Friday, May 21, 2010

Bios and Backgrounds

I've been challenged to discuss my "real" biography-- the actual Karl Wenclas outside the known, somewhat simplified version. An incautious request, certainly, when addressing a known talkaholic/ alleged egomaniac such as myself.

Anyway, I was thinking about the matter last night. I did a little self-examination. What I've concluded is that we're all constructs to some extent. (What songwriter said "Part fact, part fiction; a walking contradiction"?) Sometimes we're contradictions because we're our fathers and mothers both-- often those are two very different personalities, as in my case.

I've realized I'm a product of my parents. I am them. I can't be understood without knowing about them. But then we need the background to the background, plus other influences. In my case, Detroit. In my parents case, Catholicism, and more their Polish heritage. Which opens up more contradictions, because like many countries, Poland has been a contradiction, a strange mix of high and low.

There wasn't a Poland for a few centuries, so that "Poland" was a realm of the imagination. And then, which Poland? Austrian Poland? German Poland? Russian or Ukrainian Poland? Then there are the smaller tribes within the Polish identity, such as the Kashubians. It's all a mess. Even the Polish racial identity can be questioned, as one sees a mix of types. The red-haired German-looking Pole (my father), or the dark Asiatic cast Tartar (my mother). Those mixes of course are inside me. Thinking about it, I was programmed more by my mother, who was very much a striver. Oh, very much, and wanted to live her ambitions through her children, and as she told us many times, we failed her.

This is a subject likely of interest only to myself and my siblings, who anyway would disagree with everything I say. I may expand on it anyway in the comments to this post, along with a discussion of other things.


King said...

Over the course of several centuries, revolution was bred into the Polish personality. (The only ethnic group comparable is the Irish.) During the course of domination by a Czar, Kaiser, or Emperor, the Poles were in constant rebellion.
A look at 1939 is revealing. Poland was threatened by the might Nazi war machine-- yet refused to negotiate with Hitler's demands, and also refused alliance with their gigantic neighbor on the other side, which was led by another crazy dictator.
When Hitler invaded, the Poles actually thought they could hold out long enough until the hapless and cowardly French and Chamberlian-led Brits could come to their aid. They fought valiantly, even tho at times it was horse cavalry against tanks. (Classicly quixotic.)
They ended up invaded on two sides by two gigantic war machines.
It's no accident that during the war, the strongest resistance to the Germans was in Poland, by far-- or that the first country to throw out the Communists in the 1980's was Poland. The nation is fiercely, willfully independent.
This independence comes before all else.
(To be continued.)

King said...

I'm going to take a brief pause from my narrative in order to discuss the question of background.
When leading the ULA, did I harp too much on the opposing team's background?
Likely. Though there's no doubt that we live in a very elitist, hierarchical society. This is easily proven. One need only look at the fact that every President since 1988 was a graduate of Harvard or Yale.
I note that Ms. Kagan, Supreme Court nominee, has a slightly different resume. She attended Oxford as well as Harvard and Yale.
Oh, I know, officially these things don't matter. No, they don't matter at all! Not a whit.
Yet the Not-Harlands of lit, even though such places and degrees don't matter, sure make certain they're in attendanceat such irrelevant places, receiving those unimportant pieces of paper which have no significance whatsoever.
(Please follow what the magician tells you and not what he's placed into the hat.)
Anyway, background.
Should anyone be surprised that, when reviewing corruption in literature, I brought up the uncomfortable subject of background?
Sorry, but I believe in using anything at hand-- every tool or weapon available.
I was in a set-to once five or six years ago with a ULA poet.
(The ULA spent way more time fighting-- often physically-- among ourselves than with panicky preppy outsiders.)
The guy jabbed his finger or something in my face, which triggered a response. He was surprised that during the fracas I threw a chair at him, and I didn't throw it gently. If others hadn't got between us I might've hit him with other things-- anything available. In life there's no halfway-- a message I could never get through to ULAers. When you start a fight, as the ULA did, you can't hesitate. (Or as Napoleon said, if you move against Vienna, take Vienna.)
(Incidentally, me and the very same poet on another occasion were thrown out of one of Philly's most noted bars when he challenged everyone in the place to fight and I added my own voice to the occasion. A tumultuous evening. Life with street poets.)
But: moderation. We have an example of another underground organization founded by moderate/Tory ULAers. They're very civil and polite and don't make any waves and nobody knows about them and they're not going anyplace.
Background isn't all-important, but neither should the subject be pushed to the side-- not in a society like this one which is so class stratified. Often those decrying background are the same people who've drawn on their own backgrounds for every available benefit and edge. (As in the case of Mr. Not-Harland.) They don't hesitate to pick up metaphorical bottles or chairs. Their cry: "Don't watch what I'm doing!"
At a time when we've seen Wall Street bankers literally loot the treasury, such a stance of see-no-evil is badly out of date.
With Not-Harland, the problem isn't his background. It's his CHARACTER, or lack thereof. One can look at his background to see how that created him, in the same way I'm examining my own background on this thread to see how it created me.

King said...

Both my parents were from large immigrant families. Large, in like twelve children apiece (according to my oldest sister). Hard to know exactly because a few children died.
My mother grew up in and around Philadelphia, in a rigidly Roman Catholic house ruled by an authoritarian father. Since he had many beautiful and wild daughters, he had much to be authoritarian about. (One of his daughters was given at a young age to the church, to become a nun, a common practice back then.)
My mother bailed out after high school and took a bus to Detroit. She changed her last name to York, from an unreadable, unprounceable appellation, in order to get a job as a secretary in the offices at one of the auto companies. She was intelligent and quick-witted and passed herself off as more than she was, according to her working for an important WASP boss who, believe it or not, lived in Grosse Pointe, home of the local gentry. She forever had a love/hate relationship with the place and what it represented.
My father grew up in an anarchic and very poor household with, by all accounts, no parental authority whatsoever. When I knew him, ages afterward, he implied he wasn't Polish, but maybe half-German, or Czech, or Kashub, and he may not have known himself, but he knew a few phrases of Polish, enough to pass for my mother's family. He dropped out of school in the sixth grade without having learned to read or write; was a hobo; worked in a low rent circus; boxed; among other typical Ameican life in those days.
In sales, one is concerned with closing. making the sale. My father made one sale in his life, and that was in selling my mother on himself. As she told it, with a borrowed suit and a borrowed car, with a line to go with them. She was anxious to permanently detach herself from her pop, and so married my dad shortly after they met. He was a great guy, but I suspect always something of an embarassment to her. Under her influence he got a steady job in an auto plant. She taught him to read and write, as she later taught her two sons.
(She taught us to read. He taught us how to box. The only reading material he bought were copies of Popular Mechanics and boxing magazines. Even by the time I came around, his reading ability was sketchy. No sarcastic remarks, please.)
To be continued.

King said...

BECAUSE he was in love with my mother, my father consigned himself to work for the rest of his life, more or less, in industrial factories. Hellish places, believe me. When I was a kid they had an open house one time at my father's plant. It was like sending a message: "Don't end up here!" I realized more when I was eighteen and went to work in such a place.
I realize, thinking about influences, that it's a gigantic subject. There's my family history, all the background from before I was born. (My oldest sister is 17 years older than I am.) The relationship between my two parents. The dominating institutions in our lives, like the Union-- the one topic on which both parents were unreservedly in agreement about; talking about Walter Reuther with reverence reserved for no one else-- no politician certainly, not even FDR or Kennedy. Which begs the question why that was. (My father had been in sitdown strikes; labor wars.)
The Church, which my mother had a love/hate attitude toward. I'll have to get into that.
Being born during the Golden Age of America. Historians like Eric Hobsbawm call the post-WWII era an economic golden age. For the working class, until the mid-70's, it was. Everything since has been downhill.
Most important, Detroit, the make-up of Detroit. Which includes for me the tiny and fairly ridiculous post-WWII community of Harper Woods, and the Grosse Pointes, which during the time I was growing up dominated everyone's imagination (everyone outside the Grosse Pointes), like Gatsby's green light. Particularly my mother's imagination, she a frustrated person who read too many movie magazines in her life.
The thing to do on Sundays-- not just for our family-- was to drive through Grosse Pointe marvelling at the houses, climaxed by a swing down Lake Shore Drive, where the largest mansions were placed. (Most now gone, I'm told; many other homes vacant, unable to be sold.)
To know Detroit one has to know what it was; a dense population of various groups jammed in there for one purpose. One has to know what an auto plant is-- a raging inferno. One has to see the city as an inferno filled with infernos. One has to know the history of racial wars-- the 1943 and 1967 riots in particular. One has to understand the sense of territoriality, particularly for those who felt caught between the spreading black population on one side, and the barriers of Grosse Pointe on the other. The history includes the transformation of Detroit proper from a majority white town to a 90% black one, which happened in the course of a relatively few years. The history of white flight, which began after WWII and accelerated after 1967. My family ended up in Harper Woods. Take a look at a map of the Detroit area and locate Harper Woods on it. It was a postwar creation, once empty farmland that became a place to jam tiny houses upon, during the population boom. My mother was shrewd enough to understand the nature of America, to know the importance of pedigree-- where you're from; she maybe saw, regarding Detroit, the handwriting on the wall, which reached a culmination a year or so ago. That a part of Harper Woods belonged to the Grosse Pointe school system fit into her goals regarding her children.
I'm getting way ahead of the narrative, but it's the crucial point. She wanted her kids to be Grosse Pointers. She wanted her daughters to marry Grosse Pointers. (They didn't.) She wanted her sons to be Gatz/Gatsby types, not understanding their insuitability for the role.

King said...

(If I could've played that card, I would have.) We were her sons but we were also our father's sons.
Understand the attitude toward Grosse Pointers by everyone. Harper Woods became filled with a mass Irish Polish Italian Catholic white ethnics, for whom Grosse Pointers (read: WASP) were as alien as the encroaching onrushing blacks. Ethnic/class identity was crucial. "Class" informed everyone's imagination. And I'll tell you, we hated Grosse Pointe. Even my mother, who dreamed about it so much, hated it-- or she hated WASPs, which undercut her message to us; and misprogrammed us to not be able to carry out what she wanted. (For myself, my brother, and our friends, going to a Grosse Pointe school was disastrous. I can't put it anymore mildly or plainly than that.)
There's too much to address on this thread, so I may try to spread it out over other threads, taking one topic ("The Church") at a time.
Know this: it's impossible to understand America without understanding class. If you don't know that, then you're not even trying to understand the society in which you live. Detroit after all has been a microcosm of the larger society.
Novelists of the past understood this. Fitzgerald, certainly. The theme of class permeates "Gatsby" and his most famous stories-- and the guy had less to be concerned about than some of us. Frank Norris addressed America's divides in "The Octopus," t he greatest American novel, in my opinion.
Cozzens tried to understand the nature of America, which is the nature of systems, of enormous technological complexity; the mass use of resources, and the overarching bureaucracies controlling the movement of men and material.
One day spent in an auto plant is an education in this regard. The size, complexity, and inhumanity is mindboggling.
Most novelists in recent years don't even attempt to credibly address a larger view. Right now I'm reading Solzhenitsyn, who had a large enough brain to take a large view of his own world. (In the Tolstoyian tradition.)
All for now!