Thursday, January 15, 2015

On Freedom and banned books

"Think wrongly if you please but in all cases think for yourself."~ Doris Lessing

In this era of television screens everywhere, drones and cookies I think of George Orwell and conclude that he was indeed a visionary. Television screens are highly efficient at manipulating the masses, and then there is another issue that curbs freedom: censorship.
 Those who ban books may believe that they have a higher “sense of morality” but I doubt the morality of those who abuse their power by banning books.
 I believe censoring a book is a violation of people’s freedom: the decision to read or not to read a book belongs to each individual person.
  What does the act of banning a book entail? Let’s analyze it.
 When somebody bans a book or makes an attempt to ban it, they are taking for granted that their opinion is more relevant than anybody else’s opinions. They do not give others the chance to read the book themselves and to reach their own conclusions regarding the quality or the significance of it.
   Do the people who censor books believe they are superior to the rest of the population? They are certainly not an example of humility but the epitome of manipulation and control which George Orwell portrayed so well in “1984” and “Animal Farm”. Not surprisingly these books have been censored and are still censored in some places.
 Another term that I want to challenge is that of the “challenged books”. When they say that a book has been challenged, they mean that a group of persons made an attempt to censor it or to restrict the access to it in some way.
 Challenging a book should carry a different meaning, though. It should be about reading a book and having an open discussion about it. In order to grow and learn we should all be allowed to read the book first. Then we can have a healthy discussion on it.
 I appreciate the opportunity to read other people’s opinions on books I read.  I may agree or disagree with them, but in both cases I find it enriching to learn what other people think about the same stories I have read. It is also thrilling to discover the different paths that a book can take in the minds of different readers.
 When I was writing this post I came across the news that a blogger in Saudi Arabia will be flogged 50 times every Friday during 20 weeks in a public square because he criticized Islam on his blog. His name is Raif Badawi.
 Raif Badawi is also jailed for ten years  due to the fact that he was brave enough to express his opinion.  (George Orwell shows in his novel 1984 how  prisoners of conscience  are subjected to ill-treatment and boundless cruelty.)
   Raif should be in Canada with his family now, but he is currently in prison, suffering the consequences of this torture.
I have signed a petition to ask the authorities to release him and to drop the charges. Here is the link.
"Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter." — Martin Luther King Jr., who was born on this day in 1929.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Van Gogh's letters

 “And men are often faced with the impossibility of doing anything, imprisoned in some kind of horrible cage. There is also, I know, deliverance, eventual deliverance. A reputation ruined rightly or wrongly, embarrassment, circumstance, misfortune, all these make people prisoners. You can’t say what it is that shuts you up, what walls you in, what seems to bury you alive, but you still feel some kind of bars, some kind of cage, some kind of walls.
Do you know what makes the prison disappear? It is every deep, genuine affection. To be friends, brothers, to love, that opens the prison by its sovereign power, its powerful charm. Someone who does not have that remains bereft of life.
But where sympathy is reborn, life is reborn.
Sometimes the prison is called prejudice, misunderstanding, fatal ignorance of this or that, distrust, false shame.”
Vincent van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh’s words are rooted in a timeless universal truth. 
Reading his letters seems to make time come to a halt. It throws me into a deep meditative state of serenity. And it is also akin to the effects of connecting with a sincere friend.
 (I am not going to focus on his death here, but I want to clarify that van Gogh did NOT commit suicide. He was shot to death by another person. )
 I believe every person who endeavors to take an artistic discipline seriously will benefit from reading Vincent van Gogh’s letters to his brother Theo. There are various reasons why his deep insights and wisdom are of much relevance today.
  His letters reveal his self-taught journey in drawing and painting. The drawings and paintings that he enclosed in the letters are shown; they correlate with his musings, reflections and life anecdotes (some of them are funny!).
 Van Gogh shares his learning process with painstaking details. He also describes nature and people with great care, and from his unique interactions with them we learn about his exquisite sensitivity and intelligence. Being a keen observer of his surroundings was vital to his artworks.
 “The doctor is just as I would like him to be, he looks rather like some of the heads by Rembrandt: a magnificent forehead and a very sympathetic expression, I hope I have learned something from him, in the sense that I hope I will be able to deal with my models more or less in the same way he deals with his patients, that is, to be firm with them and to put them in the required position without further ado. It is marvelous with how much patience this man treats his patients himself by massaging, applying ointments, and handling them in all kinds of ways, infinitely more firmly than an attendant, and how he has the knack of removing the scruples and getting people in the position he needs them to be. There is an old man who would be superb as a St. Jerome: a thin, tall, wiry, brown and wrinkled body, with joints so fabulously clear and expressive that it makes me melancholy not to have him as a model.”
Through his delightful prose and images we witness how his work progressed over time; we can appreciate the skills that accrued as a result of his persistent dedication and passion. (Yes, he was talented, but talent alone wouldn't have been enough to accomplish what he accomplished). 
 Every time I contemplate his masterpieces I immerse myself in those places as if I were a real visitor. Not only do I see the settings he portrays but I also absorb their moods; I become a part of them.
  Last but not least, I admire his humility. The thoughts and feelings he expresses are humble and genuine. His letters unravel his soul and regale us with his deep introspection and friendly voice.

 I will share some of his quotes and I hope that the energy of his words spreads and becomes contagious.
Thank you, Vincent.

“How enormously pedantic it is really, how absurd, a man who thinks that he knows it all and that it will be as he thinks, as if there were not always in all things in life a je ne sais quoi of great good, and also an element of bad, from which we feel that there is something infinite above us, infinitely greater, mightier than we are.”
“A man who does not feel himself small, who does not realize that he is just a speck, how wrong he is basically.”
“Art demands a tenacious effort, an effort in spite of everything, and continuous observation. By tenacious effort I mean in the first place constant labor, but also not abandoning your views at someone else’s say-so.”

"In my view I am often immensely rich, not in money, but (although just now perhaps not all the time) rich because I have found my metier, something I can devote myself to heart and soul and that gives inspiration and meaning to my life."
"My moods vary, of course, but nevertheless I have on average acquired a certain serenity. I have a strong belief in art, a certain faith that it is a powerful current that carries a man to haven, although he himself has to put in an effort too. I think it is such a blessing when a man has found his metier, that I don't count myself among the unfortunates."

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Song of the Simple Truth

“If my love is thus, like a torrent,
like a river swollen in a full tempest,
like a lily starting roots in the wind,
like an intimate rain,
without clouds and without sea…
if my love is of water,
why do they try to tie it to immovable courses?”
Julia de Burgos

 Julia de Burgos’s poetry is like a torrential rain falling on a desert. Her free spirit is a volcano that erupts in her verses, flooding us with the lava of her imagination. 
 Nature is present in most of her poems. It is the language of her soul. Her poetry is a wellspring of passion and intense emotions.
Reading her verses makes me cry, laugh, think, feel, fly. The themes deal with love, freedom, identity, solitude, and political concerns.
 Neglected by the literary world during her lifetime, Julia de Burgos (1914-1953) was an accomplished poet and journalist who was censored and persecuted due to her political ideas.  I came across this poet for the first time when I read Edward Hirsch's anthology entitled "Poet's Choice". His essay on Julia de Burgos’s poetry piqued my curiosity, so I got the compilation of her poems that Mr. Hirsch recommended.
     I’m glad I did.
    Jack Agueros did an excellent job of gathering all her poems in a bilingual edition entitled Song of the Simple Truth.  Mr. Agueros also indulges us with a fascinating chapter about her life.
  Julia de Burgos was a free thinker, and she expresses this in her poem “My Soul”.

“The madness of my soul
cannot repose,
it lives in the restlessness
in the disorder
in the imbalance
of things dynamic,
in the silence
of the free thinker, who lives alone,
in quiet exile.”

 In the 1930's, when Julia was still living in Puerto Rico, the economic situation was a disaster. Unemployment was at an all time high of sixty percent according to some sources, and Julia  was affected by the upheavals of this period.
   Julia de Burgos went through a variety of jobs which included working in a milk station offering free breakfasts to children, and writing for a radio program called the School of the Air, where it is reported that she was fired for her political beliefs. She also worked as a school teacher in a rural area.
  How can we not be seduced by Jack Agueros' s poetical description of Julia de Burgos?
“Julia de Burgos was one of those persons who burst into life like a comet sizzling through our solar system. We watch such persons with a mixture of great awe and trepidation—we enjoy seeing the fiery aura and tail, but worry about them crashing into us, or burying us in their smoking wake.
“There is no doubt they are beautiful and brilliant—but perhaps they would make us happier if they buzzed some farther planet. After they are gone—burned out—or looped out in their elliptic trajectory heading back to whence they came, our enthusiasm for them grows.”

 Julia de Burgos evokes the beauty of her homeland and her intimate connection to it in her famous poem “Rio Grande de Loiza”

Rio Grande de Loiza!... Elongate yourself in my spirit
and let my soul lose itself in your rivulets,
finding the fountain that robbed you as a child
and in a crazed impulse returned you to the path.

Coil yourself upon my lips and let me drink you,
to feel you mine for a brief moment,
to hide you from the world and hide you in yourself,
to hear astonished voices in the mouth of the wind.

Dismount for a moment from the loin of the earth,
and search for the intimate secret in my desires;
confuse yourself in the flight of my bird fantasy,
and leave a rose of water in my dreams.

Rio Grande de Loiza!... My wellspring, my river
since the maternal petal lifted me to the world;
my pale desires came down in you from the craggy hills
to find new furrows;
and my childhood was all a poem in the river,
and a river in the poem of my first dreams.

Juan Ramon Gimenez, the 1956 Nobel Literature Prize winner, said: “Since I met her in Washington, I admired profoundly the writing of this extraordinary woman for her endowment of creativity and expression.”
 I will take the liberty to share the first poem of Song of the Simple Truth. It is provocative and breathtaking. 

To Julia de Burgos

 Already the people murmur that I am your enemy
because they say that in verse I give the world your me.

They lie, Julia de Burgos. They lie, Julia de Burgos.
Who rises in my verses is not your voice. It is my voice
because you are the dressing and the essence is me;
and the most profound abyss is spread between us.

You are the cold doll of social lies,
and me, the virile starburst of the human truth.

You, honey of courtesan hypocrisies; not me;
in all my poems I undress my heart.

You are like your world, selfish; not me;
who gambles everything betting on what I am.

You are only the ponderous lady very lady;
not me; I am life, strength, woman.

You belong to your husband, your master; not me;
I belong to nobody, or all, because to all, to all
I give myself in my clean feeling and in my thought.

You curl your hair and paint yourself; not me;
the wind curls my hair, the sun paints me.

You are a housewife, resigned, submissive,
tied to the prejudices of men; not me;
unbridled, I am a runaway Rocinante
snorting horizons of God’s justice.

You in yourself have no say; everybody governs you;
your husband, your parents, your family,
the priest, the dressmaker, the theatre, the dance hall,
the auto, the fine furnishings, the feast, champagne,
heaven and hell, and the social, “what will they say”.