“What China lacks the most is faith or a spiritual support. Look at Bo Xilai. He tried to use Mao’s idea to create a spiritual support for people in Chongqing by having them sing old communist songs. He recognized that people lacked a sense of community and wanted to create a model in Chongqing for all of China. But he made a mistake in that Mao isn’t a God.”
I am known in England mainly for light, though hopefully thoughtful non-fiction; in Italy for polemical newspaper articles and a controversial book about soccer; in Germany, Holland, and France, for what I consider my “serious” novels Europa, Destiny, Cleaver; in the USA for literary criticism; and in a smattering of other countries, but also in various academic communities, for my translations and writing on translation. Occasionally I receive emails that ask, “But are you also the Tim Parks who…?,” Frequently readers get my nationality wrong. They don’t seem to know where I’m coming from or headed to.
What if your natural self is not that appealing to the voters, what indeed if your natural self is not all that natural? This is the conundrum confronting the team advising Mitt Romney. From the hordes of journalists, pundits, and armchair experts gathered here in Tampa, the campaign has received the same unsolicited advice: it needs to “humanize” the Republican presidential nominee, formally anointed as such on Tuesday, to present what the National Journal calls his “warm, fuzzy side.” But this might just be the time when a stiff personality could work.
A specter is haunting the Republican National Convention—the specter of ideology. The novelist Ayn Rand (1905–1982) and the economist Friedrich von Hayek (1899–1992) are the house deities of many American libertarians, much of the Tea Party, and Paul Ryan in particular. The irony of today is that these two thinkers relied on some of the same underlying assumptions as the Marxism they were trying to defeat. The paradoxical result is a Republican Party ticket that embraces outdated ideology, taking some of the worst from the twentieth century and presenting it as a plan for the twenty-first.
I ride my bike past Lance Armstrong’s house here in Aspen almost every day. It is a simple semi-detached affair that is much more modest than many of the houses in this neighborhood. It would not occur to me to knock on the door. He has reported that in the decade he’s been living part time here that someone he didn’t know has knocked on his door only once. He did once pass me on his bike. He gave a friendly wave.
The idea of impending doom, whether divinely ordained or inferred by creative imaginations in the wake of absent deities, is a recurring theme not only in the work of writers such as Yeats, Eliot and Beckett. Imagining—or predicting—the end of the world has been the stuff of popular culture from the doomsday panoramas of the English artist John Martin (1789-1853) to the events of the “Rapture” described in the Left Behind series of novels by Tim F. LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. In recent years, apocalyptic rhetoric has turned up in international politics among terrorists and hard-line governments such as Iran, but also their adversaries in Washington, Israel, and elsewhere including the current Republican candidate for president.
At once unsentimentally au courant and fixated on that past, Chris Marker was the Janus of world cinema. His unclassifiable documentaries treat memory as the stuff of science fiction, a notion he shared with his early associate Alain Resnais. Hardly a Luddite, Marker thrived on technological paradox. A half-hour succession of still images evoking motion pictures as time travel, La Jetée, his most generally known work, could have been made for Eadweard Muybridge’s nineteenth-century zoopraxiscope.
One of the oldest bits of practical advice in the English language advises people not “to buy a pig in a poke.” It dates from days when there were shortages of meat, and con men sold what purported to be succulent ham or bacon in the form of a piglet wriggling in a poke, or burlap bag. A bargain price was offered on the condition that the poke not be opened. When it was opened, too late for the payment to be called back, the sucker found he had bought a stray dog or large cat, not a pig. Mitt Romney tells us he has a pig—a reasonable account of his taxes—in his pouch, but he won’t show it to us. Imagine our surprise if, after his election, we get to peek inside the pouch.
Most poems are short. They give the impression it took no time to write them. Ten minutes tops. To write a six-hundred-page novel takes years. You go and work at your desk every day the way a miner goes to his mine and you feel as drained afterwards. Of course, that kind of work should be amply rewarded. A poet stands by the window watching the rain fall, or looks at the lock of hair of his old sweetheart, scribbles something down on a piece of paper and is through for the day. The most outrageous thing about poetry is that poems composed in such a lackadaisical manner end up in anthologies your kids are supposed to study in school. Not only that, but they may fall in love with them, memorize them, and try to imitate them. “Poetry is dead!,” someone shouts happily every now and then, to the relief of parents and those among the educated who never read poetry. No such luck.
Most American soldiers landing in Vietnam in the 1960s were handed a ninety-three-page booklet called A Pocket Guide to Vietnam. Produced by the Department of Defense, it described how small, well-proportioned, dignified, and restrained Vietnamese people are, how the delicately-boned local women appear in their flowing national dress, how Vietnamese love tea, and don’t like slaps on the back, how they excel at cooking fish. Soldiers reading this advice could get the mistaken idea that they were going to a tourist destination with a bit of violence on the side.