Sunday, July 22, 2007

And we can act like we come from out of this world, and leave the real one far behind.

In his article, "The Republic of Marfa," printed in McSweeneys a few years ago, Sean Wilsey claims that Marfa, the town in Texas, was named by a railway overseer's wife "when an unnamed water stop became a town in 1881." The name Marfa is the name of the family servant in The Brothers Karamazov, the novel by Dostoyevsky, which the woman happened to be reading at the time. Wilsey spends a good deal of time in the 25-page article transpositioning the novel's unnamed Russian town to Marfa, in fact, even going so far as to draw a parallel between the name Marfa itself, and the infamous Marfa lights.

Wilsey explains that in the novel, the servant woman's last name is even Ignatievna, which means daughter of Ignatius, which, in Latin, is derived from the word ignis, meaning fire. Having never read Karamazov, I'll take Wilsey's word for it that the character is a "stoic" woman, and smart, and when her son dies, because her superstitious husband fears it is a dragon and refuses to care for it, she "takes it stoically." Intelligence and stoicism: two desirable qualities in a frontierswoman. The significance of this name, Marfa Ignatievna, Wilsey also claims, could not have escaped this railway overseer's wife, since she had to have been reading the novel in its original Russian. It wasn't translated into any other language until 1884 (German), and not into English until 1912.

Wilsey spends a great deal of time detailing Marfa's isolation and its connection to light out in the desert. Apparently, southwest Texas is one of the most sparsely inhabited places in the whole United States with Marfa (at the time of writing), having a population of just 2,424 in a county that covers over 6,000 square miles. Locally it is referred to as el desplobado, the uninhabited place. Naturally, this type of environment is going to draw all sorts of different characters, but Wilsey tracks largely how Marfa became such an art hub. That's not nearly as interesting to me as the other stories about the crazy Texan renegades he writes about, like the people with multiple chemical sensitivity (who are basically allergic to every chemical in our modern life; think Safe) who built an all-natural compound near Marfa. The next year a group of people belonging to an annual Bible retreat began spraying DDT upwind from the compound, making its members violently ill, but despite the commune member's pleas, the Christians refused to stop spraying it, because the mosquito problem was too bad. The sick people had to leave.

There is also the story about a man, Richard McLaren, who, citing a legal technicality in an 1845 Texas annexation document, dubbed himself not only the chief ambassador and consul general of the "Republic of Texas," but also sovereign of the independent nation of Texas. Apparently he was quite the bully in the hills of Marfa, described by his neighbors as a man "capable of tremendous violence," who filed false liens against property, threatened his neighbors, and collected vast stockpiles of weapons. He was photographed in 1996, while celebrating "captive nations week" with some of his neighbors, with two police cruisers in the background, keeping an eye on everything. His story got much more complex in 1997, when he took the president of the local neighborhood association and his wife hostage in reprisal for the arrest of another "Republic of Texas" member, who was arrested for stashing illegal weapons. The police agreed to release the ROT member in exchange for the hostages, but having prepared for just this situation by building a series of underground bunkers and stockpiling more than 60 pipe bombs and other assorted goodies, McLaren refused to surrender himself or his hostages. After several days the standoff was finally resolved, with the Texas Rangers getting McLaren to agree to surrender if the U.S would agree to treat him under the rules of the Geneva Convention.

Overall, it's a fascinating article, full of celebrity gossip, strange goings-on (like the time the author and his girlfriend set up a picnic somewhere outside Marfa, and a Mexican from across the border tried to steal their car), and interesting facts. The part about the Marfa lights was especially interesting to me as well, as there is a similar phenomenon in Joplin, Missouri, about an hour from where I grew up in Arkansas, which my parents took my brothers and me to see several times.


bryan h. said...

Do you have an electronic copy of this article? I'd like to read it. I might also like to see Marfa.

The Fire Next Time said...

I don't, but I have it in a collection I have here at camp. When I get home, you're more than welcome to borrow it. There's lots of good stuff in there.