Just a few edition specific notes, because, really, who gives a shit what I have to say about Orestia. What am I going to say, "gee I don't really see...moreJust a few edition specific notes, because, really, who gives a shit what I have to say about Orestia. What am I going to say, "gee I don't really see what the greatest minds in Western Civilization over the past 2500 years see in this thing, it was boring." Nope, no one needs me to cape up for Aeschylus.
Anyways, I was fretting over picking a translation before I had the problem solved for me by finding a nice used copy of the Richard Lattimore translation. I can't really speak to the comparative quality of this translation, but I didn't find any faults in it either. There is a pretty great introductory essay, that particularly serves the reader well for Agamemnon, but doesn't cover the next two plays (The Libation Bearers and The Eumenides) particularly well. (I would guess that the essay was originally written for an earlier volume that only included Agamemnon, and Lattimore quickly updated it for this volume.)
However serviceable this essay was, explanatory notes were sorely missed. Unless you're either a expert's expert on Greek mythology or a transplant from pre-Alexandrine Hellas there is a lot of references that you're just not going to be able to get. There's only so much Wikipedia can do to help you. Hence, some of the long choral sections have a tendency to be either beautifully poetic or utterly incomprehensible. Hopscotching to reference notes can be a pain, but here it would be worth it. (less)
The great historical tragedy surrounding the legacy of Che Guevara is that man who was nothing but completely and utterly sincere has become a symbol of insincerity. I'm not sure if this was always the case, but at least when I see people of my generation wearing a Che shirt or displaying a Che poster, I no longer see the famous Korda photograph of Guevara, I see the words "I am a giant poser" tattooed in bold relief on that persons face. There may be people who are sincere in their admiration, but usually a Che shirt symbolizes that the wearer listens to Rage Against the Machine in their car stereos on the way to the mall to spend their parents money at the most convenient Hot Topic. As others have noted, the person who would be most revolted by this misappropriation of identity would be Che himself.
The cult of Che continues to make some sense, even after the end of the Cold War. Guevara was brilliant, curious, compassioniate, and utterly committed to his principal beliefs. Among the communist leaders of the 20th century, Guevara emerges as the one most faithfully committed to his principles. It's hard to imagine Che compromising Marxist principles for the sake of economic expediency, like Lenin, or for the accumulation of personal power, like Stalin. Che was willing to die for his beliefs, indeed he arguably actively sought his own eventual martyrdom.
Additionally, Che's legacy, like Kurt Cobain's or Jim Morrison's, greatly benefited from the relative brevity of his life. Che died soon enough that his entire life in still basked in the warm glow of revolution. Perhaps one of the reasons he appears so steadfast is that he didn't live long enough to compromise his legacy. There's the added benefit that Che was a pretty handsome guy, so we remember him as a dashing guerilla type. There is no footage of Che as a doddering 80 year old man still wearing army fatigues, rambling incoherencies.
In many ways, Che was an archetype for the baby boomer generation. Born into a middle class Argentinian family, Che spent his early years searching for a sense of meaning. He eventually found it in a sympathy with the poor and exploited peasants of Latin America. This further exacerbated an already present sense of anti-Americanism, that lasted throughout his lifetime. Contrary to U.S. Cold Warrior theory, it was antipathy to Americans that eventually led him to Marxism. To be fair, such feelings weren't exactly unjustified. Wherever there was a South or Central American corrupt dictator exploiting his people there was usually the government of the United States standing behind them. Communism was initially just the bugaboo used to justify intervention. The real reason the United States intervened in South America during the Eisenhower years was to protect the interests of United Fruit, Coca-Cola and other American companies. Guevara's sympathies for the downtrodden of Latin America eventually drove him to armed resistance. In Guatemala, he fought against the U.S. backed coup against a democratically elected president. The failure of this struggle taught Guevara many lessons, and was probably the last push that led to him becoming a full-fledged Communist.
After the coup in Guatemala, Che continued to Mexico City, which was at the time the exile capital of Americas. Here he connected with a group of Cuban exiles through whom he eventually met a young lawyer who had recently been let out of prison for a failed attack on a barracks, Fidel Castro. Here Guevara finally found the purpose that would consume the rest of his life. The rest, as they say, is history.
Che's life is a story of a young man's search for fulfillment, eventual satisfaction, and an attempt to, for lack of better words, "chase that feeling." The success of Castro's revolution is truly a remarkable story. A group of several dozen rebels led by Castro landed in Cuba in December, 1956. WIthin weeks their numbers had been reduced to less than twenty. Yet just a little two years after their disastrous landing, Batista's dictatorship had collapsed and the rebels were marching into Havana. I'm not sure what sure of this ultimate success can be apportioned to the leadership of Castro, Guevara, and others, but obviously a tremendous deal of luck was involved.
Che spent the remainder of his life with the ambition to duplicate the Cuban revolution in his birthplace. Here's where Che's many faults came into play. Guevara had all of the arrogance and hardheadedness that came with being a steadfast ideologue. Just because something had been done once, Che believed that it could be duplicated in different situations by following a set of principles. This belief led to nothing but disasters of an increasingly hubristic nature. Che failed that his earlier success in Cuba made a repeat of that success near impossible. Now, Latin American governments and their U.S. supporters would not tolerate small bands of guerillas operating in the mountains, allowing them to build up their resources. Instead, they would be smashed quickly and brutally.
After seeing several of his sponsored guerilla groups destroyed, as a result of what he perceived as a failure to follow his instructions, Che decided to reenter the field himself. Ironically, these expeditions on a smaller scale resembled the situation the United States was concurrently experiencing in Vietnam. Che went into the Congo convinced that his leadership and Cuban support could inspire the disparate rebel groups there. Instead, the rebellion had been smashed within months and the path was set the stage for the 30 year Mobutu dictatorship.
Che's final venture in Bolivia was a complete and utter fiasco. The farce didn't even deserve the term revolution, it was more of a Cuban intervention in a sovereign country. Castro and Guevara decided that Bolivia was the appropriate launching spot for what they hoped would be a continent-wide uprising and they strong armed elements in Bolivia to provide the reluctant and feeble native backing. The struggle was essentially Cuban led, and mostly Cuban fought with an element of Bolivian support. Not surprisingly, it was a disaster from the start, and Che didn't follow his own rule book. Events culminated in Guevara's eventual surrender and execution.
Like I mentioned, Che had all of the strengths and weaknesses of an intellectual who lives in sole service of an idea. He was a moral man without hypocrisy, who could be charismatic, funny, and brilliant. But he served his idea to a faul. As much as he railed against the untoward influence of the U.S. over Latin America, his beliefs put Cuba into a much more subservient position toward the U.S.S.R. Even before his death, he left his children fatherless to serve the revolution. He was also uncompromising to a fault. He was willing to look favorably upon nuclear armageddon as long as it served his cause. In the romantic accounts of Guevara's life and death, it is not mentioned that he died in an attempt to spark World War III. His aspirations were that his uprising in Bolivia would lead to a continent wide uprising that would create a second Vietnam in the Americas. He hoped this would inspire China and the Soviet Union to set aside their sectarian differences to unite in a general struggle against the United States. He foresaw a more socialistic humanity emerging from the ashes of a nuclear conflict. He was willing to see the death of millions as long as it served his ideological beliefs. No matter his good qualities, this lessens the sense of tragedy surrounding his execution, for me at least.
Whatever the case may be, the life and death of Ernesto 'Che' Guevara is an epic tale, and Jon Lee Anderson does an admirable job in relating it. The investigative journalistic work that Anderson did oozes out of the work. Anderson spent years on this project, and lived for years in Cuba. In addition to reading almost everything written about or by Che, Anderson has interviewed scores of Guevara's contemporaries, in Cuba and Argentina, including childhood friends, Cuban officials, and fellow guerillas. What emerges is a balanced biography that is rare for such a polarizing subject. My review perhaps does not exhibit this quality, but this is more of a result of the conclusions I drew from the book and not a reflection on any inherent biases Anderson might have. Anderson does not seek to beatify or demonize, he seeks to report. Doing so, he actually was able to break news. It was his research in the course of writing this book that led to the discovery of Guevara's long lost remains near a airstrip in Bolivia in 1997. Anderson chips off the tarnish of mythology to prevent an evenhanded and reliable account of life of one of the most iconic figures of the 20th century.
I need to qualify my upcoming bold statement with two disclaimers. First off, I'm already on record as being underwhelmed by the hallowed novel I'm about to mention in my forthcoming bold statement. Second, The 42nd Parallel is only the first part of a three volume trilogy that should probably be considered as a whole, and I have only read this volume. But what's the point of writing these reviews if your not going to bring strong opinions. So despite the aforesaid reservations, here it goes: whatever Jack Keroauc was trying to do with On the Road was done twenty years earlier in a more elegant, interesting, engaging and just over-all better fashion by John Dos Passos with his U.S.A. Trilogy.
The U.S.A. Trilogy is a work of historical fiction that takes place from the beginning of the 20th century to around 1930. I know what your thinking, how can I compare Keroauc's "great American road novel" with a piece of historical fiction. Well, Dos Passos didn't write a typical example of historical fiction. He isn't interested in fictionalizing historical figures and/or events. You might feel tempted to draw comparisons with Doctorow's Ragtime. Dos Passos must have been a large influence on Doctorow, the two books share a similar time frame and themes. However, U.S.A., written over fifty years before Ragtime, is more unique and, strangely enough, more modern.
Like Doctorow, Dos Passos isn't concerned with telling the stories of specific individuals, but in using individual examples to give a sense of an overall whole. Doctorow does this by refusing to personalize his characters, they remain "Mother," "The Boy," "Mother's Brother," etc. While Dos Passos gives his characters Christian names, The 42nd Parallel is even less significantly "about" its characters than Ragtime.None of Dos Passos characters meet Emma Goldman or Archduke Franz Ferdinand. There are no moments where a character exclaims something like, "We've booked passage back on the White Star Line. They say their new vessel is unsinkable." While the stuff of history plays a prominent part in The 42nd Parallel it is encountered in a way most of us encounter the historic events of our own time, as something that has already happened to others. The characters don't really affect the course of events, and the course of event's don't really have a great effect on the characters. Dos Passos isn't trying to give the reader an idea of how the times were experienced on an individual level, he is more interested in the collective experience. As cheesy as this may sound, U.S.A. is mainly concerned about its title character.
To fully convey this argument, I need to talk a little about the trilogy's overall structure. Dos Passos uses four different "devices" to tell his story. The most conventional of these, are chapters telling the story of one of four characters. Overall, we follow twelve characters, six men and six women, through the trilogy. These characters provide a compelling and reasonably diverse sampling of early 20th century Americans.*I should note, while these chapters take up the great majority of the novel they are really no more than character sketches. It's compelling, but not necessarily ground breaking or momentous material considered by itself. However, the strength of the novel lies in how Dos Passos supplements these narratives using other techniques. The conventional chapters are followed by what Dos Passos calls "Newsreels." Here, actual news headlines and portions of articles, as well as popular songs contemporary to the narrative are kind of spliced together to create avant-garde(ish) prose passages. Let me just give a randomly picked example:
lights go out as Home Sweet Home is played to patrons low wages cause unrest, woman says
There's a girl in the heart of Maryland With a heart that belongs to me
WANT BIG WAR OR NONE
the mannequin who is such a feature of the Paris racecourse surpasses herself in the launching of novelties. She will put on the most amazing costume and carry it with perfect sangfroid. Inconsistency is her watchword Three German staff officers who passed nearby were nearly mobbed by enthusiastic people who insisted on shaking their hands
Girl Steps on Match; Dress Ignited; Dies
And Mary-land Was fairy-land When she said that mine she'd be
This might not be the best example, but it provides you with a good idea of what these passages are. Some other reviewers have complained about this, saying that when they were interested in a headline Dos Passos would jump away and it wouldn't be mentioned again. I can sympathize with this feeling, but it's asking for something fundamentally different from what the authors trying to do. You don't have recognize any of the news items to appreciate the novel. They are there, as Dos Passos himself said, "to give an inkling of the common mind of the epoch.
Dos Passos inserts himself in the novel through "The Camera Eye," 27 short, autobiographical, stream of conscience, passages. This device, heavily influenced by Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man can also be a little disorienting because no context is provided.** Again though, complete comprehension of how it all fits isn't necessary or even what the author is expecting. Finally, interlaced in the text are several somewhat poetic, somewhat gonzo, biographical sketches of prominent figures in the era. Dos Passos includes these because "their lives seem to embody so well the quality of the soil in which Americans of these generations grew."
So remember how way back in the first paragraph I mentioned Keroauc. Well here's where the comparison comes in. I believe Dos Passos and Keroauc shared a identical idea, and U.S.A. and On the Road are both fundamentally expressions of this common idea. In the revised prologue to The 42nd Parallel written after the publication of the final volume of the trilogy, Dos Passos describes a nameless man who is completely solitary but not alone. Allow me to quote a long passage, because it's pretty fucking amazing:
Only the ears busy to catch the speech are not alone; the ears are caught tight, linked tight by the tendrils of phrased words, the turn of a joke, the singsong fade of a story, the gruff fall of a sentence; liking tendrils of speech twine through the city blocks, spread over pavements, grow out along parked avenues, speed with the trucks leaving on their long night runs over roaring highways, whisper down sandy byroads past wornout farms, joining up cities and fillingstations, roundhouses, steamboats, planes groping along airways; words call out on mountain pastures, drift slow down rivers widening to the sa and the hushed beaches. It was not in the long walks through jostling crowds at night that he was less alone, or in the training camp at Allentown, or in the day on the docks at Seattle, or in the empty reek of Washington City hot boyhood summer nights, or in the meal on Market Street, or in the swim off the red rocks at San Diego, or in the bed full of fleas in New Orleans, or in the cold razor wind off the lake, or in the gray faces trembling in the grind of the gears in the street under Michigan Avenue, or in the smokers of limited expresstrains, or walking across country, or riding up the dry mountain canyons, or the night without a sleeping bag among frozen beartracks in the Yellowstone, or canoeing Sundays int the Quinnipiac; but in his mother words about longago, in his father's telling about when I was a boy, in the kidding stories of uncles, in the lies the kids told at school, the hired man's yarns, the tall tales of the doughboys told after taps; it was speech that clung to the ears, the link that tingled in the blood; U.S.A. U.S.A. is the slice of a continent. U.S.A. is a group of holding companies, some aggregations of trade unions, a set of laws bound in calf, a radio network, a chain of moving pictures theatres, a column of stockquotations rubbed out written in by a Western Union Union boy on a blackboard, a public library full of old newspapers and dogeared historybooks with protests scrawled on the margins in pencil. U.S.A. is the world's greatest rivervalley fringed with mountains and hills, U.S.A. is a set of bigmmouthed officials with too many bankaccounts. U.S.A. is a lot of men buried in their uniform in Arlington Cemetery. U.S.A. is the letters at the end of an address when you are away from home. But mostly U.S.A. is the speech of the people.
Whew, sorry about the extended block quote, but isn't that friggin' amazing? Am I wrong or do we learn the same thing from Sal Paradise?I think Keroauc and Dos Passos had similar ideas and goals. Let me be clear that I'm not completely dismissing On the Road If you were to make a Venn Diagram of the two novels there would be similarities but each would have its own well-defined circle. However, one of the reasons On the Road is considered by some to be the great American novel is because it so ably distills one particular pie slice of U.S.A. Personally, I think Dos Passos, in addition to being a better writer, gives you a bigger more satisfying piece. Dos Passos' U.S.A. is a better illustration of "the link that tingled in the the blood."
*The glaring exception to my diversity claim is that all of the characters are white. At least in the first volume of the trilogy, Dos Passos does not seem particularly concerned with race issues. Class relations is the great contentious issue in this volume.
**Just wanted to note here that the chronology of Dos Passos' life provided in my Library of America Edition helped here. Moreover, it was worth reading on its own. JDP lived a hell of an interesting life. I'm not sure what his wikipedia page is like but it might be worth checking out. (less)