Nonfiction Round-Up: on Alfred Jarry, Geronimo, and Photographs of Atrocities

Alfred Jarry: A Pataphysical Life by Alastair Brotchie (MIT Press)
Geronimo by Robert M. Utley (Yale University Press)
Picturing Atrocity: Photography in Crisis edited by Geoffrey Batchen, Mick Gidley, Nancy K. Miller, and Jay Prosser (Reaktion Books)

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JarryCover.jpgAs a teenager at the Lycée Henri IV in Rennes, the precocious Alfred Jarry (1873-1907) discovered a figure to take the brunt of his irreverence. He and his fellow students liked to mock their pompous teacher, Monsieur Hébert, whom they nick-named “Père Hébé.” In 1896, at the age of 25, Jarry produced the script for his play Ubu Roi featuring the seductively grotesque Père Ubu who foreshadowed the dictators of the coming century. On hearing Ubu’s first vulgar word in patois, “Merdre!,” the audience rioted. The play opened and closed on December 10, 1896. But Jarry’s reputation as an iconoclast was set, and today he is recognized as the most influential Belle Époque precursor to Dadaism and Surrealism.

In Alfred Jarry: A Pataphysical Life, Alastair Brotchie follows the trail of Jarry’s unprecedented artistic insolence, starting with his reshaping of a schoolboy farce into Ubu Roi. He writes, “It was as though a modernist play from the middle of the next century had been dropped on the stage without all the intervening theatrical developments that might have acclimated the audience to its conventions.” In addition to Ubu sequels, Jarry churned out novels, poetry, essays, theater reviews, children’s marionette shows, and opinion pieces. In addition to Surrealists such as Tzara and Breton, Jarry is claimed as an influence by Gide, Calvino, Ballard, Ionesco, Deleuze, Burroughs, Perec and Baudrillard. But until this first, elegant, and deeply researched biography in English, Jarry has not been accessible as a presence with dimensionality.

JarryUbu.jpegEven so, Jarry was intent on masking his self, often behaving in public á la Ubu, intoning outlandishly droll statements for maximum quotability. Jarry’s métier was the outburst more than the story, the brashly revealing detail more than the layering of effects. Perhaps it is no surprise that despite the biography’s many anecdotes, Jarry fades in and out of shadow. Brotchie refuses to speculate where Jarry or his friends have not been specific. Occasionally, there are more minutiae tossed up than the narrative can usefully handle. But Jarry ultimately emerges as a highly charismatic figure whose life was inextricably woven into the age’s literary innovations. Also, Brotchie has arranged his materials to suggest the hectic rhythm of Jarry’s moment. For instance, every other chapter disrupts the chronological telling to treat a theme or issue, such as Jarry’s invention of “pataphysics,” or what he called “the science of imaginary solutions.”

JarryBW.jpegIn The Banquet Years, Roger Shattuck wrote, “Jarry was the extreme embodiment of his era. The fin-de-siècle world of Paris was topsy-turvy, rollicking on through corruption and optimism toward a still undefined Mew Spirit … The magnificent gesture of his temperamental oddity became something deliberate and systematic, the manifest imposture that monopolized his total being.” But the gesture does not monopolize this biography. With comic empathy, Brotchie shows us that Jarry gauged the distance between the act and the life – not that the life could fairly compete with the hilarious freedom of the act.

[Published September 16, 2012. 424 pages, $37.95 hardcover]

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GeronimoCover.jpgIn 1851, the United States and representatives of the Lakota, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Crow, Arikara, Assinboin, Mandan, Gros Ventre and other tribes signed the Fort Laramie Treaty, intended to establish peace in the plains. The tribes would cease attacking wagon trains (and each other) while retaining tracts of land they would own in perpetuity. The U.S. also offered to provide supplies and protection by troops for the next 50 years. But the chiefs didn’t have the authority that the government negotiators assumed, and the U.S. would never have been able or willing provide such generous treatment in the first place. In California, federal officials signed 18 treaties with various tribes, again promising 8.5 million acres of reservation lands, but state politicians persuaded Congress to reject the deals. Finally, while giving chase to a band of Indians who had raided trading posts in the region, James Savage became the first white man to enter Yosemite Valley.

That same year, a 28-year old Chiracahua Apache named Goyakla, also known by his Mexican name, Geronimo, returned to his encampment at Janos in the Sierra Madre to find that Mexican troops had killed his mother, his wife, and three children. The Chiracahuas and Chokonens had recently killed and wounded 72 Mexican soldiers in an ambush. Much later in his life, Geronimo told the artist E.A. Burbank, “I had lost all. I was never again contented in our quiet home. True, I could visit my father’s grave, but I had vowed vengeance against the Mexican troopers who had wronged me, and whenever I came near his grave or saw anything to remind me of former happy days my heart would ache for revenge against Mexico.”

Geronimo2.jpgFor the next 35 years, Geronimo’s life alternated between difficult periods spent on reservations near his homeland in southwestern Arizona and “break-outs” or years spent in hiding with his family among small bands of raiders. (He had several more wives and children.) Geronimo continued to stalk and attack the despised Sonorans in Chihuahua, just over the Mexican border. He tangled with Indian scouts who worked for the whites. He befriended whites who hated the Mexicans. Although we have come to think of Geronimo as a belligerent tribal leader like Sitting Bull or Crazy Horse, he was never a chief. The groups he led comprised thirty or forty men. But Robert Utley’s biography shows that his reputation for brazen violence and craftiness was earned. At the same time, as Utley lifts Geronimo’s life from the fog of legend, the final, brutal period of American western expansion gains dimension.

An author of seventeen books on western American history, Utley writes with more earnestness than adrenalin, and with more depth than coloration. But his narrative tone in Geronimoseems perfectly suited to the task of tracking down the actual man, his motives and his actions. In that sense, the white man, trying to capture a feel for his own past actions, is still pursuing Geronimo through vast, arid, mountainous spaces.

Geronimo was revered for his courage and skill, but Utley suggests that he wasn’t particularly liked even among his own people. Upon meeting him in 1871 and discovering that he was wearing the shirt of a slain army officer, Lieutenant Joseph Sladen wrote in his journal, “I had conceived the utmost dislike and repugnance of him. It was not entirely the incidence of the shirt, though this intensified it much.
But his crafty, cruel, vindictive looks, his dissatisfied manner; his seeming disinclination to treat with us at all made him the object of extreme dislike and suspicion … I think the General was inclined to share this dislike, but he thought him a man of importance.”

GeronimoHor.jpegAs the whites closed in on and disempowered the tribes, the final Indian raiders got the attention of editors. In 1876 when he was 53, Geronimo’s name first appeared in the papers and continued to “cast a shadow over Indian chiefs.” The American public followed news of his raids for more than ten years until September 3, 1886 when he surrendered for good. That year, in his last raid into Arizona, “he led a small party of raiders down the Santa Cruz River and, ten miles north of the border, rose into Hell’s Gate Canyon. Here they discovered a ranch house. Approaching, one man climbed a rail fence around a corral and sat. Dogs began barking. A young girl came out to investigate, then ran back inside. A woman rushed out, a baby in her arms. The Apache shot her, picked up her baby, and dashed the baby’s head against an adobe wall. Fifteen raiders entered the house and ransacked it. They discovered a young girl, whom Geronimo saved and took captive.” The raiders went on to attack two men nearby working with cattle, killing one of them. The survivor, Artisan Peck, stripped of his boots and clothing, was allowed to return to his house where his wife and child lay dead.

The final chapters deal with Geronimo’s captivity. In his last years, he lived at Fort Sill in Oklahoma, and died in 1909 of pneumonia, a prisoner-of-war for twenty-three years. Comparing him to Sitting Bull, Utley says, “Geronimo’s [Apache] culture gave him a wider margin within which to act. He deviated time and time again. Unlike, Sitting Bull, he often behaved selfishly, impulsively, deviously, mercilessly, egotistically, and at variance with the dictates of his culture. With Sitting Bull, his people came first. With Geronimo, he came first.”

[Published November 15, 2012. 376 pages, $30.00 hardcover]

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Triggered by Susan Sontag’s 1973 essay “On Photography,” our troubled discourse on photographic images of atrocity continues unabated. She called the taking of such a photo a “privileged moment,” though a feeling of privilege may not be the dominant emotion of the photographer at the critical micro-second. In his introduction to Picturing Atrocity, Jay Prosser says, “Photography is not innocent of but can be part of atrocity, and is sometimes apparently responsible for producing atrocity as spectacle – as in the ‘trophy’ photographs of the Abu Gharaib tortures.”

AtroKim.jpgSpeaking for the editors, Rosser points to the most generally shared reaction to such images: “We believe that photography remains the most momentous and memorable way of conveying the ‘pain of others.’” But some say otherwise. In his Paris Review interview, W.H. Auden stated, “It [the camera] creates sorrow. Normally, when one passes someone on the street who is in pain, one either tries to help him, or one simply looks the other way. With a photo there’s no human decision. You’re not there. You can’t turn away. You simply gape. It’s a form of voyeurism. And I think close-ups are rude.”

The medium itself may be impugned. Claude Lanzmann, whose landmark film about the Jewish Holocaust, Shoah, does not include documentary film footage, said of photographs, “Archival images are images without imagination. They petrify thought and kill any power of evocation.” William Vollman found this sentiment “an absurd derogation” and accused Lanzmann of “claiming ownership of the grief that all of us ought to feel.”

There are more recent concerns. The book’s subtitle, Photography in Crisis, mainly reflects issues introduced by technology and social networking. “The most instantaneous and direct medium for conveying atrocity is no longer the single, iconic photograph taken by the photojournalist and published in the newspaper but the video captured and streamed on the internet by the amateur,” Prosser writes, questioning “who controls photographic representation in our world, how, and to what effect.” There may be “an excess of representation and a censorship of the same.”

Picturing Atrocity comprises 24 essays, animated with fresh consternation, accusation, and assertion (often with an emphasis the image’s relationship to the progress of social justice). Contributors include Rebecca Solnit writing on images taken during the Haiti disaster, D.J. Clark on images of famine in China, Tom Junod on the “falling man” of September 11, Hilary Roberts on war trophy photos, and Ariella Azoulay on “The Execution Portrait.”

AtroKimColor.jpegNancy K. Miller’s essay, “The Girl in the Photograph: The Visual Legacies of War,” examines the making of iconic photos of anguish, starting with Nick Ut’s famous 1972 Pulitzer Prize-winning image of the so-called napalm girl, Kim Phuc (photo at top). An image of suffering calls out for an accompanying narrative – especially an answer to “Why?” Miller tracks the accumulation of meanings supplied by media voices. Sontag mentions the photo in her essay. Roger Mudd and Dan Rather incorporated it with their commentaries. Kim Phuc’s maturation to adulthood was tracked by documentarians and writers.

In 1991, Kim Phuc addressed veterans at the Vietnam memorial Wall in Washington, and began a symbol of reconciliation between the U.S. and Vietnam. That year, Life Magazine photog Joe McNally apparently was determined to place her in a new iconic context – the scars from burning napalm in the center of the frame, lit more brightly than her own face or that of her newborn child (photo above).

HaitiA.jpegSome of the most problematic shots are of the perpetrators of atrocity, covered in Paul Lowe’s essay “Picturing the Perpetrator.” Robert Hariman and John Louis Lucaites consider the significance of iconic images of mushroom clouds. And in “Toward a Hyperphotography,” Fred Ritchin looks at how photos of war are manipulated or made deceitful. In the first photo to the left, American forces landed during the invasion in Haiti in 1994 are depicted in defensive position.

HaitiB.jpegIn the photo beneath it, photographers snap away in front of them. Quite clearly, there is no armed threat to the unimpeded U.S. force. Ritchlin’s rich essay simmers with scorn. Regarding the engineering of sanitized images by politicians, he notes that they would be less willing to fool the audience if images like the one above, unmasking the pretense, were more common: “Who would want again to spend $500,000 to air-condition an outdoor press conference of U.S., Egyptian, Israeli and Palestinian politicians at Sharm Al-Sheikh simply so that they would not appear to be sweating if a smart photographer would expose the ruse?”

[Published June 15, 2012. 316 pages, $30.00 original paperback. Includes 15 color plates, 58 halftones.]

Re The Snap Away

Thanks again for such a searching review. (They expand as they get closer.) I often wondered how Jarry was able to exercise his masked persona for so long. Today he would’ve been asked for it in silly-putty triplicate and (in the movie) signed in by an hilarious bow-tied Dean. Then reviewed & screwed. But a century before, riding expansionism and dodgy politics, Geronimo, native American, grim picture pixie of a million campus walls, now gets his moment to explain himself to 21st century America. Then, a different century later, of the atrocities that followed everything. Memory and a photograph are two quite different things. Time fluid. Horrors never stop. (Tie a sense of the real into a sense of the imperfect, spin it round & look through that lens for awhile, the thing starts to show things that aren’t real. Only my opinion.)


For more on photography and social conscience, see Ariella Azoulay's The Civil Contract of Photography published last year. I think she contributed an essay to the book you have covered.