Our frightening neighbor

The other evening I listened to conversation about Mexico and how frightening it’s become. One of the participants had just returned from an artists’ confab at an Arizona ranch close to the border. The fear was so palpable there that they didn’t dare go across. How sad is that.


I haven’t been in Mexico for years, and I don’t claim any special knowledge of the country, but my visits there were fascinating and studded with stories and odd-lot lives. On my first trip, just after college graduation, I stayed with a bunch of people who planned to visit Cuba. That was when the revolution was fresh and new and Castro had only recently become “a bad guy.” We never got there, but we did have a fascinating stay in Mexico in a village on Lake Chapala.


Then, Mexico was a refuge for all sorts of people. For example, two Germans, a brother and sister who had fled there in the years before World War II. He had died sometime earlier, but she still rode through the village on horseback in a great green raincoat. She was Dona Luisa. She had a long braid down her back and she looked startlingly like she belonged, like she had Spanish blood or Indian or both. It was said, but I never saw it, that she had kept her brother’s room exactly as it had been when he died. His grave dominated a dusty burial ground that was mostly made up of nearly illegible rocks, crude wooden crosses and plastic flowers. The stone was engraved: “Hail to thee, blithe spirit!” and four Lombardy poplars, one on each corner, had long ago lost their symmetry. Pretension, yes, maybe. By the bravado was touching:


There were other ex-pats: an American named Richindollar who actually packed a gun, and a burly, blond middle aged East European—I don’t remember the country, he hadn’t been there for a long time since he was paid a monthly stipend to stay away. My favorite story about this miscreant was about his trip by prison wagon across Spain. Handcuffed to another n’ere do well who was epileptic, he’d learned to roll with his mate’s daily seizures.


Many days a week we’d climb up the hill where a stream tumbled down to the village—past the stones where the women scrubbed their clothes, again past a waterfall, up to a bat cave and back down to the waterfall where we’d shower and eat freshly made tortillas and bananas. Nearly every afternoon there was a thunderstorm. The lake would turn dark and white-capped and the purple water lilies a Japanese ex-pat had planted decades before and left to spread across the shiny surface, would toss and turn like exotic bridal bouquets let loose by the rain.


Our landladies in their store next door where we bought skinny cigarillos for a dime a pack gossiped the day away and we wondered what they said since none of us could quite follow their Spanish. In the evenings, on the plaza people walked arm and arm, especially young girls who always seemed excited and young men who always seemed to be making plans; mariachis played; and politicians made long pointless speeches in front of the cathedral, pointless because then there was only one party and everyone already knew who to vote for.


Mexico was corrupt then too—I suppose it must always have been. A group of us were threatened and led through the cobbled streets at gunpoint by some fellows pretending—or not, to be lawmen. If we paid up, they wouldn’t turn us in for possessing pot. We didn’t; they didn’t.


The son of my dearest friend, a boy of sixteen, decided to hitchhike by himself back to Vancouver at the end of the summer. He was picked up for no particular reason and jailed for a few weeks until the gendarmes figured out that no one of his relatives had the money to pay to get him out. So he was released and sent on his way.


I  learned that summer that the Mexican people are in love with beauty—in their parks, their villages, their cathedrals, their great paintings and delicate crafts, their symphonies and dances, their literature. And there’s a softness there. I doubt it’s gone away since I discovered it, no matter the murderous rout by the drug cartels. Maybe it’s partly in the wonderful round tones of the language, but I remember the passion of an old woman praying in a cathedral, the shyness of a boy who passed a rose to me on a dark bus, the two men who waited patiently for a friend and me to get up from a couch they had set down by a bookstore in a Mexico City plaza. They were moving it from one place to another, and were too polite to ask us to get up and leave.

Puebla, Mexico. Photo by Russ Bowling, 2008. Flickr. Creative Commons.

Too many Americans only know the big cities and the seaside resort towns, and maybe a pyramid or two. They know it’s a poor country, especially because the border towns are so horrifically poor. I’m sure it’s poorer than ever since NAFTA , the drug cartels, the maquiladoras. While it’s too easy to simply blame the U.S. for Mexico’s problems, we should have done so much better by the country, back then when I knew it, and now. How sad it is that we’re their chief suppliers of guns. How sad it is that we’re the drug cartels’ market for drugs. How sad it is that we have to be afraid of our neighbor.

Roman circuses and serious writers

What should writers of literature do when the world prefers Roman circuses?

I think I’ve mentioned reality TV on this blog before but I haven’t really tried to deal with it. Because it’s not just television that I want to talk about; it’s the Roman circus that so many of our lives have become – on TV, on the web, everywhere.

Nancy Bentley, an English professor at the University of Pennsylvania, recently published a book with the wonderful title, Frantic Panoramas: American Literature and Mass Culture, 1870-1920. It’s all about the emergence of novelty and sensation in popular culture, and the reaction of literary culture to it. Bentley opens with what seemed then like a new kind of public entertainment, when, in 1896, the public was invited to the staged head-on collision of two steam locomotives in Waco, Texas. Three spectators were killed by flying chunks of metal. 40,000 people attended, far more than would ever go to concert halls, libraries and museums. I don’t know if the author speculates further about the number, but it’s probably proportionately the same as would attend the infamous encounters of Christian martyrs and lions in the Roman coliseum, the burnings of martyrs in the course of the Inquisition, the hanging of  murderers in England or beheadings of revolutionaries in France, or, also proportionately, the mayhem and murder thrillers that regularly appear in our contemporary movie theaters.

I always wondered what these kids were watching. I'll bet the trains were about to collide.

I don’t think I’m wrong to find a similarity between these events and those of reality TV when an expert provided by Dr. Phil gives a lie detector exam to the wayward husband of a disappeared woman and her relatives plead with Phil, after the husband fails the test: “Is she dead then?”- and all of this, plus the tears and screams of the suffering family, all for our delectation, on national (or international?) television. I guess celebrities have been baring all on radio, in magazines and on TV for some time, but today, more and more “ordinary people” are telling all – their lies, infidelities, drug use, yes, and more and more, their violence against their nearest and dearest.

Says Bentley about the early 20th century, “Mass culture seemed to offer only novelty and sensation rather than reflection. It valued profit over refinement or learning. And the American population was far more interested in these new kinds of mass entertainment than in serious literature.” In response, she says, “highbrow writers like Henry James, Edith Wharton and W.E.B. DuBois started to incorporate images such as Wild West shows, disasters and train wrecks into their works…. They discovered that mass culture might actually offer clues and insights about modern society that literary culture had not yet detected.”

Well, maybe. I don’t know. What about today, when the disasters are just as often the personal lives of you and me broadcast to a public of millions, as they are train wrecks for 40,000? What are highbrow writers to learn about their craft from these other disasters, disasters that used to be stories whispered behind closed doors, murmured confessions of poor souls on psychiatrist’s couches, confidences between close friends, or maybe even fictionalized accounts of life that tried to figure out what it all meant?

Facts: 1) most successful novels today include many instances of violence and at least one murder (even though, in my 70 years of life I don’t think I’ve ever met a murderer or the victim of a murder); 2) more and more best sellers are memoirs, not novels, as if people want more than a good story – they want one whose protagonists make claims for its literal truth.

In other words, people want true stories about violence and murder. They want “frantic personal panoramas,”  Roman circuses whose victims are real people. They want reality TV and thrillers.

And how should writers respond? If they should. I truly don’t know, but maybe if I worry about it in my next post, maybe I’ll come up with something.