Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
is available for $16.00 from FootHills Publishing, P.O. Box 68, Kanona NY 14856 or see www.foothillspublishing.com.

Tourist Snapshots is available for $8.95 from Randy Fingland, CC Marimbo, P.O. Box 933, Berkeley CA 94701 or see www.ccmarimbo.com.

Dada Poetry: An Introduction was published by Nirala Publications. It may be ordered on Amazon.com for $25 plus shipping. American buyers may order a copy from me for $23 including shipping.

The other books are also available from the author William Seaton. Write seaton@frontiernet.net.


A categorized index of all work that has appeared on this site is available by looking under the current month in the Blog Archive section and selecting Index.

This site is listed in BlogCatalog and
Literature Blogs
Literature blog






Sunday, January 1, 2012

Notes on Recent Reading 5 [Deeds of God in Rddhipur, Burney, Cooper]

The Deeds of God in Rddhipur, translated by Anne Feldhaus

This 13th century devotional text, translated from Marathi, records anecdotes of the life of Gundam Raul, regarded as divine by followers of the Mahanubhava sect. This school, like Jainism, Buddhism, Sikhism, and other movements, split from Hinduism, objecting to the traditional pantheon of divinities, the caste system, and the stress of ritual purity and precisely performed sacrifices. The Mahanubhavas are virtually monotheistic and their divine Raul provocatively violated caste and ritual rules
The book consists of 323 short chapters recounting incidents in Gundam Raul’s life. Some are the ordinary stuff of hagiography; miracles including raising the dead, controlling the weather, bringing prosperity to those in his vicinity, and sometimes simply glowing with numinous light. But this is commonplace, universal stuff. What marks Gundam Raul’s particularity is his apparent madness. Apart from his intentional violation of caste, he is constantly playing with sacred images, pretending to ride horses that are really rocks; he scolds a squeaky gate and his own rear end for their noises; he loves food and is not above snatching sweets from others. The locals are sometimes moved to declare, “The Raul is mad, the Raul is possessed.” The book is a lively and entertaining account of the career of a figure whom might equally be viewed as a lunatic or as an enlightened reformer who used theatrical means to bring others wisdom.

Feldhaus does a tasteful job of editing, providing useful background and analysis but in no way overdetermining her readers’ responses. Apart from providing useful information specific to medieval India, her comments led me to read about St. Simeon Salos, the patron of “holy fools” and puppeteers, for, I believe, the first time. His story is a partial corrective for anyone thinking there is no analogue for the Raul or for mad Chinese mountain sages in Christian tradition.


Burney’s Evelina

Though it may seem to have close affinities to Richardson’s novels due to its epistolary form and its theme of a distressed young lady (familiar also from Perils of Pauline and Yuan Dynasty drama), Burney’s novel is ever so much funnier. Evelina is so artificial – surpassingly lovely and motivated by the highest morality, yet often paralyzed by social anxiety and quite passive -- her very helplessness is a sort of absurd exemplar of the restrictions on women in her day. If the jokes such as the Captain’s xenophobia become a bit repetitive, so were most people’s favorite bits of Seinfeld. The same circumlocutions that express the delicacy and sentiment of the Rev. Villars or Lord Orville make Sir Clement ridiculous. The book is as well an example of the common literary dodge of portraying forbidden material by making it, at the end, a negative example, as, in the 14th century Cleanness exhibited the dreadful doings of the Sodomites for readers both to savor and condemn. The author is then not only blameless, but improving to her audience.

The book throughout is comic from Villars’ too-serious (though highly emotional) tone to the marvelous expedient of the old ladies’ race and the ape at the end. Extraordinary coincidences shape the plot from the secret of the heroine’s birth to her chance meetings with her grandmother, brother, and foster sister in turn. Evelina has been read as a sly feminist heroine with Villars as the self-righteous chauvinist heavy, but surely the extreme characterizations are intended as just. Though often paralyzed by self-consciousness, she is the soul of virtue, her innocence and naïveté impenetrable. He is unfailingly high-minded and responsible, a model of sensibility in his devotion to his oh-so-feminine step-daughter.

Burney has great fun mocking Mme. Duval and the Brangtons, but their deepest sin seems not to be their thoughtlessness but their vulgarity. Lord Orville, on the other hand, must be rich and noble and good, but what matters is his courtly manner, inherited from the Renaissance ideal of the courtier as a sophisticated and sensitive lover. It is this primarily that excites Evelina’s admiration of his manly and genteel behavior. In this aesthetic standard the lower classes have very little place. Given sufficient education, keeping a low profile, they might be more or less respectable.

The author and her circle would have had no difficulty in recognizing Sir Clement’s note (purporting to be from Lord Orville) as an “outrageous, a wanton insult” utterly reversing Evelina’s good opinion. The note (which had been designed to offend) merely offered to correspond and expressed affection, but, in a cultural context of fetishized virginity and modesty, with the parameters for proper courtship rigorously defined, any violation signified barbarity, a failure of style but likely a giveaway to base motives as well. It’s a good thing Burney made a joke of the scene, though she had little choice but to live it as well.


Cooper’s Home as Found

Readers of Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales will be forgiven for finding the chief appeal of those works in the mythic frontiersman and his Indian side-kick, a pair of a type known through American literature. Each plot, however, has a respectable couple to provide a conventional love story rather like the Marx brothers used to do. In Home as Found these less interesting characters are the entire novel, but, fortunately, given the field, they have divided themselves into the truly genteel and the objects of satire. We can delight in the sharp satire of what he called “this malign influence,” America’s cash-driven “mania” which “has so destroyed the usual balance of things, and money has got to be so completely the end of life, that few think about it as a means. In these days of right-wing demagoguery, I can even sympathize with his observation that “men have got to be afraid to speak the truth, when that truth is a little beyond the common apprehension.” He is on the mark as well about Americans’ restless instability, moving among places (notably Westward) and classes.

The fact is, that, though a major mythographer of America’s frontier, Cooper remained a convinced aristocrat. To Cooper, in spite of the class mixing that may have necessarily occurred in early days, once the land is settled, only a “gentleman” could possess “dignity and fair-mindedness.” Even the foolish and vulgar Aristabulus Bragg, had he only been brought up in “a better sphere,” might have improved and “most probably would have formed a gentleman, a scholar, and one who could have contributed largely to the welfare and tastes of his fellow-creatures.” For many years Cooper’s popularity was far greater abroad (where he lived for some years) than at home. No wonder he quarreled with the American public throughout his life.

Notes on Recent Reading 4 (Sarah Scott, Madam de La Fayette, Wharton]

Sarah Scott’s Millenium (sic) Hall

Scott’s 1762 novel attracts attention primarily due to its subject matter. In recent decades its depiction of an all-female utopia has justifiably enjoyed considerable attention from feminist critics, but Scott’s themes are more revealing and complex than some reductive summaries might suggest.

The women of the Millenium Hall commune (critics generally use the original edition’s spelling) live a life in many ways entirely rational. They spend their time in fully human activities, pursuing the arts in an Edenic setting. Each is a refugee from the persecutions of men and each has found, in female affection and support, satisfaction otherwise unavailable. In fact the place has the air of blithe eighteenth century Enlightenment absoluteness: the women, the reader is told, are altogether harmonious. With the conflicts occasioned by gender removed, they can enjoy daily happiness. Passion appears invariably accompanied by error at the least and very often wickedness. The few satisfactory marriages one glimpses are wholly cerebral. Though love between men and women seems virtually always harmful, among the women one hears no hint of lesbianism. The author herself had a very brief disastrous marriage and a longterm relationshop with Lady Barbara Montagu (sometimes considered co-author) during which they put into practice many of the ideas suggested in the novel.

Nonetheless, Scott is socially conservative enough to present the ladies as endorsing marriage as a general rule and assisting others in finding proper matches even while rejecting life with a man for themselves. Chastity and sexual reputation have such importance in their minds that one woman actually accepts a mismatched marriage rather than allowing a wholly untrue rumor to circulate.

Indeed, the bliss of Millenium Hall is such that the place might seem as though it must have the ennui of Eden as well as its charms. The critic seeking a route to social reform might note that each woman has come with an independent fortune -- it is markedly easier to construct a utopia if one need not bother about anyone’s earning a living. Still, even the ladies’ sometimes absurd gentility may be read as a response to the very real economic domination of men.

Radical as it may be in some of the claims on behalf of women, the book is scrupulously conservative in essentials: for instance, claiming that while “every station has its duties, those of the great are more various than those of their inferiors.” Scott’s conservatism is even stronger in matters of religion. Far from ideas like eighteenth century deism, Scott advances a wholly confident orthodoxy, often invoked to place the seal of undeniable truth on the ladies’ contentions. Their spirituality is shallow with one exception: they are philanthropic, helping their poorer neighbors (while not questioning the class system). This benevolence is the most certain evidence of their Christian virtue. In contrast, the sympathetic male narrator has just returned from the slave plantations of the Indies where he made his fortune never, apparently, thinking of the well-being of the workers.

The narratives of the lives of the groups’ members, while programmatically determined, are often similar to the incidents in novels like Richardson’s. Seductive aggressive males, fainting females, marriage, money, and class generate the incidents. In this way the book conforms to the “conduct novel” which, by setting forth exemplary behavior, both to be emulated and avoided, anticipates the self-help genre which occupies so many best-seller notches today.


de La Fayette’s Princess de Clèves

More a soap opera than a roman d’analyse, Princess de Clèves depicts a world in which the courtiers spend their time in elaborate intrigues, pursuing power and sex, because they have nothing else to do. However deceitful and selfish their methods, they have exquisitely developed sensibilities. It’s like a despiritualized Genji where every act is a theatrical gesture and refinement is cultivated by all. Vanity here presents in one of its purest forms. Surely the idlers who filled the courts of many absolute monarchs in all parts of the world must have similarly passed their time seeking pleasure while pursuing the more serious occupation of jockeying for influence by backstabbing and lying.

In this context the heroine is the exception. She excels in every quality admired by the nobles around her. In fact, an annoying habit of the author is to use empty superlatives. Not Madame de Clèves alone, but many characters are the noblest, the most handsome, charming, witty, yet the reader is given virtually no specific detail to make these grand abstractions imaginable. These are less descriptions of individual than they are rhapsodies for beauty that is too beautiful to be quite real.

Unfortunately for Madame de Clèves, she is also too good to survive. In an amoral court, she is incongruous. Having entered a loveless marriage with little hesitation, she then insists on being faithful, eventually dying for virtue (as her long-suffering husband had done before her). The one who inspired her passionate unfulfilled love, the Duc de Nemours, one learns in a one-sentence paragraph, found that time ameliorated his loss and his love faded.

The narrative, far from being a psychological masterpiece as some have said, strikes me as melodramatic and sentimental. The court’s aesthetes appreciate their own reaction more than the object of their contemplation. Nonetheless, the reader must admire the novel’s brevity, structure, and the lofty pitch of its abstract ideals.


Edith Wharton’s Hudson River Bracketed

Oddly, toward the end of her career, Edith Wharton produced a work that looks very much like someone else’s first novel, a Bildingsroman (more specifically a Künstlerroman) about an sensitive but awkward Midwesterner experiencing a love-tragedy amid the pretentious New Yorkers. Unlike most critics, Wharton thought this one of her best works. For me the satiric material on the Middle West, reminiscent of Floyd Dell or Sinclair Lewis, is awkwardly done and fits poorly into the plot. For a college graduate in the twenties, with or without literary interests, to take the temple at Delphi for a Christian Science Church, as Weston does, is not quite believable. Similarly, Wharton’s treatment of “modern” styles in fiction has aged poorly. One hears of “pure manly stories of young fellows prospecting in the Yukon” [London] and “descriptions of corrupt society people” [Wharton]. Rauch and his Voodoo poems sound like e. e. cummings with their tradition under a show of modernism, and I suppose Weston himself is based on Wolfe. But where is the strong mainline of modernism, Eliot, Pound, Stein, Joyce? The writers here seem like a shallow bunch. Vernon Lee criticized the book for its “cult chat,” but it is hard to associate these paper dolls with real writers.

Significantly, the descriptions of Vance’s blockages are okay, while his transports are weak. In fact all the rhapsodies of nature and of psychology sound flat to my ears, and the view of writer as unique seer badly puffed up. The vague concept of “Mothers” is perhaps meant to demonstrate the young writer’s intuitive brilliance, but it sounds rather silly instead. Wharton’s images too often seem like Weston’s, such as the self-dramatizing of feeling “handcuffed and chained” to one’s life.
The sentimental plot, generated by the virtuous self-control of Halo Spear and Vance Weston, is about to conclude in a conventional happy ending, when, in the space between the beginning and the end of the very last sentence Wharton’s tone switches. At first it seems the two, now each freed of their marriages, can find their destiny with each other: “And when at last he drew her arm through his and walked beside her in the darkness.” Without warning, Vance’s alienation returns: “the creator of imaginary beings must always feel alone.”

Though myself a “raw product of a Middle-Western town,” I found her literati to be reductive even as caricatures and the love story emotionally simple, which is to say sentimental. I imagine the sequel, The Gods Arrive, is more of the same, but I rather doubt I shall ever find out.

Idea of Comedy

Unable after searching to recover my notes for a course I taught during the eighties on the idea of comedy, I have here attempted to set down my views in summary. Though these notes lack much in the way of illustrations, authorities, and documentation, they represent my current thinking.



All art brings beauty and pleasure, but comedy brings gaiety and joy as well. Thematically, in the broadest sense, comedy represents a positive response to life, an affirmation, a celebration, a delight. This is neither more nor less accurate (that is, true to experience) than the pity and fear of tragedy or the simpler sympathy of sentiment and melodrama; it is their complementary counterpart. At the conclusion of the Symposium, when the partiers are for the most part, passed out, Socrates is maintaining the equivalence of the two. [1] Don Quixote, Pantagruel, and Falstaff are certainly as profound to readers as Agamemnon or Hamlet, and likely to be more moving than any hero in Racine. When we momentarily feel successful (or even indifferent) in dealing with the terms of existence, or when we choose to play at feeling such victory, we laugh.

Aristotle tells us that tragedy provides catharsis through pity of the other (compounded, I would add, of charitable love for fellow humans and Schadenfreude at witnessing someone else’s misfortunes). Fear arises since every member of the audience is aware that the fate of every individual is inevitably tragic. Looking at life straight on with open eyes may naturally elicit a tragic response. But a later ancient text which may preserve Aristotelian theory says that comedy “through pleasure and laughter” effects “the purgation of like emotions.” [2] In other words, ultimately the functions of tragedy and comedy are precisely parallel; both enable one to go on in spite of the intolerable conditions of life.

In comedy, the self is generally normative, observing with a critical eye the foolishness of those on every side. Thus humor requires a butt and comedy is often quite aggressive. [3] The characters in American half-hour comedy television shows pass their lives insulting those around them; in Oscar Wilde, the benighted Philistine is put down; in Huckleberry Finn America is lacerated without mercy. Here comedy is close to its roots in the ancient komos Old Comedy, and the modern Carnival with ridicule of prominent people, a trend that continues unbroken into the present. [4]
At the same time, though, comedy can seem amoral, when it tends to view faults abstractly as incongruity, as oddly amusing grotesque distortions in a formal pattern rather than as the source of pain and suffering. In caricature the lovesick youth, the miser, the braggart, the macho man and all other endless varieties of human folly appear as sideshow attractions rather than psychological, spiritual, or social pathologies causing real harm. Bergson insists on “the absence of feeling,” what he calls “a momentary anesthesia of the heart” required for comedy, itself “wholly intellectual.” [5] According to Aristotle, the ridiculous must never be “painful nor destructive.” Of course, Wile E. Coyote is never injured, though he may be smashed like a pancake or blown into the sky, he returns ever undiminished. So the whole competition between him and the Roadrunner, between the Signifying Monkey and the lion, between Chaplin and the bushy-browed Eric Campbell, all contention seen through a comic lens is finally a game, a pretence, a sport to while away a lifetime.

Paradoxically, though, comedy does in the end care a great deal about consequences, for every comedy must end happily. Every situation comedy ends in the restoration of a harmonious family, every romantic comedy ends in marriage. Human beings are such social animals that the endangerment of the social group by an individual’s violations of convention is seriously disturbing. Harmony must be reconstituted, if only through the sympathetic magic of drama.

Aristotle notes that comedy is “an imitation of characters of a lower type,” portraying as “ludicrous” “some defect or ugliness.” [6] The viewer will feel superior to the comic figures (though suspecting that the difference may be uncomfortably small) just as he feels inferior to the heroes of tragedy (while knowing that their fate is his in the end). Comedy finds amusement in every vice and failing – selfishness, libertinism, paranoia, vanity most all. Every fault is in fact a sort of vanity and ignorance – with a clear and objective view (like the reader) one would never behave in a ludicrous fashion. [7] By defining lapses, one defines norms. Comedy has been considered fundamentally conservative by some and inherently subversive by others because it is equally likely to criticize a present offender by calling for a return to earlier ideals or by denouncing the outdated values of the present and proposing radical new ones.

Apart from character faults, comedy exploits our physicality. Faults which are body-based such as gluttony and lust are a rich source of laughter, but moral failing need not come into the picture -- perfectly ordinary facts will work as well: sex, excretion, farts, belches, sleepiness, sweating, slipping on a banana peel. In fact, commonality lies behind the comic impetus to deflate the pompous with such expressions as “he thinks his shit don’t smell” or “he puts on his pants like the rest of us, one leg at a time.” However, this basis for universal sympathy can equally serve to stigmatize individuals. Any anomaly, including physical defects or simply unusual characteristics such as short stature, red hair, or minority racial identity, can be fair game, as every elementary school child knows. [8]

The incongruity that inspires laughter may be of any sort, in Aristotle’s language “that which is out of time and place, without danger.” It may arise from exaggeration or disproportion [9], indeed from any difference. A phrase whose meaning shifts between two possibilities, a sucking puppy among the piglets, a soldier out of step, an Amish rap singer, the possibilities are endless. According to Emerson [10] “The balking of the intellect, the frustrated expectation, the break of continuity in the intellect is comedy.”

Comedy is clearly associated in particular with topics about which people are anxious, such as sex, drunkenness, and social propriety in general. Laughter brings a simultaneous physical relief of tension and restraints and the intellectual assurance that reassurance that our own trials may, like those of comic characters, be overcome. Laughter has a social function [11], chastening nonconformists and creating a sense of shared values and feelings in the audience.

The deepest roots of comedy are surely in the rituals of springtime, the joy of the earth’s regreening, the acceptance that welcomes the replacement of the old with the new. The promise of the spring and the reappearance of fresh produce must have been associated with high spirits. [12]

There is finally a sort of cosmic comedy, reflected in the daily laughter among Tibetan monks, or that of altogether mythic figures as Durga who roars with laughter as she decapitates Mahishasura. Nietzsche provides a secular analogue in his story about Zarathustra coming across a shepherd with a snake in his throat. Horrified, Zarathustra urges the man to bite the serpent’s head off. When the shepherd does, he suddenly becomes “changed, radiant, laughing.” “Never yet on earth has a human being laughed as he laughed. Oh my brothers, I heard a laughter that was no human laughter; and now a thirst gnaws at me, a longing that never grows still. MY longing for this laughter gnaws at me.” [13] This is nothing less than the laughter in reaction to the absurdity of existence. “The deeply wounded have Olympian laughter; one has only what one needs to have” [14]

Emerson makes a similar point sparing the symbolic apparatus. “The whole of nature is agreeable to the whole of thought, or to the Reason; but separate any part of nature and attempt to look at it as a whole by itself, and the feeling of the ridiculous begins. The perpetual game of humor is to look with considerate good nature at every object in existence, aloof as a man might look at a mouse, comparing it with the eternal Whole; enjoying the figure which each self-satisfied particular creature cuts in the unrespecting All, and dismissing it with a benison. Separate any object, as a particular bodily man, a horse, a turnip, a flour-barrel, an umbrella, from the connection of things, and contemplate it alone, standing there in absolute nature, it becomes at once comic; no useful, no respectable qualities can rescue it from the ludicrous.” [15]


1. More precisely, he claims that at a gifted tragedian should also be able to write comedy.

2. From the Coislinian Tractate, an anonymous condensation of a work from the first century B.C.E. Proclus and Iamblichus also treat comedy as catharsis. In the twentieth century Elder Olson revived the term katastasis as a comic analogue to catharsis, defining it as the “restoration of the mind to a pleasant, or euphoric, condition of freedom from desires and emotions; conversion of the grounds of concern into nothing.”

3. See the Philebus, particularly 48-50. To Plato, comedy works through phthonosor malicebeing pleased at the misfortunes of our neighbor (Philebus 48a).

4. The same principle occurs worldwide. For instance, the ancient Irish kings feared being lampooned in a glam dicenn (satire-poem). Of course, in the Middle Ages poets were considered so close a thing to magicians that they were also believed to be able to bring real boils to the face of a victim. In West Africa, the Ibo “moon-songs” sometimes ridicule individuals who have violated group norms.

5. In “Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of Comic,” translated by Cloudesley Brereton L. es L. (Paris), M.A. (Cantab) and Fred Rothwell B.A. (London). Bergson says, “It seems as though the comic could not produce its disturbing effect unless it fell, so to say, on the surface of a soul that is thoroughly calm and unruffled. Indifference is its natural environment, for laughter has no greater foe than emotion.” Also, “to produce the whole of its effect . . . the comic demands something like a momentary anesthesia of the heart. Its appeal is to intelligence, pure and simple.”

6. Chapter V of the Poetics, Butcher’s translation. He is followed by the Coislinian Tractate and by Cicero who, in “On the Character of the Orator,” says “turpitudine.” In the twentieth century Northrup Frye used Aristotle as the basis of his analysis of the “low mimetic mode” in Anatomy of Criticism.

7. Plato says comedy springs from “ignorance of self.”

8. There is a reference to a dancing dwarf in the court of Neferkere during the Sixth Dynasty of Egypt (Third Millennium B.C.E.).

9. Cicero in On the Character of the Orator uses the term “deformitate.”

10. In “The Comic.”

11. This is Bergson’s third principal point.

12. Some authorities would link the customs associated with All Fool’s Day with the old medieval New Year just before.

13. Emphasis in the original from Walter Kaufmann’s translation of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, 3rd Part, “On the Vision and the Riddle.”

14. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power, translated by Walter Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale, fragment 1040.

15. From “The Comic.”

Two Lyrics on Death from Central America

Macaws by the Gate of Copán

In Copán trees macaws fly, scream, and groom,
their scarlet feathers looking much like blood
that flowed here long ago and recently.
The feathers of their tails stream out behind.
The passerby feels blest though he is not.
Before his blood flows just like everyone’s,
like that that flowed in grooves on altar-stones,
and blood that flowed from army massacres,
as long as flesh unruptured holds,
he’ll make himself as busy as these birds.



Día de los Muertos

On Dia de los Muertos some here choose
to picnic with their loved ones by their graves,
and some then strive with Gallo beer to kill
mosquitoes of the mind that can draw blood.
Out front a wobbly Rambo sheds his shirt
and dares the other men to come and fight.
In corners of red eyes I see bright tears.
Thin dogs with hanging dugs pace back and forth.
Their glance explains -- there’s nothing more to say.

Election Day in Chichicastenango

The market in Chichicastenango, Guatemala is sometimes called the finest in Central America. It is largest on Sundays and Thursdays and, the day the visitor arrived, it was further swollen by country people come to town to vote in the run-off election for president. He could barely make his way down the lanes, squeezing by locals and passing gauntlets of aggressive vendors. The hardware, fabric, fruit, and vegetables are sold not far from the wooden masks and other “artesania” (for which the proper English is souvenirs). A head taller than most of the Quiche Mayans, the tourist recalled reading that the ancient Mayan nobles were taller, apparently more naturally “noble” in appearance, than the commoners, due, of course, to their better diet. Children approached, at first selling, then begging, then just trailing after with diminished hopes. A haggard specter-woman appeared, saying she’s hungry, pointing to her mouth, “I have no tortillas.” Legless, wheelchairless people perched in front of the Iglesia de Santo Tomás. Inside the church the row of low pagan Mayan altars up the central aisle have many fresh offerings of copal incense and flower petals, while in the side chapels candles are available for those who prefer the intercession of Catholic saints.

Outside, by the plaza, two long tables were set up to certify voters, and then allow them to mark their ballots and deposit them in a box. Behind the officials and registrars were naïve murals depicting the suffering of the people during the civil war. A man working his cornfield is approached by a soldier with a raised assault rifle; a woman screams as her home is burned; a group of peasants scatters at the approach of helicopters; a depiction of wolves’ heads is titled “lynchings”; people make ritual offerings while in the background, their fellow countrymen are burned alive and crucified.



I had difficulty in choosing a candidate in this run-off between two right-wingers, a plutocrat and a mass-murderer. On the one hand, one might vote for multimillionaire Manuel Baldizón of the Democratic Freedom Revival party. Often accused of ties to organized crime and certainly linked to the previous corrupt administration, he had promised to lead Guatemala’s team to the World Cup and, more plausibly, to bring in the death penalty and to televise executions. Attempting the gain credibility as a populist, he borrowed an old gambit from Argentina’s Juan Perón and offered every worker an extra month’s salary every year. He claims to be a devout Christian. In the most puzzling aspect of his career, he did earn a genuine honors degree in English from Oxford.

He was opposed by retired general Otto Perez Molina of the Patriotic Party, a conservative group that annoys me by using a clenched fist, the worldwide symbol of the left for over a hundred years, as its logo. Despite overwhelming evidence of his direct involvement in one massacre and his suspected oversight of many others, he not only denies responsibility, but claims, contrary to all nonpolitical investigators, that such things never occurred. A graduate of the U.S.’s School of the Americas, he headed the training program for the elite commandos called “kaibiles” blamed for most of the torture and killing of civilians. Runner-up in the last election, he is the first military man to advance to this point in national politics since the end of the armed conflict. Much of his campaign was based on promises to be “tough on crime” in a country suffering increasing operations by Mexican and Colombian narcotraffickers. [1]

By nine in the evening Perez Molina had been declared the winner. Fireworks went off for several hours, resuming at about 4:30 in the morning, but the celebration seemed perfunctory. The pattern of the presidency being won by the second-place finisher from the previous election had held true once again. This has been the case since the restoration of the forms of democracy in 1986. It is as though the populace is dramatically enacting the unfortunate fact that the mainstream parties are much the same, and the selection of a winner matters only to the factions of the ruling class. No one speaks for the people.

My cynicism must have been shared by a good number of Guatemalans. We saw billboards from the university-based Movimiento de Integración. [2] Some read “Politicians are turds. We’re fed up.” Others list the names of the presidents in modern times, saying they “have robbed us of nine hundred million quetzals. We’re fed up.” Yet others read: “Seven presidents have held office, seven have been locked up. If you want another jailbird, vote for a politician.” [3]


1. In Puerto Barrios we saw SUVs and pickups with darkly tinted windows. We were told, “Everyone knows who they are, but no one will say anything. That car will never be stopped, so matter what its driver does.” While such violent and powerful organizations are clearly destructive, they also gain favor by the heaps of money they toss around in otherwise poor areas.

2. I have since read that this organization erected five hundred such signs.

3. “Los politicos son una mierda. Ya estamos hartos.” “Vinicio Cerezo, Serrano Elías, Ramiro de León Carpio, Álvaro Arzú, Alfonso Portillo, Oscar Berger y Álvaro Colom nos han robado Q900 millones. Estamos hartos.” “Siete presidentes hemos tenido, siete trabadas nos han metido. Si quiere otra trabada vote por los politicos.”