Thursday, February 26, 2009

Alcatraz, the Black Panthers, and the Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Alcatraz: a federal penitentiary-turned-tourist attraction in San Francisco. Panthers: a militant socialist cadre of revolutionaries I never learned enough about. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly: a movie narrated by a paralyzed man with “locked-in syndrome,” who writes a memoir by blinking his left eye to a transcriber. (Loosely and problematically based on Jean-Dominique Bauby’s book “Le scaphandre et le papillon”)

Let me make some connections.

I marveled at how people manifest their survival instincts during the Alcatraz audio tour, when a former inmate offered his solution to the mind-destroying boredom of being in “The Hole,” a tiny, cement-floor cell with no windows, no light, no furniture, and only a slit in the door for food to come through. Under such inhumane circumstances, this inmate started a game with himself. He’d pop a button off his coat, flip it in the air, and then get down on all fours and search each inch of the Hole with his hands until he found it. Once he had the button, he’d do it again. Another inmate watched a “T.V.” he saw behind his eyelids. He said that everyone has one, if they are patient enough to wait for it to appear. Less than fifty yards away, the warden lived in a large home overlooking the Bay. I took a picture of its skeleton.

I watched "41st and Central," a new documentary about the LA Black Panthers at a theater near UCR with a sinking sense of ignorance. Why didn’t I know more about them? Why don’t I know more about any other revolutionary groups? One of the Panthers said “You can’t be a revolutionary without studying revolutions. You have to do your reading.” When Anthony asked the panel what they were reading in the 60s, they listed a number of texts that most college seniors haven’t even tackled these days—Marx, Engels, Mao, Che Guevara. The three Panthers on the panel were some of the most inspiring living texts I’ve ever encountered—in their 70s, grayed, disagreeing occasionally with us or with each other, they vehemently described the necessity of commitment to principles and a cause. This wasn’t the unhealthy dogmatic clinging to habit that pervades so much of our culture, this was a real sense of duty to social justice and Change that they had taken seriously, with continued awareness and integrity, for their lives.

The narrator of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is paralyzed completely by a stroke. I haven’t read the book so I’ll admit to some ignorance here too as I learned that there is a glaring inaccuracy in the movie’s depiction of Bauby’s fantasies and girlfriend. (Imprisonment in Hollywood tropes? Much more sexuality in the movie than book.) I was amazed by a point-of-view camera technique that placed us directly inside the face of Bauby, seeing through his one good eye, until the scene where he tells us that he has decided not to pity himself anymore. This is directly followed by his decision to write his book. It is at this point in the film that the point of view opens up, that we get to see memories from a sort of floating 3rd person, scenes with only other characters, even Bauby from the outside. We are no longer imprisoned, because he isn’t, even though his physical situation hasn’t changed.

So I have been aware recently of so many manifestations of imprisonment. At Alcatraz I learned that the idea of a prison, where incarceration is punishment in itself, was a “more humane” response to the tradition of torturing suspects and criminals. However, imprisonment itself became a torture, and especially at Alcatraz, where inmates were dehumanized deliberately and severely. If the stories of former inmates are any indication, physical imprisonment does actually free the mind in a way—to stay sane, inmates went a little crazy. I think this is true for anyone willing to see their daily life as unjustly oppressed by both outside forces and their own choices. The Panthers looked directly into the unblinking eye of the white, racist, sexist, capitalist power structure and knew that they could no longer live quietly in submission, and people thought they were crazy. Bauby was given one good eye through which he was able to see himself and the world more clearly than all the “functional” people around him—it took an extreme (crazy) state to offer him that insight.

What I see in many of my peers is a strange vacillation between claims to victimhood (especially with regards to work and love relationships) and an almost delusional claim to autonomy in their life choices. Some people are truly imprisoned by poverty, by oppressive forces like racism or sexism, disease or political terror. But those who are born with privilege of any kind are imprisoned by wholly other, quieter forces of capitalist traditions: habits of mind developed to maximize profit, imaginary separations between themselves and other cultures, a nearsightedness that keeps them docile when they could be demanding change. So I don’t believe those who tell me they are too busy to read good books, don’t have the money to travel, etc. It’s not their job or their boyfriend/girlfriend or even their physical exhaustion that imprisons them, it’s the underlying belief that they need more STUFF, or more approval, or more predictability, than they do. If they could make as much money working less hours, they would. If they could break up with the person they don’t love and be guaranteed enough companionship and love in their life overall, they would. I used to be this way too—and I justified my “busyness” with an even more insidious defense: my students. As it turned out, I was able to be a more effective teacher once I quit obsessively commenting on papers and made time to work on my own writing.

The point is that I think we are wrong as a culture, most of the time, in our perception of what imprisons us. We blame the wrong things for our feelings of frustration and don’t creatively discover deeper, more systemic causes. We live in a world of deceptively varied choice—we think we have infinite options laid bare before us, but then forget that only those with money are truly offered choices, and that the choices we see are only a fraction of what is possible. We feel compelled to make money, but are wrong about how much we need or what we should really use it for. We get obsessed with personalizing things that are fundamentally impersonal like bank cards or cars, and then don’t understand why we continue to feel quietly depersonalized.

This is why illness and prison, oppression and trauma, are such important forces for change. Real restrictions (a prison cell, police brutality, poverty, paralysis) cause either utter defeat or creative problem-solving. Imagined restrictions (obligation to work, staying in dysfunctional relationships) cause only numbed maintenance of status quo. The conundrum, of course, is that I will continue to avoid prison and paralysis as it’s feasible. What I strive for now is an honest discovery of where my thinking has been constrained, where my art has been circumscribed, where my actions have been less than radical—and that means a lot of conflict, stretching, exploding should happen, even without externally-inflicted trauma.

Bruce Springsteen’s blues tell us he made the mistake of keeping his good eye to the dark and his blind eye to the sun—he couldn’t see what was right in front of him, and it kept him trapped. For The Diving Bell, Bauby kept his good eye trained to his art. The Panthers kept their eye on ten principles that would have fixed our country. Inmates at Alcatraz kept their good eye trained inward, where they were free. I’d like to turn my good eye to the sun, and see imprisonment when it exists, and never when it does not.


  1. Everything you've said is true. But, thankfully, we don't need to be imprisoned or paralyzed to be blessed with the grace of a dramatically altering state: we can just take drugs!

  2. Hell yeah! It's interesting you focus on the Alcatraz inmates' imaginative games, visions, rituals, travels to combat the crushing madness weighing in from all corners. In Bauby's memoir, he describes a colleague and friend's similar strategies for years in a dungeon in Beirut. This friend, a wine connoisseur, focused on listing all the Bordeaux from that year. Bauby himself, in his body-prison, decides to visit (in his head) all of the three dozen or so countries in which his magazine, Elle, is published.

    Brilliant move, by the way, to take a picture of the 'skeleton' of the warden's house. I love the implication of the ephemeral nature of power, as well as the continual desire to freeze time and capture the brief moment at the top or bottom.

  3. Our blind eye is turned to the ridiculous possibility of REAL choices disconnected or at least not dictated by monetary value. What's past the fraction of possibility that we see is everything real, ecstatic, joyous, serious and profound. Sensational life rather than static life is what's at stake. But you've shone the light on the problem: shaking us out of it without finding the bottom of the prison first. Let's all join the revolution instead!

  4. Hey, Vertigocrossing, "without hitting the bottom of the prison first?" What about those of us who already have?

  5. What I find so compelling about this is your accurate location of what makes us tick; that pulse at the core of all of us, which needs to be perpetually nurtured and monitored. I know I’ve lost it from time to time for the very reasons you discussed, though the frequency is much less since I’ve entered my thirties. Those modes of containment are tricky little fuckers, and I always have my eye on them!

  6. I think that's a great phrase: modes of containment. I'd like to trade my modes of containment for some modes of expansion.

  7. ...or perhaps modes of subversion.