Friday, February 26, 2010
Ever since George Soros shorted England in ‘92, there has been a growing market for profiting on the misfortunes of countries. The latest turmoil relating to Goldman Sachs’s role in lending to countries they then bet against, with the infamous but still beloved credit default swap, is a good thumbnail of the problems of Greece. The Times reported that a value-free company in London innocuously named the Markit Group introduced something called the iTraxx SovX Western Europe index, which “let traders gamble on Greece shortly before the crisis.” Remember Santayana’s famous line, “those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it?” Having achieved success with insurance companies like AIG, major investment banks like Goldman Sachs are applying the lesson to countries. The concept of short selling, the stock market’s way of allowing folks to profit on the problems of others, is the financial equivalent of the psychological concept of schadenfreude, the enjoyment of other people’s suffering. It’s fun to see someone fail at a lifetime’s work— almost as much fun as seeing an acrobat fall from the high wire. But is it profitable? Savvy investment banks have their cake and eat it too. Before Greece there was Iceland, and there was a period in 2009 when Great Britain was called Iceland on the Thames. It’s like hunting season. You can almost hear the barking of the hounds and the blare of the horns as a bevy of financial experts from overdeveloped countries track down their undeveloped brethren, whose bounced checks reek of taramosalata. “It’s like buying fire insurance on your neighbor’s house,” says Philip Gisdakis, head of Unicredit in Munich, in the Times article, “you create an incentive to burn down the house.” Profits being what they are, one begins to wonder about the turmoil in our world today. Ever hear of arson?
Wednesday, February 24, 2010
Larry Cutler is a former minor league baseball player whose name is immortalized in the City College Hall of Fame for having hit .429 as a second basemen in 1954, making him the leading hitter in the Metropolitan Collegiate Baseball Conference that year. Larry has also been a political activist and Marxist, and most recently a reader of the great works of world literature. He has read Remembrance of Things Past, Anna Karenina, Don Quixote and Finnegan’s Wake. He's probably one of the only former professional baseball players who is now grappling with Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. He takes what can only be called an anti-capitalist approach to literature, claiming that the attempt to look for results distracts a writer from the project at hand. He recently asked why Gravity’s Rainbow and Finnegan’s Wake are so hard to read. It seems like a simple point, but it epitomizes some of the key questions of so-called modernism in writing and painting. His point about difficulty recalls the famed Bauhaus equation: form follows function. Form follows function the way style follows content. Euphuistic or overly ornate prose is an affectation that can have comic results. The writer affects profundity by self-consciously creating gnarled sentences that are hard to figure out. This form of reticulated prose is disconcerting since it deceives both the reader, who thinks he is missing something, and the writer, who is under the delusion of saying something, even if he would be hard put to explain it. Joyce, for one, was up to something else. His difficulty derives from the attempt to mimic the workings of the human mind, which is no mean feat. This is the kind of discussion with which Mr. Cutler is intimately acquainted, as he is with the careers and earned-run averages of almost any significant baseball player you can think of. He also knows a thing or two about a manifesto called What is to Be Done by one V.I. Lenin.
Sunday, February 21, 2010
Isn’t there enough mystery in the knowable universe to account for man’s innate yearning for the transcendent? For instance, take the question of coincidence. There is a form of spiritual determinism that points to the fact that there is no mistake in A running into B on X street at Y time. But let’s look at this from the point of view of historical determinism of the scientifically verifiable kind. You are a creature whose grandparents were born in Lithuania, and your grandfather migrated to the United States by way of South Africa. Your father grew up in the Bronx and attended DeWitt Clinton High School. You find yourself walking towards an old friend, a blueblood who is the parent of one of your children’s elementary school friends. He has a penchant for wingtips and Chesterfields and stands out in any crowd due to his height. He always meets the world with an innocence verging on irony, as if to say what is this folly all about? Your two histories have intertwined and the succession of events that have made up your respective lives led you each to St. Mary’s Church, located on the north side of 46th Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues, where you briefly exchange salutations, perfunctorily uttering little nothings about wives and children, promising to make a date to get together while knowing that there is no imminent prospect of shared interests. Still, you go through the motions of empty promises for no other reason than a mutually shared affection for each other and a shared stretch of the past.
From the point of view of spiritualism, your meeting conveys a certain magic that might even propel you to search for further meaning, while from the point of view of historical determinism it’s little more than an interlude that could be the subject of tomes filled with data tracing the steps that led up to the fortuitous crossing of two essentially random dots. Isn’t it an anthropocentrism to believe that God, if he exists, would have time for all these shenanigans? One telephone call taken, one e-mail returned, would have made each of you late enough to forestall the prospect of any congress, and yet here you are, and that is the wonder of life. Out of the billions of possibilities, the right concatenation of molecules and atoms forms under the right temperatures to create carbon, and from carbon comes life, which evolves and evolves until it evolves itself out of existence entirely, leaving in its wake an ice covered rock that somersaults out of the orbit of its warming sun on an unacknowledged journey into what was once known to human consciousness as space.
Friday, February 19, 2010
Above the entrance to Plato’s Academy was the inscription “Let No One Who is Not a Geometer Enter.” Plato’s Academy was the eponymous Ivory Tower, a place of repose from the worries of the world, where students learned to be leaders. In its pure form, the Academy neither supported nor opposed any causes. Knowledge was a religion. “Let no one who is not a geometer” might be translated as “let no one who is not interested in the pursuit of knowledge in its highest forms cross the threshold," as mathematics was deemed to represent one of the purest forms of knowledge in ancient times, as it is today.
What a far cry from Plato’s Academy is the case of Amy Bishop, the Harvard-educated University of Alabama neuroscientist who killed three of her colleagues and wounded two others in a dispute over tenure! Everyone knows that departmental politics can be nasty and that modern-day life on a university campus is a far cry from the Elysium of Plato’s Academy, although perhaps the case of Socrates was prophetic in that his pursuit of truth eventually led to his drinking the infamous hemlock. Maybe the notion that the pursuit of knowledge is an innocent activity is illusory. Dr. Bishop was purportedly a gifted scholar and teacher. The Times quoted her husband James Anderson as saying that she “exceeded the qualifications for tenure.” According to the Times, Anderson also noted that his wife’s research “was generating millions of dollars for the university.” What could have gone wrong? Is this just another case of the kind of mental instability that led to a shooting rampage by a student at Virginia Tech several years back, or is the Ivory Tower not what it’s cracked up to be? In Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Edward Albee describes the sadomasochistic relationship of a prominent professor and his wife. The play is a microcosm of the frustrations of university life. The famous saying, “Those who can’t do, teach,” should be modified. Those who can neither do nor teach, kill.
Tuesday, February 16, 2010
34 is the Parallel Universe that exists on Patchen Place in the 1940s. Djuna Barnes is the doyenne and the lingua franca is women who love women. However, it should be pointed out that in 34 it is perfectly acceptable to be a heterosexual male who has the sensibility of a woman who loves women. Beyond that, life goes on as normal, with the legendary Maxwell Perkins holding court uptown, and the downtown world of La Bohème remaining curiously immune to both the highs and lows, both the temptations and excitements of trade publishing. By the way, there goes John Dos Passos, who has become a total fascist, despite his wondrous U.S.A. Trilogy.
The parallel universe is really the land of opportunity. There is one to fit every personality and sexual orientation, and naturally one to accommodate even the most eccentric schedules. For instance, there is a parallel universe fitted to the second after your birth and the tenth, hundredth and thousandth of a second before that. There is a parallel universe where you make a fortune shorting currency, like George Soros, and another one where you lose your shirt. Most importantly, there is the parallel universe where you drive down Maple Street and are blindsided by another driver, and another where you get into a fight with your wife, making you late for the potential accident. In that universe you go on to live a long and happy life. Finite matter and infinite time—these are the two variables to think about when it comes to the question of parallel universes.
Monday, February 15, 2010
The notion of the parallel universe appears as a philosophical concept in Nietzsche’s Doctrine of the Eternal Recurrence. Though the concept had a long and venerable history in many religions and philosophies, the notion of the parallel universe may be one of the only philosophical concepts that went on to have an afterlife in both science (Poincare’s Recurrence Theorem) and science fiction (in the work of masters like Phillip K. Dick). Doesn’t Dick’s The Man in the High Castle suggest that the Allied victory is coeval with that of the Axis, which lives on as an alternate world? Hard science itself is forced to deal with the notion of parallel universes when it confronts the uncertainties of string theory and quanta. Yes there are successions of worlds only a millionth of a second apart, repeating themselves with minute divagations and forever bookending in conformity or complete dissolution. Isn’t Minority Report a description of a form of parallel universe in which what is meant to be is essentially coexisting with what is?
It’s very comforting that life is going on in some multiverse, and that even after death we will still be living in a slightly altered form in another dimension. If only we knew how to jump from one dimension to another, we could switch horses when we were diagnosed with a fatal disease. The lights never go out. Life continues on despite the fact that it has eliminated us. We live on in successive universes as if nothing had happened at all. For every loss, death, breakup, failed job search, failed romance, there is the parallel universe where the reverse has taken on a life of its own, and the life we know continues without missing a beat.
Over the expanse of infinite time, we exhaust enough possibilities so that we come back to where we started, both a second too early and three seconds too late.
Friday, February 12, 2010
Biographies of V.S. Naipaul and Arthur Koestler, by Patrick French and Michael Scammell, respectively, have recently been released. Both produce portraits of great thinkers and writers who were sadistic and predatory in their relationships with women. The myth that a poetic sensibility is somehow related to sensitivity has never been much more than a myth. The great author of Childe Harold may have attracted enough women that his name became an adjective to describe a hearty appetite for promiscuous sexuality, but Byron’s romanticism was never related to his ability to apprehend human character. However, prose itself can be deceptive. It is hard to imagine the author of the The Enigma of Arrival, the wonderful recollection of Naipaul’s development as writer, being the same person who beat his devoted mistress so severely that she suffered disfigurement. It is also difficult to imagine the author of Darkness at Noon, a novel about tyranny and oppression (at least in their ideational form), being as manipulative and cruel with his wives and lovers as Scammell’s portrait of Koestler describes. Koestler was in fact accused of rape by Jill Craigie, the wife of the English politician Michael Foot, though the accusation didn’t come from his purported victim until she was 82, and the facts of the incident have since come under question. It would appear that there is a kind of iron curtain between agent and object. A writer can be wonderfully analytical about others, while remaining blind to himself. The perfect metaphor for artistic blindness is of course F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Dick Diver, a psychoanalyst who is a thinly veiled portrait of the author. As someone who treats others, Diver knows a great deal; about himself he can do nothing to allay the catastrophic turn of events that his name symbolically evokes. The N word (narcissism) comes into play, in the form of narcissistic grandiosity. Intellect can be deceptive. Add social approbation and you have created a lethal cocktail, in which brilliance becomes a license for destruction.
Thursday, February 11, 2010
What’s the point of a vacation when you have to go back to work? Most vacations to tropical resorts result in malaria, dengue fever, even Marburg’s syndrome. Once home, you have to shuttle from the toilet on which you have been sitting to your desk, with its window overlooking Fifth Avenue, from which you are tempted to jump. Pleasure is disappointing, but adjusting to everyday life after attempting it is even worse. Better to just work all the time so you don’t feel like you’re going to run out of batteries as your engine cranks up. At the very least, a case of gastroenteritis or hemorrhoids comes with the Dominican package. But let’s confront the de facto condition of having free time in a supposedly beautiful spot. Beauty is one of nature’s taunts. It’s like the Sirens luring an itinerant traveler through life to his or her death. The wages of sin are death and the gift of God is eternal life. Amen. Gambling is what it is. You see beautiful topless women one hundredth your age lying on the beach and you want to die, but being a follower of Milan Kundera novels, you attempt to make contact. Even a word, rather than a mere look of disdain, is a triumph. Up the ante, the next day and the next and the next, until your ticker is bursting out of your chest like Poe’s Tell-Tale Heart. You are already planning the next vacation before the first is over, spreading catalogues across the bed of your refrigerated room, which smells from decades of mildewed sex—couples grasping at each other while dreaming of anything better than what they possess. Then there are the piña coladas with umbrellas at the good-bye party, and that last horrible fight, in which years of dissatisfaction explode, which transports you to the luggage depot just as other hopefuls arrive to samba. Your charter to nowhere is eternally delayed and you study the S&P while taking a leak.
Tuesday, February 9, 2010
Hell’s Kitchen was famous for the Westies. Ray Ashley’s Little Fugitive (1953) depicted the mind of a child as a dangerous place. Then there’s the Russian Sector of Vienna in The Third Man, Little Rock, Arkansas in the ‘50s, The Brambles in Central Park, Bed-Stuy, South Central L.A., Sheriff’s Street in Dublin, the banlieus of Paris with their notorious public housing projects full of angry, unemployed youth from former French colonies, Northern Ireland at the height of its conflict, The Sudan, Chechnya, Rwanda, the South Side of Chicago, the favelas of Rio, and the East End of London before artists took it over. These are all famous dangerous places, where awful things occurred if you were too rich or too poor, too black or not black enough, or just in the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s still not a good idea to be a Turk in certain parts of Germany. Iran is not a good neighborhood for Jews, nor is Jerusalem a particularly good neighborhood for most Palestinians. There was a story about a white woman walking into a predominantly black area of Boston in the ‘60s and being set on fire, and the gay man chased to his death by a homophobic gang in a Brooklyn backwater. And then there's the Klan, with its Grand Wizards, who were once ubiquitous in neighborhoods throughout the Old South. There is still something ominous about downtown Jackson, Mississippi, despite its museum and its veneer of culture. There are also the defunct manufacturing hubs that drove the industrial giant that is no more. Downtown Detroit is one of those.
It used to be that certain socialist societies, especially in Nordic countries like Sweden, Denmark and Norway, produced such a high level of enlightenment and equality that there were no bad neighborhoods to be found, until the oppressed of the world took refuge in these utopias and created a burgeoning underclass whose resentments created their own backlash. Preston Sturges’s Christmas in July (l940) turns a working class neighborhood into a wonderfully bad neighborhood for some titans of industry who set out to reclaim what they think is stolen merchandise. Class and class culture—see Ralf Dahrendorf’s Class and Class Conflict in Industrial Society (1959)—ultimately are the qualifying factors in trying to determine whether one is on the verge of entering a bad neighborhood or whether what is bad for you is good for me. Xenophobia is a common means of social cohesion. There is honor amongst thieves and, for the dissolute, Babylon is a bastion of safety. But there are certain places where it is almost guaranteed that your ass will be whipped if you try to save souls.
Monday, February 8, 2010
Distributor Cap: “My brakes went out on my 2010 Prius here in Kabul where I’m stationed. I also had a little problem with my accelerator pedal sticking, but I hit a cadre of Taliban, which brought me to a firm stop in time to avoid getting ticketed for going through a red light. By the way, what’s GM going to do? If I were chairman of GM I would look into buying up the old Edsel from Ford.”
Suspension: Thanks Distributor Cap. I'm happy you were able to come to a full stop. I’m sorry if any Taliban got hurt, but it’s better than when jet engines run through flocks of them and the whole plane goes down. That’s what happened to Sully. By the way, if Sully could land that plane in the Hudson, he’d be the man to handle GM’s crash landing.
Carburetor: Hi guys. Thought I’d join in. I wanted to back up Suspension’s point. Some of these troubled automotive companies have to deplane.
Obama: Uh, hello. (Pause.) Just thought I’d say hello.
Distributor Cap: Hi Mr. President.
Carburetor: Hi Mr. President.
Suspension: Hi Mr. President.
Obama:. GM is a black hole that will suck up anything that gets in its way. We’re working on using GM as a weapon against the Chinese. Well, back to the Opel office.
Carburetor: I’d rather drive a cruller than a Toyota Corona. Touché Mr. President.
Distributor Cap: He’s a goner. Christ, I wanted to ask him about bringing Toyota and GM together. Those two’d be the Mercedes of automotive support groups.
Meineke Muffler: I think we should keep that amongst ourselves.
Friday, February 5, 2010
Before the Ice Age, there were jocks who roamed campuses the way dinosaurs once roamed the earth, both admired and feared for their enormous strength and sexual capability. These creatures were the possessors of such immense animal appeal that some degree of debate arose about the ability of most females to use their innate reasoning faculties to withstand jock magnetism. It was observed that in the presence of these jocks females routinely abandoned the kind of discernment that we generally associate with poetic sensibility. Were women who went after hulks like this merely paying lip service to the great romantic poets, Goethe, Byron, Keats, Shelley, Wordsworth and later Rilke?
Then a sea change occurred that was as revolutionary as the advent of the Internet itself. Across the five continents of Europe, Asia, North America, Africa and Latin America, consortiums of gyms started to pop up. There was no end of gyms or the plans they offered, and they seemed as plentiful as the poppy harvest in Afghanistan. All of a sudden jocks were everywhere. Little men who previously received no more attention then Arnold Stang, the chinless actor who appeared in all the Chunkies commercials—“Chunkies, what a chunk a chocolate!”—and equally diminutive women started to develop enormous biceps and quadriceps. They trained for marathons. There were even women who completed The Iron Man, with no sense of irony. They trained harder than the captain of any football team (or Arnold Stang). Because their training had nothing to do with a game or a season, it went on for a lifetime.
You didn’t need to be a talented competitor to be an athlete. You didn’t need to make the cut. You didn’t even need to compete. The only qualification for athleticism was a desire to have a truly great body and wonderful, albeit sometimes unfocused, aerobic and anaerobic capabilities. Proprioceptivity was advisable, but not required. This new generation of workout warriors was like Odysseus when he outsmarted the monster Polyphemus. Who cared about a quarterback who could simply throw a Hail Mary pass, the center who slam-dunked, or the tennis player whose abilities were pathetically limited to getting a ball over a net? Since athleticism was no longer limited to sports, a whole new spectrum of possibilities came to the fore. The dorky egghead who couldn’t get a date was now, more often than not, the possessor of brains and brawn. For the first time in millennia, the jocks were being beaten at their own game. Sort of.
Wednesday, February 3, 2010
Moderate workouts are useless and even harmful. Let’s face facts—what’ s the point? Infomercials provide all kinds of abdominal gadgets and pulleys that enable human beings to create flat stomachs, and biceps, triceps and glutes that are similar to those sinewy life-size anatomy posters that hang in high school class rooms. It's the equivalent of The Taj Mahal for Idiots or The Proof of Poincare’s Theorem Made Simple or the local car wash taking care of quadruple bypass surgery in l0 minutes on its conveyor belt. Why work out moderately? To feel moderately better? To feel a moderate rush of endorphins? To facilitate the moderate flow of serotonin reuptake inhibitors that will leave the moderate gym rat in a moderately depressed state in which he or she develops a moderately accepting attitude about the limitations of life?
Now it is not necessary for the sixty-year-old to jump hurdles, practice Thai boxing (Muay Thai), ultimate fighting, cage fighting or k-1. He need not power lift (power clings, dead lifts, squats, bench presses with free weights). He need not learn the guillotine, which is a submission practiced in Ju Jitsu. However, for even the most moderate improvement in the ability to handle mortality, here is what must occur:
Monday—start the day with a head stand (standing on the head yoga style with the arms cupped around the forehead will suffice too), lift weights at home, skip rope for 30 minutes while watching CNN, practice some martial art for an hour.
Tuesday—early morning weightlifting, spinning (45 min.), martial arts.
Wednesday—early morning weightlifting, jump rope, martial arts.
Thursday—2x martial arts.
Friday—near death experience with exercycle at home, martial arts.
Saturday—near death experience in spinning class followed by a botched attempt at “belly” breathing, weight lifting, pushups and pull-ups while contemplating mortality.
Sunday—weight lifting, 15 minutes skipping rope, almost-but-not-quite-civilized level spinning.
What about a day of rest? What about it?
Tuesday, February 2, 2010
Can Stephen J. Gould’s notion of punctuated equilibrium be applied to human sexuality? If evolution doesn’t conform to a smooth pattern, how do we determine what sexual congress will be 500 years from now? For instance, rather than being a period of repression, the Middle Ages were a very sexy time. The Canterbury Tales is one of the most ribald works of world literature, easily competing with Frank Harris, Henry Miller and Anais Nin. Going back further in time, there’s Sappho and the great erotic poet Catullus. It’s odd that the swingers club of the ‘70s was named Plato’s Retreat. Shouldn’t it have been Caligula’s Retreat, for a time when the vox populi was urged to carpe diem? In fact, sexual expression seems to move by the principle of devolution rather than evolution, with advances in man from his earliest prehensile form, homo habilis, leading to the predominance of mind over matter. In the ‘60s there were love children, but homo is often not erectus by the time he reaches his adult state. He’s too sad.
Still there’s the notion of progress. In Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud discussed the compromise that man must make between his instinctual drives and his social nature. The mind is rather inventive. If fetishism provides a detour that allows the discharge of sexual energies that might otherwise have been inhibited, then perhaps progress can be described as the movement from merkins (pubic wigs) to hot waxing, from girdles to thongs, from pantyhose to the scene in the appropriately named Basic Instinct where Sharon Stone startles her interrogators by revealing the absence of any undergarment at all?
But what does the future hold? If the sexual drive derives from procreation, then Viagra has helped to make sex a gratuitous act that persists far beyond the procreative years. Will there be some drug in the next century that makes sex possible for consenting adults who have already passed away? Nicholson Baker created a character in his novel The Fermata who has the futuristic ability to undress women with little or no consequences. Now this fantasy has become a reality with the new generation of security devices to be used in airports around the world. Do these devices herald the prospect of a kind of parthenogenesis or immaculate conception—at least in airports—in which the voyeuristic impulse can impregnate another mind? What about timeless erotic passion, what the Germans called Liebestod, or love-death? And what about Wagner? Will there still be a Bayreuth Festival in 2500?
Monday, February 1, 2010
Jerry Fletcher, the character played by Mel Gibson in Richard Donner’s Conspiracy Theory (l997), fills his Greenwich Village apartment with copies of Catcher in the Rye. Of course, the twist lies in the fact that Fletcher, who was modeled to some extent on Mark David Chapman—John Lennon’s killer, who carried a copy of Catcher at the time of the killing and later said the book would explain his actions—is indeed the victim of a conspiracy involving the kind of mind control reminiscent of another classic, John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate (1962). (Could the youthful Frank Sinatra, who starred opposite Angela Landsbury in that film, have played Holden Caulfield in the movie version of Catcher that will never be?)
Though Jerry Fletcher may have turned out not to be truly paranoid, paranoia is certainly part of the epitaph of the author he adored. In a way, Fletcher is a perfect metaphor for J.D Salinger’s enormous following. Fletcher has been damaged by events he no longer remembers, and so he is striking out blindly, manufacturing explanations for a world that makes no sense to him. Yet he finds solace in a literary character. The problems affecting Fletcher are far greater than anything that Holden Caulfield faced, but the same cannot be said about Caulfield’s creator, who might have been, for all his brilliance, one of the great miser’s of all time.
Authors copyright their inner lives. However, Salinger behaved as if someone was trying to steal his, slapping a “Top Secret” label on his creatiive life and ceasing to publish at all after 1965. If writing is ultimately about giving, and not just the kind of narcissism that led Salinger to spend the last 45 years of his life writing only for himself, then Salinger didn’t have a philanthropic bone in his body. “De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period” is one of the Nine Stories Salinger published in 1953. Speaking of Daumier, the nineteenth-century French caricaturist might have been the perfect artist to capture this egregious instance of creative hoarding.