Thursday, May 24, 2018

What the Las Vegas Odd's Makers Are Saying About Pascal's Wager


Blaise Pascal
When you think about it Pascal’s Wager makes a lot of sense. If God exists then you come out in the black. You’re ahead of the game. You may even go to heaven and get eternal life. If there's no God, then for starters all your prayers will not be answered. Of course, part of the wager depends on your definition of what God is and specifically the idea of God as a protector and savior, who basically has a positive view of humanity. The anti-Christ of Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor is not the kind of force that Pascal was reckoning with. Truman Capote titled his unfinished novel Answered Prayers after a quote by Saint Teresa of Avila, “More tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones.” And bah humbug but eternal life may turn out to be a bore. Death gives you something to reckon with and it makes life even more precious. So there’s one more reason why you may want to put your money on the supposedly losing horse. You live your short life, with the satiation of every pleasure being like a mini-death, then you wrap things up and make room for the next sufferer. Pascal’s Wager is a little like Newtonian physics. Yes the apple’s fall is accelerated because of gravity, but the whole process might be viewed in a different light, if one were dealing with relativity or quantum physics. A positive God who seeks the best for all his children who were naturally made in his image is an anthropomorphic conception that may have little to do with the nature of actual divinity--if there's something out there.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

#MeToo, Pablo?




"Nude Woman in a Red Armchair" by Pablo Picasso (1932)
Artists often discard models, many of whom have been their lovers. There are artists who either consciously or unconsciously dissolve a relationship, then making the story either intentionally or inadvertently the subject of their art. That was the case with Updike whose collection of storiesToo Far to Go,charted the breakup of his first marriage. Was life sacrificed for the sake of art? The secret of course is buried with the writer or painter. Picasso exhibited a similar pattern of painting his lovers/models and then discarding them. Dominic Green’s “Picasso: difficulties with girls” (The New Criterion, May, 2018), is a refreshing respite from the juggernaut of Picasso hagiography in which classic modernism may one day drown. The occasion for the piece is the “Picasso 1932” exhibit at the Tate. Here are some gems. “The Malagan sex maniac was fifty years old in l932,” “Picasso seems to have had trouble seeing a vagina without its complementary dentata,” “Picasso begins June by sketching Marie-Therese’s face as a sculptural medley of zucchini-like phalluses and testes the size of large potatoes,” “you wonder whether Picasso’s pharaonic phallocentricity will condemn him to the same historical attic as psychoanalysis,” “Undeniably, a continuum of coarseness links Picasso to that other macho oligarch of entertainment, Steve Wynn.” Wynn as you may recall is the Las Vegas casino magnate and art collector who is one of the growing list of casualties of the #MeToo movement—from which Picasso like Trump has remained curiously immune. Green on the other hand has the balls to perform a little turn around and conclude with the following: “Sooner or later, the grandchildren of the people who used to dismiss him as an imposter or lunatic may add him to the list of ‘problematic’ people to expunged from the last shreds of the syllabus. That would be a tragedy for all of us.”

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

The Origin of the Feces


Why are feces bad and roses good? Why do you call a person you don’t like a piece of shit? Is it simply because of the smell? The olfactory feelings elicited by shit are a complicated question since many people report not minding or even liking the smell of their own—which ostensibly reminds them of home. If you work in a sewage treatment plant do you get used to the smell of shit any more than people who work in abattoirs grow acclimated to the sight of staggering cows whose entrails lie in pools of blood? And what about proctologists and GI folks? Do they get used to shit in the way that gynecologists and urologists get used to the site of urethras or proctologists, assholes? Shit is generally considered to be ugly and not a subject for dinner conversation. Try talking about your doodies at the next cocktail party you're invited to and watch the group standing around you dissolve like an Alka Setzer. Talking about shit has its uses if you want to get away from a chatterbox who has taken you hostage. Shit is a liberator! Give them shit, not brioche. But are those things like roses, beaches at sunset, Paris that are generally considered to epitomize beauty really so great? Sure most people with a sensitive palette would prefer to eat in a three star Michelin restaurant than to eat shit as Pasolini’s characters are forced to do in Salo. But take a delicacy like fois gras. It might not have the offensive odor but when it comes down to it your average pate looks just like a soft shit. And it goes back to the old adage about the sausage factory. You don’t want to see the torture that geese are put through to produce this tasty food. If you did you might not be so quick to extol its virtues in comparison to poo. It all goes back the Latin, sub feces aeternitatis, or looking at feces under the aspect of eternity.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Disobedience


Sebastian Lelio’s Disobedience is set in the world of London’s  Orthodox Jewish community. But the revelation that's one of the film’s themes is hardly one of a religious sort. Sexual identity is the lingua franca and it's when Esti (Rachel McAdams) expresses hers that she runs awry of the values of the fundamentalist community in which she lives. Of course sex is a gigantic topic and the movie actually avoids the danger of becoming a reductio ad absurdum. Ronit (Rachel Weisz) the rabbi’s daughter, who has turned her back on the cloistered life, provides the catalyst for the movie’s stereotypic energy. But to the director’s credit she along with Esti husband, the rabbi Dovid (Alessandro Nivola) all break away from their prescribed roles to credit the movie with a certain humanity. The film begins with the exhortation, “Hashem gave us choice which is both a privilege and burden” and ends in just about the same place. The more profound problem is that the narrative ties all the loose ends together with a Solomonic justice which is hard to buy, considering all the passions that have been unleashed. If there's an overriding emotion it’s that of equanimity, a sentiment that some viewers may find hard to square, with the terrain of the  subliminal desires Disobedience describes. Spoiler alert: the film's initial triangulation becomes a kind 21st century trinity.

Friday, May 18, 2018

The Delusion of Immortality




A human being begins to die the moment they’re born, but along the way this salient fact of human existence is almost completely forgotten. It’s a little like free trade greasing the wheels of commerce. The reminder of death acts like a tariff that can dull the trading in life experience. This is one reason why people are shocked when they’re lives are brought to a stand still because of illness and disease. It’s as if the powers on high were in violation of the heavenly contract. Day after day humans are given hints about  the fragility of life. The leaves die in autumn, tiny insects are stepped on and spider’s webs and their inhabitants are neatly extinguished with dust busters. Yet no degree of warning seems to do the job. People have built-in forgetters when it comes to death and it’s something which curiously also makes them less prone to appreciate life when they have it. If you know that life is short by any standards and that any life is but a footnote in the history of the universe, you’re more likely to relish each hour of every day. It’s unfortunate that the nature of human defense mechanisms are such that they allow denial to triumph over consciousness. You of course don’t want to greet a baby with a morose funeral dirge. However, isn’t there something more life affirming about acknowledging transience than allowing the kind of delusory feelings that ultimately lead people to squander the gift of existence?

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Homo Cologuardis

photo of Cologuard box by Francis Levy
Back when you were in high school you were in a totally different stage of human evolution.Though homo sapiens roamed the earth many were still hetero at least in name, and men still had a fascination with women’s undergarments and what women looked like naked. Some women may testify to a countervailing sentiment reflected in little homilies like “it’s not how big it is but what you do with it.” Parenthetically decades later and depending on one’s orientation this last turns out to be a total piece of white washing. Of course size matters and guys with little dicks and those who love them simply have to find ways of compensating for what amounts to a disability. But getting back to our current age of true homo sapienality in which hetero sapiens are the exception and the word bra no longer creates a frisson, it’s the contents of the Cologuard Box, with it’s stool sampling kit that’s the real source of mystery. If you’ve ever received a prescription you know this popular colon cancer screener comes in a big box and the first thing you ask is, what the hell's inside? You know that doody smells and you’re going to be sending yours somewhere, but what you’re receiving is tantamount to a brick shithouse or Fort Knox. How many degrees of separation are required? It’s all a little reminiscent of Ben Casey, the medically oriented TV series that starred Vincent Edwards and Sam Jaffe back in the 60’s. You remember the lingo scalpel, forceps…Now it’s shitter, feces, container.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

The Final Solution: Pompeo, Clausewitz and Etherege


According to The Times ("What’s Kim Jong-un’s Surname? Mike Pompeo Is Learning the Hard Way,NYT, 5/9/18), our new Secretary of State might have been challenged on a significant fact. It’s particularly surprising since he'd formerly held a position (as CIA director) that deals with intelligence gathering. It was the kind of malapropism that characters make in Restoration comedies like George Etherege’s Man of Mode. The Times quoted one irate Twitter post regarding this snafu. “Somebody really needs to have a word with Secretary of State Pompeo before he meets anybody in North Korea,” The Times quotes from the Tweet, “He just referred to Kim Jong-un as ‘Chairman Un.' That’s like, I dunno, calling Winston Churchill ‘Prime Minister Spencer.’” Or the North Koreans referring to the American president as Mr. Rump. Apparently Mr. Pompeo’s earlier trip to North Korea was not a fact finding mission or he would have gotten the North Korean leader’s name right. Of course due to RexTillerson's cuts, Pompeo might have found himself understaffed at the time of the trip and who knows what other details were mistaken. For instance, who knows if Pompeo had been given the wrong address for the presidential palace and ended up having to call the North Korean ministry for help when his entourage got lost on some back street in Pyongyang? But no one likes it when their name is misspelled or mispronounced and one of the first premises of diplomacy that may go back to Clausewitz is, know your adversary.