Two Very Feminine Women
Saturday, February 26, 2011
The doctor looked at me and said, “I have never had a case like this one before. I am going to have to go home and do some research.”
The case he had never had before was that of a grown man (me) with mumps. He eventually returned with the goods that revealed the almost certain possibility that any (ahem!) sperm I might generate in the future would be sterile. I was happy to know that my masculinity was really not at stake, after all my previous generation of male stuff had produced two lovely daughters. While this happened in the early 80s, I was never curious enough to want to know if indeed the doctor had been right.
Through the years I marveled at the fact that actors Charlie Chaplin and Anthony Quinn had asserted their maleness in their 80s by having offspring.
My mother used to often tell me, “You will never understand because you will never be a mother.” I always took this quite seriously. Of late I have been thinking about that in relation to what exactly it is to be a woman. Some women close to me are reaching that age where as women they will lose their ability to have children. I wonder if that makes them less a woman when they get to menopause and then are past it.
I photographed Vancouver dancer choreographer Judith Garay a few years ago and I brought up the subject of menopause. At the time I was thinking ( and remember I was born and raised to be a Roman Catholic and I even went to four years of a Catholic boarding school experience) that it would be interesting to research the idea of sex when reproduction was a physiological impossibility. As a man, while I don’t necessarily think about it (and had I never contracted the mumps) would the act be different if one knew of one’s sterility?
For a woman, let’s say one with children, would sex after menopause represent an adventure, liberation or would it represent diminishing returns?
Garay was not all that forthcoming with opinions but she did tell me that she had created a dance that represented the moment of menopause and that when she danced it in front of friends, they could not understand why she would suddenly fall. We left it there and I never pursued the subject.
I wonder if there is a difference now in the term that used to be so much in vogue when I was much younger. The term feminine, femininity – is there a connection between the word feminine and being a woman? Is being a woman independent of what a man might think himself. Surely that must be the case. But that does not prevent my wife from baby talking our cats, “Plata you are a girl, Casa you are a boy.” I see my cat Plata as slim, elegant and feminine; after all she is a female. I see Casa (18 pounds) as big, strong and manly. Yet when Casa runs he is as quick and elegant as Plata. I am sure we impose our idea of what is supposed to represent a woman and a man on our pets. We do this even when we know that male lions really do nothing and it is the female lion that attacks and kills. Would this make a female lion less feminine in our human perception of things?
I see female gay couples walking on the street and tell myself that a woman’s physical manliness (stressed with short spiky haircuts, etc) does not and should not make her less a woman. But is she less feminine? I would say yes and I would base it on what by now must be ancient and irrelevant ideas of what a woman is and should represent. But then is femininity important today?
It seems that my world of women is divided into Grace Kelly, the pinnacle of fragile femininity ( watch Green Fire
) category and the Diana Mary Fluck (Diana Dors) who are pneumatically endowed but to me lack that all important quality I define as femininity.
Femininity may have lost its attraction to those of the much younger generation. I watched Miley Cyrus perform with Justin Beiber (I went with my granddaughter) last week in the documentary Never Say Never
and I was repulsed by her toughness and swagger. Not my type. Triscuits with Kate Davitt would be much more appealing.
The Blind Muezzin
Friday, February 25, 2011
Jan Morris and I did manage to meet. By taking drives out to each other’s hotels, leaving notes in pigeonholes and making the best headway that we could against the sluggish tides and crosscurrents of the city, we succeeded in arriving at the same time at the same open-air café on the Nile. Just to be sitting at table among the mosquitoes with glasses of Stella beer seemed to me to be a triumph of generalship: a combination of foresight, hard work, high tactical skill and immense good luck.
As James Morris, she had lived in Cairo on a houseboat in the 1950s. James Morris had been the correspondent in the Middle East for the London Times, and before that he had worked for a news bureau. Jan Morris, commissioned by Rolling Stone Magazine, was revisiting Cairo for the first time since she had changed gender, and she was nervous about what Jan might see in James’s City
Arabia – A Journey Through the Labyrinth
, Jonathan Raban, Simon and Schuster, 1979
When I read that first line in the second paragraph I stopped and re-read it many times. It was that line, when I read it in 1979 that first led me to understand that in a sea of writers there were a few that had a style so particular that it made it worthwhile for me to search for them in earnest. Jan Morris, herself became on of my favourite travel writers. In a story that preceded her biography of British Admiral John (Jackie) Fisher (Fisher's Face
The young James Morris wanted to be the mercurial Jackie Fisher, later Admiral and First Sea Lord: "That's the man for me," he said on first seeing his photograph. Now the older Jan Morris has settled for an affair in the afterlife and written a self- styled jeu d'amour, an extravagant conception of breathless adulation, gossip, games and war. Probably the most eccentric book you'll read this year, and never a dull moment.
I remember reading (I have not been able to find the book in my library) how Jan Morris upon seeing a portrait of Fisher hanging from his house and or museum wrote something like: “The man in me admired the man I saw in the portrait. The woman in me fell madly in love with him.”
Since reading most of Jonathan Raban’s and Jan Morris’s books I have discovered others that write from a point of view that is alien to the norm. Among them are Jerome Charyn, Michael Dibdin, José Saramago, Andrea Camilleri, Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, Charles Palliser, Anthony Burgess, Don DeLillo, Raymond Chandler, Peter Carey and my very own and very Argentine Jorge Luís Borges.
Some of these writers are not lost in translation. The Sicilian-born Camilleri, the Portuguese Saramago still sing in English and in Spanish. Of late I have been reading the crime books of Italian Carlo Lucarelli. There is more than style oddness in his books. This is an oddness (odd in that it is not the norm in conventional novels) of perception and approach. Why would Lucarelli write a rambling page
on what one can do while driving when it does not help or give us more information on the character nor does it play a role in the unfolding of events?
Only Saramago would write about a muezzin who calls the faithful to prayer from a minaret overlooking Lisbon who is able to discern the exact moment of sunrise even though he is blind:
Don’t worry about your turban, let’s go to the rampart and watch the infidels scatter, now these words spoken without any conscious malice, can only be attributed to the fact that the muezzin’s blindness is caused by amaurosis, look, he is watching us, that is to say, he has his eyes fixed in our direction yet cannot see us, how sad, it is difficult to believe that such transparency and clearness are, in the final analysis, the outer surface of absolute opacity.
The History of the Siege of Lisbon
, José Saramago, Harcourt Brace and Company, 1989.
It is the unexpected directions of these books from these writers that for me emphasize how globalization is ironing out variety and difference. Just like a Starbucks in Moscow and one in Buenos Aires might be the same so might a recent Russian novel translated into English or an Argentine novel read the same. In my field of photography I can no longer spot different styles. Photographs seem to have a uniform efficiency and blandness. In what may be a by-product of my age I can no longer differentiate a BWM from a Mercedes or from a KIA. They all have the photographic sameness of Flickr and facebook. I remember stopping to stare at Russian Ladas in the 80s. They might have been shoody but they were unique as if from another planet! Who can forget the 60 Peugeots in which to lock the doors you had to pull up the buttons instead of pressing them down? I drove a 403 for a month not knowing it had a fourth gear as it was out of the way.
I feel the same about World Music. Some of the jazz I might listen to on CBC Radio has a uniformity of approach that makes it sound timeless (in a perfectly negative way). There is nothing that says, that’s Gerry Mulligan 1959. On the other hand when I cannot understand the diverse accents of the announcers of BBC TV I should be happy!
While I believe that I am not ready (yet) to accept Mexican sushi with guacamole, I am freely able to incorporate literature in which I can identify a world in which geography text books featured maps that had Mexicans in big sombreros sleeping under a cactus, A Chinese woman with a Chinese conical hat planting rice, an American cowboy on a horse roping a cow and a scarlet-uniformed Mountie saving a swooning woman in distress.
It is a world in which Yusuf Islam’s My People
does not ring as independently true as Tea For The Tillerman
More Than The Face
Thursday, February 24, 2011
Was this the face that launch'd a thousand ships
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss.
If I try to recall memories of faces when I was extremely young the only ones that I can see are those of my mother and father. I had no brothers or sisters to remember. I remember my grandmother, the only living grandparent I ever had. Then for reasons that escape me I can remember Mercedes Basaldúa who was our housekeeper when I was 7. She made a perfect carrot soufflé. I remember Miss Dribble who was the principal of the American Grammar School in Buenos Aires. She had curly white hair and looked like Mrs. Santa Claus. These were all familiar faces.
But my first face, the first face that made me understand that I was an individual and independent to all others was my own face. I was 6. My mother had obtained some candy corn (unknown in Argentina) from a friend in the American Embassy. She would dole them out in very small portions. I noticed that she kept them in a drawer of her armoire. One day when she was out I went into the bedroom and opened the doors of the armoir and helped myself to a large helping of the delicious candy. Then I noticed that the inside of the aromoir door had a large mirror. I saw my image on the glass. I looked at it. I stared at it and I had the sudden realization that the image on the mirror was me and nobody else. I felt shaken and I closed the doors. My mother found out and gave me a whipping.
The first face I can remember for its beauty, was the face of Susan Stone who would send her father’s Cadillac (he was the General Manager for General Motors in Argentina) to pick me up so I could play with her at her palatial home. She was so beautiful that whenever I looked at her I would blush.
By the time I was 15, I was madly in love with Grace Kelly and her face. When I bought my first camera a couple of years later, all I really wanted to do with it was to photograph people’s faces. I was shy so my portraits were full length or taken when my subjects were unaware.
When I arrived in Vancouver, in spite of the mountains and the forests, the sea, the bridges and the rivers I only wanted to photograph faces. This is pretty well what I have done since.
At first the faces had to be the faces of celebrities. I garnered quite a collection of them until I began to loose access and I would photograph the celebrities that came my way through magazine jobs. When these jobs began to disappear I rationalized (or came to believe) that taking pictures of ordinary people was not less interesting and just as much fun.
One of my dreams is to be wealthy enough that I could walk on the street, see an interesting face and I would stop the person and say, “I will pay you $500, or more, to take your picture. Why? Because.”
All the cats we have had in Vancouver have been cats with beautiful faces. Rosemary has always insisted that the faces be perfectly symmetrical with their markings. It took a while for Rosemary to like her present cat, Casa who weighs 18 pounds. It has helped that his face is handsome. Rosemary is convinced that Plata (my cat) is smart enough to read in some basic way our expressions when she stares at us as she so often does. I wonder, often, what Plata is thinking behind that apparently intelligent face.
|Plata in Rosemary's office|
Until quite recently I wondered why so many photographers liked to photograph landscapes, animals, telephone posts, graffiti, cars, airplanes, whiskey bottles and even models that resembled mannequins with some elements of humanity. It finally hit home that so many of those photographers are uncomfortable taking pictures of people. It is because of this that I was in demand as a portrait photographer for so many years.
With the advent of the digital and the cell phone cameras, people have learned to snap their own picture to an almost point of obsession. Until my granddaughter was banned from being on facebook by her parents the bulk of the pictures in her facebook wall were pictures she had taken with her little digital camera. They had that awful wide-angle effect. She would not have been caught dead putting up the pictures that I had taken of her, which I thought were far more beautiful.
With those phone cameras and digital cameras (even some that have a screen in the front to help you in the self-portrait) photographers and people with cameras have learned to take pictures of others and it has become a norm. It is easy and fun particularly when you have Kodak Easy Share (does that sound like an ad?).
But many of those pictures are snapshots taken in parties. People hug and look semi sloshed at the camera. Sometime they have red eye. As we shift to the social networking sites and become demure on the use of phones, eye contact is becoming a rare thing. At least, I think so.
For a few years back many criticized my portraits in which I would use one soft light and I even stopped using glamorous hair lights. They criticized me for taking pictures of people who looked at the camera. “How boring,” were the comments.
As I stopped taking portraits of celebrities I began to enjoy looking into the eyes of people I photographed in my studio or elsewhere. I began to use a medium wide angle lens (a 35mm in 35mm format, and a 65 or 50mm in my Mamiya 6x7cm, format). With these lenses, I was careful how I shifted the up or down, I would get very close to my subjects (and I still do). The resulting portrait had an “in your face” quality that even if you had no knowledge of the role of focal lengths in photography, you would know instinctively that the photographer was very close to the subject. The “trick” of the past was to use a long telephoto to take very tight portraits. They were supposed to be very intimate, but to me there was nothing in those portraits that expressed the face to face relationship between photographer and subject. To me it is that relationship that will keep my shutter finger going even when my looming arthritis might make it much too painful.
Some years ago I shared a gallery show with two other photographers. The theme was the nude. My nudes were called Home Bodies. I photographed women at home doing domestic tasks like ironing, lifting weights by the TV set, taking care of the baby, and even playing the piano. I showed them from head to foot. I remember some woman (of extreme feminist tendencies) who left a comment in the gallery’s comment book, “Alex, thanks for showing their faces.”
When I teach nude photography at Focal Point I call the course The Contemporary Portrait Nude. I tell my students that no matter how tight they might get on a body part (a beautiful man’s pectorals, a beautiful woman’s breast, a graceful neck) they must never forget the humanity of their subject. By humanity I stress that they cannot forget that face. I insist that my students introduce themselves to the model, encourage the model and in the end thank the model. Too many of my students, in the beginning treat the model as if the model were a buck private and the photographer a boot camp sergeant.
I tell my students that when they are facing a nude model they must not use their eyes to scan the model with a glance that might make the model nervous or embarrassed. I tell them that they look at them in the eyes in the same way a competent and professional medical doctor might look at you when you have not clothes on. It is only when you are looking through the camera that you can then look at how your light is falling on the neck or breasts or hips. Some of my students have trouble looking at nude models in the eye. I wonder as it is so easy for me.
The two pictures here are of Vancouver actress, director Bronwen Marsden who modeled a couple of times for my class at Focal Point. These are snaps I took with my Nikon FM-2 and Tri-X while my students were using the studio flash system. I don’t usually do this sort of thing as I am supposed to be the teacher. But Marsden’s face has a quality that wants me to stare at it. It is beautiful but there is something more. The rest of her is up to par which brings me to the theme of this blog and that is that as important as a face is there is sometimes more than a face. If you consider that Marsden could be a modern version of Helen who launched all those ships, notice the second picture of her where there is a hint of breast. Then read below and you will see that Helen was more than just a pretty face!
You did not kill the woman.
She had only to bear her breast, and you threw down
Your sword, you let her kiss you, gave the treacherous bitch
Loving caresses – you contemptible, amorous
Helen's husband, Menelaus, upon seiing Helen and realizing all she had done determined to kill her:
…but lovely Aphrodite restrained his strength, knocked the sword from his hand, and checked his attack. She removed his black jealousy from him and roused sweet desire in his heart and eyes. An unexpected amazement came upon him, and when he saw Helen’s conspicuous beauty, he could no longer bring himself to strike to strike her neck with his sword.
Quintus of Smyrna
Itys stood at gaze;
Seeing in all things one miraculous face,
And how her tunic left one bright breast bare.
The First Vision of Helen
, Stephen Vincent Benet
I wait for one who comes with sword to slay --
The king I wronged who searches for me now;
And yet he shall not slay me. I shall stand
With lifted head and look within his eyes,
Baring my breast to him and to the sun.
He shall not have the power to stain with blood
That whiteness -- for the thirsty sword shall fall
And he shall cry and catch me in his arms,
Bearing me back to Sparta on his breast.
Lo, I shall live to conquer Greece again!
Helen of Troy
, Sarah Teasdale
Then, then, from utter gloom stood out
The breasts of Helen, and hoveringly a sword
Now over and now under, now direct,
Pointed itself to pierce, but sank down shamed
At all that beauty; and as I stared, a fire,
The fire that left a roofless Ilion,
Shot out of them, and scorch'd me that I woke.
, Alfred Lord Tennyson
Not While Driving But...
Wednesday, February 23, 2011
He felt the irresistible desire to one of the two things that you can never do while driving: to cross your legs. The other to close your eyes…
You can do several things while you’re driving along the motorway. You can listen to music, talk on the phone, think, sing, drink, scratch yourself. You can take off your jacket with one arm, pulling it down with your hand and pushing your elbow through to make it come off, then reaching around and taking it off behind your back. You can open letters by holding the letter down on the seat next to you with the palm of your hand, then sliding a fingernail inside and tearing it, bit by bit, until you can inch your finger in like a snail. You can eat a whole container of mini salamis by sticking a knife through the plastic and cutting it open just far enough to pull them out one at a time, little round balls, held together with floury string. You can even make love, unzipping your trousers and sliding them down by pushing back against the seat, arms taut against the wheel, teeth clenched, eyes wide open so as not to let your sight fog over. Things you can’t do on the motorway: raise your legs up on the seat and assume the lotus position. Read a book or watch television. Sleep. Keep your eyes on anything other than the road.
Day After Day
, Carlo Lucarelli, translated from the Italian by Oonagh Stranksy, The Harvil Press, London, 2004
One Useable Image
Tuesday, February 22, 2011
|Ivette Hernandez as La Santa Muerte, Kodak Plus-X|
A very once in a while people ask me to explain my moderate success in Vancouver as a photographer, particularly as a magazine and commercial photographer. They never believe me when I tell them the following:
1. Contact the person you are going to photograph (usually by phone and of late via email) without offending them.
2. Show up on time. This implies that you might want to investigate the place where you are going to take your picture in advance. It also includes the idea of researching your subject so when you face the person it is not cold turkey.
3. To take one usable image. In some cases it need not even be artistic, just usable. In magazine and commercial photography you can never tell your client or art director how big the fish was that got away. You have to produce. I tell those who ask that a professional photographer has to produce on demand with no excuses. The photographer cannot afford the luxury of being a cat, a baby or a man who rarely perform on demand.
Since I arrived in Vancouver in 1975 I understood how photography is much like taking off in an airplane. You have to make sure that every bit of your equipment is working and you have to consider alternatives if this or that piece of equipment should fail. In the past whenever anybody has told me, “it should..” or “ It will automatically…” I know that there is a good chance it won’t and that it will automatically not! Nor do I trust any camera repairman or photographic equipment person who starts with, “Trust me.” You can have a camera that works fine, you can have the right film (or working sensor) but if you plan to use some sort of flash modifier (a modern term now) like a softbox in conjunction with a studio flash system or a portable one you are dead on the water if your connection between the flash and camera (be it a wire or a radio transmitter) does not work.
And nothing in photography is ever a joke. I remember going with my writer friend John Lekich to photograph actor Peter Coyote who was filming in that restaurant (thank God it finally closed its doors!) that feature waiters dresses as Franciscan monks. While Lekich and I were waiting I noticed a beautiful extra sitting in a wing chair. She was dressed to the teeth in 40s style. I asked her if I could photograph her. This I did. Once she was gone I took out a roll of film from my camera bag that I kept to test my Mamiya RB backs if they were failing. I showed it to Lekich and said, “Here are the pictures of the girl,” and I opened it (it was a roll of 120 film that has a paper backing) and then unrolled it. Lekich flinched and I laughed and I told him it wasn’t the right roll but a test one. But it wasn’t!
|Ivette Hernandez as La Santa Muerte, Kodak b+w Infrared|
The key to my success has been that I have rarely not produced that all important one usable image. To do this I have always had a Plan B and a Plan C. Once in a Calgary shoot to photograph a new CBC TV announcer my Mamiya camera body failed. The solution was finding a camera in a pawn shop which I rented (on the phone) and which a cab (I called on the phone) brought to the CBC building.
Now most photographers with their digital cameras might show up at a job with that one camera. They will take their pictures in what is called a RAW format. This is way of using the digital camera in which the image taken gives the photographer a big leeway for exposure mistakes and also gives the photographer the choice to change the image to b+w and or change the colour in a myriad of ways. But my argument would be that the variation will always be one image at a time.
In my case I like the unexpected bonus of shooting with more that one camera (or with my Mamiya by using different backs with different types of film). In the case of the two pictures here, one was taken with my Mamiya (6x7cm format) in b+w while the other with a Nikon FM-2 with Kodak b+w Infrared Film. The pictures are quite different and I like that difference.
While most art directors will sigh in relief if you hand them that one useable image they will become quite excited if you give them a choice.
Rain Is One Thing Which Undoubtedly Happens Only In The Past
Monday, February 21, 2011
“Cierro los ojos y veo una bandada de pájaros. La visión dura un segundo o acaso menos; no sé cuántos pájaros vi. ¿Era definido o indefinido su número? El problema involucra el de la existencia de Dios. Si Dios existe, el número es definido, porque Dios sabe cuántos pájaros vi. Si Dios no existe, el número es indefinido, porque nadie pudo llevar la cuenta. En tal caso, vi menos de diez pájaros (digamos) y más de uno, pero no vi nueve, ocho, siete, seis, cinco, cuatro, tres o dos. Vi un número entre diez y uno, que no es nueve, ocho, siete, seis, cinco, etcétera. Ese número entero es inconcebible; ergo, Dios existe.”
Jorge Luís Borges, Argumentum ornithologicum.
“ I close my eyes and see a flock of birds. The vision is but for only a second, perhaps less; I don’t know how many birds I saw. Was it a defined or undefined number? The problem involves the existence of God. If God exists, the number is definite, because God knows how many birds I saw. If God does not exist, the number is indefinite, because nobody would be able to keep count. In that case I saw fewer that ten birds (let’s say) and more than one, but I did not see nine, eight, seven, five, four, three or two. I saw a number between ten and one, which is not nine, eight, seven, six, five, etc. That whole number is inconceivable; ergo God exists.”
Jorge Luís Borges, Argumentum ornithologicum
It is not mere chance that I cite the Borges poem from his 1960 El Hacedor. I cited the book in yesterday’s blog
because of the special prologue to the book which is a dedication and a small essay on Leopoldo Lugones. I left the book on my desk.
This afternoon I had a phone call from a friend who asked me why I was on a nostalgia kick with all the pictures of myself as a young boy. I didn’t explain that I forgot my iPhone on Saturday and I would have snapped a picture of Rebecca at the movies to illustrate that Saturday’s blog instead of inserting the picture of myself with my grandmother. I had no choice. But my friend's question had me thinking. He told me he was busily fixing the grout in his shower as he hated taking tub baths.
I happen to adore tub baths, particularly nice hot ones. I told my friend that I have started and finished many novels in the tub. I did not tell him that I remember that sometime when I was 7 or 8 I took a Llanero Solitario (the Lone Ranger) comic book into the tub. I dropped it into the water and I cried with grief. My mother carefully placed a sheet of newspaper between the sodden pages and the comic book did survive for a complete reading.
I got myself into the tub accompanied by Borges’ El Hacedor and hit pay dirt within minutes. This book is perfect for bathtub fair. I read it from cover to cover in 40 minutes. I did run hot water to keep everything comfortable. While I have read it many times since I first bought it in Buenos Aires, during a visit in the late 80s, the story above is one that has been one of my favourites. But there is another that I wish I had remembered as I would have quoted from it to explain to my friend the reason for my nostalgia.
La Lluvia de Jorge Luis Borges
Bruscamente la tarde se ha aclarado
Porque ya cae la lluvia minuciosa.
Cae o cayó. La lluvia es una cosa
Que sin duda sucede en el pasado.
Quien la oye caer ha recobrado
El tiempo en que la suerte venturosa
Le reveló una flor llamada rosa
Y el curioso color del colorado.
Esta lluvia que ciega los cristales
Alegrará en perdidos arrabales
Las negras uvas de una parra en cierto
Patio que ya no existe. La mojada
Tarde me trae la voz, la voz deseada,
De mi padre que vuelve y que no ha muerto.
Rain By Jorge Luis Borges
The afternoon has brightened suddenly
Because it already rains minutely
Falling or fallen. Rain is one thing
Which undoubtedly happens only in the past.
Who hears it fall retrieves a recovered
Time that a venturesome luck
Revealed to him a flower by the name of rose
And the curious color of red.
This rain that clouds the windows
Will gladden in those lost suburbs
The black grapes of a vine in certain
Patio that is no more. The sodden
Afternoon brings me a much wanted voice, the desired voice,
Of my father who returns and who has not died.
The Blond Angel Of Death & A Suicide At El Tropezón
Sunday, February 20, 2011
Leopoldo Lugones committed suicide (arsenic and whiskey) in 1938 in the Paraná Delta hostel El Tropezón. Tropezón
means "a misstep and fall" but the fact is that while the famous Argentine poet, writer and essayist had a gun he chose what his father confessor called the servant maid’s way out of life.
Lugones’ son Polo (short for Leopoldo) had been the director of a reformatory in the late 20s and had been caught in acts with minors. He was brought to trial and condemned to 10 years in prison. His father went on his knees to the then president of Argentina, an idealist and leftist, Hipólito Irigoyen pleading for a pardon so as not to besmirch the family name. It was granted. Shortly after Lugones participated in the 1930 coup that brought down Irigoyen and gave General José Félix Uriburu that extra star over the four-star general which for many years has been the dream of a legion of Argentine generals and this was to become president. Uriburu was the first but many were to follow.
Polo Lugones was rewarded by Uriburu with a post as Police Chief of the very area where he had been condemned previously. He took control of an infamous old prison on Las Heras in Buenos Aires (I used to pass by it in tram 35 in the late 40s and early 50s) and he had a particular liking for not delegating torture operations. This was a vast improvement (in efficiency) on stories that as a young boy he had made it a sport of sexually violating chickens and wringing their necks on approaching climax.
In the 30s, Texas King Ranch owner, Bob Kleberg,had invented the electric cattle prod
to make cattle move right along. It was Polo Lugones who had the original idea of applying Kleberg’s invention called a picana
to unlucky prisoners’ genitals. To this day Argentines, cynically say, “We have to be world class in something. So we invented modern methods of torture."
In 1971 Polo Lugones committed suicide but it is not recorded if he used a gun or poison. His sister Pirí became a vocal opponent of the generals in Argentina in the early 70s. She was “disappeared”. Her son Alejandro also committed suicide but no details are known as to his methods.
In the late 60s I met in passing a young and very handsome officer in the Argentine Navy. I was a conscript. The man had a perfect face with a beauty mole on his left cheek. He was so blond that he could have modeled a black Nazi SS uniform with perfection.
During the Falkland’s War he surrendered himself and his unit to an inferior (in size) British force without firing a shot. His method of disappearing people was to drug them and place them in helicopters or airplanes and fly over the River Plate’s mouth. These poor unfortunates were pushed off. So as to make them sink more quickly their stomachs were cut open. Since then Alfredo Astíz who is in prison for life has been known as the Blond Angel of Death.
The point of the above is that while so much of the world rejoices at the fact that the military is now in control in Egypt few realize that the Egyptian Army has been in control since the advent of Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1956 and everybody after him had that extra star over the four star, that is, the leadership of the country.
Many know that the Egyptian Army assembles, under licence, American Abram tanks and even sells bottled water under the name of one of the general’s daughter.
Back in Buenos Aires in 1966, 1967 when I was a conscript in the Argentine Navy I was an aide to the Senior US Naval Advisor. I went a few times to a place called Electrónica Naval near Parque Lezama where Jorge Luís Borges used to walk arm in arm with Ernesto Sábato. In this establishment conscripts (receiving a salary of one US Dollar per month) assembled TV sets from parts that the Argentine Navy obtained for free or at cut rate prices from the US Military Assistance Program to repair radars, etc. These TV sets where then put into nice wooden cabinets made by cheap labour, courtesy of more conscripts and then sold to the public at great profit.
From the documents that I translated to English or from English into Spanish there were a few that were confidential or top secret. I was given clearance from the US to see and translate the documents. The documents were secret because they mentioned how much the Argentine Navy was spending in mostly obsolete US equipment. From the size of the numbers I could extrapolate how much more money was being spent by the Argentine Army and Air Force.
My guess is that those numbers would be puny in comparison to the money spent by and showered on the Egyptian Army.
Because of my position as aide to the US Captain I had advance notice to the coup that would unseat Arturo Illía (a gentle country doctor) from his position as president of Argentina on June 28, 1966. General Onganía was to be the first of a long line of Generals, Admirals and Commodores (from the Argentine Air Force) that would rule over Argentina with the proverbial iron fist that seems to be so agreeable to people who think that military order is a good thing.
My fellow conscripts and I made fun of all those serious officers who liked to “play soldier”. We did not know then that the orderly bunch would do so with repression, torture, murder and that premier Argentine invention of disappearing people. We did now know then that the lovely school Escuela de Mecánica de la Armada (ESMA) on the wide boulevard General Don José de San Martín where we often went to deliver documents would be an infamous place of torture and a headquarters for the Blond Angel of Death.
I sometimes wonder if General Dwight D. Eisenhower and Mustafa Kemal Atatürk are exceptions to the rule on the repressive actions of the military when they achieve “civilian” power.
Leopoldo Lugones shifted from the left to the far right by the time he pulled the plug on his life in 1938. Germany had yet to invade Poland and he was never to know. Lugones' fame as a writer faded but in 1960 Borges published a collection of essays, stories and poems called El Hacedor
(The Maker). These works were introduced by a wonderful poem by Borges in honor of the elder Lugones.
"Leaving behind the babble of the plaza, I enter the Library. I feel, almost physically, the gravitation of the books, the enveloping serenity of order, of time magically desiccated and preserved. Left and right, absorbed in their shining dreams, the readers' momentary profiles are sketched by the light of their officious lamps, to use Milton's hypallage. I remember having remembered that figure before in this place, and afterwards that other epithet that also defines these environs, the arid camel of the Lunario, and then that hexameter from the Aeneid that uses the same artifice and surpasses artifice itself:
Ibant obscuri sola sub nocte per umbras.
These reflections bring me to the door of your office. I go in; we exchange a few words, conventional and cordial, and I give you this book. If I am not mistaken, you were not disinclined to me, Lugones, and you would have liked to like some piece of my work. That never happened; but this time you turn the pages and read approvingly a verse here and there¬ perhaps because you have recognized your own voice in it, perhaps because deficient practice concerns you less than solid theory.
At this point my dream dissolves, like water in water. The vast library that surrounds me is on Mexico Street, not on Rodríguez Peña, and you, Lugones, died early in '38. My vanity and nostalgia have set up an impossible scene. Perhaps so (I tell myself), but tomorrow I too will have died, and our times will intermingle and chronology will be lost in a sphere of symbols. And then in some way it will be right to claim that I have brought you this book, and that you have accepted it."
Buenos Aires, August 9, 1960
"Los rumores de la plaza quedan atrás y entro en la Biblioteca. De una manera casi física siento la gravitación de los libros, el ámbito sereno de un orden, el tiempo disecado y conservado mágicamente. A izquierda y a derecha, absortos en su lúcido sueño, se perfilan los rostros momentáneos de los lectores, a la luz de las lámparas estudiosas, como en la hipálage de Milton. Recuerdo haber recordado ya esa figura, en este lugar, y después aquel otro epíteto que también define por el contorno, el árido camello del Lunario, y después aquel hexámetro de la Eneida, que maneja y supera el mismo artificio:
Ibant obscuri sola sub nocte per umbram.
Estas reflexiones me dejan en la puerta de su despacho. Entro; cambiamos unas cuantas convencionales y cordiales palabras y le doy este libro. Si no me engaño, usted no me malquería, Lugones, y le hubiera gustado que le gustara algún trabajo mío. Ello no ocurrió nunca, pero esta vez usted vuelve las páginas y lee con aprobación algún verso, acaso porque en él ha reconocido su propia voz, acaso porque la práctica deficiente le importa menos que la sana teoría.
En este punto se deshace mi sueño, como el agua en el agua. La vasta biblioteca que me rodea está en la calle México, no en la calle Rodríguez Peña, y usted, Lugones, se mató a principios del treinta y ocho. Mi vanidad y mi nostalgia han armado una escena imposible. Así será (me digo) pero mañana yo también habré muerto y se confundirán nuestros tiempos y la cronología se perderá en un orbe de símbolos y de algún modo será justo afirmar que yo le he traído este libro y que usted lo ha aceptado."
Buenos Aires, 9 de agosto de 1960.
There is really no connection between the Egyptians, the Egyptian Army and the Fascist leaning Leopoldo Lugones except through Lugones’ son who with the picana made torture history. And yet I cannot help but marvel on how we humans can hopscotch hither and dither to mark our brief time here.
A Leopoldo Lugones, audio with Jorge Luís Borges
Historia De Mi Muerte de Leopoldo Lugones
Soñé la muerte y era muy sencillo;
una hebra de seda me envolvía,
y a cada beso tuyo,
con una vuelta menos me ceñía
y cada beso tuyo
era un día;
y el tiempo que mediaba entre dos besos
una noche. La muerte era muy sencilla.
Y poco a poco fue desenvolviéndose
la hebra fatal. Ya no la retenía
sino por solo un cabo entre los dedos…
Cuando de pronto te pusiste fría
y ya no me besaste…
y solté el cabo, y se me fue la vida.
The Story of My Death by Leopoldo Lugones
I dreamt death and it was very simple;
a silk thread enveloped me,
and every kiss of yours,
with one loop less encircled me
and every kiss of yours
was one day;
and the time that passed between kisses
one night. Death was very simple.
and little by little the fatal thread
unravelled. I could not hold it
except for end between my fingers…
When you suddenly became cold
and you no longer kissed me…
I let go of the end, and my life left me
Borges had the opinion the Lugones killed himself for love. He had had a sentimental affair with a very young woman for some years which his son frowned upon. His son Polo went to the girl’s family and threatened them. The only note that Lugones left behind was something that read, “ I couldn’t finish Roca.” He might have been working on a biography of Argentine General Julia A. Roca who was president of Argentina twice, the last time until 1906. It was Roca who had pushed the Argentine Indians west and south in a military campaign that was much more efficient and deadly than Custer’s.
Only the circumstances were false