Friday, September 21, 2018

No More Peanut Galleries

The Peanut Gallery c. 1949
Remember chronic fatigue syndrome? It's a well documented condition but there was a time when everyone seemed to be suffering from it. You don't hear about it as much these days. And then there was the whole repressed memory fiasco culminating in the McMartin preschool case. No one had apparently ever heard of the seduction theory or the fact that Freud famously repudiated it. Of course there are people who suffer from fatigue that is the result of everything from depression to mononucleosis. And there are people who have suffered all manner of childhood sexual abuse and suggesting it hasn't happened can be as much a form of indoctrination as suggesting it has. But there are times when the epidemic of suggestion appears to be both viral and epidemic. It turns out to be a myth ulcers were caused by stress. Saying that symptoms contain an element of fantasy is not the equivalent of Holocaust denial. Lately, there are many airlines who will not serve peanuts or even allow them on the plane, in the event that someone has an allergy that will produce an anaphylactic reaction. No one is disputing the reality of the symptoms or the need for people who suffer from such conditions to carry epipens. But why has this suddenly burst on the scene as a point of alarm? Baby Boomers will remember a TV show called Howdy Doody with its famous “peanut gallery”—a venue that would be off limits to kids today. One theory has it that the phobia about peanuts is such that it creates a situation where adults who haven’t been exposed to peanuts as children will develop reactions. Bipolar is the psychiatric disorder du jour and people leap on the diagnosis, possibly because it provides a label that explains symptoms and potentially offers a cure—by way of medication. In fact, the human mind is a complex thing and the proud declaration of bipolarity, while it may confer membership in a support group comprised of other suffers, may be more useful for providing a DSM code for insurers than anything else. There’s probably a new and insidious threat on the horizon, some undreamt of ailment, that will enrich the pharmaceutical industry while providing patients an explanation for their misery. People sometimes cheer themselves on for having found membership in a minority whose suffering and victimhood is attributable to a cause, without sometimes examining the dubiety of the evidence.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Are You Depressed or Merely Crying "Wolf?"

One of the definitions of depression is “a sunken or hollow place on a surface.” In meteorological terms, a depression is a low pressure area. In economic terms, a depression is a sustained or severe downturn in jobs, markets and other indicators of growth. You thus have a tropical depression which can lead to bad weather or a depression similar to what happened in the wake of the stock market crash of l929. Psychological depression is, of course, the elephant in the room. Numerous writers have attempted to describe their depressions. Familial, existential and physiological factors are often brought to bear in discussing these conditions, but it’s rare that sufferers from depression use geological, meteorological or economic metaphors to describe their states. One can’t help but feel wistful about a time, say in the world of a 50’s sitcom like The Life of Riley, when if someone said they were depressed they might be told to “cheer up.” Today, an expression of depression elicits those meaningful looks that can kill. In addition so many people complain of being depressed (bipolarity and suicidal ideation have almost become badges of honor in certain quarters) that it’s hard to determine who’s really depressed and who’s just crying “wolf.”

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Why All Homo Sapiens Are "As If" Personalities

Humans create a wonderful defense against their demise, a self-serving narcissistic fortress, in which their impending importance actually throws a shadow over a clear perception of reality. Of course the truth is that whether the end is tomorrow or ten years later, the only effect the ending of their life will have will likely be 
on the one or two people who are dependent on them. For these select few the loss will be catastrophic. The others will mourn and then go on with their lives. While you may feel you'll never get over the passing away of a friend, mourning will likely turn to nostalgia and then eventually into the kind of sublimity that Wordsworth describes in “Tintern Abbey” in the wistful recollection of the lost soul’s “unremembered, acts/Of kindness and love.” The walls consciousness creates around mortality are impregnable and only pierced by death itself. If Heidegger said that it’s impossible to lead an authentic life without an awareness of death then literally all of humanity are “as if” personalities.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018


drawing (McGeddon)
Have you ever considered the possibility that you could lose your job for remembering somebody in an obit or even offering your condolences? These are parlous times and you never know who is what and most importantly what will be triggering. You’re probably not going to talk about the body parts of a recently deceased person so that’s one area that can be discounted. You're unlikely to say that a recently deceased man or woman had a nice ass. But people lead complex lives. Let’s say someone underwent SRS surgery so they could marry Christ and become a nun. You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Some people will go to any lengths to realize their dream, but they don’t necessarily want these lengths to be part of the mourning process. You might get home from the funeral and find a little pink slip in e-mail form awaiting you from HR. By the time you’re done you'll wish the deceased person would drop dead. No good deed goes unpunished and here you’re innocently reminiscing about someone and having to pay for unconscious fantasies that may have inadvertently seeped out in a eulogy, if indeed you’d been asked to be a speaker. Remember the game of hangman? Give a person enough rope and they’ll hang themselves. 

Monday, September 17, 2018


What better demonstration of conatus, the will to live, then when you try to kill an insect. It's generally assumed that insects don’t think (though it might not be surprising to find out that some enterprising neuroscientist has endeavored to place ants, roaches and water bugs in miniature FMRIs). However, if you’ve ever pulled your shoulder in swatting a fly or injured your hand in trying to snuff out a termite, you'll feel the power of conatus, a term that appears prominently in the work of Spinoza and other philosophers. How can a creature run when it doesn’t experience the emotion of fear? When a dog barks at you, even when its tethered by a leash, you instinctually avoid its path, but that's because a complex series of events takes place, some of which occur in the conscious mind and some in the pre-cortical limbic areas where emotion resides. It's here, in the realm of emotion, that men have something in common with animals. No matter how small the brain of the creature, they will run from giants, just like the Lilliputians were frightened by Gulliver. A larger threatening being is a big dark cloud that unites humanity with the animal world. This irrational and inexplicable desire to go on living, what George Bernard Shaw termed “the life force” is one illustration of the wholeness and interconnectedness of all forms of organic life. It’s always tempting to hold to the notion that consciousness makes all the difference, particularly when you’re about to devour a so-called lower form, but if cats and mice could verbalize their feelings in a focus group, wouldn’t it be likely that they would both share some scary stories?

Friday, September 14, 2018

Is God a Narcissist?

Baruch de Spinoza
To some extent man is ultimately a limited creature who can only conjure himself. Religions try to offer alternatives, but remember for instance the idea from Genesis that God made man in his image. That’s an interesting form of narcissism that borders on idolatry. You do see the legacy of varying epigones who populated the landscape with statues in their own images, but they're not the kind of people you normally look up to. In other words man’s conception of God is man, rather than something which could never be imagined. In terms of crowd control this makes sense. You read varying religious texts like the Bible for direction which means positing a prime mover and first cause who can somehow be embodied. Buddhists talk about giving up worldly wishes and desires, but the statues of the Buddha are everywhere in countries where that religion is practiced. Let’s say there's a God. Who is to say that it, she or he plays any role in human affairs or the creation of humans who are only a minuscule part of he universe? Who is to say that God is some kind of celestial 911 operator fielding emergency calls for help? Prayer is a wonderful respite from self, but who's to say that God and prayer even go together. Perhaps praying is one thing and God is something else that it's not in the province of humans to understand. 

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Is God a Determinist?

"The Creation of Adam" by Michelangelo
In short periods of time, major life-changing events can occur. Of course determinists will say that it was all in the works, including the seemingly fortuitous meeting of two souls who will become interlocked, or something as minor as the fender bender in the parking lot. Those who believe in a prime mover and order and purpose in the universe would say that it’s all part of some grand mosaic. Everything is as it's supposed to be, including the parking space you find after you have exchanged insurance cards with the driver of the other vehicle in the accident. In other words nothing is an accident.There are no coincidences. Here is where religion and science actually converge. But from a qualitative point of view it’s remarkable how hours, days, weeks can pass with seemingly nothing occurring. Then within a split second one’s life can be changed forever. And when it rains it generally seems to pour. The dominos all start toppling or that shot of energy that comes from who knows where awakens sleeping giants. When a dramatist or playwright writes or stages a play he or she's attempting to deal with the phenomenon of change on which say tragedy or comedy hinges, unless of course the name of the writer is Samuel Beckett and the idea is to deal with what happens in the interstices. Waiting for Godot was titled En attendant Godot in French and the literal meaning is While Waiting For Godot.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Is Guilt a Worthy Motivator?

There seems to be a divergence of opinion about guilt. It’s not a simple open and shut case. Some people think it’s good when guilt motivates behavior and others don’t. On the plus side guilt can be the catalyst for positive actions towards those who are less fortunate. For example, you see a homeless person on the street and give him or her food or money out of guilt. On the other hand you may want to quit your job or leave your lousy relationship, but don’t do so out of guilt—because you think you're hurting someone's feelings. In this latter example the price you pay for assuaging your conscience is self-realization. In an essay entitled “What is a Good Life?” (The New York Review of Books, 2/10/11), the late Ronald Dworkin, a philosopher and legal scholar, examined the relationship between self-sacrifice (for things like art) and happiness. There are no simple conclusions to such questions and there’s a difference to giving up everyday satisfactions for the pleasures of a higher calling or giving up the higher calling because of the obligations say to a family that one needs to support. Guilt is often the underpinning when people don’t go after what they think they want, though what they want itself may be a fantasy or delusion produced by the kind of overactive imagination that was Madame Bovary’s undoing. If Madame Bovary had been more tethered in by guilt she might not have made her disastrous choices. Hopefully good old guilt will stop our latest generation of robber barons from plundering the environment and leaving a path of destruction that will destroy the earth.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Pornosophy: The Message is the Messiah

It’s a frightening thing to not know what someone else is thinking and something which underscores how separate human beings are from each other. Bishop Berkeley’s solipsistic universe was only mitigated by existence of God who reigned in all the subjectivity under the umbrella of creation. So it’s understandable why there are demagogues, pornographers and foodies whose subliminal desire is to create a high degree of stimulation which trumps the existence of itinerant and isolating musings. Surely a site like the enormously popular Pornhub appeals to prurient interests, but underneath all the exhibitionism, sadomasochism and voyeurism is the fact that watching videos like attending a political rally is a form of congregation. Hortatory speeches and lewd images have a similar result in that they bring people together. Several decades ago when Playboy was still a bona fide source of arousal, college boys gathered around the centerfold or at least shared similar fantasies about the Playmate of the Month. However, you could have a similar response to a motivational speaker who was trying to short circuit your negative feelings about the job market or even God. Marshall McCluhan said “the medium is the message.” And the message, if it’s strong enough, may turn out to be the messiah.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Kusama: Infinity

Yayoi Kusama spent her life protesting the neglect of her art. In fact her body of work is in some way an expression of that neglect. At one point in her career she produced a film about herself called Self-Obliteration (1967) in which the signature Kusama dots seem to swallow up the artist. In l966 her famed “Narcissus Garden” was removed from the Italian exhibit of the Venice Biennale where she was bathing her body in a proliferation of mirrored spheres--emblematic elements of her sculptural style which she sold for a pittance. The protests became increasingly strident and provocative (often involving nude happenings in which she literally painted her subjects) and in some cases detracted from the seriousness with which her art was considered. However she ended up being honored by representing Japan with the country's first solo artist show at the Biennale, in l993. She's now the world’s most profitable and sought after female artist and the almost Orphic nature of her resurrection is an expression of the fantasy all artists dream of: a vindication and validation that tells the story of their plight. Heather Lenz’s Kusama: Infinity currently playing at Film Forum traces Kusama’s career from a rebellious childhood in the Japanese town of Matsumoto (where her father was a successful businessman) her early correspondence with Georgia O’Keefe and the fits and starts by which she attempted to gain a foothold in the male dominated New York art world of the 60’s, where she also formed a friendship with Joseph Cornell. To some extent her psychohistory is a little like that of Louise Bourgeois who like Kusama suffered from traumatic experiences growing up. Both found an artistic calling in the use of the soft sculptural form and sexual tropes that characterizd their works. Kusama's long struggle took its toll culminating in attempted suicide. Another fantasy that the film reveals is one that many patients as well as artists may share, that of wanting to move into their therapist’s home or office. In l977, after returning to Japan, Kusama found peace bunking up in the Seiwa Hospital for the Mentally Ill, not far from her Tokyo studio, where she continues to work today. 

Friday, September 7, 2018


In his essay on the Russian poet, Irina Ratushinskya, (“Never Afraid,” TLS7/15/18) David Astor quotes the following two lines from her poem, “No, I’m Not Afraid” (which was translated by David McDuff): “It isn’t true, I am afraid, my darling!/ But make it look as though you haven’t noticed.” Astor recounts the travails of a poet who lived in the age of Samizdat, and eventually became an international cause celebre, who emigrated for a time to England, through the intervention of Susan Sontag, Francois Mitterand and Mikhail Gorbachev. The lines Astor quotes are classic in their use of ambiguity. Despite the title of Ratushinskaya's poem, one can imagine that fear must have dogged the poet her whole adult life, as she’d had to face the repercussions of running afoul of the Soviet system. How perfectly the lines encapulate a sensibility fearful yet counterphobic enough to go against her own instincts for survival! The lines are like an Ars Poetica for expression amidst tyranny and repression. But they should be hung in the study of every poet and writer who seeks that elusive beauty that Keats defined as “truth.” You don’t need a censor or the threat of imprisonment to clamp down on unpopular voices and the lynch mob can end up on the side of so-called right.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Is it Insulting to Bring a Plastic Arrangement?

artificial daffodils
Is it insulting to give somebody a plastic bouquet? Fresh flowers are always touted for their beauty and their smell, but they can be expensive and it's easy to find artificial ones that look nice for half the price. Who's going to know the difference? Appearances aren't everything and besides their smell and look plastic flowers will not only do the job for a wedding or funeral, they will truly last. The kind of plastic flower arrangement you find in a Target will likely outlive you. Plastic flowers are a memory that doesn't fade with time and your plastic arrangement can easily be passed on like a relay baton by the person you have given them to who will now no longer be obliged to fork out for the next occasion he or she is invited to. 

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Crazy Rich Asians

Jon M. Chu's Crazy Rich Asians is a Chinese Goodbye, Columbus. Of course there's a huge disparity in the kinds of wealth that both, the movie and Roth’s novella (later made into a film) describe. However, social stratification is the name of the game. The subclasses are pure bred Chinese (who happen to be inhabitants of Singapore) and Chinese-Americans. Nicholas Young (Henry Golding), the scion of fabulously wealthy family falls for Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), the daughter of an immigrant  raised in Flushing, Queens. His imperious mother Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh) is not happy. The fact that Rachel is a professor at NYU with an interest in microeconomics and game theory (which she cleverly demonstrates in a mahjong match) provides a lens by which to deal with the question of wealth itself. Whether Rachel has heard of Thorstein Veblen or read about “conspicuous consumption,” she’s the petrie dish in which to see the interplay of class and materialism at work. Eleanor provides a rather subtle counterpart for though she maintains a dynastic interest in wealth preservation she’s opposed to the American model of social mobility. “All Americans think about is their own happiness,” she comments at one point. Despite these insights, Crazy Rich Asians is peculiarly insular, vacuous and indulgent of the manners and mores it satirizes. You go to the movie with the expectation of a banquet in which you will be satiated and amused and end up feeling empty.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

John McCain's Final Vote

Everyone orchestrates their own funeral. You have to make arrangements. Will you be buried or cremated? The will is essentially a means by which one has a say in what’ll happen after one’s demise. But it’s rare that people want or care to have true agency in human affairs when they're gone. And this is what was so extraordinary about John McCain’s funeral in which the orchestration of speakers and events (his inviting former rivals like Obama to speak and his exclusion of Trump from the invitation list) was actually a political act. In the planning of his own funeral, McCain cast the ultimate absentee ballot. When you think about it, what's extraordinary is the extent to which he cared. While the average person wants to make sure his or her affairs are in order and that children, wives, parents and even favored charities are taken care of, few people give a hoot what the world is going to be like after they’re gone. In fact, the reality that you'll no longer be on earth at some point can temper your behavior while your still alive. Indeed, there are times in the course of life that this awareness can have a liberating effect on the way that people deal with those around them. Someday you’re not going to be here to tell them what to do. So why bother now? Whether or not McCain ever enjoyed the freedom deriving from such a realization while he was still on earth, he exhibited a preternatural desire to be a voting citizen in the life to come.

Monday, September 3, 2018

John McCain and the Politics of What Matters

Patriotism is an odd quality. Together with its sibling ideal nationalism, it can be turned to the most invidious of purposes. Patriotism has often justified imperialism of all varieties from the Nazi invasion of Europe to the CIA's deposing of leaders like Mossadegh in Iran and Allende in Chile. At the funeral of John McCain an other side of patriotism was movingly dramatized and that's the subsuming of the self to a greater cause. Certainly that's what great moments in American history like D-Day are all about. It's a project that was exemplified by McCain’s life and his choice of former rivals (in particuolar Bush and Obama) to speak at his funeral. You might not like or agree with him but Joe Lieberman gave one of the most moving testaments to the humor, civility and irascability of the man in describing the history of his friendship with his former colleague. McCain's life elicited a profound meditation on human existence from Henry Kissinger. In fact the presence of former adversaries along with one significant exclusion (that of president Trump) turned the ceremony into one of the most powerful political statements of recent times. No revelation about strippers, no inquiry about Russian interference into the 2016 campaign could compete. It was a reminder of everything that's good about America and a real reason why Americans can and should experience feelings of pride which is also a form of faith. Meghan McCain cited a Greek historian when she said “the image of great men is woven into the stuff other men’s lives.” She also said, "The America of John McCain doesn't need to be made great again because it always was great." Obama quoted from one of McCain's favorite books For Whom the Bell Tolls when he said, Today is only one day in all the days that will ever be. But what will happen in all the other days that ever come can depend on what you do today.” This is the kind of discourse John McCain inspired. His funeral was a shot in the arm to principles like free speech, due process and to documents like the Constitution and the Bill of Rights whose primacy is increasingly being forgotten in the current state of siege which characterizes American politics. You don't have a booming economy or any economy without people.

Friday, August 31, 2018

Beating the Odds

When you’re in a casino and playing 21, you say “hit me,” when you want to be dealt another card. There are some other phrases  like “les jeux sont faits” which you might hear if you watch a movie like The Croupier (1998) starring Clive Owen. Gambling has something in common with cosmology to the extent that it’s predicated on the notion that while there's no divine order in the universe (why would one gamble if everything is following a plan whose odds you can’t defeat), there’s some free will and some possibility that the chance meeting of atoms, the numbers on the slot machine, the turn of the dice, the black or red numbers of the roulette wheel will result in a Royal Flush or a straight. If you like horses the mountain you’re climbing is the Triple Crown, the Kentucky Derby, Belmont Stakes and Preakness Stakes. Bettors also salivate over the Super Bowl and college basketball’s March Madness. The gambling mentality extends into everyday life. When you’re going for a long shot in an impossible situation, you throw a Hail Mary which is a pass that the quarterback of the team that’s losing might heave into the end zone when it’s fourth down with ten seconds left on the clock. What is there to lose? A good majority of gamblers end up in the doghouse, but there are always the exceptions who hit the jackpot and the only way they’ll hold on to their winnings is if they cash in their chips while the metaphorical night is young.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

The Final Solution: Wild Kingdom

Here is one of the many John McCain quotes that have recently been cited: “We never hide from history. We make history.” It’s an arresting observation and directly the opposite of the kind of subterfuges characteristic of current US foreign policy. But the key point is not conservative, liberal, global or isolationist. Realpolitik in the extreme manifestation characteristic of the current administration is basically totally lacking in the notion of overarching principles. It’s the exemplification of Herbert Spencer’s “Social Darwinism.” One of the big hits of the famed soul singer Jerry Butler was "Only the Strong Survive." It’s no wonder that his soubriquet was “the iceman.” And this way of thinking looks at human life as an episode of “Wild Kingdom,” in which the fittest, say the hyena munching on the entrails of a downed giraffe, defines the food chain. It’s nice to think that with the advent of consciousness mankind has evolved a little bit beyond that paradigm. The president's supporters admire him because he has the kind of shock jock mentality that doesn't shy from blatancy. Trump portrays himself as the top dog with international relations devolving into one of those illegal cockfighting rings that you read about in the paper. You don’t have to agree with everything that John McCain had to say to realize that it emanated from a place of principle and exuded adherence to a higher calling.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

The Final Solution: Paradigm Shifting

The July/August issue of Foreign Affairs asks “Which World Are We Living In?” The editor of the issue, Gideon Rose, prefaces it by citing a lovely quote from Bismarck to the effect that “the statesman’s task was to hear God’s footsteps marching through history and try to catch his coattails as he went past.” What follows is a paradigm party with hats and balloons supplied by Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific RevolutionsAmy Chua argues that “Humans, like other primates are tribal animals.” Stephen Kotkin points out that, “Every hegemon thinks it’s the last.” And Daniel Deudney and G. John Ikenberry argue that the “a decent world order will be liberal” despite the fact that “illiberalism, autocracy, nationalism, protectionism, spheres of influence, territorial influence—have reasserted themselves.” You might look at these three modalities like the gears on an old-fashioned manual shift car, with tribalism representing a downshift back to #1, realism and realpolitik #2 and liberal or globalism #3. Primitive tribalism, the starting point seems to be holding sway in the current Trumpocracy. It’s hard to say if the administration has evolved to the kind of self-reflexive consciousness that would make it aware of #2 or its own tendency to implode. Remember the l000 years of Rome? What about the Second Law of Thermodynamics, “the entropy of any isolated system increases.” The US was cruising comfortably in third gear under Obama, but so much water has gone under the bridge that it seems unlikely that the country will ever get up to speed and finally make it to that fourth gear of geopolitical satori.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Mission Implausible?

The hero of the latest installment of Mission Impossible--Fallout, Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) is saddled with the task of saving the world. His tragic flaw if he can be said to have one resides in the fact that he’s obviously a student of Philippa Foot’s famed "trolley problem." You may recall from your course in ethics, it’s the idea of whether you should or shouldn't sacrifice one person for the sake of the many. The villain of the movie, written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie, is a millenarian anarchist named Solomon Lane (Sean Harris) who ascribes to the dictum: “the greater the suffering, the greater the peace.” Mission Impossible could be called Mission Implausible since the action sequences ie 99% of the plot all derive from classic montage where the girl is tied to the tracks and the train is coming. Armageddon is waiting at the end of the film and in the last 15 minutes there are girls tied to tracks everywhere. Like the James Bond movies Mission Impossible is a travelogue in which beautiful people chase each other around equally exotic or iconic places. The current installment in the franchise starts in Berlin and ends in the snowy mountains of Kashmir with the Indian army amassed to protect a wounded hero. But the enjoyment is the tongue in cheek way in which the film treats biting sociopolitical issues (like terrorism) while also thoughtfully tipping its hat to musings on subjects like the humanity of the Ubermensch--and yes, the theme of the one versus the many which motivates both the forces of good and evil.

Monday, August 27, 2018

Little Nothings

Very few cosmologists breach the question of what occurred before the big bang. If there were no particles in the ether of the infinitely smaller universe that existed at the beginning of time, how to describe the void? Was it still a multiverse, albeit composed of infinite layers of emptiness? And how is it possible to conceive of a beginning? Such ideas strain the limits of imagination, even for those who toy with notions of higher beings and creators. It’s as if particle physics and the Large Hadron Collider were just the icing on the cake or the tip of the iceberg of something far grander whose essence no scientist in their right mind would even dare to touch. However does the inexplicable necessarily beg the question of divinity or is it just that there are no tools to explain the varying levels of nothingness that describe space before there was anything. It’s comforting to fill emptiness with spirits and terrifying to consider the notion of something lacking in any describable characteristic, including duration.

Friday, August 24, 2018

The Cemetery in Barnes (but not Noble)

Thanks to Gabriel Josipovici whose The Cemetery in Barnes elicited the following paragraph from Michael Caines in the 6/15 TLS: “Gabriel Josipovici’s people are a rum bunch. His oeuvre includes a clown turned private investigator; a girl who listens to her father reading Pope’s Homer and dreams of being like Thetis; some version of the painter Pierre Bonnard; an art historian who once wrote a book about Bonnard is now struggling to write a book about Joseph Cornell. These characters discourse about life and art with a Josipovician jouissance,learned yet light.” One could go on. Actually it’s unclear who to thank the writer or the critic. Without the cast of characters, the review would not have its ne plus ultra faut de mieux. Ah, Wilderness! was the title of an O’Neill play, but this is the reverse. This piece of criticism could be called,  Ah, Western Civilization Goes On After All! The review proceeds on. Suffice it to say, it’s not fair to Mr. Caines to rely totally on his response to Josivopici’s edifice of citations, but it’s hard to hold back on the following: “There is—quoi d’autre?—much quotation from and rumination on Joachim Du Bellay, Shakespeare et al.” Thankfully not a word of politics infects the writing, but one can’t help thinking that the existence of the humanistic enterprise, for all its effeteness (to employ the word that Spiro T. Agnew used to descibe those who opposed the Vietnam War) is some kind of statement, even a protest against the earth spinning off its axis ("Global warming could tilt world off axis,ComputerWeekly. com, August, 2009).

Thursday, August 23, 2018

The Final Solutilon: Trump's Willing Executioners

Hitler’s Willing Executioners is a book by Daniel Goldhagen. Goldhagen’s thesis is that German people as a whole were guilty of complicity in the Holocaust. Now the same appears to be true with theTrumpocracy. The president himself has said that he “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters” (CNN, 1/23/16). And even the indictments of two of his former henchmen one of whom points to the president's direct involvement in illegal campaign activities ("Michael Cohen Says That Donald Trump Directed His Crimes," The New Yorker, 8/21/18) is unlikely to bring about an end to a presidency which has a support of a vast majority of Republicans (whether the Mueller probe determines that the Trump campaign was “complicit” with the Russians or not). It’s really wrong to believe that dictators repress the populace. In one way of looking at it a dictator expresses the will of a large enough part of the public to stay in power. The difference between a dictator and a mere demagogue or even liberal politician is simply the parliamentary piece. Erdogan rules dictatorially in Turkey and Orban in Hungary. In Poland you have Duda, but none of these personalities would have legitimacy if it weren’t for the fact that a good portion, if not majority, of the polity were tired of immigration, globalism or any of the other pet peeves that fire the imagination of masses of disgruntled voters today. As has been evident, populism in its modern form itself is an expression of fascism, particularly since it holds democratic principles like due process and individual rights in such low esteem. Disaffected and disenfranchised thugs filled the ranks of the nascent Nazi Party and there were undoubtedly criminal elements too. Now we're learning that two early members of the congressional "Trump Caucus" (Chris Collins of NY and Duncan Hunter of California) have both been indicted for their criminal activities.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Circulation des elites

Fulgencio Batista (photo: Harris and Ewing)
Imagine having your favorite morning yoga or spinning class interrupted by commandos, who order you to get off the mat or bike. You were going on your merry way lost in thought about whether tonight was going to be steak or sushi and had no idea a revolution was in the offing. Something like that undoubtedly happened in l917 and the again in Cuba in l959, when Batista was overthrown and the one time playground of the rich became the capital of revolution. It’s a wonderful relief and source of hope that there are bad guys, horrible aristocrats and members of the bourgeoisie that deserve to be slaughtered so that the good guys can thrive. Were that politics or religion for that matter were so simple. Power is conservative and self-perpetuating. The sociologist Vilfredo Pareto coined the term “circulation des elites” to deal with the amorality of the realpolitik. Daniel Ortega, the one-time Sandinista leader, had been the hope of Nicaraguans. Now President Ortega is the subject of demonstrations in one of the most troubled economies in the Americas (“Ortega is becoming the kind of autocrat he once despised,” The Washington Post, 7/16/18). Asia Argento one of the first women to come forth about the depredations of movie mogul Harvey Weinstein has become the subject of an inquiry concerning her own abuse of a 17 year old ("Asia Argento, a #MeToo Leader, Made a Deal With Her Own Accuser,NYT, 8/19/18). Sanctimony is a warm and cozy feeling, but beware the guy or gal helping you to hoist the outstretched banner. He or she could be your jailer.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

The Gastro-Industrial Complex

Among foodies and those concerned with health and longevity, the gastro-industrial complex is looked at a little the way one regards the seasons of increasing virulent hurricanes. McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Burger King, Popeyes, KFC, Dunkin Donuts and the chains offering a slightly higher level of modestly priced fare like Red Lobster and Applebees are looked at with both suspicion and disdain. Rumors abound of farms producing genetically engineered parts of chickens and there's always the question of the quality of ingredients like meat. Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation was a famous expose of an industry credited with an epidemic of obesity amongst the poor. Low income individuals don’t have the assets to afford delicacies like farm fed beef and organic vegetables which tend to command premium prices. There’s no doubt that diet and health are inextricably intertwined. On the other hand there's something wistful about fast food and the nostalgia occasioned by the childhood memories of ubiquitous McDonald’s arches which greet anyone cruising down Route #1(this was in part the message of the Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown classic, Learning from Las Vegas). McDonald’s is like a utility and it’s familiar Big Macs, Quarter Pounders and McNuggets can be as reassuring as the site of a post office. Vacationers seek out the exotic, but they also take pleasure in feeling at home wherever they go and the fake fireplace in the latest generation of Wendy’s with their Baconators can provide a respite from the alienation and estrangement of modern life. The Colonel is a piece of advertising hype, but have you ever smiled to yourself when you looked into his face after a long ride, facing a host of mnemonic olfactory sensations that derive from the remembrance of “buckets” past.

Monday, August 20, 2018

Cedars of Lebanon

Cedrus libani (photo: Benutzer:Mpeylo)
Cedars of Lebanon is the name of a well known hospital in L.A. From the arborial point of view, it also refers to a vanishing species of tree indigenous to a country that was once known as the Switzerland of the Middle East ("Climate Change Is Killing the Cedars of Lebanon," NYT, 7/18/18). Lebanon, a bilingual country where French is spoken in addition to Arabic is still a facionalized society after years of skirmishes between Christian and Muslim factions (it’s home to the Hezbollah). However, lately it's become overheated in another way. From a literary point of view the environmental problems (in particular overheating) could be viewed as an example of the pathetic fallacy, in which nature mirrors the terror in the poet's soul. But they’re also terrifyingly real as the seemingly immortal and eponymous cedars that have been one of the countries most well-known natural wonders have begun to die. And it’s not a result of the frictions between opposing parties. Nature can be an articulate spokesman for the derelictions of man. However even if the solution lay in an end to the country’s political problems, it’s unlikely warring factions would lay down arms. Self-destruction and the seeming human need to implode can be viral forces as has been noted in the legacy of mutilation that followed the fall of Tito’s Yugoslavia. Still it’s unlikely that the death of the cedars is a metaphor for domestic politics in an embattled country. The cause is, for good or bad, is more global with the blame falling to the greenhouse effect and co2. 

Friday, August 17, 2018


Class is an elusive concept these days. There are Business and Economy Class on most planes and some still have an even higher category designated as First. Business Class passengers travel in comfort with seats that go back 180 degrees so they can sleep while those in economy have to suffer. But the First Class passenger is traveling in even greater splendor that's not validated in a Calvinist way by his participating in any kind of redeeming activity. The First Class passenger has a lot of money because of their class. Whether they work or not is irrelevant. They’re able to afford even greater luxuries due to their economic status. While the Business Class passenger, a member of the managerial or ownership class, might be concerned with getting a bang for his her buck i.e. value, the First Class passenger, because of their position on the food chain, is no longer required to take a business-like approach particularly when their travel is related totally to pleasure. An aristocrat by birth, Alexis de Tocqueville dealt with the question of class in Democracy in America. According to de Tocqueville, one generation of Americans might be upper class and the next might find themselves in poverty. Class and Class Conflict in Industrial Society is the title of a book by Ralf Dahredorf, a sociologist who was also member of the German Parliament. In societies like France and England, where there's a hereditary aristocracy, class is less a matter of money than lineage, though in our modern day and age there are some companies which apparently traffic in titles, which can be bought. Virgin Atlantic refers to their Business Class as Upper which may be a way of tipping their hat toward the idea of royalty. Also a highborn Englishman can be a member of the impoverished aristocracy as was the case with Churchill. Classy is a word that's often used to describe people as well as things and it implies something conveying a certain element of superiority. When you describe someone as “a class act,” you’re referring to a certain ineffable quality that devolves from their carriage, savoir faire and perhaps education. Speaking of which, when someone asks what class you're in, it still likely to refer to a course you're taking.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Pornosophy: Aborting an Image

l997 Playboy covergirl, Karen McDougal
Pornography is like an unwanted pregnancy. While not the result of any real sexual act,  it leaves an indelible imprint on the imagination. It’s a little like being impregnated. One of the differences from copulation is that it results in a picture rather than a fetus, though in this case the transgressive image is practically impossible to abort. It’s too bad that Roe v. Wade didn’t deal with the problems of removing an unwanted sexual scenario from the brain rather than just the unborn child in a woman’s uterus. In general there's one other element about pornography that separates it from human sexuality in general and that’s the sense that it's unending state tempts mortality. The biblical temptation that’s the provenance of this nether side of human sexuality is forever canonized in the pornographic conceits that outlive both their performers and audience. Pornography is like the plague to the extent that it's so viral. Is it an overstatement to call a phenomenon epidemic when a site may receive millions of hits in one day? The question of pornography is not ethical or even esthetic to use two of Kierkegaard’s famed categories, it’s phenomenological. If one is to discuss pornography, one might be better served to discuss it along with the matter of opioids, which serve a purpose for those who control their use, but have nefarious consequences when employed by addictive personalities.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Stranger Than Paradise

If you eat healthy food, you may find you'll live to 80, 90 or maybe forever, but what are you going to do then? Be one of those old people who are half deaf and incapable of modulating? Is sounding like one of the methadone addicts who call loudly at each other on the street something to look forward to? On the other hand if you eat fast food at McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, Popeyes and KFC is it possible that you're going backwards and will eventually lose years of your life? Perhaps this isn’t clear. Is there a way that you can reach 60 and get bumped back to 50, kind of a negative credit that ends up cutting things short retroactively? Time and space may appear straight forward but they’re not.There are many glitches and anomalies that get passed over simply because people don’t want to believe there are mysteries in the universe. Stranger Than Paradise is the title of Jim Jarmusch’s l984 breakout film. Eddie one of Jamusch’s characters makes the following remark, “You know it’s funny. You come to someplace new, and everything looks just the same.” On the other hand, the unexpected may occur. You never know.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Invisible Men (and Women)

Shylock is one of the most famous examples of racial profiling in literature, only seconded by the tragic Moor, Othello. But stereotyping is a hop, skip and jump away from appropriation and cultural envy is a little like penis envy to the extent that it’s predicated on an inflation of the value of something that’s simply human. If a penis is something you don’t have, you may at one point in life have wanted one. Then you eventually realize the good points of the genitalia you were born with—or undergo SRS (sexual reassignment surgery). Race is more problematic. Sex turns out to be more labile than ethnicity or race, which are harder to (e)rase though this was precisely the survival mechanism described in Louis Begley's Wartime Lies. James Brown famously sang “Say It Loud! I’m Black and I’m Proud.” However, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man suffered from an anonymity that derived from being identified simply by the color of his skin. Cultural hegemons beget epigones. Hitler was an example of this phenomenon since though he was an Aryan, he was an Austrian rather than a pure bred German, if you’re speaking of who’s deserving of the title Reichsfuhrer. Brooks Brothers, the clothing store is predicated on the notion that you can be part of the WASP ruling class by simply dressing in rep ties and button down color shirts (preferably pink on the weekends) and tasseled cordovan loafers or wingtips. A form of conversion that had even more credibility at the time of the movie Gentleman's Agreement (1947), which dealt with "restricted" establishments, occurred when a member of a minority was admitted to an exclusive college like Yale, or club, like the University, Union League or Racquet. 

Monday, August 13, 2018

Sipike Lee's BlacKkKlansman

Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman was released on the first anniversary of Charlottesville. Yet it’s strangely equivocal and equanimous at first. The film is rife with all manner of iconography and film reference. A scene in which Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), the black cop on whose memoir the movie is based, goes dancing with Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), the president of the Black Student Union at Colorado College, who sports an Angela Davis style Afro sends up Don Cornelius’ Soul Train. Black genre films of the 70’s like Superfly and Shaft are cited along with D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (projected on the face of Alec Baldwin the resident Trump parodist on Saturday Night Live) and Gone With the Wind. The Birth of a Nation itself has recently been the subject of “remake” by Nate Parker. Of course the epitome of equivocation is the paralleling of the cries of “white power” and “black power” by the film’s two contingencies: the Klan addressed by David Duke (Topher Grace) whose “American first” and “make America great” type comments create cackles of recognition in the audience and the black student group which is being addressed by Stokely Carmichael aka Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins). At the end Patrice says “my conscience wont let me sleep with the enemy” to which Ron replies “I’m the black man who saved your life.” But the film is also a parody of equivocation. Donald Trump’s famous comment about the tragic protests in which he gave moral equivalence to White Supremacists, haunts the narrative.Stereotypes are parodied and juxtaposed and the paralleling itself becomes the subject of parody. The film is full of clever little turns of racist logic. Ron’s sidekick Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) a Jewish undercover cop undercuts one of the Klansmen’s arguments for holocaust denial by pointing out how effective the holocaust was in getting rid of Jews. The director’s choreography of ideas, the dance of his plot lines, is clever and entertaining right up until its stunning ending when the action crashes head-on with the sad reality and violence of the raw Charlottesville footage. The rotary phone has a cameo in BlacKkKlansman.It’s the anachronistic vehicle by which Ron Stallworth speaks to David Duke. You might simply write it off as a prop in a period piece, but there’s something, not hopeful, but wistful about it. The anachronism is the elephant in the room, since the charade on which the movie is premised, the delusive connection or lack thereof between two human beings is ultimately name of the game.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Courting Oblivion

Oblivion is around the corner. First of all it is something that all living forms face, a precipice that’s as dramatic as birth. From the moment you’re born, you begin to face its prospect. It’s like a black hole since it disposes of material essence. The minute you cross the event horizon of oblivion you become forgettable and eventually you’re no longer even a memory or footnote, since history itself is sucked into the juggernaut of non-being. But oblivion is also metaphorical. When you’re going through a particularly self-abnegating period, you toy with oblivion when you do things of a self-destructive or maladaptive nature. You sport the kind of devil-may-care attitude you might have been more cautious to exhibit at a period when you liked yourself and took the gift of life more seriously. You do something dangerous or something which makes you feel horrible about yourself, indulging an addiction or falling victim to some kind of predatory perversion, a chain reaction of transgression, an infernal machine that can only be satisfied by constantly raising the ante. Sometimes, in fact, those caught up in maelstroms of self-hatred don’t realize that they’re courting oblivion until it’s too late. You read stories about people popping too many pills, but how many of them are conscious of the fact that they're on the way to the longest sleep they’ll ever take? You can throw yourself off a cliff, or do something that's so shameful and abhorrent that by doing it you have already stepped over the line.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Verfremdungseffekt Support Group

Brecht (photo: Jorg Kolbe, German Federal Archives)
Have you ever experienced a hatred of happy people who seem smug and self-satisfied? And conversely have you found yourself drawn to the sufferer who's more willing to pour out his or her sorrow and open their heart to you? The human condition is indeed a sad state of affairs to the extent that those who are perfectly content and don’t need others are condemned to an isolation they themselves may be impervious to. Not to sell the idea of mourning, but those who have experienced loss or have been deprived of something that was once a great source of satisfaction (either
because of addiction or merely scarcity) are more prone to seek out fellow sufferers. They're a little like refugees who have been exiled from their homes and need each other to a survive in a way that landed hegemons rarely experience. The bonds between those who are estranged from the world they’re in tend to be stronger than than the ones between free agents who are able to move insouciantly through life, without a care in the world.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Won't You Be My Neighbor?

Was Fred Rogers as loving and accepting of his own feelings and faults as he told children to be? In fact, can anyone be? It’s a question that lurks beneath the surface of Morgan Neville’s Won’t You Be My Neighbor? To take a negative view of human potential is to ascribe to nihilism, but what was the reality of the kindly Fred Rogers who said things like “you don’t have to be anything sensational for people to love you,” “what is essential in life is invisible to the eye,” “silence is one of the greatest gifts we have”? Rogers swam a mile every day at the Pittsburgh Athletic club and his weight always came out to be 143 pounds. With the one standing for “I,” the four, “love” and the three, "you,” it's a neat little package and for all Won’t You Be My Neighbor's? charm, you might wonder if things don’t fit together a bit too tidily. Using Rogers' own epistemology of acceptance and self-love, one would be hard put to get by the board of the metaphoric gated community he lived in. Still certain images leave an indelible impression, amongst them the trolley that continually leaves and comes back. What better nostrum for separation anxiety and what better iteration of Winnicott’s famed transitional object than Roger’s familiar sock puppet? (Luminaries in the field of child development like Benjamin Spock, Berry Brazelton and Erik Erikson all are cited in the movie). Then there's the scene of the congressional hearing where Rogers totally melts the thick-skinned Senator John Pastore, thereby securing the $20 million subsidy that was so necessary to public television’s future. Rogers was an ordained minister and the movie portrays him as the unassuming side of the superhero. Though he had to possess a certain degree of drive to produce a project of such magnitude and appeal, he was a televangelist for a good cause--kindness. “I want there to be peace in the neighborhood,” is one of the movie's many mantras. “It’s been a hard time for everyone.”Apparently Rogers found relief on the set of his own show. Will You Be My Neighbor? is the legacy of an era when peace and love were still considered viable philosophical positions.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Venice Journal: Arrivederci!

El Toro and Kingda Ka at Six Flags (photo: Paulm27)
Venice is the Six Flags of Renaissance art. The only problem is that there are no stomach churning rides. Beside the crowds modernity has eluded the below sea level city which sports a form of public transportation, the Vaporetto, which moves at a snail’s pace. It’s a tautology to say Venice is beautiful, but beauty can be elusive amidst the throngs of tourists. Imagine yourself packed into a crowded New York subway at rush hour in which the cars were decorated with Tintorettos instead of graffiti. Of course any person who has an investment in their image as a cultivated person is going to choose choose Venice over Six Flags in say Jackson, New Jersey just as they will take Bouilly over Popeyes. But it may be important to remember that it was human activities like Six Flags that were the basis of much great art. Take for instance Jacques Feyder’s Carnival in Flanders which is a painting come to life. What you're getting on a visit to Venice is a hand-me-down, many artists' representations of their idea of fun. However, are such vicarious pleasures truly enjoyable amidst a background of bored restauranteurs, lousy food and injustice collecting Americans who are ever eager to exercise their First Amendment rights by crying “fire!” in a crowded movie theater? If you want to have a good time, can Venice and just ride El Toro, the rollercoaster at Six Flags.