Homeless in Space

Part of research aims at joining a conversation to discover what’s being said or has been said about your topic or ideas, as you develop your own statement about which there’s going to be disagreement, your own claims, your argument. It won’t take much Googling to find out most of your ideas are old hat – someone’s already been there, done that.

So it came as no surprise when I began thinking of the Mars rover “Perseverance,” now roaming the atmosphere of the red planet like a Samuel Beckett character in familiar forlorn surroundings, that when I searched for “Homeless on Mars” and “Homeless in Space,” Google instantly brought me 100,000 or so links to peruse.

What had happened was an old friend had called and our country’s ubiquitous homeless predicament came up, and I think I caught that he thought at least one of the local cause and effect issues might involve theft, that the homeless in his area were thieves, substantiated by his having seen a local police cruiser pulled over at a homeless camp under a bridge. Not adequate backing if one is building a credible causal argument, but I didn’t want to join, so I let it go for the nonce.

But I later found myself wondering, what is homelessness? What is theft? If I live in a tent on a patch of public property, is that not my home? This quickly becomes an argument of definition. What is a home? What characteristics of one’s living situation are necessary to call a dwelling a home? A telephone? An address the mail carrier will be able to locate? Indoor plumbing? A landlord or mortgagee? Bricks and mortar? A deed of some sort? A contract? Neighbors?

And having been somewhat preoccupied with and still thinking about the latest NASA enterprise, I thought it might be possible to consider the rover Perseverance homeless. And it also appears likely that NASA’s plans include stealing a few rocks from the red planet and bringing them back to Earth. Whose rocks are they?

In any case, my research into the idea of a homeless space, a homeless universe, where all housing is ultimately temporary, brought forth two interesting finds: “The Orphan Ship,” a trilogy about homeless children living in poverty in a Mars space station (Sterling R. Walker, 2013), and “The Ethics of Space: Homelessness and Squatting in Urban England” (Steph Grohmann, HAU, 2020). From the preface to Grohmann’s book, the predicament is clearly laid out:

“Through their struggles for housing, squatters initiate a more fundamental struggle to inhabit and take hold of social space, and thus to make modest but no less daring efforts to remake the world through very localized but determined measures to change their immediate, everyday lived realities. In doing so, they challenge the larger social and political order of neoliberal capitalism, and in working to transform life, they also transform themselves and their relations with the wider society, and engage in new and creative experiments with how we might begin to reorganize all of our collective social life” (Nicholas De Genova, xii).

It’s probable that former local vagrancy laws kept homeless populations from growing in the US (to the extent they exist today), or at least confined to “skid rows.” Most of those laws have been struck down as unconstitutional, often replaced by loitering laws, also mostly struck down. But today’s lack of affordable housing, endemic unemployment and job losses, generational poverty, education detrimental reliance traps, and a growing acceptance of inequality and change – all contribute to our current imbroglio.

Absurdly, as both Buckminster Fuller and Marshall Mcluhan showed, typewriters (or their replacements) asleep under cover for the night in high rise office buildings still fair better than their daytime users commuting home, wherever that might be.

Motti, Lazzaro, and Django

The Awakening of Motti Wolkenbruch (Swiss, 2018) is a coming of age story, Motti’s single marital status of existential concern to his mother, who tries to set him up with any number of, for Motti, unsuitable but available girls whose mothers are equally concerned about the marriage status of their daughters. But Motti has his own ideas about attractions and family values, even as his young and tender heart is yanked from his body by the carefree girl he falls off a cliff for, and a parental sponsored trip to Israel banking on his finding a girl the family can approve of only makes matters worse. Expect much laughter, and crying, out loud, with actors speaking German, Yiddish, and Hebrew. The Awakening of Motti Wolkenbruch is about the surprise of life.

Happy as Lazzaro (Italian, 2018) is another coming of age story. Lazzaro does, literally, fall off a cliff, but not for love, and his heart remains surreally whole, inviolate, even as his body is bruised and abused. He’s a static character, the same at the end as at the beginning, even as life around him changes dramatically. The dwelling settings, country and city, are brutal but beautiful. The lives of the sharecroppers, under imprisonment and later emancipated but just as poor, still captives of poverty, illustrate that poverty is protean, affecting both the poor and the wealthy.

Django (French, 2017). A dramatization of the life of the guitarist Django Reinhardt and his family during World War II. The Nazis persecuted the Gypsies, many of whom tried to flee to relatively safe zones, joined the resistance, or were caught, killed on the spot, or transported via train to the Nazi concentration camps. The film focuses on Django’s one attempt to escape France, and while he did try to escape to Switzerland, according to the book Django: The Life and Music of a Gypsy Legend (2004, Michael Dregni, Oxford University Press), Django spent most of the war in Paris, where he was allowed to continue playing his music because by then he and his music had become so popular. But he had to play for the occupiers as well as for the locals, his safe treatment thus coming at the cost of a kind of debt bondage. From the book:

“Hitler bore a deep hatred for Gypsies…From 1933, German Gypsies were doomed. The Nazis barred Romanies from cities, shuttling them into settlement camps. Nazi doctors began sterilizing Romanies as early as 1933. And German Gypsies were required to wear a brown triangle sewn on their chest marked with the letter “Z” for zigemer, German for “Gypsy” – a precursor of the yellow Stars of David pinned to Jews (168)….Yet in Paris, Django was flourishing. Never did he have so much work or live in such sumptuous surroundings. Just as the Germans permitted jazz in Paris, they allowed Romany musicians to continue to play – and paid to come hear them every night” (169).

Still, Django worried for his family and for his own life, and if some considered him a hero, others thought of him as a conspirator: “Being in the spotlight saved him from the fate awaiting other Gypsies, but Django began to sweat under the glare” (182). Django takes off with his pregnant wife and his mother. They get caught and are imprisoned, but then, in the absurd way these things seem to happen, Dregni says, “A miracle arrived in the unlikely form of the German kommandant. He was a jazz fan, and when he came to question his new prisoner, he was astonished. ‘My good Reinhardt,’ he said, ‘whatever are you doing in this fix?’ Django promised not to try to escape again, and was freed” (184).

Django the film is must see for anyone interested in Gypsy jazz. But it’s also just a classic film – the acting, the setting, the timing, the war, the family and country drama and suspense. It features much magnificent music, including the organ “Mass” piece Django created. Django the book by Dregni should also be read. Django never learned to read or write, save at a most rudimentary level, and that late in his life (he died age 43). The book reveals a deep history of jazz music in Europe, particularly Paris, including stories of the many Black American musicians who traveled through Europe, most stopping in Paris, many playing with Django, following both World Wars. It covers the business of music and recording and performance management, popular success and failure, the changing style of jazz as musicians work to assimilate new music experienced from new exposures.

Actually, Clarice Lispector

Guardian Angel“The Hour of the Star,” Clarice Lispector’s final book, is a study in narration, how to tell a story. The style is more industrial and electronic than “Agua Viva.” And more colloquial. First published in 1977, a time of candlelight compared to today, “The Hour of the Star” is dedicated

“…to the strident cries of the electronic generation.”

The short dedication, signed, “Actually, Clarice Lispector,” brings attention to the difference between the author and her narrator, between experience and fiction that tries to bring the experience to others, and suggests the angle of the work, and why she chose the strategy.

Writing, for the narrator, is not easy:

“No, it’s not easy to write. It’s as hard as breaking rocks.”

Maybe his difficulty comes from his being an amateur:

“Anyway. It seems that I’m changing the way I write. But it so happens that I only write what I want, I’m not a professional.”

But as an amateur, he’s free to go his own way, to address his own needs:

“I am not an intellectual, I write with my body…I swear this book is made without words. It is a mute photograph. This book is a silence. This book is a question.”

This book may also be an act.

“Is the fact an act?”

Actually, it’s all an act. He’s obsessed with facts. But what is a fact? The narrator tells a story about how he wants to write a story about a girl he seems to be haunted by. What’s he haunted by, the girl, her story, or his story? But she has no story. And he has no story without her story. So he has to come up with one, and he invents it on the go. The girl is described as being poor, ugly, and stupid. She’s hopeless. She would be invisible were it not for the fact that she is annoying.

The girl looks into a mirror – no, the narrator sees the girl looking into a mirror, but she sees him in the mirror,

“we’re that interchangeable.”

Actually, is the author interchangeable with the narrator? Is it possible to see Clarice’s face when the narrator sees Macabea looking at herself in the mirror?

He’s obsessed with her, and so, obsessed with his writing. That he’s an amateur is evidenced by his having to “give up sex and soccer” in order to write. That’s the difference between amateur and professional writers. It’s a hilarious line.

“Or am I not a writer? Actually I’m more of an actor because with only one way to punctuate, I juggle with intonation and force another’s breathing to accompany my text.”

Lispector’s unconventional and idiosyncratic punctuation and syntax. Themes seem to play on identity of narrator and character: and author? The girl forlorn, he does not seem to pity her. At the bottom of one paragraph,

“Not that it mattered. Nobody looked at her on the street, she was cold coffee.”

And at the bottom of the next paragraph, he says of her,

“What a thin slice of watermelon.”

But he learns more about her as he goes, and here’s Lispector having some fun:

“I’ve just discovered that for her, besides God, reality too was very little. She could deal better with her daily unreality, living in sloooow motion, hare leeeeaping through the aaaair over hiiiill and daaaale…”

It’s a short book, 77 pages, a novella, but if writing can be hard, so can reading. He’s sarcastic and frustrated by his inability to get going on his story about the girl. We’re a quarter of the way into the book before we get her background and a traditional narrative seems to have begun. What was all that about, that meandering prologue? He seems to be improvising. He claims he doesn’t know how her story will end.

She lives in a tenement in a hard part of town; nevertheless,

“…the girl’s life might have a splendid future? I’m pleased by the possibility and will do everything I can to make it real.”

Macabea asks questions. She listens to Clock Radio, which is often incomprehensible to her, but fuels her questions. The narrator wants facts, is bored with description and other traditional writing requisites. The center of the book is devoted to a long section of dialog between Maca and her boyfriend, Olimpico, and Maca asks him questions he can’t answer. He leaves her for another, another typist. As a typist, Macabea is another kind of writer. But she’s not a female Bartleby.

Yes, she has a job, even a skill, though she’s not very good at it, and she doesn’t earn even minimum wage. She lives in a room with four other girls, all named Maria. She subsists on a diet of hot dogs. She’s never had a gift from anyone, never a party given in her name. Her parents died when she was a child. She was raised by a mean and ignorant aunt. She collects advertisements.

She hears on Clock Radio that

“there were seven billion people in the world. She felt lost. But with the tendency she had to be happy she immediately consoled herself: there were seven billion people to help her.”

Not to burst anyone’s bubble, but the world population in 1977, when the book was written, was only 4.2 billion. It was 7 billion in 2011, when the translation was done. So much for the narrator’s quest for facts? Of course, as with all the other facts in the story, this adds up to nothing.

The end comes as no surprise, though the narrator says he’s tried to avoid it. We’ve been told Macabea has no guardian angel. Really? Should he have tried harder or was he simply being true to the story, the girl, or was he projecting some drama within himself that did not need to happen?

In the end, Macabea’s life does have significance, and all the narrator’s arguments fail to persuade. It might be trite to say it, but his criticisms say more about him than about Macabea. He’s a critic, the worst kind, a literary critic, but with this difference – he’s created and is criticizing his own work. Nothing else matters. It’s so fiction. Was he the driver of the Mercedes? Or is he the fortune teller? Who is he? But this is asking for something that is not there. He seems to have told a true story, after all, criticisms included.

Did the girl “exist”? It’s fiction, so she did not exist. That’s the whole story. He claims not to know the ending. But it becomes clear, in the end, that he knew the ending all along. In fact, he started with the ending and worked backward to a beginning, but he couldn’t find a beginning, so he began by telling about himself, limited to his struggles to write the story. He introduces himself as Rodrigo, but we forget his name since it’s not mentioned again, while he goes on talking about “the girl.” We have to wait a long time to get her name, Macabea. When she tells Olimpico her name, he says,

“Sorry but that sounds like a disease, a skin disease.”

Her poverty is all she possesses. She barely exists. She does not exist.

No, not actually. Actually, she does exist, as fiction. We believe in her. The book begins and ends on a “yes.” Still, the narrator grows tired of it all. Maybe a different narrator would have come up with a different ending. But no. This is the story. Take it or leave it. Except that, in her poverty, in her worldly nothingness, she is as beautiful as a weed struggling through a crack in the asphalt, and Clarice, her guardian angel, waters the unwanted flower with tears of words.

“The Hour of the Star,” 1977, by Clarice Lispector. First published as New Directions Paperbook 733 in 1992. Newly translated from the Portuguese by Benjamin Moser, 2011, and Introduction by Colm Toibin, 2011, in New Directions Paperbook 1212.