Sunday, December 29, 2013

A Cold Culture War

(image taken from Mayakovskya)

(image taken from Rochester University)

Earlier this month, the filmmaker and I embarked on the prolonged subway-trek from my neighborhood, Crown Heights, to Harlem, to attend the annual yuletide party of Patricia Thompson, to some better known as Yelena Mayakovsky, professor and feminist theorist, though, profoundly more famously daughter of revolutionary Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky. She has for much of her life been living and teaching in Manhattan, and has apparently been hosting this event for years. The filmmaker had made her acquaintance while assisting an interview shoot for a new documentary on Mayakovsky himself; it was a classic, almost comedic, almost cruelly coincidental day where all went awry, and, thankfully, his easy charm assuaged her cantankerous attitude about the whole affair. After smoothing over the morning hiccups and placing her at ease, the two shared easy conversation on philosophy and speculative fiction, leading to her extending an invitation to the party. As we rocked and ambled past station, past station, we joked, nervously, at how we truly had absolutely no idea what to expect. Convening in some type of lounge within her community, our closest conjectures were either a salon-type set-up of her academic colleagues and other aging New York intellectuals, or a sort of retired elderly happy hour. With plans to attend another holiday party later that evening, back in Crown Heights, at the home of two of my closest friends, I had worn a rather bodacious black sheer blouse, with pronounced sleeves and rhinestone buttons. My lips were painted. As we crawled nearer and nearer our northern destination, the mystery, I felt increasingly anxious and self-conscious about this wardrobe choice, in a place where, surely, I would already be remarkably conspicuous.

Walking in the cold to this lounge, gulping in cold air, tainted with the glow of brightly tinted Christmas lights and cheap take-out Chinese joints, we learned that we would arrive before the documentary director, frantically searching for an elusive parking spot. We entered with giggling trepidation, then felt an awkward calm. The guests were a true amalgamation, though it was immediately obvious that the predominance were affiliated with the Russian-American Cultural Alliance, an initiative spearheaded and supported by our gracious hostess. Any qualms concerning my bold outfit dissipated, as I spied a sea of Russian women donning animal-printed tight knits, glitter, gold, and fur. An older woman in a wool Christmas sweater played piano while two curvacious opera singers, swathed in sequins, crooned. Our first course of action was to snatch a cup of cheap red wine, our second to mingle. A complete lack of fluency in Russian impended our opportunities to network and make new friends, though, it was not a complete deterrent. Sipping our drinks, we discussed the Mayakovsky project, in its infancy stages, and the immigration of Russian literary traditions to the States. One middle-aged gentleman we met, like myself, considers himself a poetry dilettante. Cheers, we said, and drank for the memory of Mayakovsky.

Following the requisite drinks-before-dinner social hour, as the buffet was placed, Patricia-Yelena gave a speech to the group. She thanked her family, friends, colleagues, for joining her, for celebrating, and she then spoke a bit about Russian heritage in America, continuing to share and relish in their traditions, their culture, continuing to recognize and commemorate their contributions to literature, science, philosophy, the arts. She made a few comments, which I fail to recall verbatim, but which, essentially, can be paraphrased as such: Russia is one of the only countries with whom the United States has shared three-hundred years of peace, of absolutely no active military aggravation; Russia must stop being perceived as the enemy. Again, more was said, and more elegantly, however, that statement was emphasized, the importance of cultural alliances underscored in the wake of a strong propagation of any and all that is Russian demarcated as other, as foreign, and as foe.   

A handful of days ago, the filmmaker and I were wasting away with some television, zombie-zoning to the hilarious and popular show Eastbound and Down, a type of slapstick-satire, which leans to the absurd and offensive a bit more heavily than the highfalutin and profound. Without divulging too much of the plot unnecessarily, in the third season, the used and deservedly abused pitcher-protagonist, an older man who loves American beer and the original American sport, after crawling his way back from public school shame into the baseball minor leagues, is confronted with an abominable and rather familiar adversary: a young, strong, Russian alternate pitcher. Albeit a rather goofy one, the conflict becomes a very classic battle of archetypes, the most prominent, naturally, being that of American versus "other." And, as has been popular for decades within a variety of media, what better way to succinctly portray this notion of otherness than a widely stereotypical Russian caricature? 

Despite the well-worn trope, the various scenes involving generic, quasi-maniacal, and easily despicable Ivan made me laugh. When the laughter waned, though, these situations, in light of my experience at the holiday party, an experience mostly of an observer and of feeling outside, begged some contemplation on how cultural consciousness and popular media portray the foreign, the role of non- or even un-American, but how is it done without, seemingly, inciting offense? In other words, which nationalities, which religions, which various categorizations of other are appropriate to mock and to satirize and which, in the more than vague and nebulous realm of political correctness, are off limits? To survey television and film alone, from beloved cartoon Rocky and Bullwinkle to the James Bond franchise, leveraging the Russian stereotype is fine. Despite, or perhaps, in spite, of the history of peace shared between the United States and Russia lauded by Patricia-Yelena, the Russian, sometimes arbitrarily named Vladimir or Boris or Ivan, sometimes left nameless, remains a staple foe. 

Wherever one falls on the spectrum of political cause and possibility of the Cold War, on the one end Russia posing a plausible and veritable threat for military aggression, on the other end a mutually fabricated conflict perpetuated by propaganda and supporting both political agendas, it cannot be argued: there has been no overt confrontation between the two nations. Is there antagonism now? Or is continued use of Russian memes and traditions, whether sincere or some comedic bastardization or distillation, a type of homage to their role in American and global development? As the Winter Olympic games approach, the penultimate event of globalization and yet continued fervent nationalism, with many eyes critiquing host nation Russia, I am curious to see how the us-them, hero-villian phenomenon plays.     

Friday, December 6, 2013

Fragments of South Africa

After spending the majority of a day crowded on a plane, rocketing south, across a terrain of latitudinal and longitudinal grid, our party arrived in Johannesburg, gathered to celebrate the imminent wedding of a mutual dear friend. I was the youngest, in both years and experience; it was my first time to this wild and vast continent, rife with violently beautiful history, the land-loins from which sprang our species. I was flooded with these trite emotions. Mitochondrial Eve, sauntering with sass and trepidation on her two legs. An ancient and ancestral land. Immediately, we began jocularly alluding to the acclimation to African time, more than a slowing pace, an entire philosophical shift that I did not entirely comprehend. I feigned. The air was dry and warm and I gulped it in greedily; it seemed older and more pure than the frenzied winds of developed home.

After coffee and air, we rented a car at the airport; our companion Peter, white-haired, seasoned, British South African returning home, drove, navigating the seemingly infinite stretches of black tar pushing away from the center of the city. He warned us of the dangers of the road; racing speeds, rhomboid Volkswagen buses jammed with a cacophony of bodies, the convenient and cheap commute from the corrugated iron communities to work. Many of the people travel hours to and from, he explained, risking their lives in these tenuous jalopies. When a tire blows out, a frequent occurrence, the numbers left dead or ravaged is horrifying. There are those piled deep in the vehicle, other vehicles swerving to avoid collision, slowly ambling pedestrians everywhere. We should not drive much past dark, we are warned.

Eventually, as we leave the city limits in our dust, the highway thins to two lanes. Two black lanes stabbing across a tableau of stunted rolling mountains, tree and rock meeting the sky in asymmetrical patterns. Rock formations and vegetation foreign to me, a phylogenic cousin to the hills of the American west. Exhaustion dissipates, the weight from almost fifteen hours in a cabin in the sky gone, as I gaze out the window. Each new place, new city I visit brings this type of fascination with it; here, the visceral excitement was a deluge. Amidst the natural beauty, the gas stations, the scattering of hand-built communities, wooden taverns, naturally unnatural with the green background of forest.

In this province, the economy is tourism and paper; there is a spread of quaint bed and breakfast farms, including one belonging to the uncle of the bride, and, deeper in the hills, a menacing paper mill. While touring the day after the wedding, alcohol-groggy but rested, we pass this industrial encampment, spewing noxious fumes that permeate the area and loom in our nostrils for miles. In those speeding death-trap buses, the people head here, this epicenter of employment for the locals. Across the road, a bar, dark and old.

The societal division is so stark it is painful, almost surreal. Born and bred in a place of diversity, in every sense of the popular moniker, I found this gap unpalatable. Things are so much better now, many commented. I believe them, but I cannot fathom this before they so happily move beyond, this history unforgettable.

 A pharmacy in a tiny town, joined by a single restaurant, a single grocer, a chocolate boutique, and a bizarre art gallery; here we stop to stretch our legs and buy more insect repellant. My fear for the mosquitoes turned out to be greater than the actual threat, the chemicals purchased back home at a sporting goods store unused. On one wall, a series of photographs were taped and labeled: Snow, 2005. A sprinkling of white barely covers the grass. 

 Anthony, a young and shy man, waits on his for dinner and breakfast at the small inn. His movements are steady, slow, assured, but modest; he has bulk and could present and clear the dishes with an opulent prowess if he so chose. I believe him to be a boxer. Anxious to learn more about him, I attempted a few questions, inane and common, before deciding to follow suit, fall silent, relish the cool air of the evenings. 

After the wedding, we spend some days on safari, living ruggedly glamorously in the bush, romanticizing the open expanses of untouched habitat, seeking animals like cheap thrills. One night we spend, backs arched, necks craned, gazing into the abyss of stars, looking for the Southern cross, disagreeing, unsure, each of us connecting rhinestone dots in the sky to draw one of our own.

(image taken from The Daily Mail)