After Katrina

After Katrina


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



The dogs all seem to be motley-colored, much-alone, hungry, sad-sack,

loose-limbed hounds, while the cats are the robust, buffed jocks

who forage everywhere in packs.



After Katrina

By Mackie Blanton

Chapter 3

The Lens in Plato’s Eye


I gave my single lens reflex camera away the other day, on the very afternoon of the day after I had decided to give it away.  I left the US without getting film for it, because I hadn’t decided yet whether I wanted black and white film or more color film, or film for slides.  Why have I said “more color film” is a mystery now to me, because the last three sets of photos I snapped about two months before leaving were black and whites.  Of those photos, the only two I packed to bring with me were of my wife and my daughter, one photo each, both black and white.  So I figured I would just get new rolls of film once I had made up my mind when here in Izmir.

But I gave my camera away eventually, within weeks of starting my classes here.  It was Plato’s influence that forced me to do so.  Plato taught me a lesson this year, as I taught him, that I had long forgotten from his teachings washed away in my memory by so many other concerns over the years.

On the morning before the day that I gifted someone with my camera, as I entered the campus on foot, I spotted two dogs on the lawn parallel to the sidewalk that curved well into the campus toward my building.  It was a warm September day; cold weather wouldn’t really be on its way yet until November.  Izmir has lots of dogs roaming the streets, prowling around bus stops and below overpasses of major motorways; as well as cats roaming alley ways and popping in and out of public dumpsters strategically slumbering along curbsides or the walls and wrought iron balustrades, and below balconies, of buildings.  The dogs all seem to be motley-colored, much-alone, hungry, sad-sack, loose-limbed hounds, while the cats are the robust, buffed jocks who forage everywhere in packs.  Everyone seems to accept both as if they were as natural a presence of the streets as stones or stray, windblown paper.  Of course, it’s obvious that the cats dine well during the night down inside the dumpsters, especially those near restaurants, and every street of Izmir has dozens of restaurants and pubs and kebap diners.  I have no idea what keeps the dogs alive.

So as I entered the campus on foot – I walk to and from campus every day – I saw two hounds lounging on the grass each a bit of a distance from one another.  The one nearest me, the black one, as I was approaching near the two of them appeared healthier in its body than the other one, the reddish one, who was thin and bony in its sagging skin.  Black Bully played with a dead or a dying bird under its paw, nibbling at it and pawing it as if to see whether it would flinch.  This hunter with its prey was facing the other one at some distance removed but well in plain sight of the other one, curled with its dead meal on the verge of a casual lunge, if provoked, as if it were teasing Skinny Red.  Big Black was obviously in control of the moment.  Diffident Red cowered down into its lounge, down between its paws, its snout deeper into the grass.

I thought to myself, What a great photo that would make!  I stopped and stared and studied them.  No other campus pedestrian seemed to be noticing them.  Why should they?  For I was the one foreign to the sights of Izmir and, curious about everything, took nothing for granted yet.  If only I had had my camera with me, I thought.  What is interesting about this moment is that I experienced a succession of epiphanies during the few minutes I spent staring at and gazing upon these unremarkable animals of Izmir daylight hours because they, for some reason, were remarkable and unusual to me at this very moment.  I first wished I had had my camera with me.  Then I admonished myself for not bothering to lug it along everyday for opportunities like this one.  Then, as I stared at them, I studied them discretely, casually from different angles, trying to discern which angle would have given me the best take. I studied them from the one place I stood, rather than creeping closer on to the lawn, for fear of disturbing or distracting them and therefore having them canter off.  Could I capture the cowardice of Red?Could I capture the selfishness of Black Warrior?  I was then overcome by an epistemological shift.  Why do I believe any shot I take will capture the truth of the moment?  And how could I be certain of which truth this two-dog moment held?  How did I even know that Red was cowardly and Blackie selfish?  Had they already fought and growled and tugged over the bird and the black hound had won in a sudden fit of rage before I arrived?  Or had the red hound had his fill of the bird and passed on the corpse to the black hound?

How could I be sure I was not simply projecting my own flitting, fretful internal reality on to these poor hungry street mongrels?  Plato was right after all, I realized.  We can’t ever really hope to capture the ideal moment, the ideal found object, in our artful amateur moments.  For through our senses all was nothing but mere imitation, never the real thing.  The single lens reflex of Plato’s mind had captured a truth greater than any subsequent teaching.  No teaching could ever hope to imitate it and any teaching that opposed it would lack an eternal, perspicuous rationality.  A photograph or slide was no true ideal form, but only an arbitrary, artificial structure ritualized endlessly by an academic or artful searching down here below; endlessly missing the mark, a mere approximation, a representation at least thrice removed from Heaven. 

Make pictures.  Take pictures.  What’s the difference?

Can you see what I am getting at?  Why should I take photos of people, places, and things; of faces, landscapes, and cats; of monuments, ruins, and a dead bird between a hound’s teeth – when, as Plato taught us, these photos will be merely mimetic, imitative of the real, when the real itself is only apparently real, since it also, being earthbound, is imitative of ideal forms veiled from the human eye and touch and taste and smell?  But then there is the more immediate question: Why should I take photos of anything in which I see only apparent beauty, a beauty that hurricanes and earthquakes will destroy, transforming them into another kind of mimetic, though sorrowful, apparent beauty?  It’s the mere apparentness of even the sorrowful that makes the sorrowful beautiful.

Let it go.  Let it go.  Let go, I thought.  Learn to live in the present moment, I scolded myself.  Learn to remember experiences through the single lens reflex of your mind’s eye.  Drop the camera.  Throw it away.  Let it go. Leave it on some park bench one day soon and be quick about it, I insisted to myself.  What new photographs held in my palm could ever match the devastation that I still held shuttered behind my mind’s eye of my destroyed city?  What new photographs could ever replace my thousands of slides of North African cities, of France, of West and East Africa – now washed invisible by the toxic waters of the post-Katrina floods that entered my city, my street, when the incompetent levees were breached by competent, surly, insouciant, forceful waters pushing through into the streets and homes of my city, into my gardens, my home, my study, from my lake and my canals?  How many dogs and cats suffered along with the thousands of miserable unfortunates who drowned as they floated off against their will over their back yards and roofs that they couldn’t even see at that moment, fear blinding their sight, crushing their heart, debris and water rushing down their throats? 

What are photos anyway but time-travel frames back to a past that once was but never lives the same in memory or in imagination?  Time-travel slides or paper squares and rectangles that we stack in a sarcophagus of boxes into a mausoleum of cabinet drawers.  Staring through the lens, imagination distorts memory.   Gazing upon the snapped, captured scene, memory reuses imagination to redo fading, gone moments.

How could I imagine that what I saw on my way to the campus on some indifferent morning could ever be important enough to file away in a keepsake drawer or be framed for a library wall, ever again?  After all, this was only my imagination at work here behind the camera.  And what good ever is imagination if it cannot divine the very essence of confrontational, confronted, raw experience?  No, I had had enough of my imaginings that used to close with certainty in the lit dark of my brain a second before the shutter of the camera clicked.

 Chapter I  (Neighbors and Invaders) Chapter 2 ( Earthquakes and Baklava)  Chapter 3   (The Lens in Plato’s Eye)  Malcolm’s Landing

posted 16 March 2006

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Your request encouraged me and I promptly forgot the promise, although I started the ms. Here it is –  the first three musings only – a ms in progress. The first chapter is the poem you already have, somewhat revised; the second chapter (“Earthquakes and Baklavah”) and the third chapter (“The Lens in Plato’s Eye”) are “completed”; the fourth chapter (“Harun”) I just started. A work in progress. I suggest you drop “Harun”. I suggest you retake the opening poem since it’s slightly revised.

Notice my little electric stove top in the background and copper cezve, both of which I bought in the Kemeralti district of Izmir, and a recently released book (edited by Talia Levine Bar-Yoseph) for which I wrote the “Foreword”? — –Mackie

MACKIE JOSEPH-VENET BLANTON, Ph.D.            /            FULBRIGHT SENIOR LECTURER                   /                EDEBIYAT FAKULTESI


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I’m a big fan of Charles Mann’s previous book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, in which he provides a sweeping and provocative examination of North and South America prior to the arrival of Christopher Columbus. It’s exhaustively researched but so wonderfully written that it’s anything but exhausting to read. With his follow-up, 1493, Mann has taken it to a new, truly global level. Building on the groundbreaking work of Alfred Crosby (author of The Columbian Exchange and, I’m proud to say, a fellow Nantucketer), Mann has written nothing less than the story of our world: how a planet of what were once several autonomous continents is quickly becoming a single, “globalized” entity.

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The Persistence of the Color Line

Racial Politics and the Obama Presidency

By Randall Kennedy

Among the best things about The Persistence of the Color Line is watching Mr. Kennedy hash through the positions about Mr. Obama staked out by black commentators on the left and right, from Stanley Crouch and Cornel West to Juan Williams and Tavis Smiley. He can be pointed. Noting the way Mr. Smiley consistently “voiced skepticism regarding whether blacks should back Obama” . . .

The finest chapter in The Persistence of the Color Line is so resonant, and so personal, it could nearly be the basis for a book of its own. That chapter is titled “Reverend Wright and My Father: Reflections on Blacks and Patriotism.”  Recalling some of the criticisms of America’s past made by Mr. Obama’s former pastor, Mr. Kennedy writes with feeling about his own father, who put each of his three of his children through Princeton but who “never forgave American society for its racist mistreatment of him and those whom he most loved.”  His father distrusted the police, who had frequently called him “boy,” and rejected patriotism. Mr. Kennedy’s father “relished Muhammad Ali’s quip that the Vietcong had never called him ‘nigger.’ ” The author places his father, and Mr. Wright, in sympathetic historical light.

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery /

George Jackson  / Hurricane Carter

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 — The Founding of Haiti 

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update 16 November 2008 




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