Friday, August 22, 2014

Alas, Babylon, NY

Babylon in l932
Record amounts of rain fell on the Long Island several weeks ago and the inundations, which left cars stranded on flooded highways—brought back the not too distant memories of Sandy on the East Coast and the devastation caused by Katrina in New Orleans The poles are melting, el Nino is more unpredictable than ever (“El Ninos Are Highly Unpredictable,” Science/AAAS, 1/3/13) and whole ways of life in Micronesia are in imminent danger of destruction (“11 Islands That Will Vanish When Sea Levels Rise, “ Business Insider, 2/12/12_ But the odd thing about climate change which is predicated on the transmogrification of the earth by green gases is the degree to which it resonates a biblical quality. For every flood that we read about in the press, there's the complementary drought (“Rain Soaks California causing floods, but won’t end drought,” Reuters, 31/14) It seems that California is always fighting forest fires which are perilously close to major cities and in July, 19 fire fighters were killed trying to quell a blaze in Arizona (“Loss of l9 fire fighters in Arizona blaze, ‘unbearable,” governor says,” CNN, 7/2/14). Religious fundamentalists must be turning to the scriptures (the story of Noah in Genesis is one example) for the view of a God camouflaging his anger at man through climate change. It's curious that the objects of man’s creation have reduced him to such a level of powerlessness that only the intervention of a divine being would seem to quell they adverse effects. Even though scientists inveigh against pollution they indicate in the same breath that the damage may already be done. Global warming may be  irreversible. Yes, mankind may some day migrate to greener pastures, finding planets amenable to life through epic journeys to other solar systems. But as long as they are inhabitants of the earth, men and women may find themselves more at the mercy of the elements, with their options so limited that he may actually find themselves with no other choice than to cry out to God for help. In the not to distant future, modern men may literally find themselves reduced to the condition of their biblical forbears and with a similar lack of resources to deal with the calamities that befall them. Then atheism will be a luxury and they’ll be no choice but to hope for divine intervention.

Thursday, August 21, 2014


Have you ever wondered where has everyone gone or found yourself waking up into what seems like an episode of The Twilight Zone, say "The After Hours" where the character gets off on the wrong, non-existent floor of the department store where the mannequins all come to life, only to discover that she herself is a mannequin on the lam. Unheimlichkeit is the feeling of estrangement or uncanniness referred to by both Heidegger and Freud and it literally means not feeling at home. You don’t have to be a character out of an episode of The Twilight Zone to feel it. Simply return to a favorite spot, say a small town in Vermont where you once vacationed on fall weekends when the kids were little or one of those old-fashioned railroad car diners, (there’s actually one called the Chelsea Royal in Brattleboro Vermont) and say you walk in to find a whole new cast of characters, say an upscale Relais and Chateau as opposed to the simple inn with the friendly room clerk with the green visor who once greeted you. Say the cozy little restaurant has been turned into an expensive outpost of some exotic new cuisine whose portions are so refined and microscopic that they’re lost in a sea of white china. Or let’s say you return to the 50th high school reunion and you don’t recognize anyone, not even the girl or boyfriend, who sheepishly tugs at your sleeve, trepidatiously enunciating your name. Is this the creature you once undressed or undressed in front of? The house where you literally or figuratively grew up may still be standing, but it’s occupied by strangers. That old doorman in your parents apartment building is long dead and the new man blocks your way as you attempt to return to the past.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Zen and the Art of Methadone Maintenance

“Joshu Sasaki, 107, Tainted Zen Master” read the Times obit (NYT, 8/4/14)  Prostitution may be the world’s oldest profession, but Sasaki’s fall from grace is one of the occupational challenges of all those who choose to profess. Nothing new about teachers hitting on students. The Times cited Harold D. Roth, professor of religious studies at Brown, in his defense. “Everything he did was in the devoted service of awakening enlightenment in his students,” Roth is quoted as saying. “Com’on baby light my fire,” sing The Doors and according to the obit “former students…said he would tell them that sexual contact with a Zen master, or roshi, like him would help them attain new levels of ‘non-attachment,’ one of Zen’s central objectives.” Well at least Sasaki himself benefited and if the form of enlightenment he preached proved shallow to his former students, that great come-on could have been nothing less than enlightening for future generations of sexual predators for whom the mantra of non-attachment provided one of the best lines in the business. Parenthetically Sasaki might have found employment as a guru during the heyday of Sullivanian psychoanalysis where polygamy was the therapeutic intervention du jour. It’s funny how great discoveries come about. Alexander Fleming produced penicillin by accident. Viagra was originally a heart medication (“Discovered by Accident, Viagra Still Popular 10 Years Later, “ Fox News, 3/24/08) It was revealed as a treatment for ED when patients, who were given it, began to get hard-ons. Sasaki may have lost his credibility as a Zen master. However, he inadvertently was following the path of Frank Harris who wrote My Life and Loves. Sasaki may end up going down in history as one of the great philanderers. He didn’t lead his conquests to satori but he provided momentary enlightenment to those whose minds he chose to blow.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

A Most Wanted Man

Philip Seymour Hoffman’s performance in Anton Corbijn’s A Most Wanted Man begs the question of how many cigarettes a spy can smoke and also how many drinks he can imbibe and still see straight. Spying is a form of perceiving and if your mind is clouded how are you supposed to pick up the clues you are looking for? Margarethe von Trotta’s Hannah Arendt was plagued by the same problem of depicting a ponderous character carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders. in Hannah Arendt the struggles of the title character, the author of the highly controversial Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, were always depicted by shoving a cigarette in her mouth. The props, in this case the cigarette or bottle that is always being reached for, drown out the nuances of a character who sardonically describes his mission as making "the world a better place.” A Most Wanted Man is adapted from the John Le Carre novel and it’s almost impossible to parse the numerous moral dilemmas that the movie poses amidst the fog of smoke. Suffice it to say that the  conflict between fathers and sons, the murky line between victims and perpetrators and the question of means justifying ends all constitute the promising if unfulfilled palette of the film’s concerns. And it’s hard to tell whether to blame the novelist or the screenwriter (Andrew Bovell) for lines like this: “we are fighting the radical offcuts of a nation called Islam. You have crossed the line. You are on their side now.” The Hamburg of the movie is a cesspool. Hoffman meets his informants in bars where the customers pass out on tables. But on the other hand it’s as if ISIS had already taken over. Though the port is renowned for vice, there isn’t a sign of sex anywhere. From the beginning one has the feeling that the director was trying to create a city of shadows in the way Carol Reed did with Vienna in The Third Man and there are moments when Hoffman’s portrayal of overweight spymaster, Gunther, recalls Orson Welles’s tormented Harry Lime. But the phony German accents that Hoffman, William Dafoe and Rachel McAdams all sport fracture the gloom. 

Monday, August 18, 2014

What Does it all Mean?

Photo of mushroom cloud over Nagasaki by Charles Levy
“What does it all mean?” was ubiquitous in the late night college dorm rooms of the sixties along with the sweet smells of post coital sex and marijuana. It was tantamount to the “What? Me Worry?” soubriquet underneath the face of Alfred E. Newman that characterized the so-called silent generation of fifties college students, who still sported a devil may care form of denial, despite the Cold War and the constant threat of armed warheads and nuclear armageddon.  “What Does It All Mean?” is actually a sharp turn from “What Me Worry?” and it’s indicative of the peculiar direction of the sixties sensibility which danced between the desire for transcendence and a darker nihilism occasioned by the specter of the Vietnam War. Of course both nihilism and transcendence are two sides of the same coin, predicated as they are on the avoidance of reality. And that doesn’t adequately describe an era which lead the way to important changes in our attitudes towards sexual and racial equality. CNN has been running a series on The Sixties which deals with many iconic moments which proved to be life changing for those who grew up in the era. However one might define the sixties, there's still an indubitable wistfulness about a time when a Manichean universe again became the province of developing minds. There was something almost religious about the era to the extent that it presented alternating visions of heaven and hell. You could either follow Timothy Leary’s invocation to “turn on, tune in, drop out,” or find yourself dropping napalm in the jungle. If only such antimonies were available to today's millennial traveller. Now you ask yourself why you need a drink or “trip" to have sex and feel so fearful of terrorists that you find yourself cheering the same bombing sorties that you vociferously protested against four decades earlier.