Borges on Kane (1941)

Citizen Kane (called The Citizen in Argentina) has at least two plots. The first, pointlessly banal, attempts to milk applause from dimwits: a vain millionaire collects statues, gardens, palaces, swimming pools, diamonds, cars, libraries, man and women. Like an earlier collector (whose observations are usually ascribed to the Holy Ghost), he discovers that this cornucopia of miscellany is a vanity of vanities: all is vanity. At the point of death, he yearns for one single thing in the universe, the humble sled he played with as a child!

The second plot is far superior. It links the Koheleth to the memory of another nihilist, Franz Kafka. A kind of metaphysical detective story, its subject (both psychological and allegorical) is the investigation of a man’s inner self, through the works he has wrought, the words he has spoken, the many lives he has ruined. The same technique was used by Joseph Conrad in Chance (1914) and in that beautiful film The Power and the Glory: a rhapsody of miscellaneous scenes without chronological order. Overwhelmingly, endlessly, Orson Welles shows fragments of the life of the man, Charles Foster Kane, and invites us to combine them and to reconstruct him.

Form of multiplicity and incongruity abound in the film: the first scenes record the treasures amassed by Kane; in one of the last, a poor woman, luxuriant and suffering, plays with an enormous jigsaw puzzle on the floor of a palace that is also a museum. At the end we realize that the fragments are not governed by any secret unity: the detested Charles Foster Kane is a simulacrum, a chaos of appearances. (A possible corollary, foreseen by David Hume, Ernst Mach, and our own Macedonio Fernandez: no man knows who he is, no man is anyone.) In a story by Chesterton — “The Head of Caesar,” I think — the hero observes that nothing is so frightening as a labyrinth with no center. This film is precisely that labyrinth.

We all know that a party, a palace, a great undertaking, a lunch for writers and journalists, an atmosphere of cordial and spontaneous camaraderie, are essentially horrendous. Citizen Kane is the first film to show such things with an awareness of this truth.

The production is, in general, worthy of its vast subject. The cinematography has a striking depth, and there are shots whose farthest planes (like Pre-Raphaelite paintings) are as precise and detailed as the close-ups. I venture to guess, nonetheless, that Citizen Kane will endure as a certain Griffith or Pudovkin films have “endured”—films whose historical value is undeniable but which no one cares to see again. It is too gigantic, pedantic, tedious. It is not intelligent, though it is the work of genius—in the most nocturnal and Germanic sense of that bad word.

River Phoenix with Martha Plimpton, late-80s

Lee Friedlander. Florida, 1963, gelatin-silver print, 12-3/4” x 8-1/2”

Clarice Lispector, c. 1950s

Bagel Workers

Bagel-making was still a skilled trade then, restricted to members of the International Beigel Bakers Union, as the name was Romanized after the organization was founded in New York in 1907. (Until well into the 1950s, the minutes of the union’s board meetings were taken down in Yiddish.)

The bagel-maker’s craft was passed down from father to son, fiercely guarded from outsiders’ prying eyes. In a contingency that seemed straight out of Damon Runyon, or perhaps “The Untouchables,” nonunion bakers trying to make and sell bagels risked paying for it with their kneecaps.

“Every bagel that was made in New York City up until the 1960s was a union bagel — every one,” Mr. Goodman said. “The reason why this union was strong was that they were the only ones who knew how to make a proper bagel. And that was the keys to the kingdom.”

The union — New York’s Local 338, with some 300 members — could hold the entire metropolitan area gastronomic hostage and, in disputes with bakery owners over working conditions, often did.

“Bagel Famine Threatens in City,” an alarmed headline in The Times read in 1951, as a strike loomed. (It was followed the next day by the immensely reassuring “Lox Strike Expert Acts to End the Bagel Famine.”)

David Graeber in the West Bank

In Nablus, every street seems to have a men’s hair salon. There are literally thousands of them. Most stay open until at least 2 at night; often other than mosques they’re the only places lit up and open at two at night; and it seems any time you pass by one, there are likely to be four or five nicely coiffed young men clustered inside, watching someone get a haircut. The odd thing is that women’s hair salons seem entirely absent. Occasionally you do see impressive posters for women’s cosmetics and hair products; often, the women are blonde (and a surprising number of Palestinians in Nablus are, in fact, blonde; even children), but the shops are absent. I asked a friend why this was. He explained that while Palestinian society was traditionally considered the most liberal Arab society outside of Beirut, and young women never used to go with their hair covered, things started to change in the ‘90s with the political rise of Hamas. But in the case of women’s hair salons, there was another, much more immediate factor. During the ‘80s, Israeli intelligence agents began taking advantage of their existence to spike the sweet tea with knock-out drugs, and take nude pictures of women so as to blackmail their husbands into turning collaborator or informant.  So now women’s salons exist, but they’re not visible from the street, and women no longer take tea from strangers.

My first reaction on hearing the story was: Did this really happen? It sounds like the very definition of a paranoid fantasy. But Palestinians in Nablus are living in an environment where insane things do happen; where there actually are people conspiring against them; spies, informants, security forces of a dozen varieties including many with advanced degrees in psychology and social theory do exist and are actively trying to come up with ways to destroy social trust and tear apart the fabric of society. Innumerable stories circulate. Only some are true. How can anyone possibly know which?

And of course that’s always half the point in such situations. The Stasi, the East German secret police, at one point developed a technique of breaking into dissidents’ homes at night and rearranging their furniture. Doing it left the victim in an impossible situation. Either you tell people that spies broke into your house and rearranged your furniture, leaving many with the impression you are insane, or keep the information to yourself, and gradually begin to doubt your own sanity. Sometimes, in Palestine, you feel you’re in an entire country that’s been given such treatment.

In this case, however, the rumor turns out to be at least partly true. Someone put up a web page for Mossad agents with guilty consciences to make anonymous confessions. And one did, indeed, make reference to drugging the tea in hair salons.

My friend Amin said: “I’ve always felt that the turn to religious conservatism, the headscarves, the covering up—it’s not just the political rise of Hamas in the ‘80s and ‘90s. I think it’s partly a reaction to the fact that you always know that people are staring at you. I mean look around. Practically every other hill, there’s a Jewish settlement. But you look up and it’s just architecture, the blank face of some pre-designed gated community, you can’t see the people. And next to that there’s always a military base, fenced, with towers which may or may not have someone gazing out at you. And then there’s the actual wall. Everybody talks about the wall as being an impediment to movement. And it is that, and it’s incredibly annoying, but the other thing about the wall is, it’s an impediment to vision. You can never see what’s going on right next to you. They have their own roads. Actually they have two sets of roads: there are settler roads. Then there are the military roads. You can’t really see either from roads we Arabs get to use. Just glimpses here and there, or there are spots where you cross the road to a settlement, and there are guards and posters for right-wing Israeli politicians and kids wearing yarmulke’s hitchhiking. But other than that you never see them. But you know they can see you when you’re driving, or walking, or whatever you’re doing they’re starting at you from a thousand different angles from places you don’t even know about. You’re trapped in these little pockets where you can see each other but you never get the panoptic view, there’s a little chunk of city you live in, a little chunk of country where you take your sheep, these discontinuous islands; you don’t even have a proper map, the maps you get to use are wrong or out of date, you never get to look down from the commanding heights. So you start covering up. You don’t go out so much. Women hide their hairstyles, even. It’s just a gesture, but it’s one tiny way of asserting control.”

This what it feels like, to live in Palestine. The constant awareness of the existence of a ferocious, hostile intelligence that is organizing the terms of one’s existence, but which, ultimately, does not wish one well. One never sees them. But one knows what they must be like: a brain trust of extremely well educated and sophisticated men and women meeting in air-conditioned offices, presenting power-points, tabulating research, and developing sophisticated plans and scenarios; except, all you know is that these people are utterly inimical to your existence, and you have no idea what they say and do. You can only grasp at rumors and analogies.

The North Korean regime in the ‘50s developed a series of remarkably effective torture techniques, techniques that were so effective, in fact, that they were able to make captured American airmen admit to all sorts of atrocities they had not in fact committed, all the time, being convinced they had not, actually, been tortured. The techniques were quite simple. Just make the victim do something mildly uncomfortable—sit on the edge of chair, for example, or lean against a wall in a slightly awkward position—only, make them do it for an extremely long period of time. After eight hours the victim would be willing to do virtually anything to make it stop. But try going to the International Court of Justice at The Hague and tell them you’ve been made to sit on the edge of a chair all day. Even the victims were unwilling to describe their captors as torturers. When the CIA learned about these techniques—according to Korean friends of mine, they’re actually just particularly sadistic versions of classic Korean ways of punishing small children—they were intrigued, and, apparently, conducted extensive research on how they could be adopted for their own detention centers.

Again, sometimes, in Palestine, one feels one is in an entire country that’s being treated this way. Obviously, there is also outright torture, people who are actually being shot, beaten, tortured, or violently abused. But I’m speaking here even of the ones that aren’t. For most, it’s as if the very texture of everyday life has been designed to be intolerable—only, in a way that you can never quite say is exactly a human rights violation. There’s never enough water. Showering requires almost military discipline. You can’t get a permit. You’re always standing in line. If something breaks it’s impossible to get permission to fix it. Or else you can’t get spare parts. There are four different bodies of law that might apply to any legal situation (Ottoman, British, Jordanian, Israeli), it’s anyone’s guess which court will say what applies where, or what document is required, or acceptable. Most rules are not even supposed to make sense. It can take eight hours to drive 20 kilometers to see your girlfriend, and doing so will almost certainly mean having machine guns waved in your faces and being shouted at in a language you half understand by people who think you’re subhuman. So you do most of your dalliance by phone. When you can afford the minutes. There are endless traffic jams before and after checkpoints and drivers bicker and curse and try not to take it out on one another. Everyone lives no more than 12 or 15 miles from the Mediterranean but even on the hottest day, it’s absolutely impossible to get to the beach. Unless you climb the wall, there are places you can do that; but then you can expect to be hunted every moment by security patrols. Of course teenagers do it anyway. But it means swimming is always accompanied by the fear of being shot. If you’re a trader, or a laborer, or a driver, or a tobacco farmer, or clerk, the very process of subsistence is continual stream of minor humiliations. Your tomatoes are held and left two days to rot while someone grins at you. You have to beg to get your child out of detention. And if you do go to beseech the guards, those same guards might arbitrarily decide to hold you to pressure him to confess to rock-throwing, and suddenly you are in a concrete cell without cigarettes. Your toilet backs up. And you realize: you’re going to have to live like this forever. There is no “political process.” It will never end. Barring some kind of divine intervention, you can expect to be facing exactly this sort of terror and absurdity for the rest of your natural life.

Homage to Gauguin. Naomi Campbell photographed by Peter Lindbergh for Harper’s Bazaar, 1992.


… Back to the Future is not only a prime illustration of a new narrative genre, it is also a commercial event and a narrative commodity constructed at a uniquely regressive moment in American history, very much entertaining a nostalgic revival of that earlier conservative period that was the American 1950s. Something in the time-travel narrative seems pre-eminently suitable for its use in ideological interpellation, in ways that the high literary narrative, itself scarcely exempt from ideological investment, is nonetheless formally intent on eschewing. Literature also has its equivalent of the philosophical distinction between episteme and doxa, knowledge and opinion – which does not mean that its versions of ‘knowledge’ are any less ideological at some deeper level. In Back to the Future we find a kind of Freudo-Marxian perspective in which the various social and ultimately political connotations are managed by way of an Oedipal situation (the protagonist returns to the moment of his own parents’ courtship, which he is, in effect, able to arrange). The 1980s family is thereby restored (and even improved) by this excursion to the Eisenhower era, at the same time as the anxious apprenticeship of the neo-conservatism of the Reagan era is assuaged and reassured by the emergent consumer culture of the earlier period …

Marcel Broodthaers. Pot of Mussels, 1968. Mussel shells, painted pan, and wax.