Friday, September 20, 2019

Have You Gotten Your Flu Shot?

Sickness is like science fiction. Stephen King’s The Stand, uses a flu epidemic to create a horror story and Susan Sontag’s famous essay is “Illness As Metaphor.” You’re placed into an alternate universe. Even something minor like a head cold creates at least one degree of separation from the everyday world in which others go about their business in a way that you're not able. It gets worse if you really come down with something and end up looking enviously out your window at passersby who're perfectly capable of going about their business unimpeded by physical handicaps. Those people born with congenital conditions never know what it feels like to live a so-called normal life in which one has full use of one's faculties. The average person takes his or her ability to see, hear or smell for granted but there are those who inhabit an interior universe in which stimulae from the outside world are dramatically limited. If you've never known another life, then in essence you may not feel like you’re missing anything. It’s those who experience the kinds of physical deterioration that results in the inability to ambulate or even cognate who will find they have begun a different kind of a journey. Journalist Jean Dominique-Bauby’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly described the locked-in syndrome that derived from a massive stroke. The NYU historian Tony Judt wrote three books after he was diagnosed with ALS while contributing essays about his condition to The New York Review of Books.  Stephen Hawking who also suffered from ALS, wrote books like A Brief History of Time under the most challenging of conditions, in the end using cheek muscle to activate a sensor. He developed a rich inner world that had a correspondingly powerful grasp of the cosmos. Despite being limited he was, at least from the theoretical point of view, a human telescope, his mind allowing him access to perceptions about the nature of the multiverse not available to people who suffered from none of the disabilities he dealt with. In his many books the neurologist Oliver Sacks demonstrated how patients with severe neurological disorders often compensated for their losses—becoming in essence like Spock in Star Trek, brilliant though sometimes robotic-sounding personalities with extrasensory perception.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Oedipus, Complex

Imagining different endings can be a dangerous thing. That’s what Philip K. Dick did The Man in the High Castle, Philip Roth in The Plot Against America and most recently Quentin Tarantino in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. The fantasy may be benevolent or invidious but it makes you start to think that history can be rewound like a reel of old-fashioned celluloid film. If only you had  gone by your gut instinct and forgot about the supermarket, you wouldn’t have had the fender bender, or the argument with your girlfriend or boyfriend that was the beginning of the end. You wouldn’t have seen or heard something or become the repository of knowlege you would rather not have been privy to. Reimagining history gives the impression that the past is somehow labile, manageable and prone to damage control. The fact is that nothing is ever rewound.  Nothing is ever rewritten. Nothing ever goes away. You can’t nip happenstance in the bud. Coitus interruptus is actually a misnomer since it implies that a sexual act has not occurred; in fact, human action is a little like premature ejaculation to the extent that it, in fact, reveals its effects before they've sometimes even occurred. It’s like some incurable congenital ailment which can’t, like diabetes or alcoholism, go into remission. Poor Oedipus he spends his whole life trying to a avoid the prophecy of the oracle and ends up bringing about the very thing he's trying to avoid.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

A Little Night Music?

Certain religions look at entertainment as something approaching sin. The second of the Ten Commandments prohibits graven images and many faiths proscribe alcohol. The cult of Dionysius would be not find a home in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. On the other hand The Living Theater’s Paradise Now could be viewed as a contemporary counteraction to Milton's Paradise Lost. What's Courbet’s “The Origin of the World," but a recollection of the lost pleasures of the unconditional love of the universe. Hedonism or austerity are the antipodes of artistic endeavor with the reality of many creative works falling somewhere in between. Broadway musicals tend to provide escapist fare, but many theatergoers who revel in My Fair Lady forget that the musical is based on a think piece about the relationship between artists and their subjects. If you recall in the original myth on which the play is based Pygmalion falls for his creation, Galatea. My Fair Lady and Pygmalion attract different audiences just like A Little Night Music might not have had the same appeal to viewers of Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night, the film from which the Broadway musical was adapted. What's the pleasure of disturbing works like Bergman's Persona or Fanny and Alexander, or Othello and Hamlet for that matter? Catharsis would naturally be Aristotle’s answer. Hamartia (the tragic flaw) and anagnorisis (the recognition) were all part of classic Greek tragedy, but is the net result edifying or ultimately just entertaining? Ars longa, vita brevis said Hippocrates.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Troubled Automaker?

Nissan Global Headquarters in Yokohama  (photo: TTTNIS)
Recently The Times referred to Nissan as a “troubled automaker.”  ("Nissan of Japan Discloses a New Recall, Adding to Its Problems," NYT, 6/2719). And business journals regularly point to "ailing companies." It won’t be long before you find the range of illnesses broadening with respect to industry. Imagine a neurosthenic appliance chain (they should be by the way with Amazon totally gobbling up the retail market), a hyperactive technology company with overly precocious apps and say a manufacturer of tractors like Caterpiller which suffers from an eating disorder to the extent that it chews up everything in its path. Will "schizoaffective disorder" be employed when referring to certain companies, particularly in the pharmaceutical industry? The pathetic fallacy is a literary device whereby nature reflects emotions, but industry, usually thought to be a contrivance of man, is now taking on a life of its own. Many companies are, in fact, run by robots or people who behave like them and often the decisions they make can’t really be attributed to a human factor. So it does seem like a cheap way out to start making entities rather than people the repository of seemingly human frailties, but that’s what happens when you’re dealing with a powerful machine. Like a gifted person, it too can face challenges.   

Monday, September 16, 2019

Beauty Contest

Michelangelo's "David" (photo: Jorg Bittner Unna)
Beauty's intimidating and a rebuke to the person who feels they're ugly, or at least has unbeauteous thoughts. It’s like the kid from childhood who was always faster and smarter than you and lo ended up on the top of the totem pole, in life, with the unapproachable wife, husband or lover and the secretary who’s practiced in saying “He or she's in a meeting. Can he or she get back to you?” You know the pert sounding voice behind the impassive personality of an executive assistant whose own glamorous existence you can’t even begin to fathom. Now think instead about a cess pool of industrial sludge, one of those greenish residues that forms a canal in industry city, where smoke stacks emit precociously advanced toxic substances into the sodden smog-filled atmosphere—a whore on his or her last legs whose lined face and dark deep set eyes record the depredations of their clientele. This is hardly the water lapping up against the edges of the sylvan sand esoteric Caribbean retreat, with its exclusively pristine harbor designed shallowly enough to keep away the hordes of cruise boats. What’s worse is that beauty hogs the show. It demands constant admiration. What more are you going to do in the face of a beautiful vista or landscape than to praise it? Yes beauty is like that Apollonian or Orphic statue that everyone stares at with perfunctory obeisance.

Friday, September 13, 2019

Of Mice and Men

Size doesn’t matter when it comes to having a big heart, but can an ant or an amoeba have a soul? Even animal lovers who fawn and fret over their dogs and become heartbroken at the death of a  beloved cat, take a totally prejudiced attitude towards mice who, as as rodents, some of the lowliest and most despised creatures in the great chain of being, don’t have equal rights. It’s unlikely that you’re going to see anyone in tears over the death of a rat, which is a name given to a snitch. Yes, even a lover of all creatures big and small hates to see an infestation of ants and will easily squash the colonies that pour out of the cracks of the flagstone pathway leading from the house to the driveway. But if worms have no souls, why should humans? Could it be that once the last breath is taken, the great work that nature conspired to make culminating in vaunted consciousness is dead as a doornail and in fact no better than the lowly mouse whose untimely end is signaled by the snapping of a trap. Yes, the mouse was stupid enough to eat the cheese, just as an unthinking human texting on his or her iPhone inadvertently walks in front of a car and boom, it’s curtains! Nice to think the light flickering in the house of a deceased person is conveying a message, but it’s more likely that the socket in which the lamp is plugged requires a surge protector. Charlotte's Web is an example of anthropomorphized vermin and Gregor Samsa woke up to find himself turned into an insect, but do any them, or the humans they were modelled on or derived from, have souls?

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Pornsophy: Nihilism

Peter Kropotkin (c. 1900)
There are kinds of porn that act like porn but aren’t porn per se to the extent that there is no sex or naked bodies. If the end result of porn is an obliterative stimulation that allows an instantaneous escape from reality, nihilism can function as a form of pornography since it immediately steels the personality into a euphoric state of uncaringness. Nothing matters, everything is shit or as Hamlet says, “by a sleep to say we end the heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.” Of course, negativity has a subsidiary function as a form of exorcism or emetic. You have to get the poison out to make room for the elixir of hope. “When he himself might his quietus make /With a bare bodkin? Who would fardels bear…” Hamlet continues. Bazarov was Turgenev’s famously negative character in Fathers and Sons and then there’s Chekhov’s Solyony in The Three Sisters whose negativity results in the death of the Baron, in a meaningless duel. The Russians were experts at nihilism and revolutionary anarchists like Kropotkin provided the ideologies for literary mouthpieces. But underneath can it be said that like porn, extreme negativity ultimately entails a search for enlightenment?