Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Awakenings




Oliver Sacks the prominent neurologist who recently died (“Oliver Sacks, Neurologist Who Wrote About the Brain’s Quirks, Dies at 82," NYT, 8/30/15), wrote about his own prosopagnosia (“Face-Blind," The New Yorker, 8/30/10) which is the inability to recognize faces. But it was curious that he had an extraordinary ability to recognize and empathize with the conditions of his patients. This particular contrariety of his nature, in fact, epitomizes the way in which he regarded disabilities. It’s like the homily “one door closes and another opens.” He created a brilliant compromise formation from his condition--minds not faces, insight over sight-- which opened up a whole area of what might be called narrative neurology. His patients’ infirmities became the subject of great stories which humanized and helped understand anomalies of being. Thus he wrote about the The Man Who Mistook His Wife for A Hat: And Other Clinical Tales, SeeingVoices: A Journey Into the World of the Deaf, The Island of the Color Blind and a book which dealt with Temple Grandin, the autistic professor of animal science, An Anthropologist on Mars; Seven Paradoxical Tales. And speaking of narratives his l973 book about encephalitis, Awakenings, was made into the l990 film starring Robin Williams. Sacks died of cancer rather than prosopagnosia or any of the ailments he wrote about. However, once he received a terminal diagnosis he set about describing it and the way it affected his consciousness, as if he were one of his own patients--only in this case the exotic condition was death. In an Op-Ed piece, “My Periodic Table,” (NYT, 7/24/15) commenting on the comfort he had always found in the “physical sciences, he wrote, “I have tended since early boyhood to deal with loss—losing people dear to me—by turning to the nonhuman… And now, at this juncture when death is no longer an abstract concept, but a presence—I am again surrounding myself with metals and minerals little emblems of eternity.” In an earlier piece “My Own Life,” (NYT, 2/19/15), he quoted David Hume in prescribing a treatment for his end, “I now reckon upon a speedy dissolution. I have suffered very little pain from my disorder; and what is more strange, have, notwithstanding the great decline of my person, never suffered a moment’s abatement of my spirits. I possess the same ardour as ever in study and the same gaiety in company.” And later in the same piece he wrote somewhat more darkly, “When people die, they cannot be replaced. They leave holes that cannot be filled, for it is the fate—the genetic and neural fate—of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death.” Sacks enjoyed an odd kind of defiance, something that was also shared by Tony Judt, the NYU historian whose dying became his own raison d’être and the catalyst for a number of essays that appeared in The New York Review of Books. The late Sherwin Nuland wrote a book called How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter, but Sacks and Judt seem to have added a new stage or category to the death process and one that eschews the feelings of meaningless and nothingness that one might expect in a person who will soon no longer be able to enjoy the fruits of his or her labors. Sacks wrote, “I feel intensely alive, and I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight.”

Monday, August 31, 2015

The Diary of a Teenage Girl



The most important factoid about Marielle Heller’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl is that it is based on Phoebe Gloeckner’s graphic novel of the same name. In fact, the provenance of the movie, the existence of an artistic work that is created out of great pain and confusion provides the key to both the narrative and transcendence of its denouement. Michel Houellebecq the controversial author of The Elementary Particles would be the ideal reviewer for both the book and the movie since a theme he has prosecuted is a Zolaesque determinism that flies in the face of the freedoms of the “tune in and drop out era” (San Francisco in the 70’s--the Patty Hearst case is part of backdrop) that the movie encompasses. Houellebecq’s point is simple: there no such thing as freedom in a world where all actions have consequences—at the very least of a psychic nature. However though The Diary of a Teenaged Girl  deals with Minnie (Beth Powley), a 15 year old  who embarks on a torrid affair with her mother Charlotte’s  (Kristen Wiig) lover Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard), it's remarkably free of judgmentalism, which is refreshing and brave, since the movie breaks all the rules, in an age where sex is increasingly becoming the territory of political pundits. The Diary of a Teenage Girl takes place five years after Louis Malle’s Murmur of the Heart (1971), a film which also broke taboos by dealing with incest.  Rather than being evil Charlotte and Monroe are trapped in their search for pleasure, but no more trapped than Pascal (Christopher Meloni), Charlotte’s former husband, a east coast academic whose hectoring, self-congratulatory moralism seems even more at odds with reality than the movie’s day-trippers. Minnie asks at one point “Does everyone think about fucking as much as I do?” Later she says “I hate men, but I fuck them hard because I hate them so much.” Minnie has a hot friend, Kimmie (Madeleine Waters) and together they turn tricks in a bar as a lark. But all along, as the notion of liberation leaves it’s path of destruction, the real story, the novel, unfolds, with the altar ego of Aline Kominsky-Crumb appearing as an animated muse on the screen. Many movies are based on novels but the real story of The Diary of a Teenage Girl is the backstory of the sensibility that informs one writer/artist’s imagination.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Must Familiarity Breed Contempt?



posterior of rectum and anus, plate 1077 Gray’s Anatomy (drawing by Henry Vandyke Carter)

Familiarity breeds contempt, but is that really true? Familiarity can become a wonderfully reticulated universe where you have the opportunity of making in depth explorations of both the physical and mental topography of the human being that is most proximate to you. Men especially obsess about morphology, body parts and often invidiously talk about a missing element in a partner. They married a brunette, but they have always liked red heads. They are going out with a girl who shaves her armpits, but have always wanted to hook up with one who’s dyed her underarm hair purple. They're going out with a girl who has breasts the size of oranges when they have always wanted to date a girl with breasts the size of lemons or one who applies lemon juice to them as Susan Sarandon did in Atlantic City. Gay men may wonder if they should have found a partner with a bigger dick or asshole. But let’s put all this to the side and return to the subject of quotidian life where you have already made your commitment, even “until death do us part.” There’s no reason to feel that you're being deprived or missing out. There are endless interesting things to learn about a partner. About their hairline, their gluteus maximus, the digits of their hands, yes the shape and size of their penis or vagina, the structure of their skull and the way in their case it accompanies a superior prefrontal cortex. You may even learn some other things that are not necessarily so flattering or enjoyable to consider—like the fact that he or she may be cheating on you.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

American Gigolo



There's a “pregnant" scene in Paul Schrader's l980 movie American Gigolo when a beautiful woman offers herself to Richard Gere. Since Gere makes his money from women who actually pay for his services even a willing hottie is looked at as the kind of pro bono work that’s not worthy of even mild interest. In fact the prospect of  inviting pulchritude appears to make him want to vomit. If you’re one of the mass of men or women who live lives of quiet desperation, this particular scene might be consoling as you think about the rumors that all of France is having passionate sexual adventures which come to a steamy climax in Sodoms like St. Tropez while you sit in the boondocks of some Salingeresque prewar Manhattan apartment hoping that your significant other doesn’t catch you sneaking a view of an itinerant breast, penis other  fetishistic objectification on Cinemax After Dark. Let’s say you were transported into a parallel universe where instead of being a neurotic middle aged New York man or woman you were transported to being a sexy young Parisian vamp or say the Richard Gere character or one of the stars of the Showtime series Gigolos, that is to say a desirable looking male prostitute. Now promiscuous sex would be nothing special at all; inflation would have devalued its currency. In your old incarnation someone might invite you over for a bite, meaning a little lunch or dinner. As the Parisian vamp, it’s a bite of your nipple. If your suitor is not satisfied he or she may have to go downtown where another part of you becomes the plat du jour. But it’s all the same. "In Xanadu did Kubla Khan/A stately pleasure-dome decree...” begins the famous Coleridge poem. Max Weber talked about the "routinization of charisma" in which the fervor of the sect becomes institutionalized as a church and so it is with sex. Like everything else even hot sex with lots of different people can become just one more element of quotidian reality, or as H. Rap Brown said about violence, “as American as cherry pie.”

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Private Parts




Breasts are much in the news recently. Remember Tom Wolfe’s The Painted Word? Both Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio have been trying to deal with upsurge of painted breasts in Times Square and then Sunday August 23rd was GoTopless Day in which women demonstrated their right to show their breasts in public (“Seeking Equality, Not Tips, Topless Marchers Draw a Crowd in Manhattan," NYT, 8/23/14). The nice thing about breast demonstrations is that there are no reports of violence on the part of the participants or the police (a peaceful situation that would only be interrupted by the intrusion of fringe elements who might try to remove their underpants too). In fact if you look at the expressions on the faces of the police assigned to topless rallies, they tend to be mostly smiling and content. But all these naked breasts bring back  nostalgia for a more innocent time in American history when showing a breast really meant something and in which there was a food chain to undressing with the full sight of the breast and finally the seemingly impossible full view of the naked female genitalia resting at the top or bottom depending on which way you looked at it. Men could be demure since back in those days, before the notoriety of porn stars like John Holmes and Ron Jeremy and before advent of gay rights or women’s liberation, for that matter, the penis was not even considered something that anyone would want to see. Howard Stern may have named his biography Private Parts, but for such an exhibitionist it’s a misnomer. Back in the 50’s the concept of private parts was really taken seriously and there were even marriages resulting in consummation and conception in which the lights were off and  neither the male nor the female ever truly saw what was coming or what tunnel the train was going into. Is the world really a better place now that women are showing their breasts on August 23rd ? Are people happy taking indulging  other liberties which were never heard of in the past, like lovers urinating and even defecating in front of each other? It’s a far cry from the halycon days when a straying satin bra strap or bulging package in Jockey underpants meant something. How are people going to have sex once all the mystery of the other is gone?