast Asia and revolt in America, the oppressive power structure gradually lost its grip. Operating, as often as not, in secret cabals, our masters had been inflexible in their determination to keep the majority of the country's population--women, blacks, Hispanics, and gays--in a state of servitude. Yet they failed.  Together, we routed the bastards in a swift series of developments that culminated in Nixon's expulsion from the presidency.  We would never go back to simply taking orders from grim honchos in their Brooks Brothers suits.  

Hooray for all that!

Somewhat surprisingly, an old friend and contemporary says that he saw the televised version of “Hair” and was bored. To this reaction I would say two things. First, for proper enjoyment one has to be able to channel, from some particular spot, one’s “inner hippie.” While I wore long hair like everyone else, I was not much of a hippie, at least not outwardly. Still, I cherished an unrealized ambition to make my mark as a beatnik poet. That was the road not chosen, but I can still see the appeal of it.

The other response I would make to my friend's demurral is that you must experience “Hair” live, in the theater. The New York actors repeatedly jumped down from the stage to cavort among the audience, which interactively roared its approval. The event concluded with the audience invited to join in a dance party on stage. No one knows for sure, but these effects may replicate, in some measure, the Dionysian appeal of ancient Greek theater at its beginnings. Certainly the emphasis on the ensemble recalls the role of the Greek chorus. There too music was an integral part.

Now for a metacomment. The late sixties saw the beginning of a massive societal shift throughout the Western world, but particularly focused in America. In a nutshell this was a shift from the dominance of duty to the flowering of expressiveness. The entailed goal of self-actualization is still very much with us.

In those days many of us rallied to the cause of social change. In my case this participation took the form of gay liberation. In our little groups we engaged in intense struggles about the particular form the new society would take--that it must take. Some thought that feminism was the answer; others believed that we must concentrate on overthrowing capitalism. Yet others, like myself, were individualists, skeptical of such posited verities.

In retrospect these internal struggles seem unimportant. Everyone was caught up in a tidal wave of change. and we are all the better for it.

These issues preoccupied Leo Tolstoy, as we read in the reflections concluding “War and Peace”-- which deals of course with the great changes signaled by the French Revolution and the Napoleonic era. The Russian writer begins his disquisition by alluding darkly to “mysterious forces,” all too often the mechanism of choice for those who favor the determinism of the all-conquering Zeitgeist. Yet Tolstoy does not leave it at that, for he offers a better formulation. “C h a n c e created the situation: g e n i u s utilized it.” He rightly remarks that these two italicized terms are rather abstract. One must particularize them by carefully pondering the nature of the French Revolution, the Napoleonic era, and the massive incursion into Russia. Rejecting the then-prominent great-man theory, Tolstoy comes close to saying that even such portentous figures as Napoleon and Tsar Alexander are mere cyphers, creatures of the all-embracing Process who could easily be replaced by others. But he does not leave it at that, maintaining that one must reckon with with a more complex cast of actors, those who transmit and follow (or not) the orders given. In the end, Tolstoy’s argument turns upon a particular concept of power, which he analyzes in terms of a sort of elitist collectivism. That is to say, power to effect historical change is exercised by those qualified to exercise it--a somewhat circular conclusion. This may amount to version of Mussolini's exclusionary principle that "the indifferent do not make history." But what is the opposite of "indifferent," and how does one achieve that status? Does it come down to "I'd rather be a hammer than a nail"?

Well, enough of that. In my youth I thought that the larger problem had been solved by the critique of historical inevitability advanced by Karl Popper and Isaiah Berlin. I now think that the matter is more open to debate.

It seems that judgments of the weighting of causality--general trends vs. individual action--will differ according to the observer.

Let us return to the world of our own experience: the tidal wave of social change of the nineteen-sixties and ‘seventies. My demurring friend, who was a valiant soldier in these struggles, is offended by my inference that we as individuals did not matter as much as we thought we did. Certainly determinism (if it is valid) poses a psychological problem for participants in social movements. If the desired change is inevitable, why bother to put effort into accomplishing it? Instead, one can just sit back, free-loader style, and enjoy the benefit of the changes. Yet this approach seems selfish and unsatisfactory. In the thick of battle one had to believe that “putting one’s queer shoulder to the wheel” (in the words of Allen Ginsberg) really mattered. Only later have second thoughts intruded.

By way of a postscript I should note that my assessment of the drug-laden sixties is not uniformly positive. Some wag has quipped that “anyone who says he remembers the sixties doesn’t.” Mind-altering substances (and one should note that alcohol too was still around) were not so much bad in themselves--though for some they were--but they were dysfunctional in the sense that they distracted the participants from fully engaging the important challenges that confronted us.


Wednesday, June 09, 2010

The Helen Thomas affair

Let us recall for a moment the salient facts from the Muhammad cartoons controversy of 2005. This uproar was triggered when twelve editorial cartoons, most of which depicted Muhammad, were published in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. The editors indicated that releasing the cartoons was meant as a contribution to the debate regarding criticism of Islam and the question of censorship.

In whole or in part, the cartoons were reproduced in more than fifty other countries. The publicity led to protests across the Muslim world, some of which escalated into violence with police firing on the crowds. There were at least one=hundred deaths. Danish embassies in Syria, Lebanon, and Iran were attacked, and Muslim boycotts of Danish products were initiated.

Critics of the cartoons labeled them Islamophobic and racist. For their part, supporters of the right to publish the cartoons hold that they illustrate an important point in a period that has witnessed the rise of Islamic pressure groups and violence. They argue that their publication was a legitimate exercise in the right of free speech. They questioned the assertion that images of Muhammad per se are offensive to Muslims, in as much as thousands of illustrations of Muhammad have appeared in books by and for Muslims.

In the aftermath I still believe that the basic issue was one of freedom of speech and opinion, hard-won values that we in the West must uphold.

Now comes the Helen Thomas affair. Born in 1920, Thomas is a venerable White House correspondent and columnist. In a May 27 interview recorded on camera, she was asked her views about Israel. Harshly, she replied that Jews should "get the hell out of Palestine" and "go home" to Poland, Germany, America and "everywhere else."

Later she issued a retraction of sorts. Then she resigned, bringing her long career in journalism to an inglorious close.

My question is this. Why don’t the principles of freedom of speech, rightly invoked in the Danish Muhammad cartoons controversy, apply to Helen Thomas? Should she have been driven from her job?

As Andrew Sullivan pertinently remarks, who now will ask such questions as this: "When are you going to get out of Afghanistan? Why are we continuing to kill and die there? What is the real excuse? And don't give us this Bushism, 'If we don't go there, they'll all come here.'"

Such perceptiveness aside, what she said about Israel amounts to recommendation for ethnic cleansing, which is deplorable wherever it occurs.

There is irony in the fact that Helen Thomas is of Lebanese Christian origin. Once comprising as much as 20% of the Middle East, Christians now make up only some 5%. Increasingly, Christians are not regarded as full citizens in Arab lands, and they are being encouraged to emigrate by various means. Before long, the Middle East, Jesus’ birthplace, will be completely de-Christianized. This emigration amounts to a soft version of ethnic cleansing.

Despite the difficulties they have encountered, it is striking how common it is for Lebanese and Palestinian Christians to take the Muslim side, instead of the Jewish one. After all, it might seem that one threatened minority would instinctively sympathize with another. Perhaps Christians still living in those lands are afraid to speak out. This is not the case, however, with Palestinian and Lebanese Christians living abroad. One need only think of the late Edward Said and his younger Columbia University colleague, Joseph Massad, both vehement critics of the state of Israel.

Now that I have spoken up for freedom of speech, perhaps I may be permitted to venture myself on this difficult terrain. What, in the coming decades, are the prospects for Israel? History suggests that the present situation, with an alien body surrounded by hostile neighbors, cannot continue indefinitely. Outremer is the general name applied to the ensemble of Crusader states maintained by Western (mainly French) knights in the region from 1097 to the final extinction with the fall of Acre in 1291. It began and it ended.

What then are the prospects for Israel? Some opinion in the country holds that when things get desperate Israel should pull out all the stops, including resort to the nuclear option. This would spell Armageddon.

However, there are two less horrific scenarios.

1) The Jews can in fact leave as the French left Algeria, the British and Indians East Africa, and so forth. Since things of this kind have happened, why is it so unacceptable to at least pose the possibility?

Or (2), much the best solution, the Israelis can follow the path of the white South Africans. This would mean a one-state solution with a single body of citizens living between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. In this new dispensation, Jews would be a minority. Yet like white South Africans, they would be a productive and wealthy component of a new multiethnic state.