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The Satires

reports by erik lewis writer voyager interviewer bookworm epicurean belletrist philhellene

clemson university university of london

eriklewisdesigns [at] gmail [dot] com


Note from Playa del Carmen

For the tourist, Mexico is a wonderful departure from the boring and the routine, offering the paradise-hungry an intoxicating sensory mix of cultures, terrains and experiences at affordable rates, the way Europe did 50 years ago in those halcyon days before crowds and high prices made travel there unbearable. That said, Mexico is a land plagued with problems, with an ability to confound and horrify both resident and visitor in equal measure. Drugs and murder have become common. Entire regions, 3 states at present, about one-fifth of the country, currently languish under the control of fentanyl- and meth-pushing cartels, whose murderous rule have totally supplanted law and order. The murder rate in Mexico is 4 times higher than that of the U.S., prompting huge numbers of wealthier Mexicans to migrate south to Merida and other places thought to be safer, and where crime is significantly lower, though for how long no one knows. “It’s coming,” the Cancun cabbie says. “We’re all saying, it’s coming here next.” His voice is thick with dread.

Over the past 15 years, 160,000 Mexicans have been murdered by drug lords and their sicarios. In the election cycle just ended, an astonishing 53 politicians and 36 political candidates were murdered by criminal groups. Others were threatened, causing hundreds of polling stations to be closed for fear of violence against voters and election workers. Often corrupt police officers work in tandem with the narcos, making it difficult to tell good guys from bad guys, further eroding the public’s trust in institutions and steepening the country’s sense of moral vertigo. An American acquaintance my age was recently framed for drug possession by cops while vacationing in Cancun. He’d gone out to a bar one evening. A cop stuck a joint in the pocket of his pants, arrested him and forced him to pay $500 to be released. Such events are common in Mexico now, even in places once thought safe for tourists. The wise foreigner stays in after dark and is as wary of cops as he is of locals who might approach him.

Meanwhile, Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador continues his psychotic policy of abrazos no balazos, or hugs not bullets. In other words, fighting crime by not fighting it at all and hoping the decades-old pandemic of violence will burn itself out, an approach that does not appear to be working, and that in most countries would likely secure his impeachment.

Though Mexico is a trillion-dollar economy, it certainly doesn’t feel like one, or even a place with a future. Rather, it feels like a place where hopelessness has settled in, whose citizens have accepted that things might not get better, and might even get worse. One feels the same despair in places like Egypt and Haiti. Everybody's tired. Even the government seems to have given up. With the public exhausted, and politicians and law enforcement unable or unwilling to crack down on the drug barons and their hoodlums, the bad guys know they hold all the cards. With this sort of torpor at the highest levels, a country will not last long.

How much longer Mexico will be travelable, or even inhabitable, is unclear. One thing we do know is that nothing kills tourism in a country quite like rampant crime and corrupt law enforcement. Take Brazil. Reports are that tourism is dying there. This once must-see is now a no man’s land where only the most hardened adventurers dare. Unless something changes, and fast, Mexico could go the same way. And that would be for sad, not just for Mexicans, but for all of us.


The Album Bowie Didn't Remember Making


I was a college sophomore in search of art and meaning, who had few friends, largely creative interests and who was absolutely not interested in the latest pop star. One artist I discovered during this strange and rather isolating time was David Bowie. I began buying up his albums, about one each week, and soon my Bowie stash was the largest in my collection. Particularly, I was partial to Bowie’s late Seventies works, which I found more enjoyable than his early Seventies glam-rock stuff, and certainly more believable. His 1976 masterpiece Station to Station quickly became my favorite. Earlier today, while walking in Saigon, I began to mentally replay the album. It was still there, lodged firmly in memory. Every note, every whir and whistle, every piano hit and vocal ripple. When I got back to my hotel room, I pulled up the album on YouTube and listened to it start to finish with headphones, the volume turned up loud. It was an out-of-body experience.

The first track on the album is the epic art-rock anthem “Station to Station.” With a run time of over ten minutes, it’s the longest song Bowie ever recorded. The classic cut begins with the wind-like howls of a slowly approaching train. A whistle sounds. Enter a ghostly piano which stamps out hypnotic hits accompanied by psychedelic strings and a bass guitar. The song picks up tempo and saunters along in lovely lullaby rock, wreathed in church organs, teasing the listener and threatening to rock you into groove-induced sleep, till finally, three and a half minutes in, our hero emerges from the haze, singing in double-tracked vocals, “The return of the thin white duke/throwing darts in lover’s eyes,” before breaking into the galloping heart of the song: “Once there were mountains on mountains/And once there were sunbirds to soar with/And once I could never be down/Got to keep searching and searching/Oh what will I be believing and who will connect me with love.”

Exactly what the song is about is not clear. I don’t even think Bowie knew. But that isn’t the point. As with all modern art, the experience of it is the experience itself. To rationalize is to ruin the fun.

That Station to Station got made at all is, in itself, a creative miracle. At the time, Bowie, age 29, was in the grip of serious drug addiction, a cocaine blizzard, as some have called it, going for days on end without sleep and living on a diet of milk and peppers during the recordings. For the rest of his life Bowie would say he did not remember making the album. Bowie references his rather chaotic state in the opening track: “It’s not the side effects of the cocaine/I’m thinking that it must be love,” and again on the sumptuous ballad “Word on a Wing.” “Lord, I kneel and offer you/my word on a wing/and I’m trying hard to fit among/ your scheme of things/it’s safer than a strange land/but I still care for myself/and I don’t stand in my own life/Lord, Lord/my prayer flies like a word on a wing/does my prayer fit in with your scheme of things.”

Powerful stuff. In the 90s, Bowie would say that he considered “Word on a Wing” a cry for help.

One of the most satisfying aspects of Station to Station is that, unlike the pair of albums Bowie would do in its wake—Low and Heroes, both from ’77—Station is an exclusively vocal album with no instrumentals. All six tracks have Bowie’s voice which, while noticeably huskier from substance abuse and lack of sleep, does not fail to please. In fact, I think the singing is the real star of Station to Station, as Bowie effortlessly nails high notes and dips down into the Delta blues, soul and gospel, those primal founts of American popular music. He shows himself capable of holding court with Elvis, James Brown, or any of the great male vocalists of the era.

Bowie ends the album with a soul-scorching rendition of “Wild is the Wind,” first a hit for Johnny Mathis in 1957 and later covered by Nina Simone, Barbra Streisand and other luminaries. Bowie puts drums on the song, speeds it up a bit and turns the song into a barnstorming rock ballad of addicted love and, possibly, withdrawal. The wonderfully overwrought, melismatic high note in the song’s final moments provide a haunting finale to the album and makes “Wild is the Wind” Bowie’s finest vocal accomplishment, bar none. Ironically, his 2006 performance of “Wild is the Wind” at the Black Ball gala in New York would be the last time Bowie performed live.

Bowie might not have remembered Station to Station, but millions of us still do. The album remains one of his most successful experiments and shows the Mad Scientist of Rock at the peak of what has been called the greatest single decade of any artist in rock history. We don’t disagree.


Sarah Bakewell on Montaigne

Scholar-historian Sarah Bakewell on Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592), inventor of the modern essay, and why he continues to fascinate.

EL: Sarah Bakewell, describe your journey with Montaigne.

SB: Well, I came across Montaigne’s essays just by chance a long time ago when I picked up an English translation in a bookshop. I was desperate for something to read and I was actually waiting for a long train journey from Budapest back to London and there was nothing in the bookshop that wasn’t in Hungarian apart from this little translation of Montaigne’s essays. So it really was completely by chance that I picked it up. I read it sort of expecting it might be a bit heavy going and instead it just immediately won me over. [He] charmed me completely with his naturalness and humanity and he was writing about himself. It was like listening to a friend, this immediate recognition of things that he was writing about himself that I felt, too, and so the train journey just went like that, you know, I was so lost in the book. That was a long time ago, and then really for years after that I kind of kept the book by my bedside. I got longer editions with more of his writings and dipped into it, but it wasn’t for a long time that I got the idea that I'd like to write about it myself. It was a long process because, at the beginning, I wasn’t really sure how to approach him, because you can’t say anything about Montaigne that he hasn’t already said about himself. He’s always one step ahead of you, he’s always very ironic, he’s very…he reflects on himself, he writes about his own experience. It’s hard finding the right way of writing about somebody who’s always there before you are.

EL: Why do you think so many people love this man Montaigne and his works 400 years after his death?

SB: I think everybody has this experience of recognizing a little bit of themselves in Montaigne. For hundreds of years people have talked about this experience of finding him so familiar, that it’s almost as if they wrote it themselves. Ralph Waldo Emerson said that when he picked up a volume of Montaigne in his father's library it was as if he had written the book himself, so familiar was it. I had that experience. He writes about having a terrible memory and says whenever I have a good idea I have to tell someone else because otherwise I won't remember it for myself long enough to get home and write it down. He reads a lot of books and yet he’s forgotten everything that he’s read and it’s all just sort of hard to bring back to his mind, and that was one of the first things that struck me, because I feel like that. So there's this sense of looking into a mirror and seeing your own failings reflected back at you. As you read on with Montaigne, you’ll also find things that are unfamiliar because he lived in a very different time. He lived 400 years ago and there’s a lot of huge cultural differences, but that's often the starting point and I think that’s what’s drawing people back to him again and again.

EL: Montaigne’s parents were two very different personalities. How did his parents influence him?


SB: We don't know all that much about his mother. His father we know a lot more about and he was more obviously an influence on Montaigne. Montaigne’s mother seems to have been, from what we can gather, there are documents that survive as well as the little bits that Montaigne says about her, [she] was clearly a very strong-minded, very capable woman who perhaps could be a little bit overbearing at times. You just get that feeling, but I think it was difficult. I mean, Renaissance women had very little power in the real sense. So for somebody like her who was very able and probably would have liked to have been much more in control of her own affairs, she had to sort of exert power indirectly, perhaps within the home. Montaigne’s father was the product of an earlier stage of the Renaissance when there were very high dreams of what could be achieved by certain kinds of education, for example, that you could really mold your child into the ultimate wise and cultured Renaissance gentleman which is I think what he was trying to do with Montaigne. That had some very strange consequences. Montaigne was the oldest son in the family and his father really used him as the subject of an incredible experiment because he wanted to bring the boy up as a native speaker of Latin. That was the strangest aspect of it. Latin at the time was the language of the court but it was also the language of a lot of the classical writings that had been rediscovered recently in the Renaissance, which had seemed like the absolute pinnacle of human culture, and to speak or to understand good Latin was to have a direct line back to the greatest of human civilizations. Obviously, it would seem that to have Latin as your native language would be a huge advantage in life, so he actually isolated the boy really from the French-speaking world around him. He insisted that everybody in their household speak to the boy only in Latin, including the servants, who had to learn some Latin, which they wouldn't normally have spoken, and he brought in a tutor who was German who didn't speak any French but spoke excellent Latin. So Montaigne was surrounded by Latin the first few years of his life, which I think is a very strange start to life because it set him apart from everybody around him. I think it would have been very isolating but on the other hand it also gave him this sense of being the heir to the great classical tradition. And it didn’t last anyway because when he was six he was sent off to school, to a very good school in Bordeaux, and at that point all the other boys were studying Latin, but they were much less good than him because it wasn’t their native language. So he started off way ahead but he soon, under the influence of ordinary schooling, kind of forgot his Latin and he started speaking French like everybody else. And he wrote The Essays in French, which is very striking because a lot of people did write in Latin and he deliberately chose to write in French, so there were very unusual elements in his upbringing which were the idealism of his father. He wanted to really create a new kind of person.


EL: Montaigne said, I think, that his father knew the name of every author but had no critical understanding of the books themselves.

SB: That was what Montaigne thought. I think it happens a lot that one generation sacrifices everything and does a great deal in order to give the next generation all these advantages and, of course, what they get is not much gratitude, because the younger generation grew up and perhaps all this educational advantage makes them a bit more rebellious and actually quite a bit more snobbish and inclined to look down on their parents’ generation. So it’s a pretty thankless position to be in, and Montaigne, much as I admire him, there was this element of looking down a bit on his father and his feeling was that his father paid too much respect to authors and to literature without really understanding it, without really having a deep instinct for it. But you know another strand that might help to explain that is that he also had a bit of an inferiority complex in relation to his father because his father was very practical, very capable. He liked to do a lot of building projects because the family estate had all these projects. It produced wine, as it still does, and he wanted to produce more wine, better wine. Montaigne himself wasn’t very practical so he inherited the responsibility for this estate. They always got the feeling that he wasn’t quite living up to what his father had done, that he wasn’t really good enough at that side of life, so I think there’s a complicated relationship going on there.


EL: Montaigne said that his mother was always on his case for his idleness. Was he lazy?


SB: Perhaps he was when it came to the things that she wanted him to do, which maybe was working on developing the estate or things like that, but he can’t have been really as indolent and lazy as he makes out because, after all, he produced a thousand pages of The Essays and nobody ever produced something like that by being indolent and lazy. He certainly wasn’t lazy when it came to reading and thinking and developing his ideas and always looking for perhaps an answer that was beyond the obvious, so he wasn't intellectually lazy and he wasn’t really as lazy as he made out. I think in his public life it was partly a bit of a pose. He didn't want to be seen as if he was working too hard at anything. And it was partly a philosophical matter because he was very influenced by some of the classical philosophers like Seneca who said that there comes a point in everybody’s life where you should withdraw from public affairs, public duties and reflect on yourself, reflect on your life and you can only do that through not being too busy, that you need to just stop everything for a while in order to look at yourself and read and reflect and try and understand life instead of just hurtling onwards.


EL: I think one of the amazing things about Montaigne was that this was a man who knew great pain. He had, what, five children to die in just a few years’ time?


SB: I think that was one reason why he was fascinated by stoicism and the other ancient philosophies of how to deal with pain, because he did have a lot of it. As you say, he had six children altogether but five of them died in infancy. He also lost his father quite early in life. He had a brother who died suddenly after a freak accident. He was hit on the head by a ball while playing an early form of tennis, and it obviously caused some sort of brain hemorrhage and he died very young, age 29, I think. He also lost his best friend Étienne de La Boétie who was very important to him. They had a bond that was incredibly intense. They felt like they understood each other perfectly. They talked about literature. They talked about politics. They spent all the time together they could. It was really the person that he loved most in his life, I think, and then La Boétie died of the plague just a few years into their friendship.


EL: There has been suggestion that he and La Boétie were lovers.


SB: There have been suggestions. I suspect they probably weren’t, and I say that because I know that Montaigne certainly was very keen on women sexually. I mean, he was married but he also had affairs on the side and he had a lot of sexual experiences early in life with women, which I know doesn't mean anything, but my interpretation of the relationship that he had with La Boétie is that they were in love in a way, but I suspect it probably wasn't overtly sexual. I think they based their relationship almost consciously on this Renaissance ideal of close, intense male friendship, which was very important in in that era, [the belief] that one route to wisdom was to have a friend with whom you shared everything, you talked about everything, you read together. Soul mates, really, is the feeling that you get from this. There are some beautiful passages in The Essays about La Boétie where he writes one of my favorite passages, which is quite famous, where he asked himself why they loved each other as they did. You know, why this this closeness, why this love? And he could only answer ‘Because it was he, because it was I.’ You know, it’s a mystery why two people are drawn together in that way.


EL: Montaigne’s estate is still producing wine, is it not?


SB: Yes, just outside Bordeaux, in beautiful countryside in the Dordogne area. It is still producing wine and I was lucky enough to be able to visit the estate and sample some of the wine, which is always good to do, and have a look at his tower where he had his library, which does survive. The main part of the building was burnt down in the 19th century. They’ve reconstructed it according to exactly the same pattern, but his tower is still there just as it was in the 16th century. It doesn't have his books in the library anymore but otherwise it’s really as it would have been when Montaigne was there, so it's wonderful to be there and sort of look out the window at the view that he would have seen. It gives you a sense of what his everyday life was like.


EL: Montaigne was a Catholic but that didn’t stop his book from being banned by the Catholic Church, what, eighty years after his death. What was the Church’s fear regarding Montaigne’s writings?


SB: It's a very complicated story, the Catholic Church and Montaigne, because in his own day it didn't really have any problem with him at all. The office of the inquisition in Rome looked at his book and they found about five very, very minor points that they wanted him to change. Nothing very significant at all for the rest and, in fact, he didn't change them. He just ignored their advice and didn't suffer any consequences. For the rest, they actually welcomed his book. A lot of Catholic writers at the time actually said that it was a good tool against heresy, by which they mostly meant Protestantism. [Montaigne], who was himself a loyal Catholic, said that he recognized the right of the church to even sort of dictate what he would believe. I mean, clearly he didn't write The Essays in a very religious frame of mind. I think most of the time [Montaigne] is a very secular thinker on the whole, but he was never anti-Catholic. He never says anything against the Catholic Church. He does speak out against religious fanaticism and extremism because this was at the height of the religious wars in France between Protestant and Catholic, both of whom pushed each other into very, very extreme positions, and he tended to go for a moderate line in the middle. He said that you can’t really tell the difference between the two, you know. They're both saying the same thing, they're both preaching intolerance and bigotry and fanaticism, and so he’s always shifting a little bit. You can see him in various ways and people have seen him in very different ways. Some have seen him as being a real sort of secular humanist or critic of all religious belief. Others have seen him as being very much a staunch Catholic, you know, and it’s very open to interpretation what was really going on. My own feeling is that he was basically a good Catholic, but I feel that he just wasn't very interested in religious and spiritual matters. I think what really interested him was human life down here on earth, the way that people behave, the way that societies work, the way that things unfold. Why people do the things that they do. What drives us to behave in certain ways, even, you know, in what ways we resemble animals sometimes. So he had a very physical and a very terrestrial view of human nature, but I don’t think that he set out to attack religion particularly. I think that he was kind of happy to have it in his life, a little bit off to one side.


EL: There are scholars who say Shakespeare plagiarized Montaigne. True?


SB: It’s not even debatable that there is one section of The Tempest which is lifted from Montaigne in his first English translation. It’s so close that there’s no question that that's where it came from. So we know that Shakespeare read Montaigne from that, but that is only one small bit and there’s nothing else that’s as directly linked to Montaigne as that, but there has been a lot of debate about whether he influenced Shakespeare in a more general way. And one of the most interesting cases is Hamlet, because the character of Hamlet sometimes sounds a little bit like Montaigne. He’s indecisive, he’s aware of all the contradictions within his own nature, he feels double within himself, which is something that Montaigne says as well, [that] we’re all double within ourselves, we’re all not sure of ourselves. So there’s a feeling in Hamlet that's very much like Montaigne and that was a new element in Western literature, so it arose pretty much at the same time, so maybe it was just in the air or maybe it was a question of influence, but we do know that Shakespeare read Montaigne so it seems likely that it found its way in somewhere along the line.


EL: How did Montaigne die?


SB: He got a very badly infected blockage which caused his entire body to swell up and eventually it stopped his breathing and he died. Of course, we can’t know what death was like for him, but those who were there reported it and we only have hearsay accounts of his death, but they reported it as a very stoic death, a very good death which he faced with courage. Some of that might have been wishful thinking. Who knows. We’ll never know what his death was really like, but much earlier in life he had a near-death experience when he was thrown from his horse and knocked unconscious. He really came very close to death and was floating in and out of semi-awareness. He gradually came back to full awareness and then he wrote about that experience and said that he’d actually been really reassured by it because people who saw him at the time were reporting that he seemed to be in agony. He was tearing at his clothes, he was bleeding, he was vomiting blood and all of that, but what he felt all that time was just a pleasurable floating sensation as if he was just voluptuously drifting out of life, and that made him feel much better about his fear of death which had been quite great before that. He thought, ‘Well, if that’s what it's like, then death will take care of itself. When it comes, we don't need to worry about it. There’s no need to prepare for it.’ That was actually at odds with Stoic teaching because the Stoics believed that you did need to prepare yourself for death. You needed to do the philosophical, spiritual exercises to build up the courage to ready yourself for death, and Montaigne’s view, in the end, was really quite the opposite, that you don’t need to do anything. Just concentrate on life and let death take care of itself.


EL: It’s been a pleasure talking to you. There are questions I didn’t get to but I think Montaigne would have wanted it that way.


SB: Yeah, definitely. Everything’s always left unfinished.


EL: Sarah Bakewell. Thank you.

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