Thursday, April 19, 2018

Ontology Festival

Being and Nothingness (L’Etre et le neant) and Being and Time (Zein und Zeit) are two of the seminal tomes of modern philosophy, the former being a baedeker to existentialism and the latter to the phenomenological project. Without Sartre you might not have had Camus but without Heidegger there definitely would have been no Merleau-Ponty and that’s not the name of a wine. What both tomes have in common of course are a concern with being. Orthopedics deals with bones, nephrology with kidneys, urology with the bladder and cardiology with the heart but ontology is the specialty when deals with the Gesamtkunstwerk. Hamlet was famously tortured by this problem and he framed his symptom in a famous question. But being is really a simply matter. Descartes thought it had to do with thinking, but that's too limiting. There's a branch of philosophy actually dedicated to the question of non-existence called “noneism.” However, being itself is a rather simple matter. You either are or you're not. When a branch falls in the forest and there's no one there to see it is a famous formulation, yet it’s actually a no brainer. You don’t have to exist for someone else to be or vice versa. Radioactive elements have unstable nuclei and hence relatively short half-lives. Perhaps the question of being should simply be stated as “here today gone tomorrow.” Something comes out of nothing and then returns to nothingness like the biblical ashes turned to dust. Human beings uniquely possess consciousness, but their being is just a footnote in the history of the universe. Before they're conceived they're not even a Platonic  ideal, then they magically announce their presence with a cry at birth, the crying continues, until life finally leaves the body and the human, animal or plant ceases to exist, with the last of these losing their petals.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018


Randy is not going to be a popular name for newborn males in the next decades and it’s unlikely there will be another Pope Innocent, with all the abuse scandals that have afflicted the Catholic Church. If you remember Innocent X was the subject of the famous Velasquez painting upon which Francis Bacon based his Screaming Popes. It’s interesting that the nurse in the Odessa Steps sequence of Eisenstein’s Potemkin and Billie Whitelaw's solitary mouth in Beckett’s Not I both partake of a similar emotion of fearful fury. Could an adjective used for a priapic individual become a self-fulfilling prophecy in an age that frowns upon the Dionysiac? “That’s not funny” is the current expression of self-satisfied indignation that brings us all together. The ultimate ass man Don Juan is not likely to be nicknamed Don followed by the awful and murderously offensive C word for which users should be tarred and feathered. How could it? But what about Dicks? They seem to be everywhere and no one is worse for the wear. On the other side of the fence you don’t seem be hearing about too many Springs or Aprils or even Junes and what is the meaning? Is that raising the bar too high in the age where a woman with the name of Stormy has brought down the house.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018


Mayakovsky c. l915
Samizdat was the name given to the forbidden work produced by the Russian poets during the Stalinist era. Poetry never has a greater currency than when it's hard to come by. In Plato’s Republic where poetry would have been banned poets would have been barons. It’s axiomatic that people want what they can’t have and there's a mystique about the long suffering poet or writer in his garret who is either totally misunderstood, say like Kafka, or whose work has become the butt of censorship like Akhmatova or Pasternak. Yevtushenko was the darling of the Communist Party, but he was a little like Billy Collins, who gets his cake and eats it too. In the era of Perestroika which started with Gorbachev repression loosened up and poetry stocks, with the exception of Pussy Riot, ended up at the low point they occupy today. To be honest there was a period following the Revolution where art and poetry thrived, the era of Mayakovsky and Constructivism, but that was a singularity. Poetry is a little like sex. Victorian England was on the surface an era or repression, but if you read Steven Marcus’s The Other Victorians, you find that sex thrived. It's what happens in a situation of laissez-faire economics where the market receives little if any regulation? Freedom can become as daunting a prospect for homo economicus as it is for homo sapiens in general.

Monday, April 16, 2018

The Final Solution: Mourning Becomes Melania

No one talks about how lonely and isolated Melania Trump must be? Yes Jackie had to deal with the scandal about her husband’s affairs with Marilyn Monroe, Judith Exner and others, but she had her Bouviers. Hillary Clinton had Bill, but she had her political ambitions and career and Michele Obama was a force onto herself, and an advocate for many causes. However, Melania seems like a rather sad figure, to quote the title of Robert Heinlein’s famed novel, a Stranger in a Strange Land.  She barely speaks the language and the one time she made a significant speech it turned out to be partially plagiarized from her predecessor (“Was Melania Trump’s speech plagiarized from Michelle Obama," USA Today, 7/19/16) Who are her crew? As a model she must have hung around in all the popular nightspots, but when you become part of the presidency you're by nature like the princess imprisoned in the tower. You’re a figurehead who in this case appears like a mannequin at state functions. Admittedly back in Slovenia, she'd be a big cheese, but she's an inhabitant of Washington, New York and Mar-a-Lago. And now with the Trump presidency teetering dangerously ("Michael Cohen and the End Stage of the Trump Presidency,The New Yorker, 4/14/18), she might bear some comparison to Eva Braun inhabiting the bunker with Herr Hitler in the last days of the Third Reich. She’s over the hill as a model and who will hire her when Trump sends her packing? If nothing else the sinking of the Titanic made it clear that even the greatest expenditures of material muscle won’t protect you from the inevitable.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Insomniac Dreams

Yeats's "A Dream of Death" begins, "I dreamt that one had died in a strange place/Near no accustomed land/And they had nailed the boards above her face/The Peasants of that land... ." And Coleridge "In Xanadu did Kubla Khan/a pleasure-dome decree" reads like an opium induced dream--which it was. But most dreams are more prosaic and of more of interest to the dreamer than anyone else. That's why dream interpretation is sometimes better left to prophets than practitioners of psychotherapy. In his review of Vladimir Nabokov's Insomniac Dreams: Experiments with Time (TLS, 2/23/18), compiled and edited with commentary by Gennady Barabtarlo, Eric Naiman describes an undertaking of almost biblical dimensions in which Nabokov, influenced by a work called An Experiment with Time by John W. Dunne (who turned out to be an aviation engineer no less), sought to prove that dreams were prescient. Says Naiman, "The practice of Dunne's experiment had the added advantage of dethroning the reigning Freudian paradigm of dream analysis, though conceivably it might also have led to a new version of psychoanalysis, aimed at discerning future traumas in current symptoms." Naiman employs the word "fatidic" in his review. Considering who was doing the dreaming, the reader will likely find more of universal significance in the dreams of the author of Pale Fire than in the average person's oneiric experience.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Pornosophy: The Joys and Sorrows of Polyamory

There’s nothing wrong with refusing to have an affair under the theory that it may lessen the intimacy with the person on whom you’re cheating. An affair can be an attractive and exciting prospect, since you get to be naked with a person who was previously a friend or stranger. On the other hand while you’re having an affair with somebody else you can’t be close to the person with whom you normally sleep. Adam Smith wrote The Theory of Moral Sentiments which deals with empathy and of course there’s Flaubert’s Sentimental Education that's one of reasons Woody’s Allen cites for living in Manhattan. Ultimately it’s sensibility that’s at stake. You can’t please all of the people all of the time and anyone who tries to do so is spreading  themselves thin. Some people who are so filled with love and desire that they feel they can’t contain themselves have come up with ingenious solutions. One of them is, of course, the threesome. Instead of sneaking away to get the thrill of undressing in front of someone new, you simply invite them into your marital bed. The beauty of arrangements like this is you get to have your cake and eat it too. You don’t feel deprived of either a new experience or the pleasure of the tried and true. On the other hand while no one is going to complain about having the wool pooled over their eyes, there's always somebody who's going to feel left out, when favoritism rears its ugly head. Imagine a situation starting off with a certain degree of equanimity and then degenerating as one person begins to feel excluded or jealous of a passion in which they're not able to partake.