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BOOK REVIEW: Harold Jaffe’s “Revolutionary Brain”

Author and SDSU professor Harold Jaffe has released another collection. “Revolutionary Brain” is the title, and it’s a compilation of things he calls essays and quasi-essays.

That’s one way to describe it. Another might be a bunch of whops upside the head. This is fitting because, if you really read the book — as opposed to skimming it and then googling the online porn he mentions — it’ll certainly grab you and shake you to attention. And it is what Jaffe does with others’ words that makes his writing riveting. Along with poignant, startling, disturbing …

He starts with a snippet of news, a commercial, an online blurb, an interesting person, and “treats” the source material in a way that suggests new meaning.

Now, for those who got stuck on the porn, jeez! Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Except that much of it is sexist and racist. But that’s an obvious message. Less discussed are the themes in Jaffe’s “Anal Acrobats,” such as the “erotic collision” of two men while diddling one woman that is marketed to men who insist on the definitive boundaries of their heterosexuality.

Jaffe offers the reader the option of taking a moment to deconstruct such pop culture artifacts as commodified sex, and his subjects are broad.

“I largely copied from the pornographic sites, and then I’ve treated them in certain ways because I want to speak about how a revolution has become a sort of devolution.

“The way this culture works, so far as I can tell, when something becomes inevitable — the culture was naturally against it, but when they saw that it was inevitable — they co-opted it and ran with it, in a sense subverted it.

“Commercials, patriotism, “news,” sports talk, entertainment; it’s almost a single thing and one leads into the other. You can’t even distinguish them.

“[In the book] I’m talking about ass-gape and suddenly I’m switching to Bangladesh.”

Jaffe admits that he wants to “establish some sort of culture shock,” and that’s still surprisingly easy to do, even though pornography and violence are increasingly normalized in our culture.

More shocking than porn, then, is the simple recitation of last statements by executed prisoners in the collections’ first piece, “Death in Texas.”

“I want to give people who’ve been made invisible a way to express their own feelings, whether they are accounted as mad, whether they’re on death row.

“Someone sent me the file, and I treated it, added to it. [For example] I moved Karla Faye Tucker from Florida to Texas. They’re primarily Mexican American and African American and very, very poor white. I read the transcripts and they moved me, a lot.”

In “Freeze-Dry,” Jaffe briefly describes a quest to “freeze-dry” a severely disabled nine-year-old girl, to keep her small so that her parents can care for her, despite her having the mental capacity of an infant.

“I think it works on a number of levels: on the one hand, the passion that these people feel for the child and on the other hand the disregard for the child; the extraordinary dysfunction, even though the parents’ intentions are not dishonorable, really. …

“I speak a lot about death, about shit as substitution for death. You know in American we’re so afraid of death. Other cultures, death doesn’t mean so much to them. They live collectively, so when one of them dies, you go into the ground, and the collective goes on.”

And the human collective goes on here, as well, but Jaffe has a gift for confronting us with questions we might ask ourselves, if we indeed are paying attention. Why are so many men on death row Black or Latino and poor? Why are women so brutally objectified in pornography, while men who abjure homosexuality are titillated by two men in a scene? And again, it is the method with which Jaffe poses the questions that makes one move beyond the obvious answers. But then what do we do? Does this literary discourse provoke us toward change?

“Whether I think ethical change will come about, whether climate change is inevitable — and that’s something that distresses me — I don’t know what it’s going to do. I’d like people to read [“Revolutionary Brain”] and to recognize as far as they can some of my intentions. And to give voice to people who have none, to animals and species that are becoming obsolete.

“A lot of my best audiences are Mexican American here (Jaffe’s work is translated into French, Spanish, Japanese and other languages). They seem to be more interested. They seem to be more patient and less cynical.

“At this juncture, though, all I can do is get the work out. If people respond to it, good. If they don’t, I can live with that.”

But it’s pretty darn hard to read “Revolutionary Brain” and not be changed by it, if in no other way than to finding yourself thinking about difficult things in new and challenging ways.

Kit-Bacon Gressitt's commentary and political fiction can be read on her blog Excuse Me, I'm Writing and have been published by San Diego Gay & Lesbian News, The Ocean Beach Rag, The Progressive Post and San Diego Free Press. She formerly worked for the North County Times. She is also host of Fallbrook's monthly Writers Read open mic and can be reached at kbgressitt@gmail.com.