Revolutionary Brain by Harold Jaffe
Harold Jaffe, author of 20 books, including Terror-dot-Gov, Beyond the Techno-Cave and 15 Serial Killers, turns his critical eye to America and global media culture in his latest collection of essays, quasi-essays and “docufictions,” Revolutionary Brain. These 19 texts, written with Jaffe’s confident élan, range stylistically from interview, to reportage, to the use of an extensive list of pornographic keywords in the text, “Revolution Post-Mill.” The result is a book composed and organized much like an album, each text a song to be listened to individually, or within the context of the whole.
Revolutionary Brain interrogates our collective amnesia in relation to our obsession with technology, with all the attendant contradictions. We live in a time where we are increasingly aware of looming environmental catastrophe, yet our awareness of global warming is sublimated by the use of the term as a semantic palliative. Despite real social progress towards diversity, class inequity is worsening dramatically. The news media profits from diverting attention from crucial news to corporate-sponsored blandishments. Jaffe’s writing addresses these issues, deftly intermingling relevance with irreverence, juxtaposing pain with beauty and conveying serious thought with brevity. These aspects are perhaps best depicted in “Crisis Art.” Jaffe writes that “crisis art” is situational, “hence created rapidly rather than painstakingly revised and refined,” and Revolutionary Brain, though clearly refined, addresses crises while also being “keenly aware of text and context” (Jaffe 25). The prerogative of the activist/socially conscious writer is to reconfigure, interact and integrate information and deliver the result in a text that vibrates, bears witness. “Crisis artists must swallow the poison in order to reconstitute it. Expel it art…The poison, currently, includes our crazily spinning, electronic-obsessed, war-making culture and its profit-mad institutions; along with the rapidly worsening environmental crisis.” (25)
Though the bulk of this collection includes longer essay-esque pieces, instances of compressed writing also appear as shorter, micro texts like Fear and Pet Girl. Fear is a dialog between two unknown individuals discussing the use of cognac to alleviate fear. The final line is expressive and taut. “After cognac you feel clear. Unafraid. Only then will you permit yourself to be merciful.” ( 45) “Pet Girl” describes a relationship between a submissive and her master who leads her around in public on a silver leash. When questioned about the dynamic, the girl, explains it is her choice and she isn’t harming anyone. A few other interludes appear in the form of actual To-Do lists, these serve as reminders, ostensibly to readers, to embrace pleasure.
Additional fictive exchanges between the author, and an artist or celebrity are used effectively to frame a concept or theme. In Weep the author “interviews” the actor Marlon Brando months prior to the actor’s death, discussing Brando’s propensity to weep. Notably, Brando was one or perhaps the only Caucasian to pay his respects to slain Black Panthers leader, Fred Hampton. He wept openly at the viewing. This segues into a close inspection of weeping as a social act. The author is careful to make the distinction between the tears of the bereaved and those who experience “despair without fear,” and the crocodile tears of televangelists, politicians and billionaires embroiled in scandal. Finally, the title acts as a mantra and also a challenge: to weep is to feel.
Truth-Force begins with a repetition of dialog between los pobres (“We, The Poor Ones”) and an unidentified interlocutor aboard a train as they discuss the ultimate fate of a junta torturer captured by revolutionaries. During the exchange is a coded sentence, “I’ve read the report,” which triggers a yes or no vote by the compañero. Votes tallied will determine whether or not the torturer is to be executed. A detailed account of torture by electrocution experienced by one of the compañeros follows: “You’d expect the electric shock to feel like catching hold of a live wire with your fingers. One might tolerate that. This is a hundred times worse… I didn’t know until inmate compañeros told me afterwards that they wept to hear me tortured. I screamed and wailed, they told me,” and it ends with a wrenching, “pain beyond pain” (69). Just as there are images that can’t be unseen, there are texts that, once read, cannot be forgotten. Revolutionary Brain infiltrates the reader’s mind, resonating long after reading.
Salvation Mountain is a docufictional account of “Dewey Birdsong” and his testament God is Love in the form of a mountain made of adobe, paint and various debris sourced from the Imperial Valley desert in Southern California. Dewey—the fictive incarnation of Leonard Knight, who began building Salvation Mountain nearly thirty years ago—explains that while he may make a hundred mistakes, that with Jesus he can start again with the same enthusiasm. The prose here is spare and beautiful.
The book’s title is inspired by the real world events involving members of the notorious Baader-Meinhof Gang, a group of German anti-imperialist revolutionaries, and the abuse of their corpses by authorities. After the apparent suicides of imprisoned gang members (including the bizarre “self-inflicted” gunshot wound to the neck and four stab wounds to the heart) in May 1976, German authorities extracted their brains for study, with all but Ulrike Meinhof’s having since been “lost.”
In Revolutionary Brain, Harold Jaffe shines light into the gaps in the official discourse so as to find an opening, plant an idea and let it grow, positing that critical dissent never becomes extinct in the mind and passions. This is powerful writing from a mind that refuses to remain silent, that continues to bear witness.
Copies available at Amazon