Saturday, December 19, 2015

Book Review - Kiss of the Spider Woman, by Manuel Puig

I have just read the novel Kiss of the Spider Woman, the 1976 novel by Manuel Puig. It is probably his most famous novel, particularly since it was adapted into a Brazilian-American film in 1985.

The novel is, first of all, not what it sounds like. It is not a paranormal story, and it is barely a romance (at least not the modern sense of the term "romance novel"). Instead it contains Marxism, claustrophobia, diarrhea, homo-eroticism, long conversations, summaries of old movies, Freudian analyses of homosexuality, and nonlinear stream-of-consciousness dream sequences. The novel takes place in Argentina in 1975, in a prison cell. Two men share the cell, and they have nothing in common. One man is Valentin, a political prisoner who was arrested for his involvement in anti-government protests. The other man is Molina, a gay window-dresser who was arrested for "corrupting minors." The novel, I have read, was controversial from the start: Puig had trouble having it published, and this does not surprise me. There is nothing "appropriate" about the book, nothing that seems especially pleasing.

To put it bluntly - it is a comfortless, stark, bizarre novel. It criticizes leftist activity, since Valentin left his true love (a girl named "Marta") in order to participate in his rebellions; but it also criticizes the status quo, since the prison warden uses terrible, inhumane methods to extract information from Valentin. It is not a homophobic novel, but it portrays Molina as alienated from society, disinterested in intellectual pursuits - essentially as a depressingly useless person. Molina passes the time by describing the movies he has seen in the past, emphasizing the look of women's dresses, the passion shared between a pair of lovers, the fear and chaos created by imminent danger.

Valentin has little interest in these retellings of films at first - particularly the second film, which turns out to be a Nazi propaganda film. I don't think Valentin mentions it in this book, but I remember that, in the movie with Raul Julia, Valentin points out the irony of a gay man adoring a movie produced by Nazis, since the Nazis were known for executing homosexuals. But Molina does not care; the aesthetic qualities of the films captivate him. Valentin believes in causes; Molina believes in happiness. "In a man's life," Valentin says, "which may be short and may be long, everything is temporary. Nothing is forever." To which Molina responds, "Yes, but let it last a little while, at least that much."

Kiss of the Spider Women is, I suppose, a book about the things in life that obligate us, that entrap us and force us to do the very things that later destroy us. The "Spider Woman" is a fictitious character that Molina and Valentin imagine together, a woman "that traps men in her web" and gives them venomous kisses. We all have these "spider kisses" in our lives, whether they are our innate fears, or our unquenchable thirsts, or poisonous ideologies, or hunger for power, or else they are the tender passions we have for one another.

Gradually the two prisoners come to understand each other, relating to one another's problems. The novel shows that people can change, yet the role of fate in this novel is a malevolent one, and I think it manages to obliterate any chance for either of them to succeed in creating a tangible destiny for himself. The last of the movies Molina remembers is a tragic love story between a reporter and a singer. Each of them ruins oneself for the other, until they are both left with absolutely nothing, and I can't help but wonder, Why the hell couldn't they have just lived sensibly and worked things out? Why does a person think that his life can't be interesting until he spontaneously falls in love, or instantly fly into a rage? Why couldn't these stories have a bit of hope to them?

But hope may have been a distant concept to Manuel Puig at the time. He wrote this novel during a violent time period, when in fact Puig had gone into exile in order to escape persecution.

I have not seen the entire 1985 movie, and so I do not know to what extent Raul Julia's and William Hurt's performances heightened this awkward tale. Good performances will save a bad story, George Bernard Shaw once wrote. I would not call Kiss of the Spider Woman a bad story; but it manages to create nothing, and it is strangely unimaginative (even the films Molina describes are not the product of Puig's imagination; each is based on one or more preexisting films, except perhaps the last film, the one about the reporter and the singer). The novel is extremely minimalist in style, existing only in the dialogue between people, without any further narration. I was tempted, at first, to compare it to the brilliant Johnny Got His Gun, by Dalton Trumbo, which is also a very minimalist novel; but Trumbo's book was far more daring, drastic, and original, while at the same time the point Trumbo wanted to make was crystal-clear. With Puig's novel, I get a muddled look at two rather confused men who try to learn from each other and just end up getting more confused, although perhaps they do not know it, perhaps they have the fortune to feel enlightened when they in reality are not. Kiss of the Spider Woman is a multi-layered novel of ideas and passions, and its aftertaste is the feeling that humans are a miserable species because, in the end, ideas and passions just don't mix.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Review of the President - The Spirit of the Constitution on the Bench

I recently read an article regarding the “terrible character and extent of the departures of the present Administration­ from the word and spirit of the fathers of our Constitution and country that has yet been in a single speech or article.” It was, in short, a scathing indictment of the current Administration.

The article consisted of an imagined courtroom scene, in which the President was on trial. The author conjured up the spirits of “a number of historical characters,” former patriotic figures of our country “who had assembled for the trial of the present incumbent of the Presidential chair, or charges of the gravest and most serious character. These charges were numerous, and were brought out in the course of the examination, which was conducted before the Spirit of the Constitution, who occupied the bench of Justice.”

The President was charged with many crimes, including the following:
  • “having declared war against independent and sovereign States”
  • “having arrested citizens of the United States…without process of law”
  • “having suppressed the liberty of speech, thereby denying to the citizens the constitutional right of criticizing the acts of his Administration”
  • “overthrowing State sovereignty”
  • and “having approved, endorsed, and partially carried into execution” an “unconstitutional act of Congress”

When the President stated that he only suppressed certain freedoms in order “to preserve the integrity” of our country, a Historical Figure replied with Speech A: “Free speech…is not to be thrown into controversy. It is as undoubted as the right of breathing the air and walking on the earth. It is a right to be maintained in peace and war. It is a right which cannot be invaded without destroying constitutional liberty. Hence this right should be guarded and protected by the freedom of this country with a jealous care unless they are prepared by chains and anarchy.”

When the President stated, “The Government is obligated to have recourse to such measures if it would preserve its own existence,” another Historical Figure countered with Speech B: “It is to the last degree vicious and infamous to attempt to support a government which manifestly tends to render the persons and property of the government insecure. Some boast of being friends to the government. I am a friend to righteous government, to a government founded upon the principles of reason and justice; but I glory in avowing my eternal enmity to tyranny.”

When the President stated, “I thought that the people would be willing to relinquish some of their Constitutional rights for a time, if their liberties could be preserved in the future,” another Historical Figure scolded him with Speech C: “Is the relinquishment of the trial by jury and the liberty of the press necessary for your liberty? Will the abandonment of the most sacred rights tend to the security of your liberties?...The first thing I have at heart is American liberty.”

When the President stated that he wished very much that he could have acted in accordance with the Constitution, another Historical Figure declared in Speech D that, upon the Constitution “depends our harmony and our peace,” and that, without the Constitution, “this country would be deluged with the blood of its inhabitants.”

The President then insisted that his actions were necessary, and that the measures of his Act “must be enforced.” A Historical Figure scoffed at him with Speech E: “It is under such sophistry, couched in general terms, without looking to the limitations which must ever exist in the practical exercise of power, that the most cruel and despotic acts ever have been covered…Disguise it as you may, the contest is between power and liberty.” Another Historical Figure concurred in Speech F: “The more I reflect on the use of force the more I doubt the practicability, the justice, and the efficacy of it when applied to a people collectively and not individually.”

When the President protested, “Without force it is impossible to preserve the Government,” another Historical Figure asked incredulously in Speech G, “How can this force be exerted on the states collectively? It is impossible.”

The President insisted that our country cannot survive “unless the State Governments sustain the General Government to the fullest extent.” Another Historical Figure made a sarcastic Speech H, “Let us, then, at once destroy the State Governments, have an executive for life, or hereditary, and then there will be some consistency in giving full power to the General Government…I warn you against pushing the experiment too far. Some people will support a plan of vigorous government at every risk. Others…will oppose it with equal determination.”

The President then admitted, “In my endeavor to sustain the Constitution, it is possible that I have transcended the powers with which that instrument has invested me,” but insisted that he has done so in order to maintain both the country and the Constitution. Another Historical Figure argued in Speech I that the foundations of Federal Power “must be laid in the affections of the people, in the security it gives to life, liberty, character and property…The legitimate authority of the government is abundantly sufficient for all the purposes for which it was created; and its powers being expressly enumerated, there can be no justification for claiming anything beyond them. Every attempt to exercise power beyond those limits should be promptly and firmly opposed; for one evil will lead to other measures still more mischievous; and if the principle of constructive powers, or supposed advantages, or temporary circumstances, shall ever be permitted to justify the assumption of a power not given by the Constitution, the general government will, before long, absorb all the powers of legislation, and you will have in effect, but one consolidated government.”

When the President then asserted that state governments “must submit to the authority and power of the general government,” another Historical Figure reminded him in Speech J, “The Constitution is framed upon truly republican principles, and as it is expressly designed for a common protection and a general welfare of the United States, it must be utterly repugnant to this Constitution to subvert the State Governments or oppress the people.”

The President then pleaded, “What does government mean, but power and authority over the governed? If the people will not sustain the Government then it is clearly the right of the Government to sustain itself. It would be impossible to do this if I am bound by the checks and restraints of the Constitution.” In response, another Historical Figure observed in Speech K, “Government is now taking so steady a course as to show by what road it will pass to destruction, to wit: by consolidation first, and then corruption, its necessary consequence…I see with the deepest affliction the rapid strides our Government is advancing towards usurpation of all the rights reserved to the States.” Another Historical Figure reflected in Speech L, “It is important that the habit of thinking in a free country should inspire caution in those entrusted with its administration to confine themselves within their respective constitutional spheres, avoiding, in the exercise of the power or one department, to encroach upon another.”

But the President insisted, “I repeat in my own defense, that power is necessary to government, and that the life of every able-bodied man in the country should be at its disposal to preserve the integrity of the country.”

At this point, the Spirit of the Constitution rose and pronounced a plethora of Final Indictments upon Our President:
  •  “He has erected a multitude of new officer, and sent hither swarms of officers to harass our people and eat out their substance.”
  •  “He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our Constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his assent to their pretended acts of legislation.”
  •  “He has taken our characters, abolished our most valuable laws, and altered, fundamentally, the powers of our government.”
  •  “He has suspended our Legislatures.”

And with that, the Spirit of the Constitution declared, “you have been tried and found wanting. You have been given the opportunity of saving a nation, but have stabbed it to the heart. You were born in the freest country under the sun, but have you converted it into hated despotism. You have violated your oath; you have betrayed the trust reposed in you by the popular will, and with the outraged justice of your countrymen I now leave you with the brand of ‘Tyrant’ upon your brow. They will hereafter inflict upon you that penalty which justice demands, while history will pronounce judgment upon the infamous acts of your administration.”

The article concluded, “Thus ended the midnight trial of the last successor of Washington.”

Every speech in this article from a "Historical Figure" was a quotation from an actual speech (or piece of writing) in American history. Speech A was an oration by Daniel Webster, in 1814. Speech B was from a speech John Hancock made in Boston in 1774. Speech C was Patrick Henry, regarding the Federal Constitution. Speech D was Gouverneur Morris, on January 14th, 1802. Speech E was John C. Calhoun, protesting the Force Bill in 1833. Speech F was James Madison at the Federal Convention that framed the Constitution. Speech G was Alexander Hamilton, at the same convention. Speech H was Elbridge Gerry. Speech I was from Andrew Jackson’s Farewell Address. Speech J was also from Alexander Hamilton. Speech K was from Thomas Jefferson. Speech L was from George Washington’s Farewell Address. The President on trial was, of course, Abraham Lincoln. You can read the complete article in these two files:


If the pictures are too difficult to read, let me know and I can email you the .pdf files.