Tuesday, November 21, 2017

The Vegetarian

The central character of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, Yeong-hye, is reminiscent of Kafka’s A Hunger Artist. At the beginning of the novel she’s distinguished only by her ordinariness and passivity, but it’s the assertion of self-deprivation from meat that becomes a revelation. Meat literally disgusts Kang’s character, but as she withers away, losing weight and her mind in the face of the disapprobation of her husband and father (who actually attacks her), she, like Kafka's character, exudes the power of the anorexic personality. So there are two sometimes conflicting issues at the center of this acclaimed novel and ones that are at times in conflict with each other. To choose a vegetarian lifestyle is obviously not tantamount to starvation, but the brilliance of the novel is the way it actually defies pathology, camouflaging an inner drive with a social act. However, what The Vegetarian also has in common with the Kafka masterpiece is the aestheticizing of Yeong-hye’s condition. Art is Yeong-hye's salvation, even though she's simply the subject of an artist's work.  It's her brother in law, a video artist, who colludes in Yeong-hye’s resurrection, though he himself is barely conscious of his own motives when he first starts to paint her body.You might think that a novel with a title like The Vegetarian has an axe to grind. However, it’s just the opposite. The postures of the characters actually become more inscrutable as the author weaves the literary equivalent of a musical theme and variations on the calling described by her title.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Birdwatching: The Russian Oligarch

red-winged blackbird (photo: copyright 2008 Walter Siegmund)
Russian Oligarchs are exotic birds. Take for instance the Rybolovlev with its unique interests in potash and da Vinci. The Rybolovlev Trust is the one which has reaped the profits from the windfall of the Christie’s auction of “Salvator Mundi” for a whopping $450 million (which is not birdfeed). That’s going to be one hefty bird, but many Oligarchs resemble those Perdue Oven Stuffer roasters with their little plastic thermometers in the breast that pop up when they’re ready to be devoured. You may recall, Rybolovlev’s daughter, Ekaterina set a new record when she purchased Sandy Weill’s penthouse at 15 Central Park West for $88 million. The Rybolovlev is the kind of Oligarch that won’t settle for perching on a ledge or nesting and/or fornicating on top of a high rise’s air conditioning unit. Rybolovlevs are the kind of birds that are insiders and are only content when they're able to warm themselves by a raging fire, with potash under the logs and an auction price breaker over the mantle. Many Russians Oligarchs fly south. For instance Dimitry Rybolovlev now lives in Monaco where he lines up his ducks, amongst them a local soccer squad, AS Monaco. The pigeons in Venice’s Saint Mark’s Square grow fat from all the crumbs thrown at them by tourists, but the Rybolovlev is a different can of worms.  You need more than a crust to attract a Rybolovlev. In fact, you’d need a bread factory to get the attention of an oligarch, considering all its trappings.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Is Your Self-Invention a Success?

"Man Ray in Paris" (photograph: Carl Van Vechten)
You are constantly hearing that he or she is self-invented. But is it necessarily a good thing? A self-invented person is ostensibly someone who's not made in a mold. You have pound cakes that are baked in a rectangular pan and coffee cakes which rise in those round gismos with the hole in the center. Similarly when a son or daughter follows in their parents’ footsteps, they're not self-invented. Man Ray, the surrealist photographer and artist, who lived in France, but was born in Philadelphia as Emmanuel Radnitzsky, the oldest child of a family of Jewish immigrants and ended up in Paris by way of Brooklyn, is one of the greatest examples of self-invention. And then there were T.S. Eliot, an American born poet who attended Harvard, but adopted a personality that was tantamount to that of a landed English aristocrat, minus the titles, land and money and Mary Astor, the only child of a pair of Quincy, Illinois school teachers who scandalized Hollywood with all her affairs. Of course there are bad examples of self-invention. Did you ever know kids who went off to France for their junior year and returned behaving more French than the French? It wasn’t only the Gauloises and the air of impudence, it was the fact that they talked in broken English and no longer seemed to know what you were talking about. And what about all the people who make a little money and develop airs, as if they were born with a chrysalis of royalty despite their humble origins? You know the type who was born on the wrong side of the tracks, but speaks the Queen’s English and insists on correcting you when you say “him and me.” Yes there are some really cool self-invented people, whose personalities are artworks, but in general most people who escape their roots, in order to become somebody, turn out to be colossal jerks.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

The Final Solution: The Withering Away of America

Conservatism and liberalism are increasingly ambiguous descriptions of the polarities of American political life. A French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville afforded a particularly telling analysis of the advent of Democracy in America, underscoring as he did the meritocratic nature of prosperity. But it’s ironically the bedrock principles of Marxism as enunciated by Engels and Marx that provide the best description of at least one end of the political spectrum today--and it’s not the left. What better descriptions of life in our current, not conservative, but right wing Trumpocracy than “the withering away of the state” and “the dictatorship of the proletariat.” If there were reincarnation could we say that perhaps Steve Bannon was Lenin in another life? There is, in fact, some degree of substantiation for this idea when you look at the record. “Lenin wanted to destroy the state and that's my goal too," Bannon has been quoted as saying (“Bannon explains that he’s a Leninist: that could explain The White House’s new tactics, The Guardian, 2/06/17). "I want to bring everything crashing down and destroy all of today’s establishment.” Would it be going to far to align Bannon with l9th century anarchists like Bakunin who appear in Tom Stoppard’s The Coast of Utopia?

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

A Lassie From Hell

It’s easy to see why people love their pets. They’re small and harmless and don’t talk back (the jury is out on the question of animals and volition, though watching your average mouse or waterbug doing everything they can to avoid extinction, you can see these creatures don't want to die). More than that you can imbue them with all kind of positive thoughts. Try projecting your wishes onto a spouse or friend and there’s going to be considerable push- back. People have minds of their own and they’re generally not afraid to express feelings about you that are different from your self-conception. Whether it’s Neil, the St. Bernard inTopper, Rin Tin Tin or Lassie, a dog running to you radiates the notion that you’ve at last found a living thing that will sacrifice everything for you. What is it like to be God? Get a pet and you’ll know. Pussies tend to be catty and elusive, but they ultimately provide the same tabula rasa on which you're able to inscribe your wishes. But who knows what the correct transcription of Lassie’s feelings would be?  From the human perspective it looks like Lassie is mindlessly devoted, but who knows if she was just hungry and having visions of her bowl of food, as she sprinted across the prairie towards her master? Who knows if the beloved Jeff was just another obstacle in her way? There's nothing like sitting in front of a roaring fire at the lodge with the antlers hung up above the stone mantle, a sniffter of brandy in one hand and your other cupped over the soft pate of your golden retriever. However, the fact is that fighto is a slave who you expect to jump at your beck and call. Someday, if he or she's ever able to master social media, they will be likely to enlist a swarm of killer bees to wreak vengeance on their oppressor.