Friday, February 14, 2020

After the Fall

"The Garden of Eden with the Fall of Man" by Peter Paul Rubens and Jan Brueghel the Elder
“To experience a thing as beautiful means: to experience it necessarily wrongly,” says Nietzsche in The Will to Power. What a refreshing breath of air for those who find the wild and ubiquitous exclamations of delight disconsonant with their inner being. After all man is the creature who once fell from a garden and was forever exiled from his place among other species who remained free and unconscious of literally everything. It’s easy to be bludgeoned into believing something is wrong with you for not singing hosannas about another orange sunset. One's supposed to react a certain way, even if the perception of some idealized bit of nature actually only underscores how ugly and imperfect you might feel amidst a chorus of angels. This is one of the downsides of well-meaning people who treat the questioning of their idealized universes as sacrilege. Is one not entitled to maintain the notion that an industrial park possesses a beauty tantamount to that of the gently lapping waters of an idyllic beach at summer’s end? Beauty is truth,” says Keats. It’s also “in the eyes of the beholder.” The Asphalt Jungle (1950) was the fame of a famous crime movie, but you may prefer it to getting lost on the Appalachian Trail.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

The Final Solution: Something Happened

rehearsal of 2012 production of Ivo van Hove's Roman Tragedies
Back in 2012 theatergoers were allowed on stage during Ivo van Hove's production of the Roman Tragedies at BAM. You could be a supernumerary in the crowd as Caesar famously intones “Et tu, Brute?” Usually the audience perceives Caesar's murder with several degrees of separation. The willing suspension of disbelief is actually held in abeyance by skepticism. Back during the performances of Roman Tragedies, the disbelief was more than willingly suspended as one found oneself adopting the role as a spectator in history. Actually, if you’re in Rome today, you can visit the very spot where Caesar met his end, the Largo di Torre Argentina. You'll get closer to an event that occurred millennia ago, then to the version of history unfolding in a 24 hour cable news cycle. Unending translation of happenstance creates a high level of distance and consequentially unreality. It’s not so much fake as filtered news or simply phenomena. Due to social media there’s a lot of chatter. You may have the illusion of having some breathing space but you might as well be watching the ball drop in Times Square on New Year’s Eve--on TV. It’s rare that you ever nakedly come into contact with literally anything. "Art is a lie that makes us realize truth," said Picasso. What BAM offered back in 2012 was something close to the experience of seeing history actually unfold. Remember a Joseph Heller novel called Something Happened or the 50s CBS series, You Are There?

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

The Final Solution: Vox Populi

The notion of a senate goes back to Roman times. Senators were classic figures and you can see them in old movies like Spartacus or let’s say Bob Guccione’s Caligula if you’re lasciviously inclined. In I, Claudius, Charles Laughton played the emperor. During the impeachment trial, the American public had a good chance to see the senate in action and it still had the look of a private mostly gentleman’s club. The southern accents of Lindsey Graham, Lamar Alexander and Kentucky’s John Kennedy always stand out and the few women like Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine exude an a regal air, even in the thralls of their tortured wrestling with issues. Senator Cory Booker famously had his "'I am Spartacus' moment" when he threatened to release confidential records during the Brett Kavanaugh hearings. If you were to cast a modern epic in classical dress any of these characters, including the lone Republican dissenter, Mitt Romney, could easily be placed in period costumes. You wouldn’t have to bother with a script. In the current production, the decision was an open and shut case, but the average guy, a member of the plebeian class, looking up at his TV from his barstool, was just a part of the gallery as he always would be. There were dissidents like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren supposedly speaking to his or her interests, but there was no real vox populi. The same charioteers were whipping their horses, nostrils flaring, into a frenzy and power was still a magic and secret thing wielded by the few in whom it still resided. 

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

The Final Solution: Voting the End of Democracy

What if Congress voted for the end of democracy? Theoretically it can’t happen because of the constitution and the bill of rights. The majority may elect representatives, but majority rule, in theory, cannot destroy the essence of our system. However, if President Trump’s acquittal by the senate on purely partisan lines is an indicator then fundamental governances will slowly be whittled away, with each abrogation establishing a precent. Alan Dershowitz proposed the idea that a president cannot be impeached if they're doing something they believe is for the good of the country, ie to further their electability. What if the president were given unlimited executive powers, then could they retain the structure of government while advocating the principles of autocracy? The brand of extreme populism characterized by Trump's base is one or two degrees of separation from fascism since it represent a juggernaut that brooks no attention to details like due process. With the mandate of powerful popular support and a relatively weak opposition, nothing seems to matter. You can say you’re upholding  principles that define the very structure of American society when you’re not.The cheering crowds packing a recent Trump rally in New Jersey demonstrated the fervor with which millenarian tyrants have always been greeted. What if a Bolsonaro, an Erdogan or an Orban offered a chicken in every pot?

Monday, February 10, 2020


Kantemir Balagov’s Beanpole, currently completing a run at Film Forumtakes place in post-war Leningrad and many of the characters in the movie have the burned out listless looks of PTSD victims. The movie is set in a hospital where the patients literally are the living dead. One pleads to be put out of his misery saying he’s “not a person anymore.” The title character Iya (Viktoria Miroshnicenko) is a nurse, who had served on the front and now emits strange haunting noises which signal an imminent break from reality. Rail thin and tall, with the otherworldly coloration of an albino, she’s plainly been out of place her whole life. The symbolism of the morphology is obvious in one sense, but can give one pause. Disconnection is rife everywhere. There’s almost no need to underscore a physical attribute to make the point; there are some other contrivances in the narrative (related to implausible coincidence) which can be disconcerting. But the film creates a complex topography both predicated on the existential condition of war and on a kind of incestuous emptiness that takes on a life of its own. There’s a Masha character (Vasilisa Perelygina) and a tortured doctor (Andrey Bykov) that are unavoidable Chekhov citations. Only here you’re dealing with a totally different set of longings that are both more profound and desperate than those found in The Three Sisters. “I want a human inside me,” Masha says at one point. Is it sex or a child? The ambivalence is undeniable and chilling, particularly because the doctor will later inform her “there’s nothing left inside you to make life.” Iya will reiterate the same idea when she says “I’m meaningless; there’s nobody inside me.” At the same time, life is randomly taken, as in a horrifying and unforgetable sequence when a three year old is suffocated. The effect of the movie is not simple to define. The conditions of war have created devastation, but the psychic legacy that Beanpole describes is neither that of desire or need. Recounts of relationships in the camps are really the only comparison. The brilliance of the film lies in portraying a psychic landscape of survival, in which attachments are practically devoid of the kind of emotion viewers are likely to identify with love.

Friday, February 7, 2020

Intellectuals and Fascism in Interwar Romania

Marci Shore’s review of Cristina A. Bejan’s Intellectuals and Fascism in Interwar Romania (TLS, 1/10/20) is accompanied by a rare photo of Eugene Ionesco flanked by Emile Cioran, the philosopher and Mircea Eliade, the religious historian. In examining the world in which their unique, brilliant and passionate bonds were created, she counterpoints the romantic agony to the rise in scientism. “Disenchantment” was, of course, the term Max Weber had used to describe the triumph of rationalism. “The Enlightenment understood the human subject as the Cartesian cogito, ergo sum,” Shore remarks. “The Romantics countered with volo, ergo sum: I desire, therefore I am. Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Underground man expressed this inimitably: ‘Reason, gentlemen, is incontrovertibly a good thing, but reason is no more than reason…while desires are an expression of the whole of life.’” Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano and The Lesson have been playing on the Left Bank’s Theatre de la Huchette since l957, but today you hear less about Ionesco then in the days when Rhinoceros received its legendary interpretation on Broadway by Zero Mostel. Eliade went on to teach at the University of Chicago. Both Cioran, who was the subject of a laudatory essay by Susan Sontag, “Thinking Against Oneself,” in Styles of Radical Will and Eliade would come under attack for their association with the rightwing Iron Guard. Would a dose of reason have ultimately made a difference? Apparently Bejan’s study broaches this question, but what can such speculations offer other than to rewrite history?

Thursday, February 6, 2020

Into the Void

There comes a point where you don’t have all of your life ahead of you. While there may have been room for failure when you went into a particular business as a young man or woman, you eventually face the last furlough. Despite the aspirationalist idea that anything is possible, in fact, it’s not. Professional athletes who may go on to sponsor all kind of programs evangelizing the philosophy of achievement and possibility know limitations first hand. Late in his career George Foreman lost a match to a now forgotten fighter named Shannon Briggs. Many of those who saw the fight might have disagreed with the decision, but the fact was that the journeyman fighter had besides some potential and talent, one thing that the veteran didn’t possess, youth. There are, of course, exceptions. Picasso’s creativity burgeoned in his later years and apparently his sexual prowess was also immune to the effects of age. However, more often than not, you see an oedipal process occurring in which talented individuals are displaced by their more youthful counterparts. It’s hard to remember that writers like Henry Miller and Charles Bukowski were once considered revolutionary when in our current climate their transgressional work actually seems conservative and even Neolithic to a generation highly influenced by values that question gender itself. Some plays have an epilogue. In this one, there's a transcendent opportunity that’s afforded older people, which is to play to the void.