Category Archives: arts and literature

Coming of Age: Michelangelo

Portrait of the aging Michelangelo by Daniele de Volterra

In her remarkable book The Coming of Age, Simone de Beauvoir insists upon looking unflinchingly at old age. Among other things, she quotes famous artists and thinkers who likewise wrote honestly about what it is like to grow old; I’ll be sharing these on the blog from time to time. This one comes from  from Michelangelo, who lived to be 88, long enough to experience his physical body breaking down while his artistic vision remained.

My long drawn out labors have broken, undermined and dismembered me, and the inn to which I am travelling, the inn at whose common table I shall eat and drink, is death…I cage a buzzing wasp in a leathery bag full of bones and sinews, and I have three balls of cobbler’s wax in a tube.  My face is a scarecrow’s. I am like those rags they hang out in times of draught and that frighten away the  birds. A spider runs about in one of my ears and in the other a cricket chirps all night.  Weighed down by my catarrh I can neither sleep nor snore.

The Cleveland of Harvey Pekar

Cleveland photo by scottamus (Ohio signs set) from flickr

I didn’t know anything about Cleveland when I first went there in the late 1970s. I got off the plane, not expecting much, and went to the office of Dennis Kucinich, then the mayor. Kucinich, in what I now recognize as the Cleveland political style, immediately launched into an attack on the new people-movers that were being installed at the airport. From there he went on to the power company and from there to the banks, and behind the banks, the mob (which later put a hit out on him). That was my introduction to the city of Cleveland–a city steeped in corruption that had nonetheless managed to elect this crusading “boy mayor”–and it won from me a kind of  grudging respect that I’ve never lost.

I asked one of his aides if there were any independent journalists there, and he sent me to Roldo Bartimole, who was then–and still is now–the city’s leading muckraker. Meeting Bartimole was a crash course in Cleveland politics. But if I wanted to really know about Cleveland, someone told me, I should read Harvey Pekar. Pekar was a comic book writer, and at that time he was still an underground figure in an underground world, operating in the shadow of R. Crumb, another Cleveland native who had helped him get his start. Pekar worked as a file clerk in a VA hospital, and he lived in and wrote about the old Cleveland neighborhoods that looked like it hadn’t changed in decades–low-key but no-nonsense, a little shabby but comfortable. And he matched his city. As the obituary in the Cleveland Plain-Dealer put it:

Pekar chronicled his life and times in the acclaimed autobiographical comic-book series, “American Splendor,” portraying himself as a rumpled, depressed, obsessive-compulsive “flunky file clerk” engaged in a constant battle with loneliness and anxiety.

After that visit I did read Pekar, and ever since then, any thought of Cleveland for me has conjured up his work. I recalled it one afternoon during the 2004 elections, at a Democratic campaign rally in a Cleveland housing complex. The candidate, whose name I can’t remember, never showed up. I met a middle-aged couple standing off to the side. The man was wearing an AFSCME jacket and the woman a raincoat. It was cold and they were passing a cup of coffee back and forth. The woman’s “Bush Gotta Go” sign hanging limply from the crook of her right arm.  They didn’t seem to know much about the candidate, either. I asked why they were there. “Oh,” the woman said in a matter-of-fact voice, “you know, to help out.” There are people like that all over Cleveland. A lot of them are still union people, including some who don’t have union jobs. They’re not flashy and they don’t waste words, but they have a kind of resolve. They don’t really expect much to change, but they come along anyway to help out. They know that most of life consists of just showing up. Nobody pays much attention to them–but in Harvey Pekar’s comics, they were the superheroes.

In the last decade, the world bent over backwards to make Pekar into some sort of star, like when he was on Letterman or when the movie about him came out. But that wasn’t really him. He was like Cleveland’s old neighborhoods, a little run-down but with some kind of resolve that kept him going. According to the Plain Dealer, 

R. Crumb said Pekar’s work examined the minutiae of everyday life, material “so staggeringly mundane it verges on the exotic.” Pekar himself summed it up as revealing “a series of day-after-day activities that have more influence on a person than any spectacular or traumatic events. It’s the 99 percent of life that nobody ever writes about.”

The Late Ted Kennedy

An especially insightful review of Ted Kennedy’s memoir True Compass appeared on The American Prospect over the weekend. It may be of interest to members of the Unsilent Generation, not only because so many of us grew up—and grew old—with Teddy, but also because it is a homage to the wisdom and fortitude that came to him with age. In a review titled “He Kept the Flame,” Harold Meyerson points out that Kennedy’s real achievements were made late in life, when he was bucking the dominant political tide. “The essential Ted Kennedy,” he writes, “only truly emerged as he sought to keep the nation and his party from moving rightward”:  

For decades, the [Democratic] party had been losing the support of working-class whites (and gaining support among professionals). It had been complicit in the evisceration of American manufacturing and had generally grown more centrist in its economics. For Kennedy, however, the Democrats had an enduring compact with working Americans, one they had to renew every generation by enacting such policies as universal health care. Though the party moved rightward during the age of Reagan, Kennedy writes, “I maintained my conviction that the working-class majority forged by Roosevelt remained our best hope for justice and progress.” 

The appreciations of Kennedy’s achievements that followed his death this summer noted, of course, that he was the only one of the Kennedy brothers to be given a long career and that his list of accomplishments was, accordingly, a long one. But in measuring Ted’s work alongside that of Jack and Bobby, another key difference also emerges: His brothers were liberal political leaders during an age of liberalism. Ted was liberalism’s leading standard-bearer in a time of conservatism, a time when conservatism made inroads into his own political party. 

Prison Comix

With more and more older people going to prison there is a growing demand for educational materials to keep their minds alive and well amid the deadening atmosphere of the American correctional system—created in large part by government and supervised and informed by the judiciary. Not to mention the thousands upon thousands of young and middle-aged people whose “rehabilitation” has been cut short by the cruel sentencing laws. There are all sorts of projects afoot in this area, but one is of special interest. It is called the Real Cost of Prisons, and is run by Lois Ahrens of Northampton, Mass., on a shoestring. You can get a feel for her work by obtaining the Real Cost of Prisons Comix book which includes three comics: Prison Town about the financing and placement of prisons and their effect on rural communities; Prisoners of the war on Drugs, a history of the war on drugs; and Prisoners of a hard Life,which includes stories of women trapped by mandatory sentencing. To me, this last book is the most telling. PM Press publishes the book at $12.95 a copy.

Ahrens got the idea of doing comic books,partly because she wanted to find a way of communicating with prisoners in a simple,direct way providing them especially up to date information and new research. She hit on the idea,in part from years of going to Mexico, and watching women engrossed in photo novellas while tending market stalls or sitting on park benches. Then trade unionists from South Africa gave her publications chock full of graphics, pictures and text that they were using to educate people in their campaign to stop privatization and in the fight against globalization. She also got ideas from “A Field Guide to the US Economy” by James Heintz and Nancy Foibre which also uses graphs, cartoons and ordinary language to explain the economy.

Because prisoners can’t ordinarily take advantage of the information that currently proliferates on the internet, comic books which speak to their lives and needs, are available and free, she says.

Comic books have been received by prisoners in every state prison system,every federal prison and numerous jails. Thousands more have been sent to prisoners through 13 Books through Bars organizations. We know that comic books are passed hand to hand by prisoners,since as soon as a set is sent to one prisoner,not a week passes before we begin receiving requests from other prisoners at that prison..One prisoner wrotethat he found one on a pew in the prison

Ahrens web site is an up to date resource on prison news.

Vive la Geezer

Unsilent Generation has taken a break while principal James Ridgeway visits a friend in France. He’s still over there, but is now back at the computer and will be posting again soon.

10450In the meantime, here’s something from the grand old man of French music, Charles Aznavour. For members of the Silent Generation, Aznavour became an international epitome of cool for his chanson and his appearances in films like Truffaut’s 1960 classic Shoot the Piano Player. He began performing while he was still a child, was “discovered” by Edith Piaf, and has recorded more than a thousand songs over almost 70 years. In 1998 he was chosen as “Entertainer of the Century” in a CNN/Time contest, edging out Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan.

At age 85, Aznavour is still recording and touring. Interviewed by the New York Times in 2006, while performing at Radio City Music Hall, he said:  “There are some people who grow old and others who just add years. I have added years, but I am not yet old.” Here’s more from that Times piece:

Even now, while best known around the world as a singer (he has also appeared in more than 50 French movies), Mr. Aznavour considers himself first and foremost a songwriter: he starts with the words, and only later does he or another composer add the melody and rhythm. For him the chanson française is quite simply the art of telling stories to music.

For material he has always counted on love and its pitfalls, but recent songs confirm that he is also ever-alert to what is topical.

“I don’t write stories like novels,” he said. “I don’t invent anything. I bring language to existing facts and events. I read all the newspapers. I watch all the news programs on television. I was the first to write about social issues like homosexuality and the deaf. In my new record I write about unrest in the suburbs, about ecology. I find real subjects and translate them into song.”

One recent record, “Le Voyage,” includes two songs about journalists: in “La Critique,” he snipes at critics and concludes that, “in the end, only the public is right”; and in “Un Mort Vivant,” or “A Living Death,” which he dedicated to Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal correspondent assassinated by Islamic extremists in Pakistan in 2002, Mr. Aznavour pays tribute to reporters who risk their lives while seeking the truth.

And here is Aznavour performing “The Old-Fashioned Way” at Carnegie Hall in 1995, at age 71.


Posted by: Jean Casella