Pépé Le Moko and The Battle of Algiers make such similar use of the fabled old Algiers neighborhood that there are a few exterior rooftop shots in both films that seemed to me to have been taken from almost the same place. Each of the films has a gritty black and white graininess that somehow emphasizes the otherworldly danger that exists for the protagonists. But while Pépé Le Moko is a romantic gangster pic featuring Jean Gabin as perhaps the most appealing jewel thief in the history of cinema, The Battle of Algiers is a political film that, justifiably famous in its own time, is now remarkably of our time as well.
The first time we see Pépé Le Moko, we see only his hands. But it’s clear as the camera pans upward that this fellow is one of the best-dressed men anywhere, much less The Casbah. When it finally arrives at a full shot of Jean Gabin’s face, we also learn that Pépé Le Moko is a man of rugged but beautiful looks and a rogue of very significant interest. Gabin was a major star of French cinema in the thirties and afterwards, unusually so given his very large and bulbous nose. But, as with Clarke Gable and his enormous ears, you don’t notice Gabin’s imperfection because of the intense sensual authority he brings with him even when he’s not doing much of anything on-screen.
Gabin simply fills the role of Pépé Le Moko, an intrepid thief who has had to leave his beloved Paris under trying circumstances, and is now hiding from the French police in the complicated, turbulent warren of The Casbah in Algiers. He is the personification of Ernest Hemingway’s famous definition of courage, that it is “grace under pressure”. He also has a very humorous glint in his eye, especially when he’s engaged in slang badinage with his pals or with the police inspector Slimane who, although Pépé’s pursuer, also thinks of him as a friend, a man to be respected. Pépé is as well a great lover. One of the Arab men in the quarter says of him that the day Pépé Le Moko dies, there will be five thousand widows in The Casbah.
One of these widows will be Tania, an Arab girl of questionable morals who is in love with Pépé. Played by the French singer Fréhel, Tania is a woman of mercurial emotions who will do anything to save her relationship with the thief. She’s a wonderful character, so remarkably beautiful and intense in her feelings that one can both understand Pépé’s attraction to her and his need to maintain a distance. Given the right circumstances, this woman could destroy a man like Pépé. He doesn’t realize it, but she is his match.
Another woman does show up, the be-jeweled French aristocrat Gaby who, slumming one night with friends in The Casbah, meets and immediately falls in love with Pépé, Played by Mireille Balin, she is icily reserved and very upper-crust. But you can see just in the way she looks at Pépé that he fascinates her. Gaby’s eyes glisten with pleasure with every glance she takes at him. It’s Pépé’s pursuit of her that brings about his undoing and eventual capture, with the help of Tania, by the police.
The film was directed by Jules Duvivier with a script notable for its very hard-boiled and sarcastic wit. Duvivier also wanted a gritty look to his setting, and the interior shots all have a very authentic feel for anyone who has ever walked in an old Arab “suk” neighborhood of winding passageways, stairways leading who knows where, doors shut to anyone outside and the feeling of dangerous intrigue just beyond the next turn in the alley. Duvuvier’s Casbah is actually a set constructed for the film, but its authenticity makes you forget that. Light and dark clash in this Casbah, literally, the lighting a precursor to the later grimy underworld of film noir.
Pépé owns this neighborhood, and when he steps out of it in search of Gaby, he is immediately vulnerable. The Casbah is romantic and threatening, the best place for the protection of this classy criminal’s flaunting of the law. The bright light of day outside The Casbah—and his desire for Gaby—bring about his destruction.
The Battle of Algiers is another matter, although it was indeed shot in its entirety in Algiers and The Casbah. There are thieves in this movie, too. Indeed one of them is the leading man, Ali la Pointe, a rugged-looking youth played by an amateur Algerian actor named Brahim Hagiag. But Ali is no picturesque rogue. He’s a two-bit criminal, not worth much, who ends up in jail for a botched crime. While serving his sentence, he begins to learn about the terrorist insurgency (an actual event that lasted from 1954 to 1962) against the French colonialists in Algiers, and the police force that protects them. The National Liberation Front, or FLN, is run by a commander named El-hadi Jafar, who is also played by an amateur actor. But this actor is special, because his actual name is Saadi Yacef, who was himself one of the leaders of the real insurgency that eventually succeeded in ridding Algeria of the French.
In prison, Ali becomes a confirmed FLN man, and once out, one of the first things he does is to kill an Algerian pimp for whom he used to work. The FLN views the criminal underworld as a kind of enforcer for the French against the Algerian poor, so they must be gotten rid of. Ali also becomes involved in the assassination of French policemen and in arbitrary bombings in the French quarter. As superbly played by Hagiag, Ali la Pointe is a young, foolish man, almost a simpleton, who becomes a hardened soldier in so relentless a way that he ultimately terrifies you.
There is only one professional actor in this film, a Frenchman named Jean Martin, who plays Colonel Mathieu, in charge of the 10th Para-Division, French army paratroopers who are brought to defeat the insurgency. Martin’s portrayal is memorable because the colonel is ultimately a technocrat, although a murderous one. He analyzes the situation clearly and coldly, and moves his men about the city with intent precision and murderous force. He wears fatigues throughout and a pair of air force–style sunglasses that make it difficult to see his eyes. But the sunglasses are perfect because you can see the colonel’s eyes and, despite the emotional distancing that the glasses symbolize, his eyes are sinister beyond belief.
This is a very dangerous man. Colonel Mathieu speaks in a monotone. He is always in control of himself. He never falters. At one point (speaking quite softly, actually) he says “The problem, as usual, is first the enemy.” He pauses a moment, then continues. “Second, how to destroy him.” You had better listen, because Colonel Mathieu will succeed.
Here too, the film is shot in grainy black and white in so physical a way that it almost appears as a genuine documentary of actual events. The director, Gillo Pontecorvo, has such a clear understanding of street battles that the American edition of this film contained a disclaimer that “not one foot” of newsreel film was used in the production. The portrayal of the terrorists and their tactics, especially effective in this urban situation, made the film into something of a bête noire in France, where it was considered to have molly-coddled the Algerian enemy. (It was released just five years after the expulsion of the French from Algiers.)
What’s interesting here is that the French and Colonel Mathieu actually win the battle of Algiers. They hunt down Ali la Pointe and his commander El-hadi Jafar who, with a few others, are hiding in a space between the walls of a Casbah apartment. The terrorists refuse to come out, and are killed by a detonation planted in the apartment by Colonel Mathieu’s men. They don’t stand a chance.
But the Algerians did get rid of the French eventually. This film was based on an account of the insurgency that was written by Saadi Yacef, the actor who plays the doomed El-hadi Jafar, while a prisoner in a French jail. After the French defeat, Yacef, now an Algerian government minister, approached Pontecorvo and, with government assistance, suggested he make the film. It won the Venice Film Festival Grand Prize and was nominated for three Academy Awards.
One ironic occurrence in the film’s influential history is that in 2003, it was given a special screening by the U.S. Directorate for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict at The Pentagon. It was thought to be a corrective to those who might think that the then-current situation in Iraq had no precedent. One wonders if the people in The Pentagon who saw this very fine film ever heeded its ultimate warning of what can happen to implacable colonialist forces who do not understand the people they are colonizing.
The news a year ago that the Chilean government exhumed Pablo Neruda’s remains, to determine whether or not his death was caused by poisoning, brought a new, but not surprising, twist to Neruda’s life, even forty years after his demise.
Neruda died just days after his friend Salvador Allende, the democratically elected president of Chile, was murdered in the 1973 coup that brought General Augusto Pinochet to power. Neruda had been in poor health for some years, and it was assumed that he died of natural causes that perhaps were worsened by the emotional trial of losing such a close compatriot and friend.
But Neruda was no stranger himself to extreme punishment for his political views, and rumors have circulated since his death that he too was murdered while in hospital after Allende’s death, also on direct orders from Pinochet. The current ongoing government inquiry aims to determine whether Neruda indeed died on his own, or was assassinated.
Neruda was almost killed in 1949, when he was already a world-famous poet and a senator in the Chilean congress. Having been elected as a Communist, he had then been asked by Gabriel González Videla, the leftist candidate for president in the 1946 elections, to become his campaign chairman, while maintaining his seat in Congress. Neruda agreed and, bringing the Communist vote to the leftist coalition supporting González Videla, he helped ensure González Videla’s victory.
Once in office, however, González Videla abandoned the very supporters that got him elected. He not only failed to enact the policies for which he won office, he actively turned against them. The ongoing Cold War between western democracies and the Soviet Union brought great pressure upon González Videla, causing him, essentially, to betray his own electorate. He became the trinket of and enforcer for the Chilean wealthy and the U.S. (especially American mining and other corporate interests in Chile.) Disgruntled national figures like Pablo Neruda were basically marginalized.
Pablo Neruda was an extremely colorful, humorous and celebratory man who was not about to take such treatment without a response. He wrote an inflammatory article for a Venezuelan publication, in which he denounced González Videla’s presidency. On January 6, 1948, he stood up on the floor of Congress and delivered a stem-winder of a speech in which he accused the president of political betrayal, cowardice and even genocide against his own people. González Videla had re-opened a concentration camp that had been used by an earlier president to incarcerate homosexuals. Located in the appropriately named coastal town of Pisagua (Pisswater), the camp was famous for its miserable, even murderous conditions. In his speech, Neruda gave the names of all 628 prisoners being held there, many of them miners from the Atacama Desert region that had elected Neruda. (This region later became world-famous for the 2010 rescue of miners who had been trapped underground for 68 days.)
Within weeks of this speech, González Videla got the Chilean Supreme Court to strip Neruda of his senator-ship. His home in Santiago was set ablaze, causing him and his second wife Delia del Carril to go into hiding. In March 1949, after a year spent in isolation in various safe-houses around the country, Neruda had to run for his life. He escaped from Chile into Argentina, on horseback – escorted by a group of local trackers – through the high reaches of the Andes Mountains. It was the beginning of winter, and during this harrowing crossing, Neruda came close to death on a couple of terrifying occasions. He did make it to Argentina, however, and eventually was re-united with Delia in Paris.
On April 25, 1949, at the World Congress of Peace Forces at the Salle Pleyel in Paris, Neruda was introduced to an astonished audience. Everyone – including Gabriel González Videla – had assumed that he was dead. Amused by the opportunity to put that rumor to rest, Neruda reveled in the introduction he was given, by none other than Pablo Picasso. The audience erupted in sustained, noisy applause.
Now, there is controversy about the exhumation of Neruda’s remains. All the principal players in the 1973 military coup are dead, and democracy has returned to full strength in Chile. So, some commentators say that there is little good to be served in bringing up those murderous times yet once more. But there is at least one thing that will be served quite well. Ultimately, history seeks the truth. If Pablo Neruda died of illness, it leaves Augusto Pinochet innocent of at least one gruesome crime. If Neruda was assassinated, Pinochet’s legacy will be darkened even more than it already is…and appropriately so.
Incidentally, I first learned of Pablo Neruda’s escape when I began researching his life for a novel I planned to write about him. For me, the challenge lay in how to write a novel from the point of view of one of the greatest imaginative minds of the 20th century. This was either extreme hubris on my part or plain nuttiness. But I wanted to present Neruda’s vivid, unruly imagination, and to show how it could both exacerbate and ameliorate the extreme danger in which he and the others found themselves, deep in the disastrous mountains. That was the plan. That’s what the novel would describe.
Pablo Neruda won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971. His fame now is greater than ever.
Terence Clarke has just completed a new novel titled The Splendid City, in which Pablo Neruda is the main character. The novel is an imagining of Neruda’s 1949 escape from Chile. This piece appeared originally in Huffington Post.
Liberal democracies did not simply spring from a void. According to Timothy Ferris in his compendious and very informative book The Science of Liberty: Democracy, Reason and the Laws of Nature, democracies came along as the natural result of the scientific inquiry that so informed The Enlightenment and later eye-opening intellectual movements.
Over the past few centuries, two transformations — one scientific, the other democratic — have altered the thinking and the wellbeing of the human species. The scientific revolution is still gathering momentum, but has already revealed more about the universe than had been learned in all prior history… The democratic revolution has spread freedom and equal rights to nearly half the world’s inhabitants, making democracy the preference of informed peoples everywhere.
Early in the book, Ferris draws the distinction between deductive and inductive reasoning. Deduction, he writes, “reasons from first principles and [rejects] any precept about which [one] could conjure any doubt.” Induction is “an approach that starts with observation and adduces hypotheses from them.” So, in the first system of thought, one can believe that God is great and that all observable phenomena in the universe derive from that August Figure’s consciousness.
In the second system, a scientist looks at a hitherto unobserved form of light, shares his observations with other scientists and the resulting lively debate results in something like the Big Bang theory or quantum mechanics. Ferris points out how “this is the opposite of starting with a deeply held faith and accumulating evidence to support it,” (i.e. deductive reasoning). “Scientists have a story of discovery to tell,” (i.e. inductive reasoning) “…dogmatists, a story of obedience to authority.”
The Science of Liberty is a primer on the history of science and liberal democracies since The Enlightenment. Ferris includes many short biographies of individuals who either were scientists, or who supported scientific inquiry on the part of others. So we get revealing brief lives of such as Galileo, Thomas Jefferson, Francis Bacon, Thomas Edison, David Hume, Queen Elizabeth I of England, Winston Churchill, Nikola Tesla, Thomas Paine and many, many others.
To support his arguments for scientific inquiry as the natural birthplace of liberal democracies (and vice versa), Ferris also gives us detailed views of a couple of dictatorial governments and their “scientific” efforts. To read the chapter titled “Totalitarian Antiscience” is to receive a fundamental lesson in the dangerous stupidity of such leaders as Adolph Hitler, Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong. We learn of the totalitarian, ideologically-driven practices of science among such stellar and murderous non-entities as the Germans Robert Ritter, “whose data were employed by the SS to dispatch Gypsies to Auschwitz,” and Ernst Wenzler, “who coordinated a pediatric euthanasia program that killed thousands of children”.
The Soviet Union gave us Trofim Denisovich Lysenko, who fathered the collectivist agriculture polices that resulted in many millions of deaths across Stalin’s intellectually suffocated territories. Mao Zedong’s politically prescribed and nutty scientific certitudes caused The Great Leap Forward, and even worse famines and numberless deaths.
It’s no surprise that leaders like these so hate spirited scientific debate and liberal argument. Those practices dispute the crackbrain truisms and outright falsehoods that they use to keep them in power.
One of my favorite chapters in the The Science of Liberty — sadly for me — is titled “Academic Antiscience.”
Once the liberal democracies had prevailed against fascism and communism — vanquishing, with the considerable help of their scientific and technological prowess, the two most dangerously illiberal forces to have arisen in modern times — you might think that academics would have investigated the relationship between science and liberalism. But instead, academic discourse took a radical turn from which it has not yet fully recovered.
Ferris goes on to describe how “radical academics began challenging science itself, claiming that it was just ‘one among many truth games,’ and could not obtain objective knowledge because there was no objective reality. Ferris gives a history of the development of such thought, mentioning scholars like Martin Heidegger, Jacques Derrida and Paul de Man. The “deconstruction” movement in literary criticism comes in for special attention from Ferris.
I myself gave up on Derrida and the others long ago because they seem simply unable to write clearly. Their language is gibberish obfuscation. It is glutted with so much jarring, barely readable clumsiness that it seems to me an effort at some sort of un-understandable oracular self-importance intended to keep the poor reader out, rather than to bring him or her in. Very often I wonder if Professor So-and-So has ever read the Shakespeare play about which he is writing, since the professor’s language is so torturously illegible in its logic and irredeemably boring in its flow. Shakespeare, a great comic writer and a master of irony, would be doubling over in laughter at the striving foolishness of such writing.
I scuttled an academic career in English Literature years ago because of the language that it seemed to me I would have to learn in order to be taken seriously by my academic colleagues. Timothy Ferris has dispelled any second thoughts I may have had about it with his revelation that “Derrida got the term ‘deconstruction’ from Heidegger (who got it from a Nazi journal edited by Herman Göring’s cousin).”
It was an awakening for me to learn just how influentially damaging this movement has been, both to the pursuit of science in universities, as well as the study of the arts in those institutions. For me, much of literary criticism these days is academic anti-language, and Ferris’s spirited attack on its use in scientific as well as literary studies is refreshing, to say the least.
Researched in amazing detail, and vividly well written, The Science of Liberty is a book that anyone interested in science, history, modern politics and the future of creativity should read.
The portrait of Juan de Pareja by Velázquez that hangs in a gallery of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan is surrounded by other estimable works, even a few of genius. But this work compels the viewer to look. It is a portrait of personal disappointment and anguish, and its great beauty deepens that anguish profoundly.
I felt this the moment I first saw the painting, and I go back to visit it every time I’m in New York. I’ve always sympathized with Juan de Pareja and worried why he was suffering so deeply in such seeming silence.
In Rome in 1650, the Spaniard Velázquez was on a royal mission to obtain paintings, sculptures and other Italian artwork to decorate new rooms in the Alcázar. He spent two and a half years on this assignment, in search of the best the Italians could offer. Among his retinue was a man named Juan de Pareja, who was the mixed-race son of a female slave and, until 1654, a slave to Velázquez himself.
Juan had been born in Antequera, Spain, around 1610. As a young man, he had been consigned to work in Velázquez’s studio, most probably as some sort of shop assistant. Velázquez’s biographer Antonio Palomino writes that Velázaquez would not allow Juan himself to paint because, he believed, art of the sort that Velázquez did was too great for a slave to undertake. He believed that such art should be reserved for free men. Juan apparently painted anyway, in secret, without the master’s knowledge.
By the time they got to Rome, Juan was one of the painter’s principal assistants, and there Velázquez undertook to paint the portrait of him. In Sister Wendy’s American Masterpieces, the art critic Wendy Beckett writes this:
Amazingly, this man was technically a slave; we still have the document of manumission with which Velázquez formally set him free. However, we can see from Velázquez’s painting that the two were undeniably equals. That steady look of self-controlled power can even make us wonder which of the two held a higher opinion of himself.
Sister Wendy sees “self-controlled power” in Juan’s look, but I’m not sure that that’s all there is. Juan de Pareja is a slave, and the circumstances of his servitude are clear in his face. He’s looking at us and, of course, at his master, with a gaze of quite genuine sadness, of the knowledge of having been betrayed by an accident of birth and victimized for it all his life…perhaps especially by his master.
I assume from the deep passion that is so evident in Velázquez’s depiction that, despite his treatment of his slave, he understands him. Somehow Velázquez sees into Juan’s anger, so much so that, in part, this is a painting about anger itself. Juan looks like he would prefer taking Velázquez by the lapels of his coat and shaking him violently for all that’s been done to him. But of course he cannot do that. So instead he looks on with dignity, intensity, and silent disdain. There is more than a hint of rage in his look. The irony is that the great painter Velázquez has taken the time to display the depth of his slave’s pain, yet has done nothing — at least to this moment — to relieve the basis of that pain.
Antonio Palomino said that the portrait of Juan de Pareja “was generally applauded by all the painters from different countries, who said that the other pictures in the show were art but this one alone was ‘truth’.”
It is truth. I cannot imagine that Velázquez himself did not understand the depth of the story he was telling. The painting is too good, the anguish in Juan’s face too profoundly expressed, for it to be anything but an accurate appraisal of the man’s rage. The irony is that it was Velázqez’s ownership of Juan’s fate that surely was the cause of that rage. Conveying truth is a struggle for artists, as it should be. It should also be the goal for artists of whatever medium, and there are some, like Velázquez, who have achieved it. This stunning painting is an example.
Legend has it that the king of Spain was to visit Velázquez’s studio one day, and that Juan de Pareja secured a place there where the king would inevitably come across one of Juan’s own paintings. The king and his procession arrived, all dominion, pomp and authority. When he approached Juan’s piece, the artist prostrated himself before His Majesty and explained that he was a slave, yet a member of Velázquez’s studio, and had taught himself to paint. He asked for help, for recognition as an artist. The king replied that “any man who has this skill cannot be a slave,” at which point Velázquez had little option but to grant Juan his freedom.
This story may be true, and Juan did have talent. His painting “The Calling of Saint Matthew” at The Prado in Madrid shows his technical mastery. But — at least in this painting — he shied from the kind of emotional profundity that Velázquez himself had found in him. Juan puts himself in the painting, to the far left, looking out at us. The character is of mild interest, a bit-player in the scene, and appears to be of indifferent importance to Juan himself.
Sadly, it took the cynical slave-owner Velázquez to convey the truth of Juan de Pareja’s situation to us. What an irony that Velázquez understood his slave’s heart so well, and showed it to us so clearly, yet thumbed his nose at the possibility that such a man could have artistic talent himself.
Sister Wendy continues:
Nearly thirty years ago, when a British earl offered the family’s Velázquez (i.e. the portrait of Juan de Pareja) for sale, protestors marched from many parts of England and Scotland, pleading with the government to save the piece for Britain, but governments, as we know, are penny-pinching creatures, and so this portrait of a man of North African descent, painted by a Spaniard while residing in Italy, finally came to rest in New York.
Of all the paintings I’ve ever seen, this one takes my heart the most.
(Terence Clarke’s new novel The Notorious Dream of Jesús Lázaro, about an artist in San Francisco, will be published later this year.)
In the history of literature, the genre of the letter has been a very important element. Epistolary exchange has shed light on the lives of most of the important artists and historical figures — and some less important figures that happened to have written well — in the history of the world.
This light has revealed profound emotional difficulty and expressions of love… savored love, questioned love and destroyed love. Letters often exposed the high comedy of family disputes. The horrors of war were made memorable in letters from the front, while the onerous effects of preposterous government or church intrusion on the sensuous spirit were brought into the open. The letter, as a form, shed clear light on just about everything.
Now we have email. When I first encountered this phenomenon several years ago, I was heartened. With the birth of the telephone and, much later, the television, good personal writing had abruptly disappeared. It was easier to pick up the phone and call. It was more fulfilling to watch a game show than to write to your lover. So, most people gave up writing letters, and an entire literary genre almost ceased to exist.
Email held out the possibility for a resurgence of the letter-form through use of the Internet. Perhaps now people would write to one another again, a consummation devoutly to be wished. The letter is so important to the history of human affairs that its disappearance was like the withering away of a human organ, one that spirits the blood and makes it flow. Email would restore that organ, I hoped.
It has become apparent, though, that email has not risen to the challenge.
Letters hold together. Emails often have nothing to grab on to. Letters call for contemplation and soulful enjoyment. Emails call for very little. Letters contain cries for understanding, personal descriptions of terrible events or recoveries of soul. Emails tap-tap-tap across a depthless surface, asking only that they not be ignored, which they so often are. Letters contain a beginning, a middle and an end. Emails are dull wisps of nothing, written in as few characters as possible. It is this kind of artless dodging of anything important that is the norm in email and in its little brother, texting. And texting’s little brother, the tweet, is now the perfect email.
So my wish for the return of real writing has not been fulfilled. This is due to something I had not foreseen at all, which is that although the usual emailer may want exchange of some kind (perhaps a revised bill of lading, a recipe for goulash or Miley Cyrus’s URL), an email generally is not exchange. It almost never cares for good writing. The email is a depthless, short, ungrammatical demand. There are slightly meaningful emails, to be sure, like those that talk about one’s cat or how to screw in a light bulb. But even emails like these are random momentary conversations that go nowhere, or at least not far.
And now, horror of horrors, we have the Twitter novel, which somehow I feel is not destined — at least yet — to deny Dickens and all those others their insurmountable place in the pantheon. But it might. We will have seen the end of human transcendence on this planet when a chapter like number 42 in Moby Dick, on the whiteness of the whale, which is surely one of the most lyric and strange pieces of writing in the English language, is replaced by a chapter of 140 characters that have little to do with each other, as is the case with most tweets.
So, for the vast majority of this new language I propose the term “@e-speak.” The word could be an adjective, a kind of descriptive term that refers simply to the nature of the email/tweet itself. For example, you read a short little tweet, of a few impenetrable words and signs, with no capital letters and no punctuation, something about nothing written in illiterate language. It rattles with @e-speak inconsequence. That’s an adjective.
My use of the term would also make it into a noun. @e-speak is the language that, in another context, would be called gibberish. OMG!
The new rudeness is silence.
I first became aware of this during the dot.com bust of 2000, when I was working as a marketing executive for an Internet software startup in San Francisco. This was one of those companies, still very much in evidence, that was run by men under thirty-years-old whose background was in the computer sciences and the Internet. They worked eighty-hour weeks regularly. Their favorite cuisine was cold pizza washed down with warm Coke, and they were barely capable of spoken language. They dressed like skateboarders.
Few had any manners. The founder and CEO of the company for which I was working — as a marketing executive responsible for selling the product to Fortune 500 companies — was a young German who had cut his business teeth in Silicon Valley, at one of the very large computer equipment companies. He had no personality, but he had invented what appeared to me to be a very good software product. The trouble was that his rudeness, characterized by his silence in response to the pesky questions of employees, and his silence during sales or marketing presentations to clients, added tremendous weight to the effort to sell the product. Marketing and sales, he sniffed — silently — were beneath him.
Many such have made millions in their start-up business endeavors, and I, who had devoted a career to working in corporations, was smitten with the idea of stock options and the probable millions that I would make too. So, putting my suits and neckties in the closet, I too took to Levis, although I drew the line at warm Coke.
I retained one other habit that I could not shake. I had good manners.
I always returned phone calls. I was considerate of my clients and their real wishes. I did not bully people in order to make the sale. When I emailed someone, I used full sentences, full words, full thoughts. Above all, when asked for an opinion, I gave it, expecting that, since my opinion was being sought, it would be considered.
But I often felt that my manners rendered me beneath contempt by those who ran this company. I was considered old-fashioned, too genteel for my own good, and not decisive enough. My manners were responded to with impatient silence, as though I would never, ever get to the point.
I left that company, the last I ever worked for, six months before it went under to the tune of sixteen million dollars in venture capital investment. The CEO left for New Zealand the day after the failure, I expect silently, and as far as I know has not visited the United States since.
Once I left business myself — in order to write full time — I figured that this new rudeness would also be left behind. But no. I’ve come to understand a subtle variant of the new rudeness, which is not based on the need for business dominance, but rather is being accepted in social circles as the new way of being polite.
Here are a few instances… You issue an invitation to friends to join you for a weekend in the mountains, and they simply don’t respond. You leave a voicemail asking someone to call you back, and he doesn’t. So you ask again, and he doesn’t, again. A long-term friend no longer returns your voicemails, and will give no explanation for why, other than a friendly avowal that there’s nothing wrong at all, followed by continuing long silence. Or your friends email you, inviting you for a weekend in the mountains, and you respond right away that you’d love to join them, “What can I bring?” etc., etc., and there is no more information offered. The invitation is forgotten or ignored by the people who issued it, and the matter is never brought up again.
It’s the worst when the silence is hidden behind a veil of smiling good will. You’ve called someone for an answer that you both realize you really need, to a question that you’ve left for that person in emails and voicemails many times, and when she picks up the phone, she regales you with patronizing good humor and the thought that you’ve been on her mind many times recently. Then, as a kindly afterthought, she hurries to the answer to your question. With regard to your many unanswered messages, there is only silence.
Everyone acts as though there never was such a relationship, never such invitations, never such questions. Silence reigns, the good manners that would enable a forthright conversation go out the window, and we arrive at the very summit of the new rudeness.
No response is not enough. The 18th century British statesman Lord Chesterfield wrote that “manners must adorn knowledge, and smooth its way through the world.” I doubt that there are many in the United States now who would understand what Chesterfield was even talking about.
(This piece first appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle.)
“Excuse me,” the man said. He stood across from me in an elevator of the building in which I was working, at 8th and 34th in Manhattan. “I think you are not American.”
His accent was Hispanic.
A large smile appeared. “For one, you say things like ‘Good morning’ and ‘How are you?'” I had seen him many times on the elevator in the few months since I had moved into my office, but we had not spoken.
“Aren’t you talking more about someone who isn’t from New York?” I said.
“Could be, and I am from Cuba.”
“Yes, and you say ‘Good morning’ now and then. I’ve heard it.”
“Occasionally, even though I’ve lived in New York almost all my life.”
“Well, you’re right,” I said. “I’m from California.”
“Ah, that explains it.” The man’s grin exposed many perfectly aligned teeth.
“Your seeming so foreign.”
I lived in Manhattan for two years during the late 1990s, and felt—the whole time—that I was little more than a tourist. I was aware of John Updike’s remark that “the true New Yorker secretly believes that people living anywhere else have to be, in some sense, kidding.” Now that I was living in New York, I understood how accurate his observation was. There is no town in the world like this one. Sure, San Francisco has its rattling cable cars and Golden Gate. Paris its Louvre and that famous revolution. London its now-sapped British empirical glory. Dublin its James Joyce. Istanbul the Straits of Bosporus.
But hey! None of those is New York.
I came back to San Francisco and sat on my experiences of New York for 10 years, thinking that surely I’d be kidding myself if I attempted to write anything about the place. To do so, I thought I would have to have lived there all my life. I worried that the city is too enormous and too varied to be understood by anyone, without his having walked its streets since birth. But then I learned that almost half of New York’s population was born not only somewhere else, but in a language other than English. Hundreds of places somewhere else. I figured, if they can live here and not be kidding, so could I… and moreover, I had the ability to describe the experience.
Almost all the stories I’ve written about New York feature characters who are from elsewhere, almost all of them speaking English as a second language. But as was the case when I lived in Manhattan, these people in my stories are citizens of New York City in essential ways, the fact of their exotic birthplace being one of the most important. The languages alone in New York City (perhaps every language in the world is spoken in those few square miles by somebody) exemplify its ethnic and cultural madness…a very good thing, in my view. Those of our citizens who decry ethnic diversity, and who grasp desperately at the idea that the United States is an English-speaking, Christian nation whose white people are its political and cultural arbiters, clearly have not enjoyed a couple days in Manhattan. Of course, with such ideas as theirs, those few days might be terrifying for them. But for those who realize that the United States is, as touted, a nation of immigrants from every continent, New York is the city where you can find the resultant burst of extraordinary world fruition.
Two books helped me immensely, although neither had much to do with flights of fictional fantasy in contemporary New York. Eric W. Sanderson’s Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York City contains everything you ever wanted to know about Manhattan as it was on September 12, 1609, the day that Henry Hudson dropped anchor off the island. The geological history of the island, how it once lay on the ocean floor, then was part of a vast mountain range, finally the sea-level vestige of that mountain range, and many other iterations along the way, are all included in this book. As well, the book tells how the verdant natural settings of the island have been changed by the influx of human beings since that day in 1609.
Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 by Edwin G. Burroughs and Mike Wallace is THE history of what those humans did in New York up to the end of the 19th century. Overall it is my favorite book of history ever, and I had the pleasure of reading it while I was living in New York. That allowed me to go to places and surround myself in my imagination with occurrences that are so vividly portrayed in Gotham.
Both these volumes are fueled by the juggernauts of geology and history that made New York what it is today. For my fictional purposes, both presented the fluid, immense noise and excitement of New York, whether it be an island propelled by a tectonic plate into the east coast of what would become the American continent, or an explosively imagined settlement where much of the history of the American continent would be determined, written…and written about.
For a writer of fiction, one of the beauties of living in San Francisco, as I now do, is that San Francisco is a small, sophisticated city holding—barring the next earthquake—to the edge of the west coast. It has fine music, great opera, a ton of writers, wonderful art and terrific food. In my case, because of its relative quiet, it also provides a place of one’s own in which to think calmly about New York.
(Terence Clarke’s story collection New York will be published in book form next year. This piece first appeared in Huffington Post.)