Friday, September 23, 2016

Too Far to Go or Going too Far?

Klaus Mann, Staff Sergeant US Fifth Army (photo: United States Fifth Army)
In her review of Frederic Spotts Cursed Legacy, The Tragic Life of Klaus Mann, Anna Katharina Schaffner quotes the author and Mann himself as follows: “In his diary Klaus complained that his father’s 'general lack of interest in human beings is especially strong towards me.'” Schaffner also quotes Spotts thusly, “Klaus Mann was six times jinxed. A son of Thomas Mann. A homeless exile. A drug addict. A writer unable to publish in his native tongue. A not-so-gay gay. Someone haunted by all his life by a fascination with death.” But the case of Thomas Mann raises another question, that of the camouflage of humanism under which artistic depredations are allowed to fester. A great writer may have an exorbitant appetite for life while at the same time being life’s deadly enemy. Look at Tolstoy who early on exercised his doit du seigneur with his serfs while ending his last days, abandoning his wife and dying in Astopovo railway station. Norman Mailer famously stabbed his wife Adele on the eve of his candidacy for Mayor. V.S. Naipaul’s sadistic treatment of his mistress which involved beatings and disfigurement has been documented in Patrick French’s biography. And what can we say about Picasso. His portraits of the many women in his life appear to be the kiss of death; when he could no longer “palate” them they became works of art. It’s no revelation to learn that successful creative people often possess enormous egos which sucks up experience like a black hole light. When one reads Too Far to Go the short stories that comprise Updike’s eulogy to his first marriage, one wonders if the tristesse of the break up, so beautifully rendered, didn’t, in fact, represent the author sacrificing life for the sake of art. In this view creative work is a form of taxidermy, in which the skinned animal is used to make the head which hangs over the fireplace.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

What's the Next New Phrase to Enter Your Wheelhouse?

English officers on bridge of destroyer in World War II (User: W.wolny)
Catchphrases are like epidemics and very contagious. “Sounds like a plan” is so ubiquitous it’s almost replaces “and” and “the” in frequency of use. “Being on the same page” is another expression for which there is as yet no known vaccine, along with “at the end of the day.” “At the end of the day” is "spot on"(yet another popular one) since it introduces a visual and temporal element into the monotony of cliché. The end of the day is sunset; it’s also literally then end of a 24 hour period. It took seven days for God to create the heavens and earth (including a day of rest) so there's a spiritual element tagged on to an expression which means basically “when all is said and done”— a catchphrase that's not as frequently used. When someone is stupid, you say they’re not the sharpest tack, but this is another catchphrase which seems to have gone into remission. But what has put “wheelhouse” in our wheelhouses? “Wheelhouse” is like the Zika virus, though it can’t be sexually transmitted; you might have heard inklings of “wheelhouse” occurring in places like LA where these kinds of expressions tend to fester, but it’s only recently that there have been a huge number of references to this or that being in his or her wheelhouse, which essentially means repertoire. When you really think about it, having the bridge of a ship connote the range of someone's abilities is a stretch. However, how such an association came about is a another story. The question is: what’s the next new catchphrase that going to find it’s way into your wheelhouse? There are more things on heaven and earth, dear Noam, then are dreamt of in your universal grammar.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Robert Musil on Trump

Trump accepting nomination (Ali Shaker/VOA)
Only in the venerable Times Literary Supplement are you likely to find a letter to the editor in which a reader compares Donald Trump to the character of Moosbrugger from Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities. Moosbrugger, it should be noted, is a violent criminal who is brought to justice. Here is the passage as quoted in a letter to the TLS by David B. Auerbach of Brooklyn, NY: “{Moosbrugger} was clearly ill, but even if his obviously pathological nature provided the basis for his attitude and this isolated him from other men, it somehow seemed to him a stronger and higher sense of his own self. His whole life was a comically and distressingly clumsy struggle to gain by force a recognition of this sense of himself…To the judge, Moosbrugger was a special case; for himself he was a universal, and it was very hard to say something convoluted about a universe.” Musil wrote The Man Without Qualities (Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften), during the fall of the Weimar Republic and the rise of Hitler and the novel itself takes place in the last years of the Habsburg rule. Too often the rage at Trump itself is self-defeating in its perseveration, making, as it does, the same boring points about his afflatus. It’s curious when literally any historical figure is decontextualized. Is Trump really sui generis? Have we not seen Trump like figures, motivated by Trump like forces at other periods of turbulence when masses of the unemployed and disenfranchised seek an autocrat who will take the responsibility of existence itself away form them. The TLS has done a great service in publishing Mr. Auerbach’s letter with its Mitteleuropaische profundity and complexity to the discussion of Donald Trump’s attributes or “qualities” if you will. Hegel talked about the World Historical Figure. Napoleon was one example he gave. Would Trump qualify? To call someone a product of historical forces is not necessarily to make a judgment about the value their contribution.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

The Keeper

":World Rescue Project" by Vanda Vieira-Schmidt
Why do people collect? What is the magic of stamps (philately) and coins (numismatics)? What was the drive behind Nabokov’s great taxonomic project of classifying butterfly genitalia? Supposedly it was to distinguish between the seemingly indistinguishable. What drove Vanda Vieira-Schmidt to produce her "World Rescue Project" or Weltrettungsprojeckt composed of 500,000 drawings depicting “demonic messages that had been sent to earth with Uranium and electrocution devices.” The Keeperthe exhibition which is currently completing a run at The New Museum is partially the handiwork of Massimiliano Giorni, the curator of Venice Biennale's 2013 The Encyclopedia Palace. In that exhibition a piece of outsider art by Marino Auriti provided the inspiration for a show that deal with information itself. The Keeper, which sounds a little like the title of a movie (say The Exorcist) purportedly “tells the stories of individuals through the objects they chose to safeguard, exposing the diverse motivations that inspired them to endow both great and mundane things with exceptional significance.” But the mind of the collector itself is what is being collected here and the impulse turns out to be a little like Noah’s Ark, to the extent that the gathering of artifacts is a bulwark against an imagined or impending oblivion. Sadness and loss together with the notion of reconstitution are characteristics of this calling. Collecting is also a form of control. John Fowles wrote a novel called The Collector, which was made into a William Wyler film. In that instance the title character (Terence Stamp) stalks and prays on his beautiful victim who he eventually imprisons (like Nabokov he also collects butterflies). Here is what Nabokov himself wrote about the collecting impulse in his poem, "On Discovering a Butterfly: "I found it and I named it, being versed/in taxonomic Latin; thus became/godfather to an insect and its first/describer--and I want no other fame." Luckily for us Nabokov's humility turned out to be disingenuous.

Monday, September 19, 2016

When Not to Use the "N" Word On Or Off Campus

A Times article entitled “Campuses Cautiously Train Freshman Against Subtle Insults" (NYT, 9/6/16), quotes a newly minted freshman at Clark asking the following question: “When I, as a white female, listen to music that uses the N word, and I’m in the car, or, especially when I’m with all white friends, is it O.K. to sing along?” The subject of the Times piece is “microaggressions” and the writer, Stephanie Saul, goes on to cite Sheree Marlowe, the new chief diversity officer at Clark to the effect that such lapses “are comments, snubs or insults that communicate derogatory or negative messages that might not be intended to cause harm but are targeted at people based on their membership in a marginalized group.” Marlowe’s answer to the freshman’s question according to The Times was “no.” But who exactly is allowed to sing along to the song which uses the N word and isn't it a form of discrimination that only those to whom the pejorative term applies can employ it? Policing language is deadly work. For instance what about the freshman at Clark who decides they want to buy a ream of all white paper for their printer? How are they supposed to go about requesting the paper they want, particularly if the individual working the aisle at the student co-op is Asian and might take offense and how does one ask for the edition of Huckleberry Finn which substitutes the word “slave” for “nigger” ("Light Out, Huck, They Still Want to Sivilize You,"NYT, 1/6/11)? Is it a microaggression to mention the N word, even when asking for the edition of a classic from which it’s been summarily deleted? Then we come up against the old problem of whether you should announce auditions for the role of Shylock at Hillel or that famous, Moor, Othello, in the Black Student’s Union? But let’s go back to the original question. What if you’re traveling in a car and there is music playing that uses the N word but you’re deaf. Can you still sing along?

Friday, September 16, 2016

What's Not Funny?

George Carlin in l969 (ABC TV)
There are certain things that you can’t or are not supposed to joke about and when you do you receive the remonstrative “that’s not funny!” followed by a disconcerting disengagement by the offended party. That’s may have been what George Carlin was trying to avoid when he cancelled “I Kinda Like it When a Lotta People Die,” which was filmed on September 10, 200l. The special is finally seeing the light of day (“George Carlin’s lost pre Sept. ll routine gets new life on CD,” CNN, 9/12/16). Which brings us to the case of the Muslim marine recruit who was put in an industrial level dryer by his drill sergeant at Parris Island (“Marines Scrutinize a Culture of Toughness After a Muslim Recruit's Death," NYT, 9/14/16). It’s a horrific bit of abuse, but there's also something undeniably humorous in it. It’s the kind of black humor that goes  into make a musical like The Producers with its “Springtime for Hitler,” or Wally Shawn’s Aunt Dan and Lemon. Horror becomes the butt of satire. After all putting someone in a dryer is not too far from “hanging them out to dry” and the blustering drill sergeant has always been a source of comedy. Phil Silvers made a big hit of Sergeant Bilko back in the 50’s. Still you have to ask yourself how far is putting someone in a dryer from putting them on a leash like in Abu Ghraib or, for that matter, in an oven. But rather than silencing the laughter, maybe when things reach a certain level of grotesquery, the only thing to do is laugh. Alfred Jarry was prescient in Ubu Roi. His tyrannically comical character bears an uncanny resemblance to the preposterous rantings of dictators like Kim Jong-un and Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe.