Thursday, November 26, 2009

Rembrandt's, "Bathsheba"

This painting has some kind of intense emotional power over me. I utterly & completely adore it. It's simply a truly glorious work of art. As John Berger describes it, Rembrandt is one of the few artists able to truly depict female nudity in a natural, seemless, & non-sexist/objectifying/lascivious way. He invites you to view the painting, not through the eyes of the outside observor, but instead through the eyes of Bathsheba herself.

It's as if you were rather inside the painting looking out -- identifying with & feeling what must be the mix of thoughts & emotions going through Bathsheba's head (as revealed in her face & posture) as she dwells upon the obligatory summons of King David that she holds in her hand.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Book Review: "Essays," by Wallace Shawn

This short work is divided into two parts linked by a common pursuit of the Moral Self in a chaotic world of war, poverty, inequality, but also beauty, love, and wonder.

The first part, "Reality," is more explicitly centered around the 'political' side of Wallace Shawn. Never losing his uniquely poetic voice, Shawn describes the evolution and development of his worldview as a child of privilege who comes to feel restlessly uncomfortable with the accepted absurdities and inequalities of his world.

Self-consciously torn between feeling a duty to exalt the hierarchy that has blessed him so, yet abhorring the war, misery, and national aggression that it necessarily produces, Shawn reveals to the reader a man genuinely struggling to "live morally" in a world wrought with obstacles, traps, and incongruities.

From the Vietnam war to Israel's attack on Gaza in 2008, this section is somewhat free-wheeling and informal, but nonetheless poignant.

The second section, "Dream-World," focuses more on Shawn's 'aesthetic' side. He talks about how it was that he came to be drawn towards the theater--and writing plays in particular; what he sees as the role of art in 'softening the human soul;' and his views on the special niche that poetry fills in the world of letters.

The most interesting piece in this section I found to be the one addressing Shawn's obsession with writing about sex. Clearly sex is a topic of contradictory standing in our society: on the one hand, it's used to sell hamburgers, but on the other hand, it's deemed as something really not appropriate for 'polite conversation.'

Wondering how it is that something so pleasurable could be so alternatively shunned and fetishized, Shawn puts forth a number of theories that the reader may or may not agree with, but will definitely find entertaining.

All in all, this is one of those books that gives true meaning to the notion of an artist "bearing their soul to the world."

(If you're interested in this book, you might also like:
Field Notes on Democracy: Listening to Grasshoppers
Notes from the Middle World
Hopes and Prospects
The Pen and the Sword: Conversations with Edward Said
The Portable John Reed)

Book Review: "Labor Wars," by Sidney Lens

Sidney Lens, author of the also-great book "Forging of the American Empire," provides an important service to all those looking to learn more about the tradition of working class struggle in America.

First written in the 1970s, Lens's goal was to reintroduce the generation of newly-radicalizing youth of the 1960s to the series of class battles that shaped the very social and economic terrain upon which they now stood. Though one would not necessarily know it at the time (the decade spanning the late-1950s to the early-1970s was one of general economic prosperity and relative "labor peace"), the history of labor-capital relations in this country has been anything but peaceful.

It wasn't until the 1930s that unions were even generally recognized as legal institutions. Therefore, since the rise of the first "union" in the 1870s (dubbed the "Molly Maguires"), through the great Lawrence textile strike of 1912, to the "class war" year of 1919 when 1 in 5 American workers was on strike, every attempt by the exploited and downtrodden working class to organize itself into a union for mutual defense and struggle was met with the full arsenal of civil and military repression meted out by the collective government and corporate barons of the day. Even the simple act of passing out a leaflet to fellow workers was considered a highly-criminal undertaking.

In this way, through sheer perseverance, solidarity, creativity, and oftentimes dogged militancy, the American working class fought tooth-and-nail to win for itself the modicum of rights and liberties it enjoys today.

In the end, though, Lens's book is left "to be continued," as the future of this ongoing "war" between capital and labor has not yet been written. From the detente of the '50s and early-'60s, to the brief uptick of radical and militant wildcat strikes of the late-'60s and early-'70s, to the one-sided re-initiation of hostilities on the part of "neo-liberal" Corporate America with the onset of the '80s, the war that Lens is describing as history has clearly not been concluded in the present.

As for the future, he leaves the question open as to whether America will come to once again see the same kinds of turbulent labor battles it saw in the past, or whether, amidst a faltering economy and new forms of production, correspondingly new forms of resistance will also emerge.

Either way, those who see themselves as lined up on the side of the exploited as against those who rule, will find in this book an amazingly fruitful history full of lessons for today.

(If you like this book, also check out: Subterranean Fire: A History of Working-Class Radicalism in the United States)

Book Review: "Sexuality & Socialism," by Sherry Wolf

Whether you are someone learning about the history of homosexuality and gender variance for the first time, or are an erudite student in the field, this book is a 'must-have' on your bookshelf. This book is NOT an academic/abstract/unintelligible book. Rather, it is a broad attempt to offer a uniquely-materialist understanding of the development, evolution, and repression of homosexuality (or, to use a more apt phrase, "non-heteronormative lifestyles") in the modern era.

Starting with the obliquely homosexual practices of the Ancient Greeks up through the present industrial/financial times, Wolf explains how sexual preference and identity have ever been a product of the social & economic conditions upon which a given society has rested. In other words, for an individual to break free of the constricting bonds of the "normal, nuclear family (1 father, 1 mother, and 2.5 children)" and live out a variant sexual existence, that individual must have a means of providing for themselves independently and in connection with other, similarly "independent" individuals.

It is for this reason that the modern notion of a "homosexual" person as a distinct "type" set apart from "heterosexual" people, is a phenomenon that first emerges with the advent of capitalism and the industrialization of society. Capitalism tore apart the old, static family life based in the countryside with its suffocating traditions and monotony, and replaced it with the buzz, fluidity, anonymity, and diversity of myriad strangers, crammed in together at work and at home, beckoned with the promise of individual advancement via the market nexus.

However, just as capitalism offers the promise of new, more liberated lifestyles, it stymies them at every turn. Capitalism has no use for the sedentary and static life of the peasant economy, far removed from commerce and industry. It does, however, seek to retain certain structures of the former feudal society and adapt them to modern uses. The nuclear family (an individual unit of privatized reproduction versus social reproduction) is one of these structures.

Capitalism does not abolish war when it overthrows the various warring fiefdoms and monarchies of the Middle Ages. Nor does it abolish religion when it seals the fate of the "Divine Kings" of Europe. To use an analogy, the eye of the human plays a very different role than does eye of the dog (which is color-blind), yet nature saw fit to pass this organ down from species to species, making only slight adaptations to render it more useful in the employ of the given animal.

In such way does capitalism treat what should otherwise be the vestigal organs of our more barbaric, ancient brethren. Insofar as capitalism remains a rigid society premised upon class division and inequality, it retains (albeit in adapted and newfangled forms) the blemishes of oppression, war, poverty, etc.

What is refreshing about Wolf's conclusion to this analysis is her point that sexual oppression can indeed be ended -- not just limited, tempered, avoided, or ignored. Oppression, being a product not of some intrinsic human fallacy, but rather the (at first) unintended product of the particular structures of society (some) humans have crafted over time, can be eradicated by likewise creating new structures and institutions for human coexistence.

Such a new structure would have to call into question the basis of a capitalistic society that necessarily is based upon class inequality and mutual competition. For this author, a truly democratic, socialist society is clearly a form of human existence more amenable to full equality and liberation for all of our species.

However, regardless of whether you agree or disagree with this or other particular conclusions drawn by the author, you will nonetheless find this a remarkably insightful, if not life-changing, read.

(If you like this book, check out other similarly-written works such as:
Women and Socialism: Essays on Women's Liberation
Black Liberation and Socialism
Subterranean Fire: A History of Working-Class Radicalism in the United States
The Meaning of Marxism
The Case for Socialism)

Regarding the infamous letter that Engels sent Marx in 1869, which supposedly proves his homophobia.

This is part of an ongoing research project I've been conducting on the various accusations of Marx and Engels' supposed virulent homophobia. The other two entries I've done on this topic can be viewed here and here.

"The Urning you sent me is a very curious thing. These are extremely unnatural revelations. The paederasts [homosexual paedophiles] are beginning to count themselves, and discover that they are a power in the state. Only organisation was lacking, but according to this source it apparently already exists in secret. And since they have such important men in all the old parties and even in the new ones, from Rosing to Schweitzer, they cannot fail to triumph. Guerre aux cons, paix aus trous-de-cul will now be the slogan. It is a bit of luck that we, personally, are too old to have to fear that, when this party wins, we shall have to pay physical tribute to the victors. But the younger generation! Incidentally it is only in Germany that a fellow like this can possibly come forward, convert this smut into a theory, and offer the invitation: introite [enter], etc. Unfortunately, he has not yet got up the courage to acknowledge publicly that he is ‘that way’, and must still operate coram publico‘ from the front’, if not ‘going in from the front’ as he once said by mistake. But just wait until the new North German Penal Code recognises the droits du cul [rights of the arse-hole] then he will operate quite differently. Then things will go badly enough for poor frontside people like us, with our childish penchant for females. If Schweitzer could be made useful for anything, it would be to wheedle out of this peculiar honourable gentleman the particulars of the paederasts in high and top places, which would certainly not be difficult for him as a brother in spirit." (Letter from Engels to Marx, June 22, 1869;
First of all, Engels is not commenting here on Karl Ulrichs's overall theory of 'Urning' (his term for homosexuality), but rather on the specific pamphlet that Marx sent him titled, Incubus (see below)*. (Ulrichs has no such work titled simply, Urning. Engels must have just been confused here). Indeed, it appears that Engels probably wasn't that familiar with any of Ulrichs's work other than this one pamphlet. This is evidenced by the fact that in this and other letters, Engels and Marx seem to not even readily know the name of the author, let alone show a familiarity with his overall works.

If one actually reads Incubus, it becomes quite clear why Engels may have reacted as viscerally as he does here. Further, it can be seen to be ridiculous to claim that Engels' comments on Incubus somehow in themselves show that he is nothing but a 'hopeless bigot'.

Incubus is actually one of Ulrichs's least flattering texts. It is a broad attempt at a (psycho-social) analysis of the causes that lead older men to commit the rape and murder of young children. The particular incident that spurs his writing is the case of Lieutenant von Zastrow, who had been charged with the rape, physical mutilation, and murder of two young boys in Berlin in 1867 and 1869.

Ulrichs, who makes clear that he is in no way defending acts of child rape and gruesome pedestary, nonetheless makes a plea for leniency for such criminals on the grounds that they are driven not by malice, but rather by a "faulty natural disposition," or "a diseased nature," as he puts it alternatively.

All in all, the work is a very macabre, rather clumsy attempt to use his findings in his earlier studies of the Uraniun (gay) male to prove that violent pederasts should not be treated as criminals, but rather spiritually ill people, who cannot control the inborn nature of their sexual-selves any more than a Uranian (or straight, "Dionian," for that matter).

As Ulrichs puts it, "The Zastrow case stands in a close relationship to the sexual nature of the man-loving Urning." He goes on to explain, "There is at times a yearning, wild, inordinate desire in certain individuals to commit cruelties and to see blood flow for no clear reason; a bloodthirstiness which, as it appears, goes far beyond a responsible state of mind, which at the moment in which it sets in seems to press heavily upon the soul of the individual as an incubus rising from the realm of darkness."

In the course of Ulrichs's analysis, he describes 15 cases of sexual 'perversion' in addition to the Zastrow case, many of which cases involve older men of high standing in German society. This is very tough reading. To give you a flavor, Ulrichs describes in gorey detail how Zastrow first raped, castrated, and beat a 6-year old boy to near-death, and then later how he raped, beat, sodomized with a sharp stick, and then murdered a 15-year old boy. The fifteen other cases are of like brutality and graphic description.

Indeed, Ulrichs wants to highlight the utter brutality of these cases in order to prove his point that their 'pathological' (and therefore uncontrolled) character is as great as the sexual brutality of the acts themselves. Therefore, he argues, the courts ought not to punish these people, but rather seek other means of curbing this behavior.

Now that we have a clear picture of the content of the specific work of Ulrichs's that Marx had given Engels to read in 1869, and which Engels commented on in reply to Marx, we can understand why Engels would write that the work is a "very curious thing" involving "extremely unnatural revelations." Again, Engels is not here commenting on homosexuality in general, or even the theory of Urning itself, but rather the phenomena of violent pederasty (pedophilia) -- which Ulrichs himself calls 'unnatural' -- as detailed in Incubus.

This also explains the comment Engels makes regarding his fear for the fate of the "younger generation;" a fate that does not await "older" individuals. It should now be clear that Engels is not just bringing the question of pederasty into his correspondence with Marx out of nowhere, owing purely to some supposed prejudiced notion that all homosexuals are pederasts (as has been intimated by some recent writers). He is, in fact, only talking about the issue at hand as raised by Ulrichs in the pamphlet concerned.

None of this is to deny that this particular, private letter between Engels and Marx is written quite crassly and undoubtedly would have been formulated differently by Engels if it had been intended for public consumption. And his crude quip about "frontside" people with their "childish penchants for females," is itself plainly a childish and ridiculous comment.

Moreover, Engels undoubtedly expresses an utter cluelessness about the nascent "homosexual identity" just beginning to be articulated in Germany at the time. Though, to be fair, homosexuality was talked about as a pathology by even its proponents until the rise of the German gay rights movement in the 1870s and '80s -- well after Engels penned the clumsy letter above. Indeed, the idea that there were even distinct "homosexual" and "heterosexual" types of people was not advanced until the 1870s by the German scientist and human rights campaigner, Karl-Maria Kertbeny. (It's also worth noting that the German Social-Democratic Party, which Engels helped found and influenced until his death in 1895, would also, to its credit, become an early and dedicated supporter of the German gay rights movement upon its inception).

In conclusion, I do think it is rather quite disingenuous to assert that this one letter in question proves the pervasive homophobia of Marx and Engels. Say what you will about Engels's response here to a muddled treatise analyzing the phenomenology of rape and violent pederasty in the "man-loving Urning," but don't attempt to turn this letter into something it is not -- that is, a conscious diatribe against homosexuality in general.


* Even one of the foremost proponents of the "Homophobic Engels" theory admits that the work, which Marx and Engels were discussing in their letter above, was precisely the pamphlet, Incubus, and not one of Ulrich's other works on the actual theory of Urning (see below).
Hubert Kennedy, "The Queer Marx Loved to Hate"

The booklet that Marx sent Engels was identified by the editors of the Marx Engels Werke as Ulrichs’s Argonauticus, and this identification has been repeated in the Karl Marx, Frederick Engels: Collected Works, whose translation of Marx’s letter is given here.

But this cannot be correct, since Argonauticus was not completed until late September 1869. The reference to ‘‘introite,’’ which Engels wanted to read as an invitation to anal intercourse, instead suggests some knowledge of Ulrichs’s Memnon (1868), for it appears in that booklet’s epigraph: ‘‘Introite! nam et hoc templum naturae est’’ (‘‘Enter! for this is also a temple of nature’’), which is rather a reference to the edifice of Ulrichs’s theory. (This is a variation of a phrase that goes back to Heraclitus and would have been known to Engels through its use as an epigraph to Lessing’s play Nathan der Weise.)

More probably the booklet that Engels read was Incubus, which was completed on May 4, 1869. This is confirmed by several indications, the most important of which is Ulrichs’s use of ‘‘von vorn hinein’’ for ‘‘von vorn herein,’’ which Engels puns on and which occurs twice in Incubus. (The idiomatic phrase ‘‘von vorn herein’’ means ‘‘from the beginning.’’) That Ulrichs admits he is not ‘‘from the front’’ is clear enough in Memnon, in which he several times refers to himself as an example of an Urning, but is not apparent in Incubus.

The reference to Johannes Rösing, a merchant in Bremen who was active in the democratic movement in Germany in the 1830s and 1840s, may also be pointed out here, since he was mentioned in Incubus, but Engels could well have known about him from other sources. The ‘‘personal details’’ about Schweitzer, of course, were known to all.

On the supposed homophobia of Frederick Engels | Stalinist translation fabricates criticism of sodomy in 'Origin of the Family'

This is part of an ongoing research project I've been conducting on the various accusations of Marx and Engels' supposed virulent homophobia. The other two entries I've done on this topic can be viewed here and here.


There is much myth-making and exaggeration regarding the supposed virulent homophobic tendencies of Karl Marx's long-time collaborator, Frederick Engels.

One of the oft-cited examples of this is the passage from his Origins of the Family, Private Property & the State, that has him supposedly criticizing the "abominable practice of sodomy":
This Athenian family became in time the accepted model for domestic relations, not only among the Ionians, but to an increasing extent among all the Greeks of the mainland and colonies also. But, in spite of locks and guards, Greek women found plenty of opportunity for deceiving their husbands. The men, who would have been ashamed to show any love for their wives, amused themselves by all sorts of love affairs with hetairai [prostitutes]; but this degradation of the women was avenged on the men and degraded them also, till they fell into the abominable practice of sodomy and degraded alike their gods and themselves with the myth of Ganymede (see at
This passage, as it does indeed appear here in the first English translation of "Origins," published by the Communist Party's (Stalinist) International Publishers in 1942, is the one that people usually use when they want to bash Engels (& Marx).

However, Engels never actually wrote this in the original German! The translation that this version of the passage comes from--the International Publishers 1942 edition--is inaccurate. They actually totally change the text and the meaning -- presumably to further their own, Stalinist-party line of opposition to sodomy and all homosexuality within Russia.

In the original, German text, which Engels wrote and published in several editions between 1884 and 1891, this quote reads quite differently. Here's the English translation done by Foreign Language Press in 1978, which is way more true to the original German:
This Athenian family became in time the accepted model for domestic relations, not only among the Ionians, but to an increasing extent among all the Greeks of the mainland and colonies also. But, in spite of locks and guards, Greek women found plenty of opportunity for deceiving their husbands. The men, who would have been ashamed to show any love for their wives, amused themselves by all sorts of love affairs with hetaerae ; but the degradation of the women avenged itself on the men and degraded them also, till they fell into the abominable practice of pederasty and degraded alike their gods and themselves with the myth of Ganymede (see at
Here's the last sentence in the original German: "Diese, die sich geschämt hätten, irgendwelche Liebe für ihre Frauen zu verraten, amüsierten sich in allerlei Liebeshändeln mit Hetären; aber die Entwürdigung der Frauen rächte sich an den Männern und entwürdigte auch sie, bis sie versanken in die Widerwärtigkeit der Knabenliebe und ihre Götter entwürdigten wie sich selbst durch den Mythus von Ganymed" (see at

The key word here is "Knabenliebe." In german, this literally means "boy-love," deriving from the root words 'Knabe' (young boy), and 'Liebe' (love).

The german word for 'sodomy' -- 'sodomie' or more appropriately, 'analverkehr' -- is nowhere in the original text at all. International Publishers clearly just grafted the word onto the text for who-knows-what reason.

Therefore, the translation of the term as 'pederasty' is much more appropriate, fitting, and logical ('pederasty,' of course, meaning pedophilia, the sexual yearning of an adult towards a prepubescent child).

Incidentally, the fact that Engels mentions the Myth of Ganymede in the next breath, further contextualizes what his implications were. The Ancient Greek myth has it that Ganymede was a young boy (exact age not clear) who Zeus lusted after and kidnapped to have for his own. This myth is an allegory for what was the common Greek practice of older men engaging in sexual affairs with adolescent boys. 

These particular homosexual affairs, though notable for their widespread acceptance in Greek society, were many things, but usually not what we could call a 'healthy,' 'liberated,' sexual experience.  Oftentimes, it consisted of an older male of superior social standing relishing in the dominance over an inferior boy of lower social standing.  It was socially frowned upon for the boy to express pleasure and 'mature emotion,' and this affair, accordingly, was rarely an act of love between two adult males of comparable social status.            

As far as anything written is concerned, I don't think we actually know what Engels thought of anal-sex as a general act . . . and anyway, it just seems somewhat illogical that Engels, who was in the midst of writing a whole book on the possibility of totally different sexual relations in a world bereft of classes, would make such a statement. 

This seems further illogical given that the German Social-Democrat Party (SPD) at this time, and some of Engels closest comrades, such as August Bebel, Karl Kautsky, Eduard Bernstein, et al, were clearly by the late-'80s and early-'90s, coming to see allies in the German homosexual community and movement. Bebel (one of Engels' dearest friends next to Marx) would actually earn his place in the history of the gay rights struggle in 1898 by becoming the first political figure to ever give a speech in defense of homosexual rights on the floor of a Parliament.

Engels was intimately concerned about and involved in the development of the SPD, which in the years preceding his death (1895) came to be involved in several campaigns to overturn restrictive sodomy laws and bans on homosexuality in Germany. One must ask the question: if Engels were so opposed to homosexuality, why does he not raise this issue in a single piece of correspondence with Bebel, Bernstein, et al (between whom hundreds of letters were exchanged over the years)?

None of this is to diminish the fact that Engels may have said or wrote some things during his life that were, at best, ignorant and possibly callous, and at worst, reflective of backward Victorian morals.

However, I do think it's important to be genuine and accurately-informed when studying the matter.  In this vein, I think it is clear that the oft-cited passage of the English translation of Origins including the condemnation of 'sodomy,' really should be dispensed with as evidence of a dogged, anti-gay predilection in Engels.